Ragnar was used to discomfort, not confinement. The rough planks under his back could have been velvet cushions for all he cared, but to have his body restrained by the coffin felt intolerable. He never sat still for long, relished the free movement of his feet upon the earth and his arms in the air, strode with vigor through a world that yielded to his purpose. His muscles ached and his legs screamed against the boards. Once, he instinctively sat up and banged his head against the coffin’s lid so hard that spots of light danced before his eyes and it took all his discipline not to shriek in pain. Bjorn had smacked the coffin with handle of his axe, chuckling, “Ssssh, dead man!” and Ragnar felt the thud against his hip.
Bjorn was long gone now. He supposed it to be early evening, based on the raspy voices of crows settling in to roost, though all day inside the coffin it had been black as a moonless night. The darkness amplified his heartbeat and each breath rushed as loudly as a waterfall, the air growing weaker with each inhalation and ranker with each exhalation. The space shrank around him and squeezed him like the embrace of death. Something rat like began to claw at his insides, worm its way into his brain, where it took the form of monstrous thoughts that filled him with a new, shameful feeling: panic.
“Maybe I really am dead. Maybe I am already buried. That is not the scent of pine around me; it is the smell of earth!”
Energy surged through his limbs like it did when he entered battle. His hands formed tight balls and moved toward the lid of their own accord. His lips parted around a breath gulped in preparation for a scream, but he caught himself before his fists made contact and even the tiniest sound escaped.
“I live,” he mouthed wordlessly and in the same instant, saw Athelstan’s face as it disappeared under the dirt he had thrown upon it. Athelstan felt very close, a presence lying at his side the way he had done so many times, his companion in death. He longed to touch him one more time, to smell his hair spreading out on the bottom of the coffin, and his heart ached that the prison of the grave was all they would share again.
“Is this what it is like, my friend?”
The strange vigil he was keeping was opening him up, leaving ragged edges around his senses.
A hesitant footstep into the tent distracted him. Soft, yet firm with quiet power. Familiar footsteps, muffled by the coffin, that he couldn’t quite place until a somber voice sent words through the wood.
“Who knows, Ragnar, what the gods have in store for us?” Lagertha said huskily.
Her voice hovered over his head. A faint vibration that ran slowly down the length of the lid told him she was stroking the coffin, and he felt it like a caress on his cheek. Her words drifted through the wooden panels as a hushed murmur. He could not make out all of what she said, but the sound was a balm on his raw nerves. She knelt and spoke with her lips almost touching the coffin, of heaven, of Odin, and, finally, whispering so low that he had to strain to make out the words, of her "own, sweet Ragnar." Only the coffin's slender ribs separated her mouth from his cheek. He could picture her plump lips brushing the paint and practically feel them on his own, those lips that had cursed him and pleasured him and laughed with him in the face of the enemy, and that now promised to love him forever in Valhalla.
"Lagertha! My love, my wife!" sounded in his head as loudly as if he'd spoken, but when she didn't react, he knew that he had not.
"My wife," he mused. Not once lying in the coffin had he thought of Aslaug, and now, with immortality in Lagertha's voice, her name rang false, as if he had tapped a drum whose skin had not been stretched tight enough.
"Like all things created by men, marriages can end, but those whom the gods have brought together can never be torn apart."
He carefully placed one palm against the wall, willing Lagertha's hand to cover it on the other side, and when he thought he felt a pulse of warmth, believed that she had. She had returned as his ally, then his friend, and finally, wrapped herself again in the mantle of their love.
She did not stay long. She choked back a sob and left to indulge her grief in private. He pictured her full face streaked with the tracks of tears outlined in kohl, her anguished eyes framed by lids swollen from crying and wished he could take her face between his hands and kiss away her pain. She walked out quickly, with steps heavier and more erratic than her entrance, and her departure left a chasm in the room that seemed to open the coffin and expel him into a warm sea where he floated, eyes closed. Death took Athelstan from him, but gave Lagertha back.
"Death is a stingy bastard," he thought, "But you can sometimes pry a reward from his jaws. Sometimes you can cheat."
And he was cheating. Lagertha would see him spring from the coffin, armor on and axe swinging, deep in the heart of Paris. Would she turn on him? Allow shock to weaken her long enough for the French to cut down? Or would she would fight alongside him until they either won the battle or were carried to Valhalla? It wasn't really a question; he knew which she would do.
He stifled a laugh. Oh, how angry she would be that he had tricked her into revealing herself! She could argue and slap him if she wanted, but they would both know that she could not take back what she had said, and also, that she would not want to. They would fight, breathing hard and straining, cheeks flushed, hair wild, until they fell upon each other with different movements and cried out in joy.