“Malo!” Lady Gwynn panted as she shuffled to a skidding stop. “Thank heaven you’re still here!”

Even before he turned, Amarel smiled sheepishly and cringed into an awkward bow as Malo was expected to do, though he felt neither sheepish nor awkward just yet.

Then he lifted his eyes.

Then he lifted his eyes, and the sharp breath he took seemed to be drawn from another, brighter, sweeter, more intoxicating air. Suddenly the hands he twisted expertly together felt as clumsy as mitts.

“Come in, Connie!” Gwynn called back over her shoulder. “There’s little point in calling it a warming room if you let all the warm out the door!”

'Come in!'

Condal tiptoed stiffly through the doorway, never taking her eyes from Gwynn’s grinning face, and leaving Amarel a long moment in which to safely study them. Their chilly blue-​green of the late afternoon sun warmed in the firelight to an iridescent gray, like the sheen on the breast of a turtle dove.

She left Amarel a long moment in which to safely study them.

“Malo, I am so grateful you waited,” Lady Gwynn gushed, startling him out of his brief trance. “I have a most urgent commission for you—if you are not occupied with my father’s business, of course,” she added importantly.

Amarel shrugged and gestured at the leather bag that lay empty and deflated on the bench. The Duke had no business on this troubled day, and his steward had attempted to send Amarel away, but his secretary had asked him to wait.

Now he wondered—had it been at Lady Gwynn’s request? What “commission” could she possibly have for him? He imagined dreamily that she would command him to write a letter to her friend…

But what could he write—awkward and sheepish as she made him feel? Dear Condal, if it is not too much trouble, I would like to hold your hand.

But what could he write?

“Come in and close the door, ninny-​nanny!” Gwynn growled softly at her.

“Ach!” Condal jumped as though she had been pinched and hastened to swing the door almost closed. She hesitated over the last strip of daylight and asked shyly, “But is it…?”

Gwynn ignored her and declared, “Malo, I believe only you can help us now!”

'Malo, I believe only you can help us now!'

Condal nodded to herself and left the door cracked open.

“Her Royal Highness my sister is in the depths of despair!” Gwynn lamented, forcing Amarel almost against the wall with the sweeping breadth of her dramatic gestures.

Condal tiptoed in timidly behind her.

“For she had hoped to give my brother a grand new bestiary for Christmas, but we fear that it will never be completed in time to be bound—there are still a good dozen animals to be drawn and colored and inscribed! And so, good man, the urgent question is… Can you color?”

'Can you color?'

Amarel laughed awkwardly and soundlessly, as Malo ought to laugh, but he risked a glance at Condal to see whether she would approve.

In truth, he had never thought so much about color as he had these past weeks, as he looked into everything that sheened and glowed and lustered in search of the hidden colors that were the colors of her eyes. At that moment they were a greenish gold, like sunlight gilding the first velvety fur of an unripe peach.

“For we know you can write,” Lady Gwynn said wickedly, startling him again. “And I hear that you can draw animals too.”

'I hear that you can draw animals too.'

Amarel looked up at Condal in time to see her suck her bottom lip in trepidation. Her pleading eyes were almost tearful. She feared he would be angry she had told. Amarel gave her his sweetest, kindest, more-​than-​Malo smile. He nearly cried.

“Never fear—I can keep a secret,” Gwynn assured him. “And I must beg you to keep ours—surely you understand how Christmas gifts must be a surprise… even if perchance you have never received one?”

She looked up at him mournfully, pouting her lips in mute compassion, but her dark eyes sparkled as they looked hungrily over his face for a sign that she had guessed aright.

This Malo character was supposed to have been an early orphan, so Amarel thought it possible he had not received many gifts in his lonely life—but in any case the answer of Malo would always be the same. Amarel shrugged, and turtle-​like tried to duck his head between his shoulders.

Amarel shrugged, and turtle-like tried to duck his head between his shoulders.

Gwynn grinned and said slyly, “Now now, you’re bound to learn for yourself one Christmas or another—perhaps even sooner than you might believe, if I’m not mistaken!”

Condal made a kitten-​like squeak that sounded remarkably like the name “Gwynn!”

