'Shh!  He's coming!'

“Shh! He’s coming!”

If anyone needed shushing it was Lord Cynewulf’s squirmy, self-​​important, ten-​​year-​​old self, but Conrad was too tense to say something ironic. Cynan was coming.

The door swung open, brightening the end of the corridor with the warm glow of torchlight. A blocky form stepped through. Cynewulf sprang out of the alcove before Conrad had even braced himself to move.

Cynewulf leapt out of the alcove.

“Halt where you stand, sir!” Cynewulf shouted. “We wish to have a word with you!”

He then scooted back and looked expectantly up at Conrad. Conrad was so disconcerted by this introduction that he only stepped out of the alcove and blocked the stairs with his body.

He only stepped out of the alcove.

The door swung shut on its own, and its slam boomed up two stories of narrow, stone-​​walled passage. Conrad jumped, but Cynan did not flinch. No hint of emotion marred the amphibian apathy of his face, unless the narrowing of his eyes was due to more than squinting into the cold light.



Conrad blurted, “We just wanted to – to tell you you’ve gone far enough! No – no – this time you’ve gone too far!”

Cynan sent a bored glance down at his feet and lined up his toes with the crack between two flagstones. “I have not yet gone anywhere. And I intend only to go to my room.”

“Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about!”

'Don't pretend you don't know what I'm talking about!'

Cynewulf piped up again: “My father told us you asked to marry Meggie!”

Cynan bowed slightly, leaning to the side to stare past Conrad’s shoulder at the little boy. “I did. And your father allowed that I might aspire to that honor.”

Conrad’s arms tightened and curved like a drawn bow. This was very nearly what Margaret’s father had said to him. And if Cynan could speak of it with such dispassion, he was not even sensible of the honor.

“And that,” Conrad said, “that is what I call going too far!”

Cynan only blinked his bulldog eyes.

“I said nothing when you spoke about rape at the supper table before ladies! I said nothing when you claimed her for dances she didn’t want to dance at all! I said nothing when you gave her jewelry for Christmas like a – like an intimate friend, and not some distant cousin who has never even sent her a letter before!”

Cynan sighed and turned his attention to cleaning beneath his fingernails with the edge of his thumbnail. Conrad’s shoulders burned with the strain of holding himself back from simply throwing himself on him.

Cynan sighed and turned his attention to cleaning beneath his fingernails.

“But this! This! This is too much!”

Cynewulf’s squeaky ten-​​year-​​old voice pierced through his tirade. “She doesn’t even like you in that way! She barely even likes you as a friend!”

Cynan flicked a speck of dirt away and rolled his bulldog eyes back around to the little boy. “She told me she was flattered.”

“Hetty probably made her!” Cynewulf said. “She was only being polite!”

'Hetty probably made her!'

Cynan snorted. “I believe she is capable of speaking her mind when a gentleman’s attentions are not to her liking.”

He turned a mocking smile to Conrad. Conrad shivered like a struck drum. He tried to reassure himself with the thought that their passionate quarrels today boded well for passionate love tomorrow – or whenever Margaret at last made up her mind to try the experiment – but his confidence wavered before Cynan’s arrogant smirk.

“That, I think, is what you cannot stand,” Cynan said. “Not that I gave her the bracelet, but that she wears it. Not that I asked her to dance, but that she danced.”

'That is what you cannot stand.'

“She had to!” Conrad protested. “You’re her guest! It’s simple good manners! I’m her friend – she needn’t have good manners with me!”

“It was not on account of good manners that she kissed me the way she did.”

Conrad nearly tackled him against the wall. It was only Cynewulf’s wail – “That was mistletoe!” – that stopped him at the brink of violence. Cynewulf: his young lord.

Conrad was a servant in this house.

Conrad was a servant in this house, and he had sworn an oath to the Duke. Cynan was the Duke’s guest, however loathsome.

“It might have been mistletoe,” Cynan said, “but I perceived that she favored me. I do not believe she kissed anyone else that way.”

