Lagertha is the one who notices; this does not surprise Ragnar, because of the two of them, she is the one who has learned some measure of patience. She is the one who can sniff out fear better than most men he fights alongside, not because she has never felt it, but because she has. The life of a shieldmaiden is rife with danger.
“You should not touch him so,” she says to Ragnar one night in their bed. “When you come from behind him, he startles like a bird.”
“He always startles like a bird,” Ragnar laughs, because their priest is so slight and small, and still watches them so carefully some days, with his bright eagle eyes and small, sparrow’s body. It’s like Ragnar and his family are a puzzle he is trying to put together.
“Hmmm,” she replies, her fingers walking like spiders on his chest. “But when you grab him when he cannot see you, it’s different. He does not come close to you for the rest of the night.”
Ragnar thinks about this - he likes to tease Athelstan, to whisper lewd things to him and watch him blush, to challenge him to duels with sticks they clear from the yard. The priest is a terrible fighter, worse at wrestling than Bjorn and useless at handling weapons. But he tries so hard at everything they give him - fighting, weaving, fishing. He is strong in his own way, and after all this time in their home, the months turning chill with winter, he does not fear them anymore.
But Lagertha is right (she is always right, and smug about it). The next day Ragnar does something he must have done countless times before, sneaking up behind Athelstan as he adds wood to the kitchen fires and snaking an arm around his waist, hoisting him off his feet for a moment. “I’ve got you now, little bird,” he giggles in Athelstan’s ear as he does it, but he can feel the swift tension that fills the priest’s body, the way his breathing stops short. It lasts but a moment, this stab of panic, before Athelstan turns to bat him away with a grumble. But Ragnar sees the tremor in his hands as he turns back to the fire. And Athelstan does not come close enough to touch for the rest of the long evening.
“Do I frighten him still?” he asks quietly that night when the household is sleeping. His wife sighs against him.
“Once he knows it is you, he is better,” she replies. “I think it’s a memory that haunts him.”
They all have those, even the strongest warriors among the Vikings. Ragnar has woken himself from nightmares more than once. He resolves to leave it alone, but takes care not to startle Athelstan from then on.
It coops them all up in the house for hours a day, and Ragnar curses that the house is not big enough for the five of them to keep a wide berth from each other. It chaffs on Ragnar, and puts him closer to Athelstan than he has dared be for a month. Athelstan seems blissfully unaware of the change in his master, puttering about the house, laughing with Gyda at the loom. He is particularly proud of his weaving and Ragnar finds it foolish and charming.
It’s been many months since Ragnar offered his bed to the priest - another thing Lagertha scolded him for after the tenth time they heard him whispering feverish prayers well into the night. It does not stop him from sometimes wanting to take what should by all rights be his, to press his fingers into Athelstan’s warm skin, to kiss his soft mouth.
But Athelstan is certainly not a normal slave, there for the taking. He is gentle and kind, things Ragnar would despise in a fellow warrior, but which seem to fit just right in Athelstan’s slight frame, his bright eyes, his narrow wrists. He is argumentative and stubborn, clever and quick. He teaches them all pieces of his language, patient when Ragnar mangles a word but pushing for better next time. He is shy about his body, taking care to bathe where he thinks they cannot see - Ragnar finds it torturous and arousing in turn. Even the small sliver of white skin along his belly when his tunic rides up is enough to make Ragnar have to hold his hands back from touching. He is Ragnar’s little bird, and he wants him, enough that his chest aches from it.
But he doesn’t take, even though it would be easy. He is protector of Athelstan as he is protector of his family - even moreso in some ways. Athelstan is much worse at defending himself than Lagertha. And he does not want what Athelstan cannot give him. He wants to be welcomed, wants the satisfaction of hearing his priest beg for Ragnar’s touch.
Athelstan says he does not see the use of needs of the flesh, though his eyes trace Lagertha’s curves, follow Ragnar’s form when he trains with Bjorn in the yard. His breath still comes faster at night when he can hear Ragnar and Lagertha making love. Ragnar believes Athelstan would welcome it, their hands on him, but he stops asking him to their bed because he does not wish Athelstan to think it is required of him, and because a man stops poking at the hornet’s nest when he has been stung enough times.
Even after a lifetime of cold, dark winters, Ragnar still gets restless as he waits for Spring, for the cracking of the ice that signals the raiding season is upon them. “Tell us a story, little bird,” he says one night. “One from your book.”
Athelstan grins at him and shakes his head. “I have told you all my parables and sung you all my psalms,” he says. “And you still call them stories and mock my God.”
“Your god is not so bad,” he says, teasing. It’s an argument they have had many times before. “I like the one where he tells the whale to eat Jonah and then it belches him back up.” Bjorn laughs and Athelstan rolls his eyes.
“I will not tell you more stories of the gospel, you heathen,” Athelstan says, but he’s still smiling, sipping at the milk he prefers to mead.
“Then tell me a story of you,” Ragnar says, leaning back into the furs that line the space around the hearth, the warm heart of his home. “Tell me a story of when you were a boy.”
