Athelstan had felt empty his whole life.
He rarely thought anything of it as a child. All children are empty, but for those rare few who find their soulmate when they first lock eyes with the neighbor's boy or when they catch sight of a girl hanging on to her mother's skirts on the other side of the village square.
As he grew, though, things changed. His older sister met her mate and moved in with him across the village. His brother met his next, and she joined them in their little house, to help with the work. His younger sister met hers when a bard breezed into town, and she went with him when he breezed back out again.
Soon, it transformed from a thing he rarely thought about, to a thing he could hardly keep off his mind. Every time he met a new person, a quiet, insistent voice in the back of his mind whispered, Is this the one? Will this be the time?
And still that hole remained, open and aching just a little, like an old wound that had not yet healed. When he was fourteen and all his fellows had found their mates and married them and had little time for their old friend whose life was still centered around matters of childhood, not adulthood, Athelstan despaired of ever meeting his mate in his own tiny village.
He left, making his way through the countryside. And though he met uncountable numbers of new people along the road, some of them kind and some indifferent and some brigands who knocked him in the dust and then left bruises on his ribs as punishment for not having anything on him worth stealing, not once did he look on the face of a fellow traveler and feel that hole in his chest close up and knit itself together and remake itself into something new and whole.
He followed that wistful tug in his heart, hoping it would lead him to his mate. It lead him instead to the altar of a church, where he knelt and prayed with all the youthful impatience within him to know why God would form him with a hole in his heart and then guide him on a path that kept him from the only one who could fill it.
When impatience had worn itself out, anger replaced it, and when that had burned itself up, it left him weary and penitent. Though he'd been there for hours, he bent his head again, and clasped his hand, and prayed to God once more. This time, he asked only for understanding.
The quiet scuff of shoes upon the stone floor made him lift his head. A priest stood before him, smiling beneficently down on him. "Come, child," he said, and Athelstan felt no irritation, though at fourteen he stood with one foot in manhood. "Tell me what it is you seek."
In that moment, Athelstan knew that God had heard his prayers, and shown him where to find the answers he sought. God had led him exactly where he belonged after all.
"What if they don't?" Athelstan had asked, shamefaced at his need to know. It was a sign of strength, a sign of faith, to wait for your soulmate with patience and grace. "What if you live your whole life, and you never meet? What if your mate never finds you, or is dead, or doesn't exist at all?"
The priest had smiled at him gently. Athelstan hadn't understood why, then. He'd curved an arm around Athelstan's shoulder and led him off, murmuring, "God doesn't make mistakes, child. If you aren't meant for someone on this world, then you are meant for Him."
He wasn't the only missionary, wasn't the only young man with a hole in his chest that life hadn't seen fit to fill. The other's name was Ealdric, and he leaned in and nudged Athelstan in the ribs as their ship set sail for distant shores, and said, "You know why they send us all out, don't you? Before they let us make our vows?"
Athelstan shook his head. He didn't know, but he had wondered.
Eadric had given a sharp snort and leaned his forearms against the ship's sides. "Too many folk of the cloth take their vows out of despair, thinking there's no one left for them but God. And then they look up from their Bible one day and there he is, or she is, and they realize they weren't meant for God after all, they were just impatient. And then they abandon all those vows they made, and it's the Church that suffers for it. They send us out so we can meet our mates, if they're out there, before we take vows that might turn us into oathbreakers."
Athelstan hadn't thought that that's how a priest would sound about the matter, not even a young one, new to the vocation. In Francia, Eadric had locked eyes with a local lad in the pews as they'd helped the parish priest give Mass, and Ealdric had stripped his vestments off right there and stepped out to join him, and Athelstan had sighed and thought, It was bound to happen sooner or later.
He'd continued on from there alone. The solitude gave him time to think, and to pray. He didn't think he was like Ealdric, a man who had come to the cloth because he'd lost patience with God's plan. The emptiness eased within him when he prayed, or counted his rosary, or whispered Bible passages to himself in the dark, empty nights. There was a comfort to it that he thought must be like what others felt, when they looked on their mates for the first time. This was what he was meant to be doing, he was sure of it.
He returned a man, full-grown but still unsure of his place in the world.
There was to be a ceremony, of course. The Church enjoyed its ceremonies. They welcomed him like a sheep back into the fold, and rejoiced in God's proof that this was the path intended for him. Athelstan smiled when they praised him and when they expressed their pleasure at his return, but there was a doubt in his heart the size and shape of a hole, and it only grew wider and deeper as the day of the ceremony neared.
The night before, when he could bear it no longer, he sought out Father Cuthbert and knelt before him. The weight of the Father's hand upon the crown of his head felt like a benediction. It steadied him and gave him courage. "I am afraid," he whispered, here in the dark where speaking it still felt like half a secret.
"What do you have to fear, my child?"
This was harder. Fear was no sin, but doubt… How could he call himself a man of God, when he doubted the path that He had set him upon? "If this is the path God means for me," he started, but hesitated when Father Cuthbert took a swift breath at the word if. "If I am meant for Him, why do I still feel this emptiness within me? Shouldn't His love fill me? If this is what He means for me, shouldn't I feel… complete?"
Father Cuthbert increased the weight of his hand on Athelstan's head, and then removed it. He touched Athelstan's shoulder lightly, and guided him up to his feet. "It is the way of things," he said. Athelstan released a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. "When two are bonded, but separated from each other, they feel the same ache within them that you feel now." His smile was gentle and kind. "And Heaven is very far away, after all. It's only fitting that you feel the distance." He waited until Athelstan lifted his gaze and met his eye. "But those of us who are called to Him, we are blessed as no one else is, for we know that God is always with us, wherever we might go." The weight of his hand on Athelstan's shoulder felt like the mantle of responsibility settling over him. "Being one of His chosen is both a burden and a gift. But He does not choose those who are unworthy."
Athelstan nodded, and took comfort in it. And when the morning came, he stood in the chapel before God and his brothers and spoke the words that dedicated his life to God's glory without hesitation, secure in the knowledge that this was where He meant Athelstan to be.
The hole still gaped inside him, but he took strength in Father Cuthbert's reassurance. It was only because Heaven was so very far away, the distances between them so immeasurably vast. But in the morning before Lauds, he knelt in the dormitory and stared out the narrow window across the churning sea and prayed as the sun rose to cast its golden light across the waves, and in those quiet dawn hours Athelstan felt closer to God and the hole in his chest felt smaller than it did at any other time. It was his favorite part of the day.
There was a rhythm to life and work and prayer that swept him along like a leaf upon a mighty river, and Athelstan could see the course of his life laid out before him. He would study and worship God and work for His glory, he would live his life out beside the rest of his brothers, and when he had lived a long and devout life, he would pass from this world to the next, and join God in His kingdom, and the emptiness he felt inside him would at last be filled by His presence. He was content with the life that awaited him.
And then Hell came to Lindisfarne.
It seemed it could be nothing but confirmation from God that this was what He intended. If Athelstan had been a better monk, if he'd been older, with more years of prayer and devotion behind him, perhaps then he could have given himself over to God's plan, and welcomed the storm and its beast as the fate that would send him home to be with his God. But Athelstan was young and he did not want to die, not even if it was God's will. Not yet. God could have him for eternity, once Athelstan joined Him in Heaven. Surely He could give Athelstan these few years, and wait?
He sought Father Cuthbert's guidance, as he always had before. And Father Cuthbert lay his hand on the smooth skin at the crown of Athelstan's head and told him that God had a plan in all things, and He would not let any harm befall one of His chosen. Athelstan bowed his head and nodded, and tried his best to take comfort in that, but it was harder now than it had ever been before.
The storm raged through the night, and Athelstan lay in the dormitory with his back to the window that usually brought him comfort, and he prayed to God to let him live, if it was His will.
That had not been the end of the storm, but just the eye of it. And now the full force of Hell's fury was unleashed upon them.
They were monks, trained in devotion and servitude, but they were not trained for courage. They huddled together as the rhythmic drumming drew nearer. Some few dared to take a breath of relief when it paused, only to sob it back out again when it started once more, a metallic clang that shook the monastery's gate upon its hinges. Athelstan gripped the cross that hung about his neck, as his brothers about them gripped theirs, and whispered a silent prayer.
It was only a matter of time before the gate fell. It was a monastery not a fortress, built to keep worldly influences at bay, but not warriors, for what good Christian man would dare to raise a weapon at the door of God's chosen? But these were not good Christian men, they were devils sent straight from hell. And when the gate gave way with the scream of splintering wood, Athelstan rose from where he was crouched with the rest of his brethren and stared at the door.
He gripped the nearest of his brothers' hands and tried to pull them with him. When they balked and would not go, Athelstan released them and slipped out alone. If it was God's plan for them to die this day, in this manner, then it would come to pass. But Athelstan would not wait willingly for the slaughter. He hurried behind the buildings until he had reached the chapel itself.
The chapel doors flew open with a crash when he had just reached the altar. He dropped down behind it, clutching the altar's Bible to his chest. Outside, he could hear people running, heard them screaming, heard them dying. He shut his eyes and sought salvation in the only way left to him: he prayed. But this time, he prayed not for himself or his own life. His lips moved silently as he mouthed the words to the Prayer of Commendation, the prayer for the dying. He recited it for his brothers, and hoped that when his time came, there would be at least one of them left to recite it for him.
A shadow fell across him. Athelstan's silent words stilled on his tongue. He forced his eyes open and looked up into the face of a devil, with hair like a savage and a face smeared with dirt and the blood of Athelstan's brothers.
Athelstan waited, frozen with fear, but the wildman just stared at him with eyes that burned through him. He spoke, his words too fast and foreign to make out, but there was something familiar to the cadence and the sounds.
Athelstan stared up at him, his heart a stone lodged tight in his throat. The wildman had spoken too fast for him to catch the meaning, but Athelstan knew that language, he remembered it from the time he had spent in Svealand as a missionary. "Please don't kill me," he said in poorly remembered Norse, one last, desperate prayer.
The wildman — the Norseman — froze. Those unnatural eyes flew wide, then narrowed on him. His smile spread as he crouched down. Somehow, he was even more frightening like this than he had been standing tall and looming over Athelstan. "You speak our language," he said as though it pleased him.
There was no point in answering. Whoever this man was, he didn't care about Athelstan's missionary work, or his travels.
"I'm not going to kill you," he said. Before Athelstan could even sigh in relief, his hand lashed out and caught Athelstan by the arm. "Come," he said, imperious, and pulled Athelstan to his feet before he could even attempt to obey.
Athelstan staggered after him, out of the chapel and into the sunlight. There, he jerked to a stop so suddenly that the Norseman's hand slipped from his arm. His brothers lay scattered around, dead and dying. Blood turned the dirt to mud beneath his feet. The moans of the wounded sent a shudder down his spine.
"Come," the Norseman said again, scowling terribly. But behind him was a familiar face, lying slumped against the refectory wall, his hand pressed to his chest and dark blood spilling over his fingers, flecking his lips.
"Father Cuthbert!" Athelstan cried, and pushed past the Norseman to drop to his knees at the Father's side. His hands shook as he pressed them over Father Cuthbert's, trying to staunch the flow of blood, but it was no use. Father Cuthbert coughed, a wet, rattling noise that Athelstan knew spelled his doom. "No," he whispered, bending his head there in the mud before him. "No."
"It is God's will," Father Cuthbert said. "I am going to see Him now. Don't weep, Brother Athelstan. Only pray for my soul's safe passage to Heaven."
Pain and anger mixed in Athelstan's chest, but Father Cuthbert's voice was growing thin and reedy, his eyes drooping shut. It was not in him to deny a dying man's last wish, so he bent his head and murmured, "Pater noster, qui es in caelis, sanctificetur nomen tuum."
One of the Norsemen snarled and grabbed Athelstan by the shoulder, wrenching him half up onto his feet. "What are you saying?" he demanded in a snarl. "What is that witchcraft you speak?"
Athelstan stared at him, his mouth twisted with rage, his fingers curled tight around the handle of his axe. God's will, he reminded himself, for courage. "Adveniat regnum tuum. Fiat voluntas tua, sicut in caelo et in terra. Panem nostrum quotidianum da nobis hodie--"
The Norseman snarled and raised his axe high. In an instant, Athelstan made peace with his death. But even as the axe fell, its bloodied blade swinging down toward Athelstan's chest, the other man, the one who had pulled Athelstan from behind the altar and dragged him out here into this carnage, moved forward easily and pushed his way between them. He caught the axe's swing on his shield and deflected it, then caught the other's arm and twisted it until the axe fell from his fingers and splashed in the mud. "No," he said, low and violent. "Any mark you make upon him, I shall mirror on your own flesh, brother."
Brother? Athelstan thought dizzily, and then, while the two were distracted with one another, finished Father Cuthbert's prayer in a quick whisper. "Panem nostrum quotidianum da nobis hodie, et dimitte nobis debita nostra sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris. Et ne nos inducas in tentationem, sed libera nos a malo. Amen." He crouched and shut Father Cuthbert's lifeless eyes and prayed that he was with God now, and far from this place.
When he rose and turned, his Norseman was watching him, his eyes sharp and interested. "It's not witchcraft," Athelstan said in his language. "It's a prayer."
The man's lips curved. "What do you pray for, for a man who is already dead?"
"Salvation," Athelstan told him. "Peace."
"Peace." The Norseman laughed. His smile flashed, bright as the sun. "Where's the fun in that?" He caught Athelstan by the arm again and pulled him toward the monastery gate.
The others came out as well, carrying armloads of the Church's treasure, laughing and joking with one another. Athelstan's Norseman gave the one who'd nearly killed him a hard look as he fingered his axe and eyed Athelstan unhappily. "Rollo, make yourself useful and go get the last of the gold from in there. We need to be on our way before another storm comes." He turned that gaze on Athelstan and raked him with it from head to foot. It caught on the Bible that Athelstan still held in his arms. He reached for it. "Put that down, priest. It's not worth the effort to bring it back home."
"No!" Athelstan tightened his arms around it, clutching it tight against his body, and stared defiance right into this devil's eyes.
He hesitated. His gaze turned from dismissive to contemplative. He looked Athelstan over again, slower. When he released the Bible, Athelstan swayed with relief. "It's just a book," he said, scornful. "Why should you care so much about a book?"
"It's a holy book, and it's more valuable than any of the gold you've stolen today."
He raised a brow and plucked it out of Athelstan's hands easily. Athelstan fought to get at it, but he held Athelstan back as though he were a child and opened the Bible. He flipped through a few pages, frowning, then grunted. "It's just paper," he said, dismissive, and gave it back. His lip curled with derision. "You need paper and ink to speak with your god?"
"No." Athelstan grabbed onto it so hard his knuckles ached. "I speak with Him every day. But without the Word of God, there is only darkness."
The Norseman huffed and gave a one-shouldered shrug. "Keep it, then. It's not so big." He pulled Athelstan along, away from the monastery and his brothers and the life that was supposed to have been laid about before him, as sure as the river's course. "What is your name, priest?"
Athelstan stared up at him. What did this foreign devil care about his name? But he hadn't forgotten the way he faced down the one he'd called Rollo, his face savage and deadly, and threatened harm upon his own brother. He wet his lips and whispered, "Athelstan," because he had fought for his life already this day, and he was not about to risk it now over something so petty as a name.
The Norseman grinned and clapped him on the back, hard enough to make Athelstan stagger forward. "I am called Ragnar Lothbrok," he said, as though they were strangers meeting upon the road, as though he had not just participated in the wholesale slaughter of men whom Athelstan held dear. And then he strode off toward the edge of the water, bellowing, "Floki! Help this one into the boat, he's coming with us."
A lanky fellow with hair like a thistle turned from where he had been stroking the planks of the boat. He took Athelstan in with a brief glance, then gave Ragnar a look that twisted his mouth at the corners. "She isn't built to carry so much weight, Ragnar," he said.
"One man won't sink her." Ragnar clapped Floki on the shoulder. "The gods love your boat, remember? They won't sink it on account of one priest."
Floki hummed a note in the back of his throat that might have been agreement, or just as easily wordless protest. "One man, no. But it is not just one man, is it?" He angled his head to indicate something behind them. Athelstan turned and saw a few of his fellow brothers, still living, being herded out like sheep before some of the other Norsemen. "The gods might not sink my ship for one man, but for a handful of them, and the treasure we bring as well?" He clucked his tongue. "The gods would surely bring themselves to strike a man down for such arrogance." His eyes glittered. "I do not care to insult the gods, Ragnar."
Ragnar smiled like they were friends, but his hand went to his axe and he shifted his stance in a way that even Athelstan recognized as a warrior preparing to do battle. "Shall we fight it out, Floki?" he asked, a deadly murmur. "Then there will be room for him either way."
It took Athelstan far too long to realize Ragnar's meaning -- that no matter who won, one of them would die, and that would make room for Athelstan to take his place. He shuddered at the thought of it. He didn't understand these men, or how they could speak so easily of their own deaths, as though they held as little regard for their own lives as for others'.
He waited for violence to erupt, shirking back and uncertain whether he was relieved or afraid. But the two stared at each other for a long moment, and then Floki broke it with a smile and a shake of his head. "I will not fight you, Ragnar. I could never keep so great a warrior from Valhalla for so petty a reason." He took half a step back and shrugged. The tension between them eased abruptly. "Let him come, then. We shall see just how much love the gods have for my ship."
Ragnar nodded once and smiled a crooked smile that made him look like the Devil himself. "Good," he said. "Now help him on."
There really wasn't any point in fighting, Athelstan supposed. Ragnar had spared his life once, but for someone who was so quick to threaten violence upon his brother and death upon his friend, Athelstan didn't expect that he would do so again if Athelstan made himself inconvenient to keep. He allowed Floki to help him up into the long, narrow ship, and when the other brothers were gracelessly boosted up as well, Athelstan hurried to their sides, and assured himself that they were not injured, and told them in hushed tones to be quiet, to behave, to do as they were told if they valued their lives at all.
"Where are they talking us?" Brother Aelred asked, a fierce, frightened whisper. "What will they do to us?"
Athelstan stared out into the distance, to where the waves met the sky. "Across the sea," he said quietly. "And then… I do not know." He wasn't sure he believed it, but Father Cuthbert wasn't around anymore to say it, and so it fell to Athelstan to be his voice. "It's part of God's plan," he told them all, quiet, and surer than he felt. "For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. He has not forsaken us, even in this."
And when the sun didn't shine, when the clouds and fog rolled in and waves sprayed over the sides of the ship, then their suffering grew to even greater extremes. His habit seemed as thin as a sheet when the weather turned. Rain and salt water crashing over the sides of the ship soaked him to the skin and the howling wind left him shivering, frozen to the bone.
They were given meager portions of fish to eat, dried in salt and nearly unpalatable without fresh water to wet their parched throats. Athelstan choked it down all the same, though as often as not it made him retch and cast up everything he'd swallowed over the side of the ship, and urged the other brothers to eat as well. As the days passed, though, and their thirst and misery grew, they began to refuse.
Brother Aelred passed first. Athelstan nudged him awake one morning when Ragnar was passing out the morning's rations of fish, but Aelred didn't rouse, and his head lolled. Athelstan knelt beside him and felt for his breath, felt his chest for his heart.
"What is it, priest?"
Athelstan looked back over his shoulder at Ragnar. "He's dead," he said, and there was as much anger in his words as grief. Athelstan had reassured Aelred, had told him that this was part of God's plan, that He would not forsake them. And now Aelred was dead. How could it be God's plan for them to die like this, slowly, torturously? If it had been His will that they join Him in Heaven, why wouldn't He have simply claimed their lives there at Lindisfarne? Why would He draw their suffering out this way? Where was the mercy in it?
He didn't know if it was right to hope that God would forgive him, not when he'd made promises on His behalf that God did not seem inclined to honor. But he hoped that Aelred would.
Rollo grunted and shifted from his seat to grab Aelred by the back of his habit. Without any sort of ceremony whatsoever, he hefted Aelred up and cast him over the ship's side and into the sea.
Athelstan pulled his cross out from under the neck of his habit and fingered it, mouthing the Lord's Prayer as the winds carried their ship away from Aelred's floating body. He could do that much, at least. He could pray for Aelred's soul now, if not his life.
Rollo glared at him as he settled back into his place. "Enough of that witchcraft," he snarled. "Pray to Thor that he won't strike his anvil, if you feel like praying to somebody."
"Leave him be, Rollo," Ragnar said, his tone sharp enough that Athelstan glanced at him in surprise. "He worships his god, as we worship ours. Where's the harm?"
"The gods will be jealous," Floki said. He was up at the bow of the ship, leaning against the figurehead and staring out toward the featureless horizon.
