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North of the Humber

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Margery had never seen a man like Sigtryggr before. She had barely taken her eyes off the wiry Dane in the time since they had entered the great hall of Eoforwic. The man just oozed a wily sort of danger that set him apart from the loud, brusque, warriors that sought to intimidate simply by being the most savage man in the room. From his sharp eyes, the careful way in which he chose his words, and the intention behind his smile, everything about Sigtryggr just said that this was not a trifling man.

Despite her fascination, Margery was actually far too intimidated to approach him. So, she settled for stealing frequent glances at the man in question as he sat at the head of the long table and exchanged hushed words and loud laughs with Uhtred and Stiorra. Unfortunately, however, Margery was not actually quite as inconspicuous in her gawking as she imagined herself to be.

“Lady, you are staring.” Osferth’s soft voice pulled at the outskirts of Margery’s consciousness.

“What?” Margery peeled her eyes from Sigtryggr to look at Osferth across the table. While she had heard Osferth speak words to her, she had yet to actually process his comment.

“Lady, you’ve been watching Sigtryggr for the last several minutes. Rather intently I might add.” Osferth’s lips twitched upwards as he raised his cup in an attempt to hide the broad grin that now occupied his face. “I just thought you would like to know.” He muttered into his wine.

“I was not.” Margery mumbled indignantly, her cheeks growing warm as she reached for her own drink.

“Well, actually, you were, Lady.” Iva piped from beside Osferth as she exchanged a mischievous look with the warrior monk.

“I do not lie, Lady.” Osferth added, looking rather smug now that he had Iva’s backing.

Margery narrowed her eyes at the pair and pressed her lips together, “No.” With her hand still wrapped around her cup, she extended her pointer finger towards the pair, “Absolutely not. I will not have you two colluding against me.”

Osferth and Iva exchanged a quick look before they began to laugh, evidently finding a good deal of entertainment at Margery’s expense.

With an exaggerated sigh, Margery rolled her eyes at the pair and attempted a stern look. However, her attempt was short-lived, and she was soon smiling at the duo. It brought her a good deal of satisfaction to see that Iva was settling in so well. Her unexpectantly blunt and easy nature was quickly endearing her to the men. Even Elias, who had been the most skeptical of the young woman, had started to soften towards her.

“Well, now I feel like I need to explain myself, lest you two get the wrong idea.” Margery began before taking another sip of her wine, hoping that the drink might relax her and make her less liable to gawp at Sigtryggr. “Not all of us are accustomed to sharing a table with Danish warlords of such reputation. This is all quite new to me and I think I have a right to stare a bit.”

Osferth bobbed his head, considering Margery’s words before shrugging, “I suppose that’s fair enough, Lady. I suppose I do have more experience with Danish warlords of reputation than most people. What can I say, the baby monk leads an interesting life.”

It was Margery’s turn to laugh. Osferth’s unassuming nature made the times he chose to crack a quip that much funnier to Margery. “Yes, I believe you have, Osferth. A hazard of knowing Lord Uhtred, I reckon.”

The creak of the great hall’s large oak doors interrupted the flow of conversation as both Margery and Osferth turned to look upon the latecomers. Much to Margery’s surprise, the newcomers did not appear to be just some late arrivals to the feast. Rather, the men carried with them an assortment of instruments. As more and more of the guests in the great hall noticed the arrival of the musicians, they began to slap their hands against the long tables in an enthusiastic greeting.

As the musicians began to arrange themselves in a small circle at the front of the hall, the mood in the room grew more and more raucous by the moment. Once all of the men were seated, one of the men raised a flute to his lips and silence instantly fell over the hall. The silence stretched out for several moments, each guest sharing in one long, collective, bated breath. And then the music began.

