Floki is loud, is mad, is vicious.
Floki spits at the image of the Christian god and shakes his fist at Thor’s image. Floki dances naked through the woods and laughs and screams and sways.
Floki is a madman, a wise man, a wizard.
People look at Floki and think, oh, look at him and are blinded by his mad brilliance and brilliant madness.
People look at Floki and see nothing else.
That is just how Ragnar likes it.
He stumbles across Floki when the man is a boy, a pup of only a handful of winters, cowering in the snow, sniffling and whining like a wounded animal.
Ragnar stops before him and the child looks up, looks at him, looks through him. And he laughs. His voice is reedy and he breaks into a coughing fit almost immediately, but he looks into Ragnar’s tattered soul and he laughs.
Of course Ragnar keeps him.
“Tell me, Father,” Floki mocks, years later, half grown and too big for skin to contain him, calling Ragnar ‘father’ just to see the sneering smirk it earns him, “am I the one who bites his own tail to keep the world from falling out of his coils? Or the one who swallows it?”
Ragnar pounds him on the back hard enough to send the boy staggering and says, “You are mixing your myths, boy.”
He sleeps in a pile of furs, Floki curled into his side or at his feet, snoring softly, like a small animal, safe and comfortable.
Ragnar teaches him to fight and kill, to build and dream, and how to cheat at games of chance.
“What you see is only what is visible,” he instructs, holding up a fistful of rune stones. He closes his hand around them, shakes them. “Look differently.”
When he opens his hand again, there is only sand in his palm, trickling from between his fingers.
He finds Lagertha when the name is still new on her own tongue.
He finds her when he goes to free a brothel full of helpless maidens and encounters her instead, sword in one hand, the head of a would-be rapist in the other. There is blood on her lips, her cheeks, her forehead.
“Wife,” he says, stopping dead in the doorway.
She smirks, and exquisite twist of lips he hasn’t seen in a dozen centuries and returns, “Husband.”
She drops the head and blade both, steps into him and puts stained hands to his face, turning it this way and that. She tugs on his beard, his braid, traces the ridge above one eye, fingers damp with blood and memory.
“Your scars are gone,” she says.
He kisses the words from her lips, letting her swallow up his laugh.
At fifteen, Floki still does not wear an Earl’s arm ring and he never will.
No lord dares collar him, afraid of what they think he is, more than of what he actually is. Afraid to have him look into them, most likely.
It matters not. Floki needs no piece of metal to stand tall and Ragnar has never been fond of marking those loyal to him so obviously. Those who are his carry their madness like a brand, a hint of a snake’s hiss in their voices, a feral howl in the dark of their souls.
Floki knows where he belongs.
They make sure of that, Ragnar on one side, Lagertha on the other, holding him through the shakes of a vision, holding him all through the coldest winter in human memory, holding him when he comes to them, crying, pleading, eyes burning and hands shaking.
“Hush, boy,” Ragnar mutters into his matted hair, holding his trembling fingers still until Floki can do it himself again. “Just let it pass.”
Lagertha sighs on her side of the bed, a deep and weary sigh. The sigh of a wife watching her husband go to war, of a mother watching her sons fall under a blade. The sigh of a woman who shielded her lover from poison while he was chained to rock with the entrails of their youngest child.
“Soon,” she whispers and Ragnar does not ask what she means.
Bjorn is born that spring, snarling and vicious, biting at his father’s fingers as soon as he claws his way into the world.
His mother laughs, his father roars, and Floki giggles madly in the corner.
Gyda comes soon after, her face perfectly symmetrical for once, perfectly alive.
“My darling,” Ragnar croons and promises to conquer a kingdom for her, to lay it at her feet and watch her dance across it in skirts of winter and bone.
Haraldson takes Ragnar on as a farmer, a raider, a loyal subject. With him come a famous shieldmaiden and the best boat builder in this realm, which does not hurt anything.
Ragnar is given land to work and a house to live in, a lake to fish in, a few souls to labor for him. Haraldson is generous to a homeless raider with a family to feed. He expects loyalty in return.
He should have known better, really, should have looked closer. But he was blinded by Floki’s madness, but Lagertha’s sharpness and beauty. Beside them, Ragnar looks positively harmless. Simple.
Humans never did learn where to look.
Rollo appears, somewhere, somehow, with sideways glances at Floki and heated looks at Lagertha, with hunger in his heart and his own brand of madness in his veins.
Ragnar keeps him without ever telling him he is being kept and when the mortal starts calling him brother, he laughs, reminded of the one-eyed man who tried to claim that title last and watched the world burn for it.
He knows what to expect of Rollo – brother, brother, brother – oh, he knows. But water flows downwards and so do the lives of gods, ever onwards and without change.
For a while, Ragnar plays along. Raids are fun and with his wife by his side, he cuts through the East like a blade through cloth.
But the East grows poorer every year and Ragnar has never dealt well with boredom. It makes him do stupid things, to himself and others.
It makes him stand during the Thing and say, too boldly, too loudly, too arrogantly, “West.”
Rollo stirs with malcontent and Haraldson clenches his jaw and sends Ragnar off to die in water.
He does not know that gods of fire do not drown.
“Why do you keep playing this game, Father?” Bjorn asks, angry and eager and full of his father’s fire, unbanked. He wants war, wants fire, wants revenge for a hundred lifetimes chained in rock and darkness.
He would rip the world apart with nothing but his teeth, if Ragnar let him.
He kneels before his son, a skull-grin on his face and asks, “Why not?”
Bjorn snarls. “Father!”
Taking him by the shoulders, Ragnar shakes him. “They will die,” he says, “they will all die and you will live again, again, again. We win, my son. We always win.”