"They will not." Ragnar said it calmly. He held himself with a steadfast surety that made Athelstan nervous, and made Floki turn to give him a sharp look.
"You speak to the gods now, do you, Ragnar Lothbrok?"
Ragnar just smiled, crooked and sly. "One does not have to speak to a man to know his mind."
Athelstan turned his back to them. What did he care about their debate over their false gods? He slid in close to the other brothers who still clung to life and murmured to them, low, urgent words.
"You must eat," he told them. "You must eat no matter what you think of the taste. When they give you rations of water, you must not spill a drop. Do you hear me?" He shook them by the shoulders. "If it is God's will that we die in this boat, then we will die. But we will not let our own despair do the job for him. It is not what He would want."
Every time the rations were handed out, he said it to them, until Rollo rolled his eyes to the heavens and growled, "In the name of the gods, let them die, if that's their wish. There'll be more fish for the rest of us, and more room, and less of you lot stinking up the place."
"Rollo," Ragnar said, the word mild but the rebuke clear.
Rollo stared at him so furiously that Athelstan shrank back, afraid that a fight would break out between the two of them there in the narrow confines of the ship, and they'd all perish before it was through. "No one will pay well for slaves who want only to wallow and starve and die."
"They will pay better than they will for dead men," Ragnar said, and that was the end of it. Athelstan didn't miss the way Rollo sulked and glowered for the rest of the trip, though. The fight may have been avoided for now, but it was only biding its time. Athelstan hoped only that he would not find himself in the way, when it came.
Days passed. Athelstan marked them with knots on the rope that belted his habit. When Sunday dawned, he gripped his brothers' hands and recited a silent Mass. His lips moved, but he let no breath pass them, lest the sounds of their prayers incite Rollo's wrath and bring the fight upon them prematurely. Despite the silence, his brothers' lips moved with his in perfect sync.
When the Mass was done, they crossed themselves. Athelstan lifted his head and found Ragnar watching them. Watching him, with that same little secretive smile pulling at the corners of his mouth.
Athelstan huddled deeper inside his habit and prayed, as he had done for the past week, for understanding.
This was God's plan, that he had to believe. But though every other step along the path of his life had seemed like a logical progress, leading to the same end, this he could make no sense out of. Why would God send him to this land of heretics and savages?
He had enjoyed his missionary work, in those years that he had done it. Had that been his true calling? Had he strayed from the path that God had meant for him, and He had sent these Norsemen to set Athelstan back upon it? Would his brothers be alive and free now if only Athelstan had voiced his doubts about joining the monastery, if he'd kept the surety of his convictions, instead of letting Father Cuthbert convince him that Lindisfarne was where he belonged?
He ignored the sight of the coast and the other men's excitement, and tended instead to his brothers. He fed them, when they had lost the will or the strength to feed themselves. He wiped the blood from their salt-cracked lips. He tended to the places where their rope bonds had turned the skin of their wrists raw. And he tried not to look when they smiled at him in gratitude, or gripped his hand and murmured, "God bless you, Brother Athelstan." He didn't deserve their thanks, not when it was his own weakness that they were all now being punished for.
The coast gave way to the narrow waters of a fjord. Athelstan stared up the steep sides of the valley that cradled it and he felt small, insignificant. He felt the same way when Ragnar came and stood beside where Athelstan was sitting. Ragnar towered over him, as broad and imposing as this frigid, hostile land.
"One more day," Ragnar said, smiling out at the land before him, "and then we will be in Kattegat."
Athelstan twisted his head, staring up at him. "And then we will be sold," he said, bitter. "Tell me, what is the price for a man's life these days? Will we make you wealthy?"
His words were venomous, and sharp as a blade. But they only made Ragnar grin down at him. He clapped a hand on the crown of Athelstan's head and tussled his hair. "Not for you," he said. He crouched down so they were on a level and grinned at him. "There isn't a man in Kattegat who could pay what you're worth. So I suppose I'll just have to be content with my own meager living, hmm? While all the rest of my men grow rich from our bounty."
Athelstan stared at him for a long moment. "I'm a priest," he said at last, "born to lowborn parents. I've no wealth to my name, no lands, no lords or ladies who might ransom me to claim as relatives. Why would you value me so highly?"
Ragnar's smile twisted, dark with wry humor. Athelstan wondered if he'd misspoken, if his Norse was even more poorly remembered than he'd thought. But Ragnar said only, "You will see. When we get to Kattegat, then you will understand."
Athelstan was separated from him as the rest of the men from the boat herded him and the other brothers out with brusque shoves and terse commands. They were moved over to the side of the dock and ropes tied about their necks like nooses while, a few strides away, some Norseman toasted Ragnar and proclaimed that never again would men say that there were no lands to the west, for they'd know that Ragnar Lothbrok had discovered them.
Athelstan snorted to himself. These Norsemen spoke as though England had been lost, as though it were some great discovery to have found themselves upon their shores, and there hadn't been men living there for centuries already.
Rollo cuffed him upside the head. When Athelstan whipped around to glare at him, Rollo's lip curled. "Hold your tongue, priest, if you care to keep it in your mouth. Your master will teach you what happens to a slave who doesn't know his place."
"Rollo," Ragnar said from across the dock. His voice was innocuous, but there was a hardness to his gaze that made Athelstan glad it wasn't directed at him. "Come here and finish telling these men about the raid. I need to see our treasure is brought before Earl Haraldson before he comes down here and decides to claim it himself."
Rollo seethed, but stalked over to where Ragnar stood to take up the story, while Ragnar came over to where Athelstan and the rest of the monks waited, huddled together in a desperate attempt to conserve warmth. Ragnar took the end of Athelstan's rope and directed the other Norsemen over to take the others, and to take up armfuls of their stolen riches.
Athelstan followed obediently, though it chafed him to do so. He wanted to protest, to fight, to dig his heels in and make Ragnar work for every inch he gained. But Ragnar was the only one of these men who had treated him with anything even remotely resembling consideration. Athelstan wasn't sure he could afford to risk losing Ragnar's good will.
Ragnar led the group through the village to a grand building that stood out amongst the modest cottages like a prince amongst paupers. Ragnar led hem all inside, pulling Athelstan's rope short so that he walked directly at Ragnar's side. A short, round man announced them as, "Ragnar Lothbrok and his raiding party," in officious tones.
There were two thrones set to dominate the room, with a man and a woman upon them. A great fire burned at the room's center, and Athelstan pulled toward it without thought. The heat felt like a blessing after so many days of nothing but cold. He held his bound hands out toward it, turned his face to it, and imagined he could feel its warmth seeping straight into his bones.
Ragnar watched him as though Athelstan's need for warmth amused him, but he didn't keep him from the fireside. While Athelstan flexed fingers that the cold had made stiff and clumsy, he watched the man on the throne through lowered lashes. This, then, must have been the earl Ragnar mentioned. He seemed stern and imposing, and his expression kept the same dark, displeased look about it even as Ragnar made a gesture with one hand and all the Norsemen heaped the things they'd stolen from Lindisfarne into a pile before him.
The whole of the village seemed to have filed in behind them and spread throughout the great room, crowded at its edges. A few of the Norsemen pushed and shoved the other brothers until they stood next to the pile of loot, as much on display as the rest of it. Athelstan moved reluctantly to join them, but Ragnar tightened his grip on the rope and drew Athelstan back to his side without a word of explanation, or even so much as a glance.
"Hail Earl Haraldson," Ragnar said, though his crooked smile belied the deference of his words. "Look at what treasure we have brought back from the lands to the west. And this, only a few steps from the shore where we landed. There will be more. We could raid there every summer for the rest of our lives, and our sons and daughters too, and there would still be more gold to be found. This is just a taste."
Earl Haraldson surveyed it all as though unimpressed. "And you bring it before me now to show me the glory and the wealth that you have brought home in my name, do you, Ragnar Lothbrok?"
Ragnar's smile turned brittle as ice around the edges. "Of course," he said, with the slightest of bows. "My lord."
Haraldson watched him, his eyes glittering, waiting. A moment passed in which Athelstan edged away from the fire, away from the men. They were like dogs posturing before a fight, and Athelstan didn't want to be anywhere near them when the tensions broke and the teeth came out.
"Of course," Ragnar said again, still smiling, like he couldn't see that Haraldson stared at him like he hated him, "Floki built the ship himself. And the men who raided with us, they fought for your glory, and they rowed your wealth home with the strength of their backs. It is only fair that you pay them for the wealth they have brought home for you, don't you think?"
The corners of Haraldson's mouth twitched, pulling down into a scowl for a moment before he released a breath, and the whole of the great hall seemed to do so with him. "Yes, of course," he said, turning to half-face the rest of the men gathered with them. "Every man who sailed west on the raid may claim one piece of treasure for his own." And then he looked back at Ragnar, and the glint in his eye reminded Athelstan of nothing so much as the flash of light off the edge of a blade. "And what of you, Ragnar Lothbrok? Will you claim some of my treasure for your own? Will you expect me to pay you for defying my orders?"
Ragnar smiled, slow, lopsided. Athelstan marveled at how, already, he knew that smile meant trouble. "No, my lord," he said, and a murmur went through the crowd. Ragnar's hand tightened on Athelstan's rope with no subtlety at all. "I am content with what I have."
Haraldson raised a brow. The woman on the throne beside his — his wife, Athelstan could only assume — muffled a laugh behind her hand. It didn't take any stretch of Athelstan's imagination to guess that Ragnar was not the sort to ever be content with anything.
"This is what you want?" Haraldson stepped down off his dais and approached. Ragnar stiffened, but gave no word or gesture of protest as the earl paced a circle around them both. He looked Athelstan over with an appraising glance, his lip curled. "This stick of a thing? For a slave? He looks like he's never worked a hard day's labor in his life. What good will he be to you on your farm? He won't even know what you say when you give him commands."
Ragnar closed his hand around Athelstan's wrist, grabbing hard. His thumb pressed against the inside, and Athelstan's pulse battered against it. There was a warning to his grip, but it was unnecessary. Athelstan didn't say a thing. He kept his gaze lowered and his expression flat, so he'd give no indication that he understood Haraldson's words, or anyone else's.
"Why?" Ragnar asked, carefully blithe. "Do you wish him for your own?" His hold on Athelstan's wrist remained firm, but with his other hand, he held the end of the rope out to Earl Haraldson, his brows raised expectantly. "I wouldn't want to deprive my lord of spoils that he wishes to keep for himself…"
Haraldson froze. The corners of his mouth went pale and bloodless, and his eyes cut when he swung them to Ragnar. Athelstan couldn't even get out of the way this time, not with Ragnar holding on to his wrist as though he'd drift away if Ragnar didn't keep him tethered. He felt rather like a bone being fought over by a pair of wolves. It was not a comforting sensation. Either way that stand-off worked out, the bone lost.
Haraldson broke first, snorting a disparaging breath and turning his back in a blatant show of disrespect. It made the others in the hall gasp and murmur to each other, but Ragnar's only reaction was to loosen his iron grip on Athelstan's wrist. "Keep your useless slave, then, if that's what you want. Me, I wouldn't have wasted the fish to get him back here alive. He'll die when winter comes, you know. If he even lives that long."
"He'll live," Ragnar said, calm and steady and sure.
Athelstan was not so certain.
He was forced to remain at Ragnar's side while all the others came forth and selected their choice of the spoils. The worst was done now, his fate decided. It should have been a comfort to know what awaited him, but all he could think was, No, this must be wrong. If his place in the world was traveling through it, spreading the Word of God, if He had conspired to slaughter his brothers and destroy his home to ensure that Athelstan set out upon the course that was meant for him, how was he supposed to accomplish any of that as Ragnar's slave? He would work Athelstan to death in toil and labor, here amongst these heathens who had no wish to hear of God's love. How was this God's plan? How could this be what his brothers had suffered and died for?
The meeting broke up, at length. Ragnar led Athelstan out of the great hall, his grip tight on the rope. His stride was long, and it forced Athelstan to scramble to keep pace with him, jerked along by his neck whenever he fell too far behind.
"Ragnar," Athelstan said as he hurried after him. Ragnar stopped and turned back to him. He looked impatient, but also interested. Athelstan's words dried up on his tongue, but Ragnar was watching him, waiting, so he forced them out all the same. "He was right, you know. The earl. Right about everything except knowing your language. I'm not even a lay brother, to have strengthened my back by working in the gardens. My strength is prayer and devotion, not brawn. But you chose me, over all that treasure. You saw me, back at Lindisfarne, and you chose to spare my life. Why?"
Ragnar's brows lowered, leaving him looking at Athelstan as though he'd suddenly begun speaking in tongues. "You don't know?"
Ragnar started to speak, but stopped himself before he'd made a sound. He shook his head, quick, dismissive, and turned with Athelstan's rope in his hand to continue walking. Athelstan hurried to keep up. By the time Ragnar came to a stop, well outside the central cluster of homes and buildings that made up the village proper, Athelstan was out of breath, his heart pounding a rhythm like a drumbeat against his chest.
"Father!" a child cried, and came rushing out of a small house. There was a girl behind him, quieter but her face shining no less brightly as she threw herself at Ragnar. And behind them both, a woman, who leaned her shoulder against the door frame with her arms crossed over her chest and watched them all with a faint smile hiding in the twitch of her lips. She watched Ragnar like he was the sun and she'd known only the dark for too long.
Ragnar dropped Athelstan's rope to crouch down and catch the children as they hurled themselves into his arms. The boy had his mother's coloring, hair pale as wheat and shaved strangely from the back of his head, but he had the look of his father's intensity about him. And the girl seemed the reverse, with her father's brown hair but the same look to her that the woman in the doorway had, as though there were unfathomable depths beneath her quiet surface.
"Did you bring us treasure from the west?" the boy asked, his face avid and eager as Ragnar set him back onto his feet and he stared up at his father.
"No," Ragnar said, and smiled at his soon's disappointment. "But I will show you what I did bring." He reached out and caught the end of Athelstan's rope, pulled him stumbling forward. "His name is Athelstan."
The children hung back, looking over him with narrowed gazes and uncertain sets to their mouths. Ragnar laughed and gave them both a push forward. "Go on. You can touch him. He's ours now."
Athelstan jerked his gaze up to Ragnar, scowling. But the children were moving in, touching his habit, the knots of the belt around his waist, the end of the rope that hung from his neck.
Athelstan knelt down, because he remembered how it was to be a child and have everyone towering over you. The girl smiled at him and ran her hand curiously over the top of his head. "Does it grow like that?" she asked.
Athelstan let out a huff of laughter. "No. I shave it."
"Why do you do that?" the boy asked, standing back and watching them both with a sullen look.
"Why do you shave yours?" Athelstan demanded.
The boy threw his shoulders back and jerked his chin out, haughty and proud. "It's the mark of a warrior," he said, practically sneering. "So you can't be grabbed from behind in battle." He caught a handful of Athelstan's hair at the back of is head and jerked at it to prove his point.
Athelstan grimaced and pulled the boy's hand from his hair. "Mine's the mark of a priest," he said. If the Norse had a word for monk, he'd never learned it during his travels. But he supposed it would have been splitting hairs, anyway. Could he really call himself a monk when he had no monastery, no brothers? When the first fuzz of hair was growing in over his tonsure already, and he hadn't prayed the Liturgy of the Hours in days?
"Why does your god need your head shaved in order to speak to you?" the boy demanded, his mouth twisted with suspicion or disdain. "Our gods speak whenever they like, to whomever they please. Is it because your god is dead? That's what I heard."
"Bjorn," the woman said from the doorway, watching them all with a gaze that made Athelstan's skin itch. "We still need water brought up. Go fetch it before it gets dark." She jerked her chin at the girl. "Gyda, help your brother."
They both hurried off, talking in sharp whispers between one another. Athelstan turned to watch them go, but Ragnar's murmur of "Look. Do you see what I've found for you?" drew his attention back to Ragnar and his wife. She stepped out of the doorway and approached him, paced a slow circle around him as her observant gaze took him in.
"So," she murmured as she paced her circle around him. "This is what you bring back for your wife? This is the treasure you promised me waited beyond the western sea?" She stopped in front of him and took his chin between her fingers, tilted his face up and turned it back and forth, studying him. Something pulled at the corner of her mouth, some expression pulling creases into the corners of her eyes, but Athelstan didn't know how to read it. She seemed stern, imposing, intimidating. "You should have taken me with you, like you promised."
Athelstan didn't know how that could be interpreted any other way but to mean that she disliked him, that he disappointed her somehow, and Ragnar for bringing him. She looked like she'd happily kill a man for less, though, and Ragnar had not been unbearable to him. He bowed before her and quickly said, "My lady, I apologize if I displease you. I promise you, I will work hard. I already know your language, so you needn't worry that I won't understand your commands. I'll do whatever you--"
"Stop," she said sharply, frowning. Her fingers touched the edge of his jaw and guided him up out of his bow. She looked over her shoulder at her husband, sighed, "Ragnar," as though he had proven some great disappointment to her. "He doesn't know."
Ragnar leaned his chin on her shoulder and wrapped his arms around her middle, the two of them leaning into each other. "He will learn."
"Yes," Athelstan said quickly, eagerly. "I don't know your ways yet, but I can learn. Father Cuthbert always said I had a mind like a snare, that you only ever had to teach me something once and I knew it forever. I will learn, my lady, I promise you."
"My name is Lagertha," she said with an impatient gesture. "If you wish to call me something, I'd have you call me that."
"Yes, my-- Lagertha." He bowed again, but she pulled him upright, then slipped the rope off over his head and cast it aside.
"Come inside, priest." She guided him in with both hands on his shoulders. "You must be hungry. We can get supper started while we wait for the children to return."
"And don't you go calling Ragnar 'my lord,' either," she called over her shoulder as they followed her inside the house, "or there will be no living with him. He already thinks too highly of himself."
Athelstan stared, befuddled, at her back, then risked a quick, questioning glance at Ragnar. But he just grinned as though the teasing delighted him and nudged Athelstan in the ribs with his elbow, then moved ahead to drop down cross-legged beside the fire pit. "And what have you made to celebrate the occasion of my return, wife?"
"Oats," she said, jerking her chin at a pot that had been left by the fireside to keep warm. "With some herring I traded Helga for, and a bit of dried fruit left over from earlier in the season." She handed bowls and spoons to both of them, and took a set for her own as well. She leaned in against Ragnar's side, his head tucked against her hip, and pulled at the end of his hair. "And a drizzle of honey, I suppose. Since we're celebrating." She caught Athelstan's eye across the fire and winked.
Ragnar grunted and stared unhappily into the depths of the pot. When he looked up at Lagertha, she clucked her tongue and said easily, "How was I to know you would return today, and not yesterday, or tomorrow, or at summer's end? If you'd wanted a feast for your homecoming, perhaps you should have brought me with you, as you'd promised."
Ragnar pushed the pot over to Athelstan. He hesitated just long enough to glance at them both and be sure he wasn't doing something he oughtn't, before he started scooping the mixture into his own bowl. Ragnar might be disappointed by the meal, but it was hot, and the fish wasn't salted, and as far as Athelstan was concerned that made it a meal fit for a king.
"I found him for you," Ragnar said quietly, sullenly, as Athelstan shoveled food into his mouth and tried not to moan at the luxury of hot, rich, fresh food. "I told you I would find him."
"We should have found him together," she said back, low and violent.
"What?" Athelstan stared between them both, his spoon forgotten halfway between the bowl and his mouth.
Lagertha glanced at him, grimaced, and sighed. "That's a story for another time," she said firmly. "Eat your supper, priest."
It sounded like a command, and he was still keenly aware that he was a slave, and a not-entirely-welcome one at that, so Athelstan held his questions and did as he was told. It wasn't as though it was an unwelcome chore, in any case. The food was delicious to his flavor-starved stomach.
Ragnar grumbled as he dished out his own supper, but soon the children returned, tumbling into the house with buckets of water and clamoring so loudly over something that had happened while they'd been out that Athelstan couldn't have pressed either Ragnar or Lagertha for further explanation, even if he'd tried.
Bjorn ate his supper sullenly, staring at Athelstan across the fire pit as though Athelstan had wronged him somehow. But Gyda sidled up to him with her bowl, and watched him sidelong as she ate. And once, when Athelstan bowed his head to pray, to thank God for the food that He had seen fit to provide, she reached up and ran her hand over the crown of his head.
He stilled, trembling, and let her explore, though he wanted to jerk away. But he was a slave and that meant he did not have the luxury of keeping anything for himself, not even this. He'd earn himself no favors by upsetting the children.
"Why doesn't your head freeze in winter?" she asked.
"Gyda," Lagertha chided, frowning at her.
