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Aird Uí Chuain

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Working in the bitter cold always remained a challenge; that and getting his commissioned works done on time with how often he and Jeff bickered back and forth. Usually, a town as small as theirs wouldn’t need such obsessive weaponry besides bows and handheld daggers, but the chill from the change in season was just another reminder that food would become scarce, and that they now had to worry about the local badger population as well as their own starvation.

Beyond the decrease in profit, being apart of a smaller community was a lot less stressful, especially since he was never lacking in the town gossip nor close friendships; barring elites. Having grown up around the lot of them, he knew very well how tense they could run. Out here, he had no qualms with new beginnings and could smith until his fingers blistered and palms cracked.

Another advantage came the size of land, and with it, the motivation to feed his obsession with smithing until he’d started where his mentor had left off. Truly, it was inexplicable, holding something that granted its user such power and knowing you had birthed it. The sweltering heat of the forge was but an afterthought when he held a finished piece in his hands, sculpted from brass, bronze, nickel--it didn’t matter. Because it was his and it lay waste to any mockery out there.

Jeff was cranky that morning because the cold was getting to him. Also, a shipment of iron ore that was to arrive that morning was late because of bandit activity in the next town over. So Connor, lacking much of anything to work with, traversed back to the supply room where he kept a trunk of ingots for emergencies. Normally, he wouldn’t, but the hours were ticking by and he really didn’t want to test fate; these things took time and he knew the neighbourhoods would want to pick up their new plough as soon as possible in anticipation for the coming spring.

At least the heat from the forge on the other side of the stone wall kept the room at a reasonable temperature. In comparison to the rafters of his home, it was a blessing in disguise.

He didn’t see, but did hear the door at the front open, likely signalling a new customer because it was rare to get visitors before afternoon. He pushed it to the back of his mind, expecting Jeff to take the responsibility of bantering and selling regardless of how sour-tempered he was at that moment in time.

He set to work stacking the ingots two by four, placing the ones fit for use to his right and the ones he’d want to conserve for later use to his left to return back to the trunk. If he thought he heard arguing, he ignored it. Jeff wasn’t stupid; if a customer was being unreasonable or god forbid committing theft than his anger was justified. He only became concerned when he heard the crash and clatter feedback from the store’s merchandise and accessories.

“Jeff?” he called out, favouring to leave the ingots behind and check on his brother. He opened the door and ducked under the low frame, fully anticipating to see a scuffle but nothing else.

Given that that idea was his worst case scenario, he gravely underestimated how much fate hated him.

The front entrance was closed, barring the hellish winds, and in the place of his brother stood a similarly red-headed stranger, albeit much taller and more broad. A secondary glance betrays his real identity, fitted with a hauntingly familiar warhammer carved with ancient symbols and phrases and sharpened until it could slice bone in two. It was a marvel how well of a weapon could be made when you were under the watchful eye of a warlord.

Speaking of which, there was no way to dismantle the man’s identity as anything other than the estranged warlord. His red hair no longer draped down past his ears but curled upwards and yet, it was like he never left; that upturned smirk more familiar than anything. He was displaced, because for a second he swore he could smell death radiating off the man and was back, huddling for warmth in a travelling caravan with smuggled weapons hidden underneath the supply of food and seed as pillagers surrounded them.

Andersen was much too big for the shop, and not just in appearance but presence too. He stood as a literal giant, a half-smirk stretched across his face and shooing Connor back in the direction of the forge.

“Hello, lille drage,” Andersen rumbled, timing his steps forward so that he could effectively pin Connor to the counter. If his appearance hadn’t given him away, the heavy accent would’ve been the first big shock to his system.

Connor didn’t bother humouring the nicknames again, eyes slitting left to where a client’s one-handed sword lays vacant on an anvil. Andersen saw the weapon too and rushed for Connor just as he turned on his heel. Connor’s hands were groping for the shaft just as Andersen’s weight barreled into him.

They kicked a wide assortment of weapons and leather strips away as they rolled around, struggling to overpower each other in a battle of wits. Connor grunted, still trying to upright himself so that he could stand up and grab the sword. One blow would be enough, enough to stun him and then find something more fitting to use or make a run for the door.

But alas, he was rusty. Hadn’t been up for fighting outside of simple self-defence training and that didn’t work on a man as large as Andersen. His jabs and kicks were met with fierce resistance. It was like nothing had happened at all; he soaked up the blows and then some, forcing Connor to his back and grabbing both of his hands and pinning them above his head.

