The Wistful and the Good, Chapter 23
The Bonds of Hospitality
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Elswyth has rejected Drefan’s attempt to lie with her, but she must endure the rest of the day in his company. Get caught up using the index page.
Drefan did follow her, though he let her get almost out of sight before he hopped up on Sherwyn and cantered easily after her. “It’s not safe for you to ride off alone,” he said gruffly when he came up beside her. He dropped Sherwyn down to Spotty’s pace, and they rode along in silence together until they came to Longhoughton.
They spent several hours there, visiting people that they knew. They were a popular couple—Elswyth for her charm and beauty and Drefan because of his good humor and the fact that he would one day be their ealdorman. People were so pleased to see them individually that they scarcely noticed that they barely spoke to each other or looked in each other’s direction from the time of their arrival to their departure.
But as the afternoon wore on, Drefan cast an eye at the declining sun and said, “We’d best be heading homeward if we don’t want to be stumbling in the dark.”
They said their goodbyes and mounted.
“Let’s return by the sea path,” Elswyth said.
“That adds near a mile to the distance.”
“We have time,” she insisted. “It is near midsummer and evenings are long.”
They mounted their horses and made their way through the village to the track that led to the sea, a mile distant. It was hardly a track in places, but she knew the way and she and Spotty took the lead with Sherwyn and Drefan following docile behind.
They arrived at the coast at a point where the track descended to a beach beside an inlet that was protected from the sea by broad expanses of rock to the north and south. There was a narrow break in the rocks, enough to allow a ship to pass. Two small boats were hauled up on the sand above the tide line, turned upside down to keep them from filling with rainwater. Just above the sand there was a dilapidated hut, not lived in, but used by fishermen when they worked their catch. Beside the hut were rows of rough wooden drying racks, but there were no signs of fishermen or fish. It was a wonderfully lonely place, and Elswyth stopped and shook out her hair in the brisk breeze that blew in from the sea.
“I’ve always thought this would be a wonderful spot for a village,” she said, as Drefan drew up beside her. “It is such a perfect place for boats.”
“No decent water,” Drefan said, glancing around. “And your father would not thank you for creating a rival to his trade.”
Elswyth took a deep breath. “I like the smell of it.”
“That’s because there is no village. Bring in people, latrines, pigs, chickens, horses, a tanner, a smith, all the other trades, and it will smell just like Twyford or Longhoughton.”
“We could live here, just the two of us. Then it would not smell like a village.”
“It would as soon as I took my boots off,” he said with a laugh. “But an ealdorman cannot live off in a corner. We shall live in Bamburgh, right in the middle of things.”
“I wish the tide was out,” she said. “We could go home along the sands.”
“You can get all the way to Twyford along the sands from here?” Drefan asked, with a sudden quickening of interest.
“At low tide, yes. You have to pass the Bally Cars and the Marden Rocks, but at low tide it is all open. With the tide high like this, though, you can’t pass the headlands. Besides, Spotty doesn’t like crossing the rocks. They’re too hard on his poor old feet. So we’ll have to take the path above the beach.”
She turned Spotty’s head and urged him forward again following the path that petered in and out of existence in the margin between the forest and the sand. The land rose slightly as they rounded Seaton Point, fell again as they skirted the broad deserted bay below Foxton, and grew steadily higher again as they passed the Marden Rocks and climbed the hill that became a cliff above the beach at Twyford. The village, lying in the lee of the hill, was hidden from them, but from quite a long way off they could see the ship lying on the beach. There was water all around its keel in the high tide, almost enough to float it off. Elswyth’s heart was instantly afloat. She transported herself to the prow of the ship, waving goodbye to her sisters watching from the sand while Leif, Thor, and the Norsk men pushed the ship into the sea. Where was she going? What did it matter?
She was startled by a sudden thudding of hooves as Drefan spurred Sherwyn past her and cantered upward to the top of the rise where the view of the ship was best. There he reined in and stood staring down the hill and across the sand at the ship. She urged Spotty forward, but, on a climb, that made no difference to his pace. Drefan was still staring fixedly at the ship when she came alongside him.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” she said.
“Tell the people of Lindisfarne that those ships are beautiful,” he replied.
“That ship is a knarr, a trade ship. See how broad she is in the belly. The Norsk warships are slender. Vikingar would use a longship, not a knarr.”
“How do you know so much about Norsk ships?”
“I live in a trading village.”
“We should not be trading with Norsk. All it accomplishes is to let them know where our riches are, and where our defenses are weak.”
