The Wistful and the Good, Chapter 22
Promise and Pleasure
As she had anticipated, Drefan has brought Elswyth to Foxton Wood meaning to lie with her there, among the wildflowers and the long grass. Elswyth has longed to see this desire in him, but now the moment is upon her, she is unsure. Get caught up using the index page.
It was the simplest of caresses, and yet Drefan’s thumb inscribing small circles on her belly was a touch of such intimacy, such easy familiarity, that Elswyth found her chin quivering and could hardly catch her breath.
“Did your father ever tell you how we came to be promised to each other?” Drefan asked.
“I never thought to ask,” she said. “I was just always promised to you. I don’t even remember when they told me. I don’t remember ever not knowing.”
“You know that wound your father will not talk about, the one that makes him limp a little? My father fell in the battle line. Actually fell, I mean. He tripped over a rabbit hole. Your father stood over him. It only took a moment for the shield wall to close again, but in that moment a Pictish spear found your father’s thigh. My father won’t speak of it because he is embarrassed for having tripped. Your father won’t speak of it to save my father embarrassment. Or so my uncle told me, last year, when I got him drunk. My father wanted to reward your father for saving his life. But it could not be gold or land, for that would mean confessing to the trip—such rewards, and the act that merits them, must be announced in the hall. But your father had a daughter—a baby—you. And so my father said, let your daughter be married to my son. And so they agreed. My mother was not pleased. You are a slave’s daughter, after all. Half Welisc. And your father is not the most important thegn in the district, nor the richest, nor the wisest of councilors.”
“He’s a lovely man, your father. I like him a lot. But does he think of the affairs of the kingdom, the affairs of the district, from one Pentecost to the next?”
“Not the sort of man whose daughter marries an ealdorman’s son.”
“No. But aren’t I the sort of woman who marries an ealdorman’s son?”
“In beauty, sure enough,” he said. “In charm. In song. In peaceweaving.”
“But I bring neither land nor lineage into the alliance.”
“But you will marry me anyway.” This she said primly, with confidence.
“I was four years old when the promise was made. I’m like you. I don’t remember being told. I’ve just always known I was going to marry you. I think I remember holding you, all swaddled up and sleeping, and being told, ‘This is the girl you will marry, Dreffy,’ and kissing you on the forehead. But maybe I don’t really remember it. Maybe I have just been told about it so often by soft-hearted women that I think I remember it.”
“You never told me that before,” she said, laughing at the thought of it. “It’s sweet. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I wanted you to think me a great warrior, a captain of men.”
“Well I do! So why tell me now?”
“I want you to know that I shall love our children.”
He could not have said anything that would have pleased her more, and if he had kissed her then, and begun to undress her, all would have been as they both anticipated. But he was still shy. He still felt the need to prove his worthiness to her, to prove that she was his choice, not merely his father’s.
“Your uncle Fyren has served my father in his household all these years,” he said. “They have become fast friends, and your uncle has given my father noble service. He has more than earned a reward.”
He paused but she said nothing. Her uncle’s name never brought cheer to a conversation.
“Your uncle does not approve of your father’s marriage,” Drefan continued.
“You mean he does not approve of my mother.”
“He does not think it wise that Welisc blood should be mixed with Anglish, especially not in the ranks of ealdormen and kings.”
“There have been Anglish kings that took Welisc wives. Saxon and Jutish kings as well.”
“I have said that to him. But he has tales in which the offspring of such unions come to grief. You would think to hear him that if any lord ever lost a battle it was because he had a Welisc mother.”
“You are going to marry me, aren’t you?” she asked, suddenly alarmed.
Her alarm emboldened him. Anything that was fey about her would care nothing if they married or not. Now he saw that she did care. But it remained to prove that he cared also.
“My father would not break a promise,” he said. “Not without cause, and neither you nor your father have given him cause to break it. But he has reminded me that, under the law, his promise is not binding on me. No man or woman can be forced to marry against their will. If I wanted another, he told me, he would not object to my choice.
“But I told him I was content as things stood. Why should I choose another? Why should I want another in my hall? Why should I want another in my bed?”
And then, feeling justified at last, he leaned in, moved his hand from her belly to envelop her breast and pressed his mouth eagerly on hers.
The kiss was not awful, the pressure of his hand was not cruel, yet she found them both somehow irksome. She was not afraid. At the moment of conjunction, it was not maiden shyness that afflicted her. But she discovered that she was offended by the clumsiness with which this had all been arranged. If they were to come to this moment by seduction rather than marriage, could he not at least have put some more thought into it? Why, above all, did he have to bring his cousins along with whores on their saddles? Her father would not have had his friends rutting trollops on the other side of the haystack when he laid her mother down.
She pushed him off her and wriggled out from underneath him. She did not get to her feet. That would have seemed too final a rejection. She needed time to gather her thoughts.
“Are you all right?” he asked. “I wasn’t too rough, was I?”
“No, no,” she said, annoyed. Could he not see that she needed a moment?
He had been offered the opportunity to put her aside. He had even been encouraged to do so by his father, and by his mother too, she guessed. Lady Cyneburg would not have done it cruelly. There was no cruelty in her. But she wanted the best for her son and she would never believe—would never believe until it were proved to her—that the daughter of a Welisc slave could be the best wife for Drefan. Elswyth had long known that she would have to prove herself to Lady Cyneburg. It was the spur her mother used whenever Elswyth slacked or fell short in her preparation. But that the promise on which her mother had so long relied was in such jeopardy, now that its moment of completion was so close at hand, was something she had never guessed at.
