The next morning Brìghde went to prayers, but Grimme was not there. She went out to ask the grooms to prepare Troy and Grimme’s horse for a day’s outing. She spent some time petting Troy and giving him treats, talking to him, and wishing she had Mercury with her. He and Troy would get along magnificently.
She went to Sir John’s study to request more coin for her and Grimme’s trip into Hogarth, but stopped at the door, hesitating. She rapped her knuckles lightly.
She entered slowly to see Sir John sitting in a chair in front of his hearth, staring into it, with a goblet in his hand. He said nothing. Brìghde closed the door quietly behind her and remained quiet, her hands folded in front of her.
“Do what you want,” he said so abruptly it startled her. “Neither Grimme nor I trust you, but I have come to the conclusion that I don’t care.”
Tears began to sting Brìghde’s eyes.
“You don’t seem to need my training or even guidance, even if I were adept enough to give you any.”
“Sir John,” she whispered, her voice trembling. “I didn’t mean to—”
He held his hand up and she clicked her mouth shut. “I keep the daily coin chest in my chambers. Under the bed. The most obvious place. Of course. I will show you where the rest of it is presently. The keys to the keep and the dower house are hanging on the inside of the wall by the door. They’re yours now.”
“I’m sorry,” she croaked.
He waved toward his chambers door. “I know you are going to Hogarth today and you will need coin. I think.” He barked a bitter laugh. “Who knows how much merchant credit we have there, too.”
With a lump in her throat, Brìghde tiptoed toward his chambers, opened it slowly, entered, and reached under the bed for the chest. It was massive and she struggled with it for some time whilst it scraped against the stone, unforgiving of its purchase. It was locked. She fetched the keys and after many tries, found the correct one.
There was more coin in that chest than she had ever seen in her life, and this was the daily chest.
She left his chambers with a large pouch full of coins and the keys to the keep, tiptoeing behind … “Sir John?”
He sighed. “Bridget, leave me to my cups. Please.”
When she arrived at the breakfast table, Emelisse was the only paramour at table. She was already sitting in her chair instead of standing behind it, her boys flanking her and eating, the other two boys across from them, which was odd. Emelisse would not look at Brìghde. She was angry, Brìghde understood that, but Brìghde had no interest in stirring the embers, so she simply strode to her chair and waited for Grimme to appear so she could sit.
Sir John would not be coming to breakfast, so she caught a servant and ordered a tray delivered to him. Father Hercule entered, looked at Emelisse and took his seat, too. Grimme’s deputy entered, looked at Emelisse, then sat in his chair next to Sir John’s. Then the knights came roaming in for breakfast, also took note of Emelisse, and took their seats.
“Where is my lord this morn, Sir Drew?”
“Likely asleep. Do not await him; he will not appear until noon.”
Brìghde’s brow wrinkled as she took her seat. “Is he ill?”
“Uh … he was supposed to go to Hogarth with me today.”
“My lady,” Emelisse snarled. Surprised, Brìghde looked at her, but Emelisse was not looking at Brìghde. “Do you notice Ardith, Dillena, and Maebh are also absent?”
“Aye,” Brìghde answered slowly, confused. “But what does that have to do— Ohhhhh,” she breathed. Sir Drew and some of the closer knights started to snicker, and Brìghde flashed them a broad grin.
“Ohhhh, she says,” Emelisse sniped.
Brìghde’s brow wrinkled. “All three?”
That made the knights start laughing, but the curling of Emelisse’s lip was all the answer Brìghde needed, and she realized that Emelisse’s anger was not directed solely at Brìghde. If ’twere, she would not have informed Brìghde of the missing facts.
She gestured to Terrwyn and Pierce and carefully asked, “Do you have charge of them when Grimme has … ah … ”
“Who else is going to make sure they eat their breakfast?” she snapped.
The knights subsided and Brìghde pulled her lips between her teeth. How Grimme thought his women got along, she could not fathom, nor did she understand why all three were necessary. So far as she understood the act, ’twas only done with two people.
It was all so … difficult. Unnecessarily so. Why could a man not confine himself to one wife he rarely visited and only to gather heirs, and one mistress to see to his pleasure all the other nights? Granted, the mistress might change every year or two, but Brìghde truly did not understand his vast lust.
Breakfast had just been served and Brìghde had just begun to eat when Grimme’s chair was scraped backward and he dropped himself into it with a sparkling smile at Brìghde. “Good morn, Bridget.”
Brìghde blinked, surprised. “Uh, good morn, Grimme.”
