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North of the Humber

Chapter Text

Allowing the salty air to fill his lungs, Finan took a deep breath and looked out towards the ocean. The sun was starting to set, casting a soft glow across the water and the rolling hills around him. It was only early April but the last few weeks had been unseasonably warm and spring was beginning to breathe life into the Northumbrian countryside. It was beautiful, and it was peaceful, but Finan could not enjoy the atmosphere. They had made dozens of journeys across Northumbria over the last year but in all their travels they had not dared to venture quite this far north and Finan felt uneasy.

“It reminds me of Bebbanburg.” Uhtred noted, turning his head to look at Finan as the two men rode side by side along the headland.

“Yeah well, that’s probably because it practically is Bebbanburg.” Finan observed. With that, he glanced behind him nervously, almost as if he excepted Uhtred’s cousin, Wihtgar, to come riding across the hill with enough men to slaughter them all. Or, frankly, Finan wouldn’t be surprised if he saw Scots out on a raid. Or Danes. Really, there were quite a few dangers they could encounter in Northumbria. Despite his trepidations, the only people Finan saw when he looked over his shoulder were Sihtric, Osferth, and Aethelstan. And the only sounds he could hear were the waves crashing into the side of the cliff beneath them.

Uhtred raised his brows and nodded ruefully. They were only about a day’s ride south of Bebbanburg and so it was no surprise that the coastline looked remarkably similar.

“Remind us again why we’re riding to Tinmath, baby monk.” Finan called behind him, leaning back into his saddle to sneak a glance at Osferth.

“Tynemouth.” Osferth corrected, sighing in exasperation. This was the fifth time he had corrected Finan.

“What-ever.” Finan stretched each syllable, rolling his eyes for effect.

“It is one of the most important places in Northumbria.” Osferth insisted, speeding his horse to a trot so as to come up alongside Finan. “It is a necessary part of Aethelstan’s education.”

Finan grumbled begrudgingly, recognizing that this was not his area of expertise. Ever since Uhtred had been entrusted with Aethelstan’s care, Osferth had taken over the responsibility for the aetheling’s tutoring. Osferth was not a scholar but because he had grown up in a monastery, he was the best they could do in the absence of a formal tutor.

The headland crested and once they were at the top of the hill the walls of Tynemouth finally came into view. Just beyond the front wall Finan could see the top of Tynemouth castle. It looked larger and more imposing than he had expected. Truth be told, he had been under the impression that all of Northumbria was a shithole backwater.

“Should I make the introductions, Lord?” Osferth asked of Uhtred as they rode forward. “Tynemouth is not known for being welcoming to strangers and we, well…” Osferth paused and glanced about “we are very strange. I may pass for a priest.”

“Since when have we ever let you do any of the talking, Osferth?" Finan scoffed. "Besides, no one in Northumbria is welcoming. To anyone.” Despite his grumbles, Finan did not begrudge the people of Northumbria for the chilly receptions they had received during their travels. Over the last several years Northumbria had descended into, what Finan liked to call, ordered lawlessness. The Danes were firmly in control of Eoforwic and the surrounding towns. Outside of that immediate area, however, there was no strong Saxon leader to unite behind and so the default rule was that it was every ealdorman, city, and village for itself.

As the riders came closer to the gates, Finan could see that guards were beginning to gather on the ramparts in order to inspect the new arrivals. Two archers flanked the other guards, hands on their bows, ready to draw at the first sign of trouble.

“I see they’ve brought out the welcome procession.” Finan muttered to Uhtred out of the side of his mouth.

“State your business.” One of the guards called as the riders stopped at the gate. All of the guards were fully outfitted with chainmail and helmets. They clearly did not lack a forge in Tynemouth.

Osferth opened his mouth to speak but was quickly preempted by Uhtred, “We are travelers who have come to see the famous Tynemouth priory.”

“The priory is outside the city gates on the far north side of the wall. You may reach the priory without entering the town.”

“Yes, but it is nearly sundown and we have been traveling for many days. We would like to come inside and rest our horses, have some warm food, some ale, and sleep in a bed.” Uhtred replied.

“We’ve come for a pilgrimage, nothing more.” Osferth dared to interject.

“You look more like warriors than pilgrims to me.”

“Are warriors not allowed to praise God?” Finan mocked, bringing the cross around his neck to his lips.

The guards muttered amongst themselves for a few moments before one of them turned and walked down the stairs and into the town. Another minute passed without the guards saying another word and Finan felt himself grow suspicious. “Uhtred, maybe we should just leave.” He whispered.

Uhtred turned towards Finan but before he could agree the guard who had descended into the town returned, accompanied by another man. This new arrival wore a deep purple cloak, secured at the front with what, even from a distance, glinted like a gold brooch.

“My men tell me you are all pilgrims come to visit the priory.” The man called from the top of the gate.

“That is true.” Uhtred replied.

“Well, you are certainly the strangest looking group of pilgrims I’ve ever seen.” The man remarked, chuckling to himself. “I am Thierry. Now, pray tell, who are you and where are you from?”

As Uhtred opened his mouth to respond, a woman appeared on the ramparts and came to stand next to Thierry. Finan observed the woman for a moment. She looked to be a few years younger than Thierry. She was tall, the top of her head level with Thierry’s nose, and her long dark hair was secured loosely in a thick braid. She peered down curiously at the riders before turning over her shoulder to whisper something to the man that had accompanied her up to the ramparts. The man nodded and muttered a few words in reply.

“I am Lord Aldhem of Gloucestor. Of Mercia.” Uhtred lied, shifting uncomfortably in his saddle. At this, Finan quickly looked down at his horse’s neck in order to hide his smirk. Though he had heard this lie many times over the last year, he still found it comical to imagine Uhtred preening about as Aldhelm often did.

“Never heard of it.” Thierry called down.

“You’ve never heard of Mercia, Lord?” Finan asked, feigning shock. “It’s quite large and hard to miss. Or did you mean Gloucestor?” Much to Finan’s surprise, Thierry smiled. It was then that Finan saw the woman reach out and place her hand on Thierry’s arm to draw his attention. She began to whisper to Thierry, glancing down at the riders with every few words. Whatever it was that the woman said to Thierry, it caused him to jolt his head back in surprise. Nervously, Finan raised a brow at Uhtred.

However, a few moments later, Thierry nodded his head and commanded that the guards open the gates to the town.

Given the trepidation with which they had been received, this was not a turn of events Finan had been expecting. Nevertheless, as the gates began to creak open, Uhtred shrugged his shoulders and urged his horse to walk forward, leaving Finan no choice but to follow.

As they walked into the town, Finan looked around keenly, observing his surroundings. The town was larger than he had expected and quite orderly. The townspeople were milling about casually, merchants were hauling their empty carts back to their homes after a day at market, and children were laughing as they ran through streets. It was far less grey than some of the other towns they had visited in recent travels. In the heart of unruly Northumbria, it appeared that Tynemouth was a sea of normalcy and prosperity.

Finan turned his head to look forward again and noticed that Thierry and the woman were now standing a few feet in front of them with several guards at their side.

“Welcome to Tynemouth, Lord-.” Thierry paused, “Aldhelm.” Finan observed a smirk pass Thierry’s lips for a fleeting moment.

Uhtred dismounted and walked towards Thierry. Finan and Sihtric quickly followed suit, keeping close to Uhtred while Osferth turned to help Aethelstan off of his horse.

“Are you the ealdorman here?” Uhtred asked. Uhtred glanced around and Finan was willing to bet one of his arm rings that his lord was making the same observations about the town’s relative affluence as he had. Finan could not help but wonder whether the ealdorman of Tynemouth had struck a bargain with the Danes.

With a smile, Thierry shook his head. “My father, the Lord Bennett, is the ealdorman here. I am sure you will have occasion to meet him shortly, some of our guards have gone ahead to alert him of your arrival.”

“This is my younger sister, Margery.” Thierry turned his shoulders towards his sister as she stepped forward. “You have her to thank for not having to sleep outside the town gates tonight.”

“Then you have our thanks, Lady.” Uhtred bowed his head slightly, smiling at Margery.

Margery’s eyes flitted towards her brother before she turned towards Uhtred and smiled. “Bickford, please take Lord Aldhelm’s horses to the stable and make sure they are watered and fed.” Though Margery spoke to her guards, Finan noticed that her eyes did not leave Uhtred’s face.

“Lord Aldhelm, we will arrange for rooms and ale at The Swan Inn for you and your men tonight. My brother and I will escort you there.” Margery announced, “Once you have had occasion to settle in, we would be honored if you would join us for supper. It is about that time in the evening.” Margery’s voice was soft and warm, but the way she was eyeing the men apprehensively, her green eyes darting between all of them, made Finan think she was still trying to decide whether it had been the right decision to allow them into the town.

“We would be happy to, Lady.” Uhtred turned his shoulders, “These are my men, Finan, Sihtric, and Osferth.” He said as he nodded to them in turn. “And my ward, Aethelstan.” Uhtred looked down at Aethelstan, placing a hand on the boy’s head in order to push him forward.

Margery smiled and nodded before she looked towards Uhtred’s men, sizing each of them up in turn. “This way please.” She said softly, turning towards the town. With a glance over her shoulder, she indicated that they should follow.

“We are grateful for your hospitality, Lady.” Finan chimed as he quickened his pace to walk next to the Lady Margery, his hand resting on the hilt of his sword. “We’ve been traveling for many days and I was certainly not looking forward to spending another night sleepin’ in the dirt.” Finan grinned.

Margery glanced at Finan out of the corners of her eyes, “Then it is a good thing you will not have to.” To Finan’s ears, Margery sounded bored, as if she could not be bothered with the conversation.

Finan bowed his head and slowed his gait so that Margery could walk a few paces in front of him. He knew how to take a hint.

“I guess she does not want to talk to you.” Osferth teased as he came up beside Finan.

“Shut up.” Finan grumbled, cursing how observant Osferth sometimes seemed to be.

“Have you come straight from Mercia then?” Thierry inquired, turning to walk backwards so that he could look at the whole group. “That is a very long journey.”

“No, Lord.” Uhtred replied. “We stopped in Whitby on the way.”

“Whitby?” Margery piped from the front of the group, briefly glancing over her shoulder at them. “That is a very holy place for the people of Northumbria.”

“Yes, Lady. We visited the ruins of the abbey there.” Uhtred replied. Finan turned his head and exchanged a look with Uhtred, silently agreeing that they should be more careful in detailing their travels lest they reveal too much.

They soon arrived at The Swann Inn and Margery disappeared inside for a few minutes. When she returned she was accompanied by the inn keeper. “Farley here will show you to your rooms. Once you are settled, please come to the castle to dine with us.”

Uhtred nodded, “We will. Thank you, Lady.”

Margery took her leave with a curt smile and perfunctory nod. Thierry, on the hand, jovially smacked both Uhtred and Finan on the shoulder and jogged off after his sister.

“Strange pair, those two.” Finan observed with a nod, staring at the back of Margery’s head before turning to follow Uhtred into the inn.

“I think you are only saying that because Lady Margery will not flirt with you.” Sihtric cracked.

Finan clicked his tongue and shoved Sihtric’s shoulder. “That is not it.” He insisted. “There is something odd about that one.”

An exasperated sigh left Finan’s lips when he noticed that Osferth and Sihtric were both rolling their eyes at him. Even Aethelstan seemed amused, a soft smile on the boy’s face. “You will all see.” Finan warned, ruffling Aethelstan’s hair for good measure.

Chapter Text

The walk from the inn to the castle was short and the men of Coccham soon found themselves standing in the courtyard of Tynemouth castle face to face with a tall, sturdy man with speckled grey hair. The detailed green tunic woven of plush material betrayed the fact that this was a man of noble standing.

“You must be the Lord Bennett.” Uhtred stopped a few paces short of the older man.

Bennett nodded in confirmation. “I am pleased you could dine with us this evening.” Finan took this moment to assess Lord Bennett and quickly came to conclusion that this was a man who had seen a few battles in his lifetime. The long scars on his face, neck, and hands were those of a warrior. The commanding way he stood, taking up all of the air around him, was that of a warrior. And the way the man’s eyes traveled to each of Uhtred’s weapons in turn – those that were visible at least – was just how a warrior would assess a potential adversary.

“Thank you, Lord. Your daughter was kind enough to extend the invitation.”

Lord Bennett nodded and smiled graciously, “Please, join us in the hall. My children are already waiting for us there.”

Bennett led the way into the castle and down a wide corridor. The corridor was sparse, the only decorative pieces being the floor candelabras lighting the way and two small tapestries on either side of the corridor. Finan was not typically one to admire artwork but as he passed by the tapestries there was a wisp of familiarity about them that caused him to slow his gait. Taking a closer look, Finan took note of the spirals, double curves, and geometric shapes woven in brightly colored thread. A memory stirred in the back of Finan’s brain, a cloudy image of a long-forgotten corridor in Irland coming to mind. Finan frowned, concentrating to try and lift the haze in front of the image. But when he blinked, the memory was gone. Turning his head, Finan realized that he was alone in the corridor.

Finan muttered a curse under his breath and began to walk quickly in hopes of catching up to the other men. Luckily, Osferth soon doubled back and poked his head around the corner, motioning for Finan to hurry up. “There is only one path Finan, try not to get lost.”

Finan lowered his chin and glowered at Osferth who only chuckled, far too accustomed to Finan’s faux ire to be bothered.

Shortly after rounding the corner, the men turned into the castle’s great hall. Both Margery and Thierry were already seated at the long table. A young, fair-haired woman was sitting beside Thierry and Bennett introduced her as Thierry’s wife, Christiana.

“Please, sit.” With that, Bennett took his place at the head of the table, flanked by both of his children.

“My daughter tells me that you have been visiting the holy places of Northumbria.” Bennett raised his arm and motioned for the servants to begin pouring wine and serving food.

Uhtred nodded, “Yes, Lord. I am teaching my ward the history of Northumbria.” It was too late to concoct yet another lie and sometimes it was best to just keep ones story as simple as possible.

Bennett nodded, “That is a fine thing you are doing, then. Most men of the southern kingdoms are hesitant to journey here. I have heard many a southern lord claim it is a waste of a trip.”

“Yes,” Uhtred agreed which a chuckle. “I have heard the same.”

“Then what makes you different from the other southern lords, Lord Aldhelm?” Margery’s inquisitive and confident tone startled Finan, as the young woman had remained silent until now and he had almost forgotten she was there. “Why does a southern lord have such an interest in Northumbria?”

Finan glanced nervously at Uhtred out of the corners of his eyes. Uhtred smiled and slowly took a sip of his wine, no doubt trying to buy himself some time to come up with an answer to Margery’s question. They had not fleshed out their story quite so thoroughly. Up until now, they had, had very little reason to do so. Most of the people they had met in Northumbria were not so eager to engage in conversation with strangers.

“I am originally of Northumbria, Lady.” Uhtred finally replied. It seemed Uhtred was going to go with some version of the truth.

“Is that so?” Margery arched a brow. “From where exactly?”

Uhtred shifted uncomfortably in his seat, “I was born in Eoforwic.” Finan could feel the tension radiating off of Uhtred but to his lords credit, Uhtred’s face remained relaxed and he maintained a congenial smile on his lips despite the lie.

Margery hummed in response, reaching for her cup. There was something in the way the corners of Margery’s lips twitched that made Finan uneasy. “Then we are practically neighbors, Lord Aldhelm. Or were, I suppose. Do tell, how does a man of Eoforwic become a Lord of Mercia?”

“I was able to make myself useful to the Lady of Mercia.” Uhtred bobbled his head, a wicked smirk on his lips. Though Margery could not have guessed at what was implied by Uhtred’s words, Finan had the misfortune of catching on to Uhtred’s innuendo just as he had thought to take a sip of his wine. Finan began to cough and sputter on the liquid, trying to clear his throat.

He soon became acutely aware that Margery was starting at him.

Finan looked up, bashfully meeting Margery’s gaze. “Are you quite alright, Finan?”

All Finan could do was nod and clear his throat, his windpipe still irritated.

Uhtred seized on the temporary distraction to steer the conversation away from Margery’s pointed questions about his past. “Do you have much trouble from the Danes living in Eoforwic?” Uhtred asked, focusing on Bennett once more.

Bennett shook his head, “No, we do not. There are occasionally raiding parties that enter the shire south of us, but they are typically very small in numbers and do not do much damage. The Danes seem content to build their wealth in Eoforwic for now.”

“That is good to hear.”

“Truth be told, it is our northern neighbors that cause us the most trouble.”

“The Scots?” Finan chimed. He was surprised to think that the Scots had made it this far south into Northumbria. Had they finally succeeded in gaining a foothold in Bebbanburg? Surely they would have heard about it if that were the case.

“No, not the Scots.” Thierry interjected, “It is Lord Wihtgar of Bebbanburg who attacks our northern villages, steals our grain, and tries to absorb our lands.”

Finan saw the exact moment when Uhtred’s hand froze over his plate.

“Really, Lord? Why such aggression from another ealdorman?” Finan asked, spitting out the words as quickly as he could to try and cover for Uhtred’s momentary lapse in composure.

“I think that little turd has dreams of conquering the whole of Saxon-controlled Northumbria.” Bennett’s gruff response seemed to relax Uhtred.

“What do you say to that, Lord?” Margery asked, leaning back into her seat and fixating her gaze on Uhtred, “Do you believe your cousin has such grand dreams, Lord Uhtred?”

The silence that followed was deafening.

It took Finan a few seconds to fully grasp that Margery had called Uhtred by his true name but realization soon washed over him, slowly blanketing his body and weighing down his limbs. Finan could hear his heartbeat quicken as he fixated on the small, rather self-satisfied smile on Margery’s face.

A second later, Finan came to his senses and his hand snapped to the hilt of his sword as his feet shuffled under the table, assuming a stance that would easily allow him to spring to his feet should it become necessary. He saw Sihtric, who was sitting next Margery, jolt back in his seat to put some distance between himself and the lady. Osferth slowly looked up from his plate, his mouth slightly agape as his eyes flitted between Uhtred and Margery.

Finan glanced at Uhtred out of the corners of his eyes, not daring to turn his head, to look for some sort of direction as to what to do next. Perhaps, if they did not have Aethelstan with them, they would be able to fight their way out of the castle and out of the town. But Finan was loathe to put the young boy in harms way. Uhtred’s eyes had not left Margery’s face but Finan could see his hand slowly moving towards the seax he kept at his side.

“Lady, I am not sure what you ask of me.” Uhtred replied coolly.

“Oh, there is no need to continue the lie, Lord Uhtred. I can clearly see by the reactions I’ve engendered that I am correct.” Margery mused, waving her hand as if to dismiss Uhtred’s protests.

“Please.” The steady bass voice of Lord Bennett broke through the pounding in Finan’s head. “We do not mean you, or your men, any harm.”

Uhtred peeled his eyes away from Margery to look at Bennett. Uhtred remained silent for a few seconds, clearly weighing his options. “If that is true, then why the deception?” Uhtred demanded, “That makes your assurance hard to believe.”

Bennett shrugged calmly, looking towards Margery. “My daughter figured you had reason for lying to us in the first place. She wanted you to dine with us but did not think you would if we knew your true identity.”

“I do not like being deceived.” Uhtred snapped. “It does not engender trust.”

“We could say the same thing, Lord.” Margery retorted, cocking her head to the side so that her long hair brushed arm. Despite the unsettling feeling in his stomach, Finan’s lips parted in amusement. He could not deny that Margery was clever.

Uhtred remained silent for a few moments, staring at Margery as he seemingly considered her words.

Margery clicked her tongue, seemingly growing impatient with Uhtred’s silence, “I have known who you are from the moment you walked through the town gates. It is why we allowed it in the first place. If we meant you harm we would have already acted on it. And we most certainly would not have permitted you to keep your weapons in the castle.”

Finan could see Uhtred’s shoulders relax slightly at Margery’s logic and Finan allowed his hand to come away from his sword, though he remained alert.

“How did you know, Lady? That we were lying?” Finan asked, daring to verbalize the question that he knew Uhtred was too proud to ask.

Margery turned to look at Finan. “We have many scouts and spies in the surrounding towns.” The corners of her lips turned upwards into a small smile, “Some of those men served in Guthred’s guard in Eoforwic before he died.” Uhtred’s face visibly soured at mention of the one-time King of Cumberland but if Margery noticed she did not show it. “Some of those men recognized you during your stop in Arbeia just south of here. When you appeared at our gates, they confirmed that it was indeed the Lord Uhtred of Wessex and his loyal band of oathmen.”

Uhtred hummed in acknowledgment, seeming to accept Margery’s explanation. Nevertheless, Finan could tell that Uhtred was hesitant to accept and move past the fact that they had been outmaneuvered.

“Come now, Lord Uhtred.” Margery entreated, “You served King Alfred. This cannot be your first experience with spies and a bit of deception.”

Finan grinned, deciding that he liked Margery and how quickly her mind seemed to work. “That is true, Lord.” Finan agreed, elbowing Uhtred in the ribs. Finan caught the grateful smile Margery gave him.

Uhtred nodded his head a few times, considering Finan’s words. “That is true.” He agreed with a laugh.

“Uhtred, if your reticence to tell us your true name was because you fear our proximity to Bebbanburg, please rest assured that we spoke the truth earlier. I am no friend to Wihtgar.” Bennett reassured.

“Yes.” Thierry chimed, “My father would sooner burn our winter grain than give that sack of shit a pot to piss in.”

“It is true.” Bennett agreed, shrugging his shoulders nonchalantly as he began to laugh. Finan finally felt Uhtred fully relax and he joined in the laughter.

The remainder of the meal passed by uneventfully with Uhtred and his men regaling Bennett and his children with stories of the odd characters they had met during their many travels. Despite the tense start to the relationship, Finan quickly decided that he liked Lord Bennett and his children. Bennett seemed like a reliable man of honor and Thierry likewise seemed like a good man with a decent sense of humor. However, Finan had yet to get a better read on Margery. It was obvious the young woman was clever, but following her revelation that Uhtred’s lie was fooling absolutely no one, Margery had remained silent for the remainder of the meal.

“I am afraid it is time for me to take my leave.” Bennett announced, placing his hand over his cup to prevent one of the servants from pouring him yet more wine. “I am old and fear I will have a sore head in the morning if I do not find my bed soon. I am sure I will see you tomorrow, Lord Uhtred.” They all stood as Bennett took his leave.

“I think it is also time for us to put the wee man to bed.” Finan nodded towards Aethelstan who was stubbornly trying to rub the sleep from eyes.

Uhtred took a look at Aethelstan and nodded. “Yes, I suppose we should take our leave as well.” Uhtred paused for a moment before turning to Thierry, “Would you like to join us for a drink of ale at the inn, Lord?”

Finan frowned, surprised by Uhtred’s offer. Yes, they had wound up having a pleasant dinner but Uhtred was not known for his quick embrace of strangers.

Thierry looked to his wife for permission, who responded with a small smile and a nod. “Very well. Yes, I shall join you for a while.”

“And you, Lady?” Uhtred now turned to Margery.

Margery looked surprised at being included. She hesitated and when she opened her mouth to speak, Finan was sure she was going to decline. But before she could protest, Thierry interjected. “Come now, Margery. Join us. Do not be a stick in the mud.”

Margery pursed her lips and shot her brother a stern look. Finan figured this was certainly not the first time Thierry had tried to goad his sister into doing something she did not want to do.

“Very well.” Margery agreed, somewhat begrudgingly.

As they all turned to leave the great hall, Finan sidled up to Uhtred. “Lord, what’s with the invitation?” He muttered out of the side of his mouth, glancing behind him to make sure neither Thierry nor Margery were within earshot.

