Chapter 1: Winter 1197
See end notes for chapter warnings (spoilers).
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Never before had his favorite chair appeared so welcome to Cedric’s eyes. He stumped toward it with single minded determination, his knees cracking with each step and an ache in his hip that had vexed him for the better part of a fortnight, born of an austere abbey bed and the two days on horseback that followed. Piety and humble living had their place, one he would not deny, but age and long habit had made him a creature of greater comforts, and he was keen to surround himself with them again now that his duty to the church was complete. He reached for the arms of the chair, prepared to fall into its embrace, when a quiet voice at his back halted him.
Cedric turned his head to glower at Wamba over his shoulder. He stood just behind Cedric, an understanding smile on his face and his hands outstretched before him.
“What is it?” The question emerged rather more snappishly than Cedric would have liked. Wamba was not the object of his ire, but he embodied yet another comfort that had been denied to Cedric, to both of them, for too many days. There was little hope of stealing away for a tryst with his slave under the watchful eyes of an entire brotherhood of monks. Cedric had diverted that distraction to planning out the thorough bedding he intended for Wamba upon their return, but the realization of that happy vision seemed unlikely now, with his body in revolt.
Wamba was untroubled by his temper, his smile undimmed. “May I take your cloak?”
Cedric harrumphed, but he stood straight and undid the clasp at his throat, allowing the cloak to fall away. Light hands drew it from his shoulders, the weight of it and the stifling warmth easing from his weary body were an undeniable relief. He turned and watched Wamba fold the heavy cloth carefully over his arm, his irritation beginning to fade. Whatever else, they were home now, and free to take what comforts they would without fear of censure. Cedric need no longer pretend that Wamba was less to him than he was.
“Thank you.” He reached out and laid a hand on Wamba’s cheek, a brief caress that was equal parts gratitude and apology for his irascible nature.
Wamba’s smile was warm enough to melt the frost gathered in the corners of the windows. “Of course,” he said. “The wine will be up in a moment.”
The porters had arrived already, laden with baggage and followed by a pair of servants who began at once to unpack it. Wamba stepped away from Cedric with a dip of his head and went to join them. Cedric watched him go, as he lowered himself at last into his seat with a sigh. He had never intended to make of Wamba a manservant, but it was not in the jester’s nature to stand idle for long. Where there was work to be done, there ever was Wamba to be found. Steward and castellan, farrier and carpenter, stablemaster and swineherd, all benefited of Wamba’s labors, though perhaps none more so than she who ruled the kitchens.
It had troubled Cedric, for a time, the thought that Wamba shuttled from one task to the next for fear of what might befall him should he fail to prove himself sufficiently useful to his master. Over time, however, the urgency that drove him receded, and Cedric thought it was more habit and a genuine affection for his fellows that kept him to his daily tour of the castle. He worked companionably with the house servants now, a few murmured words and a soft laugh floating to Cedric’s ears as they sorted out a bundle for the laundry and returned the rest to the wardrobe.
Wamba saw to his own small pack last, tucking away his cloak and a few spare items in the chest at the far side of the bed while the porters gathered the empty cases and the servants carried away the soiled garments. The door closed behind them, and Wamba rose to his feet. He turned to face Cedric, the corner of his mouth lifting and one brow tipped up the barest fraction in expectant query.
Cedric looked back at him, rising amusement an odd fellow to the heat that stirred slowly in his gut. Cedric could not rightly call Wamba a boy any longer. Though still slight, he was clearly a young man now, and one wholly uncertain of his own charms. Cedric had felt himself something of a rogue, at times, to have snatched up that beauty for himself so young, but as his eyes traced Wamba’s form, he could summon no true remorse. He let the anticipation simmer between them for a long moment, then tilted his head with a chuckle. “Come here, then.”
Wamba’s face broke at once into a radiant smile. He took a step toward Cedric, only to be stopped short by a knock on the door.
“What now?” Cedric grumbled.
“The wine,” Wamba said, as he went to answer the knock. He exchanged a few pleasant words with the girl on the other side, though he wasted no time relieving her of her burden. Soon enough, the door was closed and they were alone again. Wamba carried the tray, laden with a carafe and two goblets, across to the table. He set it down there and poured out a cup for Cedric. Wamba placed it at his elbow, and Cedric reached for it. His hip cracked with a sound like a dry twig trodden underfoot as he twisted. He cursed, and sat back, wine abandoned, while he waited for the pain to subside.
