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If I had a heart I could love you.

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‘Auguste!’ Laurent cries, weaving in and out of the people gathered by the shore.

 

‘Laurent?’ He shouts back, scanning the crowd for his brother.

 

‘Here,’ Laurent says, bounding up the few stairs to the wooden dock. He pushes past a couple more raiders before he leaps. Auguste wraps his arms around him as they hug. 

 

Auguste chuckles. ‘I missed you too,’ he says into his brother’s braided hair, combing his hands through the warm, golden strands. He pillows a small kiss on his crown.

 

‘Too long,’ comes the muffled noise from Laurent, his face buried into Auguste’s fur-insulated shoulder. Auguste’s cloak billows in the wind.

 

Somewhere close, his mother and father are unboarding their shield-lined boat. The air is filled with celebration and clamour and the smell of pungent salt and sweat. Other longships can be seen in the distance, rowing up the forested strait, their loved ones waiting for them patiently on the shore. 

 

*

 

There are four high-backed wooden chairs set up on the dais in the main hall. Fur blankets cut from fox, wolf, elk, and sable cover the ground beneath them. Three of these chairs are occupied - in order: Laurent on the far left, then Auguste, and Hennike on the farthest right. She has changed out of her trousers and now wears a loose-fitting dress of pale blue. Her silvery hair hangs loose across her shoulders. 

 

Laurent’s seat is the newest sculpture. The wood is newer and the outcome shorter than his father’s, the Earl chieftain's. It is also less decorated. When he was younger, he used to stand next to Auguste’s chair instead of sitting - resting his arm on the top and sprawling contrapposto. 

 

Aleron is standing off the dais. A great fire burns in a brazier, elevated off the floor and central in the vast hut. The smoke filters upwards towards the high roof. He stands next to it, proud and brave like a true leader. The embers shine through his mousy hair, which is braided and long down his back. His beard gives him the matured regalness and charm which many say rivals Odin himself. 

 

The hall is filled with the mass of townspeople, all mesmerised by the stories of the raid’s triumphs and splendour. The atmosphere is joyous and easy with drink. Husbands embrace their wives, children cling to their parents whom they missed dearly for months on end. Those without families slap each other on the back and exchange crude banter. The guests from towns over rejoice in the community without jealousy - on the surface anyway.

 

The people of the village quiet down in respect when Aleron gets into position. He steps up onto a table casually and the leather of his boots taps against it. He lets out a teasing joke and the entire hall laughs deeply. Not because they have to, but because they want to. Many would say that he is not an Earl to them first, but a close friend. 

 

He talks for a while and Laurent doesn’t listen.

 

‘And that leads me to this,’ Aleron speaks. The wooden boards creak under him as he paces. The cold, salty air from outside blows in and causes the fire to dance - akin to a whirlpool. It breezes through his hair, like he was born of the sea itself. The crowd hangs on his every word, every pause, craving more.

 

He raises both of his arms and turns to the entrance of the hall. The people turn with him, craning their heads. Two dozen men march in, some with them baskets of jewellery and coins and precious metals, others with them shackled captives from the raid. All of the latter are somewhat poorly submissive, simply letting this happen so they do not have to suffer consequences.

 

That is when the last of them comes in. A giant of a man. It takes three men to restrain him as he jerks and bucks wildly, trying to free himself from the restraints. Laurent stares, admiring him like a fish caught in a net.

 

The men and women in the grand hut laugh and holler at the bounty, the handlers kicking their weakened ankles to walk. They are presented in front of the Earl’s family to be household slaves or sold for money. Laurent shifts in his seat.

 

‘For you, my love,’ Aleron steps down from the table and brings forward three women roughly by their shoulders. ‘On behalf of Earl Radel and his crew.’ They are dressed in tattered clothes. Having been travelling by sea for months, they are likely the clothes they had adorned when they had been taken from their homeland, now soiled and ruined. It is impossible to distinguish what they had been, farmers or royalty alike, because of their state. They look pale and weak, probably the only few which survived the journey. Hennike surveyed them as she is expected to do. 

 

‘A gift well received,’ she utters. ‘My thanks, Earl. I’m sure they will do a great service to me. Have them washed and taken to the slave’s hall,’ she ordered no one in particular. Three servants led the women out of the hall.

 

‘The treasures you have taken from these distant lands yourself are of course yours as well, my dear Hennike. And my youngest son,’ Aleron directs to Laurent. ‘Auguste has already claimed his spoils,’ the raiders laugh openly at some inside joke, ‘but you protected this village in our absence. That shows great promise from you as a leader, especially when your brother becomes Earl, and great promise in our future,’ he turns. ‘And we must always think of our future.’ There is uproar as the townsfolk voice their agreement. They lift their drinking horns and a few slosh their liquid onto the floor. Then Aleron looks back at Laurent, almost provocatively. 

 

‘Him,’ Laurent says, pointing to a frail boy around his age. ‘I want that one.’ The brown haired boy looks around in terror as he understands the gesture despite no knowledge of the language.

