The lads came running, as did his women, whose welcoming smiles faded as soon as they noticed Grimme’s arm around her. She acted as if she hadn’t seen their expressions, and soon enough Grimme dropped his arm to stoop and gather all his sons in his arms. The clamor was happy and Brìghde stood patiently, her hands folded behind her. She noticed little Pierce casting shy glances at her from the circle of Grimme’s arms and she smiled at him.
She crouched then and gestured for him to come to her. He cautiously wiggled out of Grimme’s arms and approached her warily. “Good afternoon, Master Pierce.”
“Good afternoon, Lady Brìghde.”
“I have something for you.”
His eyes lit up. “You do?”
“Aye,” she said softly and pulled her hands from behind her back to show him the toy she’d purchased for him after Grimme had explained his dilemma in riding out after her. “I’m sorry I did not tell you fare thee well.” But he did not seem to hear her. He was looking at the toy in her hand.
“Look,” she murmured, holding a short wooden stick that looked like a spoon with its bowl cut out. Attached to it was a ball with a string. “You must get the ball through the hole, do you see?” But Brìghde failed at it as she had since she’d purchased it, making Grimme laugh because he could do it easily. “Here,” she said, offering it to him.
She was watching Pierce handle it carefully and look at it with pleased awe when it pierced her attention that the other laddies wanted toys.
“Aye, aye, we brought something for you,” Grimme was saying, then handing each lad a toy chosen specifically for him.
Brìghde watched, smiling, then happened to glance up to see the paramours all standing quite a ways from them watching with varying expressions on their faces, but none she could identify. She stood and looked down at Pierce, who looked up at her with a bright smile and twinkling eyes. “If you promise to make yourself known to me, I will promise not to ignore you. I canna say good morn or fare thee well to a laddie I canna see.”
He nodded, then turned away, still looking down at his toy as he walked up the lane, past his mother (not that Brìghde could remember which one was his), and disappeared.
Brìghde looked at Grimme and he looked back at her with a grin. “That went well.”
“It did,” she agreed with a smile.
He looked up and his grin grew. “I’m home.” With that, he threw his arms wide open.
And they ran down the lane like wee lassies to jump all over him. Again, he gave each of them lusty kisses and groped their arses.
Brìghde called, “I’m going to find Sir John. When William arrives, please direct him to us.”
He nodded, and she trudged up the hill, through the portcullis, across the bailey, up the stairs, into the great hall, and across it to Sir John’s study. She raised her hand, hesitated, but knocked softly.
She opened the door and peeked into the room, then around the door to see the old man sitting in a chair reading a book. “We’re home,” she said softly.
He smiled at her and she released a long breath. “Come in, come in.” She did, closing the door behind her.
“You look much happier than you did when we last spoke,” she said as she took the chair beside him.
“Aye, well, as soon as you left with the keys, ’twas as if a great weight had lifted from my shoulders.” He leaned forward and took her hands. Looking into her eyes, he said, “I know that I have left you a dreadful mess, but I have every confidence that you can set things aright.”
She blushed. “Thank you,” she said softly. “I spoke with Grimme about it. I informed him that it was his ultimate responsibility to see that you had help and the authority to do what he wouldn’t. ’Twas because he refused to be involved in the household at all that he had put that burden upon you.”
He blinked and pulled back a bit. “And what did he say to that?”
She shrugged. “Nothing. He simply stormed out of my chambers.”
“When was that?”
“The night before we left for Hogarth.”
He released her hands and sat back with a contemplative expression.
“What is the matter?”
“He listens to you,” Sir John whispered more to himself than to her. Then he shook himself and flashed her a wide smile. “Oh, Brìghde. I am so glad you came here.”
“If you keep saying that, my head will grow so big I cannot get through the portcullis. How did things manage whilst we were gone?”
He waved a hand and said airily, “I don’t know. I napped, read, ate, drank all the wine I could hold, swived a maidservant or three, and thoroughly enjoyed myself. I was even able to go outside with help from a manservant.”
Brìghde grinned. “That makes me happy. I was afraid I had made you so angry with me you would no longer be my friend.”
He tsk’d. “Oh, my dear. I will never not be your friend and advocate.”
“Why?” she asked softly. “I have only been here nine days, and I was gone four, and you don’t trust me.”
He shrugged mischievously as if he knew but would not tell her, then waved a hand. “As for trust, I have decided simply to do so. Whether or not you are disloyal, ’twould be what we deserved for snatching you.”
“But I wanted to be snatched.”
“Any other maiden would have had to be bound and gagged, forced to sign her name to the register, and kept in her chambers under lock and key, possibly without food, until she could be trusted not to run away, at which point, Grimme would have had to force her to bear his children, which he would have never done, so the exercise would have been entirely pointless. Your cooperation could be an elaborate act to lull us into complacency, but if so, you have extraordinary endurance for such a ruse, you have already benefited Kyneward, you have all the opportunity and resources you need to escape but you haven’t, and you are enjoying yourself whilst you lure us to our destruction.”
