The Brat Chapter Nine

"Is everything all right?" Emilie asked as Murie rejoined her. The men had built a fire, and she was seated by it, enjoying its heat.

A bit chilled from the dip in the river she'd just taken, washing after the episode with her husband, Murie was grateful for the fire. She began to brush her hair, hoping to dry it more quickly.

"Aye, of course I am fine," she said with surprise. "Why would you think otherwise?"

"Oh, no reason," Emilie assured her. Then, eyes twinkling, she added, "The men were a bit concerned by the shouts and screams coming from the woods, but Reginald assured them that all was likely well and kept them from running to your rescue." Murie stared, her face flushing with embarrassment; then she scowled and wrinkled her nose. She said by way of explanation,

"I saw a snake."

"I am sure you did," Emilie said meaningfully, and Murie blushed harder.

"I did not mean - " she began, but when her friend burst into a fit of giggles, she gave up and joined her.

"I am glad that part of your marriage appears to be going well," Emilie said as their giggles died. "I imagine it could be most difficult did you not... er... find some common ground in the marital bed."

"Aye," Murie agreed, her eyes finding her husband and watching him talk to Reginald. The two men were laughing, and she had no doubt Lord Reynard had just told him that the men had thought to rescue them. His gaze found hers, and he smiled. Murie admitted, "He makes my legs weak and my body quiver."

"Aye." Emilie sighed, her eyes seeking out her own husband.

"So did Reginald."

"Did?" Murie asked with alarm.

"He has not touched me since we found I was pregnant," she admitted unhappily.

"Oh." Murie bit her lip, her gaze slipping back to the man in question. "He is most likely afraid of hurting you."

"That, or he finds me hideously unattractive now that I grow heavy with child," Emilie said with forced cheer.

"Oh, Emilie, I am sure that is not it," Murie assured her.

"Anyone can see that Reginald adores you."

"Then why does he no longer touch me?"

"He is always hugging and kissing you," Murie pointed out.

"That is not the same thing, Murie, and you know it. That is affection. I want. .." Her eyes returned to her husband, a battle of wants and needs warring there.

'You want to feel desired, not just cared for," Murie remarked with quiet understanding. She'd only been married two days and a night, but even so, she did not think she'd be very happy were Balan suddenly to stop wanting to make love to her.

Emilie heaved a sigh and waved her hand vaguely. "It will be all right. I am just huge and miserable right now. Everything will be fine once the bairn is born ... which I hope will be soon."

"Not too soon," Murie said with a half laugh. "Pray, let us get to Reynard Castle before it arrives. I should not like to help you deliver the babe out here in a rough camp without aid or herbs or medicinals to help."

"Well, not that soon," Emilie agreed. "I still have a couple months to go."

Murie nodded.

"Ladies." Reginald smiled as he led Balan over. "As Balan and Osgoode did not bother bringing a tent for the journey, and we did, I have offered my place in the tent to you, Murie. I shall join the rest of the men by the fire while you and Emilie rest inside this night."

"Oh." Murie's eyes slid to her husband. She'd rather hoped to sleep curled in his arms by the fire. It had been nice waking in his arms last night. She'd felt cared for each time she'd awakened. Her husband didn't appear to feel the same, however.

"That is a good idea," Emilie murmured.

Forcing a smile, Murie nodded. "That is very kind of you, Reginald. Thank you."

Despite her up-front agreement, as the men walked away Emilie said unhappily, "Now he does not even care to sleep with me."

"Aye, and apparently Balan does not wish to sleep with me, either," Murie muttered.

Both women sighed as they watched their husbands cross the clearing.


Despite the absence of her husband, or perhaps because of it, Murie slept late the next morning. When she woke, the tent was empty, Emilie having risen and left. Cecily had, apparently, already been; there was fresh clothing lying on the furs at the foot of the pallet she'd slept on. Reaching for the undertunic, Murie donned it, then stood to don the gown as well, then ran her fingers through her hair before making her way out of the tent. She stepped out into the clearing to find it a hive of activity. She was the last to rise, and men were rushing this way and that, packing things and preparing to break camp.


Murie turned and offered a shy smile at her husband.

"You slept well?" he asked.

She nodded, eyebrows rising. He looked a bit pale and haggard. It seemed obvious from that, and from the scowl gracing his face that he had not. Still, she asked politely: "And you?"

"It rained last night," was his answer.

"Ah." Murie bit her lip and gave a start when he took her elbow to lead her into the woods.

