Athelstan first hears the story the summer after his father meets his soulmate.
He’s too young to know what a soulmate is besides a space in his chest and a fairy tale and the reason his mother takes him to live in a hut next to the one he was born in, the reason she cries and clutches at her stomach like she’s taken a wound there. People who see them look at her with pity, and talk about his parents behind their backs (“If only they’d been more patient,” they say. “If only they’d trusted in God”), and that’s what a soulmate is. Pity and pain. He doesn’t know why it means that his father and new stepmother walk hand in hand all the time, why his father’s steps are lighter, why some people call this new woman his mother as though he doesn’t already have one.
Athelstan doesn’t want a soulmate if that’s what it means, and he’s sure of it until the day when the missionaries come to town. They’re two monks, on their way home from a journey, and they stop in the town to preach and tell a story he’s never heard before, the story of soulmates besides the first, two who God allowed to touch only after great suffering: “But Ruth reached out to her for the first time,” says the taller one, “and said ‘Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay.’”
“‘Your people will be my people and your God my God,’” continues the other, smiling as those in the village with soulmates reach out and touch them. “‘Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried.’”
The first concludes the scripture. “‘May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.’” Everyone murmurs an “Amen,” and Athelstan seeks out his father, standing looking into his stepmother’s eyes, murmuring “Where you go I will go” to her as Athelstan’s mother tightens her grip on his arm. Athelstan uses his free hand to rub at the ache in his chest, which suddenly feels so large it might swallow him.
The missionaries aren’t done speaking. They speak of soulmates, of those without them and those whose bonds do not allow them to have children having an obligation to consecrate themselves or their bonds to God. They speak of the importance of the bond, that only soulmates are truly meant to be together and that any other marriage is blasphemy. The whole town draws back from Athelstan and his mother like they bear some kind of plague, and Athelstan catches the shorter missionary looking at him before he drops his gaze to the ground.
Later, he finds Athelstan where he sits on a rock overlooking the sea and sits down next to him. He doesn’t say anything, so Athelstan fills the silence. “Am I cursed, then? Because I was born outside a bond?”
“God is not so cruel. You will have a bond of your own.” The missionary thumps his chest. “You can feel it?” Athelstan nods. “Then you will find her—or him. And if you do not, then God accepts all. Do you read, boy?” This time, he shakes his head, but the missionary doesn’t seem bothered, only removes a scroll from his robe. “Learn, then. This is the story of Naomi and Ruth, the one we told to your village. Read it, when you need comfort. We do not all meet our soulmates, but some of us are like Naomi, and find them long after when we stop looking.”
The missionaries leave the next day, back towards the monastery they call home after a long journey. Athelstan keeps the scroll, and only looks at it when his mother can’t see. He begs and barters lessons with the village priest, chopping his firewood and begging fish from his father’s catch to give him in return for lessons so he can read the scroll himself, and then other parts of the Bible as well. The village priest is an old man who rubs his chest like there’s a phantom ache there, like the old fishermen whose hands creak and throb when it’s going to rain, but he shows Athelstan all the old stories: Adam and Eve and the bond God gave to them from the very beginning, to help his children find each other in the lonely world outside Eden, Jacob and his soulmate Rachel and her sister Leah who he was forced to marry, Mary and Joseph and the way they welcomed God’s presence in their bond, and how Jesus is the only man who has lived without the pain of an unfulfilled bond. Athelstan learns to pray properly first by praying for his soulmate to come closer and lessen the ache in his heart.
Other children, when they’re nine or ten, start making a game of touching hands to see if a bond takes even as their parents scowl and tell them to get to know one another first, and start finding each other as a result. Each time, Athelstan notices the looks of startled delight on the faces of anyone who bonds, and each time feels a swell of pain. None of them will come near him, but Athelstan doesn’t mind that very much. His soulmate feels a world away, and he thinks he’s probably one of the ones people whisper about, who’s meant to feel the pain and not the joy. It’s no less than anyone in his village thinks he deserves, as a child born outside a bond.
Athelstan’s mother brushes the arm of a visiting sailor by accident when he’s twelve winters old and the priest has told him there’s nothing more he can teach him. She leaves for her soulmate’s village the day before Athelstan travels to the nearby monastery of Lindisfarne, because the church will always take those who don’t have soulmates of their own. God’s love, the priest says over and over (his hand pressed against his chest), is big enough for all.
They are kind to him at Lindisfarne. Some of the boys and men there work in pairs, pledged to the monastery together because God brought their souls together to serve Him instead of to bear children. Others are like Athelstan, alone, trying not to look at the men lucky enough to have soulmates when they pass them by, although sometimes they grasp one another’s hands, if they’re dear enough friends and want to hope. Very, very rarely, it even works.
When Athelstan is fifteen, a novice is sent from another monastery and given to him to show around and teach their ways. Egan is a little older, with no soulmate, but he walks around with a smile on his face and talks more than Athelstan does even when Athelstan is meant to be the one teaching him. They’ve known each other three months when he interrupts Athelstan talking about their tasks for the next day by tugging on the sleeve of his habit. “May I?” he asks, and Athelstan stutters out a “yes” before he quite knows what he means, and a second later there’s a hand gentle on the side of his face.
There’s nothing. He hadn’t even thought to hope, when the ache in his chest still insists that his soulmate is beyond his reach, but it still feels like a blow. It would be nice, to have Egan for a soulmate: his smiles, his easy conversation, his voice beside Athelstan’s in prayer. Instead, he has only another confirmation that he may be devoted only to God for his whole life, and he swallows down the last of his bile at that thought. He will not allow himself to be lonely, with God and his brothers still there.
A week later, Egan helps a villager’s daughter carry home a full bucket and touches her hand when he passes it to her. The next day, Athelstan is called before Father Cuthbert, the newly-appointed abbot, and told that he is being sent on a missionary trip.
Athelstan spends almost two years traveling in the lands of the north, learning the language and keeping mostly to himself. And if he feels a little less lonely, some of those long nights, and spends a little too long lingering over his old scroll telling of Ruth and Naomi, it’s simply because he knows he’s doing the work God means him to do.
When he goes back to Lindisfarne, he knows it’s probably for the last time, and he doesn’t mind. He’s meant for God, and that is all any man should ask for.
His errands rarely take him to the village where Egan lives with his soulmate, and when they do, he doesn’t meet his eyes. He spends hours looking out to sea, when he can’t bear to talk to his brothers, and murmurs a prayer every time, for God’s love to be enough for him.
Lagertha saves Ragnar Lothbrok’s life when she’s sixteen.
As they raid others, so they’re sometimes raided, and Lagertha is in Kattegat when the men come, waiting for her brother to come back on his own boat (he doesn’t come, just word that he met his soulmate and was convinced to stay with her, but that comes later). She’s already fierce, more a warrior than most of the boys jockeying for their places on the jarl’s boats, and when the screaming starts, she takes a shield and a sword and runs towards it.