The sound of a single, mournful flute filled the air in the great hall. After a few solo notes, one of the men began to strum a lute, at first matching the tone of the flute, but then steadily accelerating the beat of the music. A third man began to beat rhythmically against a painted shield, giving the tune a dynamic element that prompted several of the men in the hall to begin slapping their hands against the table in time with the player. The table Margery was seated at began to shake, the clanging of the platters and plates adding to the tune.

Finally, a man began to play the lyre and the sole man not carrying an instrument stood, straightened his shoulders and took in a deep breath before opening his mouth to sing. The singer’s deep, powerful voice filled every crevice of the hall and sent a chill up Margery’s spine that spread all the way up to the base of her neck and caused the hair on her head to tingle.

Though she couldn’t make out every word, Margery understood just enough to know that the singer was regaling them with the tale of Thor’s battle against the frost giants. As the story got under way, Margery caught sight of movement at the other end of the table. Turning her head, she watched as Sigtryggr silently stood from his chair and held out his hand to Stiorra. The young woman held his gaze for a short moment before grabbing his hand and standing to join him. Stiorra’s movement was accompanied by raucous cheers from many of the other guests in the hall and a few of the other Danish men quickly followed suit, pulling up the women around them.

The dance began in a circle that took up most of the remaining empty space in the hall, the men and women all holding hands as they moved in time with the music, kicking up their legs with every other beat. Margery stared at the strange sight in awe. The last time she had seen a troupe of musicians had been at Thierry’s wedding several years ago. The extent of that revelry, however, consisted of a few men softly playing the lyre in the corner of the castle’s great hall while everyone ate. There had been no singing and certainly no dancing.

She was so enthralled by the sight that she did not even notice the Dane walking towards the table until he was standing right in front of her with his hand outstretched for her to take, “Lady, come join us.”

Margery’s eyes widened and she rolled her shoulders forward, recoiling into herself. “Oh, I do not think so. Thank you.” She could feel the color rushing to her face.

When the man did not step away, Margery looked up him. She noted that he looked to be a few years older than her father and had a kind, weathered face. She was sure he would be an understanding dance partner, but she had never actually danced before and she did not think she would be well-suited to it.

“Come now, Lady. Do me the honor of a dance.” The old Dane smiled gently.

Margery opened her mouth to deny him once more but before she could, her companions began to prod her.

“Come on, Lady!” Uhtred called from several seats away, leaning forward across the table so that Margery could see the toothy grin on his face. “Do not break an old warrior’s heart.” He teased.

Margery bit down on her lower lip and wrinkled her nose at Uhtred to communicate her displeasure.

Much to Margery’s dismay however, Uhtred was not the only one keen to see her embarrass herself. “Come on, Margery. Do not be afraid.” Finan taunted, his grin quickly morphing into a mischievous smirk.

Margery set her jaw and sighed, annoyed that Finan knew exactly how to goad her. “I am not afraid.” She replied, stubbornly. In truth, she was terribly afraid of embarrassing herself, but that was not something she wanted to let on to the men of Coccham.

She turned to look at the older Dane, “I would love to.” She replied before turning towards Finan once more and giving him a pointed look. Holding Finan’s gaze across the table, Margery grabbed her cup of wine and gulped down its contents, hoping that the drink would give her some confidence. Finan’s eyes widened as he watched Margery, his lips twitching into an extremely self-satisfied smile.

Having drained the last drop of wine from her cup, Margery slammed down the cup and finally peeled her eyes from Finan to look towards the older man. As she placed her hand in the Dane’s open palm, the table erupted in cheers and rowdy applause. Margery rolled her eyes as she followed the Dane towards the circle of dancers, silently promising that she would remember this betrayal.

The circle of dancers parted to allow Margery and her partner to join the link. Nervously, she began to mimic the movements of those around her. At first, she struggled to find the beat of the music and consequently managed to step on quite a few toes.

Eventually, after a few more mishaps and a bit of concentration, Margery became accustomed to the steps of the dance and she was soon keeping pace with the others. As her luck would have it, however, just as she was becoming comfortable with the steps, the beat of the music changed and the circle began to break apart.

