Grimme remained silent the entire next day, sunrise having made his panicked plan to abduct a bride look utterly foolish. He knew better than to panic and normally, panic was not something he felt. But this was not war; it was politics, about which Grimme knew little. He was a knight, a soldier, and a commander. He need not worry himself with anything but that his men functioned well together, and if they didn’t, to find out why and repair the situation.
The night before, all five of them had taken their meal in the taproom, Lady Brìghde happily eating and drinking all of them to shame. Of the inn’s proprietor, she had requested parchment, quill, ink, and sealing wax.
“Brìghde— By the bye, how in God’s name do you pronounce your name?”
“Thank you. Do not expect me to pronounce it in Gaelic, Bridget.”
The writing implements arrived. Brìghde looked at Grimme. “Do you have anything you want to say?”
“I’ll leave that to you, as he’s your brother.”
Brìghde sat up and began to write. “‘Dearest Baldy—’”
“His name is Archibald, but I always called him ‘Baldy’ because I am his bratty younger sister and that is my purpose in life. This way, he will know ’tis from me, in case my penmanship does not convince him. ‘I have wed Earl—’ How do you spell your name?” She wrote carefully as he spelled. “‘—Grimme Kyneward. Inform Da that the abduction ’twas a plot of my and my husband’s own devising because I will not be bent to Da’s will. Be sure to press the point that I will not be bent to his will, and demand he admit it was an ingenious plan. In writing.’”
“‘Further, my husband the earl wishes to assure him that any attack on Kyneward will be met with fatal force.’”
Grimme and his knights snorted. “Seven hundred men is not a fatal force.”
“‘If he cannot be dissuaded, please discourage his march across Dunham lands. Your sister, Countess Budgie Kyneward.’”
That had made Grimme grin. “Budgie?”
She held up a finger. “Don’t you dare. ‘P.S. Please have Mum send my possessions to—’” She looked at him expectantly.
“Kyneward Keep. South to Catlowdy then twenty miles west to Hogarth and ’tis twenty miles south beyond that.”
She wrote. “‘—and if she cannot do that, please at least send me Mercury.’”
“My dog. Sign this.” He did. Quite satisfied, she folded the parchment, wrote the direction on it, dripped wax on it and slid it over to Grimme for his ring’s seal, then gave it to one of his knights.
Grimme sighed, handed the man some coin, pointed at another knight, and muttered, “You two leave at first light for Dunham.”
“Aye, my lord.”
“Thank you!” she said brightly. “Did you purchase something for me to wear that is better than my wedding dress?”
“Aye, my lady,” said one of his men and gave her a package with breeches, a shirt, and boots. “You’re about the size of my page.”
“Oh, well done, good sir! I don’t have to wear a dress all the way.”
Grimme’s men bid their good eves and went to sleep in the stable. Grimme had been eyeing a tavern wench who matched his tastes precisely and was about to escort Brìghde to the room he’d taken for her so he could fuck the wench. However, it occurred to him that just because he did not find his little wife to be at all to his taste—the exact opposite of it, in fact—did not mean that no other man felt the same way.
She was attracting a lot of attention. She wasn’t trying to attract attention. She was a beautiful noblewoman in a tavern full of men who weren’t used to seeing noblewomen, beautiful or otherwise. He looked at her more closely.
Aye, she was comely. She was short, reaching only to Grimme’s shoulder, if that. She had long thick midnight-black hair that shimmered blue in the sunlight. She had the biggest green eyes he had ever seen punctuated by thick black lashes in a bit of a heart-shaped face, with a straight but delicate nose. Her skin was pale, with a plethora of very faint freckles. From what he could tell of her body from having slept next to it for two nights, she was curvaceous with generous breasts and hips.
He liked curvaceous, all breasts and hips and arse, but there was that blonde over there awaiting him. “Time for bed, Bridget, and you cannot stay down here without me. Long day ahead.”
Grimme did not awaken terribly rested, as he had indeed spent his wedding night fucking the blonde, and breakfast was again a competition who could eat and drink the most, with a bright and well-rested Brìghde, dressed in boy’s clothes and looking in no way like a boy, winning handily.
The second she saw the war stallion he had purchased—named Troy—she had practically ordered Grimme to give her coin to buy pears, which she promptly shoveled into the beast’s mouth.
