The waves slap Ragnar in the face as he tries to pull Floki back from the prow of the boat. Floki is shouting about Thor’s blessing, and thunder booms overhead as if in agreement - but Ragnar fears that he is mistaken, that this storm is carrying them to something else.
He takes a mouthful of salt water, and ducks as a wooden crate flies toward him, carried by wind and water and spilling apples across the deck. It is lost to the sea, but Floki doesn’t see it, or doesn’t worry. He is laughing into the storm now, his eyeblack trailing like tears down his hollow cheeks. More than anything, he looks like a madman - which, Ragnar supposes, he is.
“Sit down, madman!” he yells, tugging at Floki’s sodden tunic, but Floki shrugs him off, clinging like a limpet to the roaring serpent of the prow, and at that moment the wind catches Ragnar with such force that he stumbles back, slipping on the deck.
“Thor will not let us fail!” Floki crows at him, tipping his face up to the heavens. “We are blessed! We will fall in battle, or not at all!” And he laughs, audible even over the roar of the wind, as thunder booms like agreement.
Ragnar pushes himself to his feet and tries to make his way closer to Floki. It is slow going, the wind pummeling him from three sides at once. “Blessing or no, you can’t swim.”
“The waves cannot conquer this ship, for we are carried by fate.” He grins, manic. “And craftsmanship.”
This last reassures Ragnar, somehow, where exhortations to the gods had not, and he turns to sit, to return to the shelter of their tent, when a wave drops the boat out from under them and he falls hard on his side, rolling as a wave crashes over them.
He can’t get his feet under him - he can’t hear anything over the wind and the waves and the shouts of the men and the thunder, always the thunder.
When another crate knocks into him, he falls, and falls, and falls.
He kicks up toward the surface, but it seems to slip farther away. Or perhaps it’s that his vision is shading at the edges as he loses air, as the ice of the water freezes his body and his thoughts.
No, he thinks, and gives one final, massive kick.
In front of him is a piece of one of the crates, broken off and floating on the surface. He reaches toward it, pulls himself up, and breaks the surface.
It’s not much better than being underwater, but the rain washes the sting of the salt out of his eyes until he can look for the ship.
Ragnar slumps back onto the crate, tilting his face up to the sky, clearing abruptly as the storm passes. He will die here, he thinks, or he won’t.
In the moment before he loses consciousness, he sees the shadow of a bird, perhaps one of Odin’s ravens, come to pluck out his eye - a price for knowledge, for the death he might yet steal from the gods. Then he sees nothing at all.
The slide back into consciousness is slow and painful.
Ragnar hears voices, first, in a language that sounds jarring to his ears, and he knows he can’t be in Valhalla - but nothing else makes sense to him. Nothing is familiar.
He cannot slip back under. He must figure this out.
“Hit wacath!” a voice whispers as Ragnar shifts beneath rough blankets. He lets out a little moan - he feels like he’s just come through a long battle, and every movement of the blankets against his skin brings the pain into sharp focus.
“Water,” he croaks, trying to open his eyes as he hears footsteps draw near.
“Drinc,” comes a different voice, and then his head is being lifted up, wet wood pressed to his lips. He opens his mouth, just a bit, and cool water trickles in - better than beer, better than Lagertha’s mead, better than anything. Finally he can focus enough to open his eyes.
“Eower naman bethencest?”
His vision is still blurred, a little, but he can make out wide blue eyes set in a pale face, a mess of dark hair, and he blinks to try to clear his sight, get a closer look.
“Eower naman bethencest?” the man says again. “Cnaewest thu hwider thu bist?”
The world swims into clarity as Ragnar brings a hand up to rub at his eyes, and he sees concern writ large across the face of a young man, soft-cheeked and frowning. “Where am I?” he croaks, no longer sure he’s not dead. “Who are you?”
The man jerks back, looking over his shoulder at the men behind him, sorting herbs on a long wooden table. They don’t seem to notice his change in posture, how he’s gone still like he’s seen a ghost. “You are from very far away,” the man says carefully in Ragnar’s tongue, colored with a strange accent Ragnar has never heard. “Very far indeed. What brought you here? Who are you?”
