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Wormwood and Gall

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'What's this?'

'Just what you asked for, you wretch.'

'I asked for ale. This is a vile brew.'

'This is a vile establishment. What did you expect?'

'Not this.' A sigh, audible in the maudlin half-silence. 'I want--'

'Aye, you always want something.'

'Doesn't everyone?'

'Not me. I'm a humble fellow, you know. I want for nothing.'

For the first time that evening, Hal laughed. 'Every day I await the news that you're becoming a monk. Good, abstemious Brother John. A regular Bede.'

'Bede isn't in it,' said John, affecting arrogance. ‘What did he know about anything?’

'A beery Bede,' said Hal, quipping weakly for already he was drunk enough for a sore head on the morrow.

Or was it already the morrow? The alehouse was empty already. The hostess had taken herself off to be. By now she had developed a not unreasonable faith in Hal’s full purse and light hand with a coin. If Hal was brash and unruly and something of a whore, he at least was not tight with his money. His father’s money.

John belched comfortably and put his feet up on the opposite bench, back to the wall. ‘Now, then,’ he began, about to propose a game of knucklebones while Hal could still grasp the playing pieces. This was somewhat underhanded, as John’s big paws were a surer bet for catching the jacks than Hal’s hands.

Hal cut him off. ‘I want to go to bed,’ he said. He ran a fretful hand through his hair.

‘Tired, is it?’ John said.


‘Well, we’ll find you a girl.’

‘I don’t want a girl.’

He closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the wall. Not for the first time, John allowed himself a guilty glance at Hal’s long throat, skin smooth as a girl’s. Hal’s eyes flashed open and caught John staring. In a trice, he flowed along the bench like water to hook his long legs over John’s.

‘I’ll have you arrested by the palace guard for staring,’ he said, off-handedly. With one hand he tugged at the neck of his shirt a little. ‘Lout.’

‘Hal.’ John relocated the lad back onto his half of the bench. But he was a wiry little polecat and he soon got himself back on John’s knee. A wiry little polecat with hard little hands and a warm little mouth, which he pressed to John’s jaw. ‘This isn’t seemly.’

Seemly,’ quoted Hal. His thin fingers found the tie of John’s shirt and messed idly with it. ‘Nothing’s seemly any more. We live in a vulgar age.’

‘Well, don’t make it worse.’

‘I make everything worse,’ said Hal. ‘Ask my father.’

John slid him away again, his hands somehow coming to the Hal’s waist where it met his bony hips. ‘Right,’ he said, ‘I’ll just be going up to the palace at this hour to ask him.’

‘Go off with you, then.’ Hal affected indifference, but his body twisted restlessly under John’s hands.

‘We’re not alone,’ John told him. He stood up, dislodging Hal.

‘God’s blood, John,’ said Hal. ‘You’re an old woman.’ He was barely on his own two feet, swaying terribly.

‘You’re drunk.’

‘Yes, but I’m right.’

‘To bed, princeling,’ John told him. He took Hal up by the scruff of the neck, the boy’s pulse beating under his thumb, and guided him out the alehouse and for home. At least he had the sense to hold his tongue in public. They were through the front door and at the bed, Hal stumbling over his feet now, before the devilry welled up in him again.

‘Come to bed,’ Hal said. He leaned on John.

‘I’ve my own bed,’ he said. With an easy step, he rolled Hal down onto his mattress. Hal closed his eyes and let himself fall.

‘I’m in this bed,’ Hal said. ‘It’s better.’

‘It isn’t right or natural,’ John said. He tried to sound firm, but Hal’s prick was swelling the front of his hose.

'Last week I wore a wimple like a goodwife and you looked at me like it wasn't unnatural,' Hal said, with a logic both relentless and accurate.

'Well, I was soaked, as were you.'

'We're soaked now but we're talking,' said Hal. He looked at John from under his eyelashes.

'We're not talking any more. I'll be taking myself off to bed like a good Christian.''

'Well and good, then,' said Hal, affecting not to care. He sat up. 'I'll go and find myself sweeter company.'

'Oh, no,' said John. The strands of fate were tangling themselves around him regrettably. The night unfolding with painful familiarity. 'I'll not have you stumbling the muck of Eastcheap alone hunting for quim. You'll end up robbed blind with your cock in a shegoat.'

'I'm useless without you,' Hal said, suddenly agreeable now that he had John hooked. He untied his hose and braies with a deftness surprising in his drunkenness. His prick was slim and long and red, and when he rolled himself facedown on the linen sheets he was pale and smooth.