“Not trade with Norsk? I can show you five things you are wearing that come from the Norsk trade. Your boots are trimmed in reindeer hide. Three of the jewels in your belt, for certain, and perhaps a fourth as well. Your sword is made from Svíar iron. That Frankish wine you like is carried in Norsk ships, and whale oil for your lamps…”
“If that’s true, I’ll do without all of it, and find better of Anglish make.”
“You would like Leif, if you took the trouble to know him,” she said. “He has been so many places, and has stories of the sea. The two of you could sit over a jug of ale and tell tales till the candles burned down. And you should see the things he has in his cargo. He has books with such wonderful pictures. You never saw anything like them.”
“I care nothing for books. Waste of time and good cow hide.”
“He gave me this comb,” she said, pulling the comb out from the pouch that hung from her belt. “It’s red deer antler, and it’s beautifully made. Look how even the teeth are, and see how delicate the pattern is that is carved in the handle. It is interlace, like our art, but the patterns are different, and look at the dragon head in the middle. Isn’t it wonderful?”
She held the comb up for his inspection. He reached down and took it from her, and scowled at it in the ruddy light of the declining sun.
“He gave you this?”
“He is a guest in the hall.”
“Then he should give gifts to your father. To your mother. Why to you?”
“I was lady of the hall, for that night. Mother was tired because of the baby. He gave me this to say thank you,” she said, and then she cried out “Don’t!” for Drefan was bending the comb between his two hands, pushing in the middle with his thumbs.
He paused, the comb poised on the point of breaking. “He has no right to give you gifts,” he said.
“If you break it I won’t speak to you,” she cried, reaching up vainly. Between Spotty’s short stature and her own, she could do no more than tug on the corner of his tunic. There were tears in her eyes, and that just made her more angry. “Give it to me! Give it to me!” she shouted, beating on his knee with her fists.
He looked down at her, his face grim. Then he scowled, and with a sudden jerky motion, he handed the comb back to her.
She cuffed the tears out of her eyes and inspected the comb for damage. The teeth were all intact and the patterns on the handle were unhurt. She put it safely back into her pouch.
“Mother said you would have been proud of me, if you’d seen me. Everyone was angry with the Norsk, because of Lindisfarne, even though they have known them forever and they had nothing to do with it. But I got them to be friends again. Mother said I was born to be lady of the hall. She said you would have been proud of me.”
The tears were back in her eyes. She couldn’t help them. Drefan looked down on her for a moment, and then he dismounted and held a hand up to her to help her dismount. She looked at his face and saw contrition there. Normally she would have scorned the hand he offered, but now she accepted it and slipped down off Spotty’s back to stand before him.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’ve been a brute. Everyone’s out of sorts over this business at Lindisfarne.”
“It wasn’t them.”
“No one knows who it was. All we know is it was Norsk.”
“Or Danir. Either way, it wasn’t them.”
“I know,” he admitted. “A boy and an old man. Not the type to go viking. That Eric, maybe. But not the boy and the old man.”
“Then why were you such a beast to them?”
“When your father finds his sheep killed, does he ask which wolf did it?”
“No, but he knows his own dogs did not do it. Leif and Thor are friends. Old friends. They are part of the family.”
“All right, I believe you.”
“Then when we get back, will you shake Leif’s hand and break bread and share a cup with him?”
“Do you know what you are asking?” Drefan looked at the ship and then at her. “I rode to Lindisfarne with my father as soon as the news came,” he said “It would turn your stomach to see what we saw there. The dead unburied, their wounds laid open, breeding flies. Those who lived abused my father for not protecting them. I did not think that was just. Who thought they needed protection from the sea? They built on that island to seek protection from the land. And hasn’t my father pushed back the Picts whenever they became troublesome? But my father took the abuse to heart. His anger against the Norsk and the Danir is like a flame that consumes him. And you want me to go back to him and tell him that I broke bread with a Norsk? That I shared a cup with Norsk? That I shook hands with Norsk? That I bound myself in hospitality to Norsk?”
“Leif’s own village was raided by vikingar. If it was the same people who raided Lindisfarne, he would stand beside you in battle and fight them. I know he would.”
“But I could not find an Anglish thegn who would stand in battle line beside a Norsk, especially not in a fight against Norsk. Every man would expect treachery at every blow.”
“Harrald brought me back when I stowed away on his ship when I was five. I’ve told you that story. He and my father swore an oath of brotherhood. That makes Leif and Thor and all of them oath-kin to me. Don’t think of it as breaking bread with Norsk. Think of it as breaking bread with my kin.”
“Girl, I can’t. Not with Norsk. Not this year.”
She crossed her arms and turned away from him, walking a few paces nearer to the cliff edge.
