Until they had passed the castle, there was silence on both sides.

Until they had passed the castle, there was silence on both sides.

Eadgith was thankful that she had an excuse for not speaking. If he had tasked her with finding her seven flowers again in order to give it to her, then she was grateful indeed.

She darted back and forth across the road, taking the brand from his hand whenever she spotted a clump of roadside plants worth inspecting. She was trying to find seven flowers different from the six she had gathered before, partly as a precaution for the charm, but mostly to put off the moment when she would have all seven. She thought he was laughing to himself over her capers, but it was preferable to walking beside him in an anguish of timidity.

Meanwhile he strolled slowly down the center of the road.

Meanwhile he strolled slowly down the center of the road, calling out greetings to the homeward-​​bound peasants who passed them by. It pleased her to see how they loved him. Of course it was only natural, but she was happy to see that the rest of the world recognized his worth.

She was smiling when she returned with the fifth flower – a prize! for she had recognized love-​​in-​​idleness in a shady hollow beneath a fence, though the bloom was tightly rolled up for the night.

“You might wait until we reach the crossroads to find the sixth,” he said then.

She looked up at him.

She looked up at him, so surprised to hear him speak at last that she nearly asked him why.

“There’s always more magic at a crossroads,” he explained. “But I fear you will have to find it by moonlight. My brand is burning down to my hand again, and while I sometimes breathe fire, I don’t like to hold it. I only hope no one else tries the experiment tonight and tosses his into the fields,” he sighed. “We should wake up tomorrow in the center of an inferno.”

He raised his free hand and shook his fist at the few wispy clouds that drifted purposelessly overhead. “Clouds they are without water, carried about of winds!” he cried as if to curse them. He looked sheepishly back at her and explained, “That’s Alred’s new refrain. I believe it’s from the Bible, although I suppose he could have found it himself. He is an excellent poet – no doubt better than I can appreciate – but he reminded me recently that I shall never be.”

She wanted to tell him she couldn’t read anyway. Instead she smiled into her wispy little bouquet of five different flowers.

Alas! for such a talent would avail me greatly now.

“Alas!” he sighed, “for such a talent would avail me greatly now. The best I can do is to speak plainly and use a good many big words.”

Eadgith stifled a giggle. She was not certain whether laughter counted as breaking one’s silence.

“Here’s a pond. Excuse me a moment while I extinguish my light where it is least likely to do harm.”

She watched him jog off with his brand bobbing before him. He leapt the fence as easily as her brother would have done. He was not so old, she reminded herself.

When he returned he did not offer her his arm again, as a knight to a lady, but instead took her hand in his, as her father did, or as he did sometimes when he scolded her for neglecting to eat and marched her off to the kitchens.

He took her hand in his.

His hand was big and square and strong, and hers seemed so tiny in his palm that for a moment it made her feel uncomfortably like a child. But then he twined his fingers between hers, not like a man to a little girl, but like the young farmers who had joined hands with their maids to leap over the dying bonfire and then slip away, laughing and whispering, into the trees.

“While you were away,” he said after a while, “I wondered whether I had better speak first to you or to your father. I was finally convinced of the wisdom of speaking first to you, for I thought it would be a shame to be slain by your father for nothing. As a compromise, then, I spoke to your brother this evening. He is not yet capable of slaying me, but I thought it would be instructive to see whether or not he would try. In the event you are wise enough to doubt whether you have the wisdom to judge the merit and the propriety of my offer, and assuming the opinion of your seventeen-​​year-​​old brother has any weight with you, I can reassure you that he, at least, was quite pleased with what I had to say to him.”

He, at least, was quite pleased with what I had to say to him.

He took a deep breath and they walked on a while in silence. She began to wonder whether he meant to say more – and then they were at the crossroads.

“I hope there is enough light for you,” he said, and he released her hand.

She shuffled off to the side of the road, entirely uninterested in searching for flowers now, but she had to try unless she could stand to lose her excuse for not speaking. And she did not think she could.

She shuffled off to the side of the road.

She finally settled on a blossom of clover, although it had been one of her previous six. He did not know that. And then, just as she was about to stand and turn back to him, she spotted a scrawny little weed with a few pale nubbins at the ends of its stems. They were almost too tiny to be flowers, and in the dim light she could not tell, but she pulled it up anyway.

“Two at the crossroads?” he asked as she returned. “Your charm is certain to work now.”

He smiled fondly down at her, and she thought that, if she was indeed as foolish as she felt, at least he seemed to find it endearing.

He took her hand again, and they started up the weedy path that led from the crossroads to her brother’s manor.

They started up the weedy path that led from the crossroads to her brother's manor.