His smile dimmed a little. “You act as if you do not want me here,” he said as his platter was put in front of him. “I promised to go to Hogarth with you today, remember?”
“Rather, nobody expected you to be arisen this early,” Emelisse drawled in French, spearing a piece of meat and shoving it into her mouth. “But of course you rousted yourself out of bed for her. How was your rest, Grimme?”
Grimme’s expression gradually turned thunderous, looking first at Emelisse then Brìghde, who simply looked at him, completely mystified why he could not accept that his behavior angered those who felt they had the most claim on him.
“So. The household is angry this morning,” he drawled in English, sitting back in his chair to lounge. “I wonder why,” he sneered.
“I’m not,” Brìghde informed him.
His eyes narrowed. “Why not.”
“Do you want me to be, my lord? I could give a good imitation of it, given some time to practice.”
His mouth pursed and his jaw slid leftward as he studied her, but he did not answer her.
“Good morn, Papa!”
“Good morn, my sons. Gaston, Max, mind your mother today. Terrwyn, Pierce, be on your best behavior for Emelisse.”
Brìghde stared at him, aghast. “My lord,” she whispered, “mayhap it would ease some of the tension if you did not ask Emelisse to look after your sons from other women after you’ve spent the night swiving them all.”
Grimme snarled at her. “I didn’t ask for your opinion. I got enough of that last night.”
Brìghde simply turned to her meal and tried to remind herself that he believed friends could have arguments and be angry with each other and remain friends, but she didn’t believe that. Yet in case he was right, she kept her mouth shut even though she wanted to make Grimme understand how very wrong he was about expecting his favorite mistress to act as nursemaid for his sons by other women. She simply hoped she could keep her mouth shut all the way to Hogarth.
“Well!” Brìghde said brightly when she finished her platter and arose. “I’ll be about my day. Grimme?”
He nodded curtly and continued to eat.
Brìghde strode out to the stables and requested Troy and Grimme’s horse be brought out. She attached her provisions of wine, water, and oats to her pack, was thrown into the saddle, and waited.
She twisted to see the opening to the inner bailey and … empty. She looked at the sky. Hogarth was twenty miles. If she wanted to get there, shop, and get home before sundown … Maybe he was angry enough with her that he had decided not to be friends anymore. She sighed. His promise had been made when he was in good humor.
“I’m not waiting any longer,” she said and tapped Troy to trot out to the lane and to warm up, then cantered, then kicked him into a gallop.
She and the horse flew down the road, dust flying behind them— She didn’t see the fawn until she and Troy were sailing over her, and she barely kept her seat, but she whooped with joy.
Aye, this life was new to her and, after having spent the last two years with her father preparing endlessly for the MacFhionnlaighs’ destruction, she had genuinely relished yesterday’s mindlessly hard labor of scraping decades’ worth of filth off the stones, and this morning she had felt particularly proud of how it gleamed between the rushes. It smelled good, the herbs in the rushes being crunched under foot to release their fragrance. Nobody cared but her, but that was all she needed.
Mayhap she should simply put Grimme and his lack of desire for her away and enjoy her good fortune. She could not have everything she wanted, and had she wed Roger, she would have nothing she wanted.
She and Troy trotted into Waters in no time at all, and she went straight to the seamstress.
“Good morn!” she called as she entered.
“Oh, good morn, my lady,” she answered with a bit of hesitance. “I’ve two dresses ready fer ye, three shifts, a set of boy’s clothes, all the bedsheets, and half the livery.”
Brìghde clapped her hands and said, “Excellent! I will send a cart up soon to pick them up.”
“Aye, my lady.”
Brìghde, feeling very pleased with herself, walked Troy down the lane to the livery and applied to a groom there to help her mount, which he did with alacrity and received a coin for his efforts. “Thank you, my lady!”
It was a beautiful day and the road between Waters and Hogarth became increasingly congested as she grew closer. She drew many looks, which she returned, waving and calling “Good morn!” to everyone as she trotted by, passing heavily laden carts driven by villeins and pulled by mules, palfreys ridden sidesaddle by noblewomen, their noblemen on fine horses (none as fine as Troy, but no horse was), fine carriages that carried more nobles, dozens of various peasant women carrying packs into or out of Hogarth, stalls selling fruits and vegetables and eggs and all manner of foodstuffs.