"It's all right," Athelstan said quickly to Lagertha, and then to the girl, "We lived and worked inside, mostly. It gets cold in the winter in Lindisfarne, even inside and with the fires, but not so much as to be any real danger. It was just uncomfortable sometimes, that's all."
"It gets cold here," she said, so much like her mother with her stern tones that Athelstan couldn't help but smile. "Your head will freeze here, if you don't let it grow in by winter."
Athelstan hesitated, a stone in his throat. Instinct told him to smile and nod and agree, to thank Gyda for her wisdom and keep her and her parents pleased with him. But the words stuck in his throat and he couldn't speak them. He thought of letting his tonsure grow in and a wild sense of panic gripped him, made him want to cry, or to run. He couldn't. It was who he was. What was he but a captive and a slave, if he let them take that from him?
"Gyda," Ragnar said, gentler than Lagertha had but still just as much a warning. "Let him be. He is hungry and tired, and there will be time enough for you to ask him all you like later."
She settled back down with her bowl on her lap, her head bent forward in acquiescence. They rest of the meal finished in a silence that felt awkward to Athelstan, but perhaps it was normal amongst the family. No one else seemed inclined to fidget and steal surreptitious glances around at each other the way that he was, in any case.
When all the bowls were empty, Lagertha covered what still remained in the pot to keep for the morning and Ragnar rose to herd the children off to bed. Athelstan's heart jolted as he was left sitting in front of the fire, alone, idle. He jerked to his feet and started gathering up the bowls and spoons and carried them over to one of the buckets of water to wash them.
"Athelstan." Lagertha's hard rebuke made him freeze, his heart leaping up into his throat. She hurried over and snatched the dishes from his hand. "What are you doing?"
"I--" Fear made him panic, made him stumble over his words. "I was just going to clean them." Oh God, he'd been here an hour and he'd already done something wrong, had already earned her wrath. He lifted his gaze to hers and stared at her helplessly. "Did I do something wrong? Forgive me. If you'll show me, just once, it won't happen again, I--"
She caught his hands, her fingers wrapping around his wrists and stilling them. His pulse thrummed against her fingers. "Stop this," she said quietly. "You must be exhausted."
He was weary down to his bones, but he had promised he would be a value to them. Earl Haraldson had said he would be worse than useless, not worth the food it took to keep him alive, and Athelstan was determined to prove him wrong, so he said, "No, my lady-- Lagertha. Not so much so that I can't work. If you'd only tell me how to do it, I promise I learn fast."
She stared at him a moment, her mouth pressing to a thin, displeased line before she gave a sharp sigh. She moved, putting herself between Athelstan and the buckets and pushing him a step back with her grip on his wrists. "If you would learn," she said, "then here is your first lesson. Hard work is a virtue, and the only way to get by in these lands. But if you work yourself to exhaustion, to illness, then you are no use to anyone, and others will have to take up your slack."
"I am not--"
"You are. You have been in a boat upon the sea for the past week, of course you are. And if you were wearing this"--she plucked at the sleeve of his habit with a frown--"then you are surely half-frozen as well. I won't have you killing yourself on your first night here." She pushed him through the house, around the fire pit and into an alcove where there was a pallet made up, and a few furs spread on top of it. "Sleep," she said. "Rest. If you're so determined to be a good slave, then you will do as I tell you. There will be work enough to do in the morning, I promise you."
He didn't have an answer for that. He didn't understand why someone would take a slave and then all but forbid him from working, but he was so tired his limbs felt leaden, and the promise of a bed so near -- a real, proper bed, not a hard corner of the ship not quite big enough to curl into, and one that would not rock beneath him as he tried to sleep, or wake him with a sudden wave of frigid seawater across his face -- pulled at him like a lodestone. There were furs. He wanted to crawl underneath them and whisper thankful prayers to God until he could keep his eyes open no longer.
He sank down slowly onto the pallet's edge. Lagertha watched him with a judging eye, and nodded once in solemn satisfaction when he settled onto the bed. "Good," she said, and moved past him, out of his little alcove. She reached out as though to clasp his shoulder as she passed, but her steps faltered and she hesitated with her hand just above it. A moment passed, and then she curled her fingers against her palm and continued on without a word.
As Lagertha had promised, there was plenty of work to go around. He followed the children through the long rows of sprouting wheat, taking in their instructions on how to tell the growing crop from weeds, and helping them pluck the encroaching pests out of the fields. Afterwards, there was water to haul for the animals, in buckets so heavy they made Athelstan's shoulders sing with agony, but he bit his tongue and endured. He helped Gyda gather eggs from the chickens, scrambling about the pen and taking note of all the places she pointed out where the hens liked to hide their eggs.
There was cheese and bread and ale for lunch, and Athelstan ate ravenously, too hungry to remember to pray over the meal until it was already finished. He whispered Hail Marys to atone for the lapse as they gathered berries for supper and pricked their fingers on the thorny bushes, until he found Gyda watching him closely and she asked, "What's that you're saying? Is that the language you spoke at home? It sounds pretty. Could you teach me?" He shook his head and muttered a quick excuse that it was meant only for priests, and she seemed content enough with that answer, but his heart still fluttered like a caged bird for the rest of the evening.
Supper that night was a thick, fatty stew of lamb and beans and turnips, with more bread and more ale. This time, when Athelstan moved to clean up from the meal afterward, no one stopped him. He kept his head bent over the bucket, his back turned to the others, and tried to pay no attention as Lagertha and Ragnar tucked their children in, and then moved with soft, intimate whispers to their own bed pile of furs.
Whispers gave way to gasps and other quiet sounds. Athelstan risked an unthinking glance over his shoulder, but the fleeting sight of bare skin and entwined bodies made him spin away, his pulse jackrabbiting and his breath suddenly coming short and sharp.
He threw the bowls down, hastily-dried, and hoped they would forgive him for it as he hurried back to the shelter of his alcove.
He'd tucked the Bible beneath the furs the night before, safe and protected out of sight. He drew it out now and spread it across his lap, slid his finger across the lines of text and mouthed the verses to himself. When a stifled cry broke through into his awareness, he recited them louder and faster until his mind was full of the sounds of Latin and the Word of God.
Ragnar's whisper, so close, jolted Athelstan out of his prayers. He looked up and found them both standing before him. Ragnar's trousers hung off his hips and Lagertha seemed to be clothed in nothing but the fur that she'd wrapped herself in. They smiled at each other, and then at him. "We want to ask you something."
Athelstan shut his eyes briefly. Pater noster, qui es in caelis, he recited to himself. But then his concentration broke and the words fled from him, left him tongue-tied and desperate. God in Heaven, he prayed, give me strength.
Lagertha moved forward, moved toward him, into the space that was meant to be his, meant to be safe. "Come join us, priest," she said softly, and if she'd held an apple in her hand she could not have been more tempting.
Athelstan tightened his grip on the bible until the edges of the cover bit into his palms. Ne nos inducas in tentationem, he thought, and the words stuck, looped through his mind helplessly. Ne nos inducas in tentationem. Ne nos inducas in tentationem.
"Well?" Ragnar said, lifting his brows.
"I-- I can't," Athelstan whispered. "I've taken vows. I'm not allowed to touch a woman."
Ragnar's brows lifted even higher. The sly smile that Athelstan already knew too well curved his lips. "There is more to do than just touching, priest." He settled down on the edge of the bed beside Athelstan and leaned in close. "She could touch you."
He said it like it was a suggestion, like it was somehow better. Athelstan stared at him, and then quickly shook his head.
Ragnar's grin turned wicked. If Lagertha was Eve, Ragnar was not Adam. He was the serpent himself. He leaned in close, let his lips brush Athelstan's ear as he murmured, "I could touch you. What does your God say about that?"
Athelstan couldn't help his shiver. He shut his eyes, clenched his hands on the Bible and whispered, Ne nos inducas in tentationem, until his skin had stopped quivering. He kept his eyes shut, because he didn't think he had the strength to look the Serpent in his face and refuse him, and said, "The Bible tells priests, thou shalt not lie with man as one lies with a woman: for it is abomination."
Ragnar huffed a quiet laugh that puffed warm breath against Athelstan's ear and made him shudder. He groped beneath the neck of his habit for his cross and gripped it until he could feel its edges pressed into his skin. "Your god sounds very dull indeed. Why should you worship him, when he makes such demands of you?"
"He is the one God," Athelstan said. This, at least, was easy. "He is our Father, and He sent His son to save us."
Ragnar shrugged a shoulder, unimpressed. He caught Athelstan by the point of his chin and turned him to face Ragnar. "It is not very much like lying with a woman," he said. "I could show you, priest. Would you want that?"
"No," Athelstan said through numb lips. His heart raced so fast that his whole chest hurt. "I honor and obey my God."
Ragnar hummed a low, unconvinced note, but he released Athelstan's chin all the same. "How do you know this is what your god wants from you, hmm?" he demanded. He sounded sharp now, irritated and impatient. "How do you know? What if this is why he's led you here? What if this is what he wants?"
Athelstan ran his tongue over his lips and struggled for words, for even a single scrap of coherence. "I do not know your gods," he said slowly. "I wouldn't presume to tell you what they might desire. You don't know mine. You are no priest. You cannot know what He would want."
Ragnar made an impatient gesture and shoved upright onto his feet. "Stay with your god, then," he muttered, "and see how well he keeps you warm when the winter snows come." He caught Lagertha by the arm and pulled her with him back to their furs. Athelstan pressed a kiss to his cross and slid beneath the furs, and he recited the Lord's Prayer to himself until sleep claimed him.
If allowing himself to be tempted by them, to be seduced away from his faith and his vows by them, was what he needed to do to prove his worth, then he would simply have to make peace with being sold or abandoned. He wouldn't do that, not even for them. Certainly not for the sake of an easier life. If that was all it took to sway him, then his word meant nothing at all.
But they had asked, not commanded. If it was what they wanted from him, what they required from him, then surely they would have made that demand, wouldn't they?
He couldn't know, and he didn't dare incite their wrath by asking. So he waited, with his heart in his throat and every muscle in his body tightened in anticipation of a confrontation. He waited to be told that he had been a disappointment, that they were getting rid of him, selling him or trading him to another. But if they meant to do any of those things, they didn't care to inform him of it yet. Lagertha, for the most part, acted as though nothing at all had transpired the night before. She instructed Athelstan in his work the same as she had the previous day. Ragnar sulked like a child and seemed to be staring at him sullenly every time Athelstan turned and caught Ragnar's gaze upon him, but he left it at that, and said nothing more about it. Athelstan tried to put it from his mind and to focus instead on the instructions Lagertha gave him.
Today, she gave him a large basket, and she and Gyda each took up ones of their own, and they trekked to a freshwater stream where, together, they showed him how to wash the clothes in the cold water, how to beat them with sticks to work the soap through and the dirt out, and how they set the baskets straight into the stream to let the water do the work of rinsing them clean.
There was a fleece in one of the baskets, too, tufts of dirty wool that smelled of sheep and hay that they let the water wash for them, too, and then, when there was nothing left to scrub at the moment and nothing to do but wait until the stream had done its work, Lagertha tossed the soap to him and jerked her head upriver. "There's a pool some ways up," she said. "I expect you'd like to wash."
It felt like a gift. He wasted no time accepting it, hurrying up and out of sight to a place where rocks had dammed the stream just enough to make a shallow pool. He stripped his habit off and washed the stink and the salt out of it first, then left it over a branch to drip while he waded knee-deep into the water and scrubbed himself all over.
He felt as though he could wash for a week and still not be clean. The soap came off him gray, at first, and when he scratched his nails over his skin he scratched layers off dirt off of it. He bathed himself three times, and scrubbed the soap through his hair and worked the lather all the way down to his scalp, and he only stopped because the water was frigid, even in summer, and the gooseflesh it raised on his skin was giving way to shivering that he couldn't stop.
Only then did he wade out of the water and pull his habit back on. It wasn't anywhere near dry, of course, but at least it smelled of soap and wet wool now, rather than of unwashed person. He made his way back down to the bank of the stream where Gyda and Lagertha stood. Lagertha had a long stick in her hand, and Gyda one of the basket's lids whose handles she'd slid her arm through so she held it across herself like a shield, and they were play-fighting.
Athelstan stopped to watch them, still somewhat concealed by the trees and brush growing along the stream's bank, and smiled to himself. Lagertha was smiling fiercely, and every so often she would say something to Gyda that made her smile back, her face bright and happy.
Pieces of their conversation drifted to Athelstan across the stream's babbling water, "Yes, good," and "No, like this," and "Here, move your arm this way, it will deflect the blow," and Athelstan realized that they weren't playing at all.
He moved out of the undergrowth, stumbling across the stream, too appalled for any tact when he demanded, "Are you teaching her to fight?"
Lagertha turned and gave him an arch look over her shoulder. "I am teaching her what my mother taught me, and her mother taught her. I am teaching her to be strong, and how to defend herself and her home and her people, and yes, I am teaching her to fight."
The arch of her brow challenged Athelstan to say any word against what they were doing. He knew he hadn't that luxury, but the novelty of it was too much to take in with just a shrug. He ran his hand over his mouth, searching for words, words that wouldn't get him turned away from this family and sold to someone meaner and more demanding. "Isn't that what your men do?" he asked at last, the best he could manage.
Lagertha grinned. There was something sharp and predatory about it that took Athelstan aback and made him rethink everything he had said, and been about to say. "Yes," she said. "Our men fight. But they are not the only ones."
"Mother is a shieldmaiden," Gyda said, leaning on her makeshift shield and wiping at the strands of hair that clung to her sweaty brow. "The best in Kattegat. When she fights in a wall, it never breaks."
Athelstan remembered the conversation he had overheard before, about Ragnar breaking his promise to bring her with him, and a tendril of cold curled through him. She had wanted to come. Not just to be with her husband, he realized, but to fight with him. She might have been there, might have participated in the slaughter of his fellow brothers and the ransacking of his home. He stared down at the rocks beneath his feet for fear of saying anything that would only bring her wrath down on his head.
"And when we do not fight," she said, "when it is the men who leave and the women who stay, what do you suppose the men of other earls are doing?"
Athelstan risked a glance at her, confused. He found her watching him levelly, color burning high on her cheeks. "It isn't only our men who raid. Others raid too, and some of them come to our shores and mean to take our possessions for their own, and our people for their slaves. Even if Gyda never fights a day in her life, never chooses to become a shieldmaiden herself, should I leave her unable to protect herself or her home?"
"No," Athelstan said quietly, ashamed. He'd have fought, if he'd known how. Of course Lagertha would make sure her children were prepared, as he had not been. "Of course not."
She nodded once, satisfied, and gestured to the stream with a jerk of her chin. "Go see how the wash is doing."
The clothes were clean, all the soap suds washed away, and the fleece was several shades brighter than it had been when it had gone in, and smelled clean and sheepy, so they three worked together to haul the waterlogged baskets out and wring the clothing dry, and then they carried the laundry home. Athelstan squelched in his shoes as his basket dripped rivulets of water down his back and his thighs, and Gyda laughed at him over her shoulder, and he couldn't help but smile back and enjoy himself more than he had any right to, when his brothers were dead or enslaved and he was so very far from home. But despite all logic and sense, he didn't feel alone here. He felt as though he were a part of something bigger than himself. He had heard Father Cuthbert talk about such things, back at Lindisfarne, and sometimes he had even felt as though he might be a part of it. But here in Kattegat, he didn't feel anywhere near as lonely as he had some days in the monastery.
Gyda tied a stone to a stick to make a spindle, and then showed Athelstan how to use it to spin the clouds of wool into strong, soft yarn. And from then on, if Athelstan's hands weren't occupied with some other task, he was given a nudge and a significant look at the spinning basket, and expected to keep himself busy.
He didn't mind it. It was steady, methodical work, and there was a simple satisfaction to be had in watching the bundle of yarn grow about the spindle's shaft, like counting the beads of a rosary through your fingers. It didn't take him long to realize that the expectation to keep busy wasn't meant for him alone. They all kept their hands occupied, even when gathered about the fire after supper in moments that otherwise seemed idle. Ragnar would be whittling a spoon out of a piece of wood, or Lagertha would be mending a tear in a stocking. Often Gyda joined Athelstan in his spinning, and Bjorn whetted the blades of their knives or practiced whittling as well.
Ragnar still seemed cool with him, unhappy about something Athelstan couldn't name, unless it was his rejection that first night. There seemed little else to do to win him over except to work as hard as he was able, and let time handle the rest of it. He wondered if Ragnar would proposition him again and force Athelstan to turn him down a second time, but he never did. Eventually, as the weeks passed, Athelstan started to feel like he might be settling into the rhythms of life on the farm.
One night after the children were asleep, Ragnar and Lagertha drew each other to their furs and Athelstan retreated to his own bed. He willed himself to sleep quickly, afraid he'd be witness to their lovemaking yet again. It was no rare occurrence, but every time it happened, Athelstan hunkered down in his furs and tried not to listen, afraid that this time, as before, they'd come to him and ask him to join them, and if they did, if they persisted, he would not have the strength to refuse them.
They seemed content tonight, however, simply to lie close together, hands sliding lazily over skin and speaking in quiet voices to each other. Despite the hushed murmur, their words carried, and Athelstan found him overhearing their conversation despite himself.
"I was sure," Ragnar murmured, his words unhappy and uncertain. "But now I begin to doubt."
Lagertha made a low sound and the furs rustled as she turned in his arms. "Do not doubt, husband," she said, and pressed a hand to his chest. "You know what you feel is true. What I feel."
"And what he feels?" Ragnar's words turned short and clipped. "He feels nothing."
Lagertha hissed a breath through her teeth. "He's afraid. You have seen him. Give him time."
"Time." Ragnar gave a hollow laugh. "We have waited years already. Years." Through the slats of the barrier that separated Athelstan's alcove from the rest of the house, he could see the way Ragnar clutched Lagertha to him and hunched over, pressing his face to her shoulder as though pained. "How much longer are we to wait? Until we are old and grey? He is here and we are still apart."
Lagertha made soothing noises and stroked his head. "Our lives are fated," she murmured, in a way that Athelstan had heard him speak to the children before, when reminding them of lessons about their lives or their gods. "It is not for us to know why. Would it ease your mind to ask the seer your questions?"
"I have asked." Ragnar sounded petulant. Athelstan abruptly understood where Bjorn had gotten it from. "He says only to be patient."
Lagertha laughed and kissed his brow, and then his mouth. "It is not in your nature."
"No," he agreed.
Athelstan turned his face away when their kisses lingered and grew deeper. This time, at least, he had no trouble distracting himself from the sounds of their union. Their conversation played through his head endlessly, but try as he might, he could not make any sense of it. He fell asleep without achieving any clarity about their meaning.
Ragnar watched her slyly from beneath his lashes, and smiled when he murmured, "I thought you would come with me, this time. But if you'd rather stay..."
Lagertha whipped around and stared at him again, this time as though she hardly dared believe the words he spoke. But then she hesitated and frowned. She shot Athelstan a quick, sidelong glance. "What about him?" she murmured quietly to Ragnar, and shook her head.
Ragnar caught her by the arm. When he looked at Athelstan, he let his gaze linger. "He will look after the farm and the children in our absence, of course."
Athelstan startled so badly he nearly dropped his bowl in his lap. Bjorn whipped around and gaped at both his parents, his jaw dropped in indignation or dismay. "What?" he snapped. "You can't mean it."
"But I do." The look that Ragnar sent him made even Bjorn's sharp tongue still. He gulped and snapped his mouth shut. "And you will obey him in all things while we are gone, or I shall know of it. Do you understand me?"
Bjorn gaped for a moment longer, then slumped back, crossing his arms over his chest and glowering. He muttered, "Yes, Father," all the same, though, and that was the end of it.
Later, when Gyda and Bjorn were out doing chores, because Athelstan didn't want to bring it up in front of them and undermine their parents in the children's presence, Athelstan caught Ragnar by the arm and demanded, bewildered, "Why?"
Ragnar smirked. "Don't tell me you're afraid of a boy," he said.
Athelstan kept hold of his arm and held his gaze. "I'm not afraid. I want to understand."
"You know what you need," Lagertha said, coming up behind them and making Athelstan jump. "The farm and the children will both be fine in your care for a few weeks."
Weeks. "Oh God," Athelstan muttered, a queasy feeling overtaking him. The thought of being alone, of being responsible not only for their livelihood but for their family… it was too much for a man whose greatest responsibility in all his life had been to sing God's glory in the company of his brothers. He had never had lives depend upon him before. It wasn't even his responsibility yet, and already he didn't care for it.
