Lunden, in the wake of devastation, was much the same as Lunden on an average day. Chaotic, and filthy, and such an attack on the senses that Eivor had quite forgotten what fresh and clean air smelled like. But it was alive, and would remain that way for now, and that was all that mattered.
Stowe and Erke had disappeared into the throngs of people, and Eivor wondered how something so simple as love could overcome years of belief, of worship and prayer and, yes, hate. Neither of them seemed to mind that they came from two different worlds. Perhaps there was still a lot to be learned from this land and its people.
“Will you stay, Wolf-Kissed?” a voice he didn’t recognise, and a face he couldn’t put a name to. “For a drink, at least?”
Eivor smiled at the stranger in what he hoped appeared kindly but was probably closer to a grimace, “Another time, perhaps.” The quicker he left this city, the better.
These people no longer needed him, and Randvi would be awaiting his return. Stowe and Erke were strong, capable men; Lunden would be in good hands, of that Eivor had no doubt.
Come morning, the destruction was more obvious. Brutal. Smoke and blood still hung heavy in the air and bodies lined the streets either in piles or strewn about, pushed aside carelessly as they were looted for scraps.
“I thought you would have left by now.” Stowe sidled up beside Eivor, less burdened than the night before and looking better for it. “Rebuilding a city doesn’t strike me as one of your talents.”
Eivor huffed a laugh, offered a friendly smile. “You’d be surprised then, I suppose.”
Stowe raised his brow, and Eivor thought he might ask about Ravensthorpe. About how Danes settled in England, about how Eivor himself alongside Randvi and Sigurd had turned that small, abandoned camp into a thriving little hamlet that people had begun to call home. But Stowe didn’t, and Eivor never offered information not willingly sought. So they stood in silence and watched as Lunden valiantly continued to press onward.
“You and Erke…” Stowe smiled shyly at that, and Eivor felt a longing for something he couldn’t name. “That is to say...I mean....Gods, just be careful. People can be cruel, Stowe, and these are turbulent times where even the smallest piece of information can be used against you. I....” Eivor trailed off. Cleared his throat. Hoped Stowe would know better than to ask if he was okay. He needn’t have worried, because Stowe was occupied by the sight of Erke laughing amongst the townsfolk, loud and no doubt bawdy.
“We’ll ensure you are well stocked for the journey home.” A gentle touch at his elbow had Eivor turning to face Stowe properly, and Eivor wanted nothing more than to just leave and be done with this city. “Thank you, Eivor. For everything. It has already been said, but please never forget you have friends in us, and you are always welcome in Lunden should you find yourself here again.”
“I am grateful for that, and your alliance is...well, it means a lot. Take care, Stowe. You and Erke.” With that, Eivor turned on his heel and headed for the city gates, not willing himself to give into temptation and turn around, to offer Stowe a final smile.
If fate were kind, Eivor may never set foot in Lunden again. But that was wishful thinking.
The northern stretch of the city was quiter, calmer, and far less butchered than the docks and city center. The tang of battle was still thick on the air, but there were no bodies, no buildings burnt to husks. Eivor could almost fool himself into thinking there had been no fight at all, if not for the blood still caked under his nails or matted into his hair, the gash still bleeding leisurely just under his ribs.
No, the fight had happened, and Eivor still had the long ride home before he would find any true rest.
The stables up ahead were a little thin on the ground, stock wise, with only Eivor’s mare and two other stallions awaiting their riders. Could be their masters would never return, could be that Eivor sent them to their Heaven and their God just the night before, and isn’t that a cheery thought. Poor bastards. Never a morning more sobering than the one after a bloody battle.
“ -just need a horse!” A shout, and Eivor was forced from his reverie into the present.
Baldric, the stable master, stood tall and proud at his post, or as tall and proud as his stature would allow. Shoulders thrown back and weathered face set in stone as he regarded the man in front of him; now there was a man who knew how to use his size. Eivor stood a moment, appreciating the curve of his back, the hands clenched into fists at his sides, the width of his shoulders and the thick column of his neck.
“No silver, no horse! I can’t just give them away.” Baldric had balls, that was for sure. Eivor imagined this to be a common occurrence for how little fear it seemed to instill in the man.
“Please. I’ll see you suitably reimbursed for your actions. On that you can be sure.” The stranger had quietened down, hunched over the poor man and practically begging.
“Your word counts for nothing now, I’m afraid.” Eivor couldn’t tell if that was the right or wrong thing to say, but its effect on the man was obvious. All at once, his bluster vanished, and he turned away from the stable master to run his hand through his hair. Baldric seemed to take pity. “Look, there’s work here. Honest work, for honest coin. Lunden is a big city, you could do well for yourself.”
