“So,” Tekla said, setting a heavy tankard of ale down next to Fenrir and then thunking down onto the dock beside him. “Who is he?”
Fenrir was surprised by the laugh that clawed its way out of his throat, but no words followed it, just the ashen taste of grief on his tongue. He picked up the tankard his friend had brought and took a long, healthy pull of the ale to give himself time to bolster his defenses, futile though he already knew they would be against the sharpness of Tekla’s eyes.
At their backs was the Torleik settlement in evening, their community attempting to enjoy the last few hours before finding their beds. It was quiet outside of the houses and Jarl Sigurd’s hall, but there were still the familiar nighttime noises: the crackle of fires and distant laughter and songs drifting in the air, tangling up with smoke on their path to the stars above. It wasn’t so cold yet, autumn crisp and baring kitten-teeth that would grow into the fangs of winter all too soon. Fenrir kept his gaze fixed on the glitter of moonlight on the water and ached over how much he had missed this place and those familiar sounds—but longing still cut deep into his heart for the land across the North Sea. He missed the near-silent nights of Fara when he had curled up in Caius’s arms.
Tekla took a sip of her own ale and bumped her shoulder against Fenrir’s. He let himself sway with the companionable gesture. “Come now,” she said, wiping her mouth with the back of a forge-strong, callused hand. She kept her voice low. “I’ve known you since we were both too small to lift axe or sword. I know the look of you pining. Tell me about the man who has you staring out into the Sea like a lovesick fool.” She gently pushed her knuckles against the side of his face, the slowest and weakest of punches. “You look like someone cut the heart out of you.”
Fenrir sucked a breath in through his teeth, wincing at the truth in those words. “Regrettably, that was my decision,” he admitted, and took another drink.
Home was nothing like he had thought it would be. He had expected to find the Torleik Danes leaderless and tearing each other apart, but when he stepped off the ship and strode down the road, he had been greeted by a shout of joy from one of his old men—brave and brash Dagfinn with a crooked grin and a bone-crushing embrace—and the words, wait ‘til Sigurd sees you!
The only news that had come to Fara and been proven true was that the Torleik would starve over the winter if the Three Spinners did not weave them a new fate. The bulk of the harvest had been taken with raids from rivals and in-fighting under Gunnar—Gunnar, oh, it still twisted a knife inside him to think of how Fenrir had cut his brother down in battle-rage, despite Gunnar’s betrayal, despite Caius’s wounds—and there was little left now to sustain those who took Sigurd back as their lord.
And it seemed that there had been little hope, too, until Fenrir had returned from the dead and came carrying the treasure of Fara with him.
Fenrir scrubbed a hand across his face, feeling bone-weary thinking over the tangled knot that seemed to be his fate.
“Regrettable?” His childhood friend scoffed at the word, though the press of her shoulder against his was one of solidarity, not dismissiveness. “For lost love, sure, but I am glad you have found your way home. I nearly killed Rorik when he said they’d left you to bleed out in the sand.”
Fenrir reached over and took Tekla’s hand, hearing the spark of bitterness in her. Her older brother Rorik had been Gunnar’s oath-man and had died in the second Torleik raid of Fara, cut down by the Roman monk Marcus. “He gave me an apology and news of home before he passed onward. I made sure he died with his axe in his hand.”
Tekla squeezed his hand hard. She tilted her face up to the sky and blinked rapidly against tears. “I don’t blame you for fighting with the monks.”
Do you not? Fenrir wondered. He had made it clear to Sigurd and to anyone who asked who he owed his life to, and some understood his allegiance in the raid to be a debt owed and paid back. But others had studied Fenrir with varying levels of bemusement and suspicion. Old friends or not, he hadn’t been certain exactly of where Tekla stood. “Caius saved me,” he told her, quiet and sure. “And the monks even helped me give our brothers the proper funeral rites.”
“Caius—is that his name then?”
Ah. Caught. Fenrir felt his mouth twist into something like a smile, small and still wounded.
Tekla flicked a stray lock of her bright hair away from her face and looked back at him, her silver eyes shining. “Sounds Roman. Did you sweep a warrior-prince off his feet instead of the peace-loving priest I’ve been imagining?”
Fenrir ducked his head and felt warmth rise to his cheeks. There was no use in keeping the memories tucked away, hidden from her. The comfort of decades as friends had built the sturdy foundation of trust between them. As he had known he would, he began to tell her of Cai—his strength and his generosity, his fierce prowess as a warrior and his kind competency as a healer, his excitement over new knowledge and his instinctive leadership over his brother monks—all the wonderful contradictions and patterns that were woven together to make him the fine man that Fenrir had been helplessly drawn to from even the early fever-soaked days of his healing.
