The Wistful and the Good, Chapter 27
Fear and Consolation
Elswyth and Leif have been told to stay away from each other, and each sees the wisdom of obeying, yet when they stumble upon each other on the cliff top, they do not wish to part. Get caught up using the archive.
Wishing to be alone, Elswyth collected her embroidery basket from the hall and made her way up to her clifftop perch to get on with the embroidery for her wedding dress. Slowly, as the hours passed, sun and birdsong, wind and cloud, sea and sky, leeched the anger and the melancholy and the sadness out of her, so that when she heard footsteps coming up the path from the village, she was not immediately vexed at the interruption, but hoped for the company of someone who might provide comfort without enquiry. Her father would have suited her purpose at that moment, but it was not her father’s distinct gait she had heard, and she was about to turn and look when she realized that she recognized the gait already. She turned just as the footsteps ceased, and saw Leif. He froze in his tracks and looked away, clearly surprised to find her here, and unsure whether to continue.
“Your pardon, Lady,” he said.
“Oh, don’t start that again!”
“Your pardon, Elswyth. I will go another way.”
He turned to leave, but she found she could not bear to see him go. Their quarrel, after all, was not really with each other, but with Thor, who seemed to think neither one of them was capable of discretion or restraint.
“Don’t go,” she said. “Come sit down beside me.”
He stood still where he was, a dozen yards away.
“Just to talk,” she said. “You look like you need to talk to someone.”
This seemed to move him, for he came towards her. She made room for him on the rock and he sat down next to her, his hip against hers. He no longer wore the bandage she had used to cover the wound on his head. There was a line of small scabs on his temple, edged by pink and delicate skin. She felt an almost irresistible urge to stroke the wound with gentle fingers.
“The weather is turning,” he said.
“What is it like to ride out a storm at sea?” she asked, “Is it fearful or is it exciting?”
“It is hard work,” he replied.
“You do not fear storms then?”
“We do not seek out storms,” he said. “We do not sail when the weather threatens. But if a storm comes when we are at sea, we ride it out.”
“And you are not afraid?”
“Why do you speak of fear?” he asked.
“I am kept so awfully safe,” she said. “Sometimes I just want to be terribly terribly frightened. Is that silly?”
“What would you put at risk, to be so frightened?” he asked. “A broken bone? An adder’s bite? A wound that will fester? The loss of an eye? Alone in the sea with no sight of land and your body chilled so you cannot swim? Or perhaps the death of someone you love?”
“You are a terribly serious man, aren’t you?”
“I have to be.”
“But I don’t?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Should I be? Would you like me better if I were?”
Without noticing, she laid her head against his shoulder. He noticed, but he let it remain there.
“Drefan says that in battle he is not afraid.”
“Has he been in a battle?”
“He led his father’s household men to put down a band of cattle thieves. They killed four of them and the others ran away.”
“Not a real battle then? He boasts that he was not afraid of cattle thieves? I wonder how he would stand in a North Sea gale.”
“So you have been in a storm, a real storm?”
“More than once.” He glanced sideways, searching her face for signs of admiration.
“Which is more fearful, do you think—a battle or a storm?”
“In either battle or storm, I suppose, a man must do his work without flinching, or else he and his comrades will perish. Those who are afraid are those that don’t have work to do.”
“Are you afraid, now that you must sit here with no work to do?” she asked, turning her face towards him.
“You want to hear me say that I am afraid?”
She laughed. “No, of course not. I’m only teasing.”
“I am afraid.”
She placed her arms around his arm and rested her head on his shoulder again. “Tell me what you fear,” she said.
“I fear for my father.”
“You will raise his ransom.” she said.
“I fear he is already dead.”
“I fear he has been tortured. I have seen men who have been tortured. The pain never leaves them. Their bodies never regain their strength. Death soon finds them.”
“I’m sure he hasn’t…”
“You are kind, but you cannot know.”
“No. I don’t know what else to say.”
“Say what you fear. Say what I cannot say.”
She looked up at him sharply. “Really?” she asked.
He closed his eyes and nodded. “Really.”
“I fear your father betrayed Lindisfarne.”
He wept. She put her arms around him and held him and he did not resist her embrace.
