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.
After lunch, Elswyth did as her mother suggested, carrying her embroidery basket up the cliff. She had not made much progress on her embroidery, however, before her mother came laboring up the cliff path.
“Drefan wants to take you riding,” she said.
“Mother! Why did you climb all the way up here yourself? You could have sent Moira.”
“I’m not an invalid. And I wanted to talk to you.”
“Drefan. I don’t know what’s in his head.”
“He’s taken me riding lots of times.”
“But he’s never kissed you like that before.”
“You mean you think…”
“I don’t know what to think. He won’t hurt you. I know that. But I know what you think about me and your father, and I want to tell you—” Here Edith paused to swallow before continuing. “My darling, you don’t want to end up with a child that hates you the way Hilda hates me.”
“She doesn’t hate you. She was just crying in your arms about the plowboy.”
“I am the only mother she’s got. When she needs to weep, she comes to me. But she hates who I am. She hates what I did.”
Elswyth snapped the head off a buttercup and set it floating on the breeze. “She wouldn’t be a thegn’s daughter, if you hadn’t done it. She’d be a slave and never have had a needle in those precious hands of hers.”
“I think she imagines she would have been the daughter of your Father and Elene of Hadston.”
“How horrid of her!”
“Have you never imagined having someone else for a mother?”
“How could I? We look just the same.”
“But Hilda doesn’t. She’d be pure Anglish if it wasn’t for me. And your daughters won’t all look like you. I’m just saying, you have no cause to give yourself the same grief I suffer.”
Elswyth stopped to consider this. It had not occurred to her that Drefan, whose treatment of her until today had been so chaste, might suddenly desire to lie with her. But nor had it occurred to her that he would kiss her with such hunger as he had done. And now that her mother had put the thought into her head, she could not laugh it off. She had for so long wanted him to show signs of wanting her. She had craved proof of ardor. They were to marry because of a promise that their fathers had made long ago. But she longed for what her mother had had—a marriage born of passion and affection. A passion irresistible, enacted beneath stars behind a haystack. It might be sinful in Brother Alun’s eyes, but to her it seemed to have a purity to it—a dignity not to be found in two old men shaking hands over the fate of a little boy and a baby girl. But today? And if today, would that be proof of ardor or an act of jealous possession?
She plucked another buttercup and set it free on the wind. And then another thought came over her, part dread and part exculpation.
“I can’t lose him either,” she said.
Now it was Edith’s turn to fall silent.
“Why should you lose him?” she replied after a moment, but there was doubt in her voice.
“But what if? What if he expects? What if I refuse?”
Edith was silent again for a moment. She came and lowered herself gingerly down to sit beside Elswyth. She looked at her daughter, and then turned and looked out to sea. After a moment’s anxious contemplation, she said, “You must be careful not to lose him. Would you mind so terribly if—”
Elswyth felt her heart stop. Could her mother really be asking this? And yet, was this not exactly what she had longed for?
“It’s not that I would mind, Mother….” But some part of her did mind, though what or why it minded she could not quite express to herself. “But I wouldn’t want my daughters to hate me.”
“Oh,” said Edith, embracing her daughter, “I’m sure they wouldn’t. I’m sure they wouldn’t. Forgive me. I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“But if he did, Mother, what would we do then?”
“If he refused you? If he refused you, and then your father died, and the estate went to Fyren? I suppose I would go to a nunnery. They would take me in and help me find husbands for your sisters. And they would take care of Whitney when I died. Or I could marry again, though I don’t know if I could bear to lie with another man, or if I could find a widower willing to take us all in, especially Whitney. It would be no trouble to find a husband for you. But, my darling—" Here Edith paused and looked at the ground. “My darling, there is something you don’t understand.”
“I have never said this to anyone,” Edith said, husky voiced, as if she were a child, ashamed and yet defiant. “It could lose us the marriage if I said it too soon. But when you are married to Drefan, you will get your morning gift. Land, money, horses, cattle, slaves, all your own, to do with as you please. Far more than your father’s estate. I have been planning for so long to come to you and beg you to buy your grandmother, and Mayda, and all the rest of my kin from your father. Then you could give them their manumission and land to settle on.”
Elswyth’s eyes grew wide at this. “Oh, but of course, Mother! Of course I will. But will they want to leave? They all seem happy here.”
“Because I make sure that they do not go hungry, that they are not worked to death, that the women are left alone. Why do you think your father does not go hawking? Why do you think we have not given you a horse fit for a lady? Because the money goes to keep them from misery. But if Fyren were thegn, it would be different. Hilda loves to tell me that virginity is a pearl without price. But I know the price of virginity. Twice I have had thegns try to buy Mayda from us. And I know the difference between the price they will offer for a kitchen maid, and the price they will offer for a concubine. I know the price of virginity in Northumbria today. I know it to the shilling. I can’t tell Hilda this, not yet. But I could never have kept my virginity. All I could do is choose the thegn who took it.”
“Oh, Mother, I never knew.”
“I never wanted you to know. Not till you were grown. Not till you had the wealth to make a difference. But you understand, don’t you. Only Drefan’s morning gift will be enough. Your father can sell them, but by his oath to his mother he cannot free them, and to sell for less than they are worth would be the same thing. You must buy them all, at full price, so that your father can keep his honor and his oath. Only Drefan’s morning gift can provide such wealth.”
The weight of this settled on Elswyth’s heart.
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.