The Wistful and the Good, Chapter 12
The Rules of Trade
The Monk has refused to put a value on Leif’s books, insisting that they are stolen property and should be returned to the Church without compensation. He has threatened him with the wrath of God, which he says can only be averted by accepting baptism. Yet Lief cannot return to his own people if he renounces their God. Elswyth, meanwhile, is desperate for a chance to look at the books, and Leif is finding it increasingly difficult to resist her. Get caught up using the index page.
Elswyth caught up with Leif as he came to the edge of the sand, and put her hand on his arm. He turned and looked at her.
“Where are you going with the book?” she asked.
“I am going to put it back in the chest in the ship where it will be safe. I will set men to guard it. I fear that Brother Alun may try to steal it.”
“He won’t,” she said. “He’s too afraid of you. He would not dare go into your ship. I don’t think he would touch anything belonging to a vikingr.”
“I am not a vikingr,” he said. “Why do you call me that?”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I shouldn’t have said that. I was just teasing.”
“I know of Norsk who go viking, and Danir and Svíar as well,” he said. “We were attacked by vikingar ourselves. But we are not all vikingar.”
“They are considered evil by your people?”
“A man who goes viking exposes his whole family to vengeance,” Leif said. “If a man is an outcast, how else is he to get his bread? But we don’t like them. They are bad for trade. We don’t like to be taken for them. That is very bad for trade. This is what my father has always taught me: trade depends on trust. You must deal fairly with those you trade with. You must treat them as you would your kin. You must not steal their cattle, or tell their secrets, or take their daughters to your bed. Treat them as you would treat your brother, and they will treat you as a brother. That is why my father swore an oath of brotherhood with your father, so that there might be trust between them as between kin. Is it not so with your people also?”
“Of course it is,” she said.
“Then why does that monk think that I should give the books to the Bishop of Utrecht? He is not my brother. He is not kin to my kin. I have no duty to him. My uncle got these books in fair trade from the Danir.”
“But the Danir did not know their value.”
“My uncle was not kin to the Danir. He was not bound to him by any oath. Why should he tell him their value? He had no duty towards him. And if the Bishop of Utrecht could not take proper care of his property, what is that to me, or to my uncle? Was the man who took them kin to the Bishop? If so, that is his shame, not mine. By what right does Brother Alun say that the books are not mine?”
Elswyth stood with her head on one side for a moment, considering the question. The sea breeze blew her hair across her face. She divided it with her thumbs and guided it over her shoulders. “The monks teach us that all men are brothers,” she said. “They say that we should treat every man like kin because we are all brothers in Christ.”
“I know of your god, Christ,” Leif said. “The monks told me of him. He is like our god Balder, a god who dies. His death is caused by Loki, who you call Satan. But we are not brothers to Balder, for the gods are their own people and they are not kin to men.”
“The monks tell us that all Christians are kin to Christ.”
“That is a strange teaching. Does that mean that all the Anglish people are kin? Does it mean every Anglish man has a duty of vengeance for those who died at Lindisfarne?”
“I don’t know.” The question had not occurred to her before, but she saw that it was a good one, and her brow furrowed as she pondered it.
“But does it mean that Anglish think all Norsk are kin?” Leif continued. “Does it mean they think they can fulfil their duty of vengeance for Lindisfarne on any Norsk, even if they are not kin to the vikingar who attacked Lindisfarne? Your people need to know that not all Norsk are kin!”
“But we don’t practice vengeance like you do,” Elswyth said. “We do wergild. So much for a hand. So much for an eye. So much for a freeman. So much for a slave.”
“I remember. My father admires this system. It is a trader’s system, not a warrior’s system. It prevents feuding, and feuding is bad for trade. But still, a man’s kin must pay the wergild he owes if he cannot, yes?”
“But is it his blood kin that owes the debt, not the whole Anglish people?”
“Then not all Christians are kin, despite what your monks say.”
“I suppose not.”
“Then how can that monk think that I am bound to treat the Bishop of Utrecht as if he were my kin? Does he believe that because my father swore an oath of brotherhood with your father that I am now kin to the whole Anglish people, and to the Franks as well? Such oaths apply only to the blood kin of those who swear them.”
She frowned. “Oh bother it, I don’t know. Does it matter?”
“I want to know so that I know whether the Anglish think they have a right of vengeance against me. I want to know if I must appease your Christ. I want to know if the Anglish will give me a fair price for my books. I want to know because I want no quarrel with gods or men.”
She put a hand up to shade her eyes, for he was framed by the glare of sea and sky. She had no answer to his question. “I don’t want a quarrel with you either,” she said, “so let’s not.”
He melted towards her then, because she wanted him to, and this was heaven’s gift to her, to command friendship at her whim.
“I want no quarrel with you either, Lady.”
“Elswyth. Don’t quarrel about that either.”
“I want no quarrel with you, Elswyth.”
“Good,” she said, coming to him and reaching out her hands for the book. “Can I see the book again?”
