'Malcolm!  This is better than I had expected!'

“Malcolm! This is better than I had expected!”

Sigefrith huffed. “Well, runt, so much for My Majesty! That’s the last time I’m going out with you!

Gwynn grinned up at him as she bobbed down into a curtsey. “Not better than you, Sigefrith. Better than only you. You both must come up to see Hetty before you go!”

She gave her hand to Malcolm to kiss, but looked over her shoulder at the King.

“But, Sigefrith, she says that you and the Old Man mustn’t make her laugh so hard again, or she won’t be held responsible if the baby comes right there.

She glanced aside at her father.

She glanced aside at her father to be certain she had not said something too shocking. Hetty had told her to say that very thing.

Sigefrith beamed and whacked Malcolm on the back. “That won’t be any trouble if Malcolm’s with me!”

Malcolm put on a thin smile and his customary look of long-​suffering. Gwynn laughed. It was odd that her father did not.

'Hetty will be so glad to see you.'

“Hetty will be so glad to see you,” she told Malcolm. “She hasn’t seen you since your accident, and she has been a teensy bit worried about you. You know Hetty.”

She peeked at her father again, afraid that he would count even a teensy bit of worry too much, and rule out any visit. Her father was looking grim.

Her father was looking grim.

“Is she afraid my head got banged out of shape?” Malcolm asked.

“Tell her not to worry,” Sigefrith said. “The little gnomes in there hammered it straight again.”

He rapped on the top of Malcolm’s head with his knuckles, and Malcolm swatted his hand away.

Malcolm swatted his hand away.

“Quit that! You’ll wake them.”

Gwynn laughed. She was sorry her father did not—not even over jokes that had nothing to do with Hetty—but her father would have to fend for himself. So close to her confinement, Hetty’s happiness and comfort came before everything.

“Shall we go up?” she asked the men, smiling right and left. “Or did you have some business to finish with my father?”

'Shall we go up?'

“As a matter of fact,” Sigefrith said, “our business is with you. We did send for you, remember.”

“Oh! Of course!” Gwynn laughed. “I thought you only wanted to greet me.” She pressed the back of her wrist to her forehead and pretended to expire. “So much for my majesty! Is it not enough for you to gaze upon my beauty for a moment? Well, what is your business, gentlemen? How may I oblige?”

Malcolm chewed on his thumbnail to hide the grin that was attempting to take over his mouth. Sigefrith simply smiled down on her, his eyes twinkling and his square teeth shining out of his square beard. Gwynn would have chalked up a point to her own brilliance if her father had not remained so glum. Something was not right.

“Well, honey,” Sigefrith said, “You’ve received a letter from abroad, and I’ve a messenger at home awaiting an answer, so your correspondent is the man you’ll have to oblige. Or not.”

'A letter?'

“A letter? From Egelric?”

Her father spoke his first word, gasping, “Egelric?”

Gwynn looked from face to face, horrified at the quickness of her own tongue. Would they guess everything now? Her little daydreams, in which Egelric wrote a pathetic letter to her alone, begging her forgiveness, mercy, and assistance; and Gwynn went unto her father and even the King to plead with such ardor and eloquence that they fell upon their knees, weeping, and sent armed men in ships to find him and bring him home? And the occasional epilogue, in which that insufferable Finn went down on his knees in gratitude, and swore never to call her a cockaninny again?

Sigefrith smiled at her. “Were you expecting one?”

'Were you expecting one?'

“Ah… nooo… that was simply… the first person who came to mind, among friends who are abroad. But it could have been Brede, too… or Stein… Or my cousin Cynan! Is it Cynan?”

She put on a broadly hopeful smile, even though it made no sense for Cynan to be writing to her instead of her sister. In truth, she could not think of anyone farther away than Dunellen who would care to write especially to her.

“No, honey,” Sigefrith said, “it’s from Young Aed.”

'It's from Young Aed.'

He smiled again: a strange, tender smile that appeared meant to soften a blow, but he lifted his brows in an eloquent question.

