When Sihtric sees Dunholm rearing up on its high crag, bile rises into his throat but he keeps his face impassive because his friends are watching him. He can feel their eyes on him and he knows he’s expected to be strong, he’s a warrior now and it’s been damn near thirty years since he last set foot in this place. The last time he was here, the dogs savaged his one-eyed half-brother and Ragnar the Younger turned his bastard father into a pulp of bloody meat, but this is a place where the ghosts of his youth can haunt him once again.
He expects to hear shrill screams echoing off the high stone walls when they ride through the gate, but the silence that greets him is even worse. The layout of the buildings has changed very little since his childhood, and Sihtric guides his horse unthinkingly to the stables. The other men follow him. He knows this place, it’s in his blood and bones; why did he ever think he would be free of it?
Sihtric thinks maybe, just maybe, there might be something here for him, though. He hands his reins to his younger son and stalks off without a word. He finds the kitchens like he never left, like he’s been roaming this grim fortress his entire life. In a way, he supposes he has. There’s just a few old women there, the ones that stayed throughout Ragnar and Brida’s rule here, and he doubts any of them know him. It’s been so long, and he’s older now than he ever thought he would be.
But there’s one that looks at him like she’s seen a ghost, crossing herself and muttering some Christian nonsense under her breath, and when Sihtric fixes his mournful eyes on her, she gives him the barest of smiles. “Elflaed’s boy,” the crone hisses through toothless gums, and he only nods once. “Sihtric, A man now.” There’s something about her sibilant voice that raises the hair on the back of his neck. She was an old woman when he knew her in his youth, although now he realizes maybe she wasn’t so old then as he thought.
She must be ancient now though, her old bones resting by the hearth, and he doubts she does much but sleep these days. “Rhona?” The woman nods slowly. He doesn’t quite believe it but he ladles some broth from the kettle over the fire and sets the bowl into her palsied hands. “You will stay with my family,” he promises, voice thick and low, and the old woman’s skin is like dry parchment as she brushes her fingers over his cheeks.
“She would be proud. Just look at you.” He can’t lift his eyes to look at her. Sihtric knows he’s greatly changed since the last time he saw her: grown into a warrior tall and lean, raven-black hair beginning to gray at the temples, front teeth lost to the thrust of a spear, and arms thick with warrior’s rings. A man, a warrior of the shield-wall and a proven bulwark against the flooding tides of battle. A far cry from a skinny slave-boy. “And a family, you said?”
Sihtric nods as she sips the broth. “A wife, Eahlswith, two sons who will be fine warriors someday, and a daughter. Elflaed.” His voice drops to a whisper on the name, heart squeezing because this is the place where his mother worked before Kjartan killed her. Speaking her name feels like summoning her ghost. Like the small, scared boy he once was, he longs for his mother’s arms around him and her lips soothing against his scalp. The loss of her guts him anew. He has one more question to ask but he’s afraid, so afraid; he would rather face a shield wall of howling enemies than speak this one small word.
“Hilde?” He can barely force the name past his lips through the memory of her bright golden hair and the blood he washed from between her thighs. He can still taste the fresh loaf of bread she’d snuck to him, a small token of sweetness in the cruel fortress of Kjartan. He remembers again when she held him upright, when her arms were the only thing keeping him alive when all he wanted to do was die with his mother.
“Died, many years ago, just before Lord Ragnar took Dunholm. Childbirth,” Rhona sighs like she carries the world on her stooped shoulders. “She always said you would come back.” The admission hits Sihtric like a blow to the face, leaving him breathless and reeling. He failed her, failed the sweet girl he found weeping behind the woodpile, and she deserved so much more than to die in a rush of blood from an unwanted child.
He’d looked for Hilde the last time he’d been here, left the slaughter in the stableyard to search the kitchens but hadn’t been able to find her. Knowing how close he came to maybe saving her leaves his chest empty and aching. How many died in these walls, shredded by hounds or blades or unwanted children? Sihtric’s heart is hammering in his chest like Thor is fighting frost giants in his ribcage.
He picks up Rhona and carries her out into the sunlight, calling for his wife because he isn’t sure where she’s gotten to. Eahlswith pokes her head out from the door of a large house. She steps aside as he walks in, sets Rhona by the fire, and gives her a hurried explanation over his shoulder as he leaves. She’s bewildered but turns to the old woman with a smile anyway. He swells with love for her; she is more than he ever deserved.
He finds the priest in the hall talking, Uhtred rolling his eyes and huffing at every word, and he’s too impatient to wait. Uhtred, who’s always questioned his conversion to Christianity, raises his eyebrows to see Sihtric so eager for the priest’s attention. Sihtric has earned a reputation as a steady man, reliable and competent, a man that young warriors follow because they trust him and he never flees or panics and he has the arm-rings to show his valor. He is one of Uhtred’s most trusted, and he knows he’ll be forgiven for speaking out of turn. Uhtred will probably thank him, actually, for distracting the priest.
He drags the priest off by the elbow, Uhtred following curious but silent, and explains. The priest stammers an agreement, Uhtred nods his approval, and Sihtric grabs a woodcutter’s axe and twenty men and sets off for the old, crumbling hall where Kjartan kept his dogs. The axe-blows echo loud and angry off the stone walls of the fortress, and the sun has long since set when the hall falls in a rush of dust and groaning wood. Sihtric wipes the sweat from his brow and Finan helps him throw buckets of oil over the old wood.
Uhtred, solemn-eyed, hands him a torch. Sihtric throws it into the ruins and feels tears on his cheeks as the old wood catches flame. The priest steps forward, chanting dolefully, but Sihtric isn’t listening. He steps back into the throng of people that’s gathered behind him, feels Finan’s hand on his shoulder and turns as the other man crosses himself. Eahlswith is there, and his sons, supporting Rhona between them, and his daughter Elflaed looks so like her grandmother with the flames reflecting on her face that Sihtric can barely breathe. He bows his head and commends the souls of Dunholm’s dead to whatever god they prefer.
The pyre burns through the night and Sihtric keeps his vigil even after the priest finishes his funeral mass. The sun is coloring the sky red when the pyre is finally more ash than fire. It is only Sihtric and Rhona here now, the only true witnesses to the horrors endured here. He picks up the old woman, cradling her like a child, and carries her to the house. Dunholm is his blood and bones. He may never be free of it, but its ghosts can haunt him no more.