Conrad clunked the two brimming mugs onto the edge of the table.

Conrad clunked the two brimming mugs onto the edge of the table and tossed back his head.

“Well, I like that!” he huffed. “I bring… buhhh… wahhh… Did you see that?” he whispered.

Finn asked, “What?”


Finn snorted and slumped back into his chair to dig at a crack in the table with his thumbnail.

Conrad carefully maneuvered himself into the chair beside him without looking down, but as he sank, his magnificent view was eclipsed by the back of Condal’s head.

Vain Dieu!” he whispered as his senses returned. “For a blessed second there I thought she was naked.”

'For a blessed second there I thought she was naked.'

Finn grumbled, “She is not.”

“A pity then!” Conrad grinned at him. “Here’s to the new fashions!”

He lifted his mug, only to notice Finn’s wine glass again.

“Ho, I try to bring you a drink and find you hitting the hard stuff already. Finnie-​​boy…”

Finn grunted and lifted his glass only high enough to allow him to smack it down once more.

Conrad shrugged and carefully raised his mug to Ogive at the head of the table before slurping at the overflowing rim. His cup was running over – and furthermore he had two of them – and if Condal would only shift her chair a few inches to the left, it was looking like a very agreeable night.

Then he glanced back at Finn.

Then he glanced back at Finn.

All the boys had felt awkward around him the last several days. Unlike Colban and Cedric, however, Conrad did not know how it felt to have a father who sometimes shamed him, and he never knew what to say. He would have stood up shoulder-​​to-​​shoulder with Finn and fought anyone who insulted his family’s honor, but he prayed Finn would not want to talk about it.

Fortunately Finn picked up his glass and gave him something else to say.

“Did you forget everything I ever taught you, boy?” Conrad sighed. “Wine after ale. And no drinking on an empty stomach, unless your plan is to get through the drunk as fast as possible and go straight to the sick.”

'I am not trying to get drunk.'

“I am not trying to get drunk,” Finn snapped. “I am trying to get sober. This wine is the soft stuff right here.”

He took a deep gulp from his glass and slammed it down again, gasping. He shook his head, revealing strands of hair clinging to his damp cheeks. Clearly he had been trying to get sober for a while already.

Conrad heaved a paternal sigh. “What was the hard stuff then? Poison hemlock?”

“No! A girl!”

Conrad sat back and grinned. “Finnie-​​boy!”

'A girl!'

Finn leaned close and blurted out his explanation in a stampede of imprecisely pronounced words. “I was only walking by myself, making my own business, and – next thing I know – I am kissing a girl! A real girl!”

Conrad tipped back his head and laughed silently at the ceiling. “Better than the fake kind!” he declared.

“No, I mean a real kiss!” Finn pleaded. “An erotic kiss!

Conrad snorted with stifled laughter, but Finn appeared to be taking his erotic kiss with great seriousness, so he grabbed his mug and took a drink to ease his imaginary choking. He did not want the story to stop now.

“And – next thing I know,” Finn continued, “I asked her, do you want to be my girl, and – do you know what she said?”

'Do you know what she said?'

“Ah… yes?” Conrad wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve to hide his chortling.

“No! She didn’t say anything at all! She only kissed me again!”

Conrad dropped his arm and grinned approvingly. “That’s a yes!”

Finn finally ventured a weak smile, and Conrad pounded him on the shoulder.

“Who’s the lucky lady?”

Finn immediately glanced at the archway, though he could not have seen more than a sliver of the King from where he sat.

Finn immediately glanced at the archway.

Conrad grasped his sleeve and whispered, “No, wait – Gwynn!” He was gleeful to have guessed straightaway – even if it meant he now owed his father a half jug of wine.

But Finn’s face contorted as if he had just taken a swig of cheap vinegar.

“Not Gwynn, you triple-​​ninny! Are you mad? If I accidentally kissed that sour-​​puss, then you would find me drinking the hemlock poison.”

'Not Gwynn, you triple-ninny!'

He took a careful sip of his wine to rinse the mouth he had fouled by pronouncing her name.

“Who, then?” Conrad asked.

Finn swallowed and whispered, “Connie!”


Conrad sat up.

He could just see the top of Condal's head behind the high back of her chair.

He could just see the top of Condal’s head behind the high back of her chair: a dark, smooth ball, with her hair combed into a meek little bun. Behind it, Gwynn laughed and talked to the men on either side of her, flashing out with glimpses of white shoulder and breast like flares of a sun too bright to be eclipsed.

If it had come down to the question of Gwynn or Condal, Conrad would have wagered an entire jug of wine on Gwynn.

“What do you think?” Finn whispered.

Conrad was saved from answering by the timely arrival of Colban.

