"Oh, Peg, don't go."
William Shakespeare grabbed the serving wench as she was about to evade his grasping hands. He pulled her down onto his lap, letting her feel his growing arousal. Peg giggled and began to move about on his lap, increasing the arousal.
His friend and rival Christopher Marlowe was determined not to be left out. After all, he claimed, in his famed silvery voice, he had been the one to first lay eyes on the lovely Peg, as she walked into the room. Some gentle persuasion had proved sufficient to make the landlord agree to letting Peg, instead of his Junoesque wife, serve the two young men.
Kit leaned across the table and worked his charms on the wench, who proved as susceptible to the other player's allure.
From then on, matters progressed at a satisfactory pace, and before half an hour was past, the two friends and their companion for the evening, ascended the stairs to their hastily found accommodations above the serving room.
Playfully chasing Peg around, Will and Kit attempted to corner her and carry her off in a latter-day reinactment of the Rape of the Sabines. All pleasantly accompanied by the delighted screeches and laughter by their intended quarry.
Once caught, Peg proved rather more willing to be abducted and placed on the bed, than the ancient ladies.
Kit had already lain claim to the inner half of the bed, and was reclining comfortably, arms stretched out, awaiting his prey. As he proceeded to mercilessly tickle his victim, Will moved in from the other side, intent on removing such garments as might have impeded his progress.
At last, Peg lay prone, on her back, legs spread wide apart, and Will moved in for the object of his quest. However, at that moment, a flea happened to emerge from the general direction of Will's explorations. He paused, a look of distaste on his face.
Granted, he was not unfamiliar with the prolific creatures, but somehow this rude intrusion made him pause. Now that his attention was caught, he could not help but notice that the creature had a family and that furthermore, Peg, who a moment ago had seemed so tempting, appeared to be rather more begrimed than Will was used to.
While his friend was lost in contemplation of the voluminous mounds further up, Will retreated to ponder the exploit in progress.
Peg's giggles ceased and she spied her other suitor sitting passively at her feet.
Thoughtlessly, Will made a jest about her colony of creatures and Peg, whose red curls did not come without the wonted temper, spat a curse at him.
Before Will could make amends, Peg was gone, in a flutter of petticoats.
Kit glared at his friend, an aggravated look on his face.
"You nitwit, there goes our Aphrodite. Behold my predicament."
His temper set alight, Kit brandished his erect member to his friend.
Will did behold and doing so, leaned closer. Kit had resigned himself to his fate and rolled over on his back, prepared to seek comfort in sleep. When he perceived what was afoot he started.
His friend had reached out a hand which was now applying itself to the undertaking, far more skillful than most serving wenches, Kit was forced to conclude. He opened his mouth to tell Will to leave it be, but was struck dumb by the masterly execution of the deed. Eyes closed, enraptured, Kit gave himself up to the pleasure.
His eyes sprang open, as he became aware of a different, yet more satsifying sensation. Though he had known Will for several years, he had never thought to feel his soft auburn hair tickle his loins. His arousal mounted and he gave up any half-hearted idea he had had of asking Will to desist.
Matters progressed to their inevitable conclusion and Kit shot his seed in Will's face. Soon after, both drifted off to sleep.
When morning came, Kit found Will awake and watching him intently. His friend's gaze disturbed him. In it could be read all manner of emotions, all of them foolish.
Gently, Kit tried to reason with his friend.
Kit sighed. Will's voice was thick with emotion, yet bright with cheer. This could not be. The night before, their wits had been muddled by too much drink. When Peg had departed with such bad grace, Kit knew he had been beyond reason. In the harsh light of day, his actions revealed themselves as ill advised and foolish. He did not wish to cause Will distress, yet what had passed between them could not, should not continue.
"My friend - last night -"
Will smiled so joyously, Kit found it hard to go on, but go on he must, or risk causing his friend untold misery.
"Last night was folly."
Will considered Kit's statement, then nodded.
"That may be so, yet is not all love folly? There is none greater."
"Granted, but Will, you and are friends, nay brothers. Is that not enough?"
