Illustrated by Rowan Lewgalon
We have finally set out from Constantinople to free the Holy Land of those who attack our pilgrims. I cannot help but think about my beloved Elias and how we had planned to go on this journey together and share the adventure. He is not here; he lies in his tomb in the family chapel in Bavaria. How I wish I could glance over and see him beside me with that smile on his lips that always made my heart race.
Indeed, I think I fell in love with Elias the moment I first saw him. I cannot recall what it was about him, though of course he was a handsome lad. It certainly was not his reception of me as a new squire in his father’s household, for he was resentful and suspicious at first. Perhaps I had a presentiment of what we would come to mean to each other. But that, I suppose, is my story.
My name is Albrecht von Langenzenn. My father, a lesser knight under Emperor Heinrich IV, had sent me to squire for Elias’s father at Winterkirche to advance my chances for position and property. Sigismund was far more prominent in the world of warfare and rank. I had paged for a cousin of my father’s but needed a better opportunity, so at fourteen summers I found myself standing in Winterkirche’s great hall, welcomed warmly by the knight and not so cheerfully by my fellow squire.
I may have been so in awe of the estate that the knight’s welcome seemed all the warmer. Though by no means poor, my own home and that of my cousin did not have the sheer size and grandeur of Winterkirche. Looking about me, I hardly noticed the people as I gawked up and up at the high rafters and the stone walls draped with shields and banners of the ancient family. The immense room was surprisingly warm, the hearth was so huge. I thought I could ride a horse into it. I was so intimidated by the richness of the place that when I let my eyes slide down and look into Sigismund’s face, I was not prepared for the simple kindness of his expression. When he spoke to me I stammered, “Yes, my lord,” not even knowing what I had just affirmed.
It was then I glanced at Elias and saw his smirk. Preoccupied with what the knight was saying, I could not react to the tall boy’s look and only had the chance to turn my attention to him when his father presented me.
“Elias, this is Albrecht, who will squire for me with you. Elias is my only son, and I know he will be glad to have a fellow nearer his own age. Two hands to lighten the work, as they say.”
I looked directly into Elias’s eyes. What I saw was a fellow with a strong chin, as yet unbearded, and a nose too small to be manly though it was straight and elegant. His hair was a soft brown and slightly curly, and his darker brown eyes had depths I knew at once I wished to plumb. I had had experience, you see, of what two boys can do with each other, for my cousin had initiated me into some play that had proved quite stimulating. I knew even at my young age it was something dangerous, so I had been both regretful and relieved to leave my position as page in the household to come here.
I stood looking up into eyes I would have liked to drown in and thought, “Oh God.” Seeing his look of disdain, I must have gone beet red then pale as a ghost, wondering if he saw something in me that disgusted him. “Perhaps,” I thought, “it is for the best.”
“And this is my daughter, Elisabeth, who wants too much to be a boy,” the knight went on.
I looked over at the girl, clearly Elias’s twin with the same nose, chin, mouth and eyes. On her the nose was right but the chin too masculine. Her scowl made it seem the more so. “Oh Father, must you?”
Sigismund smiled at her indulgently and reached out to ruffle her hair, which she wore uncovered but severely drawn back. His touch pulled some of the hair from its constraint. She reached up to smoothe it with a look that spoke of irritation but also some pleasure at the attention. “Don’t listen to him,” she said to me with an attempt at a smile.
I did not meet the knight’s lady for some time after I arrived, as it seemed she was often ill and stayed in her chamber.
Unlike her brother, in the days that followed Elisabeth made an effort to be helpful. Oddly, that was to change when Elias and I became friends, as it was clear Elisabeth began to feel left out. They had always been thick as thieves, those twins, since their father’s duties to the Emperor and their mother’s frequent illnesses threw them together on their own for most of their growing up. I was the first thing to ever come between them.
