Lagertha’s voice cut across the din.
“He will come,” Ragnar said, tightening the strap on his bedroll.
“I haven’t seen him since the sacrifice,” Gyda told her mother.
“Nor have I,” Bjorn said.
“Has anyone seen him?” Lagertha asked.
The consensus was no.
“He will come,” Ragnar insisted, softly.
“Better if he didn’t.”
Ragnar lifted his eyes from his packing to fix on Arne. “You have issue with him?”
“Yes, I have issue with him.” Arne was angry and mocking his words. “Why should we continue to bear his burden when he brings us no honor?”
Everyone was silent.
“It is not his fault Leif volunteered,” Ragnar said, slow and soft.
“It is his fault that he is not good enough!” Arne shouted. He stood, standing over Ragnar, daring him with his insolence. “We have looked after your pet, Ragnar. We’ve played with him and kept him dry and patted his head. I say, no more. We have been cut. Leif was a good, strong man, and he’s now gone to Valhalla because you thought Odin wanted your favorite fuck hole!”
There was a collective gasp. A snicker from Rollo.
“What do you want me to do?” Ragnar asked, squinting up at him. He did not rise, did not move, he just tilted his head. The danger promised in that action was not lost on Arne, or anyone else.
Taking a step back, Arne waved a hand. “Sell him. Drop him off a cliff. Eat him, for all I care, but get rid of him!”
“You risk much to speak to me this way. It must mean a great deal to see him gone,” Ragnar replied, casually. He still knelt, but he resembled a cat waiting for the mouse more than a man on his knees.
Arne was deflating, losing the heat of his anger. “He’s outlasted his usefulness, Ragnar. He might as well be child for all he can do. He’s another mouth to feed and another back to watch, but he gives nothing in return.”
“That is much the fault of Ragnar, not Athelstan,” Lagertha interjected. “If he were a free man, he could offer more. He would thrive if he but had the chance.”
“What is done with him is no one’s concern but mine,” Ragnar said. He stood and slung the pack over his shoulder. “We should be leaving. It’s a long walk to the boat.”
Arne sneered. “You made us all fools, you know. We treated him well, gave him all that befit a sacrifice, and for nothing.”
“He didn’t know!” Gyda shouted.
Everyone turned to look at her.
Twisting her hands before her, near to tears, she took a deep breath and spoke. “Father never told him! He thought…he thought you were all just being nice to him. He thought he might have finally found a home.”
Ragnar frowned ferociously at his daughter. “And how do you know what he thinks, girl?”
“He’s the only person who ever listened to me, so I listened back.”
“You make up stories, Gyda,” Ragnar sneered. “Be quiet.”
She lifted her chin, a mild gesture for another but in her, an act of willful defiance.
“I do not! I’m a good listener. I hear things that people don’t say, like how much he’s come to like us. He wanted to see me get married and have baby. He wanted watch Bjorn grow strong and tall like you. And he always smiled when he spoke of you, until after he found out.”
Ragnar took a step in her direction, but Lagertha was there and she put a hand on Gyda’s shoulder. Bjorn stood on her other side of his sister and took her hand
Floki came between Ragnar and his family. He looked aghast. “You didn’t tell him? You didn’t ask him?”
“I asked him to come and he said yes.” Ragnar pushed him aside and started to walk away.
“The sacrifice! Did you ask him to be the sacrifice?” Floki chased after, stopping him with an arm across his chest.
There was no answer. Ragnar knocked his arm down and continued walking.
“And there is the true reason he was not accepted!” Floki shouted. He followed, stalking beside Ragnar, weaving like a snake. “You fool! What purpose could you have to play with his fate? Your fate and your family’s and all of ours? What did you hope to accomplish?”
One of Ragnar’s hands shot out and took Floki by the throat. “I needed to know who was stronger,” he fumed. He flung Floki back. “Which god to pray to, for I have come to doubt my own.”
“Ragnar!” Rollo rushed forward, his face dark and angry. “Take care what you say here.”
“The damage is already done,” Floki said. He cast a disgusted look on Ragnar, stared him down. “Ragnar tests the gods for his own satisfaction and we all pay. We could be dead tomorrow for following you. You were to lead us to glory, not eternal ice.”
“Odin got his sacrifice in the end,” Ragnar said, as amused as he was cocksure. “And I have my answer.”
“What have you done, Ragnar?” Lagertha asked, afraid to know.
“What I needed to do to take my destiny in hand.” He left and this time, no one stopped him.
They did not follow, either.
“Athelstan is still not here.” Lagertha calm, but her anger set her eyes alight.
“I’ll look for him,” Floki said.
“That would take too long,” Rollo groused.
Siggy put her hand on his arm. “We can go with Ragnar. They will catch up.”
