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the way light keeps its shadow (by swallowing it)

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

The rain beat down a relentless rhythm, ceaseless in its torture. Eivor felt miserable. He was soaked through, and bone tired, and thought that if death were to come at this precise moment then he wouldn’t feel too bad about it. Welcome it, even.

Eivor suppressed a shiver, and risked a glance at his companion, “We should stop. Find shelter.”

Leofrith’s gaze didn’t stray from the road ahead. “No one will take us in.”

Pace slowed to lumbering trot, the horses seemed to share in Eivor’s plight. They meandered up the road, past the city limits and into the country proper where no one but scattered guards and the odd tradesman braved the journey. The landscape opened up before them, wet and grey and nowhere near as grand as it had been when Eivor first arrived in this area. It was a shame, he thought, because it was the kind of view you shared with someone, even if that someone was more enemy than friend.

“Stop.” Leofrith commanded, as if he were anyone but a disgraced soldier, yet Eivor obeyed all the same.

“What is it?”

Leofrith nodded, and Eivor followed the motion with his sight until he could see what had alarmed the other man; up ahead on the slight hill, a group of heavily armoured men stood. Three, maybe four, he couldn’t tell from the distance. All gathered at the door of a small, fat house that stood squat and crooked, small bales of hay pushed up against one wall and haphazardly covered over to protect from rain.

They could ride past, quick and casual; people make a habit of not caring who you are unless you inconvenience them. Whatever business these men had, it was their own, and it could stay that way. Eivor was not that kind of man. Leofrith, as it turns out, wasn’t either.

“We can make it quick. There’s only a few of them.” Leofrith jumped from his mount, and pulled him from the road to post up on a near-rotted fence pole, sheltered only by a gnarled little fruit tree.

Eivor copied his movements, tying his own mare close. “There’s only two of us.”

“Should be easy, then.” Leofrith smirked, and Eivor thought that this, at least, they both understood. The thrill of the fight, the bonds forged in blood and iron.

Eivor trailed behind Leofrith as they made their way to the house, curious to see where this was going. Up close, Eivor could make out a couple standing in the doorway, hunched over and holding one another in what could only be fear. To the side of the house, where the hay was stacked up against the wall, a little girl was crouched under the soggy covers and watching the events unfold with morbid fascination. Eivor hoped she had the good sense to stay put.

“Everything okay here?” Leofrith stopped just short of the property, keeping a small distance between the two of them and the soldiers.

As if one, the four men turned around and stared down the new arrivals. Eivor bristled; bandits, well-armed and wary, and though it would undoubtedly be an easy fight with Leofrith by his side, he had no further wish to anger the wound still blistering under his furs.

“What business is it of yours, stranger?” The shortest of the men, kitted out in what looked to be a once very fine set of armour now dented and scratched, stepped forward and jutted his chin out in a pathetic attempt at intimidation.

Leofrith ignored the man and instead spoke to the couple still huddled in the doorway of their home, “Are you okay?” Soft was never a word Eivor associated with men, they were always loud and hard and abrupt. But as he watched Leofrith’s eyes fall on the child still cowering in the hay, watched him crouch down to her level and extend a friendly hand, Eivor thought that perhaps he had been wrong. “We won't hurt you.”

The child stayed quiet, only watched as Leofrith stood to his full height once more, only watched as Eivor stepped forward slightly. “I think you’re done here.” Eivor spoke quietly, not wanting to scare this family more than they already were, hand resting upon the handle of his axe.

The men laughed. “Is that a command? Who are you to command us, ey? These people owe money, and we will see it paid.”

Eivor barked something that might have been a laugh, if it were not so rough as it clawed its way from his throat. “All four of you? Surely only one would suffice, perhaps two if the little one were to give you trouble.”

“Let’s just get this over with, then.” One of the other bandits muttered, and suddenly swords were being unsheathed and the clatter of metal on metal rang out into the air. The surprise Eivor felt was short-lived as the four men bore down on himself and Leofrith, who had already unsheathed his sword in preparation of the attack.

Gods, Eivor loved a good fight. Nothing better to loosen up his stiff and cold-bitten limbs. His blood was on fire, the world narrow and honed in, heartbeat a storm in his ears. One of the men charged at him, sword held aloft in a way that made Eivor cackle. Eivor grabbed the man’s wrist, crashing the knob of his axe onto the nose of his opponent and sending him cascading to the ground in a cry of pain. The blood welled and ran down his face, and Eivor watched as it dribbled down onto his lips, missing the man skulking up behind him until his arms were around Eivor’s neck.

Eivor felt the wound in his side open further, a great canyon of pain surging against his ribs. Eivor rolls, taking the man with him, leaving them grappling in the wet mud and struggling against each other for purchase; Eivor feels more than sees the blow to the side of his head, the ringing it leaves in his ears, and then the man has a blade to his throat, quick as lightning.

“Don’t struggle, and I’ll make it quick for you, Dane.” The bastard spits the words out, bloody and breathless as he struggles to push the blade through Eivor’s flesh, Eivor using all his strength to keep it at bay.

He feels the sharp point pierce skin, and the bloodrush in his head dulls to the fluttering of wings. There are far better ways to die, but if this is what fate had in store for him when it first weaved those tangled webs, so be it. Eivor feels his arms tire, feels his spirit waiver, and all his pains vanish in the blink of an eye. His body becomes lighter, and the sky above is filled with a light so bright Eivor cannot help but want to be closer.

“Eyes open, Wolf-Kissed.” A shadow in the center of his vision, lumbering and great. Eyes open? They are, aren’t they? “Come on.”

Eivor does as he’s told with a surprising amount of difficulty, and the world falls back into wretched reality. Leofrith stands above him, greatsword bloody and in hand, something akin to concern written upon his features. The rain continues to fall. Eivor groans.

“Good?” Leofrith holds out his empty hand, and even the thought of standing makes Eivor feel sick to his stomach.

His body comes back to itself; throbbing, aching, tender. With every breath, he feels that bloody gash stick to his furs, can pinpoint every old and new pain that litters his body like stars across the sky. He moves to sit, and hates the pitiful noise it pulls from his throat.

“Take the fucking hand.” Leofrith sighs above him, and Eivor rasps out a chuckle as he’s pulled from the dirt, stumbling slightly as he grasps at Leofrith’s arm with both hands.

A cursory glance at the scene shows three dead men and one simply sat, head tilted back in an attempt to stifle the blood flowing from his nose. At the house, the couple and their child stand in the doorway together, though Eivor assumed the fighting had sent them all fleeing inside. Hoped.

“You shouldn’t have done that.” The woman scolded, though Eivor could tell fear fueled her more than anger. “They’ll come back; they always do. More of ‘em, too.”

Eivor moves from Leofrith, staggering over to the man still getting his ass wet in the mud. He rummages beneath his furs, and when he finds what he’s looking for he throws it at the man’s feet, the pouch slapping wetly as it hits the ground. He hopes it’s enough to quell the man’s greed. “Take it and leave. These people have nothing more to offer you.” He watched the man consider this a moment, and then he was scrambling to get away, tail tucked firmly between his legs.

“Are you hurt?” Ah, what a sight he must make; sodden and limping, holding himself together with his own two hands pressed against his torso where the blood of his body threatens to betray him.

Eivor smiles through the red in his teeth, and thinks it must make a harrowing sight, but neither the farmer or his wife seem to care. “Nothing too bad. I’ve had worse, I’m sure.”

“We...we have food, if you like. To pay you back. Food, and a fire to dry yourselves by. At least wait for the rain to pass.” They all look so...plain, Eivor thinks, and hates the part of himself that sees them and longs.

He’s so lost in his own head that he doesn’t register that Leofrith is beside him until he speaks, making him jump in surprise, “We’d be grateful for anything you can give, and-” Leofrith stops himself and instead offers the family a tired smile. “We would be grateful.”

Eivor takes the opportunity to rest his weight into Leofrith, just a gentle push at a blockade; if anyone were to ask, he can blame it on the bloodloss, the exhaustion of the past few days finally catching up to him, can explain it away a myriad of ways. He’s pleasantly surprised when Leofrith wraps a large hand around his arm, steadying his swaying and his thoughts.

“Easy, Dane.” muttered softly, and then Eivor can feel a lurch in his stomach before the ground appeared to rush up to meet him.

_________

Everything is warm, and sedate, and soft like a dream. Voices mutter and whisper somewhere distant, light dances and sways beyond his eyelids, and something soothes the pain in his chest. He could stay like this, he supposes, fall back into the darkness and let whatever magic work its...well, magic.

“Are you awake yet?” Or not.

Eivor feels the smile pull at his lips before he can contain it. “No.”

Leofrith huffs, and Eivor risks opening his eyes. The farmer’s family have a humble home; a single room partitioned off to allow the illusion of privacy. The bed Eivor lies upon is pushed against the partition, opposite a crackling little fireplace with useless ventilation if the smoke-thick air is anything to go by. The walls are heavy with herbs and utensils, rough leather and matted wool, and Eivor enjoys how lived in it feels.

Beyond the partition, he can hear the small family go about their business; the child’s laughter at something her father says, the gentle sound of pottery being knocked together. Eivor smiles, thinks of Ravensthorpe and the people waiting for him. He looks down at his chest, at the bandage now wrapped roughly around his torso, and wonders how close he was to not returning home at all.

“You didn’t say anything. About the injury, I mean.” By Odin, on a battlefield this man was a god in his own right, but take the sword from his hand and Leofrith becomes a man too big for the space he inhabits.

Eivor turns to look at him; sat by the fire and bathed in its golden light, not quite fresh from the fight but still glowing from the exertion. “Would you have cared?”

Leofrith looks affronted by the assumption that he wouldn’t care, before he seems to remember who it is he’s talking to. “Left any longer it would have festered good and proper. It was a miracle it hadn’t already. It would have slowed us down.”

“You didn’t have to come with me.”

“You didn’t have to buy me a fucking horse.”

Eivor laughs, regrets it when his chest flares in pain. Leofrith stares at him, thoughts and feelings a mystery to Eivor as he seems to mull over something in the privacy of his own mind.

The partition is pulled aside, and the farmer's wife smiles kindly at them both as she sets a bowl down at Eivor's bedside. "Only soup, but it does wonders. I wrapped you up as best I could, might be it needs tightening, and it'll have to be redressed until healthy enough to go without. Well, I'm sure you know how to tend a wound."

Eivor thanks her sincerely, ignoring how Leofrith is frowning at the aforementioned wrappings adorning his upper torso. "I never caught your name, or your family's."

"Hilda, my husband is Bedric, and our daughter is Ida." She offered proudly.

"I am Eivor, and my friend here is Leofrith. Those men, the bandits. They trouble you often?"

"Not often, no. We hired a group of them a few summers back now; we had a wolf problem, see, killing off our stock and leaving a dent in the purse. Said they could help, and they did, but ever so often they try their luck and weasel more from us than we can afford."

"Well, hopefully we deterred them enough to at least think twice next time." Eivor made to sit up, and felt the raw skin of the gash pull and twist painfully. He took a deep breath through his nose, felt Hilda silently fuss around him and arrange the bed more comfortably. “I’m fine.”

“From Lunden, am I right? You were involved?” Leofrith poked idly at the fire, avoiding Eivor’s gaze.

“Just a nick. Don’t worry about it.”

“I’m not worried. As I said; left longer it might have-”

“Festered, yes. Slowed us down. You are free to continue without me, Leofrith, as you seem to be in such a rush.” Harsher than Eivor had been going for, but pain and tiredness were fickle things never to be trifled with.

At that Leofrith stood, mumbling something under his breath that Eivor couldn’t make out, and disappeared into the settling darkness outside. Maybe this was a bad idea; them, together. Too much resentment, too much anger. Not enough common ground. Eivor sighed in frustration, ran a hand down his beard and tried to settle himself more comfortably.

“Bit moody, ain’t he? Done nothing but sit by that fire in sullen silence.” Hilda spoke nonchalantly, still fussing lightly at Eivor’s side.

“He’s...been through a lot. I hope he didn’t make you uncomfortable.” Big men often did, Eivor thought; took up the space in a room and hung around like a bad omen, no matter how kindly their eyes.

Hilda chuckled a bit, “Oh, no, nothing like that. Ida thought he might be sad but...well, I suppose everyone’s a little bit sad these days.” She bent down and retrieved the bowl of soup, handing it to Eivor and offering him a true look at her face; pretty, but weathered and weary, wrinkled with tiredness though her eyes were still bright. “Now, eat up else it’ll go cold.”

Then Eivor was alone, with nothing to do but eat in oppressive silence and hope Leofrith hadn’t loosened his horse out of spite. If he planned to ride all night, he’d be at Saint Albanes come morning. Eivor wondered what kind of welcome a grizzled old war-thegn could expect; would they open their arms wide for him, or would they turn him away out of caution, maybe offer him sanctuary for a night or two to appeal to their God and barter their way into their Heaven.

Gods, this was ridiculous. Eivor shouldn’t care. He didn’t care. He was just tired, tired and aching and still suffering the effects of an unpleasant little cut. Nothing a good few hours of sleep couldn’t clear up, and hopefully his horse would still be waiting for him come morning.

_________

Eivor woke before the sun rose on instinct, still tired but better for the sleep he could get. The house was quiet, the fire died out hours ago and had allowed the cold to seep in and bury itself deep. Eivor sat up, and let out a breat of relief when it caused no pain.

He dressed quickly, taking care not to jostle the wound too much lest it open wide and bleed once more. The bandage still remained a clean off-white; a good sign. The family still slept, huddled together in a slightly larger bed in the main room, a sight that warmed Eivor to the core and left him once again with the feeling of wanting something too fleeting to name. He left them a handful of silver, ensuring he still had enough for himself. He was lucky; the last few months had been plentiful for him, at least so far as wealth went, and these people had done him a great service. Eivor wrapped his furs more securely around his shoulders and braved the brisk morning air.

The rain had stopped, the sky beautifully cloudless and scattered with stars, though the moon was almost below the horizon at this point. The east showed promise; a soft pink glow as the sun crept ever upwards. It was nice, Eivor thought; cold enough that he could almost fool himself into thinking he was back home, back in Norway, and watching the sky for signs of snow.

“I burnt the bodies. Quicker than burying them.” A grumble to his left, and Eivor looked down to see Leofrith sat on the ground, back against the outer wall of the little house.

He attempted to school his surprise. “I thought burial was mandatory.”

“I prayed for them. That’s the least they deserved.” Leofrith stood, balanced his sword on his shoulder. “Ready to head?” He didn’t bother waiting for an answer, already sauntering back down the hill to where the horses remained tethered to the fence.

Eivor watched him go, wanting to ask why? Instead, he allowed himself a delicate smile as he followed the man’s movements, appreciating the easy way he seemed to carry himself when he felt in control. He felt caught out when Leofrith turned, and then they were just two men, on a hill, staring at each other.

“If you’re going to faint again, can you at least wait until we’re on the horses?” Eivor allowed himself a laugh at that, jogging a little to catch up to Leofrith and untether the horses, who seemed only a little bit annoyed at being left out in the rain.

“I thought you’d rode ahead.” Left me behind.

Leofrith strapped his sword to the stallion, mounting the beast with ease, “I thought about it. But you bought me a fucking horse, and unfortunately for you, that means something to me.”

Eivor considered this seriously; it was such an impulsive decision on his part, an act not too far from pity for someone down on their luck. That such an act could mean anything other than what it was...that was interesting. What did Leofrith interpret it as, he wondered. Forgiveness? Could be he knew it was partly out of pity, and was simply sparing himself the humiliation. That seemed to match up to his character, or at least the little Eivor knew of him.

“We should make it by nightfall. To Saint Albanes, that is. Bandits notwithstanding, of course.” Here Leofrith smirked slightly, as if sharing a joke.

“You stopped us. Had I continued onward, they’d call me Eivor the Coward.”

“Oh, and we can’t have that.”

Eivor looked over at his companion to see his smirk had grown into a full smile, and Eivor had that feeling again; that cavern in his chest that yawned at odd times and made his fingers twitch. Made him want.

“I never hated you, you know.” Eivor’s mouth ran away from him, and Leofrith’s smile turned into blatant confusion; at the sudden statement itself or the switch in topic, Eivor wasn’t sure.

“No?” An invitation.

“I...felt nothing, if I’m honest. Maybe pity, but mostly nothing. Certainly nothing akin to hatred. It was just...I was on one side, you were on the other. Ceolbert had a soft spot for you, and I suppose he got to me more than I expected.” Eivor smiled as his thoughts turned the little aetheling, braver than he knew himself to be.

Leofrith was silent across from him, thoughtful. Eivor watched him carefully, let him sift through whatever it was that clouded his mind. They passed a small camp just off the road, three tradesmen sat around a low fire, pack mules sleeping nearby as the men spoke in hushed yet light tones. Eivor waved, and the three men all returned the gesture, sparing only a quick glance at Leofrith.

Maybe he shouldn’t have spoken so honestly. He might have ruined whatever tentative partnership had been brewing between them, burnt it to cinders before it had even truly begun.

“I never hated you either. Raged at you, raged because of you, but never hated you.” It seemed as though he had more to say, but Eivor thought perhaps now was not the best time to push his luck.

This thing was fragile, and old wounds would not close so easily. Time, Eivor thought, would be their greatest ally here. Time, and perhaps a few more battles fought by Leofrith’s side.

Chapter Text

The cold morning air burned away in the bright warmth of the sun, and Eivor watched the light dance across the land. It was a beautiful area, a beautiful country even; this far south everything was rolling hills and gleaming farmland, lazy rivers and sparse thickets of forest. Take away the war, and he imagined it to be a rather peaceful land, a peaceful life. It shouldn’t stir something so deeply within him to move.

“How far is your village?” Leofrith asked, in such a way that revealed he’d been thinking about it, and Eivor ignored the lightness in his chest.

“A few days. I intend to ride to Grantebridge and sail from there, since we’re only up the river.”

Leofrith nodded, and then raised his brow. “Not afraid of revealing your location to the enemy? I could do anything with that knowledge.”

Eivor smiled, “You and what army?”

A huff of laughter, and then a stillness filled the air. Calming. The sun in the sky, the slow and subdued din of surrounding farms, bugs skittering under and over bushes as they chased each other. Only a slight breeze, enough to feel through his hair but not chill him to the bone, and nothing but wisps of cloud painted the sky. He wondered, idly, what Sigurd saw and felt as he traversed the country. Did he admire the gentle slope of the hills, or count the hares spotted in one journey? Did he ever stop to speak to those travelling further than him, ask them of their homes and families? Eivor hoped so, hoped he had enough sense to at least want a genuine connection to this land and its people.

They continued on in companionable silence, side by side, and watched as the spire of Saint Albanes steadily rose into view. It was impressive, Eivor thought, tall and brutal. Was that the point? To inspire fear? Or was it simply so this God’s flock could find their holy houses?

“What will you do once there?” Eivor asked, curious yet trying to come across as indifferent.

Leofrith shrugged, “Such a place needs watching over. Guarding. Larger abbeys are always in need of being defended, and I’m skilled in that area.”

“You have no greater plans?” Eivor had imagined he would travel to Wessex, pledge himself and his sword; their king was still very much against Danish invasion after all, but perhaps he had been wrong.

“Is that truly so surprising? I lost; I have no desire to continue fighting a war that seems to be heading to a similar conclusion, but I can still protect our holy places.” Leofrith seemed almost bored by the idea. Eivor spared a thought to wonder how deep the man’s faith went.

Eivor tried to imagine himself in Leofrith’s place. It was difficult; they were from different worlds, different beliefs, but Eivor couldn’t pretend to ever see himself as someone who would choose to run from the larger fight. Leofrith hardly struck Eivor as a coward, so surely this wasn’t cowardice. He watched a squirrel cross the road ahead of them, and thought perhaps it was bruised pride that now determined his companion’s future.

“And you? What awaits once you reach Ravensthorpe?”

Eivor sighed. “What doesn’t? I’ll be home for less than a week, and then it’ll be off to some distant shire in the vain hope of finding friends there. Ceolbert is in Sciropescire, so perhaps I’ll meet with him and offer any aid.” It was exciting, to be a part of such a force, to have a hand in making kings. Exciting, and so fucking tiring. Eivor closed his eyes, pinched the bridge of his nose when a headache threatened to begin.

“Sounds exhausting.” Such an offhand comment, said in a rush of breath so close to a sigh, and Eivor was ready to unload everything he had been through since first arriving in this land. He hadn’t realised before how lonely he had been, without anyone to talk to; without Sigurd, with only seeing Randvi briefly before flying off once more to another king, another fight.

“It is enthralling,” Eivor reassured, “and...yes, exhausting.” In a way sleep would not fix, he thought, not until he saw peace between his people and the Saxons.

Another lull in the conversation, and Eivor wanted nothing more than to be home already; to fall asleep to the sound of Randvi muttering to herself, to enjoy the smell of bread first thing in the morning that always made his mouth water and stomach rumble, to laugh and drink with the people he loved most.

“Will you stay at the abbey, do you think?” Leofrith rolled his neck, cracked his knuckles.

Eivor hummed, “For a night, perhaps, but I’m not exactly a trusted sort. I wouldn’t want to bring suspicion down upon you.”

Leofrith considered this, then only nodded in reply. Eivor had planned to continue on as soon as Leofrith walked through the gates; he had sailed past the abbey on his way down to Lunden, seen the men stationed there and crawling over it like ants. It was enough to make anyone nervous, and it made Eivor’s skin crawl to imagine the inevitability of his death should he be seen there alone. He couldn’t trust Leofrith to have his back, not in a place like that, surrounded as he would be by his countrymen.

It was a disheartening thought, though.

“I wouldn’t let them hurt you, if that’s something that worries you.” Again, something said so offhandedly and seemingly without any thought or care, and Eivor wondered how much he had been saying without ever actually speaking at all.

“How can I trust your word on that?”

Leofrith frowned, lifted a shoulder in a slight shrug, “You can’t. And I know you won’t, but one man against a dozen or two is no fair fight. If I wanted you dead, I’d kill you myself, and that is something you should trust me on.”

It was nice, Eivor supposed. As close to friendly sentiment that an old warrior could get; there was no doubt at all that should Leofrith change his mind there would be no hesitation from him. Eivor could only hope it never came to that.

“You mentioned that Ceolbert’s in Sciropescire. Have you seen him at all, since that day?” Leofrith asked, and Eivor remembered that the lad had called them friends.

He nodded, “Yes, he stayed with us a while in Ravensthorpe. Randvi enjoyed his company.” Eivor recalled walking into the longhouse on more than one occasion to the sounds of the two of them laughing, or talking heatedly about something that never seemed important enough for them to share with him. “He’s a good kid. Might be a great man someday.”

“I’m glad he’s doing well. It’s...he’s…” Leofrith struggled to grasp the words he sought, and Eivor somehow knew exactly what he was trying to say. The little aetheling had a similar effect on everyone, it would seem.

He smiled at the man, “You don’t have to explain yourself to me. I know.” And then an errant thought caught him by surprise. “I can send word, if you like? When I meet with him. If you choose to stay at the abbey, I can have a letter sent down for you, perhaps ask if he would send one himself. Whatever happened, I’m sure he still thinks highly of you.”

Leofrith tilted his head in acknowledgement, but said nothing. He turned to look over the fields, and Eivor followed the curve of his neck as it disappeared beneath his collar.

“It would be no trouble.” He assured the man, and left the conversation at that.

Saint Albanes grew closer, looming over them and souring Eivor’s mood. The day was far too beautiful for where it was heading; him, alone again, alone in Ravensthorpe, in Sciropescire, wherever else Sigurd would command of him; building a life for his people from the ground up while their Jarl swanned around the countryside in search of secrets Eivor had not been deemed worthy enough to know. The thought made him seethe. After all they had shared, and still there were things Sigurd did not trust him with.

Eivor stared at the shadow encroaching upon them with feigned interest, mind somewhere else. At least the sky was clear, and the sun warm against his skin, and the air smelled of freshly tilled soil and salty river mud, a surprisingly pleasant fragrance that grounded Eivor. He closed his eyes, basked in the moment, and willed all thoughts of Sigurd to leave his mind; he would deal with them another time.

“Look over there, between the bushes.” Leofrith almost whispered beside him, and Eivor opened his eyes to find the man pointing to a spot a short distance from the road, just before the riverbank.

Eivor did, and saw nothing. “What am I supposed to be looking for?”

Leofrith continued pointing, moving his mount closer to Eivor’s in what Eivor could only guess was an attempt to align their lines of sight. It, well, it sort of worked. “See it?” And Eivor did; only a fox, faded red in colour and larger than most, he supposed. It lazed in the shade, rolled on its back with its hind legs flailing wildly through the air before the beast righted itself and simply sat. He watched it dutifully with a small smile, then risked a glance at Leofrith’s hand; there was an old scar that ran from the base of his thumb and curled down to his wrist, pale and thin. Eivor knew he was small compared to most men, had spent enough time looking up into the eyes of his friends to know that, but the last time he’d been this close to Leofrith they were engaged in a bloody battle and he wasn’t really thinking about how large and strong the man’s hands were, or how he practically towered over Eivor.

There was big; how Dag was heavyset and his arms as thick as any decent tree trunk, how Sigurd had always been taller and had to lower himself to properly speak to Eivor, and then there was, well, Leofrith. He was tall, taller than most, and broader than Dag could ever hope to be, arms and legs well muscled and thick. Had he been using all of that strength when they fought? Or had he held off, used only what was needed, while Eivor ran himself ragged with the exertion of simply dodging his attacks.

Eivor swallowed and forced himself to look back at the fox, “I see it.”

Leofrith let his hand fall, let his stallion drift away slightly, and whatever spell he unknowingly created was broken. A shame and a blessing all at once. The fox watched them as they passed, blinking slowly and sniffing the air but never moving from its perch in the shade. A nice and easy life, Eivor thought.

"When we get to the abbey, will you stay silent?"

Eivor looked over, found Leofrith watching him with a guarded expression; hesitant and sure of himself all at once. "Why?"

"It might...ease their minds. Their only knowledge of Danes are as bloodthirsty heathens with nothing but death and wealth as motives. To see one as a quiet and steadfast companion might soften their resolve to put a sword through your stomach." It made sense, even if the notion sat uncomfortably with Eivor.

"Kill me quietly, is that it?" He asked, only a little bit serious, and threw out a cautious smile.

Leofrith chuckled at him, "No. Nothing like that. The less we both say the smaller the chance of trouble arising, but they'll trust me quicker than they will you." A beat. "I meant it, before." Softer. "I won't let them harm you."

Eivor felt that cavern in his chest stir once more, a great well beneath his ribs filled with things he dare not name. "Okay. Just promise to tell me before you decide to kill me in my sleep.”

“How? You’ll be asleep.”

Eivor laughed, and tried to convince himself that trusting Leofrith in an abbey full of soldiers wouldn’t leave him bloody and dying.

_______

They reached the gates of the abbey long before nightfall, the sun still high in the sky and bearing down on Eivor in sudden and impressive intensity. He had only a moment to second-guess staying at the abbey before Leofrith jumped down from his mount and began pulling the horse forward. Eivor watched, wringing his hands absently, the sunlight as it dazzled off of the abbey’s spire, the farmers digging in the fields, the two soldiers stood at the gates talking between themselves.

“Come on.” Leofrith said, and Eivor hadn’t realised the man had stopped to wait for him.