As I observed, they were much alike, in spite of being boy and girl. They were both tall, and what looked right on one looked wrong on the other. Elias’s nose was too small and girlish, while his strong chin looked wrong on his sister. They shared coloring of hair and eyes as well. The first difference I saw on meeting them besides their garb was that Elias was haughty and Elisabeth eager. I knew immediately that she also saw the difference in their attitudes, and I learned later that she was instrumental in encouraging Elias to be friendlier.
When at long last I met their mother, Adalberta, I was charmed by her Italian beauty and gentleness. She reminded me of a desiccated leaf fallen from its twig about to float away on the wind. I loved to watch her eyes, for though often filled with exhaustion and pain if she did not think anyone was looking, they glowed with love whenever her husband came in sight. I believe her children were more aware of how fragile she was. She hid it from the knight. The twins left her to rest as much as they could, reassuring her when she fretted that she did not spend proper time with them.
I soon learned just how right Sigismund was about his daughter. The girl wished she were a boy. It became clear right away that Elias and I would not be the only students of Sigismund’s sword master. Elisabeth was always there, watching him, learning along with us. She sat on the fence rail and her attention was unwavering. After our lessons she would wait for Elias to teach her everything we had learned that day. I think he started to reconsider when we found that she was as apt a pupil as he, if not more! But I knew she practiced every day whether he was in a mood to help her or not. I had to admire her for that, though by rights she should have been at her mother’s knee learning embroidery and other womanly arts. It was not safe to mention that, however, or you would feel the slap of the wooden sword she was learning to wield.
I had guessed that Elias did not think his father needed two new squires and that he had only taken me on as a favor to my family. Sigismund had a full-fledged squire, after all, in the person of the Silesian Pauvil, whom he would soon knight. Elias was to take Pauvil’s place when he left to try his hand as a knight in the Emperor’s court, though it was unusual for a son to squire for his own father. Perhaps Elias thought his father would send him away to another knight’s court, which is almost what happened. But I am getting ahead of my story.
Whether it was the sister’s influence, my own timidity around Elias, or the boy’s natural decency, he became more companionable as time went on. That I was so much less skilled at our lessons may have had a part in it as well. I never failed but to make Elias look the better pupil.
We three became constant companions when the brother had thawed to my presence. Sigismund was rarely home, so except when the sword master kept us at our lessons, we would wander the Winterkirche estate – the woods, the fields, and even the smaller hamlets. We were competitive, we three, and the sister was as anxious to climb the tallest tree, jump the widest brook, what have you, to show she was more than “just a girl”, as Elias liked to tease her.
I began to hero worship Elias and was very obvious about it, or so I guessed when Elisabeth began to tease us about being in love. My fears were coming to pass, that I would become attached to this boy and that he would be disgusted. I tried to be more reserved, less obvious in my admiration. I wonder if it was her teasing that made Elias realize that he felt something for me as well. After a time, I discovered Elias staring at me with a worried look, saw him turn his face away quickly when he saw I noticed. He was troubled, but not sharing what troubled him.
I met the twins’ friend, a hermitess named Magdalena, at her remote cottage. She was a simple, kindly soul who listened patiently as the twins squabbled and filled her ears with their trivial adventures and worries. She kept looking at me and nodding. I just stared back, unsure what she was thinking. There was something mysterious about her smile, as if she were looking into your heart all the while, and when we left, she would squeeze my shoulder affectionately. Once on the way home, Elias told us he had forgotten something at the cottage and to go on while he went to retrieve it. I couldn’t help but wonder what he talked about alone with her, for when he ran up to walk alongside his sister, his demeanor seemed calmer. He even cast a shy smile at me.
Perhaps I could have ignored the physical attraction growing between us had we not slept alongside each other on pallets in the anteroom of Sigismund’s bedchamber. I would often lie awake, glancing over at Elias, wanting so badly to touch him, but he always slept with his back to me as far to the side of his pallet as he could. He would not speak to me when we lay down to sleep, afraid of what might happen if, naked as we were, we joked and laughed together in the intimacy of the dark. One night, however, I awoke in the early hours to find Elias lying with his back to me as usual, but closer, at the edge of his pallet near to mine. Naked and half asleep, I moved even closer and nestled against him, my knees bent behind his, my arm around his waist, and my awakening erection starting to press against him.
