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Resurrected by God(s)

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"...Amen," Athelstan trailed off as he finished the prayer. He felt the looming present before he even saw him among the shadows. But there was no fear only that of peace so he turned with a slight smile at the other. The boatmaker. His end.

"Floki."

"Priest."

The gleam of murderous intent glowed in the viking's coal smeard eyes, glowed like that of the candles surrouding them. The purpouse was clear yet Athelstan felt no need to fight, there was only acceptence and he was ready to meet his end so to begin his beginning.

With the present of his God, whom covered him in warmth and safety, the re-newed Christain turned back to his makeshift cross. "Lord, recive my soul," armed stretched out and head lifted towards the heavens. Athelstan closed his eyes for the final time.

They would meet again, he assured himself, not in their afterlives but as long as Ragnar Lothbrok lived Athelstan would watch him and guide him in the likes of angels.

It does not matter where I go, what matters to me is where you're going.

A roar of wrath broke the silence and an axe swong swiftly and quickly through the air. It all ended and turned eternally black at the sound of a body hitting the ground with a thud.

---

The final grains of dirt fell upon the grave, covering the once vessel of a beloved while the rain cried from above. A shovel plummet into the ground before the man slumped down beside it with a stick in hand, eyes wet with tears to come and chest heavy with unsolvable sorrow.

The christian grave was almost finished, made by supportive and loving hands of a pagan. A heathen in the eyes of the christain faith. Only it's grave mark was momentary absent but the cross was moments away from being made.

But unknown to the grief stricken pagan, a foreign yet known God looked on with approval at the empathetic act of another's religion and wishes.

Such an action was to be rewarded.

As the pagan's lips parted with purpose to speak to the kindred spirit who no longer could hear his words, the heavily being reached out, setting the words on course to be carried to the intended's ears.

--

"I never knew what a martyr was,"

Eyes open as if waking from heavy sleep. White. At first he flinched harsly and threw up his hands in an attempt to protect his eyes from such overwhelming brightness... yet no pain came. Slowly they dropped and he took in the sight before him.

There was nothing but endless heavenly light, it shone brightly and surrounded him, engulfed him completely. It should leave the observer blind yet he was only left with a feeling of utter bliss.

"I still don't."

In the distance he heard muffled sounds but they were nothing to the deafening present of the God before him. This was not heaven, he was somewhere else.. In between.. waiting. How such knowledge was bestowed upon him, he did not know. Yet he did not despair at his current placement for he was not alone, his lord, his God was embracing him at this very moment with his grace.

Nothing more could he wish or desire.

Then shadows move over him, above him, leaving trails of coldness where it touches him. The cold is shocking and biting compared to the warm and peaceful caress from his savior. It should leave him shivering but instead it was welcoming and filled him with comfort as from an old friend. He lifted his head high and watched them move through his lord's being. Angling their shapes to gracefully fly passed and around him, to circle him like prey. Their sleek and shiney black feathers contrasting starkly against the whiteness and the beady eyes were wise and knowing.

Odin.

Laughter spilles out of him and it clang joyfully through the air while his eyes grew misty with tears. Beloved gods, one time or another he could feel in his soul that he've abandoned both yet they seem to have never abandoned him in return.

"You're a brave man Athelstan..."

The muffled sounds in the background broke through and formed words but only one registered.. Athelstan.

His soul is as an empty chamber being filled, bringing him back to who he was... is. It all flooding in like a broken dam, reminding him. Athelstan. His chosen name. He blinked rapidly as if to clear any fog from his sight and in the process lets his tears roll freely down his smiling cheeks.

His lord shines brighter and the ravens caws and beat their wings faster as he fully understand the deep root of his happiness, devotion and love for the gods that surround him. The familiar sounds return to a muffled state and his mind drifted away from it's purpose and towards the Gods. 

The blissfulness and loving light shined upon him are the peaceful days of him praying and working to paint words of God into beautiful images. The sharp coldness of the ravens' wings are the comfort of home in the Northlands, where winter is harsh but the crisp air fills his lungs with new refreshing life and the comfort of being pulled back inside by rough and gentle hands which are toasty warm from the heat of the fire.

Clasping togther his hand as to pray Athelstan was unable to keep himself from gazing in awe "My lord," was the breathless words that exhaled from his lips, the very first sound made from him of what felt like years "Odin," Two Gods whom he loved deeply and which he struggled to choice between now stood before him in their godlike glory.

One he choice to no longer acknowledge for that of his later God before meeting his final end.

"I- I'm unworthy of your present," he confessed with guilt and flicked his eyes away in shame but wherever he looked, the black birds were there and were not interested in being ignored. A big raven finally flew at his face causing him to move away in shock before looking up with wide eyes in surprise. It circled above him, his eyes followed as it flew and it's calming movment was as a balm for his guilt. The ever present light of God remain upon him and graced him still with heavinly bliss.

He was forgiven, and eternal peace was within his grasp.

Eyelids dropping, he slowly fell into an adrift. Any questions upon his mind for the Gods fell silent, for time was nothing in this place...

"Aah Athelstan, I hope you can hear me Athelstan..."

Those sounds again. Coming through the mist of his mind, scratching to get in and be heard even among powerful beings. These were not the words of his Gods..

"And I'm not just talking to myself."

There was a tug, something inside was feeling a pull. An emotional pull for something he did not know or understand yet yearned to follow. Athelstan's eyes flutter open, the Gods were still around him but he could now hear the noises more closely and clearly. Hear the words being spoken.

"What?.... Do you think I went too far with Floki?"

There was an echo of a bitter chuckle that followed, filling his ears and making Athelstan's chest tighten in discomfort at hearing such a tone.

"Can you actually believe, that he thought I would let him lead without my having an agenda?"

Athelstan started glancing around himself in hope of finding the location or direction that this voice was coming from. This voice with such bitterness. But he saw only light and the dark birds within the big vast of emty space that went on endlessly with no end in sight, at least none his mortal eyes could see or even imagen.

"If I was him, I would worry less about the Gods and more about the.. fury of a patient man. And as well you know, I can be very patient."

There was a sharp throb in Athelstan's tempel and he lifted up a palm to soothe the discomfort only for it to diminish but the voice now groaned and coughed with it's own pain. Athelstan's eyebrows knitted together in confusion and questions formed in his mind.

Who's voice was this? Why did it fill him with such longing, ache and devotion? Such love and need to follow. Why did it feel as if he knew this voice? Someone or something that was immensely important to him. Yet he could not place it? And that in itself felt like a betrayal of trust for forgetting in the first place!

Emotions were rallying inside and he knew not which to feel. The Gods could not hold him, for he was drifting away from them now nor could they soothe his turmoil to reaching whatever was calling him.

Athelstan was slowly floating downwards until his feet meet with the ground. He had not notice before that he'd been extended up into the middle of the air until his soles stood firmly upon something solid once again.

"I wish you were here,"

Body turned cold and Athelstan could hear his own heart beating loudly in his ears, so loud that it felt as if he'd lose his hearing. This voice, he knew this voice. Eyes grew wide and his breath stutter as he spoke the name of his beloved friend "Ragnar," feet started moving, the pull making him walk forward to- what he did not know but he needed to go there.

"Paris is everything you told me it would be.... And I'm bound and determined to conquer it."

-

Ragnar grew silent after that but the pull inside Athelstan was ever present in both heart and soul, and it encouraged him to keep on walking and to never stop. Luckily he never grew tired or hungry, his feet did not become sore or blistered and time did not effect him for he did not feel it moving.

The Gods thought did not shine nor fly around him as strongly and they weren't as close either but instead behind him a few steps away. Following and watching Athelstan at a distance. He could still feel the warmth of God's holiness and Odin's welcoming cold at his back. Yet he was determined to carry on towards Ragnar and held faith that they would not abandon him for the Gods should know of his devotion to the pagan and that of the bond between them.

While his lord's light remains behind him, it started to dimm before him and the path grew darker for ever step he took.

The ravens flew passed him and into the darkness and soon Athelstan started feeling the breeze against his cheeks, the air around him foggy while it rained and the ground soft with grass. It was night and he realized he was in a forest he have never seen or could not recall visiting.

The pull was stronger than ever before and Athelstan could see a figure on it's hands and knees, groaning and crawling in the distance. It's head turned towards him when he walked through the mist and drizzle. It was Ragnar, who looked sickly and pale with harsh shivers running through the man's body and sweat coating his face.

And Athelstan's cross hung around his neck, swinging with each movement the viking took.

Joy inside Athelstan grew larger and a gentle smile spread across his face at the sight of his friend. When Athelstan came close he offered out a hand for the norseman to take and Ragnar with a smile of his own reached out to take the offered hand. They did not speak for it was not needed, they'll be together once again, side by side.

But before their hands could ever touch Athelstan felt the suddenly present of the Gods appearing behind him, causing both of their actions to come to a halt.

They both watched as Ragnar's lifted hand started dripping blood and a pool of the same red substance appeared underneath the viking, causing Ragnar to then snatched his hand back in shock before curling in on himself upon the ground while shaking and shivering.

Athelstan then felt himself starting to mindlessly walk backwards although he did not wish to move away yet his feet moved against his will. He was being taken back by the Gods. He could do nothing but helplessly be pulled back through the mist and into the light while Ragnar watched him go with a look of anguish and a shaky whisper that called out to him.

"Don't abandon me."

-

In a blink of an eye, Athelstan no longer stood in the living world with Ragnar but instead was back in the vast empty space, only he could feel something was very diffrent this time around. Something in the very air which he knew must be coming from the celestial beings. For what else could be causing it? It was tense with purpose and Athelstan could almost hear the crackling of power around him, it made him instinctively move into a fighting position like Ragnar drilled into him.

Thought his stand didn't last long once he turned to glance around him and eyes landed on a shape a few steps away. Body slacked in shock and he was left speechless. The figure had an uncanny resemblance to Jesus Christ himself, God's son who died for all their sins. Only his face was obscured by the bright light of God that showered down from up above, bathing his son in his grace.

Nothing could have made him tear his gaze away from God's son, he barely even registered the flock of black birds flashing by but what they left in their wake did managed to break the spell and get Athelstan's attention away from Christ. A man, an old looking man with a long white/grey braided beard that reminded Athelstan of the Norsemen. Dressed in dark clothing and a wide-brimmed hat, the man held a tall cane and upon the shoulders were two big ravens that cawed from their seats. And he wore an eyepatch- No, this was not a man but a god.

It was Odin!

Athelstan's eyes flicker between them in wonder and slight disbelief. Previously he had merely felt Odin's present like that of his lord but now faced with the All-father he knew not what to say or do, the same went about God's son. Was this the Odin whom Ragnar had told him the viking had often seen? For the description was very similar to what he've been told by his friend.

Before he could even regain his ability to speak both took a step forward, their steps causing a sharp spike of power in the air and suddenly it grew unbearably bright and the cawing from the ravens turned deafening.

It was unbearable!

Hand flew up and Athelstan griped at his chest in agony as he suddenly felt his heart beating, only it drummed beneath his ribcase without mercy. The intense pain brought him down to his knees and forced him to bend over and making his face almost touched the ground, had he not caught himself with the opposite hand. Although it prove pointless when next it felt as if his head was being crack open forcing him to use the hand holding him up to palm at the newest source of pain.

"Please the pain- Agh!"

Amidst the whitness, red broke through and filled his vision and Athelstan could feel it dripping off him. A puddle had been forming around him in similiar fashion to what he witness happen to Ragnar. He didn't know when it had started but it looked as if a whole person had been drained for the purpous of painting him and the ground in blood. It spread out infront of him and it felt as if he was sinking into it, either that or the blood was rising. He struggled to gain balance and stand up, for his body was like a rock thrown into the ocean, bound to sink.

Finally he slumped to his side, he didn't have the strenght nor the power to stand. The pain was still pulsing through him unmercifully. Warm liquid sloshed around him as Athelstan lifted his head up in hope to see, to understand why he was in such pain and bading in blood but the world around him was a blur of bright white and dark red. Barely making out the two figures a few feet away and the shadows of ravens above were mere black smears without true forms.

There was deep chanting and heavy drums growing in the distance while a cane repeatedly hit the ground, metal clanging from each 'thub' upon the ground. And amist it there was choirs of hymns with voices as light and high as angels' singing.

Then the liquid around Athelstan started to drain away and lessen in amounth, drawing him to look upon the blood which to his shock was moving back to him. He watched as trails of red on his arm retreated from whens it came, leaving no trace of the blood ever begin there. It was as if his body was calling it to itself until there was nothing remaining, no stain nor drops left behind.

And along it the spliting pain upon Athelstan's scalp disappeared just like the blood but in exchange his heart picked up and began beating harsher than previously. Felt as if it was trying to tear itself through bone and flesh, and from beneath breast.

Now it was Athelstan's turn to curl in on himself as Ragnar had done.

The last thing the former-monk did was cry out in agony as his eyes and ears pulsed with pain from the overpowering Gods that never seem to end.

--
-

Snapping awake with a loud and desperate gasp for air, hand flying to clung at his chest as Athelstan wrestled to take a breath.

Feeling like he've been drowning and only now broken through the surface. The air filled his lungs until it felt as if they would burst before deflating out of him, every breath was painful yet he quickly gulped for more.

Oh god everything hurt!

Ears were ringing painfully and sight was smeared and dotted, making his stomach turn and feel ill. Nothing was as it should be! Athelstan realized in hysteria before managing to pull himself up into a sitting position and lean over to the side to vomit but nothing came. Stomach cramped excruciatingly, it never been in such a state of emptyness in his whole life.

Feeling like it would cave in on itself.

Shaking and shivering violently, fingers dug into the grass and earth until his knuckles turned white while he dry heaved with tears rolling down his face. Body aching with each twist and the air felt chilly and moist around him.

There was no bliss or welcoming cold from any gods, Athelstan noted in despair before letting out an alarmed sob once the heaving let up and his eyes started to clear and the ringing stopped. Other than his own sharp breathing which turned into mist, he could hear a forest waking up and the sound of water near by. Forcing back the next sob that threaten to spill out of him, Athelstan blinked a few times before taking in the area around him.

The air was thick with fog making it hard to see but it wasn't long until he took it all in with disbelief. It was early in the morning, the sun barely present except for white luminous streams of light that shined through branches, and rain drizzled down. Athelstan could hear and see animals waking up and moving about for food and other life rulling chores. The lake nearby unmoving and gentle, only the drops causing sounds and ripples in it's mirror like reflecion.

"This is..." he croaked with realization and looked around himself, moving and twisting to look at every angle of the familiar plain that he was sitting in the middle of. The open area so close to the forest but most of all side to side with the lake that lead to sea. The ground still bore the marks left of the camp that had been there, of the norsemen that had arrived here and set up camp.

This was Wessex.

"Is this real, am I real?" he question out loud with a hoarse voice while letting go of the ground and bending forward awkwardly in the apearance of pray. "Am I alive?" Athelstan grabbed at his own face with shaky and dirty hands, leaving smears of earth wherever he touched as he felt the familiar structure and skin before running fingers through his beard and going up to the hair on his head. Still shaved on the lower part while the rest hung freely...

His eyes widen as he comprehended what that meant. It was exactly as it had been before he died... before he been murdered. Yes, murdered! Having been killed by the boatmaker Floki and sent to the next life- yet he was here! Feeling every bit alive again!

"Am I reborned?!... Or had it all been a dream?" he gasped, his throat seizing painfully with each breath. Athelstan determinedly shook his head in rejection at such though, he recall everything even the sound of the axe being swong through the air and then continuing on into the afterlife.. except it had not been Heaven.. or even Hell for that matter but he had been with God.

"No, I died, I meet the Lord himself and- Odin!.. and Jesus Christ," he lowered his tone and whispered to himself in amazement while his fingers remain tangled in his now messy hair. His breathing balancing out to a calmer pace and the tears drying on his cheeks "I meet them, they..," It was all so fuzzy and snaps of images but nothing whole that he could play out in his mind. "Why don't I remember? I can only recall their present-"

A big rain drop landed on his naked back causing him to flinch at the coldness and shiver, it sucessfully distracting him as he now felt the chill in the air and how unclothed he was. Tearing his gaze away from the ruins left by the vikings, Athelstan shakily attempted to stand on unblanced and weak limbs, having to catch himself each time he tilted or stumbled in his trys.

Not a stitch of fabric covered him which left him feeling vulnerable and unprotected as he stood in the middle of the open area. Feeling lost and unsure of his purpose yet clear that he needed coverage and food as well as water in this current moment. Hopefully he would stumble upon a farm, house or a kind soul that could provide otherwise he might have to walk all the way to King Ecbert's completely bare.

Athelstan shakily stumbled to the water edge and landed harshly on his knees. There he could see the reflection of himself, the former monk still appeared the same as before his death. What Athelstan had felt out with his scared hands had been correct for he still had a beard and half a shaved head. The only thing diffrent now was that he was dirty as was his hands. He quickly washed himself clean before cupping water to drink, it was cristal clear and cleansed his thirst after a few hands full. As refreshing as it was though, it brough the cold closer and he got onto his feet and started walking while hugging himself to keep warm.

Except he only managed to take a few steps before getting spooked as something fell down from a tree a distance away, too fast and sudden for him to make it out but he imagen it to be a broken branch or a fallen nest or even an animal. After a short pause of nothing else happening Athelstan continued on his journey up the familiar trail that he knew lead in the right direction of the kingdom but curiousity made him stop beside the tree.

Blinking a couple of times Athelstan could not believe what he was seeing but when that did not change what was lying before him, he then proceeded to rub a palm over his eyes as if to clear dirt but meet with the same sight.

A boot.

Not one of Saxon making but one made with the material and style of the norsemen. Unsettling laughter spilled out of him as he picked it up for further inspection, wondering if he really hasn't gone mad, for it wasn't just a simple viking boot that had been left behind. It was his boot. Part of a pair he often wore, that he was sure of, it was evident by the repeated sign of mending on the inner corner which had begun to tear, thanks to Torstein and himself.

They had been profoundly drunk, stumbling around in the night while trying to get home and walked right into the fence that kept the pigs in and proceeded to fall inside the pit. They had cursed and grumbled as they got covered in mud and pig shit before seeing one another and burst out laughing at the other's apearance. Which was how Ragnar had found them, drunk himself and giggling at the sigh before helping the monk out while Torstein had to fend for himself. But what Athelstan hadn't noticed until the day after, once he sobered up was his boot had caught on likely a nail and gotten torn.

Last he seen it, it had been in his room by the bed, in Kattegat. Not in Wessex but in the North yet here it was!

Before even being able to comprehend how it gotten here the leafs above shook and out of it came the missing boot which landed on his head. "Ow," he grumbled in suprise and rubbed at the stricken head then moved so he was no longer underneat the clear target area for falling footwear. "Perfect now my feet are at least covered," he dryly told himself, snatching the other pair off the ground before carefully peering up into the tree. Wishing to see whoever it was up there throwing shoes and then proceed in questioning why excaly they were doing it and how in God's name did they get Athelstan's belongings.

"Who-" but he stopped quickly as he recalled in mortification that he was utterly naked, in every aspect of the word.

Which could explain the other person's action, believing a lone crazy man crying, talking and laughing to himself while walking naked out in the forest, they might not want him near them out of fear.

So using the boots to cover his more obcene parts, he tried again "I beg your pardon, I didn't mean to frighten anyone nor intend to harm if you believe that to be my intensions. I'm merely uhm..," he struggled for a moment to come up with an explanation to his current position. Saying one has been resurrected by Gods, most defiently wouldn't be a convincing story for a most likely weary person so he gave a sheepish smile and a uncertain chuckle "To be frank I don't have a resonable-" then a thick brown vest with short sleeves fell down.

Which was also his...

Things weren't adding up and a new possability for the almost magic appearence of his clothes that should be in Kattegat came to mind "Di- did you remove my clothes from me.. as I layed out there unaware?!" Athelstan stutter out in outrageousness and stomped back under the tree to peer up in anger only to get his face covered with another piece of clothing. Frustration bubbled up inside him and he ripped it off, shortly seeing that it was his grey sweater with a hood before glaring up towards the leafs.

Eyes widen in suprise as he finally saw who it was or to be more precis who they were and it brough a small but wondrous smile to Athelstan's lips and any negative emotions left him.

It was as if from stories and legends themsleves, peculiar and unimaginable miracles that happened. The pack of ravens that filled the tree caw'd at him from above while tilting their heads down to look at him with black eyes and fluttering their wings and skipping along the branches. He could see that in some of their beeks and claws they clung to items of clothing, his clothes. There was a pair of trousers, one of his favorite belts that was made out of brown leather and decorated with big round coppor plates, and a dark tunic with blue, white and red threads sewed in that Ragnar had handed down to him.

"Did Odin send you?" Athelstan questioned with an awe filled tone while looking at them with reverence, they cawed in responce and he decided to take that for a 'Yes'. Soon they started moving around the arms of the tree, rearranging themselves before dropping down the last clothes. Only this time around, they seemed to be at least aiming for his arms instead of his head.

Relieved he started pulling them on while praising and thanking both the ravens and Odin for this generous gift. It wasn't long until he felt the warmth build up as layers were put on, the chill and moist air was nothing againt the thick Viking clothes meant for rougher weather. The heat also helped sooth the aches that he experiansed and he felt stronger than before.

When he sat upon the ground with boots in hand, Athelstan could not help but say off minded "The cloke must have been too difficult to carry compaired to the rest," He blamed the influence that Torstein and Ragnar had on him for saying such things. The answer thought made him laugh and from the sounds of the croaking above he was not alone in finding it amusing, for upon his head and left shoulder they dropped two heavy woolen socks.

"Much gratitude," he said sincerely after pulling on the socks and securing his boots.

Once finished Athelstan stood and looked up at them once again with what felt like thousands of questions on his mind. They may appear as mere birds but with what they've shown already, they must be able to somehow answer those questions, he was sure of it and he would curse himself if he did not try to at least get some explanations.

"Can you tell me why I'm here?" he begins gently, watching as they caw at each other and share eye contact among themslves before flapping their wings "What's my purpose in Wessex?" when the first few flew out of the tree Athelstan quickly stressed out "Why am I reborned?" hurrying backwards as all of them scatter into the air and up into the sky, he called out to them "I need answers for I do not understand!"

Ready to call out once again, Athelstan's words fadded when he took in their black moving bodies that circled among the clouds. Squinting and lifting a palm to shield his eyes from any distracting light. Swearing that one of the ravens, seemingly the one leading them away was much bigger in size for a normal raven. But before he knew it, in an blink of an eye they had fadded and disappeared among the mist, could neither be seen nor heard.

Scanning the empty glade that was his resurrection place Athelstan sighed, he was still no closer to knowing why he was alive once again. But there was nothing here so he started moving along the trail towards the Kingdom of Wessex.

--

It hadn't been long until he came to a realiztion that the season around him was not the same as when he had died. For Athelstan remember the coldness in the air was just starting to fade ever so slightly back in Kattegat, with the promises of growth and new life in the air. The lands awakaning at the arravial of Spring and soon feild would be plowed.. But the air now was growing warmer as the day emurged and the color of the leaves were losing their green, meaning it must be the end of summer in Wessex and most likely Kattegat.

Which meant that months had past... Maybe even years.

Letting out an airy laugh, putting aside the worry of how long time had passed, Athelstan played with the thought of Ragnar being in Paris and reeving havoc instead. Exploring the land for it's knowledge and secrets. He could only hope and silently pray that if Ragnar was in fact there, then the city had meet it's match in the norse King.

The rain remain falling but luckily it never turned heavy along the journey and the hood gave Athelstan's head extra shelter but it was eerily quiet except for the sounds of nature and gentle rain. For as of yet he still had not come across anyone else and he could not lie that he craved to see another human being, although he was still within the forest and from what he could make out of the sun's position it was still relativly early.

But in his mind seeing and communicating- oh and to touch another person! That would concrete that he was in fact alive and not a wandering spirit that knew not it was dead. Because walking in solitary gave Athelstan much time to think, a little too much maybe.

With thoughts such as; had he really been brough back to life? If so, shouldn't he be back in Kattegat where he died and where most likley his body was..?

When Jesus had passed, God's son had then awoken where they burried his remians, it says so in the bible Athelstan argued with himself. But he was here, in England and it was hard to imagen that Ragnar shipped his dead body all across the sea to put him to rest here. Or was it beause his friend most likley burned his body? Even if Athelstan expressed himself a christian maybe the viking still could not let his old traditions go and burned the re-newed christain's remians. If so Athelstan wouldn't be mad if that had been the case.

Maybe his ashes was carried here later on by the ocean and then drifted ashore, Athelstan pondered while stepping over a small dead tree that had fallen upon the trail. But again should he not had woken up at the monastery then? It had much more Christain value and been his first real home before Ragnar and his family.

A deep sigh exhailed from him and Athelstan paused to watch the tree gently sway in the wind.

Once again he felt like that scared and lost monk, who've been stolen away from everything he known and dropped among pagans.

Desperately in need of guidence.

Then like the serpent in the garden of eden, slithering with bad intent, thoughts of doubt grew. Had he been left here alive? Athelstan considered the possiblity. Could he simply not have been conscious along the journey, for that would explain his deep rooting hunger for substance... But that did not explain how he been kept asleep and the images of the gods and- Could that been from mushrooms similar in Uppsala? And the ravens and clothes were merely an elaborate trick. Once he've seen a man make a raven jump around as if dancing for a piece of food.

"My mind is blurred and I do not know what is real.. God, Odin please!" he hissed, fists clenching tightly and he turned his eyes towards the heaven with a pleading expression "I need to know, did I die and rise again?"

But no matter how long he stood there no answer came. The trees still swayed and the rain remain falling and soon the mist fadded completely as the day arrived. Dejected he kept moving forward.

After a few steps Athelstan could feel droplets of rain trail down his face, they were oddly warm compaired to the chill in the air, but soon drops turned into streams and dripped down his chin in a heavy flow. Which was peculiar, he though looking up towards the sky. The rain pouring down from the greyish clouds were merely light brizzle and not heavy rain, and he still had his hood up so it should stop most of it anyway.

Quickly drops ran into his eye, causing discomfort and blurriness, and for a second made the world.. red?

"What?" Athelstan muttered perplexed and rubbed away the wetness with a fist, clearing his sight once again but his breath stopped short when he saw the blood that now smeared the hand. It was stark against his pale skin. Dread engulfed him and he lifted shaky hands to touch at the wetness on his face, when he drew them back they were painted in ruby.

There was so much that it ran down his wrists and stained the sleeves dark!

Touching up along his face, Athelstan tried to calm himself as he looked for the wound. It must merley be a scratch that had gone by unnoticed. He've been told numerious times that head wounds bleed more than they should when compaired to the wound inflicted. Even witnessed it upon others.

The calming and reassuring explanation shattered into pieces as his fingers search came to a stop at the right top of his temple, for they did not meet with a simple scratch but an opening. Terror rose as the fingers felt the wide cracked open skull which gushed blood. Like he'd been struck by an axe.

As his breath became frantic and his chest became tight, some of the liquid slipped into the corner of his mouth and the taste of copper laid upon his tounge. Stomach turning with nausea at it's almost obscene flavor.

Within seconds Athelstan had himself backed up against a tree in fear and panic, scrabbling to somehow stop the bleeding with his bare hands. But he could feel it wasn't working as his clothes became soaked, his skin sticky and warm with the thick fluid which made the skin crawl in appall, for being stained with blood in battle was one thing but this!

"Oh my lord-" he mumbled frantically, barely noticing what he was saying as diffrent prayers flew from his lips. Some for the christ God, others for Odin and some were so tangled together that it could be for both. Anything that came to mind so he would not perish spilled forth by his voice while he slipped to the ground with his back against the bark.

It seem to never stop! Hands grew slippery with blood and hair hung heavy at his face. There was so much gore upon him that every piece of him felt covered, nothing was left unmarked!

Then in a blink of an eye it was all gone, as if it never been there.

Athelstan's prays came to a sharp halt as he took in the clean apperance with disbelief, he could once again feel himself dry and unstained as before with the exception of the drizzle. Slowly his hands came to stop shaking and gently but hestitently he maped out the now unmarked skull with wide eyes.

"I-it's gone.. But?" he softly panted confused, not understanding what had happen. It had been real, he had felt the thick warm blood against his skin and his fingertips had dipped down in the wound on his head!

"Was this my sign? My answer," Athelstan called out, standing shakily up with the help of the tree next to him while looking up towards the sky. "I asked if I've died and then risen. Is this your answer..?" pausing as he thought over the gory vision he'd experience.

Then coming to a conclusion which made his throat dry and turned his stomach. "W.. Was that my death? I got struck down on the head.. and- and now I live.. because if so I- I thank you for such a gift," Athelstan lowered his head before shaking it and confessing "But find that I myself am unworthy.. Why me? Why above others whom are more moral, righteous and honorable than me. Why shall I live once again..?"

Silence was his answer and the world around him remian unchanged by his further pressing questions. It seems the Gods had for now, answered enough to their liking.

Chapter Text

Once Athelstan emerged from the forest and upon open fields did it hit him while passing a farm in the distance, he knew not what he would say upon his arrival at King Ecbert's domain.

It wouldn't be wise to tell of his resurrection even if he wanted to, for it would with certainty have sever consequenses, that he could count upon. Many would believe him to have lost mind, to be a sinner spewing lies onto their ears and who was he to tell them diffrently? It was not as if Athelstan could convince them of him being worthy of such a gift when he himself did not think he was. Nor did he have any proof of either death or revival. He surely be hammered back onto the cross once again as a liar by the people, something he was in no rush to be placed.

In addition it wasn't just the Christian god and his son Jesus who had a hand in his rebirth but also Odin. A god from paganism which the Christian people condemed as heathen and of false faith.

No, not even King Ecbert would believe such a tale, he may consider them two friends with a few similar interests but a king could only be pushed so far before even he cannot call off the people. After all Athelstan had a hard time believing and he was the one who risen from death's clutches.

