M/M sex, spanking. If the idea of a relationship between adult men that includes discipline offends you, so will this story.



How the smallpox made its deadly way from place to place, no one knew. It struck one cluster of victims here, another cluster of victims there. To some death came quickly, to some it came slowly and only after great pain.

Thomas's cook was the estate's first casualty. Rudolph said nothing when Thomas told him the news, but within moments he vanished from the house. Thomas tracked him to the stables, only to learn he had already taken a horse and gone. Thomas considered riding after him, but he hadn't a clue as to where Rudolph had headed.

"Send a boy to find me when they get back," Thomas told the stable master. He returned to the house and tried without success to focus on his accounts. He was relieved when a stable boy came to fetch him in accordance with his instructions.

Thomas went quickly to the stable, but Rudolph was already gone and his heavily lathered mount was being walked by one of the grooms. Thomas waited until the horse stopped blowing and then he and the groom went over the tired animal carefully. His flanks were scraped, but his legs were sound, and both men were relieved that no real damage had been done. Leaving the stallion in his groom's capable hands, Thomas went in search of Rudolph. He took a riding whip with him.

Thomas found Rudolph outside the chapel, seated on a stone bench. Rudolph's eyes were fixed on the distance and he didn't seem to notice the whip Thomas was carrying. Thomas sat down next to Rudolph and took Rudolph's hand in his own.

"Why are you sitting here alone? You are ice cold, Rudolph."

"I am sick, Thomas." Rudolph's voice was hoarse.

"You are sad," Thomas corrected him, knowing how Rudolph inevitably transformed emotion into physical terms. "You grieve for our cook. You are sad because he favored you and you valued his thoughtfulness and you regret his death. You are sad, Rudy. It is how we feel when someone we care for dies."

"Do you remember the sweet rolls and custards he would make for me? The small succulent trout and the tender cubes of lamb?"

"I do." Thomas held Rudolph's hand, chafing his cold fingers gently, ignoring Rudolph's distance and lack of response. It took awhile, but gradually Rudolph's stiff posture softened in the warmth of Thomas's kindness.

"He is dead," Rudolph said harshly. "It is rank sentiment to cry over him. I have become foolish and it is your fault, Thomas."

"You are no fool, and as for sentiment, it is a laudable quality," Thomas murmured sympathetically. "Nonetheless, I am unhappy with your risking your neck and my horse's limbs. I want to speak with you back at the house, upstairs."

"Yes, Thomas," Rudolph said resignedly.


Thomas tugged Rudolph to his feet and wrapped his arms around him in a tight embrace. Rudolph dropped his head to Thomas's shoulder and let himself be held for a brief moment before pulling away. He swallowed hard as he caught sight of the whip Thomas had laid beside them on the bench and flinched as Thomas picked it up. Nevertheless he followed Thomas obediently as he led the way back the house and through to his bedchamber. Closing the door behind them, Thomas seated himself on the bed and patted the mattress alongside him. Rudolph sat down.

"I know this is a difficult passage for you," Thomas said. "Yet injuring yourself will not make it easier. I forbid you to ride out like that again. From now on you are to tell me when you wish to ride and which horse you wish to take. I will decide if you may or may not do so."

"Please, Thomas, do not beat me!" Rudolph twisted so that he was curled into Thomas. "I'm sorry!"

"Shh." Thomas eased Rudolph back so that he could see his face. "Shh. Your intemperate actions concern me, Rudy. I do not like to punish you, but you must learn to show some caution. I do not wish to lose you, Rudy."

"Please Thomas, I beg of you, be merciful." Rudolph eyed the whip nervously.

"That you feel you need ask this troubles me." Thomas frowned. "Have I been too severe in the past?"

"No, Thomas, but I do not feel well," Rudolph said softly. "My head hurts and I am nauseous. I am afraid I will disgrace myself if you punish me now, Thomas!"

"Shh, Rudy," Thomas said gently, changing his mind about whipping Rudolph. While he had heard Rudolph offer the same excuse before, he had no doubt that Rudolph meant it sincerely. It was not manipulation; it was fear, fear approaching terror. "Shh. You know that I will never punish you when you feel unwell. I will commute your punishment, you will lie down for the afternoon, and we will see whether that doesn't help ease both your sickness and your sorrow."