John was dry-mouthed. What transpired now was like an elaborate court ritual, where every step was known by heart and yet heavy with the possibility of failure and humiliation. He stepped towards the bed and sat on its edge. Hal's face was turned away. His sweaty, dark curls stuck to his white neck. His hands were twisted palm-up. Only his hips moved a little, left knee hitched up.

What should have been privy was now shamelessly exposed. Hal made a quiet, fretful sound. John's hand came up to hover about Hal's inner thigh.

'I can feel the heat of your hand,' Hal said, muffled.

'Aye,' John said stupidly.

'Put it in,' Hal said. He waited; John waited. 'Sometime before I become ancient as an archbishop and forget what fucking is.'

Just for that John wanted to punish him: perhaps by making him wait longer, or by slapping the tender inside of his thigh. However, he was always very bad at saying no to Hal. In his more desperate moments, he told himself that it was no use defying a prince of the land. But he defied Hal in plenty of other ways.

So instead of waiting, he ran his hand over the back of Hal’s thigh, and then pushed his fingertips between the cheeks of his arse. Hal’s whole body stiffened, his breath catching. John wasn’t even breathing. Some spell was upon him, as always. All he could think about was the blood heat of Hal’s body and the uneven rhythm of his breath. With two hands he could open Hal like a piece of ripe fruit.

He did it, just to look at him. Hal squirmed, rubbing off against the bed.

‘Did you not understand,’ he asked caustically, ‘or are you trying to make a point?’

‘I understood,’ John told him thickly. He leaned over and spat. Hal twitched.

This time, John didn’t hesitate. He got the tip of his thumb up against the close furl of Hal’s arsehole and pushed it in. A shuddering moan rumbled through Hal’s chest, surprisingly deep.

The sound of Hal getting what he wanted.

It didn’t do to be bitter. Only Hal was allowed to be bitter. Had John been a less obliging friend, and Hal not a prince, John might have made the observation that most of Hal’s tribulations were of his own devising. He did devise, that boy. Devised himself into a heap of sorrows, and about half the time managed to devise himself back out. And what, John thought in his quiet moments, about himself? What sorrows had he endured that might rightly have sunk another man into the ultimate sin against God? Yet Hal’s princely concerns (whoring, drinking, horseplay, gaming) somehow took precedence.

John stuffed the thoughts back down, as though they were so many puling newborn kittens to be drowned in a burlap sack.

What right had he to complain, anyway? Hal was spread out in front of him like a feast, undeniably beautiful, undeniably more John's than anyone's.

John rubbed at the inside of Hal with his thumb, fingers digging into the meat of his back. The drag of friction was uncomfortable. Hal didn't care: John's suggestion once of grease or oil was met with dismissive impatience.

'I want to be fucked, not massaged,' he'd said.

As John was not capable or desirous of using his cock, so it was his fingers. The difference did not seem important to Hal either.

John spat again and twisted his thumb. It threatened to slip out as Hal fucked himself on it. The muscles of his back flexed in long waves. With each slide along the bed, the dark red of his cock and balls showed between this thighs. Were John younger or more functional, he might have been tempted into sodomy by that alone. With age and wisdom had come, perhaps, a finer appreciation of intimacy.

He pushed in again, deeper. Hal's answering moan was raw. His hands, still strangely oriented palms up, clenched and flexed on empty air. A damp streak was trailing along the linen, Hal's cock leaking.

'I don't have all night,' John said roughly, pinching Hal's thigh in the little soft, quivering space by his balls. Hal's legs took to shivering, the way a man shuddered in his marrow and muscles after running across a field in armour. John withdrew his thumb and pushed his two fingers in. He had to push down on Hal's back with his other hand to get enough pressure.

Hardly were they in to the second knuckle when Hal made an agonized noise and pressed his knees down into the mattress. Levered himself back onto John's fingers: froze, gasped, came hard. Between his legs John could see distinctly the twitch and spurt of his cock, spending in the long, fulsome bursts of the young man. Hal rocked there on his knees for a while, riding it out.

Then he let himself fall down on his belly with a great sigh. John discreetly wiped his hand on the sheets. In the aftermath, Hal yawned and sighed again, and fumbled his linens closed one-handed.

'John,' he began. He said it in the pensive, lingering way that he had, that meant a sermon on their friendship was to follow. John was not in the habit of accepting alms from any man.

'Go to sleep,' he said, and stood up.

'You go to sleep.'

'I would have been abed this last hour, anyway,' John told him. He gave Hal a hearty pat on the back and turned for the door.

'Don't leave the door open,' Hal mumbled into his pillow.

John left without a word: only a quick look back, hungrily, privily. Hal was already asleep.