He needed to come up with something else. Something that was more believable and that the clever Ecbert would believe, Athelstan though begrudgingly. He did not wish to lie to the king whom been so merciful when others hadn't but there was not much else the former monk could do. But what would explain him being here? With no companions to speak of nor boat to bring him here...

After a short length of walking and badly thought up excuses that wouldn't even fool a child, Athelstan came to a stop with an enlightened expression as he recall their previous visit and it's reason.

"The settlement," he utter before a relieved smile grew at the implication. Yes, Ragnar's settlement, it was a perfect reason for him being there. "I was sent to look over its progress," Athelstan explained out loud to himself, so to see how it sounded. After all Ecbert knew of Ragnar's investment of it and would not deem it strange if someone was sent for assessment. In addition Ecbert had tried in the past to persuade Athelstan to remain and do exactly that, watch over the settlement.

"But why, he'll ask. Did Ragnar not come along at least for a visit?" he said, walking once again while imagening the questions he would face. "He didn't because.. uhm becasue.. Ragnar was needed back at his own kingdom and could not be parted.. But my companions, why are they not with me..."

Sighing loudly Athelstan rubbed at his forehead in frustration. What would their reason for not coming along for rest, drink and food? It would undoubtedly be viewed as suspicious, either that or that the Norsemen were now feeling untrustworthy of the Saxons.

This would take some time to construct and the lone traveler hoped by the time he arrived, there would be a plausible story without any loss threats which could unravel the whole tale.

--

"Halt!"

The only warning Athelstan recived before an arrow came flying at his feet and missed just by a centimeter, halting his movement and sending his defences flaring. He had barely any time to react before soldiers were upon him and with no weapon at his side Athelstan could only show his hands in hope they would not attack.

"W-Wait, I'm with the Northmen, under King Ragnar's-"he rushed out, switching to his former home language which by the men's expressions, surprised them but didn't falter their raised weapons. If anything it caused the commander to cut Athelstan off mid sentence to let out harsher and now angrier shouts.

"Where's your comrades?!"

Shocked at their aggressiveness and barking orders with the clear undertone of bodily harm, Athelstan felt the hair on his arm rise in alarming unease.

Something wasn't right here.

"On their way upon the sea. I am alone, I swear by-."

"Why would they travel all this way only to leave? Believe us to be stupid heathen?!"

"I was assigned by my King. King Ragnar, to look upon the settlement and to speak with King Ecbert on his behalf," he stressed out his friend's name in hope they would disband and put down their swords. But his words didn't show promise as they drew closer and it was becoming quite clear that these men were not on his side. "Please, my name is Athelstan. Bring me to your King and he'll set aside any misunderstanding and know of my honesty. I am unarmed, you can check for yourself but know I come in peace."

The commander narrowed his eyes at him before giving a sharp signal at one of the men "Find his weapons," and watched closely as Athelstan got harshly tugged on and thoroughly searched. "Why should we bring you to our king when we can kill you, then deliver the body?"

Trying to uphold face as he was mistreated, Athelstan did his best to answer and argue for his case "I have confidence that the King won't be happy with my death.. and you'll have to carry me when I easily could have walked," abruptly he was shoved causing him to stagger a few steps while the soldier shook his head.

"There's nothing,"

Silence fell upon them and the men waited for further orders as the leader pause while eyeing the foreigner. Seemingly pondering what to do next and Athelstan was starting to contemplate if he should make a run for it because his chances weren't looking good. Yet running could easily mean an arrow in the back.

Finally after sharing a few glances with his men, the leader broke the silence "You say your name was Athelstan?"

"Yes,"

"Doesn't sound Northern,"

Swallowing Athelstan responded "That's because it's not," choosing not to elaborate further, already knowing what people thought of those that abandoned home and country for another. He've felt its punishment before so it would be in his interest to not share too much.

When he didn't speak further the man cleared his throat, bringing the attention to his men before standing tall "We'll bring you to our King.. But be assured, if you do anything not to our liking, I'll happily end you myself."

Athelstan was grabbed by the elbow and dragged along by one of the soliders as they started walking forward.

Further along the path, he could see a man pointing at Athelstan while speaking to another on a horse and soon the man rode off. It eased some of his worries because the rider must be the messenger and Ecbert would know of his arrival.

Now all he could hope was that they would welcome him with open arms. They didn't part in bad terms but neither in joyful celebration.

--

"Your Majesty,"

Ecbert sighed inwardly at the interruption as he just taken a seat upon his throne and already he was called upon. "My assumption is you're not here to tell me supper is already upon the table?" he joked dryly.

Unfortunately his comment only rewarded him with a confused and uncertain expression from the kneeling guard. Sighing out loud this time, he glance away towards his bishop Edmund who only shook his head at the simpleton of a man.

"Well, out with it," Ecbert finally demanded tiredly and rubbed his eyes, willing that they would grow more awake and alert. "Time is not something I have nor can spend generously upon waiting for you to speak."

Glancing hesitently to the bishop who gave an encouraging nod, the guard told of the news that had just arrived "It has come to our attension that few of your men has found and captured a lone Norseman wandring the land," those words were enough to take the King's attention and make him look up with slight interest.

"A surviving settler?"

"Uh, no I do not believe so my King. He claims to have just recently arrived."

"Claims?" repeated Ecbert with a raised brow and leaned forward "He speaks our language?"

"I- I'm unsure, I was not included with such knowledge. I only know that he wishes to speak to you."

"Did this pagan give a name?"

"They informed that he called himself Athelstan."

Edmund made an unsettling noise and displeasure lured upon his face at the news.

Gripping the wood beneath his hands, Ecbert move to the edge of his seat with a spark of hope but also a levelheadedness. It may only be someone who claims to be Athelstan but if it was their loved monk then what's his purpose here. Could it be time? Was Ecbert already to meet with Ragnar in battle?

"You're sure they said Athelstan?"

"Absolutely, your majesty."

"And he was alone, no others accompanying him? No ships sighted?"

"No, I was told he was alone and no ships had been reported being seen. At least I've not been informed of such."

Finding this particular because if it really was Athelstan then how could they have missed the boat and why did he come alone. Where was Ragnar?

Ecbert stood from his throne and walked along it in thought. Could they already know about the settlement? The King quickly reason that they could not, for none was left alive. Impossible. Yet it was best to be sure, the monk could simply be a distraction while the northmen roamed with ill intent.

"I want my men to thoroughly search the area, I also want an immediate report from near by posts. Do I make myself clear?"

"Yes, your majesty," the guard got off his knees.

"Before you take your leave," Ecbert said, standing behind his throne and leaning against it with the help of his hands. "Were you informed of when they would be arriving with the Norseman?"

"Uh.. a few hours maybe less. They're moving on foot."

"Send horses. I want them here as soon as possible," he ordered before giving a dismissal wave towards the guard.

"As you wish, your majesty."

Once the guard had his leave, Ecbert could feel a thrill grow inside that made a smile tug at his lips from the thought that Athelstan had returned. Even if there still remain a cautious feeling. It was a happy occasion if it truly was the man.

Ecbert patted the wood ideally beneath his hand while the mind roamed with the possibilities of Athelstan's return. Because this time, it was different, they had something of his that would persuade the man to remain here with them. Permanently.

Alfred.

"Where's Judith?" he asked his advisor suddenly, who still looked disgruntled but snapped out of it, befuddled by the topic of the question.

"Judith?"

"Yes, the princess, my daughter-in-law. The mother of my grandsons, where is she?"

"Uhm, I would imagine with your said grandsons my King. But I must say abou-"

"Have her send for me- No," he started before quickly dismissing his own trail of thoughts while giving no mind to the bishop's. Giving a last but firm pat on the throne, Ecbert moved around it while speaking mostly to himself "At such news I'll visit my grandsons and deliver the news myself."

"Your majesty-" the advisor tried again just as the King reached the doors to leave.

"I would have word immediately once they've been sighted and not a moment later. Is that understood?"

"Yes but what of your duties of the day?"

"I'll return to them shortly, first I must speak to my son's wife."

--

Judith laughed lightly behind a palm as her oldest son let out a sharp squeal like noise in an attempt to scare them, surprising both her and the nursery maidens in the room.

"He has a strong voice, your royal highness," praised the maiden who rocked the princess's newest child, Alfred, whom was fighting sleep.

Humming in agreement, Judith attempted to return her focus on the embroidery in her lap but they were nothing compared to the lively Aethelred. Who sat on a blanket on the floor while ideally playing with his toys and managing every so often to create noise. Something that delighted him beyond belief.

Finally she gave in and watched with adoring eyes and a happy smile.

After the previous night, her heavy burdens has lightened and a calmness washed over her. Judith had ensured her and Alfred's safety and in addition their place in the household, not even her husband would be able to cast her out. The price had been worth the reward she'd gained. Although the price was nothing she wished to look too closely at nor thinking about.

The moment of peace broke when the door was opened and revealed the king himself. The servants hurried to greet him but was quickly assured it was not needed and that they should return to their tasks.

"I'm here to see how fares my grandsons," Ecbert explained with a wide smile and walked over to Aethelred and gave a gentle pat on the prince's head before going over to the maid who held Alfred. "I'm sure they're doing good."

"They are, your majesty," assured Judith confidently as her father-in-law lifted Alfred into his arms. She watched him with a small glint of confusion for they'd already discussed the boys this morning and it's barley been long enough for their condition to change. There must be more to his reason for visiting.

"Good good, that warms an old man's heart," he said walking over and sitting down next to her while still holding the now sleeping child. "But I'm also here to see how my daughter-in-law is fairing. Also good I hope?" he looking at her for a split moment before turning to look at Alfred with a look she could not fully interpret. Ecbert seemed happy- no jovial and she felt he was withholding something.

Clearing her throat she answered "I am," while doing her best not to express any awkward tension between them after what happen just yesterday as he moved to sit so near.

"Good."

Ecbert gently stroke the prince's cheek while taking in the small face in a manner as if looking for something.

"I received some promising news."

A part of her hoped it had something to do with Aethelwulf and- God forgive her but hopped he'd meet his end in Mercia. That way she would never have to worry about what could occur if king Ecbert died and his son took the throne, what he would do to her. But she knew such thoughts were unrealistic for the king would not appear so happy, he would be showing signs of grieving if his son had died.

Still she tried to not act too hopeful and give away her dark and sinful thoughts but instead give an air of curiosity instead "W-what kind of news?"

"A norseman has appeard on my land, wishing to speak with me,"

Judith looked up unable to contain herself, her hope shine through only now it had nothing to do with her husband and his well being. If the norsemen have returned then that could mean the monk was by their side. They may have parted with him leaving her but Judith still longed for him to return.

She could feel her heartbeat spike up in excitement and anxiety "One of King Ragnar's?" she question, setting aside her work to give him her full attention.

"Yes but he appears to be alone and with no sight of either Ragnar nor his men, not even ships have been reported," Ecbert explained and handed Alfred over to her. He could see her hope diminishing, so after their exchange he leaned in closer with a playful smile "He claims to be a man by the name of Athelstan."

"Athelstan," she gasped with awe before a rejoiced smile graced her own lips and she hugged her son closer without disturbing his slumber.

"Yet I warn you not to be quick in your celebration," he warned her, halting her joy for but a moment. "It's not been confirmed that it's our Athelstan or someone simply using his name. Nor if he's truly alone. We'll only know once they arrive with the man, and my men returning from the search."

"But if it is- If it's Athelstan?"

"Then we'll welcome him with open arms," Ecbert ensured and laid a palm against Alfred's wrapped body "And of course introduce him to the unintentional gift he left behind."

"You think he'll-"

"He'll be a fool not to fall in love with such precious life."

Judith gave a shaky and tearful laugh before nodding in agreement.

"But I ask of you to be cautious. With the settlement gone, Ragnar'll not be in our favor and so in turn neither will Athelstan. There might be war between our people and had it not been for an important factor, I'm afraid our beloved friend would not side with us."

"Important factor?"

"No man such as Athelstan would leave a son fatherless. Not even thoughts of Ragnar would tear him away for I could not see him act so cruel."

"You mean-"

"Yes, althought we should not scurry the information of Alfred at the first sight of our young monk. No, we must first see why he's here and where the rest of them are," Ecbert warned. Wanting this to remain within his control, at least as much as it would allow thanks to the uncertainty of the situation. "Or to be more exact where Ragnar is. He's far too clever and dangerous to let loose without supervision."

Judith could only nod. Ragnar Lothbrok was an astonishing individual and had proven to be as intelligent as the King before her. The pagan was not to be undermined in any sense.

"Yet regarding Athelstan, with your help, I'm confident that we can truly convince Athelstan to remain with us."

"What exactly sire, do you expect me to be able to achieve?" question Judith with hesitant, not understanding the faith which he suddenly had of her.

He ordered for the servants to leave, making it only them and the children to remain. Tension rose and she grew unsettled by the maidens absent.

"When all else has failed in the past," she added, confessing her futile actions last time Athelstan had been with them and the lack of success it had brought her.

Shifting so to face her more fully and with a gentle but firm tone, Ecbert carefully choose the words of which he would present her roll "I would not be oppose if you wished to be more by Athelstan's side. If anything," he placed a hand on her knee, caressing it lovingly while leaning close "I would encourage it."

The meaning was quite clear.

Judith felt embarrassment color her cheeks and she glanced towards the door. Fearing who would hear their unrighteous conversation. Ecbert wanted her to allow Athelstan to join her bedside, to be and lay with him once more as they've done in the past. Only this time with the king's own blessing.

She felt a momentary glimpse of happiness at the thoughts of Athelstan being by her side but it didn't discourage the feeling of appearing as a common whore. Was she to sleep with all men in this household then? Her husband Aethelwulf, King Ecbert and now Athelstan.

"But.. what of our arrangement. Is it..?"

"Still intact, only-" Ecbert assured removing the hand upon her leg and instead stroke her hair "My bedside will be empty once more but my protection of both you and Alfred will remain."

"But what of the penance?"

"That'll be to assist in keeping Athelstan with us, as he should be and that in itself will be the 'reward', for both of us I would imagine."

"And my husband?"

"Leave my son to me and you focus on my grandchildren. And our dear monk's.. comforts."

--

The weather had cleared up and the rain had quickly become a distant memory as the townsfolk roamed the market, watching the arrival of Athelstan and the guards.

He could feel their curious and distrustful eyes upon him the deeper they rode and he willed that he would be able to keep up appearance. Especially when Ecbert arrived. Deception was not a thing he wished to play on the king but the situation left Athelstan's hands tied and without much choice.

Climbing off the horse, one of the guards nearby was quick to draw his sword and step in close. The meaning clear, Athelstan made no attempt to resist as he was tugged harshly inside and lead to the throne room.

He tried his best to remain calm and to slow the beating of the heart which drummed loudly in his ear. After all, he've gone through much worse things than this. Ecbert was.. a friend, not a death sentence. If out of all the things Athelstan been through this should be an easy task. Yet his record of lying and keeping a facade has never been good, time and time again he've been exposed in one way or another. Leaving all fears and insecurities for the world to see and pick at.

The only time he'd been able to lie successfully in another's face had been Judith. Which had not been a victory for anyone involved, especially in the end. What had occurred between them had never been love, not on his part and he was sure that in reality neither had it been hers. Instead lust and the taste of the forbidden had grown between them. But Judith had not viewed it that way thought when she'd beg for him to remain in Wessex even with her husband among them again.

Judith, he thought in realization and felt his stomach twist uncomfortably. That he would have to face her so soon after having rejected and left her.. Even if it's been an unknowable amount of time, for Athestan it hadn't been so long since they last parted. Judith must definitely dislikes him now. And on top of it, Athelstan would also have to face her husband and he could only hope that what had occured between Judith and himself had stayed that way, between only them.

The echoing of their footsteps against the stone floor pulled him from his thoughts, he found that they were close to the throne room. Eyes swept along the way and he noted that all remained the same. The halls, the furniture, the decor. Everything, and it grew hope that time had not past beyond years but merely months.

The doors swung open revealing the familiar throne room and Athelstan was hurried inside roughly. It took only seconds before he was shoved onto his knees before the Anglo-Saxon king but in turn Ecbert was quick to wave away the guards with an angry order.

"Step aside you fools!"

Athelstan was pulled up onto his feet again by the king before a hand was placed upon the younger man's chest while Ecbert informed the guards "This is an honored guest, he shall not be so mistreated. Do I make myself clear?.. Good, now return to your posts."

Once they were finally left alone, except for the bishop standing silently by the throne, Ecbert turned fully to the man that had left him longing for his return and company. Hand moving up onto the other's shoulder, the king took in Athelstan's appearance greedily, most of all his open face that was draped by unbound hair.

Once again the former monk was within his grasp and Ecbert was bound for it to remain as such.

Feeling the man's eyes moving upon him so thoroughly, Athelstan broke the spell by greeting the other "King Ecbert," and older man's eyes flicked up to meet his.

The king had not changed at all, meaning the years turned now confidently into months.

"Athelstan, my soul rejoice at the sight of you," Ecbert said with a wide smile and moved the other hand onto Athelstan's free shoulder. Holding him in place as if an embrace. Knowing the questions upon the other's tongue about the rough treatment, Ecbert easily lied "I hope you can excuse my men, they're-" pausing but a moment before finding the right words "New recruits and do not know yet fully of Ragnar's and my agreements nor who to trust."

"Of course, no harm was done as you can see," assured Athelstan but he was unable to keep a trouble free expression. It still left him unsure and not fully convinced but he did not question further, nor did he get to.

"Good, I'm relieved. Now I must meet with Ragnar, where have they set up camp-"

"Actually.. neither King Ragnar nor anyone else has accompanied me to Wessex."

There was a pause and Ecbert's hands fell away with a baffled expression "I'm afraid I do not fully understand. Then why and where are they?" Confusion colored the tone but the suspiciousness was hidden away masterfully.

"To Paris. With the promise of a raid never before seen."

"Paris?" the king repeated with a awed grin lifting at the corners of his mouth. Amazement filled him at the brave and daring attempt. "Well make it known that King Ragnar Lothbrok is anything short of a remarkable and extraordinary man," he chucked and clapped in appreciation as if the very man stood before him.

"He is," agreed Athelstan strongly.

"Yet.. You are not by his side?"

Fighting to keep his composter and tell the lie entwined tale, Athelstan glanced to the man of God whom had moved to stand now by the stairs, the bishop watching with narrowed eyes.

"No, I was left ashore before they moved for Paris," he swallowed, feeling how his throat had gone dry. Turning back to the king Athelstan struggled to find the right words and continue "I-it was decided that I was to look over the settlement and it's progress.. Like you yourself had suggested once."

Ecbert's eyes widen, heart began beating faster than previously from both joy and dispiritedness by these turn of events. This was the moment where he overcame Ragnar and obtained Athelstan but it was tainted by the fact that the reason the man was even here now laid in ruins.. A once clever made scheme resulting in the chance of losing Athelstan again.

Pulling himself together, Ecbert clapped the other's shoulder "Then it's a most joyous occasion and I'm glad that you've returned, for I knew in my heart," reeling him closer "That you were meant to be here."

Ecbert moved, giving a short nod to Edmund before leading Athelstan towards the study where Judith was most definitely awaiting eagerly with Alfred hidden away with a servant.

"So no one is with you, none at all? I at least would assume Ragnar'd leave you with some sort of protection, a guard. "

"No, everyone was needed for the raid," Athelstan said. Then added in hopes that the king would not notice the lack of weapons on his person, or just assume they've been taken away "And I'm trained for battle by Ragnar himself so I'm able to protect myself if needs be."

"Ah yes," remembered Ecbert, recalling the way the former monk had come to be in his possession from the beginning. He had been one of those that helped the plundering of Wessex. "My apologies, I must confess that I forget the knowledge you've obtained from the norsemen are not merely about their culture."

"There's no need sire."

"No, no. I know you're not been a simple monk for many years yet I seem to sell you short," Ecbert pressed on, tightening his hold on the other's shoulder before realizing something was amiss "And for that I apologies..." trailing off as he studied the other.

"I take no ill from it I can assure you."

"... Athelstan, where are your belongings?" he asked abruptly, feeling how tense the body beneath his hand grew at the mention.

"I.. I'm embarrassed to say," Athelstan lied while rummaging for a believable explanation.

"Come now, are we not friends?"

"Of course."

"Then know, you can tell me anything without judgement, as God is my witness."

Pausing as Ecbert looked back at him with sincerity "I forgot it onboard the ship," Athelstan explained appearing sheepish at the mistake while hoping the other would believe him "I only realized my mistake when it was too late."

"Ah. Well no worries, I'll make sure clothes are provided for you, along with other necessities that might be needed."

"I can't thank you enough," spoke the former monk. Guilt rose inside and Athelstan wondered how long he would be able to carry on the charade.

"No need to thank me, I'm happy to help."

Stepping into the study, Athelstan saw a fine dressed woman turn around to meet them and his eyes widen when he saw the familiar face.

Judith.

"You remember Judith," the king chuckled into his ear but for a moment the powerful man's present was significant compared to the princess.

She was still as beautiful. The feelings that do grown distant, now came back as vibrant. Yet this time Athelstan would not give in, not for himself but for her. His previous actions towards her had been heartless and their intimacy could not be repeated even if she so would desire it.

However Athelstan could not lie to himself, it felt good to see her again even if the unpleasant knot returned to the pit of his stomach.

So a breathless "Yes," was the response before he came back to himself. Clearing his throat, he gave her a polite smile "It's a pleasure to meet with you again."

With only Athelstan, King Ecbert and herself in the room, Judith felt no need to hide her true emotions. Eyes lit up with happiness while a smile graced her lips and she took a few steps closer.

"As with you. It's a great surprise to see you among us once again," she replied bright eyed but with an undertone of nervousness. Walking closer still while hands twisted together so to stop herself from doing something impulsive.

Like grab him, to feel him be sturdy and real beneath her fingers. Judith could feel herself be at awe from just the sight of him, it made her feel almost foolish for acting so lovesick, especially after their last parting.

"For I confess that I imagen that it would be quite a while before you visited again," she told while glancing towards Ecbert with a questioning look.

Noting the look sent his way, Ecbert easily answered for the man "Ah yes, Athelstan has come to look over the settlement and is to remain here for the distant future to do so."

At the mention of the settlement she was unable to suppress her quiet gasp and look of alarm at the realization, one Athelstan easily noticed. But at the stern and disapproving expression from the King caused her to quickly stomached those feelings.

"He has come completely alone," he carried on with a sharp smile that their friend could not see "So I'm afraid we won't be blessed with the present of Ragnar."

"How unfortunate," Judith commented politely, her hands anxiously tugging at the sleeves.

"Very so," agreed Ecbert before stepping up beside the other two "But I must say Athelstan, it surprises me that you've left Ragnar's side to come here. For I remember instinctively that you said all your future lies with Ragnar."

At the mention Athelstan awkwardly sent a side glance to Judith before locking eyes with the King "It still remain as such, for the settlement is tied to Ragnar and I'm here upon his wishes," it was said confidently and in some way rang true.

"Then I'm afraid I'm going to be the bearer of bad news."

"Bad news?"

"...It tears at me to say this but," pausing to take in a heavy breath and place his hands upon Athelstan's shoulder which to the surprise of the former monk felt heavy suddenly "...The settlement was destroyed and left in ruins. Ragnar's people were slaughtered and no one was left alive-"

"What?" Athelstan choked in horror and took a step back in disbelief, breaking the hold from the other "That cannot be- Oh god," his stand became unsteady at the realization and he swayed dangerously.

Exhaustion, hunger and along with the additional shock finally pushed his body's limits but gentle hands guided him to a seat, while in the background Athelstan could vaguely make out Ecbert's voice.

"I know it comes as a shock, I was also shocked, beyond mind and angered by this."

Swallowing as a bad taste entered his mouth, Athelstan tried to get ahold of himself before saying "You said they- you assured us that they would be protected," It came out more accusing than he would have liked but he wasn't able to suppress it.

"I know, that's why I blame myself and why I didn't wish to tell you right away. By God! I am ashamed.. because it was some of my own noblemen who lead the wicked deed to completion," Ecbert ignored the look Judith sent him as his son's name was blantly missing from the list of guilty "Not under my orders! I assure you but against them, I demanded they provide the proper protection and they..."

"Killed them all," Athelstan finished moments later, feeling devastated as he realised that Ragnar- oh dear Gods, Ragnar. That the man's dream for his people and their future, laid now awaste. After everything to make it possible only for it to end.

The lives lost, now included the very people they died for.

"Yes but I made sure, such a heinous act would not be tolerated in my kingdom. I made sure they were justly punished and they do not speak for us, for me.. I can only hope Ragnar will forgive me for failing him so," Ecbert cupped the other's wet cheek and lifted until their eyes meet, the king's own eyes wet with unshed tears. "For failing you Athelstan, I can only beg-"

Both Athelstan and Judith then jumped in surprise as the king fell to his knees and pressed his face into the former monk's lap whilst spilling words begging for forgiveness.

"Beg that you'll forgive an old man's faulty choice of trust, which was placed in the utmost wrong type of characters-"

His actions threw both of them for a loop before they hurried to get him back up while Athelstan tried assuring "You are not to blame for their actions, you may be their king but they are their own men at heart and will do as they believe is right."

A part of him had to believe what he was saying, otherwise Athelstan knew he wouldn't be able to look the older man in the eyes.

"Regardless of any say, blame is not upon you, those that were chosen to protect are.. Please it pains me to see you take such misplaced blame."

When Ecbert's head finally lifted, Judith added as they slowly but surely got him back onto his feet "You mustn't blame yourself sire, what Athelstan says is true."

"I am unworthy blessed with such forgiving compassionate and merciful friends such as thee," Ecbert announced while placing his hands on each of their shoulders. "But even if I wish it, I am not guiltless.. But rest assured that I'll try and seek redemption for what has occurred."

Not knowing what to say Athelstan nodded while ignoring the heavy weight the man's hand caused. He didn't like what emotions lurked underneath it.

"But you must be tired from your long and hard journey," Ecbert said, changing the subject while releasing them in favor of walking to his desk "And while I do not wish to leave while things are as they are, I must return to my Kingly duties which require my attention."

"I understand."

"Good, good," a pause grew and it's heavy layer remain persistent over the room until he locked eyes with his former mistress "Judith'll see to that the servant get you a fitting room, I find that I need a moment to collect myself."

"We understand sire," she said accepting the responsibility before giving Athelstan a weak smile while leading him out.

At the sound of the door closing and with his back to it, Ecbert calmly wiped the tears away while wearing a calculating expression.

Chapter Text

It had only been a few days but Athelstan had remain soley in his room, praying for answers.

Food was provided regularly, although barely eaten cause of the constant nausea he experienced. It was as if the smells and tastes of food was too much for his senses. Too obscene to handle even as his stomach cramped for substance.

Neither Ecbert nor Juidth requested him to join them, nor did they disturb him. He was thankful for that piece of solitude as he dealt with the mess that had became his emotions.

Mostly despair and guilt filled him and the start of loneliness. The last for the Gods, for the sensation that he experianced in death when they been around him, it was so bluntly diffrent once he felt it. It was almost like a punishment to be apart from them now after having felt them so intensely.

He also started missing Ragnar's company, yet it filled him with shame when he though of the man. Because this was partly his fault.. Had he not been so blinded by the prospect of two worlds living in harmony as Ragnar and he had, then maybe this would not have happen.

The seeds planted for a better future for Ragnar's people and the next generation had been unplucked and discarded.. Destroyed.

It weighted heavy upon him and tears trickled down his face as Athelstan stood over a bowl of water, cheeks already marked by old tears that've become itchy with time. If he hadn't already been, he would have though he looked dead as his reflection peered back at him from the water surface.

But it was not only guilt and shame that strained his body but also his body itself. Aches spread through his limbs as the day saw it's end, down to the bone, muscles becoming stiff as if gone through hard labor. That and his chest was continuously sore and felt bruised, right over his heart like he've received a heavy blow from underneath skin and bone.

Cupping the liquid, he splashed his face and washed away the evidence but the puffy and redness of his eyes remain persistent. Trying to collect himself, he dried himself before braiding his lose hair.

It was time to leave this room and show his appreciation to King Ecbert for the hospitality.

Glancing over to the bed, he took in the clothes left for him with a sinking feeling. His old monk robe, it had been laid out without question, and that had hit him hard. He really was to remain here in Wessex and likley not see Ragnar for years.

Maybe this was the Gods way of correcting what they've viewed as the wrong path, that being Athelstan's decision to return to Kattegat. It would corroborate why he woke up here instead of where he died. Their way of saying that Ecbert had been right, that his heart belongs here in England, in a Christian country.

Although his heart disagreed.

A warm drop of water rolled down the side of his face and tickled his neck before he rubbed it off but then dropped the robe in surprise as he saw the blood smear on his hand.

"Wh-" he numbly rubbed the blood between his fingers, feeling it texture and how it stained the skin.

The sudden hollow echo of knuckles rapping on the door pulled him away. It was followed with Ecbert's voice calling out "Athelstan, may I join you?"

In his half dressed state, Athelstan looked back to his hand and found the blood nowhere in sight. Confused he moved and turned the clean palm over in searched.

"Athelstan.. Are you awake?"

Dropping his hand he called out "Yes, forgive me, I'll be but a moment," before picking up his robe and putting it on. But found that somehow the robe felt wrong, it dragged against his skin in a unpleasant manner. As a renewed Christian it should give him comfort, Athelstan reflected with annoyance.

Hopefully with time it would becomes less displeasing.

Opening the door and unveiling the king, Ecbert was quick to take in the robes and give a approving smile. It pleased him to see Athelstan embracing the christian attire once more. He had them sent to the man after having heard back from his scouts that there was no Norsemen roaming either his land or open water. It was as he said to Judith 'Athelstan has truly come alone.'

"I hope I'm not bothering you in such grieving times?"

"No, not at all. I was on my way out-"

"Then may I spare you a moment?"