Athelstan’s smile falters for a moment. “My life is not like yours, Ragnar. There are no good stories in it.”
“Tell how you became a priest,” he goads, because now that he has asked, he would like to know. He has heard some of Athelstan’s travels with his book, to spread the word of his god. He knows that Athelstan was sent to the monks when he was still young, younger than Gyda, to study and to serve. But he knows little else about the life of the man who shares his home, who cares for his children. “Tell us how your god came to you.”
Athelstan is quiet for a long time, his face turned to the fire, still and ashen. “I was alone for a long time until I felt God in my heart,” he says. “Then I was no longer alone. That is how God came to me.” The children do not press - even they feel the change that has come over the room, see the sorrow in Athelstan’s eyes. Lagertha presses kisses to their faces and tugs them off to bed, tucking them in warmly. Ragnar stays by the fire.
“How old were you,” he asks quietly, “when your god came?”
“I was fifteen,” Athelstan says, and then abruptly he stands and winds his way to his sleeping corner. Ragnar does not bother him again.
It rankles at Ragnar, the way Athelstan refuses to speak of his childhood. “Did you not hunt with your brothers, before you were sent to the monks?” he asks soon after finishing a story of his first hunting trip with young Rollo in tow.
“No,” he says, “I was sent away before I was old enough to learn a bow. Though I hope they would not have tied me to a tree as you did.” His lips twist wryly and Ragnar pinches his arm with a fake growl.
Athelstan apparently remembers little of his brothers. He remembers some of his mother, a short lullaby he sings once to Gyda when she is shivering sick in her bed. From the age of eight the monks were his family, but Athelstan won’t speak of them either.
“You were only a boy when you were sent there,” he prods one afternoon, helping Athelstan to poke through the ice at the edge of the dock to make a new fishing hole, both of them bundled in furs to their noses. Athelstan merely nods. “Did you make no friends?”
“I was quiet,” Athelstan says. “I spent my time on my studies.”
“Yes, but there had to be others like you, other boys? Did you not learn your letters there? Tell me of your teachers.”
“Why must you push?” Athelstan says almost viciously. “You will not ask me again or you will regret it!” He stomps away back to the house. From any other man, Ragnar would take it as a threat; from Athelstan is it merely a shock and a worry.
Lagertha frowns at him when he tells her of their exchange. “He does not wish to speak of it,” she scolds him, and Ragnar lets his questions drop, though he still burns with curiosity.
Athelstan does not care much for many of Ragnar’s friends, but he has a particular dislike of a man named Gurn, a trader who comes by once a month or so, looking for Lagertha’s famous cheeses. Spring is still new and crisp when Gurn comes this time, and Ragnar is home to greet him. Ragnar watches as Athelstan plants himself against the wall, his firm gaze never leaving Gurn as he sits at the table, negotiating his price.
Lagertha is cool to Gurn as well, though the children like him - he always comes with sweets tucked in his pockets. But Athelstan’s eyes are colder than Ragnar has ever seen them from the moment Gurn arrives. He doesn’t relax back into himself until long after Gurn has departed and the sun has set.
“Has he threatened you?” Ragnar asks. Gurn is older and stooped, his left leg mangled from a battle years before. He is no threat to Ragnar, but the priest is soft.
“No,” Athelstan says, his eyes darting to the door and back. “It’s not... I do not worry for me.”
Ragnar laughs. “If you think Gurn could best Lagertha, you... well you should not let her hear you say so.”
Athelstan’s countenance gets stormy. “The last time he came, you were in town to speak with the Earl. Gurn stayed too long and spent too much time -” he cuts himself off, hands twisting in front of him.
“Too much time doing what?” Ragnar asks, his stomach swooping with some ill-defined dread.
“Too much time with Gyda,” Athelstan hisses. “Too much time watching her.”
Ragnar’s hand goes to his side where he usually carries his dagger. But he is home with his family, and his dagger is tucked away with his weapons of battle. “You are sure?” he asks, but he trusts Athelstan even without his curt nod. “He will not come again,” Ragnar says darkly.
Lagertha wants to tear Gurn’s good leg from his body when Ragnar tells her of Athelstan’s suspicions. “I did not see it then, but it is clear when I look now,” she says, her hands balling into fists. “Did you see him touch her?” she asks Athelstan savagely.
“No, he never - I would not have let him,” Athelstan says.
She clasps his hands with hers and nods. “I know it.”
Later, in their bed, Lagertha is tense beside him. “How did I not see it?” she whispers to him. Ragnar pulls her close.
“We often do not see darkness that takes care to hide,” he reminds her. “We are lucky our little bird has such good eyes.”
She is quiet for a long moment. Then, “I wonder how he knew, when even her mother did not?” Ragnar runs his hand over her back. “Much in this world shocks him,” she says, “but he saw this with clear eyes. I worry -” she pauses.
“You think he has seen it before,” Ragnar says, his chest tight at the idea of it. His wife turns her head into his neck and he can feel a few hot tears against his skin.