“He sounds remarkable,” Tekla said at last, when Fenrir’s voice had stumbled and fallen silent after telling her how Caius had challenged and won the right to lead the monastery without a drop of blood spilled. The wonder of that day cut too near to the sorrow he wore like a scar.
“There are none like him,” Fenrir managed, rough. “And there will be none like him for me.”
Tekla threw her arm across his shoulders, laughing quietly. “I never thought I’d see the day someone finally stole your heart. My wife will be as pleased to hear it as I am.”
The shock of that declaration reached through to Fenrir and he pushed Tekla away so he could look her in the face. “Your wife? Siggy finally married you?”
Tekla grinned, full of pride and pleasure. “Yes, we were handfast at last in midsummer.”
Tekla was one to talk of pining. It had taken a full year of her bemoaning her feelings to Fenrir and wrestling with her uncertainty at Siggy reciprocating before she had found the courage to make her move in the previous winter. Before that there had been other affairs, mirrors to Fenrir’s—short-lived and all of the same sex. Tekla had known, just as Fenrir had known growing up, where her desires had turned.
Though there had been a brief time when Jarl Sigurd had suggested that Fenrir settle down with Tekla and have a few Torleik babies by her—oh, how they both had laughed when he ran to the stables to tell her, the two of them doubled over with mirth and startling the horses she had been tending to. There was love between them, but that of family, not husband and wife.
Fenrir laughed again now and this time it was bright, a spark of true, shared happiness for a friend.
“There!” Tekla beamed and lifted her tankard in salute, her teeth flashing in that grin full of mirth and mischief. “That’s a real smile and all the congratulations I need now. I am satisfied, even though you are still a sorry shadow of yourself without your man.”
“Gods,” Fenrir gasped, still helpless with laughter. “Look at us! You married and I—I also—” A wave of tears washed over him now, the edge of too much and threatening to spill over. He hadn’t talked of this to anyone and the story tumbled out of him now: “Across the Sea, there was an old woman named Danan. A strange one, a seer. I saved her from a pyre and she offered to carry out a handfasting ceremony for me and Cai. But she stopped the ritual before the end, saying I could not keep the promise of it—and she was right, I…” A sob caught and then he felt the tears slip down his cheeks. “I did not have a year and a day to give to him.”
“Ahh, Fen,” Tekla murmured and hauled him close, letting him press his forehead against her shoulder and bury his shame there, weeping freely.
When the storm of it had passed, he apologized. “I am happy for you,” he insisted, scrubbing at his face. “I will come tomorrow to give my congratulations to Siggy, too. And you must tell me how it was with you both.”
“I’ll save the tale for then,” Tekla said, leaning over to kiss his temple. “Siggy tells it best and I would hate to rob her of that. You will come have dinner with us after your audience with Sigurd.”
Fenrir swore and dropped his face down into his hands with a groan. Meeting with his uncle had turned into a daily argument, and this confirmed that the settlement was spreading gossip about what was said between them.
Sure enough, Tekla reached into Fenrir’s mind and plucked at the thread of his anxiety. “You won’t convince Sigurd to stay here, my friend. We lost too much of the harvest. And his reputation will not survive the winter any better than we will if we do not—”
“If we do not take what we need from somewhere else, I know,” Fenrir said, exhausted. “But we are strong and there is still a little time before winter. Surely we can still find what we need and heal our land in spring. We don’t need to—” He bit down on the rest and ground it between his teeth, knowing it was a useless argument. The phantom taste of blood and smoke in his mouth was unbearable. He closed his eyes and saw the cruel flames devouring Fara monastery. Burned against his eyelids was that sight of Caius falling to his knees, his life’s blood pouring out and staining the ground.
Tekla’s hand was heavy on Fenrir’s shoulder and Fenrir knew she felt the shudder that rolled through him like thunder. But she spoke softly now and again with sympathy. “You brought Gleipnir to us from Fara Sancta. The men see it as a sign from the gods that that is where we should settle.”
Fenrir could not deny that it would be a dream to return. To be back in Cai’s arms, settled there and hidden from the rest of the world in the barley field or the sand dunes. But Sigurd would destroy the monastery and Saxon village both, bleed them for all their silver and grain, take livestock and slaves. Sigurd did not know how to win the hearts of others without bloodshed.
