The Wistful and the Good, Chapter 25
The Hedgehog and the Gannet
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.
When Elswyth woke, in the very first hints of predawn light, she heard the sound of harness and the blowing of grumpy horses, and emerged from the sleeping house to find Drefan and his cousins already mounted.
“You weren’t going to say goodbye?” she asked him.
He looked down at her from Sherwyn’s back. She was dressed only in her thin linen sleeping smock, which clung to her body, and she saw his eyes survey her. For a moment she found herself wanting to say, “Get down off your horse and come to bed.” She had never stood so near naked in the face of such naked lust, and for a moment it seemed only proper to succumb to the moment. But she said nothing, and Drefan turned his head with a frown and said, “Business to do. Can’t waste the light. Thank your mother again for me.”
“Alright,” she said.
He kicked Sherwyn to a walk, but then reigned him in again and turned back to her to say, “Goodbye.”
“I’ll visit again.”
There was a dullness in the way he spoke the word that made it unconvincing. His visit might come soon. It might not come at all.
Drefan urged Sherwyn forward again. Drang and Earh, bleary eyed and yawning, fell in behind Drefan. They saluted her silently as they rode past, their eyes running over her lazily, as if they did not think she could see where they were looking.
She watched them ride out of the village, none of them turning back to glance at her with affection or regard, and in that moment she hated them, all three. The feeling made her wretched. Of course Drefan wanted to leave. It was not because she had disappointed him. His remorse over that had been genuine. But she had turned his moment of remorse against him, used it to make him do something that offended his honor and would surely offend his father, should he hear of it. A fine piece of peaceweaving that. Was it an injury that time would soften? Or had she shown him something of herself that would fester in his heart? Would a man so used still wish to marry?
She went back for her lambskin and went to bathe. She did not bathe in the river as she often did, but crossed the low ford and made her way to a sea cove on the south side of the river, away from the beach, where she could bathe in the sea unseen by any early-rising male eye. Sea bathing would make her hair stiff, and she would have to rinse it in fresh water to restore its bounce, but the violence of the waves against her flesh, and the sound and smell of the sea were both calming and invigorating in a way the river was not. She waded out until she was almost floating, letting the swells lift and toss her about as dawn swallowed up the stars one by one.
A deep sadness welled up in her. She was not given to melancholy. Her wistfulness was ever hopeful. She was a creature of physical delights. The sea, the wind, the ground beneath her feet, the world at her fingertips, all the light and dance of the natural and human worlds, the taste of sweat on her tongue, even the sharpness of her needle and the color and lush smoothness of her embroidery threads—these all delighted her in a way that had never seemed exhausted or capable of exhaustion. But now this sadness came, and she found she was adding to the ocean with her tears and wondering if the whole salt ocean was not made of centuries of maiden’s tears, all weeping for they knew not what.
The mood passed, and she half waded and half swam back to the shingle, dried herself with the lambswool, taking less pleasure than usual in its roughness and its smell and the warmth it brought to her skin. The great mysterious sadness had left her, but it had left in its place a dull grumpiness, a sense of being out of sorts with the world and everyone in it. Hoping to find some solace in the one man with whom she was never out of sorts, she rinsed her hair and dressed hurriedly before seeking out Thor, her hair still damp about her shoulders.
She found him in his accustomed spot, saluting the rising sun. She did not tease him or play guessing games with him, as she usually did. She simply seated herself on the log beside him and slowly let her head sink sideways until it rested on his shoulder.
“I should like to be a monk,” Thor said, after she had remained silent in this posture for several minutes.
“You dig the garden. You say words to the gods for other men, and they give you gold for it, and silver, and land. You live in a great house, safe against the wind and the rain. There is food always on the table.”
She raised her head and looked at him to see if he was in earnest. “But you would miss the sea,” she said.
“The sea that buffets me, that chills me, that strains my sinews and cracks my bones?”
“The sea that takes you to Spain and Orkney and York and Cordoba. The sea that takes you were the sun bakes and the ice flows, where it isn’t always damp, and low, and green.”
“I have seen all those things. And I am growing old. Too old for this life. I should very much welcome a stable home among rich fields and fine herds. I would say words to the gods day and night for such a bounty.”
