Brìghde was in the chapel early the next morning to pray, as she had always done at home, but had not had a chance here, yet. Her customs were all awry, but they would have been anyway, as the last time she had had any custom was the morning before her wedding, after which she would have had to establish new customs at MacFhionnlaigh, which would have involved avoiding Roger’s mother. And father. And Roger.
If she lived that long.
Kyneward was not MacFhionnlaigh, and she was here to stay, so she was free to create her own customs and the only person who commanded her her husband, who did not seem to care much about commanding her at all. Here at Kyneward, there were no plots, no angry fathers, no overbearing mothers, no husband she could not abide, much less his family, no swiving a disgusting imp—although now she was the disgusting imp—and she had a friend. Finally. Two friends!
Until she was right and could no longer suffer being right silently.
She finished her prayers, crossed herself, and stood, turning to see Grimme kneeling with his rosary. She sat quietly so that she would not disturb him as she passed by to leave.
“Amen,” he whispered.
She arose to leave, but he caught her with a smile. “Good morn.”
“Good morn,” she said, taking a seat beside him when he moved over. “How was your night?”
“Busy,” he said.
Her brow wrinkled. “What could you— Ohhhh.”
“Do you go to confession for that?” she asked cheekily.
“Why bother?” he drawled. “Do you suppose God has blessed us? You and me.”
Brìghde looked at him, once again noting how fine of face he was. “I do,” she answered simply.
“Tell me about the Trojan horse.”
Surprised, though she should not have been, she began. “’Tis not much more than you could deduce from what I said. The finer point was that once established as Roger’s bride, I was to host a feast of all the MacFhionnlaighs from far and wide, choose a propitious moment, and poison the lot of them. And then my father would ride in with his armies and lay waste to MacFhionnlaigh’s troops, who would, hopefully, be dead drunk.”
“You speak of it as if ’twere just another Sunday for you. It … bothers me, as your propensity for loyalty—or lack thereof—bothers me.”
She supposed she deserved that, and he wasn’t wrong.
“You said your loyalty could be earned, but not compelled. You profess no loyalty to your father, yet you were poised to do as he commanded you. Please help me understand.”
She took a deep breath. “I was torn between wanting to please my father—”
“Aye. And my own conscience. There was a third choice, however, which was to betray my father to the MacFhionnlaighs.”
“You speak as if it wasn’t feasible.”
“It wasn’t,” she said flatly. “The MacFhionnlaighs are dim-witted sheep, and I did not want to breed with that lot. On the other hand, if I could have counted on them to be able to fend off Fàileach, I could have whispered a battle plan into my dim-witted father-in-law’s ear and led Roger even more easily. With the reins of MacFhionnlaigh and a force behind me, I could take Fàileach, and my mother would open the portcullis for me.”
Grimme’s eyebrows rose in amused question. “You planned to rule both estates?”
Brìghde grinned and winked. “My mother would rule Fàileach, and I MacFhionnlaigh. If my father had said, ‘They are weak and I want their lands and I will go to war to obtain them,’ I would have thought nothing of it, for they are weak and I don’t like weak men. But for a slight—it didn’t have to be anything big.”
By the end of this, Grimme was nodding.
“Are you even more concerned now that I have confessed to greed?”
He shook his head. “If my neighbor’s weakness bore a consequence to my land, say, allowing invaders to cross because of a lack of defense, then aye, I would take it. If not, no. But certainly ‘I want your land’ is a better reason than ‘You hurt my feelings.’”
She chuckled. “Then there was my fourth plan, which was to lay waste to MacFhionnlaigh and Fàileach.”
“And how would you manage that?” he drawled.
“I don’t know, but in my mind, I put Queen Boudicca to shame.”
He burst out laughing.
“No one knew of the plot except my father and I. I was supposed to wed Roger two years ago, but the MacFhionnlaigh chieftain offended my father somehow—don’t ask, I don’t know what happened—and he wanted revenge. So he kept me at his side for two years, plotting and planning. I learned potions and poisons. I learned how to wield my dagger more effectively. I learned how to wield a sword, albeit it had to be made specially for me. Not once did he say a derogatory word to me the entire two years. He didn’t praise much, either, but I didn’t expect any. It was … Grimme, it was wonderful.”
“But he had a sword in your back, and you said he walled off all your options for rebellion.”
She heaved a sigh. “Aye. After all that and he didn’t trust me not to rebel.”
“With good reason.”
She shrugged. “Before, after, at some point, aye, probably. I had no plan yet. My first order of business was keeping Roger MacFhionnlaigh off me.”
Grimme nudged her teasingly and she snickered. “Should I fear you will wreak havoc upon my household and supplant my rule with yours?”
“Were your brains suddenly to turn to mush, I would of course assume power,” she teased, “but I’ve no fear of that.”
“You might,” he said wryly, “should my helm be battered on the battlefield and I return with the wits of a vegetable.”
“Then you shall go into battle knowing your estate is safe in my hands.”