"Of course," Athelstan stepped aside to let the King in, who took note of the scarcely eaten food with a frown. "Is the food not to your liking?"

"It is but having been upon the sea has effected my hunger but I'm sure it'll pass soon," he lied which was becoming easier with each day passing.

"Ah, I confess it's been quite a while since I was upon the open seas."

Athelstan nodded, trying to focus on the other as he spoke but his mind drifted back to the vision of blood and pondered its meaning.

They reminded him of the visions he saw after having been crucified, how he would bleed from healed wounds only for the blood to disappear second later. They were eerily similar.

"And I know the news about the settlement must have devastated you," Ecbert said, bring the other back with his words "But I'm not solely a bearer of bad news, I carry also a good one," he stepped towards the doorway and called out "Judith, bring Alfred."

"Alfred?" he asked confused, not recalling the name anywhere or to anyone. His eyes widen in suprise as Judith stepped inside with a child in her arms. "You had another child?"

"Yes, a son," she said coming closer to show him and then hand over, forcing Athelstan to quickly balance the boy into his arms. "Your son."

Athelstan froze while the other two awaited for further reaction. Body still with shock and mind going numb, he looked up to her with wide eyes. The silent question was answered with a nod before he gazed upon the child.

Feeling the weight in his arms, Athelstan shakily lifted a hand to touch the soft face and Alfred in turned looked back while yawning quietly. Unexplainable joy suddenly overtook his shock and numbness as tears formed.

He had a son, a child of his very own!

"My son," he gasped in wonderment before looking up, Judith had equally shiny eyes and Ecbert a soft smile. "How-" the smile quickly disapeard as he realized what this meant, a sinking feeling grew in the pit of Athelstan's stomach.

The sinful crime that've been commited coming to light in the form of a son.

"The affair, yes," Ecbert confirmed while Judith seemingly shrunk in on herself. "But rest assure, no punishment shall be dealt. I do not seek to condemn you or anyone else for what has occurred, we all have sins even the most righteous is not without stain."

"But it was immoral, wrong, I laid with your son's wife-" he shifted the grip on the child, feeling cautious and unconvinced of the quick forgiven nature, missing how Judith snapped up and looked stricken by his words.

"How you can let me stay here after I've done something so insulting. How can there not be a punishment?" Athelstan question in disbelief. The king may view them as friends but this was frown upon by the church, court and people- Aethelwulf, who must without question know.

"Now how could I when it's God's will that made sure this child was conceived."

"..God's?" that had not been what he expected to hear.

"Yes, you're a man of God Athelstan," he said passionately while moving in close, skillfully lying once again in the same manner that he done to his son and the people. "I nor anyone else can convict and chastise Judith for desiring a man of your stature, which gave life to your son. It's surely an act of our Lord," he placed a hand on Alfred's head gently "He desired that these acts were fulfilled."

Looking back with wide eyes, Athelstan was lost for words and shocked at the reason behind the forgiveness- Actually it appeared now more as a blessing from the king. Not how he expected this to go if it ever came to ligtht.

"But your son, her husband, Aethelwulf, he cannot-"

"Don't worry," Ecbert assured, leaning in close with intense eyes "I'll protect you.. All of you," the last part he added once locking eyes with Judith.

Compared to when Ragnar has said such familiar words and now, Ecbert didn't sound as reliable. Not after the settlement which he had promised similar protection.

"My son'll not go against my will. Or that of God's."

God's will? Athelstan thought doubtful looking down at the boy. It sounded too much like an excuse for their actions and a far fetched way to let them escape without retribution.

A renewed Christian he may been before death but at the time of his son's conception he had struggled between his faith and the pagan one. He haven't been a man of God for many years nor would he ever be, at least not in such a manner. After his resurrection, especially after that, he could never ignore the pagan Gods ever again.

Was this Ecbert's way of easing the way and freeing Alfred of his parents ill advised actions?

Athelstan didn't voice any of these thoughts, not when it presented a way for Judith and his son to not be punished, instead he nodded and expressed his gratitude "I cannot express how thankful I am for your mercy."

"Don't thank me, that praise goes to our Lord. But you'll be happy to know that I made sure he had a christening."

"How am I be able to repay-

"There's no need I'm just happy you're all safe and sound. And of course for you to meet your son, it's an occasion to celebrate! Now come, join us for some food and drink," Ecbert said with a big smile and lead them out "I'm sure Judith is brimming with things to tell you about Alfred."

Judith swallowed heavily and followed them, her eyes locked on the man she loved while her heart was heavy and filled with uncertainty.

--

The sky was dark and sun had long since gone down, only candles and tourches were illuminating the way for them through the halls. Their light chuckles filled the silence as well as their chatter.

Judith giggled as he helped her stand tall once again after having taken a misstep "I think I tasted too much of the wine," she confessed good humored.

Ecbert had left them only moments ago with a tired groan and stretch before departing to his own chambers, leaving with a sly look in his eyes which only she had catched.

"I think we all did," Athelstan laughed althought not as drunk and affected as the other. Too many nights drinking oneself into a stupor with Torstein and Ragnar would do that to you, made him handle his drink a lot more efficiently.

If his younger monk like-self saw him now, oh the horrified expression he would receive!

"What's so funny?" she asked with a smile as he started snickering to himself. They were close to her bedchamber now and she felt excited but also nervous.

"Nothing," he dismissed, trying to suppress his laughter before looking at her which brough forth a smile "I was just imagining how my former self would be outraged by my behavior."

"..And that makes you laugh?" Judith asked quietly, as she imagine what her younger self would think of her now. Properly disgusted and ashamed what she've become, think of her as a harlot and other unsavory things..

"Yes, I'm very diffrent from who I once were. Like to think I've changed for the better."

"I don't think I would like very much what my young self would see and say about myself now.."

Their conversation turned sobering.

".. Why?"

"It wouldn't be a pleasant conversation on my behalf," she said with weak smile.

"Nor would mine."

Feeling baffled, she looked at him "Then why find it amusing?"

Contemplating his answer and how to explain it to her so she would understand, Athelstan thought for a long moment before saying "I was someone else back then, I was.. blind to the world outside the one I knew. Sheltered by the monastery, only seeing what was shown to me, even on my journeys with my fellow monks to other places. So what did I know of pain, suffering, joy and love outside faith?"

Judith falter at his words as they came to stand before her room.

"My opinion back then doesn't speak as high of value now, it would be filled with what I've been feed and taught to believe. My thoughts were others' view of things, not made by my own experiences for I barely had any which wasn't related to God."

"So you wouldn't change it if you could? Go back to who you were?"

"No, I've found that I'm far happier as I am now even if it's been a hardship along the way with tears and pain. Even as I struggle with myself, I have a lot of things I never dared to dream of. Friends, family and now including a son," he gave her a warm smile.

She noticed immediately the absencent mention of 'lover'. Or was she family now?

"My past self knows nothing of what I've gone through, and have been forced to do and willingly done. Have yours?"

"No," she said with realization. Her past hadn't gone through what she had, so what right did the young Judith have to question or insult her choices to feel alive and survive.

"So what value do their thoughts of us have?

"Nothing," she answered with a stronger smile and opened the door, wide enough for him to follow but he hestitated before taking a step back.

"I think it's time I bid you good night-"

"Do you wish to see him?" Judith quickly asked, not wanting him to leave her just yet. Additionally, Ecbert expected her to fulfill her duties in keeping Athelstan comfortable in Wessex.

All through the dinner and 'celebration', Athelstan had barely managed to look away from Alfred. Too mesmerised by his existence and every sound and move he made to even concentrate on conversations. He had been reminded to eat his food and drink repeatedly from both Ecbert and Judith.

Which made her offer very tempting and soon enough he felt her hand slip into his before gently being lead inside without any resistant. Even if he knew he should go back to his own sleeping quarters and lessen the risk of them being alone together, he grew quickly weak at the mention of Alfred.

This must be what Ragnar felt with his children. Such unexplainable love and adoration for someone he barely knew.

The boys were sleeping soundly in their beds, having been brought here by the nursery maidens once the hour had grown late. Beside their beds laid one of the maids sleeping on the ground.

Her present was assuring and lessen the tension in Athelstan's shoulders and caused him to drop his guard significantly while Judith faltered at the sight of her, having for a second forgotten the servant's present and the obstacle she now have become.

Letting go of the other, Athelstan knelt beside the crib and peered down at the resting face, drinking in every detail he could make out from the light of the fireplace.

"He's beautiful," he whispered, fingers itching to lift him up as Judith took a seat on her bed close to them.

"He is," she smiled and daringly reached out to place a hand on his shoulder which he chose to take as a friendly gesture.

"I've never imagen myself being so blessed," his voice filled with astonishment and tenderness while touching the boy's cheek gently "To have a child of my very own."

"Never?"

"I- it never crossed my mind.. It's not something that's expected of you when you're a monk."

"But you're no longer a monk," she pointed out.

That was true yet Athelstan had barley played with the thought of either children or a wife as a free man. He came to a sudden realization. When he thought of the future all his mind and heart, regardless what the Gods and Ecbert thought, could picture was to follow and be beside Ragnar, wherever that would take him. Even in death he imagen walking beside the man in spirit.

There was only Ragnar in his future, at least that had once been the case, now he wasn't so sure.

"Seems some old habits remain persistent even if they are of no value."

"Not anymore, you have a son now."

"And I have you to thank for that," he turned to look at her with a smile.

"I didn't do it alone," her fingers grazed the skin by his collar, the touch was pleasant but made him tense and the smile fadded.

Turning back to Alfred just as her hand was seconds from caressing his cheek but now stopped and hovered after his action before dropping away.

"What happen after I left?" he finally asked quitely, so far no one had woken up. "Did you know you were..?"

"No but if I had, would you have stayed with me if I told you?"

"I... I don't know. I would like to imagen I would but-"

"But?" Judith moved to kneel beside him with a hardly disguised look of hurt.

"I don't know what I would have done.. Our situation isn't ideal and what we did was-"

"Wrong, immoral," she whispered sharply, picking up the same words he used with Ecbert.

"Yes-" he watch her experssion become stricken "In their eyes it was and they have the power to do us harm. What I think do not hold the angry mob or your husband away."

The expression faded but not her feeling of hurt, she wasn't liking these answers even if they were true.

"I would fear what they would have done to you, both of you," Athelstan touched her shoulder gently and she hesitated before leaning into it. "Maybe I would have taken you with me," he joked, trying to lighten the mood but it fell flat in the quite room "But that would only have caused problems for the alignment. Which wouldn't leave me with many options. What would you have wanted me to do? Had I known."

"Stayed with me."

"Even if that was impossible?

"I didn't say it was rasional but King Ecbert do favors you, maybe he could-

"Tell his son to let his wife have a secret lover?" he suggested with a unconvinced tone.

"Maybe," she replied. The man was willing to make his son's wife into his own personal mistress.

"It wouldn't have worked and I- I couldn't-"

"Why?"

"Because my future lied with Ragnar," he finally spilled honestly and with a pained expression.

"Even with your son?" she wanted to add 'and me' but already knew the answer to that. Athelstan had already picked the viking over her in the past.

It was sinking in more and more how high the pagan was held in comparison to others in the former monk's life.

"The only way I could have been part of his life, at least with what I knew back then, would have been to take him from you. I could never do such a thing," he slowly moved them to sit on the bed while she nodded. "Not against you."

"But he would have been safer with you," Judith reasoned, thinking back to the pain and fear she've gone through after the birth.

Swallowing, his thoughts flashed back to his death and said absently "I wouldn't be so sure."

"What do you mean?"

Shaking his head "Nothing, it dosen't matter.. I must ask, does- does Aethelwulf know about Alfred being mine?"

"Yes," Judith turned from him, her fingers fidgeting with locks of hair "I was pregnant and my husband had been away on battle so it was nothing I could've hidden. I was forced to tell them the father or my punishment would have been fulfilled completely."

"Punishment? I thought Ecbert put a stop to any punishments."

"He did but only after they did this," she moved her hair which hide the mutilated ear stump and watched his eyes widened in horror "And after I told them the name of the father."

Hand moved and hovered over the gruesome wound, afraid to touch in fear that it would inflict pain, Athelstan felt bill rose in the back of his throat and guilt overtook him.

His fingers instead graced the area underneath her missing ear "I-I'm truly sorry," he could barley form the words "I-I should have been the one condemned- If I ever know what they would do, I would never have left you. Never."

Letting go of her hair, Judith covered his hand and pressed it into her cheek with a wet smile "You would, wouldn't you," she said with joy. He would have saved her if he knew, and that lighten her heart.

"I would have taken your place in a heart beat-"

Judith lips pressed against his, cutting off his apologies and mind efficiently. Her arms wrapped themselves around his neck and soon the kiss deepend, and for a moment he was lost in the feeling of her just like in the past.

But their embrace was cut short as one of the children woke up crying , waking both his brother and the maid. Forcing them to break apart and let Athelstan realize the mistake he was making.

"I should leave," he rose and hurried to the door.

Following in his footsteps was Judith who tried to come up with anything to make him stay but with the children crying and the present of the conscious maid, she couldn't think.

"W-"

"I'll happily see Alfred anytime that's acceptable to you. Good night, princess."

Next Athelstan swiftly disappeared behind the closing door, leaving her with slumped shoulders and a disappointed sigh.

".. Good night."

---

"With the settlement gone and along it, your original assignment, I thought it would be best to give you a new purpose or in this case an old one," Ecbert lead him inside.

The familiar scrolls, pages, shelves and the desk, along with writing and painting tools. All was exactly as Athelstan had left it. He took it all in, this had not been the place he'd expect to find himself after leaving for Kattegat. Yet here he was.

"I don't want you to feel ideal until Ragnar sends for you. When are you scheduled to return?"

"I do not know an exact time, it depended on things back home and if there's need or time for me to return," he lied, having prepared for that exact question and to give a vage enough answer.

"I see," the king swallowed bitterly around Athelstan's use of 'home' to decribe the Northlands but reminded himself that there was still time to change that. "Now what do you say, is it appealing enough to take up where you left off?"

For some reason it felt choking, as if dust was collecting in his throat and stopping air from getting through. He couldn't understand why he was feeling this way, everything inside this room, including his robes, had giving him peace once but now left a bad taste in his mouth.

"I would appreciate the distraction and sense of duty," Athelstan said finally, not knowing what else to say.

"Good," the king watched the other walk up to the unfinished images that still remain out "And with my son swiftly returning from Merica, hopefully with promising news, I would imagen you wishing to spend more time down here. In both studies."

Athelstan looked down at the mention of Aethelwulf but quickly looked up when Ecbert came close.

"Do not worry, no harm shall come but I do advice you remain out of sight until further once he's here."

"Yes sire."

"Now I'll let you get accustomed once more, should we expect you at dinner?"

"Hopefully, if I've not been consumed by these scripts," Athelstan jokes with a failing smile which the king did not notice.

"I'll send a servant to fetch you in such a case."

Ecbert left with Athelstan nodding at him, only to meet Judith half way through the corridor.

"I was told Athelstan was with you down here," she explained at his questioning expression. "I wish to speak with him."

"Ah. Well don't let this old man stand in your wake," he grinned, stepping aside for her. But with Aethelwulf fresh in his mind, he quickly blocked her by stepping back.

"Actually, there was one thing I needed to discuss with you. Regarding my son's part in the settlement."

She had been waiting for this subject to be broached as soon as Ecbert had deliberetly not told Athelstan of Aethelwulf action in the slaughter. His volume was low enough that their guest wouldn't overhear so she had to come closer.

"It's not to be spoken of, do I make myself clear? It'll only bring Athelstan and us unnecessary pain."

"But-"

"I'll not have them at each other's throats!" he declared with a firm and higher tone, then glanced behind him to see if it was heard. He added once turning back to her "You wouldn't want them to harm each other?"

"No," shaking her head but didn't appear fully convinced of lying to Athelstan. Especially not about this, it was clear that Ragnar's dream had been full heartedly shared by the former-monk.

A devious thought struck and Ecbert quickly but gently grabbed her shoulders while wearing a disappointed expression "He shouldn't have broke my will or word but-" brows wrinkled together while eyes sharped onto her "Your action humiliated him, I made sure neither you nor your son was punished severely. But my son didn't recive his justice and with the settlement here. He was angry and.. it does not excuse but you must understand his state of mind. Our actions have unforeseeable consequences."

Judith mouth parted and eyes widen. It hadn't even crossed her mind, that it could have been her infidelity that pushed him to such anger and the reason for him to do such a thing.

All those people..

"Now do you see, we cannot let this come to light. Mh?"

"Y-yes," eyes grew wet but she didn't let the tears fall as he let her go. "I understand."

"Now go see our guest, I'm sure he'll be happy for your company," he touched her cheek with a encouraging smile before heading towards the stairs.

Gathering herself together, she wiped her eyes dry and exhaled a shaky breath as he disappeared from sight. She did her best of not thinking about the list of consequences that was growing because of her actions.

Lifting her head taller and continuing onto her path, Judith stopped silently in the doorway and watched her lover- or was it still lover? She didn't know anymore, she needed answers and that's why she was here.

She hadn't been left alone with him for two days since their kiss, it almost felt as if he was doing it on purpose. Making sure they never were alone or would hurry off before it could just be them two.

In the dime light of the clouded sun coming through the small windows, Athelstan unrolled a scroll and with unseeing eyes looked at the words that didn't register.

Once more Athelstan would wear the title of 'Guardian', to preserve the roman history for all eternity. Ecbert hadn't said so but it was the Gods will for Athelstan to be here so it must mean for this purpose and for eternity..

"Athelstan..?"

Turning around in suprised Athelstan dropped the scroll and took in the royal standing by the door. Swallowing, Athelstan gave her a polite smile "I apologize, I didn't hear you come in."

She walked deeper into the room, taking in the state of it before pausing at one of Athelstan's work "It's beautiful."

".. Thank you," he cautiously came closer, wondering if what she was here for was what he suspected. If he was lucky it was about their son. "Although it's not finished as you can see, needs to be painted with the fitting colors."

Glancing at him as he came to stand beside her, Judith asked curiously "Do you know which?"

"Not exactly, it's been a long time since I looked at this piece, can't recall what I planned for it."

"Maybe the color of the sun would be fitting for the area behind his head, would make it appear holy."

"I agree," he smiled which she mirrored before Judith turned to face him fully.

"We can't," Athelstan protested, backing away when she reached out for him, intentions very clear.

"We can. The King gives his blessing, you don't need to worry about punishments," she assured honestly, grasping the sleeve of his robe.

"What are you talking about?" Athelstan drew back further in bafflement. "Why would he do such a thing? Against his very own son."

"God. King Ecbert believes our son is God's doing and in so the force which pulled us to one another. He won't stop us if we wish to be together."

"Even so, I can't."

Rejected once more Judith asked upset "Am I no longer desirable to you, I bare your child and you-

"No, that's not-" Athelstan grabbed her hand, touching her for the first time since she arrived "You're as beautiful as the day I meet you, maybe even more so now."

"Then why?"

"Becasue it's already done so much harm, most of all to you," guilt colored Athelstan's expression "And it's my fault, I should never have pushed, I shouldn't have let it happen from the start."

".. You regret it," her hand withdrew instantly.

"Not everything, only the pain it caused you."

"Then why won't you touch me. Don't you love me?

Willing himself to be strong and say the words that needed to be said even if they hurt her "Not enough. Not like you deserve nor how you wish to be loved."

Rearing back as if slapped Judith asked vexed "What do you know of how I want to be loved?"

"You want to be loved unconditionally, at least that's how you should be loved."

"What if I don't care?"

".. I still won't be with you," Athelstan answered, holding himself to the promise he made himself. "I'll only extend my hand in friendship and shared parenthood but that's where it ends. I'm sorry."

Tears now filled up Judith's eyes as she couldn't believe what she was hearing. He didn't love her enough nor did he wish to be with her even if no harm would come to them.

"Was it even real or was I just someone willing you could lay with?!.. Did you even love me before?" she questioned angrily before drifting to a sad tone.

His silent was deafaning as Athelstan though back to the lust and taste of the forbidden that had sparked between them but no deep love.

The sadness faded and was overtaken by anger and the feeling of betrayal as her former lover remain quiet. "You used me," Judith hissed before slapping him as hard as she could muster, causing him to stumble in surprise before sharply leaving with a few tears escaping down her face.

Judith was sick and tired of being used by others.

Athelstan remained against the shelf, making no attempts to pull himself up as he sat in the shame he deserved but knew that it had been the right choice. For everyone.

Chapter Text

"A toast to my son."

Ecbert lifted his chalice and looked towards his only child "I give thanks to God for your success and safe return."

"Thank you, father," Aethelwulf replied before taking a sip in suit with the King, only Judith was slower to take hers as she cautiously observed them both quietly.

An underline of uncertainty was in the air and every second Judith wondered if the King would broach the topic of Athelstan's present.

"I confess to you that Queen Kwenthrith tried to use her female wilds upon me but-" the prince informed, glancing to his father who's paused before continuing to eat-"with God's help I manages to resist the Devil's snares."

"I always knew she try to win you over that way," Ecbert confessed in turn before chewing as he contemplates the Queen with a shake of his head, "It's in her nature... It's what she does."

He then pointed to his son and said with confident and praise for all to hear, "But I also knew, that you would be able to resist her for your morals and faith are such as even I look up to."

Aethelwulf put his hands together and gave a nod, taking in the recognition with concealed joy.

Turning to his dauther-in-law, who's eyes were now on the food, Ecbert carried on while motioning at her with a meaingful expression, "I'm sure your wife, is also happy to hear that you avoided temptation."

Husband and wife locked eyes across the table, he inquisitive while she struggled to find the correct words as she was put on the spot.

"Ah.. Of course," she answered dutiful before stating more honestly while keeping eye contact with her spouse. "But-.. I'm not so much of a hypocrite as to say so."

"No longer be afraid of that, however painful it was for me. Whatever happen between you and Athelstan-" Aethelwulf paused to swallow as the words grew heavy to speak-"was God's work. It was for a higher purposes and although I can't even guess at that purposes, I'm prepared to bow before God's will."

Both were suprised by this turn of leaf, Judith taking the words with caution even as they were said with sincerity, and Ecbert seeing the opportunity to force his son to take to the words and promise he just unintentionally made to them.

"I praise your attitude my son if only we were all so humble and so righteous."

Aethelwulf rubbed at his forehead, feeling the tiredness of both journey and of the words from his father, words which struck an unpleasant core if tried to used to describe the King.

A heavy question lodged upon his mind and the doubt which spread because of it. Was Aethelwulf just a pawn in his father's pursuit in claiming England? Had he been sent to Merica in hopes of the prince meeting his demise at the hands of the Queen, and in so starting a war between the two Kingdoms? The one needed to take claim of Merica.

It was an outrageous question to even ask but he felt compelled to know the answer to it, to either be assured or let it be confirmed of the true and ugly nature of his roll.

Aethelwulf's lips parted but he didn't get a chance to speak for the King carried on without faltering.

"For it pleases me greatly my son. For you see God has seen to it as to bless us by having Athelstan returned to us."

Hands gripped the wooden arms of the chair tightly before forcing himself to say with a facade of intrigue, "The Northmen have returned to our land?" Willing himself to focus on the important aspect of the information.

"No, they've merely left Athelstan here in passing as they ride towards greater challenges. To Paris."

"Paris?" Letting loose a disbelieving scoff of laughter, "They aim to conquer the great city?"

"Quite a feat I know."

"A foolish attempt, no one has ever succeeded in overtaking such a secure city." The Prince didn't bother asking if they should assist the French, for that was not their battle to partake in and even so it was much more guarded than their own Kingdom so they shouldn't be needed for aid.

"Yet I find myself believing if anyone would do such a impossible thing it would be Ragnar," Ecbert reflect with a air of respect and ideal for the Heathen.

"... He is a force to be reckoned with," admitted Aethelwulf, then finally daring to voice what was truly on his mind. "And what about Athelstan, mh? Why not amidst them in such an attempt. I thought if any he would be by the Viking's side, unless he's here on their behalf.. Or could it be possible he's return for his home country?"

The King took his time, chewing and sipping his drink much to his son's annoyance, "He's here to oversee the settlement but as you know, it no longer exists."

Aethelwulf grew silent and wore an unreadable expression while his hands knitted together.

"But he's not without purpose, he's return to his former duties that'd I assigned him when he first came into our possession."

"... And when will they inevitably come for him?" Taking slight enjoyment at the twist to his father's expression at the mention, that so clearly states and shows where Athelstan's truest loyalty and want laid. And it wasn't with his father.

"It cannot be pin pointed to an exact time and day, it was never decided since his task was one of long time commitment to the people Ragnar left in our care... It could be months, years even."

"Then we must always be aware," Aethelwulf reasoned with caution, the pagans would never forgive the events that had occurred. Be it with or without the knowledge of King Ecbert's part in it. "Is Athelstan aware of his son?"

Giving his wife a glance but it was the King who answered in her stead, "Yes, he's been informed and introduced."

"I take it he's overjoyed?" Eyes never leaving Judith, who looked back at him unfaltering.

"As I believe any man would that understands such a blessed gift that is children."

"Especially a son." Aethelwulf then raised his drink towards her in a act of celebration, even if it wasn't full heartedly, "Congratulations."

Judith gave a slight nod in thanks, asking slowly "Your claims of before, do they still stand after news of his arrival?" While eyeing him carefully. She needed to know, for her children.

And also the small betraying part of her that still worried for the man who used her.

"I still stand by what I said, it has not changed."

"If only others could stand to have such control and forgiveness, the world surely would be a better place," King Ecbert praised once more for all to hear, openly pleased by his son's words. "We look to your image as pristine example."

--

Wandering the halls with thoughts filled with newes from Merica. Ecbert was relieved to know it's been sorted but now he needed to find another way to try and claim the land with proper cause. No claim would have been as secure and fitting than a murdered son and heir, even if it pains him to use Aethelwulf in such way.

Still it was for a greater purpose.

But no news caught him by surprise than news of this 'son' of Ragnar that the Mad Queen had given birth to. If it was a ploy, he wouldn't be all surprised, wouldn't put it past her... Yet if it was a legitimate child, well again she wasn't loyal to no man and slept with whoever she fancied. It wouldn't be far fetched for the Viking King himself to also have enjoyed her pleasuring company.

Either the case, it could be useful especially if it was a true son of Ragnar. Getting hold of the boy would be in his favor, a card to triumphantly be used in dire situations that called for it.

Catching sight of a moving figure from the corner of his eye, the King stopped and glanced to the window. Stepping closer to see outside to the garden, he stopped short as he saw the younger man that he couldn't help but want near.

Athelstan's robs contrasted strongly around the environment and made him easy to spot among the dying greenery. The former monk filled him with an almost obsessive sort of nature that Ecbert didn't fully know how to understand or interpret. Yet he knew he desired for the man to remain by his side forever.

Gazing around he found that Athelstan walked alone, recalling of telling the man to keep hidden until he said otherwise, seems those words has been discarded to the wind.

Minutes later Ecbert walked into the garden, eyes set on the area which he had last seen his guest. He found Athelstan standing still and intensely staring in the direction of the wall, looking at something the King couldn't make out until he got closer.

A few birds were jumping along and sitting ontop of the wall, cawing and making a light nuisance of themselves. Their feathery coats were pitch black and stood out as much as the monk did.

With slight suspicion Ecbert eyed the creatures before clearing his throat, announcing his present and causing the other to jump and turn around before relaxing visibly at the sight of him. Which he couldn't help but be pleased by.

"I do believe I told you it would be wiser to remain out of sight?"

"It wasn't on purpose," Athelstan lied in a sheepish manner, shifting on the spot. "My mind wandered and so in turn did I. Found myself here, I think a part of me knew I needed some air."

"Working below can be quite suffocating, I cannot fault you for needing a moment of fresh air."

The King motioned for the man to follow him as he headed back inside, wishing to keep Athelstan's attention for a while longer. And he could use the younger man's counsel regarding the Northmen.

"I've spoken with my son and he assured me he won't do you any harm, but between the two of us I would still ask of you not to seek out his company and stay clear if possible, for everyone involved. A man's reputation isn't a pleasant sight to see bruised."

That Aethelwulf wouldn't seek redemption and justice for what he've done was.. unbelievable. Athelstan gave a nod in understanding. "I'll be out of sight if needed sire."

"Good," Ecbert took pause by the stairs, halting their movement in which Athelstan would deem a secluded and private spot. "Now there's something I need to ask you, for if anyone knows Ragnar the most I would think it be you."

"Ragnar is quite complex, I cannot say with full confidence that I know him more than others."

"Yet he trust you, and any can see you share a bond."

A knot twisted in his stomach and a feeling of light longing came over him, Ragnar's presence was missed in these times of confusion and doubts. Yet for unknown reasons, a cautiousness overcame him and in turn a feeling of guilt, for the King've done him nothing but been a generous host.

Athelstan gave a small nod, "Yes, I see him as a close friend." Family even, but he's throat tighten around those words and did not let them be heard.

"When Ragnar appears on my shores once more.. Will he be able to forgive for what has happened to his settlement?"

Lowering his eyes, Athelstan curled his hands together, "For once I cannot speak for him nor what he's actions would be." But he could imagine how furious, betrayed and saddened the man would be by the news.

"Then what of a son?"

Eyes snapped up and with a confused expression, Athelstan repeated, ".. A son?"

"It appears Kwenthrith has birth Ragnar a son," Ecbert told, taking in the other's surprise. "You knew nothing of this?"

"No.."

Leaning in close, the King asked with clear interested "Then could her claim be false?"

"Not necessarily," Athelstan answered honestly, heart beating faster, "Ragnar has had children with more than one woman, it's not disbelieving if it is to be true." The former monk could feel himself jumping between curiosity, speculation and small glimmer of hope.

Ragnar always had such deep love for his children and Athelstan felt happy for him. If true these news would please him, and likely cause problems back home with his wife... Yet a small part of Athelstan hoped it was true, to have a piece of the Viking near, even in the form of a child would be a blessing.

