He's spent so long in God's embrace, locked away safely in the monastery, that he's forgotten that kind of fear- his blood turning to ice in his veins, his breath stopping between his teeth, his vision narrowing to one spot on the ground. He used to cry, but then he was just a boy, smaller even than Ragnar's daughter, and now he has prayer in his heart to sustain him.
So when Lagertha stalks up to him with a frown and an impatient huff, chastising him because he's too slow with the chopping board and the vegetables, instead of ducking under the table as he would have done with his previous master he simply lowers his head and takes it silently. When she yanks the knife out of his hand he flinches, hard. He thinks she's going to use it on him, but instead she just shows him how to cut less precisely, bigger pieces, and go twice as fast on the carrots.
And then she just hands back the knife. She doesn't strike him, she doesn't kick him, she just looks a little exasperated when he doesn't take the knife back immediately. He's afraid this is some kind of test, and stands frozen, his eyes skittering between the tip of her boots and the chopping board and the blade, still in her hand.
"Just get it done, priest, or none of us is going to eat," she finally says, putting the knife down next to the turnips. It's not until she's across the room that he can take a full breath, and it trips in his throat it's still so tight. Bjorn hears him, and chuckles, coming to peer at him with a cocky little grin that's still only a seedling of his father's.
"My mother can cut you in two, priest," he declares, and it strikes Athelstan that the boy is proud, that he is boasting, not talking of experience but merely relaying stories he's heard perhaps too many times, to the point that he believes he's lived them. But he hasn't. Lagertha may cuff her son on the head, or box his ears, but the boy is not afraid of his mother the way he'd be if he'd tasted real wrath.
He wonders if the boy hasn't seen it on some other slave, though.
Ragnar is frustrated, and chopping the wood isn't calming him down. Athelstan takes extra time in the stable hoping not to have to cross the yard while his master is clearly spoiling for a fight, but he knows he needs to go back to the house, take the goat milk to Lagertha before she comes looking for him. Getting both his masters in a frustrated huff is not going to do him any favours.
While Ragnar seems in the middle of a good rhythm with his axe, Athelstan makes his move, gripping both buckets tight and trying to make himself as inconspicuous as possible. He's halfway through when Ragnar lets off and incoherent shout of rage and starts flinging logs around. Bjorn, who was sitting nearby, runs right back into the house, avoiding the flying pieces of wood. One of them strikes Athelstan straight in the elbow, making his grip falter and at least a bowl's worth of milk sloshes out and to the ground.
Again, there's nothing to it but stand still and wait for Ragnar's anger to blow out. He wonders if he should drop to his knees, but he's afraid to make any kind of movement, even that. Ragnar, meanwhile, gives a groan and walks up to him.
"Look what happened," he says, gesturing to the spilt milk. Athelstan can't help the flinch as his master's hand arches through the air, and the jostled buckets threaten to spill more. Ragnar darts out a hand and steadies them. "Careful," he tuts, head tilted quizzically. He's curious, now, and that does nothing to ease Athelstan's stuttered breaths.
"Why didn't you duck? You must have seen it coming," he kicks the log now, and circles Athelstan, peering at his face. The priest keeps his eyes down, tries and fails to pretend he isn't turning into a block of ice.
"I thought you wanted to hit me," he answers.
"Yes, no, I- but why didn't you duck?" When Athelstan doesn't know how to answer, he insists. "Did you want me to hit you?"
The priest shakes his head. It clearly doesn't satisfy Ragnar's curiosity, so he licks his dry lips and tries to speak as normally as he can when his throat is so tight he knows he can't swallow. "It's my experience that some masters don't like their slaves to try and avoid punishment."
Ragnar sniggers. "Did you do something wrong, to warrant a punishment?"
Athelstan shakes his head again, starting to feel a bit bewildered. Is Ragnar not going to strike him, then?
"I don't make it a sport of hitting people, even slaves, without a good reason. And you have nothing of value I'd take, nor have you insulted or threatened my family, so..."
Athelstan is still waiting, muscles tensed like a bow string, but Ragnar just puts his hands on his hips and squints at him.
"Go and take those inside, priest. And, next time, duck."
He rolls up his sleeve as he kneads the bread with Gyda, exposing the scar high up on his forearm. The little girl notices it (how could she not? it's nearly as wide as two fingers) and she immediately traces it with her thumb, streaking him with flour.
"How did you get this?" she asks without hesitation, the curiosity of a child used to asking questions and easily getting answers.
"I was whipped, a long time ago," he replies, because it's both the truth and it's not, and he hopes it will be enough. He doesn't particularly want to introduce the topic of whippings in the house.
But, sure as morning follows sunrise, the girl presses on. "Why?"
He'd like to say that he'd been wicked, and that it was a just and cleansing punishment, but that would be a lie. "My master liked to show off his skill with a whip. He had a guest, but all his dogs had run out, and only I was left," he says softly. It has taken him years to forgive his former master as a good Christian does, and since he's been delivered into heathen hands, he's starting to wonder if his forgiveness had been genuine. Everything had seemed easier inside the monastery.
"That's too big a scar for a whip," Bjorn interjects, coming closer to peer at his arms.
