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Elgiva sat on the goatskin rug before the fire, her arms clasped about her knees and her gaze on the flames. It was said that some had the skill to read the future there. Just then she would have given much for such a glimpse to help resolve the chaos of her thoughts. The present dilemma was desperate, but what to do for the best?
She glanced once at her companion, grateful for that comforting presence. To Elgiva, Osgifu had been both mother and confidante. The older woman had entered the service of Lord Egbert as a nursemaid when her husband died. At forty she was comely still, a tall elegant figure, for all that there were lines on her face and white strands in her dark hair. Her grey eyes saw more than other people, for she was known to have the second sight, to see those things hidden from ordinary mortal view. Her skill lay with the runes, not the fire, but the accuracy of her words was sufficient for people to regard her with awe, even fear. Elgiva had never been afraid, only curious. Osgifu's mother had been a Dane, a trader's daughter, who married a Saxon husband. From her she had inherited the gift of the sight and a wealth of stories besides.
When Elgiva was a child, Osgifu had entertained her with tales of the Norse gods: of Thor, who wielded the thunderbolts; of Loki the trickster of Odin; and Fenrir the wolf. Elgiva had listened, enthralled by stories of Jotenheim, the realm of the frost giants, and of the dragon, Nidhoggr, who constantly gnawed at the roots of Yggdrasil, the mighty ash tree connecting earth and heaven. Osgifu had taught her the Danish tongue too, albeit in secret, for she knew Lord Egbert would not have approved. Whenthey were alone, the two of them spoke their secret language and knew their words would be safe from other ears. She alone knew the secrets of Elgiva's heart and it was to her Elgiva turned in times of trouble.
The younger woman sighed and, turning her gaze from the glowing flames in the hearth, looked full at her mentor.
'I don't know what to do, Gifu. Ever since my father's death Ravenswood has slid further and further into chaos. My brother did nothing.' She paused. 'Now he is dead too, and his sons are but babes. The place needs a capable hand.'
She did not add, a man's hand, but Osgifu heard the thought. She also acknowledged the truth of it. Lord Osric, concerned only with skill at arms and with hawking and hunting, had taken little interest in the running of his late father's estate, preferring to leave it to his steward, Wilfred. A good man at heart, Wilfred had performed his duties well enough under Lord Egbert's exacting rule, but after, with no master's eye on him, he began to neglect small things, putting off until the morrow what should have been done today. The serfs under his control took their example from him, and Elgiva, on her daily rides, had begun to notice the results. Ravenswood, which had hitherto always looked prosperous, began to take on an air of neglect. Fences were not mended, repairs botched. Weeds grew among the crops and the livestock were not properly tended.
The roofs of the barns and storehouses leaked, and she felt sure that the stored grain and fodder within were not as strictly accounted for as they had been. When she had mentioned these things to Osric, he had brushed her aside. The problem grew worse. She had spoken to him again and received short shrift.
'A woman's place is in the house, not meddling in matters that do not concern her.'
'Ravenswood is my concern,' she'd replied, 'as it should be yours.'
'You take too much upon you, Elgiva.' He had eyed her coolly. 'If you had a husband and children of your own, you would have no time to interfere in the affairs of men. You should have been married long since.'
Her brother was right about that and Elgiva knew it. Had Lord Egbert lived, he would have found a bridegroom for her. There had been no shortage of suitors. She had loved her father dearly and he had made no secret of the fact that she was thechildofhis heart. Her company had been congenial to him for she knew how to make him laugh. A fearless rider, she had often accompanied him on the chase. His death three years earlier had changed everything, and for the worse. Osric, careless, feckless, had become the Thane of Ravenswood. Elgiva, well tutored in domestic matters, saw to it that the household ran smoothly, but she could do nothing about the wider problem. However, their conversation had put Osric in mind of his responsibilities towards his sister.
'I shall find you a husband. These are troubled times and a woman should not be without a protector, even if there is truth in only half the tales we hear of the Viking raids.'
