The passage back to Kattegat goes without incident, fair winds and following seas, not the endless stormy, rainlashed misery of Athelstan's first transit, where several of his brother monks had starved to death from cold and exposure. But for all that the weather has been clear, there's no such thing as truly dry or comfortable in an open boat on the North Sea. There's always spray coming over the sides, and every day comes with at least one large, drenching wave crashing over the bow. At best, you're damp and not in active discomfort.
The days pass in breeze and spray, salt-damp wool, wet leather, itching and chafing, bailing and mopping, small beer, meals of dried fish, berries, and hard, flat sea-bread. They pass in riddles, and tall tales, and songs, and chapping each other's hides. They pass in talk of farms, and children, and wives, and sweethearts, and plans for what they'll do when they get ashore, plans for projects during the long dark nights of winter.
Aethelstan doesn't really have any plans beyond ending up in Ragnar's hall. Once he had his entire life mapped out. Now? His life has twisted and reversed its course like a hare with a dog hard on its tail so many times that he sees no point in planning beyond the next turn of the moon. He only knows he'll probably survive what fate throws at him next. It's what he does.
It's not that Ragnar won't let Athelstan out of his sight -- there's no place out of sight on a longship -- it's that he won't let him out of arm's length. Ragnar can't seem to stop touching him, as if he can't believe that Athelstan is really here. That Athelstan chose life with Ragnar and his people over a position in the court of King Ecbert -- one where he had his beloved books and the means to make them. As well as somebody to talk to about the ideas in them.
At night on the boat, they sleep as they can, huddled together out of need and necessity. Nobody sleeps so much as they lie down and exhaustion overtakes them. They lie like that until some discomfort becomes enough of an ache that a man rises up out of sleep like a whale breaking the surface of the sea and taking a quick breath, before twisting and slipping back under.
Three nights out now, and Athelstan knows that Ragnar wants so much more than his scarred, inkstained, and now salt-chapped hand, just as he wants more than a sword-calloused hand back from Ragnar. But it's all they get to have right now as the moon rises and they choke back on their gasps and groans, muffling them, blending them into the slap of water on wood, the creaking of the mast, the snoring and sighs of their companions. And when they're done -- what's one more stain or damp patch on their hose or tunic?
Bjorn has the helm and keeps watch. Athelstan catches his eye for just a moment as Ragnar sighs contentedly as he slips down into sleep, and if Bjorn knows or even suspects what has just happened, it's probably not the first time he's seen such a thing from shieldmates together on the seas, and he knows better than to say anything.