Warning: No sexin’! All plottin’!
The next morning found the two men entwined as first light shot through the stable windows onto their bodies. Colum woke first, his head on Viggo’s chest, his lover’s deep, steady breathing like the sound of the ocean in a shell. The morning light sent an alarm through his head – I’m late! Gunna will twist my ear for not having the cows milked and the…
He stopped. The vibration of his chuckle caused Viggo, a light sleeper like all warriors, to open an eye and look at him. “Something funny?”
“I thought I was late for kitchen duty. I forgot I’m a free man now.”
Viggo smiled, stroked Colum’s head, rubbed the close-cropped hair of the thrall, hair that would now be allowed to grow out. “In time you’ll forget you were a slave.”
A shadow crossed his face as he said this. Colum wanted to ask what it meant, so rare was an unprovoked dark look on Viggo. But before he could muster the courage, Viggo had gently extracted himself from under Colum.
“Come on, time to eat. You’ll need your strength today.”
They went to the great hall, where others in Viggo’s clan, all the other warriors and free men, were shaking off last night’s fog and sitting down to breakfast. The ale brewed for the thrall-freeing ceremony was a special blend, much stronger than the usual brew, and Colum was thankful, looking at their red eyes and slack mouths, that he’d been a servant one last time, and not a celebrant.
It was strange, sitting behind the table instead of standing. His friend Niall, another former monk and still a thrall, refilled his cup when he finished off his (much lighter) ale, brushing his hip against Colum’s shoulder.
“Congratulations, master,” Niall whispered. Colum flushed with embarrassment; the two friends had been brought here from Iona as slaves, and now Colum was Niall’s master – property he had won in his duel with Harald, property formerly held by Viggo in trust until this day.
He looked up at his friend. “I’ll find a way to free you, Niall. To adopt you into my household when the time comes, as Viggo adopted me into his.”
Niall smiled. “You know I don’t mind this situation.” Colum did indeed know – Niall’s mouth and ass had been roughly used by his first Viking master, and he had reveled in the sexual humiliation, the discovery of pleasure after a lifetime of celibacy in the monastery. Niall would accept slavery forever if it meant he could continue to take men’s cocks every night.
“In fact,” Niall said softly, “now that you’re my master, I should only be serving you…”
Colum choked on his ale. “That won’t be necessary.”
Niall looked hurt. Colum knew from their days at Iona that Niall had desires for him. And he had to admit, sitting at the table, leaning back in a slouch, legs splayed like the other men, he could see the appeal of just…grabbing a slave by the head and forcing him down on your groin and fucking his worthless face…
He shook this off. Niall was his friend! Slave or not, that would not be right.
“Sorry, Niall,” he said. Then he smiled. “And I give you permission to…continue your service to the other men.” He held up a warning finger. “As long as they’re part of our clan, and not our enemies.”
Niall laughed, then hastily backed off, seeing the frowns from the men around him. It wasn’t a slave’s place to laugh at free men.
Colum hid his erection, then realized, why? Who’s looking? I have a desire to take my slave, so what? He laughed, realizing what freedom meant now – free for the first time in his life really. He had been his father’s property, toiling in his fields, then he had been the church’s property, slaving away on manuscripts. Now he was nobody’s property. Viggo’s man, to be sure, but gladly. He could get up any time, walk out of here, walk to the sea, or walk away, down the road forever and ever and nobody would stop him.
Freedom…this is what it means to be a Northman, to go Viking, to do as you please. He nodded. Dýrfinna was right – this is my destiny.
One thing hadn’t changed with the end of his slavery – well, if anything, it had become an even stronger obligation, and that was Viggo’s command that he continue to write down the old pagan manuscripts he’d memorized at Iona, manuscripts the Church had literally erased from human memory, scraping the words off paper to reuse it for stories about saints who preached to the ocean and converted the sharks to peaceable seaweed eaters or some other such nonsense.
After breakfast he went to Dýrfinna’s house. The monk’s desk waited for him in the brightest corner of her house, the sunlight far easier on his eyes than the sputtering candles in the cold, dark chambers at Iona.
She greeted him with narrowed eyes. “The sheep,” she said, was all she needed to say.
He swallowed. “I’m sorry. I used your name, I had to…”
“You kill men and spare animals,” she said in a harsh tone, but he could see the mischievous glitter in her eyes and the barely suppressed smile. “You are a strange one, Colum of Clonmacnoise.”
He thought of her first prophecy about him – free, slave, free, slave, free. That prophecy was fulfilled. But there had been another – scholar, lover, warrior, merchant, magician, scholar. Each and all in time. The first three were all true now, all at once. How would the rest spin out in the future?