That should have been obvious to them from the first, but she held her breath so as not to offend him.
He sat forward. “Tell me. Did you enjoy yourself in Hogarth?”
“I did, but let me give you the bad news first.”
She barely made it through a recitation of her experience at the clothier’s, his expression a study in humiliation, when he said, “Stop. I can guess the rest of the story. You settled the bills?”
“Aye, all of them so far as I know. I told the merchants not to sell the paramours anything if they have not coin, but since I won’t allow them to go anytime soon, that will not be at issue.”
“Well, then!” he said with forced cheer, “tell me the good news.”
Then she regaled him with the tale of how Grimme thought he rescued her, but did not truly, as she was going to stab the horses anyway. She had him genuinely laughing by the time she finished with every detail and then— “Oh! Look!” She held out her left hand and waggled her ring finger.
His expression melted in wonder and he took her hand gently to turn it this way and that. “It matches your eyes,” he murmured.
“Grimme cheated. He bid the jeweler show me only emeralds.” Suddenly there was a tear at the corner of the old man’s eye and her smile dropped. “Is something wrong?”
He puffed a laugh and let go of her hand, wiping his eye. “Nothing is wrong, my dear. Not. One. Thing.”
• • •
William had arrived no worse for wear and a little earlier than Brìghde had expected him to be able to, but he seemed happy enough to have a roof over his head and three good meals a day. She bade a servant to prepare a chamber in the servants’ quarters, where he would stay until Brìghde could get furniture to move him somewhere more suited to his station, or unless he determined he would like his own cottage outside the keep.
Sir John was ecstatic to make his acquaintance and offered to teach William how he kept the books in return for stories of Medici Bank and the Italian way of doing business, of which he had heard much. Brìghde blinked. Italians did business differently from anyone else? William was just as happy to meet Sir John, and they were fast friends.
Brìghde, Grimme, and William had attended evening mass with the villeins, some of the knights and soldiers, and other people from the keep, and now they sat at supper, William to Father Hercule’s left. Brìghde bade the servant to keep William’s platter full.
In the middle of the meal, Grimme’s two knights who had been tasked with taking Brìghde’s message to her brother dragged into the hall. One approached the table, bowed, and handed a return message to Grimme, who handed it to her.
She inspected it. Her name was in her brother’s penmanship, but the seal was Dunham’s. She opened it and read it, her heart sinking.
“No Mercury?” Grimme murmured.
She shook her head. “No Mercury.” Then she handed the parchment to Grimme, who looked at it and handed it back.
“It’s written in Gaelic.”
“Oh, so it is. ‘Dearest Budgie: We, Da excepted, are happy to learn of your circumstance, as we were worried when we could not find you. He refused to admit that it was an ingenious plan (it was, and I would expect no less from you), but when has he ever admitted any such thing of a foe? And he does consider you a foe now, for you have dealt him a great slight, and the consequences for this slight he intends to be greater. My father-in-law did, in fact, tell him he would not be allowed to cross Dunham lands to wage war upon you—’” She looked at Grimme. “He means me, specifically, as I defied him. You are incidental, a hapless victim of my machinations, who, unfortunately, must bear his wrath caused by my rebelliousness. He will think I plied my wiles and used my beauty to seduce you into it.”
Grimme started to laugh, then laughed until he was coughing.
Brìghde nodded. “Just so. ‘—for he cannot afford a conflict and Earl Tavendish, who was visiting Dunham when we received your missive, said he will back your husband.’ That is news we can use.”
“Indeed. I wonder if I could apply to Tavendish to back us against Sheffield.”
“Asking won’t hurt. ‘But Dunham has the whole of the border and he cannot protect all of it. Tavendish also reminded Father that Sheffield surrounds Kyneward on the west and south, and Sheffield will not tolerate incursion. Thus, you can expect a force to descend upon you, but whether tomorrow or ten years from now, no one can say.’”
“Stop. He was threatened with the force of four nobles that span and straddle the border who all have standing armies, was told he would not be allowed to cross it, and he still will plan an attack?”
“He loves making war.”
“I love war, too, but only ones I can win.”
“‘Alas, he will not allow your possessions to be forwarded to you, much less Mercury. ’Twas all Mum could do to keep him from burning the lot and killing the dog, and that only because it is still at MacFhionnlaigh. She went to MacFhionnlaigh, packed it all up and bade Lady MacFhionnlaigh to store it there without destroying it in retaliation—’”
“Why would she acquiesce to that? You cheated her of a daughter-in-law.”
“Och, Lady MacFhionnlaigh is an absolute rug. She will do whatever she is told, and my mother—”
“Is a virago. I tremble in my boots.”
She snickered. “‘Roger is ecstatic and bid me thank you, but did make a point to say he still hates you. He may help me snatch the dog, but I promise nothing. Your brother, Sir Baldy Fàileach. P.S. Mum is utterly delighted and says that if you have not taken total control of Kyneward immediately, she will invade you herself to thrash you.’”
Grimme chuckled. “Does she mean take control of me or the estate?”