“We came by ship - the first of its kind, a craft blessed by the gods. A storm had us in its grip, and I...” Ragnar swallows around the dryness in his throat. “I was taken by the sea.”
“There were others?” the man asks, alarmed. “They will come for you?”
“No,” Ragnar croaks. He closes his eyes against the candlelight, suddenly overbright in the dark room. “Nobody will come for me.”
He learns that the man’s name is Athelstan, that he is on an island called Lindisfarne, regarded as sacred by the men of the western lands. The men here, Ragnar learns, are tasked with keeping the rituals of some strange religion, forbidden from fighting and women and all the blessings the gods have given man to make life bearable, instead wearing their plain brown robes and their peculiar haircuts and tending to the land around the island. More than that, Athelstan will not say, clearly trying to spare what he regards as Ragnar’s addled memory.
The days pass slowly, the nights in fitful sleep, and Ragnar chafes at the restrictions his body has set for him. He aches to explore, to see the island beyond the sickroom, to see the western lands beyond the island. The other men, when they come to check on him, move silently like fish in water, and Ragnar would ignore them even if they spoke his tongue. They seem to view him as he might view an animal on the farm that has taken sick - something to be healed, but no more valuable or interesting.
Athelstan is different.
He comes a few times a day - usually at mealtimes, when Ragnar is too occupied with eating to ask the questions that seem to overwhelm him otherwise - and stays longer than the others. At first Ragnar thinks that it is a kindness on Athelstan’s part, knowing as he must that Ragnar feels like a man set adrift, lost in a world where nobody knows or understands him. Athelstan alone knows his tongue, and though their conversations are limited to Ragnar’s health and the weather on the island, it is as much a comfort as the food or water. When Athelstan is near, Ragnar is not left alone with his thoughts.
Soon, though, Ragnar begins to regain his strength, and Athelstan’s visits grow longer.
“Brother Osric brought mussels,” Athelstan begins one day, setting down a trencher. The mussels have been steamed open, fragrant with herbs, and Ragnar eats as Athelstan tells him about the struggles of Brother Osric to dig the shells out of the shoal. “He was determined, though,” Athelstan says, grinning, and his smile is - it’s bright, like Ragnar imagines Baldur must look when bestowing a blessing, filled with some sort of strange inner glow that Ragnar doesn’t entirely comprehend. He’s lost in it, for a moment, and almost doesn’t catch the last of what Athelstan is saying. “...as careful with the mussels as he is with a paintbrush. We keep telling him he needs to stick to his books.”
“Books?” Ragnar asks. “Do you also tend to them?”
Athelstan looks a little embarrassed. “Tending to the books is my primary duty - that, and singing the officium divinum. I am given to lead the Nones only, but those of us whom god has blessed with song must lend their voices to the singing of all the hours.”
“You must sing for me, then,” Ragnar says, “since the books are likely beyond my reach.”
“Grow your strength,” Athelstan says, handing him a piece of bread. “I remember a few songs from my youth - if we can put you to work, it might buy a song.”
A laugh escapes him, and he replies, “Your youth? I wonder you can remember something so long in the past.”
“I look young,” Athelstan says, “but I had a life, you know. Before this.” He smiles a little, eyes distant, and sips from Ragnar’s water cup. “I did not always reside on Lindisfarne.”
Finally, Ragnar thinks, and asks, “I have wondered how you came to learn my tongue.”
“It is a tale for another time,” Athelstan replies. “Perhaps another incentive for you to gain your strength, if you need such reasons.”
Ragnar eats his mussels, and doesn’t press him further. He has all the time in the world, these days.
Athelstan keeps a meticulous account of his days, Ragnar realizes. He’s taking his first halting steps, gripping tight to Athelstan’s arm, and Athelstan says, “Your strength comes back quickly, Ragnar. You have only been with us - what, a week? God has guided your healing.”
Ragnar stands up straighter. “You have guided my healing. You, and Brother Halun’s tea.” He grimaces comically, knowing it will amuse Athelstan, and is rewarded with a laugh.
