The Wistful and the Good, Chapter 15
Blood and Vengeance
The monk has been persuaded to write a letter to his abbot asking for gold for Leif’s books. But a letter requires ink, and there is none in the village. Elswyth is banned from the ink making, since the monk will not look at her. She returns to her embroidery but soon sees Leif with blood running between his fingers from a wound on his temple. Get caught up using the index page.
“Watch my basket,” Elswyth said to Hilda as she leapt up from her seat. She ignored Hilda’s indignant reply and ran to Leif, pulling his fingers away to inspect the wound. There was a gash on his temple that was bleeding freely.
“Put pressure on it,” she said.
“I was,” he replied, putting his hand back in place over the wound.
“Come to the kitchen. We must put some honey on it to stop it from festering.”
She led him to the kitchen as if he were a child. The monk looked up when she came in. He was startled to see her, and his hand darted up to pull his cowl over his eyes. Unfortunately, the hand that darted up was holding a candle. He yelped when the candle burned him, dropped it, and then patted out the flames that had started to catch in his cowl, singeing his bare hands.
Elswyth stepped quickly to pick up the candle before it set fire to the rushes on the floor. “Perhaps I should wear a bell around my neck so you can hear me coming,” she said.
The monk did not reply, but looked sheepish and hunted around for a water bucket in which to cool his singed hands.
Elswyth took the honey pot down from the shelf and made Leif sit on a bench while she slathered the wound with enough honey to stop the blood from flowing. Then she ripped a rag into strips and used it to tie a bandage in place around his head to keep the honey on the wound.
“Who did this?” she demanded, when she was satisfied that the bandage would stay on.
“Boys throwing stones,” he said with a shrug, as if the wound had come as no surprise to him.
“Two I think. Hiding in the dunes.”
“I know who they are, the little vermin. I’ll fix them.”
She stormed out of the kitchen and returned a few minutes later dragging two boys by the ears, which she was twisting fiercely. They screeched horribly, but though they were almost as big as she was, neither made any attempt to escape her, knowing what lashes they would suffer if they offered any resistance to their thegn’s daughter.
“Apologize,” she said, forcing them to their knees in front of Leif.
“Do not make them kneel to me,” Leif said, getting to his feet. “If they are men, let them stand. If they are children, let them go.”
She looked at him with surprise. It was the sort of thing she expected Thor to say, not Leif. She let go of their ears. They looked at each other, each wanting to know if the other wanted to run. But they did not run. They stood and faced Leif.
“You are freemen’s sons?” Leif asked.
“Yes, sir,” they muttered, eyes downcast.
“Your fathers broke bread and shared a cup of hospitality with me in your lord’s hall.” Leif said. “You have broken the laws of hospitality. Your thegn will want vengeance for my blood that you have spilled. With you, this is done with money. What is the wergild for drawing the blood of a lord who is your lord’s guest?”
“More than their fathers can afford,” Elswyth said. “The only way they could pay would be to sell themselves into slavery. Or sell these two.”
The two boys looked very pale.
“There is always the old way,” Leif said. “Simple vengeance. Man to man. Blow for blow. No need to tell your fathers, or the thegn. Would you prefer that?”
The two boys looked at each other, then turned back to him and nodded shyly. Leif struck the first, an open-handed blow to the ear that knocked him down but did not draw blood. The boy bit his lip to hold back tears and struggled to his feet. The other had tears already starting in the corners of his eyes, which he clamped firmly shut. Leif gave him the same blow, sending him sprawling. He struggled to his feet like his friend, cuffing tears from his eyes as he did so.
“Quits?” Leif asked.
“Quits,” they said, looking at the floor.
“If we are at quits, look me in the eye.”
They slowly raised their eyes to his, and held them there.
“You bore my vengeance bravely,” Leif said. “Shall we be friends?”
They looked up at him and nodded wordlessly.
He held out his hand to each in turn and they shook it, then stood gawping at him, with no idea of what to do next.
“Get out,” Elswyth snapped at them.
They turned to go.
“Waes hael”, Leif said to them.
They turned. “Waes hael,” they whispered, and then turned and fled.
“That will be all over the village in the time it takes to sing Sext,” the monk said.
“No,” Leif said. “They broke hospitality. That is a serious matter, even among the Anglish. They will not boast of it. Besides, we are friends now. To shake a man’s hand and call him a friend is as good as an oath, and no boy wants to be known as an oath breaker.”
“Why do young men make friends with their fists?” Elswyth asked. She was curious, for she had seen it many times before.
“No man wants a coward for a friend,” Leif answered, as if there were no mystery too it at all.
The monk, meanwhile, having cooled his singed hands and righted his equipment, had returned to his task. He held a bronze bowl suspended over a smoky tallow candle so that the flame of the candle gutted and flickered, and the oily smoke licked up under the corners of the bowl before rising into the gloom of the roof. He had jammed the rim of the bowl into the cleft of a stick and used it as a handle to hold the bowl over the flame.
“What are you doing,” Elswyth asked him, circling behind him to avoid further accidents if he should look up and catch a glimpse of her.
