'That should be he.'

“That should be he, at long last,” Maud’s uncle grumbled. “If he’s not late, he’s inconveniently early! Never thinking of what others would like!”

Maud’s eyes went wide, and she stared down at him, wondering whether by making her attend this supper he believed he was “thinking of what she would like.” But her uncle watched the door, oblivious, and after a moment Maud lowered her eyes. Perhaps he was.

The commotion outside kept growing: footsteps, a ringing male voice that could only be Sigefrith’s, and—just as out-​of-​place in the hush of the Abbey—the sound of Brother Timothy laughing aloud.

Maud’s uncle shouted “Enter!” before the hapless monk had a chance to knock.

The door opened, and Brother Timothy came in red-​faced and shrinking, cradling a clay jug against his belly. Sigefrith held the door for him and quietly followed him in. He gave the monk a last kindly grin before looking up at Maud and her uncle. And then only at Maud.

He looked up at Maud and her uncle.

The crinkles beside his eyes softened and vanished, leaving only a bemused smile. Maud could not catch her breath. How straight and tall he was! This was not a man who hunched his head into his cowl and scuttled like a monk.

A moment passed, and Maud realized she had missed her cue as hostess.

“Good evening,” Sigefrith said with a slight bow, finally taking her uncle in again with his smile. “My humblest apologies for my tardiness. Brother Timothy assures me the soup will not have suffered for the wait, but the same can rarely be said for those who expect to partake in it.”

He looked to Maud, and the crinkles began to return to his eyes. He looked dangerously close to a wink.

He looked dangerously close to a wink.

Flustered, Maud finally remembered her manners, put on something like a smile, and went to greet their guest.

“It is no trouble at all, lord. We had not even noticed.”

She stopped a few steps away from him and curtseyed. His tunic was so crisp and new she could smell the dye.

“We are so glad you could sup with us,” she said to his approaching feet.

She glanced up as she rose and gasped to find him towering over her, bowing his head towards hers.

“And I am honored by your welcome,” he said gravely.

Maud peered up at him, still clutching her skirts. She would never catch her breath so long as he looked at her like that. He was much too big for the room. He took up all the air.

She could not catch her breath.

“Sigefrith,” her uncle said, sounding peevish over having been forgotten, “I know you’ve met my niece, but it is my pleasure to introduce you properly. She so desired a chance to get to know you. Maud, this is my friend Sigefrith Hwala, King of Lothere.”

Maud’s knees were still half-​bent, but she curtsied again. “Your Grace.”

She took a deep breath on the way up and believed she had recovered her poise, but as soon as she released her skirts, Sigefrith took her hand and lifted it.

“My lady,” he said.

He smelled of soap, new cloth, and the cool air of a spring evening, but there was something else… not sweat or dirt, but something soap would never wash away: the musk of a healthy male animal. The stags always had a strong, strange scent compared to the does. How odd that the monks did not.

He raised her hand to his lips. Maud steeled herself, expecting a kiss that was hot and wet and slavering.

Instead she felt only a blast of warm breath and the barest brush of his mustache. But while her hand hid his mouth from her uncle and all she saw was the corner of his smile, he looked into her eyes and whispered, “You wore white.”

Maud felt the blood drain out of her face, leaving her whiter than her gown. She wanted to tell him she hadn’t even thought of the color, and she certainly hadn’t picked it out to flatter him. She wanted to tell him she’d never said she desired a chance to get to know him, she didn’t want to be here at all, and she felt so sick she doubted she could eat a bite.

The words were trembling on her tongue. Still smiling, Sigefrith gently lowered her hand from before his face, and Maud nearly burst into tears over the outrageous squareness of his chin.

Maud nearly burst into tears.

Then her uncle interrupted to ask loudly, “What is that you brought, Sigefrith?”

“Ah!” Sigefrith clapped his hands and turned to go to her uncle’s chair.

Maud’s complaints died on her tongue, and she felt herself deflating inside her white gown. Yet she was oddly disappointed to have been left behind.

“That,” Sigefrith said to her uncle, “is both the reason for my tardiness and my best hope of having it excused. Burgundian wine!”

He went onto one knee to kiss her uncle’s ring, since her uncle scarcely deigned to lift his hand from his lap. Even if abbots were not obliged to stand for kings, Maud was surprised by the rudeness of his failure to rise. After everything he had taught her about gracious manners!

