Condal had learned her lesson the last time.

Condal had learned her lesson the last time. Not only did she count to twenty after her knock, she even started her counting again after having heard what she thought was a chair leg squeaking across the floor.

After twenty seconds of stillness, however, she was quite certain it had only been an imaginary chair. She pushed open the door.

It opened smoothly, but she heard a clink as the latch of the opposite door was dropped – and oh! the person who had lifted it was still on the inside!

The person who had lifted it was still on the inside!

Condal dropped the latch of her own door with a sickening clank. It was not the steward – it was not the Duke–

It was Malo!

It was Malo!

“I’m sorry!” she squeaked. “I didn’t – you didn’t – ”

Condal crumpled her fingers and fists up into a ball before her mouth to stop any further stupidity. Of course he could not have called out in answer to her knock! What ought he to have done? she demanded of herself. Pound on the table?

But Malo did not seem offended. On the contrary, he seemed only endearingly sheepish to her, with his own hands balled up before him and his lips curved into a shy smile.

His posture was so endearingly sheepish.

Condal decided it must have been even more embarrassing to be surprised sneaking out of a room than sneaking in.

“I was just…” She pointed at the bookshelf.

Malo pointed at the quills and parchment abandoned on the writing table.

“Just copying some letters?” she suggested.

'I was just...'

He nodded eagerly and took a step closer. Closer!

Condal took a step past the door, and he took another, and she another, and through some wondrous phenomenon that she had never before stopped to consider, they were brought closer together. Next to each other!

Condal pinched a fold of skirt in each sweaty hand and bent her knees into a curtsey.

“Good day to you,” she peeped.

Malo waited until she had straightened again.

Malo waited until she had straightened again, and as her fingers released their grip on her gown, the back of his hand slipped beneath her palm and lifted her hand lightly towards his lips, like a butterfly perched on a cloud.

Condal was breathless with the beauty of the gesture… with the delicacy of his touch… with the cool smoothness of the back of his hand…

At the same instant they both noticed the swollen scabs that striped her fingers. He did not hold her hand with so much as the weight of a thumb, and thoughtlessly Condal yanked it away.

At once his face blurred behind welling tears of regret.

At once his face blurred behind welling tears of regret. She saw only that it was startled and sad, and she would never know whether from the sight of her injury or from the insult she had just paid him. She felt she had let slip an opportunity she would never have again.

She hid her injured hand in the other and quavered, “I scraped myself.”

'I scraped myself.'

At that moment they seemed to her the saddest words she had ever said. She wanted to go away and sob. She wanted to put her hand back over his and try again. She could do neither, and there was nothing he could say to make things easier. She would have to soldier on.

“I was only looking for the… the…”

'I was only looking for the... the...'

Naturally she immediately blundered into another morass. She could never remember which of the “beast” words was unobjectionable and which caused gentlemen to raise their eyebrows; and she had already spent an entire day talking about “The Nanimal Book” to the tune of much stifled giggling before Hetty had taken pity and explained to her the proper application of “a” and “an”.

Then she remembered that she was speaking Gaelic and could call it anything she pleased.

“For the book with the wee pictures of birds and beasties in it!” she blurted.

'For the book with the wee pictures of birds and beasties in it!'

She sighed and swayed as a wave of cool relief passed over her like rain.

Malo nodded smartly and walked past her to close the door.

The door! A boy had shut himself up in a room with her! A wave of heat swept over her in the opposite direction, leaving her dizzy and sick and excited at all once. What would she do if he tried to hold her fast and kiss her? Surely she would faint, and he would hold her tightly and kiss her all over her pale face, and on her softly opened lips…

Surely she would faint.Her first kiss!

But the seconds passed, and Condal felt no arms closing tightly around her. When she turned her head to peek at Malo, she found him merely frowning and pinching his chin and scrutinizing the books on the shelf.

The books! Of course! Condal nearly fainted from embarrassment, if not from holding her breath. He had to close the door to see the bookshelf – that was all.

She put on her gravest face and hastened to his side. Almost unconsciously she frowned as he did and cocked her head as he did, quite as though she understood the little letters scrawled on the spines as well as he.

