The Wistful and the Good
Undone by Wistfulness
G. M. Baker
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.
It was the simplest of caresses, and yet Drefan’s thumb inscribing small circles on her belly was a touch of such intimacy, such easy familiarity, that Elswyth found her chin quivering and could hardly catch her breath.
“Did your father ever tell you how we came to be promised to each other?” Drefan asked.
“I never thought to ask,” she said. “I was just always promised to you. I don’t even remember when they told me. I don’t remember ever not knowing.”
“You know that wound your father will not talk about, the one that makes him limp a little? My father fell in the battle line. Actually fell, I mean. He tripped over a rabbit hole. Your father stood over him. It only took a moment for the shield wall to close again, but in that moment a Pictish spear found your father’s thigh. My father won’t speak of it because he is embarrassed for having tripped. Your father won’t speak of it to save my father embarrassment. Or so my uncle told me, last year, when I got him drunk. My father wanted to reward your father for saving his life. But it could not be gold or land, for that would mean confessing to the trip—such rewards, and the act that merits them, must be announced in the hall. But your father had a daughter—a baby—you. And so my father said, let your daughter be married to my son. And so they agreed. My mother was not pleased. You are a slave’s daughter, after all. Half Welisc. And your father is not the most important thegn in the district, nor the richest, nor the wisest of councilors.”
“He’s a lovely man, your father. I like him a lot. But does he think of the affairs of the kingdom, the affairs of the district, from one Pentecost to the next?”
“Not the sort of man whose daughter marries an ealdorman’s son.”
“No. But aren’t I the sort of woman who marries an ealdorman’s son?”
“In beauty, sure enough,” he said. “In charm. In song. In peaceweaving.”
“But I bring neither land nor lineage into the alliance.”
“But you will marry me anyway.” This she said primly, with confidence.
“I was four years old when the promise was made. I’m like you. I don’t remember being told. I’ve just always known I was going to marry you. I think I remember holding you, all swaddled up and sleeping, and being told, ‘This is the girl you will marry, Dreffy,’ and kissing you on the forehead. But maybe I don’t really remember it. Maybe I have just been told about it so often by soft-hearted women that I think I remember it.”
“You never told me that before,” she said, laughing at the thought of it. “It’s sweet. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I wanted you to think me a great warrior, a captain of men.”
“Well I do! So why tell me now?”
“I want you to know that I shall love our children.”
He could not have said anything that would have pleased her more, and if he had kissed her then, and begun to undress her, all would have been as they both anticipated. But he was still shy. He still felt the need to prove his worthiness to her, to prove that she was his choice, not merely his father’s.
“Your uncle Fyren has served my father in his household all these years,” he said. “They have become fast friends, and your uncle has given my father noble service. He has more than earned a reward.”
He paused but she said nothing. Her uncle’s name never brought cheer to a conversation.
“Your uncle does not approve of your father’s marriage,” Drefan continued.
“You mean he does not approve of my mother.”
“He does not think it wise that Welisc blood should be mixed with Anglish, especially not in the ranks of ealdormen and kings.”
“There have been Anglish kings that took Welisc wives. Saxon and Jutish kings as well.”
“I have said that to him. But he has tales in which the offspring of such unions come to grief. You would think to hear him that if any lord ever lost a battle it was because he had a Welisc mother.”
“You are going to marry me, aren’t you?” she asked, suddenly alarmed.
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.