“If the ealdorman of Tynemouth is truly an enemy of Wihtgar, that may be to my advantage one day. It would not hurt to have his children as friends.”

Finan nodded and allowed his gait to slow, falling a few steps behind Uhtred as they walked out of the castle courtyard and back into the town. Uhtred truly always seemed to be thinking one step ahead.

Once at the inn, Osferth saw to it that Aethelstan made it to his bed and Finan saw to it that they had enough ale.

With a large jug in each hand, Finan navigated back to the table occupied by the group.

“I have brought supplies.” He announced jovially, taking his seat across the table from Margery. Playing host, Finan began to pour for everyone. When he got to Margery, he playfully poured a bit extra so that the cup was full to the brim. Margery struck Finan as someone who could be a bit uptight if left to her own devices, so this was his way of pushing her buttons just a bit while they were still getting to know each other. Finan glanced up to see that Margery had narrowed her eyes at him, pressing her lips together to keep from smiling. Finan’s only reply was a cheeky smirk.

Margery reached for the nearly overflowing cup and gingerly brought it to her lips, careful not to let it spill. “Lord Uhtred, did you meet the Dane Sigtryggr during the siege of Winchester?”

“Ah, she speaks again!” Finan exclaimed before Uhtred had the chance to answer Margery’s question. “Lady, I thought you’d lost your voice over the course of dinner.”

The men at the table sniggered but the sharp look Margery shot Finan could have killed a lesser man.

“Unlike some, I have made it a habit to only speak when I have something worthwhile to say.” Margery retorted, her cheeks flushed.

“Aye, that is not something I’ve ever really been good at.” Finan offered.

“Yes, I can tell.” This time, it was Finan who was the subject of the table’s laughter. But Finan did not mind and joined in.

From beside him, Thierry slapped Finan on the back. “Do not take it personally, Finan. My sister is an expert at doling out a verbal lashing. She is much smarter than I am, in that regard. It just means she likes you.”

“Is that so?” Finan countered.

Thierry tilted his head from side to side, “Well, she also does this to those she doesn’t care for so, it really can go either way.” The table erupted in laughter again, and this time even Margery joined in.

“To answer your question, Lady, I did meet Sigtryggar. I spent time with him to negotiate the peace.” Uhtred finally brought the conversation back around to Margery’s original question. “Why do you ask?”

“I am curious to know what he’s like. What his kin in Eoforwic are like. We cannot have a united Northumbria without Eoforwic. Sigtryggar’s control of Eoforwic is preventing that.”

“Are you going to use what I tell you to march in Eoforwic and take the city back from the Danes, Lady?” Uhtred teased.

Margery blushed but she did not let Uhtred dissuade her from her inquiry. “No, Lord. But Eoforwic is only two days ride from here. I’d like to know who my neighbors are.”

Uhtred smiled and acquiesced to Margery’s request, telling her how he had offered himself as Sigtryggar’s hostage in place of King Edward’s sons. How he believed Sigtryggar was different from many of the other Danish warlords. How Sigtryggar was more interested in land and stability than plunder. How Sigtryggar seemed inquisitive and eager to learn. Margery paid rapt attention, as if she was trying to commit each word to memory.

“So, who was it?” Margery questioned, eagerly leaning forward in her seat, “Who was the hostage Sigtryggar demanded?” Uhtred had reached the end of the story of the siege of Winchester.

Uhtred sighed, “My daughter.” He grumbled.

Finan heard Margery inhale sharply, surprised at the turn of events. “Did you let her go, Lord?”

Rather than responding, Uhtred looked down into his cup and noted that it was empty, as were the two jugs that Finan had brought over earlier in the evening. “I think more ale is required before I answer that question.”

“He did.” Finan dramatically mouthed to Margery, hiding his mouth behind his hand.

Margery smiled at Finan’s antics, “I believe that, that is my que to take my leave.” She announced, rising from the table.

Thierry looked up at his sister, “Are you certain you do not want to stay just a little longer?”

Margery shook her head, “I am certain. But do not worry, brother. It is a short walk, I will be fine on my own.”

Though Thierry looked crestfallen at the thought of being dragged away from the tall tales being exchanged at the table, he began to rise from his seat.

Impulsively, Finan put a hand on Thierry’s shoulder. “Stay, Lord.” He looked towards Margery, “I will escort your sister back to the castle.” Finan spent almost all of his time solely in the company of men and he found himself craving the change that Margery’s company brought. He liked the way her full lips smiled at his antics and the sharp comments she threw at him. He liked the way her hair moved when she turned her head. He wanted to make that last for just a few more minutes.

“It is not necessary, really. It is a short walk and Tynemouth is a safe place.”

“A lady should never walk alone at night.” Finan insisted, standing from the table and holding out his arm to signal that Margery should take the lead.

The look on Margery’s face told Finan that she was contemplating rejecting his offer once more, but after a few moments she nodded her head and relented.

As they left the inn, the brisk night air hit Finan like a sharp slap, sobering him up a bit. The days were beginning to warm up with the arrival of spring, but the nights were still dominated by the cold northern wind.

They walked in silence for the first few moments. “I think by now you have noticed that my brother is extremely amiable.”

Finan looked at Margery quizzically, as Margery’s comment seemed to come out of nowhere. “Yes, Lady. Your brother seems to be a pleasant man.”

“He’s been like that his whole life. Thierry has always had a gift for getting along with just about anyone.” Margery paused. “I have always been envious of that. I don’t have the same ease with strangers. It is why I tend to remain silent unless I feel like I have something clever to say.”

Finan smiled, finally realizing where Margery was going with this. “You do not need to explain yourself to me, Lady. I was only jokin’ with you.”

“I know. Nevertheless, I did not want you to think me rude.”

“I do not.” Finan reassured. “For what it is worth, I find that you are pleasant to talk to.” If it hadn’t been so dark, Finan would have seen Margery blush at his words.

The walk from the inn to the castle was indeed short and they soon found themselves at the castle doors. The guards outside the gate pounded on the doors, signaling to the guards inside that they should open the gate. As the doors creaked open, Finan bowed his head to take his leave. “Goodnight, Lady.”

“Goodnight, Finan.” Margery turned to walk away but stopped abruptly. “Will you be visiting the priory tomorrow?” She asked, “Or was that also a lie?”

Finan smiled, “That was not a lie, Lady. That is our plan.”

Margery nodded, “Good. I will come fetch you after breakfast and bring you there to make the proper introductions. The prioress is not particularly fond of strange men.”

Finan laughed, “That is appreciated, Lady. Nuns terrify me more than any Dane.”

Margery laughed before turning and disappearing into the castle courtyard. Even as the doors to the castle closed behind her, Finan felt like the sound of her laugh seemed to linger in the air around him.

Chapter Text

“Lord, blessed thou be for all this night thou hast kept me from the fiend and his power, whether I waked or slept.” Margery crossed herself and knelt down in front of the alter to say her morning prayers.

Margery shut her eyes, clasped her hands and began to pray. As she did most mornings, she prayed to God that the Danes steered clear of Tynemouth, that the Scots remained to the north, that the crop was plentiful, and that God kept her father and brother healthy and safe. But this morning, Margery added an additional, selfish, request, “Please Lord, if you also saw fit to take away this soreness in my head...” Margery grumbled, regretting how much wine and ale she had indulged in the previous night. She had barely been able to stomach her breakfast. This was exactly why she typically turned down alehouse invitations.

Margery heard footsteps approaching from behind and she soon felt someone kneel down beside her. Peeling one eye open, she saw that it was her brother. Thierry quickly crossed himself, mumbled a few words, and then stood, apparently finished with his prayers.

“Careful, brother. You were in such haste God may have missed your prayers.” Margery teased, coming to her feet as well.

Thierry smiled as they turned out of the chapel, “Does God not hear all, sister? I simply ask that the Lord keep me. That does not require very many words.”

“That is a fair point.” Margery’s admission elicited an impish grin from Thierry. “Where are you off to this morning?”

“I am to the masonry to check on their progress. Father is hoping to finish reinforcing the final section of the wall before we hit the heat of summer.”

Margery nodded. Their father had been working to fortify the wooden portions of the town wall with stone for several years. It was an excruciatingly slow process, but the process was finally coming to the end.

“And you?” Thierry asked.

“I am to fetch Lord Uhtred and his men to take them to the priory. I offered to make the introductions myself so as to spare them Sister Ayleth’s inquisition.”

Thierry snorted, “They are actually here to see the priory? I simply assumed that, that was another lie. How odd.”

“Yes, I agree.” Margery replied, picking at a gold thread that was beginning to pimple on the sleeve of her dress. “It does not make much sense that a group of warriors would traverse Northumbria with a young boy simply because he is Lord Uhtred’s ward.” Margery paused, contemplating her own words for a moment. “It does not make much sense for a warrior to travel with such a young ward in the first place.”

Thierry considered Margery’s words for a few minutes before shrugging his shoulders, “I am sure you will uncover the truth soon enough, sister.” Margery could tell Thierry was done thinking about it.

Margery nodded, biting down on the inside of her cheeks to refrain from rolling her eyes. Nevertheless, she could feel the frustration bubbling in her chest. She was not so much annoyed by Thierry’s lack of interest in the relationship between Lord Uhtred and Aethelstan, it was just that this was typical of Thierry’s attitude. The only thing Thierry ever took seriously were his sword skills and waging battle. And his wife and children. At least most of the time. Everything else, everything that he was not interested in but was nevertheless important, Thierry just expected Margery to figure out.

But they had, had this conversation more times than Margery could count. There was no point in having it again this morning.

With a bit more light conversation, the pair walked through the castle and out into the town, taking off towards their respective destinations. Margery made her way slowly towards the inn, taking the time to greet people in the town and make passing conversation. Halfway to the inn, she stopped to chat with a group of merchants who had just returned from Eoforwic, taking her leave only after promising to receive them at the castle in order to hear “what the heathen Danes have done with the city.”

She spotted Finan first, his tall frame leaning casually against a tree as he chatted with Uhtred and Sihtric who were seated at a nearby table. Margery smiled as she recalled Finan’s instance that he escort her back to the castle last night. It generally took Margery a long time to warm up to strangers but Finan’s show of gallantry had endeared him to her a bit.

“Good morning,” Margery announced herself as soon as she was within earshot of the men. The way Finan scrambled away from the tree and cleared his throat made Margery think that whatever the men had been discussing was far from proper conversation.

Uhtred looked towards Sihtric and then nodded towards the inn, prompting the man to stand and head inside, presumably to fetch Osferth and Aethelstan.

As she waited, making idle conversation with Uhtred, Margery caught the smell of ale wafting from a nearby table and she felt her stomach turn.

Luckily, Margery did not have to wait long and soon Osferth and Aethelstan approached, Sihtric once more taking his seat beside Uhtred. “Are you not joining us?”

Both Uhtred and Sihtric chuckled, exchanging a small look with each other. “No, Lady.” Uhtred replied, a smile still on his lips. “I am not inclined towards Christian instruction.”

Margery arched a brow, her curiosity piqued by Uhtred’s response. Her eyes flitted towards Aethelstan and took in his quiet, thoughtful demeanor. Clearly the men had come to Tynemouth purely for the boy’s benefit. It was clear to Margery that this boy was not just Lord Uhtred’s ward. There had to be something special about him. She just could not figure out what it was.

“Very well.” She quickly looked away from the boy so as not to draw any attention to the thoughts that were swimming her mind.

“Finan, will you be joining us?” Margery asked, her eyes focused on her hands as she slipped on her gloves, attempting to appear as disinterested as possible.

Finan took a small step forward and titled his head to look past Margery and towards Uhtred. “Lord, I’m thinkin’ maybe I should go with them. Just in case.”

Margery glanced at Finan curiously. She wanted to ask exactly what danger Finan thought would befall them on the short ride to the priory. But before Margery could say anything, Uhtred nodded and agreed with Finan’s assessment.

“Good. I shall see you later then, Lord Uhtred. Sihtric.” Margery nodded to the men in turn before motioning for Aethelstan and his minders to follow her. “We shall fetch your horses from the stable and ride out to the priory. It is a short ride but we do have to go around the town wall.” There was a shorter way to the priory from the north side of the town but Margery was not quite ready to share Tynemouth’s secrets with these men.

As they made the short walk, Margery hurried her pace to match Finan’s so that Osferth and Aethelstan were walking a few steps behind them.

“Finan.” Margery mumbled, glancing over her shoulder to grab his attention without having either Osferth or Aethelstan overhear. She did not want Aethelestan to overhear her talking about him.

“Yes, Lady?” Finan bowed his head to lean in closer, raising his brows so that the lines on his forehead crinkled.

“How did Aethelstan come into Lord Uhtred’s care?” Margery’s asked, keeping her voice light in an attempt to give the impression that the question was nothing more than a passing thought that had just come to her.

Finan hummed in return and as Margery scanned his face, she could tell he was searching for the right words. “He’s just a boy who needed protection, Lady.” Finan whispered, his face so close that Margery could feel his warm breath on her cheek.

Margery was silent for a few moments, biting down onto her lower lip as she contemplated Finan’s response. There were several questions sitting on the tip of her tongue, just waiting to spill out. But Margery resisted the urge to press him any further. She could tell that Finan was not the type to divulge secrets.

“That is fair enough.” She replied. In truth, it was not fair enough. Finan’s answer did not explain why Aethelstan traveled with Uhtred and his men or why Uhtred was taking the time to teach Aethelstan of Northumbria’s history. If Aethelstan was just a boy in need of protection then Uhtred could have taken him into his home in Coccham and afforded him the protection of a son. No, Finan’s explanation made very little sense. But Margery would just have to bide her time and figure out the truth another way.

They soon reached the stable and after a few words with the stablemaster, mounted their horses and rode out past the town gate.

The wind was gusting across the headland and without the protection of the town’s structures, it took Margery’s breath away for a moment. She felt her unbound hair begin to whip around her shoulders and she swatted at it a few times to keep it out of her face. The sun was attempting to fight through the clouds and Margery looked up towards the sky, allowing the few rays poking through to warm her face.

“With any luck the weather will warm while we are at the priory.” She raised her voice to be heard over the howling wind.

“God willing.” Osferth called. Margery glanced over her shoulder as they rode on, laughing as she saw Osferth cover one of his ears in an attempt to gain some respite from the wind.

They rode in silence the rest of the way, the sound of the wind and the violent waves below them too loud to allow for much conversation. But as Margery had promised, it was a short ride and within a few minutes, they had reached the walls of the priory. Margery quickly dismounted, walking ahead into the gardens.

There were a few nuns sitting on a bench beneath one of the trees and Margery approached them, asking one of them to fetch the prioress. In the meantime, Finan, Osferth, and Aethelstan had caught up to her.

“What order are these sisters with, Lady?” Osferth asked, cocking his head.

“They are the Sisters of Saint Hilda.”

Osferth frowned, his nose crinkling in confusion. “But Lady, I thought…” he dropped his voice and allowed his question to trail off as the prioress appeared in the distance.

Margery nodded, anticipating his question. “What you’ve heard is correct, Osferth.”

“Um, what does that mean?” Finan leaned his entire upper body forward to fill the space between Osferth and Margery, as if to remind them that he was still there.

Margery turned her head and did a double take, surprised by just how close Finan had inserted himself.

“Lady Margery, what can we do for you?” Sister Ayleth had come to stand before them, pulling Margery’s attention away from Finan’s antics. The older woman’s eyes darted between Osferth and Finan, assessing them both with a heavy dose of skepticism.

Margery placed a hand lightly on Aethelstan’s shoulder, “Sister Ayleth, this young man here is named Aethelstan and he is here to learn about the history of the priory.”

“Is that so?” Sister Ayleth reluctantly tore her gaze away from the men standing behind Margery to look down at the boy.

Aethelstan nodded his head, “Yes, sister.” The boy smiled gently, “I’ve been told it is a place of importance to our faith.”

“That is true, young man.” Sister Ayleth smiled tightly but Margery would have sworn she saw the older woman’s eyes soften. Flattery was charming to even the most pious among us. “And what of you two?” Ayleth’s attention snapped back towards Osferth and Finan. “You look like you could have been a man of God at an earlier time in your life.” Ayleth nodded towards Osferth before focusing her acerbic commentary towards Finan. “As for you. You I could easily mistake for a godless heathen.”

Seemingly unfazed, Finan placed his hands over his heart and grinned, “You wound me, Sister.” Sister Ayleth did not seem amused by Finan’s response.

Margery on the other hand coughed loudly, nearly choking on the laughter she was desperately trying to suppress. “They are guests of my father, Sister.” She interjected firmly, finding her voice once more.

“Very well.” Ayleth nodded curtly before turning her attention back towards Aethelstan. She placed a hand on Aethelstan’s back to lead him forward into the priory building, “Pay close attention, young man.” She advised. “There are two Kings of Northumbria buried here.”

Margery hung back, allowing Osferth to follow immediately behind Sister Ayleth and Aethelstan. Margery had been on the receiving end of Sister Ayleth’s lessons on many occasions and did not see the need for a repeat today.

Finan took a step forward to stand besides Margery, “I do not think she likes me.” His voice was tinged with laughter.

Margery smiled, turning her head to look up at Finan. “She does not like most people. She has had a very hard life.” She offered by way of an explanation. “Are you not going to join them in the priory?”

“Oh, I don’t know, Lady.” Finan drawled. “I don’t think the prioress would welcome my presence.”

Margery grinned as she tried to imagine Finan taking instruction from the prioress. “In that case, I am going to walk the gardens while they are inside. Do you care to join me?”

Finan nodded and smiled, holding out his arm to signal that Margery should take the lead. The sun had finally managed to break through the clouds and even though the wind persisted, it had turned into a warm day.

Margery led Finan through the apple orchards, stopping momentarily to pull down at a branch when she noticed that the apple blossoms had started to flower.

“What was Osferth saying earlier? About the sisters?” Finan’s voice was full of trepidation, almost as if he knew that whatever answer he was about to receive was not going to be a pleasant one.

Margery sighed. “Both the town and the priory have been sacked by the Danes many times. The last time Danes attacked was when I was a very small child. The way my father tells it is that a group of Danes were making their way north up the coast from East Anglia. The sisters of Saint Hilda had come to the priory from the border with East Anglia, seeking the safety of its walls. But, there were too many Danes and the walls were not strong enough then. They slaughtered nearly the entire order. Only two of the sisters managed to escape.”

Finan’s thick brows knitted together and his eyes were steely but the way the skin around his eyes crinkled betrayed the fact that the fate of the Sisters of Saint Hilda had struck a chord with him. “That is terrible.”

“Yes, it is.” Margery agreed. Margery had only been five the last time the Danes had come through Tynemouth and she remembered very little of that time. Everything she knew she had either read or heard from her father. “But the two sisters who managed to escape eventually rebuilt the order here. Sister Ayleth is one of those two.”

“Aye, that would be enough to turn just about anyone sour.”

Margery smiled and nodded her head, “Yes, I suppose it would.”

They had come to the edge of the gardens but Margery knew how long-winded the prioress could be. “Shall we walk out past the walls?” She suggested.

“As you wish, Lady.”

Margery led the way through one of the gates and out onto the hillside. “Finan, how long have you been with the Lord Uhtred?” Margery realized that other than the fact that he had a wicked sense of humor and a charming smile, she knew nothing about Finan.

“Oh, it’s been many years. When I met Uhtred we were barely more than children. Now Uhtred has grown children of his own.”

“Does Lord Uhtred have other children? Other than Stiorra, that is?” Margery asked, turning her head to look at Finan. She found it hard to imagine Uhtred as a doting father.

"He has two sons as well." Seeing the somewhat astonished look on Margery's face, Finan chuckled. "Does that surprise you, Lady?"

“Yes, it does.” Margery admitted. “He does not seem very…paternal. And I would imagine the life of a warrior does not make it easy to have a family.”

“That is true, this life does not lend itself to being a family man. But Uhtred loves his children very much.”

“I do not doubt it.”

A few moments of silence passed between them. They came to a stop at the top of the hill, looking out towards the ocean. “Do you have any children, Lady?”

Margery was a bit taken aback by the question. “I do not.” There were times when Margery questioned whether she even wanted children. She loved her nieces and nephews very much but childbirth was dangerous and once a woman had children it seemed like it was expected that she allow motherhood to subsume every other part of her personality. At least old spinsters had the freedom to do as they pleased. “I would actually have to marry first.”

“That is not actually necessary.” Finan teased.

Margery felt her face get hot at Finan’s bawdy joke. She clicked her tongue to chide him and attempted to give Finan a disapproving look, though she could not help but laugh.

Finan laughed heartily at her reaction, the sound echoing down the hillside.

“I was betrothed once.” Margery volunteered. She wasn’t sure why she was telling Finan this, but she almost couldn’t help herself. It was as if some part of her recognized Finan as an old friend.

“What happened?”

“He died.” Margery said simply, her voice small. It had probably been two years since she had spoken of Edmund and the thought of him still made her melancholy. Margery glanced at Finan out of the corners of her eyes. “There was a sickness across this part of Northumbria a few years ago. He was unlucky.” Margery could have sworn she felt Finan shudder at her words.

“I am sorry to hear that, Lady.” Finan was silent for a moment but the air felt pregnant with the words at the tip of his tongue. “Did you love him?”

Once again, Margery was surprised by his question. It was a bold question seeing as how they barely knew each other. But Margery figured that if she felt comfortable and familiar around Finan, maybe he felt the same way around her. The thought warmed her heart.

“I did not.” Margery leaned down to pluck a dandelion in order to have something to busy her hands with. Margery had often wondered what it said about her that she could not bring herself to love Edmund. Saying the words now brought about a mixture of relief and of shame. “He was a good man. He was kind and he listened to my opinions and my advice. Though I think most of the time it was more because he was amused by me than that he actually valued what I had to say. But a woman can do a lot worse than a kind husband who indulges her.”

Margery cleared her throat, hoping to get rid of the dejected tone that had crept into her voice. No, she had not loved Edmund but he would have made a good companion in life and she still grieved that loss. Who knew if she would ever find another proper suitor. “Besides, love is not really the point of marriage. At least not for women.” For all his redeeming qualities, even Edmund had just been another means to end. Edmund had been the heir to a nearby manor and tenant land that Margery’s father had hoped to annex to Tynemouth.

Despite her cynicism, Margery wished it weren’t the case. A few years ago, before her betrothal to Edmund, she had been a silly young girl who dreamed of finding a handsome suitor who she could fall deeply in love with and live out her days in a happy marriage. But love matches like that were for the lucky few and she had long since stopped wishing for things that were unattainable. Margery inhaled sharply through her nose and rubbed her hand across her chest, hoping to physically dislodge the aching pulling at her heart. She silently chastised herself for allowing these thoughts to creep up on her.

“We should turn back.” Margery could see dark clouds slowly rolling in over the water. “It looks like the weather may turn soon.” As if on cue, a gust of wind blew across the hill and Margery’s cloak billowed out behind her. Margery looked at Finan skeptically, taking in the light tunic under his leather vest. “You may soon wish you had brought a cloak or a fur.”

Finan grinned as the pair turned back towards the priory. “Oh, I don’t mind the weather. It reminds me of h-“ Finan caught himself and paused for a second. “Irland. It reminds me of Irland.”

Margery looked at Finan and she opened her mouth to ask him why he had left Irland. But the way he had hesitated and the way his eyes crinkled as he spoke made her think better of it.

“There are actually many monks from Irland who now live in Northumbria.” Margery offered by way of trying to extend Finan some comfort of home. “We had some travel through Tynemouth a few months back. They said the same thing.”

