Eivor followed the trickling stream to its humble beginnings, deep within the mountain, sliding beneath a yawning cave that stood silent and foreboding. Eivor peered inside, noting the light and metallic scent to the air, the blood staining the gravel.
“Ceolbert?” He called, and receiving no answer he stepped into the darkness.
Something had taken place here, of that he was certain. Gravel and soil had been disturbed, kicked up in a scuffle and Eivor followed the trail into the back of the cave where a small opening allowed for deeper access, if one were willing to crawl. Eivor managed to squeeze himself through with little difficulty, peering into the shadows ahead of him.
"Ceolbert?" Eivor tried again, hearing his voice echo back to him. "Anyone in here?"
He took a cautious step forward, and held his breath when something up ahead moved, a crunching of gravel. A sound, like a whisper, a tendril of wind tunneling through the cave. Eivor waited, and when he heard it again it was accompanied by a quiet moan of pain. He felt his stomach drop and stalked quickly through the dark, the path lit dimly by the light filtering in through a gap in the wall ahead of him. He pressed his face to the jagged edge of rock and tried to gauge the situation he was about to walk into. Three wolves patrolled a cavernous space, huge grey beasts with mouths stained red and eyes fierce. Only wolves. Eivor started to back away slowly when he heard a sharp intake of breath, another muted groan. He cast his eyes about the cavern as best as he could from his position, and his heart went cold when his gaze fell to Ceolbert's still form, furs slick with blood and face pale from the loss of it.
Without thinking, Eivor forced himself through the gap, drawing his axe free and making quick work of the wolves. One caught him with his claws, digging into the meat of his arm as it pounced on him. Eivor brought his axe into the side of the beast's neck, as deep as he could, and waited for the wolf to go still in death before daring to move. He rushed to Ceolbert's side.
"Can you hear me?" He asked, kneeling next to the boy and running his hands over his torso where the blood seemed thickest. "Ceolbert? It's Eivor. I need you to open your eyes, lad."
"Eivor." Weak. So weak. His voice was small and soft in the emptiness of the cavern, and Eivor blinked to clear the blurriness that had settled over his vision.
"It's okay. You're okay. Just...I need to see how bad it is." Eivor pulled at Ceolbert's furs, untucking them and loosening buckles and clasps to get a glimpse of the flesh beneath. Ceolbert whimpered when Eivor pulled the fabric back, peeling away from the wound there.
It was...not as bad as Eivor had been expecting. There was a lot of blood. So much blood. But it was a clean wound, a simple slice on the side of his stomach, not at all the kind of injury a wolf would leave. Eivor breathed hard through his nose, glancing around for anything that may have caused this. His eyes landed on a dagger; a simple blade adorned with patterns similar to the ones he had seen on the swords and shields of Britons. Blood glistened against the silver steel. He pocketed the blade.
"Okay." He muttered, more to himself than Ceolbert. "Okay."
"Eivor...I…" Ceolbert opened bleary eyes, unfocused and bright with pain. "I didn't…"
"Shh, it's okay." Eivor comforted. He tore at the fabric of his own shirt, balling the material up and pushing it against the wound, replacing Ceolbert's furs and fastening them tight in an effort to staunch the bleeding, at least until they returned to the camp. "It's not so bad. A flesh wound, really."
And it was, but the depth wasn't the issue. Ceolbert had already lost a lot of blood, his skin pale and clammy. Anymore and Eivor feared for his life.
"No, I know. I just…" Ceolbert struggled with his words, and Eivor just wished he would stop. They would deal with the repercussions of this later, once his wounds were tended to and his life was no longer hanging in the balance. Ceolbert grabbed at Eivor's collar, pulling him close. "It wasn't...his fault."
Eivor stared at the boy. "Who?" He asked, keeping the pressure on Ceolbert's stomach.
"Ivarr." Ceolbert motioned to where the dagger sat accusingly in the dirt. "He's not...he isn't…" His words were slow, slurred, as if he couldn't control his tongue properly. "Don't be angry with him. He's not...one for...peace."
At that, Eivor understood, and his blood ran cold. He wiped at his eyes and steeled himself. "Okay. Let's worry about that later." He placed Ceolbert's hands over the wound, knowing he wouldn't have the strength to do much but feeling better for it anyway. "I'm going to carry you, okay? We're not too far out, so just keep your eyes open. No falling asleep, Ceolbert."
The lad nodded, and Eivor lifted him with ease. Getting out of the cave was a struggle; squeezing himself through tight spots was nothing, but it became a chore when he also had to worry about the injured prince he carried. Ceolbert was quiet in his arms, so small, and suddenly Eivor remembered just how many people would grieve should the boy die. Ceolwulf would be destroyed, that was a given. But the little aetheling had touched so many people's lives, had slotted himself neatly into their hearts with a charming smile and a few smooth words. Suddenly Ceolbert's weight was all encompassing, pulling Eivor down as a heaviness settled in his chest. He let himself cry, let the tears fall, but continued on towards the cave's opening, sighing in relief when he could hear the gentle trickle of the stream, and make out the familiar silhouette blotting out the sun.
"What happened?" Leofrith's voice, alert and hurried, the man himself rushing up to meet Eivor and relieve him of the prince heavy in his arms.
Eivor heaved a breath, looking down at the blood on his hands. "Ivarr. I think. I don't…I don't know, Leofrith."
"Okay." A beat. "Hey." Eivor heard him, knew he was being spoken to, but, gods, the blood on his hands. So red, so fresh. "Eivor. Look at me."
Eivor obeyed. Leofrith had lifted Ceolbert over his shoulders, one arm keeping the lad secured as he mumbled nonsense, the other reaching out to Eivor. "Yeah. I'm here. We need to get him back to the camp."
Leofrith nodded, pulling Eivor by his arm back down the mountainside, hand tight around Eivor's wrist.
They were met at the camp with confusion and worry, word spreading quickly as they marched to Ceolbert's tent. Deorlaf hurried to meet them, face contorted horribly as he took in the sight of Ceolbert hanging limply from Leofrith's shoulders.
"What happened? Eivor?" He demanded, helping Leofrith ease the boy onto his bed inside of the tent, pulling back at his furs and mail. He let out a sympathetic whimper at the sight of Ceolbert's stomach, the blood still oozing lazily there. Eivor swallowed thickly.
"He was...I don't know." Eivor pinched the bridge of his nose, sending a few soldiers who had dared come to investigate to get a healer. He waited until they were out of earshot. "He mentioned Ivarr."
Deorlaf looked up at him, hands pressed into the gaping wound and valiantly ignoring Ceolbert's protests of pain. "Ivarr?"
Ceolbert shuffled on his bed at the name, reaching out blindly until his hand found purchase on Deorlaf's shoulder. "I don't want to die."
Tension settled thick over the enclosed space. Eivor couldn't say for sure the lad would survive this; perhaps if they had found him a little earlier, if he had lost a little less blood. "You're not going to." He stated, hands clenched into fists at his sides.
