The Wistful and the Good, Chapter 38
Attor has set a guard on the beach, knowing that Kenric will demand vengeance for the death of Drefan. But Eric has entered the village and taken Elswyth hostage. Get caught up using the archive.
It seemed no time before he roused her, but the moon was down and the east was aglow with the promise of the sun.
“We go now, Princess,” he said.
She stood and looked out across the sea, rippled pink and orange in the predawn glow. A deep longing came over her, a longing to take ship and sail away from all her shame, and all who knew of it and suffered for it. And then, in this most base of longings, she saw her salvation and her expiation.
“Eric,” she said.
“Come on Princess. Shift yourself.”
“If you could save my father, without losing your life, or Leif’s, or the crew, would you do it?”
“He is oath brother to my jarl.”
“It can’t be done.”
“But if I were lost to my father, as Drefan is lost to Kenric. Then Kenric could not blame my father.”
“Men do not rage by logic, Princess.”
“Men love other men who have suffered what they have suffered.”
“Aye. So? Your blood does not secure my life, or Leif’s.”
“But my theft might.”
“What do you mean?”
“You need a bargain with my father, to get Leif and the boat. I need a way for Kenric not to blame my father. If I am stolen by vikingar, then I am lost to my father and Kenric will grieve with him. But if I go with Leif, my father will know I am cared for, and he will make the bargain. You will get Leif and the boat. My father will live. My mother and my sisters will be saved. And I will be with Leif.”
Eric stopped in his tracks and thought.
“Will it work?” she asked him, after a minute. “I don’t trust myself anymore. I have done so many things wrong. Show me my folly, if you can see it.”
“I’m only thinking if it makes my peril worse,” he replied. “For your part, it could go wrong a hundred ways.”
“Didn’t you say last night, it is not what is done, it is what is seen, and what is thought. What will Kenric see? What will he think? A son killed by vikingar. A daughter stolen by vikingar.”
“There are a dozen men who could give it the lie.”
“Maybe there are. But it is something. It might save them. Let me try, at least.”
He looked down at her, at the desperate pleading in her eyes.
“Oh, Princess,” he said, “you will be the death of us all before you are done. Come then. We must talk to your father.”
They swam across the river side by side. With the tide high, the current at the mouth was easy. They came up on the beach just behind the place where Attor’s watchfires were guttering away their last fuel. Gloomy men sat, shifting and yawning, their spears upright in the sand beside them, looking down the beach the other way.
“I’ll not give you a chance to play me false, girl,” Eric whispered to her, and he took his knife from his belt, pinioned her hands behind her with one hand and put the knife to her throat with the other. “Careful not to trip now,” he whispered, and he pushed her forward, the blade tight against her throat.
“We need to bring him away from the men,” she said. “I can’t shout the plan in front of them all.”
“You will be the death of us all, girl,” he replied, and he began to walk her forward towards the watch fires.
No one heard them come. No one turned to look. They were quite near to the camp before Eric stopped and whispered, “Call him.”
“Father,” she called, the sound of her voice sharp in the still morning.
One of the seated figures stirred. He gripped his spear and rose heavily to is feet. “Fetch us breakfast, girl,” he cried, without turning round.
“Father,” she called again. This time he caught the tone in her voice and turned.
“Who’s that,” he said, squinting at the figure that seemed too tall to be his daughter.
“It’s me, father,” she said. “Me and Eric. Come a little closer so you can see. But leave the spear please.”
All the men were up now, their hands on their spears. Attor waved them back. Leaving his spear in the sand as she had instructed, he walked forward until he could see them clear enough. And then he stopped, frozen between surprise and fear.
“What are you doing, Eric,” he said. It was hard for them to hear him, he said it so quietly, as if he feared that a raised voice might jolt Eric’s knife into Elswyth’s throat.
“Seeing to mine, as you must see to yours,” Eric said.
“Don’t hurt her,” Attor said. “If you want a hostage, take me.”
“No,” Eric replied. “She serves my purpose. But come, I must talk with you, old man,” Eric said.
“Let her go and we will talk.”
“I know better than that, old man. Follow us or watch her bleed. But first, drop your knife on the sand.”
Attor did as Eric instructed, dropping the knife and following as Eric drew Elswyth back toward the river.
“She has a way we all might live,” Eric said, when they were out of earshot of Attor’s men. “But until I have your oath on it, my knife stays at her throat.”
“You would not hurt her,” Attor said.
“No more would you hurt Leif. But if we must, we will. Listen to her. They may both live.”
“Listen to me, Father,” Elswyth begged him.
“Speak then, daughter. But for God’s sake, man, you need not hold her quite so roughly.”
“I’m all right, Father. Truly, I am. Please listen.”
