At the end of the world
if there's no one beside you when your soul embarks
then I will follow you into the dark
* * *
He buries his woman in springtime. Around them on the field facing the water, the grass is young, still recovering from the recent weight of ice and snow. He stands there with one son on each side and his youngest, Unn, in his arms. They are old enough to understand. Ulv, their first-born, has wept but now he keeps his head up and his gaze steady; his presence beside them is quiet, stable. The other children stand in front of him; they are nearly women now. He soon will have to search for a man for Estrid, perhaps he can tell his father to aid.
She was a good woman and a worthy companion. Strong and capable, loyal and enduring. That's what the others tell him – that she honored him. In private he will remember her low, thick voice and that light in her eyes whenever he came close enough. How she carried herself, the way her body was built and how her hair fell over her back.
He was always proud to return home to her.
Eirik kneels down with his head bowed to place his parting gifts in her tomb. They have been successful in the past years, he can offer enough. With every move he makes he can feel an unfamiliar sensation, like dull distant blows of a hammer inside his blood, a sore wound in his chest as though he's been in battle. (Many years later he will learn that it's called grief and humans will want treatment for it.)
"The gods have taken her home now," he tells his children as they leave the grave field afterwards.
"Not to our home?" Unn asks, her small hand clutching his. Her face is solemn and bare, barren. She's so little, he can't even yet imagine the day he must find a husband for her.
"No, silly," Ulv says because he's older than her and must prove it daily. Eirik rests his hand on Ulv's back, demanding the boy's silence. Today is not a day for rivalry or play. After the walk home there will be food on the table and slaves to command and the only thing that makes today different from other days is that he can't talk to Aude about it. He picks Unn up, carries her. iMy treasure, my heart./iShouldn't be so tender hearted, he knows, she's almost six years of age and he is her father whom she must learn to obey. But not today.
"The keep her safe for us," he murmurs into her thick mane of hair.
They all share the same bed that night, a little formation of warm limbs to keep the empty space full of life.
"Can you - will you be there?" she asks him once and he never forgets. She doesn't even have to speak of the premise. At the end.
As she looks at him he remembers the importance of this. Aude hadn't been alone, he had knelt by her bedside for two days and two nights. He hadn't been alone even if he had wished for it. Skrik inte, puer. Servus. Pam had died in his arms while he spoke to her, soothing her (or possibly himself, there was a certain – however odd - shame in turning them but he had been so bored and so lonely and her face so alive) with a long-winded fairytale in German.
She makes it quite clear over the years that Eric Northman isn't worthy of her company and he makes it quite clear she belongs to him whether she enjoys it or not, but in the end he's the one marked with her name, branded with that particular flavor of reluctant obedience. It leaves him at a complete loss for options (which Pam points out, daily) save killing her.
He wonders when she noticed.
"She must be old by now," Pam says very gently. He often forgets that she can do that: lower her voice, tone down her acid and become almost mild-mannered. Nurse Pam, at your service. It's a welcome charade tonight.
"Sixty-eight last year," he says, not realizing he'd counted. It's been fifteen years since he saw her and one year since he stopped intervening in her life. He knows, because she has told him, that she wants to die a human death. Defeated by cancer, stupid and brave to the last breath.
"That's still young for someone like her."
"It is." Eric finishes his fourth bottle (just in case) and listens to the now faint but familiar traces of her inside his head, his body. She's restless. She's waiting.
They don't talk for perhaps an hour, at first. She seems content just looking at him.
Her room is completely without noise, empty save the bed with the two of them and he slips into it, beside her. Fifteen years, he thinks. They've changed her. Humans change so much and so quickly it almost frightens him. Shedding their skin in regular intervals, renewing their blood, their organs, their looks until nothing is the same except those particular spots inside that even modern science can't explain.
"You should have had children," he observes eventually, running a thumb over the faint veins across her chest. She's still beautiful but in a different way, almost like she's another woman altogether."Then they would be here now."
"Agreed," he says but there's no longer unbearable pain and regret in her voice. There used to be.
The shifter died young, only five years into their marriage and she never seemed to recover from that loss or perhaps it was already too late when she finally did. He's not certain of the details anymore. She hasn't given him permission to be and he's found it surprisingly difficult to go against her will.
"My children had several children each," he tells her. He doesn't know why, only knows that the room must be filled with something beside her shallow breathing that can't reach her lungs properly and causes her to pant. It kills him every time she draws a breath. "I did my best to keep track. For a long time. I've seen my whole... clan die, generation after generation."
"And now me." Her skin is damp underneath his fingers. Sticky. She must hate this, he thinks briefly, being exposed to pity without the power of controlling at least her own appearance. A sudden flash of rage comes over him, hard and unmerciful. There's a degradation in this that he can't stand; he wishes he could have a culprit, someone to torment into submission.
"There's a smell of kinship. Did you know?" His words sound ragged though he aimed for soft.
"Bill told me blood did that." So weak now, barely a whisper. He has to struggle, has to use all of his self-restraint to stay gentle by her side, not let the hammer blows, the howling craving get the upper hand. He's a greedy man and this is an act of altruism. It wears down all of his defenses. "I thought... it was a Were thing..."
"When someone is of your blood – either by birth or by choice," his words are as careful as his motions. "You can track them, yes. Even if centuries have passed and the linage is weak you can find...ancestors. It's not just for tracking, it's a way of being family, I suppose."
Her head moves a little again, she adjusts it to fit better on the pillow. Eric helps her by holding up her head, brushing away strands of hair from her forehead. She offers a little smile, a thank-you. For a second he wonders how he will have the strength to push these thirty years from his mind and heart, how she can ask this of him. If Bill wasn't dead he would be here, in Eric's place; they don't pretend otherwise. If Sam was alive there wouldn't be a single vampire in sight. He has another flash of rage, wishes he had killed the shifter himself. It's his fault, he was forever the one pulling her back to the world of mortals.
"I still can't convince you to feed?" The pathetic urge in that sentence, how openly he pleads with her, yet what makes him shamed is the mere idea of turning a dying human. It's so base and simple a task that it goes against every code of honor, opening your veins for someone fighting for their life. He knows it doesn't even require glamor.
She shakes her head, which seems to cause her a jolt of pain. He finds it distressing but somehow logical that even now, when all life is drained of her he wants to put his lips to her skin and bite, wants to take her in and swallow. Carefully he lowers his lips to her neck, not biting, just iscenting./i The sweet, murky notes of what's to come. The death in her, surfacing. And behind it, not completely lost in this, is the scent of iher/i. He would be able to sense it from the other side of the earth, it will find its way inside him even when she's long gone.
It's not her blood he wants. It has never been the blood.
You smell like kin, he says but not out loud. He can't – couldn't - give her anything that mattered. He has no parting gifts for her, no sacred words of ritual or promises to keep. What she seemed to want from him over the years, he never did offer because he didn't know how or didn't want to. In retrospect he regrets it. But I'm yours, he thinks, stupidly.
"I know," she says, or at least he thinks she says. He too exhausted to make sense of it all.
Then she pulls him closer and he remains just there, perfectly still, until he's not needed anymore.
"You didn't turn her." Pam stands outside, waiting.
"That would have been unworthy," he says. "I would never do that." His voice feels different, his mouth unable to form these strange words in this strange language that isn't at the core of him, even after hundreds of years. Tonight he's salt and ice, cool water and ancient rituals rising from the old earth beneath his feet. He's never felt more like a foreigner in his own world, in his own body.
"Even if you hadn't loved her," Pam agrees.
"Even if I hadn't loved her."
He buries his woman in springtime.