There was no end to Athelstan's ignorance when it came to everyday life---at least, Ragnar seemed to think so. Not a single day passed without him finding another skill that he thought the priest ought to be in the possession of by now. It could not have been more obvious that he had taken great joy in teasing him about his „lack of knowledge”, but then, Athelstan was always happy to learn something new. That was, until one day the other men asked him to accompany him on a hunt, and inevitably found out Athelstan could not ride a horse.
„What do you mean, you cannot ride?” He seemed genuinely confused as he examined him, tilting his head to the side.
“I....never learned,” Athelstan mumbled, staring at his shoes. In front of him, growing rather bored of waiting, Ragnar's tall grey mare started grazing on the grass, ignorant of the young priest's fear of her. The other one, the chestnut's gaze was following Björn and Gyda practicing with their wooden swords with mild disinterest. „Never had the opportunity...”
Ragnar raised his eyebrow. „Our children learn to ride from the moment they can even walk. And besides, you said you've travelled a lot, in the name of your God. How did you travel then?”
„Oh, well...By ship. And on foot.”
Ragnar seemed to contemplate that for a moment.
„You priests are strange people, indeed,” he said, stroking his beard. „So you're saying you've never ridden a horse?”
„I may have, when I was very young. Possibly?” Athelstan replied, embarrassed. “I don't remember much of my time at home. As I said, I was taken to the monastery when as a little child.”
„It's about time to learn it, then,” Ragnar declared with a smirk, and, although his tone suggested that there's no use in trying to protest, Athelstan made an attempt, anyway.
„I wouldn't want you to waste your time,” he said, taking a tentative step backwards despite himself, which made Ragnar laugh.
He patted the younger man on the back. „Luckily for you, we have all the time in the world, priest,” he winked, and Athelstan knew it was a lost cause. „Besides, it's in both of our interest that you learn it. Shall we begin?”
„I fear I might fall off”, he said anxiously.
„Then I'll laugh,” Ragnar grinned, and seeing Athelstan's face he cleared his throat.„Um, if you fall off, you fall off. And you start again, until you get it. That's how you learn. But you should know, unless you do something very-very wrong, it's not so easy to fall off a horse's back.”
It soon turned out Athelstan was not a natural rider, far from it, actually. On the other hand, Ragnar was not the kind of person who gives up easily. Or at all.
„This lady here is Askr,” he patted the grey horse on the neck fondly, „and the stallion is called Heimiligr.”
„He's beautiful,” Athelstan burst out, suddenly unable to take his eyes off the horse, its coat gloriously shining in the sun. One of his ears was pointed towards him, and Athelstan had the strange impression he was being analyzed. „Secret---did you name him?”
Ragnar followed his gaze. „Oh, yes. Thought it suits him, changable as he is. And he's beautiful indeed. But he can also sense fear like wolves smell blood,” he grinned, „so unless you like challenges, I'd suggest you start practicing on the mare.” He gave Athelstan an encouraging smile, and nodded towards the horse. „Go on. She won't bite. You can touch her.”
Athelstan stepped forward tentatively. Man and horse exchanged glances, and she did not move away when he petted the animal's broad neck. If anything, she leant into the touch. Growing bolder, soon Athelstan found out that a horse's nose is the softest thing he has ever touched and could barely let go.
First they walked slowly, side by side, Ragnar leading his horse by a rope, and giving him instructions on how to sit in the saddle, where to keep his legs, and so on. Soon enough, however, when he thought Athelstan has gotten used to the position, he gave him the reins---and that was when things started getting out of hand. Whatever Athelstan expected, he sure never thought one can do so many things wrong when riding a horse.
„Stop staring lovingly at the horse and look where you're going!”
„No, you can't use your arms for balancing, keep them down!”
„Sit up straight, not slouched like an old man!”
There was so much to remember. Everyday after chores were finished, they mounted the horses and rode off, just the two of them, deep into the forest, leaving the farm and the children behind them for a couple of hours. Each day, Athelstan had become less nervous in the saddle, as well as more comfortable around his master, who, Athelstan could not help to notice, had proved himself a fairly patient teacher. He had not called him a hopeless case, not even when they started practicing trotting, and Athelstan could not for the life of him master it.
Ragnar had not, however, missed a chance to tease him.
„Priest,” he shouted, for the upteenth time that day, „you're bounching around in that saddle like a sack of potatoes. Don't just sit there, you'll have to follow the horse's motion, up and down, up and down.”
He made it look like it's child-play, rising as the horse and then sitting back gently in the saddle in a continuous rhythm, but it was not, and Athelstan found himself constantly thrown all over the place.
„Really, it's a lot like having sex,” Ragnar said, when he finally called it for the day. He lay on the grass, hands behind his head, the sky mirroring itself in his pale blue eyes. He plucked a strand of grass and stuck it in his mouth. „But you wouldn't know much about that, would you?”
The way Athelstan turned to hide his blush gave him away. And the next moment he almost jumped; he did not notice Askr walking up to him, not until the horse rubbed its head against his shoulder. Ragnar laughed, heartily, and Athelstan vaguely realized he did not mind he was laughing at him---on the contrary, he liked the sound of it.
He petted the horse's forehead, distractedly brushing his fingers through the grey tuft of hair between his ears.
„You're exceptionally quiet today, priest,” Ragnar said at last. „Is there something weighing on your mind?”
„What?” Ragnar propped up on his elbow, to look him in the eye.
„My name is Athelstan. Why are you still calling me priest? All of you.”
Ragnar scratched the back of his neck. „Well, are you not? A priest?”
„I don't know.” His voice came out hesitant. „Not anymore.” He could not hold the earl's gaze, and for once, his master did not press. Athelstan expected him to mock him, his lips to curl into the usual, lopsided grin, but that did not happen either. He looked concerned.
„All right then,” Ragnar said, to his surprise. „Let it be as you wish, Athelstan.” He said it as if savouring the word, still with an accent, but not nearly as thick as when they first met.
“But tell me, what do you mean you don't know?” He raised his eyebrow, seemingly confused.
Athelstan sighed. He did now know how to put it into words....most of the time, he tried to avoid even thinking about it, because his own thoughts scared him.
“I can't practice my faith. Not properly. I can't do art. I'd stopped shaving my head.” He paused, already afraid he'd said too much. “I pray sometimes...but He had been silent for so long now, I'm not sure if he can hear me.”
“What's an art?”
Athelstan blinked. He opened his mouth but no words came out.
“Oh, well...It's hard to explain, art has many forms. But, generally...art is the making of.. objects intented to be, um, appreciated for their beauty.”
“And what do you do, with those... objects?”
“Nothing. You just...admire them.”
Ragnar still looked puzzled.
“Why would anyone waste their time making objects of no use to anyone? They don't make any difference.”
“I believe they make all the difference.”
Ragnar remained silent for a while, processing his words.
“Your God....Did he ever talk to you?”
Athelstan shook his head.
“Then how do you know he is silent now?”
“I...it's not his voice I'm missing. He's more like, well... He had always felt like a constant presence for me. But now, he's... absent, and I don't know if it's because he abandoned me or it is because he's testing my faith.”
“What is the point in testing your faith, if he can see your heart?” Athelstan blinked. “You said he knows everything. How can't he see you've never abandoned your faith?”
Athelstan moved to stand up, and then he felt Ragnar's grip on his arm and he startled.
“Did I say something wrong?” Ragnar asked. “You are acting very strangely.” He seemed genuinely interested and even worried a bit. It was a rare look on him, which he usually reserved for his wife and children. Athelstan wanted to tear himself away from the touch, he wanted to be alone...or did he?
As if reading in his thoughts, the other man removed his hand.
“We should go back,” Athelstan said weakly. “It's getting late.”
“We should go back,” Ragnar mimicked him, his tone mocking. He groaned, and lay back on the grass. “What for?”
“Lagertha and the children...”
