"If you want the food, you're going to have to come out this time."
It's not a shout, but the voice carries easily over the rattling leaves and the sound of birds in the distance. Athelstan takes a deep breath before slowly peeking out from behind the tree he's hiding behind, ready to pull back and run if needed - but the man in the clearing is not looking up, but down at the freshly killed deer at his feet. As Athelstan watches, the man kneels down, draws a knife and sets to work.
A few feet away, a small leather bag rests on a fallen log, a small leather bottle leaning against it. Athelstan can already feel his mouth watering.
He's reasonably certain that the man hadn't meant to leave his lunch behind, that first time - bread and sausage and a single, perfect apple. But he had and once Athelstan had been sure of it, had been sure the man had gone and was not coming back that day, he had taken it. He had been hungry and surely, by the time the man would have come back for the food, it would have been ruined or eaten by an animal anyway, so it wasn't stealing, not really.
It had been the best meal Athelstan had had in far too long.
That first time, he was reasonably certain it had been an accident. The second time, though, when the man had returned to the small clearing with the brook to dress the deer he'd shot, he had found the leather bag, empty and tied closed. And just before he left, he had climbed a tree and left a new bag hanging from a branch, where no animal could possibly get to it.
The second time, he was reasonably certain, had not been an accident. Nor the third, nor the fourth, nor the fifth. Gradually, he had begun to dare to look forward to the next time he'd see the hunter. The last time, as he watched the man leave, he had even begun to follow him, to find out where he lived, thinking how perhaps he could gather up the courage to knock on his door and offer to work if only he'd take him in, if only...
Except then he'd remembered what he was.
He finds his fingers reaching of their own accord for the collar. It's been more than a year since they held him down as the smith put it on him, but the iron against his skin still feels wrong.
"I do not wish to rush you, but soon it will be winter and I expect this will be my last hunt before then. So, either you can come out and have your meal, or I will take the food with me as I leave."
Athelstan pulls back behind the tree, rests his forehead against its rough bark. Forces himself to breathe deeply. Wait, he tells himself, just wait. He does not mean it. Soon enough, he will leave again, he will leave and he won't take the bag with him. He won't...
And even if he does, well, there are berries and nuts in the forest, there's fish in the brook, even if he has no fire to cook them.
Except it's true, soon it will be winter.
Athelstan wraps his arms around himself. Even now, in the middle of the day, he's not warm, and come nightfall? He used to climb a tree, curl up in a nook against the solid trunk to sleep, but lately, that has been too cold and he's taken to burying himself in the piles of dried needles underneath the pine trees, chasing warmth and never quite catching it.
Wolves howl in the night. He fears that some night soon he'll wake to the feeling of his throat being torn out. And once the snow falls and the water freezes...
Athelstan knows that he won't be here come spring.
He moves, not giving himself time to reconsider, to change his mind or lose his nerve. Twigs break under his feet as he doesn't bother looking down - and then he's in the clearing, out in the open, and he stops. He wraps his arms tighter around himself as the man looks up to take in the sorry sight of him, thin and dirty and the collar far, far too obvious around his neck.
"So there you are, little mouse."
Somehow Athelstan manages not to bolt. Somehow, he manages to bear the scrutiny of those bright blue eyes.
And then the man returns to his business, pulling out the intestines of the deer.
When it becomes clear that the man isn't going to do or say anything else Athelstan cautiously moves closer, settling on the log next to the coveted leather bag. His eyes do not leave the hunter as he picks up the bag and unties it, but then he gives into the temptation to look. Strips of dried meat, bread, some cheese, a boiled egg, a small piece of honeycomb wrapped in cloth. It's a feast.
For a little while, the only sounds in the clearing are Athelstan chewing and swallowing, the hunter's grunts as he pulls on a particularly stubborn bit of intestine and two crows fighting over the pile of gory innards.
Athelstan's about halfway through his meal when the man gets to his feet, goes to the brook and kneels to wash the blood off his hands before wiping them on his clothes. Then he walks to the log and settles next to Athelstan, reaching over to take one of the dried strips of meat. The hunter chews slowly, looking at the crows and not at Athelstan.
"So, a runaway, then."
"No," and Athelstan freezes, because no, no, no. "I'm not, I didn't, I - I hid. There were men, they came to the farm and they killed, they were killing everybody and they were laughing and - and I hid, I hid until they left, but everyone was dead and they burned the farm and I..." and he can't stop himself, because he knows what they do to runaways in these lands, because he can't stop remembering the woman who'd had her ears cut off.
A hand settles against the back of his neck, broad and warm and he goes completely still, startled. A thumb starts rubbing slowly against his skin, lazy circles.
"I had heard of raiders burning down Vermund's farm, though the rumour didn't mention any survivors. That was in late spring, was it not?"
"Yes," and the thumb slides beneath the metal collar as he nods.
"And you've been alone in the forest ever since?"
"And these men - did you see them? Could you recognize them?"
"Yes," and Athelstan closes his eyes, as if that would somehow help him to not remember their faces, smeared with blood, laughing as they held down the girl who had milked the cow and kneaded the dough every day, tearing at her dress.
The grip of the hand tightens, just a bit, just enough to call him back to the present. He opens his eyes and glances sideways, careful not to meet the hunter's gaze.
The hand falls away and it leaves him feeling curiously cold as the man turns to face him properly.
"I am Ragnar Lothbrok. And what do they call you, little mouse?"
"Athelstan. My name is Athelstan."
"And where does one come by a name like that?"
"In England. I'm - I'm from England," and he tries to lower his head, to not have to look Ragnar in the eye, but the hand is back, cupping his chin and forcing him to raise his eyes.
"Now, how does an Englishman end up a slave on a farm in these parts?"
"I - I was travelling. I was sent with an older monk, a missionary, to assist him, but there was a storm and the ship - there were people on the shore, with torches, and - and they sold me," and he knows that he's being incoherent, but evidently Ragnar understands his tale well enough, if his disgusted growl of "wreckers" is anything to go by.
The hand leaves his chin and picks up another piece of meat as Ragnar finally turns away.
"Well? Eat your food, little mouse."
So he does, and Ragnar sits by him and does not speak.
Eventually, the food is gone.
Ragnar stands, takes a length of rope from his belt and begins to unwind it. Athelstan swallows. He knew this was going to happen, even as he stepped into the clearing, knew it to be inevitable - even so, it's hard to sit still and wait for the rope. He expects Ragnar to just tie it to the collar, but instead, the man makes a noose, loose enough that Athelstan might easily slip his head out of it.
"On your feet," and Athelstan obeys. It's only then, standing face to face with Ragnar, that he truly realizes just how big the man is. It's not that Ragnar's that much taller than Athelstan, but he's wider. Burlier.
Ragnar picks up the empty leather bag, tying it to his belt, then turns to ponder the deer.
"Here, hold this," and for a moment Athelstan finds himself in the absurd position of holding his own leash as Ragnar turns his back on him to pick up the deer and settle it across his shoulders - and there's a voice screaming for him to run, now, while he still can.
Then Ragnar takes back the end of the rope and tugs lightly on it.
"Come along, Mouse."
It is a small farm, as best he can judge - a cluster of buildings by the beach, animals in enclosures and fish drying on racks. A couple of men are dragging a small boat up on the sand.
A small tug on the rope makes Athelstan realize he's stopped walking to just stare.
As they approach the farm, the two men abandon the boat and come to divest Ragnar of his load, looking curiously at Athelstan. One is an old man with a long beard, the other far younger and with a metal collar visible around his neck - but Ragnar tugs on the rope once more, and Athelstan is led away, glancing at the men over his shoulder.
A woman is standing in front of what is undoubtedly the farmer's house. She welcomes Ragnar with a kiss, then turns to frown at Athelstan.
"I see you found your huldra, then. A bit scrawny, isn't he?"
"There's nothing wrong with him some decent food won't fix," Ragnar smiles, rolling up the rope. Athelstan stands, unsure of what to do about himself, forcing himself not to rub at where the rope no longer rests against his skin. The sun is setting and he's tired from the walk - all he wants is for Ragnar or his wife to send him off to wherever the farm's workers eat and sleep.
Instead, Ragnar pushes him through the door and into the house, where it's warm and two children look up at him, the boy with a frown that marks him clearly as Ragnar's wife's son, the girl with bright curiosity. Soon, he finds himself placed on one of the low benches along the side of the house, wrapped in a fur and with a bowl of stew in his hands.
For the first time in far, far too long, Athelstan is warm. His belly is full and he finds his eyelids growing heavy, finds himself sliding down onto the bench despite his best efforts to stay upright, stay awake, to follow the idle conversation of the family.
Someone tugs the fur in around him and he feels fingers slide through his hair, but he is too tired to move.
"Father, he's just some slave. Why do you coddle him?"
"Tell me, Bjorn - what if it had been a dog I had found in the forest? A thin, sorry beast, somewhat shy but clearly a tame animal, so I brought it home to see what use it might be. Now, what would a wise man do? Would he take that hound and put it to work that selfsame day? Perhaps give it a kick if it didn't obey his commands quickly enough? Is that how one should treat a dog?"
"No," comes the boy's - Bjorn's - hesitant reply.
"So what would you do, then, if you had found a dog like that?"
"I'd give it food. And water. And..."
But sleep claims him before Athelstan can hear the rest of what Bjorn would or would not do.
Athelstan wakes to the sound of people moving, quiet talking, and the smell of porridge and for a moment he thinks himself back at Vermund's farm, those long summer months in the forest a mere dream - it's morning and he should have been up and working by sunrise, he's going to get beaten for this.
Except then he recognises Ragnar's voice.
He sits up cautiously, not knowing what to expect.
"Good, you're awake. Now eat your breakfast," and a new bowl is shoved into his hands. "And afterwards, you come find me."
Ragnar leaves and Athelstan finds himself alone in the house. He eats quickly, not wanting to keep Ragnar waiting. He doesn't understand this man or why he's treating him with this unexpected kindness, but he doesn't want to do anything to risk it, doesn't want to risk losing the goodwill of this unexpected Samaritan. Soon, he ventures outside.
Ragnar's easy enough to spot, standing down by the beach, talking with the young man with the collar from yesterday. At Athelstan's approach Ragnar gestures for the other slave to leave, then turns to look at Athelstan, who suddenly feels terribly conscious of how ragged a sight he must be in the cold, clear light of day.
"Come along, Mouse," and he follows as Ragnar leads him to a small wooden hut - as they approach, a woman leaves it, nodding at Ragnar as she passes.
"Take your clothes off."
"Sir?" he asks, because no, because no, no, no, this isn't happening, not again, he must have misheard. Ragnar was supposed to be safe, he wasn't supposed to...
"Those rags you're wearing. Take them off and leave them on the ground."
But still Athelstan hesitates.
"Do I have to repeat myself?"
"No, sir," and slowly, turning his back to Ragnar, he begins to strip. Drags the tunic over his head, pushes down his threadbare trousers, pulls off the almost worn-out socks. Screws his eyes shut and waits for Ragnar's touch, tells himself not to flinch, tells himself that he can bear this.
When it comes, it's not what he expected.
Calloused fingertips slide from his right shoulder down his back and it takes him a moment to realize that Ragnar's tracing the brand, the ugly, angular P-shaped thing. Then, as suddenly as the touch started, it stops.
"Inside," and of course, Ragnar's not going to want to do it out here in the autumn cold where anybody might walk past. Of course not.
So he pushes open the door and steps inside.
Inside the small hut, standing at the very centre of it, is a low wooden tub filled with slightly steaming water.
"Well, in you go. No point in letting the water grow cold," and a smack on his buttocks puts Athelstan in motion, climbing into the tub and sinking down into the wonderfully warm water, marvelling at the feeling. He cannot remember the last time he had a warm bath - at Vermund's farm, slaves were expected to make do with cold water, and long before, back at the monastery, well, warm baths had been an indulgence frowned upon, if perhaps not entirely sinful.
"Do you like it?" He blinks his eyes open, not certain when he closed them, to look at Ragnar gesturing at the hut. "I built it for Lagertha, back when she was expecting Gyda," and he looks at Athelstan as if expecting some reply.
"It is - very fine, sir," he attempts, cautiously. Ragnar snorts and picks up a lump of something from a shelf, throws it at Athelstan. It falls just short of him, landing in the water with a splash, and he picks it up to find himself holding a lump of soap.
"Remember to wash behind your ears."
Ragnar reaches out to ruffle his hair as he walks to the door and leaves Athelstan alone with his confusion. Not for long, though - soon enough, Ragnar's back.
"Found you some clothes," and he duly places them on a stool.
"Why are you doing this?"
"Well, it's a bit late in the year to be wandering around naked - though when summer returns, feel free. My people can always use a bit of diversion," and he wanders back to the tub, reaches out to slide his fingers through Athelstan's wet hair.
"Your hair's too long."
"No." Athelstan yanks his head away, backs as far away from Ragnar as he can in the small tub. Ragnar watches him curiously. "That's not what I meant. I meant, I - I'm just some slave. Why do you coddle me like this?" There's something bitter and brittle in his voice.
"I thought you asleep."
"Well, then, you already have your answer, Mouse. Now, about that hair..." and he turns, picking up a pair of shears lying on the shelf.
"My name is Athelstan."
"I'm not a dog. I'm a man. And my name is Athelstan," and he's shaking, he doesn't know what's wrong with him, doesn't know why he can't stop this, why the words come rolling out as he tries to evade Ragnar's hand, as he raises his own hand to strike at him. This is madness, it must be. Stop, he must stop this, he mustn't do this - he's small and naked and wet, vulnerable with nowhere to run, and Ragnar's going to be angry, he's going to beat him, beat him or worse, he needs to stop this, but he can't, can't stop the words and the struggling as Ragnar seizes hold of him, wrapping an impossibly strong arm firmly around him, holding him still, wet and slippery though he is.
Something breaks inside him.
Ugly, wracking sobs force their way out of him, and he finds that his struggles cease. Stinging eyes tightly closed, he is held, an arm encircling his chest and arms, a hand settling against the back of his neck as he buries his face against Ragnar's chest.
And eventually - eventually - he stills.
"Your name is Athelstan," Ragnar says, breaking the quiet. "But we'll be calling you Mouse," and he bends to press his lips against Athelstan's forehead before rising and fetching the shears. "Now, sit still."
Athelstan obeys, still as a mouse, watching dark locks float to the floor.
"There. Now, enjoy your bath - not too long, mind. I believe Ysja has plans for that water and her son, if it's still warm when you're done."
"The woman we passed outside - the wife of Klur the swineherder." Ragnar stops at the door. "Oh, and when you're done, the furs you slept in could use a good beating, as grimy as you were. Actually, I'd say all the sleeping furs could do with a good beating. You'll see to that."
The second day after Ragnar brought Athelstan to the farm, the man wraps himself in a wolf fur, kisses his wife and children farewell
"I have business in Kattegat," and he ruffles Athelstan's hair. "You make yourself useful while I am gone."
Athelstan works with a will. He rises early in the morning, to light the fire and start the porridge for breakfast before the rest of the household stirs. He helps Gyda tend the goats and gather the eggs that the hens have been laying around the farm. Fetches and carries and works as best he can. In the evening he finds himself sitting in the house with empty hands, as Lagertha sews and the children play a game of hnefatafl. She looks at him, consideringly, as he tries not to fidget.
"Can you spin?" she asks at long last.
"I can learn."
"Oh, I can teach him," Gyda offers, game quite forgotten, and thus he finds himself fumbling with spindle and distaff, trying his level best to turn flax into yarn. From where he sits, Bjorn laughs at his fumbling with the women's work.
Admittedly, the boy does not seem displeased at having a new slave - at least, he seems to take great pleasure in ordering Athelstan about. "Close the door, slave, there's a draft," he'll say. Small things, and Athelstan doesn't mind, even if he's interrupted at his tasks. Then Lagertha overhears the boy ordering him, "Fetch me a drink of water, slave," and the child is dragged out by his ear and scolded for being lazy.
After that, the boy takes to scowling at him.
The next day, he finds himself talking with Klur, who turns out to be the older of the two men he met the first day.
"It is a good farm, this one. I came here as a slave, captured in the East lands, me and my family. They put me to work, did Ragnar and Lagertha, tending the pigs, and they gave me a hut by the edge of the wood. Six years it took me, breaking my back at cutting down trees and pulling up roots and carrying stones, six years of hard work, but in the end, I earned enough from that to pay for my frelsis-öl and for that of my Luba and our Vuk. Now I am a freedman. I look after the pigs and my wife tends our garden and mends nets, and our son is growing strong. Ragnar has promised that when the boy is old enough, he will take him to Kattegat and ask the Earl to give him an arm ring and let him go on raids with the men."
They're leaning against a fence, watching the boy in question exchanging blows with Bjorn, both armed with wooden sticks and heavy shields. Lagertha watches, occasionally shouting directions to one or the other.
Eventually, the boys put down the shields and stand, hot and sweaty. Athelstan goes to the well and drags up a bucket of fresh, cool water. He offers Bjorn the first drink and the boy frowns at him for at bit, then grins and thumps his fist against his shoulder hard enough to leave a bruise before accepting the water.
On the fifth day of Ragnar's absence, Athelstan is helping Gyda fetch water for her goats, when there is a shout from Bjorn and he turns to see Ragnar walking towards the farm. At the sight of him, Athelstan realizes that he's missed the man, impossible as it should seem - after all, he has spent more time at the farm without Ragnar than in the farmer's company. And yet...
Then he notices the two men walking with Ragnar, flanking him, and he freezes, eyes widening. One is a short man, dressed in black and leading a horse. The other is tall, clearly a warrior with long hair and a scowl on his face. Gyda darts around him faster than he can stop her and he watches in horror as she swiftly approaches the three men.
"Uncle Rollo!" and the tall man grabs the girl, swinging her around as a wide grin transforms his face, while Ragnar watches with something akin to amusement. Athelstan feels his heart beginning to slow - perhaps there is no danger here after all.
"Mouse! Come here!" and Ragnar waves him towards them. Athelstan swallows, puts down the bucket he's been holding and obeys, his heart speeding up once more.
"So, this is the slave?" The short man looks unimpressed.
"This is him, yes."
"He does look vaguely familiar. You are sure he was Vermund's?"
"His story fits - and he's branded with the wunjô, the way Ashild claims was her brother's wont. Show him, Mouse."
Athelstan turns his back, pulling his tunic up to display the ugly brand.
"Well, that seems in order, then. Though as I recall, Ashild said that the slave was called Hreim."
