The Brat Chapter Two

"Move over a little; I am standing half in the bush here," Osgoode muttered.

"Hush, they will hear you," Balan growled back under his breath. He added, " 'Sides, I have nowhere to move. I am half in the bushes as well. Now just hush and listen."

Ignoring the way his cousin continued to shift and mutter, Balan turned his attention to Malculinus and Lauda Aldous on the other side of the hedge. They'd had no difficulty keeping up with the pair making their way into and through the maze to a spot they deemed suitable; the problem had come when Balan and Osgoode needed a place close enough to listen but not be seen. They'd finally settled on a dead-end aisle between the hedges that backed onto the spot the couple had chosen. Unfortunately, it was really far too narrow for the two of them to hunker together comfortably, but neither of them wished to miss what would be said.

"It is St. Agnes Eve tonight," Lauda announced, as if this were a matter of some importance.

Balan didn't see what the significance could be,but then, apparently, neither did Malculinus, who asked with irritation,

"So? There will be a feast tomorrow. How does that help me?"

"It does not," Lauda said patiently. "It is St. Agnes Eve and Lady Murie's superstitious nature that are of import here."

"Tell me," Malculinus demanded.

"Surely you have heard what they say about St. Agnes Eve?" Lauda asked, and Balan could hear the frown in her voice. "If a girl fasts all day or eats something rotten before bed ... when she goes to sleep she will dream of the man who will be her husband."

"Ah!" Malculinus gave a small chuckle. "So you will remind her of this superstition."

"At dinner," Lauda agreed.

"And ...," Malculinus began. "And . .. what? Hope that she dreams about me?"

"Nay. Hope is a fool's tool," Lauda said with derision. "The Lord helps those who help themselves. So, we shall ensure she sees you."

"How?" Malculinus asked.

"She obviously will not have fasted all day, so I will suggest she eat something rotten," Lauda said simply. "And then I shall offer to find this rotten item for her."

"But that will not ensure she dreams of me," Malculinus protested.

"It will," Lauda assured him. "Because this rotten item I find shall be something I have prepared beforehand with special herbs to make her woozy and sleepy and not likely to fully wake until morning. You will slip into her room in the middle of the night, make a noise or even shake her shoulder if you must. Better yet," she said with sudden inspiration, "kiss her awake, and when she opens her eyes, she shall see you and - "

"And immediately start screaming for the guard," Malculinus said with disgust. "Have you lost your mind? Are you trying to get me drawn and quartered?"

"Nay," Lauda said with exasperation. "Did I not just say that I would give her a drug to keep her woozy and sleepy through the night? She will not scream for the guard. She will wake up, see you and then fall right back to sleep. But when she wakes in the morning, she will recall seeing your face and think that she has dreamt of the man she must marry."

"Oh ... I see," Malculinus said with sudden understanding. He murmured thoughtfully, "That might work."

"Of course it will work," Lauda snapped. "Now, come; I needs must send my maid to fetch the necessary herbs to achieve the right effect."

There was the rustle of leaves as the pair moved off.

"We have to do something!" Osgoode said. "They are plotting against the poor girl. She will find herself married to that idiot." Balan merely grunted, considering.

"We cannot have that!" Osgoode pointed out. "What are we going to do?"

Balan was silent for a moment more, then shook his head.



"There is nothing we need do," Balan decided, having thought it out. "The girl has the entire court believing she's a spoiled brat. Surely she is not foolish enough to believe this nonsense about eating something rotten on St. Agnes Eve and dreaming of the man who will be her husband. Let them carry out their plan; it will not work. And as an added benefit, they might destroy themselves."

"I wish I had your confidence," Osgoode said, his mouth tight.

"But what if Murie truly is superstitious, and if Lauda convinces her to eat something rotten? What if Murie wakes in the night to see Malculinus ..." He raised his eyebrows. "She may very well believe. She may think he is the one, marry him, and 'twill be all your fault for doing nothing to prevent it."

