“‘Grimme, get your arse out of bed!’” he mocked at Brìghde once he seated her at the table for supper. His knights roared, and she grinned. “We have been laughing about that all afternoon.”
“So happy I amuse you, my lord.”
“You have amused me since I abducted you. So much so, I missed you at supper last night and breakfast this morn.”
“You abducted me eight days ago. How can you miss me?”
“And spent most of every day and night together, and sleeping together. I grew accustomed to laughing and chatting with you.”
“Oh.” Her mood dimmed a little.
“Bridget?” His smile faded. “What did I say?”
“Oh, ’tis not you,” she hastened to assure him. “I do not make friends very easily. Well, I do, but I canna keep them very long. I very much enjoy your company too, but I would rather not spend so much time with you that you grow tired of me.”
“Why do they grow tired of you?”
“That, my lord Grimme—”
“Just Grimme. My mistresses call me Lord Grimme.”
“Ah. Very well. Ply me with food and drink, and I will tell you.”
“You’ll do anything for good food and drink, won’t you?” he asked wryly as he poured wine into her goblet.
She laughed and raised the cup to him. He clinked his goblet to hers. “And plenty of it.” She looked around whilst she sipped.
The tables were arranged in an E shape. The head table was perpendicular to the other three, on a dais. People sat on both sides of the three parallel tables. Grimme’s place was in the middle of the head table, Brìghde to his left, Sir John to his right.
The mistresses sat at the middle table at the end closest to Brìghde and Grimme, two on each side. The laddies—the only children in the hall who were not servants—were to sit next to their respective mothers. Emelisse was flanked by her two. Ardith the barren sat next to Grimme’s oldest. On the other side of the table, Dillena sat closest to the head table, her son next, then Maebh, then the littlest boy. Emelisse’s children were hungry, angry, and restless. The other two were sleepy and slouching from all the sweetmeats they’d eaten all afternoon and tired from being outside, but they were happy.
In the hall, there were almost three dozen knights called vingteniers, who each commanded a group of twenty men called a vingtaine. There were another seven knights, called centeniers, who each commanded a section of five vingtaines to make an hundred men, called a centaine. Three knights, each of whom commanded a force of one thousand, were gone with almost three thousand of Grimme’s men to France. Their seats sat empty to honor their absence.
Grimme’s deputy, Sir Drew, who commanded the entire force of seven hundred that remained at Kyneward, sat to Sir John’s right, leaving four empty seats to his right. Father Hercule sat to Brìghde’s left, leaving another four seats to his left.
“The mistresses and children all used to sit up here, my lady,” Father Hercule whispered to Brìghde when she asked him why there were so many empty chairs.
“He displaced all of them?”
“I advised him thusly,” he replied softly, “so as to honor your place as Lady Kyneward. ’Twould not be seemly for Lord Kyneward’s mistresses to sit in a place of honor with his wife, and especially not one of four.”
Brìghde sat in though for about five seconds before saying, “Thank you. I appreciate that.”
“You’re welcome,” he murmured with a comforting smile.
Grimme knocked his knife against his goblet and stood, tugging Brìghde up to stand with him. Everyone else stood then. “This,” he said, splaying his hand on Brìghde’s back, “is my new wife and countess, Lady Bridget Kyneward. Please make her welcome.”
The knights applauded and cheered loudly, and the one who had assisted in her abduction and returned with her and Grimme led the cheers. She grinned and waved at him.
The mistresses, however, remained silent and stone-faced.
Grimme seated Brìghde, then his father, then himself. Everyone else sat, and the food and wine was put out in abundance. In this, the kitchen servants and bakers did not laze about, and ’twas no wonder no one noticed anything else falling apart. Or rather, that it had never been put together in the first place.
“You were telling me why you have no friends,” Grimme murmured after everyone settled in to eat.
“Oh. Aye. You see, I want to have friends, but once I make one, after a while, she will get tired of me and either lose patience or drift away. In some cases, when she is too polite to do either, I can still tell, so I drift away to relieve her of my presence. Mostly I have just learned to keep to myself. ’Tis not rare for me to make an immediate friend, such as you or Sir John, but none have ever stayed my friend after a few weeks or, if I am lucky, months. My brothers are my only real friends, and that is because we have a common enemy and we can fight amongst ourselves until we’re all too weary and bruised to be angry.”
“Neither I nor Sir John is going to get tired of you.”
She looked at him from under her brow. “You have known me a sennight and Sir John barely one day. Overmuch familiarity engenders disparagement. By the time a friend wishes to part company with me, there is much anger and resentment built up, and friendships do not survive that sort of anger.”
“Mayhap if you argued as you went along and came to agreement, or agreed to disagree, ’twould not build up until you cannot reconcile.”
“In my experience, that is an extraordinary accomplishment.”
