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Brothers Of The Wild North Sea



Copyright © April 2017 by Harper Fox



Cover art by Harper Fox

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This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is entirely coincidental.

Brothers Of The Wild North Sea

Harper Fox


Dedication


To Jane, in commemoration of our civil partnership,

3rd September 2012.



Table of Contents


Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty One

Epilogue



Chapter One

Year 687 Christian Era, Britannia, northeast coast

The sea bells were ringing. Caius, walking by the side of a shaggy pony who needed no leading this close to home, listened in wonder. The dunes were scattered with them—fragile purple flower heads the children called hare’s bells, dancing in the wind. Twenty summers ago, a child himself, Caius had heard them often. Then time had passed, and like all childhood songs, their music had vanished into the sounds of the world.

He halted the pony on the crest of a dune. From here, the whole coastal plain was laid out before him, a long, wild stretch of salt flats and grassland that paralleled the glimmering sea until both melted into the distance. A vision of heaven, on a spring day like this one. Drawing a deep breath, Caius let himself forget the long winters, when the gale swept down untrammelled from the north, scouring every living thing to tatters in its frozen, sand-filled blast. He did love it here. Unlike his father’s stronghold in the hills, his new home stood unsheltered, a collection of low buildings on a small tidal island whose causeway twice a day was sunk beneath the restless sea.

And the tides come highest at the dark and full of the moon, because then both sun and moon line up to pull the water. Caius smiled in pleasure at the memory of his latest heretical lesson in astronomy, taught him in the darkened church with an apple and a candle flame, Abbot Theodosius spinning the round apple Earth by its stalk—yes, round!—and Caius and the other monks watching open-mouthed. Cai loved Theo’s teachings. There was nowhere else to learn a thing other than farming and warfare in the whole of this bleak northern land, not until you reached the monasteries clustered round the River Tyne fifty miles to the south. Cai couldn’t regret the path he’d chosen. The eldest son of a chieftain, he’d walked away from a rich inheritance of land and men. But all old Broccus cared about was feasting, fornication and clobbering the daylights out of the warlords who occupied the hillforts next to his.

Here, the very soil was sacred. Cai was an uncertain convert to the new faith, but he could feel that much, sense the rightness of the ancient name the tidal island bore, a name like the yearning cry of a bird. It rose up in his heart—Fara Sancta. The island of the holy tide. Fara.

Movement in the distance caught his eye. The trackway here was lined with odd green mounds. Theo taught that these were the burial places of men and women who’d lived here long before Christians or old Roman warlords had ever been thought of, but sometimes Cai wondered if the local superstitions might be true, tales of fairy creatures you should never name aloud as such, addressing them respectfully as the good folk, the kindly ones. At twilight on the dunes, it was easier to believe in fairy tales than history. And even in the brightness of noon, when a green mound stirred and a shape detached itself from the top, leapt down and began to stump towards him…

“Danan,” he called, hoping he’d managed to conceal his nervous twitch. “Why must you lurk there?”

“Where better to waylay a bonny young monk on his way back from trading?”

Cai blinked, not quite trusting his vision, though the air was crystalline. The old woman had an uncanny knack for covering ground. Cai remembered her as ancient when he’d been a baby in the hillfort stronghold, and she hadn’t seemed to age since then. Still, she was stooped and fragile, and he couldn’t quite see how she’d closed the gap between them so fast.

“But I’m early,” he said, watching in amusement while she shamelessly began to open the pony’s baskets and leather sacks. “The weaver I was meant to meet at Traprain Law never came. How did you know I’d be here?”

“How do I know that the weather will change? How do I know where to find the snowbound lambs? What’s in this satchel here?”

“Don’t you know?”

She stopped in her efforts to undo the satchel’s thongs. She shot Cai a look of withering scorn and laughter. “You’re a devil, Caius, even if you do wear a dress and sing songs to your new god. Is it beads? And gold?”

Cai affected to brush flies from the pony’s ears. He was glad of the reminder concerning his cassock, which he’d folded up into a pack in favour of his travelling gear, tough deerskin trousers and a homespun shirt. That was all very well for the road, but now he was within sight of Fara, he’d better soon get changed.

“Perhaps it is,” he said mysteriously. Danan had a weakness for finery. She never wore the jewellery she accumulated from traders and goldsmiths, and rumours swirled that she kept them as a hoard for some dragon she’d tamed in the hills. “Perhaps I have old Roman blue glass and nicely wrought gold earrings hung with coral flowers.”

“Coral? Or just red enamel?”

Cai smiled. She’d taught him carefully to know the difference. “Coral,” he said. “Pink as strawberries.”

“And how will you trade those amongst your joyless brethren at Fara?”

“I didn’t buy them for the brethren. I bought them to trade with you—depending upon what you’ve got.”

She stamped her foot. “Vows of poverty,” she cried, shaking her badger-grey hair into a cloud around her head. “Humility, charity. You’re as sharp a dealer as your father, boy, for all your noble ideals. What is it you wish, then? What would you charge a poor old woman for your filthy gold—or tin, I shouldn’t wonder, judging by the last sorry bargain you made?”

“The usual. My medical supplies are running low.” Cai changed tack and gave her his most charming smile. He’d become Fara’s informal doctor in the two years since his conversion. He wasn’t quite sure how the role had crept up on him, except that the brethren had lacked a physician, and he’d brought with him a steady hand and a knowledge of herbs gained by tagging Danan around the fields. “Most of all I need the plants and powders only you know how to find and prepare, Lady Danan. The roots that give peace and help for pain.”

“Aye, aye. Very well. Turn your back, boy, or see what no monk should.”

Cai turned briskly. Danan kept her wares stitched into little pouches secreted inside her voluminous, brightly dyed skirts. Once he hadn’t looked away fast enough, and the sticklike limbs in rabbit-skin undergarments had haunted him for days. He cleared his throat. “How is Broccus? Have you seen him lately?”

