Bucklands, January 1545
The willow tree by the river was their place, a monument to what they felt for each other. In spring and summer it was a haven of bird song and sweet smells, rustling winds and soft cleansing rain. In autumn, it was shelter from October winds and the needle sharp rain which came with the gales of November.
This night though, it was bathed in the ethereal light of a waxing three quarter moon, and the frost which held the tree in it’s grip added to the ghostly effect. White and glistening, every branch, twig and leaf petrified beneath it’s icy coating,
On the opposite side of the river, the moons silvery reflection shimmered and beckoned on the still, black waters of the estuary; while along the reed covered edges, the only sounds to be heard were the soft cheeps and whistles of various waterfowl as they settled for the night.
On the frost covered grass two sets of footprints, one set leading up to the base of the tree, the other moving away to a larger scuffed imprint, broke the glittering carpet of ice. And in the distance, a young man, mounted upon a beautiful bay, and riding perilously close to the edge of the bank, sped swiftly and silently away before disappearing around a bend in the river.
‘God’s bones but it’s bloody freezing out there’. Edward Wharton crouched before the hearth briskly rubbing his hands together as he held them towards the fires welcoming blaze. Despite the warmth of the chamber, tiny seeds of ice still clung to the woollen cloak and edged the brim of his cap, his cheeks whipped to a healthy glow by the crisp cold air.
‘Jesu’ I can feel the cold coming off you from here’, Will Audley gave an involuntary shiver and, laying his book down, left his fireside seat with the intention of helping Edward remove his wet outer garments.
‘You like doing this don’t you?’ Edward asked as Will fumbled with the fastening of the cloak.
‘Like doing what?’ Having undone the clasp, Will swirled it away from his lovers shoulders and flung it over the back of the chair. ‘Ah, you mean the instinctive way I look out for you, nurturing and caring’. Will grinned up into Edward’s face, ‘Someone has to, Ned. And that is what you employed me for’.
Edward laughed outright at that,’God save us but I think we’ve gone beyond the master and servant roles my sweet’, and leaning in towards Will, he kissed him on the tip of his nose. ‘Now, come closer’, he said drawing Will further into his arms, ‘and greet me properly’. There was no urgency in the kiss, they both knew that would come later. It was a slow, sweet savouring of each other as mouth bonded to mouth, softly parted lips opening to the other as tongues met, explored,tasted, gentle fingers tracing the contours of each beloved face.
Edward was the first to break the kiss. Exclaiming in surprise when, for the first time since entering the chamber he noticed the table. Set with an assortment of dishes and beautifully decorated in honour of the Twelfth Night festivities, and sitting proudly in the centre, a favourite of Edward’s. ‘What’s to do Will?’ he released the younger man from his embrace and crossed to the far side of the room. ‘My God, he said as he looked upon the impressive centre piece, it’s golden crust gleaming in the candle light, ‘that is surely the finest game pie in all of Essex’. He turned to look at Will, an expression of sheer delight on his face. ‘It is game pie isn’t it?’ he asked.
Will, his merry face wreathed in smiles at this display of pleasure from his beloved, nodded, ‘Of course, Ned, what else could be more appropriate for you on Twelfth Night’.
Joining him by the table, Will picked up a brimming wine flagon and, filling two goblets handed one to Edward. ‘I thought to surprise you Ned, so while you were out I ordered all this to be brought up ready for your return’, he grinned and looked up into Edward’s eyes, dark grey and flecked with gold, they were the colour of storm clouds in summer and the most expressive Will had ever seen. The expression he saw in them now was unmistakable and he felt a thrill of anticipation knowing precisely what it meant.
Smiling, Edward reached out a hand, placed it against Will’s face, ‘Ah, my sweet thoughtful Will’, he said, rubbing the pad of his thumb in a tender gesture along his lovers cheek, ‘you did all this for me?’
‘Mmm’, The touch of Edward’s hand was already having its usual effect on Will’s senses, and for a moment he was incapable of speech as the thumb continued to caress his skin, sending waves of delicious warmth straight to his groin. ‘shall we eat now, Ned’, he managed to say, ‘or would you prefer to wait until, um later?’.
