The Brat Chapter four

"They are coming this way!"

Balan nearly choked on the bread he was swallowing when Osgoode hissed at him in a panicked voice. Grabbing up his mead, he gulped some to help wash down the bread, and then glanced around to see Lady Emilie and Murie coming across the hall. They could have been headed anywhere and to speak to anyone, but the way Reginald's wife was eyeing them with determination suggested that they were indeed coming to see them.

"Sit up," Osgoode ordered. "And run your hands through your hair. Oh, dear God, what are we going to do?"

Balan rolled his eyes. "I thought you were an expert on women. Why ask me? Besides, stop panicking. If they are coming here, it is to speak to me, not you."

"That is why I am panicking," Osgoode assured him. "You do not speak much - not to women. Not even to men, really."

"I am the strong and silent sort," Balan growled.

"Well, strong and silent will not win you a wife. I prithee, Balan, please talk to the woman. Give her a compliment or two or - " Osgoode cut himself off as the pair drew near enough to overhear. Turning abruptly in his seat, he concentrated on his meal, as if he hoped the women might think they hadn't been noticed.

Balan shook his head at this behavior, then hesitated, unsure what he should do. Should he follow his cousin's lead and act as if he were unaware of their approach, or smile in greeting now that they were drawing nearer? He knew and liked Reginald's wife, and was glad she would be the one to introduce he and Murie properly; it should help ease things. Actually, as he watched the women approach, he suddenly recalled a conversation at Reynard Castle when last he was there. Reginald had been forced to make an appearance at court, and Emilie was excited at the opportunity to visit her friend. Balan had been startled to hear Lady Emilie and Murie were friends at the time, having heard the famous stories about the Brat and her antics for years, but Emilie had assured him the girl wasn't what the stories claimed at all and that he should wait to judge for himself.

Balan had just shaken off the suggestion at the time.

Yes, he now believed her words. Murie wasn't what everyone perceived her to be. Her behavior was just an act to protect her in the cold, cruel world of court. Balan honestly found it amazing that she'd survived as well as she had and suspected the friendship with Emilie had been her saving grace. He'd yet to meet a kinder, more understanding woman than Reginald's bride. He'd even felt a pang or two of jealousy over the man's good fortune in marrying Emilie.

"Good morn, my lord," Lady Emilie said.

Balan jerked his gaze back into focus at the greeting, his eyes widening in surprise that they had already reached him. Aware that Osgoode was glancing around in feigned surprise himself, Balan stood and nodded to the two women.

"Murie, this is Balan, Lord Gaynor, and his cousin, Osgoode," Emilie said politely. "And this, gentlemen, is Lady Murie of Somerdale."

Balan nodded again, grunting when Osgoode jumped to his feet, jarring him in the side with an elbow. Not accidentally, Balan was sure.

"Ladies! How lovely to meet you both," his cousin cried happily. "Of course, Lady Emilie, we have met before, but it is always a pleasure. And doubly so because you have brought such a flower of beauty with you."

Balan turned wide eyes on Osgoode, sure he'd lost his mind. He'd never heard his cousin sound like such an ass.

"Good morn, Osgoode." Emilie laughed, then glanced from one man to the other. "Murie was hoping for a walk in the gardens, and I was happy to join her, but we cannot find Reginald to accompany us."

"Actually, I believe he is approaching now," Balan said, glancing past her.

"Ah." Much to his surprise, the woman didn't look pleased. She turned to see her tall, fair-haired husband indeed hurrying toward them.

"I am sorry, love," he said, reaching her side and bending to press a kiss to her cheek. "Lord Abernathy wished to discuss something of import, and I lost track of time."

" 'Tis all right, husband," Emilie said, but she appeared vexed.

'Your wife was just informing us that she was hoping for a walk in the gardens with Lady Murie, but she could not find you," Balan announced, hoping to ease any tension.

"Oh." Reginald frowned at his wife. "Er ... well, actually, I was just coming to explain that I have to meet with the king. He sent Robert to fetch me, and I said I would be along at once, but I wished to explain that to you."