Bewildered by the sudden change, Margery turned to look at her partner, only to find that he was already gone. She found him standing several feet away from her in a line with the other men from the circle.

Having no other option, Margery took a few steps backwards to join the line of women as they positioned themselves across from the men. Biting her lip in concentration, she began to mimic the movements of the women around her as the two lines came together.

“You’ve almost got it, Lady.” The older man encouraged as they finally came face to face.

“That is a very generous lie, my friend.” She held her right hand up against the man’s as they circled each other. “But I am nevertheless grateful for it.”

“Now the other hand.” The instruction allowed Margery to catch up with the other dancers as she raised her left hand and turned in the other direction.

Trying to anticipate the next move, Margery raised her right hand. But instead of mirroring her movements, the Dane took a step closer and wrapped a thick arm around Margery’s waist. An exclamation of surprise left Margery’s lips and before she knew it, her partner had taken her right hand in his and was quickly spinning her across the floor. Getting over her initial surprise, Margery let out an exhilarated laugh as they bound past several other couples, both her hair and her skirts spinning around her. Between the music, the nearness of the other dancers, and all the wine she had consumed earlier that evening, the atmosphere had become so intoxicating that she had all but forgotten to feel embarrassed.

“Now, get ready, Lady. We are going to change partners.”

Margery wrinkled her nose and objected, raising her voice so that she could be heard over the cacophony of sounds that now filled the hall, “Must we? I would much rather stay with you.”

The man merely laughed and loosened his grip on Margery’s waist before twirling her around and passing her off to the next man. Thrown off balance by the sudden change, Margery practically crashed into her next partner and she would have lost her balance had the man not grabbed her by the waist and pulled her into him in one firm, fluid motion.

It only took Margery a short moment to catch her breath and come to the realization that it was Finan who now held her securely in his arms. With that realization also came the realization that she probably looked like she had spent the day toiling in the fields. She was keenly aware of the fact that her face was flushed, her hair ruffled, and that her dress was wrinkled. She would have liked to, at the very least, smooth out her hair, but Finan had a firm grip on her right hand and her left hand was currently clinging to his tunic desperately as he spun her around the floor.

“Lucky me.” Finan greeted with a cheeky grin.

“I am glad at least one of us feels that way. I will have you know that I was quite content with my other partner.”

“Are ya tryin’ to make me jealous?”

Margery took a moment to clear her throat, hoping that her voice would not betray the fact that her mouth had just gone completely dry. “You only have yourself to blame, Finan. You are, after all, the one who insisted I dance with him.”

Finan laughed heartily, “True.” A beat passed as they changed direction before Finan spoke again, “I quite like seein’ you like this.”

“Like what?” Margery asked as they narrowly brushed past another couple.

“Like you’re actually enjoyin’ yourself. Not as careful and practiced as ya tend to be.”

Margery merely hummed in response. It was a sweet comment and an admission that he noticed her various tendencies and mannerisms. She certainly appreciated that. But at the same time, she found it to be a rather comical remark. After all, if she were to look back on all the time she had spent with Finan over the last several days, she would hardly characterize her behavior as careful and practiced.

“You are quite a good dancer, Finan.” She deflected the conversation away from his comment, deciding that she would rather take it up with him at a later time. “I suppose you must have a lot of practice, as charming as you are. You must have twirled a great number of ladies around the floor like this.”

“That is the second time today you’ve called me charmin’. Ya best be careful Margery, or I’ll start to think you actually mean it.”

“I regret my words already.” Margery teased.

Finan took the jab in stride. “If you think this is somethin’, ya should see the feasts we have in Irland. Now those are a sight. That’s where I learned to dance like this.” The wistful tone in Finan’s voice and the warm look in his eye tugged at Margery’s heart. In that moment, she chose to remain silent, acknowledging his comment with a smile and a gentle tilt of her head, not wanting to break the spell of his nostalgia.