Wamba immediately set the carafe back on the tray, the humor in his expressing falling away. He stepped around the table, and sank to his knees at Cedric’s feet. Careful hands curved around the Saxon’s knees, long fingers laying points of gentle pressure into the muscle above. “What can I do for you?”
“There is little to be done for my advancing age,” Cedric said. “It will pass with a few nights in a proper bed.”
“I can make you comfortable, at least.” Wamba’s hands rubbed a soothing touch over Cedric’s shins before he sat back on his heels and shifted his attention to slowly working off the Saxon’s boots. “Perhaps a bath might help?”
“Too much trouble at this hour.” Cedric heaved out a sigh, laden with regret for all the things that would remain beyond him for at least one more night. He laid a hand on Wamba’s bowed head, carding his fingers gently through fair hair. “I had made plans for a more enjoyable homecoming than this.”
Wamba set Cedric’s boots off to one side, and when he looked up his smile had returned. “I know,” he said. “I could feel you plotting each time you looked at me.”
Cedric chuckled, ruffling his hair. “Are my thoughts so plain to you now?”
“Perhaps I merely imagined it,” Wamba said, one shoulder lifting in a shrug and his voice grown soft. His tongue flashed across his lower lip. “Perhaps because I was doing the same.”
The flood of heat that washed through Cedric’s gut forced a groan from his throat. His hand tightened in Wamba’s hair for just a moment, before he remembered himself and released him. “Wicked thing,” he said fondly, “do you mean to be the death of me?”
“That depends, my lord,” Wamba said, and the tilt of his lips was wicked indeed.
Cedric’s brow lifted. “Upon what, pray tell, does it depend?”
“Upon which sort of death you mean.” Wamba rose up on his knees, his gaze searching Cedric’s as he reached out unmistakably toward the apex of Cedric’s legs. “We need not forego our plans entirely.”
The Saxon caught his hands before they found their mark, holding them firm in his own as he stared at the jester. Wamba looked back, his expression clear and earnest. What he offered was not something that Cedric had ever asked of him, knowing full well the horror that it held for him. Yet Wamba insisted on fighting those memories, though it was always a trial for him, determined that Cedric should have this service of him.
Cedric allowed it, so long it caused him no undue distress, but there were certain rules between them upon which he would not compromise. He pressed Wamba’s hands between his and said firmly, “Not without your cushion.”
A grateful smile lit Wamba’s face and he nodded, rising smoothly to his feet to go to the bed and fetch one of the smaller pillows from it. The silence grew heavy as he dropped the cushion between Cedric’s feet. He braced his hands atop Cedric’s thighs and lowered himself down between them in a sinuous curl. Cedric stroked a caress across his cheek, then let his hand settle light on the pale neck. Wamba stared up into Cedric’s eyes as he reached for his master’s laces and plucked them free. He folded the cloth away and drew Cedric out to wrap him in a tender grip, the smooth metal of his ring a cool point of contrast to the warm skin of his hand.
Cedric met his eyes with calm affection, and the same reassurance he always offered. “Only as you desire.”
He saw Wamba’s smile in a flash before the golden head bowed over his lap and a hot tongue licked a slow stripe up the underside of his cock. Cedric groaned and slumped back into his chair. One hand took a grip on the wooden arm while the other ever so gently cradled the back of Wamba’s skull. Cedric made no effort to guide him, but simply rested his touch there while Wamba continued to tease him to full hardness. His tongue played over the head and darted against the sensitive slit, almost curious in its explorations, and Cedric could only hope, through the gathering fog of arousal, that he was not making a comparison between Cedric and his past experiences.
Then that thought slipped from the increasingly lax grip of his mind, as Wamba took a deep breath and closed his mouth around Cedric’s girth. He held there for a moment, letting Cedric’s flesh rest on his tongue, before he began to slide down in slow pulses that took his master gradually deeper each time, until Cedric felt the back of Wamba’s throat tight around him. Wamba choked, and Cedric looked down at him, alert to the first signs of discomfort. His eyes were tightly shut, fine lashes resting on pinked cheeks and the hair beneath Cedric’s hand beginning to dampen with sweat, but he quickly found his rhythm again, shallower for a few moments before he forced himself to swallow Cedric down.