The first thing she sees is a boy her age she thinks she recognizes from one of the Things, caught unprepared but still fighting with a man twice his size, grappling for his axe. Without thought, she’s in front of him, gutting the warrior fighting him and pulling her sword out wet with his blood. Her first kill, and she remembers how some people’s courage fails at that, but she only feels clean satisfaction, and she turns to find the boy looking up at her, sprawled on his back and grinning like he doesn’t hear the sound of Kattegat’s people fighting off the raiders (and winning, because Kattegat is strong, and its people are stronger). “Get up,” she snaps, annoyed, but offers her hand to haul him to his feet anyway.
He takes it, and the world shifts.
He grins wider and wild, hand clutching tight at hers, arm already going to pull her closer, and Lagertha feels like the world’s settled into place, everything a little brighter, a little louder, the smell of the air a little stronger—but not enough. She sees the falter in his face as well, and both of them reach their free hands to the side at once, but no one is there, not yet anyway. “We’re waiting on a third,” he says, as though she doesn’t know, can’t feel it.
They’re interrupted by another warrior with an axe, and Lagertha gets in front of her soulmate, snaps at him to take the dead man’s weapon, and kills this one too. No one is going to kill her first soulmate while she waits for another one, and she keeps that thought grim and heavy in her head until the invaders are fleeing, some treasure taken but more of their men dead. “My name is Lagertha,” she tells her soulmate, who is still at her back, when they’re finally gone.
“Ragnar Lothbrok,” he says. He still hasn’t stopped smiling, and Lagertha would worry that her soulmate was an idiot if his eyes weren’t so sharp. “You don’t have a third waiting somewhere at home, do you?”
“If I did, I would be protecting them instead of you.” She wipes her sword in the grass and straightens, that duty done, to catch his chin in her hand and kiss him, inexpert and hard, the bond churning in her chest. When she pulls away, she’s left a smudge of blood on his face. “We’ll find them.”
Lagertha marries Ragnar as soon as the summer raids are over, though they share a bed long before that, and one or the other of them finds an excuse to touch anyone they can in the time they remain in Kattegat. By the time they go back to Ragnar’s homestead, they’re still in the first flush of their bond, testing each other and only wondering sometimes what their third will be like, when they already suit each other so well.
As the months go by, they make it a game, almost, Ragnar first, but Lagertha joining in. “She’ll be as beautiful as you, but dark,” Ragnar pants as he fucks her, “and we’ll find her on a raid, and she’ll come back with us.”
She bits his neck. “What, you plan to put your hands on everyone you take captive, just to make sure? No, he will be a warrior from another jarl’s territory, come to be polite, and you’ll shake his hand and he’ll be ours.”
Sometimes, they do it on the days when the optimistically large bed of furs seems to swallow them, days when even with two of them they’re lonely, days when they stare out towards the west and try not to remember that no ship that has gone west from Kattegat has ever come back. “She’ll be clever with her hands,” Lagertha will say, or Ragnar will ask her if she’d like to be fucked by both of them at once.
Bjorn is born a little over a year after their marriage, and Gyda two years after. They talk about their missing soulmate less and less, but the first story the children learn is the story of Loki and Sigyn waiting for their Third, and the end of the world that will follow. They tell the good stories too, the mess of soulmates and the children had within those bonds and without them, but every time Lagertha hears Ragnar talk about the god or human not yet born who will stumble on Loki and Sigyn where they’re being held and rescue them, and begin Ragnarok all unknowing, she has to busy herself with something else. She doesn’t allow herself to wonder if that will be her and Ragnar, grandparents, past the age to go out raiding, with no third body in their bed.
The children grow, and Ragnar gains prestige among the jarl’s men and uses it to ask, ever so carefully, about the lands to the west. Haraldson refuses to listen, but she sees and echoes Ragnar’s restlessness.
Bjorn is old enough to be given an arm ring and called a man, and Lagertha tells herself fiercely that she could want for nothing, and has more than many women could ever dream of, but the ache beneath her breast proves there’s still something missing. She makes her life as well as she can, though, while Ragnar dreams of the west, because she refuses to be made bitter like Rollo has been made at the distance from his soulmate.
Ragnar has felt the pull to the west his whole life.
As a child, he would walk into the woods towards the west, and complain to his mother when she fetched him back, dragging him by the ear. When he got a little older, he enjoyed going to Kattegat, even a little way in that direction, but he always wanted to go farther, and chafed at being kept back.
Even when he meets Lagertha, whose childhood homestead was to the west of Kattegat, the desire to keep going stays, and he sees her looking that way as well, sometimes, and knows what that means. They’re waiting for someone, and though for a few years when the children are small the longing lessens (or the longing for their third, if not for the adventure and the exploration and the glory that a western raid would bring him), and Ragnar hopes that it means whoever it is has felt the pull of two people to the east of him and come for them, but after a while the line tightens again, and they both stare out across the water, confused and angry, and Ragnar goes as far east as he’s ever been on his next raid, stretching that bond as tight as it will go in the hopes that their third will feel the pull, even though whoever it is doesn’t have the benefit of knowing they have been blessed by the gods with two soulmates, and may even not know what the pull means. Ragnar is furious with their third more often than not, especially when they came so close for a while, but he can’t help longing for them as well. He and Lagertha love one another and their children more than life, but Ragnar knows he isn’t the only one who sees the gaps their third might fill: it will be someone kind. Someone who likes taking care of the children. Someone calming. Someone, someday, for all of them to come home to.
He comes home from the raid to the east more determined than ever to go west, both to find his second soulmate and to explore the lands there that none from Kattegat have seen, and so he saves what money he can to get Floki to build him a boat. He finds a sunstone. He finds a way to navigate his way west.
He doesn’t allow himself to worry that this mad journey won’t bring him to his and Lagertha’s soulmate. Haraldson will only allow one such journey, no matter that Ragnar has bought this ship with his own labor and plunder, and Ragnar will have to bring back unimaginable treasure, if he wants to go again to find his second soulmate. Better to find them the first time, as well as treasure, and not take any chances.
His only real regret is that Lagertha will be left at their home with Bjorn and Gyda, because Bjorn may be a man now, but he isn’t ready to be left in charge of their farm. “I’ll bring them back to you,” he promises as he leaves. “Whoever it is.”
“Bring yourself back, anyone else is secondary,” she snaps, but she smiles and kisses him in a way that belies the words.
They leave the next day, Floki laughing as they start rowing, and Rollo sulking to the back of the boat, taking Ragnar aside before they even reach the open ocean. “You’re risking our lives just so you can find your third, on a chance. What if you’re wrong?”
Ragnar shrugs. “Then I’m wrong.” He isn’t, but Rollo sometimes takes comforting like a grandmother. “And we’ll have treasure. You were convinced enough when we were on land.”
Rollo snarls, but leaves him alone, and Ragnar goes to stand with Floki at the front of the boat as the waves get larger and the land recedes behind them. Floki claps him on the shoulder but doesn’t look away from the ocean ahead of them.
The journey feels longer than it is, cloudy and full of open ocean, and Ragnar feels almost queasy with the tumult in his chest, especially once they run into a storm, even if he’s sure they’ll survive it (the gods don’t send a man towards his second soulmate and still keep them apart). He’s far from Lagertha, but getting ever closer to whoever it is who will complete the rest of their bond, and the half-remembered ache from his childhood is back full force in a way it only is on the days when he and Lagertha sleep on opposite sides of the bed, space in between them for someone who isn’t there.
