The Wistful and the Good, Chapter 37
The Night Watch
Leif’s ship has burned in the melee, leaving Leif badly burned. Leif and Elswyth’s love for each other had been publicly proclaimed, but their prospects are hopeless. Get caught up using the archive.
Elswyth emerged from the guest house, tearful, chilled with grief, and staggering from weariness. Night had fallen and the moon, which had looked down full-faced upon her tryst with Leif among the dunes, was now slowly averting its face from the squalor of earth, though it still gave much light to the world below. By that light she saw that two men, spears in their hands, stood guard outside the door of the guest house. They nodded to her as she passed, grim faced, but at first she did not question their presence. She was too weary to notice or to question. But as she walked away toward the sleeping house, the oddity of it at last penetrated her mind and she turned and looked back at them. Against what threat did her father set a guard tonight? Drefan was dead and his followers had fled, ashamed. Who else might come for Leif’s life tonight?
She began to walk back towards them, meaning to demand an answer from them, but as she did so she saw that there were watchfires burning on the dunes along the path to the beach. Still half dazed, she turned and walked towards the fires, trying to understand their purpose. An armed man, clad in every bit of leather and iron he possessed, hurried by her towards the watch fires.
“Best be inside, Lady,” he said, as he passed.
The word “why” was stillborn on her lips, for she understood at last. She turned and looked in the opposite direction, to the road that led inland. No fire was lit. No man stood guard. It was not against Drefan or his companions that her father had set his guard. It was against the Norsk on the beach.
She walked toward the watch fires, knowing that her father would be there, with his men. She knew him by his limp in the half dark as he paced back and forth between the fires he had set. He must be anxious. His sight was bad enough by daylight. By moonlight, he would be all but blind. And then there were the fires. They gave warmth and heart to the men, kept them from the creeping fear of dark and silence, but they ruined their sight also. Other men must be set further down the beach, to keep watch, their eyes not ruined by the firelight, but still, her father would fret that he could not see for himself whatever approached him.
He did not even see her until he almost fell over her in the dark.
“Good God, child,” he said, when he saw it was her. “I thought it must be your mother, but she is in her bed, and so should you be.”
“Why are you all out here?” she asked him. “Why have you set a guard against Eric and the crew? Why are there men guarding Leif? They are not our enemies.”
“Oh child,” he said. Then he paused heavily, as if expecting her familiar contradiction. But she did not contradict him. She had behaved like a child and she would not deny it.
“Kenrick will want blood,” Attor said at last.
“But they will be gone by then,” she said.
“And if they are gone, at my connivance?” he asked. “What do you think Kenric will do then? Whose blood will he seek to avenge his son?”
Her heart was very still and she was cold. “It should be mine,” she said.
“It should. It is my fault that Drefan is dead.”
“Not yours alone.”
“He would not be dead if I had not done what I did.”
“True. But I will not give your blood for this, child. Nor would Kenric take it. It is not his way to be avenged on a child. His quarrel is with the Norsk. And if I help the Norsk escape his vengeance, his quarrel would be with me.”
“But what are you going to do, Father? You can’t turn Leif over to Kenric. You can’t let him kill him.”
“Don’t you see, child. If I don’t give him Leif, and Eric—who struck the killing blow—and all the rest beside, then I am a traitor to my lord and he will have my life and my lands. And then what becomes of you, and your mother, and your sisters? The estate will go to my brother, and you know what he will do, especially if I am dishonored. He will sell you all for slaves. And what of Whitney? A mouth to feed who will never do any work? I love Leif like a son, but I cannot sell my wife and my daughters for his sake.”
It was too much. She sank to the sands under the weight of it. She put her head between her hands and wept. Her father sat down on the sands beside her and placed an arm around her. For a long time they simply sat together, her weeping and heaving with sobs as he held her against his heart.
At last she looked up at him. “Is there nothing I can do, Father,” she pleaded. “I love him. I would do anything to save him.”
“There is nothing you can do,” her father replied. “In the morning there will be men come from Alnwick and then I shall go down the beach and put the Norsk under guard, when I have enough men to do it without a fight. And then we will wait for Kenric to come. All you can do is go to your bed. You are dog weary. You must rest. In the morning you will say goodbye to Leif, and you and I will weep for him then, for we cannot show any love for him once Kenric comes. Do you understand, child. It must be this way, for your mother’s sake, and your sisters.”
“And yours, Father,” she said.
“Well, I’ll not think on my deserts. I am well scolded. I will not take your blame upon myself this time. But I have blame enough of my own. It would not be unjust if I were to bleed for it. But I will not see my wife or my children bleed, no matter what their guilt. But if you care for me, aid me now in what I must do. Go to your bed, where I know you are safe. Please, child, go.”
He stood up and gave her an arm to help her rise. She rose, feeling very unsteady on her feet. She nodded her assent wordlessly, kissed him on the cheek, and then began to stagger back along the path to the village. It was hard to walk with the sobs boiling up in her chest, but she was resolute. It was such a slight thing, to obey her father’s command and go to her bed. But it was a thing, a very small thing, to begin to set in the balance against the great weight of her crime, and all that had come of it, and would still come.
As she passed into the moon-shadow cast by the bulk of the hall, she heard a step behind her, but before she could turn to see, a hand was clamped across her mouth, a thick arm was thrown around her waist, and she was pulled off her feet, backward, into the deepest shadows beside the hall.
