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The Three-Fold Blessing

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Lagertha stands all night before the fires. Before they collapse into glowing ashes amid bits of bone, she strips off her reeking garments and tosses them on the closest pyre.

Athelstan only discovers this when Lagertha enters the great hall naked, smudged with soot, and looks to Siggy where she sits alone. "Do you still mourn?" Lagertha asks her. "So do I. But there are still sick people to tend, and now that you are well, I need you."

Siggy stares for long, dumb moments until she finally nods and gets to her feet. "I will fetch you a new gown, my Lady." She exchanges an almost frightened look with Athelstan as she passes.

He casts his eyes downward, because the sight of Lagertha's bare, scratched skin makes him think of a vengeful warrior goddess who scorns gentle worship. "My Lady," he echoes. "Command me, for I serve also."

"Sit down before you fall down," she answers. "Don't squander the sacrifice my daughter begged me to make for you before she died."

His stomach twists. "Gyda -"

Her cold fingers stop his words. "Do not invite a ghost. On the seventh day we will feast and drink the ritual ale, and we will speak of her then."

Then she walks away, her dirty, bare feet soundless between the pallets of the sick and dying.

*

The plague is broken, and those villagers lucky enough to still draw breath wander back to their homes. Men hunt, women go to their looms, and children run this way and that. Eventually, people stop looking up in surprise when someone laughs.

Some creditors, displeased with the settling of debts after the sjaund, come early to the Earl's house with their dispute. The hall is almost empty, and when Athelstan looks for Siggy, she is nowhere to be found. Begging the petitioners’ pardon, he goes in search of Lagertha herself.

He finds them together in Lagertha's great bed. Siggy sleeps on her stomach, long hair tumbled across the slender expanse of her bare back. Lagertha stretches, and pushes the furs off as Athelstan averts his eyes. "Lady. People are here to request your wise counsel."

"Tch. Would that I had time to bathe first." Lagertha leans over and bites Siggy's shoulder. "Siggy, wake. I have duties to attend."

"I can send them away," Athelstan offers. "Tell them you are indisposed."

"Just to have them come back later with a bigger problem? I am Earl while my husband is away. I don’t have the luxury of being indisposed."

And thus she conducts the day's business without her bath. Her eyes are still shadowed and somber, but she no longer looks as though she is going to walk into the river until it closes over her. Neither does Siggy, who remains at her mistress' side by day and is usually summoned at night also. Athelstan hears them one night when the fire burns low and the house's thralls all sleep. The sounds of two women together are quieter than his memories of Lagertha and her husband, but the urgent timbre is the same. By the time they fall silent, sated, he has to take his leave to walk outside in the cold.

He does not understand Norse grief.

*

"Priest." Siggy beckons him to Lagertha’s chamber. "She has a thing for you to do."

It is late, and Lagertha lies on her side in the bed. He would say he is getting used to seeing her unclad, but it is not a sight one gets used to. Firelight gilds her skin.

Siggy glides to the side table to pour, and carries two cups. She hands the first to Lagertha, and the second to Athelstan.

None of them speak until Lagertha holds out her hand. "The bed is big," is all she says, and it is a measure of his own shock that he lets himself be drawn down.

Siggy curls up in a fold of the furs at one end of the bed, blinking sleepily at them before closing her eyes. Lagertha leans close to him, her breath washing warm over his neck. "She tires before I do, at times," she whispers. Her nose bumps against his ear. "Do you know what kind of service I require?"

God help him. Or Gods - to whoever might be listening, he sends out an appeal to acquit himself well. Then again, he's now no longer sure anyone listens at all. So perhaps he is on his own.

He nods.

Lagertha watches, eyes lidded, as he undresses, and then she pulls him down between her thighs. "It's not difficult, Priest," she says.

He enters her and she's like a font of heat, wet, clenching all around his prick. He shudders, his thrusts make her gasp, and he realizes he is in the rightful place of her husband, except that Ragnar has chosen to go, and Lagertha has invited Athelstan here.

She arches her back and reaches around, digging her fingernails into his skin, pulling him deeper inside her. He mouths at her neck, and when she urges, he bites her, suckles, sucks a bloom of blood to the surface of her skin. "Like that, Priest, yes," she croons, and his rhythm falters. He knows this much; that he should spill his seed on her belly, but when she cries out her climax, he fucks her harder. And when he does make a final, groaning effort to pull out, she locks her legs around him and he spends himself deep inside her body.

His arms shake when he tries to hold himself up after, and she smiles as she shifts to let him drop to the furs beside her. Siggy makes a small noise in her sleep, and Lagertha smiles fondly.

"I understand why she tires," Athelstan says into the furs. Then he turns his head to look at Lagertha. "Was this wise?"

Lagertha threads her fingers into his sweaty hair. "I make decisions for the people of Kattegat, and I try to be wise. I have prayed for my husband, for my children, and they are not here. So, the Gods will do what amuses them, in the end. As they did with you, as they did with Siggy, as they do with me."

Her eyes glitter in the firelight, and he sees her again as he did that terrible night, defying the laughter of the Gods. If that is what she wishes, then he will defy it with her.