“It has done its work,” Athelstan says. “Shall we turn back?”
He finds they have walked the length of the room, and he reaches out with his free hand to rest against the rough wooden door. “A week inside,” he says almost to himself. “Time to end the short winter, perhaps.”
Athelstan steps forward, blocks his way. “Not yet,” he says. “These steps are for tomorrow.”
He lets Athelstan lead him back to the cot, and when he is settled and Athelstan is handing him a cup of Brother Halun’s awful tea, he says, “And what will you give me now, as reward for my hard work?”
“Hard work? You walked across the room. Drink your tea, Ragnar.”
“It was as much as you would let me do,” he points out. “It must qualify.”
Athelstan huffs out a breath. “I suppose it does, then,” he says. “You want to hear a song, then?”
“Something from your adventurous youth,” Ragnar says. “Nothing of your strange God, if I am to be rewarded for work.”
“I honor God in all things,” Athelstan replies, sipping at a cup of water, “but I’ll sing something vain and idle if it is your wish.”
“As vain and idle as I am,” Ragnar agrees, and tries to smile in the way that would have had Lagertha thwacking him on the arm and hissing, “Not until the washing is done, I have told you six times.”
Athelstan has closed his eyes, though, as if he is readying himself to pray to his god, and so Ragnar can watch as his cheeks seem to flush with color, like he’s doing something illicit.
And then he sings.
“Ongin mere secan, maewes ethel,
onsite saenacan, thaet thu sudh heonan
ofer merelade monnan findest,
thaer se theoden is thin on wenum.”
His voice is silk-rich, the tune joyful, and it’s nothing at all like the ghosts of song he hears from the chapel when he’s drifting off to sleep. It’s immediate, grounding. Ragnar feels it tug at him, and he realizes he’s sat up to listen, pulled forward like the tide to shore.
“Naegelde beagas; he genoh hafadh
Faedan goldes, feohgestreona
thaet he mid elthoede ethel healde,
faegre foldan haeletha, thea the her min wine.”
Athelstan’s eyes flutter open, then widen as he sees something in Ragnar’s expression, but his voice doesn’t falter.
“Nyde gebaeded, nacan ut athrong,
ond on ytha gelagu ana sceolde,
faran on flotweg, fordhsithes georn,
When he stops, Ragnar realizes he’s been holding his breath, not wanting to break the sound, and it all comes out in a gust. It embarrasses him, a little, and he ducks his head.
Athelstan, though - he looks pleased, eyes bright with a wash of rosy color still high on his cheeks. “It’s just a bit from a song I learned, growing up. I had a - a friend, who taught me.”
“Is it a love song, then?” Ragnar asks, curious.
“It is,” Athelstan says, “and it isn’t. It’s a song about a man cast out of his home, finding his way in the world. The people he lacks, and the people he - he finds, along the way.”
His gaze drops to Athelstan’s hands, thin-fingered and smooth, lacking the calluses of a farmer or a warrior. They worry at one sleeve of his tunic, picking at a seam, and Athelstan is avoiding his eyes. “An appropriate song, then,” Ragnar says lightly. “For you are far from your home, I think.”
“Yes,” Athelstan says, and when he looks up his expression is calm again. “Yes, I am. But I have found a new home here, among my brothers. And now you have found us as well.” He smiles and nudges the mug of bitter tea forward. “Drink the rest. Tomorrow, perhaps, you can see how the world outside has fared without you.”
From the next morning on, he wakes early. The monks do not disturb him - he moves around them as they make their way to sing the morning prayers, and he is free to walk to garden, to squint toward the horizon and wonder what might have become of this place in another world.
He presses his luck more each day, until finally he makes it to the ocean, slips his boots off and lets the waves cover his feet. There is very little memory of the time he spent floating on the apple crate, pulled to Lindisfarne and the mercy of the brothers. When he searches his mind there is only cold, salt, the knowledge that he would die, and finally, at the end, the shadow of wings.