Once on the road south, both beast and saddle far too big for a tiny woman like Brìghde, she was as silent as Grimme and his remaining man at arms, but she was an excellent horsewoman, keeping up with the punishing pace he set, and did not complain except for her incessant groaning whenever she moved a muscle. Whenever they slowed from a canter to a walk to rest their mounts, she happily busied herself looking at the scenery as if she had never seen a tree or a meadow or a brook.
When they halted for the night some ways off the road in a small copse, though she could not lift the saddle off the horse, she requested of his man a currycomb and set herself to grooming the animal and speaking to him as if he would answer her questions. Grimme watched her work in the boy’s clothes, stroke and scratch the beast, saying,
“Who’s a good laddie? You’re a good laddie, aye, you are.”
“That is a temporary mount, my lady,” Grimme said wearily.
“Not anymore,” she said crisply. “Oh, what a good lad.” Troy craned his neck around so he could get his cheeks scratched too, and pulled on her sleeve with his lips then snuffled all the way up her arm until he was snuffling at her cheek and pulling her braid. “What’s this? Why, ’tis more pears! For you! He’s a good lad. Who’s a good lad? You’re a good lad. I will grant you dessert before your supper.”
“I thought you gave him all the pears.”
“I bought two bags.”
“You’re going to make a pet out of a destrier?”
“I make a pet out of every animal who catches my fancy. Aye, I do, don’t I? And he is absolutely breathtaking, aye, you are. But ’tis because of his name, mostly. Troy. You’re a Trojan horse!” She chortled at her own jest, making Grimme roll his eyes. “Somebody had a sense of humor, aye, they did, didn’t they, laddie?”
“Or he really is that much of a knight,” his man muttered.
“He won’t be by the time we get home,” Grimme retorted.
By the time she had given him two rations of oats and they had all bedded down, Grimme still sleeping with his arm in the curve of Brìghde’s waist, the beast was in love with her.
Grimme had dodged matrimony for years but now he’d married a strange girl who had more motive to wed anybody but her intended. Grimme was an earl, true, but that was mostly parchment. Other than his reputation as a knight, no one knew who he was. He had very little power, very little land, and a small keep. But what he did have was men and money. Aye, most of his army was in France, but Grimme had spent the last year and a half gathering more men to rebuild his army. He could do that because Grimme’s father was clever and had nurtured his earnings from the lists and spoils of war and profits from his various enterprises, and turned it into a moderate fortune with wise investments and strict control of the purse-strings. Several seasons of good weather had helped. Grimme chafed under his father’s thriftiness, but knew it to be for the better.
Duke Sheffield knew Grimme was relatively wealthy, but coin rich and land poor, yet Sheffield wanted Grimme’s measly portion. Grimme could not, in all honesty, blame Sheffield for being angry about it when he had had good reason to expect it. What he could blame Sheffield for was his sudden need to possess everything that Grimme loved. King Henry had decreed the lands to be Grimme’s and Sheffield could not go against the king without incurring his wrath. Grimme had sworn fealty to Duke Sheffield, which left a bitter taste in his mouth, but he had no choice if he wanted to be an earl.
And he did.
’Twas not every day the bastard son of a merchant was elevated to nobility.
Now, on their second day homeward, he was in a bit better mood, or at least enough to start getting to know this girl he’d married.
“How old are you?” Grimme asked. Not that it would matter.
“Two and twenty. You?”
Not a mere girl, then. “Six and twenty.”
She was clearly surprised. “That is a bit young to be a newly made earl, is it not?”
“I grew into my frame quickly, and was able to finish my apprenticeship as page and squire well before usual, attained knighthood, then rode out onto the battlefield.”
“And you are also more clever than usual, apparently.”
He shrugged listlessly. “Not clever enough, if the last three days is anything to consider.”
“You are having second thoughts?”
He took a deep breath and decided to confess. “I am now dismayed that I felt I had to abduct a bride at all. I was advised to take my time and find a noblewoman to wed the usual way of nobility, but I felt pressed and panicked. At the moment, I am contemplating how very wrong it could have gone if I’d snatched the woman I meant to.”
“Ah,” she said softly.
“I am a soldier. I am accustomed to taking what I want, vanquishing people without thought to their wants, because that is the nature of war. I find myself in a war of politics that I cannot simply hack my way through. I do not know how to wage this war. I assure you, I am not usually this dimwitted.”