“We both know she's more than capable of managing on her own for a couple of hours. I thought we could talk more.” He tilted his head to the side. “Are you not enjoying our conversations? Because I do. And I was under the impression you do as well.”
“No, that's not---I do,” Athelstan replied, a little too hastily. “Please, Ragnar.”
Something in the tone of his voice made the other man comply. They walked back home in silence, leading their horses by the reins. Athelstan went to bed right away, without even having something to eat, even though Ragnar knew he must've been hungry because they hadn't had anything since noon. He stayed up a bit longer, discussing the day's events with Lagertha and the children, but even after they went to bed, dream did not come easily on him.
Athelstan sat with his back to a tree, his attention focused on a piece of parchment. He seemed so wrapped in whatever he was doing that Ragnar did not want to bother him. However, he was getting restless by just laying around and pretending to be asleep; his head pillowed on his arms, he kept stealing glances at the man who had become so dear to him through the years, the devastation and shock of Lagertha and his son's leaving having been somewhat softened by having him by his side. Of course, he had found him interesting and desireable from the very beginning, but now, sometimes he caught himself longing after the casual intimacy they had---the kind he had not experienced with anyone else before. He kept looking for excuses to spend more time together.
Athelstan had his hair loose; his tousled, dark curls fell around his shoulder, covering his face as he leant forward. He's grown a beard, which made him look a little older; Ragnar wondered how it would feel like against his skin.
He had taken up some weight, too, and looked stronger. He was stronger. Ragnar trained him to fight personally, with greater success than he had expected, and when he had other matters to tend to, the task was carried out by Torstein. Ragnar had been thinking a lot lately about Athelstan's wish, to be made a free man, and he thought he was ready---should the need arise he would surely be able to defend himself---but Ragnar knew it was in both of their interest to wait until Athelstan proved himself in battle.
He rolled over and stretched, jawning, as if he had just woken up.
Athelstan glanced up and smiled at him.
“Did you have a good sleep?”
“Oh, yes.” He propped up on his elbow. “What is it that are you doing?”
“I'm just drawing.”
“Again?” Ragnar smiled. He knew the younger man had a pile of parchments, one he liked to fill with pictures of all kinds of things he found interesting. He called it his “journal”. He kept it hidden under his bed, but occassionally he would come to Ragnar to ask him about his thoughts.
“Yes. It's a drawing of horses.”
“They're intriquing subjects.”
“Can I take a look?”
Athelstan scrambled to his feet and stretched, walking up to him. “It's not finished yet. Please be careful not to touch the lines.”
The other man examined the work with a serious expression on his face.
“Beautiful beasts. Especially the black one. Well done.” The praise earned him a smile so bright it made his stomach flip. He returned the drawing to Athelstan; his fingers lingered on the piece of parchment, lips curling into a smirk. “Tell me one thing. Would you ever draw me?”
To his surprise, Athelstan's cheeks reddened. “I already have.” Their fingers brushed as he hastily took the drawing back. Athelstan's were covered in charcoal. “You, Lagertha, Gyda, Björn. Even the others.”
Ragnar betrayed only with a slight twitch of his mouth that the mentioning of his ex-wife and son still touched a sore spot. He never talked about them, unless someone brought it up and it was inevitable, and when he did, he spoke of it jokingly, trying to make it sound like he didn't really care.
“Why are you're blushing? Did you draw me naked?”
“No? Well that's a pity.” He smirked. “Did you draw me ugly then?” Athelstan rolled his eyes and didn't reply. “Will you show them to me sometime?”
The young man contemplated his answer. “Sometime perhaps,” he said at last.
“Sometime perhaps,” Ragnar repeated. “Are you not proud of them? You should be. You're gifted.”
“I am,” he said pulling his knees up to his chest. “Proud, I mean. It's just...I like to keep them to myself.”
“Why? Didn't you tell me art is supposed to be appreciated?”
“Well, genereally yes, but...” Athelstan sighed. The earl's curiousity was something that could never be easily satisfied--- if ever. Athelstan found sometimes he was like a child, constantly hallenging him with questions, and never completely happy with his answers. “Back at the monastery, I used to draw portraits. Of my brothers, mostly, whom I liked to spend time with. Father Cuthbert ripped them all apart when he found out. Said I've been wasting my time, instead of.... doing something useful. Said he didn't want me to get ideas.”
Ragnar stared at him.
“That's what you're afraid of? That I'd destroy your work?”
“No. Reasonably, I know you would never...I just learned that some things are better kept in secret.”
Ragnar remained silent for a while, and then smirked. “So you did draw me naked after all.”
Their eyes locked, and suddenly, both of them burst out laughing, and they laughed, loudly and uncontrollably until Athelstan's stomach started to hurt.
The King was dead. Not only he had been killed, he had been beaten until he was unrecognizable; his face a mass of blood, features scarcely distinguishable. There was so much blood on Ragnar's face, so much, that when he stumbled in the door, for a moment Athelstan's heart stopped in his chest. Of course, it didn't make any sense, for him having gotten hurt like that, but the mere sight shocked him so much that momentarily he couldn't think clearly. He just stood there, frozen.
“I made him pay, Athelstan,” was all Ragnar said. He sank down against the wall, burying his face into his hands. A hiss of pain escaped his lips, but he didn't seem to care. “I made him pay.”
Athelstan sank to his knees next to him.
“You scared me so much,” he whispered, “Are you all right? Your face...”
“Yeah, well. It hurts. And I'll probably look like horseshit for a good couple of days, but that's a price I was willing to pay.” He felt a warm hand on his shoulder, and suddenly went quiet. “I headbutted him. And kept beating him. He was dead already, but somewhat I couldn't stop. I wanted to but...I couldn't. I couldn't stop. I just felt so angry...I still do.”
“You had every right to feel so.” He paused. “Where is he now?”
“In the Great Hall where I left him.” He barked a laugh. “Not going anywhere anytime soon, of that I made sure.”
“You came here first?”
“Of course I did.” He groaned. “My wife, and the boys...they cannot see me like this. You've seen me worse, if memory serves.”
“You mean the time when I dragged you out of the water, unconscious?”
“My true saviour. Thought you'd remember that...”
“You were heavy like a dead donkey.”
The tears came, silently sliding down his cheeks, when using a wetted rag, Athelstan proceeded to wash the blood off his face, gently so as not to cause pain. The younger man pretended he didn't notice. Ragnar's words came out in a seemingly endless flow of disappointment, rage, (and fear), and he just sat there and listened.
“He was a guest in my house, and he tried to turn everyone against me, everyone I ever trusted and loved, right in front of my eyes. He tried to turn me against you.”
“Yes, and in vain. It's over.”
“Wish I could see it that way. I've got a bad feeling that this only the beginning.” Ragnar brought his hand to his face, wiping his tears away impatiently. Clearly, his rage was now directed at himself, for breaking down, but Athelstan knew better than to try and stop him. Quick-tempered and maddeningly unwilling to back down in any dispute, his lover has never been an easy person to deal with, and sometimes, letting him be was the best course of action. “How do I look?”
“Miserable,” Athelstan smiled and tilted his head to the side. “Kind of fierce, though,” he added.
“That's what I thought.” Ragnar chortled, sniffling his nose.
Athelstan's features softened, and he brought up his hand to his face, stroking his chin. Ragnar leant into the touch.
“What you need is rest,” he smiled, fondly. “Would my king like to share my bed tonight?”
“Oh, don't.”Ragnar pulled away, scrambling to his feet.
“Don't say that.” He grimaced. “I never wanted any of this. I had no intention to become an earl, and even less to become a king.”
“Well, as it appears, you've just made yourself one. You'll have to get used to it.”
“Yeah, not today.” Not bothering to even take off his shoes, he dropped himself on the bed---then hissed, rolling onto his back. “Come 'ere,” he called, eyes closed.
“I'm sorry,” he slurred as Athelstan laid beside him. His breath smelled of alcohol. “I don't know what happened. This isn't me.”
