"I don't know what you think you gain by waiting," Rollo said for the hundredth time as they sat at the shore, throwing rocks into the water. "The Earl hasn't got as many loyal men as he thinks he has, and while you putter around at home he may be gathering a force against you."
Ragnar stifled a sigh. He loved his brother, and trusted no one better to guard his back, except perhaps Lagertha, but since they were young boys, Rollo had preferred action to thought, and no explanations of strategy or the ways in which glory was truly obtained would persuade him to adopt new ways of thinking. "The Earl may not have many loyal men now," he said, "but if some upstart were to attack him, throwing Kattegat and the whole of the country into disorder, suddenly he would have more loyal men. Some of the people would join with him, some with us, and before long the land would be torn apart by war and leave us open to attack from outside."
"A quick assassination," then, said Rollo, clearly exasperated himself. "Subtle, fast, in and out--"
"I don't think anyone has ever used the words 'subtle, fast, in and out' to describe you or anything you've ever done, unless it was women that you fucked."
For a long moment, he thought there was a real possibility that Rollo would hit him, but just as the silence became almost too uncomfortable to bear, a grin broke out on Rollo's face and he burst into laughter. That got Ragnar laughing, as well, and they laughed until their sides ached and the tension between them had faded away.
"Let's not argue about it anymore," said Ragnar when he could laugh no more. "Come, your cup is empty. Athelstan!"
The priest appeared in the space between the trees that separated Ragnar's farm from the beach, sweaty and covered in grime. It was on the tip of Ragnar's tongue to ask what he'd been up to, when he recalled he'd set the priest to repairing the pig pen, which the big boar had broken through a few nights back. Well, the pigs weren't going anywhere; they knew where their best interest lay. "Go run into the house and fetch another skin of mead," he said.
The priest nodded, wiping sweat from his head. He was still panting with exertion, and Ragnar frowned. Athelstan was a better worker than he would have anticipated, given the luxury of Lindisfarne, but it wasn't as if the farm hadn't gotten along fine for years with only four workers, and there was no sense in working the man to exhaustion. "Wait," he said as Athelstan turned to go. "You look as if you could use a drink, too. Why don't you go fetch yourself a cup and join us?"
It was difficult to tell who looked more surprised at this, Athelstan or Rollo. The priest was the first to speak. "Oh, I couldn't," he said, looking from Ragnar to Rollo with nervous confusion writ large on his face. "I've got to finish the pig pen, and then there's the flour to grind, and the clothes to wash--"
Perhaps he had been pushing the priest a bit hard. "I know what has to be done--I gave you the chores, and I can give you a break, as well."
"I don't know," said Athelstan, "is it really appropriate to--"
"Your master gave you an order, slave," snapped Rollo. "If he says you're drinking with us, you're drinking with us, and if you talk back again I'll knock every tooth in your head loose."
Athelstan blinked, his eyes large in his pale face, and stood like a deer staring down a hunter's arrow. Ragnar sighed. So much for a pleasant afternoon drink. "The mead, Athelstan," he said gently, and the priest scurried off. When he was out of earshot, Ragnar turned to Rollo. "That was unnecessary," he said.
"And it's necessary to have your idiot priest drink with us?" said Rollo irritably. "Why are you so damned soft with him? If you can't get your own slave to show you respect, how do you expect the Earl to?"
"He respects me plenty." It was true enough, Ragnar thought; Athelstan occasionally argued, but he nearly always obeyed, and much of the time he acted more like a very polite houseguest than a foreigner Ragnar had taken as plunder.
Rollo's scoff said clearly what he thought about Athelstan's respect. "If you ask me, he needs a good beating."
Ragnar felt his temper rise. "Well, nobody asked you. And if you raise your hand to him, I won't be happy about it."
"Maybe you have gotten soft," Rollo declared with a narrow-eyed glare. "Although that wouldn't explain why you're taking a slave's part over your own brother's."
Damn Rollo's thickheaded stupidity. "It's not about taking his part," he snapped. "I don't want him to fear me. How do you think I got all that information about the customs and land of the English? You think I beat it out of him?"
Rollo shrugged, as if to say, That's what I would have done. Of course it was.
"Well, maybe that would have worked. On the other hand, since the men of his faith are rewarded after they die if they suffer in their god's name, maybe it wouldn't have. But either way, it would have been unpleasant, and he wouldn't have been much use to me afterwards. So that's not what I did."
"Which was what?" snapped Rollo impatiently.
"I spoke softly to him, gave him a few good meals, and got him drunk on my best mead," said Ragnar. "He couldn't tell me about England quickly enough to please him. And what happened after that? My wife and I sailed off and left our children in his care, and rather than running away, he took care of my farm, kept my children well-fed, and came to meet us in Kattegat, where he drank in celebration of our escaping punishment for Knut's death. All this, I got for the small price of keeping my temper and a few cups of mead."
"So," said Rollo, making a rude noise, "is he your pet, then?"
The scorn in his voice rubbed Ragnar the wrong way. "Do you know why the men follow me and not you?" he said. "It's because you have only ever learned one way to get what you want. Well,
not every prize can be won by chasing it down and hitting it with an ax. Different problems call for different ideas, and sometimes, if you are patient and treat what you seek kindly, it will lay itself in your hands."
"Probably they follow you because you're insane, and everyone knows it's foolish to argue with a madman." Rollo was still glaring, but the lines of his face were softening somewhat, so Ragnar thought he had not angered his brother too much.
"Maybe," he said. "But all the same, don't hit him." The work of weeks and months could be easily undone if Rollo lost his temper, and then Ragnar would be stuck with the cringing little mouse he'd pulled out of hiding at Lindisfarne. And if Ragnar wanted the priest curious and affable and willing to talk about his land and his gods, rather than cowering and fearful, well, that was Ragnar's business and nobody else's.
