Kattegat is a strange place to Athelstan in the early days, new and otherworldly, frightening and hellish and wondrous. The Northmen and their peculiar customs and violent ways scare him more than they intrigue him, but what scares him most of all is that his faith, which used to be a comforting blanket to warm and shield him, no longer seems to offer the protection he needs.
"Come and join us, priest," Lagertha says in a voice smooth as mead, and her skin gleams golden in the firelight. Athelstan has never seen a woman this uncovered before, knows it's a sin to let his eyes feast on the naked length of her leg, the bare shoulders, and yet finds himself unable to avert his eyes.
Ragnar scoots closer, so near that Athelstan can feel his hot breath against his cheek. It should be intimidating. It is. But try as he might, Athelstan can't find any malice in Ragnar's smile, only mischief. "Come on. Don't you want to?"
Athelstan's eyes flicker to Lagertha, then fixate on the scripture in his hand, avoiding the man crouching next to him. By all means Ragnar should pose less of a temptation than Lagertha. Athelstan isn't unfamiliar with the nude male form, but looking at his fellow brothers in Northumbria he never felt stirred the way he does when he looks at Ragnar.
He resists, shaking off temptation as the Lord expects him to. He knows neither Ragnar nor Lagertha understand why he turns them down, but they accept his explanation without pressuring him further. Part of him wishes they would; wishes they'd mistreat him the way he expected from uncultivated, vicious barbarians, that they wouldn't let him have a choice in his own fate and force him to service them any way they wish. It would be easier on his conscience, knowing that it's out of his hands. Instead, he lies awake huddled in a corner, listening to the two of them enjoy the pleasures of the flesh that are forbidden to him while he's clutching his Bible, muttering prayer after prayer.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, he whispers, and the guilt almost chokes him.
He waits for a sign from God to lead the way. Instead, there's stories about the Northmen's false gods, Odin and Freya and Loki, and they feel a little more palpable every time he hears about them, more present when the Lord and the savior Jesus Christ remain stubbornly silent and conspicuously absent.
Most notable of all, it's Ragnar's presence that's larger than life, all-consuming as no mortal man has any right to be. Foe, master, friend, ruler, brother, teacher, student. The lines are blurring.
Athelstan feels lost, unhinged without his faith to guide him. There's a sort of freedom in it too, a reckless force that scares and excites him in equal measure. All his life, he's always known who he was. Who he served, what his purpose was, the strength of his convictions. Now the past is wiped away, distant as the shores of Northumbria, and the future is a vast, uncertain land that lies ahead, frightening and promising at once.
Ragnar's teeth gleam in the sunlight. "Again," he says, and Athelstan groans. He feels like he's never going to master any weapon but his words, but Ragnar seems to think there's hope for him yet, and that's enough to strengthen Athelstan's resolve to try harder to meet the expectations placed upon him.
When they're sparring, Athelstan spends most of his time on his back in the dirt, acquiring countless bruises that paint his pale skin in varying shades of blue and yellow. He holds out an arm and lets Ragnar pull him up, the warm grip of his hand firm and steady around Athelstan's fingers.
Ragnar claps him on the back and laughs. Shaking from the force of the gesture, bruised and battered, Athelstan can't remember ever having felt so alive.
"You don't have to do this," he says, irrationally embarrassed at displaying weakness and humbled by being cared for by a man of Ragnar's station and importance. It's a house slave's job, not that of an Earl.
"I know." Ragnar's amusement is gentle and mocking at once. "I want to."
When his hand slips under Athelstan's loincloth, past the bruises and cuts to where he aches in a different way, Athelstan closes his eyes and arches against him. The sound that escapes his lips is foreign and raw and animal, and Athelstan would be ashamed if he had the strength to feel anything beyond the red-hot surge of lust.
"Does your God want me to stop?" Ragnar teases, his nimble fingers driving Athelstan mad.
Athelstan's eyes fly open, feasting on Ragnar's smiling face. "My God isn't here right now. It's just you and me," he says, and it doesn't feel like blasphemy. The flash that strikes him down isn't divine punishment, it's pleasure so bright and pure it might as well be heaven-sent.
"Priest," she greets him.
He inclines his head and doesn't try to hold back the way his lips twitch into a smile. "Earl."
Her fingers brush lightly over the front of his tunic, tracing the seam. "You've grown into a fine Viking warrior. It's hard to recognize the frightened slave Ragnar brought home back then." Something in the way she looks at him makes the blood shoot to his cheeks in a blush that belies her assessment.
