The Wistful and the Good, Chapter 1
Here begins The Wistful and the Good, a novel set in a small coastal village in the Kingdom of Northumbria in the year 793, the year of the great Viking raid on the rich monastery of Lindisfarne. Lindisfarne mattered to the people of Northumbria not only because of its wealth and the prowess of its scholars, but because it was the home and seat of St. Cuthbert, then and now the patron of the North-Eastern England. In a time of familial loyalties and familial pieties, the people of the village of Twyford (Alnmouth today) were not just Northumbrians, they were Cuthbert’s People. But familial loyalties and personal affections do not always move the heart in the same direction.
Elswyth sat on the clifftop looking out over the bright sea. There was a steady onshore breeze blowing, stinging her eyes and tossing her hair out behind her. She refused to wear the wimple that should have covered her head and neck, for young men’s eyes would follow her hair as it bounced and swayed and danced. Young men’s eyes were a novelty and a delight. Not so long ago a child’s smock had hung from narrow shoulders straight downward to the ground. But now a woman’s dress flowed over curves like the tide flowing over smooth stones. Young men’s eyes followed the curves. Whenever she walked through the village, the young men would pause in their tasks, like seagulls hanging on the wind, eyes hungry for something beneath the surface of the wave.
Nor was she shy about looking at the young men. In the autumn, when the harvest had called every able body, man, woman, child, noble, free, and slave, into the fields from dawn till dusk, she had gloried in their broad backs, the flow of their muscles under the skin, the salt sweat of their tanned faces. And in the quiet of the evenings, she had found herself delighting in the thought of lying beside this one or that in the soft new-cut grass, and of the rasp of a calloused hand upon soft flesh.
But she was not for them. She was a thegn’s daughter, and promised long since to an ealdorman’s son. Young men’s eyes had no right to follow her. Her thoughts had no right to stray to hard hands or soft grass. There could be no starlit tryst on new-mown hay for her.
But the eyes of the young men were not her only delight. From where she sat, her eyes could follow the great curve of the horizon, the restless boundary between sea and sand below, the roll and swell of the tide, the curve of the sea grass, bent before the wind. These too were a delight, though the same blustering wind tried to tear her embroidery frame from her fingers and whisk away her threads to catch among the bracken and the gorse.
For the hundredth time she glanced upward, and this time, at last, she saw it. A flash of white, far out in the band of haze between sea and sky. A sail. Her frame and her needle fell into her lap as her eyes yearned outward toward a horizon that was empty once again.
This is how it is when you first see a sail. It will appear for a moment when the ship crests a swell and the light catches the sail just so. And then it will be gone, perhaps not to be seen again for minutes, or perhaps never again. Few eyes would have caught that first flash, or known it for what it was. But Elswyth knew, and in that moment of recognition her breath grew still and her heart raced as the world grew large around her.
Elswyth loved ships, every rope and spar, every plank and sail. She loved the smell of the pitch that lined the seams. Her eyes followed the curves of a ship. Her hands longed to touch, to follow the rise of the curving prow, the round fullness of the stern. She loved the way a ship cleaves to the swelling of the waves, its urgent energy under the force of wind or oar, its rise and fall as it mounted and drove from crest to trough of the ocean swell.
And she loved the young men who sailed in ships, with their strange voices, their hard, strong hands, their red sea-weathered faces, their sheepskin jackets stiff with salt and smelling of both land and sea and the marriage of both. She loved the tales they told, of wild rocky northlands with their soaring peaks and deep fjords, of the sun-scarred south, where winters were green and summers brown, and men and women rested on the great verandas of stone-built palaces in the heat of the day. Everywhere they travelled, it seemed, was sharper, more vivid, more extreme than Northumbria, the soft country she was born to with its low hills, cool summers, and damp winters.
Once, as a child, she asked why they came here at all, to which the answer was, “For trade, my darling, and to see the pretty girls.” At which she had pouted and said, “But you always leave us behind!” And they always would leave her behind, for her fate lay elsewhere, in the ealdorman’s hall in Bamburgh. As the wife of Drefan of Bamburgh, she would rule over a great hall and host kings at her table. And yet, one glimpse of a sail and her heart was soaring, over the horizon and away.
Again a flash of white. She rose, letting her embroidery frame fall into the work basket at her feet. She shaded her eyes as she strained at the horizon. A square white dot danced into view along the line between sea and sky. She took an anxious step forward, careless of the nearness of the cliff edge. Her right foot caught her work basket and sent it tumbling over the cliff face toward the distant sands below, threads of green and gold and blue scattering to the winds.