“Burgundian!” her uncle huffed. He paused to sketch a Cross in the air over Sigefrith’s head and mumble a blessing. “I don’t believe it! I am certain you have been cheated.”

Sigefrith bounded to his feet, his beaming smile undimmed by her uncle’s aspersions.

'I shall let you be the judge of that, Lord Father.'

“I shall let you be the judge of that, Lord Father. But the Sebright cellar never fails to produce marvels, even if it currently occupies a mere cupboard at an inn. I asked Alred for his very best wine, and while he mightn’t have done our churlish selves such a favor, I told him it was intended for a fair lady, so you may be certain it is the finest he could offer.” Sigefrith turned to Maud and made a sweeping bow. “With the compliments of my friend Sir Alred, fair lady. He wishes you will drink it in good health.”

“Hmph!” Maud’s uncle glared at the jug and chewed on the inside of his cheek, torn between his desire to prove himself right and his desire to drink good wine.

Finally he said, “Maud, take the loving cup out of the cupboard. We shall drink while Brother Timothy is bringing up the soup. I hope it hasn’t gone cold!”

“Certainly,” she replied, smiling over clenched teeth. How rude to remind a guest of his late arrival! She asked Sigefrith, “Will Your Grace have a seat?”

'Will Your Grace have a seat?'

Sigefrith laid his hands over the back of a chair and smiled at her. Stars above! His hands were as square as his chin!

He said, “I will if you will call me Sigefrith.”

“Then you may stand!” she retorted—but only in her head. Out loud she said, “Do have a seat, then, Sigefrith. I shall get the cup.”

She swished into the corner and opened the cupboard. Brother Timothy went out, and Sigefrith began talking to her uncle. And for a moment Maud simply stood before the cupboard, hanging her arms from the doors and staring inside. The glitter of gemstones and silver blurred behind a sheen of tears.

She did not like him. At least, she did not think she did. He was so big and loud, so blustery and beaming, and he stared and stared at her without shame—she would need hours of solitude in her bed tonight merely to figure out what she thought of him.

He was as different from the priests and monks as a bull was from the oxen. And she knew the difference, too, even if her uncle believed she didn’t. She knew what the difference meant to the cows.

“Can’t you find it, child?” her uncle asked impatiently.

She heard his chair squeak, and she hurried to grab the two-​handled cup and close the cupboard.

The loving cup! Oh, she knew that only Christian brotherly love was meant, but she did wish the thing had another name!

As she returned to the table, she caught a glimpse of Sigefrith smiling at her. She averted her eyes, since it seemed he would not.

She picked up the jug, and Sigefrith asked softly, “Shall I pour? It’s heavy.”

“Thank you, but it isn’t at all.”

He watched her wistfully while she poured, as if he’d had his heart set on helping her. Maud was careful not to spill a drop. She gave the jug an expert twist as she lifted it away from the cup, determined to prevent the merest dribble from running down the side. She was good at this, and she wanted him to see she didn’t need his help.

She handed the cup to her uncle and folded her hands prettily in front of her skirt. “Is there anything I might get for you?” she asked the men. “Else I shall cut the bread.”

“Sit down, child,” her uncle said, frowning at her with the far corner of his mouth, as if he thought Sigefrith wouldn’t see. “You are both my guests this evening. Brother Timothy shall cut the bread.”

“But don’t you—”

“Sit. Down.”

'Sit.  Down.'

Maud sat. Sigefrith smiled at her across the table until he saw her bowing her head over her folded hands, and he hurried to follow her cue.

“Lord Jesus Christ,” her uncle prayed aloud, holding the cup high, “who called Yourself the true vine and the holy apostles Your branches, and who wished to plant a choice vineyard of all who love You, may You bless and sanctify this wine, that all who drink of it may enjoy spiritual gladness and bodily health. We ask this of You who live and reign forever and ever.”

Maud murmured, “Amen,” but her soft voice was lost in Sigefrith’s baritone. She looked up and caught his eye. She hurriedly looked away and saw her uncle lifting the silver cup to his lips.

