by Noel Oliver
Thomas wriggled against the dirty straw that served as his mattress, trying to get himself as comfortable as possible with his hands bound in front of him. The room smelled like piss, and he had no idea what might be living in the makeshift bed, but he settled onto his back. The slice of sky visible through the single barred window was inky black, no trace of starlight piercing the clouds. With nothing to do, nothing to see, and no one to talk to, he was left with nothing but the inevitability of a morning trip to the gallows, and the memory of what had brought him to this.
If, in his youth, one of the fortune-tellers who occasionally set up shop at the village festivals had told him that he would eventually die for someone, he would have scoffed. If that fortune-teller had claimed to see, in his palm or the stars or the dregs of his tea, that he would die for Ainsleigh Blackwell, Thomas very well may have asked for his money back. But he had never visited a fortune-teller, anyhow. He had lived alone in his little cabin along the village outskirts and he mostly kept to himself, tending his little garden, chopping wood; when he did venture into town it was mostly to sell firewood or, more rarely, the little figurines he sometimes carved to keep his hands busy in the long hours of the evening.
Thomas knew that the other villagers wondered at the way he lived, utterly alone, barely speaking two words to anyone. He knew that they wondered how he had come to be nearly thirty without the slightest attempt to find himself a wife. It wasn’t as though he was bad-looking. Tall and barrel-chested, he kept his black hair short and his beard neatly trimmed; his brown eyes could look foreboding under his heavy black brows, but there were women who liked that sort of thing.
Thomas didn’t give them any fodder for their rumors. As long as he was left in peace, he didn’t much care, and he had no desire to quiet them with lies. So he ignored the flirting of the farmer’s daughters and barmaids, and once or twice a year, under the pretense of selling his carvings, he would take the road into the larger port town to the south, pay a few coins to the proprietor of a house of ill repute, and spend the night fucking a rent boy, losing himself in naked flesh and empty platitudes.
He met Ainsleigh on a glorious summer morning, the kind the bards sometimes composed odes to, with an infinitely blue sky, butterflies floating gently among the brilliance of the wildflowers. Thomas had spent the morning chopping wood, hoping to finish before the day grew too hot for work, but even so had worked up quite a sweat. So he had gone up into the hills behind his cabin and stripped to his breeches at the little brook, splashing cool water into his face and chest. He had no idea he was being watched until he turned to pick up his shirt and caught sight of a young man standing on the opposite bank, a few yards upstream. Everything about the man spoke of wealth, from his knee-high leather boots to his rich blue doublet; his golden hair was pulled back at the nape of his neck, the tail draping over one shoulder. For some reason Thomas’ gut reaction was to hate him.
“Excuse me,” the man called, stepping towards the riverbank. “Do you know who might own these lands?”
Thomas pulled his shirt over his head before answering. “That side? Lord Blackwell.”
“Excellent! I found a patch of strawberries a little ways back, and I do admit that I picked a few before the thought occurred to me that they might belong to someone.” He lifted his hand to show off a tied handkerchief, apparently filled with said strawberries.
“They’d belong to Lord Blackwell,” Thomas said. Not that the lord was terribly particular about trespassers.
“Which is all right, seeing as how Lord Blackwell is my father,” the man said with a chuckle. His eyes were impossibly blue. The realization that he was nobility in addition to being so good-looking made Thomas hate him even more. “Would you like to share them with me?” he offered.
“Not particularly,” Thomas said, straightening a sleeve. “Besides, you’re over there.”
The young Blackwell pursed his lips in a manner that suggested he was not used to being refused. His eyes scanned the riverbank for a moment, and then he stepped across a shallow spot, the water not even coming up to his ankles. Thomas supposed he shouldn’t have expected the trickle to really deter him.
“Ainsleigh Blackwell,” the young man said, holding out his hand.
“Thomas,” said Thomas, surprised at the firmness of the handshake.