Balan scowled at the suggestion and paused to reevaluate the possible danger. He was sure Murie was intelligent; the fact that she'd fooled all of court suggested as much. But she had made that comment about the two blackbirds being a good omen, and, he \ feared, could indeed be superstitious despite her intelligence. Added to that, Lauda was very clever; she was renowned for a sneaky, conniving wit that could be dangerous. She might indeed be able to convince Murie to try this superstitious ritual; either as a lark or to simply prove it wasn't true at all. And, if she did, the plan might actually work.

"Very well," he said at last. "We will endeavor to sit by her at dinner tonight, in order that we know whether Lauda convinces her to try or not. If Murie agrees, we will intervene."

"Aye." Osgoode let out a slow breath, some of the tension leaving him; then he nodded and said with a grin, "I shall distract Malculinus, and you can sneak in and wake Murie so that it is your face she sees."

Balan peered at him with exasperation. "Nay. I will not."

"Why not?" Osgoode asked. "It would ensure she married you, and you would be a better husband than Malculinus. In fact, I would venture to say you would be a better husband to Lady Murie than most of the men at court. I have known you long enough to say with assurance that you would be faithful and kind."

"I am not going to stop Malculinus from committing such a scurrilous deed only to do the same myself," Balan said firmly. Osgoode sighed, beleaguered, and shook his head. "If you will not take advantage of opportunities dropped in your lap, Balan, it will be a miracle if we get you married to anyone."

"So be it," Balan replied. "Now, come. We missed out on the nooning meal, and all this plotting and sneaking about has only sharpened my appetite. I wish to go and find something to eat."

"The duck is lovely," Emilie commented.

"Aye," Murie agreed.

"Then why are you not eating any of it?" Emilie asked.

"What?" Murie glanced at her friend in confusion, then peered down at her trencher and the untouched food upon it. Heaving out a breath of air, she confessed, "I am thinking."

"You are fretting" Emilie corrected. "And I have no doubt it is over whom you should choose to marry."

"Well, 'tis an important matter," Murie pointed out. "I will spend the rest of my life with whomever I choose. And will have to let him bed me. And will bear his children. And . . ." She shrugged helplessly. "What if I choose the wrong one?"

"You shall not choose the wrong one. I shall ensure that," Emilie said with a grin. She added more seriously, "Let us think on this. Is there anyone on the list of available lords we made whom you are interested in or think a likely possibility?" Murie considered the matter, then blinked and admitted with dismay, "I know not. I have avoided everyone and stayed to myself for so long, I know none of the men at court."

"Well," Emilie said reasonably, "then you shall have to get to know them. There are many men here at court who are fair of face, wealthy and charming."

Murie waved her words away. "What does it matter if they are 'fair of face'? A fair face can easily hide a cruel heart - as I have learned well these years at court. As for wealth, I have no need of it. My parents left me well endowed. And charm is lovely, but it cannot keep you safe in troubled times."

"Then, what would you look for in a husband?" Emilie asked.

"Oh . .." Murie pursed her lips. "I should like him to be kind and gentle to those weaker than he. And intelligent - that is most important. I should not like a stupid husband, else we could never find common ground. And he must be strong enough to keep us safe when war threatens. And he should be a good lord, one who knows how to manage his property so that his people can prosper."

She fell silent and Emilie patted her hand. "Those are all fine attributes, and I am sure that if we think on it, we can find someone to fit the bill."

"Why not let St. Agnes help?"

Surprised, Murie turned to the woman on her other side. Lady Lauda Aldous generally didn't have a kind word to say to her. In fact, Lauda usually ignored her completely. At least, that had been the case for the last five or six years, as Lauda had left court to return to her family home. Before that, she had been one of Murie's most vicious tormenters. Murie had been surprised to find the woman settling into the seat beside her at dinner. Despite them both being adults now, she had actually found herself tensing in expectation of the old verbal assault that would have been forthcoming when they were children. Much to her relief, the attack had never come. Instead, Lady Lauda had merely smiled, wished her a good evening and turned her attention to her meal, not speaking another word. Until now.

"Excuse me? Did you say let St. Agnes help?" Emilie asked with a disbelieving smile. She leaned forward to see past Murie to Lauda.

"Aye." Lauda gave an embarrassed laugh. " 'Tis silly, really -  never mind. Just ignore me."