"Please don't let me die." Ceolbert begged, pulling himself up in his newfound panic. Eivor looked on helplessly as Deorlaf tried to calm him, pushing him gently back onto the bed and helping him out of his clothes. His blood had seeped into fabric, staining his skin as a result — bright red against pale white. A sick feeling crawled in the back of his throat at the sight, at the smell; sour and thick in the heat of the tent.
The soldiers returned, followed by an older man with a head of grey streaked hair and a bushy beard. He towered over Eivor, not intimidating but rather a comforting presence, a lighthouse on a stormy night. Eivor let the man work, offering him a clipped greeting before moving out of his way. The healer kneeled at Ceolbert's side, assessing the gash. He left them to it. Outside, people had gathered around the tent; a hundred faces looking to him in askance. Eivor pushed past them in his hurry to leave, to walk aimlessly from the camp to somewhere he could hide himself away. He turned a corner, leaning against the cold stone that blocked him from their searching gazes, and allowed his legs to give out from underneath him. He held his head in his hands, shrinking himself in the dry grass as he sobbed into the dirt. Just a moment; a brief respite of emotion before he figured out his next move.
A hand, warm and heavy on the back of his neck. Eivor panicked for a second, scrambling up and preparing for a fight.
"It's me!" Only Leofrith, grabbing Eivor's raised fists, strong and sure. "It's me. It's just me."
Tired and aching, hollowed out crudely, Eivor let himself sink into the man's embrace. Leofrith's arms wrapped around him, one keeping him upright where he planted it around Eivor's waist, the other coming to rest across his shoulders tightly. Eivor let him take his weight, his own arms tentatively grabbing at Leofrith's sides, unsure of what was allowed in such a position. He hiccuped into the hollow of Leofrith's throat, caught on a sob that clawed its way painfully from his chest.
"I've got you." Leofrith muttered, and Eivor felt the words whisper through his hair warmly, the same as he felt the way Leofrith's chest hitched beneath him over each breath.
Slowly, painfully, Eivor managed to take back enough control of his body enough to stop the sobs that wracked him. He had closed his eyes at some point, though he couldn't say he remembered doing so, and though he knew he should straighten himself out; should wipe over his face and set to work finding Ivarr, pulling away from this was the last thing he wanted. He flexed his hands, tugging at the material warmed by Leofrith's body heat. It was nice, being embraced by someone larger than him; safe and all-consuming in the best way possible. He sighed, and lifted his head from its perch, revelling in the way Leofrith's beard scraped across the bare skin of his shaved head, just above his ear. An interesting new sensation. Leofrith allowed for the movement, lifting his own head and pulling back only slightly, one arm still wrapped around Eivor's waist, though the other one moved from his shoulders to his neck, fingers kneading slightly into the tendons there and spreading a warmth that settled low in Eivor's stomach.
"He'll be okay." Eivor said, willing himself to believe it.
"He will be." Leofrith said, so sure of his words despite the wateriness of his eyes. "I actually…" He trailed off, sighing. "Ivarr returned."
Eivor's hands tightened at Leofrith's sides, the knowledge settling like a punch to the gut. What did they do now? Eivor would have to clarify events before going any further; he couldn't blindly accuse Ivarr of such a crime going only on the word of a feverish young man. Ivarr's only motivation would be revenge, grasping at any opportunity to get his hands wet with Rhodri's blood. Eivor thought back to the dagger; a clever little placement that would have had Eivor fooled had Ceolbert not been so aware. He felt sick with the knowledge.
"How long?" Eivor asked, and forced himself to move out of the embrace, to create a little space between them.
"Only just. I couldn't… I saw him. Eivor…" Leofrith struggled through the words, and there was an anger lacing each syllable that Eivor had grown unused to hearing from him.
"Leave him to me. I'll speak with him, try and make sense of what happened." Eivor scrubbed a hand over his eyes.
"Eivor, if he–"
"I'll kill him." Eivor interrupted. "If he's responsible for this, I'll kill him myself."
They stared at each other, angry and already grieving irregardless of Ceolbert's survival so far. Leofrith closed the gap between them once more and lifted a hand to Eivor's face, bringing their foreheads together softly.
"Just watch you don't get yourself killed in the crossfire. One traumatic event is enough for today, I think." He said, and Eivor huffed a laugh into the air between them.
"Blood for blood." Eivor whispered. "You should stay with Ceolbert; he'll want to see a familiar face should he wake up properly."
"I don't think I can stomach the sight of him in such a way." Leofrith admitted, his words ghosting over Eivor's lips. So easy.
"It's not about you." Eivor reminded him, smiling when Leofrith tutted and pushed him away.
"Be careful." He reiterated, jabbing a finger to Eivor's chest to force the point. "Please."
Eivor offered him a lazy salute and watched him go. He sobered up at the sight of Leofrith’s retreating back, and turned on his heel to track down Ivarr.
It took longer than he would have liked; the camp was large, and Ivarr was surprisingly adept at hiding himself when he didn’t want to be found, though Eivor couldn’t say for certain he was hiding at all. He had no reason to believe Eivor had figured him out; as far as Ivarr was aware, everyone was under the assumption that the Britons were responsible for Ceolbert’s injury, that Rhodri had ordered his death. Eivor found him down by the stream, squatting in the shallows and cleaning his hands.
“Ivarr.” He said carefully, more to alert the other man to his presence than anything else.
Ivarr squinted in the sun as he looked up at Eivor, expression flitting from blankness to what Eivor supposed was meant to come across as worry. “How is he doing?” Ivarr asked.
Eivor shrugged. “He’s alive. Last I saw, the healer was tending to his wound as best he could. It’s not too deep, not from what I could see, but he bled quite a bit. It’ll be... close.” Eivor watched Ivarr closely; the steady rise of his body as he stood, the flickering of his eyes as he listened to Eivor’s words. He was good at pretending, and Eivor had never felt the desire to cause pain so acutely before now.
“Good.” Was all he said, and then rounded viciously on Eivor. “I warned you, Wolf-Kissed. I warned you of what Rhodri was capable of, what he would do. You didn’t fucking listen. We have to retaliate; he’s broken your little truce. He’s lucky the boy still breathes.”
Eivor let him shout, let him run himself ragged with false righteousness until he was left heaving great breaths, face red and blotchy. Eivor crossed his arms against the onslaught, and felt his own anger simmer beneath his skin at such an act. It was a shame; a man of Ivarr’s reputation, of his skill, and he was nothing more than a cold-blooded killer bound by nothing. How does he do it? Eivor had to wonder. How does one move through this world with no close friends, no unbreakable bonds of absolute trust and loyalty?
“Rhodri didn’t do this, Ivarr.” Eivor said quietly, eyes fixed on Ivarr’s face and watching for any tell there.
Ivarr frowned, eyes narrow and deadly. A snake, Eivor thought. That is what Ivarr reminded him of; a sly little beast full of venom and spite, put on this earth to survive and nothing more. “No?” He asked simply.
“No.” Eivor replied, and he knew everything worth saying had been said. “There will be no retaliation. There will be no more battles for you to fight. Not today, and not for years to come. Because Rhodri did not do this, Ivarr. You did.”