Ragnar does not sleep that night, awake with thoughts of Gurn, and how he would like to roast him over a spit as he screams. With thoughts of Athelstan’s cold eyes at the sight of Gurn at his table. Of the way Athelstan’s body fears Ragnar still, even after all this time. He wonders that Athelstan came to the monks when he was only a boy, but did not find his god until many years later. He wonders where his god was in that time, and what it meant that Athelstan had felt so utterly alone.
When spring turns warm enough, Ragnar and Bjorn are called to town for the Thingstead. Ragnar brings Athelstan; even though he does not like being in town, they have all been cooped up inside for so many dark months that he is eager for the journey. He sticks close to Ragnar’s side through all the proceedings, sitting on the ground at Ragnar’s feet through the feast. Part of it rankles Ragnar - in their home, Athelstan sits beside him at the table, laughing and joking with the children. Here, he must pull his knees in close to avoid accidental kicks from the vikings who walk past. After the first kick causes Athelstan to gasp in pain, Ragnar places his hand on the priest’s head, over the spot where he once was bald, and stares daggers at anyone who dares walk past their table.
He can feel Athelstan shivering against his legs in the drafty hall. “Here,” he murmurs quietly and passes his cup down. “It will warm you.”
Athelstan does not drink much mead other than the watered down version they give to the children - Ragnar knows that he is to blame for much of that, for taking advantage of Athelstan’s wagging tongue in those first weeks. But here, there is nothing else to drink but pitchers of the strongest mead, refilled from the Earl’s stores. Even Bjorn drinks with the men, leaning heavily against Rollo’s shoulder. Athelstan takes the cup and drains it quickly, and Ragnar passes him another, then one more. As the feast winds down, he notices that Athelstan is leaning back against his shins, his head tipped on to Ragnar’s thigh. His hand has found its way to Athelstan’s soft curls, petting him until Athelstan is nearly purring.
He smiles down at the dark head on his lap. “Come, little bird,” he says to Athelstan. “Let’s go.”
Bjorn scoffs at leaving so quickly. “Let him stay, I will watch over him,” Rollo says with a wide grin. Ragnar does not trust Rollo with many things, but he doesn’t think any harm will come to Bjorn at the Thingstead, so he agrees in lieu of a fight with his son.
“The priest and I will find you tomorrow,” he tells them. “Do not do anything he tells you,” he adds to Bjorn with a wry smile. Rollo punches him lightly on the shoulder.
He and Athelstan meander to the edge of town where the men set up their small camps during the Thing. “You didn’t have to leave so soon,” Athelstan says once they have their small fire going. His words are slow and slurred, like he’s having to reach around to find them, hidden between his English and his Latin. He leans heavily into Ragnar’s side. “I was fine.”
“You were cold,” Ragnar says, bumping his shoulder. “And I was tired of hearing others speak of conquests they have yet to make.”
“‘m still cold,” Athelstan says. “Here I am always cold.”
Ragnar frowns at him before fishing around and stealing Bjorn’s extra fur from his pack. The boy will likely not make it this far to their camp - he only hopes Rollo remembers where he left him in the morning. “Here,” he says, wrapping it around Athelstan’s shoulders. “You are more trouble than a woman, I swear.”
“Do not let Lagertha hear you say that,” Athelstan laughs, and Ragnar feels the now-familiar spread of warmth across his chest when he looks at his companion.
“You are quiet,” Ragnar says to him as they sit, pressed knee to shoulder.
“I thought you could use the quiet, after the shouting in the hall,” Athelstan replies, a small smile on his face.
“Nah,” Ragnar smiles at him, ruffles his hair. “You should tell me a story, priest.”
“What story would you like to hear?” Athelstan asks with a short laugh.
And he knows it’s wrong, he can feel Lagertha’s scowl from miles away, but Athelstan is warm and pliant, filled with strong drink, and Ragnar burns to know if he is right, if there is someone who once hurt Athelstan as no child should be hurt. “Tell me how you knew about Gurn,” he says quietly, and Athelstan stills beside him.
“I... no,” he says, brittle. “Ragnar -”
“You knew of men like him in the world, yet you have spent your life among men of your god,” he presses, gentling his voice as much as he can, holding Athelstan close to his side. “Who among them -”
“Please stop,” Athelstan says, his face coloring and his eyes closed tight. Athelstan is ashamed of this, whatever it is, and the idea of it makes Ragnar blindingly angry.
Ragnar leans close and presses his forehead to Athelstan’s temple, close enough that his words are barely a whisper. “There was a man who put his hands on you, who took you as a child should never be taken.” Athelstan shakes under his hands. “Am I wrong, priest?”
There is a pause before Athelstan shakes his head, no. He still will not open his eyes.
“How long? How long did your god allow this to happen?” he spits, because he’s always seen Athelstan’s god as pretty useless, weak and unmindful, but never more than this moment.
