Matilda did not recognize the horse.

Matilda did not recognize the horse, but the master’s sleek curls were unmistakable. He was alone.

She thought Oswald had seen him too. Downstairs she heard floorboards creak from the fire to the window and back.

Matilda stepped sideways to put the curtain between herself and any chance upward glance, careful to keep her feet upon a line that ran along the row of nail heads in the floorboards and extended beneath the rug. Downstairs the poker clattered busily against the irons.

She did not see Ethelwyn dismount, but she heard his hollow boot steps on the porch and a squeak of hinges as he opened the unbolted door to himself. Dunstan startled on her shoulder at the slam that followed, reminding Matilda that the baby could hear these things too. Her heart pounded against his swaddled body. Mouse had not come.

Matilda stepped sideways.

Ethelwyn’s boot heels rapped sharply across the entry and stopped short in the hall below, almost beneath Matilda’s slippered feet. She heard no friendly hello, no Christmas greeting, no jovial laughter over the confusion that had sent Oswald in one direction while his family went in another.

Instead she heard Ethelwyn’s grimly triumphant shout: “I thought so!”

Oswald replied with a single syllable – perhaps “What?”

Then the conversation quieted into a tense back-​​and-​​forth Matilda could not quite follow. Only the last words of their phrases were sometimes audible, rising abruptly in volume like the curling end of a cracked whip.

“…in this house!”

“…my sister!”

Matilda tipped Dunstan’s sleepy head off her shoulder and settled him in the crook of her arm. She leaned forward to grasp the back of the chair with her free hand, and she took a step, perilously wide, intended to land her foot on the line marked out by the next row of nail heads. It brought her almost to the cradle.

It brought her almost to the cradle.

Downstairs Oswald shouted something that ended with “…a cake!” Ethelwyn grumbled a reply, and then Oswald must have launched into an explanation of how Matilda had come to be alone: she heard “slop pail” and “the cook.”

Matilda leaned far out to lay the baby down, only able to grab the edge of the cradle for support once he was out of her hands. His lashes fluttered and a grimace briefly dimpled his fat cheek, but he did not wake.

He did not wake.

She stood and sidled towards the fire, always keeping the beam beneath her feet so that the boards would not squeak and alert the men below. Ethelwyn shouted something involving “…why you, of all people…”

Matilda reached for the arm of the chair but drew back her hand in alarm.

She drew back her hand in alarm.

The Little Mother’s chair. Like a fairy tale throne at the break of day, it had transformed back into the sinister thing it had seemed three days before when Oswald had first carried it in and promptly plunked himself down on the straight-​​backed wooden chair facing it.

The Little Mother had nursed her five babies in this chair. Mouse had nursed the master’s short-​​lived son in this chair. And for three days Matilda had sat in this chair like a fairy tale princess and nursed her half-​​elven child.

But the spell was lifted now. Beneath her feet she heard Oswald’s soft voice raised in a shout. Though muffled by the rug she understood his concluding phrase: “…on Christmas Eve!”

Matilda sidled in the other direction, following the beam as far as her bed. Hitching up her skirt, she climbed across the mattress and lowered one foot onto the floor at its end: gently, as much to spare the wound between her legs as to center her weight precisely over the next beam.

She climbed across the mattress and lowered one foot onto the floor.

Once over, she kneeled and slipped her fingers into the joint between the floor and the wall to tug out the wadded cloth she had stuffed inside. A tapering floorboard had left an inch-​​wide gap opening onto the hall, and although she knew it was wicked, Matilda had sometimes pressed her face against it to hear what was being said about her below. In enemy territory, she thought, ordinary rules of discretion did not apply.

She kneeled and slipped her fingers into the joint.

With all her breathless bustle, she had not followed the last minute or two of the men’s conversation. By now Ethelwyn’s voice had softened into a plaintively indulgent tone, but if it was meant to soothe Oswald then it was having the opposite effect. The next thing she heard was Oswald accusing: “You expected her to die!”

