Lady Gwynn's little heart-shaped face pinched itself into a sharper point.

Lady Gwynn’s little heart-​​shaped face pinched itself into a still sharper point.

“Uh oh…” she whispered.

She did not otherwise react, however – not even to call out to the person who had knocked at the door – and Condal did not know what to do aside from sitting utterly still. The fat piece of candy she had just plucked from the bowl began to melt between her fingers.

Condal did not know what to do.

The visitor pounded on the door and called out in a girl’s voice: “Gwynn! Are you in there?”

“My sister!” Gwynn gasped.

She clapped her hands down on the rug to push herself to her feet, and Condal scrambled to do likewise with her one free hand, though she had no idea why the appearance of Margaret could be cause for alarm.

“Quick!” Gwynn whispered. “Hide the candy!”

Condal shoved the entire plum-sized lump into her mouth.

In her confusion Condal shoved the entire plum-​​sized lump into her mouth.

“Not that candy!” Gwynn squeaked. “That one!” She leapt heroically onto her knees and gave the entire bowl a shove, sending it sliding across the rug and under the tall chest, just as Margaret lifted the latch.

She crouched and gave the entire bowl a shove.

Gwynn had time to flop down onto the rug and arrange her nightgown prettily around her legs. Condal only managed an awkward squat.

“You are in here!” Margaret scolded. “Why didn’t you answer me?”

'You are in here!'

“Perhaps we were playing dead and hoping you would go away,” Gwynn said.

Condal’s tongue struggled desperately to work the fat piece of candy to one side or the other of her mouth. If she could not contrive to get it within range of her teeth, she knew it would be a long time in melting. Oh, why had she been so greedy as to take the second-​​biggest piece?

Condal's tongue struggled desperately.

“What are you doing? Are you drunk?” Margaret asked dubiously.

“Just talking,” Gwynn cheeped.

“Are they drinking?” another young voice called from the darkness of the hallway.

Condal squinted into the shadows as the girl entered. With her auburn braids she could not have been Raegan or Lissa, and the Princess was much taller…

The Princess! It was Princess Emma! Condal had never stopped to consider that even princesses must braid their hair at night and pad about in bare feet and nightgowns.

She clapped her hands down on the rug and pushed herself up to curtsey. Oh, but she could not say a word!

Oh, but she could not say a word!

“Only a cup of hot wine,” Gwynn sniffed. “To help us sleep. We have an extra lot of worries tonight,” she added self-​​importantly.

She stood and hurried to Condal’s side, though it seemed rather for the purpose of squeezing Condal’s arm than of coming to her aid: as soon as Gwynn was out of the way, the Princess was free to step in.

“What are you eating?” Emma asked shrewdly. “Connie has something in her mouth.”

'What are you eating?'

“Nothing!” Gwynn giggled.

“Nothing?” Emma demanded. “Then say something!”

Connie tried to push the lump of softening candy aside, but she found it firmly stuck to roof of her mouth. She was obliged by candy to defy a Princess! She could scarcely smile with the corners of her lips for fear of drooling down her chin. She could scarcely blink her eyes for fear she would cry.

“Just apples, you triple-​​ninny!” Gwynn groaned. “What does it look like?”

'What does it look like?'

“Apples, eh?” Margaret rubbed her palms together and cackled. “Then show us the core!”

Condal tried to whimper an apology, but she did not know the cadences of English well enough to hum the proper tune.

“What’s she saying?” Margaret asked her sister.

“In Scotland they eat the core, too,” Gwynn assured her.

Margaret snorted and thumped her fist upon her breast. “Puts hair on your chest,” she grunted. “Egelric says.”

'Puts hair on your chest.'

Gwynn giggled and swayed giddily until she bumped against Condal’s arm.

“They say that about everything,” Emma grumbled. She dropped to her knees and pushed the curtain aside to root around amongst the plates and cups and candles. “They wouldn’t need to be so worried about growing chest hair if they didn’t run about in short skirts all the time.”

Condal moaned an objection and sucked as fast as she could swallow. At last the shrinking candy seemed to be working itself free.

“Found it!” Emma squealed. She dragged the bowl of candy out into the firelight. “Candy!”

“You’re not supposed to have candy before bed!” Margaret howled. “I’m telling!”

'I'm telling!'

“Whom do you think you’ll tell?” Gwynn demanded. “It was Hetty who gave it to us!”

“Father Matthew!”

“You wouldn’t dare!” Gwynn gasped. “You can’t confess another’s sins! Or I shall confess yours!”

“You don’t even suspect my sins!” Margaret said ominously.

Gwynn gasped, “Margaret!”


Finally Condal managed to swallow her shrunken candy in a lump.

