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It is four years between Lagertha's departure, Bjorn following, and the next raid upon England.

 

Ragnar tells Athelstan that King Horik will want to know at least some of the Saxon language, and he has persuaded Floki and Torstein to learn basics as well, and these coupled with Ragnar's continued lessons are now his most important duties.

 

As usual Ragnar does not order Athelstan to do this. Nor does he persuade. He says, "Priest, you will do this for me." And it is so.

 

Horik is an intelligent man, a shrewd and patient man, but his eyes glitter too brightly and his hands seem too large, somehow. Since his visits to Kattegat are infrequent he spends many hours at a time across from the foreigner, repeating lines, modifying pronunciation. Athelstan is exhausted after. Perhaps Horik reminds him of Haraldson, of what would have happened if Ragnar had not chosen the frightened English monk as his one prize from the plunder.

 

Floki is quick to remember anything he deems important, and his wit and whimsy make for a lively afternoon when he can spare the time away from his boats. But he never calls Athelstan anything but "priest", and when he says it, the force behind the syllable is a hair away from spitting. Athelstan never has the courage to say, I may have shared their bed before she left, and he might still turn to me when the princess pushes him away, but you are his dearest friend and his blood brother. You have a wise and beautiful woman and a man who loves you both. You are respected and wealthy. I am not a threat to you. He says, "Close, but you have to make a sort of gasp at the back of the throat on that word."

 

Torstein has no natural gift for this kind of learning. But he is diligent and kind. Though Torstein never speaks of it Athelstan is certain that he misses one-eyed Arne keenly, as they had been boys together and fought side by side in many battles. Athelstan almost feels like a substitute when Torstein sits by him to drink and softly admonishes Floki for needling Athelstan more than is sporting. Torstein enjoys singing and praises Athelstan's voice in front of others, and so they have made lessons more pleasant by sharing scraps of songs in their mother tongues. Oddly enough Torstein can string the foreign words together far more smoothly when he's had a few ales.

 

Ragnar, of course, has an excellent command of the language now, but he demands practice at least once per week. Athelstan has seen Aslaug's resentment towards him, so beloved by Lagertha (and sweet Gyda, may she rest in peace and joy) and at least tolerated by Bjorn, still with Ragnar and still a reminder of all he lost because of her. She calls him "servant" - Ragnar chided her for calling him "slave" - and watches him sideways. Her smile is like one carved of wax.

 

He asks Siggy, who understands politics and the fall of personal fortunes better than anyone else he knows, whether Aslaug can damage his standing here in the hall. Siggy smiles a little and says, "She's not an idiot and only an idiot would try to make the Earl give up his hold on you." She goes on to explain that any indiscretions of Ragnar's towards a male servant, with whom there is no risk of pregnancy, is not considered an insult or danger to his new wife's position.

 

Helga comes over to their table to greet him a moment later, and asks if he is ill and needs a poultice for such burning red skin.

 

So here, now, are Athelstan and Ragnar, on a spring evening in a private chamber, cool enough to sit near the fire but warm enough to dispense with cloaks. They've reviewed the vocabulary of battle (surrender, fight, loss, victory, death, wounded, capture, captive) and the lexicon of bargaining (treaty, truce, agreement, compromise, ransom, parley, ceasefire, peace), and Ragnar insists on knowing the names of body parts. "Nose." He touches Athelstan on the nose.

 

Athelstan makes a sound somewhere between a laugh and a sigh. "If I'm correct about the game you're playing, I doubt you'll need to know the words for a man's privates."

 

"One must be prepared for all sorts of situations." Having been found out, though, Ragnar stops pretending subtlety. They had been working quite diligently for a while in any case.

 

It is in quiet aftermath some time later that Ragnar murmurs against Athelstan's neck, "What is the meaning of your name? Your true name."

 

In all these years since leaving Lindisfarne no one has asked, "It's...noble stone. A stone that is shining and good."

 

"Gem?"

 

Athelstan tries to shrug but there isn't much room between the arms around him and the narrowness of the bed in his little chamber where most of their lessons end up. "That is a possible translation."

 

He curls around Athelstan a little closer and hums in satisfaction. "My gem." And when Ragnar says a thing like that, it is so.