The Brat Chapter Fifteen

"Where is my wife?" Balan shifted impatiently on his mount, his gaze moving around the bailey. When he did not spot her anywhere, he cursed under his breath and turned back to the keep as the doors opened. Rather than his wife, Anselm hurried out. Balan shouted, "Anselm! Have Godart and Erol not found my wife yet?"

"Nay, my lord. But I'm sure they will find her soon." The soldier came to stand by Balan's mount. The man's gaze shifted from Balan to Osgoode and back, and he said slowly, "Are you sure you will not take another man or two?"

"We have not another man to spare," he replied impatiently. Anselm had asked the question at least six times since learning of this trip, and Balan could not help noticing that while the man was not arguing the trek was needed, his concern seemed to be with Balan going alone with Osgoode. It would appear the soldier, like his wife, had suspicions where his cousin was concerned.

"Here she comes," Osgoode said, drawing Balan's gaze toward the gates. His wife hurried across the bailey toward him. Balan frowned. "Where the devil is she coming from?" Not expecting an answer, he turned his horse and quickly rode to his wife's side, scooping her up off the ground and settling her before him on his mount with one smooth action. She was apologizing before he could demand to know where she'd been.

"I am ever so sorry, husband," she said, digging around in the small bag she carried. "I did not intend to be so long, but I could not find a clover leaf. I mean, I could find a clover, but I wanted a four-leafed one. They are really the best, but ever so hard to find. And then, I had difficulty finding an even ash leaf, and once I did, I could not recall what you were to say as you picked it. I think it is, 'Even ash I do thee pluck, hoping thus to meet good luck. If no good luck I get from thee, I shall wish thee on the tree.' But I was not certain."

"Wife," Balan said the moment she paused to draw breath.

"Aye?" She stopped what she was doing to peer at him.

"Why are you sticking leaves and bits of twig in my clothing?" he asked with what he thought was a display of utmost patience.

"There is no need to yell, husband," Murie said, looking hurt.

"These are all charms to bring you luck. This twig is from a birch tree. It is supposed to avert the evil eye and has protective powers. And this is elder to - "

Balan silenced her explanations with a kiss. She was blessedly silent when it was over, except for a little sigh that slipped from her lips. It was enough to make him consider delaying the trip long enough to carry her up to their room and give her something to remember him by, but he resisted the temptation. Did he do that, he would never leave, and this trip was necessary. In fact, it was more than necessary. The things he intended to get were needed desperately. But should he not get her out of his lap soon, Balan knew he was in danger of forsaking this trip. While her superstitions and insistence on sticking twigs and leaves and other charms in every hole and spot she could find was annoying, it warmed his heart that she cared so much about him and was doing the only thing she could think of to keep him safe while he was away.

Pressing a kiss to the top of her head, he bent to the side and set her on the ground at the foot of the stairs beside Anselm. Turning solemn eyes to the man, he ordered, "Look after her." His soldier nodded solemnly in return, and Balan started to turn his horse away.

"Oh! Wait, husband!" Murie cried, making him draw his horse to a halt and turn back. She rushed to his side.

"I forgot," she explained, grabbing his foot in the stirrup. She paused and began to work her mouth as if she had a bad taste in it. Balan was about to ask what she'd forgotten, when she nodded with apparent satisfaction and ... spat on him.

Balan simply stared with disbelief. It was Osgoode who asked what he could not.

"Er.. . Murie? Did you just spit on Balan?" his cousin asked. Anselm rushed forward, eyes wide with horror.

"Aye." Murie beamed at them as if it were the most natural thing in the world. " 'Tis good luck to spit on someone before they take a journey. 'Twill protect them and bring them good fortune," she explained. She asked Osgoode, "Would you like me to spit on you, too?"

"Nay!" the man said quickly through laughter. Then he asked,

"Did you ever spit on the king before a journey?"

"Nay," she confessed. "But I am sure the queen did. I did once tell her about the custom, and she seemed most interested."

"Murie," Balan said as Osgoode burst into more laughter.

"Aye, husband?"

"Come here."

Her eyes suddenly wary, she hesitated, but then moved closer. Bending to the side, Balan lifted her up again, pressed a quick hard kiss to her lips and whispered, "I love you." He then quickly set her back down, turned his mount toward the gates and set out. He cast one quick glance back before riding out of the bailey, saw that his wife still stood where he'd set her, a stunned look on her face.