“Oh, the old fool’s well enough. He’s got his latest girl with child, if you’ll believe it—another little step-sib for you, to add to the clan of them already swarming round his regal mud huts. All right—you may look.”

She’d done him proud. Eagerly he eyed the array of vials and pouches she was setting out on the sunny turf. He took the heaviest packs off the weary pony’s back and left it to graze, settling beside the old woman on a stone. As always when they met to trade, she handed him the preparations one by one, carefully explaining their use, dosage, effects both good and ill. Extract of willow bark, to cool fevers and inflammation. The powerful juice of foxgloves, an aid to struggling hearts. A dozen harmless tonics, and finally a carefully stoppered bottle in the cloudy, thick glass the art of whose making Cai’s people had almost lost along with the occupying Romans, and were only slowly recovering now, for church windows and the most precious of domestic wares. Cai had seen the oily liquid inside the vial before. Essence of poppy, so sweet a remedy for sleeplessness in small amounts. And in large… “Danan, I’m not sure I can buy this from you.”

“That depends upon the beauty of my earrings.”

“No. I mean I’m not sure that I ought.”

“Why not? You’ve taken it before.”

“Yes. I used it up in sleeping draughts and tonics for the nerves. Then when Brother Gregory sickened with the tumour, I wished I’d had more, because…”

“Because you’d have released him?”

“Yes. I was afraid I would. And surely life and death are in God’s hands.”

“Is that what they teach you? How did Gregory die?”

Screaming and blaspheming, after a life of perfect sanctity. Cai looked away. He hadn’t asked to become physician to the Fara brethren, but he took his duties seriously and hated to fail. “I will take the poppy.”

“In that case, I will take my jewels.”

He unpacked the satchel and watched while Danan transformed from wisdom-filled herbalist to cackling crone. She snatched up the rose-pendant earrings and dangled them from her shrivelled lobes, wrapped the beads around her head in a lopsided crown and danced on the spot, piping out a wordless, tuneless chant. Cai let her get on with it, gathering up his purchases.

He frowned and shook his head. The hare’s bells were ringing once more, their silver whisper-music increasing as if in response to the old woman’s song. “Lady Danan, can you hear that?”

She didn’t interrupt her dance. Her eyes were closed, her expression blissful. “Of course I can.” Then she froze. She swung on him. “Can you?”

“Yes. I think so. Something.”

“Ah, that’s not for mortal ears.”

Her own looked far from divine in those earrings. Cai grinned. He slung his packs across the pony’s back, checking to see the heavy grain bags hadn’t rubbed the beast sore. “What is it, then?”

It means something. Something.” She scampered up the side of the green mound closest to the track and stood there swaying, scenting the air. Cai waited. She was prone to sudden bursts of prophecy, mostly too vague to be useful, sometimes clear and starkly accurate. “Ah.” She clapped her hands. “Yes. Yes. The vikingr are coming.”

Cai shivered. He had no idea what they called themselves, the raiders from beyond the northern sea, whose dragon-head boats had haunted the shores of his childhood for as long as he could remember. Cai’s people and the brethren used the word picked up from traders to the south, some of whom ventured west to do business with the less ferocious Saxons overseas—vikingr, the pirates. The final R was awkward to local tongues and often got dropped. The meaning was forgotten, too, subsumed in the terror the name could evoke. Not just pirates—a race, a force, an implacable visitation from hell. The Vikings… “They always come,” he said uneasily. “Not yet, though. It’s too soon in the year. The storms are still bad.” He took the pony’s rein. “Anyway, they always sail past us at Fara. We’re too poor to bother with.”

“Things have changed. You have something they want. They will come.”

Fire, burned-out villages, women stumbling round the charred remains in search of vanished children… Cai shook off the memories. He’d ridden with his father through the coastal settlements on mornings after raids, smelling smoke and blood, Broccus grimly assessing the damage and giving such aid as he could. “Not yet,” he repeated flatly. “No.”

“Can you hear the music anymore?”

Cai listened. All he could hear was the anxious thud of his own heart and the stir of the wind in the dune grass. “No. Wait, though… Yes.”

“That’s your own church bell, foolish boy. Seems you’ll miss your lunch.”

Cai smiled in relief at the rough, ordinary sound. Theo had done his best to introduce Hours, the elegant rhythms of monastic life—matins, lauds, prime and the rest, dividing the day into twelve equal parts—for the spiritual and temporal regulation of his community, but it hadn’t worked on Fara. Cai’s brethren were subsistence farmers, out in far-flung fields all day, tending such livestock and crops as they owned. Now the bell rang twice a day—once at noon and once at dusk, announcing food was ready for those close enough to come and eat. “That’s probably what I was hearing.”

Danan looked down at him. Her expression was gentler than usual. There was a trace of pity there, a sorrow whose source Cai couldn’t read. “Yes,” she said. “Probably that was all.”

“I have to go.”

“Yes. Be well, Cai. Just…listen for the music of the sea bells when you can. Listen for it.”

He shrugged. “I will. Goodbye, Danan.”

He was almost at the foot of the dune, the pony trudging patiently at his side, when she called to him again. “Caius.”

He turned, shielding his eyes from the sun. She was weirdly outlined by it, her shape seeming to coruscate and shift. She could have been a girl standing there, or a proud young woman. “Caius, your father grieves for you.”

“No, he doesn’t,” Cai shouted back cheerfully. “He threw me out when I converted. Disinherited me too.”

“Nonetheless.”

“He told me to keep my castrated Christian carcase out of his sight until I’d learned what a real man was. So I shall. You can pass that on to him when you next see him—if he’s still grieving, that is.”

Cai strode on briskly, the pony breaking into a resentful trot beside him. He always felt better when he’d restated, to himself or anyone else, his reasons for leaving Broccus and the hillfort far behind him. Broc regarded any form of learning as a pitiful waste of time. He lived for hunting, bloodshed and noisy copulation with the endless stream of women he bought from slave dealers or stole along with cattle from his neighbours during raids. Cai had had to get away. And he had to remember the bad things, because the stupid truth was that Cai grieved for his father too.