Gwynn felt the blood drain out of her face. She had buried that corset at the bottom of her wardrobe and mounded her childish, outgrown dresses atop it, and still it went on haunting her. The memory made her queasy, like the never-​ending morning-​after of a night of glorious intoxication.

She looked between Sigefrith and her father and pleaded, “I never told him he might write to me.”

'I never told him he might write to me.'

Was this the sort of thing that Hetty meant when, after that dreadful supper, she had warned her about “giving men the wrong idea?” Was this the sort of “liberty” she had said men might be inspired to take?

Sigefrith hastened to say, “Oh, that wouldn’t stop Aed! He’s the sort to do first, ask leave later. He’s young!”

Gwynn finally caught her father’s eye. He looked mournful and defeated, as if he could do nothing for her. Had she so utterly compromised herself in some way?

He looked mournful and defeated.

She turned back to Sigefrith and asked meekly, “What did he say?”

Sigefrith smiled. “We don’t know that yet, honey. I don’t have the habit of opening correspondence not addressed to me.”

“Nor do I,” her father said. “However, my dear, you will allow that if a young man writes to one of my daughters without my permission, I have a right—not to say a duty—to be present when it is opened and read.”

“I never said he might write to me!” Gwynn protested, her lip quivering. “He never even asked me!”

Her father seemed to wake a little, and he smiled with his mouth, though not his eyes. “I do not blame young ladies if some young men are rude. I suppose I was no better at eighteen.”

Sigefrith laughed. “The less said about that…” He coughed and waggled his fingers at Malcolm. “Let’s have it, runt.”

'Let's have it, runt.'

Malcolm twisted around to take a folded and sealed letter off the table behind him. He attempted to hand it to Sigefrith, but Sigefrith waved it onward to Gwynn and bowed.

Gwynn did not want to touch it, so she compromised by letting it lie flat upon her palm and not looking at it. Sigefrith still smiled gently at her, but she felt as if this ceremony was meant to make her wear her shame to the end, as when Emma had deliberately dumped ink on a gown she had not liked, and her father had made her put it on anyway.

“Must I read it aloud?”

“Not if you don’t like,” Sigefrith said. “Open it, honey.”

Gwynn heard her father exhale heavily through his nose. Sigefrith rubbed his hands together. Gwynn finally looked at the letter.

The seal was a sinister blot of inky black, but the address was written in a rollicking round hand that had never heard of a ruler. Each letter of her name—he wrote it GUEN—was almost a circle, with a bit cut out here and a stroke added there.

Having read many books lettered by Irish monks, she supposed it was nothing more than the handwriting of a Celtic man. But having a little brother, also, whom she had helped learn to write, it seemed boyish and cute. It was difficult to imagine anything more shocking than ink smudges and spelling errors inside.

She slid her finger beneath the flap of folded parchment.

She slid her finger beneath the flap of folded parchment and cracked the seal. She opened the letter out to see a big pageful of the same rounded writing, starting out solid and even at the top, and shaking itself apart into hastily-​lettered, cramped, slanting lines at the bottom.

“It’s… all in Gaelic.”

“What?” Sigefrith laughed and scratched his hair. “Why, how quaint! Your Gaelic must have impressed him indeed! Do you… ah… Malcolm?”

Gwynn stared and stared, but though she had been practicing, she could not puzzle out a word. If she had not seen how he had written her name in the address, she would not even have recognized that.

She looked up and saw the three men watching her, and she hurriedly held out the letter to Malcolm.

Malcolm looked at Sigefrith, at her father, and finally back at her. “Shall I read it aloud?”

Gwynn said, “If you please.”

Malcolm put on his customary scowl of seriousness and looked down at the letter. And looked. And looked. His golden eyes darted back and forth, but he did not say a word, and Gwynn began to feel all the shame of the situation again.

Gwynn began to feel all the shame of the situation again.

Finally she whimpered, “Well?”