Eivor dismounted and followed him closely, struggling to ignore the growing looks of nervousness and whispers that followed them to the gates. The two soldiers perked up when they noticed them, standing at lazy attention and waiting for them to get close enough to speak. All he had to do was remain quiet, and hope these men weren’t the type to attack on sight.

All Saxon soldiers appeared the same to Eivor; same armour, same colours, same monotonous voice, and these two were no different.

“Can we help you?” One of them stepped forward, gave Eivor a once over, and turned his attention to Leofrith.

“We need a place to stay, only for a night or two. And I had hoped to seek an audience with the Brothers here, if possible.” Leofrith drew himself to his full height, back straight and face set like stone. Eivor stayed quiet, ignored the glances the other soldier kept throwing him and stared resolutely at the abbey beyond. “I am-”

“Leofrith, yes,” the soldier said through a bored sigh, “formally of Mercia. I’m aware of who you are. You keep...surprising company these days.”

Eivor resisted the urge to groan and roll his eyes; of course they would know Leofrith, anything else would be too simple. Too easy. Leofrith, for his part, appeared unfazed and offered the man a smile.

“We met on the road. He’s a good sort.” Was all Leofrith offered, and clearly the soldier was expecting more. He hummed, looked over at Eivor and took a step towards him.

“Do you have a name, Dane?” This close, Eivor could see him for the boy he was; lean and strong but in the awkward way only a youth could be, fresh-faced and sore at being stationed so far from the front lines of his king’s war.

Eivor looked to Leofrith; if this kid knew one of them, might be he knew both of them and was waiting to catch them in a lie. If he didn’t know his face, the lad would surely know his name. He couldn’t risk it.

“Svend.” Leofrith blurted the name before Eivor could open his mouth. “His name is Svend.”

Eivor waited. For what, he didn’t know. The boy to draw his sword, to call his brothers in arms over, to tell them to fuck off and find somewhere else. All options seemed equally plausible, and he held his breath while this child decided his fate.

Instead, he only smiled. “Do you not speak, Svend?”

Panic, Eivor realised. That was the feeling bubbling in the pit of his stomach. One wrong move, wrong word, and he would be killed. They wouldn’t hesitate. Not this boy, not his brothers, perhaps not even Leofrith.

“He speaks our language only brokenly. It was a trial to get that much out of him, and even now I’m still not sure it’s what he meant.” Then again, the world was full of surprises.

Leofrith spared a glance for Eivor, smiling in a way that could easily come across as mocking, but the true meaning was clear. Eivor followed his lead, stared around in what he hoped appeared as annoyed confusion. It was only then he realised Leofrith had lifted a hand, rested it gently at his hip, and the dagger Eivor now saw sheathed there. The lad considered this for a moment, then shrugged. He stepped back and began the short walk to the abbey, beckoning for Leofrith and Eivor to follow him and sending his friend ahead to announce their arrival.

“The Brothers are busy men, what with all the...praying, or writing. I don’t really know what they do. But I’m sure they’ll speak with you.” He paused for a moment, and glanced back briefly. “Though perhaps Svend should wait outside, you know? They scare so effortlessly.” His booming laughter rang out, and Eivor had never hated a sound more .

He stuck close to Leofrith, slightly behind but not far enough that he couldn’t reach for the man if he needed to. Around the abbey, more soldiers lingered. He couldn’t count all of them but more than a dozen would have been a safe bet; they sat, or stood, or patrolled, and all of them had eyes for himself and Leofrith. Civilians far outnumbered armed men, but Eivor had seen angry and scared mobs before and he was still only one man.

He looked up, and that was a mistake. Boardwalks and ladders lined the old Roman ruins that bracketed the road, and on them stood more men. Archers, he guessed, and Eivor reached forward slowly to grasp at Leofrith’s hand. At the touch, his companion turned back and raised his brow. Eivor’s gaze never left the archers, and Leofrith must have understood what he was getting across if the gentle squeeze to his fingers was anything to go by.

More soldiers than he had anticipated. Staying here would be a death sentence without a doubt. He’d stop long enough to see Leofrith talk with the Brothers, perhaps linger afterwards to wish him well, and then leave before sunset. A night camped out in the woods would be safer than an hour spent here.

They reached the door to the abbey’s sanctum where the lad instructed they wait while he fetched someone for them. Eivor took the quiet moment to break character.

“I’ll leave before sundown. Too many guards here, and I would prefer to return home in one piece.” He spoke in hushed tones, watchful of the people around them.

Leofrith hummed and nodded his agreement, “Far too many. I’ve never been here before.”

That surprised Eivor, “He knew you.”

“Hm. Could be he was up in Mercia when I was, and moved afterwards, or maybe even before. Doesn’t matter. I was hoping no one would recognise me this far south.” He seemed almost upset by the fact that someone did.

The lad took his time, and Eivor grew restless waiting. He felt eyes on him from all directions; penned in and exposed all at once like an animal on show. He resisted the urge to pull his hood over his head and cast his eyes to the floor, figured if he made himself appear smaller than he was no one would be too alarmed by his presence.

“Did he take a wrong turn at the pews? Christ, what is he doing?” Leofrith muttered, loud enough that only Eivor would hear, and almost walked into the kid as he swiftly appeared in the doorway. “Well?”

“Brother Eadric is willing to talk.” He threw a cautious look to Eivor, and in his eyes sat something not too far from fear. “He’s asked that the Dane accompany you.”

Interesting. Leofrith frowned. “I thought you said they’d prefer it if he were to stay out here, that they scare easily.”

The lad shook his head. “I was wrong, clearly. Eadric doesn’t appreciate being kept waiting. I’ll leave you to it.” And then he was off, rushing back to the gate with barely a second glance at the two of them.

Eivor watched him go, the panic within him replaced by curious suspicion. “I don’t like this.”

Leofrith said nothing, only tapped Eivor’s back as he turned to enter the abbey, leaving Eivor with no choice but to follow with no small amount of vigilance, and only a slight feeling of true fear.

Inside, the abbey was mostly open space; no pews, no altar. Light sifted in through the windows in more colours than Eivor knew existed, highlighting the vast space and warming all of its hidden corners. It wasn’t tidy; carpet ran haphazardly down the middle, littered with bracken and petals, pieces of old fabric and unused vellum, scrolls piled randomly about the room. Brother Eadric stood in the center, hands clasped at his front and a friendly smile on his lips. He was shorter than Eivor, softer and unblemished by hard work or war. His dark hair fell in ringlets about his face, unusual for his position from what Eivor had seen of monks, and everything about him seemed...calm. Trusting. Except his eyes. Pale and blue, like the swell of the ocean after a storm, and calculating.

“Now, this is a surprise.” Eadric spoke, and Eivor grimaced at the roughness of it. “After what happened, many never expected to hear of you again, nevermind to see you.” He strode forward, grabbed Leofrith’s arm and embraced him quickly.

Leofrith took the action with a forced indifference. “I don’t know you.” And Eadric only smiled wider, all teeth.

“No, nor I you. But I know of you, and of your deeds. Terrible business, all that.” He turned somber, pouted his lips and smiled as if comforting an old friend. “We pray nightly for your king and his health.”

At this Leofrith tensed, as though he were bracing for a physical attack, “I have no king. Not anymore. And I did not come here to discuss such matters with you.”

Eadric never faltered, and regarded Leofrith with narrowed eyes. “Quite. Go on then.”

“I ask for your hospitality, and in exchange offer my services.”

To Eivor’s shock, Eadric laughed. Loud, full bodied, hard enough to leave his face red and eyes watering. He and Leofrith watched in stunned silence. The chamber echoed with the sound, grating Eivor’s nerves down to stumps as it bounced around his ears.

“Something funny?” Leofrith asked, voice flat in anger.

Eadric took a deep breath to gather himself, “Oh, no, I’m sorry. Truly, I am. It’s nothing.”

There was a knock at the door, and Eadric only bellowed “Later!” and sent whoever it was scrambling away from the sounds of it. Eivor watched as the smile vanished from the man’s face with an eerie speed, and knew Leofrith would find nothing here. A man of God this Eadric may be, but he was no kindly monk content with his lot in life.

Eadric took a step forward, staring up at Leofrith, undaunted by his size. “You truly expected to find a home here? A disgraced thegn among men of honour? Surely, you are smarter than that. By all means, stay for a night and rest. Eat, if you must. We are good Christians, after all. But I cannot allow you to sully this place any more than that.”

“I am not disgraced.” Eivor held his tongue, crept back to be closer to the door, and tried to ignore the hitch in Leofrith’s voice that gave him away, that left him open to the world.

“No? You are alive, aren’t you? Was your king’s cause not good enough to die for? Or did his cowardice rub off on you; close as the two of you were, it would not surprise me. And here you stand, in a house of God, in all your shame, trailed by a fucking heathen!” Eivor reached for his axe on instinct when the man raised his voice, had it unsheathed it before he was fully aware of what he was doing.

Eadric turned his eyes on Eivor then, cold as ice, “Oh, put it away, beast. You lay so much as a finger on me and the men outside will tear you limb from miserable limb.”

Quickly, without hesitation, and with an ease Eivor had only ever dreamed of having, Leofrith’s hand was wrapped around Eadric’s neck and he lifted the man from the floor. Eadric grabbed at him, pulling at the cloak bunched around Leofrith’s shoulders, choking and quickly turning an alarming shade of purple.

Eivor stormed forward and tried to separate the two, “Let him down! You kill him, we'll never make it out of here alive!” Nothing. “Leofrith! Let go!” Eventually, Leofrith relented, and dropped Eadric to the floor like a sack of flour, groaning and breathing hard to fill his lungs again.

“You fucking animal!” Eadric screamed between gasps of air, but Eivor paid him no mind as he moved to stand before Leofrith and put a hand on his arm.

Leofrith’s eyes met his own, and Eivor attempted a reassuring smile. “Are you mad?” He asked, smile widening when Leofrith laid a hand on his chest.

“We should leave.” Was all he said, and left the abbey without so much as a glance at Brother Eadric, still sat on the floor, pooled by his robes, and struggling for breath.

Eivor watched him go, and turned to the Brother below him. He offered a hand, and said nothing when it was slapped away. Eadric pulled himself up with all the dignity he could muster, which is to say barely none at all. He cast a furious look to Eivor.

“Set foot here again, and nothing but death shall greet you.”

Eivor nodded, and left. Outside, Eadric’s outburst hadn’t gone unheard; more guards gathered in the small courtyard than before, all braced for a fight, and when none broke out Eivor simply bowed his head.

Leofrith was waiting for him at the bottom of the slope, both horses in hand and looking decidedly pissed at events. Eivor smiled. “Well. That didn’t go as planned.”

“No. Come on, I’d rather not linger here.” Leofrith handed him the reins of the mare, and together they left the abbey’s grounds in low spirits.

______

Eivor struggled to keep his questions to himself. The sun sat low in the sky and cast a golden glow across the land; they had stopped to make camp next to the river, away from the road and still a few hours ride to Earnningstone. It had been burning in his head since it happened, filling his mind; Leofrith, quick as a fox, grasping a man of God by his neck and hauling him as if he were no heavier than a child. And why? Eadric had not been kind, that was true, but Leofrith didn’t strike Eivor as someone who gave into violent impulse, at least not off the battlefield. He had valiantly kept his tongue under control; left Leofrith to think over the day in quiet while Eivor’s own mind was reeling with thoughts he allowed to run rampage.

The little fire they had made burned smoothly, and Eivor enjoyed its warmth in the chilled evening air. Leofrith was tending the horses, and the normalcy of it all struck Eivor as odd. The rightness of it. The fire popped, and Eivor poked at it. When Leofrith joined him, sat across the fire from him and began to idly play with something in the dirt, Eivor just had to know.

“Why did you do that? At the abbey.” He thought the answer might be simple; a case of Eadric attacking his honour and something in Leofrith had snapped. He wasn’t ready for Leofrith to groan loudly and look skyward, contemplating, before meeting Eivor with something soft in his gaze.

“I don’t know. I don’t have an answer for you.” Said quietly, and Eivor thought perhaps they were warring with the same ideas, the same feelings. He would die before he voiced that thought.

“You almost killed him.” Would have killed him, Eivor thought, had he not been stopped and forced to walk away.

Leofrith said nothing as his gaze fell to the fire between them, and Eivor let him sit and say nothing. He watched as the man thought things over, admired the way the light of the fire danced in his eyes, and resolutely ignored that silly feeling in his chest.

When, at last, Leofrith did speak, it was quiet and his eyes never left the flames. “I don’t know what answer you want from me. I lost everything that day. My king, my life, any friends I might have known. All gone in one fell swoop. Can you imagine; pledging your life to someone and their cause, years by their side with advice and support when they needed it, only for them to turn and tuck tail when things got heated. Burgred abandoned a land he had spent years cultivating, fighting for, and chose exile over an honourable death. I was spared. I fought, even though it was a lost cause, and I didn’t even get to die for it.” He paused, heaved a great sigh that sounded awfully similar to a sob.

“When we… After, you said you were going to Rome.” Eivor left the question hanging.

Leofrith nodded, eyes still locked on the fire, “I couldn’t kill him. I wanted to, more than anything I’ve ever wanted before, but when I found him he had been set up in a villa some ways from the city. It was beautiful, and I ached to cover it in his blood. But...I saw him there, and I couldnt. I just couldn’t. How is there dishonour in that? How is there shame in turning away from killing someone?

“I hadn’t long returned when you found me. I still think about it, about him, and wonder if killing him would have been the better choice. Would have given me some measure of peace, enough to carry on. But in all those months, I never once thought of killing you. I hated you, hated what you gave me instead of just ending my life, and seeing you again…”

Leofrith sighed, and Eivor felt the sudden urge to just get up and hold the man. Like Sigurd used to do when they were younger, when Eivor’s past haunted his every move and each step forward left him hollow and aching. Sigurd would find him, sometimes, curled up in some corner and sobbing up a great storm because he thought of his mother’s voice or his father’s hands, and his brother would say nothing as he pulled little Eivor into his arms and let him cry until he had dried his eyes out. Eivor wondered if anyone had ever been that for Leofrith, and it left him hoping.

“I thought of you.” Eivor said. “Often. I never expected to see you again, and positioned as we were there was never any friendship to mourn. But I did think of you, and wondered.”

“Wondered?” Leofrith breathed the word out.

“Yes. In another life, we might have been friends. You would have made a fierce vikingr, for sure. They would have cowered before you.”

Oddly enough, Leofrith smiled at that. “God, could you imagine? Perhaps I’ll let my beard grow, braid it as you do.” He laughed, and Eivor felt warm all over at the idea of such an image.

Eivor wanted to ask more, wanted to know why, exactly, Leofrith had almost killed a man in a place so revered by the Saxons, so holy. Had it all stemmed from his own honour, or had Eadric’s words against Eivor stirred something as yet unnamed and unknowable within him to move? Pointless thoughts, but interesting to ponder over.

“We might do well to avoid Earnningstone, perhaps cross the river early?” Leofrith suggested.

Eivor allowed himself a small smile, “You mean to travel to Grantebridge, then?”

“I don’t know what else to do, where else to go.”

Such a sad hand that fate had dealt this man, after offering himself so wholly to one ideal, to one king. “I’m sure we can find a place shallow enough to cross early. We can walk along the bank tomorrow rather than taking the road.”

“Did you want to redress that wound?”

He had forgotten about it, in truth; the thing hadn’t troubled him all day, and there was no telltale warmth or wetness against his skin. He waved the notion away. “It can wait until Grantebridge.”

Eivor had suspected they would both force themselves to stay awake; he certainly intended to, not trusting the distance between them and Saint Albanes behind them to keep them safe. He imagined Leofrith would feel even more cautious; he didn’t sleep the night before, even though they were safe with the farmer and his family, and Eivor suspected that had everything to do with him.

It was a surprise, then, when Leofrith stood up and stretched, looked at Eivor expectedly for a moment and then asked, “Did you want to sleep first? I don’t mind first watch.”

Eivor gaped, couldn’t help it. “Oh. No, I had thought… No. You sleep.”

Leofrith only hummed, retrieved a small bundle from his stallion, and returned to roll out a thin blanket that had definitely seen better days. He was quick to lie down, no tossing and turning to get comfortable; he had probably slept in worse conditions. He positioned himself as close to the fire as he could without being burned, and closed his eyes.

“Wake me when you want to swap.” Eivor had no such intention.

His thoughts were still loud in his skull, and he knew he would never sleep as long as they remained. He would spend the night thinking everything over, he supposed. He would have to find something to keep his hands busy; wood carving, maybe. He hadn’t carved since he was young, and wasn’t very good at it from what he remembered, but it would do. There was no shortage of wood around.

Almost guiltily, Eivor let himself watch Leofrith; the lines of his face smoothed out with sleep, the steady rise and fall of his chest, the way his fingers twitched slightly as he left the waking world. The cavern that yawned in Eivor’s chest cracked wide once more, and against his better judgement he allowed this moment to creep in and nestle itself there, let it warm his bones and chip away at his heart. Fuck.

Leofrith muttered something unintelligable in his sleep. Eivor sighed.

Fuck.

Chapter Text

Eivor waited until the sun had risen above the horizon before waking Leofrith, letting the small fire die down to embers. He had succeeded in carving something that somewhat resembled a bear, at least to him, though its head was blocky and sharp. Leofrith mumbled something in his sleep; he'd been doing it often throughout the night, and Eivor wondered if it was a regular occurrence or a quirk borne out of stress. Eivor gently threw his bear across the burnt out fire, watched in amusement as it bounced off Leofrith's head and startled the man into wakefulness.

"Morning." Eivor laughed.

Leofrith rubbed at his head and frowned in what Eivor could only describe as childish annoyance, "What the fuck was that?" His voice was rough with sleep, and Eivor ignored the stab in his gut.

"Bear attack."

After some pawing through the grass, Leofrith found where the bear had fallen to, picking it up and laughing. "This is what you think a bear looks like?"

Eivor only shrugged, and watched as Leofrith pocketed the little carving, muttering something about Eivor not being trusted with wild animals.

"You didn't sleep?" Leofrith asked as he stood and stretched, joints cracking back into place.

"I slept the night before. Thought you could do with the rest."

Leofrith grunted; clearly not happy with the reasoning but being unable to do anything about it. That was fine. Eivor planned for them to be in Grantebridge soon enough, and then they would both sleep easier. What little they had unloaded from the horses was easily packed away again, Eivor stopping to grab a handful of stale bread, tearing it in two and handing half to Leofrith. It was all he had, and enough to remind him he hadn't eaten properly since Lunden, before the attack. He hadn't thought about it at all but suddenly he was a man starved, ignoring the look Leofrith gave him when his stomach growled loud and needy.

"We can stop by the river for a bit before crossing, try our hands at fishing?"

Eivor nodded at the suggestion, "We'll see."

Horses once more loaded and eager to start walking, Eivor decided to pick his way to the riverbank by foot with his mare trailing behind, Leofrith doing the same. The sun was warm, though the sky was clouded and blotted it out more often than not; it was better than heavy rain, Eivor thought. The river ran at a slow pace, but it was difficult to tell if there was anywhere shallow enough to cross. Too deep and the horses would struggle, but at least the rain hadn't caused it to break its banks.

"It'll be easier to cross near Earnningstone. We don't have to walk through the village, but it might be better to get as near it as possible and follow the road from the other side." Not ideal, Eivor thought, but safer than risking spooking or drowning the horses.

Leofrith said nothing behind him, so Eivor took it as agreement, and together they wandered upriver. The road wasn’t too far from them, but with the thickets of bushes and trees it was almost invisible. That was good, Eivor thought; less chance for someone to see them, to recognise them. Walking was slow going; too close to the river and the mud grew thick and sticky, too far from the river and the underbush was too dense for the horses to navigate. Eivor thought about giving up and just heading for the road and finding a place closer to Earnningstone to turn off, but then he turned to voice that suggestion and promptly lost his trail of thought.

At some point during their journey Leofrith had mounted his stallion, though Eivor could not recall hearing the scuffle that would have made, and fallen behind only a little. One hand was wrapped firmly in the reins of his horse and resting at the base of the beast’s neck, the other one stretched out to his side as he ran it through the leafy green bushes they passed. The sun, peeking out from behind a cloud when Eivor turned, caught in his hair, glinting off the metal strapped to his chest, the cloakpin at his throat. He looked heroic, Eivor thought; like a warrior returned home, drowned in sunlight.

“What?” The illusion shattered at Leofrith’s friendly smile, but still Eivor couldn’t find it in himself to look away. “What is it?”

“Nothing.” Eivor answered quicker than he intended, and it had not gone unnoticed if the widening of Leofrith’s smile was any indicator. “I just...didn’t hear you get on your horse, is all.”

“We’ve been walking for hours.”

“Does the big, bad thegn not enjoy a little walking?” Eivor smirked and turned to face forward again, soothing his mare with soft sounds when she spooked slightly at the sudden movement.

Behind him, Leofrith huffed out a breath and muttered “Piss off.” Eivor laughed.

________

Eventually they came to Earnningstone, though they kept their distance and remained close to the bank. Eivor risked nearing the water’s edge to assess the depth; he could see the riverbed, gauged it to be no more than waist high and easily traversed by horses.

“Did you still want to fish?” He asked, scanning the water for movement.

“Your stomach’s the one growling like a hungry bear.” Leofrith sidled up behind him, peering over Eivor’s shoulder to the water and the bank over the other side. “Besides, no fish.”

He was right about that. Nothing but the current moved these waters; perhaps further upstream they’d have luck, but that would risk being seen at Earnningstone’s docks, a chance Eivor would rather not take.

“Here, then.” He said, more to himself, and warmed when Leofrith hummed in agreement.

On the other side, the land was considerably more open around them. It made Eivor uneasy, being surrounded by so much empty space after so many hours amongst the bushes and trees. He stayed mounted on his mare; better to see around them should they be ambushed. Grantebridge wasn’t too far now; a few more hours and they would arrive, hopefully not too long after nightfall. Gods, he could taste it now. Strong ale, warm meat smoked over the fire, cooked nice and slow so as to melt in the mouth. His stomach growled again, and he sighed.

“So, Grantebridge.” Eivor waited, but Leofrith said nothing else. He turned to look at the man and found him staring ahead as if seeing the town already.

“Yes. Grantebridge. Anything else?”

“I’ve never been. Danish occupation and all that, but I’d never been before that either.” There was a second where Eivor appreciated the shared information, and then something occurred to him that he definitely should have thought about before they got this far.

“You’ll be safe.” Eivor assured, and Leofrith laughed. “I mean it. The town is full of Danes, yes, but Saxons too. It’s a mix; most places I’ve been to are, just keep your sword sheathed and try not to cause trouble.” Eivor levelled with him a glare that he hoped got the message across.

At this, Leofrith’s mood shifted completely. He sat up straight in his saddle and lowered his eyes. “That was...I didn’t mean to do that. Or rather, I didn’t want to do it.”

Eivor shrugged. “Yes, you did.” That brought Leofrith’s gaze back up to him as intended. “If you didn’t want or mean to do it, you would not have done it. But you did do it, so you obviously wanted to, ill-timed and impulsive though it was. You cannot help your design no more than I can mine, so why bother trying to hide or deny it?”

“And it’s in my design to harm people, is it? To grab a man of God by his throat?” The idea seemed to disgust him.

Eivor considered for a moment. This was new territory for him, and a dangerous path to tread should he say something that Leofrith would be angered by. How to explain, then, in simple terms a lifetime of learning? Do the things that affect his life even affect Leofrith’s? Or any of these Christians?

“Our lives are...predetermined. Set out, before any of us were even ideas in our parents’ hearts, and before them and so on. Fate’s thread is woven for us, and we simply live our lives as they are laid out. Were you one of us, you would know this as truth. You’re not, so I will simply say...no, it is not in your design to harm people. But it is in your design to defend yourself and your character, something Eadric attacked when he disgraced you and questioned your honour. You understand?” Eivor watched Leofrith take this in, mull over the words. He let him think in silence.

They continued on like this, Leofrith trailing further and further behind until Eivor had to stop and wait for the man to catch up. When he heard no footfall from the horse, he turned to see that Leofrith had also stopped on his horse and was blankly staring ahead. Eivor cleared his throat, and Leofrith caught his gaze. He started to say something, but cut himself off with a frown as his gaze slid away and beyond Eivor.

“Bandits.” Was all he said, and Hel emerged from the brush around them.

“Shit.” Eivor leapt from his mare and shooed her away; he would track her down afterwards.

As if the ground itself had risen, a dozen or so men and women rose from the bushes, all clad in mismatched armour and wielding weapons that had seen better days. Eivor braced himself for an attack, axe in hand and bloodrush in his ears. He cried out, and brought his axe down into the shoulder of a woman that rushed him once, twice, three times before dodging wildly out the way of a man donned in stolen Mercian armour, swinging around a warhammer in a way that told Eivor he was untrained in its use. The man slammed down the hammerhead, missing Eivor completely and embedding it in the earth. Eivor smiled viciously before burying his axe in the man’s skull. Too easy.

He cast about the site, spotting Leofrith with little difficulty and sparing only a second to admire the man’s strength in battle. Another wild attack, this time from a lad carrying a spear, and Eivor had to laugh as he waved it left from right, seeming to forget the weapon’s point. Easy to dodge such slow and wide swipes, easy to get close enough to wrestle the thing from his hands, easy to reach for the dagger at his back and slice at a conveniently bared throat. He takes it a challenge, then, when a swift kick to the back of his legs sends him careening to the floor, his assailant kicking brutally at his ribs and, ah, he’d forgotten about that little cut. No doubt the thing had opened up again, if the warmth that suddenly blossomed there was any clue. He gasped violently at the onslaught of pain it brought, blinked through the tears the sting brought to his eyes. He managed to roll himself over before they could get a sword through him, and swiped at their knees with his axe. They fell, and he used their body to lift himself up off the ground before smacking the butt of his axe to the back of their head, finishing them off with the blade to their back.

Eivor felt at his chest, alarmed when his hand came away wet and red; he must have angered that cut something fierce for it to bleed through both bandage and clothing. On the periphery of his vision he could see Leofrith struggle to hold off three men at once and went to aid him, stumbling slightly over a body. Perhaps they should have tried to fish; hunger and tiredness had begun to creep their way into his awareness as the pain in his chest worsened. He hadn’t even noticed the woman running towards him until she barrelled into him and threw them both to the floor. Winded, he heaved a great gasp and struggled against his opponent. She was strong, and in his current state he was an easy target. In the distance, behind the rush of steel meeting steel, he heard a horn bellow out, and smiled to the sky. They were closer to Grantebridge than he thought.

A thunder of hooves, war cries in the wind, and the woman above him was slashed from his vision. He rushed to stand, hand coming up to his chest again as the pain flared hot and bright. His vision blurred slightly. Soma’s men dispatched the remaining bandits with practiced ease and coordination, jumping from their horses and descending on them quickly and violently. With that taken care of, they rounded on Leofrith with their weapons raised. Eivor rushed to where they had gathered; six men circling Leofrith like wolves.

“Not him! He’s with me!” He shouted as loud as he could, stumbling over the terrain. “Don’t fucking touch him.” Reaching them, Eivor shouldered past the men to stand at Leofrith’s side, ignoring the concerned glance at his chest.

“Eivor Wolf-Kissed!” Soma. Gods, he’d never been more thankful to hear someone’s voice in his life. “You look like shit.”

Soma appeared out from her men, crossing to bring Eivor into a crushing hug. He returned the gesture, and broke free quickly when it strained his wound. Soma’s eyes softened.

“Not too bad, I hope.” She ventured, still cautious of Leofrith lurking just behind him.