Lagertha took his face between her hands and forced him to meet her eye. She held it, strong and steady. "You've learned fast, just as you said you would," she told him. "You know all you need. The children will help you."
"Gyda might," Athelstan allowed. But he'd be lucky if Bjorn didn't stage a coup in his parents' absence.
"They both will," Ragnar said, hard and unyielding. "They have every reason to respect you, Athelstan. You will see to it that they do."
And abruptly, Athelstan understood. It wasn't just about the raid. It was a test, to see if he was worthy of the responsibility given to him. If he proved himself worth it… He did not know what future might await him then. But it had to be better than the life of dull drudgery that being a slave on a Norse farm promised him.
He would rise to the challenge. He was determined he would. He didn't know how, but he'd manage it. He had weeks to figure it out, and when the alternative was a life of servitude and slavery, he knew that it didn't matter how difficult the task might be, or how much more impossible Bjorn might try to make it. He had to.
"Gyda," Athelstan said quietly one day while Bjorn was down fishing at the water's edge.
Gyda glanced up from the ball she was winding out of their combined spinning efforts. "Yes?"
He looked out at the village. It was quiet with all the ships and their crews gone on another series of raids. The harbor seemed empty and the streets half-dead. Athelstan stared out at the water and the horizon beyond, and he couldn't help but think of what Lagertha had said, about the need to defend their home and their family while the raiders were away. Lagertha knew how to, and Gyda was learning. But it shouldn't fall to a child to defend them, if enemies came to their door. Athelstan was the one Ragnar and Lagertha had left the responsibility with, that's what they'd said. So he licked his lips and asked, "Those things your mother teaches you, with the knife and the shield. Could you teach them to me?"
Gyda raised her brows at him in surprise and set down her ball of yarn. She grinned, and the light in her eye was teasing. "Are you going to go fight in a shield wall, then?"
"No." He scowled, stung though he knew she only meant it kindly. "But I would know how to protect you, if raiders came to Kattegat."
Her face brightened, the teasing light replaced by a genuine smile. "Oh. That's easy, then." She set the wool aside and scrambled to her feet, pulling Athelstan after her. She snatched up one of the supper knives and gave it to Athelstan, hilt-first, then squared off with him. "Stab at me," she said, and shifted her weight onto her toes.
Athelstan stared at her in horror and didn't move. "I might hurt you," he protested. "Your mother used a stick when she was teaching you."
"Mother could hurt me with a dinner knife." Gyda tossed her hair over her shoulder and smiled like an imp. "When you can, too, then we'll switch to sticks."
That seemed backwards logic to Athelstan. He shook his head, looked down at the knife in his hand, then back up at the child standing before him, expecting him to try to use it against her. The child he liked, the child who, more importantly, had parents who would gladly string him up by his entrails if he so much as scratched her accidentally. "Gyda," he said, slowly, patiently. "Even an untutored idiot can hurt someone, if they hold a sharp enough blade in their hand."
"Someone," she agreed, shifting her weight from one foot to the other and back again. Her eyes were bright. Athelstan didn't think it was fair at all for her to be enjoying this so much, not when he was scared spineless. "Not me. Not the daughter of the best shieldmaiden in Kattegat, who learned at her mother's knee." She stopped her shifting dance and settled back onto her heels, standing up straighter. She tipped her head to the side and watched him curiously. "Would you like me to prove it?"
"Please," he said with a little scoff. And before he could find the words to try to explain to her how overconfidence was dangerous and pride went before the fall, she darted forward, quick as a fox, and knocked the knife from his hand with a swing of her arm that left his fingers tingling and senseless. She plucked the knife from the air as it tumbled toward the floor, then danced back with it, grinning, her face flushed with victory. "There. You see?"
"I'm beginning to," he murmured, chagrined. She'd looked like a warrior, then, not like a child at all. He held his hand out, palm up. "Give that back to me, then, and teach me."
She flipped it around again and put the hilt back into his hand. And then they began.
That, perhaps, was giving Athelstan more credence than he deserved. Mostly she was teaching him to defend himself and dodge a blow. From there, she taught him a few easy maneuvers he could use to stick a knife in an attacker without letting his defenses fall. He was no warrior and never would be, but the distinction seemed to matter little to Bjorn. He saw them practicing, Gyda with a stick and Athelstan with an improvised shield, and snorted loudly and stomped away.
Gyda and Athelstan glanced at one another. "He hates me, doesn't he?" Athelstan asked.
"No," she said quickly. "Not that." But her gaze trailed after her brother and she gnawed on the edge of her lip as though uncertain.
Athelstan stripped off the makeshift shield. "Right," he said. "Get a stew boiling for supper, will you? Use the peas, they'll go off soon and we shouldn't let them go to waste."
She nodded and hurried back inside to obey, and while she did that, Athelstan went after Bjorn, following the clear trail of broken branches and stomped grass that he'd left behind him, as though a beast ten times his size had gone crashing through the brush.
He found Bjorn sitting on a cliff's edge that dropped straight down into the water. He sat with his knees pulled up to his chest, staring out at the horizon as though it had done him a very great wrong.
Athelstan hesitated a few steps away. A twig snapped beneath his boot and Bjorn's shoulder twitched, but he gave no other indication that he'd noticed Athelstan was there with him, or that he cared.
Athelstan moved forward with slow steps, coming to stand at the lip of the cliff before he started easing sideways, closing the distance between them. Bjorn huffed scornfully and rolled his eyes, but he didn't leave, and he didn't tell Athelstan to either, so Athelstan kept easing closer to him until they were next to each other. Athelstan sat beside him, and he stared out across the water, and he waited.
Time passed. Bjorn glowered and heaved sighs that Athelstan could only guess were supposed to mean something, and still he waited, until at last Bjorn spun to him, hands balled into fists at his side, and growled, "You're not one of us, and you're not going to be."
Athelstan looked back at him, startled but careful to keep his gaze mild. "One of you?" he echoed quietly.
"Norse," Bjorn snarled. "Family. You can sleep in our home and speak our language and learn to run our farm, but you're not. You don't get to be."
Athelstan watched him, waiting for him to say something that would make any of this make sense. But Bjorn just went back to glaring off at the distant sky. "I don't know what I've done to upset you," Athelstan started slowly, though he knew the truth was that he hadn't done anything. Bjorn had hated him since the moment he saw him.
"Where have you been?" Bjorn demanded, suddenly furious. "All this time, you've been off in stupid England, praying to your stupid god. My parents were lonely! They needed you. But they've made a life and a family for themselves without you, they survived without you." He stomped forward and shoved hard at Athelstan's shoulder, sending him back a step. "You don't get to show up after all these years and decide you're ready to be with us. They don't need you anymore! They made their own family and you're too late to be part of it." He broke off, then, and stared at Athelstan with his chin thrust out and his expression mutinous.
Athelstan just shook his head, bewildered. There wasn't a single thing Bjorn said in his tirade that made any bit of sense at all, so when he said nothing else, Athelstan decided to leave him to his sulk, and go down and see how Gyda was getting on with supper. He knew enough about life to know that sometimes, people just didn't take a liking to you, and there was no rhyme or reason and nothing to be done about it. If this was one of those times, Bjorn one of those people, then so be it. There was nothing Athelstan could do but carry on as best he was able.
One morning, just after they'd finished breakfast, Bjorn crossed his arms over his chest and pronounced, "I want to go to Kattegat to wait for Father."
Athelstan spared him a brief glance as he worked to bank the coals so they wouldn't burn up their wood while there was no one in the house to benefit from it. "They didn't say when they'd be home. You'd likely be waiting in vain, and there's work to do here."
Bjorn's face set into deeper lines of stubbornness. "I want to go to Kattegat," he said again, and Athelstan may have spent much of his life as a monk, but he still knew enough to recognize when a child was working himself up to a tantrum.
He thought of the fish Helga had promised him, if he brought by a few skeins of his yarn as a barter, and the candles that were burning down to nubs, and the radishes that had ripened in the garden so quickly that they three couldn't possibly eat them all before they withered and went bad, and so the only sensible thing to do was to take them into the village and find someone to buy or trade for them. "All right," he said at length, and rose, dusting the ash off his hands. "Tend to the animals, and then we'll go to Kattegat."
Bjorn was so pleased with himself for the victory that he didn't even complain about milking the goats or helping his sister to gather the eggs. Athelstan hauled water to refill the animals' troughs, and when they had all finished, they bathed quickly in the stream so as to be presentable, and then they walked together to Kattegat.
The children went flying up the path to Floki and Helga's home, well ahead of Athelstan, and when he caught up Helga was showing their catch to Gyda and Bjorn was running his hands over a felled tree and proclaiming that he could see the way it had curves like a woman, just like Floki had said. Athelstan showed Helga the yarn, which she fussed over more than he thought it deserved, and she also agreed to take a bunch of radishes in exchange for one of their tallow candles.
They had mostly finished with the bartering and Helga was telling a story about how Floki had once dreamed of a fire on one of his ships and had woken up in a panic and gone running out of the house and down to the dock, naked as a babe and hollering for all he was worth, and it wasn't until he was up to his stones in the icy water that he woke up enough to realize that there was no fire and the ships were fine. Athelstan sat back, enjoying the story and the way Helga's jokes made Gyda's face light with laughter, as well as the opportunity to rest his legs from the long walk, when Bjorn came bursting in. "They're back!" he said. "They're coming!"
That was all it took. They were all hurrying back to Kattegat in an instant. Bjorn and Gyda tore along the path ahead of them, and every few moments Bjorn stopped in a place where the trees thinned out and they could see the ship making its slow progress up the fjord to shore, and Bjorn would jump and wave and shout, "Father! Mother!", though it was still too far off for them to see if Bjorn's greeting was herd, or his wave returned.
The ship reached the dock just about the same time they did. Ragnar jumped ashore as the lines were still being cast to moor the ship to the dock, and turned back to offer his hand to Lagertha, who laughed and jumped after him without taking it.
The children threw themselves into their parents arms, and Lagertha and Ragnar knelt down to embrace them. Athelstan hung back, letting them have their reunion. Bjorn examined a cut on his father's cheek, scabbing over nicely and long enough it was sure to make a very impressive scar when it healed. Ragnar allowed it, smiling fondly and cuffing the boy on the side of the head when his fingers probed too well at the still-healing wound, but his eyes glittered over his son's head, fixed on Athelstan so that he felt as though he'd been struck by an arrow from thirty paces away. His chest hurt and he couldn't breathe and everything felt giddy and light-headed. He was caught up in their joy, he thought. It was infectious, to see them all so happy.
Lagertha came to him first, holding Gyda close against her side. She smiled at Athelstan in her quiet way, that wasn't broad or bright but went all the way to her eyes and so you knew it was true and well-meant. "You have taken good care of the children," she said in approving tones. Her gaze slid to the line of herring slung over Athelstan's shoulder. "Is that for supper?"
"Yes," he said quickly. "It's Helga's catch. It's fresh--"
"Good." She clasped his shoulder and leaned in to kiss his cheek. She smelled of leather and salt and the sea, and the combination of it tightened the cinch around Athelstan's chest for a moment. "We could use a hot meal."
Ragnar followed close after them, Bjorn rushing along at his side, complaining loudly about something Athelstan had done a week and a half earlier. Ragnar made all the right listening noises, but only half-heartedly, and his gaze remained pinned on Athelstan. He stopped half a step closer than he should have, and looked Athelstan over with a gaze that covered him head to foot and left a slow smile curling up the edges of his mouth.
"Priest," he said in greeting, and Athelstan nodded in return, at a loss for words. "You gave up your habit."
Athelstan flushed abruptly. It was true, he had stopped wearing the habit because it was too heavy and cumbersome for the work that had needed doing around the farm. He'd taken a pair of Ragnar's trousers a tunic, and Gyda had shown him one evening around the fire how to take them in so he wasn't swimming in them. It had seemed the only sensible thing to do at the time, the expedient choice, but now with Ragnar home, his brow lifting and his mouth quirking as he took in Athelstan standing before him in his own clothes, Athelstan's certainty faltered. "I-- Yes, I needed--"
"Good," Ragnar said before he could finish, and brushed past him, following after his wife. "That brown didn't suit you. Svein, you bastard! Go tell Haraldson to get his ass out of bed and accept the treasure we've brought home for his glory, so we can all go home and fuck our wives and sleep in our beds."
The others who had come out of their homes and gathered at the pier to welcome them home guffawed, and the little round man whom Athelstan had seen his first day here, in Earl Haraldson's hall, flushed red and hurried off.
Soon enough they were all back in the great hall, and the treasure as well, laid out for Haraldson's approval. Only this time there was no rope about Athelstan's neck, and Ragnar and Lagertha kept him between them, Ragnar's arm draped across Athelstan's shoulders and Lagertha's around his waist while Haraldson paced around the small mountain of gold and jewels and looked it over with an unimpressed gaze, though Athelstan could tell with a glance that there was more gold here than they'd had in the whole of Lindisfarne. "You will all have your same payment as before," Haraldson pronounced when he was satisfied with his inspection. "One piece of treasure, as before, from the haul you've brought home."
A grumble went through the raiders, but it was quelled by a warning look from Haraldson. Lagertha and Ragnar exchanged a glance that Athelstan couldn't interpret. Ragnar was allowed to choose first again, and this time instead of demurring, he made a show of strolling around the gathered treasure, inspecting this piece and that, before he dug deep into the pile and drew out a gold chalice, encrusted with fine gemstones around its rim and in its foot, and held it up as though he'd found the Holy Grail itself. "So I can drink my ale like a king!" he said, to the laughter of those gathered, and gave Haraldson an extravagant, mocking bow.
Athelstan tensed when Ragnar returned to his side and slung his arm around Athelstan's shoulders again. It was a Communion chalice he'd found, that he'd taken for his own, and though Athelstan may have traded in his habit for simpler garb, and given up on trying to keep his tonsure without the other brothers around to help shave it, he was still monk enough that the thought of watching Ragnar take it for his own and drink from it every night without even understanding the significance offended Athelstan's sensibilities to the core.
They let Lagertha choose last, which made Ragnar bristle and snarl, but she laid a hand on his arm and kept him at heel. When he had settled, drawing Athelstan in close and glowering, Lagertha stepped away from them and went straight to a large, ornate chest that sat at one end of the treasure. "I'll claim this for my own," she said, her chin raised and her gaze direct on Haraldson's.
The earl scowled and started down off of his dais. "It's heavy," he snapped. "I saw it when they brought it in. What does it carry? You may take one thing only, woman. A chest full of gold does not count."
"It's not gold," she said easily, and lifted the lid. The gathered villagers' gasp of anticipation was let out on a deflated sigh when the gesture revealed only a jumbled mess of papers inside. She met Haraldson's stare with her own, direct and unmistakably challenging. "We didn't get the lock broken until we were already on the ship," she said, sounding bored, "and then it was too late to remedy our mistake." She looked down at the papers inside and shrugged one shoulder. And then she smiled, sharp and predatory. "I need a chest for all the treasure my husband and I will be bringing home in the raids," she said in a voice that deliberately carried to everyone in the hall. "The papers… well, I suppose we could use them for kindling." She raised a challenging brow at Haraldson. "Unless you want to claim them for your glory, my lord…?"
A titter of laughter when through the gathered crowd. Haraldson glowered, but relented with a sweep of his hand. "Take it, then. It's no concern of mine." He settled back onto his throne, clearly disgruntled, and dismissed everyone abruptly.
Ragnar threw his chalice in with the papers in the chest, then latched the lid shut and grabbed the handle at one end. "Come, priest," he said, gesturing. "Help us carry this home."
Athelstan sat, uncertain why they should want him to. Ragnar and Lagertha exchanged a look, and she rose and moved away from the fire. When she returned, she had Ragnar's chalice, and she handed it to him.
Athelstan tensed, but turned his gaze resolutely to the flames that danced in the fire pit. Let Ragnar drink and celebrate, then. Athelstan had no right to say a word against him. He would bite his cheek and endure in silence.
Ragnar touched his shoulder, demanding his attention. When Athelstan glanced at him, he held the chalice out, his expression expectant.
Athelstan took it, frowning in confusion. The chalice was empty still, so Ragnar didn't mean for Athelstan to drink from it. He looked at them both, at a loss.
"It's for you," Ragnar said slowly, with the exaggerated patience one used when explaining something to a child.
Athelstan's jaw dropped. He stared at the chalice in his hand, glittering gold and jewels in the firelight, and then at them both, smiling at him. "I... You..." He pressed a hand to his mouth and made a sound somewhere between a laugh and a sob. "You can't."
"Can't I?" Ragnar sat up, scowling. "It's mine, to do with as I wish. And I wish it to be yours."
"No," Athelstan said, and slid his and up to cover his eyes. He struggled for breath. "I mean... Do you know what this is?"
Ragnar gave a loose shrug and sank back into his easy sprawl. "We took it from a church," he said, "so I thought it must hold some value for you and your Christian god, some meaning. Was I wrong?"
"No," Athelstan murmured, his heart aching. "You were very right."
Ragnar beamed, pleased with himself, and rolled onto his back with his hands behind his head. Lagertha settled down at Athelstan's side and reached out lay her hand on his wrist. "What is it?" she murmured.
"It's for receiving the Eucharist." They both gave him blank looks at the unfamiliar word. Athelstan struggled with how to explain. "It holds the blood of Christ," he said.
Ragnar sat up, looking abruptly intrigued. "Blood?" His grin was wolfish. "You didn't say there was blood in your religion. Perhaps your god is not so dull as I thought."
Athelstan laughed helplessly. "It's wine," he said. "It's a symbol. It..." He gestured, at a loss. He wanted to cry. "It is very meaningful to me," he said quietly, holding the chalice against his chest. "Thank you."
They both smiled, pleased. Lagertha braced a hand on his shoulder as she got to her feet. "And now, my gift to you." She drew him up to his feet as well, drew him with her to the chest that they'd brought in earlier and placed in the corner.
Lagertha opened the chest's lid and then stood aside, smiling and proud. Athelstan looked from her to the chest and back again. "Your kindling?" he asked, frowning.
She shook her head. "A lie, for Earl Haraldson's sake." She reached in and pulled out a handful of crumpled pages, held them out to Athelstan. "Ragnar said you chose your book to save, out of all the other treasure in Lindisfarne. You like to read it, we've noticed." She squinted at the writing on the papers in her hand, then held them out again, insistently. "They're your language, I think. They look like it, and we took them in England."
"From a Church?" Athelstan asked, hardly daring to hope, and hating himself even for that. He shouldn't hope that they'd raided a Church of God. He promised himself he'd recite a dozen Hail Marys later, and looked to Lagertha, waiting for her answer.
"Some of them," she said with a shrug. "Does it matter?"
"Perhaps." He took the papers from her, and uncrumpled them and spread them out as best as he was able. And then he reached into the chest for the rest, and drew them out, and tried to make some sense out of the jumble.
Many of the papers were loose, disordered, but in the bottom he found books, and his heart stopped in is throat. He drew them out reverently, one at a time. The first was a book of hymns, and he clutched it to his chest and bent his head over it, and knew he was a wicked man for feeling such gratitude.
Lagertha crouched beside him and touched his shoulder in quiet comfort. It gave him the strength he needed to straighten, to set the book of hymns aside and look through the rest of the papers. It took him a moment to start to make sense of any of it, and when he did, he began to laugh.
Ragnar looked affronted. "What is it?"
"They're-- It's a ledger," he said, gesturing with the page in his hand, though he knew it would mean nothing to Ragnar. "Near as I can make out, it's some farmer's notes, keeping track of his herd and what bulls he's bred to what cows, and how many calves were born each year, and--" He broke off, laughing. "This one, it's a census of some town in Mercia."
Ragnar and Lagertha still looked blank. They exchanged a glance with one another. "You don't like it," Lagertha said.
Athelstan stopped laughing abruptly. "No. It's not that." He clutched the pages close, lest they get the wrong idea and try to take them from him. "I do. I do." He laid one hand on the book of hymns at his side and drew a deep breath. His chest had that tight, cinched feeling again, as though it was trying to wring tears from him. "I'm sorry. I don't mean to seem ungrateful. Thank you, both of you. I mean it." He looked down at the papers, the books, the chalice that he still had sitting at his side. The thing that had twisted tight within him loosened abruptly, and he felt as though he were going to fly apart all at once. "I don't... I don't understand why you would do this," he said, a low murmur. He looked up at them both, searching for understanding. "Why would you bring these gifts back for me?"
"You still don't know?" Ragnar demanded, sitting up and frowning indignantly. Lagertha laid a hand on his shoulder, as though to hold him back.
Athelstan shook his head, speechless.