The jeer, even if borne out of ignorance, stings him more than it should. Bjorn is just a boy. "I am many things, Bjorn, but a liar I am not. It was just a thin line at first, but as I grew it stretched out. I was very small when it happened."
"Where was your mother?" Asks a new voice. Lagertha is standing by the back door, looking at them. The light from outside obscures her face completely.
"In the kitchens," Athelstan replies cautiously. He can't read her tone, doesn't know if she's displeased or merely interested in the story. "My father was out, working the fields. I was supposed to pour wine for the master and his guest, but..." he turns to the children, tries to make light of it. "When he struck me I dropped the entire flagon on the floor and it shattered. It splashed the guest and ruined his clothes." Ice is once again coursing through his veins. He is grateful that his hands are buried in the dough, because this way they don't tremble.
The children, gratifyingly, laugh, picturing it as funny a scene as he hoped they would. "And what did your master do, then?" Bjorn demands eagerly.
"Well, he could only blame himself, couldn't he? I was sent to the monastery to heal, and while I was there a fever took my parents, so no one ever came to claim me." He turns towards Lagertha again. "And I stayed there."
She doesn't say anything for a long moment, then "let the dough rest, it needs to rise." And she's out again, like she never was there to begin with.
There's no way to clean fish without getting splattered and ending up smelling like one. Ragnar keeps him close as they mind the nets and work through the day's bounty, and by mid-afternoon it is all hanging to dry in the crisp summer air. They don't make him wear the rope around his neck anymore, so Ragnar tugs him by his hood every time he wants Athelstan's attention. Every time the priest startles, and every time the viking laughs. By the end of the day, though, he seems to have tired of Athelstan's jumpiness.
"It's just me, priest," he drawls, a little exasperated. "Like every other time."
"Forgive me, I-" he shakes his head. He can no more stop flinching every time he thinks he's finally irritated his masters enough to warrant a punishment than he can transform himself into a blond warrior. It would be horribly ironic if that's what finally drove the first blow.
"To the river, now," Ragnar continues, clearly not expecting an answer. "Scrub well, Lagertha doesn't like the smell of fish on the beddings."
They take a bucket down to the shore and Ragnar immediately shucks his tunic. His back and his torso are battle-scarred, and it actually comforts Athelstan a bit. At the monastery, none of the other brothers had marks similar to Athelstan, except for brother Cendric who was a flagellant, God rest his soul, but that was different. Athelstan doubts any of Ragnar's marks were self-inflicted.
"What are you waiting for, priest?" Ragnar fills the bucket. "Take that off or I'll just dump this on you, clothes and all."
Athelstan pulls his habit over his head, and then unknots his tunic and lets it fall from his shoulders down to his waist. Ragnar looks at him, with that usual keenness of eye that would not be amiss on a bird of prey.
"Is that it?" He asks, moving to take Athelstan's wrist and stretching his arm to take a better look at the scar. It cuts through his arm right below and right above his elbow, and then hugs his back. He'd been holding the flagon of wine as high up as he could manage at his age, when the lash had come.
"You were always a slave, then?" Ragnar inquires.
Athelstan shakes his head, reddening. It's an absurd notion, one that only a heathen could have. "We were servants, not property! I wasn't sent back there because he didn't own me. I was given to God."
"So your god owns you?"
"Yes," the priest declares with conviction. When Ragnar grins, triumphantly, he amends. "No, service of God is... the highest calling for men, we choose-"
"You just said you were given to your god,"
"bloodied, like a sacrifice to Odin."
"Perhaps your life now is not so different, then," Ragnar talks easily over Athelstan's flustered protests, then he claps a heavy hand on the monk's shoulder.
Athelstan freezes, words dying on his lips, eyes wide and fixed in front of him. Ragnar slips his hold until he can brush his thumb on the knob of bone at the base of his neck, and starts rubbing there, watching closely.
After a long moment, Athelstan comes back to himself enough to turn his head and meet Ragnar's eyes. His tense muscles unclench until he's slouching like he normally would.
"If a man whipped a little boy in front of me, I'd punch him in the face," Ragnar says conspirationaly, grinning. "Lagertha would probably run him through with a blade. Women are like that. Do you understand?"
Athelstan nods, though his expression seems mostly confused.
"You could have a good life, here, priest. Stop waiting for the worse to happen. It already happened."
"You really think so," Athelstan says slowly, half wondering.
"You survived the raid, didn't you?" Ragnar counters.
Athelstan raises his eyebrows and then, abruptly, laughs. Ragnar had never seen him so much as smile, ever, and it is infectious. He laughs too, and slips his hand up, grips him lightly by the head and shakes him gently.
"Now wash. We have better things to do than live in the past."
Ragnar Lothbrok might be a heathen, a savage and his slave master, but he seems possessed of a certain wisdom that not even the elderly brothers at Lindisfarne showed. Athelstan washes in the river, and when Lagertha next stalks up to him, annoyed that he's being clumsy with his chores, he can't stop the ice stealing through his veins, but he can push it away again, and pay attention as she teaches him. When Ragnar jostles or grabs him his breath will still stop short, heart leaping up in his throat, but he can swallow it down again and keep moving without becoming rooted to the spot.
On one thing Ragnar was wrong: his life here is very different, but perhaps that's not so bad.