"I got the feeling that Anselm was none too pleased that I would be going with you on this trip," Osgoode commented as they crossed the drawbridge. When Balan did not comment, his cousin added, "You do not think he suspects me of knocking you into the river?"

"I do not know. He has not said anything," Balan answered with a shrug. But he added, "Murie does."

"What?" Osgoode glanced over with a start. "Never say she does. How could she suspect me?"

Balan shrugged again and pointed out, "You suspected her."

"Aye, but that was different."

"Of course it was," Balan said with amusement. Then he spurred his horse into a run. He did not wish to speak; he wanted to think on his wife and all the things he would do to her in their bed when he got home.

It was Cecily entering the room that woke Murie. Blinking open sleepy eyes, she saw the maid move quietly to her chest and sort through her clothes until she settled on Murie's favorite, a burgundy gown and black surcoat. Murie's eyes drifted shut as the maid closed the chest again. She'd been working terribly hard these last two days and had exhausted herself. She wished for just a couple more minutes sleep.

The moment her husband left the bailey, Murie had rounded up every available person at Gaynor and set to work. That first day they'd taken down all the tapestries and other decorations in the great hall and beaten or soaked them clean; then they'd whitewashed the walls, removed all the nasty old rushes and replaced them with fresh new rushes before hanging the tapestries and decorations back in their places. Everyone had been exhausted when they'd finally sought their beds for the night. But they'd also been back at it bright and early the next morning. Murie wasn't sure if it was pride fueling their efforts to make the castle look at least almost as impressive as it used to for the arrival of the new servants her husband was bringing back, or the prospect of the more varied diet that was ensured by the livestock he was also fetching.

That second morning, Murie had set them to work on several different projects. Some she'd sent to the kitchens to help prepare for Balan's return, but Clement had kept the kitchens in such good repair that few were needed there. The rest she set to work on the upper floor. She'd asked Anselm who among the men knew something about carpentry, then had sent the four he named to cut down trees and build a new bed frame. She'd set several others to making a new straw mattress for both their bed and Juliana's, and the remainder of people to work in the hall and the guest rooms, cleaning and scrubbing and righting what they could.

Despite working well into the night, the men had not yet finished making the bed when she'd retired, though they'd promised to have it done today. The mattresses were done, however, as well as most of the cleaning. Today Murie planned to have new shutters made for the windows and to have Cecily go with Gatty's daughters to collect more fresh rushes for the upper rooms. She would also set several men to repairing or rebuilding pens for the animals her husband was bringing back, while she herself worked on the gardens. Clement had done his best to keep up with that as well as the kitchens, but he was only one man. Sudden sunlight pouring over her face brought Murie's eyes open with a start. Cecily had removed the fur from the window directly across from the bed, making it clear that her few more minutes of sleep were now done. It was time to rise and start the day. Her husband returned today.

The thought brought a grin to her face, and Murie scrambled up off the straw mattress, full of pep and vigor.

"Good morning, Cecily. Today is a fine day, is it not?" she said happily, her gaze sliding to the bright sunny sky outside the window.

"Aye, my lady. A fine day," Cecily agreed with a smile, handing her a small bit of linen to wash herself.

Accepting it, Murie moved to the basin of water, stripped off her undertunic and began.

"So, what tasks have you decided to set us to today?" Cecily asked, moving to collect the gown and surcoat laid out on the chest. "Scrubbing the outside of the castle walls, mayhap?" Murie wrinkled her nose and assured her, "You shall have a much easier task today. We need new rushes for the other rooms above stairs. I thought you and Gatty's daughters could go collect them. 'Twill give you a chance to lounge about and giggle without my snapping at you all to get back to work." She finished with the linen and rose water, and turned to accept the green gown Cecily held out.

"And what shall you be doing?" Cecily asked as Murie donned the gown.

"Working in the garden, I think," Murie answered. She tugged the gown into place and reached for the surcoat. "It has grown over quite badly with no one to tend it. I thought to weed and see what is usable and what is not. Some of the herbs will still be usable and can be dried for use in winter, but not for much longer. The sooner I start that the better; else we will be either eating tasteless, unseasoned dishes or purchasing herbs at an exorbitant price."

