The Wistful and the Good, Chapter 24
Dolts and Oafs
Elswyth has cajoled Drefan into agreeing to shake Leif’s hand and eat and drink with him, thus binding them both to the rules of hospitality. But Drefan is not happy about it, and Elswyth is still deeply conflicted about what happened between them in Foxton wood. Get caught up using the index page.
Drefan kept his promise. There was no feast that night. Drefan had told Attor and Edith that they should do nothing special to mark his coming. He gave the excuse that he had come without notice, and everyone’s barns were near empty in a hard year. But in obedience to his promise, he asked that Leif and Thor join them for the evening meal, and there he shook Leif’s hand and broke bread and drank a cup with him, thus binding them both in the bonds of hospitality.
He did it without humor. The cup did not go round again. There was no telling of tales, no singing of songs. It was mostly uncomfortable silence, which both Edith and Elswyth in turn tried to fill, but without success.
Everyone went to bed early and as Edith lay beside her husband, cupped inside his body while his hand gently stroked her swollen belly, she whispered, “You lied to Drefan.”
“We agreed Bamburgh should not know about the books.”
“I thought you meant we would not send news.”
“I did. I had not thought he would come. He’s usually hunting up Wandylaw way this time of year. But I suppose not, after Lindisfarne.”
“I wasn’t sure how he would take it.”
“But he’s your…”
“I know. But Harrald brought my daughter back to me. So I will keep Leif as if he were my own.”
“I hate that they quarreled.”
“The quarrel was not on Leif’s part. Not that I blame Drefan. I’m not so fond of Norsk myself since the attack on Lindisfarne. But Lindisfarne is practically under Kenric’s walls. It will grieve him not to have defended it, though he could not have known. He will be boiling to put sword to Norsk flesh, and Drefan will have heard him raging. But Leif is kin, and kin comes first.”
“At least Drefan broke bread with him tonight.”
“Aye. Her doing, I reckon.”
There was an uneasiness in her voice that he detected. “What grieves you then?” he asked.
“I just wonder what they did all afternoon.”
“Longhoughton, visiting, she said.”
“They were not back till near dark,” she said. “Drang and Earh said they rode off and left them—and they were smirking when they said it. And she was vexed when she did get back. She was uneasy all evening.”
“Was she? I didn’t notice.”
How little the man noticed, Edith thought. Indeed, his poor eyes alone could not account for it.
“She plays the lady well. She is a peaceweaver. It is an art practiced on men. If she convinced you, maybe she convinced him. But I could see she was uneasy, with him or with herself.”
“You said she was vexed about the kiss. I couldn’t watch.”
“It was her first. She didn’t want it like that. But there was something else that made her uneasy when they came back.”
“You don’t think they…”
Edith rolled over to face her husband.
“I don’t know. She won’t talk to me.”
“He wouldn’t hurt her.”
“Not on purpose. But he’s an oaf sometimes, though I shouldn’t say it.”
“So am I.”
“No,” she said, smiling at him. “You’re a dolt sometimes. Never an oaf.”
“But you think they…” Then he frowned. “They wouldn’t.”
“We did,” she said.
“That was different…”
“She has no need,” he said. And then he frowned at his own words. “Sorry, love. I shouldn’t…”
“I never pretended anything else,” she told him. “Not that I didn’t fancy you, you know. Not that you didn’t fancy me. But you’re a dolt sometimes.”
“But not an oaf?”
“That’s why I had to start it.”
“But she has no need to start it with him,” he said.
“Doesn’t mean she didn’t want to. Doesn’t mean he didn’t start it either.”
“Well if they did, why was she vexed?”
“He’s an oaf. And if they did, she would have been frightened, no matter how much she wanted it. It’s easy to make a quarrel when you are afraid of what you want.”
They lay looking at each other in the gutting flame as their rushlight consumed the last of its oil. Attor’s features moved from wondering to shame to tenderness.
“Frightened?” he said. “Of me?”
“Terrified, and yet not. You’re not an oaf.”
“Should I speak to her?”
“No. If it’s done, it’s done. She’ll come to me when she’s ready. And if it’s not that, you’ll just vex her more.”
“Should I speak to him?”
“What would you do if he says they did?”
“It was done without my leave.”
“You would demand the wergild? From the son of your ealdorman? From the man she is to marry? If she complained, it would be different. She’d not keep quiet if he had hurt her. Whatever it was, it wasn’t that. He’s her safety, love. She couldn’t do better. And she’ll knock the oafishness off him, given time.”
“I hate to think about it, is all. She’s still a child to me, though I know she ain’t. And she’s mine to protect still. Not his, yet. I’d stick a knife in him, ealdorman’s son or not, if I thought he hurt her.”
“I know,” she said. “Go to sleep now, pet. I’ll know in the morning if anything happened.”
Edith rolled over again, and he rolled back to embrace her. She settled in the crook of his body, and listened to his breathing until he fell asleep. Still, sleep would not come to her. Her design had been fifteen years in the making and she had believed that Elswyth was entirely happy to play the part that Edith had meant for her. But now Elswyth’s obvious disquiet troubled her. Had she not one daughter now, but two, who hated her?
There are more ways to lose a child than death. There are more ways to lose a child than ships.
Next Chapter: 25. The Hedgehog and the Gannet (coming next week)
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