Discover more from Stories All the Way Down by G. M. Baker
The Wistful and the Good, Chapter 3
So far, Elswyth has spotted a Norsk ship, and Edith has feared that she will lose her children? Missed something? Get caught up using the index page.
Leif, son of Harrald, stood in the prow of his ship and gazed at the low green coast of Northumbria. It was so different from the steep fjords of his home. There, every bay and inlet had a distinct character and shape so that a man with the knowledge would never doubt where he was or where he was going. But here the coastline was a low rolling bank of green, as indistinct as a fogbank almost. And it was more than two year since his eyes—boy’s eyes then, man’s eyes now—had looked on it.
There was the estuary, with the village just behind it. There the small cliff with the beach below it, a beach that stretched on for miles north and south. These were his landmarks, but they could be the landmarks of a dozen places on this vast same-seeming shore.
He glanced back at Thor, seated by the tiller. But if he were off by a hundred miles, Thor would say nothing until they were beached on some unknown shore. Then he would look around, stroke his beard, and ask, “So what have you learned?”
Leif looked at Eric, standing ready for the order to lower sail. No sign from him either. It would only amuse Eric to see Leif fail.
His ship. In a sense, perhaps, it was Leif’s ship. It was his to command, for this voyage at least. But it was his father’s ship, and no man just made captain was ever more willing than Leif to hand his ship back to its former commander. His father had been kidnapped by vikingar—vikingar who had twice raided Leif’s village while the men were away at sea. The vikingar had killed the old men and boys who had tried to resist them. They had stolen women, and gold, and most of the trade goods the clan had in store, and, in the second raid, they had taken his father prisoner, demanding a ransom, either gold or the secrets of the clan’s trade.
The knarr he commanded—his father’s ship, more than forty feet from stem to stern—sailed with less than a quarter of its hold full—the few trade goods remaining to them. But below his feet, lashed under the fore-deck, was a chest that contained his clan’s last hope. A treasure worth, if tales were true, a jarl’s ransom and more among the holy men of Northumbria.
It had been a smooth voyage. He had made every sacrifice. He had placated every god. Surely, therefore, Odin, Thor, and Ran would not let Loki deceive his eyes and cast him up on the wrong beach. But it was too late for such doubts now. The beach was approaching. The people of the village—hopefully his Uncle Attor’s village, as he supposed—were assembled on the sands to greet them. Forget grand navigation now. He would look a greater fool if he holed the ship on a rock, cracked her spine by hitting the sand too hard, or slopped back into the tide by losing way too soon. Get safely onto the sand and then worry about being on the right beach.
And so he did not pay much attention to the faces of the people waiting on the beach, did not notice that the men had shields and spears in their hands and waited in battle line, the women and children kept back behind them.
He judged the moment and ordered the sail down. The ship nosed gently onto the sand, and the men were over the side to secure the ship on the beach. It was only then that any of them realized that they were facing a line of spears.
“Uncle Attor!” Leif cried, searching along the line of men for the face of his uncle-by-oath, Attor of Twyford. He found him, but Attor was squinting up at him as if he could not make out his face. “It is me, Leif, son of Harrald,” he cried, hoping that he was remembering his Anglish correctly. “Put up your spears. It is me.”
Two figures came toward the ship. One was Attor, walking slowly, peering upward as if he was half blind. The other was a young woman, black hair flowing in the wind, who plunged past his startled men toward the side of the ship. Seeing no threat in her, Leif paid her no attention, but kept his eyes on the slowly advancing Attor. He glanced around at his men, who had retreated back to the water. They had gone over the sides without weapons and the men they faced outnumbered them and had both shields and spears. “It is me, Leif, son of Harrald,” he cried again. A woman, pregnant and holding a child in her arms, hurried toward the hesitant Attor. Leif recognized her as his aunt-by-oath, Edith, Attor’s wife, Lady of Twyford. He called out to her, but she was whispering to Attor. Light sprang into Attor’s face and he cried out, “Leif, is that you? Come ashore lad, come ashore.”
Relieved, Leif turned to make his way amidships where the sides were low enough to jump over into the water. But as he turned he saw that the young woman with the flowing hair was now wrapped in Thor’s arms, embracing him. She seemed tiny, childlike, in Thor’s embrace, but then, most people seemed childlike compared to Thor’s massive frame. As he came up to them, she broke the embrace and asked Thor, “Why do you have blood on your face?”