Finan smiled and nodded his head but Margery could tell that he was momentarily lost in his thoughts.

As they reached the priory, Margery noticed that the gardens were empty. The sisters had likely gone inside to seek shelter from the weather and the prioress was clearly still prattling on.

“Sister Ayleth is long winded.” Margery offered apologetically, “But I am sure she will be done soon.”

“I have nowhere better to be, Lady.” Finan nodded towards a stone bench under one of the apple trees. “We can sit and wait for them.”

Margery nodded and followed Finan to the bench, taking a seat beside him.

They passed a few minutes in silence before Finan spoke. “I was married once.” Margery turned her head to look at him, her eyes wide with surprise. She was surprised by both the information and the fact that Finan was sharing this with her. There was a sense of longing and loss in Finan’s voice and Margery could tell that there was so much more that he wasn’t saying.

“What happened?” Margery dared to ask, echoing Finan’s words back to him.

“That is a long story for another day, Lady.”

Margery nodded her head and once again swallowed her questions.

Even though there were things left unsaid, Margery found that she did not feel the need to fill the space and so, with the hum of the wind and the rustling leaves, they settled into a comfortable silence as they waited for Osferth and Aethelstan to break free from Sister Ayleth’s clutches.

Chapter Text

“Lady, your father’s guests have arrived for dinner.”

Margery jumped as the soft voice broke through the silence of the courtyard. With a startled yelp, she accidentally released the taut string of the bow she was holding, causing the arrow to burst into the air in a short, high arch and land a good three feet in front of the target.

Margery scowled at her own clumsiness, muttering a few exasperated words under her breath.

“Lady, I apologize.”

Inhaling through her nose, Margery steadied her nerves. “It is quite alright. It is not your fault.” She quickly turned her head and smiled at the servant woman to reassure her. It was her own damn fault for being so easy to startle.

Looking past Mabel, Margery spotted Finan standing under one of the arches of the arcade that surrounded the courtyard. The smirk on his face told Margery that he had, unfortunately, witnessed her little mishap.

“I’m thinkin’ you didn’t mean to do that.” Finan teased, striding forward towards Margery.

“Keen observation.” Margery grumbled in reply, quickly looking away from Finan as she felt the color creep into her cheeks. Embarrassing herself had certainly not been on her list of to-dos this morning.

Finan laughed, “Well then, let’s see ya try again.”

Margery balked at the request, “Perhaps another time.” She replied, nervously fiddling with the string groove on her bow.

“Oh, come now, Lady. Would ya not like to redeem yourself?”

Margery wrinkled her nose at Finan’s attempt to goad her. “Very well.” She replied curtly. Leaning down, Margery plucked another arrow out of the quiver sitting on the ground beside her, drawing it out as slowly as possible in an attempt to delay the inevitable. It was not that she didn’t want to redeem herself, she just wasn’t quite so sure she could.

With an exaggerated sigh, Margery positioned the arrow against the bowstring and in one sweeping motion, raised the bow to anchor her right hand at the corner of her mouth. Drawing in a deep breath through her nose, she exhaled slowly, and finally let loose the arrow.

The arrow flew silently through the air until it pierced the bale, the dry grass hissing under the pressure. A sigh of relief passed Margery’s lips as the sound reached her ears. Lowering the bow, she assessed her handiwork. The arrow had landed several inches shy of the center of the bale but, nevertheless, it was firmly within the bounds of the target. Margery bobbled her head, glad that she had not totally embarrassed herself in front of Finan but still annoyed that she had not managed to hit the center of the target.

Finan whistled long and low, drawing Margery’s attention. “Well done, Lady. You may consider yourself redeemed.”

“Could still be better.” Margery observed, setting down the bow. She’d been practicing her archery for the better part of a year now and the fact that she still had not mastered the skill was an endless source of frustration for her.

“Ya can’t just take the compliment?” Finan chided gently.

Opening her mouth to retort, Margery found that she had nothing clever to say. “Thank you, Finan.” She relented.

Finan smiled, “You are welcome, Lady.” He bowed at the waist in mock veneration, causing Margery to laugh.

“Shall we finally head inside and sit for dinner? I’m sure the others do not appreciate being kept waiting.”

“After you, Lady.”

Margery turned towards the castle with a swish of her skirts, Finan following at her side.

“Did my father send you to fetch me?” Margery asked after a few moments, frowning as she looked up at Finan. “Did he not trust that Mabel would be able to hurry me along?” She suddenly found it odd that Finan had left the other men to come out to the courtyard.

Finan shook his head, “When we arrived your brother mentioned you’d likely be out here practicing and I wanted to see it for myself.”

“Is that so?” Margery challenged. “And why, do tell, would my skill with a bow and arrow be of such interest to you?”

Finan opened his mouth to speak but hesitated for a moment, his eyes darting around the otherwise empty corridor, “Honestly, Lady, I did not take you to be interested in such things.”

“Why not?” She questioned. Amused, Margery wondered whether Finan had actually thought through how this conversation would go.

Finan lowered his chin, fixing Margery with a stern look, “You’re tryin’ to back me into a corner now, aren’t ya?”

Margery remained silent, a small smirk and an arch of her left brow her only response.

Finan shook his head, “I will not be had, Lady. You’ll not get me to say somethin’ I’ll later regret.”

Margery laughed once more. “You are right, I am not a natural at such things. I’ve only taken it upon myself to learn the longbow because I’ve proven absolutely useless with a sword. I am far too clumsy.”

“Why do you need to be learnin’ such things in the first place?” Finan seemed confused. “I’ve seen many a fierce woman go into battle in my time, but most noble ladies are not trained in such skills.”

They had reached the entrance to the great hall and Margery could hear Thierry reproaching them for holding up dinner. Margery stopped in her tracks and looked up at Finan, “I am a Lady of Tynemouth and should the day ever come, I’d like to do more than cower in fear while my father and brother risk their lives.”

The look that came over Finan’s face was one of both surprise and admiration. It was a combination that disquieted Margery. After all, she did not think her resolve was anything exceptional. “But as you saw today, I have quite a bit of work to do before I can hope to make myself useful.” The words spilled out of Margery’s mouth in an attempt to lighten the atmosphere.

Finan looked like he wanted to contradict her but Margery did not give him the opportunity. She smiled, “I think we’ve sufficiently tested my brother’s patience for one afternoon.” She smiled gently and nodded her head towards the long table.

Turning away from Finan, Margery walked across the hall and took her place at her father’s side. The servants soon began to bring out food and wine and the pleasant murmur of relaxed conversation filled the air.

“Lord Uhtred, how are you and your men finding Tynemouth?” Bennett’s steady, commanding voice caught Margery’s ear.

“Very well, thank you.” Uhtred nodded, “We have been very comfortable here.”

Bennett nodded, smiling proudly. “I am glad to hear it. You are of course welcome for as long as you want.”

“Thank you, Lord. But I think we must take our leave in the morning.”

Margery’s hand froze on the stem of her cup. “So soon, Lord?” She blurted out before she could stop herself.

“Yes, Lady. We have been away from Coccham for long enough and the journey back is a long one.”

Margery sunk back into her chair. This was certainly not welcome news. She had just begun to grow accustomed to Lord Uhtred and his men and now they were leaving. The men had brought revelry to the halls of Tynemouth castle and a trove of exhilarating tales to tell at suppertime. Margery realized she would miss the excitement. There was also a part of Margery that was jealous. Jealous that these men had the freedom to travel from city to city as they pleased. It had been years since Margery had left Tynemouth.

Margery’s eyes traveled down the table and landed on Finan. She realized she would miss the Irishman the most. The corners of her lips fell into a frown. His generous smiles and affable manner had endeared him to her in the short time they had known each other. She would miss his off-color humor and the way his eyes crinkled when she threw a barb at him. And she would certainly miss how easy it was to fall into comfortable conversation with him.

Margery blinked and with a small shake of her head, ceased her rumination. Much to her own horror, she realized that Finan was looking right at her and, therefore, must have noticed that she had been staring at him. Margery quickly looked away, focusing her gaze on the plate in front of her with such intensity that one would think she meant to bore a hole in it with her eyes.

Realizing that she probably now seemed like an absolute madwoman, Margery looked up from her plate and towards her brother so that she could rejoin the conversation and pretend she hadn’t just been ogling a man she barely knew. Margery saw Thierry’s lips move, but she failed to catch his words. She did, however, catch Uhtred’s reply, “No, we are to make a stop in Eoforwic for a few days first. From there, we will continue on to Coccham.”

Before Margery could find the right words to interject, her ears picked up the sound of hurried footsteps slapping against the stone floors. Margery frowned as the sound grew louder. She quickly turned her head just in time to see a member of the household guard run into great hall.

The man came to a stop before the table, panting. “Lord.” He breathed out as he tried to catch his breath, leaning over and resting his hands against his thighs. The man’s dirty face was streaked by the beads of sweat running down from his hairline.

“Aylwin, what is it?” Thierry’s entire demeanor changed almost instantaneously as he rose from his seat, the chair making a screeching sound against the stone as he pushed it back. Gone was the jovial, boyish expression that usually occupied Thierry’s face. In its stead was the serious look of a strategist and seasoned warrior.

“Lord, I come from Blyth.” Aylwin ran a hand across his forehead, wiping away the sweat that had accumulated. “Two of our men were out for a ride and spotted riders from the north headed towards the town. They come from Bebbanburg. They are Lord Wihtgar’s men.”

Thierry cursed under his breath. “Blyth is not even ten miles from our city walls.” Thierry pounded the table with his fist and turned towards Bennett, “That turd is growing far too bold in his encroachments.”

Bennett nodded and rose slowly from his seat. Though there was steel behind the older man’s eyes, he maintained his composure. “How many men, Aylwin?”

Aylwin had caught his breath in the meantime. “About twenty, Lord.”

“And was Wihtgar among them?”

Aylwin shook his head, “No, Lord.”

“Thierry, how many men did we leave in Blyth?”

“I sent five men there as a precaution after Wihtgar’s attempt to take Ellington.”

Margery frowned, finding herself confused. If Wihtgar truly intended to take Blyth, why did he only send twenty men? Surely, Wihtgar knew that Tynemouth would be able to send enough men to defend the town. Despite this doubt, Margery remained silent. This was not her area of expertise.

“Thierry, take twenty of our men and go.” Bennett commanded.

Thierry nodded, “Yes, father.”

“Lord.” Uhtred turned and grabbed Thierry’s arm before he could pass him by. “My men and I will go with you. We are more than happy to repay your hospitality with our swords.”

A broad grin spread across Thierry’s face and he slapped Uhtred on the back. “Excellent. Thank you, Lord Uhtred. Finan, Sihtric, Osferth.” Thierry nodded at each man in turn. “I need to gather my men. Meet me at the stables.” Thierry gave Uhtred’s shoulder a heartfelt squeeze before he ran out of the hall.

Uhtred nodded towards his men and each one stood in turn, ready to follow their Lord into battle. “Aethelstan, you will remain with the Lady Margery and Lord Bennett. We will be back soon.” Aethelstan looked up at Uhtred and nodded.

As the men started to follow Uhtred out of the hall, Margery could no longer hold her tongue. “Lord Uhtred, you cannot go with my brother.” Margery snapped, hardly believing she even had to say this.

Uhtred turned, a look of impatience flashing across his face. “Lady, I appreciate the concern, but I can assure you that my men and I are more than capable –“

Margery clicked her tongue impatiently, cutting him off. “Lord, my objection is not born out of some exaggerated concern for your safety.”

“Then what is it, Lady?”

“Lord, what if one of Wihtgar’s men recognizes you?” Margery cocked her head to the side.

Uhtred frowned and looked towards Finan. Clearly, he had not yet considered this possibility.

Margery continued, “What if one of the men in Blyth recognizes you from your attempt to take Bebbanburg last year? They would recognize you and they would tell Wihtgar that you fight alongside my brother. You would put yourself in danger and you would put Tynemouth in danger.”

Uhtred and Finan looked at each other, some sort of unspoken language flowing between them. Finan clasped his hands together and brought his fingertips to his lips in contemplation. “Lord, maybe the Lady has a point.”

Uhtred sighed and scratched the back of his neck.

“Lord, let us go without you.” Finan suggested, sneaking a glance at Margery. “I’ll make sure Sihtric and Osferth make it back in once piece.”

“No. I will not send you three into battle while I sit here with the women and children.”

Margery couldn’t help but roll her eyes at the show of bravado.

Finan took a step towards Uhtred and lowered his voice, “Lord, it is one tiny skirmish. It is not worth your cousin findin’ out where you are.”

Uhtred placed a hand on Finan’s shoulder, “If we kill them all, there will be no one left to report to Wihtgar.” Uhtred titled his head to side, a wicked smile breaking out across his face.

Finan’s shoulders dropped as he admitted defeat. “Then let us make sure we kill each and every bastard.” Finan matched Uhtred’s devilish expression.

Uhtred laughed and patted Finan’s back. “We will be fine, Lady.” Uhtred turned and strode down the hall to meet Thierry at the stables, Sihtric and Osferth following quickly behind him.

Before Finan could look away, Margery fixed her gaze on him, raising her brows to convey that she did not approve of the outcome of the discussion. Finan held out his arms and shrugged apologetically before turning and jogging after Uhtred.

---------

Time passed at an excruciatingly slow pace after Thierry’s departure. A copy of the Exeter Book anthology of poems sat open on Margery’s lap but she hadn’t turned the page in ages. Every time she came to the end of a verse, she would realize she hadn’t retained a single word.

“Margery.”

Margery barely registered her father’s voice.

“Margery.”

Margery’s head snapped to the right to look at Bennett, finally registering her own name. “Yes, father?”

Bennett raised a brow, his eyes slowly traveling to Margery’s foot. Margery looked down at herself, realizing that she had been bouncing her leg and rattling her father’s desk.

“I am sorry.” Margery apologized with a small smile.

Bennett smiled knowingly. Margery usually sat with her father when Thierry went off to deal with Wihtgar’s intrusions, so Bennett was accustomed to his daughter’s nervous and impatient energy.

“My dear, you appear more agitated than usual.”

Margery smiled weakly, “It is nothing, father. I am just troubled by the fact that Wihtgar felt emboldened enough to send his men so deep into the shire.” This was certainly part of the reason Margery felt more on-edge than usual. But as she looked through the window behind her father’s desk and saw the night sky, Margery couldn’t help but be alarmed by how long Thierry and the rest of the men had been gone. It was that realization that caused Margery’s thoughts to spiral. What if Thierry had been struck down in battle? What if Wihtgar’s men had recognized Uhtred and tried to capture him? What if Finan was seriously injured?

Margery started to bounce her leg again.

“Margery, if you do not settle your nerves you will scare the children.” Bennett looked up from his papers and nodded towards the other end of the study where Aethelstan was seated alongside Margery’s niece and nephew. “You are clearly not making any progress with your poetry so perhaps you can busy yourself with helping me review the steward’s reports.” Bennett fanned the papers in his hands.

While Margery typically enjoyed helping her father manage the estate, in that moment nothing sounded less appealing than reading through an accounting of the mill’s production or a summary of some petty land dispute. Her mind was not in the right place for such a task.

“I think perhaps the children could use some attention instead.” Margery smirked before shutting her book and rising from her chair. Bennett chuckled and returned to his work.

As Margery approached the children she could see that Aethelstan was reading aloud to her niece and nephew. She smiled, slightly in awe at the young boy’s gentle and gracious nature. “What is it that you have there?”

Aethelstan turned his head and looked up at Margery. Rather than responding, he simply held up the book to reveal that it was a transcription of a skaldic poem. “Did Lord Uhtred give this to you?” Margery asked. Aethelstan nodded, somewhat apprehensively, as if he was unsure what Margery’s reaction to the subject matter would be.

“I would like to listen as well, if that is alright with you.” Margery was strong in her faith and saw the histories of the old gods as nothing more than entertaining stories. And as long as one knew the difference between faith and an amusing story, then there was no harm in temporarily escaping one’s thoughts with tall tales of the pagan gods.

And for a while, Margery did escape her own thoughts as she listened to the tale of how Thor came by his hammer. From time to time she would interject, asking silly questions about the plot or the background of one of the minor gods, to make the children laugh. Whenever Aethelstan attempted to answer Margery’s questions she would only make the premise more and more contrived, until the boy would give up and join in the laughter.

As they came to the end of the story, Margery looked up and saw that the candle sitting on her father’s desk had almost completely burned down.

As Bennett searched his desk for another candle, Margery heard the unmistakable sound of men celebrating a victory.

Margery looked towards her father and before either of them could say a word, Margery stood from her seat and rushed out into the corridor.

She saw Uhtred first, leading the way with Sihtric, each of them with an arm around Thierry’s shoulders. They were laughing and patting each other on the back exuberantly. Margery quickly scanned her eyes over her brother, making sure that Thierry still had all of his limbs and that he was not otherwise bleeding profusely. She breathed a sigh of relief after determining that Thierry was fine.

“Your brother is a fierce warrior, Lady.” Uhtred slapped Thierry on the back, “Killed five of Wihtgar’s men on his own.”

Margery smiled thinly, “Yes, my father taught him well.” Now that the men had returned, the adrenaline was beginning to dissipate and she could feel the exhaustion begin to wash over her.

“It is done?” Bennett asked, appearing behind Margery.

Thierry nodded, “Yes, father. We have driven them out of Blyth. We managed to kill most of Wihtgar’s men. Of the twenty, only three got away.” Margery frowned at this news. Evidently Lord Uhtred had been unable to follow through on his intention to kill all of Wihtgar’s men.

“How many men did we lose?”

The victorious smile slid off of Thierry’s face. “Four. We have brought their bodies back for proper burial.”

Bennett nodded and crossed himself out of respect. “Come, I will have ale brought to the hall.”

As Uhtred and Sihtric followed Bennett and Thierry towards the great hall, Margery looked towards Osferth and Finan. Much to her own surprise, Osferth looked unscathed. Noticing the astonished look on Margery’s face, Osferth smiled and lowered his gaze, slinking past Margery to follow the other men towards the great hall.

Finan, on the other hand, had quite a bit of blood splattered on his tunic and on both of his arms. And there also appeared to be some dry blood on his face. Alarmed, Margery took a step forward and, without thinking, wrapped her hand around Finan’s bicep, running her thumb across his arm to wipe away some of the blood. “Are you hurt?”

“The blood is not mine, Lady.” Finan replied gently, placing his left hand on top of Margery’s.

“Oh. Good. I am glad.” She breathed, not meeting his gaze. She quickly pulled back her hand, slightly embarrassed by her own brazen behavior.

“Were you worried, Lady?” Finan asked.

Margery looked up at him, expecting to be met with that roguish expression she had grown accustomed to seeing whenever Finan teased her. But instead, Margery was met with nothing but sincere curiosity and tenderness. She was so surprised that she froze for a second.

Regaining her composure, Margery bit back her desire to crack a joke about her lack of confidence in Finan's sword skills. Instead, Margery responded honestly, “Of course I was.”

Finan smiled at Margery’s candor. “Will you join us in the hall, Lady?”

“I will. But just for a little while.”

As they slowly walked down the corridor, Margery kept her gaze fixed straight ahead. “Finan?”

“Yes, Lady?”

“You should call me Margery.”

Chapter Text

True to her word, Margery remained in the great hall for just a short while, staying just long enough to weigh in on Uhtred’s plans for departure. Given the late hour of their return from Blyth, and the danger that one of the surviving men had recognized Uhtred, the decision was made that Uhtred and his men would remain at Tynemouth for one more day. In the interim, Thierry would send scouts several miles to the north and to the south to ensure that there was no one lying in wait to ambush the men of Coccham. Once this plan was solidified, Margery took her leave. It had been a long day and the promise of a good night’s rest outweighed the temptation to watch the men devolve into drunken revelry.

When Margery awoke the next morning, she was a woman with a plan. The idea must have come to her in her sleep for when she sat up in bed, it seemed so obvious a plan that she wondered why she hadn’t thought of it the day before. By bringing Uhtred to Tynemouth, God had presented her with a golden opportunity to fulfill some of her own ambitions. As much as she believed her duty in this life was to Tynemouth and its people, Margery knew in her bones that she was meant to see and experience more than just what lay within her father’s shire. And now, with Uhtred’s help, she had the chance to at least scratch the surface of that yearning. If the men were to journey and stay in Eoforwic for a few days, well, then she too was going to go to Eoforwic for a few days.

From everything she had heard, Eoforwic was a colorful, dangerous, and thrilling place to be. And what better way to experience the city than under the protection of Lord Uhtred the Dane-Slayer. A man who not only knew the Danes in control of the city, but whose own daughter lived among the Danes. Yes, the circumstances were just so perfect that it must have all been part of God’s plan.

With this scheme in mind, Margery went about her duties with particular zeal. She inspected the kitchen and took stock of the food supply, received a few merchants who reported on the state of trade with the surrounding shires, and at mid-day joined her father in his study to help him go through the steward’s reports they had unceremoniously abandoned the night before. It was once all the reports had been reviewed that Margery decided to put her plan into action.

“Father.” Margery set the last set of the steward’s papers aside and looked up at Bennet from across the table.

Preoccupied with his notations, Bennett did not look up. “Yes, my dear?”

“I have decided that I would like to travel to Eoforwic with Lord Uhtred and his men.”

Bennett’s hand stilled. “You’ve decided now, have you?” Bennett looked up at Margery and set his quill down.

“Yes. I would like to see Eoforwic and I believe this is the perfect opportunity by which to do so.”

Bennett hummed in response, leaning back into his chair and folding his hands across his torso. He remained silent for several moments, as if waiting to see what else Margery had to say. But Margery remained silent. This was a negotiation and she was not going to play her hand until she had a sense of her father’s position.

“And what is it that you are so keen to see in Eoforwic, Margery?”

“Certainly, I would like to visit the great Cathedral there.” Margery figured it was probably wise to start off with something innocuous and pious. “I would like to see the way the port is organized for trade,” another reasoned answer that would appeal to Bennett’s sensibilities, “and I would like to see how the Danes are administering the city.”

Bennett drummed his fingers against the desk as he considered Margery’s words. As she waited for Bennett’s reaction, Margery felt as if she was twelve years old again, presenting her father with all the reasons she should be allowed to keep the stray mutt she had found wandering the outskirts of the city.

“You will be under Uhtred’s protection on the way to Eoforwic and while you are there. But how do you propose to return to Tynemouth?”

“I would propose taking two men from the household guard. That should be sufficient.”

“Three.”

A smile slowly spread across Margery’s face until she was smiling from ear to ear. She knew this meant victory. “Three.” She repeated with a nod.

Bennett laughed. “What did Uhtred have to say about all this?”

Margery demurred. “I have yet to ask him. I thought it wise to discuss it with you first in case you had,” Margery paused so that she could choose the right word, “reservations.”

Bennett smirked, “Child, I can count the number of times I have denied you on one hand.”

“It is true.” Margery admitted. “But that is because I do not make unreasonable requests, father.”

With a soft smile on his face, Bennett shook his head at Margery before silently turning back towards the papers on his desk. It was true, Margery was loathe to impose on her father. But it was also true that Lord Bennett had a soft spot for his daughter.

***

It took Margery a few more hours before she plucked up the courage to find Uhtred and ask him if she could accompany the group of warriors to Eoforwic. Margery was nervous that Uhtred’s initial reaction would be to deny her, so she had carefully thought through several iterations of how their conversation could go. By the time she finally left the castle for the inn, it was early evening and the sun was beginning to set.

