The mighty are undone by pride, the bold by folly, and the good by wistfulness.
Elswyth’s mother was a slave, but her father is a thegn, and Drefan, the man she is to marry, is an ealdorman’s son. But though Elswyth is content with the match, and waits only for Drefan to notice that she has come to womanhood, still she finds herself gazing seaward, full of wistful longing.
From the sea come Norse traders, bringing wealth, friendship, and tales of distant lands. But in this year of grace 793 the sea has brought a great Viking raid that has devastated the rich monastery of Lindisfarne. Norse are suddenly not welcome in Northumbria, and when Elswyth spots a Norse ship approaching the beach in her village of Twyford, her father fears a Viking raid.
But the ship brings trouble of a different kind. Leif has visited Twyford many times as a boy, accompanying his father on his voyages. But now he returns in command of his father’s ship and desperate to raise his father’s ransom by selling a cargo of Christian holy books. Elswyth is fascinated by the books and the pictures they contain of warm and distant lands.
But when Drefan arrives, investigating reports of the sighting of a Norse ship, Elswyth must try to keep the peace between Drefan and Leif, and tame the wistfulness of her restless heart.
“Watch my basket,” Elswyth said to Hilda as she leapt up from her seat. She ignored Hilda’s indignant reply and ran to Leif, pulling his fingers away to inspect the wound. There was a gash on his temple that was bleeding freely.
“Put pressure on it,” she said.
“I was,” he replied, putting his hand back in place over the wound.
“Come to the kitchen. We must put some honey on it to stop it from festering.”
She led him to the kitchen as if he were a child. The monk looked up when she came in. He was startled to see her, and his hand darted up to pull his cowl over his eyes. Unfortunately, the hand that darted up was holding a candle. He yelped when the candle burned him, dropped it, and then patted out the flames that had started to catch in his cowl, singeing his bare hands.
Elswyth stepped quickly to pick up the candle before it set fire to the rushes on the floor. “Perhaps I should wear a bell around my neck so you can hear me coming,” she said.
The monk did not reply, but looked sheepish and hunted around for a water bucket in which to cool his singed hands.
Elswyth took the honey pot down from the shelf and made Leif sit on a bench while she slathered the wound with enough honey to stop the blood from flowing. Then she ripped a rag into strips and used it to tie a bandage in place around his head to keep the honey on the wound.
“Who did this?” she demanded, when she was satisfied that the bandage would stay on.
“Boys throwing stones,” he said with a shrug, as if the wound had come as no surprise to him.
“Two I think. Hiding in the dunes.”
“I know who they are, the little vermin. I’ll fix them.”
She stormed out of the kitchen and returned a few minutes later dragging two boys by the ears, which she was twisting fiercely. They screeched horribly, but though they were almost as big as she was, neither made any attempt to escape her, knowing what lashes they would suffer if they offered any resistance to their thegn’s daughter.
“Apologize,” she said, forcing them to their knees in front of Leif.
“Do not make them kneel to me,” Leif said, getting to his feet. “If they are men, let them stand. If they are children, let them go.”
She looked at him with surprise. It was the sort of thing she expected Thor to say, not Leif. She let go of their ears. They looked at each other, each wanting to know if the other wanted to run. But they did not run. They stood and faced Leif.
“You are freemen’s sons?” Leif asked.
“Yes, sir,” they muttered, eyes downcast.
“Your fathers broke bread and shared a cup of hospitality with me in your lord’s hall.” Leif said. “You have broken the laws of hospitality. Your thegn will want vengeance for my blood that you have spilled. With you, this is done with money. What is the wergild for drawing the blood of a lord who is your lord’s guest?”
“More than their fathers can afford,” Elswyth said. “The only way they could pay would be to sell themselves into slavery. Or sell these two.”
The two boys looked very pale.
“There is always the old way,” Leif said. “Simple vengeance. Man to man. Blow for blow. No need to tell your fathers, or the thegn. Would you prefer that?”
The two boys looked at each other, then turned back to him and nodded shyly. Leif struck the first, an open-handed blow to the ear that knocked him down but did not draw blood. The boy bit his lip to hold back tears and struggled to his feet. The other had tears already starting in the corners of his eyes, which he clamped firmly shut. Leif gave him the same blow, sending him sprawling. He struggled to his feet like his friend, cuffing tears from his eyes as he did so.
“Quits?” Leif asked.
“Quits,” they said, looking at the floor.
“If we are at quits, look me in the eye.”
They slowly raised their eyes to his, and held them there.
“You bore my vengeance bravely,” Leif said. “Shall we be friends?”
They looked up at him and nodded wordlessly.
He held out his hand to each in turn and they shook it, then stood gawping at him, with no idea of what to do next.
“Get out,” Elswyth snapped at them.
They turned to go.
“Waes hael”, Leif said to them.
They turned. “Waes hael,” they whispered, and then turned and fled.
“That will be all over the village in the time it takes to sing Sext,” the monk said.
“No,” Leif said. “They broke hospitality. That is a serious matter, even among the Anglish. They will not boast of it. Besides, we are friends now. To shake a man’s hand and call him a friend is as good as an oath, and no boy wants to be known as an oath breaker.”
“Why do young men make friends with their fists?” Elswyth asked. She was curious, for she had seen it many times before.
“No man wants a coward for a friend,” Leif answered, as if there were no mystery too it at all.
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Meet G.M. Baker
G. M. Baker has been a newspaper reporter, managing editor, freelance writer, magazine contributor, PhD candidate, seminarian, teacher, desktop publisher, programmer, technical writer, department manager, communications director, non-fiction author, speaker, consultant, and grandfather. He has published stories in The Atlantic Advocate, Fantasy Book, New England’s Coastal Journal, Our Family, Storyteller, Solander, and Dappled Things. There was nothing much left to do but become a novelist.
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