“It is the blood of the horse blot,” Thor said, responding to her in Anglish. Leif understood well enough, but immediately felt tongue tied, too embarrassed to try to speak the young woman’s language in her presence.
She was an astonishing creature. She seemed of the Welisc race rather than Anglish. Her head was bare and her hair unbound, though it was the custom of Anglish women to wear a wimple that covered their hair and their throats. She was very youthful in her face, and slight of stature, yet shapely in her figure as few woman he knew. Her green linen dress was wet to the waist and clung to her legs. Her feet were bare, though he saw that she had shoes in her hand. She was as lively as she was beautiful and it was hard to say which was the greater part of her allure. From face to figure, he hardly knew where to look at her.
“Horse blot?” she asked Thor.
“Leif sacrificed his horse to appease the gods. He used the head to set up a nithing pole to curse our enemies, and we ate of the flesh and marked ourselves with the blood to show honor to the gods.”
“You have enemies?”
“Aye, lass. All men who prosper have enemies.”
“Where is Uncle Harrald?”
“Leif commands this trip. It’s his news to give,” Thor replied.
“Leif?” she said, turning toward him for the first time. “Is that you? You’re so much taller—and you’re practically covered in blood!”
This was true. Like Thor, Leif’s cheeks were streaked with dried blood. But Leif’s arms, his sea-jacket, and his leggings were covered in it as well. He had not wanted to stint the gods with his sacrifice, or be stinting in placing the marks of it on his person. When the rest of the crew had marked themselves much more sparingly, he had felt a little foolish. But washing off any part of the sacrificial blood before the voyage was over would have brought the worst possible luck, so he had left it where it was.
The young woman stepped towards him, holding out her hand in greeting. “Don’t you remember me?” she asked.
He did not. She was a creature entirely new to his experience. She might have been a selkie or a swan maiden.
“You remember Elswyth, Attor’s eldest daughter,” Thor said, in Norsk.
“Elswyth?” he replied, searching her face for some resemblance between the girl who corresponded to that name in his memory and the young woman before him.
“I grew up,” the swan maiden said. “Do you like?” She did a complete twirl for his inspection. She spoke Norsk with complete confidence, if imperfect diction. He turned his eyes away from her face and figure, trying to remember his duty.
“Lady,” he asked, “why does your father meet us with spears?”
“Norsk raided Lindisfarne last month,” she replied, “Or maybe it was Danir. But don’t worry. I knew it was you. I told them so as soon as I saw the sail. But where is Uncle Harrald?”
“I am sure your father wishes to know that too,” Thor said in Anglish.
“Well, come ashore, then.” Without warning, she put her hand in Leif’s and led him toward the rail of the ship. The touch of her hand filled him with desire and alarm. He remembered his father’s rules of trade—never interfere with the women of the men you trade with. It leads to nothing but trouble. He pulled his hand away from hers and vaulted over the rail into the water.
There was a splash beside him and she was there, her skirts billowing around her in the tide so that he could see her calves, palely refracted through the seawater.
Thor lowered his huge frame gingerly over the rail. He was awkward in his movements and a little slow, and he gave an “Ooof” as his boots splashed into the shallow sea. He was growing old, which Leif, in his youth, would have thought impossible. Elswyth turned and looked at Thor with concern also, as if the same thought had occurred to her in the same moment.
Attor and Edith had come down to the tideline with their daughters and stood ready to greet their visitors. He could no more have put names to the other daughters than he had been able to do with Elswyth. Two stood beside their mother, while a small girl with a blank blissful face ran around them in circles, her bare feet slopping in the wet sand, her untidy yellow hair flying behind her. Each of them had grown out of whatever memory he might have had of them.
Elswyth led Leif and Thor onto the dry sand. Attor strode forward and greeted Thor with a hug. Then he inspected Leif, commented on the size he had become, and embraced him too. But all through Attor’s inspection and greeting, Leif could not turn his attention from Elswyth. Thus he witnessed a whispered conversation between Elswyth and her mother.
“What do you think you were doing boarding the ship?” Edith hissed.
“I went for news of Uncle Harrald.”
“Not your place to do so.”