“Three years,” comes the answer, and it hits Ragnar hard in his chest, like a blow from an ax. His hand tightens on the back of Athelstan’s neck. “It was not -” Athelstan tries to say, tries to defend his god.
“Tell me what it was, then,” Ragnar growls and Athelstan shakes harder.
“I was... he said that I was pure,” Athelstan whispers, “He said that I was a vessel to purify his sin.”
Ragnar’s whole body fills with inchoate rage. “Who was he?” Ragnar asks, his voice grown hard as steel. “Tell me his name.” Tears fall down Athelstan’s cheeks and Ragnar wipes them away with his bare wrist. This is no time for tears; the gods alone know how many Athelstan has already shed for this monster. “Athelstan,” he says, and the priest must hear the warning in his voice.
“Brother Eadgar,” he manages, his voice still and small, like a child’s.
“Where is he now? Was he slain at Lindisfarne?” Part of Ragnar hopes he was, hopes that his brothers left this man’s entrails all over the walls of Athelstan’s monastery. But part hopes he was not, because then, oh then.
“N-no,” Athelstan says. “He was my teacher at Morpeth, before I was sent to the north to Lindisfarne. I prayed for it, to be sent away from him - I did all that was asked of me and asked forgiveness of God every day, and prayed that I could be given a new start, be made pure again. And one day, the Abbot of Lindisfarne sent word for a man with young eyes and a steady hand to work on their manuscripts. And I knew that God had heard me.”
“After only three years,” Ragnar says, full of venom, “how generous of him.”
“Ragnar -” he starts, and Ragnar will not hear of it, will not hear any more of Athelstan’s pleas of understanding for his impotent god.
“Stop. We will not - I know you did not wish to speak of it,” he says. Athelstan swipes at his wet cheeks and turns toward the fire. “Thank you, for warning us of Gurn.” Athelstan does not look at him. “You know that you are safe here, with us,” he says, and expects Athelstan to scoff, to remind him that he is a slave and Ragnar is a warrior, and his safety in Ragnar’s hands is tenuous at best. But Athelstan only nods and leans back into Ragnar’s side. It banks the raging fires in Ragnar’s chest for the moment, blooms it with a burst of affection for this man who has lost all and yet can still trust in Ragnar, and in his god, however useless he may be.
They lie next to each other that night - Ragnar wakes near dawn to find that Athelstan has pressed himself into the warmth of Ragnar’s body. They are still fully clothed, and Athelstan is seeking warmth more than comfort, but Ragnar curls his arm around Athelstan’s slight frame before he dozes off again. When he wakes a second time it is light out, and Athelstan is throwing kindling on the fire.
Ragnar does not speak of their conversation the night before, and Athelstan seems grateful. Ragnar is glad of it, because he would not know what else to say, how to put into words the savagery that he’s feeling, or the tenderness. He yearns to go home - Lagertha will understand him and give him her wisdom on the matter.
He spends his last day at the Thing in a daze, Athelstan never more than an arm's reach away. The Earl grudgingly gives him his due - allows Ragnar the use of his own boat, he thinks, seething - and the moment Ragnar is given his order for a Spring raid into England, he packs up camp and heads home, a grumbling Bjorn in tow. Athelstan follows closely, and his eyes watch Ragnar at every hastened step, but something righteous has awoken inside of him, and Ragnar will not be able to rest until it is satisfied.
Lagertha’s reaction does not dampen Ragnar’s resolve.
When he tells her what he’s learned of Athelstan’s past, she does not speak for a long while. She goes into the house and rests her head on Gyda’s shoulder as she practices at the loom, presses her hands against Bjorn’s shoulders as he winds knots for a new fishing net. She seeks out Athelstan, her gaze following him across the yard as he feeds the geese, down to the water when he takes the washing.
Those who do not know her, who have not seen her bloodied in battle, would mistake her calm demeanor for coldness, but Ragnar can see the fire in her eyes. She is thinking of Gurn, of Gyda, of the laughter that Athelstan has learned to embrace in their home.
“Where is Morpeth?” she asks simply when she comes to him that night. “Is it near the shore?” Lagertha does not tame him. She merely gives his rage focus, settles it until it feels good and right in his chest.
“He says he has always lived by the shore,” he reminds her, for that is one small thing they know about him, that he has always loved the sea. He grew up half-fish, he jokes with them, and though he is no sailor, Ragnar understands the faraway look in his eyes when he watches the warrior boats sail by on the river.
“We will find it,” she says surely, “and we will kill him.”
Ragnar falls asleep with a smile and dreams of rivers of blood.
The raiding party is chosen by Ragnar and by the Earl, a mixture of those with nerves of steel and those who would kowtow to the Earl’s will. This once, Ragnar doesn’t care to fight it. Rollo argues with him, accuses him of giving up, reminds him that the Earl’s spies will take their treasures again. Ragnar promises his brother that they will come back with enough gold to go around. He doesn’t tell him that his own treasure will be the sweetness of his revenge on a man he has never met.