“I fear that they tortured him until he told them, and then they killed him,” she said, feeling the full weight of her obligation to him. And then she felt the tears welling up in her own eyes.
She had never been close to Harrald the way she had to Thor and Eric, though she had loved him from afar after he had returned her to her family, for the truth that she had admitted to no one, even herself, was that Eric had not stumbled upon her in her hiding place, but that terror had driven her from it, terror and thirst and squalor and darkness and separation from her family that had all been more than she could bear. She had not come out of her hiding place. Her pride had been too strong for that. But she had made sure to be found, had shuffled and banged and sighed when Eric had passed near. Pride had not kept her from throwing herself weeping into Thor’s arms the moment she was discovered, and gazing in terror at Harrald while they discussed what to do with her, for fear he would not take her home. But there had been no real debate about the matter. Harrald had turned the ship around at once, and had praised her for her pluck, shown her how to wash and change her garments (for she was rank and filthy after three days in her hiding hole), given her cakes and wine, and treated her like an honored guest all the way back to her father’s beach. He was never a man to sit her on his knee and tell her stories or to suffer her to run her fingers through his beard as Thor did. But as she had grown older and had learned more and more of what that detour had cost Uncle Harrald, and what anxiety her parents had suffered at her loss, she had grown to love him more and more deeply. If Thor was the kindest and wisest man she knew, and Eric the boldest, Harrald was the most honorable.
What agony, she wondered, would it have taken to break a man of such honor? The sadness of it all overwhelmed her, and she clung to Leif, taking comfort as much as giving it. And then, in comforting her, it seemed that he regained his composure, until it was her weeping in his arms; he comforting her. When she realized this, she was ashamed, for this was his sorrow before it was hers. She forced herself to stop weeping, dabbed her eyes with her sleeves, and looked into his face, suddenly overwhelmed with the desire to kiss him. She looked at him and saw the same desire in him. Not the humble desire to comfort. Not the hesitant desire to touch. Not in him. Not in her. No, the angry desire to shout defiance at death by making new life. Let his mouth move one inch towards hers and she would offer no resistance. Indeed, she would have brooked no resistance from him, would have stripped him angrily and pulled him down upon her.
And he paused.
“But just because we fear it,” she said, “does not make it true. He may be well. He may have suffered nothing. You can’t collect ransom for a dead man.”
Slowly their passions and their limbs began to disengage.
“That is what I try to tell myself every day,” he said. “It is why I must keep working to raise his ransom.”
“I’m sure you will raise it,” she said. “I’m sure you will ransom him.”
They were no longer touching now.
“But I hate the waiting,” he said. “When I was at sea I felt I was moving as fast as I could. Now we sit idle on the beach and wait for the monk’s letter to be carried by another.”
“Heorot will carry the message as swiftly as he can.”
“But he will not return tomorrow. Tomorrow it will be five days since we came. It is not right for a guest to stay more than three days. A dozen extra mouths is a burden on your mother’s stores. We would eat our own provisions, but then we would not have enough for the journey home. We dare not go hunting and we did not bring nets for fishing.”
“Father said you were welcome to stay as long as you needed.”
“I am grateful. But we will be even less welcome among your people when they see we overstay a guest’s welcome, and when they know the corn that feeds us comes from their own bellies.”
She stood and took hold of his hand. “Come,” she said smiling at him and brushing the tears from the corners of her eyes, “It doesn’t help to brood on it. Walk with me and tell me tales of Orkney and the Faroe Isles.”
He stood and followed her obediently along the cliff-side path, looking out over the calm blue ocean across which lay his home and his imprisoned father.
After they had walked together a few minutes, he blurted out, “Did you tell Drefan about the books?”
“He is not interested in books,” she replied. She shifted the position of her head against his shoulder and the grip of her arms around his arm tightened slightly.
“But did you mention them?” he insisted.
“I don’t think so. Why would I?” She couldn’t remember, but somehow she felt like she might have done, in the heat of argument.
“If he knew I had them, he could say I stole them from Lindisfarne. He could use them to accuse me of taking part in the raid.”
“He knows you didn’t do it. He told me so himself. Besides, why would you raid Lindisfarne with a great fleet and then come and sail here all by yourself?”