Connor hissed, folding his knees and then kicking as fast as he could up into Andersen’s stomach. That got a distinct oof from the man that had him recoil the slightest bit, but again, his heavy furs and padding he wore underneath were fortifying him. Said articles made sure to protect him as he transferred Connor’s wrists to one hand and used the other to grab the underside of his thigh.

He had a second to breathe before he was flipped over, air forced out of his lungs. His hands were shoved underneath him so that he was laying on them and then forced to take Andersen’s weight as he quite literally sat on Connor. He couldn’t squirm much less free his shoulders from where they’d been locked in place. All he could do was clench his fingers to try and help circulation as he watched Andersen become comfortable on top of him.

He turned his head to the side and saw the head of the man’s warhammer bouncing against Andersen’s back and almost laughed to himself. Killed by his own weapon, what irony.

“Bastard,” Connor spat. “Get off ‘o me.”

“You picked a good hiding place, but I knew I’d find you eventually.” Andersen said into Connor’s ear. “You’ll always be mine.”

One hand was stroking the side of his waist, heavily petting down to his groin and thighs. In places where his clothing was form-fitting it lingered, squeezing, testing the years’ toll on the man.

“No, leave me!” Connor panted, but it was getting harder to breathe. Andersen was sitting on his waist and pressing down until the air evaded his chest and his vision swim. He made a desperate gasp and forced his head back and chin up, expecting Andersen would slit his throat and collect his head as a trophy.

But that would be an honourable death, and Andersen was much too unpredictable to try something so tame when he could tug Connor’s hair and bend his body backwards until his muscles screamed. It'd been years and yet, the size difference remained the same; Connor’s own well-earned brawn was lost on the might of a veteran numb to the horrors of war.

“You were wed to me and will come home.” But the boat was not an option for Connor; he knew it would leave for Denmark and he will never see the sun again.

“Never! I'd rather die!” He kicked his legs out and thrashed, looking for something to use on the floor.

Andersen kneeled and brought him up, Connor splayed out on his knees like a weak piece of prey.

“Don't be like that,” he said into the skin of Connor’s throat, close enough to bite. “My dear, you're much too young to be trying to die.”

“And you're much too old to waste your time hunting me down!”

Andersen laughed, a loud, almost bombastic sound. “Drage, I am not old. And my time was not wasted. You argue and cry but it makes no difference to me. You're already perfect, and your work led me back to you.”

His teeth grazed Connor’s throat and picked, nipped, pulled. All the shrieking in the world couldn’t deter him; Andersen was dead set on leaving his mark. The nipping turned to sucking, to full-on biting that had him screaming.

“My work?” he shouted, hoping to distract Andersen. It worked, enough to have the giant lean back and stop ravaging his skin.

Andersen dismantled the straps holding the warhammer and placed it down beside Connor’s left cheek where he could plainly see it. The make was entirely unique; spiralling with engraved designs and features he’d slaved over for weeks without break. Now back in his line of sight, he wished he sunk the damn thing.

“Who else would make such a thing but you? When I heard we were sailing north I knew I must look for you. For the red-haired demon that stole my heart.” His teeth snapped at the back of Connor’s throat, threatening to leave more marks.

“The only red-haired demon is you!”

Andersen roared with laughter, grabbing at Connor’s hair. “Oh my love, you entertain me. That’s why I chose you. Now, come! I have something to show you.”

The hand not helping to hold Connor down shoved itself under his stomach to free his arms. Connor tried to back up and try to squeeze through Andersen’s legs as he stood up to help his efforts, but he didn’t make it far before a foot was crushing his spine, forcing him into a bowing position.

Connor changed the side his head was on, refusing to look at the weapon beside him. “If you think I’m going anywhere with you--”

“Sorry darling, did it sound like you had a choice?” Connor pulled his head up, baring his teeth.

“God damn your soul to hell, Andersen!” he snarled.

He couldn’t turn his head more than a side profile because of his predicament, but he tried his best to spit a glob of saliva at him for the extra kick. Andersen huffed at it in disdain but said nothing.

He must’ve gotten clipped or something. That or Andersen dropped something heavy on him, because in a second the world bled to nothingness.

 

Outside, the skies had dulled to a monotone, dilute pastel. The rock of the boats against the shore became a gong’s war cry as he spotted sails in the distance woven from cotton not picked from their shores attached to the landing docks. Crows were cawing from their nests, drumming again and again in his eardrums. He tried to follow the pace, but detaching himself from his predicament was impossible with how his forehead would smack against Freddie’s lower back, fingernails scrabbling for purchase so that he wouldn’t fall up and over.