“Making ink,” the monk said.
“With a candle?”
“I am collecting soot. The soot of tallow is good for ink making.”
“How long will it take?”
“Some hours to collect enough soot. Then I will boil it in flax oil and add a little glue, to make it bind properly.”
“The day will be gone before you are finished,” Leif complained.
“Writing is not a swift craft,” the monk replied. “All must be properly prepared if the work is to succeed. Is it not so with your art? Must you not prepare well before you set to sea.”
“Yes,” Leif said, “but when our need is urgent, we put to sea as quickly as we can.”
“But like any sailor, you must wait upon the tide, and I must wait upon my candle.”
“If it takes this long to make enough ink for one page, how long does it take for a whole book?” Elswyth asked.
“At the abbey we make ink in large volume, from willow bark or oak galls. That process takes many days, but it supplies all the ink we need for a year. But to make a little ink quickly, this is the best method I know.”
“There’s soot all over the kitchen,” Elswyth said. “Wouldn’t it be quicker to collect that?”
“Candle soot is better,” the monk said. “If my work is not of Abbey standard, the abbot may not believe the letter comes from me.”
“I’ll get more candles,” said Elswyth, and she quickly rounded up five more candles and various small metal vessels to act as soot catchers, and soon she, the monk, and Leif were all seated at tables gathering soot as fast as they could with both hands. The monk sat at a table by himself with his back to them. Leif and Elswyth sat opposite each other.
It occurred to Elswyth that she could just as easily call Mayda or one of the other slaves to come and take over her candles so that she could return to her embroidery. But it was very pleasant to sit across the table from Leif and watch the light of the gutting candles play on his features. Even his scanty beard looked more attractive in this light. They did not speak, but each watched the other, and was aware of the other watching them. It seemed such a comfortable thing, a thing that felt familiar, somehow, though it was entirely new.
Once she said, “Does it hurt,” meaning the wound on his head. He knew at once what she meant, and shrugged and gave a small smile of pleasure at being asked.
Once he shifted his position and his leg brushed against her dress under the table. He shifted again, so that he was no longer touching her, and she found herself wishing that he had left his leg where it was. She half wished to move her own leg to let it rest against his, but that would have been a different thing—a deliberate act where his had been an accident. She began to remember his arm around her back, her hand on his knee, as they had sat together looking at the pictures, and thinking how comfortable, how natural it had been. And her thoughts went once again to kissing, and, as she looked at his mouth in the candle flame, she found herself wishing that they had.
Her mind did not run as his did. In his thoughts he had already laid her down, explored her, mastered her, possessed and occupied her. Her longing, as yet, was just for a touch, a brushing of leg against leg, an arm around the shoulder, a brush – the lightest brush – of lips upon lips. Her thoughts had not yet led him to a bed of straw beneath a dome of stars. As a traveler, she relished every step of every journey, every flower in every hedgerow, every bird in every tree, every wind that sighed and stream that babbled. She had departed on a journey, without ever having intended to. She was meandering with no clear idea of her destination or any urgency to reach it, nor any thought at all of what she might be leaving behind.
And yet, when she caught herself thinking of his mouth—the mouth surmounting that jutting chin with its ridiculous scrap of orange beard—she was astonished at herself. It was not the attraction of sailors, with their hard hands, husky voices, and far-sailing ships that surprised her. Such thoughts were for her an old companion. It was the particularity of the desire that was new. If Eric had long been the image that had given body to the idea of a sailor, a bold far-voyager, she had long since got over any infatuation with Eric himself. But this so-slight lingering on the thought of Leif’s kiss was stunningly particular, not a sailor’s kiss, but Leif’s kiss. Leif’s kiss in particular.
After this realization came to her, she avoided looking at his mouth again, but kept her gaze on the two guttering candle flames that she was teasing at the point of extinction, torturing their soot from them.
When they had enough soot, the monk mixed it with oil and the other ingredients and hung it over the fire to boil. He then asked for a goose feather. Elswyth went to find one, and Leif went with her, not because the task required two, and not because she had asked him to, or because he had asked if he could. It just seemed to each of them perfectly natural that they should go together, chatting easily as they went. They had fallen into ease with each other.
They returned with several specimens and the monk selected one and asked for a knife. Leif handed him a small knife—the tool for which he had gone to the ship earlier. The monk had sent him for it long before he needed it because Leif had been pacing endlessly and it had been driving the monk to distraction.
“I could have given you one just like it if you’d asked,” Elswyth said when she saw it.
They watched him make the delicate cuts in the quill to form his pen and to make a few experimental strokes to test ink and pen.
“Are you ready to write now?” Leif asked.
“I suppose this will have to do,” the monk said, sniffing somewhat disconsolately at both the pen and the ink. And then he glanced up at the window, said “Excuse me,” and rose from the table. He made his way to the door, tripping over a bucket and walking into the doorpost, because he kept his eyes on the ceiling to avoid looking at Elswyth. He stepped outside and was gone.
Next Chapter: 16. Granny
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