“Like a crack in the earth.” He laughed, wobbling slightly on weak legs before finally giving up and resting his weight against Leofrith, sighing in relief when the man let him and wrapped a hand around his waist to steady him.

Soma watched the gesture, smiling lightly when she caught Eivor’s eye. “This one’s alright?”

Eivor nodded. “He’s with me. I give you my word.”

That was enough for Soma. “We’ll grab your horses and escort you back with us, get that seen to. And then,” she smiled knowingly, “you’re going to explain to me how you, of all people, wind up fighting with Leofrith of fucking Mercia.”

He felt caught in a lie he’d never told. He heard the sharp intake of breath behind him, leaned further into Leofrith and hoped it was as reassuring for the other man as it was for him.

“Thank you.” Eivor knew well enough that no harm would come to Leofrith upon their arrival; Soma would see to that, and Eivor trusted her with his life.

“Think nothing of it.” She turned to the men nearest her. “Track down their mounts, couldn’t have gone too far; you remember Eivor’s mare? And the other one…”

“A black stallion,” Leofrith supplied. “Has a star on his head.”

Soma nodded, “Hm. Fitting, I suppose. Come on, you can borrow one of theirs while they hunt yours down.”

Eivor watched as Leofrith stepped forward and took the offered horse from Soma, stroking up its neck to calm it down before mounting it. He stuck a hand down for Eivor.

“Don’t want you falling off.” Was all he offered, smile lopsided and almost shy. Eivor huffed a laugh.

Even with the added help, getting up onto the horse left him sore and exhausted, chest throbbing in agony as he tried to make himself comfortable. He tried to keep as much distance between himself and Leofrith as sharing the same saddle would allow, holding himself upright and feeling dizzy with the effort. Mad, what a bit of pain could bring upon a man. He took a few steadying breaths through his nose when the horse began moving.

“Lean on me.” Leofrith muttered quietly, bringing a hand to rest on Eivor’s thigh. “I’ll take your weight, just mind your chest.” Eivor was in too much pain to say no, and just let himself fall forward into Leofrith, careful not to put anymore pressure on the wound, and placed his head on the back of the man’s neck. He took a deep breath in, and tightened his hands where they had fallen to the man’s hips. “Alright?” Eivor hummed contentedly in reply.

“Hurts.” Eivor groaned out, and felt Leofrith move when he laughed.

“Told you it needed redressing.”

“No. You asked. Said no.” Words were hard, and his thoughts were muddy at best.

“Maybe you should listen to me in future, then.”

Eivor thought over that. Would Leofrith stay then? With him? That would be nice. He heard someone else, a laugh close enough to startle him and lift his head. When he looked, it was only Soma. He wished he knew what was funny, but as he rested his head on Leofrith’s shoulder all he could think about was how nice it was to share in somebody else’s warmth.

Chapter Text

Eivor hadn't realised he had closed his eyes; he must have though, at some point, because the next thing he knew were the sounds and smells of Grantebridge around him. He cracked his eyes open slowly, lifted his head from its perch on Leofrith's shoulder, and sighed in relief at the sight of the town around them teeming with life and normality. Not a Mercian soldier to be seen, no men of the cloth watching him warily, and even Leofrith seemed almost relaxed as they came to a stop at the stables.

"Ready?" Soma had dismounted already, and was stood by waiting to help Eivor down patiently.

He somehow managed to lower himself without further injury, grasping onto Soma's shoulders as he gracelessly slid from the saddle, one hand still wrapped tightly around Leofrith's thigh. He removed it quickly.

"I feel like I'm on fire." He almost fell into Soma when he laughed, and she tried her best to take his weight and offer a reassuring smile.

"We'll get you all fixed up, have no fear. There's a Saxon woman here, name of Frideswid, she took over when our healer passed a few months back. I swear if her God didn't bless her then ours surely did; never met someone so proficient in their craft, she wields healing as though she were born to it." Soma had wrapped an arm around Eivor's waist, lifting one of his own around her shoulders as she helped him stand upright, and together they stumbled up to the longhouse.

Eivor couldn't recall Frideswid, struggled to put a face to her name, so perhaps they had never met. It would ease Leofrith, for sure, to know that a Saxon was being held in such high regard here among the townsfolk. Eivor glanced behind him and tried to catch sight of the man, feeling an odd panic take hold when he couldn't.

"Calm down." Soma chuckled beside him. "He's in front of us now; look, you see him?"

He couldn't. The town was busy through the marketplace, and so many different people clouded his vision it was difficult to pick just one of them out, even one aa big as Leofrith. Eivor shook his head, and felt Soma roll her eyes.

"Leofrith!" Soma’s shout rang out in his head, loud and painful.

At his name, Leofrith turned, and Eivor finally caught sight of him; a few feet ahead of them, flanked by a couple of Soma's men and clearly in the middle of a conversation that was immediately forgotten about. He raised his brow and waited for Eivor and Soma to reach him.

"Here," Eivor felt himself manoeuvred from Soma's arms to Leofrith's at her words. "take this. I'll go grab Frideswid and help prepare a bed." Soma patted Eivor's side gently and he watched as she jogged up to the longhouse.

Leofrith hunched himself over as he brought Eivor's arm around his shoulders, his own arm around Eivor's waist, and started them at a slow walk. The awkward position brought their heads close together like two kids conspiring some mischief with one another, and Eivor smiled at the thought.

The longhouse was heaving with throngs of people, everyone shouting something or other in what appeared to be a hall-wide argument. Eivor's eyes followed a child as she ran haphazardly through the mass of people, laughing and shouting as she found two, three more of her friends. Soma came to their side, trailed by a woman short enough to be a child. Eivor tried to smile kindly, but Soma’s huff of laughter told him it was perhaps closer to a grimace than anything. Gods, something smelled good, and even through the pain he could feel his stomach grumble at the heady scent; smokey and metallic, raw meat cooking slowly over the firepit. Something like a whine escaped his throat, and Soma laughed.

“We’ll save you some, brave drengr,” he ignored the teasing tone in her voice. “There’s a room out back, with a bed all set up for you. Frideswid will help you.” Soma placed a hand on Eivor’s shoulder, close to the juncture of his neck, and stroked her thumb in soothing circles. “She’ll patch you up, all shiny and new.” She smiled, and Eivor returned the expression. She turned to Leofrith. “Frideswid will guide you, follow her closely.”

Leofrith nodded, hoisted Eivor up where he began to slip a little, and looked to where Frideswid stood with her hands clasped at her front. “Lead the way.”

The room Frideswid led them to was small and cosy in a way most longhouse rooms were; dark wood walls and floors ladened with furs and simple tapestries to hold the warmth, a bed piled high with blankets pushed against the far wall, the gentle flicker of flames from the candles placed on a chest of drawers soothing Eivor. Leofrith placed him on the bed, and stood back when Frideswid wasted no time in getting to work.

“I’ll need to see it.” Her voice was timid and soft, but there was no fear in her at all.

Eivor began unbuckling the straps of his armour, letting plate and fabric alike fall to the floor. Without so many layers to hold it together, the wound began to bleed anew, seeping through the already spoiled bandage in oozing globs. Eivor winced, dreading taking the bandages off. Here, Frideswid lended her aid. Gently, she pried at the fastening of the bandage and began unwinding it from around Eivor’s torso, stood in the space between his open legs and struggling when he hunched himself over in pain. At the last layer, she spared him a momentary glance before slowly peeling it away from the wound. Distantly, he heard Leofrith hiss through his teeth, and glanced over Frideswid’s shoulder to find him watching her movements intently. He had removed his cloak, and his sword rested against the wall next to him. Eivor admired the broadness of his shoulders, the thickness of his arms, and couldn’t find it in himself to feel embarrassed when Leofrith caught his gaze.

“It’s not as bad as some injuries I’ve seen.” Frideswid stated softly, poking at the surrounding skin. “It’s been tended to already?”

Eivor blinked slowly, let his mouth catch up to his mind, “A night or so ago. A farmer’s wife...Willa? Gilda?”

“Hilda.” Leofrith cut in.

“Hilda, yes. She did what she could.”

Frideswid smiled. “It’s fine work; she’s used herbs to help ward off infection, but she missed bits whilst cleaning it, I think. That’s fine, I can do that. It’ll need stitching, too.”

Eivor took in the information and bowed his head acknowledgement. “Do what you must.”

Frideswid didn’t hesitate in her task; she was quick and efficient, slowing slightly when Eivor’s breath grew deep to counteract the pain, but otherwise she paid him no mind. He watched her hands at his chest; the cloth she used to wipe away the old herbal mixture and weeping blood, the needle she ran through a nearby candle’s flame, the thread she looped seamlessly, and finally the steadiness of those hands as she stitched his skin back together. It was almost mesmerising, smooth motions and fast results.

“The bleeding looks to have stopped now. If it weeps, wipe at it gently with a clean cloth, around the wound site, but it should be fine. Here,” she reached into a satchel hanging around her shoulder, “drink this for the pain.”

Eivor did as he was told, and smiled gratefully at the girl. She couldn’t have seen more than twenty winters at most. Her hair was light and long, wrapped in a tight braid that hung down her back, and her eyes were the wide and innocent eyes of a child, though she must have seen her fair share of suffering in such a world as this. She was beautiful, and her hands so gentle, and her voice so soft, that Eivor thought perhaps he could understand these Saxons and their talk of angels.

“You have my thanks, Frideswid.” He took one of her smaller hands in both of his, ignoring the sticky blood between them, and hoped she understood the gesture as one of friendship.

She stood, and smiled down at him. “You’re welcome. I’d tell you to rest, but I know you warrior types well enough.” Frideswid left the room, bowing her head to Leofrith on the way out, and Eivor fell back onto the bed in relief.

With the pain substantially numbed, his hunger was the center of attention. The furs covering the bed were soft on his skin, warming up quickly with the heat of his body, and deciding whether to get up and eat or just stay where he was and sleep for hours was the most difficult choice he’d ever faced. He sighed.

The room was silent, but Leofrith remained, his presence hard to miss and even harder to ignore. Eivor lifted his head to look over at the other man and was surprised to find himself already being watched. Leofrith smiled, that strange little lopsided grin he’d offered earlier when helping Eivor up on the horse, and in his chest, in that cavern that spread wide and vast across his heart, a flame sparked to life.

“Hungry?” Was all Leofrith said, and Eivor was up and redressing himself in a spare shirt Soma had thought to leave at the end of the bed; a simple tunic the colour of dull grass.

Whatever argument had been raging when they first entered had long since died down, people had emptied out of the longhouse and only a few remained; a pair of shieldmaidens sat at a table sharing jokes, children still dotted around the space in a game of hide-and-go-seek, three men sat against the firepit in the middle of the room and talking in hushed tones amongst each other. Soma herself was sat with three of her warriors, locked in an arm wrestle with one while the other two cheered on loudly. Eivor honed in on the plates of food that had been dished out for them both, seating himself easily next to Soma and mindful of the match she had yet to win. Leofrith sat opposite him and wasted no time in tucking in eagerly to the pile of meat and vegetables steaming in front of him. Eivor followed, and he would swear it was the most delicious meal he’d ever eaten. Hot and juicy and filling in a way he hadn’t felt in weeks. Soma slammed her opponent’s arm to the table in a show of brute strength, and screamed in triumph.

“Pay up.” She laughed heartily as the lad threw a small pouch at her in annoyance. “Never place a bet you know you can’t win. Now fuck off, the lot of you.” They did as asked with no questions, filing out of the longhouse and into the evening air.

Soma was patient; she waited and kept quiet as both Eivor and Leofrith ate their fill, shovelling food into their empty stomachs with impressive speed. Eivor washed it down with a swig of ale, shifting his head from side to side when he struggled to swallow slightly. He emptied his plate, and watched as Leofrith slowed down with his, picking at the leftovers before he saw Eivor peering over at his plate. Rolling his eyes, he pushed the plate over, and Eivor cleaned it completely.

“Better?” Soma looked on in amusement.

Eivor belched and smiled. “Better.”

A beat. “So.”

“So.” Eivor repeated.

Soma punched him lightly on the arm. “Don’t be like that. Tell me, come on. Must be an interesting story.” She eyed them both carefully.

He regaled her with the tale; the battle that ravaged Lunden’s streets, a surprise meeting at the stables, fighting together twice in as many days, Saint Albanes and Brother Eadric. It came out in a rush, and when he had no more words he looked across the table to find Leofrith had been listening with rapt attention.

“Wait.” Soma paused, huffed a laugh. “The last time you saw this man was at the end of your blade, and the first thing you do when seeing him again is to buy him a horse?”

“He needed a horse.” Eivor reasoned.

“You didn’t have to buy me one.” Leofrith interrupted.

Eivor had a thousand different answers for that. It was an argument he had imagined would follow them for the rest of their cautious companionship, and he wanted to ensure he was always ready with quick witted answers or equally angry rebuttals. Now, looking across at Leofrith as the man continued the conversation with Soma, he had nothing to say except that...well.

“Yes, I did.” Leofrith and Soma turned to look at him at the same time, expectant gazes trained on his face. “It was the least I could offer.”

Silence fell between them, though he could not tell if it were the comfortable sort. Leofrith reached across the table and patted at Eivor’s hand gently, smiling softly as he stood from the table and left him in the company of Soma. Eivor forced himself to turn away from Leofrith’s retreating form.

“What changed?” Soma asked cautiously, curiously.

Eivor shrugged. “Who says anything has? I never hated the man, we simply never had opportunity to…you know... ” He drifted off purposefully.

“Like each other.” Soma finished for him.

It’s something not unheard of, he supposed. Saxons and Danes befriending one another. Without war, without cause to kindle hatred, there’s nothing really separating them. Not even religion; he’s visited plenty of towns where people mix gladly and share tales of their gods, of heroic figures and stories that teach children important lessons, where there might be little understanding of each other but a sort of respect borne out of living so close together. His thoughts fall back to Stowe and Erke; so different yet so similar, finding something in each other they could not find among their own people. It brings a smile to his face, to think of something so full of love in a time so rife with violence.

“Keep the room for a couple of nights, Eivor Wolf-Kissed. Let that heal and regain your strength. Ravensthorpe can wait a week or so.” Soma downed her tankard in one great gulp, and Eivor took the friendly dismissal without grudge.

He followed in Leofrith’s footsteps, out into the brisk evening air and a wind that chased the sun below the horizon. He hadn’t wandered far; sat on the platform that housed Soma’s warhorn, looking out over the market and the bustle that was still prevalent even so late in the evening. Eivor made his way over to the man, eyes caught by something he held in his hands, turning it over absently. The bear, Eivor realised, that he had carved just last night. He had quite forgotten Leofrith had it.

At his approach, Leofrith said nothing. Said nothing as Eivor sat at the base of the platform, shoulder brushing Leofrith’s leg. Said nothing as he continued to toy with the bear, continued to watch the people go about their lives. Eivor let him sit, let him stew over whatever it was he was clearly thinking on. He was patient. The kids had moved their game outside of the longhouse, hiding in the long grass and the market stalls, giggling loudly when one of them was caught.

The silence between them grew heavy, lingering too long where Eivor knew Leofrith wanted to fill it with something. He could see it in the tense set of his shoulders, the way his gaze jumped from the bear to the market before them, how he mumbled to himself. Eivor stood from the ground, wiping the mud from his trousers, and instead sat on the platform next to Leofrith with his legs stretched out in front of him, one pressed against Leofrith’s from thigh to ankle. Touch had always been comforting to Eivor, and it was his go-to method of comforting someone else because of this. He watched as Leofrith slid his gaze along where their legs met, and wondered if the man even knew what comfort was.

“At Saint Albanes...what I did…” He frowned, gathered his words. “I am not a disgraced man.” There it was again, the slightest hitch in his voice, the lilt that crept in around the edges, leaving his truth bared for all. Not disgraced, no, but Eivor knew what doubts and demons lurked in the crevasses of a man’s mind. “I’m not.”

“You are not.” Eivor had no idea if he would be believed, but it was worth it to see Leofrith’s small smile at his words.

“I mean to say...his words against me caused me no pain, no more than I cause myself.”

Leofrith let the words hang in the air between them, and Eivor deciphered the hidden confession there easily, buried as it was between the lines. This time, the silence was easy, warming even. They sat pressed together, and watched as the children were called back to their homes, racing each other as they went. Leofrith still fiddled with Eivor’s bear carving, turning it absently in his hands as he ever so slowly let himself lean into Eivor.

“Next time you decide to grab a man by his throat, warn me first.” Eivor tried for lightheartedness, hoping the jest wasn’t lost on his companion.

He needn’t have worried, clearly, because Leofrith nudged him gently and laughed. He pocketed the little bear once more, and Eivor let the action go without a word.

The cool evening air turned bitter with the lateness, a low fog descending around them as the marketplace slowly emptied out, people trailing home to warm fires and soft beds. It was a good example to follow, he thought, when the wind licked its way beneath his thin tunic and left him shivering. He tapped Leofrith’s thigh and stood, leaving the man to his thoughts in favour of the warmth of the longhouse and a bed piled high with thick furs and blankets.

________

He slept longer than he had intended. By the time he emerged from the longhouse the sun was well on its way to reaching its peak in the sky, the morning’s dew already burned away in its light. He couldn’t find Soma, but after a bit of asking around he discovered that she had taken a small troop of men to scout the surrounding lands; apparently the bandits had grown brave in recent weeks, crawling closer to Grantebridge until Soma had decided enough was enough and set off to weed the lot of them out. She had spent the last few weeks gathering information to try and discover where they were based, and Eivor wondered if she had gotten close or was still grasping at air.

In search of something to cure his boredom after breakfast, Eivor wandered into the little marketplace and strolled about the small buildings and tented stalls with interest. He sold what little knick-knacks he’d collected in Lunden and bought things of more use to him; a new waterskin to replace the one he’d lost somewhere along the way, a roll of bandages lest he ever be caught off-guard again, and a particularly sweet looking cake that was sticky and golden. He was enjoying the sliver of peace he’d been granted when he realised he was being watched; three kids, the ones from last night he guessed, all giggling amongst themselves and sending excited glances his way. He poked his tongue out at them, sending them into another giggling fit as they scurried off to do whatever it was kids did.

He continued meandering around the markets, making smalltalk and buying both things he needed and just simply wanted. He felt someone sidle up next to him, and didn’t need to turn his head to know it was Soma.

“I hear you have a bandit problem.”

“Less of a problem now. We found a large group of them stationed just across the river; not their main base of operations but we managed to pry good intel from them before we sent them to their God. They’ve been pissing me off.” Eivor deflated at that; he had hoped to be a part of the fight, but he supposed with his injury it’s just as well he wasn’t. “Maybe next time.” Soma said, and he smiled at being known so well. “Come on.”

He accompanied her to her room in the back of the longhouse, fire crackling invitingly. Soma took her time scrubbing at her face, her hair, and Eivor knew he was here for some deeply uncomfortable conversation. He made himself comfortable next to the firepit, and waited for Soma to ask questions he planned on deflecting and laughing off.

“How does he not hate you?” She towelled her hair and let it hang damp, sitting herself down next to Eivor and busying herself with important looking documents.

“I don’t know. I think we have a mutual understanding. I told you.” Safe enough territory for now.

“No. You told me that you don’t hate him, but that you simply never had the chance to like him either. That doesn’t explain why he hasn’t gutted you and left you for dead. All you’ve done to him.” This was a trait Soma had that had previously been something he admired; she was blunt, to the point, there was no beating around the bush with her. And she was perceptive, too. A fierce combination, and one that would surely mean he left this room with his ego only barely intact.

“If you’re curious, ask him.”

That only made her chuckle. “I’d rather not risk his wrath, thank you.” He watched a light spark in her eyes. “You know he did that for you, yes?”

He should have left out Saint Albanes, left out Eadric and Leofrith’s lack of control. He knew, of course he knew. Even if he didn’t, his little talk with Leofrith last night left no question of the man’s motive. What Eivor couldn’t understand was why.

“If you’re curious,” Soma started, and smirked at him, “ask him.” Her smile grew, and Eivor punched her arm, sending her papers scattering across the floor as she fell back in overdramatic weakness in a fit of laughter.

He stood. “You’re a menace.”

Soma righted herself and gathered her scattered papers, “I’m a good friend.” She defended herself, a wide smile plastered to her face. “He’s down at the docks, by the way.”

“I didn’t ask.”

She snorted and waved him away. Gladly, he thought.

He wandered to the docks; took his time, meandered by the stalls for a bit longer before deciding he was being silly and strolling down to them with at least half a purpose. They were lined with fishermen; most sat with their legs hanging over the edge as they waited for a catch to bite, some sorting through stock already caught and packing them up for selling, and some just stood around attempting to look busy with ropes or barrels. He spotted Leofrith easily, talking with a woman as she loaded a small little boat with crates full of fish and vegetables. Eivor stayed back, not wanting to interrupt anything, and enjoying the surge of something that rippled through him when Leofrith caught his eye and waved him over.

“Morning.” He greeted them both.

Leofrith regarded him, “How’s the chest?” He asked, and Eivor half shrugged.

“Doesn’t hurt.” He assured the man, glad when it seemed to soften something in his face.

He turned his attention to the woman and offered her a charming smile. She returned it brightly.

“This is Aebba. Aebba, Eivor.” Leofrith introduced them, and Eivor gently shook the hand she offered.

Aebba was older, much older than the both of them, with dull grey hair that hung loose about her shoulders and covered the saturated green of her cloak. Her face was marked with a long life of laughter and hard work, wrinkles creasing the corner of her dark eyes and her forehead. Eivor wondered what stories she could tell.

“Good to meet you, Aebba. I hope my friend here hasn’t disturbed your work.” He teased, and she waved her hand and scoffed.

“Not at all. It’s nice to see a familiar face after so long.” Her accent was much the same as Leofrith’s, and curiosity sparked bright in Eivor’s mind.

“Oh?” He pushed, hoping at least one of them would explain.

Aebba only hummed in response, mind already back on her work. “Hand me that crate, would you, Leo?”

Eivor stood back and watched as they loaded the rest of the crates onto the boat, Aebba’s age clearly doing nothing to dim the strength she must have built over the years. Satisfied, she hopped onto the vessel.

“You’ll be here tomorrow?” She asked Leofrith.

“Aye. Be safe on the river.” He leaned down over the water’s edge when she bid him to, allowing her to cradle his head and press a kiss to his cheek.

“I’ve been travelling these waters longer than you’ve been alive. I’ll see you tomorrow, and we can catch up properly, yes?” Aebba pushed the boat out into the current, waving back at Leofrith.

“Of course.” He agreed, waving in return as she joined the current proper and sailed away.

Eivor waited until she was out of sight. “Where is she headed?”

“Duroliponte. Apparently it’s a thriving little town again.”

“Mhm. Who is she?”

In truth, he hadn’t expected Leofrith to answer. Whoever Aebba was, they clearly knew each other from a time of peace, or at least a little less war. Eivor watched the man gaze out at the river, at the spot where Aebba had passed out of sight.

“She looked after me when I was little. Me and my brothers. It was a long time ago. I didn’t think she’d still be walking around.” There was no sadness there, just that odd longing people often got for the past even if it was never that much better than the present.

Eivor didn’t want to pry, and so kept quiet. No more information was offered, but to be told anything at all was more than enough.

“Grantebridge isn’t what I thought it would be.” Leofrith sat, copied the fishermen around them and hung his legs over the side of the dock.

Eivor followed, sitting as close as he could get away with. “How? You expected a godless gathering of heathens?”

Laughter, a deep chuckle that Eivor felt in his own chest. “No, not at all. But the number of Saxons is a surprise. And you say it’s like this everywhere?”

“Most places I’ve been to, yes. Many people have learned to live side by side. Compared to what your kings would have you believe, we came here for more than just treasure and murder.”

Leofrith hummed. “Yet you still plunder and raid, burn our villages and desecrate our churches. Were we supposed to simply allow that?”

There was a remarkable lack of anger as Leofrith spoke; it was still there, but Eivor thought it wasn’t as violent and righteous as it had once been, as it had been when they last met. He took a measured breath.

“What do you want me to say? All of that is true, but so is the steady truce of this town. In Lunden, Erke and Stowe lead the city together; a Dane and a Saxon, working as one to rebuild it. Alfred is fighting a losing war, because half of his kingdom has already decided the outcome for him.” What Eivor would give to see an end to it all, to have a chance at true peace.

“That’s what angers me.” Leofrith said, calm and careful. “All those years I spent fighting at Burgred’s side, and I was blind to anything but what he fed me. Heathens, monsters, devils from Hell come to plague us and test our faith. You raid, and you pillage, and you murder. That is all we are told. So imagine my surprise when you not only spare my life, but tell me a truth that also spares my honour, my ego. And then,” he laughed, “you buy me a fucking horse.”

Ah. Eivor is beginning to understand. How his one act of kindness for a man wronged had opened the gates, had allowed Leofrith to see outside of what he knew as the world’s truth. It must be terrifying. It must be lonely.

“Would you have preferred to die by my hand?”

Leofrith seemed taken aback by the question, fixing Eivor with a confused stare. Eivor raised his brow, surprised at his own bluntness, but when Leofrith didn’t immediately answer he knew he had somehow managed to hit the mark.

“I have no wish to die. But...I do think about it, sometimes. Would it have truly been so bad to die for something I believed in, body and soul?”

Eivor angered slightly at that. “It was misplaced loyalty. He afforded you not a single thought, why should you offer your life?”

“No, I know. I know.”

The water lapped gently at the tips of Eivor’s boots, and he sighed in frustration at the sudden morbid turn the conversation had taken. He wished he had the words to soothe Leofrith’s suffering, to help him through this turbulent transition that he, in part, was responsible for. He had nothing of the sort, only steady companionship. He glanced at the man out of the corner of his eye, at the sullen set of his shoulders and the distance in his eyes. Eivor sighed, exhaled through his nose, and dared to reach across the space between them. He gently took Leofrith’s hand in his, linking their fingers together and squeezing, smiling to himself when he felt Leofrith squeeze back.

“I’m glad it didn’t come to that. For what it’s worth.” Eivor said quietly, warming to his core when Leofrith brought their joined hands to his chest for a moment.

“As am I.”

They sat together, looking out over the river. Eivor watched the sunlight dance across the water, followed the little ripples where fish breached the surface in search of bugs. His thoughts drifted to Ravensthorpe, only a few hours upriver from where they now sat, with its own busy docks; Gudrun’s steady presence at the shipyard, Arth wandering down to the river’s edge in rare glimpses of childish glee at a particularly large catch one of the men made, Eira and her little friends chasing that poor wolf around the town and exciting any animal they passed. It was amazing that he had formed such a close bond with that place, those people, in such a small amount of time.

“You two sitting here all day, then? Or can I persuade you to join me in hunting down a roving pack of bandits?” Soma’s voice caused him to jump, only just remembering to take his hand back before standing to face her.

“You found where they’re basing themselves?” He asked, ignoring the little smirk she sent Leofrith.

“Couple of my men stayed out to watch their movements and see if they would lead us right to their hovel. Good thing they did, because we now have their exact location.” Pride fell off her in waves, clearly pleased with her men. “I could use the both of you, if you’re amenable.”

Leofrith stood, “Are there many of them?”

“At least twenty, to hear Torsten tell it. Perhaps a few less, if we’re going by his word. Still, I’ll take my best warriors. Two groups; one to flank, the other to attack head on. Should be over and done with in no time.” She levelled them both with a knowing look, and Eivor felt the anticipation crawl through his veins. “We leave at nightfall.” And she left, stalking her way back up to the longhouse.

