Athelstan sang. Sang in the morning, under his breath, before the rest of the house woke, and remembered Lindisfarne. Every day Father Jænbehrt would walk up and down the lines of novices with a hymnal under his arm and listen to them sing. He was a friendly old man with a deft ear for talent and he would stop in front of Athelstan and lay a wrinkled fingertip just under his chin. “More voice, child,” he would croak, “come on now. You’re glorying God, not soothing a babe. Sing!”
Athelstan sang, but only softly, only when he was alone. By the river, in the woods, he sometimes dared to raise his voice above a murmur. Sang the day’s psalm, muttered the antiphon to himself, came back silent to the house and let the words boil at the back of his throat. Let them stay stoppered within himself like wine forgotten in a dark bottle.
Glory god. He could not glory God here, not here in the land of the pagans. Not here, where Ragnar laughed at everything he said, where they sailed off to burn down monasteries and break the benches where the novices lined to sing. Father Jænbehrt died of an axe to the head and Athelstan could not rescue the hymnal from his corpse.
Athelstan sang under his breath, and then not at all.
Uppsala. He stood at the edge of the crowd, bile rising in his throat, stunned into silence. He could not look when the knives came down. He thought it was a wolf’s howl when it came but it was a woman, stood at the back near the priests, pouring out wordless song. Her voice danced up and she raised her arms to the cloudy sky. Her voice was prettier than any novice’s, deep as the sea, and the sound of it purred across his chest. She writhed in time with the wind and he shook himself free of the bonds of the crowd and ran into the forest. Ran until his legs could no longer carry him. Fell to his knees and drew in a breath and sang, breathless at first, sang the first psalm he could remember. Deus, Deus, respice me, quare me dereliquisti, and he sobbed when he was done with it, sobbed so he could not breathe. His voice had gone scratchy from disuse and it hurt to hit the high notes.
God, God, look at me. Why have you forsaken me?
The answer was obvious.
Athelstan wiped his brow with his sleeve and crossed himself. Behind him the pagans bathed in the blood of their own. So lawless that they prayed without words.
“Forgive me,” he said, and began another psalm.
Lagertha avoided Ragnar. Ragnar avoided Lagertha. Athelstan avoided them both. It was easy enough; high summer, too hot in the hall. He could escape to the river, to the cool deep wood. He could stand on the riverbank and sing, scared as a rabbit the first few days and then, when he was certain no one had followed him, with a certain amount of boldness. He remembered Father Jænbehrt tilting his head up, adjusting his posture, and so he adjusted himself. He remembered the psalms, the homilies, the masses sung, and if he kept faith he could pretend the birds in the trees were answering him.
“Dominus reget me,” he sang, eyes closed, arms open wide, “et nihil mihi d – “
The arm around his neck made him stumble back. He couldn’t breathe, Ragnar’s grip was so tight. Athelstan clawed at it and Ragnar relaxed his grip, just enough that Athelstan could choke in a ragged breath. He could feel the point of an axe digging into his ribs.
“What spell are you casting?” Ragnar spoke calmly. He jabbed the axe upward and Athelstan felt the skin break. “Taking revenge?”
“No,” Athelstan rasped, hands still around Ragnar’s arm. “No spell, Ragnar, please – ”
“Did you think I wouldn’t notice you going into the woods? Did you?” Ragnar shook him like a doll. “I know where magic happens, priest. I’ve done a fair bit of it myself. Undo your curses. Now.”
“I’m not – “ Athelstan struggled against the arm. “Please – let go of me – ”
Ragnar let him fall to his knees, marched around him and tipped his head up with the flat of the axe. “What were you doing?”
Athelstan pulled in a few shaky breaths and Ragnar grabbed him by the hair. “What were you doing, priest?”
“Praying,” Athelstan managed, still trying to catch his breath.
“Praying.” Ragnar snorted. “Such a racket and you’re praying?”
“I’m singing hymns for Our Savior.”
Ragnar snorted again, but he lowered the axe and crouched. His blue eyes bored into Athelstan’s. “No spells? No curses?”
