The Wistful and the Good, Chapter 36
Fire and Death
Drefan’s attempt at revenge on Lief has left Drefan and Thor dead. Get caught up using the archive.
Elswyth’s face was buried in the sand and she was more than half dazed. She took several fruitless breaths, but her mouth and nose were blocked with sand and she could get no air. Fighting desperately against the weight that was crushing her, she twisted her face in the rough sand until she found a small space where she could draw breath. She could see no light and hear no sound except her own harsh breathing and hammering heart. Panic flooded her. Then she realized that one leg was free of the weight oppressing her and she kicked desperately, feeling the sand yield before the blows of her foot. But no one seemed to notice, and she had to wait many minutes, unable to understand what had happened, weeping and desperately trying to calm her panic before at last the weight was rolled away and her father was lifting her and cradling her and demanding to know if she was hurt.
“No, no, let me go,” she cried, for as soon as she had been restored to the world of light, as soon as she could breathe again, she had realized what the weight that oppressed her must have been. Her father put his hand to her head, trying to stop her from turning and looking, but he was too gentle and Elswyth twisted in his grasp and saw the huge still form of Thor lying in the sand, a bloodied Anglish spear beside him.
But even this was not the first thing in her heart. “Leif, Leif,” she cried. And he was there beside her and she struggled out of her father’s arms and into his. She embraced him and kissed him and demanded to know if he was injured. And he embraced her and kissed her and told her he was not and asked the same of her.
And then, being assured of each other, they looked around them. Attor stood looking at them in confusion. The Norsk and Drefan’s men stood with their weapons idle in their hands, with Attor’s men between them. Drefan lay still on the ground, the monk bending over him and listening for breath. Eric stood with his shipmates, grim faced, leaning on his reddened axe. And Thor lay dead.
Attor walked across to Drefan. The monk looked up at him and shook his head. Attor’s shoulders slumped and he turned again to look at Leif and Elswyth, entwined in each other’s arms, weeping.
Then suddenly there were voices yelling: “The ship!”
Lars was pointing, and the other men had turned to look at the flames jumping up the sides of the ship, clawing up the mast, slithering up the tarry ropes, smoking in the furled sail. The Anglish torch bearers must have done the task that had been set for them as soon as the melee broke out, running around the outnumbered Norsk defenders and flinging their torches into the dry tarry heart of the knarr.
Leif released Elswyth and ran towards the ship, stooping to pick up his sea jacket from the sand. His men followed him, and some of Attor’s Anglish also. Elswyth followed, with no thought as to what she might do—she followed because he ran.
Leif glanced back and saw her.
“Keep her away,” he shouted at Attor, as if she were his to protect, and Attor was his to command.
He ran into the ocean, rolling around to soak his boots and trousers. He pushed his sea jacket into the water to saturate it, and ducked his head to wet his hair and beard. He stood, staggering under the weight of the water, threw his arms into the sleeves of the sea jacket, ran back to the ship, and hauled himself aboard.
There was fire everywhere: fire in the ropes, fire in the sails, fire catching in the decks where the pitch-soaked torches had landed. Smoke billowed from the hold. The crew were beginning to scoop up sea water in their shields and fling it at the sides of the ship. Some of Attor’s men were helping them.
Attor caught Elswyth in her headlong rush toward the ship. She struggled to break his grip, but he pulled her to him strongly.
“Stop him,” she cried, “Stop him.”
“It’s his ship, girl.”
“He’ll be killed.”
“Maybe, but that ship is his people’s wealth, their safety. His life is promised to them.”
“Let me help him.”
“He has his men to help him.”
“Let me go.”
“No, child. You will stay safe with me.”
She fought him, cursed him, struck him, but he held her, and her fury turned to tears, and he comforted her.
And even as they stood and watched, another figure came hurtling down the beach and threw himself over the rail of the blazing ship.
