The Wistful and the Good, Chapter 4
So far, the Norse ship Elswyth saw has landed and she has met Leif who is trying to raise a ransom for his kidnapped father by selling Christian holy books — a singularly unfortunate choice so soon after the Viking raid on the monastery at Lindisfarne? Get caught up using the index page.
Attor declared a formal feast for that evening, so that Anglish and Norse would be bound in the most solemn bonds of hospitality. Eric, who was next in command after Leif and Thor, was placed in charge of unloading the ship, while Attor ordered his men back to the fields and the women and children back to the village and their tasks.
There was much grumbling at this. The men were reluctant to leave the women and children in the village, closer to the beach and the Norsk. At last they agreed to go if Hogni, Leif’s cousin, was given to them as hostage. Hogni went with them. He looked very green, though, in true Norsk fashion, he made no outward sign of fear, and showed no reluctance to obey.
Edith wrapped Elswyth’s arm in hers and led her back to the hall to begin work on the feast.
“Leif’s grown into a handsome young man,” Edith said, as they walked.
“Oh, yuck!” Elswyth said.
“You don’t think so?”
“Too skinny. And his beard is ridiculous. I could practically count the hairs on his chin.”
“Well I think he looks very nice. And his beard will grow in.”
“It’s orange! Besides, you know who I like. I’ve told you often enough.”
“Uh huh. That’s what a sailor’s supposed to look like.”
“He’s a bad lad.”
“I know,” Elswyth said with relish.
“I’m not sure you do know. You should stay away from Eric.”
“Mother! It’s not like I’m going to…”
“No, but you’ve grown up since he saw you last. He was giving you the eye on the beach, if you didn’t notice.”
Edith was not on steady ground warning her daughter about the perils of seduction, having raised herself from slave to lady by that very device. But, unlike Hilda, Elswyth had reached a truce with her mother on the subject. “If you can seduce the king, and get him to marry you,” her mother had said to her, one winter evening by the fire, after more than a little mead, “I will not say a word against you. You will have done as well by it as I did. But sailors and plowboys will only bring you ruin, no matter how much you like the smell of them.” Elswyth should have blushed at this, but she had had a little mead herself and she had only giggled at it.
“Eric can give me the eye all he pleases,” Elswyth said.
“Darling it really is time for you to start covering your hair.”
“The wimple is too hot for summer. It makes me itch.”
“You will get used to it if you wear it every day.”
“Not till I’m married. You promised I didn’t have to.”
“You were twelve at the time.”
“Yes. I don’t break my promises, however much I regret them. But I can still give advice. Drefan would not be pleased to see a ship full of Norsk leering at you.”
“Then Drefan needs to start leering at me himself,” Elswyth retorted. It was a sore point that, of all the young men she knew, only the man she was to marry did not seem to notice that she that she had become a woman.
“Drefan has better manners than a sailor,” Edith replied.
Elswyth said nothing. She had seen Drefan leer at plenty of young women. But her mother did not want to hear anything said against Drefan. Drefan was an ealdorman’s son. Besides, Elswyth liked Drefan. She liked his broad muscled form, his full dark beard, his hair, his hands, his swagger, his easy conviviality. She wanted nothing more from him than that he should at last stop treating her like a little sister. But until Drefan was willing to look at her as a woman, she was happy to let Eric’s eyes confirm what Drefan’s eyes refused to see.
“Anyway,” Edith added, “be nice to Leif. I don’t understand why you girls were always so cold with him. He’s a nice boy. And he is bearing a terrible burden now, with his father being kidnapped. So, be nice to him, won’t you?”
“I don’t mind being nice to him,” Elswyth said. “But still. Yuck.”
And then, judging the moment ripe, she said, “Oh no, Mother. I think I’ve left my shoes on the ship!”
“Really?” Edith said, turning on her in exasperation.
“Well, I’m not used to wearing them on the beach. I must have taken them off to go aboard and then forgot them.”
“I don’t—” Edith began. But what was the point? “Oh! Just go and get them. But hurry back. There is work to be done!”
“I will, Mother, I promise.”
Edith closed her eyes to pray, “St. Cuthbert give me patience. And save her from the charms of ships and sailor men.”
