The Brat Chapter eighteen

"Are you going to tell me what I have done?"

Balan slowed his mount and glanced at his cousin with narrowed eyes. After taking Cecily to his wife, he'd forsaken turning his attention to any of the many chores awaiting him at the castle and instead suggested another hunt. He'd bought six cows in Carlisle, but the beasts had cost him twice what they would have before the plague, and he was loath to sacrifice any. They must breed to give him more cows.

"Well?" Osgoode prompted.

"I do not know what you are talking about," he said finally.

"I am talking about the silence you are treating me to and the glares you keep throwing my way. Would you care to share with me what I have done?"

Balan glowered and suggested, "Why do you not, instead, share with me what my wife said?"

Osgoode's eyebrows flew up on his forehead. "You are jealous!"

"Nay," Balan argued. "I am curious." Chuckling with open disbelief, Osgoode shook his head. "She was only asking me why I thought she was the woman in the village."

Balan's expression eased, but he tilted his head curiously.

"Why did you think it was Murie? I never thought to ask you myself."

"It was the color of her dress," Osgoode explained. "I was sure it was that burgundy gown and black surcoat that Murie favors."

"The burgundy gown and black surcoat?" Balan repeated.

"Aye. In fact, I know it was, but Murie was not wearing it when we ran her over, and I really doubt she could have changed that quickly. Someone else must have been wearing it or a gown very similar."

"Someone else," Balan echoed.

"Did I tell you?" Osgoode said with a smile. "Anselm has apparently decided - from the fact that I too was nearly killed in the fire - that I am not the killer. He was telling me the theories he and the other men have been tossing around. They have decided the would-be killer is someone who must have been in our traveling party from court, else he would have been noticed while skulking around the horses and poisoning that meat."

"A woman in our traveling party who would have access to Murie's gown," Balan muttered.

"Aye, that seems to be - Where are you going?" Osgoode cut himself off to ask. Balan had suddenly turned his mount and headed back the way they'd come.

"The only person who fills that criteria is Cecily!" he pointed out harshly.

"Cecily?" Osgoode repeated with amazement. "Why would Cecily wish to kill you?"


"Why are you trying to kill my husband?" Murie blurted. She'd spent every moment since Osgoode rode off pondering the matter, then trying to sort out how to question Cecily, and this was the best she could do. She blamed it on her husband. He'd been short-tempered upon returning with Cecily, and had barely paused long enough to set the maid on the ground before announcing he and Osgoode were going hunting and riding off. Murie had watched him go with a frown, then had peered meaningfully at Erol and Godart, encouraging them to follow. If she were right about Cecily, her husband would be perfectly safe while the maid was with her, but Murie wanted to confront the woman alone. She'd been with her for ten years, and Murie felt this was the least that was owed her. She was hoping by approaching the matter on her own, she might get some honest answers. Cecily, however, wasn't rushing to confess.

The silence that descended in the clearing was almost preternatural. Even the birds in the trees and the insects that moments ago had been buzzing around them were suddenly silent. The two women faced each other for so long that one could be forgiven for thinking time had stopped.. . and then the song of a cuckoo pierced the air.

As if on cue, Cecily swallowed and said, "I do not understand, my lady."

"Aye, you do," Murie said. "I saw you take my gown."

"Your gown?" the maid asked, suddenly wary.

Murie nodded. "I was half asleep and paid little attention, thinking you were merely taking it out for me to wear that day, and then I dozed off again. When you woke me later by removing the furs from the windows to let the light in, however, it was a different dress you had set out for me."

"I"I thought little of it at the time," Murie went on, not giving her maid the chance to lie. "In fact, I did not even really recall it... until Osgoode described to me the gown the woman he saw in the village was wearing. It was mine. The one I had seen you taking out of my chest."

"Osgoode lied. He must have. He is the one trying to kill your husband."

Cecily sounded desperate, Murie noted sadly. She'd really hoped she was wrong and the maid would somehow prove herself innocent. Instead, Murie's certainty of her guilt grew with every word.

"What would I gain from killing your husband? Osgoode is the one who will inherit should he die," Cecily added when Murie remained silent.

Murie's gaze sharpened. "How do you know that Osgoode will inherit? I did not know it until Anselm told me, when we all met on the wall. Were you there? You must have been."