When Ivarr said nothing, Eivor pulled the dagger from his furs, twirling it in his hand and watching as Ivarr traced the movement with narrowed eyes. “He might die, Ivarr. Ceolbert could be breathing his last. All for one final, fruitless grasp at a man who scarred you however many years ago?”
“Rhodri is a tyrant and a snivelling shit of a man who deserves to meet the sharp edge of my axe.” Ivarr scoffed the words, voice raised yet not quite shouting.
“And now we are at peace!” Eivor would not be cowed, not by this man. “We are at peace, and they will return to their kingdom.”
“It won’t last!”
“It never does. But for now it is enough.”
Ivarr sneered. “Oh, fuck off, Eivor. So high and mighty have you become; flitting around this strange country, making and unmaking kings as you please. Would you have me bow to your every word? Of course, my lord. Right away, my lord.”
Eivor rolled his eyes. “Do as you please where I’m concerned, but Ceolbert has done nothing to warrant such heartless treatment. He trusted you.” He felt his voice crack at the words, tears once again threatening to spill.
“And now the whelp will know better.” Ivarr said simply, and for just the briefest moment Eivor felt pity for him; for whatever sad turn of events had turned him into this beast parading as a man. Eivor sighed, and thought of Ceolbert’s hopeful eyes around Ivarr, the respect he had for the old warrior. Ivarr Ragnarsson had no friends. "Poor little Ceolbert. He didn't say a word."
Eivor clenched his fists tightly, twitching against the dagger he still held in one hand. Ivarr was goading him, though seemingly without a solid purpose other than to start a fight, and Eivor tried to not be tempted. "Ivarr."
"Just a soft little squeal. Then nothing." His lips curled into a vicious smirk, eyes vacant of any emotion Eivor could recognise.
"Stop." Eivor pleaded to no avail.
"If I must meet the gods, I want to meet them screaming, my friend." Ivarr stretched out his arms, tilting his head back to look up at the sky as he laughed the words out. "Screaming, and covered in blood! Fight me, Wolf-Kissed!" Ivarr wielded his axes, pulling them free from their straps and knocking the blades together to create a high screech that cut through the air.
Eivor should refuse. Under any other circumstance, on any other day, he would. But Ceolbert lay cold and dying in a tent, miles away from his father, and there was a rage rushing in his veins beneath the skin to see Ivarr so…unmoved by the knowledge. To know that Ceolbert had trusted this man to the very last, right up until the second that blade pierced his skin. How scared the boy must have felt. How alone. Eivor felt his free hand move to wrap around the handle of his axe of its own accord, loose and unsure.
Ivarr used his hesitation against him; in the split second before Eivor had fully decided, Ivarr pounced. He kicked at the water, sending a cold spray into Eivor’s eyes that left them stinging and blurred. Ivarr rushed him before he could blink them clean, and the man was a boulder as he crashed into Eivor and sent them both tumbling into the shallows; cold water flooding his mouth and lungs as his head was pushed beneath the surface. Eivor felt the icy tendrils of panic wrap around his heart. Ivarr was by no means a heavy man, but he had a lithe strength to his wiry frame that combined with the element of surprise perfectly, leaving Eivor struggling to push against where he was pinned down. He grappled for purchase; he dropped the dagger and let it fall away, slapping his hands around where he could see the vague outline of Ivarr’s head in an attempt to get the man off him.
At last, Ivarr’s weight was lifted from his chest, allowing Eivor to pull himself out of the water enough to take great gulps of air between wet coughs. He heard the rasp of Ivarr’s laugh like metal scraping against rock.
“Come on, Wolf-Kissed.” He goaded. “Get up.”
Eivor’s world narrowed down to the burning in his lungs and the memory of Ceolbert’s blood on his hands; still there, crusted beneath his nails and in the creases of his fingers, though most had been washed off when he hit the water. He saw the shimmer of the dagger beneath the current and made the decision. Whirling around on his heels, he swiped the dagger from the riverbed and threw it at Ivarr, the blade singing through the air and lodging itself neatly into Ivarr’s shoulder. The man barely even flinched as he pulled it free. He wiped the blade clean against his thigh, smiling as he did so.
“Eivor.” Ivarr’s voice took on a chiding tone, soft and distant. “You know better than to believe your blades can kill me. Rhodri already tried.”
Eivor freed his axe and held it firmly, standing steady and sure in the waters despite the damp heaviness to his furs, the uncomfortable way his wet clothes stuck to his skin and warmed from his body heat.
“And I’ll finish what he started.” Eivor said, and left all hesitation behind.
They collided violently; Eivor put his weight behind each swing of his axe, enjoying how each blow landed heavily against Ivarr’s own weapon and left the man trembling with the effort of blocking. He was careful not to exhaust himself, aware that doing so would surely lead to his own brutal death. Ivarr’s style of combat was unlike anything Eivor had faced before; it was one thing to watch the man on the battlefield, watch him cut down faceless soldiers with little effort, but it was another thing entirely to be on the receiving end of it. Ivarr moved with a single-minded grace, a man so unlike himself in the throes of battle it was almost a privilege to see. A privilege greatly overshadowed by the fact that one of them was teetering on the edge, dancing with the end of his life’s thread.
Eivor cut low and struck at Ivarr’s thigh, axe blade slicing through the thin fabric there and drawing blood. It took Ivarr by surprise, and Eivor used the distraction to grab at the man’s collar, planting his feet wide as he buried his axe into Ivarr’s torso; two deep strikes that sealed his fate. Ivarr grinned; he dropped one axe and held his hand against the jagged lacerations, and when he pulled it away his palm and fingers were slicked red. Eivor pushed him away and watched as the man staggered, eyes still fixated on the blood coating his hand. Eivor’s eyes fell to the gashes he’d inflicted, the blood saturating Ivarr’s clothes and dribbling into the water below. He looked at Eivor, fear and ecstasy blazing fierce in his eyes.
Ivarr lunged for Eivor, born anew with nothing left to lose. Eivor backed up and watched as his swings slowly grew more clumsy with exhaustion and blood-loss. A satisfying sight.
“You don’t deserve Valhalla.” Eivor told him, a sickening sense of bliss blooming within him at the anger that rippled through Ivarr at the words.
Eivor dodged his final swing with ease, barely even a swing at all, and stood tall when Ivarr fell to his knees, blood and water swirling around him.
“What a story you’ll have to tell.” Ivarr smiled, almost sad. “Eivor Wolf-Kissed, Slayer of the Boneless One!”
It was easy. It was easy to stand back and watch as a vikingr legend bled out in a lazy stream, hidden away in some small corner of a large world. Ivarr fell forward, not quite catching himself enough to prevent his head from sinking beneath the surface of the water. Eivor watched with a detached kind of interest, as if seeing a tale of old come to life before his eyes; the glorious death of a warrior laid low. Ivarr convulsed against the current, and Eivor placed a foot to the man’s back between his shoulder blades. He felt nothing as Ivarr moved beneath him. Felt nothing when the man stilled. Felt nothing as he removed his foot and watched as Ivarr’s body was pushed and pulled by the current, stirring the mud beneath him. It was... odd. There was a lingering sense of shame that fought its way to the forefront of Eivor’s mind; Ivarr had done cruel and unforgivable things in his lifetime, but he was a vikingr. And whether or not Odin would receive the man into his halls was his own concern, but Eivor felt the compulsion to at least give Ivarr a fighting chance, for the sake of their shared lands and history.
