Grimme remained silent the entire next day, sunrise having made his impetuous decision to fall in with Lady Brìghde’s plan look utterly foolish. It had seemed brilliant at the time, but he had been tired, hungry, and dispirited by the task itself. He knew better than to make immediate decisions when he was so incapacitated. His man at arms dare not speak to him, but he was in no better mood than Grimme.
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?”
“Oh. Brigit Fallack.”
“Thank you. Do not expect me to pronounce it in Gaelic, Brigit.”
The writing implements arrived. Brìghde looked at Grimme. “What shall I say?”
“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. “Two thousand 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 start to smile. “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 east to Hogarth and ’tis twenty miles south beyond that.”
She wrote. “‘—and if she cannot do that, please at least send me Mars.’”
“My dog. Sign this.”
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, wonderful! I don’t have to wear a wedding dress all the way home.”
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. Her skin was pale, though it might not burn as easily as his did. 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, Brìghde, and you cannot stay down here without me. Long day ahead.”
Grimme did not awaken terribly rested, as he had indeed spent the 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 apples, 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 the rest of them, but she was an excellent horsewoman, kept up with the punishing pace Grimme and his men 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. Yet why should she not be happy? She got the best out of the bargain.
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 brush 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 ears 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 hair. “What’s this? Why, ’tis more apples! 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 apples.”
“I bought two bags.”
“You’re going to make a pet out of a war stallion?”
“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 remaining man at arms 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, the beast was in love with her.
Grimme had dodged more politically advantageous marriages and wilier women than this one, but she claimed never to have heard of him (which he had no reason to doubt) and she had more motive to wed anybody but her intended than she did to trap Grimme into marriage. Aye, he was an earl, 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, a small keep, and a small army, but what he did have was money. His father was clever and had nurtured Grimme’s 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 he was relatively wealthy, but cash 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 it 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.
Sheffield’s captain of the guard and unofficial advisor, Sir Aldwyn Marchand, had to have concocted the plan to get Grimme disfranchised by the king, which was also ingenious, but Grimme would never underestimate that knight. He was dangerous, a man who commanded respect. ’Twas a cruel twist of fate that they were no longer friends. For Aldwyn, the plan was vengeance.
“How old are you?” Grimme asked abruptly. 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 this week is anything to consider.”
“You are having second thoughts?”
“’Tis too late now.”
He slid her a look. “Annulment.”
That took the smile right off her face. “You said you need a castellain,” she muttered. “’Tis that not a good enough reason to keep me?”
“Lady Brìghde, ’tis a good plan,” he said with as much approval as he could muster. “Ingenious, in fact, and I realize that you needed a solution as much as I. However, I cannot but think you got the better of the bargain.”
She glanced at him stonily. “Never mind castellain,” she drawled contemptuously, “but that I agreed to bear your legitimate heirs to keep you alive and your earldom in your possession, which is only to say, women die in childbirth, and I cannot guarantee you two sons straightaway, so I may be obliged to bear many more children than I want to.”
Regardless how he felt at the moment, his opinion of this girl’s intelligence was rising with every moment he spent with her. “I cannot dispute the point,” he conceded as graciously as he could. ’Twas not her fault she was absolutely right. “And I thank you for being willing to do that for me.”
“Not for you!” she hooted. “I was desperate to escape that marriage for more than a few reasons and my father had made sure all avenues for my rebellion were iron-gated.”
“At least you seem to be honest about it.”
“Tell me of your household,” she mumbled. “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 had not made an egregious error. “My castellan is also my father,” he began. “My legitimate brothers—I have three—have no use for him, 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. “I have many brothers. 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. You see, my 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 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. 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 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.”
“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 a mistress, you said?”
“Four, in fact.” 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 know many things I should not and would rather not. 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 to be 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. “‘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. Betimes, I also need a maidservant.”
“Or three,” his man muttered.
Grimme laughed. “Aye, that too.”
“Oh,” Bright said, seeming a little dazed. “Well. Then.” She appeared to gather herself to ask, “So you have children?”
“Aye, four sons.”
“I would hope you do not show any favoritism. And if I must produce children, I would hope that you would not favor them less than your bastards.”
“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.”
“Because I can outwit and outdrink him.”
Grimme started to laugh, but she looked at him with an entirely serious expression. “Hm. My household functions around my women, you see. They demand much, and they exhaust my father.”
“Why do you not rein them in a bit?”
“I do not involve myself in household politics. ’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. I warned them that the lady of the manor may take over as castellain if she is able to.”
“Why did you not simply wed one of them and declare one of her sons your heir?”
“I offered that solution,” he grunted, angry all over again. “Sheffield would hear none of it, then Marchand—his captain of the guard and advisor—was in his ear suggesting I wed Lady Margaret. I am an earl, he said, and thus must marry like one. A wench who has been my paramour for eleven years and who has borne me two sons is not acceptable as a wife. The only one who would be acceptable is my fourth mistress, as she is the daughter of a minor noble, but he would not accept that, either.”
“Eleven years,” Lady Brìghde mused. “My father goes through one every two years. My oldest brother has just begun on his first, but he does everything late. Your stamina is commendable.”
Again Grimme laughed. Perhaps God had turned a sour situation into a sweet solution.
“Why, that would have made you fifteen when you first bedded her!”
“Aye. She is five years older than I.” Lady Brìghde made no response to that. “Her name is Emelisse. The others are Ardith, Dillena, and Maebh.”
“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, that you did not abandon her.”
“Thank you. My father helped. Max is nine, Terrwyn is seven, and Pierce is five, so I had four children by the time I was twenty-one.”
“You are missing an English son.”
“Ardith is very clever with her methods of remaining without child. Since I have not had another child in five years, I assume she has taught the others.”
“I see. You have a bit of a French accent. I will assume you do not speak Gaelic.”
“Only enough to get myself in trouble with both the Scots and the Irish, and before you ask, not a word of Cambric.”
Lady Brìghde laughed. “And the French?”
“I spent most of my childhood and my adolescence in France. I was there so long I not only acquired the language, but also the accent. The wine you enjoyed is from Bordeaux.”
“Where is your birthplace then?”
“You are far from home.”
“My home is Kyneward.”
“You said your earldom was new? That makes you very young to have earned it.”
He nodded. “I was twenty at Agincourt, and granted it that very day. It was in need of repair, so I competed on the lists and bred my stud 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. I have been away quite a bit, you see, and occasionally I have been gone so long the entire household has changed except for my women and children.”
“Your keep? Your lands?”
“I have a mere ten thousand acres. 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?”
“Whoever heard of a noblewoman learning such things? Are you not usually sent away to a convent or such to learn … something other than reading and writing?”
“I ran away from the convent. I was gone from home so long my father had forgotten me in the midst of his other concerns, so when I returned home, ’twas as if nothing had changed. He had also forgotten he’d sent me away and did not question my presence once he noticed me.”
“Ahhh, that is why you were so competent in the woods.”
“You seem to have led an unusual childhood.”
“I am the fifth child, first daughter, of seven legitimate 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. I suppose his bastard daughters didn’t count.”
“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.”
“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, and you of all people should know that. ’Tis the very reason we are here.”
“Aye, but I must still act in my liege’s interests, as they are the king’s interests, who is my friend and with whom I share a mutual respect, and I am one who demands loyalty, so 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.”