'What do you think?'

“Ach, no!” Colban wailed. His high, clear voice cut through every conversation in the long hall. “Who put that mistletoe up in here? It’s Advent, you know!”

At the other end of the room Eadgith cried, “Another one! Oh, Sigefrith!”

“Don’t worry, Eadie!” Colban peeped. “I shall take it down at once!”

Cynewulf whined in protest, but Colban was already dragging out a chair.

“Let’s hope that boy doesn’t become a doctor,” Conrad grumbled. “He’ll be cutting off limbs on the sly so he can get the credit for stitching them back on again.”

'Let's hope that boy doesn't become a doctor.'

He turned to Finn, hoping for a laugh, but Finn was still staring expectantly at him.

“Well, hmm.” Conrad coughed and took a moment to brush his hair out of his eyes. Finally he ventured to say, “She’s quite pretty.”

“Not about, what do you think about Connie,” Finn whispered. “About, what do I do now?”

“Ah! Simply keep doing what you’ve been doing!” Conrad grinned and patted him on the shoulder. “It seems to be working!”

Finn protested, “No!” but Conrad had already turned back to watch the goings-​​on at the head of the table.

Conrad had already looked back at the goings-on at the head of the table.

Feradach had said something in Gaelic to which Colban replied, making Feradach laugh aloud and Condal look around in what appeared to be alarm.

“What are they saying?” Conrad whispered to Finn.

“I don’t know,” Finn muttered. “Something about kissing.”

'Something about kissing.'

Conrad laughed at him. “Ah, I forget you’re learning the Gaelic by example. How do you say, ‘What’s that thing poking me, Cousin?’”

Finn snorted and turned away in disgust.

Conrad shook his head and went on laughing. It was looking like a fun night after all.

Meanwhile Colban’s shoes clopped onto the floor, and he dragged the chair back to the table.

He dragged the chair back to the table.

“Thank you, Cubby!” Eadgith called out.

“My pleasure!” Colban replied. He looked around to be certain she could not see him through the arches, wrapped the branches around his head like a wreath of laurel, and did a little dance that mainly involved his hips.

“What did you say to Ferdie?” Conrad asked him.

'What did you say to Ferdie?'

Colban pulled off his crown and shrugged. “Ach, he was only warning me,” he said in his softest voice. “About climbing up onto chairs, you know, beneath mistletoe, whilst wearing a kilt.”

He shrugged again as if the matter were scarcely worth mentioning and sat at the table. He continued twisting the stems into a wreath upon his lap, humming an innocent little tune while waiting for someone to ask him to go on.

Finn appeared distracted by the bare stone of the pillar that hid Condal from his eyes, so Conrad dutifully sighed, “And you said?

“And I said the girls are welcome to kiss whatever they can reach, Advent or no.”

'And I said the girls are welcome to kiss whatever they may reach, Advent or no.'

Conrad sat back and laughed, but before he could comment on the unlikelihood of any such occurrence, Colban held out his wreath of mistletoe to Ogive and asked in his sweetest little nine-year-old’s voice, “Would you like some mistletoe, Ogive? You can hang it on your bedpost.”

Ogive glared.

Ogive glared.

Colban shrugged and waved the wreath over the table. “You boys?” he drawled.

“Finn doesn’t need it!” Conrad said. “He only just managed to pry his lips off the face of his new sweetheart a minute ago.”

Colban scrambled up onto his chair and leaned so far over the table he nearly spilled into Finn’s lap. “The devil you did, Finnie!” he squealed breathlessly. “Who was it? Gwynn?”

“No, not Gwynn!” Finn spat. “Everybody is crazy tonight or what?”

Conrad supplied, “Connie.”

“Ach!” Colban slipped back onto his chair and tucked his kilt neatly beneath his thighs. After a moment’s reflection he wrinkled his nose and asked, “Cousin Connie?”

“Is that a problem?” Finn demanded. His flush had spread from his cheeks to his ears, but his mouth was ominously angry.

'Is that a problem?'

“No no! I’m only meaning… Cousin Connie? Kissing a lad?”

“And some kiss!” Conrad nodded knowingly. “She was all over him.”

“Tongue her?” Colban asked.

Finn winced and gave Conrad a cringing glance. “I didn’t… think it was… I mean, the first time…”

“Where were your hands, then?” Colban demanded.

Conrad sat back and chuckled to himself, more at young Colban’s brisk and businesslike interrogation than at Finn’s blushing awkwardness. It was quite apparent to him which of the two had the most experience in the matter.

Finn looked up at the pillar and gently rubbed his slender hands together as if traces of preciousness still clung to his skin. “In her hair…”

'In her hair...'

Colban nodded and waited a beat before asking, “Which hair?”