Will's smile faltered. At last he was beginning to see what Kit had been attempting to tell him. It felt as a cold shower, after a day of warm sunlight. Kit did not share his elation over what they'd shared. A sudden chill came over him and he averted his face from his friend, intent only on flight.
Will began to look around for shirt and breeches. Having found them, he rose and began to walk away. He did not now bear Kit any grudge, how could he? Did he not know how easily love's flame was kindled in one but not another of a pair? Yet, for all his prowess as playwright, he could not find the words to express his feelings, and thus all he wanted was a quick flight.
Kit, sensing his friend's distress, felt even more wretched.
Will's throat was dry, but in the doorway he stopped, glanced over his shoulder at Kit, now sitting bolt upright, hair tousled and chest bare. The look in his eyes was gentle, but Will did not want Kit's pity.
"Enough. You made yourself clear. I see. Let us speak no more of this matter."
And without waiting for a reply, Will fled.
For a while, they did not see each other again, but though Will had found London titanic when he had first arrived from Stratford, eyes wide and mouth agape, he now found that as he and Kit belonged to the same crowd, it now seemed a mere village. Try as he might, he could not seek to avoid Kit for long, unless he chose to remain at his lodgings. As he had known already, that did not help for long.
And while hampered by what stood between them, their friendship continued, albeit less enthusiastic. Thus freed from the constraint of too much affection, Will set his mind to emulate his masterly colleague.
At some point, Will began to feel a certain frustration. It seemed that despite all his hard work, he was doomed to spend his life contending with Kit, yet never to reach his lofty heights. It irked him, as he felt his oeuvre had still not reached its potential.
As another year went by, he found himself dwelling on such thoughts more and more. In the meantime, he had his patron, the young Henry Wriothesly, Earl of Southampton.
Strictly speaking, it was Harry's mother who had commissioned Will to write a set of love sonnets for Harry's betrothed, but it was soon clear that no marriage would ever take place. Harry did not delight in the charms of the gentler sex.
By then, Harry had attached himself to Will and since Will sorely needed the pecuniary support of a man such as Harry, he reluctantly placed his pen and his own self at Harry's disposal.
Part of Will relished the opportunity to show Kit that far from pining for him, he was sharing another man's bed.
He knew Harry was deeply entangled in the perilous politics of Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, but as a playwright and actor, he did not greatly ponder the intricacies of such endeavours. What did such matters concern him?
Kit, whose affection for Will had not changed, watched these developments with increasing concern. Much as he sympathized with his friend for seeking the support of a wealthy patron, he deplored Will's shameful servitude to a man of such ill repute.
Himself madly in love with Essex, Harry did not view Will's attachment to Marlowe favourably. He sensed that Marlowe did not share his stance on Essex's politics, and furthermore, Harry was a young man who jealously guarded his possessions. He did not love Will, yet could not bear Will's affection for Marlowe.
As he could not control Marlowe, he took to playfully tormenting Will, at any opportunity. This cruel sport took various forms. At times he merely used his sharp tongue to needle Will, at others, he delighted in inflicting physical pain on his slave.
Harry kept many dwellings in London, most not in his own name. One of his homes was in a part of the city, not far from an inn much frequented by players. This was not due to chance. In the past, even from a young age, Harry had sought out lovers from the stage.
One night, he commanded Will's presence. At the time, Will was deeply into another work, one not commissioned by Harry, but one more dear to his heart. With regret he put his pen aside and prepared himself for yet another night of debauchery. He was no stranger to other men's beds, but Harry's unnatural pursuits turned Will's stomach. However, he knew well he had no choice but to heed his patron and master's call.
When he arrived to find not only Harry but three of his degenerate friends, he began to despair. These made sport of him, in ways Will tried hard to forget, in between meetings. With a heavy heart, he prepared to let himself be used.
Harry regarded him coldly.
"You are late. My friends and I have waited for well-nigh an hour."
"My lord, I -"
"No matter. You are here now."
Harry's smile did nothing to reassure Will. In response to Harry's imperious gesture, Will sat down at the table. The other three were drinking and conversing, and did not to any great extent acknowledge Will's arrival. Harry pressed a filled wine glass into Will's hand and gestured for him to drink.
