The sound of horse tack and low men’s murmurings awoke her at dawn. The fog was still thick and she sat up to look for the earl. There, next to the stream, she thought she saw him squatting, filling his flask whilst his men destroyed the evidence of their passing. A good tracker would be able to tell in the moss that someone had made camp here, but not even the best hunting dogs could follow a scent in the water.
“Good morn, my lady,” the earl said from above her suddenly.
She smiled and said, “Good morn to you, too, my lord.”
He held his hand out for her to take. She did, and, forgetting about her sore and bruised body, attempted to spring right to her feet, but instead was met with aches and pains all over. She arose with great difficulty, not bothering to hide her grunts and groans. Finally she was on her feet, but she wished for nothing more at the moment than to lie down and go back to sleep. Finally she gathered her courage and stretched against the pain. She groaned some more.
“You’re beautiful,” he said matter-of-factly, “which surprises me, really, but you need not fear me. You are not to my taste.”
She came down from her stretch. “What do you intend to do with me, then?”
Brìghde threw up her hands. “If ’tis not one forced marriage, ’tis another. What do I care? At least you have some manliness about you.”
He blinked, then began laughing after his men started to snicker. “You do not seem overly distressed, my lady.”
“Hrmph. I am property,” she said bitterly, “so does it matter what I think of my owner?”
“Not really,” he said blithely, then swung up onto his enormous dark red destrier with a luxurious black mane, tail, and feathers. “Let us be upon our way before the fog burns off. We will eat in the saddle.”
Brìghde bent and pulled the back of her skirt forward to tuck it into her girdle, making of her beautiful red and turquoise wedding kirtle a peasant woman’s working garb. She groaned whilst she did so—
“Are you going to mimic an old woman our entire journey?”
“Aye,” Brìghde groaned and struggled to stand upright. “I’ve never been thrown over a shoulder or the back of a horse before, nor have I struggled to stay in the saddle of a warhorse bound and gagged.”
With that, the earl, dressed in his leather and chain mail, as were his men at arms, again held his hand out to her. “I could not have anticipated such a willing captive. We will see if, in the village, they have any horses to purchase. ’Tis time for your creaky bones to move.”
Brìghde sighed heavily and put her hand in his, then, using his foot as a step, mounted the horse, but managed to swing herself to sit behind him on the horse’s rump instead of in front of him, where he had wanted her.
He twisted to look at her whilst she arranged herself. “My lady,” he said politely, “do not think to escape.”
She hooted. “I am escaping.”
“So you say.”
“To prove it yet again, I shall tell you. Continue with the stream. It feeds the village of Laight. There will be provisions there, an inn, stables for the horses. ’Tis a full day’s hard ride by road. How far it is or how long it will take by woods and in a stream, no less, I cannot guess.”
“Two days,” all four men said in unison.
“Ah, well then. You know we will need to camp again.”
“We did not set out upon this errand without knowing our way, my lady,” the earl said with irritation. “Stupid men don’t survive on the battlefield as long as we have by being stupid.”
“Forgive me for my air of superiority, my lord,” she said haughtily. “I am only trying to help and to prove my trustworthiness. Please keep in mind that I do not know what you know.”
He harrumphed. “Very well.”
In the morning light, she could see that his hair was golden-red and his eyes were a velvety brown. His skin was ruddy, his nose long and straight, his jaw strong, and his face overall, quite handsome.
She nodded. “You’ll do.”
His eyebrow rose and he chuckled. “I will, will I?”
“Of course, but compared to my groom, anyone would.”
His men laughed, and with that, the earl turned and tapped his horse into motion. The four horses were wading in the stream in no time, headed the direction Brìghde wanted to go.
“England is some eighty miles from the kirk where you abducted me,” she grunted as she adjusted her seat, moving the earl’s pack and laying it across her lap so she would not have to perch on the beast’s tail for the next two days. “How far is it from the border to your holdings?”
“Sixty. An hundred forty miles total.”
“What did you say your name was, again?”