They were so alike. That was the trouble. Broc could be forgiven for thinking his firstborn son, who resembled him in every detail, would have followed in his rampaging footsteps. Coal-black eyes, hair to match. Strong frames saved from squatness by a length of well-nourished bone carried somehow down the line from Broc’s Roman ancestors, soldiers who’d manned Hadrian’s great wall in the last days of the empire, married into the people they called Brittunculi—dirty little Britons!—and stayed behind when the occupying forces went home. That had been three hundred years ago, but Broc still kept among his prized possessions a Roman army standard, indescribably blackened by time. Yours, he’d told Caius again and again. Yours when you reach manhood and perpetuate my name.

There was little chance of that at Fara. The perpetuating part, anyway—Cai, at twenty-four summers, had long since attained his majority. Broc had provided him with girls, but Cai hadn’t wanted a slave, or worse still some tired, resigned castoff of the old man’s. He hadn’t really known what he wanted, until…

Swift movement flickered on the white-gold beach that bordered Fara to the north. Cai raised a hand to shield his eyes against the sun. A shiver of pleasure went through him, driving off his shadows. In many ways Broccus needn’t have worried—Cai was a very poor Christian still, frequently shipwrecked on the tides of sensual enjoyment that came to sweep his new ascetic principles away. In many ways he was his father’s son.

He lifted a hand and waved to the young man running full pelt up the beach, his cassock hitched into both hands, his flag of fair hair flying. “Leof! Leof!”

They met as they always did after Cai’s trading trips—arms outstretched, laughter shaking them, knocking the breath from one another on impact. Cai had been gone for three weeks this time, much longer than usual, and their collision was proportionately harder, tumbling them both into the sand. They rolled in the dune grass, little crushed clusters of flowering thyme sending up fragrance around them. “Leof. How are you, you puny Saxon? How is Fara?”

“Oh—the same.” Leof beamed up at him. His face was smudged as usual with ink from the scriptorium. “Hengist has discovered a new seaweed we can eat. Brother Gareth has a wart and thinks it’s plague. Theo’s had me working all hours on his book.”

“And is it?”

“What?”

“Plague?”

“Oh, no.”

“Thank God for that, then. I don’t have to hurry home.”

Their mouths met, smile to hungry smile. For Cai there was nothing finer than this—Brother Leof at the end of a journey, a passionate reunion in the dunes. He let the younger man roll on top of him, shuddering with joy at the surrender. Leof was lighter, less huskily built, but it wasn’t about strength, and still less force, as he’d have liked to explain to Broc, if it wasn’t immediately imperative to thrust all thoughts of his father right out of his mind. “I’ve missed you.”

“I’ve missed you. Ah, you look fine out of your cassock.”

“And so will you, out of yours.”

Leof shook with laughter. “Fool. I have to talk to you.”

“Talk after this.”

But it’s about this, Cai.”

“Well, then—tell me after, while the subject’s still fresh in your mind.”

The pony regarded them placidly. Around them, sky and air wove the ancient song of the meeting place of earth and sea—wave-rush on the shore, gulls mewing and sobbing. No more bells, except a last dying peal from Fara.

“You’ve missed your lunch,” Cai whispered, running a hand up beneath Leof’s cassock and stroking the skinny belly underneath. “And you’re thin. Have you been eating?”

“I forget. I lose myself. It seems of more importance to follow the curve of a letter with my brush than to pursue a clanging, cracked bell to the refectory.”

“Very noble-minded. But the curves and the weave and all your wondrous little beasts can’t live if their creator isn’t fed.” Cai moved his hand, and Leof arched his head back, groaning. “At least this part of you is still vigorous.”

“For you it is. Oh, Caius—my brother, my brother…”

 

 

Caius stripped out of his travelling clothes. The damage to the deerskin leggings wasn’t too bad, he noted—just one small damp mark, the rest of his seed spilled blissfully into the turf and the clutch of his own hand, Leof’s pouring hotly into his throat, where Cai could still taste it, salty and rich. He shook out his cassock from the pony’s pack but didn’t immediately put it on. The heavy brown wool was in need of laundering, at his long journey’s end, and on spring days like this its weight was unappealing. Still, it was practical, warm in the draughty monastery buildings, and Brother Hengist had perfected a wash that kept most of the lice out. Cai stood naked, idly scratching the pony’s ears, enjoying the caress of the warm wind on his skin.

“Cai, please get dressed. No man as beautiful as you should ever be allowed amongst monks.”

Caius looked at Leof in surprise. He was sitting curled up on the turf, his skirts firmly tucked around his ankles. He was pale in the sunlight, and Cai put the cassock down again and unpacked the last of his bread and cheese. He had a little wine left too, nice Traprain mead, not as good as the stuff they brewed up themselves at Fara but restorative nonetheless. “Here,” he said, dropping down beside Leof and handing him the flagon and a chunk of bread folded up round the cheese. “I am not beautiful. I’m a Roman-Briton mongrel with no grace. Not like…” He pushed Leof’s breeze-winnowed hair off his brow. Of all the polyglot men who had gathered at Fara—old-blood villagers like himself, Theo’s Greek contingent, the Angles and Danes from the colonies further south—he was the fairest, probably nearest in kin to the strapping great Vikings who tore up the shorelines all summer long. Not that Cai would ever have said so to gentle-spirited Leof, who abhorred their very name. “Not like you, my blue-eyed Saxon. Now eat and drink, and tell me what’s bothering you.”

Leof wiped his mouth like a child. “I almost don’t want to. I feel so ungrateful, when I’ve been so happy with you.”