“So, will you do it?” Gwynn blurted. “That is—will you come to the aid of a lady—even one whom you do not know and dare not approach—for the sake of ladies everywhere?” She paused dramatically before succumbing to a sly grin. “Or of one lady in particular, if you prefer? I daresay no one would notice if you slipped her initials into the margin of a drawing—or a—”

'I daresay no one would notice.'

She yelped and turned halfway to Condal, rubbing the small of her back. Condal stared at her with her mouth fixed in an unwavering smile, but her widely scolding eyes drank in enough light to appear almost blue.

Amarel pressed his fidgety hand over his mouth to stifle an unexpected and very real laugh. Just how subtle did either young lady suppose she was being? And why was his hand sweaty?

Gwynn coughed and turned back to him. “So will you?” she begged. “The Princess will pay you handsomely, of course—not that I think you would not do it merely as a favor to a lady, but she will insist… and if you work quickly I daresay you’ll have time to do a little Christmas-​present-​shopping of your own…”

'I daresay you'll have time to do a little Christmas-present-shopping of your own...'

Condal peeped a blackbird-​like note that sounded suspiciously like the name “Gwynn!”

Her cheeks were as pink as embers, and lovely as she was, Amarel knew her modest soul was suffering. He longed to reach out to her over Gwynn’s shoulder and clasp her hand, and show her Gwynn’s nonsense meant nothing. He longed to tell her that even her own silliest moments were safe with him.

Instead he could only nod eagerly at Gwynn.

“You will?” she gasped. Then she sighed, “You will!knew you would!”

'I knew you would!'

She turned to grin gleefully at Condal, and Amarel almost expected her to begin wiggling in excitement like a puppy. The idea made him laugh aloud before he could quite stop himself: the weirdly high-​pitched giggle that was the only laughter he could make with his empty mouth.

At once his scalp prickled, and the back of his neck steamed with sweat. For an instant he considered yanking open the cracked door and fleeing. He had not meant to make that sound.

Then it occurred to him—embarrassment. He was embarrassed. He had mimicked it so well for so long that he had forgotten it was something one could feel. It was real.

Gwynn turned back to him and gushed, “Let’s go up and get the pages you’re to copy and the—oh! Oh no!”

'Oh no!'

Amarel smiled encouragingly at her and bobbed his head.

“Oh no!”

Condal ventured a fearful, “What?”

“Connie! I forgot something! Upstairs!”


Gwynn pinched a fold of cloth on the shoulder of Condal’s gown and tugged her closer. Condal glanced up at Amarel with the wide, helpless, gold-​green eyes of a kitten being carted around by the scruff of its neck.

Wait—here!” Gwynn commanded.

'Wait here!'

Condal squeaked, “Wait!”

“I shall just be a moment—”

Gwynn backed away, and kitten-​like, Condal was too terrified to follow. “But I shall come with you!” she pleaded.

“—it is very important—”

“Ach! Wait!”

“Do not go anywhere without me!” Gwynn concluded ominously.

'Do not go anywhere without me!'

She marched out in as dignified a manner as a rather wide-​hipped young lady could hope to march—backwards—through a rather narrowly-​opened door. She pulled the the door closed behind her with a dignified click.

Amarel and Condal were alone. Her eyelids fluttered like the wings of skittish birds preparing to take flight. She sucked and chewed on her bottom lip until it was pink and wet.

She sucked and chewed on her bottom lip until it was pink and wet.

And he—he—his heart was pounding, though it was a sign of shyness that he had never learned to imitate. His mouth was dry, and there was a hard, hot knot in his throat, as though after a thousand years of every sort of silence he had invented a new impediment to speech.

They stared foolishly at one another for just the time needed by a rather short-​legged young lady to climb a flight of stairs. They were startled out of their shared trance by the sound of Gwynn’s feet thumping on the floorboards overhead, galloping in a most undignified manner from one door to the next and down a hall.

Condal snorted and giggled, “Sounds like it was very important.”

'Sounds like it was very important.'

Amarel laughed silently and nodded.

Condal seemed to collect herself then, gathering both her courage and her skirts in unsteady handfuls, and she dipped into a stiff curtsey so unlike her first artless bob at Sebastien’s bedside that Amarel decided she had learned it from Gwynn.