Ainsleigh cocked his head to one side to regard Thomas, a pose that made him look vaguely like a puppy and had Thomas wondering at the man’s age. He could have been anywhere from seventeen to twenty-five. “Well,” he said, “could you at least point me towards the village? I seem to have gotten a bit turned around.”
Thomas shrugged. “This way.”
He could hear Ainsleigh’s footsteps in the grass behind him, but he seemed to have given up on conversing. Thomas briefly considered taking a roundabout route just to avoid his cabin, but that seemed like a waste of time. As they stepped into the edge of the clearing in which it lay, though, he smelled the sharp tang of incoming rain. A breeze whipped up, and he cursed inwardly. A summer squall was blowing in, the kind that came on fast and hard. There was little chance that the two of them would reach the village before the rain started.
“Storm’s coming,” he grunted. “The path over there leads to town. If you run you might make it.”
“And if I don’t want to run?” Ainsleigh’s mouth curved into just the barest hint of a smile.
“You could stay here while it blows over. If you want.”
“That’s very kind of you, Thomas.”
As Thomas climbed the porch steps and pushed the front door open, he wondered when the last time he’d had a guest was. It was entirely possible no one else had been inside since his father had died. He stood aside and held the door as Ainsleigh entered, trying not to bristle. It wasn’t as though it was anyone’s fault that the storm had blown in. Ainsleigh hadn’t even asked to come inside; resenting him for it would be foolish.
“Oh!” Ainsleigh gasped. “How lovely!”
Lovely? The words sounded genuine, but Thomas wasn’t sure why. There was nothing particularly interesting about his cabin. The main living area, which they had just entered, consisted of the fireplace and two armchairs off to the right, the stove and table against the back wall across from the door, and Thomas’ workbench to the left, under the single thick-paned window. Farther to the left, a linen curtain covered the entrance to the bedroom.
“It’s so cozy,” Ainsleigh gushed.
Is he making fun of me? Thomas wondered, frowning. But Ainsleigh’s fascination with the pots hanging above the stove seemed genuine.
“You live here alone?” he asked.
“So you can just do whatever you like, all day?” Ainsleigh sighed.
“I work,” Thomas said, slightly affronted.
“What kind of work?”
“Planting. Tending the garden. Gathering wood. Chopping wood. Cooking. Cleaning up.” He shrugged. “Work.”
“What about these?” Ainsleigh had abandoned his bundle on the table and was inspecting Thomas’ workbench. Outside, the first drops of rain spattered against the window.
“I sell them, when I can.”
Ainsleigh reached for a new carving, a trout arcing out of a wave. It was unfinished, and Thomas felt vaguely uncomfortable about him seeing it, much less touching it. But he said nothing, just watched the other man’s face as he scrutinized it, eyes narrowed in concentration. They looked darker gray now, as though they reflected the mood of the sky.
Outside there was a crack of thunder that made Ainsleigh jump, juggling the figure in his hands but managing to keep a grip on it, setting it back down on the workbench with its brethren. “I can barely imagine,” he said, turning back to Thomas, “having this much privacy. Do you ever get lonely?”
Thomas just shrugged. “It is the way it is.”
“There are almost a hundred servants at our estate, you know. It seems like someone is always watching me.”
Thomas wasn’t sure how to respond to that, but it was just as well; the clouds let loose, and for several minutes the pounding of rain on the roof was too loud to talk over. Ainsleigh just stared at him, cool eyes seeming to bore right through him, but though the scrutiny made Thomas’ spine stiffen he didn’t look away until after Ainsleigh had turned back to the carvings.
The last of the thunder rolled away as abruptly as it had come, the sunlight through the thick glass of the window turning Ainsleigh’s hair blindingly gold again.
“Looks like you can go home now,” Thomas said.
Ainsleigh smiled at him, the expression oddly earnest. “Perhaps I’ll visit again sometime.”
“As you like.”
Thomas didn’t realize until much later that evening that Ainsleigh had left his bundle of strawberries behind. They were delicious.