He did not awake at first but only sighed. I let my hand stroke down his belly until it encountered a stiffness like my own. Then he awoke and jerked up to a sitting position. I thought he was going to strike me, but instead he made an anguished sound, got up and ran from the anteroom, hiding his arousal with his hands. I was frozen, terrified of what he would do, of how he would look at me in the morning. I was still hard, so I used my own hand to satisfy myself, weeping silently. I wondered then if that was to be my life at Winterkirche, night after night of regretful tears and spilling into my own hand.
I looked for him when I went to break my fast in the hall. He was there, expansive, joking and making light of some consternation of his sister’s. He looked me straight in the eye. I saw no condemnation, no recall even of what had passed between us, and was relieved beyond imagining. But we no longer lay so close at night. He moved his pallet as far from mine as the small space would allow.
We were not able to hide our arousal all the time, however. The sword master required us to wrestle, and it became more and more difficult to hide the effect that struggling in each other’s grip had on us. The sword master noticed it, too, and told us it would pass. It was in the nature of boys our age to become aroused when wrestling. “Men at war often feel it when the battle joy takes them. So long as all it makes you want to do is seek out the nearest whore, you have nothing to worry about.”
After a year at Winterkirche we got what was happy news for Elias and me but unhappy for his sister. The Emperor was assembling an army to travel into Italia and force Pope Gregory to back down on some dispute. Sigismund was to accompany the Emperor, and he told us we would travel with him as squires in training. Pauvil would take over our lessons. We were so elated that the tension between Elias and me was easier to overlook. The goal of our young lives was about to become reality.
It was indeed exciting. Sigismund summoned all the vassal knights from his lands. They began to gather at Winterkirche, boisterous and ready for a fight. We were busy constantly, not only with Pauvil preparing the Reichritter’s gear, but also helping the other knights wherever we could. We reveled in the camaraderie and the boasting, stories, and sheer warlike bravado. We would be setting out in a fortnight, and Elias and I started punching each other in the arm, acting reckless and, we thought, manly. All worry about sin or being something less than virile fled my mind.
A few days before our departure, Elisabeth came to me and said she was worried about her mother. I made light of her worries and chided her for being jealous. She told me to watch her father. She was right; Sigismund was worried about his wife. Although she did her best to hide it, Lady Adalberta was failing again. She had spells of clumsiness and difficulty walking. On more than one occasion she would drop something she was carrying or suddenly have to put her hand on the edge of a table to keep from stumbling. She laughed at herself for rushing too much. There was a terribly unkind place in me that thought she wanted to get her husband to stay at home, but I knew better. She was doing her best to show her husband she would be fine and he could go, no matter how much she sorrowed at his leaving.
Would Sigismund remain? I was mystified as to what would happen. Elias was beside himself. “He has to go. He can’t tell the Emperor no.” Did he feel guilty for placing his own excitement before his mother’s well being? Though it was selfish of us, we were both relieved when Sigismund swore he would go.
So many gathered at Winterkirche, knights and men at arms, more than I had ever seen in one place. I should have thought the household priest would suffice for the blessing, but indeed the Bishop of Cologne himself was to come to preside. It would be a truly grand event.
Then came the blow. I would go, but his son would remain behind with Lady Adalberta. Elias’s fears when I first joined the household were about to come true; I would usurp his rightful place. His fury was violent. He cursed his father to his face, said many unkind and impious things about his mother, and then turned his rage on me. Sigismund reproached his son for his unknightly behavior and ordered him from the hall. I wanted to follow and reassure him I did not want to supplant him, but his sister put her hand on my arm. “He won’t let Father go without saying goodbye.”
I shot at her, “You just want him to stay behind so you won’t be alone!” She scowled at me, put her nose in the air, and stomped away.