The storm passes and the gulls come, and Ragnar finds himself on the shores of England, facing the stone fortress nearby like he’s a lodestone and it is due north. “There,” he says. And then, when Floki and Rollo both look at him appraisingly, “It’s the richest building they have here. It’s where they’ll keep their gold.”
“You’d better be right,” says Rollo, but he lets Ragnar begin to lead the way to the fortress, beating their shields the whole way, until the time comes to climb over the wall and begin to take what they can.
The fortress seems populated only by flocks of men in brown robes, their heads shaved oddly, and Ragnar cuts his way through them, praying to Odin for wisdom and clear sight with every stroke. There are tales of what happen to men who slay their own soulmates through chance or malice, and it’s a curse beyond all others. He has his duty as a warrior, but he must trust in the gods to keep him from making a mistake. He touches as many of them as he can, even though they cringe from him, just to be sure, and he’s glad of it. He doesn’t want one of these men running and crying and muttering prayers to their god to be his. They may be priests, but priest does not mean coward, and he will not believe his soulmate a coward.
Ragnar finds a room he thinks is empty of everything but some treasure until he hears a soft noise in one corner, and he lets his feet guide him there, grabs the young priest out of his hiding place, where he’s clutching a scroll to his chest, face sick with panic but neck straight and chin high, like this priest might think to challenge Ragnar. Ragnar is impatient, attention more on the scroll he thinks is valuable enough to save than on him, but then he pleads for his life, in Ragnar’s language rather than his own, accent light. “Please,” he says, and Ragnar pauses, and thinks, and hauls the priest to his feet by his robes.
He smiles. “You speak our language.” The priest nods, a little frantic. “More than just ‘please’?” Another nod, this one jerkier. Ragnar’s warriors are still searching for treasure, and will find this room soon, but Ragnar keeps his attention on the priest. He pays attention to the place in his chest where the soulmate bond lives, which feels calmer than it ever has, and more attention to his instincts. “Come, then,” he says, and wraps his hand around the priest’s wrist.
Athelstan had wondered if the world was ending, when the warriors from the north landed on their shores and began attacking Lindisfarne, but now he’s sure it is. The strange warrior is touching him, never looking away from his eyes, and Athelstan feels as though his chest may rip itself apart. The ache is lessened, less noticeable than it’s been in his life, but it’s still there, at the edges or hidden in the center of a newer, stranger feeling, something that feels like a rough trip in a boat. His ears are ringing, with screams or with something else, and he almost drops the story of Naomi and Ruth, which he took from his habit without thought for comfort in what he thought would be his last minutes. This warrior, though, seems to be sparing him, or perhaps is just waiting to kill him for some other time of his choosing. “You kept us waiting,” says the warrior.
“I didn’t mean to,” Athelstan manages, clumsy around the words. The warrior smiles and leans forward, and Athelstan flinches back, expecting a blow. “I fled here on instinct.”
That makes the warrior pause. “You don’t need to run from me.”
“You’ve killed my brothers, invaded our—” He stops and has to breathe, thinking of the village, of the men who have taken him in and treated him well over the years, of the bonded pairs who even now must be grieving their losses. “Of course I ran.”
The warrior steps back, finally dropping his hand, and Athelstan’s stomach pitches. “You don’t need to run from me,” he says, an odd tone to the words, and brings up a fist to thump at his own chest.
Athelstan touches his own on instinct, but this isn’t how he ever imagined it would feel to find his soulmate. He would have expected contentment, being filled with joy and God’s love, a sudden rush of pleasure to make up for the years of pain and waiting. This isn’t that feeling, it’s something halfway to settled and halfway so chaotic that he feels his ribcage may break with the force of it. If it’s the bond he’s heard of so much, then it’s wrong somehow, not enough to fill the gap he’s felt his whole life. Perhaps it’s because this warrior is no Christian, and a murderer besides. Perhaps he has some sort of curse to make Athelstan think they’re soulmates, and it feels wrong. Either way, it can’t be right. It doesn’t feel right. He shakes his head. “I am meant for God’s service,” he says, a little frantic. “I don’t know what you’ve done to me, but please—”
The warrior takes him by the collar and shakes him gently, and Athelstan almost rips the scroll he still has clutched in his hands. No one at Lindisfarne touches so easily. That, he tells himself, may be why things feel so strange, with him in the room, like there isn’t enough air to breathe, or maybe too much air to breathe. (It didn’t feel like this when Egan touched his face, or any of the other rare times someone else’s bare skin has touched his own. He can’t think about that.) “You are ours.” He sounds a little puzzled. “Do you not feel it?”
Before Athelstan has to find an answer (ours?), another one of the warriors comes into the room, and makes an impatient noise when he sees what Athelstan’s warrior is doing. “Kill him and take the treasure, Ragnar,” he says in their language. “We don’t have time.”
“He comes with us,” says the warrior—Ragnar, it seems. His voice is low and dangerous and his hand has moved from the neck of Athelstan’s habit to rest on his throat.
The second warrior scoffs. “There isn’t enough space on the boat, and I would rather have more gold. Unless—” He stops and looks between them, and a scowl falls in his face. When he steps forward, axe in hand and looming a threat, Ragnar is between them in a second, Athelstan behind his back. The second warrior doesn’t attack, though, just scowls between them fiercely. “You’ve found him, then. Lagertha will be pleased. He’s like a rabbit, Ragnar, will you have to bring him home with a rope around his neck so he doesn’t bolt?”
“Get your treasure,” says Ragnar, mild and terrifying, “and let me see to my own affairs, brother.” Then he turns, dismissing the second warrior and going back to looking at Athelstan. “Will you come with us?”
Athelstan swallows and tries to be brave. “Do I have a choice?”
Ragnar flinches, like Athelstan’s the one who could easily kill him with a blow, who has demonstrated it on his comrades and friends. “Stay if you will,” he says as though it doesn’t matter, but he grasps at his chest again like the thought pains him.
Athelstan doesn’t want to see him in pain—wants, he assures himself, to see none of God’s creatures in pain—but he doesn’t know what it means, to be told he can stay in the life he knows or that he can go and be a slave. “I don’t know why you’re offering,” he says, feeling as though he’s lying, knowing he must be telling the truth. The feeling in his chest is grief for his brothers. It can’t be anything else. Not now, not with a strange warrior.
“I’ll make you a bargain, priest,” says Ragnar, eyes narrowed. “If you come with me and do not wish to stay, I’ll have you back on your shores by the end of summer.”
Every rational instinct Athelstan has tells him he should say no, given any choice at all, but he’s unsteady on his feet, and unsteady in his heart, and perhaps this is God’s plan. Perhaps the strange new feeling is a message, a way of telling him to go to the lands Ragnar hails from, maybe to be a missionary there. He can think of no other reason for this. “And you say you won’t harm me?” he asks, unable to help himself.