He managed it, his nose bumping against Cedric’s skin for a handful of strokes, near enough to drag him over, until a tear slipped from the corner of Wamba’s eye and Cedric took a grip on him to push him away. “Stop.”
Wamba released him, gasping in a heaving breath as he withdrew. He rested his brow against Cedric’s thigh and swiped at the damning trail of moisture on his cheek, panting into the fabric of the Saxon’s trousers as a dark flush of shame rose on his skin.
Cedric threaded his fingers into Wamba’s hair again, petting him gently. “You’ve done so well,” the Saxon praised him. “Take your time.”
Wamba stayed where he was, hiding his face from Cedric until his breathing calmed. Then his eyes opened, reddened but resolute, and he knelt up to take to his task again. Cedric did not question him, only leaned back and let him do as he would. The warm, wet mouth that enveloped him was equally determined, sucking at him with purpose and carrying on relentlessly. In the face of such an onslaught, Cedric could only surrender. A rumble built deep in his throat, rising up and out of his mouth in a low roar as his pleasure peaked. Wamba persisted through it, drinking down everything Cedric had to give him and easing him through the lingering waves.
He was still there when Cedric finally found the strength to open his eyes. The Saxon reached for Wamba at once, sweat soaked and exhausted by the effort, but with a peaceful satisfaction in his expression that nearly broke Cedric with the force of love it sent pulsing through him.
“What a treasure you are,” he said, low and hoarse. His hands cradled Wamba’s face as he drew the young man up to him and covered the swollen mouth with his own.
Wamba met him without hesitation, lips parted and yearning for Cedric’s kiss. The Saxon gave it to him, delving into the soft mouth and tasting the bitter salt of his own seed. Wamba’s arms reached up for him, twining around his shoulders. Cedric pulled him closer, caressing his lean flanks and the sweet arch of his spine. He kissed Wamba until he tasted like himself again, and by the time he had finished, a hard line of throbbing heat was trapped between their bellies. Delighted, Cedric tugged Wamba up and off of the floor.
He did not fit so neatly into Cedric’s lap as he once had, but his weight astride Cedric’s thigh was warm and perfect. He was still fully clothed, even his boots upon his feet, and while Cedric would have preferred him in nothing but his skin, he would not force Wamba to wait any longer, not after such a gift as he had just given Cedric.
The Saxon contented himself instead with tugging away Wamba’s belt and sliding a greedy hand up over the hot skin of his back. His other tore open Wamba’s trousers and seized him in a sure grip. Wamba’s mouth broke from his on a gasp, His arms tightened around Cedric and he pressed his face to his master’s shoulder, muffling faint whimpers against his body as Cedric stroked him. The Saxon was well practiced in this now. A thumb teasing just so, a well-timed twist, had narrow hips jumping up toward him. It was a matter of minutes to have Wamba trembling on the edge.
“Love you,” he whispered into Cedric’s neck. “Want you.”
“Tomorrow,” Cedric promised him, turning his face to press kisses against Wamba’s flushed cheek. “Tomorrow I shall have you in all the ways you have dreamed, until the only word you can remember is my name.”
That tore a moan from Wamba, loud and sudden as the pulses of heat that spilled over Cedric’s hand as Wamba’s climax ripped through him. His whole body shuddered, hanging on that pleasure for one long moment. Then he collapsed against Cedric, his chest heaving and his arms hanging limp over the Saxon's shoulders. Cedric hitched him closer and wrapped both arms around his spent form while Wamba murmured contented nonsense into his neck.
It was several long minutes before he found the strength to shift himself, bracing his hands against the back of the chair to push himself up. The lopsided smile he gifted Cedric was hazy and impossible not to kiss. So Cedric did, taking him by the chin to hold him firm as he swayed. Wamba hummed a laugh into his mouth.
“What is it that amuses you so?” Cedric asked him.
“I merely wondered whether you would like to reconsider the question of a bath."
Cedric took stock of their disheveled state, the mess of their tangled and soiled garments, and had to admit there was sense to Wamba’s suggestion.
“Only if you will share it with me," he decided.
Wamba smiled, sweet and adoring, and in that moment Cedric wanted nothing more than to always see such peace in him.
“As you wish, my lord."
Warning for consensual m/m sex.
Chapter 2: Autumn 1197
See end notes for chapter warnings (spoilers).
