It all begins with a fleet of burning boats.
Dean looks out over the water of the inlet, shrouded in mist and smoke, the grief of his village weighing heavily on his shoulders. Over fifty men had departed on the raid a mere week ago, but never made it to their destination.
Barely twenty had returned home.
Smoke spirals upwards from the funeral boats that drift slowly towards the mouth of the cove. Thirty-two good warriors, good men, gone from this world. They will feast in Valhalla tonight, Dean is sure, but that is a cold comfort for those left behind. At least they had died fighting bravely, as their returned friends had told Dean in the Tinghöll last night—though they shouldn’t have died at all.
The voice is quiet, but Dean registers it beneath the sound of the mournful, eerie song that emanates from the clustered villagers and spills out over the still waters of the cove. He takes his eyes off the water and half-turns towards the man who has stepped up to his side. “Cas,” he greets softly. The temptation to let his walls down is strong, but he knows he must remain stoic for his people.
“I have spoken with the guards. The watch will be increased for the next few days. I don’t trust whoever attacked our ships not to strike against our village.”
Because that’s the thing. Whatever had happened out there on the water, relayed to Dean in defeated tones by the remaining warriors of the raid… it hadn’t been fair. In the beginning of raiding season, every village is focused on getting across to the distant lands, for their warriors to prove themselves once again. The eyes of the villages should not be turned to one another, except in camaraderie.
The fact that Dean’s raid was ambushed before they had barely gotten out of Viking waters, by ships and warriors bearing no identifying symbols, is a spit in the face to Dean. It is not an insult that he will idly ignore.
“Thank you, Cas,” he says quietly. They stand together on the wooden dock and watch the boats burn, until the last of them have been reduced to flickering flames and embers. The songs were ceased a little while ago, and silence hangs over the cove and its sheltered valley.
Dean makes his way off the dock, Castiel one step to his left at all times. Slowly, the people of his village gather from their places of mourning, spots along the water or the docks where they stood to watch those they loved on their final trip to Valhalla. Hundreds of eyes watch Dean in the dying light.
“Our fallen brothers will be avenged,” he promises his people. His voice rings out over the assembled crowd, honed by years of practice. “Whoever is responsible for this attack, I promise you, we will enact justice. But we will not let this betrayal damage the raiding season that so many of you have been looking forward to. We are one of the strongest villages on this coast, and we will not be cowed. Next time, if they try this again, we will be ready.”
A murmured assent spreads throughout the crowd, with those closest to him nodding their agreement. They’re his most senior warriors—men who earned their glory in raids many years past, back when his father was the Jarl and the village was smaller than it is now. These men are those he trusts most, besides Castiel, and it warms him to know that he has their support.
“All are welcome to stay and keep vigil over those who ride to Valhalla tonight,” he tells them, his voice softer now. These are words to soothe the grieving, not to reassure those holding anger in their hearts. That time will come. “If anyone wishes to speak with me, you know where to find me.”
He steps back from the crowd, and turns away as it begins to disperse. Some remain by the water, lighting torches by the edge of the sea and taking up a vigil as the evening begins to creep in with the mist. Others drift away towards the village—many with young ones in need of sleep, or tomorrow’s work to be prepared for.
Now that there is no one watching him, nobody looking to him for leadership, Dean lets himself deflate.
And, of course, Castiel is there to support him with a gentle hand on his back and a quick kiss pressed to his temple. “Do you want to go home?” he asks quietly. Dean inhales, then lets his breath out in a long sigh.
“I don’t know.” He really doesn’t. He’s exhausted from thinking himself around in circles—who could have done this, why would they have done this, how can Dean protect his people?—and sleep sounds like a welcome solution right now. But… he lost many good friends in that raid. Friends who should have died in a proper battle, not in a deceitful ambush on the ocean. Some of the bodies hadn’t even returned home with the ships. Their families had had to burn empty boats for a soul whose body lay in the cold clutches of the sea.
“I should keep vigil for a while,” he decides. “But I don’t… I can’t be the Jarl right now. I just need to be me.”
There’s so much weight on his shoulders, and he needs it gone. Just for one night.
Luckily for him, Castiel understands.
Instead of heading to the centre of the village, to the Jarl’s house, Cas leads them towards the edge to the paddocks. Dean watches from the fence while he catches his grey mare—unhappy to be separated from Dean’s black mare but bearing it all at the same—and bridles her.