"Oh, no," Murie said, quickly offering a smile. "You have me curious now. Tell us what you meant."

Lauda shifted with apparent discomfort, then admitted, " 'Tis just that your concern over choosing a husband made me think of what they say about St. Agnes Eve."

"What do they say about St. Agnes Eve?" Murie asked with interest.

"Well..." Lauda leaned toward her conspiratorially. "According to the old beliefs, if you fast all day, when you go to sleep on St. Agnes Eve, you will dream of the man fated to be your husband." Murie and Emilie just stared at her blankly, and Lauda gave another embarrassed laugh and shrugged. " 'Tis a silly superstition, I know, and it probably does not work, but would it not be wonderful if it did?" She gave a little sigh. "I am in much the same position as you, Murie. My betrothed was taken by the plague, and Father wishes me to select a husband while we are at court. But..." She peered around the crowded hall. "There are so many, and I hardly know any. I have no idea whom to choose."

" 'Tis a difficult decision," Murie acknowledged, somewhat surprised to find she had anything in common with this girl who had tormented her throughout her youth.

"Aye, and it affects the whole of our lives," Lauda murmured. She added wryly, "But I suppose I have missed out on allowing St. Agnes to assist me with the matter. I did not remember, and so did not fast."

Murie smiled faintly, thinking with amusement that it would have been nice to at least try. Not that she would have based any decision solely on the result. However,a little help from the saints would always be nice.

"Actually, Lauda," Malculinus suddenly commented from beside his sister. 'You have not missed out at all. The saying is that if you fast all day or eat something rotten before bed, you will dream of the man you are meant to marry. You could still eat something rotten and test this belief."

"Really?" Lauda peered at him with apparent uncertainty. "Are you sure, Malculinus?"

"I believe he may be right," Emilie spoke up, drawing Murie's wide eyes. "Now that you remind me, I have heard the saying before, and I do recall some mention of rotten meat."

"Well, there!" Lauda said brightly, flashing a smile at Murie.

"You can still test the theory and see if it is true." Murie bit her lip uncertainly. Fasting all day was one thing, but the idea of eating rotten meat wasn't very appealing. Unfortunately, it was too late to choose the first option. Wrinkling her nose, she suggested, "Why do you not do it tonight, and if it works, I shall try it tomorrow."

"It only works on St. Agnes Eve," the woman reminded her, shaking her head. "Nay, I fear you would have to do it tonight."

"What of you?" Emilie asked, and when Lauda looked at her in alarm, she reminded her, "You keep saying Murie should, but you have to choose a husband, too."

"Oh, I do not think - " Lauda began quickly, but Malculinus interrupted.

"Of course she will try. Murie and Lauda can do it together." When his sister turned on him sharply, he shrugged and said,

"Well, you do have to choose a husband, and Murie does not wish to try this on her own. Mayhap dreams will supply the answer to your waking mind's concerns."

Lauda scowled, but then turned back to Murie, who commented, "As lovely as it would be to have some aid from the saints, I am not sure I want to eat rotten meat to - "

"No, of course not," Lauda said. "Forgive me for suggesting it. Your stomach is surely too delicate. I suppose I shall have to test it out on my own."

Murie stiffened at the suggestion that she was somehow weaker. "My stomach is no more delicate than anyone else's."

"Well, then, perhaps you are afraid," Lauda suggested mildly.

"I am not afraid." Murie scowled.

"Good. Then we shall do it together."

'You shall both do it!" Malculinus laughed. "How charming. I can hardly wait until morning to hear the results."

"Oh, but - ," Murie began in protest. She hadn't meant her words to be taken as agreement. She really had no desire to eat something rotten, even if it did mean she would get the answer to whom she should marry.

"Very well," Lauda interrupted, getting to her feet. "I shall go to the king's cook right now and see what he has for us. He must have some bad meat somewhere. Perhaps he will be kind enough to cook it and to add in some spices and herbs to make it more palatable."

"Nay, Lauda, I - ," Murie began, but the woman was already away. Murie watched her disappear out of the hall and then sank back into her seat with a small sigh.

"Surely you are not going to go through with this?" Emilie said.

"I thought this was a joke. You cannot mean to really do it."