"Yes, well," and Ragnar smiles, reaches out to ruffle Athelstan's hair, "he looks more like a mouse than a screamer to me. Now, Svein, if you'd like to go to the house with Rollo, then I'm sure my wife has good ale for you and supper on its way soon enough. I'll see to your horse and then we can settle the matter of payment tonight. Agreed?"
Athelstan watches with a curious mixture of relief and trepidation as the strangers walk to the house, leaving him alone with Ragnar and the horse.
"Well, then, Mouse - have you been making yourself useful?"
"Yes, sir. At least, I've tried to."
"I knew you would," and the man drags him into a half embrace, pressing lips to his forehead for just a moment. "Now, how are you at seeing to horses?"
"I - I have never tried."
"Then come along. I'll show you how it's done and while we're at it, I can tell you about my business in Kattegat."
"Why," - Why do you want to tell a slave about your business? - he almost asks, then coughs and tries again. "What was your business, sir?"
"Why, to buy you, of course." Ragnar grins.
"To buy - but how? I thought Vermund was dead."
"Vermund is dead, yes. But his sister married a trader from Kattegat and lives in town. After Vermund's death, they sold his land to one Sigvald Strut, the younger son of one of Vermund's neighbours, for they had more use for the silver than the land - and when I came and offered, they also had more use for a bit more silver than for a slave."
"But - but why would you buy me?" he asks.
"I could hardly just keep someone else's slave I found wandering in the woods - I'm no thief. And the farm is growing - we'd been talking of getting another worker. Besides," and he grins, bumps his shoulder against Athelstan's, "you seem biddable enough."
Athelstan flushes and lowers his head, confused at himself.
"Unless - unless you would rather I kept my silver and let Svein take you back to Kattegat with him, to Vermund's sister?"
"No!" he replies without need for thought, because no, please, God, no, don't let Ragnar send him away. He's just found this safe place, please don't let him send him back to… "I mean - I should be glad to stay here. At your farm. Sir."
"Good," and Ragnar's grin grows wider. "I would have kept you anyway."
For a little while they stand in silence, currying the horse.
"Right, I think you can handle the rest on your own. Oh, and Mouse - after supper, I'll be expecting you in the house. Ashild sold you cheaply enough, as far as silver is concerned, but you're going to have to provide some of the payment yourself. She wants to know about the men who killed her brother. That's why Svein is here - tonight you will tell him everything you remember, every detail from that day, and then he'll go back and tell her. Understood?"
"Yes, sir." Athelstan watches Ragnar leave the barn, a feeling of dread growing inside him at the thought of that evening.
In the morning, Athelstan helps Ragnar saddle Svein's horse, and then the man rides off. As he disappears into the forest, Athelstan breathes a sigh of relief.
Then a hand closes around his throat, cruel and hard, and he is pushed back - back into the barn, back against the wall, rough-hewn planks against his back and the cold, cold metal of an axe head forcing him to look up, into Ragnar's furious eyes.
"Why did you lie?"
"Please, Ragnar. Please. I didn't, I…"
"Why did you lie to me?" and Ragnar's grip tightens, strangling him, and he scrabbles at his hand, tries to pry it off.
"Please. Please, no. I wouldn't. I don't know what you mean. Please."
The grip eases just a bit, just enough for Athelstan to gulp down air.
"In the forest - when I found you, in the forest, you told me you had seen the raiders, that you could recognize them, if you saw them again. But last night, when you talked to Svein, you said you'd never seen them. Said you hid and didn't come until the screaming stopped. Is that not so?"
"Yes. Yes, I did, but please, Ragnar…"
The hand tightens again, cutting him off.
"You can't have it both ways. Either you saw them or you didn't. Either way, you lied to me."
"No, please, Ragnar. I wouldn't. I didn't, I…"
"No? Which is it then? Did you see them or did you not?"
"I saw them, please, let me go, please."
"Then why did you lie to me last night?"
"I didn't, please, I wouldn't lie to you. Please."
For a moment, Ragnar just looks at him, with those bluer-than-the-sky eyes. Tilts his head like a bird of prey considering whether to strike. At long last, he sighs - and raises the hand with the axe.
"What use do I have for a lying slave?" and he swings.
"He was there!"
The axe bites deep - deep into the wood next to Athelstan's ear and splinters whirl through the air. Then the hand - that merciless hand - finally, finally lets go of him and he sinks down, curling protectively around himself.
"Who was there?"
The axe blade slides under his chin, forcing him to look up at Ragnar whilst blinking away tears.
"Mouse, who was there?"
"That man. Svein. He was there, at Vermund's farm, at the raid. He…"
"Do you mean to tell me," Ragnar says, as he crouches down in front of him, "that the Earl's trusted man was at Vermund's farm when it was raided and he didn't even try to stop it?"
"No," and Athelstan shakes his head. "No, he - he sat on a horse. While they. While they... He sat on a horse and told them what to do."
"Ah," and finally, finally Ragnar puts down the axe, sliding it back into the loop on his belt, then wraps his hand around the back of Athelstan's neck. "And that's the truth?"
"Yes. Yes, please, Ragnar," and he's pulled forward, wrapped in strong arms and hushed. He buries his face in Ragnar's neck, still shaking.
"Next time, little Mouse," Ragnar says as slides his fingers through Athelstan's hair, "next time, you tell me. Before I ask." He nods, eagerly, and Ragnar's thumb rubs gently at his neck, slipping under the collar in calming circles.
He doesn't know how long they stay like that, on the floor of the barn.
Eventually, he feels Ragnar's chest rise and sink against him in a sigh. Then the man stands, pulling him up with him, his hand never moving from the back of Athelstan's neck.
It feels warm. It feels like safety, somehow.
"Come along, Mouse. There's something else we need to take care of today."
He leads him out of the barn and around the back, to where the farm's small forge is located. So far, Athelstan hasn't seen it lit - it's not used much except for minor repair work, or so Klur has told him. The farm doesn't have a proper blacksmith.
Today it's lit. Rollo is working the bellows, sweat trickling off his naked torso, wet lines on black marks.
"I don't like your brand."
"My brand?" He turns his head, looks enquiringly at Ragnar. With his free hand, the farmer has picked up a long stick and is drawing something in the dirt, something familiar and ugly and vaguely P-shaped.
"Your brand. The wunjô. It marks you as owned and not by me. I don't like it."
"But - but it's a brand. It doesn't come off," and he has a terrible feeling he knows where this is going.
"No, it doesn't. But you can alter it. Look. All you have to do is add one line and instead of wunjô you get raido - for Ragnar."
Athelstan looks down at the angular R-shape on the ground. Swallows.
"Is this - is this my punishment?" It's barely more than a whisper.
"No. No, Mouse. This is - you're mine. I want that to be clear. I don't want to risk someone coming across you and thinking they can do whatever they want with you."
"But - a brand?"
"It's the easiest way. And fast. And afterwards, anyone will know that if they try anything, they'll have to answer to me." Ragnar looks at him, tilts his head. "Though - I suppose we could dig out the needles and the ink. Mark you like my brother is marked - though that takes a lot longer. Especially since we'd have to do the whole raido, not just a line - and you'd bleed."
Athelstan shivers. The day is fairly warm for the season and they are standing close to the forge, but all he can feel is cold.
"It will be fast? The branding?"
He's shivering too much to remove his tunic himself, so Ragnar ends up doing it for him. Then Ragnar wraps his hand back around Athelstan's neck, the other arm sliding around his waist, trapping him firmly against Ragnar's body. Athelstan buries his face in Ragnar's neck, squeezing his eyes shut and grabbing hold of Ragnar's tunic, wrapping his fingers tightly around fabric.
"I can see why they called him screamer," Rollo laughs as he removes the metal rod from Athelstan's skin. Athelstan just whimpers and tries to ignore the smell of burnt flesh. Tries to ignore the pain and just focus, focus on the feel of Ragnar's hand wrapping him in safety and leading him away to the house.
Lagertha's waiting inside. Ragnar makes Athelstan sit down on a stool and holds a cup brimming with mead to his lips.
"Drink," and once the cup is drained, he refills it and repeats his order. Athelstan's world grows blurred as he feels something cold, blessedly, blessedly cold, being applied to his burn, clean linen wrapped tight to hold the poultice in place. Then Ragnar leads him - well, more like carries him, really, for the mead was strong and he has a hard time putting one foot in front of the other - to his bench, urging him to lie down and carefully draping the fur over him.
Someone pets him, fingers tugging a stray lock of hair behind an ear. Then sleep claims him, so abruptly that he barely has time to wonder if perhaps they had put more than just mead in the cup.
When he had arrived at Vermund's farm, the farmer had had two of his farmhands hold him down as they branded him. The very next day he had been put to work in the field. His back had ached, but slowing down to try to ease the pain would earn him at least a kick, at worst a beating. In the evenings, the youngest slave girl would help him wash the wound as best they could, but it still ended up infected.
It hadn't stopped aching until the end of winter.
The day after he's been branded at Ragnar's farm, the man leads him to the bathhouse and makes him sit down while he washes the burn with water and vinegar. Afterwards, Athelstan goes about his chores - he's helping Gyda with the goats, pulling a bucket of water from the well and grimacing at the pain in his back, when a hand wraps around the rope and takes it away from him.
"None of that until your back is healed. Go help clean the fish and when that's done, Ysja can teach you how to mend a fishing net," Ragnar says, as he pushes him in the general direction of the beach, where a fresh catch is being brought in and where Rollo is about to push a boat out, heading back to town.
In the evening he helps Lagertha cook supper and afterwards he sits and spins with Gyda, listening to Ragnar tell a story of a prince who played at being a madman to avenge his father's death. Outside, the autumn wind howls.
Gradually, Athelstan finds himself settling into his new life, though he still finds it strange, at times, how he is treated. Even at Ragnar's farm, it is clearly not usual for a slave to sleep in the farmer's house and eat with his family - and yet, perhaps that is simply because the other slaves mostly live in small huts on the edge of the farm, alone or - in the case of Klur and Ysja - in small family groups. Perhaps it is simply too late in the year to have him build a hut of his own?
The autumn days are short and growing shorter and there is plenty of work to be done - even for a slave who is banned from lifting heavy things. And eventually the burn aches less and Ragnar allows him to go back to helping Gyda with her goats.
The day after that, Klur manages to trip and sprain an ankle, and so Athelstan is charged with tending to the pigs during his recovery. At the end of the first day, Lagertha chases him out of her house with strict orders to bathe before coming back, and Ragnar's laughter follows him out the door, but when he reaches the bathhouse, he finds Ysja and Vuk pouring buckets of steaming water into the tub.
The day Klur finally returns to his feet, Athelstan spends side-by-side with Ragnar, bent over tubs of steaming water, scrubbing and scrubbing to get the pig smell out of his clothes. Suddenly, Ragnar flicks water at his face - he blinks and wipes his face with his sleeve, looking curiously at the other man, who is now bent industriously over his work. Athelstan turns back to his own - and Ragnar flicks more water at him. This time, when he turns to look, Athelstan catches a glimpse of an impish grin.
Flick - flick - flick.
Eventually, in an unobserved moment, Athelstan dares to flick a little water back. Ragnar snorts and responds in kind, and soon they are both soaked, washing forgotten, and Athelstan finds that he's laughing. Then Lagertha arrives with a stern: "What are you two doing?" and Ragnar wraps an arm around Athelstan and rests his chin on his shoulder.
"Just washing, my love."
She seems unconvinced, probably because they are dripping more than the washing already hanging on the lines, but she leaves, shaking her head and muttering under her breath.
"You have a nice laugh, Mouse. I'd like to hear it more often."
Then Ragnar leans forward and presses his lips to his cheek before letting go of him and turning back to the work. As he bends over the tub once more, Ragnar begins to whistle.
The very next day snow falls from the sky and stains the world white.
"It will be gone by morning," Lagertha says and looks fondly at the children running around with their father, throwing snowballs at one another.
In the evening, Ragnar rummages through the large clothes chest.
"Lagertha, have you seen my old winter boots?"
"Is something wrong with your new winter boots?"
"No, nothing, but I've a mind to go up to the cabin tomorrow and see if it needs any repairs done before winter sets in. I intend to take Mouse along for company, but if it starts snowing properly, he'll freeze his toes off if he doesn't have some boots."
"They're in the other chest - under your blue tunic, along with the skates Bjorn grew out of two years ago."
Soon, a pair of somewhat worn boots land in Athelstan's lap, tangling the line of thread he was working on.
They set out in the morning, carrying rolled-up furs, tools and a bag full of dried food. The snow starts falling in the early afternoon and Athelstan finds himself grateful for the boots, even if they are big enough that he needs to wear two pairs of socks to fit them.
When they reach it, the cabin is not an impressive sight - three walls and a roof placed right up against a steep mountain side. Next to it, a stream tumbles down in a tiny waterfall.
"The herders use it during the summer," Ragnar explains as he ushers him inside. "But I like to make sure, that if someone should be wandering around up here during the winter that they will be able to find shelter here."
While Ragnar examines the cabin, taking stock of what needs mending, Athelstan gets a fire going in the hearth and rolls out the sleeping furs - one on the wooden bench along the wall and one on the dirt floor between the bench and the hearth. When Ragnar comes back in, he frowns and proceeds to pick up the fur from the floor and put it on the bench with the other.
"It's going to be cold tonight. It'll be warmer for both of us if we share."
Supper is cold - dried meat and bread and cheese - and afterwards, Ragnar decides it's time for bed. He pulls his tunic over his head, steps out of his boots and his trousers and lays them next to the hearth. Naked, he wanders past a flushing Athelstan to get back to the bench and slides in under the furs.
Following Ragnar's example, Athelstan strips and places his clothes at the hearth, then joins Ragnar under the furs. As he slides in, the man moves back a bit to make room for him, but the bench is narrow and they still end up lying skin to skin.
But Ragnar was right, though. It is warmer than lying on the ground would have been.
Athelstan's eyes are drifting closed when a hand starts stroking his side and his eyes fly open to find Ragnar's face right in front of him, blue eyes gleaming in the last light of the fire. Then the hand slides up along his side, up and tangling in his hair, and Ragnar leans forward and kisses him.
It's short, just a press of lips against lips.
Athelstan freezes, eyes wide, unsure what to expect - but Ragnar just lies there, looking at him in silence and slowly stroking his hair. Waiting. For Athelstan?
Part of him - the part of him that's still a monk, that still remembers vows taken long, so very long ago - is telling him no, is telling him to take his fur and go lie on the floor, preferably on the other side of the fire, far from this temptation. But it's a very small part.
Slowly, cautiously, not quite sure if he's allowed, Athelstan raises his own hand, stroking it flat across Ragnar's broad chest. Then he leans forward and presses his own lips against Ragnar's.
Athelstan has never kissed anyone before - not at the monastery and not, not after - so, inevitably, the kiss is clumsy, but what he lacks in experience, he attempts to make up for in enthusiasm. Ragnar, on the other hand, seems to know what he's doing, sliding his tongue along Athelstan's lips and dipping in when they part to tangle with Athelstan's tongue.
Then they are moving, Ragnar lifting him and Athelstan finds himself straddling the bigger man, blinking down at him, before being pulled back down for another kiss. Not that he objects - quite the contrary, he glories in the feeling of Ragnar's mouth, of his hard body pressed against his, of the fingers of one hand sliding through his hair, petting him, while the other strokes down his back, warm and firm as it slides lower, down to his buttocks and…
Athelstan breaks the kiss with a startled gasp, jolting upright, eyes wide, panting.
The sound of his name calls him back, back to here and now, Ragnar's hands stroking his trembling arms as the man peers up at him, frowning.
"What's the matter? Don't you want to?"
"No," he manages, shaking his head, then - at the sight of Ragnar's expression - rushes to continue. "I mean yes, I want to, I want, I want so much, I just - I can't," but the words won't come out. He can't, can't say it, not here - not safe and warm under the furs with Ragnar, not while he's here with his very own good Samaritan. He doesn't want them here, doesn't want even the memories to intrude here - of being held down in a shed stinking of rotten fish and seaweed, of raucous laughter and swinish grunts drowning out his strangled screams - not here, not ever here, not ever again.
He can't explain.
If he explains, it comes here. He doesn't want it here. He doesn't want this tainted.
Ragnar's right hand slides up his arm and over his shoulder to come to rest on his neck where it belongs, warm and safe, and Athelstan closes his eyes, leaning into the touch, calming himself.
Eventually he opens his eyes again.
Ragnar's free hand strokes his chest, thumb rubbing a nipple, and Athelstan can't hold back a moan and then another. Ragnar's right hand slides from his neck and down to his other nipple, pinches it. Then the hand slides lower still, stroking his half-hard cock and Athelstan begins to pant.
Suddenly Ragnar slides both his hands down, grabs Athelstan and lifts, then scoots backwards before putting him down, so Athelstan is straddling his legs just a bit further down than before.
Then Ragnar rolls his hips.
Athelstan can't stop himself from moaning, a filthy, filthy sound, at the feel of Ragnar's cock, firm, warm, velvet, sliding against his own.
"Yes?" Ragnar's voice is a breathy hiss.
"Yes. Please, yes, I…" and he leans down, burying his hands in Ragnar's hair and kissing him, thrusting clumsily against him. Ragnar places a hand on his hips, guiding him as he rolls his hips to meet Athelstan's clumsy thrusts, and then he slides his free hand between them, wrapping his fingers firmly around both their cocks, stroking and twisting and oh Lord.
The world turns white for just a moment.
When Athelstan comes back to himself, it's to the feel of Ragnar's hard cock thrusting up against him still. He looks down, fascinated by the sight of the other man's cock, reaches out to wrap his own fingers around the hard flesh, stroking as Ragnar did until the other man stills beneath him, fingers burying themselves in his hips so hard it hurts as Ragnar comes with a grunt, seed staining Athelstan's fingers.
Ragnar's hand pulls at his hair, drags him up for another breathless kiss. It tastes - wrong. Alarmed, Athelstan pulls back, eyes widening at the sight of blood on Ragnar's lips.
"Did I? I bit you!"
"You're a feisty one. I like that," and Ragnar grins before pulling him back down for still more kisses, slower and less urgent, chasing away his momentary horror.
How long they lie like that, kissing under the warm furs, he cannot say. But eventually sleep must have claimed them, because come dawn Athelstan wakes, feeling somewhat sticky and with Ragnar's hard cock poking him.
Fortunately, the cabin does not require much in the way of repairs. Ragnar sets to work on those, having instructed Athelstan to dig a hole in the dirt floor inside, to put in the package of dried meat and fish and hard bread they brought along for this purpose, and then to cover it with big stones to ensure that no animal can get to it.