“I would rather die,” says Ragnar, as though it’s a statement of fact, and takes him by the sleeve to steer him outdoors, past the blood and the wounded and the screaming as though he doesn’t even see them. Athelstan retches once they pass the gates, and Ragnar rubs his back, a strange, tender gesture. It makes Athelstan ache, something strange in his chest different from the usual pain.
Some of his brothers are roped together and stumbling, but Athelstan isn’t put into their line. Instead, Ragnar puts a hand on his shoulder and walks next to him, asking questions about the landscape, about their life, and helps him into the boat when his brothers are forced to clamber on their own. If this is magic, Athelstan concludes, it goes both ways, but that only makes him feel more sick.
He keeps to himself on the boat as much as he can, listening to his brothers weep for their losses, feeling Ragnar’s eyes on him. Ragnar brings him water when he coughs, and shares of his own food, and asks his name, asks about God. Athelstan answers him as briefly as he can and feels something inside him twist every time Ragnar shakes his head and walks away. It feels like somewhere in the confusing mess of his emotions there’s a cord pulling tight, leading across the ocean, and Athelstan doesn’t know where it leads, or if he wants to know.
Lagertha is used to the pulled-tight feeling of Ragnar being far away, now that they have children. He has raids to go on, and she wouldn’t cage him, even if she wishes there were a way to go with him. (If she didn’t feel the pull west as well, she might have asked him to spend his savings on a thrall for them rather than on Floki’s boat, but she understands. He may well return from the west with their third, anyway, and then what need would they have for a slave with a companion there instead?) Even when he’s in the west and the whole of her yearns in that direction instead of pulling in both, she does what she must, fights pathetic bandits away from her farm and works and cares for the children. She watches with clenched fists as the jarl takes a hostage to be sure Ragnar will come for him, and can’t meet the boy’s mother’s eyes, because she doubts he will live.
A few days into Ragnar’s journey, though, she feels something that she isn’t used to: a sudden restlessness, a quick ache that comes with a burst of anticipation climbing her throat. She freezes where she’s stirring a pot of stew, and Gyda looks over from the loom at her, curious. Lagertha keeps her hand from her chest by force of will, just breathes in and out and waits a moment to be sure that this change isn’t something bad. She doesn’t believe it is.
She doesn’t tell the children that anything is different, but she feels the bond slackening again soon after, her husband’s ship coming closer. The parts of her that still ache for someone else are alert, and when they feel close, it’s everything she can do not to take the children to Kattegat. Ragnar wouldn’t want her to put them in danger at the last, and if he’s in enough trouble with Haraldson, he’ll want them ready to run. She must trust him to bring himself (and, if she is right, their third) home.
Sure enough, a day later, Lagertha feels him close enough that he must have left Kattegat unscathed, and along with it she knows there’s no pull to the west anymore. Ragnar is bringing her their third, and she clenches her hands in her skirts to keep from running to them like a child. “Your father is coming,” she tells the children, and lets them scramble out ahead of her, so she’ll have time to make sure she’s calm. Their third must be tired, and confused in a new land.
With that thought, she holds back as she goes outside and watches two figures walk the last stretch to their home, while Gyda and Bjorn run ahead to greet their father and the stranger at his side. It’s a man (of course it’s a man, she thinks, almost giddy the way she wasn’t when she met Ragnar), wearing some sort of odd brown robe that Ragnar has his hand wrapped in the hood of, head bowed, and she draws up short, confused. Their third doesn’t look excited to see her, or to be with Ragnar, but the fluttering in her chest proves it must be him.
“You found him,” she says, and the children both pause in their curious looks at the silent newcomer and step aside when she walks forward, hands already out.
Ragnar, though, looks up and shakes his head sharply where their third can’t see him, and she stops, not quite close enough to touch either of them, arms falling to her sides. “This is Athelstan,” says Ragnar. “I’ve brought him home.”
There’s something displeased about the way he says it, and the way he has his hand wrapped in Athelstan’s hood and not touching his skin wherever he can reach it, the way he still does with Lagertha. Lagertha wants to do nothing more than touch Athelstan, now that he’s so close, but she won’t do anything that may lead to mistrust, not when she’s waited so long for this man to complete their bond. “Gyda,” she says, a little more snappish than she means to, “show him inside, and get him something to eat. He must be tired. Bjorn, take your father’s bags, I need to talk to him.”
Athelstan looks over his shoulder, a little confused, as Gyda puts her hand in his and pulls him away. Lagertha nods at him, and waits for Bjorn to go out of earshot as well before rounding on Ragnar and crossing her arms. Before he says anything, he moves to her side to press his face into her neck and breathe damp and warm on her shoulder. “I don’t think he believes that I’m his soulmate, much less of the possibility of having two,” he says finally, when she brings her hand up to the back of his head, sighing a little to have him back at last. “Their god, he says, gives bonds to two only, and he’d thought himself alone in the world, meant only for the priesthood. I don’t know what it would do, for you to touch him as well.”
“We can’t keep it from him,” she points out, pushing at him until she can meet his eyes. “I will touch him by accident one day, and then what will he do?”
Ragnar shrugs, straightening but still close enough that they breathe each other’s air. “We won’t keep it from him, but what can we do if he doesn’t believe us?”
“Make him believe us,” she says, though she can guess it won’t be as simple as that. She’s never met anyone more stubborn than a priest, no matter what god he worships. “We will have time now.”
Ragnar looks away. “I told him that if he doesn’t want to stay, I would return him to England by the end of the raiding season.”
She hisses in air. “You would take him from us, when we’ve waited so long? You finally bring him home, and say it may not be forever?”
“We must just make him want to stay.” Ragnar makes it sound simple, and she wants to strike him for that. Priests are always stubborn, no less so than warriors. Sometimes more so. “We will keep him somehow,” he promises. “We’ll find a way.”
“If he goes, we go with him,” she threatens, because losing their third now that they’ve found him is not going to be allowed.
“It won’t come to that.”
It’s her turn to lean against him, pressing on the place where the bond rests. “What does it feel like, having both of us in there?”
“Full. Right.” He kisses her briefly. “A little frightening. He flinches when I touch him.”
Gyda appears at the door of the house, and Lagertha kisses him one last time. “We will be very, very careful, then. Restrain ourselves as well as we can. Now, let’s go inside and see him. I didn’t get a good look earlier, and I want to know him better.”
Athelstan is wary and watchful, but Lagertha is already proud to call him hers, and herself his. He speaks their language, she is pleased and surprised to discover, and for all he may deny the bond between he and Ragnar, he is no fool. (She doesn’t even think his denial is very real, not when he watches everything Ragnar does with a crease in his brow and when he flinches whenever Ragnar kisses Lagertha.) He asks questions, and blushes when she smiles at him too long, and retreats to the bed Gyda made for him early.
Lagertha rides Ragnar and longs for a second pair of hands on her, a mop of dark hair on the pillows. She wonders if he’ll be scrawny or plump, under his strange robe, and whether he’ll be gentle or brisk, if he’ll be clumsy. She thinks about convincing Ragnar to help her invite Athelstan to join them, but she preached restraint, and she can’t go back on it now just because she wants him.
If they only have until the end of raiding season, they are going to have to be very persuasive.
