The whole of Essex was under a a pall of still misty greyness and the sun was barely visible except as a hazy smudge of yellow. For weeks the whole county had been baking in sweltering heat, and day after day as the sun beat down in ever increasing strength, the land began to suffer. Tracks and roads were cracked and dust ridden, rivers lay low in their beds and familiar streams disappeared altogether as the arid conditions continued.
But today had seen a change in the weather and the air had turned from scorching heat to cloying humidity, the sky murky with the promise of the rain so desperately needed. Thunderstorms had been prowling and
threatening since early morning, lightning flickering amongst the grey bellied clouds grouping on the horizon like a besieging army.
After an irksome morning spent pouring over the household accounts in the stupefying heat of his study, Edward had declared that enough was enough. Wiping the sweat from his face and neck with a handkerchief which was already damp, he had thrown down his quill with an oath, got up from his seat and stalked from the chamber; a startled Will, after hesitating for seconds following in his wake.
Their destination it seemed, was the stables, and it was no surprise to Will. All morning he had noticed his lover’s attention being drawn to the open casement through which the gentle hum of bees, the soft purring of wood pigeons and the tantalising scent of flowers and newly cut grass had teased and beckoned.
And now, sitting with his back against the trunk of the willow tree, Will grinned to himself remembering the hurried exit from the house, the startled face of the stable lad scuttling down the ladder having been abruptly awoken from his elicit nap up in the hay loft, and Ned, seething with impatience, helping a bleary eyed and less than competent Gilbert to saddle the horses.
And after a fast and furious gallop across the fields beyond Bucklands, which helped to cool hot, sweaty bodies not to mention Edward’s temper, they had arrived at their tree by the river with their spirits much improved.
‘Beautiful isn’t it?’ Edward, lying with his head cushioned on Will’s lap, turned to face his lover,his eyes half closed against the dappled light filtering through the leaves, ‘here beneath our tree’.
‘Mmm’. Drowsy with contentment and the stifling heat, Will was loath to talk. Merely wanting to bask in the peace and quiet of the afternoon, and the fact that he had Edward all to himself for a precious hour or two.
‘I should make the most of it Ned, while you may’, Will said, absently weaving his fingers through Edward’s hair. ‘You’ve been closeted indoors all week with your nose between those damn ledgers. You need to ease up a little, love’.
‘Ah Will, my sweet gentle Will’, raising his hand, Edward held it to his lovers face, the skin soft and warm beneath his fingers, ‘Always mindful for my well being’. Reaching up, he pulled Will down towards him, lips met in a long sweet kiss, for once paying no heed to who may see them.
For Edward, the kiss was as much one of thanks as one of passion or desire. He had much to be thankful for from Will and he knew it too. Will’s attentiveness and vigilance, his steadying influence and his love for him, Edward, had saved his sanity, and his health on more than one occasion when his propensity for over stretching himself had nearly resulted in complete exhaustion.
‘Now’, Edward said, breaking the kiss with reluctance, ‘I have an idea which will help cool the body and the ardour, my sweet’. Getting to his feet, he hauled Will up beside him and still grasping his hand, lead a puzzled Will down towards the river bank.
‘Ned, your not’, he said as realisation dawned, ‘you can’t seriously be considering swimming’, Pulling his hand from Edward’s, he stood and watched as Edward, undaunted carried on towards the bank.
‘Come on Will’, he called over his shoulder, ‘It’ll do us the world of good, and I’m melting in this abominable heat’.
Will watched as Edward hurried down the slope peeling of his shirt as he went and carelessly throwing it aside, then hopping about first on one leg then the other as his boots followed the shirt.
Agog, Will wondered if Ned’s breeches would be the next item of clothing to be discarded, and it was with a huge sigh of relief when he realised his lover had retained at least some modesty and sense of decorum.
Then in one clean, graceful move, Edward leaned forward and dived in, reappearing seconds later wiping the water from his eyes and smoothing the hair back from his face.
‘Come on, Will, in you get. It’s bloody freezing but you’ll soon get used to it’.
It certainly did look tempting, Will mused. Maybe a brief swim would be refreshing and help to wash away the dust of the road and the lethargy of mind and body brought on by the heaviness and humidity of the day.
Oh, to hell with it, he thought, and he too began to strip. Shirt and boots were rapidly shed but breeches stayed on, and before he could change his mind or lose his nerve he ran towards the edge and with a resounding splash, jumped in.
Gasping and spluttering, breathless with the shock to his body of the freezing cold water, he spun round to see Edward swimming towards him, his face split in a wide grin.
‘Well done Will. I knew you’d be tempted, and it’s wonderful after suffering this wretched heat’.
‘Ooh, Christ but it’s cold’, Will stood waist high in the water, dithering and looking around him at the landscape which now looked strangely unfamiliar from the middle of the river. Even the horses, two dark featureless silhouettes grazing beneath the shade of the willow looked strange from this perspective.
