The Wistful and the Good, Chapter 7
Tears and Song
Elswyth has managed to weave an uneasy peace between the Anglish and their Norsk guests. Weaving a peace in her own family, however, may prove a little more difficult. Get caught up using the index page.
It was time for the presentation of gifts. After a little prompting from Thor, Leif approached the lord’s dais.
“Lord Attor,” he said, standing before the thegn, “allow me to present my gifts.”
Leif then took out two leather packets and presented one to Attor and one to Edith. Attor unwrapped his, and took out a splendid knife with a carved bone handle and a gleaming blade.
“It is pure steel,” Leif said. “No iron core.”
Attor tested the edge with his thumb, and accidentally drew a bead of blood, which pleased him greatly.
Edith’s packet contained three combs. Edith thanked Leif profusely for the gift, saying something disparaging about daughters and tangles. She embraced him and kissed him on both cheeks, which left Leif flustered and tongue-tied. How Norsk of him, Elswyth thought as she watched. A hall full of hostile faces did not move him, but a kiss on the cheek and he was all at sea!
Leif had begun to return to his place, but then he stopped, turned back, and stood in front of Elswyth. He reached into his jacket and pulled something out. He slipped it into her hand and whispered, “Thank you.” In her palm there lay a beautiful comb, obviously part of the set that he had presented to her mother—he must have slipped it into his jacket just before he rose the present his gifts. The comb was smooth and stiff, with straight teeth and an intricate pattern carved on the handle with the head of a dragon in the center.
“Thank you,” she whispered in return, quite touched by the gift, for all that she knew it was stolen from her mother’s portion. She smiled at him. He turned away immediately and hurried back to his place, as if he were afraid that she too might rise and kiss him on the cheek.
Attor then presented Leif with a gift of a richly embroidered tunic. “From my daughter’s hand,” he said. The daughter in question was Hilda, though he forgot to name her, and Hilda, who was sitting almost unnoticed on the step of the dais, glared daggers at him, knowing which daughter would be assumed.
Elswyth then called for the meal to be served, and, her formal duties complete, she sat down and found she was trembling. She had crossed her father’s plan for the evening, and she knew that she would hear about it eventually. Attor was slow to scold, but he did not forget. She was already rehearsing what she would say—that it was the wrong plan. That the people had not been satisfied. What she had done had worked, hadn’t it? But she was also conscious of what might have happened if her gambit had not worked, if Leif had not found the words that she has trusted him to find. There might have been mutiny. There might have been bloodshed. And she would have been the cause of it.
But this was deeper trouble than her conscience knew how to accommodate. When she offended, she was used to making amends mostly by the sheer exuberance of her charm. And what did it matter how amends were made, if the offended party forgot the grievance, and was welcomed back into the circle of her friendship? For, with Elswyth, her sins never made her the outcast. Rather it was those she offended who became the outcasts, until forgiving her allowed them to return to her circle of friendship. Their desire to forgive her was always more urgent than her need to be forgiven. She did always wish to be forgiven, but it was a wish so easily granted that the privation of that longing left no mark on her. She never suffered for the forgiveness she sought. It was always too readily given. And so the anguish of that moment swiftly passed, and she was soon on her feet again and making her way around the room, making sure everyone’s plate and cup were full, and drawing laughs and smiles from them wherever she went.
Once the meal was eaten and the slaves had cleared the tables, it was time for song and story. Wanting to favor neither Anglish nor Norsk, Elswyth chose an old Welisc song that she had learned from her grandmother, translating it from Welisc to Anglish as she went. The result was a rather stumbling performance in which she frequently was at a loss for the right word. Hilda, sitting at her father’s feet, awaiting her turn to sing, counted every stumble. But the stumbles didn’t matter. The company laughed with Elswyth when she wanted them to laugh, cried with her when she wanted them to cry. When she wanted them to listen in rapt silence, they listened in rapt silence. When she wanted them to pound on the tables and shout, they pounded on the tables and shouted.
Leif, as chief guest, went next. He told a simple and brief tale, translating also as he spoke, from Norsk to Anglish. As soon as he got stuck for a word the first time, Elswyth, quite unconscious of any proprieties and moved only by sympathy, rose, crossed the hall, and sat on the table in front of him, prompting him whenever he got lost. He was not a gifted storyteller, and when he was done, there was hardly a note of applause. But Elswyth took Leif by the hand and led him into the center of the hall, where she curtsied and made him bow. This drew a fresh round of applause, a little louder this time, for no one wished to lose her friendship. But their applause was obedient rather than heartfelt, and Elswyth was embarrassed for Leif. She pulled him close to her and stood tiptoe to whisper into his ear. “You did well. Don’t mind them.”
