The Wistful and the Good, Chapter 9
Elswyth’s triumph in the hall has been followed by a morning of bad temper and discontent, but when Elswyth is sent to get on with her embroidery and Leif to fetch the books from his ship, their paths cross again. Get caught up using the index page.
What Edith did not know and Elswyth had forgotten was that Elswyth’s embroidery basket had last been seen sailing over the cliff face towards the sands below. So, several cross words having been exchanged, Elswyth was sent to look for it. The best hope was that it had made it all the way down the cliff to the beach below. If it were hung up somewhere on the steep cliff face, it would probably be irretrievable. So to the beach she went, in a foul temper, but on the way there she met Leif on his way to the ship.
Last night they had been jarl and lady, with the affairs of two peoples in their hands. But this morning they had both been treated like children. Both felt the embarrassment of it, and neither wanted to say a word to the other. Yet neither could they prevent their paths converging without one obviously waiting while the other passed, and that seemed absurd and embarrassing as well. So each kept walking at their original pace until they came, at exactly the same moment, to the point where their two paths converged, and one had to give way to the other.
Leif stopped, leaving the path open to Elswyth.
She wanted to stalk past him in silence and let him watch her flounce away, but silent sulking was not one of her gifts. Instead she stopped too and demanded, “Where are you going?”
He paused—paused as she has seen him do in the hall, in moments of doubt or danger. Not freezing in fear, but seemingly its very opposite. A moment of stillness, of calm consideration. It infuriated her. “To the ship,” he said, at last, “to fetch a book to show your father.”
All her bad temper vanished at the word “book”.
“You have to show me,” she said. “I have never seen a book.”
He paused again.
“It is none of your business if I am supposed to be doing embroidery,” she said.
“It’s not that,” he said.
His pause. His damnable pause.
“Didn’t I help you in the hall, last night?” she said.
“Yes, Lady. I thank you for that.” Then yet another pause, and he said, “At one point I thought you were trying to get me killed.”
“I was trying to get you not killed.”
“Yes,” he said.
“And here you are, not killed.”
“So you owe me, for not being killed. Show me the books.”
“Your father is waiting for me.”
“Leave Father to me.”
He was not willing to openly refuse her and so he shrugged and said, “As you wish, Lady.”
“Right, let’s go.”
She set off along the path through the dunes, which was only wide enough for two if they walked arm in arm. He fell in behind her. After a few steps she turned and, walking backwards, she said, “You can call me Elswyth if you want.” She then turned and walked forward several paces before turning again and saying, “My friends call me ‘Elsy,’ but I don’t like it much, so don’t do that.”
“No, Lady,” he said.
“Hilda couldn’t say ‘th’ for the longest time, so she called me Elsy, and then everyone started doing it, to tease me. But you are a guest, so you must not tease me. It is Elswyth, to you.
“Can I call you ‘Leif,’ then?”
“You don’t really get how this works, do you Leif?”
“I can call you Elswyth if I want to,” he said.
“Thank you, Lady,” he said.
She turned and looked at him, half outraged, half laughing. “I said you were not to tease me!” she said, throwing her arms open in exasperation.
The tide was well out and the ship stood high and dry on the beach. Eric was supervising as the men scraped her bottom of weed and barnacles. He caught her eye as she approached, but the look on his face was entirely grim. Did he regret what he had said to her the previous day? Did he fear she would complain about it to Thor or to Leif? She could not read either of these things in his face. It was her presence itself he seemed to resent. In any case, she gave him no acknowledgement, nor did he make any acknowledgement to her beyond an unfriendly scowl.
“Wait here while…” Leif began, but she already had a leg over the rail in the low part of the ship and was aboard before he could finish the sentence. He climbed up after her. Under the foredeck, protected from the rain and the sea spray, a large chest was lashed between a pair of cleats. He went to it and opened the heavy lid. From inside the chest a rich smell of oil and new leather emerged. Elswyth leaned in, inhaling the smell and running her hands over the upright spines.
“Is this a book?” she asked, meaning the whole chest.
“There are six books,” Leif said, crowding her away from the chest as much as he could without touching her. He bent and lifted out one of the leather-bound volumes.
“It is like a small chest inside a larger one,” Elswyth said. “What is inside the smaller one?”
“I’ll show you when we get back to the hall,” he said. “I don’t want to keep your father waiting.”
“Just a peek, now,” she pleaded, her hands reaching for the shining leather with its encrusting jewels, “in case Father won’t let me stay.”
He hugged the book to his chest and turned away from her, avoiding her hands. She realized that not only did he not want her touching the book, he did not want her touching him either.
“Fine,” she said, resentfully. “But it wouldn’t hurt to give me just a peek.”
Leif said nothing, but turned and dropped over the side, still clutching the book to his chest.
Elswyth turned and glanced at Eric, who looked at her, grim faced. She stuck her tongue out at him, but he only glared back and shook his head. She dropped over the side and followed Leif up the sands.