Matilda lurched, and the crown of her skull smacked against the wall. Startled, she threw back her head, grinding hair and rough-​​hewn hood against her scalp with a scrape that seemed audible.

Startled, she threw back her head.

Downstairs Ethelwyn sighed, “Now, Os…”

“You hoped she would die!”

“Certainly not!”

“Just like that other girl! That’s why you never even bothered figuring out what you’re going to do with her!”

Matilda sat back on her heels and only heard a few disjointed words of Ethelwyn’s indignant reply. Floor boards creaked below, but she heard no hard soles: either Oswald in his stocking feet or Ethelwyn on the rug – or both, circling around one another like cocks scrapping in a farm yard.

Matilda sat back on her heels.

Oswald shouted sarcastically “What a pity…” and concluded with “…to suit you!”


Oswald snapped something beginning with “I’m…” but his voice rapidly diminished in volume, and a series of floorboards squeaked in rapid succession as his shoeless feet carried him away from the gap in the ceiling.

Ethelwyn shouted, “Oswald!”

Matilda pushed herself up against the wall, hitched up her skirts, and hopped onto the bed. As she wormed her way up to her pillow, she heard something slam – a door, a kicked chair smacking into the wall, or something hurled. Deprived of Oswald, Ethelwyn shouted for the cook, who had returned that morning.

She wormed her way up to her pillow.

And then she heard a pair of stockinged feet bounding up the stairs two-​​by-​​two. At the top they turned; and even shoeless, their tread was so furious that she heard the thudding of their heels on the boards. They did not turn in at Oswald’s door, but stomped all the way up to hers. There they abruptly stopped.

Matilda shoved her fists into the pockets of her gown to hide their sweatiness and their shaking. She heard Ethelwyn shouting at the cook from all the way out to the kitchen, but behind her door there was an ominous silence, broken only occasionally by a squeaking floorboard as Oswald shifted his weight between his sock feet. Dunstan stirred in his cradle, grunting and sighing as he squirmed in his swaddling. Matilda prayed he would not cry.

Matilda shoved her fists into the pockets of her gown.

Then Oswald’s feet turned and thumped towards his door. Matilda closed her eyes and sighed in relief. Just as abruptly the feet turned back again, and even before they stopped there was a gentle rapping at her door, as if Oswald feared he would lose his nerve if he hesitated there even an instant.


Matilda was petrified.

Oswald cracked open the door and poked his head inside. He looked directly into Matilda’s eyes. She had not even had the presence of mind to close them.

“Oh – sorry, were you sleeping?” Oswald asked, red-​​faced.

“It’s all right,” she smiled, relieved he had thought so. “Every time I close my eyes for a minute, it turns into a nap.”

“Me too,” Oswald laughed sheepishly.

'Me too.'

The both of them had abandoned all decent schedules of sleep and wake, and had sometimes sat up together, wide awake at the oddest hours of the night, eating toasted slices of Christmas cake and laughing over the littlest thing.

Oswald slipped past the door, scarcely opening it wide enough to fit his body through.

“Say, Ethelwyn’s home,” he blurted while his back was turned to close it.

“He is?”

“You didn’t – ” Oswald looked warily over his shoulder. “You didn’t hear?”

“No,” she lied. “I guess I was sleeping.”

'I guess I was sleeping.'

“Oh.” Oswald broke into a grin of relief that faded just as quickly. He leaned over the back of the heavy chair and picked it up by its arms to turn it around. “Seems my sisters were worried about me when I never came.”

“Oh no!”

Matilda had been wracked with that very worry for three days, but she dared not draw attention to the impropriety of Oswald staying behind, even by so little as suggesting that his family must wonder at his absence. For three days the spell had lasted: an abandoned fairy tale castle, emptied even of its servants. But at last the Beast had returned.

