The Wistful and the Good, Chapter 6
Attor has ordered a formal feast to join his Anglish people to Leif and his Norsk crew in the bonds of hospitality. Will they agree to eat and drink together? It is the task of the lady of the hall to weave a peace, and Edith has decided that Elswyth shall play that role. Get caught up using the index page.
Her father was waiting for Elswyth when she emerged from the sleeping house after dressing for the feast. Her hair was loose about her shoulders and she wore a light linen dress that conformed to her figure. Her father looked at her with a touch of discomfort in his eyes that she had seen more and more as she had matured.
“Are you sure you are ready to do this, child?”
“Not a child.”
“Alright. You are a fine peaceweaver. I know that. But you have not had to weave such a peace as this.”
“I may have to when I am Lady of Bamburgh.”
“That is what your mother said. But listen—Leif and Thor and I have discussed it, and we agree: least said, soonest mended. Everyone knows what happened, so let’s not bring it up again. Let’s just have food and drink and song and hope they remember they were once friends.”
“Alright,” she said. “I’ll remind them that we are friends.”
“Are you really sure you’re ready to do this?”
“You always ask me that, and what do I always say?”
“That’s what worries me sometimes. But come on. Everyone has gone in, Leif and his men included, and I don’t want to leave them alone in there together for too long.”
They went together to the back door of the hall. Edith was waiting for them just outside. She looked at Elswyth with pursed lips, then tugged Elswyth’s belt down towards her waist and smoothed out the madder on her left cheek with a licked thumb.
“Is your back really that sore, Mother?” Elswyth whispered. Her mother’s assault on her wardrobe was so routine that there was no profit in protesting it.
“Don’t you worry about me,” her mother replied. “Keep your mind on your task.” But then she pulled Elswyth into a quick hug, pecked her on the cheek, and whispered, “Make your father proud.”
It was still quite light outside, and so it took a moment for her eyes to adjust as they entered the hall. Elswyth walked beside her father, with her mother behind her and to her right, with a hand on her shoulder to show the delegation of authority from mother to daughter.
There was barely enough light inside the hall. Because of the heat, Edith had had only one fire laid, its smoke drawn up to the smoke hole under the false roof above. There were rush lamps too, in hooks on the walls and on the posts that supported the rafters. But the light got lost among the soot-blackened thatch. The faces of the people were ruddy in the dim light of fire and lamp, and they were many, and they were grim. But as Elswyth entered, every shining eye in every grim face fell on her, and she felt her power. The smile that played on her lips only served to draw the eyes more avidly towards her.
Elswyth greeted the company, and then carried the feasting horn to her father. Mayda came to her side with a jug and filled the horn with mead. Elswyth then offered it to her father, saying “Take, Lord, and drink.” Her father took the horn, drained it, and handed it back to her. Then he turned to the company and said, “Let us feast well, for we are old friends come together in peace.”
The invitation to feast should have been greeted with cheerful approval, but tonight it was met with silence. Elswyth turned to glance at Leif and Thor and Eric, all sitting stone-faced on the guest benches, and wondered how they must feel under the hard eyes of the company.
Attor then bid the company stand for the blessing and when it was said, bid them sit again. This was the last thing that it was the lord’s part to say until the formalities were over. Now it was the lady’s part, and her first task was to introduce the guests.
Elswyth went to them and, placing a hand on the arm of each in turn, said, “This is Leif, son of Harrald; his first man, Thor, son of Lars; and his second man, Eric, son of Thor; and the men who follow them. We know them well. There is not a man or woman here who does not wear or own something that they bought from them in trade. We all have some piece of silver in store that we got from them in trade for our goods. They are our friends. Harrald, their jarl, is oath-brother to my father, your lord. They are kin by oath to all of us. We have feasted with them many times. We have drunk with them, exchanged tales, learned games and crafts. We trust them.”
There was some murmur from the back of the hall that might have been the words, “In Cuthbert’s privy we do.” A wave of muted agreement followed it. Someone on the free men’s benches was testing the water. Elswyth fancied she knew who it was, but she had not heard the words distinctly enough to call him out. Still, she felt a little cold at that moment. This was indeed not such peaceweaving as she had done before. It was, in many ways, easier to mend a hot quarrel than this cold, sullen dislike that wanted a quarrel, and looked only for an occasion to start one.
She turned to Leif and said, “You are welcome, Jarl, in this hall, as a cousin is welcome among his own kin. Drink with us. Eat with us. Tell us your story.”