'I do not believe she kissed anyone else that way.'

His sneering tone made the target of his “anyone else” clear. If only he knew! Conrad had tasted kisses such as that cold-​​blooded toad could never have imagined, or he would not have made so much of that mistletoe parody of a passionate kiss. But Conrad could not tell him that. He had sworn an oath to Margaret, too.

“That’s your grounds, is it?” Conrad asked.

His voice was steadier and deeper now, and his arms stronger merely from the memory of having held her. He knew she was his. He simply wanted Cynan to know it, too.

'One kiss?'

“One kiss? She only just met you, and gave you one big sloppy kiss because she thought it would annoy you – and for that you propose marriage to her?”

Cynan lowered his head to look Conrad in the eyes. He smiled. “What makes you think there was only one?”

Conrad’s left fist slammed into Cynan’s simpering face. Cynan spun about and staggered shoulder-​​first against the wall, bleating Welsh expletives into his cupped hands.

Conrad had rehearsed the gesture so many times in his mind that, in the end, his mind had not even been consulted. His mind now confronted the aftermath in a state of shock.

His mind now confronted the aftermath in a state of shock.

Cynewulf said, “Jupiter…”

Cynan wiped his face on his sleeve and whirled around to sneer at Conrad. “What a big man! Surely Margaret will never marry me now!” He paused to swipe his arm over his face again. Blood dripped from his nose even as he spoke. “Now that she knows I can be punched in the face! By a coward who knows I can’t fight back against a twelve-​​year-​​old boy!”

Blood dripped from his nose even as he spoke.

He lifted his bloody arm like a shield and plowed past Cynewulf and Conrad to the stairs. Cynewulf waited until Cynan had stomped nearly to the first landing before shouting up after him, “He’s almost fourteen, you know!”

Conrad wilted back against the wall. The mere chill of the stones through his clothing triggered a violent shivering. The muscles of his shoulders tightened until he could scarcely turn his head.

He could scarcely turn his head.

A door slammed above, and its boom echoed down two flights of stairs and rang through Conrad’s skull.

Cynewulf sighed and shook his head. “Jupiter! You must have hit him square in the nose!”

Conrad pushed himself away from the wall and staggered stiff-​​legged to flop down onto the next-​​to-​​last step. As soon as he sat he knew it had been the wrong move – he trembled with the need to pace and stomp and kick – but his despair pinned him down.

His despair pinned him down.

“Your father,” he said to Cynewulf, “is going to send me home.”

Cynewulf huffed in indignation. “He had better not! I shall tell him it was my idea. I shall tell him I commanded you to do it.”

“I don’t think that will help.”

Cynewulf twisted his arms and did a ten-year-old’s squirmy dance of agitation. “You don’t suppose Meggie really kissed him again, do you?”


“Neither do I.”

'Neither do I.'

Conrad had not believed it for an instant. Even his fist had known better. But hearing Cynan imply that she had kissed him was like witnessing the rape of her name. Conrad clenched his fists, and in his mind he began rehearsing other gestures.

Cynewulf stopped squirming. “Uh, Conrad?”

'Uh, Conrad?'

Conrad grunted.

Before Cynewulf could reply, Conrad heard a pair of feet scuffing down the stairs. He leapt up and whirled around, expecting to see Cynan flying at him with a sword – but it was Margaret.

He knew better than to hope Margaret would come with swooning gladness to meet the defender of her modesty. But even from the height of the landing, her scowl was so ominously black that he wished she were Alred instead.

Conrad lifted his gaze no higher than the slippered, black-stockinged feet.

Once he had spied it, Conrad lifted his gaze no higher than the slippered, black-​​stockinged feet that fluttered beneath the lifted hem of her gown. He saw her swerve and cram herself into half of the stairway, as if an invisible passer-​​by had come plodding up the other side. He feared she had spotted a drop of wet blood in the very path of her feet.

“What just happened down here?” she demanded.

She flew down the last steps and pulled herself up just short of Conrad’s chest. He put up his hands to catch her, and she twisted away.