‘I have a much better idea’, Edward’s voice, low and husky with need, mirrored the seductiveness of his smile. A smile which had the immediate effect of making Will feel like a puppet which had just had its strings cut. ‘Why don’t we take some of this’, he indicated the food with a nod of his head, ‘through there’, said with a jerk of his thumb towards the door of the bed chamber, ‘and you, my little one, can nurture, care for, and minister to my needs all night long and to your hearts content’.
There were no candles to light them as they lay on the bed, sated and content, in a tangle of sheets and blankets. The glow from the fire was enough. Hissing and crackling as sparks flew from the shifting logs; its flickering, ever shifting light adding to the muted sheen of sweat soaked bodies.
Beyond the curtained window, an owl broke the silence, it’s haunting call echoing eerily across the fields. While further away, as if in answer, came the sharp yelping bark of a fox on it’s nightly search for food. Hearing it, Will shivered and hunched further back into Edward’s arms. They lay spooned together, Edward’s body moulding itself perfectly to Will’s slighter frame, one arm slung protectively across him, and Will knew Edward to be asleep as the hand which had been gently stroking his belly was now still. His breath slow and even as it whispered across Will’s bare shoulder.
Bathed in drowsy contentment, Will fought the urge to sleep as he remembered the last few hours of this Twelfth Night. It had been one of private celebration for them both, how they had wanted it. And it had been interesting to say the least.
Mmm, such a good idea of Ned’s to bring the food to bed with them. Feeding each other with morsels of pie and other tid bits was something Will had never contemplated before now. But Jesu, it had lit the fires of passion like nothing he’d ever known before. And afterwards, they had shared a goblet of wine between them, passing it from one to the other, lips touching the rim where the others had touched like kisses, while the real kisses had tasted of the wine and the fruit and the sweetness of syllabub. Will smiled to himself, yes they had couched more than one lance together this night.
‘ Are you awake still love?’ Edward’s sleepy voice broke Will’s pleasant reverie. Reluctant to move far from his lovers arms, he shuffled awkwardly round to face him. ‘Yes, but I thought you were asleep Ned’. By the muted light of the still flickering embers of the fire, Edward’s face, the parts which were not in shadow, still glistened slightly with a faint sheen of sweat. His hair, damp and swept back from his forehead, curled more noticeably around his ears and temples. His beard and moustache, clipped close to chin, jaw and upper lip, just a fraction darker since that mornings grooming. And Will thought how beautiful his lover was with the afterglow of sex still about him, eyes heavy and seductive, his lips parted in a smile filled with promise.
‘I was’, he answered now, ‘but la petit mort was never very ‘petit’ with me my sweet’. He chuckled and pulled Will closer, ‘and I feel more like Lazarus right now’.
Capturing Will’s mouth in a brief kiss, Edward grinned, ‘Arisen from the dead, sweet one’.
Will exclaimed with feigned indignation, ‘And you call me wanton’, he moved to roll on top of Edward, felt the hardness of his lover’s erection pressing against his thigh, ‘you’re damned insatiable Master Wharton, sir’.
Cat quick, Edward heaved upwards, flipping Will over onto his back and pinning him to the bed. ‘Now’ he said, grinning from ear to ear, where were we?’
Struggling was useless against Edward’s superior weight and strength, and pressing his hands against Edward’s shoulders he turned his face aside to escape his lovers searching mouth, ‘Ah, no you bloody well don’t’, he said, his voice breathless under the assault, ‘not until you tell me where you’ve been disappearing to every day this week’.
‘Oh, that. I did wonder when you’d ask’. It was as effective as a bucket of cold water, and Will breathed an inward sigh of relief as Edward rolled off and released him. ‘Can’t it wait Will? he asked, ‘I wanted to show you what I’d been doing, wanted us to ride out there tomorrow so I could see it afresh through your eyes’. He propped himself up on his elbow, one eyebrow quirked as he stared down at Will who stared unflinchingly back. Edward knew that look. Intractable and stubborn, Will would give him no peace until he’d told all.
‘I was waiting for the right time to ask, Ned’, Will said, ‘and I think you’ll agree my love, that there can be no better time than this. So, I’ll withhold all favour until you speak out and confess all’.
‘Blackmail you mean’.
‘No, strategy. You taught me that over a chess board, Ned, remember?’ Will grinned, remembering that he’d won their last game, and he knew Edward was remembering it too.
Sighing, Edward lay back upon the pillows and stared up at the carved tester, ‘Very well, William, if you insist’.
Oh I do’.