“I am pleased that you may not speak tonight,” he said, “because, in the first place, if you intend to break my heart, I should rather it not be tonight, which is thus far one of the happiest of my life. But more importantly, I would like to you to think seriously and honestly about my proposal – which – yes, honey – I am aware I have not yet made,” he chuckled. “Because I am, perhaps unfortunately, not one of these handsome young farm lads who may ask their sweethearts to come rule over their wattle and daub castles and be mistress to their flocks of hens. My castle is made of stone and has high walls for a reason, and my flock consists of these few thousand souls – and that is for as long as I remain here, which I hope shall be for the rest of my life. But I can foresee three circumstances under which I might be forced to leave it – namely, God willing, to return as Lord Hwala to the place where you and I were born; otherwise to finish either executed or imprisoned, or, if we are fortunate, in an ignoble exile in a foreign land.”

He paused, she thought, to allow her to take this in. It was true that she hadn’t considered the matter in that way – but it was because she had not allowed herself to consider the matter at all.

He paused, she thought, to allow her to take this in.

“Despite the fact that my own mother was as fine a woman as one may hope to find, when I first married I did not stop to consider whether a noble lady need be more than fair. In my defense, I was ten years younger then, and angry, and rather deep in despair. This was less than a year after King Harold’s death. And I shall say no more about that. What I mean to say is that, besotted as I am, I should not like you to think that I am merely enchanted by your pretty face.”

He paused again, and she turned her blush towards the road, but after a while, wondering that he did not speak, she looked up and saw him smiling down at her.

She looked up and saw him smiling down at her.

“To be honest, I am enchanted by your pretty face, but not merely. In the two years I have had in which to observe you, I have witnessed kindness, generosity, forbearance, honesty, modesty, piety, respect for your betters and, more importantly, for your inferiors… and a good number of other pleasant things that I can’t call to mind just now. In short you are what I once told you, namely a very gracious young woman. The only flaw in this lovely scene is my loutish self presuming to be worthy of you.”

She looked up at him to protest, but he stopped her mouth with a warning finger.

“There is your brother’s house, so we had better stand a moment here, unless we want the guard at the gate as a witness.”

They stopped, and he dropped her hand and came to stand before her. The moon behind his head left his face in shadow, and he stood so close to her that it seemed as wide as the sky.

The moon behind his head left his face in shadow.

“I am not a poet but rather a diplomat, and thus I have said in many hundreds of big words what I shall now repeat very simply with short. Of course you know what I shall say, but I shall not deny you what I hope will be the pleasure of hearing it.”

He took her hands and held them against his chest, and he leaned his head to her until their foreheads met and his face blotted out the whole sky.

“This old dragon has broken the cardinal rule of dragonhood and fallen in love with his fair captive after letting her escape. But now he hopes she will agree to come back to him of her free will and stay with him always, not as his forlorn captive, but as his beloved wife. There, that was rather more silly than simple, but I think you understand.”

'I think you understand.'

She hoped that her face was in the shadow of his head, but she hoped all the same that he could see her smile.

“Is it even possible that you could care for an ugly old dragon such as I?” he asked softly.

“You aren’t ugly!” she laughed.

“What?” he cried, aghast. “Now you have spoiled your charm again.”

'Now you have spoiled your charm again.'

“But I shan’t sleep tonight, anyway.”

“I hope it is because you plan to spend the night thinking over everything I have said, and not fleeing for your life. Or to your father! God help me, I still must speak to your father,” he winced.

“I could.”

“Certainly not. I should not send a girl in to fight a dragon as ugly and mean as your father. I already know he thinks me – along with every other man on the island – unworthy of you, but I may have a few arguments that will prevail against his cussedness.”

“If not, I might.”

'If not, I might.'

“Save them against the need. Only go home and do, at least, try to sleep, and if you can’t, think about what I have said. And tomorrow, or the day after, or when you will, come to my lair and tell me whether I may speak to your father.”

“But of course you may.”

“No, no. I want you to spend at least one night thinking about it, honey. Don’t forget I am asking you to be not only a mother to my children, but also a Queen to these good people. You will have to lay your timidity aside, at least that part of it which does not come from modesty or humility. But remember, I shall be at your side.”

'But remember, I shall be at your side.'

She nodded.

He stepped away from her and offered his arm as a steady perch for her trembling hand. “Let’s get you home to your brother while I still have my wits about me. The next time I see you – and assuming you do not come to slay me with a refusal – I shall simply dote on you like the foolish old dragon I am.”

They walked a few steps in silence, and then he said wryly, “I note that you did not tell me that I am not foolish.”

Eadgith laughed.

'I note that you did not tell me that I am not foolish.'