“I’m staying,” Thyri said, nodding to Lagertha.
“You’ll come,” Siggy ordered.
“He asked, Mother, why I was doing it. I thought he was drunk or overcome by the mushrooms, but I see now that he really didn’t know.” Thyri’s lips tightened and her cheeks flushed. “Can you imagine it? What it must have been like to be alone, not knowing our ways or what the mushrooms did? On that night, most of all. He was lost for hours and only I went to find him. And that was only because I had a duty. He didn’t deserve that.”
“He deserved none of it, but what does that matter, if it gets in Ragnar’s way?” Floki spat. He looked around at the faces, carefully noting their eyes and the set of their mouths. Lagertha and Gyda were distressed but determined. Bjorn stared after his father, burning with anger and disappointment. Thyri was sad and Siggy was anxious. Arne and Rollo wore identical expressions of guilt and poor Torstein just looked confused. He breathed deep through his nose.
“If we wish to be underway, I suggest we all look. Those who do not wish to seek him can leave now to follow Ragnar or stay here to wait.”
The last he said with a sneer in the direction of Rollo and Siggy. She turned her head, looked pointedly at her daughter. Rollo pursed his lips and considered Floki’s boots. After a moment, he lifted his gaze and said, “I’ll check the far ridge. The rocks are dangerous. He could have fallen.”
“We will look in all of the tents and houses,” Lagertha said, taking her children’s hands. She tilted her head towards Thyri.
“Stay here, Mother. It won’t be long with all of us searching,” the young woman said, her hand gentle on Siggy’s arm.
“True,” Siggy sighed, smiling. “And you may drive him this way. I’ll keep him here if he comes.”
Thyri eyed her mother’s stature. “How will you do that?”
Siggy glanced towards Rollo, who looked back at her with admiring, hungry eyes. “I have ways, never doubt.”
Torstein, silent throughout, nodded behind them and hit Arne on the chest. “The Temple.”
“And I will go to the tree,” Floki said, last.
“You think he would go there? With Leif still hanging?” Lagertha asked. She was controlled, for the most part, but her eyes were flush with unshed tears.
“It’s where I would go.”
Floki stood amidst the frames, all laden with hanging carcasses of beasts and men. Of a man he called friend. The smell was rank, but the putrescence was only proof that life was here, and it was willingly surrendered.
But Athelstan was not there.
Stopping before the grey, mottled corpse of Leif, Floki gave a small bow. It was a sign of thanks, of respect, and perhaps an action guided by others. For on the ground beneath Leif’s fingers was a shimmer, out of place in the sticky black mud. Floki reached for it, felt the smooth metal in his palm, and knew it for Athelstan’s cross, instantly.
The blood and dirt clung to his fingers as he rubbed at it. It had been partially buried, stuck into the soft surface to conceal it. So it was not dropped, not come loose from its thong. Athelstan had knelt, put his hands into the gore with the purpose of leaving it. He’d given the last of his old self away in a way that troubled Floki.
It troubled him greatly.
He did not end his search, moving instead towards the temple. He went past the empty pens, the standing structures used during the great gatherings, and heard nothing but insects and birdsong. After the throngs of people, the silence was unusually disturbing. Or perhaps that was his own mind, still reeling after Ragnar’s confession.
“Odin, Frigga, I ask of you please don’t let that man’s doubt threaten us all,” Floki prayed, moving urgently, though he had no clear destination. He watched for any inclination of Athelstan’s presence but there was nothing except cold fires, bits of meals left in piles to rejoin the earth, and that eerie silence. The temple came into view and he saw Arne sitting on the steps, frowning, deep in his thoughts.
He looked up when Floki’s feet fell on the wooden walk leading to the steps. His eyes went immediately to Floki’s fist, still clutching the cross. “I found it with Leif, buried in the dirt at his fingers.”
“I don’t understand this, Floki,” Arne said, scowling. “I can see that Ragnar would give him as sacrifice. It’s plain that he values Athelstan. I can see also a reason to question the gods, to believe promises will be kept. What I cannot see is the need to trick Athelstan and give no meaning to the offering.”
“Now is not the time to dwell on that. We find him and go home, and we figure it out, then.” Floki stood before him now, expectantly.
“What if Athelstan had managed to fool them?” Arne disregarded his words and kept talking. “What if the priests had not been attuned to the song and he had actually done it? Would it have mattered, then, that he still held to his own faith? Would that have taken away from the sacrifice, or made it stronger, that he would die for us anyway?”
“I don’t know.”
Arne rose now, angrily striding past Floki to the edge of the walk. “He would have done it. He would have tried, if Ragnar had asked. Surely the gods see that his heart is good despite who he prays to. Is it simply a matter of…of counting? A petty game of numbers that they play with our lives?”
