The Wistful and the Good, Chapter 35
Man to Man
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While the men played football, mending their quarrels through blood and sport, Elswyth and Edith have reached a kind of reconciliation, but one that leaves Elswyth seeing Edith in a very different light. Get caught up using the archive.
The game ended in bloodshed, of course, with the Anglish leading by four bloody noses to three. And then the bruised and exhausted men embraced each other like brothers and drank themselves insensible on the beach. The battered men woke with ringing heads in the morning, each Norsk a guest in one hut or another in the village, hosted by whatever man he had bested or been bested by in the game, where they were scolded by the wives and teased by the girls and pestered by the children as they ate their breakfasts and nursed their sore heads and other sundry cuts and bruises.
The Anglish limped back to their fields and the Norsk returned to the beach. They had offered to lend a hand in the fields, but Attor’s ship had returned from its fishing expedition loaded with a catch that would help tide the village over until the harvest was in, and the fish needed to be cleaned and dried, and so the Norsk were asked to help with this, which they did willingly.
Kendra died in the night without waking or uttering any word of prophecy. Her family spent the day preparing her body for burial. The monk, thus relieved of his charge, asked Attor for food for the road, but Attor begged him to stay a day or two in case Heorot returned from Monkwearmouth with a letter rather than the gold they had asked for—something Attor feared since Heorot was now past due, unless he had run into difficulties either at Monkwearmouth or on the road. The monk was easily persuaded, for it gave him another day with the books.
The day was clear and hot, so Leif ordered the sail raised to provide shade to the deck and he, the monk, and Elswyth, embroidery in her hands, sat with their backs against the book chest, each facing a different point of the wind. Leif was hoping that his ear might begin to pick up something of the Latin tongue, for it occurred to him that if he could learn a little of it, he would be able to trade with any house of Christian holy men in any country, without needing to learn every local language. Elswyth was there because, though she must soon part from both of them, she found the company of each of them soothing. Her mood was wistful and melancholy, but the melancholy was sweet in their company and bitter apart from it.
It was in the middle of the afternoon that a cry of alarm from one of the men startled them.
“What is it?” Leif cried in Norsk, jumping to his feet.
“There,” said Thor, pointing down the beach, not toward the village, but northward to where a group of men had rounded the last of the headlands that intruded into the beach and were trotting in their direction, sun glinting on spearpoints. This was not the far headland to which Elswyth and Leif had walked in the mist, but a much nearer less intrusive point that provided the last point of concealment between the further beach and the place where the knarr was beached.
“Anglish?” Leif asked.
Elswyth shaded her eyes with her hand and examined the approaching figures. “Drefan!” she said.
She vaulted over the side and started running towards the approaching men.
“Stop her,” Thor said.
A hand grabbed her by the shoulder.
“Too late to mend it now, Princess,” Eric said.
She twisted in his grasp, but could not break his hold. His fingers dug painfully into her shoulder. She turned to Thor, pleading, “I have to go and talk to him.”
“Why did he come that way, where there is no road?” Thor asked her.
“He knew Father would stop him.”
“So he is willing to break hospitality and murder your father’s guests. Why? He thinks what Eric thinks, what I fear.” He looked at Leif.
“No,” Leif said.
“We never!” Elswyth cried, trying in agony to twist herself out of Eric’s grip as he marched her back to where Leif and Thor stood. “If that’s what he thinks, I have to go tell him it is not true.”
“He’s not come to talk,” Thor said.
“I can convince him.”
“We can’t risk it,” Leif said. “If he thinks what Eric thinks, he will want revenge on you as well as me.”
Eric handed Elswyth over to Thor, whose grip on her was as firm as Eric’s, but not so painful.
“We didn’t, Uncle Thor,” Elswyth said, a sob of panic rising in her throat. “I promise we didn’t. Please believe me.”
“I do. But you sailed very close to the wind, and now we are on a lee shore. But we’ll waste no time on that now.”
Eric ran to summon the men from the drying racks and break out the weapons chest on the ship.
“Best you can do for us is run and fetch your father,” Thor said.
“No, I won’t leave you. He’s got twenty men with him, and Father won’t be able to gather our men and get back here from the fields in time. I have to try to talk to him.”