He has lost his wife to fire, death, and war a dozen times and found her again, has loved her and remade their children, each and every one, has lost them and regained them, kept them from chains and exile. He has lived, he has died, he has been chained for a thousand years and a mere dream.
Haraldson, Rollo; they will die in the blink of an eye. There is no reason not to play their games.
“We win,” he repeats, rubbing a large palm over his son’s deceptively fragile, shaven head.
The next day he sets off for a land he has not set foot in since there was ice in the world.
“Look,” his wife says, pointing with her sword at a temple of the new gods, the ones who are one.
Floki, leaning into his back, one arm slung over his shoulder, cackles straight into his ear. “Will you burn it to the ground?” he wants to know.
Around them, the men shift, some eager, some uncomfortable.
Ragnar grabs Floki by his sparse hair and presses his head close enough to smack a kiss on his temple before releasing him. “We will see,” he declares. “What do you think, wife?”
She shrugs, shield dangling by her knees, careless and vicious, as he loves her best. “You have always loved to set things on fire.”
Floki crouches over the priest where he lies in straw and dirt, howling with glee. “You kept him,” he bays, “you kept him, oh, you kept him! We should strip him and roast him and feast on his Christian flesh!”
He stops abruptly, turning wide eyes on Ragnar and Lagertha, watching his antics with amusement. “Or were you planning on another use for that flesh?” he asks.
Gyda, who has bullied Bjorn into playing a hand game with her, looks up, a disgusted sneer on her face. “Floki!” she calls, “I do not need to think of these things!”
As he always does when faced with Ragnar’s youngest’s wrath, Floki folds in half, bowing deeply and muttering apologies.
Bjorn snorts and slams his hand down on Gyda’s, beating her soundly.
Late at night, when the priest prays, Lagertha lies on their bedstead, shuddering with every solemn syllable in the dark.
“Such devotion,” she murmurs into her husband’s skin. “Such subservience.”
Athelstan’s voice cracks over every ‘lord’.
Haraldson never really understands what happens that day, the day he tries to show a man that he is only a man and not a god.
He sees his men ride into Lothbrok’s homestead and he sees them run out, terror painted on their faces, hands clenching around empty air.
Lagertha follows them, bellowing rage as she swings her sword at their haunches. Her children follow after, the girl with a dagger in each hand, the bottoms of her skirts stained dark. The boy is unarmed, bloody up to his elbow and around the mouth, his teeth bright in his snarling face.
Mad Floki is not here, Haraldson made sure of that, but the foreign priest is there in his stead, axe awkwardly but firmly clasped at his side.
The shieldmaiden stops only as the last man has reached the safety of his lord’s shadow, and, weapon raised, she howls, a wordless cry of rage and triumph.
Behind the burning huts, an answering yowl rises from the forest, undulating and terrible, Floki arriving.
Behind the Earl’s men, a deeper, darker bark joins and then Ragnar breaks out of the treeline, an axe sunk in his chest, his leg bleeding freely and Haraldson thinks he has won.
He thinks the losses are worth the victory until the younger man swipes a hand down his chest, dislodging the axe while his other arm rises to meet the sword his wife throws him.
In the terrified, ensuing silence, the boy snaps angrily. “You and your games, Father!”
Ragnar snorts mildly as Floki comes roaring into the settlement, an axe in each hand and blood smeared on his face like war paint. The mad builder rounds the men on horseback and stands by his friend, laughter in his eyes.
“Will you burn them?” he asks, with the air of one who has asked many, many times before.
“Just this once,” Ragnar allows, “I think I will.”
Ragnar Lothbrok rides into the village square with a bundle of cloth and flesh tied to his horse, blood spattered on his face and a sword in hand.
He stops before the Earl’s longhouse, looking around. Behind him, his family dismounts from horses that carried different men when they left this morning.
Dead silence has fallen over the square. Siggy stands in the open doorway, a hand pressed to her mouth.
Ragnar waits for a long time. No voice or weapon is raised.
In the end, he nods and undoes the ropes around his saddle. He turns toward Siggy. “Take care of your husband,” he order her, curtly.
“What are you?” Athelstan asks in the middle of winter, the middle of the night.
He hasn’t prayed since the leaves turned.
Ragnar props himself up on one elbow, enjoying the way the priest still blushes at his naked skin. One hand reaches out to rest on the man’s head, in the spot where he is no longer bald.
He shakes him, just a little, smiling. “Do you really wish to know?” he demands.
Behind him, his wife buries her smile in his shoulder.
The priest – is he still that? – drops to his knees, awe and fear warring on his boyish face. “I think I already know,” he whispers.
Ragnar grins his skull grin, pulls him forward by the hair and then over and around, until gangly limbs and fear-sweaty skin lie between him and Lagertha. She rests her head above Athelstan’s rabbit heart and hums a song she once sang as the sun died.
Ragnar throws an arm around them both and clenches his free fist once, tightly. The torches around them are snuffed out.
Athelstan does not pray anymore.
Floki is loud, is mad, is vicious.
Athelstan carries a cross around his neck and a blade belted to his waist and his bright eyes are filled with a fire that makes men and women alike watch him with caution.
Lagertha is beauty and rage with a sharp sword and her children are as strange as their mother, cold and hot in turns.
They sit at the foot of their father’s throne and play handgames, learn slight of hand from their uncle Floki.
Rollo slides in and out of shadows, guessing but never knowing.
And Ragnar, Ragnar sits in the middle of them all, just a man. He is invisible next to the brightness and the noise of his family and that is how he likes it.
That is how he has always liked it, in stone and beyond, in the early days and the last, when the world was young and when it died.
Just a man.