The Wistful and the Good, Chapter 19
Haystacks and Plowboys
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Though caught off guard by Drefan’s sudden displays of affection, Elswyth has managed to weave a very tentative peace between Drefan and Leif. But Drefan has pointedly refused to shake hands or take food and drink with Leif, to avoid being bound by the rules of hospitality. Get caught up using the index page.
Elswyth started to follow Drefan toward the beach and the ship, but Edith called her back.
“What is it, Mother?”
“Wait a moment.” Edith put her hand on Elswyth’s arm and they watched as the men walked off together toward the beach, trying to sort out among themselves who should lead and who should follow, who was guide and who guest, who lowly and who high, and who among the high wished to have whom among the lowly to speak with. It was odd to watch how they spread out across the compound as they tried to sort themselves out, and then the process of deference and urging by which they worked out who should go before another when they came to the place where the path narrowed.
When they were well out of earshot, Edith turned to Elswyth. “Have you lain with Drefan already?”
Elswyth’s face registered surprise rather than guilt. “No. Why?”
“He kissed you like you had.”
“We haven’t. I’m not lying.”
“I believe you. You looked startled.”
Elswyth frowned. “He didn’t have to do it like that, in front of everybody.”
“He hasn’t kissed you before?”
“On the cheek. On the forehead. On the top of my head.”
“Those don’t count.”
“So that was your first kiss?”
Elswyth’s eyes glistened at the question. “I suppose,” she said, defiantly.
Edith came and hugged her. “I’m sorry,” she said. “It shouldn’t have been like that. But then you kissed him back.”
“I wanted him to look at me instead of Leif.”
“I saw that. I told him he had nothing to be jealous about. I told him you and Leif are like brother and sister.”
Elswyth stepped back from her. “We are not,” she said. “Just because you treat him like a son does not make him my brother.”
“You don’t mean?”
“Don’t mean what?”
“You’re as bad as Granny.”
“What did she say?”
“Never mind. It doesn’t matter. I like hearing sailor’s stories. I like looking at the books. That’s all.”
“You’re not upset with Drefan, then?”
“The only reason I was ever upset with Drefan was because he kept treating me like a little girl.”
“You got your wish then.”
“Yes…” But here Elswyth grew wistful. “I just wish… What was the first time Father kissed you?”
Edith smiled. “Pentecost, after the feast. He came into the serving kitchen looking for more wine. He was very drunk. I was whipping cream for the pudding. He stumbled and I caught him. We looked at each other—we’d been looking at each other a lot since Christmas—and I saw a look in his eye so I tilted my head back a little and he took the hint.”
“What was it like?”
“Sour. He was very drunk. And then he burped.”
Elswyth giggled. “Oh, Mother, that’s awful. At least Drefan was sober. I just wish it hadn’t been…”
“I know. I’m sorry about that. But at least you know he really wants you now.”
“I suppose. You don’t think he just did it because…”
“Because Leif was there? No. I’m sure not. Maybe it took Leif being there to make him want to show it.”
“You think so?”
“Of course. Oh child, they all want you. You know that. I was that girl once. I remember.”
“Sometimes I wish I wasn’t.”
“I know, believe me. It’s harder when you are a slave, and every man thinks he can have you.”
This clearly came as a shock to Elswyth. Edith watched her face work a moment. Elswyth knew, of course, what it was like for every man to want her. But every man on the manor knew well that he could not have her. It had not been so for Edith, and now, it seemed, Elswyth understood.
“How awful, Mother. You never told me.”
“Your father put a stop to it. I think maybe that is when he started to notice me. I mean, notice more than my figure and my face. He rescued me from under a plowboy behind a haystack. After that… Well, by autumn, I was under him behind a haystack.”
“Mother! The plowboy didn’t…”
“No. Your father didn’t give him the chance, thank God. I bit the plowboy’s lip and he boxed my ears for it and then your father pulled him off me and gave him a kicking. The wergild for assaulting a thegn’s kitchen slave isn’t much, but he didn’t have it, so your father made the plowboy sell himself into slavery to raise it. After that, the rest left me alone. But darling, you understand, don’t you? No one would ever lay a hand on an ealdorman’s wife, nor any of her kin. No matter what might happen to your father... When you are Drefan’s wife, your sisters will be safe.”