“Ves heill, princess,” Eric cried when he saw Elswyth coming. Eric was nine parts to Thor’s ten in every dimension, which made him taller and broader than any man you were likely to meet in a week’s ride in Northumbria. He had begun calling her princess long ago when she was a child of seven or eight summers and he a beardless youth on his first voyage. When Elswyth lay abed dreaming of sailor men, of cresting the swells of the boundless ocean in the arms of a sailor man, of lounging with a sailor man on a veranda in the heat of the day on the baked plains of Spain, it was Eric’s face she saw, Eric’s arms that enclosed her, Eric’s broad chest that she rested her head upon, the roughness of Eric’s sea jacket she imagined against her cheek.
“Ves heill, field mouse,” she responded. Field mouse was the humblest creature that her childish tongue had been able to summon in retort, and they had been princess and field mouse to each other ever since.
She clambered aboard and went to embrace him. His arms slid intimately around her, and stayed there. “Well, you grew up,” Eric said.
“You didn’t,” she said, noticing how his embrace lingered after she released her hold on him. He was looking down on her with a look she had imagined seeing in his eyes when she was younger. She returned his gaze and he did not look away in confusion as she had seen other young men do. As a child she had pursued him with guileless flirtation and he had laughed at her. Now he looked down at her with a look that said, well, here we are, both grown up now, and for a moment she thought that his mouth was about to descend on hers. Her mother had been right—he had noticed the difference in her. Here at last was a man who not only noticed, but was prepared to show that he had noticed. But though she had become used to eyes being upon her, this lingering touch was something new, and though she had thought of it often, had wondered if a hand or an arm so placed, and with such an interest, would feel different from an ordinary embrace, to experience it, so unexpectedly, for a moment confused her.
But then the pressure at her waist slackened and he laughed and said, “If I grow any more, I’ll be a dormouse.”
“Where’s Thor?” she asked.
“Gone off along the beach with your father and Leif. They take council while squabs like you and me are left to our labor. How did you escape the kitchen?”
“I just came for my shoes. I forgot them before.”
“Kept them for you,” he said, reaching behind him to where he had stowed the errant shoes neatly in a niche. She took them from him and somehow his hand seemed to linger on hers as he handed them over.
She withdrew from him and perched on the rail of the ship, setting her shoes down beside her. “Thor said you were raided,” she said. “What was it like? Did you fight them?”
“I was at sea. Both times. We sent out only one ship after the first raid, which is why we have not been here in two years, but both times I was on the ship.”
“So who did fight them? Was it just the women and children at home?”
“The first time, the old men and the cripples tried to stand against them, but they were killed.”
“I’m so sorry.”
Eric shrugged. “They were a burden to the people anyway. It was right that they should sacrifice themselves. I suppose they were glad to be able to die in battle. That way they may merit Valhalla, which is more than many of us will have a chance to do.”
“Well, I think it’s terrible.”
“Do you want me to go on? Or are you not brave enough to hear it?”
“Of course I am! Just because it makes me sad does not mean I’m not brave enough to hear it.”
Eric smiled at her. How could a man tell such a tale and smile? Harrald had always been so honorable. Thor was so loving. But these were virtues she had known and admired in other men. In her father she knew both, though in him they were softer, somehow, less grand that the singular virtues of Harrald and Thor. But Eric was not like any man she knew. He was a man who said, with every stride and glance, come, know me if you dare. She pouted at him, refusing to be drawn. Eric’s smile turned to a grin. He shrugged, and then suddenly grew grim.
“The next year Harrald stayed at home with half the men. There was talk up and down the fjords of vikingar and landless men roaming about. And there was murder and treachery in the king’s hall. He thought he had enough men with him to make any vikingar think twice. But when we returned from our spring cruise, we found the vikingar had come again, better led and in greater numbers.
“My wife was among the women they took. But she fought them. Gouged the eye of the one who took her and half bit his ear off, so I’m told by one who saw it. He threw her against a rock. She hit her head and she died. Then he cursed her for dying and threw her body in the fjord.”
“Oh, Eric!” Elswyth cried, hopping down from her perch and embracing him. “How awful. I’m so sorry. I didn’t even know you were married.”
“Just last year,” he said, holding her to him tightly. “We had been promised to each other for many years, but she had just come of age. She was a good girl. I was becoming fond of her.”
Again she found his embrace uncomfortable. He seemed to be taking more than comfort from it.
“But what happened to Harrald?” she asked, withdrawing from him and perching herself back on the rail again.