“We shall sail further south along the English coast, to a place the priest has told me of,” he tells the crew when they are assembled. They murmur amongst themselves, but they all know of Athelstan and how he has shared valuable information before. They remember well the treasures they found. They will follow, and Ragnar will make certain they have their reward.
Lagertha demands to come along, of course - she will not be dissuaded. “You think you are the only one who cares for him?” she hisses when he tells her he can do this alone. “I would like to see this man’s face when you cut him open, husband,” she says with a savage smile and he could not ever love her more than he does in that moment.
Athelstan knows nothing of this, of course. He gets quieter as the raiding day approaches, reminded of his home - if it could be called that, the way he was treated - and what the raiding party plans to do there. Ragnar can’t tell him they will not kill; of course they will, they will cut across the land like a scythe, and collect treasures for their hordes and for their gods.
But Athelstan still works beside them, sits with them at their table, praising Gyda’s drawings and lightly scolding Bjorn for tracking mud into the house. He still smiles when Lagertha teases him about his boyish singing voice, and still laughs, blushing, when Ragnar tells a joke about Floki and a particularly pretty tree.
He does not ask to go with them. He does not ask to go home.
It is good, because Ragnar is not sure he could say no to the priest anymore, if his large, blue eyes turned to him, pleading, asking for his freedom.
But Athelstan does not ask, and Ragnar’s glad heart does not question why.
It is not the longest of journeys, but somehow each day feels like an eternity as they sail west. When they finally hear the birds and see the shore, the whole boat erupts in giddy shouts. Ragnar has them turn the boat south, skirting the coastline until they are further south than they have ever been. When he sees signs of life onshore, smoke from far-off fires, he has them drop the anchor.
They raid for three weeks, returning to the boat with treasures before sailing south and south again, washing the blood from their weapons and their faces. They have not found Morpeth. The men are grumbling about returning home, but Ragnar convinces them to do one more raid.
In the night, a storm nearly blows them off course, and Ragnar rages against the winds, shouting for Thor and Odin to let him finish his quest. Lagertha stands like a stone against the winds, her hair a wild crown around her head, and he knows she is praying as well. In the morning, the shore is quiet, and they can see smoke in the distance from a stone tower, like Lindisfarne, but larger. “The gods have sent us to our next conquest,” he tells the assembled men. In his bones, he knows this is the abbey at Morpeth, he knows that his gods have been more generous than Athelstan’s god would ever be.
The town at Morpeth is fortified more than the monastery had been - news of their raids the year before must have travelled quickly. Ragnar cuts down all who get between him and the gates of the Abbey, Lagertha at his elbow. The men make motions to enter the lowly homes of the town, but Ragnar rallies them to the hill where the Abbey stands. “They do not keep their silver, their jewels,” he shouts at them over the melee. “They give them all to their god!” The men follow Ragnar, because they believe he knows the ways of the English better than they do. His slave is an Englishman, after all.
It is easy enough to break down the gates at the Abbey. He does not expect the monks here to be as placid as Athelstan’s people were - not if they have heard of Ragnar and his Viking warriors, of the Blond Devil Woman who travels with him - and they do not disappoint. The monks are armed with crude weapons that they cannot hope to wield successfully, and they are waiting on the other side of the gate.
“We will not kill you all,” Lagertha calls through the splinters of the gate as they hack through it. The warriors behind him cannot understand her - she speaks in English words that Athelstan taught them over the long winter. “Give us Eadgar,” she says, and Ragnar scans the assembled monks for their reaction. One goes pale as a ghost - an older man, nearly as old as the Earl - and drops his knife as he runs to hide. Ragnar bares his teeth in a brutal smile.
“You see him?” he says low, to his wife. She nods. The gate snaps in half with a wicked crack and they all pour through, cutting down the monks like a blade through tall grass.
Ragnar and Lagertha do not stop to join the fighting. They head through the heavy wooden doors to follow Eadgar, to follow the one who dared to touch that which is rightfully theirs. They find him cowering on his knees in what looks like a school room, a cluster of the boys in his charge around him - not to protect them, Ragnar notes, but as a shield. Some are younger than Gyda. It will be a pleasure to kill this man, Ragnar thinks. His sword is light in his hand.
Ragnar hears Rollo enter the room behind him and turns. “Brother, these ones are for me to deal with,” he growls. Rollo frowns at him.
“There is no gold here,” he says, gesturing to the bare walls, “just kill them and be done with it.” He raises his sword and Lagertha steps in front of it.
“You will not touch the children,” she says, her voice cold as ice. “And the priest is for Ragnar.”
Rollo glares at them both, but he must see the madness in Ragnar’s eyes because he leaves, his footsteps echoing on the stone floor.
“Boys,” Lagertha says, her English heavy and wooden. “Come.” The children shake. One is crying; he has a mop of dark, curly hair, and Ragnar’s rage is so wild he can barely hold it in his body. “We will not kill you,” Lagertha says, putting aside her sword and holding out her hand. One by one they crawl away from the priest until they are all behind him, behind Lagertha’s shield.