Attor rolled his eyes and gestured heavenward when he saw Elswyth accompanying Leif back to the hall with the book. But he did not send her away. Leif laid the book down on the table in the sunshine. Attor looked it over, running gentle and reverent hands over the new and gleaming leather and inspecting the precious stones with an expert eye. He made no move to open the cover.
Elswyth watched her father’s hands with burning envy. The desire to run her hands over the warm gleaming leather, to feel the cold hardness of the colored stones, to caress the luster of the gold filigree, was hard to bear. As keen and avid as her eyes might be, she was also a creature of her fingertips. To be denied touch was to be denied knowledge. But she realized how much depended on these books for Leif, how much anguish he must feel until their value was known and a buyer identified. And so she stood back and watched as her father made his inspection, her fingers twisted together behind her back to keep them from reaching out.
Leif too was seething with impatience as Attor’s inspection continued. At last he could be silent no longer.
“Open it,” he said, “the true beauty is inside.”
Attor raised an eyebrow in Thor’s direction.
“I did not think such things were worth more in trade than the stones and the metal,” Thor said. “But Leif says your holy men value them highly and spend much labor to produce them.”
Attor frowned. “It’s true they spend a pretty penny on cow skin,” he said. “Puts up the price of leather.” He turned back the heavy cover of the book. Its leather binding was still new and not yet supple. It creaked and groaned as he opened it. Inside there was a loose sheet of parchment covered with writing. Attor lifted the loose sheet without curiosity and looked at the page beneath. The entire page was covered with a delicate and intricately drawn picture of a man sitting at a writing desk. Behind him was a cupboard filled with books. A large volume was open upon the desk and the man’s hand held a pen that was copying new letters into the great book. It seemed as if his hand wrote automatically, for the man’s eyes were not upon his work but stared straight out of the picture. Upon his face was a beatific smile and about his head was a halo glowing golden in the sunlight. The room in which he sat was bright with light and richly furnished. The picture was surrounded with an ornate border full of detail, color, and lively line.
Elswyth could not help leaning in. She grasped her right wrist with her left hand to keep herself from reaching out to touch. As she strained forward, she pressed up against Leif’s side as he too gazed at the picture. For the first time, he did not draw away at the touch of her.
“Is this the image of your God?” Leif asked.
“I do not know,” Attor replied. “Perhaps it is the man who wrote the book.”
“Turn the page,” Leif urged.
Attor did so, first rubbing his fingertips on the seat of his trousers, so as not to dirty the pages. The new page bore in its top left corner a large and colorfully decorated letter. Elswyth knew it was a letter, for she had seen half a dozen lettered things in the village. There was a dagger of her father’s with letters on the blade, letters on the doorpost of the hall and on a couple of the houses, letters on the great stone cross in the center of the village, letters on a silver goblet that had been a wedding present to her mother. The rest of the page was filled with smaller letters, inked in black, and standing tight together in rows like men in a shield wall. There were more letters on that page than she had seen in her whole life.
“Is this a rune of power?” Leif asked. “What are these words that are written beside it?”
“Do you think I read, lad?” Attor said.
“I thought all Anglish people could read.”
Attor laughed. “Do you think I have time for such a thing? Only monks read, and they devote their lives to the study of it.”
Leif’s face fell. “I had hoped to learn its secrets,” he said.
“My family has much need of magic.”
“If books contained a magic against vikingar, Lindisfarne would have been well defended,” Attor said.
“But maybe they didn’t have these books,” Elswyth said. “Maybe each one has a different magic.”
Attor looked at Thor and asked, “How did you come by such a thing.”
“Leif came back from Lindisfarne telling us stories of these books, and the value the holy men placed on them. Two years back, Torvalds was trading with a Danir, and the Danir offered him this. The Danir asked little more than the price of the stones and the metal. Torvalds remembered the lad’s story and took a chance.”
“Well done then, lad,” Attor said. “You’ve a trader’s head on your shoulders. But if the Danir did not know its value, then he stole it. And so again, there is no charm against vikingar here.”
“If there is no magic in them, Uncle, are they still worth something? Will they raise the money to free my father?”
“I do not do any trade in books,” Attor said, chewing pensively on his bottom lip. “But I do not think this book alone will pay your father’s ransom.”
“But I have more than one,” Leif said. “I have a great chest full. I have five more books. Will that be enough?”
“I don’t know. Books are not like bales of reindeer hide—all the same price. Some are prized more highly than others, I believe.”
“Gospels” said Leif. “Gospels are the most prized. I learned this from the monks. But I did not learn how to tell a gospel from another sort of book. Is this a gospel, Uncle? What is the value of six gospels?”
“I have no means to reckon it,” Attor said.
“The monk would know,” Elswyth said.
“You have a monk?” Leif asked eagerly. “Is he one of your slaves?”
Elswyth laughed. “Monks are not slaves,” she said. “But we have one visiting, because Kendra is a prophet. Or maybe she is. Remember, Father?”
“I’d forgotten about him,” Attor said. “But you’re right. If anyone here knows the value of these books, it will be the monk. Go fetch him.”
Next Chapter: 10. The Monk (coming next week)
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