 

‘I’m afraid,’ Aleron starts, ‘that you have no choice in this particular matter. For these are not nearly the fine quality of servants I should bestow upon my dear son, no.’ The giant captive is brought forward, still writhing. One of the other prisoners struggles violently against his own ropes. Laurent’s eyes grow wide. From this close, he can see clearly the anger and hatred in his eyes, the damp cloth stuck in his mouth so he cannot speak. Aleron does not break his gaze on Laurent, even as he moves and talks. The Earl stalks around the man, predatory in nature. ‘Here is a slave worthy of you. He speaks our tongue. He says he was a cloth merchant. Our translator, on the other hand, says he was a PRINCE!’ Simultaneous yells of disgust and victory echo throughout the glowing chamber. Aleron waits before they die down enough to speak again.

 

‘Royalty of his land. That barbaric country.’ The handlers kick at the backs of the man’s knees, forcing him to fall forward into a kneeling position. He lets out an animalistic noise of protest. Aleron places his boot on top of the man’s head. A hunted trophy. Once again, he addresses Laurent. ‘My son, you have always appreciated a challenge. So here it is.’

 

The blond stares down at the captive prince on the floor. 

 

‘Next time, I should like to see you raid with us, Laurent.’

 

*

 

‘Psssst,’ a man hears at midnight. ‘Psssst!’ The hissing grows louder. Nikandros opens his tired eyes to see Damianos in front of him. They are lying on their sides in the slave’s hut, dark apart from the moonlight, surrounded by about forty other sleeping captives. 

 

They were given slaves clothes after a bath, thin enough for the freezing air to reach bone. 

 

Nikandros shivers. ‘Nik,’ Damen whispers in their own language. As Nik wakes up a little more, he sees Pallas over Damen’s shoulder also, both of their eyes staring at him in hope. 

 

‘Hmm, what?’ Nikandros hums in tired acknowledgement.

 

‘I have a plan.’

 

*

 

Over the few weeks since Damen was brought to service Laurent, he did his best to feign compliance so that his plan of escape would not backfire. It did not help that the blond brat tested his patience more than anyone else ever has. The only other cunning backstabbers he knew of were back home, Jokaste and Kastor, and they were at least decent people to him. He would much rather be with them in any case than here. It seems like everything he does for that ungrateful spoiled son of an earl is inadequate, no matter how insignificant.

 

Once, he drew Laurent a bath in one of the small wooden tubs with the hottest water available. He said it was too cold and would rather bathe in an ice pond with the wolves.

 

Damen lit the candles in the hall for him to play a boardgame. Laurent chastised him for being too haphazard, humiliating him for a spectacle in front of an audience.

 

At one point he advised him to get an undercut, as is the style, to which Laurent said if he wanted to kill him he shouldn’t do it so predictably.

 

He tried to get to know him better through gritted teeth. Laurent hit him, made a fanciful lie and told him not to be presumptuous. 

 

Yesterday, he watched Laurent dance around the Yol bonfire, painted eyes and chanting to his gods. He held hands with a lady he liked called Vannes. Laurent had joked to the townspeople that they should sacrifice Damen on the pyre since he is so large he would burn forever, even through Ragnarok. Some laughed at this and cheered in jest, but Damen had been with him long enough to know it wasn’t a joke. Laurent had looked at him with eyes so blue and distant it had chilled his body. It was like looking up from directly underneath the shards of an icicle. Ever present, dangerous, unpredictable. Yet fascinating.



He is not allowed to set foot in Laurent’s rooms, which Damianos finds out the hard way.

 

Laurent is reclining on his bed in a boyish pose when Damen storms through the door of his hut - his rank here be damned. Curtains block his path but are translucent enough to see a reasonable outline of him. Laurent rushes over with a face full of malice and spite.

 

‘Why do you hate me so?’ Damen roars, fists clenched, looking down at this pathetic excuse of a human. He wills himself not to fixate on his unfortunate beauty, more the tarnished personality which brands him.

 

‘You can’t just walk in here,’ Laurent replies, matter-of-factly, like this is but an everyday occurrence.

 

‘I just did.’

 

Laurent smiles and it makes Damen uncomfortable. 

 

‘Have you even learned my name? Why am I so expendable to you? If you wish for me to behave in a way more malleable to your liking, just explain . Even as your slave, I have done nothing to deserve this punishment, yet you treat me in such a way like I have killed your entire family.’

 

‘This,’ Laurent shrugs, unphased at Damen’s honesty. 

 

‘This what?’ Damen snarls.

 

‘This is fucking why.’

 

Damen stands his ground, even as Laurent brandishes a knife against his jugular.

 

‘I know who you are, Damianos. Now. Get. Out,’ Laurent says. He remains under strict self-control, knowing that if he displays any sort of anger, Damen can use it to his advantage. He pushes at his shoulder. 

 

‘Even the trickster Loki retains some kindness in his cruelty. His daughter, Hel, too. Not you. You could learn a thing or two from Frey--’

 

‘Do not speak with such familiarity about our gods,’ Laurent spits. ‘You take too many liberties. Just because you speak our language does not make you one of us. The gods would have you flayed and blood-eagled like my treacherous uncle.’

