Grimme sat in his chair just after midnight and Brìghde had requested excusal. It was quiet but for the scraping of tables being pushed to the side and the erection of cots for his men. He had not realized that all through the meal, his father had been listening and there the two of them sat, father and son, silently contemplating.
“Trojan horse,” Sir John murmured.
Grimme nodded slowly. “It worries me, her lack of a sense of loyalty.”
“Son, she has no reason at all to be loyal to you. You abducted her, and the fact that it suited her purposes does not make it worth any loyalty, for you would have brought her here against her will anyway.”
“Aye.” He paused. “After our wedding, she wrote a letter to her brother absolving me of an act of war.”
“Oh? That’s … ”
“Loyalty to herself.”
“But she told you about her father’s plan, which, considered the proper way, is a gesture of good faith.”
He did not answer for a long time. “She has been very free with information. What if … she is not disloyal or acting in bad faith, but so desperate for a friend she will tell anyone who is kind to her anything and everything in the hopes that they will like her?”
“That occurred to me whilst she was speaking, as my wife was like that.”
Grimme looked at his father, surprised. “Aye?”
Sir John pursed his lips and tilted his head from side to side. “I never understood it. I make friends. You make friends. Your brothers make friends. She didn’t have any.”
Sir John nodded his concession. “It annoyed me. She was so … needy, and I could not understand why she could not keep a woman friend. I did not have the time or energy to satisfy her.”
“Did she want you to be her friend?” Grimme asked, confused.
Sir John did not answer for a long time, but then finally said wondrously, “Aye, I think she did.”
Grimme shrugged. “I don’t befriend those I fuck and I don’t fuck my friends.”
“I cannot agree.”
“You are completely indiscriminate,” Grimme drawled.
“And you have not been indiscriminate enough, since you can turn down even the most beautiful of brunettes.”
“Papa, you fucked a dwarf.”
“She was comely and the price was right.”
Grimme rolled his eyes.
“I’d bed Brìghde myself if I thought she’d accommodate my infirmities.”
“I knew you would before I brought her home. I regret to inform you she’s married.”
“Never stopped me before,” Sir John said blithely.
Grimme laughed and clapped his father on the back, rubbing his shoulder. “That’s my papa.”
“And with that, I shall find my bed.”
“And you, my son,” he said with a pat on Grimme’s shoulder.
Still Grimme sat slouched, his foot on the table, his chin on his fist, still contemplating what it meant to have in his household a woman contracted for marriage specifically to slay an allied clan at her father’s behest for … a slight. How large a slight it was, well … Grimme had avenged himself for a slight before, but not to that extent.
Then again, she had stated she believed her father had killed his siblings to gain clan chieftain and she found that dishonorable, so she must have some honor about her. Yet, she did not know if she would have gone through with it once she became Lady MacFhionnlaigh and took up residence.
“Lord Grimme,” he growled without turning.
“Lord Grimme,” Emelisse pleaded, pulling out her—no, Brìghde’s—chair and sitting in it. She clutched Grimme’s hand and held it to her breast as she leaned forward, tears in her eyes. “Don’t let her come between us,” she whispered in French.
Grimme rolled his head on the back of his chair until he was looking at her. “You are my lover,” he said, also in French. “You are the mother of my two oldest sons. We have been together for eleven years. I am not at all interested in bedding her—”
“But you must! For legitimate heirs.”
“And I will be thinking of you the entire time I do.”
“Or Ardith. Or Dillena. Or Maebh.” Aye, well, they all looked alike. There was a reason for that. “What if you acquire a taste for her?”
Grimme laughed suddenly.
“I am not laughing! She is beautiful.”
“That does not signify. She is not beautiful in a way that appeals to me.”
Her nostrils flared. “You sat at supper whispering with her the entire time. I tried to get your attention. Your other harlots tried to get your attention. Your sons tried to get your attention. A few of your men tried to get your attention. You have never sat at supper and whispered with me all the way through.”
That was because he and Emelisse had nothing to talk about. He preferred it that way, but even if he didn’t, Emelisse had nothing of interest to say.
“Nothing could take your attention away from her. She pounded on my door and you laughed. She ordered you to get out of bed and you laughed.” Grimme started to snicker again. “You see? You would have put me away for days had I done such a thing to you. Never mind kicking in my door!”
“Make sure it’s latched next time.”
She gnashed her teeth. “Gr—Lord Grimme!”
“She amuses me. Think of her as … a female Aldwyn.”