Leif’s clothes steamed in the heat, and his lungs gasped in the arid breathless air. He saw a line of buckets standing along the rail and he tossed them overboard to the men toiling to bring water. But he knew it was hopeless, the fire had found the pitch-soaked seams and had run along them to every rib and bulwark in the ship. By a dock, with water all around the ship, there might have been a chance. But here on the beach, with the prow high and dry and the tide lapping only inches deep at the stern, there was no way to get water into the ship. There was only one chance to save anything now. He turned and looked for the books. The chest stood open on the deck. Beside it, a coil of tarred rope blazed and its flames were licking around the chest, looking for a place to catch. The deck was hot under his feet as he moved towards it. A cinder caught in his eye, stinging furiously and blinding him with tears. By the time he had cleared his vision, the chest had become obscured in a billow of smoke rising up from the hold. Darts of flame were beginning to lick up between the planks of the deck, and the air was filled with hissing and roaring. He heard men’s voices shouting also, but could not make out their words or language. The smoke choked him and obscured his vision. He found the chest, as much by memory as by sight, and bent his back to drag it away from the burning rope. He heard a roaring crash behind him and guessed some piece of the rigging had come down. He bent to lift the chest, but one of its leather handles had burned through and it snapped in his hand. He tried to get his arm around it, but the chest was too awkward. He began to drag it across the deck, aware of a dreadful pain growing beneath his feet. He choked on the smoke, and had just decided that he must choose between saving the books and saving himself, when a hand fell on his shoulder. He looked up and through the smoke made out the face of Brother Alun.
“I’ll take this end,” the monk said.
Together they lifted it. The nearest rail was alive with flame. They carried it back toward the stern, seeking a way of escape. Just as they seemed to have found a way clear, there was a sharp crack overhead and the main yard crashed to the deck. The yard smashed the chest out of their hands. Books scattered across the deck and fell into the blazing hold. The burning sail billowed slowly down and enveloped the stunned monk. Leif ran to the monk, leaping over the smoldering books. The monk was screaming and flailing at the flames that bit into his back. Leif dug him out from under the burning sail, picked him up, threw him over his shoulder, ran to the stern, and tossed the monk over the rail into the shallow water. He turned for one last look at the books, but they were already on fire. At his feet there was a basket, brimming with bright thread and trailing half-finished embroidery. He flung it wide, then leaped over the side and into the water, rolling over to extinguish the cinders that clung to his clothing.
The first thing that Edith saw when she came down to the beach was the blazing ship, orange flame driven greedily by the onshore breeze that dragged a plume of black smoke across the summer sky. It crackled and it roared and there were loud snaps and cracks as the joints and seams gave way. The yard was already down, lying broken athwart the blazing ship, but the mast still stood, naked and black, pointing skyward in a last act of defiance.
A party of men passed her, bearing between them, the body of the monk. From their attitude she might have thought their burden a dead man, except for how he writhed in their arms and the mewls of agony that escaped his lips. They stopped as they came by her and she looked into the face of the wounded man, which was charred and matted with twisted flesh and bright blood. She gave the bearers some quick instructions to begin boiling wine in a brass pot and to send slaves to pick plantain and cut willow, and then hurried on.
She saw Elswyth, weeping in Leif’s arms. She seemed to be unhurt, so Edith did not go to her, but hurried on to find her husband. Attor was standing with a knot of men and when she came to him, he tried to prevent her from looking at the scene they were gathered around. She pushed through his constraining hand, however, and looked. Almost at her feet, the huge form of Thor lay, vacant eyes staring up at the sun. There was no sign of any wound on him, and no sign of violence except for the bloodied spear that lay near his body. Yet the terrible vacancy of death was on his face and death’s lumpen awkwardness beset his limbs.
Every death is unbelievable. No matter how many times one gazes on a corpse, the wonder of it never abates. The body seems as a castoff garment, and you expect to find the true form of the person standing in naked wonderment beside you, staring, as you stare, on the impossibility of their discarded flesh, and you wonder, uncomprehending, at the absence of that necessary spectre. But the absence of Thor’s ghost seemed to Edith an impossibility of another order. Thor had seemed to her, as he had always seemed to Elswyth, a force beyond the world’s touching. He was too good, too solid, too serene, too joyful, too solemn, to ever heed the call of death. And yet here before her lay the empty vessel, the abandoned husk, of Thor, and Thor himself was nowhere to be found.
