“Sir John,” Brìghde murmured after breakfast as the two of them sat on the same side of his desk whilst Brìghde wrote out her purchases of the day before and their exact amounts. “You referred to the paramours as witches. Did you mean that?”
He cast her a sober glance. “Why?”
“Emelisse cursed me.”
“She has cursed me also.”
She dropped her quill and wrung her hands. “Has it come true?”
Sir John heaved a sigh. “Bridget. The thing you must know about curses is that they only work if you believe them, and even then almost never.”
Brìghde was confused. “But that’s … witchcraft. ’Tis of Satan!”
“Consider: If you were Satan—”
She gasped, her eyes wide at his blasphemy.
“No, no. Listen to me for a moment and ponder. I want an answer. If you were Satan, and you wanted to exploit all the evil in the world, would you waste your time on trifles such as curses and potions and possession of animals?”
She worried that in her mind.
“With all the evil that humans are capable of—say, your father. Sheffield. When those two are wandering the earth wreaking havoc on anything and everything for sport, when men war with each other from the dawn of time— The man my son idolizes, Henry of Monmouth— He is not a good man. Grimme was with him when they took Rouen. They starved the town out, so it released twelve thousand of its poor, thinking Henry would let them through his forces to find sustenance.” He shook his head. “No. He let them starve and my son was there at his side and saw nothing wrong with it.”
Brìghde looked at him, not understanding, and meeting Sir John’s expectant gaze.
“Well?” he barked. “Is that or is that not evil?”
Confused, Brìghde said, “That’s … war.”
Sir John’s forehead thunked on his desk. “There’s two of you,” he groaned. He raised his head and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Do you pray to God?”
“Of course!” she said, horrified that anyone would question her devotion.
“Mm hmm, and does God give you what you want when you do what He says?”
“Aye,” she said firmly.
“Oh, really,” he drawled with a bit of disdain. “What was the last thing you prayed for that you got?”
“A miracle to keep me from marrying Roger MacFhionnlaigh,” she said flatly.
Sir John, shocked, blinked at her but looked at Brìghde’s list. “Ah. And so where is God on the battlefield?”
“With the victor,” she replied helplessly, unable to understand his point.
“One innocent person is slain, it is murder. Slay twelve thousand, but that is just … war?”
“And what about your father’s plan for MacFhionnlaigh?”
Brìghde’s mouth tightened. “You say Satan does not waste his time on trifles such as potions and curses, but exploits the larger evils that men do.”
“My father wanted to lay waste to MacFhionnlaigh because they offended him in some way that they probably don’t know they did. Instead of saying, ‘Och! Ye hurt me feelin’s!’ so MacFhionnlaigh could say, ‘Och! I’m verra sorry!’ my father plotted for two years to slay the entire clan. My father’s vanity is a trifle that Satan exploits. Do not say Satan will not use every trifle, even the fancies of a jealous French mistress; he has the time, energy, and demonic army to do it.”
Sir John heaved an exasperated sigh. “Never mind.”
“Does Grimme know? About Emelisse, I mean?”
“He can’t. He prays every morning. He is superstitious and has a very deep fear of witches, demons and such, which I don’t know how he acquired, so if he thought she were a witch, he would’ve put her away immediately. As for her witchcraft, I don’t find it any worse or better than anything the church teaches, and St. Augustine was clear on its irrelevancy to the gospel or anything else, but let’s not debate theology any longer, as I am a bitter old man.”
It bothered Brìghde that her friend Sir John had such a blasphemous opinion of the church, and she wanted to talk about it, but trying to show him where he was wrong would distress him and she did not want to lose her friend, so she tried not to think about it.
“My son believes in witchcraft, but I do not. Emelisse is not one. I have seen no evidence that she has been any more detrimental to a household than any other man’s mistress, which is to say if she is a witch, she is a very inept one. There is no reason to plant those seeds in his mind, which would throw the household into more chaos than it already is, and my very strong advice to you—since I cannot command you—is to keep your belief to yourself. He doesn’t need to know, I don’t want to discuss it, and it would immediately make him suspicious of you and your motives.”
“Aye,” she murmured, properly chastised.
He then went back to her list. She could tell when he began paying attention and shrank in on herself in dread.
“Bridget,” he said slowly, “what … Do I read this correctly? You spent almost no coin yesterday, but you returned with merchandise.”
She pulled out the coin purse and dropped it on the list. “There is the balance,” she sighed. “Sir John … I don’t know how to say this, but … ”
By the time she was finished, he was nearly in tears, and she despaired that she had had to hurt him so. She did not like hurting her friends, as those hurts built, and then the friendship ended.
