Hal finds that he detests the weight and heft of a broadsword in his hands. He has watched enough of his father's soldiers practicing and fighting with one another to foster an immense dislike for the entire endeavor of swordplay, whether it be mere sparring or legitimate combat.
In its stead, he has taught himself other arts. Grappling, archery, and riding on horseback.
With enough practice, he becomes renowned for his skill with a bow and arrow. Unfortunately, King Henry looks down upon his accomplishments as unbefitting of a future king. Hal finds himself on the receiving end of his father's increasingly common tirades about responsibility and honor and loyalty to his forefathers. Despite being a full adult at twenty-five years of age, Hal often leaves his father's hall in tears, slamming the doors shut behind him and racing off to the stables or his favorite tavern.
He prefers to distract himself with challenging hunts out among the fields, or drinking himself to the bottom of one of Falstaff's strongest casks of ale. His father loathes the destructive behavior even more, but Hal knows he has few options in terms of pleasing his father, so he might as well enjoy himself while he still can. Oftentimes, he wonders if the king would have preferred a daughter, rather than the disappointment his son has become.
He finds himself pondering that very notion in the tavern one evening, hands wrapped firmly around his second tankard of ale. He observes the antics and conversations of his compatriots, but feels no desire to join in. War is brewing, and King Henry has already given the order to begin drafting soldiers. Hal, of course, will be fighting at his father's right hand despite the fact that he wants nothing to do with this conflict.
At the king's insistence, he has tried sparring with some of the army's best soldiers, only to find himself bruised, beaten, and exhausted at the end of every "lesson". It is humiliating, at the very best, and Hal finds the self-loathing that eats away at him in the presence of his father now rearing its ugly head almost daily.
He exhales a bitter sigh, then takes a generous swallow of his ale, eyes slipping closed to better savor the burn as it travels down his throat. When he opens them again, Hal finds himself unintentionally staring at a large figure seated at the corner table towards the rear of the tavern.
He knows the man, though not personally. Hal recalls numerous tavern brawls that this particular patron started, and as a result, was repeatedly thrown out of the establishment.
The man is also the blacksmith his father employs at the royal stables. Hal has seen him working with the horses often enough, marveling at his ability to calm even the most temperamental animals. He supposes that must be the reason King Henry tolerates yet another sorry sod under his employ.
After downing the rest of his ale and pushing himself to his feet, Hal makes his way carefully to the rear of the tavern. Tripping over his own feet would be right pathetic since all he needs is to ask an honest question.
In close quarters, the man is even more intimidating than at a distance. He is easily close to two meters in height, obvious even when hunched over his own tankard, likely close to fifteen or sixteen stone in weight, with shaggy brown hair tied in a loose braid at the crown of his skull and a stubbled beard covering most of his jaw and cheeks. His clothes bear signs of heavy use, as well as all manner of stains and smears of grime. What unnerves Hal most are his eyes. The only part of the man that is not mud-spattered or worn, his eyes are a terrifyingly intelligent piercing blue. Hal muses that he must be able to see straight through anyone.
"You are the blacksmith under my father's employ," he says, by way of addressing the man.
The blacksmith raises his head just enough to bring Hal into view, and he finds himself pinned to the spot by those eyes. "Aye," comes the gruff reply.
"Your work with the horses .. 'tis very impressive, I must say," Hal offers by way of an olive branch, hoping to keep the man from becoming angered. "And your capabilities in combat. Did you learn swordplay as a youth?"
The man observes him silently for a few moments, clearly deciding whether or not the royal prince is worth his time.
"Flattery will get you nowhere, little prince," the same gruff voice replies, though rather than angered, he sounds resigned. "What is it you want?"
Hal opens and closes his mouth several times, wrong-footed and unused to being so easily read when his ability to sway people with words is renown throughout his father's kingdom. "I .. merely wished to know if you might bestow upon me the honor of schooling me in the art of swordplay."