He pulled Ivarr from the waters, dropping him unceremoniously on the bank. His eyes were wide and unseeing, but they pierced through Eivor’s conscience. His axe was retrieved from the shallows, and Eivor placed it upon Ivarr’s cold chest, positioning his hands around the handle. Ivarr never made a sound, but then he wouldn’t. He was dead. Eivor felt the weight of it; he had never killed such a man as Ivarr. He was a legend, and Eivor wondered idly if his story would pass into myth; his cruelty and skill echoing through time.
Eivor forced his gaze away from the body, and met the stares of hundred different faces.
“Blood for blood.” He said into their silence.
Nobody said anything as he trudged from the shallows; he followed the path to Ceolbert’s tent, the crowd around him moving as if he were a knife through butter. He would tell them, if they asked, why Ivarr had to die. As it was, they stayed silent, but he promised that he would at least tell Ubba of the truth; Ivarr may have been cold and cruel but his brother loved him.
His body ached. The cut across his head had scabbed over in the days before the truce, but the water had sloughed the healing flesh away and left it raw and stinging. His skull pounded from being half-drowned, chest still aflame with the shadow of water, and there was a gash he hadn’t felt Ivarr make throbbing against his sleeve and sending a dull ache down to the tips of his fingers. The stench of blood in Ceolbert’s tent was thick, but the healer was no longer present and Ceolbert himself was breathing steadily in his sleep. Eivor felt a lightness settle over him at the sight. He was alive. Eivor collapsed at his bedside, taking the lad’s hand in his own as he let his head fall to the covers, listening to gentle rise and fall of his breaths.
“Eivor.” Quiet, and Eivor hadn’t even realised he wasn’t alone.
Eivor lifted his head, surprised when his eyes were blurred. He turned his head only slightly, just enough to see Leofrith sat in the corner of the tent with his hands placed carefully in his lap. The tent was small, but Eivor felt the distance between them like an ocean.
“Did the healer have anything to say?” Eivor’s throat felt bruised.
Leofrith stood, coming to join Eivor by Ceolbert’s bedside and looming over the both of them. Eivor noted with a tender flicker of something that he chose to stand between them and the tent’s entrance, shielding Ceolbert’s prone form and Eivor’s moment of weakness. He craned his neck to follow the movement, and looked up at Leofrith, feeling some part of him break at the quiet grief he found there. Wordlessly, Eivor shuffled up the length of the bed and made space for Leofrith to sit down next to him, and he curled slightly toward the heat that the man radiated, chasing away the chill of his damp furs.
“It bled. A lot.” Leofrith mumbled, and Eivor watched him frown through the memory. “If he’s still breathing tomorrow, the healer is confident he’ll live.”
Eivor took a shuddering breath, and felt the tension slip from his shoulders, a sob ripping itself free from his chest without his permission. The day was drifting into late afternoon; they had hours before Ceolbert would be anything near safe, hours in which the worst could still happen and he could be taken from them in the silence of sleep. Eivor held the boy’s hand tighter between his, felt the weak pulse at his wrist, the sluggish flow of lifeblood that Eivor held onto.
“He’s strong.” Eivor said, more to himself. He took in Ceolbert’s face; still so pale against the dark of his bed covers, the fiery brightness of his hair. A man half dead, peaceful in his sleep and eerily reminiscent of the crypts these Saxons built for their dead nobles; cold stone carved into their likeness to carry their face the ages. Eivor shivered to think of Ceolbert in such a position; he prayed to his gods to spare the boy before him, and then he offered one to the Christian God – just in case.
“It’s got me thinking,” Leofrith started, a deep rumble that Eivor let roll through him like thunder. “About what you said back in Ravensthorpe. I can’t leave him on his own.”
Eivor met his eyes. “You’ll stay in Sciropescire, then?”
“I want... “ Leofrith trailed off, and Eivor was familiar with the depths of want. “With Burgred, it was all war. I’m not naive; I know ruling a shire will be difficult for him, and he’s bound to come up against resistance. But I want to be there to support him, to see him grow into the position. I’m tired of war, Eivor.” He sighed, rubbing at his eyes.
Eivor understood that; the bone deep tiredness that came with fighting, the toil it had on both mind and body alike. “I hope it works out for you. For both of you.” He said honestly, and ignored the knot of hurt in his stomach. It was a solid plan, and beneficial to all parties. Only…
Only Eivor had rather gotten used to travelling in company; he hadn’t been alone since before Lunden, and it was quite nice to have someone there to bounce ideas off of, to trade idle conversation with. Even the silence was nicer; less hollow than the silence that came with being alone. It would have happened, he supposed, sooner or later. It still hurt, though.
“You know he’ll welcome you here with open arms. Whenever your travels bring you this way.” Leofrith said, quiet even in the hush of the tent.
Eivor did know. Ceolbert would always be a friend. “And you?” He asked, refusing to look away even with the heat now staining his cheeks.
For a moment Leofrith said nothing, and Eivor worried he had overstepped some imagined line between them, had seen things that were never there to begin with. But Leofrith only smiled; familiar, easy, and Eivor ached to be on the receiving end of such a sight. "You'll always be a welcome sight in my eyes, Eivor."
Eivor didn't think; he reached a hand across to hold one of Leofrith's, and brought it over the covers to where Eivor was still holding tightly onto Ceolbert, and together they cradled his pale hand between theirs. Eivor smiled at the sight, heart thrumming a wild rhythm beneath his chest.
Ceolbert awoke the next evening; the hours passed by so slowly Eivor wondered if the gods were pulling some cruel trick on him, but they did pass. Leofrith stayed within the tent, moving between the floor at Ceolbert’s bedside and the chair opposite his bed, but Eivor had other matters to see through. He helped prepare Ivarr’s body for its final journey back to Repton, where Ubba could see his brother off into whatever afterlife awaited him; Eivor knew Valhalla would make no space for him. He watched the newly formed caravan begin their journey, Ivarr safely wrapped in linens and a hastily made box, the wagon shifting uneasily on the rocky ground as the horses stumbled out of the camp; Ivarr’s warriors followed, and surprisingly enough some of Ceolwulf’s men even chose to accompany them, chief among them being Beortric. The grizzled old captain levelled Eivor with an accusing stare.
“Will you not tell me?” He asked, running a hand through his hair.
“Do you want to know?”
Beotric hesitated, cast a glance to the caravan as it continued on its journey. “Am I to lie to Ubba, then? I’ve never met the man, but I know he won’t take too kindly to me should I lie to him, especially about the death of his brother. What happened?”
Eivor sighed and closed the gap between them. “Ceolbert. It was Ivarr who wounded him.”
“What?” Beotric cried in shock, lowering his voice when the small outburst turned nearby heads. “Why would he do that?”
“He used a dagger belonging to the Britons; he wanted us to think Rhodri had ordered it in order to compel us to attack him. He was a vengeful man, Beortric, you know this. Tell Ubba if you wish, or don’t, it makes no odds to me. It is done.”