Athelstan finds him, of course. Ragnar is staring toward the horizon, seeing a ship that isn’t there, and his toes are numb. He barely notices the movement beside him - his skills are slipping, he thinks.
Athelstan tugs on his sleeve. “You should come inside.”
“My family is there,” he says, pointing. “Out there, to the east.” He stares at the spot, as if he could somehow fold up the distance between the Northlands and Lindisfarne, if only he wills it.
“I know you miss them,” Athelstan says. “Your children, your - your wife.” His hand rests on Ragnar’s arm now, something like comfort.
“They think me dead. It took convincing, to gather my men to sail as far as we did. Most in my land believe there is nothing to the west. I am lost to them.”
Athelstan’s shoulder bumps his as he steps closer. “I will pray for them,” he says. “And for you, that God’s plan for you may be revealed.”
“God’s plan,” he says, not bothering to hide the contempt in his voice. He looks down at Athelstan. “Your god cares nought for me, priest. I am not one of his. I told my gods I wanted knowledge, and was prepared to sacrifice. This is what they have given me.”
“What?” Athelstan asks. “What have they given you?”
“They have given me all the knowledge in the world, and no way to put it to use. They have shown me that when you ask the gods for a favor, you must be prepared to accept their whims. I have learned my lessons, Athelstan - I seek nothing from the gods, now, and hope they do the same. If not, I shall take it as it comes.” He laughs now, humorlessly, and tries to ignore the concern he sees in the furrow of Athelstan’s brow. “It appears I have no other choice.”
He turns his back on the sea, and Athelstan’s arm falls away. Ragnar lets himself be led back to the keep.
It takes a long while for him to feel warm again.
He begins to learn the tongue of the monks from Athelstan, who is free with his smiles as Ragnar masters a new word or a tricky sound. As he grows in strength he is allowed to work in the gardens and the stables, and the brothers there are quick to correct his speech when he errs, though they mostly stay silent. He realizes soon enough that most of the prayers and the books the monks create are in yet a third tongue, which Athelstan calls Latin. “I cannot teach it to you,” Athelstan says apologetically. “It is not done, at least among our order, unless you would take the priesthood.”
“I don’t think the priesthood would suit me,” Ragnar says.
For some reason this makes Athelstan’s cheeks go pink. “No,” he agrees, “I don’t think it would.”
Though he understands nothing of the songs the monks sing, he grows to enjoy their music, the ritual of the hours, the way it orders his day. He enjoys even more when he can wheedle Athelstan into singing a song from his youth, and helping him understands the words of it he doesn’t yet know. Athelstan still seems not entirely comfortable singing outside the sanctuary, when it’s just the two of them digging mussels out of the shoal along the northeast edge of the island. If they’re alone, though, he almost always complies.
“If you were in my land,” Ragnar tells him, “you might be a skald, singing the deeds of the greatest warriors. Earls would shower you with gold, and women would throw themselves in your path.”
Athelstan’s fingers fumble at the herbs he’s picked, scattering a few on the ground. He stoops to pick them up. “I sing for the glory of my God, Ragnar, not for gold or fame or... or companionship.”
“You sing for me,” Ragnar points out.
“Yes,” Athelstan says, straightening up. He throws the herbs into his basket - a little more roughly, perhaps, than Ragnar thinks he meant to. “I sing for you, too.”
The days on Lindisfarne grow longer as the weeks crawl toward midsummer, and though the weather is never certain, there is never a storm so angry as the one that swept him to the island. Mostly the rain comes sporadically, the one unpredictable facet of life with the monks. The weather may change, but it seems that they do not - they have their books, their prayers, their songs, their animals, their garden, and their god. Ragnar chafes at it, and wonders again why Athelstan chose this life for himself.
He doesn’t ask, though, and on this matter Athelstan keeps his own counsel.
Then, the day before midsummer, the bells on the island begin to ring.
“There is a ship coming!” Brother Osric says, nearly tripping as he races into the room.
“But the ship from Hexham, it come next week?” Ragnar asks in his halting English.
Brother Osric shakes his head. “Not from Hexham. This ship comes from the East.”