“I’m sure work would come easy to one such as yourself, friend.” Eivor wanted his own horse, and to be rid of this big city, and the sooner this man left the sooner that could happen. “Has she behaved well, Baldric?” Eivor reached the stable proper, and set a hand upon his mare’s snout.
Baldric faltered, evidently blind to Eivor’s arrival. “Good as gold, Eivor. Done you a good service, she has.” The mare whinnied softly, and Eivor smiled at her.
“That is good to hear. Here, and a little extra for any damage your business may have taken during the last few days.” Eivor handed the pouch to Baldric, coins tinkling inside, and held the man’s arm close in friendship.
“Any time, Eivor. This lady is welcome any time.” Baldric smiled, and then his gaze slid past Eivor to where the stranger still stood, presumably waiting for Baldric to give in.
“Wolf-Kissed.” And, oh, he knew that voice.
Eivor turned, and was met with the stern and impassive face of Leofrith. After all he had been through, the bastard had come crawling back to England. For what reason, Eivor wondered. What possible reason would a kingless thegn return to the land he once lorded over? He had healed well, in the very least. His face was no longer openly weeping and painful to look at, and had instead scarred over smoothly.
“Leofrith.” Eivor had no other words for this man. He was the enemy, or had been. In truth, Eivor didn’t care; he hadn’t expected to see Leofrith again, had imagined him travelling to Rome to enact some form of revenge, or justice, and then quietly fading from the world. Not that Eivor spent a lot of time thinking about the man. Hardly any. “Give the man a horse, Baldric.”
Leofrith bristled. “I don’t need charity.”
“Really? A second ago you were begging for it. Accept it or don’t, it makes no odds to me. I have a horse.” Eivor reached the reign of his own mare, and pulled her from the stable, keeping Leofrith on the edge of his vision should he decide to gut Eivor. “We all need help sometimes, and I hold no grudge against you.”
“Spare me the sermon, Dane. Take your leave and we can return to our lives.” Eivor would have taken him up on that, should have taken him up on that, but he looked at Leofrith and struggled to find any similarities between the man stood before him now and the war-thegn that had fought him tooth and bloody nail those months ago. Leofrith didn’t want charity, but a helping hand surely couldn’t go amiss.
“Take the fucking horse. And be grateful I’m a forgiving sort.” Well, perhaps that wasn’t as kind as Eivor had hoped, but the sentiment was there.
Baldric had disappeared, though Eivor couldn’t say when or where he had gone to, so he left a handful of coins for him on the nearest flat surface and hoped he found them before someone else did. Leofrith didn’t move an inch, gaze locked on the floor at Eivor’s feet and looking decidedly sorry for himself. He still cut an imposing figure, all muscle and strength, but there was a hesitance there; he held himself like a man waiting for his own death to catch up to him.
Eivor sighed, watched the people around them, and waited for Leofrith to speak. When nothing happened, a kind of madness took him over. “Ride with me.” he asked, though he couldn’t say whether it was a request or an order. Who was he to order around this man?
“Fuck off.” Quick as a fox, Leofrith scowled, though his eyes now followed Eivor’s hands as he adjusted the bridle and reigns of his mare.
“Gods, I’m trying to help you.”
“Why? If I were you, I would have run me through and be done with it.”
Eivor mounted his steed, and looked down in wonder as Leofrith shifted forward slightly, towards Eivor, and looked up at him, squinting in the glare of the sun. “What would that achieve, Leofrith? You have done no wrong by me, only put your loyalty in a man who abandoned you for greener pastures. You are honourable, and killing you would gain me nothing.” Eivor turned on his mare, and trotted out of Lunden, once again finding himself resisting that temptation to glance behind.
A beat, and another set of hooves sounded behind him, and then Leofrith was beside him on the larger of the two stallions; a velvety black beauty with a stark, white star upon its head. Eivor looked over at his newfound companion, and hoped his smile was not as smug as it felt.
“I’ll accompany you until we reach Saint Albanes, assuming we are heading that way?” At Eivor’s nod, Leofrith continued, “There, we part. The roads are rife with ruffians and bandits, and there is a strength in numbers. And I…” Here, he seemed to war with himself, and Eivor slowed his horse in an attempt to hear what was being spoken. “I wanted to thank you, for the horse. I’ll see you paid back.”
Eivor laughed, “No king here will fulfill your promises for you, Leofrith, and besides that you owe me nothing. It was a gesture of good will, nothing more and nothing less.”
Leofrith nodded his understanding, though Eivor could see it pained him to do so, and together they led their horses through the rolling countryside and golden fields.