What was it? Anglish, Pict, Norsk? It was a Norsk ship she longed for. But it was also Norsk ships her father feared. The ship she longed for was a knarr, a broad-bellied trade ship. The ships her father dreaded were longships, ships of war. Nothing but a knarr had ever come to their beach. Elswyth had never seen a longship. But the news was that a dozen Norsk longships had raided the holy island of Lindisfarne two weeks since, murdering dozens and carrying off much treasure and many slaves. Her home in Twyford was only a day’s ride south of Lindisfarne and her father, like every coastal thegn, kept anxious watch for Norsk ships, though no other made his daughter his sentinel.
She longed for a knarr, for not only would a knarr bring wine and gemstones and silver—to trade for the dull necessities produced by her father’s manor—it would also bring new songs, old friends, and tales of Spain.
Ah, Spain! Her heart was full of the young men who sailed to Spain, who got drunk on the wines of Spain, who lounged on verandas with the dark girls of Spain. Was this a ship that had been, that would go, to Spain? Did it carry men who had been, who would go, to Spain? For a moment, all the longing in her heart was fixed on Spain.
The sail was plainer now, no longer disappearing into the haze along the horizon, and sometimes she could glimpse the line of the hull. Whether it was longship or knarr, she still could not be sure. But she was certain of its course now. By the quarter it came from and the line it sailed, it was coming from Norway, and it was heading for their beach.
“Anything on the horizon?” her father asked.
She had heard him coming up along the cliff path while her eyes had stayed fixed on the horizon. She could always tell his footsteps. An old wound made him favor one leg and she could hear it in his steps, a slight scuffing as his right foot rotated mid step.
“There,” she said, pointing at the square white dot that at that moment danced into view along the line between sea and sky.
“Where?” he asked, cupping his hands around his eyes as he gazed out over the sea.
“You won’t see it yet, Father,” she said. The holy island of Lindisfarne itself could have floated by half a mile off their beach and her father would not have seen it. But Elswyth could see a ship long before anyone else could make it out among the glare and the shimmer of the distant light.
“Is it coming this way?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said. “It was over there the first time I saw it. Now there. That heading will bring it to us.”
“Is it Norsk?”
“I can’t quite make out the shape of the hull yet. But coming from that quarter, who else would it be?”
“Just one ship?”
“I’ve only seen one so far.”
“Longship or a knarr?”
“I’m sure it must be Uncle Harrald,” she said, straining her eyes to see if the ship was broad or narrow. But the ship was too far off.
“He did not come last year, child,” her father said.
“Not a child anymore,” Elswyth said, automatically.
“He has come spring and autumn every year since you were a bairn. But last year not at all. And not this spring. He never did come in high summer. By this time of year he should be in Spain.”
“I can see the hull now, as it crests. I do think it is his ship. It must be Uncle Harrald.”
“You’re sure it’s just one ship?”
She searched the horizon again, shading her eyes against the glare of the bright sky and the sting of the onshore wind.
“I see no other ships,” she said.
“Then if it is not them, if it is a longship, I can at least meet them strength to strength,” her father said. “Today you have proved yourself a good sentinel, child.”
“Not a child.”
“I will go down and call the men from the fields. Run and find me as soon as you are sure of who it is.”
He bent and kissed her on the top of her head. She turned and embraced him swiftly, her soft cheek brushing against his stiff beard. She was alarmed, suddenly, and she could feel a touch of panic in her father as he pulled her to him.
“If it is a longship,” he said, “tell the first man you see and send him to tell me. Then go to the hall and get your mother and your sisters and the other women and get them up the road as fast as you can. And find someone to ride to Alnwick with the news.”
“I’ll ride myself,” she said.
“I’m not a child. I can ride as fast as anyone, and it saves time if I don’t have to find someone to go, and tell them the message, and then tell them again because they didn’t listen properly the first time.”
“I need you to help your mother.”
“Why take a man from your battle line when I can take the message?”
“Even if you are not a child, the road to Alnwick is not safe for a woman riding alone.”
“There hasn’t been a brigand seen on that road in four years, Father.”
“Aye, but it was a poor harvest, and these are famine months, until the next harvest is in, for any man who did not take proper care. There are desperate hungry men about.”
“If I meet one, I will shout out that there are vikingar chasing me. The fox does not steal the wolf’s supper.”
“I don’t have time for this argument.”
“No, you don’t, Father, so don’t be stubborn.”
Her father raised his eyes and implored heaven with outstretched arms. “Alright, you may ride. But since you are not a child, for Cuthbert’s sake, put your shoes on.”
Elswyth might wear a woman’s dress, but she still went barefoot like a child. She did not like her feet to be parted from the earth, or to have the bother of taking shoes off every time she wanted to put her feet into the sea or the river.
Her father hugged her and kissed her on the top of her head and then set off running down the cliff path. He had a strange gait as he ran, every tenth step becoming a skip, as if he were a child. And she knew that he winced with that step.
Next chapter: 2. The Unsuitable Child
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I will be publishing commentaries on each chapter of The Wistful and the Good, generally on the Monday following the publication of the chapter on Saturday. These will deal with the historical background and some of the literary questions raised by the book and its composition.