Lady Gwynn shook her finger at the Queen.

Lady Gwynn shook her finger at the Queen. “Eadie, you sly puss! Connie and I were just getting undressed for bed when Father came and told us to get dressed again!”

“Oh, dear, I’m so sorry…”

Gwynn laughed. “Apology not accepted! When you are responsible for such an agreeable surprise, the least you can do is take the blame for it.”

“But, Gwynn,” Eadgith whispered, “I was just as surprised as you!”

“You were?” Gwynn glanced aside at Caedwulf, expecting to see him looking smug, for he had provided the rest of the day’s entertainment. But he was only looking agreeably bored, and perhaps a tiny bit drunk.

Eadgith held up her hands helplessly. “Even Sigefrith didn’t know he was coming! He showed up when the tournament was winding down, and he was here waiting for us when we returned. He said he would gladly do an intimate little performance tonight, if only we would invite your father.”

“He did?”

'He did?'

Gwynn looked to her father, but he was still busy making the rounds of the ladies. In her father’s world, ladies came before all things. Even before royal bards of Scotland.

Gwynn peeked over her shoulder at the man himself: Sinnach Donn, The Brown Fox. He was not quite as impressive as she’d imagined, for he was a little too old, a little too fat, and even his hair was not as brown as it had used to be. But the mere sound of his laughter, when Sigefrith made a joke, was as musical as a song.

“He wanted to meet him,” Eadgith explained. “Your father has a certain fame among bards, you know.”

'He wanted to meet him.'

“I know, but isn’t that a fine compliment, coming from such a renowned bard? And it is a compliment to Sigefrith, too. What’s good enough for the King of Scots is not too good for King Sigefrith of Lothere.”

Eadie clasped her hands to her breast and smiled starry-​eyed over Gwynn’s head at her husband.

This was a great lady, Gwynn told herself, loyal and true. Gwynn wanted to be such a wife one day, and put her husband’s happiness and needs above all things.

But she sometimes wondered what she would really do, should his happiness and needs not coincide with her own. Domnall, for instance, would never have consented to sit and listen to a voice that had sung so many praises of the man who had killed his grandfather. Gwynn wasn’t quite sure he would be pleased to know she’d come.

“Come, Connie,” she said abruptly. “Let’s go greet everyone from whom we just parted not two hours ago. You haven’t had any more unexpected arrivals have you?” she asked the Queen.

She scarcely heard the response.

She scarcely heard the response, for she was too busy looking around for Finn. No, thank Heavens, he was not here. He hadn’t attended the tournament either, but at the tournament he could have showed up at any time, so she had never quite stopped looking. Here, safe in the Queen’s sitting room, she could finally relax.

“Good evening, everyone!” she said brightly, summoning up smiles and greetings from all around. How pleasant it was to have friends! What a lovely day it had been!

“I hope we haven’t kept you waiting too long,” she said. “Colman, I can see you’re bored to tears.”

Everyone laughed knowingly, except for Ealfthryth, who smiled and ducked her blonde head.

Everyone laughed knowingly.

It was a secret to no one that the Master of the Royal Horse was in love with the Queen’s Maid of Honor.

As the mere baby brother of Lord Hamelan, he might not have aspired to wed Lord Creistoc’s eldest daughter. But he was a favored member of the court of Lothere now, and in Lothere the most romantic things could happen. Gwynn stood ready to step in, in the event romantic things needed a little push. She secretly hoped they would. She had the most delicious ideas.

“But it’s no wonder,” she said to Colman. “You poor thing, you’re so tall, you always get seated in the back corner. I’m certain you would enjoy yourself so much more if you were seated up front. You must trade places with me, I insist!”

'You must trade places with me, I insist!'

“Thank you,” he said, “but I’d best not move. I’m so stiff, it took three strong men a quarter of an hour to sit me up on this chair.”

Colman had cheerfully lost both his contests at the tournament that day. Ealfthryth did not seem to mind, and of course, if one truly loved a man, one wouldn’t love him less if he lost a combat or two in public. But Gwynn could not help thinking how much more agreeable it was to love a young man who simply won all the time.

