Malcolm laughed at her joke, and after a moment’s hesitation Murchad did as well. Synne had a nagging suspicion that she was not being quite as ladylike as Sigefrith had asked, but it came so easily! She had never felt so glib.
It was also true that she had never before drunk so much wine.
Brede’s mistrust of her and Murchad had earned him banishment to a distant table to sit between Yware and Selwyn, as Sigefrith had threatened. Without Brede to watch her, Synne felt she had an occasion to enjoy herself at last. She had a bottomless cup of wine before her and a handsome young man on either side of her; and the only adult at her table was Lady Eadgith at the far end, and even she was smiling upon her with unusual benevolence.
Moreover, Sigefrith had seated Synne herself at the head of the second table, which was an honor to which she had never yet attained under any such formal circumstances. It was clear that it was her night to shine, and she felt that, so far, she had been.
The only shadow on the evening was her fear that she was not quite as beautiful as Sigefrith had asked, either. She had thought herself exceedingly fair at home, but as soon as she had seen Affrais and Angharat, she realized that she was only adequately so.
It would have been hopeless to have tried to rival the lovely Affrais, but Angharat was not clearly Synne’s superior in terms of either beauty or grace. However, Ana had one advantage over her, and Synne thought it rather unfair: Ana was remarkably “womanly,” as Lady Eadgith said, for a girl of fourteen, and she wore a gown that displayed her advantage to great advantage.
Synne’s sole consolation was that Ana had been seated at Malcolm’s right hand, which greatly limited his ability to admire her. Murchad, who sat across from her, could have gazed upon her at his leisure, but fortunately Murchad seldom lifted his eyes from his food. Synne was pleasantly surprised that he did not, for Ana had a tendency to lean so far over the table that her advantage was nearly in her plate.
“Oh! Murchad!” Synne gasped when their laughter had died. “I forgot to ask you what I wanted to ask you. I had better ask it, for Sigefrith only sat you beside me so I could,” she giggled, “and I fear he will ask for a report later.”
Murchad looked up at her with something like panic in his eyes. One of Malcolm’s eyebrows lifted slightly.
“So: how old is your father?” she asked.
“My father?” Murchad repeated softly.
“Old Aed,” she prompted, and then she could not resist adding portentously, in a deep voice, “The Bearded One.” So Sigefrith called him – at least privately.
Murchad’s face grew red, and Synne began to regret having asked him. Perhaps he didn’t know! But it wasn’t important, and she was about to tell him so when his older half-brother Comgeall called out, “Fifty-four,” from the next table.
“Were you listening to our conversation again?” Synne scolded him with a laugh.
“We must conclude that he finds it more interesting than our own,” Sigefrith said. “You shall tell your aged sire,” he said to Comgeall, “that it is unfortunate he was not able to visit. My young cousin simply adores beards – so I am told!”
“Only yours!” she laughed.
“So far! But I don’t call him the Bearded One for nothing, Synn. It is verily a bower of delights, that beard.”
“And a nest to sparrows,” Comgeall added.
“Did that unfortunate cousin of yours ever find his way out of there?” Sigefrith asked him gravely.
“No! Nor the search party we sent in after him,” Comgeall sighed.
“Aye! And they had some of our best dogs with them. A great loss.”
Synne giggled until she snorted. Murchad laughed shyly to himself, but Malcolm laughed aloud. Synne was delighted. She liked to have their attention concentrated at this end of the room. Murchad, of course, seldom looked farther than his plate, but Malcolm had been sending sudden glances to his right all through dinner, and she could not tell whether he was trying to get a view of Ana’s advantage or of his cousin Iylaine, who sat at a distant table between her father and Father Brandt.
Synne did not like either possibility, for otherwise Malcolm had been paying far more attention to her than was customary, and that despite the uncustomary presence of Affrais and Ana. He was making her as giddy as the wine. Even compared to Murchad, he was a handsome boy when he smiled at one!
“Perhaps they are all so happy in there that they wish to stay forever, like the Lotus Eaters,” Sigefrith said loudly for her benefit, though she had no idea who the Lotus Eaters were. “I think my cousin might, in their place.”
“You might try setting fire to the end of it,” she said to Comgeall. “Smoke them out!”
Even grim-eyed Donnchad choked and reached suddenly for his cup of wine, and Synne saw that Maire, beside him, was trying valiantly not to laugh aloud.
“That’s another thing I should like to know!” Synne said. “Perhaps you can tell me, Murchad, if your brother will be quiet for a moment. Father Brandt will never tell me. Does your father sleep with his beard inside or outside of the blankets?”
“What need has a man of blankets, lass,” Comgeall cried, “when he has such a beard?”
“I never thought of that!” she laughed. “But doesn’t it tickle when your cousin and your search party run about inside of it?”
“You would have to ask my father. I have only ever heard him complain when the gang of thieves that hides in the densest part of it sneaks out to cut the purse from his belt.”
“But where do they spend the coin?”
“At the inn beneath his chin!”
Sigefrith had his head in his hands by this time, and Synne began to fear that she was being too unladylike even for him – but then she saw his shoulders shake with silent laughter, and she pressed on. Malcolm was laughing appreciatively, and that was the important thing.
“Is it so long that travelers need an inn in which to stop along the way?” she asked.
“Lass, that inn is only for the thieves and brigands. His beard hasn’t been safe for pilgrims since I was a wee lad.”
“Is that what happened to your unfortunate cousin?”
“I believe he was chasing a stag who took cover in it,” Murchad said quickly, and Synne looked back at him in time to see him blush and duck his head. She laughed.
“What’s that, Muttonhead?” Sigefrith asked.
“Nothing,” he muttered.
“I wonder what your mother thinks of such a well-populated beard,” she said to him.
“You should ask her before you marry such a one,” Comgeall said to her, “if you like beards as your cousin says.”
“Oh, but it’s a problem, isn’t it?” she asked. “I suppose it takes many years to grow such a beard, and I should not like to marry an old man.”
“You will have to take your chances like the rest of us,” Sigefrith said, “and hope the beard proves satisfactory – along with the rest of the man.”
“But in that way I shall be able to determine who takes up residence in it!” she laughed.
“I recommend you build your fortifications before it becomes impenetrable,” Comgeall said sagely. “Once the brigands get in…”
“I shall tie the end of it to my apron strings, and let them try! Oh!” she cried when she realized that Donnchad was attempting to hide the growing redness of his face behind one hand. “Please don’t tell your father I said all of those things about his beard. I’m certain it’s a very civilized beard.”
“Lass,” Comgeall laughed, “excepting that last remark, which I shall omit, he will be delighted with you, and sorry indeed he could not attend.”
“You may tell him I was very sorry to have missed him. And his beard.”
Synne turned back to Murchad, who was smiling into his plate. She thought it a shame he didn’t speak more. He was clever when he did.
She lost interest in Murchad, however, when she noticed that Malcolm had been rubbing his chin thoughtfully. Was he wondering what sort of beard he might have someday? If only he had not been looking off to the right as he did so, she thought, she would have been supremely satisfied.