Only Finan and Sihtric were sitting outside the inn when Margery arrived, laughing over their pints of ale. Margery greeted the men, doing her best not to let her eyes linger on Finan for too long. It was odd, Margery thought to herself. She found that being around Finan both instantaneously lifted her spirits and made her so incredibly nervous, she would have liked to avoid him if the thought wasn’t so undeniably silly and childish.

“Is Lord Uhtred nearby?”

Finan grinned and turned around on the bench so that he could lean his back against the rough wooden table, “Do ya mean to tell me you’re not here to see me, Lady Margery?” He teased.

Margery sucked in her cheeks to keep from smiling. She silently commanded herself not to grin like a fool at every word that came out of this man’s mouth. “As a matter of fact, I am not. I would say that I am sorry to disappoint you, Finan, but that would be a lie.”

Finan guffawed at Margery’s retort before he clambered to his feet, “I am not sure how I will recover, Lady. But I shall fetch Uhtred if it is Uhtred you require.” Finan turned and sauntered towards the inn, leaving Margery alone with Sihtric.

Margery looked at the Dane and realized that out of all of Uhtred’s men, she was the least familiar with Sihtric. The man was quiet and had a way of stealthily fading into the background. Margery identified with his quiet and observant nature, but she found it hard to connect with someone whose demeanor seemed so much like her own. She fed off of those who were more gregarious and at ease with light conversation.

Margery smiled and opened her mouth to speak but found that she could not think of a good way to engage Sihtric in conversation. Margery closed her mouth, feeling her face get hot. She shifted her weight uncomfortably, “Is your family in Coccham, Sihtric?” Margery blurted out of desperation. She immediately regretted her words, keenly aware of the fact that she didn’t actually know whether or not Sihtric had a family. After all, had she and Finan not just discussed how a warrior’s lifestyle was not conducive to having a family? For all she knew, Sihtric had no living relations. In that moment, Margery wished that she could just slink away and pretend this interaction had never happened.

A grin slowly spread across Sihtric’s face and the man nodded his head, “Yes, Lady.” Margery breathed a sigh of relief. “I have a wife and son in Coccham.”

“Oh.” Margery was genuinely surprised. She had not been expecting that. “That’s wonderful.” She replied with a heartfelt smile.

Sihtric smiled gently and nodded his head, “It is.”

Before Margery could ask Sihtric any more about his family, Uhtred announced his arrival. “Lady, I am told that you wish to speak with me.”

Margery turned away from Sihtric and sucked in a breath before speaking, “Yes. I would like to accompany you to Eoforwic.” Margery quickly continued, not wanting to give Uhtred the chance to say no. “I will bring three men from the household guard with me to see me back to Tynemouth, but I would like to journey with you there and be your guest, so to speak, while we remain in Eoforwic.”

Uhtred was silent as he took a small step back and placed his hands on his hips, sizing Margery up. An amused smirk played across Uhtred’s lips, “You would like to visit Danelaw, Lady?”

“Yes.”

“Eoforwic is a far cry from Tynemouth, Lady. The Danes rule in a very different way.”

Margery frowned. “Yes, Lord Uhtred, I have gathered as much. It is in fact the very reason I would like to go.”

“You may not like how the Danes live.”

“Well, I will make that determination once I have actually seen Eoforwic.”

“The road may be dangerous.” Now Margery was convinced that Uhtred was either trying to frighten her into changing her mind or testing her nerve.

“Yes, I’ve considered that as well. That is why I will bring three guards on our journey. I am also not entirely useless with a longbow, Lord.”

“We may have to sleep rough on the journey. It is two days ride to Eoforwic and depending on when we are able to leave, we may not come across a village or an inn to sleep.”

Margery clenched her jaw, refusing to allow Uhtred to see any change in her expression. Inside, however, Margery could not help but grimace. This was actually not something she had considered. Though the thought did not appeal to Margery, she also was not going to let such a trivial matter stop her from getting what she wanted. “Wonderful. A good chance to connect with nature.”

Inwardly, Margery cringed at her choice of words. But if Margery’s oddly enthusiastic response to sleeping in the dirt gave Uhtred pause, he did not let on. Instead, his face slowly twisted into a smile, evidently amused at the situation.

Uhtred held out his arms at his sides, “Very well, Lady. If it is Eoforwic you want to see, you will ride with us to Eoforwic. We will leave as soon as your scouts return to tell us it is safe.”

Margery beamed at Uhtred. “Fantastic. Thank you, Lord. I will go ready myself for the journey.”

Margery barely made it past the inn before she heard the guards on the ramparts give the order to open the city gates.

Curious to see who was arriving, Margery glanced over her shoulder just in time to see two riders come barreling into the square, their horses kicking up clouds of dust around them before finally coming to a stop. Margery turned her body to look towards the riders and she recognized them as Elias and Leofwin, two of the men Thierry had sent out as scouts. Their sudden and frenzied return did not bode well.

The men dismounted and Margery caught Elias’ eye, prompting the men to approach her.

“Lady Margery.” Elias bowed his head.

“Elias, what is it?” Margery asked, trying, but failing to keep the worry out of her voice.

The two men exchanged a look before Elias spoke, “Lady, we were on watch near Cullercoats, where the forest ends and the beach begins, when we spotted riders coming from the north. It is Wihtgar of Bebbanburg, Lady. He is riding towards Tynemouth.”

“Wihtgar is coming here?” Uhtred interjected, stepping forward to stand next to Margery. Margery jumped slightly, startled by Uhtred’s voice. She had not heard him walking up behind her.

Elias’ eyes flitted towards Uhtred, “Yes, Lord.”

The words rang in Margery’s ears and she felt her heart rate quicken. A numbing sensation began to spread down her arms, leaving her fingertips tingling. “Leofwin,” Margery turned towards the other guard, her voice shaky, “Lord Bennet should be in his study. My brother is likely in the masonry. Please go fetch them and inform them of what you’ve seen.” Leofwin nodded and took off jogging towards the castle.

Margery frowned, forcing her mind to focus despite her nerves. She cleared her throat, steadying her voice “Elias, did Wihtgar ride alone?” Margery already knew that the likely answer to her question was a resounding no, but she figured she would ask anyway.

“No, Lady. They were a party of at least twelve.”

Margery’s frown deepened, “Why do you say at least twelve? Did you not get a good look at them?”

“I want to believe we did, Lady, but,” Elias sighed, running a hand through his hair, “but as I said, we did not spot them until Cullercoats, when the forest thinned. They must have traveled through the night and they must have traveled through the woods the entire way. Otherwise our men further to the north would have spotted them. There was no time for us to go into the woods to spy. They may have more men waiting. I do not know for certain. I am sorry, Lady.” The words spilled out of Elias’ mouth as he tried to convey as much information as possible in the shortest amount of time.

Chewing on her bottom lip, Margery nodded, “No, you did the right thing Elias. How long do we have?”

“Not long, Lady. They were not far behind us and they were riding at a strong pace.”

Margery glanced at the men around her, wishing that Thierry would appear and take charge of the situation. This was not her area of expertise and she wasn’t quite sure of what to do next.

Margery’s eyes landed on Uhtred. The ealdorman was pacing off to the side like a caged animal, hands on his hips and a distant look in his eyes. He was certainly in no state to provide advice.

“Margery.” Finan whispered, lightly touching her elbow. “It is just a suggestion, but it might be a good idea to call more men to the ramparts. And to the gate.” Finan whispered in her ear, turning his head so that Elias could not see his lips move, as if he wanted her to get the credit for the strategy.

Margery nodded in agreement. “Thank you.” She replied, smiling at Finan gratefully. Finan spared Margery a wink.

Turning back to Elias, who was standing there waiting for direction, Margery parroted Finan’s advice, “Elias, please go fetch more of our men.” Margery cleared her throat, the analytical part of her mind finally coming to life, “Get five more archers for the ramparts,” she ordered, trying to imagine the length of the ramparts in her mind, “and bring ten men to the gate. Send a few men to usher the townsfolk into their homes. As a precaution. Tell the rest of the men to stand back but to be ready.”

Elias nodded, “Yes, Lady.” And with a short, quick bow, he was off to fetch more guards.

“Well done, Lady.” Finan mumbled, bumping his shoulder against Margery’s.

Margery bit back a small smile. She glanced down at her feet nervously, wringing her hands, “I must admit that I am both concerned and confused. It makes little sense for Wihtgar to arrive with such a small party.”

Finan hummed and nodded his head, “I reckon there is a reason to his madness. He may be impulsive, but I do not think he is stupid. And his men are fierce fighters.”

Margery sighed. Finan’s words were useful and certainly needed, but they were of little comfort. Margery looked towards Uhtred once more. The warrior was still beating a path through the square, Osferth and Sihtric watching him nervously from a respectable distance.

A commotion on the ramparts stilled Uhtred’s frantic pacing. “Riders in view!” One of the guards called from the ramparts. “It appears to be Lord Wihtgar and his men!”

Margery watched as Uhtred’s expression changed. She took in the wild look on the man’s face – a mix of uncontrollable rage and deep sorrow that both scared and confounded her. What had transpired between Wihtgar and Uhtred to elicit such a reaction? This clearly went beyond simply who had control of Bebbanburg. There was something far more personal at issue.

Uhtred’s eyes landed on the steps leading to the ramparts and he looked ready to storm the wall. Making a split-second decision, Margery ran towards Uhtred and stepped out in front of him. “Lord, do not.” She insisted, holding out her hands.

Uhtred looked at Margery, bewildered. He stilled for a moment but then attempted to sidestep Margery. In response, Margery mimicked Uhtred’s steps to block his path once more. “Lady, do not stand in my way. Let me go up to the wall. I would have him see me.”

“Lord, you cannot.” This time, the firm tone in Margery’s voice made it clear that it was not a suggestion.

“You showing yourself to Wihtgar will do nothing but antagonize him. We do not know why he is here. We do not know exactly how many men he has with him. We do not know if there are sixty men hiding in the woods. We do not know if he has men lying in wait to watch the castle until you leave and ambush you on the road to Eoforwic. Let my father handle this.”

Margery could see Uhtred’s mind moving at a million miles a minute. Finan was soon at Uhtred’s side. “Lord, let us at least wait. Give them time.” Finan placed a hand on Uhtred’s shoulder.

Out of the corner of her eye, Margery saw her father stride across the courtyard, Thierry following closely behind him with Elias and fifteen additional guards in turn. She turned from Uhtred and Finan, not waiting to see what effect Finan’s words would have on Uhtred, and scurried to follow Bennett and Thierry to the ramparts. As they reached the stairs, Thierry abruptly turned around and put his hands on Margery’s arms, “Margery, you should stay down here.”

Margery opened her mouth to protest but Thierry had already turned away from her to follow Bennett up to the ramparts. Margery grumbled to herself, but she did not turn away. She considered listening to Thierry and going back to join Uhtred and his men, but she soon cast that thought aside. She had just as much right to see what was happening as Thierry did. Making up her mind, Margery picked up her skirts and strode up the steps to the ramparts.

Reaching the top of the steps, Margery caught her brother’s eye. Thierry narrowed his eyes at his sister before rolling his eyes in defeat and waving her over to his side.

They waited in silence for what felt like an eternity before Wihtgar and his men finally neared the city gates. Margery’s stomach churned in anticipation as the men from Bebbanburg slowed their horses.

As the riders came to a halt in front of the gate, one of the men began to weave his horse to the front of the group. Margery gripped the edge of the wall, anticipation rising in her throat, as she leaned forward and squinted to get a better look at the man she presumed to be the pestilent Lord Wihtgar. She had never seen Wihtgar in person and Margery was surprised to see that he did not appear to be much older than she was.

“Lord Bennett.” Wihtgar called from below, looking up towards the ramparts.

“Wihtgar.” Bennett acknowledged, declining to use the honorific title. Margery saw Wihtgar smirk at the subtle disrespect. “What is it that we can do for you?”

“You may start by opening the gates. We could use some ale after our journey.”

“Of course, I understand. But I hope you will also understand that if I agree to that, the invitation extends only to you personally. Your men will have to remain outside of the town walls. As will your sword.”

“I cannot agree to that.”

“Then we will have to speak like this.”

Wihtgar stretched his neck to the side, visibly frustrated with Bennett’s responses. “If you will not allow us into the city, then I must ask that you send my cousin out.”

“Your cousin?” Bennett feigned ignorance. “And who would that be?”

“Do not play stupid, Lord Bennett. It does not suit a man of your age. I am certain that Uhtred is here.”

“We have no guest of that name.”

“Bennett, my men saw him with their own eyes at Blyth yesterday.” Wihtgar was clearly growing impatient with Bennett’s stonewalling, dropping the pretense of respect.

A spark of annoyance flashed in the back of Margery’s mind and she was tempted to turn around and castigate Uhtred for not listening to her and for showing himself to Wihtgar’s men at Blyth. Margery quickly realized, however, that, that explanation did not actually make much sense. Blyth was barely ten miles from Tynemouth. It would have taken Wihtgar’s surviving men nearly a full day to ride from Blyth to Bebbanburg in order to alert their Lord that they had seen Uhtred with Thierry. From there, Wihtgar would have had to assemble more men and then set out on the road to Tynemouth. The whole process would have taken two days. Unless, of course, Wihtgar was not at Bebbanburg when his men returned from Blyth. Unless Wihtgar was already on the road to Tynemouth and sent his men to Blyth to confirm Uhtred's whereabouts or to test Tynemouth’s numbers.

Margery let out an exasperated sigh, frustrated with herself for not realizing that there had been more to Wihtgar’s incursion into Blyth. She had been right to question why Wihtgar only sent twenty men to take a town so close to Tynemouth itself.

Bennett’s steady baritone voice focused Margery back to the situation at hand. “Ah, I see. You mean the three men that survived your hapless incursion onto my land?” Wihtgar did not take the bait and so Bennett continued, “Yes, we had a guest lend his sword at Blyth. But that man was a Mercian Lord and he left Tynemouth at dawn. He is long gone by now.”

Wihtgar turned his head, looking away from the ramparts for a moment, considering his next move. “Bennett, I know you are lying. My cousin tried to take Bebbanburg from me and so I have every right to want to challenge him.” Wihtgar looked back up towards the town gate and stood up in his stirrups, “Unless he is frightened to face me without his priest.” He bellowed. “You will be happy to know we gave him a proper Christian burial, Uhtred. Or did we throw his body into the sea along with my father? I do not recall!”

Margery’s ears twitched at the sound of a commotion down behind the gate. Unable to help herself, Margery turned her head to look down into the square. She saw that Uhtred had drawn his sword and was struggling against Finan’s grasp, demanding that the guards open the gate and allow him to face Wihtgar.

Thierry had also seemingly had enough of Wihtgar’s taunts. “Father, let us be done with this fool. Say the word and I will take our men out there and dispatch him straight to hell, for that is surely where such a man is headed.”

Bennett held a hand up to quiet Thierry. “No. He cannot siege the city with such a small party. It would be an unnecessary risk to send you out there to face him. And in truth, we do not know if there are more men nearby. Our men will stay behind the city gates and we will wait for him to make his next move. I will not risk lives unnecessarily”

Bennett’s words sparked something in Margery’s mind and she realized that something about the composition of Wihtgar’s party was off. She quickly counted the number of men. Eleven men in total, including Wihtgar. She counted again. Eleven.

“Elias,” Margery turned towards the guard standing next to her, “how many men did you say Wihtgar was traveling with?”

“Eleven, Lady.”

“So, a party of twelve men in total?”

Elias frowned, “Yes, Lady.”

“Are you certain?”

Elias hesitated, “As certain as I can be, Lady.”

Margery turned towards Bennett and Thierry. “There is a man missing from Wihtgar’s party.” She whispered.

“What?” Thierry grumbled, begrudgingly turning to look at his sister.

“Elias saw Wihtgar with eleven men. There are only ten men with Wihtgar. There is a man missing.”

Thierry frowned, “It could be that Elias miscounted. They were riding quickly.”

“Yes, that is a possibility.” Margery admitted. “But it is also possible that Elias is right, and we are missing something.”

Thierry’s frown deepened. “What do you want to do, sister?”

“Let me send three men out to see if something is amiss.” Margery requested.

Thierry bobbled his head, considering Margery’s words. He glanced over his shoulder to look at Bennett, who granted his approval with a short nod.

“Elias, take two men. Use the erdstall tunnel that leads to the priory and very carefully take a look around the city walls.” Margery kept her voice low, moving her lips as little as possible out of fear that her voice would carry.

Elias nodded his head and turned to head down the stairs. Before Elias could disappear down the stairs, Margery reached out and snatched his arm. “Do not tell Lord Uhtred what you are doing and do not let Lord Uhtred follow you.” Elias nodded and Margery released his arm.

“Wihtgar, I believe it is time for you to take your men and leave.”

“Bennett, it is useless for you to try and protect Uhtred. I know he is in Northumbria and I will catch him. But if you continue to refuse to hand him to me, I promise you that you will come to regret that decision.”

“Now, listen to me you insolent turd.” Bennett raised his voice, seemingly having reached the end of his rope. “The only thing I will come to regret is not coming down there and killing you myself. I will admit it. Lord Uhtred was here. He was my guest and he lent his sword at Blyth. And I would gladly give him quarter again, for any enemy of yours, Wihtgar, is a friend to Tynemouth. But he is no longer here. He left at dawn with his men. He is halfway to Eoforwic by now.”

The forcefulness of Bennett’s tone seemed to convince Wihtgar that whether or not Uhtred was still at Tynemouth was irrelevant, as Bennett was not going to give him up. Tugging at his reins, Wihtgar began to turn his horse away from the city gates, “You should know that we have not seen the last of each other, Lord Bennett. And if you see my cousin, let him know that if he steps foot in Northumbria again, I will know of it.”

“Oh, God knows that I look forward to our next meeting. I promise you it will not be from such a distance.”

It was as Wihtgar began to lead his men away from the city gates that Margery heard the distinct sound of a tussle behind her. Turning around, she saw an unfamiliar man being pushed up the steps, his hands pinned behind his back by Elias. The gold earring in his ear and the odd, brightly colored clothing left no doubt in Margery’s mind that this was one of Wihtgar’s men. The man was struggling violently as he stepped up on to the ramparts, but it was to no avail.

“We found him riding along the north wall.” Elias huffed, slightly out of breath. “He was about to turn into the priory when we caught him.”

Thierry smirked, almost beside himself with glee as he grabbed the man by the scruff. “Wihtgar!” He called, “Are you really going to leave without all your men?” Thierry grabbed the man from Elias and pushed him up against the rampart wall so that Wihtgar could see him.

Wihtgar turned over his shoulder and halted his horse, prompting the rest of his men to follow suit. The surprise on Wihtgar’s face was evident. “Bennett, order your son to unhand my man and send him out to me.”

“Kill him.” Bennett commanded without hesitation.

“What?” Margery protested, whipping her head around to look at her father. Bennett did not flinch or even turn to look at Margery, instead keeping his gaze firmly ahead on Wihtgar’s position.

In truth, Margery had not considered what would happen if they actually caught one of Wihtgar’s men lurking around the city walls. But this – killing the man – certainly had not crossed her mind. After all, they weren’t on a battlefield, where Margery thought it was that men killed other men.

“If he went off on his own and was riding along the north wall, it means Wihtgar sent him to look for weaknesses in our defenses. He has now seen the erdstall tunnel. Kill him.”

Upon this second command, Elias did not hesitate. He grabbed the man by the back of the head and pulled his hair back to expose his neck. The man struggled, trying to free himself from Elias’ grasp. Elias struck the man behind the knees with his foot, forcing him down onto his knees. He then used his other hand to grab the saex sitting at his waist and in one long, smooth motion, slit the man’s throat.

Margery gasped and turned her head to look away as the man fell onto his back. But while Margery could not see the man slowly dying, she could still hear the awful gasping gurgles he made as he choked on his own blood. Each wretched noise made Margery recoil in horror.

Eventually the man stilled and Margery found that the silence that followed was even worse. When Margery could stand it no longer she turned and walked towards the steps. She willed herself to take the steps as slowly as possible, not wanting to run away like a scared child. But in truth, her legs shook with every step. She had never seen a man killed like that before.

Reaching the bottom of the steps, Margery stopped in her tracks. She raised a hand to tuck her hair behind her ear and as her fingertips brushed against her jawline, they touched against something wet. Margery slowly brought her shaking hand away from her face and looked down. There was blood on her hands. Margery’s eyes widened as she looked down at her hands in horror, too stunned to take another step.

Another hand soon gently enveloped her own and Margery looked up to see Osferth standing at her side. “You are alright, Lady.” Osferth smiled gently, his eyes trained on Margery’s face.

Margery could not think clearly enough to respond but she was comforted by his presence. There was something in Osferth’s expression that told her the man knew exactly what she was feeling in that moment. Eventually, Margery nodded and found her voice, “Yes, I am alright.” She repeated. As she spoke, Margery felt the distinct taste of metal building in the back of her mouth. Margery squeezed Osferth’s hand, “I must excuse myself.” She whispered, desperate not to make a spectacle of herself by retching in the town square.

Osferth nodded, “Let us meet in the chapel later, Lady.”

Margery nodded quickly and grasped at her skirts to steady her hands before she took off towards the castle, trying to make her stride as steady as possible.

Chapter Text

They left early in the afternoon the following day, once all of the scouts had returned and confirmed that the road was clear of any entrapments and that Wihtgar was indeed well on his way back to Bebbanburg. It appeared as if Wihtgar’s incursion into Tynemouth had been more a show of force or a scouting mission than anything else. To what eventual end, Margery wasn’t entirely sure and she was far too exhausted to give it much thought beyond the simple conclusion that they had likely not seen the last of Lord Wihtgar.

It had largely been a sleepless night, the grisly images of Elias slitting the throat of Wihtgar’s unnamed warrior reappearing in her mind for hours after she had gone to bed. Eventually, she had fallen into a fitful sleep as the day’s first light began to shine through the small window in her chambers. Even that had been shorted lived, however, as she was awoken a couple of hours later by one of the servant girls coming in to ready her for the journey to Eoforwic.

After the prior day’s events, Margery had admittedly lost some of her enthusiasm for the sojourn. She also wondered whether Uhtred would still allow her to travel with his merry band of men after she had thwarted his attempts to confront Wihtgar. But after the production she had made about being to travel to Eoforwic in the first place, Margery was too stubborn to renege at the last moment. So, she readied herself, packing a few of her simpler gowns and a few more furs than she normally would, in the event they did indeed have to improvise their sleeping arrangements.

For most of their ride that first day, Margery rode towards the back of the line along with Osferth, Aethelstan, and Elias, who had volunteered to be one of her guards on the journey. Margery was too drained to keep up with the barbs that Uhtred, Finan, and Sihtric were constantly tossing about. Finan had come to the back of the line a few times, offering some cheeky remarks and charming words, but Margery’s responses had been lackluster and had sent the Irishman back to the front of the line looking rather befuddled. Osferth’s gentle tone and easy demeanor were far more her speed on this day.

Margery also felt an affinity for Osferth now, his presence like a crutch for her troubled mind. Osferth had indeed found her in the castle chapel while the other men had supped with Bennett and Thierry. They had prayed together in the dark serenity and Osferth had told her about the first time he had gone into battle with Uhtred and how he had cried the first time he stabbed a man. Hearing Osferth’s admission comforted Margery, assuring her that there was nothing wrong with her for reacting in the way she did. It also gave her a little hope that if the soft-spoken and placid Osferth could become a warrior, well then maybe there was hope for her yet. Maybe one day she would not balk at the necessary evils of the world.

