Athelstan stood at the door, leaning against the post, arms folded across his breast. His breath frosted in the cold air. The grey gloom of dusk was already creeping in on the day. Small snowflakes, barely visible against the sky, were falling soundlessly on the earth at his feet. From near the fire pit the tones of a flute floated up. Footsteps approached him from behind and then stopped right next to him. Athelstan looked up.
Ragnar slouched against the other doorpost, casting him a quick glance and then turning his eyes towards the village. He took a breath as if he wanted to say something, hesitated and remained silent. At length he asked: “If Lagertha and I were to ask you to join our bed today, would you still refuse this as you once did?” Ragnar’s steely gaze was suddenly on Athelstan again, who was taken aback by the question. He averted his eyes from Ragnar’s stare and grinned shyly, looking at his shoes, and did not answer. They stood a moment without speaking. Then Ragnar reached out and took Athelstan’s left hand in his own, turning the palm upwards and tracing the scar on Athelstan’s hand with his thumb.
“I know you well, my friend,” Ragnar said, “and I know what tortures you.” Ragnar closed Athelstan’s fingers with both of his hands and squeezed gently.
Athelstan swallowed, feeling his cheeks grow hot at the sudden intimacy. Ragnar hadn’t let go of his hand yet and before Athelstan could stop himself, he caressed the calloused, tanned skin with his thumb.
Ragnar released his hand from his grasp. “But what choice do you have?” he continued, clearly not as shaken by the touch as Athelstan was. “You can neither hide from your god, nor ours. I suffer from the same dilemma.” Athelstan looked up to see Ragnar grinning at him. “Only in reverse.”
“We will go together to Wessex and you will be my John the – um –”
“The Baptist,” Athelstan said, surprised, smiling widely.
“The Baptist, yes. Wherever you go, I will follow.”
Athelstan’s smile faltered when he realised there was a place an unbaptised Viking could not follow him. Ragnar did not seem to notice his dejection. He glanced over his shoulder and then leaned close to Athelstan. “Perhaps I’ll even cut my hair like a monk,” he whispered teasingly. Athelstan grinned at that, and shivered as the winter wind blew through his clothes.
“Go get warm,” Ragnar said, and nodded towards the hall.
As Athelstan moved away from the door, he heard Ragnar close it and then walk briskly after him. Suddenly Ragnar’s hand was on his arse. Athelstan stopped abruptly, flushed, and, turning his head towards Ragnar, whispered sharply: “What are you doing?” Ragnar stood so close to him he could feel his warmth on his back.
“I’m following you, John,” Ragnar said, eyes glinting with mischief.
Athelstan looked over to the fire pit. Aslaug had her back turned towards them, but Rollo was glaring at them across the flames. Athelstan clenched his jaw and moved away from Ragnar. What was he thinking touching him in front of everybody? Athelstan left the hall, but Ragnar was still following him. Inside his room, he turned around to face Ragnar. Ragnar shut the door behind him and bolted it.
“Ragnar–” Athelstan began, but Ragnar closed in on him, pulled Athelstan towards him and pressed his mouth to Athelstan’s, muffling the rest of his words. Athelstan’s heart was in his throat, his palms turning sweaty. Ragnar pulled away and looked at him intently. Athelstan felt his legs go weak under that stare.
“Don’t refuse me, Athelstan. Please.”
Ragnar’s hands were on his hips, moving up his sides and then his chest, caressing his neck. Ragnar took Athelstan’s face in his rough hands and kissed him again, tenderly this time. Athelstan opened his mouth to him and breathed in sharply as Ragnar’s tongue slid against his. He felt his heart hammer frantically against his ribs. His body wanted this, wanted this so bad, but his head overruled him and he pushed Ragnar away from him as gently as he could.
“Don’t be shy,” Ragnar teased him, but then his face turned grave. ”If you do not want to do this–” he began, but Athelstan cut across him. “No, Ragnar, I want to, but–”
“But what?” Ragnar cocked his head. “Are you afraid your god might object? Gods are like us. We are made in their image. They love and desire, just like us.” He smiled at Athelstan.
“It is not God I fear,” Athelstan replied, frowning, “but the others.”
“The others don’t need to know. Besides, I will take care of you. They will not harm you.” Ragnar pulled him close and bit his ear. Goosebumps erupted on Athelstan’s skin all the way down to his ankle.
“Athelstan,” Ragnar murmured, leaving a trail of kisses on Athelstan’s neck.
Athelstan hesitantly put his arms around Ragnar, to which Ragnar responded instantly by unbuckling Athelstan’s belt, letting it drop to the floor heavily, and hoisting his shirt up over his head. Athelstan kicked off his boots while Ragnar’s fingers fumbled with the fastening of his breeches.
“Take it off,” Ragnar said gruffly, and started to remove his own clothes.
Fully naked, Athelstan felt vulnerable. The small room was chilly, and he hugged himself as he watched Ragnar undress. Scars, light against his tanned skin, crisscrossed the Viking’s body. Ragnar made to remove his breeches, and Athelstan turned his gaze to the floor, waiting, swallowing nervously. Then Ragnar’s arms closed around him, his fingers dug into his buttocks and his hips and thighs pressed against Athelstan’s. Ragnar’s skin was warm, like he had just been lying in the summer sun. Ragnar lips found Athelstan’s again. His mouth was soft and wet and hot against his and Athelstan reeled with desire for him. Ragnar leaned against Athelstan with his full weight to make him recline on the bed behind him. Athelstan did as he was bid.