“But I always…”
“You’re not a child anymore.”
“Then why is everyone still telling me what to do?”
“Because you didn’t learn it when you were a child!”
“It is not polite to quarrel in front of guests, Mother.”
Edith replied to this only by fiercely shaking out and beating down Elswyth’s sopping, sand-grimed skirts. But this violent grooming was cut short when Thor turned to greet Edith. Edith dumped the child she was carrying in Elswyth’s arms and went to hug Thor. This left Leif once again face to face with Elswyth. He tried to look away, to spare her from the embarrassment of his having overheard her mother’s scolding. But Elswyth seem entirely unembarrassed by it. “This is Daisy,” she said, turning the child to face him. “She wasn’t born the last time you were here.”
Leif reached out a hand to touch Daisy’s cheek. Daisy strained to reach his beard.
“Can I hold her?” he asked.
Elswyth looked at him, startled, as if she had not heard such a request before and for a moment he feared that she might have misunderstood him—that he might have insulted here in some way. But she smiled—her smile was like dawn over a fair sea, gladdening the heart of a sailor—and handed Daisy to him.
Daisy laughed and tried to catch at the strands of his thin beard. Leif was immediately embarrassed that the child was drawing Elswyth’s attention to his boyish chin.
“I have a sister,” he said. “Same age. Likes to pull my beard too. Tove would like to play with you,” he added, addressing the child. He kissed Daisy on the forehead then gasped as Daisy grabbed his nose and twisted.
“She likes noses.” Elswyth said. “Ears. Teeth. She tried to grab my eye once. It hurt for a week.”
“Tove likes to pull hair. She is strong. It hurts.” He disengaged Daisy’s fingers gently from his nose.
“I see you are making a friend of my daughter,” Attor said as he joined them. Daisy held out her arms to her father, who took her then promptly turned and handed her on to Edith.
Attor then looked around, puzzled, and Leif followed his gaze.
“Why are your men all still standing in the sea?” Attor asked.
“Why do your men stand glaring with spears in their hands?” Thor asked in reply.
Attor turned and chastised his men. “Put down your spears. These men are friends.” Turning to the Norsk, he said, “Come ashore, come ashore before you ruin your boots. You are friends here. Friends always.”
Both Anglish and Norsk did as he told them, but while the Anglish put down their shields and spears, they did not change the grimness of their faces, and as the Norsk came ashore, the Anglish stepped back as many steps to maintain the distance between them.
“I’m sorry,” Attor said. “I can command their hands, but I cannot command their hearts. Any Norsk ship will be met with spears in Northumbria these days.” And then he told them that two weeks before a fleet of longships had landed on the holy island of Lindisfarne and the raiders had killed many monks, looted the riches of the monastery, and taken many slaves. Lindisfarne was the holiest site in Britain and one of the richest as well. All along the coast, people watched in fear, and unwary Norsk and Danir had been beaten and killed in York and other towns. A chill came over Leif’s heart as he heard the news, for not only did it tell the ruin of people he had loved, but he saw in it the ruin of his own hopes as well.
“We know this place well,” Thor said. “We have traded with the holy men many times. They valued our trade, for the materials for the making of their books.”
Attor looked at him. “So you knew the place, knew how wealthy it was, knew it was not guarded, feeling itself under the protection of God and St. Cuthbert.”
“You can’t think we did this, Uncle,” Leif protested. “We are traders. We are not vikingar. You cannot think it was any of my kin.”
“No. But I counsel you not to boast of knowing the place. People are asking what guided the vikingar to that spot, how they found it, out of all the coast of England. Some say God himself guided them there, to punish us for our sins.”
“Perhaps it was God, indeed,” Attor said. “But others think secrets have been told, and they suspect any man who trades with Norsk or Danir. I have heard ugly things behind my back in the market at Alnwick.”
“So if it were known we traded there, they would say we betrayed the place, even if we did not raid it ourselves,” said Thor.
“We do not tell the secrets of our trade,” Leif protested. “My father forbids it. Only our most trusted friends know where we sail or who we trade with.”
“Aye,” said Thor, “and where is the gain for us to tell these secrets? We’d only lose our trade.”
“There was more taken from Lindisfarne than you would make in a lifetime of trading,” Attor said.