“You are Eadgar,” Ragnar says, stepping forward and spinning his sword in his hand.
“Please, please,” the priest begs, and Ragnar is glad that he will not put up a fight. He will not make the man’s death easy - cowards do not deserve a quick end.
“I am Ragnar Lothbrok,” he says, his English not as clear as his wife’s, but good enough for his purposes. “You were the teacher of Athelstan, from Lindesfarne.”
Eadgar goes still as stone and Ragnar crouches down in front of him. He bares his teeth. “You know his name. Good.” Ragnar traces the tip of his sword over the priest’s throat. “He is mine, now. Mine and Lagertha’s.”
“Yes, yes,” Eadgar babbles, “he is yours. I have not seen him in many years. I have no quarrel with him.” Ragnar laughs in surprise.
“No... quarrel?” He knows this word, thinks that the priest cannot mean it, cannot believe he doesn’t know why Ragnar is here. Does a wolf have no quarrel with a rabbit? Does a raven have no quarrel with a sparrow? His mind goes white-hot, thinking of their little bird in this man’s hands. “Up,” he orders. The priest does not move, so Ragnar drags him to his feet. He cuts open the priest’s robes with his dagger, the tip catching on his skin so that he cries out, until they hang open and he is as naked as a newborn, save for a cross of red and gold around his neck.
“How many of them have you touched?” he asks in his own tongue, though he knows the man cannot understand him. Eadgar babbles as he begs, drops of blood running in tiny rivulets down his bared chest. “How many have you used, how many have you broken?” With each question, Ragnar takes a step forward, until he can grasp the man by his flaccid cock. “You will not need this any longer,” he whispers, and the man screams as Ragnar’s dagger slices it clean from his body.
One of the boys retches behind him; Lagertha puts her hand on his chin and turns his face toward Ragnar and Eadgar. “Watch,” she says, her voice steady, “it will end soon.”
Ragnar does as his wife bids - he cannot stand to look much longer at this man, this gross perversion of nature, with his red and snotty face twisted in agony. “I should leave you like this,” he says to Eadgar. “I should leave them to find you so, no longer a man.” He yanks Eadgar’s head back by his hair and looks into his wide, terrified eyes. “But I have vowed to split you open, for Athelstan, and I do not break my vows.”
His dagger slides through the man’s skin like butter, and Ragnar opens him from his belly up to his chest, until his hands are coated in blood and his prey collapses at his feet. He can hear the sobs of the boys behind him, but he thinks at least some of them will be glad of this, of the gift Ragnar has given them. “It is done, and done well,” Lagertha says, coming up behind him and wrapping her arms around his waist, unmindful of the blood. “Not as big as a bear, but just as fearsome, to our bird.” He can feel her smile against his neck. “ Did you want to bring him a token?”
“His head is too ugly for me to look at, I will not take it with us.” Ragnar spits on Eadgar’s body. Lagertha laughs.
“No, but maybe this?” She points to the cross around Eadgar’s neck. Ragnar pulls it over the man’s head and looks it over. It is fine, delicate gold inlaid with chips of red garnet, fine enough to be counted among the treasures he is tasked with turning over to the Earl. Lagertha takes it from his fingers and tucks it into her clothes, against her bosom. “Let them try to take it from me,” she says, and Ragnar grins and pulls her close for a kiss.
The voyage home is far quicker than the journey there. The winds are at their backs, and it is only a week before they are sailing down the rivers of Ragnar’s youth, watching his kinsmen wave from the shore.
They turn over most of their gold and silver to the Earl’s men, save for a few trinkets and the pendant still tucked between Lagertha’s breasts. Ragnar has no need of this gold for his horde, though he sees Rollo eyeing him angrily. There will be other raids - today, Ragnar just wants to get home to his farm, his children, to Athelstan.
“You cannot wait to get home to boast to your bird,” Lagertha says to him as they walk together quickly through the woods. “You know that he may not thank you for it.”
Ragnar nods. “Maybe not today,” he says, and she twines their arms together.
“How will you tell him?” she asks.
Ragnar has thought much about this, but he doesn’t know. Eadgar had hurt Athelstan so deeply he has not yet recovered. But his death may come as a shock to the priest, who has shown tenderness and mercy even to those who have hurt him in the past. Even to Ragnar, who has stolen him from his home and made him a slave. “Do you have advice for me, wife?” he asks, and she rolls her eyes. Ragnar laughs. “Of course you do, how silly of me.”
“He is not like you, Ragnar,” she says simply. “He does not need to know of the details, just the deed.”
The children are giddy to see them, running from the back fields to leap into Ragnar’s arms. Athelstan follows behind, wiping dirt from his hands and brushing his curls back from his face. His hair is nearly too long now, even where the baldness of his pate used to be - Lagertha will have to cut it for summer. He is smiling at them, wide and sunny.
“They have missed you,” he says, motioning to the children. Lagertha is on her knees, hugging them both tight.