Next she teased Sir Baldwin a little, so he wouldn’t feel left out, and then started down the row of ladies, exchanging feminine pleasantries while she attempted to calculate just how much she might say to Cedric while her father was in the room. But poor Cedric never got his chance. Gwynn’s progress was interrupted by the first pinging notes of a musical instrument being tuned.

“Oh, no!” She whirled about and hurried to the front of the room, where she hoped Condal had saved her a chair.

She was a teeny bit disappointed no one had waited for her. Sigefrith or her father might have thought to introduce her to the famous bard. But surely, she told herself, she would be able to be speak to him later. She hoped to convince him to play at Nothelm, so Hetty could hear him. For now, though, she didn’t want to put herself forward.

She didn't want to put herself forward.

She thumped down onto the chair beside Condal’s and combed her hair back from her eyes, feeling a little mussed.

Condal leaned close and whispered, “He isn’t as handsome as I expected!”

Gwynn had thought the same thing, but to be fair she whispered back, “Wait till you hear him sing! He’ll make you believe he’s gorgeous.”

Then they both giggled.

Then they both giggled.

“If he asks for a song,” Gwynn whispered to Condal, “I will ask him for something Gaelic, in your honor.”

“Ach, no! I would sink through the floor!”


“If he asks,” Condal countered, looking so adorably impertinent that Gwynn wanted to kiss her on the nose, “I shall ask him for an English song for you!”

'I shall ask him for an English song for you!'

Gwynn made a firm nod. “Agreed. May the best woman win.”

Then they giggled.

The laughter and murmurings died down quickly after that, as everyone sensed the bard was about to sing. Eadgith tugged on Sigefrith’s sleeve to remind him to sit down, and the bard struck a loud note on his instrument.

It certainly sounded like the beginning of a song, but the reverberations faded as the seconds passed, and Gwynn finally gave up expecting the next note.

Gwynn finally gave up expecting the next note.

And just then it sounded, as loud and clear as the first. Again, they waited, and again the silence grew into a yearning that was almost an ache. Gwynn sat forward.

On the third beat the bard began plucking a tune, and there was no longer any doubt the song had commenced. He began to sing, but there, too, one doubted it at first, for his note began so low and deep that one mistook it for the thrumming tone of his timpan.

Gradually the long note turned into a word, followed by a warbling succession of others, and Gwynn was delighted to recognize Gaelic and even to understand: “When I parted from my lady…” She traded a grin with Condal, but afterwards she settled in to listen.

She settled in to listen.

Her brother had a sweet, clear voice, but the bard had something more: a rich, mellow warmth that could only come from age and polish and care. The first phrases made her lashes flutter and her breast heave in a sigh of pleasure. It was not for nothing that he was a bard to kings.

But the longer she listened, the more strained Gwynn’s pleasure grew. The Fox held back on striking key notes until the moment had almost passed, teasing his audience over and over with beats of longing and satisfied longing, until his chaste and charming little song of praise to a lady took on a tone that was almost… Gwynn glanced at her father and saw his head tilted and his brow furrowed… sensual.

Or was she the only one who noticed it? The thrumming of his instrument rattled the air in her lungs and sent tiny bubbles zipping through her blood. But she saw little more than politely pleased incomprehension on the other faces, and politely pleased comprehension on Condal’s.

Gwynn's hands itched to take hold of his instrument.

Gwynn’s hands itched to take hold of his instrument and show him how to play a proper rhythm so that she might have some peace. He seemed to sense her troubled thoughts and turned to her, smiling like a fox while he sang.

Oh, of course he knew how to play a proper rhythm. He was so obviously in control, so obviously aware of the effect he was having… on her, if not the others…

Gwynn stroked her hands back over her cheeks, trying to smooth away her flush. She did not think Domnall would approve of this intimate little performance at all. She still did not think the Brown Fox handsome, quite, but there was undeniably something about him. And nor was it an Egelric-​like dignity. Just how many ways were there for a man to be attractive?

