The Brat Chapter Five

"Balan, pray stop stepping on my toes," Osgoode said through gritted teeth.

"You are the one who insisted on this ridiculous venture," Balan ground out, releasing his cousin's hand with disgust. He'd always found dancing a useless waste of time. Why women insisted on the foolish exercise was beyond him. He was sure men would never bother if women did not insist. His opinion being so, he found it difficult to concentrate on the complicated steps. His mind tended to wander to more interesting matters, and he soon lost track of what he was supposed to be doing, which led to losing his place in the dance, or worse, trampling on Osgoode's toes.

"You need to at least be able to dance with the woman tonight after the feast without crushing her feet if you wish to impress her at all," Osgoode insisted. "It would not be so important had you not managed to insult her on the walk." Balan scowled. He still was not sure how he'd managed to mess things up so badly. But it had led to this last hour of misery, going through the steps of the dance with Osgoode. He felt ridiculous dancing with his cousin and would have called a halt to the practice if not for the news Osgoode's page had gained while listening in on the conversation between Malculinus and Lauda Aldous.

Of course the pair had been quite distressed by the news that, rather than Malculinus, Murie claimed to have dreamt of Balan. The two had spent several moments trying to sort out how that had happened, until Lauda had forced Malculinus to confess that, while he did recall going to Murie's room, he had no recollection of actually either waking or kissing the girl. He'd also admitted that he was not sure how he made it back to his room. The last thing he remembered was approaching her bed and then waking up in his own. He'd woken with a splitting headache and three bumps on his head.

Lauda had pretty much put together what had happened. Her opinion was that Balan had taken advantage of their plot, knocked Malculinus out and woken the girl himself on purpose. The Aldouses had no idea that Murie's seeing him had not been part of Balan's plan. As he'd suspected out in the garden, the pair had come up with a way to try to expose his presence in her boudoir: to claim that Lauda had seen him enter Murie's chamber, but hadn't realized it was Murie's until she'd seen her coming out of it this morning -  else she would have surely called the guard. Of course, that plot had been ruined when Murie denied dreaming of anyone.

Positive that the pair would not now let the matter lie but would come up with another plan - either to expose Balan's presence in Murie's room last night or to find another way to trick the girl into marrying Malculinus - Osgoode and Balan had sent their spy to trail the brother and sister and see if he could learn what they might come up with.

"Come." Osgoode moved back across the room and turned to face Balan. "We shall start again. This time, try to recall you approach me on my right."

Heaving a heartfelt sigh, Balan took up his position, then nodded to his squire. The fifteen-year-old promptly began to play a tune on his lute, and Balan and Osgoode began again to dance.

"Perhaps a test of knowledge?" Emilie said.

Murie stopped pacing to contemplate the suggestion, then asked, "What kind of knowledge?"

"History?" Emilie suggested after a moment to consider. Murie wrinkled her nose and shook her head. "I have never fared well at history. I always get dates and names mixed up."

"Ah." Emilie's eyebrows drew together in concentration. The two women were briefly silent. "What are you good at?" Murie stopped pacing and pursed her lips in thought. "I am quite good at chess."

"Chess!" Emilie stood. "That is perfect! I know Balan plays chess. He has done so with Reginald at Reynard."

"Good," Murie said, relieved to have the matter settled. After the last hour of pondering the possibilities, and not coming up with anything suitable, she'd begun to think it was an incredibly stupid idea to challenge him to a duel of intellect. But Murie was very good at chess. She often played the king - or at least had in the past. Much to his chagrin, she'd begun to win quite frequently, and he'd stopped playing with her.

"Let us go find Lord Balan and tell him what we have come up with," Emilie said. "Mayhap you can even play now." Nodding, Murie led the way to the door. The moment they were in the hall, however, she began to grow nervous.

"I have not played the game in a while," she confessed with worry. "King Edward has refused to play with me because I keep beating him. I hope I have not lost the skill."

"Nay, I am sure you will be fine." Emilie patted her shoulder reassuringly.

The two women looked for their quarry first in the hall. They did not see either Osgoode or Balan, but Emilie did spot and recognize Osgoode's page loitering near the fire. The boy was not far from Malculinus and Lauda, who were seated in chairs by the fire, their heads close together in conversation.

Not wishing to draw the attention of the pair, Emilie caught the boy's eye and waved him over. The lad hesitated, then ran to them and eventually related that Balan and Osgoode had retired to their chambers to prepare for that evening.

Thanking the page, the women made their way through the castle halls to find the rooms Balan and Osgoode shared, wondering as they went what exactly the two were preparing. They still hadn't come up with an answer by the time they reached their destination.