“Are you really so desperate for another fight that you’d risk that wound opening up for a second time?” Leofrith elbowed him.

“It’s stitched up, it might hold.” Even if it didn’t, he was sure Frideswid would be kind enough to help him again.

“You’re mad.”

“You’ll join us?”

“Of course.”

________

Sunset saw them meeting Soma and a dozen or so of her men in the eastern part of town, straddling the boundary between safety and the wilds. They had forgone horses; Torsten reassuring Soma it was within easy walking distance and going on foot would surely lend them the element of surprise. Soma whistled loudly, and everyone fell silent and looked toward her.

“Listen up. The camp is located in a small crater just north-east of us; they’ll probably have guards set up on its rim so we’ll begin by taking those out first. Archers, that’s your job. With them gone, we rain fire on them from above. First group, you charge ahead and begin the attack, and then second we’ll flank them from the side and catch them off guard. Leave none alive.” Her warriors cheered, and Torsten led the group onto the plains to where the bandit camp sat.

It was larger than Eivor expected; heavily guarded and crawling with raiders. Those posted on the edge of the crater were dispatched with ease, three archers working in unison to kill them off in quick succession without raising any alarm. Soma directed the archers to take their positions on the rim, circling the camp and closing off any possible escape routes. Eivor and Leofrith decided to follow the group that would flank after the initial attack, waiting patiently in the darkness for a signal.

One by one, arrows were lit. Soma sat on the order to fire, waited until a few of the bandits saw the flickering of the flames from below.

“Loose!” She bellowed, and a shower of fiery arrows descended on the camp in a rush, followed by the shouts of the first group as they rushed an attack. Eivor waited for Torsten's word, then joined the group as they skidded down the slope of the crater, joining the battle that had begun.

The fight was a bloody one; the raiders wielding spiked clubs and blunt swords, rusted spears and flails that had definitely seen better days. Eivor wasted no time in dishing out death, slashing and stabbing his way through the camp. He only barely managed to dodge a pike to the gut, laughing in relief when the man wielding it tried and failed yet again. He knocked the weapon out of the way, bringing his axe down onto his opponent’s hands and causing him to scream out in pain. A swift kick to his knees and the man fell to the ground, and Eivor took a step back in shock as someone else’s sword slid into his shoulder cleanly before being pulled out, stained red and glinting in the moonlight. Eivor looked up, mouth agape when he met Leofrith’s eyes, blown wide and dark. The man was a fierce sight to behold; nose broken and bloody, chest heaving with the effort of breathing, greatsword held loosely in his hands as he regarded Eivor. He felt a stab of heat in his gut when Leofrith took a step forward, eyes falling to Eivor’s open mouth, and then he turned and rejoined the fray, leaving Eivor stood alone.

“Wolf-Kissed!” He dimly recognised Soma’s voice from somewhere, and shook himself from whatever had taken hold of him.

The air was thick with the scent of blood and sweat, the clang of steel on steel, the shouts as men both died and triumphed. He felt someone knock into him from behind, and he turned wildly just in time for the bandit to land a heavy punch to his stomach. Winded, Eivor brought his axe down into the meat of the man’s arm and revelled when he cried out in agony, leaving him open for a brutal slash to his face. Eivor stumbled back as the man crumbled to the ground, still and quiet in death.

Around him, the battle field had grown muted; the war songs of clashing weapons and seething screams all but vanished in the wake of mass death. Raiders and Danes alike littered the muddied ground around him, all unmoving and no longer burdened by this world. There were few bandits left, disposed of quickly before Soma’s men shouted in victory, all in various states of injury and disarray. Eivor registered happily that his chest hadn’t bothered him all that much, only a slight stinging that left him relieved it hadn’t opened wide again.

He scanned the camp, spotting Soma amongst her warriors, axe held high as she laughed and joined in the celebrations. He found Leofrith on the edges of the camp, just as the ground sloped upwards out of the crater. He stood tall and proud, greatsword held over his shoulder almost casually as he watched the men sing and cheer.

Soma made her way across to him, smile wide and pleased as she brought their foreheads together for a brief moment.

“I forget how well you fight, Eivor.” She smiled through bloodstained teeth.

Eivor returned her grin, “I need to get better, then.”

She took in a deep breath, closing her eyes, the battle-hungry woman she was. Eivor let his gaze fall back to Leofrith, still stood away from the group though he had sheathed his sword at his back.

“He fought well, too. How the fuck did you beat him?”

Eivor laughed. “I’m starting to think he let me.”

He ran a hand through his hair, groaning when he realised a braid had come loose, leaving the strands sticky and tangled. Soma pushed him gently, and he took the hint. Leofrith had attempted to clean his face, but it only left the blood smeared across his chin and lips, thick and wet. Eivor entertained the thought of kissing him.

Any words he had planned to say died in his throat when Leofrith turned to look at him. Nothing like a man fresh out of battle, Eivor thought, and watched as his companion wiped at his nose and the blood congealed there, sniffing loudly and offering Eivor that little lopsided smile he had come to realise was reserved just for him. Eivor returned it easily, reaching up to wipe fruitlessly at the blood Leofrith had just smeared across his cheeks.

“You fight like a man possessed.” Eivor told him, chest tightening when Leofrith swayed forward on tired legs, leaning absently into the hand Eivor left holding his cheek.

“It’s a quality Burgred enjoyed seeing in me.” Leofrith chuckled, catching himself and leaning back, away from Eivor.

“Mhm. At least in that I can say I understand the man.” Eivor hummed.

Leofrith only smiled at that.

“Eivor!” At his name, Eivor turned to find Soma and her men had dispersed throughout the camp, picking through the supplies on offer. “We take what we can use and burn the rest.”

Not an hour later saw the camp in flames; bandits piled together and burning steadily as Soma loaded herself and her strongest men with as many weapons and supplies as they could carry. Eivor hoisted a sack over his shoulder as they filed out of the little crater and onto the plains proper, Grantebridge a collection of flickering lights in the near distance.

________

Eivor had never been so glad to see a bed in his life. He dropped the sack to the floor and stripped his dirty clothes off quickly, mindful of the bandages still wrapping his torso. The cut hadn’t given him any grief, so he decided to let it sit for the night and check on it tomorrow, sleep winning out over everything else. He ran a hand through his hair and cringed when he felt the crustiness of dried blood and the matted mess it had created. Disgusting, but not enough to change his mind about sleeping first and cleaning after.

“It’ll be worse come morning if you don’t sort it out now.” He hadn’t heard Leofrith follow him into the room.

“I’ll jump in the river. It’ll be fine.” He laughed when Leofrith pulled a face at him, placing the weapons he’d been told to carry on the floor out of the way.

“At least scrub your face.” Leofrith disappeared for a moment, returning with a bowl of water and a rag he put on a side table and used to wash his own face, rubbing at the dried blood and hissing in pain when he pressed too hard at his nose. “Shit.”

“Broken?” Eivor asked. He slipped beneath the blankets on the bed, pulling them up close to his chest as he nestled himself tightly in their warmth.

“Probably.” Leofrith dropped the rag in the bowl, squeezing it once, twice, before throwing it at Eivor. “Scrub.”

Eivor sighed but did as he was told, wiping it quickly across his face to remove the worst of the grime and blood and then throwing it back to the other man. That done, he turned over and closed his eyes, hoping the hint was obvious. He could hear Leofrith moving about the room; a trickle of water, the rustle of fabric, and then the ominous feeling of being watched. Eivor sighed internally.

“What?” He asked without moving.

“Move over.” Said quietly, softly.

Eivor opened his eyes, stared at the wall in front of him. Leofrith said nothing else, just waited until, slowly, Eivor slid himself across the mattress to make room. He held his breath when he felt the bed dip, shuffled slightly to adjust for the man’s broadness, and smiled to himself when Leofrith seemed unsure where to put his hands, eventually settling on shoving them under his pillow from what Eivor could guess. It was nice, he thought, to drift off into sleep with the solid warmth of another person at his back; comfortable and comforting all at once. Safe.

The last thing he registered before falling asleep was a gentle touch to the back of his neck.

Chapter Text

He awoke slowly; thoughts sluggish and skin sleep-warm, the world around him hazy and soft as he blinked his eyes open. The candles had burnt themselves out during the night, leaving only the faint flickering of the firepit in the main hall illuminating the little room. Eivor brought the covers up around his shoulders where they had slipped down in his sleep, and shivered at the chill that had settled in the room. Blinking his eyes open, Eivor realised he was alone, the other side of the bed empty and cold. He sat up and scanned the room and noticed with amusement that Leofrith had tidied up; no sign of the weapons and supplies they’d dumped last night, as well as Eivor’s pile of bloodied clothes and armour.

Eivor scratched at his head, cringed when he remembered he hadn’t washed his hair before sleeping and his hand came away crusted with dried blood. He gathered it up as best as he could and felt on the side table for a tie to hold it up until he washed it properly. He braved the cold air and rose from the bed, throwing on the nearest shirt he could find flung over the end of the bed, a pale blue thing stained slightly on one sleeve and far too big for him. He shrugged, it would have to do.

The main hall was heaving. People laughed loud and full, shouting over one another in vain attempts to be heard over the din. A few children sat perched on their parents’ shoulders, towering over the chaos as they giggled and yelled across at each other with mouths full of food. Eivor moved into the throng, narrowly dodging a woman he recognised from last night still fully decked out in armour, an armful of tankards sloshing about as she stumbled past him to a large group of warriors singing, louder when she joined in. Celebrations for their little victory last night, no doubt, that not even the light of the morning sun could damper.

“We missed you last night, Eivor.” Soma sidled up to him, horn in hand and words only slightly slurred, hair a mess and face still bloodied from the battle.

He smiled over at her. “Yeah, you seem really torn up about it.”

Soma offered him a smile of her own and took a great gulp of ale. “It’s not everyday you clear out a bandit camp.”

“No. It’s more of a weekly thing, really.” That had Soma laughing.

Eivor excused himself, pushing through the crowd and the heat of the hall into the fresh morning air outside. Clouds hung heavy and grey in the sky, not yet ready to unleash their flood, but Eivor had no doubt a heavy downfall was in the near future. He let his eyes follow a bird as it glided through the sky, swooping and diving as it chased something smaller. He felt himself smile when Synin drifted into view, sluicing through the air with practiced grace.

“You look awful.”

Gaze falling back to Earth, Eivor saw Leofrith leaning against the fence just before the market. “You’re one to talk.”

And, Gods, awful was not a strong enough word to describe how Leofrith looked. His nose had definitely been broken; swollen, an angry shade of reddish purple, shiny and painful to even look at. The bruising had spread up his face, dark around his eyes, and there was a nasty split in his bottom lip that Eivor hadn’t noticed last night, sealed over with blood and sore looking. Eivor grimaced in sympathy when Leofrith went to laugh, only to stop himself and move to put a hand over his nose gently.

“It looks worse than it is.” He assured Eivor. “How’s your…?” He trailed off, motioning to Eivor’s chest.

“Oh, it’s fine. Hasn’t bothered me.” He lifted his shirt up to prove his point, but only sighed in disappointment when he saw the bandage was crimson with dried blood. “It doesn’t hurt, at least.”

Leofrith eyed him warily. “Want a hand?”

Eivor nodded, let his shirt fall down again with a tired sigh. “Sure.”

Back into the longhouse. Back through the heat and harsh press of bodies; drunken warriors swaying in each other’s arms mumbling through songs happily, shieldmaidens emboldened by drink and the laughter of their children, a few of the farmers had been pulled into the festivities and were stumbling through their own verses. Eivor traced his own steps, pushed back through the crowd to their little room, Leofrith a heavy presence at his back.

He went through the motions of lighting the candles, illuminating the room properly, and pulling up the blankets on the bed to sit himself comfortably. He watched Leofrith fiddle about the room; rooting through Eivor’s satchel for clean bandages, refilling the bowl of water, before coming to stand in front of Eivor and kicking his legs apart to create a space large enough for him to kneel between them.

“Shirt off.” He said, and Eivor obeyed, glad when the motion caused him no pain.

Leofrith took his time unwinding the soiled bandage from around Eivor’s torso, mindful of the wound itself as the fabric peeled away from Eivor’s skin. It caught slightly, pulling at the stitches where the blood had dried and sealed the material to the edge of the wound. Eivor breathed through it, eyes fixed on Leofrith’s face as he worked; frowning in concentration as he pried the bandage off and away.

“There.” Quietly, proudly, and Eivor smiled.

“How does it look?” He asked, eyes never moving from Leofrith’s face.

“Good. Must have just knocked it last night. Bled a little, but it’s all dry.” Leofrith used a rag to dab water around the site of the wound, careful of the stitches, using small circular motions to loosen the layer of blood there.

Eivor hissed through his teeth when the fabric snagged at the stitches, huffing a laugh when Leofrith shushed and soothed him like a child. Blood cleaned, Leofrith let the rag drop into the bowl of water, and dried around the wound with the shirt Eivor had been wearing before, dabbing softly.

“Your...inkings, did they hurt?” Eivor shuddered when he felt Leofrith run a finger over the tattoos on his chest, trailing down over his stomach.

Eivor blinked. “No, not really.” He said it slowly, willing his mind to catch up to itself, drawn between wanting to push Leofrith away from him or just sit in this moment, languid, for a while longer.

“Really? Not at all?” Leofrith looked up at him then, and Eivor is sure the man didn’t mean for the movement to be so alluring. There’s just...something, Eivor thought, about having a powerful man on his knees.

He shrugged. “It stung a bit, I suppose. But it’s not pain, exactly.”

Leofrith hummed and returned his attention to wrapping Eivor up in clean bandages, looping over his shoulder a few times for added security. He struggled with the fastening for a bit, eventually giving up and tucking the bandage over itself and tying a little knot. He stayed knelt at Eivor’s feet, and Eivor’s breath hitched when Leofrith continued his earlier act of following the patterns of his tattoos with almost reverent fingers.

“Do they mean anything?” He asked, resolutely not looking up at Eivor’s face anymore.

“Some of them. Blessings and protection, mostly, but the one on my arm is just a design of Tove’s that I thought particularly beautiful. Do Saxons not practice it?” It was something Eivor hadn’t paid that much attention to, far too embroiled in combat or politics to notice if any of them were inked.

Leofrith sat back, away from Eivor but still within reach. “Some of our warriors do. Most of the nobility fell out of the practice, but I’ve known a thegn or two with a few tattoos. It’s a...show of strength, I suppose, at least nowadays.”

“You don’t have any?”

“Never saw the point. I don’t need ink to prove myself.” Self-assured, Eivor thought; despite the shame and betrayal that clearly plagued him, Leofrith was still such a proud soldier. He had the right to be.

“No. I suppose you don’t.” Eivor said it aloud before he realised, but it was an innocent enough comment.

Leofrith only smiled, a surprisingly shy little thing that Eivor almost felt guilty for seeing. They tidied up in mutual silence; Eivor pulling his shirt back over his head after deeming it clean and dry enough, Leofrith taking the bowl and dirty bandages from the room to dispose of them. Eivor watched him go, not yet ready to stand from the bed and instead waited for the man to return.

“Have you eaten?” He asked when Leofrith walked back in.

“Not yet. I was about to head down to the docks, see if Aebba’s returned yet.” Leofrith stood awkwardly in the middle room, and frowned when he seemed to have a realisation of some sort whilst looking at Eivor’s chest.

“What?” Eivor asked, panicking for only a moment when he worried the wound might be bleeding again. He checked, just to be sure, but there was nothing there.

Leofrith met his eyes. “What? Nothing. Where did you find that?” He asked, nodding at Eivor’s shirt.

“Hm? End of the bed. Think Soma or someone left it this morning.” Because he had, when he’d bothered to think about it at all. Leofrith’s smirk told him he’d been wrong with that assumption. “Ah.”

Leofrith’s smirk grew into a proper smile. “Come on. In the very least, the docks will be quieter than this place.”

________

The docks were, indeed, far quieter than the longhouse. Fishermen still lined the banks and the docks themselves, but there was no fast-paced bustle like Eivor had seen only yesterday. Aebba hadn't long arrived if Eivor had to guess; still unloading empty crates and a few light sacks from the little boat. She smiled warmly when she saw them approach, and Eivor struggled to keep pace when Leofrith sped up towards her.

"How was Duroliponte?" Leofrith asked, immediately setting to work in helping her unload.

Aebba laughed. "Busy. And messy. But Rome wasn't built in a day, I suppose. What happened to your face?"

Eivor stepped to take over their task when Aebba reached up to hold Leofrith's face, examining the state of his nose and tutting at him as if he were a child caught doing something bad. Eivor smiled at the pair of them.

"It's nothing, just a scratch. There was a bandit problem that we helped deal with." Leofrith let the woman fuss, smiled when he caught Eivor's eye.

"Just a scratch, aye. Looks awful." Aebba touched a gentle finger to the worst of the swelling, and apologised when Leofrith hissed in pain and moved away from her. "You boys hungry? I'm starved. Come on."

Aebba's home wasn't far; a short walk from the docks but before the town proper, the house sat nestled slightly in the incline of the slope, its outer walls lined with ropes and oars. Spares, Eivor guessed. Aebba kindly held the door open for the both of them.

"You live alone?" Leofrith asked, gaze wandering around the small space that answered his question for him.

"I do." Aebba didn't seem saddened by the fact.

It was a cosy place; a singular room with a bed pushed to one side and partly hidden by a partition made of tied-up sticks, a little firepit in the centre with a pot used for cooking and boiling, but what interested Eivor was the oddly neat chaos of it all. There were odds and ends hanging from every wall, dried herbs and flowers hung loose like a makeshift bunting, a pile of...Eivor didn't know; boxes full of knick-knacks maybe, all pushed to one corner and covered over haphazardly with pelt of brown fur, that in turn was ladened with various bowls of trinkets and candle holders. A table sat against the far wall with a little bench in front of it, a plate of half-eaten bread and a jug placed on top. It was nice for one person, if a bit crowded for the three of them. Eivor sat himself at the bench.

"Nothing wrong with one's own company. I get along far better by myself, and I have friends besides." Aebba continued, and Eivor had no doubt she had half the town in her good graces.

"Of course there isn't." Leofrith moved past her to where Eivor was sitting and started picking at the loaf of bread.

"Oi! Do you forget your manners now?" Aebba scolded him easily but made no move to stop him, busying herself instead with lighting the fire.

Eivor watched her blow at the embers, throw on a bit more wood from the pile he now saw tucked under the bed, fiddling with the pot to move it out of the way until she deemed the flames hot enough to place it back over. She moved about the room, ignoring the two of them as she muttered to herself and concocted a stew of some sort; Eivor couldn't tell what was going into it other than potato, but whatever it was it smelled divine and set his stomach to rumbling.

"You have a problem." Leofrith mumbled to him, and Eivor smiled wolfishly.

"Oh, and I suppose you don't get hungry?" He teased, watching as Leofrith swallowed down another bite of bread.

"I moved past such frivolities." Leofrith said seriously, and Eivor snorted when he realised he was being had, only given away by the slightest upturn of Leofrith's lips.

"Idiot." Eivor kicked him lightly, just a nudge of his boot to Leofrith's shin.

They watched each other for a second, Eivor berating himself only slightly when he was the first to turn away. He could still see Leofrith on the edge of his periphery; watching Eivor with amusement and something else Eivor refused to call fondness.

"You know Leofrith, then?" He asked by way of distraction, but still interested in the answer.

Aebba nodded enthusiastically. "Oh, yes, I know him. Helped raise him and his brothers."

"Brothers?" That had surprised him when Leofrith mentioned it yesterday, though he couldn't say why. He never really thought about the people he knew in respect to who they had been before he met them; no errant thoughts to what they were like as children or where they had earned their various scars. It never seemed important to him, at least not more important than the person he knew in the present.

"Oh, aye. All four of the bastards, including this one. By God, the chaos those lads could cause." Aebba smiled, eyes far away and distant as she chased old memories.

"Do you hear from them?" Eivor asked Leofrith, who only shook his head as he grew somber.

"Godwine and Edwin died years back, during the first years of the invasion. Uhtric…I'm not sure. He never wrote when I moved permanently to be with Burgred, but I suppose he could be alive somewhere." Leofrith said, not overly saddened. Mournful, perhaps. Eivor wanted to press, but it was a subject far too melancholy to be discussed over food.

"Life is full of terrible twists." Aebba dished up three bowls of soup, placing a gentle hand on Leofrith's shoulder as she passed him and sat herself in between them. "Still, we have their memories. No person is ever really gone so long as we remember them, and what else can we do but remember, really? Now. Eat up, while it's still warm, and tell me of happier times I wasn't there to see."

Eivor let them talk, too lost in his own head to fully pay attention to what Leofrith was relaying to Aebba. He didn't particularly want to hear it; he knew enough of the man by reputation to know what his past entailed, at least insofar as his service to Burgred went. Before that, well, there would be other times for Eivor to learn. Right now, he was stuck on one little detail. Leofrith's brothers had fought during the first wave of invasion, as he called it, and so it wasn't a huge leap for Eivor to guess that they had been killed at the hands of Danes, or perhaps even Norsemen like himself. It explained Leofrith's unwavering loyalty to Burgred, he supposed; his steady position as thegn to a king intent on seeing Eivor and his kin dead. Had Burgred's betrayal really undone all those years of service, of admiration and respect? He hadn't realised how long he'd been stuck in his own head until he went to take a spoonful of soup only to find his bowl empty. Slowly, he let their conversation filter into his ears.

"Revenge wouldn't have eased your mind, lad." Aebba was saying softly, her own bowl forgotten as she listened to Leofrith's story.

"No." He agreed easily. "But…"

Aebba nodded. "I know. And now he'll die quietly, hundreds of miles from home with only his wife to mourn him. Be satisfied with that if nothing else."

"Hm." Leofrith shook himself from whatever thoughts had clouded his mind. "And you? How long have you lived in Grantebridge?"

"Oh, years now. There was nothing for me back home after you boys left, so I decided to set out and see where God took me. I travelled, for a while, but age slows you down before you know it. My bones aren't what they were, and Soma is as good and just as the best of them. She's been kind to us."

Eivor sniffed. "'Us'?"

Aebba seemed to only just remember he was in the room, turning to face him. "Saxons. English. Whatever you call us. We're safe here, and safety is hard to come by."

That much was true. Soma had struck him as a good leader from the moment they met; stalwart and sure of her position, respectful enough of the people here that they saw no reason to rise up against her. Well, for the most part. It was...good. Good for everyone, that such a little hamlet had achieved what larger cities still struggled with; peace, and a sense of togetherness that reminded Eivor of what he, Randvi and Sigurd had managed to attain in Ravensthorpe. A glimpse into the future, he could only hope.

"It is good to see you." Aebba had turned back to Leofrith, and Eivor again stayed quiet for them. "I never thought I would again. You're so tall!" She laughed, and Leofrith did too, and nobody said anything when Eivor huffed his own chuckle at the pair of them.

It was sweet, Eivor thought, that Aebba hadn't forgotten. That she had carried around Leofrith and his brothers with her long enough that even now she recognised the man, years after they had parted. Eivor watched as she brought Leofrith's forehead to her own, holding one side of his face tight and ever mindful of his broken nose, eyes closed as she simply sat and held him. He remembered, hazily, his mother holding him close in a similar way, so many years ago, remembered vaguely the way she would sing to him as they embraced, quiet and just for the two of them. Like a punch to the gut. He felt his eyes sting and blur, felt the ghostly comforting touch of fingers through his hair, and suddenly he just couldn't be here.

Eivor stood abruptly, stuttering over an apology as he headed through the room and outside. It had started raining; only a light shower, but enough to seep through his thin shirt and seal it to his skin. Grief was something he felt he should be able to deal with better, losing his parents as young as he had been, but he had never quite managed to get the hang of it. It would creep up on him, after months of feeling nothing but nostalgia and tender sadness, the sudden and clawing feeling of emptiness that left him unable to do so much as sit up in bed. Gods, the things he would do. Unthinkable things. Just to be able to hear his mother say his name, in that light and teasing tone of hers when she would catch him doing something he wasn't supposed to. To have his father smile at him proudly and pat him on his shoulder; one hand large enough to practically engulf little Eivor. He missed them. He missed them.

"Look at me." He hadn't registered Aebba follow him out, hadn't registered he had started crying.

Eivor did as he was told, hunching his shoulders over as he did so. She smiled, the same sweet little smile she had given Leofrith as she held him. It made something inside him ache.

"Come here, kid." Aebba said quietly, and it was so easy for Eivor to nestle himself in her arms, let her wrap around him and bury his head in her shoulder. His own hands went around her middle, and she rubbed soothing circles into his back.

"I promise I'm not always this weepy." He laughed wetly into her shoal, and felt more than heard her own answering laugh.

"You're alright. Grief does strange things to people." She pulled back to look at him, bringing a small and wrinkled hand to his cheek. "You don't have to explain."

Eivor was grateful for that. He nodded, wiped at his face and nose as Aebba averted her gaze to let him gather himself.

"Is he good?" Aebba asked him, when he had dried his eyes and let the rain melt away the stiffness that crying brought on, when they had been stood in the aftermath of his emotions for a good long while.

Eivor eyed her curiously. "How do you mean?"

"Is he…" She sighed, struggled to meet his eyes before something in her became steel. "I've seen what men are capable of, the things they can do. The orders they follow. He was a boy last I saw him; skinny and awkward and far too soft spoken. He isn't cruel, is he? I don't expect him to be gentle still, or even kind, but tell me he isn't cruel."

Eivor was stunned. How to answer that? He hadn't known Leofrith that long, all told. A week at most, personally, but still less than a month if he included just simply being aware of the man's existence. Nothing Leofrith had done ever seemed cruel; he never raised a hand to Ceolbert, despite the anger and hurt he surely must have felt, had never killed needlessly. Eivor had met cruel men before, and none of Leofrith’s actions made him out to be such a thing. Not when they fought, and not when they rode together in something quickly veering into friendship. Eivor thought of the farmer’s family, of Hilda, of her little girl and how Leofrith had been with her; of the fox he pointed out to Eivor, drifting them closer together. Of that little lopsided smile. Of his hands.

“No.” Eivor stated, sure to look into Aebba’s eyes as he said it. “He is not cruel. And he is still gentle, and kind.”

Aebba breathed a sigh of relief. “Good. That is good.”

They stood together a while longer, ignoring the rain as it steadily grew heavier. Eivor undid the tie around his hair, letting the strands fall loose as he shook his head.

“If you don’t wash that hair, I’ll throw you into the river myself.” Both Eivor and Aebba jumped at Leofrith’s words, neither hearing him come out of the house.

Eivor laughed, glad to feel something lighten his grief, glad to see his smile reflected back at him as he looked at Leofrith.

Aebba shivered. “I’ll heat up some water, if you like. I have a comb somewhere.” She offered, and brushed past Leofrith back into the warmth of the house.

Leofrith came to stand next to him, leaning in close enough that their shoulders touched. A point of comfort, a port in a storm. “You okay?” Eivor smirked at the sheer awkwardness the man was now radiating; clearly emotional comfort wasn’t a skill of his.

“I’m fine. I’m sure I don’t have to explain the intricacies of grief to you.” Eivor folded his arms across his chest, loosening them when he pinched at the wound.

“No, you don’t. You don’t have to explain anything to me. But you can.” And that was that.