Ragnar has never felt the urge to stay in one place for very long, even in his own home, but with both of his soulmates there, it’s hard to ever think about going. Athelstan still won’t reach out for either of them, even though he must feel the pain of Lagertha so close and their bond not closed, but he joins in the family instead of shutting himself away in a corner. He asks for tasks from Lagertha and seems to find some comfort in the work, and he watches Ragnar when he thinks Ragnar isn’t watching, mostly when he’s sparring with Bjorn.
He joins in the telling of tales around the fire at night as well. For Gyda’s tale of Ask and Embla, he returns with Adam and Eve. Balder’s death gets them the long story of Athelstan’s Jesus, who is also his god, and his son at the same time, who died and was brought back to life before going to the Christian version of heaven. Odin’s search for knowledge makes him think for a while before he decides on the tale of a man named Job and the disasters of his life. Every time they tell stories, Ragnar thinks of talking about Loki and Sigyn and the Third who will complete them, but even as he mentions the edges of stories of soulmates of three or four or even that of a warrior who was part of a bond of five, he can see Athelstan shy away from the thought of it. Sometimes, he wants to ask what’s in the scroll that Athelstan took away from the monastery with him, the one Athelstan still reads over in his spare moments, but he doesn’t think that question will be answered.
They tell more ordinary stories as well, especially when the children are in bed, of their lives. Lagertha is the best at telling the stories of their lives together without mentioning their long wait for Athelstan, but she is also the one who tries to reach out when one of Athelstan’s stories hints at a life that must have been lonelier than either of them can imagine. Ragnar learns more of England, and where he might find the most riches on another raid, and knows he has a duty to leave, but can’t bring himself to do it until Rollo comes to their farm and snarls out threats.
Ragnar talks Haraldson into letting them go west again, with a spy in their midst, and uses Athelstan’s information even though he knows Athelstan will hate the thought of more of his countrymen dying. He goes home to prepare, and waits until the children have gone to bed to look between his soulmates. “I can take one of you with me,” he says, and waits to see if Athelstan will hold him to his promise. “The other will have to stay with Bjorn and Gyda.”
Lagertha flinches, but keeps her chin up. “Is this your last raid for the season, then?”
Ragnar tries not to look at Athelstan. “There will be time for one more.” Athelstan is still not convinced that Ragnar is one of his soulmates, much less that he is the third that will complete their bond, and even though he seems to like their family, Ragnar wonders if he will think that enough reason to stay. He swallows his pride and looks down at his knees when he finally says “Will you stay? It’s not so much longer, is it?”
“You didn’t leave me much to go back to.” It’s all the harsher for Athelstan’s soft voice. Ragnar looks at him to find him meeting his eyes, still wary but more confused. “I’ll stay, though. For this raid. Just—” He stops, lips pressed together.
“Just?” prompts Lagertha.
“Please. I have no right to ask it, but please spare as many lives as you can.”
Ragnar hums. “I can’t promise, but I will try. Lagertha?”
“No one who isn’t trying to kill me,” she says, and smiles. “It’s been a long time since I went on a raid.”
That makes Athelstan look at her, curious, and ask her why she would have been on one at all. Lagertha tells him about the honor of being a shieldmaiden the same way she tells him how to do things around their home, her fingers twisted in her skirt. Ragnar is content to watch them talk as he would be with no one else.
The next morning, they leave for England, Knut in their boat and scowling, and leave Athelstan in charge of the children over Bjorn’s objections, because Bjorn isn’t quite willing to accept a foreign priest as a parent yet. He’s as stubborn as Lagertha, though Lagertha always says he gets it from Ragnar. Leaving Athelstan, even with Lagertha at his side, is a wrench, and he’s snappish with the crew, but not nearly as much as Lagertha, who still hasn’t even dared touch Athelstan for fear of making him demand to be delivered back to England, and who touches her chest like she’s feeling for an open wound as they travel away across the sea.
Ragnar is impatient with the raid, collecting all the riches he can more out of duty than out of his usual pleasure. Lagertha is impatient and vicious both, and almost kills Knut for attacking a village woman and then turning his attentions to her, only to visibly pull herself back at the last moment to snarl “You are lucky that I gave a promise to my soulmate” before going to find more treasure.
When they return to Kattegat, ship overflowing with treasure and less bodies behind them than Rollo and others would like, despite their battle on the beach, Athelstan is there waiting for them, tired and a little wild around the eyes, hand over his heart. He must believe them, and Ragnar breaks out in a helpless grin even as Knut strides on ahead to tell Haraldson everything Ragnar did wrong, feeling Lagertha do the same next to him. “You came to welcome us home,” he calls, not caring if the whole of Kattegat hears.
Athelstan waits until they get closer, and his cheeks are red. “We came yesterday. There’s, ah …” He looks between them, eyes catching on Lagertha, hand twitching at his side. “Gyda said she felt her soulmate close,” he says, a little apologetic.
Gyda has always insisted her soulmate is close, but Ragnar didn’t ever expect her to find someone in Kattegat. Beside him, Lagertha is also surprised, though she hides it behind amusement, raising a single eyebrow. “Who is it, then? I assume she’s found whoever it is.”
“It’s Thyri. Jarl Haraldson’s daughter,” he says, looking embarrassed, like he failed as a guardian to let Ragnar’s daughter find her soulmate.
Ragnar laughs, because there’s nothing else to do, and because now Knut can say whatever he pleases but Haraldson will have Gyda to think of, Gyda’s happiness affecting Thyri’s, and he won’t dare touch her parents, not without much careful thought. Even if he tries, Siggy will prevent him trying as well as she can. He and Lagertha are safe, and he reaches out and ruffles Athelstan’s hair. “We’ll have to congratulate her. And perhaps stay in Kattegat for a while, to see what to do with them. Gyda is young for them to have a wedding.”
Athelstan smiles, now that he isn’t worrying that there’s something wrong with the match (as if even the most inconvenient soulmate isn’t better than none at all). “She’s happy. She’s been waiting for you to get home ever since it happened, since I thought you were coming sooner than you were. The …” He looks at Lagertha. “The pull was stronger than I was expecting.”
Lagertha looks about to reach out for him, but they’re still at Kattegat’s docks, and there is Gyda to see to, and she holds back at the last, even as she meets Athelstan’s eyes and smiles. “Then we’ll go see to her,” she says, “and find a place for us to stay the night afterwards. We’ll tell you of our adventures.”
Ragnar doesn’t know what Athelstan has been thinking of while they were gone, and if he recognized the tightness in the bond for what it was, and if he might begin to suspect something beyond his imaginings. Whatever he may have in his mind, though, Lagertha’s words make him smile, and he turns towards Haraldson’s house. “We’ll go see her, then. And Bjorn, he’s been scowling ever since it happened, and …”
Athelstan is walking, Lagertha in step with him, and Ragnar falls behind them so he can watch them and keep his grin to himself.
The night Ragnar and Lagertha return from their raid in England, Athelstan finds himself alone with them in one of Kattegat’s empty homes. Bjorn insisted on spending the night with his uncle and the other warriors just returned from raids, and Gyda refused to leave Thyri, so Athelstan is left with Ragnar and Lagertha, not sure what to do when he feels settled for the first time in a week, but not enough.
