A man in green, hunched over.

A man in green, hunched over, immobile, with his head in his hand: the chilling sight made Gwynn gasp and ache like icy water dashed over her raw bones.

It did not matter that she had left her father’s warm lap only three skips before opening the door. For all she knew – and it was her constant, bone-​​gnawing fear – her father shriveled and twisted and hunched into such a lump of grief the instant she left him alone. She had simply gotten turned around somehow and skipped back into the room.

She had simply gotten turned around somehow and skipped back into the room.

Quickly, though, as her eyes might have adjusted to dim light or her body to cold water, she saw through her fear to the details that made all the difference: the thick, straight, heavy hair that hung down on either side of the imperfect part; the broad shoulders that her braver brothers used to ride; the big, squared-​​off, hairy hands.

It was only Egelric. Her ice-​​locked bones were eased, and her tender heart swelled with a flood of compassion for the man.


“Egelric,” she said gently.

Egelric started up out of his chair as though she had lashed him from across the hall with a whip.

“My lady!” he spluttered.

He was livid – as much like a man who has seen a ghost as like a man who is dead.

He was livid.

“I thought you were your father,” he explained shakily. “And then – God help me – I thought you were your mother.”

In spite of his intimidating size, his discomposure made him seem vulnerable, approachable, even touchable. Gwynn thought vaguely of fairy stories about lovely maidens befriending wild animals, all muddled in her mind with romantic ideas of how gentle ladies behaved with wounded men.

'I am sorry to startle you.'

“I am sorry to startle you,” she said soothingly. “I am said to resemble my mother in voice and face and form.” For some reason she could not resist adding wryly, “But it is the first time I have ever been mistaken for my father.”

Egelric did not smile, but his brows lifted high enough to give his eyes a clear view of her body as he quickly looked her over.

His brows lifted high enough to give his eyes a clear view.

He stooped and stepped close to her to speak without raising his voice, and in the nearer candlelight she saw that her first impressions of his ghastliness had been due in part to an ugly bruise that had puddled in the socket of his right eye.

She expected him to respond with a joke of his own, but he only said, “I had no idea you were in there. Isn’t he?”

“I was just with him,” she assured him. “He will be delighted to see you.”

'He will be delighted to see you.'

Egelric snorted through his nose. It was a big nose, she admitted – and if she was not mistaken, bigger than usual. And were there always such a great many little broken veins around the nostrils? Or had he been punched? And by whom?

“Well, don’t we make a disreputable-​​looking pair?” she blurted.

'Well, don't we make a disreputable-looking pair?'

He leaned away, and his eyelids fluttered in surprise. “Beg pardon?”

Gwynn flushed, but she was determined not to make herself appear foolish a second time by abandoning a joke before it was properly understood.

She planted her fists on her hips as she supposed a swaggering man would do and said, “I’m certain you gave him his due, Egelric, but I should hate to meet the chair that could do such a business on you!

Egelric blinked at her again, appearing almost alarmed: blink-​​blink-​​blink.

Then his head rocked back, and the blackness of his beard cracked into a hint of a smile.

The blackness of his beard cracked into a hint of a smile.

“I wouldn’t advise sitting on him, if I were you,” he said dryly.

He had understood! A funny feeling tore over her like a like a flock of tiny bubbles liberated from her tummy and rushing up to warm her face.

“I wouldn’t worry about me,” she said cockily, as she imagined a man might. “I may have quite a bruise, but you should see the other fellow.”

'You should see the other fellow.'

“What did you do to him?” he chuckled. “Break his legs? All four of them?”

“Well, my father wanted to execute him, and break him up with hammers and burn him at the stake – or on the hearth,” she said slyly, “if a stake could not be found.”

“And what did you want to do, my lady?”

'And what did you do?.'

Gwynn lifted her nose and said haughtily: “Out of my boundless compassion, I spared his life. However, I have resolved and decreed that I shall never sit upon his lap again.”

Egelric’s mustache quivered ominously beneath his big nose, but he said nothing.

Gwynn added, “Nevertheless, I have since begun to fear that I have unwittingly condemned him to a fate worse than death.”

Egelric’s twitching mustache was forced to yield to deep, living laughter.

Egelric's twitching mustache was forced to yield.