It was Leif’s turn now to speak, but he made no movement to rise. She turned to face him, and for a moment their eyes met. She saw no fear in him. He seemed to be pondering, calmly, as if he cared nothing for the silence and the eyes fixed upon him. But while he might endure it, the silence was unbearable to her. She took three steps toward him, held out her hand, and said, “Rise, Jarl, and tell your tale. In the order of things, we are required to hear it before we are allowed to drink. Speak then, before we all die of thirst!” She ended this with a flourish and a pantomime of parched desperation, which drew a low ripple of laugher from some of the crowd, though many others remained silent.
Leif, at least, was wakened to life by this. “Thank you for your welcome, Lady,” he said. “Your words are…”
“Gracious…” she whispered to him, realizing he was struggling for the proper formula.
“Your words are gracious and true. Your family and mine are long friends. My father loves you as a daughter.”
“My father loves you as a son,” she replied. Their eyes were now fixed on each other.
“He does indeed,” Attor said at this, breaking the lord’s customary silence.
“Tell your tale,” Elswyth said, still eye to eye with Leif.
“Aye, Lady, I will.”
The trouble was, there was little in Leif’s history that Attor had thought it wise to tell in the hall. To speak of a cargo of monkish books would draw instant suspicion. To speak of seeking a new home, instant opposition. And to speak of the raids they had suffered, instant suspicion that they might have taken to raiding to restore their fortunes. So all Leif could offer was a bland catalogue of journeys made, none of which were specific, for he would not name the men he traded with or the cargos he carried for them. The only virtue in this was that it presented little trouble to his unsteady command of Anglish. The vice was that the hearers sensed omission in the tale, and deceit in the omission.
“You forgot the part about sacking Lindisfarne.” It was the same voice at the back of the room, but a little louder than the speaker had perhaps intended, for Elswyth heard it distinctly.
She heard her father rise from his chair. She spun around and glared at him. She was the peaceweaver. His part was to listen and to give judgment, should judgment be needed. Hers was to weave the peace. He looked at her, saw the determination in her face, and slowly sat down again.
Elswyth turned back to the crowd. She was quite certain who had spoken. It was Snell. It was always Snell when words were muttered at the back of the hall. Snell was a young freeman. He had inherited two hides of land and had added a two more to his holdings. One more and he would rise to the rank of thegn. But two bad harvests in a row had blunted his progress and soured his mood.
Least said, soonest mended, her father had said. But it was not for her father alone to decide how much should be said. Free men were entitled to have their say. But to mutter to your neighbors in the back of the hall instead of standing and saying your piece before the whole company, that was dishonorable and cowardly. Still, from the sounds of the murmurs that had followed Snell’s words, there were many in the crowd who agreed with what he had said. She could see it in their faces, in their taut shoulders and stiff necks.
Least said, soonest mended? Not tonight. “Sorry, Father,” she whispered under her breath. She plunged into the crowd. She pushed between rows of backs, men and women scrambling to pull themselves closer to the tables so she could pass by. Cups were overturned, hands got in the butter, knees got banged on trestle legs as she barged through. She came to Snell. He sat still and looked at her. He knew that he was caught, but he did not hide his face. He looked at her square on. He was a hard man to shame. If no man in the village had ever looked at her quite the way Eric had on the ship that afternoon, Snell had come closer than any other. Whenever she would catch him at it, he would not blush and turn away rapidly, trying to pretend he had not been looking. No, he would hold her eye for a moment and then slowly raise his hand and touch his forelock. He was a man always willing to test the very bounds of insolence. “One more hide of land,” that look seemed to say to her. “One more hide and there will be no more tugging of forelocks, and I may look where I please.”
“Why are you seated so far from the fire, Snell,” she asked him. “You are a man of four hides. One more and you will qualify to be a thegn! You have done so well, and so young! You should be at the front, next to the fire. Come up with me now. I will find you a place.”
This was not at all what Snell had been expecting, nor any of the people who sat by him. He stared at her a moment, furious, fearing he was about to be shamed. Yet how can any man refuse when he is asked to sit nearer the fire? “Aye, Lady,” he said, dropping his eyes for a moment. Then he rose and followed her back between the rows of sullen backs. The people were silent and compliant when Elswyth passed, but a certain amount of grumbling followed the passage of Snell’s more substantial frame. Already they thought him not quite so fine a fellow as he pushed past them toward a place of greater honor, not as careful with his elbows as he should have been in that tight space.
