June 23rd, 1823
Helgasdatter farm, north of York, Norse Law
Midsummer Eve, and the celebration was particularly riotous this year, with the news of the treaty. The Isles were once again wholly under Norse sovereignty. Edouard had done his shouting earlier in the day, and was able to walk among the partiers without feeling like a thundercloud, and even to accept drinks with equanimity. No insult was intended; most of the workers were so used to having him around that they had forgotten he wasn’t a Norwegian.
At last he found Gunhild, looking a little flushed from beer and roasted lamb, and glowing with victory. He wasn’t alone in finding her particularly beautiful this night; men from other farms – squires of her own class, comrades and neighbours – competed to sit close to her, or to dance. He watched that without concern; Gunhild was not the kind to betray you for mere money, social position, or looks, or a good farm that would unite well with her own lands – no, if she broke your heart and trampled it in the mud, it would be for high-flown reasons of patriotism and politics. Reasons like his own. He worked his way through the crowd, then bent down to whisper in her ear. She rose, smiling happily and nodding, and twined her arm through his as they walked out of the circle of firelight. A few good-naturedly rowdy shouts followed them, but not many – the squires were a dignified folk, by and large, and also many of them were busy glaring at the foreigner who had charmed the most eligible woman in the district.
The glade was quiet, and unoccupied. Gunhild cocked her head at him, smiling. “Why here, Edouard? We’re none of us teenagers anymore, you know. There’s a perfectly good bed in the farmhouse – no rocks, no hard places, no need to chase out the young couples looking for a private place. Did I make that much of an impression on you, when we were young?”
He sat down on a dry log, and she sat on his lap, a most pleasant armful. “You did, yes. But not that way. Remember when I left? This is where you told me goodbye, in that particularly memorable fashion. And now we’ve come full circle.”
She stiffened. “You’re leaving? Is there – ” he waved her off.
“Perhaps. I’ll know in a few minutes. I’ve got a confession to make.”
“Ah, good. You’ve finally gotten around to telling me you’re a Breton spy?”
He was silent for a full ten second, gaping at her. At last he managed, “You knew?”
“Well – yes. Edouard, I love you dearly, you’re a good man, an excellent lover, a fine soldier, but really, you’re just not cut out for a spy. Did you think I’d accept your story about not having anywhere else to go, without checking up a bit? After what I did to you when you left? No, no, I’m as susceptible to the helpless look and the subtle implication of carrying a torch through war and despair as the next woman, but there are limits! And you’re just not very good at concealing what you’re doing.”
He felt almost like crying. He’d been nerving himself to confess for almost a year, since it became clear that the Armee Brezhoneg wasn’t going to be able to break the English rebels; and she had known all the time? Was he never going to get the better of this woman?
She sighed. “There’s worse, I’m afraid. You’ve been reporting, presumably, that the Ting at New Bergenhus was willing to fight for England-south-of-Thames; that the squires here were arming the rebels; that the entire Norselaw was solidly behind regaining our lands?”
“You’re telling me that was disinformation?”
“Nu, not exactly. I do think a majority of the Ting would have voted for blockading the coast, if Sus were to spare some regiments from Africa. And certainly this particular squire has spent a lot of gold buying muskets and powder; and so have my friends. But I must admit, if you’d been talking to people from, say, the Edinburgh trading community, your masters in Sus might have gotten a somewhat different picture of just how much blood and gold Norway would have been willing to spend. Of course we’ll never know how much that mattered. Maybe not very much. The tribal lands are aflame with rebellion. Still, if they had known we were bluffing about being willing to invade Morocco… At a minimum, we would surely have paid at least three times the compensation we did.”
He buried his face in her hair. “And so when I thought I was betraying my love to serve my country…”
“Well, you were. And so was I. We’re neither of us innocent, in any possible sense of the word.”
“But your betrayals worked.”
“Yes. Shall I apologise? I will, if you want me to.”
He sighed. “I don’t know. I feel empty. I’ve been afraid you would have me whipped off the farm, or strung up for a foreign spy, or just throw me out and marry Emil and get those huge tracts of land… ”
“Emil can’t hit the spittoon more than two times out of three, and he bathes maybe once a month. Fuck his huge tracts of land.”
He smiled in spite of himself. “I’ve been at war all my adult life, fifteen years almost. And I’ve lost more battles than I could count on fingers and toes before I lost the hand. If there’s one thing I ought to know how to do, it’s pick myself up and continue the fight. But it looks to me like the war’s over. What have Norway and Brittany got to quarrel about now?”
“Nothing. Germany, now, and Finland – but those quarrels are none of yours, and honestly I don’t care that much myself. Let the pagans scheme and intrigue for the Baltic; I’ve won my war and England is whole again behind wooden walls. Which leaves you and me. I never asked you to marry me – never so much as hinted – because of this thing between us. Now it’s out in the open, and gone. Where shall we go from here?”
Edouard thought it over. It felt as though he ought to be angry at her, for manipulating him; she had, apparently, played him like a fiddle. But – perhaps it was relief that she wasn’t calling the dogs on him, or just the shock of being so comprehensively outmaneuvered – he couldn’t muster up the righteous rage. His pride stung, certainly, but even so – he realised then where his thoughts were tending, and laughed. After all, here was a lovely woman, rich, snuggling on his lap, coming as close to asking him to marry her as any proud Norse was going to, and with all that she was smarter than him on top of everything! All right, he’d lost their battle of wits – what a woman! – but there was no need to lose anything more. As for England-south-of-Thames – bah. Indefensible, poverty-stricken, barbarous, rain-drenched, sub-arctic… The Norwegians were welcome to it, he decided. There was irony in the thought, since after all he was about to become one himself, more or less. Perhaps there were only so many battles a man could lose, before deciding finally that he did not care, that what mattered was a woman and a farm, and children. In any case, Edouard’s war was over; and though he had lost, it did not seem such a tragedy to him, now. Not with Gunhild’s blue eyes inches from his, smiling at him. At last he smiled back. “All right. Gunhild, will you marry me?”
“Yes, Edouard. I will.”
As it turned out, the rocks weren’t so bad as all that, even for those no longer in their teenage years.