She twisted away.

“Cynan said you hit him!”

“Oh, he did? That cry-​​baby! That – wait one minute! Don’t tell me you were in his room!”

Margaret’s angry eyes went wide with outrage. “In his room? I was in Irene’s room! I came out to find out what all that shouting was about, and met him in the passage!”

“And he told you I hit him! I like that!”

“Well, did you or didn’t you?”

“That was between us! He shouldn’t have gone crying to you!”

'That was between us!'

“Oh, spare me your masculine code of honor! Since I asked him! But he didn’t tell me why! What did he ever do to you?”

Cynewulf spoke up once again. “Father told me and Gwynn that he asked to marry you!”

“So what? Sigefrith asked for Gwynn, and Eadwyn never went to punch Caedwulf in the face!”

'So what?'

“That was different!”

“Is that what this was about?” she asked Conrad. “Because he asked for my hand?”

“Maybe it was!”

“Oh ho! Is that it?”

“And maybe it wasn’t!”

'And maybe it wasn't!'

In her passion she had forgotten her physical aversion to him and was shouting only inches from his face. With all her hopping around, his hands were constantly brushing her hips. He saw nothing in the world but her eyes, as in the instant before a kiss.

“Why?” she demanded. “Tell me why!”


He nearly groaned. She was so close! She was so close to making him say things he had rehearsed a hundred times in his mind. Was that what she wanted? Was she only waiting for him to find the nerve?

But he could not say those things now – not here, with the Old Man standing by. If he could only get her alone…

But he could not say those things now.


“Why?” Her shout was shriller than ever, defeating his attempt at softness. “Why? You had better have an excellent reason!”

“Because I know you can’t stomach him, that’s why! Because I don’t want him… because I know you don’t want him paying that kind of attention to you!”

“Oh, is that it?”

'Oh, is that it?'

“That’s it!”

“Is that what we do to gentlemen who pay unwanted attention to ladies in this castle? Punch them in the face? Is that what we do here?”

“Yes! That’s what we do here!”

“I see!”

She jerked away from him. He thought it was her latest attempt to get free of the pleading touches of his hands. But no – it was only to give herself enough room to draw back her arm and punch him in the face.

It was only to give herself enough room to draw back her arm and punch him in the face.

It was a girl punch, weak and unsure, and he was more stunned by the surprise of it than by the fist that glanced off his cheekbone. Nevertheless it hurt more than any blow a boy had yet delivered him.

Margaret cried, “Ha!” and whirled about to run up the stairs, two steps by two, with the hems of her skirts beating around her ankles.

It was not the sort of laugh that invited a boy to follow. She had not swiped his heart and run off with it, swinging it triumphantly over her head – she had punched it flat. But he also knew the sound of her gulping breath – the familiar sound of his Maggot trying not to sob until it was safe to cry – and it pained him to stand helplessly behind.

After the door slammed on high, Cynewulf said, “Jupiter! Did she just punch you in the face?”

'Did she just punch you in the face?'

Conrad did not bother to reply.

Cynewulf turned and squinted up at him with evident confusion. “But I thought girls were supposed to slap and boys were supposed to punch.”

“Your sister is not like ordinary girls.”

Cynewulf laughed. “That’s for certain. I must confess, I am a little proud of her, even if I wish she would punch Blocky rather than you. Say, I wonder whether my mother ever punched a man. I wager she would have done it, if a man ever made her angry enough.”

Conrad grunted.

“Say! Why did Meggie punch you?”

Conrad did not want to tell him.

Conrad did not want to tell him. He did not even want the boy thinking about it, lest he come up with a reason.

“I don’t know,” he grumbled. “There’s no telling. Come on, let’s get out of here.”

Cynewulf groaned and threw out his arms in a dramatic shrug. “I know, I know! There’s no telling what they’ll do! Girls are completely crazy, I find.”

He shook his curly head and sighed.

'Girls are completely crazy, I find.'