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Never Been So High

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Athelstan wakes feverish and cold and with feathers blocking the sun out above him. For a moment, he thinks they're carrion birds, the wings are so big and black. But there are faces in front of them, the faces of strangers, frowning and forbidding, and Athelstan thinks that perhaps he's died on this missionary trip, after being foolish and taking a dangerous leg of it alone to spare the bad lungs of the older priest he's been traveling with. “Are you angels?” he asks, hazy.

“Do you understand him?” one asks the other in the language of the Northmen. He hadn't thought angels would speak that language.

“He's hurt, or sick. Should we leave him?”

The angels consider him, and Athelstan has no energy to do anything but let himself be considered. He feels like he's slipping away from the world. The foreign words are growing fuzzy in his mind.

“Something brought us here. There's no treasure to be found, so perhaps he's the treasure. He'll have information. Look at his robes.”

“Fine, then. You carry him.”

And something is lifting Athelstan from the ground easily, like he's a child, and the angels are flying him away.

*

Athelstan wakes drenched in sweat somewhere strange, buried in a pile of furs in a hut he doesn't recognize the style of. There's a child tending the fire, and she frowns when she sees him struggling to sit up. “Stay,” she says, in the language of the North just like the angels. “They say you don't speak our language, so you might not understand, but you'll hurt yourself if you move too much.”

“I understand,” he says, tripping over the syllables.

“Good. Then stay. You've been very sick. Sleep.”

“Where are the angels?” he asks, but he's not sure in what language because sleep is already pulling him back under.

*

When he wakes again, the angels are there, and the child by the fire has been joined by another, a boy.

He's awake, he realizes, because one of the angels, a male, has been gently but insistently shaking his shoulder. “Gyda says you speak our language,” he says. His wings are folded on his back. “Where do you come from?”

“The monastery at Lindisfarne.” Those words mean nothing to the angel, and he cringes a little at how small those things must seem to an angel. “I'm a … a priest. From England, if you know of it.”

“England.” That gets him sharp attention. “The West. You came across and then north?”

“Yes.”

“You're a priest,” says the other angel. A female. She's wearing trousers like the male, and Athelstan doesn't know what to do with his eyes. Angels aren't meant to be women or men, but it's been a while since he spoke to a woman. “Of what?”

“Of God,” he says, startled. “Whom we all serve.”

But he's beginning to wonder. Now that the fever has left him, he can take in that the dwelling is humble, perhaps too humble for an angel to live in. That the children bear a resemblance to the angels, and angels aren't supposed to have children who look all too human.

“And what god am I meant to serve?” asks the male. He sounds like he's indulging a child. “I serve none but Odin.”

He recognizes that name. One of the pagan gods, worshiped north of where the missionary trips of priests and monks have reached. He must have strayed far from his path, and they must have carried him even farther. “You are not angels at all, are you? How did you get such wings?”

“Do the warriors not get them, there in England?” asks the male—the man. He's only a man, a human one, wings or no, and Athelstan will have to make amends for the blasphemy when he is well again. “They're Odin's gift indeed, then.”

“He's tired, Ragnar,” says the woman. “And still sick. You'll shake his faith.” She smooths Athelstan's hair back. “Sleep, priest.”

And like it's an order, Athelstan slips off easily.

*

The next time he wakes, he feels like himself. Shaky, with the stink of illness on him, but himself. He's alone in the house that belongs to the winged people who aren't angels, somewhere much farther north than he's ever been.

Before he's even had time to look around, someone is shouting “Mother, Father, the priest is awake again,” and Athelstan looks, startled, to find it's the boy child. He hasn't heard his name yet.

The woman comes in first. “Bjorn, have you given him water?” She doesn't wait for an answer, just scoops some from a bowl of what looks like snowmelt and holds it to his lips. He drinks. It's cold enough to hurt his teeth, but it's an inexpressible relief, cooling any remaining fever out of him. “You're with us in truth, now?” He nods. “What's your name, priest? My husband would call you that, but I want your name.”

“Athelstan. He's Ragnar, I think. I haven't heard your name.”

“I'm Lagertha. You'll be too weak to travel for a while.”

“We could find work for him,” says Ragnar, shaking snow from his wings. Athelstan tries not to gape, but the sight of them, big and strong enough to fly with, seems like a miracle. “If you'd like to stay, priest.”

“His name is Athelstan,” says Lagertha. “And no doubt he wants to go back to his family.”

“I don't have one,” he says, thoughtlessly, and then tries to correct himself. “I have other priests, like me. We all live together and worship God.”

“Well.” She purses her lips. “You don't have to make the decision yet.”

*

On the next sunny day, Athelstan is allowed outside, and he stands with the children while Ragnar and Lagertha fly away, half to show off and half to look for any game they might hunt.

Bjorn sighs. “Only a few more years and I'll earn my wings. I don't want to wait.”

Gyda sniffs at him. “And who's to say you'll earn them? Mother says shieldmaidens earn them young.”

“Thyri still doesn't have hers.”

“You leave Thyri out of this.” Gyda nudges Athelstan. “They don't fly, in your land?”

“No one I've ever seen does.”

“When we come of age as warriors, we get our wings,” says Bjorn, chest out proudly. “Some are so small they can't fly, and some are different kinds of birds, but those wings speak well of Mother and Father. Ravens are beloved of Odin and so are they.”

Athelstan looks up into the sky. They're flying loops, and they're too far for him to see their faces, but he thinks he hears Ragnar laughing. “I don't want to become a warrior.”

“But you would like to fly?” Gyda asks.

They catch hands, up there in the air, and spin around and around each other until they start to fall, and then they split apart, wings catching them. “I think I would like to fly.”

She smiles at him. “I think they want you to stay. Maybe they'll take you flying again like they did when you were sick. All you have to do is stay long enough. Wouldn't flying be better than praying?”

*

They let him stay without asking if he wants to, so Athelstan isn't forced to voice his disloyalty even if he prays to be forgiven for it every night. He does chores with the children, works long and hard and misses Ragnar and Lagertha when they're away. They go on raids, and he prays for the people that they hurt and bring treasure back from.

There's one thing they ask him, but he can't say yes to that. Not yet.

*

Ragnar and Lagertha are gone on a raid, and Athelstan is with the children when a bandit comes for them in turn. It's not a whole ship of men and women—Athelstan would have no prayer of succeeding against that kind of onslaught.

It's one man attacking from above, desperate and starving, and Athelstan was chopping wood for the fire, so he has an ax in hand.

He collapses to his knees and murmurs prayers and knows he is beyond God's forgiveness and only realizes that he might have been brought to another god by this deed when Gyda comes out of the house and rests her hand lightly on his new wings.

*

“Well, now,” says Lagertha when they return home, smiling like she's fond of him. Ragnar is behind him, stretching the wings out, clucking at his poor care of them because he can't look at them without being reminded of how he gained them. “You've lost something, but you have something else in return. It's not so bad a trade, is it?”

“Come on, Athelstan,” says Ragnar, the first time he's called him anything but “priest.” “We're going to teach you how to fly.”