"Oh." Rather than appear put out by this news, Emilie brightened, beaming at the man as if he'd just said something terribly clever. All signs of annoyance gone, she assured him,

"Oh, that is all right, husband. I am sure Lord Gaynor and Osgoode would be willing to accompany us on our walk."

"Oh my, yes. We would be honored," Osgoode said quickly. His voice was bluff and deeper than usual. It made Balan glance at him in bewilderment, not having a clue what was wrong with him.

"You see? They will accompany us. All is well," Emilie said, patting her husband's arm.

"Good, good," Reginald replied - but his eyes were narrowed on his wife with something like suspicion. His gaze then moved to Murie, and finally to Balan. When Lord Reynard cocked one eyebrow in question, Balan shrugged. It was becoming obvious that Lady Emilie was trying to help lady Murie spend some time with him. However, he wasn't going to explain that to Reginald. Not now, and not later. He had no desire to explain the debacle of last night.

"Well," Reginald said. "I should be off. Enjoy your walk." He bent to press a kiss by his wife's ear, taking the opportunity to whisper something that made her scowl. He then straightened, nodded to the rest of them and departed.

"Well, shall we, gentlemen?" Lady Emilie asked brightly. Before anyone could respond, she stepped forward to take Osgoode's arm in a firm grip and began to walk.

Murie smiled at him shyly, so Balan offered her his arm. She placed her hand lightly on his forearm, and they began to follow the other couple. They left the castle and made their way into the royal gardens.

Emilie and Osgoode were walking a couple of steps in front of them, but it was a miracle the two didn't trip over anything in their path: Both spent more time glancing anxiously back at Murie and Balan than paying attention to where they were going. Emilie was casting them worried looks, and Osgoode kept raising his eyebrows and giving Balan meaningful glances. Fortunately, Murie didn't appear to notice. Balan had no idea what his cousin's problem was, but he suspected it had to do with him speaking to the woman. Unfortunately, Balan found he couldn't think of a thing to say. Every time he looked Murie's way, his attention got caught on her lips and he remembered the kiss they'd shared last night, and his thoughts went south, not offering the sort of elevated conversation he supposed Osgoode wanted.

Apparently deciding as one that he and Murie were in need of intervention, the pair suddenly broke apart and dropped back to walk on either side of them: Emilie on Murie's side, Osgoode on Balan's. It was no surprise when his cousin jammed his elbow into his side, obviously hoping to jar him into speech, but Osgoode was saved from a good cuff to the head by Emilie's sudden speech.

" 'Tis a lovely sunny day for a change and yet not too hot," she said cheerfully.

"Aye, 'tis," Osgoode agreed at once. "Very nice for summer. And yet not too cool either. I do hate when the cold winter winds arrive. So does Balan," he added informatively.

"Aye, winter is Murie's least favorite time. She likes this time of year, though she does think fall is lovely with all its colors," Emilie went on, then briefly fell silent and began to worry her lip. Suddenly she stopped, brightening as she said, "Balan, I was telling Murie about your sister, Juliana. She is ten, is she not?"

"Aye," Balan answered.

Emilie frowned when he said no more, then asked, "She is faring well, I hope?"

"Aye," Balan said, then grunted and turned to glare at Osgoode, who had elbowed him once more.

For his part, Osgoode glared right back. He leaned forward past Balan to the ladies and said, "Juliana is faring very well. She is missing her father, of course, but Balan is doing his best to fill the hole his passing left."

Balan arched an eyebrow at the bald-faced lie. Much to his distress, his father had blamed Juliana for her mother's death and had never forgiven her. He hadn't been cruel to the child, but had basically ignored her all her days, leaving her to the care of servants. The girl could hardly miss someone she'd never really known. There was no hole for Balan to fill.

The words had apparently touched Murie, however, for she smiled sweetly upon him and murmured, " 'Tis very kind of you, my lord. I am sure she appreciates your efforts. I know I should have been grateful to have had an older sibling to take over my care after my parents died."

"Aye," Emilie agreed. Leaning forward to look past the girl, she explained, "Murie was only ten when she was orphaned and brought to court."

