No one answered Condal's knock.

No one answered Condal’s knock, and after holding her breath to the count of ten, she let it out in a sigh of relief. She would not have minded facing the Duke, but the Duke’s grim steward was among the most forbidding men she had ever seen.

She had so worked herself into a state of nervousness, however, that ten seconds were not nearly enough to calm her again. Behind the door she found a man hurtling silently straight at her, and though she was already vaguely aware that it was not the tall, blond steward, she did not realize it was the small, dark Duke in time to stop her shriek.

She did not realize it was the Duke in time to stop her short shriek.

He shushed her, but he kept coming. Condal imagined she had broken some unspoken law by opening the door and was about to be shooed out again.

“I’m sorry!” she squeaked.


But Alred was smiling behind the finger he had raised to his lips, and as he slipped his arm behind her to hustle her inside and close the door, he whispered, “I am sorry I did not call out to you, my dear, but you see…”

A dear, pink-cheeked baby slept curled up on the couch.

By that time Condal already had: a dear, pink-​cheeked baby slept upon the couch, tucked back between the pillows, with his curly head resting sweetly upon his hand.

“Sometimes that’s the only way we can convince him to take his nap,” Alred said sheepishly. “He wakes up and calls ‘Papa!’ and I simply have to call ‘David!’ and he goes right back to sleep.”

'Sometimes that's the only way we can convince him to take his nap.'

Condal giggled. She did not dare attempt a clever reply in English, but she privately thought both of the small gentlemen were remarkably cute.

“May I have the honor of being of some service to you, my dear?” the elder of the two asked.

'May I have the honor of being of some service to you, my dear?'

Condal winced, remembering how she had come to be there—remembering that the elder was not only the father of the younger but also a Duke.

“Ach! I’m sorry for coming in, my lord!” she whimpered. “Gwynn said I might go in if nobody was in…”

Alred laid his arm across her shoulders and led her into the corner near the fire.

Alred laid his arm across her shoulders and led her into the corner near the fire.

“You might come in any time you like,” he said softly, “for I cannot think of anything I do in here that would not be made more agreeable by your unexpected company.”

Condal smiled hesitantly.

“Unless my unexpected company is disagreeable to you?” he smiled. “Ah! If I had called out I might have warned you away.”

“Ach no! We were only—only needing a—a—” Condal looked desperately at the books stacked upon his writing table. “A bestiality-​book!”

Alred appeared vaguely surprised.

“Is that wrong?” she squeaked.

“I expect you mean a bestiary,” he said.

'I expect you mean a bestiary.'

“That’s it,” she smiled. “A bestiary-​book. Gwynn asked me to look while she is in her bath. We’re making a em-​broi-​der-​y,” she said carefully. “She wants to find a picture of a… a hippo… hippoc…”

Condal bit her thimble-​finger and tried to recall the word. Almost as soon as Gwynn had pronounced it, she had bolted off into an explanation of the Greek: hippo meant horse, but Condal could not remember the word that went with the fish part. English was difficult enough.

“A hippopotamus?” Alred suggested.

“Aye!” she laughed in relief. “A hippo…” Even that word proved difficult to grasp. “A hippo-​copamus!”

Alred smiled. “And may I ask what you ladies intend to embroider with the image of the dread hippo-​copamus?”

And may I ask what you ladies intend to embroider with the image of the dread hippo-copamus?

“Ach! Only a panel… we shall decide later what to make of it.”

“It isn’t my Christmas present, is it?” he asked slyly. “For there is nothing I should rather have for Christmas than ‘a embroidery’ of a hippo-​copamus, made by some dear, fair lady’s dear, fair hands.”

He took her hand lightly between his fingers and kissed the back of it. Somehow, in so doing, he turned her around to face him, as though they danced.

“I declare,” he said as loudly as he dared, “I would make it my emblem, and blazon it on my every banner and shield! That is not a hint, however, O my dear, fair lady,” he added. “I know it is alas! far more than I deserve.”

'I know it is alas! far more than I deserve.'

Condal could only smile. When the Duke spoke grandly, she understood but one word out of every two.