You’re not leaving, are you?” Cai frowned and cast his mind back over the past few weeks, his own various misdemeanours. Theo was tolerant, but… “Oh. Am I leaving?”

“No. Nothing like that. I missed you so much while you were away, but…I thought more too. Prayed more.”

“Am I that much of a disturbance?”

Not you yourself. Your friendship means everything to me. It’s just that I can hear the voice of God more clearly when you’re not here to make my flesh sing. Caius—please put your cassock back on.”

Cai got up. What surprised him was that he wasn’t more surprised. He unfolded the garment and slipped its familiar weight over his head. In the musky dark of his own scent, a bitter anger touched him. He wasn’t quite used to Leof’s god even now, and he felt as if he’d lost to a rival. He emerged, tossing back the hood from his head, and saw Leof white and stricken, tears beginning to gleam on his face.

“Oh, Cai. You do still love me, don’t you?”

Cai strode over to him. He knelt beside him and hauled him into his arms. “Of course.” Yes, he had been waiting for this. Leof becoming his lover at all was an example of something Theo called irony. Leof’s gentle teachings about peace, detachment, release from the hungers of the flesh—these had drawn Cai to him in the first place. He kissed the bowed head on his shoulder, remembering his first sight of that flaxen hair across a rowdy marketplace in Alnwick. Cai had bartered with him for Fara mead, and then while the wagons were being packed up towards sundown, had walked with him up onto the hill that overlooked the town.

Cai had had a bad day. He’d gone to seek his father and found him grunting and sweating over a slave girl young enough to be his grandchild. He’d had a bad week, trailing the old goat around the strongholds, joining in brief, bloody skirmishes when Broc took a fancy to a neighbour’s cow, plough or daughters. Leof hadn’t preached. He’d simply talked about Fara—the wide, quiet spaces, the companionship of like-minded men, the chance to learn. Cai had met him three times after that. On the third occasion he’d decided he wanted to become a monk, and had celebrated by rolling the wide-eyed, willing Leof down into the hay in an abandoned barn. And willing Leof had remained, but Cai knew he had pulled the lad out of his natural ways. “How could I not love you? Please don’t weep.”

“Don’t you mind?”

Yes.” Just not as much as I’d expected to. You touch my innermost soul, but not like that—even when I’m coming with you, racked by that fierce joy, I still can hear the gulls call, the waves wash on the sand. “It’s your choice, though.”

“I want to try to be celibate again. We did take vows of chastity, you know.”

“Yes, but that means keeping clear of village maidens, doesn’t it?”

Leof chuckled wistfully. “I think it means this too.”

“Well, Theo never specified.”

“No. He leaves us to choose for ourselves—perhaps too much.” He sat up, and Cai offered him a rag from his provisions pack to blow his nose. “Cai—will you try it too? You say you don’t hear God when he speaks to you, and maybe that’s been my fault, letting us both be distracted by… Oh. Kissing me that way is not a good start, is it?”

Cai sat back, ashamed. He didn’t mind Leof’s choice, but his own nature was sensual, contrary, his flesh already missing what it knew it could no longer have. “I’m sorry. Come on. We should go, before Theo spots us out here with his spyglass. I didn’t tell you—I met Danan on the path not half an hour ago.”

“Did you?” Leof put out a hand to be hoisted up, gratitude for the change of subject in his eyes. “What gossip did she have for you?”

“Not much. She did have a prophecy, though. The Vikings are coming, she said.”

“The Vikings always come. Not yet, though—it’s still much too cold for good raiding.”

That’s what I told her.” Cai put an arm around Leof’s waist. The gesture was only fraternal, and Leof seemed to perceive it that way, relaxing into his embrace and beginning to walk at his side. Perhaps I’ll make a good monk after all. Perhaps I can separate it out—flesh from spirit, and hear the voice of God as you do. “Oh, that reminds me. I have to listen.”

“Wonders will never cease. To what?”

“The music of the bells, Danan said. The sea bells.”

 

 

The tide was out, the causeway crossing easy. The pony tossed its head in the salty wind that swept across the mudflats and started to pull ahead of Caius on its leading rein. Cai restrained it gently. He didn’t want his bottles and supplies to be jostled about, but he shared the little beast’s enthusiasm for home. The monastery stood on a vast outcrop of rock—the final flourish, so they said, of a great spine of it that ran right across the country to the west coast, bearing for many of its rippling miles the remains of Emperor Hadrian’s great wall. On its northern side, where windswept slopes ran down to the beach, the brethren had terraced the land and persuaded from it—with the aid of many tons of stinking kelp—crops of oats and barley. There was Brother Benedict now, the only one of them strong enough to handle the plough unaided, pacing the length of one terrace behind a patient ox. Beside him walked his inseparable companion Oslaf, chanting Saxon myths and Christian psalms to him to keep him entertained and his furrows running in a straight line. On the rocky landward side where little else grew, Demetrios was collecting scurvy grass and bellowing in Greek at Wilfrid’s goats, who also loved the succulent green leaves.

Oslaf spotted Cai and Leof and lifted a hand in greeting. Cai grinned, waving back. Leof was lit up with pleasure too. It was a good place for a homecoming. A hard-worked, hand-to-mouth existence, but a rational one, with time for contemplation and learning. Cai was young enough, sickened enough by his father’s bestial ways, to imagine he’d found his path. If he didn’t believe as Leof did—if he couldn’t yet kneel in Fara’s church and truly accept he was bathed in the presence of God—that would come.

A powerful voice boomed out across the salt flats. “Wilfrid!”

Cai was close enough to see the goatherd jump as if slapped. At the top of the narrow trail that led up Fara’s western flank, a tall, spare figure had appeared—Abbot Theodosius, never far from the workday crises of his monks. His desk in the scriptorium was placed to give him a view out over the widest possible sweep of the land. “Wilfrid, do you wish a flaking rash to break across your skin?”

“No, my lord abbot.”