One brow rises, though the blacksmith gives no other outward reaction to the request. Hal wonders if perhaps this was a horrible mistake. He may very well be laughed out of the tavern.
"And why is it, little prince, that you've sought after me with this request?" the blacksmith does not laugh, and he has abandoned his tankard in favor of examining the man standing in front of his table. "You have your father's army at your beck and call. What does a drunkard who spends his time playing nursemaid to horses have to offer someone such as yourself?"
For a drunkard, he is exceptionally eloquent. Hal wonders if perhaps he was educated as a boy, before taking up his smithing trade. He also wishes the man would stop calling him "little prince". It grates on him and makes his jaw clench.
"They mock me," he admits quickly, wanting to avoid the confession but knowing he has no real choice. "I have always hated it and they have no patience for a spoilt man like me taking up their time with his failures."
The blacksmith settles back to observe him again, a thoughtful expression crossing his weathered face. Despite the fact that he knows the man to be scarcely two years older than himself, Hal can only imagine the hardships and misfortunes that have befallen him to result in a face that appears decades older.
"Very well, I accept," the man nods, then takes a generous swig of his ale as though to add a note of finality to the gesture.
"You do?" Hal cannot quite believe his ears.
The blacksmith snorts, then fixes him with an intent look. "I hope you realize I'll be expecting compensation for my services," his voice is gruff, though not unkind. "I have horses to look after and a belly to fill, after all."
"Yes, yes of course," Hal nods, hoping that whatever amount the man decides on is something he can skirt out from under his father's nose without too much trouble. "How much?"
"Well I'll be deciding that once I'm confident you can pick up a sword without sticking yourself with it," the impossible blue of his eyes is focused completely on him, giving Hal the impression that the blacksmith knows just how poor he is at this particular skill. "These things take time and patience. I'm not a bloody wizard."
Hal nods again, then offers what he hopes is a charming smile. "When would you prefer to begin?"
The blacksmith furrows his brow for a moment, then finishes the last of his ale before slamming the tankard down onto the wooden table's surface. "Tomorrow morning. First light. Be at the stables with whichever sword you haven't been frightened away from."
Tomorrow? Before dawn? He cannot possibly be serious.
"Has the little prince never been forced out of his bed so early?" the man's grin is all teeth, and Hal finds himself feeling akin to an elk about to be devoured by a wolf. "Well, it's about time we changed that."
Cowed, Hal merely nods his head and drops his gaze to the tabletop. "Might I know your name, so that I can address you properly in future?"
"Eric McQuillen, your highness," Eric answers, his tone laden with derisiveness as he addresses Hal by his title. "And you are Harry Monmouth, soon to be King Henry the Fifth. That is, if your father manages to prevent his kingdom from falling to the rebels."
Hal refuses to feel cowed further, but he does take a step back. "Very well, McQuillen. Tomorrow at daybreak it is."
Eric smirks at him, blue eyes lit with those same slow-burning embers from before. "Get some rest, your highness. You'll need it."
The next morning, Hal is roused by his servant before even the faintest rays of sunlight have begun filtering through the clouds. After squinting around his darkened room, he demands the time, and is rewarded with "six o'clock, sir, as per your orders".
He manages to get dressed without putting his breeches on backwards or his head through the wrong hole of his tunic, but only just. Once fully clad in proper sparring attire, he straps his belt to his waist and sheathes his smallsword on his left hip. Feeling more nervous than he has in years, Hal makes his way to the stables, grateful to find them empty.
The relief lasts for only a moment, however, as his gaze soon lands on his sparring partner. Eric is seated on a bale of hay, polishing the blade of what appears to be a massive axe. Beside him lie two smaller axes, presumably meant for throwing or hacking at an opponent.
"So the little prince is eager for a challenge after all," his voice is far more jovial than the prior night in the tavern, and Eric rises to his feet as Hal approaches. "Come on, then, out to the paddock. That'll be our training ground."