"Aye." Cecily nodded, moving behind her and setting to work on her hair. "But even unseasoned beef and chicken would be welcome rather than fish three times a day."

Murie wrinkled her nose in agreement. The boar had gone quickly, and they'd returned to their diet of fish. After just two days, Murie felt sure she could happily skip ever eating fish again.

"There you are," Cecily said as she got the last of the tangles out of Murie's hair. "Do you wish me to collect Gatty's daughters and head out straight away to search for more rushes, or is there something else you want done first?"

"Nay, go on. You shall most like have to make several trips with just the three of you working, and I would have it done ere Balan returns. Best to start right away."

"He should not be back ere sup, should he?" Cecily asked. She collected the scented water and damp linen.

"He thought closer to noon - or even earlier," Murie replied, looking for her leather pattens. She'd kicked the shoes off before crawling into bed last night, she thought, but they were not by the bedside. "He hoped to finish his business in Carlisle by early yesterday afternoon and travel halfway back, then camp and finish the journey home this morning."

"We had best get moving then," Cecily said, heading for the door.

"Aye," Murie agreed, relieved to spot her pattens. She pulled them on, hurried out of the room and rushed below stairs. It was the same pattern for much of the day: Murie and everyone else rushed around trying to get everything done. She herself spent most of the time in the garden, but was constantly interrupted by questions. The men Anselm had set to the task of building pens came to ask how big they should make them and where exactly she wished them to go. Murie had to look at where the old pens sat rotting and to make suggestions that they pretty much ignored: They decided for themselves what to do in an open debate.

Rolling her eyes at the men, she'd returned to the garden, only to be interrupted when the men working on the bed came to tell her it was done and in the bedchamber. Of course, she'd had to stop what she was doing to rush up and inspect and praise their efforts. Then Cecily and the girls came to inform her that Juliana's room now had a new carpet of rushes. Murie had praised them for working so quickly and sent them off to find more for the other rooms above stairs. And then one of the men working on the new shutters had approached to show her what they had come up with and to ask if it would do, so that they could make the rest of them. Murie had praised the design and sent him on his way with a little sigh, hoping that she could at least get a quarter of the garden done before her husband returned.

By the time Anselm approached, Murie was growing quite short-tempered, and her voice was a tad sharp as she glanced up from where she knelt. "Aye? What now?"

The man-at-arms raised his eyebrows, but he merely said,

"Company has arrived. 'Tis Lord Aldous."

Murie sat back on her heels. "Alone?"

"Nay. He has Baxley with him."

"Baxley?" Murie echoed.

"He is supposed to be Lord Aldous's servant, but is really kept around to protect him in case there is trouble. Malculinus takes him everywhere. Although, perhaps it was not necessary the man stick close at court."

Murie shrugged with disinterest. "Tell him I am too busy to see him."

"Do you think that is wise, my lady?"

She'd started to bend back to her weeds, but paused at the question. Eyebrows rising, she asked, "What do you mean?"

"Well, it occurred to me you might be able to learn something that would give us a better idea if Malculinus is behind these attacks on his lordship," Anselm said slowly. "He may let something slip, or at the very least his behavior toward you may tell us whether he has hopes of marrying you should his lordship die."

Murie hesitated. She really had no desire to even look at the man, let alone speak to him, and she had so much work to do. But if Malculinus were behind the attacks on her husband . . .

"Aye," she agreed, getting stiffly to her feet. "I shall see what I can find out."

Anselm nodded encouragingly. "I shall stay close by, in case there is trouble."

"Thank you," she said, though she doubted Lord Aldous would openly cause trouble at Gaynor. He seemed to prefer sneaky, behind-the-back methods of getting what he wanted.

"Lady Murie!" Malculinus stood and greeted her with a smile when she entered the great hall. "You have done wonders with the castle. It almost appears livable again. It had really gone to ruin since the plague."

"Thank you, my lord," Murie said stiffly as she approached the table, for truly, that was about the most backhanded compliment she'd ever received. It "almost appeared livable"? It looked bloody lovely to her eyes. Irritated, she turned her gaze to the man with Malculinus and felt her eyes narrow. Anselm had said Malculinus took Baxley with him everywhere, but she hadn't recalled him hanging about Malculinus at court. She had assumed he hadn't needed his services there. Still, the man did look familiar. He was tall and more slender than she would have expected in a bodyguard, and his hair was a strawberry blond. She was trying to sort out where she'd seen him when Malculinus took her hand and pressed a kiss to it.