“It was not us,” Leif repeated. “We have no great fleet. No longships. We have two knarr to carry on our trade. My father is a sworn friend to the jarl of the holy men. My father would not break his oath to any man.”
“I know you didn’t do it,” Attor said. “But others here do not know you as I do. They will only see Norsk, and they hate Norsk now. And remember, we are Cuthbert’s people. Lindisfarne is Cuthbert’s place. His shrine and his burial place. Every one of Cuthbert’s people feels this raid like it was a spear in his own heart.”
Leif looked at the faces of the Anglish, at the tight expectant grip in which they held their spears. Having seen that the Norsk were unarmed and that their thegn greeted them as friends, it could not be fear that that made their faces so grim. And if it was not fear, it must be hate. Their spears, he understood, longed to pierce Norsk hearts.
“But you can vouch for us, Uncle,” he pleaded.
“I could, and I will if need be. But this is no time for a man in Northumbria to claim a Norsk or a Danir for a friend. A thegn was beaten in a tavern in York for drinking with a Danir. The Danir was killed.”
“That is not good for trade,” Thor said.
“It’s not,” Attor said, “But tell me of your father, lad. Where is he, and why do you sail here out of season and with a ship so lightly laden?”
Leif began to reply but was soon lost for a word and turned to Thor.
“We too were raided,” Thor said. “Harvests have been poor and the weather foul. Foolish men have lost their ships and their livings, and there has been much evil in the halls of kings. Second and third sons, left without lands or lords. We are too many for the little land we have that can be farmed. So men go viking, for food or land or wives or gold or slaves. Half the women of our kin have been taken. Our warehouses and our gold looted. Many men killed. Houses burned. Harrald was taken captive, for ransom. It is the secrets of our trade they want from him, or a sum of gold. But they have taken our gold already, and we will not give up the secrets of our trade. We will not betray our friends, nor can we give away our livelihood.”
And at these words, Leif felt his heart grow colder still, for he saw that their news and Attor’s were of a piece. His father taken by men who demanded the secrets of his trade. Lindisfarne raided by men who must have been in possession of those very secrets in order to bring such a fleet to such a spot—under the very gaze of the great fortress of Bamburgh, and yet just beyond the range of its swift aid. It cannot have happened by chance. The vikingar had to have had the knowledge. How had they gained it? His people could not have been the only clan who traded there. And yet, so soon after his father was taken by vikingar, vikingar had acted on this knowledge. What tortures would his father have suffered before he would have yielded such a secret or betrayed such friends?
He felt a woman’s hand in his. He looked and saw that it was Elswyth’s. She looked up at him with stricken eyes. Clearly the same thought was in her heart. She shook her head, and such was her power that he accepted her reassurance, blind though it was, and some small thaw came over is heart, like a touch of noonday sun in the dark month of marrow sucking. But then he recollected his duty and disengaged his hand from hers.
He remembered his mission. “We want to bring our people to live in Britain,” he said. “We come to look for a home, and to raise my father’s ransom.”
“But how will you raise the ransom,” said Attor, “since all your goods are taken?”
“We saved a few things,” Thor said. “All we have left is in the ship.”
“Enough for a jarl’s ransom?”
“Not of ordinary goods. But Leif says there is one item that may raise the gold we need, if we can find the right man to sell it to.”
“Books,” said Leif. “We have books of your holy men. Your holy men are rich. They will give much gold for books.”
“Books?” Attor asked. “Not books from Lindisfarne? I heard the vikingar destroyed the books there, rather than stealing them. How could they have come into your hands?”
“No, Uncle, these books have been in our possession for two years, and they do not come from Lindisfarne. We hoped to sell them there. We only came here first to learn their value from you, so that we could demand a fair price from the holy men.”
Attor shrugged. “I know nothing of this trade,” he said. “But lad, I do not think you will find a lord in all Britain that will give refuge to a Norsk clan these days. And I don’t know how you are to find a man in Britain to sell your books to—books of all things—without getting yourselves killed.”
Next chapter: 4. Eric.
Thanks for reading The Wistful and the Good! Subscribe for free to receive new chapters and support my work.
If you know someone who might enjoy The Wistful and the Good, please share it with them.
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.
Looking for the next chapter? Check the index page, and subscribe so you don’t miss anything.