“Which would you rather be seeing?” she demanded of the Princess, all protocol forgotten. “A man stumping about in baggy pants all rumpled about his ankles, or a fine man with his fine bare legs and his high stockings?”

'Which would you rather be seeing?'

Emma snorted. “You would see it differently if the ‘fine man’ was your young brother Spindle-​​shanks, and he thought the purpose of a kilt was to be flipped up to make the horses shy at the glare of his hairless behind.”

“I’m telling him you said that!” Margaret laughed.

'I'm telling him you said that!'

“The Spindle-​​shanks, or the hairless behind?”

“Connie never had a brother, that’s why she still thinks men are clever and fine,” Gwynn said soothingly.

“Do Irishmen wear kilts sometimes too?” Margaret asked, with a sly sidelong glance at Gwynn.

“Only when there are no Scotsmen around to make them look foolish,” Condal grinned.

'Only when there are no Scotsmen around to make them look foolish.'

Emma laughed deeply, like her father, and Margaret swatted Condal’s arm.

“I told you she was a keeper,” Margaret said to the Princess.

Emma lifted the hem of her nightgown and flopped down onto the rug like any girl.

“I hope we get snowed in,” she said, “and then I can stay here and eat candy and talk with you girls. Advent at home is worse than Lent, since I know you’re having fun. Candy!” she moaned, feigning starvation before taking a huge bite out of the biggest piece in the bowl.

The girls arranged themselves around the candy, and Gwynn and Margaret chose pieces of their own to nibble. Condal did not dare: there were some foods she avoided eating in public for fear of appearing foolish, and regretfully she thought she ought to add Hetty’s gooey German candy to the list.

The girls arranged themselves around the bowl.

“We didn’t even know you were here,” Gwynn said to the Princess. “When did you get here?”

“I just came back with Dunstan,” Emma mumbled around her candy – as a Princess, Condal supposed, exempt from foolishness. “It’s falling so thick and fast we came across the downs.”

“Oh, the snow!” Gwynn whispered fervently. “God save the poor travelers out on this cold night!”

She did not turn her head, but she gave Condal’s wrist a squeeze.

Condal could not understand Gwynn’s apparent elation. All evening she herself had been queasy with a vague dread that she did not like to dwell upon, and which had only been deepened by the hot wine.

Condal could not understand Gwynn's apparent elation.

She ached to think of Cearball braving the snow and the dark for her sake – but if Cearball was cold and alone this night then so might Eithne be, and ashamedly she admitted she was glad he had gone.

“In fact,” Emma said, “I was mostly hoping to finally see Margaret’s new little Welsh sweetheart, since Dunstan told me he was staying here – ”

“He is not my sweetheart!” Margaret gasped.

'But it appears that gentleman has already...'

“But it appears that gentleman has already… retired to his room,” Emma said wickedly. She flopped her hand in her lap and moaned, “Oh, Margaret! Oh, Margaret!” until Margaret smacked her across the chest with her arm and snarled, “Cut it out!”

She and Condal both looked uneasily aside at Gwynn.

Condal and Eithne had never determined quite what that gesture was meant to represent, but they were fairly certain it was something fairly masculine and something fairly wicked. However, she was beginning to think that Gwynn was unaware there was even such a thing as masculine wickedness in the world. At the sight of Emma’s hand-​​flopping, Gwynn did not even blush. Condal wondered whether Margaret knew.

“He’s only staying here because Dunstan invited him,” Gwynn muttered. “He follows Dunstan around like a dog.”

'He's only staying here because Dunstan invited him.'

“Perhaps he’s in love with Dunstan,” Margaret smirked.

“Then why did he kiss you?” Emma challenged.

“He didn’t kiss me! I kissed him! He never knew what hit him!”

You kissed him and you’re trying to tell me you’re not sweet on him!” Emma laughed. “Hussy!”

“I am not!” Margaret wailed.

“She is not!” Gwynn wailed in tune. “She only kissed him because of the Old Man and his mistletoe rules!

“Better to kiss than be kissed!” Margaret said. “It was self-​​defense!”

“Quite so!” Gwynn sniffed. “My sister would never fall in love with such a… such a…”

“If that’s not the definition of hussy!” Emma laughed.

Margaret whacked her with the back of her arm again. “Shut up! Gwynn’s trying to say something.”

'Gwynn's trying to say something.'

“Such a…”

“Spit it out, dear,” Margaret cooed.

Emma asked, “What?”

“Shut up!” Margaret hissed. “She’s working up an insult, I can feel it.”

Gwynn is?” Emma snickered.

“Such a – blocky boy!” Gwynn whimpered. At once her little pouting mouth sharpened to a point, as though the very words were sour.

At once her little pouting mouth sharpened to a point.