Do you wish... Let me see… Do you wish for loose teeth, a dry mouth, mysterious bruising and seizures?”

“No, my lord abbot.”

“Nor do any of us. Keep your goats under control and let Demetrios gather his weeds. Well, Caius, my physician—did I miss anything out?”

Cai brought the pony to a halt. Others of his brethren were running to take charge of the beast, unsaddle him and carry Cai’s packages upslope. Theo was bounding down the steps that still divided them.

“Bloodlessness and haemorrhaging in the late stages,” Cai called up to him, “but otherwise, well done.”

“Ah, you see—I attend, I learn. Still, I’m glad to see you back—Brother Gareth has plague.”

“Yes, so I’m told.”

“How was your journey? Did you trade off all our wool?”

“Yes, and next year’s shearing too, if we’ll weave it ourselves for the market.”

“Good boy, good boy.” Theo leapt the last four steps in one and strode to greet them, hands extended. “Let me bless you. Leof, you too, though I did see you only an hour ago.”

Cai hitched up his cassock hem and dropped to his knees on the turf, Leof mirroring his action at his side. Never in his life had Cai knelt to any man, or any god, until he came to Fara. Here, though, in the pure sweet air, the gesture had been stripped of shame for him. He bowed his head and waited for his abbot’s benediction.

“Blessed be the travellers who come safely home,” Theo pronounced, resting his hands on their skulls.

“Praise be to God,” they chorused back. They had all three switched into Church Latin, their only common tongue, Leof and Cai dropping the homely dialect of the northern shores. The transition was a reflex for Cai by now. He’d struggled at first, but a two-year immersion in the language of Bible and churchmen the world over had had its effect, and he’d discovered to his surprise that Broccus had prepared his mind for some of it, with the bawdy old chants handed down to him from his Roman forebears.

The benediction over, Theodosius ruffled their hair, first Cai’s dark mop and then Leof’s fair one. “I should tonsure you,” he said worriedly. “I know I should. You two and all the others.”

Cai smiled up at him, pushing to his feet. He’d gathered from his trading trips that certain aspects of monastic life were different here than in other communities. There were no astronomy lessons for the brotherhoods down south—why should there be, when God had fixed the Earth at the centre of creation, leaving nothing new to know?—and Cai had learned to raise his hood when dealing with the monks of Tyne, or risk a storm of disapprobation for his unshorn head.

“I’ve been thinking about that,” he said, setting off with Leof and Theo up the steps. “Don’t you think there ought to be some kind of dispensation? For brethren like ourselves, I mean, who tend the fires of faith this far to the north. After all, the bulk of our bodies’ heat loss occurs through the top of the skull, I’ve observed.”

“Does it?” Theo glanced over at him, dark eyes gleaming. The scientist in him would defeat the churchman every time, as Cai had also observed. “Have you?”

“I have. When Brother Petros got caught out in the snowdrifts with the sheep, a rabbit skin on the top of his head did him more good than all our clothes and blankets. Even than the fire.”

“Is it so? Well, you may have a point. Enough to let me put off the evil day, anyhow—I don’t quite understand why our bald pates are pleasing in the sight of God.”

“Because, my lord abbot,” Leof offered shyly, “he doesn’t wish us to be covered up from him.”

“Why, Leof, you sound as if he told you so himself. No. It’s simply a sign of our renunciation of the world and its vainglory.”

“In that case, I should like it to be done.” Leof cast a wistful glance at Cai, as if he might like the hair he’d run his fingers through in worldly, vainglorious pleasure to be left well alone. “To me, at any rate.”

“Then so it shall be, child—as soon as I get my shears back from Brother Petros. Caius, you’ve arrived home in good time. Did Leof tell you my first chapter is complete?”

No, my lord abbot.” We’ve been a little busy. Cai pushed the thought away from him. “But that’s good news. Did you decide yet on a title?”

Yes.” They had reached a turning in the long stone flight. Theo took up position on a flat rock and spread his arms as if to address the sunny infinity of moorlands and dunes that lay before him. “Poor copy though it is, I shall call it the Gospel of Science.”

Leof flinched. Like all the brethren of Fara, he loved and feared Theo in equal measure. He would never contradict him, but Cai had observed how he’d sit in Theo’s lectures, head bowed, his hands clasped in his lap, as if silently begging God to overlook the blasphemy one more time. Well—good and conventional churchmen did not get appointed to world’s-edge outposts like Fara, and Theo had not been so much sent as banished there. He was a renegade, a once-powerful teacher caught in the rebellious possession of books now deemed heretical by the Roman Church. Stripped of his treasured volumes, his power and authority, he had been shipped off to the far west—where, according to the beliefs of his masters, he might well tumble right off the planet’s rim and trouble them no more.

He had noticed Leof’s involuntary twitch. Cai tensed. A man of sublime patience, a father to his flock who would help Cai bathe their wounds with his own hands, he could still fly out in rage at wilful ignorance and superstition. “Does my choice trouble you, child?”

“Yes,” Leof said bravely. “The gospels are the words of Christ, not…arrows and dots, and long strings of numbers fit to bewilder all God-fearing men.”

Theo smiled. “Well, I do hope not all of them. Not forever, anyway.” He resumed his climb, making room beside him on the path for Leof to walk at his side. Cai, bringing up the rear, looked at them both in affection. “Remember, Leof. All I am doing is trying to recall and write down a fragment of the books that were lost. My gospel—we can call it something else for now—will only ever be a copy, a shadow, of that great wealth. I use mathematics and diagrams because, in their neatness, they can convey what an army of monks writing all day and night could not teach. You, the best and most godly of my brethren, need not be disturbed by it at all.”

“Yes, my lord abbot. Thank you.”

“And although it would distress me, I will give you dispensation from illuminating my heresies—if you wish.”

Leof jerked his head up. Cai could have laughed aloud at his open-mouthed dismay. “Why—no, sir. Please not that.”

