The Wistful and the Good, Chapter 13
Angels and Valkyries
Much against his better judgement, Leif has agreed to show Elswyth the books. Get caught up using the index page.
Leif walked towards Elswyth again, longing and foreboding making his feet unsteady. She ran to meet him, beaming, and took hold of his arm. She led him along a path that led toward the cliff face. “We can’t go back to the hall,” she said, “or Mother will find me. And we can’t go to the ship because that is the first place she will look. But I know a place she won’t find us.”
She led him to a place above the tide line, under the lee of the cliff, and out of sight of both the village and his ship. There was a large low flat rock here that chance or design has surrounded with several smaller stones so that it resembled a table surrounded by stools. Several much larger boulders, from some ancient fall of rock, masked the small enclave from view of the beach, forming an area of privacy not unlike a hall in size or shape. It was just the sort of private place that he had imagined leading her to, and he could not help wondering if she had led him here for the purpose he had daydreamed of.
“This is my banquet hall,” she said. “Here I rule over all my sisters. Hilda tried to claim the lord’s place from me once, and I had to hold her down and twist her ears until she swore me her allegiance. Now you shall be a guest at my table and sit at my right hand.”
In all his life he had never felt relief and disappointment in such exquisite conjunction as when he realized that she really had brought him here just to look at the book. She was a child hiding from her mother; not a woman seeking seclusion with her lover. A terrible wistful sadness came over him at the revelation, though he would have fled from the place at once if she had shown him any hint of carnal intent. He suddenly wished to be anywhere but in her company.
“Put it down here,” she said, when they reached the table.
He laid the book as she had directed him. She sat down in front of it on a long narrow stone that played the part of a bench to the table.
“Sit here beside me,” she said, putting her hand in his arm to guide him into place. But this time he resisted the pull, broke his hand from hers, and moved away.
“Where are you going?” she asked, looking round at him.
He had not been going anywhere except away from what seemed a far too intimate seating arrangement. But then he saw something on the sand and went to it, stooped, and picked it up.
His back was to her, so Elswyth could not see what he had found. She got up and went to him. “What is it?” she asked, putting her hand on his to pull it down so she could see more easily. His hand held a skein of bright blue embroidery thread.
Her eyes grew wide when she realized that he had discovered a skein from the work basket that she had kicked over the cliff the day before. With anyone else, she would have laughed, careless of what they might think of her carelessness. But, somehow, with him, she was embarrassed by it, and therefore immediately vexed with him for having discovered the evidence of it.
“That’s mine!” she snapped, trying to snatch it from his palm. But as she was about to grab it, he closed his hand around it.
He would not have done this with anyone but her. Honor, courtesy, and his native desire to please, would have had him return the find at once to whoever declared ownership. But she had bewitched him, cajoled him, bent him to her will—and he smarted at it. She had made him powerless and in her moment of embarrassment, he saw the chance to claim back some of the power she had taken from him.
He turned to shield the thread from her with his body and lifted it out of her reach while he examined it. “This is fine-spun lamb’s wool,” he said, turning again as she dodged round him, trying to grab it from his hand. “This blue was not made with heather dyes. This is expensive stuff. Do you know what price a skein like this will fetch?”
“Yes,” she said, furiously, tears pricking in the corners of her eyes as she grabbed for it. “Give it to me.” Her body brushed against his as she reached up after it, grabbing his arm to try to pull it down so she could reach the thread.
“Is it yours?”
“Yes.” She abandoned her futile attempt to pull down his arm, stepped back, and glared at him. The memory of her body remained against his. He did not understand her anger or her embarrassment, but he was heady with it. He had found a chink in her armor.
“Why did you leave it lying on the sand?” he asked.
“What do you care. I tell you it’s mine. Give it to me!”
He glanced around and spotted a splash of yellow a few yards off. He stuffed the first skein inside his jacket and crossed the sands to where the second skein lay. She raced him for it, but he got there first and snatched it up. Then they both saw a skein of crimson and this time she got there first, snatched it out angrily from under his reaching hand. His hand fell upon hers for a moment, before she snatched it away, leaving another memory that would linger on his palm for days. Then he spotted a skein of green and beat her to it, stuffing it in his jacket with the rest.
In any contest such as this, Elswyth had no hope against Leif’s size, strength, and speed. She glanced around her furiously, trying to identify the next target, but she saw nothing. She faced him, angry, embarrassed, a little afraid, and yet unbowed. “They’re mine,” she insisted.
“My salvage,” he said.
Then she spotted her workbasket, lying overturned a few yards away. Rather than sprinting for it, she circled him, holding his eye with her angry glower as he turned to follow her. Once she was between him and the basket, she sprang for it. But he did not contest the find, for as she had turned him, he had spotted something bright tangled in a clump of seaweed, and took a few quick steps to retrieve it. It was an unfinished strip of embroidery with the needle still dangling from the end of the thread. She turned from retrieving the basket and froze when she saw it in his hands. Her face turned scarlet and she could not keep tears from her eyes.