"Here we are," Emilie said as they paused outside the door. They glanced at each other with raised eyebrows as they heard the sound of a lute from inside, and then she knocked. When a moment passed and there was no response, she knocked again.

"They are not answering," Murie pointed out. The door remained firmly closed.

"I do not think they can hear us knocking over their music," Emilie said with a frown.

"Mayhap we should come back later." Murie shrugged, not at all distressed by the delay. She was suddenly feeling a need to practice chess. It had been a while since she'd played, and she didn't wish to make a fool of herself after insisting she was as intelligent as any man.

Unfortunately, Emilie shook her head. "Nay. 'Tis better to get this over with."

"Well, I do not see how we are going to do that if they do not answer the - " The words died on her lips as Emilie opened the door. Both women stared wide-eyed at the occupants of the room. A young lad with a lute was the source of the music, but it was Balan and Osgoode who had the women gaping. The two were dancing - or trying. While Osgoode seemed to manage the steps just fine, Balan appeared to be having difficulty.

"Watch the toes!"

Osgoode squawked as Balan -

concentrating on the hand he was taking - took one step too close and stomped on his cousin's foot.

Emilie pulled the door quietly closed again and turned to grab Murie's arm. She hurried her away from the door as they both burst into giggles.

"Oh my," Murie breathed once they had turned the corner and her laughter had eased. "Whatever were they doing?"

"I think Osgoode was giving Balan lessons in dancing," Emilie said. "Most likely to impress you tonight after the feast."

"Oh, I had forgotten about tonight," Murie admitted. She generally tried to avoid court feasts and balls when Emilie was not in attendance, and generally she got away with it. However, Emilie was here, and Murie would no doubt be expected to attend this event, especially now that she'd been ordered to marry.

"I suppose you have not decided on what to wear," Emilie commented.

Murie shook her head.

"Well, as the men are busy, mayhap we should delay the game of chess and go look into that. I am sure you have something suitable."

"I do not understand it," Emilie said, frowning around the ballroom. "The entire court knows you must marry. Where are all the men?"

Murie shrugged unhappily. "Probably hiding, for fear I shall look in their direction and they shall be stuck with a brat for a wife."

"Oh, nay," Emilie said, but she looked worried. And well she should, too, Murie thought. She'd caught more than one whisper suggesting that this was exactly the reason for the sudden shortage of men at court. Some of the women found it amusing and were tittering over the fact, while others were annoyed with Murie for scaring off the men when they too needed to find husbands. Lord Malculinus Aldous was one of the few men who had not fled, but that had left him to plague Murie all evening, and she'd found she could not turn around without tripping over the man.

"Well, at least Malculinus does not seem afraid of me," she said with forced cheer. While she found the man's constant attentions irritating, at least she had someone to dance with. It would have been wholly humiliating had even he turned away from her. In fact, she thought she should have looked kindly on him for that alone. However, there was something about the man that put her on her guard.

"Aye. But there is something about Malculinus that I do not trust. Every time he comes around, I find myself fighting the urge to snatch you away and hide you," Emilie confessed, She grimaced. "I suppose I am being silly. Lord Aldous has not set a foot wrong."

Murie didn't comment, but she found it interesting that they'd both had the same reaction to his presence.

"I wonder where Balan and Osgoode are," Emilie said - not for the first time. "It seems obvious they planned to attend, else why practice dancing?"

"Hmmm," Murie murmured, wondering the very thing herself. In fact, she'd found herself searching for him among those in attendance and watching for his arrival when she realized he was not yet there. However, it was growing late, and he still had not yet appeared. She supposed she shouldn't be so concerned with where he was. After all, if Lauda were right, her dream had meant that she shouldn't marry him. Considering his opinion of women, she could understand that. On the other hand, she had to wonder why they would share such a passionate kiss in her dream if she wasn't supposed to marry him.

Shrugging the matter aside, she glanced up to see Reginald approach. Reaching them, he pressed a kiss to his wife's forehead, then offered Murie a greeting before turning back to Emilie to say, "You look pale and tired, wife."

"I am fine," she assured him. "You worry too much, Reginald. Do not fuss so."

"You are carrying our child, Emilie," he reminded her. "Our first child. I will fuss if I choose."

"He is right, Emilie," Murie agreed. "You do look pale. Mayhap we should call it a night."

Emilie snorted. "You are just hoping for an excuse to leave the ball."