The year’s first snow was still fresh and checkering the dead grass in big white splotches. He’d been anticipating the business that came with the seasonal change, but now, it was a sign of his impending doom. The ocean’s thrall, it’s precious waters, they and many others would either freeze or become bitterly cold and the opportunity to escape waned.

It hurt, his stomach pinned between the shoulder and neck of his kidnapper. Each step was agonizing, and combined with the bitter chill from outside, made Connor absolutely miserable. He wasn’t even on the verge of crying, his sadness was void, but he was furious. Furious at Andersen; furious at himself for sitting back when he was sure the man would be on his tail for abandoning him.

The watermill churned, the people squabbling and beginning to shriek as they were overrun. The first fires started there, torches sparking hungry flames that licked up the sides of houses and burned them to a crisp. Children inside wailed, parents running back in to rescue them. Some were tossed to the ground, some of the more open members that rushed at their attackers hit to the ground by their weapons.

Connor was a complete bystander, head aching and eyes weary. Whenever he opened them he felt a burning sensation that didn’t help suppress the thumping from the sore spot where Andersen had hit them. It only amplified most of his sensations; made him more aware of friends being slaughtered like lambs while he was in their leader’s arms.

They walked for a few paces, but didn’t go far from the forge. That’s when he was abruptly put down, the awkward positioning putting a strain on his neck and torso. He wasn’t a cat, so what should have been a quick recovery following a braced fall amounted to a stumble. Two men were on him in an instant, grabbing at his arms and spreading him out in lieu of Andersen.

Who, speaking of which, was walking rings around him. “Rise and shine, I was just about to knock you around a little. How’re you feeling?” He poked Connor in the nose with a single finger.

“Terrible,” Connor replied.

“Perfect, let’s make it a little worse. What do you say, Jeffrey?”

Connor’s head shot up upon hearing his brother’s name. His vision was still swimming, but within seconds he was able to identify the similarly reddish head of hair in front of him.

Jeff was kneeled over like a prisoner of war, hands tied and tongue gagged by a bolt of cloth stuffed in and around his mouth. There was evidence of tear stains streaking down his face, dirtied by what he assumed with the ensuing tussle. It was like looking in a mirror.

“You see, in Danmark, traitors are made an example of,” Andersen spoke, pacing back and forth, rubbing at his chin. “I could massacre everyone in this village for your dishonesty.”

Faces of friends and close relatives flashed with picture-perfect clarity behind Connor’s eyelids, and he clambered to make his distaste known.

“No, no no,” Connor cried. “You’re mad at me, not them.”

Andersen’s hand dipped down to cup his jaw, squeezing once. “I know, and that’s why I must do this. So you learn.”

Two of his men grabbed Jeff from around his armpits on Andersen’s orders, knees dragging through the half-frozen mud as he was brought forward. Jeff connected eyes with Connor and quietly pleaded through his eyes as he blinked slow and sure, conveying his inner turmoil. Around the gag, he sobbed.

“I’ve learned, I’ve learned,” Connor chanted like a mantra. “I won’t run again, please. Please stop.” It felt like someone had thrown stones into his belly, weighing him down. The world was moving in slow motion around them.

Andersen came in close for what he assumed was a kiss, but Connor couldn’t bring himself to reciprocate, not with the blood of civilians on Andersen’s hands. Above him, the mighty Dane exhaled.

With the rough tones of Danish, Andersen began to bark out orders that were nothing but jargon and babble to Connor’s ears. It was distinctly firm and close-cutting, lacking any emotion, with the only recognizable aspect being his name. In response, the two men holding him strengthened their hold on him, one grabbing the hair curling at his nape to push his head up.

Connor could only sit back and watch in horror as Andersen removed the straps holding the warhammer clad to his back. He tested it with a warning swing, coming up short of nailing Jeff in the nose.

“No!” Connor’s voice was torn up and shrill as he tested the strength of the men holding him down. No matter how much he struggled, it was in vain. The only semblance of control he had left was the ability to open and close his eyes, and even that ran autonomously. He’d lost all permission over his body.

Andersen smirking to himself, still testing the weight of his fine weapon, the one Connor had endorsed in chains. Then, he raised it with tense arms, looking Jeff straight on so that the heat of his gaze pierced through him and mounted him to the ground. Like staring at Medusa, he was frozen solid.