Ragnar sighed abruptly and slumped, his shoulders bowing. "I'll tell you, then," he said as he clambered to his feet, and it sounded like a threat and a promise both. "But not tonight. Tonight, I'm tired, and I want sleep. We lost our wind halfway home, and spent the last three days rowing."
Athelstan nodded and held his tongue, held back the hundred questions that he wanted to ask. He remembered how tired he'd been when he'd first come here, so tired it had hurt, and he hadn't even spent any of the trip at the oars. He could only imagine how tired they must be. And he remembered, too, how Ragnar had told Svein that he wanted to fuck his wife in his own bed, so while Ragnar and Lagertha moved toward their pile of furs, Athelstan wrapped a cloak over his shoulders and grabbed the book of hymns and left the house, so they could do as they liked without fear he would hear.
He climbed up the steep hill to the place on the cliff's edge where Bjorn had shouted at him before, and he sat there with the book in his lap and ran his fingers over the fine leather binding as he stared out across the moonlit waters, his heart aching in his chest for reasons he could not explain.
It was strange to wake with a quiet panic gripping him, an instinctual certainty that something was wrong. He lay beneath his furs for a moment, staring up at the thatched roof overhead and trying to identify the source of his unease.
It only took a moment to realize that it was the sound of four others breathing quietly in the shared space, where the past weeks had had him accustomed to only two. The panic eased its grip and he sat up, dressed, and began to move through the motions that had become routine, in the time Ragnar and Lagertha had been gone. He brought in wood from outside and stirred the embers up, built a fire and fetched water to fill the cook pot, which he left heating at the fire's side as he moved away from its warmth to wake the children.
Gyda woke easily, and smiled sleepily at Athelstan as she rubbed the grit from her eyes. Bjorn woke as he always did, grumbling and snarling, until he recalled that his parents were home, and then he rose with only a passing glare for Athelstan as he hurried across the house toward their bed.
Athelstan caught him by the arm. "Stop," he hissed. "Leave them be. Let them sleep." He could only imagine how exhausted they must be, after weeks of raiding and days of rowing. There would be time enough for them to rejoin the rhythms of life around the farm. The three of them had managed just fine without them for weeks, and they could do so for a while longer, and give Ragnar and Lagertha the luxury of a few more hours of sleep.
Someone stirred in their bed, though, even as Bjorn glowered at Athelstan, and Ragnar's sleep-rough voice murmured, "Let him come, priest. We are not so old and invalid yet, that we need to sleep the day away."
Bjorn smirked at him, smug in his victory. Athelstan released him and watched as the children nearly tripped over their own feet in their rush to climb up onto the bed with their parents. Laughter and the murmur of quiet conversation filled the house and Athelstan smiled to himself as he crouched by the fire to stir the oats. It was good to have them home. The house felt like itself again now with them here, their familiar voices drifting across the air.
"Athelstan." Lagertha's murmur came to him from across the room. He turned and saw her half upright in the bed, her sleep-tousled hair spilling over one shoulder. She smiled and reached a hand out toward him. "Come, join us. There will be time enough for work later."
Athelstan came, uncertainly but he came all the same. When he was near enough, Lagertha slid her hand into his and drew him the rest of the way. He ended up sitting beside the bed, on the edge of the trailing furs, Lagertha's fingers threaded through his and her thumb rubbing an absentminded caress against the side of his palm as the children clambered around on the bed with them and they all spoke quietly to each other, telling tales about what had passed in each other's absence.
Athelstan looked at Lagertha's hand in his. His heart clenched with a sudden, painful lurch. He thought about what he'd told them all those weeks before, so long ago it seemed like a lifetime past though he knew it was ridiculous to feel so. It had been weeks only. It was not so long a time.
It had not been long at all since they had stood before him and invited him to their bed, and he had refused. And now -- well, this time he had come, hadn't he? He laughed beneath his breath, but felt no humor in it. He held Lagertha's hand and let her hold his, let her sweep her thumb across the tendons on the back of his palm, and thought about how he had refused before. I'm not allowed to touch a woman. That was what he'd told them. And this was not so sinful a touch, in itself, but he knew Father Cuthbert would frown at him and shake his head in disapproval, if he saw it. Father Cuthbert would see, and would know what that touch said about the willingness of his heart.
Carefully, Athelstan withdrew his hand from Lagertha's and rose to his feet. The weight of their gazes followed after him and pressed on him like a demand. He murmured, "The oats will turn to mush if they're ignored," and crouched by the cook pot to stir them vigorously.
They said nothing, but he knew they still watched him. He could feel their gazes upon him, as physical as a touch. He kept his back turned, his shoulders hunched. He focused on the cross beneath his shirt, warm metal lying close against his skin, pressing against his treacherous heart. He gripped it through his shirt with one hand and murmured a silent Hail Mary in penance for his weakness.
They watched him for a while, but didn't implore him again to come over to them, to join them as though he were part of the family and not just their slave. It was better that way, he told himself. Easier. They roused from their bed and moved to sit around the fire pit when Athelstan spooned the oats out of the pot and into individual bowls.
He ate his quickly. Too fast, in truth, and the sticky oats burned his throat as he swallowed them down. He was the first to finish eating and he dropped his bowl into the bucket of wash water and muttered something only half-coherent about checking on the animals' troughs as he made his escape, out of the house and into the bright morning sunlight.
The troughs were still full -- he knew well enough that the animals wouldn't drink them dry in a single day. But it was a blessing to have the sun on his face and the cold air filling his lungs. The house had started to feel too close and overly hot, with five bodies in there warming it instead of just three.
He climbed back up to where he'd been the night before, the place he absurdly thought of as Bjorn's spot, though he'd only seen the boy there the once. Mostly, he chose there because his chest was tight and there was a panic pulsing through him that made him want to run or climb, to use his body until his muscles ached and his breath came short and fast. So he climbed the steep path to the cliff's edge once more, and he let the vastness of the water stretching out before him be a salve to his frantic mind. He looked out on the water and the fjords and the lush green of the trees that clung to the steep hillsides, and he prayed to God for forgiveness, or understanding, or even just the tiniest bit of relief. When he ran out of words but the unease in his heart remained, he recited the Lord's Prayer until the words rolled through his thoughts like river rocks, worn smooth and slippery by the passage of time.
They found him there, Ragnar and Lagertha. They climbed the path together, holding hands, Lagertha with her other hiking up the hem of her skirt so it didn't drag in the dirt or get its hem caught under her feet. They didn't speak, but they weren't silent. They weren't trying to surprise him. He heard them coming and he looked away from the water and the sky and his contemplation, and when they'd climbed a little further and he could see them at last, he gave them a little smile, the best he could manage.
They parted when they reached the cliff's edge, and settled down on either side of him. For a long time, they sat together in silence, staring out at the wild landscape as one. The warmth that came off of them was a comfort.
"You asked us a question last night, priest," Ragnar said at last, turning to look at him.
Dread turned his throat dry as dust. He looked down at his knees and twisted his fingers together in his lap. Instinct battered at him like the waves far below, whispering a seductive chant. Lie. Recant. Play dumb. It would have been easier. Wiser, too, surely.
Athelstan was the child who had walked the whole of Northumbria in search of his destiny. He was the man who had felt God calling him to His kingdom, and had told Him to wait. The path of ease and wisdom was not his way. He stilled his fingers and smoothed out the hem of his tunic where he'd twisted wrinkles into it, and he said only, "Yes."
Ragnar leaned in and bumped his shoulder against Athelstan's, rocking him sideways a little. "Do you still want to know the answer?"
Athelstan lifted his gaze. "Yes."
Ragnar nodded once and smiled. And then he turned his gaze out to the horizon again. "Good," he said. "But first, you will answer a question of mine."
Athelstan sighed and slumped forward, his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. "Ragnar," he protested, but Lagertha laid a hand on his back, just over his spine, and hushed him.
"Just one," Ragnar said, "so I may understand. And then we will answer yours." He leaned in, his hand on Athelstan's knee, and waited until Athelstan had dropped his hands and met his eye before he asked it. "What does your church say about where men came from?"
Athelstan rocked back and stared at him, his brow furrowing. "That is your question? What does that have to do with--"
"Just answer," Ragnar said, each word bit off between his teeth like he was losing patience, so Athelstan pressed his lips shut around the rest of his words.
"In the beginning," Athelstan said quietly, "God formed mankind in his own image, a man and a woman together. The man was called Adam, and the wife was called Lilith, and they were husband and wife. But Lilith displeased Adam and they quarreled often, for they were ill-suited for each other. So God sent Lilith away and, while Adam slept, He took a rib from Adam's side and from it He fashioned a new wife, named Eve. And when Adam woke he saw Eve, and looking on her he recognized that she was a part of himself and they were as one. And they did not quarrel, and she did not displease him, for they were the first soulmates. And from then on, it has always been so. When a child is born, he is only part of a whole. Somewhere out in the world is his mate, who is the other part. And when they lay eyes upon each other, as Adam laid eyes upon Eve, they recognize that they are as one, and the whole is rejoined, never to be parted."
When he had finished the story, Athelstan glanced at Ragnar, to see if Athelstan had given the answer that he wanted. But Ragnar was staring past him, at Lagertha, and they shared a look of horror and consternation between them that made Athelstan frown and prickle before they'd even said a word.
"What of Lilith?" Ragnar asked at last.
"What of her? She became a demon who strikes children down with disease."
"Yes," Lagertha said dryly. "I can see how being forsaken by your husband would cause a woman so much unhappiness that she wants only to take it from others."
Athelstan twisted about to face her. "No," he said. "No, that's not how it was. They weren't mates, that is the point. They weren't meant to be together."
"Who was Lilith's mate, then?" Ragnar asked. "Did your god fashion one from her rib as well?"
Ragnar's frown deepened. "When your god made Adam and Lilith," he said, "what did he fashion them from?"
Athelstan shook his head, at a loss for why any of this mattered, what any of it had to do with gifts. "From nothing. From darkness, as he fashioned all the world and the heavens and the creatures within it."
"They are made of the same thing, then," Lagertha said slowly, thoughtfully. "Adam and his Lilith. And Eve was made from Adam and so she is made of the same as well."
"No, that's not how it works."
Ragnar shot him a pitying look, as though he thought Athelstan was a vey great fool. "Let us tell you our story," he said, "what our priests say." He settled back, leaning his shoulders against the tree that stood behind them, and kicked his feet out. "Once, while walking along the shore, Odin and his brothers Vili and Vé came upon a tree that had split down the middle into two trunks. From one, they carved a man and named him Ask. From the other they carved a woman, and she was named Embla. And because they were from the same tree, they were mates, and yearned to be with each other always, joined together as they had been before. And so it is with all men who are born, now. They are fashioned from the trunk of a split tree, and if their tree is split in two, as Ask's and Embla's was, then there is one other person on this earth who is their soulmate. But sometimes the gods choose a tree that has three branches, or more, and then those people are only complete when they have all found each other, because only then can they be whole."
"No." Athelstan was shaking his head before Ragnar had even finished speaking. "No, that's not right. Mates come in twos, they always come in twos. No more, no less."
The glance Ragnar sent him was swift as an arrow, and pierced Athelstan just as easily. "Never?" he said. "Never any number but two?"
"What of your mate, then? What of the priests? You are forbidden to touch a woman, or to lie with a man. Your god would keep you separated from your mates, never able to truly be joined, and be whole again?"
"Oh," Athelstan said, and let out a sudden breath. "Oh, no, you misunderstand. Everybody is meant for somebody. If you have no mate on this world, then you are meant for God. That is why men become priests, or women nuns, and it is why, when we do, we take vows not to touch a woman, or lie with a man. Because we are faithful to God, as others are faithful to their soulmates."
When he had finished explaining, he waited. If he expected anything from them, it was more scorn for the Church's teachings, more confusion because of the blasphemy of their own heathen ways. Instead, Ragnar and Lagertha exchanged a look, and they began to grin. Lagertha covered her mouth and muffled quiet laughter into her hand until Athelstan frowned at her, stung. "It is not funny," he snapped. "It is God's Word, and it is the way of the world."
Lagertha lowered her hand and schooled herself into a more respectful demeanor. "We do not mean to mock," she said. "It is only… if your god is the soulmate of all your priests, and they are all soulmates to him, then it is not so that soulmates only ever come in two, is it?" She leaned in and brushed her fingers along his cheek, a fleeting, gentle touch. "You are not the only priest in the whole of England, I think."
"It doesn't work that way." Anger stirred beneath Athelstan's breast. He curled his hands into fists and stared out at nothing, trying to calm himself. It did not work very well. "God's love is infinite. You cannot speak about Him when you don't know anything about Him."
"Perhaps not, but we can count," Ragnar said, droll, and it was too much. Athelstan jolted up onto his feet and stormed away, farther up the path and away from the house, away from Kattegat, away from everything that he had never wanted in his life, never asked for. His breath sobbed through his chest and tears burned against the backs of his eyes, unshed but hot as fire.
A hand caught his and he shook it free with a wordless animal sound of pain and rage. It caught him again, and this time it held. He spun back and found Lagertha at the other end of it, watching him with wide eyes and a grim set to her mouth. She held her other hand up, fingers spread, when he rounded on her.
"I'm sorry," she said quietly. "It wasn't our aim to upset you."
He shook. She acted as if those two words ought to set everything to rights, but they wouldn't. They couldn't. If she expected him to accept her apology and declare all forgiven, then she would discover just how mistaken she was. "I have never disrespected your gods," he snarled. "They are not my gods and I do not worship them, but I have always honored your faith."
"You're right." She released his wrist tentatively, watching him closely like she feared he might bolt at the first hint of freedom. "We've done poorly by you. It was a mistake, and well meant, but harm was done all the same." She sighed. "Come back, Athelstan. Please. Let us apologize."
He shook his head, but he was too weary to continue his flight. Besides, they were warriors both. It wasn't as though he could outrun either of them. Still, he had some pride, and he wouldn't be led back like a wayward sheep returned to the flock, head bowed and repentant.
He dropped down where he stood, leaning his shoulder against the trunk of a tree, and pulled his thighs up to his chest. He draped his arms on his knees and leaned his brow against them, shivering, though it wasn't cool enough out to warrant it.
Lagertha settled down on a knee beside him and laid her hand on his arm. The crash and stomp of boots through the underbrush announced Ragnar had caught up with them. Athelstan waited miserably for them to speak, to tell him again that he was wrong, that what he had been taught and what he believed was wrong, that he was a fool simply because they could not comprehend the magnitude of God and His glory.
They didn't speak, though, not for long moments. Athelstan could only bear it for so long before the silence demanded to be filled. He spoke against his knees, his voice wet and miserable. "All I have ever wanted is to serve God."
Lagertha made a low sound that Athelstan supposed she meant to sound encouraging, so he lifted his head and continued. "And instead of taking me into His service, He sent you." He looked at Ragnar, then, and found him watching Athelstan silently, chewing on the end of a stick in silent contemplation. His expression was unreadable. It might have meant anything. "He sent you to slay my brethren and take us prisoner. He brought me here, to this land of heathens, where there isn't a soul for miles who has ever heard of Christ, or wants to hear of him, where I cannot even spread His Word because it falls on deaf ears. I do not understand what He wants of me, but I know it is not to sit quietly and permit heathens to blaspheme in His name."
Ragnar spit the stick out onto the ground. "I didn't take you for an arrogant man."
Athelstan rocked back and stared at him, blinking. "What?"
"Ragnar," Lagertha hissed. "We have done enough damage."
Ragnar came over toward them. He crouched down at Athelstan's side, arms braced on his knees, and looked into Athelstan's eyes from very close. "You think your god did all this, destroyed and altered all these lives, just for you?" He shook his head. "Tell me that is not arrogance. Why should a god take such an interest in one man's life?"
"God loves all His children."
"Ah, but not all so well as you, no?" He lifted his brows in a pointed question. "Or he would not have ended their lives to set yours on its path, would he?"
Ragnar didn't know what he was talking about, but all the same, his questions hit too close to Athelstan's own doubts. He shook his head desperately, said, "No, that's not what I mean."
"Your god did not send me to England. I came because I chose to, because I wanted to see what lay beyond the Western sea. I did it." He tucked a knuckle beneath Athelstan's chin and tipped his face up. Athelstan held his gaze. He refused to be cowed. "You are not here because your god willed it. You are here because I came for you."
"I am here because I recognized your language when you and your men were in the chapel, and because I spoke it back to you and you took a liking to me because of it."
Ragnar's smile softened and he shook his head. "No," he said gently. "I came for you."
Athelstan stared at him. He licked his lips without thinking, a nervous gesture. Ragnar's gaze caught on the movement of it and his mouth pulled into a sharp grin. Athelstan whispered, "You didn't know I existed until you pulled me out from behind the altar."
"No, priest. You are wrong."
He drew out of his pocket a piece of lodestone that had been tied with a string about its middle. He let it dangle from the string's end and set it spinning, but it settled eventually, pointing straight north. When he gave it a nudge with his finger, it swung about, but then settled again, pointing in the very same direction. "You see?" Ragnar said, as though the demonstration had just explained the very nature of the world. "We are like the stone, each of us drawn to our soulmate." His gaze slid sideways to Athelstan. "Or soulmates. And when we are near..." He drew a second piece of lodestone from his pocket and held one in each hand. When he uncurled his fingers, releasing them, the smaller stone jumped from his right hand to his left, to join with the other. "We can feel each other. We can find each other."
"I am not your soulmate," Athelstan said, his voice ragged but firm.
"You came to Kattegat to welcome us home, though we sent no word ahead, nor even ravens."
Athelstan sighed and leaned his head in his hands. He was tired, he was so tired, and Ragnar was like the relentless ocean waves, wearing him down and pounding him to dust. "I came to Kattegat because Bjorn wanted to, and because we needed fish for supper, and candles for the house. It was a coincidence."
"Hm. A coincidence." Ragnar settled down into the dirt beside him. He stared out into the distance, but he was close enough that their shoulders touched, a light pressure and a fleeting glimpse of warmth through the fabric of their sleeves. Always, he seemed to move in such a way that it made touch between them inevitable.
Athelstan looked at the two lodestones Ragnar still held, pressed as close against one another as it was possible for them to be, and felt slightly ill.
"Was it also a coincidence that your travels led you to lands where you would learn our language? That it was I who found you behind that altar, and not Rollo or Leif or someone else who would have killed you the moment they dragged you out?"
"Yes," Athelstan said, his throat so dry it hurt.
Ragnar shot him a sidelong glance and a slow smile. "I thought it was your god's will. Isn't that what you said?"
Athelstan bit off a brief oath. "You are twisting my words!"
"Tell me this, then, priest." Ragnar turned, facing Athelstan squarely, his gaze direct. That was worse. This focused attention wasn't waves, it was a battering storm. Athelstan already felt as though he were going to be torn apart. "When we sail out again on our next raid, if we brought you with us and took you home, would you want to go?"
Athelstan drew back and stared at him, horror sticking like sap in his throat. "That's unfair. You can't ask me that."
Ragnar just lifted a brow and waited.
"You burned the monastery to the ground. Those of my brothers whom you did not kill, you enslaved and led away bound hand and foot. Don't make empty promises about taking me home, because Lindisfarne was my home, and you destroyed it. You can't take me back. It's gone."
"So you'd stay, then," Ragnar said mildly, and Athelstan knew he thought he'd won, that he'd made his point, when all he'd truly done was ignore Athelstan's.
"Husband." Lagertha spoke from where she'd been standing, a step away from both of them and watching their exchange in silence. Now that she'd broken it, though, her voice was hard, demanding. Ragnar looked up at her and sighed before she'd even said another word. "That's enough. Leave him be. We're just upsetting him."
Ragnar relented, but he did so with arms folded across his chest and a mutinous scowl that turned his features dark as rainclouds.
Lagertha crouched down on Athelstan's other side and touched his arm. "I'm sorry," she said, and Athelstan choked off a bitter laugh. She was the one who kept apologizing, and she wasn't the one who needed to. "We truly didn't mean to upset you, much as it may seem otherwise. But you asked us a question last night, and I fear the answer has been lost in the course of our conversation."
"It hasn't," Athelstan said, his voice stiff and choked. "I know well enough why. You brought me gifts because you think I'm your soulmate, you think--"
"No." She shifted her hand from his arm to the side of his neck, and then up to cup warm fingers against his cheek. She looked him in the eyes for a moment, steady and appraising. "We brought you gifts because we care for you. We brought you these things because we thought they would bring you happiness. That's the truth of it. All the parts of it that matter."