Balan nodded, catching Osgoode's elbow when it jutted toward him again. Aware that the women had noticed it, he merely gave his cousin a warning glare before releasing him, and said,

"Careful, cousin. 'Tis slippery, and you might lose your footing." Osgoode's mouth twisted with displeasure. He said to the women, "That must have been difficult for you, Murie. Court is not the most clement of environments."

Murie looked uncomfortable, and it was Emilie who answered.

"It was very difficult for her. The other girls were jealous that the king made so much of her looks, and they were very cruel." Osgoode murmured a sound of sympathy and said, "Balan suffered something similar in his youth. We were sent to Lord Strathcliffe's to train, and Strathcliffe took a liking to Balan, showing him favor. Though it was no fault of his own, the other boys hated him for it. They were constantly picking fights." Balan scowled. While this was true, it had happened a long time ago, had made him a stronger fighter and better warrior, and was hardly worth mentioning now. Or so he thought until Murie squeezed his arm and gave him a shy, sympathetic smile. Hmmm.

"No doubt you have heard that the king decided it is time for Murie to marry and has given her leave to choose her own husband," Emilie said suddenly, drawing a horrified gasp from her friend. Ignoring Murie, Lady Reynard went on, "It is such a serious and difficult decision to make."

"Aye," Osgoode agreed. "Balan must marry as well, and he is finding it so."

Balan almost groaned aloud. The pair was embarrassingly obvious. He very much feared that, given more time, the two would be proposing for them soon. Fortunately, that didn't come to pass. Or perhaps unfortunately, he acknowledged as Malculinus and his sister, Lauda, stepped out onto the path. Judging by Lauda's flushed face and Malculinus's out-of-breath state, Balan would have guessed that the pair had run to get ahead of them to appear.

"Why, Lady Murie, Lady Emilie," Lauda greeted, smiling widely. "How fortuitous to meet up with the two of you here." Balan didn't miss the fact that he and Osgoode were completely ignored.

"Aye," Malculinus agreed, still gasping for breath. He really needed to start working out with his men, Balan thought with disgust. Some time working with the quintain or exercising his sword arm would put him in shape. But that wasn't likely to happen. He happened to know Malculinus's sire had been paying scutage for years to prevent his having to serve his military time. Which was probably a good thing, Balan decided, as the man caught his breath. In the shape he was in, Malculinus would be dropped in the first battle he dared enter, though it was doubtful he would ever have the courage to bother.

"We were just wondering if you had dreamt of anyone?" Malculinus finally got out. He'd taken a moment to collect himself.

Balan's mouth tightened at the question and at the way the man was looking at him with slight triumph. He had a feeling the Aldouses had come up with a way to reveal that last night had been no dream, and without revealing their involvement in the matter.

He tensed, prepared to plow his fist into the man's head again, when Murie said, "Nay, my lord. I fear I did not dream at all." If Malculinus and Lauda appeared shocked by these words, it was no more than he himself felt. Osgoode's expression also seemed to suggest surprise.

Only Lady Emilie didn't react to the claim, merely smiled and said, "I fear it was just a silly superstition after all."

"I... You ..." Malculinus paused and stared at Murie, seemingly at a loss. It appeared his plan was foiled.

"Are you sure you did not dream of anyone?" Lauda asked with a frown, and Balan felt sure that, if it were acceptable, she would have grabbed Murie by the throat and shaken her until the truth came out. However, they weren't alone, and she could do nothing when Murie shook her head.

"I am quite positive," she replied, and then asked, "Why, Lauda? Did you dream of someone?"

The woman stiffened, then suddenly looked pleased. "Aye. I did."

"Really?" Emilie asked with interest. "And who did you dream of?"

"I... he was a stranger. Tall, fair and handsome," Lauda remarked, then eyed Murie. "I felt sure you would have dreamed, too."

It was obvious the woman was hoping that by claiming she'd dreamed, she would encourage Murie to admit as much herself, but Murie merely shook her head apologetically. "I am sorry, Lauda. Mayhap I did not have enough of the rotten meat." Lauda let her breath out on a sigh, scowled and then said,


"Well," Emilie said brightly. "We were enjoying a nice walk on this rare sunny day. I suppose we should continue."