The next raiding season, Ragnar decided, would be something truly spectacular. England lay open to him like a box full of treasures. Though its armies would no longer underestimate the men of the North, they couldn't possibly guard all of the monasteries along the coast--if Athelstan's drunken ramblings had been even remotely accurate, there were enough of them that Ragnar and his friends could raid for years, decades, without running out.
But first, of course, there was the matter of the Earl. Ragnar's men had different ideas about how to deal with that particular problem, most of them dreadfully foolish. Ragnar would have to exert every bit of his persuasive ability to keep Leif from immediately seeking vengeance for his father and getting himself killed. And Rollo had grown difficult to predict since the business with Knut, which worried Ragnar. It was a relief to leave the meeting at Leif's house and return to the familiar houses and fields of home.
He saw the shoreline before he reached the house, and stopped to see if any of his family were there among the cluster of women, children, and slaves fishing and mending nets and gathering eggs from sea birds' nests. Sure enough, there were Bjorn and Athelstan--it seemed as if the boy was teaching the priest how to mend the traps they used for shellfish. From here it appeared that Athelstan was interspersing his clumsy attempts with numerous questions, and Bjorn was answering with businesslike exasperation. Ragnar smiled. He would join them in a minute, he decided, but first he would take a moment to rest from his journey and simply enjoy the peaceful sight.
He was not the only one watching. A few paces away stood an older man, Grípr. Ragnar felt his hackles rise. Grípr was no toady for the Earl, but nor was he the sort of man Ragnar particularly wanted looking at his son or his slave. He was a good fighter, but his appetites were harsh and strange and had nothing to do with plunder--at least, plunder of the non-human variety.
Ragnar knew that Rollo or Leif would take advantage if a willing friend had a slave or the opportunity presented itself during a raid--he preferred his bed partners willing and enthusiastic, but he understood, at least, why they, who had no slaves or women of their own, sought pleasure when they could from those who could not refuse them. But to seek out the unwilling intentionally, because they were unwilling--with a wife at home, to come to feasts solely for an opportunity to rape a slave, or to go raiding not for treasure but for sex--Ragnar could neither understand nor excuse that. Lagertha hated Grípr venomously and wouldn't have him in the house, and Ragnar wasn't about to speak for the man. If Grípr had never tried something on a free woman, or maybe even a boy or a man, Ragnar would be very surprised.
"Good day, Ragnar Lothbrok," the other man greeted.
"Grípr Soltinnaðr," Ragnar said neutrally.
"I have heard of your journeys to the west," said Grípr. "Do you suppose you will ever be allowed to go on another? Rumor tells me the Earl is as angry as he has ever been."
"Anger cools," Ragnar replied, not wanting to reveal any of his true thoughts to this snake. "The Earl is a clever man, and will realize there is more profit in raids to the west than there is in feuding with his own people."
Grípr nodded. "Perhaps you are right," he said. "I can see that the raids have been most profitable for you." He nodded his head in the direction of Athelstan and Bjorn. "You claimed one of the English priests for your own, didn't you?"
"I did," said Ragnar, hoping that his tone communicated his lack of desire to continue speaking on this subject.
Evidently it failed. "Dýri Egilsson says he bought one of those priests from the Earl. He says they live separately from their women as virgins. Is that so?"
Ragnar felt his gorge rising. He did not at all like the direction of this conversation. He shrugged without saying anything.
As usual, Grípr ignored his hint. "I think their god must be very jealous to hoard them like that, don't you think? I should very much like to talk to one of them sometime, to discover the truth of the matter. Yours has a pleasant enough face--do you think he would give me the answers I seek?"
Ah, now they had come to it, Ragnar thought with a twist of disgust in his gut. Now that Ragnar had a slave, he was to be subjected to the same kind of rude requests for which Floki and Erik had made a point of avoiding Grípr in social situations.
If Grípr thought that Ragnar would turn his back with a wink to let him have his way with the priest, he was deluding himself. Some slaves managed to bear up under that sort of violation, and some snapped like dry twigs, running away or killing themselves or simply becoming shadows of what they had been. Ragnar thought that Athelstan, with the rigid, brittle shield of religious devotion that surrounded him even at his most open and vulnerable, would probably be the latter sort. If Lagertha and Ragnar's good-faith invitation to their bed had set off a frantic flow of praying, Grípr would probably destroy Athelstan's stubborn good nature and soft curiosity, the growing affection between him and Ragnar's family. And even if none of that had been true, he belonged to Ragnar, and was not Grípr's to hurt. "You might get what you seek from him," he said, slowly, lightly, as if it was nothing serious. "But I would make you live to regret it."
Grípr shot him a sharp look, and Ragnar grinned at him, the grin that made enemies flinch and his allies step more quietly around him. Grípr was past his prime; Ragnar was on the rise. Finally, the other man gave Ragnar an appeasing smile. "Ah, well," he said. "Dýri says they are a dry and sour folk, anyway. It is no wonder they have no sex--no one would want to sleep with them." He stretched his arms above his head and said, "Well, I must go and see to my own house. Best of luck with Earl Haraldson, Ragnar Lothbrok."
"Thanks," said Ragnar, and did not take his eyes off Grípr until the man was out of sight. Down on the beach, Athelstan and Bjorn were still wrestling with the traps, oblivious to the movement of people and boats around them. Ragnar thought that he had rested long enough; he tramped across the sand and called to them. He did not think the Earl felt better on returning to the great hall than he did when they looked up and smiled and returned his greeting.