"Nay, of course not," Murie assured her friend. "I will tell Lauda so as soon as she comes back."

"Oh, good." Emilie shook her head. "While I mean no offense to St. Agnes, it does seem a silly superstition -  and eating rotten meat could be dangerous."

Murie nodded and turned her attention back to the food on her trencher, then merely pushed it around with disinterest as she found herself repeatedly glancing toward the doors as she waited for Lauda's return. And waited. And waited.

The meal was over and everyone was beginning to rise from the tables when the woman finally reappeared. Murie prepared to explain politely but firmly that she'd no intention of participating in the exercise, but Lauda didn't give her the chance.

"Oh, I am so sorry I took so long. The king's cook took forever to even trouble himself to talk to me. He then took his time about finding something suitable, and insisted I stand there and wait while he prepared it. But I have it, finally," she added with a small laugh, and held up two bits of meat on a small pewter plate. Murie eyed the bits of meat with distaste and started to shake her head. The moment she did, alarm claimed Lauda's expression.

"You are not going to refuse after all the time and trouble I took to get this, are you?"

Guilt making her grimace, Murie said, "I am sorry, Lauda, but I never meant - "

"You do not have the courage," Lauda said on a disappointed sigh. "I should have realized. You never did have any backbone. And being famous as a spoiled, wailing brat can't be for nothing." Murie stood up abruptly, her mouth open to reciprocate, but then she spotted the avid faces of those around her, and she closed it again. She'd tried to stand up for herself on first arriving at court. She'd been a sad, lonely child, newly orphaned and lost, in need of friends and sympathy and affection. Instead, she'd found herself the target of the other girls who'd spotted her pain, seen it as weakness and circled like wolves for the kill. Murie had tried to fight back, but it had left her in constant conflict. One girl would attack her and, whenever she tried to defend herself,the rest would jump in. Six months later, beleaguered and miserable, she'd simply wished she'd died along with her parents. If Emilie had not arrived at court then and befriended her, Murie wasn't at all sure how things would have ended. Fortunately, Emilie had; had seen what was happening and given her advice. It hadn't perhaps been the best advice in the world, considering her reputation, but Murie felt sure it had saved her sanity. All she'd had to do was break into noisy sobs, and the girls usually backed off and left her alone, eventually not even bothering to attack her anymore.

An added benefit was that the queen had found her weeping and wailing so tiresome that she'd stopped insisting Murie remain close by, allowing her to slip away on her own and read or practice some of the various hobbies she'd acquired over the years.

The Brat. Murie's pride wouldn't stand for the label anymore. She wished to marry and wanted a husband who would respect her. Despite Emilie's assurances,she knew the label would damage her chances.She wanted it forgotten.

Expression grim, she held out her hand. "Give it to me." Lauda handed over one of the pieces of meat,and Murie immediately popped it into her mouth. She grimaced at the vile taste. One of the herbs or spices the cook had used to hide the rot was bitter and nasty.It was so bad she nearly spat the meat back out, but determination made her chew and swallow. Pausing, she glanced at the other piece and arched an eyebrow. "Well?" Lauda smiled and ate it.

"There we are then," Malculinus said. Lauda's brother was grinning widely, but then, he wasn't the one who'd had to eat the horrendous meat. "I can hardly wait until morning to learn what happened. May I say I hope you both have sweet dreams?" Murie made no reply; she simply turned and left the hall.

"Are you all right?" Emilie asked as they made their way toward their rooms. 'You keep rubbing your stomach. That meat hasn't made you feel sick, has it?"

"A bit," Murie admitted with a grimace. Emilie shook her head, clearly exasperated. "I do not know why you allowed her to cow you into eating it. You do know this is all nonsense, do you not?"

"Of course," Murie muttered.

"Oh, aye," Emilie continued dryly. "I know you too well, Murie. You are the most superstitious person I know and probably believe you will now dream of the man meant to be your husband. The only reason you hesitated was the unpleasant task of eating the rotten meat."

Murie neither admitted nor denied this claim. She really wasn't feeling at all well. Her stomach was roiling, and she was actually feeling a bit woozy.

"The meat is not resting happily, is it?" Emilie asked with concern as Murie rubbed her stomach again. "Is it revolting?"

