The Wistful and the Good, Chapter 18
Drefan has always treated Elswyth more like a little sister than his promised wife, much to her annoyance. But when he saw her with Leif he suddenly pulled her to him and extracted a passionate kiss. Get caught up using the index page.
Edith was startled, for she had never seen Drefan and Elswyth kiss before, had not supposed they ever had. She watched as Drefan’s hands disengaged from Elswyth’s and went around her back to draw her closer to him. She was sure that Elswyth was startled by it as well, but as Drefan continued to hold her, continued to work his mouth against hers, Elswyth seemed to relax into it, and her arms went around him in return.
“Now, you two. Calm your horses,” Attor said, laughing awkwardly.
Drefan released Elswyth, but his eyes did not immediately return to her face. He looked up at Leif and Thor, both of whom had stopped a few steps back, not approaching nearer while the kiss lasted.
Elswyth glanced a moment at Leif, and at Drefan’s inquiring stare, and then she reached up a hand and pulled Drefan’s mouth back down on hers. The men all looked away from the kiss, but Edith watched it, fascinated.
“Did you miss me, then?” Elswyth asked when the second kiss ended. Her face was flushed and there was pleasure and surprise mingled in her appearance.
“How could I not rush to you on a day so splendid as this?” Drefan said, gallantly.
“The weather has been splendid all week,” Elswyth retorted.
“Ah, but I was…” Drefan began, but then stumbled seeking a gallant quip, and finished lamely, “…busy.”
“Well, if you were busy, then of course I forgive you,” Elswyth said, “Though I missed you terribly.”
“Did you? I’m glad.”
This time, Drefan’s eyes lingered on Elswyth rather than rising to look at Leif again.
Edith felt a glow of pride in her daughter then. Clearly Drefan’s kiss had caught her off guard, yet she had recovered her composure almost at once and had managed to both tease and flatter him, and had picked him up when he stumbled in his banter. It was masterfully handled. Yet she could also see in Elswyth’s face that inside she was still reeling from the surprise of the first kiss.
Seeing that it was safe to look again, Attor came forward and said, “Well, Drefan, that ship you came to investigate, she is Norsk indeed, but just a trade ship. This is her captain and his first man. Come and greet them.” He beckoned Leif and Thor forward. “Leif, son of Harrald, this is Drefan, son of Kenric, and his cousins, Drang, son of Tredan, and Earh, son of Piers. Drefan is heir to Bamburgh, and soon to be my son-in-law. Leif, and his father before him, have traded with us for many years. I am oath-brother to his father, which makes him oath-nephew to me.”
“And oath-cousin to me,” Elswyth said, keeping her eyes fixed on Drefan.
Leif stepped forward and offered Drefan his hand.
Drefan ignored it. Slowly he walked around Leif as if he were inspecting a cow at the fair. Then he did the same thing to Thor.
“How long have they been on your beach?” he asked Attor. “The news we heard said the ship was seen three days ago.”
“Three days, aye,” Attor said.
“They have been on your beach three days? Does it take so long to unload their goods and load yours?”
“They are my guests. We have been friends for a long time.”
“But a good guest stays three days. No more. That is the custom. To stay longer is to presume on your host’s pantry. So surely they will sail with the tide?”
“My wool production is delayed. Half my spinsters are with child.”
That was a lie, and Attor made a poor job of telling it. Edith was surprised, for her husband was not given to lying. But she remembered that Attor wanted nothing said of the books in Leif’s cargo, and it was because of the books that Leif and Thor could not leave their beach. That this would mean having to choose between Leif and Drefan had not occurred to her, and it surprised her that, when the moment came, Attor had chosen Leif.
Drefan did not seem to have detected the lie. He was not looking at Attor. He was looking at Leif, who had withdrawn the hand he had offered and was standing impassively, returning Drefan’s gaze. Then Drefan looked away from Leif to examine Thor again.
“Which is the captain, again,” Drefan asked Attor, “the oak or the sapling?”
“I am captain,” Leif said, extending his hand again.
“You are Norsk, yes?” Drefan said, addressing Leif directly for the first time.
“We are Norsk.”
“We honor Thor, Odin, and Ran.”
“You know what the heathens have done at Lindisfarne?”
Lindisfarne. Edith grew cold at the mention of the name. That holy place was now a name of dread. She looked at Elswyth, anxious to warn her daughter, if eyes alone could give the warning, that Drefan could not be shamed out of his anger as she had shamed Snell in the hall. But Elswyth made no motion to speak or to intervene. She was looking at Leif, with seeming confidence, though Lief was for a moment silent, pausing as Edith had noticed him pause before.
Then, without any betrayal of emotion, Leif said, “I learned of it from my uncle Attor. It saddens me. My people are traders. Now all Norsk are feared in Anglish lands, and that will ruin our trade.”
Drefan’s face curled into a sneer. “Ruin your trade, will it? Well, that is a tragedy. Let me tell you what it has meant to my people. What it has meant to me. I had a tutor, Father Billfrith. I served him poorly as a student, but I loved that old man. After many years of service to my father’s household, he retired to Lindisfarne last year, where he promised he would pray daily for my soul. I am told that they found his body in the scriptorium. The vikingar had cut out his heart and his liver and daubed the books with them.”
“I know nothing of that,” Leif responded. “I weep to hear of it.”
“What do you trade in, then? Slaves? Women? Boys?”
“Anglish wool is the finest in Europe,” Leif said. “It is a cleaner trade than slaves. It does not need to be fed, nor does it soil the ship.”
“If I were to look among your cargo, would I find tapestries and alter cloths, gold and silver crosses? Altar vessels set with precious stones? All such things as were the wealth of Lindisfarne?”