“It’s all right,” Oswald smiled as he settled himself in the chair. “They might be a little sorry they didn’t get any of the cake though.”

'They might be a little sorry they didn't get any of the cake though.'

Matilda clapped her fingers over her mouth. “Oh no!”

He laughed. “I was kidding. They won’t mind. Though I must admit, I wish I had thought to save a slice as proof of my Thorhold story.”

He grinned at her, but Matilda could manage no more than a pained smile. Was it possible that his family would not believe his “Thorhold story”? Was it possible they would doubt him when he swore nothing had happened?

Oswald leaned forward and clasped his knees together between his hands, tipping his stockinged heels awkwardly out to the side.

“So,” he blurted, “it seems I shall be riding back with Wyn this afternoon. We shall have to head right out if we want to make it by dark.”

'We shall have to head right out if we want to make it by dark.'

Matilda nodded.

“So I… wanted to say goodbye. In case you’re napping when we go. Which… you were anyway,” he laughed and hid half his face behind his hand. “Never mind.”

“It’s all right,” Matilda assured him, thinking guiltily back to the minute or two she had crouched at the foot of her bed, her head bowed to the floor.

“Mouse will be so happy to hear about Dunstan,” he continued. “I shall tell her all about his fat cheeks, and how he opens his eyes so wide, and everything…”

He looked at the cradle – not a glance, but a long, quiet stare, though Matilda was not certain he could even see the baby from where he sat.

“So,” he said, more in introduction than in conclusion, “after I get back, I was thinking… Well, since Mouse will probably stay at Raegiming with Sigefrith and Wyn till they come back…”

He twisted his fingers together with such agitation.

He twisted his fingers together with such agitation that he could not have been aware of his own gestures. In the midst of all her anguished thoughts, Matilda imagined herself tying a bunch of wool to his thumb and stepping back to watch him spin: a sort of handsome young Rumplestiltskin figure on a princess’s throne, spinning dreams.

“…you might get a little lonely out here. And I certainly have been feeling lonely since Sigefrith and Wyn and Heaf went away. So I was thinking…”

All at once his eyes went wide, making him look as surprised by the words coming out of his mouth as Dunstan did, when Oswald smushed and tweaked the baby’s pouting lips in time with whatever droll nonsense he was squeaking on the boy’s behalf. But when Oswald played ventriloquist with himself, his voice was less squeaky than feather-​​soft and shy.

“…perhaps you and Dunstan could come, and we could keep each other company.”

Matilda sat up slowly.

Matilda sat up slowly. Three times Oswald looked down at his lap and back up at her, and each time his smile was a little more twisted and his cheeks a little more red. His brow and the bridge of his nose sparkled with sweat.

“I – I don’t mean anything improper by it,” he stuttered. “I mean… I know we couldn’t live together if we… I mean, I would marry you,” he blurted. “So you would have to stay even after Mouse and Sigefrith and everyone came back. But perhaps you wouldn’t mind. And I need someone to keep house and cook. And you need someone to…”

He glanced helplessly at the cradle, and his concluding words curled up softly at the end, like a feather lifted on a breeze.

'...take care of you.'

“…take care of you.”

Then he turned his head and stared at Matilda. He stared with determination, having clearly made up his mind not to look into his lap or all about – to look her in the eyes until she spoke, or until he understood why she did not.

And Matilda could not, and she did not know why.

“I mean, I know what happened to you,” he said abruptly. He wiped the sweat from the back of his neck and left his hand clenched over his shoulder. “I wouldn’t expect you to… or, I mean, ask you to… But if we weren’t married, people would think…”

'But if we weren't married, people would think...'

Matilda winced. He was thinking of sex. For three days she did not believe the thought had entered his head, but Ethelwyn must have spoken the word – it was Ethelwyn who had shattered the spell. If Ethelwyn had not wished her dead before, she was certain he was wishing it now.

Oswald must have seen the expression cross her face, for something abruptly changed on his.

