There was a fire in the house.

From the road Oswald had seen only a thin plume of smoke straggling up from the chimney and disappearing at once into the swirling flurry of snowflakes. There was a fire in the house, but not the heartily burning Yule log he had been looking forward to through hours of riding hunched against the cold. There was no light downstairs, and from the front the only candlelit window he could see was Matilda’s.

He pounded on the door and leaned his shoulder against the frame to look back at the tracks he had left in the trackless snow. His horse squared its legs and stared forlornly up at him through its snow-​​covered forelock.

“I know, I know,” Oswald muttered. He wiped the melting snow from his eyebrows and pounded again.

He told himself Mouse must have imagined he would not come in such weather, though it had not been coming down like this for long. And even so, he did not like the thought of his sister pining in her room at the back of the house, huddled in their little mother’s chair before a spindly fire, too heartbroken to celebrate Christmas at all.

Oswald had nearly made up his mind to knock a third time when he heard a ponderous creaking on the stair inside. He stepped back from the door and glanced aside at the window, looking for signs of life. The frost on the panes began to shimmer with gold like a sheen of candlelight on mother-​​of-​​pearl.

He knocked a third time, politely, as if he had not been kept waiting at all.

“I’m sorry! I’m coming!”

It was a female voice, high-​​pitched with anxiety. Not his sister, and certainly not the brawny cook, whose voice was nearly as deep as Oswald’s seventeen-​​year-​​old baritone.

The bolt clanked and the door swung open. Oswald looked down into a face that was turning up to look into his, and they cried out at the same time, “Oswald!” – “Matilda!”


Flustered, Oswald leaned over her, trying to poke his head past the shadows of the doorway in an attempt to read her expression. But the shadows followed her as she leaned back, and he saw only the dark O of her startled mouth.

Then he remembered his manners well enough to say, “Merry Christmas!” – and at the same instant she remembered hers and blurted, “Won’t you come in?”

Both were too shy to laugh. Matilda merely hung her head and stepped back, and Oswald squeezed in past her, veering as widely around her jutting belly as he could manage, and thinking ruefully of Sigefrith’s cheery characterization of pregnant ladies as being “wider than they are tall.” Oswald could not imagine any more awkward door-​​answerer for himself. His best attempt was the cook coming to the door in a frilly, low-​​cut nightgown. With bare arms.

The room was frigid enough that Oswald felt no satisfying sense of coming in out of the cold. There was a stillness like the dead of night, a hush that made the ordinary creaking and cracking of a good-​​sized young man on a wooden floor feel like trespass. Oswald went no farther than the candles by the door.

There was a stillness like the dead of night.

“Everyone upstairs?” he asked, trying to make his voice sound unconcerned. He closed his eyes and rubbed his hands over his wet cheeks, warming cheeks and hands alike.

Matilda said nothing, and when he lowered his hands he saw her twisting nervously against the doorframe.

“They’re not here,” she whimpered.

“What? Oh, bother!” he groaned. “So much for getting dry. Good thing I waited to put away my horse.”

He shook his fingers roughly through his wet hair, flinging off a cloud of melted snowflakes and fine beads of water with no more regard for his entourage than a dripping dog.

He shook his fingers roughly through his wet hair.

He mumbled, “I guess Sir Egelric’s boys wanted to spend Christmas at home?”

“But… but they’re not up to the castle…”


Oswald let his arms fall limp to his sides. The floor cracked once beneath his shifting weight, and afterwards there was only a painful silence, quieter even than the night outside with its faint wind and its creaking snow.

Matilda tugged the collar of her gown up higher around her neck as if she felt a deepening cold.

“They’re out to Raegiming…”

'They're out to Raegiming...'

“Raegiming?” Oswald gasped. “Raegiming? That’s – that’s hours from here!”

“They left yesterday.” She peeked up at him and protested, “They sent word to you yesterday at the same time they left. You were supposed to meet them there if it didn’t snow.” He thought he heard a slight sound of reproach in her soft voice – as if it had been his fault he hadn’t been told!

“But I left yesterday!” he groaned. “I haven’t been home since yesterday! Good Lord!” He pointed indignantly at the eastern wall and said, “I’ve been to Thorhold! I went all that way to get a couple of the Christmas cakes they have there – just like my father used to do for my little mother when he could. I wanted it to be a surprise for Mousie! Well! I guess the surprise is on me!” He whipped his arm around to point at the opposite wall. “And now my poor cakes are out there, probably frozen through! Just like my poor – just like me!”

'Just like my poor--just like me!'

Matilda abruptly folded her arms and pressed her fist against her mouth.

“What?” he demanded.