Oh, why did he who loved her, who was obliged to her in courtesy in every possible way, rejoice to see her tears? What spiteful god had maddened him thus? “This is child’s work,” he said, examining the embroidery. And then he realized that it could not be. She would not be upset unless this inferior thing was of her own making. He understood his trespass then. He had seen a part of her that she was not ready to show him. He had seen some part of her weakness. He turned ashen with shame. He tired clumsily to conceal his crime, to give her some cover for her nakedness. “One of your sisters must have dropped it here and forgotten it,” he said.
She flew at him and snatched it from his hands. He made no resistance to her.
“What do you know about it anyway?” she demanded.
“It is my business to know the price of goods and reckon the quality of work.” He was aware of too few virtues in himself to let those he had go undefended. “Perhaps it was spoiled by the water,” he added—another impossibly clumsy attempt to excuse her.
“It wasn’t spoiled by water,” she said, feeling the fire in her cheeks and hating it, hating him for provoking it. “It was spoiled by me. So now you know that I’m useless at needlework.”
“It doesn’t matter…” he began.
“Of course it matters,” she snapped at him. “Does it matter if you run your ship up on sand or rocks? This is my work. This is what a lady is supposed to be able to do, and I can’t. I should be able to keep the tension constant and the stitches even. But I can’t, and I hate it. My hands are too swiving stupid.”
He stood looking at her for a moment, remorse flushing over his face. He looked at the hands that she cursed. They were to him all that a woman’s hands should ever be. He loved those hands. He wanted to take them in his own and press them to his lips. Remorse, abject and complete, flooded over him. He pulled the loose skeins from his jacket and held them out to her. She snatched them from him. Another memory of her finger’s touch was imprinted on his palms. In instinctive grief and submission he fell on his knees before her and bowed his head.
“Forgive me,” he pleaded. “Forgive me, Lady. I don’t know… I am so sorry… I should never.” He trailed off, unable quite to form the words to describe the crime of which he accused himself.
Elswyth was startled by this. She had been angry, for no man but her father had ever teased her in this fashion before, and her father’s teasing had had none of the proud display of power that she had glimpsed in Leif. That experience had been wholly new, and quite alarming. But this sudden collapse into remorse was more startling still, and her heart went out to him at once.
“Oh,” she said, embarrassed to see him so abject, “It’s all right, really. I’m sorry I got so upset. It’s just, I hate my embroidery. And I kicked my basket off the cliff when I saw your ship, so my Mother is angry with me about that. So I was embarrassed when you found it.”
He raised his head and looked at her. “I should never have questioned your right to it,” he said.
“I suppose it is salvage, technically,” Elswyth said, wanting to be generous to him; wanting, desperately, that he would get up off his knees. “I lost it. You found it. Isn’t that the law?”
“It is not courtesy between friends, between kin,” he said. “It was not how my father behaved when he found you among his cargo. He retuned you to your father. I should have returned your goods to you in the same way.”
She went and held out a hand to him, bidding him rise. He rose as she bid him, though he avoided taking her hand.
“Friends,” she said, pleadingly.
“Of course,” he said, blushing. He was under her thrall once again. His attempt to break through the bars that held him had only left him more securely imprisoned.
“Can we please look at the books now,” she said.
And what could he do then but go where she bade him go and sit down where she bade him sit, beside her, hip to hip?
They sat together as she directed. Elswyth opened the book and began to turn the pages.
He showed her the picture on the first page of the book, a picture of a monk or a priest in rich robes. She gave a small gasp of delight at seeing it and turned her head to smile at him a moment, in the shared knowledge of beauty.
“Look at the colors,” he said. “Look at the nobility of the face.”
“Oh, look,” she said. “See, there is a bird in the tree outside his window. How pretty it is. I have never seen a bird with such colors. Show me more.”
There followed several pages with nothing but rows of neat black letters, one above the other. She tutted in frustration and began to turn the pages so quickly that he was afraid that she might damage them.
“Where are the pictures?” she demanded, turning to him.
“Let me find them for you,” he said. He began to turn the pages slowly. It was awkward, for she was so close beside him that it was difficult to use his right arm without brushing against her.
Fortunately, he soon came to another picture page. This time the picture was of a city. It was a tall and compact city, built in white stone and surrounded by strange trees. It seemed that the city was built on a beach, for it was surrounded with sand, yet the sea was nowhere in sight.
She poured over the picture, giving a little cry of delight every time she discovered a new detail. Her head was bent near his. Her hair smelled like a meadow in summertime. Then suddenly she turned to him grasped his arm and said, “Have you been there?”
“No,” he said. To her, it seemed, his seafaring gave him a knowledge of all wonders. The truth was that the places he had been all seemed very alike to him. Their coasts, beaches, rocks, trees, all familiar. Their people not so different from his own, alike in manner and way of living. The Anglish holy men, with their books, their stone houses, and their strange teachings, were the most exotic creatures he had met in his travels. But even they were men like other men, who worked and traded and laid a good table for their friends. But no, there was one creature stranger still—this small quick dark girl, so full of delight and impatience. He did not want to confess to her how ordinary his travels were.