"Thank you, Thomas, you are kind to me," Rudolph said softly. "I do not deserve your kindness, but I appreciate it very much." He let Thomas press him back against the pillows.

Thomas closed the shutters, darkening the room, and helped Rudolph undress, his hands gentle, his voice quiet and calm. "Shh. Rest now, Rudy. I grieve for him, too." Thomas's voice cracked.

"Are you crying, Thomas?" Rudolph asked wonderingly. He touched Thomas's cheek. "You are. Do not cry, Thomas. People die all the time."

"He was a good man and a faithful cook and I miss him." Thomas tucked Rudolph closer to him. "It is right to feel sad, Rudy. It is right to cry." He stroked Rudolph's hair. "It is also all right to be silent, if you cannot cry. I know you are sad. I know you care."

Unable to respond for the tightness in his throat, Rudolph closed his eyes and let Thomas hold him. They lay together in the warm dark, each man's presence a comfort to the other.

After a time Thomas roused Rudolph. "Come now, let us get up while it is still light. We will walk a little together; you will be better for some air."

"No. It is no use to pretend that a simple walk will make any difference in my temper or my health, Thomas. I am ill. I do not wish to get up."

"Come now, Rudy," Thomas said. "Do as I tell you or I will spank you."

"I am surprised you do not threaten me with the whip again," Rudolph snapped, sitting up reluctantly.

"Rudolph, you try my patience. The whip remains in our bedchamber only to remind you that I am serious about my earlier warning. You are not to ride out alone without my express permission. Do you understand me?"

"I understand," Rudolph said sullenly. "I may be a fool, Thomas, but I have not yet lost my wits entirely."

"I do not imply that you have. I think your recklessness is anything but foolishness and that is precisely what frightens me. I do not intend to lose you to a horse's errant misstep on rough ground, my Rudy." Thomas kissed Rudolph cautiously, uncertain of his mood, and was gratified when Rudolph's mouth opened willingly to his own. "Do not mistake my willingness to overlook your foolhardiness today for lack of resolve. I will use the whip if I must. Think on that the next time you are tempted to risk your neck in this fashion."

"I am sorry, Thomas," Rudolph said quietly. "I vow I will not do it again. If I break my promise, I will deserve what you give me."

The cook's death had been only the first of many. While Thomas and his physician spoke behind the closed door of Thomas's office for a half hour, Rudolph paced the hallway, resentful at his exclusion. Thomas preferred to keep the two men apart as much as practicable. There was no love lost between them. The physician recalled Rudolph's loathsome reputation; Rudolph recalled the physician's loathsome treatments. Neither was inclined to moderate his opinion.

"I will meet you there," Thomas said as he emerged from his office, the physician beside him. He laid a gentle hand on the man's arm as he walked him to the front entrance. "Thank you for your charity to my tenants."

"We must do what we can to prevent the disease from spreading," the physician said. "Bring only men who have survived its ravages. They will be safe. Good day, Thomas." He nodded coolly to Rudolph, who made him a mocking half bow in reply.

"Rudolph," Thomas sighed as he closed the door behind the physician. "The man has been abroad since before dawn, aiding the sick. Surely you can show him a little courtesy."

"He despises me." Rudolph sounded unrepentant. "And I despise him. I offer him precisely the same degree of courtesy he offers me."

"You, my beloved, are a sophist." Thomas shook his head ruefully at Rudolph's waspish reply. "Thank you. I did not think anyone could make me laugh today."

"What is it he wants you to oversee?" Rudolph asked, turning serious.

"We must remove and bury the dead, immediately. No one who can possibly contract the disease may handle the bodies, Rudy," Thomas said soberly. "I do not want you involved."

"I can safely assist you with this miserable task, Thomas. I am immune to the pox, though I have but one pockmark." Rudolph raked his hair back from his temple, widening his fingers to display the hidden scar. "It is another one of the things that gave me my reputation for having sold my soul to the devil."


"To have but one mark is unusual, but hardly unheard of," Thomas said. "Did you have the disease as a child?"

"I do not recall," Rudolph said slowly. "I remember being in a place with people dying from the pox. I remember the smell. I do not know who they were or how I came to be there, nor do I know when it was or what happened after. I imagine that is how I was orphaned and how my uncle came to possess me."