“It is. And that's all right.”
Ragnar's chortle sounded more like a sob than anything else. He buried his face into the other man's chest, allowing Athelstan to drape his arm around him---having usually been the other way around, it felt strange, but not wrong at all.
On that night, Ragnar was the first one to fall asleep. Athelstan stayed up for a while, reading, careful not to wake him, and even after his eyelids closed, he was kept awake. If the few occassions they had shared a bed was anything to go by, Ragnar was not a restless sleeper by any means---usually he slept like a log---, now however he kept rolling over in Athelstan's not-big-enough bed, making soft groaning noises in his sleep, and sometime around dawn, Athelstan woke for a full-bladder and an empty bed.
He had not returned to Athelstan's place later that day, nor any of the following days. They barely found time to even talk a few words in private. Ragnar had more responsibilities than ever, more than he would have ever found himself asking for, and yet it was not enough to divert his attention from unwanted thoughts. The fierce look of anger that frightened Athelstan that night, had left his face. The disappointment had not.
He tugged impatiently at his beard as he paced back and forth the hall, with Ubbe and Hvitserk screaming and running around him, and when he turned, Athelstan could see that his face was pale and drawn.
“Oh look, a stranger.” He managed a tired half-smile."It is good to see you."
Athelstan smiled back, his eyes twinkling mischievously.
“A word, King Ragnar?”
“I'm sure I told you to stop.”
“I'm just teasing you.”
“Well, don't. Not your area of expertise.” Seeing the other man's face, his features softened. “I'm sorry. You didn't deserve that. Gods, it's been a day...” he muttered, scratching the back of his neck, and he sank down on the bench, patting the spot next to him. Athelstan followed.
“How was the hearing?” he asked.
“Maddeningly long and boring. Pity you didn't come. I've been seriously contemplating hanging myself on a tree.”
Athelstan's glance flickered across the room to Princess Aslaug, sitting on the edge of their marriage bed, her unconsolably crying baby in her arms. Ivar seemed to cry more than any of Ragnar's sons before ----more than any baby Athelstan has ever seen---, shrieking hysterically until the point of vomiting, or screaming himself hoarse. Some days it was better, some days worse; this must have been one of the worst ones. Athelstan thought he saw the Princess' cheeks glistening with tears as she had been desperately trying to soothe him.
“Ubbe, Hvitserk, that's enough!” Ragnar suddenly raised his voice, not quite shouting, but firm enough that the boys stopped chasing each other around the bed. “Come here, both of you! Stop running around and leave your mother alone.”
Reluctantly, and after a bit of a protest they came, and Ragnar pulled the younger boy onto his thigh, while Ubbe hopped on the bench between the two of them.
Hvitserk laughed heartily as his older brother tickled him, tossing himself around in Ragnar's lap.
“They're restless,” Ragnar sighed, trying to get hold of his fidgety son.“Siggy took care of them a lot in the last couple of days, because I had matters to attend to. They don't understand why their father and mother is neglecting them lately.”
“She's exhausted,” Athelstan said. “She needs some rest.”
Ragnar's glanced at her. Guilt crept over his face.
“I know. And believe me, I tried, but she won't let him out of her hands. Not to me, not to Siggy. Instead, she struggles on her own. What can I do?”
Athelstan didn't reply at once.
“Let's ride out tomorrow.”
Ragnar stared. “What?”
“Let's ride out and take the children with us. I know it doesn't solve anything, but she wouldn't have to worry about the boys, then, at least. Maybe all the two of them needs is a bit of peace. It'd do good for both of you. Ubbe, Hvitserk? What do you say?” Athelstan smiled, managing to get the attention of the boys who looked up at him with bright, blue eyes. 'Their father's', Athelstan thought. “Would you like to go for a trip?”
“A trip?” Ubbe furrowed his brows. “Where to?”
“That's a secret,” Athelstan said, lips curling into a smile. “It'll be an adventure.”
“What is it, Athelstan?”
The Princess' voice was tired and hollow, and maybe Athelstan's imagination played a trick on him, but for a flickering moment when she raised her pale, blue eyes on him, he suddenly had the strange, rather unsettling impression that she knew. Her expression said that she knew exactly where to his husband is sneaking out at night, knew that Ragnar greets his friend with a kiss on the mouth when no one is around, and that he, Athelstan kisses him back. Her expression also said that she knew there was nothing she could do about it. Neither could Athelstan. It was not that somewhere, deep down, he did not feel guilty...he did. But when it came to Ragnar---the first person that made him feel truly loved, and the first person he has ever fallen in love with---he was helpless.
And then, the moment passed, and she just looked utterly exhausted. Much as his husband predicted, however, she was not particularly enthusiastic about Athelstan's idea. The two of them had regular arguments over the children---everyone knew it, because they argued loudly and occasionally threw things at each other---Ragnar accused her of being overly protective of the boys, and Athelstan was beginning to think Ragnar might be right.
“They're little boys, they hurt themselves so easily,” she said, raising her voice so that it could be heard above the wailing baby. “Anything could happen.”
“Ragnar knows these woods very well, my Lady,” Athelstan said. “We used to ride out quite often. They'll be safe with us.”
Aslaug examined his face, as if contemplating her answer, and then glanced briefly at his husband. He must have been telling one of his stories to the boys, because they were exceptionally quiet.
“Well, then...Look after them well.” Supporting the baby's head with one arm, she brought him close to her chest. Ivar's shrill crying was now finally fading into broken sobs, and Athelstan realized that he was being dismissed.
“We will, my Lady.” He nodded, and walked back to the corner where Ragnar and the boys were snuggled together. Ubbe failed to suppress his jawn, and Hvitserk's eyelids already heavy with sleep as he nestled closer to his father's chest. It did not take long until they both fell fast asleep. Careful not to wake them, Ragnar put them to bed, tucking a blanket around them.
“Well, I suppose we'll see each other tomorrow morning,” Athelstan smiled. “I bid you all a good night.” The Princess nodded to him, with a weak smile, and he was just about to leave, when Ragnar grabbed his wrist.
“I'll accompany you.”
Athelstan shook his head. “You don't have to.”
“Best not to wake him up, now that he's finally asleep.”
He meant Ivar, of course. Athelstan did not quite find it in himself to protest.
Ragnar walked him to his hut, gently pushed him down on the sheets, and made him come twice before leaving.
“I feel...I feel like dying,” Athelstan managed shakily as his lover slowly pulled out of him, his second release leaving him boneless, soaking in sweat, and gasping for breath. His heart was pounding so hard he feared it may burst out of his chest. “Were you not supposed to be tired?”
Ragnar laughed. “Yes, well...Not tired enough not to make you happy.” He leant down to kiss him. “I suppose I'll take that as as compliment.”
Smiling contentedly, Athelstan wrapped his hand around the back of his lover's neck.
“And besides,” Ragnar grinned, “you're so easy to satisfy.” Athelstan raised his brows. “Before you, I've only had sex with women, and let me tell you, they're complicated.”
“Well, Lagertha didn't seem unhappy to me.”
“That's because I'm good.” He smirked. Athelstan rolled his eyes and pulled him into a kiss. They kissed for while, slow and lazy, their legs tangled together, and then reluctantly Ragnar scrambled out of bed and dressed in silence.
Despite being only six years old, Ubbe sat his small, stout horse with confidence. Of course, he had to walk it beside his father's who had kept an eye upon his movements, and was there for him should the need arise, but Athelstan was still impressed. When he mentioned it to Ragnar, he shrugged.
“He only knows to ride two gaits, the walk, and the trot. It's about keeping balance and squeezing and relaxing your legs at the right times, the sooner they learn it the better.”
Hvitserk sat in front of Athelstan, his small hands holding the arch, seemingly not bothered at all by how nervous he looked behind him.
“Don't look so tense. It was your idea,” Ragnar laughed when he saw his face. “Stick with it.”