Neither of them work particularly fast - mostly because every time Athelstan has to pass Ragnar, the man will reach out to drag him in for a kiss. Not that Athelstan objects - quite the contrary, he comes willingly, enthusiastically letting himself be wrapped in Ragnar's warmth. Once, the lingering kisses turn to more, as Ragnar slides his hand down Athelstan's trousers, and Athelstan moans, letting his head fall back and enjoying the feel of Ragnar's touch and his warm lips on his throat.
Afterwards, he has to go clean himself in the stream, which is so cold that it makes his teeth clatter, but even so, he doesn't regret it.
When the sun finally sets, they retreat inside and - after a brief meal - crawl under the furs to wrap themselves in each other once more.
The next morning, Ragnar frowns up at the sky, then orders Athelstan to pack while he finishes the last repairs. Soon enough they leave the cabin behind.
At first, as they make their way down the mountain, Athelstan moves briskly - the air is sharp and it will be good to get home to the farm. But as he walks, it gradually starts to occur to him what he's done.
He's broken his vows. Willfully. Repeatedly. He has fornicated like a common beast - and with a man and a heathen at that.
Oh, but that's not even the worst. No, worse still, the heathen in question is a married man, his wife awaits them at the farm, and surely she will see - surely she will be not able to miss - and he has heard the stories, of how wives act towards their husband's indiscretions and concubines. Surely Lagertha will not appreciate her husband bedding a simple slave.
When they reach the farm late in the afternoon, Athelstan is walking far behind Ragnar, his feet dragging. The man does not seem to notice, as he walks straight up to his wife and kisses her as enthusiastically as he did Athelstan just that very morning.
"Did you get everything you had planned done at the cabin?"
"Oh, yes - Mouse was very helpful," and he grins over his shoulder at Athelstan, then frowns when he notices how far back he's standing.
"Good. You're just in time for supper. Come along, you two."
Athelstan is quiet during the meal. Sometimes he forgets to chew. But Ragnar and Lagertha don't seem to notice or if they do, they ignore him. When they leave their half-finished meals to tumble into their own bed, Athelstan makes his escape to the goat pen.
He rests his head against the warm flank of the nanny goat, breathing deeply, calming himself. He is a sinner, this is true, but all men are sinners in the eyes of the Lord. He finds himself longing for a priest, longing for the relief of kneeling and confessing his sins - but there are no priests in this land or if there are, they are at least not here.
"I am a sinner," he tells the goat, dredging up the Latin words that he hasn't used in far too long. "I have broken my vows. I have broken the commandments. I have desired my master. I have fornicated with him and thus trespassed against his wife - and oh Lord, forgive me, I want to do it again."
It makes him feel a little better, admitting his sins out loud, even if no one around here understands his words.
The sun has long since set and the moon peeks cautiously from behind heavy clouds when he finally leaves the goat pen and enters the house to find his bench. The only noise to be heard inside is snoring.
In the morning, the farm is covered in snow at least a foot deep.
Winter has arrived in truth.
Winter means that most of the work outdoors comes to an end, apart from fetching water and chopping firewood. Life moves inside where it's warm and where there is shelter from the cold winds rolling down from the north.
Athelstan grows restless in the house, worried that Lagertha might see his guilt. He spends most of his time outside. Ragnar finds him in the goat pen, confessing his sins, an already familiar litany - walks up behind him and wraps him in his arms, kisses the nape of his neck.
"Come back inside, Mouse. The goats don't mind their own company, but I miss yours."
Lord forgive him, but Athelstan lets himself be turned in Ragnar's arms and parts his lips eagerly at his kiss - then leaps away from him at the sight of Lagertha coming out of the house. Ragnar looks at him, then over his shoulder and spots his wife. He looks back at Athelstan, frowns at the sight of him blushing and hurriedly making his escape.
That evening, after the children have gone to sleep, Athelstan curls up under his furs, trying not to listen to Ragnar and Lagertha. If he closes his eyes, their noises will sneak into his head, and he will remember the cabin and Ragnar's hands on his skin, so he keeps his eyes open, staring into the fire, mumbling prayers in an attempt to shut out the noise.
At first he thinks he's misheard. Ragnar never calls him Athelstan, never, except....
He sits up and finds the pair of them standing in front of him, gloriously naked in the light of the fire. He swallows. This can't possibly be happening.
"Come and join us, little Mouse," and Lagertha holds out a hand.
"Come on," and Ragnar grins at Athelstan and bounces like a little boy as he watches him get to his feet, then hesitate, looking from one to the other. He swallows nervously - then reaches out to accept her hand before he can change his mind.
Before they can change theirs.
She pulls him forward and kisses him as Ragnar slides around him, pulls off the long tunic he's worn to bed for warmth. Pulls him away from Lagertha, kisses his cheek and strokes his chest.
"Did I not tell you he was pretty?"
"So you did, husband. So you did."
The next day, as evening approaches, Lagertha gathers the furs from Athelstan's bench and adds them to the furs on hers and Ragnar's bed.
"It is not good to sleep alone in winter. The nights are very cold."
And so Athelstan comes to spend his nights sharing the bed of Ragnar and Lagertha. It is surprisingly easy.
Sometimes, Ragnar will have sex with him, as Lagertha sleeps next to them. Sometimes, he will have sex with Lagertha, while Athelstan watches wide-eyed at their savage lust. And sometimes - sometimes, he will have sex with both of them, teaching Athelstan to pleasure a woman with fingers and lips and tongue.
And then there are the nights when they do not have sex at all, when they just lie close, Ragnar's arm wrapped around Athelstan, and they talk - talk for what seems like hours. Head resting against a warm shoulder, he finds himself talking of England, of his life there, of the monastery and the customs and the language.
"How do you say "You are beautiful" in your language?" Ragnar asks and carefully repeats what Athelstan tells him.
"Strange. That does not sound like the tongue you're always chattering at the goats in."
"It's not. That's Latin. It's the language of holy Mother Church - of the priests in England."
"And how do you know such a language? Are you a priest, little Mouse?"
"I'm a monk. That's - a kind of priest, yes."
"Now, why would a priest of the English gods have been travelling to our lands?"
"I was - I was a missionary. My companions and I, we were supposed to - to spread the word of God. To tell people about Him."
"Well, then, Mouse - tell me a story of this god of yours."
Winter is a good time for stories. Sometimes the whole family will gather around the fire, working at crafts and taking turns telling tales. The children will tell stories of the gods of the North, fierce and bloody and occasionally absurd, carefully repeating obviously beloved tales. Lagertha, too, tells tales of the gods, while Ragnar prefers the heroes of old - dragon-slayers, shieldmaidens, skinchangers and more.
When it's Athelstan's turn to tell, he offers the tales of his faith - of Samson, of Noah, of Jonah and Moses and so many more. As the winter dark grows deeper, he sometimes fancies that he might be winning this family for Christ, that he might someday be remembered alongside such names as Clotilda and Ethelburga, and he takes to adding the sin of pride to the list of transgressions he confides to the goats.
Alas, while his stories entertain, Ragnar seems far more interested in his tales of England and monastic life, making him repeat several times how, as a boy at the monastery, he would assist the beekeeper, chasing the swarming bees to mark where they settled, so the beekeeper could come and coax the swarm into his prepared skep.
"Come spring, perhaps we shall find you some bees of your own, little Mouse."
A month after the winter solstice a lone man arrives at the farm, wrapped in furs and with skis on his feet, and is invited to spend the night. Svafrthorinn he calls himself, as he shakes the snow out of his beard.
"What makes a man travel in the middle of winter?" Ragnar asks, once his guest has been seated and offered mead.
"Love, that's all - nothing short of it could have made me venture forth in this horrible season. I'm going north to meet my wife and her family."
"Could she not come to you?"
"She could, but she loves the snow and the winter too much to leave it - she is a skridfinn, you see. Now me, I am man of the sea and I love her dearly, but my wife? She hates the sea and hates the cry of seagulls. What's a poor man to do?"
Ragnar laughs and refills his guest's cup. The pair of them sit and talk late into the night, long past the time when Lagertha has sought her bed and taken Athelstan with her. At one point, Athelstan is woken by Ragnar and told to go outside to fetch a bucket of water. When he returns to bed, he finds himself far too cold to fall asleep immediately, so he lies under the furs and watches the two men at the table, crouching over something and moving a tallow candle about, whispering too low for him to hear.
Eventually sleep claims him, only to be interrupted a second time when Ragnar joins them in bed, wrapping an arm around him and pushing icy toes against his legs.
At long last spring arrives, melting the snow and the ice. Everywhere you might turn to look, the world is covered in green. Everybody starts spending more time outside where there's room to stretch.
Inside, Lagertha puts up her loom and starts teaching Gyda to weave. Outside, Athelstan experiments with his own sort of weaving, trying his best to make something similar to the skeps he remembers from back home. The result is more serviceable than pretty.
One warm spring day, Ragnar leads Athelstan and Bjorn into the forest on a bee hunt. By evening they return to the farm, tired and muddy, and place the heavy skep in a sheltered corner of the vegetable garden.
A couple of days later Ragnar announces that he intends to take Bjorn along to the great spring thing at Kattegat, and soon enough the pair of them are off.
On the farm, life is quiet - Lagertha takes Gyda and Athelstan along to the nearby river, teaching the both of them the trick of standing still in the shallow water, spear in hand, until a fish swims by. That night, they cook their catch for supper, and after, all three of them fall into the large bed like a pile of puppies.
The next day Athelstan is weeding in the vegetable garden, enjoying the quiet buzzing of the bees, when a scream shatters the midday calm. He gets to his feet in time to see two men run from the house, stumbling and clutching at their faces. Then Lagertha appears in the door opening. In her hand is one of the great meat hooks.
"We do not speak of this to Ragnar."
"But..." is as far as he gets, then she is in front of him, the point of the hook digging into his cheek - not hard enough to draw blood, but certainly hard enough to make it clear that she easily could.
"We do not speak of this to Ragnar. Understood?"
"Yes. Yes, my lady."
"Good. Now get this cleaned," and he finds himself standing with the bloody hook in his hands.
That evening, as Lagertha watches, he takes his furs from the bed. For a moment, it looks as if she's about to speak, but then she turns her back, and so he beds down on the bench by the hearth.
A few days later, Ragnar and Bjorn return from the thing, accompanied by Rollo. Bjorn is strutting like a cock, showing off his new arm ring to an admiring Gyda.
Ragnar greets his wife by seizing her in his arms and carrying her laughing into the house, leaving Athelstan alone with Rollo and the children.
"Do you think they will be long?" the other man asks as he settles on the ground.
"I wouldn't know," he says, blushing at the lie - he knows quite well they probably will.
"If you say so," Rollo snorts. "Well, then, get me some ale while I wait," and Athelstan gratefully takes the opportunity to leave - fortunately, there is a spare keg and some wooden drinking bowls in the shed, so he doesn't have to go into the house.
Alas, when he brings Rollo the cup, the man pats the ground next to him, "Come, sit with me," and, when Athelstan hesitates, he tugs him down. It's a miracle that he doesn't drop the full bowl of ale on the other man.
"My brother tells me that you are from England."
"And that you have been telling him of its wonders - how kings and lords fill the temples of your god Christ with silver and gold, but never bother to leave guards there for its safekeeping."
Rollo laughs and claps Athelstan on the back, heavy enough that Athelstan bends nearly double.
"Then we shall soon be rich men," and he lies back on the ground, putting aside the empty bowl. "Wake me when they're done."
Athelstan is left sitting there, staring out at the waters of the fjord. The sun is warm, but, somehow, he finds that he's freezing.
In the evening, Lagertha is frowning at her husband.
"What do you mean, not exactly?"
"I mean that the Earl will be sending his ships east - as always."
"But you said that he had agreed to let you sail west - to England."
"He did, but not in his ships - he won't risk them on the open ocean. But I am free to go west if I can find a ship of my own to do it in and a crew that's willing to join me - mad enough, was how Haraldson put it."
"And can you?"
"Floki is building a new boat as we speak. It will be ready soon enough. And as for crew, well - " and he looks at Rollo.
"Erik will come and Torstein. Leif and Arne. Maybe Cnut. Probably Guthrun the shieldmaiden - and others. We are not the only ones longing for new lands, new glory."
"And you, Rollo - will you go west with me, to see these new lands..."
"...and their treasures," but Athelstan hears no more. He has made his escape from the house, unable to bear listening any longer.
That night he sleeps in the barn.
Athelstan is sitting in the corner of the garden, working on a new skep. From time to time, a particularly inquisitive bee will buzz around him for a few moments before deciding that he is not a flower after all. Occasionally, he will look up.
On the horizon, dark clouds are gathering.
"You cannot put a slave above me!" comes Bjorn's strident voice from the other side of the fence. "I am a man now."
"I am not going to put him above you, I will leave him in charge of the house. Besides, your sister doesn't mind, and with her mother gone, she is the one who would be entitled to wear the keys, not you."
"But..." but Ragnar interrupts before his son can offer a new argument in his favour.
"In any case, if I left you in charge, what, then, in two or three years' time, when you're big enough to go on raids with us and your sister still too small to manage on her own? Do you expect your mother to stay behind in your place to run the farm? Or your uncle Rollo? Me?"
"No. We shall need a bryti then, and a wise man might well start planning for that."
"But Mouse can't run the farm! I know more about it than he does."
"Which is why I will expect you to help him this summer, you and Gyda both. He is a clever one, even if he is a slave - I am sure he will learn quickly. Besides, I want to show him that I appreciate him - if not for him, I doubt Earl Haraldson would have consented to allow us to go west this summer, and..."
The summer's first thundercrack drowns out the rest of Ragnar's words and once it has passed, the pair of them have passed beyond Athelstan's hearing, leaving him sitting frozen in the garden. Eventually, he climbs to his feet and - not quite aware of what he's doing - he starts to walk, arms wrapped tightly around himself.
Through the garden.
Across the yard.
Towards the forest.
"Mouse!" Lagertha calls from the doorway, no doubt having some task for him in mind.
He starts to run.
Fat drops of rain start falling as, behind him, voices calling a name that is not his grow fainter. He runs, crashing through the forest, tripping over roots and rocks, scratching himself against brambles and low-hanging branches.
He runs, soaked from the torrential rain, occasionally blinded by a flash of lightning.
Eventually, the thunderstorm passes.
Eventually, Athelstan slows down and then stops, panting and terrified of what it's slowly dawning on him that he's done.
And he knows what happens to runaways in these lands - and he has no doubt that he'll be caught. Ragnar is a skilled hunter and he has hounds - and Athelstan knows all too well that he doesn't have the skills to hide in the forest. The only reason no one found him the previous summer was that nobody ever thought to look. Worse still, there's nowhere he can go - anywhere he might go, they'd take one look at his short hair and the metal collar around his neck and know him for a slave - and either they would keep him or they'd return him to Ragnar.
Slowly, he starts walking - picking a direction at random, because the forest is wet and cold and night is falling.
It is not until he stops and raises his head to see the cabin lying in front of him, bathed in moonlight, that he realizes that his feet have carried him along a familiar path.
That's where Ragnar finds him the next day, sitting on the bench inside, arms wrapped around his knees, head bent, eyes closed. He does not open them nor does he stir when Ragnar sinks down next to him.
"So, a runaway, then?"
Next to him, Ragnar sighs, then reaches out.
For the first time, the feel of Ragnar's hand wrapping around the back of Athelstan's neck does not make him feel safe, does not calm him. Instead, it makes him feel like property. It makes him feel owned.
It makes him feel miserable.
How could he have been so blind? How had he not seen? Except - except he had seen. Had seen Ragnar, huge and muscular, his scars - scars that Athelstan had traced, one by one, with his lips and tongue more than once - so clearly not acquired through working the land. Had seen the axe that Ragnar never left the house without, that even now is pressing against his thigh. Had seen both Ragnar and Lagertha training the children to fight. Had head Klur as he'd mentioned how he and his family had been taken on a raid.
Everything had been right there for him to see. He had known.
But all he had allowed himself to see was his Samaritan.
Oh, but there are none so blind as those who will not see.
And what he sees now, as he lifts his head to look at Ragnar, is a warrior. A heathen raider like Attila the Hun in ages past, intent on pillaging Christendom of all its treasures. And he, Athelstan, has been the one to show him the way.
"Why did you run away?"
He shakes his head, silent - he doubts that Ragnar would even begin to understand if he tried to explain.
"I thought you were happy with us?"
"I was. I am - I...", but his words have abandoned him.
"Do I beat you?"
"Then why, Athelstan?"
But still he cannot make himself talk.
"Lagertha told me about your visitors - and about threatening you with a meat hook. Is that why you ran? She would not have hurt you. It is just, when your heart is still pounding from a fight, sometimes you do not think very clearly - but she would never have hurt you."
"She could have," and he's surprised at how small his voice sounds. "I'm your slave. Legally, she could have beaten me to death."
"But she wouldn't. Lagertha would never do such a thing. Not to you," and Athelstan lets himself follow when Ragnar tugs at him, lets himself be guided until they sit face to face, forehead leaning against forehead. "And neither would I."
"But you could."
"Because you are my slave - is that what this is about?" and Ragnar sounds happy to have struck upon an answer that makes sense to him - too happy for Athelstan to bear to gainsay him. "Silly Mouse. It's not as if you will stay my slave forever."
"It is a foolish master who does not give his slaves a chance to earn their own price, to pay for their frelsis-öl - and a foolish slave if he can't. And you are not stupid - I was thinking, about your bees, that I might let you keep the honey, to sell. If it is as useful a method as you've been telling me all winter, I'd say it might be just a year or two before you've gathered enough silver to get rid of this collar and be a freedman yourself."
"But I'd still be yours."
"Of course you will," and Ragnar doesn't seem to have heard the bitterness in his voice. "You're part of my household, that won't change. You needn't worry about that. Now, up you go," and he rises, dragging Athelstan to his feet. "It's already well past time for us to be back. Lagertha will worry."
And just like that, he starts to walk.
"Yes?" and he stops, turns to look back at Athelstan.
"I ran away."
"So you did."
"Am I - am I not going to be punished?" and he hates himself for asking, but he cannot bear not to - cannot bear not knowing.
Ragnar tilts his head, considering. Then he moves, startlingly swift, drawing a knife and grasping hold of Athelstan in one gliding motion. The sharp edge of the blade comes to rest against the back of his ear.
"Like so, you mean?" and Athelstan forces himself to hold still and not beg - begging will just make everything worse.
Then Ragnar lets go of him.
"I don't think so. Just this once - no. But if you ever run away from me again..."
He leaves the threat hanging, unspoken, as he turns and starts to walk back towards the farm.