That too was beyond dispute, but she had assumed that he would forget the matter as he did with everything not immediately concerned with his own interests. She had been quite wrong. One day, about a month after the former conversation, he announced that Lord Ay l win had asked for her hand. At first she had not known whether to laugh or cry. A wealthy and respected Saxon lord, wise governor of rich lands, Aylwin was a near neighbour. He had been the friend of her father and, his own wife having died some years earlier, he sought a new bride. At forty he was old enough to be her father and his sons were grown men, but he was still strong and vigorous. Elgiva had baulked. Although she had nothing to say against Aylwin as a man, she knew she could not feel for him what a woman should feel for a husband. In truth, she had never felt it for any man of her acquaintance. However, women of her rank did not marry for love. If both partners respected each other, it was enough. But not for her, she thought, not for her. Osric had not understood.
'Do you know anything against Aylwin?'
'You know he is wealthy and of good reputation? A man to be respected?'
'Then why should you refuse him?'
As Elgiva sought for the words to explain, Osric had pressed his advantage.
'You know Lord Aylwin sought your hand long since.'
'And I said then I did not love his lordship.'
'Love? What has love to do with it? This is an advantageous match.'
'I do not deny it. He is also old enough to be my father.'
'He is in his prime and will make you an attentive husband.'
'I will not consent to such attentions.'
With that she had marched out of the room and there the matter had rested. Osric, for all his faults, still had a certain fondness for his sister and would not force her to a marriage that was distasteful to her. Life had gone on much as before until, a month ago, Osric's horse put its foot in a hole while they were out hunting. Horse and rider fell with forcethe former breaking its foreleg and the rider his neck.
The shock had been great and the sorrow also. At a stroke Elgiva found herself alone with all the care of a large estate and two young children. Osric's wife, Cynewise, had died in childbed at the age of twenty. It was a common enough occurrence and, for women, one of the hazards of marriage, but for Elgiva it had been an added shock. She knew that Osric would have married again, in time, for a man might well have several wives in his lifetime. For a woman alone the future looked bleak. When she had told Osgifu that she didn't know what to do, it had been prevarication and they both knew it. She must marry and soon. But Aylwin?
'What do the runes say, Gifu?'
Elgiva knew already what they would say, but she needed to have it confirmed. The runes never lied. Carved out of ash, a tree sacred to Odin, and indelibly marked with ancient esoteric symbols, they would point the way as they had done before. Osgifu regarded her with a steady gaze.
'Ask your question.'
Elgiva drew in a deep breath. 'Shall I marry Aylwin?'
She waited, hands locked together, as Osgifu scanned the rune cast. The silence lengthened and her grey eyes narrowed, a sharp line creasing her brow.
'Well? Shall I marry?'
'Aye, you will be married, but not to Aylwin.'
'Not Aylwin?' Elgiva was puzzled. 'Then who?'
'I do not know the man.'
'What does he look like?'
'I cannot tell. The upper part of his face is hidden behind the plates of his helmet. He wears a shirt of fine mail and in his hand he carries a mighty sword, as sharp as a dragon's tooth.'
'A warrior? A Saxon lord, then. Shall I meet him soon?'
'You will see him soon enough.'
Thereafter she became strangely reticent and all of Elgiva's questions could draw nothing more from her.
The mystery stayed with her but, as the days passed, she knew she could not wait indefinitely for some stranger to ride by and rescue her from all her problems. A woman alone was vulnerable. A woman with wealth and land was doubly so once it became known she had no protector. It was not unknown for such to be married under duress to an ambitious and ruthless lord with a strong retinue and no aversion to the use of force. She shivered. Better to wed a respected man who would treat her well and restore Ravenswood to its former self. It came to her that she must wed Aylwin and soon. Love was all very well in stories of high romance: real life wasn't like that. Her brother had been right. It was an advantageous match. Perhaps, with time, she might come to love Aylwin. Certainly she would make him a dutiful wife and bear his children. Her mind glossed over the details, unwilling to dwell on the matter. Should she be so nice when, every day, girls of thirteen or fourteen were married off to men thrice their age? The question now was how to bring this about. She had refused Aylwin's suit. Could she now go a-begging?
