Finn stopped just short of the door.

Finn stopped just short of the door and nudged Condal with his elbow to halt her. The slight movement of his arm flexed his biceps beneath her hand, and she curled her fingers tightly around it, trying to capture some of its fleeting strength before it relaxed away.

“Good! The torches are not lit, even,” he whispered. “The mistletoe is at the other end. I wager you Eadie has not even seen it yet!”

Condal closed her wet lashes together and swallowed. She could scarcely believe she had been fretting about mistletoe only a few minutes before.

“Go talk to everybody and distract Eadie and Edris,” Finn instructed. “I shall take the mistletoe down in the dark.”

Condal pleaded, “Finn!”

She had not meant to make a sound, but the name came out as a squeak. Far across the hall a head turned. Condal gripped Finn’s arm and held her breath, afraid to twitch so much as a whisker as long as she stood within the unblinking gaze of the cat.

Far across the hall a head turned.

But Finn mistook her gesture for concern and whispered, “Don’t worry, henny, I won’t fall.” He tugged on his elbow. “Now go in, and I shall sneak in a moment after to take it down.”

“Ach, Finn! Please, I don’t—”

She realized just in time that she could not tell him she did not care about the mistletoe. If she did, he would believe she had tricked him into kissing her.

While she hesitated another head turned: the King’s. Then the Queen’s. Then another man’s.

“Why, Connie!” the King cried with feigned surprise. “And Gwynn! What a big nose you have tonight!”

'And Gwynn!  What a big nose you have tonight!'

The Queen sighed, “Sigefrith!”

Finn whispered, “Too late.”

He subtly drew her before him with a last tug of his elbow and set her adrift. Her heart flopped and bobbled. What did it mean? Did he not want to be seen with her? Did he not want her to be his girl after all?

'Too late.'

Then, as she stepped ahead of him, she felt a possessive hand stroke across her shoulder blades. His sensitive fingertips lingered in a small circle over the bare skin between them before they swept on, making Condal want to shrug her back and bow her head. How did he know to touch her there?

Then the hand was gone.

Then the hand was gone.

She took a deep breath, filling her lungs with air to make herself more solid, and walked past the sharp-​eared, keen-​eyed man who had spotted her outside. Now he stared past her into the shadows she had just left, making her feel as if she had abandoned her body in the doorway and stepped forth as a ghost.

“Condal!” the Queen smiled.


“Your Majesties.” Condal curtsied to the King and again to the Queen, as though Eadgith had not just visited her in her room only half an hour before. Condal quickly calculated it would be politic to pretend she had not.

“Condal,” the Queen began, “I have the pleasure of introducing you to your kinsman, Lord Aed of the clan of Aengus, and his friends—”

'I have the pleasure of introducing you to your kinsman.'

Condal had almost made up her mind to look at the man who was, in some self-​evident way, Lord Aed, but behind him a man in a wolf skin coat piped up with, “Introducing?”

Eadgith promptly turned to him and held up a finger on either side of her face.

“Introduce,” she repeated carefully, “it means to make to meet.”

She brought the fingers before her nose and tapped the sides of her hands together. Condal thought that if the fingers were supposed to represent people, the Queen meant to introduce them at the hips.

Condal thought the Queen meant to introduce them at the hips.

“Be cordial with our guest,” Eadgith had instructed her half an hour before. She had dispensed with the pretense of “our guests”, though she had stammered “as his kinswoman” afterwards in limp justification.

Condal knew what she meant in any case. Lord Colban’s wife had said much the same thing on many occasions to each of her sisters in turn. But each of her sisters had been met by their father at many doors—each to have her cheek pinched and receive the last whispered instruction: “Make him dance to your own tune, girlie!”

“I see I fail to live up to my own legend,” Aed said dryly.

'I see I fail to live up to my own legend.'

Condal looked up, startled to hear such a young voice issue from the dimly-​glimpsed mountain of masculinity that she had sensed towering over her. Indeed, he was very young, she remembered—only just old enough for one to have called him grown.

He was just old enough to think of looking for a wife. Young as he was, he still towered.

Condal felt as if she were roasting in her heavy gown; she was damp beneath the arms, and she wanted to tug at her shift where it was bunched up beneath her breasts. Everyone was watching her, waiting for her to act.

“Ach, no, my lord!” she whimpered, uncertain by now what he had meant or what he had even said. She tried to gather up her skirts for another curtsey, but he slid his hand down her velvety sleeve from her elbow to her wrist and lifted her arm out of the folds.

“The legends of your beauty, however,” he murmured, “fall far short of the truth.”

He bent his head.

He bent his head, but Condal blurted, “Ach, no, my lord! It’s for my sister you’re mistaking me!”

