Romans 12:1 I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.
It starts with small things. Their neighbours whisper and point whenever he passes, but swiftly turn away if he meets their gaze, some making strange gestures with their hands, or spitting on the ground as he leaves. He supposes they find him a curiosity, or that they do this to express their disapproval of his freedom, of the rope conspicuously absent from his neck. Then there are angular shapes engraved on their fence posts, the letters called runes that mean little to him, but their meaning is clear enough to frighten the children and have Ragnar and Lagertha frowning as they cut them out of the wood. He asks them about it, but they shake their heads and will not discuss it with him, although he hears them murmuring in low whispers when they think him asleep. Soon, they ask him not to pray outside the house, to let his tonsure grow out, to hide his small wooden cross beneath his tunic. He is reluctant to do these things, but he can feel the stares of the people heavy with threat whenever he accompanies Ragnar outside of their farm, so he agrees.
It is not enough.
It comes to a head when he realises his gospel is missing. Ragnar berates Bjorn, but the boy’s anger is genuine: he has not taken it. They turn the house and the farm upside down searching, but the book has gone. Athelstan should be angry, should be heartbroken at the loss of something so dear to him, but instead, he is afraid, because when Lagertha meets his eyes he can see a quiet terror, can feel her anxiety in the way she squeezes his shoulder and brushes his hair from his face. Ragnar is angry, spitting and cursing, chopping wood in a frenzy as he works out his temper, and this is how Athelstan knows he is afraid too. The fear sits coiled inside him as he prays, quietly and alone, and he waits to discover what it is he should be afraid of.
The answer comes quickly enough.
They are summoned to the Earl’s hall, all three of them, and they arrive to a sullen crowd and a gleam of triumph in Haraldson’s eyes. This alone would make Athelstan wary, but when the Earl’s warriors rip away his cross, force him to his knees, bind his hands and push a gag into his mouth, he knows that he is in real danger of death.
The Earl speaks, his face solemn as if he were the dispenser of justice a true king should be. “Ragnar Lothbrok, your slave is accused of witchcraft. It is known that he worships no good god, and he has been heard chanting incantations and seen writing curses. Worse still, his spellbook has been found, with foul magics depicted in it.”
The crowd is silent as the Earl speaks. Svein holds Athelstan’s gospel above his head, turning slowly so the assembled people can see it. The man knows how to perform, he must be granted that, face grim as he opens the book to the illustrations of the holy martyrs that decorate the word of God: St. Peter, crucified upside down; St. Sebastian, pierced by arrows; St. Catherine, broken on the wheel; St. Alban, beheaded, the first British saint to be martyred. The assembly gasps, although whether in horror at the suffering or awe at the fine detail, Athelstan cannot tell. He has seen no books among the north people. He is numb with horror. Is this a sign that he is to share the martyrs’ fate and die for his faith at the hands of the heathens?
The Earl continues, sounding suitably scandalised. “What kind of man would have such a thing in his possession? Who knows what ill-will he has worked among our people with it?”
The assembly is restless again, voices shouting assent and calling to the gods to protect them from this foreign magic. Athelstan closes his eyes and blocks out the cries and accusations, clinging to the familiar rhythm of Latin, running through all the prayers he can recall, filling his head with them as he waits to be dragged outside and executed. The great irony is that the prayers bring no comfort, just as they have not for some time now. Doubt is an ever-present companion for Athelstan, and it is because he is no longer sure that God sees or cares for him that he has kept up his outward devotions, because if he stopped he would know that he truly is abandoned.
Ragnar’s hand on his shoulder comes as a sudden shock, and as he comes back to himself, he realises Lagertha is speaking.
“You give this man’s god too much credit,” she says steadily, calmly, as if they were bartering for fish rather than discussing his imminent death. “The power of the White Christ cannot prevail against the might of our gods. We took this priest from the temple altar itself, and his god did not save him. He works no ill-will, but serves us faithfully, and just as he cannot harm us, his god cannot harm any of you.”
It is painful, to be spoken of in this way, but Ragnar’s hand is warm and squeezes him tightly. They are fighting for his life, Athelstan realises, and he bows his head, trying to look as small and weak as possible. It is not difficult.