"Oh, Rudy." Thomas shivered at the thought of the small boy delivered to his uncle. "So you had the disease, just not the usual course of it," Thomas said slowly. "I have heard of other men who have but one or two scars--"

Rudolph interrupted, uncomfortable with the conversation. "Please let me help you, Thomas."

"I would be most grateful," Thomas said. "There is little we can do save try and protect the living. We must bury the dead as swiftly as possible."

The physician was not happy to see Rudolph, but he accepted Rudolph's assertion of his immunity and the evidence of the single pockmark with grim resignation. He was in no position to turn down any help Thomas could muster.

Rudolph moved mechanically among the sick, following the physician's instructions for the removal of the dead. He seemed impervious to the cries of the families of the sick. While Thomas paused to console the survivors, Rudolph wrapped the bodies of the dead in coarse linen without emotion, not flinching from even the smallest of the corpses, those of the youngest children and of the babies, who were defenseless against the disease.

From one small house to another the three men moved in their grim mission, adding their sad burdens to the wooden cart that accompanied them from house to stricken house. Thomas's face grew grayer and the physician's step grew slower as the day moved on, but Rudolph didn't falter. Finally they were done. They drove the bodies to the outskirts of the small graveyard and placed them in the freshly dug graves, covering them with quick lime. They shoveled dirt over the now white corpses. Thomas crossed himself; the physician's lips moved in silent prayers. Rudolph tamped the earth smooth.

"Come, Thomas," Rudolph said, when it was clear that Thomas could not make himself move from the fresh grave. "It is late and you are chilled. We must go home." He swallowed hard and looked at the physician. "Would you care to eat with us, sir?"

"You are not the monster who was brought here," the physician said slowly. "You are not the same man. I believe I would like some company this evening."

"Yes, please join us," Thomas said, his leaden heart lightened by the rare show of human kindness Rudolph's invitation represented. "It would be better, tonight, not to be alone."

Rudolph unhitched the horse from the cart, leaving the wooden cart beside the grave. They would wait to see if it were still needed, if there were more sad rounds to be accomplished. If not, it would be burnt. He led the horse back to the stable and went to join Thomas and the physician.

There was a roast and dark bread, along with wine, for their dinner. Rudolph minced his slice of meat into small cubes and pushed them to the edges of his plate. He broke his bread into smaller and smaller pieces, but ate none of them. Only the wine interested him and he drank steadily. Thomas and the physician ate mechanically, aware that they needed the nourishment to function the following day. The meal was quick and silent and their goodbyes were brief. All three men knew that there was no way of knowing whether the smallpox would spread further or burn itself out.

Thomas and Rudolph retired for the night.

"What did he mean, Thomas, by his remarks at the grave site?" Rudolph asked, his throat tight, his voice harsh. "His words hurt me, Thomas. I do not understand!"

"He meant it kindly, I think, though he spoke awkwardly," Thomas said. "It is clear to him that you are not the same man I brought here, broken and sick with hate."

"I am not," Rudolph agreed. "Sometimes I do not know myself anymore, Thomas. If I dwell too long on my past–" He broke off abruptly. "Thomas, will you punish me? I beg you."

"No," Thomas said quietly. "I will tell you if and when you deserve to be punished, my Rudy."

Rudolph swallowed hard. "You may believe I deserve to be punished, Thomas. Please."

Thomas took Rudolph's chin in his hand and studied his face carefully. "A spanking, perhaps," Thomas said finally. He undressed Rudolph and leaned him over his lap, his hands warm and certain. "Talk to me." A careful spank to one pale buttock, repeated on the other. "Tell me, Rudolph, why it is you should be punished." Another precisely judged spank to each cheek, and then another and another, the gesture repeated slowly and without anger, as Rudolph tried to find words.

"I am damned, Thomas," Rudolph said eventually, his tongue loosening as Thomas continued his methodical discipline. "I am going to burn eternally, Thomas, and there is nothing I fear more than the fire."

"Do not think of this now," Thomas said. "You do not know what will be. Come to me, Rudy, let me hold you. I love you." He turned Rudolph face up and gathered him in his arms, kissing him, stroking his features with gentle fingers. "There will yet be mercy shown you, Rudolph. I am here with you. I love you."

"Yet I am damned." Rudolph shivered and Thomas held him tightly, until his shaking eased and he slept.