It was as the group was traversing the vast emptiness between Dunholm and Darlington that the sun began to set. “We will need to make camp soon.” Uhtred announced from the front of the line.

Margery looked around and sighed, knowing that there was not a village for hours.

“We will camp closer to the river.” Uhtred led the group off the road and into the woods, the soft babbling of running water leading the group towards the River Skerne.

Once they had come to a stop, Margery took her cue from the others and dismounted, tying her horse to a nearby tree. She watched as the men began to set up a rudimentary camp and feeling altogether rather useless, announced that she was going to collect some wood for the fire.

She walked to the bank of the river and hugged its side as she went about picking up whatever dry pieces of wood she could find. Once her arms were full, she paused along the river to watch the sun set over the water. While the river did not have the same gripping expanse to it as the sea, as a child of the Northumbrian coast, Margery still found that the running water had a calming effect over her.

Unfortunately, her peace was soon disturbed and every muscle in Margery’s body tensed at the sound of approaching footsteps. When the rustling of nearby branches reached Margery’s ears, she contemplated her next move. She figured she was in sufficient earshot of the camp that if she screamed loud enough someone would hear her and come to her aid. She looked down at her arms, figuring that she could buy herself some protection with one of the logs.

Taking a deep breath, Margery turned on her heel, fully expecting to see a marauding thief or a rogue Dane. Instead, she was greeted with the sight of Finan ducking to avoid being hit in the face with a branch he had pulled back too far and too quickly. She exhaled in relief.

“It is only me.” Finan announced belatedly as he stepped into the clearing.

“Yes, I can see that now that you are standing before me. I was just thinking about which log to hit you over the head with.”

Finan laughed as he came to stand next to Margery. “Now that would be a fearsome sight.” They stood in silence for a few moments, staring at the water and the sunset before Finan spoke again, “I spoke to the baby monk after you left the camp.”

Margery frowned, “Who is the baby monk? Aethelstan?”

Finan chuckled, “Sometimes I forget that we have not known each other that long.” He glanced at Margery out of the corner of his eye, his lips quirking into a small smile. “The baby monk. Osferth. He came to Uhtred from a monastery. Can ya not see it?”

Margery laughed, “Yes, now that you mention it, I certainly can.” It certainly fit Osferth’s demeanor. “Well, what did you and the baby monk talk about?”

“We talked about you, Lady.”

Margery blushed and looked further down the river, suddenly too embarrassed to meet Finan’s gaze.

“I sensed somethin’ was off with you when you didn’t laugh at any of my jokes today.”

“Well, perhaps you are not actually as funny as you think you are, Finan.”

A low laugh passed Finan’s lips, “Aye, I had considered that possibility but then I remembered that I actually am as funny as I think I am.” Finan’s voice then took on a more serious tone, “Osferth told me that you two were prayin’ in the chapel last night during supper. He mentioned you’d never seen a man killed like that before.”

“It is true.” Margery admitted, suddenly very aware of her own naiveté.

“It was necessary, Margery. You should not have any doubt about it.” Margery silently nodded her head in response. “Your first time will stay with ya awhile, it is true. But it does get easier.”

Margery frowned, “I am not sure I would want something like that to get easier.” Almost instantly she wished she could take back the words. She squeezed her eyes shut in regret. What a stupid thing to say to a warrior – a man who had killed hundreds of men and likely thought little of it. Margery opened her eyes and sheepishly looked up at Finan. “I am sorry. I did not mean it like that. It is just…” Margery sighed, at a loss for how to express herself. “I find it a difficult burden to bear. The idea that you are responsible for the end of a life. After all, I am the one who noticed a man was missing from Wihtgar’s party. I am the one who insisted on sending Elias out.” Margery snuck a glance at Finan, hoping that she had not offended him.

Much to Margery’s surprise, however, Finan did not seem vexed. Rather, a gentle smile played across his face. “Blessed be the Lord, who is my rock. He trains my hands for war and gives my fingers skill for battle.” The surprised look on Margery’s face seemed to amuse Finan for he continued, “Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hands of the wicked.” Margery’s stunned silence caused Finan to laugh. “I am not as much of the devil as I may look. No matter what the Sisters may say.”

Margery smiled, “You may look like many things, Finan, but of the devil is not among them.”

Finan chuckled and gently rocked his body to the right, bumping his arm against Margery’s shoulder gently. “I do not lose sleep over my battles, but I do think of them from time to time. It is what keeps us good.” Margery hummed in acknowledgment, finding some comfort in Finan’s perspective.

“I think we best head back to the camp before your guard thinks I’ve run away with ya.” Finan turned towards Margery and held out his arms, “Here, let me take the kindling from you.”

Margery hesitated, “Oh, no, it is quite alright, Finan. I can carry it.”

Finan lowered his chin and hitched his brow, “Margery, I’ll not have you carryin’ all that while I’m standing right here.”

Rolling her eyes playfully, Margery sighed. “Then we shall share the burden. Here, take half.”

Finan took decidedly more than half of the firewood, leaving Margery to carry just a few branches and twigs. “That is not half.” Margery objected with a laugh. Nevertheless, with a shake of her head, she followed Finan back towards the camp.

As they came into view of the camp, Uhtred spotted them from where he stood beside the piddly fire the men had managed to start in the interim. Holding up his arms in a shrug, he called out to them, “Do you mean to let us freeze?”

Finan chuckled, “It is my fault, Lord.” Finan set down the wood he was carrying before turning towards Margery and taking the few pieces she still had left in her arms. “You know I am easily distracted.” With a cheeky grin, Finan turned his head and gave Margery a quick wink.

Hiding her smile, Margery sat down and began to busy herself with stoking the fire. As she did so, her ears picked up the sound of a conversation that did not appear to be going well for Osferth.

“Osferth, why are you acting like such a coward over a woman? What is it that you think will go wrong?” Uhtred taunted.

Osferth groaned, and in what appeared to be an attempt to ignore Uhtred, busied himself with taking out some apples and bread from his saddlebag. “I am able to think of quite a number of things. Would you like me to recite the list for you, Lord?”

Uhtred looked up and caught Sihtric’s eye, the two men exchanging a skeptical look and groaning in unison.

“Please do not.” Sihtric piped as he grabbed an apple from Osferth and sat down on a log by the fire. Finan chuckled at Sihtric’s stony expression as he strode across the camp and lowered himself down onto the ground beside the log that Margery was occupying.

As the men laughed at Osferth’s expense, Margery could not contain her curiosity. “What is it that we are making fun of the baby monk for?”

With a pointed look at Finan, Osferth tore off a piece of hard bread and chucked it at Finan’s head, “It is not necessary to have everyone call me that.”

Finan deftly caught the projectile before it could hit him in the face and with a cheeky grin, popped the piece of bread into his mouth, loudly smacking his lips in Osferth’s direction as he chewed. “You have no proof it was me, baby monk.” The laugh that followed from Finan was proof enough.

“The baby monk is in love.” Sihtric stretched out the last syllable for as long as he could, amusement dancing across his face.

Her interest piqued by this development, Margery smiled at Osferth, “Is that so, Osferth?”

Osferth blushed, “There may be a lady in Coccham that I am fond of.”

Dropping an arm over the log Margery was sitting on, Finan looked up at Margery, “He’s just too scared to tell her.”

Seeing the earnest look on Osferth’s face, Margery did not have the heart to tease him any further. “You should tell her, Osferth. You are a good man. Any woman would be lucky to have you. Why do you hesitate?”

“Do not ask him that, Lady. He has a list.” Sihtric piped, the serious expression on his face forcing Margery to bite back her laughter.

Osferth’s blush deepened, but this time it was accompanied by a smile. “The Lady is now my favorite and you all have been moved down on my list.” Osferth gave each of his friends a pointed look in turn, causing everyone to laugh.

“Lady, you are making us all look bad.” Uhtred teased.

Margery held her hands out innocently, “No, Lord. I think you all managed that quite well on your own.”

Uhtred laughed and nodded his head in agreement as the camp settled into a comfortable buzz. Eventually, the conversation stilled and the men began to shuffle about, preparing to turn in for the night.

Finan scrambled to his feet and stretched out his arms, a loud yawn accompanying his movements. “Pretty man,” Finan groaned, pointing across the fire to Elias, “you are on first watch with me.”

Elias snorted at Finan’s characterization and shot Margery an incredulous look before acquiescing to the instruction.

Taking her cue from the men, Margery stood. But before she could make her way to her rudimentary canvas tent, Uhtred’s voice stopped her in her tracks. “Lady,” the tone in Uhtred’s voice had taken on a decidedly more serious tone than in their earlier conversation.

“Yes, Lord?” Margery turned her head and looked down at where Uhtred was seated.

“It was a mistake to let Wihtgar go yesterday.” He stated casually, tossing the core of an apple over his shoulder.

Margery sighed and smoothed out her skirts to buy herself a few moments. Frankly, she had been on pins and needles all day waiting for Uhtred to say something about the events of the prior day. She somewhat resented that he had waited this long to say anything.

“I know that, Lord.” There was no mistaking that, looking back, Uhtred was right. “But I say that now with the knowledge that he only had a small party with him and with the knowledge that he sent one of his men to assess our defenses. We did not know any of this when he appeared at the gates.”

Uhtred stood and wiped his hands against the front of his trousers. “I would have attacked him yesterday, even without that knowledge. You cannot always be so cautious; it will cost you two-fold one day.”

Margery pursed her lips and was silent for a few moments. Of course, there was some truth to Uhtred’s words. Caution was not always rewarded. But Uhtred was also refusing to the see the other side of the argument and if he was going to be stubborn about it, then she certainly was not going to just go along with his assessment. She had already made one concession in admitting he was right. “Lord, you were acting on emotion yesterday.”

Uhtred clenched his jaw and glowered at Margery for a moment before his expression softened. “Wihtgar has taken much from me.” Margery knew this was as close to an admission as she was going to extract from Uhtred.

“More than Bebbanburg.” It was not a question.

“More than Bebbanburg.” Uhtred confessed.

“A priest, perhaps? A friend?”

Uhtred’s lips twisted into a rueful smile as he glanced off to the side. “Lady, you know I am not a Christian.” His voice dropped, “Beocca was like a father to me.” He explained.

Margery’s heart contracted, as if Uhtred’s words were wrapping around it and squeezing. She could feel her mind stumbling over all the possible words of consolation she could offer, but none seemed right. None seemed suited to the particular kind of pain that Margery knew Uhtred was feeling. “Perhaps in your place I would have felt the same, Lord.” It was the best that Margery could offer.

A lop-sided smile occupied Uhtred’s face but it did not reach his eyes. He nodded slowly and gently placed a hand on Margery’s shoulder. With that, Uhtred slowly walked off towards his own tent.

Knowing that, that was the end of the conversation, Margery walked to her own tent and pulled aside the canvas flap to step inside. The tent itself was small, meant solely to shield one from the elements as they slept, and with her height, Margery had to bow her head in order to avoid hitting up against the top of the tent.

Sighing, she crouched and laid down on to the furs. Margery wriggled her body against the furs in an attempt to relax into the makeshift bed. She closed her eyes and took in several deep breaths, trying to still her mind and relax enough so that she would be able to fall asleep. It had been a tiring day, both physically and mentally, and she was exhausted. In theory, therefore, she should have been able to fall asleep quickly. But the unfamiliar sounds outside her tent and the creeping memory of the last time she had, had to sleep outside were joining forces to make sleep hard to come by.

Sighing in frustration, Margery rolled onto her side and squeezed her eyes tighter, as if sleep would come if she simply willed it enough. The sound of a twig snapping in the distance forced her eyes open. Margery’s ears were now on high alert and she picked up every rustling leaf and crackle of the fire outside her tent.

“Don’t be stupid.” She muttered to herself, closing her eyes once more. Both Elias and Finan were on watch and there were five other highly skilled warriors sleeping nearby. The likelihood of any harm befalling the camp was slim.

But then, another twig snapped in the distance and Margery’s eyes shot open, all sense and rationality disappearing from her mind. Margery sat up and looked around the small tent, trying to see if she could spot anything in the shadows that played across the canvas. But the only thing she could make out were the fire and the trunks of a few trees.

Perhaps, Margery thought to herself, if she could just look around for a few moments and reassure herself that there was nothing to be concerned with, then she would be able to rest. Margery crawled towards the front of the tent and drew back the flap. She poked her head out of the tent, glancing to the right and then to the left, seeing nothing out of the ordinary. Nearly satisfied, Margery rose to her feet and slipped out of the tent so she could get a look at what was behind her tent.

“Lady, is everything alright?” Margery jumped at the sound of Elias’ voice.

“Yes. Everything is fine.” She stammered, placing a hand over her chest. Elias frowned and eyed her carefully, “Are you sure, Lady?”

Margery smiled and nodded her head, suddenly feeling very stupid and quite embarrassed. “Yes. Everything is fine. Thank you, Elias. I am going to go back to bed now.” Margery turned away from Elias and slipped back into her tent, cringing at her own behavior.

“Well, that was indeed stupid.” Margery grumbled to herself as she tried to settle back in amongst her furs. The last thing she wanted was to appear weak or frightened, but she feared that was precisely the impression she was giving off.

As she stared at the canvas sides of the tent, Margery saw the shadow of a man approaching her tent. She groaned to herself, sure that it was Elias coming to check on her once more. Or worse, to stand guard at her tent.

“Everythin’ alright in there?” Much to her surprise, the voice Margery heard was Finan’s deep brogue.

Margery felt a piece of her dignity break off and slip away. She was thankful that the canvas between her and Finan meant that he could not see her face grow red. “Yes, perfectly fine.” She replied.

Finan chuckled before he crouched down beside the tent. Clearly, he did not believe her. “Margery, are you going to tell me what’s botherin’ you or are you gonna make me sit here all night?”

Margery rolled her eyes despite the fact that Finan could not see her. “There is nothing to say.” She insisted, hoping she sounded sufficiently convincing.

Finan sighed dramatically and lowered himself onto the ground.

“Finan, you are rather persistent.”

“Ya know, that’s not the first time I’ve heard that.” Though Margery could not see Finan’s face, from the sound of his voice, she was willing to bet that he was grinning from ear to ear.

Margery sighed and rolled her eyes. Knowing that Finan wasn’t going to give up, she scooted closer towards the front of the tent. “There is nothing wrong.” Margery insisted. “I just…” She rolled her eyes, “I was simply uneasy and wanted to see for myself that everything was alright.”

“And what were you going to do if it wasn’t?”

“Well,” Margery hesitated. “I had not thought that far.”

This made Finan laugh. “That seems unlike you.”

It was Margery’s turn to laugh, “Yes, I suppose I do tend to always have a plan.”

Finan hummed in agreement. “I have noticed that. I reckon that was a lesson learned the hard way.”

A half-smile found its way on to Margery’s face. Though Finan was Uhtred's oath man and, therefore, played second fiddle to his Lord, she found him to be just as observant and astute as Uhtred. "Do you recall a few days ago when I told you the story of the sisters of Saint Hilda?”

“Of course I do, Lady.”

“The Danes did not sack just the Priory. They sacked Tynemouth as well. The wall was not made of stone back then and it was not very high. And there were so many of them. I was so young, I do not recall much. All I remember after we fled the town is hiding down on the beach with Thierry and my mother.” Margery reached inside her collar and pulled out the small gold cross that hung around her neck. “Thierry of course wanted to run back to the town and fight the Danes.” Margery laughed as she recalled Thierry insisting he was old enough and strong enough to fight. “Even from the beach we could hear the screams. We stayed there till morning and eventually my father came to find us.” Margery absentmindedly ran the cross around the chain. She furrowed her brow, trying to make the image in her mind clearer. But it was too distant and too hazy and all Margery could see was the absolute darkness that had blanketed the beach that night. She blinked a few times, willing the image away.

Finan was silent for a long moment, “I have not heard you mention your mother before.”

Margery glanced down at the necklace she was holding, recalling how her mother had placed it around her neck that night on the beach, telling her she could only wear it if she was brave. How she had wanted to be brave for her mother.

“She died in childbirth while I was still young, just a few years after that night.” Margery could feel the emotion rising in her throat and she took a deep breath to quell it. “I think of her in my quiet moments, when I am alone. But it is often times easier to just not speak of her. I know that may sound harsh, or cruel, or –“

FInan cut her off, “No, it does not. It is often easier to not speak of our suffering. To pretend as if it did not happen.”

“I reckon that you say that with some experience.” Margery parroted Finan’s words back to him.

“That is true.”

The silence stretched between them, but it was not without meaning. Though Margery knew better than to press Finan at this point, it was her own clumsy way of offering to carry some of whatever it was Finan was holding back.

It was Finan who finally broke the silence. “We have another long ride ahead of us tomorrow. You should try and get some sleep, Margery.” His hand reached and pulled back the flap of her tent just wide enough to peek inside. As she met Finan’s gaze, Margery felt her heart jump into her throat. “You need not worry Lady, I will be here.”

Chapter Text

Eoforwic. Or, as the Danes now called it, Jorvik. Whatever the name, it was the great city of Northumbria. As far as great cities went, Uhtred found Eoforwic a bit lacking. After all, it did not have the stature and intrigue of Winchester nor the size and vibrancy of Lunden. And frankly, Uhtred did not have fond memories of the city. But, even so, it was a bustling burg where Danes and Saxons lived together in some semblance of peace, making it a colorful enough place that Uhtred and his colorful band of travelers could enter the city without drawing much attention.

After delivering the rest of his party to the most decent inn he could find, Uhtred took off on his own. While the other men were interested in acquiring both ale and women, Uhtred had an entirely altogether different mission. His first priority in Eoforwic was to find Stiorra. That was, after all, his entire reason for diverting their path back to Coccham this way.

Uhtred sauntered through the crowded marketplace, occasionally taking note of the odds and ends for sale by the foreign merchants. As luck would have it, he soon spotted Stiorra standing in front of a stall, haggling over the price of furs. Uhtred slowed his gait and came to a stop amongst the crowd, forcing merchants and customers alike to indignantly pick their way around him. He took a moment to admire his daughter from a distance, reveling in how she had grown into an independent, intelligent, and assertive young woman. And in how she resembled Gisela more and more each time he saw her. His heart ached with both pride for Stiorra and longing for Gisela.

As if she could feel someone’s eyes on her, Stiorra looked away from the merchant she was quibbling with and out into the crowd. Her eyes searched for a few moments before they landed on Uhtred. At first, she looked confused, clearly not having expected to see her father in the crowd. But soon, that expression gave way to one of joy. Uhtred’s own expression mirrored the sentiment and now that he had been caught, he once more made his way towards Stiorra, his smile growing wider with each step.

“Father!” Uhtred was no more than an arm’s length away and he quickly closed the distance, pulling Stiorra into a tight embrace. With a light laugh, Stiorra returned the hug. “I was not expecting you!”

“We are traveling back to Coccham from the north and I thought I should see my favorite daughter.” Uhtred released Stiorra from his grasp so that he could look at her, his hands lingering gently on her shoulders.

Stiorra smiled and playfully rolled her eyes, “I am your only daughter.”

“True.” Uhtred conceded with a tilt of his head. “But you would be my favorite even if it were not.”

“Did you come alone?” Stiorra asked, briefly turning back to the merchant and handing over a few silver coins in exchange for the furs, her previous intention to strike a bargain seemingly forgotten. “Are all the men with you? Have you also brought Aethelstan?”

Uhtred could not help but smile as the words spilled out of her mouth. It was clear to him that she missed the men of Coccham and it warmed his heart to realize that his men had also become Stiorra’s family over the years. He nodded in reply, “Yes, they are all with me. I am sure they wish to see you.”

Stiorra smiled, seemingly pleased with the news. “Good.” A perfunctory nod followed. “Will you walk with me?”

“Of course.” Uhtred threw an arm around Stiorra’s shoulders, drawing her into his side as he allowed her to lead him through the crowd.

“How long do you plan on staying?” Stiorra’s eyes flitted up towards Uhtred, stealing a hopeful glance.

Uhtred sighed, hesitant to answer. There never seemed to be enough time to just remain in one place and enjoy some peace with his children. There was always some task, some duty, some oath, calling him away. “I am not certain. A few days.” He saw the mixed expression that flashed across Stiorra’s face. The promise of a few days was both a gift and a disappointment. “We have already been away from Coccham for too long.” He offered as an explanation.

“I understand.” Stiorra mused, the slightest tinge of disappointment evident in her voice.

Having left the crowded marketplace behind, they finally reached the steps leading into the great hall of Eoforwic and Uhtred allowed Stiorra to slip from his grasp. “Will you not come inside?”

Uhtred placed his hands on his hips and looked around the square before pointing to the hall, “Is this where you are living?” He asked.

Stiorra shifted her weight, crossing her arms over her chest, “Yes.”

“And where does Sigtryggr stay?” Of course, Uhtred knew the answer to his question. He had known it since he first caught a glimpse of the two of them together outside the palace in Winchester. And of course, he had little room to talk. But this was his child – he was not going to let the moment pass without at least playing the part of the disgruntled father.

Stiorra, however, was having none of it. She sighed, clearly communicating her exasperation. “Just come inside, father.” She said with a roll of her eyes before walking into the hall.

Acquiescing to his daughter’s demand, Uhtred followed, finding the hall much changed since he had last seen it. Gone were Guthred’s seemingly interminable crucifixes and gangly, impotent guards. The great hall was now decorated with shields and animal skins and sturdy Danish warriors. It was certainly a pagan’s hall.

Uhtred watched as Stiorra tossed the items from the market lazily across the long table. She moved so easily that there was no mistaking that this was her home. Uhtred could not help but feel rather clumsy and out of place, unsure of how to handle the unfamiliar feeling of being his daughter’s guest.

“We should have a feast tonight.” Stiorra pronounced, turning once more to her father. “To welcome you and the men. It will be fun. We can eat and drink, tell stories, and play games.”

Before Uhtred could respond, a steady, low voice cut through the air. “And who are we to deplete our stores for, Stiorra?”

Uhtred turned over his shoulder to see Sigtryggr amble into the hall, hands clasped behind his back. His eyes quickly landed on Uhtred and his lips furled into a smile “Ah. It is the Dane Slayer.” Though Uhtred did not appreciate the moniker, it was clear that the Dane was using it as something of a term of endearment.

“Yes, it is me.” Uhtred clasped the younger man’s arm, “I have come to take Eoforwic from you.” He teased.

“Is that so?” Sigtryggr laughed, clapping Uhtred on the shoulder. “Is there an army at my gates or do you plan on taking my city with just your small collection of vagabonds?” Sigtryggr moved away from Uhtred and took a seat at the table, motioning for Uhtred to join him.

Uhtred obliged and took a seat across the table from Sigtryggr. “I do not think our odds are so bad. I hear from the lords of Northumbria that your men are growing fat and lazy in Eoforwic.”

“And which lords are those? I will have them killed first when I send my men to raid.”

“That is only if your men have not grown too weak to wield their weapons.”

Stiorra let out a groan as she plopped into the seat at the head of the table, cutting their banter short. “Are you two also going to compare who can piss further?”

Sigtryggr turned his head to look at Stiorra, his eyes bright with amusement. “We are…” Sigtryggr paused, “How do you Saxons say? Bonding. Your father and I are bonding.” Stiorra merely rolled her eyes in response, a playful smile sitting on her face.

Sigtryggr looked upon Stiorra for another long moment before finally tearing his gaze away and looking back at Uhtred. The intimacy of the way Sigtryggr looked upon Stiorra was not lost on Uhtred. And while on one hand he had wanted to dislike the Dane for taking his daughter away from him, he could not deny the obvious fact that Sigtryggr was in love with Stiorra and that Stiorra was in love with him. So, Uhtred could not hate him.