Floki cursed, softly, and looked down at his hand. He understood. They had chosen Ragnar to lead them, and they put as much faith in him as they did Odin. This one act of deceit cast them both adrift and filled with a deep dread. For if Ragnar lied to Athelstan, who he prized so highly, then what truth could he offer to anyone else?
“These are answers we must seek another time, Arne,” Floki told him. He had none to give at the moment. “Where is Torstein?”
“Here,” the man himself answered as he came out of the temple. “Athelstan is not, but they say he was until last night.”
“He was here? It’s been two days since the tribute and he was here the whole of it?” Floki asked.
Torstein shrugged. “That is what they said. He neither slept nor ate, and knelt beside Odin for long stretches of time. And that he asked them often what would change if he renounced his God.”
“What did they tell him?” Floki asked.
“That he would have been taken, had he not served another.”
Floki held up Athelstan’s cross. “I found this at the tree. It was put into the ground beneath Leif.”
“You don’t think he expects Odin to take him now, do you?” Arne asked.
Floki’s lips tightened. “Do they know where he went?”
Torstein shook his head.
Rollo bounded up the walk before more could be said. “Have you found him?”
“No,” Floki answered. When Rollo cursed and kicked at an unlit lamp, Floki asked, “What bothers you? His disappearance or your brother’s treachery?”
“My brother tests as he always has. It is no surprise to me that he has done this,” Rollo said, waving a dismissive hand. “I’ve been an unwilling party in his machinations my whole life, and felt the consequences of them more than once.” He leaned against one of the supports and met their eyes, each in turn. “I was amused at first, thinking that you would all know now what feels like. That felt good, I admit. But Ragnar taking that…boy so close to his bosom, giving him so much and never enough, only to do something like this is…”
He paused, shaking his head.
“It would serve my brother right if his favorite were to disappear, either to mist or death, but the unfairness of it to Athelstan leaves me sick at heart. As you say,” Rollo finished, nodding to Floki, “he deserves none of this.”
They stood in silence for a moment.
“We should return, see if Lagertha found him,” Arne suggested, softly.
Floki nodded and turned. “If you think of anywhere else to look, speak up. Otherwise, we will leave.”
They were silent as they walked, each of them lost in thoughts of trust and betrayal, death and disgrace. As they reached the pens, Floki stopped and held up a hand to signal quiet. Then he pointed towards the largest corral.
Ragnar stood in its center, still bearing pack and roll on his back. He did not see them. Instead, he looked down at the ground nearest the gate. His shoulders were slumped, his face a mask of regret they rarely, if ever, saw on him.
“Damn the man,” Rollo whispered. “He’s found him.”
They moved quietly, closing in on the scene. Ragnar’s eyes never lifted or looked away.
Floki saw Athelstan, kneeling against the fence. His hands were bloody. His face, too, was sticky and red, and was haphazardly shorn of its beard. Half of his hair was cut in ragged chunks and he worked steadily on another piece. He was silent. Only a soft hiss escaped him when the knife he held slipped. The point dug into his palm but he did not stop.
Ragnar moved then, dropped down beside him and reached out. Contact proved disastrous, for Athelstan responded by flinging himself away from the touch. The knife’s sharp edge caught his cheek. It lay open the flesh and sent a new stream of blood to drip down his neck.
“Athelstan!” Ragnar’s voice was stern but he did not follow.
“You dress me in your clothes and groom me to look like you. To be like you. To fit the role you force upon me with no warning. I will not be like you!”
This was said as Athelstan hacked away another long piece of hair.
“Give me the knife, now, Athelstan,” Ragnar ordered, palm extended.
“Or you’ll what? Whip me? Beat me?” Athelstan shouted this, on his knees again. “But that is what one does to a slave. You remind me of this in the same breath as you ask me if it matters. You treat me as if I am not and then thrust me into places where I must do what you say because I am still just a slave. Yet you tell me that it matters not. “
Athelstan pointed the knife at Ragnar, not to threaten but to emphasize.
“So beat me, my lord. Beat me to death. Cut my throat with your holy dagger and burn me. Leave me for the wolves or throw me into the sea. I will be the slave you wish, but do not think to turn me into you. I would not be you for all the gold in the world nor all the glory in Heaven.”
Though he couldn’t see it, Floki would have bet the gold on the surprise he knew was in Ragnar’s face. He felt it on his own, saw it reflected in the men around him. “Quiet water holds the most danger,” he whispered, watching the truth of it play out before him.
Ragnar pulled the pack and roll over his head and lay them aside. Then he turned to Athelstan asked, “What do you want from me?”