For the reality was that Athelstan had left the studies knowingly. It hit him fully that there was nothing left of the man that once been his captive turned closes of friend. Only memories.

In the dust covered room, filled with ancient scrolls of Roman scripts, he had suddenly felt how bare his wrist was. The arm ring that he thrown away in an act of being reborn as a Christian, now more than ever he felt its harsh absent.

No more was there a ring that grew warm from the heat of his skin nor chilly from the cold air. No more was it tying him to Ragnar in a pact of loyalty, even if that loyalty remain inside him, nothing left of Ragnar did.

Not the settlement and not the precious arm ring, it was as if no trace was left for Athelstan to see of the Viking. Of the life and home he made in Kattegat. And knowing he may never see the man again, it had made the heart heavier.

Had Athelstan not been given a son to balm his loneliness, then he would have wondered if this was not a punishment by the Gods. For wanting to never leave Ragnar's side.

It had hit him all at once, causing him to leave the room which had started to feel like a tomb and out into the garden, where he had been in a state of numbness before hearing the sounds of ravens nearby.

Wondered what their present had for significance and what they represented to his troubled thoughts.

"Then it could truly be his son," the older man mused, breaking the other's thoughts before chuckling with a smile, "Seems these are the times we are to be blessed with sons."

The image of Alfred appeared on Athelstan's mind and so did a small smile, in time maybe his son would make him bear it. Then as if knowing his thoughts, Ecbert spoke again.

"Alfred is truly a blessing above others, he'll be a magnificent king."

Athelstan blinked, "A king?"

"With the guidences from myself and you, as well as skilled schoolers. Wessex will be under fine ruling."

"B-but Alfred's not a true descendant of either you nor Aethelwulf, he has no claim to the throne as heir," he protested, trying to wrap his head around the absurd announcement.

"He's a gift from God, for what other purpose but to be king?" Ecbert reasoned back, hovering his hand out to the other. "You cannot ask me to deny such a boy not to rule my Kingdom."

Once more God was the reason, the excuse.

As if Athelstan had no control of his own actions! He knew what he done wrong and the outcome of it, there had been no God on his mind when he given into lust. Only been thoughts of promising pleasure and of another warm body against his, as willing as himself.

This was just another lie, another ploy of deception which to hide the truth. Lying was becoming a daily practice for him but he knew this lie, could not be revealed nor argued against. It would only harm Alfred and Judith further but it was showing signs of consequences.

A king, his son? Athelstan has seen what power has done to those around him, it couldn't end well, not for Alfred.

"He's not the first born son," he pressed on, hoping the King would see reason, "Aethelred has that title, and his father has much closer right to the throne than both children."

"Above any Aethelwulf is a man faithful to God, he'll understand my reason as will the people. And the boy got royal blood, maybe not from my family but from Judith's. You shouldn't worry."

Ecbert paused for a moment as he saw the troubled expression on the other.

"Claim me foolish but I believed you would be overjoyed and glad of such news. Alfred'll never find himself lacking in life. I cannot think of any higher position..."

"I've barely had time to fully grasped how I have a son and now he's to be the future king?"

"It's too much, I apologize. I'm being overzealous. I can see that but I've decided that I want it to be Alfred," Ecbert grasped the younger man's shoulder. "There can be no other worthy candidate."

But the expression remain unfavored so he tries another approach.

"Now I know as the child's father you wish to decided for his future.. But you must see the opportunity I'm giving him, the chance to be something more than the stained reputation he'll bear from being.."

"A bastard?" Athelstan continued, shame filling him for tainting a innocent child with his own mistakes.

"Yes," Ecbert nodded, making a show of swallowing as if the description was sobering before giving a sympathetic look to who he thought as a friend. "And do you not wish him a chance at a better life?"

"I do," Athelstan answered in a quiet tone. Knowing he had nothing to give or properly provide for the life he've made.

"Then trust me, trust me with your son and I shall lift him to glory and comfort. To a good life."

The former monk was at a crossroad. He did trust the King but the ruins of the settlement made Athelstan pause, and the prospect of making the child first in line to the throne left him feeling dread. He wondered if Judith knew of this yet, and where her view on the matter fell.

Ecbert nodded again while his hand drop away, giving off the impression that he was taking the man's silence as a yes.

"As much as your company is pleasant I think it's high time I return to my duties," Ecbert gave him a pointed look, "As should you."

"Yes sire," watching as the King descend up the stairs.

"All will be good, you'll see," Ecbert assured him with an encouraging smile before disappearing from view.

Once more his life has been turned on it's axel, Athelstan thought humorless. It seem to be a common theme ever since the Northmen first stepped onto the shore of Lindisfarne.

It was only when he moved for the path to the studies that he remember forgetting to ask for the name of Ragnar's possible son. Athelstan then stopped sharply, brows knitted together.

Never asked why a son of Ragnar had to do with forgiveness or getting in Ragnar's favor..

Dangerous thoughts unfolded traitorously.

Footsteps echoed against the walls and soon a figure came into sight and broke him from his thoughts as he came face to face with none other than Prince Aethelwulf.

They stared down one another before an almost comedic realization appeared on the royal's face, Athelstan quickly averted his eyes to the ground but made no move to leave. Even if King Ecbert's words echoed in his head, he found himself rooted to the spot.

Ready to accept whatever action the Prince deemed right. Better him than Judith and their son.

It didn't take long before Athelstan was slammed into the wall, being held there by fists gripping the front of the robs roughly. Aethelwulf panting heavily, as if he've run miles, into the other's face as his expression was twisted into fury.

Mockery of how he slaughtered the settlement was hot on the tip of Aethelwulf's tongue but he strained to keep it within himself. His father had told him that Athelstan didn't know of his involvement and how it was to remain as such. The King would not tolerate any acts of self indulgence from him when delicate things were being moved into place.

But staring at the man who dare lay with his wife was testing his control and promise.

"You can hit me if that's what you deem as just, I won't fight it," Athelstan said, sincerity colored the words and his eyes looked back at the Prince with acceptance. Like offering oneself as cattle to a butcher.

Fist tighten and Aethelwulf leaned in closer with a sneer, "What I want is that you never had been shown mercy and removed from that cross that was your justly punishment! Even if it's a condemned and frown upon practice."

Their eyes never broke away from one another, in the distant the sound of the wind whispering could be heard and the flapping of wings. Both waiting for the pain to be inflicted but seemingly never arriving as they stood still as stone.

Finally Athelstan's body slumped against the wall as hands unclenched, letting him go as Aethelwulf removing himself from the other. The Prince couldn't linger around the other for too long, he knew this as he got hold of himself. For the pain and humiliation still burned hot inside him, fueled his anger and made him lose himself to wrath.

Eyes boring into the man which had his father favor and the affection of his wife one last time, Aethelwulf turned and left without saying a word. His sharp and hard steps against the stone floor echoed long after he gone.

Athelstan took a deep breath while shaking hands took hold of the wall behind him for support.

The fear which had been absent just seconds ago had now finally made their appearance known and they rode the waves through his body. The wish for death was no longer present in him as it had been when he first gotten slain by the boatmaker, Athelstan realized. There was a strong will inside him to live and it now made sure he knew of it.

Gathering himself together, Athelstan pushed himself upright and returned to the path that lead to the lower levels.

--

Storming in, Aethelwulf dropped down to his knees before the statue of Christ and into pray. The holy men removed themselves from sight after he'd order for solitude upon entrance.

The wrath still bubbles strongly underneath the skin, it made his fists shake because of it and makes it difficult to close them in an act of prayer. The need to hit, destroy, maim and to express his fury and feelings of injustice was overwhelming.

It was blinding him, he knew but it was also fueled by the sadness from the actions of his wife. He promised to remain faithful to Judith in the name of their Lord yet she did not deem him the same respect and loyalty in return.

Aethelwulf tried to understand the will of God, the actions of the holy power and his ways yet in this it was proven difficult. That short moment of acceptance and act of forgiveness the Prince had managed to create was now hanging by a thin thread.

Was the appearance of Athelstan the very test of God? To test the sincerity of Aethelwulf's attempt to understand and forgive. If so it felt as if he was failing, how he wished to hurt the man.

The sacred bond between a man and his wife was held to no regard!

Aethelwulf's hands broke apart and grabbed at the altar infront of him before pressing his forehead against it painfully as tears grew and anguish choked him from within.

He mustn't fail, he would prove his word even if it tore him from the inside. For God, he would prove himself by overcoming this test.

---

As the season progressed so did time, days felt like weeks and weeks felt like days. Slow yet fast as Athelstan grew more accustomed to life within the walls, his new life that he was coming to accept. For he could do nothing else.

Yet the visions of blood remain, appearing at what felt random and only he could see and feel them. Athelstan prayed to the Gods within his chamber, asking if the visions of blood were good or bad omens.

"I feel a constant struggle to understand.. But maybe you expect me to show a little faith?" a humorless laugh spilled from his lips as his shoulders sank. "I feel lost and I know I ask too much when I should be sated with what I'm given, this gift of resurrection, if only it wasn't so confusing."

Athelstan sank his forehead against the wooden frame of his bed while his knees started to feel the cold seeped through his clothes from the stone floor. Contemplating giving it a rest for the day.

It was quite funny, in a dark sort of manner, that he found himself no longer struggling with faith and Gods but instead what tore at him was much worse. What plans had the Gods laid out for him and what was his purpose, feeling lost and unsure if each step was on the correct path.

When Athelstan had struggled between religions, he at least knew where he belonged in life, by Ragnar's side. It had felt right, regardless whom he worshiped.

Sighing he got up as no reply came as expect. Only hoping that answers would come with time.

Groaning, Athelstan stretched his body, slowly the aches had started improving as did the bruise like pain on his breast. The taste of food became better too but not by much yet it was an improvment.

Touched the plate of food left for him then and begrudgingly swallowed a few pieces as he thought back to the weeks that been.

Fortunately he had barely seen Aethelwulf in those following days after. They both making sure to cross each other's paths as little as possible. Which had led to no more violent incidents as the first one.

Except when time had come for Mass which Athelstan had decided to partake in for the first time since his arrival, the Prince had sought out his presence.

After all Athelstan could now, without guilt from his own conscience, partake in such events.

Walking among the crowd that filled the hall, Aethelwulf had noticed the former monk's presence and without hesitation left the King's side, who took no notice of his son leaving.

Appearing charming to the people around them but voice laced with suspicion, Aethelwulf had leaned close and question his reason for being there and if he suddenly served God now.

Which Athelstan could not fault him for, his actions of the past spoke loudly.

Athelstan answered truthfully that he did but of course chose to not add the pagan Gods to that confession. But then the Prince pointed out the lack of cross with suspicion. Specifically the one the King had given him personally.

Having grabbed his chest in surprise and with a realization that the ravens hadn't given him the cross among his belonings. Athetsan with knitted brows had mumbled to himself that he recall having it, lying to cover up it's absent.

Luckily King Ecbert had seemily noticed their quiet conversation and hurried over, and in so heard the topic. Athelstan was saved by the man assuring to get him a new one.

Athelstan abscent mindely touched the wooden cross that now hung around his neck at the memory. Having wanted this time a less extravagant one and more one that was similiar to his first, Athelstan missed the feeling that it given him.

It had taken some convincing but he had gotten his way in the end after explaining why. The King had appeared more happy and pleased at that reason.

When the wooden object had been placed in hand Ecbert had looked at him with some sort of expectation and glee before leaving which had left Athelstan hesitant.

Hand dropped away and Athelstan looked to the sole window in the room, the fog had long since faded along with the morning as the sun rose higher up in the sky.

Today would be a good day to enjoy the small glimpse of warmth that still remains outside before the cold inevitably would take over completely. If he was lucky, some time of it might be spent with Alfred in his company.

Touching the windowsill, Athelstan thanked whoever made it possible for him to still see the boy. To grant him this humble gift of simply seeing him. To Judith for being selflessly merciful.

After days of leaving Judith alone, and so in turn Alfred as well. A small price to pay but one that must be endured. He had then finally gathered enough courage and visited her.

Knowing that she could turn him away, something he couldn't blame the Princess for and could understand if she did. Athelstan had waited for the rejection... Yet she hadn't been so cruel.

"I wouldn't deny my son's right to see his father, regardless what I feel about him."

They hadn't spoken further, and she coldly indifferent to him and his present. And so died his apologies, for he had seen that she wouldn't find comfort in them nor wish to hear them. If anything, she must be sick of it. Instead he had simply enjoyed every moment with his only child, who remain to be beyond captivating.

Smiling to himself, Athelstan thought of the boy. Feeling joy rise up along with fear and uncertainty which came with parenthood. Yet for now he focused on the happiness.

Laughing quietly, he wished it was possible for Ragnar to meet Alfred. That the once scared monk in his possession with vows of chastity had created a son! The Northman would surely not believe it.

Athelstan drew back and glanced about the room in restlessness, it was quite empty, so different and stripped bare compared to the the house in Kattegat that he had claimed as his own. That one had been filled with personal belongings and nicknacks collected through the years while here was only- Actually there was nothing within this room that truly belonged to him.

Something that he would need to aim to change so life would grow more fonder here.

Unavoidably the thought of the little house lead him to think back to what had played out within it. To Floki.

Wondering if the boatmaker has been punished or if he still wandered free.. That is if they knew who killed him, might not even matter, the days leading up to it Athelstan hadn't been looked upon fondly by the people.

And Ragnar would lose another friend among a crowd of friends that was thinning out.

But it was for Helga which Athelstan hoped that there hadn't been a punishment. After all he hadn't fought to live, even offered himself without fear. If Floki was to be punished then Helga and their daughter will surely suffer in turn.

Worry bubbled up as another outcome came to mind.

They might not even know he had died. His body so easily could have been whisked away and dumped into the deepest depths of the lake or left within the forest to be feasted upon by animals until nothing was left, or buried in secret by the man that claimed the title of being his murderer.

Leaving everyone to believe he simply left Kattegat of his own will. Relations wasn't good and Athelstan had found his faith once more, reasons as such was reasonable for him to leave. To disappear in the death of night with no one to stop him. Not even Ragnar himself.

Rubbing a hand over his face, Athelstan begged internally with his whole soul that it had not played out that way. To Ragnar believing that he left him, abandoned him in such a way. Not so long after the Pagan had clinged to him with an edge of desperation and declaration of love and assurance of protection.

Please let fate not be so cruel.

Letting the hand dropped away, Athelstan's eyes froze and the troubled thoughts were pushed aside as he took in the sight. Quickly closing his eyes tightly before re-opening them, Athelstan took slow steps towards it after finding the scene unchanged.

In the corner of the room stood the wooden chest filled with robs and other pieces of clothing. It's design simple with no decorating carvings, made for the sole purpose of being filled, not to be pleasing to the eye. Ordinary and innocent, if had not been for the blood seeping out from the corner and in so creating a small puddle on the stone floor.

Crouching down, Athelstan hesitantly dipped the tips of his fingers into the dark blood. The burning heat surprised him, causing him to snap them back in pain and without thinking sticking them into his mouth in hopes to soothe away the burning sensation.

The taste of blood coated his tongue before rolling to the back of his throat.

Wide eyed they were removed quickly while he fell back, clean hand catching the fall at the last second before he could end up on his back.

Whatever was inside had recently died or was in the progress of dying. But what or why he didn't know. Either that or the Gods were reaching out to him, maybe to answer his question.

With shaking but ready hands, he shuffled closer and lifted the top carefully. Body tense and ready for anything that may jump out at him with ill intent. Looking in, Athelstan found nothing except the intended items, and no injured animal or glimpse of the blood. Yet the blood outside was still present.

Confused but determined, he started pulling out the clothes and pilling them beside him with the idea that he would find the answer deeper within. Halting he dropped a item carelessly to the floor as he blinked in astonishment after reaching the last layer.

The northern clothes gifted from the ravens was folded neatly in the wooden box. Cleaned and still intact, not at all thrown away by the King's servants as Athelstan first believed. Having found them missing after adoring the robs for the first time, he thought that had been their fate.

Astonishment was replaced by a warmth unfolding inside as he gazed over the pieces from Kattegat and the life he had there now evidenced by their very existence.

All of it was there, even the thick socks and boots. Athelstan traced the mended stitching on the boot with a smile.

Torstein.

But not the cross or arm ring, not that he'd expect them, yet a part was disappointed by the lack of arm ring. Still that was on him for throwing away and on no one else.

The smile grew brighter when he catches sight of the blue sleeve peeking out from underneath the pair of pants. Touching the decorated threads of blue, white and red sewed onto the cloth with a wishful expression he then pulled the tunic free and lifted it up before him.

Ragnar.

Sounds of dripping grabbed Athelstan's attention, causing him to glance down only to see the tunic now soaked through and dripping with fresh blood. Painting it to a black appearance and staining his hands bright red.

As horror struck him, the sound of distant drumming started to be heard. A pagan like tone and it vibrated until he could almost feel it within and around himself. Each beat following along with the drops of blood.

But then in recurring fashion as the previous visions, just as fast as it appears, he blinked and it was unstained once more. Including his palms which showed no signs of ever being tainted. Yet it continued to drip at the lower hem even if it showed no sign of being soaked.

And the drumming continued and grew louder while blood persisted to paint the floor which then lead him to notice the puddle had grown and blood splatter and smears was now on the ground in a mocking trail to the door.

Beckoning him to follow it and see where it would lead him.

Unable to do anything else Athelstan dropped Ragnar's tunic back into the chest before walking along the trail to the door.

The halls were strangely empty and when anyone finally appeared, he was barely spared a glance before they hurried along. Nor did they seem to notice the red smeared path before them but it was becoming clear only he could see and touch it.

Which was more clear as the blood was very fresh and still wet yet didn't stain the soles of the people passing him, no trail following them after stepping into the gory tracks.

Soon Athelstan found himself walking in a light haze as the music pulsed in his ears and before he knew it, he was standing in front of the unguarded entrance of the throne room. It was eerily silent apart from the drumming.

Athelstan hesitated before cracking open one of the doors and slipping inside, the room was empty and shown no signs of being different from the usual. Apart from the trail of blood that is, which lead him to one of the stone walls that had a long beautiful decorative drapery hanging on it all the way to the ground.

The trail ended there, confused he glanced behind him and saw a twin drapery on the opposite wall. They even had the same imagery, skillfully sewn patterns of different colors but nothing that explained why he was lead to it.

Touching the thick wool, Athelstan examined it closely before flinching in surprise as the sound of drumming abruptly ended. The lack of sound now painfully obvious and making him unreasonably anxious as he turned around which was when he noticed the blood was all gone.

Perplexed Athelstan ran a hand through his untied hair, frustration bubbling up inside as he remain confused and lost, "I don't understand what you wanted to show me, there is nothing here that tells me anything. At times it feels as if I'm being mocked or-" The sound of water floshing at his feet made him turn and look down, a puddle of blood was now beneath his feet.

Following it's short path showed it coming from underneath the hem of the drapery. Growing more accustomed to the strange events, he could only assuming they wanted him to do the same thing as the chest so Athelstan lifted the drapery off the ground. Only to lift it even further when he did not see the wall but a small hollowed out part of the stone wall.

As he reached in and touched the cold in curved stone wall, he contemplated its purpose and why the Gods had lead him here. It was perfect for someone to stand upright in comfort without too much pain. A secret compartment, to hide, maybe for secret guards... Or for spying.

Not knowing what else to do and what it could mean, he had no other choice if he wanted answeres but to step into it. A leap of fate one might say. Letting the drapery fall into place behind him and casting everything into darkness with the still present blood splashing as he shuffled.

Slowly his eyes grew accustomed to the dark and he could make out the patterns of the bricks in front of him.

The sound of doors slamming open causes Athelstan to jump, heart flying up to his throat as he heard the familiar loud footsteps of guards filling the room before coming to halt. Then quiet conversations grew but none which he could interpret nor hear who said them. Once more the doors open and people quickly filling the hall could be heard but no one spoke a word until later footsteps echoed through the hall loudly.

Quiet murmurs of 'Sire' and 'Highness' came in its wake.

This was indescribably bad, Athelstan pressed himself to the wall trying to take as little room as possible and be as far away from the makeshift curtain while his heart began beating faster. If found this act would surely be looked upon as spying and in so treason against the King and the Kingdom of Wessex.

"We have some unexpected and urgent news from Mercia," Athelstan heard the King informed the crowd with a sobering tone. Aethelwulf's voice continuing next without pause.

"We've heard that several leading Mercian nobles, refusing to pay homage to us. Have risen in revolt against Queen Kwenthrith.. and overthrown her." Immediately people started speaking to each other causing the Prince's voice to grow louder. "As far as we know she and her son Magnus has been imprison in a tower somewhere. Meanwhile these rebel nobles has set themselves up as a ruling council."

Worry grow at the mention of Ragnar's possible son being in danger. Even if Athelstan didn't know Magnus or if it was truly his friend's child. There was still a chance, and life panning out as it was for Athelstan made he want to see the boy alive. To maybe meet him one day.

"This flagrant abuse of our last treaty with Mercia cannot and will not be tolerated," Ecbert strongly stated. "I've already sent word to King Aelle, our ally, summoning him here. It may be, that this time we'll have to use force to overcome Mercia."

"But not before we've made a last attempt to rescue the Queen and her son," Aethelwulf quickly added and in so unknowingly calmed the hidden guest.

"You'll have to find the tower first," a man voiced and many mumbled in agreement. Which the King remaining unruffled replied "My lord, we have already dispatched scouts, we await their report."

"In the meantime-"Aethelwulf told while moving as the sound of his voice and steps grow closer-"we charge you all to give warning, summon your men and supporters to arms-"

"But if Prince they may not be needed, it would be a great and unnecessary expense to keep good men ideal and in arms?" question one of the men and in turn interrupting.

These crowd of men were surely nobles guessed Athelstan.

Aethelwulf could be heard chuckling lightly before responding "Well whatever the expense my lord, it's surely better to be ready to seize the moment when it arrives rather to see it wasted and gone."

Without faltering there was a mocking laugh but not from the same Noble as previously "Heh you're a King's son. What do you know of the burden of expense?"

Once more there were murmurs among the crowd but King Ecbert spoken through it loud enough for it to end swiftly.

"My lords, you talk as if it were a expensive luxury to keep a standing army. But I warn you it's rather a necessity for Ragnar Lothbrok or others like him could return to these shores at any moment. I beg you seize your quarrels."

The nerve racking shaking that was going through him in fear of being found quickly eased into surprise and Athelstan's eyes widen at the clear telling statement. That King Ragnar Lothbrok no longer was to be viewed as an ally that was to be trusted.

"We are talking about the destiny of Wessex."

Chapter Text

The sun was high in the sky, dust kicked from underneath horses' hooves and soldiers' feet, filling the air with a thin layer as riders pulled themselves up upon the backs of the steeds which stood in a long line. Their helmets and shields gleamed in the light.

Walking alongside Judith with sharp and swift steps, Athelstan followed behind the King and Prince as Aethelwulf prepared to leave for the location of the captive Queen Kwenthrith. Listing silently to words shared between father and son as they move close to the awaiting group of armed men.

"You go with some of our best warriors. God also goes with you my son. And-" Ecbert stops his son then with hand upon the armored shoulder and leans closer which the Prince mirrors immediately-"If you have any cause to doubt the honesty of your scout then think as I would think and kill him without conscience."

"I bare your advice in mind father."

"And-" Ecbert voice becoming more meaningful while pulling his son back as he moved to leave-".. Whatever else save the son, save Magnus."

Athelstan's eyes snapped up before quickly shifting elsewhere as the King stepped away and joined him while Judith slowly trailed after her husband as he spoke parting words.

"Well farewell wife," Aethelwulf turned to face her with a trouble free expression which cracked to a small degree when he glanced to the former monk before getting on his horse. "Now I trust you again, parting feels less sorrowful.."

She wasn't spared a moment to respond as her husband settled quickly and shifted the horse before calling out to his united and ready men "Lets go!" Which spread faster than a whip as another within echoed the order.

"Move out!"

The cavalry quickly rode out, leaving the yard big and empty in their absent.

Athelstan send a silent pray for the man to succeed in his endeavors and hoped it would lead to bringing Magnus and Kwenthrith back alive and well.

Judith turned, appearing pale and eyes slightly glossy, before walking back to the building without passing a word to either man, whom both watched her leave. Then at each other briefly before looking to the open gate where signs of Aethelwulf and his men were long since gone.

"What will become of them?" Athelstan finally asked, breaking the silence between them.

"To whom are you referring?" the King glancing over, wanting him to clarify.

"Queen Kwenthrith and Prince Magnus, if they are found alive, what will happen to them?"

"I'll offer my kingdom as sanctuary," Ecbert replied with an encouraging smile as he took in the small wooden cross that hung around the other's neck. Then adding "And of course help my ally, Queen Kwenthrith, in claiming back her rightful throne."

Before Athelstan had been naive in thinking and believing that Ecbert could keep viewing Ragnar as an ally after the loss of the settlement. It had been naive and foolish to believe that the King wouldn't need to think of the Northman as a possible enemy and prepare for possible war between them.

Growth needed to be gained from that.

Athelstan could only hope he'd be allowed to advice and help form a treaty before any bloodshed occurred if Ragnar every stepped onto Wessex soil again. So in sight of it all, Athelstan would try to not be as naive this time when it came to Magnus and his mother.

"Will you really give back her kingdom if the opportunity presents itself?"

The smile disappeared, surprise and shock flew across the King's face, never expecting something like that to come from Athelstan. "..You believe me so dishonest?" he question with troubled wonder, not believing he'd been so transparent.

Eyes never wavered under the man's strong stare. "I believe you to be smart and clever when you see an opportunity for what it is, my King," choosing his words carefully but with lasting purpose so in hope to reveal the truth.

Ecbert exhaled, knowing he'd been found out, and reached out a hand in gesture while he nodded along with confession of ulterior motives.

"I cannot lie to you Athelstan, it's true. But-" the King closed the distant between them taking hold of the man's shoulder firmly- "You must understand it's not by selfish reasons nor greed for power that I do so. It's become clear Kwenthrith is not fit to be queen."

A second hand was placed upon Athelstan's other shoulder, securing and incaging him in place. "She has lost power and face to the people. And not in the far past moved against me and the decided treaty. The woman is unstable and unpredictable by nature," Ecbert explained, clearly wishing for Athelstan to understand and agree, to not turn away from him.

"For there to be peace I must claim Merica from her grasp or we'll be stuck in a constant tension of her next volatile or foolish act that might just pull us down with her. Such neighboring kingdom cannot be."

All points were valid, Athestan couldn't find any reason to argue against them yet it left a bad taste in his mouth and he couldn't fully grasp why. He no longer knew himself or understood what and why he felt as he did at times unexplained.

"You must see that Athelstan," Ecbert stressed.

"I do sire," he compiled before asking with revealing worry "What of Magnus?"

Ah, so it was the boy.

An understanding smile spread and resting a hand on Athelstan's back Ecbert began leading his guest back inside. "I'll bring no harm to the boy, after all Ragnar is an ally. And Kwenthrith is welcome to live peacefully here with her son under my rule. I will not desert them, do not fear for that."

"Of course not," Athelstan stated, letting the easy lie balm the King.

How Ecbert could be that merciful to the Queen who was known to killing off those that tried to stop and take the crown from her, was not believable. Ecbert was not famed to be foolish nor naive to such extent. Athelstan had once compared the King to Ragnar's own accomplished and intelligent mind set when Ragnar himself had asked of the man's reputation.

No, the King surely was just waiting for the opportunity to get rid of the crazed Queen more permanently. Athelstan was sure of it now.

And Magnus? Athelstan is sure the King had ulterior motive there too. The Prince was clearly more valued if going by the comment given to Aethelwulf. Why that is could only be for two reasons. Either use the boy as a tool against Ragnar or care for the boy to earn favor from Ragnar. For the child sake, Athelstan hoped it was the second.

--

The room was quiet, the sound of Ecbert filling two chalices was the only thing breaking the silence.

Head turned away from him, Judith stared blankly at the table while lounging somewhat stiffly in a chair with her fingers grazed against cheek in thought. When a cup was offered it was immediately rejected in turn by a push of the back of her hand.

Setting it aside on the table surface, Ecbert asked calmly "..What is wrong?"

Emitting a scoff like breath, Judith looked at him and said slowly with an almost mock like tone "I've just seen my husband ride away into the greatest danger."

"Judith whatever happens I-"

Recalling what happen last time Aethelwulf left for Mercia, Judith stood up and pointed a finger at his face "Just because you are King.. you must not presume that things will go on as before," It was said firmly and she felt a strength inside herself which she had never felt before.

Her husband somewhat trusted her now, meaning she needed no longer the protection King Ecbert had promised her. It couldn't be used against her. Her body could not be used, neither for the King's bed nor Athelstan's.

Even if the King himself did not know of the lack of success on her part regarding their guest.

"I never assume anything," he told her with a steady look. Unable to not find her attractive in her sudden way. A smile itched at the corner of his lips.

"After all you cannot force me to share your bed.. Nor Athelstan's if I so choose," she added with confidence and moved around him.

Lies spilled easily from his lips, lies which needed to be said as he worked to gain her back from whatever power Judith found herself upon. "I would never dream of forcing you. Force is only necessary against one's enemies."

Having turned away and began leaning against the small table so their backs were to one another, Judith rolled her eyes and felt untouched and unconvinced by his attempt of painting what happen between them as anything but manipulation on his part and in so force.

"And besides," tone turn soft and gentle, Ecbert glanced at her back "I want you to be free."

When the Princess turned, Ecbert knew he caught her back into the fold once more, and maybe even in the progress he could help release her true potential. For who didn't wish to be free?

"Free?"

"Yes. Not just protected.. but free," he explained, moving away from her and around the room calmly. "To be yourself. I can imagine that you have never been free in your whole life, not since you were born."

