He knows it the moment he feels his sword sliding through the fleshy gap in Askeladd's ribs; that is, he knows but he does not quite understand, so when he sees Thorfinn curled over the ground he thinks, If I do not say something, I will lose him. He thinks, I must say something, but then he says exactly the wrong thing and Thorfinn is lost to a fresh consuming grief that tears him apart the way the old one had never managed to.
I will be king now, Canute thinks, and takes his fear in one hand and his sorrow in the other, gathers them close to his heart and lets Thorfinn slip through his fingers.
"Thorfinn son of Thors, Troll of the Jom," Canute had said to Thorkell. "You said that, what does that mean?"
Askeladd raised his eyebrows. "I did not think you would remember, Prince."
"He was a great warrior—" Thorkell began.
"He was a kingmaker," Askeladd interrupted, a queer quirk to his mouth that was gone in the next second. Canute wondered again at the ambitions that made this man. "He could have been a kingmaker," he amended.
"Do they much resemble each other?"
"No," Askeladd said.
"Thorfinn looks like his mother," Thorkell said, but he was frowning throughtfully into his glass and did not offer anything more.
He misses Askeladd fiercely in the following months, not because Thorkell is stupid—he is not—but because Thorkell only really knows how to speak the language of violence, the bright clear joy of destruction. He remembers Thorfinn had not once looked happy when he was fighting—grim, sometimes contemptuous, always desperate. Thorfinn had been deliberately, infuriatingly stupid, feral with what Canute now recognizes as loneliness. Askeladd had at least believed, loved his country and his home; he should have taught Thorfinn these things, how not to be afraid. But he did not, and now he is lost as well.
Canute thinks of this when he clasps hands with his brother in Denmark, after leaving a trail of bodies on England's sandy south shores. "How do you feel," he murmurs, "about a joint kingship?" His brother's blunt nails dig into his arm and he laughs, high and strained, an ugly mean twist to his mouth that Canute studies dispassionately. His brother does not give Canute the kingship but he does give him another fleet, the lazy idiot, which Canute knows will amount to the same thing in the end.
"Thorfinn is like a puppy worrying at a bone," Askeladd had said one night, tongue loose with mead while Thorfinn stood guard outside. "Loyal but obnoxious."
"To you?" Canute asked.
Askeladd leaned forward. "What else would you call it?"
Canute was silent, taking a long pull of his own drink.
"He will probably kill me eventually," Askeladd said to the cieling. "The question is, Prince Canute, will you wait for him to grow into a wolf?"
Thorkell starts teaching Canute to fight on the cramped wooden deck of a longboat, spring winds spraying salt and moisture over everything; the wood groans and Canute licks his lips, tasting blood and sea. It largely consists of learning how to fall, how to twist and roll under a blow to incur minimal injury, the foundation for everything else: Canute appreciates the metaphor grimly, his whole body aching. He's never quite gotten over how heavy a sword is, though this one is lighter than the first.
"Why are you doing this?" he asks Thorkell, panting. The other men have long since learned to mind their own business, the peculiarity of the tableau in front of them suborned by a healthy mortal fear. Thorkell purses his lips.
"Well, you don't expect me to tag along after you all the time like a dog, do you?" he says. "But I can't have you dying on me, either." He twirls his own sword, an enormous one Canute has seen other men struggling to lift with two hands. "Edmund Ironside is a good name, don't you think? Strong name."
"You will do as I say."
"Certainly," Thorkell says, exchanging his sword for a knife, and starts telling Canute how to keep it from getting under his guard.
"I will give your lives a purpose," Canute had said. He spends many sleepless nights after his father's death wondering if he had made a mistake, playing out alternate scenarios in his mind. It had turned out more difficult than he anticipated to find each person their place and his pieces did not always move the way he wished them to.
Askeladd's ghost appears to him only once, in a dream, resplendent in Roman armor and staring out over the sea. It stays quiet for a long while, unmoved by the winds, and Canute thought of the harsh windswept landscapes of Wales, the fierce pride of its people. "You cannot offer a man a purpose," Askeladd says finally, "without first offering him a choice."
When Canute wakes he is crouched on the bow, shivering in his nightclothes. "Sire?" the man on watch says uncertainly.
"Carry on," Canute says, closing his eyes.
The raiding party steals on them in the night, out of the dark forests of Kent; they are dispatched with easily enough, the leader on his knees in front of Canute while Canute tries to decide how to deal with him. He doesn't see the attack until it is almost too late, a brown-clad figure jumping out of the shadows cast by the fire with two knives flashing in his hands. Canute rolls and brings his sword up, the force of blow clanging down his arm.
"Thorfinn," he says, before Thorkell yanks Thorfinn back and slams him into the ground, hand on his throat. "Let him speak," Canute snaps. Thorkell removes his hand, looking amused.
"I want to," Thorfinn coughs. "Offer my allegiance. And challenge you to a duel."
"I accept," Canute says quickly, over the incredulous roars of his men. "Once you have helped me become king."
Thorfinn's lips turn up, his pale eyes wary in the dim light.