“I will go for the thegn,” the monk said. “I’d be no help in a fight, and I doubt that young man is in the mood for a sermon.” He set off running at once before anyone could say anything to him.
“You should go too,” Leif said to Elswyth. “We are not enough to keep you safe.”
“Why don’t we all go back to the village, then?” Elswyth said. “We can barricade ourselves in the hall.”
“Look again,” Leif said. “What do you think they are carrying?”
“Spears,” she said, but then her sharp eyes saw what he had seen. “Oh! Some of them have torches.”
“They mean to burn the ship.” Thor said.
“Can you get it into the water?” Elswyth asked.
Thor shook his head. The low tide that had let the Anglish come so far along the beach, had left the ship sitting high on the sand.
Eric thrust a sword and shield into Leif’s hands, and offered the same to Thor.
“Will you stay by me if I release you?” Thor asked Elswyth.
“Alright, but you let me talk to him when they get here.”
“If he’s in any mood to talk.”
Thor released her and took the weapons that Eric offered him.
Without needing to be told, the men had armed themselves and formed a rough line in the sand, their faces to the enemy and their backs to the ship. Leif looked to Thor for guidance. He was out of his depth in a battle line.
“Let’s put some distance between our backs and the ship,” Thor said. “We can retreat back to it if they try to get behind us, but I’d rather keep those torches away from it.”
“Move forward,” Leif ordered. He led the men up the beach towards the advancing Anglish. They were getting near now, puffing and blowing. They were running through sand in heavy leather sewn with iron rings and it sapped their lungs. The Norsk line closed tightly together, leaving Elswyth standing behind them.
“If it comes to a fight, you run,” Leif said to Elswyth. He said it with more command than she had ever heard in his voice.
“I will,” she said. “But let me try to talk to him.”
“Anything that will buy time for your father to get here,” Leif said.
The approaching Anglish began to draw together into a tighter pack and slow their steps. Drefan called his men to a halt a dozen paces from the Norsk line. Drang and Earh were there. With them were more than a dozen men, dressed in leather, armed with shields and spears, some with helmets and some bare headed.
Thor had kept Elswyth behind him while they advanced, but now she stepped around him and took a step towards Drefan, Thor’s hand descending on her shoulder to prevent her approaching nearer. Drefan was clearly startled to see her.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“I don’t explain my business to Welisc whores,” he said.
Elswyth had planned on icy calmness, but at the word whore, she flamed. “Don’t you dare call me that! I am a maiden. You are the one who lies with whores!”
Thor’s hand tightened on her shoulder.
“You lay with a vikingr,” Drefan said.
“I did not!”
“You were seen!”
Leif took a step forward. “I have not lain with any woman of this place,” he said.
“You were seen,” Drefan said. “Swiving in the moonlight among the dunes when you thought we were all in the hall.”
The color drained from both Leif and Elswyth’s cheeks, and they looked at each other, anguished. Drefan saw the look and saw in it only a confirmation of guilt.
“Dirty vikingr bastard! Dirty Welisc whore!” he screamed.
“If you saw anything,” Elswyth said, “you saw an embrace, nothing more. We didn’t even kiss. And yes, we embraced. I was drunk and I was angry with you and I wanted him. And he would not take me. You lay with Willa. I tried to lie with Leif and he would not, because he respects you, because he respects my father. So you can be angry with me if you like, just like I am angry with you about Willa. But you have no cause to be angry with Leif.”
“I don’t take the word of a whore.”
“I’m not a whore.”
“I don’t take the word of a whore.”
“She speaks the truth,” Leif said, taking a step forward and standing in front of Elswyth. “She is yours. I make no claim on her. But I am bound to her as oath-kin. I will defend her against any man who threatens or insults her.”
“I don’t take the word of a vikingr.”
“What have you come for, then?” Thor asked.
“To protect the people of Northumbria against vikingar and whores.”
“You would make war on Attor’s guests? On his own land? After you have eaten and drunk with them?” Thor asked.
“It is they who broke the bonds of hospitality,” Drefan said. “He lay with my woman. No bond protects a man from vengeance who lays with another man’s woman.”
“They have both told you they did not lie together.”
“They lie, old man. You know it. I can see it in your face that you do not believe them.”