Uhtred watched as Sigtryggr slowly sunk into his seat and drummed his fingers on the table. “So, you are coming from the north? You are on your way back to Coccham?”

Uhtred cocked his head, wondering how it was that the man had come to know of his movements. “Do you have spies looking out for me, Sigtryggr?”

The young Dane responded with a lopsided smile. “I do not. But I have scouts to the south and to the east of the city. They would have alerted me if they had seen the Dane Slayer marching towards me.” Sigtryggr shrugged. “They did not. So, you must have come from the north.”

“You do not have scouts to the north?”

Sigtryggr was silent for a few moments, clearly considering how much he should share with Uhtred. Eventually, he shrugged, seemingly coming to the conclusion that there was no harm in an honest response. “It is not my northern neighbors that I am concerned with.”

The implications of Sigtryggr’s words piqued Uhtred’s interest. “You do not think the peace will hold?”

“The peace will hold if we are vigilant.”

Uhtred hummed in response and leaned back into his seat. He did not blame Sigtryggr for being wary of Edward and Aethelflaed. Though they had allowed Sigtryggr to take Eoforwic, it was no secret that Alfred’s children still dreamed of a united, Saxon controlled, Northumbria.

“How far north did you travel?”

The question caught Uhtred off guard and he struggled to understand the purpose of it. His inability to read Sigtryggr’s motivations was unsettling. “Far.” He replied cautiously.

“As far as Bebbanburg?”

Uhtred immediately bristled at the question. Why was it that in the past week everything and everyone sought to remind him of Bebbanburg? “No. Not that far north.” His tone was curt, appreciating the fact that Sigtryggr was not simply making idle conversation.

Sigtryggr grinned, pulling back his lips to show his teeth. “If you wish, I can give you the men.”

For the first time in a long time, Uhtred was stunned into silence. This was certainly not the path he thought this conversation was going to take. He frowned, trying to deduce why Sigtryggr would even make the offer. He knew it was not simply out of affection for him as Stiorra’s father.

“Not now. It is spring and my men have a harvest to plant for. But after the planting season is over.”

With this, Uhtred saw an opportunity to change the subject. “So then what the Northumbrian’s say is true. You have turned warriors into farmers?”

Sigtryggr shrugged casually, “Peace and land. Is that not what I said?”

“You did.” Uhtred drummed his fingers on the table. Sigtryggr’s men, even if they were currently planting barley, or wheat, or whatever it was that farmers in Northumbria grew, they were fierce warriors. Uhtred knew that with just one hundred of Sigtryggr’s men he could take Bebbanburg in a week.

“You do not have to answer now.” Sigtryggr conceded once it was clear that Uhtred was not going to simply leap at the offer. Uhtred was, in fact, tempted by the offer. Part of him wanted to say yes, bide his time until the planting season was over, and then arrive at the gates of Bebbanburg with one hundred fierce Danes and plunge Serpent’s Breath straight into Wihtgar’s heart. But the rational part of Uhtred’s mind – which despite what Beocca would have said, did indeed exist – knew that Sigtryggr was going to exact a price for the use of his men. Before he accepted such an offer, Uhtred knew he needed to figure out what Sigtryggr wanted and whether the price was worth it.

Seeming to sense that the men were at an impasse, Stiorra interjected. “If an answer is not needed now, then can we please talk of something else?”

Grateful for the intervention, Uhtred looked to Stiorra and smiled. “Yes. Let us. Let us talk about what is happening here.” He pointed between Sigtryggr and Stiorra.

Allowing his attention to be diverted, Sigtryggr smiled so broadly that his eyes crinkled. “I have made your daughter my wife, Dane-slayer.”

Doing his duty as a father, Uhtred spent some time feigning indignation at the idea that Sigtryggr and Stiorra had married. Eventually, he relented, congratulated the pair, and took his leave from the hall, promising that he would return later for the feast Stiorra insisted on holding.

As he picked his way back towards the inn, Uhtred could not help but reflect on Sigtryggr’s offer. He decided that he needed to discuss the proposition with Finan in private. His second in command had a keen strategic mind and would certainly be able to offer some valuable advice.

As he came upon the inn, Uhtred spotted the very man he had been thinking of. Finan, however, was not alone, and indeed appeared to be in heated conversation with another man. Drawing closer, Uhtred realized that Finan was arguing with Elias. “What is this?” He called to the pair.

Finan turned away from Elias, “Lord, this fool lost her.” Uhtred was surprised by the ire in Finan’s voice.

“I did not lose her.” Elias insisted.

“Who? Who did you lose? Or not lose?” Uhtred found it rather exasperating that both men insisted on such vague responses.

It was Finan who finally clarified. “Margery.” The familiarity with which Finan referred to the Lady was not lost on Uhtred and by the sharp look that Elias gave Finan, it evidently was not lost on the guard either. This was clearly another thing he would have to discuss with Finan in private.

“As I said, I did not lose her. She left the inn without alerting me.”

Finan rolled his eyes, “And you should have been keepin’ an eye on her. That is, after all, your entire purpose here, is it not?”

Uhtred sighed and took a step closer to the two men, placing a hand on Finan’s shoulder. “Eoforwic is not that big of a city and it is still light. I am sure she did not go far.” As Finan and Elias glowered at each other, Uhtred turned his head to look down the street, trying to think of the most likely direction Margery would have gone in. Margery was under his protection and it would not do to lose the Lord of Tynemouth’s daughter within hours of arriving in Eoforwic.

Seeing a familiar figure weaving through the crowd, Uhtred narrowed his eyes and squinted. A few moments later, Margery emerged from behind a group of women, seemingly unscathed. “In fact, I do not think she is lost at all.” Uhtred slapped both men on the back and watched as Margery approached the inn, a roll of fabric tucked under one arm and a look of determination on her face.

“What?” Finan turned his head, following Uhtred’s gaze. The look of relief that came over Finan’s face was also not lost on Uhtred.

“Lady, you have been found!” Uhtred teased.

At Uhtred’s words, Margery came to a stop a few feet away from the men, her brows pinching together. “Found?” She asked, her eyes narrowing. “I was not aware that I was lost to begin with.” Uhtred’s lips slowly pulled into a smile and he began to laugh, amused by the woman’s complete obliviousness to the discord her disappearance had caused.

Chapter Text

Eoforwic. The great city of Northumbria. It was colorful, crowded, and exhilarating. Granted, it did smell a bit, but Margery figured that, that was inevitable given the size and density of the population. Besides, she would not let such a thing ruin her adventure. From the moment they rode into the city, Margery found herself itching to explore. To see what oddities were for sale in the market, to observe the strange mix of Dane and Saxon milling about together, and to experience the feeling of getting lost in a crowd of strangers.

With the promise of such adventure animating her, Margery ignored the fact that the floors of the inn were sticky with the remnants of spilt ale and the fact that the wooden chairs all looked as if they had been tossed about during more than one drunken argument. She quietly followed the innkeeper as he showed the party to their respective rooms and was relieved to find that her room was spacious, clean, and decent. Even with its tattered edges, this inn was certainly more palatable than the prior night’s accommodations. Despite fervent protestations from all of the men, Margery was still convinced that the inn they had slept in on the second night of their journey had doubled as a whorehouse.

Alone in her room, Margery rummaged about in her saddlebag and pulled out a small leather pouch. She took out most of the coin and hid the silver between the furs in her saddlebag, leaving just a few silver coins in the pouch in the event something caught her eye at the market.

Crossing the room, Margery opened the door and poked her head out into the corridor, slowly turning her head to the right, and then to the left, to ensure that the corridor was free of any overbearing guards. She did not fancy having someone stalking behind her and watching her every move as she tried to explore Eoforwic. It would detract from the atmosphere.

Satisfied that she could slip out unnoticed, Margery stepped out of her room and gently shut the door behind her. For a moment, she considered knocking on Finan’s door and seeing if he had any interest in accompanying her. Something had changed during their journey to Eoforwic and now Margery found that not only did she enjoy his company, but that she also craved it. However, she quickly decided against it, rationalizing that Finan would almost certainly prefer to sit in the alehouse with Sihtric and Osferth than wander about Eoforwic with her. No matter, she enjoyed being on her own.

Margery quickly descended the stairs and hurried through the front room of the inn, passing the barmaids and the afternoon drunks, and stepped out into the city. The city air buzzed with the sound of greetings and farewells exchanged between neighbors, the clanging of metal from a nearby blacksmith’s shop, and footsteps hurrying home to prepare the mid-day meal.

Her feet led her down the main street and through the market. Once she was in the thick of things, Margery slowed her pace and craned her neck to look at the different wares offered at each stall. Much of what was for sale was familiar to her – linen, fish, furs, and leather. Local goods from local craftsmen that were also plentiful in Tynemouth. But there were other things that Margery had either never seen before or were only available in Tynemouth once or twice a year – silks in rich colors like green and purple, Frankish wine, and spices from far off places. And those were just the goods for sale. Some of the merchants and customers milling about were also rather curious. Tall Danish women and Northmen with shaved heads were as commonplace as the ruddy-faced Saxons Margery was accustomed to. She did her best not to stare after the Danes, not wanting to be rude, but it was difficult. She had never seen so many peaceful Danes in one place.

Though there were many things of interest, Margery found herself drawn to a particular fabric stall. The merchant himself was peculiar, his olive complexion and purple and orange clothing stood in stark contrast to the pale faces and muted garments. She slowly approached the stall, her fingers grazing the silk and satin fabrics.

“The silks are from Constantinople. They are made by the monks that live in the city.” The merchant’s voice was soft and rhythmic, as if he was preparing to recite a poem.

Margery looked up to find that the man was smiling at her, his dark eyes glinting in the sun. “You brought these all the way from Constantinople?” Margery was skeptical. Such glamorous wares rarely found their way into Northumbria. Lunden, or even Winchester, would have been a more likely destination for such fineries.

“You doubt me, Lady?” The merchant grinned, seemingly amused by Margery’s apprehension.

Margery pursed her lips, biding her time. Her mind searched for the right words, as she did not want to cause offense. “I am simply surprised that one would make such a long journey to bring such finery to Eoforwic.”

The merchant laughed, “Lady, I did say that the silks were from Constantinople. Not that I was from Constantinople.”

Margery arched a brow, deciding that she liked the strange man and his careful speech. “That is true.” She conceded with a smile, “Where are you from, then?”

“I do not seem like a Northumbrian?”

“Do you wish to seem like a Northumbrian?” She countered.

A grin spread across the man’s lips. “God knows I do not.” Margery smiled. She had anticipated that, that would be his answer. “I am from Genoa, Lady. There are many Genoese that live in Constantinople. They send silks back to Genoa and from there we trade them. Sometimes we even bring them to places like Eoforwic.”

Margery’s eyes widened. She was greedy to hear more. More of Genoa, more of this extensive silk trade, more of the world beyond the island she lived on. But she was soon distracted, her ears picking up the sound of harsh words being exchanged at a nearby stall. Keeping one eye on the fabrics beneath her fingers, she turned her head slightly so that she could investigate the source of the commotion. Two stalls down to the right, she caught sight of a middle-aged wool merchant berating the younger woman assisting him. She inhaled sharply as she saw the man grip the woman’s arm so tightly that it caused her to wince.

With a click of his tongue, the Genoese merchant drew Margery’s attention. “I have been at market for three days, Lady. Every day it is the same with him.” The Genoese man nodded towards the wool merchant.

Margery hummed in response, unsure of what to say. She knew she was lucky to have been born to a tolerant and relatively open-minded father. In most ways, she had been raised and treated as Thierry’s equal. Lord Bennett had seen to it that both of his children were well educated, well-spoken, and respected. Margery had always been given a voice in the affairs of Tynemouth and even in her own personal affairs. Of course, Margery knew she was not Thierry’s equal. She had come to begrudgingly accept that her fate would likely always be tied to that of a man – whether it was her brother or some future unknown husband. But her father’s relatively progressive views and his status as the ealdorman of a prosperous shire had insulated her from many of the prejudices and detriments that usually accompanied her gender.

Margery looked away, commanding herself to simply ignore the situation. Who was she to interfere in the business of people she did not know? “How much for three yards of the green silk?”

“Fifteen shillings.”

“I will take it then.” As she rifled through her small pouch for the proper coin, Margery’s eyes drifted back towards the wool merchant’s stall. Her eyes landed on the woman’s face, noting that she was around her age, perhaps even a few years younger.

“Here you are, Lady.” Margery’s eyes snapped back to Genoese merchant.

“Thank you.” Margery dropped the silver coins into the man’s open palm before taking the roll from him and tucking it under her arm. She turned away from the stall and hesitated for a long moment, unsure of herself.

Eventually, she sighed, exasperated with her inability to mind her own business, and slowly meandered over to the wool merchant’s stall. It would do no harm to inspect the situation.

Margery approached the stall, keeping her eyes down, as if she was carefully examining the quality of the wool.

“Iva, do not simply stand there like a mute.” The wool merchant hissed in a poor attempt at a whisper. “Attend the Lady.”

Margery looked up and ran her eyes lazily over the man. Her eyes paused upon noticing the small silver cross that hung around his neck. A good Christian man, Margery thought to herself sarcastically.

“Iva, is that your name, then?” Margery asked, turning towards the young woman. The woman looked surprised that Margery had addressed her directly and it took her a few moments to muster a response. She nodded slowly, “Yes, Lady.”

“And are you from Eoforwic, Iva?”

Iva hesitated and glanced towards the wool merchant. “No, Lady. I am from a village near Dunholm.”

“Oh, so you are a true northerner then.” Margery smiled gently and glanced down towards the various wool swatches out for display. “I am from Tynemouth myself. So, tell me Iva, if I wanted to have a few wool shirts made for my father warm enough for the coldest northern winter day, which fabric would you recommend?”

Iva chewed her bottom lip and began to thumb through the rolls of fabric. “Well, Lady, I would say – “ Before the young woman could speak another word, the merchant interrupted. “Lady, the girl is a simple peasant who just helps me sheer the sheep. She doesn’t know anything about the craft. Let me recommend something for you.”

Margery narrowed her eyes at the man. “All the same, I did ask for her opinion.” Margery’s tone was harsher than she had intended, but her tolerance for this man was growing thin.

The man recoiled at Margery’s words, a dumb-struck expression on his face. After a few moments, however, he shook off the reprimand and Margery watched as he straightened his spine and pulled back his shoulders, seeking to amplify his stature. “You best move on then, Lady. I will not sell my goods to such an impertinent woman.”

In seeking to rebuke Margery, the merchant had made a grave error. While Margery did not actively seek confrontation, once she was challenged, her obstinance knew no bounds. “Very well, I shall take my coin elsewhere.” She replied coolly. Margery paused and looked at Iva, “Would you like to take your employ elsewhere, Iva?”

The young woman’s mouth parted in surprise. She glanced between Margery and the wool merchant, “Lady, I do not understand.” She stammered.

“I am asking whether you would like to come into my service at Tynemouth. You will be closer to your village and I can promise you I will treat you fairly.” Margery spared the wool merchant a disgusted look.

Without a word, Iva took a step around the stall to approach Margery. The merchant reached out and grabbed Iva by the arm. “Where do you think you’re going, girl?” He then turned to Margery. “You’ll not leave me to work for this puterelle.”

Margery snorted, amused that this man’s reaction to feeling threatened by a woman was to condemn her virtue. “You will unhand her, my good man.” Margery forced herself to hold the merchant’s gaze despite the fact that she could feel her nerve starting to leave her. “I promise you that I did not travel to Eoforwic alone.”

The subtle threat proved effective and the man freed Iva from his grasp. However, he was not yet willing to admit defeat. “The woman owes me a debt!” He exclaimed, “She has been working it off. You must pay off her debt if you wish to take her from my employ.”

“I do not!” Iva exclaimed, having found her voice.

Margery was silent and she pressed her lips together as she observed the man. “And how much is this alleged debt?” Margery weighed her options. Of course, she did not believe for a moment that the merchant was telling the truth. She figured he simply could not stomach the insult without extracting some price. On principle, she detested the idea of giving this man even a half-penny. But, on the other hand, she did not want to risk a further public confrontation.

The man hesitated, clearly trying to figure out the highest sum he could extract. “Five shillings.”

Margery nearly scoffed but she restrained herself. She figured the man wanted to take home a few gallons of fine Frankish wine at her expense.

“Lady, he is lying.” Iva insisted, throwing the man a spiteful look. It seemed that the prospect of escaping him had emboldened her.

Margery smiled at Iva to reassure her before turning her attention back to the merchant. “I am sure it will be a hardship for you to find another to assist you.” Margery began to rummage in her coin pouch, “And I am willing to compensate you for your trouble.” She pulled out two silver shillings and placed them on the stall.

The man sneered at the smaller sum. “That is not five shillings.”

“No, it is two. I consider that to be sufficient compensation for your hardship. Before you object, I should warn you that this impertinent woman has a tendency to run her mouth. I do take it that you would not want me to spread word of your dishonesty through this market.”

The man’s face paled at Margery’s response and without another word, he snatched the silver coins from the stall. “Off with you.” He grumbled with a wave of his hand.

Iva needed no additional coaxing. She rushed from behind the stall to stand next to Margery. Fixing the wool merchant with one last nauseated expression, Margery placed her hand on Iva’s back and quickly led them away from the stall, back towards the inn. Despite the resolve she had displayed in front of the wool merchant, Margery found herself a bit shaken. It had been many years since she had been spoken to in such a demeaning way and so she was eager to put some distance between herself and the crude man.

She was also beginning to second guess herself. In the moment, she had been so set on making her point and giving the merchant a piece of her mind that she had not actually considered what she was going to do with Iva in Tynemouth. Now, however, Margery was left to question her choices. Did the girl even want to come to Tynemouth or had she just seen an opportunity to escape her present situation? Would the girl even make a good companion? Margery sighed, stopping so abruptly that Iva nearly ran right into her.

“Iva, do you want to come to Tynemouth?” Margery blurted. "Or would you rather remain in Eoforwic?"

Iva looked surprised by the sudden outburst. “Yes, Lady.” Worry began to set into the young woman’s face. “I do. I have no reason to remain in Eoforwic. I am a skilled seamstress. I am also good with children. I do not know if you have any children, Lady, but I am good with them if you do.”

Margery held her hand up to stop Iva’s rambling. “I simply wanted to ensure I was not taking you away from your family or other ties you had here.”

Iva shook her head in response. “No, Lady. You are not. I will be glad to leave this place.”

“Very well, then we shall go to Tynemouth together in a few days time. Come. We will find room for you at the inn with me.” Margery chewed her bottom lip as they walked, getting lost in her own thoughts. This was certainly one of the most rash decisions she had ever made in her life. But she did not regret it and she was resolved to make sure that Iva would be happy in Tynemouth.

Weaving through the crowd, Margery sidestepped a group of women who were walking far too slowly for her liking. As she came upon the inn, Uhtred’s voice pulled her from her thoughts, “Lady, you have been found!” His voice was tinged with amusement.

Margery stopped in her tracks, looking between the three men gazing at her expectantly. She frowned, very much confused by the welcome party. “Found?” She asked, narrowing her eyes. “I was not aware that I was lost to begin with.”

Margery watched as Uhtred’s lips slowly pulled into a smile and then, suddenly, the sound of Uhtred’s deep, boisterous, laughter filled the air.

Finding herself even more confused by Uhtred’s reaction, Margery looked towards Finan, hoping that he would provide some sort of explanation. But the only thing Margery saw on Finan’s face was a rather disgruntled expression. Growing more confused by the moment, Margery looked to Elias, noting the look of relief on the guard’s face. She sighed, the situation finally becoming clear to her. Someone had noticed she had left the inn alone and now she was in a spot of trouble.

In that moment, Margery decided that the easiest thing to do would just be to play stupid. “Truly, what is happening here?”

As she waited for a response, Margery noticed that Iva was no longer beside her. She sighed and turned to look over her shoulder. She spotted the young woman standing across the street, looking rather apprehensively at the men standing in front of the inn. Tilting her head, Margery motioned to Iva that she should approach.

The young woman walked forward slowly and came to stand beside Margery. “You know these strange men, Lady?”

Margery snorted. “Yes, I do. Though at the present moment I am rather regretting their acquaintance.” Iva’s lips twitched into a small smile as she bit back a laugh, as if she was unsure of how freely she should show her emotions.

“This is Iva.” Margery announced upon seeing that Finan had opened his mouth to speak. If the irritated look on his face was any indication of what he was going to say, Margery was not keen to hear it. “She is a very skilled seamstress and she will be accompanying me back to Tynemouth.”

Uhtred, who had finally stopped laughing, grinned broadly, giving Margery the impression that he was once again ready to burst into laughter. “So, Lady, you went to market and procured a woman in addition to that silk under your arm?”

“Her name is Iva.” Margery stressed with a pointed look. “And I did not procure her, Lord. She is a woman, not a thing. The castle is in need of a good seamstress.”

“It is?” Elias piped, breaking his silence.

Margery’s eyes flashed towards Elias and she narrowed her eyes slightly to remind him of where his loyalties lay. “Yes.” She replied curtly, truly having no idea whether or not that was true.

Growing weary of standing outside the inn and trying to manage three very different reactions to her little sojourn, Margery placed her hand lightly on Iva’s back and began to lead her into the inn, brushing past the men. “Well, I do believe we have all loitered out here long enough. I would like to set this roll down and I am sure Iva would like to get settled.”

Without so much as a second look behind her, Margery led Iva through the inn and up the stairs to the second floor. “We shall see if there is another room available, but for now you will share my quarters.”

As she hurried down the corridor, Margery could hear footsteps following her. She chose to ignore them, hoping that whoever was behind her would simply leave her be. She could still feel the indignation over how that old merchant had treated both her and Iva filling her heart and she knew that her nerves were on edge.

Unfortunately, she had no such luck. “Margery, ya cannot just go about collectin’ strangers off the street into your service.” Finan whispered, a harried tone in his voice. Evidently he was the one who had chosen to follow her.

Margery huffed and turned to face him, turning the handle to her room and motioning to Iva that she should go inside without her. “Why not? Is that not what Lord Uhtred does as he traverses the kingdoms? Is that not how the fine warriors of Coccham came into his service?”

Finan snorted, seemingly amused by her response. “You are not far off.” He conceded. “But that is different.”

Margery felt herself bristle, stubbornness flashing through her like a fever. “Why would it be any different?”

Finan lowered his chin and fixed her with a stern look. “You are too smart to be askin’ me that.”

Margery pursed her lips, annoyed that Finan had couched his reprimand in a compliment. It made it impossible to simply contradict him. “I saw something that I thought wrong and sought to remedy it in the only way I could. I may not wield the power of a sword like a man, but I will not let that keep me from doing what I think is right. I do not forfeit that right by being a woman.”

Finan sighed, his expression softening. “I think I’m comin’ to see that you did not just pluck a random seamstress off the streets of Eoforwic.” He stepped forward and placed his hands on Margery’s arms, his grip both secure and gentle at the same time.

As annoyed as she was with Finan, Margery was keenly aware of the way Finan’s strong hands gripped her and the burning sensation that traveled up her arms and into her chest. It was a distracting feeling and it irked her that that such a simple action on Finan’s part could jumble her otherwise organized mind. “It is not because you are a woman, Margery. One look at ya and anyone can tell you are a noble lady walking around with nary a weapon. You have a kind heart and there are many people who would want to take advantage of that.”