Marrying Drefan had never been a hope or a possibility to her. It had been a fact, a fact as natural as that autumn must follow summer, as firm and undoubtable as anything that is learned before the age of reason. Her wistfulness had, by turns rebelled against it and imbued it with languorous anticipation, but she had never questioned it. But now, it seemed, it depended upon Drefan’s pleasure alone. Had he brought her here to demand that pleasure? But why? Why try to force from her by blackmail something she had been ready and willing to give for affection alone? Had she been able to guess at his shyness, had she known the awe in which he held her, she would have known it was not this. But he was the son of an ealdorman. It was his brash confidence that she admired most about him, and she was still too young to see behind it.
But if he was so confident and masterful, why should she be less so? Had she not longed for this, dreamed of this, seethed in frustration that he has shown no desire for this. And here was the desire she had longed for. Why quail before it now? And if what she desired also served her duty to her family and her kin, why question his intentions? Surely where duty and desire meet, there should be no hesitation. She rolled toward him, pushed him onto his back and kissed him. She the master; he the supplicant.
If he had had the patience to let her set the pace, to let her work through her reluctance at her own speed, had let her decide where hands might go, when belts might be undone, when brooches might be unclasped, then she might have found her way through the sense of irksomeness that had descended upon her, might have found her old desire, found her way to pleasure, and delivered to him the pleasure he sought from her. But he did not. He received her kiss, but then with sudden and impatient ardor, rolled her on her back, his hands greedily grasping, hunting urgently for her brooches and her belt, his mouth so firm upon hers, his tongue so greedy, that she had to gasp for breath.
For months she had longed for him to want to kiss her with this passion, for his hands to seek out the womanly parts of her, but when it came there was no pleasure in it. It was not that he hurt her. Greedy as he was, firm as his grip on her was, it was pleasure he sought, not pain. She sensed that his wanting was not mere jealousy. He wanted her genuinely, wanted her affection as much as her body. He was trying to suck the affection out of her, like sucking the yoke out of a bird’s egg. And for so long she had wanted this from him. But the affection that she had been so willing to yield, if ever it should have been asked for, would not come. The fault did not lie in the kiss, nor in the mouth that gave the kiss. It was simply, inexplicably, bewilderingly, the wrong mouth.
She pushed him off her again. It took a moment for him to stop and release her, and when he did he looked down on her, hurt and confused, his pride injured. Had he not proved his worthiness to her, though it was her worthiness that, by the world’s measure, was in doubt?
“We’ve still two miles to Longhoughton,” she said.
“We were going to Longhoughton.”
“I don’t know what you meant by ‘going to Longhoughton,’ but I meant this.”
“Well I meant going to Longhoughton. And I intend to go. You know my mother never lets me go anywhere.”
“She let you come riding with me. She knows what ‘going to Longhoughton’ means. She ‘went to Longhoughton’ herself, didn’t she?”
“Don’t you talk about my mother like that!”
“Well I shouldn’t, and I’m sorry I ever did.”
“You don’t want me?”
“I want you to take me to Longhoughton.”
“I’m trying. It seems like you don’t want to go.”
“I don’t intend to go to my wedding with a round belly,” she said.
“Many a girl does,” he said, roughly, looking up at her from his bed in the meadow. “Some think it right that a girl should prove herself capable, to give her husband assurance of an heir.”
“You will have to take my fertility on faith,” she said, “for I will not add two spans to the labor of my embroidery.” She smoothed her dress and tugged her dignity into order.
“Your mother never produced a son,” he said. “Fyren says that is the Welisc in her.”
“Are there no men in Powys then, if Welisc women never birth sons? Where do they get fathers for their daughters?”
“Still, if your mother could not produce a son…”
“If you put a baby in me today, you would not know if it were a son or daughter until spring. What are you going to do—put a bun in the oven of every thegn’s daughter from Tyne to Tweed and marry the first one to pop a boy?”
“Don’t you want me?”
“Of course I want you. I just don’t want this.” Here she indicated the disturbed grass. This was a lie. She had longed for this. It was not the trampled grass that was at fault. “Can’t you court me for more than an hour before…”
“Court you?” he said, leaping to his feet. “Is it not enough that I consent to the bargain? I must court you now?”
“Am I wrong to want to be courted? Don’t I deserve it? Are you going to marry a girl you don’t even think deserves to be courted?” She was trembling as she said this. Was she throwing away her future, her mother’s safety, her sister’s prospects, the freedom of all her Welisc kin? Was she putting all their lives in the hands of chance just because a kiss seemed irksome?
He turned his back and began to walk away from her. Had this not been courtship? What more did she want from him? She should be grateful that he regarded her at all! Why must he do more to please her? And if he must, what more?
She did not guess his thoughts. Was his turned back a rejection? Or was it because she had shamed him and he needed a moment for contrition to call forth grace in him? Was this the desperate moment in which her last remaining chance to fulfill her duty was to run after him, collapse before him in the grass and bid him condescend and enter her? If it was, the rebellion was too strong in her. She strode to Spotty’s side, grabbed the pony’s mane and threw her leg over his back. “I’m going to Longhoughton,” she called, not looking round to see how he responded. She kicked the pony’s sides and Spotty jolted reluctantly forward. She turned his head round to the path, not looking back to see if Drefan followed her.
Next Chapter: 23. The Bonds of Hospitality (coming next week)
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