Beortric had more to say, Eivor could tell, but he kept his mouth shut and simply nodded his understanding. Good.
“Have a safe journey.” Eivor said, and turned away from the captain and the retreating shadow of the caravan.
He returned to Ceolbert’s tent just as the sun was sinking below the horizon, and felt his knees weaken at the sight that welcomed him. Ceolbert was sat up in his bed, pillows and blankets layered beneath him to keep him upright and comfortable. The healer knelt at the bed, tending to the wound.
“Ceolbert.” Eivor gasped, dumbfounded and unable to think coherently.
“Eivor!” Oh, his voice. Such a sweet song to hear.
The boy still looked awful; still far too pale for Eivor’s liking, and his eyes were sunken pits in the frame of his face, but he was undeniably alive, and smiling. The image was such a balm to Eivor’s grief. He stumbled forward on shaky legs, eyes fixated on the softness of the lad’s face, the mess of his hair against his forehead, and only just managed to remember they weren’t alone. The healer stood from the floor, a bloody cloth in hand.
“He’s still weak.” The man said, pulling Ceolbert’s blankets back up to his chest and covering the freshly stitched gash in his side. “I wouldn’t move him for a few days, not until he’s at least able to stand on his own, so travelling to Quatford at the moment is out of the question. He’ll have to recover here.”
Eivor nodded. “Sure.”
“I’ll check back in on him in the morning, and then as often as I can to ensure the wound doesn’t fester. He’s passed through the worst of it, however, and will just need to rest to gain his strength.” He turned to face Ceolbert. “You need to eat, as well. I know war rations aren’t the tastiest, but it’s all we have for the moment.”
“I want to be back on my feet as soon as possible.” Ceolbert didn’t complain, but Eivor knew the extended bedrest would annoy him to no end.
“And you will be,” the healer continued. “But you need to rest. You lost a dangerous amount of blood. Your body needs the rest to restore itself.”
“Thank you.” Eivor interrupted before Ceolbert could get a word in.
“Just doing my job. Come find me if he takes a turn.” The healer bowed his head to Ceolbert and left, leaving them alone.
“Where’s Leofrith?” Eivor asked, suddenly unsure of himself with the weight of Ceolbert’s eyes.
“Frode made him go and search for food for me. I think Leofrith annoyed him.” Ceolbert huffed a laugh, and Eivor could imagine the man hovering behind the old healer closely to watch over his work, worrying over Ceolbert’s state as the boy looked on blearily.
“You gave him cause to worry.” Eivor said softly, and knelt at the bedside in one swift motion, taking Ceolbert’s hand in his as he had when he was unconscious. It was a welcome difference when Ceolbert was able to squeeze back.
“I know. I am sorry for that, and any worry I may have caused you.”
“It was hardly your fault.” The words came out harsh, sharp on the edge of his tongue. He took a deep breath. “Ceolbert… What happened to you…”
“Did you kill him?”
Eivor looked up at the young man lying before him. He remembered then, what had happened to him in the caves. Who had driven the blade into his flesh.
“I did.” There would be no point in lying; Ceolbert would find out sooner or later what had taken place, if not from Eivor himself then from some stranger with a loose tongue. Eivor watched the lad’s face, unsurprised when sorrow reared its ugly head.
“I loved him.” Ceolbert said, and wiped at his eyes with his free hand while clutching tightly around Eivor’s own. “I know he didn’t…”
Eivor rose from his position on the floor and wrapped Ceolbert in his arms, pulling him against his chest in relief and comfort, rubbing a gentle hand over the expanse of Ceolbert’s back to ease his suffering. Ceolbert didn’t cry, and Eivor couldn’t tell if he was too weak to or simply didn’t allow it of himself, but Eivor let him slump against him all the same.
“I am sorry, Ceolbert, but he sealed his fate the moment he decided your death was acceptable.” Eivor whispered the words into the loose fabric of Ceolbert’s shirt, and a shaky breath heaved from the boy’s chest.
“He wanted Rhodri dead so badly, but I didn’t think he would ever do such a thing. I truly did not know him at all, did I?”
“You knew as much of him as he allowed to be known. He felt something for you, and it may not have been enough to stay his blade, but it’s more than most ever got from him.”
Ceolbert pulled back, and Eivor let him breathe. “Did he die well, at least?”
“Better than he deserved. Grieve for Ivarr, if you must, but leave him behind and begin to look forward instead. Rest and recover.” Eivor stood back from his bed, and let the sight of Ceolbert alive and well settle over him.
They talked of lighter things until Leofrith returned to the tent a short time after, a bowl of hot stew and fluffy bread cradled in one hand. Eivor helped arrange Ceolbert on the bed, placing a pillow over his lap as a tray to hold his food. He fussed with the furs at his back, pushing them together so they sat more sturdily for Ceolbert to lean against.
“Stop it.” Ceolbert laughed, harder when Eivor ignored the words and had to be nudged away by Leofrith.
“Leave him alone.” Leofrith placed the bowl on the boy’s lap, offering him a pat on the shoulder. “He’s fine.”
Eivor relented, propping up one last pillow and earning himself a weakly slapped hand from Ceolbert who then diverted all of his attention to the steaming food in front of him. Eivor sat himself at the side of the bed again, stretching his legs out and groaning when his knees popped in complaint. He watched Leofrith take up his perch on the chair opposite, the splay of legs inviting.
“Have the Britons sent word?” Ceolbert asked through a mouthful of stew.
Eivor had forgotten. “Oh. Angharad came while you were… When I found you, I was looking to tell you the good news. She came on behalf of Rhodri yesterday morning; they’ll retreat their soldiers back to their lands and no longer attack the villages or camps, in return we offer them the same treatment while they gather themselves and move out. After that, consider the war over.”
“That simple?” Ceolbert asked.
Eivor nodded. “That simple. Who knows how long it’ll last, but for now peace reigns. The terms are agreeable for you?”
“Of course. Any decision that leads us to peace is a good one. Thank you for being there when I could not. Hopefully I’m able to attend any future talks.”
“You will.” Eivor promised, and thought it best not to discuss the topic any further. Ceolbert hadn’t said anything more on his becoming ealdorman, but his words spoke his intentions clearly and Eivor didn’t want to sway him either way. It was a choice Ceolbert had to make alone, in the end.
He let Ceolbert eat, shifting his focus away from recent events and letting his mind drift absently. He blinked, and smiled lazily when he realised Leofrith had fallen asleep in his chair; head lolled at an awkward angle that would certainly leave him aching when he woke again.
“Can I ask you something, Eivor?” Ceolbert asked, the sounds of him shuffling around on the bed loud in the quiet of the tent.
“Hm.” Eivor kept his eyes on Leofrith, the loose way he had crossed his arms over his chest, the shadows from the candles flickering and casting artful shadows across his face.
“Ravensthorpe…” Ceolbert started. He paused, and Eivor waited. “How do you do it?”
Eivor rested his head against the edge of the bed, putting Ceolbert just in the corner of his vision. “Do what?”
