Her sudden elevation to steward's wife had left her with very little to do.

Mouse was not an idle girl, but her sudden elevation to steward’s wife had left her with very little to do. Lady Lili’s household had run smoothly for years without her. When she had hinted that she might be granted a task or two, her husband had not taken to the idea, and she had not mentioned it again.

She had not even the ladylike occupation of sewing. She and Ethelwyn occupied but one room in Sir Egelric’s castle, and her husband had already possessed all they needed in the way of towels and linens before she had arrived. Nor could she pass her time mending his clothes as a wife was supposed to do: Ethelwyn was such a neat and careful man that his very toes seemed to refuse to wear holes in his stockings.

Her only hope was moths. Mouse opened one of the cupboards, idly, and looked inside.

Mouse opened one of the cupboards, idly, and looked inside.

Here were their heavy winter outer-​​clothes, his and hers, neatly segregated but hanging side-​​by-​​side in cozy intimacy. One of his drab cloaks was snuggled up against her red wool, with the rest of his lined up behind his, and the rest of hers behind her own.

Her garments were banal enough objects to her, but his were a never-​​ending source of fascination. She could not yet realize that these capes and cloaks were the property of such a creature as a husband, and still less that this particular husband was her own, body and soul, so utterly that it must have made his cloaks jealous to think that they were merely owned.

She passed her hand down the row of hanging sleeves and slid it down between two of his cloaks, the palm across the back of one, and the back of her hand down the breast of another.

She pulled it free of its brothers in a great armful of ruddy wool.

Then she found one that caught her attention, and she pulled it free of its brothers. It was a great armful of ruddy wool, all woven with a pattern like jagged-​​toothed maple leaves or leaping tongues of flame. This was his finest cloak, though she had not known it in those February days when he had worn it to visit her in her mother’s humble kitchen.

Mouse pressed her cheek into the wool and took a deep breath. There was the smell of him: his skin, layered with the tansy, wormwood, and rosemary he kept among his clothing to ward off fleas and moths. It was becoming her own odor as well, now that her dresses dwelled among the dried flowers with his shirts and tunics, now that her skin lay all night against his skin.

Mouse pressed her cheek into the wool and took a deep breath.

But beneath that, she was certain she could still detect a trace of the smoke of her own bright birch fires. Spring and summer had come since he had last visited her in her kitchen, and perhaps he had not had another occasion to wear his best cloak. The odor of February lingered in the wool like a memory.

Mouse wriggled her arm up into the sleeve from the bottom, and then she could caress her own cheek through the cloth.

It was easier to contemplate his empty cloak than her husband himself, but still she felt warm and dizzy as she tried to comprehend what had happened to her. The body that sometimes filled this cloak belonged to her now. The arms that sometimes filled these sleeves wrapped her round at night. Meek as she was, this man loved her.

The arms that sometimes filled these sleeves wrapped her round at night.

She had thought she loved him in February when he had put on his best cloak to come to see her, but she knew now she could not have – not truly. She could not have refused him if she had, no matter what she had promised her little mother, no matter how she worried about her brother. If given the choice again, she would rather die than live without him. Even if she were not given the choice – if she were simply forced to live without him, she thought she would die anyway.

She had no idea how long she stood cuddled up against his cloak. She stood long enough, dreaming, that her body had gradually grown warm, as from sitting in sunlight, or from sitting too close to a bright birch fire with her hand in the hand of a man who loved her.

The knock on the door was like a pailful of snow to the face. Mouse shoved the cloaks back into the cupboard and slammed it shut upon them.

'Who's there?'

“Who’s there?” she squeaked.

“It’s Gwynn! May I come in?”

“Of course!”

If there were any signs of her emotion on her face, Lady Gwynn remained oblivious to them.

“What are you doing down here all by yourself?”

'What are you doing down here all by yourself?'

Mouse did not feel she could presume to invite herself to join the ladies in the hall, but Gwynn never did seem to understand that.

“And what are you doing down here with me? A mission of charity?”

Gwynn sighed. “No! They’re talking about babies now, so I wanted to do something else.”

“Don’t you like babies?”

'Don't you like babies?'

“Of course I do! But they’re not talking about the pleasant parts of babies. Anyway, one must fall in love before one has any babies. So I wish they would talk about that.”

