The Wistful and the Good, Chapter 28
A Promise to Love
Leif and Elswyth have encountered Drefan on the clifftop, and Leif has barely escaped alive, leaving Elswyth to explain herself to Drefan. Get caught up using the archive.
Elswyth struggled out of Drefan’s embrace.
“You leave Leif alone!” she demanded.
“He was going to rape you.”
“He was not. He hates men who rape.”
“You have no experience of men.”
“Except a whole village full of them.”
“A whole village who fear your father’s vengeance. Have you not felt their eyes on you?”
She had, of course. But though she had begun to find it wearisome sometimes, never had it made her feel afraid. And he was right, of course, she did not fear because she knew no man on the manor would dare to touch her. But to suggest that Leif was capable of rape? The accusation was so monstrous, so strange. Drefan could not possible have misread his character so badly.
“What do you think they would do if they did not fear your father’s vengeance?” Drefan asked, looking down on her as if she were a willful child and he a scolding father.
“I don’t know. Some of them might. But not Leif. He is an honorable man. We were just going for a walk.”
“He is a heathen. There is no honor among heathens. He had his arms about you. He was carrying you away to a hidden place to rape you and kill you. Then he planned to sail away before your father found your body.”
“That’s stupid.” She could find no other word for it. How could she find an argument against an idea as absurd as this?
“Then why were his arms about you?” he demanded. “Are you saying you willingly went walking out with another man, embracing like lovers? Are you telling me you are his whore?”
“I told you. I was comforting him. His father has been captured and Leif does not have the money for his ransom. He fears his father will be tortured or killed. Wouldn’t you comfort a friend who was bearing such a burden?”
“I know what I saw.”
“Apparently not. First you thought I was kidnapped. Then you thought I was whoring. You make up horrible things because you can’t think anything nice about a Norsk.”
“You cannot see harm in anyone. You are a child who has been protected and spoiled all her life. You don’t think there is any evil in the world.”
“If I didn’t, I do now. What were you doing there anyway? I saw you leave this morning. You said you had business.”
“This was my business. I could not go back to my father and tell him I supped with a Norsk. He would have had my hide. So I decided I would keep watch. If he kept the peace, and sailed away, I would never need to tell my father that I shook his hand. But now I see I was right not to trust him.”
“All you saw was me comforting a friend in his grief.”
“A ruse, to get you alone. I don’t trust him. I never did.”
“Why not? Just because he is Norsk? Don’t Anglish raid Anglish? Don’t Anglish raid Welisc and Pict? Do you not trust any Anglish man you meet? I told you, we have traded with them for years.”
“You said he has books. Where would he have got those except from Lindisfarne?”
Elswyth felt a sickening lunge of guilt in her belly. She could feel her cheeks burning. So she had let slip about the books. She feared she had when Leif had asked her, but she had not been sure. But obviously she had, and this was the fruit of it.
“I was on the road,” he continued, “and I remembered what you said, and I thought, there is treachery here. These vikingar play the part of traders to sell their loot. But they are false friends. And then I remembered how I had seen him look at you. I was afraid for you.”
“Well the books come from Aachen, not Lindisfarne. He traded for them. He didn’t steal them.”
“If he is not guilty, why did he run?”
‘You were coming at him with a sword in your hand. Three on one. Wouldn’t you run?”
“I’m no coward.”
“Nor is he. Have you faced a storm at sea?”
“You know so much about him?”
“He’s my friend.”
“Do you love him?”
They had been bellowing at each other over the rush of the wind, but now he stepped forward, grasped her by the arms and turned her, placing his back between her and Drang and Earh who had been standing by watching the quarrel.
“Do you love me?” he asked, bending close to her ear.