“That’s an insult?” Emma scoffed, but Margaret laughed so hard she flopped onto her back.

“That’s not an insult!” she crowed. “That’s sheer poetic brilliance! The Blocky Boy!” she intoned, and then she twisted and shrieked in laughter.

'That's not an insult!'

Gwynn tried to scowl disapprovingly , but the corners of her mouth twitched up in spite of herself, and her face was pink with pride.

Condal laughed. It was just the sort of insult she and Eithne might have contrived, and she was a little relieved to know that she could henceforth feel free to whisper such observations to her new and unnervingly kind friend. It was true that Cynan was a boy that even a kilt could not have made fine.

“What is he?” Emma asked. “Square?”

'What is he?  Square?'

“The squarest boy I ever saw!” Margaret panted. “Just a big… square… block of blockiness!” she laughed. “There’s no other word for it!”

At last Emma deigned to giggle. “I cannot wait to meet this fellow. But I wager you did knock a few corners off of him with that kiss, Meg.”

“I wager I did!” Margaret declared. “He’ll be round as an egg by the time I’m done with him!”

Gwynn gasped, “Margaret!”

Margaret laughed nervously. “I don’t mean by kissing him, ninny-​​nanny.”

“He’ll probably want to kiss you again,” Emma pointed out.

“And that’s when I’ll knock his rough edges off,” Margaret hooted. “With my fists!”

“Poor Meggie,” Gwynn whimpered sympathetically, as though her sister were crying rather than laughing. “Her first kiss had to be with that boy.

'Poor Meggie.'

Emma and Margaret both stopped laughing and stared at her.

“The least kissable boy in the world,” she sighed. She shook her head sadly and took a bite of candy. “I suppose I must count myself fortunate,” she mumbled.

Condal pressed her fist against her mouth to stifle a giggle.

“Now I truly cannot wait to meet that boy,” Emma said wonderingly. “I can not believe it. Less kissable than Caedwulf?

“Easily,” Margaret blustered. “I would kiss Caedwulf a hundred times before kissing Blocky Boy again. You only think he’s disgusting because he’s your brother.”

“Less kissable than Baldwin?” Emma squeaked.

Margaret laughed. “You only think he’s disgusting because you have to marry him.”

Emma looked pleadingly at Gwynn and Condal. “Less kissable than any boy on earth?

'Less kissable than any boy on earth?'

Condal and Gwynn turned their heads to look at one another, and their eyebrows lifted together like a face and a mirror.

Margaret rubbed her chin and finally stopped laughing and began to look thoughtful.

“I wouldn’t be so loud and proud about it, anyway,” Emma said to her. “He’s your cousin, you know. That’s your own blood making your blood run cold, there.”

Margaret grunted.

“We are not proud of him,” Gwynn said stiffly. “However, we are willing to admit him into our house and our family. So long as he does not attempt to kiss any of its members ever, ever again.”

'So long as he does not attempt to kiss any of its members ever, ever again.'

She glanced worriedly at Condal as though seeking approval of this foray into discourtesy. Condal giggled to reassure her. She had never heard Gwynn speak ill of any man aside from Cousin Finn, and even Cousin Finn had to labor mightily to tease it out of her.

“Not even Dunstan?” Emma snickered.

“I know who!” Margaret cried.

“Whom he can kiss?”

“No! The one man who can make a kiss from Blocky seem like a safe haven!”

Emma gasped, “Cubby!”

No!” Margaret groaned. “Quit it, with your husbands and brothers! I should rather kiss any and all of your brothers – even Drage!”

'I should rather kiss any and all of your brothers--even Drage!'

“Who then?” Emma begged.

Margaret smiled wickedly. “Malo!”

“Malo?” Gwynn squeaked.

Malo! Condal pressed her fist against her lips as though her fist could keep her tears in her eyes. Malo! Truly, it was his handkerchief she needed.

“Malo?” Emma echoed. “The fellow without a tongue?”

“The very one!”

Emma choked and clutched her throat and pretended to gag.

“Now, that isn’t kind at all!” Gwynn protested. “What does it matter whether a man has a tongue or not, if one is to kiss him? So long as he has lips?”

'So long as he has lips?'

Margaret and Emma laughed at her.

“Well, that tells us what Cearball didn’t do the other night!” Margaret cackled.

“What?” Gwynn pouted.

“Can you imagine?” Emma groaned. “Kissing a man with an empty mouth?”

“What?” Gwynn wailed. “He can’t help it if he doesn’t have a tongue!”

“Of course he could help it!” Emma said. “Why do you suppose they cut out his tongue? He was probably a criminal or a traitor!”

'He was probably a criminal or a traitor!'