She had made him laugh! And it was something other than the fond, indulgent laughter she had won from him all her life – she was certain of it. It was lower and darker, bubbling up from far down in his belly.

“So help me God,” he swore, “I was not meaning to say it!”

“But you know it’s true!” she said wickedly.

'But you know it's true!'

The words were coming so easily, rushing out of her almost before she knew what she was saying. Was this flirting? she wondered dizzily. Was it truly so easy to make a tall, intimidating man bow his head to one, and laugh and smile and look at one?

“No, young lady, I do not know!” he said – not gently, but cragged and low: a secret just between the two of them. “I never had a chance to learn! Even when you were a baby you screamed at the mere sight of my beard.”

'No, young lady, I do not know!'

She was not screaming now, though his beard was near enough that she could see its flecks of gray.

He was ugly, she admitted – even uglier than usual – but for the first time her heart quickened with some sense of the magnificence of him: the mysterious quality that made even a great beauty like Lili swear him handsome.

“And if I ever find out,” he grumbled, “I’m liable to earn more than a bruise. More like a few of my limbs broken myself.” He smiled at her with the jagged teeth of one side of his mouth. “And not only my legs!”

'And not only my legs!'By whom? she wondered, breathless with excitement. By Cearball, surely! These bruised eyes were too much a coincidence otherwise… and who else could have done so much damage to Egelric’s face and lived to gallop off on a heroic mission immediately thereafter?

But what had they been fighting over? Or whom?

“And still it might be worth it,” she said airily.

He snorted. “I shall break the legs of anyone fortunate enough to have had the experience, and ask them whether it was.”

This was flirting!

“I shall warn my poor father, as he is the only man who has.”

'I shall warn my poor father.'

“Ach!” Egelric stood tall and chuckled indulgently. “Pray do not, my lady. I am about to displease him as it is.”

“Why is that?” she asked hopefully. “When he sees your eye?”

“Ach, no,” he sighed.

He rubbed his big hand over his face, wearily and roughly, sliding and stretching the loose skin all over the craggy skull beneath. She thought he must never stop to consider how much uglier certain grimaces made him, or had never bothered to care.

His earlier gloom had returned when his hand dropped, as though he had wiped their brief merriment away.

'Or that too.'

“Or that too,” he muttered.

“What is it, dear?” she asked softly.

Until she pronounced the bare word herself, she had never understood the intimacy and the earnestness that thrummed in Hetty’s little “dears”.

Nor had she ever felt their lack in her father’s gallantries, but now it seemed the tiny “my” had always been a long bar meant to enforce a distance between himself and the dear one.

Gwynn stood breathless and open-mouthed, stunned and almost aghast.

Such a difference in such a tiny detail! Gwynn stood breathless and open-​​mouthed, stunned and almost aghast. She had all but said to him: “You are dear to me.” To Egelric! She felt and feared she had struck away all bars between them, and he might have come as close as he dared.

He seemed to see it himself, and he bowed and his head and stepped closer to her, rushing gratefully in.

“I’m only wanting to ask him to let me go home with my children,” he mumbled. “I don’t feel very much like holidays.”

“No, of course you don’t, dear,” she murmured, testing the word.

She reached out and patted the back of one of the hands he clutched awkwardly against his belly. It was that easy! Her little hand was only prettier for having touched his ugly fist. She was only gentler for having braved his roughness.

Her little hand was only prettier for having touched his ugly fist.

She stepped around him and slid her entire arm through the crook of his elbow. She had laid her hand there on occasion, when there were ruts to cross or stairs to climb, but she had never walked arm-​​in-​​arm with any man who was not a father or a brother.

She understood at once why it was not customarily done. She could feel the swelling muscle of his inner arm with the smooth, soft surface of hers… and it would take no more than a stumble or a deep rut to press her breast against his arm. The thought made her feel a little sick, like a rush of warm bubbles in her belly, swirling round.

The thought made her feel a little sick.

“Let us ask him together, Egelric,” she said. “He never refuses me anything I ask, if only I ask him sweetly enough.”

She had that power over fathers, she well knew – but could she have that power over men too? Was it that easy?

