At breakfast the next morn, she leaned toward Grimme and whispered, “Did you talk about the bills with your paramours?”
He looked at her, confused. “No. Why would I? The merchants are paid and you told them not to serve them if they had no coin and you said you wouldn’t allow them to go shopping in the foreseeable future anyway. That is household business and your domain.”
Brìghde sighed and left the subject.
After breakfast, Grimme took Brìghde to the mares’ stable and introduced her to all of them. Half of them were named Mary. The other half all had names of Greek goddesses that he said fit their temperaments.
Then they came to a halt at Helen’s stall.
“If you could fetch Troy … ” he asked politely.
Once she returned, she found Grimme with Helen out in the middle of the aisle, trying to control her. As soon as Troy entered, he snuffed and she calmed immediately, craning her neck around to at him. Brìghde drew him abreast of her and she could clearly see that Helen was a woman in love. Brìghde smiled, delighted.
Grimme saddled her himself whilst Brìghde held her. Helen didn’t care. She and Troy were nuzzling.
“Very well,” Grimme muttered when he finished and then helped Brìghde mount Troy. He untied Helen, then walked her out to a training pen at the back of the keep that Brìghde had not seen. “Bring Troy up a little and let’s see what happens.” He took a deep breath and swung into the saddle. He had firm hold on the reins, but Helen didn’t buck or bolt. She wasn’t paying attention to Grimme at all.
Brìghde followed Grimme’s directions and Helen followed Troy like a puppy.
“Leave the pen. I don’t want her to get too attached.”
As soon as Troy was turned away, Helen tried to follow, but Grimme had firm control. She protested. Troy followed Brìghde’s directions, but he didn’t like it. A groom opened the gate. She went outside the pen but stayed at the rail to watch.
Helen was trying to get to Troy but Grimme wouldn’t let her. He turned her this way and that—but soon enough she started to misbehave, rearing slightly, bucking, then rearing sharply, protesting. But Grimme held his seat.
Brìghde had many times watched her father’s grooms ride recalcitrant horses, but none this misbehaved.
“Open the gate,” he called.
The groom did as he was told. Grimme struggled to get her pointed in that direction, but then she saw Troy and calmed instantly. She trotted over and they touched noses.
“Run,” Grimme said tightly. “Don’t look back.”
Brìghde wheeled Troy and she let him have his head. They thundered out of the bailey and down the lane. She heard hooves running after them, and she turned Troy off to the unoccupied field. It took a while for Helen to catch Troy’s flank, but she could not pass him and even fell back a bit.
Brìghde slowed him and a perfectly behaved Helen caught up to them. Brìghde and Grimme cantered along side by side for two or three miles, and Brìghde finally realized that Grimme wanted to wear her out whilst accustoming her to commands. She slowed Troy to a walk and Helen followed suit.
Grimme grinned at her and she returned it. “Come. There’s a stream ahead.” It was a clear-running stream, gurgling, and there were sheep drinking from it. The horses did too.
“Why don’t you want her to get attached?”
“Troy’s trained for war. I don’t want her to pick up habits that, for a mare, would be undesirable.”
Brìghde’s mouth pursed.
She shrugged. “Simply reminds me that my mother didn’t succeed in training out male qualities that make me undesirable as a woman.”
She caught his slight wince, but he only said, “Hold her for a bit.”
Brìghde held Helen’s halter as Grimme dismounted, but as long as she was near Troy, she didn’t mind. He untied a bag of oats and, once he had her attention, began feeding her out of his hand. “Bloody hell,” he muttered when she bit him, but not purposely, happily gobbling up every last grain of it. “Hand me the carrots, please. I’ll feed Troy in a bit.”
Thus he gave Helen some carrots and he petted her. As Grimme fed Troy, Brìghde gathered Helen’s reins and dropped her halter to allow her to drink again, patting her withers and telling her what a good wee lassie she was.
When the horses were sated, Grimme mounted, took a deep breath, and said, “Let’s see what happens now. Stay here for a bit.”