The day was warm, unseasonably so, and he and Athelstan and Bjorn had worked themselves to a sweat harvesting the barley from the field while Lagertha and Gyda worked on bundling and hulling it. By late afternoon, they were all worn through. There wasn't time to waste--everything had to be harvested before winter came, and it could come any day--but neither was there any point in exhausting his family so early in the season, so Ragnar called a halt to the harvesting and suggested that they go down to the river. It was too late to set out to fish on the boat, but it wasn't too late to see what their river traps had caught.
The shade of the trees on the riverbank was an instant relief. Ragnar sat on a stump and sighed in pleasure, and motioned to Athelstan to set down the baskets he'd told him to carry.
"All right," he said, and he gave a basket each to Gyda, Athelstan, and Bjorn. "Go check the traps. The little ones, you throw back in to grow some more, but the big ones, you take. When you fill your basket, you can do whatever you like, but don't wander too far."
"What will you and Mother be doing?" Gyda wanted to know.
Ragnar brandished a fishing spear. "Fishing, of course."
"Fishing," said Bjorn, rolling his eyes. "More like fucking."
"Bjorn!" Athelstan objected.
Lagertha huffed out a laugh. "When you're a little older, Bjorn," she said, "You'll understand why that's the last thing most people want to do on a rocky river bank. Now go. Find us something big for dinner."
When the others had trudged off, carrying their baskets, Ragnar turned to Lagertha. "There was a time you didn't mind fucking on a rocky river bank." He was fairly certain that was how they'd conceived Gyda. The idea had merit even now.
"Ugh, is that your idea of sweet talk?" said Lagertha, the upper edge of her lip curling into a sneer. "We've been working all day. You look terrible, and you smell even worse. I probably look like a pig in the mud. How can you possibly be thinking of sex right now?"
There were men who didn't understand why Ragnar let his wife talk to him as she did, but those were men who didn't understand that Lagertha's sharp edges were what he adored about her, who didn't understand what it was to have a woman as hard and fierce as any warrior by your side and at your back and what it did for Ragnar. "I told the priest and the children they could do whatever they wanted when they filled their baskets," he said. "Shall we play a game like that? Whoever finishes his--or her--basket first, gets to do whatever he likes?"
She narrowed her eyes at him. "I wonder what you'd like," she said, her tone flat but her mouth twitching into a smile.
"Fill your basket first and it won't matter what I'd like," he said. Just then, an eel wriggled by, and he speared it neatly. "But you'd better hurry. I'm winning so far."
In the end, Lagertha filled her basket first, but Ragnar still got what he wanted--her sat on his cock, riding him, both of them still dressed, her hair rebelling against its braid and escaping in soft blond tendrils to brush against his face. The rocks dug into his back, but Ragnar had always found that a little pain made the pleasure only better.
Ragnar groaned. If there was one downside to his children growing up, it was that they no longer spent large chunks of the day napping with no time left over to mock their parents for having sex. Bjorn in particular could rival Athelstan for prudery these days. It was like living with his mother-in-law.
"Father! Come quick!"
And there was Gyda. Lagertha sighed and pulled herself off Ragnar, rearranging her skirts and letting him pull up his trousers. "What is it, Gyda?" she asked.
"We can't find the priest!"
Ragnar sat up at that, all his regret over the interrupted tryst forgotten. He considered momentarily the possibility that Athelstan was running away, and then immediately discarded it; if he'd wanted to try to escape, he'd have done it long ago. Far more likely were the possibilities that he'd wandered off and gotten lost, or fallen into the river and drowned, or even been taken by the Earl's men as poor little Bjarki had been.
"Where did you last see him?" he asked as he stood up. Bjorn pointed to a spot on the riverbank.
"He took the upstream trap and Gyda and I the other one," he said, his brows drawn together in worry. "But then Gyda and I finished with our baskets and asked each other riddles, so we didn't see him for a while. And then Gyda said we should ask if he knew any riddles, so we went up to the upstream trap to look for him, but he wasn't there."
Ragnar ran around the bend of the river to where he'd set the upstream trap. A basket sat, abandoned but full of fish, so if Athelstan was not there now, he had been, and long enough to fill his basket. Surely any bandit would have taken the fish, so there was that, at least. He looked over the river bank around the basket, once, twice, and across the river, with no sign of the priest, so he kept walking.
Further upstream was a sunny place, uncovered by trees, across from a little island whose curving shores broke the current. The cheery light of the place seemed grossly at odds with Ragnar's mood, and he wished the sun away with a grimace. How foolish he'd been, to leave his children and the priest alone by the river. It was one thing to leave them at the farm while he and Lagertha went raiding--there was plenty of food there, a warm fire, nothing that could harm any of them, and an escape route should they ever need it. It was another thing altogether to leave them here, by the swollen waters, with no friends or neighbors to keep an eye on them. They could escape from men; there was no escape from the elements.
His breath caught in his throat as he saw a spot of lighter brown against the darker dirt and rock of the bank--Athelstan's robe, laid out on the shore. He must have gone for a swim, then, Ragnar told himself. But where was he, then? There was no sign of movement in the water. He thought Athelstan's pale body must stand out in the dark waters, but no glimpse of white caught his eye. If he had drowned--if he'd gathered fish while Ragnar and Lagertha fucked and then perished in those cold waters when they weren't looking--he couldn't finish the thought, and instead channeled that feeling into his voice as he shouted the priest's name across the waters.
Across the river, in the lee of the island, a dark head poked out of the water. Ragnar's name floated back across in Athelstan's voice, questioning and hesitant. Ragnar's knees felt weak, and he straightened them. "Come here," he called. "Now."
By this time, Lagertha, Gyda, and Bjorn had caught up with him, and so they all stood together to watch as Athelstan swam, quick and sure, back to shore. When he was close enough to be in earshot without yelling, he said, "What do you think you're doing?"