"You are more than welcome," Malculinus assured her, peering up from where he bent over her hand, his lips still touching it and moving against her skin. "And more than welcome at Castle Aldous anytime. In fact, I was just telling Baxley that I should be so lucky as to have a wife as industrious as yourself to grace my castle. Although, of course, you yourself would be preferred." Murie blinked and snatched her hand away, trying to sort out whether he'd just said something terribly bold, or if she'd misunderstood completely. A glance in Anselm's direction suggested she'd not misunderstood. Malculinus had just openly claimed he would gladly take her to wife. The only problem was, she was already married.

As if reading her mind, Malculinus said, "Where is your husband? Not still sick in bed after his head wound, I hope? We did hear at Aldous of his misadventure, and I wished to come by and extend my condolences."

"Condolences are unnecessary. Balan is fine," she assured him grimly. "Is he here then?"

Murie hesitated, unsure if telling the man where her husband was would be smart. If Malculinus were behind these attacks, he might arrange an ambush upon her husband's return. Although, she supposed that would be difficult on such short notice, and she need not say when he was returning.

"My husband is out at the moment," she answered, deciding upon caution.

Malculinus made a moue of disappointment. "I suppose we shall just have to enjoy your company alone then." Murie very much suspected he would be the only one to enjoy the time. Still, she had to try to find out what she could and supposed she would have to be nice to do so.

"Would you care for a drink, my lord?" she asked.

"Or something to eat?"

While the offer sounded polite and even friendly, Murie was aware of its punitive nature even as she spoke. Fish cakes and the rather vile ale they had at Gaynor would hardly be a treat for this man, who probably had a proper alewife with the proper ingredients to make the drink, as well as plenty of foodstuffs to make delectable treats.

"Fishcakes and bad ale?" Malculinus asked with a laugh.

"Thank you, no."

Murie's eyes narrowed, but she simply said, "You seem to know quite a bit of what goes on at Gaynor, my lord."

"Aye." He smiled beatifically. "Your cook's sister is still at Aldous. Did you know?"

"Clement?" Murie asked with surprise. She hadn't realized he had family, but then, the cook wasn't the most talkative of men.

"Aye. His sister visits him quite frequently here at Gaynor, and I like to check with her and see how things are going from time to time. She was most relieved that Balan was going to find more help and livestock for his people. She was quite worried about her brother for a while."

Murie glanced quickly to the side, noting movement out of the corner of her eye. Anselm was heading for the kitchen, an expression like thunder on his face.

"Anselm," she called sharply, drawing him to a halt. He glanced back, and she shook her head. His mouth worked briefly, but then he returned to where he'd been, obviously not pleased that he could not go give Clement a telling off for speaking to his sister. But Murie would not allow it. She would speak to the cook later and tell him that Malculinus was pumping his sister for information, and then she would suggest that Balan offer the woman a job at Gaynor. She was not going to restrict the man from talking to his sibling, however.

To be honest, she very much doubted Clement had told his sister anything. The man was as grouchy as a scalded cat and silent as a stone at the best of times; she couldn't imagine that changing even with his sister. Murie suspected most of the information the woman had gained was simply by walking through the bailey on her way around to the kitchens and seeing the state of things. Or perhaps from Gatty's daughters. Estrelda and Livith were proving quite chatty.

As if her thinking of them brought them forward, the keep doors suddenly opened and Gatty's daughters and Cecily hurried in, their arms full of rushes. All three glanced curiously toward the table, and the guests and all three women did a double-take at Baxley. It made Murie glance toward the man again, and she realized what she'd completely missed the first time she'd looked. The man was extraordinarily handsome. The girls obviously thought so, too. They were craning their necks and likely to break them in a tumble down the stairs in their effort not to look away. One of Gatty's daughters - the younger one, Estrelda -  stumbled on a step. Dropping her burden, she grabbed for the rail in an effort to save herself. Cecily, following the girl up, immediately dropped her own pile of rushes to save Estrelda from tumbling back down the stairs. Fortunately, she managed. Releasing a little sigh of relief as the women bent to begin picking up the rushes, Murie started to shake her head and then turned sharply back to Malculinus. He'd grasped her hand.