But she was training to be castellain of Kyneward and she was right, and she also could not bear the burden of being right without a way to repair the situation. To repair it, he had to know and she was the only one who could tell him. Hesitantly, she reached out and put her hand on his back, but he waved her away, so she decided not to tell him about the kitchen staff, as she had already managed the situation. She arose quietly and left the study, pulling the door closed and standing there, sad and helpless. She had made her friend cry.
The midday meal was called then and she stood behind her chair to await Grimme, as did his paramours and their children. He entered the hall with three of his men, laughing. One of his men said something, which made the rest of them roar. Grimme’s face was red and shiny with sweat. His blond-roux hair was wet and dark. Though he had taken off his mail and gambeson, clad in only breeches and a belted tunic over it, he was still a very large man, at least twice her size, as he could sleep curled around her almost doubled over.
“Bridget!” he called, grinning at her. He turned to his man and said, “Tell my lady.”
His face flushed. “Ah, ’tis not fit for a lady, my lord.”
The others jeered him, so Grimme turned and, as he walked toward her, as his men stopped at their own chairs, he told the jest. It was bawdy, she knew, but this jest also used Sassenach words whose double meaning she did not ken. She laughed anyway when the rest of the knights began to roar yet again.
She took quick glances at the paramours, three of whom seemed to understand the jest no better than Brìghde and one who rolled her eyes. Brìghde supposed that was the English one.
“Boys!” Grimme called.
The lads, standing behind their own chairs restlessly, waved at him. “Papa!”
He stopped and, squeezing between two of his men, he stepped up on the table, his leg perfectly defined in his hose, flexing with his effort, then he dropped onto the floor behind his smallest son with a thud. The wee laddie fair jumped into his arms, whilst Grimme clasped the next youngest to his side and ruffled his hair. Then he looked across the table with a wide grin to inquire of his two oldest, flanking their mother, as to how their morning studies had gone.
“They were not present this morning, my lord,” Father Hercule said matter-of-factly from beside Brìghde. She had not even noticed he’d joined the table.
Grimme’s smile disappeared and he looked stonily at their mother. She met his look defiantly, her chin high. His mouth tightened and his nostrils flared as he took a deep breath. He set his second youngest aside and put the youngest down. He leaned across the table and pressed the woman’s ear to his mouth and spoke for quite a while. She flushed, her jaw tightening angrily, then she whirled and ran down the aisle, around the end of another table to the stairs, then disappeared up them.
Without a look in Brìghde’s direction, he stepped on that table, then stepped on the head table, his foot right between her place and his, then dropped with a thud next to Brìghde. He scraped his chair away from the table and plopped his arse in it. The rest of the household then were free to take their seats and the meal was served.
“Are you and Troy going out this afternoon, Bridget?” he asked pleasantly as he stuffed a piece of meat in his mouth.
“He’s in the field today. Tomorrow, we are going to Hogarth. I must discuss livery with the clothier, drapes, hangings, and such. I must order nice gowns and slippers. Then we must hire carpenters for new furniture, as I must fetch the clothier here, but I have nowhere to put him or his retinue. I need to hire a clerk, a land steward, and a housekeeper. As well, I need everything else, as my bridegroom did not allow me to bring any of my possessions with me.”
“All apologies,” he said, not at all apologetic. “If your father refuses you your possessions, I will send for your things.”
She gasped a little, her hand to her breast. “You would do that for me?”
He cast her a glance as he ate. “Aye. I’d not have you go without your pet.”
“Thank you!” she breathed.
“Would you like company tomorrow?”
She gestured to his knights.
“They’ve trained without me before.”
She looked at him with mock suspicion. “’Tis to keep me from going alone, aye?”
He flashed her a grin.
She huffed. “Then a ‘no’ would be ignored.”
“Very much so.”
She laughed. “I would enjoy it. After breakfast. How was your morning?” she asked to be courteous, but apparently he heard it in her voice.
“I will not bore you with my occupation any more than I will allow you to bore me with yours.”
“Thank you,” she breathed, which made him laugh.
As a servant passed behind Brìghde’s chair, she caught her and murmured, “I want several barrels full of water heated to boiling by the time this meal has been completely cleaned up. Find all the soap in this keep, brooms, brushes, cloths, scrapers, and such, and gather every unoccupied servant in and out of the keep, and I know there are many of those.”
The girl, looking half terrified, curtsied, said, “Aye, my lady,” and scurried off.
She turned back to her platter to see Grimme looking at her. “Time to clean the floor,” she said archly. He grimaced, but she refrained from pointing out how filthy it was; that was something her mother would do. “Oh! I was perusing your stables with your marshal yesterday.”
“I heard. How did you find them?”
“Very impressive,” she said sincerely.
He gave her a warm smile. “Thank you.”
“He said this is a breeding estate.”
“Aye. ’Twas something I started by accident once my trainer and I had Ares battle-ready.”
“Who is Enyo?”
“One of Ares’s consorts. Goddess of war, Ares’s counterpart.”