Malo paid her no attention at all.

Even while she scowled and pouted beside him, however, she could not help but notice how fine he seemed, looking critically and casually over these mysterious tomes. If she understood how reading worked, he could have picked up any one and read it straight through on his first try, all by himself. It seemed a finer thing than dancing. Even Condal knew how to dance.

“Can you truly read all these books?” she asked shyly.

He lifted his eyebrows in mild surprise and nodded, but at the sound of her voice his hand flicked nervously up to trail his fingers over the spines.

He lifted his eyebrows in mild surprise and nodded at the shelf.

“We were hoping to find a picture of a kelpie,” she said.

He paused with his fingers hooked into the cleft between two books and looked down at her out of the corner of his eye.

“Lady Gwynn is broidering a hippo-​​camp-​​amus. That’s a Greek beastie,” she explained. “Half horse and half fish.”

Malo smiled slightly and nodded. His hand curved slowly away from the books like a vine reaching for the sun.

“But I’m wanting to broider one of our Celtic animals,” Condal told him.

He nodded again and pulled a book down from the shelf: the fat, green bestiary that Condal had recognized all along.

He nodded again and pulled a book down from the shelf.

“Are you thinking there’ll be a picture of a kelpie in an English book?” she asked him.

Malo shrugged and slipped past her to sit upon the chair beneath the window. Even while he opened the book on his lap with his right hand, his body leaned precariously to the left to pull the other chair close to his own.

So very close! What else could it mean but that he wanted her to sit beside him?

Condal sat, and she took advantage of the necessary rearrangement of her skirts to wipe the dampness from her hands – just in case.

Malo, meanwhile, was already paging through the book.

Malo, meanwhile, was already paging through the book, with lips pursed and brows frowning, looking very businesslike indeed.

All the cunning little beasties did their gaudy best to attract her attention, but they had lost whatever magic had so entranced her the day before when she had turned breathlessly through every page of The Nanimal Book. Today she could not take her eyes from Malo’s hands.

Today she could not take her eyes from Malo's hands.

Perhaps he could not fight with a sword, nor even to much avail with his fists, but he held the precious book with hands that were gentle and sure. She thought the fingers that had flipped so many leaves of parchment would know how delicately to touch even the finest skin.

She watched in wonder as he skipped past entire sections of the book: he knew where a kelpie ought to be found, even if no kelpie there would be.

No kelpie there was. He stopped and shook his head.

No kelpie there was.

“I was afraid not,” she sighed. “Lady Gwynn had never heard tell of kelpies before.”

She pinched a fold of skirt over her knees and bowed her head to the task of flattening it.

“It’s so far from home I’ve come,” she murmured sadly to herself. Even the monsters were not the same.

Malo closed the book – not with a snap, as the Duke did, but firmly and fatally nevertheless. He rose so suddenly that Condal was startled out of her chair.

He returned the book to the shelf.

He returned the book to the shelf, and Condal dared not ask permission to take it away to find another animal for her fancy-​​work. Perhaps, she thought, Malo did not believe ignorant young ladies ought to be allowed to handle books.

He turned and walked past her without a glance, around the table and back to his chair.

He turned and walked past her without a glance.

Condal gripped her skirts in her damp fists and curtseyed again.

“Thank you kindly for looking in the book for me,” she mumbled.

Malo pulled out a small sheet of parchment and cocked his head to the left and to the right, studying it, though nothing was written on it as far as Condal could see.

He picked up a quill and swept his arm out and back like a wing.

Condal hesitated, unable to decide whether he had been beckoning her or shooing her away, or whether the gesture was merely some necessary pre-​​writing preparation.

She took a step sideways, bringing her closer both to the table and – just in case – to the door.

Malo dipped the pen into the ink, cocked his head this way and that again in scrutiny of the page, and at last hunched over the table and began to write.

Condal crept close enough to the table to see what he was about.

Condal took another shuffling step. Then she noticed a detail that allowed a comment.

“Are you writing with your left hand, then?” she asked shyly.