Morning brought an extemporaneous gathering at the chapel. Thomas made haste to join the gathering crowd. He was well liked by his tenants and despite the rumors about his relationship with Rudolph, his popularity had not faded. He joined in the general prayers for mercy, for an end to the smallpox and for healing for the sick.

Thomas had invited Rudolph to attend him, but knowing how Rudolph despised any sort of communal religious expression, he was unsurprised at Rudolph's blunt refusal. To his dismay, Thomas returned to the house only to find Rudolph missing. A quick trip to the stables revealed that Rudolph had taken a horse. He had left no indication of where he was going and it was evening before he returned. Horse and rider both looked drained and worse for the wear. Thomas left the weary horse to his groom's ministrations and looked to Rudolph himself.

"Why, Rudy?" Thomas asked, once they were safely closeted in their room. "I would like to understand why you chose to disobey me."

"I cannot bear my own company. I see you moving comfortably among your people and I remember my own past as men recall dreams or nightmares. I do not understand my own actions, Thomas, all memory of why I did as I did eludes me."

Thomas sighed. "Surely a merciful God will weigh your sins against your good deeds. You have many years in which to make amends, Rudy."

"But how?" Rudolph asked. "It is an honest question. I am sick, Thomas. I cannot live with my memories of the man I was, but I am afraid of dying. So afraid." He closed his eyes. "So very afraid, Thomas."

"I know you are afraid, but your intemperate riding abroad at all hours does nothing but make me afraid as well," Thomas said. "You will end this practice immediately, for the sake of my nerves and my groom's nerves, and for the sake of my horses and of your own neck, which I was sorely tempted to wring this afternoon." Thomas kissed Rudolph gently, taking some of the sting out of his words. "I do not want to see you hurt. I know you are a decent rider, but it would take only one misstep for your horse to go down and you with him. I will not have you courting an accident this way. Would it help you to speak with a priest, to make your confession?"

"No," Rudolph said. "Their absolution means nothing to me; I doubt it carries much weight with Him. It is your forgiveness I need, Thomas, not some stranger's."

"I cannot grant you the absolution you seek," Thomas said quietly. "Nor can I promise not be dismayed by your past deeds. Nonetheless I will listen, Rudy, if that is what you want. You may tell me anything and I will still love you. My love for you, for the man you are now, for the child I knew before, will not change."

"I am afraid; every day I grow more fearful! I cannot endure my life as it is," Rudolph said.

"Perhaps that is your punishment." Thomas could think of no words of comfort.

"It is too harsh for me to bear!" Rudolph cried. "I cannot endure it, Thomas, I tell you, save for my fear of burning eternally, I would rather be dead!"

"You must bear it, my Rudy," Thomas said. "You have no more choice than your victims did." He took Rudolph in his arms. "I know it is painful."

"You cannot know," Rudolph said. "Thomas, you do not know how I feel. The moment I am still, the moment I pause to think, my past overtakes me and I hear the cries of those I harmed and I see their faces and there is nothing I can do to change any of it. And when I sleep I hear my uncle's voice and I feel his touch in the night and I cannot rouse myself, I can only endure it. And death holds no hope for me, only eternal torment. I am damned, Thomas." Rudolph dropped his face to his hands, his shoulders shaking. "Damned."

"Rudy." Thomas tugged Rudolph's hands out of the way and kissed him gently. Rudolph's face was white and beaded with cold sweat. "I am not going to leave you, now or ever. You do not need to suffer this alone."

"You cannot help me," Rudolph said bitterly. "I will burn and you will not. It is simple."

"You cannot know that," Thomas said sharply. "Come now, stand up."

"Are you going to whip me?" Rudolph asked.

"Yes." Thomas's reply was equally blunt. "You made me a promise and you then with deliberate intent broke that promise. I will not have you come to harm. If you cannot curb your destructive impulses, I will curb them for you. Let us see if you do not weigh your choices differently once you feel the painful consequences of your foolhardy behavior." He gestured toward his lap. "Remove your breeches, sir, and come here."

Rudolph obeyed without protest. He let Thomas arrange him so that he was turned over one knee, Thomas's other thigh clamped around his one leg, his torso alongside Thomas's hip and supported by the bed. The position combined the security and closeness of the childlike position Thomas used to spank him with more space for Thomas to swing the crop. Rudolph swallowed hard and closed his eyes.