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“She lost the child, my lord.”
The words tumbled over and over in Cedric’s ears, and for one long, confounded moment he could make no sense of them.
She lost the child, my lord.
Meaning took shape slowly, a leaden weight that swelled and sank within him, stirring bitter spiral of deepening agony as it went.
She lost the child.
He reached out blindly with one hand, grasping for something solid to steady him. He found the arm of his chair, and let his body fall down into it just as the strength left his legs.
He had known how it would end, with certain, sickening dread, since the first scream echoed through the keep hours before. It was far too early for a birth. Rowena’s belly was hardly swollen yet. There was never any true hope for the babe after that moment, but some part of him must have kept faith, for the news to cause such despair upon its hearing.
“Are you well, my lord?” The young handmaid peered at him with guileless blue eyes. He did not know her name, but he could no longer bear her presence.
“Leave me,” he ground out.
The girl’s lashes fluttered in surprise. “My lord?”
“Leave!” Cedric barked, slamming his fist down upon the arm of his chair. He turned his fiercest scowl upon her. “And make it known that I am not to be disturbed.”
She cowered away from his wrath, scurrying to make a quick retreat with barely time spared for a curtsy. An icy breath of air gusted into the chamber as the door swung open, bearing upon it the pitiful feminine wailing that echoed through the corridor beyond. Cedric’s heart clenched and fluttered like a bird trapped within his chest. He closed his eyes and ground his teeth against one another until the door closed and that awful sound was dimmed.
Then he tipped his face into his hand and sought desperately to discover some sense in this new tragedy, but there was none to be found. Rowena was dutiful to her husband, for all she had ever been defiant of her guardian, and devout in her observations. What wrong she had committed to earn such repeated heartbreak Cedric could not fathom. Except, perhaps, that it was one more manifestation of the curse upon his own house, doomed to fade into obscurity in an England that had no more use for the relics of its past.
The creak of the door on its hinges disturbed his thoughts, igniting his welling sorrow into a sudden rage, and he did not raise his eyes as he snarled, “I gave orders I was not to be disturbed.”
“Forgive me, my lord,” a subdued voice murmured, very different from that of the fled handmaid. Cedric’s eyes flew open in time witness the door swinging slowly back toward its mate.
“Wait,” he called, short and sharp. “Come inside.”
The door paused, wavering for an uncertain moment. Then it opened again, and Wamba slipped through the narrow gap. He kept his eyes lowered as he closed the door quietly behind him, before he turned and Cedric could see him clearly. His face was ashen, and tears stood in his eyes.
“You’ve heard, then,” Cedric sighed, suddenly unspeakably weary.
“We have all heard.” Wamba approached Cedric on quiet feet, every word and gesture slow with caution. He need not have troubled himself. The mere sight of him was an immediate balm to Cedric, for all his pride would scarce have allowed him to ask for it.
“And what have the servants made of the news?”
“They grieve,” Wamba said, coming to a stop just before him. His dark eyes met Cedric’s, a mirror of the sorrow that hung heavy on Cedric’s own soul. “Your people share this pain with you, and with your family.”
“Little enough family to speak of now,” Cedric said, choking on that bitter truth despite himself. “I have hardly a house left to call such.”
“Your house is great, my lord,” Wamba said, quiet but earnest, and his gaze did not waver from Cedric’s, “rich in honor and in noble reputation.”
Cedric snorted. “And poor in heirs.”
Wamba’s hands lifted, then fell, his face twisted in helpless pain that was unbearable for Cedric to witness, doubled upon his own. Cedric reached for him then, pulling him close until he could close his arms about the young man’s waist and rest his brow in against the narrow chest. Wamba hesitated for only a single heartbeat before his fingers brushed through Cedric’s hair, his arms a warm weight on Cedric’s shoulders as careful hands cradled his master’s head.
To his own horror it was there, safe in that privacy, that Cedric could no longer fight back the bleak thought that plagued him, its claws grown sharper with each babe that was stolen before it had seen the light of day.
“What if this is the end of my line?”
Wamba stilled, and a brief ripple of doubt shuddered through Cedric. He was not in the habit of making Wamba privy to such personal counsel, could scarcely believe he had spoken those desolate words, but the simple truth was that there was no longer any other to whom Cedric could reveal such a private doubt. No other he would dare trust with his pain.
