The day after they burn Gyda, Athelstan disappears into the woods and doesn’t come back.
Lagertha gives him two nights before she hefts an axe into her hand and goes after him. She’s moving numbly, now, the whole world a seascape around her. Everything is viewed through water, through agony. Two children ripped away from her in less than half a year – that is cruel, even by the standards of her gods. The axe steadies her, wood and iron and calm solid strength.
The world doesn’t make sense anymore, but weaponry does.
She doesn’t even have to look, really. She finds him in the burnt-out shell of their house – blundering footsteps dragging through ash, blood smeared on the wall from where he must have caught his hand on broken wood.
He’s in the corner where he used to sleep, hollow-eyed and messy.
“Priest,” she says quietly, the same tone she always used when waking Gyda from a nightmare, “Athelstan.” It’s like a knife, knowing she’ll never have a child to use that on again. He lifts his head towards her, eyes seeking blindly, and she knows he barely sees her.
“He took everything,” the hoarse whisper comes back, his throat wept ragged, “He takes and He takes and He takes and He gives me nothing in return.”
Lagertha takes a step forward. She is not sure how she can deal with a crisis of faith. Not now, when the only thing holding her to hers is her anger.
She looks for something to say, but finds that there is nothing. Nothing to say at all. He is the only person who can come close to depths of this despair, and she knows that there is nothing anybody can say to diminish that.
So she simply lets the axe fall, and has crossed the fired space to him before it clangs against the floor. When she reaches him, she realises that he has cut his hair short again, shaven the beard from his cheeks so raggedly his skin is scattered with cuts.
“My daughter,” she finds herself saying, and those two words are all she has left, “My daughter.”
Athelstan looks up at her, seems to really see her, for the first time. He is all resentment, all desolation, all bewilderment. It’s that that gets Lagertha. The strong and simple, “Why?” written right across his eyes.
“Your daughter,” he agrees, and then holds a hand up to her without the slightest hesitation. Lagertha takes a beat. The priest has never initiated contact, never done anything that might offend, that might be misconstrued, that might be considered too familiar. But he is doing it now, and Lagertha is hesitating only because she is not sure that she will be able to keep from weeping if she allows him to hold her.
“Please,” he mutters, not meeting her eyes, “Please. I just – being alone is making it worse.”
Lagertha thinks back over two sleepless nights, mealless days, prowling shadows in the dark, and decides that he’s right. So she grasps his hand, sinks down to where he is sat, and presses herself up against him. He doesn’t put an arm around her, doesn’t do anything more than clasp both his hands around her own and lean his bloody cheek to hers and sit, silent and desolate.
Lagertha lasts three minutes before she starts crying. He feels her tears on his own face, must feel them, but he simply clutches tighter at her hand and allows her the comfort of closeness. Steadfast, that is the priest. Ragnar’s antithesis: all consideration and quietness and solid reassuring presence. Lagertha finds, in the depths of despair, that it is more comforting to be next to the priest like this than it has ever been to be held in her husband’s volatile embrace.
They end up asleep there eventually, curled around each other. She has cried too long, gone without eating too long, to stay awake much later and the dimness of the house sends her almost delirious with tiredness. Athelstan lies behind her, but he does not touch her until she starts shaking and gasping, Gyda’s ghost a sharp fresh pain behind her eyes. Then he wraps one arm around her, tight and unyielding, and simply holds her. Somehow, it is enough. So Lagertha sleeps, deep and dreamless.
They wake to sunlight streaming in through the holes in the ceiling and unravel from each other, stiff and uncertain now the night is gone.
“I’m sorry,” he offers finally, when she is upright and dusting herself off. She turns to look at him, expression unwavering.
She is not.
They return slowly to the village and the great echoing hall. Sickness lingers there like a bad dream, and it quickly transpires that Athelstan cannot be there. Lagertha, in truth, is relieved of the excuse to leave the building. There are no words to describe its emptiness without Gyda in it.
The priest leads her off in silence, and she follows mutely. They end up in front of Leif’s empty house, devoid of life since its owner took Athelstan’s stead at Uppsala.
“I don’t think he’d mind,” Athelstan offers after a long pause, and she nods.
“No, he would not. He was a generous man.”
So they go in without another word, picking their way past discarded belongings and the carcass of a dog that obviously crept in there and died sometime after the trip to Uppsala. Lagertha picks it up to drag outside without another word, and Athelstan takes up a broom. They worked alongside each other once, and with grief comes a quiet sort of equality. When she comes back in, she picks up a pail to fill with water, and it’s as simple as that.
Sorting the house gives them something to do, more to do than they’ve had since Ragnar prised the earlship from Haraldson, and that evening finds them physically weary rather than just emotionally. They prepare a meal in easy silence, eat it the same way, and somehow the lack of words helps. The simple reassurance of having the other present is beginning to soothe their souls, and Lagertha finds herself not fearing the night as the dark draws in.