They don’t bother with any kind of saddle or blanket. Castiel swings up onto her back, then holds out his arm for Dean, who follows him up with a little less grace. He was born to be a warrior, to hold his own on the ocean, unlike Cas who was raised as a shepherd’s son. He’s a fearsome warrior, since Dean has honed his skills himself, but he’s always been much more at home on the land than on the timber of a ship.
That’s why Dean clings tight to Cas, arms wrapped securely around his waist. With the gentlest of prompts, Castiel sends his horse off at a walk, along the path that leads up towards the cliffs. Dean presses his forehead against Cas’s shoulder and feels the warmth of his husband through the fabric of his tunic, the familiar smell calming his churning thoughts.
They pass the northern watchtower, and Cas lifts his hand in acknowledgement to the guards who are stationed by the edge of the village, tasked with keeping it safe. They know that Dean and Castiel can handle themselves—neither of them ever go anywhere without at least one weapon—and so their departure is not impeded in any way, thank Odin. Being questioned by his men is the last thing he wants to deal with today.
By the time the mare starts the climb up to the cliffs, Dean has already guessed where they’re heading. Cas urges her smoothly into a canter, using his legs to guide her gently in where to go, but she knows. Her gait is surefooted as she climbs up towards the cliffs, and Dean holds tight to Cas as they move with her. Any other day, he’d joke about being in such a suggestive position, their hips moving together with the rhythm of the mare’s canter, but…
Not today. Not after it has been so shrouded with grief and anger. After they have sent many good men to Valhalla today.
Instead, Dean focuses on Cas’s presence, on his warmth and his sturdy build, and the smell that Dean associates with their bed in his house, and with stability and safety. Dean may be the Jarl, but Cas is the one who keeps the village running and keeps Dean from losing his mind on days like these.
By the time they crest the top of the hill, leaving the track and stepping out onto untouched grass, the mare is breathing hard. Castiel slows her to a walk and releases the reins to hang loose against her neck, then reaches for Dean’s hand where it’s wrapped around his waist.
“How are you feeling, ást?” Castiel turns his head slightly as his mare picks her way between the outcropping of stone, and laces their fingers together.
“Tired,” Dean admits, hooking his chin gently over Cas’s shoulder. “How could someone do that to us? The raiding season is supposed to be a time of peace and pride amongst our people. To ambush our ships like that…” He shakes his head defeatedly. “It would never have happened while my father was alive.”
Cas makes a soft sound in the back of his throat. “Dean. That isn’t true. You are a good Jarl. The village has grown, the king is pleased with the harvests and spoils that you presented to him at the last court. Just because some other Jarl is disrespecting the traditions of our fathers does not mean that you are a bad leader.”
The mare ambles to a stop a handful of yards from the edge of the cliff. With the mist in the cove clearing, they can see all the way across the water, to the lights of the village and the last dying flickers of the burial boats.
Up here, it is peaceful and quiet, and Dean can breathe. He presses a quick kiss to Cas’s shoulder, then slides down off the horse’s back. Looking out over the cover, he hears rather than sees Cas follow him, then feels his husband’s warmth by his side.
This is their spot. The first place Dean had met Cas, properly, instead of just knowing him as the shepherd’s son. He’d needed somewhere to escape his father, and had climbed all the way to the clifftops by foot.
Stupid father. Stupid Jarl rules. Stupid tradition.
He finally reaches the hilltop, panting from the steep walk. Surely the solitude will help him to calm the thoughts swirling around in his head like dangerous eddies. Here, he can be himself, not John Strongsword’s son. Not the son of the Jarl.
Except he’s not alone.
As he turns towards the clifftop and the cove below, he sees a young man, sitting on a moss-covered boulder while his flock of sheep graze on the hillside behind him. His hair is dark, his clothing simple, and when Dean’s foot knocks against a loose stone and he turns, Dean sees eyes bluer than the ocean.
His name is Castiel, Dean thinks. He’s never spoken with the boy, but now, face-to-face, he wonders why.
Castiel smiles at him. Dean climbs up and joins him on the rock, and for a long time, they don’t speak—just sit and watch the still waters of the cove.
“You’re not getting too old to climb up here?” Cas teases as they search in the silvery darkness for the hand and footholds they’ve been using since they were teenagers. Dean swats at his shoulder and rolls his eyes, and Castiel’s answering grin gleams by the light of the moon.
