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They were on the road somewhere in Mercia, and this was one of those times that Sihtric felt he’d ridden the entire length of this land, from Wessex to Northumbria, a dozen times over. He never minded much, as long as he was in the company of his friends--joking with Finan or scouting ahead, riding in comfortable silence with Osferth.

Today was different. Today he held the end of a rope. The other end chafed into the wrists of a sorceress, and although Sihtric took care to wear a small pouch of drying herbs on a leather strap around his neck, he didn’t trust that was enough to protect them. But worse even than the piercing gaze of the witch--how could someone look so smug with their hands bound?--was the sound of Finan’s voice, near-constant and far too cheery.

It made Sihtric want to tear his hair out from the roots, to jam sticks into his ears until they bled. Anything to drown out the sound of Finan trying too hard to pretend nothing was wrong. The problem is, he muses, he doesn’t think Finan knows how wrong things are. Sihtric has seen a curse follow a man--has seen the agitation descend like a cloud on a man as he knows his death draws nearer. Uhtred isn’t to that point, not yet, but still Sihtric is becoming uneasy. He knows how to throw a curse, but not how to break it. It was the part he never wanted to learn, and he could kick himself now for his own youthful stupidity.

It’s something much more commonplace that worries Finan. It’s almost like, by unspoken understanding, the two of them have agreed to split the worry. Sihtric worries about curses and destinies and trolls in the shadows because he finds it less burdensome. Less terrifying to worry about a curse he cannot control than about a baby monk writhing in pain every time the cart he rides in bounces. And Finan, he worries about the baby monk because, theoretically, he can do something about it. Christians do not understand the concept of destiny. So Sihtric worries about curses and destinies and weavers at the roots of a tree, and Finan worries about wounds and fevers and what kind of broth to make around the fire at night.

But the fear of destiny is enough to make something in his chest twist painfully when a thin, high voice calls Sihtric’s name. He shoves the rope into the hands of the nearest man and turns his horse toward the cart. He slows alongside it, glancing over the sides and down at the pale, drawn face nestled among the furs. “Osferth?” He forces his voice to be calm, doesn’t allow himself to wipe his clammy hands on his breeches. Osferth has enough of worry, with Finan chattering down at him constantly.

“Finan is driving me mad,” Osferth mutters, shooting a weak glare at the offending Irishman and his too-worried eyes. “I want to hear you sing.” Sihtric is in the mood to do anything but sing, but he comforts himself with one thing: he has heard the voices of dying men before, and this is not one of them.

“If ya wanted me to leave, baby monk, all ya had to do was ask.” A small smile cracks Finan’s face for the first time in days. Sihtric reins his stallion closer to Finan’s horse, close enough that their stirrups rub together with a soft metallic clang.

“I know just the song to get him away. Hild taught it to me.”

“Sister Hild,” Finan and Osferth correct in perfect, exasperated unison.

Sihtric raises his brows. “She’s not my sister.” They’ve had this conversation a dozen times if once, so no one is surprised when Sihtric relents. “Well, she’s my shield-sister.”

“Just sing,” Osferth groans, rolling his eyes. He shifts in the cart, trying to find a more comfortable position. He gives up with a sigh. “It gets warmer and warmer every time you open your mouth, Sihtric.”

“Then I guess it’s about to be warmer than sitting around a fire in a hall at midwinter,” Sihtric answers, hating himself because he sounds just as cheerful as Finan did. Didn’t Osferth call him over for the opposite of this?

“Cover your ears, baby monk,” Finan instructs darkly, glancing over at Sihtric as he takes a deep breath.

He’s exactly three words into the song--a hymn, he thinks Hild called it--when Finan spurs his horse to the side and knocks him off balance enough to silence him. “Blasphemy, to sing a song to God in such a voice.” He crosses himself irritably, Osferth smiling in the cart.

“Thor doesn’t care about my voice, only my sword.”

“Tis no small wonder he hates ya, too,” Finan retorts, and it’s easy to fall into this familiar teasing. If there’s more of a bite to Finan’s voice than usual, Sihtric lets it roll from his back like water from a swan’s feathers. He knows home isn’t always a place with a warm fire--sometimes it’s a lord with a curse over his head like a cloud, a grumpy Irishman who cares too much, and a baby monk willing to risk hell to befriend pagans.