“None. I promise.”
Ragnar sheathed the axe. Ragnar scrunched Athelstan’s tunic in his hand and pressed it just under his ribs, where the blood had begun to show. Athelstan collapsed forward on his hands, breathing heavily. His throat was rawer than he had anticipated and he stayed on his hands and knees until Ragnar pulled up his shirt and inspected the cut. It had stoppered itself to his satisfaction and he stood up, bringing Athelstan with him.
“Don’t frighten me like that,” he said, matter-of-fact, and when Athelstan gaped at him he slung an arm around his shoulder and gave him a peck on the cheek. “Go ahead and finish your prayer.”
Athelstan waited to be released. The wind wove its way through the trees, the birds chirped, and Ragnar was still holding him. “Well? You have a voice. Finish it, priest."
Athelstan collected himself best he could. A pagan around his neck, coiled like the serpent, licking his ear. Fitting that he should pray.
He sang, and Ragnar pushed him close to him and listened. The trees were still and the birds were silent. Athelstan closed his eyes. Forget about the pagan around your neck. Sing, child, for the glory of God.
When he finished the psalm there was silence, and then a sigh. Ragnar put both arms around Athelstan’s waist and set his head on his shoulder. “Not a spell?”
“It felt like a love poem.”
“It – you could say it’s a love poem. Sort of.” He coughed. “For the Lord.”
Ragnar nuzzled his cheek. “A sweet song. You have a good voice, priest."
Your voice is for God, Father Jænbehrt said, do not glory in it for yourself. Athelstan wanted to break out of Ragnar’s arms, go further into the wood. He wanted to sing again, redo the psalm, alone. He wanted Ragnar to watch him sing and tell him he had a good voice. He rubbed his cheek, as if that would take away the blush. The cut on his ribs stung.
Ragnar laughed. Ragnar kissed him.
It was not a chaste kiss. It was not his usual peck on the cheek. Ragnar tilted Athelstan’s head to the side and kissed him full on the lips. Athelstan opened his mouth (to object, he would tell himself later) and Ragnar slipped his tongue in. Kissed him fierce and deep and when he finally let Athelstan pull away Athelstan was gasping. He squirmed in Ragnar’s arms and Ragnar stroked his cheek.
“You have a good voice, priest,” he repeated. “Even if you’re casting spells.”
He left Athelstan there on the bank and his footsteps faded up the path and Athelstan stood with his lips parted and a hand just under his throat.
He did not go further into the wood.
Athelstan did not go out to the river. Could not. Every time he thought of going he thought about the axe breaking skin, of the arm around his throat. He thought about Ragnar pulling him into an embrace from behind, he thought about Ragnar kissing him, and he blushed. He hummed under his breath and then stopped.
Ragnar cornered him outside, near one of the sheds used to store trader’s trophies. The sheds were empty for it had all been sold and Ragnar pushed him into the little building and closed the door. His eyes glinted in the half-dark. Why have you not been to the river, priest?
“Are you sick?”
“What? No, I’m not sick.”
“Good. I want to hear your voice,” Ragnar said. He put his fingertip on Athelstan’s throat. “Sing for me. You’re pretty when you sing.”
“I can’t sing for you.”
“To sing is to pray.”
“You won’t pray for me?” Ragnar was mock-offended. He stroked the tip of his fingernails across Athelstan’s cheek and Athelstan shivered. “Come on, priest. Don’t you need to pray? Aren’t you frightened?”
“Well, I did try to kill you. Maybe I’ll do it again if you don’t sing.” He slipped his hand down to Athelstan’s side and ran his hand over the place where the axe had broken the skin. “Or are you ashamed that I caught you casting spells?”
“I wasn’t –”
“I know. You were saying love poems to the trees. Pretend I’m a tree. Sing, priest.”
Athelstan could pretend Ragnar was not there. He could not pretend that for Ragnar filled up the room like an angel bringing tidings. He cleared his throat, sang a note, and Ragnar hummed in appreciation. “Go on.”