The wine tasted oddly and Will knew this meant Harry had added some drug to render his plaything more pliable. Taking care to at least eat something, to counteract the poison's effect on an empty stomach, Will sat, tensely, awaiting Harry's next command.
Before long, Harry restlessly sprang up and claiming fatigue, stretched out on the bed. Recognizing this as his cue, Will followed meekly and likewise lay down on the bed. He had never seen such a large bed. It must have been bought specifically for such orgies as Harry had in mind.
It did not take the other three long to join their host there.
Mercifully, the following hours were but a blur in Will's memory, but he could recall enough that waves of nausea tormented him, if indeed it was not simply the aftereffects of the drug. His body was aching and he felt the sting of dozens of new cuts and wounds. None serious, he determined.
Harry and his friends were nowhere to be seen. Will took this as permission to absent himself and he began to look around for his clothes. Having found them, he made his way down the stairs and from thence outside. He stopped and coughed to clear his throat, then spat. There was a vile taste in his mouth and he felt soiled as never before. He decided to seek out one of the bathhouses.
It was late in the afternoon and the sun was already low in the sky. People were beginning to seek out taverns and inns in search of sustenance. Will had no appetite and began to make his way towards the nearest bathhouse.
He kept his eyes averted from the people he passed, and thus did not spy Marlowe until he was upon him. Marlowe was on his way to a certain tavern, for reasons of his own, but when he caught sight of Will he was startled and saddened. He had rarely seen Will this wretched.
Placing his hand on Will's arm, he attempted to make his friend stop and face him. Something about Will's bearing suggested to Marlowe this was more than the mere aftereffects of a night of drinking.
Kit was the last person Will wished to see on this day and in this place of all places and he made as if to elude his friend's grasp and escape, to find a solitary haven to recuperate and to try and regain a shred of self-respect.
Kit would have none of it. Not listening to Will's protests or even releasing his grip on his friend's shoulder, Kit steered him towards the tavern. Knowing the landlord, Kit was able to secure for them a private room.
"What is amiss?"
"Nought is amiss. I was merely on my way to -"
"Come now, Will. We both know there is only one reason why you would seek out this part of town. Desist. I shall not ask what he had you do this time. But - forgive me for saying this - you do not look well. Are you injured? Ill?"
"Leave me be."
Will hesitated. This meeting was loathsome to him. To find himself facing Kit of all people, right after a night of such debauchery filled him with shame. He wished to push back the chair, burst outside and run never to set eyes on his friend again, yet - how could he? The sight of Kit still filled him with the same yearning.
"I do not know. It was something in the wine."
Kit nodded. He did not believe that was all. Will's bearing told a different story. His friend was in pain. The question was, how badly had Southampton hurt him this time?
"Will - did he -"
Will felt his face colour as he grasped the import of Kit's words. It was insufferable that he should be forced to endure such depravity at Harry's hands, and as this was inescapable, even more so that Kit should know. At this moment, he wished himself anywhere but in this room, or that Kit did not feel such affection for him - or that he himself did not still harbour such tender emotions for his friend.
"Nothing more than usual."
Kit pondered this awhile, then nodded. Will felt slightly relieved. Perhaps his friend would at last leave him be.
To his amazement and dismay, Kit swiftly leaned over the table, forcibly pulled off his jacket, then unbuttoned the shirt and pulled it down over his shoulders. No blood seeped from the cuts, but their multitude must have stunned Kit. Will deduced as much from the sound of his friend's indrawn breath.
For a while, neither man said anything, but the implications Kit's discovery hung heavily in the air between them.
When Kit spoke at last, he put much effort into affecting a light tone, which rapidly turned to pleading as he went on speaking.
"I see. Not welts, knife cuts. Will, can you not see what he has done to you? What he is doing to you time and time again? Knife cuts. Drugs. What next? He is insane and if his perversions will not kill you, his politics will. I - my patrons are - they choose to remain incognito, but - I might - if you will let me, I will ask them to -"
Embarrassed, Will began to rearrange his clothing, in an attempt to regain a little of his dignity. This was intolerable. That Kit, who did not return his feelings, should condescend to him and offer to -
"I see. You can not bear to see me serve another master, you will have me serve you and your - unknown masters instead."
