“Thank you, Grimme,” she said, smiling up at him.
Grimme returned his little wife’s smile as they stood in the outer bailey at sunrise whilst a company of knights and foot soldiers disguised themselves as villeins moving from town to town looking for a lord to serve. “You’re welcome,” he said warmly, happy that at least one woman in his household was not furious with him.
It had been a week since he had promised Brìghde that he would send for her things and her dog. In that week, he had had to confront each of his women privately.
Ardith was angry that Grimme had introduced someone to the household her lover wanted to fuck. “How was I supposed to know that would happen?” he asked. She gave him a stony glare. He should’ve known.
Maebh was angry that he would not let her have Brìghde since he wasn’t fucking her, nor would he acquiesce to allowing her to warm Brìghde up for him to fuck. And—
“You keep that bitch Emelisse and her little monsters from Pierce, and I know very good and well he won that fight because I do give him all the freedom he wants.”
“Aye, he did. But the other boys are gone now. I apologize for allowing the situation amongst them to go on and I have already told Emelisse I will punish her severely if she so much as breathes in Pierce’s direction.”
That had surprised her out of her pique.
Dillena was angry because she did not appreciate being accused of thievery when she had not done any such of a thing (although Brìghde had apologized), for which he did not blame her. She was also angry that he had accused her of neglecting Terrwyn’s studies, and denying him attention or freedom.
“I teach him to read and write,” she informed him with soft rage. “Father Hercule teaches him his sums. I believe the amount of attention Emelisse gives her sons is detrimental. I also believe that the amount of freedom Maebh gives Pierce is dangerous for a five-year-old. Walking to Waters and back alone, and no one missed him! Terrwyn might believe he is neglected for not getting what they do, but I do not and I don’t intend to change. They don’t, either, but at least I will tell you that and why.”
Grimme couldn’t fault her logic and he couldn’t fault her for being angry.
“I am not angry about the fight amongst the boys, for it has been brewing for some time and Emelisse’s sons deserved what they got. I am angry that you do not see what Emelisse and her sons do to mine. I am angry that you chastised me in front of the others instead of simply coming to me and speaking calmly, like parents. I am angry that it took another woman with more power than any of us to get you to see.”
He shrugged. “My parents didn’t mitigate the conflicts my older brother and I had.”
She was surprised. “You have an older brother?”
“Four, three legitimate. ’Tis the way of men, to settle their differences in the dirt. The best men won, and Gaston and Max will have to live with the humiliation of having lost to a five- and seven-year-old. It won’t be easy, trust me. That is a better punishment than any I could have given them.”
“Hrmph. I am sad that you have sent him out to apprentice. But he is an earl’s son and I want him to have the privileges and responsibilities that entails. I appreciate that you don’t treat him like a bastard.”
It was likely the longest conversation he had ever had with her, so he was quite impressed and assured her that now that she had explained, he agreed with all points.
And Emelisse was just angry.
She had been angry for years. He never cared because she was free to leave and she chose to stay. Now he cared because he had discovered a friend—a female friend who did not seem to be given to such intractable moods. Oh, Brìghde had a temper, but as soon as everything was resolved, which took almost no time at all, she went back to being as happy and amusing as Aldwyn had been before their bitter parting.
He watched the company roll out of the bailey to fetch her belongings. It wasn’t an easy task, but he didn’t mind doing things for her. She was so grateful for any expression of approval and was so willing to work that it made his mistresses seem like selfish, spoiled, pampered princesses.
But then there was the subject of his sons and that was a sore point for everyone. The entire household was in upset because he had taken Brìghde’s words to heart about his sons’ needs, and no one was happy.
“Papa? Is Bridget going somewhere?”
Except Pierce. He was very happy.
Grimme looked down at him in surprise. “Why, no. They are going to her home to fetch her belongings back to her.”
“She’s going to be here forever?”
He smiled. “That is generally what a wife does, my son.”
With that, Pierce merely leaned against his leg and Grimme laid his hand gently upon his head. His other three sons had been gone almost a fortnight now, and he missed them more than he thought possible, missed seeing them every day, missed hearing an excited chorus of Papa!s.
Though he had forbidden Emelisse to ride out to the farthest reaches of the encampment to see the boys, he had gone—to “inspect.” No one was fooled, and he drew many glances askance, particularly from the knights who were training them. He just wanted to see them. It was shockingly difficult for him to let them go, but he must do for them what was right, and what was right was to send them out.
What really had him in contention with himself was that Pierce had attached himself to Brìghde, who did not seem to be ready to be a mother, but Maebh was insistent that she wanted to make Pierce happy and if that meant he would abandon Maebh for Brìghde, then that was what that meant. After some thought, he had approached Maebh with a new proposition.