"I hate to see you in such dire straits," he said, rubbing his thumb lightly over her fingers. "If there is anything I can do to help ..."

Murie stiffened as his other hand suddenly ran lightly up her inner arm, brushing against her breast.

"Like you helped Lady Jane?" she asked coldly. There was just so much she would take in an effort to learn if Malculinus was behind these attacks. Besides, he wasn't likely to blurt a confession, and she already knew that he knew everything that went on here. She'd had quite enough of the man and had better things to do than waste time having him grope her.

"What do you know about Lady Jane?" he asked sharply. Murie smiled. While they were playing chess the night before he left, Balan had told her what he and Osgoode had seen on St. Agnes Eve. She knew all about Malculinus's liaison with Lady Jane, and she thought the man was despicable. She had no doubt he'd convinced Lady Jane that he would marry her in order to get her into bed. Now the woman was caught in a terrible situation that would become a horrible scandal when everything came out, which it surely-must do if she was pregnant.

A titter of sound drew her gaze back to the women on the stairs, and Murie frowned as she saw that Baxley was now there. The man was smiling and flirting and using every opportunity he could to touch both Estrelda and Cecily as he piled rushes back into their arms.

Like lord, like servant, she thought derisively, and watched in tense silence until the women continued on their way above stairs. Only then did she turn back to Malculinus. He'd been talking throughout her inattention, apparently oblivious of her disinterest. The moment he fell silent, she said, "I would appreciate it if you and your man would leave now, my lord. I have much to get done ere my husband returns and little enough time in which to do it. I cannot spend hours on company at the moment."

She saw fury in Lord Aldous's eyes, but then it was gone, hidden behind a wide, fake smile.

"Of course. How thoughtless of me. No doubt you shall work yourself to the bone trying to keep this place running," he said sweetly. Then he added archly, "We must hope you do not end up working yourself to the grave as well."

When Murie's only response was for her mouth to tighten and she resisted the urge to insult him back, Malculinus decided to get in a couple more blows. "I think the king made a mistake in allowing you to choose your own husband. You really have chosen poorly, Murie. While the plague greatly reduced the number of single lords out there, surely you could have found someone a little better set than this? Look at you. You were among the most beautiful at court, yet here you look no better than a filthy, common peasant. Oh, how the mighty do fall." Murie clenched her fists, but she raised a hand to stop Anselm when she sensed him closing the distance between them. She could feel the anger vibrating off him at Malculinus's insult. Once he stopped, she merely asked Malculinus politely, "Are you quite finished?"

"Why? Are you going to cry for me, my little royal brat?" Murie stiffened - more at the excited look in his eyes than the use of the old nickname. The man wanted her to cry. He would enjoy it if she did, and she suspected -  unless she did something

- Malculinus would probably stand there all day hurling insults at her to make it happen. Murie simply did not have time for that. Without planning it out or even realizing she intended to do so, her right fist suddenly shot out, slamming into the man's nose. It hurt like the devil and her knuckles vibrated with pain, but the satisfaction of Malculinus holding a suddenly gushing nose and squealing like a little girl more than made up for it, Murie watched with a small smile as Baxley hurried the rest of the way to the trestle table and his lord's side. The man examined Lord Aldous's nose, pronounced it broken and then ripped a strip off his doublet to stop the blood. He then cast an uncertain frown Murie's way and shook his head, leading Malculinus to the keep doors. Apparently, he wasn't willing to attempt retribution. Murie followed in their wake, aware that Anselm had moved to her side. She had no desire to have to speak to Malculinus again, but she did wish to be sure he left. She followed them outside and stood at the top of the stairs, watched as Baxley helped Malculinus onto his mount. He then took the reins and mounted his own horse, leading his master home like a child rather than a grown man suffering a bloodied nose.

"Well," Anselm murmured as they watched the pair ride out.

"If Lord Aldous was the one behind the attacks because he hoped to marry you, I suspect they will end quite suddenly." Murie turned to peer at him, and he explained, "No man wants to marry a woman who can best him in a fight."

She smiled faintly, then shook her head and turned away. "I shall be in the garden should you need me."