Athelstan let out his breath and shook his head. "You can't expect me to believe that. I'm a slave, why should you—"
"You are not!" Ragnar's response was immediate and ferocious. He bared his teeth in an angry snarl. Athelstan shied away from him and the force of his anger, but when he looked to Lagertha, hoping she would calm him and reason with him as she had done so far, he found her staring at him with her own expression of hurt disapproval.
Athelstan laughed brokenly, helplessly. "You cannot tell me I am a free man! I have not had any choice in my life since the moment your ship landed on the shores of Lindisfarne. How is that freedom?"
"We all have limited choice in our lives." Lagertha settled back down again and smoothed the skirt of her dress over her thighs. "Our lives are fated, decided by the gods from the day we are born." She lifted her head and looked at him, and her gaze glittered. "But you are not a slave, Athelstan. What slave would be given the choice to return home, if he wished it? What master would offer to take the slave there himself, sailed in his own ship and brought there by the sweat of his own back?" She leaned in and caught Athelstan's hand in her own before he could speak. Her fingers gripped tight and her skin was warm on his. "What slave would be left alone to run the farm and protect the home? What slave would be given a knife and taught how to use it? What free man would barter and trade with a slave without his master nearby to consent to the deal?" Her voice softened, turned gentle, tender. Her grip softened, too. She turned Athelstan's hand over so it lay palm-up on his knee, and she laid hers in it gently, fingers just resting against the pulse in his wrist. "What slave would be given the choice of whether he wished to warm his master's bed, or keep to his own?"
Athelstan jerked, startled, and nearly pulled his hand out from beneath hers. She didn't grab him or try to keep him, she just let him go, her gaze still steady and open on his face. "That's not-- I don't have a choice, though, do I?"
And then-- then her eyes turned cold and hard, and her mouth pressed to a flat, angry line. "Do not insult us, priest. You were asked, and your choice was honored. No one has forced you."
"No," he said slowly, and only realized when the fire leaped into her gaze how he might have been misunderstood. He raised his hands, then reached for her, a wordless entreaty. "I mean, no, no one's forced me." She settled at that, but continued to watch him through narrowed eyes, wary now where she'd been nothing but open before. Athelstan rubbed a hand over his face and shook his head, at a loss. "But I don't have a choice, do I? If we're soulmates like you say we are, then..." He gestured helplessly, and looked up at her. He felt like he was lost, drowning, and he didn't know how to get himself back to the safety of shore, the surety of solid ground beneath his feet.
Lagertha took pity on him, and wrapped an arm about his shoulders. "If you are," she murmured, and she tripped over the word if as she spoke it, though Athelstan suspected for the opposite reason that he had. "If you are, it will still be your choice."
"But how is that possible?" he demanded, bewildered.
She twisted and frowned at him. This time, though her expression was deeply displeased, there was no hurt or anger there. "Is that how it is in England?" she asked, her words sharp, her voice rising. "Soulmates are forced together, whether they wish it or not?" Her hand went to her hip, like she expected to find a knife or an axe there, and she wished to use it.
"No." Athelstan's mouth twisted into a bitter smile. "No, they aren't. It never comes to that. Soulmates want to be together. Why would they ever choose otherwise?"
"Well." She sighed, and some of the tension drained out of her. She gave him a searching look, her lips pursed thoughtfully. "Do you want to be here, Athelstan?"
Fear stole his voice. He looked down at his hands and didn't answer her. Either answer he might give felt wrong.
"Well," she said again. She braced a hand on Athelstan's shoulder and got to her feet, then reached the hand out to help him to his. "There's time enough to figure that out. When you know what you want, you will tell us, yes? And if you want to stay, we will have you." She smiled a little bit, as though to herself. "Of course we will have you. And if you want to go--" Athelstan didn't miss the way her fingers spasmed briefly around his hand as she said it, or the way her throat jumped or her gaze turned distant and stricken. But her voice remained steady when she continued, "If you want to go, then we'll take you ourselves, on the next raid."
It seemed a great gift that they'd given to Athelstan, and an equally tremendous burden. Choice. He almost laughed, but he held it back, because he was sure that if he'd let it out, it would have only sounded hysterical and half-mad. When was the last time he'd had the luxury of choosing anything for himself? He couldn't remember. Life in Lindisfarne had not been about choice but about devotion and service.
And before that, still, there had not been much room for choice in his life, there had been only the empty hole inside his chest and the search for where it meant to lead him. That hadn't been a matter of choice, either, but of... fate, he supposed, and had to press the heel of his hand against his mouth to stifle his bitter laughter. He'd scoffed when Lagertha and Ragnar had said that everyone's lives were fated, that the gods had no hand in what happened to you beyond that. But it was truer than he'd thought. Soulmates weren't choice, they were destiny. And when he'd resigned himself to the fact that he didn't have one, even then it hadn't been a choice to join the monastery. It had simply been what was expected of one in his position.
He couldn't remember the last time anyone had bothered to ask him what he wanted of his life. He almost wished Lagertha hadn't, either. It was terrifying. There was a comfort in having that dictated for you, in having a path to follow. Now, he was lost in the woods with no path at all, and the freedom to blaze his own trail meant he might find his way to some new and wondrous place -- or he might find his way to a cliff's edge or a wolf's den instead, and there would be no meaning to it at all, no purpose or will of a distant god behind it. It would just be a mistake.
God did not make mistakes, but men could, and did, and sometimes they were big ones. Athelstan found no comfort in that at all.
Ragnar clapped him on the shoulder as he rose to his feet, as well, and they guided him down the path back towards home. "Think on it, if you must," he said. "The summer's not yet over, and there's still time for a few more raids. And if you still haven't decided by the time winter comes and the weather turns foul..." He gave a loose, careless shrug. "Well, summer will come again, in time." He looked back over his shoulder at Athelstan as he started down the path. "You are not a slave, priest," he said firmly, with weight behind his words. "You are here because we care for you. That means we want your happiness, wherever you may find it."
Athelstan kept his eyes fixed on the ground beneath his feet, the steep, treacherous steps. "Even if what I want is to return to England?" he asked quietly, carefully. "Even if I don't know what I want until you are old and grey?"
He watched from the corners of his vision, and he saw Ragnar startle, saw him recognize the words that he himself had spoken, that night before they'd left on their raid. Surprise went through him, and then chagrin, and then his grin flashed. "Yes. Even then."
He hadn't wanted to wait, before. Athelstan understood the conversation he'd overheard better now. He had chafed at waiting, and that had been weeks ago. "What changed?" he asked quietly.
Ragnar was quiet a moment. He reached out to ruffle Athelstan's hair, and laughed when Athelstan ducked his head and scowled. "We had a few weeks to remember what it was like to live without you." His smile faded slowly, left him looking somber and sincere. "I dislike patience," he said, "but it's not so bad as the alternative."
It took Athelstan until they were nearly back at the house to realize that the alternative Ragnar talked about wasn't losing him, it was pushing him, forcing him.
It took him a little longer to realize how much easier things were. There had been much to do while Lagertha and Ragnar had been gone, a seemingly unending list of chores and, more often than not, only him to do them. The children had their own responsibilities, and sometimes Gyda would help Athelstan with his in the evenings, when she'd already seen to her own. But sometimes there wasn't time, or she was tired or in a poor mood, and it seemed unfair to Athelstan to ask her to make up for his lack.
Bjorn only helped when he'd lost patience with watching Athelstan struggle with something, and then did it only so that he could smirk at Athelstan and bask in his superiority.
And before that, before they had gone and left Athelstan to manage mostly by himself-- what Athelstan remembered of that time was that it, too, had been difficult. He had still been learning, still trying to catch up on everything that needed to be done around the home and the farm, and learning how it needed to be done. He had crawled beneath his furs every night exhausted in mind as well as body, and when the cockerel had woken him in the morning he had groaned and wondered how it was possible for a night to pass so fast.
Now, though. Now he was used to the tasks, and he no longer struggled to recall how to do them. His body was stronger, adjusting itself to meet the demands of the work he required of it. And with Ragnar and Lagertha returned, now there were three to share the burden of work, instead of just one. Life wasn't easy, by any stretch of the imagination, but he felt as though he had stopped stumbling and had finally caught his stride.
There was more time in the evenings now, too, with the load shared between the three of them. More opportunity to stretch out around the fire and trade stories, or to walk into Kattegat to trade for goods they might need or just to visit with their friends. They spent more than one evening at Floki's. Lagertha, Athelstan, and Gyda stayed inside and helped Helga cook, generally, while Ragnar and Bjorn and Floki went out to look at the latest boat he was building. Helga taught him how to salt fish to preserve it and -- more importantly, to Athelstan's mind -- the best ways to then prepare it, to keep the salt from overpowering the flavor. She showed him, too, how she had taken his white wool yarn and used madder to dye it crimson and was now working it in stripes into the fabric on her loom.
Sometimes in the evening, when she seemed keen on it, Athelstan asked Gyda to continue the knife and shield lessons that she had begun in her parents' absence. Bjorn could always be counted on to roll his eyes and complain about Athelstan's mistakes or how he lacked the physical strength to make that blow the way it ought to be done, or how proper men learned how to block like that when they were still only tall enough to reach their father's knee.
It was easy to put Bjorn's complaints out of his mind when Ragnar and Lagertha were there, sitting back and watching the lessons with little twin smiles on their faces. Sometimes, they would call out advice or reminders to Athelstan to correct his form. Ragnar liked to encourage Gyda to fight harder, to put more of her skill and her strength into it when she grappled with Athelstan, though Athelstan was already scarcely managing to hold his own even at the best of times. And sometimes, very rarely, when Athelstan executed a block very well or made a strike at Gyda that took her by surprise, Lagertha and Ragnar would whoop and clap and call out praise, and Athelstan would have to stop and duck his head toward the fire and scrub his hands over his cheeks until the pleased flush had faded from them.
They didn't ask him again about leaving, or staying. They made no more mention of soulmates, but that didn't mean it had slipped Athelstan's mind. When they weren't working or visiting or trading stories of gods and men around the fire, he often found his thoughts straying and his fingers seeking out the comforting weight of the cross beneath his clothes.
The first time Lagertha caught him like that, his attention unfocused and his supper cooling in his bowl as he fingered his cross and mouthed a silent, unthinking prayer, he'd jumped and hastily tried to shove it back under his shirt. She'd stilled him with a touch on the wrist, though, and bent down to him to murmur, "Pray, priest, if it will help you know your own mind. There's no shame in it. Your god is not unwelcome here." And that had been the end of it.
When the nights began to cool and the family's extra furs pulled out and left by the bedsides in case they were needed, Ragnar gave Athelstan a long, searching look, and then came to sit next to him before the fire.
"The weather is fair, but there will be squalls soon," he said lightly, easily, like it was of no consequence. "Lagertha and I, we thought we might go on one more raid to get the restlessness out of our bones before we must settle in for winter." He slanted a sideways glance at Athelstan. His expression was sly, assessing, but his voice stayed as light as ever as he stretched back, kicked his feet toward the fire, and asked, "Will you join us, priest?"
Athelstan stared at the flames. His heart pounded in his chest as though he'd been running, though he'd hardly moved in hours. He swallowed down the stone of nothing that choked his throat and matched his tone to Ragnar's when he said, "I'd better not. You're raising Bjorn into a fine warrior, but he lacks the strength and stature to take on a grown man who means your family harm. The children will need someone to stay and look after them while you're gone."
It was a feeble protest. They'd made it plain enough that one of them would have been willing to stay while the other sailed Athelstan back to England, if that was what he wished. But the excuse wasn't really the point, after all. Ragnar sat up and leaned forward, giving Athelstan a long, searching look.
Athelstan wasn't sure what Ragnar was looking for, or how to give it to him. But Ragnar must have found it on his own, because after a moment, he gave a single nod and settled back again, arms crossed behind his head. "Good," he said. "Then tomorrow I will teach you what you will need to know about the wheat."
What Athelstan needed to know, it turned out, was how to know when the crops were near ready by their golden color and the way their heads drooped down as though in prayer. Ragnar showed Athelstan how to test the ripeness by pulling off a grain and biting it.
"It's soft," Athelstan said, startled, and Ragnar gave a pleased nod.
"Wait until it cracks like a seed between your teeth," he said. "If you harvest too soon, it will rot, and we'll all have a very difficult winter."
"I won't," Athelstan promised solemnly, and Ragnar grinned and clapped him on the back.
"I know it, priest. You have our faith."
Three days later, they were all in Kattegat. Athelstan stood on the dock with the rest of the friends and families and lovers of those in the ship as they waved them on their way and wished them a safe voyage and a successful raid. He stood there with the children, watching the ship unfurl its sail and glide away, and he didn't leave until it had turned into a speck, and then vanished around a bend in the fjord.
Bjorn huffed and pulled his shoulder out from beneath Athelstan's hand as soon as they were out of sight. "I'm going to Floki's," he muttered.
"No." Athelstan caught him by the back of his shirt and pulled him along with them, off the dock and into the village, away from the path that led to Floki and Helga. "We're going to see Egill to get a new quern, and you're going to help us carry it home."
Bjorn squawked a protest and twisted out of Athelstan's grip with a glower, but settled into stride two paces behind them and did as he was told until they were home, at which point he declared that he was going to go milk the goat and stomped off for a sulk.
Athelstan exchanged a smile with Gyda and let him go. These would be long weeks indeed if he didn't learn to save his battles with Bjorn for when they truly mattered.
It was hard, grueling work that the past months working on the farm had only partially prepared Athelstan for. Once again, he found himself crawling under his furs every night with his body bruised and aching, morning a promise that would come too soon. They could have done it faster and easier if Ragnar and Lagertha had been there, he was sure, but they managed it well enough just the three of them. Two days after they'd finished, the temperature dropped and a storm tore in off the water, sending down sheets of rain that kept them all huddled inside around the fire. Athelstan pulled the furs from his bed around his shoulders and listened to the sound of the rain on the roof and was desperately grateful that they'd got all the wheat harvested and stored away safely. He didn't know what he would have done, if he'd had to welcome Ragnar and Lagertha home with news that he'd let their crop be destroyed.
The storm must have blown the ship home, too, because the next morning as they ventured out to find the world wet and dripping, Bjorn gave a sudden cry of, "Father!" and went dashing off down the road before Athelstan could stop him. They were just a distant smudge coming over the farthest hill, indistinguishable from anyone else who may have been coming to pay them a visit. But a stirring beneath his breast told Athelstan that Bjorn was right, that they were home.
He walked out to meet them, at a more sensible pace than Bjorn. The road was a muddy mess from the rains, slick and sucking. Athelstan shook it off his boots as best he could and forged ahead.
They reached each other just beyond the bounds of their lands. Ragnar stopped with Bjorn tucked under one arm and gave Athelstan a blatant head-to-toe appraisal, then grinned broadly. "You look a mess, priest."
"I do?" Athelstan gave a sharp laugh and looked him over right back. "You both look like you've drowned."
"Might as well have, the past two days," Lagertha said with a grunt and pulled at her sodden shirt. "You're between us and our fire, priest. That's a dangerous place to stand."
Athelstan grinned and turned to walk with them back to the house.
They stripped out of their wet garments the moment they stepped inside the house, leaving both of them in only trousers and thin shirts, and dropped down beside the fire with appreciative sighs. Athelstan dredged up the breakfast leftovers that they'd already set aside but that hadn't yet grown too cold, and dished up bowls for each of them.
Lagertha accepted hers with a smile of weary thanks. Ragnar, instead of allowing Athelstan to bring the bowl to him, shifted around the fire until he sat at Athelstan's side, pressed together at thigh and hip and shoulder. Athelstan faltered and nearly dropped the bowl to the hearth, but Ragnar rescued it, and started shoveling food into his mouth as though he hadn't eaten in the entire time he'd been gone.
Athelstan watched him sidelong, abruptly wary and on-edge, but Ragnar seemed much more interested in his breakfast than in the points of contact between them. Athelstan let out a slow breath, and most of his tension with it. It was no different than a hound leaning into his master's hand, seeking the comfort of touch, he told himself. Ragnar looked exhausted, and bore more than a passing resemblance to a drowned rat. He slumped forward as he ate, his back an exaggerated curve, and dug his elbows on his thighs as though he'd list over without them bracing him.
The children climbed all over both of them, either unaware of or unconcerned by their parents' weariness. They demanded stories of the sailing, of the raid. Bjorn wanted to know if either of them had any new scars, and how many men they'd killed. Gyda asked more thoughtful questions, like what weapons the English had used and how they'd fought with them, but neither of them allowed their parents more than a hurried bite of oats between one question and the next. When Athelstan tried to usher them off to take care of their chores and give their parents a moment's peace, Lagertha only smiled indulgently and murmured, "No, let them stay. We've missed you all."
And so they stayed, and talked and laughed with one another even though it was the middle of the day and there was work to be done. Eventually, Lagertha and Ragnar fell asleep there in front of the fire, and when they did, Athelstan quietly herded the children outside to see to their chores, and allow their parents the chance to rest.
When they returned for supper, Ragnar and Lagertha were up again, and changed into dry clothes, and they'd washed the salt out of their hair and off their skin. "You look better," Athelstan murmured as he settled down to get the stew cooking. They looked rested, and that in itself was a dramatic improvement.
Lagertha smiled and leaned in against Ragnar's shoulder. "We are happy to be home."
After supper, they tucked Gyda and Bjorn into bed, and spent a few minutes lying with them, whispering amongst themselves. Athelstan kept himself busy setting the stew aside for later, and spreading the fire's embers out so they could bank them sooner.
A heavy hand landed on his shoulder and squeezed. Athelstan leaned back, tilting his head up to see Ragnar standing over him. He lowered himself down next to Athelstan as Lagertha settled down easily on Athelstan's other side. Rather than lowering himself all the way, though, he stayed kneeling, and matched the hand on Athelstan's shoulder with a broad one spread across the side of his face. Athelstan froze, his breath knotting in his throat as Ragnar bent and pressed their brows together. "Gods, I missed you," he breathed, and swept his thumb over Athelstan's cheek.
"Stop that." Lagertha leaned past Athelstan to shove at her husband's shoulder. "Leave him be. We said we wouldn't push."
Ragnar groaned and drew back a little, putting enough space between them that Athelstan could breathe, but he kept his hands where they were, squeezing Athelstan's shoulder and bracketing his face. His eyes were blue as the sea, and they held Athelstan pinned when he looked him straight in the eye. "Can I?" he asked. The request sounded absurd coming from the lips of a man who made his fortune fighting and raiding and claiming anything that pleased him well enough for his own.
"I-- I don't--" Athelstan shook his head desperately, trying to clear the wool from it so he could think. "I don't know--"
"Athelstan," Lagertha said, reproof in her voice. "Surely you know what we want. You are not that innocent."
Athelstan shot her a scowl. "I know what he's asking for," he snapped. "I don't know what I want." He looked up at Ragnar, strong and imposing above him, and that space inside of him that had hurt since the moment Ragnar had dragged him out from behind the chapel altar, now it twisted tight and left him reeling, gasping for air. "Yes," he said, dizzy with it. He grabbed onto the broad strength of Ragnar's arms to keep himself upright. "Yes, I--"
He didn't get to finish what he meant to say. Ragnar's hands tightened, pulling him in. He bent to meet Athelstan, and the first rough slide of his lips sent all Athelstan's words scattering out like dust on the wind. Ragnar's mouth was soft, a dizzying contrast to the scrape of his beard against Athelstan's lips, but his kiss was fierce, it was a viking's kiss, a raider's kiss. He opened Athelstan's mouth and swept in to claim the pleasure that he wanted. His hands kneaded Athelstan's shoulders, soothing him even as they pulled him in for more.
Athelstan broke away with a cry and hunched over, a hand pressed to his mouth and his lungs heaving. Ragnar's kiss had ignited a tingling in his lips that now curled all through him, lighting him up from the inside. It felt like a conflagration, and if Ragnar had touched him for even a moment longer, he was certain that he would have ignited from it, and there would be nothing left.
"Athelstan?" The light weight of Lagertha's hand on his other shoulder made him twitch, though it carried with it nothing but concern. "Are you all right?"
"Yes," he murmured, dazed. "I'm sorry, I-- I think I need a moment."
They gave him that, and more. And when he had mastered himself enough that he no longer felt as though he might fly apart at a moment's notice, he straightened, and pulled his hand away from his mouth, and forced himself to pretend his lips weren't still burning from Ragnar's kiss. "I'm sorry," he said again, somewhat steadier.
Ragnar had sat back on his heels while Lagertha stayed close, her concerned gaze searching his face. Ragnar was smirking, obviously pleased with himself and Athelstan's response.
"What do you have to apologize for?" Lagertha asked, her hand stroking between his shoulder blades. Her touch was soothing, steadying. "It is good you're overcome. It means he's doing it properly."