“I had a friend once. My very best friend. We had known each other from the cradle, ’twould seem. My mother, brother, and I, and he and his mother, lived across the hall from each other above my father’s shop. My friend had even less of a future than I. My father outfitted us both as pages and sent us to a noble. We learned together. Studied together. We competed at everything. I would win one. He would win the other. We were equally matched. We grew and attained knighthood very early, as both of us were large for our size, and smart. We have even been taken for brothers. We fought together on the battlefield. We had saved each other’s lives again and again.” Grimme hesitated, then continued slowly, “Once, I carried him off the battlefield when he was injured so that he would not be slain in mercy.”
She laid his hand on his arm, and he blinked at her, surprised. “You don’t have to tell me,” she said softly. “I can see that it is an unpleasant tale for you to tell.”
He laid his other hand over hers and gave her a pained smile. “Perhaps it needs to be told, and I would like to tell it to you, if you will grant me the honor.”
She smiled, pleased that he wanted to confide in her. “As you wish.”
He took another deep breath. “Aye, well. We were at the Battle of Agincourt, where I earned my earldom and he didn’t, though he had an equal hand in what happened and deserved one as much as I.”
“Aw,” Brìghde sighed.
“But that was not the worst of it. He had already begun drifting away from me before that, as he could not bear the burden of his gratitude for carrying him off the battlefield. He would have feigned his happiness for me and finished fading away. It was that I seduced his lady love.”
“I swear to you, Bridget, I did not know she was his lady love. He spoke of a woman he was wooing. I thought nothing of it, as I do not woo.”
“You don’t?” she asked breathlessly.
He grinned. “She claimed that she allowed him to woo her because she wanted me.”
“Mmm hm,” she hummed and pulled her hand away to take a bite off her platter.
“He accused me of taking everything away from him, his dignity, his honor, his chance at nobility, and then his lady love, which, he told me, was why he had never introduced me to her. He refused to believe that I did not know and would not concede that it takes two. She rebuffed him.”
He stopped talking and began to eat in earnest, as did she, but after a few bites, she said, “Well, I am sorry.” She was.
“I am not finished.”
Her eyebrows rose and she looked at him out of the corner of her eye as she ate.
“You do not even let a good tale get between you and your food, do you?” he laughed.
She grinned and popped a bite in her mouth to punctuate the jest. “Go on.”
“We had had a philosophical disagreement of many years’ duration, which was what finally turned us from friends to bitter enemies.”
“And that was … ?”
“I,” he said slowly, now looking at his platter and toying with his food, “am not an honorable knight.”
He raised his eyes to hers. “I want to win. By any means necessary. I identify my enemy, I do what I must to conquer him. I will ambush. I will sneak through the night and slit the throats of hundreds of men silently, like a snake, then lick the blood off the blade. I will lay traps, spy, poison, and run a sword through the backs of retreating soldiers so they do not return to bedevil me another day.”
Brìghde was confused. “What about ransom?”
“Only when I’m not outnumbered, and those battles have been few and far between. If I do not have the force to take knights for ransom, I take their armor and horses when I’m finished laying a field to waste.”
“That is the nature of warfare.”
He blinked at her as if he had expected her to judge him harshly. His expression softened. “Not when one has been reared to adhere to the chivalric code. The only place I have always fought honorably is on the lists, and that is because I could not win otherwise. My friend found my philosophy dishonorable, but he tolerated it as we fought our way through France, victorious always. He could not see that he needed my warcraft to make it possible for him to ply his.
“And I did not come to my philosophy lightly,” he hastened to assure her, as if he’d argued this point for years. “It was difficult to change my thoughts, but I was simply tired of losing. I do not lose well or graciously and finally determined I would not tolerate losing at all. So, he saw my having had his lady love as the final manifestation of my dishonorable and cowardly way of waging war.”
She studied him for a long time, her mouth pursing, her nose scrunching, her lips twitching back and forth. “He believes your earldom to be illegitimate.”
“Aye, and the fact that he fought honorably, by his code, and deserved one as much as I, and ’twas only that Henry saw my fleeting valor, but did not observe his steadfast valor that made the difference.”
“Oh,” Brìghde said sadly. “How long were you friends?”
“Twenty years and then a few more. We have been enemies since Agincourt.”
“What was his name?”
“Aldwyn Marchand. He is Sheffield’s deputy, prime commander of all Sheffield’s forces.”
Brìghde gasped. “Leading the charge for your death?”
“I’m told no, and I would believe that, for that is not Aldwyn’s way. On the other hand, he remains in the service of Sheffield, so he may have changed; I know not. You will likely meet him soon as I expect the duke will insist on visiting to celebrate our marriage. If he is still the Aldwyn I know, I have great sympathy for him, as it chafes for any intelligent knight to be subject to a dull-witted noble. Divine right of kings,” he scoffed. “So many men too simple to wage an effective war, and too many men too prideful to wage war to conquer, chivalry be damned.”
Brìghde sighed sadly and dropped her head, shaking it.