A moment later, Athelstan follows.
They make it back to the farm just after sunset.
That evening, when Ragnar announces that it's time for bed, Athelstan moves to the bench with his furs.
"What are you doing, Mouse?"
"Going to bed - sir."
"Why are you planning to sleep on the bench?"
"It is not winter anymore."
"Don't be silly. Now, come to bed."
"Mouse, I am tired and I do not have any more patience for you today. Come to bed. Now."
And Athelstan obeys, bows his head and slides under the furs to lie on his back, next to Ragnar.
He has almost fallen asleep, when a hand slides down his thigh, making a lie of Ragnar's claims of weariness. And the madness of it is, even now - even now a part of him wants this, wants - craves Ragnar's touch,
to touch him in return. Even now.
He forces himself to lie still - "Mouse?" - and to be quiet. Eventually, Ragnar moves his hand away, grumbling under his breath, "Go to sleep, then," before turning to his wife.
The next evening, when Athelstan places his furs on the bench, Ragnar watches, but says nothing.
They leave one bright summer day.
Lagertha pauses, leans close enough to not be overheard: "If any harm comes to my children - if I come back and find that you left them - I will rip the lungs from your body, slave."
Then she starts walking, already stolen from view by the shield on her back.
"Ragnar, don't do this," he tries one last time - not even sure himself if he's asking the man not to go on his raid or simply asking not to be left in charge while the man is pillaging in England. Ragnar seems to think the latter.
"Settle down, Mouse. The land is quiet and we go raiding with the Earl's permission - I doubt there'll be any trouble. And if trouble does come, I do not expect you to fight, I expect you to take my children and run - you know the way to the cabin and Bjorn knows the way to Floki the boatbuilder's house. You will be safe there."
He leans down to press a kiss against Athelstan's forehead, then turns to follow his wife and his brother.
The summer days seem endless.
Athelstan works, tending the house, the garden, his bees. He helps Gyda with her goats, helps Bjorn with chopping firewood. One otherwise lazy summer day is interrupted by the bees deciding to swarm and ends with two skeps standing in opposite corners of the garden, buzzing with life.
In the evenings, when the children have been sent to bed - despite Bjorn's protest - he prays. Kneels by the bench and whispers prayers, Our Father and Hail Mary and more besides. Begs forgiveness for all his wickedness, for all his sins.
He never feels forgiven.
And then - some days after the sommer solstice - Rollo and Lagertha arrive in a small fishing boat, laughing at the excitement of the children, giving in to demands for news. Had the raid been succesfull? Did they find England?
"Mouse," Lagertha calls, "come help unload this boat."
As he works, he dares to ask Rollo, "Where's Ragnar?"
"My brother had business in Kattegat. He said to bring you back with me, that he'll be wanting company on the road home afterwards."
They set out early the next morning, Athelstan doing the best he can to stay out of Rollo's way as the man rows the boat out on the open water, then clambers about setting the sail.
"Is it far to Kattegat?" he finally asks, when Rollo has settled himself down by the rudder.
"It is in the fjord just south of this one. We should be there before nightfall."
As the sun rises towards its zenith, Rollo becomes more chatty.
"It is a strange place, this England. We saw several temples and yet - there were no women. Just priests. Have they no priestesses in England?"
"They have nuns. They are - a sort of priestess."
"Do they hide them under the floors, then? Because I'm telling you, unless English women are very much unlike others, I did not see a single priestess."
"They - nuns and monks - priests - they do not share temples. They keep apart."
"Why ever would they do that."
"To avoid temptation."
"Christian priests - and priestesses - they swear chastity."
"What is - chastity?" and Rollo frowns at the unfamiliar word.
"It - they swear before God not to have sex." Sometimes Athelstan truly hates the bluntness of the Norse tongue.
"No sex?!" Rollo laughs. "What sort of a fool must your English god be, if he thinks people will actually keep such a vow?"
"It is a sacrifice," Athelstan finds himself insisting. "When a monk or a nun takes their vows, they swear obedience, chastity and poverty - so that they may dedicate their lives to God."
"Well, obedience sounds promising enough, since my brother insisted on filling our ship with a gaggle of those silly priests - if they're really so obedient, they'll make fine slaves. But poverty? Those temples were full of treasure. Clearly that's not a vow they keep - then why would they keep any other oath? Clearly, Christians are not men of honour."
"That's not..." but Athelstan stops himself. Perhaps if he had been talking with Ragnar - but Rollo is an unfamiliar hazard, for all that he seems friendly enough just now.
"My brother tells me that you are a priest of this English god," and Rollo ties the rudder in place and comes to sit next to Athelstan. The boat is narrow and their shoulders do more than just brush.
"And are you - chaste?" and Rollo's big hand settles on his thigh, rubbing slowly back and forth.
Athelstan's heart is pounding as he forces himself not to cringe, not to move - closing his eyes and praying to God to let this be over fast.
Rollo's hand stops rubbing, curls around his knee.
Athelstan doesn't answer. It will be worse if he answers. It was always worse...
"Mouse, calm yourself," and Rollo stands, fast enough that the boat rocks. Athelstan opens his eyes, blinking against the glare of the sun, and watches him settle back down by the rudder.
"I don't understand."
"Understand what? I know you are my brother's ergi - I thought it would be a pleasant way to pass the time. But I am not stupid enough to rape a member of my brother's household - slave or not, Lagertha would have my balls when she found out. We shall just have to find some other way to keep ourselves entertained."
"How?" Athelstan asks, quietly, not entirely convinced that Rollo's abandoned his pursuit quite so easily.
"Well, you could tell me some more about these English priests - in fact, there's one thing that puzzled me. In one of the temples there was a chest, decorated with gold and gems. We didn't get it open until we were back at sea. Can you guess what we found inside?"
Athelstan has his suspicions, but he keeps quiet.
"A hand. A shrivelled up old hand, all black and disgusting."
"What did you do with it?"
"I threw it overboard, of course. It was just a hand. Was it not?"
"It was - it was a relic. To a Christian - to the English, it would have been worth more than the chest you found it in."
"That explains why the captives got so upset. Well, now it is a sacrifice to Ægir and Ran. But whose hand was it, then, if it's so precious? Is it your god's hand?"
"No. No, it would have belonged to a saint - a very holy man. Though I can't say which one - perhaps if I could examine the chest, I could..."
"Do you mean to say that other temples keep hands around too?" Rollo grimaces in disgust.
"Not all relics are hands."
"You are a strange folk, you English. Your priests are poor, yet rich as dwarves. They are not allowed to have sex, so instead they spend their time worshipping chopped-off body parts."
"That's not how it is at all," Athelstan tries, but Rollo laughs at him.
"You'd do better to forget that god - clearly, he's weak. He can't even protect his own temples. You should pick one of our gods - perhaps Freyr, perhaps he'd suit you better. He certainly doesn't require his priests to be - chaste."
Athelstan blushes and looks away from Rollo's smirk.
"Changed your mind, Mouse?"
"Pity. Oh well - be sure to let me know if you do."
For a man who has walked the streets of London - or just the streets of Dorestad and Hedeby - Kattegat is not a particularly impressive sight.
For a man who has not seen more than a farm these last couple of years, Kattegat is overwhelming.
Rollo leads him through the streets, a firm grasp on one of Athelstan's arms, until they find themselves at a small house somewhat outside the town's center. Inside, Ragnar rises to greet them, his blue eyes gleaming with barely contained pleasure as he drags Athelstan to him and kisses him.
"You've brought me good luck, little Mouse. Such riches we've brought home with us! Look, this is mine and Lagertha and Rollo's share," and he makes a sweeping gesture at a pile of loot, silver gleaming in the light of tallow candles, a pile of coins and bits in a single gold bowl set with gems.
On top of the pile lies a tiny crucifix, barely larger than one of the coins, the Saviour twisting in pain as he suffers for the sins of mankind.
For Athelstan's sins.
He has reached out to caress the tiny silver form before he's barely aware of doing so.
"Do you like it?" Ragnar takes the crucifix away from him, frowning at the form of Christ - what does he make of it, Athelstan wonders - before hanging it around Athelstan's neck. "Then it's yours. A gift."
Athelstan blinks, wraps his hand around the crucifix and bows his head.
"Thank you, my lord. I - thank you."
But when Ragnar beckons him that night, naked and smiling, wanting him to share his bed - Athelstan still does not come. He can't.
In the morning, Ragnar takes him walking.
"I have need of a new swineherder. Klur is getting too old - and anyway, he's too clumsy. Not a year goes by without that man twisting his ankle or breaking his arm," and they turn the corner and arrive at the slave enclosure.
He knew that they had taken monks captive - to sell as slaves. He knew that.
But he wasn't prepared for it.
A small group of men are huddling close together at one end of the enclosure, brown robes and shaven heads.
"I have business with the Earl. While I'm gone, I want you to go and talk with them - find me one that will make a halfway decent swineherder, there's a good Mouse," and before he even has time to voice a protest, Athelstan is left alone, standing there.
He finds that he cannot move - that he cannot make himself walk up to the enclosure and address these men. He cannot bear even the thought of facing them, these monks - who would not be here if not for him. But he has no choice. Ragnar will be back soon enough and if he finds Athelstan still standing here...
He hides the crucifix under his tunic, then takes a deep breath and approaches. As he draws close and faces turn to look at him, he crosses himself.
Hands reach out for him, not grabbing, just - touching. Voices speaking a language he has not heard in far too long, asking questions, seeking reassurances amidst an unknown fate.
"I am a slave," he tells them. "I am Brother Athelstan. I was sent on a mission to the North, to convert the heathens, and I was shipwrecked and I was made a slave."
Most of the captives are young and hardy - there are several young monks, muscled from hard work, and a couple of novices, as well. Most of the captives...
"My master wants to buy one of you, to work on his farm. He is - he is not a cruel master."
Among the monks is one older man, wrinkled and bent. For the life of him, Athelstan can't imagine what Ragnar must have been thinking to carry him away. How did he even survive the crossing?
"This is Brother Aldhelm," one of the novices whisper. "He tended the herbal garden at Lindisfarne. When a Brother fell ill with fever, he would tend him. We worry for him. The rest of us, we will survive if God wills it, but Brother Aldhelm is old."
Ragnar returns, demanding to hear Athelstan's decision. Athelstan leads him to Brother Aldhelm, Ragnar frowns.
"Mouse. I told you to pick me a swineherder. That man is so old he'd barely be able to slop and water the pigs, let alone follow them into the woods. Stop this foolishness and show me the one you've actually picked. I'm not in the mood for jokes today."
And Athelstan bends his neck and, at his gesture, one of the young monks steps forward, looking nervously at Ragnar.
"His name is Dunstan. He used to tend the monastery's sheep."
Ragnar steps forward, grasps the rope around Brother Dunstan's neck and pulls him towards him, studying him like he would any beast he was considering for purchase. Finally, he nods, drops the rope and walks away from the enclosure - past Athelstan, who gets a pat on the head - and towards the house next to the enclosure.
"Svein, you lazy bastard. Leave your bedslave be and come out here," he bellows. "I want to buy a slave and I don't have all day."
A little while later, the man comes strolling out the door, deliberately slow.
"That one," and Ragnar points at Dunstan.
"And have you brought silver?"
"Yes," and from his belt pouch Ragnar takes what Athelstan recognizes as having once decorated the cover of a book - probably a corner.
"Let me get the scales," and soon the two are bent over the scales, weighing the silver piece.
"Well, that's some 30 aurar. That's more than you need - cut off a couple of those corners, I think that'll do it."
Ragnar pulls his knife, then stops.
"Seems a shame, though - it's a fine piece. It might make some woman a fine piece of jewelry, don't you think?" and he turns the silver in front of Svein's face, showing it off. "Tell you what - how about you take the entire piece and in return you give me. Hmmm. That one - the old man."
"The slave trader pays 20 aurar of silver for each slave. Why should I let you take one for less?" but Svein can't take his eyes off the silver.
"He won't pay you 20 aurar for that one. He won't even pay you a measly ôrtug and you know it. That man is far too old to survive the journey to the south - there'll be no profit in it for a slave trader."
They haggle for a while, but in the end, Ragnar returns to Athelstan's side with two slaves trailing behind, the old man leaning on the younger. Ragnar hands their leashes to Athelstan.
"Take them to the smithy - the one we passed on the way here. Tell the blacksmith I want them collared, then wait for me there," and he leaves again. This time, it is almost worse - to stand here, holding the ropes of his fellow Christians.
As he finally turns to lead the monks away, his limbs like lead, he catches a glimpse of Svein staring at him. The look in the man's eyes makes Athelstan momentarily forget all shame at his position as he hurries in among the houses, as fast as old Brother Aldhelm can stumble along.
The blacksmith is easily found and the man works fast and efficiently. Soon, three collared slaves sit in a corner of the smithy, waiting. When Ragnar shows up, Athelstan is the first to rise, telling the other two to do likewise, except Ragnar gestures at them to stay where they are and, grabbing Athelstan around the neck, he drags him over to where the smith is bent over his forge.
"I have one more task for you today, Blacksmith."
"Now, what am I to do with that slave?" Ragnar complains over supper. "He's so old, I doubt he'll even manage the walk to my farm."
The slave in question is sitting in the corner of the house, as near the hearth as Athelstan and Dunstan could manage to put him. Dunstan is sitting next to him and the pair of them are sharing a bowl of the stew Athelstan has cooked for supper.
Athelstan himself is sitting at the table, keeping quiet to avoid attracting Ragnar's attention. Sometimes, he finds his hand reaching up to rub at his neck of its own accord, unused to not having to push fingers under cold metal.
"Leave him here, then," Rollo interrupts his brother's grumbling
"I could use the company. Besides, he's not as decrepit as all that. I could use someone to keep this house. I doubt he's too old to sweep the floor and pour me ale."
"And how much use do you think he'll really be? You'll order him to fetch some cheese and he won't even know what you're saying."
"You're not leaving until the day after tomorrow - I'm sure your Mouse can teach my new slave a handful of words before then."
Ragnar snorts - but nods.
"Very well, then. If you want the old man, he's all yours."
Autumn clothes the land in red and gold.
On the farm, Dunstan settles in surprisingly quickly. He has been handed over to Krul, to be taught to tend the pigs, and soon enough, despite not knowing much Norse, he has become fast friends with the younger Vuk. Sometimes, Athelstan will turn a corner and catch them laughing at one thing or another.
Athelstan, on the other hand, sometimes feels like he doesn't belong here - which is ridiculous. It's been nearly a year since Ragnar found him in the forest, and yet he feels less at home here now than he did for those first few months.
Ragnar has stopped inviting him into his bed. In the evenings, he will sit next to Athelstan, watch him spinning and demand that he tell him what this word or that is in English, carry on short conversations of a nature that leaves Athelstan precious little doubt as to what Ragnar's purpose is.
At night, Athelstan prays for forgiveness. Sometimes, in the dark, he wonders what he has done, that God has chosen to make him the tool for unleashing these heathens on the lands of the Christians.
All in all, life goes on - but not as happily as once upon a time.
Then, one day, as Ragnar is away hunting and Athelstan is helping Lagertha with dinner, he hears screams, the shrill whinnying of horses. And then Bjorn comes rushing in, panic in his eyes, looking more the boy than the man he claims to be.
And all Athelstan can think, through the haze of rising panic and nausea, is Not again. Oh, please, Lord, not again.
He is jolted out of it by Lagertha's voice - "Athelstan!" - and by the sight of her holding out an axe for him to take.
They hide inside the house - Athelstan, Lagertha and the children. Outside, screams rise and are cut off, abruptly - again and again, until there are no more screams.
Then Ragnar comes bursting in, covered in blood both his own and his enemies', and has Lagertha lead them out, climbing through a hatch in the floor. Athelstan goes last, sliding down, and Ragnar reaches out to pat his shoulder - "Quickly, now" - before closing the hatch.
For a moment, Athelstan almost panics again at the thought of Ragnar not following. Then Bjorn's hissed "Hurry up, Mouse," reminds him that he has no time to spare for such things.
Lagertha leads them - crouching behind fences and sneaking behind trees, down towards one of the fishing boats. Behind them, he can hear a raised voice, unfamiliar but authoritative, telling Ragnar that he is worthy only of defeat and death. Then they are pushing the boat out in the water, climbing aboard and lying down to hide.
From the shore comes the sound of screams, angry shouts, and Athelstan thinks they've been spotted, thinks the men will come for them, bloody swords raised to finish their business.
But they don't.
From the shore the smell of smoke reaches them.
A noise from Bjorn makes him look up. High on a cliff, almost directly above them, is Ragnar. Then he falls, plummeting through the air and into the deep, cold water of the fjord.
Before he's even had time to consciously decide to do so, Athelstan leaps, following Ragnar down into the water, down as far as his legs can kick him, wrapping his arms around the heavy body. Ragnar doesn't move as Athelstan drags them towards the surface, a dead-weight of leather and metal in his arms, and he has time to think that he cannot make it, that he isn't strong enough, before finally - finally - breaking the surface - gasping for breath even as Lagertha's hands reach down to drag Ragnar up into the boat.
Athelstan follows, clambering aboard as best he can.
"Tear a piece off your tunic, Mouse, and sit down and hold it against that wound," Lagertha says, grabbing the oars and starting to row.
"Where are we going to go, Mother?" Gyda asks, her voice very small from where she crouches by her father's head.
"To Floki's house. He is a healer, and I doubt the Earl knows where his house lies. We'll be safe there."
The first couple of days at Floki's house are a time of endless worry.
They clean Ragnar's wounds with fire and bind them. Once there is nothing more to be done for him, Floki cooks onion soup for their supper. Between them, he and Lagertha manage to pour some of the strong-smelling soup down the unconscious Ragnar's throat. Later that night, they remove the bloody bandages and Floki leans down to sniff the wound in Ragnar's side.
"Well, at least they didn't pierce his intestines," he finally says and begins to wrap the wound in clean linen. "Now there's nothing to do but wait."
And so they do.
Ragnar sleeps. The adults take turns watching over him. Every so often, Floki will attempt to pour some water or some soup down his throat.
A day passes. Then another.
That evening, Athelstan is sitting by his bedside, his fingers curled around the silver crucifix. He mutters prayers, voice low.
"What is that you're whispering?" and he looks up to see Floki staring at him. In the light of the fire, the man looks almost demonic. "Some spell?"
"It's a prayer. I'm praying. Nothing more."
"That sounds like no prayer I've ever heard. Which god are you praying to? Eir the healer?"