As soon as the words were out of Finan’s mouth, Margery felt the combative wave in her chest begin to recede. She grumbled to herself, averting her gaze from Finan. She knew Finan meant well and that he had a point, but she was loathe to admit it. “Nevertheless, I am not a helpless maiden. I will not lose my nerve at the first sign of trouble.”

“I know that. You are clever and cunning and I definitely would not want to get on your bad side.”

Margery rolled her eyes, trying her best to hold back a smile as she met Finan’s gaze. “Flattery comes too easy to you. It is not fair. It makes it hard to remain angry with you.”

“It is easy when there is so much to flatter.”

As a general rule, compliments made Margery deeply uncomfortable. Her impulse was to roll her eyes and deflect Finan’s honeyed words with some snarky retort. But she never got the chance. Before she could get a word in, she felt Finan run his hand down her right arm, his calloused fingers causing her skin to tingle in their wake. He did not stop until he held Margery’s hand in his.

On instinct, Margery intertwined her fingers with Finan’s, glancing down at their hands as she did so. The simple act brought such a sweet smile to Finan’s face that Margery could think of little else. Gone were her racing thoughts and the incessant desire to read meaning into every little word or action of those around her.

“I did not mean to make ya angry with me.” Finan smirked, “I was only worried about you.”

“Is that so?” Margery did her best to mimic confidence.

“Of course I was.” Finan replied gently as he brought his other hand slowly up to Margery’s cheek. The intimacy of the action left Margery breathless and she resisted the temptation to lean into Finan’s touch. Somewhere in the back of Margery’s mind, something stirred, telling her that she should pull away and stop this before it went any further. After all, such intimacy with a man who was not her husband was ill-advised. But Margery did not want to stop whatever this was. Finan was handsome, funny, kind, and he was looking at her in a way that made her feel like her silly her childhood fantasies of handsome suitors were not actually quite so silly. She wanted to know what it felt like to kiss a man who made her feel such things.

Finan brought his head down slowly, giving her a hundred little chances to pull away. But Margery did not. At least not until the moment she heard a familiar voice bouncing off the stone walls.

“Hey, Finan!” Sihtric called as he ran up the stairs, “I am going to spar with the tiny prince if you want to – “ Sihtric quickly cut himself off as he reached the top of the stairs and caught sight of the pair. Sihtric blinked rapidly, looking entirely dumbstruck at the sight.

Finan closed his eyes in frustration, his nose a hair’s distance from Margery’s, and practically growled at the interruption. Opening his eyes, Finan turned his head to look at Sihtric. “No. At this precise moment it is not your company I am seekin’.”

The exchange brought Margery back to her senses and all the thoughts that had previously vanished came rushing back like a pack of wild horses. Margery blinked and stepped away from Finan, dropping his hand as if it had suddenly caught fire.

“Lady, I did not know you were out here. I did not mean to interrupt.” Sihtric explained, his eyes still flickering between Finan and Margery.

Margery forced a smile and looked down at herself, smoothing out her skirts in order to avoid Sihtric’s gaze. “Nonsense. You did not interrupt anything.” She cleared her throat, “I need to check on Iva anyway.” Margery glanced at Finan, who seemingly could not seem to decide whether he wanted to glower at Sihtric or stare at her.

“It is only that we try to train Aethelstan when we can and Finan always joins –” Sihtric was rambling, offering details that no one has asked for, in an attempt to fill the awkward silence that permeated the air.

Finan attempted to interrupt. “Sihtric.”

“Finan really does the best with the tiny prince –”

“Sihtric.” Finan raised his voice, this time succeeding in cutting the man off.

Margery frowned. “You refer to Aethelstan as the tiny prince?”

Sihtric’s eyes grew to twice their normal size and he looked at Finan for assistance. Finan groaned and ran his hand through his hair. “It is nothin’. It is just a nickname.” He grumbled half-heartedly.

“Oh, yes, that would certainly explain why Sihtric looks like he just swallowed a swarm of bees.” Margery tilted her head, giving Finan a skeptical look. Her embarrassment was beginning to fade now that she had something else to focus on.

An exasperated laugh passed Finan’s lips as he ran a hand over his face. “I am not even going to ask you to not think on it, for I know I’d just be wastin’ my breath.”

Margery merely shrugged in agreement. “I do not deny that.”

“I’m thinkin’ I’d like a drink now.” Finan mumbled. He made a move towards Margery who, startled by the motion, and unsure of what Finan would be bold enough to do in front of Sihtric, jolted backwards to put more space between them. “I will see you both later.” She rushed out the words and turned away from Finan before he could say another word, quickly slipping into her room and leaving the Irishman looking rather baffled.

Margery closed the door to her room as fast as she could manage and breathed a sigh of relief. From behind her door she could hear Sihtric and Finan bickering in the hall as they walked towards the stairs. Sihtric was offering up a continuous string of apologies while Finan was describing increasingly creative ways in which he was going to physically maim Sihtric. Despite herself, Margery could not help but smile at the men.

Once Margery could no longer hear the sound of Sihtric and Finan bickering, she turned to lean her back against the door. She breathed deeply and closed her eyes for a moment, trying to regain her composure. Her heart was pounding in her chest with a strange kind of terror at what could have been had Sihtric not interrupted.

When she opened her eyes, Margery gasped, surprised to see Iva sitting on her bed simply staring at her.

“I did not mean to startle you, Lady.”

“It is alright.” Margery moved further into the room.

“He is handsome, Lady.”

“Finan? Yes, I suppose he is.” Margery replied, doing her best impression of an aloof Lady.

“You should know, Lady, I really am a very good seamstress.” Margery frowned, confused by the sudden divergence in Iva’s train of thought. “For when you’ll be needing a wedding gown, Lady.”

Margery nearly choked on her own saliva. She cleared her throat and looked around the room, desperate to find something to distract herself with, but there was nothing that needed to be done. “I am sure he says such fine things to many ladies.” She deflected. Margery was torn as to whether she actually believed the words coming out of her mouth. On the one hand, Finan was charming and evidently quite the flirt. On the other, she felt that she had gotten to know him well enough in the last week that she could tell he was being sincere with her.

Iva hummed in response. “Even if that were true, Lady, I doubt he looks at them like that.”

Margery felt herself blush and she looked away from Iva. “It is no matter. I doubt I shall ever see him again once we depart from Eoforwic.”

“Whatever you say, Lady.” Despite the concession, the subtle smile on Iva’s face told Margery that the woman did not believe her.

Margery could not help but laugh. “It seems that you are also somewhat of an impertinent woman, Iva.” She teased.

Chapter Text

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.”

Chapter Text

Finan woke early the next morning, as was generally his habit after a night of revelry and heavy drinking. Which, frankly, unless they were in the midst of battle, happened to be most evenings these days.

With a muted grumble, Finan turned in his bed and opened his eyes. The first thing he saw, much to his dismay, was Osferth’s sleeping form on the floor beside his bed. The baby monk’s limbs were splayed out in all different directions and his mouth hung slightly ajar. Despite it not being the most alluring sight at such an early hour, Finan could not help but laugh to himself. Osferth had consumed so much wine over the course of the feast, and had been in such a stupor, that the younger man had blindly followed Finan into his room and settled on his floor. It surprised Finan to no end that even after all these years, Osferth still struggled to hold his drink.

For a moment, Finan considered waking Osferth. His eyes flickered between the small pitcher of water in the far corner of the room and Osferth’s face. While the thought of waking the baby monk with a splash was extremely tempting, after a few moments of deliberation Finan’s better angels prevailed and he decided against it. It was better to let Osferth sleep off as much of his impending bottle-ache as possible.

With his first good deed of the day already accomplished, Finan gingerly crept out of bed and picked his way out of the room, quietly closing the door behind him. The corridor buzzed with the kind of resounding silence one only ever found in the early morning and Finan tried to move as quietly as humanely possible, so as to not disturb the stillness. He paused for half a moment as he passed Margery’s door, a downright saccharine smile spreading across his lips before he bound down the stairs, an extra spring in his step as he replayed the prior night’s events in his mind.

In his still half-asleep state, his memories amounted to a pleasant blur of soft lips, whispered flirtations, and increasingly frenzied hands running over fabric and dragging through hair. Had it been up to Finan, he would have happily stood in the empty city square kissing Margery till the sun came up. Unfortunately, that had become impossible once the doors to the great hall had burst open and rowdy Danes eager to play games had spilled out into the city square. He himself had been unceremoniously forced to join in a game of rope pulling. The interruption was almost worth it though, as Margery had given him the most irresistibly flirtatious look he had ever seen on a woman before slipping off to find Iva among the crowd of onlookers.

Making his way outside and towards the back of the inn, Finan approached the basin of fresh water put out for washing. He stripped off his shirt, threw it upon the nearest tree, and put his hands into the basin, pooling just enough water in his hands so that he could wash his face. He let his mind wander as he washed off the remnants of the prior nights festivities. However, no matter what path his mind chose, it eventually found its way back to Margery. Finan could have slapped himself for acting like such a giddy child, if he didn’t actually enjoy the feeling. It had been a long time since had felt such unrestrained hope.

Eventually, Finan was satisfied that he was sufficiently refreshed and he snatched his shirt from the branch on which it hung. He ambled back around towards the front of the inn, pulling his tunic back over his head as he walked.

As he turned the corner, Finan was surprised to see a familiar figure sitting on one of the old, wooden tables set out in front of the inn. “Uhtred!” Finan exclaimed, surprised to see the man up and out at such an early hour. The ealdorman of Coccham was typically not quite so sprightly after a night of heavy drinking.

Uhtred acknowledged Finan with a small nod, “I was hoping you would already be awake.”

“Were ya now?” Finan raised a brow as he sat down beside Uhtred on top of the table. “If you’re lookin’ for me at this early hour Lord, I can only imagine you’ve gotten us into some serious trouble.” He teased.

“Not yet, Finan. But it is still very early.” Uhtred smiled as he leaned forward, resting his arms on the tops of his thighs. “I still have plenty of time to make sure that we do not have a quiet day.”

A throaty chuckle followed from Finan. “With that attitude I reckon we’ll be staring down the sharp end of a sword before lunch.”

Uhtred smiled and nodded his head, acknowledging his penchant for routinely getting himself, and his men, into thorny situations.

Despite the lighthearted greeting, Finan could tell that Uhtred was deep in thought. Rather than pressing his friend, Finan remained silent and allowed a comfortable silence to fall over them. After all these years, Finan knew Uhtred well enough to know that his friend was slowly working himself up to share whatever it was that was on his mind.

Eventually, as Finan had predicted, Uhtred spoke up, “Sigtryggr has offered me the use of his men to retake Bebbanburg.”

Finan’s brows shot up. That was certainly not the sort of news he had been expecting Uhtred to share. In the year since their disastrous attempt at taking Bebbanburg from Aelfric, Finan had not heard so much as a hint that Uhtred was thinking of another attempt. The memory of their failure was still too raw and Finan knew that Uhtred was still frightened by the thought of what more they could lose should they launch another ill-fated attack. They had also had no realistic plan for getting the number of warriors they would need to challenge such a thoroughly entrenched foe. Until now that was.

“Not now.” Uhtred filled the empty space with additional details, “When the planting season is over.”

“That is in no time at all.” Finan remarked. “You’d have your men in two months time.”

Uhtred nodded slowly and Finan could practically see the other man’s mind turning with the various possibilities. After all these years of standing at Uhtred’s side, Finan knew exactly how tempting this offer was for his friend. But Finan could also imagine how conflicted Uhtred felt.

“What did he want in return?”

“What makes you think he wants something in return?” Uhtred asked, sardonically.

Finan snorted, “Ya mean to tell me he is doin’ this out of his love for you?”

Uhtred smirked, “He did not say and I did not ask. I avoided giving him an answer either way.”

Finan hummed in response and absentmindedly began rubbing his beard with the back of his hand. His impression of Sigtryggr was that the young Dane was the sort of man who thought about the consequences of his actions in terms of years, not days or weeks. Finan had no doubt that Sigtryggr’s offer to Uhtred was intended to reap benefits that would outlive them both. Though Finan had his own thoughts on what it was that Sigtryggr would ask in return, he didn’t know whether Uhtred was ready to hear these suppositions of his. Finan had learned that it was sometimes best to let Uhtred come to these realizations on his own.

Evidently, however, this was not one of those times.

“Say it.” Uhtred pressed, drawing Finan from his thoughts.

Finan blinked a few times, bringing his mind back into focus. “Well, I could be wrong, but I think he’ll want one of two things from ya.”

Uhtred did not respond, prompting Finan to continue. “I reckon he’ll either ask ya to swear that you’ll support him and come to his aid should Edward and Aethelflaed come knockin’ at his door.” Uhtred snorted, visibly disturbed by the thought of taking yet another oath. “Or, he’ll want to use Bebbanburg as another foothold in Northumbria.”

“To what end?”

Finan shrugged. He was not, and had never been, a grasping man. Deciphering grand strategies did not come naturally to him. But, he had grown up around such striving men and had spent enough time in their company that over time he had developed the ability to think like them. “Northumbria’s a disorganized mess of a place. Between you in Bebbanburg and Sigtryggr here in Eoforwic, I doubt it would be much effort to take the whole country.”

As the words hung in the air, Finan could not help but think of Margery and her family in Tynemouth. What would become of them in such a scenario? He highly doubted Lord Bennett would give up his independence to pledge fealty to a Dane. But, perhaps that blow would be softened by his familiarity with Uhtred. Finan frowned and quickly pushed the thought to the very back of his mind. After all, there was no use in thinking on a scenario that depended on so many other decisions.

Uhtred frowned, “Do you believe Sigtryggr has that kind of ambition?”

Once again, Finan shrugged. “I don’t think he’s dyin’ to become Lord of Northumbria, if that’s what ya mean. But takin’ Northumbria would give his kin peace and land for generations and he strikes me as the kind of man who is definitely strivin’ for that kind of security.”

“He could want both.” Uhtred posited, “My oath to come to his aid against Edward and Aethelflaed and my help in taking Northumbria.”

“True. But he is a smart man and he knows he can’t ask for both for the price of one favor.”

“This is true.”

Finan tilted his head, deep in thought as another possibility developed in his mind. “Though if ya helped him take Northumbria, Edward and Aethelflaed will definitely have to think twice before tryin’ to take back Eoforwic.”

Grumbling to himself, Uhtred laid down on top of the table. “I am tired of trying to understand the motivations of ambitious men. I am tired of lending my sword to ambitious men and reaping no benefit from it.”

With a laugh, Finan glanced over his shoulder and looked down at his friend, “Lord, you are an ambitious man.”

Uhtred arched a brow at Finan, “Am I?”

In response, Finan fixed Uhtred with a stern looked, which only caused the other man to laugh. “My only aim is to take back what has always been rightfully mine.”

“There is ambition in that.” Finan remarked. After all, he himself had long given up on such desires.

“I guess you are right.” Uhtred sighed, slapping Finan on the shoulder as he sat back up.

The men sat in silence for several minutes, watching as the city around them slowly came to life. The sun had finally broken through the early morning haze and shopkeepers were beginning to emerge from their homes and make their way to work. The sound of hurried footsteps and toddling carts being wheeled to market provided pleasant background noise for Finan’s contemplative mood.

“Would ya do it, Uhtred?” Finan asked, breaking the silence.

“Do what?”

“Fight against Aethelflaed if she came to take Eoforwic?”

The weary sigh that passed Uhtred’s lips made him sound twice his age. “Would I fight the woman I love in order to defend my daughter’s husband?” Uhtred ran a hand over the top of his head, “I do not know.”

Though Finan had suspected it, this was actually the first time he had heard Uhtred admit that he was still in love with Aethelflaed. It was not a surprise. Uhtred and Aethelflaed were two people who understood the deepest parts of each other, and they had been torn apart while still in the throes of passion. Feelings like that did not simply disappear.

“It is an impossible choice, no?” Uhtred turned to look at Finan with a sad smile and Finan could not help but imagine what he would do should he face a similar circumstance. In truth, he had no idea.

Turning away from Finan, Uhtred looked out towards the street. “But I do not think I could see Stiorra in any danger and not come to her aid. No matter who it is on the other side.”

After the shortest lull, Uhtred cleared his throat, banishing the wistful tone from his voice. “Let us not talk of it anymore.” Uhtred patted Finan’s leg, “That will be a problem for the Uhtred of the future.”

“Exactly, you’ve got at least two more months to think on it.” Finan then offered Uhtred a short laugh to break the tension that had befallen them, “Besides, my head was beginning to hurt from all that thinkin', anyway.”

With that, Finan watched as Uhtred’s expression morphed into that of a mischievous young man, all trace of their previous discussion gone from his face. “There is something else I wanted to discuss with you, Finan.”

Seeing the look on Uhtred’s face, Finan groaned, “From the look you’re givin’ me Uhtred, I don’t think I want to know what it is.”

Uhtred chuckled but was very clearly not dissuaded by Finan’s distress, “Are you bedding Lady Margery?” The impish expression on Uhtred’s face only grew broader, “I noticed that you two were very familiar with each other yesterday.”

Finan felt the world spin a bit at Uhtred’s words and he began to cough, nearly choking on his own saliva. “What?” He sputtered, “No.” He quickly spat out.

Finan’s reaction only seemed to encourage Uhtred. “But you want to?” Uhtred continued.

A tinge of pink crept up Finan’s neck, through his cheeks, and all the way to the tips of his ears. “I – “ Finan started before Uhtred placed a hand on his shoulder, cutting him off.

“You like her.” Uhtred corrected himself, the mischievous smirk on his face slowly giving way to an empathetic smile.

Finan swallowed slowly before giving Uhtred a short nod in assent. He wasn’t quite sure how to verbalize his current internal struggle. Yes, he very much liked Margery. He was practically enthralled by her. But it had been a lifetime since he had let himself enter into anything more than a fleeting sexual relationship with a woman.

A low chuckle passed Uhtred’s lips and Finan could see his friend slowly nodding his head. "And here I believed you would remain a philandering heathen for the rest of your life." Uhtred took in a deep breath and slapped his hands against his thighs, “Well, if that is the case, you should –“

Finan held his hand out to cut Uhtred off. “I do not want to hear your advice, Uhtred. I already know it’s goin’ to be absolute shite.”

Uhtred’s mouth dropped open and admittedly, Finan enjoyed the rare sight of a speechless Uhtred. “You think I would give you poor advice about a woman?” Uhtred objected.

“I don’t think it, Lord.” Finan insisted, arching a brow, “What I said is that I know you would give me shite advice.”

Shutting his mouth, Uhtred’s face fell into an expression that Finan could not help but liken to that of a petulant child. Finan laughed, “Uhtred, somethin’ tells me that your advice would amount to the fact that I should just go ahead and bed her and then tell her she’s comin’ back to Coccham with me.”

Uhtred sputtered for a moment before finding his words. “No.” He replied insistently. “I would tell you to marry her first. She is the daughter of an ealdorman.”

Finan snorted. “See, shite advice.”

“It is what I would do.”

Finan sighed, the laughter slowly receding from his face. It was true. It was indeed what Uhtred would do. But he was not Uhtred. He was not a landed ealdorman of Wessex and, despite a multitude of actions that pointed to the contrary conclusion, he was not quite as impulsive as his Lord. He could not just run off with Margery. Not that he thought that Margery was the kind of woman open to running off to Coccham with him. Margery was fiercely loyal to Tynemouth. It was one of the things he liked about her.

“I am not you, Uhtred.” Finan explained.

Uhtred hummed in response. “Then what will you do?” Uhtred paused but Finan could feel that his friend had something to add.

Sighing, Finan looked down at his hands. “Say it.”

“We leave for Coccham the day after tomorrow.”

Finan nodded and looked out at the now bustling street. Since the moment they had arrived in Eoforwic, he had been keenly aware of the fact that his time in Northumbria was running out. He had just been trying to ignore that simple fact. “That is a problem for the Finan of tomorrow.”

Chapter Text

“Do keep your voice down Iva, this is a church.” Margery grumbled as the pair wandered down the aisle of the Minster of Eoforwic. Though she had awoken with a sore head and an array of racing thoughts, Margery figured that she ought to keep her promise to her father and at least visit the Minster. It would make for an uncomfortable conversation should she return to Tynemouth and be asked to account for her time in the city.

And honestly, she was glad that she had come to visit the church. The Minster was unlike anything she had ever seen before. It was fantastically sized. The length of the church seemed to stretch on further than the length of several farmers’ fields and was so tall that Margery had to lean her head all the way back in order to even glimpse the top of the vault. She felt positively minuscule as she stood in the center of the church and somehow, she found that feeling comforting.

Iva snorted, drawing a sharp look from Margery. Undeterred by the visual reprimand, Iva grinned, “Lady, is my tone too loud because we are in a church or because your head is sore from all the wine you had last night?”

Margery bit down on the inside of her cheeks to keep herself from responding right away. Iva was right, of course. The young woman’s voice barely carried in the immense church. It did, however, sound abnormally loud and grating to Margery’s particularly sensitive ears.

“Iva, do you always just say whatever it is that you are thinking or is that a special gift you reserve just for me?”

The whisper of a laugh preceded Iva’s response. “I try to say what I’m thinking whenever I can.” The pair stopped in front of the alter and both women crossed themselves. “Life is too short. We could all die from the sickness or be invaded by the Scots tomorrow. And then what? You will be left to regret not saying what was on your mind.”

Margery’s head snapped to the right to look at Iva. She found the statement surprisingly astute. Even more so given the fact that she had certainly not expected it from Iva, who up until now had only seemed capable of delivering amusing quips at the expense of other people.

Margery could tell that Iva was amused by her surprise and she made an effort to settle her expression. “You are not wrong, Iva. But I do not think it is always the time or the place for one to voice whatever it is that they are thinking.”

Iva shrugged and looped her arm around Margery’s. Turning away from the alter, Iva led Margery down the center aisle of the Minster and towards the large oak doors leading out of the church. “That is just a difference between you and I, Lady.”

As they stepped out of the church, Margery blinked several times to adjust her eyes to the late afternoon sun. From the top of the stairs, Margery looked out across the street, her eyes sweeping across the small houses and finally settling on the small empty field that lay past the churchyard. There was a group of familiar figures standing about in the field and she narrowed her eyes, squinting so that she could get a better look. It only took her a short moment before she recognized Finan’s figure.

“Shall we see what they’re up to?”

Before Margery could respond, Iva was already leading her down the steps and across the street. Seeing as she did not have much choice, Margery allowed Iva to pull her along, all the while silently grumbling to herself and doing her best to ignore the nervous tumbles she felt in her stomach. She hadn’t seen Finan since last night and the thought of being near him once more was causing a strange sort of exhilarating panic to spread throughout her body. All the wine had made her rather bold last night and while she didn’t regret her actions, she wasn’t quite so sure she could muster the same level of audacity while totally sober.

As they got closer, Margery could see that not only were the men of Coccham there, but so was Elias. The men all stood in a semicircle around Aethelstan who looked rather out of place with a very oversized staff in his hands. Apparently, they were trying to teach the young man how to fight. And apparently, the men of Coccham had decided that trial by fire was the best teaching method for in the next moment, Uhtred swiftly disarmed Aethelstan, knocking the young boy on his back.

Despite the fact that Iva was the only one who could hear her disapproval, Margery clicked her tongue in objection. She was not convinced that the warrior needed to be quite so tough with such a young boy. After all, what was the sense of urgency in training Aethelstan at such a young age? Surely he had several more years of training before he ever saw battle.