There was undeniably something about him.

Gwynn applauded with all her heart when he finished his song, as much out of admiration for his talents as relief that the experience was over. The bard smiled and ducked his head, seeming winsomely shy until he picked up a gilded cup from the floor and took a deep swallow.

“You’re being the first audience ever to hear that song,” he said afterwards in Sigefrith’s direction while he twiddled a peg of his timpan. He turned in Gwynn’s direction and added, “I composed it on the way.” He plinked the string, and his gaze darted between the faces of the girls to his right—Condal, Gwynn, Emma, and Margaret—but looked longest, Gwynn fancied, at Gwynn herself. Just a moment too long, like the pauses between his notes.

“We are honored you chose to favor us with it,” Eadgith said, blushing as she always did when speaking to strange guests. “It was lovely.”

'We are honored you chose to favor us with it.'

The bard grinned and cast a quick, complicit glance at Gwynn while he tuned another peg, as if to say, “Aye, but we know better.”

Gwynn hurriedly turned to Condal and said, “Wasn’t it fine? I didn’t understand quite everything, but…”

“It is about a man who must leave his lady,” Condal explained, “and—”

“What was it about, Connie?” Margaret interrupted loudly. Condal went a ghastly pale before turning red, and Margaret explained in an aside to the amused bard, “Connie is from Galloway. Can you tell us?” she asked Condal.

“It is about a man who must leave his lady,” Gwynn said on behalf of her poor, self-​conscious friend. “And he is sad because he doesn’t know when he will see her again. But… but he says a good many pretty things about her,” Gwynn concluded weakly, for she had been too distracted by the thrumming melody to have paid much attention to the actual words.

She had been too distracted by the thrumming melody to have paid much attention to the actual words.

“He’s remembering every little thing about her face and hair and so on,” Condal finished for her, still blushing over her own audacity.

“Remembering her hair,” Emma snickered beneath her breath. “I bet he was.”

Gwynn frowned at her.

The bard chuckled and said, “Never fear, ladies, I won’t call overmuch on your kind services, for I’m not intending to sing all my songs in Gaelic. Unless,” he added, addressing the crowd, “you prefer their renditions?”

“Ach, no, sir!” Condal pleaded. “Yours was so much better!”

'Yours was so much better!'

Everyone laughed, and Condal looked as if she wished the floor would open up and swallow her indeed, chair and all.

“What, then, should I sing?” the bard asked Sigefrith-​ward.

Before the King or Queen could answer, Colman shouted out from the back, “A love song! Without any partings!”

More laughter. Gwynn wished she could see his and Ealfthryth’s face from where she sat. It was so romantic! Though, of course, it was more pleasant still to love a young man who sang pretty ballads to one in private performance.

“So, my lady,” the bard said to the Queen, plucking another string, “what is the loveliest love song in English? Without partings.”

'Oh, dear!'

A flustered Eadgith twisted her hands together on her lap. “Oh, dear! Sigefrith?”

“Don’t ask Sigefrith!” Sir Baldwin wailed. “There are ladies present!”

Everyone laughed, and Sigefrith loudest of all, though he also reached over and gave Eadgith’s hand a squeeze.

“Then, indeed, we shall ask the ladies,” Gwynn’s father said. “Ladies?”

“The Nightingale,” Margaret answered without hesitation.

“That’s a song with a parting,” Conrad protested from the level of her knees. “The entire song is about a parting.”

“No, it’s about a lady convincing her beloved not to depart. The song never says whether she succeeds.” Margaret lifted her nose and added, “I like to believe she does.”

'I like to believe she does.'

Gwynn blinked at her. Margaret? Having romantic thoughts?

“Ah,” the bard said, “a lovely song it is, but it’s being a duet. I’ll be needing a lady to accompany me.”

“That’s easy,” Margaret said. “My sister has the prettiest voice in Lothere. Go on, Gwynn.”