He thinks about Gyda, how she’d looked wide-eyed and happy the closer they got to Kattegat and how Thyri had greeted her kindly, recognizing Bjorn on the street, and held out a hand, and how they’d both stopped in startled delight before Thyri wrapped Gyda up in a hug and Gyda clung with her arms around Thyri’s waist. They didn’t kiss each other, like all the stories say—Gyda is still a child, after all—but he doesn’t think they’ve let one another go since. It’s not what he feels with Ragnar, something still missing, but he thinks there’s an end to the puzzle somewhere in the way Ragnar is with Lagertha, and with the way Lagertha is with Athelstan. “Will they join the priesthood?” he asks when Ragnar and Lagertha stop laughing with each other over the look on Haraldson’s face when they walked into his hall.
Ragnar looks puzzled. “Why would they do that? Thyri is her father’s only child, now. He could hope for a warrior to be his daughter’s soulmate, but Gyda will be a shieldmaiden someday, and they can find a way to have a child.”
Lagertha squeezes Ragnar’s knee and turns to Athelstan. “It’s not just those who haven’t found their soulmates who become priests in your land, then? We had thought, since it was you …”
“Those without soulmates, and those whose bonds can’t bring them children.” He thinks about saying more, about God giving the bonds to give his people children and to give some of them the duty to praise him, but Ragnar often scoffs when Athelstan tells him such things, and he’s too glad to see them to think of that tonight. “As long as Gyda is happy, though, it’s … I know things are different here.”
“They are.” Ragnar looks at him, eyes narrowed. “I think it’s time to tell you one of our stories. You’ve heard us talk about Balder’s death, and you must have heard mention of Ragnarok, the end of the world. We should tell you what comes in between.”
“The god Loki was punished for causing Balder’s death by being placed below the ground, in a cavern where the venom of the snake that wraps around the world would drip on him and cause him agony,” says Lagertha, the words well-worn, as though she’s told the story a hundred times. “But his soulmate Sigyn went with him, and she holds a bowl to catch the serpent’s venom and keep it from him. When the bowl fills, she takes it away to dump it out, and the poison falls, and the earth shakes with Loki’s pain. They’re missing someone, though.”
Ragnar picks up the story, and Athelstan looks over to him. “One day, someone is going to find that cavern, and the someone will touch them and find a way to free them, because Loki and Sigyn are waiting for a third in their bond.” Athelstan blinks, and wonders if the words can mean what he thinks they do. “Do you understand?”
“Bonds are two. Everyone has a soulmate.”
“And some have two,” Lagertha says, and her tone would be easy if her face weren’t tense. “And some even have three. You have never seen such a thing?”
“It would be wrong, it …” Athelstan shakes his head, and doesn’t think about how he’s felt less pain, since Ragnar brought him to his village, and how it rose like a wave when Ragnar and Lagertha went to England, and how something is off-balance and strange in his chest even if he feels less empty than he did before. “It must be wrong,” he finishes, at a loss for more words. “It isn’t in the Bible.”
“No bond is ever wrong,” Lagertha says, and it’s more fierce than he’s seen her. “We have been waiting for you a very long time, Athelstan.”
“If you think I’m your soulmate, why would you offer to take me back to my home?” he challenges, grasping for the right words, the ones that will help him or them to understand.
Ragnar sighs. “We would not have you unhappy. Surely you know that.”
“But if you left, we would go with you,” says Lagertha, as easily as that. “We would not force ourselves on you, but now that we know how it is to have you close, even with part of the bond not complete, it would feel wrong to be so far away from you with no promise of ever returning.” She clasps her hands before her. “I would leave my daughter for you, here with her soulmate, since I know she would be happy.”
“Where you go I will go,” he murmurs, thinking of the scroll he keeps by his bed, the story he has memorized long since, and both of them cock their heads, curious. “It’s part of one of our stories,” he explains. “And one of the promises most soulmates in my land make to each other when they marry.” He thinks of all those words, and wonders if he could give up God for the ones of their stories, and if they would ask him to. “I have never heard of three. Why would God bind three people together, when soulmates are content as two? The two of you are content, surely.”
“The gods give us enough soulmates to complete us. Most are two, yes, but not all. We may be content, but we need you.” Lagertha holds her hands out across the space between them. “We will not force it, but touch my hands and try. If you aren’t our soulmate, then you’ll feel nothing, and we’ll take you back to England when we can.”
“And if I am?” He swallows after he says the words and wishes he could snatch them back.
“Then we’ll decide what we wish to do from there,” says Ragnar. “Will you?”
In answer, Athelstan reaches out, his hands trembling, and grips Lagertha’s hands in his own. There isn’t even time for an instant of doubt before all the space in his chest fills with a rush, the bond singing through him, double and triple what he felt back at Lindisfarne when Ragnar first touched him, because that was only half a bond, but this is a full one. When he comes back to himself, he’s gasping, breath loud in his own ears, and he’s between Ragnar and Lagertha, wrapped up in them so tightly it’s hard to tell whose arm is whose.
For all the misgivings he has about them, about why God would set him on this path, it’s all drowned in the force of the feeling, and Lagertha’s shaking hand brushing over his cheek, and he doesn’t realize he’s crying until he opens his eyes and finds them both watching him, a little concerned and a little giddy. “Yes.” It’s a belated answer to Ragnar’s question, or to all the ones they haven’t asked, or simply an affirmation. It’s the only word that will come to his lips, and when Ragnar kisses it off them, all he can do is lean forward and let him take everything he wants.
Lagertha lets Ragnar have Athelstan’s first kiss, because he was the first to bond to him, but the moment he pulls away she draws Athelstan’s mouth over to hers and gives him another, brief and hard. She can feel the bond between all three of them, now, a tangible thing even when she tests it and takes her hands off them completely—making Ragnar, annoyed, grab her hand back.
She never wants to leave, not with the two of them there and so close, but Athelstan is already beginning to tense again, and she will not have this ruined now. Athelstan could still ask to leave, to be left alone. He could still refuse the idea of two soulmates and say that it’s displeasing to his god. “Do you believe us now?” she asks, because it’s the question all others are built on.
Athelstan moves a beat too slowly when he turns to face her fully, as though he’s hearing her through water. She can’t tell if his dazed look is happy or unhappy or simply surprised, and she hates not knowing, but she thinks it’s a good sign that he hasn’t shrugged Ragnar’s hand off his shoulder. “I believe you,” he says after a moment too long. “This must be—”
“It is,” says Ragnar, and Lagertha reaches across Athelstan to smack his leg for interrupting. Ragnar smiles at her, unrepentant, and leaves the bench the three of them are sitting on to kneel on the ground in front of Athelstan so he won’t have to keep looking between them. “If you believe we’re soulmates, then what do you want of us?”
After a second, Athelstan looks between them, sharper but still confused. “What do you mean?”
“Do you still want to go to England?” Lagertha asks, more patiently than she feels. “Do you want to join us in our bed?”
“Your lives are here,” he says slowly, as though he is just beginning to figure things out. “You would still leave them, if I asked you to?”