She did and watched whilst Grimme turned Helen away and tried to chirrup her into a trot, but she balked and pawed the ground. “Dammit,” he muttered to himself. “Run out a little way so I can run her in circles around Troy.” Brìghde turned Troy and they cantered easily, Helen following and obeying Grimme’s commands. “Stop.” Brìghde did. Grimme asked Helen to trot, which she did, so long as she could do so around Troy. Then a canter, in ever-widening circles. Then a gallop, but Grimme broke the circle and galloped away from Troy back toward the keep.
Helen stopped cold and Grimme went flying over her head, landing on his back some distance away. Brìghde didn’t laugh; that hurt.
She chirruped Troy into a walk. It took a while to get to them, but finally she drew up alongside Helen and took her bridle. She tried to snap, but Troy snuffled. She stood still and allowed Brìghde to gather her reins and lead her to Grimme, who was groaning.
“Is your back broken?”
“I do not believe so, no.” He struggled to his feet, stretched and twisted this way and that. “My head is pounding,” he muttered as he swayed on his feet. Brìghde and both horses stood quietly whilst Grimme retrieved his equilibrium and could mount Helen again. When he did, he sat and blinked, shaking his head as if to clear it.
“Why would it be bad for her to acquire Troy’s training? She is almost as big as he is.”
“Mares do not belong on the battlefield.”
“Firstly, because a mare’s value is in breeding. I will not send a mare into battle with the possibility of her being killed, no matter how well trained, if she can give me an excellent foal every year. Secondly, stallions are aggressive and can be trained to fight in a mêlée. Helen might have been an excellent warhorse if she had been trained from a foal, but it’s too late for her now. She must be able to act with a human’s direction, without depending on a stallion she’s mated to direct her, never mind being taught to think and act independently. One trains a warhorse from birth.” He pointed to Troy. “Now, him. I would give my left arm to find out who sired and foaled and trained him, as I suspect he’s a match for Ares.”
That pleased her more than was warranted, but she didn’t want to mention the tournament again.
Helen was clearly tired, but Troy wasn’t, so Brìghde sent him on another gallop. Grimme gave Helen her head and she followed until she simply could not. Her sides were heaving, she was lathered, and her head hung. It was at that point, Grimme dismounted and led her toward the keep, leaving Troy behind. She was too tired to fight anymore. Brìghde watched until they were almost out of sight and then turned Troy.
“Good laddie. Who’s a good laddie? You’re a good laddie.”
She cantered Troy around to cool him off, then trotted toward home.
When she crested a rise, there was Grimme standing with an exhausted Helen, but talking to Emelisse, who was riding side-saddle. As he spoke, he plucked handsful of tall grass and rubbed Helen down. Emelisse’s palfrey was small, little bigger than a pony, and she cast Brìghde a hateful glance as Brìghde rode up on Helen’s other side. She turned Troy so the beasts could touch noses. Emelisse was still speaking to Grimme. In French. Very, very polite French thrumming with rage if one were listening for it.
“Why do you not ride with me in the morning?”
“I don’t ride with you when I’m training.”
“You never ride with me at all.” He sighed. “You’re training and you’re riding with her.”
“Emelisse, I do not owe you an explanation for anything I do. My horse is tired and lathered, and I need to get her back to the stable to do this properly. You may help me take care of her if you wish.”
Disgust ran across Emelisse’s face.
“That’s what I thought,” Grimme said.
“Why do you allow her to ride your warhorses anyway?”
“Because she can,” he said darkly. “If you could be bothered to ride astride on something more powerful than that nag, I would, in fact, appreciate it. My mares need to be ridden and I’m running out of grooms with time to do so.”
She sniffed haughtily.
“It would help me a great deal,” he said firmly, “if you and the other three would learn to ride astride and ride my mares every day.”
“Then don’t question me when I go out with my wife.”
“She has a name,” she sneered. “You don’t have to keep reminding me you married her instead of me.”
“Oui, she has a name, but since we are being rude and speaking in a language she does not know, I don’t want to say her name so that she does not know we’re discussing her.”
“Why has Lady Brigitte,” she returned, Brìghde’s name said crisply and undeniably, but with the French pronunciation, “earned such high regard from you?”