Maud was embarrassed by his expression of greedy anticipation—eyes rapt, both fists clamped around the handles—while the final words of his prayer still hung in the air. She peeked at Sigefrith to see whether he had noticed. Sigefrith had been watching him, too, his face politely attentive, but he felt her glance upon him and turned his head slightly to smile.

Maud hastened to look away, flustered and exasperated. Could she not even study him out of the corner of her eye without catching his attention?

Could she not even study him out of the corner of her eye.

Her uncle lowered the cup and swallowed. Thank heavens, his manners were at least not so bad that he would smack his lips or pronounce on the quality of the wine when drinking from the loving cup. But then, to Maud’s shock, he held it out to her.

Maud shrank back into her chair. “You know I don’t drink wine,” she protested softly.

“Now, now.” Her uncle confided to Sigefrith, “I do not believe in giving children wine, but I fear I have been unable to admit to myself that Maud is no longer a child. You are old enough to drink wine,” he said to her. “Do not fear. I am here, and I won’t allow you to take too much.”

Maud hesitated, but her uncle leaned towards her with the cup. He smiled, but his angry breath made the candles flicker. Maud took the cup.

Once she had it, however, she sat petrified with her hands clamped tight around the silver handles. She had never been passed the loving cup before. She had only seen priests drink blessings to one another, and she didn’t know what a lady said. Or did she? All her mother’s lessons in comportment had flown from her head.

Her uncle began to fidget, but Sigefrith sat quietly watching her, every line of his body expressing patience and ease. Meanwhile Maud’s heart hammered in her breast. She was a nudge away from bursting into tears.

“It’s been long since I last passed around a loving cup,” Sigefrith mused.

'It's been long since I last passed around a loving cup.'

Maud was so distressed she looked up at him and listened, grateful for the distraction.

“Epiphany… of last year.” He tried to smile, but a brief lowering of his eyebrows made it a wince. He said, “I shall be glad to know what you say in this country.”

Maud hastened to ask, “What do you say in your country?”

“In my country?” He smiled, appearing touched by her interest. “In my house we say, ‘Ves heill.’ ‘Be healthy.’ It is Danish.”

Maud repeated, “Ves heill.

Drinc heil,” Sigefrith said, bowing to her across the table. “That is the reply.”



Maud realized she had stumbled into the ritual and hurried to lift the cup to her lips. The wine flooded into her mouth, cold and dry—more like licking a stone than tasting a fruit—but when she took a breath, it burned. It was hard not to grimace.

But she had done her duty, and she passed the cup across the table to Sigefrith. She tried, but she could not keep his big square hands from brushing hers.

Ves heil,” Sigefrith said, lifting the cup to her.

Drinc heill,” she answered softly.

He raised the cup as if to drink, but then he paused to turn it around so that his lips would touch the same spot as hers. Maud sucked in her breath, outraged. All the gratitude and fellow-​feeling he had earned with his timely Danish lesson were burnt to ashes. But she was powerless to do more than sit and watch him tip back the cup until it hid even his eyes and their crinkled corners.

She waited for him to set it down so she could use her glare to tell him the things she dared not say aloud. But her uncle didn’t even wait that long before saying, “Well, it might be Burgundian, Sigefrith, but of no special sort! There’s more to good wine than price and distance, you know.”

Maud forgot Sigefrith and stared at her uncle, aghast. But Sigefrith answered cheerily, “I did say you should be the judge, Lord Father. You know I’m not particular. I shall tell Alred you were skeptical, but I must warn you, the only opinion that will matter to him tonight is Maud’s. How did you find it?”

'How did you find it?'

His voice changed abruptly when he addressed her, going from cheery to wistful, as if he really did hope to please her. And out of politeness she was forced to say, “I found it quite good.”

“Excellent! Alred will be delighted. And here comes Brother Timothy, if I am not mistaken.”

Brother Timothy came in with a pitcher of soup, but Maud’s uncle had not finished being rude. Maud had to sit in mortified silence while the monk poured the soup and the wine, and her uncle continued, “Well, if he wishes his tastes to be led by the whims of unschooled palates, that is his affair. However, I have not yet seen what there is to be impressed about in the famous Sebright cellar. Though if he is keeping his wine in a closet at an inn, I begin to understand why not!”

Maud coughed and interrupted weakly to ask Sigefrith, “Danish, you said?”

'Danish, you said?'