Athelstan gave a breath of laughter and shook his head. "Not for that." He scrubbed the heel of his hand over his mouth, trying to work away the memory of Ragnar's lips on his before it stamped itself in his blood. "When you asked if I wanted to stay, or return to England..."
She withdrew. She didn't move physically, and her hand stayed where she'd placed it between his shoulders, but he could see it in her eyes, the walls rising up, the distance growing because distance meant safety. "You changed your mind so soon?"
"No! No, I-- I did not." He stared down at his hands, opening and closing helplessly on his knees, grasping nothing but air. "I want to be here. But you said that being soulmates was not necessarily followed by being… intimate. And if I implied, in asking for one, that I consented to the other, then I'm afraid I have misled you both."
"Athelstan." Ragnar took his head between his hands and tipped Athelstan's face up to his. "You did not imply, and we would not assume." He leaned in and Athelstan tensed, fearing that Ragnar would kiss him again, and that if he did, Athelstan would never be able to tear away from him. But Ragnar only pressed a firm kiss to the center of his brow. "You know where our desires lie. Anything you want from us is yours to have." His thumbs swept over Athelstan's cheekbones. "Anything you do not want, we will not take."
"If all you ever want is to share our home," Lagertha said from close behind Athelstan, sliding in to lean against his shoulder, her voice a murmur just beside his ear, "then we will count ourselves lucky to have had you."
"I don't know," Athelstan said miserably, shaking his head. "I don't know."
"It's all right." She shushed him as though he were a child, and stroked her hand over his hair. "There's no rush. We gave you time before. Did you think we wouldn't give you the same now?"
He turned into her, craving her comfort. She held him close, rubbing his back and stroking his cheek as he shuddered within the circle of her arms. Ragnar joined them, leaning in against his back, a solid weight that stabilized him, helped him feel grounded and steady. Surrounded by his strength and her comfort, he was able to draw air into his lungs without it shuddering right back out again.
"Thank you," he whispered, like a prayer, but this time it wasn't meant for God. It was meant for them.
Winter brought with it whole new sets of chores, and new things to be learned and remembered, like the need to draw water from the well every day, or else the crust of ice that formed on its surface would grow too thick to break through.
Athelstan learned fast, though, as he had promised them all those months ago that he would. He adapted quickly, and fell into the rhythms of winter as easily as he had summer. But though the work was no harder than it had been before the snow came, and even the bitter cold of the north they were able to fend off well enough with fires and furs, he found winter eminently more difficult than summer. While the landscape had changed around them, he had transformed too, and though the changes weren't obvious, they were extraordinary. He could feel it now, that bond that they had told him was there, that everyone else in the world knew, at one point or another, but he himself had despaired of ever experiencing. He knew what it was to have a wound he'd always carried with him begin to heal and knit itself closed, to be whole and happy and no longer searching the horizon for some distant force to bring him completion.
It was more than that, though. It wasn't just the bond that was new, but the things it had brought to fill that place in his chest that had been empty for so long were strange and terrifying and exciting. He knew what it was to want, to hunger, to look at another and want nothing in the world so much as to close the distance between them. He'd never known temptation like this before, not in all his years at Lindisfarne, nor in his travels spreading the Word of God before that. The world grew cold and pale beneath winter's mantle, but he himself felt as though he had been set alight, reborn into someone new, with urges he didn't quite comprehend.
The evenings were longer now, the nights darker. They spent more time sitting around the fire, basking in its warmth and trading stories. Athelstan liked to hear about the Norse gods and legends, and they were happy to have an audience who hadn't heard it all a hundred times before, though Bjorn still rolled his eyes and remarked on Athelstan's ignorance with predictable regularity. And in exchange, they demanded stories from him in turn, and listened with bated breath and eager expressions when Athelstan told them about Samson and Delilah, or how Esther saved her people.
And when the night grew later and the children were asleep under their furs, then Athelstan, Ragnar, and Lagertha lingered around the fire and continued to talk quietly, though as the winter grew deeper, their conversations turned with greater frequency to more personal subjects. One night, Lagertha told Athelstan in a sleepy murmur about how she and Ragnar had met on opposite sides of a field of battle, both of them young and fighting for men they didn't truly believe in, and when they'd caught each other's eye and felt the bond connect, they'd both sheathed their blades and left together.
"And now we only fight for ourselves and each other," she said, more than half asleep.
"And Athelstan," Ragnar said, casting him a look across the fire from beneath a hooded gaze.
"Yes." Lagertha stretched her arm out so her fingers brushed Athelstan's thigh, and sighed and sank deeper toward sleep. "And you." And Athelstan's chest burned so hot he didn't know how he was supposed to bear it.
Those simple, fleeting touches were another change that winter had brought to them. They touched him all the time now, not caresses, not meant to tempt or persuade. Just the easy brush of skin on skin, a hand trailed across the nape of Athelstan's neck as Lagertha walked by, the brush of Ragnar's thumb across his cheekbone as he said something to Athelstan, without even a hitch in the tale. The first time, it had taken him by surprise. He had been scrubbing clothes in a bucket of water warmed by the fire, because the nearby stream had grown too cold to do it there without losing a finger or two to frostbite. He'd had his sleeves pushed up past his elbows to keep them dry, and Lagertha had been sweeping dust out of the house. She'd slid past him, twisting sideways to squeeze through the narrow space, and as she did so, she'd dropped a hand down and trailed it along his arm.
Just that -- no more. It had been a casual touch, just a wordless form of greeting and acknowledgment as they both went about their own tasks. But it had gone through Athelstan like a bolt of lightning and he froze with his hands plunged elbow-deep in the wash water, twisted around to stare at her. He was sure his eyes must have been as big as serving plates, because when she'd glanced back to smile at him, her smile froze half-formed and then vanished like smoke. It left her frowning and concerned, and she'd left the broom leaning up against the wall and come back to him, crouching down on the opposite side of the wash basin and very carefully not touching him. "Athelstan," she said. "I'm sorry, I should have asked. Was that all right?"
"I—" He gave a disbelieving laugh and shook his head. His skin still tingled where she'd touched him, the electricity still shivering just beneath the surface. "Yes. It was all right. It only startled me, is all."
She'd smiled then, relief evident as it washed across her face, and leaned in to press a kiss against his brow. "Good," she said, and from then on, hardly an hour seemed to pass when one or the other of them wasn't seeking out an excuse to touch him in some light, innocent, thoroughly maddening way.
It took him another week before he could bring himself to reciprocate. A week of their hands brushing against his skin, reminding him that they were there, before he saw Lagertha bent forward kneading the dough that would be their bread for the week, her hands sticky with it and a lock of hair escaped from her braids to fall across her cheek, and the urge to reach out and tuck it back, for once, was stronger than the reticence.
She lifted her gaze to his and smiled when his fingers brushed her cheek, and when he'd tucked the hair away behind her ear, she turned her head and kissed the pads of his fingers.
His breath caught and something in that new, unfamiliar place inside of him caught and tugged like a fishhook sunk straight into his chest. This was a mistake, he thought in a moment of wild panic. She would think it a proposition for more than he meant it, and push too far, farther than he could bring himself to go…
She didn't, though. She brushed the kiss over his fingers and then she leaned her weight into the dough again, and that was the end of it. Athelstan spent the rest of the day with a restless energy burning through him, wanting to brave another touch but fearful it would be taken wrong or seen as an invitation for more. Still, the next time, when it was Ragnar stretched out on his back before the fire, the line of his throat strong and solid and calling to him, it was easier to reach, and bridge that space, and touch. And it was easier still when he saw the way his touches delighted them, the way they leaned into them for the briefest moments, and smiled at him afterward, as though he'd given them a glimpse of the sun.
The weeks passed and winter grew darker and colder around them. Soon, the furs began to pile high upon their beds to keep the chill at bay. Still, sometimes Athelstan lay beneath his own pile of them, cocooned away from winter's bite, and he still felt a shiver steal through him. He lay awake as the rest of the household settled into sleep around him, staring up at the dark pattern of the roof overhead, and if he was tired enough and his will weak enough, he wondered what it would be like to have another body, or two other bodies, curled up beneath them with him and sharing their warmth. Ragnar had Lagertha, and Bjorn and Gyda shared blankets and a bed as well, but Athelstan was keenly aware on these cold and lonely nights of just how empty his own bed was.
It happened on one unremarkable day, when they were all crowded close around the fire jostling for their midday meal after a few frigid hours spent outside, replacing a piece of thatching on the roof that had worn thin and started letting snowmelt drip into the house. Everyone was stripping off mittens and boots and stretching half-frozen hands and feet toward the fire to thaw, while Lagertha spooned out big, steaming bowls of stew for each of them. She handed a bowl to Athelstan, said, "Here, priest, pass that along and you'll have yours next," and Athelstan froze without any warning at all, staring at her, stricken.
She caught his eye, caught something on his face that gave it away. It made her still, her hands falling motionless into her lap, made her lean in and ask in sudden sharp tones, "Athelstan? What is it? What's wrong?"
He stared down hard at his lap. "I think perhaps you'd better stop calling me that," he said.
Her brows knit together into an expression of confusion. "You dislike it?"
"It's not that." He toyed with the hem of his tunic. The stitching had started to come unraveled in one spot. It would need to be mended. "It hardly seems to fit anymore. I have not been having very priestly thoughts, of late."
Her brows shot up, hope starting to shine across her face before she buried it beneath caution. Ragnar, for his part, grinned like a wolf, full of hunger and teeth. "Is that so?" He murmured in a voice that surely belonged to the Devil himself.
Lagertha hit him in the arm and shot him a quelling look before she glanced sidelong at Athelstan, wary, as though Athelstan was the predator here, and she not just as much a wolf as her husband. "Have you decided, then?" she asked in a murmur, more hesitant and uncertain than Athelstan had ever seen her. Than he'd have believe she was capable of, truth be told.
He realized with a flash of understanding that it was for him, that she was restraining her reaction, the hope that had turned her face as bright as a star for one brief instant. Because they'd promised not to push if he wasn't willing and he hasn't said he was yet.
He loved her a little bit for that. And Ragnar, too, for making this easier. For asking, so Athelstan didn't have to try to bring himself to say it. Even this was difficult enough, but he reminded himself that his was not the coward's way. And so he lifted his chin and met both their gazes before he said, in a voice that only shook a little, "Maybe. I think so, yes."
That was as far as his courage held, though. When hope and happiness flared to life again on Lagertha's face, and Ragnar's eyes burned a fiery blue as his wolfish grin turned to something warm and real and pleased, Athelstan had to look away, ducking his head to hide the smile that pulled at the corners of his mouth.
Lagertha came and put her hands on his shoulders, leaned in and kissed him lightly. "Tonight, then," she said with a private smile, and went back to serving up their meal.
Night came on fast and the children went to bed early in this northern winter, but even so, it was still not fast enough or soon enough for Athelstan, that day. They all went about their usual chores, but the air now seemed filled with a palpable electricity. He could feel it crackling between them all, like the still, fraught moment that came just before lightning broke across the sky.
The touches they exchanged, that had always been so casual and easy, now seemed anything but. Every time Ragnar or Lagertha's fingers brushed over his skin, a shiver went through him that sent ripples out through his whole body and left him breathless.
He didn't know how it was possible to want something and fear it all at once, but his skin hummed beneath their touches, his stomach clenched and roiled. Ragnar shot him a glance as they were eating their super about the fire, eyeing Athelstan as he pushed the stew about his bowl and considered the likelihood that, if he ate anything, it would actually manage to stay down.
"Eat up, priest." His grin was warm and full of promises. He rocked his shoulder against Athelstan's. "You're going to need your strength."
Heat burned across Athelstan's cheeks, and he was sure they colored with it. He bent his head over his bowl and prodded at it more desperately. "You really shouldn't call me that tonight," he said with a broken laugh.
Ragnar's brows lifted, an intrigued quirk. He leaned in until his lips were a hair's breadth from Athelstan's ear, his breath grazing it with every soft exhale. "Athelstan," he murmured, low and full of pleasure. Ragnar spoke his name as though he were savoring it, as though it was delicious.
Athelstan kept his gaze fixed firmly on the bowl in his hands, but he couldn't stop the full-body shudder that ran through him. He couldn't help but lean in against Ragnar, either, pressing their shoulders together, delightfully warm.
He managed a few bites of stew, mostly for the way it made them smile at him, pleased, but he didn't dare try any more. When Ragnar and Lagertha sent the children off to bed, finally, Athelstan busied himself cleaning up after the meal. His hands were unsteady, trembling, but he hoped the vigorous work of scrubbing the bowls out would hide it.
They returned momentarily, and guided him away from the bucket of wash water with gentle hands on his arms. "That will wait," Lagertha murmured. And they led him, together, across the room to the pile of furs that they shared with each other. And now, with him.
The thought made him sit down abruptly on the bed's edge. Ragnar knelt beside him, and Lagertha sank down next to him on the bed. Ragnar's hand on his knee felt like a brazier. Lagertha's gentle touch on his shoulder should have been grounding, steadying, but instead it just made him feel even more like he was going to come out of his skin. He should have done something, he knew. He should have touched him back, as he'd been wanting to do all evening.
They were both watching him, and it made the nerves crawl even more desperately through his stomach. They were waiting for him. They wouldn't do this without his say-so, but he couldn't make himself form words.
Ragnar drew his attention with a sweep of his thumb against the inside of Athelstan's knee. "If you're not sure after all, there's no shame in it," he said.
Athelstan shook his head quickly, before Ragnar had even finished speaking. "No. I'm sure." His hands closed into fists on the air. "I'm tired of taking the coward's way out."
Lagertha frowned, her brow furrowing and the corners of her mouth turning down. "Athelstan," she said, and he shivered again. "This isn't a matter of bravery or cowardice, only desire."
"I know what I want," he said savagely. "But-- I am afraid of it."
"What is to fear?" Lagertha asked. She sounded honestly bewildered. "You don't think we'd hurt you, do you? Or that we'd displease you?"
Athelstan choked on a burst of shocked laughter. "No! God. No, it isn't that."
"Ah." Ragnar sat back on his heels, his expression easing, as though Athelstan had somehow relieved all his worries with that one answer. "It is not us you fear. It is your god."
Athelstan swallowed down the lump that had suddenly formed in his throat. He nodded mutely.
Ragnar leaned forward and caught Athelstan's face between his hands. He held him there, pinned by his hands and the intensity of his gaze. "Your god says priests must not do these things. And yet you would have us no longer call you priest."
"I still took vows," Athelstan whispered. "They still mean something."
Ragnar looked like he didn't agree. Athelstan thought he would protest, and he didn't know if he could go through with this if he had to first argue with Ragnar about the importance of his vows and the truth in the Word of God. But all Ragnar did was look thoughtful for a moment, and then he smiled a slow grin that warmed Athelstan even better than the fire. "We shall not make you an oathbreaker, then. You cannot bed a woman, and you cannot lie with a man as you would with a woman — well. That still leaves much that we can do." He leaned in and pressed his mouth to Athelstan's. Unlike their previous kiss, this time Ragnar was slow and patient. It started with just the press of his lips, his breath warm and tasting faintly of ale. Athelstan waited for him to take it deeper, but when he didn't, he leaned in a little and made a questioning sound in the back of his throat.
Ragnar grinned, then, lips curving, teeth pressing in sharp against Athelstan's mouth. He caught Athelstan's lower lip between his, drew it into his mouth and sucked on it, scraped it between his teeth until heat was shivering through Athelstan's stomach and he'd grabbed on to Ragnar's arms without even realizing he'd done so.
He felt dazed when they parted. Ragnar drew back just a little, and grinned up at him. His eyes were hooded, full of sinful promises. "If I fucked you," he said, low and thoroughly wicked, "that would not be much like lying with a woman at all." Athelstan stared at him, shocked speechless and aching with the images Ragnar's coarse words put in his head. Ragnar grazed his thumb across Athelstan's lip and watched him with eyes that shone, that burned. "Would you want that?"
"I-- Yes," Athelstan breathed, and listed forward.
"Would your god accept it?"
"Yes," he said, though he wasn't entirely certain it was the truth. He had come so far, the thought of turning back now was intolerable. And Ragnar and Lagertha were here and warm and close, and the promise of their love was more immediate than the threat of God's punishment.
Almost as soon as he'd said it, Lagertha climbed up onto the bed with him and positioned herself behind him, her chest pressing tight against his back, her knees splayed to either side of his hips. She wrapped an arm around his stomach and asked against his ear, "Is this all right?"
"Yes." He twisted, trying to see her over his shoulder. She put one hand on his cheek and guided him around and into a kiss.
Ragnar's kiss was greedy, fierce. He kissed like he would claim everything he wanted for his own, but Lagertha kissed like she already knew it was hers. He made a soft sound of wonder against her mouth and parted to the easy exploration of her tongue. When Ragnar pushed at them both, they crawled up the bed without separating. Athelstan only broke away when Ragnar pushed his tunic up to gather bunched beneath his arms and closed his mouth over Athelstan's nipple, and that was because he was left gasping by the sudden moist heat, the lave of Ragnar's tongue and the sharp edges of his teeth.
Lagertha wasted no time in pulling the tunic up over his head and off, and then he was half bare, Lagertha's hands and Ragnar's mouth coursing over his skin like they wanted to map it. Ragnar sucked at Athelstan's nipple until it grew hard, and then he flicked the tip of his tongue against it and laughed quietly when Athelstan gasped and writhed between them.
He slid his hands down to Athelstan's hips and unfastened his trousers, then pushed them down and off. A swift wave of self-consciousness surged through Athelstan, cooling some of the desire that heated his blood. But Ragnar held him with his hands curved tight around Athelstan's hips, and he stared at the rising evidence of Athelstan's desire as though it were all the gold and treasure in the whole of Northumbria. He stared at it like he wanted it, and Athelstan shivered and grew harder beneath his gaze.
Ragnar glanced up at him, briefly, before his gaze slid back down again. "Athelstan." His voice was abruptly hoarse. "You have never been with another, have you?"
"Of course not. I was meant for God, or my soulmate. No other."
He nodded once and ran his tongue over his lips. When he glanced up again, this time his gaze went past Athelstan's shoulder, to where Lagertha had her chin hooked over it, watching them both. "He won't last," he said to her. "Not the first time. We'll have to do something about that."
Athelstan couldn't see her expression, but she shivered against him, quick and excited, and her arm tightened around his middle an instant before she pulled away. "Yes." She caught Athelstan's shoulders and pulled him down to lie on his back in the middle of their bed. She looked down at him, her hair falling like a cascade over her shoulder. "Lie here," she murmured, one hand firm on his chest, keeping him down though he didn't try to rise. "And we will show you what manner of things might be done without angering your god." She and Ragnar exchanged a look. Ragnar tightened his hands on Athelstan's hips and pressed them down into the soft furs.
It was Lagertha who put her mouth on him first, hot and wet. She sealed her lips around the side of his shaft and dragged her tongue over his skin, and he forgot to be chagrined by their certainty that he wouldn't last long, because they were right.
She kissed up his cock to the head, nudged his foreskin back with her lips and swallowed him. Athelstan gasped and jerked beneath her, and it was only Ragnar's grip on his hips that kept him from choking her with it. Heat burned across his cheeks, desire and embarrassment twined so closely together that they couldn't be separated. But she just hummed around him like she was pleased, and then she sucked him in deeper and Athelstan understood why men would break their vows for this.
Ragnar's lips curved where he had them pressed against Athelstan's hip. He left a series of kisses up his stomach, then climbed up the bed and stretched out pressed against Athelstan's side. He draped one solid arm across Athelstan's chest and thumbed at his nipple as he he pressed his lips to Athelstan's ear and murmured, "She is good with her mouth, isn't she?"
The only response Athelstan could manage was a moan. He reached out blindly with one hand, found Ragnar's shirt beneath his fingertips and grabbed onto a fistful of it, dragging him close. He needed, and as Lagertha lapped and sucked at his cock as though it were a delicacy, it drew him even tighter, until he felt like a bowstring waiting to be loosed.
"Later," Ragnar said, low and maddening against his ear, "later, when you have found your stamina, she will do this to you to you until you cannot bear it any longer. Her mouth can make even a hardened warrior beg for mercy. She will make you sob, I think." His thumb pressed harder against Athelstan's nipple. "I will like to see it."
Athelstan didn't have the voice to tell him that he was already sobbing, or would have been if he'd had the breath to spare for it, if Lagertha's wicked mouth hadn't stolen it all straight from his lungs and left him gaping like a fish. He grabbed at the furs beneath him, wrenched at them as Lagertha swallowed him to the root and his toes curled.
