The Wistful and the Good, Chapter 8
In the hall last night, Elswyth defied her father’s instructions and played a dangerous game to weave a peace between the Anglish and their Norsk guests. By night she was triumphant as lady of the hall, but in the light of morning, she is but a daughter once again. Get caught up using the index page.
Thor was an object of awe and fascination for children wherever he went. Despite his size, they quickly perceived the genial affection in which Thor held all creation, and children in particular. Elswyth had loved him from the first time she met him at the age of three. Ten minutes after she had first set eyes on him, she had climbed first onto his knee and then up his thick arm until she perched herself in triumphant possession on his broad shoulders.
She had been an only child then, Hilda being but a growing roundness in her mother’s belly, leaving Elswyth the sole object of every hope and every indulgence. This, combined with her natural charm and confidence, had meant no place or person or occasion had been barred to her. She had perched herself on Thor’s shoulder through feast and trade talk and on long walks through woodland and over clifftop and along the seastrand, laughing with delight when he would reach up a great hand to steady her and break into a run, scattering seagulls before him like wolf among a flock of sheep.
It was Thor who had filled Elswyth’s head with the love of ships. It was Thor who told her tales of Spain. Had Edith only realized how much Thor’s tales had nourished Elswyth’s wistfulness, she might have forbidden her to speak to him. But Edith had been so delighted herself, so honored that a man such as Thor should pay so much attention to her child, should be so entranced by her, that no thought of the consequences had entered her head. Edith had been a young woman then, on the cusp of nineteen, and her hair had barely grown out the close slave crop that she had worn all her childhood. She took Thor’s interest in Elswyth for proof of all she had hoped and believed Elswyth to be, for she had hoped and believed that she had conceived a woman fit to be the consort of kings, and Thor, though he had not the rank, had every other attribute of kingship. Thor had been the first and greatest of Elswyth’s conquests, the first hint of her ability to seduce the world. He who loved all children loved her as he loved no other, save those born to him, and even then, if his daughters had seen Elswyth perched on their father’s shoulders, seen the joy on their father’s face at having her there, they would have felt themselves usurped.
Though she called him “Uncle,” he was to Elswyth almost another father—a far more romantic father, a broader, bolder, bigger, brighter father than the one who had given her life and love and sustenance and doting indulgence all her days.
She found him the next morning, sitting upright, with his legs wide apart, his feet firmly planted, his arms folded sternly across his chest. His eyes were closed and he was letting the morning sun fall directly upon his weathered face and his gold-and-silver beard. She crept silently up to him, leaned over, and planted a kiss on his cheek.
Thor did not move or speak, but remained impassive, with the warming sun full on his face.
“Who kissed you?” she asked.
“The fairest child in Northumbria, I’ll warrant,” the old man said.
“If you would open your eyes, Uncle Thor, you would see that I am no longer a child.”
“What? It was not Daisy then who kissed me? Who then? Whitney? Moira? Or is it Hilda who claims she’s reached a woman’s age?”
“Oh, Uncle Thor. Am I not your favorite anymore?”
Thor opened one eye and looked at her. She stuck out her bottom lip at him.
“Don’t fret, lass,” he said, “you are still my favorite. Becoming every man’s favorite, I reckon.”
“They like me well enough,” she said.
“And so they should. I see you’ve grown to a woman sure enough, lass. And an able one. You did well last night.”
“You know very well you did.”
“I thought I did. But sometimes I think I’ve done well and then Mother tells me I didn’t.”
“Did you not see your mother’s face? She was proud of you.”
“Well, that’s a nice change.”
“Less than you think,” he said.
“Where’s Leif?” she asked.
“Still in his bed. He’ll make a fine jarl in the afternoon, that lad. But Odin help the clan in the morning.”
She laughed and sat down on the bench beside him. “I like the morning,” she said. “If you start at first light, who knows how far you can go by evening?”
“Why, he who knows the wind or the tide or the state of the road and the stamina of his horse. They know it to the mile.”
“Oh, Uncle Thor, you know what I mean.”
“Elswyth!” came a commanding cry.
“How many day’s sailing to Spain?” Elswyth asked, ignoring her mother’s voice.
“Go when you’re bid,” Thor said.
Elswyth stuck out her lip at Thor and turned to give an exasperated look over her shoulder at her mother.
“What?” she demanded.
“Since you are just sitting there, you can come and help fetch the breakfast.”
“I thought you did not want me to be a kitchen maid.”
“I want you to be a good ealdorman’s wife,” her mother said, laying a basket on the table. “That makes it your business to see that the food gets upon the table, and there’s no better way to do that than to set to and carry it. Mayda’s bringing the bread. You fetch the honey pot and put some of those mushrooms in a bowl.”
Elswyth turned back to Thor, but the old man had closed his eyes and was sitting impassively as before. She would get nothing more out of him until she did as her mother had asked.
“Where are you going in such a thunder,” her father asked her when she met him in the doorway of the hall.
“Mother is making me fetch and carry,” Elswyth complained.
“That woman has powers no man can match!” Attor said, and he bent and kissed her fondly on the top of her head.
Breakfast was almost done by the time Leif stumbled out of the guest house, blinking blearily at the sunshine. He was scruffy and bedraggled, and dressed in a dirty sea jacket and trousers. There was something at once comic and tragic about the scrappy strands of hair that were struggling for life on the rocky promontory that was his chin. Elswyth could not help smiling at him. Their eyes touched, and his flitted away.
“Ha, he wakes,” Attor cried when he saw him. “Young men love their beds, Thor, even when they’ve no company.”
“Never was a lad saw a sunrise from his tenth year to his twentieth,” Thor grumbled. “A man has only to rise with the sun to steal a march on a boy!”
“Pay no mind to them, Leif” Edith said. “You are a guest here, and you may rise at any hour you choose.”