“Good. Because I value them, your vines and grapes and little dancing stoats.”

“Those are foxes, sir.”

“Ah. Well, nonetheless. You’ll carry on?”

“Of course. I wish I saw what my plants and my beasts have to do with your—your gospel, however.”

Theo put an arm around his shoulders. “Science makes an error,” he said, the gentle laughter fading from his voice, “in cutting itself off from nature. In thinking of itself as separate. I feel a chill inside my heart when I imagine where such an error might lead. So, my clever painter, though your vines and foxes may not illustrate the turning of the Earth upon its axis, or the distance to the moon, I hope they will remind the men of some future day that foxes, moon and Earth are one, and all the work of one great hand. Yes—I do believe that, for all my blasphemous ways. It’s not so hard, as a doctrine—even for the likes of Brother Cai.”

Cai, who had been dreaming, surfaced at the sound of his name. “The distance to the moon?” he echoed longingly.

“Indeed. We do it with mathematics, and that triangle whose sides are three, four, five. I’ll show you all tonight, after our feast.”

“Are we feasting?”

“As far as our duties and our resources allow. A chapter’s end deserves a celebration, don’t you think? I only wish we had some of old Danan’s cure for sore heads in the morning.”

“Ah, we do. I ran into her on the trackway coming home. I traded her some jewellery for comfrey, poppy, tonics—everything we need.”

“Good boy, good boy.”

“Danan told Cai that the Vikings are coming,” Leof said suddenly, as if he’d been dreaming too. “It was one of her prophecies.”

Theo patted him. “The Vikings always come. We don’t need to worry yet, though. It’s still too cold and rough for raiding.”

“Yes, I know. That’s what I told Cai.”

 

 

Cai left them outside the scriptorium. By then the two were arguing contentedly over the relative virtues of vellum and non-calfskin parchments, and they barely noticed him go.

Shaking his head, Cai made his way straight to the infirmary, to see that his precious supplies were being properly stored away. He glanced in satisfaction round the sunny room, one of the few in the monastery that were glazed, allowing his patients the benefits of warmth and light at once. All but one of the narrow cots were empty, assuring Cai that he was doing his job well. Sitting on the edge of the occupied bunk, he treated Gareth’s warts and tried to ease the painful hypochondria that lay behind them with kindly admonitions as to letting the imagination run rife over faith, work and good common sense. Then he discharged him, to his patient’s disappointment, and went down to the laundry.

He was sticky and sandy from his interlude with Leof in the dunes. Taking a fresh cassock from Brother Hengist’s neatly folded supply, he found himself reluctant to put it on over his dirty skin. He glanced at the angle of the sun and decided he had time to run down to the bathing pools to wash.

He wasn’t really qualified to lecture poor Gareth on the perils of imagination. The pools were deserted at this time of day, and the tide had come in far enough to fill their natural granite basins with salty, crystalline blue. Cai swam about among the drifting seaweeds, diving and huffing at the pleasure of the water on his limbs, then scrubbed himself clean as best he could with handfuls of soft sand. By the time he was done, his skin was tingling with wellbeing, and what he’d have liked more than anything else was for Leof to appear, ready to cast off his garments and his new restraint.

Cai drew a shuddery breath. It was all very well to agree on a celibate life not five minutes after satiation. Keeping the resolve would be much harder, he could see. His shaft had risen at the thought of Leof’s pale, lithe body in the water with him. Leaning his shoulders on the shell-encrusted rock, he allowed his spine to stretch, his hips to float. His palm ached to explore his aroused flesh, and briefly he reached down, stroking, lifting the warm, compact weight of his balls. An idea flitted through his mind that maybe his own touch didn’t count.

He groaned aloud at his own weakness. Of course it did. What chance did he stand of purging his earthly desires, if he couldn’t keep his hands off himself? Cursing his father for bequeathing him not only a large, restless cock but a need to use it often and hard, Cai scrambled out of the water. The cracked church bell was ringing again, this time to announce Theo’s feast.

Perhaps he’d moved too fast. Perhaps—although he did his best to discourage such beliefs—the fear of the naïve younger monks was true, and undischarged seed could rush up into the brain and wreak havoc there. The sunlight around him darkened to black, with fringes and tassels of scarlet. The Vikings are coming… He dropped to his hands and knees, lowering his brow onto the stone.

The fit lasted only a few seconds. The sunlight returned. Trembling, he sat up and looked around him at the brilliant day, the rich spring light only now beginning to take on a russet flush in the west. High on the crag above him, Demetrios and Wilfrid were making their way home, to all appearances the best friends in the world, the goats trotting peacefully in front of them. Wilf was even carrying the Greek’s basket of leaves. Cai was only hungry, tired from travel. All was well.

Chapter Two

For the brethren of Fara, a feast was a modest affair. Theo, knowing that fields had to be tended and goats fed no matter how many chapters of his book had been finished, allotted his guests one good tankard each of mead and rolled out a small vat of heather ale to be shared around. A sheep had been killed, and Caius finished bottling up his remedy for sore heads, then followed the scent of roasting mutton down to the refectory.

The sight he found there pleased him. He took his place quietly between Brothers Leof and Benedict, and accepted his mead from the abbot’s own hand. This was very different from his father’s idea of a celebration. By now a drunken, coerced girl would have been dancing on the table. With not enough women to go round between Broc’s friends, Cai would have found himself fighting off the sweaty attentions of a warlord before the main course had been served.

Life wasn’t perfect here at Fara. Men squabbled, petty grudges were borne. Around him at the long wooden table Cai found every type of human face, from Leof’s ethereal beauty to the lumpen grin of poor Brother Eyulf, a halfwit rescued by Theo to work in the kitchens, who closely resembled the turnips of his trade. But they all turned to Theo, as he stood to give them grace, and Cai could see nothing but goodwill, as if by common consent each one of them had left the unworthy parts of himself behind for now, and come with warm fraternal hearts to join the feast.