“I want to know what you want from me! Am I free? Am I a slave? Am I your friend? Or am I merely a tool that you remember when useful? You give me no purpose, no direction, but you expect me to live by your whim. You, a son of Odin, cannot give me a life to live! And you wonder why I cannot look to your gods for guidance. If you are their agent I have no faith in their wisdom.”
Athelstan raised his hands to shear another piece of hair away, and Ragnar moved. In a blink, he was on the other man, his fingers closing on Athelstan’s wrists to pull the knife up and away. He had it free and flung it away before Athelstan could even cry out. Then he reeled, for a fist had found his jaw and then another his cheek.
“Is he trying to make Ragnar kill him?” Arne asked in a whisper.
Floki nodded. “Yes, I think he is.”
Far from undone by Athelstan’s attack, Ragnar retaliated without hesitation. He sent his own fist hard into the other man’s stomach, catching him as he collapsed with a pained grunt. He held Athelstan, pulled him between his knees to rest against his chest. While Athelstan writhed and fought for air, Ragnar checked the wound in his hand, the cuts on his face, and grimaced. He started stroking the choppy, uneven hair back, silent until the other had drawn a full, unhindered breath.
“If you only knew how long I waited for an answer,” he said, one arm holding tight around the other man’s chest. “How many nights I sat before the shrine, asking Odin to tell me what to do. I knew as well as everyone else it would be you chosen for sacrifice. I hold little to me as close as I do you.”
Athelstan was staring straight ahead. He did not respond.
“My children, they would come first, of course,” Ragnar laughed, ruefully. He put his cheek to the top of Athelstan’s head and saw Floki now, standing with Rollo on one side, Arne and Torstein the other. His smile did not change. “I love my wife and brother, and I love my friends, but you are a need I can’t define. I don’t know how to treat you because I don’t know what to do with you.”
Rollo took a deep breath, let it out. “Cursed fool.” Arne nodded in agreement.
“I knew you still wore the cross. I knew that you still prayed to your god. I brought you here without telling you because I knew those things would keep you from the altar,” Ragnar said. He sat up and looked down. “If I’d told you, you would have lied for me. You would be gone from my side, Athelstan, and the thought of it was unbearable.”
Athelstan’s eyes rolled up and met his.
“If I set you free, before, would you have stayed with me? Ragnar asked him.
Still panting, Athelstan took a moment to speak. When he did, it was high and tremulous, as much from emotion as the blow to his stomach. “I…I don’t know.”
Ragnar smiled, not his usual cocky grin but a small, self-effacing twitch of his lips. “And that is why you are still my slave. I’m selfish, and will not let you go. ”
They didn’t continue, for Lagertha and Gyda ran into view. Bjorn and Thyri followed.
“Athelstan!” Gyda cried, all but flinging herself down to hug him. Her little arms went around his neck and she squeezed so hard he groaned. He raised his hand to return the embrace but saw the blood and dirt. His hand fell as did his face, and he turned to press a kiss to her head as he began to weep.
Lagertha was there, next, stooping to lift Athelstan’s chin. “What have you done to yourself, priest?” she asked, angrily.
“I think he wanted to see himself again,” Ragnar answered for him.
“You could have asked for help,” Lagertha scolded. She took her cloak and began to wipe away the blood.
“Athelstan doesn’t ask for help,” Gyda said, burrowing her face in his chest. “He helps everyone else.”
“Stupid fool,” Lagertha muttered as she worked. “Everyone needs help sometimes.”
Floki snorted and shook his head and Rollo rubbed his eyes. “I need a drink.”
“Me, too,” Arne answered.
Athelstan saw them and his eyes found Floki. They were wide and frightened, much like the first time they’d seen each other. Floki smiled at him but it was not cruel, just relieved. He bowed his head, the same gesture of respect he’d given Leif. Then he said, cheerfully, “Let’s unpack and see what’s left to eat at the temple. We can wait another night.”
Later, after they’d all bedded down around two fires, Floki heard them whispering. He opened his eyes, saw them lying close, face to face. Ragnar held Athelstan’s bandaged hand in one of his. Athelstan’s hair had been trimmed even, his face cleaned and shaved proper. The gash was covered with paste and left to dry.
“Now that you know this,” Ragnar asked, “would you stay with me, if you were free?”
There was a pause. Then Athelstan answered, “Yes.”
“Good,” Ragnar said. “I wouldn’t let you leave, anyway.”
Athelstan smiled, causing the cut on his cheek to curl and the paste to crack.
Floki sighed and propped up on his elbow. “You’ll need sewing if you keep it up, priest. Stop talking and go to sleep, both of you. Time enough for this when we get home.”
He heard Athelstan’s voice once more after he’d settled in. “Thank you, Floki. For looking for me.”
“You’re welcome.” Floki tried to sound irritable but failed. “Now go to sleep.”