Despite being almost of a height and similar in weight, Hal feels impossibly smaller than McQuillen. Even more so when the man hefts his axe over one shoulder and follows him into the paddock. His grip tightens on the hilt of his sword, though he does not draw it. Not until McQuillen begins the lesson. He wonders if perhaps this was a grave mistake, and rather than tutoring him, McQuillen intends to kill him. He would not be the first disgruntled member of the townsfolk out for royal blood.
But, rather than charging him or swinging the weapon at his neck, Eric merely grips the axe behind the head and braces its shaft along the length of his arm. An odd way of holding such a weapon, but there must be some reason for it.
"Draw," he barks, and Hal scrambles to obey, withdrawing his blade from its sheath and taking up the proper stance of engagement.
"Attack," McQuillen circles him and Hal lunges forward, almost startling backwards when the man blocks the sharp edge of his blade effortlessly by swinging his arm up with the axe held firmly outwards almost as a shield.
"Again," Hal narrows his eyes, but does as instructed, refusing to be disheartened by how easily the blacksmith fends off his best efforts at landing a blow somewhere on his body.
The process continues for hours, and Hal finally surrenders once he decides that a tactical retreat is better than further humiliation. There are stable hands hanging over the paddock fence, laughing and jeering as he continues to either fail to land a hit or be sent sprawling into the dust by a backhand from the blunt side of Eric's axe.
He holds up one palm, a universal gesture of defeat, then pushes himself to his feet with the blade of his sword pressed against the scuffed earth.
"Same time tomorrow, your highness," McQuillen barks at him, expression like thunder as he stares down at the prince. Hal refuses to look up, knowing he'll only see a mirror of his father's disappointment in the blacksmith's face. "Now get out of my sight."
Shamed and unable to think of anything else to do, Hal runs. He shuts himself inside his rooms, refusing anyone entry, and nearly tears the place apart in a fit of temper. Bruised, exhausted, and frustrated beyond compare, he collapsed into bed after missing the evening meal and sleeps like the dead until his servant wakes him the following morning.
"You're trying to fight like a man twice your size. You need to use your own body and stop trying to fit into someone else's," McQuillen admonishes, lowering his shield after having succinctly knocked Hal's sword from his hands for the fifteenth time in the past hour.
Hal slumps down against one of the fence posts surrounding the paddock, breathing hard and covered in a combination of blood and dirt. He has yet to sustain any serious injuries, but the majority of this blood is from the bloody nose he received courtesy of a shield being accidentally shoved into his face.
"You have taught me for three weeks, and yet I have not a chance of besting you," Hal complains, staring up at the blacksmith as he examines the shield's edges then begins pulling out the small blades he keeps in a small sheath just above his left hip.
"Come here," he demands lowly, waiting until Hal is on his feet to step forward. Hal steps back, entirely uncertain as to what McQuillen has planned. But as a large hand encloses his wrist, he realizes that whatever it is may not bode well for him.
McQuillen puts the hilt of one of the small blades in his hand, then closes his own hand over it so Hal is forced to wrap his fingers around it. "Now, you wait until they're close, then you drive it into their heart to the hilt," he yanks Hal's arm forward, forcing him to slide the blade against the rough leather just beside McQuillen's heart. "And you don't pull it out till you see their soul."
Hal freezes, momentarily convinced that he has dealt his teacher a fatal blow, then gradually lifts his eyes to meet the stormy blue gaze already settled on his.
"Do you understand?"
He has no answer, and finds himself unable to look away, He feels utterly and completely trapped, afraid to even blink.
"I couldn't do that," Hal murmurs, still defiantly holding Eric's gaze. He wonders what the man would do if he called him by his Christian name. It has been McQuillen for weeks, and he seems disinclined to allow any other form of address.
The silence stretches on for at least a minute, the pair of them caught without having the faintest idea how to break it.
"You're being dragged into a war, prince," Eric's lips twist into a dark grimace and he moves away, leaving Hal still holding the knife in a loose fist. "You might not have a choice."