"No," and he shakes his head, tries to look away, but finds that he cannot break away from Floki's gaze. "No, I - I pray to Christ. The god of the English, I -"
"Christ? What use is that god? If it were his temples we raided this summer, then he can't be a very strong god - why waste prayers for healing on him? Unless," and Floki tilts his head, narrowing his eyes, "unless it is not healing you are praying for. Perhaps it is a spell and one of ill intent."
He rises, reaching for his knife, and Athelstan pales.
"No. It is not. I would never..."
"Leave my Mouse be, Floki."
Ragnar's voice is low and rough, but at the sound of it, relief washes through Athelstan, and not merely because Floki is distracted by it, as everybody turns to Ragnar, reassuring themselves that he is truly awake, that he will be well, fussing over him and bringing him water to drink. Soon enough, the man sinks back into sleep.
Athelstan is also nodding off, when he is startled awake by a hand curling around his shoulder.
"I will be keeping my eye on you, Christian."
Ragnar heals slowly.
For the first couple of weeks, he sleeps most of the time, wrapped in furs as the autumn winds howl outside the house like a pack of hungry wolves. Towards the end of that time, a warrior arrives, having walked through the marshes surrounding Floki's house, bringing news of Kattegat and the Earl. Soon enough, he leaves again.
The nights grow cold.
Floki's house is not large, not even as large as the house on Ragnar's farm was, and there are only two beds - one, which Floki shares with his woman, Helga, and a narrower one where Ragnar sleeps. Lagertha and the children have gathered most of the furs in a nest by the hearth and keep each other warm.
Athelstan sleeps by Ragnar's bed, so that he might at any time be ready, if the man needs him to fetch a drink of water or some soup from the pot on the hearth or if he needs anything done. It is cold, sleeping on the floor. Athelstan shivers, even wrapped in the fur that has fallen to him.
Outside, the first great autumn storm is howling, shaking the trees and crashing against the roof. They spent the evening running about, catching stray animals and locking them inside the shed, tying down loose objects. Now Athelstan lies awake, listening as Floki tells a story to the children, of a great eagle beating its wings to make the storm.
Eventually sleep claims him, but the howl of the wind pursues him still. In his dreams, he is back - back on the ship, deck bucking like a maddened horse beneath his feet, as the wind howls and the waves rise, high as mountains and black as hell itself.
"There! A light!"
A great jolt and a horrible, creaking, crunching sound, as if great jaws are closing around the ship. A wave comes crashing in from the side, dragging him with it, and his arm slams against one of the huge rocks sticking out of the sea like fangs in a hungry maw. Dragging him, pushing him, down, down beneath the surface.
Somehow, he manages to resurface, looking around, but the sea is dark and he cannot see - cannot see Brother Algar or Brother Raedbora. He tries to listen for them, but the night is cold and dark and full of noises, full of screams, and the waves are dragging him away, dragging him towards shore.
He crawls up on the sand, dragging himself, coughing up seawater as he goes. But even in the here and now of his dream, he knows that this is not safety, knows what is about to happen, knows...
Something shoves against his shoulder and he groans.
"Hey. This one's still alive!" and the boot pushes under his shoulder, rolling him onto his back. He blinks, gazing up at the dark form of a man holding a torch - and then the torch moves, and he can see the man's face.
It is Ragnar's face.
"Mouse." Something touches his face. "Athelstan, wake up."
He opens his eyes to see Ragnar's blue eyes staring down at him, and for a moment he thinks he's still in the dream, heart racing and panting for breath, except - except the floor is hard and cold beneath him and the autumn wind is no longer howling with the same ferocity as earlier and he is here, here and now, in Floki's house, and that beach was a long time ago and a long way away.
"Yes, Ragnar?" he finally manages.
"I need to piss."
"I'll get the pot," and he's shoving at his fur, already reaching for the old clay pot that they've been using while Ragnar has been bound to the bed.
"Forget the pot. I'm not that invalid. I want to go outside and piss like a man."
Ragnar leans heavily on Athelstan, so very heavily - for a moment, Athelstan wonders if he might break, but he doesn't. Together, they manage to stagger to the door and outside and around the nearest corner. Athelstan looks away while Ragnar tends to his business, making a satisfied noise.
The wind is cold. Northerly. It carries the promise - the threat - of winter.
They've barely managed to stumble back inside, before somebody reaches out and closes the door behind them.
"Fools, that's what you are, the pair of you," Floki growls. "You're lucky it wasn't Lagertha you woke. Back in bed."
Ragnar's eyes gleam with mischief, but he allows Athelstan to drag him back to the bed. As he begins to pack the furs around Ragnar, the man reaches out and grabs his wrist. Tugs.
"Get in," but Athelstan just blinks. "I'm freezing. If you share my bed, I'll be warm again faster."
"I'll jolt you. Your wounds are not healed enough," but the thought of sleeping in an actual bed next to another person - next to Ragnar, who will be warm soon enough - oh, but it is temptation.
"You won't jolt me. You are always so quiet."
"I wouldn't mean to, but in my sleep, I might..."
"No. You won't. I've been watching you some nights, and you never move."
"You've been watching me sleep?"
"Some nights, when the wounds hurt, well - it's not like there's much else to do. So yes, sometimes I've watched you. And you never move. Sometimes, it seems to me like you have nightmares - your face will move, you'll make little noises. But the rest of you? No tossing, no turning - nothing."
"You've been - watching me having nightmares?"
"Some nights, when I watched, you had nightmares - but all it took to soothe you was to reach out and touch you, stroke your hair. Now get in - this talking isn't making me any warmer."
Athelstan obeys, clambering awkwardly over Ragnar to get to the spot he's indicated. He does jolt him along the way, and Ragnar hisses, hand moving to the sore spot, and Athelstan almost bolts, but only almost. Instead, he carefully tugs the furs around the pair of them before settling down, facing away from Ragnar.
A hand reaches out to stroke his hair.
"Would you tell me? About your nightmares?"
Athelstan finds himself curling in on himself.
"No? What if I made you?"
"Please, I - why must you take everything?" and he hadn't planned to say that, he just - couldn't stop himself.
"When have I ever taken anything from you that you didn't let me take?" Ragnar demands, his voice an angry hiss. His fingers bite into Athelstan's shoulder and it hurts.
"That's not, I didn't mean - I miss England," and Athelstan's voice is very small and miserable.
There's a huff of warm breath against the back of neck, then the hand is back, sliding up under his tunic to rub in large circles on his back.
"It did not seem so very different from what we have here. Flatter, I suppose."
"I still miss it. I should - someday, I should very much like to go back."
"We don't always get what we want."
"And what did you want, that you didn't get?" and Athelstan can't keep the bitterness out of his voice.
"Well, I should have liked to have fucked you properly, just the once. To have you laid out beneath me, all eager and begging for it."
"Would that - is that the price?" The words don't want to come out, but still, he has to know. "If I let you..."
"Let me? Mouse, I said eager. Letting me? I suspect you'd have let me long ago, if I'd ever cared to press the matter. Besides, you're already well on your way to being a freedman, even if you haven't had your frelsis-öl yet. Would you have me treat a freed man as an ergi? What sort of a man do you think I am?"
"A Northman. A raider."
"That doesn't mean," but Ragnar stops himself, sighs, pulls his hand back. "Just go to sleep, Mouse."
The autumn wind keeps growing cold, bites like a wolf with fangs of ice, driving them to stay inside. Ragnar's temper flares, trapped in Floki's house, and Athelstan tries his level best to stay out of his way.
Then Torstein returns, bearing news of Rollo.
Suddenly, everything moves with dizzying speed. Floki leaves, only to return a couple of days later, bringing news that the Earl has accepted Ragnar's challenge, that a day has been set for the holmgang, eight days hence.
Athelstan would have vastly preferred to stay at Floki's house with Helga. He has few doubts as to what will happen to him if Ragnar dies. But they bring him along when they set out.
"You worry too much, Christian," Floki comments, resting his chin on Athelstan's shoulder. "Ragnar is a good fighter."
"He's not healed yet."
"And the Earl is no longer as young as he was. But worrying is of no use to Ragnar. When we arrive in Kattegat, I shall go find us a pair of chickens, and we can each of us make a sacrifice for his good fortune in battle, yes?"
There is something almost like a peace-offering in Floki's words. Athelstan decides it might be wise not to mention that God does not usually require such sacrifices.
They pull the boat up on a beach a little north of Kattegat and make camp.
"Come along, Christian," and Floki starts to walk. Athelstan glances at Ragnar, who makes a shooing motion, then he half runs to catch up with the lanky man.
"Why aren't they coming?"
"Ragnar can't show his face in Kattegat until the holmgang tomorrow - but there are the last details to settle first, and I could use the company. Besides, we've got those chickens to sacrifice, remember?"
Faces turn to follow them as they walk through the streets of Kattegat. Svein is waiting outside the Earl's hall and Floki walks up to talk to him.
Rollo is also there, sitting on a bench, his face covered in angry, red lines - wounds barely beginning to heal. Athelstan winces at the sight, but Rollo waves him closer.
"Don't they hurt?" Athelstan blurts out before managing to stop himself.
"Not much. I've had worse," and he pulls Athelstan down next to him. They sit in companionable silence watching Svein and Floki argue, snatches of their conversation reaching them from time to time. There's something entrancing about the sight of Floki's gesticulation.
Eventually, Floki comes wandering over to them.
"Well, that settles that. Are we staying at your house for the night, Rollo?"
As the three of them pass Svein, he turns and looks at them.
"The pair of you would do well to remember that a holmgang's truce ends with the holmgang - and I don't think Earl Haraldson will appreciate having the friends and family of a traitor around."
"We'll be sure to remember that," Floki says, not slowing.
"Oh, and Hreim - I thought you should know, I've asked the Earl if I might have you after the holmgang. I imagine I will have a very fine time finding out if that name suits you as well as I think."
Athelstan stumbles, but is grasped by strong hands from both sides and almost carried away from Svein and his laughter.
"Whatever made Ragnar bring Mouse here? He could have left him at your house."
"I don't understand," Athelstan manages, feeling colder than the autumn air should make him.
"The winner of the holmgang is entitled to all the loser's property," Floki says, squeezing Athelstan's left arm slightly, before turning to Rollo. "And he's brought Lagertha and the children, too."
Rollo growls, but at least it's not directed at Athelstan, which is good, because Athelstan finds himself not really there, not really listening to Floki and Rollo talk as they walk - instead, he's back in the small coastal village where he washed up, hurt and cringing as he is touched, his eventual buyer laughing at his seller's crude jests...
"Mouse?" and as he blinks, Floki's face comes back into focus. "I think it's time for us to go get those chickens, yes?"
"I don't - my God. We don't sacrifice animals to Him."
"Well, no wonder he can't be bothered to protect his own temples," and Floki slings an arm around Athelstan's shoulders. "Still, we shall go to the vi and I shall sacrifice a chicken to Ullr and one to this White Christ of yours - even if he is a foolish god who can't be bothered to protect his own temples, it can never hurt to show a little respect."
That night, when they return to Rollo's house, old Brother Aldhelm stares at the lines of chicken blood on Athelstan's face, lines painted by Floki's fingers as he made Athelstan pray. When he finally falls asleep, Athelstan can still feel the warmth of the long-since washed-off blood on his face.
Ragnar arrives before noon, limping as he walks along the docks. Athelstan feels his heart sinking as he looks at him. Even the man stopping to briefly squeeze his shoulder and tell him not to worry as he passes does nothing to help.
Then the Earl arrives, tall and fierce despite the gray in his hair.
And the duel starts.
Athelstan has never seen Ragnar fight before. He has seen him train - sometimes dancing around with wooden sticks with Bjorn and Gyda, sometimes clashing shield against shield with Lagertha - but he has never seen him fight.
The two men circle each other, weapons clashing, shields breaking apart. The noise of the crowd is overwhelming, and yet all Athelstan can hear is the sound of his own heartbeat, roaring in his ears, as he sees Ragnar clumsily dodge the Earl's blows and then not dodge, as the Earl's axe bites deep in the very spot that's barely healed from the arrow wound.
Blood drips onto the sand.
And then, just as Athelstan thinks all hope is lost, it is over.
The Earl is dead.
The silence is broken by Svein's voice, "Kill him," but nobody obeys. Rollo picks up an axe and walks forward, planting it in the short man's chest, and watches him topple, eyes abruptly vacant. As Rollo turns, he catches Athelstan staring, and for just a moment his scowl is - less like a scowl. Then a woman's voice is crying: "Hail, Earl Ragnar!"
And that's that.
Winter in Earl Ragnar's hall is - lonelier than winter at Ragnar Lothbrok's farm ever was.
It is not that Ragnar suddenly does not talk to him, it is simply - well, he is Earl now. There are many demands on his time, disputes to settle and raids to plan. Still, he takes the time to sit down with Athelstan almost every day to practice his English, asking how to say specific things - things like "Surrender." Things like "If you do not resist."
But the time Ragnar has for this practice is rarely long. Something always cuts it short.
Nor is it that Lagertha has no time for him, it is simply - she is the Earl's wife and has a large household to run. He tries to make himself useful to her, but the simple truth is that there are already plenty of slaves and servants - capable men and women who know where everything is kept and how to serve an Earl properly. There's little use for a simple farm slave - not that anybody is unkind or rude to him, oh no. Quite the contrary - he is the new Earl's favourite slave, the one who can be asked about likes and dislikes and who might just be the one who can draw their master's attention to various minor matters - but as for work for him to do? Sadly, there is none.
In the evenings, sometimes, Ragnar will stretch, rising from a game of hnefatafl, and hold out a hand. "It's cold tonight," he'll say, smiling, but though he wants to - oh, how he wants to - Athelstan cannot make himself take that hand, cannot let himself be drawn in. Instead, he will retreat to a bench and sleep wrapped in furs next to those of Ragnar's warriors who choose to spend their time in the hall rather than at their own farms as well as those who have no other place to stay.
Some nights, Floki sleeps by his side, a warm presence at his back after a long night of stories around the fire - but Floki's visits are rarely long, a day or two at most before he heads back out into the snow, skis on his feet as he makes his way back to his own house.
To his surprise, he finds himself more and more sitting down with Rollo - the man still scares him, a little, but at the same time, there is something - not safe, not exactly - uncomplicated about the huge man. He will snort in laughter when Athelstan tells the stories of the Bible and not pretend to understand. He will - from time to time - repeat the offer he made on the boat that summer - but he never seems troubled by Athelstan's rebuffs.
One day, many weeks past the solstice, he realizes that he cannot remember the last time Ragnar invited him to his bed. He tells himself that what he feels at the realization is relief.
Sometimes he thinks about asking if he might move into Rollo's house, to assist Brother Aldhelm - to be of use. But he hesitates - partly because, for reasons of his own, Rollo has offered shelter to the late Earl's widow, Siggy, and her daughter, and his house is not that large. Still, he visits - visits Brother Aldhelm, working at teaching the old man Norse, praying with him for the soul of poor, late Brother Dunstan and for the other monks, who were carried off into an uncertain future by the slave traders. But he finds that he can rarely make himself stay for long - he is still filled with shame at the thought that if not for him, Brother Aldhelm and Brother Dunstan would still be safe in faraway Lindisfarne. He longs to confess his sins - but not to Brother Aldhelm. He does not think he could bear it, if that old man stopped talking to him, upon learning of Athelstan's role in his misery.
But mostly, Athelstan spends his time alone.
"Will you help me, Mouse?" Gyda asks, looking up at him.
"Of course," and she takes his hand and leads him to a corner, where a loom stands.
"I am working on a gift for Father. A banner with the raven on," and Athelstan knows the raven she means, the one that Floki painted on Ragnar's head as soon as he was done tending the wounds from the holmgang. Later they had sat, with long needles and dye and a cloth to wipe away blood, and painted it again.
"But I started too late," she continues, gesturing at the red-and-black fabric on the loom. "I want to give it to him at the spring thing, so that he can take it on the summer raids with him. But I need help - will you help me?"
"Of course," he says again and doesn't mention all the women in Kattegat - slaves as well as free - who would be of more use as help than he, nor does he mention how far along Gyda's work already is, how little is truly left to do.
And if the winter days seem a little brighter after that, as he works with Gyda, well, that is a small thing.
"You always seem so sad these days," she says as they work. "Are you not happy with us anymore?"
"I am happy," he lies.
"You don't seem happy. Are you going to leave us?"
"I am your father's slave, Gyda - even if I wanted to leave, I could not."
"Father likes you. He wouldn't keep you if you were really unhappy with us. When Drumba the milkmaid fell in love with Kjallak's new shepherd, he traded her to Kjallak for three ewes. If there's somewhere else you'd rather be, he'd do the same for you, I'm sure."
She seems so very convinced that Athelstan doesn't have the heart to tell her that Ragnar has already turned him down, those several months ago at Floki's house when he spoke of missing England.
Finally, the snow melts.
Even before the spring thing, all of Kattegat is hard at work preparing for the summer raids. Craftsmen work hard, producing axes and swords, shields and spear. Floki arrives to prepare the ships. As the thing draws nearer, strangers appear, armed men and some women, lured by the rumours of the new Earl who sailed west and returned laden with riches.
When it is finally time for the thing, the hall can hardly contain them all.
Athelstan tries his best to avoid the thing - to avoid having to listen to Ragnar telling the assembled warriors of how they will go west, of how easy pickings the English are and how rich. When he can, he goes to Rollo's house and sits with Brother Aldhelm and prays with him for the deliverance of the English from these heathens. Alas, the prayers seem to have no effect.
On the last day of the thing, after Gyda has presented her father with her gift and been soundly thanked, Rollo stands and announces that he intends to marry Siggy Sigmundsdottir three days later - giving Kattegat barely enough time to prepare a wedding feast suitable for an Earl's brother and an Earl's widow.
The day after that, even the slaves stay in bed late nursing their hangovers.
As the snow melts and the world comes alive again after winter, Athelstan finds work for himself. This year, his skeps are still not an impressive sight, but they are serviceable enough.
It is a sunny day and he's sitting next to the skep he has placed in the corner of the vegetable garden by Rollo's house. The lady Siggy had frowned sceptically at him, when he had brought the humming contraption, but she had not sent him away. Admittedly, he suspects that's mostly because she has left most of the work in the garden to Brother Aldhelm and her daughter Thyri, and the young woman seems fascinated with the idea of keeping bees.
Athelstan is focused on making a new skep. Around him is the scent of fresh growth and dirt and honey. Occasionally, a particularly curious bee will dance around the unfinished skep in his hands as if it has mistaken it for its own home.