Someone would have to give up a place to make room for Snell by the fire. Elswyth chose Æscwine, an old man of three hides. Three only, but all earned in battle, while Snell’s four had been inherited or bought for silver. In age and honor, Æscwine was far more deserving of a place by the fire, but he was a dear and indulgent man who had entertained her so often as a child that he felt like an uncle to her. It would grieve him, but he would not refuse her.
“Dear Æscwine,” she said, squatting down before the old man and placing a pleading hand on his arm, “won’t you please move down and give Snell your place?”
Æscwine looked at Snell sourly, and then back at Elswyth. “Since you ask it, Lady, I will,” he said. Elswyth bobbed up and kissed him on the cheek—a sign to recompense him for lost honor. “Thank you,” she whispered in his ear. And then she stood and ordered everyone on that row of benches to move down one place, except Peada in the middle, who she told to go and take Snell’s old place in the middle of the other bench. All this commotion, and the dishonor to Æscwine, caused more grumbling against Snell, but Elswyth was not finished with him.
“While everyone else is moving to make a place for you,” she said to him, “come and meet our guest.” She took him by the arm and led him to the guest benches, motioning Leif to stand as she did so.
“Leif, this is Snell. He is one of our most prosperous young freemen. Did you know that he inherited just two hides from his father, but now, by hard work and shrewd trading, he has four, and it will be five soon, I’m sure, if this harvest is better than the last. You must have a lot in common, you are both men of trade.”
“Greetings, Snell,” Leif said, extending his hand.
Snell looked round at Elswyth, his face thunderous. He did not take Leif’s hand.
“Didn’t you have something you wanted to ask Leif?” she said.
“No, Lady,” Snell said, his voice deep in his throat, his cheeks starting to flare a little, for all his lack of shame.
“But you did! Something about Lindisfarne?”
The shuffling and complaining and scraping of benches in the hall ceased at the word Lindisfarne. Elswyth could hear her father’s sharp inhalation of breath, but she ignored him. It must be said before it could be mended. She was convinced of this now.
“Go on, ask. Leif has nothing to hide.”
Snell, seeing he was trapped, remembered his pride. He drew back his shoulders and straightened his back.
“We want to know,” he said, “was it you who raided Lindisfarne, killed all those monks, took all them slaves and all that treasure?”
“It was not,” Leif said, looking at Snell very steadily. “We only heard of this raid this afternoon. It grieved us greatly to hear it.” His hand was still outstretched toward Snell for a handshake.
Still Snell refused to take the extended hand. Elswyth pushed Leif’s hand down and stepped between them.
“Do you know the story of when I stowed away on their ship?” she asked. Of course they did. Edith had never let it be forgotten. But it was a good story and they were going to hear it again. “When I was a little girl, I took a bag of apples, three loaves of rye bread, and my favorite doll and hid under the deck in Uncle Harrald’s ship. Silly me, I forgot to take any ale. Anyway, two days out into the sea, Eric found me. I was so afraid they were going to punish me. But Uncle Harrald did not even scold me. He gave me cakes and sweet wine and a blanket to sleep in, and then he turned the ship around and rowed three days back against the wind to bring me home.
“I sulked the whole way home, even with the cakes and sweet wine. I wanted to go to Spain. I know now that Uncle Harrald could have taken me there and sold me to a caliph. A pretty girl is worth a lot of money in the slave market at Cordoba. But he took me home. Father wanted to give him silver to cover the cost of a week’s lost sailing time, but Uncle Harrald would not take it. He said, ‘A man does not take a reward for returning his brother’s child.’
“I was still angry with him for bringing me back, but when I heard him say that, I loved him very much all the same because I knew he was my proper uncle. And Leif is his son. And the first thing he did when he met us on the beach was to ask to hold Daisy. And he didn’t mind at all when she pulled his nose. You were all there. You saw that. That is who these men are. Not vikingar, but traders—and not just traders but old dear friends.”
“Aye, but…” Snell began, and then stopped, unsure now of the mood of the room.
“But what?” she asked. And then, without waiting for an answer from Snell, she turned to Leif. “Have you ever been to Lindisfarne?” she asked.
Once again Leif paused, and the pause was far longer this time. She sensed the tension rise in the room as he delayed. But he seemed unmoved by it. He glanced at Attor, but Elswyth did not turn to see how her father responded. Thor’s eyes were on her, but she kept her gaze on Leif.
“Have you ever been to Lindisfarne?” she repeated.
