The Wistful and the Good, Chapter 5
Lady of the Hall
So far, the Norse ship Elswyth saw has landed and she has met Leif who is trying to raise a ransom for his kidnapped father by selling Christian holy books, and Eric, whose interest in her is anything but holy. Get caught up using the index page.
There was not enough time to do anything properly. The ovens were cool, so new bread could not be baked. They made fry bread instead. There were not enough hours to spit-roast a sheep or pig, so they boiled meat in pieces, the butcher hacking a ewe into chunks that went straight into cauldrons, still bloody and warm, so that the blood frothed on the surface of the water as the meat boiled. They hacked up the last of the spring harvest of turnips and carrots and threw them into the cauldrons with all the barley and onions and sage they could lay their hands on.
At every turn it was the last of this and the last of that, and still weeks before the harvest. It was not quite desperate. There was still a little grain in the barns, and a few dried beans in the store houses, and oil and salt, and the hens were laying well, and the woodlands were not foraged out. But crops had been poor for the last two seasons: blight in the corn, hail knocking down the bean rows, cutworms in the cabbages. Edith, knowing that it was her own kin that would be first to suffer in a famine, was strict in forbidding anything to be harvested before it was full grown, and in making sure all that was harvested was preserved and stored properly, and that nothing was wasted, from field to table. Thus she was better prepared than many women might have been to feed guests that year. But it was a grim thing for her, all the same, to see the bottom of so many baskets and barrels while the days were still so long.
Edith’s grandparents had been born in Powys. They were taken in a raid by Mercians along with several of their village, then traded into Northumbria and bought as a job lot by Attor’s grandfather. Her mother always claimed that they had been nobles in Powys, but Edith had never seen any sign of noble bearing or skill in her mother or father. They might have been freemen in Powys, but they were slaves in Northumbria and knew all the privations of slavery. In the lean times, Edith had lived on acorns and dandelions and felt her belly pinch, till the harvest was in, and then she had spent days bent under the autumn sun gleaning the fields, getting her bread one grain at a time. She had not seduced the first son of the estate for the sake of idleness, but in hopes of a son with Anglish blood that would enjoy his father’s favor and gain a place in his household among the men who never dined on acorns, no matter how long the summer dragged and how empty the larders became.
She had won far more than this. Calculation had grown to affection long before he had finally laid her down beneath the harvest stars, and she had seen affection returned, in his look, and in his gentleness, even as he stripped her clumsily, and then stopped to gaze at her in a kind of wonderment. He had struggled so helplessly with the thong of his own trousers that they both wept with laughter, until she rolled on top of him and undid the knots. And then their mutual conquest became not conquest at all, but an alliance and an understanding.
Afterward, doubt had assailed her as he lay panting beside her in the grass. Would he now rise, shamefaced, pull a coin from his pocket, and trot away, tying up his trousers as he went, without a backward glance? But he had grunted and sighed and turned his face to her, lifting a hand and cradling her cheek as he said, “Oh dear, my mother will not be pleased.”
“Mine will,” she had said. And they had both known then, and they had laughed till their sides ached, naked under the stars.
It was only later that she had come to understand the limit to what she had gained. Her act was not the act of a respectable woman. By the time that Attor had won his battle over the marriage, there had been a cradle standing beside them in the hall as they had made their promises. God had forgiven her, for he had sent her healthy children. Some said Whitney was a punishment, but Edith did not believe that. Whitney was a God-touched child, a creature of almost unalloyed bliss. A burden and a treasure, but never a punishment. But these signs of God’s favor had done nothing to give her respectability. Hilda hated her for it. If God was extracting a penance from her, it was Hilda’s reproach. Elswyth did not feel that way at all. But that was almost worse. Elswyth had wheedled the story out of her, and expressed delight at it. And Edith was certain that that delight had never entirely left Elswyth’s heart.
But if Edith had not gained respectability, nor had she learned idleness. The habit of work was too far ingrained in her ever to be extinguished by rank. She commanded where once she had served, but she was cousin to half those she owned, and if any word of envy was ever to be spoken among her kin, she would not let it be envy of idleness. But in truth, idleness never tempted her. She burned with energy and would have burned up in anxiety and discontent if there were not always work to be done. In becoming lady of the hall she had found contentment in the gift of an infinity of work to be done.
Not so the child conceived beneath those stars. Elswyth had all her mother’s energy, and her looks, but she had her father’s wistful heart. Perhaps, Edith sometimes thought, it was the stars themselves that were to blame for this. There was none of that wistfulness in diligent Hilda or chatty Moira, both conceived in a bed under a firm roof. Nor was it any part of Whitney’s strange, blissful madness, and Daisy seemed set to be another Moira. No, the wistfulness was all in Elswyth, and, in Edith’s heart, this was a greater worry even than Whitney’s madness. Elswyth or Hilda would provide a place for Whitney in their households, for both of them loved her. No, it was the wistfulness of her star-begotten child that ached in Edith’s heart.
Yet it was hard for Edith to resent that wistfulness entirely, for without it, she would not have the husband she had, nor the children she had, nor the promise that no matter the harvest, none of them would feel their bellies pinch as she had. But that wistfulness had to be tamed. It was too wild a thing to let run free. She had tamed it in Attor, and she was determined to tame it in Elswyth as well.