A touch makes him lift his head, startled, and the movement drags fingers through his hair. Ragnar crouches down in front of him and Athelstan finds himself starting to lean into the sensation of those fingers sliding, sliding through his hair.
"Your hair's getting long."
"I'm sorry," he says and starts to pull away. "I didn't - I'll get it cut."
"Don't. I like it this way. It suits you," and Ragnar's hand keeps petting him and the sun is warm and the world is deceptively calm. For a bit, Athelstan allows himself to enjoy it. It's not like it's going to last.
And it doesn't.
"We'll be sailing for England soon," Ragnar says, leaning back. Athelstan ducks his head at the reminder.
"We all wish you success," he manages, the words he's heard others speak, chief amongst them Lagertha, barely able to contain her frustration at being bound to home by her growing belly.
"Yes. And this time, it's going to be a proper raid. We've got three ships and each will be carrying some thirty warriors - and I've been thinking that we ought to do things properly and bring a freedman or two along on each ship, a matsveina to cook and suchlike. Instead of wasting free men on that sort of work, I mean."
Athelstan finds himself raising his head.
"To cook?" he manages, trying not to sound too interested. Too hopefull.
"Well, not on the actual crossing, of course. But once we make it to England, then yes - we'll probably be staying for a bit and there's always lots of work to be done around camp. And it occurred to me that you'd probably make a decent matsveina."
Athelstan's throat is suddenly dry as he stares at the man in front of him. England. Ragnar wants to take him to England. Except...
"But I am no freedman," and he lifts the sad beginning of the skep as if to underline his words. "I never managed to..."
"No," and Ragnar takes the skep from his hands and moves to sit at Athelstan's side. "But you saved my life last fall. Lagertha can't swim and Bjorn wouldn't have had the strength - if you hadn't dived in after me, I would have died."
Athelstan keeps quiet, eyes on the ground, unsure of what - if any - reply Ragnar is expecting.
"And now I am Earl. But men are measured on many things, and to be a great man, one should be generous - and I have been. I have rewarded my friends with places in my hird, I gave my brother a fine wedding feast - but you, Mouse?" and Ragnar cups his chin, makes him lift his head to face him. "I never did reward you and that shames me. So I wish to make you a freedman and I wish to take you along as a matsveina. Unless - unless you'd rather stay here in Kattegat with the old people?"
"No," Athelstan manages. "No, I'll - I'll gladly come with you."
"Good," and Ragnar's lips part in a grin and he pulls Athelstan forward to plant a firm kiss on his forehead. "Three days, I think - that should be enough time to get everything ready for your frelsis-öl."
Athelstan finds himself staring after Ragnar as he leaves. England. Ragnar is going to take him back to England, the England he at times thought he'd never see again. Ragnar is going to take him home.
"Athelstan" is drunk. At least, he's fairly certain that he's drunk. The ale was very strong and there had been - toasts. Yes, that's it. There had been toasts.
Which is probably why at first he thinks that he didn't actually just hear his name spoken out loud. Well, that and the fact that for these many months he has been "Mouse", Ragnar's slave, and he can count on one hand the number of times anybody's used his actual name.
All of which means that it's not until Ragnar repeats himself that Athelstan turns around, blinking at his mas...
Blinking at his Earl.
"Ragnar." The man so named smiles and Athelstan finds himself smiling back. For a moment he just stands, looking at Athelstan, but finally he takes a deep breath and reaches out a hand.
"Will you come to my bed, Athelstan?"
Athelstan wraps his arms around himself, suddenly cold, as he looks at Ragnar's hand and then up at the man's face. Then he swallows.
"Is that the price?" and his hand moves to his neck, fingers trying to wrap themselves around a collar that hasn't been there for months now. Because of course this wasn't going to be that easy, of course there would be a price - and if only Ragnar will keep his word, will take him to England, well...
"No," and if Ragnar looks a little hurt, well, his hand is still outstretched. "There is no price, Athelstan."
"An order, then."
Ragnar sighs, lowering his hand.
"No order. You are a freedman now, Athelstan. Nobody has the right to demand this of you, not even me. This is a request. An offer. Nothing more."
"Why? Why would you..."
"Perhaps I miss you," and Ragnar raises his hand, palm up and fingers stretched wide.
Athelstan finds himself staring at that hand as memories wash over him - memories of that hand stroking his naked skin, of feeling warm and safe in Ragnar's arms - and it occurs to him that Ragnar is not the only one to have missed this. Perhaps that is why he finds himself putting his hand in Ragnar's, why he lets himself be pulled into a kiss, into the sensation of Ragnar's smile pressed against his lips. Or perhaps it's the ale he's drunk tonight - he doesn't know and right now? Right now he doesn't care.
When the morning sun sneaks in through the holes in the roof and spots him waking to find himself in Ragnar's bed, Lagertha's snores a close and strangely comfortable sound - he finds that he still doesn't care. And yet, come nightfall, he still seeks his familiar place on the bench, and Ragnar watches and says nothing.
Athelstan has sailed before. He sailed from England to Dorestad and later, though he'd rather forget, he sailed from Hedeby. But those journeys were made on merchants' vessels, broad and heavy with cargo, cows compared to the sleek wolf that is Ragnar's ship.
He's basically been stowed like cargo, sitting at the foot of a mast as the warriors pull at the oars and Ragnar sits in the back, steering the ship out of the fjord and onto the open sea, vast and deep and dark. The wind freshens and great woollen sail is unfurled as the oars are pulled aboard.
And so begins Athelstan's journey home.
England is a world of green.
Athelstan can't stop himself staring as the riverbank drifts by, verdant and fresh, occasionally dotted by small, abandoned farms.
Even the air tastes different, or so it seems to him.
They pull the ships ashore at a tiny farm by a bend in the river. The only living thing they see is a lone sheep bleating of abandonment which soon finds itself turning on a spit, while the warriors begin the work of fortifying the camp. Meanwhile, Athelstan and his fellow matsveinar are fetching water from the farm's well, tending the roasting sheep and the large pots of porridge to feed the nearly hundred men - quite the change from the almost leisurely handing out of dried meat and fish and skins of water during the actual crossing.
That night Athelstan falls asleep on the ground between Ragnar and Rollo.
The next morning brings only more work - fires to tend, food to cook and animals - sheep, chickens, a single cow - rounded up by a group of impatient warriors who went foraging to slaughter. Still, Athelstan finds himself at times gazing - beyond the wooden palisade or at the other side of the river - gazing at England and wondering when he will get to - but so far he and the other freedmen have been instructed to stay in the camp. Armed foraging parties will bring firewood and fresh food. All they have to do is cook, safe behind the walls and the guards.
On the third day, they see their first humans since coming ashore - riders looking down at them from a nearby hill. Ragnar grins at the sight.
Athelstan is carrying water - a task he's quickly growing weary of - when a voice from behind one of the farm's hedges catches his attention.
"... should never have brought him along."
"Don't tell me you'd enjoy having to cook for yourself, Cnut. Personally, I think this is a very fine arrangement."
"Of course not," Cnut's voice replies. "I don't mean that he shouldn't have brought some freedmen along - though really, we'll be catching some slaves to do the work soon enough, so really, they are a waste of space. But no, what I mean is, Ragnar should not have brought that - that Christian along."
"And why not?" Guthrun's voice is easily recognizable among the men. "Athelstan is loyal to the Earl - why else would the Earl have freed him in the first place?"
"I don't know why the Earl does anything, but I know that it is foolish, taking a Christian along on raids in Christian lands. Just you wait and see - in a day or two he'll run away to the locals and tell them all about us and then Ragnar's raiding luck will run out."
"Don't be silly. Kauko still worships those skridfinn gods of his mother's and he's never hesitated once when we've raided skridfinn lands. Why should this Athelstan be any different? He is loyal to the Earl. Why, Rollo told me just the other day about how he - while still a simple slave - saved Ragnar's life, that that's the great service the Earl was referring to during the frelsis-öl. You just wait and see, Cnut - when those ships are put back in the river and we head home laden with treasure, that Christian is going to be sitting right there along with the rest of us."
Somehow, Athelstan manages to get back to the cooking fires without dropping the water buckets. Then he sinks down next to them and buries his face in his hands, ignoring his concerned fellow freedmen for the moment.
It has never occurred to him that Ragnar might not - that he might... that he might not be intending for Athelstan to stay in England. That he might - having walked this land and breathed its air, having been this close to his old life, the life he had thought lost forever - that he might be expected to meekly return to Kattegat and his life there.
He remembers standing by the mast as the ship pulled away from the pier, looking back at the people assembled to say goodbye - Lagertha standing proudly with her children - Gyda waving like a very short madman and Bjorn scowling - at her side, Brother Aldhelm leaning on Thyri, who had promised she'd take very good care of the bees in his absence. He remembers looking at all of them, trying to fix them in his memory, paint them like the margin of a manuscript, in vivid colour and bright gold to make them last, strong and sure. It had not occurred to him that he might see them again. Not then - and it had saddened him, certainly, and left him wracked with guilt in the case of Brother Aldhelm, and yet...
And yet apparently he was wrong. Apparently Ragnar has not brought him along to return him to his native land, but rather as a treat, a pat on the head before returning him to his work, such as it is these days.
Or - or perhaps they are wrong, those people. Perhaps Ragnar did bring him here to set him free - properly free. Surely he would not be so cruel as to take him all this way, only to... Surely. Surely he wouldn't. Ragnar isn't cruel, he's never cruel.
It occurs to Athelstan that he could just walk up to Ragnar where he's working at sharpening a wooden stake, that he could just walk up to him and ask. Or maybe wait until evening falls and they retire and fewer people are nearby to listen. He could just ask. Except...
Except what if Ragnar answers that Athelstan is expected to return?
Perhaps it will be better to wait? If Ragnar intends for him to stay, surely it will come up at some point before the time comes for the voyage home - and if he doesn't, well, if he doesn't - and Athelstan almost wants to run and hide from the mere act of thinking the thought, and yet he dares to think it, just this once - if he doesn't, then the best time to run will be once the boats are in the river and everybody is ready to leave.
But for right now - he'll wait. Besides, there's porridge to make.
Athelstan wakes in darkness. Around him is the noise of many people moving, the clang of weapons accidentally hitting against each other.
"Shhh - go back to sleep," Rollo says from somewhere close by. "There's no need for you to be awake."
"But what is happening?" Athelstan asks, sitting up and wrapping his arms around his legs, taking in the sight of people moving through the darkness. It seems as if the entire camp is awake.
"Just Ragnar. He's had men out locating the English soldiers' camp and now he wants us to attack it in the night."
"While they sleep."
"Yes. Like you should be," and Rollo turns to leave, adjusting his sword. "And don't worry - we're leaving guards behind to protect the camp."
Athelstan stays sitting, watching as the men leave the camp, straining eyes and ears until there's neither sight nor sound of them. Then he lies back down, but sleep does not come easy. In the quiet dark it is as if he can almost - almost - hear the sound of battle far away. The sound of screams cut short too soon. Lives cut short too soon.
And it's all his fault. If he hadn't told Ragnar of England, if he hadn't...
Somehow, impossibly, sleep claims him anyway.
The warriors return late in the afternoon. They hear them before they see them, a somewhat disorderly column of men coming out from the trees and into the sun, driving a small group of captives - soldiers if the gleaming armor is anything to go by - between them.
Behind the men come the riders and, as they get out on the open terrain, one of them - Ragnar - drives his mount into a gallop, covering the rest of the distance to the camp in no time at all. Behind him is another horse, its lead in Ragnar's hand, and on it sits a stranger - tall, dark of hair and with a proud look, for all that he is bound.
Ragnar's laughing as he dismounts and he reaches out to drag Athelstan into a hug even as he begins to recount the events of the day, bragging of a successful raid - while his prize captive is lead away.
Athelstan finds himself glancing over his shoulder at the man - at this "brother of the king" - and for a moment, just for a moment, he finds himself staring straight into Aethelwulf's eyes.
That night they feast on horse meat and leave the porridge to the captives.
In the morning, Ragnar pulls Athelstan aside.
"I want you to look after our captives."
"What do you mean?"
"I want you to be the one to bring them food and water, make sure they get a fire if the nights turn cold - that sort of thing. And while you're at it, I want you to listen to them - and try not to let them know that you know the language. Think you can do that?"
"Yes," he nods, though the thought of spying on his own countrymen like this makes him nervous.
"Good. Oh, and remember to leave your knife with the guard - we don't want any accidents."
Minding the captives is easy enough work - handing out food and water, collecting empty bowls and waterskins, passing out blankets come nightfall - these are all easy tasks. Persuading the guards of the necessity of allowing the captives a couple of daily visits to the latrine is also manageable, once Rollo overhears and comments pointedly on who might be most likely to be left cleaning the mess if they don't.
What is less easy is pretending not to be able to understand what the soldiers are saying to each other, to not take that extra step away from the one that was just telling his neighbour how easy it would be to "grab hold of him and break his neck, even with these ropes on," to keep his face still when a soldier accepts his bowl of porridge with a smile and a shower of the crudest insults he can think of spoken in a pleasant voice.
And always there is Aethelwulf, sitting a little apart from his men. Quiet. Watching. Always watching.
It's the second day after the successful raid and Ragnar has taken his most trusted men and ridden off to negotiate with King Aella. Athelstan is handing out bowls of cold porridge to the captives, trying his level best to ignore their comments.
"What is your name?"
Somehow, he manages not to answer that simple, direct question, manages not to react apart from blinking a time or two, then pushes the bowl into Aethelwulf's hands - but Aethelwulf lets the bowl slip into his lap, porridge oozing slowly over the side and lifts his hands to curl fingers around Athelstan's wrist, holding him in a loose grip.
"I know that you understand me. I've been watching you," and he lets go of Athelstan before he even has time to start panicking and trying to pull himself away. "You don't seem like one of these barbarians and I have seen the crucifix you wear hidden under your tunic. So tell me, who are you?"
Athelstan hesitates, glancing towards the guard to see if they've noticed his lingering, but finally he answers.
"I am Athelstan."
"An Englishman, then. Are you one of the captives the raiders took last year - from Lindisfarne and Hexham?"
"No, I - I was a missionary, sent to convert the heathens - except..."
"Except now you serve them instead."
Athelstan flushes and ducks his head, wraps his arms around himself.
"Life - doesn't always turn out the way you planned."
"So, you are a slave, then," and it's not a question and so Athelstan does not try to correct him. Besides, how great is the difference, truly, between being a slave and being a freedman? Either way he's not free.
Aethelwulf leans forward, lowering his voice.
"Help us escape."
"I - I don't..."
"It would be simple. All you need do is bring us something sharp - a small knife, perhaps - to cut our ropes. Perhaps, if you can get to them, take some weapons and hide them nearby. We can handle the rest - and then we can take you with us, away from these heathens. We can bring you home."
And there is something so very tempting in Aethelwulf's hushed, insistent words - the thought of home is a siren's call. But...
"They'd catch you again. They'd catch us."
"No, they wouldn't. I know these lands - well enough to escape even if we are pursued. And once we're at my brother's court, we will keep you safe. This I swear, on my honour - we will protect you from these barbarians."
Such temptation - it would be so easy to say yes, to smuggle a knife in under his tunic - except - except for all of Aethelwulf's confident assertion that he will easily avoid any pursuit, Athelstan still finds himself remembering Ragnar's voice, warning him not to run away from him again...
Abruptly, he backs away, shaking his head.
"Don't be foolish, Athelstan. Help us and we will protect you. King Aella will protect you."
"King Aella? King Aella cannot even protect his own brother - what makes you think he can protect me?" With that Athelstan turns, walking away rapidly, answering the frowning guard's question with a lie about an urgent need to visit the latrine. Once he manages to calm down a bit, he asks one of his fellow freedmen to go and collect the empty bowls from the captives.
He should tell Ragnar. Except Ragnar isn't here and Rollo isn't here and Floki isn't here. Except everyone he could actually tell has gone to negotiate with King Aella - and what would he have to tell, anyway? That the captives are planning an escape? Which requires that he smuggle them a knife?
Evening brings hungry warriors circling the pots, drawn by the smell of mutton.
The time to bring the captives their dinner comes and as usual, one of the other freedmen helps him carry the pot of porridge to where the guard stands. Then Athelstan turns to leave.
"Where are you going, Christian?"
"Olvir will be bringing the food to the captives today."
"I don't think so."
"What?" and he turns to look at the guard, puzzled - the man's voice sounds familiar, yet he cannot quite place it.
"The way I heard it was that the Earl wanted you to mind your fellow Christians, so that's what you'll do. You, Olvir, go back to your work, and as for you, Christian - get to work or I shall tell the Earl how you defied his orders," and he pushes Athelstan in the direction of the captives.
It occurs to him to stop and argue with the guard, except - except he knows that voice. That voice belongs to the man who had been so very convinced he'd run away at the first opportunity - Cnut, that was his name. Somehow, he doubts this man will be willing to listen to him. Better just to do this, to be done and then - Ragnar will be back soon. Probably sometime this very night. Ragnar will be back soon.
So he does not protest, just picks up the pot and the bowls and walk to where the captives sit. He hands out bowls and fills each with porridge, an already familiar task.
He approaches Aethelwulf last.
"Have you changed your mind, then?"
"No," and he shakes his head even as he holds out the bowl to the man.
"I am truly sorry to hear that," Aethelwulf replies, accepting the bowl and holding it out for porridge.
Athelstan dips the big ladle into the pot and then starts filling Aethelwulf's bowl - which suddenly slams into his face, blinding him with hot porridge and making him cry out from the sharp pain in his nose. Something - somebody? - slams into him, hands grasping at his belt, and suddenly he realizes that he's still carrying his knife - the small knife he's been allowed since his frelsis-öl - the knife he was supposed to leave with the guard. The knife he completely forgot about in his confusion.
He cries out, calls for help, but the man on top of him is already moving, dragging him up and holding the blade against his throat.
"Tell them to let me pass," Aethelwulf hisses into his ear.
Athelstan is blinking, trying to clear his eyes, and he can taste blood, salt and hot.
"Please. They won't listen to me. They won't let you," because here comes Cnut, axe drawn and ready to fight and - stops. Frowns at the sight before him.
"Tell him," Aethelwulf repeats, digs the knife in a little and Athelstan hisses at the pain. "Tell him to let me go or I will kill you."
"He says to let him go," Athelstan manages, trying in vain to get away from the knife, trying to prepare himself for what is inevitably is going to happen now - because why should Cnut care about the life of a single freedman? Why would anybody let a valuable hostage go just because he's threatening a freedman?
