Murchad sat and stared down into the cold fireplace.

Murchad sat and stared down into the cold fireplace. It was, of course, absurd to stare at a nonexistent fire, but it allowed him to avoid meeting the eyes of the servants and maids that passed through the hall on their way to and from the tower.

He had not thought of the servants and maids. The new hall was always empty at this time of day, but he had forgotten how many people passed through on their way to somewhere else. He wished that he had chosen another place to wait, but he was too shy to go announce that he would wait elsewhere.

In truth, he simply wished he were elsewhere and no one the wiser.

He wished he had not had the sudden fit of boldness that had allowed him to admit the truth before his father when Aengus had teased him about his affection for the King’s cousin. If he had known his father would have had any thought of this he would certainly have kept his mouth shut that day, as he did on any other.

He wished one or both of his brothers were there. They and Malcolm had already gone out for a ride by the time he had arrived. He could only assume that they had done so to avoid him, for he himself had left so early that the muddy fields had been steaming still with fog, and the shadow of the castle’s towers had fallen over him even before he had reached the castle walls.

They had abandoned him. To her!

They had abandoned him.  To her!

He had spent a miserable night, knowing that the King was to have spoken to Synne the evening before. It was only then that he had realized the enormity of the thing, not only to him, but also – and especially – to her.

All through the night he had tortured himself by imagining what she must have been doing at that moment: sobbing into her pillow, no doubt, occasionally taking a break from crying in order to dream up the most unlikely plans for escape, and then sobbing again.

There was nothing in life for a woman besides her marriage. Now Synne had all the rest of her life spread out before her, and she could see that there would never be anything in it but he.

And his children. Oh, he hoped she had not thought that far ahead! He could never look her in the eyes if she had.

Sigefrith had told him that she had been surprised but brave. “Plucky little girl,” he had said to him. “Just what you need, runt.” And then he had clapped him on the back and gone out with Cenwulf and Caedwulf, talking about the effect the night’s rain would have on the haymaking, as if such a meeting were only one of the many daily duties on a King’s schedule in the hour after breakfast.

Murchad laid his head in his hands.

Murchad laid his head in his hands.

“Brave,” Sigefrith had said! The old men said that his grandfather had been “brave” when he had stepped forth to be executed on the orders of King Malcolm. One did not say a man was “brave” when he went to partake in some pleasure. One did not say a man was “brave” when the dream of his life came true.

And “surprised”! It meant that she had never even considered him for a husband.

Of course he had not expected her to love him. How could such a girl? A ghost of a man such as he? But he had thought – or rather his brothers had thought – that if they were allowed to spend time together…

But his brothers had not reckoned with Malcolm. Oh, if only Malcolm had not insisted on clinging to the two of them at every instant! Even when Iylaine began coming with them, he still would not go to her and leave the two of them in peace. How many times had he wished Malcolm at the devil’s right hand!

Murchad's head snapped up.

Murchad’s head snapped up. He heard the mighty door of the great hall creak open. The servants never took that door. He heard a girlish laugh reply to the greeting of a guard.

How well he knew that laugh! She laughed with the abandon of a girl who never worried whether it was appropriate to laugh, nor how her laugh might sound – though she need not have worried, for it was a delightful, burbling, babyish laugh that made one smile even if one did not see the joke.

But could she laugh?

He stood and turned to face the door.

He stood and turned to face the door. He could hear her riding boots tapping across the flagstones in the great hall. His mind raced in search of a plan for escape, no matter how unlikely–

And then she stood in the doorway. She was no longer laughing.

And then she stood in the doorway.

His clenched fists trembled. How he regretted sitting before the fireplace! Now there was the entire room between them, and he did not know how he would ever cross it.

In the dim of the doorway, he could not quite make out her face. He had expected that, with her bravery, it would not be tear-​​stained, but he would not have been surprised to see red eyes. He could only see that she was not smiling.

Then she took a few steps forward, and they brought her into the golden sunlight that came slanting beneath the arched doorway of the cloister and through the window, as it only ever came into this hall for a short while just after dawn, and only in the summer.

Then she took a few steps forward, and they brought her into the golden sunlight.

It seemed to him then that the entire castle, like the circle of standing stones near his home, had been designed solely for this purpose: to illuminate her face for a moment on this one day of all the year, and to reveal it to him to be as bright and clear as the morning. She had not been crying. She had slept.

He swayed with a sudden dizziness, but she came closer still and stepped out of the light. He began to panic. She was crossing the room because he did not, but she did not speak. She expected him to say something.

He had thought of a few pretty things that he could say to her – he always could when he was not face-​​to-​​face with her – but his mind was now barren, and he thought his tongue had cleaved to the roof of his mouth besides. He would even have been glad to see Malcolm.

Now she was before him, standing straight and brave and unsmiling.

Now she was before him, standing straight and brave and unsmiling. He opened his mouth to say the only thing that came to mind – “I’m sorry” – but her mouth began to twist strangely, and he froze in terror as he realized that she was about to cry after all.

Then she snorted, and began to giggle, and finally she shook all over with burbling laughter.

He smiled hesitantly, almost in spite of himself.

He smiled hesitantly, almost in spite of himself, for he was not certain she was not laughing at him or at the absurdity of the situation in which she now found herself.

But then she laid a hand on his arm and hung on, as if she needed his support merely to stay standing through this fit of hilarity. It did not seem a likely thing to do if she had been laughing at him.

He began to laugh with her.

He began to laugh with her. Her laugh truly was irresistible.

“Oh, Murchad!” she shrieked when she caught her breath for a moment. “I thought of – all these handsome things to say – and I can only – only – laugh like a looby!”

'I also!'

“I also!” he admitted.

“Don’t tell Sigefrith!” she begged between giggles.

“Don’t tell my father!” he laughed.

'Don't tell my father!'

“Nor your brothers!”

“Nor anyone!”

Again she began to laugh all over, and he with her, and before long she was steadying herself with her forehead on his shoulder, and he steadying her with his hand on hers.

Before long she was steadying herself with her forehead on his shoulder, and he steadying her with his hand on hers.