“You are our soulmate, not our slave.” Ragnar takes Athelstan’s hand. “We’ll find a way to make all of us happy. Even if it means traveling to England.”
Athelstan shakes his head. “There’s nothing there for me, not anymore. Not at Lindisfarne, after your raid, and not in the village where I grew up. And perhaps this was God’s plan, after all, for me to come here.”
He doesn’t sound sure enough for Lagertha’s liking, but she’s wise enough to know not to press him when this is still new. “What do you want of us, then?”
He lowers his eyes, staring at his knees. Lagertha shakes her head at Ragnar when he looks ready to crouch in Athelstan’s space until he’s forced to meet his eyes. “I don’t know what I want, in truth. I’d stopped expecting to meet my soulmate long since, and I’d never imagined two, and I couldn’t have dreamed of the two of you. I don’t know what to do, and this can’t all be about making me happy. You are my soulmates as much as I am yours. What do you want of me?”
“Your presence,” Lagertha says immediately. And then, perhaps more honestly, “Your love. You in our bed, whether that is tonight or a year from now. Your smiles. Everything you have been and done for us since Ragnar brought you home.”
“As I said, you are our soulmate, exactly as you are. Nothing has to change.” Lagertha raises her eyebrows, and Athelstan is surprised as well, judging by the way he looks up suddenly to meet Ragnar’s eyes. “We are meant for each other, the three of us. Bound by the gods—or by your God, if that’s the way you will have it. So we’ll have you any way you want to be had.”
“I would like …” He shakes his head. “I was a priest, trained to be one, for a long time, and never really expected to be anything else. I don’t know what there is to do, other than rumors and whispers.”
Lagertha draws his gaze over to her again. “We’ll make it simple, then. Would you like to come to our bed? You could fuck me.” His face heats and his eyes go wide, and Lagertha knows Ragnar is smirking where he’s still kneeling. She feels a little like smirking herself. “It is probably one of the simpler things we could do, but there are many other things we could try as well.”
He swallows. “I’ll come to your bed. You’re my soulmate—my soulmates. I would like to.”
Ragnar surges to his feet, patience gone, and tugs Athelstan’s hand until he stands as well. “Have you been listening to us, then, since you’ve been here? We’ve been missing you. For years we’ve been missing you, but it was harder when you were across the room instead of across the ocean.”
“I wish I had not kept you waiting.”
Lagertha stands and wraps her arms around Athelstan from behind, kissing the back of his neck and whispering the next words into his ear. “I wish we had not kept you waiting. We at least had each other. Now, would you like to come to bed?”
He starts a little and twists to look at her. “Now?”
She draws back. “I see no reason to wait, unless you aren’t ready.” She meets Ragnar’s eyes over Athelstan’s shoulder and continues when he just shrugs, brows drawing together. “You don’t have to say yes just because you’re our soulmate,” she tells him, hoping he knows it already. “Just as you don’t have to stay in our lands because you’re our soulmate. We’ll wait until you want it.”
“I do want it.” He moves until he can look both of them in the eyes. “I want you. I just fear I won’t now how to please you, and I would very much like to be able to please you.”
Ragnar grins, the wolf’s grin Lagertha recognizes from their years together, from whenever he thinks he’s beaten someone at something. It’s the same grin he wore the first time he touched her. “We will teach you to please us, Athelstan, just as we both learned to pleasure each other. If that is all your concern, we will teach you to please us right now.”
Once again, he looks between them, and Lagertha waits, holding out a hand to Ragnar to make sure he doesn’t lunge without warning, before Athelstan has said yes. Athelstan isn’t so fragile as she sometimes fools herself into thinking he is, not even with his years spent as a priest in a very different way from those at Uppsala, but she still doesn’t wish to push. It doesn’t take long, though, for a tentative smile to break across his face. “Yes, then. Teach me,” he says, and if Lagertha was hesitating before, now she’s going to take everything he’ll give them. Before Ragnar has had a chance to do more than step forward, she is pushing Athelstan as gently as she can bring herself to towards the bed.
The furs of the bed in the house they’re staying in are musty, not aired out since their last owner—the closest thing Haraldson dares to disrespect when their daughters are so newly bonded, no doubt—but Ragnar doesn’t mind as he follows his soulmates into the bed. Lagertha is undressing Athelstan as swiftly as she can, and Ragnar is dimly surprised that Athelstan is wearing an old mended shirt and breeches of Ragnar’s rather than his own habit. Perhaps he should have noticed it before, but it’s a good thing, and perhaps a promise of Athelstan settling in.
Athelstan is shy with his clothes off, in ways that he isn’t usually with the two of them. He may be quiet, or wary, or unsure of himself, but it’s rare that he ducks his head and blushes like this. Usually it’s only after Ragnar and Lagertha have been a little louder in bed than usual. Ragnar looks forward to finding out how else they can make him blush, and tells him so, because there’s no reason to hold it back. It makes Athelstan turn to look at him, his eyes a little wild, and then tug on his sleeve. “You too,” he says, not quite brave enough to be a demand, but Ragnar is willing to treat it as one, stripping off his shirt and breeches until he and Athelstan are both naked.
“You can touch me,” says Ragnar when Athelstan looks as if he’s hesitant to do it. The permission eases something, and Athelstan does it, trailing his eyes and his hands both curiously across Ragnar’s arms and chest, as if testing the differences between them, feeling the scars from battles won. Ragnar returns the favor, doing his best to touch Athelstan just as Athelstan is touching him and smiling when he finds the spots that make him flinch, ticklish, and the ones that make him let out little surprised noises. His skin is soft and smooth and pale, and Ragnar runs his hands over all of it he can, although he doesn’t stray low enough to touch his cock even though he can feel it rising between them, because Athelstan has not come close to touching his.
He doesn’t realize that he hasn’t felt Lagertha’s touch in a few minutes until her hands meet his somewhere on Athelstan’s stomach and he looks up to catch her eyes where she’s slotted in behind their soulmate, naked as well. “Kiss him,” she says, and Ragnar obeys, catching Athelstan’s lips with his and pressing in with his tongue, catching the noise Athelstan makes at it. Athelstan’s hips hitch against his a little, helpless, and the only reason Ragnar doesn’t smile with his smugness is because he would have to stop kissing him.
Lagertha interrupts, though, and he lets her roll Athelstan over so she can take his mouth, biting into his lips, claiming him as theirs. She’s had to wait longer than he has, to touch Athelstan, so he doesn’t begrudge her the time she takes with him, soothing him like he’s an animal or a child that needs petting. Instead, he takes the position she had earlier, curled in behind Athelstan, hand pressed to his chest so he can feel his heartbeat even as Lagertha’s hand sneaks down to his cock to give it a teasing pull or two. “What do you want?” he asks, since he’s the only one whose mouth is free. “Will you fuck her? Will you fuck me? Or do you want to be fucked? I would be glad to do that for you.” Athelstan trembles between them, but there’s no hesitation, only a further melting into them. “Perhaps not tonight,” he says, remembering their lack of slick. He should have thought of that. “But soon.”