Alone in his cell, Thomas flexed his stiff fingers and smiled at the memory. It had been hard to hate Ainsleigh for very long. A few days after their first meeting he’d reappeared as Thomas was weeding the garden. Thomas noticed him watching, gave a little nod of greeting, and went back to work; a moment later Ainsleigh was beside him asking, “Can I help?”
Why in the world a pampered lordling would volunteer to kneel in the dirt for an hour was a question Thomas doubted he’d be able to answer, so he pushed it from his mind and simply showed Ainsleigh which leaves to look for and how to pull the offending plants up by the roots. Thomas was used to working in silence but as soon as he’d gotten the hang of things Ainsleigh started humming to himself, then singing softly – some kind of ridiculous drinking song, though Thomas couldn’t catch many of the words. His singing voice wasn’t quite what Thomas had expected: a little deeper, a little huskier, but not at all unpleasant. When they’d finished the weeding Thomas thanked Ainsleigh and gave his handkerchief back, and Ainsleigh didn’t even ask about the strawberries.
For a while it became routine. Every two or three days Ainsleigh would appear and help Thomas with whatever he was doing, no matter how dull the task. Together they picked beans and repaired the fence around the chicken coop; once, to Thomas’ surprise, Ainsleigh helped him butcher rabbits, barely even flinching at the blood. They barely talked beyond Thomas’ instruction and Ainsleigh’s quiet singing, although once, as they hung laundry on the line, Ainsleigh said, “You know, I feel like I didn’t know how to do anything useful until I met you.”
“Surely you’ve had tutors?” Thomas ventured.
Ainsleigh chuckled. “Oh, I’ve learned history, and etiquette, and I can speak terribly broken Elven, but I would never be able to survive on my own.”
There didn’t seem to be any need for Ainsleigh to have to survive on his own, but Thomas kept these thoughts to himself.
One evening Ainsleigh stayed later than usual. They picked beans, and then cooked them with salt and butter; Thomas served them with venison sausages and slices of dark bread, and Ainsleigh ate the simple food with such relish it was almost funny. Afterward they sat on the porch as the day faded into sunset. Thomas only had one chair on the porch, so Ainsleigh sat on the top step with a basket of socks and the darning egg. Thomas got out his carving knife and turned a block of wood in his hand, meticulously turning it into a dove. There was a slight breeze that evening, a reminder that autumn was on its way.
Ainsleigh was singing again. Thomas wasn’t paying much attention to the words, but he caught the general gist; it seemed to be a ballad about a nobleman’s daughter and a knight. He made advances toward her, and she refused to lie with him until he successfully answered several riddles. It was a rather silly song despite the lovely melody, Thomas thought. The lady obviously wanted to be with the knight anyhow, since she was the one who proposed the game.
“You know,” Ainsleigh said abruptly, in the middle of the refrain, “you wouldn’t even have to ask me riddles.”
Thomas’ knife slipped, digging into the side of his thumb. For a moment he didn’t react; then the pain hit him along with the implication of Ainsleigh’s words and he stood and strode into the cabin to tend to the wound. It wasn’t deep, and he tied a bandage around it best as he could.
“Do you need help?” Aisnleigh asked from the doorway.
“No,” Thomas grunted. The bleeding had already nearly stopped, but there was a smear of blood across the dove’s back.
“Did I offend you?” Ainsleigh asked after a moment. “Or merely catch you off guard?”
Thomas didn’t answer, didn’t quite dare to turn around and look at him. He heard the door click shut and gave a start when Ainsleigh’s fingertips brushed against his back, hands sliding up to rest on either shoulder.
“I asked about you in town, you know,” he murmured. “Everyone wonders why you’ve never married. I know you go all the way to Port Isley to sell your carvings. I also know that there’s a flourishing red light district there, and a governor who can be easily bribed to ignore sodomy laws.”
“You should go,” Thomas said. The words felt thick in his throat.
