In my own day, there were few if any laws governing relations between two men – not those of the government, or of the Church… not that any students of magic outside monastery walls paid the slightest attention to any Church edicts anyway. Many, if not most, of those relations, except among very young men together, were between older men and younger ones – knights and pages, masters and apprentices, tavern visitors and serving boys, manor guests and stable boys. It was sometimes frowned upon but not particularly discouraged, either, and in some cases, especially those of servers and stable boys, proved quite lucrative for the young men in question.
Courtly love was not invented until a few centuries later. Until that time, sexual coupling, as some author has said about life itself, tended towards the nasty, brutish, and short. One rarely took the time to disrobe completely – just as well, one supposes, as one rarely bathed, either. There was, until the invention – and yes, it was indeed an invention, though by no means an unwelcome one – of romantic love, no inclination for most couples to loiter naked in bed, wrapped in each other's arms and little else, murmuring endearments to each other while waiting for the acquisition of enough strength to return to a welcome repeat of earlier proceedings. By then, however, encounters between older and younger men were considerably less welcomed. Romantic love, in the English courts, was, if I may be blunt, a celebration of adultery between noblemen's wives and younger, muscular, virile knight-combatants.
Am I omitting something from this picture? Ah, yes. Winifred. The love of my life, as has been said, a tragic romance that fueled the stuff of border ballads and Gothic novels alike. To be honest, my relations with Winifred were prior to the days of courtly love, and the known literature of Winifred and Hrothbert dates, at its earliest, to several centuries later. We were originally an instructive horror story, passed down from mothers to children, only later turned into the stuff of near-Shakespearian drama. It was only near-Shakespearian because a particular Scottish playwright whom I despised then and still do managed to dramatize it before either Shakespeare or Marlowe could get their hands on it, and then neither of them wanted to be accused of stealing the bastard's play.
The unvarnished truth of the story, untainted by Shelley's friend Polidori's Victorian excrescences? I loved Winifred as much as I could then, in that day – I was a different man then, less given to reflection (certainly I have had more than sufficient time to develop reflection, patience, and such other virtues, over a millennium), more given to rash action. I was also a product of my time, as are we all, and the concept of love then, as I have suggested, was greatly different than it became. I was a minor nobleman, wealthy enough, and with sufficient leisure to pursue the thaumaturgical arts; she was a skilled village witch – herbalist, midwife, maker of potions and poppets. When my wife became deathly ill and the doctors could do nothing, they finally allowed Winifred to visit. It was readily apparent that, had she come earlier, she could have done more for my wife than all of the so-called medical practitioners together.
I had few if any companions who understood my work; Winifred did. She would visit me, and we would talk of our respective workings, trade stories of our accomplishments. I offered space on my land for a larger herb garden for her; she taught my stable boys how to treat various minor injuries that the horses encountered. We enjoyed each other's company, we were compatible, and I could never have married her in the social structure of our time. Eventually, she became my mistress. Were it a later generation, I might have phrased that differently, have said that we became lovers, but the yielding of sexual favors at that time was not what it became later. I can only offer in my defense that in my time, I was considered far too lenient with women. And, as I have already said, the modern conceptions of romance were alien to our time and place. We loved each other as best anyone could at that time. When she was killed, I went more than a little mad with grief… and the rest, as they say, is history, at the expense of my neck.
Great love of my life? That is, I suppose, accurate enough – she was closer to me than my wife had been, for we had shared interests and were able to speak with each other and enjoy each other's company in a way my wife and I could not. I had married for land, not for companionship – no one of my status did elsewise then. My wife kept company with her sister and with her companion, who had accompanied her to my home; I kept company with my own friends, with my staff, with other magi. Marriage was for consolidation of titles and property, for security – not only financial, but for the acquisition of men and arms – and for children.
My own marriage achieved the first two goals – the third, alas, was prevented by my wife's death. Winifred and I had companionship, and, of course, sex – more for my benefit than hers, when I look back on it. I shudder to realize that I spent my life with no awareness that one's partner was also intended to enjoy a coupling, but I cannot begin to explain just how little awareness anyone had of such things then. What I have learned of love, of sexuality, of many things, since my death makes me look back on my life with true regret. I regret less my necromancy than that I could not have had the relationship with Winifred that the stories about us created. It would have been exquisite to have been able to love her that way, to have made love to her that way.
Before Winifred, obviously, there had been my wife. And a few of our maids. And the stable boys, yes, and two of my apprentices in the black arts. Before then, there had been tavern wenches, as anyone would have, and, when I was in service – one raised one's children then by placing them in the service of other lords and landowners – I had been introduced to relations between men by a squire to one of the knights who served the baron for whom I worked. He was a good man, and my first partner of either sex. I have never been sorry for my experience with Godric, which continued for some months, before he was sent out to a border war from which neither he nor Sir Oswin returned. Do not ask my age at that time; the answer would only frighten you. We did not live as long then, and it was not uncommon to be married off at twelve.