She takes the bed without a thought, the furs they have moved from the great hall piled around her, and watches a trifle incredulously as Athelstan moves across to a simple wooden cot at the side of the room.
“Priest,” she says, and he starts around in surprise. She considers a moment. Inviting him in seems somehow intimate, despite how they spent the previous night, but she cannot bear the thought of being alone again. He thinks his god is watching, though, and she is not sure he will be so quick to come close as he was the previous day. So she breathes in sharply and orders, “I need you. With me. I cannot – I will not sleep otherwise.”
Something crosses his face, a look that is halfway between relief and reluctance, and she simply throws back the furs like she is not expecting even a flicker of hesitation. So he comes towards her and, having divested himself of his shoes, slides in beside her. They do not touch, he is careful to keep to less than a third of the bed, but simply having him there seems to take half the weight off her shoulders. It is unfathomable. Ragnar has always been a comfort to her, but a comfort much the way a mountain lion would be if you brought it into bed with you. A warm, affectionate, tense mate, always lingering on the edge of violence. But Athelstan – Athelstan is a sleepy puppy, no more capable of harming her than of giving up his faith.
Silence stretches between them again, but comfortably, and Lagertha is just beginning to drift off when she feels the bed move and opens her eyes to find Athelstan on his side regarding her seriously.
“What will Ragnar do?” he asks her quietly, “When he comes back and finds out – when he knows that she’s dead.”
“He will rage himself ragged,” she replies calmly, turning on her side also, “But not for long. Then he will go and think on it, and he will conclude that he is being punished by the gods for something. I love my husband,” she adds, her forehead creasing, “But it seems that the gods must take from me also every time they wish to set him back.”
“You should take something from them,” Athelstan whispers, and as Lagertha meets his eyes she realises that maybe they’re not exactly talking about her and her gods any more, “If they just keep taking from you, why shouldn’t you take something from them? Punish them for a change.”
“I love my gods,” she reminds him slowly, and he rolls onto his back with the sort of groan that can be produced only by the pinnacle of a crisis of faith.
“As I love mine. And yet… I am angry with Him. I want to show Him… I want to take something for myself before everything is gone at His hand. But there – there is nothing I could take. What could I do?”
Another silence stretches, and Lagertha finds Gyda’s ghost in the gaps between them like a wound, so suddenly that she almost cries out.
“I wish to take from your god as well,” she breathes fiercely, and Athelstan turns towards her once more in surprise as she reaches an arm for him, “I want to punish him for taking my daughter.”
There is no accounting for the sudden rush of hunger that fills her, other than the fact that her daughter is dead and at that moment she knows that if she doesn’t have somebody closer than close she will drift away and never come back. So she seizes Athelstan, moves over him, and flattens him into a kiss before he can move away.
“I cannot,” he gasps when she pulls back, too uncertain of himself to even move his hands to push her away, “It is –”
“A sin,” she agrees, nipping kisses along his ragged jaw, “But you told – you told Gyda once, I heard you. You said that your god says to love and be loved, and I would like you to love me tonight. Would that be a sin? To help someone who is in desperate need.”
“I do not know,” he tells her in what is almost a cry, her hands seeking for the hem of his tunic already, “I don’t know anything anymore.”
“Then don’t know,” she commands calmly, pulling her dress over her head in one graceful moment, “Don’t think. Not tonight.”
She is not sure that he has surrendered, but she kisses him again anyway. It is the only way she knows to save them both.
Ragnar does not return until a year later, fresh and strong from a war that should not have been his. He strides into his home with his princess at his side, one son at his side and another in his arms, and calls out for his family to come to greet him.
Lagertha smiles and rises to her feet serenely, moving towards him with calm elegance.
“Husband,” she greets quietly, brushing a kiss against his cheek and then against the forehead of the son he carries, “Forgive me for not coming to meet the ship. The baby was crying.”
Ragnar sees, then, looks anew at the unexpected calmness of her as she sweeps Bjorn into an embrace, and then past her at Athelstan, standing in the shadows with a sleeping child in his arms.
“What baby,” he asks, not looking away from his priest, still and coiled as a wildcat, “Whose baby?”
Lagertha just gives him another of those private little smiles and walks away from him, placing herself firmly just in front of Athelstan and resting a hand on her dark-haired daughter’s head.
“Bjorn,” she calls quietly, beckoning her son to her, “Come and meet Inga. Your sister. The gods took away, and then they gave in return.”
Athelstan, clearly given courage by her presence – and undoubtedly the axe at her hip – meets Ragnar’s gaze calmly and then looks at the son sleeping in his captor’s arms.
“We are fated,” he says softly as Bjorn comes close, taller than him now, and takes his sleeping sister with a quiet kind of awe. “We cannot escape it.”