Book Title: The Wistful and the Good
Series: Cuthbert’s People
Author: G. M. Baker
Publication Date: 4th April 2022
Publisher: Stories All the Way Down
Page Length: 341 Pages
Genre: Historical Fiction
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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.
The Wistful and the Good – Excerpt 1
Edith put two fingers in her mouth and whistled loudly. Three boys came scampering at the command.
“Run to the fields and tell the men that the thegn summons them,” she told them. She held out a hand to her husband so that he could help her rise. “You should not use that girl as a sentinel.”
“There’s not a better set of eyes in the village.”
“That may be, but she is to marry Drefan after the harvest, and I’ve much to do to make a lady of her yet. Can you imagine if, the day after she marries Drefan, Lady Cyneburg finds her in the mud behind Bamburgh hall, barefoot, playing pickup sticks with the slave children?”
“Cyneburg loves her.”
“Everyone loves her. That is her curse. But Cyneburg loving Elswyth and Cyneburg thinking Elswyth fit to succeed her as lady to the ealdorman of Bamburgh? That is a very different thing. For that she must be a lady—and not just when it pleases her. Cyneburg has not forgotten who she is. She has not forgotten that I was born a slave. There were days I washed her feet and served her meat, and she has not forgotten that, I promise you.”
“You’re a lady now,” Attor said. “And Elswyth always was.”
“But she looks more like those who serve in Bamburgh than those who rule. So in her dress, in her manner, she must be more a lady than any of them, than Cyneburg herself. But what is she today? A shoeless child pining for sailor men. And it is you giving her leave to do it.”
“It frees a man for the haying.”
“And is the haying worth losing her marriage over?”
It was an old argument between them. Not a week went by without Edith asking her husband if some adventure or indulgence was worth losing Elswyth’s marriage over.
“She’ll not lose the marriage,” Attor said. “Drefan’s smitten.”
“Smitten?” Edith said. “Of course he’s smitten. But what has smitten to do with the marriages of nobility?”
“I was smitten,” he said, placing one arm around her and pulling her to him so he could kiss first her, and then Daisy, upon the head. “Still am.”
“And what advantage did you have by it? It cost you thirty hides that Elene of Hadston would have brought you, your brother’s friendship, your mother’s love.”
“My mother loved the children.”
“She loved Elswyth because everyone does. She loved Hilda because she looks like her. She never loved me or forgave you. Blood debt or not, Kenrick and Cyneburg won’t throw so much away if they don’t think Elswyth suitable.”
At that moment, the unsuitable child came tearing down the path from the clifftop, bare feet flying, hair streaming behind her.
“It is Norsk!” she cried as she ran towards them. “It is Norsk, but I think it is Uncle Harrald. It is a knarr for sure. But perhaps I should ride to Alnwick anyway, just in case.”
“Ride to Alnwick?” Edith said.
“Father said I could ride to Alnwick if it was vikingar. To give the alarm.”
“Well you can’t,” Edith said. She turned to her husband. “What were you thinking? We would not have seen her for a month if you had given her leave and a good horse.”
“Of course you would,” Elswyth said. “Of course, it would be rude to ride to Alnwick and then not call on Uncle Leofwine and Uncle Osgar, and Eglingham is so close that I would have to go there too. But I would only be gone a week at most.”
“And four men taken from the fields to escort you.”
“No. Father said I could ride alone.”
“Just to give the alarm,” Attor protested. “Thegn Wigberht would have sent you right back with an escort.”
“If he could catch her,” Edith said. “You are not leaving this village, miss, till the ship comes to take you to Bamburgh after the harvest. And by then you must have your wedding dress complete.”
“If the ship is Norsk,” Attor said, “then I must certainly meet them with spears, whether you think it is Harrald or not.” He who had never flinched in the battle line wanted no part of war between his wife and daughter. He hurried off, with his awkward gait, to organize the men who were beginning to stream in from the fields.
“You don’t really think I would ride away for a month and miss Uncle Harrald and Uncle Thor, do you?” Elswyth asked her mother.
Edith looked at her daughter. Elswyth’s appearance provoked a frown that expressed not simply annoyance, but a deep and vexing puzzle. Elswyth was a lovely young woman, plump in the bosom, round in the hips, with a mane of glossy black hair. Her face was the image of Edith’s own. It was the face that Edith had once seen staring back at her from a still pool, when she was a slave and her face had been the whole of her fortune. It was a wholly Welisc face with not a trace of Anglish in it. On Edith, who had been born to Welisc slaves on the manor where she was now lady, that face had been enough to catch the eye of an Anglish thegn’s son. On Elswyth, Edith believed, it was a face that might have caught the fancy of an Anglish king, if only the opportunity had presented itself.
Elswyth was clad in a summer dress of green linen with brooches befitting her rank, and a decorated belt with heavy copper terminals shaped like the heads of herons, which she wore high to emphasize her bosom. Yet she was barefoot like a child, and there were at least a dozen sticky burs clinging to her skirts and a posy of assorted and drooping wildflowers stuck behind one of her brooches.
“Where are your shoes?” Edith asked.
“Why would I wear shoes in the middle of summer?”
“Because you are no longer a child. A respectable noblewoman wears shoes on her feet, winter or summer. And a wimple on her head.”
“There’s a ship, Mother.”
“Where is your work basket?”
“It’s Norsk! I can tell by the shape, by the way it sails. I’m almost sure it’s Uncle Harrald.”
“I’d be glad if it was,” Edith said. “But he has not come in two years. Wrecked and drowned, like as not. Such is the fate of sailors.”
“Of course they are not wrecked or drowned,” Elswyth said. “Uncle Thor would never let them be wrecked or drowned.”
“Uncle Thor is just a man. I know you loved him, darling, but you are a woman now and you have seen quite enough of death to know that people die, no matter how much we love them.”
“I know,” Elswyth said, looking downcast for the moment or two that was all her nature was capable of. “But not Uncle Thor. Not Uncle Harrald either. You’ll see. It’s their ship. I know it is.”
“Well then go put your shoes on and make yourself presentable to receive guests.” Edith yanked out the posy of flowers that drooped behind Elswyth’s brooch, and threw it on the ground. She bundled Daisy into Elswyth’s arms while she pulled the sticky burrs out of Elswyth’s skirts. Then she took the baby back from her grown daughter and said, “And put on a wimple too. You should not be parading your hair in front of sailors at your age.”
“Not till I’m married, Mother. You promised!” Elswyth replied. But she said it over her shoulder as she ran off so that she was gone before Edith had a chance to respond.
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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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