“We have missed them too,” Ragnar says, his eyes never leaving Athelstan’s face. A joy bubbles up inside him, that he could give Athelstan this gift. Even if he rejects it, Ragnar will not be sorry for what he did. Athelstan ducks his head, a warm blush on his cheeks. Ragnar realizes he has been staring. “Come, tell us all you have been up to while we were away!” he says, turning back to his family. He waits, though, until Athelstan is in step with them, to start the walk to the house.
Dinner is a mess - Athelstan was not expecting them so soon, so there is only one bird plucked, hardly enough for a feast. Bjorn offers to catch them fish, but all he manages is a wriggling eel. Lagertha cooks it anyway, and they all eat some of both as well as warm, fresh bread with butter and ripe berries with cream. Athelstan cleans up the meal as Lagertha tucks the children into bed. When she comes back, she slips the gold and red pendant into Ragnar’s hand and looks at him expectantly.
He glances at where Athelstan is bent over the washpot, humming happily to himself, then back to his wife with a helpless shrug. He knows how to tell tales of battle, but this is a delicate dance, and he knows he will be clumsy at it.
Lagertha laughs at him, loud enough that Athelstan turns to see Ragnar pick her up and spin her around. “I am glad you have returned safely,” he says quietly to the both of them, and Ragnar’s heart stutters.
“We are glad to be home, priest,” Lagertha says with a smile. “Come, sit, we have brought you something.” Athelstan frowns in confusion, but lets himself be led to the soft furs of his sleeping pallet. He sits and Lagertha kneels at his feet and pulls a small bundle from her travelling pack. Ragnar kneels beside her, sorely confused. “I know you have missed these,” she says to Athelstan as he unwraps the oilskins. Inside there are two books bound in wood and leather.
“You are a sneak, wife,” Ragnar says, pinching her side. She must have stolen them from the Abbey while the others were gathering riches.
Lagertha tosses her hair back. “The Earl would not have cared for them, not like our bird, see?” she says, and when Ragnar turns to him, his breath catches. Athelstan’s face is broken open and radiant, and his runs his fingers over the spines of the books with near reverence. “I confess I do not know what they are?” Lagertha grins, “But this one has lovely pictures.”
Athelstan laughs. “This is a prayer book,” he says of the smaller one. “And this is a book of parables for children. That is why there are more pictures.” He flips it open and points to one page where a giant fish swims among the words. “See, this is Jonah’s whale!”
They are quiet for a moment while the priest inspects his new treasures. Lagertha nudges Ragnar with her shoulder. “Athelstan,” she says when Ragnar stays silent, “my husband also has a gift for you.”
“Ragnar?” Athelstan says with a small smile. “What have you brought me, then? A pot of ink? A feather quill?”
“No, only this.” Ragnar takes Athelstan’s hand in his and places the pendant in his palm. It shines bright against Athelstan’s pale skin. Specks of blood are still on it in places, blending into the red of the stones. He does not say anything else; he does not need to. Athelstan goes instantly quiet.
“Where did you -” he starts, his voice already thick with emotion.
“Morpeth,” Ragnar replies and Athelstan lets out a small sob. Ragnar’s blood runs cold. “I know you believe in forgiveness, but I could not forgive it,” he says harshly. “I could not allow -” he says, but Lagertha shushes him.
“It’s all right, bird,” she says gently, and wipes at the tears on Athelstan’s cheeks. Athelstan closes his fist around the pendant and looks up at them with wide, wet eyes.
“I tried to forgive him,” he says to Ragnar, “but I could not. I could never -”
“There are some things you cannot forgive,” Ragnar places a calloused hand on Athelstan’s knee. “And since your god did not exact his vengeance, I did. And happily.”
Athelstan’s tears fall freely. Lagertha rises to sit next to Athelstan on his bench and pulls him close, tucking his face to her neck like she did when Bjorn was a boy and had a scrape. “Athelstan,” he says, wishing the priest to know his full measure, to reassure him that the death was worthy and right, “you must know -” but Lagertha silences him with a look.
“You have done your deed,” she says to him. “Now he must have time.” She does not say time for what. He goes to their bed and undresses with quick, jerky movements. Lagertha comes to bed much later, her face lined with exhaustion.
“Is he -”
“He will be fine,” she sighs. “Soon enough. He has had a shock.”
“A good one?” Ragnar asks. He is shaken by his own lack of surety - surely the death of Eadgar will lessen the burden on Athelstan’s heart, will help him to heal, but Athelstan’s sobs were not merely of relief. Some, he suspects, are for the child he was, the childhood that was taken from him. He hopes there were none for him, for he killed proudly and without shame, in full view of his gods.
“Yes, love,” Lagertha reassures him. “Sleep, only time can fix the rest.”
Athelstan is quiet through the next day, and the one after. Ragnar notices, though, a glint of gold around his neck when he bends to pick berries in the field. He wears his token, Ragnar thinks, and cannot hide his pride when he points it out to Lagertha. “Yes, you are very keen,” she says to him, exasperated. “Take care not to expect miracles, Ragnar. He is still very raw.”