“Sadly the fine bestiary my son had from his cousin Magnus is presently at Dunellen, but we have a smaller that ought to feature a hippo-​creature of some sort. If you will kindly wait here with young David, I shall go fetch it.” He waved at the raw, new plaster of the walls and explained, “I’ve moved most of my books into the Old Man’s study until they’ve finished working in here, so next time you may avoid the risk of my company and check in there.”

He winked so briefly it might only have been a twitch of his eyelid.

He winked so briefly it might only have been a twitch of his eyelid, and the curve of his mouth seemed a little sad. Nor did he hasten to the door as he had dashed to it earlier, when she had been arriving.

“I think I can find it,” she said timidly. “Gwynn told me how it looks like…”

He bowed his head and murmured, “Not at all, my dear.”

His voice was soft and low, as it was when he sang to Cousin Baby-​Flann, but she had never heard him speak so in public. Of course, she reminded herself, they were not in public.

He lifted his head. “Allow me the pleasure of doing you ladies this small service. Only do not ask me to find the page,” he added wistfully. “I prefer to keep my own image of the hippo-​copamus in my mind.”

Condal curtsied and smiled expectantly.

Condal curtsied and smiled expectantly. Still he did not move.

Gradually she began to sense his nearness. Gradually she saw that he was not merely the fond, smiling, indulgent old gentleman who sang to Cousin Baby-​Flann and let David nap upon his couch. Another girl’s father was not the same as her own. Alred was a man.

Alred was a man.

He was near enough that she could just hear his breath whistling through his nose, just heavily enough to be not quite calm. Past the shadows of his open collar she could just see the curling hair on his chest. She could just smell him beneath the odors of smoke and parchment and leather and whatever spicy oil he wore in his hair—the odor of him: his sweat, his body.

He moved suddenly, and she gasped and twisted away—

She gasped and twisted away.

—but he only let his hand fall heavily on the mantel behind her, and he leaned his weight upon his arm.

“Forgive me, my dear,” he said. “I may not have been so at a loss for eloquence before beauty since I was scarcely older than you are now—if indeed I ever beheld such beauty so long ago.”

His words were for her, but he stared at his hand.

His words were for her, but he stared at his hand.

“I have been wanting to speak to you alone…”

Condal squeaked, “No, sir, no!”

She heard him gasp, but after one startled shudder he lifted his hand from the mantel and stood straight again—perhaps even leaning away from her.

“About my daughter,” he continued evenly, though his voice had risen slightly in pitch. “But if you do not have the time…”

Condal's face flushed hotly with shame.

Condal’s face flushed hotly with shame. She almost wished she had been right—it was so humiliating to be wrong. He would think her a hussy indeed… and yet the sensitive man had said nothing about it, and had even offered her an excuse for her outburst.

“I have a little time,” she quavered.

He nodded his head once. “I simply wanted to thank you for being a friend to Gwynn. I have not seen her so happy since…”

'I have not seen her so happy since...'

He sighed and rubbed his nose with the back of his hand, perhaps brushing the backs of his fingers over his eye.

“…since I cannot remember when,” he concluded with another sigh. “We have seasons of gladness here, like the trees. But your arrival in this wintry house has been the spring. The sound of Gwynn’s laughter is more beautiful than any birdsong to me.”

'The sound of Gwynn's laughter is more beautiful than any birdsong to me.'

His gentle words had already eased Condal’s embarrassment, but she still blushed beneath this undeserved praise.

“It’s the easiest thing in the world to be her friend, my lord,” she said humbly. “She’s the kindest girl I ever did meet. It’s half the night and all the day we were gossiping, and never did she say an unkind thing about anyone.”

'Never did she say an unkind thing about anyone.'

“Ah,” he smiled, “you have already discovered her greatest charm and her greatest weakness. She is so wonderfully kind she is incapable of perceiving unkindness in others, so generous she scarcely knows what selfishness means. That is why I am happy you are here, Condal. I believe you are a remarkably kind and generous young lady yourself, but you are wise enough to know wickedness when you see it. I hope you will help her see. Help me protect her, if need be.”

Condal opened her lips, but she found nothing to say. Was he speaking of some wickedness in particular? Of some wicked person in particular?

“I am not asking you to tell me her secrets,” he added softly. “Only help her to know which secrets are safe to keep. You know, my poor, dear girl, what can happen if fathers do not learn the unsafe secrets in time.”

'You know what can happen.'