Athelstan blinked, one hand coming up to wipe water from his eyes. "Swimming?" he said as if he were asking Ragnar, rather than telling him.
"Swimming," Ragnar repeated, his jaw feeling curiously tight. "Without telling my wife and me where you were going?"
"Well, you did say that I might do whatever I wanted after I filled the basket." Athelstan shivered. "May I get dressed before we continue this conversation?"
"Nobody's stopping you," said Ragnar, breathing his anger out in puffs of air. With all his fight and urgency thwarted and useless, he felt like an idiot.
Athelstan hesitated, looking each of them over dubiously, but Ragnar was in no mood to indulge his absurd embarrassment about his body, and gestured him out of the water. On another day, he might have taken more pleasure in looking at the priest's pale form as he pulled himself out, dressed only in his braes and covering his skinny chest with his arms, but today he simply waited for the other man to pull his ugly brown robe over his head and force his arms through the sleeves before saying, "You can swim?"
The priest nodded. "Lindisfarne's a tide island," he said. "When the tide comes in, the walkway to the mainland is completely covered in water. We all learned to swim, should it come in suddenly." He looked appealingly at Ragnar and said, "I'm sorry I didn't tell you, only, I was so hot after the day's work, and the water was so cold, and--"
Ragnar held up a hand. "I think I understand." Of course, men who lived on a tiny island, even men so strange and prudish as Athelstan's priests, would learn to swim. It made perfect sense. There was no reason at all to feel shaky or to shout at Athelstan that Ragnar would dig out a rope and tie him to a tree while they fished if he ever scared him like that again. He turned to Bjorn and Gyda. "Don't you feel silly now, being so frightened?"
Bjorn gave him a skeptical look, as usual not letting Ragnar get away with anything, but Gyda ran to Athelstan and embraced him, apparently unmindful of the way his wet braes were soaking through his robe all the way to her dress. "We thought you were lost," she said, and Athelstan's arm came down around her shoulders.
"I'm sorry to have frightened you," he said gently.
Lagertha cleared her throat. "Well," she said, "now that that little adventure is done, let's go eat. Between the five of us, we've got enough fish to last a month at least, to say nothing of dinner tonight."
"Let's," said Ragnar, finding a jovial smile somewhere. He wasn't really even in the mood for fish anymore, but there was no sense letting anything go to waste. Gyda chattered like a little bird all the way home, with occasional interjections from Bjorn and, whenever they could get a word in edgewise, answers from Athelstan or Lagertha. Ragnar couldn't think of anything to say, so he shouldered both Gyda's basket and his own, laughed whenever she said something funny, and let the cold seep out of his bones in the still-hot autumn evening.
When Ragnar was young, he remembered, excitement had hummed in his blood whenever he woke up on the morning he left for a Thing. There had been a thrill to go to Kattegat, to talk as a man to his Earl and make what had felt like real, important decisions. Perhaps they had been; the Earl hadn't always been the way he was now, petty and vicious and clinging to power with fear so obvious that Ragnar was amazed everyone couldn't see it.
This morning, the thought of leaving for the Thing left him with a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. His conversation with Torstein yesterday certainly hadn't helped matters.
Lagertha was already up when he woke, stirring the stew over the fire with a glum expression on her face, and she served him a bowl of it and a cup of ale without once speaking to him. She was no more happy about his going to the Thing than he was. About the only one at all excited about it was Bjorn, who, though he resented the Earl on his father's and Erik's behalf, still liked the idea of participating in the proceedings as a man. Bjorn was still sleeping, though, which was just as well. Athelstan's pallet was empty, and the packs next to it were nearly full. The idea had been for him to come along as well, to carry the packs and help set up the campsite for the night and to satisfy his curiosity about the town. It had seemed like a fine idea at the time.
Ragnar could hear him outside, humming as he fed the pigs. It hadn't taken long for Ragnar--and for Lagertha and the children, for that matter--to realize that Athelstan served his god by prayer and song, and that he did it at all hours of the day and night. At first, Ragnar had wondered if the man simply didn't sleep, for fear or in search of an opportunity to escape, but he came to understand over the course of about a week that there was a pattern to it, that every three hours or so came the song and the prayer assigned to that particular hour. Athelstan's god was evidently very fond of rules and order.
He seldom sang out loud, for which the family was grateful--though he had a very fine voice, there were only so many songs in praise of his crucified god that Ragnar could stand--but often Ragnar would hear him humming the songs under his breath, or mouthing the words even as he skinned a fish or ground flour for Lagertha. Though it could be irritating, especially at night, there was a comfort in it as well, in its regularity, and in what it said of Athelstan's loyalty. After all, how could you trust a man who betrayed his gods?
Ragnar pictured in his mind's eye how Athelstan would react to the sight of his temple recreated in the Earl's hall, the Earl and his cronies drinking out of the cups the Christians used for their strange wine-called-blood sacrifice, and his fingers tightened around his own cup.
The children awoke before he had finished, Gyda sullen because she could not go to the Thing and Bjorn practically thrumming with excitement, like a drawn bowstring. Always a keen student of Ragnar's moods, though, he kept his effusive questions about what they would do about the Earl to a minimum. After his prayer of gratitude for his food, something that Ragnar usually found funny, since it was he and not Athelstan's god who provided his meals, Athelstan was quiet, too, leaving Ragnar to his own tense thoughts.
Finally, the long, silent breakfast ended, and Bjorn asked, hesitantly, "Father? Are we leaving soon?"
Ragnar wanted to snap, to ask whether his son could not wait just a little longer to head into the snares the Earl was setting for them, but he didn't. Instead, he said, "Have you got everything you need?"