He had not meant his words to sting thus, but feeling at such a disadvantage, Will lashed out instinctively. How could he defend his shameful servitude to a man without honour, such as Harry? Yet, how could he bear to humble himself before the man who had scorned his love for him and was now offering him the affection a man could lavish on a spaniel?
"Will, you know I did not mean -"
Abruptly, Will stood, poised for flight, yet the while tempted to throw his dignity aside and seek comfort in Kit's arms, for a brief moment, almost willing to accept Kit's terms, after all, heedless of how painful it would be. Yet, even now, Will was painfully aware that his feelings could not and would never be returned.
The moment passed and gravely, Kit was forced to watch his friend walk away, with such distress imprinted on his features, Kit, who was no emotional man at heart, had to bite his lip to hold back the cry of supplication.
The memory of that moment was to haunt Will for years to come. It seemed to him that he had had a choice - one course of action or another, and he had failed. He had made his choice and from then on, his feelings for Kit could not but turn to bitterness and from thence to hate. Love he could not have. Very well, he would settle for pride and achievement.
From that day forward, Will became obsessed with emulating Kit. If his love was lost to him, he would at least demand his respect.
Feverishly, and more than a little dependent now on the drugs Harry provided, Will began to work tirelessly towards that goal. Food and sleep meant little to him and only Harry's summons or rehearsals could make him leave his small chamber.
One night, he found that once again, his muse had abandoned him. This happened more frequently, now that he could not get through a single night without something other than his own wits to sustain him. Harry had proved willing to provide him with the vials containing the tonic which held Will afloat.
Restlessly, Will prowled back and forth across the floor. Ink stained his face and hands, and truth to tell, also his shirt, but not another word could be coaxed from his pen. Yet the script had come along so nicely at first. He was well into the third act, when suddenly, his words had failed him.
Dejectly, Will sank down on his bed, burying his face in his hands. A slight noise made him look up. It was as if a door had creaked, yet when he looked around, nought appeared to be amiss. He scanned the room, squinting in the feeble light, that did little to dispel the deep shadows that nested in the corners of the room. Nothing, or was that not a slight draught? The window did not open and while this did not always keep out the draught, tonight was calm and as quiet as the nights ever were in London.
Will abandoned the attempt to write. Instead, his mind began to dwell miserably on his situation. Why could he not do better than Kit? Will knew he had more in him, yet he found it so hard to set it free. In his misery, he took to blaming Kit. If Kit had not spurned him, if Kit had not berated him for his dealings with Harry - would he not be successful by now?
In the darkest recesses of his mind, Will blamed Kit for all the disappointments in his life: for his failed marriage, for his dependence on Harry, for his mediocrity as a player and a playwright. It did not take Will long, in this state of mind, to work himself into a frenzy of anger and despair.
By now, he was raving and ranting, speaking his accusations aloud, into the darkness of his room.
"Why can I not succeed? Will I ever surpass Marlowe? If only - I wish - I wish -"
Impotently, he waved his fists in the air.
He stopped short of speaking the words out loud, but he knew he had been thinking them. If there was no Marlowe. I wish he were - Even in his mind, Will shied away from such a thought. He was, normally, a gentle, mild-mannered man and still, despite everything, he could not find it in his heart to stop loving Kit. Loving and hating at the same time.
Again, there was a slight noise and to Will's alarm, he now beheld a ghostly figure of a woman, shrouded in darkness. The apparition spoke, or seemed to speak, but afterwards, Will knew not if he had heard it speak out loud or if the words had merely formed inside his mind.
"Success will come. You will surpass Marlowe. His name shall be all but forgotten."
Or had no such words been spoken? The second Will perceived those words, struck with terror, he fell into a stupour, not waking until the light of day was coming through the windowpane.