"We will join you," Lauda suggested, an obviously forced smile on her face.

Emilie's smile became decidedly annoyed, but there was little she could do without appearing rude. Unable to dissuade the Aldouses from joining them, she did the next best thing and latched on to Malculinus's arm. "How lovely! I can ask Malculinus about something I have been wondering for quite a while. How do you feel about... the French?" she ended at last, drawing the man determinedly forward and away from Murie and Balan.

Lauda scowled and opened her mouth to speak, only to snap it closed again in surprise as Osgoode took her arm and began to urge her forward. "I shall escort you then, Lady Lauda. How fortunate I am -  getting to walk with three such lovely women in one day." Balan bit his lip to keep from laughing as she found herself led firmly away.

"Well," he said, turning back to Murie. "Shall we?" Murie nodded silently, and allowed Balan to draw her hand through his arm to continue their walk. Her mind was in an uproar. It had been Emilie who suggested that she not admit she'd dreamt of anyone last night. She'd made the comment right after hearing the details of the dream. Murie had been grateful for the suggestion. While she hadn't minded telling Emilie about it, she hadn't felt at all comfortable sharing the dream with Cecily and wasn't happy with the idea of having to share it with anyone else, either. She felt sure this was the best way to deal with the matter, and had found it surprisingly easy to lie to Lauda and Malculinus when the question came up. Not that she would have admitted to it in front of Balan, anyway. It was one thing for Emilie to know about it; quite another for the man who had kissed and caressed her so sweetly in her dreams.

Besides, this seemed to her to be a good test of the superstition. She knew about the dream, but Balan did not; and so, if they ended up together anyway, then surely it was fated.

Forcing a smile, she glanced toward Balan, wishing he would say something to break the silence that had swallowed them now that Emilie and Osgoode were no longer doing the talking. She tried thinking of something to say herself, but had spent the past several years trying to avoid conversation with everyone but Emilie, leaving the queen's solar and roaming the garden and castle on her own. She'd been too successful. It seemed she now had no idea how to carry on a normal conversation. At least, she hadn't yet come up with anything to say. And he was equally silent. It was difficult for her to get to know him and figure out if he would suit her as a mate should they not speak.

Finally Murie said, "Emilie says you and Reginald are friends?"


She waited for him to expound on that, but he didn't. Frowning, she asked, "Have you known him long?"


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Again she waited for him to expound, and again he didn't. Murie bit her lip. He wasn't being very helpful. "Emilie says you have gone to battle for the king?"


"In France?" she prodded.


"Crecy? Calais?" she asked through gritted teeth.


Murie finally turned on him with irritation. "Do you actually speak, my lord? If so, I would consider it rather kind of you to help out with this conversation, rather than leaving me to carry it on my own."

"Aye. I speak," he answered. Then he fell silent. Murie thought she might swoon. The man had issued three whole words! Dear Lord, be still my beating heart, she thought, frustration clawing at her stomach. The man was -

"However, I am more comfortable speaking to men than women. I have spent more time around men," he explained. Murie was just softening at this explanation, thinking it was admirable of him to say it when so many men seemed to dislike admitting a failure - at least the king did - when he added, "I often find it more trouble than it is worth. Women are such emotional creatures and often seem to lack in the basic sense that God gave men. It is difficult not to offend them."

"What?" She gasped in dismay.

"See? I have offended you."

"Aye, of course I am offended, my lord," she said with exasperation. "You have just claimed that women are too stupid to bother talking to."

"Nay, you misunderstood me," he said quickly.

"It must be because I am so lacking in the sense God gave men," she snapped. Turning on him she added, "I shall have you know, women have just as much sense as men. More, even."

"Oh, now - ," he began, but she interrupted again.

"Aye, they do. I assure you, I am every bit as intelligent as a man."

"I am sure you are," he murmured soothingly, but it was too late.

"Do not patronize me, my lord," she snapped. "I am as intelligent as a man, and I shall prove it. In fact, we shall have a duel of intelligence to prove women are just as smart as men."

"A duel of intelligence?" he echoed with surprise. "What exactly is that?"

Murie bit her lip, then admitted, "I am not sure. However, despite my lack of intelligence, I will endeavor to think of something and let you know."