Judith seemed hesitant now, the strength of before not as bright and she tried not to show the interest growing on her face while touching things informally on the table.

"Being a princess made it all the worse. You've lived in a gilded cage.. but a cage all the same," he gathered stopping to watch her, having laid her whole restricted life out before them. It would make his offer appear truly in comparison like a breath of fresh air to one that was drowning.

"It's true," she confirmed, walking slowly back to the dining table and in so slightly closer to him. "I was not free to choose my husband."

Aethelwulf was no horrible husband or even man but he was no hidden treasure either. It seem cruel to think so but it was the truth. Faith constantly on his mind, of right and wrong, the heavy and thin layers of scars on his back were frightening yet he was kind and gentle, plain.. Somehow dulling to the senses even with such act made upon his back and scars from battle.

Their conversations often lacked any meaning outside the topic of children and duty to crown and marriage, causing them to often fall silent. And with no real passion between them, their emotions fell to obligated and expected commitment and faithfulness in eyes of God.

It couldn't even come close to any love, it was obligation.

"You might have chosen otherwise," Ecbert added for her with pointed eyes and no ill means against her for it.

Wondering where he was going with this, Judith exhaled, an uncertain and fleeting smile appeared before answering honestly "Possibly."

Athelstan came to mind like always. Of course Judith would never have chosen him, for they would never have met and he was no prince.

It had been a thrill to the senses the second time he came to them, no longer the same man as previously. At first thinking it had been the scars on him from unwilling suffering alike Christ that drew her, it had all quickly spiralled into lust and passion which she had never experienced before.

Judith's first act of going against everything she had been taught was just to feel Athelstan's alluring appeal fully even when she knew not to. By testing the boundaries and sharing what should have been kept secret from him- Yet which she was unable to keep within, wanting deep down to finally do something reckless and the answer has been Athelstan in his vibrant appeal.

Judith blinked in realization.

... To use him to finally feel and take of something she never had known before or been allowed, something she viewed as real love.

"And do you suppose any other prince would have allowed you to be free?" Ecbert question, tilting his head at her meaningfully and unknowingly drawing her back from the sudden insight of her own past actions.

Shame, guilt and foolishness washed over her about Athelstan but also that of interest and want for this 'freedom'.

Unable to resist she looked to him whiles picking up the rejected chalice with a dry throat "So when you say 'free'.. what is it you mean? How can I be free?" she question in turn before taking a sip of the wine.

With a deep chuckle, he slipped around from behind the chair he've been leaning against to sit while being filled with glee as he proceeded with his honey trap.

"Let me.. Let me ask you something Judith.."

Having put down the drink, Judith was leaning heavily on her palm against the table and in his eyes seem to be more relaxed than previously and just ripe for plucking.

"What do you really want? What do you really want to do if you were free to choose? What would give you the most pleasure and satisfaction?"

It was evident that no one have ever asked her this as Ecbert watched how she bloomed with intrigue, want and with a tone of shyness at being allowed to play and consider such thoughts and possibilities. Lips showing glimpse of smiles and parting to speak but unable to find the courage to voice her mind. It was a delightful sight, like a child being told something simple but which was evolutionary for such unknowing mind.

"Go on, say it, whatever you're thinking," he prodded gently and encouragingly as she remain coyly silent.

A flash of Athelstan's smiling as he praised her suggestion of colors for one of his forgotten art pieces came to her mind unwillingly. Even if she still felt, unfairly, resentment at him, she could not deny missing and wanting his company dearly. The most outrageous and freeing thing Judith's mind had given her was him, along with the act of creating art. To create and paint was only for mankind to enjoy, not womankind.

Never a woman, never her.

Walking towards the King and coming close to his sitting form with foolish and scandalous ideas that found a voice and was said with gleaming eyes.

"I like to be a painter.. Like Athelstan."

Appearing pleased, Ecbert leaned forward and proclaimed "Very well, then I'll find you a great teacher to instruct you."

She smiled now skeptical and scoffed a short laugh at the promise made ".. I don't believe you."

"Why not?"

"Because no woman has ever been allowed to study or work on the sacred texts," she reminded before turning to leave, hearing the King chuckle once more before his next words stopped her in her tracks.

"But what then, would you say if I already found you a great and skilled teacher? Who would allow and teach a woman as yourself to learn such things."

Curious, she turned around "Who?"

"Who else but the man that we both come to love and cherish." The recognition in her eyes were instant. "Athelstan will be your teacher."

Heart began beating faster but she still gave him an unconvinced expression. Judith believed once that she had known what had been in Athelstan's heart only to be proven how very wrong she had been. The same could be said about his other thoughts and views. Because did she truly know him or had she just seen what she had wanted to see instead?

"But you have not yet asked him," she proceed to point out as he leaned back comfortably. "What makes you so sure he would agree? Athelstan could very well be against it as any other man, including the church."

"I do not believe it to be so," Ecbert dismissed instantly with the wave of a hand. "No, Athelstan is no ordinary man nor man of God... His eyes are more open from the things he's witness and come to learn of this world."

For a moment the King seemed mesmerized.

A lump grew in her throat, how deeply and highly Ecbert seem to view Athelstan. Never it faltered even when he left, if anything his absent seem to make the King want him back even more. Just like she had wanted. Did either of them know Athelstan truly?

"Has he ever told you of his time with the Northmen?" Ecbert asked while reaching over the table to grab some fruit from the bowls.

"Some but not very much," she eyed him as he leaned back again with fruit between fingers. "Thought it was unfitting for a woman of Christian faith to hear of such things."

"Yet you've seen parts of their culture when they were among us. And how they view things, how they see their women and how the women view themselves."

Mind went to Lagertha immediately, and of how the warrior ordered and faught and.. took as she felt and pleased.

What came next to her mind was a vivid memory of blood from a sacrifice covering Lagertha as her people chanted around her.

Judith blinked "Yes."

"Athelstan's mind is much more open to women being allowed things which men here do not deem suitable... I believe he even share some of the Northmen's views on the topic. So I can't see him denying your request."

Unsure if showing herself so soon without their son between them was smart but Judith had firmly trapped herself. This was on her. Saying 'no' now would raise questions and she was unwilling to share in the reality of things between her and Athelstan. And the prospect of being allowed what was forbidden from her was too tempting to deny. As was the freedom being offered, there would likely never be a chance like this again.

".. When can we start?"

"Soon."

Ecbert lifted himself up to stand before her.

"I'm sure you'll both make good use of the time spent together," he reasoned with a knowing grin before biting into the juicy fruit. "And it'll serve as another good reason for Athelstan to stay with us. After all, it would be difficult replacing a teacher so willing."

A fake coy smile spread over her lips and Judith hummed "Right..."

She knew better.

---

Eyes trailed along the image, taking it in with an self-criticism look before angling it towards the light given from the sun for better viewing. With the given tools this was far better than those made in Kattegat but Athelstan found himself doubting the authenticity of picture he had in his mind compared to the subject in real life.

Ragnar's paint-sketched face peered back at him from the page surface, looking mischievous as he was prone to do whenever catching Athelstan's eyes.

At the beginning that look had given him a feeling of dread and made him cautious but also curious. The Northman had always been good at that, intriguing and luring him even when Athelstan should have known better. Through the years, he'd grown to find amusement and enjoyment from the expression, with a small but healthy dose of annoyance of course.

There was no faults to be found in the art really, it just made him feel homesick and in turn push it onto the drawing. But it was not as if Athelstan could compare, this time he couldn't simply look at Ragnar in person to get it to match like he done with the coal drawing in the journal back at Kattegat.

Which had been lost to time.

Unable to ignore it no more, with his back aching in protest at the prolonged hunched over angle and with fingers dry and smudged from paint, Athelstan sat up right with a groan.

Putting aside the journal to let the page dry, he returned to his actual work.

When the sun began to hang low in the sky and the need for candle light rose, Athelstan found himself being interrupted by the sound of a gentle knock before the door creaked open. Revealing Judith.

Blinking at her in surprise, Athelstan stood up from his seat to face her as she stepped inside.

Having not seen her for days because any time spent with Alfred was with the company of a nursery maiden. Sometimes even Aethelred was with them but never Judith and he couldn't blame her for her absent.

"Princess Judith."

".. I'm here for my lesson," she informed hesitant, giving off an air of what Athelstan could only describe as discomfort.

It took a moment or two before it clicked.

"Of course, please," Athelstan motioned for her to step inside further, having no idea where to start. Then remembering the journal which still laid open for any to see. It was still unsteady between them and adding the images to the mix wouldn't be in favor of making it better.

"I was suprised you accepted," Judith addmited and his eyes flicked to meet hers.

"Properly not as much as I was when told of your request."

When Ecbert had presented the request, Athelstan hadn't been all that willing. Not because he believed Judith didn't have the passion or simply because she was born a woman- Actually being a woman was a parting factor of his hesitation, the backlash she might receive if he proceeded to teach her to illuminate, Athelstan couldn't see how either the people or the men of the church would allow such a thing.

Yet Ecbert had assured him it would be dealt with and no one would question it.

Unable to reject and with a part of him also hoping that it would mend the gap between them. Not to return them to what they once were but to a mutual and friendly plain of existence.

Judith watched him pick up a open book and close it before putting it aside with tense casualness as if not to bring attention to it. Causing her to eye it with curiosity and suspicion. But it would have to wait because it was either now or loose her nerve.

"I..-" he glanced back and Judith swallowed before taking his seat before steeling herself to continue -"I have something I wish to say to you.. And I find it's better I do it now or let this awkward tension between us continue."

"Yes?" It's been long since Judith spared him so many words as now.

"I've come to realize that I've acted high and mighty, and that you are not the sole person to blame, I was willing.. I used you just as much as you may have used me."

When he didn't respond right away from surprise, Judith pressed on.

"I felt trapped in a political marriage between Kingdoms, and while he never treated me ill I found Aethelwulf to be quite.. unvaried," Eyes going down to her lap and intertwining her fingers embarrassedly before looking up to the other with plain yearning. "While you were fascinating and different, alluring in comparison which was why I fell for you.. I knew deep down, we could never be yet I tried to create something, something deeper between us. A love made for tales."

A bittersweet smile came at the last part, at her own foolishness.

"I didn't not help by not being truthful to you-" Athelstan started to defend but Judith cut him off with a shake of her head and stood up.

"You gave yet I grasped for more than you could spare, and then expected you to feel the same. You may have used me Athelstan but I used you in turn." Taking steps over to him, Judith raised a hand gently towards him with uncertainty but trusting eyes "My love for you was- is real but I can't force you to feel the same nor would I want to... So instead I wonder if the friendship you offer still stands?"

Athelstan blinked at her again but the look on her face made him immediately reach out and grasp the hand with both of his, covering them warmly as he smiled at her.

"It would be a privileged beyond words."

"Then we're friends," Judith stated. Happy that it went so well because really, she needed friends now more than anything.

Athelstan nodded with a wider smile which echoed on her lips.

"I believe it is high time for your lesson. You'll have to excuse my skill for I've never had to teach another how to illuminate sacred texts."

"Never?" she asked unable to picture it as their hands broke apart. There was still somewhat awkwardness in the air but she would work to make it disappear.

"Never, I was only taught then I worked. Others were much more skilled in teaching and were put to that use." A slight laugh spilled free when she didn't look convinced. "You don't believe me."

"Were you not the man who taught King Ragnar Lothbrok to speak our language so well?"

Placing out finished pieces that would be binded together at a later note but for now would be used as visible teaching tool, Athelstan nodded "I was.. but I have found that Ragnar is quick to learn and the success in his progress is not from my teaching but the cleverness of his mind."

"I believe you sell yourself short," Judith told stepping closer to the item of her curiosity. "But what better opportunity than now to put it to the test?"

She wasn't wrong, Athelstan agreed, it will definitely be tested.

"I think it'll be best to start with taking note of finished pieces so that you may see its completion while also taking inspiration and learning the steps," he informed while motioning to the images laid out. "And it'll give me time to prepare better for the next time."

"Is this a finished piece?" Judith question before boldly taking the set aside journal and opening it to view it's content. Athelstan's sharp intake of air was audible in the room and the protest that immediately formed, but which died in the same manner.

"Where is this?" she asked next as Athelstan had gone quite. Judith would have looked at him, had her eyes not been so focused on what she was looking at. It didn't look like any place she'd seen before and the way the people were dressed within it were not familiar to the people of England, at least not one she knew of.

The scene depicted small little houses tightly build beside each other with walking paths going along and at times in between the structures. Simple yet oddly charming in their appearance and architecture. The view of the sea could be found in one corner of the background with teasing shapes that must be of boats. It was filled with life as people wandered and lived within it all.

Familiar but foreign.

Athelstan slowly joined her side and set his eyes on the journal page. "That's Kattegat.. or well one of the places in it." Meeting Judith's eyes and hiding nothing from her or the slight homesickness he felt. "It's the village where I lived, and where Ragnar rules and lives with his family."

Judith looked at it again with new eyes before his words registered fully. "Lived...Why would you say that?" staring him down, feeling puzzled and strangely worried.

".. I do not know when I'll return," he quickly answered, heart beating fast at the slip. Luckily she didn't fight him when he gently took the book from her grasp and closed it, and his words she took as simple uncertainty of the future spent away.

A bit ashamed, Judith let her hands drop down before apologizing "I'm sorry. I overstepped by looking, I shouldn't have let-"

"No harm was done," Athelstan assured. "Now I'll like you to tell me what you see and think of these," moving her back to the task at hand and leaving the journal behind.

---

The candle's flame fickled weakly as it neared it's end.

Sighing, Athelstan looked to it annoyed. With only two candles lit, and the other already more than halfway burned out, he would soon not be able to see the pages in front of him unless he went and fetched more.

But after weeks of both illuminating alone and then with a fast learning Judith, with the including of transferring Roman texts in between, his body felt like it had the first night here. Aches spread over him with vengeance, especially under his chest and on the right top of his temple. The later wasn't hard to guess to what reason, phantom pains from the deadly blow delivered. And he suspected maybe it was the pain of his heart beating life into him again that left bruises underneath his chest.

However it was only guessing on his part so who really knew.

The rest thought shouldn't be in such state, with muscles pained and exhausted as from hard and straining physical labor. None which he even came close to remotely having done in his time here.

And the tastelessness of food came quickly back too, making it once again harder to eat properly. Proven by the bread currently being snacked on by a rodent on the table, Athelstan wasn't eating it so he let it eat to it's heart content.

Maybe that way the servant won't notice his lack of appetite and report it back to Ecbert, less chance of having to lie more than necessary. Athelstan was sick of all the lying and watching his own words.

Glancing to the mouse in question, it seem to have finished and was washing itself at the moment. Small little paws wiping away at crumbs from it's face. It's beady eyes black in the shadow filled room but the twisting of it's nose and whiskers were oddly cute.

Wiping hands on a already coal smeared cloth, Athelstan shifted on his bed while ignoring the pain and turned to a fresh page to begin sketching his helpful visitor with a shaped coal.

The page quickly became filled with many poses of his visitor and so far it hadn't left yet. It was currently inspecting the plate and cup for more food. Which there was none. It was much smaller in size than those one usually saw so Athelstan guessed it was very young. On top of being either bold or stupid for remaining exposed for so long.

Luckily the cat was in the kitchen area most of the time.

A gentle knock came then which froze the mouse in it's track before quickly squirreled away into whatever hiding place it had found or come from.

Hiding away the journal and tools underneath layers of blankets, Athelstan grunted as he stretch while walking in hopes that it would soothe the pain before opening.

Standing in a sleeping gown with her hair left down, Judith glanced up at him with nervousness. Not a befitting appearance to see when you were neither her husband or personal servants.

Still, she was let inside without a word and he closed the door behind them.

Setting the lit candle down beside the empty plate, Judith took in his room, having never done so in the past before setting her eyes on the bed while feeling him waiting patiently for her to speak. It was appreciated but most of the things she wanted to say to him she couldn't- or well wasn't allowed to.

King Ecbert, the settlement, the penance. Everything!

Her newly gained 'freedom' could be taken away, something only realized afterwards. Judith knew it had been too good to be true but she had been foolishly seduced by the power gained.

Eveything always had a price.

After being corned with intel from her servants that Judith hadn't left her bedroom chamber even once since Athelstan had returned, Ecbert had been worried and suspicious that she wasn't warming Athelstan's bed like he wanted her to.

Ecbert not knowing of her lack of success and she wishing it to remain that way, lies and excuses had left her. From off handed remark about the present of Aethelwulf causing her to pause, to a open to interipation hint at their lesson being spent together. She assured finally that she would from now on join their guest on occasion without worry.

Bringing her to this moment.

"Can I stay here?"

Athelstan blinked at her. "..What?"

Turning to look at him with a carefully blank face while he eyed her confused, Judith elaborated "Sleep here, in your room, with you."

"We agreed it would remain a friendship-"

"I promise, sleep is all I crave."

"Why would you want to sleep here?" Eyebrows knitted together at the strange request. "I cannot imagine your room being less accommodating than my own."

Stepping closer, eyes now begging "As a friend I ask this of you, and that you'll refrain from asking for further reasons and that this will be enough for you to accept."

Worried at her vague but almost desperate plea, he asked while filled with unasked questions, ".. Will it be every night?" Knowing that in the end his own answer would be 'yes' either way.

"Only occasional, nothing more," Judith persisted.

Studying her, Athelstan nodded gently ".. Then you're warmly welcome to remain for as long as you have need." She might tell him with time.

"Thank you." It was said with unexplained gratitude.

Moving some of the blankets to the floor, Athelstan offered the bed to the Princess who was quick to protest. "I cannot take your only comforts away-"

"It is no bother, I've had far worse and it would not feel right to make you sleep on the ground. So do not ask it of me."

".. Very well."

Watching him settle everything around her Judith took note of a few certain objects. "You were illuminating?" she question as the tools and a very familiar journal was placed on the table surface.

"Ah no, I just..-"

"I never asked before but.. would it seem fitting for me to look? With your permission this time."

Holding her eyes, Athelstan took in how smaller she appeared in the already small bed. He wasn't so naive to not see something was bothering her yet he'd given his word not to ask further.. Grabbing the journal, Athelstan held it out for her to take "You know already of it's existence so I do not see why not."

Accepting it, she gave him a consider look before carefully asking "You do not wish King Ecbert to know of it's existence?"

"I do not think he would approve of time spent outside of already essential and busy tasks."

"Do not worry, I will not tell him of it. Your secret is safe with me."

A smile appeared. "Gratitude."

Arranging the bedding more comfortably on the floor, Athelstan laid down while hearing the turning of the pages. Gazing up, he watched as Judith's face became fascinated and captivated at the people and places he had managed to recreated from memory.

By now, the journal gave him comfort and a chance to distant himself from the current life he now had to live. So Athelstan knew the pages by heart, knew which page she was on and what she was seeing. It was oddly comforting to share it with another, something he hadn't thought would be possible or maybe he hadn't dared as if something held him back from doing so.

The animals, houses and people within felt like another world that she has been given privilege to see. It felt like it showed her a side of Athelstan that no one else was privilege to take part in, it felt pleasant.

Studying the ravens that seem to have a repeated appearance in most scenes, Judith then smiled when she came to the page filled with a simple mouse in various poses before finally stopping on one particular page with a face that she would never forget. The amount of detail and time taken to draw King Ragnar was painstakingly obvious to her after long hours of studying the craft herself.

Such love and devotion.

It felt strange to her, to have given such time to another's face. The whole book really, filled like a reminder, he had said so last time in a way.

"You've really captivated Ragnar's likness.. Why?" she question perplexed.

Athelstan blinked up at her confused "Why?"

"Why have you drawn him with such detail?"

"I..," He wanted to say 'Why not' back at her but found himself unable to use it as an answer, not when she looked at him in the way that she did. Trusting while appearing so vulnerable and small within a place she seem to deem safe. "It's to remember him by," he finally confessed.

"Remember him by?.. You speak as if you will never meet again."

"As I already shared I do not know when I'll see him again so I try and draw from memory. Especially since death is always possible." Athelstan shrugged, not wishing to speak the whole truth.

This way he would never forget them all even if memory was to fail him with time.

With dawning understanding Judith looked back at the Pagan and gently touched the surface "You mean if he died in your absent, this insures you never forget his face?

".. Ah yes."

"You cherish him so much?" Judith question, brows furrowing together.

"Ragnar.. is one of the closest people I've had to family for many years. I'm sure that must seem strange since he was once my captor-"

"In a way, many of the people we love were once our captors or turned into our captors," Judith mused with a distant tone before giving him a small smile. "And I do believe many would wish to be able to still see loved ones that are no longer with us, like this."

Athelstan felt himself lost for words while she continued browsing through the journal.

Taking one in that presented Lagertha in the middle of a battle with her weapon drawn ready and blood already painted upon her clothes. Judith found herself at awe as Lagertha appeared so vicious and free even amidst the battle, she was more royal in how she held herself to those royals Judith have meet.

It made her feel envious, Judith realized with bitterness. Envious of that freedom and making the one she received from Ecbert seem laughable.

Next was of a woman that Judith never seen before. The pagan woman wore a kind expression and had thick layers of beautiful hair that drapped heavily down her shoulders. Fingers were tangled somewhat together and there were a few rings worn on two of those fingers.

She was pretty.

"Who is this woman?" she turned the journal around so he would see. Thankfully the candle was still burning strong enough to produce decent light.

"Helga."

The answer left Judith unsatisfied so she waited patiently for him to elaborate further which didn't take long. "..The boat builder Floki. That's his wife."

"Oh." She was unsure if she fully remember who that was but it guiltily made her glad that the woman was taken. "And what about this man?" Judith asked after turning to the next page, wondering if he was Floki because she did not recognize him either.

It showed a close up of a jolly looking man that was laughing.

"Torstein," Athelstan replied with sadness he couldn't hide and that she took note of.

"What happen to him?"

"He died in the triumphing battle for Merica.. The first time," Athelstan added jokingly the last part. Imagining what the fellow fighter would have to say about the strange Englishmen losing that Kingdom again.

"It must be quite painful then, for it to be lost once more," she reasoned.

"No," Athelstan shook his head. "Torstein did not die for Merica but as a warrior in battle. So to go to Valhalla." A smile grew at the thought of his friend drinking happily there with the rest. "And for the settlement. That I admit is not without it's bitter sting."

Not wishing to dwell on the settlement, she quickly asked with slight fascination "Valhalla, that's their Heaven?"

"One might describe it as such yes but it is more complex than that and in some ways very confusing."

"Will you tell me of it?" Expecting some unwillingness as before when she first dared to ask.

For Athelstan had once denied her curiosity because she was viewed as a honest Christian woman of high title, making it improper to speak of such things to her. Yet alot have changed from then, it felt like decades since that time.

Clearing up some of the dryness in his throat, Athelstan grinned and began spilling the improper and sinful pagan information.

"Valhall is the magnificent hall of the god Odin, the all-father, said to have over 500 doors and a roof made of golden shields. People who have fought impressively and then died amidst battle can be chosen by Odin who'll send his valkyries to take them there."

Putting the journal aside she borrowed deep into the bedding. "What's a valkyrie?" she asked with eyes gleaming with fascination while picturing everything he was telling her.

"Imagine, female warriors coming down from above to take claim of the souls of fallen warriors."

"Like Angels, only women?"

"Yes, one might say. Except no wings."

"H-have you ever seen them? When you fought for the Northmen."

"No but Ragnar has told me how he've seen them." Athelstan rolled to onto his back and looked to the ceiling as he continued, voice falling low "They who are chosen are brought to Valhalla where they live as celebrated heroes. Spending the days fighting one another in combat then those that die rise up again."

"They can die in Valhalla?" she questioned baffled, it made no sense.

"Yes, it seems strange. And every evening they have a party with food and drink, feeling no resentment for one another." He made a deliberate choice of not mentioning why they were there, about Ragnarok.

"Then there's the goddess Freyja's field Fólkvangr. It is said half of those that die in battle go there upon death, while the other half go to Valhalla. I have been told it is a beautiful dwelling where Freyja's house called Sessrumnir is. Filled with many seats for all those that come there, and there too the warriors eat and drink after fighting each other."

"They are both so similar yet not the same place... How odd."

"The final one that I have knowledge of, is Hel. Not to be confused with our Christian Hell. For they are not similar in anything but given name."

"There's three Heavens then?" Judith giggled, finding it ridiculous and absurd. "But what of a place for those that sin or do immoral deeds? The Viking's must surely have some law and ill taste against something of the sort. Against the evil doers within their society."

"I can only imagen it's one big place with different rooms and that Hel has both good and bad, only they experience different afterlives in that place.. I think, I am not fully sure."

"You were right, it's confusing.

"I did forewarn you."

".. The Goddess Freyja, tell me of her?"

A delighted smile was her answer and it made her giddy in turn.

For hours Athelstan continued to tell story after story of what he could still remember as Judith became drowsier and her eyelids heavier. Finally Athelstan glanced up at the bed when she became completely silent and saw Judith's face in the warm and flickering candle light as she slept peacefully.

The sight filled him with warmth and affection.

Sitting up, Athelstan moved to take hold of the last candle that still clinged to life and blow it out. Only a wave of exhaustion overcame him abruptly, making his body heavy like lead.

Sounds like muffled whispers began creeping from the darkness around him. Strange and inhuman noises. Telling and urging in it's nature but in a language Athelstan couldn't grasp nor even come close to comprehending.

It frightened him.

Stiffing a jawn while struggling to keep eyes open, the world became blurry as Athelstan attempted to grab hold of the bed next to him and call out to Judith but quickly felt himself lose grip and lose the fight to remain awake.

Slumping down on the ground motionless and unaware of the world, he fell into an unnaturally deep sleep which no one could wake him from until it was time.

-
--

The ground crunched underneath soles of shoes.

Athelstan's eyes open to a blurred darkness, only lightened by the moon.

No longer in his sleeping chamber on the floor with Judith as company, Athelstan instead walked alone into a silent village at night. The air was cold and mist formed from each breath while snow fell weakly around him.

Immediately he found each step was not of his own making, his body was moving without him telling it to. Leaving Athelstan to feel like a mere onlooker from within his own body as it was used as a vessel by another. Yet somehow no panic came, Athelstan felt calm and at ease, the same sensation felt when surrounded by the Gods.

Could this be the makings of the Gods, he thought.

Dressed in the same brown monk robe from a previous life which swayed with each step, Athelstan's hood covered head watched an oddly unfamiliar cross swing with his movement. It was then that Athelstan noted the bowl carried by his own hands. Filled with water- no it was not water he realized as perfume scents reached him.

And the road walked upon.. familiar and teased at Athelstan's memories even while the world around it remained a blur, he knew somehow the small wooden buildings pressed close to one another was from a place he knew and longed for.

This must be Kattegat.

A flash of fire deeper down the path barely catches his eyes.

A faint shape of a man holding a torch retreated inside. Inside a longhouse, proving further of the place as Northern. Coming closer and closer Athelstan could see that it was none other than the home of Ragnar and his family.

With the doors left open.

Inside waited the Viking King, a man Athelstan have known for many years but who wasn't spared a glance as Athelstan with a bowed head moved with uncontrollable purpose to kneel and place the bowl before the naked feet.

The feeling of disbelief and astonishment came off the Northman in waves, with speechlessness that came from fear of causing this moment to end with words.

How Athelstan wish to look upon the other. Yet his eyes and hands were unmoved and focused instead on the task before them as Ragnar's feet was gently lifted and washed one by one.

There were millions of words that came to mind, many which spoke of his resurrection and how he was alive and in Wessex. Hoping that Ragnar may come. Athelstan wanted to speak of it all, along with the words of comfort and to ask for forgiveness for leaving.

Yet none of these were spoken even as he felt his voice become his to use once more as the task finished and his hands removed the hood and he was finally allowed to look upon the other.

Oh Ragnar..

Overtaken with thoughts of pain, misery and helplessness with the stinging loneliness at being betrayed flooded from his friend even as the blue eyes gleamed with uncertainty and love.

Athelstan knew then what he had to do.

To act selfless so the other and those around Ragnar could find peace, instead of selfishly telling his friend that he was alive and waiting..

Athelstan knew what must be said instead.

So to free those being affected by the punishment of another.

"Mercy."

"Mercy."

"Mercy."

This was the reason why the Gods sent him here.

A small and sweet smile grew on Ragnar's lips, uncertainty and disbelief of before no longer clouded him after hearing Athelstan speak. As if that was the proof needed of him being truly there. Eyes became half lidded as Ragnar looked down with adoring eyes before slowly lifting a weathered hand to reach out and touch his missed friend.

The hand meet emptiness as Athelstan vanished, leaving Ragnar blinking and hunching forward quickly in confusion as he became alone once more.

--
-

Arousing from his sleep slowly, Athelstan sat up blinking disoriented around the room, the bed now empty and showing no signs of Judith while the room was cast in gloom as the candle had burned out at some point under the night.

Confused, the sound which woke him reappeared again and Athelstan looked to the door as it got knocked on before quieting as whoever waited for him to answer.

Scrubbing his face tiredly, Athelstan moved off the floor and went to the door, feeling like he've forgotten something. Something very important... and whatever it was had just happen, only he couldn't remember what exactly...

Behind the door stood a servant, the halls outside already lit with torches and buzzing with life.

Trying to get a grip of himself, Athelstan looked at her expectantly "Ah yes?"

"King Ecbert wishes me to inform you that news of Prince Aethelwulf success in finding and rescuing Queen Kwenthrith and Prince Magnus have reach us and they'll be arriving shortly in a few hours."

Something was changing, Athelstan could feel it in the air then as he watched the servant leave and it might have something to do with Kwenthrith.

The mad Queen of Mercia.

 

Chapter Text

Standing poised and unmoving, the female servant stared blankly in front of her and not down at the bathing women, who were enjoying the luxurious Roman bath with food and drink as the sun's streams flooded in through the windows.