“I believe them. I am angry with them. That is true. They have acted like children, and I say this of my own jarl. But I believe they did not lie together.”
“Then you are a fool or a liar, old man.”
“We didn’t,” Elswyth shouted, struggling in Thor’s grip, trying to confront Drefan eye to eye again. “Yes, we acted like children. I did. Leif didn’t. I did. And I’m sorry. I really am sorry. But you have to stop this. If you don’t want me anymore, fine. I’ll go and marry a slave if you think that is all I’m good for. But you have no quarrel with Leif.”
“You think I don’t want you?” Drefan cried. “I defied my father, because I wanted you. I defied my mother, because I wanted you. I broke bread and shook hands with that vikingr bastard because you asked me to, and I wanted you. But I can’t touch you now. You are polluted by this vikingr. You’ll never get the stench of him out of you. He has ruined you, as vikingar ruin all they plunder.”
“You think you don’t reek to me of Willa? But I was still willing to take you.”
“Did you still want me?”
“I was willing…”
“And there is the stench of him! There is only one way to blot it out.” He gestured at the line of spear points and torches behind him.
Leif took a glance behind him at the empty beach, knowing it was too soon to see Attor coming, but hoping for it anyway. He took another step forward.
“If your quarrel is with me, fight me,” he said. “Man to man.”
“No,” Elswyth screamed. “I don’t want you hurting each other over me.”
Thor put his hand on her other shoulder and pulled her back to him. Leaning down, he whispered in her ear. “Leif knows what he is doing.”
“It’s not fair,” she said. “Drefan’s a soldier. He’s wearing mail.”
“Useful in a melee, but a fight like this is lost by the man who tires first. Drefan’s been running in that heavy gear on a hot day. He’s still panting from the run. Leif is rested. He will keep Drefan occupied until your father comes.”
Drefan took a step forward, his sword raised.
Leif held up a hand. Slowly he removed his sea jacket and his shirt and dropped them on the sand. They offered little protection against a sword cut. A cut through clothing was more likely to fester than a cut to bare skin. He shrugged his arms toward Drefan as if to suggest that Drefan, in sporting fairness, should remove the mail coat he wore, made from hundreds of iron rings sewn onto his leather jerkin, and the grim helmet that was on his head. Drefan shook his head, which drew catcalls from the watching Norsk.
“Anglish do not believe in fighting fair?” Leif asked, still not picking up his shield or drawing his sword.
“Did the vikingar at Lindisfarne wait for the monks to arm themselves before they began their slaughter?”
“You know we were not among the men who raided Lindisfarne,” Leif replied. Still his sword stayed in its sheath and his shield rested against his leg.
“Defend yourself, vikingr, or I will slaughter your men as your people slaughtered the monks.” Drefan took another step forward. Leif picked up his shield and drew his sword.
Drefan advanced. Leif stepped back and circled right. Drefan stepped after him, keeping the distance between them the same. Each time Drefan feinted forward, Leif stepped back and circled right, until their positions were reversed and Leif had his back to the waiting Anglish and could see Thor, with Elswyth held fast by the shoulders in Thor’s huge hands. He saw the look of fear on the old man’s face, and the look of longing terror on Elswyth’s, and in that moment felt the last of his defenses against her collapse.
Drefan surged forward. He had too many steps to take to catch Leif off guard, but this time Leif did not have a chance to dart back and had to stand to meet the blow. He took it sword on sword, the impact of the blow ringing down his arm and stinging shoulder, elbow and wrist. His muscles remembered: a blow should be deflected along the blade, not caught all at once, metal to metal, where the force might stun the arm and make the hand lose its grip on the sword.
Drefan too was shaken by the force of the blow, and took a step back, flexing his sword arm. Leif swung his shield, hoping to knock Drefan off balance, but the Anglish met him shield to shield and now his left arm rang. Leif stepped right, up the beach, towards the softer sand. Drefan followed, swinging heavy blows that Leif met with sword or shield. He had expected more sophistication in Drefan’s attack. It was not that he himself was trained to do more with a sword than to swing it like a club, but he had thought Drefan would be full of crafty tricks of swordplay, and that he would be working hard to dodge cunning thrusts. But the Anglish just swung and swung, his blade clanging sharply against Leif’s sword or thudding dully against his shield.