For his part, he bowed slightly and watched her hand, waiting just until her skirt dropped out of it before he tried to slip his hand inside.

He bowed slightly and watched her hand.

Whether startled or shy or simply inexperienced in the holding of hands, she reacted too quickly, squeezing no more than his first two fingers in a baby’s reflexive clasp.

Amarel bit his upper lip and blinked wildly to hold back hot tears, so unlike the cool drops he could let fall when circumstances required him to cry. Her gestures always surprised him—she was always sweeter than he remembered—and all his armor plating of oath and duty and grim resolution flaked off and fluttered away at the touch of her little hand.

Amarel bit his upper lip and blinked wildly to hold back hot tears.

He squeezed it gently between his fingers and thumb—he would not let it slip away this time—and lifted it to his lips to kiss the scraped knuckles. To his surprise he was most keenly aware of his own skin—his own lips, chapped from the cold, his own close-​shaven stubble, his own sweat, his own scars—his own body.

“It’s healed a bit,” Condal said softly.

Amarel glanced up into her eyes and back at her little scabbed hand. His arms trembled with a weird, tender rage. Someone had been rough with her—even if only the edge of a door.

She tried to pull her hand back, and without thinking he held it tighter. It was only for a moment, but afterwards she no longer tried, and her fingers curled comfortably around his.

He was holding her hand!

He was holding her hand!

“I’m glad to see you,” she murmured sweetly, “though it’s being a sad day for us here. Mayhap you’ve heard.”

He nodded. She looked shyly at the ground and all around, and he watched as the color of her eyes dimmed and brightened and blurred.

“I wasn’t knowing her so very well,” she said. “Dear Lena, I mean. But the sisters of me are grieving her like a sister.” After a moment she said thoughtfully, “We’re always surprised when bad things to happen to good, sweet folk, but most of the time it’s what bad things do.”

'Most of the time it's what bad things do.'

Amarel rubbed his thumb in slight circles over the back of her hand, almost grateful he could not speak. She did not realize the terrible, ravenous loneliness of evil, and how it would forever swallow all the good it found, and how it would never be full. She did not know how her sister was being consumed.

He wanted to protect her from all evil, all harm. He could. He wanted to stop searching for the one he was seeking and stay with the one he had found. He wanted to slit this Malo character down the back and wrap her in his damp wings.

He wanted to slit this Malo character down the back and wrap her in his damp wings.

“And poor Kraaia,” she whimpered.

She looked up at him, and he was frightened at the thought of what she might have seen in his eyes in that instant.

She only said, “She nearly died in the snow, were you hearing? And the frostbite is she having in her feet and hands.”

He shrugged to hint that he had heard many things and had not committed to believing them.

“And Osh is half-​mad with the grieving for them both, for he almost never left them alone at all.” Her hand twitched in his. “You won’t tell?” she asked fearfully. “I mean—you cannot tell… but…”

'You won't tell?'

He nodded and went on stroking her hand. Somehow the slow rhythm of it seemed to be soothing him, if not her. The trembling in his arms was easing. He only felt very warm and weak-​kneed, as if her touch were wine.

“I know you wouldn’t,” she tittered. “You’re understanding these things, I’m thinking.”

She looked squarely into his face, as though to reassure herself of her boldness after saying something bold. Her eyes were the color of Malo’s when he shaved before a dim mirror.

“I’m thinking we… we won’t be having a party for my birthday after all,” she said apologetically. “Just a small supper with the Duke’s family. No dancing, just a quiet supper. But I hope you will still come, if you like. I mean—not because you’re quiet…” she faltered. “I mean, you are, but…”

'I mean, you are...'

He began to smile.

“I mean, not that you would have danced… Ah, not necessarily. During Advent, that is… Ach du lieber!” she gasped. “What was I saying before I started unsaying everything?”

Amarel laughed silently, freeing her own merry laughter. She tightened her grip on his fingers, tipped back her head, and swayed, making her jumbled curls bounce on her shoulders. They looked so soft and clean and squeezable that Amarel thought he might add a postscript to his imaginary letter.

“That I hope you will come,” she concluded in a shy giggle. “But perhaps we ought to wait to see what we mean to do about me first,” she added. “Everyone seems to be waiting to see right now. What will happen, I mean. About Cousin Egelric… You’re remembering my Cousin Egelric?” she asked softly.