Grimme sighed heavily and simply refused to answer. He continued to rub Helen down, and Brìghde had to stay because Helen needed Troy near to encourage and comfort her back to the stable.
“Lord Grimme,” he growled.
“You were a fifteen-year-old squire when I met you!” she snapped. “I was your first. I taught you how to be a man. You were sixteen when I had your first child. You were seventeen when I had your second child. You were eighteen when you were made a knight. You were twenty when you were made an earl. I refuse to call you Lord Grimme one more time, especially since she may call you Grimme. All you want is for someone to remind you constantly that you are a noble, because you are not one, you know it, you know nothing about being an earl, and now that you are one, you are ashamed of your beginnings, and you know this was a stroke of luck and that you did nothing to earn it.”
That was an astute observation, but Brìghde was shocked she was smart enough to make it and was curious as to how he could respond.
“That is one reason she’s here, to teach me how to be an earl.”
“She is here because you snatched the wrong girl.”
“What has you in such a toss?” he asked testily as he moved to Helen’s right side and plucked more grass. “You’ve been angry for months, long before Brìghde came.”
“I am tired of sharing you. With anyone. I have put up with it for ten years.”
Silence, but Brìghde wouldn’t look at her. She busied herself admiring the grass and the … grass. That was all there was to admire, really.
“You would send me away?” she croaked.
“Non. But I would not grieve if you left.”
“Grimme!” she cried. “Eleven years!”
“Oui, and you’ve been angry for most of them. You alone cannot satisfy me. You won’t let me have your arse—”
Brìghde almost choked, and he was so matter-of-fact about it!
“—you won’t suck my cod, you won’t let me take you from behind, you won’t join in with the others—”
Brìghde was glad she was already looking away.
“—you don’t like being punished—”
Brìghde didn’t understand that. Who liked being punished?
“—and you hate being tied up.”
“You also can’t go more than twice in a night.”
“Twice in a night?!” she hooted. “Your once is three times for me! Six times in a night, more like.”
Brìghde didn’t understand that, either.
“What else am I supposed to do?”
“Learn to control yourself,” she hissed.
That was the first and probably last time Brìghde would ever agree with Emelisse.
“Control myself? I give you your release first and you immediately start complaining though I am not finished. So I go find somebody else to finish me off. It is not unreasonable for any man to expect that if his woman gets her release, she will be courteous enough to allow him one. One, Emelisse, not six. You won’t even give me that much, and then you have the gall to complain that I go elsewhere.”
Brìghde could see his point. That was very selfish of her.
“I won’t control myself. I don’t have to. You alone of the seven women I’m fucking are the only one trying to put a leash on me. It hasn’t worked in the last eleven years. Why do you think it’ll work now?”
“Brigitte has you on a leash!”
“Mother of God, do you want me to slap you?”
She gasped. “You wouldn’t!”
“Yesterday I would have said non. Today … ”
He finally left off rubbing Helen down and began walking, Helen plodding along behind him.
“You’ve changed since you brought her home.”
“I have not changed. I have a different circumstance I must learn how to manage. You and I have been through many changes in our life. Why can you not simply see this is another one?”
“Non. This is different because you are trying to earn her favor.”
He shook his head wearily. “If you wanted to earn my favor, exercise my mares. Not side-saddle.”
“I shouldn’t have to earn your favor,” she muttered. Very well, Brìghde agreed with her twice. “I can simply let myself catch.”
“You won’t,” he said with some amusement. “Because as soon as you’re showing, I won’t fuck you and then you’ll believe I’ve forgotten you. Finish your ride and do whatever it is you do in a day. If you won’t help me, then I’ve nothing more to say.”
“I am your wife! Your true wife!”
“I see your reasoning.” Brìghde gulped. “But I must have a legitimate heir from a noblewoman, and you are not it. I could have wed Maebh, you know. She is a noblewoman.”
“A mere knight’s daughter.”
“And name Pierce as my heir.”
She gasped in outrage. “Gaston deserves that!”
“I agree with that, too, but I can’t.”
“Why do you not allow La—her to take a lover and pass his babe off as yours?”
“That is an excellent idea—”
Brìghde’s insides roiled like a cauldron. That would make her nothing more than a brood mare, mated off to the best candidate. She had bargained for Grimme, not some nameless, faceless stallion!