Except Cnut lowers his axe and there's something in his eyes that Athelstan cannot decipher as he moves aside, arms spread wide, allowing Aethelwulf the room he needs to move past, dragging Athelstan along with him, towards where a couple of horses are tethered. Once there, he lets go of Athelstan, but only for a moment - a strong fist slams into his face and if his nose wasn't broken before, it surely is now. He tries to fight as he's lifted, thrown across the back of the horse, but in vain - and then Aethelwulf mounts the animal too, driving it on as voices draw near, the sound of running feet, but it's too late, far too late to stop Aethelwulf escaping.
They pass the opening in the palisade at a gallop. Behind them, Athelstan almost thinks he can hear someone - Cnut? - shouting "the Christian is helping him escape," but no, that can't be right. He's not, he wouldn't.
He tries to get away from Aethelwulf at one point. Even manages to slide down the horse and start running - well, stumbling, for his landing was awkward - but he doesn't get far and soon he's back on the horse, his hands tied behind his back with a bit of the very same rope that Aethelwulf had been bound with just a few hours before.
The sun rises as they ride, miles vanishing beneath the hooves of the horse, until the animal's sweat soaks through Athelstan's clothes.
Finally they arrive at a small settlement - little more than a handful of houses around a stone tower, from which soldiers appear.
"I am Lord Aethelwulf," the man declares as he gets off the horse. Soon, soldiers are running to get him a new mount, to find horses for themselves to be an escort.
"And this man, my lord?" one soldier asks, poking at Athelstan.
"This man? This man is a traitor - a Christian who has been working with the heathen raiders. An apostate, no doubt. Once I'm gone, you can give him the justice a man like him deserves."
They chain him in a small room.
"What does one do with apostates?" one of the soldiers dragging him in there asks the other as they leave.
"Don't you know anything? You burn them, that's what you do with apostates. Give them an early taste of the fires of hell." Then the door closes behind him and Athelstan is left alone, cold and thirsty and oh so tired - and alone.
For a little while, Athelstan sleeps. When he wakes, sunlight is still seeping in through the small opening high up on the wall.
So, this is how he's going to die. It makes him want to cry, the thought that he has made it all the way back to England - that he has made it home - and now he's going to die.
He wonders, briefly, if there's any chance of rescue - a fantasy of Ragnar, his barbarian Samaritan, breaking down the door to free him from these chains - but reason prevails soon enough. He is miles from Ragnar, miles across unknown land, a captive behind strong walls, and anyway, why would anybody bother to try to rescue a single abducted freedman? Particularly one foolish enough to - however unwittingly - has helped a valuable hostage escape.
Outside, night falls, stealing what little light there was to be had in his cell.
The sound of the cell door opening drags him away from his thoughts of self-pity. He pushes himself up into a sitting position, trying to prepare himself for the soldiers who will now come and take him to his death.
In steps a monk.
The man is neither old nor young, dressed in a dark monk's habit. In his hands are a book and a candle - the light of the flame reflects off Athelstan's chains.
A soldier steps in behind the monk and puts down a stool.
"I'll be right outside, Father Aethelbert. If he tries anything, anything at all, you just call out and I'll handle it." Then the soldier leaves, closing the door behind him.
The monk - the abbot? - settles down on the stool and places the candle on the floor, then peers at Athelstan.
Athelstan doesn't answer - he's not sure he can speak, right now, for his throat is very dry - but he manages to sit up straighter.
"I am Father Aethelbert. The leader of this garrison sent for me, because he felt that even an apostate did not deserve to go to his death without being given a chance to confess his sins and repent."
"I am not," but he has to stop, swallow and wet his lips as best he can. "I am not an apostate. I am not. I am a monk - or I was, once."
The monk looks at him. His eyes seem sad.
"What is your name, my son?"
"Athelstan. Brother Athelstan."
"Brother Athelstan," and it's a sigh. "But Lord Aethelwulf found you working with the heathens, the raiders from overseas. Was he mistaken?"
"No. Yes. I - was not given much in the way of a choice."
"Were you one of the monks they abducted from Lindisfarne last year?"
"No, I - I have been in their lands for some years. It's - it's a long story."
"Would you tell me your story, Brother Athelstan."
"Yes. I - but could I have just a little water? Please?"
"Of course," and the man rises and knocks on the door, instructs the soldier to bring water. It comes in the form of a bucket with a long ladle, but Athelstan is grateful all the same. He drinks - and then, slowly at first, searching for the right words, he begins telling his tale.
He tells Father Aethelbert of the mission, of travelling to Dorestad with Brother Algar and Brother Raedbora and then along the rivers to the heathen trading town of Hedeby, of preaching to the heathens at the marketplace. He tells of the merchant who had invited them to travel with him to his home on some island called Holm.
He tells of the shipwreck and what came after.
He tells of being a slave, bought and sold and - and hurt. He tells of being taken north and put to work on Vermund's farm. He tells of the raid and of hiding, of his long summer spent alone in the northern woods.
He tells of meeting Ragnar, of finally - finally - encountering a little kindness. He tells - confesses is perhaps a better word for it - of his life on Ragnar's farm, of his sins, carnal as well as the sin of telling Ragnar of England, and there is relief in finally - finally - putting it into words, in finally telling another human being.
He tells of his horror at that first summer raid, tells of Ragnar returning triumphant with monks taken captive.
And finally, finally he tells of Ragnar taking him to England this summer.
Then he falls silent.
"So - it is this Ragnar Lothbrok who has been raiding our shores," Father Aethelbert finally asks.
"And you are his slave?"
"Yes," and it's not a lie, not really. He is Ragnar's freedman, true, but he's still not free - and in any case, if Ragnar got hold of him now, he'd surely make him his slave again, take away the freedom he had given. So it isn't a lie.
"They are going to burn you in the morning. On Lord Aethelwulf's orders."
"I would stop them, but - I am merely the abbot of a minor monastery. I cannot stop what has been ordered by the king's brother. The soldiers wouldn't listen to me."
Athelstan presses his eyes shut, telling himself not to cry, that he has only himself to blame for allowing the small glimmer of hope to grow in his chest. Does he not know by now that good things never last long?
"I'm sorry. I truly am. I wish there was something I could do for you."
"Would you read for me? I - sometimes I cannot remember..."
"Yes. Yes, of course," and Father Aethelbert opens the book on his lap. "Is there anything in particular you'd like me to read?"
But Athelstan just shakes his head and settles back, trying to make himself comfortable as the older man starts to read, once-familiar words in a once-familiar rhythm.
He thinks perhaps he falls asleep at one point, coming awake and the story has changed. But mostly - mostly he listens.
Sunlight is falling through the small opening in the wall when Father Aethelbert finally stops reading.
"They will be coming for you soon."
"I wish I could stop them."
"I - thank you."
"There is something I can do. If you want."
Athelstan raises his head.
"I can make sure you die a monk. That everybody will see the monk and not the apostate."
"But - but I have broken my vows. I..."
"You are hardly the first monk to do that. God forgives, Brother Athelstan."
"Then - then yes. I'd - I'd like to be a monk once more. If only for a little while."
"Very well, then," and Father Aethelbert stands and knocks on the door and leaves, but only to return accompanied by two young monks, barely more than novices. One of them carries a bowl of water, shears and a razor and a towel, the other a monk's habit.
"Soldier. Will you take his chains off?"
"He's dangerous," the man replies, clearly torn between his orders and wanting to obey the abbot.
"He will not harm us. You can stay in here and make sure of that, if you wish."
They cut his hair and shave first his face, then his tonsure. When they are done he lifts his hands and marvels at the feeling of his own smooth skin. It has been so long...
They remove his clothes, then, and one of the monks makes a horrified noise at the sight of the brand on Athelstan's back, the brand he had almost forgotten he had. Then they dress him in the habit.
Last of all Father Aethelbert takes out a small bottle and a small wooden box and tells him to kneel. The wine is bitter and the host is dry as dust, and yet they refresh him more than the water he's offered as well.
"It's time," a soldier announces, coming through the door and frowning at the sight before him, of Athelstan unchained and in robes. But he doesn't hesitate long, just ties Athelstan's hands together and leads him outside, two other soldiers walking on either side of him, weapons at the ready.
Outside the tower is a small square surrounded by the houses of the hamlet. In the middle of the square, a pile of wood has been gathered around a solid wooden stake. The villagers have gathered around it and they jeer at him as he is led to the pole and tied to it.
Then a soldier brings a torch.
Athelstan's doesn't want to die - but if he has to, he wants to die like a martyr, wants not to let these people see the pain - and at first it is not hard, because the wood is mostly green and fresh. The smoke makes his eyes sting and makes him cough, but there's little in the way of flames and searing heat.
Then a soldier comes running with a large pitcher of something and throws it at the fire. Some of the lamp oil splashes on Athelstan, soaking one of his sleeves completely.
The fire starts burning in earnest.
Soon enough, Athelstan starts to scream, all thoughts of a dignified death forgotten as he tries to lift his feet away from the hunting flames, pulls at the ropes binding him to the stake. He wants to pray, pray for help, for salvation, but he has no words - just screams.
At first he thinks that it's his own screams he's hearing, except then there are roars, the thunder of hooves, and through the smoke and sparks and dancing flames he sees people running, fleeing, but he can't see from what and he doesn't care, because the fire has leapt onto his clothes and he can't think of anything except the fire and the pain and oh God please help me please don't let me die like this.
"Get him down from there!"
The first bucket of cold water douses the smaller flames, but the bigger flames are stubborn, oil-fed and fierce, but then there is more water, and then there are hands, pulling at the ropes, pulling at him, and it's like he's falling, down, down on the ground, hands slapping against his skin, and oh it hurts, as he gulps down mouthfuls of fresh, cool, clear air.
But people are still screaming.
He opens his eyes, blinking away stubborn tears, and sees Rollo, huge and terrible to behold, dragging his axe out of a soldier's head, and blood and brain matter splatters out as he does. Sees the warrior turn, lifting his axe and searching for more enemies to kill - but the soldiers have fled and the villagers too. All have fled except...
Athelstan's not sure how he manages to get to his feet, manages to run to Rollo and grasp his arm as he prepares to swing his axe at Father Aethelbert, but somehow he does.
"No, please. Rollo, please don't - they didn't. He tried to help me. Please."
And, as if by a miracle, Rollo slows, lowers his axe and turns to him - but Athelstan's legs are disappearing under him, a darkness opening up to swallow him whole.
There are voices close by. They are arguing, he thinks - but they are familiar voices and the bed he's lying in is soft and so Athelstan is content to just lie there for a little while.
"...ridiculous. How are you supposed to arrange the pieces on this board? And why are they all so different? This is the worst tafl board I've ever seen!" Guthrun loudly declares.
He feels a smile curl around his lips. He barely knows the shieldmaiden except as a friend of Rollo's and yet her voice makes him feel safe.
"It's not a tafl board," he says, opening his eyes and trying to sit up. "It's called chess. It's supposed to be like that." He wants to say more, to ask - but then he starts coughing.
"Easy, Christian," and there are hands on him, holding him upright as the cough wracks through him. When it finally slows, Rollo settles down beside him, using his free hand to fill a cup with water and bring it to Athelstan's lips.
The water is cold and clear and he reaches out to hold the cup himself, except - except he can't seem to make his fingers grab hold, can't seem to make them do anything, really.
Rollo lowers the cup, frowning at him, moving as if to stop him as Athelstan looks down, raising his right hand to try to figure out what's wrong with it.
Except his hand isn't there.
Rollo's speaking to him and Guthrun is as well, but he can't hear them. Someone's screaming, loud and desperate, someone's trying to break away from Rollo who has his arms wrapped around him, who has dragged him into an embrace and is holding him as he screams and screams and he can't stop, he can't.
Eventually, someone holds the rim of a cup against his lips, tips it and forces him to swallow the bitter contents.
The echoes of his own screams follow him into the darkness - but only for a little while.
Later, they tell him what happened - how Ragnar and his men had returned to a camp in uproar, where Cnut had insisted that the Earl's pet Christian had helped the valuable hostage escape, while Guthrun the shieldmaiden had called him a liar, had told of seeing Athelstan being abducted and Cnut not even trying to stop it. Cnut had mocked her, called her a liar and a bitch and a nithing.
Afterwards, they had thrown his body into the latrine.
Then they had set out, small groups scouring the countryside for tracks, for locals who might have seen - and eventually they found one, an old and trembling charcoal burner who had pointed them in the right direction. Even so, they had nearly been too late.
"And Lord Aethelwulf?"
"Oh, we caught him again," and it's Guthrun that answers, grinning like a wolf. "The Earl himself ran him down right outside his brother the king's gates. The soldiers came out to help him, but by then it was already too late."
But while Ragnar had been chasing the fugitive lord, Rollo and Floki had been left with an injured Athelstan. They had been searching the village for a serviceable cart to transport him in, when Father Aethelbert had approached them - cautiously, very cautiously - and gestured for them to follow him. Which is how they'd all ended up at the small monastery.
Athelstan doesn't remember arriving at the monastery. What he does remember is being shaken, dragged out of merciful darkness, and Floki's voice demanding "Christian? Christian, wake up! How do you say vinegar in your stupid language? Christian!"
They tell him most of the burns were minor.
Most of them.
They tell him his hand became infected. That they couldn't save it.
They tell him all this.
Athelstan can't stop staring at what's left of his right arm, linen wrapped tightly around the stump just below his elbow.
He misses Ragnar fiercely.
Athelstan's injuries do not keep him bedbound for long. Soon he finds himself wandering around the small monastery - but not alone. Wherever he goes, he is followed - usually by Rollo or Floki, occasionally by Guthrun.
It is strange, watching the monastery monks interact with their Northmen guests - well, when the monks don't just hurriedly find things to do elsewhere at the sight of one of them, which seems a particularly prevalent reaction when it comes to Guthrun.
It makes Athelstan a little sad, that most of the monks leave at the sight of his self-appointed bodyguards - he should have dearly liked to speak with more of them, but still - it is peaceful in the monastery. He spends time in the garden, talking with the monk in charge of the garden and the monastery's hives, while Floki wanders around, occasionally demanding the word for this plant or that and what is it good for and is it for use as tea or a poultice - and somehow, it turns into a discussion between Floki and Brother Sheldon, while Athelstan sits and enjoys the sun and tries his best to translate between the pair of them until they grow impatient with his searching for the right words and start gesticulating at one another to get their meaning across.
He attends services for the first time in years, lets the hymns and the prayers wash over him and tries not to let himself be distracted by Rollo and Floki standing in the back of the church, making comments about how silly these Christians are.
After sext he finds himself wandering restlessly and then - walking through an open door - he finds himself in the monastery's scriptorium. It is a small, bright room - three writing desks and a larger table for preparing the parchment and the inks. There are a couple of young monks inside, hard at work, but at the sight of Rollo entering the room they seem to decide that other work is more important this day.
Athelstan feels a little guilty at the sight of the young men's retreating backs, but at the same time, he cannot help but be somewhat happy to have the scriptorium to himself. He walks to the nearest writing desk and reaches out to carefully trace the finely illuminated capital L at the top corner of the parchment.
"What are these things?"
"They're books. Well, they will be. Like runesticks, I suppose. Only longer."
"This looks like skin," and Rollo pokes at a piece of parchment.
"It is. Sheepskin or goatskin, probably."
"This must have taken quite a few sheep," Rollo comments, poking at a pile of parchment lying on what Athelstan's guesses is the desk of the head scribe.
"I suppose - and that is just one book they're working on."
"Just one - how long would that take?"
"Months. First to prepare the parchment, then to write and illuminate each page - slowly, to avoid any error - and then to bind it. Months of work."
"For just one of these - books?"
"You Christians are strange - months of work doing funny things with sheepskin that would have served better as cloaks - or better yet, stayed on the sheep, and you'd have had plenty of woollen cloth come winter. Such a waste."
"It is not a waste," he replies. "It's - books are important. This one they're working on, it's a Bible - a holy book. It tells the stories of our God."
"Everybody knows the stories of the gods. What use is a book full of things everybody already knows?"
"People forget things. Sometimes. And there are other books - books about animals, plants, history."
"So - your priests know all those things, then? If they can put it in the books?"
"No, they copy, mostly - from another book. Writing a new book, that's rare - though, I suppose this monastery might have a chronicle."
"A book of what has happened - and every year, the head scribe adds to it, writes down the important things that have happened that year. Kings dying, plagues, a new pope, wars..."
"Northmen come to plunder their shores," Rollo grins.
"Oh yes, they'll write about that - and in a hundred years someone might read of it in that book."
"How do you know so much about these books?"
"I - this is where I would have worked."
"Here?" and Rollo gestures at the room.
"Well, probably not at this monastery, but - in a room very much like this one, yes. If I had not travelled, I mean. My teachers used to praise my writing - there was even talk that I might be trained as an illuminator." With the fingers of his left hand he traces the lines of a half-finished drawing, a dragon's head rising ferociously to threaten a martyr - then he rapidly steps back to avoid staining the parchment with his tears.
It is ten days before Ragnar finally arrives at the monastery, the grins of his men announcing the success of his raid even before anybody opens their mouth.
They dismount outside the monastery. One of the horses - a brown beast of average size - is riderless. Athelstan finds himself staring at it for a moment, before turning his gaze back to Ragnar - and suddenly he feels embarrassed, wondering what the other man sees - an Athelstan dressed in a monk's habit, hair singed and cut in a tonsure. He must look...
"You look ridiculous," but Ragnar's voice is affectionate and Athelstan can almost hear the unspoken "Mouse" at the end as Ragnar reaches out and rubs the bald spot on the top of his head.
"I'm sorry," he says, ducking his head and blushing and feeling even more ridiculous.
"Well, I suppose it will grow back out. Rollo!" and Ragnar turns to his brother. "Get your horses. King Aella finally paid. It's time to go home."
"And Lord Aethelwulf?" Rollo asks. "Back with his brother the king, then?"
"In a way - the king tried to trick us and keep his silver, but getting his brother back with a blood eagle carved into his back changed his mind."
Rollo makes a sound of approval before turning towards the barn where the warriors have kept their horses stabled.
One of Ragnar's men leads the brown horse forward and hands Athelstan the reins. He forgets himself at first, reaching for them with his missing right hand.
"Do you need a hand up?" Ragnar asks. He doesn't wait for an answer, just slides down from his horse and steps closer.
"We are leaving? Now?" Athelstan asks, suddenly panicked. Out of the corner of his eye he can see a small group of monks gathering at the monastery's gates, Father Aethelbert among them.
"Of course. King Aella has paid his ransom and now it's time for us to go home."
"Home..." and Athelstan is not at all certain what he's going to say, but then he is interrupted as Father Aethelbert steps forward.