Condal nodded mutely and opened her eyes wide to spread the tears thin and keep them inside.

Alred touched her then, gently stroking her hair back from her brow, stroke after stroke until her she closed her eyes and let her head rock gently on her neck. It had been so long since she had been touched by a fatherly hand that she forgot about Eithne and let a tear fall for herself. Then he stroked her cheek with the backs of his fingers.

“Who dries the tears of fatherless young maidens?” he whispered.

“I… have a handkerchief,” she peeped, blushing at the thought of it.

'Do you?'

Alred let his arm fall and smiled at her. “Do you? Perchance embroidered with a hippo-​copamus?”

“No,” she giggled. “A plain one. A—a plain one,” she stammered. She could not quite admit it was a man’s.

Alred’s smile faded. “I have a handkerchief,” he intoned, as though he were reciting the first line of a poem. He shook his head sadly. “I shall not tell you I wish you had no need of it, Condal. We have seasons of sorrow, like the trees. And there is worse than winter, my dear. There is nothing at all.”

'There is nothing at all.'

He held up his hand, but he did not touch her. She did not know what he meant her to see. His hand was small and graceful and neat—almost too soft-​seeming to be a man’s. But a few dark hairs curled over his wrist beyond the cuff of his sleeve, proving it was.

I have a handkerchief…” he whispered. “My dear, forgive me, but you are breaking my heart. Those are the saddest four words…”

'But it's a good, big handkerchief.'

“But it’s a good, big handkerchief,” she whimpered. “A man’s handkerchief.”

There. She had said it.

He cocked his head and smiled at her, but it only made him seem sadder than ever. “Your father’s, then.”

“No, no, it’s… A boy gave it to me. When I was a-​weeping. In church.”

Her breath was coming quicker, and her words spilled out almost faster than she could find them in English. She had never said these things to anyone—not even to Eithne—not even to Gwynn.

'Malo did.'

“Malo did,” she added softly. His name melted over her tongue like honey. She was not merely practicing it—not merely pronouncing it. She was speaking it then.

“Ah.” Alred stood straighter and nodded solemnly down at her. “That is a gentleman whom I did not think to invite.”

“You didn’t?” she squeaked. “I mean—might you have?”

“Without hesitation, my dear, but I must beg your indulgence: I have invited him so many times in the past that I feared I was troubling him by obliging him to so often refuse.”

'I feared I was troubling him by obliging him to so often refuse.'

Out of all those words, Condal only understood clearly that he had been invited—that he was invitable.

“You did?” she asked.

“You may have heard that his friend Bastien was not a friend of mine,” he said dryly. “It may be that he will never forgive me that insult to his friend.”

“Ach, no!” Condal pleaded. “I’m certain he’s very forgiving! He’s meaning to be a priest, you know.”

'He's meaning to be a priest, you know.'

“No, I did not know,” Alred said thoughtfully. “Decidedly, my dear, you know him better than I.”

“I mean—I think he is,” she said. “I never talked to him but once or twice. Or…three times,” she corrected, pricked by her conscience into perfect honesty. “I mean—he can’t talk, but… You weren’t hearing he wasn’t, were you?” she asked hopefully.

'You weren't hearing he wasn't, were you?'

“I’ve never heard anything. Only that he is still at the abbey. I should have liked to have engaged him as a secretary of my own, you know. He has a remarkably fair hand. And if he is gentle enough to offer handkerchiefs to fatherless young ladies in church, then so much the better.”

'So much the better.'

“Did you invite him since Bastien died?” she asked.

“No, I haven’t, but I shall forthwith. It is not too late in the day, if he has no other plans.”

“He may be lonely, without a friend,” she said wistfully.

'He may be lonely, without a friend.'

She had sometimes cried compassionate tears on his behalf into his own handkerchief, thinking about what his loneliness must have been. She knew painfully well what hers was.

Alred smiled fondly at her. “That is just the sort of thought I would expect from you, O my kind, generous, and very dear lady. Even I did not have it, to my shame.” He rumpled his hair and sighed. “I’ve had snow piled in my branches for so long…”

He lifted his empty hand to her again, and again he did not touch her.

“But here at last is Snowdrop Connie: hope and mayhap herald of spring.”

'But here at last is Snowdrop Connie: hope and mayhap herald of spring.'