Uneasily, Will searched the room, but found no proof anyone had been there in the night. Filled with misgivings, he dressed and combed his hair, then left the room, suddenly craving the sunlight and fresh air of the outdoors.
Though his first impulse was to seek Kit out, he found he could not do it. Besides, when he asked around, nobody had seen Kit for days.
Anxiously, he began to look for Kit in all the places he was wont to frequent. However, Marlowe was nowhere to be found.
Reluctantly, Will returned to his work, played his roles and spent hours seeking the right words for his play, then when Southampton sent for him, once again submitted to the young man's sport.
He knew Kit had been right. It was but a matter of time, before Harry tired of his plaything and what then? Will had caught glimpses of cruelty in Harry's eyes. It did not seem inconceivable that he should harbour a wish to kill.
But at this point, Will worried little about himself. Kit's safety weighed more heavily on his mind, but he could not find his friend and when the news came, about his death, Will was not surprised. It had seemed inevitable, the way it sometimes is in a dream, an incubus which haunts the mind even in the light of day.
Kit's death seemed at first glance trivial. A tavern brawl escalated beyond control. Yet Will could not shake the conviction that he had somehow been resonsible for his friend's death. His mind kept returning to that night, when in his desperation, he had spoken those rash words. He had not meant them seriously and even as he heard himself say them, he had regretted them. Never more so than now.
That dark lady - had she existed? If so, who was she? Living creature or evil spirit? Was she - this thought had seized a hold on Will and once awakened, could not be dispelled - was she in truth Harry, come to play yet another cruel game with his pawn?
Harry, while no actor, had a fondness for playing dressup. Appearing as a woman, was one of his favourite tricks. Thus he had once attended a party given by his friend Essex, and while he had not dared make himself known to Essex himself, he had followed one of Essex's retainers outside and kneeled before him and served him as any common whore.
If for some unknown reason, Harry had wished to haunt Will's room at night, in the guise of a woman, he would have found no difficulty doing so. In body, if not in mind, Harry was delicate and fine-featured and to his mother's chagrin, was girlish, rather than boyish.
Had he heard Will's words and somehow, with Essex's help or otherwise, caused Kit's death? Will knew there were aspects of Kit's life to which he had no access. Kit's disapproval of Harry, for his involvement with Essex, could it not hide more than concern for a friend? That day, when he'd met Kit coming from Harry's house and the night of perversions, he had referred to those secrets in passing, but Will had not paid heed and now, he was sure he would never know.
But brooding did not help and Will could find no answers no matter how hard he tried. In the end, he was forced to let them go.
Forever afterwards, whenever his mind chanced to return to Marlowe, his thoughts were tinged with guilt.
The joy of working in London had faded. An outbreak of the plague made him seek refuge in the countryside and one day, a letter from his estranged wife Anne, arrived, bearing such heart-breaking news, he left everything and returned to Stratford.
He arrived too late to see his son once more and even, despite his haste, too late to attend the beloved child's funeral. Too late. Would he ever be too late? He had lost Kit, his ambitions for the future had turned to ashes in his hands and now - his son, his future, his immortality, was gone too. Was he to be forever cursed?
He found Anne aged. She was stooped and when once she'd been plump, she was now thin and wasted. The years of toiling on her own, without a husband by her side, had marked her. This sight filled Will with shame.
Her erstwhile sharp temper had softened and despite everything, she greeted him affectionately. She showed him Hamnet's grave and stood with him as he grieved, head bowed, wringing his hands impotently.
Once back at the house, he could not think of leaving. Despite all he had lost, he still had Anne and the girls. It was especially painful to behold Judith, Hamnet's twin. Neither child remembered her father and at first they were shy of him.
Silently, Will vowed to himself never to stray from his family again. What had his life in London given him? He'd been demeaned and debased and at the end of it all, he had nothing or close to nothing. From now on, he determined he would be a better husband, a better father and - if only in memory of Kit - a better playwright.
He knew not if he would ever surpass Kit's prowess, but it no longer mattered. All he could do was his best. If that was not enough, he did not deserve fame. If it came to him, he knew success would only taste like ashes in his mouth.