There are no words exchanged between them as they collect their respective weapons and do their best to cover up the tracks and scuffmarks left from their sparring. Hal feels unmoored, and in need of either a strong drink or something to hunt.
"Give me that," Eric mutters, appearing behind him as he ponders where to place the knife and snatching it out of his hands. "Before you lose a finger."
Hal scowls at him, then marches into the stable, snapping at a stable boy to help prepare his stallion for a hunt. Once the animal is properly saddled and bridled, Hal gives it ample reign and pins his heels against its ebony sides. The stallion jumps forward, galloping past Eric just as he returns to the stable after having stashed his weaponry. The blacksmith leaps aside, narrowly avoiding a collision with animal and rider, then shouts a curse after Hal as the prince races out across the field.
He and his stallion run till the animal begins to tire, breathing heavily through flaring nostrils as it slows from a gallop to a measured center.
From the moment he fled the stables, Hal had no intention of going on a hunt. He needed as much space between himself and Eric as possible. Now, he has it, and he intends to make good use of it.
He spies a benign-looking grove of trees, and angles his mount towards it. Once they reach it, Hal dismounts and carefully ties the grey stallion to a fallen trunk angled sideways between two larger trees. He removes the animal’s bit, letting the cold metal hang below its jaw, then goes about unpacking his supplies and bow from the saddlebags.
Hal plans to at least stay the night in the small glen, desiring time away from his father, from the looming threat of war, and from the disconcerting presence of one Eric McQuillen. He knows there will likely be soldiers and servants sent out to hunt him down and bring him “safely” home, but he will do his best to scare them off once he has the cover of darkness on his side.
For the moment, he erects a rudimentary shelter of sorts amongst the brush, then sets about starting a small fire. It takes hardly any effort at all, given how try the kindling he finds is already, and soon enough, he has a pleasant means of keeping warm and cooking his hastily-packed meal of strips of salted pork and several apples.
With a full belly and a night full of comfortable silence ahead, Hal stretches out on the crimson material of his cloak, listening idly to the sounds his stallion makes as it forages for greenery near its tying post.
Then, what could be an hour or a minute later, Hal finds his eyes snapping open as the unmistakable sound of footfalls reaches his ears.
Without thinking twice, his bow is in hand and his arrow is notched, aimed into the dark cluster of trees from whence the noise originated. He listens intently, doing his level best to pinpoint the intruder’s location, then looses the bowstring.
The arrow shrieks out of the glen and into the darkness, eliciting a surprised curse from whoever has deigned to trample all over his good mood. He did not hit his mark (nor did he intend to), but the gesture served as warning enough.
“State your business or I shall loose another,” he warns in a threatening growl. “And this time, I shan’t be so generous.”
There are a few more muttered curses from beyond the glen, though Hal can tell whoever it is means him absolutely no harm. Then, just at the edge of the tree line where the fire’s light illuminates the entire clearing, the last person he wants to see emerges.
“Well perhaps I ought to loose another regardless of intent.”
Eric glowers at him, though he does not look repentant in the slightest. His appearance has changed little, though his face looks a fair bit more scrubbed and clean than the last time Hal saw him.
“Your father’s sent out a search party for you,” Eric straightens his clothing, then levels an unimpressed look in the prince’s direction. “Figured I might be a decent fellow and give you a bit of fair warning.”
Hal tilts his chin up defiantly. “How did you find me? I covered my tracks just as well as any rider.”
With an amused snort, Eric ambles over to the fire and makes himself comfortable on the opposite side, warming his hands in front of the flames. “You know how I made my living before your oh-so-generous father pulled me out of the gutters? I was a hunter. Huntsman, they called me. I can track game better than any of your dogs. Once I got far enough into the forest, all I had to do was follow the smoke trail from your fire. Not a wise choice, that.”
Hal perches warily on the old log near the fire, eyeing his companion critically as they both lapse into a somewhat amiable silence.
“If you already knew where I was thanks to that, why are you here now?” Hal finally asks the question that he wanted to immediately following Eric’s explanation. “Why not simply tell my father where I was?”