“He did not leave the village after the first raid,” Eric said. “He sent his ship out with Thor in command last year, and then Leif this year, since he was of age. When the second raid came, he defended the retreat to the refuge until all the women and children they could save were hidden. But he was taken.
“When our ship returned, we found most of the village burned, the goods mostly gone, the dead lying on the beach or floating in the fjord. That was a sight to chill you, lass.”
It chilled her indeed. Yet still there was a smile behind his eyes as he regarded her. Was he untouched by the cruelty of life? Or was it all bravado? Was the man who could tell such tales with a smile the stoutest of hearts, or the coldest?
“And here we have had Lindisfarne sacked,” she said. “People say that God has abandoned us. That the vikingar are a punishment for our sins.”
“Did your kings and lords make their sacrifices? Horses? Cattle? Dogs? Slaves? It is always blood with the gods.”
“That’s horrible! We don’t do that.”
“Then what do you expect?”
“Our gods are not like that. The old gods, maybe. Not the new God. The monks say the new God is the sacrifice himself and we must not make blood sacrifices anymore. My granny still kills chickens to keep off the frost, but I don’t think it works and the monks say it is wicked.”
“Our gods are not like yours. I have spoken to your monks about it, and I think they expect more of your Christ than any god can deliver. Odin is subject to the Norns as much as any man. You make no sacrifices, yet you expect endless bounty from your Christ. It makes no sense, princess. He who expects his lord’s bounty must give his lord due service. It is no different with the gods. How could it be?”
Elswyth did not know the answer to this so she changed the subject. “So now Leif is your captain? Does he even know how to sail?”
“He’s a good ship handler. He has the gift for navigation.”
“But is he a leader of men?”
Eric looked at his boots a moment. He shrugged and said, “He has Thor.” Then he stuck his jaw out a little and said, “And after Thor, he has me.”
“He just seems like such a boy.”
“He’s anxious to please. Always was. But he’s steady enough. You know him well enough. You played with him when you were kids.”
“Leif? No. I never played with him.”
“I thought you liked sailor boys.”
“I like sailor men,” she said, incorrigible flirtation flying to her tongue even as she grew uneasy under his steady gaze.
He was silent, simply looking at her, his eyes moving over her slowly and methodically while a half smile, half mocking, half hungry, played on his lips.
“Oh, Princess,” he said, his eyes still surveying her. And then he spoke, slowly and quietly, so that the men working around them could not hear it. “You are not for the likes of sailor men. Why, if you were a village girl, a sailor man might lead you by the hand and find some low spot among the dunes. There he would lay you down, and whisper sweetly to you while he unclasped the brooches that hold your dress, unbound the belt from around your waist, unwrapped the linen that bound your bosom. And then he would lie with you, while the ocean beat upon the shore nearby, the waves and the gulls and the seals all full of din to cover any cry you made, and for a while, all the cares of life would go blowing in the wind, and there would be only joy and peace.
“And a silver shilling for your trouble,” he added, with a grin.
She hopped down off the rail and crossed her arms over her bosom, scowling at him.
“But you are Attor’s daughter,” he said, “and all the sailor men here are bound by Harrald’s rules of trade. Do not lie with the women of the house of any lord we trade with. The price is the gauntlet, and it is run on dry sand, and may the gods swiftly receive any man who stumbles. So no sailor man here will take you by the hand and walk with you to a low place in the dunes, or unclasp your brooches or loosen your belt.”
“Well, I didn’t know you were all such cowards,” she said, but inside she felt a little ashamed and a little like a child reproached. She would have been furious at him for his smugness and his teasing, had she not imagined his hands busy at the clasps of her brooches as he spoke, had not felt the belt running between her back and the sand as it was withdrawn, had not heard the gulls’ sharp cry and felt the rush of wind and the sting of salt in her mouth.
“I have to go,” she said. “I promised Mother I’d be right back.”
She vaulted over the side and into the sea, clambered up out of the water and started to run a back toward the village.
“Hoy! Princess!” Eric called after her. “Do you want your shoes?”
She turned back to him, scarlet cheeked. He threw the shoes to the sand one by one, and stood on the prow smirking at her as she bent to retrieve them. She did not look up at him, but ran straight back to the village without looking back.
Next chapter: 5. Lady of the Hall
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