"Are you Ragnar Lothbrok?"
Ragnar turns halfway to look at Father Aethelbert.
"And if I am?"
"Then I wish to speak with you about ransoming Brother Athelstan."
Ragnar turns to face Father Aethelbert properly, settling a heavy hand on Athelstan's shoulder.
"And why would you want to do such a thing?"
"It is our Christian duty not to leave a fellow monk in the hands of heathens. We have silver," but Ragnar waves dismissively at him.
"I too have silver - your king just paid a very fine ransom for his lands. In any case, Athelstan is a valued member of my household - why should I leave him to you? Especially considering how he has so far been treated by his - fellow Christians?" and Ragnar's smiling at Father Aethelbert, but his smile is a wolf's smile.
"We did not do that. We..." but this time it's Rollo interrupting, demanding to know what's going on as he leads his big, black horse.
"This man wants to pay us to leave Athelstan with him," Ragnar answers in Norse.
"Leave him here? After you've taken the king's silver and sent him his brother back dead?"
"We would keep him safe," Father Aethelbert insists once Ragnar has translated his brother's concern.
"Because you have done such a fine job of it so far."
"That was different. Nobody knows that Brother Athelstan is here now. He will be safe with us."
"Until somebody thinks to tell the king about the priest that was almost burned on his brother's orders. Tell me, how long do you think it will be before your King Aella comes looking?"
"There are other monasteries - in Mercia, in Wessex. In France, even," but Ragnar snorts, shaking his head dismissively and turning towards his horse.
So far, Athelstan has been quiet, but now he finds himself unable not to speak.
"Ragnar, please," and then he stops, not at all certain what he wants to say.
Ragnar turns and looks at him for a moment, cocking his head and raising an eyebrow, seemingly waiting for him to say something more. Finally he turns back to Father Aethelbert.
"It is time for us to head home to our own lands. However, it will be nightfall before we reach our ships if we leave now - so we will spend the night here, and I will give you my answer in the morning."
Sunrise finds Athelstan in the monastery's garden, sitting on the wooden bench next to the beehive. The sweet smell of honey reminds him of home.
"So - is this what you want?" Ragnar asks as he settles down beside him.
Athelstan drags his knees up to his chest and wraps his arms around them as best he can. Is this what he wants? A couple of years ago the answer would have been yes, oh yes, yes please. Even a month ago it would have seemed an easy thing - much as he would miss Ragnar, miss Lagertha and Gyda and Rollo and Bjorn and - much as he'd miss them, then it would still have been an easy choice, wouldn't it?
"It doesn't matter what I want," he finally answers.
"Of course it matters. If it didn't matter, we would already be at sea, taking advantage of the tides to carry us homewards."
"But it doesn't matter. I am not free to make that choice."
"Because you are my freedman? Perhaps I would let you make it?"
"But if I was free - don't you see, I still wouldn't be free to make a choice, because I made it years ago. Ragnar, I am a monk. I took vows - I vowed obedience to the head of my order. If I was free, then - then the choice would still not be mine to make."
Ragnar's arm is a comfort as it wraps around his shoulders.
"Then leave the choice to me," he says, leaning his head against Athelstan's. "Only tell me - would you like to stay here? In this place? Would that make you happy?"
"What use would I be here?" he finds himself saying, raising the ruin of his right arm. "I was supposed to have been a scribe, once upon a time. Now? What use will I be here? And if the king's men were to come - the whole monastery would be at risk..."
"And yet you'd like to stay."
"I don't know. I just - I don't know."
"Shhh. Close your eyes, Athelstan, close your eyes and tell me what would make you happy."
"I don't deserve to be happy."
Ragnar lifts his head to look at him, frowning.
"Now what is this nonsense?"
Athelstan tries to pull away, suddenly realizing what he's just said, but Ragnar doesn't let him.
"Athelstan? What do you mean, that you don't deserve to be happy?" Ragnar's voice is low as he raises his free hand to cup Athelstan's face, rubbing his thumb in circles on his cheek.
"Because it's all my fault."
"What's your fault, Mouse?" and perhaps Athelstan should be angry at the old name, the slave name, the animal name that no free man or even freedman should accept - but it sounds like an endearment in his ears. He leans forward into Ragnar's touch, wanting more of it, miserable sinner that he is.
"All this. It's all my fault."
"How is this your fault, Mouse?"
"If it wasn't for me - if I hadn't told you about it - you wouldn't have gone to England," and there it is, finally, and just saying the words feels like an immense relief. Even if Ragnar is undoubtedly going to be angry with him now.
"Oh, you silly Mouse, is that what you think? Is this why you've been acting so strange this last year? That we would not be raiding your Christian lands if not for you?"
"Is it not so? I taught you English, I told you..."
"You told me many useful things, yes. But Athelstan - I had wanted to sail west for years, long before I found you in the forest. And sailing last year - I had a means to find my way across the open ocean and frankly, with that in my hands, I would have gone on nothing more than stories. Perhaps the first raid wouldn't have been as successful, but it would still have happened."
"You're lying," he says, but lacking conviction. Something's breaking inside him, but, strangely, it doesn't seem to hurt.
"You are lucky that you are not a free man," Ragnar rumbles. "A free man would not get away with calling me a liar."
It's not funny, not funny at all, and yet Athelstan finds himself laughing, he can't stop himself, laughing and crying, wiping at tears that won't stop.
Ragnar waits patiently for him to settle down, his hand curled around the back of Athelstan's neck.
"I still need your answer, Athelstan. Would you like to stay here or would you like to go home with us?"
"I," but he stops at the sight of Father Aethelbert entering the garden, suddenly embarrassed - what must the abbot think of him, a supposed slave sitting companionably - more than companionably - side by side with his heathen master?
"Good morrow, Ragnar Lothbrok. Have you come to a decision?"
"I am considering," Ragnar replies, leaning back against the stone wall behind the bench.
Father Aethelbert nods, resignedly, walks to the garden's other bench and settles down.
"I have been thinking - praying for guidance for how I might persuade you - and it has occurred to me that you might be right. That if he were to stay with us, Brother Athelstan might well be in danger if King Aella learned of his presence."
"You spoke of sending him to another temple? In another land?"
"Yes, but it occurs to me that he might still be in danger. If King Aella was to learn of his presence there, what would stop him from asking the king of that land to hand him over, as a token of goodwill? And I fear that even if Brother Athelstan was sent to one of the more influential monasteries, the abbot might not choose to use that influence to safeguard him."
"I hope that none of this is supposed to make me want to leave Athelstan here?" Ragnar comments, reaching up to play idly with Athelstan's hair.
"I am aware of how it sounds. But at the same time, I cannot in good conscience allow a fellow Christian and a monk at that to be carried away to heathen lands. Except..."
"Except Brother Athelstan was sent to heathen lands. He was charged by his superiors to spread the word of God among the heathens."
"Is that so?"
"If he was to return with you to your lands - would you allow him to continue that task? As a free man? Would you allow him a church in your land and to speak of Christ to any who would listen and to baptise those who would wish it?"
"And if I won't allow this, what then? Would you seek to stop me from taking him back with me?"
"We have no means to stop you," Father Aethelbert shakes his head. "All I can offer is to pay Brother Athelstan's ransom - and, if you'll allow it, to supply him with silver, so that he might pay the ransom of any Christian captives in your lands. But we have no means of forcing you."
For a little while, the only sound in the garden is a blackbird singing.
Then Ragnar looks at Athelstan.
"Is this what you want, then? To be a priest of that silly god of yours in Kattegat? Would that make you happy, Mouse?"
The blackbird's singing louder now. The bees are humming, lazily going about their morning's labour. From inside the monastery comes the sound of monks heading for the church for terce.
He remains standing at the mast until the English coast vanishes behind the horizon. Then and only then does he sit down on his chest.
His chest - the thought almost makes him giddy. It's large and awkward compared to the ones the warriors are sitting on as they row, and there was grumbling when it had to be carried aboard, but still. His chest - and inside it there is silver - not much, nothing at all compared to the treasure that Ragnar's raid has brought him, but still.
And there is greater treasure yet than mere silver. There are books. Three books. A bible, quite new, though clearly the work of an inexperienced scribe and with frankly embarrassing illuminations, at least on the pages of the Song of Songs; a psalter, old and worn with use; and finally a slim volume on beekeeping, and somehow that one amazed him more than either of the other two.
It had taken Father Aethelbert and his monks most of the morning to gather the contents of the chest - not that Ragnar's men had seemed to mind the wait. Rather, they had seemed to enjoy the novelty of having others gather the loot for them, for a change - even if that was not exactly what was happening. But eventually, they had all been packed and ready to leave, and Ragnar had lifted Athelstan up on the brown horse.
Brother Sheldon had chosen that moment to come running, a small, wooden box in his hands. He had run to where Floki was sitting on his horse and had held the box up to him. Brother Sheldon had been saying something, but Athelstan had been too far away to make it out.
Then Floki had leaned forward, grabbed the young monk's cowl and hauled him up on his horse.
It had taken a while for the ensuing chaos to die down, mostly because Floki refused to let the monk go until Ragnar finally managed to stop laughing long enough to order him to. Not that Floki looked particularly happy to comply, but he did, muttering about the unfairness of the Earl being the only one being allowed to take a Christian priest for himself.
As they finally rode away, Athelstan looked back at the monastery and saw Brother Sheldon still standing outside the gates, the box still in his hands as he watched them leave. It had occurred to him, then, that if Floki had thought to ask instead of simply take, he might not have been the only monk leaving with the Northmen that day.
Above Athelstan the red woollen sail unfurls as his eyelids grow heavy.
"Looking forward to coming home?" Rollo asks, jolting Athelstan out of his comfortable nap as he settles down next to him, stretching as Athelstan finds himself having to grab hold of the other man's arm to avoid being dislodged from the chest entirely. At least Rollo had sat down on his left side.
"I - yes," he answers, as he tries to steady himself. "It will be good to be home," and as he says it, it occurs to him that this might well be the first time he has ever referred to Kattegat as home - and meant it, at least.
The thought makes him smile.
"It always is," Rollo agrees, wrapping an arm around Athelstan's shoulders. "I have a gift for you - to celebrate your first raid."
Rollo gets up and Athelstan looks curiously at the other man picking his way across the ship to a small chest stowed amidships, then follows at Rollo's wave and bends to see what's in it. Then he stares and reaches out to let his fingers slide across the parchment.
"Where did you get this?" he asks, though truth be told, there's only one place he can think of where Rollo might have acquired this.
"From the temple. They had all this just lying about and none of them tried to stop me from taking it," he grins, seemingly pleased with Athelstan's reaction.
"But - I don't understand. Why did you take it?"
"For you, of course. Ragnar tells me you are a free man, now - and you've been on your first raid, too. Surely that's cause for celebration. Besides, you seemed to like this sort of thing, back at temple - and now you can write us a chronicle, about our raids."
"But - Rollo, I can't. I can't write a book," and he lifts the stump to explain.
"Don't be ridiculous, Christian. I know warriors who lost their right arm and learned how to fight with their axe in their left hand. Or look at Arne - he lost an eye, but he still uses a bow and arrow. Why would you let such a small thing stop you? No, you will be writing our chronicle, all about Earl Ragnar and his handsome brother - and if there's not enough skins here for that, well, I know a clever tanner who can probably figure out how to make more."
He's making his way back to his chest, feeling slightly dizzy and considering digging out a waterskin, when he hears Ragnar voice - "Athelstan!" - and looks up to see the man waving at him to join him where he's lying comfortably on top of a pile of sacks and furs at the stern.
"Did you like Rollo's present?" Ragnar asks, reaching out to drag Athelstan closer to him when he cautiously settles down beside him. Athelstan allows himself to be guided to rest with his head against Ragnar's shoulder and idly wonders when the other man will stop treating him like a fragile baby bird. Perhaps when his hair has grown out again?
"It was - very thoughtful," he replies, unsure of how Ragnar expects him to react to a present from Rollo.
Above them the sun is warm and the sound of Ragnar's heartbeat, calm and strong, and the feel of his fingers sliding through his hair lulls Athelstan to sleep once more.
At first glance it appears as if all of Kattegat and at least half of the nearest farms have gathered at the docks to welcome its Earl back from his raid. At second glance it becomes obvious that someone is missing.
Ragnar doesn't even wait for the ship to reach the pier - he climbs up on the railing and leaps down on the oars and onwards, somehow managing to land without twisting an ankle. From his place by the mast, trying his best not to be in anyone's way, Athelstan watches him briefly exchange words with the Lady Siggy before heading inlands, pushing past villagers.
"Where is Lagertha?" Rollo asks his wife as he's helping Athelstan climb onto the docks.
"In bed, resting," Siggy replies. "The child came early and it was a rough birth."
"But she is well?" Athelstan asks, worried.
"Oh yes, she and her son are both well - she's just tired, that's all."
He is almost about to ask another question, when he's interrupted by arms wrapping around his waist, Gyda exclaiming in horror at his arm. Bjorn, on the other hand, seems morbidly fascinated with it, asking - well, demanding really - that Athelstan unwrap it so that he might see the stump. But soon the pair of them lose interest in him in favour of the multitude of interesting sights at the dock. Clearly, Siggy must have been telling the truth when she claimed that Lagertha was well - after all, her children would not be this carefree if their mother was badly hurt.
"Does it hurt?" Thyri asks when it is just the two of them left on the docks.
"Not much," he answers, though in truth, his arm is getting rather sore. It has been hard, tending the injury properly at sea, and he really should be asking Floki to help him clean it - but last he saw the other man, he and his friend Torstein seemed to be quite busy being welcomed home by Floki's wife, and Athelstan rather doubts they'd appreciate him interrupting.
"Come," and he allows Thyri to lead him away from the docks - he spares a moment's concern for his chest, but no more than that. He is a member of the Earl's household. Who would dare to steal it? And so he follows Thyri as she leads him to Rollo's house, where she makes him sit down and helps him tend to his arm.
"You're quite good at this."
"Oh yes. Aldhelm has been teaching me."
"Aldhelm?" he asks, looking around for his fellow monk - suddenly wondering why the other monk is not in Rollo's house and remembering the silver in his chest, the silver to pay the ransom for any Christian captive - like Brother Aldhelm. "Where is Brother Aldhelm?"
"Oh, he's at the Earl's hall. My mother thought it best to let him stay there, in case Lady Lagertha started bleeding again. Though I suppose the danger of that must have passed by now."
"I don't understand? Why would Brother Aldhelm..."
"He helped. When Lady Lagertha started bleeding. He had some herbs and they helped. Mother says that Lady Lagertha might well have lost the child if not for Aldhelm - or died."
Thyri finishes her work, wrapping fresh, clean linen tightly around the stump.
"We should go to the hall. Mother had the slaves start preparing the feast as soon as we were certain the sails on the horizon were our ships."
The feast is already well underway when they get to the hall. Lagertha is sitting on her throne, pale but smiling, though she frowns at the sight of him. Ragnar's laughing, holding the tiniest baby boy in the crook of his arm.
"This is my son, Ivar," he says and kisses the forehead of the child, then holds him out, clearly expecting Athelstan to do the same. The child blinks up at him with eyes as bright blue as his father's.
"Hello, Ivar Ragnarsson."
Ragnar grins, then drags him close with his free arm and plants a kiss on Athelstan's forehead as well before letting him go and turning back to his wife.
The feast proceeds as feasts do - the food is plentiful, the ale more so and more than once a skjald will leap up on a table to offer more or less embellished versions of Ragnar's latest raid. Athelstan finds himself rather partial to the one that has Ragnar dress up as a servant woman to sneak into the king's castle and steal all his silver - though that might just be the way it makes Ragnar sputter and protest, foaming ale dripping from his beard.
At one point, Athelstan finds himself sitting in a corner with Brother Aldhelm, telling him about England, about Ragnar's promise to allow a mission, about the silver.
"Tomorrow," he promises. "Tomorrow, I will figure out if it's Rollo or Ragnar I need to talk to, and then..."
But Brother Aldhelm is shaking his head.
"Brother Athelstan, I am an old man. Do not waste that silver on me. Even if you were to buy my freedom, I would still not be able to go home to Lindisfarne, would I? Better you save that silver for the others that we both know will come - it will be spent soon enough as it is. I will manage here, for however many years the Lord sees fit to grant me. Besides - it is not a terrible life, as far as it goes."
For a little while, they sit quietly.
"I've been meaning to ask - how did you know how to help Lagertha?"
"Years ago - when I was your age - I lived at a monastery near a small nunnery. The sisters gave shelter to any woman who needed it, but they did not at the time count a skilled healer amongst their numbers, and so my teacher and I would sometimes be called to the nunnery if one was needed. Though later, an old midwife joined the order and I learned a lot from her as well."
Athelstan finds himself smiling - Brother Aldhelm seems stronger tonight than he's ever seen him before and he wonders if perhaps the Lord will see fit to grant the other monk far more years than either of them might expect.
Eventually the feasting ends as men and women wander into the night, some to continue their reunions under slightly more private circumstances, others simply seeking rest after an unusually stormy crossing. Athelstan covers a snoring Brother Aldhelm with a fur before going to find a place to sleep himself.
The Earl's private quarters are quiet as he enters them, the wooden walls and the drapings blocking the rest of the noise from the communal part of the hall. Ragnar and Lagertha are sleeping in the large bed, Bjorn and Gyda curled up with them. They look peaceful and it makes him smile.
"Don't disturb them," and Siggy's voice is low. She's sitting wrapped in fur, Ivar asleep in her arms.
"I won't," because how could he? Tonight there's no room for him here and he cannot begrudge Ragnar this homecoming, even if he'd like to be a part of the pile on the bed. Still, there will be other nights.
"Good. Lagertha needs her sleep."
He wanders back out, briefly considering returning to where Brother Aldhelm is sleeping, but no - that's not what he wants. Not tonight.
The night air is a cool caress against his skin even in these summer months. He wanders along the streets until he reaches the small house that Rollo has so far not shown any signs of abandoning in favour of a more stately home. The door creaks as he pushes it open.
Rollo looks up at him, blinking and rubbing at his eyes as Athelstan undoes his cloak, pulls his tunic over his head and bends to undo his shoes.
"Changed your mind, then, Mouse?"
"No," he replies as he slides in under the furs.
"Good," Rollo yawns, wrapping his left arm around Athelstan and settling back down. "After three days of rowing against the wind, I doubt I'd have been of much use to you anyway."
Athelstan smiles and closes his eyes. He lies in the dark, feeling small and safe next to the other man, listening as his breath grows deep and steady. Eventually, it lulls him to sleep.