“Let him read it once through, first, honey,” Sigefrith said.

Malcolm glanced up from the letter. “It helps me if I’ve read the whole thing, so I know what he’s getting at.”

Gwynn flushed. What was he getting at? Malcolm would know before anyone. Perhaps he already knew. The idea made her a little dizzy.

Could it—could it be a marriage proposal like her sister’s? It was absurd—a little terrifying even—to think a man could know his mind after one supper and one breakfast. But the idea was breathtaking, too. At least, she could not breathe.

Suddenly her father’s hands were on her arms. “Sit down! You’re about to faint.”

“I am not!” she protested, panicked. The hammering of her heart woke her a bit.

“Then sit down before I faint, my dear. You’re making me dizzy.”

Gwynn thumped down on the bench and blinked at the points of light that floated and flashed all around her head. Had she almost swooned? It was not as romantic as she had imagined. She only felt overheated and queasy.

She only felt overheated and queasy.

Malcolm coughed softly, drawing attention back onto himself.

Sigefrith asked, “Ready?”

Malcolm looked down at Gwynn. “Are you?”

Gwynn opened her mouth, but her father interrupted to ask, “Is it fit for her ears?”


Her father scowled. “Then is it fit for mine?”


Her father’s face and neck were growing red, but he tossed his head in a sort of insolent acquiescence. Malcolm exchanged a glance with Gwynn that he read as permission to begin.

'To the most gentle Lady Gwynn of Nothelm.'

“‘To the most gentle Lady Gwynn of Nothelm,’” he read, “‘Aed of the clan of Aengus, son of Colin, sends his humble greetings.’”

Sigefrith said, “Ah! Very flattering, my dear. Putting your name first and leaving the titles off his own. Not to mention the humble.”

Malcolm turned that look of long-suffering on him.

Malcolm turned that look of long-​suffering on him. Sigefrith stepped back to his side and bowed contritely.

“‘Benevolent Lady,’” Malcolm read, “‘Our Lord said: Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friend. My life would not purchase his, but for my friend I lay down my pride and write.’”

Sigefrith made no comment, but Malcolm paused for one. Sigefrith rubbed his hands together and nodded eagerly at the letter.

Malcolm began again, reading as evenly as if the text had been written down in English in the first place. His pauses between phrases only made the cadence more stately.

His pauses between phrases only made the cadence more stately.

“‘Merciful Lady, I presume upon our brief but treasured acquaintance, and upon the sympathy you showed my afflicted friend, to beseech your aid, in confidence that it will be granted, not because I am worthy, but in faith of your Christian lovingkindness.’”

Gwynn found the strength to sit up. This did not sound like a marriage proposal at all.

“‘My friend consulted your Saracen doctor, but quitted Lothere… before he heard his advice. The fault is mine, for I was quick to wrath, quick to speak, forgetting the teaching of Our Lord. The tongue can be tamed by no man, et cetera.’”

Sigefrith snapped his fingers to halt him. “Et cetera, et cetera… Alred?”

Gwynn’s father took a deep breath and rubbed his forehead. “‘The tongue can no man tame, it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.’ Ask Father Matthew.”

Sigefrith clapped his big hands together. “Name of God! It’s as good as an admission of foolishness! And he must have known I would get wind of it!”

“And you must pretend you did not,” Malcolm said.

“Of course, of course, but it’s a start!”

Sigefrith turned to beam at Gwynn. Gwynn cringed back against the cushions. Sigefrith remembered himself and said mildly, “Go ahead, runt.”

'Go ahead, runt.'

Malcolm sighed and put on his dignity again. “‘Fair lady,’” he read, “‘I ask only… that you remember my friend to your doctor, and ask his advice and treatment… for such illness as afflicts him, and send the same to me, that I may see to his care.’”

Gwynn sat up again. This was what he wanted from her: a favor for his beloved friend. This was better than a marriage proposal. This was no presumption. This was almost a sacred thing.