After a couple of minutes, Athelstan's shoulders relaxed and he began enjoying himself. It was hard not to, listening to the boys' constant, excited chattering. There was a running commentary of everyhing that caught their attention, going from one subject to the next, and Ragnar tried his best to answer every single one of their questions. From time to time Athelstan came to his rescue, joining in the conversation, most of time however he just listened to the exchange, bemused.
Sometime around midday, upon reaching the corner of a broad, green meadow, filled with heathers and primroses, Ragnar stopped his horse.
“You boys hungry, huh?”
“Athelstan is,” Hvitserk said, “I heard his stomach rumbling. It's very loud.”
Ragnar smirked fondly. “You mind your own business, little man. But don't you worry, we've brought something for him to eat as well.”
He dismounted, walked over to Ubbe and Hvisterk and helped them down.
“You need a hand as well?” Ragnar grinned up at Athelstan, which made the younger man's face redden.
“I can manage, thank you,” he said quickly, and jumped off his horse—his horse indeed, because she belonged to him now. He patted the mare's neck, and smiled, letting her walk away, joining the others.
Ragnar spread blankets on the ground, and they ate their dinner---not in silence of course, it seemed as though the children never ran out of questions to ask.
“Athelstan what do you have in that?” Ubbe asked between bites, pointing at Athelstan's bag.
Athelsan took a bite of his bread and swallowed. “Treasures,” he answered, smiling.
Ubbe furrowed his brows, incredulously, and in that moment, he reminded Athelstan very much of his father. “Treasures?”
“In a way, yes. How about I show them to you after you've finished eating?”
He caught Ragnar's eyes and could not help a bright smile.
As he had expected, the children had been amazed by his drawings. Especially Ubbe; his brother look at a couple of them, and grown bored, but Ubbe found them very exciting and would not let them out of his hands.
“Look that's a deer! And a bear! Father! That's you and Lagertha!”
“Yes, yes, I've already seen them all,” his father shouted. He and Hvitserk were practicing with wooden swords, and he had just dropped to the ground, pretending he was dead. “Athelstan!”
“Did you bring the one I like the most?”
“Which one is tha---” he trailed off, because seeing the other man's wide grin, he realized of course what he was referring to. The first time Ragnar made love to him ---”took” him, in a way no man is supposed to be taken---, both of them fell asleep. Athelstan was first to wake up, and for what seemed like a very long time, he just watched the other man beside him, the man who had turned his world upside down, and showed him a whole different way of life. The way his lips were slightly parted, the crows feet around his eyes, the scarred skin and the thick, lightish-brown pubic hair surrounding his flaccid shaft.
Trying not to make noises, Athelstan slipped out of bed, wetted a rag, and washed his lover's dried-up seed off the backside of his thighs; before falling asleep he dimly realized it was dripping out of him, down his legs---quite the surprise to him, and not a pleasant one---but his body felt too limp to do anything about it. He wrapped a fur around his shoulders and curled up in his chair, and started drawing Ragnar, as he saw him; sprawled naked on Athelstan's bed, fast asleep, with all his defences down. What a glorious sight it was.
“Like what you see?”
He flinched a little at the sound of Ragnar's voice and looked up. His eyes were open, lips curling into a smirk.
“Yes.” He had to clear his throat.
“Is it finished yet?”
“Then come back to bed, and warm me up,” he said with a grin. “You'd have let me freeze to death here.”
Ragnar liked to tease him about that drawing, bringing it up every chance he got, but Athelstan knew he was flattered. Even if he never said so.
As you probably noticed I made a mistake--- namely forgetting about poor Sigurd entirely. I don't know how it happened, but I'm deeply ashamed :'D I'll have to either remove the tag "canon complient", or add Sigurd to the story...
The feast was over at the King's Great Hall. The clattering of the plates and the chink of glasses was slowly drowned out by the sound of his men laughing and giggling as Torstein kept the whole table amused once again with one of his stories, and yet, he wanted nothing else than to leave the table already and being left alone. The negotiation with King Ecbert, although successful, left him feeling somewhat uneasy and he couldn't decipher why. A settlement on the green, fertile fields of England was everything he has ever wished for. It was likely to open possibilites his people never even dared to dream of and he was the one to make it happen, yet he couldn't get any satisfaction out of it.
“You seem unsure about our agreement.”
He turned his gaze from his plate to meet Lagertha's. She lowered her voice so that only Ragnar could hear it.
“Yes. You may be good at hiding your emotions but I know you way too well.”
“What makes you think I'm trying to hide them, Lagertha?” His lips curled into a lopsided smile. “What use would it be? If this is the way forward, then so be it.”
Lagertha gave him an enquiring look.
“So, do you mean to tell me you're having no concerns about it...”
Ragnar snorted.“Oh, I have many.”
“Well...Athelstan believes we can trust him.”
Ragnar glanced at the dark-haired man at the other side of the table, engaged in conversation with the King.
“The man saved his life. Of course he's enchanted by him.” Despite himself, a note of bitterness crept into his voice. “We both know he's naïve.”
„But you trust his judgement.” It wasn't question. It was a statement.
As if sensing his gaze, Athelstan looked up and their eyes locked. He must have seen something on Ragnar's face because he excused himself and crossed the Hall, with King Ecbert's gaze following him across the table.
He stood beside Ragnar, resting his hand on his chair's handrest.
„Is everything all right?” he asked quietly, leaning closer.
„Yes,” Ragnar whispered back. „I just want to leave this table very, very badly.”
„It's not the worst company we've ever had,” the younger man pointed out, lips curling into a smile.
„No, but still, after spending days stuck with them on a longboat I happen to prefer my own.”
Lagertha snorted into her cup. Ragnar grinned and gestured Athelstan to lean closer. „See, I can still make her laugh,” he whispered into his ear--- not that there was any need for whispering, as that was the exact moment Floki chose to stand up, with a roar of chair scraping the floor. A couple of the others followed him, and so it seemed as though the feast was over. Ragnar put his hands on the table.
“May we please be excused?”
It wasn't a request, rather an act of formality.
“Well...” King Ecbert spread his arms. “We've reached an agreement, so I suppose I don't see why not. Athelstan will walk you to your rooms---those of you willing to stay the night.”
Ragnar gave a bow, lips curling into a lopsided smile.
“I'm glad you're staying, Athelstan,” Lagertha said as they walked their way up the stairway. “We'll finally have some time to spend together.” She smiled and touched Athelstan's arm. “I've been missing your company.”
„Oh you better appreciate that, she never says such nice things to me,” Ragnar remarked with a smirk.
„Has it never occurred to you that maybe, you don't deserve it?”
„See, that's my reward for bringing her along, she's always cruel to me.”
“You didn't bring me along. You needed me.”
The younger man walked beside them, smiling to himself. “I'm looking forward to it, Lagertha. And I know you two have your doubts, and not without reason, but I genuinely believe this could finally bring peace.”
“I agreed to the deal because let's be honest, this King of yours gave me no real choice, but I'll admit,” Ragnar scratched the back of his neck, “I'm not overly enthusiastic about ending up fighting someone else's battle.”
There was a bit of a pause. „He could've been.... more straightforward about his conditions, yes.”
„He could've been more straightforward?” Ragnar repeated and he laughed. „He's a sly bastard! In any case... we'll see how that works out for him.”
Athelstan halted before a thick, ironbound oaken door.
„This floor is reserved for high-ranking guests,” he explained as he pushed it open. It opened with low-pitched creak. „You could choose any of the rooms, it doesn't really matter because they all look pretty much the same.”
„If it comes with a bed it's good enough for me.” Lagertha smiled, resting her hand on the doorknob. „Thank you, Athelstan.”
„I used to sleep at the end of the second floor; there was a small bedroom opening from the scriptorium---that's a, well, it's a room devoted to reading and writing,” he explained. „Find me if you need anything.”