Eric lifts a shoulder, then prods a longer piece of kindling into the fire to keep it burning. “You clearly wanted privacy. I made sure to send the rest of the hunt of a goose chase so you could have it.”
The reply does not satisfy his curiosity, but Hal supposes that is as good an answer as he is likely to get. So, rather than spending any more time prying answers out of the surly huntsman-turned-blacksmith, he settles back on his cloak, his bow and quiver set aside within easy reach.
“You never decided on a price,” he muses aloud.
Eric glances up from where he has been occupied with a notch in the shoulder of his leather surcoat. He obviously had not expected that to be the prince’s next topic of conversation. “A price for what?”
“For my lessons, obviously,” Hal laughs, then turns onto his side to better see his companion over the flames. “You said you would decide on one when we were finished. I can only assume you have done what you can for a case like me.”
The man’s lips thin into a line for a few moments, giving his expression a hint of agitation. “I hadn’t given much thought to it. Figured I would name some count of gold and you’d just toss it over your shoulder like it was nothing.”
Hal gives him a considering look, then waits for him to elaborate.
“I haven’t given you what you asked for, though. So, that said, our agreement has yet to be settled,” Eric glances over the flames, blue eyes sharp in contrast to the dull browns and greens around them. “But, if you’re offering, I would not be opposed to a token of appreciation for services rendered thus far.”
He freezes for a moment, though he refuses to drop Eric’s gaze. Hal wonders if they have indeed reached an agreement, or if there has been a grave misunderstanding.
Eric does not move from his seat on the opposite side of the fire, but Hal imagines his gaze could almost be a physical presence, the weight of it resting firmly against his chest as his breathing grows shallow.
He is certainly no novice in this particular dance. He has done it before and he will likely do it again. Heaven help them all if his father were to ever discover such things.
Hal stretches out on his cloak, eyes drifting closed as he focuses on the minute details; the weave of the fabric beneath his fingertips, the uneven surface of the ground beneath his back, the heat radiating out from the fire, his own shallow breaths.
“I do not suggest things lightly,” comes the rough brogue from just above him, and Hal quickly realizes that Eric must be kneeling just beside him. “And I most certainly do not engage in such pursuits when the other party does not wish to participate.”
His eyes open almost without his consent, and the expression he sees on Eric’s face is almost enough to twist his gut into knots with worry for the other man rather than trepidation. “I made the offer. I intend to stand by it.”
There is a hand on his hip, fingers slipping beneath the hem of his tunic. The hand is warm, the skin work-roughened and lightly calloused. Hal shivers, but finds his body going lax rather than tensing up.
Another hand joins the first, carefully lifting his tunic so that he is forced to wriggle out of it lest the fabric end up caught beneath his arms. Relieved of his upper garments, Hal stares up at his companion, then watches as Eric’s hands move to his sword belt. The belt is discarded easily, and his breeches follow, leaving him exposed.
Eric’s rough hand closes around his half-hard prick, eliciting a startled groan from the prince. His fingers twist in the fabric of his cloak, but just as quickly as the friction had begun, it disappears. Hal grunts his displeasure, then slits his eyes up at his companion.
The grin angled his way promises everything he imagined after making the offer and more. Eric seems rather content to take his time with the whole endeavor, which is unlike anything Hal is accustomed to. What he knows involves rushed encounters behind closed doors above the tavern or uncoordinated groping at one another in dark alleyways. Not this.
Soon enough, Eric has divested himself of his own layers, leaving them both bared to each other. Hal sneaks a glance between Eric’s legs, groaning quietly as he takes in his size. He has seen bigger, of course. Though Hal would be loathe to admit he has yet to see a prick as well-proportioned as Eric’s.
He grunts as Eric’s full weight settles atop him, though his arms go around the man’s shoulders without complaint, fingertips digging against the ridges of his shoulder blades.
“I hope you have something to ease the way,” Eric breathes against his ear, lazily rolling his hips so that their pricks drag together in a maddening fashion.