They took a few more bouncing steps across the floor, exchanging nothing more than laughter. Eventually, the music began to slow as Thor’s battle with the frost giants coming to an end. As the music stopped, they slowly came to a stop as well. As the other couples began to separate, Finan and Margery remained together, neither wanting to be the first to break their hold on the other.

“I think the dance has come to an end, Finan.” Margery’s voice was barely above a whisper. She did not want to ruin the spell of the moment but there was hardly anyone left standing around them and she worried they would draw attention.

Finan hummed in acknowledgment, slowly letting go of Margery’s right hand and pulling his other arm away from her waist. He held his hands out in front of him for a moment before dropping them to his sides. Both of them remained silent for a moment, unsure of how to proceed.

It was Finan who broke the tension with one of his familiar lop-sided smiles. “I think I need another drink before they start up another of their wild Danish dances.” He announced before nodding towards the table they had been seated at earlier.

Margery smiled, “You go on ahead. I will join you all shortly.” Margery wasn’t quite ready to rejoin her companions. She needed a moment to catch her breath as well as her wits.

Finan arched a brow and spared Margery a curious look but said nothing else before turning and sauntering back towards the table. Margery smiled to herself as she watched him walk away before turning and slipping past a few of the other guests and out of the great hall into the empty city square.

The cool night air was like a sharp slap in the face and Margery gulped down a quick breath as her body adjusted to the sudden change in temperature. She could feel the night air cooling down her flushed skin, and she twisted her long hair into a loop, holding it on top of her head to give the back of her neck some respite.

Drawing in another deep breath through her nose, she tilted her head back and gazed up at the night sky. It was a perfectly clear night and the stars in the sky seemed to sparkle like precious gems. Margery smiled to herself. Between the music, the dancing, and her dancing partner, she was quite enjoying the evening. A feeling of pure content began to seep into her bones and she silently wished that it would last forever.

Just as she began to think about Finan and how, perhaps, it could be that he harbored some affection for her, Margery heard the large oak door to the hall creek open behind her. She turned over her shoulder to see who exactly it was that dared to disturb her peace.

“Are you following me, Finan?”

Finan chuckled, “You disappeared from the hall and I thought I’d best check on ya. Make sure you weren’t tryin’ to run off with one of the Danes.” He teased as he walked towards her.

Margery turned away from Finan and looked up at the night sky once more. “If I wanted to do such a thing, you would never catch me.”

“Yes, I think you demonstrated earlier that you can be quite sneaky when ya want to be.”

An impish grin was Margery’s only response and for a moment, she allowed her imagination to run away with the idea of leaving behind Tynemouth and becoming a nomad. It was a silly thought really, as she would never abandon her family. But the feeling of freedom she conjured in her mind was certainly tempting.

The feeling of Finan’s hand brushing against her lower back broke Margery out of her daydream. “I have a slight quarrel with you.” Margery announced, seemingly out of nowhere, as she turned her head to look at Finan.

Finan’s brows shot up, “Do ya now?” He challenged. “And what would that be, Lady?”

“My quarrel with you is that you saw fit to call me both practiced and careful.”

Finan frowned, confusion etched into the lines that crinkled around his eyes, “Are you tryin’ to tell me ya don’t think you are?”

“No. That is not the argument I intend to make.” Margery chewed on the inside of her cheek. She had never been particularly good at expressing sentimentality. “I am both of those things. With most people. My argument is,” Margery paused, “that I do not think that I have been that way with you at all.”

The silence that followed made it clear that Margery’s confession had taken Finan by surprise. As the silence between them stretched on, Margery regretted having made the admission. She desperately wished she could grab her words from where they hung in the air and just shove them back into her mouth. However, slowly, Finan’s flabbergasted expression turned into one that Margery couldn’t quite read. It was some mixture of realization and affection that left her both relieved and breathless at the exact same time.