She turned and looked at Attor, uncomprehending in her grief, but he indicated with his eyes another group of men gathered around another fallen body in a patch of bloodied sand a few yards away. She went to see, resisting again Attor’s attempt to restrain her. At first she could make no sense of what she saw, for the face of the dead man had been gashed open from temple to eye. It was only when she looked into the faces of Drang and Earh that she realized that the cloven head belonged to Drefan.
She turned into her husband’s arms, aghast.
“Where are the children?” he asked her.
“Hilda took them to my mother. When I heard the commotion, I didn’t know what else to do.”
“As long as they don’t see this,” he said.
He tried to explain, but he did not really know himself. The monk had found him in the fields shouting news of a fight on the beach and he had run down with the men and broken up a battle between Drefan’s men and the Norsk sailors, but by the time he had made them stop, Drefan and Thor were already dead.
They looked at Drang and Earh for an explanation, but both seemed mute, unwilling to speak of it. They went back to the Norsk gathered around Thor. Eric was leaning on a bloodied axe, his face so grim that neither of them had the courage to speak to him.
Elswyth and Leif were still down by the tideline, wrapped in each other’s arms, staring at the burning ship. Edith tugged at Attor’s arm to start him walking towards them.
“Do you see this?” he asked, meaning the embrace between Leif and his daughter.
“Did you know…”
“That she was in love with him. Yes, she told me.”
“You said nothing to me.”
“I only learned yesterday. She said Leif rejected her, and that she would marry Drefan. So what was there to tell?”
“Did Drefan know?”
But before Edith could answer, Elswyth saw them coming. She broke from Leif and threw herself into her mother’s arms. Leif, ashen faced, dropped to his knees and lowered his head, offering his neck to Attor in an act of contrition and surrender. Attor went to him, took him by the elbow, and pulled him back to his feet.
Elswyth looked into her mother’s face, utterly desolate. “Drefan saw,” she said. “He saw.” Edith did not need to ask what he had seen. Another soul had been wakeful that evening when she had met Elswyth coming back from the beach. All now was explained. Nothing now could be mended. She simply drew Elswyth into a tighter embrace and held her as she wept.
“The question is,” Attor said, after a while, “what are we to do with you now?”
“Count me among the dead,” Leif said.
Elswyth broke from her mother’s embrace. “What does he mean?” she asked, addressing her father rather than Leif.
“He means that he considers himself an exile from his people.”
“Why?” she said, turning to Leif.
“I have lost my ship and my cargo,” he said. “I have lost my father’s ransom. Thor is dead. My family is ruined, and I am the cause of it.”
“I am the cause of it,” Elswyth said.
“No,” he said, going to her, embracing her, stroking her hair as if they had been lovers from of ancient days. “They are my rules and I broke them.”
“You did not lie with me,” she said, muffled in the sheep skin.
“I caused Drefan to think I did. And that is what the rule is for. To avoid making any man jealous of you. I knew this. But I failed.”
“My fault. You kept saying no. I didn’t listen.”
“I said yes as often as I said no. I wanted your company. I loved you from the first time we looked at the books together.”
“I should have kept the two of you apart from the beginning,” Attor said. “Cuthbert’s bones! I sent you to him, told you to be like a sister to him, forbade you to disobey me.”
But Elswyth turned on her father in sudden fury and struck him in the chest with her fists. “Don’t you dare,” she said. “Don’t you dare try to take this from me. It is my fault. All mine. Don’t you dare say it isn’t.”
Attor took a step back, stunned. Edith wrapped her arms around Elswyth and tried to soothe her. “This is not the time for this,” she said. “There is work to be done, and little time to do it before nightfall. Next thing for you to do is to tend Leif’s wounds and get some food into him. He is your responsibility now. You have chosen him, and now you must care for him. He is exhausted and has had no meat since breakfast.” She turned to Attor then, and said. “We should go and tend to Drefan’s body. The Norsk will tend to Thor, but Drefan is one of ours.”
