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Duty And Faith

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I saw it in his eyes from the moment I set mine on him, the scruffy little fellow, stronger than his tender years, frightened half out of his wits over a girl he hardly knew, and yet offering himself up for her without hesitation. This was the kind of boy who would do his duty without flinching, the kind who would be faithful and true even against his own desires.

I made a bargain with that gold piece beyond the telling of it. Never has a man received so much for a shaped lump of yellow metal, for in return I gained - nearly - a son.

Nearly, I say, because behind the duty and the faith that Owain keeps highest in his eyes, there is something stronger, something deeper. I saw it with the dog, and it rises every now and again in his eyes, as ever when he looked out toward the road that led away from home, and as we travelled, the glances he would cast, all heedless of my eyes on him, down certain roads. There is a yearning there, a deeper faith, a truer duty than the one he has to me. I bought him with money; she, and the dog, bought his heart with unknown coin that was never minted and cannot be traded.

The dog is dead; it was a great pity but cannot be helped. But the girl remains, in his heart if nowhere else, and he will go to her one day, will curl down at her feet like a very hound himself, will beg only for the touch of her hand on his head.

Though I would not keep him from her, I too have a duty, I too have faith to keep. My wife, my son, my daughters, my home - I am leaving them for Valhalla's halls, leaving them unprotected, unless I can convince one who was once my thrall to remain bound yet longer, for no tie stronger than his own sense of duty.

If it were any man but Owain, I would fail, and in so failing, fall. Yet Owain, British-born, Saxon-sworn, is not like any other man. There is a pride in him that speaks of long years, a soul older than the body which it inhabits. His ancestors, I'll warrant, were among the good and great of their time, British, Roman, Greek, vanishing back into untold years, and they have given him a strong sense of honour, as if it ran in his blood, formed his features in the womb.

Other men may don fair-seeming honour as a cloak, to take it off again when warm with drink or blood, but it is not so with Owain. In a thousand ways by now, I have tested his word and deed, and every time when he says he will do a thing, it is done.

My life is leeching out, slow and breathless, under my breast. It is the life he spared me, that he gave me back last year, when he caught me drowning and bruised from the sea's cold embrace. And in return, a gift for a gift, I set him free, but I see now in name it was only, for I must bind him again.

He is a long time coming. It feels hours I have lain here, eyes growing heavier, waves of weariness washing over me. At least there is little pain, but for the heaviness of my head and hands, but for the darkness over my eyes, I would rise, if there was more fighting to be done, if the battle were not over.

At last he is by my side, and his eyes are anxious, grieved, the eyes of one almost like kin. He has placed his own cloak around me, shielding me from the rain, and together we are shut apart from all the world as though it did not exist.

Yet it does. In words that are broken and fragile, that take a long time coming themselves, I explain. He is very still, very silent, and the words are hard. I am coughing blood before they are done, and his face is turned away from mine, that look in his eyes that appeared at certain roads in our travels burning deep within him.

I wait. I can say no more, and at last he turns back again, reluctant and slow, but meets my eyes, and I know what his answer will be. "Go with a quiet heart, Beornwulf," he says calmly, his gaze steady. "I will stay by the boy until he is fifteen."

That which he has said he will do is always done; I sigh with relief, and talk of my sword, for my son, and marriages, for my daughters, and debts owed, until I cannot breathe, until I am coughing and coughing blood. I spare the breath to warn him of Vadir, though, and his reassurance is quiet, gentle. I am overwhelmed by relief despite the catch of my chest, the pain, ever rising now, in my breast, the breath that I can no longer draw deeply.

Because I am so near Valhalla's halls, I cannot keep myself from saying the words, words I have spoken before, last year, when I lay bruised and battered, but alive from the sea. He was bent over me then, much as he is now, anxiety in his eyes, and I have a strange urge to make him smile, at the last.

"I always reckoned I'd made a good bargain with that gold piece," I say, and although his smile is shadowed, close-lipped, I see it, before I can no longer keep my eyes open.

It is nearly over. The rain beats down, and Owain draws his cloak yet closer over me, protecting me to the last, as he will my son, my wife, my daughters, my home, until Bryni is well able. A flash of lightning so bright I see the shape of it behind my closed eyes splits the clouds, burns across the sky, and it is followed by sharp thunder.

And it is a good death after all, a death in victorious battle. This storm is my welcome to Valhalla's halls, and all my affairs are in good hands.

It is a good death.

I open my eyes once more, and Owain is there, comforting, quiet, a steady, constant presence by my side, as he has been ever since that day, when I made that good bargain.

"Hark to Thor's Hammer splitting the clouds asunder, as we split the might of Ceawlin and his sons," I proclaim in triumph, duty done, faith won, and lift up my hand, bloodstained in victory, toward the sky.