Elswyth raised an eyebrow at her mother, scandalized that Leif should be allowed to lie in idleness while she was made to fetch and carry.
“Come and eat,” Edith said. “Try the mushrooms. Elswyth picked those herself, didn’t you my dear. Went all the way to Foxton wood for them.”
“Yes, Mother,” said Elswyth, rolling her eyes. “It was such an adventure!”
Leif sat down at the table, which contained the remainders of a large breakfast: a broken loaf, a half empty honey pot with a sticky spoon, a basket with one apple in it, a bowl with a handful of mushrooms in the bottom, and a milk pitcher. He picked up the pitcher and his face fell when he discovered that there were only dregs sloshing in the bottom. He poured the last of the milk into the bottom of a mug, looking very disconsolate.
Edith said immediately, “Elswyth, go and fill the pitcher for Leif, and fetch a new loaf as well.”
Elswyth turned to the hall door and shouted, “Mayda, fetch some more milk.”
“She’ll be feeding the pigs by now, and she will not hear you calling,” her mother said. “Go like I asked you to.”
“I want to listen,” Elswyth protested.
“Then hurry back so you won’t miss much.”
Elswyth rose and stalked huffily towards the hall door. She was certain that Leif watched her as she went, but when she glanced back, he was listening to the conversation that was going on between her father and Thor.
Elswyth hurried to the kitchen and returned as quickly as she could, bringing a fresh pitcher of milk and a new loaf, still warm from the oven. She dropped these down in front of Leif.
“Thank you,” he said, when she laid them before him.
She ignored him. She had been reduced from lady of the hall to fetching and carrying, while her mother, at least, was still treating Leif as chief guest. She was not willing to engage with him on those terms.
Her mother was pressing Thor for news of his family. Something about a youngest daughter married and a newest grandson born.
“Have you been to Orkney lately, Uncle Thor,” she asked, interrupting her mother’s conversation.
“I’ve been to Orkney,” Leif said.
She ignored him. “Have you,” she insisted to Thor.
“Aye,” said Thor.
“I have heard that there was a sheep born there with three heads. Did you see it?”
“Did you hear of it? Is it true?”
“I dunno, lass.”
“Norvel says he saw it, but I don’t think I believe him.”
“Can’t say, lass.”
“It’s nonsense,” said Leif. “A sheep cannot have three heads.”
She ignored him.
Thor turned to Attor and said, “Your people were not so pleased to see us last night.”
“It is quite mad what has been happening since Lindisfarne,” her father replied. “I just heard from a man last week that there was a Pictish trader and his crew beaten up by a mob near Jarrow. Two of them died and his ship was burned with all its cargo.”
“Foolish waste,” Thor said. “If you kill a man, why burn his goods? No profit of his blood if you do that.”
“No one’s thinking much, these days,” Attor said.
“Not safe for us to travel inland, then?” Thor asked.
“No,” said Attor. “Had you planned to do so?”
“We had hoped to sell the books at Lindisfarne,” Thor said. “But we cannot do that now. We know men in York, and I know there are many of your holy men there.”
“You are lucky you came here first instead of going to Lindisfarne. You would have found nothing there but an angry fyrd.”
“We wanted your advice. We have traded with the jarl of the holy men, but he would not make an oath of brotherhood with us, as you did, but only friendship. He said he could make no such oath with heathens. Also, we hoped you could help us find a home here.”
“Have you been to York, Uncle Thor?” Elswyth asked.
“I’ve been by the river way,” Thor said, “But I didn’t go into the town.”
“Why ever not?” Elswyth demanded, scandalized at such an opportunity lost.
“Did our business by the riverbank,” Thor said. “No need to go further.”
“But you’re going now?”
“If we can.”
“Take me with you.”
“Hush, girl!” her mother scolded. “As if we’d let you on board a ship again! Take some of these things to the kitchen, and then see to your embroidery. I want to see a span’s width before noon.”
“I want to talk to Uncle Thor,” Elswyth protested. “It’s been two years since I’ve seen him. I want to hear his adventures.”
“There’s work to be done,” her father said, dusting the remains of his breakfast from his hands.
Leif stood, a guilty look on his face, his cheeks still stuffed with food.
“Sit, lad.” Attor said, “We three must talk our trade talk.”
“Come on, Elswyth,” Edith said, “We must leave the men to their business.”
“I want to listen.” Elswyth’s tone suggested that her mother was either hard of hearing or soft in the head.
“Come on,” her mother replied. “We start listening to their business and next thing, they’ll want to listen to ours. Then it will be all listening and no doing and then what will become of the world?”
“Produce a span by lunch,” her father said, “and we’ll see what time Thor has for stories this afternoon. Now be a good girl and run along with your mother.”
Elswyth blushed deep red. She could feel the warmth of the blood in her cheeks and feel it pricking at the roots of her hair. Such a childish dismissal would anger her on any day, but today she felt her father had reduced her to a child in front of…well, in front of Uncle Thor, who might well have been persuaded to take her to York. And, yes, in front of Leif besides, when that untidy boy was invited to sit in council while she was dismissed.
“If I am to produce a span in a morning,” she said to her mother, “I want no sharp words about the quality. To do these things properly takes time.” She turned on her heel and began to stalk toward the hall door.
“Here,” her mother called after her. “Take these things.”
She turned back to the table, stamping her bare feet in the dust, no longer caring how dirty they got. Her mother loaded her arms with basket and pitcher. While she was being so burdened, she caught Leif looking at her out of the corner of his eye. She scowled at him and he looked away.
“Bye, lass,” said Thor, with a touch of sympathy in his voice.
Elswyth wanted none of it. She turned once again and stamped across the compound to the hall.
Next Chapter: 9 The Books
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