"It's so refreshing to be clean once more," hummed Kwenthrith before biting into the fruit with a moan. The haggard appearance of when she first arrived now washed away by the warm water, along with her hunger and thirst which has been properly quenched.

Judith raised a cup in agreement before taking a deep drink. The water was refreshing, after everything it felt wonderful to relax within it's warm depth away from the problems outside for a small moment.

Once shy about the experience of bathing nude within this room, Judith now felt no reason to shy away. Although last time there had also been men present, one which she had begun lusting for. Still she was no longer the same woman and the company of Queen Kwenthrith was no longer intimidating to the same degree as it once been.

In some way they were more alike now than previously.

"And to be free of the men and their endless need for talk of politics," Judith added with a teasing grin while running her fingers along the water surface.

"Praise to the honest truth. I've grown sick of it's constant present." Then a wickedly suggestive smile grew. "I rather have their bodies than empty minds and words."

Judith burst immediately into laughter at the indecent comment which Kwenthrith joined gleefully. It was wonderful to speak so openly without the stigma of men's opinion among them.

Watching the other as the laughter faded somewhat, Judith could see the tiredness that still clung to her. Upon their arrival it had been clear and telling of the hardship Kwenthrith had experienced on the treacherous journey to safety within their kingdom.

Judith could also not fool herself into not seeing that something had occurred between her husband and the lost Queen. Not that she felt any jealousy or anger against it, if anything it was oddly the opposite. It made Aethelwulf's eyes and attention more busy on Kwenthrith than what his wife was doing. Which gave Judith more freedom.

"How is Magnus?"

"He is sleeping. He ate well for the first time in many days," Kwenthrith turned to lean on her arm, back now facing the other as she confessed "I did not think he would survive."

"He is a Viking," Judith reminded grinning with hopes to turn the grim thought. If any child would survive such an ordeal then it would be children from the North, especially if that child was Ragnar's.

The durability of the people must surely exist within their offsprings as well.

Kwenthrith flashed the other a wide smile "Yes."

On the subject of the Northman, Judith went on gleefully "Did you hear about the latest exploits of Ragnar?" Since he was the father of the woman's son, Judith could only imagine that the Queen would be curious. And the man was a very easy and interesting topic to discuss.

"No.."

Hands continue to run trough the water's surface. "He is attempting to invade the great city of Paris," Judith told, feeling her grin go wider as the other turned around fully with a light laugh.

"If anyone would be so bold, and succeed in their attempt, it would be Ragnar," she nodded confidently before throwing the Princess a mischievous glance. "He's proven to be a great warrior, I've seen and experienced it when he fought for me."

Knowing she should be sympathetic for the people of Paris, Judith found herself unable to feel so. "One can only pity the Franks then, for they do not know what force has come their way." Death was unavoidable and battles common so why worry when it was not her own kingdom?

"Mmm, he is no ordinary mortal to meet in battle and I'm sure it won't be the last time we hear of the great Ragnar Lothbrok's wild ventures."

".. Athelstan."

This morning he had not joined them to welcome Aethelwulf and Kwenthrith's arrival, claiming to be feeling out of sort. But a part of her worried it was because of her actions yesterday and that she asked too much of him.

Kwenthrith blinked and asked confused "The monk?" Wondering why he was brought up so abruptly.

"Athelstan is here," Judith informed, knowing their paths will soon cross.

"Why?" Having thought he've been seduced back to the North, some even say he was more Pagan than Christian now.

"He is here on Ragnar's behalf, to watch over the Viking settlement." Eyes moving to watch her own hand when speaking of the lost settlement as guilt still plagued her.

"Which no longer exists," Kwenthrith added with narrowed eyes while studying the other closely. Then it became somewhat clear when their eyes meet. "He is important to you... Why is that?"

Feeling bold and in very good and -if anyone would be- understanding company. Judith moved through the water over to the Queen, who watched her with curiosity, before spilling the scandalous truth "Athelstan is the father of my child.. Alfred."

Astonished Kwenthrith's voice went down to a whisper as if a secret had been told among a crowd. "The father? But..."

"When Aethelwulf found out, they cut off my ear as punishment," Judith explained, a single tear rolling down her cheek before lifting the strategically placed hair to show the other the gruesome infliction.

It had been a long time since anyone outside her personal servants and Athelstan had seen it so openly.

"Oh.. Judith." Empathy clear in Kwenthrith's face at the cruel act disguise as justice. And somewhat surprised, the meek and submissive little wife from when they first meet so thoroughly gone from sight and in her place was instead a scarred but stronger woman who've experienced the unfairness and the forbidden pleasures of the world.

They were in similar boats now, both having bastard sons outside marriage.

But they were in different seas with different storms.

"It's been deemed as an act of God," Judith moved the hair back, hand sinking back into the water. "That is why the rest of my face was spared and Athelstan allowed among us without facing punishment."

"God's?"

"According to King Ecbert, yes."

Reaching out Kwenthrith lovingly caressed Judith's cheek in sympathy, fingers stroking near the hidden wound. "Well it's fortunate then that it was God." Words said with meaningful understanding at what was being unsaid.

Ecbert was a clever man and Aethelwulf a faithful Christian follower, it was not hard to put it together.

--

Staring troubled before her, Kwenthrith felt herself unable to fall asleep even as she laid within the plush and warm bed provided. After the terrible and sleepless nights in the cold woods, she should have already fallen into a deep sleep from the exhaustion alone but the uncertainty of her future kept her awake.

Her throne taken, her title taken, her kingdom taken. Her power taken.

Fist tightened around locks of hair that she've been twirling absentmindedly with her fingers. Forcing herself to relax, they returned to their mindless motion.

Having lost it all in just a blink of an eye. No longer did she hold control of her own life, instead it laid within the hands of men once again. Leaving her at the mercy of King Ecbert, the slithering and manipulating snake, he was somewhat alike herself. The very reason why she doubted him.

Once he had helped her but now.. it might not be seen as profitable to do so again, no longer might he view it as gaining like previously against her uncle and brother. Kwenthrith would have to make sure Ecbert remained as her ally and supporter until she was securely on her throne once more.

And once thought Magnus as a triumphing card in favor of her ruling alone, hade proven a devastating mistake which had tainted the trust between Mercia and Wessex, and in so condemned her ruling.

Her son would surely now be used by Ecbert to gain a upper hand on Ragnar, Kwenthrith thought bitterly and with worry. Fearing for his future, comfort Magnus may live in now but if the truth of his conception was discovered she knew not what might become of him.

For the very first time in her life, she's discovered true love and that is her child but..

She felt helpless and lost.

A sob lodged itself in the back of her throat but she held it at bay. Like her younger self once more with no sway of those around her, Kwenthrith was left for the cruel fate to decide what would become of her.

The sound of the door opening interrupted her troublesome thoughts and brought a secretive smile to spread over her lips.

Maybe not so helpless afterall.

Hiding away the smile, she turned with a gasp of relief at the sight of him standing in the shadows of the doorway, "Aethelwulf." His hesitation and uncertainty was clear like a blushing virgin on their wedding night. So taken back by the prospect of doing something so sinful. So explicitly wonderful.

"Yes, come to me," she coaxed, lifting the covers for him to join her.

Coming close, Aethelwulf paused then causing her for a split second to worry that his loyalty to faith and God ceased the movement or that he found her not as alluring in such a worn down and battered state.

As they lock eyes he dauntlessly disrobed before joining her, wasting no time pressing close and moving on top of her with heat and longing in his eyes which spread through her with delight. Their lips moving against each other with gentle hunger made Kwenthrith smile joyously and triumphantly while wrapping her arms around his waist to pull him closer.

Once she had Aethelwulf within her, her future would be more secure. And he would bring her comfort in troubled times in acts of pleasure and safety.

---

Barely having to supervise Judith anymore when it came to mixing and creating pigments, she prove to be quiet diligent in mastering it. Making vibrate and beautiful colors, better than Athelstan's own if he was to be honest.

Gazing to her, Athelstan hesitated briefly before finally voicing what's been plaguing his mind as of late. "Do-" Judith paused and looked at him-"do you know of Ecbert's plan to make Alfred the future King?"

Judith blinked in surprise.

"I did not, he has told you of this?" He gave a short nod and she flashed him a relieved smile. "News such as those gives me unspeakable reassurance, to know that Alfred's future is showing fortune and promise... Yet you do not seem to show as much joy?" Taking in his less than joyous expression.

"A title of such weight-"

"I always knew my children were born for titles of royalty, Alfred is lucky to be placed beside them." She had stopped stirring and was giving him a baffled expression. It was blessett news for a child born outside marriage.

"I find it hard to do the same for it fills me with ill ease," Athelstan confessed.

"Why?"

"I cannot claim I've lived a easy life.. Yet I've not had to bare the burden of a kingdom and it's people, I've only watched those that have and it's proven to be tiring and very deadly." Thinking back to all the acts of betrayal and death he've seen, not only here in Wessex but back in Kattegat.

"You fear for his life," she concluded, looking down at the red pigment uncomfortably.

It became clear he struck somewhere close to heart from the expression on her face. "Undoubtedly so."

"Ecbert would never let any harm come to him," Judith reminded strongly but admittedly it didn't feel like enough.

"He is but one man," Athelstan stressed out, moving to join her by the table wanting her to see his worries. "A king yes but somethings even he cannot promise."

"It doesn't matter," she declared and began working once more.

"How can you say that?"

"Because either way Athelstan, one of my sons will be king and in turn fall into great danger. A mother's fear either way," Judith explained with a tone of defeat. "Royalties are always in danger of the people and other royals. Many wish us harm. That's the price to welding power."

"Not much of a life to enjoy."

Judith gave a joyless laugh which sounded more like a miserable sob. "Well it is not as if I can leave it even if I desire it." She's known of this ever since her father told her the role of what a princess was meant to do. To be married off and provide heirs for her future husband and good political fortune for her father.

That was the reason for her very existence.

"Unless you whisked me away in the dead of night," she joked pitfully as he grasped her hands in act of console. Something he was prone to do and that she loved him for.

The entrance door swung open and they jumped apart as Ecbert called out cheerfully upon entrance. "Athelstan! Judith. I hope things are progressing well?" Appearing further pleased by their close propinquity which they tried to hide.

Ecbert was followed by Kwenthrith and her son.

"Yes Sire, she's truly gifted by God," Athelstan praised highly but was unable to hold the King's eyes for long as they moved to fasten on the child. Drinking in the boy as if parched for days. In reality weeks.

"Good, good.. As you can see I brought Magnus and his mother." Stepping aside to present the Queen, who walk forward with her son that clung to the side of her gown. Ecbert motioned silently at Judith to join his side while taking a step back.

"Yes, King Ecbert was quiet insistant on you meeting Magnus," Kwenthrith told, placing her hand on her child's small shoulder. Not keen on the idea as the King himself was but she covered it by showing superiority in how she held herself. She was a Queen after all.

Moving to kneel carefully before the child, Athelstan kept in mind to not over step with the mother. "Hello Prince Magnus, I'm Athelstan." Offering his hand and smiled as the small hand grasped it.

Ecbert guided Judith to the door much to her will, "We'll take our leave and give you privacy for now. The lesson will have to continue another day."

Kwenthrith looked after them with uneasy, and of the prospect of being left alone with the former monk. At her core, she was weary of him. This was the very man who've stood by Ragnar Lothbrok's side for years, so who else would be so well knowledge of the man himself and his ways.

Of how her son's lack of connection to Ragnar.

Taking Magnus in and his dark hair, Athelstan studied him closely for any sign of similarities to Ragnar's own face or person. But feeling the tense silent in the air, he glanced up and noticed her narrowed eyes watching him closely in turn. Clearing his throat, he asked curiously "How old is he your Majesty?"

Drip

"About the same age as your son I would presume since Ragnar left the same time as yourself," she answered sharply and he drew back from the Prince.

"Right." Scolding himself for the stupid question and feeling surprised that she already knew of Alfred and his connection. "Forgive me for asking a foolish and clear answered question. I find myself at awe and am not thinking."

"Oh?" Kwenthrith pressed with muted intrigue.

"I did not think I would see Ragnar for quite some time but am happy to be proven so wrong in the wake of a unknown son." More so than she and anyone else would ever know, Athelstan thought.

"You're not displeased then?"

Drop

Chuckling, he glanced down to the shyly smiling boy and shared to ease her worries "He's not the first child of Ragnar to appear suddenly." She visably relaxed at that.

"How scandalous," Kwenthrith hummed with a edge of delight while caressing the boy's head. The pagans always fascinated her, even now.

"Doubtlessly a tense and awkward scene to witness.."

"Especially for his wife, I imagen."

"Very much so your Majesty."

Deciding not to share the extent of Lagertha's painful experience, of the divorce and how Bjorn followed his mother in the wake of it. Finding it not decent to share Ragnar's troubled family business, even to the mother of his newest child.

But how Ragnar would love this child if they were to meet. Athelstan looked down at the boy again. And if Kwenthrith spoke truth of who the father was.

Drip

Magnus easily grew bored of standing in one place as nothing entertained him. He began, timidly at first, to wander with curiosity but never straying far from his mother.

"I imagen your journey has been a hardship and quite difficult one your Majesty but the Prince seems unaffected," he pointed out, switching topic while they took in how Magnus eyed a crystal which gleamed with pretty colors thanks to the sunlight. It was one of the props that Judith used in her studies. "At least not what I can detect."

There were no signs of the trouble that had befallen them visible to the naked eye. King Ecbert's hospitality making sure on its quality.

"We're alive."

Drop

Handing the crystal over to the curious Prince who sat down immediately to easier study it, "And safe within King Ecbert's kingdom," Athelstan finished for the Queen then took note of and began glancing around for the source of dripping water.

"Ah yes and I'm eternally grateful to King Ecbert," Kwenthrith thanked somewhat measly, saying it only because it was expected to be said. "But once Mercia is rightfully mine again we'll be going back to our rightful place, and those who moved against us will be sufficiently punished. Ragnar's son will once again inherit the throne as is his right," she pledged, strolling nearer with intent to see his reaction to her close propinquity.

It was always very telling of the man in how he reacted.

Drip

Swallowing Athelstan flashed the boy a kind smile, suppressing the twinge of sadness for his future to come before lifting his gaze to the unbeknown Queen, whose eyes were exultant at the prospect. "Naturally your Majesty, we all eagerly wait for it to be so once more." Letting the lie spill from his lips while knowing neither would ever see Mercia as its rulers again.

Drip

The sound of water dribbling grew closer and louder. Almost as if next to his ear, buzzing annoyingly like a fly unwilling to go away.

Sharp as a blade, Kwenthrith's gaze cut into him then before snatching his wrist painfully and Athelstan felt her nails digging in as she sneered with sudden mistrust "You're lying."

Drip

Unable to keep the surprise off his face, proving further of her claim of his deception. Athelstan tugged free, leaving scratches on his skin and stepped back wide eyed.

Having been so good at lying to everyone around him for weeks. Effortlessly so and believed himself to have gotten quite good at it, that it threw Athelstan off abruptly when being seen through so easily and he struggled to reclaim the facade.

Not even King Ecbert noticed his lies!

"I- I.."

Drop

"What did you lie about, huh? You don't want me back at the throne of Mercia monk?" she was trying to crowd him into a corner as her tone coated with suspicion.

Drip

"Or is it someone else that yearns for me to fail? Who?!"

Drip

The dripping was becoming unbearably loud then, almost drowning out the Queen's demands. It forced him to look around wildly to find and silence it.

"Are you listening?.. Athelstan?"

Drip

Below, it came from below!

Glancing to the floor Athelstan found a sight most familiar. Blood. A trail of red drops to be exact and following it, he watched the trail lead to the Queen's dress where at the hem the blood trickled lazily.

Drop

The deep green colored gown was darker there, stained and it continued to darken all the way up to her side, just above the waist. There showed a big blotch of blood growing alarmingly large.

Panicked Athelstan cupped her side causing her to flinch back at the bold move, having not expected it so suddenly. "You're wounded." She gave him a bewildered expression before looking to her unharmed side.

"I'm not."

Drip

Athelstan gazed over her healthy face then to his hand which continued to press at the hidden wound, it was covered in blood by this point and seem futaile to stop from bleeding.

She didn't feel it- she didn't see it!

Never before had a vision of blood been painted upon another person, only himself and the surroundings. The blood didn't even cling to peoples feet when stepping through the hallucinations.

Athelstan watched morbidly the ground grow large with Kwenthrith's blood while she stood unmoved from it. Was he witnessing her death? Had Kwenthrith died as he and returned to life once more? Athelstan's eyes widen. Could it be that he was not alone apart from God's son?

Letting go, Kwenthrith took a hurried step back from him. Checking on the still transfixed Magnus who stared at the colorful stone while she absentmindedly held her side in replacement of Athelstan's.

Staining the pale hand red.

Drip

Athelstan needed to know.

"You've died only to be reborn?" he inquired with searching eyes. Wishing to not be too revealing with his words but if she was like him, it would be enough surely?

Blinking at him, Kwenthrith wondered if he've grown mad or if this was some trick from Ecbert. For she did not like it! "What?"

When blood began flowing from her lips and dripping off her chin while painting her teeth, a second interpretation came to him. But it was one which he could not come back from if he went through with it.

It would be betraying Ecbert's trust and setting in motion drastic consequences.

Drop

Athelstan's unsureness was decided when Magnus giggled by himself completely unaware of the dilemma erupting beside him as he played.

"Ecbert will not be giving you back the kingdom of Mercia!"

Kwenthrith's head reared back as if he had slapped her.

"He deems you incapable and dangerous to hold the throne and it's power."

It spilled from him easier than he thought it would and the sound of blood abruptly stopped along with it any visible evidence. Returning everything to what it once had been.. Well almost everything.

"W-why would you share this?" Kwenthrith gasped, glancing to her unharmed side where he had touched her before looking to him once more but with wide and wild eyes. "What did you see?"

Her coming death.

It was the only explanation apart from already having died. Athelstan was sure this was what the blood vision had meant for him to do. Gods had never put him astray before.

Yet it was something he could not share with her.

"Nothing-" Athelstan started to say but her narrowed eyes stopped him, it was clear she saw through his lies so he switched focus. "I merely wished to warn you that Ecbert won't give you what you want even if he promised such so be prepared."

For a moment it looked as if she would continue to press the subject but Kwenthrith's body grew tense with rage. "I always knew he would betray me sooner or later. I had only hoped it would have been much much later. Or at the very least until I had rid myself of his grip over me- I won't let him take my kingdom from me!" she hissed.

"What'll you do? What can you do?"

That stopped her, mind reeling for a solution from yet another movie against her throne but nothing strong came to mind so old tricks would have to suffice.

"I'll make sure King Ecbert has no choice but to help me by convincing him of the errors of his ways-"

"No!" Athelstan rushed her in panic while fear rose within. "You cannot tell him, that would expose my betrayal." He could lose it all, the right to see his son above everything.

The anger was concealed with gentle eyes as Kwenthrith cooed at him unconcerned "Do not fear, I won't tell him it was you-

"Ecbert'll know it was me and you must know already, once Ecbert's mind is set we cannot unravel it in your favor, he'll not be persuaded."

"He dose not have the right! I am the rightful heir to the throne! He cannot claim it without killing me first!"

"Ecbert's no fool, he's cunning andwill find a way.. If not a reason to kill you and take the claim with appearance of no ill intent but to save Mercia from it's unstable Queen." Hopping to make her see the error of going against such a man.

Kwenthrith did not wish it but the man spoke with clarity where her angered mind did not. She had yet no sway over Ecbert and she was just beginning on his son Aethelwulf. Neither men or army at her disposal to-

Army!

"When is Ragnar to return?" Gabbing at his arms with sudden fervor. "You must bring me to him when he does. He helped reclaim Mercia the first time, he would do it again," Kwenthrith explained with confidence. "I bared him a son and Magnus has the right to remain a heir to the kingdom of Mercia."

Even if the Viking truly wasn't Magnus' father, she was sure Ragnar would understand and help her. After all he is no longer an ally in Ecbert's eyes. And with the murder of the settlement, he has also been burned by Ecbert's 'generosity'.

"I-I do not know when he returns your Majesty."

"But will it be soon?" she continued to press, the grip tightening ever so slightly.

"Ragnar is raiding in Paris and once he's finished, there was no plans to come to Wessex which I was made aware of." It was true, Ragnar never brought it up after they've come home. There had only been talk about Paris. "The settlement was to be under my care, had it not been for the unfortunate destruction of it."

She blinked at wording of his last sentence. "You do not know.." she realized quickly and internally with glee, such ripe opportunity could not have been presented any more convenient than now.

"Of what? Athelstan asked confused.

"The settlement was destroyed by Ecbert's lords with Aethelwulf as their leader," Kwenthrith informed watching Athelstan's face closely. "At the orders of King Ecbert himself."

"T-that is not the truth, he had those that went against him executed," he said disbelieving. "It doesn't make sense for him to do so if they were solely following his orders."

Even if the Gods guided him to help her, the Queen was known to be manipulating and deceiving. And right now clearly desperate to recruit him, Athelstan couldn't let himself be tricked.

"Not if he desired for them to be killed in the first place or to save face if Ragnar was to return," Kwenthrith offered in explanation before giving him a coy smile. "Or his beloved monk."

Ignoring the jab, Athelstan pressed "Where did you learn of this?" Hoping to find lack of proof of her made up tale.

"From Prince Aethelwulf, he forewarned me not to side with Ragnar because the Pagan was no longer seen as an ally. It's why I was forced to join the alliance once more, only with much more harsh conditions which lead to the mutiny of my rule."

"He could have tricked you so you would not go against them," he easily concluded. It was a move Ecbert would surely think of and advice his son to do.

Kwenthrith's shook her head before running hands up his chest while coxing gently in hopes to influence him, "He's lied and deceived you Athelstan, you cannot honestly remain loyal to him. He's lied to us both, we're kindred spirits and must help one another."

"You simply aspire to sway me to help you and you alone," he said, grasping her wrists and stopping them from going further. "I won't believe your lies."

Eyes harden and she dug her nails into the thick fabric when the act didn't succeed. "You'll see that I am right," she vowed without douth, plans already forming.

"Ragnar may never come," he threw back surprisingly angry. Wishing for her to stop telling lies so he'd help because he couldn't even if he wanted. They'll probably never see Ragnar for years or ever again.

Death was a core belief in their culture so Ragnar had high chance of dying any time in battle, many have already been lost and gone to Valhalla. For all Athelstan knew the Pagan could be already dead in Paris! No word of it's failure or success had reached them and it was troubling.

They starred each other down before a throat cleared and they turned to see Ecbert stepping inside the room alone with raised brow, taking in their closeness. Luckily having missed their 'discussion'.

Stepping back. "Come Magnus," Kwenthrith called before moving to clasp her son's free hand while he held the crystal in the other with intent to take it with him. "We're done here... For now." The last said with a meaningful glance to Athelstan before taking her leave with a graceful nod to her host. "King Ecbert."

Hiding away skillfully how she pulsed with unspeakable spite and fury for the King.

"Queen Kwenthrith," he nodded in turn as they took their leave before looking to Athelstan expectantly.

Struggling to gathering himself together, not even remotely as quickly and easily as Kwenthrith had, Athelstan gave a weak smile of pretend embarrassment. Trying not to think of the tale she'd tried to convince him to believe. Or the fact he had just betrayed the King by exposing the truth.

Please Gods, let him not have been foolish! How was he suppose to carry the reality of what he've done from Ecbert? Who've been nothing but generous and a good friend.

"Didn't know how to turn her down, she is Queen after all," he stressed out finally, lying but with some truth in it. "Didn't want to insult her."

Amused Ecbert took in Athelstan's embarrassed and stuttering behavior, chucking it up to Kwenthrith's doing. "Ah yes she is quite.. difficult to refrain," Ecbert hummed with an understanding glint. That woman had appetite like no other, left many men unsure what to do with themselves after.

But at the moment her son was much more important of a topic than the Queen herself.

"So, Magnus?"

A gentle smile appeared at the mention and some of the tension faded.

"I'm grateful you allowed me to see him," Athelstan thanked. Then it became clear from the King's expression that wasn't what was being asked. Throat cleared now with discomfort, "Sire.. It-It's not my place to decide whether or not Magnus is truly Ragnar's son. I apologize but I am not capable to do that assessment if that had been what you've been hoping for of this meeting."

Ecbert hid away the disappointment behind a 'caught me' before telling of his suspicion while grasp the young man's shoulder. "You must see that, I'm not fully convinced of the truthfulness of her claim but neither as you said yourself do I have anything to say otherwise.. You're sure there wasn't-"

"I assure you, nothing that could show any light on the subject."

"Understood."

Squeezing the shoulder gently, Ecbert motioned to the work table, "Now, show me your progress with what I've tasked of you. I'm eager to see."

--

Supper had grown tense later that evening, having been invited to join, when Kwenthrith'd begun watching him like a predator which everyone else had taken notice of. It caused the conversations to turn dry and lacking in topics.

Although Athelstan should be happy that her obvious focus had been on him and not on Ecbert with looks that could kill. Which would have jeopardized everything, Kwenthrith was surprisingly good at keeping a hold of herself in that regard.

Thankfully.

Judith had not been pleased by the display, he had felt her eyes dig into him a bit longer than usual with suspicion. The Prince had also done somewhat similar actions when Athelstan thought about it, if the pinched expression of Aethelwulf was anything to go by. But one's wife showing displeasure about another man and woman looking at one another, well, that was probably not the best...

Actually Ecbert had been the only one amused and intrigued by the whole thing so someone had at least enjoyed themselves through dinner. It hadn't stopped him from talking in ideal conversation that's for sure.

Sighing in relief that it -for now- was over, Athelstan carried a plate of leftovers that he had managed to take with him over to the chest where a special visitor was waiting almost like clockwork now beside it. Lowering down the plate to the expecting mouse who wasted no time jumping onto it before the plate could even touched the ground. Clearly delighted and hungry by the way it stuffed itself with gusto.

Athelstan grew a bit concerned when a thought crossed him. Could a mouse die of accidentally overeating?

"I hope I'm not encouraging you to a fate of being eaten by the cat by accidentally fattening you up," he told sincere before chuckling and shaking his head at himself for the behavior. "I'm conversing with a rodent about it's well being.."

Well it was better than being left to his own advices, mind unable to not think of what Kwenthrith had told him. It was reeling around his mind even if it wasn't true that didn't make it go away.

Focusing on his fearless guest who was watching him as if listing while holding and eating a piece of bread. "Maybe a name is called for-"

The door opened and Athelstan twirled around surprised, caught off guard by Judith coming inside dressed in sleeping wear. This time the small creature seem unconcerned by another person in the room so Athelstan stepped to block the view of the house mouse and plate of food from the Princess's eyes.

Judith faltered at the sight of him before closing and leaning against the door as if to guard the only way out from him. In a way it was more to empower herself by controlling the situation. She wished to speak about their night together and the reason for his absent the day after, Judith didn't want to bring it up until they were truly alone, like now.

"That night," she started, breaking the silence between them. "I tried to wake you come dawn but it prove to be impossible. You slept too deeply and I almost believed you to be dead when I was unsuccessful at first. Unable to stay until you woke up, I left.. So I couldn't ask how you felt about our arrangement and then you were absent the rest of the day."

"Haven't changed my mind," Athelstan assured, catching onto her concern. "I enjoyed our time, it was liberating to share with you about things from the North." He revealed then with a sad feeling in the pit of his stomach, "And to not be alone."

Swallowing, Judith nodded leaving her spot, "And your absent?" Ignoring how her chest fluttered at the confession.

"Something felt off, with me. Still does."

"But not us?

"No it's.. It's like I've forgotten something. As if something is supposed to be there in my mind but it's not," Athelstan tried to explain, tapping at the side of his head with a finger as if to shake whatever it was lose. The explanation earned him only a confused expression but he mirrored it with his own. "I cannot explain it because I don't fully grasp it myself, it's baffling."

"And that's why you said you were unwell?"

"Yes."

She didn't know what to say, it sounded like simple forgetfulness but the way Athelstan described it and appeared emotionally befuddled made it clear he found it unnatural and not fully right. Which in turn caused her to pause.

"Do you know what it is that you've forgotten?" Judith asked, trying to help while taking a seat on the edge of the bed.

"Only that it was important but for what and why, I don't know."

"Maybe speak with Ecbert or Bishop Edmund?"

"Maybe.." Athelstan replied, not fully sure of the idea. Then watched as Judith made herself snug in the bed by laying down and pulling the covers over her. "You're staying?"

"Yes- that is if you don't have any objections to it?" she asked hesitant. Having thought it would be alright with his early answer.

While lightly and carefully shifting the half eaten plate with the mouse ontop further behind the chest with his heel so she would not see it, "Is it wise when your husband has return?" he questioned unsure.

Judith scoffed, hesitation fading quickly in the wake of his misplaced concern. "It's not as if he'll sleep in our bed either. He fools himself into believing that I do not know but it's obvious."

Athelstan blinked at that information. Then where would the Prince be sleeping? If not in his bedroom with his wife- "... Queen Kwenthrith," he gathered in a guess and Judith nodded in confirmation.

"But I can't bring myself to want it to stop or be angry by it, he seems happier," she confessed, knowing she should be but wasn't. "Nor am I that much of a hypocrite. If any, it's one less burden for me to bare. His 'needs' are no longer of my concern. It is freeing."

"But what if she takes him?"

"She can have him.." It wasn't that simple, Judith was aware of that but she didn't want to dwell on it when it already worked out so much in her favor. "Now I desire to hear more about the pagan Gods."

Deciding not to push, Athelstan moved to grab some of the comforts for his place on the floor.

"Right away your Royal Highness."

--

The sun was barely touching the edge of the world when he was roused up from sleep by persistent knocking. Despite the noise Judith remain stubbornly asleep.

A squeak grabbed his attention next down towards his covered feet, Athelstan blinked and waited for his blurry vision to grow used to the darkness before seeing the small mouse glaring at him. The house mouse was nestled on the bundled up corner of his blanket. It seem to be either blaming him for the noise or telling him to stop it from continuing.