“Do not be ashamed.” Margery picked up the sound of Uhtred’s words of encouragement. “I used to knock your father down just like this, except he was many years older than you are now and was trained by some of the best warriors in all of Wessex.” Uhtred grinned and waved his staff towards Finan, Osferth, and Sihtric, “Not these ladies’ maids.” Uhtred laughed heartily at his own joke and with a broad grin, the warrior offered his hand to Aethelstan, practically lifting the boy off the ground.

As Aethlestan dusted himself off and squared off against Uhtred once more, Margery studied him carefully. Uhtred’s words has sparked a whole host of questions for her. How was it that Uhtred knew Aethelstan’s father? Why had Uhtred trained with Aethelstan’s father? Why had Aethelstan’s father trained with skilled warriors?

It was as Margery ran through these questions in her head that the answer came to her like an ember falling upon a bale of hay. At first, it was nothing but smoke, but it quickly turned into a blazing fire.
“Absolutely not.” Margery muttered to herself.

“Lady?” Iva questioned from beside her. Margery barely registered the befuddled look on Iva’s face for she was far too busy suppressing the desire to audibly tick through all of the obvious signs she had missed until now.

It made so much sense now. What other boy would be escorted across Northumbria by one of the most famous warriors in Wessex for the purpose of – from what Margery could deduce – was an education in Northumbrian history? What other boy would need to hide his parentage such that Finan would refer to him as just a boy needing protection? What other boy would have a father trained in sword skill by Uhtred? What other boy would Sihtric refer to as the tiny prince?

Margery began to laugh to herself, bringing her right hand to her forehead. She felt quite silly for not having seen it earlier. Aethelstan was one of King Edward’s sons. Margery began to laugh even harder. Aethelstan was an aethling of Wessex. “Oh, that is truly amazing.” Margery muttered to herself, bringing her hand down to her mouth and drumming her fingers against her lips. She was practically bubbling over with excitement at having figured out the big secret.

With a smile, she turned to face Iva. “Iva!” She exclaimed, gesticulating rather wildly with her hands.

Iva returned Margery’s excitement with a skeptical look. Margery couldn’t blame her. She had just exhibited some rather eccentric behavior. “Lady – “ Iva’s voice trailed off, her eyes wary.

As Margery opened her mouth to share her revelation, she came to the unfortunate realization that this was not her news to share. Uhtred, and more importantly to her, Finan, had wanted to keep Aethelstan’s identity a secret. She could not betray them now.

Margery suppressed a groan as she snapped her mouth shut. “It is nothing.” She lied before turning away from Iva and looking back out towards the men. Margery crossed her arms over her chest, as if to physically restrain herself from blurting out the news.

From beside her, Margery heard Iva sigh dramatically. “Lady, have you lost your nerve?”

Margery snorted, “I have not.” She replied, stifling a laugh. “Though I cannot blame you for asking the question.” She admitted.

Saying no more, Margery watched intently as Aethelstan tried to land a blow upon Uhtred with his staff. She could feel that Iva’s eyes were still on her, but she forced herself to ignore the other woman’s radiating curiosity. Instead, her eyes flickered between Uhtred’s dancing form and Finan, who stood off to the side, thumbs looped around his belt as he watched Aethelstan with all the joy of a proud father.

Just as Margery’s gaze began to linger for too long, Aethelstan’s movements caught the corner of her eye. She turned her attention back the young boy just in time to watch him land a blow against Uhtred’s torso.

Almost instantaneously, Finan, Osferth, and Sihtric all erupted into raucous cheers. Finan ran forward and grabbed Aethelstan, scooping him off the ground, and spinning him around. The unadulterated joy on display was contagious and Margery began to clap so that she too could join in on the celebration.

Her exclamation caught the attention of the men and they turned to look over to where she was standing with Iva, finally noticing that the two women had been watching them for some time. Uhtred acknowledged her with a small nod of his head before ruffling Aethelstan’s hair and tossing his staff to Finan.

With a great deal of surprise and curiosity, Margery watched as Uhtred walked towards her. “Lady.” Uhtred greeted as he came to stand at her side.

“Lord Uhtred.”

Uhtred cocked his head and glanced past Margery, “Iva.”

Iva returned Uhtred’s greeting with a nod before taking a small step back, “I think I will make myself scarce then.” With that, Margery watched as Iva ambled over to the men, coming to stand with Elias.

For a few moments, neither Margery nor Uhtred spoke. It was evident to Margery that Uhtred had something he wanted to say, and she figured there was no point in filling the silence with meaningless small talk while she waited for him to find the words.

It was as Finan took his turn sparring with the tiny prince that Uhtred made his opening salvo. “Finan has taken a liking to you.”

The blunt statement left Margery speechless. Without saying a word, she kept her eyes fixed straight ahead of her, eyes trained on where Finan was trying to show Aethelstan how to lunge at a foe without giving away his aim. She certainly had not been expecting to have this conversation with Uhtred. Though, now that Uhtred had started down this path, she couldn’t exactly run away. Not that she didn’t think on that option for a moment.

Regaining her composure, Margery cleared her throat. “Yes, I have had some indication of that.” Margery’s gut reaction was to respond with something flippant to try and deflect from a conversation she was not interested in having.

When Uhtred did not laugh at the comment, Margery turned her head to look at him only to find that he had fixed her with a hard look. Apparently, Uhtred did not appreciate the glib response.

“Lady-“ Uhtred started, the stern tone in his voice indicating that he wanted Margery to take him seriously.

Margery sighed. Evidently this conversation was not optional. So, she decided to take a page from Iva’s book and speak her mind. If nothing else, in the event that it went horribly wrong she could tell the woman that she was never taking her terrible advice ever again.

“As it so happens,” Margery spoke slowly, her heart hammering against her chest in anticipation of the admission she was about to make, “I quite like Finan.” She felt her face go hot the moment the words left her mouth.

Uhtred hummed in response and Margery felt him relax at her confession.

“Good.” A perfunctory nod followed from Uhtred and he was silent for a few moments.

Arching a brow, Margery observed Uhtred out of the corner of her eye. The man looked deep in thought and Margery wondered exactly what Uhtred was trying to get at.

When Uhtred did speak again, his words did very little to illuminate his ultimate objective. “Has Finan told you how we met?”

At this, Margery turned her body to face Uhtred, “No, he has not. He talks quite a lot but says very little about himself.”

Uhtred smiled and nodded his head slowly, “Yes,” he agreed. “That is true.” Uhtred paused for a short moment and when he spoke again he spoke slowly and methodically, “I will not tell you the whole story, I will let Finan share that with you. I am sure that he will in time.” Uhtred cleared his throat and scratched at the back of his neck. It was clear that even though he had been the one to initiate this conversation, he felt rather uncomfortable. “What I will tell you, Lady, is that since we first met, Finan has been much more than one of my men. Finan and I are bonded. I owe him my life and much more, many times over. I do not know what I would do without him.”

The sincerity of Uhtred’s speech caught Margery off guard. It was not as if she and Uhtred were particularly close and it surprised her that he would make such an emotional admission to her. “Finan is a good man.” The words sounded inadequate to Margery’s ears, but she wasn’t sure how else to respond.

“Yes, he is.” Uhtred crossed his arms over his chest, “And I want him to find his happiness with a good woman and to have a family. The gods saw fit to give me such joy in my life and I wish my friend to have the same.” Margery felt Uhtred’s gaze intensify, “Lady, I think you are a good woman.”

Margery’s eyes widened at Uhtred’s words. His words left her feeling both flattered and anxious at the same time, the implications of his words sending her mind down a dark spiral of doubt. And Margery’s mind would have happily continued down this dark path had Uhtred not continued.

“But Lady, if you do not intend on being a good woman for Finan, I ask that you make that clear to him and end whatever it is that is going on between the two of you.”

For a moment, Margery was too stunned to say anything. But the shock she felt was soon replaced by a wave of indignation so hot that it made her blood boil. She could practically feel her heart harden towards Uhtred, almost as if a physical barrier had suddenly appeared between her and the man standing before her.

“Finan and I have known each other for just over a week, Lord.” Margery was making a conscious effort not to snipe at Uhtred, but there was certainly a bitter edge to her voice. She did not like being dictated to and she certainly did not appreciate Uhtred’s implication that she had anything but good intentions when it came to Finan. “And I do not know what kind of woman you think I am, Uhtred, but I do not make a habit of deceiving and making fools of good men.”

Uhtred appeared taken aback by the forceful tone in Margery’s voice and she could not help but feel a bit of satisfaction at seeing the unsettled look on his face. “Lady, I did not mean to offend you.”

“Well, then you have an astounding knack for the unintentional, Lord.”

Uhtred sighed and looked away. Begrudgingly, Margery followed his gaze to see that he was watching Aethelestan and Finan. It seemed Aethelstan had been unable to land a blow upon the wily Irishman, and Finan had called an end to the training. As he stood with his arm resting on Aethelstan’s head, laughing with Osferth and Sihtric, Finan must have felt eyes on him, for he turned his head and looked out at Margery and Uhtred. Finan grinned broadly and raised his hand to give them a sloppy wave.

“Lady, I have a feeling we will soon be interrupted.”

“Praise Him.” Margery grumbled just loud enough for Uhtred to hear.

Instead of taking offense, Uhtred smirked and barked out a short laugh. “I like you, Lady. Even if I have managed to make you believe that I do not. But Finan is my brother. He does not give his heart easily and he has had a hard life. All I ask is that you make sure that you do not add to his pain.”

Margery did not bristle at Uhtred’s explanation. Indeed, she felt herself soften towards him, finally understanding that while he had managed to offend her, he had only done so in the name of protecting Finan. Even if Uhtred’s approach was wanting, Margery had to admit that his intentions were admirable.

Margery wanted to tell Uhtred that she had heard him, that she would think on his words, and that she happened to like him as well – even if she had managed to make him believe that she did not. But she did not get a chance to do so.

“Now, what could you two possibly be discussin’?” Finan announced his arrival with a cheeky smile and the remnants of a hearty laugh in his voice.

Uhtred shrugged casually, “It is nothing. The Lady was just telling me that she thinks Aethelstan’s education would benefit from a proper tutor. A man from the church.” Uhtred rolled his eyes for good measure, adding a dramatic flair to his lie.

Margery eyed Uhtred out of the corner of her eye for a moment, thinking that she was rather surprised at what a cool liar he was. She was even more surprised by the fact that he had managed to conjure a lie that actually sounded like something she would say. “Yes,” She cleared her throat, “that is all.”

The skepticism on Finan’s face was evident, but before Finan could say another word, Uhtred clapped his friend on the shoulder, “I will see you back at the inn.” And with that, Uhtred sauntered off to rejoin his other men.

Having been left alone with Finan, Margery could feel herself growing uncharacteristically flustered in his presence. She positively hated how he constantly made her feel off balance. “Shall we head back as well?”

“I have a better idea. I have somethin’ I’d like to show ya.”

Margery frowned, “What would that be?”

Rather than responding, Finan merely smiled and nodded his head towards the woods. “Come on, you will see when we get there. Part of the fun is not knowin’.”

Margery hesitated, prompting Finan to goad her. “Come on, don’t ya trust me?”

“Well, I suppose when you put it that way it would be rather rude of me to say no.”

Finan laughed, “Exactly.”

Now that Margery had acceded to the request, Finan began to lead the way, making a beeline towards the line of trees.

Following closely at Finan’s side as they crossed the field and left the city behind them, Margery realized that now that she was alone with Finan, she could speak freely about Aethelstan. “I have something to tell you.” She announced.

Finan smiled, “And what’s that?”

“I have figured out why it is Sihtric calls Aethelstan the tiny prince.”

Though it was brief, Margery caught the slight pause in Finan’s step. She worried for a moment that she had miscalculated the situation and that, perhaps Finan did not trust her with this information. She wondered whether she should have kept her revelation to herself.

“I have not told anyone else.” Margery rushed out the words, hoping to reassure Finan. “Nor will I.”

“I did not think you would.” Finan reassured. Now that Finan had gotten over his initial surprise, it seemed to Margery that he was taking the news in stride. “What was it that put it together for ya?”

“It was Uhtred, funny enough.”

Finan laughed, “What was it that he said?” They had come upon a fallen tree awkwardly angled across a boulder. Finan easily hopped over the log and, once on the other side, held out his hand for Margery to take.

“Thank you.” Margery slipped one hand into his open palm and gripped her skirts with the other. As she stepped over the tree, she silently prayed that she would not trip on the way over.

Successfully on the other side, she continued, “He said something about having knocked Aethelstan’s father about and it all came together.” As Margery spoke, she realized that Finan was still holding her hand as they walked. She smiled, finding the feeling warm and comforting.

“One day, when he’s bein’ especially clever about somethin’, I’m going to tell him you figured it all out and it was all his fault.”

Margery laughed, the sound reverberating in the otherwise empty forest. “To be fair, Sihtric’s reaction the other day was not helpful to your cause.”

The corners of Finan’s lips turned upwards into a sly smile, “True. But I think I will be leavin’ that part out.”

“Very well.” With Finan lightly pulling her along, Margery observed her surroundings. They were walking at a moderate incline and had been doing so for some time. “Finan, where are we going?”

“You’ll see.” Finan glanced over his shoulder and threw Margery a small smile.

“Is it much further?” Margery couldn’t help but think that it was going to get dark relatively soon and she wasn’t sure she fancied being in the forest at that time.

At this, Finan stopped in his tracks, causing Margery to bump into his arm. Confused, Margery looked up at him only to find that Finan was looking at her with a rather strict expression. “Margery, are you complainin’ to me?”

For a moment, Margery thought Finan was trying to chastise her. And quite frankly, she found his attempt comical. She was sure Finan could be rather intimidating to any poor soul unfortunate enough to spark his ire, but in that very moment, all she could think of was all the jokes and antics she had witnessed from Finan over the past week. Margery could feel her mouth twitch and she bit down onto her lower lip to keep from laughing. If Finan was indeed trying to be serious with her, she did not think he would appreciate such a reaction.

With wide eyes, she tried to appear as contrite as possible. “I certainly-“

It was then that Margery caught the glint in Finan’s eyes and she realized he was only baiting her. Margery pressed her lips together and wrinkled her nose at him, “I certainly am.” She needled, “I have an abundance of complaints. It is beginning to get dark, I am hungry, my feet are beginning to hurt,” Margery continued, trying to come up with as many gripes as possible.

Finan looked startled for a moment before he realized Margery had caught on to his game and had decided to play along. “My Lady, forgive me for grievin’ you so.” Finan smirked and in one fluid motion wrapped his arms around Margery and scooped her off the ground, one arm under her legs and the other supporting her back. “I should be strung up and hung for my crimes.”

A startled yelp left Margery’s lips as her feet left the ground, but the sound soon devolved into laughter. “Without a doubt.” She teased, wrapping her arms around Finan’s neck as he began to walk once more. “But I may yet be convinced to pardon you.”

Smiling, Finan met Margery’s gaze. “Then I guess I will have to try my hardest to convince you to do so.” A cheeky wink followed Finan’s words.

Only a short walk remained, and they soon stepped out into a clearing at the top of the hill. Below them, Margery could see the tiny structures that made up the city of Eoforwic. The Minster dwarfed all of the other homes and shops, but from where they stood even the massive church appeared small. It was like they were giants, towering over the great city of the north.

“This is lovely.” Margery remarked as Finan gently set her down. The sun had begun to set behind the Minster, casting the impressive structure in a warm, orange glow.

“And to think, ya almost missed out on it for all your griping.” Finan teased, bumping his arm lightly against Margery’s shoulder.

“It is a good thing I have you to save me from myself.”

Finan laughed as he lowered himself onto the grass. Taking a seat beside him, Margery wrapped her arms around her knees and leaned her shoulder against Finan as they settled in to watch the sun set over the city. “Well, thank you for sharing this with me.” Margery whispered. Though she could not see it, Margery was sure that Finan was smiling as he leaned down to kiss the top of her head.

It was only once the sun had completely disappeared below the horizon, and the sky was bathed in the deep blue of early nightfall, that Finan spoke again. “So, what were you and Uhtred actually talkin’ about?”

The question came as a surprise to Margery, as she had quite honestly forgotten that Finan had come upon the very end of her conversation with Uhtred. “You did not believe Uhtred when he said we were speaking of Aethelstan’s education?” Margery arched a brow and turned her head to look at Finan just in time to catch the skeptical glance he was throwing her.

Margery smiled softly and glanced down at her feet before lifting her gaze once more. She hesitated, unsure of how she should approach her response. She felt like Uhtred had spoken to her in confidence. But now that Finan had made it clear that he had not bought Uhtred’s lie, Margery did not think she was in a position to continue the farce. It was a difficult needle to thread.

Nervously, Margery plucked a few blades of grass and ran them through her fingers. “We were talking about you.” She swallowed, attempting to quell her nerves. “Uhtred cares for you, that is all.” Admittedly, the response was rather vague, but Margery wasn’t entirely prepared to betray Uhtred’s confidences. Nor, frankly, was she prepared to initiate the conversation that would inevitably come were she to fully detail her conversation with Uhtred. Uhtred had all but asked her what her intentions were with Finan and frankly, Margery did not have an answer to that particular question. Nor was she sure whether she wanted to know what Finan’s intentions were.

“I’m not sure I much like being the topic of conversation.”

Margery couldn’t help but smile, “Yes, both Uhtred and I remarked on that.”

Finan plastered what was, in Margery’s opinion, the most dazzling smile he could muster on his face, “Are ya really not goin’ to tell me?”

Wrinkling her nose, Margery steeled herself to reject whatever cajoling came her way, “I am too smart to be charmed in to giving you what you want, Finan.”

“That is why I like ya.”

Margery huffed in frustration, a smile pulling at her lips as she looked away. “I will not be swayed, Finan. Not even by your sly little compliments. If you are so desperate to know, well, then you will have to ask Uhtred.”

Finan groaned dramatically and laid back on to the grass. “There’s a greater chance of me becomin’ the next King of Wessex than of that happenin’.” With a chuckle, Finan rolled onto his side and cradled his head in his hand.

Tilting her head, Margery smirked at Finan, “Pity.” She remarked, plainly. Though she was unwilling to tell Finan what she and Uhtred had discussed, Margery couldn’t help but replay the conversation over in her own mind. Uhtred’s words had seemingly taken root in her mind and now she could not help but wonder whether she would wind up causing Finan pain in the near future. Panic gripped Margery’s heart at the thought. It was one of the last things on God’s earth that she wanted to do.

“Finan, you do know that I care for you, don’t you?” Margery blurted.

The statement seemed to catch Finan off guard. His brows shot up, causing his forehead to wrinkle. A moment passed and as Finan got over his initial surprise, his face fell into a contemplative frown. “Yes.” He stated as he sat up. Finan looked Margery in the eyes and held her gaze, “Yes, I do know that.”

Margery nodded, relieved that at least that much was clear to the man. “Good.”

Finan’s frown deepened and he opened his mouth to speak. However, he seemed to change his mind, and Margery could practically see the moment he decided to shift course. “And you know that I care for you, right?”

Had Margery not already been sitting, she surely would have gone weak in the knees. “I do.” She affirmed, a smile finding its way onto her face the moment the words left her lips. “Though, it is nice to hear.”

Finan laughed, “Then I’ll say it as many times as ya would like.” Finan raised a hand and gently cradled Margery’s face. “I care about you, my lady.”

Margery smiled and leaned into Finan’s touch. “That is quite a terrifying prospect.”

“Should I be insulted by that?”

“I am serious.” Margery placed her hand over Finan’s, “It is rather alarming to add another person to the list of people I must think of and worry over. Especially when that person quite literally seeks out danger.”

At this, Finan laughed. “I cannot even pretend to deny that.”

During the exchange, Finan had slowly lowered his head so far that his nose was nearly brushing against Margery’s. With one more quick breath, Margery closed the distance, placing a slow and tender kiss upon Finan’s lips.

Finan’s hand moved from Margery’s cheek to the back of her neck, tangling in her hair. Margery mimicked Finan’s movements as the pressure from his lips built, running one hand through his unruly hair. When Finan began to pull away, Margery nipped at his bottom lip playfully, surprising herself with her own boldness. But she was not quite ready for the kiss to end.

Margery felt Finan smile against her lips as he grabbed a hold of her arm and pulled her towards him. Obliging him, Margery shifted closer. But it still didn’t seem quite close enough.

Finan seemed to share the sentiment, his arm snaking around Margery’s waist and gingerly pulling her into his lap. Finan’s hands came to rest on Margery’s hips and even through all the fabric of her dress Margery could have sworn it felt like her skin was on fire.

Bracing one hand against the back of Finan’s neck, Margery pressed her chest against Finan’s. Even this nearness didn’t seem to be enough and she realized she yearned to feel more of him, unencumbered by all the layers between them.

The thought itself scared her, but not enough to dissuade her. Running a hand down Finan’s chest, Margery briefly toyed with the hem of Finan’s tunic before slipping a hand under his shirt so that she could feel his skin against hers. At first, Margery ignored the fact that her fingers were brushing against raised skin. After all, Finan had been a warrior for many years and battle scars were evident even upon his arms. But as Margery’s hand traveled further up Finan’s back, she felt a knot begin to form in her stomach. Underneath her fingers, she could feel that Finan’s skin was riddled with long, thick scars. These were not battle wounds.

The knot in Margery’s stomach made its way to her throat and her hand froze in place against Finan’s back. She thought about pretending as if she hadn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary. But she could tell from the way Finan’s lips slowed and from the slight increase in the pressure of his hands on her hips that he had noticed her hesitation.

Pulling her hand out from under Finan’s shirt, Margery placed both of her hands gently on either side of Finan’s face and slowly pulled away, just far enough so that she could get a good look at him. Margery remained silent, instead searching his face for some indication as to what to do next. Did he want to talk about it? Or did he want to ignore the fact that she had seemingly stumbled upon something rather unpleasant in his past? Margery was fine with either option.

The way that Finan’s eyes traveled across Margery’s face made her think that he too was searching for something. Whatever it was that Finan was looking for, Margery seemed to give him the correct reaction. “I guess I ought to have warned ya.” A sad smile pulled at the corners of Finan’s lips as he reached a hand to gently tuck a stray strand of hair behind Margery’s ear. “When I was a much younger man, my brother sold me to a slaver. That’s how I met Uhtred. On board a slave ship.”

Finan’s words hit Margery like a rogue wave, submerging her entire body and making it hard to breathe for several moments. This was not among the many awful scenarios she had conjured in her mind when Uhtred had told her that Finan had led a hard life. No, this was something much worse.

“That’s why I haven’t told you much about my past.” Finan’s fingers tickled Margery’s back as he toyed with the ends of her hair, sending a tingle up the base of her neck. “It is not a pleasant story and I’d rather not burden ya-“

Margery placed a hand gently over Finan’s lips, cutting him off. She watched his eyes widen in surprise, but she could tell that he was smiling from the way his lips moved against her hand.

“There is nothing you could say to me that I would consider a burden.” Margery’s tone was forceful and accompanied by a stern look, as if she wanted to will Finan to absorb the message.

Finan’s smile grew broader under Margery’s hand. Convinced that Finan was not going to try and contradict her, she removed her hand from his mouth. “I am glad that you told me.” She reassured before leaning in and capturing his lips in a bruising kiss, wishing she could just erase whatever bad memories their conversation had dredged up.

A small groan escaped Finan’s lips and he moved his hands from Margery’s hips, wrapping his arms around her waist. Margery can’t help but smile at the sound.

“Would ya like to go back now?” Finan murmured as he moved his lips from Margery’s mouth to her neck, placing a light kiss on her collar bone.

It had grown dark by now and indeed, the logical thing to do would have been to return to the inn.

Margery shook her head, “Not yet.” She whispered. “Let us stay like this just a little while longer.”