Something had happened, Eivor was sure of it. A door had been opened, with just those three words. There was possibility here, the roots of some unnamed thing burying itself in Eivor’s chest next to that little spark, and he risked flexing his fingers where they lay against his bicep, letting them brush softly against the bare skin of Leofrith’s arm. He was rewarded when Leofrith leaned in closer, pressing himself against Eivor fully. Eivor resisted the urge to rest his head against Leofrith’s shoulder, knowing there was no excuse for such an act.

“Come on.” Leofrith muttered quietly, and Eivor followed in silence as he led them back into the heat of the house.

He let the warm water run through his hair, followed its path down with the comb Aebba had dug out for him, a simple wooden thing. Motions that were so familiar to him. He registered Aebba and Leofrith picking up their conversation once more, and he let the sound of their voices wash over him as he ran the comb through his hair, feeling the stiffness start to lift as the blood was washed out. The water began to cool, and he ran his hands through the loose strands of his hair, feeling nothing but wet softness and glad for the fact. Braiding was an easier task when his hair was wet, he found, and took no time at all plaiting it together simply enough. He wiped his hands dry on his shirt, and watched as Leofrith and Aebba sat and spoke.

“I might head back to the longhouse.” He said simply. “See if we managed to grab anything useful last night.”

Leofrith caught his eye. “You don’t have to.” He sounded almost guilty, and Eivor laughed.

“No, it’s nothing. You two catch up without me hanging around. I’ll see you later.”

“Very well.”

Eivor said his goodbye to Aebba, thanked her for the food, and turned to leave. He was stopped in his tracks when Leofrith let out a loud shout of “Oh!” Eivor turned back around and raised his brow at the man.

“Tell Soma I saw the dagger first so it’s mine.” Leofrith waved a hand at Eivor’s amused confusion. “She’ll know which one you mean.”

“Right.”

Outside, the rain poured down hard and heavy, thunderous and loud. Eivor jogged up to the longhouse as quick as he could, sliding slightly in the mud and almost toppling more than once. The celebrations had died down, though many still hung around in small clusters and talked among themselves. Eivor spotted Soma sitting at a table by herself, a pile of daggers and knives and various other little trinkets spread out in front of her. She’d managed to clean herself up at least; face free of blood and clothes neat and tidy, every inch a proud jarl. She seemed to be sorting through her hoard, writing herself little notes on a sheet of vellum as she went. Eivor joined her, sitting himself opposite and admiring the collection.

“Gods, I hate them.” She sighed without looking up. “They all want the bloody best things. Torsten wants half the fucking haul by the sounds of it. Vultures.” She huffed a laugh and looked up. “If you see something you like, take it, before someone else does. You’re lucky this much is left.”

Eivor eyed the collection; nothing particularly remarkable looking, most crudely made little knives Eivor guessed they used as throwing daggers, a few chains with rather ornate crosses they must have stolen, other odds and ends of jewellery or cutlery, and one sad looking flail. Clearly, he was late to the party.

“There’s a dagger Leofrith wants. He said you’d know which one.” Eivor picked up a golden cross, encrusted with red stones that seemed to catch the firelight and hold it inside, turned it over in his hand.

Across from him, Soma groaned. “Bastard. I had hoped he’d let it go. Gorgeous thing, it is. Here.” She unbuckled the weapon from her waist, throwing it over the table in a childish sulk.

It was a fine piece, Eivor had to admit. Even its sheath was ornate; soft brown leather tipped with steel, the design of a small and oddly detailed cross just below where the hilt sat cradled, golden and curved. Its handle was the same leather as the sheath, only more worn down, torn slightly where it had come away from the pommel, that itself fashioned into the shape of a miniature helm. He pulled the dagger free, and the blade glistened brightly as it caught the light; folds of metal woven into one another beautifully.

Soma sighed whistfully. “Lovely, isn’t it?”

Lovely was one word, Eivor thought. What could Leofrith want with such a weapon? Then again, Eivor supposed he had a habit of collecting things that caught his eye, so it was only fair he allowed others the same indulgence. He slid the blade back into its sheath, running his fingers over the cross sat there.

“Hm. It is something.” He placed it to the side, close enough that he hoped no one would make a grab for it.

“How’s his face, anyway? Looked awful last night.” Soma laughed, but there was an undercurrent of concern there, if Eivor looked close enough.

“Oh, it’s still awful.” Eivor assured her.

She scribbled something down, hummed to herself and then promptly crossed it out. “Get a cold cloth on there. At least he isn’t one to complain. Do you want anything else?”

Eivor scanned the pile once more, and shook his head. The rest was tat, as far as he was concerned. He sat with her as she sorted through the rest of it, writing as she went. Soma let him stay, appearing to forget he was even there at all until she finished her task, shovelling the leftover trinkets into a crate she pulled from under the table, and kicking the crate over to a group of farmers who began digging through it all with enthusiasm.

“So.” She faced him. “When are you leaving us?”

Eivor spluttered out a laugh. “Eager to be rid of me so soon? I’m hurt.”

“Shut up. You know you’re welcome here for as long as you like, Eivor. And I would prefer you be completely healed before braving the river again, but there’s been...rumblings.” Soma rubbed a hand over her eyes.

“Rumblings?”

“Mhm. I have a friend in Tamworth.” Eivor perked up at that, thoughts flying to Ceolwulf and the tenuous hold he has over Mercia. Soma dispelled his worries. “Your king is fine. But apparently he’s turned his eyes to Sciropescire, and he intended to send word to Ravensthorpe that Ceolbert was to leave for the place as soon as he was able. That was a while ago, of course, so he might have moved out already.”

It made sense. A future king would need experience leading both people and the land they dwell upon, and an earldom is ideal for such things. Ceolbert was...young, though, and Eivor knew him to be naive and soft-hearted. An errant thought. Oh, Gods.

“Tell me he’ll be supported by his father’s men.” He pleaded.

Soma only shrugged. “Of course he will be. And Ivarr Ragnarsson, according to my friend.”

Eivor only just managed to suppress a groan at that. Leaving Ceolbert alone with a man like that...it could only lead to bad things. “Fuck’s sake.” He would have to go, obviously. Offer his support and aid to Ceolbert, keep the lad safe and sane.

“Yeah. So I ask you again, when will you be leaving us? I can have a boat prepared.”

Eivor sighed, long suffering and already tired. “We’ll head out tomorrow. It’s only an hour upriver so there’s no rush, but I’ll need to speak with Randvi before leaving for Sciropescire, and the journey alone will be…” Eivor trailed off, already dreading the week and a half on the road that awaited him.

Soma patted his hand. “You’ll be fine. Drink?”

That sounded good. A drink, Eivor thought, and resolutely ignored the heavy feeling in the pit of his stomach that told him only terrible things were to come.

Chapter Text

They left their horses in Grantebridge, under Soma's reassurance she would send them up to Ravensthorpe by land. Eivor thanked her for her hospitality a hundred times over, until he was certain he had annoyed her sufficiently, and then thanked her again for good measure. Leofrith had left the longhouse in the early hours of the morning to say his farewells to Aebba, so Eivor had taken the opportunity to pass time with a few of Soma's warriors, Lif among them and goading him into playing a round of Orlog Eivor knew for certain he couldn't win.

Two-hundred-and-fifty lost pieces of silver later, and Eivor cursed himself for putting a wager on the bloody game, Soma walked in to let him know the boat was ready to take himself and Leofrith upriver to Ravensthorpe. To home. Eivor smiled warmly, and began the little stroll to Aebba's house to collect his companion.

"Boat's ready." Only then did he realise Leofrith wasn't inside the building. "Oh."

Aebba chuckled at him. "You just missed him, Eivor. He was heading down to meet you."

He nodded. "You take care, Aebba. No doubt our paths will cross again."

"And you, lad."

Both Leofrith and Soma were waiting for him when he made his way to the docks, a boat already loaded with his own belongings as well as Leofrith's. At least the weather had cleared up, though the river was high and its current fast thanks to yesterday's downpour.

"Ready?" Soma greeted him.

"Yes, yes." He crouched over the edge of the port where the boat sat in the water, and checked through the items strapped down. "All here?"

Soma laughed. "No, I stole half your weapons and replaced them with pitchforks. All accounted for, Wolf-Kissed, don't you worry that pretty head of yours."

"Fuck off." Eivor stood, satisfied all was in its place. Soma he trusted, but he could throw some of her friends further than he would ever trust them.

He pulled Soma into a hug. She went easily, and he smiled into the curve of her shoulder when she brought her hand to cup the back of his head.

"Know that there is always a place for you here, Eivor, at my table." They pulled away from each other, Eivor nodding and thanking her, smiling when she turned to Leofrith and said, "You too. Any friend of his is a friend of ours. Of mine."

Leofrith nodded his acknowledgement and shook her arm when she offered it. Eivor climbed onto the boat, waited for Leofrith to follow, and pushed away from Granteberidge and into the swell of the current, struggling against its strength slightly.

"Until the next time, Soma!" He shouted back at her, bowing deeply in jest when she waved regally.

He pushed the little boat upriver, eager to be home again.

______

Ravensthorpe drifted into view as they rounded a bend in the river, the sight of the growing hamlet soothing an ache deep within Eivor’s mind. Its port, though not bustling with trade, was still lively as he steered the boat in and docked. His warriors had returned at some point, the longship floating calmly with only Bragi aboard her. Eivor whistled, laughing when he startled and almost fell overboard.

“Eivor! Good to see you returned.” Bragi smiled warmly, hopping from the longship and coming over to help Eivor from his boat.

“You too. Have you been back long?” Eivor made conversation as he and Leofrith burdened themselves with their belongings.

“Less than a week. We sailed back after leaving you in Lunden, stopped off in Grantebridge for a bit too.” The boatman clasped his hands in front of him, and Eivor saw him eye Leofrith warily.

“As did we.” He said, smiling reassuringly and patting Bragi on the shoulder as he passed by the man. “We’ll catch up later. Is Randvi still haunting the longhouse halls?”

“Aye. The little prince, too. Like a shadow.”

That had Eivor stopping, turning his head slightly. “Prince?”

“Yeah. The...whatever it is they call him. Ethling? Him.”

“Aetheling.” Eivor corrected absently, sending one last and slightly strained smile Bragi’s way before heading up to the longhouse.

He was well received by the people they passed; Gunnar bellowing his name brightly as he walked by, causing Hytham to peek his head out from his Bureau and wave almost sweetly. Even Reda seemed pleased to see him, inclining their head in greeting.

“Eivor!” Sylvi ran up to him, flanked by Knud and Eira, all three of them followed excitedly by a familiar white wolf.

“Children.” Eivor greeted them, ruffling hair and patting little backs as he continued to walk by. “I’ll find you all later, okay? And you can regale me with any great adventures you’ve had.” He assured them, stroking at Dwolfgr’s ears.

“Fine.” Sylvi only sighed, and then the lot of them were off again.

He stopped only a moment to watch them go, comforted by their energy and spirit. He caught Leofrith staring after them.

“That was a fucking wolf.” He breathed out, and Eivor only hummed in response before continuing his path up the slope to the longhouse.

The scent of wood and smoke, the florally fragrant scents Randvi burned to hide the smell of hay and mud, the lingering undercurrent that filled the air so close to the river. The longhouse stood tall and familiar, a bright beacon in this strange land, and Eivor relished at being back inside of it. The main hall mostly sat empty, only a few people milling about, greeting him quietly before falling back into their conversations with one another. Eivor could hear the soft tones of Randvi’s voice, the warmth that flooded every syllable as she spoke quietly with someone else. Eivor dropped his stuff at the foot of the jarl’s seat and stepped slowly into the back room. They hadn’t even noticed him enter.

Randvi and Ceolbert were hunched over the table, the maps hidden by sheets covered in thick walls of text and hastily sketched images. Randvi spoke slowly, smile small but sincere as she watched Ceolbert scribble quickly and efficiently, tongue poking out in concentration.

“What’s this?” Eivor asked, loud enough to be heard but not so the atmosphere would be broken.

Both Randvi and Ceolbert looked up simultaneously, the movement almost comical; they were so in-sync, and gave Eivor matching smiles.

“Eivor!” Ceolbert beamed, coming to Eivor’s side and looking up at him brightly. “It’s good to see you.”

“You too.” Eivor relented and dragged the boy into a crushing hug, laughing when the kid’s arms wrapped tightly around him. “Shouldn’t you be in Sciropescire?”

Ceolbert pulled back first, sparing a glance back at Randvi. “We thought it best to wait for you. Randvi said you might want to accompany me and my guards, apparently things there are...tense.”

Randvi moved forward, resting a hand on Ceolbert’s shoulder in a way that spoke of familiarity, and Eivor wondered what affections had blossomed between the two. “The shire has been mired in a long war with Rhodri, King of the Britons. Ceolwulf sent word a while ago, and Ceolbert here agreed it would be smart to broker a peace between the Britons of the west and ourselves. He is only one man, however.”

Ceolbert sighed. “And I am inexperienced in such things. There’s a Bishop in Quatford, my father thinks I ought to start there and form a plan of action. I...ask for your help, Eivor. Your guidance and advice.”

Eivor took in the boy before him. It would be a difficult task; Ceolbert was as green as summer grass, with no head or heart for battle, but Eivor hoped that meant he was more of a tactician. Perhaps politics would come easier to him.

“Of course I will.” He placed a proud hand on the lad’s shoulder, squeezing once and warming when Ceolbert smiled in relief.

Behind him, someone cleared their throat. Oh. Ceolbert went pale, mouth agape as he took in the new arrival. Eivor had hoped Leofrith would wait outside of the room. This was not the reintroduction he had intended for the two of them, but all he could do now was move out of the way; open up the space between them and hope for a bridge where a great canyon still stood. Eivor pulled Randvi back when she made to do the same to Ceolbert, sending her a pleading look when she glared daggers at him. She relented, slow and unsure, letting her hand fall. Eivor didn’t know where to look, knew this to be a moment that had nothing to do with him but was still unable to leave the room, rooted to the spot as he watched and hoped.

“Leofrith.” Ceolbert’s voice was small and wavering, and Eivor remembered dimly the last time he had seen the war-thegn; in a burning town drenched with blood, rain pouring heavily and desperation clouding Leofrith’s words, his mind. Had Ceolbert been scared of the man? It was a heavy thought.

Eivor watched Leofrith lower himself to the ground, kneeling on uneven floorboards with his head down, as he had been when Eivor held his life in his hands. It was still a remarkable sight, soured only by the circumstances. Ceolbert made a single step forward, hands clenched at his sides. Eivor wanted to comfort both of them, he realised, and was saddened by the thought that this was something he was helpless to heal.

Leofrith remained on the floor, as still as any statue, but Eivor could recognise the muted huffs, the slow and unsteady rise and fall of his shoulders. Ceolbert steeled himself, flexing his hands and taking cautious steps forward until he was standing over Leofrith and looking down on the man. Eivor watched with something akin to pride when Ceolbert copied Leofrith and knelt down in front of him. The boy had called them friends, and Eivor could only wonder at what their friendship entailed.

“Leofrith.” Ceolbert repeated, and the man in question raised his head; he was a state, broken nose and tearful eyes, whole face swollen and puffy.

“I wouldn’t have hurt you. Never.” Leofrith mumbled the words, but the meaning wasn’t lost on Ceolbert.

They stared at each other, Leofrith’s eyes glassy. Eivor waited, and let out a breath he hadn’t realised he’d been holding when Ceolbert pressed a gentle hand to the back Leofrith’s head, bringing them together in an awkwardly positioned hug. He smiled softly to himself, glancing at Randvi as she wiped at her eyes and laughed quietly when she saw she’d been caught.

“Ceolbert mentions him sometimes, off-hand and always without thinking. He catches himself and just looks so...sad.” Randvi turned away from the two of them, leading Eivor into her and Sigurd’s bedroom to allow Ceolbert and Leofrith some privacy. “What happened to bring you together?”

Eivor sat on the edge of the bed, legs crossed as Randvi did the same opposite of him as if they were children trading gossip. “After Lunden. He was just there.” He smiled. “I bought him a horse.”

Randvi laughed, loud enough to surprise herself. “A horse? There are easier ways to make friends, Eivor.”

He laughed along with her, aware of how silly it sounded out of context, and basked in her company for the first time in what seemed like an age. He didn’t get this opportunity often, to just sit and enjoy the company of family, not as often as he was used to. Back in Norway, they were all almost always together, only apart when Sigurd was away and fulfilling his duties which, granted, was often enough. That had only escalated in England; Sigurd hadn’t been home for months, and Eivor spent most of his time dotting around the map of this new land with barely any time to appreciate it. He missed how things were, and hung onto the hope that once everything had settled he would find himself surrounded by everyone he held dear.

“Ceolbert will need protection.” Randvi stated, picking at a loose thread of a blanket lay across the bed.

Eivor frowned. “Ceolwulf sent men, did he not?”

“No, I mean when he’s installed as ealdorman. He’ll need a personal guard.” She raised her brow, and Eivor caught onto her line of thinking.

“You think Leofrith should do it?” He asked, curious. It made sense; they knew each other, and Leofrith had experience in the area, as well as reputation.

Randvi shrugged. “Just an idea. Unless you had other...plans?” She smiled teasingly, and Eivor reached across the bed to slap her playfully.

“It’s a good idea. They would both have to agree to it, of course.”

“Of course. If either of them has objections, I’m sure we can find someone else suitable.”

There would be no objections, Eivor thought. It might be a trial at first, to rebuild the trust that had been lost between them; but Ceolbert needed men he could rely on to support him and keep him safe, and Leofrith would fulfill that roll easily. It would give him a purpose again, something to work at rather than wandering through England and wondering at what could have been.

“You like him.” Randvi said it simply, and Eivor thought she looked saddened by the idea; a tense subject for her in regards to him, he knew, and left it alone.

“I respect him. Without the curtain of conflict blocking my view of him, it’s easier to see our similarities over our differences.” Eivor saw Randvi’s answering smirk. “Yes, I like him. What’s going on with you and Ceolbert anyway?”

Randvi sighed. “He is so...small.” Eivor laughed. “I mean it! He’s small, and clever, and watching him walk among the people here, sharing stories and knowledge...Sigurd never wants to discuss children. The possibility of them.”

Eivor knew Sigurd’s thoughts on children, how he never lingered on the idea for too long and moved passed it quickly when it was brought up. It was only natural, then, for Randvi to follow both himself and Leofrith in wanting to protect Ceolbert, in feeling proud of him.

“You’re not alone, I assure you. The little aetheling just has a way about him, I think. I can’t imagine the pride and love Ceolwulf must feel for the boy as his father.”

Randvi nodded her agreement, and the two of them looked up when they heard someone approach. Ceolbert himself stood in the doorway, face red and hands shaking.

“I’m just going for a walk. Alone.” He said, and Eivor tensed. “I’m fine. It’s fine. I’m just...I need to be with my thoughts, that’s all.”

Eivor relaxed, understanding replacing dull panic. He nodded, but Ceolbert remained in place until Randvi smiled softly at him.

“Don’t stray too far, little one.” She said, and Ceolbert gave a small nod of his head and mirrored Randvi’s smile before turning from the room.

The little moment made something soften in Eivor’s chest. He decided to brave the war room, now that there was nothing to disturb, and motioned for Randvi to follow. He still had Lunden to report on.

Leofrith hadn’t moved, still knelt on the floor though he had managed to calm himself down, and he looked up in surprise when Eivor entered the room as if he had forgotten where he was. He pulled himself up, brushed off his knees and sniffled.

“All okay?” Eivor ventured gently, moving to stand close to the other man.

Leofrith huffed a laugh. “Yeah. Yeah, I think so. Caught me off guard.”

“I hadn’t expected him to be here. Soma said about Sciropescire and I had just assumed he was well on his way. I would have given you time.” Eivor explained, eyes drawn to the bruising around the man’s nose. It was hard to look anywhere else.

His words were waved away. “It’s fine. It’ll take time, but it’s fine.” He paused. “Stop looking at it like that.”

Eivor frowned, mock-serious. “It’s just so bad. Truly awful. It’s hard to look at you.”

Leofrith pushed at his shoulder. “Leave off.” He paused again, bit at his lip. “I…” A sigh. He glanced behind Eivor, where Randvi would be standing. “Thank you.”

It took a moment for the words to settle in Eivor’s mind, and when they did he found he had no suitable reply for them. Nothing clever to retort with. Only the feeling of...something swelling in his chest as he watched Leofrith’s face; the softness of his eyes, the slight upturn of his lips. So easy, Eivor thought. It would be so easy to just lean in.

“For what?” Eivor rasped out, quieter than he had intended.

“For not killing me. For giving me a second chance. For buying that stupid fucking horse.” He let out a breath, huffing a laugh. “Eivor.” He brought a large hand onto Eivor’s shoulder, close to the juncture of his neck, and squeezed. “Thank you.”

Eivor stood in stunned silence, resolutely ignoring Randvi’s gaze that was currently boring holes into his back, sending prickles of something resembling embarrassment. He wasn’t expecting this. Couldn’t even bask in the sound of his name in Leofrith’s mouth, too distracted as he was by the man’s hand at his shoulder, at his neck, thumbing gently at the skin bared there. He needed to move, to say something in return so all of them could move on and he could keep this moment locked away in his memory to be returned to on particularly lonely nights. He grasped for words, and found nothing. Instead he closed his eyes, brought his own hand up to Leofrith’s chest, where his heart was. Strong, steady. He patted dumbly a few times, and when he opened his eyes again it was to find Leofrith watching him with a small smile, eyes narrowed in easily recognisable fondness.

“Your welcome.” He found his voice, and moved away before he did something stupid.

Randvi cleared her throat, piling the papers she and Ceolbert had spread out back together again and moving them to the desk in the far corner and placing her little pieces back into position on the map. Eivor spared her only a glance, and returned his gaze to Leofrith.

“I’ll give Randvi my report on Lunden, and then I can show you around. If you want, of course.” He stumbled over the words, rubbing the back of his neck awkwardly.

Leofrith nodded. “Sounds good. Where did you want your stuff?”

“Oh, leave it, I’ll deal with it after. Dump yours with mine, I’ll be out in a second.” Eivor watched him go, and waited until he was out of sight before turning to face Randvi.

She was smiling, bright and teasing. Eivor cursed.

“Do you want to talk about it?” She asked, twiddling the pledge-knife between her hands.

“Absolutely not.” He replied easily, and set to work. “Lunden is with us.” He moved one of her little ravens over the city, setting it down with satisfaction. “And cleansed of The Order.”

There was a certain pride that came with being responsible for such deeds, not quite single-handedly but near enough.

Randvi allowed the change in subject. “Good. Hytham will be pleased. You should update him, when you’re finished with the tourist.” She let out a giggle, and Eivor rolled his eyes.

“I will. I’ll keep an eye for Ceolbert, too.” He assured her, and with that done his day opened up, full of potential and possibility.

Dwolfgr had returned, lazing in the longhouse's walkway. Leofrith stood over her, arms folded across his chest as Eivor watched his fear crumble.

"She won't harm you. She's a sheep in wolf's clothing." Eivor knelt beside her and stroked up and down her side, patting gently at her ribs as her tongue lolled out of her mouth.

Leofrith crouched next to him and placed a cautious hand on Dwolfgr's head, the wolf closing her eyes in contentment when he began rubbing gentle circles around her ears.

"Dwolfgr!" That was Knud, no doubt sent to retrieve the lost wolf. "Eivor!"

"Knud. Dwolfgr has had enough for today, I think. Leave her here and find something else to do." Eivor stood and twirled the boy around, giggling as he went, and pushed him back outside where he now saw Sylvi and Eira hiding in the bushes. "Are you all staying in the village?"

"No." Knud laughed. "Yesterday we went to Grantebridge, and the day before that we went to Jorvik!"

"Ah, runaways and liars! Won't your parents be proud!" Eivor laughed when the two girls jumped out of the bushes, all three of them screaming NO! in unison.

Dwolfgr startled at the noise, bounding past Eivor and jumping at the kids in play. She was huge compared to them and knocked them down easily, all of them giggling high and wild as she did. Eivor watched in amusement.

"Alright, come on. Up and away." He pulled the wolf off of them and shooed her back into the longhouse.

"Will you tell us about Lunden?" Sylvi brushed mud from her dress.

"Another time. Stay out of trouble." He moved past the trio, motioning for Leofrith to follow, and smiled at the annoyed little groans the kids made as they ran off to who knows where.

Eivor led the way to the back of the village, the longer way around the longhouse and past Octavius' little museum.

"Salve, Eivor!"

Eivor waved in greeting, but otherwise stayed silent. He was an odd fellow, and would talk for hours if you got him started. Harmless enough, Eivor knew, but he cared not for the Romans that had conquered this land long before his time, and it was apparently the only subject that held Octavius' interest. Eivor's attempts to steer the conversation to other things had been met with blank stares and uninterested nodding, so he had since given up trying.

"Interesting collection." Leofrith muttered beside him, angling his head to take in the various statues Octavius had gathered together.

"Octavius borders on obsessive, but he's nice enough." Eivor watched as the man observed his oddities, scribbling his inventory and preparing a restoration for a particularly damaged artefact.

It seemed to catch Leofrith's eye, the man slowing to a stop to watch as Octavius gently scraped away at moss and mildew covering what Eivor guessed was a...leg? Perhaps.

"Where did you find all this?" Leofrith asked, walking into the tiny courtyard and startling Octavius. Eivor groaned.

"Oh! Um." Octavius stuttered, nervous as Leofrith approached him and his work. "Just...around. I bought this piece off of a man in Ledecestre, who said he found it in an underwater cave!"

"Hm. How did he get it out?" Leofrith clasped his arms behind his back, and Eivor was accutely aware of the man's size when standing shoulder-to-shoulder with a man as slight as Octavius.

"I didn't ask."

"What is it?" Eivor was...surprised, to say the least. Leofrith didn't strike him as someone interested in art, or Roman artefacts, or anything really. He supposed that was an unfair assumption.

Octavius perked up, nervousness forgotten as he spoke. "I don't know! Isn't that exciting! I think it might be an image of one of their gods, but it's so eroded I can't tell. He could be a warrior, I guess." The two of them stared up at the ruined statue, and Eivor struggled to see what could be so interesting.

"Octavius, by the by." He said, and stuck out a hand.

"Leofrith." Eyes still cast on the statue, Leofrith shook the offered hand. "It's a fine collection."

Octavius preened under the praise, smiling brightly. "Thank you! You know, not everyone appreciates my work here; it's nice to finally meet someone with an eye for such beauty."

Eivor rolled his eyes. "Are you done?"

Leofrith faced him. "Hm?"

“Ravensthorpe has more to offer, I assure you.” Eivor stated. “Octavius, lovely to see you as always, but we must be going.”

Octavius paid Eivor little mind, waving him away with muttered words too quiet to make out as he returned to his work. “Nice to meet you.” He said to Leofrith, and sent Eivor a look he couldn’t decipher before turning away.

“That was rude.” Leofrith said, eyes still firmly locked on the statue before him.

Eivor laughed. “Wait until you’ve known the man for almost a year. It’s very hard to offend him in any way at all.”

“There’s no excuse for rudeness.” Leofrith caught his eye, and Eivor sighed.

“Fine. I’ll make sure to pick him up a mysterious Roman artefact from the Sciropescire heartlands to make up for it.” He spread his hands before him to emphasise the point, smiling when Leofrith rolled his eyes, and hummed, gesturing for Eivor to lead the way.