With nothing else to say to the man, she turned on her heel and hurried to Emilie's side.

"I am finding it a bit inclement out here, Emilie," she said when her friend saw her. "I think I shall return inside."

"I shall join you," Emilie agreed.

"As will we," Lauda announced, pulling free of Osgoode. She gestured for her brother to join them, and followed the two women starting back toward the castle.

"Is Lord Gaynor not coming as well?" Malculinus asked with interest, moving up on Murie's side.

"I have no idea," she answered honestly.

"I see," Lauda said slowly, then commented, "Are you sure you did not have a dream?"

"I have answered that question several times now, Lauda," Murie pointed out with irritation. "I am quite sure."

"Aye, I am sorry I keep asking. It is just that I feel so bad. We both ate that rotten meat, and yet I am the only one who had a dream. I feel guilty that I talked you into it at all," she continued.

"Especially now that there is some question as to whether the rotten meat part actually works."

Murie stopped and turned sharply. "What do you mean? What question?"

Lauda bit her lip and admitted, "Well, one of the ladies heard what we were doing last night, and she told me it only works if you fast all day. Only then shall you dream of the man meant to be your husband. If you eat rotten meat, you shall dream of the man you should not marry."

"What?" Murie stared at Lauda with horror.

"Aye." Lauda nodded. "So, I suppose it does not really matter that you dreamed of no one. But eating that rotten meat was a waste, I guess."

"I do not recall that being part of the legend," Emilie spoke up, scowling. "I do not recall there being anything at all about someone you not marry."

"Aye, well, neither do I," Lauda agreed earnestly. "But then, I did not recall the mention of rotten meat at all yesterday, and you said you had some vague recollection of it. This lady seemed to know the belief well and seemed firm on that point. Anyway," she decided, waving the matter away, "it matters little, as Murie was not made ill, nor did she dream of anyone."

"Aye," Emilie said heavily, casting an anxious glance at Murie as they entered the castle. Then, with feigned cheer she said,

"Oh, look, here we are back inside. You must come up to my room with me, Murie. I have a gift I meant to give you."

"Of course," Murie agreed, despite the fact that her friend had already given her a gift; it was obvious she wished them to speak alone. Either way, Murie was glad for the excuse to get away from Lauda and Malculinus Aldous. She needed to think about things. She was very confused. She'd dreamt of Balan and his passionate kiss and assumed the man was to be her husband, but then he'd made that comment about women being emotional and lacking sense.

Murmuring good-day to the brother and sister, Emilie drew Murie's arm through her own and led her toward the stairs. They ascended in silence, but Murie was aware of the concerned and curious glances Emilie kept casting her way. Finally, the woman said, "I gather the walk did not go well. Was the conversation stilted?"

"Would that it were," Murie muttered. "At first he would not speak at all. The man was silent as a stone. And when I confronted him on the matter, he explained that he did not often take the trouble to talk to women, as he found more often than not it was not worth his trouble. Women, it seems, are emotional creatures who are not gifted with the same strength and intelligence as men."

"What?" Emilie asked in amazement. "But we talked when he visited Reginald."

"Aye, well, mayhap you are the exception to the rule, then," Murie muttered.

They were both silent for a bit, and then Emilie said, "Nay. I do not believe it. You must have misunderstood him, Murie."

"I did not misunderstand," she assured her friend. Emilie shook her head. "Then he must have been teasing you." When Murie did not allow that to be possible, in fact, insisted it wasn't, Emilie went on, "I think you need to ignore all this superstition business, Murie. You have to ignore what Lauda said regarding dreaming about a man after eating rotten meat meaning you should not marry him. 'Tis all nonsense."

"If you thought it was nonsense, why did you introduce me to him after you learned I dreamt of him?" Murie asked.

"Because I know him, and the moment you mentioned him I realized that he would be a good husband to you. He is honorable and kind, and he too needs to marry. Gaynor needs a bride with enough wealth to help set it back to rights. The superstition had nothing to do with it." Emilie sighed. "Murie, you cannot base such an important decision on anything as whimsical as a superstition. You mentioned that you know none of the court's available men, but I do, and truly, Balan is one of the best. Perhaps the best. I think the two of you would suit each other beautifully, and you know I love you like a sister and would not lie about such a thing."