It was a question like a breeching whale, enormous and implacable, emerging sudden and terrible out of a calm sea. When had either of them ever spoken of love? They had an understanding, an acceptable arrangement, advantageous to both parties. Love, she had always been told, was the product of a happy marriage, not its cause. Even with her mother and father, she had always understood that their coupling was a matter of desire and advantage. Love came later. Love came over her cradle. That was the way of the world. And yet, why would her father have married a slave, if not for love? A matter of honor perhaps, when he found out Edith was with child?
“You just called me a spoiled child and a whore,” she said, parrying the thrust to buy time.
“Alright, I am sorry for that. But do you love me?”
“You have never spoken of love to me.”
“I speak of it now.”
“Do you love me?” she asked him. Another parry for time.
“Yes,” he said, immediately and fiercely.
She looked at him, saw the anguish and longing in his face, and believed him. But how long standing was his love? Had he discovered it yesterday, when he saw her arm in arm with Leif. Today when he saw them again? Now, when the word disarmed her in argument?
“I saw you last year, take Willa up on your saddle.” she said.
“I am no virgin,” he said.
“I am,” she told him, gazing at him to be sure he believed her, and believing that he did. The hurt in him was genuine. The anguish in his face pleaded for a response. “I can’t love you if you try to hurt my friends,” she said.
“I can’t help being afraid for you, with a bunch of Norsk camped on your beach.”
“Like they have camped there spring and autumn since I can remember.”
“It’s different now.”
“They’re not different.”
“They are more desperate. You said his father was held captive. Desperate men make poor friends.”
She hated him for this. Hated him because he had managed to force a seed of doubt into her mind. No, no, she refused to think it.
“If they were planning something desperate, why wait?” She demanded. “They have been here four days. If they were going to do something awful, they would have done it and gone before they were found out.”
“For that matter, why do they wait? What are they waiting for?”
“For the money to come for their cargo.” She remembered then that her father had told him that they were waiting for his wool production to be complete. Did he remember that? If so, he gave no sign. His suspicion was all on her.
“You know all their business?”
“Yes. They are friends. I talk to them.”
“Does your father know you walk out alone with him, without a guard.”
“If I needed a guard to come up here, which I don’t, Father would trust Leif to guard me.”
“Well I don’t.”
“Well I do.”
“Do you love me?” He had circled round her defenses again.
“I’m going to marry you, aren’t I?”
“You don’t want me?”
“I said I want you.”
“Do you love me?”
“Will you leave Leif alone? And Thor and the rest?”
“If you love me.”
“Then I love you.” But her eyes went to the ground as she said it. She bit her lip.
He put his hand under her chin and raised her face to his, lowering his mouth onto hers while pulling her into a gentle embrace. He was careful not to hurt her as he had done before. She could feel the restraint in his arms as they surrounded her. She surrendered to the kiss. What else could she do? He had out-fenced her in the end. To have said no would have imperiled more than Leif and Thor. It would have imperiled the whole of her future, the future of her mother and her sisters and all her Welisc kin. It would have broken her mother’s heart. So she kissed him back, as ardently as she knew how, aware of her clumsiness, excusing it with inexperience.
She was rescued by catcalls from Drang and Earh.
“Shut it, you two,” Drefan said, releasing her. “You will respect my lady or my sword.”
His cousins reacted with mock horror.
Drefan tensed up, but Elswyth, her peaceweaving skills returning to her at last, threw an arm around him and hugged him to her side. She felt the anger go out of him.
“I think as Lady of Bamburgh, it will be my right to approve any girl these two want to marry,” she said. “Is that not so?”
“It will be so if I make it so,” Drefan said. She could feel the delight in him to have her as his companion in jest.
“I know some thin ugly girls of no fortune, with dispositions to match.”
And then they made mock obeisance to her and begged her to find them better wives, and she charmed them, charmed him, becoming, in her time of need, the lady of the hall whose office it is to bring peace and good fellowship to all, lifting their spirits, making them forget their treachery and their defeat. Yet inside her, something wept.
Next Chapter: 29 To Lie Among the Dunes (coming next week)
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