“Does it not ease your mind a bit that I needed to be rescued and thus, it benefited both of us?”
He shook his head. “That I did not snatch the woman I meant to means I failed my quest. I do not consider near misses, when the cause is mistakes I made, to be victories. I do not like to credit luck, as luck is outside my control and I cannot tolerate that which is outside my control. I may have won this battle, but I won in spite of my mistakes, not because of my intellect, skill, and experience.”
“Not luck,” she returned. “Never luck. ’Tis God’s hand.”
He pursed his lips and thought about that. If ’twere God’s hand, then God had also planted the panic in his breast that sent him on this quest.
“I must ponder that a bit more. It sits little better than luck, for I have ever been aware of what God wants me to do. Why would He keep such a task from me?”
“Mayhap He did not want you to ponder it so much that you decided He would never ask you to do such a thing, and ’twas your fear driving you to it, and therefore would decide against it.”
He looked at her sharply. “You speak as if you know God’s will.”
She shook her head. “Nay. I assume my success is God’s will.”
“And your failures?”
She looked at him and soberly said, “I never fail. Success may take time, and what you consider failure, to me is only God protecting me from an unfortunate end. The only question of success is when and what circumstances I must endure and plot against to ensure the success He is guiding me toward.”
He understood exactly what she was saying and she was right, but he could not see past the fact that he had snatched the wrong woman.
“You failed at outwitting your father,” he persisted.
“I had to endure the wedding and marriage to get away from my father to plot against people who are easily led,” she corrected. “God removed from me that burden. I was, in fact, plotting my own abduction, but I could not go anywhere without a guard hand-chosen by my father. I wasn’t allowed to ride any but the slowest horses in the stables. Thus, I could not slip the fortress, nor could I outwit or outrun my guard, and they are immune to my charms.”
“Not that,” she huffed. “They are my father’s closest and most trusted men. They also hate me because my father does, so they were eager to have me under their thumb.”
“That’s not why they hate you and that’s not where they wanted you,” his man said matter-of-factly.
The earl barked a laugh, but Brìghde said, “Very astute of you, and also true, but I was not going to crow about my irresistibility in front of a man who finds me resistible.” Grimme and his man exchanged grins. “If my father ever even suspected one of them had taken advantage of their opportunities to throw my skirt up, he’d have them killed in the most painful and long-lasting way possible.”
“I must ponder this,” Grimme said slowly, chirruping his horse into a canter and leading in silence until the horses needed to rest.
“Tell me of your household,” she said. “I would be at least a little prepared for what I might find. You said it is in shambles?”
“Aye,” he sighed, wiping his hand down his face. It did not bother him until it affected him directly, but that was happening more and more often. If Brìghde could do what she said she could do, then mayhap he should simply accept that it was God’s grace and pray to feel gratitude he did not yet. He crossed himself.
“My castellan is also my father,” he began. “My legitimate brothers—I have three—have no use for him. His wife and mistresses, including my mother, are all dead, and he was tired of the demands of being a merchant, so I asked him to come live with me and he took it upon himself to build my earldom for the same reasons you are eager to take his place.”
“Why did you take him in?” Brìghde asked sharply. “Not one of my father’s children would take him in were he destitute, so your brothers must have their reasons. Why do you not have such a reason?”
Grimme shrugged. “I love him. I enjoy his company. I am grateful to him for my profession and my wealth. You see, my legitimate brothers got as much attention from him as they would allow, but their mother was bitter, and she poisoned their minds against him. Also, I am twenty years younger than my next oldest legitimate brother, and they resent that my father set me up as well and gave me his surname. So they twisted it in their minds that I am his favorite, when I am not. And then there’s my next oldest brother, who is also a bastard. His mother died, so my mother reared us together until I was sent for a page and he disappeared for a while. He’s a thief by trade and never made any effort to hide it, so our legitimate brothers despise him for his own acts. I’m quite sure my father has other bastards elsewhere and I have no doubt he either supported them or doesn’t know they exist.”
He slid a glance at Lady Brìghde to see that her mouth was pursed in surprise. “You must admit, it is odd. Most men don’t acknowledge their bastards.”
“Aye, and that is what my legitimate brothers would prefer.”
“You have spoken with them?”