Murie let her breath out slowly and bit her lip, then confessed,

"I have challenged him to a duel."

"What?" Emilie turned on her in horror.

"Not with swords or anything," she explained quickly. "A duel of intelligence."

"Oh." Emilie relaxed and continued to walk, then asked uncertainly, "And what exactly does that consist of?"

"I am not sure," Murie admitted. "I have to come up with something."

"Hmmm ,. . Well, I suppose a duel of intelligence is all right. It gives you an excuse to meet again, and will give you both a chance to get to know each other better," Emilie said, nodding.

"Aye. It may even be a good thing. I shall help you come up with something, but please believe me, Murie, when I say I really think he was teasing you. He has always treated me with the utmost respect. I have never got the smallest inkling that he thinks little of women."

"I shall keep that in mind," Murie promised - and she would. But she was distressed by the possibility that they'd got the St. Agnes belief wrong, and that dreaming about Balan might mean she shouldn't marry him. In fact, she was so distressed that she thought it would be a good idea to check with the wisest person she knew.

Unfortunately, that would be Becker. But she could not go ask Becker, because that might make the king think she believed his aide was smarter than he, and would be insulted. No, she'd have to go to the king while Becker was there and see what they both had to say.

"Are you coming?" Emilie asked when she realized Murie had paused.

Her thoughts scattered, and Murie glanced up and managed a smile. She would have to see the king and Becker later. She didn't want Emilie knowing she wished to inquire. Superstitions were the one place the two women did not agree. Emilie was always lecturing her on the subject, but Murie could not help herself. The world was a big, scary place. She'd learned while very young that Fate could be a cruel master, any little bit of wisdom helped, and anything that gave optimism was a good thing. There were some days that only the sight of two blackbirds together or spotting a white butterfly in the summer were the only things that gave her hope for the future.

"Aye, I am coming." Murie picked up her skirts and hurried along.

"What did you say?" Osgoode asked harshly as soon as the others were out of hearing.

"I do not know what you mean," Balan replied, wishing he knew himself what he'd said to muck things up so badly. He knew what he'd meant to say - that he found he didn't understand females, that they seemed more emotional than the men he was used to and seemed more complicated than the plain-spoken and sensible men he knew - but apparently he hadn't expressed himself well. Murie seemed to think he was suggesting women were simple and stupid rather than complicated and emotional. He wasn't admitting that to Osgoode, however.

"Oh, bollocks!" his cousin cursed. "You must have said something to upset her. She could not wait to get away from us."

"Perhaps she just found it inclement, as she claimed," Balan suggested, wondering if - once she calmed down a little - he might be able to get her to stand still long enough for him to explain. He'd meant no insult or slur on women. He loved women.

"I knew you would be hopeless when it came to talking," Osgoode said. "I can only hope the fact that she thinks she dreamed of you will get her past this upset."

Balan didn't respond. He was rather hoping the same thing himself.

"There will be dancing after the feast tonight," Osgoode said. Balan nodded absently. He had quite forgotten that this eve would be the feast and celebration for St. Agnes. He shouldn't have forgotten, not after all that nonsense last night, but those shenanigans were exactly what had driven the feast from his mind.

"Mayhap we should practice dancing this afternoon," Osgoode said thoughtfully.

"Dancing?" Balan said with alarm.

"Aye. Despite Lady Strathcliffe's best efforts to teach you, you were never more than adequate while we were squiring - and I do not think I have seen you dance since."

That was because Balan hadn't danced since. Never more than adequate was a kind description of his abilities. He hadn't cared for the pastime, and it had shown in his lack of skill.

"Aye, come, we will practice the steps."

"Nay. I have things to do," Balan said with irritation.

"Important things."

"There is nothing more important than winning Lady Murie for your bride," Osgoode said firmly. "Unless you wish to marry Lady Brigida instead? Perhaps you've found yourself forming a tendre for her?" Balan let his breath out on a sigh. "Oh, all right."
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