“I think it is not an earthly city,” he said. “I think it is Valhalla. See the strange warriors, and the Valkyries in the air.” He pointed to the pictures of winged men who floated over the city.
“Angels!” she exclaimed. “They are angels. The monk said that the book was called The City of God. This must be God’s city. It is peopled with angels. Isn’t it beautiful? Quick, turn the page, perhaps there is a picture of God himself.”
Their shared delight, and the practical necessities involved in two sets of eyes looking at the same picture, drew them closer and closer together until she was nestled into his right shoulder and her left hand rested unconsciously on his knee. Neither noticed how close they had become, for their minds were all on the pictures and in their speculations as to what they might show and how one might reach the countries that they portrayed. Questions and stories flowed from them like water from a snow-fed spring in April. They lasted for a good hour in this state of eternal present in which there were no angry mothers or imprisoned fathers, no ransoms to be won or dresses to be sewn, no joinings and no partings, no lust or longing, no frustration or debate.
This happy state was shattered by Hilda, who announced her presence with a loud and accusatory, “Found you!”
Elswyth looked up at her. “Go away, pest,” she said. But the spell was broken and she was suddenly aware that her hand was on Leif’s knee and his arm was around her back and her hair was intermingled with his beard as they both leant over the book.
“Were you kissing?” Hilda asked indignantly.
“No. Go away.” Elswyth eased herself away from Leif, who was shuffling away from her just as fast in the opposite direction. The thought of kissing him had not occurred to her. She glanced at him, at his mouth, and wondered about it. Oh but that ridiculous scrap of beard!
“Father sent me to find Leif, not you,” Hilda said. “Mother’s really peeved, though,” she added with evident relish.
“Your father summons me?” Leif asked.
“Yes. You are to come and see the monk. And Father said to bring the book.”
“Thank you for the message. I will come at once.”
“Were you kissing Elsy?”
“No. I was showing her the book.”
“Elsy can’t read.”
“There are pictures, idiot,” Elswyth said. “Not that you would appreciate them.”
“I like pictures,” Hilda said. “Maybe Leif would like to hide in the play hall and show them to me this afternoon.”
“No he wouldn’t” Elswyth said firmly, fearing that Leif would volunteer to do just that.
“Why? Am I too young for ‘looking at pictures’? Does he only want to ‘look at pictures’ with you?”
“Don’t you have work to do?”
“I’ve been doing it,” Elswyth said, triumphantly, producing her embroidery basket, which had lain forgotten on the sands for the last hour.
“Liar,” Hilda said. “You’ve been kissing, and I am telling Mother.”
“Lady,” Leif said, stepping in front of Hilda so that she had to look at him rather than Elswyth. “I have not kissed your sister. On my oath, I have not. I have been showing her the pictures in the book. I would be happy to show them to you as well, as soon as we are both free to do so.”
“Has she been doing any embroidery?”
“Not while I have been with her, no.” Leif was not made by the gods to be a discrete third party in a battle between sisters.
“Liar,” Hilda said, looking around Leif at Elswyth.
“Mother sent me to find my basket, and I did,” Elswyth said.
“Then you stayed here ‘looking at pictures’ with Leif. I’m telling Mother.”
“If you do, Leif won’t show you any pictures.”
“He just said he would.”
Both sisters glared at Leif. Leif paused and reflected while they glared at him. “I will keep my promise, Lady,” he said to Hilda after a while, “but tattling is dishonorable.”
“So is lying,” Hilda retorted.
They both turned to Elswyth.
“Okay, you want to know?” Elswyth said. “I came here to look at the books because I didn’t want Mother to find me. I might not get another chance to look at them and I didn’t want to miss it. Leif found the basket and collected the threads for me. I wasn’t looking for it.”
“I knew you were lying.”
“I said I was. Don’t rub it in.”
“I made that shirt Father gave you,” Hilda said to Leif.
Leif turned and looked at Elswyth questioningly.
“I never said I made it,” Elswyth said.
“I thought your father meant… That is why…”
“My embroidery is much better than hers,” Hilda said.
“Yes it is,” Elswyth said. “I wish you could make my dress for me. You’ll have enough for six dresses before it is time for you to marry.”
“You’re supposed to do it yourself,” Hilda said.
“I know. And I will. But while Leif and Thor are here, I want to look at the books and the ship and hear the stories. You can too, if you want to. But please don’t rat me out.”
Hilda wavered. “You promise I can look at the books?” she asked Leif.
“Okay. I won’t tell Mother. For now.”
“Thank you,” Elswyth said, and she ran forward and kissed her sister on the cheek. Then the two sisters each took Leif by an arm to lead him back to the hall.
“What about your basket?” Leif asked.
“Bother the basket,” Elswyth said.
“Bringing the basket will please your mother,” he said.
“Nothing pleases her,” Elswyth growled. But she ran back and picked up the basket.
Next Chapter: 14. The Making of Ink
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