She blinked her big eyes at him, but then she shook her head and lowered her hand and eyes both, revealing dark lashes and a mouth she was biting into a thin line.

“You thought I was going to say ‘my poor buns,’ didn’t you?” he huffed.

She snorted and choked and finally burst into giggles.

'Well, I wasn't.'

“Well, I wasn’t,” he pouted, secretly amused. “I was going to say ‘my poor horse.’ So ha!”

He scowled at her for a moment longer before surrendering to a smile.

“This is just the sort of absurd thing that can only happen in my family!” he sighed. “Mousie goes one way just as I go the other.”

Matilda’s giggles stopped suddenly. “You ought to go on up to the castle,” she advised. “You’ll be more comfortable up there.”

Oswald looked over his shoulder at the dark room and sighed deeply out of fretful indecision. He did not care to ride another step in the falling snow, and more importantly he was far too timid to stride boldly up to the castle gate and demand lodgings and refreshment, being nothing more than the young brother of the lord’s steward’s wife.

'You ought to go on up to the castle.'

On the other hand, he was also too timid to remain. Matilda was more of a companion to his sister than a servant, and he feared he would be expected to entertain her if he stayed behind – a task which he had never attempted without the eager assistance of Mouse. His joke about his buns was likely to be the highlight of an excruciatingly awkward conversation.

Worse still, Sigefrith had already mirthfully informed him that a pregnant belly was not, in fact, an impediment to a man wishing to take pleasure with a woman, and he doubted the cook would consent to play chaperone and remove any suspicion of that.

“I guess so,” he sighed. “At least I won’t have to rub my horse down myself.” He turned back to Matilda and asked, “You want me to leave you one of the cakes? Have you ever had that kind?”

'Have you ever had that kind?'

He did not think Matilda’s family could have begun to afford such a plummy, fruity cake even were they made at Dunellen, but he could never decide whether it was more polite to ask or not to ask, since Matilda was neither a servant nor quite not.

“No thank you,” she said with her most careful diction. “I am not very hungry this evening.”

“Well, maybe the others are,” he shrugged. “Godgyth ought to have a piece at least, so she can try to figure out the recipe for next year. Save me a trip!” he groaned.

But Matilda lowered her head and anxiously pulled her collar up almost to her chin, mumbling, “But Godgyth isn’t here…”

“She isn’t? Well – where is she?”

'Well--where is she?'

“Her sister’s, I think…”

“Then – then who’s doing the cooking?”

“Well, I am…”

You are? You are?”

Oswald’s dismay was deepening into something that warmed his numb cheeks with a flush. It felt almost like anger. No – it was anger.

“Where is everyone?” he asked grimly.

'Where is everyone?'

He had some idea that the quite-​​servants of the house were all in league against the not-​​quite servant that Matilda was, but he had not thought that it would extend to making the achingly pregnant girl answer doors and cook for the entire crew the moment his sister’s back was turned. He was only the steward’s wife’s brother, but he was a gentleman. He would give everyone a piece of his mind – and not a crumb of the cake.

He would give everyone a piece of his mind.

Matilda straightened her dress over her shoulders and took a deep breath. “Well, Godgyth got into a tussle with Leofrun, and that made Drihtelm cross, so he dumped the slop pail over her head right after she done her curls. So her and Lufu went to her sister’s, and then Drihtelm and Leofrun run off together, and I think they went through some of the master’s things, so you better check…”

“Wait wait! What do you mean – run off together?”

Matilda fell back against the doorframe, her momentum lost. “I mean… eloped?” she winced. “Is it eloping if the man don’t marry her in the end? ‘Cause I don’t think he will.”

'Is it eloping if the man don't marry her in the end?'

“Wait…” Oswald squeezed his temples between his hands, trying to comprehend everything she had said. “All right, go on. What things did they go through, now?”

“Well, they went in the master’s room and so on. You ought to check.”

“I shall,” Oswald muttered. “So who does that leave?”

“Well, that left me and Switha, and she didn’t want to stay here with me in case I… in case my…”

She tipped her head to the right until her cheek rested against the wood. She held her arms at her sides, but slanted forward so that she squeezed her belly between her elbows.

“I see,” Oswald said. “So how long have you been here by yourself?”

“Last night and today,” she mumbled without lifting her head.

'Last night and today.'

“I see.”

Oswald pressed his hand over his mouth and asked himself what he ought to do. He could not leave this pregnant girl – this not-​​quite servant – alone in the house, and neither could he stay with her alone. He would have to find someone else. He would have to ride down to the village and go door-​​to-​​door asking strange women whether they would consent to spend a few days at his sister’s house keeping an eye on an achingly pregnant, violated young girl. His timid heart could imagine no more excruciating exercise.