Sigefrith smiled at her. “That’s right. My family comes from Denmark originally.”

They paused while Maud’s uncle called down a blessing upon their meal and they murmured their Amens. Then Sigefrith picked up his soup spoon and continued.

“Latter day Vikings, one might say, though a few generations of English brides have gone some way to civilizing us.”

Maud’s uncle snorted and looked sour. Maud hastened to speak before he contested the extent of Sigefrith’s civilization.

“So Hwala is your nickname and not your family name?” she asked.

Sigefrith laughed. “No, it’s a family name, though it only dates from our time in England. I know what you were thinking: ‘Sigefrith the Whale’ is odd name for a man as straight up-​and-​down and stringy as I am. You know, I could never have a dog as a boy because they would always mistake me for a stick and try to fetch me.”

'You know, I could never have a dog as a boy.'

Maud sipped a spoonful of soup to prevent a smile. Straight up-​and-​down he might have been, but she wouldn’t have called him stringy.

“My grandfather was the first Lord Hwala,” he explained. “He called his fort Hwaelnaess, you see, ‘Whale-​cliff,’ because it was at the top of a cliff, and whales often swam past. He would have had you believe that was the origin of the name. But my father always said it was because my grandfather was so enormously fat.”

His eyes twinkled with such boyish mirth that Maud couldn’t stop her smile after all.

Maud couldn't stop her smile after all.

“Mind you,” he said, “my father was a bit on the stout side himself, but he always said he didn’t care what one called him so long as one called him to supper.”

Maud choked and nearly laughed out loud. She hid her face by taking a drink from her cup of wine, in spite of her original intention to leave it untouched.

Sigefrith seemed to sense her predicament, for he sipped a spoonful of soup and then asked quite mildly, “Have you ever seen a whale?”

Maud swallowed. She shook her head until the urge to grimace had passed. “I’ve never been to the sea,” she said. “But I’ve seen pictures in books.”

“Ah!” He looked around at the shelves, all crammed with books and other valuables. “Does your uncle show you his books?”

“I read them myself.”

This brought Sigefrith’s attention back to her. “You can read?”

'You can read?'

Maud’s heart beat faster. He looked intrigued, but—for the first time—not besotted.

“Naturally she can,” her uncle said. “There is nothing improper about that. She was to have been an abbess some day, you know. I saw to her education myself. But of course, she only reads the Gospels and the Psalms, and a few little things suitable for a lady’s mind.”

“Everything,” she said. “I read everything.”

“You do not,” her uncle said coldly.

“I do.”

She looked at Sigefrith to see his reaction. There was a studied stillness about his face that she could not decipher. He did not appear displeased, but it seemed that this was one thing that did not add to her attractions. She was heartily glad of it, even if she didn’t truly like to read.

Her uncle spluttered, “I have nothing whatsoever that would be unsuitable for a lady to read, in any case!”

She and Sigefrith ignored him, their gazes locked. Maud prayed the tide was turning.

She and Sigefrith ignored him, their gazes locked.

But Sigefrith finally said, “My dear friend Matilda is a literate lady as well. The wife of the man who lent us this wine, in fact. She will be delighted to correspond with you.”

Maud was not at all delighted by the idea. “But I cannot write,” she said.

“Ah! A pity. However—” Sigefrith smiled and sat back, looking as if he’d tangled with a tough idea and won. “—you can read. And if there is one thing I like to do, it is write letters. I might send letters to you when I’m in the valley. If your uncle allows it, of course.”

Maud looked pleadingly to her uncle, but her uncle’s interest seemed absorbed by a vegetable floating in his soup. “Certainly you may,” he said carelessly. “Provided you write nothing a maiden would blush to show her uncle.”

Sigefrith chuckled. “I should have to ask Alred’s help if I wanted to write that sort of letter,” he said to her. “I’m afraid love poetry is beyond me. But—I shall try if it is what you would like.”

'I shall try if it is what you would like.'

“Do not force yourself,” Maud said haltingly, close to tears. “Truly, you needn’t write to me at all…”

“But I shall like to very much,” he said. He stirred his spoon through his soup, but his gaze remained intent on her face. “I shall write to you early in the mornings, as soon as I rise. And I shall know you’re up here, awake and about, too. And you will know that I’m thinking about you.”