Malo smiled and nodded without looking up, and nor did he slow in his scritching and scratching except to dip his pen.

Heartened by the smile, Condal crept close enough to the table to see what he was about. Instead of the tidy rows of little symbols she had expected, the top half of the page was aswirl with long strokes and thin, curving lines.

Condal crept close enough to the table to see what he was about.

As she cocked her head slowly to the side, she began to make sense of it: the four slender, shaggy legs; the pointed hooves; the tapering head with its angry eyes…

“Are you making a picture of a kelpie?” she squeaked.

Malo nodded eagerly and swept his arm out widely to wave her in – and this time, she told herself, with such an inviting smile there could be no doubt.

Malo nodded eagerly.

Condal hurried around the table and leaned in as close as she dared. Oh, what would he do if she leaned so close he could feel her breath on his neck? She tried to imagine what she would do if she felt his on hers.

Even then the sure strokes of Malo’s pen were laying in the mane and tail: thick and black and heavy-​​hanging as though the monster had just galloped up out of the depths of a loch.

'Such a like picture!'

“Such a like picture!” she breathed. “I would almost swear he was all a-​​dripping yet!”

Malo snorted with silent laughter, and he scratched a few falling lines to show the water streaming from the mane.

His kelpie was a handsome little beast in spite of his scowl, and Condal could imagine herself smoothing his sodden forelock down his cheek, and caressing his damp, velvety nose with her little hand. Over time and through tenderness he would be tamed, and the angry eye would look on her with love.

Condal could imagine herself smoothing his sodden forelock down its cheek.

But that was the danger of kelpies, she remembered at the last. If ever once a maiden threw her leg over his naked back, she would ride him to her death.

She brought herself back to reality with a stuttering laugh. “So like a kelpie,” she whispered. “He makes me a little afraid.”

Malo passed the quill into his right hand and reached behind him with the left to give her dangling fingers a reassuring squeeze.

“Not truly afraid!” she gasped. “I mean – I never saw one before, but he’s making me to wish I could ride him…”

He had touched her hand!

“And that’s just what a kelpie tries to do, so…”

'And that's just what a kelpie tries to do, so...'He had touched her hand!

“So that’s a fine picture of a kelpie, if I may say,” she concluded.

She sighed in relief at having so narrowly averted foolishness. But her tongue blundered on without her and carried her the rest of the way there.

“I never knew you could draw pictures too! I mean… and write too. I mean… Ach, how stupid of me!” she laughed. “I suppose drawing’s just like writing, isn’t it?”

Malo grinned at her and shook his head. He hunched over the parchment again, and just as fast as he could scratch, he blocked out a tidy row of letters beneath the prancing beast.

“What does it mean?” she asked.

Malo tapped his fingertip heedlessly on the damp ink of the water horse’s tail.

“Kelpie!” Condal squealed. “I can read!”

Malo nodded and sucked the ink from his finger.

'I told you he was still wet!'

“I told you he was still wet!” she giggled. “If I ever find an animal book from Scotland, I shall look for these letters and find a kelpie picture all by myself!”

Malo shook his head and laughed silently like Liadan. Condal could have torn around the room and whooped for gladness: She had made this sorrowful boy laugh – all by herself!

Meanwhile Malo was busily writing out a few more letters farther down the page.

“What does it mean?” she asked eagerly, though the short series of rounded letters ending in a tall straight one reminded her of something she knew.

Meanwhile Malo was busily writing out a few more letters farther down the page.

Malo pointed at her with the back of his quill.

“Condal!” she gasped. “It’s my own name! I knew it! I told you I can read!”

He grinned and shook his head over the parchment. Still farther down he wrote another short word.

Condal bent low over his shoulder. She did not know whether he could feel her breath, but she was close enough to smell his body. His wispy hair was still damp and winter-​​scented from the snow, and the faint muttony odor of the abbey soap lingered on his shaven cheek.

He smelled simple and clean.

He smelled simple and clean, and Condal decided she liked the plain smell of his neck better than any fancy oil.

He lifted his pen away and cocked his head to look expectantly up at her.

