The Evening and the Morning Page 2

He glanced back at the house, feeling a pang of regret, wondering whether he would ever see it again. It was the only home he could remember. He knew, because he had been told, that he had been born in another town, Exeter, where his father had worked for a master boatbuilder; then the family had moved, while Edgar was still a baby, and had set up home in Combe, where Pa had started his own enterprise with one order for a rowboat; but Edgar could not remember any of that. This was the only home he knew, and he was leaving it for good.

He was lucky to have found employment elsewhere. Business had slowed since the renewal of Viking attacks on the south of England when Edgar was nine years old. Trading and fishing were dangerous while the marauders were near. Only the brave bought boats.

There were three ships in the harbor now, he saw by starlight: two herring fishers and a Frankish merchant ship. Dragged up on the beach were a handful of smaller craft, river and coastal vessels. He had helped to build one of the fishers. But he could remember a time when there had always been a dozen or more ships in port.

He felt a fresh breeze from the southwest, the prevailing wind here. His boat had a sail—small, because they were so costly: a full-size sail for a seagoing ship would take one woman four years to make. But it was hardly worthwhile to unfurl for the short trip across the bay. He began to row, something that hardly taxed him. Edgar was heavily muscled, like a blacksmith. His father and brothers were the same. All day, six days a week, they worked with ax, adze, and auger, shaping the oak strakes that formed the hulls of boats. It was hard work and it made strong men.

His heart lifted. He had got away. And he was going to meet the woman he loved. The stars were brilliant; the beach glowed white; and when his oars broke the surface of the water, the curling foam was like the fall of her hair on her shoulders.

Her name was Sungifu, which was usually shortened to Sunni, and she was exceptional in every way.

He could see the premises along the seafront, most of them workplaces of fishermen and traders: the forge of a tinsmith who made rustproof items for ships; the long yard in which a roper wove his lines; and the huge kiln of a tar maker who roasted pine logs to produce the sticky liquid with which boatbuilders waterproofed their vessels. The town always looked bigger from the water: it was home to several hundred people, most making their living, directly or indirectly, from the sea.

He looked across the bay to his destination. In the darkness he would not have been able to see Sunni even if she had been there, which he knew she was not, since they had arranged to meet at dawn. But he could not help staring at the place where she soon would be.

Sunni was twenty-one, older than Edgar by more than three years. She had caught his attention one day when he was sitting on the beach staring at the Viking wreck. He knew her by sight, of course—he knew everyone living in the small town—but he had not particularly noticed her before and did not recall anything about her family. “Were you washed up with the wreck?” she had said. “You were sitting so still, I thought you were driftwood.” She had to be imaginative, he saw right away, to say something like that off the top of her head; and he had explained what fascinated him about the lines of the vessel, feeling that she would understand. They had talked for an hour and he had fallen in love.

Then she told him she was married, but it was already too late.

Her husband, Cyneric, was thirty. She had been fourteen when she married him. He had a small herd of milk cows, and Sunni managed the dairy. She was shrewd, and made plenty of money for her husband. They had no children.

Edgar had quickly learned that Sunni hated Cyneric. Every night, after the evening milking, he went to an alehouse called the Sailors and got drunk. While he was there, Sunni could slip into the woods and meet Edgar.

However, from now on there would be no more hiding. Today they would run away together; or, to be exact, sail away. Edgar had the offer of a job and a house in a fishing village fifty miles along the coast. He had been lucky to find a boatbuilder who was hiring. Edgar had no money—he never had money, Ma said he had no need of it—but his tools were in a locker built into the boat. They would start a new life.

As soon as everyone realized they had gone, Cyneric would consider himself free to marry again. A wife who ran away with another man was, in practice, divorcing herself: the Church might not like it, but that was the custom. Within a few weeks, Sunni said, Cyneric would go into the countryside and find a desperately poor family with a pretty fourteen-year-old daughter. Edgar wondered why the man wanted a wife: he had little interest in sex, according to Sunni. “He likes to have someone to push around,” she had said. “My problem was that I grew old enough to despise him.”

Cyneric would not come after them, even if he found out where they were, which was unlikely at least for some time to come. “And if we’re wrong about that, and Cyneric finds us, I’ll beat the shit out of him,” Edgar had said. Sunni’s expression had told him that she thought this was a foolish boast, and he knew she was right. Hastily, he had added: “But it probably won’t come to that.”

He reached the far side of the bay, then beached the boat and roped it to a boulder.

He could hear the chanting of the monks at their prayers. The monastery was nearby, and the home of Cyneric and Sunni a few hundred yards beyond that.

He sat on the sand, looking out at the dark sea and the night sky, thinking about her. Would she be able to slip away as easily as he had? What if Cyneric woke up and prevented her leaving? There might be a fight; she could be beaten. He was suddenly tempted to change the plan, get up from the beach and go to her house and fetch her.

He repressed the urge with an effort. She was better off on her own. Cyneric would be in a drunken slumber and Sunni would move like a cat. She had planned to go to bed wearing around her neck her only item of jewelry, an intricately carved silver roundel hanging from a leather thong. In her belt pouch she would have a useful needle and thread and the embroidered linen headband she wore on special occasions. Like Edgar, she could be out of the house in a few silent seconds.

Soon she would be here, her eyes glistening with excitement, her supple body eager for his. They would embrace, hugging each other hard, and kiss passionately; then she would step into the boat and he would push it into the water to freedom. He would row a little way out, then kiss her again, he thought. How soon could they make love? She would be as impatient as he. He could row around the point, then drop the roped rock he used as an anchor, and they could lie down in the boat, under the thwarts; it would be a little awkward, but what did that matter? The boat would rock gently on the waves, and they would feel the warmth of the rising sun on their naked skin.

But perhaps they would be wiser to unfurl the sail and put more distance between themselves and the town before they risked a halt. He wanted to be well away by full day. It would be difficult to resist temptation with her so close, looking at him and smiling happily. But it was more important to secure their future.

When they got to their new home, they would say they were already married, they had decided. Until now they had never spent a night in bed. From today they would eat supper together every evening and lie in each other’s arms all night and smile knowingly at each other in the morning.

He saw a glimmer of light on the horizon. Dawn was about to break. She would be here at any moment.

He felt sad only when he thought about his family. He could happily live without his brothers, who still treated him as a foolish kid and tried to pretend that he had not grown up smarter than both of them. He would miss Pa, who all his life had told him things he would never forget, such as: “No matter how well you scarf two planks together, the joint is always the weakest part.” And the thought of leaving Ma brought tears to his eyes. She was a strong woman. When things went wrong, she did not waste time bemoaning her fate, but set about putting matters right. Three years ago Pa had fallen sick of a fever and almost died, and Ma had taken charge of the yard—telling the three boys what to do, collecting debts, making sure customers did not cancel orders—until Pa had recovered. She was a leader, and not just of the family. Pa was one of the twelve elders of Combe, but it was Ma who had led the townspeople in protest when Wigelm, the thane, had tried to increase everyone’s rents.

The thought of leaving would be unbearable but for the joyous prospect of a future full of Sunni.

In the faint light Edgar saw something odd out on the water. He had good eyesight, and he was used to making out ships at a distance, distinguishing the shape of a hull from that of a high wave or a low cloud, but now he was not sure what he was looking at. He strained to hear any distant sound, but all he picked up was the noise of the waves on the beach right in front of him.

After a few heartbeats he seemed to see the head of a monster, and he suffered a chill of dread. Against the faint glow in the sky he thought he saw pointed ears, great jaws, and a long neck.

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