“And here I had almost convinced myself that I was imagin’ it.”

Margery frowned. It was her turn to be confused. “I do not understand.” She admitted. “Do you think I run off to the woods to have serious discussions about my past betrothals and the responsibility of taking a life with every strange man that I meet?”

Finan laughed, but even in the dark Margery could see a slight change in the coloring of his cheeks. “No, I do not. But you aren’t the easiest person to read, Margery. Nor do you say much about how you’re feelin’ unless I manage to pull it out of ya.”

In that moment, Margery couldn’t help but retort. “That is a strong opinion for a man that, in truth, has told me all of two things about himself.”

Clearly not having anticipated such a remark, Finan began to sputter. A short, disconnected laugh followed, betraying just how thrown off guard he was. “I would like to argue with ya on that point, but I don’t think you’d let me. I just –”

Margery cut Finan off with a sympathetic sigh as she turned her body to face him head on. She reached out and gently placed a hand on his arm. “You do not need to explain yourself to me, Finan. I was just making a point.” Seeing Finan, who was usually so cheeky and self-assured, thrown so off kilter actually made Margery feel quite guilty. “I just need to learn that I do not always need to have the last word. That is all."

“Come on.” Margery slid her hand down Finan’s arm and took his hand in hers, “I think we have had enough of thought-provoking conversation for the evening. Let us go back inside. Perhaps after another drink you can convince me to attempt another dance.” Part of her wanted to continue the conversation. But part of her was also afraid that if she continued to prod Finan, she would simply push him away.

Still holding Finan’s hand in hers, Margery turned to walk back towards the great hall and she tugged on Finan’s hand to signal that he should follow her.

Instead, Finan pulled at Margery’s hand and quickly spun her around, pulling her into him. All Margery could do was look up at him, bewildered.

“I would very much like to kiss you now, Margery. If ya would do me the favor of not runnin’ away this time.”

Margery felt as if she was going to choke on her own heart. It was her turn to stammer her response, “I did not run away.” She objected. “I am not quite sure what you wanted me to do with Sihtric standing right there. I do not – “ She was nervous and she was rambling and quite frankly she had no idea what she was trying to say but her mind was struggling to process her current predicament.

“Margery.” Finan interrupted as he raised a hand to cup her cheek.

“Yes. Right. I am indeed capable of being quiet. So, I will do that now.”

The comment brought a smile to Finan’s lips. The sight was short-lived, however, for in the next moment, Margery felt his lips brush against hers and her eyes fluttered shut. At first, the kiss was slow, tender, and tentative, as if Finan was worried she would jerk away at any moment.

Margery could feel her heart pounding against her chest and in the very back of her mind, a small voice popped up. The voice told her that this was improper. That Finan was not her husband nor would he ever be, and that the correct thing to do would be to pull away. But Margery decided to ignore that voice. For once she wanted to act on her desires instead of the idea of duty and propriety.

So, Margery decided to take what she wanted. She took it upon herself to deepen the kiss, bringing her hand to the back of Finan’s neck and spreading her fingers through his thick hair.

That was all of the encouragement that Finan needed and he moved the hand that had been on Margery’s face to tangle in her hair. As the pressure from Finan’s lips built, Margery could feel herself getting more and more lightheaded and she gripped at Finan’s tunic both from a desire to be as physically close to him as possible, but also to make sure that she would remain standing.

Eventually, and rather regretfully, Margery pulled away from Finan and just took in the sight of him.

“I’ve been wantin’ to do that for days, now.”

“You have only known me a week, Finan.”

Finan groaned as he pressed his forehead against hers. “Must ya always have the last word? Did we not just talk about this? I am tryin’ to be romantic and here ya are, ruining it.”

Margery laughed and brought her other hand to Finan’s face, “What if I let you kiss me again? Would that make up for my discourteous behavior?”

“Perhaps.” Finan smiled, “Let us find out.”