Ragnar can see the rawness in him, but not the way Lagertha imagines. Athelstan’s eyes track him everywhere now, like when he first came to the farm, but they are not wary, just watchful. Ragnar takes care to bathe in the river where Athelstan can keep watching - he is not disappointed by the flush in the priests cheeks when he walks naked to the shore. There is a tension in Athelstan that is new, an electric charge when their eyes meet. Ragnar thinks he is not imagining it, but he doesn’t ask Lagertha in case he is wrong. It’s nice to feel like the earl of his own kingdom, with Athelstan’s sharp eyes on him always.
Nearly a week has passed when Athelstan comes to them as they get ready for bed, the children already asleep. He’s nervous, fiddling with the pendant through his thin summer shirt, one that was Ragnar’s years ago. “You can ask anything, you know,” Lagertha says plainly, like Athelstan wishes to ask about crops, or the weather. “We don’t bite.”
Athelstan presses his hand flat against his chest, the pendant underneath. “I don’t understand,” he says, his eyes flitting between them. “Why did you do this for me?”
Ragnar exhales sharply - how could he not understand! - but Lagertha holds up her hand to quiet him. “Does it matter why?” she asks, and Athelstan gapes at her.
“Does it - yes,” he says, “I am a slave in your home, you owe me nothing. And yet you risk the anger of the Earl, the dangers of the sea to do this thing. The why is everything, Lagertha.”
“Ragnar, will you tell him why? Why we hunted this man down?” she says. Ragnar crosses his arms.
“He was a serpent in the grass,” Ragnar says coldly. “He did things no man should ever do, used children as they should never be used. Do you know that we found him in your old schoolroom, Athelstan? Do you think he stopped, once you were sent away? Do you think you were his first, or his last?”
Athelstan closes his eyes, his fingers shaking. “I should have -” he starts but Lagertha reaches for him, curls a hand around the back of his neck and shakes him so that he opens his eyes.
“No, Athelstan, do not lay blame at anyone’s feet but his own. You were a child with no one to protect you. It was not your place to stop it, when living it was hard enough.”
“His death was sweet,” Ragnar tells him. “The gods led me to him, living and teaching as a man of your god. But he was mocking your god, was he not? His end will be celebrated by many, here and in Valhalla, do you not think?”
Athelstan is quiet for a long moment. “I cannot say by many,” he says finally, with a ghost of a smile. “but certainly by me.” He looks at them. “You did this because your gods called you to?” he asks and Ragnar’s face twists in frustration.
“We did it because you called us to,” he nearly shouts and Athelstan flinches, eyes wide. Ragnar takes a step away from him. He leans heavily on their sturdy wooden table, head dropping between his shoulders. “I could not let a man live who had cause you such sorrow,” he says quietly.
“You did not owe me this,” Athelstan says, and Ragnar looks up at him sharply.
“You are mine,” he snaps, “as Lagertha is mine, as Bjorn and Gyda. Any man who dares to harm you must answer to me,” he declares savagely. “Sure you must know this by now, priest? I will protect the things I love.”
The room goes quiet as Ragnar’s last word echoes between them. Athelstan’s lips part in a silent exhale. Lagertha stands at Athelstan’s side, straight and tall, her mouth twisted into a knowing smile. Ragnar stays still and quiet; he did not mean to say it, but nor was the word misspoken. Athelstan will see them well, now, and Ragnar will at least have the satisfaction of knowing he would do this all again, every inch of it. He watches as Athelstan’s fingers draw the pendant from under his shirt, his thumb running over the polished stones.
Athelstan looks from Lagertha’s open face to Ragnar’s and he must see the adoration written there. “But you,” Athelstan pauses, blinking hard. “You stopped asking,” he says, his voice almost accusatory. “You never made it seem as though -”
Ragnar barks out a laugh. “A man has his pride, Athelstan, and you pushed mine to its limit. Besides,” he adds gently, “it did not seem to be something you would accept. Was I wrong?”
“No,” Athelstan admits, but his fingers press again to the necklace he wears. “But I could not - I did not see what it was that you offered.”
Ragnar loops his arm around his wife’s waist and pulls her close to his side. “What we offer now is much more than what we offered then,” he says. “You have grown into our home, so much that there is not a corner without you in it. So, shall we ask again, Athelstan? What will you say?” Athelstan looks at them for a long moment, not lost in a memory, but present, here, with them in their warm home.
“What,” Athelstan starts, and clears his throat. He looks to Lagertha. “When he wooed you and succeeded, what did you give him in return?” he asks.
She smiles. “I gave him my heart,” she says. “And a kiss, of course.”
Athelstan turns his head to Ragnar, and his smile quavers, but it’s real. “He already has my heart,” he says and Ragnar feels as though the gods have lifted him onto their shoulders.
“A kiss, then,” he says, reaching for Athelstan. Athelstan meets his lips halfway, smiling and sweet. Ragnar’s heart flutters in his chest, like a little bird.