“Ah, that is why you did not name her Aphrodite, as I assumed.”
He nodded. “Enyo has been considered Ares’s wife, sister, mother, or companion at arms, ’tis not clear, but I think of her as his wife and dearest companion, who rides at his side into battle, along with his sons Phobos and Deimos.”
Brìghde looked at him in confusion. “You don’t have a mare named Aphrodite?”
Grimme shook his head.
“But Enyo is also Ares’s lover?”
“Only to produce warriors like them. Enyo is more valuable to Ares than Aphrodite.”
“Ah. Who are the sons?”
“Phobos and Deimos, gods of fear and dread. Deimos is the red I rode to Fàileach. Phobos is silver with the same black mane and tail as Deimos.”
“Who’s their mother?”
“The beasts or the gods?”
He hesitated. “They’re Aphrodite’s sons. As for the beasts, they’ve got different dams. I’ve bred Ares to a dozen select mares across France and another two dozen in England. The royal stables are filled with his get. God only knows what Sheffield’s done with him or even if it’s occurred to him at all, and I’ll never know if he’s sired any others whilst he’s in Sheffield’s possession, which will disturb my recordkeeping.”
“I would like you to take me on a tour of your stables, if you please.”
“I will soon, but not this week. I was told Helen was not pleased to meet you.”
She sniffed. “Enyo loved me. What is wrong with Helen?”
“She’s difficult and she doesn’t like anybody.”
“Then why would you buy or breed her?”
“Firstly, I would pay any price to have her dam and sire, but they will never be for sale. Secondly, she was cheap. Whether she can be trained or not, I could spare the coin to at least try. Thirdly, she is—was—a maiden. I hadn’t found a stallion yet that could mount her, but she fell in love with Troy the minute I walked him past her stall and is completely tractable in his company. I decided to see what comes of it. Thus far I’m the only one who’s been able to ride her, and only for a few seconds before I land on my arse in the dirt.” His brow wrinkled. “Would you be so kind as to ride the mares when Troy is out on the field? The stable is growing, my marshal can’t hire enough grooms fast enough to exercise them, and they need to be ridden. My women go riding almost every day, but they have their own mounts and are not willing to ride any others and they won’t ride astride.”
Flattered, she said, “Of course! Thank you.”
“The grooms will tell you which ones need to be ridden. In fact, mayhap you and I should go out together and see if Helen is as tractable with Troy whilst riding.”
“That sounds like fun! Speaking of Ares and the duke, you said he will call upon us? To celebrate our marriage?”
“Aye,” he said around a bite.
“How soon can we expect him?”
“A month at the latest.”
“Whether he does that or not, ’tis not proper. He and the duchess should be expecting an invitation to Kyneward Keep. We shall prepare a celebration of our marriage and invite all the local nobles. But we must decide on a date soon so as to forestall a surprise visit.”
He paused. “Meet the enemy on our terms and our territory,” he mused, then looked at her. “I hadn’t thought of it. We have never hosted any such thing, I have no wife, and I’m always gone.”
“Had no wife.”
“But if you think an invitation three or more months hence for a fête will forestall a surprise visit, think again.”
She grimaced. “That is what I fear. However, our cooks are excellent and I shall have them prepare a feast for the ages.”
“That look in your eyes is terrifying.”
She grinned at him.
Grimme leaned against her and whispered in her ear, “Please do not poison my liege.”
“You want me to,” she whispered back.
“What I want is of no matter. Just don’t.”
She started to laugh, then realized he was not jesting. She decided not to protest. “Aye,” she grumbled.
“I promise I will not poison your liege.” Grimme sat back in his chair and continued to eat. “This time.”
He looked at her out of the corner and she granted him a sunny smile. He pursed his lips as he studied her, then said abruptly, “When I give the order.”
That surprised her. “When?”
“He covets what I love, aye, and he is bitter about having been promised this land, but he has not been here in years. Once he sees Kyneward as it is now, once you have it repaired and dressed in finery, he will be ravenous for it on its own, not because it was denied him after being told to expect it. I am generally of a mind to strike first, but I need evidence he is about to plot my death to be able to justify it to the king.”
Brìghde’s bottom lip slowly dropped open and her eyes had widened. “You fear him,” she whispered.
“No,” he corrected as quietly. “I am wary. He will enjoin Aldwyn to lay the plans, and he is who worries me. Aldwyn is clever and we have not fought together since Agincourt. He will have learned much since then and I do not underestimate my enemies.”
“But you are wily. He can’t know what you have learned since then, either, and wily defeats frontal attacks.”
“And what he does not know,” Grimme again said in her ear, “is that my wife is a Trojan horse and I will wield her to her fullest capacities.”
He drew away from her and studied her soberly. She was no less sober. “You trust me?”
“No,” he rumbled. “But I need you and I can only pray you will not betray me.”