“—and if she proves to be barren, I shall discuss it with her and mayhap we can come to some agreement. But not until she’s proven barren. I’ll not raise another man’s child if I can help it.”
“Or get a babe from a maidservant and pass it off as hers. You will never have to fuck her, much less look at her.”
“No, I don’t want to fuck her—”
Brìghde barely kept from wincing.
“—but I don’t want a babe from a maidservant, either. Do you not understand? She is intelligent, courageous, and strong, and I want that for my heir. She can give me a warrior. You haven’t.”
Oh. If one had to be a brood mare, that was not a bad reason.
“You don’t want them to be!”
Grimme halted abruptly, so Brìghde did too.
“You will not let me have them,” he snarled. “You want to keep them to your breast, coddle and control them. If you could, you would still have them suckling. They should have been out in the field two years ago and you would not allow it, so do not now speak to me about their lack of strength. How am I supposed to make warriors of them when you barely allow me to speak with them? You don’t even allow them to attend their studies with Father Hercule, and I will not have illiterate children! I have respected most of your wishes all these years, but I am at the end of my patience. They are infants. Ten-year-old and nine-year-old infants who can barely read, and not allowing Gaston to go to the stables with Max is a perfect example. Do not now tell me it is my fault for not training them.”
“You have never said a word to me about how I rear our sons until she came.”
He was silent for a moment, then started walking again. “That is true. She has made me consider things I should have been considering all along, but I allowed you to do what you will because you love them so much. If you didn’t, it would be a different thing.”
“You’re going to take them away from me, aren’t you?” she accused. “Leave me with nothing. Nothing of you, nothing of them. Because of her. Mayhap I will allow myself to catch.”
“I do not want another child with you!” he barked.
“And so what would you do if I did?” she taunted.
“I would give it to my wife.”
Not that Brìghde would want the babe, but that would indeed keep Emelisse from catching again just to keep Grimme tied to her.
“I am finished with this conversation,” Grimme said abruptly. “Unless you want to assist me with Helen—”
“Helen?” she asked, apparently startled out of her rage. “Who’s Helen?”
“This horse,” he answered with overdone patience. “She is named after Helen of Troy, who was the most beautiful woman in the world.”
“The horse my wife is riding—his name is Troy.”
Grimme dropped his head until his chin bumped his chest. “Never mind. I wish—” He clapped his mouth shut.
“You wish what?”
“I wish you would find something to do other than keep our sons in their chambers and lie around waiting for me to fuck you.”
Brìghde almost couldn’t control her snicker, but she caught it in time.
“I embroider,” Emelisse said, her voice filled with hurt and confusion. “I ride.”
“My God, Emelisse!” he burst out. “Can’t you do anything else?”
“What should I do?”
“One thing you could do is teach the boys to ride!”
“They’ll fall off.”
“Oui, they will. How did you learn to ride?” Silence. “Aye, then why don’t you ask Father Hercule to teach you to read and write?”
“Why would I need to read and write?”
They were now walking into the outer bailey. “Go finish your ride,” he said wearily. “I have work to do.” When she didn’t, he snapped, “With my wife.”
She turned in a huff and cantered off.
“I apologize,” he muttered in French, then repeated himself in English. “I apologize. That was very rude of us. She cannot express herself as well in English.”
Brìghde was quite sure she could express herself as well as she needed to and that was a conversation that should have been had in private, but having an extended conversation in a language they thought Brìghde didn’t understand was a show of dominance by Emelisse.
Yet Brìghde only said, “Apology accepted.”
“Aye, in a moment.” Whilst Grimme rode to the mares’ stable, Brìghde handed Troy off to a groom— “Pears, two rations of oats.” —and found Grimme, who was just beginning to wipe down Helen properly.
She joined him and together they spent an hour grooming her, pampering her with pears and carrots, which she seemed reluctant to take, and talking.
“She has been mistreated,” Brìghde observed.
Grimme nodded and he was moving with difficulty. He would be very sore in the morning. “Sheffield was her first owner.”
Brìghde’s eyes widened. “Ares!”