“Yes,” Leif replied. “I visited there when I was a boy. The holy men welcomed me.”
“So you knew the place. You had seen its riches?”
“I think what Snell wants to ask is, did you tell anyone? Did the vikingar learn about it from you?”
At this there was a strong murmur around the hall. Snell turned and looked at them. If he had had the courage to ask the question himself, he might have won them back, might have earned his place by the fire. But his chance had passed. They belonged to her now. He took a step backward, but Elswyth took hold of his arm and held him there.
Again, Leif paused. And then: “We told no one.”
“Snell wonders why we should we believe you.” Elswyth said.
Leif waited a moment, glancing at Snell. Snell said nothing to either own or disown the question.
“We would lose our trade. Anyone can sail a ship. We know men from Faroe to Cordoba. We know what they have to sell. We know what they want to buy. Because of this, our holds are always full. We know where a cargo will fetch the best price. We know where to get that cargo at the lowest price. We do not tell these secrets.”
“Is that the only reason?”
Leif looked at her again. Another long pause. She knew exactly what she was asking for, but she knew she could not prompt him, and she stood, gazing into his face, trying to will the words onto his tongue.
“No.” he said at last, a slightly quizzical look in his eye, as if he were trying to follow where she was leading him but was not sure of the direction. “We value our friendships. My father is oath-brother to your father and to other men that we trade with. Men trust us with their trade, and with their gold, because we are oath-kin to them. The gods would surely send storms to drown us if we broke these oaths.”
“You understand this, don’t you Snell,” she said. “You don’t betray the men you trade with, do you?” Half the men he traded with were in that room. “You don’t short your weights or clip your silver? You will answer to God that there is no straw in your wheat or water in your mead?”
“Yes,” Snell replied. “I am an honest man.”
“Is that why your father brought me home instead of selling me to a caliph in Cordoba?” Elswyth asked, turning back to Leif. “Because he is an honest man?”
Leif paused again. Unhurried in the midst of a hall in which all were again silent, and every eye was on him.
“He did that because he loved you,” he said, eventually. “But he would have done the same for any child of Attor’s people, because of his oath-brotherhood with him.”
Elswyth beckoned Mayda to her. Elswyth held the feasting horn to be filled and Mayda poured the mead. Elswyth offered the horn to Leif, saying, “Drink, Jarl, and be at peace with my people.”
Leif took the horn and drained it.
Mayda refilled it and, in dead silence, Elswyth turned and offered the horn to Snell.
“Drink, and be joined in friendship,” she said.
Snell looked at her stiffly, uncertainly. Her hand was still pinioning his wrist.
“Will you not be the first to drink?” she asked Snell. “Do you think the honor should go to another? I do admire a man who will not claim an honor he does not think is his due.” And then she smiled at him, radiantly, sweetly, pleadingly and slowly lifted his hand toward the cup.
He dared offer her no resistance. He took the horn in his hand and she released his wrist. He looked briefly around the room. The faces were blank, expectant. There was nothing in their faces that gave him courage to refuse. He put the horn to his lips and drained it. He handed it back to Elswyth, his eyes glowing at her with a mixture of shame and lust. She handed the horn off to Mayda and then took Leif’s hand in one hand and Snell’s in the other and placed them in each other’s grasp, so that they had no choice but to shake hands.
When the handshake was done, she took Snell’s hand in hers again and raised it high, as if he had been some conquering athlete, swiftest in the race or strongest in the throw. She led him back to the place she had made for him, sat him down, and congratulated him on his honor so that by the time she had done with him, the men around him were slapping him on the back and congratulating him and the unmarried women were trying to catch his eye.
The cup was then passed to all the free people present. All drank, Elswyth making sure that Æscwine was next in honor. The bonds of hospitality were sealed. To think that all the old love and friendship between Anglish and Norsk had been restored would be foolish, but violence now would break the more sacred laws of hearth and hospitality and bring grave dishonor to anyone who offended. It was a peace woven with poor thread, but she thought it would be strong enough to hold. Snell, she was certain, at least, would not be muttering at the back of the hall or creating discontent in the fields, not for some days at least.
Her part complete, Elswyth was able to return to her place by her mother’s side. Edith took her hand and squeezed it, then leant near and whispered, “I wish Drefan had seen you do that. I know I find a lot to complain about, but you were born to be lady of the hall.”
“Thank you, Mother,” Elswyth said. “I learned that trick from you.” Sometimes an undeserved honor is the sharpest form of rebuke.
Next chapter: 7. Thor
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