Ravensthorpe opened up beautifully to Eivor; her citizens all pleased to see him with excited greetings and friendly waves, the buildings and tents familiar to him in a way that sat perfectly in his chest. They took to Leofrith in varying degrees of distrust; most of the people seemed happy enough by virtue of the fact that Eivor himself was on good terms with him, but others were less swayed. It would take time, Eivor supposed, but even then it wouldn’t matter at all should Leofrith decide to stay in Sciropescire with Ceolbert. The thought left an odd feeling, not quite but not exactly...happy, either.

They circled the entirety of the hamlet, stopping just short of the docks by Arth and his grandfather’s little fishing shop. The boy tried to seem uninterested by their presence, and Eivor didn’t press. Ceolbert had returned a while ago, milling around the docks and chatting away to Eydis who seemed happy enough to humour the lad.

“And that’s it.” He said, sitting himself on the stairs to the fishing hut and watching Leofrith, the man looking out over the docks and the river beyond, small as their little pocket of water was.

“They love you.” Leofrith spoke softly, hands clasped at his back. Eivor was helpless to admire him in the golden glow of the sun.

“I helped Sigurd bring them all together. They’re here because of us.” Eivor said simply.

Leofrith shook his head, inclined his body just so he could glance back at Eivor. “They’re here because of you. They all know you, and you know them. Burgred would have killed for such easy respect.”

It was dangerous ground. Eivor knew, on some level, that Leofrith was right. Sigurd was out securing allies and forging relationships all aross England, but Eivor alone had led his brother’s men in gathering resources and building a city from the ground up, ensuring the people here felt safe and welcome no matter which corner of the country they had travelled from. Eivor trid not to dwell on those thoughts for very long at any one time; he was far from power hungry, and not as greedy and grabbing as Dag apparently thought of him, but there was something to be said for being almost solely responsible for the success of a budding town.

“I’m just one man. It takes a village to, well…” He trailed off, sitting up straighter when Leofrith came to sit next to him, close but not quite touching.

“Are you not proud?” He asked, and Eivor smirked.

“I thought pride was a sin.” He closed the gap between them with a gentle nudge to Leofrith’s shoulder, the man huffing good-naturedly.

“What isn’t these days.” And if Eivor thought he heard resentment there, he let it pass without comment. “You didn’t answer my question.”

Eivor groaned. “I...Yes. I am proud. But I’m afraid they’ll begin to look to me for leadership. I am not their jarl.” In all but name, Eivor didn’t say. Sigurd was still alive, still trying to secure their place in this world. He would not betray his brother for a title. When Sigurd returned, everything would be easier.

“Acting jarl, though. In your brother’s absence. Someone must shoulder the burden while the king is away.” Leofrith said, leaning back on the stairs with his elbows.

Eivor only hummed; he didn’t want to continue this conversation, to bring to the surface feelings he refused to acknowledge. He said nothing, and was glad when Leofrith appeared to get the hint. He closed his eyes, breathed in the damp river air, and allowed his shoulders to slump in something akin to relaxation. If such a thing were possible, he would stay here. He would stay, and let someone else shoulder the burden in Sigurd’s place. It was a selfish thought, and guiltily something he thought of often, if only in the privacy of his own company; when the road grew too wet, or too warm, too full of aches and pains that never healed quite right. Too lonely. He opened his eyes, risked looking over at Leofrith and felt a tug at his heart as he watched the sun’s settling glow catch in his hair, creating a divine illusion not at all dimmed by the savage bruising of his face. How strange, he thought, that the Fates should bring them together again, that their threads should entwine in such a way. That he should look upon this man and feel no hatred or anger, only warm contentment and something tender — aching.

“Ceolbert needs protection.” He said, and felt a passing sense of guilt when Leofrith tensed up only slightly before catching himself.

“He does. Has Ceolwulf not sent guards?” Painfully casual, but Eivor knows the emotions he’s trying to hide.

“He has, Randvi assures me. But that’s not what I mean.” Leofrith turned his head, eyes meeting Eivor as he nodded for him to continue. “When he’s installed as ealdorman of Sciropescire, he’ll need guards. His own men, people he can trust to have no hidden agenda, not even his father’s.”

He knew Leofrith had parsed his meaning, head falling in what Eivor thought might be shame, or maybe self-pity would be closer to the mark. “I…”

The soft approach, then. “Ceolbert trusts you. Maybe not fully, not as he once did, but he will. You have lost nothing important that cannot be won back in time.” He shifted closer, grasping Leofrith’s arm closest to him. “And there will be time.”

Leofrith said nothing for a while and Eivor dreaded to think about the darkness of his thoughts, the things he would have to work through to get back to where he was before life had thrown him for a loop. Eivor didn’t envy him. “I have too much to atone for in his eyes.”

“You say that as if you know his mind. He forgave you for your actions, now you must work on rebuilding whatever friendship had existed beforehand. Don’t make it difficult where it is actually quite simple, Leofrith.” He said, unable to stop the sternness of his voice but trying his best to soften the words as much as he could.

Leofrith sighed and stretched his legs out in front of him, reminding Eivor of the sheer size of the man. “I hate it when people tell me how much of a fool I’m being.” He said, resigned.

Eivor croaked out a laugh, eyes trailing up the length of Leofrith’s legs. “Oh, you’re going to hate being friends with me then.”

“Is that what we are? Friends?” And, gods, Eivor hated how small Leofrith sounded, how entirely unlike himself. Whatever he and Burgred had been, and Eivor doubted it was anything even resembling friendship, the man’s betrayal had done a number on him.

“I think so.” Eivor told him. “Will you come to Sciropescire with us? I have to warn you, though; Ivarr Ragnarsson will be there.”

“Asking me to dig my own grave in that case.”

Eivor stretched out a leg, kicked softly at Leofrith’s. “Stop. He won’t lay a finger on you. He might want to, he will want to, but he won’t. Ceolbert won’t allow it.” A pause. “I won’t allow it.” A thrill went through him as he said the words, the idea that someone such as Leofrith would ever need Eivor to protect him seemed laughable; but Eivor hadn’t forgotten the damage Ivarr had wrought upon the man’s shoulder, the scar that he had no doubt left there.

Leofrith nodded his assent, his understanding. “I’ll come, if only to see the shock on that bastard’s face when I show up as your ally.” He smirked, an expression at once both gentle and wicked. “As your friend.” And Eivor relished in the smugness evident in his voice.

______

They left for Sciropescire the following day, Ceolbert eager to reach Quatford and get to work. It was nice to see, Eivor thought; the kid was determined and optimistic, qualities that Eivor desperately hoped wouldn’t dim with the weight of leadership, with responsibility. He watched as the lad mounted his horse, back straight and head held high, and marveled at the sight of him. He had never thought of having his own children, had never really lingered on the idea of even settling down, but in that moment he felt he’d missed out on something. What must it feel like? To look upon a whole person, all their faults and graces, and know you had a hand in their becoming, to feel pride when they did something spectacular or even something so simple as to smile softly, to feel their sorrow as if it were your own. Such a gift that would be.

Or perhaps not. He had no way of knowing one way or the other, but he couldn’t deny the longing for something he couldn’t name as he watched the little aetheling lean over in his saddle to Leofrith, sat astride his own horse and fiddling with the reins, laughing at whatever Ceolbert had said to him.

Such an unremarkable sight, in the grand scheme, and yet it lifted something in Eivor’s chest and stomach so easily.

“I’ll return in a few months, I expect.” Eivor said to Randvi, who had come to see them off.

“A few months?” She asked, frowning at him.

“I intend to stay a while, afterwards. I want to see Ceolbert settle properly, help him where I can and ensure he’s safe.” It would be rocky for a while, he knew. Hopefully whatever troubles had arisen could be solved quickly and with as little blood as possible, but Eivor knew that was a hollow hope.

“Hm.” Randvi said nothing, and Eivor tried not to think about how lonely she got, left behind all the time as she was. It stung, if he thought on it too hard, but it couldn’t be helped. “Tell him to write to me, when he can. I know he’ll have far more important things to do, but…”

Eivor brought her into his arms easily, held her close. “He won’t forget you, have no fear of that. I’ll send word as soon as I can.” He promised, and smiled when they pulled back from each other.

“Thank you. Take care, all of you.” He let her hold his hand tightly for a moment before joining his companions and mounting his own horse.

A week, perhaps less, and they would be in Quatford, surrounded on all sides by enemies and friends of circumstance. Ceolbert would have his guards, at least, should Eivor have to be parted from him for any stretch of time. He would have Leofrith, too, and that eased the tension in Eivor’s shoulders at least a little.

Eivor followed closely behind Ceolbert, who had excitedly asked if he could lead their party for at least a while through familiar country. “Ready?” He asked the lad, earning a bright smile that was almost enough for Eivor to forget this was the heir to the kingdom of Mercia and not just a simple kid.

“I hope so.” Ceolbert replied honestly, his smile faltering only slightly.

“It’ll be fine.” Eivor assured him. “There’ll be others waiting for our arrival, so your support system will only grow. You remember Ivarr, I assume?”

Ceolbert perked up at the name. “Yes! It’ll be good to see him again, though I admit he frightens me some.” Not an ounce of shame in that admission, and Eivor’s respect for the kid increased.

“He frightens most people he meets.” Eivor assured him, and grinned when he looked over at Leofrith, his own proud smile plastered to his face. “Most people.” Eivor repeated.

It shouldn’t be too much trouble, Eivor thought. He would keep Ivarr and Leofrith apart as much as possible, and act as a buffer when they would have to be near one another; nothing good would come of any kind of infighting, especially in such precarious circumstances. He thought Leofrith at least would manage to control himself for Ceolbert’s sake, but Ivarr was unpredictable and volatile at the best of times. No. It would be fine. It had to be. Eivor wouldn’t let it be anything else.

Until they arrived in Quatford, he would simply enjoy the journey for what it was, and bask in the time he would spend with Ceolbert and Leofrith as friends and equals. That, Eivor smiled softly to himself, would be as easy as breathing, and he followed where they led him out of Ravensthorpe and back into the wild country.

Chapter Text

They reached Quatford in just over a week, owing to England's propensity to rain whenever it felt like it; hard and heavy and often stopping their journey in its tracks. Eivor didn't mind so much, but the constant dampness that stuck around as a result of it was an annoyance. Sciropescire had a wildness to it that Eivor hadn't felt in the parts of England he had visited so far; so much vast and open space, wide valleys and peaking mountains. It reminded him of home. Except it was hot; almost swelteringly so when paired with his furs.

Ivarr and a few of his men had arrived before them, joined by a small group of Ceolwulf's men. They had clearly made themselves at home, inhabiting the longhouse and loitering about the village.

"I can't imagine Ivarr is very happy with this arrangement." Ceolbert commented as they dismounted, his small selection of guards dispersing quickly to join the ranks of those already here.

Eivor nodded. "I struggle to believe the captain here has managed to temper him at all." He listened, but heard nothing suspicious. "Let's just get to the longhouse, and figure out our next move."

They approached the longhouse when Eivor had a thought.

"Perhaps you should wait out here." He turned to Leofrith, who seemed ready to argue for all of a second before sense took over.

"If you're sure." Was all he said, offering a reassuring smile when Eivor didn't immediately continue walking onward.

The longhouse loomed over himself and Ceolbert, and if Eivor listened closely he found he could hear the sounds of a scuffle from within; the crack of something hitting hardwood, grunting and groaning echoing in the space.

"Ivarr!" He shouted when he breached the entrance, already exhausted by the conversation and the man's presence.

Ivarr paid him no mind, engaged as he was with Ceolwulf's captain; the both of them breathing harshly as they grappled and fought. The captain was a bigger man than Ivarr, tall and strong as soldiers tended to be where Ivarr was lithe and quick; it helped him gain the upper hand somewhat, but Ivarr was nothing if not relentless. He kicked a leg out, knocking the captain down to his knees and following it with a swift blow to the back of his head. The captain crumpled to the ground, falling hard and groaning where Ivarr only cackled darkly. Eivor forgot how wild the man was.

"You soldiers and your honour!" Ivarr laughed. "Be fierce. Dirty. Strike at my balls! That is how you win."

The captain ignored him, crawling upright until he was sat up. Ivarr leant him a hand.

"Miserable little man." The captain muttered, but Eivor still saw the man smile. Another one. How wonderful. With any luck, this would be the extent of their interactions.

"Ivarr." Eivor repeated, closer to the pair of them now.

This time Ivarr heard him, turning to face him, and Eivor suppressed a shiver at his cold gaze. "Eivor. And Ceolbert!"

Ceolbert let himself be pulled into an embrace, laughing when Ivarr lifted him from the ground. "Ivarr. It's good to see you again."

"You received Ceolwulf's message, then?" The captain asked, wiping a hand across his bloodied face. Eivor cringed at the sight.

He was not a handsome man by any means; older than Eivor by many years, hair white and thinning where it curled around his face, his nose had suffered numerous breaks throughout his life and sat gnarled and bony against his pale face and sunken eyes. But there was a strength to him, Eivor saw, hidden behind his mail and leather. Appearances could be deceiving, and this seemed like a man able to use that to his advantage.

"We did." Eivor replied, and held out a hand. "I don't think I've had the pleasure. Eivor."

The captain reached out easily, grip firm and gaze unwavering. "I know who you are. Call me Beortric."

"Well met." Eivor said, and turned his attention back to Ivarr. "How is the situation?"

Ivarr only laughed, folding his arms across his chest as he regarded both Eivor and Ceolbert. "Shit. If you ask me, this is all worthless. All this talk of peace and harmony."

"We didn't ask you." Beortric stated, and Eivor was surprised when Ivarr only rolled his eyes at the man, rather than driving a knife through his stomach.

Ivarr continued. "Rhodri is desperate for peace. He and his wife have arrived to personally discuss the matter."

Ceolbert looked at Ivarr in surprise. "Rhodri? King Rhodri?"

"Yes, aetheling, you are to speak to the King of Britons himself! We keep his brother Gwriad, for what little he is worth."

Eivor ran the information through his mind. He had only heard of Rhodri recently, and vaguely. The man was a king, he would want what was best for his people. At least that was the hope. "Who speaks for Sciropescire in these talks?"

Beortric spoke up. "The last ealdorman was killed in battle. Bishop Deorlaf is standing in."

"Until we get this wet whelp installed!" Ivarr said. "That is his father's wish, is it not?"

Ceolbert seemed unsure. It had come up often on the journey from Ravensthorpe; he was unprepared, he was nervous, he lacked experience. Eivor had heard them all, every little insecurity that kept Ceolbert awake when they would settle in the evening.

The lad's voice was uncharacteristically small when he spoke. "I find the idea of leading a shire on my own quite...quite terrifying."

Eivor took a step towards him, letting a reassuring hand find the boy’s shoulder. “It is a grave thing to be ealdorman in a time of war, Ceolbert, but know you are well supported. All who are here, are here for you.”

Ceolbert smiled, small and thankful, and Eivor knew there was nothing he would not do for him.

Ivarr let loose another cackle, the sound grating against Eivor’s ears unpleasantly. “He will piss his pants first thing, that’s for certain.”

Eivor ignored him, and ignored the pang in his chest when Ceolbert’s face fell slightly at the other man’s words. He respected Ivarr, Eivor knew well enough, and felt some kind of friendship towards him. It was a shame Ivarr Ragnarsson had no friends. Eivor focused on Ceolbert.

“As future ealdorman, you should speak in the talks as well, let your voice be heard. Speak carefully, and with humility. Rhodri is a king, and will expect to be treated as one.”

Both Ivarr and Beortric laughed at that, the two of them giggling like children. Eivor despaired at their presence.

Beortric cleared his throat. “Rhodri is a jumped up man with delusions of grandeur and dragons. He will demand we fall to our knees and sniff the rosy wind blowing from his ass.” He said, Ivarr laughing and nodding his head in agreement. Eivor wrinkled his nose in distaste.

“I know the man, Eivor; fought him, felt the sting of his sword against my face.” He waved to the nasty scar that ran from forehead to chin, and a vicious grin curled his lips. “Maybe I can give him one back. Remind him some call me King Killer.”

Eivor shook his head. “No. No. Maybe you should stay here, Ivarr. This is a summit for peace between all parties, not an excuse to enact mindless vengeance.”

“I want you both there!” Ceolbert interrupted, and Eivor sighed. “To guide me, to judge my fitnes.”

It would have been better for all of them, Eivor thought, if Ivarr had stayed away from this all together. His presence would only cause trouble, sooner or later, and Eivor knew his type of trouble always ended with death and bloodshed. It didn’t bode well for a parlay for peace.

“I need your word, Ivarr, that your blade will stay sheathed. For Ceolbert’s sake, as well as everyone else’s.” Eivor didn’t beg, and didn’t delude himself that Ivarr would obey, but he hoped that the man might at least try, and might feel some kind of friendship for Ceolbert. Enough to want to see him succeed.

Ivarr only huffed, and whatever hope Eivor had for him crumbled in the wind. “Eivor, please, don’t make me laugh! We both know what my word is worth. But...sure, I will let you do the talking. Probably.”

That would have to be enough for now. Ceolbert looked pleased, at least, though Eivor recognised the resigned look in his eyes. “To the church, then?” He asked, and gave no time for reply as he brushed past Eivor.

Eivor followed dutifully, blinking in the harsh sunlight, and had only a moment to recall Leofrith was present before Ivarr spat viciously behind him.

“Oh, you are fucking kidding me!”

Shit. Eivor turned, a hand stretched out in a vain attempt to calm Ivarr before he did anything rash. “He’s with us, Ivarr.”

If anything, the knowledge only spurred him on. “This shit? Eivor, you stupid bastard!”

Ivarr stalked forward, axe in hand as he pushed past both Eivor and Ceolbert to approach where Leofrith stood, unsheathing his own sword. They weren’t even at the fucking church yet, and Eivor groaned as the two men met in a clash of weapons.

“Ivarr, stop!” Ceolbert shouted, uselessly as he was ignored. “Eivor, do something!”

The sound of steel on steel rang out in the air, the pair of them garnering a growing audience as they fought. Eivor watched them for a moment, allowing Ivarr this small opportunity to blow off steam. It might temper him somewhat, when they come to meet with Rhodri at the church. It crossed a line when Ivarr caught Leofrith’s nose with a heavy fist, sending the man stumbling backwards and a fresh line of blood trickling from his nostrils. Eivor sighed. It had been healing so well.

“Enough!” He bellowed as he approached them, catching Ivarr off-guard and grabbing him, pulling him back and away. “Ivarr. Enough.”

Ivarr sneered, teeth bared. “You fucking traitor!” He hissed at Eivor.

Eivor pushed the man back when he made to slide past him, keeping an arm outstretched in warning. He felt Leofrith at his back, warm and heavy and shrouded in anger. Eivor glanced back at him, turning his body to fully face the man. “We don’t have time for this.” He said, and put a steadying hand on his chest.

Leofrith only looked at him, brow drawn down in anger as he licked absently at the blood dribbling over his lips. Eivor tried not to follow the motion. “Fine.” Leofrith huffed, and sheathed his sword.

Eivor pushed at him lightly and let his hand fall from his chest, turning on Ivarr.

“You are fucking unbelievable, Wolf-Kissed.” Ivarr spat. “First you let him live and now you’re...what? Friends? Eivor. Come on.”

“Put away your weapon, Ivarr. It’s done.” Eivor said simply, quietly, earning him only a raspy laugh as Ivarr eventually relented.

Ceolbert spared Ivarr a glance as he made his way over to Leofrith and offered a cloth.

“Why would you bring him here?” Ivarr asked, crowding into Eivor’s space and pointing an accusing finger at him.

“Ceolbert needs all the support he can get, and Leofrith is well versed in political matters, as well as the battlefield. You don’t have to talk to him, or even acknowledge his presence any further, but you will not show him your blade again. Am I understood?”

Ivarr regarded him with fierce eyes, unblinking and cold as a grizzly smirk curled his lip. He croaked out a laugh. “Are you fucking him?”

“Ivarr.” Eivor brought himself up to his full height, only slightly larger than Ivarr, but he knew the kind of figure he cut in full armour, and any battle between them would be close enough that he hoped Ivarr wouldn’t risk it.

He received no answer; Ivarr only hummed as he passed Eivor, pulling Ceolbert away from Leofrith and heading towards the church. It didn’t matter; his promises wouldn’t have soothed Eivor’s mind, and tensions were high enough as is. Eivor looked to Leofrith.

He wiped at his nose with the cloth Ceolbert had given him, mopping up the blood and wincing each time he swiped too close to where the injury had been disturbed. It would bruise anew, no doubt, though likely not as harsh as before. Eivor joined him as they followed the other two at a distance.

“Does he have to be here?” Leofrith asked, sniffling, throwing his head back quickly and spitting out a glob of blood.

“No. But he is, and you’ll just have to deal with it.” Eivor stated, and didn’t miss the annoyed grumble it earned him. He smiled. “Just don’t get in his way.”

“Yes, that worked so well the first time.”

“And it would have gotten it out of his system. His fury will no doubt be directed at Rhodri from now on, so all you need worry about is Ceolbert. Leave Ivarr to me.” Eivor assured him, satisfied when Leofrith nodded.

“Are you certain this will work out?” Leofrith asked, curious.

Eivor shrugged. “Ivarr is only one man, and aside from him everyone present will want to broker some sort of peace between Sciropescire and the Britons. All we have to do is usher them towards that.” Easier said than done, he knew.

“It won’t be easy.” Leofrith replied, and Eivor smiled.

“No. But we can try.”

The church was a small building, not as grand as some others Eivor had seen on his travels, but still something to behold. Men of all colours stood around outside; Saxons and Britons, a few of Ivarr’s warriors. Eivor steeled himself and entered, catching the last of whatever conversation had taken place.

Two men stood before who Eivor assumed was Bishop Deorlaf as he spoke. “The king’s brother is–”

“The king’s brother is a moldering sack of cow dung!” Ivarr bellowed out as he sauntered up to the gathering, Ceolbert trailing behind him.

Eivor grit his teeth.

“You.” The larger of the two men Eivor didn’t recognise said, gaze hot with anger as he took in Ivarr. “I know your face, your stench, Ivarr. The one they call Boneless. Did I not gift you that scar myself?” Ah. So this was the venerable King Rhodri.

“Ah!” Ivarr laughed. “And I mean to gift you a gash, you reeking piss pot. In your fat fucking skull!”

Eivor took the chance, stepped in between the two of them with only a slight fear for his safety. This was supposed to be a peace summit. “Hold!” He pushed Ivarr back slightly. “Both of you.” He levelled them both with a searching look. “We are here to smooth a path to peace. Can you not control your grudges for such a cause?”

Ivarr waved him away. “Not with this bag of Briton slop!”

Rhodri folded large arms over a broad chest. “On that, we are agreed!”

Eivor lamented. He caught Bishop Deorlaf’s eyes, and while the man certainly seemed uncomfortable and way in over his head, there was a measured resolve there. A stillness to him that spoke of years of dealing with such antagonising behaviour; the life of a man of God, Eivor supposed.

“Now, now.” The Bishop spoke, loud enough to be heard but still soft to the ears. “Calm, everyone. Good faith is all I ask.”

A hush fell over the room. Rhodri turned on the Bishop with heavy intensity.

“You know my demands. Until my brother Gwriad walks free, peace between us is impossible.”

Eivor groaned and fell back from the group, let them argue amongst themselves as he ran through his options. The easiest thing would be to release Gwriad, allow him to return to his brother and then come to an arrangement afterwards that would result in peace. Eivor didn’t see that working out too well, not with Ivarr present.

“This is going so well.” Leofrith said, and Eivor rolled his eyes.

“No ideas, then?” He asked.

Leofrith sighed. “Freeing his brother is the obvious solution. But how well would that go down with your friend there?” He said, and Eivor had only a moment to marvel at being so well understood before Rhodri was moving to unsheathe his sword.

His wife leapt to action. “Husband, no!”

Deorlaf raised his voice only slightly, surprising Eivor when everyone listened. “Enough! This is a house of God! Let us take a few minutes to gather ourselves, shall we?” His gaze fell to where Eivor and Leofrith stood. “You two, with me.”

The group separated into their own factions, the room thick with tension and unresolved anger. Eivor went easily, followed closely by Leofrith. If the Bishop had ideas, he was all ears. There must be something to bring them together, to broker long sought after peace.

“You seem...steady heads. Slow to anger, at least. We could do with more people like that in times such as these.”

Eivor huffed a humourless laugh at that. “It may be too late, Bishop. I see the crows of war gathering.”

He glanced around the room, took in the people present; distrustful, wary of each other in a way that spoke of long years of battle and betrayal. It would be a difficult wound to sew.

Deorlaf nodded his agreement. “I have a...hefty sum of silver.” He said, and Eivor’s interest was piqued. “Everyone has a price, Eivor. Speak to the people here, discover what theirs is, and if its weight will help bring us closer to peace, offer it to them.”

It wasn’t...entirely crazy. Silver held power, and war was an expensive endeavour. Eivor thought of the people, and knew almost immediately who would best take the gift for what it was.

He approached Angharad, friendly yet cautious. “I apologise for my husband. He is...under a lot of stress at the moment.” She offered him a small smile.

“As we all are. Ivarr will not give up a hostage so easily, you understand. As long as we have Gwriad, we remain at a stalemate.”

She sighed, world weary. “It’s not only that. This war has drained our coffers, left us with next to nothing. He’s worried our people may rebel when they learn of just how much we have poured into it.”

“I have...a sum of silver. Would it sway Rhodri some, to know his coffers are refilled to be better spent on infrastructure, food supplies?” Eivor probed, watching as her face fell in defeat and relief.

“It would. It would.” She nodded, and he said no more as he handed her the satchel.

Eivor felt confident in his choice; of all those gathered here, Angharad appeared to be the most levelheaded, determined to sway her husband towards peace with or without the presence of his brother. He doubted silver would be enough, but he allowed himself a small sliver of hope. He made his way back to Deorlaf, feeling almost good about everything. A mistake, in hindsight.

He had barely opened his mouth before Ivarr’s raspy, angry voice filled the church.

“Rhodri, I see you mocking me!” Ivarr bellowed, storming across to where the king was standing. “I challenge you! Single combat, now!”

Eivor grabbed Ivarr by the waist, holding him as tight as he could in a desperate attempt to keep him from making a stupid, impulsive move that would end in bloodshed. Ivarr struggled against him, Deorlaf lending his words to try and calm him down.

Rhodri only laughed, though there was no humour in his voice as he spoke. “Boneless Ivarr. Spineless, toothless, gutless. You cannot kill me!” He dared a step forward, bringing a fist to his chest in defiance. “A dragon will be my death; as my seers have foretold.”

A dragon. As if such a creature existed. What had his seers seen, Eivor wondered, and had they only parroted words someone else had wanted the king to hear. Ivarr had managed to pull himself free of Eivor’s grip, making no move to attack Rhodri. That was progress, at least.

Ivarr snarled at the king. “And your brother?” He asked, the question settling over the church like a stone at the bottom of a lake. Eivor bristled. “Does your destiny guard him?”

The moments following seemed to pass by in a haze; quick as a hare yet suspended in time, Eivor watched as the people around him moved as if following the steps to some macabre dance. Ivarr turned on his heels, bringing a knife to Gwriad’s throat and sparing the man no hesitation, no mercy, before driving the blade into his flesh and pushing him to the floor to die; blood staining his God’s house. Eivor heard someone shout, the scuffle of boots on stone as everyone appeared to move as one.

“By God Almighty, I’ll–” Rhodri stalked forward, eyes dark like a storm.