"Nay. I was with your husband," Cecily said quickly. "You insisted Osgoode and I sit with him, remember?"

"Aye, I did," Murie murmured, pondering the matter. Raising her head she repeated, "How did you know that Osgoode would inherit?"

Cecily shrugged helplessly. "Someone must have told me."

"Nay." Murie shook her head firmly. "You were there. What happened? Did my husband send you to look for me? He was awake when I returned to the room, and asking you something, but stopped when I walked in." She tilted her head. "Was he asking where I was because he had sent you to find me?" Cecily shook her head silently, but Murie did not believe her.

"And so you came looking for me, heard that Osgoode would inherit if Balan died, and heard that someone was to be watching my husband at all times," she guessed. "It must have vexed you. It would make it so much harder to kill him. But then he pulled himself out of his sick bed to travel outside and find more servants and livestock, and you thought of a way to use that. He would be alone with Osgoode. Osgoode would be the one suspected should anything happen. It was perfect, so you donned my gown and awaited their return and ..." Murie pursed her lips.

"You must have had the fire ready to go. You would have had to light it and get it burning merrily in a hurry once you saw them approaching. Then you waved from the door to get their attention and seemed to slip back inside, never expecting Osgoode would enter with Balan."

"You have lost your mind, my lady!" Cecily said harshly. "I was in the woods with Gatty's daughters, Estrelda and Livith, collecting rushes as you ordered."

"I suspect if I ask them, Estrelda and Livith will say that you wandered off on your own to collect rushes. That you rejoined them only to return to the keep," Murie said. Her mouth tightened when panic crossed Cecily's face. "Aye, that is the way of it, is it not?"

"Nay!" the maid cried, and then repeated desperately, "What would I gain by his death?"

"Aye, that is a question. 'Tis why I kept denying you could be the culprit when the others suggested it had to be you or Osgoode. There was nodding for you to gain - or so I thought," Murie admitted. "But I have been pondering the matter ever since Osgoode described the dress you took ... and the only thing that strikes my mind is Baxley."

"Baxley?" Cecily echoed with alarm. "I hardly know the man. I only met him the one time here at the castle, when he flirted with Estrelda and myself."

"You lie," Murie said harshly. "You met him at court. Emilie pointed the two of you out to me on the morning of the Feast of St. Agnes."

When Cecily stilled, Murie nodded. "She said, 'Oh, look, your maid has a beau.' At the time I just smiled and thought it sweet. I did not know that the man would turn you into a murderous bitch."

"Baxley had nothing to do with this," Cecily snarled, her denials at last become rage. "I am the one who wanted Balan dead. Me. Not Baxley. He would never suggest such a thing."

"Why?" Murie asked. "He has never done a thing to you."

"He married you!" Cecily snapped.

When Murie just stared at her, Cecily threw her hands up in the air. "He married you and brought you to this godforsaken place!"

"What has that to do with it?" Murie asked with confusion.

"Gaynor is a fine castle. It may be having difficulties at the moment, but many castles are since the plague. It will regain its former glory soon. In a year or two or three - "

"I do not have a year or two or three," Cecily said harshly, then shook her head with disgust. "You do not understand. You do not see at all."

"Nay, I do not," Murie agreed.

"Look at me," Cecily demanded. "See me. I am growing old and am still unwed and childless. And 'tis all your fault."

"Mine?" Murie stared at her with dismay.

"Aye. Yours. I had a beau at Somerdale. William."

"The steward?" Murie asked with surprise.

"Aye. We were to marry, but then your parents died and the king showed up and deemed your nursemaid Elsie too old and unfit to travel."

Murie's head lifted slightly. Elsie had been a dear woman, but she had been growing old, and the journey to court would have been hard on her. Murie had forgotten all about it until now.

"I had the unfortunate luck of being in the room when the king decided this, and so he pointed to me and announced that I was to be her replacement. I was to accompany you to court, all without a by your leave. There was no asking whether I wanted to go. He ordered it, and I had to obey.

"I was furious. I had no desire to play nursemaid to some spoiled brat. I was a maid in the great hall, being trained to supervise the other maids. I had little if any interaction with you at all and had no desire to. I went to William in tears, hoping he would find some way to fix things. But there was no way. All he could do was soothe me and assure me all it meant was a delay in our plans. I would go to court with you, he said, and in four or five years when you married as most girls did, you and your husband would return to Somerdale and we could be married then and start our lives together.