But I digress. It was in Shakespeare's day, despite the disapprobation of the crowd for love between men, that poetry celebrating that very love became conspicuous. Shakespeare's sonnets, quite obviously, are one such example. And before you ask, because everyone does, no, I do not know the identity of Mr. W.H.; I only know that Oscar Wilde made his own theory up out of whole cloth, and I know that because I knew Wilde. My skull's owner at the time, a friend of his who was in the Golden Dawn, used to let Wilde borrow me to help him write.
Speaking, as I have been, of love between boys and men, I must admit that Wilde used to leave my skull in the room where he would – oh, just read the trial transcripts. I had to read them myself – I could not get anyone to carry me with them to court. It is just as well that the prosecution did not know of my existence; I could only have caused the man to be found guilty as charged that much more quickly than he was. It is not that he was not guilty of the crimes committed, but that the acts committed should never have been crimes in the first instance. They originally, as in my day, were not.
It has been a thousand years since I was with Winifred. To be honest, that passion has faded. I loved her as well as I could, which was not as well as I now could, and it has been so long – even dead as I am physically and damned as I am eternally, I, like any other living soul and mind, am able to move on.
And move on I have – first from England to America, and thence here to Chicago, and to raising my second generation of Morningway children. Margaret was a delightful child; her brother Justin, less so. Far less. I wish that Margaret had become my skull's owner on her parents' death. By no means was she perfect, but she was not the embodiment of evil that her brother is, or that he wishes me to be. My own interest in the dark has faded, and, but for Winifred's death, has never extended as far as Justin's has. His taste for the black exceeds almost any I have ever seen, and I have seen a great deal. Had I been Margaret's servant, however, it is probable, even certain, that my current young Morningway charge would not be an orphan and living, like me, under Justin Morningway's roof, like me also a factor in Justin's plans. Does Justin even realize how utterly banal it is to plan to take over the world?
It is also preposterous, if I am not mistaken, to count on young Master Harold Dresden to assist in taking over anything. He hasn't what Justin has, what I've had – he hasn't the mind of a ruthless bastard, or of a near-insane one. He is an orphan, thanks to Justin and no thanks to me, and one who is devoted to his memories of and what he is told of his parents. He is, fortunately, not altogether trusting, but he is certainly the most loving child I have seen in many years, in well over two centuries at any rate, and he has neither the heart nor the stomach for the sorts of things that form in Justin Morningway's mind. Although Justin would have it that I teach him the techniques he needs to know in order to facilitate Justin's plans, the fool has failed to direct me not to teach the boy to refuse to be the sort of person who would agree to assist him in those plans.
Why should I care? I am dead and damned, after all. This too shall pass, and in what is for me a short time, though for the living an eternity, I shall be owned by some other master who will not be Justin Morningway. I am not responsible to the High Council, my owner is, and I can, if needed, sit in my skull and brood for a century or two on anything I choose – thaumaturgy, art, poetry, French rock music – no, that last one doesn't bear contemplation – or the ultimate heat death of the universe. (Actually, that last topic is quite interesting to me. Does eternity last beyond the end of the universe? I suppose I'll find out someday.)
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
For the destruction of Justin Morningway, were I able to effect it, I would favor ice. The man knows greed, but not desire.
If I were to perish, even without universal heat entropy, fire would undoubtedly effect my own demise. I have known desire, have felt it burn in my blood and in my loins, have let it and grief drive me past the edge of my own reason, have seen for myself, for a millennium, how destructive desire can be.
I have known desire, and in the way of all cruel jokes, know it still. I still possess soul, mind, and emotion, all of which are capable of feeling desire just as much as the body. And, having lived through those changes in history I have mentioned and having grown through them, I know it in a way I could not know it when I was with my poor, dear Winifred. I can feel the longing to join with a beautiful body, to press it to me afterwards, to watch my lover sleeping against me then, wrapped in my arms and nothing else. I can, do, know these things in a way I never knew them when I lived, yet I am hopelessly unable now to do these things.
This, I think, is the real torture the High Council wished me to experience – finally to know a love as great as my love for Winifred might have been, and to be incapable of ever consummating it fully. The blood, the loins, I no longer have burn more than ever within my heart and my mind, and the most I can do with my beloved is to stand here, incorporeal, and watch him sleep, knowing that with a word or with a non-touch of my energies to his forehead, I can banish the nightmares that his uncle's actions have allowed to manifest within him at night.
When I was alive, nothing would have been thought of my entertaining a physical desire for my charge, but the existence of a corresponding love for this beautiful, sensitive creature would have been unfathomable. The world has come to allow of romantic love now, praises it, extols it – but the existence of my desire for a teenaged boy is now considered unacceptable. Damned once for the one, and again for the other – such is the story of my life and non-life.
Incorporeal as I am, I stand in neither time and neither place… and I watch Harry sleep, waiting to dispel a nightmare here, a shadow there… and, for better or for worse, I love.