Hundreds of years ago, on a wild sea coast, two bold-hearted men met in combat and love...
This is the story of Caius, a Christian monk struggling to reconcile his sensual nature with his newfound faith, and of Fenrir, a ferocious Viking raider abandoned by his comrades and left for dead. When Caius takes pity on the wounded man, his brethren are horrified: what kind of wolf has Cai brought into the fold?
But only when Cai and Fen join forces can the monastery of Fara be saved from the raiders from the east. And Fara holds a secret worth guarding, a legendary amulet with the power to bind even the might of the Vikings. Fen, his heart divided between old loyalties and a new love, must make a decision which could shatter his own heart and Cai’s into the bargain.
Will there ever be peace and a future for these brothers of the wild North Sea?
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 knife 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.”
The wolf’s eyes fell shut. A crescent of white glimmered through his salt-rimed lower lashes. The rock splashed harmlessly down into the sand, and the huge, virile tension holding his body taut over Cai’s drained away. His arms buckled and he collapsed.
Cai snatched the knife away, just in time to spare his enemy the passive drop onto the blade. He didn’t know why—he’d done worse things tonight than cut a man’s throat. And this was his Viking, the one whose life he’d come down here to take in place of Leof’s. He rolled out from under the soaked deadweight, sprang to his feet and stood watching while a wave broke over the young man’s face. If he was playing dead again, the game would soon be up. Cai waited. The seventh wave and the ninth one, powerful heralds of the incoming tide, washed right over the raider’s body—tumbled him over onto his front. He lay still.
Cai ran to him, seized him by the armpits and dragged him out of the clutch of the tenth wave. This time no hand seized his cassock. That had been a convulsion, Cai thought, a killer’s last impulse to kill. Cai could not identify the impulses guiding his own actions now. He hauled his burden up the beach onto dry sand, not caring that the long, well-wrought limbs jolted over rocks. Maybe death by drowning was too good, too easy for this brute. Maybe Cai would find the spark of life in him, fan it up to consciousness and take his cold vengeance after all. There were things in his medical kit, acids, drugs for cleaning dirty wounds, drugs that would burn…
He let the young man’s shoulders fall and thudded down beside him in the sand. He wouldn’t allow his ragged inhalations to be sobs. He was breathless, that was all. He undid his satchel, reached in and drew out the first vial that came to hand—Danan’s poppy, glowing with its own light under the moon. Cai had let a human creature howl in its lonely death throes. He’d done it for hours, closing his ears and his heart.
“I’m sorry,” he choked out, not to the Viking but to Theo’s ghost and Leof’s. He uncapped the bottle, cleared strands of hair and seaweed from the raider’s pale mouth and pressed the rim to his lips.
“Gunnar,” the young man said, on a note of soft wonder. His eyes opened wide. They were focussed on a distant shore, a homeland far from this bleak coast. “Gunnar,” he repeated. Tears filled the amber eyes. He reached out, and Cai flinched away, but this time his scarred, capable hand only stroked the empty air.
Cai poured the liquid down the man’s throat. It was a dose for sleep, not death, and he shuddered in bewilderment as he fastened up his satchel and bent down to take hold of the fallen man again. It was a quarter of a mile to the foot of the cliff. If he managed that, there was the path, almost sheer in parts, a tough climb even unburdened. If Aelfric or one of the other Canterbury spooks caught sight of him…
He jumped and let the Viking drop, nearly hard enough to break his skull on a rock. Staring up into the darkness, he made out a familiar shape, briefly outlined against the sky and then beginning a scramble down the path. Benedict… Cai couldn’t have hoped for anyone better, and yet a chill of mistrust went through him. Ben should have been asleep. “What are you doing out here?” he called cautiously. “Where’s Oslaf?”
“Praying, as the abbot told him to. It’s where you should be too.”
“And you. But we don’t march to Aelfric’s drum yet. Or do we?”
Cai hadn’t meant it to sound like a challenge. After Leof, Ben had been his dearest friend at Fara, his advocate in the early days when even Theo’s gentle rule had chafed him. But he hated the new coldness in Ben’s eyes. He waited warily.
Ben put out one sandalled foot and gave the raider a shove. “Is it dead?”
“Almost. Don’t kick him—that’s where I hurt him during the fight.”
“And you came down to finish him off?”
Cai nodded. That had been his exact intention. He couldn’t remember when or how he had lost it. “I can’t, though. Help me carry him up.”
“Are you off your head?”
“Possibly. I wounded him myself. I can’t kill him.”
Ben snorted, sounding more like his old self. “You did for three of his friends up there, no bother at all.”
“Yes, in the heat of it.” Cai glanced back out over the moon-burnished sand. The tide had already covered the place where he had tussled with the Viking. So all earthly struggles would end, Theo had taught—wiped clear, smoothed away by God’s hand. “I can’t explain it to you. Are you going to help me or not?”
“Where will you put him?”
“To bed, of course. I need to treat him.”
“In the infirmary? Where John and the rest of your brothers are still bleeding from vikingr swords?”
“I’ll put him in the quarantine cell. Look—the moon is setting. Carry him up to the clifftop for me. I won’t ask you to have anything else to do with it, except…” Cai paused, wiping salt-stung tears out of his eyes. “Don’t tell Aelfric.”
“Aelfric is going to notice a six-foot-tall Viking in his monastery. Even in the quarantine cell.”
Cai almost laughed. But the Benedict he had once known, that vigorous and hot-tempered ploughman, would have knocked him down for so much as suggesting the betrayal. “I’ll deal with Aelfric,” he said hoarsely. “Here. You take his shoulders and I’ll…”
“No. Leave him to me.” Ben pushed Cai out of the way. “You bring your kit and his things. That sword is a good one—the shield too. Is that his helmet down there?”
Cai looked. The incoming tide had washed a gleaming curve of metal up into a niche between the rocks. He went to pick it up. He turned it over in his hands. Yes, he thought it belonged to the Viking. He remembered how the amber eyes had widened and shone out from behind its mask. Would Cai
have been able to run the young man through without the disfiguring metal?
It didn’t matter. Cai gathered the other weapons and followed Ben up the cliff path, suddenly too exhausted to do more than put one foot in front of the other. Ben had slung the Viking over one shoulder. The matted bronze hair hung down, swinging in time with Ben’s movements. The hand that had reached out blindly for a long-gone friend also swung, limp and pale. Cai doubted there was a pulse in its wrist. He wanted to check, but Ben was moving too fast for him. Probably being carried like this would kill the raider off before they got to the top of the cliffs, but Cai could hardly ask Ben to cradle him in his arms.
If he died, he died. The world would be that much simpler for Cai. There would only be a wolf-shaped vacancy, a gap where the sea wind would blow soundlessly through. Cai remembered his dream and caught his breath, stumbling on the track. The wolf from the sea…