The only yoke she knew to lay across the shoulders of wistfulness was labor. Elswyth was least the skylark and most the hen when she had work to do. And while she genuinely had no talent in her fingers, she was capable of diligence, and cheerful enough in her work until she was distracted. Once she was married and installed in Bamburgh hall, her duties would more than fill her days, and she would grow happy in them, especially when her children came. But Drefan of Bamburgh was a practical young man. He would happily forgive the Welisc side of Elswyth’s blood if he believed that she would be an asset and a credit to him. But if not, the marriage would not take place.
Not that Elswyth would lack for suitors. There was something about her, something beyond her beauty, that brought young men to her like seagulls to a plowed field. But no other suitor could promise what Drefan of Bamburgh could provide.
Attor’s family had never accepted his choice of wife. If Attor’s father had not died at Christmas, just as Elswyth had begun to make her presence in the world obvious by the swelling of Edith’s belly, Attor might never have been allowed to marry her at all. But as lord of the manor he was free to choose who he would, and he had chosen her. Even so, his mother, Lady Edmunda, had been bitterly opposed, and had wrung every kind of concession from Attor. Edmunda had softened a little with time, charmed by Elswyth and pleased to see her likeness in Hilda, but Attor’s brother, Fyren had never reconciled, and had left the estate to take up service in Bamburgh.
If Attor were to die—were he to contract a fever, were a plague to pass through the district, were a blade to slip and a wound to fester—Fyren would lay claim to the manor, and Edith and her daughters could expect little sympathy from him. Certainly, he would make no effort to secure good marriages for Elswyth, Hilda, Moira, or Daisy. If he could find a way to cast Edith back into slavery, she did not doubt he would do it.
If she had conceived a son, it might be different. If he were old enough, when his father died, to have completed his military service, he should be granted the manor in the course of things, and if he were not, Edith might be allowed to manage the manor herself until her son were of age—though even of this she, being slave born, could not be entirely certain.
But with Elswyth married to Drefan, all such fears would be put to rest. Even if the manor fell to Fyren on Attor’s death, there would be room in Elswyth’s hall for her mother and her sisters, and the sisters of the lady of Bamburgh would not lack for suitors. But if Drefan were to find some reason to refuse her, then the displeasure of Bamburgh would descend on Twyford and another thegn’s son, no matter how much he might desire Elswyth for a bride, might think twice before offering marriage to a woman spurned by Bamburgh. And a man who cared so little for Bamburgh’s friendship as to take the risk might not have the resources or influence or even the willingness to find good matches for Elswyth’s sisters, or the courage to take Whitney under his roof.
And so it was Edith’s business, for the sake of all her children, to make sure that Drefan found nothing to object to in Elswyth, no reason to fear that she would fail him in either the private or public duties of marriage. So, even though she knew that Elswyth had left her shoes behind on purpose, and then dawdled on the beach when she went to retrieve them, leaving others to do the work that should have been hers, Edith decided that Elswyth should be lady of the hall for the feast that night.
She found her daughter forming loaves for the fryer. She was standing beside Mayda and their heads were together, joining whispers to giggles. Mayda was Edith’s niece, the youngest child of her oldest sister, a slave like all her kin. As girls Elswyth and Mayda had played together, and they had been hard to tell apart, save that Mayda’s hair was kept close cropped. Alone they were still liable to descend into giggles and gossip, but in the hall Mayda knew her place. There she served in silence and kept her eyes down. Edith waved Mayda away before she spoke to Elswyth.
“It is a shame you did not have a chance to stop and talk to the sailors while you were fetching your shoes,” Edith said drily. “But you will entertain them tonight. You will be lady of the hall. Your father will need a peaceweaver tonight, and in that much at least, I have confidence in you. I’ve been on my feet all day, and my back is sore.”
“Oh, thank you, Mother,” Elswyth said, dropping the dough she was forming and throwing her arms around her mother, sending up a small cloud of flour. There was something shamefaced about her, despite her pleasure, or perhaps because of it, and Edith saw it and smiled at it. Sometimes an undeserved privilege is the sharpest form of rebuke.
“You should go and sit down,” Elswyth said. “Put your feet up.”
“And are you going to supervise the whole feast as well?” Edith asked.
Elswyth paused and looked at her, a little shamefaced still. “I can,” she said, “if you need me to.”
Edith considered for a moment. The responsibility would do Elswyth good, but her daughter still had no idea of half that needed to be done. Hilda could have done it, with a shrill crispness that would have left everyone fuming long before it was time to serve. Under Elswyth’s direction they would work twice as hard with hearts twice as light, but half of it would be left forgotten and undone. Besides, the thought of sitting by while the work went on was intolerable to Edith. The child in her made her awkward, but never tired. Sitting still through the entire feast was going to be torture enough for her. It was impossible for her to go and sit now, with so much to be done.
“Walk with me,” she said, “so I can send you if I need someone to run, and so you can learn how to keep this all going. Making sure the food is hot and served on time, and the drink does not run out, these are all part of weaving the peace of a hall. They are just as important as charm and song and preserving honor. And I don’t care if you will have half a dozen housekeepers when you are Lady of Bamburgh. If you don’t know what is needed, they will rob you blind.”
Next Chapter: 6. The Peaceweaver
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