Instead of answering, Bjorn turned to look at Athelstan, who said, "I packed his shield, his cloak, bedding, and some bread and jerky. Bjorn, you've got your arm ring?" At Bjorn's nod, he continued, leaning forward in Ragnar's direction. "I packed bedding and food for you and me, as well, but I thought you might want to carry your own shield and weapons. Was I right?"
Ragnar didn't answer, the thoughts in his head swirling dizzily before finally coming to a point. "You think you're going to Kattegat with us?"
Athelstan jerked his head back, surprised. "Well. Yes. You...you said I was."
"That was before I got a look at the south field." Ragnar had thought that perhaps the words leaking out of him, like air from a bladder, would loosen the tightness in his chest, but he felt as cornered and angry as ever.
"The south field?" asked Athelstan, blinking as if he weren't sure he were hearing Ragnar correctly.
"I went out to check on that fence you're building," said Ragnar, barely stopping to think about or listen to what he was saying. "And what do you think I found? Rocks. The field is full of weeds, and rocks. Come spring, I won't be able to plow without ruining the blade. You never thought to remove them?"
Athelstan's mouth fell open, as it often did when he could not think of a good answer. "You never told me to--"
The sound of Ragnar's hand slapping the table surprised even him. "You should not need to be told everything! You are not a stupid man!" he said, raising his voice. "You planted and grew at your 'monastery'--surely you knew better than to leave rocks in a field to be plowed!"
"Father," Bjorn started, but Ragnar held up a hand for silence.
"Bjorn and I will go to the Thing. You," he said to Athelstan, "will take every rock you find out of the south field and make a pile of them near the fence gate. The field will be empty of rocks when I return from Kattegat." He leaned back in his chair. "You can start now."
Athelstan pushed his chair away from the table with a jerky motion and nodded in Ragnar's direction without looking at him before vanishing through the door. Ragnar turned to Bjorn. "Go do your chores and fetch your weapons. We leave as soon as you're ready."
Bjorn gave him a reproachful look but obeyed, heading out to milk the cows. Gyda stood up, drawing herself to her full height, which was not yet very impressive, and said, "That wasn't fair at all, Father." She had a glare that would probably be more intimidating if she looked less like a baby rabbit.
"Life isn't fair," said Ragnar. "Go feed the geese."
As she followed her brother out, Lagertha stood up and washed her hands, her every movement angry. "What animal crawled up your ass and died?" she asked. "Since when do you take your nerves out on the rest of us like that?"
Ragnar's anger had soured in his stomach without ever leaving him, making him feel guilty and deflated. "The work has to be done, whether I speak sweetly or not."
"Pull the other one," she said irritably. "Our children don't need you to growl at them like a wolf to do their chores, and I don't know what the priest has done to offend you, but he didn't deserve to be snapped at over the south field. We won't be plowing for months, and the gods only know why you thought he would take the rocks out of the field when what you told him to do was build a fence."
"He doesn't like Kattegat anyway," said Ragnar, feeling like a chastised boy. "And he especially wouldn't like it now."
Her spine stiffened, and she fixed Ragnar with a piercing look. "The Earl?" she said. "Ragnar Lothbrok, if you're walking into danger by yourself, I swear I will--"
He cut off her threats there. "There's no danger. At least," he corrected, "if Rollo can keep hold of his temper, and the Earl does nothing too terrible, and we keep Arne and Leif away from the mead, there should be no danger. It's only--" He paused, wondering if what he was about to say would sound foolish to her, before deciding that there was no point in hiding his foolishness from his wife, who always found it out anyway. "Torstein spoke the other day with traders who have just come from there, and he tells me that the Earl is putting on a bit of a show. All the things taken from Lindisfarne and Hexham, he's displaying around the hall as if to boast that he took them. I know he does it to spite me, but--"
He could see the moment that she saw what he had seen when Torstein had reported it. To Ragnar, those candlesticks and crosses and cloths were signs of the way the Earl had abused his power over him and his crew, the way he'd taken the fruits of their labor for his own and they hadn't been able to do anything about it--but to Athelstan, they were the things of his god and his home, stolen as Ragnar had stolen him, and to see them displayed as trophies would hurt him. Moreover, he would not be able to hide it, as Ragnar would have to hide his anger, and his emotions would bring him to the attention of the Earl. The last thing in the world that Ragnar wanted was for Athelstan or any other member of his family to incur the Earl's anger.
Lagertha nodded. "You're right. He should not go. But you might have found another way to tell him that. Now he'll think you're angry at him, and mope around like a kicked dog the whole time you and Bjorn are away."
"Set Gyda on him," Ragnar suggested. Gyda and Athelstan got on like a house on fire, which was something of a relief to Ragnar. Gyda was such a quiet girl, who always seemed much more comfortable around her parents and brother than around other children. You'd never know any of that, though, from watching her with Athelstan; around him, she was full of questions about far-off lands and requests for stories and songs and random tidbits of information about the Northlands. The liking seemed to be mutual, and nothing seemed to cure the priest from bouts of sullenness or fear more quickly than teaching Gyda how to count in Anglian or listening to her tell the story of Loki and the farmer's son.
"Big warrior," scoffed Lagertha, "setting his little girl to do what he's too cowardly to do himself."
Her words hit home, and he glared at her. "What is it you think that I'm afraid of?"
She rolled her eyes. "Men. They would always rather that someone think them a tyrant than think them soft." She gathered the dishes for washing and, setting them down in the washbasin, pointed a finger at him. "Go and tell him why you shouted at him. I don't care what reason you give him, but if you haven't mended fences before you leave, I will spend the whole time you are gone telling him and Gyda embarrassing stories about you."