“Lead them. I know you’re not...not their jarl, but you do lead them. You’ve helped build a village from an abandoned camp; they trust you, and look to you for guidance. Nobody has ever looked to me for such things.”
Eior swallowed his sigh – he had hoped by not pursuing the topic that Ceolbert would put his energy into recovering, but clearly it still hung heavy on the boy’s mind. “I have no advice to give you, Ceolbert. I wish I did. Truly.”
“Try.” Ceolbert said. “Please.”
“They will not trust you. Not at first. You’re a stranger to this shire and they’ll think you yet another young lord come to grasp at power. You have to prove them wrong; show them that, yes, while your presence here is at the order of your king you are not here to tower over them. Get to know the people you will be living beside, Quatford especially. Make friends, don’t be afraid to get your hands muddy. And vouch for them in whatever diplomatic talks you’re required at. Your shire will be at the very front of your interests, and your every move and decision must be made with them in mind. You must give them no cause to distrust you, no hidden agenda.”
Ceolbert was quiet behind him. “It sounds like a lot.”
“It is.” Eivor admitted, slumping slightly against the bed and letting his gaze fall back to Leofrith – still sleeping peacefully. “But the rewards are worth it, I promise. To look upon the people who started out as little more than strange faces and see friends...to know all that lies between you is respect and camaraderie. Nobody is born a leader, Ceolbert. It comes with time and practice, just as any other skill. Know that Ravensthorpe is full of people who already see you as such, and should you require any assistance we’ll be happy to offer it.”
“Thank you, Eivor.”
Eivor hummed in response, and brought his knees up to his chest when the night’s chill caught him off guard. He felt the bed shake as Ceolbert moved around.
“Need a hand?” He asked, and took the empty bowl handed to him and set it on the floor next to him. He stayed alert in case Ceolbert needed anymore help, but the boy rearranged his pillows and furs with no aid.
Eivor inclined his head enough to look behind him, and laughed when he saw Ceolbert on his back, head turned to the side as he fiddled with the end of one of Eivor’s braids. It was easy to forget just how young he actually was, how inexperienced, despite the softness to his face. Ceolbert offered him a small smile, and Eivor would go to the ends of the earth for him. He let Ceolbert disappear into his own head, and returned his eyes once more to Leofrith, startling slightly when he saw the man had woken. Eivor watched as his eyes jumped between the two of them, something awfully fond in his gaze.
“Sorry.” Eivor grinned. “Did we disturb you?”
Ceolbert laughed. “I didn’t mean to wake you, Leofrith.”
“I was just resting my eyes.” Leofrith said, and Eivor had to laugh at that; Styrbjorn would often tell himself and Sigurd the same thing when they caught him in the early evening, settled before the firepit and lost to the world of the waking.
“You ought to be careful. Anyone could sneak up on you.” Eivor teased, remembering how Sigurd would jump behind his father and shout as loud as he could, scaring the man awake and sending Eivor into a fit of laughter.
“I can defend myself.” Leofrith’s voice was soft, quiet; aware he was being teased and not caring.
“Oh, yes, I can see that.” Eivor giggled, and pointedly scratched at his nose, feeling younger than he had in years.
Ceolbert laughed when Leofrith rolled his eyes, though Eivor could see the smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. He had entertained these thoughts before, of kissing Leofrith. He never allowed them to stray too far; all too aware of how he was practically an open book when it came to trying to hide his thoughts and feelings, but he had occupied himself with the abstract idea of it now and then. He remembered the striking image Leofrith had made that night in Grantebridge when they had raided the bandit camp; the firelight dancing across his face, the blood slicked across his lips and chin, the heated glint to his eyes. Eivor felt a stab of desire at the mere memory of it.
“At least I know what a fucking bear looks like.” Leofrith muttered, oblivious to the swirl of thoughts inside of Eivor’s head.
“I know what a bear looks like.” Eivor retorted.
He watched with curiosity as Leofrith left the tent, leaving Eivor and Ceolbert to trade confused looks until he returned holding something. Eivor felt a tender ache beneath his ribs. In Leofrith’s hand was the bear Eivor had carved well over a week ago; he knew Leofrith had kept it until Grantebridge, but hadn’t given it much thought afterwards, assuming that perhaps he had traded it for something, or left it behind without a thought. Leofrith crouched in front of him, holding the bear in his hand to showcase it properly, and Eivor cringed at the sight of it. He had quite forgotten just how...un-bear-like it actually looked.
“This is not a bear, Eivor.” Leofrith said, and his smirk drew the breath from Eivor’s lungs.
“It looks like a sheep. A really fat sheep.” Ceolbert chuckled behind him.
Eivor should say something funny; something off-handed and casual to match the atmosphere they had created in the safety of the tent, but he found himself too stunned to make light of it.
“You kept it?” He asked, and knew his voice had given him away.
Leofrith’s smirk softened into something less teasing. “It makes me laugh.” He said, and sat himself properly on the floor with his legs crossed. It made for an oddly endearing sight. “And… I don’t know. It was the first thing someone had given me that wasn’t the point of a blade.”
Eivor decided to stay quiet about the fact that he hadn’t really given it to Leofrith; that the man had taken it when it was thrown at his head to wake him. He supposed they both knew that well enough, and the point still stood that Eivor hadn’t asked for it back, not that morning, and not when he saw Leofrith with it again in Grantebridge.
"Sentimental old fool." Eivor said in a hush, laughing gently to ease the weight restricting his chest.
"We all have our flaws." Leofrith joked, and he settled himself next to Eivor against Ceolbert's bed, pressed closely from heel to shoulder.
The three of them sat in companionable silence, Ceolbert shuffling around every so often, struggling to get comfortable for the pain in his side. Eivor felt for the boy; surviving an almost fatal injury was one thing, but living with it afterwards was an often overlooked difficulty that Eivor was intimately familiar with.
"Will you stay?" Ceolbert whispered, the fear a wavering crack in his voice. "Just for tonight."
Eivor turned to face him, the movement pushing him back slightly into Leofrith. He resisted the urge to laugh when he saw Ceolbert had practically buried himself beneath furs and blankets, his head poking out comically. "Of course I will."
Ceolbert only nodded, Eivor's word enough for him to settle himself properly and close his eyes.
Eivor was true to that word and never moved an inch from his position by the side of Ceolbert's bed, and was pleasantly surprised when Leofrith followed his example. They passed the night in hushed conversation, Eivor slowly allowing himself to sink further and further into the man beside him until there was nothing between them save for Eivor's furs, and even those weren't enough to shield him from the warmth Leofrith gave out as if he were a fire and Eivor had spent days wandering snowy tundras.
"You can sleep if you want." Leofrith said, when Eivor had startled himself awake from that odd place between dreams and reality, unaware that he had even closed his eyes. "I'll watch over him."
Eivor, mind still blurry with the veil of sleep, mumbled something that might have been an agreement before making himself comfortable. He turned, resting his side against the bed and letting his head fall forward until he was curled around Leofrith; head pillowed on his shoulder, hand coming to grasp at whatever was closest. He thought it might have been Leofrith’s hip, but he couldn’t be sure. Distantly he felt a heat against his thigh, one small spot of dark warmth that grasped at his flesh and sent pulses of fuzzily muted desire through his veins. Eivor shuffled closer still, and when he finally registered Leofrith resting his chin against his head, he allowed sleep to take over.