He stepped back.
“I’m not going to steal it,” she said, impatiently. “You and I are oath-kin, aren’t we? I won’t rob you. I only want to look at the pictures.”
He stepped away from her. She looked at him with wounded impatience.
“If what you tell me is true,” he said, “then Brother Alun feels himself to be kin to the Bishop of Utrecht.”
“Monks all call each other ‘brother,’” she said.
“Then he will try to recover his brother’s property.”
“He won’t rob my father’s guest. He is bound by hospitality like any man. He has eaten and drunk at my father’s table. And he heard Father say he would not let you be robbed. And anyway, he’s too frightened of you to try to take it from you.”
“I suppose you are right.”
“Of course I am,” she said, advancing on him and trying to pull the book from his arms. “Now please let me look at the book.”
But here her confidence in her powers was misplaced. She had advanced too quickly.
“No!” he said.
She let go of the book and stood looking at him in perplexity. She was not used to having young men refuse what she asked. “You are very strange people, you vikingar,” she said.
“I know my own property,” he replied, walking away toward the ship. “If you do not, then you are the vikingr.”
“Is this the courtesy your father taught you?” she called out to him across the sand.
He turned again and looked at her.
“I only want to look,” she said, plaintively. “I have never seen a book before. It is so strange and beautiful. Please show it to me.”
The first time that Leif had been a guest in Attor’s hall in Twyford, he had eaten in the kitchen with the other children, where he had been teased by a dark Welisc-looking girl that he had taken for one of the cook’s children, and tried to ignore. After the meal he and the other boys had crept into the dark corners of the hall and listened to the bards and storytellers. She had been there too, bright eyes in rapt attention to all that went on round the fire, like any other child. It was only later, when he found her monopolizing Thor’s attention, and making Eric play games with her, that he had realized that she was the thegn’s daughter.
Her power to attract and hold the attention of adults, and even older children, to have their faces light up at her presence, to have them lay aside their tasks happily to entertain her, and to smile wistfully after her when she left them, infuriated him, for he had no such gifts. He was the child of whom much is expected, but whom no one but Thor seemed to take any delight in teaching. And for as long as their visits lasted, this girl stole Thor from him.
The last time he had been there he had been granted the privilege of sitting at the table in the hall with the men and their wives. His place had been a very low one, far from the fire, but he had been at the table, in the same room where his father and Thor had sat with Attor and his chief men, and he had watched as the great men sat together at the high table, eating the best meat, drinking the best wine, sharing the secret talk of men. He had been allowed a cup of mead, and when it was empty, he had contrived to get it filled again, twice. Afterward, when he was being sick outside the door, she—a slim dark coltish girl then, all hair and limbs—had swept by him with a gaggle of followers, and had laughed at him.
In short she had infuriated him then, and she infuriated him now. She seemed to have no responsibilities of any substance, and those few she had, she neglected. Her father was impossibly weak and indulgent towards her, and she was contemptuous of her mother. And yet, she had an untamed kindness about her that would flash out of nowhere like a rogue breeze that can put a ship on its beam on a calm day. More maddening still, she could put on the full responsibilities of adulthood at a moment, as easily as she might put on a dress. In the hall last night she had played the lady with great boldness and assurance, sweeping away her father’s timid plan for the evening, and drawing the whole sullen company into something almost bordering on merriment by sheer force of will, beauty, and charm. But in the morning, that lady was gone, and the petulant child was back, as if she had all along been a bold child playing dress up, though playing it so well that the whole adult world, himself included, had been deceived and charmed.
And yet she was no child. She was a woman. He was aware of her as a woman in a way that he had never been aware of any woman before. Despite all the burdens that were on his shoulders, despite his family’s tragedy and his father’s peril, his thoughts returned again and again to her hair, her mouth, her bosom, her limbs. He wanted nothing but to lead her away to some secluded spot among the dunes and lay her down. But it was more than that—far more. In his mind he had already made her wife, mother to his children, lady of his longhouse, and companion of his old age.
Madness of course. The rules of trade stood against it. His understanding with the Lady Sibbe back in Norway stood against it. Her undoubtable understanding with some rich thegn’s son stood against it. Her certain indifference to him stood boldly against it. Her childlike unworthiness stood against it. He would require a far steadier companion in the trials that were to come. Sibbe might be no such beauty as Elswyth, but she was far steadier in temperament and the alliance the match would bring would be essential to any hope of his clan’s recovery—if, indeed, Sibbe’s father would still consider the match worth making, now that his family’s wealth was gone and its numbers cut in half. Besides, Elswyth was half Welisc, and looked wholly so. The Welisc were a people fit only for slavery, as Elswyth’s irresponsibility showed. To return home with such a wife as this would bring only contempt, and she would be treated very cruelly by his people—by the women in particular.
And yet, her mouth, her pleading mouth, her irresistible mouth.
“Very well,” he said.
Next Chapter: 13. Angels and Valkyries (coming next week)
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