Coming from her, it was no idle threat. Ragnar put on his boots and cloak and stalked out to the south field, where Athelstan was dutifully plucking rocks from the ground. There weren't so many, really, but it was a large field for one man to work on, and would keep him occupied until Ragnar returned.
"Athelstan," said Ragnar, and the other man looked up.
"Ragnar," he said, "I swear to you, if--if I had known the field was of such concern to you--"
Ragnar knew it was ill-done of him, adding unkindness to unkindness, but he laughed at Athelstan's apologetic stammering. Some of his temper leeched away. "I'm not so concerned about the field."
The look Athelstan shot him then was half bafflement, half irritation, and Ragnar couldn't blame him for either feeling. "I'm concerned about the Thing," he said. He wondered for a moment if he ought to explain about the plunder from the Christian temples, and then decided against it. You need never unsay something you never said at all.
Athelstan's irritation melted away into an understanding sort of half-smile. Under other circumstances, Ragnar thought, Athelstan might have made some woman a very kind husband as well as a handsome one, although it was anyone's guess what the happy couple would eat or how the priest would support them. "I know," said Athelstan quietly.
"The truth is that the fewer of my people I have to worry about in Kattegat, the happier I'll be." He studied Athelstan's stance, which, despite his half-smile, was tense and defensive, and decided the explanation he had given was not enough. "I shouldn't have shouted at you, though. The business between me and the Earl is no fault of yours. Forgive me?"
"Of course," Athelstan said, his smile widening.
Of course, thought Ragnar after he'd exchanged farewells with the priest and headed back to the house to gather his things. He regretted his harshness, but he didn't regret keeping Athelstan at home or concealing his reasons for doing so. Any man who could forgive a hurt as easily as that needed someone to make sure that he was not hurt more than absolutely necessary.
As the nights grew longer and colder, Lagertha worked on their winter clothing at a pace that amazed Ragnar. There was much to do this year, it was true--Bjorn was shooting up like a weed, and needed new trousers, Gyda's working dress had gotten too worn through to be used as anything more than an under-dress, and Athelstan had no winter clothing at all. Between her loom and her preparation of their winter food stores, Lagertha was a blur of activity, and all Ragnar could do was stay out of her way.
Floki, who took his cues from omens and signs that were invisible to Ragnar, and moreover had only himself and one maidservant to feed, had already prepared his winter stores, and so he came to be with Ragnar every so often, to help him teach Bjorn sword fighting or discuss the latest news from Kattegat or simply to sit and share mead with him after a long day's work in the threshing barn. It was a good life, Ragnar thought, watching Bjorn attack the fence with one eye and Athelstan and Gyda prepare wool with the other, while his wife moved busily around the house and his friend sat by his side.
After a long while, Floki apparently ran out of things to say about his new lady friend, Helga. Since there was no point in asking whether and when Floki was going to marry her--Floki never courted the kind of woman whose family required a bride-price for their daughter's honor, and Ragnar had his doubts as to whether the man would ever get married--there was a pleasant lull in the conversation. They sipped their mead, Floki humming to himself and Ragnar listening with amused interest to the talk between Athelstan and Gyda in the yard.
"The king of the Franks," Athelstan was saying, "is called Charles the Great."
"Why do they call him that?" asked Gyda, plucking another handful of wool and adding it to the mass she was spinning.
Athelstan smiled, the small, lighthearted grin Ragnar was sometimes able to tease out of him by joking or by bantering with the children. "Well," he said, "I imagine some call him that because he's tall."
"How tall is he?"
"Hmmm." He paused his combing and squinted as if he were thinking very hard about the question. "Very tall."
"Taller than Father?"
"Taller than Uncle Rollo?"
"Taller than him, too," said Athelstan with a nod.
Gyda looked impressed. "He is tall, then."
"He is." Athelstan picked up his comb again and began to work on what, if his tugging at it were any indication, was a particularly tangled knot in the wool. "But I think most people call him 'Charles the Great' because he's such a great warrior. He's always fighting--the Saxons, the Lombards, the Moors, all sorts--and he usually wins."
"Your priest is very well-informed."
Ragnar had almost forgotten that Floki was there, so interested was he in what Athelstan would tell Gyda about Charles, King of the Franks. He turned back around and grinned. "Yes," he said. "He's traveled much, and his god has priests in many places to the south. They send word to each other of wars and politics and what have you."
"And it was he who told you about Hexham, yes?" said Floki, cocking his head like a curious owl in Athelstan's direction.
Not intentionally, and his guilt afterwards had caused such a cloud of gloom that even Ragnar had felt it, but he had. "Yes," he said.
"He speaks our language like he was born speaking it."
This was also true. Though Athelstan had occasionally stumbled over a word or put together an odd-sounding sentence the first month or so, he now seemed to have no trouble at all with Norse, even if his accent was a bit strange. Ragnar's own Anglian was not nearly so good, though he practiced it whenever he could pull Athelstan aside in the evenings to speak it with him. "He has a skill for languages," Ragnar answered Floki. "He reads and writes as easily as he speaks, and his prayers are in neither our language nor his, but a kind of priestly language the men of his faith use to write their books in."
Floki made a considering noise in his throat. "Interesting," he said, drawing the word out. "How much would you ask if I wished to buy him?"
Ragnar shot him a sharp, surprised look, and Floki grinned, shrugging with open hands. "Building a boat is hard work for one man," he said. "Better if he has someone to help him, and better still if his helper has a brain in his head. The last male slave I bought turned out to be the world's stupidest Swede." He spit on the ground. "Ugh. All the strength in the world will not help a man who cannot string two thoughts together. My Hroða was more use than him, and you've seen her--she's tiny." He looked up again and gestured towards Athelstan. "Besides, I would like to hear more about the lands to the west and south. Well? How much would you ask for him?"