“You don’t seem very grim.” He growled, which made her snicker. “I am not terribly original, my lord.”
“Indeed,” he grumbled. “I may ravish you after all, for that. Listen carefully. ’Tis between ‘grim’ and ‘gram.’ Grem.”
“Oh, aye,” she said and attempted to pronounce it correctly.
“Well enough. So. Marriage?”
She sighed. “Do I have a choice?”
“No. You may be as amenable as you have been and be treated with respect, or you may fight us and be gagged and bound, but ’twould seem to me that simply being wed would free you from your circumstance. Was your betrothed a noble of consequence?”
“No!” she spat. “He’s the second son of a Scottish clan chieftain.”
“Not even a chief.”
“No! Not even a first son! It would make my father furious were I to pop up an English countess.” And then she would escape. “But why me?”
“You were the most convenient noblewoman of marriageable age and circumstance I could find.”
“Ah … you’re a Sassenach and I am Scots. We are enemies.”
“I am beyond caring.”
“Hm. Interesting. If you need a noble bride, would that not imply you also need an heir from her? If not also a spare?”
“Under normal circumstances, it would; however, I will not rape a woman, much less force her to bear my babe, so ’tis for appearances. I had planned to gently woo and seduce you—”
At that, his men began to quietly snicker and snort.
The earl sighed heavily. “So if you would allow me to do so, I would appreciate it. I would rather not use a surrogate.”
“Women die in childbirth,” Brìghde said wryly.
“Aye, I know, which is why bedding you is not the most pleasant of thoughts for me and, I’m sure, even less so for you. Until I can force myself to woo and seduce you,” he said snidely at his men, who now did not try to control their amusement, “I shall continue as I have always done.”
Brìghde found this very odd and a mite hurtful, should she be honest. She was bonny. She knew it because she had been told so her entire life. There were few men who visited her estate who did not watch her endlessly and, betimes, attempt to seduce her.
She is contracted, her father would growl. Keep your eyes in your head.
Even the earl himself had remarked upon it. Why wouldn’t he want to swive her? Unless …
“You swive men, then?”
He laughed. He had a wonderful laugh. “No.”
“My keep is full of women who are happy to see to my needs. I simply have a deep and abiding aversion to brunettes.” Then it was not specific to her. That made it a mite less hurtful. “Knowing that, then, will you still cooperate?”
Having bairns was not her biggest goal in life, but it was what she was expected to do, had thought she would be doing anyway, and she’d rather do it with almost anybody but Roger.
“If you continue to treat me as kindly as you have thus far, I see no reason not to.”
“You do ken what I mean by bedding you, do you not?”
“Aye. You will swive me until I am with child.”
“And you know what swiving is?”
“I have brothers,” she drawled, which made him chuckle.
“What was so awful about your circumstance that you are willing to loan your womb to any man who abducts you?”
“Many reasons, which I may or may not tell you later, but my immediate concern was avoiding that jackanape’s spindle.”
All four of them laughed.
“’Twas arranged when we were children, and I would not even have him as a playmate, though our borders march. He is ugly and stupid and we hate each other. I don’t want bairns from that ass, as I would be obliged to slay them in mercy. This adventure has been far more preferable to swiving him, and at least I can bear to look at you without vomiting. Indeed, I should thank you. But since you did abduct me, I shall keep my gratitude to myself until you prove your steadfastness.”
With great amusement, the earl said, “That, I can do.”
“So … why did you need a noblewoman to wed so urgently that you would risk abducting one, much less a Scot? Are Sassenach noblewomen that thin on the ground?”
He took a deep breath. “’Twas a matter of some urgency, and I do not have time to do things properly. I need at the very least a noble wife before I am killed, and hopefully an heir.”
“Killed?” she asked, now alarmed.
“’Tis a very long story and I would rather not think about it, much less tell it at the moment. I just returned from France not a month ago to find my earldom in shambles and my longevity questionable should I not wed immediately. I am a bit overwhelmed at the moment, and I would like to use your very amusing cooperation as a respite from my problems. I will tell you anon.”
