It was because of the raven.
As he grew older, he realized that. That his parents had given him to the monastery because of the raven.
The monks would look askance at the big, black bird that never could be made to go away completely.
“It’s a heathen demon,” Father Cuthbert explained to him. “Before the Holy Mother Church came to these islands, the heathens believed that the birds were a sign of their idols’ special favour. Now we know that they are just evil spirits, sent by the Devil to tempt God’s children.”
He told Athelstan to pray. To resist the temptation. And Athelstan prayed and he resisted, as earnestly as he could.
Except then he’d be working the in the cabbage plot and the raven would land on the nearest fence pole, and he’d look around before feeding it the bit of sausage he’d hidden in his sleeve. Or he’d be squinting down at the manuscript he was working on the scriptorium and something would suddenly cast a shadow down on it, and he’d look up into curious black eyes.
Demon bird, the monks muttered. They would pray to drive it away, but it never worked.
Sometimes, when they’d seen them together, he’d be punished. Flogged. Sent to fast. Sent to pray to God to set him free of his sins.
Perhaps he was a sinner. He never did manage to pray as earnestly as he should.
And then real demons came to Lindisfarne…
He can hear the raven above him, in the rafters. He closes his eyes and begs for it to be quiet, to not draw attention to him. To let him be still as a mouse and for the men who have entered the church, speaking in words he does not understand, to go away. To not see him.
Just above him, something coos, almost gently. Tiny tap-tapping noises of claws against the altar.
When he looks up, he sees a dove, white and pure, a God’s creature, looking down at him, curiously.
And then it spreads its wings and dives at him, and he can’t keep from making a shocked noise, lifting his arms and the book to ward off the unexpected attack, except the dove dives straight through the book, straight through him, and finally settles down.
Nestles in his heart.
His world fills with images. Of tall mountains and deep forests, of waves towering taller than even those mountains. Of blood and corpses, swords and spears. Of a smiling woman and laughing children and a man, a man who -
- reaches around the altar, drags him out and hurls him onto the floor. Holds a knife to his throat.
“Please,” he tries to say, but the words are wrong in his ears and yet so right.
“Please, don’t kill me.” he begs, in a language he’s never known, never heard until today.
“You speak our language. How…” but the man gets no further, because there is an unholy squawk, and Athelstan sees the man look up, sees him raise that murderous knife to ward off the diving raven, and he hears himself cry out, because no, don’t, please, don’t hurt him.
And the raven dives down, the knife passing through it, the man’s arm passing through it, and for a terrible moment huge, black wings envelop the man before they fold in and are gone.
Before the raven is gone, leaving only the man with the knife, swaying slightly and staring down at Athelstan with wide eyes.