The more gluey mud they picked up.

The harder Father Faelan tried to stomp the slush off his boots, it seemed, the more gluey mud they picked up from the floor. The flagstones of the low entry of Acanweald Keep were so thickly crusted that a handsome half-​​circle had been swept smooth over them by the swinging door, in the style of snow angels.

Finally he gave up stomping and climbed the short flight of stairs with mud still clinging to his soles. Fortunately the stones of the hall seemed to have been swept clean. He only hoped that it had not been by the hems of the Princess’s heavy skirts.

Qatal's hands slapped over his face as soon as he stepped into the room.

“Who is here?” she asked eagerly as she rose from her loom, bent forward at the waist so that she could squint that much farther ahead.

Faelan threw up his arms and broadly lilted, “I have the pleasure this morning of announcing my own self! I’m a bit tired of leaving that honor to such lowly beings as doormen and house stewards.”

Neither innocent Irene nor Andronikos nor Father Dominic heard his thinly disguised criticism of the way the household was run; nor did they ever. Faelan was looking forward to the day when baby Naedre would be weaned and he could incite Lady Eadgith to pay a visit. She would be setting things aright.

Neither innocent Irene nor Andronikos nor Father Dominic heard his thinly disguised criticism.

“But you forget to announce who is your own self!” Irene teased.

“How many Irishmen do you have visiting you out here?” Faelan huffed. “And if you say more than one, not only shall I be sore jealous, but needing to have a talk with a certain young gentleman of my recent acquaintance…”

She wrapped her stiffly-​​sleeved arms around his stiffly-​​robed body, and he gave her a gentle squeeze. Behind her head he saw Andronikos sitting up straighter, no doubt on the alert at the mention of a “certain young gentleman.”

Behind her head he saw Andronikos sitting up straighter.

“How are you this bitter morning, my sweet?” Faelan murmured.

“Bitter?” she gasped in astonishment. “Is it? Father, did you see the snow?”

“See it?” he laughed. “I’m wearing it!” He rumpled his hair and mumbled, “Ach no, that’s just being my gray hair…”

She laughed and clapped her hands. “It is the prettiest thing I ever saw!”

“Thank you, dearie, and likewise!”

'Thank you, dearie, and likewise!'

No!” she growled playfully and shook his sleeve like a puppy. “Out–side! It is a new world today: not gray and not ugly, not at all!”

“Have you been out in it then?” Faelan winked. “No snow angels did I spy!”

Andronikos said curtly, “No.”

The wide-​​eyed gaiety on Irene’s face did not so much as quiver. “We must ask Joseph,” she said breathlessly, “may I go out–side, when he comes!”

“Aye, my lady,” Faelan agreed, “I’m thinking a bit less work and a bit more play out–side is what your wan cheeks are needing.” He gave one of them a gentle pat.

Andronikos glared at him, but Father Faelan could not be glared.

He curved his arm softly over Irene’s shoulders and steered her away from her loom, but he noticed that she had already started a new cloth since the last time he had come by.

He put his arm over her shoulders and steered her away from her loom.

Irene worked herself harder than any master to make towels, sheets, tablecloths, and wall hangings for Lord Acanweald’s castle, and neither passionate pleas nor arguments nor reason could convince her that she was anything but a pensioner expected to pay her keep.

Gentle Britmar would surely weep to see all she had done in the name of his imaginary avarice. Faelan only allowed it to go on because without occupation he feared what her days would become – and what she.

“Well, now, dearie, I see you’re at last getting the hang of this Penelope business. Have you then a crowd of suitors you’re needing to delay?”

'Well, now, dearie, I see you're at last getting the hang of this Penelope business.'

“No, Father,” she corrected impishly, “I did not unwove! I start a new cloth since the last time!”

“Ach, dear Irene!” he sighed. “Britmar had better be hastening home, or it’s all a-​​shrouded from attic to cellar he’ll be finding his manor, like a mummy!”