Gwynn moaned and clapped her palms over her little face.

Condal dared not move, but behind the shield of her fist she bit the skin on the backs of her fingers to keep from crying out.

Somehow she had always skirted around the question in her mind, thinking only of His Suffering as a vague and slightly Christ-​​like ordeal, but Emma’s matter-​​of-​​factness thrust the living image before her mind’s eye: the struggling of his shirtless, sweaty, skinny young body, already bloody from some prior punishment; and the burly men kneeling on his limbs until they could be tied down; and the hand in his hair, and the gloves prying his mouth open, and the iron clamp banging past his teeth to pull his tongue out to meet the knife… and the agony, and choking and drowning in his own blood…

“I don’t think he’s a criminal,” Margaret muttered. “Our father’s taking him as a secretary, and if he were I don’t think Father would.”

'I don't think he's a criminal.'

Condal gasped and panted. She was only a young girl, with a tongue still sweet from candy, and she was clothed in a soft wool nightgown and safe before a warm fire. The blood in her mouth was her own. She had simply bit the skin of her fingers until she bled.

She licked the blood from her teeth and pressed her bleeding knuckles into the palm of the other hand. What had Margaret said?

What had Margaret said?

“He is?” Gwynn asked.

“He was here this afternoon while you were at Iylaine’s. Father’s been trying to get him since Bastien died, and I suppose he finally had to give in. Sigefrith says Bastien didn’t leave him a thing. He left it all to the abbey.”

Gwynn closed her eyes and sighed. “Poor, penniless man!”

“Poor tongueless man!” Emma laughed. “Watch he doesn’t catch you beneath the mistletoe, Meg!”

Margaret shuddered dramatically. “Save me, Blocky!”

Save me, Blocky!

“That isn’t kind,” Gwynn scolded. “Perhaps he was tortured by the Moors like Cedric’s father. It mayn’t be his fault at all.”

“That doesn’t mean I have to kiss him.”

“But only think!” Gwynn sighed. “If all young ladies thought as you do, girls… no one would ever, ever kiss him!” She hugged herself in an ecstasy of compassion.

“I think it likely,” Margaret grumbled. “Unless you take pity on him and do.”

“Not I,” Gwynn corrected her. “I mean a young woman who will not only kiss him, but love him. Only think of it!” she moaned. “Forever unable to speak – only able to express his love through glances and caresses!

'Only think of it!'

“He could write to her,” Margaret pointed out.

“And if she did not know how to read!” Gwynn sighed as though it were the preferable state of affairs. “So romantic!

Condal was as dizzy from quick breathing as if she were being spun around, though she sat quite still on the rug. He had come! Perhaps he had not received the invitation in time! Oh, he might have been at the party – and she might have walked beneath mistletoe…

But he could not have called out her name!

She might have walked beneath mistletoe...

She imagined him watching her mutely from across the room, and Some Other Boy coming to steal her first kiss from her, and herself sending him a last, pleading glance before Some Other Boy obliged her to close her eyes.

His helpless longing smote her heart – perhaps more than his very kisses might have smitten her. All he had were his expressive glances… and his gentle hands, when he had caressed her hands, and his passionate lips when he had kissed her fingers… her bloody fingers…

'But isn't he learning to be a priest?'

“But isn’t he learning to be a priest?” she blurted, startling no one more than herself. She imagined they all saw straight through to everything, and she nearly hid her face in horror.

But Margaret only laughed. “How can he be a priest if he can’t talk?”

“How can he even take Communion?” Emma asked.

“Father Matthew puts it in his hand,” Margaret said. “He puts it in himself. It probably melts, or something. He does eat, you know.”

'He does eat, you know.'

“But learning to be a monk, I’m meaning,” Condal whimpered. She had to know – and somehow these eleven-​​year-​​old girls seemed to know a great many things.

“Ah, I don’t think one learns to be a monk,” Margaret said. “I think one simply becomes one.”

Emma said, “He wouldn’t be gadding all about town and at the markets as he always is, if he were wanting to be a monk.”

“And he wouldn’t take home a big pile of letters to copy tonight for Father,” Margaret added.

“He would be praying, or chanting, or something,” Emma agreed.

'He would be praying, or chanting, or something.'

“I think he’s just a rich man’s secretary,” Margaret said. “And Father’s a rich man. Therefore…”

“Poor, penniless man…” Gwynn sighed.

“Poor tongueless man!” Margaret and Emma laughed together.

Gwynn held up her hand to hush them, and her little heart-​​shaped face had sharpened into such a fine point that they both stopped giggling. Condal had never loved her new friend more.

“Poor, loveless man,” Gwynn murmured. “That, I think, is the most tragic thing.”

'That, I think, is the most tragic thing.'