“Thor watches over us,” Ragnar adds, pitching his voice so it carries above the murmuring of the disturbed crowd. “Odin protects us, and Freyr blesses us with his bounty. To kill this man out of fear of his god would be cowardly, and an insult to the strength and glory of our gods.”
The few Athelstan can see out of the corner of his eye are nodding, and a few voices are answering yes, that this slave is nothing to be feared, and it would be a waste of the gods’ bounty to kill him. The mood in the hall is turning and a fierce hope grips him that he may live. He wants so badly to live.
“Then give him to the gods!” The shout comes from the back of the hall, from an unfamiliar voice, but is soon picked up and carried forward. “Sacrifice him to Thor, in thanks for his favour!”
“No, hang him, give him to Odin, and ask for his blessings in the next battle!”
“Take him out to sea and drown him, that Njord will ease your next voyage!”
The suggestions pour down over Athelstan’s head and Ragnar’s hand tightens even harder on his shoulder, hard enough to bruise. He had not realised how frightened the community had become, that his psalms and prayers could be threatening to these fierce pagan people. Any one of them could kill him before he could defend himself; was the Earl’s hand in this, stirring the people against him as a way to shame Ragnar? Lord, protect me, he thinks desperately, but without any real hope of being heard. Ragnar and Lagertha were right all along: his God is not watching, his God is not here. He is alone.
“He is mine,” Ragnar said quietly, and then again, louder, his voice thundering through the hall: “This man belongs to me!”
The weight of the assembly’s eyes is like a living thing, a heavy pressure keeping Athelstan’s eyes down even as his heart leaps with hope and a strange pleasure at Ragnar’s words.
“I do not share your fear,” Ragnar says, no doubt smiling as he delivers the insult. “But the gods deserve all honour, and I would not stand against the people’s will. The priest will be sacrificed.”
Athelstan holds his breath. The room is silent.
“I will sacrifice him to Freyr,” announces Ragnar, his hand like a vice on Athelstan’s shoulder. “This priest gave up his body to his god, swore an oath to know no pleasure.” He rolls the word pleasure in his mouth, and as easily as that he has them all hanging on his words. “I will make him an oathbreaker. I will take him in Freyr’s name, and in his sacred grove, where all may see me do so. I will make this priest beg and plead, and give himself up entirely to our god and to me. I will give his seed and his pleasure to the god as an offering, to ask for a plentiful harvest to see us through the winter, and when I do so, you will see that his strength is nothing against mine, and that whatever ill-will he bears, it is nothing in the face of our gods’ power.”
The room explodes in cheers and shouts. Athelstan is glad he cannot see Ragnar’s face, does not want to know what expression it holds. The Earl is silent, no doubt furious, as Ragnar leads the jubilant crowd out of the hall. Lagertha is swiftly at Athelstan’s side, pulling him too his feet and adding a leading rope to his bound hands. He is careful to keep his head bowed, but once out in the bright sunlight Lagertha grips him firmly by the chin to lift his head and rip away the gag.
“Would you prefer to die?” Her expression is fierce and her voice low. “We would rather you live, Ragnar and I, but if this is something you truly cannot endure…it would be quick, Athelstan. As quick and as easy as he could make it, and then you would be with your god.”
He knows this is a rare offer, for a slave to be given a choice in the manner of his dying, and it is proof again of their strange regard for him. She waits for his answer, still holding his face. Athelstan swallows and tries to think. He knows that he should choose death, should chose a glorious martyrdom and die with pride and God’s name on his lips, but he wants to live, oh, he wants to live.
“Speak, Athelstan,” Lagertha says urgently. “If we do not hurry, the people will soon be shouting for your death again.”
He can hear Ragnar in the distance, laughing and whooping, keeping the people’s attention on him as much as he can. God is not going to save him, but Ragnar and Lagertha might.
“I want to live,” Athelstan chokes out, ashamed at his desperation. “I want -”
“Then listen,” Lagertha interrupts, holding his gaze. “The people must see you overcome. You must make a show of resisting, of being unwilling at first. Then you must let Ragnar bring you pleasure, give yourself over to it, as loudly as you can. Do you understand?”
