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far from a hearth-fire

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The dream came to him again, the one of the warrior in the storm. Fenrir stumbled out of the angry Sea, his arms reaching for the man beside him, dragging him onto the shore. Rán’s fury howled in waves crashing onto rocks, but Fenrir knew in the drumbeat of his heart that the man clutching him back, shuddering with cold and yet warm with life—that man was his to steal from her, his to hold.

Thunder crashed and wind wailed, but tall rocks shielded them from the worst of the gods’ rage, and nothing mattered more than the man’s mouth hot against his, a kiss full of desperate joy, laughing relief. Sand and salt-spray were their bed as Fenrir rolled into the hard muscled glory of the body that pinned him down. Lightning lit up the sky and gifted Fenrir with an unexpected beauty—the wild flash of a grin, a bare-faced, short-haired Celt clad in grey, not a fierce vikingr brother-in-arms, and yet the man’s grip on Fen was strong, his hands shackles around Fenrir’s wrists.

“You’re mine,” the man said, biting the words into Fenrir’s mouth, thrusting against him with a strength that made Fenrir want to shout with how good it felt, how his blood sang with welcome.

The warrior ran his hand down Fenrir’s body until he found the gap between leather jerkin and belt, found a strip of skin at his stomach and shoved. Pain flooded, sudden and sharp and sweet—


And Fenrir gasped awake in the quarantine cell of Fara Sancta monastery, clutching his side where the monk’s blade had twisted in his guts.

Weeks had passed since the ill-fated raid, spring shifting into midsummer, but the wound still ached if he moved wrong. Worse than the pain, though, was the bitter taste of failure in the back of his throat.

Fenrir sucked in another breath that burned in his lungs, and then another and another until his muscles unlocked and the tension began to bleed out of his limbs. And then he promptly ruined that effort by swinging his legs to the side of the bunk and trying to stand. The world spun like he was ale-addled, but he braced himself against the wall and managed to keep his feet. Though his legs held him little better than a newborn colt’s, he wanted more than anything to breathe the night air and taste the ghost of freedom on his tongue.

Moonlight filtered in through the lead-lined window of the cell and when he pushed away the glass pane, a breeze brushed against his skin like a caress. He shivered with pleasure and longing.

The Sea was crashing against the edges of Fara, a quiet sound now instead of the tempest in his dream.

That dream meant nothing, he was certain. He’d had a version of it before the journey from Denmark, but it had not been as clear then, no lightning flash to reveal the lover’s face. There had been the heaviness of a premonition in it, but Fenrir had never thought himself a seer. Though the ways of the gods and how they spoke to mortals could be strange, he’d still dismissed the dream then just as he did now, attributing it to the natural desire for a warm body against his, a good fuck, the kind that was bright and heady and full of joy at being alive. Victory in battle was almost as sweet.

But there had been no victory for Fenrir after the battle on Fara’s shore, only Caius’s sword and Caius’s stitches, a warrior’s death dangled in front of him then snatched from his grasp. Was there joy now in being alive? Here in this quiet cage with the hushed night noises of the monastery—near silent in comparison to a raiders’ camp with the constant murmur of voices and crackling fires. No, here now at Fara, all the monks were snoring in their beds and no fires burned. There was no laughter or soft songs or muffled moans. Fenrir only heard the sigh of the wind, the endless pitch of the Sea, and the occasional cry or chatter of nocturnal animals. And those things brought him only a restless energy and a hollow longing.

Another brush of the wind upon his face—and Fenrir wished it were the touch of a strong and steady hand. Another man’s touch on him, whether it be in love or in brotherhood. His brother’s large palm grasping the back of his neck as Gunnar pressed his forehead to Fenrir’s. A friend clasping his shoulder and shaking him in a good-natured jest. That damned dream-Celt pinning him down in the sand.

You’re mine, Fenrir heard again in his head like the echoes of a distant bell, and it sounded like Caius’s voice, at first a snarl of bitterness—you’re mine to kill—but then another echo, softer now, mine to heal, to have.

Of course the face the lightning had revealed had been Caius. Fen allowed himself to admit it here in the silent, dark room: he found the physician fascinating.

There was a warrior’s strength and form beneath the monk’s skirts, dark eyes that could cut sharp as a blade in one moment but then soften with a compassion that—well. It shamed Fen to be looked at in such a way. Shamed him because it tore him clean in two. He was enraged by the weakness of his limbs, how winded he became stumbling about the grounds of the monastery, but desire too flared in contrast whenever Cai touched him with careful hands and looked upon him with something other than disgust.

I am tired and I am lonely, Fen thought, surrendering and sitting heavily back down in the bed that smelled sweet—bedstraw, tansy, Cai had said in that lecture weeks ago, turning again all of what Fen had thought he knew of stupid, weak Christian monks on its head.

Caius. Cai. Behind Fen’s eyelids, he saw Cai’s furrowed brow as the monk studied his stitches and helped wrap new, clean strips of linen around him in the mornings. That bent head, the thick dark hair that Fen’s hands itched to touch just once, maybe, just to see what it felt like between his fingers. There was more he wanted to touch—the hard lines of him, the hidden muscles of the fighter that had crashed against him in battle, all fire and fury. I am lonely and he is beautiful.