Ragnar kept his thumb working over Athelstan's nipple, driving him on with a higher, sharper sort of need as he kissed behind Athelstan's ear, and down his throat, and across his shoulder. He sucked at Athelstan's skin and scraped his teeth over it, left it red and sensitive in his wake. And when he nosed Athelstan's arm up and bit at the side of his chest, Athelstan jerked, hissing air out through his teeth, and that was it. He was coming, his body jerking as he spent himself in Lagertha's mouth. Abruptly, he could breathe again, and he gulped in huge lungfuls of air while she licked him clean and then let his softening flesh slide carefully out of her mouth.
He turned into her when she climbed up to join them, wrapped his arms about her middle and pressed his face into her collar, overcome. She stroked his head and murmured softly against his hair, the same words of comfort that she used when Bjorn had a nightmare or Gyda was disgruntled over trouble she was having with her shield and weapon lessons. It was soothing, but this was no skinned knee, no quickly-forgotten dream that would vanish like the mist with the rising sun. This was a transformation, a revelation. And when Ragnar pressed in against him from behind, the two of them surrounding him, it felt as though the hole he'd carried with him all his life had finally, fully healed over.
"What do you want?" Lagertha asked him quietly. "Do you want him to fuck you now?"
Ragnar huffed at her over Athelstan's shoulder. "Do you need a moment?"
Athelstan nodded against her chest. The truth was, the trembling weakness that had overtaken him upon his completion had mostly resolved itself. He could breathe again, and almost easily. He had the strength once again to do more than lie in a boneless heap and marvel at the things that could be done to a body with only a clever mouth. But the need had faded down to a low hum of satisfaction, and that left only the nerves still twisting his stomach up into knots. It was true that what had mostly kept him from this was fear of God's judgment, but it had not, perhaps, been the whole truth. There were still nerves, and a terrible certainty that it might be better not to have at all, than to be disappointed, or disappointing.
Ragnar tucked his fingers beneath Athelstan's chin and turned his face to him. "You are still afraid," he said. There was no judgment in his voice, only honest assessment. "Not of your god. Of this."
Athelstan blew out a sharp breath. "It is not uncommon for men to fear what they don't know," he snapped, and only remembered at the wry lift of Ragnar's brow that he was speaking to the man who had led a handful of men and an untested ship out across the western sea with only his own faith that anything but water waited out there for them.
"We will have to get you familiar, then." Lagertha pushed them both back so that she could sit up. "Ragnar. Take your trousers off." She carded her hand through Athelstan's hair. "Or should we undress him, instead?"
"Yes," Athelstan said, because the presence of fear did not negate the presence of desire and he was determined to be brave, despite what Lagertha might have said about the bed being no place for thoughts of courage or cowardice.
"Good." She pulled him upright, too, and pushed Ragnar to the edge of the bed. "Stand up. This will be easier if you don't make him crouch over like a hunchback."
Ragnar pulled a face at her, but he climbed off all the same. Lagertha guided Athelstan off as well with light touches on his shoulders. She stood behind him and helped Ragnar wrestle his shirt off overhead while Athelstan settled his hands on Ragnar's hips and remembered how it had felt to have Ragnar's on his own. Bolstered by the thought of bringing that pleasure to Ragnar, he slid his hands around to Ragnar's stomach and unknotted the ties that kept his trousers up.
He helped to push the clothing down Ragnar's thighs, then knelt to help him pull his boots off and finish the job. Ragnar's hand settled on the crown of his head, a heavy weight, and Lagertha lowered herself to her knees behind him. She pressed in against his back, and Athelstan startled at the feel of bare skin against his own. He twisted and saw that she'd removed her clothes as well. It was a relief to no longer be the only one undressed, at least. But the warm weight of her breasts against his back made him jittery all anew.
"Look at him," she murmured, riding her hands low on Athelstan's waist. "Look how hard he is for you. For us."
Athelstan looked. Ragnar's cock jutted up, as proud as the man himself, and flushed red at the tip. As Athelstan watched, a bead of milky fluid gathered at its tip, then dripped down across the head of his cock. "I don't know what to do," he said urgently. "I don't know... how." He looked back at Lagertha. "Will you teach me?"
Her crooked smile was a thing of beauty. "Yes, of course. With your mouth? Or your hand?"
"Both," he said quickly. "Please."
"Greedy." Her smile sharpened to a grin. "I like it. Here." She took his hand in hers and curved it around the base of Ragnar's cock. "You won't be able to swallow him all, not yet. That will come with time. But you can use your hand to help. Like this." She slid her fingers into the spaces between his and showed him how to stroke Ragnar, how to twist his wrist in a way that made him groan and mutter something about how Lagertha was a wicked, delightful woman.
She guided Athelstan through it with her sure, steady instructions, a hand on his shoulder and another in his hair to urge him on or ease him back as she taught him to kiss Ragnar's cock, to let his lips skim over the swollen head and then to take Ragnar into his mouth and let his tongue explore. Athelstan did as she said, and was rewarded with the tortured groans and gasps that Ragnar let out, like Athelstan was ripping his world apart at the seams and then sewing it back together into something new and wholly unfamiliar.
The taste of bitter salt on his tongue was a surprise. He made a sharp sound and nearly drew back, but at the vibration of his voice Ragnar choked out a gasp and grabbed onto his hair, pulling Athelstan in until his lips grazed where his fingers were wrapped around the base of Ragnar's shaft, and Ragnar's cock filled his mouth.
Lagertha stilled him with a hand pressed flat on Ragnar's stomach. She guided Athelstan back and kissed him, her tongue lapping into his mouth as though to share in that taste. When she drew away, she looked impossibly smug, and left him with a final, chaste kiss upon his lips. "He's nearly there," she said. "You must stop, or this will be over before it's begun."
"You didn't stop with me," Athelstan said, his lips a crooked curve.
"You needed to come, to slow you down, or you'd have gone off before he'd buried half himself in you. Ragnar, though... " Lagertha kissed him again, and lingered a moment longer. "You could bring him to his release, if you wanted. But then you would have to wait until he'd recovered, if you wanted him to fuck you." Her hand slid over his hip, across his waist. She drew him back against her. "Do you still want that?"
"Yes. Please, yes." Athelstan fit his hands to the sharp angles of Ragnar's hips and pulled him down to kneel with them both, all of them on a level now. "Will you?" he asked, crawling forward to press them together from knees to shoulders. He mouthed at the solid stretch of muscle between Ragnar's shoulders and neck, and buried hands in his hair.
"Gods." Ragnar's laugh was breathless. "Yes. Of course I will."
"Good." Athelstan sat back, releasing him. "Show me what I need to do. Teach me."
Ragnar looked as though he could not possibly have been more pleased. It was Lagertha who drew Athelstan away, though, who led him the half a step back to the bed and pulled him down onto it.
She lay out on her back and pulled Athelstan over her, pushed and prodded at his hips and shoulders and legs until he was crouched on top of her, knees planted on either side of her thighs, his hands bracing himself in the furs beside her shoulders.
"Like this," she breathed, and arched beneath him so that her heat pressed in against him and the sounds of the world around him were lost beneath the rush of his blood. "Just like this."
"But, Ragnar--" Athelstan twisted to look for him, back over his shoulder.
Lagertha guided his attention back to her with a firm touch on the side of his neck. The corners of her eyes were crinkled with amusement. "Ragnar knows what to do." She pushed up on an elbow and kissed him. "We will teach you together."
Athelstan nodded and sank into her kiss. He curved one hand around the back of her neck and braced his thumb along the edge of her jaw. The expanse of her skin beneath him, pale and warm, went to his head faster than Norse ale. The touch of Ragnar's hand at his waist, sure and steadying, made him shiver and twitch against her.
She grinned against his mouth and worked a hand down between them. Hot fingers wrapped around his cock, stroked him with a slow pace that seemed designed to drive him out of his mind. "Do you know much about about fucking a woman?"
Athelstan blew out a sharp breath. "I wasn't born in the monastery. Boys talk. I know how it's done."
She nodded once in quiet approval, the same way she did when he or any of the children did something to her satisfaction. "Then you know that a woman's body readies itself to be joined." She took her hand off his cock, but it remained between them. He could feel it moving, her knuckles pushing against his groin. He twisted, looking down between them and watched her push her finger between her thighs, felt her shudder and gasp beneath him.
When she drew her hand out from between them, it was slick with her own moisture. She rubbed it across his lips and grinned. "Men, though. You need the work done for you."
Athelstan licked his lips and shuddered as the taste of her flooded his tongue. "Yes," he said, hoarse. "I know." It wasn't just women that the boys in his village had talked about lying with.
Ragnar's other hand touched the other side of his waist, holding him still. The solid length of his cock pressed against Athelstan, full of promise. "Are you ready?"
No. Of course he wasn't. How could he possibly be? Could the land be ready for the earthquake, or the mountain for the avalanche? "Yes," he said, and twisted to look over his shoulder because he couldn't not. Because he had to see.
Ragnar looked golden and fierce in the flickering light of the fire. He had a bowl beside the bed of something that glimmered with an oily shine, and Athelstan didn't have to guess what that was for. Melted tallow was what the boys at home had talked about, shavings stolen off of their family's candles and the mischievous hope that their mothers wouldn't notice the lack. Ragnar dipped his fingers into it, let the excess drip back into the bowl and then moved the hand out of Athelstan's line of sight.
It wasn't a surprise when Ragnar laid those slick, warm fingers at the base of his spine, but it was still a shock. Athelstan jolted, a broken sound forced from his throat. Lagertha traced the hand that wasn't buried between her thighs across his brows, whispering soothing reassurances again. He shook his head desperately, but couldn't manage the words to tell her that he didn't need to be soothed. He didn't want to be. He already felt twisted into a knot of need and desire, and what he wanted was more. He knew that Ragnar had laid his fingers on Athelstan's flesh a short ways away from where he meant to be, where the focus of all this was headed, and Athelstan could guess that Ragnar had done it for his sake, easing Athelstan into it like a skittish horse. But it was not gentling that he wanted, and though there was a pleasure to be had in the way Ragnar's fingers drew slick, warm circles around his tailbone, it wasn't the sort that would bring him any satisfaction, in the end.
"He's mad for you, husband," Lagertha said, watching him warmly. Her fingers flexed between them and made her gasp.
"I know." Ragnar's voice sounded as though he was biting it out between his teeth. "I am trying..." His fingers trailed down, across sensitive skin that prickled beneath his touch, until the pad of just one lay with a light pressure against Athelstan's entrance. Athelstan panted against the curve of Lagertha's throat and fought to keep still, to not drive himself back against Ragnar's touch.
Lagertha must have seen his struggle, or sensed it. She laid darting kisses on his mouth. "Shh, shh. Let him take his time. It will be better for it."
"I know." She grasped his cock and pulled at it with quick, firm strokes. Her fingers were slick from her juices and glided easily over his flesh. "But we promised we wouldn't hurt you."
She kept her hand moving on his cock, and slid the other down to take its place between her thighs. They shuddered and gasped together, and he could feel when she liked something particularly well in the way her fingers spasmed around him and her rhythm faltered.
And then, with Lagertha burning in his arms and gasping in his ear, Ragnar pushed his thumb against Athelstan's entrance and began to ease him open. The stretch of it made Athelstan stifle his cry against Lagertha's mouth and he shuddered above her. He meant to do as she'd said and let Ragnar take his time, no matter how wild it drove him, but his body moved of its own will, rocking back and pushing Ragnar deeper. He felt empty again, but it was nothing like the hollow ache he had carried with him since childhood. This was a ravenous maw, and it demanded to be fed, to be filled. It was a hunger unlike any Athelstan had known, not even the winter that the frosts had come early and killed the crop in the ground, and the animals had starved, and so much of the village had, too. He remembered that hunger, but even that hadn't threatened to consume him as this did now.
"Ragnar," he gasped. "Ragnar, please."
Ragnar smoothed a hand over the small of his back, but he remained merciless. He moved slowly, steadily, working one finger in to the knuckle and then twisting it there until Athelstan had relaxed enough that his movements were easy and Athelstan could almost catch his breath between each slide and withdrawal. And then he wet his fingers in the tallow again and returned with the blunt press of two at once, and Athelstan keened against Lagertha's shoulder.
She grabbed onto him hard, fingers spearing into his hair as she panted beneath him, her breath warm and damp on his throat. Her hand moved faster between them. The backs of her fingers grazing against his cock made him gasp and shudder. They had said he would last longer the second time around, but he was sure they were mistaken. He already felt like he'd come apart at a touch, and when Ragnar added a third finger and the stretch turned sharp and compelling, it was all he could do to lower himself onto Lagertha and grab at her and try to fight it back.
She curled her fingers in Athelstan's hair and used the grip to lift his head so she could look up at him, a soft smile warming her face. "Ragnar. Is he ready?"
"Please," Athelstan cried quietly. "Please, I am, I have to be."
Ragnar stilled within him. Lagertha wiped the sweat from his brow and looked up at him in concern. "To much?"
Athelstan shook his head wildly. How could they not understand, when he was right here burning in their arms? "Not enough."
Her gaze went over his shoulder. Her brows lifted.
"He's our soulmate," Ragnar said, on a wild laugh. "I suppose we shouldn't be surprised."
"What?" Athelstan demanded. They talked in partial conversations, as though half of it went unspoken. He didn't know what they meant, and he didn't know why they were wasting time on it when he was dying in their arms. They had done this to him, had brought him to this place of wanton need. It was the least they could do to see it through.
"Nothing, love," Lagertha said, and stroked his face. "Just a moment now. Keep your eyes open for me, Athelstan. I want to see it."
He didn't have to ask what. Ragnar pulled his fingers out carefully, leaving Athelstan empty and aching. He bit back his needy cries, and in a moment Ragnar was back, the heat of his skin and the scratch of his hairy thighs against the backs of Athelstan's legs. Ragnar grabbed onto his waist, his fingers biting deep, and a broad, blunt pressure pushed at his opening.
"Oh God," Athelstan breathed, eyes wide. His head dropped forward, hanging down between his shoulders, but Lagertha lifted it.
"No. Don't do that. Let me watch." Her gaze stayed steady and avid on his face as Ragnar's cock pushed into him. Athelstan could only guess what it was she saw, but whatever it was, it made her breath come faster, made her fingers move between her legs even quicker. "How does he feel, husband?"
Ragnar choked on a sound that might have been a laugh, but sounded more like a strangled gasp. "He burns as hot as you do," he said in tones of awe. "And he's tight as a fist."
"How does he feel?" Her words were for Ragnar, but her eyes held Athelstan's.
"Right," Ragnar forced out, and pushed deeper. "He feels right."
Right. That was exactly what this was. More than the pleasure, more than the hunger, what undid Athelstan more than anything was the sense of completion he felt pinned between these two frightening warriors. What did promises made long ago and far away matter, when these were the people he was made to be with? If that made him a blasphemer or an oathbreaker, then so be it. He would not pray for forgiveness, because there was no penitence in his heart.
He tried to tell him that he felt the same, he tried to tell them what it felt like to have Ragnar's girth stretching him wide, his flesh sliding through him and setting him alight. He only realized when Lagertha blinked rapidly at him and then grinned fiercely that he'd spoken in his own tongue. He grasped for the right Norse words to say what he meant, but the foreign language felt slippery as an eel, and Ragnar's shallow thrusts drove all ability to concentrate out of his mind.
Ragnar wrapped an arm around his chest and pressed in close against Athelstan's back. His voice was a rough growl against Athelstan's ear. "Yes, " he snarled. "Keep talking to us. Just like that. Athelstan, gods ."
"You will have to teach us, priest." Lagertha's voice came breathy and fast. Her hips pushed up against her fingers, against Athelstan's stomach, with a frantic rhythm. "You will teach us your language, so we can understand what it is you say when you're like this. I want to know what you're telling us. I want to know if it's filthy." Her voice caught on quiet, grunting breaths. She shook beneath him, hips stuttering, hand moving frantically before it finally stilled, and she let out a long, sated sigh.
A flush burned across Athelstan's face and down his throat, because it was. It was lewd and filthy and any of his brothers would have been shocked to hear him speak so, and he couldn't even feel shame when it delighted Ragnar and Lagertha so obviously.
"You will teach us." Ragnar's voice was a hungry rasp against Athelstan's ear. His hips slapped against Athelstan's, driving him deep. He spoke over Athelstan's choked cry. "And we will teach you, too. We'll teach you how to say these things in our tongue, so we can understand you." He sucked a bruise onto the side of Athelstan's throat, then scraped it with his teeth. "We'll teach you how to say what you want, and how you feel. We'll teach you by example, yes? You'll learn these things because we say them to you. How you feel around us." He mouthed at the knob of Athelstan's spine. "How you feel in us. How we want you." A new note of strain worked its way into his voice on those last words. He leaned his forehead between Athelstan's shoulders and worked into him like a man possessed. One hand slid around to press flat on Athelstan's stomach and pull him back against every thrust. "Gods. We've waited for you for so long."
The strength of Athelstan's arms and legs had long since given out. He lay limp on top of Lagertha, scarcely managing to keep his elbows beneath him so he didn't crush the breath out of her. She kissed him, swallowing his broken sounds, and between each kiss she whispered words that echoed Ragnar, about how much they wanted him, about all the things they were going to do to him. About how next time, she wanted to watch Ragnar fuck him, and then she wanted to watch him fuck Ragnar, and eventually -- "when you're not so shy," she said with a gasp and a breathless laugh -- they could fuck her both together, and Ragnar would teach him how to use his mouth to drive her wild.
She had her hand on him, fingers curved tight around his cock, and stroked him as she filled his head with her words. She grazed the heel of her hand against the head of his cock with every upstroke. And Ragnar's cock still filled him, still drove into him relentlessly, until all Athelstan could do was moan against Lagertha's skin and let them draw his climax out of him.
It came on him suddenly, and was no less surprising than the first time. The pleasure turned sharp, almost painful, and he gaped as a wordless cry tore itself from his throat and his body seized, hips jerking and bucking as as a white-hot fire burned through him and he spent himself in long ropes across Lagertha's hand and wrist and both their stomachs.
He slumped, boneless, and left it to Lagertha to shove him off of her if she couldn't breathe beneath his weight. She didn't seem to mind, though, only petted his hair and kissed the sides of his face and murmured praise into his skin. Ragnar was still moving in him, his hands grasping as his hips pumped desperately, and with each stroke he grunted against Athelstan's shoulder as though he might die from it. It was almost too much. Athelstan shuddered beneath his onslaught, his skin twitching, but he didn't want to tell him to stop. So he lay between them as Ragnar fucked him, a half dozen powerful thrusts before he closed his teeth on the curve of Athelstan's shoulder and muffled a long groan as his hips stuttered and then grew still, and they all three lay together, gasping and dazed.
When they'd caught their breath, there was the task of cleaning up to be seen to. Ragnar climbed off of him and Lagertha rolled him over onto his back to free herself of his weight, and Athelstan knew he should rise and help them with it. But his bones were still limp and loose, his mind still filled with a lazy drone that made it difficult to want to do anything but lie there and let his thoughts drift. He rubbed a hand over his breastbone absently, but there was no ache there any longer, no restless emptiness. There was just peace.
They both looked at him, lying sprawled there across their bed, and laughed quietly. "Don't move," they told him, as though they hadn't noticed that he couldn't, and they wet cloths in the water warming by the fire and then climbed back into bed with him and wiped him clean, and then each other.
If it hadn't twice already that night, Athelstan's interest might have stirred again at that, watching Ragnar's hands glide over Lagertha's skin, washing Athelstan's seed from her stomach and then rising up to cup and knead her breasts, purely for the pleasure of it. She turned and kissed him, and they led each other back to bed.
Athelstan ended up between them again, both of them stretched out on either side of him, the furs pulled up and arms and legs draped across him as though to keep him there. As though there were any chance at all he might wish to leave. As though he was theirs, and they meant to keep him.
Of course it had to end eventually, though. When the snows began to melt and the ice that had choked Kattegat's shore broke apart, Athelstan stood in front of the pier, watching Ragnar and Floki at its end discussing the damage that winter had wrought on their ship and the repairs that would need to be done. He glanced back in the midst of a heated debate and saw Athelstan standing there. He broke off, smiling, and came to join him.
"Well, priest?" Ragnar slung his arm around Athelstan's shoulders. They stood together, looking out at the water together, and the green of the fjord beyond it. "Will you be coming with us, when we sail this summer?" His words were carefully blithe, but Athelstan didn't miss the tension that ran beneath it. "Will you be going back to Northumbria?"
Athelstan turned his head to look at him. "Why would I do that?" he asked softly and reached out for Ragnar's hand. "This is my home."