Athelstan nods, not trusting his voice. It is shameful, too shameful to think on, but he sees the wisdom in what she says, and if he were to think on it, he might think that it is not such a terrible thing to let Ragnar take him, that it might even be a thought that he has been thinking often, late at night, although he always thought of Lagertha and their bed and not this…this public event.
“Do not be afraid,” she says more gently, releasing his chin to stroke his cheek lightly for a moment. “Ragnar will treat you as kindly as he can. Do not think of your god, for he is surely not here with you now. Give yourself up to Freyr and my husband, and know that we will protect you.”
Athelstan nods again, heart racing at the thought of Ragnar’s kindness, at the way both he and Lagertha have shamelessly stared at him, trailed their hands over him, invited him into their bed. He wishes now that he had gone to them.
They have tarried too long. Lagertha walks a step ahead, back straight and head high, pulling Athelstan along by the lead rope much as Ragnar had done when he first arrived here. Athelstan cares nothing for Freyr, and will not let himself think any longer on the God that has left him in this heathen land. But, he thinks as he bows his head again, dragging his feet as much as he dares, he can believe in what Lagertha has said, and he can believe in her and Ragnar.
The grove of the gods is just outside of Kattegat. Athelstan has only been here once, when Ragnar brought him to watch as the longboat crew sacrificed a horse to Odin, in thanks for his protection in their battles with the Saxons. The clearing is large enough to hold the entire community, and it looks like nearly every adult has come to watch, with the notable exception of the Earl. Svein is in attendance though, taking a place of honour near the statues of the gods. The crowd is silent in this sacred place, forming a ring around the clearing that parts and closes as Lagertha leads him through.
Ragnar stands in the centre of the clearing. He is already naked, his clothing in a loose pile at his feet. He is holding a shallow bowl, and as they draw closer, Athelstan can see this his skin is shining with patches of oil. He seems to have drawn runes on his chest and arms, presumably invoking the god’s favour. He looks every inch the rapacious heathen the monks told stories of in the monastery, tantalising each other with wild tales of obscene rites and demonic idols. He is breathtaking.
Ragnar turns to the statue of Freyr as Lagertha parades Athelstan around the clearing three times. Ragnar is chanting some kind of invocation, or perhaps a prayer. Athelstan may doubt his God, but he cannot believe in the power of the wooden idols worshipped here. The huge wooden posts are carved in the likeness of the most important gods: Odin, Thor and Freyr. Athelstan knows enough to recognise the storm god by his hammer and the battle god by his armour, but even the most sheltered novice monk would have no trouble identifying the fertility god statue, carved in the image of a huge bearded man with an enormous erection.
Lagertha leads him to the foot of Freyr’s statue and strips him. The trousers come off easily enough, but the tunic must be wrestled over his head and bunched awkwardly around his bound hands. Lagertha takes the opportunity to slightly loosen the rope, not enough for his hands to be free, but making him a little more comfortable at least. Athelstan shivers in the cold and at the feel of the crowd’s eyes on him. Lagertha squeezes his fingers tightly before she pushes him to the ground. He grunts as he goes to his knees, the noise carrying in the still air. She ties the rope to a ring at the base of the idol and pushes and pulls at him until he is flat on his back, his arms above his head with the rope taut. He pulls at it a little but this is not for show: he cannot pull away, cannot quite get his legs under him enough to do much more than lift his hips.
He pulls his head as far down to his chest as he can manage to watch Lagertha walk away from him. She stands before Ragnar and takes the bowl from him. After dipping two fingers into the oil she rubs her hands together, and reaches between Ragnar’s legs. She whispers to him as she fondles his heavy balls and strokes him to hardness and Ragnar moans appreciatively at her touch and her words.
All too soon she stops and hands the bowl back to Ragnar. As she takes her place by the idol she begins to chant, a slow repetition of the god’s name punctuated with clapping. The crowd begins to join in, some stamping their feet, building up a rhythm as Ragnar approaches Athelstan and kneels between his legs. Athelstan closes his eyes but it only serves to heighten his anticipation, making him acutely aware of the heat of Ragnar’s body and the sound of his own ragged breathing.