The next two days Sigismund rarely left his lady’s bedchamber. A subdued mood afflicted everyone in the manor. Elias had disappeared. He had been gone for a day and two nights, and the morning we would have to leave was upon us. It hurt to see the knight’s turmoil etched so clearly on his face. I heard him confess to Pauvil that he could neither delay his rendezvous with the Emperor nor could he face leaving without being sure Elias understood his choice.
I stepped forward then and said, “I shall find him, my lord, and bring him back. I will bring him to you.”
He gave me a blessedly grateful look. “Thank you, son. But you must know that if you are not back directly I will have to leave without you.”
I bowed low to him, turned on my heel and went to find a horse.
Elisabeth stopped me in the courtyard. “Let him be. I know Elias better than you ever could. He’ll not thank you for stepping in,” she sneered, “and all the horses are being made ready for the journey, so don’t even ask for one.”
I was as angry as Elias had been. I wanted to slap the look off her face, but I had been taught never to hit a girl, and though I had sparred with our practice weapons with her many times, I made my look my dagger and headed out in search of her brother.
I went to all the places we had frequented on our wanderings: the brook with its stone like a bench, the glade in the forest where we three often raced, the pond where the waterfowl bathed, and finally the hermitess’s cottage. As I approached, I saw someone dash away.
I ran to her. “Was that Elias?” I asked breathlessly.
She put her hands on my heaving shoulders. “Aye, and you must go after him, though you may not be able to persuade him. He has had his heart broken, his dream shattered. Still, I know you of all people can help him if you are patient.”
I stared at her. “I?” All she did was nod.
I did run after him. He had always beaten me in races, but I guessed his direction and cut across the long copse we usually skirted to intercept him. I found him near our glade with his back to a tree trunk, gasping for air. He was blown. He held himself bent forward with his hands on his knees, so he did not see me at first.
“Elias, it is I, Albrecht.”
His head shot up and he glared at me with all the hatred he could summon. I stepped back, shocked and dismayed. “Albrecht,” he said low, with venom, like a curse. “You bastard, I’ll kill you.”
He darted forward, pulling a knife from its sheath on his belt. I reached for my own but did not want to use it, so I put up my arms to show I held no weapon, counting on his honor not to attack me unarmed.
He stopped a few feet away from me and bared his teeth. “You won’t fight me?”
“Not with weapons,” I replied.
He looked at his knife and then threw it aside. He made a low growling noise in his throat. “I can still kill you with my bare hands, you sodomite.”
I was shocked. I had never applied the word to myself.
I stood watching him as he dashed forward. He slammed against me, breast to breast, throwing us both to the ground. “Fight me, damn you!” he cried as I lay passively beneath him. He rose and sat straddling me, his hands balled into fists, his teeth bared, and slobber dripping from his mouth. He let one fist fly and struck me across the mouth, bursting my lip and slamming my head to the side.
My hands were free, so I could lift one to wipe the blood from my lip. He made to hit me again, thinking I had raised my hand to strike him back. Furious and bewildered, he stared at me when he realized I did not intend to resist. I put my arm down again on the meadow grass and waited to see what he would do. “Patience,” I thought. “That’s what the woman said. I can do that.”
Elias was breathing hard, and though his body seemed to relax, his breath did not ease. It stayed deep and hard. He leaned forward and pinned my upper arms down. He leaned in even closer and stopped with his face just above mine. It looked as if he was going to kiss me, and he did. He put his lips to my bleeding lips and pressed against them with all his pent up fury. It hurt horribly, splitting my lip further, but I did not care. I yearned for that kiss. I let my mouth open and he made a feral noise, thrusting his tongue in and stabbing at the back of my throat. He lifted up for a moment, muttered, “God damn you,” then leaned into me again with a tenderer kiss.
We grappled frantically where we lay on the ground; he pressed his hard kisses on me, then lifted his hands from my arms to hold my face and thrust his tongue in deeper, and I let my arms come up and wrap around his neck, holding him in place, telling him how much I wanted him. Neither of us was sure what to do next. All I had ever done with my cousin was rub myself on him. Elias and I had seen barnyard animals coupling and had listened to the stories of bedsport the young knights and squires told, but there was nothing in any of it to instruct us in what two boys could do.