Lagertha laughs, endeared and delighted by his obvious embarrassment. When she trails a teasing finger down his flushed cheek, her smile turns gentler and her voice is low and intimate when she asks, "Will you come lie with me tonight, Athelstan?"
What about Ragnar? he almost asks, before he remembers that she's no-one's wife anymore and does not answer to any man. Still, his eyes seek out the piercing blue stare of Ragnar across the clearing where he's leaning against a tree with his arms crossed in front of him, watching them. Ragnar raises an eyebrow at him, and it feels like a dare.
Athelstan swallows, his throat dry like a well during a drought. "If that's what you want."
"I wouldn't have asked otherwise," Lagertha reminds him.
It probably wouldn't be wise to tell her that there are other reasons to invite someone to share your bed than desire, or that he feels like Ragnar and Lagertha are using him for what seems like a strange cross between power struggle and courtship ritual.
King Ragnar now, Athelstan has to remind himself when Ragnar comes to stand next to him in the doorway. It might be the new power that bears down on him, or the upcoming raid. But Athelstan remembers how Ragnar demanded to be taught how to pray, the two of them kneeling on the rocky ground facing each other, and he doubts that the source of Ragnar's burdens is so easily pinned down.
"If Lagertha and I were to invite you to share our bed today, would you still refuse as you once did?" There's a hint of mischief in Ragnar's voice, but also genuine curiosity, like it's not a purely theoretical question.
Athelstan ducks his head and laughs quietly. He's broken his vows of celibacy with Ragnar more times than he can remember, has given himself to the man more wholly than he ever expected to belong to another living being – mind, body and soul – and he's shared Lagertha's bed half a dozen times since she's returned to Kattegat. Ragnar's question doesn't demand a verbal response, not when the answer is so obvious.
He doesn't resist when Ragnar takes his hand, callused fingers brushing over the stigmata. The scar tissue tingles under the touch. Athelstan still wakes at night occasionally, feeling the fresh pain of the nails being driven through flesh and bone. When Ragnar traces the marks, though, Athelstan could almost forget that they are a consequence of agony.
"You can neither hide from your God nor ours."
Sometimes Ragnar's knowledge of what's going on in Athelstan's mind is uncanny, scary in its accuracy. It goes both ways, and that scares Athelstan too: the sort of intimacy that goes beyond the physical, beyond even the emotional bond between them.
"Wherever you go, I'll follow," Ragnar says.
He's quick to makes a joke of it afterwards, but the gravity of the vow is hard to shake off, heavy like a stone weighing them down, and it brings along an odd sense of foreboding.
Between them, Ragnar is fast asleep, but Athelstan can't find any rest tonight. The night paints the room in shadows of deep blue, dancing when the fire outside flickers. Lagertha's skin looks pale in the strange light, the hollow of her cheeks more prominent, giving her a harder edge. Athelstan leans across Ragnar's body and lets his hand tangle in her hair. He kisses her, unsurprised when she turns it into a gentle bite.
"I feel like things are going to change," he tells her quietly. Soon, he thinks, and the idea makes him shiver.
Lagertha smiles. "Change is not a bad thing. You have to trust in the Gods."
Her Gods or his, he wonders, but doesn't voice the question. While she doesn't see Christianity as a danger like Floki or Rollo do, Lagertha is not as open as Ragnar to the idea of two faiths co-existing peacefully. Still, he wishes he had her unfailing trust in the Gods, any Gods. He feels like he might meet them sooner than he'd like, and then where will his doubts leave him?
Ragnar's words echoes in his mind. Wherever you go, I'll follow. Alone with his disquiet and the chilling sense of a near ending, Athelstan isn't sure whether the promise comforts or worries him. What if he goes somewhere Ragnar can't follow? Worse, what if he goes where he doesn't wish for Ragnar to follow?
He wants to confide in Lagertha, but it's hard to put his apprehension into words.
Ragnar stirs, squinting at him. "Will you two stop and let me rest already?" He sounds annoyed, but Athelstan suspects it's an act, just as he realizes his sleep had been. It shouldn't surprise him that Ragnar listened to every word they said, probably even heard the ones that remained unspoken.
Athelstan settles against the warm, solid body at his side, but it takes a long time until the steady rhythm of Ragnar's breathing lulls him into sleep. He dreams of burning cities and blood that turns the ocean red, the steel of a knife gleaming in the firelight, ravens circling in the skies and snakes slithering on the ground, Odin towering above and Jesus Christ extending his arms in invitation.
When he wakes in the morning, the three of them huddling together in a nest of warmth against the chill air of the morning, Ragnar's hand rests above his heart. Athelstan closes his eyes and silently prays to whoever might be listening.