The Wistful and the Good, Chapter 39
The Widening Sea
Elswyth has persuaded Eric and her father to go along with her dangerous plan to keep both Leif and Attor safe from Kenric’s vengeance, but the full price she must pay for her part in it is not yet clear to her. Get caught up using the archive.
Making Leif understand took some doing. He was groggy from sleep, in pain from his wounds, and still unbearably weary. When he first saw Eric with his knife to Elswyth’s throat, he cursed him and ordered him to release her. Eric, reluctantly, did so.
But Leif was not the only one who awakened. They had also laid the monk in the guest house, after they had done what little they could for his burns. He had seemed dead to the world when they entered, and perhaps dead indeed, or on the edge of it. But now his eyes came open, bright and feverish, but awake and alert. He was terrible to look at, for his face and scalp were crossed with livid blistering lines where the burning pitch-soaked ropes had handed on him. He gasped with agony on waking, and Edith quickly poured a draught from a jug she had placed by his bed and helped him to drink.
“What is happening?” he asked, when the draught had dulled his agony enough to let him speak.
They looked at each other.
“We have to tell him,” Edith said. “If he lives he will have seen us together, and he will know what happened after.”
“And what if he tells what we have done.”
“Then we are ruined.”
“Simplest to kill him now,” Eric said. “A mercy too, by the look of him.”
“No,” said, Attor and Elswyth, more or less together.
“Then we must tell him,” Edith said, “and beg him to keep our secret.”
They told him. Some parts they had to repeat, for he was distracted by his pain, but at last they made him understand.
“You want me to lie to the Ealdorman of Bamburgh?” the monk said, aghast, when the tale was finished.
“You owe Leif your life,” Elswyth said. “Now you can return the gift.”
The monk closed his eyes, his face drawn with the anguish of his burns. Awkwardly and painfully, he pulled his right arm out from under his blanket and made the sign of the cross and lay for a moment in contemplation. Then he opened his eyes and said, “I suppose the Jew must do for the Samaritan as the Samaritan has done for the Jew.”
Elswyth knelt beside his bed. She took his hand in hers, and, seeing that the back of the hand was unburned, she kissed it. “Forgive me,” she said. “This is all because of me. Your agony should be mine.”
“I forgive you,” he said. He looked her directly in the face, for all concupiscence had been burned from his flesh.
“No more time to waste,” Eric said.
“We must get them married first,” Edith said.
“But can she marry a pagan?” Attor asked.
Their eyes turned to the monk for an answer. “Of course,” he said. “Marriage is a civil matter. And many Christian women have married heathen men. Had Bertha of Kent not married the pagan King Æthelberht and welcomed St. Augustine, Britain might be pagan still. Perhaps your daughter will be an apostle to the Norsk.”
Then Attor took his daughter’s hand and placed it in Leif’s. “I offer you this woman, my daughter, to be your wife. Will you accept her, protect her, provide for her, and for her children?” he asked.
“I will,” said Leif.
“Leif,” said Elswyth, “I take you for my husband. Now say, ‘Elswyth, I take you for my wife.’ There is more, but we don’t have time for it.”
“Elswyth, I take you for my wife.”
Edith rushed to embrace them both.
“Granny said we would marry,” Elswyth said. “It breaks my heart that I can’t tell her.”
“I’ll make sure she knows before she dies,” Edith said.
“And tell her I’m sorry. I’m sorry she will die a slave. I didn’t mean…”
Here Elswyth was on the edge of tears again. But Edith came and embraced her and whispered, “Don’t fret more on that. I will find a way yet.”
Then Elswyth put her hand down to touch the round belly that stood between her and her mother. “I’ll never know my sister,” she whispered. “I’ll never see her, ever, in my whole life. She will never know me. She will think Hilda is her big sister. You must tell her all about me, Mother. Promise.” And then she grew very melancholy, and tears came into her eyes and she said, “She will never know what I look like. I will never know what she looks like. If you have another baby, I won’t know about it at all. My babies won’t know their grandmother. Or their grandfather,” she added, pulling her father into the embrace. “Tell Hilda to have lots of babies, so you won’t miss mine so much.”
“You go to your husband’s hall, as a daughter must,” Edith said. “There were always to be tears at that parting.”
“There is so much to say,” Elswyth said, finding herself shaking and tears coming to her eyes once again.
“And no time to say it,” Attor said.
“Say it to your pillow, every night,” Edith said. “And I shall say it to mine. And we will know the other speaks, and strains their ears to listen.”