Ragnar swallowed the immediate and harsh refusal that rose to his throat, the instinctive, childish possessiveness that balked at the thought of losing the priest, and forced himself to consider the idea seriously. It wasn't without its benefits. For one, it would strengthen the bond between himself and Floki, and he thought that, with things between him and the Earl standing as they did, he needed all the friends he could get. For another, though he considered his trips to England great triumphs in many respects, they had not been profitable, and the resources of his small farm were stretched somewhat when forced to provide for five rather than four, especially with winter coming. And Floki would not be a cruel master to Athelstan. If Ragnar remembered correctly, even the stupid Swede had been allowed to buy his freedom, and so there was no reason Athelstan couldn't have such an opportunity as well, which would appeal very much to him. Floki would have no troubles appeasing Athelstan's appetites for stories and information, and unlike most men that Ragnar knew, he thought that Floki would probably have the patience to coax useful information out of Athelstan as well.
On the other hand, if Floki was generous to his slaves, he was even more so to his friends, so the priest would have no protection if Leif or Arne or Torstein took a shine to him and wished to take him while staying with Floki. Athelstan didn't blush and hide so much anymore when Ragnar and Lagertha fucked, and he was stronger in general as well, but he still shrank back from the merest suggestion that he might join them. Even if it were someone who took no pleasure in cruelty and someone he knew and liked, Ragnar still thought that he would not wish to have sex with anyone, and he would not react at all well to being taken against his will. Ragnar also didn't know how well Floki would tolerate Athelstan's constant praying, or his occasional tendency to argue. Ragnar had never beaten him, and had no plans to do so, but he could easily see why another might. And more than that...he looked out again to where Gyda and Athelstan were still preparing the wool.
"And does this Alcuin teach girls at his school, as well?" asked Gyda, sounding unaccountably eager, for someone who would certainly never be sent to whatever Christian school the two were talking about.
"I...I don't think so," said Athelstan hesitantly, but at Gyda's evident disappointment, he added, "But there are many things I don't know. I might very well be wrong--and I have heard that Charles's daughters are very well-educated. So perhaps there are girls at the court school as well."
"There ought to be," said Gyda, evidently satisfied and confident in her satisfaction. "Girls are as clever as boys."
Athelstan smiled and handed her a clump of cleaned wool to add to her yarn. "And you ought to know," he said, "since you're the cleverest girl I know." Gyda flushed with pleasure.
Ragnar had told his children that he didn't regard Athelstan as a slave. He'd told Athelstan himself that he could leave if he wanted to. He would look the worst kind of liar if he sold the priest away, when he'd found so comfortable a place in their home and their family. A man could only lose the comforts of home and family so many times before the warmth that tied him to other men faded away, leaving him cold and hard and lonely, and Athelstan had already lost those comforts often enough.
He turned back to Floki. "I'm afraid I can't part with him," he said. "You see how he is with the children. I want them to grow up cleverer than their old man."
Floki snorted, not looking particularly offended. "That won't be difficult," he said, and the conversation turned to how Ellisef was getting on, whether her relatives were properly consoling her for the loss of her husband. Over in the yard, Athelstan shot Ragnar a vaguely questioning look, but Ragnar ignored him until he returned his attention to his wool.
Ragnar woke, aching, in a bench over Floki's table. He must have fallen asleep after eating; apparently the simple acts of cleaning and sharpening his sword and testing the strength of his arms had worn him out. How in the world he was to conquer the Earl was a matter for the gods, but he hoped they were looking favorably on him, since otherwise his chances didn't look good.
"What if he dies?"
For a fraction of a moment, Ragnar wondered if some kind of spirit was echoing his thoughts, but he soon recognized the worried tones of Bjorn.
"He won't." And that was Athelstan, sounding surprisingly confident.
"You don't know that," said Bjorn. "The Earl's a great fighter--how do you think he got to be the Earl? And Father's wounded, and...." His voice trailed off. Gyda said something soft that Ragnar couldn't make out, and Bjorn snapped, "I'm not crying! I'm being realistic. Our house is gone, and who knows what has happened to Uncle Rollo, and if Father dies, too--"
"Bjorn, I don't think your father will die," said Athelstan, still with a kind of calm confidence Ragnar didn't recognize in him. Was this what he had been like when Ragnar and Lagertha had gone raiding? "But if he does, no harm will come to you. Your mother will see to that, and Floki, and Torstein, and all of your parents' friends." Gyda murmured something else that was too soft to hear, and Athelstan added, "Yes, of course, me, too. I don't know where you think I'd be going."
"I don't suppose anyone's thought to ask me whether or not I plan on dying," Ragnar called.
There was a moment of silence before Bjorn yelled back, "But if you do, I have to be the man of the house! I'm planning just in case!"
Ragnar had to laugh at that. By all the gods, he wanted to live to see what sort of man Bjorn grew up to be. If the boy he was now was any indication, he'd probably be a man any warrior would want as a shipmate: entertaining and capable and with a good head on his shoulders.
Athelstan shooed the children out to fetch water from the well and walked back to stand across the table from Ragnar. "I'm sorry," he said. "We didn't know you were awake, or we'd have been more quiet."
Ragnar waved this away with a hand. "Where is everyone?"
"Well. Floki and Torstein have gone to bring your message to the Earl. Helga's looking for some herbs in case you take a fever, and Lagertha's hunting, to help replenish Floki's winter stores. The children and I have been cleaning, but...." He shrugged. "We finished, and idleness always gives a worried mind the chance to remember its troubles."