And so she told him her thought. She would go with Leif and Eric, and Attor would tell Kenric that the same man who had killed Kenric’s son had also stolen Attor’s daughter. And then Kenric and Attor would be brothers in their grief. Her father listened to all this in silence. If he saw in it the chance to save the lives of those he loved, it did not show on his face.
“Kenric will never believe such cock and bull,” he said, when she was done.
“He might, Father. He will want to believe it. You saved his life. He will not want to believe that you betrayed him.”
“And if he does not, your mother and your sisters will pay the price for it.”
“And you, Father. I know.”
She was about to say more, but then Eric swore an oath, and she looked up from her father’s face and saw that her mother was running towards them, as fast as her distended belly would allow, leaving a basket of bread and meat dropped on the sand.
“You let go of her, Eric,” Edith shouted, running straight for him.
Attor grabbed his wife by the shoulders and restrained her.
“Hush, love,” he pleaded. “Keep it quiet.”
“What’s going on?” Edith demanded.
Attor started to tell her, but stumbled over the words, so Elswyth repeated the story for her mother.
When it was over, Edith turned to her husband.
“What do you think?” she asked him.
“Leif’s ship has been on our beach for over a week,” Attor said. “Drang and Earh have supped with Leif and Thor in the hall. And they saw all that was done.”
“And what will Drang and Earh tell Kenric?” Elswyth asked. “Will they tell him that they broke the hospitality of your hall?”
Attor frowned. “They’d not like to admit that,” he said.
“Drang will tell Kenric the same story that Drefan told me when he caught me and Leif on the clifftop,” Elswyth said.
“Caught you doing what?” her father asked.
“Walking. Talking. Nothing else, I promise. But Drefan said Leif had deceived you, that he really came here to rape and pillage. Drefan claimed he had rescued me just as Leif was carrying me away to rape me.”
“Oh, how awful,” Edith said.
“Yes, but he believed it. It made no sense, but he believed it because he wanted to. And Drang will want to believe that he was in a fight with a treacherous vikingar band, and Kenric will want to believe that his son died protecting us from vikingar.”
“But why do you have to go,” Attor asked, “if we can make him believe that?”
“Because we sheltered Leif,” Edith said. “If she stays, we are allies of the vikingar who killed his son. If she goes, we are dupes of the vikingar who stole our daughter.”
“Half the village knows this is not true,” Attor said.
“Kenric won’t talk to half the village,” Edith said. “I could not even get Drefan to meet my mother, because she is a slave. Kenric won’t talk to slaves.”
“You think we should agree to this?” Attor asked.
“No. It might work. But there are so many ways it might fail.”
“You forget that I have a knife to her throat,” Eric said. “I’ll give you a chance to live, if I can. But whether she comes with us or stays here, you will give me Leif and the boat, or I will slit her throat.”
“You won’t hurt her,” Edith said, looking at him very steadily. “You would gain nothing by it. You would all die anyway. Why take her life as well?”
“You don’t think I have cause for revenge on her, for Thor?” Eric said.
“I know you do.” Edith said levelly and calmly. “But I have known you since a boy, Eric. You’re a hard man, but you won’t do this. And I know why.”
“Mother,” Elswyth said, “I don’t know if he would do it. I know I deserve it. But if you love me, let me do this. I could not bear it if anyone else died because of what I did.”
Edith looked at her daughter with the same steady gaze that she had focused on Eric.
“Please, Mother,” Elswyth said. “It is the only chance for everyone to live.”
Edith paused a long time. She turned and looked at Attor and then turned back and looked at Eric.
“You swear to me that she will come to no harm.”
“I’ll keep her safe as best I can.”
“She must marry Leif then,” Edith said.
“Mother, yes, I want to, but there is no time,” Elswyth said.
Edith shook her head. “Until you are married, you are not one of them. It is all about kinship with you, isn’t it, Eric? If she goes with you, and not married, then she is kin to none of you. She would be no more than a Welisc slave to your people. I’ll not have that. If she is married, though, she is kin to all.”
“Aye, that is so,” said Eric.
“We have to be away before anyone comes from Alnwick,” Elswyth said. “There is no time.”
“It’s just the words that matter,” Edith said. “Promises before witnesses. The rest is just a party. Go and rouse Leif now and tell him. But make sure your sisters do not wake. They should know nothing of this.”
Elswyth looked up at Eric, who still held the knife to her throat.
“No,” he said. “I would be a fool to let go of her. And you would be a fool to ask me to. You need me to be the Grendel of the piece. If that is the story you will tell, that needs to be what your people will see. We will go to the hall with my knife at her throat. She will marry Leif with my knife at her throat. You will tell your men to rig your ship and provision it, and all the while I will keep my knife at her throat. And then I will sail away with her.”
Next Chapter: 39 The Widening Sea (coming next week)
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