Grimme shook his head. “Aldwyn won’t allow his chargers to be abused. The duchess has many ladies in waiting, so their mares are for the women to ride side-saddle, no more, no less and in that case, they don’t care about quality. They don’t breed. They buy, but Sheffield won’t buy my mares. They’re too expensive and are for breeding, not for ladies’ pleasures. I don’t know why Sheffield bought this one, as she is valuable and she must have cost him a great deal, but someone ruined her. I bought her from her second owner soon after he had bought her.”
“If Sheffield wants what you love so much, why has he not taken more of your horses? They are fine animals.”
“Henry would have something to say about it, and he would not be kind. However, I’m not going to run to the king over one horse, no matter how much it hurts.”
“The king is your friend, then, not just a grateful liege?”
“Aye. When you battle together, titles melt away and you become companions at arms. He knows me. Trusts me. He simply happened to be the companion at arms whose life I saved. I didn’t even know it was the king. But with that, we forged a friendship that has lasted. I am loyal to him, he is loyal to me, and that is not something I take for granted.”
“What is the duke to him?”
He pursed his lips as if trying to decide what to say. “Once upon a time,” he began slowly, “there was much speculation that Sheffield murdered his cousin to take the title. But as it happened over thirty years and two kings ago, and King Richard didn’t look too closely at it, no one did anything and the rumors have faded away. Henry doesn’t trust him, but he has bigger things to worry about.”
“’Tis why you are concerned about an heir.”
He paused yet again. “There is concern even if I have one. The old duke had a legitimate heir. Sheffield challenged the babe’s legitimacy, as the old duke did not care for women, and it was rumored he was not the babe’s father. That challenge did not hold, as the babe was born in wedlock and the old duke declared him his, then the old duke was murdered. Soon after that, the babe disappeared. Was he murdered? Did someone spirit him away to save his life?”
“So there could be a legitimate duke somewhere.”
She narrowed her eyes. “You’re that duke.”
He barked a laugh. “I’m twenty-six. Do your sums, my lady.”
Now wasn’t she embarrassed! “Oops,” she snickered.
“My concern is that even if I have an heir, Sheffield has, to my mind, proven that he will kill to get what he wants, and that includes infants.”
“But he is not in line to inherit your earldom.”
“No, but I do not underestimate his greed. Either the infant duke is out there, or Sheffield killed him. Henry knows about the situation with him, also suspects, but what can he do without someone coming forward with proof that he is the rightful duke?”
“Thus, the king is your only protection.”
“Aye, and I cannot go running to him every time Sheffield looks at me with vicious envy in his eyes. I don’t need a standing army to defend the border, as Dunham seems a reasonable sort. I need a standing army to protect myself against Sheffield does he get too confident, but Henry’s got most of my force in France.”
“Doesn’t he have some of Sheffield’s?”
“Aye, but his remaining quarter is still four times mine.”
“If I could kill him without raising suspicion, I would.”
“What an unholy mess,” Brìghde muttered. “My father is as Sheffield, only worse, because he is intelligent.”
Grimme’s eyebrow rose. “To my ears, your father is truly evil.”
“He is,” she said flatly. “There have been times I wonder if he’s sold his soul to Satan for it.” Then she caught his expression. His face had gone pale, and only then did she remember his fear of witchcraft. “’Twas a jest, Lord Husband,” she said quickly. “My humor is not always so obvious.”
He cleared his throat. “’Tis well.”
“And now I have ruined any trust I might have built,” she sighed.
His brow wrinkled then. “I’m not sure what to think of you. You needed rescue, aye, I can see that. You told me the entire plot almost immediately when you knew that doing so, and what the plot was, would damage you in my sight.”
“I wanted you to be my friend,” she muttered, embarrassed again, but not so humorously this time. “I practically told you that, too.”
“And so all this … is your way of trying to earn a friendship? That you will abandon as soon as everything we say or do that hurts you has built and become unbearable to you?”
She was about to cry with embarrassment. “If I abandon you, ’twill not be for my father, so you need not fear that. I found my way home hundreds of miles from a convent by myself. I told you that.”
He was silent for a time. “How old were you?”