Maud lowered her eyes and stared down into her soup, fearful she would see a tear plink into the bowl at any moment. Why had he said that? Why? Yesterday morning he had already intruded on her, in the hour before dawn, and now he would intrude on her every day during that precious time. He was spoiling everything she loved. And he was oblivious to everything but his own desires.

“What do you like to do in the morning, Maud? Do you go for rides?”

'Do you go for rides?'

“Rides?” her uncle scoffed. “Certainly not. My dear niece has not taken vows, but I have seen to it that she has lived the wholesome, virtuous life of a nun, far from all temptation.”

Her uncle smiled at her and laid his hand on the table between them, inviting a caress. But Maud kept her hand closed around her spoon. She did not believe he was thinking of what she would like.

“It may seem a confining existence,” her uncle said, “but be he Christ or be he a mortal man, she will go to her bridegroom undefiled.”

Maud closed her eyes and sat through a nauseating wave of humiliation. Her uncle was displaying her to this man like a length of cloth he was thinking of buying. See how spotless? See how fine? Never been used! She would never be able to look Sigefrith Hwala in the face again.

Maud closed her eyes and sat through a nauseating wave of shame.

“Of course,” Sigefrith said tersely. He sounded as if he meant to put an end to the conversation, but her uncle did not take the hint.

“Why, I believe you are the first man she has met in five or six years who wasn’t a priest or a monk. Isn’t he, child?”

Maud didn’t answer, but that didn’t stop him either.

“In all that time, unless I accompanied her, she hasn’t gone farther afield than the little garden where you met her. Have you, Maud?” He tittered. “Why, even the little door in the wall hasn’t been opened in years! I don’t believe I could even find the key.”

Maud’s eyes snapped open. Sigefrith was watching her, and she surprised a troubled expression on his face. He had been stirring his soup so long it must have been quite cold.

She already knew he hadn’t mentioned the door to her uncle. But now he was learning that her uncle didn’t even know. What would he do? Would he tell her uncle the truth?

Instead, after holding her gaze for a long moment, Sigefrith winked at her and ate a spoonful of soup.

Instead, after holding her gaze for a long moment, Sigefrith winked at her.

Maud stared at him, all shyness forgotten. For a moment she was relieved, and then, watching his square hand lift his spoon to his square jaw, a trickle of outrage began to well up in her. And then a flood. She did not want this man’s complicit winks. She did not want him protecting her. Better to stand—and to fall—alone.

She steeled herself and swallowed a fortifying gulp of wine while her uncle droned on.

“It is quite by accident,” he was saying, “if you met her there yesterday. I always warn her when we have guests in the Abbey—”

Maud put down her cup and interrupted, “I know where the key is.”

Her voice was taut, whether from wine or from anger. It silenced her uncle and made Sigefrith lay his spoon beside his plate.

“I have it,” she said. “I’ve had it for more than a year. I open the door and go out to the edge of the woods and feed the deer. And he knows it!” She gave Sigefrith a sharp stare. “He saw me come back through the door.”

'And he knows it!'

She waited to see their reactions, but a few seconds of their shocked silence was all she could bear. She blubbered and looked into her lap. A tear fell onto the spotless cloth and soaked in.

And that was that: the last desperate act of a virgin martyr. Perhaps she had succeeded in turning the man against her, but either way she might as well be dead. She would never more walk free, never again see her deer.

Sigefrith spoke first, saying softly, “Ah! I should have thought of the deer. It is what you remind me of, after all. I daresay they eat from your hand without fear.”

'I daresay they eat from your hand without fear.'

Maud sniffled. What did he know about it? He probably hunted them.

“Well!” her uncle said, sounding flustered and desperate. “She—she— Of course it isn’t dangerous, here at the Abbey, but truly, Maud!” He flapped his napkin open in his agitation and refolded it over his lap. “Well, I’m certain I’ve been too indulgent with her, but it’s just a girlish fancy, after all. Feeding the deer! Why didn’t you tell me you wanted a pet, child? I would have offered you a kitten.”

“Because cats kill the birds,” Maud whispered, though neither of them could have heard. Nothing she could say would make a difference anyway. She had better say nothing at all.

For eight years she’d been content to live in a cage, but now she was caught in a snare. And the more she struggled, the tighter it grew.

Now she was caught in a snare.