“I have seen,” Ragnar says, “Odin walking the field after battles – a tall old man in a dark blue cloak, with the ravens perched on his shoulders, black as darkness itself. And I know I shall see him again when he leans down to take me to Valhalla.”
Not a shadow of doubt in Ragnar’s voice.
“You, priest… Have you seen your god?”
Athelstan drops his eyes. Though he’s been taught thousands of words praising the Lord and spreading news of Him, any words he might say now would break against Ragnar’s adamant faith like waves against a cliff. Athelstan is silent.
His own faith in the Saviour is deep and heartfelt, but Ragnar’s gods are right here: they walk the same earth as Ragnar and live as he does – fighting and loving, feasting and grieving – and not believing in them is harder than accepting them.
Athelstan has managed to accept a great deal since coming to live among the Northmen, but gods – they always mean a different kind of conversation.
One where Athelstan all too often has nothing to say.
Ragnar takes him fishing, and nearly every time they end up not so much catching fish as talking for hours. Ragnar showers him with questions: the customs of the Saxons, their language, their history and faith – he’s interested in everything. And Athelstan’s answers mostly leave him satisfied, except for his answers to questions about God.
“Why,” Ragnar asks, “is your god so concerned about who shares whose bed? What does he care that I want to lie with you?”
Athelstan’s taken aback by this question; he gapes, feeling himself blush, but then collects himself and smiles.
“If you wanted to…”
Ragnar interrupts him. “No, priest.”
Bewildered, Athelstan falls silent. Ragnar leans close, and Athelstan can smell him: a sourish tang of ale and the healthy scent of clean sweat. Ragnar’s hand, hot and heavy, comes down on Athelstan’s shoulder and moves higher, taking a demanding grip on his neck.
“I want to lie with you.”
He says it as simply as he might say I’m hungry or I need to piss, and it’s this shameless mundanity that starts a fever rising in Athelstan.
All he manages to say is, “Why?”
Ragnar is slow to reply. The hot yoke of his palm leaves Athelstan’s neck; he squints briefly at the pale sun and lowers his gaze. The fish he’s holding thrashes feebly. He picks up a knife and deftly slits its silver belly.
“Not because you are weak or womanish.”
Ragnar smiles, still not looking at him, and tosses the gutted fish into an empty basket.
“I don’t know.”
Athelstan can’t help smiling in return. “I’ve been waiting for those words.”
“You will not say no,” Ragnar says.
It’s not a question, so Athelstan doesn’t need to answer.
“Why not?” Ragnar’s clear eyes catch and hold him, not letting him look aside or turn away. “You could. I’d not force you.”
Athelstan is slow to reply.
He might tell Ragnar that prayers weren’t the only sounds heard in the cells of Lindisfarne after nightfall, and how some of the brethren would gaze at the smooth cheeks of young novices; and how something commonplace among the Vikings was viewed by good Christians as an inescapable evil stemming from the weakness of the sinful flesh, and how they would mortify the flesh through fasting and labour in order to uplift the spirit.
When you’re young, however, neither hunger nor weariness can slow the rush of blood in your veins.
For it is said in the Book of Ecclesiastes: if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone? And then: rejoice, O young man, in thy youth; and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth, and walk in the ways of thine heart, and in the sight of thine eyes…
Athelstan raises his head, and his own words surprise him: “Perhaps I’ve been waiting for this.”
The shadow of a smile touches Ragnar’s lips. He sticks the knife in the ground and wipes his hands on the grass.
“Perhaps,” says Athelstan, looking Ragnar straight in the eye, while his heart races like a frightened bird’s and the blood thunders in his ears, “I have wanted this.”
…but know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment.
Ragnar stands up and holds out his hand.
They climb the slope into the forest, halting in a tiny clearing.
Ragnar’s looking at him, head tilted slightly, thumbs in his belt, rocking on his heels.
“You said your god forbids you to sleep with women.”
Athelstan nods. His cheeks are burning, and his heart starts beating faster.
“That is so.”
“With women,” Ragnar repeats, half-questioning.
“This is… the same, and even… a still greater sin,” Athelstan says. “But I’ve never… I have not…” He falls silent, confused.
