The Wistful and the Good, Chapter 31
The People Rule Themselves
Edith’s attempt at a reconciliation with Elswyth has only driven mother and daughter further apart. Get caught up using the archive.
The weather turned Anglish the next day. A grey bank of cloud crept in from the sea and coated the shore with a misty wetness that was less than rain but more than fog, so that raindrops seemed to distill out of the air on anybody unfortunate enough to have to venture out into it. Haymaking was suspended and the hall was filled with the grating ring of men sharpening scythes and sickles and mending all manner of tools and implements while the fires tried vainly to drive the dampness out of the hall air.
The Norsk men where there as well, at Attor’s insistence. They tried to be helpful in the work, offering to turn the grindstones or help hone the blades, but few Anglish took up the offers they made, and the Norsk spent much of the time playing Hnefatafl among themselves using pebbles for counters on a board that they scratched out on the dirt of the floor, ignoring the muttered complaints about their idleness that came from the very men who had refused their aid.
Thor sat on the floor and played with Daisy and Moira. Some of the other children of the village tried to join the game, but were called back by their parents. Whitney ran around the hall, dodging the work with great dexterity but eventually, finding every avenue blocked, she disappeared outside, only to return half an hour later, mud-spattered to her eyebrows, soaked, and shivering, to be dried and laid down to nap by the fire by her mother.
Elswyth spent much of the morning sitting in uncomfortable silence beside Hilda as they worked on their embroidery. Hilda would glance over at her from time to time and then silently stretch out her work to show how much greater progress she was making, but other than this there was no communication between them. Late in the morning, Attor walked by and tapped Elswyth on the shoulder. This was his sign that they needed to talk. This held no terrors for Elswyth. Whatever her misdeeds, her father was always faster to excuse them than she was herself. Her father’s indulgence was not boundless, but it was vast. What Elswyth had never guessed was that her father lived in terror of her running away again and was thus afraid to say any cross word to her. Her mother’s reaction was quite the opposite. Edith would have tied a rope to the hall doorpost and the other end to Elswyth’s leg, if Attor had permitted it. Fear that his wife’s tight hold might provoke another flight had loosened Attor’s boundaries even further. The result was that no daughter in Northumbria looked forward to her father’s talking-tos with less trepidation than Elswyth did.
Attor led her to the serving kitchen, a small partitioned area at the back of the hall where food from the kitchen was staged before being brought in for a feast. He shooed the slaves who were working there out into the rain and sat down heavily on a stool. Elswyth hopped up on the edge of the table. She had learned that it paid to have her head higher than her father’s in these encounters.
“I had decided that it was better that no one should challenge Leif at the feast,” he said.
Elswyth said nothing. She had a full defense prepared, had rehearsed it in her head several times. But she did not expect to have to use it. Her father would find a way to excuse it himself if she only gave him time.
“I did not want to remind everyone of Lindisfarne again. You understand?”
“I did not think Leif was up to answering the challenge.”
“He…” she caught herself and stopped abruptly.
“Nothing. Sorry Father. Go on.”
“He is young. He has suffered a great tragedy. He bears a heavy burden. You understand?”
“And his Anglish is not good.”
“It’s pretty good when he gets going… Sorry. Go on.”
“So it was safest to say nothing about that ugly business.”
He cocked an eye at her as if inviting her to speak, but she remained silent.
“I know it is the lady’s right to challenge the guest…”
Again the cocked eye. Again she met it with silence.
“But it is the lady’s first duty to ensure harmony in the hall.”
“Perhaps it was not right to put that burden on you, in the circumstances.”
“Mother was tired.”
“Your mother is never tired.”
“To test you. To train you. You will be Lady of Bamburgh one day.”
“Not for ages. Kenrick and Cyneburg are both healthy as horses.”
“No one knows when death may come. A fever, a cut that festers … And as heir, Drefan will keep his own table, from time to time, to entertain his friends, and to gain the respect of the people he will come to rule. Your role will be crucial on those days. Your mother wants to make sure you are ready. But perhaps she should have waited for another time.”
“I’m to be married after the harvest. Unless the king suddenly decides to drop in on us, there won’t be another feast until the harvest, and then my wedding feast, which will be in Bamburgh.”
“Still, there was so much ill feeling in the hall that night. It was too much to ask of you. I should not blame you, really. I should have overruled your mother and had her do it.”
“But…” She caught herself again. Stop. Don’t make excuses. Let him make them for you.
“Nothing. Sorry, Father.”
“Not that it came out badly in the end.”
“No, Father.” No, that night in the hall had gone well enough. Better than any night since.
“But it might have.”
Here the conversation lagged. Her father sat pondering a while, but she knew his scoldings well enough to know that he had exhausted his line of attack, and, finding no resistance, was beginning to doubt the justice of his campaign—a lion embarrassed to be seen growling at a lamb. Now came the familiar shift, from scold to confidante.
“Leif acquitted himself well.”
“Perhaps the people were impressed that he had the courage to speak.”
“I thought so.”
“Not that they are exactly welcoming them. How did Leif get that cut on his temple anyway?”
“Just an accident, Father. I dressed it with honey so it didn’t fester.”
“Good. I am glad you are taking care of him. It is a good example to the people.”
“Thank you, Father.”
“Still, when a man offers to turn a grindstone for you, and you refuse him… Everyone in the hall is still sulking and the Norsk are off in the corner playing games by themselves….”