“Look at me.” It is a command, not a request and Athelstan obeys without thinking. Ragnar is crouched over him, his face only inches from Athelstan’s. His eyes are so very blue. “Your god has failed you,” Ragnar says quietly. “But I will not.” Athelstan believes him utterly.
“Yes,” Athelstan manages, and he is not even sure what he is saying yes to, but it seems to be enough for Ragnar. He knows it is coming but cannot resist jerking away when Ragnar’s hand closes around his cock. He twists away as best he can, but Ragnar places his forearm across Athelstan’s abdomen, holding him in place with his weight and strength. The world narrows and the noise of the crowd fades away until all he knows is the slide of Ragnar’s oil-slick hand on his cock. He has done this to himself before, ashamed but desperate after hearing Ragnar and Lagertha’s coupling, but it was nothing like this. He clenches his fists and wills his body to be still. He must resist, or at least be seen to.
“That’s it,” Ragnar says, barely loud enough for Athelstan to hear, and he’s not sure if he’s being praised for his attempts at acting or for the fact that he is desperately hard at Ragnar’s touch. Ragnar strokes him slowly, lightly, just enough to have Athelstan trembling as he tries to concentrate on not pushing into the maddeningly loose grip. Ragnar is staring into his face, watching avidly as Athelstan pants. He licks his lips and Athelstan cannot help but want to kiss him. But this is not a seduction and they are not safe at home with only Lagertha watching. Ragnar must fulfil his boast and claim Athelstan for his heathen god.
Ragnar suddenly tightens his grip and twists as he slides up to the head of Athelstan’s cock and the sudden spark of pleasure wrenches a moan from Athelstan, his back arching, pushing his body against Ragnar’s. Ragnar bares his teeth in a grin and pulls back, pulls away, his hands leaving Athelstan’s body. Athelstan whimpers, bereft, but Ragnar only sits back on his heels between Athelstan’s legs and laughs as the monk strains against the rope keeping him in place. He has the bowl of oil in his hands again and spreads a liberal amount over his palms before placing it off to one side.
Resist, Athelstan thinks desperately as Ragnar’s hands squeeze his cock gently before moving lower, the callouses rough against the soft skin of his inner thighs. Resist, because this is not something he has ever dared to do, and the insistent pressure of Ragnar’s fingers at his hole should not provoke a flutter of excitement and need. Resist, because Ragnar’s hot gaze is fixed on Athelstan’s face even as one finger breaches him, impossibly intimate in this very public violation.
Ragnar slides his finger slowly in and out of Athelstan for a few moments before adding a second, gently scissoring them to stretch Athelstan as gently as he can. It is – strange, and new, and a little uncomfortable, but then Ragnar reaches for his flagging erection with his other hand and suddenly it is better, the sensation of being filled curiously satisfying as Ragnar continues to stroke him slowly. The third finger burns at first but then Ragnar grunts and shifts the angle of his hand, crooking his fingers and doing – something, stroking against something deep inside and it is good, so intensely good that Athelstan yelps, the noise high and thin.
Ragnar is breathing heavily now, as he watches Athelstan squirm and pant, frustrated at how little he can move. He wants – he wants more, he wants to feel Ragnar’s body against him again, he wants to know how it feels to be taken, to scream and buck beneath Ragnar as he has seen Lagertha do, her joy in Ragnar’s skill obvious and unfeigned. He wants that, and he opens to ask, the pleas falling from his mouth in a desperate rush of English and Norse.
That seems to be what Ragnar was waiting for, for as soon as Athelstan begins to beg he moves, sliding his fingers out of Athelstan’s body. He pulls Athelstan’s legs up so they rest on his shoulders, his hips clear off the floor of the clearing, and leans forward so he is overshadowing Athelstan’s smaller frame. He braces himself with one hand and uses the other to guide his cock to Athelstan’s entrance. The blunt pressure should frighten Athelstan but he welcomes it, wants it, and he looks into Ragnar’s eyes and gasps, “Please.”