"You did not sleep much on our wedding night, so I let you sleep in this morn. However, because of that you will not have time for proper ablutions ere we go," he announced. They walked the trail to the river's edge. "I was just coming to wake you when you stepped out of the tent. We are leaving as soon as the tent and furs are packed on the wagon."

"Oh," Murie murmured, and soon found he was not exaggerating about time for proper ablutions. He allowed her a moment to relieve herself of her full bladder, then led her to the riverside to splash water on her face and hands before hurrying back to camp.

Murie saw with some amazement that, despite how quick she had been, the tent and all its trappings were already broken down and stowed away, and everyone was mounted - except Reginald, who was lifting Emilie into the wagon as they entered the clearing. Murie had barely noted all this when Balan suddenly caught her by the waist and lifted her. Glancing around with surprise, she saw that they had reached her mount, and then he was sitting her on the mare's back, and she was scrambling to hold on to the pommel.

"I - ," she began with bewilderment, then paused as her husband suddenly held up a bag.

"Cheese, bread and an apple - to break your fast as we ride," he announced.

"Thank you," Murie said, accepting the bag and watching as he turned to mount his own horse. She was still not quite awake and was feeling a bit overwhelmed by the speed of things this morning, but movement drew her gaze to the wagon to find Emilie smiling and waving at her, and she felt herself relax a little as she smiled and waved in return.

A high-pitched whinny and snorting drew her eyes sharply to her husband and his mount. Balan had apparently just mounted, but the stallion, Lightning, was not pleased for some reason; he was reacting badly. He was rearing and snorting and pawing the air as he squealed in what sounded to be pain. Murie's eyes had barely begun to widen with alarm for her husband, when the horse suddenly stopped rearing and charged off into the woods. Murie did not even think about it; she simply slipped her leg over the pommel so she was astride her mare, and dug in her heels to send her horse charging after him. A shout made her glance over her shoulder as she charged into the woods, and she spotted Reginald right behind her with several of the men. Then she turned forward and concentrated on catching up to her husband.

Murie had a fine mare, a gift from the king and queen on her sixteenth birthday, but Lightning was a warrior's steed, used to moving quickly while carrying a man heavy with armor and weapons. Balan was not in armor today, nor did he have a heavy shield or weapons, and the lack of weight and whatever had distressed the animal combined to make the beast move like the wind. She had no hope of keeping up, let alone overtaking her husband and helping.

Fortunately, Reginald's war horse could, and Murie released a little breath of relief as he overtook her and drew closer to Balan. Murie watched with wide worried eyes as he finally reached Balan's side, a dangerous maneuver in the woods, and then her husband was leaping from Lightning's back and almost on top of Reginald. The two men teetered briefly, and she feared they would both lose their seat, but they settled, and Lord Raynard allowed his mount to slow and stop. Balan's steed had slowed the moment he was out of the saddle.

Murie drew her mount to a halt as she reached them, her eyes moving anxiously over her husband to be sure he was not injured. Once assured that he was well, her worry turned to anger.

"I told you not to step on that St. John's wort," she said with vexation as she reined in.

"What?" Balan asked with confusion. He slid to the ground.

"The St. John's wort that you stepped on yesterday," she reminded him from her saddle as Reginald also dismounted and moved to catch Balan's now calm horse. "Do you not recall? I told you it is said that should you step on St. John's wort, a fairy horse will rise up beneath you and carry you away. You must be more careful where you set your feet in future, husband. I could have lost you."

"Murie," he said patiently. "I stepped on the St. John's wort yesterday, not today. And a fairy horse did not rise up and ride off with me. My horse did."

"Aye, but the saying does not say when the fairy horse will rise, or how," she pointed out. "Mayhap it possessed your mount and tried to ride off with you. Had Reginald not caught up ..." She shook her head with distress and pleaded, "Pray, just be more careful where you are stepping."

"Lightning was not possessed by a fairy horse," Balan said with exasperation. Turning, he stomped over to join Reginald, who was unsaddling his sweating mount.

"Nay. Your horse was not possessed," Reginald agreed grimly, and Murie could see that he was holding up something as her husband reached his side; but she could not tell what it was until he added, "Someone put a thistle under your saddle. The moment you put weight on it, it dug into the animal's back and sent it wild."

Eyes widening, Murie slid off her mount and hurried over to see. It was indeed a thistle he held, a particularly large and thorny one. Frowning, she asked, 'You do not suppose the fairy horse left that behind to fool us into thinking it was not a fairy horse?"

"Murie!" Balan snapped.

"What?" she asked warily.

"I... You . . .Just get on your horse," he finished with a sigh.