It was sleeping with him now-

The door whined opened as whoever was knocking became impatient and Athelstan hurried to his feet, heart filling with fear that it was Aethelwulf.

Alone with neither candle or torch in hand, Kwenthrith stood before him in the looming dark. Barefoot in only a night gown while her hair was lusciously draped over one shoulder, showing off the other where the dress teasingly but dangerously hung low. Her eyes side glancing to the preoccupied bed behind him with a mischievous glint at what she found.

Quietly stepping forward, so not to wake Judith, Athelstan grabbed the door frame and pulled it shut behind him as he shuffled her outside into the hall. "Kwe-"

A delicate finger pressed against his lips, silencing him before running down his chin and neck teasingly before hooking into his collar. Dragging him close, she whispered with eagerness "Come with me." Before glancing around her as if not wanting to be caught.

"Why? Where?" Athelstan whispered back confused but cautious while looking around in the same manner.

"To see that I'm right."

She began tugging now and he found himself taking a few steps along with her before glancing back to the room where Judith still was.

"Don't worry," Kwenthrith hummed pressing against him wickedly when he wouldn't take another step which forced him to swallow as his throat became dry at the feeling of her. She was a temptation, there was no hiding that. "You'll be back. Untouched, I promise you. Unless you want me to touch~"

More fingers grasped at the front of his shirt when she pulled more harshly and this time he followed without struggle after she'd whispered into his ear the following sentence.

"The truth of the settlement is what I speak of."

Lead sneakily in the direction of her bed chamber and along the way forcing him to dodge and hide with her each time they heard or saw someone wandering the halls. It became clear Kwenthrith did not want them to be seen.

Athelstan stayed wisely silent through it until they were finally safe within her lit bedroom, although how safe he was remained to be unclear in her present. Like a sore thumb Athelstan realized that there were no guards outside her door which went against regulation for her safety and in turn put him on edge. The length she would have been forced to take to get rid of them spoke of the importance to them needing to be alone.

The bed obviously been used but the wandering husband was nowhere in sight.

"I thought Aethelwulf was with you," Athelstan said, wondering if Judith had been wrong about her husband spending the night with his mistress.

If his words surprised her, Kwenthrith did not show it to him.

"He left before morning break, so to keep appearance and-" Her eyes rolled with distaste-" ask for forgiveness for sinful acts committed."

Athelstan didn't have time to worry about Judith in regard to Aethelwulf finding her missing from their marriage bed because the Queen had lead him and strated pushing him gently downwards to the floor beside her bed.

"What are you-"

"Hide beneath the bed and stay quiet no matter what," she instructed, voice falling to a hushed tone that he mimicked.

"Why?"

"I've asked for a very private but urgent meeting with King Ecbert." Kwenthrith grinned widely, her eagerness returning back tenfold. "He'll be coming soon and he mustn't know you're here or else he wouldn't tell the truth for you to hear."

Eyes widen, Athelstan attempted to stand tall again. "If he discovers me here he'll-"

"He won't if you just do as I say," she persisted before growing impatient and pushing with surprising strength, causing him to finally lose balance and land on the stone floor with a 'oof'. With her foot she began nudging encouragingly at his side towards the underside of the bed. "Athelstan, he'll be here any minute."

Against his better judgement, Athelstan gave in and crawled underneath while Kwenthrith shuffled her bedding around so some of the covers hung off the side lazily, providing with smart coverage. To take it further Kwenthrith perched on the edge and let her gown drape down and blocking off more.

How he managed to get into this familiar situation again was beyond him. But this time around the hiding place wasn't as good as the first one, the first one's very existence was so a person was able to hide in it without anyone finding them. The only thing that should be hidden beneath a bed was the chamber pot. And he was doing his best to ignore the scent of urine and feces from the very chamber pot not far away from him.

At the last second, Kwenthrith reached out and blew out a few of the candles to cast more shadows around the room before the echo of knuckles rapping against her door could be heard.

Growing tense, Athelstan listened as Kwenthrith called for them to come in and through the slits of fabric he could see Ecbert's feet coming into view when the door opened. Heart began beating faster, he had to squeeze his eyes shut while trying to maintain his breathing to a slow and steady but most of all quiet state.

This was unspeakably idiotic and a death sentence!

Ecbert took note of the lack of guards on his way in and as he stopped in the poorly lit room he took in the inviting Queen lounging on her bed. Wondering if it was her old tricks of lust and sex she was presenting or what else she could be up to.

"How nice of you to come."

"It's oddly late, I confess that I'm barely awake." Eyes roaming her shapely form openly. "What is it that could not wait until proper morning I wonder."

Playing with the length of her dress, making the hem sway slightly to reveal occasional glimpses of more of her smooth legs. "I have desire of the heathen monk," Kwenthrith declared calmly.

Taken somewhat back, Ecbert asked ".. Athelstan?" He've seen them stand close sure but this was quiet the development... Was she aware of Judith's arrangment with the man?

"Yes, I wish for him to teach me of the pagans and their ways."

Athelstan's brows knitted together while he blinked in surprise along with Ecbert, not expecting the sudden request.

"The language, the culture, the religion," Kwenthrith listed off, followed by the reasoning to why. "So that I may in turn teach Magnus of his father's legacy, finding it important for him to know where he came from. Especially when the father is such great man like King Ragnar Lothbrok. For Magnus is as much Northman as he is a Saxon, he shouldn't have to deny one over the other."

"A fair and reasonable request," Ecbert admitted but narrowed his eyes at her as Kwenthrith sat up. It could not have been the sole reason for the unnecessary length of secrecy that she had done for this meeting. "Yet why do I suspect that's not all there is to this visit?"

Wide eyed, Athelstan tensed as Kwenthrith stood up, taking some of the coverage from the dress with her as she moved towards the King slowly. Exposing more of both King and Queen but also himself to them. Quietly he shuffled back while holding his breath as she answered.

"I came to find myself quite surprised and confused when I first saw him. Athelstan. And how he worked under you so trustingly without any words of anger towards you as we spoke. See I was under the impression he was quite loyal to King Ragnar. It's no secret of the monk who turned pagan. Yet he seemed happy to be here."

"Athelstan is no longer pagan," Ecbert corrected, hiding away the smugness he felt at that transformation. First steps to having Athelstan stay here, in this Christian land, was in effect. "He's found God again."

"Still," Kwenthrith continued with a perplexed expression as she stopped before the King. "I found it strange.. And then I grew heedful of my words."

The vixen was definitely up to something, Ecbert concluded with growing impression that she was alluding to something and didn't like that it was clearly connected with Athelstan. Not liking the upper hand she displayed discreetly.

"For what reason?" he question, keeping the tone casual.

"The settlement."

Taking in how Ecbert stilled before relaxing and most likely having some sort of sad and pray like speech about the most 'misfortunate' incident prepared already, she carried on without letting him speak. "When I spoke of it, he told me of this 'tale'. How a few of your Nobles took it upon themselves to rid of the settlement."

There was a dawning silent from the King.

"It became quite clear to me then that he does not know." Kwenthrith slithering closer than before soaking in the reaction. "Does not know that you ordered the slaughter of the settlement, and how it was your son, Aethelwulf, who delivered the act on your behalf."

This was it.

Unable to resist, Athelstan carefully moved so he could see their expressions- or more precisely Ecbert's.

Face and tone carefully blank of any emotions, Ecbert asked slowly ".. And you told him this?"

"I'm no fool," she scoffed in offense that he would believe her so, even if that had been exactly what she've done but he need not know of that. "I did not share the truth. I don't know what game you play or for what reason but I thought it wiser to speak to you about it before I said something too revealing."

"Athelstan is needed. I need him here."

That wasn't denial, Athelstan realized rapidly with a dreaded feeling growing in the pit of his stomach before the delivering blow came in the form of Ecbert's next words.

"If he was to find out the truth, we may lose him and Athelstan's become too much of an asset to gamble. So you see he cannot know."

Suppressing the glee as the trap slammed shut on the unwitting fool of a King. "We're allies, one rises the other shall follow," Kwenthrith assured with earnest, lying through her teeth most masterly.

Ecbert cursed himself internally for allowing her first request, now she would roam around Athelstan too much to his liking with such delicate and devastating knowledge. There was no way to deny it now or else she would become suspicious, for what could not a King not deliver but simple lessons? If he moved against Kwenthrith for the throne now, that wicked mouth wouldn't hesitate to strike if not allowed it's way.

It might be wiser to dispose of her sooner than he would have wanted.

But first, Ecbert would need to deal with the source of her information. It would be wise to find out who told her but he had an inkling to only a few that could have possibly done so.

"Who told you of...?"

"Aethelwulf."

It spilled from Kwenthrith before she could stop it and hurried to place her lover within good favor. "When I first removed myself from our pledge, he told me of it's destruction and warned me the Vikings were no longer your allies and if I chose to side with them-" she made show of shifting away in indignity-"I would be seen as the enemy. Which would be needed to be dealt with swiftly... He's quite convincing I admit, I found myself falling to your feet."

Dressing herself in humiliation and weakness for his benefit.

Approving his son's quick thinking, Ecbert grasped and stroke her hand, holding it in his own in a show of forgiveness. "And I took your hand and raise you up, as will I again. You shall not speak of the truth to Athelstan and in turn you'll get your lessons. I give in good faith." The grip tighten to make the unspoken part come across, that if betrayed she wouldn't find compassion at the end of it the second time.

Kwenthrith forced a pleased smile and gave a small bow "Gratitude." Not letting herself be intimidated.

"Was there more-" Her head shook and her hand was released. "Then I'll retire to my bed once again."

"You're welcome to share mine," Kwenthrith offered heatly and stroke her hand down his arm, knowing it would be expected from her to do so. Even if it fill her throat with distaste.

Ecbert gently removed the grip, chuckling at her ravenous behavior. "I believe we both know from past experience that it would be wiser for me to decline." Squinting at her good heartedly.

As he drew back, Kwenthrith faked a pout before letting a real grin that was nothing but wicked show. "Then I'll just have to tuck myself to bed~" Only the smile had nothing to do with her words.

Throat cleared, Ecbert stopped himself from imagining it and bid her good night.

A few second past as Kwenthrith listened intently to his fading footsteps along with that of his guards before swirling around to face the bed gleeful as Athelstan removed himself from underneath it.

"Do you not see?" she clung to him triumphantly. He would aid her now that the deception had been exposed. "We're all Ecbert's tools. We must unite and-" The smile dropped as his hands curled into shaking fists while a muted Athelstan stared inexpressibly at the door where Ecbert had left through-".. Athelsta-"

She was shrugged off much to her confusion and watch helplessly as Athelstan left without saying a word.

The door slowly glided shut with a low drawn out cry behind him.

Chapter Text

"I've noticed you praying much of late," Ecbert spoke, breaking the silence in the cathedral and taking in how the other's shoulders grew tense at being interrupted.

Must have believed he'd been alone.

Servants had informed him of Athelstan's many visits to the church and how he would be in state of prayer many times in the workplace and bedroom but for what reason they were unable to require without asking. Which would go against the whole watching him secretly aspect.

Coming closer to his cherished guest, Ecbert reached out and placed his palm upon the other's tense shoulder only for Athelstan to flinch away. "Athelstan?" Hand hovered in concern and confusion.

Their eyes meet and Ecbert froze, swearing that for a second those eyes held such dark emotions within them before it disappeared when Athelstan looked back down at his clasped hands with an unreadable look on his face.

"Forgive me, I'm not..." Words seem to fail as Athelstan trailed off into silence.

An air of maybe uncertainty laid upon him?

Kneeling down beside the other, Ecbert dared to try and grasp the other again, luckily this time Athelstan did not flinch but neither did he relax. "What troubles you? May I be of any help?" he offered worried and on edge, wondering if Kwenthrith had betrayed him.

Straining to contain himself, Athelstan forced himself to finally relax .

The settlement was on the tip of his tongue but that would be suicide, Athelstan knew that yet it still linger on his tongue like a bad taste that wouldn't go away. How it bubbled underneath his skin, he wanted to scream and shout. To ask why but any words that fell from Ecbert's lips now he knew would be untruthful and tainted with deception.

The King could not be trusted.

"I worry," Athelstan told, lying much easier now that no guilt burdened him as previously in the face of Ecbert. "See I strayed from God and his teaching for so many years in doubt, unsure who to believe and who to follow that I fear that I've unknowingly been cast aside from his watchful eye. The things I've done outside his guidance, the vowels I've broken. Am I to be punished or am I already being punished?"

Athelstan spoke of things he once worried about before his resurrection.

In reality the prays he've spoken in silence was for answers. Why he was here and why not back in Kattegat. The same old ones Athelstan'd asked since he woke up in Wessex. Only now with the truth shown, Athelstan began suspecting that it could have something to do with Ecbert and the settlement. Almost every visions of blood had lead him closer and closer to the reality of Ecbert's secret. Kwenthrith had been the last clue.

But what was he to do with this information?

Confront the King?

Avenge Ragnar for the people murdered?

What?

To do anything would expose Kwenthrith in turn and he found himself unable to cast such danger onto the Queen and her innocent son Magnus.

"Remain here, live as the Christian you know in your heart is true and God will look upon you fondly again," Ecbert advised strongly in acts of assuring while kneading the shoulder beneath his palm. "We have all done things we are not proud of but if you do not ask for forgiveness and move to do better, God cannot forgive and bring you back to the fold. Stay here and I'm sure you'll be as once before." Pressing with his free hand the gifted cross against Athelstan's chest.

It dug harshly through the thick layers and at his skin uncomfortably. Every touch Ecbert gave, Athelstan was reminder of it's unnatural heaviness and now came the realization of the significance behind it.

Nodding, Athelstan gave a weak smile and pretended to confess "It's been nice to be back in Wessex again." Thinking only of Alfred and Judith with the inclusion of now Magnus as he said it. "Particularly with Alfred and Judith as company at my side."

The smile he received was almost blinding in it's barely contained joy.

"Warms my heart to hear you say so. I'm happy for your return here. I hope that you see now Athelstan that your place is truly here in Wessex."

Athelstan gave a nod, remembering back to when Ecbert first tried to convince him to remain here. Felt like such a long time ago.

"Now, I came to you not to disturb but because I have a requested. Not from me but from Kwenthrith." Ecbert's hand relieved him as he stood tall. "She wishes for you to teach her everything you know of her son's none-Saxon heritage. Of Vikings and their ways. So that she may when the time comes teach Magnus of his father's culture."

Athelstan followed, pretending to be surprised by the news of Kwenthrith's -from many accounts- disreputable request. After all many would not wish for the Prince to be so well taught about heathen culture but instead focus on proper christian lessons. Knowing Kwenthrith's reputation, it really shouldn't be too shocking, the woman was if anything unorthodox in her way.

"I'll be indebted to you if you accepted Athelstan. It would relieve me of worry about her time spent and keep her occupied while I deal properly with Mercia," Ecbert told, hoping to sway the man into agreeing. "Humor her."

"If it's for Magnus, I find myself unable to decline," Athelstan answered.

"Excellent, for Kwenthrith eagerly awaits in the garden as we speak."

--

It was a beautiful day despite fall having removed much of the life from plants and with winter quickly gaining speed. The sun still shined brightly and warmly though while the chilly air rested kindly for today.

Kwenthrith turned where she was seated at the sound of his footsteps, taking in the guarded eyes as he stopped a few feet away from her. Not saying a word.

Both watching each other as they stood alone.

It was clear Athelstan would not be the one to speak first so Kwenthrith stood up to fully face him.

Taking only one step in his direction which Athelstan mirrored immediately by taking one back. She almost wanted to laugh at him being difficult and showing such mistrust but wisely didn't and instead remained where she was as she began speaking.

"Like Ecbert I manipulate and twist words to my own agenda.. But I confess I've grown tired of power Athelstan." Knowing she had gotten his attention when he visibly became unsure at those words.

"Of this life."

Because what had it truly given her but a false sense of safety and empowerment?

Kwenthrith wouldn't last.

That was becoming clear, for the reality was Ecbert would not fold for her even if she tried. It would be easier to kill her. She should know, the famed murderous Princess turned Queen. With recent events as well as past ones the throne's appeal was waning. It didn't provide with anything good for all of her heartache.

What was power but another burden in disguise of 'more'?

Yet how to convince the betrayed and distrustful monk of that was going to be taxing but what else was new when it came to men.

So for once, she spoke from the heart because Athelstan was quickly becoming her last option.

"Being born into power.. into a twisted and sick family with power, I've gained nothing but suffering from it," she explained, revolted. Emotions quickly taking control as any self reservation crumbled from decades of fury and hatred. "Even as I solely alone wielded it, it has given me nothing new but false sense of safety and control."

Walking closer bit by bit as Athelstan was taken by her bleeding words, not noticing her coming close with reaching hands.

"As a woman my body is the only tool I've been given to use. Yet it's been used against my permission, it is a cage of flesh and blood with feminine features."

The anger lost steam then as her voice cracked when helplessness and despair claimed her. It made Kwenthrith want to hide from his unwavered gaze.

"To be born a man, Athelstan." He moved forward absentmindedly, taking her arms gently with glimpse of compassion in his guarded expression. "To be born somewhere else-" Kwenthrith stressing the words for him to understanding what she was requesting- "Where my voice is held with value among others even as a woman."

Eyes tearing up heavily as she pleaded "Take me away from here."

Athelstan's eyes widen.

-

Securing the cloak more surely around her shoulders, Judith strolled down the outdoor halls with a sense of peace. Breathing in the fresh air and enjoying her privat time alone before she would need to find her children.

"Take me!"

Judith stopped abruptly as Kwenthrith's voice reached her.

"Take me Athelstan."

Her breath catched sharply before pressing herself against the nearest pillar in sudden desire to hide. The desperate way the words had sounded had made her slightly nauseous and filled with coming dread. Steeling herself, Judith peaked around the pillar, eyes searching before landing on a couple caught in a intimate embrace. The intense jealousy that ran through her along with anger and feeling of betrayal floored her. Nails dug painfully into the stone.

He couldn't have possibly fallen for-

"If Ragnar will not come then take me, take Magnus to him, take us to the North where we'll be free. I beg of you, please!"

.. What?

The former emotions were over-written by shock as she listened in on the Queen begging Athelstan to help her runaway in secret. It was only then that she fully realized that Athelstan had been shaking his head while attempting to stop Kwenthrith's tugging on his robes. Looking remorseful but grim.

"I cannot- It is not possible to do what you've asked of me. To do such a thing-"

"It is possible! Northmen did by ship. We'll do the same, we'll pay merchants of the sea to take us there."

"You don't speak their language nor know anything of their culture-"

"I will," Kwenthrith said triumphantly even as her grip was finally removed successfully. "With the lessons King Ecbert promised that you'll give me. And you'll be come along with us."

Athelstan's face dawned with realisation at the prepared plan she've laid out.

Wiping away the tears from her face, trying to regain the former composure, Kwenthrith scoffed then with a sound of disbelief "Do you honestly expect me to believe you desire to remain here in Wessex? With King Ecbert? After what he've done to us?"

There was a long pause as they both stared each other down, Judith held her breath while watching. Praying that he would reject the Queen. If he did not, Judith might just leap into action and stop him for even considering such a suicidal and stupid thing.

He couldn't leave her, not again!

Finally Athelstan shook his head, eyes shifting away "It's foolish." Then turned to leave.

"Athelstan!"

Kwenthrith called sharply, the desperate edge bleeding back into her voice. "To be free? Maybe poor but free from royalty and the sick curse that follows it. Where my Magnus will grow happy and untouched by it's illness. How can I be foolish for yearning for such a thing?"

Even from where she hide, Judith witnessed the torn expression on the man she loved. How he wanted to say yes before a weak wall came up in an attempt to hide the conflict from their eyes.

Both women watched him storm off, leaving the dejected Queen behind once again without answering her.

--

Ecbert had lied, deceived and betrayed.

The dream his closest friend had fought for, against every struggle and resistance, it had been for nothing.

Lagertha had been right in claiming Athelstan naive about the King, that no matter what horrors he endured he somehow remained innocent and naive when it came to ambitious men. He reflected all of this with bitterness as he stood alone in his room, body shaking with bottled up anger.

He never seem to learn!

There was a sense of hopelessness that haven't been there before, ever since that morning of Queen Kwenthrith arrival. He've felt as if a part of his life had been closed off. Leaving him strangely sad for something he didn't remember but most of all angry.

The fact that he was alive, deep down that made him angry too. Athelstan had chosen to die willingly. His choice! He never asked for this!

And damn it the sensation and peacefulness of the afterlife even as vague as the memory was made living rougher. He've tried to remain happy, to be grateful. But now with Kwenthrith, he was reminded deep down that he truly didn't want to be here. Here in Wessex. That he wanted to go home..

Which filled him with guilt because his son was here, Judith was here and the Gods were with him. It should be enough yet it wasn't.

Athelstan wanted to scream then and to break something.

To release it all.

The deafening sound of the table being flipped over and crashing into the ground filled the room. The fragile plate smashed into sharp pieces all over the floor while the cup bounced and finally rolled to a stop by his feet.

Panting with tears running down his face unwillingly, Athelstan felt defeat take over and his shoulders slumped.

Catching his own reflection in the mirror, he watched and felt blood roll down his face. The healed wounds that'd scarred with time on his forehead, put there by the crown of thorns, bleed slugsy.

"Why..?"

It was the only thing that came out as copper coated his tongue.

"A- Athelstan?"

He took in the wide eyed Judith in the reflective image.

Standing in the doorway behind him, taking in the act of destruction made on his part. But that was nothing new, the Princess always seem to be there. Waiting at his door to come in.

Swallowing, Judith went deeper inside, taking mind of the broken plate pieces until she was next to him, staring at the mirror.

At him.

She had to make sure that he wouldn't be seduced and convinced by Kwenthrith, he had to know Judith knew of the plan and how stupid and unsafe it was. And it had been on the tip of her tongue but Athelstan had been quicker, it came out sharp as a whip.

"Did you know it was Ecbert who ordered the massacre of the settlement? How Aethelwulf lead the party of nobles?"

The bloody crown disappeared.

--

There had to be a sneaky and clever way to gain the throne.

Moving the endless scrolls of law that he knew already by heart, Ecbert paused to rekindle his thoughts. The added stress of Kwenthrith's unforeseeable source of delicate information was not helping him in his quest to claim Merica to his growing kingdom.

With the addition of foolish lust in the air, it might become even more bothersome.

Ecbert did not for a moment believe Kwenthrith's relations with Aethelwulf was only carnal in nature. He would have to make sure as a father and king that his son's strings were not being pulled and manipulated by that woman. Because if anyone was to pull them, it would be Ecbert and him alone.

Keeping a close eye on her would be best, from both him and the guards.

Troubled thoughts were interrupted by familiar sounds.

"Enter."

Not expecting anyone but if luck would have it, let it not be Kwenthrith for he had no energy for her today.

"Judith." Ecbert sat up straight before motioning for her to come closer. "For what reason have I been given to share your company?"

Having come here to tell Ecbert of Kwenthrith's plan and how she was attempting to trick Athelstan into helping her. Hoping to paint Athelstan in a way that left no doubt he was the victim and for Ecbert to stop it from going any further.

For Athelstan not to leave her.

Faced with him, Judith found herself struggling though as Athelstan's words rang clear in her head.

"Sire, I want.. I wished to speak with you about-"

"Before Judith." Ecbert stopped her. "I wish to praise you for a moment."

Confused, she repeated "P- Praise me?"

"You've done wonderfully with our guest," he explained, standing up with a smile and moved around to meet her. "Athelstan has spoken highly of your company. Both in lesson and outside it, I would imagine." The approving grin was anything but innocent.

It pushed her mind into a spiraling path of clarity.

Reminded her of how Ecbert was using her to get Athelstan.

"Spending time with his son and you. Rejoining Christianity. I dare say he's come to finally understand that Wessex is his true home now."

Flashes of Athelstan's face at Kwenthrith comment of staying here came quick to her mind and of the times he shared his journal with Judith. How homesick Athelstan had appeared.

"I cannot see how Athelstan would ever wish to leave us now. "

They were all used by the King one way or another.

Ecbert's expecting face pulled her back when she didn't answer right away. With a nod and a happy look which hide the bittersweet feeling behind it, Judith agreed "It brings me joy to know that Alfred will have his father."

"Judith, has there been any talk about.. the settlement?" Ecbert then asked, switching topic with a serious tone that he disguised as simple wondering. "Of Aethelwulf's role?"

Settlement which he deceived and tricked her into believing had been her fault.

That Aethelwulf's actions was because of her when in truth it had been on the King's demands to kill those innocent people.

The unspeakable guilt that she's carried with her since..

"No my King, I've not mentioned my husband."

He had given her freedom..

What freedom?

Once he had said she was in a gilded cage then he gave her 'freedom', made her free.. A new cage but a gilded cage still the same, only with the illusion of being open. To fool her into believing she held control when it was him who held that power all along.

Well she wanted to fly! Even if the nest she'll make was to be of sticks and leafs for the rest of her life.

Nodding approvingly Ecbert then remembered why she was here. "So what was it you wanted to speak about?

"I.." Judith stopped before a sweet smile grew and a pinch of innocent concern filled her voice. "How fairs our guest, Queen Kwenthrith?"

---

Their heated whispers filled the empty study.

"Why must you persist-"

"Why must you keep refusing?"

Seated in the corner partly hidden, Athelstan and Kwenthrith argued with no sight of either victor or loser. They did not appear to be partaking in any Northern lessons which was the point of this time. But they quickly stopped when they noticed her standing there in the room with them, watching with an unreadable expression.

"Jud- Your Highness," Athelstan corrected himself and hurriedly stood up with a confused look. He seemed much more like himself than yesterday, if not frustrated.

Judith had to give it to Kwenthrith though, for she managed to cover up much better and easier in the way of a casual smile and a teasing tone.

"Come to learn all about the vile and aberrant and absolutely deviant culture of the Northmen, sweet Judith?~"

Although it did crack moderately when there was no reply.

Joining them in the corner, Judith placed a hand gently on Kwenthrith's shoulder, halting her from standing up much to the Queen's confusion.

"What's wrong?" Athelstan inquired with worry.

"I know of the plan to travel North and I want to come with you."

His eyes widen while Kwenthrith gasped and immediately covered the hand on her shoulder with her own and squeezed it.

"You want to-" Glaring then at the Queen- "No! There's no journey, no plan Judith." Wondering if this was Kwenthrith's doing.

"There is!" Kwenthrith rejected, standing while shifting the hold and maintaining Judith's hand within hers. "You really wish to come with us Judith?" Searching the other's eyes for deception.

"I do," Judith voiced with yearning eyes. "For a new life with my children far from here."

Feeling at lost that Judith would want such a reckless thing, Athelstan question with dread, "Alfred and Aethelred? But what of Aethelwulf? He is their father-"

"Aethelwulf can have a new wife and have more children," Judith told somewhat coldly, not wanting that to be the defining factor. "I will not be leaving my sons behind."

"I cannot consent to this journey-"

"Even after I proved of Ecbert's betrayal you persist to remain loyal!" Kwenthrith snapped, annoyance clear that he persisted to say no after everything.

"I'm moved not out of loyalty!" Athelstan threw back with barely contained anger.

For any loyalty ever bound to that man had been properly severed.

"Then what?" Judith injected. "What stops you?"

"Neither of you seem to grasp how truly dangerous and infeasible this plan is. And that's overlooking the fact that it's a betrayal of crown and King that's going to end in a penalty far worse than death! We'll have to travel over the sea, a journey unpredictable and filled with death-" Taking the Princess' free hand desperately, Athelstan stressed the danger- "Your children could die, Judith."

"So can they in this life," Kwenthrith reminded from Judith's other side.

"I rather they die free than die helplessly in a cage, bitter and corrupted," Judith said bravely even if her gut clenched with fear at the very prospect.

"B- but why would you want-"

"I've paid a price for Ecbert to keep me and Alfred safe," Judith explained and like clockwork they both looked to her ear. "He asked that I lay with him. He called it penance."

The rapt expression on their faces were louder than words.

"I could not deny him in wake of my husband's unfulfilled justice at my immoral actions." Judith looked at their claps hands. "You wonder why I ask to sleep in your bed?"

There was a hesitant nod.

"From the very moment you came back Athelstan, I was sent to you with hidden agenda. To seduce and maintain you here with my body in hopes that I be one of the reasons that you remain in Wessex."

"What?" His hands dropped away as shock spread over his face and feeling of betrayal grew again at the confession.

There was a bitter smile on her face now.

"And I was happy to do so, it meant loving you freely but you did not share my sentiment.. My lack of nightly visits to you became noticed though. Ecbert wasn't pleased and I didn't want to tell of the rejection for I did not know what else would be asked of me."

The memory of Judith's desperate face that first night made sense now and it filled him with nausea. His hatred for the King grew.

"Why didn't you tell me of this?"

"I was forbidden to do so," Judith explained with a helpless shrug, looking worn out. "I've grown tired of being used Athelstan, from my father to husband.. you.. King Ecbert."

"We only wish to be free," Kwenthrith added in turn, making sure to appear miserable in hopes to sway him over. "What truly holds you to this place Athelstan? That you would not be willing to go. Do you not wish to return?"

"I do-" he confessed, looking away from them- "but.."

Athelstan recalled the distant memory of Brother Cenwulf's dead body resting against him before it was flung overboard and into the depths of the unforgivable ocean, never to be seen again. The scared faces of his shivering brother monks looking back at him. Wondering if they would die here next.

How the people of Kattegat turned their backs to him once it had been revealed that he had thrown his armband away. Everyone, except for Ragnar..

Of Floki, who had in the end killed him.

Raising the important question, would it even be safe for Judith, Kwenthrith, Alfred and Aethelred to live among them? Christians among Pagans. While Magnus may be half viking, there was no certainty that it would stay off ill intent against even him.

