Brothers Of The Wild North Sea

Cold-hearted vengeance. Theo had taught that idea as one of his few examples of sin. Men were animals, he had explained—another heresy—and, when injured, turned upon their attackers with words or blows before their better selves could prevent it. That was bad. But to go away and brood upon a crime, and then exact a punishment—no, not even the beasts would stoop to that. Perhaps sometimes the animal is the better self, he had mused at the end of his lesson, and walked off abstractedly, leaving the brethren looking at one another in outrage and wonder.

 

But Caius had taken his point. He’d tried to work on reining in his own quick temper, secure in the knowledge that he’d never be cold, clever or mean enough to have to worry about the greater sin. He’d dared to entertain a little rare pride in his Christian qualities, glad for once that his blood was warm, his reactions quick and instinctive.

 

He had been wrong. He was as bad as Aelfric. A wolf was howling on the beach, and Cai’s blood was ice-cold.

 

He washed his hands in the bucket for the tenth time, watching red spirals float in the moon-silvered water. He had just dismissed Benedict and Oslaf to their rest. Both were becoming good medics under his instruction, and his patients were at peace. The warrior monks of Fara had sustained a few injuries—some, as Cai had feared, from their own blades—but none would be fatal, and the infirmary had been almost a merry place that night, as they laughed at one another and swapped tales. All were sleeping now, clean and calm and dreaming poppy dreams.

 

Not a wolf. A man. The cry came again, long and desolate. The Vikings had left behind one of their own.

 

Cai looked out of the window. He had heard the first cry hours ago. He’d known for all that time that a man was dying on the beach alone. His patients had heard it too, and agreed among themselves, low-voiced and shuddering, that a slow, lonely death was no more than these devil-men deserved. Only Oslaf had looked troubled over the verdict, but Cai had sent him about his errands with a sharp word.

 

One day, Theo had said, tugging at his hair in frustration, I will set us all an exercise of treating one another no better than we deserve, and we will see at the end of the day how many of us are left standing.


But Theo was dead. Leof was dead, killed by a Viking, and with him had been buried the best of Cai’s Christian intent. Ben had forgotten all about Aelfric’s orders, it seemed, and all night Cai had watched how he and Oslaf worked together, how in every unoccupied moment gaze had found devoted gaze. Cai wondered if they’d found some quiet place in the moonlit ruins to celebrate their impurity, their soul-condemning love.

 

Leof, killed by a Viking. Cai dried his hands. There on the sand, at the sea’s very margin, the wounded man lay. This one was Cai’s.

 

The sand was cool beneath his feet. He could have been alone in the world, one heart beating under the springtime stars. He took time to look at them, as Theo had taught—the little constellation of the lyre, the leaping dolphin and the swan Deneb’s great sail, these three in a triangle whose rising promised summer. Mars glowed dully near the horizon, as if pleased with his night’s work. Hundreds of millions of others glimmered behind the full moon’s cobweb light. Yes, millions, Theo quietly reminded him. More than the grains of sand on this beach, and no matter what you’ve heard, I don’t believe they’re holes pricked by the angels in the firmament of night.

 

Cai, who had never thought so, but had a hard time believing each star was a sun like the one that lit up his own days, shook his head in wonder. The beach stretched out before him, a long broad sweep southwards, every grain a tiny star in the silver light. The only flaw in its stillness, its perfect serenity, was the black shape of the man down by the water’s edge. He was motionless. His cries had stopped. Cai, who was close enough now to make out his matted hair, drew his sword and began to run.

 

“No,” he whispered, barely audible to himself above the thud of his heart. “Don’t die. You’re mine.”

 

Red-bronze hair, streaming over a face white as bone in the moonlight. The incoming tide was beginning to lift it, make it drift like seaweed. If Cai left well alone, the waves would do his work for him. But drowning wasn’t enough. Drowning wouldn’t wipe out the sword stroke that had ripped Leof out of the world. Only another would do that. He skidded to a halt beside the fallen man. He stood still, planted his feet squarely in the sand and raised the sword high in both hands, blade downward. One plunge would do it. One blow.

 

Cai, stop. You already delivered it.

 

Cai froze, hands convulsing round the sword. Theo’s voice was as real as the wash of the sea, but he couldn’t turn to look. The man at his feet was the raider he’d encountered in the gully, the first to engage with him. Torchlight, tawny wolf’s eyes. A brief rip and grind of metal through skin, against bone and then out again. On to the next. Cai hadn’t thought the blow a fatal one—hadn’t thought at all after that. But his blade had put this man here.

 

Perhaps not. Cai tossed the sword aside, suddenly frantic to know. The fight had been brief but savage—perhaps the raider had sustained some other wound. Crouching beside him, Cai pulled at the thong of his jerkin. Already the salt water had begun to shrink the leather, tightening the garment across the young man’s broad chest. Cai pulled out a dagger from his belt and quickly cut through the thong. The skin beneath the jerkin was still warm, with the fading heat of an apple brought in from the orchard on a hot day. Smooth as an apple’s too, rippling over the framework of muscles and bones underneath—and unmarred, except for the one gaping hole Cai had put there himself.

 

He sat back on his heels, gasping. He felt sick. When he searched for his cold, vengeful anger, it was out of his reach—not far, but enough, like the sword he’d cast aside. Just beyond his fingertips. He moved to retrieve the weapon, and his medical kit tugged at his shoulders, the strap pulling tight. Cai couldn’t remember picking it up when he’d left the infirmary. He must have grabbed it out of habit.

 

“I’ve come to kill you, not heal you,” he told the pale face hoarsely. “You took my friends, you and your kind. You took Leof.” But the beautiful man laid out on the sand had passed far beyond care for such things. He had lost his helmet, the disguising metal stripped from him. His sins, whatever they had been, were smoothing away in the moonlight. The seawater rippled and gathered, and shot out one eclipsing wave to hurry on the dissolution. On an impulse he couldn’t understand, Cai lifted the Viking’s head clear of the water.

 

A fist grabbed the front of his cassock. Cai lurched back, and the Viking shoved onto his elbow, soaked hair whipping back off his face. Cai lost balance. He landed hard on his back, the young man seizing the advantage and pouncing up to straddle him. His thighs clamped tight on Cai’s hips. The hand Cai had last seen drifting limply in the foam was now clenched tight around a rock. Amber eyes blazed into his, blind with uncomprehending hate.

 

Cai still had hold of his knife. He was a doctor, and cold vengeance had turned out not to be his gift, but he was his father’s son—the dagger’s tip was pressed to the Viking’s throat. “Go on,” he growled. “Brain me with your rock, and I’ll slit your gullet with this. Then we’ll be quits.”