“Here,” Hal grabs for Eric’s hand, then brings it close enough so that he can suckle on three of the calloused digits, laving them all with his tongue until he deems them prepared enough. He releases Eric’s hand and then nods, indicating his readiness.
There is a surprising amount of tenderness in the way Eric first breaches him, one slick finger pushing past the resistance and nearly withdrawing, only to be pressed right back to its original position. As the quivering in his muscles subsides, Hal arches his spine and groans as a second finger joins the first, sliding alongside it almost effortlessly.
The pressure is uncomfortable, but it gradually builds to something sweeter, prompting him to urge Eric on with his heels dug into the man’s lower back.
A third finger joins the first two, stretching him open to a degree that hurts. Hal whimpers, though he shakes his head fervently when Eric makes to pull away. He breathes through it, focusing on the burn until it settles into that familiar sensation.
Once he feels properly ready, Hal nods once, his lips curling into a lazy smirk as Eric simply stares at him for a few moments.
Then, the fingers are gone and a few seconds later, are replaced with the hastily slicked head of Eric’s prick. Hal tenses, but quickly forces himself to breathe out, relaxing enough to allow Eric into his body.
The push and burn is excruciating for those first moments, and Hal assumes his expression must be contorted horribly because Eric is mumbling reassurances against his temple, promising that he will be gentle.
He snorts, already knowing this full well, and encourages Eric every step of the way with his heels still dug into the small of the man’s back. Once Eric is fully seated, Hal traps him in a firm embrace, refusing to allow him to move until he has adjusted.
They breathe roughly against each other’s cheeks for a moment, until Hal tilts his head and suddenly their lips are sliding together, meeting in a kiss that sears out what little rational thought Hal thought he still possessed. He shudders with it, fingertips digging even more sharply into Eric’s back.
Without ceremony, Eric begins thrusting madly, one hand sliding into Hal’s coppery hair while the other manages to unwind one arm from his back and pin it to the ground, lacing his fingers with the prince’s.
Hal cries out when Eric thrusts even more deeply than before, fingers tightening around the other man’s so their knuckles go white. He can scarcely breathe, let alone think, but Hal decides that if he were to die at this very moment, he could be perfectly and utterly content.
Then, he feels the sudden sting of pain where Eric’s teeth have sunk into the meat of his shoulder and his vision dapples with bright flashes like stars winking out of existence. He shudders, the wet warmth of his climax splattering his belly as he grips Eric’s hand and struggles to retain his hold on consciousness.
He is scarcely aware of it as Eric continues to rut inside him, growling roughly before shuddering through his own climax scant minutes later.
When he becomes aware of himself again, Hal finds Eric’s weight collapsed atop him, and the sticky evidence of their coupling smeared between their bodies. Surprisingly, he finds he does not mind as much as he likely should.
“Get off me, you oaf,” he mumbles, pushing his knee into Eric’s groin.
The man grunts in offense, but promptly shifts aside, letting his weight fall onto Hal’s cloak rather than Hal himself. Properly settled, he blinks a few times before focusing on the prince’s face.
They stare at each other for a few moments, before Eric pushes himself onto his forearm and places a chaste kiss on Hal’s lips.
Hal blinks in surprise, though he manages to respond in kind just before Eric pulls away. It seems neither of them have much experience with the aftermath of these encounters. Perhaps Eric has never stayed long enough either.
“Here,” Eric grabs one of his undergarments, doing his best to wipe Hal’s spend off his belly and from between his legs. That done, he tosses it aside, then offers a lopsided smile. “Perhaps next time, you can return the favor.”
Once again, Hal feels completely wrong footed. Next time? He has never slept with someone more than once, save one or two of the tavern wenches. Was there always intended to be a next time?
“I .. yes,” he finds himself saying, an answering smile quirking his own lips. “I suppose I just might.”
Eric laughs, then falls onto his back again, the laugh deepening into something genuine and amused.
Hal decides he has never heard anything quite so beautiful.