He smiled at her. “I bring you a gift, Dýrfinna.” He handed her two gold coins, just as Viggo had once sent with him on his first visit. “From a free man.”
She smiled and nodded. “Very good. You’re learning.” As before, she threw one into her fireplace, and pocketed the other.
He went to take his place at the desk, to begin his morning’s work on Livy’s History of Rome, but she stopped him, the grip of her withered claw surprisingly strong.
“Not today. Today we have a visitor.”
“He’s not here yet. Ah, here he is.” Colum looked out the front door to see a man riding down the lane – clearly a foreigner, as he was sumptuously dressed in rich fabrics, his burgundy robe draped elegantly over the horse’s rump, and his hat was clearly velvet. Men followed him at a near distance, looking for the opportunity to rob him. But when he came to Dýrfinna’s door, of course, they backed off – sorcerous business was nothing for a man to trifle with.
He dismounted from his fine horse and approached them with a smile. He was an old man, Colum thought, at least forty, with kindly crinkles around his eyes – eyes that were still bright and young, though.
“Am I for having the house Dýrfinna of?” he asked in broken Norse.
“This is her house,” Colum answered in Latin.
The man’s relief was palpable. “Praise be to God. And you must be he whom I seek.” He swept off his hat and bowed gracefully. Dýrfinna harumphed and Colum smiled; she wasn’t going to let him get a big head just because he was free and foreigners were looking for him.
“I am Giovanni Allesandri, from Florence. An honor, sir.”
“Likewise,” Colum said.
“Do come in,” Dýrfinna said, kicking Colum in the ankle for not thinking of that himself.
“Thank you.” He took the proffered seat at the table and Colum joined him as Dýrfinna poured them some ale.
Giovanni saw the desk in the corner and his eyes widened. “It is true, then,” Giovanni said. “The stories of the Pagan Redeemer.”
“The what?” Colum asked.
“The apostate monk who has all of the ancient world preserved in his head. The restorer of the glories of the ancients, whose manuscripts are known far and wide.”
“Well,” Giovanni said hastily. “Not so wide. One must be discreet, you know. Charlemagne, for instance, was not pleased with the news.”
Colum wasn’t surprised. The Emperor Charlemagne was a religious fanatic, a relentless killer of pagans and heretics. But what did surprise Colum was that news of his existence had reached the ears of royalty.
“In fact, it pains me to say, he…acquired some of your books of Livy and put them to the torch.”
“What!” Colum shouted, half jumping up from the table. All the hard work he’d put in, day after day, restoring the history of that great empire to paper – burnt, for what, for what reason? Only because it wasn’t about some damn saint who converted the bees to Christianity and sent them out to sting the pagans to death.
“Please,” Giovanni gestured peaceably. “Sit. All is not lost. Your books are copied in secret, stored in secret. This is the day for them to be reborn, from your hands, but not their day to leave their crib for the world. We must be discreet.”
Dýrfinna nodded. “It is true, Colum. No man will ever know your name. History will erase you. The Church will see to it that even this name, the Pagan Redeemer, is scrubbed. And you must let it be so. Men like this will hide the books, until a better day.”
Giovanni nodded. “And now,” he said, rubbing his hands with excitement, “I hear you have a fine copy of De Rerum Natura…”
Colum was late that afternoon for his training session with Viggo. He’d been so involved in his conversation with Giovanni that he hadn’t realized how much time had passed until Dýrfinna had coughed dramatically. Books! Readers! He hadn’t realized how much he missed talking about books until he was somewhere nobody read them.
Only, he thought with a pang as he ran down the road, Viggo read them, didn’t he? He could read and write, even some Latin (grammatically incorrect, but still), he’d known the value of Lucretius’ work… He felt a flush of shame that he hadn’t pursued that line of questioning with his lover before now.
He’d expected Viggo to be angry when he got to the practice field behind Viggo’s great hall. But Viggo was leaning on his broadsword, staring into the distance, preoccupied.
Colum stopped before him, bent over, hands on knees, gasping for air. “My apologies, my lord.” For Viggo was still his lord, even if he was a freedman now.
Viggo waved it away. “A change in plan today. Take that sword,” he said, indicating a blade leaning against a barrel.
Colum examined the sword – a fine, Frankish blade. Charlemagne had forbidden the export of weapons to the North, but of course, where there was money to be made, laws were to be broken.
Viggo rolled a small barrel into the middle of the field, and laid a wide plank on top of it. “Stand on that,” he said, indicating the end touching the ground.
Colum gingerly stepped on the end of the plank – surely the barrel would be forced out from underneath it. But the ground was soft and the barrel stayed steady.
“Now walk up.”