"Aye," Murie admitted, then gave a short laugh as she added,

"in more ways than one. That meat tasted absolutely vile."

"Hmm. I am not at all surprised to hear it." Emilie's gaze was concerned.

"Here we are," Murie said, gesturing to the door they'd reached.

Emilie glanced at it - the door to her chamber -  frowned and said, "Mayhap I should sit with you for a bit. Just to be sure you are all right."

"Do not be silly," Murie said, touched by her concern. Emilie had always been a good friend. "Nay. Reginald would worry if he returned to your chamber to find you missing. Besides, I shall be fine. I am going to go right to bed . . . hopefully to have sweet dreams. It would be a shame to have eaten that vile meat and not be rewarded for it."

Emilie sighed. "Well, all right, but have Cecily sleep in your room, and tell her to come fetch me if you start feeling any worse," she ordered.

Murie just smiled, refusing to make a promise she didn't intend to keep. She had no plan to make her maid sleep in her room. To distract her friend from noticing she'd not promised, she asked,

"Are you not going to wish me sweet dreams?"

Emilie chuckled softly and shook her head. "Very well, sweet dreams."

"Thank you," Murie murmured.

Shrugging, Emilie gave her a hug. "I suppose stranger things have happened. Mayhap Malculinus is right and your mind will supply the answer to your heart's question."

"Aye," Murie said as her friend opened the door "Sleep well, Emilie."

"And you," Lady Emilie answered, slipping inside. Murie grimaced as she turned away and continued up the hall to her own room. It seemed questionable whether she would sleep at all tonight. Her stomach really was not happy to have the rotten meat in it. On the other hand, she was also quite exhausted and even a bit woozy. She didn't know why that should be; she'd hardly had any of the wine or ale that had poured so freely tonight, but there it was.

"My lady." Her maid, Cecily, smiled widely and popped up from the window ledge where she'd been seated while mending an undertunic. She set the garment aside and hurried forward as Murie closed the door. "Did you have a good evening?"

"Not really," Murie admitted wearily.

"Oh?" Cecily set to work helping her to disrobe. Murie was silent for a moment, then asked, "Cecily, have you ever heard of a superstition connected to St. Agnes Eve?

Something about - "

"Dreaming about the man who will be your husband?" Cecily finished with a nod. "Aye. In fact, my sister once tried it."

"Oh?" Murie said. "What happened?"

"She dreamt of a stranger. Met him a week later, and they were married six months after that," she announced.

"Really?" Murie smiled, hoping that her upset stomach might not be for nothing after all.

"Aye." Finished with the fastenings of the gown, Cecily helped her mistress slip out of it, then helped Murie out of her undertunic as well.

"Have you ever tried it?" Murie asked. She moved to the basin of water on the stand by her bed and dipped in a bit of linen.

"Aye," the girl said slowly.

"And did you dream of a man?"

"Nay. Not that I recall." She smiled wryly and put the gown away. "Though, that was years ago, and I am not yet married. Mayhap I never shall be, so there was no one to dream of."

"Oh, I am sure that is not the case," Murie said quickly. But while Cecily had been a young woman when she'd first come with Murie to court after the death of Murie's parents, that had been ten years ago. She was growing long in the tooth and very well might never marry. Frowning at the thought, Murie ran the damp cloth over her face and arms, then donned the fresh tunic Cecily held out.

"Will there be anything else, my lady?" Cecily asked as Murie crawled into bed.

"Nay. Thank you, Cecily," she murmured wearily.

"Good night then, my lady. Have sweet dreams." Murie glanced toward the door with a start, but it was already closing behind the woman. "Sweet dreams," she murmured with a little sigh, then turned on her side in the hopes of easing her tummy upset.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if she did dream of and marry a wonderful man? Murie really did wish to marry, for various reasons: Marriage would get her away to her own home where she need not deal with the cruelty and avarice of the courtiers. It would also give her children, and Murie had lately found herself yearning to have a child of her own. She would love it as she'd been loved before her parents' deaths.

