A soft, misty morning in the New Forest. He could hear the sound of wood-pigeons; 'sleep, sleep, my lord,' they seemed to be saying, 'no need to stir.' It was tempting, for sleep had been in short supply for the last couple of nights. But a skylark in counterpoint shouted of cool air and wide horizons from far above; a blackbird clamoured its alarm and an answering chorus of squawks and twitters spread through the glade. Farther away was the mewing cry of seagulls, no doubt wheeling over the mud-flats of the estuary.
Henry gave in to the notion that he would have to wake up, and slitted open his eyes. Before him the little dell stretched away. Through the young trees with their tiers and storeys of green was the glint of water, the Beaulieu river winding down to the Solent, with gladden iris just coming into flower on its banks. The slope and floor of the dell was carpeted, draped, swathed in a coverlet of the most ethereal blue. At its lowest point a few dappled figures stepped quietly through the dappled shade, the cause of the blackbird's alarm; fallow buck, youngsters a year old, just old enough to be hunted.
He turned his head slightly. Beside him, as had been the case for the last few days, was the cause of his current contentment. There, in elegant repose, was the long body of his beloved herald, his head pillowed on a rolled-up cloak. They had come here ostensibly to wait for the bucks, in fact to steal an hour to themselves in the midst of the Forest at its most beguiling season. Henry toyed for a moment with the thought that Montjoy resembled a fallow buck himself, with those long slender limbs and alert eyes - and, he had to admit (with memories of autumns in the past when he had seen the beasts in rut) the same robust appetite, surprising in such a seeming-delicate body. He smiled at the thought of last night, and of nights to come.
A little way behind them, over the lip of the dell, he heard the shifting of horses' hooves, and the chink of harness. Men's voices came quietly down to him; Bartholomew and Floyd, waiting while their master spied out his quarry. They knew enough to be blind and deaf to what was going on in the steep little glade, but would call a cheery greeting to any who passed by. Good men both. They had been with him a long time, all through his years with Scroop, and knew their king well enough. They had guarded the door at the inn in Southampton, at the catastrophic ending of that affair. Had probably watched this more happy relationship, from its very beginning, with knowledgeable eyes.
'Well, Herald, we have found our prey. Shall we go and fetch Zenocrate? Or shall we wait awhile?' There was contentment in his voice, for he was fairly sure what the reply would be.
'I find myself willing to wait,' a smiling response, 'there may be more beasts than these, after all, and we should mark out the most likely one for her.'
'Most patient herald, and most wise huntsman. We should not snatch at the prize. We have all day, after all,' and Henry stretched, disposing himself more comfortably. From this lower viewpoint the bluebells filled much of his vision, and he could not see the buck at all. But his true quarry raised himself on one elbow, and smiled as he reached across Henry and plucked a particularly fine stem, and held it up to Henry's eyes. Henry quirked an eyebrow at him, and waited.
'In the tournament of all things blue,' began the Herald solemnly, 'the southern sky and sea, butterflies, the jay's wing and many flowers of the field contended as to who should take the prize. And at the end, there were only two contenders; the bluebell and a certain pair of eyes. But looking into those eyes, the bluebell said alas, I am not so blue nor yet so bright, and so I yield the crown, and all the watchers applauded. For it was, in truth, no contest, nor had the outcome ever been in doubt.' He laid the stem on Henry's face, the blooms caressing his temple, the stem cool and fresh against his neck.
'Flatterer,' murmured Henry, and reached an arm up around his beloved's shoulders, and pulled him close. 'For in that tournament, there was another contestant, a tall and gentle man who habitually wore blue, and the colour lapped him about and loved him so well that all who saw him loved him too.' And he twisted up and laid Montjoy down among the flowers; picked up the fallen stem, and traced the blooms along those high cheekbones. 'And those blue eyes were no exception.'
He stooped in for a kiss, and another kiss. Desire stirred, warm, tempting, but he quelled it firmly. Time enough for that later. Even her, in the king's own forest, they could not be entirely free and open, for all that Bartholomew and Floyd knew well enough what he was, and in their years as his door-wardens had oftentimes admitted another lover to his presence without a blink.
Only yesterday as he and Montjoy had returned to them as they waited with the horses, each with a hawk on his fist and Montjoy with a fat pheasant swinging from his hand, Henry had seen his men exchange an indulgent smile. He had the feeling that this lover in particular was approved, in a way that Scroop had not been.
'They like you, you know,' he'd said to Montjoy, as they waited while the men went ahead to test the way across a patch of marshy ground, 'you are honoured, in case you didn't know it!'
'Is their approval so difficult to come by?'
'Oh yes. Scroop, for instance. They were always very correct around him, but saw through him long before I did.'
Montjoy looked at him in surprise. This was the first time Henry had spoken Scroop's name to his new love, but it was easier than he'd expected; dead and gone, now, leaving just a sadness at his own naivete.
'Do you not fear,' asked Montjoy, with obvious hesitation, 'that I too will betray you?' The men were some way ahead now.
'How can you do that? You were my enemy declared when we met for the first time.'
'Betray your love, I mean.'
'As he did? No, it isn't in you. We've been through the worst already, you and I, and we've got to know each other well enough. And even if I could not trust my own judgement by now, I've seen you around hawks and horses, and they all love you. He would use them without a thought, as he used me.'
'Why..?' Montjoy stopped, and looked away. 'No, I have no right to ask.'
'Why did I love him? Many reasons, none of which seem good to me now. And none of them apply to you, dear herald.'
Montjoy glanced at him, and smiled. 'I am neither as young nor as handsome as he was, to be sure...' and that perhaps was offered as a way out of the conversation, as Floyd was turning back across the marsh towards them.
'Now you are expecting compliments,' laughed Henry, 'and I will be pleased to supply them when we are alone. But be assured, you outstrip him in every particular,' and the last two words were said with a significance that made Montjoy blink in surprise for a moment, before blushing and smiling; and Henry left him to his confusion and took his horse down the bank to the path across the marsh that his men had marked out as safe.
And now those same two men were keeping watch above them, so that once more they were safe, here in their little dell above the Beaulieu River; a beautiful place indeed. They would have another two days of holiday before going on to the Forest Court at Lyndhurst. Too short a time, but it would always be too short a time for all that he wished to do; but they had the here and now.
Montjoy was picking more bluebells, and weaving them into a lopsided crown; 'Ah, my sisters made flower-crowns when we were children, but I have no talent for it!' he said laughing; but Henry picked some fronds of fern and a strand of ivy that scrambled up the bank, and they made a fair job of it in the end. Then there was nothing for it but that Henry should pick some iris from the clumps at the waterside, and they fettled up a second chaplet, and crowned each other with bluebells and fleur-de-lys.
'Kings of the Wood,' said Henry laughing, 'you are the Summer King and I the Winter King, and we have come together at the turn of the year, and this time we have loved, not fought.'
'This time, we have both won,' agreed Montjoy. And they turned, each with an arm around the other, and looked out contentedly across their kingdom of the New Forest, and towards their new life together.