Colum looked at Viggo, but didn’t dare question the command. Tentatively, slowly, he stepped up the plank, holding his sword. When he got near the midpoint, he could feel his weight shifting the plank, the end he’d started at inching up off the ground. He held both arms out for balance, but the sword in his right hand was heavy, throwing him off. Then he took a step that suddenly brought the plank completely off the ground.
He flailed and shouted as the other end of the plank began to tip towards the ground. He couldn’t fall, not only because Viggo was watching, but because he could literally fall on his sword. He ran down it and touched the ground just as the other end did.
“Ah, feck,” he whispered the Irish curse.
Viggo was smiling. “Well, well. Very good for your first time.”
“Thank you, lord. May I ask…what am I doing?”
“Preparing for ship-to-ship combat. When you assault a ship, you’ll be jumping from one unsteady surface to another, all while fighting for your life.”
“And…are we going to be doing that soon, lord?”
Viggo nodded, the dark clouds back on his brow. “Yes.”
But now Colum the free man could do what a slave could not. He approached Viggo, touched Viggo’s hand with his own. “There’s something more to this. More than just a raid.”
Viggo’s steel blue eyes looked down and met his. “Come. Let’s get a drink.”
They took two mugs and a small cask of ale with them to the beach. Colum realized that any conversation that required this much drinking would be of some consequence.
They sat next to each other on the sand, the cold wind coming off the sea. After they had toasted and each knocked back a full mug, Viggo sighed – and a more astonishing sound from his invulnerable, invincible master, Colum could not have imagined.
Colum looked around – nobody could see them, and so he dared to move closer to Viggo. Viggo responded by putting an arm around him, pulling him in close. The feel of his lover’s body enfolding him made Colum more drunk and delirious with pleasure than the whole cask of ale ever could have.
“I was a slave once, too,” Viggo began. “A prince, too, before that. My father was a king of the Saxons, or as much as our people would stand for a king. Then Charlemagne came, killing us in the name of his ‘religion of love.’ I was just a boy, ten years old, when I saw my father, and thousands of others, forcibly converted to Christianity just before they were executed. The massacre at Verden, I should have you write of it. They won’t tell the truth of it, I know that.”
He paused. “We were taken off our lands, ‘resettled’ elsewhere – clans, families, smashed, broken up, never to see each other again. Since I could read and write, and was still at an age where they thought they could ‘save’ me, I was taken to Aachen, Charlemagne’s capital. I learned Latin,” and Colum could hear him smile without seeing it, “though I read it better than I write it, as you probably know.
“There’s no word for ‘sin’ in Norse. Our gods judge a man in full, they don’t keep a catalog of how many times he touched his privates or failed to fall to his knees in the street at the sight of a priest. They tried to teach me about sin, to convince me how terrible pleasure was.” He snorted. “Hypocrites, all of them, and the ones who denounced pleasure the loudest at dawn were the ones who’d sought it most ardently at night. I fought them off when they came to my bed, but others weren’t as strong…
“All they gave me to read was religious material. They truly believed that there was not one single book from the days before Christ that was worth a damn. So imagine my surprise when I found Caesar’s commentaries on Gaul. When I realized that there were words on paper that weren’t about how long a priest’s robe should be, or how concerned their god was with how a monk cut his hair.
“Then I managed to get away. I found my way to the court of King Guthfrith, who took me into his household, schooled me in the ways of battle, made me a man again.”
He was silent. Finally Colum said, “That’s why you’re so good to your slaves. You were one.”
Viggo nodded. “It does give one perspective. Now, Guthfrith needs me. War with the Franks is coming. And so, my beloved, we go to battle. Do you know of the Spartans? The army of lovers?”
“No,” Colum said.
Viggo smiled. “All Latin and no Greek, eh?” He hoisted Colum up by the ass, just enough to get a leg under him, so that he could wrap his arms around Colum completely. A wave of indescribable joy came over Colum, to feel the heat of Viggo’s torso pressed against his back, his strong arms crushing him in the most wonderful way, to hear his voice, to feel his warm breath, inches from his ear.
“ ‘And if there were only some way of contriving that a state or an army should be made up of lovers and their loves, they would be the very best governors of their own city … and when fighting at each other’s side, although a mere handful, they would overcome the world. For what lover would not choose rather to be seen by all mankind than by his beloved, either when abandoning his post or throwing away his arms? He would be ready to die a thousand deaths rather than endure this. Or who would desert his beloved or fail him in the hour of danger? The veriest coward would become an inspired hero, equal to the bravest, at such a time; Love would inspire him.’”
Colum nodded. It was true. He would go to war, and he would die for Viggo, if need be, and Viggo would die for him.