Murie shrugged. "There seems little reason to be here if Malculinus is going to be the only one to ask me to dance." Reginald frowned at her comment, then turned to his wife to ask, "Where is Balan?"

Murie sent an accusatory glance Emilie's way. It seemed obvious her friend had shared her dream and the events that followed with her husband. Of course, she'd suspected she would. Emilie's marriage was a true love match. Still, it deserved a glare.

"We were just wondering that ourselves," Emilie admitted, sending Murie an apologetic grimace.

"I know he intended to attend; I spoke to him earlier," Lord Reynard said. "He borrowed a doublet from me." Murie's eyes widened in surprise, but Emilie leaned close and whispered, "See? He did plan to attend -  and even hoped to impress you, else he would not have borrowed a doublet from my husband."

"It would have impressed me more if he had attended," she said dryly. Then she narrowed her eyes on Reginald and suggested, "Mayhap he heard from someone that I plan to challenge him to a game of chess and was too afraid to come."

"Do not glare at me," Reginald said with amusement. " I did not tell him about the chess game. Although, I hardly think that would scare him off. The man is quite good at chess. He has even beaten me several times."

Murie wrinkled her nose at his arrogance. She'd known for ages that the man considered himself a genius at chess. Unfortunately, Murie could not deny it. While she hadn't played him, she'd seen him play here at court, and she had to admit that he was quite good. It made her positive that she would be better off practicing before playing Balan. It would hardly prove her intellect if he beat her.

"Come." Reginald put his hand under Emilie's elbow. "You are going to bed."

"But Murie - " Emilie began to protest, only to have him interrupt.

"Murie does not want to be here and would most likely appreciate the excuse to retire herself," he said firmly.

"Aye," Murie admitted with amusement. "I am ready to quit the ball. There is little of interest for me here, and I would rather be gone before the wine and ale takes effect and loosens everyone's tongues." Those who attended court were unpleasant at the best of times, but she knew from experience that drink could make them worse. Murie really would rather not be around for it.

"Oh, very well," her friend muttered, and the very fact that she gave in so easily proved how weary she really was. It made Murie peer at her with concern. In truth, Emilie was far along in her pregnancy and probably should not have traveled to court. In fact, Murie had been surprised that Reginald had allowed it. However, Emilie confessed to Murie that she'd threatened to follow him on her own if he tried to leave her behind. Knowing she was just stubborn enough to do it, Reginald had given in. Not happily, however.

"Are you coming?" Emilie asked as Reginald started to lead her away.

Murie hesitated, then said, "I will say good night to the king first. You two go ahead without me."

Emilie opened her mouth, no doubt to offer to wait, but Reginald began to pull her firmly away.

"The girl lives here, Emilie. She will make it to her own chamber safely enough."

Murie smiled faintly at Emilie's expression as she gave in and allowed her husband to lead her from the ballroom.

Once the Reynards were out of sight, rather than make her way to the king, Murie turned and made her way out of the castle. She had no intention of wishing the king good evening. She had no desire to be asked if she'd chosen a husband yet. However, she really wasn't tired either. She found herself oddly restless instead and hoped a walk around the gardens would wear her out. However, Murie hadn't thought ahead. The garden was one of those places where amorous couples sought out privacy. After running into the second couple occupied in carnal endeavors Murie turned back with a sigh, thinking she could find something to occupy herself in her room, where she was safe from seeing things she really had no desire to see.

She'd made it perhaps halfway back through the gardens when Malculinus suddenly stepped into her path. Murie froze like a squirrel spotting a predator, but she forced a smile to her lips.

"Lord Aldous. I thought you were at the ball with everyone else."

"I saw you leave and thought you might desire some company," he replied with a smile.

There was nothing in the least threatening about him. He was neither standing too close, nor leering in any way that could be considered improper, and yet she was suddenly on the alert. So much so, when she spotted Balan approaching along the path, she hailed him with relief.

"My Lord Gaynor! Lord Reynard asked me to give you a message," she called out to ensure he did not turn off the path before reaching them. She then glanced at Malculinus and smiled apologetically. "Excuse me, my lord, I promised to tell Lord Gaynor something."

Slipping quickly past Lauda's brother, she hurried to Gaynor's side and took his arm to lead him toward the castle. When she glanced back several moments later, Malculinus stood where she'd left him, watching with narrowed eyes.

"What was this message you spoke of?" Gaynor asked once they were out of Aldous's earshot.

Murie bit her lip and admitted, "I fear that was a lie, my lord. There is no message. I simply did not wish to be alone with Malculinus in the garden and made that up as a way to escape him without being rude."

