The Wistful and the Good, Chapter 29
To Lie Among the Dunes
Elswyth has given Drefan a promise of love, in exchange for him keeping the peace with Leif. Get caught up using the archive.
It was Attor’s belief that mead made enemies of friends and friends of enemies. He was aware that forcing Leif and Drefan to eat and drink together had done no more than bind them to the laws of hospitality. It had not made them friends, and, loving them both, thinking of each of them as near to a son, he welcomed Drefan’s return as an opportunity to try to do with many cups what one shared cup had not accomplished. And so, overriding the protests of his wife, his daughter, and most of the prospective guests, he insisted on a makeshift feast that evening, though with none of the formalities of the feast with which he had welcomed Leif’s arrival. It was storytelling and laughter in the glow of mead and fire that he was after, and after a fashion he got his will.
A bard had wandered into the village and Attor had promised him several days employment, both to provide some entertainment to the young men whose dispositions he was trying to improve, and to keep the bard from telling tales in the next town or village of a Norsk ship lying on Attor’s beach.
The bard was a canny fellow. He knew who Drefan of Bamburgh was and did everything he could to praise him. The effect on Drefan was everything that Attor could have hoped for. With a cup in one hand and the other arm around Elswyth’s waist, he became his old self, generous and boisterous, boasting of exploits, posing riddles, singing songs. He and his cousins talked more and more animatedly between themselves as the evening wore on, their laughter ringing through the hall. They became more and more generous with the bard too, challenging him with requests for obscure songs, which he never failed to know and which he never failed to adapt to add some praise of his patrons. Elswyth managed to stump him every time, by asking for Norsk and Welisc tunes, which Drefan and the bard both treated with great merriment.
Mead, alas, did nothing to loosen Leif’s tongue. He deflected a few of Drefan’s jests with simple words, and declined twice the request that he should sing them a Norsk song. When Drefan and his cousins kept challenging him, Elswyth disengaged herself from Drefan’s arm, and said, “I’ll sing!” She did with all her usual charm, so that even the bard seemed pleased to play for her, though the tip she offered him for his accompaniment was far less than Drefan was showering on him to sing his praises.
After a couple of hours, Leif rose and begged to be excused. He mumbled something about making sure the ship was secure, and being awake to see what weather the morning would bring, and then stumbled out of the hall.
Half an hour after this, Edith begged to be excused also, saying the baby needed its rest, and Elswyth insisted it was time for her to go to bed also. Drefan protested, but Elswyth appeased him with a long kiss, which Attor found hard to watch, and then rose from his embrace, allowing her hand to run the length of his outstretched arm so that their fingertips were the last point of parting. This physical affection between his daughter and his future son-in-law was something Attor had not seen before, and while he welcomed it, it troubled him as well, for no father can bear to see his daughter grown.
Elswyth and Edith walked together in silence to the sleeping house, each on the cusp of speaking, yet dreading what might be said. They were both clumsy-footed from the mead, and Edith complained, with a laugh, that the baby was tipsy too, and was stumbling around in her womb like a plowboy on midsummer’s eve. This sole attempt at conversation drew no response from Elswyth, and so they went in silence to their beds. But having seen her mother to her bed, Elswyth found herself reluctant to go to her own. Though she was tired and muzzy headed there was too much stumbling through her heart and her head for her to sleep. She left the sleeping house again, kicking off her shoes as she did so, to feel the warm earth beneath her feet. She made her way towards the beach, guiding her unsteady feet half by memory and half by moonlight.
Her only plan had been to go down to the water’s edge, to bathe her feet in the hope that the kiss and heartbeat of the sea would sooth her. But then she saw a form sitting on the same log that she had found Leif sitting on that morning. She turned towards him, moving silently, barefoot in the sand. His head was down between his hands, and he was unaware of her approach.
She walked up to him and kicked him in the shin, as hard as she could in bare feet, using her heel to dig into the muscle. She nearly lost her balance doing it, and staggered a little to keep her feet.
“Dumb ass!” she said.
He looked up at her, startled. If the kick had hurt, he gave no sign of it.
“I’m sorry I abandoned you,” he said, looking wretched.
“Abandoned me? Why did you knock me down?”
“I told you to let me by. I had to get to Earh. I did not mean for you to fall. I was trying to clear a way for you.”
“Dumb ass!” she repeated, and kicked him again.
He rose and stepped away from her, “You should have let me by,” he said.
“Dumb ass. Fool. Idiot. It was you they wanted, not me. I was going to jump into Earh’s arms. He would do nothing to hurt me! You would have escaped easily.”
“Among my people, a woman caught in adultery is subject to vengeance as much as the man.”