Finn snorted and rolled his eyes, having finally coming to the same conclusion as Conrad.

“Drinking that?” Colban asked sweetly.

He pulled the second mug across the table before Finn and Conrad could do more than look at one another.

“So…” Colban purred. “You boys seen Gwynn?”

Conrad gasped, “Have I?” and fanned himself furiously with his hand.

Colban took a sip of ale and watched Finn so closely over the rim of his mug that Conrad turned to look at him.

Conrad turned to look at him.

Finn glared at his own glass and muttered, “You should not talk about her like that.”

“Why not? No fair being jealous!” Colban crooned. “You have a girl!”

“Be–cause,” Finn growled, “I do not think she knows how she looks.”

Colban sent a questioning glance at Conrad, and Conrad shrugged.

Finn explained, “Connie said she had a problem with her dress, and I think her maid fixed it wrong. But obviously she does not know it yet.”

'But obviously she does not know it yet.'

“Mmmm… don’t you think you ought to tell her, Finnie?” Colban peeped.

“I think she knows, Finn,” Conrad hastened to say.

He waited for Colban to look up so he could give him a warning stare, but Colban was busy inspecting some mistletoe stickiness on his fingers. When Conrad glanced at Finn he met a glare of warning that was not his own.

“Ahh… her mother used to dress like that…” Conrad explained.

'Ahh... her mother used to dress like that...'

“Like how?” Finn demanded.

“Uh… well… Look! There’s Cedric!”

Cedric was only walking past the narrow arch on his way from one end of the King’s table to the other, but he set his wine jug down and stepped through for a moment.

“You called?”

“Mmmm, Cedric,” Colban purred. “I do not believe I have ever seen such an industrious little squire.”

'Mmmm, Cedric.'

Cedric shrugged. By candlelight his dusky cheeks could never be seen to darken, but the unfortunate boy had a way of blushing with the posture of his body.

“Everyone’s thirsty tonight,” he explained.

Colban twisted around in his chair to look at him. “Nevertheless I wager there’s one cup over there that’s always kept filled up to the brim…”

“And one dress that runneth over,” Conrad snickered. He had only meant to tease Cedric – he had forgotten about Finn.

'And one dress that runneth over.'

“What is that supposed to mean?” Finn snapped.

“He’s only quoting the Bible, daftie,” Colban groaned. “Hail, O gallant defender of women who aren’t needing defended!”

“Except from your lusty self,” Conrad added.

“Aye, truly!” Colban laughed. “You’re the one sitting down to supper with kiss-​​marks all over your face and your collar all unbuttoned.”

Finn’s hand shot up to check his collar before his head remembered that it was wise to mistrust anything Colban said. His ears were so red they appeared hot to the touch.

“Tell Cedric about your new girl, Finnie,” Colban smiled. “She can’t keep her hands off him.” He glanced up at Cedric behind him and softly counted, “One… two…”

Cedric’s face crumpled, and he wailed, “Who? Gwynn?”

'Who?  Gwynn?'

Once again, every conversation in the hall was silenced. Colban whispered, “…three!”

Cedric’s face froze in a gaping-​​mouthed grimace, like the graven image of a saint on a shrine. Verily a martyr, Conrad thought. The suffering-​​on-​​the-​​rack kind.

He scarcely seemed to hear Finn’s snarling whisper, “No, not Gwynn! Are you all crazy tonight?”

He scarcely seemed to hear Conrad’s explanation, “Connie, he means.”

As the people began to talk and titter again, Cedric simply tottered over to the table as his racked joints snapped back together, and he plopped down into a chair.

'Why am I so stupid?'

“She’ll never speak to me now!” he whimpered. “Why am I so stupid? Stupid!”

Colban smacked him on the back and mussed his hair. “Ach, she’ll talk to you, son. Her papa already let her come tonight knowing you would be here. You’re halfway there.”

“But how shall I ever go back over there?”

Conrad sighed and picked up his mug. He found Cedric in love to be a singularly maudlin character – though with a glance at Finn’s pouting mouth and pitiful brown eyes that stared at blank stone, he was reminded that Cedric was perhaps not so singular after all.

He found Cedric in love to be a singularly maudlin character.

“Girls like it when boys talk about them,” Colban assured Cedric. “She’ll be flattered. And she’ll be so curious to know what you were talking about that she might even talk to you. Ha! You’re a genius, son.”

Cedric asked hopefully, “You think so?”

Conrad groaned, “Nom de Dieu! Don’t listen to him! Ask Finn what to do about girls. He’s walking along and next thing he knows Connie’s sucking his face.”

Cedric smoothed back his hair and smiled up at Finn. “Honestly?”