'That I hope you will come.'

Amarel nodded. Most particularly he remembered “Cousin Egelric” bleary-​eyed and surly on the morning Sebastien’s body had been taken away. He had left Condal alone with him then. He did not think he would do it again.

“He’s the guardian of me,” she murmured. “Or was—I’m not certain whether he is… or still will be…” She paused and bit her lip.



The door swung open with a whoosh of cold air. Amarel’s fingers slipped out of Condal’s hand so easily that it was a wonder they had ever managed to be held.

“Good!” Gwynn snickered. “You didn’t go anywhere! Shall we go up?”

She turned rather prettily on her tiptoe without waiting for a reply and pranced off towards the court.

Condal only glanced shyly at Amarel before she lifted her hems and trotted after her. Amarel snatched up his bag and followed.

“Wait!” Condal cried as they caught up. “Shan’t we take the circle stairs?”

'Shan't we take the circle stairs?'

She hesitantly tapped the sole of her slipper upon the slush of the first step before setting her foot down.

Gwynn marched boldly up into the chill winter sunlight as though it were a June day. She protested, “We can’t go that way! What if Dunstan is in Father’s study?”

“But Dunstan isn’t even here!

“But he might return at any moment!”

Condal glanced aside at Amarel and rubbed her arms against the cold. Amarel wondered whether a ten-​yard walk through an open court was long enough to allow him to offer her his coat.

Amarel wondered whether a ten-yard walk through an open court was long enough.

The thought of her delicate little body engulfed in his own rumpled wool made his breath come faster. He did not have the time to stop and wonder why.

“But didn’t you just go through your father’s study?” Condal asked dubiously.

“But he might have returned since then!” Gwynn squeaked. She trotted down the steps, through the narrow passage between two piles of snow, and disappeared into the castle’s dusky office.

Gwynn seemed to have floated over the plaques of ice that clung to the stairs, but Condal picked her way slowly down, with her hand on Amarel’s elbow. There was something eerily solemn about their stately, side-​by-​side march down into the earth, but there were not enough steps for him to figure out why. And once they reached the bottom, she slipped free and ran after her friend.

“Returned since fifty seconds?” she giggled.

“Five hundred, with your dilly-​dallying!” Gwynn scolded. “My brother moves quickly for someone with such stumpy legs!”

'Five hundred now, with your dilly-dallying!'

“We shall tell him you said that!” Condal threatened.

“I shall tell him you said they would look fine in a kilt!” Gwynn countered.

Condal stopped short and gasped, “Gwynn!

Gwynn laughed breathlessly and skipped on ahead.

Gwynn laughed breathlessly and skipped on ahead.

Amarel laughed as loudly as he could without voice, hoping Condal would at least believe he took it for a joke. But truly they were too funny—the laugh was real.

“It appears the light is out in the stairs,” Gwynn announced. “I shall take the candle and lead the way. You needn’t one, Connie. But Malo, you must stay close behind her in case she trips and falls.”

“In case I fall?” Condal whimpered. “I want a candle too!”

“No, silly baby! Not for you!” Gwynn took one taper out of the cupboard and very deliberately closed the latch.

“Then Malo shall take one!” Condal said.

'Then Malo shall take one!'

“But Malo needs his hands to catch you!” Gwynn protested.

“Then I shall take one!” Condal groaned.

“But you’ll burn yourself if you fall!”

“But I’m trying not to fall!”

Amarel laughed silently and touched her elbows to tell her that he would be there to catch her if she did. She turned her head until her cheek nestled into her pile of curls and he could just spy one of her dimples. Then she humphed and followed Gwynn into the narrow stairway.

“‘Tisn’t so very difficult as that,” she grumbled on her way up. “Lord Colban’s tower is having every step a different height, to trick the fairies.”

''Tisn't so very difficult as that.'

“Everything’s bigger, better, scarier, and hairier in Scotland!” Gwynn snickered.

“‘Tis!” Condal insisted. Then she asked politely, “Are you having fairies in Brittany, Malo? Ach, never mind, you shall tell me at the top…”

Amarel could not stop his huffing laughter, and he feared he would either choke or make that sound again. His cheeks were beginning to ache from the use of muscles he did not seem to need for his fake smiles.