"You had best not risk trying to ride your mount right now," Murie heard Reginald advise. She turned with a little flounce and stomped back to her own horse. She'd only been trying to help. And really, it couldn't be coincidence that he'd stepped on St. John's wort just last eve and been carried away by a horse this morn. Why did he not see that?

Muttering under her breath, she led her mare to a small boulder  - much smaller than the boulder Balan had laid her on when they'd stopped to make love last night, she thought as the memory rose up in her mind. Shaking her head to free herself of the thought, she stepped up onto the boulder, jammed her foot in the stirrup and pulled herself into her saddle.

"Nay, you are right," Balan was saying as she sat and gathered up the reins. "I suppose I shall have to leave him riderless for the day."

Murie had just turned her horse back the way they had come when her husband called out. "Wife! Wait a moment."

"What?" she snapped, glancing over her shoulder with irritation.

"I shall be riding with you."

"Hmmph," Murie muttered, but she kept her mare where she was as Balan began to lead his mount toward her.

"I can lead him back," Reginald offered. "You shall have your hands full holding on to the reins and Murie."

"Thank you," Balan agreed. Murie simply scowled down her nose at him where he paused beside her mount.

"'Tis my mount. All you need hold on to is me," she said firmly. She would not have her mare usurped by him.

Balan didn't reply; he merely mounted behind her so that his chest pressed insistently against her back, an unmovable wall. He then took the reins and turned the horse around.

"You were going the wrong way," he murmured in her ear, then took her hands and wrapped them around the reins again.

"Now you may go."

Murie grimaced, then paused, her head jerking up as a plaintive, trilling sound filled the air.

"A curlew," she whispered with dread.

"What is it?" Balan asked, leaning around to see her face.

"That was the call of a curlew," she said in hushed tones. " 'Tis a very bad omen. It foretells a death - or is that only if you hear it at night?" she fretted.

"Wife, just get us back to camp. I do not have the patience for your silly superstitions at the moment." Balan's tone was short. Unnecessarily so, Murie decided as she urged her mount into a walk. She was really quite annoyed with him. First he'd yelled at her, and now he snapped at her; and he thought her a fool and -

She blinked and glanced down in surprise as his hands slid up to cup her breasts through her gown.

"What are you doing?" she asked in a squeak, her head swiveling around to be sure Reginald couldn't see what he was about.

"Holding on, so I do not fall out of the saddle," he said, beginning to nuzzle her neck.

Murie sucked in a breath to tell him to stop, then let it out in a quick whoosh as he found her half-erect nipples and began to toy with them.

"Husband," she reprimanded breathlessly, her head tilting to the side to offer him better access - wholly of its own accord; she was not instructing it to do so.

"Aye," he growled, his teeth grazing her throat. "I am your husband."

Murie was trying to sort out what that announcement meant, when one hand left a breast to slip between her legs, pressing the cloth of her gown against her. Murie groaned and started to sink against him, then sat up abruptly as Reginald rode near. Fortunately, Balan was quick to shift his hands to more acceptable spots, and Lord Reynard seemed oblivious to what he'd interrupted.

"It probably would be better not to ride your mount at all today," Reginald repeated reluctantly. "I suppose we could delay leaving and camp here until the morrow."

"Nay," Balan said. "Murie will ride in the wagon with Emilie, and I shall ride her mare."

Murie found her earlier annoyance returning. She'd been about to offer to do just that - give him her mount and ride with Emilie

- but she hadn't got the chance; instead, he'd announced the plan like it was law. It would have been nice had he bothered to ask. He seemed to like to boss everyone about.

"Never fear, this will not slow us down," Balan assured his friend. "By my reckoning, we shall be there by the morrow." Seeing the relief on Reginald's face, Murie forced herself to relax. Of course Lord Reynard was worried about Emilie and would not wish the journey slowed, and of course her husband had realized that and made a decision meant to get them to their destination quickly. She really shouldn't be upset that he was such a high-handed, bossy, annoying -

Murie's thoughts flew from her head as she was suddenly lifted bodily out of the saddle. While she'd been distracted, thinking up descriptions for her overbearing husband, they had arrived at camp, he'd dismounted and was now setting her on the ground.

"Go hop in the wagon and reassure Emilie that all is well. She is looking worried," Balan ordered, turning her toward the wagon and giving her a pat on the bottom. Grimacing, she went.

Balan watched his wife go, smiling at the way she was muttering under her breath; then he tore his gaze away and nodded to Osgoode.

"What happened?" his cousin asked with concern, moving past him to look at his mount. "Why did he bolt like that? Lightning has never acted so before."

"Someone put a thistle under the saddle," Reginald explained, dismounting to join them.

