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Arthur fell in love with an older woman when he was fifteen.

Winter came early and iron-hard that year. As the days grew shorter and the nights closed in like wolves, the townsfolk told over their stock of tales. This year none were new: no stories had happened to any of them save Gaffer Flint's cow being taken by brigands, and Mary Cooper brought to bed of twin girls, who had not thrived. So the same stories came round again like seasons: Saint George and the Dragon, King Arthur and his knights, Jack and the Giant, the lad and his lamp.

Arthur (not 'king', not anything special) had heard these stories since he'd lain in his mam's belly. He knew every twist of them. He knew none of them ever happened to anyone like him. And he knew if he wanted stories of his own he would have to leave behind everything else he'd grown up with.

Snow settled on the hills, crept down the slopes towards the sheltered valleys, and just before the shortest day the players came to town. Came with their bright wagon and their tatterdemalion clothes, came with their stories of distant towns -- they showed their livery badge proudly, and talked of playing before Sir Robert Fanville himself in London Town at Michaelmas. Came with the smell of the wide world still on them, and it made Arthur sick with want.

All afternoon he hung around the yard at the Blue Boar, where the troupe had found lodging, and watched them as they quarrelled and ate and drank and laughed. There was the woman he remembered from last year, and her brother: their father had been sick, and surely now was dead. The old fellow who grumbled at everything was back, screwing up his face as he tasted the Boar's best ale. The skinny boy whose da (Martin, maybe) was leader of the troupe had sprouted the meagre beginning of a beard. Arthur scowled and rubbed at his own jaw, which was as good as hairless.

Other faces were missing, though Arthur couldn't have put name to them, nor picked them from a crowd. Still, the troupe was seven strong (the woman, of course, would do naught but carry round the bowl and count the money) as it had been before. The tall fellow with the scarred face, he was new. The dark-skinned gypsy lad chucking snowballs at the town boys was new. No, wait, that made only six. He'd missed ...

But the crowd was gathering, drawn by Martin's powerful voice calling them to witness the Creation and the Fall. Arthur shoved his way through the milling townsfolk to the stable, where he could swing himself up over the byre and into the hayloft. You couldn't see everything from there, but it was warm, and you were up above the back of the stage.

And so he first saw Eve when she was dressing. Undressing. Long hair that swathed her from temple to thigh; a sway of the hip; a lick of the painted red lip. Arthur had never seen a woman and felt desire for her, til now. He leant backward on the stable roof-beam, watching her instead of God (he'd seen a rib plucked forth before) and Eve glanced up at him, and oh her mouth curving round and sweet as apples, as a kiss. Arthur almost fell.

He watched her as she walked out, clad in all that hair. He wasn't fool enough to think it was only skin he glimpsed beneath: he could see the crooked seams and the place under her arm where the buttons were. Two big red buttons on the front, too, and a vine leaf. From the hayloft, Arthur could only see the back of her. He didn't mind.

Adam must be warning Eve against temptation, but Arthur could barely hear the man, who was hoarse as an ostler in August. The crowd was muttering. Adam sputtered, and coughed, and spat wetly into the dirty snow.

Perhaps Eve couldn't hear him either. Arthur watched her as she met the hissing gypsyish serpent, and was tempted, and fell. She never spoke, but her mouth was never still. Her face, under the paint and behind the veiling hair, was the loveliest he had ever seen. He wanted ... something. He wanted her to tempt him.

Then came the Angel with his flaming sword, sent to drive them out from Paradise. It was near dark now, and the sword was the brightest thing in the square, brighter than the torches around the stage. The flames flickered and spat as more snow began to drift down from the heavy, greenish sky. Eve looked back over her shoulder as Adam led her away behind the painted backdrop. In the dim light, Arthur thought that she met his eye, not Adam's; thought she winked at him.

He would have lingered when the play was done, and the players plain without their costumes mingled with the crowd. He would have waited for his Eve, and said -- said what? But all of a sudden there was a strong grip on his ankle, and he was being hauled down into the hay, and Eve who was not Eve was pinning his shoulders and grinning snaggle-toothed down at him.

"Like what you saw, did you?"

No woman ever spoke so deep or pressed so hard against him. Arthur thought of fighting but did not. The player-lad -- not so very much older than Arthur -- was sinewy, and his hands were strong, and Arthur had been fairly caught.

"I did," he said, staring up at the lad. In the gloom, the smeared paint on her -- his -- face made strange shadows, like a mask. "I do," said Arthur.

"Want more of it?" said the other. "You c'n be Adam."

Arthur, scandalised, elbowed him. "That's --"

"You heard Nick," said the lad. "He's been coughing his guts up all week, and he's not getting better. You watch 'em every year, eh? I bet you know the lines. I bet you know them all."

"Oh," said Arthur. He could feel his face grow hot, but it was too dark for the player to see and mock him for it.

"What's your name, anyway?"

"Arthur."

"Eames," said the other. He was still half on top of Arthur, still holding him down. Still warm and heavy and real and strange. And, oh, he was ... he was hard. Arthur writhed against him, just enough, and tilted his head back into the soft rotting hay, and opened his mouth to ... .to ... Oh yes. To kiss and be kissed, to feel Eve's mouth soft and Adam's sin hard against his own. To kiss a woman and know he was kissing a man.

Eames turned his head aside to sneeze, and picked a straw from Arthur's hair. "I bet you'd be better at the rest of it too." His grin flashed in a sudden flare of firelight from outside. "You up for it? You tempted?"

"I'm fallen," said Arthur, and grinned back at him.

Arthur fell in love with an older man when he was fifteen; and the man fell in love with him.

-end-