“Oh, Father, did you ever see an Egyptian mummy?” Irene asked breathlessly, so easily were her fluttering thoughts turned aside.

'Oh, Father, did you ever see an Egyptian mummy?'

“No, I never saw an Egyptian mummy…” Faelan mused.

“I saw one time! All unwinded! He looks quite like alive, except but he is very stiff and very hard, like a wood! I wish you could see a mummy, too, Father.”

“Now, I never said I never saw a mummy,” Faelan corrected her. “I said I never saw an Egyptian mummy.”

'I said I never saw an Egyptian mummy.'

“Is there other kinds?”

“Why, Irish mummies, of course!” Faelan gasped.

“The Irish make mummies?” she squeaked.

She was too innocent even to look for confirmation to Andronikos or Dominic. Faelan, however, did not fail to notice that in spite of his apparent disinterest in anything outside his book, Dominic was chewing on the inside of his cheek with the savagery of a man trying not to smile.

Dominic was chewing on the inside of his cheek with the savagery of a man trying not to smile.

“Why, of course we do, dearie,” Faelan assured her. “We did, rather… it got to be a bit of a problem.”

“It did got?” Irene asked.

“Aye, for you see, our Irish linen is so fair and fine that the mummies made in it are turning out a wee bit too like to life. We had to stop doing it after the time we unwrapped one of them and he accidentally came to be the King of Dublin.”

Irene knew then that he was teasing, but she only cuddled back into her cushions and smiled slyly up at him. She wanted to hear where this story would lead.

She wanted to hear where this story would lead.

“Mind you now,” Faelan lilted, “he was a fair and honorable king for nigh on three-​​score and ten years, and it was a period of peace such as the men are sighing on even today. But that sort of business simply isn’t Christian, so we had to put a stop to it. Once we found out he was a mummy, that is.”

Faelan folded his hands in his sleeves and snorted conclusively.

Irene giggled just long enough to give him a chance to think up a fitting end for King Mummy of Dublin.

“How did you found out?” she asked.

Out of the corner of his eye, Faelan saw Dominic watching him out of the corner of his own.

Out of the corner of his eye, Faelan saw Dominic watching him out of the corner of his own.

“Ach, well, you see, that was back in the day of Maeve of the Clabbered Cheeks: the ugliest lady in all of Ireland!”

Irene nodded eagerly.

“And one day Maeve thought she would be paying a visit to Dublin-​​town. So they were turning all the mirrors so they would not crack, and locking up all the milk so it would not curdle, and to Dublin did she ride on the back of a blind mule. And when she came to the court, why…”

'And when she came to the court, why...'

Faelan paused to pinch the tip of his beard and frown thoughtfully. He waited until he had seen Dominic lean slightly forward.

“Why, she came before the King and his men, and one by one went she round them to let them kiss her hand. And to this day, the Mummy-​​King of Dublin is the only man who ever saw her and remained hard and stiff as a piece of wood. And that was how they knew he was a mummy.”

Faelan folded his hands together and put on his saintliest smile.

Faelan folded his hands together and put on his saintliest smile.

Irene snorted, and then she giggled, and then she clapped one hand over her mouth and the other over her belly and laughed until she had slipped down deep into her pile of cushions, and her cheeks were as pink as from a half hour out-​​of-​​doors. Whatever Father Dominic would have to say about it later, Faelan knew he had just performed his most Christian act so far that morning.

She laughed until she had slipped down deep into her pile of cushions.

“And so, they wound him up again and buried him!” Irene concluded when she had caught her breath.

“Why, no!” Faelan corrected. “Maeve was marrying him after! For she was knowing she would never have another such a chance!”

'Maeve was marrying him after!'

Irene squeezed both of her hands between her knees, threw back her head, and laughed so deeply Faelan felt a twinge of worry about her heart and lungs.

He pretended to hide his mouth behind his hand and said slyly to her – and perhaps too softly for her to hear – “Not many woman are, I’m hearing.”