“That is not what I see. You left my bed when your knight summoned you and you did not return until late morning. Then I learn she slept in your bed last night. You slept with her, did you not?”
“Aye. I slept with her almost all the way home from Scotland, too.”
She whimpered. “But—”
He huffed, no longer amused. “You misunderstand my marriage to her. I did not wed a woman. I hired a castellain and a womb. Now, I weary of this conversation. If the boys are distressed by my having snubbed them, send them to my chambers and we shall play chess.” That was the last thing he wanted to do, as he only had one son who was quiet, studious, and would sit still long enough to get through a short game, which he would still have to tutor him through, and he wasn’t from Emelisse’s womb. His sons from Emelisse, Gaston and Max, would tear around his chambers and he was too tired for little-boy games.
“Does she play chess?”
Emelisse’s eyes widened and her mouth tightened and her chest started to heave. “Have you invited her to play chess with you in your chambers?”
“Not yet,” Grimme drawled, “but she knows I intend to.”
“She is different,” she said flatly. “There is something about her that draws you to her.”
“I am not drawn to her that way.”
“No, there is something else. I am going to lose you.”
“If you continue with this, aye, you might,” he burst out, exasperated.
“I mean, I am going to lose you to her.”
He looked at her with something akin to astonishment. “You see things that are not there. I am genuinely sorry I could not wed you, or I would have. How many times must I say it before you believe me? I bed you, not her.”
“You bed three or more others, too,” she said bitterly, “and do not tell me you did not get your cod satisfied on your journey to get her.”
“This again?” he asked with a raised eyebrow. “You know why. ’Tis not your fault, but do not expect me to curb my lust simply because you cannot pace me.”
“I do not disrespect you by demanding you to do what you don’t want to do, so do not badger me with your unhappiness that I go elsewhere for those things. As to Brìghde, if you are cordial to her, she will be cordial to you.”
“After this morning’s display?”
“She told you immediately that she does not care about you or why you are here. She was angry at me because she was tired because my orders were not carried out because the servants are not under control and you four hoard them all and my chamberlain dismissed her and no one knew who she was so could not command anyone. That was all my fault. She has no interest in you as anything but a member of the household for which she, as castellain, is responsible.”
Emelisse slumped in defeat. “If I cannot show you, you cannot be shown,” she muttered, then quit the table and the hall.
He smiled to see his youngest son, of Maebh’s womb, running to him with a big smile. Pierce, while he would play and tear about with his older brothers, would rather sit with Father Hercule being told stories and learning to read and write. It was clear, even at this age, Pierce was never going to be a warrior, his disposition being toward scholarship. What he studied would be up to him, but Grimme had no doubt he would distinguish himself in something: law, medicine, theology.
“’Tis very late, Pierce,” he said and pulled the boy onto his lap. He was only five, but Grimme had never known a time Sir John had not welcomed Grimme into his lap. He would still do so, could he bear Grimme’s weight. He chuckled to himself at the notion and chucked his son under his chin. “Why are you not in bed?”
He blinked. “No one put me there.”
Grimme sighed. “Would you like me to do so?”
“Aye, Papa, and will you tell me a story?”
“Mmm, let me see. I will tell you the story of how I plucked Lady Brìghde straight out of her wedding.”
Exaggerated for best effect, of course. He had not gotten through their first night in the woods before the boy drifted off and his body grew heavier against Grimme’s chest until he released tiny snores.
He looked up to find that most of his men were in their cups around the hearth or sleeping. Grimme sighed and stood, the boy cradled in his arms and took him to his chamber, sliding him gently in bed beside his snoring brother. Once tucked in, Grimme looked down at his sons and smiled a little. Sometimes he did not feel as if they were his blood, just any four of many, many children in the keep and the bailey. How did a man feel his sons to be part of him? The boys’ mothers certainly felt them to be part of them, but Grimme could not comprehend that.
From what Brìghde had said, Laird Fàileach felt nothing for his sons, bastard or not. Grimme did not understand. He wanted to know his sons, to rear them to be warriors or respected scholars or doctors of medicine or merchants or clerics, sure of themselves. They might be his bastards, but he did not feel that, either. Any sons Brìghde bore him would be his legitimate sons, but he could not imagine caring for them any more or less than he cared for the ones he already had.
Troubled, he clipped down the stairs to his own hallway and slowed as he reached the space between his door and Brìghde’s. Hers was wide open, candles and torches blazing, hearth also ablaze. She had servants running in and out, fetching buckets of hot water and leaving with empty buckets.