He felt Wamba’s slow indrawn breath, the pulse of his soft voice as he said, “I cannot believe that such a virtuous love as theirs would be fruitless.”
“This is the third time,” Cedric reminded him. He added, bitterly, “It seems the land itself rejects good Saxon blood.”
“Then your legacy will be your deeds,” Wamba said evenly, “and those of your noble son.”
“A pale comfort indeed,” Cedric sighed, closing his eyes again as he rolled his brow against Wamba’s tunic. “What memory will remain of me in an England so wholly transformed?”
“The name you have made for your house and the good you have done for England’s most vulnerable are no small things. You will not be so easily forgotten.”
Cedric’s eyes were growing hot, and he tightened his arms about Wamba, pressing the narrow form closer to him. “Such faith you have in me still, when I have done you the gravest wrongs of any other.”
That was a guilt entirely its own, one shade of the many regrets that Cedric had found with the unclouded sight of an aging man looking back upon his past deeds.
“You did not wrong me, my lord,” Wamba said, holding Cedric more firmly in return.
“How easily you forgive.”
It was nearly unfathomable to Cedric now, how carelessly he had once inflicted such brutalities on Wamba, how he could have chosen to surrender Wamba to the mercy of Rotherwood’s enemies for his own ends. It was a gnawing shame, dwelt upon in quiet hours as Cedric traced the many the scars laced across Wamba’s skin, or watched tears dry on his sleeping face in the wake of yet another nightmare.
“You did not wrong me,” Wamba said again. “Far from it. You kept me, even after I continued to defy you as I did. Still you kept me.”
“Only after I drove you to the brink of madness. How many times did I lay the penalty on you when you did not deserve it?”
“I deserved it, my lord,” Wamba said, low and calm. “I disobeyed you.”
“You could hardly have refused Wilfred the things he asked of you,” Cedric said. “I knew that even then. How many times?”
Wamba did not answer him, though by the quality of his silence Cedric was certain he knew that number. He shifted in Cedric’s arms in what was perhaps a shrug. “I knew why. Every time. That is worth more than you might think. It was certainly more than I could have imagined. Before.”
He did not speak Galen’s name, but he did not need to. He pressed his cheek to the crown of Cedric’s head.
“You gave me a home,” he said quietly. “A place to be safe. To belong. That is something I never dreamed I would have. It is well worth everything that came before.”
Cedric’s heart swelled within him, marveling anew at the strength in that slender body.
“Do you love me, Wamba?” he heard himself ask.
Cedric knew that those words should not bring such comfort as they did. The love of a slave was to be expected, after all, something owed to his master and never in question. Those were the lessons he had learned at his father’s knee. Yet Wamba’s love was precious to him in ways he could not fully put into words. Given without reserve, deep and steady as a great river, rarely did he feel worthy of it. Knowingly or not, he strove now to be the man Wamba believed him to be.
Words crowded his mouth, perched on the tip of his tongue, the words that would free Wamba and allow Cedric to discover whether that love would still be his should those bonds be lifted, whether Wamba could love him as a man as well as a master.
Wamba spoke before he could. “You are a good and just lord. Your people know it. That is why they love you as they do, and grieve with you for this loss. That is why they will rejoice with you when your grandchild is born at last.”
Cedric swallowed the words back down into his throat, forcing out a choked laugh instead. “How wise you have grown.”
Wamba’s chest shook in a weak chuckle. “Perhaps you are more accustomed to hearing my counsel as jest.”
He stepped back from Cedric’s arms, and the Saxon fisted a hand in his tunic to stall the retreat, but Wamba moved only far enough that he could tip up his master’s face with gentle hands a place a soft kiss upon his lips.
“Will you come to bed, my lord?”
It was not an enticement, merely a question, an offer of comfort sorely needed. Yet Cedric realized he had neglected his duty to the one whose hurt was greatest as he wallowed in his own maudlin thoughts.
“Should I console her?” he asked Wamba.
“William is with her,” Wamba said, "and her ladies. I heard that Lord Wilfred will return tomorrow. There is no more to be done tonight.”
So Wamba protected him even now, absolved him of any guilt in seeking his own peace.
“And will you stay with me?” Cedric asked him gruffly.
“Of course, my lord.” Wamba's smile was small and sad, honest. “Of course I will.”
Warning for themes that may be triggering for some readers, including miscarriage.