Ragnar snarls and complies, his hips jerking as he pushes his way inside in one powerful thrust. Athelstan sobs at the unexpected heat, the overwhelming sensation of being penetrated. Ragnar holds still as Athelstan’s body clenches and spasms around him, adjusting to this new, much larger invasion, although the faint tremor in his arms and the way his teeth are gritted are clear signs of how hard this wait is for him.
Once Athelstan’s body relaxes around him Ragnar begins to move, slowly at first but then faster and harder, the slap of skin on skin resounding around the clearing. Athelstan does not care, cares nothing for the crowd or the noise, his whole being focused on Ragnar, on the power in his body as he surges into Athelstan, of the drag of his cock inside him, of the look of sheer pleasure on his face as he fucks into him. It is better than anything he has ever dreamed, and then Ragnar shifts position, sliding his knees under him, taking Athelstan’s weight on his lap and holding his legs apart and now every time he thrusts his cock drags against that white-hot spot and Athelstan is howling in pleasure, his voice cracking under the strain.
It is blissful, it is incredible, it is everything he wanted except that Ragnar is not touching his aching cock and he writhes and twists, trying to get his hands free so he can touch himself, just a little, for just a few quick pulls, just a bit of friction and he would be coming, he can feel it pooling in his belly. But he cannot free his hands and Ragnar knows, Ragnar is grinning at him in unholy glee but he only picks up his own pace, his rhythm stuttering and failing as with a deep groan he comes, his cock pulsing wetly inside Athelstan. Ragnar slumps forward, letting Athelstan’s legs drop. Athelstan is begging again as Ragnar pulls out with a wet pop, his voice rising in desperation as Ragnar just looks at him smirking.
“Please, Ragnar, oh, please,” Athelstan all but shouts and finally, finally, Ragnar’s hand closes tightly around his cock and pumps him once, twice, three times and Athelstan is coming, screaming, the entire world turning white as his orgasm rips through him with an intensity he has never known before. When he comes back to himself Ragnar is standing, his come-covered hand held high above his head. He seems to be showing the proof of Athelstan’s surrender to the crowd who are still calling Freyr’s name. Ragnar steps over Athelstan to reach the statue of the god and slowly, carefully rubs the monk’s seed over the wooden erection.
“See how easily the priest is undone!” Ragnar cries and is met with a ragged cheer. “Freyr has accepted the sacrifice. The god is pleased and so are we!”
There is much laughter and cheering and ribald comments, but Athelstan ignores it all, still shuddering with the aftershocks of his orgasm. He doesn’t move as Lagertha swiftly unties him and she has to help him stand before she can tug his tangled tunic back down over his exposed body. Ragnar moves across the clearing to pull his own clothes back on before coming back to them, smiling and laughing as his friends shout comments on his performance. He looks carefully at Athelstan, who is slumped against Lagertha, uncomfortably aware of the ache in his back and the wetness sliding down his thighs.
“Best to make a show of it,” Lagertha says confusingly, for surely the display is over and they are safe? But Ragnar nods and steps forward, hoisting Athelstan into his arms, lifting him as if he were Bjorn or Gyda, half-asleep after a long day. Athelstan starts to protest at being carried but soon thinks better of it: it is a long walk back to the farm and his body is complaining at the new and exhausting use it has been put to.
The three of them exit the god’s grove without comment: many in the crowd have chosen to make their own sacrifice to Freyr in the wake of Ragnar’s success and the clearing is now full of moaning couples, trios and intricately entwined knots of people, each with a few appreciative bystanders. Even Svein has lost interest in Athelstan, his attention fixed on two shieldmaidens who have their heads buried between each other’s thighs. Athelstan is too exhausted to care for this further proof of heathen debauchery and besides, Lagertha is running her fingers through his hair as she walks at Ragnar’s side and he closes his eyes at the pleasantly soothing sensation.
“You need not fear anymore,” Ragnar says, and Athelstan can feel the rumbling of his voice where he is pressed against Ragnar’s chest. “We will protect you, come what may.”
And Athelstan believes him, believes in them, and feels a sense of safety and security he has not had since they brought him to this harsh land. God may have abandoned him, but Ragnar and Lagertha will not.
“You are ours, Athelstan,” Lagertha says, her hand gentle on his head.
“Yes,” he says and lets sleep overtake him, for he is safe in their arms.