Suddenly all eyes were on Gwynn. “Oh, I couldn’t!” she said. She tittered and added, “There aren’t many voices in Lothere, after all, compared to Scotland.”

“Pish!” Margaret sat forward and grabbed her by the sleeve, and Emma added a helpful push to her elbow. Eadgith said, “Oh, please do, Gwynn! Your voice would be the pride of any court!”

Gwynn had refused once, as politeness required, but she always accepted with grace upon a second urging by her friends. Even Condal gave her an encouraging push as she rose.

Gwynn laughed out of nervousness.

Gwynn laughed out of nervousness and smoothed her damp hands over her skirt. She was never shy about performing in public, but she was shy about performing with Sinnach Donn of the troubling song.

The bard set aside his timpan and rose with a creak of his stool. He held out his hand to take hers and pulled her close to the door.

'Lady Gwynn?'

“Lady Gwynn?” he murmured with a disconcerting burr on his tongue. “I thought you might be.”

Before she could puzzle out this odd remark, he bent his head and brushed her fingers with his mustache. His breath wrapped them both with the scent of drunkenness and mead.

“Will you begin,” he asked, “or shall we begin together with the refrain?”

'Will you begin?'

“I will begin,” Gwynn said. She was out of breath and a little dizzy, but she had sung this song a dozen times in duet with her brother. Still, it was something else to be singing a love song with a tipsy, chub faced, sensual mouthed stranger old enough to be her grandfather.

She stood open-​mouthed for a moment, trembling and tasting mead on her tongue, while the giggles and excited whispers quieted, and Sigefrith silenced everything with a cough. And for a moment more she found herself too petrified to sing, until the tension began to grow as it had when the bard had struck his first note and failed to follow it with another. She had to do this, or everyone would know how shaken-​up she was.

She had to do this, or everyone would know how shaken-up she was.

“My love,” she squeaked, “I am so cold…”

The bard smiled and began to hum, giving her a foundation of pure, sweet music on which to lay her voice.

“…the moon’s light chills my side…”

She grew more confident as she sang.

She grew more confident as she sang, with his voice lifting hers up, and when he answered her with the lover’s response, she floated free like a hawk on the wind. She even dared to hum as he sang, as he’d done for her, for their voices married so well.

And when they reached the refrain and sang together, twining their voices together in love and lament, they made something sublime. She forgot he wasn’t quite handsome, forgot they weren’t lovers waking in the early dawn, and, like the lady whose role she was playing, found herself wishing the night could last forever.

He made her sing as she'd never sung before.

He made her sing as she’d never sung before, with heart instead of mere preening vanity, and she was weak in the knees and woozy in the stomach by the time they were done. She could hardly hear the applause of her friends, so loud was the silence of the room once their voices were no longer raised within it. But she felt wonderful. And, strangely, she wanted to lie down and sleep.

“Any court would be proud to have you,” the bard murmured beneath the cries and clapping.

He took her hand and clasped it between his two. His hands were soft and damp, but Gwynn felt the points of some flat, rectangular thing pressing into her palm.

“In Scotland, there are woman bards,” he said. “The daughter of the dead king Lulach is such a one. You are her rival in every way, lady.”

He brought her hand to his mouth and kissed it with his lips, but before releasing it, he wrapped her fingers tightly around the object he had pressed into her hand.

Head reeling, Gwynn held it between her hands.

Head reeling, Gwynn held it between her hands as she turned to wobble back to her chair. It was warm and oily, like parchment… it was parchment! A tiny, tightly folded note! Gwynn stuffed it into her sleeve as she sat.

Condal leaned over the arm of her chair to whisper, “That was so beautiful! I never heard anyone sing so well!”

Gwynn realized everyone was staring at her, all radiant with congratulatory smiles, and she worked up a smile of her own even while she prayed they would all look away. If she looked half as queasy as she felt, she must have been positively gray.

If she looked half as queasy as she felt, she must have been positively gray.

The bard sat on his stool and picked up a small harp. “Satisfied, sir?” he asked wryly of Colman, to much laughter.