“I think you would have to change gods. No lord in Northumbria will pay you to say words to Odin.”
“Gods are fickle. Should a man be more constant than the gods?”
“You should be a monk,” she said. “Then when I am the lady of Bamburgh I could be your patron and give you gold to talk to God for me, and I could ride out to see you any time I wanted to.”
“Nay lass,” Thor said, “If you came there, all the monks would be looking at the sky and tripping over their feet. Then I would have to spend all my time in the infirmary mending their broken bones.”
She giggled. “Well then, I shall wear a wimple and put ashes on my face to make me ugly. It would be so lovely to have you nearby.
Thor laughed. “Nay, child. It is but a wish. I have my part to play, as we all do. My duty is to Harrald and to Leif and to the clan. Much evil has come upon them, and my leaving would only make things worse. I have roamed the world long enough to know that it is right to grow where you are planted, unless the gods say otherwise.”
In all her life it had never seemed so disagreeable to her to grow where she was planted. She sighed and said, “I want to go, and I can’t. You want to stay, and you can’t.”
“The hedgehog dreams of the sky while the gannet longs for his nest.”
“Who can say. Perhaps each is content as they are. Perhaps we are the only ones who are discontented.”
“Just you and me?” she asked, wistfully, leaning against his broad arm.
“Aye, lass,” he said, laughing, “just you and me in all the world. The rest are happy as lambs in clover.”
“You scold in the nicest way, old man.”
“You are growing too wise for my tricks, it seems.”
“I don’t feel very wise.”
“What grieves you, lass? It is not like you to be melancholy.”
Elswyth gave another sigh, not for dramatic effect, as she sometimes did, but because it welled up in her, irresistibly. “I have my part to play, like we all do,” she said. “My duty is to my mother and my father and my sisters and my kin. I have hardly roamed the world at all, but my leaving would only make things worse.”
“Worse, lass? What troubles have you? You’ve a bonny man who fancies you and can keep you very well. It would be a long day’s sail to find a lass, or her mother, that did not think you blessed. And you will roam far enough in his company, when his time comes to be ealdorman.”
And then Elswyth realized that she could not tell her sorrows even to Thor. “I’m sorry,” she said. “My troubles are nothing to yours. Nothing to Leif’s. I shouldn’t be sad like this. I just feel…”
Here she paused, waiting for Thor to ask what her feelings were, hoping that when he asked she would find an answer. But Thor shifted where he sat, seeming to move away from her slightly.
“Do not add to his burden,” he said.
“But I’m not adding to his burden, am I?”
“He must go. You must stay. Do not make that harder.”
She bristled at this. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“How often have you sought his company?”
“I like looking at the books. I like the ship. I like the stories.”
“Aye, and you like the man.”
She laughed. “I like all you sailor men.”
“Then choose another to tell you stories and show you the ship.”
She frowned at this. “I don’t think I like Eric anymore.”
“Been giving you cheek, has he?”
“I think he was just teasing.”
“You give no heed to him.”
She was offended now. “You don’t think I know better?”
“I knew the child. I hardly know what you are as a woman.”
“Well, I’m not that.” She stood and stalked a few paces away from him.
“I’m glad you are not wanton,” He said. “But even the chaste are not always wise.”
“You scold less kindly now, old man.”
“You’ve grown too fond. Just let him be.”
“Even if I did like Leif, that is my problem, not his.”
“Oh, child. Can you not tell?”
She turned back to him, indignant. “Tell what?”
“When a young man likes you?”
“They all like me. It’s starting to be boring.”
“Lass, can you not spot one salmon in a school of herring?”
“Leif? Half the time I think he is avoiding me.”
“The rules of trade, lass. And they are his rules now. If the crew thinks he does not follow them himself, they will not follow them either, and then we shall be dining in Hel’s hall. Then you will have vikingar on your beach for certain. Do not add to his burden.”
“I can’t talk to anyone it seems.”
“You can talk to me, when you’ve a mind.”
“I’ll come to you next time I want to be scolded, old man.” She turned her back on him and stalked away.
Next Chapter: 25. The Hedgehog and the Gannet (coming next week)
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