“But I do not know. I’ve yet to see you with complete control.”
“You’ve seen my iron fist already.”
He started to chuckle again. “I’ve yet to get you that velvet glove.” He paused. “My youngest son, Pierce. Maebh’s. The five-year-old.”
Brìghde nodded encouragingly.
“He lurks and skulks about the keep. He has seen you pass through, and is distressed that you have not said good day to him though I tell him time and time again that people who cannot see or hear him cannot say good day. He doesn’t understand. He finds you fascinating.”
Brìghde blinked. “Why?”
“He hates Emelisse,” he said flatly. “You showed him Emelisse is not as powerful as she thinks she is. He wants your protection from her—”
Brìghde had many thoughts on that. “Oh.”
“And perhaps a little attention. May I introduce you? And … will you be kind?”
“Of course,” she said in a small voice, hurt.
“Brìghde,” he said softly, picking up her hand and running his thumbs over the veins, “I don’t know you. Please do not hold my requests against me. I don’t want them to fear their stepmother.”
She took in a deep breath and nodded. “I— Hm. Um … ”
“Very well. Sir John asked me to intervene, as I have brothers and might understand your sons. I said no, because I do not want to get between a mother and her child. Yet … what little I have seen—and it has been very little—and have heard, they need to be allowed to be wee laddies. More, they need your guidance.”
He nodded wearily. “I know. I hesitate to take them away from their mothers, as they are so attached— Rather, Emelisse is attached.” His mouth tightened. “I know that Gaston and Max need to be apprenticed out to a knight as pages, and Terrwyn is that age now. Pierce is only five, but I already know that he will not survive as a knight, but will thrive as a scholar.”
Brìghde smiled softly at the tender care in his voice.
“Quite frankly,” he said, his voice a little hollow, “I don’t know them as well as my father knew me and my brother at those ages, so I cannot tell which of them are suited to the battlefield or possibly commerce, as my father and brothers are.”
“You do not send them away so that you can observe and do for them what your father did for you.”
“Have you been?”
“Have I been what?”
He slid her a glance that made his irritation clear. “No.”
She refrained from saying I didn’t think so.
“But you knew that.”
She shrugged. “How can you observe them when they spend their days in their chambers or running around the inside of the keep and you are out on the practice field?”
“Come,” he said abruptly, standing and assisting Brìghde out of the pew, and walked together out of the chapel to see the boys already running about. “Boys!”
Then they were surrounding him, jumping on him like excited puppies. He picked up the littlest, who watched Brìghde with great curiosity. “Good morn, Master Pierce,” she said with a smile, and held her hand out.
“Take her hand like this,” Grimme murmured and demonstrated, “and then kiss her knuckles.”
He tried it and pressed his mouth so hard against her knuckles he would wake up with a fat lip. Brìghde kept her laugh to herself. “Thank you.”
“Boys, this is Lady Brìghde. She is my wife.”
“We know,” Gaston muttered with a hateful glare.
Brìghde looked at him with a wry expression and said, “I am not going to try to be your mother, but if you allow me to, we might be able to be friends.”
He rolled his eyes and turned away.
Brìghde looked at the other two and said, “Max? And Terrwyn? Aye? Very nice to meet you also.”
The three older lads looked to start playing tag in the great hall whilst the servants were readying breakfast. “Grimme,” she said softly, “will you allow them to run in the outer bailey?”
“Aye, I think so,” he said. “Come. I will play with you.”
They turned into the four happiest lads in the world, and she waved at little Pierce, who was craning his neck around to look at her as he was shuffled out the door, and he returned her wave hesitantly.
“You stay away from my sons.”
Brìghde turned to see Emelisse snarling at her, rolled her eyes and took a few steps away from her, but was jerked back by a long bony hand wrapped around Brìghde’s entire upper arm. It hurt. She merely looked at the hand, then up at Emelisse and murmured, “Get your hand off me before I cut it off.”
Emelisse was so shocked she did, in fact, drop her hand.
“We can be friends,” Brìghde said flatly, “or we can ignore each other, but I would rather not be enemies because I dispose of my enemies, which requires more work than I care to perform. Do not make me work harder than I absolutely must.”
“You have Grimme. You do not get my sons, too.”
“I do not have Grimme. I do not want Grimme.”
Emelisse was surprised, if not shocked.
“Nor do I want your sons. But,” Brìghde said low, stepping forward and looking up at the utterly beautiful woman Brìghde could not hope to compete with, even if she wanted to, “I will treat them—and you—any way I feel moved to. Stay out of my way and we will have no trouble.”
With that, Brìghde stepped around her and continued upon her way.
“May your womb one day find too many choices to make.”
Brìghde stopped cold, shivers running down her spine. It was said in a whisper, in sing-song French. It sounded like a curse, but instead of panicking, she simply raised her hand with the middle finger up prominently and kept walking.
Brìghde smirked at the witch’s gasp of outrage.
There were advantages to having grown up with six brothers.