Then he shook his robe straight, turned to bow sharply to Dominic, and trilling his R’s in his most exaggeratedly Irish way, cried, “Buon giorrrrno, Padre!

Dominic’s lip curled. “Good morning,” he whispered.

'Good morning.'

Faelan grasped the arm of the couch and lowered himself onto the cushion with a thump.

He began, “What sort of interesting – ” but when he attempted to turn to his fellow priest, he felt a small, slightly stiff something poking him in the thigh, which had nothing to do with the conversation he had just enjoyed.

“Ach, Irene!” He painfully twisted his hip up off the couch to fumble in his pocket. “So old am I, I was forgetting I had a wee something for you…”

“You had a wee something for me?” she asked.

'You had a wee something for me?'

She echoed his accent so faithfully he had to smile, and put such an enthusiastic squeak on the “me” that he made up his mind to bring wee somethings on his own behalf henceforth.

“Aye,” he panted, “a wee something I found left for you at the gatehouse. Never ask me how long it was a-​​waiting there for a kindly man to bring it up, for the guard surely never would!”

'The guard surely never would!'

“I hope it isn’t food,” Dominic frowned.

Faelan pulled it out and squeezed the soft packet between his fingers. The dirty parchment that wrapped it was at least not damp or sticky.

“If it is, it’s mummified!” he said for the fun of watching Dominic wrinkle his nose. “Indeed, it’s grateful we should be if it wasn’t alive at the time of delivery, for I’m thinking it’s a young boy who left it, and if I remember rightly, the only sort of gift a young boy might think precious enough for a Princess is a newt or a tame mouse or a worm.”

Irene stuck out her pink tongue and groaned. “A worm!

'A worm!'

Andronikos demanded, “A young boy?” with an expression of similar though less charming disgust.

“By the lettering,” Faelan explained. He squinted and held the little packet away from his face to read, just as far as Irene would later hold it close. “Our mysterious correspondant writes like a boy still learning the knack of it. And he does have a remarkably creative spelling.

He frowned critically and held out the packet to Dominic.

'Would you say that's an H or a phi, Padre?'

“Would you say that’s an H or a phi, Padre?” he asked.

One of Dominic’s dark brows lifted as he studied the dark scrawl. “For Her Phi-​​ness?” he suggested.

Irene clapped her hands over her cheeks and laughed. Dominic’s other brow went up, and he turned both eyes hastily back to his book.

“We do not know any young boys,” Andronikos glowered.

'We do not know any young boys.'

“Well, there are Leila’s boys,” Faelan said lightly. “They’re all gentlemanly enough to send Her Phi-​​ness a nice, fat worm for Christmas.”

“A worm!” Irene squealed.

'A worm!'

Faelan passed the packet slowly beneath his nose, as if savoring the perfume of mummified worm.

“But young Cedric writes far better than this,” he mused, “and the twins I’m thinking not as well. Mind you, dearie, even if we guess the scribe, it may not tell us who caught the worm. When I was a wee laddie just learning to write, many were the pennies I earned writing love notes for the other boys.”

He absently rubbed his aching knee and laughed fondly at the memory.

He absently rubbed his aching knee and laughed fondly at the memory.

“And many a time and often would the girls be bringing the same back to me to read them!” he said wistfully. “Which favor did I kindly… for the price of a kiss.”

Dominic’s eyes had strayed from his page, and Father Faelan sent them scurrying back again with a wink.

“But I know how to read, Father,” Irene said slyly.

“Ach! Dearie!” Faelan gasped. “So old am I, I’m forgetting how it feels to be a youngster waiting patiently to open a gift!”

He steadied his weight between his free hand and his good knee and heaved himself up to bow to her.

“For Your Serene Phi-​​ness, with the compliments of the bearer.”

'For Your Serene Phi-ness, with the compliments of the bearer.'

Irene snatched the packet eagerly and held it up just before her nose.

“For… Her High-​​ness…” she read slowly, and corrected quickly, “Phi-​​ness!”

“A phi it is!” Faelan cackled. “My lady knows her Greek.”