They went back together to the place where Drefan had lain, but the body was no longer there. His men had picked him up and were carrying him back the way they had come along the beach. The bloodied sand where he had lain had been covered with fresh sand, the spot detectable only by the crowd of boot prints around it.
Edith looked after the retreating men. “Where are they taking him?” she asked. “Why not bring him to the hall?”
“They are ashamed. They broke hospitality, and they know it.”
“Surely Drefan thought he had cause.”
“I guess Drang and Earh thought he did not.”
“If he thought Leif had lain with Elswyth? Most men would do the same, even if Leif were not Norsk.”
“He should have come to you, then. You would have the first right to revenge if Leif had defiled your daughter.”
“Perhaps that is why Drang and Earh are ashamed. Perhaps they think Drefan stole my right. Perhaps Drefan knew that I loved Leif too well to be revenged on him, especially if Elswyth had gone to him willingly.”
“She did. She told me. She wanted to lie with him, and he refused.”
“What did Drefan see then?”
“I don’t know. Enough to make him believe what he already suspected, I suppose.”
“Enough to give him certain cause for revenge? Or was it an excuse because he wanted to spill Norsk blood for Lindisfarne?”
Edith sighed. “It cures nothing to find fault with the dead,” she said.
“It might ease her heart a little.”
“No. She’s right, my love. She sat with Drefan in the hall, kissed him, talked of their marriage with him, and that same night offered to lay with Leif, would have lain with him, she says, if he had not refused her. There is no excusing that. She will not hear it excused, and that is to her credit, at least.”
“Then how am I to save my child? Drefan dead. Thor dead. The ship burned. Harrald’s ransom gone. How can she bear all that?”
Then Edith wrapped her arms around her husband and wondered how he would ever be able to bear that this was a burden he would never be able to take from his daughter’s shoulders.
Leif had been stoic while facing Attor and Edith, but at last his defenses crumbled. Elswyth had become for him both the one for whom he most wished to be strong and the one before whom he was most willing to show weakness. He fell to his knees in the sand, tired beyond words, sad beyond hoping. Tears sprang to his eyes and flowed down his cheeks. She embraced him as he knelt, resting his head on her bosom, letting his tears soak into the fabric of her dress, taking her turn to be strong for them both. When there were no more tears in him, he raised his head and looked up at her.
“I do love you,” he said, hopelessly.
“I love you,” she said, stroking his hair.
“I have to go.”
“I can’t come back.”
“What will you do?”
“I will take you to the hall and get you something to eat.”
He was so weary that he stumbled twice as she led him across the beach and up the path to the hall. Each time, she supported him. As they walked, ordinary physical pain intruded upon his sorrow for the first time. The muscle in his back that he had pulled in the football game must have been injured again, for he felt like he had a dagger in his back. His left arm was bruised from shoulder to wrist from taking Drefan’s blows on his shield, and there was an ugly and painful welt around his arm where the leather strap of the shield had dug into his flesh when the handle had given way. His right hand was swollen and numb and his right shoulder ached from wielding his sword, his legs above his boots were covered with burns, and there were burn marks on his face, neck, and shoulders where cinders had settled on him. One eye was grossly inflamed and his vision was blurred. He had twisted his right ankle when he jumped from the ship and now it was painful with every step. His breath was raspy from the smoke that had entered his lungs. By the time they reached the hall, he was dizzy, and would have collapsed on the path if not for her assistance.
There was a table set in the hall, but he was too far gone to eat much. He gulped water, for he found that he was parched with thirst, but though he was hungry, his hunger did not seem to matter. Elswyth made him lie down in a bed in the guest house and then she washed his wounds, bound them, and salved his burns. She covered him with a blanket, and its warmth was like a drug. He closed his eyes. His pain was lost in an all-enveloping weariness. As he closed his eyes, he felt the brush of her lips on his cheeks and forehead, but not even that could rouse him from the sleep that came, like a wave washing over a crippled ship, wrapping it in the darkness of the sea.
Next Chapter: 37 The Night Watch (coming next week)
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