"Ah." He understood the children's worry, when the chance that he might die and leave them to the Earl's tender mercies was real and looming large and cold in his mind whenever he closed his eyes to sleep. But Athelstan had been right--Lagertha would fight for them until her dying breath, and Ragnar had good friends. "You were good with them."
Athelstan huffed out a humorless breath of a laugh. "They haven't done this before. I have."
Ragnar's mind was muzzy, but the realization of all that Athelstan meant by 'this' knocked the cobwebs off of his thoughts. Ragnar could never worship Athelstan's god--he loved his honor and his family and his life too much to give them up to a god who demanded that his followers forgive their enemies and deny themselves--but he didn't have to worship the crucified god to know how lucky he was that Athelstan did. "You're a good Christian," he said. He'd said it once before, after coming back from Hexham, mostly to make Athelstan laugh, but from what he could understand of the Christian faith, it was true, and he meant it. No god, however demanding, could fault the magnitude of Athelstan's forgiveness.
"Not really," said Athelstan with characteristic modesty, "but I try. Aren't you stiff sitting like that?"
He was. But something else had caught his attention--the priest's pale bare feet. "Where are your shoes?"
Athelstan pointed over to a space by the door. "Still drying out from the other day."
"Your feet will get cold. Put some socks on."
He paused without speaking for a long moment. Ragnar wondered if he hadn't heard what he'd said, and was preparing to repeat himself when Athelstan burst out in a flood of words. "My feet?" he said incredulously. "You've just been shot through the chest, your home burnt down and your livestock killed, the Earl's tortured your brother, and even though you're not nearly recovered, you're planning to fight him, and you're worried about my feet?"
So much for Athelstan's calm confidence. But it wasn't as if Ragnar didn't know about the troubles he faced. He offered the only explanation he could. "I take care of my people," he said, and Athelstan's wild-eyed exasperation faded into a quieter expression, one that Ragnar could not interpret.
"That's true," he said, and he pawed through the bag of their dirty washing until he managed to pull out a mismatched pair of socks. One had used to be Ragnar's, the other was probably Bjorn's, but if Athelstan managed to fit it onto his foot, Ragnar doubted that Bjorn would care. He pulled them onto his feet with quick efficiency and stood. "Satisfied?"
Ragnar nodded. It was possible, he thought, that he had strained himself overmuch today. His head hurt, as did the places where he'd been wounded, and neither his mind nor his body seemed to want to obey his wishes.
Athelstan frowned at him. "What you said is true, Ragnar Lothbrok, but I--I take care of my people, as well. Or I try to." He sounded hesitant, as if he thought Ragnar would consider this insolent or insulting, but Ragnar felt a curious, warm sense of honor and affection. Athelstan was no warrior, but neither was he weak, and his loyalty was no small prize. "Now, get back to bed," he continued, maneuvering himself under Ragnar's good shoulder to help him up from the bench and back towards the bed. "And rest, or Lagertha will have my hide."
"She will," Ragnar agreed, though he thought it more likely she'd take her anger out on him than on Athelstan. Together, they managed to get Ragnar back into the bed, and once the bandages had been checked and the blankets tucked around him, Athelstan ran to fetch him a cup of water.
Ragnar watched him and turned a thought over and over in his mind. He never thought of himself as the kind of man who clung to anything--an idea, a possession, a person--to the point that it made him foolish, although he supposed Lagertha would probably disagree with him. Perhaps she was right. For a long time, now, he'd wanted to keep Athelstan as his own, his own secret source of knowledge, his own guardian and teacher for his children, his own clever investment that kept paying off. He'd wanted the priest's cleverness and curiosity and friendship the way he'd wanted new lands and people and treasure in the west, and so he'd treated him as some odd mix between slave and friend when perhaps what he had truly and in his heart of hearts wanted in Athelstan was family, the kind bound to a man by love and not the law or a slave collar.
And maybe that was what he had. Ragnar didn't think he could bring himself to save the life of a man who'd killed his friends and taken him from his home as a slave, but Athelstan had, and showed no signs of regretting it. It was silly to pretend that Athelstan was a thrall anymore, that his devotion was not as worthy of faith and esteem as that of Floki or Rollo or Lagertha. And if he worried about how Athelstan would fare in his new society, well, it wasn't as if Ragnar's place in the world was all that secure, either, and whatever Ragnar's protection was worth, he could offer it to a freedman as easily as he could to a slave.
"Athelstan," he said when the priest returned with a full cup, "do you remember a conversation we had, soon before the Earl's men came?"
Athelstan frowned, and Ragnar could almost see the memories moving behind his eyes until he recalled the conversation Ragnar had been referring to. Am I still your slave? "Yes?" he said.
Ragnar rolled onto his elbow so he could meet the other man's eyes. "If I make it through this fight alive," he said, "ask me again what you asked me then. I think you'll like the answer better."
Athelstan's face broke out with a smile like the sun rising. "I'll do that," he said. After a moment, he sobered a bit and said, "Would I--that is--"
"Say what you want to say before I fall asleep, priest," said Ragnar. His energy had abandoned him, and he had none to spare to quibble over particulars with Athelstan.
"Would you still...count me among your people, then?"
Ragnar had no difficulty in answering that. He rolled back onto his back and reached for Athelstan's hand, squeezing it hard. "I will always count you among my people," he said. "And if ever you need my care or protection, as long as I'm alive you will have it."
Athelstan smiled again, the doubt banished from his face. "I know," he said. "And you know that...whatever I can do for you, I'll do."
Ragnar didn't need to be told that. Even if Athelstan had not told him as much when he protected Ragnar's children, or taught him to speak his language, or pulled him, still dripping blood, from the cold waters, the grip of his hand in Ragnar's spoke as clearly as words.