Lagertha looked as though she had been contemplating a question, but then she just smiled. „I bid you both a good night.”
The heavy wooden door closed behind her with a dull thud. Silence descended upon the corridor.
Ragnar stepped forward, and leaned in to whisper into Athelstan's ear. „You can bet she considered inviting us into her bed.”
„Do you ever stop thinking about that?,” Athelstan whispered back.
„Not until I get what I want.” He glanced around the hallway, and let his arms slide around Athelstan's waist, pulling him closer.
„Not here,” the younger man breathed against his mouth. „It's not safe.”
„I know,” Ragnar said reluctantly. „But we haven't been alone since we left and I missed you.”
„We travelled together, ” Athelstan smiled. „You wouldn't even let me out of your sight.”
„Yes, but I can't talk to you the way I want to when the others are around. And tomorrow we're leaving again.” He smirked. „Show me to your bed. I want to say goodbye properly.”
„I have... matters to attend to.”
„Yes. Ecbert said he wanted a word. In private.”
The other man made a face. „He's going to try to make you stay.”
„Probably,” Athelstan nodded. „And I'm going to tell him again--- my place is by your side.”
Ragnar pressed his lips together; the muscles of his face quivered.
„Give me a kiss then.”
Athelstan glanced around, but they were still alone. He brought his hands up to his lover's face, and his lips touched Ragnar's, only briefly, leaving both of them wanting more.
„Meet me at the stalls at dusk.” He smiled. “Till then please try to behave yourself.”
„What's that supposed to mean?”
With a smile on his face, the young man walked away; his footsteps echoed along the empty corridor. Ragnar didn't take his eyes off him until he was out of sight. A pang of jealousy crept into his heart and he tried to push it away. It wasn't that he didn't trust him completely. Athelstan may be reserved and quiet, but the way he talked to Ragnar, the way he touched him, everything, everything he'd ever said and done left no doubts about his feelings towards him. He was jealous because the English King and Athelstan had something common that he could never understand, nor could he be any part of. He knew Athelstan missed his work at the King's court; never going into the details, he has expressed it many times how excited he was about getting his hands back on the fragments Ecbert has given to him to translate; his face lit up whenever he talked about it, and that was something Ragnar cannot give him no matter how much he would've wanted to.
The sun was already quite low on the sky when Athelstan turned up; he smelled of dust and old parchments and his eyes sparkled with joy.
“What are you so happy about?” Ragnar asked suspiciously.
“Nothing specific really,” the other man smiled. “I'm just...glad we're here together this time.”
Ragnar reached for his hand and took it into his own. His fingers traced over the scars on his palm, gently. And then he noticed it: Athelstan's old cross hanging from the young man's neck, and he felt a wrench in his stomach.
“Where're we going?”
Athelstan smirked. “Does it matter?”
“She loves you more than she's ever loved me,” Ragnar accused.
The mare rubbed his nose affectionately to Athelstan's forehead, it's long, soft mane tickling his skin. He chuckled and stroked the horse's neck.
“Unfaithful creature--- that's what you are, yes,”Ragnar said when the animal turned his head to him,”off you go to your friend.”
As if saying, you're not going to tell me what to do, the mare ducked her nose to Athelstan's face, rubbing gently. He fumbled in his pockets for a piece of carrot and fed it to the horse.
“I don't know what you mean,” he said smiling as he watched the horse walking away, joining the other. “She's always been affectionate.”
The other man snorted. “Because she's learnt that it brings her treats. They are not stupid. You're spoiling her. ”
“The way I'm spoiling you?”
“I hope not.” He studied Athelstan's face before placing a kiss on the corner of his lips. They rode deep into the woods to where they could be alone together, without feeling the obligation to pretend; dusk was descending upon them.
After days of casual touches, they kissed deeply, with a sence of urgency. Ragnar slipped his hand under Athelstan's tunic, running his fingers up his bare chest.
“I want to be yours,” he declared all of a sudden when their lips parted.
Athelstan's head was spinning.
“Uh, what do you mean---”
“I want you to have me.” He gave a nod when the other man still looked perplexed.
“ Oh. Are you sure?” he asked, a little anxiously.
Sighing, Ragnar buried his head into the crook of Athelstan's neck. “I'll admit, I didn't imagine you'll be as shocked as you seem right now,” he grinned, placing little kisses to the skin. “Yes, I'm serious. I want to know how it feels because you seem to be enjoying it a lot. Why would you even ask that?”
“Because I thought...well.” He trailed off. “Never mind. Forget it.”
“I never asked because I thought you'd find it... humiliating.”
Ragnar raised his eyebrow. “Have you ever found it humiliating? Do you think I've ever thought less of you because you allowed me to---"
“No, of course not,” Athelstan said impatiently. “But we both know that's different.”
“Enlighten me because I don't see how this is different.”
“Do you really want me to say it out loud?” Ragnar shrugged. “Isn't it regarded as a shame, letting another man use you as one uses a woman?”
“Yes, and according to your Holy Book it is a dreadful sin---"
Ragnar cut in, but Athelstan ignored him.
“It doesn't matter what I do, people are already talking and calling me names, you know that, don't you?” He turned away. “You must know. And besides... for me there's no shame in it, giving myself to the man I love. But you...you are...”
“I couldn't care less what people think. I only care what you think.” His arms wound around the other man's waist and he pulled him close. Athelstan looked up at him, his lips parting in surprise, and Ragnar kissed him. Sharing sloppy, desperate kisses they slowly stripped each other naked and sank to the soft bed of grass. Shiver ran through Ragnar's body as Athelstan pushed him down on the ground, lying top of him. He was not he fragile young man he once had been, with that constant frown on his face, and the smidgen of softness around his belly. The boyish softness was replaced with lean angularity, his muscles straining as he held himself above his partner.
“I see you're willing after all,” Ragnar breathed tilting his head to side to offer Athelstan more of his neck to kiss. The other man's beard prickled the sensitive skin, leaving angry red marks behind, but he was so caught up in the way their bodies touched, he didn't seem to realize.
“I advise you not to get your hopes up too much,” Athelstan warned. “It was one time, with a woman, and I was barely conscious.”
“Luckily for both of us I haven't got much for comparison....” He grinned. “You're my first. How does that make you feel?”
Athelstan smiled. “I think you know exactly how it makes me feel.” Kissing his way down to Ragnar's chest he rolled his hips against his lover's, making both of them groan. He vaguely realized Ragnar's fingers sliding into his curls, grip tightening as he sucked a nipple between his lips.
“You're infuriating,” Ragnar hissed, and Athelstan could feel his arousal as the other man arched up against him; next thing he knew they were rubbing against each other, lost in the pleasure of their bare shafts touching, their kiss only broken to gasp for air.
And then he stopped, drawing a frustrated grunt from his lover.
“Give it to me,” Athelstan whispered.
“What?” Ragnar snapped, his tone resembling a child's whose plaything was taken away from him.
“Well, do you still want me to---?”
“Uh. Yes.” His voice softened. “Yes of course I want you.” He shifted, propping up himself on his elbows. His chest heaved, his skin covered in a thin layer of sweat. “Has to be somewhere...” He reached for his breeches, and fumbled a little in the pockets, eventually pulling out the small bottle he had been looking for.
His hands trembling slightly Athelstan oiled his fingers, overly aware of the other man's eyes on him. It was not that he did not want Ragnar that way, because oh, Lord knows he was excited, and curious how it would feel to have him, the thought alone enough to feel himself hardening even more. He just feared it is going to be a disappointment.
“You nervous?” Ragnar asked, lips curling into a grin.
“I must be.”
“Well, you know where to put it, don't you?”
Before Athelstan could do even so much as to roll his eyes, Ragnar grabbed his wrist and pulled him down for a kiss.
“While you two were talking about scriptures,” he said, “I used your King's bath to get all ready for you.” When Athelstan's eyes widened, he added. “By which I mean, I bathed. Nothing like that, gods... There were guards,” he grinned.