He had been on his knees, straddling me, but now he came forward and let his full weight press down on me. I felt his stiffness pressing my belly, straining against his breeches. Mine was no less rigid. I thought I would explode just from the excitement. He started to rub himself on me. I felt his prick against mine. I moaned. I started pressing up against him, and we rubbed faster and faster against each other. Our embraces became frantic struggles. Soon it was over. We ejaculated quickly, almost at the same time. I cried out, then he, and we collapsed in each other’s arms, panting.
It took me a full minute or more to form any coherent thought. Then the rapture I had felt froze into realization of what we had done. I felt Elias pull away abruptly. I opened my eyes fearing what I would see. I thought he would throttle me, but instead he was up with one elbow crooked, gazing at me. I could not believe the beauty of the smile on his lips. His eyes were shining.
I lifted my arms to him and he came forward and kissed me so tenderly I thought I might weep. I tasted blood on his lips. I pushed him up. “You are covered with blood… did I bite you?”
Elias touched his lips. “No, I’m not cut. This is all your blood.” He looked at me, distressed. “I am so sorry. I hurt you. I didn’t want to. No, I did want to. I wanted to because I… I…” His face became radiant. “I love you, Albrecht.”
Then I did weep. He came to me again and held me, crooning to still my tears. “I love you, Elias. I always have,” I stammered, wanting to assure him that my tears were of joy.
We made love again, slowly, carefully, without the violence of our first embraces. I forgot why I came to the glade. We became a little more self conscious, looked about us to see if we were watched, and though we were sure no one was there, we decided to melt into the trees where we could count on not being found out. Once there, Elias gathered some leafy branches, and I helped him make a soft bed for us. I started to recline on it, but he stopped me. “I want to lie with you naked,” he said urgently.
I was bashful, though we had seen each other naked on many occasions, yet I wanted to please him in every way, so in spite of my embarrassment I began to take off my clothes. My fingers made contact with the padded gambeson I had on underneath my outer clothing, and it all came back in a rush. I had followed Elias to tell him his father was leaving. That I was leaving too. I shook my head, more to shake myself out of the thought, but Elias saw it and started to say something. Resigned, I opened my jerkin and let him see the gambeson. He frowned, looked away, but said nothing. He looked hard into my eyes and reached for his own clothing.
I so wanted to watch him undress, to look full on what I had only surreptitiously spied on before. He pulled open the laces of his shirt baring a chest whose muscles stood out in spite of his youth, and I felt my tongue come out and lick my lips which wanted to trace his strong throat. My breath stuck as he shoved his shirt off his shoulders, baring himself to his waist. His shoulders had broadened, hardened. His collarbone was distinct, shaped like a yew bow, and I thought I would cry out with desire. He reached for the tie of his breeches. My eyes rounded with anticipation. I heard his low chuckle and raised my eyes to his face. His expression was hot and full of need, and I realized he was watching me as hard as I was watching him. I was entirely naked by then and his eyes took in my hardness. It made my prick stiffen further to see his hunger for me. He pushed down his breeches and my eyes snapped back to see what I had never seen before in full engorgement. It was magnificent, standing in its thatch of brown curling hair. I could see his balls beneath, taut with anticipation. He leant forward to take one foot and then the other out of his breeches. I longed for him to turn so I could look at the rest of him. I knew that would come soon enough.
By now I had firmly put my purpose in finding Elias out of my thoughts. I was not going to leave now, of all times, and possibly not see my love for months, even years. But with my hand upon the laces of the brigandine, I opened my mouth to say something. I never did, for Elias reached his own hand to help me hurry the unlacing. The action stopped my speech in my throat.