“I have seen the whole of their cargo,” Attor said. “There is no monkish stuff among it. I have it in my storeroom if you want to see.”
Edith had been thinking how proud she was of Leif for the way he handled Drefan’s enquiry. Leif, or rather, Leif’s father, whom he represented, ranked no higher among the Norsk than Attor did among the Anglish. It was right that he should be humble before Drefan. But it was also right that he should stand up for himself, and that he had done. But it astonished her to hear Attor again lie to Drefan, a lie more direct, more provably false than the first. Did his falseness seem so plain to her only because she knew the truth? Could Drefan really be as blind to it as he seemed? It was a lie that could ruin all if it were discovered. And there were so many ways it might be discovered. This was not her husband as she knew him, and it chilled her. He could not possibly have thought through what might come of it before he spoke. It was his cursed wistfulness, reawakened for Leif’s sake. She glanced at Elswyth and saw that the same thought was in her daughter’s head. But both understood that it was too late now to change the course that Attor had set.
Elswyth went to Drefan then, hugged him, laid her head on his shoulder, and said, “I’m so sorry. I remember Father Billfrith. You introduced him to me. He was a lovely old man. He taught me the story of Ruth. Do you remember? ‘Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God’. I loved that story.”
Drefan’s eyes dropped from Leif’s face then and looked down at Elswyth with a very genuine look of affection and gratitude.
“But Leif would never do anything like that,” Elswyth continued, holding his attention by her look. “He is friends with our monk. Did you know we have a monk? Only for a little while until Kendra dies. But he’s so funny. He won’t look at me and he keeps falling over his feet because he won’t look where he is going. But he’s a lovely man too, really. And he and Leif are friends—old friends, for they met years ago. Why, the monk visits the ship, when he can.”
“Visits the ship?” Drefan asked. “Why should he visit the ship.”
It seemed to Edith then that Elswyth had gone too far in her praise of Leif’s friendship with the monk, and she held her breath a moment fearing that her daughter would stumble for an answer. But Elswyth’s answer came swiftly and surely, compounding her father’s lie.
“They are friends. They drink beer and tell stories, I suppose, like you men do with your friends. You and Leif should be friends too. You both like beer and you both have such good stories to tell.”
Drefan looked down at her.
“Please,” she said, smiling so winsomely that it would be impossible to deny her. (Oh, Hilda, if you could only learn one tenth of that art!) “If we are to marry,” Elswyth continued, “you cannot hate my friends.”
She had won him over. The wren had stormed the eyrie and submitted the eagle to her will. Drefan turned to Leif. “Your pardon, Captain. You took me by surprise, I confess. We don’t think much of Norsk in Northumbria these days. But if my lady vouches for you, I must take her at her word. A word of warning to you though. Be away as soon as your cargo is loaded, and do not put in to any other beach in Northumbria or you will certainly end up with a sword in your guts.”
“I am aware of the danger,” Leif said, extending his hand once again. “I thank you for your welcome.”
“Did I say ‘welcome’?” Drefan asked. “I don’t recall. But welcome, Captain.” He gave Leif a hearty slap on the back, but did not shake his hand.
“And you, sweet Goliath,” he said, turning to Thor. “Welcome also.” It seemed as if he thought of slapping Thor on the back, but then thought better of it. Neither he nor Thor extended a hand to the other, and Thor responded only with a nod.
“He does not speak Anglish?” Drefan asked, turning to Elswyth.
“Of course he does,” Elswyth said. “Don’t you, Uncle Thor?”
Thor replied only with a nod.
“And I speak Norsk,” Elswyth went on. “Did you know that? I learned it from Uncle Thor and the other sailors. I speak Welisc too. I would like to get the monk to teach me Latin, but he won’t be here long enough, and besides, he won’t look at me. Would you like your wife to speak four languages?”
“As long as she scolds me in one I don’t understand, and praises me in one I do,” Drefan said. Then he grinned and bent down, lifted Elswyth off her feet, and extracted another long kiss from her, drawing her tightly into his embrace as the kiss continued, until Elswyth squirmed in his arms and dropped her chin to bring the kiss to an end.
When he released her and put her back on her feet, he turned and looked at Leif again. Leif’s face was stoic. Of course it was, Edith thought, for Elswyth was like a sister to him if she was anything.
Then Drefan released Elswyth and turned away from her.
“Come, Captain,” he said, clapping Leif on the shoulder again so hard that Leif almost staggered. “Show me your ship. I hear you Norsk are fine shipbuilders.”
“Lunch is on the table, Drefan,” Edith said. “Won’t you sit and eat with us, and with Leif and Thor.”
Drefan turned and bowed to her. “Forgive me, Edith,” he said. “But I have eaten already. I stuff my saddle bags in the morning with enough to last me to evening, but then I eat it all before noon.”
“Drang and Earh, will you join us?” Edith asked, seeing that the two young men were looking wolfishly at the table.
“Oh, they are as bad as me,” Drefan said. “Come on, cousins. Let us go see this ship.”
Edith noted both surprise and disappointment on the faces of Earh and Drang. Drefan was lying too. He had never refused lunch before in his life. He was simply unwilling to break bread or share a cup with Leif.
Drefan turned to Leif. “Captain, you won’t mind if we delay your lunch a while?”
“Of course not,” Leif said. “I would be proud to show you my ship.”
“And Goliath, too.”
“Thor,” Elswyth said. “He’s my uncle Thor, and I love him, and I want you to be polite to him.”
“Then I shall call him Thor! Come, Thor, show me a ship so mighty that it can float your vast frame.”
Thor again merely nodded.
“Let’s go then!” Drefan said, and began to walk toward the beach, beckoning the rest to follow.
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