In the event the matter was solved for her when, a few days later, the servants announced the arrival of Lord Aylwin accompanied by a small group of armed men. She received him in the great hall and, having bid him welcome, offered his men refreshment and allowed him to take her to one side. She wished that she had had more warningshe was suddenly aware of her sober-hued gown and her hair braided simply down her back without ribbon or ornament. It was hardly the dress of a woman receiving a suitor. However, Aylwin seemed to find nothing amiss and smiled at her. Of average height, he was stocky and powerfully made for all that the brown hair and beard were grizzled with grey. The expression on the rugged face was both sympathetic and kind, but the eyes spoke of admiration.
For a while they spoke of Osric and he said all that was proper, but it did not take him long to come to the real purpose of his visit.
'Your brother's death leaves you alone and in a most difficult situation, my lady. In these times a woman must have a protector.'
Elgiva heard in his words the echo of her brother's and felt a frisson along her spine. Heart beating much faster, she knew what was coming and waited for it.
'I would like to be that man.' He paused, eyeing her with an unwonted awkwardness. 'I am no longer in the first flush of youth, but I am still in good health and well able to protect you. I can also swear my undying loyalty and devotion.'
Elgiva felt her face grow warmer and for a moment her amber eyes were veiled. Aylwin, mistaking the reason, drew in a deep breath.
'Let me protect you, Elgiva. I do not ask you to love me now, but perhaps in time that may come. Meanwhile, be assured that you will be loved, my lady.'
Hearing an unmistakeable note of sincerity, she looked up swiftly, meeting his gaze.
'Does it surprise you to hear that?'
'I had not thought that is' She broke off, floundering.
'Have you any idea how beautiful you are?' he went on. 'From the first day I saw you I wanted you for my wife. My Gundred has been dead these five years and a man grows lonely. I think you are lonely too. May not two such comfort each other?'
Elgiva nodded. 'I think that perhaps they may, my lord.'
For a moment he did not move, the dark eyes intent on her face. 'Then you will marry me?'
'There would be certain conditions.'
'That the rights of my nephews are protected and that you act as overlord of Ravenswood until they can act for themselves.'
'Agreed. If you wed me, they shall be reared as my own sons.'
'I would also ask for a decent interval of mourning for my brother.'
'It shall be as you ask.'
'Then on midsummer's day I will become your wife.' Elgiva's voice was perfectly level as she gave him the commitment he sought.
Taking her hand, he pressed it to his lips. 'It is an honour I scarce hoped to have.'
'I will try to make you a good wife,' she replied.
The proposed date was three months hence, but if Aylwin had hoped for an earlier wedding, he said nothing. Having got what he wanted he was prepared to give a little ground, knowing it would do his cause no harm.
'Will you pledge your hand to me openly, Elgiva?' he asked then. 'I do not ask for a huge feastI know it must be repugnant to you in the circumstancesbut perhaps a small gathering?'
Elgiva was not surprised by the request. What it meant was a public declaration of intent. It also made clear to all concerned that Elgiva and thus Ravenswood were spoken for, that both lay under the protection of a rich and powerful lord. From the moment their betrothal was announced she was as good as his and no man would touch her. It also meant a respite, time to grow used to the idea of the bargain she had just struck.
'It shall be as you wish, my lord.'
He smiled. 'I am content.'
She had wondered if he would try to kiss her, but to her relief he made no further attempt to touch her. He took his leave not long after that and Elgiva watched him ride away with his men. Then she went in search of Osgifu.
The older woman listened in silence, her face impassive as she took in the news.
'Do you think it was wrong to accept him?' Elgiva asked at length.