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"So," she finished with disgust. "I accompanied you to court and suffered the gropings and propositions of drunken lords who saw me in the hall and assumed I was as cheap and easy as the other maids. And a year passed, and another and another, until five years were gone and still you were not wed. And then six, and then seven, and then eight, and still no marriage - but William and I continued to send messages to each other through servants and tradesmen coming and going from court. He kept his promise. He did not marry anyone else. He was waiting for me." Her voice cracked on the last word.

"And then the plague struck," Murie whispered with horror. She recalled the day she'd wondered aloud how those at Somerdale fared. Cecily had told her then that they'd fared no better than anywhere else, losing nearly half their people, including the steward, William.

Cecily nodded. "He was dead six months before I got word. His last words were to tell me he loved me."

Murie bit her lip. Cecily had fallen into a deep depression in the midst of the plague, but she'd just assumed it was the ordeal itself, the horror of it all, the fear, the death and the bodies piling up. She'd never known about this William or his importance to Cecily.

"I resigned myself to never marrying, to never having children of my own, to being a barren old woman stuck at that horrid court forever, for it seemed you were never going to wed," Cecily said bitterly. "And then the king ordered that you should.

"It mattered little to me when I first heard the news. It actually made me angry. If he'd only ordered this when you were fifteen, things would've been different. His own daughter was sent off to be married at fourteen in the midst of the plague, and she died from it, but he never bothered to order you." She shook her head with disgust.

"And then I met Baxley." Cecily's face softened. "And he was so handsome and charming.. . and he hinted that his lord was interested in you and that mayhap I would land at Aldous and we could be together. And it was like all of England opened up again for me. There was hope once more - a husband, children, a future." Her face darkened. "But you had to marry Malculinus for me to have it."

"You knew about the trick Malculinus and his sister planned to play," Murie said quietly.

Cecily nodded. "Baxley told me and warned me that if I normally slept on a pallet in your room not to scream or otherwise give away the game."

"And so you played up the St. Agnes Eve superstition, telling me about your sister who dreamed of a man she later married." Cecily nodded again. "I was so happy that night. I felt sure the trick would work, you would marry the handsome and rich lord Malculinus and we would go to Castle Aldous and live happily ever after."

Murie's mouth twisted with anger. "You mean you would. You would be at Aldous happy with Baxley, and I would be there as well, but I would be miserably married to Malculinus who had tricked me."

"You would have been happy," Cecily insisted. "You never would have known about the trick."

"But I soon would have come to realize the man had no character," Murie pointed out. "And by then it would have been too late."

"Character," Cecily snarled. "He does not need character. What matter if he is weak and cowardly? He is rich, with lots of servants. You wouldn't have had to slave away like a peasant to right Aldous Castle."

"Nay, I simply would have had to vie for my husband's attention with his mistress Lady Jane," she snapped. She blinked in surprise when Cecily's expression turned guilty. "You knew about Jane?"

The maid shrugged. "What matter if he was faithful? Men are never faithful."

Murie's eyes narrowed. "Your William was not faithful to you?"

"He was a man," Cecily said with a weary shrug. "What does it matter?"

"I suppose it does not," Murie acknowledged, and then shook her head. "None of this explains why you tried to kill Balan. I understand why you did not warn me of the trick and why you hoped it would succeed and I would marry Malculinus, but once Balan and I married ..." She shook her head and said, just to be sure, "You put the thistle under his saddle? And poisoned the meat?"

"Aye, I did it all - the horse, the meat, hitting him over the head by the river, the fire. It was all me, but every attempt went awry thanks to your interference." The maid's eyes turned angry again as she glared at Murie. "The thistle worked and sent the horse charging, but you charged after him and saved his life."

"Actually, it was Reginald who saved him that time," Murie corrected her.

Cecily waved that away. "But it was you who ate half the meat so that he did not get enough poison and die. And you who dragged him out of the water." She paused and scowled at Murie.