Eivor watched as his captain called out, the sound like a blur in his head as his mind struggled to catch up to the world around him. Quickly, Rhodri was escorted out alongside his wife, and the next thing Eivor knew was the song of steel clashing, and the scent of blood.

“Shit.” Eivor muttered, narrowly missing a spearhead to the thigh.

It was over in an instant, the four of them far more skilled than any of their opponents. Eivor for once took no pleasure in battle, felt no manic pulse of energy in the clenched balls of his fists where they wrapped around his axe and shield. They dispatched Rhodri's men easily, and Eivor came to stand over where Gwriad had fallen.

“What a waste.” He heard Leofrith come up behind him, spit the words into the air. “Now what, O’ Wise One?”

Eivor rolled his eyes, and ignored the bite to the words, the sting it left. “I don’t know.” He grit his teeth.

Ivarr bounced before him; not a drop of blood on him, but eyes wild and large with what Eivor knew was his own brand of insanity. “Now that is vikingr diplomacy!” He cried. “Show the fuckers who the real warriors are!”

What a shame that it had to be Ivarr here, and not Ubbe instead. At least he would have given peace a chance. Ivarr allowed for no such prospects, if merely his presence could escalate things so easily, so brutally. Eivor wanted to punch the smug look off of his face.

“Ivarr!” Ceolbert rounded on the man, small and brave. “You have scuppered the peace!”

“Do not be fooled by peace, boy. It is just an empty voice between axe blows.”

He believed that, Eivor knew. To Ivarr, peace had never been an option; would never be a state in which he could survive and still remain himself, either through his own will or the gods’. Eivor felt the viciousness of hate surge through his veins at the sight of him.

“Dear Lord, this is a massacre.” Deorlaf wasn’t quite sobbing, but it was a near thing.

His eyes were fixed on the bodies littering his church, the blood staining the stone and the carpets, climbing up the walls. His God was a peaceful one, it would seem.

“We have no choice now.” Eivor rasped out, throat working thickly against him, tongue heavy in his mouth. “We have to fight our way out.”

“Ah! A good test for you, boy!” Ivarr slapped a hand to Ceolbert’s arm, face alight and blind to the atmosphere of the room. Blind or uncaring.

Eivor’s heart fell at Ceolbert’s expression; the shame that lay there behind watery eyes. Ivarr’s attitude wore them all, but perhaps none more so than Ceolbert, who Eivor knew looked at the older man with something similar to admiration. The battlefield scared the lad, as it should, but Ivarr was determined to chase the fear away. Eivor wouldn’t let that happen.

“He’s going to get Ceolbert killed.” Leofrith gritted out, the pair of them watching as Ivarr and Ceolbert made their way to the heavy wooden door.

Eivor shook his head. “Ivarr isn’t stupid. Wreckless and impulsive, but clever. Ceolbert will be safe so long as he stays by Ivarr’s side.” The same way the safest part of the storm was its center.

Leofrith looked down at Eivor, eyes hard. “If anything happens to him, I’ll kill that man.”

“And I’ll be right beside you.” Eivor promised. “But right now, we need to focus on making it out of here.”

The Britons outside far outnumbered them; covering Quatford in a sickly green shroud that moved as a wave. Ivarr moved through them with grace, a smooth beauty that Eivor wouldn’t associate with the man on any other occasion. He was a good fighter, one of the best. He kept Ceolbert close, always ensuring the lad was within his line of sight and laughing maniacally at his every kill in a sick imitation of fatherly pride. Eivor joined the fray reluctantly, keeping the peace they were chasing at the forefront of his mind. Every cut he made, each death he tallied, brought them closer to their goal. Through shadow to the light.

He fought swiftly and paid little mind to the foes he left in the mud, the stinging pain left behind when a sword sailed past his face, catching the skin of his forehead as the man wielding it twisted and fell to the floor. Eivor buried his axe in the man’s skull, stopping his struggling. The sun bore down on them; glinting off of armor and blinding Eivor. He wiped the blood from his eyes, and breathed a sigh of relief when he realised the battle was won. He watched Ivarr attempt to bring Ceolbert into a hug only for the boy to shrug him off and stride away to where Eivor stood.

“Are you okay?” Ceolbert asked, and Eivor smiled at the concern.

“Just a scratch. You?” Eivor watched as he patted himself down.

Ceolbert winced slightly when his hand brushed over his hip. “Bruised, but other than that I think I’m okay.” He paused. “I hope we don’t have to fight again.”

No chance of that. War had been incited and so it would continue. As it had done for years already. A vicious cycle with only the smallest hope of ending, but as Eivor watched Ceolbert mutter a small prayer to the sky for those fallen today, he knew it was possible.

“Sometimes,” Eivor started, placing a gentle hand on Ceolbert’s shoulder and prompting the boy to look at him. “Sometimes the things you want can only be gained by fighting for them. Peace here will be hard won; we knew that long before we even arrived, and I can’t promise that today will be the last of the battles. But if fighting is what it takes to win your position, then fight you must. Just don’t forget your goal. Peace, and long years of prosperity. No death will be in vain so long as you hold onto that.” Not his best speech, but the scratch to his head was beginning to throb.

“Thank you. You have no idea what it means that you came with me.” Ceolbert lifted a hand and squeezed Eivor’s arm once, twice, and then brushed past him into the church where Deorlaf was waiting for them.

“That’s a mean looking gash.” Eivor huffed a laugh.

Leofrith smirked at him, coming to stand by Eivor’s side; sword sheathed and hair damp with sweat. His colour was high, cheeks brushed red in the heat of the sun, and Eivor relished in the sight.

“Only a scratch.” He said, and closed his eyes briefly when Leofrith raised a hand to wipe at the blood marking his forehead.

“For one so good at fighting, you’d think you’d be better at defending yourself.” Leofrith chuckled, and Eivor opened his eyes.

The road between Ravensthorpe and Quatford had allowed the bruising around Leofrith’s nose to clear up nicely. Though Ivarr’s punch from earlier had angered it slightly, the swelling had gone down and the surrounding skin almost matched the shade of the rest of his face, if a little darker still. Leofrith looked more like himself. Handsome. Not that anything could dim that fact, not even a brutal facial injury. Eivor bit down on his tongue lest it run away from him.

“You beast!” Eivor heard Deorlaf, voice loud enough to carry from the church. He braced himself, and motioned for Leofrith to follow him. “Our one chance at peace is lost.”

Bishop Deorlaf had struck Eivor as a sturdy and stout man, but all he saw before him was a quivering shell. How quickly these men of God cowered.

Ivarr tutted, crossing his arms across his chest and sending only a cursory glance to Eivor as he arrived within the church. “Peace with Rhodri is as likely as you dying a virgin, good bishop. He is too canny. Too vile.”

On that, Eivor had to agree. He had hoped the king would be easy to sway, but he was as headstrong and violent as Ivarr himself. Putting the two of them near each other would lead down the same path every time.

Eivor sighed. “Ivarr has a point.” He admitted, feeling his stomach lurch at the look Ivarr sent him as a result. “Rhodri showed us nothing but contempt.”

“We had his brother hostage.” Ceolbert interrupted him, voice strong yet uncertain.

“It happens in war. If he wanted his brother back alive, he would have been more inclined to reach a treaty with us.” Eivor replied easily, biting back any further remark he may have aimed at Ivarr. “What’s done is done. The Britons will be regrouping, recovering from today. We must make our move before they are able to make theirs.” He ran a hand over his face and winced only slightly when he caught the cut on his head.

Deorlaf nodded. “They’ll fall back to their castle, for certain. Its walls are high, and Rhodri knows to attempt an attack head-on would be fruitless.”

Ivarr clapped his hands together, loud enough to make almost everyone jump. Leofrith rolled his eyes, and Eivor forced himself to remain silent. “We shall starve them out, then. Burn their supplies.” Here his lips curled into his trademark smirk. “Watch them beg for death.”

“And how many more people will die in the process? Innocents, people caught in the crossfire? Families. More war. More death. For a peace we don’t even know can be achieved here.” Ceolbert didn’t raise his voice often; Eivor had never heard it, but he had spoken to Ceolwulf enough to know the boy could shout when it was required of him. It was different to hear it in person, however.

Eivor opened his mouth to speak, to offer some reassurance and smooth his conscience, only to be cut off when Leofrith offered it instead. “This is war, Ceolbert. The Britons here have a strong grip, and with the king’s brother dead their desire for an all out battle will only grow. We have to weaken them first, and this is the only way we are able to do so.” Leofrith stepped forward, ignoring the murderous look Ivarr sent him. “People will die. They always do. If you are to be ealdorman, you need to learn to carry that burden because this will not be the last war you fight.”

“Then perhaps I should not be ealdorman.” Ceolbert said, so quiet when compared to his outburst. “If this is what it feels like, maybe I’m not as prepared as I thought I was. Maybe I need more time.” He hung his head, hands loose at his sides. “Or...maybe I’ll never be ready.”

Ivarr scoffed. “Please. These are the fears of a little boy living in his father’s shadow. You are a man, Ceolbert! And when your people look to you for guidance, will you cower before their gazes and slink away to cry?”

“Ivarr!” Eivor shouted, and enjoyed the thrill of being able to surprise the man into silence, however brief.

“He is too soft! We all know it. You’re lying to yourself if you think he can make any sort of leader.” Ivarr pushed lightly at Ceolbert’s shoulder and strolled from the church, the friendly gesture greatly overshadowed by his harsh words.

Somewhere, in some small and dark corner of Eivor’s thoughts, he felt truth reverberate in the spaces between Ivarr’s words. Ceolbert was soft, that was a given. He hadn’t been raised in bloody battles, only trained in the safety of a castle courtyard, challenged by guards and knights who knew better than to injure a noble’s son. Ceolbert had no reply for Ivarr, barely even moving when he was pushed. Eivor almost wished he would say something; wished he would chase after Ivarr with his sword raised, wished he would do so much as look up from the floor which he suddenly found so interesting.

“Ceolbert.” Eivor stepped towards the boy, kneeling down before him so he had no choice but to look at Eivor and listen to his words. “If you truly do not want to be ealdorman here, then I cannot force you. We will finish up what we have started, and then return to Ravensthorpe together. Someone else can take your place, and I will do all I can to aid you in whatever matters you choose to follow. But we must give these people the peace they were promised.” He said it softly, pleadingly, ever watchful of Ceolbert’s unchanging expression.

“No.” Leofrith stated firmly, causing Eivor to look up at the man.

“No?” He asked, frowning slightly. Ceolbert followed the movement, landing on where Leofrith stood tall over the both of them, hulking and strong and something else Eivor could not name.

“No.” Leofrith turned to Ceolbert, and Eivor didn’t miss the way the action caused the aehtheling to stand straighter, taller. “Want it or not, you are the one chosen to lead this shire.”

Ceolbert scoffed. “Chosen? My father told me it would benefit me, would lend me experience for when I am king. I can’t say I care much for that future, either. I am nothing but a pawn to be trained and groomed for a position I never expected to have.”

“That’s tough luck.” Leofrith said, with so much finality to it, that whatever Eivor had planned to say next died in his throat. “Ivarr is a foul man, but he is right on one account; you are soft.” Eivor watched Ceolbert deflate once more, and the sight must have softened something in Leofrith as well. “Look, Ceolbert, this isn’t going to be easy. This king and his people will fight you tooth and nail from now on, and you can thank that tiresome friend of yours for that. But as Eivor said; what’s done is done. You think you’re the only person here who has been forced into a position he never wanted?

“Nobody here wants to be at war. All we can do now is move forward and avoid combat where possible. And after, when the dust has settled, you will be ealdorman.” Ceolbert let out a soft whine, and Leofrith placed a soothing hand on his shoulder. “You will be. You have to be. Your softness may not do you any favours at this moment, but you’ll find people often respond better to leaders who are kind, and gentle, than they do to those who wield power with an iron fist. They will love you, and they will respect you. And you will do good by them, or at the very least you will do your best.”

Eivor, still knelt awkwardly at Ceolbert’s feet, took both of the boy’s hands in his and squeezed, sighing in relief when he squeezed back.

“I’m scared.” Was all the lad said; small, and quiet, and wavering.

Surging up, Eivor brought him in for a tight embrace, wrapping a hand around the back of Ceolbert’s neck to keep him steady. He had inadvertently knocked Leofrith’s hand from its place on Ceolbert’s shoulder, and Eivor warmed when he returned it instead to the boy’s head, fingers absently brushing against Eivor’s cheek where he nestled into the soft hair of Ceolbert’s crown.

“You’ll be alright.” He whispered, and ignored the shuddering breath Ceolbert let out in response. “You’ll be alright.”

“Ivarr thinks me a child unable to do anything.” Ceolbert muttered against Eivor’s furs, and Eivor allowed himself only a slight smile at the child-like frustration in his voice; it wouldn’t be well received, he was sure.

“You shouldn’t put too much stock into what Ivarr thinks. You are as capable as any man here, and I know you’re father would be proud of your efforts today.” Eivor replied, knowing he had hit the mark when Ceolbert huffed a relieved laugh.

Eivor pulled back, framing Ceolbert’s face in his hands. He was young; most of the time it was easy to forget just how young he actually was, and Eivor had tried his best to treat him with the same level of respect he did any ally and friend. It was unfortunate that Leofrith had the right of it; Ceolbert would have to become ealdorman, would have to take on the role of leader and all the responsibilities that came with such a title. All Eivor could do was offer him a helping hand.

Ceolbert offered a slightly wobbly smile. “Thank you, Eivor. Leofrith. Sorry.” He wiped at his eyes, freeing himself from Eivor’s grip to scrub a hand over his face.

“There’s nothing to be sorry for. You got scared; it happens to the best of us. Better you do it here where your only witnesses are the three of us.” Eivor reassured him.

Ceolbert only nodded in reply, and Eivor watched in wonder as the lad changed speeds in an instant; mind already working behind his eyes as he looked past Eivor to where the bishop was standing, waiting. Eivor spared a thought to the sight they must have made, to what the bishop must have thought of them. Perhaps it would make him more sympathetic to Ceolbert, more easily swayed to support him; to see his future ealdorman already brought low by his worries and fears, and watch firsthand as he conquers them.

“Deorlaf,” Ceolbert started, striding to stand before the man in question. “You know this land, their territory. How can we hurt them?”

The three of them circled around Bishop Deorlaf, and Eivor enjoyed the feeling. Leofrith to his right, Ceolbert to his left; one solid unit, prepared to take on a king. Eivor felt as though he could do anything.

“Well...food and supplies are stockpiled at Wenlocan Outpost just south of here. From what I hear, Rhodri has a secret supply line. I don’t know much, but ask among the refugees near the river, particularly those who have fled from occupied villages. They might know more.” Deorlaf told them, and Eivor filed the information away; Wenlocan wasn’t too far, and hopefully the refugees would be willing enough to help them.

“Rhodri’s men will want to strike as soon as they are able, and if the refugees stay silent we’ll have nothing to go on. We risk another attack, one we might not so easily win.” Leofrith rubbed at his beard, thoughtful.

“Mhm. Without a doubt. They’ll likely send Ynyr, Rhodri’s captain, and his soldiers. But I happen to know they train in Wesberie, west of the ruined tower in the area.”

That was more than enough to go on for now; at least taking care of Ynyr and his men would allow them a bit more time to take out the supply lines without worrying of a sudden attack.

“I’ll send Ivarr to scout at Wesberie; account for their numbers, how well armed they are. Should they move out he’ll alert us as quick as he is able. Best to keep him occupied with something.”

Ceolbert made a pained noise. “You forget, I know his way of scouting. It leads to nothing but swordplay.” He sighed, resigned. “I’ll accompany him. If only to get an honest account of the situation there.”

“Are you sure?” Eivor asked him, just to hear him say the words.

“I am. I can’t control him, but I like to think I hold some sway over his actions. If nothing else, I can hold him back long enough for you to arrive with an army.” Ceolbert nodded at his own words. “Though...Leofrith, you should go with Eivor. Nothing will be achieved if Ivarr spends his time seething in your presence.” A good idea; smart. But it still didn’t sit well with him.

“I won’t leave you with that man.” Leofrith stated firmly, and Ceolbert only huffed in indignation.

“Please. On his own, Ivarr is far easier to keep track of. It’s others who rile him up and cause him to act out. I kept him company, just the two of us, before my father was crowned. I know him. And I can deal with him.” It still amazed Eivor that the two of them seemed to get along so well, all told. Ivarr was cruel and unfeeling, Ceolbert his complete opposite on any spectrum you placed them; yet he couldn’t deny that they did make an odd sort of team.

“Ceolbert, you saw what he did. If Rhodri takes you by surprise, if he’s there at Wesberie...nothing will stop Ivarr from killing the man. Not even you.” The unspoken fear was clear, lingering in the silence following Leofrith’s words.

“I can handle Ivarr. And Rhodri won’t be there, as Deorlaf said; he’s slinked back to his castle to lick his wounds. I can do this.” He brought himself up to his full height, though he was no taller than Eivor, and stared up into Leofrith’s eyes with a calculated ferocity. For all his fears, Eivor thought, the lad would make a fine ealdorman. “You go with Eivor. Find out all you can from the refugees, and when their supplies are nothing more than ashes and embers you’ll meet us at Wesberie.” Ceolbert waited for Leofrith to nod before he left, seemingly happy the man wouldn’t follow him out of the church.

It was a stark contrast to only a moment ago, when he had been shaking and fearful. Eivor had seen similar behaviours in Sigurd; the ability to almost force himself to change moods to suit the situation, to get over his fear by nothing more than sheer will and a few kind words from close friends. Perhaps it was something they had taught themselves over the years, when responsibility grew too heavy and they were forced to sob it out for even a second’s worth of reprieve, only to pick it all back up again in a heartbeat. It was just as unnerving to see on Ceolbert as it had been on Sigurd.

“He’ll be fine.” Eivor pushed the words out, failing to fool even himself.

“No. He won’t.” Leofrith replied, and for that Eivor had no comfort to offer.

Ivarr Ragnarsson had no friends, but Eivor prayed that he felt enough for Ceolbert to listen to him when the time came. “Come on, then. Better get started.”

“One more thing, if you please.” Deorlaf walked alongside the pair of them. “We’ll need to think about raising a fyrd if we’re to fight the Britons any further. Present the idea to anyone able-bodied enough you come across, and hopefully our numbers will grow.”

Eivor said his goodbyes, and squinted in the glare of the sun outside the church. The day would be a hard one, as would the following week, and perhaps even the month. There was no telling how long it would all take, and while he was prepared for a longterm stay he couldn’t say he much fancied the idea of running around in the heat of the sun setting blazes in his wake. He felt sweat pool at the base of his spine.

“Ready?” Leofrith asked beside him. “We shouldn’t waste any time. We can start with the refugees at the river, see what they know?”

“Hm. Yeah.” Eivor said, and followed him down to the riverbank to begin the long and arduous task of fighting back.

Chapter Text

The river cut lazily through the land, crystal clear and inviting as Eivor valiantly tried to ignore the heat; the sweat pooling beneath his furs, dripping from his hairline and stinging at the cut on his forehead. After, he promised himself. A small luxury to look forward to.

The refugees were a scattered, broken people; children wailing with no parents to soothe them. Many of them were crouched down in the shallows, washing clothes and bodies clean of the grime of travel. Many more were seeing to hastily built tents and campfires, cooking and talking and just...continuing. Life would be hard for them for a while; with no money and little supplies to spare, they and countless others would struggle to survive each day. Another reason to reach a sustainable peace between themselves and the Britons.

Eivor approached the closest of them; a man, no shorter than Eivor himself, hair matted with mud and clothes faring no better. He was skittish as he watched them.

“Friend or foe?” He asked, voice raised and body posed to flee.

“Easy. We didn’t mean to startle you, friend.” Eivor’s soft tone did nothing to calm the man down, if anything it only served to make him more uneasy. “The bishop told us you might have information about where the Britons bring their supplies in.”

The man laughed, dry and humourless. “Are we your friends, Dane? After years of blood and gore, looting and burning?” The man’s voice climbed higher in an odd mix of fear and anger, hands moving wildly as he spoke. “Forgive us, then, if we don’t trust you. Friend.”

Beside him, Leofrith sighed. “He’s Norse."

The man startled in confusion. “What?”

“He’s not a Dane. He’s Norse.” Leofrith repeated, and Eivor spared him a glance only to find he wasn’t even looking at the man, eyes following the river’s current instead.

Eivor shook his head. “Look, I know I have no right to ask for your help, but I’m trying my best to put an end to this war that has ravaged your lands and your lives. If I’m to do that, I need you to tell me anything you know, anything you think might help. Please.”

The man looked between them uneasily, relenting with little effort. “You’re expecting to fight Rhodri, and win?” He asked, tentatively hopeful.

“No. I can’t tell you we’ll win, and I can’t tell you this will be the end of your suffering. But we’re going to try.” Eivor offered.

“I don’t know much.”

“Anything you have will be enough.”

The man thought on it for a moment, blinking rapidly and wringing his hands together as he seemed to argue with himself. Eventually, he nodded. “Dhustone Quarry, I think. I can’t say for certain, but I’ve seen enough merchandise moved through the area to be suspicious. See there, that tower down south?” He asked, and pointed behind Eivor to where a foreboding fort stood menacingly on a hill, overshadowing all around it. “Go past that and you’ll reach the quarry; a great big crack in the ground, you can’t miss it.”

Eivor nodded his understanding, leveling the man with a grateful look. “Thank you.”

Leofrith tapped a hand to Eivor’s arm before turning away, only to be stopped when the man nervously cleared his throat. “If I may...I mean.” He sighed in frustration. “I’ve heard they take people there, prisoners, I suppose. Men who fought alongside old Thegn Merton. If they’re still alive, they may be happy to lend their swords to your cause.” He smiled, unsure and wary, but with a friendliness that hadn’t been there earlier.

Eivor nodded, and he and Leofrith moved to make the long trek to the fort, and the quarry that lay beyond.

______

The sun continued to beat down mercilessly, and Eivor relented in taking off a few layers not too long into their journey, stuffing them into a pack on his mare as she trotted along happily. He fiddled with the clasps of his armour, tightening it around his body where it now sat loose and heavy. The heat bounced around in his head, settling heavy and painful against his skull. Leofrith seemed unbothered by it, the only thing giving him away was the sweat beading at his brow that he wiped at every so often, the redness of his face in stark contrast to his dark hair.

“I didn’t know you knew that about me.” Eivor said conversationally, smiling slightly when Leofrith caught his eye.

“Knew what?” He asked, gently nudging his mount to catch up to Eivor’s.

“That I was Norse. You called me Dane before, back near Lunden.” There was no reproach there, or at least Eivor hoped none had come across. He truly didn’t want to cause trouble between them.

“Oh.” Leofrith shrugged. “Ceolbert talks incessantly if you let him, and he’s a well of knowledge when it comes to you.” And that...that didn’t surprise Eivor. Ceolbert had taken to him, and he supposed Randvi had spoken often enough of Eivor that some information had been soaked up. Such a small distinction, but to a Saxon it meant nothing. That not one, but two of them, had taken it to heart and remembered the fact – well, it warmed something in Eivor. His smile grew, and he tried to hide his face when the damn thing wouldn’t stop.

“It means a lot to you?” Leofrith asked, oh so gently.

“You Saxons often don’t care enough to tell the difference. It isn’t a vast one, so it isn’t usually something that bothers me. But...I suppose it’s different with friends.” Eivor settled on the thought, turning to face Leofrith despite the embarrassing smile currently splitting his face.

“Mhm.” Leofrith hummed in response, gaze lingering on Eivor for one beautiful moment before falling back to watch the road, and Eivor felt a prickling heat at the back of his neck that had nothing to do with the sun.

It took them the better part of the day to finally reach the quarry; a great gorge in the earth heavily populated and heavily guarded. Pulleys and machines lined the rim, being worked on tirelessly by people swathed in dust and sweat, the steady hum of hard work filling the air as he and Leofrith looked out over the area. They had hidden themselves away behind rocks and bushes, leaving the horses far enough behind that they wouldn’t be seen. Eivor knew this would be a difficult task; every corner and platform was guarded, many more soldiers taking small routes around the little paths cut into the rock, and there were almost no hidden spots to take refuge in once they braved moving forward. Perhaps he should have given this more thought.

“How are we doing it?” Leofrith whispered beside him.

Eivor kept his eyes fixed on the nearest guards; a group of three, sat around a little fire pit and talking happily. “I don’t know. There’s more people here than I expected.”

Anything would give them away, and he had no doubt there would be smaller camps set up nearby to be called on in the event of an attack. While he had faith in his own skill, and Leofrith’s, the two of them would be no match at all for half an army.

“Stealth is best, I think.” He muttered, and scratched at his head where blood and sweat had cooled and hardened in the shade, crusting over. “They’ll know we’re here as soon as one of the carts go up, so until then we remain quiet and hidden.”

“And the prisoners? That man said they might be held here.”

Eivor couldn’t see any cages, no gatherings in particular that stood out to him. This was a quarry, however, and he supposed it made sense they would use the rock surrounding them to their advantage. Who knows how deep their tunnels go. “If they are here, they’ll probably keep them below us, within the rock itself. It’ll be a struggle to get them out without being seen, and we don’t know for sure they’re alive, or even here.” He looked to Leofrith. “Is it worth the risk?”

“It is if we want to have any chance at winning this war.” Was all he said, and Eivor sighed.

“Very well. How good are you with a bow?”

“I only had basic training with a bow, never really cared for it much.”

Eivor nodded. “I’ll take care of the carts, then. Head down as quickly and as quietly as you can; take out any soldiers that see you, and I’ll do the same for the both of us from here. We need a signal, some way of letting me know to start firing on the carts.” Eivor freed his bow from his back, pulling the string to ensure it was still tight enough to use. Satisfied, he pulled his quiver closer up to his shoulder for ease of access to the few arrows he had. He hoped they were enough.

“I’ll think of something. Keep your eyes peeled. You’re sure you can shoot at the carts from here?” Leofrith sounded wary, and Eivor only smirked at him.

“I’m sure. Now go; I want to be done here as soon as possible.” He watched Leofrith stand, still low enough to stay out of sight of the soldiers nearest, and without thinking Eivor reached out to take hold of the man’s hand. “Be careful.” He said, and felt a twist in his gut at the way Leofrith’s eyes softened at the words.

Eivor watched him go, shuffling around the rim of the quarry out of sight until he was able to climb a bit higher, above the soldiers just enough he hoped they wouldn’t catch him. He lost sight of Leofrith as the man vanished into the gorge below, and Eivor surveyed the scene to find anything vaguely supply-cart-looking. Targets locked, he sat carefully on the ledge he had climbed up, and waited.

Time wore on slowly. No alarm had been raised, and no skirmishes had broken out, yet he still hadn’t caught sight of Leofrith. It was either a testament to his skill, or he had already been caught and killed. Eivor ground his teeth together, fingers fiddling with the string of his bow, eyes searching for anything that could be a signal. There was nothing, only the low din of stonework, the soldiers beneath him laughing, the warm wind whistling through the cavernous space. His heart climbed into his throat and beat out an anxious rhythm. He swiped at his brow and the sweat that had started to gather there once again, wincing when he brushed over his cut without thinking. He waited.

“Come on, you bastard.” He mumbled to himself, and tapped against his thigh in frustration, in worry.

Eivor would have heard it, surely. He would have heard if Leofrith had been caught; would have heard the following fight, would have heard it if the man was cut down and severed from this world, from this life. He would have heard it. He peered down into the depths of the quarry and the people crawling there, as small as the ants he had seen building their nests around this country. He eyed them as they moved, and tried to distinguish if one of them was Leofrith, but from this height it was impossible to tell.