He leaned against her door frame, his arm up over his head to watch. The girls curtsied to him as they went in and out of the chamber. One, a tall, willowy, blue-eyed blonde, didn’t curtsy. She gave him a long look up his body, met his amused gaze, looked back down his body, then settled her attention on his cod. He smirked. She raised an eyebrow at him.
He shook his head with a wry grin, and she rolled her eyes and shrugged, then went about her business, cupping and squeezing his cod as she went past. He looked over his shoulder and watched her disappear down the stairs. He puffed out a long breath.
“Oh! Grimme! Good eve.”
“Are you going to keep the maidservants up all night?” he asked, because if she didn’t, he would.
“Sweet Virgin Mary, I hope not,” she breathed, then flopped in an overstuffed chair and wiped her forehead with the back of her arm. “I’m drained.”
“Nay, but wine would not come amiss.”
He ordered one of the girls to fetch wine for both of them. She curtsied and scrambled, and he watched after her too.
“What is that scowl for, lord husband?”
He grunted. “I have never seen the servants work this hard or this fast.”
“There is a reason for that,” she said lazily, then yawned.
“They haven’t been working much at all, but this wanders into things you do not want to know about.”
“Indeed.” He looked around at her chambers. “I would you acquire things of your own taste, not pieces scavenged from forgotten corners. If this chamber is not to your liking, you are free to choose a different one.”
“Aye, I will, bu—” A huge yawn caught her. “—but there are too many things to be done first, particularly if your duke is going to be visiting anon. Do you know! There are fifty-two guest chambers in this keep that do not have furniture!”
“Well, it seemed like fifty-two. We shall need carpenters. And wood.”
“We will go to Hogarth and fetch some as soon as I can get away.”
“Thank you. Did you need me for something?”
“I was going to ask you to play chess with me, but I see you have a bath awaiting you.”
She nodded wearily, and said nothing whilst the remaining maid left. His brow wrinkled and he tilted his head to see if— “Brìghde, are you crying?”
She dashed her fingertips against her cheeks. “I miss my dog,” she whispered. “I have never slept a night anywhere that he did not sleep with me since he was a pup and now … ”
“You slept without him on our journey.”
“I slept with you and you are almost as big as he is, and almost as intrusive into my sleeping space. Last night, for example.”
Grimme laughed. “Would you have been allowed to take him to MacFhionnlaigh?”
“He was awaiting me there,” she muttered.
“What’s his name?”
He smiled wistfully and sighed, his smile fading. “Roman god of war.”
“I had a horse once,” he said, for some reason compelled to tell her things he had either never told anyone else or had forgotten. “Ares.”
“Greek god of war,” she murmured.
“He was born small and weak. He’d be dead in a couple of days, but my patron knight told me I could have him if I could save him. I was thirteen. I think. I sat with him and his dam night and day, slept with him, kept him warm, poured goat milk down his throat until he could nurse. His dam wanted him to live too; without her, he wouldn’t have survived. I spent every penny I had to keep him alive.
“So then, my knight took us to the best trainer in France, and loaned me the coin. I did the bulk of the training, with his help, and he trained me how to train a horse to war. Ares carried me through every battle I ever fought as a knight, every tournament I ever entered, across France, up and down England.” Grimme wiped his hand down his face, wishing he’d never said anything, but now could not stop speaking. “I’ve never owned or ridden another horse that could match him. Intelligent. Fierce. A warrior.” She was watching him carefully, which made him angry because she saw too much. “I was approached about breeding him. I was very careful to breed him to mares that could match him and I made a lot of money. I have two of his sons and I only ride one or the other.”
“What happened to him?” she asked softly.
Why had he thought he could end the story there?
Because the story didn’t end there. It hadn’t ended at all.
“Sheffield has him. Marchand rides him.”
Brìghde gasped, her eyes wide and her hands over her mouth. Indeed, her eyes were glistening again, and now he was happy because she could cry for him, that he had someone who would cry for him.
“Sheffield demanded him as tribute,” he muttered, looking down and scuffing his boot on the stone. “I had no choice. You will likely get to see him, too, when the duke visits.”
“Oh, Grimme,” she whispered.
He pushed himself away from her door jamb. “Good eve, Brìghde. Sleep well.” He halted, then said over his shoulder, “When the duke comes, we will show him the stables. Whatever you do, do not let him know how much you love Troy. He’ll demand him and I’ll have to give him to him because he’s my liege and God knows, Sheffield wants to possess everything I love.”