"I was there watching when you did it. I was hoping that you might leave him behind while you went to get help and I could finish him off, but no, you made a litter of your clothing and walked back naked to save him. What other lady would do that, I ask you?" She threw her hands in the air again, this time with exasperation. "You even interfered with the fire, unblocking the door and setting them both free. Every time I have thought I was about to attain my deepest desire and kill the bastard, you interfered and saved his life ... twice almost getting yourself killed in the process," she added harshly. "How would I have gotten to Aldous then?"

Murie peered at the woman as if she were mad -  which she obviously was - and said, "You would not have gotten to Aldous in any case. Even had my husband died, I would never have married Malculinus."

"Aye, you will," Cecily assured her.

"Nay, I will not," Murie retorted. "Even had you succeeded in killing my husband, the king would not force me to marry again so soon. If at all. And if he did, Malculinus would be the very last man in England I would ever consider."

"Your husband will die," Cecily assured her menacingly. "And when he does, you will marry Malculinus. I suffered ten long years at court for you - you owe me this."

Murie gave a tsk of mingled disgust and disbelief. "I owe you nothing. You were paid quite handsomely for those ten long years. And had you explained things and asked, I am sure the king would have released you to return to Somerdale. All you had to do was ask."

Now it was Cecily's turn to look dubious. "You do not ask the king for anything. You obey and keep your head on your shoulders."

"Oh, bollocks!" Murie snapped. "You are a servant not a slave. Just look at how all the villeins and servants left here when more coin was offered elsewhere."

"Now, "Cecily said with emphasis. "Now that half the servants and workers are gone, we have some power and may go in search of kinder surroundings. But not ten years ago. Not when the king ordered me to court."

"Why did you not simply pack up and go to Aldous yourself if you so desired, rather than spend all this energy trying to kill my husband?" Murie asked.

Cecily frowned and avoided her gaze, and Murie's eyes widened with understanding. "Because you feared Baxley would not be interested in you without your, first, obtaining me for his lord."

"Shut up," Cecily snapped. "He is mine, and I am having him. I deserve this after losing my William. You will marry Malculinus."

"Nay, I will not," Murie said. "I will not marry him, and I will not let you kill my husband."

"Aye, you will - because if you do not, then you are of no use to me at all, and I may as well kill you, too."

Murie stared at her maid and realized she'd made a huge mistake in confronting the woman alone. This was the maid who had tended her needs for ten years, and yet Murie did not recognize her - had never even really known her, she realized. The face Cecily had been showing all these years had not been the real woman. She'd hated and resented Murie for being forced to court all this time, and Murie had to wonder if that wasn't part of the reason behind her determination to kill Balan: She'd lost her William and would now see Murie suffer an equal loss. She was trying to sort out how best to handle the situation, when Cecily suddenly produced a knife. "I think I shall kill you anyway. You have been a canker on my arse long enough." Murie's eyes widened incredulously. This was unexpected. She'd never imagined the maid would have such a weapon on her. On the other hand, she'd never really believed the woman had been the one behind the attacks on Balan. So far, she'd handled the situation all wrong.

Cecily suddenly lunged, stabbing out with the knife, and Murie instinctively sidestepped and then swung the heavy basket the maid had brought for collecting branches. She hit her maid in the side of the head, sending Cecily slamming to the ground. Murie did not stick around to see how the maid fared, but took off at once, crashing into the woods rather than risk the path. She was younger and stronger, but her body had taken a beating today, and she'd had nothing but the bowl of soup Clement had brought. She feared in a race to the death, she would lose. She needed to use intellect - if she had any left after the blow she'd taken. Murie ran as quickly as she could, heading in the direction she thought the castle must be. When she broke out of the trees and suddenly found herself on the edge of the village, she didn't hesitate, but made for the small group of buildings. It was a long, unprotected run to the castle from where she'd come out of the woods, and at this point she would not put it past Cecily to chase after her and stab her at the foot of the drawbridge, even in front of the men on the wall. The maid was not in her right mind, and the village was much closer; there would be places to hide while she sorted out how to get back to the castle and help.

If Murie were extremely lucky, one of the men on the wall might even see her and send someone down to be sure all was well, she thought optimistically.

The smell of smoke was heavy in the air as she drew close to the buildings. Balan had not judged it necessary to put out the fire in the blacksmith's cottage. The building itself had already been beyond repair, and so long as the fire did not spread he'd claimed he was content to let it burn.

