The next day found them purchasing what seemed like the entire town, and, indeed, there were merchants whose bills had gone unpaid, all at the finest shops. The word had gotten out that the new countess was in town and she was settling Kyneward’s debts, and the merchants began to come to her.
Grimme was mortified, but Brìghde courteously explained that the castellan had not received the bills or he would have paid them.
Once she had paid them all, however, and they knew she would be paying for her own things in coin, they were only too happy to serve her. Shoes, wimples, girdles, another two daggers she could not help but sigh over. They went to the swordsmith to order something tailored to her, and both the smith and Grimme were surprised at her strength. As a jest, he took her to the armorer and ordered her a full set of mail. Then Grimme determined he, too, needed some more clothing suited to an earl, and they decided to stay another day.
That evening followed the same sequence of events as the night before: supper, Grimme to his pleasures, Brìghde to bed, Grimme disturbing her sleep some time in the middle of the night.
The next morning, Grimme dragged Brìghde to the tailor’s whilst she gave her opinion on his choices of styles and colors, then rolled her eyes when he chose exactly what she told him not to choose. They went to the seamstress to discuss good livery for the higher-ranked servants. Naturally, she had no outstanding bills there because the mistresses would not think to order livery, and Sir John could not get here nor would he have had time to do it even if he had thought of it.
He was too busy making the coin to spend it correctly.
It was determined that the seamstress and her retinue would have to come to Kyneward Keep to outfit the household. Brìghde paid for her time and promised that as soon as she had somewhere to put everyone, she would send for them.
“One more thing,” Grimme said when they were about to stop shopping for the day. He led her to the jeweler’s, and asked the proprietor for rings—after they had settled their debt.
Brìghde was running out of coin. Quickly.
“I have more,” Grimme murmured when she told him this in a panicked whisper. “Emeralds, please.”
“Aw,” Brìghde sighed happily when she saw the selection.
He flashed her a grin. “Why not.”
“Will that become our philosophy, my lord? ‘Why not.’?”
He slid the ring she chose on her finger, and she held it up to admire it, then gifted him a wide smile. “Why not.”
They ventured to the other side of town where there were other amusements to be had: jesters and mummers, puppet shows, musicians, and dwarves and giants in colorful clothes turning cartwheels and somersaults. Brìghde and Grimme threw a few coins into the hats of anyone who caused them to stop and watch.
A notice caught Grimme’s attention. He sighed.
He planted his finger in the middle of the bill. “Faire in six weeks, with a joust.”
“Let us attend then. We can bring the wee laddies.” He slid her a look with a raised eyebrow. She huffed. “And your harem.”
“Not the maidservants.”
“Will you compete?”
His smile faded and he looked away. His shrug was listless.
He looked down at her soberly. “I have never competed without Ares.”
She sighed. “Grimme. You have his sons. Are they as well trained as their sire?”
“Then why not.”
“They aren’t him.”
“Well … how about Troy?”
“Troy isn’t Ares,” he repeated testily. He pressed her away from the notice, but he was unhappy for the rest of the day. He said almost nothing at supper, which he picked at, and he did not notice that the wench he had swived the last two nights was trying to catch his attention. He sat slumped, staring at his signet ring, twisting it round and round his finger. Brìghde gave the wench a helpless, apologetic shrug.
“My lord?” They both looked up to see the proprietor with a well-dressed young man next to him. “This young man says he’d like to speak to you about the clerk position.”
Grimme chucked his chin at the chair and the young man bowed before taking the seat offered. “My lord, thank you.”
Grimme nodded toward Brìghde. “Talk to her. She’s the one you’ll be working for if she hires you.” He looked shocked. “She is not only my countess, but my castellain. If you have reservations about being in the employ of a woman, you may leave.”
“No, no!” He looked at Brìghde. “My lady, my name is William Hughes and I have recently returned from Italy … ”
He had a parchment that listed his studies and his accomplishments, and began to read it.
She gestured for it. “I can read.” He slid it across the table to her. His handwriting was precise. His qualifications—if true—were impressive. She was particularly interested in— “What is Medici Bank?”
“A money holding and lending institution in Italy, my lady. ’Tis not quite a quarter century in existence, but very powerful nonetheless.”
“Why did you leave your position there?”
His eager demeanor faded a little. “I was homesick and my lady love was awaiting me. And then I found that my lady love had not waited for me, and that I had nothing else here, either. I have been trying to get back to Italy, but I spent all my funds to come home.”
Her eyebrow arched. “Should you come to Kyneward, do you stay only as long as it takes to gather your funds?”
He sighed wearily. “My lady,” he said flatly. “I would be most happy to settle and create a life for myself somewhere. I love Italy, but England is my home.”
Brìghde pursed her lips. “What is your direction?”
He flushed. “Um … I … ” Didn’t have a roof over his head.
“Do you ride?”
He grimaced. “Not … well, my lady.”
“You may stay and sup with us tonight. Gather your possessions and present yourself here at nine of the clock tomorrow for breakfast.” His look of cautious hope made her smile. “’Tis twenty miles to Kyneward. Rest well, as you will have to ride at least as fast as we do or get there on your own. We wait for no one.”
• • •
“‘We wait for no one,’” Grimme mocked in a high-pitched voice as he lay in bed on his side, his head propped on his hand, watching Brìghde brush out and braid her hair.
She snickered until she snorted.