Brìghde could appreciate the need for a mental respite from one’s problems and she could also hear the weariness in his voice, so she would wait.
“If you would be so kind as to feed me … ”
“Of course,” Brìghde said and dug in his packs. He held his hand over his shoulder, palm up. She slapped a good portion of bread into it. For herself, she looked for the cheese. The five of them ate in silence whilst the horses made relatively good time for walking through a stream.
Without a word, Brìghde handed him one and continued to feed and water him thusly for the next half hour whilst she fed herself, almost giddy she had not greeted the day despoiled by that buffoon Roger.
“Since you are so forthcoming,” Kenard said suddenly, breaking the companionable silence, “I would ask: Are you learned in the art of housekeeping? I would have simply assumed so, but you ride astride, so … ”
“I ride astride, as I am the only lass amongst a litter of lads, with barely a year between each of us. But aye, I was also trained in a noblewoman’s duties. My mother is a virago about it—that is what my father calls her, and not approvingly—and she trained me.”
“If you must be away from your groom so much that you will bargain your womb for the protection of my name, you and I may be able to fill each other’s needs. I told you my earldom is in shambles.”
“My castellan is—was—an excellent steward in his day. In fact, he built my earldom to what it is now. But he is old and feeble and deserves his rest. To be blunt, he cannot keep up and my household has slipped into such chaos that when I returned, I was shocked and dismayed. He has found and attempted to train others, but they have not been able to do the job to his satisfaction. His standards are a bit above mine but that is an extra source of distress to him that now he cannot keep to his own expectations. I can offer you a title, a roof, food, wine, more coin than you can spend in a lifetime, and all the freedom you want once I know I can trust you. Ideally, I would like for you to bear me one or two sons and then rule the earldom in my stead so I can go back onto the battlefield where I belong.”
Kind, handsome, titled, wealthy, and offering a fair bargain. She might not want to escape at all.
“I am amenable to the bargain. I only need endure your amorous attentions—”
“—until I produce two sons—God grant me easy fertility—”
“Aye,” he agreed fervently. “But if you are not, I may be forced to resort to a surrogate after all, which I would rather not do.”
“—and in the meantime and forever after, I may rule a household the way I have been trained. I am a power-hungry lass, I will have you know, and I covet the chance of having a fair bit. Aye, I can settle for being a countess with an iron fist.”
They all laughed.
“Also, that wine.”
“I did not expect the wine to be such a point in my favor. To the production of an heir and a spare, as you seem amenable to that, I need to have your word that you will not gainsay me. I will leave you alone otherwise and after the second son, you may take a lover as you please. I care not.”
“Considering whom I would have been obliged to bed last night, you are far more preferable, my lord. Aye, I will agree.”
“Very well, then.”
It was late afternoon when she heard the dogs, but from which direction, she did not know. “Stop, my lord.”
But he had already called his party to a halt. Brìghde twisted to look around, as did the earl and his men, but they did not stray from the stream.
“That’s my father’s voice,” she whispered. “My deerhound may be amongst that pack, and considering he has slept in my bed since he was a pup, he will know me instantly.”
With a sharp gesture from the earl, one of his men took off to the north, and one to the south. With a click of his tongue, he, Brìghde, and his last soldier continued onward. For Brìghde to leave the safety of the stream now when there were hunting dogs about would be the height of folly, and she only prayed that she would not be obliged to walk in it to throw off her scent. The foliage was dense here, too, and it was relatively dark, the forest an old one and little disturbed except by, perhaps, wee laddies exploring. Brìghde was not even sure her brothers had ever come this far.
Brìghde could feel the earl’s big body, tense now, whereas all day he had been relaxed. She did not know how much time had passed before one of his men returned from the north, but the sun was about to set.
“’Tis her father and his men, my lord. Perhaps thirty. Ten dogs, none deerhounds. I followed them into the village. They have settled at the inn for the night. I believe they intend to return home early on the morrow and search the other way.”
“Very well,” the earl muttered. “We will make camp now, then, whilst we can see without aid of a fire.”