He looked up at her, and he shot a quick smile back at his friend before asking, “Your sister?”

“Aye, my lord, my sister Eithne. She’s ever so beautiful. She’s the sister they’re meaning. She’s—”

Eithne was the sister he should have been coming to see. It was Eithne’s turn. Condal should have had years yet to watch and whisper and giggle—to dream and to learn.

Condal lipped to herself, “She was stolen…” but Lord Aed had already turned aside to speak to Sigefrith.

“Her modesty too is as you say,” he said approvingly in uncertain English.

'I?  Exaggerate?'

Sigefrith gasped in feigned outrage, “I? Exaggerate?”

The man in the wolf skin repeated helplessly, “Exaggerate?”

Rather than look to one of his friends, he turned to Eadgith. At once the Queen held out both of her hands before her breast as though she carried a loaf-​sized object.

Meanwhile Aed touched his opposite finger to the top of Condal’s wrist and slid it up her sleeve, against the grain of the velvet. Condal shivered.

Condal shivered.

“Exaggerate,” Eadgith explained, “it means that if something is somewhat large, I tell you it is enormously big!” She flung out her arms to a bear-​sized girth and banged her hand against the door beside her. “Ouch!” she giggled. “Oh, dear!”

With his fingertip Lord Aed was tracing small circles around the bony point of Condal’s elbow. Condal watched, horrified less by his touch than by her own sense of detachment from the fate of her forearm. She was watching him loosen the bolts of her body one-​by-​one. He was disassembling her to carry her off and consume her in pieces.

The wolf skin man whacked his own hand against the door and beamed, “Exaggerate!”


“Oh, dear, no!” Eadgith said. “That wasn’t the part I meant.”

Suddenly Condal was aware of Finn at her side. She thought he must have been there a while—it would have taken some time for the warmth of his shoulder to seep through her gown.

“My lord, have you met my—my cousin?” she stammered. What was she supposed to call him?

At last Aed acknowledged Finn’s presence with a glance, and a slight smile added itself to his ever-​present slight smile. “Finn, isn’t it? We’ve been introduced.” He winked at Finn and slid his hand from Condal’s elbow up to their clasped hands to knock two fingers together, as Eadgith had.

Finn said nothing, but the shoulder that had been leaning against Condal’s shoulder was gradually replaced by his chest as he thrust it out and tipped back his head.

After a moment of stony silence on Finn’s part, Aed asked mildly, “Can I be of service, lad?”

Condal hastened to explain, “Cousin Finn isn’t speaking the Gaelic—”

'Cousin Finn isn't speaking the Gaelic--'

“If you have done with her hand, you may let it go,” Finn said in a voice loud enough for all to hear. His lilting English was eerily menacing with its vibrato of taut anger, like the sing-​song of a fanged bird. “Or even if you have not. She gave it for you to kiss, not to keep.”

“Why, Gwynn,” Sigefrith said with a baritone menace of his own, “what a big mouth you have tonight.”

'What a big mouth you have tonight.'

Finn did not flinch. Condal felt him breathing fast and deep where his chest brushed her back—breathing as he had when he had kissed her.

“True,” Aed conceded with a slight nod. He bent his head further and kissed the back of Condal’s hand. The skin that brushed her skin was clean-​shaven and as soft as a girl’s, but in every tiny pore there lurked the sharp stubble of a hair, waiting to scratch her at the slightest pressure.

He laid her hand at her side and asked Finn, “Her cousin, is it?”

'Her cousin, is it?'

Finn nodded sharply. “That also.”

Aed stacked another smile upon the pile. “Ach! Begging your pardon! I didn’t know!”

Condal’s stupid grin spread wider and wider as everyone stared. She realized she had much more to worry about than merely what Finn thought of her. If Finn said much more, everyone in the room would believe her the sort of hussy who kissed boys in candlelit alcoves.

Then she remembered she truly was the sort of hussy who kissed boys in candlelit alcoves, and had she been a little less shy, she would have made a spectacle of herself by running out of the hall in tears.

“Runt,” the King said with menacing slowness, “where are Cubby and the rest of them?”

Finn said, “I don’t know. I was tired of waiting.”

“Then why don’t you go find them, if you please?”

Finn said nothing for a dangerously long time. Condal whispered, “Finn!” She could not let him defy the King’s command, even if she knew that was why the King had commanded it.


“What does he want?” Finn whispered. Even his whisper shook. “Why don’t they introduce you to nobody else?”

“It is no matter,” Aed assured Sigefrith. “I am already introduced with Cubby and the rest of them since today.”

The wolf pelt man put in with a gleeful, “Introducing!” and banged his two fingers together.