Connor had to close his eyes when the first blow took because of the sickening crunch and complimentary howl that sprouted from his brother’s lips. The crows above went quiet, the world at a standstill as Connor’s blood ran cold. and only when he was sure he wouldn’t faint did he dare to open his eyes and see the fate of his brother. If it had been merciful. But instead of the unrelenting force he’d been expecting, Jeff was still bawling from the brunt of the warhammer remained lodged in his chest, splintering his ribs and most likely lungs. It made his few breaths become wet pants around the blood bubbling to the surface.

Andersen was stepping on Jeff’s stomach to gain leverage, using one foot to pin him to the earth beneath his knees as the other reclaimed his balance behind him. The haft required two hands to use the weapon fully but Andersen was not deterred. If anything, he was spurred on by the additional spike residing at the other end of the hammer, and no sooner did he collect himself was he turning the head around in a full rotation to use the hammer as an impromptu axe. He threw the full weight of it down on Jeff’s head.

Even the thickest set of armour would not be able to ricochet the force of the blow. Connor had welded it with the intention of it being versatile and capable of easy penetration. He’d made sure it could take out the legs of a horse. In the end, Andersen absolutely mutilated his dear brother with its full strength. Jeff toppled over and was still, the precision of the blow leading to his ultimate demise.

The rotten pit in the depth of his stomach expanded, and before he knew it, he was retching and vomiting up all he’d eaten during his pastimes. Whether it was the foul stench of death or Andersen’s consequent laugh that was the reason, he had no idea. What he was sure of was about ten seconds later, after he’d finished purging the remains of his meals, Andersen’s hands were snaking up to cradle his head between two blood-soaked hands. The same blood that had come from Connor’s dead brother only feet away.

The hands left distasteful smears across his brow and cheeks. All of it contained scum, grime, and the remains of his brother’s skull.

“Works just as well as it did when you forged it,” Andersen commented, dropping the massive warhammer’s pole beside Connor as he began to caress the bridge of his nose. The ground quite frankly shook when the weapon’s large obtrusion hit the ground. “Are you going to behave now?”

Connor jerked his chin up and down relentlessly, willing for the tears brimming in the corner of his scleras to dry. His nose began to run, anticipating a well-earned cry and sweat-slick skin to follow.

“Good, then perhaps I’ll spare them after all. Though, you did say you would rather die than come with me, so truly, who am I to believe you?”

“I revoke what I said,” Connor rasped.

Andersen shook his head. “Well, that’s just not good enough. What exactly do you revoke?” He reached around his waist to grab a canteen and take a nonchalant sip. A splash of it trickled down his fingers, taking with it a flash of crimson residue. A waste.

“That I would not come with you to Denmark.”

“So? Your answer?” He threw the canteen under his nose, a silent offer that Connor chose to ignore.

“I will come,” he spat out, like it was diseased. “Willingly.”

“And?” Andersen suggested, one hand tilting Connor’s chin up again and leaving more smears that stank of murder. “Why are you coming to Danmark?”

“Because I ran away when I shouldn’t have.”

Andersen didn’t look satisfied, grunting to himself. He balanced the canteen’s nozzle on Connor’s top lip, the last of the water wetting the surface.

Connor swallowed down the worst of his fears to try piping up again, “I ran away because I was supposed to be your armourer.”

“Just my armourer? Why, I could have anyone on the continent.”

Connor then identified what he was trying to tease out of him and relented, if only for his own sanity. “You were my husband.” And for that, he was happy Jeff couldn’t hear him, because the shame of admitting it aloud was like letting fungus take root inside of him.

Around them, the other vikings that he assumed could understand them snickered, jeering out words that wrapped around them like insults. Andersen shut them up with a frown.

“Were? Oh no, sweetheart, I still am,” Andersen corrected him. He was leaning in close again, but Connor ducked his head down, letting his curled bangs obscure his face.

Andersen was impatient with his games and forced his head up and forced the remaining water down his throat. Not expecting it, Connor coughed up the first lungful, some of the excess drops spurting out and subsequently running down his nose. Andersen continued to pour it down until Connor shuddered and forced his mouth shut. The surplus of water in the canteen was thrown over his face, plastering his hair down.

He was only just recovering from the system shock when Andersen stole his lips in a single movement. Connor stilled, not daring to move, as the viking clambered for his attention. When it became clear Connor was going to sit back and let Andersen do all the work, the man pulled back with a grimace.

Kæreste, I haven’t seen you in years and you deny me this? Show me you mean it.” Though his voice came off as genuine, something darker underlined his words. A threat.