Gwynn wiped her sweaty hands on her skirt, careful to keep the note in her sleeve. What could the bard possibly have to say to her in a note? She could not shake the image she had conjured up with him in music: of the darkened chamber of the song, with its bed and rumpled sheets, and the open window with the night wind stealing through… as well as a forbidden lover.

She could only suppose he was asking her to meet him later, alone, even though he had never met her in his life, and hadn’t even known her name until Margaret had shouted it out. He couldn’t have written that note especially for her in the half hour since she had entered the room. It meant he’d had a little note of invitation all folded and ready to give to a lady who caught his eye… and tonight that lady had been she.

Gwynn shivered.

Gwynn shivered and rubbed the back of her neck. He was so… old. And so inebriated. She felt slightly dirty, slightly violated. She felt as if she’d been licked.

The bard began to play another song, but Gwynn scarcely heard. She had to tell her father. She could go snuggle in beside him on the bench and slip the note into his hand, just as it had been slipped into hers.

She could go snuggle in beside him on the bench.

But no, her father would probably stand up in the middle of the song and demand answers. Perhaps he would punch the Royal Bard of Scotland in the face, as he had done Malcolm. She couldn’t do that to Sigefrith and Eadie, not when Eadie was so pink with happiness and pride.

And besides, sickened as she was, she was a teeny bit curious to know what a man might write to a lady with whom he wished to engage in illicit relations. She could always show her father afterwards.

She could always show her father afterwards.

Without thinking, she stood up in the middle of the song. Everyone looked at her, but the bard only turned a lazy eye upon her and continued singing. He knew why she was upset.

She looked down and saw Condal staring up at her, looking worried and a wee bit mortified. Gwynn had a brilliant inspiration and whispered, “I have to pee!”

The latrine. It was her only excuse.

Gwynn scurried around behind the chairs. She caught the Queen’s eye, pressed her legs together, and squirmed a little, pretending she desperately needed to go.

She caught the Queen's eye.

Eadgith was all compassion and nodded a dismissal. By now, everyone else was discreet enough to have looked away. Thank Heavens for good friends!

Gwynn dashed through the door, but halfway down the hall she realized she could not read a letter from a man—no matter how brazen—in the latrine, with the odors of the cesspit wafting into her nostrils.

She realized she could not read a letter from a man--no matter how brazen--in the latrine.

Gwynn lit a rush on the wall torch and crept down the hallway, weighing her options. The King’s and Queen’s body servants had perhaps already retired, leaving their rooms too risky. She could hardly pretend to have gotten lost. And she dared not intrude on the royal bedchamber itself.

She could hardly pretend to have gotten lost.

That left the door to the latrines and, right next to it, Cedric’s door. Dared she? At least she knew Cedric was not in it and not likely to return. Or should she just step around the corner in the hallway?

She glanced back. Everyone who could see through the door was busy watching the bard. The rippling music of his harp reached her even here. No, she had to put a door between herself and him.

Cedric’s it was.

Gwynn watched a half minute longer and then tried his door. Unlocked. Quietly as she could manage, she cracked it open and slipped inside.

With the pinprick light of her burning rush, she found a candle on a table just in front of the door. But once that was lit, she couldn’t help but look around.

She couldn't help but look around.

A young man’s room! Not since she had become a young woman had she ever ventured into such a place. Glittering buckles and links of mail reflected the candlelight from the depths of shadows. Shields and banners hung from the walls. The air smelled of oil and leather polish and cold, damp stone.

And the bed!

And the bed!

Of course, Gwynn scrupulously stood beside the candle and merely looked, but it seemed a wondrous, fearsome thing to her, merely because a young man slept in it. Did he ever think of her when he lay in it? Did he… Oh! Did he ever imagine her in it?

Gwynn glanced back at the door. Yes, it was still right behind her, and not a hundred miles away. How easy it would be tonight, if she could just sneak out of bed without rousing Condal—who was a heavy sleeper, in point of fact—and tiptoe down the corridor…

How easy it would be tonight.