“Nay, ’tis what my father confessed to me once in a drunken stupor. They are successful merchants, as my father was, but they resent that though I am the bastard, I have done as well as well as they.”
“And then you earned an earldom.”
“I don’t know if they know about that. You questioned my youth; ’tis because my father had the funds to outfit me as a page and squire and was friends with a very old knight who was desperate for apprentices and would sponsor me as if I were nobility, for I could fight in his stead. My father could see no brighter future for me than as a knight, as I was ill-suited to commerce and too restless to be a smith or scholar, and did not take pleasure in scratching out a living stealing, as my brother did. Does.”
“I cannot imagine a father who loves his legitimate sons, much less his bastards.”
“You will see. My hope is that you and he rub along well with each other.”
“I, too. You have women in your keep to see to your needs, you said? You plow the maidservants?”
“I do, but I also have four mistresses.” He grinned at her stunned expression.
“Is your lust so vast that you must keep a stable of paramours?”
“That is an odd thing for a lady virgin to ask, particularly when she is your wife and ’tis not proper to share such intimate details.”
“I have six brothers,” she said flatly. “They talk frankly and vulgarly. I have heard and seen many things I should not have and would rather not have. My sensibilities will not be offended by anything you say, and I feel it is something I must know to do my duty.”
“It is not. Your curiosity is aroused.”
“Are they or are they not part of the household?”
“Am I or am I not now the household ruler?”
“Hrmph. Very well, then. Remember you asked. Aye, my lust is that vast. ’Tis a Kyneward trait. I can break any one woman with my lust, and I have, every last one.”
She gaped at him, then she started to chuckle. Then she started to laugh. “Break her?!” she squealed, laughing until she was snorting and squeezing tears out of her eyes. She mimicked nearly falling out of the saddle.
He glared at her. “I am glad that amused you, Budgie—” He gave her a smug smile when she stopped laughing and glared back.
Then she snickered until she snorted. “‘Break her.’”
“—but I say that in all seriousness.”
She looked to Grimme’s man at arms for confirmation, which irritated him.
“’Tis true, my lady.”
“You think I boast, but rather, ’tis a complaint. ’Tis frustrating to enjoy a woman for some time and then hear her say, ‘I cannot accommodate you further. My body hurts.’ Or ‘I will not do this thing you ask of me.’ Or ‘I am with your child.’ Then, I must find another. ’Tis why I keep them all near. Each enjoys something the others will not do and I rotate amongst them to give their bodies time to recover. Not one of them alone could satisfy all my tastes or the frequency I demand. ’Tis also why I need a maidservant.”
“Or three,” his man muttered.
Grimme laughed. “Aye, that too. And I take my opportunities when I am at war or traveling.”
“Oh,” Brìghde said, seeming a little dazed. “Well. Then.” Brìghde appeared to gather herself to ask, “Do you have children?”
“Aye, four sons.”
“I would hope you do not show any favoritism toward them than any child I might bear you.”
“Nay. My boys believe each other to be my favorite, but I have none. They are different. They have different needs. They are different ages. Their needs change as they grow, wax and wane. Further, it depends on how much their mothers want or expect or allow me to do. So whether I show favoritism or not, they believe that I do. I cannot make them understand.”
“Ah. We do not have that problem. My father hates all his sons equally, and I far more than them. It sounds as if your household functions around your women.”
“It does indeed. They demand much, and they refuse to obey my father.”
“Why do you not rein them in a bit? Surely you can order them to obey your father.”
“Oh, no. I do not involve myself in household affairs. ’Twould be a disaster for me should I get between four women.”
“Five, now,” Lady Brìghde said dryly.
Grimme and his knight laughed. “They get along well—”
Brìghde hooted. At that, his man did, in fact, snicker.
Grimme scowled at both of them. “—and they know what my quest was, so they are prepared to welcome another woman into the household.”
Brìghde’s snorted. “Welcome,” she drawled snidely. “Why did you not simply wed one of them and declare one of her sons your heir?”
He hesitated. “I needed to wed a noblewoman.”
She looked at him for quite a while, her eyes narrowed. It was possible this girl could see through his vague answers to the truth, but it didn’t matter. If she was as quick-witted as she seemed, she had probably already deduced and if not now, she would soon enough.
But the only thing she said was, “Your stamina is commendable.” Again Grimme laughed. “Well? Tell me of them.”