Eadgith giggled, and so inspired, the man smacked his hand against the door and concluded with a broad burr, “Oh, dear, oh, dear! Thank you, please, my pleasure! I’m exaggerating again!”

'Oh, dear!  I'm exaggerating again!'

Eadgith grinned and declared, “Do you see? English isn’t so very difficult!”

Condal could not bring herself to laugh with the rest of them, but neither could the King insist without redoubling the awkwardness that Aed’s demurral and wolf pelt man’s buffoonery had eased. Sigefrith chose to let the matter drop.

Condal was just searching for something polite yet not-​too-​cordial to say when she felt Finn’s fingertips trickling like water down the bare nape of her neck, and the flat of his hand smoothing her gown down her back.

An instant later she heard Lady Gwynn call out from the doorway, “Connie! Naughty girl! There you are!”

'Connie!  Naughty girl!  There you are!'

“Why, Gwynn!” Sigefrith called, “What a big—!” He stopped in mid-​exclamation, his arms thrown wide.

Condal turned just as Gwynn was stepping into the firelight, and she had to blink a few times to reassure herself that she had not been blinded by the glare. No indeed, she was seeing what she thought she was seeing.

“Sigefrith,” Gwynn said, “I was just about to call out your guards for fear that Connie had gone the way of my poor grandmother. But I see these gentlemen are at least not quite the scoundrels I had imagined.”

'I see these gentleman are at least not quite the scoundrels I had imagined.'

Wolf pelt man banged his fingers together furiously and begged, “Introduce, introduce!” Sigefrith threw back his crowned head and laughed aloud, and Eadgith whispered, “Oh, dear!”

Before anyone could introduce anyone else, Gwynn dipped into a slight curtsey and introduced herself—in perfect, if accented Gaelic. “I am Gwynn of Nothelm, and I am so glad to meet you all,” just as Condal had taught her.

She smiled at Aed and the man in the wolf skin coat, and she even turned to beam at the silent man of the shadows. The latter coughed and straightened his back against the pillar like a soldier surprised by his general. Gwynn’s face so sparkled that even the eyes of the men rested on it for a moment, but Condal could not look away from her breast.

Condal could not look away from her breast.

Where was the embroidered bodice of the green silk gown she was supposed to be wearing beneath the velvet? What was she wearing beneath the velvet? It looked like the fine, bone-​white linen of one of her nightgowns, with the bodice unlaced down the front and folded back.

Her breasts swelled up above her tightly-​laced corset, fine and firm but just faintly creased enough by the gold-​stitched edging to look squeezably soft. Condal watched her breathe in breathless fascination—she was certain that with the next sudden movement, a slim crescent of dark skin would peek out, if not an entire nipple.

“I’m called Aed,” Aed said, only slowly recovering his poise. “And I had no idea you were speaking the Gaelic.”

'I'm called Aed.'

“I know a few words.” Gwynn curtsied again, more deeply this time for the young lord’s sake, and still, as if born to such maneuvers, she managed to keep both breasts from spilling out. “I have heard it is flattering to greet someone in his own language.”

Condal was astounded. She might have translated the last phrase or something like it for Gwynn at some point in the past, but she had certainly never taught it. Gwynn had simply picked it up.

“Ach, and you’ve denied me the opportunity!” Aed grinned.

This, at last, was more Gaelic than Gwynn knew what to do with, and she leaned back expectantly against Condal.

She leaned back expectantly against Condal.

“Ahh…” Condal quavered, “he says now he can’t do the same for you…”

Gwynn stood up and laughed as she did when she was merry, making herself shake from head to hem. Still she remained just at the limits of decently-​dressed.

“Oh, it’s no matter at all!” she assured Aed in English. “You have the entire evening in which to find another way to flatter me. I hope it is time enough.”

The men laughed deeply, as they did at the jokes of other men. Sigefrith laughed himself red in the face and relieved himself by shouting, “Name of God!”

'Name of God!'

Aed grinned, “I don’t know how to be beginning!”

“You may begin with my Gaelic, if you like,” Gwynn suggested. “Though you needn’t flatter it if it isn’t worthy. I should like to know how you honestly find it.”

'You have the entire evening to find another way to flatter me.'

“Honestly… good,” Aed bowed. “I wasn’t knowing you were speaking it…” he repeated—somewhat stupidly for him, Condal thought.

“Neither was her father!” Sigefrith hooted.

“Who is your teacher?” Aed asked. He glanced back at his friend again, still smiling. “I want to meet him.”

'I want to meet him.'

“Ah, but you already have met her,” Gwynn corrected.

She turned to clasp Condal’s arm and drag her forward, but she started and wrinkled her nose in disgust when she saw Finn hovering within brushing distance of Condal’s back.

She pinched Condal’s arm harder than necessary and whispered, “What happened to your hair?”