Leif was content to receive the blows and turn them aside, knowing that Drefan was expending more energy than he was, especially wearing his heavy armor. Leif could almost feel the weight of it as it tugged on Drefan’s broad shoulders. Leif was quickly warm and running with sweat and Drefan must be getting hot inside his mail and the woolen tunic beneath it. Leif kept moving into the softer sand, knowing that Drefan’s legs would tire more quickly there. Whenever Drefan’s attack wilted, he would go on the offensive himself, in part to show the Anglish that he had courage, in part to show the Norsk that he was not beaten. Now that the fight was on, he did not want Drefan to have a chance to rest, for he was convinced that he could beat the Anglish by tiring him out. He did not aim for the body, still fearing that Drefan knew some subtlety of sword craft that he was waiting for an opening to display. Instead he hacked at Drefan’s shield, keeping his own shield up to ward off the counter attack when it came. If he felt the resistance weaken, if the counter did not come, then he planned to push Drefan backwards, hoping that he would lose his footing and fall on his back. Then Leif would be on top of him, with his blade to the Anglish’s throat and force the surrender.
The desire to spill Drefan’s blood was strong in him, had raged in him since Drefan first uttered the word “whore”. But he pushed it back. He fought for exhaustion and surrender, or simply to waste away time until Attor would come and break it up. And with every blow he struck, his hatred of Drefan ebbed, for he came to understand, even as they fought, that their rivalry was over. Drefan had made a breech with Elswyth that could never be mended. No man can marry a woman who he has called a whore in front of his followers. His own cause was as hopeless as it had ever been, but he stood without rival, even if he could never claim the prize.
Leif was tiring. His arms and shoulders ached and his hands were numb and tingling. Was Drefan tiring? His blows seemed just as heavy, though perhaps there was a longer pause now between one blow and the next. Leif’s legs were heavy and the sand beneath his feet felt as cloying as mud. He forced himself to keep moving, knowing that the sand must be wearying Drefan also, knowing that he would feel weariness in his own bones and muscles long before he felt it in the weakness of the other man’s attack. How long had they been fighting now? How long till Attor came?
Drefan ceased hacking and stepped back, Leif followed and battered Drefan’s shield, though it seemed like his right hand could barely raise the sword. He felt Drefan’s shield arm weaken. The Anglish gave way before his attack. He pushed forward, ramming shield against shield, trying to force the other man off his feet. He felt Drefan stumble, but then the Anglish found his footing and stepped aside, deflecting the force of Leif’s shield sideways. Leif stumbled, but kept his feet. He brought his sword up to meet Drefan’s blow, felt the weakness of it, stepped right, took the next blow on his shield. And then he felt the handle of the shield wobble and give way. Suddenly, he was holding the handle alone, while the shield fell toward the sand, rotating on the leather strap around his left elbow so that the rim swung down and bit into the side of his leg. He stumbled backward, trying desperately to free his arm from the shield strap. But the leather had twisted itself into a vice grip around his arm. He stepped into a tangle of seaweed, lost his footing, and was down, feeling the rough sand sting his back as he fell.
Elswyth screamed when Leif fell. But Thor said, “Don’t fear. Let Drefan accept his surrender, and perhaps that will satisfy him.”
With the immediate threat of his opponent removed, Drefan was suddenly staggering with weariness. He stumbled in the sand and almost fell himself. Then he took one staggering step towards Leif. Leif ceased struggling with his shield and dropped his sword.
“I yield,” he said.
Drefan took another stumbling step toward him, and then another. Leif lay still, offering no resistance. Slowly, Drefan began to raise his sword.
“He yielded,” Drang said.
Drefan continued to raise the sword, though from his movements it seemed that he could barely lift its weight. Elswyth was screaming and fighting Thor’s grip. And then Eric rushed forward from the Norsk line and swung his axe into the side of Drefan’s helmet, just as Drefan was about to start the downward stroke. Immediately the two lines of men rushed together. Elswyth felt herself lifted off her feet and turned away from the fight, then there was a grunt and suddenly the sand was rushing up to meet her and a great weight landed on top of her, knocking the breath out of her.
Next Chapter: 36 Fire and Death (coming next week)
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