“I know. It’s so silly. They know perfectly well Leif did not raid Lindisfarne. Even Drefan knows it.”
“It might not have been so bad if we had not rubbed their noses in it again.”
By “we” he meant “you”. But it was his way to take all faults on himself. Elswyth was adept at turning this to her advantage, but hearing it now, she had a sudden attack of conscience. It had been her act, which she had taken in knowing defiance of her father’s will, because she had seen that his tactic was not working. It was a grownup act, and she suddenly realized that she could not bear to be excused for it as a child.
“I had to,” she said, firmly. “I could feel it in the room. The question had to be asked and answered. There would have been no peace till it was asked. They may be sulking now, but they are not fighting. It would have been worse than boys throwing stones if I hadn’t asked the question.”
“Boys throwing stones?”
“That’s how Leif got his cut. Sorry, I just lied about that. I don’t know why.”
“It was dealt with, Father.”
“I’m not going to tell you. Leif and I dealt with it.”
“Quite the rebel you have become, daughter.”
“I’m not trying to be a rebel, Father.”
“Why lie about it?”
“Because I knew you would ask which boys. And I didn’t want to have to disobey you.”
“Then why disobey?”
“Because when we dealt with it, it was over, and we said we would not tell you about it.”
“What did you do to them then? There had to be some price paid.”
“Not telling you. Sorry.”
Attor gave a low growl under his breath. “You know what my father told me, as he was dying? He said the people govern themselves in secret. They only come to the lord when they cannot settle things among themselves. He did not tell me it was the same with children.”
“Didn’t you always tell us not to be tattle-tales?”
“I suppose I did. You are saying I trained you to defy me?”
“So what happened in the hall is my fault.”
“No. You asked me to be lady of the hall. I took the lady’s part. I made the choice. I knew it was not what you wanted. But I also knew your way was not working. And Mother told me I did well. She said Drefan would have been proud of me if he had seen it.”
“She said the same to me.”
“So, are you proud of me too, or are you angry?”
“A father can be both. You’d be astonished how often a father finds he is both.”
“I’m not sorry.”
“You frightened the life out of me, when you brought Snell forward to challenge him.”
“Leif said the same thing.”
“He gave a good answer.”
“Yes, he did.”
“If he had not…”
“If he had given no answer at all, because he was not asked…”
“We are steering a path very close to bloodshed, child.”
“I’m not a child. See,” she added, showing him the shoes on her feet.
He laughed. “I see, but Elsy, it is not you that should have to steer that path.”
“Well I am,” she said. “I don’t want to be, but I am.” She felt her chest tighten as she said this. Her father did not know the half of it, and it was best that he should not. The people govern themselves in secret, for how could the lord sort out this tangle with justice? “How soon will Heorot be back from Monkwearmouth, do you think? We will be off this path that steers close to bloodshed once he returns with the gold.”
“Aye, but if all had gone as well as it could on his journey, he could not have been back before today, and he won’t make much progress in this weather. The roads will be too slick. But remember, child, he had to cross the Tyne, and the Wansbeck, and the Blyth. Then wait on the abbot to agree to the price and collect the gold. Then cross those rivers again. It may be days yet.”
“Poor Leif. It must be eating him up. He seems so calm, but I know he is suffering.”
“Leif treads a lonely path,” her father said. “The lord’s path is always a lonely one, God knows, and Leif is new to it.”
“He has Thor, and Eric, and the rest.”
“He is their jarl, now. Thor is his mentor, and a mentor cannot be a friend, exactly. The rest must obey him, and the servant cannot be friend to the master either. I am the only one who bears the same burdens, but I am too old to be his friend. And too much a landsman, I suspect. But you love ships and the sea. And you love those monkish books as much as he does.”
“Are you sure that’s wise, Father.”
“Of course. It will cheer him up. I realize that once Drefan came you wanted to keep company with him. I had no idea you and Drefan had become … that you were so … so ardent.”
“I’m still a maiden, Father.”
“Aye, well, I’ve not seen the two of you sit so close before, nor kiss like that.”
“I’ll warn you next time, Father, so you can look away.”
“Anyway, Drefan rode out this morning. God knows what could be so urgent that he rode out in this weather. Drang and Earh were not happy about it, I can tell you. Meanwhile, Leif sits alone in the hall, sharpening that knife of his hour after hour. He’ll turn it into a pin before sundown. Go talk to him about ships and books and Spain, and all the places you keep talking about. He needs a sister, since he doesn’t have a friend.”
“Aye. You can be a good sister when you put your mind to it.”
“Do I have to?”
“Why not? Have you two had a quarrel?”
“Of course not.”
“Two days ago, no one could hold you to your duties for you had to hear sea tales. Now I ask you to and you don’t want to.”
“But Father, I can never go. It is foolish to torture myself with tales of Orkney and Spain when I’ll never go farther than York or Lindisfarne.”
“You risked much for Leif’s sake. You can do this little bit more for him. I’m right about this. Please don’t defy me again.”
“Very well, Father,” she said, with a sinking heart. She hopped down off the table and kissed him on the cheek. The people rule themselves in secret, and only come to the lord when they cannot settle matters among themselves. And sometimes, not even then.
Next Chapter: 32 A Walk in the Rain (coming next week)
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