Kent, England 1820
Ben stood at rigid attention trying not to make any sound that would draw attention to himself. His heartbeat thundered in his ears, and though cool air blew in through the casement, sweat was pooling in the small of his back and beneath his arms, making his shirt stick to his body. He strained every sense, listening, and watching. Watching the moonlit road as it wound like a ribbon in the moonlight over the purple moor; listening for the sound of the hoofbeats he dreaded most to hear.
He had writhed for a long time against the ropes which bound him hand and foot, upright in snake-like coils, trussed up like a pot-ready fowl, to the post at the foot of his own narrow bed. All the while, he was aware of the cold metal of the loaded musket tied upended against him, the barrel digging into his breast. If he looked down he could see the dark opening waiting to fire a bullet into his jaw and through his head. It is at times like these, Ben thought, a person would be inclined to wonder how he got into this situation in the first place.
He looked over the heads of the two men kneeling, concealed but ready, by his window, out into the dark night and down the road where his lover would ride. Returning, he would find the old inn barred and shuttered for the night. And he would find hell waiting for him at this one dark opening.
It had only been a scant month since he had first seen the tall, dark, handsome stranger across the tap room at the King’s Head. But in that month, he had lived more than in all his previous nineteen years upon this earth. If he were to die to night, as it looked as though he would, he would not regret a moment of that time. From the first time he had seen the man in the parlor…
* * * *
That night there had been a party of drovers at the inn, and at first, Ben had not noticed the stranger in the nook by the fireplace. Once spotted though, the man caught all of his attention; so different was he from the usual local or passing trade. He had been daydreaming when a cuff to the top of his head brought him back to reality.
“Stop your mooning and get out there with those jugs.” The voice held more exasperation than anger, and he knew his father was harried that night. The King’s Head Inn was busier than usual, and he had been called into service by his father to wait on tables.
The young man liked the bustle of the old inn but Bess, the busty serving wench, was a better draw to the customers than the landlord’s black-eyed son. Bess would flirt with the customers, knew when to twitch away from the more grabby ones, and could lay out the ones who got out of hand with a punch. He was more often kept in the background. Being rather short and slight even for his age, he was less able to hold his own if things got rowdy, as they were apt to do at a country inn when there were drovers passing by with their cattle for market.
He took up his tray of tankards and wove through the tables, depositing drinks as he went. A few catcalls came his way from the more merry customers, but most of them were calls of disappointment that he was not Bess.
His path took him close to the nook where the stranger was sitting half in shadow with only his long legs, encased in thigh high black boots, visible. As Ben passed by the recess, the man leaned forward for a moment, and the firelight caught his face. He managed a swift glance and took in the view he was afforded. It was all he could have hoped for, and more, when he had gaped at the customer from the head of the cellar steps.
He wore a French cocked hat low on his forehead and a bunch of lace at his chin. On his broad shoulders was a coat of claret velvet, and he wore breeches of brown doeskin. The fire’s glow caught at several points upon the stranger: his pistol butts, rapier hilt, but more so something in the man’s face—a jeweled twinkle in his eyes, and those eyes were looking straight at Ben.
Predictably he tripped and sent his now empty tray flying high to catch a man, more than a little drunk, in the back of the neck. All those who had seen him trip and its aftermath laughed heartily, and the bruised man’s companions most of all. The drunk rubbed the back of his neck looking around for whence the blow had been delivered as if he was concerned his wife had caught him. The traveler who had been the unwitting cause of the commotion came for a moment from his semi-concealment and put a large, calloused hand to Ben’s shoulder to help him up.
“Are you hurt?” The voice was more cultured than the usual denizens of the King’s Head.
He picked himself up with the help of his rescuer. “No, sir,” he managed to reply before a closer look into the man’s face robbed him of words and breath to voice them. He was as handsome as the devil himself. His eyes were the purple of the moorlands surrounding the inn, his features strong. His chin was close shaven, strong, and masculine. Full, sensual lips were now tilted a little upward as though with mirth. The hair visible from beneath the hat was dark, and several strands fell loose about his face from the bow at his nape. He looked to be in his mid-thirties, strong, and virile in his masculinity.
Ben nearly fell again but was hauled to his feet and set, less than steady, upon his way. He managed to somehow find his way back to the bar and then realized he had left his tray out in the sea of men. He turned back to retrace his steps, and the tray was thrown to him with some good-natured jeering. The nook was empty.
He was kept busy all the rest of that evening serving the men in the parlor until closing time was called. Then there was the business of washing tankards and cleaning tables. It was not until he was wielding a brush around the floors that he had time to think upon the stranger again. His thoughts ran over their brief encounter. He recalled the big strong hand that had grasped him, and Ben felt his member becoming as stiff as the broom handle in his hands. As there was no one to see him, he pressed against his hardness and wondered what it would feel like to have the fascinating stranger touch him there.