Lagertha pulls away from Athelstan’s mouth and he makes an unhappy sound. “Tonight he fucks me—and then you do, if you can wait long enough. Athelstan?”
“Yes,” he says, nodding at the same time, and then looks between them. “How do I—”
“On your back,” says Ragnar before he can get unsure again. “It will be easier to do that, your first time, and Lagertha likes riding me. She’ll like doing it to you as well.”
Athelstan goes quickly enough that his eagerness is obvious—and all the more obvious when he’s on his back and his cock is jutting up into the air, just tempting enough to make Ragnar sit up and bend to lick it, just a quick swipe of his tongue as an experiment. He hasn’t been with a man, but he and Lagertha have discussed enough of what they would do if their soulmate were a man in the past that he has some idea, and his warriors speak of it too, when they tell their bawdier stories. “Ragnar.” He sounds shaky, and Ragnar does it again, fits his mouth around the head as Lagertha does for him. “Ragnar, oh.”
Lagertha sounds satisfied when she speaks, and he looks up to find her stroking Athelstan’s hair. “A very good idea. Get him wet for me.”
Ragnar does, exploring Athelstan’s every twitch and sigh as he licks and sucks his way around his cock. Eventually, he stops, not wanting to spoil Lagertha’s plan, and trades smiles with her over Athelstan’s head, because Athelstan is almost thrashing with desire, looking taken apart—looking theirs, and it pleases Ragnar more than he cares to admit, having that thought. “Your turn,” he tells Lagertha, mild and courteous, just to watch Athelstan’s eyes snap open so he can look between them a little wildly.
Lagertha swings her legs until she’s straddling Athelstan’s hips and smiles down at him. “Ready?” He nods, beyond words, and Ragnar settles in beside him, stroking his chest where he’ll be feeling the bond, strong and warm just as Ragnar feels it now that it’s been completed between all three of them.
When Lagertha takes Athelstan inside her in one smooth thrust, Athelstan makes a noise like he’s been gutted, and Ragnar kisses him, takes his mouth as Athelstan hitches his hips helplessly up into Lagertha as she begins to ride him, pace smooth and steady. To his surprise, it doesn’t take Athelstan long to adjust, and then he’s dropping one hand from where it clenched by instinct on Lagertha’s hip and feels out beside him for Ragnar’s cock, which has been hard since the bond first completed but which is aching for touch by now. Ragnar thrusts encouragingly into Athelstan’s loose grip, and kisses him still more, until Athelstan has to pull away to breathe.
Not to breathe, he realizes a second later when Athelstan keeps gasping and shaking and Lagertha lets out a satisfied noise, but to come. He’s as untried as a boy, after all, and Ragnar kisses him, already planning for what they can do when there’s slick, and more time, and more talking between them. He’ll learn to last for them as Ragnar and Lagertha learned to last for each other.
Lagertha waits a moment to get off of him, but Ragnar knows enough to catch her around the waist and put her on her back the moment she’s no longer pressing Athelstan down into the furs. It’s a familiar, wonderful feeling to bury himself inside her, to fuck her as she wraps her legs around his waist, but it’s different too: Athelstan’s spend is already inside her, slicking his way, arousing him further. If she conceives a child tonight, it will be one that belongs to all three of them, no matter which father it resembles.
He expects Athelstan to lay there watching and recovering—he remembers being sixteen and unable to think of anything after he’d come, back before he gained experience—but after a moment or two, while Ragnar is fucking into Lagertha with practiced ease, he props himself on an elbow and turns to face them. “Does it feel as good to be … to be fucked by him, as it did to be inside you?” he asks Lagertha, and the innocence of the question is more arousing than it would be if it had been a deliberate tease.
“You will love it,” Lagertha promises, reaching out to draw him in towards her, to press little kisses over his face.
Ragnar reaches out for them and manages to rest a hand on Athelstan’s arm in between thrusts. “Watch, I’ll show you how I’ll do it.” Athelstan does, instantly riveted, and Lagertha laughs, probably at Ragnar for demanding his attention. Ragnar doesn’t care, though, just gives her the slow, deep thrusts he thinks Athelstan will like, the same ones that make Lagertha impatient, make her rake her nails down his back until he speeds up again, laughing as well because he’s never felt this good in his life, and Athelstan is theirs now, so he’ll get to feel this good always.
Athelstan finally looks away to kiss Lagertha, whispering something breathless into her mouth that makes her clench around Ragnar, coming with a sharp breath and pulling the pleasure out of Ragnar as well, until all he can do is fuck her until she’s finished and her head tips back as Athelstan trails his mouth down to explore more of her skin, licking up the salt of her sweat. He comes moments after, and after all he can do is move until Athelstan is in the middle and wrap him up in his arms before he’s asleep, Athelstan already there and Lagertha not far behind.
Sometime in the night, Athelstan wakes to find Ragnar and Lagertha watching him, both with smiles on their faces. He smiles back, helpless to do otherwise, feeling so light he could float away. “What happens now?” he whispers, unwilling to break the hush of the darkness around them.
“Now we live. We can be married, in sight of our gods,” says Lagertha, propping her chin on his shoulder to see him better. “I do not know what you’d like to do about yours.”
God gives bonds, and even if the church would not believe him if he said he has two soulmates, he knows it’s the truth. God wouldn’t condemn something He’s given. Athelstan doesn’t know what to do to consecrate the bond, though, with no other priests around and him no kind of priest at all any longer. “I don’t know either. I would like to do something, though.”
“You mentioned promises, earlier.” Ragnar kisses his jaw. “Where you go I will go.”
His heart clenches, and he’s used to feeling pain at the thought of those words, but all there is now is pleasure at the thought of them. “The promises Ruth made Naomi, when they found each other after many troubles. After Ruth had married a son of Naomi’s, actually, and he then died.” Lagertha raises her eyebrows. “I will tell you the story properly later. It’s my favorite.”
“The scroll you saved?” Ragnar guesses, and Athelstan nods. “What are these promises, then?”
“Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay.” They repeat the words after him without hesitation. He thinks of the next few words and thinks of skipping them, but goes on anyway. “Your people will be my people and your God my God. You don’t have to promise that.” Ragnar repeats the first half, and after a second Lagertha follows. He doesn’t mind much; he is more Ruth than Naomi, among these people, and he’s not ready to follow their gods now, if ever. “Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried.” Both of them repeat it without hesitation and without flinching, and Athelstan reaches out a hand to each of them before completing Ruth’s vow: “May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death parts you and me.”
They’ve barely repeated it before Ragnar whispers “We will never let that happen” hot and stubborn in his ear and Lagertha kisses him, sealing the vow.
“I won’t either,” he says, perhaps a little foolishly, when she releases his mouth, but the way they smile makes it the right thing to say—or perhaps they simply don’t care if it’s the wrong one. If they feel anything like he does, they’re too content to care if he stumbles over his words. “I’m yours,” he adds, because it’s true, and it doesn’t feel foolish to say.
“And we’re yours,” Lagertha says, as easily as that, and rests her head on his chest, either to listen to his heart or to be close to the place where the bond rests. “Now go back to sleep.”
Athelstan does, keeping a hand on each of them as he slips back under.