“I would not. But Drefan does not need a reason. He just wants an excuse to spill my blood.”
“He shook your hand. He drank with you. He is bound by hospitality to be at peace with you.”
“While I am blameless, yes. But if I were guilty of this great crime, he would be free of the bond.”
“But why would he want to?”
“Every warrior in Northumbria wants the glory of spilling vikingar blood.”
“You’re not vikingar.”
“I am Norsk. To him, Norsk means vikingar.”
“He knows you are my friend.”
“He does not like that either, I promise you.”
“It’s not like we…” She looked up at him. Drefan had asked and she had said no. Leif had not asked, but if he did, her body said that she would lie with him. Her heart was uncertain, and her head was appalled, but her body was willing—no, more than willing—eager. Did the body know more than the heart and the head? The head knew that she would soon lie in Drefan’s bed. Her heart was reconciled to it. But her body rebelled. Her body had shown its rebellion to Drefan.
“Thor is right,” he said. “We should keep apart.”
“I know,” she said.
Yet neither made any move to separate, but continued, entwined, along the clifftop path.
They had not walked on much further before she felt him startle and he stopped abruptly.
“Look to your right,” he whispered.
They were at a place where a section of the clifftop jutted outward. The path they were on cut off the angle of this promontory, but there was another, narrower, path that followed the edge of the cliff. On that path, lying in the tall grass by the cliff face, looking down toward the beach where the ship lay, were three men: Drefan and his cousins.
Her eyes widened and her mouth opened to shout a rebuke. His hand clamped over her mouth before she could speak, and she looked up at him and understood. He released his hand from her mouth and they began to back down the path toward the village.
Drefan could hardly have heard them over the sounds of wind and sea, and yet some demon, or some native wariness, or some sense of shame, caused him to glance around and see them. For a moment they looked at each other, startled, silent. Both Elswyth and Leif were conscious that they were arm in arm, but they froze in that posture, feeling that to break suddenly apart would only make their touch look shameful. Words ran through Elswyth’s head, but this time no perfect word, no flawless act of charm flew to her. She flushed and stared.
Leif, beside her, glanced around for an angle of escape. Drefan instantly read his intent and directed Drang and Earh to run to the two points where the small path they were on joined the main path. Leif’s pause to consider, so salutary against the perils of the sea, was fatal here. Before he chose which way to run, Drang and Earh were already too close to the junction of the paths for him and Elswyth to reach either one first.
“Drefan,” Elswyth cried, “what are you doing here?”
Drefan said nothing. Drawing a sword from his belt, he began walking after Drang, whose path to join the main cliff path was shorter and nearer to where they stood. Elswyth saw the sword and understood its purpose.
“You and Leif are both my father’s guests,” she shouted. “You have shaken hands and broken bread.”
Drefan said nothing, but quickened his pace. There was a grimness in his face she had not seen before. He would be on them in a moment, but he had made one error in calculation. In choosing the path that led him to them quickest, he had placed himself and Drang on the path that led away from the hall, with only Earh guarding the path back.
“Run,” she said, to Leif, and she set off at once, running as hard as she could toward the hall and the spot which Earh had now reached, where the paths met.
She heard Leif running behind her. She saw confusion in Earh’s face as she approached him. His hand was on the hilt of his sword, but he did not draw it. He was not willing to meet his cousin’s betrothed with raw steel.
“Let me by,” Leif cried behind her.
They were almost on top of Earh.
“Let me by!”
She ignored him, throwing herself forward towards the frozen flummoxed Earh. But then there was a firm grip on her shoulder and a shove that sent her tumbling into the bracken and gorse.
There was a thump and a crash beside her. She struggled to free herself from the sharp clinging gorse and the slippery enveloping bracken. By the time she could see what had happened, Earh was down in the bracken close by and Leif was past him on the path, paused, looking back at her with anguish and sorrow on his face.
“Run,” she shouted at him. She glanced back and saw Drefan and Drang running up the path. “Run, you fool. Run!”
Leif turned and ran toward the hall.
A strong hand grasped her by the arm and lifted her to her feet.
“You are safe from him now,” Drefan said, enfolding her in a painful embrace and pulling her head down onto his shoulder.
Next Chapter: 28 A Promise to Love (coming next week)
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