Of course, she would never betray Domnall, not even in thought, but as a hypothetical matter, what would Cedric do if she appeared at his bedside tonight?

And then she heard the muffled tinkling of a harp through the door, and she remembered why she was standing three feet from his bed in the first place. Her breathless excitement gave way to a grimace of distaste. It wasn’t Cedric’s bed that the aging bard hoped she would visit tonight.

Still, she was her mother’s daughter, and her mother would not have shrunk from the merely distasteful. She had to find out what the old Fox had to say for himself. After all, one day some young man—Cedric, say—might slip her such a note, and she wanted to be ready.

Still, she was her mother's daughter.

Gwynn plumped down on the chair and slid her fingers in between the layers of her sleeves to wriggle the note free. The little packet was folded as tightly as the parchment could bear, and it bloomed open in her palm, almost crawling away from her. Gwynn smacked it flat on the table and smoothed it down.

And then… then she had to stare. She read the finely lettered first line over and over, and still she could scarcely believe. To the most gracious Lady Gwynn of Nothelm, Aed, son of Aengus, sends his greetings…

She read the finely lettered first line over and over.

Slowly Gwynn lifted her hand from the parchment and pressed her fingertips to her open lips, afraid even to breathe, lest this moment blow away like dandelion down. The great bard did not want to do unmentionable things with her. He had come all this way merely to deliver a letter from Young Aed. A secret letter. For her.

Slowly Gwynn lifted her hand from the parchment and pressed her fingertips to her open lips.

She tried to make sense of the rest of it, but her Gaelic slipped out of her grasp, and she couldn’t concentrate well enough to attempt it line by line. Her eyes only darted over the surface, picking out by their familiar rounded forms the words she knew from his first letter. Love. Life. Gratitude. The Saracen doctor. My lady. My friend.

She needed Condal’s help. Moreover, she was sitting in Cedric’s darkened room, and before long, someone was going to come looking for her, to make certain she wasn’t ill.

She needed Condal's help.

She folded up the letter along its creases and stuffed it into her sleeve. She stood up, snuffed the candle, pushed in the chair, and then, in the pitch dark, leather-​scented room of a young man, she had a second thought. She slipped the note out of her sleeve again and tucked it into her bodice.

The bard was nearing the end of his song when she scurried back into the room. She noticed he was careful not to look at her, and most everyone else was discreet enough to look away after a first peek, too. Gracious friends!

Everyone else was discreet enough to look away after a first peek, too.

But Gwynn was too excited to wait. She tugged on Condal’s sleeve as soon as she sat down and leaned close to whisper breathlessly into her friend’s ear, “Connie, I have the most thrilling news!”

Condal drew back, aghast, and Gwynn recalled an instant too late that she was supposed to have gone to the latrine, and could hardly have returned therefrom with interesting information.

Condal drew back, aghast.

Gwynn gave her sleeve another tug and whispered, “The bard passed me a secret letter. And, Connie, it’s from Young Aed!”

Condal’s mouth fell open into the most flattering look of delighted surprise. “No!”

“Yes! You must help me read it tonight, in strictest confidence!”

“But I cannot read!”

“I shall read it out loud and you can tell me the words!”

Condal thought this over and gave her an eager nod. “But did you read any of it? Are you remembering any of the words for love, at least?”

'Are you remembering any of the words for love, at least?'

Gwynn grinned and was about to say she had spotted at least one when her father interrupted her with a pointed cough.

Condal shrank away, red-​faced and ready to sink through the floor again, and Gwynn thumped back against her chair. She raised her brows at the Queen to plead forgiveness, and Eadgith replied with a complicit little half-​smile.

Gwynn looked back to the bard, who was just finishing up the tinkling end of his song. He pressed his hands against the harp strings to quiet them and turned a smug smile towards Gwynn, nearly tipping her over into giddy laughter.

Oh! The sly Fox! How she wished she could get up and shake her finger beneath his nose!

How she wished she could get up and shake her finger beneath his nose!