"A thistle?" Osgoode asked. "On purpose?"

"Well, it could have got there accidentally," Reginald said doubtfully. "But it was placed so that it would do no harm until weight was put on the saddle."

"On purpose then," Osgoode agreed with a frown. He glanced at his cousin. "You could have been killed."

"Aye." Balan took the saddle Reginald had carried back before him on his horse and handed it to one of the men to pack on the wagon.

"I shall go check on Emilie and be sure this upset did her no harm," Reginald said.

"Thank you for your help, Reginald," Balan called with belated but real gratitude. He could have been killed in the incident and might have been had his friend not thought quickly.

"You do not suppose Murie is the one who ..." Osgoode let his words trail off as Balan turned to glance at him. His cousin's expression was troubled.

"What?" he asked, not understanding.

"Well, I was just thinking. . . she never confronted you about being in her room. And she seemed eager to leave court, even though she has to be upset with you for what she thinks is tricking her into this marriage."

"Aye, and. . . ?" Balan asked, not sure where Osgoode was going.

"Well, mayhap she does not intend to confront you about that night. Mayhap she is so angry she has decided to ... er ... end the marriage,"

Balan peered at him as if he were mad. "There is no way to end the marriage, Osgoode. It was consummated. 'Tis done. She is stuck with me."

"Until death do you part," Osgoode agreed meaningfully.

'You think she is trying to kill me?" Balan asked with shock. He immediately shook his head. "Do not be ridiculous." Turning on his heel, he stomped to his wife's mare and mounted, but the thought was in his head now and not easily shaken. It troubled him for the next hour as they rode, his mind inundated with questions such as: Why had she not confronted him about being in her room? And, why had she arranged to get them away from the castle so quickly?

She had not approached him with the matter as a wife should, but had gone to the king and arranged it so that Balan could not have refused had he wished -  ensuring they would be off in the woods where accidents were less likely to be witnessed or questioned. Not that anyone would question them, since no one at court knew she had any reason - or thought she did -  to be furious with him.

"Balan has been sending you odd glances all day. Did the two of you have a spat?" Emilie asked as they relaxed around the night's campfire.

Murie cast a glower over her shoulder toward her husband. He was on the other side of camp, talking to one of the men, but he was also watching her with narrowed, thoughtful eyes. She wasn't really annoyed anymore, but if he was annoyed with her, she would be annoyed right back. After all, she was the one who had been riding in the wagon all day, not he. And it had been damnably uncomfortable. She had no idea why men seemed to think that women were better off in wagons when they were jostled and bounced around at least as much as on a horse. Her whole body felt battered and bruised. And now her stomach was out of sorts too. It had not been a good day.

Sighing, she rubbed her stomach absently and turned back to stare blindly at the dancing flames, then recalled that Emilie had asked her a question. "Nay, not really. He is annoyed with me because I was sure it was a fairy horse carrying him away this morning."

"What?" Emilie asked, startled.

Murie quickly explained about her husband stepping on St. John's wort and her fear that he would be carried away by a fairy horse - or a horse possessed by a fairy horse, she added meaningfully.

Emilie burst out laughing. "Oh, Lord, Murie. Your belief in these silly superstitions is the only thing that keeps you from being a perfect woman."

Murie frowned. "I am sorry, I - "

"Nay, do not apologize," Emilie said quickly. "If you were perfect, I would have to hate you on principal alone."

"Oh," Murie said, unsure how to reply. When they fell silent again, she found her eyes drifting back to her husband. She'd hoped he would take her to clean up after their journey again tonight and perhaps kiss her again, and . .. Well, but he hadn't. Reginald had seen both women down to the river and turned his back while they tended to matters. Balan, it seemed, was too busy to be bothered.

Realizing she was scowling at him again,Murie started to turn away, then froze as she noted his coloring. It might have been just the effect of the firelight but he looked slightly gray.

"Murie, are you feeling all right?" Emilie asked. "You keep rubbing your stomach and your color seems off, though 'tis hard to tell in this light."

"Nay," she admitted unhappily. "My stomach is bothering me. I think it did not like the journey in the wagon. I do not know how you stand it."

"I did not have a choice. The only way Reginald would allow me to travel to court was if I rode in the wagon," she said. "And I

did so want to see you."

"Oh," Murie breathed, tears coming to her eyes. "You must truly love me. Thank you, Emilie."

"Murie?" There was sudden real alarm in her friend's voice.

"Are you all right? You look - '

"Are you supposed to have two faces?" Murie interrupted with a frown. Then she felt herself slumping forward.

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