“You're childish.” Athelstan smiled indulgently. “And jealous.”
Ragnar snorted. “Of that old King of yours? Why would I be?”
“Yes, you are. And it's as ridiculous as it sounds. We're close but not the way you think. I already told you that.”
“What about the girl?”
“What about who?”
Ragnar sneered at him. “Don't tell me you haven't noticed. Even you can't be that oblivous...Athelwulf's wife, what's her name...”
“Judith,” he burst out.
“Yes. Her. She couldn't take her eyes off you.” He traced his thumb over his lover's cheek. “Not that I blame her, you're a handsome young man. And something tells me you're not entirely indifferent to her feelings.”
“Is that so?”
“Yes.” Ragnar grinned. “I wouldn't be surprised if she offered you her bed in the following days.”
“Does that make you jealous?” Athelstan asked defiantly.
“Not in the very least. I just wanted to see how you'd react.”
“You're dying of curiousity, aren't you?” Athelstan smiled, his cheeks flushed. “Well, if you really want to know...I do find her beautiful. I've always had, I'm not blind. In any case, it doesn't matter. She's a married woman with a child. And now spread your legs,” he smiled, placing a kiss to the corner of his lips. “I want to show you exactly how wrong you are.”
“I don't like your tone, young man,” Ragnar smirked as he obidiently brought his legs up, bent at the knee and spreading them apart slightly.
“Oh, I don't think you're telling the truth.”
Athelstan settled between his thighs, leaned forward and initiated a kiss, lifting his hips for better access. His hand wandered down the other man's abdomen, tracing along his inner thighs, around his entrance, and then, slowly entering a finger. He could instantly feel his lover's body tense beneath him, a surprised grunt escaping his lips.
“How does it feel?”
“New, I suppose.” He chuckled. “ Now I'm starting to feel nervous.”
“I can go slowly and I will, but in my experience... it's about you as much as it is about me. I need you to relax.”
“Uh, relax. Right.” He laid back and closed his eyes, slowly losing himself in the sensation of his lover's finger caressing the underside of his balls and the delicate skin behind them, leading to his entrance. Athelstan's touch lingered there, stroking with the tap of his oily fingers, opening him up where he'd never been touched before.
“Don't clench,” he said softly.
“Easy to say,” Ragnar gasped out.
“Try to breath deeper. You're doing good.”
Athelstan's finger entered him again, and before long another one followed; Athelstan eased him into it gently and with patience, the expression on his face a cross between concentration and warm fondness. The feeling of discomfort passed, and soon Ragnar found his hips urging up against those fingers; an audible groan escaped his lips as Athelstan pushed a particular spot inside him.
“Keep doing that and I might suprise you,” he managed.
“Yes, I suppose you're relaxed enough.” His hand shook a little as he reached for more lubricant, spreading it on his own arousal this time. “Turn over to your side.”
A chuckle. “Easier, huh?”
Athelstan lay down beside him, spooning their bodies together as they had done for warmth many times before falling asleep, only in reverse, and as slowly as he could manage, pushed inside. For a moment he felt Ragnar's body tense, and then relax. He uttered a curse Athelstan only had a vague idea what meant.
“You all right?” he breathed into his ear.
“Don't mind me,” the other man hissed, “Continue.”
Athelstan gave him time to adjust, and slowly began to move, his eyes not leaving his lover's face, watching for any signs of discomfort. There wasn't any. Meeting his thrusts, Ragnar's hips bucked backwards in rhythym with Athelstan's movements, and he could not believe it was happening. His bearded chin rested on his lover's shoulder, so close he could kiss into his neck, so overwhelmingly close he thought his chest might burst with it.
“Still jealous?” he gasped into Ragnar's ear, his breath hot on the delicate skin.
“More than ever,” came the answer through gritted teeth.
In lieu of a reply, Athelstan quickened the pace, and Ragnar's hand quickly found its way to his butt, nails digging into his skin with each thrust, urging him to go deeper. They both started to draw in shaky breaths. Athelstan soaked in sweat, dark strands of hair plastered to his forehead. They kissed and it was messy, all teeth and tongues, and unable to take it any longer, Ragnar reached to finish himself off.
“Not yet,” Athelstan said, drawing his hand away. “It might be painful if you come sooner.” He kissed into his neck. “I'm going to take care of you.” He already felt his release coming nearer, and indeed, it did not take long until he gave a shudder, and slumped against his lover's back.
His shaking fingers curled around the other man's neglected arousal.
“Don't be gentle,” Ragnar hissed.
“I wouldn't dare.”
After a few rough strokes, he grunted and came in spurts onto Athelstan's hand and his own stomach. Athelstan stroked him through it, giving gently, slow strokes on the shaft, and then released him.
Ragnar rolled onto his back, chest heaving as he fought to breath.
His eyes opened and he watched as Athelstan licked his fingers clean. “How do I taste?” he grinned weakly.
“Uh, well. It's been better.”
“I was going to say such sweet things to you, but now I thought better of it.”
Athelstan leaned above him, smiling. His finger drew lazy circles on the other man's chest. “What sweet things?”
“Bad news is, I'm not going to let you to bottom ever again.”
“Ugh, stop mocking me.”
“I'm not mocking you. I've enjoyed it.” Ragnar pulled him down for a kiss by the nape of his neck, and said, “You're the light of my life, do you know that? You and my children.”
“And you're mine,” Athelsan replied, his voice low and full of determination.
Ragnar's pale blue eyes searched his face for what seemed like a very long time. His expression was somewhat distant, features dimly outlined in the dark shadows.
“Athelstan. What is it?”
“I've just been thinking about...” He shrugged. “I wish...I wish you didn't have to leave.”
Ragnar smirked. “Oh. You're worried about me.”
Athelstan nudged him.
“Well, shouldn't I be? This time I won't even be there with you---”
“To save my life? Don't worry. I'll manage somehow.” His voice sounded somewhat strange, even to himself. “And besides, it takes more to kill me than a bunch of Saxons. No offense,” he added.
“No offense taken,” Athelstan smiled.
I cant for the life of me imagine how Vikings transported horses on their boats, but apparently they did. Amazing.
I have no idea what this was supposed to be? It just happened.
On the first night of their journey back to Kattegat, Athelstan could not fall asleep. He kept changing his position, rolling over from one side to the other, but the more impatient he grew, the more awake he felt, and so he finally gave up, and trying not to wake anyone, scrambled his way through to the bow of the boat. Ragnar was sitting with his back against the frame, shoulder slumped, his bright, blue eyes staring distantly into the dark. Even in the pale moonlight Athelstan could see the frown on his face.
Upon hearing him approching, Ragnar turned.
“I couldn't sleep,” Athelstan explained, stating the obvious.
Ragnar's gaze lingered on him before he muttering, “Yeah, me neither.”
Ragnar gestured for him to sit down, and he settled opposite him, pulling the furs over his shoulder; it was a clear, rather chilly night. His gaze flickered to Ragnar's hand, resting on his abdomen.
“How's your wound?”
“It's getting better.”
“You don't seem like it,” he pointed out. “Can I take a---”
“It's just a scratch, Athelstan.”
Silence descended upon them, as neither of them seemed to know what to say. Athelstan looked over the side of the boat at the water; in the moonlight, it looked dark, dark like the ink he used for copying scriptures. Even under the warm covers, he felt a sudden chill and tore his gaze away.
“I didn't even get to say I'm sorry,” he said softly. “Back at the feast.”
“For what, in particular?”
“For Torstein. He was a good friend---to you, and to me as well. To all of us.”
“Yes, well...” Ragnar scratched the back of his neck. “He was. You know, I've known him ever since I can remember, and now he's gone and we.... I watched him die.” He avoided meeting Athelstan's eyes.
“How did it happen?” he asked tentatively.