It was difficult not to be fascinated with the physician. Fen had little to occupy himself during the days other than to observe Caius and to rest—a frustratingly slow process, but at least he was lucid and no longer required a shameful amount of assistance in simple tasks like washing his own body.

All he could do was rest and watch and wait.

He watched Caius and saw clearly how his brethren looked to him for guidance, for healing, for instruction. He was a natural leader of men, giving good orders with little thought. The infirmary was the domain where he held the most easy authority, but it was elsewhere, too, that his men followed his counsel. Fen understood that the black-clad scarecrow abbot was meant to be the leader of the monastery, but eyes strayed toward Caius first and foremost. And Caius led them well, not relying on fear or violence like some jarls did, and not relying on the hissing speeches of hellfire like the abbot did. Fenrir had seen Caius often enough over the past month to recognize the confidence that rested on his broad shoulders. He still was a prince in his own land, carrying himself like a capable, practical lord with a fiercely protective streak for the people sworn to his care. Despite the enemy under his roof.

And week by week, it became clearer that that enemy was not Fenrir. Fen could not forget that Caius had thrown the spiteful abbot Aelfric out of the ward on his behalf. And every day he helped Fen heal in spite of the damage that had on his reputation in his domain.

Fen kept his eyes and ears open in the day, collecting every scrap of gossip overheard from the weak, frightened Christians in the sick ward. Their anger over Fenrir’s presence on its own was understandable and washed over him like water, but their confusion over Caius’s behavior—now that had proven interesting to witness.

There had been another vikingr raid before the Torleik Danes came, an earlier search for Fara’s treasure that had proved equally as fruitless. Fenrir gathered that the monks had been completely unprepared for that first fight. Among the casualties had been the monastery’s previous abbot, Theo, and a boy that the other monks called Leof. Caius’s Leof, they said and the way those names sounded together… Fen wondered at that and added it to his growing impression of Caius. Warrior, Christian, physician—and perhaps a man who had loved another man.

Another question was on everyone’s minds. Why is Brother Cai keeping that Viking monster here, the other monks hissed, and Fen asked himself the same question. What did Caius want of him? Why did he insist on healing Fenrir when other raiders had slain people he had loved?

Sometimes the physician’s hands lingered in his ministrations. Sometimes Fenrir thought he caught a heat in those dark eyes, and Fen—lonely sea-wolf far from a welcoming hearth-fire—Fenrir wanted to lean into what that promised. What a relief it would be to have a lover or a friend.

He had never before been truly alone, not in this way. There had always been his fellow warriors, if he was not among the family communities back home in Denmark. More than that, though, there had always been Gunnar. Gunnar who had taught him how to wield a blade, how to fight in a shield wall, how to take joy in a battle well-fought and won. Gunnar, his brother. Who must have thought Fenrir dead on the beach, or who must have died and been stolen by the Sea, or else why—why had he not come to take Fenrir away from this place? Fenrir would have fought Jarl Sigurd himself in the square if he had been in Gunnar’s place, been ordered to leave his brother behind the walls of an enemy. Not even counting an enemy that only had one truly capable warrior in their ranks.

Still, it was maddening, the idea that Gunnar had… had abandoned Fenrir. Rage and denial sparked in Fenrir’s blood at the very thought. There could be no truth in that. None.

The fire in Fenrir cooled quickly and left grey-ash exhaustion behind. The weeks dragged on and no matter what had befallen Gunnar, Fenrir was still alone now, more than he had ever been. And another truth had revealed itself in isolation: Fenrir was not built to be on his own.

Oh, he had traveled lonely leagues before, gone on solitary hunts, taken weeks to himself in the wilderness to prove he could survive on little—but there had always been his brother, his friends, his lord to return to. A welcome home, a warm hearth. And if Fenrir left this place now—if he found his sword Blóðkraftr and stole away into the night with a week’s worth of supplies and that beautiful, regal horse that Cai hadn’t even had the good sense to name—where would he go? His strength would return in time, yes, but that could not give him the direction to ride in that would lead him back to his Torleik men. And he had no silver to trade, no allies to call on. If he tried to escape now, it would be a hard-scrabble survival while still wounded and weary with no clear road ahead.

And in any case, he was certain that Caius would come after him. The physician would cite a duty to his patient, perhaps, but the other words—you’re mine—Fenrir couldn’t shake them from his heart. Were they just part of the dream? Or a whisper that had reached him through the fever-haze of infection: don’t die, you’re mine.

He wondered—couldn’t help himself—he wondered what it would be like to be Cai’s. To lean into the touch of his hands and no longer feel so alone. Even if only for a little while.

The spill of moonlight into his room was shifting into the grey of dawn’s arrival. Another morning in Fara, welcomed in by the bell calling the monks to prayer. Fenrir was surprised by the surge of gratitude he felt at the sound. Its echoes reached out across the little land and mingled with the Sea’s constant song.

Fenrir waited for Caius to come for him.