Egelric muttered, “I think you will soon find there are limits – ”

The door jerked open, and Gwynn started as if she had been struck by a whip. She smashed her breast against Egelric’s arm as she tried to slip her arm free, struggling against nothing in her confusion.

It was her father!

It was her father!

Egelric did not flinch for the door, and he did not even flinch for her breast. He simply planted his hands squarely on his hips, straightened his back and shoulders, and lifted his chest and his ugly nose high. Gwynn saw then the living ideal of how she ought to have stood earlier in her attempt at manly defiance.

She felt another sick thrill at the sight of him – and still another when she wondered at the cause of her self-​​consciousness and the reason for his defiance. Had they been doing something wrong?

“Father!” she giggled dizzily. “We were just coming to ask you could Egelric and the children go home. He doesn’t feel like parties just now.”

“Oh, is that all?” her father chuckled. “Forgive me for interrupting your plotting, then, my dear, but you will allow me my concern if I chance to overhear my daughter proposing to a man in the hallway that they shall ask me together…

'Forgive me for interrupting your plotting.'

Good heavens! What had he overheard?

“But Father!” she pretended to scold. “You must have overheard it was Egelric, with his deep voice!”

“Hence his alarm,” Egelric said coolly.

Her father turned his eyes to Egelric’s face and stared: unflinching and unsmiling. “What in Jupiter’s hoary name happened to you?”

“Just a run-​​in with a gang of marauding chairs!” Gwynn gushed.

'Just a run-in with a gang of marauding chairs!'

Her father looked down at her, still unsmiling, and blinked: blink-​​blink-​​blink. Then he snorted and said, “I shall tell the reeve to be on the look-​​out.”

He stepped back and bowed Gwynn through the doorway.

“Come in and ask me, you two,” he sighed.

Gwynn skipped in on the arm of no one, leaving Egelric to follow alone.

Gwynn skipped in on the arm of no one.

“What’s the matter, Egelric?” her father asked. “Afraid the chairs are coming back with tables to finish you off?”

“Not likely,” Egelric muttered.

“He simply doesn’t feel like parties,” Gwynn said.

Her father sat himself squarely in the middle of the couch, and Egelric flopped down beside him. Gwynn was obliged to take the other side.

'The boys might.'

“But the boys might,” her father said.

Egelric sighed and stretched out his legs as though preparing to nap.

“I hear they’ve had quite a grand time with Maire’s girls,” her father said petulantly.

Egelric closed his eyes. The loose skin of his face sagged and grayed like old wax. He seemed to be giving up. He seemed to be going dead.

He seemed to be giving up.

Gwynn remembered her promise and scrambled up to sling herself into her father’s lap.

Please let him go, Father, please? This is your daughter asking you sweetly.” She pressed her face against his neck and cheeped, “Sweet-​​sweet-​​sweet!”

Her father laughed and squeezed her tightly with his strong arms. For a moment she forgot Egelric and all other men: no mere rush of tickling bubbles in her tummy could compare with the feeling of being crushed against her father’s chest while it shook with deep, true laughter.

For a moment she forget Egelric and all other men.

“How can I refuse?” he pleaded.

“Fortunately you don’t have to!”

She peered over her father’s shoulder at Egelric. One corner of his beard had turned up, and he was watching her out of his swollen eye. Gwynn blinked furiously at him, trying to signal him to say something: blink-​​blink-​​blink.

Egelric roused himself enough to grumble, “I love you all, Alred, but all I want for Christmas is to be alone with my children. I don’t want candy and I don’t want dancing, and I don’t want to be dodging any damned mistletoe.”

Gwynn’s father sighed into her shoulder. He had not turned to look. It was her face Egelric’s slitted eye was watching as he spoke – and he had said “I love you.”

Gwynn's father sighed into her shoulder.

Oh, he had added “all”, but she was part of “all”. And oh, of course it was too soon, and of course she did not truly want him above all other men, but it would make some romantic rightness of her dream if he could simply grow old alone, but with a special, star-​​destined fondness for her.

It would be magnificent to be loved by such a man, she saw now – ugly and old and untouchable as he was. If she had never seen it before, it was simply because Lili had never found a better word for it than “handsome”.

“Very well, old man,” her father sighed. “You just convinced me with the mistletoe.”

'You just convinced me with the mistletoe.'