“I swear, if you’re dead…” He whispered, angry at the thought and the way it clenched uncomfortably in his chest.

Then he saw it. A glint of metal, catching the sun just right from the dark pit of the quarry. It could be nothing, Eivor thought; nothing more than a worker playing with light, or not even realising his tool was reflecting the light at all. It could be.

Eivor knocked an oil-slicked arrow, standing on his perch carefully and watching to see if anything else happened. Men tunnelled out of the shadows of rock, and cries sang up, riding on the wind to reach Eivor’s ears as he drew back on his bowstring and aimed for the cart closest to him. A moment longer, until he was certain he could hear swordfighting, and he loosed his arrow.

The supply cart went up with a boom; flames and smoke rising, ceramic and wood flying out in all directions. He recognised the scent of burning wheat. Soldiers scattered in panic and surprise, arming themselves and searching relentlessly for the cause of the explosion, and Eivor smiled to see them so helpless. He knocked another arrow quickly, firing deeper into the quarry where another cart sat, and this time there were soldiers close enough to the initial blast that they were thrown back with the force of it. Battle in close quarters was a rush; a maddening assault on the mind and body that left his veins singing and his muscles aching, but he couldn’t deny there was a certain satisfaction in causing so much chaos from such a distance. From being unseen, and wielding such a power over his enemies they were left reeling without a moment to recover.

He shot at the remaining supply carts, and set to work using the arrows he had left to take out any guards standing in the way of Leofrith and the freed prisoners. They were easy to track once Eivor found them proper; a group that stayed close together and fought on a unified front, bouncing off each other and so in sync they could be a single creature. They fought their way up and out of the quarry, and Eivor took the opportunity to shoot at a few more important looking tents, crates, and smaller carts in the hopes of distracting the soldiers enough that they wouldn’t give chase. Most stayed behind, but those that did follow the prisoners were swiftly felled. Eivor waited until he knew the group would be safe without his aid, and then he quickly made the climb down and ran to meet them where he and Leofrith had pitched their horses.

He smiled when he saw them. The newly freed prisoners revelled in their rescue, still excited with the rush of battle and crowding around each other, hugging and patting and talking in loud voices.

“You’re an incredible shot, my friend!” One of them shouted at Eivor, bringing him into a tight and friendly embrace when the group had finally reached him.

Eivor laughed and squeezed the woman in return. “Thank you. How are you all doing?” He asked, and scanned over the rest of them quickly to ensure none had been too badly hurt.

“Hungry, sore, and hankering for another fight!” The woman pulled back and raised a fist into the air, causing the others gathered to raise their voices. Eivor smiled.

“Glad to hear it. What will you do now?”

“There’s a camp nearby; we’ll regroup and recover, and then we shall gladly aid you in your fight should you have need of us.” She said, Eivor widening his eyes in surprise, and she only laughed. “Your friend here put us at ease when he first freed us. We owe you for that, and we owe those bastards our swords. Consider us friends.”

“Good luck to you.” Eivor said, and watched as the woman led the rest of her ensemble away and down into the valley.

Leofrith sidled up to him, and promptly laid himself down with all the drama of a child, falling back into the soft grass and letting out a heavy exhale. Eivor kicked gently at his leg.

“What’s the matter?” He asked, receiving no answer. “Are you hurt?”

Leofrith waved his hand, then let his arm fall across his eyes. “No.”

“Then what’s wrong? We don’t have time for this.”

Eivor sat himself down next to his companion, crossing his legs beneath him and poking at the man’s side until he relented. Leofrith raised his arm from his face, and Eivor cringed at the sight.

“Again?” He asked, unable to stop the relieved bubble of laughter that escaped his mouth.

Leofrith glared up at him from the ground, and Eivor let his amusement filter into softness at the annoyance he felt coming off the man in waves. “Sorry. It doesn’t look so bad this time.”

His poor nose. Third time’s a charm, Eivor thought, though he rather wished people would leave Leofrith’s face out of their fight. It was an easy target, he supposed; unprotected and the one thing guaranteed to at least stun someone, especially someone of Leofrith’s size; Eivor remembered what he was like to fight against, relentless and heavy-handed, barely allowing for any sort of counter-attack. But his face made for a good target to throw him off his rhythm, the perfect hit enough to daze him briefly.

“The next person to bloody my nose is getting disemboweled. Slowly.” Leofrith sighed, closing his eyes against the sun.

It truly wasn’t so bad; bloody and bruised as it was, it had been worse the first time in Grantebridge. Eivor watched him; the sulky huff of breath as he loosened the clasp of his cloak and pulled it away from his neck, revealing sweat-slicked dark skin that Eivor struggled to pull his eyes away from.

“We should go.” He cleared his throat, standing and nudging at Leofrith’s thigh with the toe of his boot when he made no move to follow. “Come on. Sulk about it later.” Nothing. “Gods, how old are you agin?” Eivor laughed, and reached down to grasp Leofrith’s arm and attempt to pull him up.

It was pointless. Eivor was strong, but Leofrith was heavy, and all he managed to achieve was Leofrith smirking up at him smugly.

“We still have to deal with Wenlocan before meeting Ceolbert at Wesberie.” Eivor reminded him.

Leofrith only sighed, letting Eivor lift him from the ground. “I know. You think they’re okay?”

“They’ll be fine. The quicker we get this over and done with, the quicker we can head over to them.” Eivor replied, hoping his words proved true and Ceolbert and Ivarr hadn’t gotten themselves into any trouble.

They travelled to Wenlocan as fast as the horses would allow, the sun steadily making its way below the horizon by the time they arrived. Stealing cargo proved to be only slightly more difficult than destroying it; but Wenlocan wasn’t as heavily guarded as Eivor had been expecting, and freeing the prisoners they found there only made things easier for them. The people freed promised their aid in any battles they were needed, and Eivor and Leofrith left them to it, loading them with as much as they could carry back to Quatford while the pair of them headed for Wesberie.

______

They were well into the night by the time Wesberie came into view; a small little village much the same as Quatford. Eivor spotted Ceolbert and Ivarr crouched together and looking out over the village, talking in hushed tones as they kept their eyes fixed on the soldiers posted.

“Wait by the horses. We don’t want a repeat.” Eivor said to Leofrith, relieved when there was no argument from him.

He approached Ceolbert and Ivarr loud enough so as not to startle them, shuffling slowly until he was knelt down beside them.

“How are things here?” He asked, ensuring nobody in the village below had spotted or heard them.

“Eivor.” Ivarr greeted him, astonishingly subdued. “I was telling our aetheling here that Thor is with us this day. Our victory is assured.”

“Right.” Eivor nodded slowly. “And Wesberie?” He claririfed, sending Ceolbert a glance and urging him to speak.

“Ynyr will soon be here.” He stated, fearful and hopeful all at once.

Ivarr growled. “He commands this hamlet, the men stationed here. So let us show these people what happens when you bow to the Britons. Smash it to kindling, burn it to ashes, and cut Ynyr’s tender throat.” He chuckled darkly, and ah, there was the Ivarr that Eivor knew. “Right, my boy?”

Ceolbert shook his head and frowned. “I hope to fight well, if I must, but not cruelly. I’ll leave the slashing of throats to you.” He crossed his arms firmly over his chest.

Eivor watched them both carefully. “Only do what is necessary. Ynyr is one of Rhodri’s fiercest warriors, and while his death would certainly strike fear into Rhodri’s heart I do not think brutality would put us in a very good position in regards to peace.”

“Bah! Peace. You do make me laugh, Eivor. Come, let us rush in and leave a trail of bloody kindling!” Ivarr jumped, the prospect of such chaos throwing him into excitement and bloodlust.

“Easy.” Eivor chided, and while he couldn’t say he felt any fondness for the man there was something almost endearing about seeing him like this. As though he were a puppy or young child. “Perhaps stealth would be the...cleaner approach.” He suggested.

Ivarr deflated, groaned loud enough that Eivor worried they had been given away. “Eivor, come on! A good strong battle, sound and fury!”

Eivor shook his head. “Not today, Ivarr. Stealth is our way forward here, and it will offer us more time before battle does inevitably descend.”

“Fine. Do what you must.”

“And let the Saxons flee the village before you do any real damage. Our fight lies with the Britons, not them. Understand?” Eivor asked, and Ivarr saluted him lazily as he strode away.

Eivor watched him stop in his tracks at the sight of Leofrith, only to laugh to himself and continue walking once more. Ceolbert shifted awkwardly.

“How will we get the Saxons away?” He asked.

“They’ll know enough to run when they see flames. And something tells me Ivarr won’t allow stealth for very long.”

Eivor was soon proved correct, and as much as he had expected such actions from Ivarr it still disheartened him. He had successfully set fire to two of the squat little cottages before a guard had stumbled upon Ivarr, crouched in a patch of grass. Ivarr had reared back out of the way before the soldier had even unsheathed his sword, letting out a fiercesome cry of war before diving into the fight. Others had been alerted, momentarily distracted from the fires now spreading, and before Eivor could muster any thoughts they were emerged in a bloody and desperate battle for their lives.

The flames licked across the village with ferocious speed, crawling through grass and over thatch, acrid smoke thick in the air and burning his eyes. Everything was bathed in the orange glow of the fire, warping the world around them and dancing in the eyes of any soldier Eivor came face-to-face with, setting them alight as they moved through the air with experience and grace. They were good; warriors hardened by the years of war and the weight of a hundred different battles hung that heavy from their shoulders. They were good, but he had seen Ivarr move on the battlefield. They were good, but he knew his own capabilities when rounded into a corner, forced to fight brutally to keep his heart beating in his chest.

He swung down hard with his axe, slamming the blade into the thick meat of a soldier’s thigh where he had fallen, scrambling in the burning dirt to escape. Not fast enough, Eivor thought, as the man screamed in agony, holding his thigh together helplessly as Eivor sliced his axe across his opponent’s face and left him to bleed out on the scorched earth. He made a similar mess of anyone else brave enough to stand in his way as he circled the village, setting the buildings ablaze with torch and arrow alike.

“Eivor!” Ivarr’s voice, croaking in his throat from overuse. “Ynyr’s coming!”

Eivor rallied to the sound, following Ivarr’s sillhouette as he danced and twirled around the Britons, leaving blood and mangled bone in his wake. Eivor spotted Ynyr with ease, entering the fray with a face of thunder. Eivor charged the man, hoping to get in before Ivarr could. At least at Eivor’s hand, Ynyr would have a flying chance at an honourable death.

He was a ferocious fighter; sly and savage and quick on his feet. He wielded his spear as an extension of his own body, where Eivor had only ever seen soldiers wield it clumsily at best and downright self-sabotaging at worst. It was a trial to stay out of its path, the smoke in his lungs and eyes only hindering his ability to fight. He miscalculated one particularly forceful swing, and Ynyr smacked the wooden pole of the spear against the side of Eivors’s head, sending him to the ground hard and fast. He blinked blearily, tasting copper in his mouth where he had bitten his tongue, his head heavy and aching. He played into the injury, groaning loud enough for Ynyr to hear over the clash of battle, and waited for the captain to risk stepping closer.

Eivor grinned when he fell right into his trap. Ynyr drew in close, spear poised but loose in his hands. Eivor took the chance, kicked out at the man’s legs and took him off balance. Ynyr didn’t fall, but the distraction was enough for Eivor to stand, to get the ground steady beneath him once more, axe held firmly in his hand as he swung up and narrowly missed Ynyr’s chin. What a sight that would have been.

“You’re good.” Eivor hissed at him, overcome with something when Ynyr grinned violently at him. “But I’m better.”

He swung again, this time prepared for the attack Ynyr would attempt, and he jumped out of the way as the spear whistled past him. He charged forward and used his weight to crash bodily into Ynyr, sending the both of them careening to the floor. Eivor straddled him, slamming the man’s hand against the hard earth a few times before he was forced to let go of his spear, and Eivor pushed it away. Ynyr surged up, taking Eivor by surprise as he was dislodged from his position. Instead of trying to locate his spear, Ynyr pulled out a long and sharply pointed dirk, blade warm with firelight and danger. Eivor watched him twirl it around in his hand, admiring the way his fingers moved against the handle, the way the flames glimmered against his skin. He made for a powerful sight. It was a shame he would have to die.

Eivor charged, brought his axe down and up in a feinted swing, surprised when Ynyr managed to follow and catch him out, dodging seamlessly. They continued for what felt like an age, Ynyr giving no opening long enough for Eivor strike proper, and likewise Eivor tried to stay far back enough that he couldn’t be touched by the blade thirsty for his blood. Ynyr made a dive for Eivor, ducking when Eivor curved his axe towards his face. Ynyr came in close, slicing through the mail of Eivor’s armour as he struggled to find enough exposed skin to cause any real damage. Eivor grabbed at the man’s wrist and twisted as hard as he could, and the captain cried out in pain as he dropped the dirk. Taking the opportunity, Eivor kneed the man in his gut and delighted in the strained breath he took as he fell to his knees.

Ynyr caught his breath, and Eivor allowed it, hand heavy on the captain’s shoulder as he reached down to pick up the man’s dirk where it had fallen. No more tricks up his sleeve, Ynyr grappled at the belts across Eivor’s torso to keep himself upright. Exhaustion lined his face, sweat and grime caking his skin, but his eyes were bright and wild.

“A good fight, at least.” Ynyr smiled, chest heaving.

“You’re a strong man, Ynyr.” Eivor said, and the captain only nodded with a smile.

Eivor used the dirk; sliced cleanly through the meat of Ynyr’s shoulder where it met his neck, the only exposed flesh worth damaging. The long blade sunk into him beautifully, and Eivor felt the push of his muscles, the grating of his bones, as the metal severed him from the inside. The smile vanished from Ynyr’s face, eyes dimming as his life left him, and when Eivor pulled the dirk free again the captain fell to the ground for the final time.

Around Eivor, the sounds of battle had ceased. Fires raged through the village still, blocking out the stars above with a thick blanket of smoke, the putrid smell of burning flesh lingering heavy on the air. Eivor resisted the urge to gag.

“So much for Ynyr.” Ivarr sauntered over to him, kicking at Ynyr’s prone form. “Fearsome warrior, my bunghole.”

“He fought well, Ivarr. Leave him.” Eivor pushed the man away, ignoring the grumbles he got in response.

Eivor scanned the village, taking note of just how many Britons lay either dead or dying, searching for where Ceolbert and Leofrith were. He caught sight of their shadows through the flames, stood together just beyond the destruction. Praying, Eivor saw, and hesitated momentarily before making his way over to them. He waited, listened as Ceolbert spoke his words, hands pressed together at his chest and eyes closed. Leofrith stood in a similar position, though his eyes remained open and he looked over to Eivor with that little lopsided smile of his as Ceolbert finished off his prayer.

Eivor let curiosity his win out. “Will your God grant you the penance you seek?” He asked, Ceolbert opening his eyes to face him.

“I won’t know, not in this life.” He answered. “Only upon the hour of my death will I know God’s judgement of my character. All I can do is atone for my sins and hope it is enough to be welcomed by Him.”

The boy was solemn despite their victory, a sentiment that clearly disappointed Ivarr, pulling Ceolbert bodily into a half-embrace. “Your God bores me to death, Ceolbert! We won, and our enemies lie cold at our feet! Have a laugh.”

Ceolbert shook him off, frowning deeply as he did so. “I took no pleasure in it, Ivarr.”

Ivarr waved a hand. “Whatever. Eivor and I were made for this, my boy. The song of swords, the blood-mist, the bone crunch and baring of teeth!” he praised, and Eivor bristled at being compared to such a man.

“Don’t flatter yourself, Ivarr; we are nothing alike.” Eivor teased. “Are you satisfied now, at least, with your battle and your victory?”

Ivarr laughed, deep like thunder. “You know me, Eivor.” He said plainly.

“More’s the pity.” Eivor retorted, and turned his attention to the aetheling. “I would know your mind on this, Ceolbert. Are you satisfied with our victory here as well?”

Ceolbert cast his gaze across the burning village; the fires still blazing hot, the smoke hanging heavy in the air, the bodies of dead Britons that seemed to move in the waves of heat. He sighed, a weighty thing. “I believe so. I’ll need word from Rhodri as soon as possible. What does he intend now, going forward?” Ceolbert trailed off, talking to himself more than anyone else.

“These flames will be hard to miss, and their position is unmistakable. He’ll know Wesberie has been destroyed, and with his supply lines and soldiers scattered and burning, he’ll be forced to make peace.”

Ceolbert nodded. “It was the only way.” He muttered, angry.

“It was. He would have fought until the whole shire was burning. One or two villages is the better option.” Eivor reassured him, satisfied when Ceolbert steeled himself at the words.

“The bleeding pus pit claims only a dragon can defeat him. We shall soon put that to the test.” Ivarr spoke almost absently, mind already on his next move.

“It is peace we want, Ivarr. Not revenge.” Eivor warned him, narrowing his eyes when the man flexed his fists. “If you cannot accept that then you may return to Repton now. We have all we need from you.”

Ivarr laughed, dry and sore. “I have warned you. You do not know Rhodri as I do, you do not know what a slippery, lying shit he can be. We’d all be better off for a quick slice to his throat.”

Ceolbert stomped a foot down. “Enough talk of killing! Was this not enough for you, Ivarr? I...I need a moment of calm.”

“What you need is mead, my friend!”

“No, Ivarr. True calm. A walk in the woods to clear the air. Or…” Eivor marveled at the little smile on Ceolbert’s face. “Fishing! Would you go fishing with me?” He asked Ivarr, who only laughed at the suggestion before walking away, muttering about worms and puddles as he went. The lad’s face fell, and Eivor’s heart felt tight in his chest. Whatever Ceolbert was hoping to find in Ivarr, he would always be left wanting.

“I saw a small pond nearby, the beginning of the little stream here.” Eivor stated, happy when Ceolbert understood his implication and grinned broadly. “Come on. A little calm would do us all good.” He motioned for the lad to follow, catching Leofrith’s eye and doing the same.

Eivor struggled with fishing. He had no fishing line handy, and his bow and arrows were the next best thing. Except the fish were fast, and the waters murky. He fired into the water clumsily, sighing when he missed yet again. Ceolbert laughed at his plight, and proudly reeled in his line where an eel was squirming. The lad put the animal out of its misery, and threw it into the small basket where his pile was slowly growing.

“I think I’ll leave the fishing to you, if it’s all the same.” Eivor relented, and sat himself at the edge of the water next to Leofrith to watch Ceolbert at his work.

They sat in silence, listening to the splash of Ceolbert’s line and the struggling fish, the way the boy mumbled to himself as he carried out his task. Eivor spread his legs out before him, stretching his muscles and cringing when his knees popped. He looked over to Leofrith, smiling tiredly when their eyes met. The blood dribbling from his nose had dried and crusted, clumping in his beard thick and uncomfortable, but his nose itself looked no worse than it had when Ivarr had hit him

“Still handsome?” Leofrith asked, tone light and joking.

Eivor laughed. “Still handsome.” He assured the man, voice softer than he would have liked, and he hoped that he hadn’t given himself away.

Leofrith smiled; that stupid little lopsided one that sent a warmth blooming in Eivor’s chest, filling the space there with light and...well. Eivor turned away, had to lest he embarrass himself, and sighed in frustration. He played with the dirt at his side, looking up when he heard someone approach.

“Eivor.” Ivarr spoke, the excitement of battle faded. “The Bishop is here.”

Eivor stood to greet the man, patting Leofrith’s shoulder as he went. Deorlaf approached, guarded by a selection of his own men as well as Ivarr’s. Eivor noted sourly that the captain, Beortric, had also made the journey.

“A strange way to celebrate your victory.” Beortric didn’t quite sneer, but the distaste in his voice was clear enough.

“Easy, captain. Our Christ was a fisher of souls, was he not?” Deorlaf spoke clearly, a smile peaceful on his soft face.

Ceolbert brought his basket over, greeting the bishop brightly as he placed it on the ground, an offering of sorts. “Bishop! We’ve the makings of a great soup.”

The Bishop nodded his thanks, though he regarded Ceolbert with sorrowful eyes. “And it’ll be marvellous, I’m sure. But my heart lies heavy at the sight of this place. So much destruction. It’ll take years to rebuild what we had to destroy.” He chose his words carefully, Eivor saw; wary of implying any blame of those present.

Ivarr failed to take stock of the atmosphere around him. “You should have seen the little aetheling fight! He’ll be an ealdorman with sack and guts, fierce and raw!” He sounded almost proud.

Ceolbert only sighed. “I should rather be fair and just.” A smile, slight and small. “But I take the compliment.”

“I have sent word to the Britons.” Deorlaf interrupted not unkindly. “I pray King Rhodri will be amenable to peace again, despite the murder of his brother.” He levelled Ivarr with a stern look.

“Bah! It worked in our favour, did it not? Look where we are; Britons begging for mercy like whiny pups!”

“Ivarr.” Eivor pleaded. “We do not yet have peace. The talks with Rhodri have to go well, and you are no diplomat.”

Deorlaf agreed quickly. “Absolutely. These talks are critical in ensuring the peace we seek, and after what happened in Quatford I believe it to be in our best interests for Ivarr to lay low.”

“Lay low?” Ivarr crowded into the Bishop. “After all I have done here for you, you want me to hide my face?”

Ceolbert laid a steadying hand on Ivarr’s shoulder, pulling the man back. “He’s right, Ivarr. You’ve a warrior’s heart, and it served us well in these battles. But these talks will require the heart of a peacemaker.”

“No! None of you know this man the way I do; I know the kind of tricks he will play. Consider this my last warning.” Ivarr looked to where Eivor stood, staring hard and cold, and turned away.

He would travel back to Repton, perhaps, or maybe he might stick around a while longer to see this through until the end. Eivor cared not; he wouldn’t be a hindrance to their progress any longer. That was enough for now.

“We must prepare for Rhodri’s arrival. Rally the men, and we’ll set up camp.” Eivor told the Bishop, who inclined his head to his men and sent them scrambling.

“I think you really bruised Ivarr’s pride.” Ceolbert sniffed, voice caught between humour and concern.

Eivor laughed. “By all means, if you can think of some balm for his wounds, share it.”

“I’ll think of something, I’m sure. Hunting, perhaps. He’s a man of action after all.”

Days passed with no word from the Britons, the camp slowly built up around them with nothing else to fill each day. The waiting grated against Eivor, grinding all other thoughts to a halt until he grew frustrated and snappy. More than once he’d spoken to Ceolbert in clipped tones and short words, forcing the boy to leave him to his annoyance. He’d be sure to apologise after.

“Britons!” Eivor stood at the word, eyes falling to where one of Beortric’s scouts had run into the camp directly to Deorlaf. “The Britons have arrived.”

“Where’s Ceolbert?” Eivor asked, finding no sign of him nearby. “He should be here.”

“Lad went hunting some time ago. I expect he won’t return until nightfall.” Beortric offered up, and Eivor bit his lip and sighed. “You’ll have to go on without him.”

“It’s not a great first impression.”

Deorlaf took hold of Eivor’s arm. “We’ll have to make his excuses. Say he’s injured, or unwell.”

It didn’t sit well with Eivor, talking of peace without the presence of the shire’s new ealdorman. He hoped the Britons didn’t take it as a slight against them, and thanked the gods that at least Ivarr was absent as well.

Angharad met them with confidence, though there was no sign of her king.

“Greetings, Lady Angharad!” Deorlaf welcomed her with open arms, shaking her hand firmly and smiling. “Where is your king?”

Angharad mirrored his smile, if only warily. “Deorlaf. Eivor. Rhodri stays at the castle at my behest. I admit, I feared his presence would inflame the cutthroat, Ivarr.” She took in the two of them, and the small selection of warriors accompanying them. “Though I see you had a similar idea. Perhaps now we can speak with more promise. Where is your prince?”

Eivor felt a weight lift from his chest; days of fretting over how these talks would go had left him tired and on edge. It was a relief to know there would be no bloodbath, at least not today. “Ceolbert has taken ill.” The lie passed his lips easily. “Nothing too serious, but we thought it best to let him rest and sweat it out. He offers his sincere apologies, and wants it known he is as eager to reach peace as the rest of us.” Angharad nodded and probed no further.

“I wish him a speedy recovery.” She crossed her hands together at her waist and squared her shoulders, as graceful as a queen should be. “Now, to peace. Rhodri and I have spoken at great lengths about how best to approach this new era we are so close to achieving. After his captains managed to talk some sense into him, we agreed it would be in our best interest to withdraw all our soldiers here back to the time-honoured border of our lands. All we ask is that you give us some days, a week at most, to collect our furnishings from Caustow Castle.”

“That’s...quite the decision to reach.” Eivor expected more of an argument; requests for outposts or barracks at the very least.

Angharad levelled him with a look that assured him she was well aware of his expectations, and smiled. “Quite. In return, you cease all hostilities from this moment onward. No more killing. On either side.”

Eivor traded a look with Deorlaf, finding warm relief and acceptance. “Your terms are generous, my lady. I believe we have reached a truce, then. As easy as that.”

Angharad shook both of their hands to seal the truce, and Eivor watched her closely for any sign she was hiding something, and found nothing. She was honest, and simply looking to keep her people alive. “Let us each look to better futures for our people.”

Deorlaf appeared overjoyed with the surprising turn of events. “Praise be, this is well and quickly done!” He laughed in relief, bright and loose. “God go with you and your king, Lady Angharad.”

“And with you, good bishop. I salute you all, for you waged a good war. Now let us wage a lasting peace.”

Eivor watched her leave, flanked by her soldiers. He half expected her to give a shout, for more of her men to appear from the tall grass and attack. Yet she did nothing but mount her horse and ride off to spread word of their newly formed truce. He allowed himself a moment to bask in the glory of peaceful victory.

“I stand bewildered, Eivor.” Deorlaf’s eyes followed the lady until she was nothing more than a dot within the valley. “In the blink of an eye, years of blood and death are put to an end. Wonders never truly cease.”

“You’ve walked a hard road, my friend. You, more than most, deserve to feel some measure of pride today.” Eivor grasped him by the shoulder, meeting the man’s eyes.

“Ceolbert must learn the good news. Be sure to tell him when you see him.”

“Of course. I best find him, anyway.”

Eivor made the walk back to camp. He headed for Ceolbert’s tent, hoping the lad had returned from his hunting trip by now, but was disappointed when he found it empty. He asked the nearby guards, and got no new information at all. Perhaps he would be back by nightfall, as Beortric assured him.

“Where’s Ivarr?” Eivor asked the soldiers, hoping he could at least tell Ivarr of the good news.

“Haven’t seen him in a while. He left not long after the aetheling.” The soldier said, clearly bored by the conversation and wanting to return to his friends.

A cold weight settled in Eivor’s stomach. He darted around the camp, asking after both Ceolbert and Ivarr. Nobody had any real answers for him, only that they had both left some hours ago and had yet to return. Eivor spotted Beortric.

“Have you seen Ivarr?” He asked, the swell of panic large in his chest.

“Ivarr? No. He left after Ceolbert did. Hunting trip, I guess.” Beortric pointed to a rocky outcrop overhanging the village. “They went up that way, probably wanted to cut through the caves to the forest on the other side.”

Eivor nodded his thanks and prepared to leave. He hoped Ceolbert had only gotten himself trapped somewhere, and wasn’t bleeding out in some cold, damp cave far from any help.

Chapter Text

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?"

Silence.

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.”

“Eivor.”

“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.