"Open your eyes," Thomas ordered, unable to see Rudolph's face, but knowing Rudolph's habits. "I want you to be very clear where you are. You are in our bedroom, over my lap, being whipped because you rode out, alone, in a wild and intemperate manner, rather than coming to me for permission as you previously promised." He slapped Rudolph's buttocks sharply. "You may not harm yourself." Another sharp spank. "I forbid it." Yet another impact of hand on bare flesh, leaving a third red print. "You will obey me. You will listen to me." A rhythmic series of spanks left Rudolph's buttocks mottled red and white. Thomas massaged the flushed flesh with his palm for a moment and then reached for the riding crop. He tightened his grip on Rudolph's hip. "You." He brought the crop down with a sudden swish. "Will." Another slash of the whip, even as Rudolph yelped and squirmed, his free leg kicking wildly. "Listen."

"OW!" Rudolph wailed. The crop hurt; Thomas was not sparing him any. "OW!"

"You. Will. Listen." Three more cuts of the whip and then Thomas dropped it on the floor and rested his open hand on Rudolph's heaving back. "You will listen to me, my Rudy. I do not want to punish you like this again, but I will have your obedience."

"Yes, I promise–" Rudolph was panting, still stunned by the sharp pain of the whipping he'd just received. Thomas had never punished him this severely before. "I will listen, I promise!" It was a wail of sincere and utter misery and Thomas responded by manhandling Rudolph all the way onto the bed and then gathering him in his arms and lying back against the pillows, holding him as he sobbed.

"My poor Rudy." Thomas held Rudolph snugly, knowing that Rudolph needed comfort as physical as his punishment had been. "I love you. I will not let you harm yourself. Your punishment is over now. You are safe in my arms."

Rudolph lay limply against Thomas's chest, crying steadily, his tears soaking Thomas's shirt. "It hurt, Thomas. Had you not stopped when you did–" He cried harder. "If I cannot bear even this, what hope is there for me? I am afraid of the fire!"

"Do you not believe that God is merciful, Rudy? Or that His punishments can spring from love, as mine do?" Thomas stroked Rudolph's dark hair gently. "That they will be tempered by His mercy, and administered according to your needs, as I hope mine are?"

"Yours are," Rudolph said, thinking about it. "Perhaps He will not burn me. I would like to believe that, Thomas." He began to cry again. "I would like to know."

"We none of us know, poor humans that we are," Thomas said. "Yet there is this to think of, that even the fiercest beasts nourish and cherish their own young. And you are a child of God as much as the next man, and why should He not cherish you."

"My uncle did not cherish me," Rudolph said bleakly. "I have little of your pure faith in the inevitability of familial love."

"Cruel as your uncle was in his dealings with you, he was generous in his dealings with the men of his estate," Thomas said slowly. "People are not simple, Rudolph, they are not all of a piece, evil or good. If this is evident to me, surely it is evident to a far wiser God. You must trust in His mercy and His intelligence, Rudolph, or you will surely drive yourself mad with your speculations."

"I cannot trust in Him," Rudolph said sadly. "I have come to trust you, because I know you, but He is a stranger still to me."

"You will need to become better acquainted, then," Thomas said.

"How?" Rudolph shook his head. "I have no love for your church, Thomas, for your ceremonies, for your priests."

"Then you will need to search your God out in other ways and in other places," Thomas said. "I have no doubt that when we think awhile on this, we will be able to discern how to better further your acquaintance. Come, Rudy, there is nothing more to say for now. You must rest quietly awhile, and then we will eat and walk in the gardens and you will see that there is a rhythm to things, that times of great distress may yet be followed by quiet times and yes, even by pleasant times. You are mine now; I will care for you."

"As you wish, Thomas," Rudolph said wearily. He allowed himself to be put to bed and gathered into Thomas's arms, but he could not allow himself to relax into the warmth of Thomas's body nor could he allow himself to hope that Thomas might be right. And yet there was this: If Thomas knew him and still loved him, if Thomas tempered his justice with mercy, was it barely possible that God could do the same? Unsure and unknowing, Rudolph slept at last.

Thomas rubbed Rudolph's back gently, easing him deeper and deeper into sleep, relieved to feel Rudolph turn to him. He had not enjoyed punishing Rudolph, but he was determined to curb Rudolph's reckless riding before Rudolph broke either his own neck or one of the horses' legs. Thomas wished he could offer Rudolph the assurances he sought, but he didn't think it possible that anyone could.