“My Caius…” Fenrir lifted his head and swiped at the renewed wetness in his eyes. “I will not endanger him or those under his care.”
Tekla hummed thoughtfully. “You hold Gleipnir, do you not?”
“I do.” Fenrir had been surprised that Sigurd had allowed him to keep the leather ribbon, but Sigurd had studied Fenrir’s face after reading the runes. One long, terrible howl had been held back by Fenrir’s clenched teeth, but he had endured Sigurd’s cool gaze until the jarl nodded and pressed the ribbon back into Fenrir’s hand. You will be my standard-bearer and this is yours to fly, my sister-son.
Tekla’s voice dropped quieter than before, low enough that Fenrir had to lean in close to catch her words. “We won’t follow Sigurd for his own sake. Gleipnir is our strength returned to us and you carry it. You could challenge him as Gunnar did, if you wanted.”
If he wanted.
“What do I want?” he murmured aloud, already knowing the answer in his heart but still testing its strength against what it would mean to throw out Sigurd and take the Torleik into his hands.
There was the path he dreamed of—to stand at Cai’s side and make a happy life with him, even if it did not hold the traditional glory of a warrior. To tend to the fields and the livestock and the brother monks, to live beneath the monastery’s belltower and defend it all as necessary from threats. To bind himself forever to the man that had saved him, healed him, earned his love and his loyalty.
But there was this other path now laid out before his feet. The opportunity to slide into the place that he had been born to, a vikingr life of fighting and raiding until the farming season—but not only that. If he challenged Sigurd and won, he could take a lord’s throne, throwing his uncle down as his brother had and rising up to lead, fierce and bloody and… alone.
Caius would not stand at his side if he became the leader of the Torleik. Maybe once, back before Cai had become the new Abbot of Fara, back in that sweet hour when they had thought to run away together. But Cai would not abandon his men for another life, not now.
Being a leader of men meant you were responsible for their lives. They trusted you to lead them to wealth and glory and safety and prosperity—and either held a knife to your throat or left you in a bleak winter if their trust in you turned. Fenrir had come home to lead the Torleik, but only because he had thought there had been no one else. No other choice.
Sigurd was here, however, making preparations for an invading force that Fenrir did not know he could stop, even if he rose above his uncle. Fenrir held Gleipnir and its power, but the men still believed it to be a good omen for the settlement of land surrounding Fara. Fenrir had the sinking suspicion that stopping the invasion was impossible.
But there had to be some way to save everyone he loved.
“I’ll tell you what I want,” Tekla said, slicing through his thoughts. She drained the last dregs of ale from her cup and rose to her feet. “I want to live, Fenrir. I want to live at least another year and a day with my wife. Think on that for me, will you?” She ruffled his hair, dodging his habitual swipe of retaliation. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“You will,” Fenrir promised, waving her off. But she did not walk away from him just yet.
“Fen,” she said, her face lit by fire and moonlight, by affection and wistfulness. “I am happy for you, too. Losing your heart to love can be sweet. If fate allows it, I’d like to meet your man one day.”
In his mind’s eye, Fenrir saw a mead hall table laid out with food and ale, Celts and Danes laughing and mingling with each other in peace and brotherhood. Tekla, his friend, telling embarrassing tales of their childhood to Caius, his love. It was sweet, the very thought.
If there was a way to make that future come to pass, Fenrir wanted that more than anything else in the world.
“Goodnight,” Fen called softly to Tekla’s retreating back, scooping up the tankard she had brought him and left behind. He lifted it to his lips and the slightly sour taste of the remaining ale lingered on his tongue.
Alone again, he peered out at the shine of moonlight on the water and the dark horizon-line. A breeze brushed its cool fingers against his cheek and the Sea stretched out to the Northumbrian shore so very far away. Goodnight, beloved, he thought, but kept the words safe inside his chest where his heart beat the rhythm of longing and fear. And also determination.
Fen would cling tight to the thread of hope and follow where it led in the tapestry of their fates. He rested his fingertips over the hidden pocket he had made in his clothes, the place where Gleipnir was kept. This cord, Cai had said in the moment of their parting, this thing that has the power to bind all Vikings, won’t it bind just one?
Cai let Fen go, but Fen still had the promise in his heart that Cai had not let him say aloud. To come back and to be bound to love. Certainty of that desire poured strength into his very bones.
Fenrir would fight his way back and return to the life he had been forging at Cai’s side.