“Fifteen. It took me three years. I worked my way home, seeking employment in noble houses. I have been a scullery maid. I have been a serving wench. I have been a chambermaid. I have been a nursemaid. I have been a housekeeper. ’Tis why I treat my servants differently from other housekeepers and noblewomen.”
“That is why you are not spoiled.”
“I was,” she said lightly, then chuckled at herself. “I was a scullery maid far longer than I had to be because of my behavior. I was dismissed from three noble houses before I realized I was my own worst enemy. In my last noble house, I determined to be silent and work my way up, as I could not bear being at the bottom. I hated the way the household was run, so cruelly, but worse, so inefficiently. I determined to be the housekeeper and eventually I was. I was going to gain control of that household one way or another.”
He chuckled. “Of course you were. Did you kill the housekeeper?”
“In point of fact, I did, but not intentionally. Quite by chance, I startled her as we both came around the same corner in opposite directions and she dropped dead right there. I was startled enough I thought I was going to die, but alas.”
His laughter was infectious, and she began to laugh with him. “Aye, it was funny, but I dared not laugh. Anyway, I went to the lady and gave her my qualifications in writing as William did, and she promoted me. No one else could read or write, you see, and a housekeeper must be able to. I made a good wage. I could have stayed there, but for the fact that the old lord, who would not lower himself to swive a servant, died and the new one liked to swive the servants whether they wanted to or not. The first time he tried it with me, I swung a pitcher at his head, and I gathered my things and left before he regained consciousness.”
His laughter had turned into roars, and he was coughing and wheezing.
She grinned. “I went home because I finally had the coin to do so, I love my comforts, I could stay out of my father’s sights, and I missed my mother desperately.”
It was a while before his laughter subsided and he was wiping his eyes. “Do you know,” he said, “I think I would trust you on the strength of that alone. I truly admire that.”
Warmed to the seed of her soul, she flushed and smiled shyly. “Thank you, Grimme.”
“How did you keep your innocence all the way through it?”
“Virginity, aye, I kept that. Innocence, no. I have seen many things I would rather not, which is why I could, with all assurance, tell you I know what swiving entails. I cut my hair. I dressed like a boy. I was very careful about when and where I traveled and with whom I spoke.”
“And your need for friends?”
“I didn’t need them so badly I would risk my life or possessions.” She paused. “I had been gone from the convent for a fortnight when I met a dog. She was a very large, very vicious beast who seemed to have come out of nowhere and attached herself to me. I didn’t know why. She killed for me. More than once. She would herd me from places she didn’t want me to go, and snap at me if I didn’t obey. One time, I wanted to get a bite to eat. I stopped at a pasty stall but she wanted me to keep going. I was hungry. She kept pushing me. I wouldn’t go. Then she bit me in the arse. Hard. I was angry with her, but I obeyed. We got down the road a bit. I heard a scream and I turned around. There was a boy being hauled kicking and screaming behind the seller’s cart. She barked at me as if to say, ‘Do what I tell you to do next time.’”
“What happened to her?”
“She was killed rescuing me in a place she had not wanted me to go.” Her eyes stung and she wished she hadn’t said anything, for it renewed her grief and guilt.
“What did you name her?”
“For a bitch?”
Brìghde shrugged. He was twenty-six and the commander of a force of three thousand when they weren’t in France. It was time he got over his fear. “She was vicious enough to have come from hell, so why not?”
He cleared his throat. “And … your households where you worked? What did you do with her then?”
She shrugged. “How many dogs do we have in the keep who scrounge for food at table?”
“She was one of many. She slept with me. I was always surprised no one said anything. ’Twas as if God himself had blessed me with safety in my travels, and now he has once again blessed me, sending me you.”
His smile was warm. “It seems we have groomed Helen to sleep.”
“Who’s a good lassie?” Brìghde crooned. “You’re a good lassie, aye you are.”
“She will be,” Grimme grunted as he gathered the currycombs. “Would you do this with me every morning for a while, if you can spare time from your duties?”
“Of course!” Brìghde said, more than willing to let the keep go to rot whilst spending time with Grimme training a skittish horse how to be loved—and needling one very jealous mistress.