Ceolbert healed slowly over the coming days. Frode, and it only occurred to Eivor that he had never asked the healer’s name when he was speaking to the man and stumbled over four different other names before Ceolbert took pity and reminded him, was nonetheless pleased with the boy’s progress despite its slow going. Eivor knew it would take longer still to fully heal, and whenever Ceolbert grew sullen and sulky he gently reminded the lad that he was lucky to even be alive at all.
Almost a full two weeks after first being wounded, Frode deemed Ceolbert well enough to ride to Quatford, with the condition that they make a few stops along the way to rest so as not to overwhelm Ceolbert and cause further injury. The aetheling scoffed at the idea that anything could overwhelm him, but he listened to Frode anyway. They stopped thrice, less than Eivor would have preferred given that whenever he looked over to Ceolbert he was pale and breathless, but the lad was stubborn and Eivor supposed he knew his own limits well enough to at least tell someone should he feel as though he were about to pass out.
“It’ll be good to sleep in an actual building again.” Ceolbert said as they were coming up on Quatford, the longhouse growing larger as they rode closer.
Eivor nodded, hands tightening on the reins as he steered his mare. Deorlaf had travelled ahead of them just over a week ago, and Eivor saw him and his assembled guards at the boundary of the village; hands clasped serenely at his waist as he watched them approach with thinly disguised excitement. He hadn’t seen Ceolbert since he was bedridden, weak and thin, and Eivor supposed the lad now made for a striking sight sat atop his horse fully decked out in his armour once more. He watched with pride as the boy dismounted from his horse without aid, holding himself slightly stiff as he strode to meet Deorlaf and shake his hand.
Eivor would see him installed, he thought, and then begin the journey back to Ravensthorpe. That day came and went; Ceolwulf naming his only son as ealdorman with a bright smile plastering his face, the pride and emotion evident in his voice as Ceolbert knelt before his father. The king stayed as long as his duties would allow, and when he left Eivor promised himself that the next day he would follow. The next morning brought word of an uprising that needed quelling; a few of the locals unsatisfied with the choice of ealdorman, but the dispute was quickly laid to rest when Ceolbert offered more able bodies to work their farms for an increase in the price paid for future harvests. A small improvement, but one that benefitted all of them. The next day, then. It stretched on like this for almost another month before Eivor had to admit to himself that he just didn’t want to leave – he enjoyed the routine he had carved out for himself here. He enjoyed the diplomacy, the steady pace of work he aided Ceolbert through. He enjoyed getting to know the people of Quatford, laughing and drinking and working by their sides to improve their quality of life.
He enjoyed the little moments inbetween. At least twice a week Ceolbert would ask Eivor to accompany him on a hunting trip, never too far from the village but distant enough that Ceolbert could shake off his ealdormanly demeanor and just be Ceolbert for a while, without expectations and pressure pushing down on him. Sometimes Leofrith would join them, and on those occasions Eivor himself would grow passive as he watched them together; Leofrith correcting Ceolbert’s stance when they tried using spears instead of a bow and arrow, the pair of them crouched low and stalking through the underbrush as they followed their prey with sharp eyes. Other times Leofrith would stay behind and leave them to it, and when they returned Eivor would find him in one of two places; the longhouse, assaulted on all sides by irrate thegns and underpaid soldiers backed only by Deorlaf who seemed to always find the situation funny in its own way, or he would be sat among his newly gained garrison of warriors talking and laughing and whiling away the hours.
Eivor and Ceolbert would approach, and Leofrith would hurriedly excuse himself from some argument or merry conversation to join them for the evening.
The evenings. The evenings were Eivor’s favourite. When the longhouse was emptied of the day's petitioners and only the three of them remained within its walls. They would pass the hours lounging in the main hall and discussing the events of the day, or telling stories of events long passed – nothing too full of war or glorious death, but rather Eivor would speak of the heavy winter snows back in Norway, daring to mention his father and mother and pleased when neither of his companions pushed him to share further. Leofrith spoke of Lincoln, surprisingly enough, and how Aebba had been a close friend of his father when he and his brothers were still young. Ceolbert had no siblings to speak of, and he had spoken often enough of his life in the week between Ravensthorpe and Quatford that Eivor was sure there was nothing left to say. To his surprise, Ceolbert spoke of his mother, though she had died when he was so young he had only small memories of her. She had hair like his, he said, bright when it caught the sun and braided beautifully, dancing with jewels. She would take him walking in the forest, asking the guards to stay as distant as they were allowed to give the illusion of privacy, and tell him stories of faeries and magic.
Eivor eventually had to admit to himself that the longer he stayed in Quatford, the more it felt like home. It filled something within him that he hadn’t even known to be empty, and though he missed Ravensthorpe and Randvi, missed the kids and the familiar faces of his kin who sailed with him to this strange new land, he could no longer ignore the fact that he had found something with Leofrith and Ceolbert he had no desire to let go of. One more day. One more week. One more month. The words were a mantra in his head every morning, and the lie only grew thinner each time he saw Ceolbert laugh at whatever Deorlaf would lean over and whisper during a meeting, each time he and Leofrith would find themselves seated together close enough to be one person.
He had enough wits about him to at least send word to Randvi to let her know of their success in Sciropescire; a thick collection of detailed accounts of all they had been through from both Eivor himself and Ceolbert, who had wanted to send his own alongside Eivor’s.
“You must miss it.” Ceolbert said, late one night almost two months after all that had happened. Two months since he was bleeding and dying, and yet here he sat in the light of the fire, warm and safe in the longhouse that had become his.
“What’s that?” Eivor asked, sedate and full still from a heavy dinner of venison, sat leaning against a bench so as to spread himself out comfortably in front of the fire.
“Ravensthorpe.” Ceolbert replied simply, casually enough that Eivor easily caught on to what he was truly after.
“I suppose. Have I outstayed my welcome, your lordship?” He asked, teasing, and felt rather vindicated when Ceolbert scoffed a laugh across from him.
“Never. You know that. I was merely curious.”
“So ask me.”
This was one thing Eivor had come to learn about Ceolbert as well; he was awful at asking for what he truly wanted. When it came to his work as ealdorman he was a force to be reckoned with, and his confidence had only grown over the past weeks, but he was still a boy in all other matters.
“When do you plan on returning?” Ceolbert asked, steadily avoiding Eivor’s eyes as he did so.
Eivor had thought about it too often that it was almost embarrassing to not have an answer ready. He let the question sit between them, and tried not to think of the disappointment that he would surely face were he to answer anything other than not for a while. He should go back, he should have returned weeks ago when Ceolbert was installed properly and no longer needed Eivor hovering around him. He’d only made it harder for himself.
“I don’t know. I want to make sure you have everything in hand.” Eivor reasoned.
“I do, Eivor. I have Deorlaf to lend me his ear and advice should I find myself struggling, and I should think he’s proved himself more than worthy of his position. You know we’d be fine without you, and it’s not as though you would never visit.” Ceolbert said, reasonable.