Elswyth turned and hugged her mother. “When you used to say ‘safe’, I thought you just meant from Fyren. From losing the manor. You never told me about that.”
“Not a thing to tell a child. But you are not a child now. I needed you to know.”
Elswyth broke from her mother’s embrace. Dabbing her eye with her sleeve, she said, “I should run down to the beach and make sure they are getting on. Drefan’s in a mood, and I can help keep him sweet.”
“No,” Edith said. “Let them be. We want them to make friends, and they won’t do that while you are around. It’s their way. Young men will test each other. They will push and boast and even fight, and come out of it firm friends. But not when there is a woman in the middle. A man will never court his friend’s woman, but he will never stop courting his rival’s woman. So let them become friends before you put yourself between them. Your father will keep them from coming to blows. Besides, all Leif’s men are there, and Leif is not going to start something, no matter how stroppy Drefan gets. When your sisters get here, we should all eat together and then leave the table to the men when they get back.”
Elswyth frowned. She did not like to be left out of any conversation.
“You are a fine peaceweaver, my darling,” her mother said. “But you have to learn to leave men be sometimes. They need to talk their own talk, just as we need to talk ours. Besides, you have a great deal of embroidery to do if your dress is going to be ready for your wedding day. Enough of looking at books and listening to stories. You have work to do. If Drefan decides to stay for dinner, you can sing and tell stories this evening. But this afternoon, give Leif and Drefan a chance to get to know each other. They are both good young men, and Drefan has dined with many a Norsk before this business at Lindisfarne. But if you are around, it will just be more showing off and bluster. Have your lunch and then—I can’t believe I am saying this—take your work basket up on the cliff out of the way and get on with your work.”
Edith turned to look for her other daughters and saw that Hilda, Daisy in her arms, was standing close behind her, glaring at them.
“Oh boy,” said Elswyth, looking at her sister’s grim face. Hilda had a gift for hearing more than she was supposed to and it did not serve her well.
Elswyth took Daisy from Hilda, and beckoned Moira and Whitney to take their places at the table. Edith beckoned Hilda to her. “How much of that did you hear? And what part of it has you so upset.”
“The plowboy,” Hilda whispered.
“Oh, sweet love, don’t worry about the plowboy. He’s long gone.”
“But if something happens to Father… Uncle Fyren does not like us, because we are half Welisc, even though I don’t look it at all.”
“You will be quite safe, pet. Drefan and Elswyth will not let anything happen to us. No matter what Fyren does, you will never have anything to fear from plowboys.”
“This one ought to be a boy,” Hilda said, rubbing her mother’s belly.
“Maybe it will. I dream it is a girl, but it kicks like a boy. But it doesn’t matter. Drefan will keep us safe. Besides, why should anything happen to your Father? He’s healthy as a horse.”
“Elsy didn’t like it.”
“Didn’t like what?”
“He took her by surprise is all.”
“She didn’t like it.”
“She didn’t like that he did it like that in front of everyone.”
“She didn’t like it,” Hilda repeated, stubbornly.
“She kissed him back, pet.”
“Do I have to get married?”
“Do you want to be a nun?”
“What’s upset you, really? Drefan or the plowboy?”
“The plowboy…” Hilda whispered, wrapping her arms around her mother and putting her head on her shoulder.
“Your father will find a good man for you to marry, and he and his kin will protect you and your children.”
“I meant what the plowboy did to you.”
“But he didn’t, dear. Your father stopped him.”
“But if he hadn’t…”
Edith had no answer for this but to draw Hilda into a tighter embrace. But that moment of comfort did not last long, for there was a violent collision against their legs as Whitney—as avid for hugs as Elswyth was for conversations—threw herself into the embrace and beamed up at them blissfully. Hilda kissed her mother then bent and kissed Whitney before taking her place at table. Edith and her daughters ate in silence for a while. Even Moira kept silent, aware that some cause of somberness had come over her mother and her elder sisters. But it was not in Moira to restrain her tongue too long, and soon she began to gossip again and soon they were all talking and laughing, and even Hilda and Elswyth were affectionate and merry with each other.
Next Chapter: 20. The Price of Virginity
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