“You don’t seem like the religious type,” Ainsleigh said, making no move to pull away – or pull closer, for that matter. His hands simply lay there on Thomas’ shoulders, warm and unmoving. “I’ve never quite been able to swallow some of what the church tells us. I certainly don’t have anything against having children, but I can’t believe that it’s the only way a person can be useful in the Mother’s eyes.”
“I haven’t been to a church service in years,” Thomas murmured. “Even if there really is a Great Mother who created the whole world and all life in it, I don’t see why She should mind if…”
“If?” Ainsleigh’s voice was soft and encouraging.
“If a man doesn’t want to lie with a woman, doesn’t want marriage or babies or–”
“I don’t want those things, either,” Ainsleigh said when Thomas’ voice faltered. “To be honest, I’m not exactly sure what it is I want. But I think you could teach me.”
Thomas squeezed his injured thumb, hoping that the little flare of pain would distract him from the fact that his cock was currently pushing against the laces of his breeches. “You don’t know what you’re asking.”
“Then teach me,” Ainsleigh said again. “Please.”
“It’s still sodomy,” Thomas said, though he knew he’d already given in. “It’s still illegal. If we’re caught we could be thrown in prison, or hanged.”
“Who will catch us?”
A little voice in the back of Thomas’ head was wondering if Lord Blackwell would start wondering where his son was and send someone after him, but he was tired of talking. Instead he turned around, cupped Ainsleigh’s chin in his hand, and kissed him.
It was a clumsy kiss; Ainsleigh clearly had no experience in the act and Thomas didn’t have much more. But Ainsleigh’s mouth was hungry and eager under his, and when they pressed their bodies together and Thomas felt Ainsleigh’s answering arousal pressed against the inside of his thigh, he found himself wondering why they hadn’t done this earlier.
“Bed,” he managed to gasp when they broke the kiss.
“Boots, first,” Ainsleigh replied. His cheeks were flushed and his blue eyes seemed to glow. It was the same glow he often had when he was excited to be learning something new, but amplified to an extent Thomas wouldn’t have thought possible. He sat in the armchair near the fireplace and Thomas helped him pull off his tall leather boots, a process that seemed to take a painfully long time before he was finally pushing back the curtain to Thomas’ bedroom. He was, Thomas realized, the first person he’d ever had inside, but he didn’t seem aware of that fact; he simply climbed onto the narrow bed, rolling over against the wall to give Thomas room beside him.
The first few times Thomas had gone to a brothel he had been so nervous he wasn’t sure he could even go through with it, but the boys had been gentle and patient and sure of themselves. Now he realized he was going to have to be the one to take the lead, even though Ainsleigh didn’t seem nervous at all. When Thomas stripped off his shirt and climbed into bed, Ainsleigh immediately ran his fingers through the hair on Thomas’ chest.
“I’ve wanted to do this since the day I met you,” he confessed. “You’re gorgeous.”
Thomas snorted at that and set about helping Ainsleigh out of his own shirt, running his fingers over the soft, pale skin of Ainsleigh’s stomach. He had a bit of hair too, a fine trail of barely-visible gold that started just above his navel. His stomach jumped under Thomas’ index finger as he followed the trail to the top of Ainsleigh’s trousers, hesitating only a moment before starting to undo the laces. Ainsleigh’s fingers dug into Thomas’ bicep as Thomas finally got his hand around Ainsleigh’s cock and ran his thumb over the leaking head. “Is that good?” he murmured.
“Yes,” Ainsleigh gasped.
“My hands aren’t too rough?”
“I love your hands. Should I touch you, too?”
“Later,” Thomas said. “Would you like me to use my mouth?”
“Use it how?” Ainsleigh seemed to be somewhat lacking in his usual focus, though Thomas could hardly blame him. Rather than answer, Thomas started tugging Ainsleigh’s trousers down his slim hips. When they were finally out of the way he shifted to sit between Ainsleigh’s knees, catching the other man’s eye to make sure he understood. Ainsleigh gave a little nod of encouragement, his eyes wide, and Thomas bent to take his length in his mouth.