“Huh,” says Ragnar. “And yet you have decided…”
Athelstan says nothing. Ragnar is staring into his eyes, waiting, and he doesn’t look away.
Ragnar nods, saying only, “Undress.”
Ragnar circles him, lightly touching his shoulders, his back, his belly; then he halts face to face with Athelstan and grasps his chin, tilting it upwards, grinning.
“I see you did not lie when you said you want this.”
Athelstan starts shivering all over.
Athelstan shakes his head. Ragnar brushes a palm across his cheek and steps back a pace.
“Good. Turn around. Hold on to that tree.”
Athelstan braces his arms on the trunk and shuts his eyes. Behind him he hears the rustle of clothing, the splatter of spit – and then he starts as Ragnar’s fingers part his buttocks, spreading wetness between them, nudging at his opening.
“Not enough,” Ragnar says. “I am large, and you’re not readied for this, like a woman. I’ve no wish to tear you in two.”
He wonders, distantly, at the calmness of Ragnar’s voice.
Has he ever done it with a man before? Athelstan asks himself.
Has he done it with anyone I know?
Ragnar spits again. His thumb slides through the spittle, trying to slip inside.
Athelstan clenches – and then the full weight of Ragnar’s body descends on him, warm bare flesh on flesh, his breath stirring the hairs on the nape of Athelstan’s neck, his whisper searing Athelstan’s ear.
“If you scream, I’d not think it a weakness,” Ragnar says, then breaks through into him with a slow, powerful, unstoppable thrust, and Athelstan finds that he cannot scream – stunned by the pain, overfilled, he lets out a sob, his fingers scraping at tree-bark.
Ragnar holds him tight, one palm on Athelstan’s rigid belly and the other on his chest, right over his wildly-beating heart.
“I wish this had happened in my bed,” Ragnar whispers in his ear; Ragnar’s breathing is ragged, as if he, not Athelstan, is in pain. “We could keep each other warm till morning.”
He begins to move, and Athelstan presses his forehead to the rough bark, closes his eyes, gasps for air through a mouth gone dry – a small soundless sob after each of Ragnar’s thrusts; Ragnar’s palm glides up his belly and chest, hard fingers resting on his throat, stroking his chin, touching his lips.
“Are you breathing?” Ragnar whispers. “Breathe. Breathe – this blade won’t kill you.”
A wave of heat rolls through Athelstan's body, taking the pain away. What remains is the very opposite of holiness, and so good that it cannot be a sin.
“You say your god is always watching you.”
“That is so.”
“He saw you when I…”
“Yes,” Athelstan interrupts hastily, feeling the blood rush to his cheeks again. “No. I don’t know.”
“If he didn't strike you dead right there, perhaps he is not so angry with you for this. Perhaps he turned away for a while.”
Once again, Athelstan has no reply.
Ragnar pulls his belt tight, coming up to Athelstan and reaching out to remove a leaf caught in his hair.
"Now I know why I wanted to sleep with you." He runs his palm along Athelstan’s hair, along his cheek. “I want to know what is in your head and in your heart,” he says, touching Athelstan’s forehead and chest, squeezing his shoulder. “I want you to be with me not because you are my slave, but following me without a rope around your neck. Will you follow me of your own will?”
“Yes, Ragnar,” he says. “I will follow you, if that is what you wish.”
Ragnar looks at him, then nods briefly and starts down the slope, back to the water.
“Come on, then,” he calls to Athelstan over his shoulder.
They have a quick wash in the cold river. Athelstan is first to wade back to the bank, and as he pulls on his shirt he watches Ragnar scooping up water and splashing it on his face, snorting and shaking his head; an odd feeling, something like half-fear and half-anticipation, makes his throat squeeze tight.
Before they head home, Ragnar beckons him over and embraces him, pressing Athelstan's head to his shoulder.
“I still want you in my bed, priest, no matter what your god thinks of that.” He releases Athelstan and ruffles his hair. “In my bed, at my table, in my home and at my side in battle. When we sail west… I’m taking you with me.”
“Yes,” says Athelstan, agreeing with Ragnar’s every word.
For the first time in his life, he really wants to believe that God does indeed look aside sometimes.