Gwynn stopped before the door to Lord Cynewulf’s study and awaited them grandly with her candle.

Gwynn stopped before the door to Lord Cynewulf's study.

“You see?” Condal said triumphantly. “I’m a big enough girl for candle-​carrying, I say. Now if I could only stop running with the scissors…”

She glanced back at Malo as they both reached the top and crammed themselves into the narrow corridor that ran between the Duke’s study and his son’s.

“Is somebody in there?” Condal asked after a moment as Gwynn stood steadfastly grinning before the door.

Gwynn said nothing, and an icy dread began to crystallize in Amarel’s wine-​like warmth. Gwynn seemed only to look between their faces, but Amarel had a thousand years’ experience in reading the briefest of wayward glances. He looked up.

He looked up.

Gwynn went into peals of tinny laughter that reminded him why he did not like teen-​aged girls.

Condal must have looked too. After a moment she said softly, “I think Malo doesn’t know about that custom.”

'I think Malo doesn't know about that custom.'

“You may explain it to him in English or in Gaelic if you like,” Gwynn said wickedly. “Or simply show him how it’s done. If he’s to work at Nothelm, he must learn the mistletoe rules!”





Amarel had been a Norseman several times. He knew the rules, though he had rarely been kissable enough for them even to apply. Leprosy, cankers, hare-​lips, palsies, smashed teeth, warped jaws—a hideous face was an effective layer of armor too.

With his slight scars and his neatly amputated tongue, he was naked and helpless as he had not been in a thousand years.

“We’re supposed to kiss if we’re coming to stand beneath mistletoe together,” Condal murmured in Gaelic. “It doesn’t mean anything… I mean, it doesn’t have to…

'I mean, it doesn't have to...'

And so she began another of her funny, adorable little halting explanations. Seen together, her sheer layers of gravity and compassion and earnestness and fun refracted her beauty into an opalescent sheen, but when she peeled through them one by one, as now, he was dazzled by their pure light.

He was dazzled by their pure light.

“I mean, it could mean what you’re wanting it to mean, but it’s never meaning any harm…” she gabbled.

He pawed blindly at the air between them, trying to stop her.

“Ach… mayhap you’ve never…” she whimpered.

'Ach... mayhap you've never...'

Her own hand wavered before his face, as if she would touch his slight scars.

“It’s no matter, if you’re not knowing how,” she assured him. “It’s a friendly thing. And I’m not knowing, either,” she confided. “I’ve never before. I mean—I have—but not a real kiss. I mean, not that it would be…

There she went again.

There she went again.

In a last, most foolish move, he looked into her face. It glowed with the pure light of love and trust, such as had not looked on him in more than a thousand years. Her wet eyes were the color of heaven.

'Unless we wanted it to be.'

“Unless we wanted it to be,” she added shyly.

Amarel inhaled so sharply that his voice rang out in an inhuman sound. He fell back, away from her, and the sharp angle of the wall struck like a hatchet between his shoulder blades.

He fell back.

He was naked and helpless. With his slight scars and his painless stub of tongue he had gone forth scarcely armored, and this sweet girl had peeled away almost all of his defenses. But one last scale stubbornly clung—or he stubbornly clung to it—his own oath, made to himself: He would never, never kiss another face again.

Condal fell away from him, as though he had pushed her off with hands. The light wavered, and ugly shadows bobbed over her as Gwynn lowered the candle in confusion. Her eyes went dark, and her face looked haggard and cragged and old.

Her eyes went dark, and her face looked haggard and cragged and old.

Amarel studied her well for a moment: he wanted to remember her this way.

Then he turned and ran back down the stairs. Had they been fashioned to fool fairies he would have fallen face-​first into the darkness, without even a candle to light his way down.

He ran blindly until he had returned to the dimly-​lit office, and there he ran blindly into the wall.

His skull cracked against the stone, but it did not shatter. The shock seared down his neck and shoulders and spine, but nothing sliced through. Terrible and ravenous and lonelier than he had ever been, he writhed his wet wings in his shell.

His skull cracked against the stone, but it did not shatter.