This was not something he really had much experience with, at least from this side of things, but he didn’t suppose it could be too complicated. He went slowly at first, taking in as much as he thought he could comfortably manage. He ran his tongue along the underside, which prompted Ainsleigh to dig his fingers into Thomas’ scalp so hard that he had to pull back.
“Sorry,” Ainsleigh managed with a sheepish smile.
“It’s all right.” Thomas found himself returning the smile before getting back to work. This time Ainsleigh’s hands dug into the blankets, and Thomas was surprised at how much he found himself enjoying the act, from the salty taste of Ainsleigh’s cock to the way he could use his tongue to make the man squirm and whimper.
Soon he found himself palming his own erection through his trousers as Ainsleigh gasped “Thomas, I… I’m going to…”
He seemed to be having trouble finding the words for what it was, exactly, he was going to do, but Thomas got the gist. He did his best to swallow, but there was more than he expected, and when he pulled back he had to wipe his mouth with his hand where it had leaked down his chin. Ainsleigh was panting against the mattress, staring at the ceiling and looking dazed. Thomas couldn’t help but feel rather accomplished.
“Thank you,” Ainsleigh said as Thomas lay down beside him. “But what about you?”
“I can take care of it,” Thomas said. He was still aching, and he reached down to unlace his pants.
“No, let me.” Ainsleigh’s hands tugged Thomas’ away. “Sweet merciful Goddess, it’s as big as the rest of you.” It may have been ridiculous to blush at that with the taste of Ainsleigh’s seed still on his tongue, but Thomas did just that. Ainsleigh’s fingers wrapped around him, cautiously at first. “I’m not sure I can fit this in my mouth.”
“You don’t have to,” Thomas said.
“Nonsense,” Ainsleigh said into Thomas’ shoulder. “I said I wanted to learn, didn’t I?”
Thomas cursed under his breath and rolled onto his side, pressing his forehead against the stone wall. Despite his hopeless situation, the memory of that first night had gotten him half-hard, and he certainly had no intention of jerking himself off in his cell. Still, he let himself remember that night, the way Ainsleigh had licked and sucked him, lacking any real finesse but still drawing Thomas effortlessly to release. Afterward they had lain together in silence, and Thomas had put his arms around Ainsleigh and pulled his slender body close, marveling at how easily they seemed to fit together, Ainsleigh’s head tucked under Thomas’ chin. He spread his hand out across Ainsleigh’s chest, feeling his ribcage move with his breaths, the heartbeat under his palm. That was when the ache had started, a hollow kind of feeling somewhere under his breastbone. It had puzzled him then, but he thought he was finally beginning to understand.
It couldn’t go on forever. They’d both known that even then, though neither of them said so. Ainsleigh would come over in the afternoon, as usual; they’d do any chores that had to be done, and then, more often than not, they would fall into bed for an hour or two, Thomas teaching Ainsleigh everything in his limited understanding of sex. He learned a few things himself, from all the sensitive places on Ainsleigh’s body (touching the small of his back would send him writhing) to things he had never imagined he would enjoy (such as Ainsleigh’s topping him, with the same gleeful eagerness he gave everything.) Afterward they would lay naked in Thomas’ bed, where he would hold Ainsleigh close and catch himself wishing that he would stay.
But the end did come, swift and unexpected as the storm that had blown Ainsleigh into Thomas’ home in the first place. They had gotten careless, Thomas could see that now; when they were together it was as though they were the only two people in the world, and that was why when Ainsleigh had kissed him by the stream that last day Thomas had not pushed him away, had indeed kissed him back.
Had that really been just that afternoon? Thomas replayed the scene in his head: himself with his back against a tree, his hands in Ainsleigh’s golden hair, Ainsleigh’s mouth on him. The leaves rustled and he thought, with the small part of his brain not hazed over by sex, that he could feel a touch of autumn on the wind.