"Aye, my lady," Anselm said. He added with a laugh, "And I shall be running around the castle checking on everyone's progress - and telling every last man what you just did. They will find it quite entertaining, I am sure. As will his lordship when he returns."

Murie did not bother to comment. She headed up the stairs to pass through the keep and back to the garden. This time she got to work for quite a period before anyone interrupted. The sun was high in the sky, suggesting it was time to break for the nooning meal when she heard shouting.

"My lady!"

Murie straightened and peered up the path to see Godart rushing toward her, excitement on his face.

"His lordship has been sighted," he gasped as he paused beside her. "They are riding up to the drawbridge now, and the men on the wall say there are six cows, as many pigs and three wagons -  one holding what looks to be half a dozen servants, and the others holding rolls of cloth and they think caged birds." Smiling, Murie scrambled to her feet. Balan was home.

Yes, the servants and livestock were grand news, but more important to her was the fact that Balan was home. The man had said he loved her before leaving and had left her gaping after him like a fish out of water. Now it would be her turn. She would run out to greet him by throwing her arms around his neck, kissing him soundly and telling him that she loved him, too.

Laughing with joy, she hurried up the path with Go-dart on her heels and rushed through the kitchen, the great hall and finally out onto the keep steps. In her excitement, Murie didn't notice that the kitchen and great hall were empty, but they must have been, for every single inhabitant of Gaynor was already at the bottom of the steps waiting when she stepped outside.

Smiling at their excitement, she tripped lightly down the stairs to wait with them just as the traveling party rolled through the gate. They all watched impatiently as the small convoy made its way across the bailey before finally coming to a halt. Everyone began to converge on the wagons at once.

Thibault rushed to greet the new servants and welcome them to Gaynor almost as effusively as he'd greeted Murie.

Clement and Habbie went straight to the animals, examining the cows and exclaiming over two of them being milking cows, then moving to peer at the chickens, licking their lips the whole while.

Gatty rushed to the wagon with the rolls of cloth, Juliana and Frederick trailing her. She cried out with excitement that they could make new clothes. Her daughters would be ecstatic when they returned with Cecily from collecting rushes, she said, teary-eyed as she examined the cloth and noted aloud that there wasn't one roll even close to the color brown.

The soldiers and other men were also gathered around the wagon with the cloth, but their interest was caught by the barrels of ale and mead on board. Truly, every last one looked as if he might cry for joy.

While the others gathered around, chattering excitedly, Murie and Anselm remained where they were, both frowning. They looked over the party. There were two mounted men with the wagons, but they were not her husband and Osgoode.

"Where is my husband?" Murie asked with confusion, uncaring about the servants and livestock her husband had managed to find. Her gaze slid back to the armed soldiers and she frowned.

"And who are these men?"

"Did you say your husband?" one of the men asked with surprise. "Did you mean Osgoode?"

"Nay. Balan," Murie said. "I am Lady Gaynor. Who are you?"

"We were hired by your husband to help guard the wagons on the way back from Carlisle," the soldier answered slowly. Then he said, "How did you get back to the keep so quickly?" Murie peered at him with confusion. "What are you talking about? I have been here at the keep all day... working in the gardens."

When the two soldiers exchanged a glance, Murie felt alarm clutch at her. Something was wrong.

"Where is my husband?" she asked again, demanding this time.

"He is in the village below, outside the gates. Osgoode said he saw Lord Balan's wife in one of the cottages. There was smoke coming from the chimney. Lord Gaynor ordered us to continue on to the castle with the wagons, and the two rode for the village to find you."

Murie's gaze shot to Anselm's in alarm, which she saw mirrored on his weathered face. "I shall fetch some men and look into it," he assured her, and he rushed off toward the stables.

Murie watched the man-at-arms go, her mind in an uproar. She was positive this was somehow another attempt on her husband's life and had no time to wait for horses or Anselm to round up men to check. Her gaze swung back to the armed guards who were now dismounting. Moving quickly forward, Murie snatched the reins from the nearest man's unsuspecting hands and clambered atop his mount's back.

"Hey! That's my horse!" the man cried, moving to stop her, but Murie was not willing to be stopped. Pulling hard on the reins, she turned the animal toward the gates and dug in her heels. The horse was very responsive and charged forward at once.

Murie heard the shouts and commotion behind her but did not slow. Her husband needed her.

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