“Was I unkind to you today?” he asked, after letting her stand thus for a minute.
She turned and looked at him, and then down at the ground.
“Did I frighten you?”
“I know you would not hurt me,” she said, still looking at the ground.
“I would protect you against the world,” he said.
She looked up at him. “I know you would,” she said.
He came to her slowly. She raised her face to him and their lips touched in a tiny hesitant kiss. A proper first kiss.
She looked down again. She did not want another kiss until she understood how she felt about this one, and she seemed to be feeling everything in the world all at once—fear, relief, delight, doubt, joy, sorrow. And wistfulness, oh, such a churning wandering wild-hearted wistfulness, though for what she could not tell.
“I was unkind,” he said. He sat down on a grassy hillock. “I’ve known you so long as a child. I knew we were going to marry. I knew that I was going to take you to my bed. But you were still a child, and I could not think about it. I tried to think about the woman you would become, not the child you were. But it was confusing, so then I tried not to think about it at all. And you became a woman, and I still did not know how to think about it. And then today I saw you, and, well, suddenly it seemed I was free to want you.”
“And so straight to bed?”
She believed him. He was as ardent now as he had been before, but ardent for forgiveness.
“I’m sorry too,” she said. “You took me by surprise, and that put me out of sorts.” But that was a lie, and it sickened her. She cast her eyes down. “No, that’s not true,” she said. “I knew what ‘going to Longhoughton’ meant. I knew as soon as I saw Willa and Elwina. I should have turned Spotty around right then. But I didn’t, because I thought I wanted…I thought I wanted you to lay me down in Foxton wood.”
“I thought you did too,” he said, but then he too sickened on the lie. “I hoped you did,” he amended, sheepishly.
“But I’m not a Willa, or an Elwina,” she said.
“Of course you’re not.”
“Maybe if you had taken me there alone… But with them there… It made it…”
“I can take you there tomorrow. If you want to. Just the two of us.”
“It’s not how I want to win a husband. You’re right. It’s how my mother did it. And I know I’m marrying above my rank, just like she did. But I want a proper wedding night. Do you understand? Can you wait?”
She went and sat down beside him on the hillock and wrapped her arms around his left arm. He bent toward her and pecked her on the top of the head.
“You deserve a wedding night,” he said. “I don’t care what Fyren says, or my father, or my mother. I want you, for my bed and for my hall.”
They sat in silence for a moment.
He asked, “Do you want me to be a big brother again, until after the harvest?”
“No,” she said, laughing and kissing him. “I want you to pant with desire for me every hour. I want to spurn you with my toe when you try to kiss my feet. I want you to be my puppy and my slave.” She was lying again. She knew it but she could not help it, for all the bitterness it brought to her tongue.
“I wish we could sit here a while,” he said. “I would try to kiss your feet and let you spurn me with your toe. But those clouds are only thickening and if we stay any longer, it will be pitch black without the moon and we will stumble off the cliff and kill ourselves.”
“Just promise me one thing,” she said.
“Shake hands with Leif, and break bread and share a cup with him.”
He growled softly. “Why must you make me?”
“I want to know that you will both keep the hospitality of my father’s hall.”
“Very well. If I must. To please you. But you must promise to say nothing of it to my father. But come on, you must get up on Sherwyn with me. It will be faster and we are losing the light.”
This was not true. It would not be faster. They would still be constrained to Spotty’s pace, for they certainly could not leave him behind. But Elswyth consented anyway, because she wanted to be at peace with him, wanted to feel his arms around her in gentle affection. He threw a leg over his horse and then reached down a hand and pulled her up. He urged Sherwyn forward, and Spotty fell in behind. She took one look behind at the ship, stark against the shimmering of the twilit water. Drefan’s arm tightened around her, and as they rode on it seemed to grow tighter still. She squirmed and protested, but it made no difference. He would slacken his grip for a moment when she asked, but it would tighten again almost at once so that she could hardly breathe. As they neared the village, he began to hum an old tune under his breath, a sad little ditty of love gone wrong. As he sang the song, his grip grew even tighter until she cried out in pain. She elbowed him in the ribs and he let her go. She slipped off Sherwyn’s back and glared up at Drefan.
“You hurt me,” she said.
“I was afraid you were slipping off,” he said.
“I wasn’t slipping off.”
“I’m sorry. It felt to me like you were.”
“Well, I wasn’t” She took Spotty’s reins to lead him to his stable through the gathering darkness. Turning back to Drefan she said, “Remember what you promised.”
Next Chapter: 24. Dolts and Oafs (coming next week)
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