Unfortunately, with her eye on the end result of getting the king and queen to agree to her marriage,she'd really not considered whom it would be to. She'd assumed that the king would choose her mate and now found herself quite lost on the matter. Not to mention she was terrified of making a mistake in her choice and landing with an abusive or cruel husband. Sighing, she turned onto her back again, thinking it would definitely be helpful should St. Agnes decide to give her a dream of whom she should marry. However, she very much feared she wasn't even going to be able to sleep with her stomach as upset as it was. And she could not dream did she not sleep.

Murie had barely finished having that thought when her eyes began to droop and she drifted into slumber.

"Where is the man?" Osgoode muttered impatiently. Balan shrugged in answer. They had managed to situate themselves near enough to the quartet at dinner to hear Lauda convince Murie to try the St. Agnes Eve ritual, and had decided to intervene. They'd kept Murie in their sights all evening, then followed her and Emilie back to their rooms. Now they waited behind the cloth draping one of the hall windows outside her chamber, watching for Malculinus to make his appearance.

"Dear God, will he wait until just before dawn?" Osgoode asked in vexation.

"That is doubtful," Balan assured him. "Surely he risks the herbs Lauda put on the meat wearing off if he waits too long."

"Aye." Osgoode nodded, then suggested, "Speaking of those herbs, after we stop Malculinus, mayhap you should just slip into Murie's room to see that whatever it is she was given has caused her no harm."

"No," Balan growled. "I am not going to go in and let her see me."

"But it would assure she marries you, and marrying her would save our people, Balan. Many will starve to death over the winter do we not soon have an influx of coins. And surely she would choose you to husband anyway if she knew you. In fact, if you were not so shy - "

"Shy?" Balan interrupted, glancing at his cousin in disbelief. "I am not shy."

Osgoode snorted. "Balan, I have known you my whole life. You are so shy you do not even speak to women. And do not claim you speak to camp followers; they need little enough said to them. Besides, it is ladies I am speaking of."

Balan shrugged. "I do not speak to women because I have nothing to say to them."

"Bollocks," Osgoode said. "You are shy. But I could help you with that. I am quite successful with the ladies. I could teach you how to romance them and impress them and - "

"Osgoode," Balan interrupted. "Somehow I do not think that the skills you use to woo tavern wenches would stand me in good stead with Lady Murie."

"Women are women, cousin," the other man responded.

"Whether lady or tavern wench, they all like to be complimented and feted and told they are special. If you were to just go in there and - "


"Balan, please. If you would just - "

"Nay," he grouled. "You will not convince me to take advantage of Malculinus's trickery and show myself to her, Osgoode, no matter what approach you use. Now let it go."

"Oh, very well," his cousin muttered. "I just think -  Is that not him?" Osgoode interrupted himself to ask.

Balan glanced up the hall in the direction from which he'd expected Malculinus to come, but saw nothing. Frowning, he glanced the other way, toward Murie's door, and stilled when he saw Malculinus standing two doorways beyond. The man's clothes were rumpled, his hair was a mess, and he was busily kissing a woman in the door, quite thoroughly.

"Is that not Lady Jane?" Osgoode asked, but then, before Balan could answer that, yes it was, he added, "I guess the rumors are true, and she really does have a secret lover. I wonder if she is really with child, too."

Balan grunted.

"Mayhap he does not intend to go through with the plan," Osgoode suggested. "Lady Jane is nearly as wealthy as Lady Murie."

"Wealth is not a concern for Malculinus," Balan reminded him.

"Aye, but she is a lady in good standing... well, other than the fact that she has taken him on as a lover," he muttered. "Besides, surely even he is not despicable enough to go straight to Murie's room from the arms of his lover?"

Balan didn't respond. Malculinus was turning Lady Jane and pushing her back into her chamber. After giving her a playful swat on the behind, he pulled the door closed. The man then paused for a moment, as if waiting to be sure she didn't open the door again. Finally he started up the hall, straightening his clothes and running a hand through his hair.

For one moment, Balan thought Osgoode might be right and Malculinus would bypass Murie's room, but Malculinus stopped. He cast a quick glance about to be sure no one was around to see, then eased open Murie's door and slid inside.

"Do something," Osgoode hissed.

Balan was already slipping out from behind the curtain.

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