The fire had not spread, Murie saw as she hurried into the village. But it was not yet completely out, either. The building had collapsed in on itself and was now a heap of blackened, smoldering wood and debris. Skirting it, Murie made her way to a cottage two doors down and glanced quickly around to be sure she was not seen before slipping inside.

The cottage she'd chosen was small and dark and dank with disuse. Moving to the window beside the door, Murie peered toward the woods and worried her lip, waiting to see if Cecily followed. If she were extremely lucky, the woman was presently lying unconscious in the woods, easy for Balan's men to find and capture. Murie might be standing here hiding for naught!

That thought had barely run through her mind when Cecily appeared at the edge of the woods. The maid's head turned toward the castle, then to the village. She ... headed for the village. Murie turned immediately to peer around, relieved when she spotted a door at the back of the cottage, leading - she hoped

-  outside. At least she would not be trapped if Cecily found her. She might even be able to slip out and run to the castle. Murie's eyebrows drew together as she noted that Cecily was walking straight for the cottage she was in, as if Cecily had seen where she'd gone. And probably she had, Murie realized. Just because she had not come out of the woods right away did not preclude her from lurking just out of sight.

Cursing under her breath as the woman drew closer, Murie hurried to the back of the cottage and tried the door. Relieved, she found it opened. She slipped outside and pulled the door closed, then eased to the corner of the building, ears straining for some tell-tale sound that might inform her as to whether Cecily had yet entered. She was about to risk running behind the next cottage when Cecily stepped around the corner in front of her, knife at the ready.

A startled cry slipped from her lips, and Murie whirled and ran the other way, uncaring where she went as long as it was away from Cecily's slashing knife. She managed to get past the cottage she'd been hiding in and out behind the blacksmith's burnt ruins before Cecily caught her by the hair. The maid tried to jerk her to a stop and back around.

Knowing death awaited her, Murie threw herself to the side, breaking the hold the woman had on her but landing on her stomach on the ground, terribly vulnerable. Rolling quickly onto her back, she found Cecily looming over her, a cruel smile on her face.

"Do you know how many mornings I have fantasized about shoving your head into the basin of water I brought and drowning you?"

"It was not my fault you ended up at court," Murie yelped with frustration, scrambling backward on her behind.

"Mayhap not, but if you had died, I could have left," Cecily pointed out.

"Well then, why did you not kill me?" Murie snapped. " 'Tis funny you could not approach the king for William, but are now willing to kill for Baxley. Mayhap you never really wanted William at all, and it was easier just to allow the king to order you to court. Were you hoping for other options? Other men to woo you? Did that never happen and so you blame me for all your failures?"

"Bitch!" Cecily lunged at her, and Murie prepared to roll away at the last moment - but the last moment never came. A body came hurtling seemingly out of the air and crashed into the maid, taking her to the ground.

Confused, Murie sat up and peered around. Osgoode came running around the corner of a cottage. It was only then that Murie realized who the first body belonged to: her husband. Gasping with worry, she scrambled to her feet and turned to the couple on the ground. She saw Balan getting to his feet and dragging Cecily up with him. It wasn't until they were both standing and he dragged her around that they all saw the knife she'd been holding was protruding from her chest. She'd fallen on the weapon when Balan tackled her. He released her arm and took a step back, apparently as shocked by her injury as anyone. Cecily scowled at the three of them and staggered back a step. She then peered down at her chest with curiosity, noticed the knife there. A small laugh slipped from her lips. Shaking her head, she backed up another step and then collapsed with a little sigh.

A moment passed, and Balan moved to her side. He turned her face his way, lifted her eyelids, then lowered his head so that his ear was over her mouth and nose. After a moment, he straightened and got to his feet.

"Is she . .. ?" Osgoode asked.

Before Balan could answer, Murie said, "Aye."

"How did you know, wife?" Balan asked with a frown.

"I heard the cuckoo call in the woods. It means someone will die," she said simply. Then she turned to walk away. She was feeling a bit shaky and uncertain about her feelings regarding her maid's death. Part of her was sorry. The woman had been with her for ten years, after all. The other part was relieved. At least now she could stop worrying for her husband's well-being. Murie had only taken a few steps when Balan swept her into his arms.

"I love you, Murie," he whispered, holding her as if he would never let her go.

"I love you too, Balan," she whispered, and laid her head on his shoulder. That was really all there was to say.
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