He already knew he was an oddity. Black eyes and uncontrollable black hair, inherited from his gypsy mother, set him a little apart from the more common looks of the countrymen. His father was big and blond and hearty, and all the things his son was not. The inn keeper had an easy way with men and women alike and seemed to hold no resentment toward Ben’s mother who had vanished into the night with almost as much speed as she had arrived from it.
“There was no holding her,” his father had said one rare night when he was in a talkative mood. “She was a wild thing and not to be held. I count myself lucky I had her for the time I did. She came out of the moors, and she went back to them I’m thinking.”
Later, alone in his small bedroom, he conjured up a picture of the mother he could barely remember. As he looked into the cracked glass above his washbasin, he imagined her with her black eyes; her black hair longer than his own and curling in profusion about her milk white shoulders. Whereas his face was thin and pale, hers would be round and rosy. His lips, plump and red, would look so much better in her face. He could picture her plaiting a dark red love knot into her long black hair. It was possible she had used this very glass herself. Maybe she would come back one day, and they would be a family again. Or she might come back and take Ben with her onto the moors, behind the high tor and into the fairy realms.
The ostler, Tom, had greeted his shy sharing of this dream with hearty laughter. Ben had never offered any other insights again. The older man had gone on to say he must be a changeling child, and for a long while, he had believed him. He knew he did not fit in—his looks alone would have told him that—but there were his feelings too. Tom would whistle after Bess and make lewd comments about her undoubted attributes and how he would like to give her a tumble some night. He liked Bess but found no appeal in the feminine wiles of his father’s bar maid. Rather, he looked at some of the men who came to the inn and turned his face away, ashamed they might catch him looking and read the misplaced longing in his eyes, the unnatural desire.
So at nineteen, wistful, and virginal, Ben caught sight of the stranger that night at the inn, and all his desires and unspoken longings coalesced into painful yearning.
“If daydreaming filled the barrels, I wouldn’t have a cellar big enough to hold them.”
“Nay lad. Don’t look at me with those eyes.” His father ruffled the head he had just struck. “I’ve still a heart to be broken. Get upstairs with you, there’s a man in room three who wants hot water, and the kettle’s just boiled. Take it up to him and try not to drop it on the way.”
“Yes, Dad.” Ben nodded as he went to the kitchen at the back of the bar. Guests were infrequent, but he liked it when they did have travelers stay overnight, even if it was just drovers, men with their strange Welsh accents driving their cattle to the port. Lone riders on horseback were their main guests as well as the occasional coach party. Sometimes they would take the time to talk to him for a moment. Also it meant a new horse or two in the stables, and he did love to see the new horses.
The kettle was singing softly to itself from its place over the fire in the peaceful kitchen when he walked in. The large tabby cat, who looked like it was trying to singe its fur at the coals, opened a lazy eye, saw who it was, and promptly went back to sleep again. Ben swung the kettle on its lever away from the fire. Taking up a thick cloth, he set a jug in place and tipped the big heavy kettle on its hook-over so the pitcher filled with steaming water. Letting the vessel right itself, he fetched a towel and laid it over the jug’s steaming mouth before hefting it and then making his way through the now quiet inn to the upstairs rooms.
He was always enchanted by how the inn, so homey in the sunlight of the day and busy in the evenings, could become quiet after the night’s other drinkers had departed. On a typical night there was only his father busy in the cellars, and Bess retired to her own attic room, probably sleeping in peace after a day of hard work. In the yard, Tom would be abed too; his cot above the stables while below him, the horses would be moving softly in their stalls as the cat went about her nocturnal hunting.
At night the inn seemed a hushed, brooding place, the building emitting creaks and groans as it settled upon its old bones. It had once been a more prosperous place with plenty of travelers taking rooms, unlike just the one they had this night. When coaches to Dover used to stop here, there had been three serving maids and another man behind the bar with his father. The revolution in France had cut down the amount of more wealthy travelers heading to the port, and those who did travel preferred the newer road to the east. Now the inn stood in its moorland surroundings and seemed to dwell on nights of times past.
His father had put their guest in the farthest room from the public rooms. He was glad of the moonlight shining through the windows at each end of the corridor to light his way, though he knew this inn, every in and out and nook and cranny, like it was his best and dearest friend.
He gained the end room and could see by the sliver of lamplight illuminating the corridor from beneath the door, their guest was in residence there. He tapped timidly and pushed the door open with his back, holding the heavy jug in both hands.
“Your water, sir,” he said, moving to the heavy table which served as a washstand for travelers. He set the pitcher upon it and asked, “Do you want me to fill the basin?”
He heard the door close and snick upon its catch as he turned around to face the inn’s guest.
The stranger from the nook stood by the side of the bed, stark naked, wearing a smile that curled Ben’s bare toes on the floorboards.
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