‘Shut up, Will, you’re worse than a mithering wench for God’s sake’. Edward hunkered further beneath the covers, and turned to face Will,
‘You know’, he began, ‘that ours is not the most conventional love, in fact it’s so damned unconventional that we could easily die for it’.
‘I know, Ned’, Will nodded and reached out a hand, laying it against Edward’s face, ‘it seems so unfair when….’ ,
‘Shh, let me finish, Will’. He continued, ‘We’re breaking every rule both secular and spiritual, and like it or not, we are putting our immortal souls as well as our mortal bodies at risk on a daily basis’.
There was silence then as Edward paused, allowing Will to fully comprehend the seriousness of their situation. He didn’t need to, because every time they shared this bed, Will imagined Leviticus burned onto the bed head in letters of fire. The fact that he chose to ignore it disturbed his sleep and his conscience but little.
As though he’d read Will’s mind, Edward went on, ‘Leviticus is clear on the matter, Will, “Thou shall not sleep with a man as with a woman, it is an abomination”, he quoted.
‘We can never tell the world of our love, nor marry as normal lovers can, nor even live together openly. What we are doing is ranked only a little less than murder by some, Will’.
Will was clearly perplexed now, and worried, ‘What are you saying, Ned. That we should…should stop?’.
‘Ah, Will no, no not that’, seeing the fear in his lovers eyes, he gathered Will closer, cradling his head in the crook of his shoulder. ‘I’m not much good at letting my feelings be known in words, Will, you know that’, he laid his cheek against Will’s hair, it’s softness against his skin almost like a kiss, ‘but I do love you with all my heart and soul. There is not one kiss, embrace, look or word, nor one time when I have joined my body to yours, that I regret, and I never shall. And if God saw fit to take you from me, then he would have to take me as well for I couldn’t live without you, Will. Not now’.
Lifting his face, Will sought his lover’s mouth with his, and finding it, placed his lips gently against Edward’s, his fingers entwining and weaving into his hair. And for some moments there was silence as they embraced, a silence broken only by the shifting of logs burnt almost to grey ashes amongst the dying embers of the fire, and soft moans of pleasure as the kiss deepened.
Edward broke the kiss and the silence, as touching Will’s face he felt rather than saw the tear. ‘Will, you’re crying’. Will hastily swiped a hand across his face, ‘No I’m not’, he attempted to hide his face with his hand, a gesture peculiar to him when ashamed or embarrassed, ‘I’ve got something in my eye that’s all’.
‘Hmm, and I’m bidding fair to be elected Pope’. Edward said, amused and touched by this show of emotion from Will. ‘I didn’t intend to make you cry, sweet’.
‘Well…well, what if I did’. Will said at last, ‘For a man who finds it hard to voice his emotions, I’ve never heard anything so beautifully expressed as that, Ned. And you know I feel the same’. He sniffed and tried to hide the fact, surreptitiously rubbing his nose on the back of his hand. ‘But you still haven’t told me where you’ve been going to each day, or what you’ve been doing’.
‘I was coming to that’, reaching under his pillow, Edward pulled out a handkerchief and passed it to Will.
‘As I said, Will, we two can never be seen as a normal pairing, and certainly never one which could ever be sanctioned by the Church’. He lifted Will’s hand from were it lay on the bed cover, ‘I could give you a ring of course, but even that would be suspect, and we have to be so careful, love’, raising the hand he kissed its palm before releasing it, ‘so I have done something for us two, which will mean something to us, just us and no one else’.
And as the fire burned lower, and the creatures of the night continued to call outside, Edward told his beloved Will of the simple carving he’d done on the trunk of the willow tree where they had spent so much time, shared so many private, intimate thoughts and feelings. Where they had given vent to so many emotions. But through it all, one thing had remained constant, the deep and abiding love they had for each other, and it was this which Edward had hoped to capture in the carving.
And, down by the river, as the moon rose higher in the clear starlit sky, the carving could be plainly seen by anyone wishing to look. A simple scroll and in its centre two sets of initials, EW and WA and underneath, Till Death Do Us Part.
This little story was originally meant to be posted on Twelfth Night. Unfortunately, owing to a combination of adverse weather conditions playing havoc with the mobile masts, and winter viruses playing havoc with me, it is now being posted three days late.
I hope you have enjoyed it however. Please feel free to comment and let me know what you think.
All images by Google Images.