Dark silhouettes! Hmm, it was beginning to cloud over and the banks of black clouds beyond the estuary were creeping ever nearer.
‘Ned’, he said now, casting anxious glances towards the horizon, ‘I don’t think we should tarry long here. It looks as though the weather is about to break’.
Following Will’s gaze Edward too looked concerned, but it was so tempting to linger there for as long as possible, and the clouds looked too far away yet to be of immediate concern.
‘We’re all right for a while yet, sweet’, he reassured Will who was still eying the skyline, ‘I promise you as soon as we feel the first raindrops we’ll leave’. Then cutting the surface of the water with his hands he sent a splashing wave of water straight at Will who, forgetting the black clouds and caught up in the moment retaliated with a vengeance.
And for some minutes, the two young men disported themselves like schoolboys. Splashing, diving under the surface to grab the other’s legs, ducking each other and at one point Edward jumped onto Will’s back, who tried in vain to shake him off, laughing and begging for mercy as Edward clung like a limpet and tickled his neck.
Eventually, the two of them staggered to the small sandy cut in the bank where, breathless and still giggling they threw themselves down, exhausted but happy.
‘Christ, I enjoyed that’, Edward lay flat out on the sand, his skin sleekly wet, droplets of water trickling down his flushed face, his breeches sopping and clinging to his long shapely legs. ‘I’ve not had such good sport for many a month’. He turned and flung an arm across Will, who rolled closer so they lay chest to chest. ‘Thank you for joining me, love’, he said, his face mere inches from Will’s. ‘It wouldn’t have been half so pleasant had you not done so’.
‘It was my pleasure, Ned’, Will said smiling at Edward and wrapping his arms about him, ‘Now kiss me, please’.
‘And that’s my pleasure’, Edward replied, covering Will’s mouth with his.
Their kiss was slow, gentle at first, but the sensual delights of being out in the open, half naked, unobserved and already half aroused was a temptation neither could resist.
Abandoning himself completely to the kiss and to the teasing stroking hands of his lover, Will groaned with pleasure as Edward nuzzled and kissed his neck, trailing his tongue down to the hollow of Will’s throat and further still; sucking and kissing the warm, soft and still damp skin of breast and belly. Edward’s own aching need visible against the damp material of his breeches.
‘Ned, oh God’, Will cried as he felt Edward’s hand stroking the soft vulnerable skin between hip and thigh, arching against him as every touch, every kiss, every caress sent scalding jolts of feeling searing along every nerve.
‘Ned, oh that’s…Ned, we can’t, I, oh dear Christ, Ned…..’ incoherent, incapable of rational thought,Will closed his eyes, abandoning himself to the myriad sensations coursing through his body.
So lost and wrapped up in each other, they were oblivious to the eerie stillness and silence which had descended upon their little Eden. And then Will whimpered in protest as Edward abruptly stopped what he was doing, raising his head, a puzzled frown on his face.
‘Ned, oh don’t stop, please, I……’ Will began, but Edward cut him off, holding a finger to Will’s sulky lips, ‘Why are the bells ringing Will?’
‘Bells, what bells?’ Parts of Will’s body were protesting at the sudden cessation of his lovers attentions and he felt frustrated and cross. ‘I can’t hear any bloody bells’.
But then he too heard the faint sound of the single bell from the church across the estuary and its urgent clang, clang, clang as it carried across the water.
‘I know why’, Edward said, ‘there’s a storm coming* and we should go I think, sweet’. Groaning with disappointment, Will stood up, brushing sand from his breeches and tugging his shirt over still damp skin while Edward went to retrieve his own items of clothing from further along the bank.
There was not a sound as they attempted to make themselves presentable, no bird song, no wind to stir the willow they had returned to, just a deafening, threatening silence. Even the horses seemed frozen and unnaturally still as though they sensed that something was about to happen. And when it did, it was so unexpected, so shocking and over so quickly that when they thought about it later, it was hard to believe it had happened at all.
From nowhere the bolt of lightning slithered to earth and was then pulled back as though by an invisible hand. So silent, ghostly and ephemeral, it was over and gone before the two young men had barely registered it happening.
But what really shocked and terrified them was the lightnings target……the place where just moments before they had been lying….and lusting.
‘N..Ned, I’m..,I’m’, Will was too shaken for coherent speech. His face was deathly white, and his smattering of freckles stood out in stark relief. ‘Was it meant fo…for us do you think?’
Edward, his own face white beneath his tan, eyes wide with shock, grasped Will’s hand for the second time that day and moved towards the horses. ‘Lets go home Will. And Will’, he turned to face the frightened young man who’s hand he could feel shaking in his own, ‘before you say anything else, it was just lightning, all right?’,
Will nodded, but he wasn’t convinced, and he didn’t think Ned was either. For he’d seen his own fear mirrored in Edward’s eyes. Knew that Edward was thinking the same as he was, that what they had witnessed had been a warning from God…… against defying Leviticus.
*In the 16th century, it was common practice to ring the church bells in an attempt to ward off approaching thunderstorms