“Well, it was just a thought I had,” he laughed. “I suppose it is rather absurd to get married just because one is lonely for a month or two. I suppose one would feel rather silly afterwards.” Another spasm crossed his face, looking much like pain. “Not that it’s the only reason…”

Another spasm crossed his face, looking much like pain.

Matilda could not bear to see him suffer so, and she spoke even before she had thought of something to say.

“Well, in fact, I was hopin’ to go home to my Ma.”

Her coarse peasant braying was shockingly loud to her own ears. With the dawn the princess had transformed back into a mule.

“If it ain’t too much trouble to anyone,” she added anxiously, fearing she had already overstepped her rights. “I mean, I’ll pay back what the master gave my Da.”

'I mean, I'll pay back what the master gave my Da.'

“Oh, no no!” Oswald protested. “That wouldn’t be any trouble. I mean, it’s not necessary to pay anything. I’m certain.”

Once he had finished reassuring her, he slumped back against the down-​​filled pillow, into the soft depression left by Matilda’s body. In silence he picked at a seam of his coat and stared at the carved edge of the bedside table, doubtlessly trying to understand what she had answered, just as she had tried to understand why he had asked.

Then he sat up, straightened his awkwardly splayed legs, and guessed: “You want to go see your Little Mother, don’t you?”

'You want to go see your Little Mother, don't you?'

Matilda nodded eagerly, relieved he had thought so.

“Well, no wonder,” he said gently, glancing at the cradle. “Who knows more about mothering than Little Mothers do? I wish I could go see my own. Not that I’m going to be a mother,” he added with a nervous laugh.

Matilda laughed a little with him.

Matilda laughed a little with him.

“So,” he said conclusively. “I suppose I should say goodbye now, since you might be sleeping by the time we’re ready to go. Is Dunstan sleeping?”

“I’m not sure.”

He stood and peered over into the cradle, but first he picked up his Little Mother’s chair and turned it around towards the fire and the empty wooden chair.

“Oh, bother, he is,” Oswald sighed once he had gone to the baby. “Oh, well. You’ll tell him goodbye for me, won’t you?”

'You'll tell him goodbye for me, won't you?'

“Of course.”

The idea of “telling” a newborn baby anything seemed absurd – but that was Oswald’s way. In Oswald’s lap Dunstan danced jigs, delivered orations, flirted with Mama, and engaged in boxing matches with his tiny fists. In Oswald’s hands, Dunstan became a real living person and not a slowly swelling part of herself – with a name that Oswald had suggested; with blue eyes that looked into Oswald’s brown; with grasping hands that hung on to Oswald’s fingers; with kicking feet that stilled when Oswald’s voice could be heard.

For three days Oswald's magic had made Dunstan human.

For three days Oswald’s magic had made Dunstan human, but Matilda dreaded looking into the cradle after the men had gone. Perhaps this spell too would be broken, and the baby would be transformed back into a troll.

“So,” Oswald said softly, conclusively, either looking down into the cradle or watching Matilda out of the corner of his eye. “Goodbye, you two. I hope I will see you again some time.”

'Goodbye, you two.'

Matilda breathed, “Bye.” Through her pockets she scrunched up handfuls of her dress and shift. There was only a minute or two left to endure.

“I shall tell Mouse all about him,” he continued.

Matilda took short breaths through her mouth.

Oswald said, “This was certainly the strangest Christmas either of us have ever spent, I wager.”

He laughed softly for a moment and fell silent. He was standing directly over the beam, and even his shifting weight did not make a sound. Now she could not see his face at all.

He laughed softly for a moment and fell silent.

“It was nice, though,” he said thoughtfully. “I’ll never forget it.”

Dutifully Matilda mumbled, “Me neither.” But in her heart she hoped they would.

Oswald laughed, “And I didn’t even break a tooth!”

His laughter choked off abruptly as he turned to her, and at last he fled.

At last he fled.