She had been furious. Maebh would throw tantrums and be angry, but she was never enraged.
Nay, I’ll not have another child with you to immediately hand over to her! You wanted to wed a noblewoman because you couldn’t bear to lower yourself to wed one of us! You got one, but now you can’t bear to bed her—God only knows why because she’s beautiful—and I even offered to help, but you won’t let me have her, either. And now you come begging me for another babe so you don’t have to touch her. What is wrong with you?
He didn’t really know.
Out! Get out! Don’t come back until I tell you!
It gave him a new look into an otherwise flighty girl with whom he shared no more than a betrayal, a bed, and a boy. As for Brìghde, she was happy to indulge Pierce and seemed to understand what he needed, but she acted more like an older sister than a mother.
He didn’t dare tell Brìghde that Maebh was willing to give him up to her just to make Pierce happy.
She started and looked around Grimme’s body to find Pierce. “Good morn.”
“Do you go to confession this morn?”
“Aye, I have already been, my wee laddie. Why?”
“I didn’t see you.”
“Mayhap,” she said conspiratorially, “I have been taking lessons from you, skulking about, hiding, watching, and listening.” Then in a flurry of skirts, she whirled around Grimme and captured Pierce, making him squeal with laughter, and picked him up.
He watched her play with Pierce, tickling him gently and blowing in his ear, making him giggle. All his sons were blond. That was what happened when a blond-roux mated with a blonde. He began to wonder what a son of his and Brìghde’s would look like. Would he be blond? Would he be roux as his father had been before it had turned white? Would he be brunet?
Gaston and Terrwyn had blue eyes. Max and Pierce had brown. What would a son with Brìghde have? Brown? Green?
He tilted his head. What would she look like, heavy with his child? How would she act? Would she turn into a shrew, as Dillena had been? Would she be so fatigued she could not walk up a flight of stairs without breathing heavily, as Maebh had been? Would she be bedbound for fear of losing the babe, as Emelisse had been? Twice?
“What are you thinking?” she asked, breathless from twirling Pierce around by his arms.
“What our children will look like,” he mused.
Her eyebrow rose. “Oh?”
He waved a hand. “Your play with Pierce. It makes me feel as if we are a family. You, me, him.”
She blinked. Pierce leaned against her and wrapped his arms around her legs. “But … Pierce is not mine and his mother is … ” She waved her hand toward the keep. “And you have three other sons and we are already a family, albeit a rather strange one.”
Grimme nodded. Aye, he and his women and his sons were a family. He had never questioned this; it simply was. “I feel as though you and I, and Pierce, are a different family, apart from the rest. As one, we slide into it, and as one, we slide out of it.”
“Um … ”
He said nothing else, because he could not explain that he was now seeing Brìghde as Pierce’s mother, and he could not disagree with Maebh that Brìghde would be better for Pierce all the way around.
He sighed. Maybe … maybe he did have a favorite son. He hadn’t, not before the fight, but Pierce had clearly dominated his older, bigger brothers, and Grimme could do naught but respect that in ways he could not respect his other sons.
The thought did not sit well. It was Emelisse’s fault he could not respect his oldest two. It was to Dillena’s credit that he could respect Terrwyn for holding his own. But no matter how much he didn’t like Maebh’s mothering, Pierce had won the fight because she allowed him to do anything and go anywhere he wanted.
How far out in other directions had he explored? How many villeins’ children had he scrapped with? What did he know, what had he done and seen?
Grimme once again looked at Brìghde, absently caressing Pierce’s back as they watched the procession, and thought about the welcome-home Brìghde had given Pierce—a hot bath, a cake, medicine. Then she had encouraged him to give her a full recounting of the fight wherein she praised him excessively for being … a boy, doing what boys did, and for conquering.
Dillena’s mothering was the middle ground between Emelisse’s and Maebh’s, but Maebh was exactly right: Brìghde could rear boys. She understood them, knew what they needed, where to rein them in, and would bring a bit of a woman’s touch to it.
The company was down the lane and then out of sight. With any luck, they would return in a fortnight without having seen battle, and Brìghde could have her things and her dog because he hated it when she cried.
It was so … sad, and with Brìghde … it meant something when she was sad, especially when she had been drinking. She was a very sad drunk.
Never, when he set out on this course to snatch Lady Margaret Dunham, had he thought he would end up in such a favorable circumstance.
“Now what are you thinking?” she teased, “staring off into the sunrise like a cockerel who didn’t crow because he was too captivated.”
He grinned. “I’m happy that you’re happy.”
She blushed and shrugged, turning away so he couldn’t see her smile. She was so lovely. “Well!” she said breathlessly, “I am going into breakfast. Are you coming with me?”
“I will in a moment. You go on.”