“Gwynn, Gwynn, Gwynn! Love, love, love! You had better start thinking about that a little less, or you’re bound to fall in love with the first man who flirts with you, and then you’ll miss the good man who should have come later. I didn’t meet the good one till I was seventeen.”

“That’s a long time to wait,” Gwynn pouted. “And then one must know that he’s the right one, or risk letting him get away.”

Mouse laughed. “You’re telling me!”

'But listen, Mouse.'

“But listen, Mouse.” There was such cunning in her sudden smile that Mouse knew she had not made the last remark idly. “If one has a friend who is letting the right one get away, shouldn’t one help her?”

“Oh, no! I don’t like where this is going!” Mouse threw up her hands and took a step away from the girl, and Gwynn’s face fell. After a moment of silence, however, Mouse realized that she was curious to at least learn whom Gwynn meant, and she stepped closer and bent her head. “Who is?”

'Who is?'

Gwynn grinned up at her. “Cat is! We had three eligible gentlemen for dinner yesterday, and I think two of them liked her better than Flann, and yet Cat didn’t pay any one of them any more attention than she paid Egelric or even Wyn.”

“And which one is the right one?” Mouse giggled.

“Not one of those three! I mean her elf.”

“Her elf!” Mouse recoiled again.

'Her elf!'

“She doesn’t care about Ralf or Cenwulf’s Wynn or Eadred, because she is in love with her elf. I am certain of it!”

“My lady…”

“Didn’t you see her when she met Vash? I was watching her. She was looking at him and wondering about him because he was an elf.”

'She was looking at him and wondering about him because she was an elf.'

“Perhaps she liked him instead.”

“No! She was looking at Vash to see how he might be similar to her elf, and perhaps wondering whether they knew one another.”

“Wyn says they don’t.”

“Well – anyway. I am certain she loves her blind elf. Who wouldn’t? It’s so romantic!”

'It's so romantic!'

Mouse folded her arms across her breast and shook her head. “That’s not enough of a reason, honey. And besides, even if she did, I think she would be wise to forget about him, don’t you? I don’t see how such a relationship could work out.”

“Because he’s blind?”

“Because he’s blind, and an elf, and he lives in a cave like a savage! If she must fall in love with an elf – which I would not recommend to anybody, seeing how much they seem to dislike us – then I would tell her to fall in love with Vash, or a gentleman-​​elf such as he, who could perhaps have a profession and take care of her. But if you ask me, I think she should fall in love with Eadred. He’s so cute, with his curls.”

'He's so cute, with his curls.'

Gwynn rolled her eyes. “One does not fall in love with a man merely because he has curls.”

“Doesn’t one?” Mouse laughed.

“Now, listen Mouse. If Cat is in love with her elf, I think we should help her. After all, Wyn would not be here at all if her elf had not risked so much danger to come and save him.”

Mouse frowned. She had no answer to that.

She had no answer to that.

“And Cat helped you, too, by going to get him. And she’s your friend, now, isn’t she?”

It was a delighted Cat who had come in her nightgown and stood at her side in the priest’s bedroom to witness her marriage. Indeed, without Cat’s help, that marriage could never have been possible in the first place. Mouse owed her very much, and it was true that Cat was the only friend she had in this castle. Neither Lili nor Flann seemed to appreciate her company.

“But we don’t even know that’s what she wants,” Mouse mumbled.

'But we don't even know that's what she wants.'

“I think even Cat doesn’t quite know what she wants,” Gwynn giggled. “You must find out, Mouse, and if she loves her elf, we must find a way to help them be together. To make them as happy as you are with Wyn.”

Mouse sighed and let her arms drop in despair.

Mouse sighed and let her arms drop in despair.

“Now, I must go away tomorrow to attend Eadwyn’s wedding, and I doubt my father will let me return to visit right away when that’s over. So you will need to take charge, Mouse.”

“But, my lady…”

“If you learn she doesn’t love her elf, then we shall talk about whom she should choose instead. But we must give their love a chance, mustn’t we? Whatever grouchy old Egelric thinks. It’s so romantic!”

'It's so romantic!'

“I am not certain it is wise to meddle in other people’s love affairs, Gwynn.”

“But what will become of me if I don’t?” Gwynn groaned. “You think I’m too young to be thinking of my own love affairs; therefore I must occupy myself with those of my friends meanwhile. Mustn’t I?” she asked with a cunning, unanswerable smile.

'Mustn't I?'