Finn managed to put on a menacing expression in spite of the pinkness of his cheeks and ears. “Are you calling me a liar?”

'Are you calling me a liar?'

Cedric laughed, “No! It doesn’t seem like Connie though.”

“I was not walking along, and then got kissed,” Finn corrected. “We decided to do it together. She was very polite and just like Connie.”

From the fluttering nervousness of Finn’s hand, however, Conrad deduced that the affair had not been quite as prim and formal as Finn wanted it to appear.

Cedric chuckled and looked warily between Conrad and Colban. “Is this a joke?”

Conrad shrugged. “If it is, Finn’s telling it.”

Finn said coldly, “I am not telling a joke.”

“All right, I believe you,” Cedric assured him. “You simply don’t seem very happy about it.”

'All right, I believe you.'

Finn said, “I am very happy about it,” with little more emotion than he had showed a moment before.

“Don’t you like her?” Cedric asked.

“Of course I like her, she’s my cousin,” Finn retorted. After a moment’s reflection he added stiffly, “I don’t not like her.”

Colban dragged his mug to the edge of the table and slouched against the high back of his chair. “What’s that supposed to mean?” he demanded sourly.

Finn’s Egelric-​​like grim defiance suddenly collapsed into a very Finn-​​like helplessness.

“I don’t know what it means,” he whimpered. “Is it bad English? That’s how it all started – she said she didn’t not like me, and I said I didn’t not like her, and – next thing I know – we’re kissing. Do you think it was a misunderstanding?”

'Do you think it was a misunderstanding?'

Conrad, Colban, and Cedric passed a flurry of questioning glances between them. Finally Conrad asked, “Didn’t you say she kissed you?

“I told you: after I asked her would she be my girl, she kissed me instead of said yes to me.”

“That… doesn’t sound like a misunderstanding,” Cedric ventured.

“That depends,” Colban said. “How did you ask her, exactly? ‘Don’t you not not not want to not be my girl?’ Or did you ask her plain?”

Finn cringed and combed all his hair back from his face with both hands. “I asked her plain,” he admitted. “I thought she wanted me to. I mean, I thought I had to, after such a kiss. Didn’t I?”

Colban sat up and folded his hands with the clinical seriousness of Cedric’s uncle at the start of an examination. “What sort of kiss, exactly?”

'What sort of kiss, exactly?'

Finn rubbed his mouth and chin with his palm and looked anxiously from face to face. Conrad knew he was attempting to rank his kiss on the scale of the other boys’ experience, which he must have imagined had a far broader range than his own. Conrad had once done the same thing – until he had figured out they all did.

“If you have to ask yourself,” Conrad advised, “it was that sort of kiss.

“Then you had to ask her,” Colban said grimly. “You cannot be kissing a gentle girl like Cousin Connie unless you mean something by it.”

Conrad thought he laid an odd accent on the word cousin, whether to remind Finn that she was family, or rather to remind him that she had one – a heavily armed one.

Finn’s ears remained red, but his lips went weirdly white. If he had not already had too much to drink, Conrad would have offered to refill his glass of wine.

His lips went weirdly white.

“If you thought the kiss meant something,” Cedric said softly, “it probably did. It’s usually girls who read too much into such things.” After a moment he looked nervously at the others and asked, “Isn’t it?”

Conrad wondered briefly why he thought so. In Conrad’s own experience, girls could have a crushing resistance to reading anything at all.

'One has to follow the girl's lead.'

“One has to follow the girl’s lead,” Conrad admitted. “If she wanted you to ask, you had to ask.”

“It’s not a girl,” Colban said wearily. “It’s Cousin Connie. I wasn’t even there, and I can tell you she wanted you to ask. Connie wouldn’t kiss a lad unless she loved him. And anyway, everyone always said you were certain to marry her. It’s what her Da would have wanted. We want your blood back in the clan.”

Cedric said, “Yes, but that was before his fath – ”

Apparently Colban's foot moved faster than Conrad's.

Abruptly he twitched and fell silent. Apparently Colban’s foot moved faster than Conrad’s.

“Don’t you like her, Finnie?” Conrad asked. “You two always seemed to…” He glanced at Colban and Cedric in search of words. “…get along…

“I do like her,” Finn said, nodding earnestly. “A lot. I do certainly like her a lot. Definitely. More than any other girl I know.”

'More than any other girl I know.'

“So!” Conrad sat back and smiled at him, strangely relieved.

“Fie, Finnie!” Colban said. “You’ve a pretty girl who’s mad about you, and, ‘twould seem, is a kissy cuddly wee thing besides. What are you worried about?”

Finn stared off past Cedric’s head with eyes that could see through stone.

“Mostly her,” he said.

'Mostly her.'