Close your eyes. Glory in god. Athelstan sang, eripe me domine ab homine malo, and he stuttered not at all when Ragnar stepped away from him. He felt Ragnar’s head against his thigh and a streak of satisfaction danced across his mind. Even the pagan would kneel for a prayer. He sang and Ragnar put his hand on the laces of his trousers and he stopped, the words dying on his tongue. “What are you – ”
“Keep singing, priest,” Ragnar said, and when Athelstan did not immediately pick up the tune he dropped his hand from the laces and looked up at him. "Come on, sweet priest. Sing me your song.”
Athelstan sang. Athelstan stuttered again when Ragnar put his hand against Athelstan’s cock. Didn’t stroke, didn’t take it in hand, just kept it there and Athelstan curled his toes in his sandals, put his hands through his hair. Lord, help me.
“Mm,” Ragnar said, his breath ghosting over Athelstan’s cock. “Why have you stopped, priest?”
“You – “
“If you’re singing me love songs…” Ragnar kissed the inside of Athelstan’s thigh and grinned against him when he shuddered. “Keep going.”
Athelstan steeled himself. Athelstan dug his nails into his palm and his voice barely hitched when Ragnar pulled his cock all the way free of his trousers. He wanted to scream when Ragnar licked up the side of it but he did not, and his voice only faltered when Ragnar drew him into his mouth and began to suck him in earnest.
Ragnar immediately sat back on his haunches with his mouth an inch away from Athelstan’s cock. He pushed Athelstan’s thighs apart and ran the back of his hand over Athelstan’s ballsack. He kissed Athelstan’s belly, ran his hands up his sides. Sing.
“Ragnar – please – ”
"Sing," Ragnar said. He licked Athelstan’s cock root to tip and Athelstan cried out, grasping desperately at the air.
“I – I – ” and Athelstan could not think, could not remember the words, and Ragnar nuzzled at the inside of his thighs. Athelstan wanted to cry out and could not. He could not sing. Could not, for this was not glorying God, and Ragnar ran the tip of his tongue over his swollen cockhead and pushed Athelstan’s hips back when he tried to buck into the touch.
"I could do this all day, priest," he said, looking up at Athelstan. "In fact I will if you don’t sing." He punctuated the last word by stroking the underside of Athelstan’s cock.
Athelstan grit his teeth. When his voice came out again it was high as it had been when he was a boy and Ragnar laughed. Good, he said, and took his cock back in his mouth.
"Exaudi, Domine, vocem deprecationis meae. Lord hear me, my prayer of supplication," Athelstan babbled, and he could not sing anymore but just speak and that only barely. He could not remember the Latin. "Grant not, oh lord, the desires of the wicked – "
Ragnar smirked around his cock.
He could not remember the English either and he squeezed his eyes shut. Ragnar was pressing out of him one note that meandered and wavered like the wind. He bayed like a hound, like a wolf, and when Ragnar took him all the way in his throat he jerked and his knees threatened to give way. Ragnar’s tongue was the serpent and it was damning him to hell. Ragnar had turned him into the woman at Uppsala and he was singing lawlessly for a pagan god. The thought of it burned him bright and his hips snapped and he cried out one last time and Ragnar held him up, held him tight, swallowing.
He collapsed on his knees. He thought Ragnar might leave him there but Ragnar pulled him to his shaky feet and kissed him hard. He tasted his own sin on Ragnar’s tongue and pulled away from him.
"You have a sweet voice, priest," Ragnar murmured. He kissed Athelstan again, quicker this time, and took his hand. "Come with me."
"Where are we going?"
"The river, of course. You haven't been out there in a few days. You have much to make up for. Many prayers to sing. Right?"
He ran his hand's up Athelstan's side, felt the place where the axe-mark had half-healed. He pressed against Athelstan and Athelstan could feel his cock bulging.
Later, days later, in the morning, before the others rose, Athelstan sang at the top of his voice.
He did not remember Lindisfarne.