“There is Emelisse, with whom I have been for eleven years.”
She gasped. “Why, that would have made you fifteen when you bedded her!”
“Aye. She is five years older than I and the mother of my two oldest. Dillena is the mother of my next oldest. Ardith has no children. Maebh is the mother of my youngest.”
“French, English, Welsh, and Irish, respectively.”
Grimme cast her a quick glance. “Aye.”
“And a Scots wife. Your children?”
“I have no daughters. My sons are Gaston, who is ten—”
“Sweet Mary and Joseph! You were a father at sixteen!”
“Aye. ’Twas why I went on the battlefield and lists early. I had a family to feed.”
“I find that quite commendable also, that you did not abandon them.”
“My father didn’t abandon his bastards or their mothers, thus, it didn’t occur to me to abandon mine. Max is nine, Terrwyn is seven, and Pierce is five, so I had had four children by the time I was twenty-one.”
“And you haven’t had another in five years?”
He slid a look at her. “Ardith is learned in remaining without child. I assume she has taught the others. I prefer it that way. I do not want any more children with them.”
She pursed her lips. “I see.” What did she see? “You have a bit of a French accent. Where is your birthplace?”
“London. I spent most of my adolescence in France. I was there so long I not only acquired the language, but also an accent. The wine you enjoyed is from Bordeaux.”
“You said your earldom is five years old. You are quite young to have been made a new earl.”
He nodded. “I was twenty-one at Agincourt, and granted it that very day. It was in need of repair, so in between my knightly duties of battle, I competed on the lists and bred my stallion to build my coin chest, whilst my father turned Kyneward into a proper keep, villeins, crops, sheep, suchlike.”
“How many servants? How many serfs or villeins?”
“My father will know. What do you know of husbandry?”
“Enough to get myself in trouble,” she quipped.
Brìghde was sounding better and better. “You read then? Write? Do sums?”
“Why, of course! Who ever heard of a castellain who could not keep the books?”
“Are noblewomen not usually sent away to a convent or such to learn … something other than reading and writing?”
“I was sent to a convent when I was twelve, aye, and we learned to read and write and sum. But since I already knew how to do those things, it was terribly boring. I didn’t have any friends to help ease the time. I can play the lyre very well, but I don’t like it enough to practice on my own. I can embroider, too, but ’tis difficult for me to sit still and do such fine work. I loved my history and philosophy classes, but not enough to stay. I was supposed to be there six years; however, because it was boring, I ran away. It took me three years to get home, and I did not know until I returned that my father had never meant to send for me until it was time to marry Roger. He was furious.”
“Ahhh, that is why you were so competent in the woods.”
“What if he had sent you back?”
“I would have left and found another way in the world. I shouldn’t have gone home at all, but I was tired of scraping by and I missed my comforts—and then I was promptly imprisoned, so that was an embarrassing lapse in judgment.”
“You seem to have led an unusual childhood.”
“I am the fifth child, only daughter, of seven children. My father was angry with my mother for producing me for he had a vanity that he could have seven sons, as he was a seventh son.”
“A seventh son is the head of a clan?”
Lady Brìghde shrugged her shoulders. “They all died in the plague. Or so I am told.”
“You do not believe that?”
“I would not be surprised should I find my father had murdered one or two of them, mayhap three, when the plague did not oblige him. When you took me, he had a sword in my back.”
“That is often the case with willful daughters, and clearly you are one.”
She cast him a grin. “Indeed, but I was not speaking figuratively. He had the point of it in my back. If I moved a muscle, I was dead.”
“I believe I begin to see why abduction was preferable.”
“Aye, it has been most agreeable. Should we continue thusly, I think I shall be very happy.”
Suddenly troubled, he said, “Loyalty does not seem to be one of your virtues.”
Lady Brìghde scoffed bitterly. “Loyalty is a weapon used by those who demand it. You are supposed to be loyal to your liege, but he is evil and wants to kill you.”
“Aye, but my liege’s interests are the king’s interests, and the king is my friend. He and I share a mutual respect, and I am loyal to him because he is worthy of it. It is unfortunate that I must follow the chain of command to do so. As I am one who demands loyalty, I pray you not force me to regret trusting you.”
“Keep your word and enforce my position as castellain, and I will have no reason to want to betray you. My loyalty can be earned, my lord, but it cannot be compelled.”