Ragnar let out a deep breath. “In the first battle, he took an arrow in his left arm. None of us knew how severe his injury was until it was too late and he asked his arm had to be chopped off. He asked. How could we not notice how much he suffered?” He lowered his voice, realizing the last sentence came out as a shout. “How did we not see how much pain he was in?”
“So was it his arm that killed him in the end?”
“There was a hill, you see...blocking our view.” He groaned, burying his face into his hands. “Torstein volunteered to go first, to make sure the enemy's army is there. He sacrificed himself because he knew he was going to die anyway.”
“You're blaming yourself. Again.”
“How could I not, Athelstan? Should we have taken care of his injuries in time, maybe he would still be alive.”
“And maybe not. There are times when there's no help, not in the middle of a battle, and you know that. You can't take responsibility for everything and everyone.”
Briefly, the other man looked like he wanted to argue, to maybe raise his voice again, but he did not. Instead, he gave a bitter smile.
“Floki's blaming you, of course.”
Athelstan blinked, confused.
„For Torstein's death?”
„Oh, for all of this. I thought you should know. I've been trying to make him see reason, but to no avail, naturally. May as well try to catch the wind.” Suddenly, his expression became oddly serious. „Anyhow...Don't listen what he says. And...please, be careful.”
„I've handled him this far. He's never been particularly friendly.”
„Yes, but there's a difference between Floki not being friendly,” Ragnar said flatly, „and Floki being convinced you're the reason his friend is dead.”
Athelstan's expression was one of incredulity and pain.
„But...how could he possibly think---?” he trailed off. „I loved Torstein. He knows I did.”
„He's not thinking reasonably, that's how. He thinks you lured us into fighting for the Christians.” After a bit of a pause, he said, softly. “He loved you, too, though. But I suppose you knew that.”
Athelstan gave a small, weak smile. “Yes.” Another pause. “Even though he never missed a chance teasing me about the lovers he thought I had.”
With a lopsided smile Ragnar moved to lean closer, and for a second Athelstan thought he was going to kiss him, but he did not, of course. “As it happens, he knew,” he whispered into his ear.
“ He what?”
“Shh, you're waking up the whole crew. About us. He knew.”
“Was it you---?”
“Nah. Didn't have to. He found out on his own.” Looking pleased with himself, he leant back against the frame of the boat.
Athelstan still looked dumbfounded.
“All this time...why did he pretend he believed my stories about all the women I've never slept with?”
“Oh, he probably found it highly amusing.” Ragnar's lips curled into a smile. “You couldn't lie to save your life. That was of course, before.”
“Before everyone wanted you in their bed.”
“Oh, just say it.”
“That it was a mistake.” His cheeks burned. “With Judith...”
“If you say so,” Ragnar shrugged. “It's hardly my place to tell you whom you should have sex with. You're a free man. And besides, as you may have noticed, I've never been any good at making the right decision when it comes to women.”
“I don't know how it happened. I'm ashamed,” Athelstan said as if he weren't even listening. His voice was barely a whisper. Whenever he tried to recall that night, how they ended up in his bed, he couldn't... as if his mind blocked it all out. He remembered answering the door, only to find the Princess there, barefoot, in her white, plain nightgown, with an odd look of determination on her face; they were so close he could see the tears shining on her long, dark eyelashes. His lips opened in suprise and then Judith was kissing him and for some reason he could not decipher, he kissed her back.
Ragnar's gaze searched his.
“I shouldn't have done this,” Athelstan muttered helplessly.
“No, you probably shouldn't have,” Ragnar agreed. “But it was about time you finally did something foolish.”
“She could be with child,” he finally said aloud the thought that has been keeping him awake at night, and to his annoyance, the other man merely spread his arms.
“Well, then Aethelwulf is going to be a proud father again.”
Athelstan gave him a look. “You're not taking me seriously. Is this all a joke to you?"
“To be honest, Athelstan, I'm slightly confused as to what you're expecting from me here?”
No answer came. Instead, the younger man scrambled to his feet, tucking the furs around himself; Ragnar thought he went too far this time, and he was going to leave, but to his surprise, Athelstan slipped beside him, leaning against his shoulder.
Ragnar wrapped his arm around his lover automatically, without really giving it a thought.
“You really want to talk about this, don't you?” he asked quietly.
“I don't know,” Athelstan breathed. “I thought you'd maybe...I thought you could...”
“Tell you what to do?” In his embrace, Athelstan gave a helpless shrug. “Then listen to me very carefully. Nothing is what you're going to do. And you know why? Because even if this woman is carrying your child, and you can't know that, the best thing you can do is to stay away. For both of your sake.”
“And so abandon my own child...”
“Yes. Do you know what happens if Judith's little affair comes out? Because I have my suspicions. Men are proud and they have their dignity---- even the not particularly smart ones like her husband.”
“So what you're saying is that...I should just forget her? Forget all about it and live my life as if it never happened?”
“That is exactly what I'm proposing. Unless....”
“Do you love this girl?”
Groaning, Athelstan turned away.
“You don't understand.”
“Yes, you already said that,” Ragnar said curtly. “Still I believe this is a simple enough question to which I'd expect a straight-up answer. It is only fair, don't you think?”
Athelstan detangled himself from his embrace, and faced him. His eyes were wild. “The answer is no. I don't love her. Nor anyone else. I've only ever loved you, Ragnar.” He said it with such surprising, raw honesty that the other man's jaw dropped. “I love you with such desperation I've never imagined even existed and that none of the languages I know could ever describe. And I don't expect that'd change any soon, no matter what you do, or what I do. Does that answer your question?”
“Yes,” Ragnar's voice came out so hoarse, he had to clear his throat. “Yes, I suppose it does.” The younger man smiled. It was not often that he managed to catch Ragnar Lothbrok off-guard---or so he believed. Truth was, he surprised him more often than the other man would have ever dared to admit. "Still I've been wondering..." Ragnar stroked his beard pensievely. "How was she?"
He raised his eyebrow. "What do you mean how was she?"
"In bed, of course. She's exceptionally good-looking, that much I could tell---"
"How foolish I was to think we were having a moment."
"I'm genuinely curious about your...experience."
Athelstan looked away. There was a brief pause before he started to talk. "If you really want to know...she was...she was somewhat timid. As if she's never touched a man before. And also as if she had never been touched before, you know what I mean?" He remembered the first time the two of them made love. Ragnar let himself to be stripped naked, and lay back against the bed, his arms crossed beneath his head. Athelstan hesitated; a treacherous blush crept up his face. I'm all yours to do as you please, Ragnar said. I won't touch you until you ask me to. And so Athelstan began touching him--everywhere. Tentatively first, and then growing bolder, marvelling at how incredibly responsive he was to his exploration. Soon he found out where Ragnar liked to be touched; what made him curl his toes, bite on his lip, what made his chest heave in anticipation, and where he was ticklish. "It was strange."
"Well," Ragnar snorted. "Not every marriage is about having tender sex and falling asleep in each other's arms every night. I don't suppose our dear Aethelwulf knows many things about women, apart from where to put it to produce children."
"Yes...I suppose you're right," Athelstan said sadly. "I just felt sorry for her... Anyway. Now you know." He jawned and stretched, easing out his muscles. The covers slowly slithered down from his shoulders. He reached down for them. “Sleep well, Ragnar. I'll try to do the same. ” Athelstan leaned in and planted a quick kiss on his nose, chuckling when his lover let out a surprised sound. “See you tomorrow.”
Before he could turn away, Ragnar grabbed his wrist. It was a firm grip.
“Why don't you stay? Here, with me, to just, uh, sleep?”
“Because I'd be all over you before the sun sets.”
“We'd, you know...keep our distance?” He was looking up at Athelstan with an expectant grin, and it was all Athelstan could do to stop himself from lowering himself onto his lap, in a way that always took Ragnar's breath away and made his hands wander up Athelstan's back as he was kissing him.