“‘A woman’s compassionate heart,’” Malcolm read, “‘needs no such inducement… as my humble gratitude, but be assured, dear lady, that you shall have it, and my prayers for your health and gladness. I stand ready… to be of service to you, that I may show my love and gratitude, not in word, nor in tongue, but in deed and in truth, in the name of Our Lord and of His Merciful Mother, who bless you and keep you.’”

Gwynn pressed her hands over her mouth and hot cheeks. Oh, it was more pathetic, more eloquent, more affecting than anything she had dreamt up for Egelric to write or for herself to say. And it was real! Truly, man had no greater love than this.

Malcolm read, “‘Written in haste at Carn Liath on this fifteenth day of February.’” He lowered the letter. “And then he struck out the fifteenth and wrote sixteenth in its place, and added, ‘At dawn’ at the end.”

Gwynn leapt up. She nearly swooned straightaway, but this was such a delicious swoon—a sense of being swept up in a whirl of tickling bubbles, not only inside her but all around her.

'Of course I must help him!'

“Of course I must help him! It is nothing at all for me—and everything to him! You said the messenger is still here?” she asked a smiling Sigefrith. “It’s not too late to send him to Godefroy’s with a note?”

“Not too late at all.”

“I shall write Joseph at once! And the man can leave from Godefroy’s as soon as he may! And do I have time to write a word to Aed?”

Her father cried, “Absolutely not!”

Sigefrith said, “Alred…”

She hung her head and hid her face behind her hair.

Gwynn’s delicious bubbles fizzled out, and she felt the shamefulness of what she had just said. She hung her head and hid her face behind her hair.

“Why did he not write to Joseph directly if that’s all he wanted?”

Silently Malcolm turned the letter around and slipped it into the range of her lowered gaze.

Silently Malcolm turned the letter around.

Gwynn took it and studied it with new eyes while her father shouted over her head.

“‘Our treasured acquaintance!’ ‘Gratitude and love!‘I presume,’ indeed!”


“She may write her note to Joseph, but she shall show it to me—and not the least acknowledgment shall that young man have from her. Unless it be the bare fact that someone must have received his letter and done as he asked.”

Now Gwynn understood the growing heedlessness of the scrawl as the writer’s emotion overcame him and he hurried to reach the end. And then, when he did, there was the crossed-​out, corrected date, and the final words, which she now easily read: “At dawn.”

Now Gwynn understood the gradual dissolution of the writer's tidiness.

Like a line of pure poetry, those two words made her feel all the anguish of a sleepless night. Perhaps Aed had spent it caring for his friend; or perhaps alone and racked with worry, tossing in his bed. But she imagined him springing up at last, with that wonderful masculine briskness of a man who has just made up his mind, and taking parchment and pen to write.

And when the letter was done, she imagined him rising to stretch his back, and going to a window, only to see that a new day had dawned. And then he had returned to tell her so.

“And if he writes to one of my daughters again, he shall have a reply from me!”

“Alred, we shall discuss this later.”

Regretfully Gwynn handed the letter back to Malcolm. Malcolm began to crease it up along the folds.

“May I write to Joseph myself?” she asked her father. Her voice startled and delighted her; it sounded rich and deep and womanly. Her calm surprised her too.

“Of course you may,” Sigefrith said. “And Malcolm will run up and let Hetty inspect his head, and when you’re done, we shall take it straight back and send the man on his way.”

Gwynn wanted to hear it from her father, too. “May I, Father?”

'May I, Father?'

Her father closed his eyes and nodded. “At least he makes no mockery of the truth by calling you benevolent, gentle, and merciful, my dear. I grant him that much discernment.”

Gwynn smiled at her father and all around. “I shall be no time at all,” she promised as she headed for the door. “So make haste, Malcolm.”

Sigefrith said, “Wait, honey!”

Gwynn stopped. Sigefrith strode up behind her and pressed a folded parchment into her hand.

“You forgot your letter.”

'You forgot your letter.'