Thomas wondered who it was who would have to forgive Rudolph, for Rudolph to accept the pardon. If the rumors of Rudolph's forces' brutality were true, there were precious few left who had survived their rampages. The witnesses to the victims' deaths were no doubt dead themselves. Thomas studied the slender man asleep in his bed, his face still blotchy from crying, and tried to imagine what it had been like to face Rudolph at his murderous prime. He couldn't do it; the image of the angry, high strung boy he had known kept superimposing itself on the adult features. As he ran his hand over Rudolph's slender body, he remembered how Rudolph had weighed nothing when he had hoisted him over his shoulder and returned him to his uncle. Thomas shivered. He hadn't known, but he felt pained nonetheless.

Rudolph slept through the night. He and Thomas both awakened early. Thomas ran a gentle hand over Rudolph's flanks, discreetly checking how sore he was.

"I may yet live," Rudolph said facetiously. "Would you like me positioned on my front or on my back?"

"Rudy, I will not take you if it hurts you," Thomas said quietly. "You know this."

"I do," Rudolph said. He had the grace at least to blush. "I'm sorry, Thomas. I deserve to ache this morning. I did not mean to bait you."

"Let us begin afresh, Rudy," Thomas said, not wanting to taint the new day with reproaches. "Will you come down to breakfast, sir?"

"Yes, thank you," Rudolph said politely, trying not to wince as he drew on his breeches. He was very tender. He stayed close to Thomas as they went downstairs, uneasy at having accepted Thomas's censure, unsure of whether Thomas's feelings for him had changed in the wake of his punishment.

Breakfast was a quiet meal. Rudolph ate doggedly, as if determined not to give Thomas any cause for complaint. Thomas smiled at Rudolph, recognizing what was meant by the gesture.

"We will walk awhile," Thomas said, and then at Rudolph's look of dismay, "Only a little way, Rudolph. I know you are sore, but you will feel better for moving."

"Yes, Thomas," Rudolph said resignedly. He ached from yesterday's whipping and thought it most heartless of Thomas to compel him to walk.

Thomas and Rudolph walked silently together. Rudolph tried not to wince as the movement revived the pain in his buttocks and Thomas, seeing his clenched jaw, slowed his pace and slipped his arm around Rudolph's waist. Rudolph relaxed at the embrace and to his surprise, began to feel better as his muscles became less stiff. He sighed deeply.

"I do not understand myself, Thomas," Rudolph said. "I knew you would whip me. I feared being whipped. Yet I did the very thing you had forbidden me and I am feeling the consequences." He sighed again.

"Perhaps you did not truly realize how painful a whipping it would be," Thomas said. "Now that you know, I hope it will help you curb your destructive impulses. You are not to ride out alone without my permission."

"I will not do it again," Rudolph said soberly. He leaned into Thomas, needing the closeness, needing the reassurance of Thomas's touch.

"My Rudy." Thomas paused and kissed Rudy's cheek gently. Rudy turned into the caress and Thomas kissed him again, this time on the lips. Rudy deepened the kiss, his mouth opening and his head dropping back as Thomas's tongue explored further.

"I love you," Thomas said, when they finally paused for breath. "Do not ever forget that, my Rudy. I love you to the depth of my being."

"I love you, Thomas," Rudolph said softly. "I wish I were worthy of you." He sighed. "I cannot stop thinking of the past. I do not understand how it happened that I acted as I did. I look at your tenants and I feel a sharp pain in my heart at the thought of the villages I led men into, the houses I ordered burnt, the men killed, the women..." His voice trailed off. "I am damned, Thomas," he said matter of factly. "It is only a matter of time before I will writhe in agony as did those I harmed, and I cannot even say it is unfair, only...I am so very, very afraid."

Thomas wrapped his arms around Rudolph and held him close. He felt Rudolph's racing heart against him. "You cannot change any of that by riding at breakneck pace," Thomas said finally, focusing on that most concrete of prohibitions. "I cannot say what the future holds, any more than you can, but I will not allow you to deliberately endanger yourself. That shows as great a lack of kindness as your actions toward others in the past. You will behave as I see fit, Rudy. You will moderate your behavior, you will stay at my side, you will endure the guilt you feel, and we will find our way through this wilderness of terror together. You are mine and I will take care of you."