She knew at once that it was Eric. Her assailant was too big and too bold to be anyone else. She was not afraid. She expected that he would pull her into a dark corner, release her mouth, and whisper his errand to her. But he didn’t. He pulled her clean off her feet and carried her along the wall of the hall, and then darted from the shadow of one building to the next down towards the bank of the river. Still holding her, Eric plunged into the river. He entered well below the ford, where the water was deep and the current smooth. She wanted to protest and tell him that he was going to drown them both, but it was too late. And then Eric was swimming, his hands still clamped around her, kicking only with his legs, as if he were saving her from drowning. And then the water began to grow shallow and he was on his feet again, carrying her out of the water, her dress heavy and streaming.
He carried her across the beach on the far side of the river, towards the hidden cove where she sometimes came to bathe. There, far from the village, and with the crash of waves to drown out any cry she might make, he at last put her on her feet and took his hand from around her mouth.
She turned and looked at him, not sure if she should be terrified or angry.
“Hello, Princess,” he said, looking down at her. “You’re a lucky find.”
“What the hell, Eric,” she said. “I could hardly breathe.”
“You’ll live,” he said.
“Why? Why have you brought me here?”
“Out of earshot.”
“I came for the boat.”
“How? My father guards the beach.”
“Swam it. Out to sea and up the river.”
“Against the current?”
“Aye. It was a pull. But your father has the boat pulled out and four men to guard it. And I don’t see spars or oars in it, so he’s hidden those. If he weren’t a damn fool, he’d have holed it or burned it to keep it from me.”
“So why take me?”
“Kenric will come. If we are here, we are dead men. So I need your father’s boat. And I need Leif back. If the boat had been in the water, with spars and sail and oars in her, I would have gone for Leif and taken him.”
“He is guarded.”
“Pftt,” he said, dismissively, blowing air between his teeth. “But I couldn’t get the boat. Then I saw you. So I will make a bargain with your father. Your life for Leif and the boat.”
“My life? Eric, you wouldn’t.” She looked up at his stern face in the moonlight, unable to believe him. Her horror was not at the thought of dying. She merited death. But could she have made Eric hate her enough to spill her blood? That was a terrible thought.
“Ask your father if he will take Leif’s life,” he said.
She turned away from him and took a step towards the tide. “I already did,” she said. “I already did.”
“And what did he say?”
“He would not let his wife and children be made slaves. And they would kill Whitney, Eric. Poor Whitney, who never hurt a mouse. They would kill her because they can’t use her.”
“And Kenric will kill Hogni and Lars and Leif, and all of them, if we don’t get that boat.”
“You wouldn’t, would you? You wouldn’t really kill me?”
“I won’t have to. Your father won’t chance it.”
“But then Kenric will come and my father will be a traitor in his eyes, and he will kill him.”
“It should be me. It should be me. Do whatever you want with me. But let my father live.”
“Should I die for him, then, and Leif, and all of them? Should they die, for your crime, so that your father may live?”
“Will he trade my mother and my sisters lives for mine? All of theirs for mine, when I am the cause of this?”
“He’d swallow hot coals and put out his own eyes for you, girl, and you know it. He’ll not weigh odds when he sees my knife at your throat.”
“But if you kill me, like you killed Drefan, then my father has lost a daughter like Kenric lost a son. How could Kenric blame my father then?”
“He could not. But then your father would come for my blood. I would fight him and I would win. He would die. And still I would die by Kenric’s hand. And Leif would die. And all the crew would die. The world is not just, Princess. It is your crime. If the gods were just, your blood should pay for it. But it is Thor’s blood that has paid for it. And it will be your kin or mine who will pay for it. It would be just if Leif paid for it too. It was his crime as much as yours. But he is my captain and my blood. I am blood bound to save him.”
“You talk so much of blood,” she said.
“What is there that binds but blood? What is there that looses but blood?”
Sheer numb misery settled over her. “All this?” she asked, helplessly. “All this for one embrace?”
“You still say you weren’t swiving, Princess?”
“He wouldn’t even kiss me.”
“Odin’s other eye! Now I believe you. But there is no justice in the world. It is not what is done, Princess. It is what is seen, and what is thought.”
She had no reply to make to him. She began to walk along the edge of the sea. She knew he would not restrain her. She could never outrun him, and no one in the village would hear any cry she made. He followed her, and walked beside her, side by side, almost as if they had been lovers, strolling in moonlight.
“When?” she asked.
“First light. Before there’s time for any to come from Alnwick. Tide will be right then.”
She walked on, and he beside her, in silence. The moon hung low over the sea. There would be true darkness for an hour or more before dawn began to redden the sky in the east.
“Would you have?” she asked him.
“Would I what?”
“Have taken me among the dunes and laid me down and undone the bands that bind my bosom?”
“You are Leif’s woman.”
“I wasn’t then.”
“The rules of trade.”
“If not for that?”
“I’ll have any pretty girl that’s willing.”
“There’s been a few.”
“So I am any pretty girl to you?”
“I am Thor’s man. You were not any pretty girl to Thor.”
“I thought I was your friend.”
“Aye. But it changes nothing. Blood is blood.”
He turned around. They were getting closer to the mouth of the river and to the village than he was willing to go. She turned around too and followed him. It was pointless to do otherwise. When they came back to the place they had started from, he sat down with his back to a rock, facing the point on the horizon where the sun would rise. She sat down beside him. She placed her head on his shoulder. His arm went around her waist to secure her. At once she was asleep.
Next Chapter: 38 Expiation (coming next week)
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