But what truly stopped Athelstan was the resurrection.

Because people in Kattegat didn't know he still lived. If they were to go then how would they react? How would the women before him react to the tales that he was supposed to be dead?

They might think him mad..

Athelstan clear his throat, shifting uncomfortably but deciding to tell them the truth. It might very well take them off the prospect of him taking them to Kattegat. And he was sick of all the lies!

"Ragnar never dropped me off on his way to Paris.. He's not even aware that I'm currently in Wessex." Looking to the Queen with a pointed tone, "That is why he's not coming back for me."

"Why?" Kwenthrith question, not fully understanding.

"Because he most likely believes me dead."

"Dead?" Judith repeated, not having expected that. "Why would he-"

"Becuase I did die."

"I do not follow," she confessed confused.

Hand momentarily drifted unconsciously to his own forehead as he said "Floki killed me."

Disbelief flashed over them and questions rose within their minds but astonishingly they did not interrupt him.

"I died, struck down on the head and.. " Glimpse of awe filled his voice then as he spoke of the memories of the afterlife, vague as it had been. "I saw God and Odin.. then I woke up, in Wessex. Naked, alive-" Athelstan chuckled at the absurdity that was the memory- "with ravens dropping off clothes for me to wear."

They were staring wide eyed at him, unsure what to say.

Clearing his throat, Athelstan smile dropped, "I don't know if I would have believed it had it occurred to someone else.. So I do not ask you to believe. Yet it is the reason why I struggle to agree, I don't know why I was resurrected. Why in Wessex and not in Kattegat? My purpose is unclear to me."

It was the squeeze of Kwenthrith's hand that snapped her back, Judith blinked finally while the Queen became unfaced and said with pondering consideration.

"You speak of not knowing why you're here. Yet could it not be Athelstan that this is what your Gods wanted you to do? To return Magnus, Ragnar's son, back to his father. To give back a son you did not know you had, Alfred."

Catching on."Y- yes!" Judith backed up, mind still reeling with his inconceivable confession.

"But above all carry the news of King Ecbert's betrayal back to Ragnar? Your true King and friend," Kwenthrith finished, lifting a meaningful brow at him.

It wasn't a question whether she believed him or not. It was that Athelstan believed it. Which Kwenthrith exploited for her own purpose and agenda. If pretending to believe would get her to Ragnar then that's what it would take, she's paid much worse for much less.

"I never considered," Athelstan said slowly in thought and still rather unsure.

Letting go of Judith's hand, Kwenthrith remarked "The only reason you were taught their language Athelstan while a simple monk was so that you may one day be able to go to them with words of God. To go there was what you were trained to do by and for God. It's where you belong."

He blinked at her sharply then, having never considered such a thing. That it was always his Lord's plan to send him there.

Judith's hand gently cradled his cheek suddenly, making him turn and look into her brave gaze.

"You've left me behind once, I will not let you do it again."

--

The sketchings and drawings of Kattegat did not provide help for his divided mind as he looked through the secret journal.

About to close it Athelstan stopped when familiar eyes catched his. Revealing his friend's mischievous face, Athelstan gave a somber smile before asking wholeheartedly as if Ragnar could hear him.

"What would you do?.. You always seem to know even when you did not believe so."

Sighing heavily when there was no advice, Athelstan sat there for a moment before closing it. Getting up, he hide the journal underneath the layers of his bed's stuffing when it came to him.

Opening the door and checking, Athelstan looked down both ways of the empty corridor while listening for sound of anyone close by.

Nothing.

Going back in, Athelstan hesitated before kneeling down by his bed again. Putting his hands together in prayer with the cross in between his palms, he took a deep breath and closed his eyes while bowing his head down.

The silent broke as the pray filled it's place.

"My Lord God and my all-father Odin.. I ask of you to send a sign. Am I to remain here with this knowledge? Or is my purpose to endeavor such a hazardous journey to deliver Ragnar news of betrayal and to take with me these people? Which to them is freedom..."

Chapter Text

Clutching tightly to her son's small hand, Kwenthrith hastily led him through the crowded market without trying to draw attention. Wearing heavy cloaks with pulled up hoods gave them a sense of anonymity among the masses and hopefully not alert anyone to their present.

Times was running short, she could feel it.

For everyday they stayed in Wessex the closer Kwenthrith was to her undoubtful death by the hands of King Ecbert. No longer was there any patient to wait around for Athelstan to change his mind regarding the escape. Days had past and autumn was nearing its end, if she did not leave now, the cold would get her if tried at a much later date.

Judith was not with her. If all of them tried to escape together they would surely be detected within seconds. Also Kwenthrith had not the heart to tell the other and the risk of Athelstan finding out would rise by Judith knowing. He would with certainty try and stop her.

Speaking of the man.

Kwenthrith cursed as she quickly noticed him a few steps ahead of them. Appearing to be browsing the available goods. Of all days, Athelstan chose this forsaken one! He was supposed to be waiting for her in his study ready to start the lesson.

Trying to maintain her panic, she attempted to pass him without being noticed. Looking down at Magnus at the last second just as he turned their way but the hood obscured her face from his gaze. As they moved past the last stall, Kwenthrith relaxed gradually. So far no one had stopped them, Athelstan must not have detected them.

Heart began beating faster when they moved through the thick gates, the saving grace of Magnus keeping quiet was a blessing and she could feel their freedom just a few steps ahead.

Unaware of the eyes that now followed them.

"Halt!"

Suddenly there was a sharp tug on her son and Kwenthrith turned to see a guard take hold of him and lift him away from her. Breaking her hold on his small hand. "No let go!" she managed to yell before two other guards took claim of her arms, stopping her from grabbing hold of Magnus again. "Magnus!"

"Clear a path!"

The order flew over the crowd as they pulled her back inside and the people parted like the red sea before her and watched with sick intrigue.

"Magnus wait- Let go of me!" Kwenthrith struggled, looking in alarm towards the man ahead of her walking rapidly away with her child. In despair she called out to him, "Magnus! Let go of-"

"What's the meaning of this?!"

A flash of black robes flew into their vision before Magnus was snatched away before the guard could blink. The head guard hurried past her towards the injecting commotion.

"Father step aside-"

"I will not step aside, not until you unhand Queen Kwenthrith, ruler of Merica," Athelstan demanded with dramatic outrage, turning away from the reaching hands and keeping the quietly crying Magnus tightly within his arms.

"You have no authority here, we follow King Ecbert's orders," the guard snapped, trying to maintain face with such gawking crowd. One did not fight a holy man, that went without saying. "The Queen attempted to leave the city walls, going against strict orders of the King which states that she is to remain within these walls."

Athelstan glanced her way then and Kwenthrith's eyes pleaded to him with swelling tears.

"Apart from the fact that she was not attempting to leave the kingdom," Athelstan clarified with surprising ease. "But to join me for her daily lesson at the appointed hour."

Kwenthrith blinked hopefully at him while the guard retaliated by pointing to the boy, "That does not explain the present of the Prince."

"It is no secret that Her Majesty is partaking in lessons to further develop Prince Magnus' education, so it would not be so strange if he was occasionally included. Wouldn't you agree?" Athelstan concluded, not backing down as he was stared down by the other.

There were raised whispers growing now as the crowd began looking displeased at the whole ordeal.

The guard swallowed and glanced around before forcing out ".. Release her!"

Kwenthrith promptly shoved away one of the guards harshly before rushing over to Athelstan and her son. Accepting Magnus back into her arms with a relieved gasp.

"We were mistaken, please accept our humble and deepest apology Your Majesty," the head guard gritted out with a stiff bow for the Queen. Still not fully convinced by the 'reasoning' of her actions which spoke of trouble.

It was Athelstan's halting squeeze on her forearm that stopped Kwenthrith from screaming and demanding execution on sight, instead she stood tall as a proper Queen and pledge for all to hear. "You're excused from my sight but King Ecbert will hear about this and proper punishment will be dealt out, rest assured!"

Only when Athelstan led them out of sight did her knees buckle weakly and she gasped out a sob behind her hand in despair as it truly dawned on her. "I'm a prisoner." Leaning heavily against Athelstan in shock, arms barely able to hold her son up if not for the monk.

Athelstan's stomach twisted in guilt as sobs shook through her body.

--

Eyes flutter shut for a split second before snapping awake.

Refocusing on the embroidery in her hand, Judith grimaced at the sight of it, the repetitive task was boring her to tears today and she rather illuminating instead but that lesson was tomorrow.

Wishing she could just fling the half finished deformed shape of a poor bird across the air and into a wall before it would fall out of sight behind a furniture. But that wouldn't be 'proper' now would it.

Yawning, she put it aside and was just starting to consider joining her children for some pleasant company when she catched badly disguised talking in hushed voices just outside her room. It wasn't the first time she caught servants chattering and gossiping among themselves but key words like 'Queen Kwenthrith', 'incident' and 'priest' took her immediate attention.

The two girls hushed when Judith stepped out into the hall. Doing their best to appear innocent as they shifted their eyes down and waited for orders.

"What were you talking about?" Judith inquired calmly, keeping her interested hidden.

"Nothing of note Your Majesty. We're sorry if it disturbed you. It won't happen again," apologized one of them while the other gave a small nod in tune.

Not backing down, she continued to press. "You mentioned Queen Kwenthrith, has something occurred that I should be aware of?"

The girls glanced at each other with hesitation as they were put on the spot with guilty expressions.

"Speak."

--

"What happened?"

First thing out of Ecbert's mouth after Athelstan had been summon.

"There was an incident," Atlestand told, looking up at the towering King on top of his throne. Prince Aethelwulf stood by his father side with the inclusion of Bishop Edmund who wasted no time squinting unhappily at the sight of him.

"Explain it to me," Ecbert requested, visibly bothered by the ordeal but tried to down play it.

Maybe because it now enlightened Kwenthrith to the King's secret moves against her in greater detail? Which probably wasn't included in Ecbert's little plan, Athelstan thought cynically while answering in a normal tone.

"There was a misunderstanding involving Queen Kwenthrith and the gate guards-"

"I am well aware," Ecbert interrupted, motioning with his hand while elaborating. "I mean how did it happen."

Clearing his throat, Athelstan pretended to gather himself before saying "The Queen was meant to meet me for her lesson."

"Outside at the market?" Ecbert gathered with narrowed eyes.

"Yes, it was my idea. I thought it be a good learning exercise to learn names for things found in the market place while also visibly seeing them."

"Yet the market is not the same as walking outside the gates, now is it?" Edmund voiced, trying to sabotage the other while pretending to sound helpful.

Faking a apologizing expression, Athelstan nodding, "There was a mishap of communication between us. I told her we were to meet beside the walls but she'd heard outside the walls."

"And Prince Magnus?"

"Her Majesty thought it a good idea to bring him along, to enjoy the outdoors before it became too cold, and I believe she was hopeful that he would pick up a word or two during the lesson."

Ecbert nodded while watching the other very closely.

"According to the guards both were disguised in hooded cloaks. Now why would that be Athelstan?"

The most difficult part to explain.

"Less recognisable that way and less disturbance while I tried to teach.. I- I am also aware that many do not approve of the lessons themselves so I attempted to keep a low profile."

Athelstan hoped to the high homes of the Gods that Ecbert bought that weak excuse for there was no other. Luckily displeasure reared its head in the Bishop.

"I do say. It's highly blasphemies in the eyes of the Lord to teach Christian people about false Gods and heathenism," Edmund voiced for his King, it wasn't the first time and it didn't seem to be the last.

"Agreed," Aethelwulf joined with displeasure, eyes glued to the monk.

Ecbert barely held back a tired eye roll before lifting a palm to signal silence which quickly swiped over the room. "The lessons which I've provided upon Queen Kwenthrith's request are not what's up for discussion, do I make myself clear?

".. Yes father."

"Understood Sire."

"Good.. Athelstan since you were present. How would you describe Kwenthrith afterwards?"

Telling the truth made the lying easier, something Athelstan learned quickly as of late.

"She is in quite a state, believes she's proven to be a prisoner among allies."

Taking the man's reaction with an undertone of enjoyment, it had clearly not been what Ecbert had wanted to hear.

"Well we cannot have that," Ecbert declared with gentle sympathy painted on his words that Athelstan didn't fall for. "The Queen is understandably upset but what she's begun to believe is false. All of it was to safeguard her from our enemies who might try and snatch her from our protection. It's not safe."

It was said in a way that hinted that Ecbert was trying to convince everyone around him.

"But I admit.. It would have been wiser to inform her of this so to avoid such unpleasant experience in an already stressful situation. So the fault lies with me," Ecbert placed a hand over his own chest in self-sacrifice. "The next best step is to ensure our distraught Queen of our loyalty to her cause."

"I'll do it father," Aethelwulf offered by stepping forward confidently. Wanting to help and of course make sure to ease Kwenthrith's troubles. As long as Aethelwulf was here, he would make sure the rightful Queen returns to her rightful place within Mercia.

"No."

Finger raised with a rejecting shake.

"It's better if it came from me," Ecbert declared in a final tone and a sharp glance to his son, whom faltered at the look before clearing his throat and giving a hesitate nod while stepping back.

Soon after they were all dismissed.

Aethelwulf resisted the temptation to storm out in anger but instead left in an orderly manner even as the lack of trust his father just showed him in view of everyone burned at his core.

The King denying his help was not uncommon and often Aethelwulf did not take it to heart because he knew his father liked to do things himself when it involved conversation and way of words. But this time, the way Ecbert had been swift to rejected it and the look he had given meant there was more to it, everyone must have sense that.

The fact that his father did not believe him capable, angered him. Aethelwulf did everything that was commanded. Did everything to please but at the end of it, never seem to be enough!

Aethelwulf stutter to a stop as he caught glimpse of his wife.

Talking in hushed voices which he was unable to fully hear as both Judith and Athelstan stood by a heavy drape that obscured them somewhat from sight. Knitted closely together, they whispered among themselves with intense intimacy.

Hands became fists but he remain standing there as Athelstan finally led her away, neither even noticing Aethelwulf's present and glaring eyes. Clenching teeth together, Aethelwulf felt jealousy and humiliation seep back into him and once again his anger pulsed redder.

--

The day had been long.

From what happen to Kwenthrith and the investigation that led after it, had dragged out over the whole day. Now whispers were going around about spies and people frightened for their own safety, King Ecbert have spent most of the day trying to assure that there was no need to fear and it all was in control.

Brushing her hair calmly, Judith stared blankly into the mirror as she prepared for bed.

The fact that Kwenthrith attempted to leave without Judith and to not even part with words of goodbye, Judith could not fully fault her for. The Queen has shared the reality of Ecbert real intentions in claiming the throne and kingdom away from her.

The danger and about to lose everything, maybe her own life or Magnus! Kwenthrith had cause for wanting to leave as soon as possible. Reasonable for not waiting around for their resisting guide.

By God!

Judith prayed Athelstan would hurry up and give his final answer! To stop them from having to wait with bated breath. But he was waiting for signs from God and those pagan Gods..

If she could believe the tale of resurrection, Judith didn't know. Yet a small part felt there might be truth in what he's shared. Because truthfully Athelstan had been acting odd ever since he came back. Strangely different thou Judith had never been able to put her finger on it. Instead dismissed it as him deciding not to be romantically involved with her and that must have been the reasoning for him acting this way.

That day she'd found Athelstan standing in his destructively messy bedroom, starring at himself in a mirror. Judith recalled him looking at his scarred forehead with such intensity as if he saw something she couldn't see or maybe wasn't willing to see.

Judith stopped, hand hovering with the comb as she took a moment to study her own image. Unwillingly eyes drew themselves to the right of her face, hidden by locks of hair strategically place so she wouldn't have to see it.

Putting down the comb, Judith swallowed before brushing the left side of her hair behind a normal ear, taking it in before wavering with hesitation when moved to do the same on the other side.

Eyelids closed for a moment to gather strength from within.

Finally she slowly shifted the strands behind a shoulder, exposing the mutilated stump to herself. Forcing herself not to react to the sight of it but remain compost with an emotional free face as she took it in thoroughly. The whole shell of the ear including the earlobe was completely gone, leaving a flat surface on the side of her face that looked unnatural and ugly. Only a gaping hole to see with jagged and unpleasantly red edges around it that still was attempting to heal.

Lifting both hands next to her ears, snapping her fingers at the healthy one before doing the same on the damaged one and Judith quickly concluded that she heard less on the right. Without warning Judith felt herself crack at that information. The image grew misty from her tears while face twisted with buried emotions.

Fingers graced the ruined ear but immediately upon contact, Judith snatched her hand away with unease and a shiver ran through her body from discomfort and slight disgust. With tears rolling down her face, Judith found she could not do it.

The sound of the door opening, snapped her out of it and hurriedly Judith brushed her hair back in place and wiped away the trace of tears before glancing casually to face whoever it was.

Her husband spared a single glance before turning his back to her as he undressed for bed, not even sparing a word in greeting. Or noticing her red eyes.

Taking the opportunity, Judith pulled herself further back together before giving him her attention as he bowed to pray by the small altar beside their bed. Watching, Judith took in the scarred back with muted observation, the difference between their all imperfections was Judith and Athelstan's had been forced upon them as punishment but Aethelwulf's was worse in a way because it was self inflicted punishment that never seem to end.

Aethelwulf seem to believe he was continually sinning in ways that deserve such treatment of flagellating himself.. How sad of a man he was.

Judith shifted away as he got up and finished dressing before moving towards the bed. When she looked at herself once more he called out to her.

"Wife, come to bed."

When she did not answer, he grew tired as if talking to a stubborn child.

"I said-"

"No."

Trying to remain patient, Aethelwulf asked calmly ".. Why not?"

"I don't want to," Judith replied bluntly, glancing back at him unafraid.

If she was to remain here for the rest of her life then Judith would make sure it would not be spent laying next to a husband she did not wish to lay with.

"Very well," Aethelwulf nodded , standing up and going to her before grabbing her head with both hands as if gentle touch but voice laced with the anger and betrayal that remained within. "Then go sleep with that forsaken monk Athelstan, you whore!"

"Yes, yes and you go sleep with your mistress, the Queen?" she threw back as she was held captive. "For it makes no difference, either to you or me."

"It matters-"

"You are husband to me in name only, as I am wife to you," Judith interrupted with a bitter smile. "But you're otherwise free to do as you will."

"To let you enjoy yourself-"

"You believe I've been in comfort? That I had not paid much already." Aethelwulf looked to her lack of ear and she sneered viciously whilst freeing herself from his grasp. "What's been cut from my body is not all I've been forced to give!"

"What have you lost? Huh? You remain within these walls protected and in wealth. Remain my wife even at the advice from those around me to cast you aside!"

"The King- your father spoke with gusto about Alfred being a gift from God to you and everyone who would listen yet when you left he spoke of penance."

Aethelwulf's brows knit together and asked confused "Penance?"

It was dangerous yet Judith found compelled to tell the truth, to show him the true nature of the King. Regardless what it might mean for her.

"Ecbert spoke of how he would protect me and Alfred from you but he would need something in exchange.. Your father asked me to join his bed."

Eyes widen before Aethelwulf snarled in denial "You lie!" Shoving her harshly back against the closest wall but it did not stop her from pressing on with no fear.

"How could a father-in-law ask his own son's wife to do such a thing?"

It seem to finally hit him then as her face remain truthful and his with horror.

"You- you laid with my father, you-"

"It's always the woman's fault when pleasure of the body is in play, never the man! Women who have no control or choice in life! I regret nothing, I did what I had to protect my son. It's my right as a mother to do anything to protect my children. I would have done the same to save Aethelred!"

Aethelwulf stagger away from her while shaking his head.

"How fortunate I was when Athelstan came back to us, suddenly I hade better usage to your father. I was sent to Athelstan's bed instead. Ecbert hoped it would keep him here more permanently. Only Athelstan didn't wish for me to join him anymore, couldn't bare to do such harm to me again.

"I've seen you leave in the middle of the night to Athelstan's chamber-" Aethelwulf tried to protest as she followed him.

"Yes! For I feared what your father would ask of me here next if he finds out I am unable to keep Athelstan here with the use of my body. What next act of 'penance' I'll have to do... Which I never had any need of?"

His eyes were wide with unshed tears and disgust at what he was being told. Humiliation and anger could not describe his emotional state.

"Don't you see Aethelwulf?"

Willing for him to hear the truth.

"King Ecbert was already going to protect Alfred and me from you," Judith explained now calmly as he had sanked to the floor before her. "But he pretended he wasn't just so I would lay with him. I was tricked and used.. But you, your own father laid with his son's wife just because he wanted to, holding you in no regard or respect.. You know when it started? When you first left for Mercia."

His eyes snapped up at her with realisation as her fingers grazed his cheek momentarily.

It was said, not to hurt but to free him.

"A trip so deadly, many did not think you would return alive."

Flinching away from the touch, tears ran down Aethelwulf's face and he hurried away in clear distraught.

--

The guards' synchronized steps faded as they turned the corner and disappeared down a hall, letting her emerge unnoticed from the shadows and down the opposite way.

Eyes gleamed with determination while inside heart pounded with anxiety and palm grew sweaty around the handle of the thin blade.

Kwenthrith walked with quiet but hurried steps towards the man that held her freedom hostage. Once it was clear that she was truly a prisoner, Kwenthrith felt herself reached the limit and become even further desperate than previously.

She wasn't going to bow nor be controlled by any man!

Ecbert tried and failed to manipulate her a few hours ago into think it all had been to protect her. Of course she pretended to believe him but it was clear now.

There was no other way.

She had to kill the King.

Having put her sweet Magnus to sleep in her bed. Knowing with pained heart that if this went wrong, Kwenthrith might never see him again and he would be left alone in this cruel world. But if it went as planned they would be safe.

As Aethelwulf's mistress, he would not turn from her and he's proven already to lean towards her ruling the kingdom of Mercia. All that was hindering Aethelwulf from reaching his full potential and help her was his father, the King. Kwenthrith'd already killed her remaining family to make it happen once, Ecbert would be nothing in comparison.

For them all to be happy again, Ecbert needed to be removed from this life!

Hand clenched tightly around the handle of the dagger as there echoed sounds around the corner that grew closer and closer. Kwenthrith pressed herself against a wall, listing to the scratching against the stone floor that came in an odd pace, consistent yet inconsistent.

Then Kwenthrith blinked in astonishment.

A big black bird wandered past her.

Altering between walking and skipping, it moved down the corridor with something in it's beak that shined in the torch light. It's talons scraping against the stone with each step.

What..?

A huffed chuckle of disbelief and relief escaped her.

The bird came to halt at that and tilted it's head to look at her while stretching its wings. It's dark eyes perching sharply into her and Kwenthrith gasped softly as a shiver ran through her.

Swearing that for a moment she could feel a cold breeze and hear distant drums.

"Kwenthrith-"

Flinching, she twirled around in fear with dagger in hand.

Aethelwulf jumped back in surprise, clenching his arm where she managed to cut through his nightshirt but luckily not flesh. He stared wide eyed at her and then to the weapon in her hand, wondering where she'd gotten her hands on it.

"A- Aethelwulf!" she gasped in recognition before realisation hit that she had been discovered. "Oh God! Did I hurt you?" Reaching out to her lover and touched the hand that covered what she's done.

"You didn't get me," he promised, removing to show the rip in the fabric. "Why are you wandering these halls?" It was said with reluctant suspicion. "While armed?"

Swallowing as the nausea rolled thickly within the pit of her stomach, something which was occurring often as of late. "I- I," Kwenthrith struggled before recalling the bird. Turning around quickly only to see it gone.

Aethelwulf followed her line of sight confused "You what?"

"I- I thought I saw something- someone," she half lied while the story evolved in her mind and Kwenthrith moved to where the bird had been. The Prince following closely on her heels as she peered down the corridor but it was deserted. "I thought someone was watching and- and I feared it was one of the spies your father warned me about. My enemies, coming to take me and my son or simply slaughter us while we slept."

Protectiveness over came him and Aethelwulf stepped forward, shielding her with his body while taking in the empty hall with caution. Heedful of any attacker waiting to strike. Remembering only then while reaching for his sword that he had no weapon for he still remained dressed for bed.

"Hand me your weapon," he requested, tilting towards her with a waiting hand.

"What? Why?" Kwenthrith question, pressing it to her chest. It was the only weapon she had been able to get without anyone being the wiser, the only one that she would be able to get for a while.

To use on Ecbert.

"For I'm not armed," Aethelwulf explained, turning to look at her expectantly which caused her to reluctantly handed it over. Doing otherwise would be viewed as mistrustful.

Giving it a look over, Aethelwulf ordered hushed "Wait here." Not wanting to risk her falling into danger and getting hurt.

Kwenthrith anxiously watched him, knowing there wouldn't be anyone found. Other than a thieving bird. What had it been carrying? She hadn't gotten a good enough look, having been too caught up about the strolling bird.

After a while Aethelwulf returned with a shake of his head. Having found nothing which came as no surprise.

"Are you sure there was someone?" he interrogated gently, stroking her arm with his free hand while keeping the dagger firmly within his possession. "You've had a stressful day, no one would blame you if a trick was played upon your mind."

"I'm sure," she persisted foolishly, sealing her plans for Ecbert.

"Then I believe you, I'll signal the guards to search the area."

No! Kwenthrith cursed internally at the mistake.

"Why didn't you call out for the guards?"

"I wanted-.. Magnus."

"Your son?"

Giving a fearful stare so to believe she acted in motherly instinct for her son's safety and not in reasonable mind. "I couldn't let someone hurt him-"

"No one will hurt your child," Aethelwulf pledged straightaway, pressing their foreheads together in an act of affection which brought a gentle smile to her lips.

It was then that she could see the puffy red eyes and streaks of tears marking cheeks. Her lover had been crying.

Concerned, Kwenthrith graced his cheek lovingly. "What happened?" Aethelwulf covered it with his own hand and pressed into her palm as if starved for human touch.

"Nothing."

A lie but he would tell her soon enough, they always did.

"Will you stay with me?" Kwenthrith whispered instead with tired tears welling up and feeling the need of comfort from another. The chance to get to King Ecbert now was impossible so she rather return to her beloved son with Aethelwulf to keep them safe.

"I'll stay with you."

Letting her sinking into his warm embrace, Aethelwulf led them back to her bedchamber.

--

Shadows danced upon the walls as candle flames swayed in the dark.

Tired eyes squinted and flicked between scrolls before scribbling down the text from a old withering page to a new, this was repeated over and over for countless hours. The Roman military information soon filled his mind to the fullest and made his head dull with disinterested which didn't help keep sleep at bay.

Unable to suppress it any longer, Athelstan leaned back and yawn long and hard that almost left him dizzy and made his jaw crack pleasantly. Rubbing away the drowsiness from his face, Athelstan meet a familiar little face staring back at him from the top of his drafting table.

The little house mouse.

Athelstan blinked at it and it blinked back.

Putting down the pen, needing a break anyway and something told him there wouldn't be much of concentration while it was here so Athelstan gave his attention over to the little visitor.

It was surprising to see it down here among the endless scrolls and not back in his room, the only place he have seen it. Maybe it had been waiting hungrily for his return with leftovers and finally gotten sick of waiting and deciding to find him?

Now wasn't that a thought.

"I apologize but I have no food to give you," Athelstan said with good humor. "How did you found yourself down here? It's very far from the safety of my room."

As expected it did not answer but instead glanced down at the scrolls with a twisting nose as it scented for anything interesting. Possibly something edible like food.

Athelstan's eyes drifted to the scroll in question, reading the names and titles within it before glancing back to the mouse and deciding with a smile. "Everyone deserves a name. 'You' doesn't seem very fitting after having shared my food and company and even rested with me.."

Was it female or male- Then again why did it matter? It wouldn't care or know any better either way.

"How about Fulvia?" Athelstan finally said after spending a good minute thinking of different names. "I believe it to be a roman name for it's mentioned within one of the old texts numerous of times in regard to a war. First time I've ever come across a woman's name within them. Must have been a very important and bold woman of high statue to be mentioned."

Musing mostly to himself about the long since dead woman before a soft squeak brought him back with a chuckle, watching the mouse wander around the sloped surface.

"And boldness seem to incarnate within you if looking to your past actions-"

Something past above them.

Scaring both him and the mouse, the later running for it's life and disappearing among the shadows on the floor while Athelstan flew out of his chair with a racing heart.

Where the mouse once had been at the top of the drafting table now sat the biggest raven Athelstan had ever seen, the very size of it was intimidating and caused him to flinch back.

Yet it was also the most majestic bird he's ever looked upon.

It's feathers were the color of the blackest tar and within it's dark and wise eyes was a deep red shine which had nothing to do with the lit candles surrounding them. The talons long and sharp, it wasn't hard to imagine them capable of tear out a man's throat in seconds.

Drums began playing in the distant.

At awe Athelstan's gaze drifted to the object clenched within it's beak.

Every crafted and skillfully twisted detail could be seen vividedly even from where he was standing. It shined within the room as if a lone star in the covers of night.

An armring

Athelstan itched to take hold of it and feel its cool metal against his heated skin once more, to be able to trace it's beautiful pattern against the pads of his fingers.

The raven flapped its impressive wings before letting go of the armring and it rolled down to clank loudly onto the table. With a brilliant smile growing, Athelstan slowly reach out to pick it up with assortment of emotions running through him all at once.

Loudly the bird cawed at him before skipping up to the still broken window, pulling out the cloth that Athelstan'd stuffed there a long ago to prevent the cold wind coming in. With one last caw it somehow despite it's size jumped out and fly away into the night.

Gazing back to the object in hand, Athelstan studied it lovingly and carefully. It was his. Then without hesitation he put it on, feeling immediately of home washing over him as he became whole once more.

It had been gifted from Ragnar on the day Athelstan once more became a free man and pledged his eternal loyalty to his most beloved friend.

Which had been cast aside into the sea never to be found again.

The smile vanished and determination took over.

The message was finally clear now.