She stood in the saddle to ease the tension off her arse, which was when she saw mounted, armored soldiers who were not from Kyneward. They spotted her immediately and she suddenly realized this had not been a good idea. Her wedding gown was clean and mended now, but still a bit bedraggled, so if she looked like a noblewoman, she looked like a poor one. This wasn’t Fàileach, so no one knew that she was important and to treat her with the utmost respect. She was small and riding a valuable horse far too big for her, in a large and expensive saddle—not a side-saddle, as a noblewoman should be riding—which made her look even smaller and unlike a noblewoman. She wasn’t sure what she looked like, but vulnerable was definitely one of them.
She would either have to ride through them or turn around and run. She made to do that, but … she couldn’t. The road was too congested.
Brìghde raised her chin and looked at them as haughtily as she could muster as she continued on through the column—as far as she could make it until they closed in on her.
“Well, my lady,” one of them said, reaching out to caress her collarbone. He looked into her eyes and purred, “What a pretty mare.”
Brìghde tried to keep her thundering heart from beating out of her chest, her breathing normal, and her hauteur pointed. “Excuse you,” she said. “I am Countess Kyneward.”
“So nice to make your acquaintance, Lady Kyneward,” he sneered.
“Woman who can ride that stallion can ride my stallion,” said another one, and the rest of them laughed. He ran his hand over her breast and sighed, “Oh, aye, you’ll be a treat.”
Shocked, she slapped him only as an afterthought, and the other one grabbed her arm.
Their horses squeezed in on her and Troy was throwing his head back, trying to back up, but the other end of the column closed in on her until she was encircled by five men who were not—
Brìghde closed her eyes and heaved a deep sigh of relief. When she heard the ring of metal on metal, her eyes popped open and she twisted to see Grimme in mail, leading a force of ten similarly clad men with swords drawn.
“That’s my husband,” Brìghde felt the need to point out.
The knights around her were moving, their swords drawn, ready to battle if indeed, this knight was coming their direction.
“Get away from her,” Grimme rumbled as he and his men came to a stop some distance away from them, as there were many people and horses between Grimme and Brìghde, where she was encircled by soldiers.
“An’ who are you?”
“Earl Grimme Kyneward.”
They didn’t believe him, but they stepped their horses away from Brìghde and fanned out as much as they could. Brìghde, still with her back to Grimme because she and Troy didn’t have enough room to turn around, surreptitiously slipped her dagger out of her girdle, gripped it in her fist, raised her arm, and stabbed one of the horses in the rump.
He screamed and reared, tossing the man off his back.
She struggled to control Troy, but managed to switch the knife to her other hand and stabbed the rump of the horse on her left.
That horse also screamed, reared, tossed his rider, and the column opened in front of her. Troy bolted immediately, darting out from between the two screaming, rearing horses, and three soldiers who seemed to have no idea what was going on. He dodged this obstacle and that obstacle and leapt over some other obstacle. They stopped some hundred feet away and turned to watch what was going on behind them.
It was a complete uproar, with the knights in the midst of people and other horses with carts, all packed in so tightly they couldn’t move, the two injured horses screaming, rearing, and trampling all over their riders, food, villeins, merchandise stalls, and anything else in their way.
And all the while, Grimme and his men simply sat on their horses watching. He looked at her with a steely expression.
“I thought you forgot!” she yelled, her hand cupped around her mouth.
His mouth tightened and his jaw slid one way. “I didn’t forget!” he yelled back angrily. “I decided I didn’t want to go!”
Her teeth ground and her nostrils flared. “And you did not give me the courtesy of telling me?”
The uproar had grown so loud, Grimme had to stand up in his stirrups and bellow to be heard. “I didn’t think you’d be so dimwitted as to go alone when I didn’t appear at the stable!”
Brìghde’s jaw dropped and her eyes popped out of her head. “Oh … you … ” She snarled at him, whirled Troy around, and took off, leaving the mess of people, horses, carts, and now food and other merchandise between her and Grimme.
Brìghde had no idea where she was going, but her husband could stuff himself down the garderobe. Spend the night swiving three women, toss his bastards onto his favorite mistress to take care of whilst the others slept off their night, turn up at breakfast in a sour mood, ruin Brìghde’s day, and then chastise her for it in public, would he?
No, he would not.
Not without retribution.
She and Troy were on the outskirts of town when she finally slowed him and walked him to a fountain from which he could drink. She leaned over him and scratched his neck. “I’m sorry, laddie. Who’s a good laddie? You’re a good laddie, aye you are. Such a good lad.”
She was still drawing looks, but there were no knights around. There were nobles and commoners of means and merchants. Many, many, many merchants.
And she had come to shop.