“I’m not old yet, you ass. Just because I’m the Jarl and I’m not going on every raid that leaves the village any more doesn’t mean I can’t climb a godsdamn rock.”
Besides, he’s younger even than John had been before taking over leadership of the village from his own father. He’s not old, and now he’s going to damn well prove it. He digs his fingers into a crack in the boulder’s side and leverages himself up, scrambling up the rest of the way to the flat spot on top. It’s not graceful, but he’s determined to beat Cas up, and he grins down at his husband triumphantly.
“Yes, Dean,” Cas deadpans, a smile teasing at the edges of his lips. “You’re still very capable. I’m so proud that you can beat me in climbing a rock.” He climbs up the rest of the way, slower and more careful than Dean had been. It’s part of what makes him such a good leader by Dean’s side—they balance each other out.
Besides, Cas has the added advantage of being closer to Dean than anyone else in the village, and he knows exactly how to distract the Jarl when it’s needed. Right now, Dean feels just like a teenager again, sneaking up here to spend time alone with Cas. It’s just what he needs, after such a terrible tragedy has happened to his people. To shed the burden of being Jarl just for an hour or two.
He looks down over the village again, to the tiny, dark shapes by the mouth of the cove that is all that remains of the boats that hadn’t fully burned. Some of them still glimmer with the last embers, and it sobers him.
Castiel’s body is a comforting, familiar press against his side. “You didn’t know that would happen,” he says. “It wasn’t your fault. There’s nothing you could have done.” A hint of amusement laces his tone. “The younger warriors would have never forgiven you if you’d held them back from their first raiding season.”
“And now many of them have died without ever tasting a proper battle,” Dean replies.
Far off in the distance, a raven calls. Dean lets his gaze drift over his village, to the torches now burning throughout the streets and paths, a line of them still along the water’s edge with the families mourning their dead. Castiel laces their fingers together.
“It wasn’t your fault,” he whispers again.
The waters of the cove are silent and still beneath the cliffs, the last of the boats flickering with embers and sinking into the depths to join their brothers in Valhalla.
They stay at the clifftop until the moon is high in the night sky, the stars shining above. Dean watches the water and the sky for longer than he should, thinking and thinking and trying to figure out the best course of action for his people. His father had taught him when he was young to navigate by the stars—if only they could show him the answer for this, too.
Castiel stays by his side throughout, a silent, steady presence. Once the cold begins to creep into their bones, however, and the night wears on, he shifts his grip and squeezes Dean’s fingers.
“Ást,” he says, to pull Dean out of his thoughts. “We should return home. Your people will need you tomorrow, and you are no good to them if you can hardly stay awake.”
He has a point. He always does. Dean slowly stretches his limbs, cold and stiff from sitting in the same spot for hours. “Where would I be without you?” he asks wearily, the ghost of a smile curling his lips.
“Still aimlessly chasing every pretty man or woman in the village, I’m sure,” Cas teases, leaning in to press a kiss to his cheek. “And a much worse Jarl than you are now.”
“How dare you, Cas.”
Their banter is easy, familiar. They’ve been doing this for years, and Cas knows that it’s the best way to take him out of his head. As much as the unjust deaths of his people are weighing on his mind, dwelling on them will keep him from being the leader that they need.
Dean lets out a shuddering breath. He’s so lucky to have Cas.
They climb back down the boulder together, watching out for each other in the pale wash of moonlight instead of the race that the upwards ascent had been. Castiel whistles lowly for his mare, who perks her head up from her nap and comes trotting over. “Good girl, Elisif,” he murmurs, rubbing his hand over her nose. “I’m sorry we kept you up so late.”
She whickers into his hand, and Dean shakes his head. Sometimes Cas has an uncanny ability with animals. He springs up onto her back with ease, and once again Dean grabs his forearm and clambers up after him. The mare, to her credit, doesn’t move or complain, just stands still until Castiel gives her the command to move.
They’re more careful as they pick their way back down the mountain now, with Dean pressing his forehead tiredly into Cas’s shoulder and letting him and Elisif navigate them back down to the village. Many of the torches have gone out by now, though one or two remain by the water’s edge. By the time they return to the horses’ paddock, almost all of the village is dark.
Dean dismounts and leans against the fence as Cas puts the mare back into the paddock and puts away her bridle, then they head back into the village. He straightens his back as they come into view of the watchtower, and tries not to let his exhaustion show. The sentry lifts a hand to acknowledge them, and they pass by along the path.