We stepped closer to each other, starting to touch naked flesh. I let my hand trace his jawline, the soft growth of beard still soft. He put his palms against my chest and circled my nipples with his thumbs, making them stand out. He leaned in to lick each one, and I shuddered. I had my hands on his shoulders now, kneading them and using them to hold me up as well. My knees were getting weak as he let his fingers trace down the center of my belly. I let my own hands slide down his back until they touched the slight curve of his buttocks. He pushed his hips forward, and I felt his prick touch mine. I clasped my hands on the side of his hips. I felt his hand touch my cock and stroke down its length. The feeling of another’s hand on me nearly sent me over the edge. I hesitated to reach for him in the same way for fear it would be all over before we started again. I could not stop myself but brought my hand around to take hold of his shaft. It was stiff and hard and warm in my palm. I could feel its pulse. I may have made some sort of sound in my throat; I do not remember. Before we even got to lie down on the branches we had pleasured one another with our hands. Then we lay down in each other’s arms and through sheer exhaustion fell asleep.
I woke when I heard the horn. “Oh my God, it’s your father. He is leaving. We have to go.” I started up. I thought Elias was still asleep, but his hand shot up and pulled me back down.
“No, stay,” he begged. “Let him go. I’m not ready to face him yet. And I don’t want you to leave.” I looked into his eyes which were moist with unshed tears. “I never want you to leave me.”
I covered his body with kisses. “I will never leave you, my love,” I mumbled between kisses and started to lick here and there. Instinctively I moved farther down his belly and took his prick into my mouth.
He gasped. “What… what are you doing? Oh…”
I could not believe the sensation of having him hard in my mouth. I tasted salt and his musky scent filled my nostrils. I moved my tongue about and felt the contour of his prick. The head was hard as stone, and I tickled the ridge around it with the tip of my tongue. I heard him groan. I tasted the length of the vein that ridged the underside. I pulled up, sucking his length into my mouth. He began to shake. I touched his sac tight up against the base of his cock and he let out a yelp and emptied into my mouth. I drank it all in. I was only sorry he was softening. I wanted him hard in my mouth again.
No doubt Sigismund was riding away from Winterkirche as I did everything I could to taste, to prod, to envelop every part of his son, making sure he and I forgot there were other expectations of us. We spent the day in our woody bower, taking turns, trying everything we could think of, sleeping a short while in each other’s arms, and talking gentle words of love and chuckled suggestions of what more we could do to delight each other.
We had become too hungry to stay any longer. “I don’t want to leave here,” Elias said.
I knew how he felt. I realized I had not told Elias his father’s warning that he could not wait any longer, and I understood why not. “Elias, I have to tell you something,” I began.
He looked away. Biting his lower lip he said sadly, “I know. They’ve gone. I heard the horns.”
I took his shoulders and turned him back toward me. “But you said nothing?”
We gazed into each other’s eyes. Elias shrugged and said, “We’ll catch hell when he comes back.” We didn’t know then that the Lombards would block the imperial army from returning to Germany and it would be years until we saw him again.
We walked back to Winterkirche trying to figure out what to tell Elias’s people when we got there. He said, “Let’s go see Magdalena.”
“Why her?” I asked. “Is she good at making up excuses?”
He blushed. “I don’t know. But she knows, I mean, she knows I’m in love with you.”
I stopped dead in my tracks. “How?”
“I told her. A long time ago.”
“You told her, but you didn’t tell me?”
He gave me a shamefaced look. “I was afraid.”
I stared at him. “What did she say?”
Elias’s face was serene as he thought about it. “She said love is love.”
“She said that?”
“And she said never to tell another soul as long as I live. If anyone found out, they would put us to death.”
He stopped. I did, too, and then I went into his arms. We held each other.
He lifted his head and looked down into my face. “Don’t worry. We will find a way to live.”
I sought assurance from his smile. “Will we?”
He nodded. “We have our whole lives together.”
When I think of that moment, I cannot hold back the tears, even after all this time. “Our whole lives,” he said. How short it turned out to be.
© 2011 Nan Hawthorne
[ Note: The characters in this story are drawn from Nan Hawthorne’s novel Beloved Pilgrim, which tells how Elisabeth von Winterkirche joined the doomed Crusade of 1101 disguised as her late twin brother. Beloved Pilgrim is available in print and Kindle format at Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk and Smashwords.]