Theo led the ancient Latin grace with a careful sincerity that made the words new. Then he blessed each one of the thirty men gathered, thanking them briefly for their work—the shepherd and the weaver, the doctor and the cook. He nodded to Brother Michael, who struck up a north-shores ballad on his smallpipes—music during dinner being the rarest of treats—and signaled for the meal to begin.

Caius took an early leave. His long day’s walk was catching up with him, and he needed to put distance between himself and Leof, partly for his own sake and partly because Leof, after half a cup of heather ale, was losing his convictions. Cai could see it in the lambent softening of his blue eyes, perceive it in the lingering press of his elbow when he passed the bread. Although on a night like this Cai would gladly have led him out to the moonlit slopes beyond the farmland, he didn’t want to be the means of his undoing.

He paused for a moment on his way out of the refectory. A story came into his mind—one of the many Theo had told him, of a sparrow that flew into a king’s feasting hall through one window and just as swiftly vanished into darkness on the other side. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while, but of what went before this life or what follows, we know nothing.

He shivered. He knew that life was short. That it could be bloody, and grasped in dirty hands until it spilled out its juices and died, he had learned from his father too well. Cai didn’t know how he would succeed in his efforts to renounce it, but he could only try, and certainly he could step out of the way of Leof’s much more promising struggle. He could see Leof as an abbot himself one day, pure-minded and serene, counselling novice monks of his own. Now he was chattering to Eyulf, who adored him with the mute passion of a hound. Quickly, before Leof could glance up and see him go, Cai slipped away.

The night was calm and still. The shadows in the courtyard were deep, but Cai’s feet knew each dip of the well-worn flagstones, and he made his way easily past the well and up the mossy outer stairs that led to the dormitory chambers. He was relieved to have his own cell to lie down in tonight. He’d spent his novitiate year in the communal chamber with only five other brethren, and hadn’t exactly been cramped, but tonight he meant to say his prayers as taught and stretch out in solitude, receptive to the voice of God. Cai thought he could give his life away, devote himself body and soul, if he were quite sure he had heard it for himself. Just once, he asked silently, letting himself into his cell and pushing the heavy oak door shut behind him.

The dormitory building was perched on the very edge of Fara rock, and Cai’s unglazed cell commanded a view out over the moon-silvered bay and far beyond it, right to the glittering horizon. He opened the shutters, leaned his elbows on the sill. Just once, God—and the great crescent moon seemed to roll on her back among the clouds and offer herself languorously up to him.

He sighed and turned away. He got undressed quickly, as he’d been taught, paying his nakedness no attention. He lay down flat, placing his hands at his sides. No, wait—he was meant to fold them on his chest, wasn’t he? Theo’s instructions hadn’t been very precise, and Cai had suspected the abbot didn’t care much how his novices slept, as long as they did so contentedly and awoke refreshed. Clasped on his breast, Cai’s hands were at least out of mischief, and he drew and released a deep, calming breath and closed his eyes.

He just wasn’t destined to have this made easy tonight. Even the dried bedstraw herbs in his thin sleeping mat smelled wonderful, heady and sweet. No sooner had he dismissed the scent from his mind when the door of the cell next to his creaked and banged hard against the wall. That meant Benedict, who despite his bulk moved quietly, was drunk. And if he was drunk, caution would be thrown to the winds, his beloved Oslaf clutched tight in his huge farmer’s hands and half-carried into his cell.

Cai rolled over. Monks had no pillows, so he pressed his hands to his ears. The cells ought to be soundproof and normally were, their great doors once closed, but Benedict had left his shutters open to the warm spring air, and Oslaf’s first laughter-cracked groan carried effortlessly through. Images leapt into Cai’s head. It would be so good, to be thumped down onto a bunk tonight and ploughed under by a nice warm weight like Ben’s. For the life of him, Cai couldn’t see what was wrong with it. Well, Leof had never said that it was wrong—just distracting.

Oh, God. It was very distracting. Oslaf began to moan, quietly but in explicit rhythm. The wooden frame of the bunk cracked off the wall, and there was a short-lived scuffle. Then a cry from Ben made Cai’s skin prickle tightly all over in response—the sharp joy of penetration, desire finding target in flesh. Not something he and Leof had ever done. Cai had feared to hurt him, and Leof had shown such confusion when Cai had offered himself in that way…

At least his two neighbours weren’t going to torture him for long. The thuds and grunts had accelerated. Then there was a silence that was somehow worse, and a long whooshing groan of utter satisfaction from Ben.

Cai gritted his teeth. He was erect again, much worse than when he’d been down in the pools. Heat like summer lightning flickered all over the surface of his skin. He took hold of the edge of the thin mattress ticking and buried his face in it until the lack of air became more urgent than the ache in his cock. Eventually the miles of road he had covered that day, the hills and tracks and wild moors, came to his rescue, and he fell into a restless, haunted sleep.

He had a strange dream. In it, a wolf came from the sea. Cai, standing on the moonlit beach, felt no fear. He’d met wolves before, during long winter journeys through the forest, and he knew that none would come near Fara at this time of year, and never from the sea. Therefore he must be dreaming. He let himself enjoy the creature’s beauty as it bounded from the waves.

It stood still, shook off its fur and became a man. Disbelief held Cai in place. When finally he turned and began to run, it was too late—his feet tangled in seaweed, and the creature caught him easily, knocking him flat. Hot breath brushed his ear. Wolf’s teeth sank into his shoulder, but there was no pain. The weight that pinned him was all human. A human arm locked round his chest. A strength like nothing he’d ever felt before restrained him, and he shuddered in terror and pleasure. Rough words resounded in his head, a language he didn’t understand, but he knew what he was being told to do and did it, spreading his thighs, lifting his backside to his captor’s thrust. He waited to be torn apart.