The village is nearly deserted at this time of night, and they only encounter a loose chicken and a thrall fetching water on their way back to the Jarl’s house. Of all the buildings in the village—aside from the Tinghöll—Dean’s house is the largest, the most carefully built. It has lasted through generations, built back when the village was half the size it is now.
It’s the house Dean grew up in, and now, it’s the house he shares with Cas.
He unlatches the front door and pushes it open, lighting the lamp hanging just inside. It flickers and catches, illuminating the inside of the house with dancing light, throwing into shadow the furniture spread across the living and dining area. Trophies and shields hang along the walls, remnants of Dean’s ancestry, his father’s shield at the end of the progression.
Hopefully it will be many years before Dean’s own is put up there by his successor.
That’s not a line of thinking that is going to lift his spirits, though, so he turns away from the line of shields and instead makes his way towards the sleeping quarters at the end of the room. Behind him, he hears the snick of Cas relatching the door, and then the light flickers and dances across the walls as he lifts the lamp and follows Dean to bed.
The thralls are long asleep, so the water left in the corner of their bedroom has long since gone cold, but Dean doesn’t mind. Silently, he strips off his boots and tunic and pants and steps into his tub, scooping the cold water up against his skin and scrubbing at the grime that has accumulated across the day. He and Cas had helped the grieving families prepare the bodies and boats for their journey to Valhalla, had helped to push the boats out into the cove today, and he had been given the honour of lighting many of the pyres.
Dirt and soot clings to his skin, and he scrubs at it as though he can wash away the memories of today. He can’t remember the last time that so many funeral boats had been sent out into the cove at once—the last great sickness had happened when he was just a child, claiming his mother earlier than had been her time. It had been an unjust end for such a fierce shield-maiden.
Again—not thoughts that are helping Dean settle his mind. Reliving past grief isn’t going to help. Instead, he turns his gaze to Cas, who has also undressed and is standing in his own tub, sluicing cold water over his body. When he catches Dean looking, he pauses, his lips curling up into a smile. In the flickering lamplight, he looks beautiful; lean and strong, the occasional white scar standing out against tanned skin. Dean knows every one by heart.
He steps out of his own tub and stands at the edge of Cas’s, his husband’s eyes following his movements. In that moment, he’s so full of gratitude for his husband, his second in command, his verr, that he’s just… lost for words. How can Cas ever know how much he keeps Dean afloat, how lost he’d be without such a solid foundation?
Cas’s breath hitches quietly as Dean cups his cheek, then leans in to press a soft kiss to his lips. Dean puts every single one of his emotions into that kiss—his gratitude, his grief, his love. Fingers slide into his close-cropped hair and pull him in closer, and Dean sighs into the kiss.
They stand there until the water on Dean’s skin has dried, until the events of the day truly catch up to him and weigh down his bones with exhaustion, exchanging gentle kisses and holding each other close. Eventually, Dean pulls away, brushing his thumb over Cas’s cheekbone. “Ek elska þik,” he says quietly.
Cas smiles and puts his hand over Dean’s. “I know.” He turns his head to kiss Dean’s knuckles. “Go to bed, ást. I will join you in a minute.”
Albeit reluctantly, Dean lets his hand drop and steps away, making his way over to their bed with its intricately carved frame and piles of furs. He slides under the bottom blanket and pulls it up over himself, watching Cas as he finishes bathing. Cas steps out of the tub of water and dries himself quickly with one of the cloths placed nearby, then snuffs out the lamp.
They both know their way around their house in the dark, and Dean hears Cas’s quiet footsteps as he makes his way over to the bed, then feels the mattress dip beside him. Naked warmth presses up beside him, and Dean rolls towards Cas, letting himself be held.
Cas pulls the blankets and furs up over them both and presses a kiss to the top of Dean’s head. This is where he is safe, where he can be vulnerable. Whenever it’s just the two of them, with nobody else around, he doesn’t have to be the Jarl.
Even with Cas pressed close, his familiar smell and the rhythm of his breathing usually enough to lull him to sleep, Dean’s mind is still moving, still thinking about that attack and the warriors who lost their lives to a cowardly, underhanded manoeuvre.
By the time he falls asleep, he has made a vow. To himself, to his men, to his village.
Whoever was behind this attack… Dean is going to make them pay.