He should have heard the horses before he saw them. Maybe it was the wind, or the sound of the stream, or just the fact that he was utterly distracted by the lips around his cock. Somehow he closed his eyes for a moment and when he opened them again he was staring directly at a gray-haired, well-dressed man on horseback, a man whose blue eyes were burning. He knew instantly that this was Lord Blackwell.
“Ainsleigh,” he hissed. His heart was racing, and his thoughts racing even faster. “Please trust me.”
Ainsleigh pulled back, looking up at him with a puzzled expression, and Thomas smacked him in the face with the back of his hand. “Who said you could stop, whore?” He knew the words were coming from his own mouth, but even as he said them, even as Ainsleigh reeled back in shock, tears of pain stinging his eyes, even as they were surrounded by what could only be Blackwell’s personal guard, Thomas felt as though he were watching himself from somewhere else.
“How dare you!” Blackwell was roaring. “How dare you lay your hands on my son! I’ll see you hanged for this!”
Someone wrenched Thomas’ arms behind his back, but he caught Ainsleigh’s eyes before he was surrounded, and he could swear the other man smiled at him.
He could only wonder what that smile had meant. He could only assume that Ainsleigh had understood what he’d been attempting. Blackwell might not hang his own son for sodomy, but he couldn’t very well turn a blind eye either. If Thomas made him think Ainsleigh had been forced, though, maybe…
The sound of footsteps in the hall jerked Thomas out of his thoughts. Was it time already? No, the barred window still showed only a smattering of stars against the darkness.
“Thomas?” a familiar voice called quietly. He rolled over awkwardly, managing to get to his knees and then push himself onto his feet and stumble toward the heavy wooden door. There was a flicker of lamplight visible through the door’s tiny barred opening, and he had no doubt as to who was holding the lamp.
“I’m here,” he said. That ache was back in his breast, heavier than ever. Everything had happened so quickly. He didn’t know if he could bear saying goodbye.
He was surprised by the unmistakable rasp of a key turning in a lock. “Oh, thank goodness,” Ainsleigh sighed as the door swung open. “You can stand. I was afraid they’d flogged you.”
“No,” he said, blinking stupidly. “I’m fine.”
“We have to move quickly,” Ainsleigh said, setting the lamp down and reaching for Thomas’ manacles. He squinted, trying to find the keyhole in the dim light. “I drugged the guards, and Leta said she’d cover for me if anyone tried to check on me during the night–”
“My sister. I have to admit, I’ll miss her.”
“Miss her? Where are you going?”
“With you, of course.” Thomas’ manacles opened unexpectedly, hitting the floor with a clank that echoed alarmingly down the corridor. “I stuffed as many small coins as I could find into my pack. We should be able to take a horse and get to Isley by morning. We’ll book passage on a ship once we get there. I’m thinking Baile, if we can manage it. Why are you looking at me like that?”
“You… want to run off with me?”
“Yes, of course. Isn’t that why you took all the blame? So I’d be free to arrange things for our escape? It was a gamble, you know. He was so angry he could have had them run you through on the spot.” He frowned, and took Thomas’ cold hands in both of his own. “Oh, you dear man. That wasn’t what you were trying to do at all, was it.”
“No,” Thomas admitted. “I guess I hadn’t thought it through that far.”
“You were going to die for me.”
“Yes,” he said. “I suppose I was.”
“Well, I’d really rather you didn’t,” Ainsleigh said, pulling Thomas after him.
They sold the horse on the outskirts of town for what Thomas could only assume was a fair price. With immediate danger behind them, they stood by the side of the road for a moment; Thomas could hear the distant crying of gulls and smell salt on the wind. Ainsleigh had cut off his hair, too. It fell ragged around his shoulders, making him look somehow older, and Thomas kept finding himself fighting the urge to put his hand on the back of his bare neck.
“I’m actually a little excited,” Ainsleigh admitted. “Is that strange?”
“Ainsleigh Blackwell,” Thomas said thoughtfully, “I think I must be falling in love with you.”
“You’ve just realized that?” Ainsleigh laughed as the sun broke over the horizon, and before them the harbor was thrown into radiance.