“The… Prin-​​cess,” she concluded. She flipped it over and squinted at the other side, but there was nothing more.

She shrugged and laid it down upon her knee to untie the twine.

She shrugged and laid it down upon her knee to untie the twine.

Faelan noticed then that the knot was handsomely done, far more neatly than the average worm-​​catching, black-​​scrawling boy could or would bother to manage. He regretted not having studied it earlier to see whether it was a snare-​​tying boy, or a net-​​mending boy, or some other boy of a mysterious kind.

Faelan noticed then that the knot was handsomely done.

The parchment unfolded itself like an oily flower as the twine loosened, for the sheet had previously been creased along different lines, perhaps folded and pressed some weeks in a lad’s pocket.

In the center lay a clean and neatly folded second bundle of cloth, but as Irene picked it up to bring it to her face, it fell open and trailed itself down her arm and onto her knee in a narrow band.

“A mummy bandage!” Dominic gasped.

By the time Faelan turned his head in surprise, he was already nose-​​deep in his book again.

Irene giggled and stretched the band out between her hands. “It is a ribbon, Father. I think a ribbon for my hair, all embroidered. Andronikos, look!”

'Andronikos, look!'

Faelan leaned over her chair to see. The reverse of the ribbon was lined with a dark, silken stuff, and the face was embroidered all down its length in a simple motif of strawberries on the vine.

He whistled appreciatively. “Now that’s a sophisticated young swain you’re having there, dearie. He’s skipping straight over the worm and mouse stage, and has gone so far as to notice you have hair!

'Now that's a sophisticated young swain you're having there, dearie.'

Irene smiled shyly and wound the ribbon once around her hand before bringing it back up to her squinting face again.

“What is this flower, Father?” she asked.

“No flowers are they, dearie, but strawberries. Aren’t you knowing them?”

“Strawberries?” she breathed. She held the ribbon close and silently stared.

“Nothing to do with straw,” Faelan laughed. “Aren’t you having strawberries on your island, then?”

“In Italy we do,” Dominic ventured.

“Ach, Italian strawberries,” Faelan scoffed.

'The best strawberries in the world!'

“The best strawberries in the world!” Dominic protested.

“Bless you, laddie, but you’ve never seen the strawberries from my own home! How big are they getting, then, your Italian strrrrawberries?”

He glanced at Irene to reassure himself of his audience, but she had smoothed the ribbon flat over her eyes and temples like a bandage, and lay still upon her cushions like the dead.

Faelan looked back to Dominic to see him defiantly holding out a thumb and a finger at a distance large enough to pinch a plum.

“Ach!” Faelan laughed at him. “Is that all? Why, your Italian strrrrawberries are small enough to be an Irish strawberry seed! Our strawberries are so enormous that we hollow them out to make canoes, and a family of seven can dine five Sundays on the meat!”

“Size is nothing,” Dominic sniffed. “It is taste that matters – and it takes twenty Irrrrrish strawberries to make one Italian strawberry of sweet.”

'It takes twenty Irrrrrish strawberries to make one Italian strawberry of sweet.'

When he cared to, Father Dominic could most exasperatingly roll his R’s.

Faelan threw up his arms. “Now that is a statement so easily refuted, I leave to you the burden of proof!”

“Whenever you like, Father,” Dominic smiled. “Only hollow out an Irish strawberry for us and we shall sail around the coast to Italy to try.”

“So I shall, but I’m warning you, laddie: once a man climbs into an Irish strawberry, he’s never more wanting to leave!”

Dominic snorted and paged through his book.

“Eh, dearie?” Faelan prompted gently, unnerved by Irene’s silence. “Will you steer if I’m a-​​rowing?”

It seemed Irene had so little idea of strawberries that their duel of exaggeration had failed to hold her butterfly attention. The ribbon curved smoothly like a sash across her breast, already forgotten, and she lay staring through the fire at something only her misty eyes could see.

She lay staring through the fire at something only her misty eyes could see.