“Good night, Ragnar.” He gently shook his hand off, and with a last, fond smile turned and left. Ragnar watched him tip-toeing his way back to his spot.
Neither of them could get much sleep that night, but neither of them really cared.
Death came easily. The pain, that was of course immediate and agonizing, and it was everywhere. The snakes started biting him at different parts of his body, one after one, never stopping, each bite leaving a burning, relentless pain behind. It did not take long for the symptoms to kick in, and when they did, it came as a relief. He tried to open his eye--the one that had not been swollen shut already---but was struck by the realization that could not see anymore. He was looking up at nearly dozen faces staring down at him, inquisitively, eager to watch him die, but for him, it was all a blur from there. His head was spinning, and he became numb, so numb that he was only dimly aware his limbs stopped obeying his mind's commands.
Dying was like slowly drifting off to oblivion after a night of drinking, and it was just as welcome. At first, there was only darkness. He was not in pain anymore; in fact, he could not feel anything at all, as if his mind had been torn away from his body. And then suddenly, as suddenly as one jerkes awake up after hitting the ground in a falling dream, he came back to his senses. He could move his legs and arms, and---although he was not sure how, exactly--- he knew that were he brave enough to open his eyes, he would be able to see again. Only part of him feared he might still be wrong.
His eyelids appeared heavy as he slowly opened them. Rubbing his eyes in the blinding sunlight---because it had to be sunlight, what else could it have been?--- Ragnar propped up on his elbow. He raised his other hand, examining it as if it was for the first time he had ever seen it in his life and in a way, it must have been true. It was his hand, no doubt about it; the lines on his palm looked exactly like they had to look like, and yet....he could not remember if he had ever seen his nails so clean.
He wore the same rough, dirty rags he had been wearing at his execution, but as unbelievable as it seemed, his body appeared to be completely unharmed. How could it be possible? He stared at his own hand in utter disbelief, unable to make sense of what was happening to him, and then he heard footsteps approaching, and turned.
The figure did seem familiar, but with his eyes still had not quite gotten used to the bright light, he found it difficult to discern the features...can it be...?
His eyes filled with tears.
It was him, looking just like the last day Ragnar saw him alive, not a day older. His dark curls framed a face youthfully smooth; only the fine lines around his eyes crinkled in a smile.
“Athelstan?” he moved to scramble to his feet, but Athelstan was kneeling beside him before he could make his legs work.
“You've made it, my love,” he said softly, taking Ragnar's hand into his. “It took you long but you followed, just as you said you would.”
“I...don't understand,” Ragnar burst out; he was shaking slightly, unable to keep back his tears. Suddenly it was all just too much. “Are you really... you?”
“Yes.” He brought up Ragnar's hand to his face, smiling. “See? You can touch me.”
Ragnar stroked his cheek, staring at him in disbelief.
“So are you not another ….another vision?” he asked, fear tightening his throat. He well remembered what it felt like to see him fading away, away from him to a place where he, Ragnar could not follow. Athelstan appeared to him on two occasions following his death, and afterwards, he always wished he had not, at all. It was like losing him over and over again. “Will you not disappear the moment I look away?”
Athelstan laughed heartily.
“No. No Ragnar, I'm not going anywhere.”
“Am I dead?”
“You're born again. In the afterworld.” He smiled and drew his lover's hand to his lips, placing a kiss to the knuckles. “Can you tell where are we?”
Ragnar looked around, strangely enough for the first time since his eyes opened. His brows furrowed in concentration, and then... his lips parted in awe.
“No. It can't be.”
“And yet it can be. Yes, it's meadow near Kattegat.”
“But...how? Out of all places...why here?”
“I was the happiest here,” Athelstan said plainly. “I figured this must be how it works. There's no other explanation. I was the happiest when it was just you, Lagertha, Björn and Gyda, and the farm. And so it became my heaven. Even though, of course, it's not heaven, or at least not the one I've believed in all my life.”
Ragnar searched his face.
“Are you disappointed?” he asked carefully. “That the God you worshipped doesn't exist after all?”
Athelstan shook his head. “No, not at all. Well I admit I did feel a bit betrayed in the beginning, but you know, if there's a God above somewhere...maybe there is, maybe there isn't---there's no way to know---then he, or she is a God I'd have been happy and willing to worship.” He paused. “What about you? Are you disappointed?”
“That I didn't end up in Valhalla?” Ragnar snorted and it was so much like him Athelstan couldn't help another smile. “I renounced my faith long ago. I had myself baptized, do you know that? Back in Paris. Just so that I can maybe follow you to your heaven. But I never truly believed in your God, either...which means, I wasn't wrong after all.”
“What did you believe in, then?” Athelstan seemed genuinely interested.
“Nothing, I suppose. Except for you...for us. I believed in us.”
“You and me?”
“Yes. I believed it was destiny that we've met that day---and I still believe we were destined to be together. Maybe that is why I'm here now, in your heaven. Because all I've been longing for was to be reunited with you....but why am I even telling you all this? You watched, didn't you?”
“Well,” Athelstan smiled and looked away. “We were connected, that's for sure.... I could feel strong emotions from you. I felt your anger and your pain. From time to time, I could get glimpses of you. But not much else.”
“Glimpses, huh?” He tugged on his beard. “Then at least my looks didn't come as a shock.”
Athelstan raised his eyebrow.
“What do you mean?”
Groaning, Ragnar lay back on the grass, arms pillowed beneath his head, staring up at the sky he did not imagine he would ever ever see again.
“I'm an old man, Athelstan. My body's grown old and what is worse, my mind has, too. Don't pretend you can't see it.”
Athelstan gave him an inquiring look. He could see them, of course, the signs of aging on the other man's face; the dark circles around his eyes were more prominent than ever,the wrinkles around his eyes and on his forehead deepened ominously---Ragnar's whole life was written on his face, a life filled with trials and failures, just as much as it was filled with joy and triumphs---and he found that he was still truly, deeply in love with the man in front of him.
“You're talking like an old man, that much I see,” was all he said, tilting his head to the side.
Ragnar's mouth turned into a helpless smile, and the next moment Athelstan was pulled into a kiss by the nape of his neck, and they kissed as if they had never been apart, not really. His lover's lips were soft against his, but also slightly chapped, and somehow it felt all the more better, and it still made his stomach flutter, just as it did the first time, back in England.
“I've done things I'd never imagined myself doing,” Ragnar said quietly as their mouths parted; his fingers brushed through Athelstan's soft curls gently, who leant into the touch. “Horrible things. I've hurted people who didn't deserve it, and I wasn't there for my family when they needed me. I kept telling myself I'm doing everything for you, when in truth, I was just selfish. Forgive me.”
“You've already paid a heavy price...”
Ragnar snorted. “What? My death? I planned it all. They caught me because I wanted to be caught.”
“No. Long before that. You lost everything. And everyone. That was the price you paid.” That rendered the other man speechless. His lips parted but no words came out. Athelstan stood and extended his hand to him, helping to get him to his feet. “Let's go home. You need to rest.”
“Yes. The farm.”
Ragnar looked confused. “But...that got burnt to the ground...”
“Not here.” Athelstan's eyes sparkled. “You'll see.”
And indeed, Ragnar's old farmhouse, the one he built with his own hands and with the help of his brother and his friends when he and Lagertha got married, stood exactly where he remembered. He clung to Athelstan more tightly as the memories came flooding back---most of them fond. Again, he felt tears run down his cheeks, and he pressed his lips close together.
“Gyda should be here, too.”
“She's with her grandparents.”
Ragnar's eyes widened.
“They died when she was a baby. First my father, and my mother followed not long after...My parents...they've been together all their life, you know. Gyda didn't even know them.”
“And now she does.” Athelstan smiled. “You two can meet later. I know where to find them.”
Well, sorry for the delay. The last 3 weeks have been extremely busy at work, like, I worked, and slept and went to work again. Period. :'DDD