Her smile faded and she closed her eyes, taking in a deep breath.
This was the moment she would either insist he not address her thusly and risk his friendship or allow it so that she would not risk his friendship. “Please do not call me Budgie,” she said quietly.
“Uh … ah. Very well.” He turned onto his back and stared up at the ceiling, his hands clasped over his chest. He seemed to take that rather well, or else he was lying there stewing about it.
“What troubles you?”
“Other than the debts?” he muttered. “The tournament.”
Brìghde was relieved it was not her request, so she said nothing, blew out the candles, knelt on the edge of the bed, and crawled over him to get to the other side, against the wall. He grunted then yelped when her knee dug into his spindle and bollocks.
“Bloody hell, Brìghde! Watch where you’re going!”
“I did not mean to!” she protested as she arranged herself and her sleeping kirtle under the covers, he groaning the entire time. She caught his glare tinged with skepticism whilst he rubbed himself. “Grimme,” she said, rolling the R long and crisply, “neither of us can afford for your jewels to be damaged. I would do no such thing purposely.”
“Hrmph. Intent and carelessness yield the same result.”
Finally she was settled on her side facing away from Grimme and almost asleep when he muttered, “I miss it.”
“Miss what?” she mumbled.
“Battle. War. I would go to France, but I must safeguard Kyneward against Sheffield. If the war still rages once you have borne me a son or two, I will return. Should you prove yourself steadfast in all things, I would feel entirely secure in leaving Kyneward in your hands to rule in my stead. In point of fact, I deeply hope that I can do that.”
That made her very happy with their disproportionately advantageous arrangement. “Compete in the tournament. Surely you can do that on a horse other than Ares.”
“I haven’t practiced in years.”
“You have six weeks and two dozen well-trained chargers to choose from.”
He said nothing else and she did not awaken until sunlight crept up the window pane and warmed her as it illuminated the foot of the bed. Grimme was sound asleep, his strong, muscular legs bare of the linens almost to his bollocks. The sun caught the hair on his legs and painted it an almost sparkling copper. She poked her foot out of the linens and held it up to his. It was almost twice hers in length and width and darker. She turned her head and saw that his head was turned away from her, his long golden-red hair spread across the pillow. His jaw was covered in a two-day stubble of copper. His chest barely moved under his muscular bare arm, also covered in that shiny copper hair, his other arm hanging over the floor.
She looked up at the ceiling and wondered what he would look like in full armor, astride a fully dressed and armored horse, a lance in his hand. She had never seen him in full armor, and here, now, he was bare and still looked rather frightening.
She sighed and nudged him. “’Tis Sunday morning. We missed mass, and I told William to meet us at nine.”
“I do want to get home to Sir John. I worry.” She was worried about what he’d say when she presented him all the parchment she had collected.
“My marshal will have full control,” he croaked and wiped his hand down his face, and even with that bit of exertion, his forearm flexed. “All is well.”
Presently, Brìghde found herself assisting Grimme to put on his leather armor and chain mail. He belted his sword and looked at her. “You’d make a fine squire, Wife.”
She rolled her eyes. “I’ve done this for my brothers once or twice.”
They met William at breakfast in the taproom, fed him, then Brìghde organized the transfer of their possessions and what purchases they could carry to the livery and supervised its packing. Grimme purchased another horse and saddle for William, and tossed him on the beast’s back. He possessed almost nothing for himself except two expensive sets of clothing, quills, parchment, ink, and other such tools of a clerk. He seemed to be able to ride better than he had hinted the night before, but his skill needed refinement. Grimme was carefully and patiently instructing him when a groom made to assist Brìghde onto Troy. Grimme said, “One moment,” and moved the groom out of the way. He grasped Brìghde around the waist and plopped her in the saddle, then turned back to William.
Soon enough they were on the road headed south. They walked along and chatted merrily with Brìghde’s new clerk, who rode between them. He was an utterly delightful young man with whom, Brìghde was quite sure, she would get along and hoped Sir John would find him adequate. At some point, they broke into a trot and assisted William with his seat. When he seemed to capture that quite well, they moved to a canter, which seemed to be easier for him. By the time they reached Waters, however, Brìghde and Grimme were exchanging impatient glances over the lad’s head.
“William,” Brìghde said politely. “We are five miles from Kyneward, on this road. You can’t miss it.”
“Aye, my lady?”
“We will see you there.” With that, she rose in her stirrups and kicked her mount into a full gallop, her husband a bare nose behind her, his laugh rich and deep.
“Catch me if you can, Wife!”
With that, he eased past her, but she was lighter and urged Troy harder. She laughed almost all the way into Kyneward, which only took a blink. They rounded the turn leading to the lane.
“What’s that, Husband?!”
She squealed with delight as everyone scattered, terrified looks on their faces, both mounts thundering through and flying over everything. She was still laughing when they halted in the outer bailey and the grooms had rushed to take their reins. Their mounts were heaving and their coats were foaming.
“That,” Grimme panted, “was fun.”
“You have had fun with me since you abducted me,” Brìghde replied breathlessly as he swept her off her horse.
“That I have,” he agreed agreeably, and draped his arm over her shoulders while she plucked something out of her pack. It had only been nine days ago they had ridden in to Kyneward. He had draped his arms over his women this way, left her behind in this new place he had brought her to, and now they were together, breathless, laughing as they emerged from the stable.
Aye, this was home now, and it had only taken a sennight.