Connor felt a low whine escape him, but there was nothing he could do. Andersen was back with a vengeance and that time, he did his best to reciprocate. The second he pushed back, Andersen’s hands grabbed the back of his head and yanked him forward until their teeth knocked and noses squished together. The harsh, unyielding aspect of it made his stomach churn, but he could do nothing but let Andersen use him until he was satisfied.

He did eventually stop, when Connor’s oxygen was depleted and he was gasping for breath. A metallic tinge was seated on his bottom lip but even as he ran his tongue over it he couldn’t sure if Andersen had intentionally bit down. He didn’t feel it, which only meant one other outcome.

He was heaving again, almost willing to vomit onto Andersen’s boots to purge the sickly feeling spread across his chest. He desperately wanted control over his arms so that he could wash his face clean from Jeff’s blood, but he was in no position to make demands. Andersen was already strolling away in the opposite direction, hands clasped behind his back.

“Now, to make sure there are no grievances about your home with me,” Andersen said, pinching the cleft of Connor’s chin so that he could only look up. After that, he was back to talking with his men, pointing in the direction of the forge and the stables built next to it.

“Is that your steed eating the hay there? Oh, she’s very beautiful. It’s a shame really.” Connor was about to ask what was the point of the ambiguity when Andersen was anything but subtle when one of the women leaning against the fence took her torch and set fire to the gate. It being built of wood, caught almost immediately.

The horses whinnied and bucked, but there was no point. The fire spread across the grass within minutes to the instrumental of Connor’s panicked screams and then touched the walls of the force. Though built out of stone and architecturally inclined to be as little as a fire hazard as possible, the window frames were still carved out of beech tree bark and wood and succumbed to the attack. That was enough to invite the embers inside, where they’d surely find more to feast on.

It was like swallowing a spoonful of salt. He didn’t have the energy to muster more sobs, but the heat on his brow made him turn away regardless and mourn by himself. It was both a murder of innocence and his own dreams, the thick smell of smoke that was once so comforting now his death march.

“Why are you doing this?” he pleaded. “You’ve done enough already.”

“Well, you’re not going to have need for it in Danmark. I have my own royal forge. You used it, so you would know.”

And it was truly effective in its design, Andersen wasn’t lying there. It looked over many of the rogue camps and common folk houses and was kept pristine despite how often it was left unmanned. But it was inconceivable to compare it to the forge. The one being ransacked and probably destroyed if not lit aflame to do as much damage as possible.

“Yeah,” Connor said, but it was completely flat.

Andersen ruffled his hair, wiping off some of the excess blood on his face with the pad of this thumb. “I promise you’ll love it. A lot has changed since you left, but all in your likeness.” Andersen raked his fingers along Connor’s scalp, testing the hairs. “We’ll make a good Dane out of you.”

“I’m not a Dane though,” Connor said on reflex. He wished he’d bit his tongue and held still when Freddie’s hand stopped, tugging back.

“Oh, but you are by marriage. You gave me your word Connor, you promised, in front of our gods. I would hate to have to pay my own good-parents a visit because of your insubordination.”

Connor’s eyes closed, trying to make him look unaffected when in reality he was shrieking for bloody mercy. “Don’t hurt them.”

Andersen scoffed. “I won’t, but I do need something from them. Maybe I’ll let you say your final goodbyes.” He paused. “Or not. I would hate for you to get any ideas and act irrational again. There’s no need for violence.”

Connor felt choked up. “Let me say goodbye.”

“Why should I? After all you did to hurt me?”

“Hurt you?” He tried to spring up in fury. “You--”

Andersen’s turned palm struck him right across the face, sending him sprawling back and losing his balance. He would have fallen flat on his back had the men holding his arms not forced him to remain upright.

“Are you still going to fight me?” Andersen rumbled from above.

“No,” he said, the ends trailing off in a wheeze, cheek stinging.

Andersen called off the men holding Connor back and helped him to his feet. There was a hand lingering on his lower back, scrunching at the tunic and apron ties and promising retribution if he ran.

“Then, to your parents. I’d love to meet them. So long as you don’t pull any tricks, I don’t see why we couldn’t have a civil conversation.” And for the heck of it, he had one of his men pick up the warhammer and show it off. In the end, his words were meaningless, just a false assurance to give him the appearance of being courteous when Connor was staring at a beast in disguise.

Andersen turned around when he got no response. “So what is it drage? Are you coming or should I go back and finish the job?”

“No. I-I’ll come with you,” he said, voice wavering.

Andersen smiled and held out a hand, disregarding the one already steadying Connor. “Let’s make haste then. We have another wedding to arrange for when we get home, don’t we?”