“Do you judge me now, my lady?” he asked coolly.
She raised an eyebrow at him. “Trojan horse.”
He looked confused.
“Someday—not today—I will tell you why and how I was to be the Trojan horse to destroy Clan MacFhionnlaigh.”
Comprehension slowly overcame his features. “My God,” he whispered, aghast.
“I told you you rescued me from more than marriage to an imp.”
“The horse,” he whispered.
Brìghde smiled wistfully and picked at her food. “Aye. But!” she said, sipping at her wine. “Do you care, I am sad for both of you, as I understand both your philosophies. My father believes as you do, but his bloodlust is never sated. He continuously looks for battles to pick just to go to war. That is dishonorable. I didn’t like the MacFhionnlaighs and I certainly did not want to breed with that pack of disgusting dimwits, but they did not deserve to be slaughtered simply because my father is carrying a grudge over a slight.”
He blinked. “Would you have done it?”
Brìghde’s mouth tightened and she looked away. “I … like to think I would not have once I was no longer under his control.” She shook her head. “We are discussing the nature of friendship, not my moral failings. Your point is that you are not angry with your friend, but he is angry with you. And you saved his life, which he cannot bear at all because it means you are no longer equal in all things. He is in your debt. In his mind, he is inferior, not only because he does not have an earldom whilst you do and he is more deserving, but because he sees himself as having been the weak one and you the strong one, and having lost his lady love to you was the final insult to his manhood.”
“Aye,” Grimme muttered with a sigh, looking down at his platter, only half eaten, whereas Brìghde was busy licking hers clean. “But that does, in fact, prove my point. For twenty years, Aldwyn and I argued incessantly. Fought. Grew angry with each other. Yet those small contentions did not damage our friendship. One large philosophical contention alone did not break us. It took many contentions and much of fate to do so.”
“I would argue that that is the privilege of history. My brothers and I are loyal to each other because we are so close in age and we have experienced the same things. We can scrap and argue, but we all have a common history and a common enemy. ’Tis not something that can be claimed with just anyone.”
He pursed his lips and thought, then nodded. “Aye, I see your point.”
Brìghde looked up to see that the hall was quiet. Everyone was finished eating and were bored awaiting Grimme’s order for the entertainments to begin. She quickly glanced at the mistresses, two of whom were trying to coax their sons to eat more, but they had come to the table stuffed. One mistress was staring at her empty platter morosely, and the last sat back with her arms crossed, glaring at Brìghde.
“Dismissed,” Grimme rumbled, and slid his half-eaten platter over to Brìghde.
“Oh, thank you!”
As the hall emptied of those who did not wish to stay and the mummers appeared to begin the evening’s amusement, he snapped his fingers and bid more wine be poured for both him and Brìghde. The mistresses scattered and took their sons with them.
“Good eve, Papa! Good eve, Grandpapa!”
“Good eve, boys!” Grimme and Sir John called back to them as one.
“Excellent wine,” she breathed under the cacophony as she sipped, her eyes closed. “Thank you, Husband.”
He smiled. “I believe we have indeed been disproportionately advantaged.”
“And so I ask again, what makes you so unlikeable?”
She put down her goblet and dropped her knife. She leaned back, crossed one leg over the other, stared at the opposite wall. She crossed her arms over her chest. Her jaw slid back and forth, then she turned her face toward him but looked at the floor. “I’m right.” She raised her eyes to his. “I’m always right. Even when I’m wrong, I’m right.”
Grimme started to grin. “That is the most winsome thing I have ever heard a woman say.”
She laughed, but a little sadly. “I want a friend like yours so badly,” she said softly, “that I will beg like a dog to have his ears scratched. Sometimes, I make immediate friends, as I said. Sometimes, someone will pursue me to be my friend—those I am suspicious of, but will still take because I am so desperate.”
“Is that why you acquiesced so easily to this marriage?”
She shrugged. “One reason. You seemed friendly and did not ravish me.”
“Your standards are too low.”
“You see, I do not want to have small arguments along the way because for me, any argument at all always ends the friendship. I try to be kind. I try to listen and be a good friend, give good counsel. It is not returned, but still I ignore slights and hurtful words, I ignore annoyances and pranks. I ignore the gossip about me, I ignore things I overhear. I ignore my resentment of the hints for money or this and that and give her what she wants, until I don’t, at which point she stops speaking to me. As for philosophical differences … ” She sighed. “I’ve never had a friendship last long enough to have a philosophical difference. I try. I try, Grimme, but at some point, she is wrong and I am right, and I can no longer bear the weight of my righteousness silently.”
Grimme held his hand out, palm up. She looked at it, confused, then raised her eyes to his. He gave her a crooked grin and flexed his fingers. She hesitantly put her hand in his. “If you will let me, I will teach you that friendships don’t end with an argument or two. You don’t have to beg for ear scratches from me.”