Condal whispered back, “What happened to your dress?”

'What happened to your dress?'

Gwynn gave a last tug, making her breasts bounce dangerously, and turned back to Aed.

“I have a lesson for language teachers everywhere,” she announced. “It is far easier to learn a language when one is discussing matters near and dear to one’s heart.”

She pressed one hand dramatically upon her breast, which only served to reveal how much more skin she had exposed than could be covered by one hand.

“I shall be remembering that…” Aed said.

“For when once a heart-​kept secret is whispered,” Gwynn intoned, “the words remain indelibly engraved, whatever the language. And Condal is my bosom friend—you may imagine she tells me all her secrets. Or so I think.”

'Or so I think.'

The phrase hung menacingly between them—whatever the language—and in spite of Gwynn’s smile.

Condal’s eyes filled with tears. She wanted to protest that she had not had time to tell her secret—that she had had no secret to tell until only a few minutes ago. But that would have made her look like the worst sort of hussy: the sort who failed to kiss one boy one day, and made up for it the next by hiding in an alcove to kiss another boy silly.

That, of course, was what she was.

But that, of course, was what she was.

Condal brushed a tear away before it could fall. She did not know how she would make it through the supper. She did not know how she would live to see the dawn. Fortunately she was spared the next excruciating minute when wolf pelt man looked to the Queen and demanded hopefully, “Bosom?”


Eadgith gasped, “Girls! Oh, dear! Sigefrith!”

Sigefrith hid his face in the crook of his elbow and roared with laughter into his embroidered sleeve.

Eadgith hopped away from the door and hustled the girls ahead of her like a pair of wayward chickens. “Girls! A moment, please,” she excused herself to Aed as she passed him. “I only just remembered… Edris!”

Gwynn wailed defensively, “What?”

Edris swept up her skirts and followed.

Eadgith stopped Gwynn beside the far torches and hurried around to inspect the front of her. Condal hid herself behind the pillar.

“Is that a new dress, honey?” Eadgith asked.

Gwynn lifted her pert nose and agreed, “It is a new corset.”

'It is a new corset.'

Condal realized she was telling only the barest truth: the corset was new, but the nightgown was old enough to be familiar to the girl who slept beside her. Remembering its translucency before the firelight, Condal looked down and satisfied herself that Gwynn had, at least, put on a wool petticoat beneath the linen skirt.

Eadgith gripped the velvet shoulders and tugged. “Is it… yours?” She smiled faintly.

“Of course it is mine!” Gwynn croaked in outrage. “Do you think my father makes me wear hand-​me-​downs? Not that there is anything wrong with that, if it is all one’s family can afford,” she added graciously for Condal’s sake, if not the Queen’s as well.

“Has Hetty seen it?” Edris ventured.

Gwynn opened her eyes wide in shock, and then narrowed them into a black stare.

'Has Hetty seen it?'

Eadgith yanked and twisted and shifted, but the snug bodice was high as it would ever go. Gwynn’s jaunty breasts quivered and bobbed, but were otherwise unperturbed. Expecting catastrophe at any moment, Condal could not look away.

“But, who fitted it, honey?” Eadgith pleaded. “It doesn’t seem to sit quite right…”

“Waerburh, of course,” Gwynn sniffed. She stamped her foot and squirmed her shoulders and finally broke free of Eadgith’s hands. “And it certainly will not sit right if one keeps tugging at it like that!”

'Waerburh, of course.'

She snorted and straightened the short sleeves of her corset, but she seemed to find the depth of the neckline acceptable as it was.

“Well,” Edris said softly to Eadgith, “you know, her mother…”

Eadgith sighed and fretted with her rings. “I know, but…”

Gwynn glanced around to see what the men were about. Condal leaned far enough forward to get a glimpse of Sigefrith, apparently explaining through word and gesture the meaning of bosom.

Edris brought both girls to attention by clapping her hands and gasping, “I know! A shawl!”

'I know!  A shawl!'

Eadgith echoed in relief, “A shawl!”

Gwynn turned back to them, savage as a fox cub, and growled through her teeth, “No!”

She recovered her poise an instant later and said haughtily, “I am not cold, and I do not know in what way I might have given you the impression that I was. I thank you for your concern, but I assure you I shall be fine. Besides…”

She paused to dust off her spotless bosom with the side of her hand, and to straighten her ruby pendant precisely along the axis between her breasts.

“…we shall soon have wine, and then I shall be quite hot.”

'We shall soon have wine.'

She turned to grin over her shoulder at the backs of the men. She could not have seen the despairing look Eadgith exchanged with Edris. She could not have heard Eadgith’s soundless whisper: “Oh, dear!”

'Oh, dear!'