Athelstan reflects on his situation while shaving his tonsure, and thinks darker thoughts than he would have expected of himself.
He is worth more alive.
The words kept ringing in his ears, pulsing in his bloodstream, especially when he saw knives lying about on the table (they were free with their knives, these Northmen), reminding him of the one that had been held to his neck.
Worth more to sell as a slave.
But he hadn’t been sold. He’d been kept—chosen, in fact—and that disturbed him. Ragnar was not a merciful man. Athelstan was sure there was a reason, and not one of grace and kindness. Ragnar surely meant this for evil.
Glancing around him, he reminded himself that there was a reason he was looking for a knife—namely, to shave his tonsure. As much of a spectacle as it made him, as many unwelcome hands as it had drawn to touch his head, he needed to do this. Needed to identify himself as one of his brothers, as a monk, as devoted to God, even though he was no longer in a community of those who did the same. Or rather, all the more because he had been taken from that community.
He took up a knife from the table.
Worth more alive.
Why the words kept recurring, he could not say. Athelstan pushed the unease from the forefront of his mind, channeling it into the task at hand. He heard Father Cuthbert’s voice quoting Saint Bede:
“Nor do we shave ourselves in the form of a crown only because Peter was so shorn; but because Peter was so shorn in the memory of the passion of our Lord; therefore we also, who hope to be saved by the same passion, do with him bear the sign of the same passion…”
The crown of thorns. What could be more necessary, he wondered as he sat down before a bowl of water, now that he faced his own unspeakable trial, than to bear in his body that reminder of Christ’s suffering to sustain him? Now, more than ever, and even more than the communal meaning, he needed the spiritual import of the tonsure.
He wet his head and raised the knife, and Ragnar’s voice came back unbidden.
He is worth more alive, to sell as a slave.
Scraping the blade over his stubble, he sank into the pain of that thought. He was worth more to them in active suffering. Worth more in his potential, perhaps, for some unknown scheme. Worth more as a symbol of the destroyed monastery and the goods stolen in the raid.
That was what he was worth to them. As he drew the knife over his head a second time, he winced, but not just at the feeling. A thought of his own had come, just as unasked for.
What was the worth of such a life?
A phrase he had never dared use, one he had always considered blasphemous, was quietly appearing in his mind over and over again.
Hell on earth. It would be a lonely, painful, empty hell on earth. Hell, hell, hell.
But to end it meant eternal damnation.
Blood dripped into the bowl.
Even when he was interrupted by the laughter of Ragnar’s son and the stares of the rest of the family, he held that knife for several minutes before he could again believe that a blessed eternity would outweigh temporal sorrows.