 

‘And you call my country barbaric.’

 

Damen doesn’t want to provoke the thorns of the rose any more, so he turns around and leaves.

 

*

 

Laurent is alone by the riverbank, away from the farmhouses when Damen appears. His hands are numb and painful from the ropes which he has snaked around his wrists again. He had stolen Laurent’s pen knife, presumably in an attempt to harm him. Or so Laurent said to his father. He is dangerous . It was handled lightly, since Aleron didn’t believe him. Another set up however and he will soon be trying to kill Laurent from a flogging post. 

 

‘You’re late,’ Laurent says without turning to look at him.

 

Damen doesn’t say a word. After a few moments he stands. There are two axes on the floor, and he grabs them both before stalking around the back of Damen. The brunette is quick to fall to the gravelly sand when Laurent kicks his unsuspecting legs. Before he can raise his head, there is an axe pressed against his throat. Damen is starting to suspect that this is a daily routine for Laurent. Maybe it is used in excess because, he thinks, other people would have obeyed him by now.

 

The lightweight blade of the axe travels up until just underneath the precipice of his chin. The other axe at his side. Laurent forces Damen to look up at him. His knuckles are even paler where he clutches the wooden handle. After a few seconds of lingering intimidation, he allows the axe to fall, gradually. It slips out of his weakened grip and thuds to the ground alongside Damianos’ knees. 

 

‘Let’s see how well you fight, prince .’ The sneering word is spoken in Damen’s native language. Damen fails to see why everyone picks on this trait in particular. His status seems to enrage them.

 

Laurent walks a few paces away and watches like a hawk as Damen struggles to grip the axe and stand upright. 

 

‘You have an unfair advantage,’ Damen says, wobbling a bit in stance.

 

‘Oh?’ says Laurent.

 

‘You are not bound.’

 

‘Physically, no. But that is no problem for you, beast. Just tug on the poorly tied ropes like a wild bear. Do you know how to escape basic holds or do you need a demonstration?’

 

Damen would only require a demonstration if it meant Laurent would be the one humiliated and restricted. Perhaps being pushed off into the expanse of the sea. Maybe shove some cloth in his venomous mouth to make him shut up too. The frigid bitterness of the cold which lingers in the northern air suits his heart.

 

His mind jerks in disturbing shock at his own villainous thoughts.

 

‘I did not,’ Damen pulls at the bonds, ‘plan for this,’ the ropes loosen and he is free. 

 

‘No you didn’t,’ Laurent replies in that buttery voice again. ‘Which is why you are here.’

 

‘I could just run off.’

 

The village bustles in the background. Damen’s hands are untied.

 

‘Yes. But where would you go? This place is much different from your own country. I have already made a bet with Lazar, the one who tied your ropes, that if you run it will be the cold that kills you first. Not the bears or other tribes. You will die a slow, painful, lonely death. On an empty stomach no less. You will be lucky to find a water source around here not thick with ice or saline. Your weapons will become blunt and break. And after you die in the snow, starving creatures will eat your carrion. Which isn’t the best death for a prince, don’t you agree? Much better dying in battle. With honour. Though your worship of false paganism won’t allow you to enter Valhalla.’

 

Damen’s mouth has not closed for the entirety of the blond’s monologue. For the first time in his existence, he is at a loss for words.

 

Laurent plans to move for an attack now.

 

‘You are a spoiled, mockery of a so-called prince.’ Laurent strikes but Damen blocks him. It is true he hasn’t studied the maps of this place, but he still has his knowledge of fighting.

 

Crown prince ,’ Damen corrects in his mother tongue. Laurent lands the first blow against his stomach using the blunt end of the axe which winds him. He is quick.

 

‘Nothing. But over-indulgence and greed and pride and,’ Laurent swings again and hits Damianos’ hip bone underneath his shirt. This makes him double over. ‘Fucking whores?’

 

Damen smirks. 

 

‘Is that what you’re interested in, sweetheart?’

 

Laurent raises his imaginary heckles. Damen knows how to rile him up. To outdo his hypocrisy. Laurent strikes yet again and misses. Damen knocks him over, pushing Laurent down whilst lifting himself up in a learned swiftness of ease used in his battle training.

 

Laurent grabs a handful of sand which Damen misses, maneuvering as quick as a weasel to throw it at him. This blinds his sight and Laurent takes the advantage of nicking the backs of his legs with the sharp end of the blade as he gets up. It is enough to hurt and slow movement, but precise enough not to land any permanent damage. Damen feels hot blood trickle down his legs and coarse grit clouding his vision. The taste of earth is prominent in his mouth and on his lips. He cannot fight any longer like this. He still holds his axe. It is somewhat a relief to hear Laurent’s footsteps in the sand heading back towards the village. 

 

‘Poisonous snake!’ Damen yells to the watery blur of an Earl’s son.

 

‘Vacuous slut!’ Laurent yells back.

 

He leaves Damen hurting alone, with only the rustling trees and ripple of water. Ymir.