At last, overwhelmed, and having come to the conclusion that he was embarking on his most unbearable, most atrocious, most legendarily absurd Christmas ever, his good spirits got the better of him, and he could only laugh.

He could only laugh.

“This is precisely the sort of thing that can only happen to my family! Mere hours after Mouse sets foot outside, the cook is getting into spats with the maid whilst doing up her hair in curls… and the manservant dumps a slop pail over her head on his way out the door with the maid, his pockets stuffed with Wyn’s drinking money and pen knives… And as for me, I shall sit down cold and wet and all alone on Christmas Eve, and gnaw my frozen cake until I break a tooth!”

Oswald concluded with a hearty laugh.

Oswald concluded with a hearty laugh, but Matilda scarcely managed a turning-​​up at the corners of her mouth. One shoulder of her dress flopped open, and she only weakly patted it closed again. Oswald realized that she had not even had the time to fasten it before coming down – she must have pulled it on over a nightgown.

“I’m terribly sorry to have disturbed you. I shall leave a cake here anyway, in case you get hungry in the morning. And… I shall stop in the village and send someone up to stay,” he added hastily. “So, Merry Christmas – ”

“No, no,” she whimpered.

Her head swung away from the wall, but she writhed stiffly against the doorframe, jamming her spine against the rounded corner. Oswald had the heretofore unimaginable idea that his absurd Christmas was about to turn immeasurably more excruciating.

'Say, are you feeling all right?'

“Say, are you feeling all right?”

She nodded her head eagerly, making her hair billow out around her shoulders. “Fine fine,” she panted.

Oswald had once lived four days with a broken middle finger, stoic and uncomplaining out of sheer timidity. He knew what sort of “fine” she was.

“You don’t look fine. You know… uh, this baby could be coming any day now…”

With Matilda leaning against the wall, there was just enough room for Oswald to begin sidling around her towards the front door. Just then Matilda lifted her head, and her expression went from pained to frightened as her hair fell back from her face. Oswald stopped still.

'I'm fine.'

“I’m fine,” she whispered.

“Well, I shall just send someone up anyway… just in case,” he winked, as if it were all a farce, and it were highly unlikely there was any chance of a baby ever making an appearance at all.

“No, no, I don’t need anyone!” Matilda pleaded. “I know what to do! I helped my ma!”

Oswald groaned, “Matilda!” – panicked as much for his own sake as for hers. “You cannot have a baby all by yourself! And I don’t have the first idea what to do…”

“Oh, no no!” she begged. “Please, I don’t need anyone, I’ll be fine. You just go on up to the castle.”

'Please, I don't need anyone, I'll be fine.'

Oswald took a deliberate step nearer the door and shook his head. He bit his upper lip and tasted sweat, in spite of the cold.

In fact he did have the first, the second, and various following ideas of what might be involved – he had helped many a puppy and lamb and calf enter the world, after all. He knew enough to realize that there would be a cord to cut, and a woman could not be left to sever it with her teeth. He knew about the blood and fluids and afterbirth, and he knew a woman could neither lap it up and eat it nor be left to wallow in it until she was up and walking again.

And most of all he knew that he would be damned if he delivered a baby by himself.

And most of all he knew that he would be damned if he delivered a baby by himself, in a cold, empty house on the longest night of the year – on Christmas Eve! There were limits to the levels of absurdity that could be borne, even by the men and women of his family.

With the reflex of a farmer, he held his arms out to either side of the girl, fencing her in, herding her gently towards the stairs.

'Let me just help you back up to bed--'

“Let me just help you back up to bed – ”

Matilda shoved him off with startling force. “No! I can go up myself! I came down, I guess I can go up!”

“Matilda – ”

“I don’t want you going up there,” she whimpered, white-​​lipped and with tears in her big eyes, suddenly frail and helpless-​​looking as a child.

'I don't want you going up there.'

Oswald admitted that he did not know enough to guess what might have been going on upstairs before he had arrived, or what scene might have greeted his eyes had he gone. Out of a shy boy’s compassion for others’ shyness, he bowed in mute agreement. He would leave her as much of her dignity as remained.

“Be careful going up,” he advised. “And lie down and rest a while, and I shall return just as soon as I can, with a woman to help.”

'I know that much.'

He saw her rousing herself to protest again, and he hurried to add, “She can at least boil some water, or something. See?” he smiled sheepishly. “I know that much.”

He patted her shoulder awkwardly, loosening the flap of her gown again, and blurted, “I can’t even boil water without setting myself on fire!”

At last his timidity got the better of him, and he fled.

He fled.