“There was no adultery. How could there be? I’m not married to either of you.”
“You are promised to Drefan. If he thought you had lain with me, he would want vengeance on you. That is what I feared. I was trying to get you safe to your father’s hall.”
“I was trying to get you safe to my father’s hall. Drefan would never hurt me. I was afraid for you.”
“If that is true, he is a better man than I give him credit for. But I did not know that. I’m sorry for your bruises, truly I am, but I did not know what else to do.”
“Kick me again if you still have bruises to avenge.”
“Dumb ass,” she said again, stamping her foot and rolling her eyes to the heavens. “Do you think I mind a tumble in the grass? That was nothing. But I had to tell Drefan I loved him. Now he has his hands all over me, and I have to kiss him and tell him how wonderful he is, and hang at his heels like a puppy.”
He stared at her.
She stared back, angrily.
“Do I what?”
“I hate both of you.”
“But you are meant for him?”
“That was Father’s bargain. Not mine.”
“But you will marry him?”
“Ach!” she cried. “I do not want to talk about him. I have had his voice rattling between my ears all day. I am sore from where the jewels on his belt dug into me as he clutched me to his side.”
“I don’t want to talk about him either.”
They stood in silence for a while, facing each other, angry.
“Will he tell your father that I knocked you down?”
“He won’t tell Father that he was spying on his guest, then tried to kill him and made a mess of it.”
“Will he try again?”
“Not as long as I keep telling him I love him and hug him and kiss him and—I thought you didn’t want to talk about him.”
Silence again, and then he said, “I am sorry you have to do that for me. It is not right, if you don’t want it.”
“Who said I didn’t want it?”
“Suppose I like it?”
“You should. He is to be your husband.”
“Not if I don’t want him.”
“It is your father’s wish.”
“It is my choice,” she said. “But who else will offer himself as a rival to Drefan?”
He turned away from her.
“I suppose you think I should be doing all that with you,” she said.
“I don’t think that. I know I should not do any of that with you.”
“But you want to.”
He turned back to her. “Do you want me to?”
She wanted him to. She turned away and walked toward the beach, her footsteps wandering on the soft sand, the sound of the sea filling her head, the rush of the waves, the eternal heartbeat of the sea, setting her own heart racing.
She heard his footsteps behind her. Her head reeled and her heart felt like a kitten chasing a sunbeam. She quickened her pace to keep ahead of him, but he took a few quick steps, grasped her again by the shoulder, halted her, turned her, pulled her to him. She was prepared for his mouth. She was prepared for his hands at the clasps of her brooches. She was prepared for him to lift her from her feet and lay her down in the sand. She was prepared to touch and to be touched, to open and to be entered.
And he paused.
He paused in the moment of embracing. He held her against him, and she was aware of each part of him as it touched each part of her. She waited. She had done all she could. The final push must come from him, or it would all be sand and ashes. She stood still, her arms around him as his were around her—she had made no conscious movement to embrace him, expecting to be borne immediately to the ground, but her arms had found their own way there. He looked down at her. She returned his gaze, steadily and indifferently, waiting for him to complete the journey he had begun. Did he wait for one more sign from her? What more could she possibly show him?
They were both drunk, both sad, both shipwrecked, both reckless. All this was clear to her. She was not so drunk that she did not understand. She was so sad and aching and angry that she did not care. But the last step over the threshold must be his. His peril was greater than hers. His duty was sterner than hers. She would not seduce him out of his duty. She would only stand and show herself ready to receive him if he chose it for himself.
She listened to the sound of the waves hissing on the beach, the distant rumble of the breakers that hit the rocks beyond the river mouth, the snuffling of animals in their pens, the patter of a dog about some private errand. Minutes passed, or hours it seemed, and still they stood in their half-consummated embrace. But she sensed that her will was stronger than his, or perhaps it was simply that her pride was more stubborn. His surrender was upon him. She looked pleadingly into his face. She parted her lips and tilted her head back. But she knew already that his mouth would not bow down to meet hers.
He loosened the pressure of his hand upon her back, not releasing her, but easing his grip, as a man eases his grip on the steering oar to give a ship a little of her own head.
“Still bound by your father’s rule?” she asked him.
“Yes,” he said. “It is a good rule. A necessary rule.”
“Dumb ass,” she said. She broke out of his embrace, angry and sad.
He reached out a hand to her, tentatively, then drew it back.
“Last chance, sailor boy,” she said.
He did not move. She curled her lip contemptuously and turned and walked back toward the hall.
In the darkness, she did not see the figure that stepped back into the shadows of the hall as she passed by.
Next Chapter: 30 Better Than Me (coming next week)
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