"Yes, Thomas," Rudolph said, unconvinced, yet none the less calmed by Thomas's laying out of the rules. It was easier to let Thomas lead, to try and trust Thomas's goodness, than it was to flay wildly about. Rudolph sighed. "I hope God is as merciful as you are, Thomas."

The red plague that was smallpox abated, but Rudolph remained bitter and frightened. His melancholy troubled Thomas and he continued to seek out ways to counter it. Thomas spoke with the priest, who advised prayer, but sounded unconvinced of its efficacy in Rudolph's case. Thomas detected a distinct lack of loving optimism in his response. Thomas spoke with his physician, who opined that Rudolph's distress would not be allayed by either tonics or leeches, although he was willing to try a strong purgative if Thomas desired. Thomas said a hasty no, certain that a purge would increase rather than alleviate Rudolph's bleak mood.

A new translation of a rare book came into Thomas's hands over the course of one of his complicated trades. Thomas was intrigued by its assertion of the power of music and eager to try its prescriptions. Rudolph, however, was less than charmed.

"Singing?" Rudolph scowled at Thomas.

"Yes, singing," Thomas said patiently. "I have been reading a new treatise on melancholy, and singing is prescribed to disperse black bile and lighten the spirit. I do not see any harm in trying it."

"I won't–" Rudolph began, and then yelped as Thomas grasped his arm with one hand and swatted him sharply with the other. He pulled away from Thomas, scowling at him. "What was that?"

"I was merely encouraging you to vocalize," Thomas said serenely, trying not to laugh at Rudolph's indignant expression. He failed.

"You!" Rudolph tried not to give in to the temptation to laugh along with Thomas, but Thomas's glee was so exuberant that despite Rudolph's best efforts, he found himself laughing as well. "Men have died for less, you know."

"I hope not," Thomas said, his smile fading at the ease with which Rudolph said that. He didn't think it was a joke.

"Do you want to beat me again?" Rudolph asked coldly, seeing the shift in Thomas's expression. "Or will you merely accept that I am beyond your hopeful measures, including this new enthusiasm for song?" He glared at Thomas.

"Hush, Rudy." Thomas took Rudolph's arm again and turned him toward the door. "We will walk for awhile and see if that does not make us both feel better. Come now."

The regimen was familiar and not unpleasant and Rudolph obeyed without further protest.

"I am sorry," Rudolph said eventually. "I did not mean to respond as I did. I forgot myself, Thomas, and I apologize."

"I am the one who should apologize," Thomas said. "I should not have reacted so to your jest. I am the one who encouraged you to speak and I was wrong to take offense at what you said."

"No," Rudolph said. "What I said went far beyond whatever game we were playing at. I am not a good man, Thomas, and you would do well to remember that, when next you try to treat me as if I were. I am not even an ordinary sinner. I am a man who has done terrible things and I am beyond the slight remedies you offer as cures."

"Indeed you are not," Thomas said sharply. "You will do as I prescribe. It is not up to you to decide whether or not to obey me. You will listen to me, or we will have another talk with you over my knee and the whip in my hand."

"Yes, Thomas," Rudolph said despondently, feeling very much as if he had lost control of the conversation. "I am sorry. I did not mean to anger you so, Thomas, truly I did not."

"I know, Rudy," Thomas said sadly. "It is just difficult, sometimes. I believe you capable of behaving well, and the knowledge that there have been times in your life when you did not haunts me."

"It is true, Thomas," Rudolph said. "I appreciate your frankness." He hesitated a moment. "Perhaps, Thomas, I have changed?"

"You have, my Rudy," Thomas assured him.

"There is hope for me, perhaps?" Rudolph shook his head. "You do not know how much I have changed, if I now allow for that possibility." He shivered. "I am afraid of the fire, Thomas. I have been burnt; it is the worst pain imaginable."

"It does you no good to dwell on this," Thomas said gently. "Come, Rudy. Would you like to go inside the chapel, or would you rather we walked on?"

"There is nothing in there for me. I would rather walk outside with you," Rudolph said dully. "Perhaps I will only be punished, not tortured forever. I could bear punishment, painful though it might be, if I had hope of its end. If it were like your whippings, pain before comfort, I could stand that, I think. I might deserve that." He closed his eyes. "I do not deserve you, Thomas, but I do love you."

"I love you," Thomas said. "Come, Rudy. Let us walk and I will teach you a new song."