And they hugged again, and kissed each other, and then Eric, ever anxious at the delay, took Elswyth by the arm and held the knife to her throat again, and said. “No more time. We go.”
Attor ordered his boat to be rigged and launched. Edith ordered provisions to be gathered and placed in it. Among them she placed a bundle in which she had included the best of Elswyth’s clothes and other small possessions, and the whole of her collection of jewelry and all the silver Attor could lay his hands on. Through all this, Eric stood with his knife again at Elswyth’s throat. When the boat was ready, he forced Attor to help Leif over the side and then climbed in himself with Elswyth.
“Push us off, old man, or watch her bleed,” Eric said.
Attor silently waved two men forward, and they pushed the nose of the ship off the bank until it floated. The ship rode the current down into the sea.
As soon as the ship was away, the people of the village rushed down towards the beach, many shouting that they would be avenged on the vikingar still camped there. Attor had to run hard and knock three men down before he made them see that attacking the other Norsk would cost Elswyth her life.
Once clear of the river, Eric raised the sail and brought the boat up parallel to the beach. The rest of the Norsk, confused by all that had passed, but seeing their chance, fled into the sea, swam out, and climbed aboard.
“You’re away now, Eric,” Attor shouted, as they had arranged. “Send my daughter back to me.”
Eric took the knife from Elswyth’s throat. “What, a fine young slave like this,” he shouted back across the water, just as they had agreed he should. “A girl who can warm my bed and grind my grain. No. I’ll keep her.”
Then Attor screamed curses at Eric across the waves and wept and tore his hair.
There was nothing to do then but stand on the beach and watch the sail of Attor’s boat—a small and fragile thing compared to the knarr that had burned—recede into the haze. Edith stood with Daisy in her arms, trying to form in her mind the whole of Elswyth’s future life, the whole arc of her happiness, as if only her imagining it could ever make it real. Attor stood beside her, brooding on the fragility of his boat, its age, the strength of its planks, the soundness of its seams. He was holding Moira who wept into his shoulder, saying “I hate them. I hate them. I hate them,” endlessly. Daisy bawled in Edith’s arms. She knew not why, but she felt her mother’s desolation and wept for it. Whitney, alarmed and confused, pounded along the edge of the surf with unusual fury. Everyone in the village stood beside their lord. Some wept. Some shouted curses at the disappearing boat. Some hurled spears wastefully into the surf. Some discovered the body of Thor, left behind when the Norsk fled, and began to mutilate it, greatly grieving and shaming Attor, who dared not command them to stop.
One soul alone was not convinced by what she had seen. Hilda had known more of Elswyth’s heart than anyone. She stood, glaring across the sea at the retreating sail, muttering under her breath, “Liar. Liar. Liar.”
Elswyth looked back across the widening sea. The beach where her family, her kin, her village wept for her was sunk now. Only the cliff remained in view—the cliff from which she had first spotted the coming of the knarr.
All knowledge of what would pass upon that shore in days to come was denied to her. She would whisper the joys and sorrows of each day into her pillow, as her mother had asked, not knowing if her mother lived to hear them, if her father lived to place a broad arm about her mother’s shoulder and comfort her as she wept.
She glanced briefly at Leif, lying in pained half sleep in the prow. She loved him. She would bear his children. One day, perhaps, she would take ship with him and come at last to Spain. But on this coast, they could never be seen again, never while her father or her mother might still live. And so she must face a life in wistful melancholy, wondering always if everyone she had ever loved before him was alive or dead.
“We call it sailor’s heartache, Princess,” Eric said, seeing her look, and knowing it from of old. “Every trip begins with it the same. No man knows what shipwreck awaits him. No woman, child, or father left behind knows if or when they may return.”
For the first time, she looked around at the other men, lying in the bottom of the boat. Their faces glared back at her and at once she realized what they saw when they looked at her. She was the shipwreck that had awaited them when they had set out on their voyage.
They hate me, she realized—she who had always been so easily and so universally loved—they hate me, they hate me, they hate me. St. Agnes, pray for me.
Elswyth’s story continues in St. Agnes and the Selkie. I’ll be announcing the publication soon. In the meantime, check out my fairytale fantasy, Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight.
I hope you have enjoyed The Wistful and the Good, and I would deeply appreciate it if you would leave a review on Amazon and/or Goodreads. This is not about ego. In fact, I hate to ask. But authors these days live and die at the whim of the algorithms, and the algorithms demand a sacrifice of reviews and ratings. So, if you have enjoyed Elswyth’s adventures so far, please take a moment to comment, or at least leave a rating. Thank you!