Condal panicked: she had not even begun to guess. However, the first letter was formed of two arches…

“Malo!” she whispered.

He lifted his eyebrows in surprise.

“I told you I could read,” she snickered.

He smiled, but he did not laugh, and Condal began to realize she was not quite telling the truth.

'I'm only teasing.'

“I’m only teasing,” she laughed feebly. “Are you remembering how you tried to write your name for me once? This letter: up and down, up and down…”

She traced her finger up and down, up and down on the bare parchment beside his name.

She hummed, “Mmmm…” as the meaning of the letter came to clear to her. She traced a half circle beside her own name and said, “Co…”

He leaned his head towards hers, watching, and suddenly Condal felt very shy. She pulled her arm away and stood straight beside his chair.

“Might I keep it?” she asked softly.

'Might I keep it?'

He creased the parchment neatly between the kelpie and their names and handed it to her.

“I shall pay you for the page,” she added hastily.

He shook his head and pointed from his breast to hers.

“You give it to me?” she asked timidly. “A gift?”

He nodded.

“Ach! And it’s my birthday a week from today!” she blurted.

'Ach!  It's my birthday a week from today!'

She took a step away from him.

“And it… I mean, I’m not saying it’s a birthday gift…”

She stepped back and back.

“I mean, not that you’re knowing it’s my birthday… Or caring…” she peeped.

At last she was so overcome with embarrassment that she managed to stop talking, and she busied her hands with trying to fit the little folded parchment into a pocket that was not quite deep enough to hold it.

Meanwhile Malo rose from his chair, and he followed her as far as she led him, almost to the door.

'I mean, I'm wanting to practice writing my name, that's why.'

“I mean, I’m wanting to practice writing my name, that’s why,” she bumbled on. “Won’t they be surprised if I can write my own name in the big register?” she giggled. “Make a cross here, Condal,” she said in a deep, grave voice, trying to sound like the Abbot. “And instead I shall be writing my own name, plain as you please!”

'And instead I shall be writing my own name, plain as you please!'

She laughed until she realized that Malo was smiling at her strangely.

“Ach, not the wedding register!” she gasped. “I’m not getting married! I mean… not yet. I mean… not to anyone… because no one has asked me yet. But I would, if I…”

Condal could not guess what Malo’s smile meant. No boy had ever smiled at her quite like that before.

“I mean, the baptism register,” she panted. “For when the baby comes.”

She sighed in relief – and then she noticed that Malo’s smile had gone stranger still.

Malo's smile had gone stranger still.

“I mean not my baby!” she squeaked. “I’m not having any babies until I’m married! Which I am not, as I said. Yet! Until someone asks me – whom I like!” she added firmly.

Malo nodded, apparently quite in agreement with the wisdom of this plan.

“It’s my sister’s baby, I’m meaning! When it comes! If it’s a wee girlie Cat said I could be a godmother to it.”

Malo nodded again, looking somewhat relieved himself.

Condal sighed heavily and fanned her face. “Ach, but isn’t the Duke keeping his castle warm?”

'Ach, but isn't the Duke keeping his castle warm?'

She realized too late that making flimsy excuses for her blush was even more embarrassing than blushing. She wanted nothing more than to run away and hide – preferably face-​​down in a snowbank – but Malo could not speak to offer her an easy escape. She would have to soldier on.

“I should be letting you get back to your work,” she said in her most businesslike voice. “I thank you kindly for the kelpie picture and for teaching me my name.”

She curtsied slightly before realizing she had said something silly.

“I mean the writing of my name. I’m already knowing my name. Condal it is.”

Malo grinned and nodded at her, but his shoulders were shaking with silent laughter.

Malo grinned and nodded at her.

“But you may call me Connie,” she added. “Ah… in your head.”

Malo patted his breast.

In his heart! Did he mean in his heart?

“In your…” Condal whispered. She did not dare to so much as mouth the rest.

Malo bowed to her and reached around her to lift the latch and open the door.

“Good day to you, sir,” she murmured as she tottered out.

For the first time since she had come to the castle, she wished there had been mistletoe in a door.

She wished there had been mistletoe.