Eivor shrugged. “Perhaps I would just miss you too much.” He laughed to ease his mind and soften his words, because he would miss this boy like a limb when he finally did leave.
Ceolbert hummed lightly in response. “Just me?” He did look at Eivor then, with a mischievous glint in his eye.
“I have gotten rather close with Deorlaf.”
“Ceolbert.” Eivor levelled him with a stern glare, but the boy no longer cowered under such scrutiny.
“He won’t admit it, but I know he’d miss you too.” Ceolbert said, and Eivor didn’t have to wonder at who it was the lad meant.
Eivor sighed, and hated himself for the way his heart clenched tight in his chest. “It doesn’t change anything, Ceolbert. I’ll have to leave eventually, and it doesn’t matter who misses me, or who I miss.”
“I know. But he should at least know he won’t be alone in his feelings. I know you’ll miss me, and you know I’ll miss you, and I’m okay with that. But...I don’t know, missing someone can feel strange when you don’t know for sure you’re being missed in return.” Ceolbert spoke with a certainty to his voice, and Eivor wondered who it was he was thinking about.
His expression grew somber, distant, and Eivor hated it. “When did you get so wise, hm?” he asked, smiling when Ceolbert shrugged and held his head high.
“Oh, you haven’t heard? I’m an ealdorman now. Talk of the town.” Ceolbert grinned toothily.
“Must have missed that.”
They let the subject change, but Eivor’s mind stayed firmly on Leofrith. He did have to leave, sooner rather than later since he had already allowed two months to pass him by, and he would have to confront his feelings at some point. He didn’t know when he would next be in Sciropescire; it could be months before he found the time again, perhaps even as long as a year, and that thought alone brought a telltale sting to his eyes. He let Ceolbert talk of lighter things, let him think out loud, and when the night grew darker and colder he let the lad bid him goodnight and trot off to bed. Eivor stayed by the fire, wrapped in the warmth of the flames and praying that time would stop, just for a while, just so he could enjoy this little piece of...something he had made here between the three of them. He loved them, and let the feeling stay vague and amorphous lest he tread a path he was unprepared to explore.
“Evening.” Leofrith’s voice startled him out of his head. “Or morning, I guess. You been up all night?”
Leofrith moved to sit across from him, over the slowly dying flames of the fire Eivor had forgotten to stoke, and waited for an answer.
“I sat with Ceolbert for a while before he went to bed.” Eivor sighed, and cleared his throat when his voice tickled uncomfortably in his throat. “I should leave Quatford soon.” He frowned at his own words, unsure if that was what he had meant to say.
Leofrith was silent. He wasn’t looking at Eivor, hunched forward on the bench with his hands held together loosely. “When?”
“A few days, perhaps.” He watched Leofrith carefully. “There’s things I still need to do, and I’ve already wasted too much time staying here when I should have left as soon as I was able.” He spoke in a rush, wanting the words out so he wouldn’t have the burden of them on his mind any longer.
“A waste?” Leofrith asked, something that wasn’t quite anger colouring his words. “Is that what you think the last few months have been?”
Eivor didn’t. Of course he didn’t. “I think I’ve used Ceolbert’s injury and recovery as an excuse to avoid my responsibilities to my people. I should have left the moment I knew he’d survive.” If he had done that, who knows what he would have achieved in the past two months. Far more than a few hunting trophies at least.
“If you had done that I never would have forgiven you.” Leofrith said, and Eivor looked at him in shock. “He deserves more than you simply fulfilling your duty of seeing things through.”
“It’s a moot point anyway. I stayed.”
“And why is that exactly? Since you suddenly seem so eager to leave us.”
Eivor hadn’t meant to start an argument. He watched as Leofrith stood from the bench and paced the hall, his temper frayed. Eivor thought of Ceolbert’s words earlier.
“I wanted to spend more time with you.” He said, and Leofrith froze with his back to Eivor. “With both of you. I couldn’t face the idea of saying goodbye and not knowing how long it would be before we saw each other again, so I thought it would be easier to just...not say goodbye.” The words sat heavily between them, and Eivor felt shame colour his cheeks at how much of a coward he had been. “It was stupid of me. I should have just said goodbye and been on my way. It’s not as though I would never come back.”
Leofrith remained a silent presence, refusing to turn around and leaving Eivor wondering at the thoughts going through his head. Eivor risked standing up, and tried to keep his groan as quiet as possible as his legs ached and throbbed from being sat down for so long. He took a cautious step forward.
“It has been nice.” Leofrith said, stopping Eivor in his sly attempts to move closer. “Sometimes I’d even manage to fool myself into thinking you wouldn’t leave. Whenever I would go to ask you about your plans, there was always something else that seemed more important. Ceolbert seemed happy, and you never mentioned leaving, so I let it sit. And that was stupid of me.”
Eivor smiled carefully. “So we have both been stupid. What a relief.” He inched himself closer again until he stood directly behind Leofrith. “But I do still have to leave.”
Leofrith hummed. “You do.”
Sighing, Eivor reached out a hand to turn the man around. “Will you miss me?” Eivor asked, and hoped the lightness in his voice was enough to lift the mood.
“Not at all.” Leofrith said, though his smirk gave him away.
Eivor let his hand linger at Leofrith’s side, let his fingers smooth down where the material of his tunic had bunched up under his fiddling, and when Leofrith stepped into his space Eivor felt the breath catch in his throat.
“Will you miss me?” Leofrith asked, and Eivor had an answer prepared, he did, but under Leofrith’s heady stare he found he couldn’t quite get the words out. “Eivor.”
“Shut up.” Eivor said, and kissed him.
It’s not what he had planned to do, and he almost pulled back when he realised that he was actually doing it, but then he found himself being pulled in closer, Leofrith pressed flush against him and Leofrith’s hands at his back and in his hair, Leofrith’s mouth against his wet and warm and Eivor could hear the whine high in his throat when Leofrith grabbed the back of his neck and tilted his head, slotting them together perfectly and leaving Eivor helpless to do anything but follow his lead. He felt as though he should do something with his hands, but he settled on using them to pull Leofrith closer still, grasping at his waist and moving them together. His neck hurt from the angle, and there was a heat low in his belly that was growing difficult to ignore, even more so when Leofrith rolled his hips forward into Eivor.
“Ask me to stay.” Eivor breathed through kisses, letting Leofrith swallow the words.
“You know I can’t do that.” He replied, bringing their foreheads together. Eivor smiled at the motion and couldn’t resist sneaking one last kiss before he pulled back slightly, giddy with the power of it when Leofrith chased him sulkily.
“Worth a shot.” Eivor grinned, revelling in the raspy breathiness of his own voice, the bright darkness of Leofrith’s eyes blown wide.
“I wish I could.” Leofrith whispered, achingly honest, swaying on his feet. “And I wish you could say yes.”
And what else was Eivor to do, really, other than pull him in again and allow himself to be devoured so sweetly, to let Leofrith cradle his head between his hands and stroke at his jaw.
To forget about leaving, just for a little while longer.