No pain. A living heat drove up into his core. The creature—the human, the wolf—said his name, and the tenderness of it, the deep vibration, sent a melting rush into Cai’s very bones. He pushed up in longing, and there was no pain, only an overwhelming feeling of being owned, claimed, brought home. Thrust after thrust…

He awoke coming. His fists were clenched on the bunk’s wooden frame, his body soaked in sweat. Rigid, he rode out his shaft’s helpless spending, sweeter and more dreadful than he could bear. It broke him to tears. He lay sobbing, eyes squeezed shut.

He could hear bells. Disconnected thoughts flicked through his head. He would never know the voice of God, not if it depended on chastity. He’d better get the mattress ticking off, rinse it under the pump. Perhaps he should just leave Fara. A wolf from the sea…

A bell, stirring gently on the inshore breeze now tugging at the wooden shutters. Wiping his eyes, Cai struggled out of bed. He went to lean on the windowsill, momentarily dizzy and weak. To climax so hard on his own like that—ah, he was hopeless, the very idea of losing Leof’s sweet services enough to drive him wild. From here he could see the church, its reed-thatched roof shining eerily under the moon. The bell in its small, squat tower was ringing passively. An inshore wind—Cai didn’t like those, in or out of raiding season. No northern coast dweller did. From instinct and habit, he looked out to sea.

There was a sail on the horizon. A great square sail, pregnant with that breeze. In front of it—impossibly clear to him just for an instant—rode a dragon’s head.

They would continue by. They were out of season. Even Theo had agreed on that, the wisest man Cai knew. Fara held nothing for them, not so much as a woman, a jewelled altar cross or a chalice of gold. Cai’s heart ached for the villages further north, and for the hundredth time he wished monastic life would stretch to a fast-paced horse such as his father kept. He would fling himself onto it and ride, ride faster than any damn Viking could sail to give warning to…

The clouds shifted. The sea at the foot of the cliffs was suddenly revealed. Cai shrank back from the window, a choked cry dying in his throat. It wasn’t the sail on the horizon he needed to fear. It was the great dragon-prowed longship that had come in vulpine silence to the very shores of Fara. She was moored, rocking. Her crew was no longer aboard. That meant they were somewhere between the rocks and the meadows at the edge of the cliff.

And that meant in turn that Cai had a minute. No horse, no real hope—just bare feet and a dead run. He seized his cassock and dived into it, pulling it hard over his head. He wouldn’t have spared the instant for that, except that he could fight better dressed than naked, hide up his sleeve any weapon he could find. Harsh laughter burned in his chest—a weapon? He’d be lucky to find a big enough chunk of rock in this sheepfold, this beautiful, soft-bellied refuge for peace-loving men.

A rock would have to do. Cai shot into the passageway and began to pound on Benedict’s door. Only a horrified silence answered him, and Cai knew what that meant. Two naked lovers jolting upright in bed, paralysed like fox cubs in a den. “Ben! It’s me, Cai. Vikings!”

Another silence, probably of disbelief this time. Cai banged his fists off the woodwork again, and Benedict pulled the door open, his face sleepy and colourless with fright. Behind him, Oslaf was scrambling upright, shielding himself with a discarded cassock. “Vikings? Cai, it’s too—”

“I know it’s too damned early! Just wake up the others. And send Oslaf to get Theo. Now!”

Cai tore off down the stairs. Moss slithered under his bare soles, but he was faster like this than in his cumbersome sandals. The air hit his lungs, full of nighttime sweetness. Had he really just seen a longship still rocking from the exit of her crew? The dream of the wolf-man had felt more real. Rounding the corner of the main hall, he saw that the refectory was empty, all his brethren gone to their rest.

The church was made of wood frame, wattle and daub. Only the tower at the end was built of stone, to support the bell. Twenty yards of turf divided the church from the hall, a patch of ground Cai flew across without looking back. There was no point. He’d heard the first shouts, and the air he was hauling into his lungs was no longer pure but tainted by acrid smoke. Cai felt a flash of love for the drab little building hunched beneath its thatch, an affection he’d never known on freezing mornings, shivering his way through dawn prayers. He ran through the nave, his shadow leaping round him as the flame from the sanctuary candle danced, grabbed hold of the bell rope and began to pull with all his strength.

The bell rang out into the night. Its voice seemed weak over the roar of Cai’s blood in his ears, a whisper when he wanted it to scream. He counted off the tolls. One dozen, two. He wouldn’t be allowed much longer. Something thudded onto the roof, like the landing of a heavy bird, the sound followed instantly by several more. The door flew open. Cai tensed to run, but he wasn’t worth the confrontation. The soft thumps he’d heard overhead had been firebrands, and the figure in the doorway only paused long enough to toss another inside, this one landing almost at Cai’s feet.

The thatch was dry as dust after a rainless spring. The brands on the roof burned straight through. The timber rafters caught alight, one beam crashing down to cut off Cai’s route to the door. Dropping the bell rope, Cai leapt out of range of the sparks. The tower had one window, little more than a hole in the wall to let in light. It would have to do. He jumped, grabbing at the sill, got his head and shoulders through and tumbled out onto the turf.

Straight into the path of his first Viking. Cai had a moment to be glad he’d drawn a short one, and startled him by his sudden appearance. He got an impression of animal skins—of a twisted, grinning face beneath a cap-like helmet—hair in a great, thick braid, and then the firelit flash of an axe. He twisted aside, and the blade which would have split his skull in two bounced off the tower wall instead, flying from its owner’s grasp.

Cai forgot he was a monk. He grabbed the Viking’s plait, whipped him around and smashed his face into the stonework. He didn’t stop to look at the result—let the limp body fall and snatched up the axe.

He was his father’s son. Broc had been pleased with his prowess. It was part of the old man’s rage upon Cai’s defection—to lose a warrior child. But Cai hadn’t cared about his father’s fights, had gone in swinging at his side only from habit and lack of choice. He cared now. He began to run. “Leof! Leof!”


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