"If you did not wish to be alone with him, why did you accompany him here?"

Hearing the shortness of his tone, Murie glanced at him with irritation. "I did not 'accompany him' anywhere. I came out here for a walk, and when I turned back he was there."

The harshness left Balan's face and he said, "And you were not comfortable alone with him?"

Murie shrugged. "Let us just say that I was uncomfortable with the situation."

"You have good instincts," Balan assured her. "I would not trust him alone with you, either."

Murie glanced at him with surprise, but didn't comment.

"Are you enjoying the ball?" he asked after a moment of silence.

Startled, Murie answered, "I would hardly be out here if I were enjoying it, would I?" She smiled faintly and asked, "Why were you not at the ball?"

Balan was silent so long, she felt sure he would not answer. Finally he admitted, "The doublet I planned to wear met with an untimely accident." He paused, then turned toward her. In the moonlight, she could see that he wore a pale doublet, but there was a large stain in the center.

She eyed it for a moment and asked, "Did you not have something else to wear?"

"Nothing fine enough for a court ball. In fact, I have nothing suitable for court at all. Gaynor was hit hard by the plague, and we are in temporary financial difficulties. I borrowed this doublet from Lord Reynard and shall now have to replace it." Murie was silent, unsure how to respond. Honesty did not appear to be a problem with this man. She suspected most men would not be so open about their difficulties, temporary or not, but he'd stated them as a simple fact.

Rather than address his poverty, she asked, "How did the doublet get stained?"

"That is a question I myself would like to hear the answer to," he replied, his expression grim. "I laid it in my chamber after borrowing it from Reginald, went below with Osgoode, and when we returned ink had been spilled on it."

Murie's eyebrows rose at this explanation. It sounded as if someone had deliberately stained his tunic while he was out of the room; though, why anyone would do that was beyond her. Unless they hadn't wished him to be able to attend the ball. But why would anyone want that? And who?

The garden was lit by torches, but the path was still shadowy. Distracted as she was by their conversation, Murie was not watching where she was going as closely as she should have. When she put her foot down on something in the path, her ankle suddenly twisted out from under her. Murie cried out and instinctively grabbed for Balan's arm. He immediately paused and turned to steady her; then, seeing the pain on her face, scooped her into his arms. He carried her to a bench set off from the path and gently set her down, kneeling before her to examine her ankle.

Flushing with embarrassment - he dared to look under her skirt? - Murie tried to brush his hands away, but he was not one to be put off. Balan examined the ankle carefully, removing her shoe and pressing the skin around her heel and shin until she gasped.

"It is not broken," he said, "but 'tis swelling."

"It will be fine," Murie assured him, wishing he'd stop. He did stop, but still held on to the foot as he raised his head to peer at her. After a hesitation, he said, "You misunderstood me in the garden today. Or perhaps I misspoke," he added quickly as her eyes narrowed. "I was trying to explain that I find women much more complicated and confounding than men. We are simple creatures, with simple needs and simple conversations. Women tend to wish to discuss more ... er ... emotional matters. They - I have been told - enjoy protestations of undying love and compliments to their beauty, and these are not areas in which I excel. And so, rather than unintentionally offend a lady or drive her to distraction with my silences," he added, smiling wryly at her, "I tend to avoid them altogether. Thus, I am poor at the art of conversation."

Murie relaxed. "Lady Emilie did tell me that she was sure you meant no insult."

"Nay. I did not."

She smiled and added, "We spent a good deal of time thinking up ways to have a duel of the intellect."

"Did you?" he asked with amusement. "And what did you come up with?"

"A game of chess," she admitted. "I am quite good - or I used to be. I have not played for a while. The king would no longer play with me because I kept beating him."

Balan's eyes widened, and he threw back his head with a deep laugh.

Murie smiled, even though she wasn't sure what he found funny. His laughter was just so lovely that she could not help smiling.

When he finally sobered, he said, "I should very much like to play chess with you someday, my lady. I quite enjoy the game, especially when 'tis challenging."

"Then I shall do my best to challenge you," Murie replied. Balan smiled and stood. "Now," he said, offering her his arm,

"if your ankle is quite recovered, I shall see you to your room." Murie stood and slid her hand onto his forearm, marveling at how natural the action felt. They walked in silence back to the castle, but this time it was companionable. Murie felt no desperate need for conversation; she was content to just walk. At her door, they both murmured good night, and she slipped inside with a little sigh.

"My lady." Cecily smiled and rushed to her side as Murie moved farther into the room. "Did you enjoy the ball?"