She led him back to his seat. Then she returned to the center of the hall and said, “Let the cup go around again, and then my sister, Hilda, will sing.”
Hilda should have been in bed, like the other children. But she had protested so aggrievedly at what she claimed was unjust favoritism to Elswyth that her father had been convinced to allow her to attend, and to sing. Hilda had chosen a long song, but she made up for that by singing it very fast, almost stumbling over the words, which came out in great rushes between sharp hurried breaths. It was an Anglish song. Hilda knew no Welisc or Norsk. She knew the song perfectly, never getting a single word wrong, never pausing for a moment to remember, and she was convinced that this perfection of memory would make her song more admired than Elswyth’s imperfect effort. But she never expressed any word to fit its meaning. To her, the song was nothing but a task to be accomplished, a credit to her account in her ledger. She had no thought to entertain, only to demonstrate, only to score the point and extend her lead.
Poor Hilda. Except with the needle, it was her fate to do everything correctly and nothing well. She had one true gift, embroidery, and it consumed her. She could see nothing of the art in any other craft. As she rushed on, her high childish voice shrill and breathless, people around the hall ceased to watch or to listen. Conversations broke out here and there until Hilda was singing amid a general hubbub. Elswyth saw tears start to form in the corners of her sister’s eyes, though her voice never faltered and her pace never slackened. Elswyth wanted to jump on the table and shout at them all to be quiet, but she knew that Hilda would be devastated to be helped or interrupted by her sister. Anything she did would send Hilda into a rage of weeping and whirling fists. And so the tears kept running down Hilda’s cheeks as she kept grimly singing, still more than a third of the song to go.
Then Thor rose from his place at the guest’s table and walked round into the middle of the hall. Half the conversations in the hall ceased as he moved. He said nothing, however, ignoring everyone around him, and slowly lowered himself until he sat cross-legged in front of Hilda and gazed at her with perfect attention. Hilda rubbed the tears out of her eyes, never pausing in her singing as she did so, and from that point she delivered the rest of the song solely to Thor, her voice dropping until it was just loud enough for him to hear, though the whole hall was now silent, their eyes fixed on Thor.
The instant the last word was sung, Hilda ran and fell into Thor’s arms, bawling her eyes out. Elswyth let her be for a minute, then crossed the floor, kissed her on the top of her head, and said, “Bedtime.”
Hilda kissed Thor on both cheeks, hugged him again, and then leapt up and ran from the hall. Not one note of applause followed her, for it was Thor who had seized their attention, not Hilda.
Thor struggled to get back to his feet. He held out a hand to Elswyth to steady him as he rose, and it took all of her strength to do it.
“Are you alright,” she asked him.
“Just old,” he said. “No cure for that, lass.”
“Thank you,” she said, keeping hold of his arm as she guided him back to his place, though he seemed to need no further steadying once he was back on his feet.
Thor sang next and held the whole hall as enthralled by his singing as he had done by his listening. Resent his blood though they might, they could not resist him as a storyteller. All the while the cup went round and round. By the end, Elswyth’s charm, Thor’s grace, and the cup’s warming influence had done as much as could be asked of them. If the people did not depart the hall feeling warmly toward the Norsk, they at least felt bound to them in hospitality and no longer feared that they might be murdered in their beds. That was enough, that night, to keep the peace.
Though she only sipped lightly, each time the cup had come to her, Elswyth was muzzy headed by the time she tumbled into bed, pushing Hilda over to make room, for her sister had sprawled out diagonally across the bed, as if to deny Elswyth a place to sleep.
Hilda’s eyes glowed fiercely in the light of the guttering rush lamp that Elswyth had used to light her way to bed. “You don’t get to tell me when to go to bed,” Hilda whispered fiercely, as Elswyth lay down beside her. But Hilda’s chin was quivering. And then Hilda suddenly dissolved into weary tears, and Elswyth wrapped her arms around her sister. After a moment, Hilda’s arms went around her in return, and she wept silently in the embrace until she fell asleep.
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