"Not really," she admitted.

The maid's eyebrows rose. "But you are smiling."

"Aye." Murie laughed softly, then shrugged. "I went for a walk afterward in the gardens and ran into Balan."

"Lord Gaynor?" the maid asked with concern.


"My lady," Cecily murmured, then frowned and bit her lip as she helped remove Murie's surcoat.

"What is it, Cecily?" Murie asked.

"It is just... I should have mentioned this earlier, but there was really no opportunity."


"Well, when I left last evening, I noticed Lord Gaynor lurking out in the hall with Lord Osgoode, and I did wonder ..."

"What?" Murie repeated with a frown.

"Nothing." The maid shook her head and folded the surcoat, then came to help with her gown. "I was talking to Mydrede today."

"Were you?" Murie said, her mind still on what Cecily had just told her.

"Aye. I asked her about ways to divine who your mate should be."

Murie nodded and forced herself to pay attention to the conversation. Mydrede was the oldest servant at court; a woman always happy to pass on any bits of wisdom, such as how to counteract the evil eye. "Why would you do that?" Cecily shrugged. "I heard today that they are debating the trustworthiness of the St. Agnes Eve ritual. Some seem to think that by eating rotten meat you will dream of the man you should not marry."

"Aye, I heard that myself," Murie admitted with a frown. She'd quite forgotten that on her walk with Balan. She also hadn't had a chance to ask Becker about it yet.

"Well, I asked Mydrede for other ways to sort it out," the servant explained. "I know 'tis a difficult decision, and you are finding it upsetting."

"Aye," Murie agreed. The maid had finished with the lacings and had lifted her gown up over her head. The truth was, Murie rather liked the idea of marrying Balan, and had ever since her dream. Now people seemed to be suggesting she shouldn't. Sighing as she was freed from the gown, Murie let her hands drop. "What did she tell you?"

"She gave me many methods," Cecily announced with enthusiasm. Setting the gown aside, she reached into a small bag at her waist and pulled out various leaves and little seeds.

"What is that?" Murie asked, leaning closer to eye the items.

"Ivy. Clover ... An ash leaf?"

"Aye. If you put the ivy leaf in your pocket, the first man you meet shall be the man you marry and similarly with the clover . . . though, that you put in your right shoe. The ash leaf works the same, though you have to recite a poem. Let me see . . ." She paused and scrunched her face up with concentration for a moment, then nodded. "It goes 'Even ash, even ash, I pluck thee off the tree. The first young man that I do meet, my lover he shall be.' And then you put it in your left shoe, and the first man you meet shall be your husband."

"But the poem says 'I pluck thee off the tree, 'and I did not pluck it. You did," Murie pointed out with a frown.

"Oh, aye." Cecily appeared disappointed.

"What are those seeds?"

"Oh." She brightened again. "These are apple pips. You put them on your cheeks, naming each for a possible husband, and the one that stays on the longest is the name of the man who will be your husband." Cecily was licking and sticking the pips to Murie's cheeks even as she spoke.

Not wishing to dislodge them, Murie tried to speak without moving her mouth and cheeks. "But I have no names to give them."

"Of course you do, my lady. There are several single men at court right now. Why, Lord Aldous is one. He is wealthy and handsome. And then there is..." She frowned.

'You see?" Murie said, and raised her hands to wipe the pips from her cheeks. Turning, she moved toward her bed. "I am tired, Cecily. We can talk more about what you learned from Mydrede in the morning. I do appreciate it, though."

"Aye, my lady," Cecily said, sounding disappointed. Trying to cheer her, Murie suggested, "Mayhap you could show me where to find the ivy, clover and ash leaves, and we can try them all tomorrow."

"Aye." The servant managed a smile, then moved toward the door. "Good sleep, my lady."

"Good night," Murie replied as the woman left. Climbing under the linens and furs, she settled herself on her side and stared into the flames of the fire Cecily had built up. It was late summer, and while the days were still warm, the evenings were beginning to cool; a fire helped keep the chill out. Murie gazed into the flickering flames, and she ruminated that Balan had a lovely laugh. And kind eyes. And she wished he'd kissed her in the gardens so she would know if his kisses were as exciting in real life as they had been in her dreams.

Frowning, she rolled onto her back and pondered the matter of the rotten meat. Did it mean she shouldn't marry him? She wished she knew. Murie would have thought that Mydrede would have known, but had she, Cecily would have mentioned the answer one way or another, so she supposed she didn't. Becker would know, however, She reminded herself of that, and determined once again to speak to Becker and the king first thing in the morning.

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