The Brat Chapter Ten

"How are you feeling?"

Osgoode's voice drew Balan's eyes open where he lay prostrate on the ground in a small copse. His answer was to groan and roll to his side and begin to retch yet again. It seemed all he'd done through most of the night: tossing up everything he'd eaten until now it was just dry heaves.

"Well, the good news is that it probably is not Murie trying to kill you," Osgoode announced cheerfully. "She is sick as well."

"What?" Balan asked in alarm, then broke off in another fit of dry heaves.

"Aye. It seems that while she personally cooked your meal, it smelled so good, she ate half of it herself before bringing it to you. She would not have done so had she deliberately poisoned it. So, either this poisoning was an accident, or someone else poisoned the meat she left roasting over the fire while she went to the river with Emilie and Reginald."

Balan flopped onto his back with a groan. "That bit of meat she brought me was small."

"Aye," Osgoode said solemnly. "Had you eaten the whole piece yourself, and had Murie not eaten half, Emilie is sure you would now be dead."

"How is my wife?"

"A little worse than you," Osgoode answered. When Balan's eyes popped open, he pointed out, "She ate half the meat, therefore half the poison, and she is not as big as you. It has hit her a little harder. She is hallucinating as well as vomiting." Balan forced himself to sit up and tried to crawl to his feet.

"Emilie is watching her," Osgoode said. "There is no need for you to - " He gave up and started to help his cousin, knowing how stubborn Balan could be.

The few feet back to camp made for a very long trip. The world seemed to have taken on an appalling tendency to wobble under Balan's legs, and his vision seemed slightly impaired so that the world seemed to move in and out of focus. He was grateful when they reached the tent and Reginald rushed from the fireside to hold the flap open. Osgoode helped him stumble inside. His cousin then helped him to the pallet where Murie lay and released him to step aside. Balan immediately collapsed beside his wife.

"Oh, Balan - you look better," Emilie said from the other side of the pallet, where she knelt pressing a damp cloth to Murie's face. But even in the state he was in, Balan could hear the lie in her voice and see her concern.

"I am better," he assured her, and then added in dry tones, "I made it all the way from the tent flap to here without having to vomit."

"Oooh," she murmured, then scowled at both him and his cousin. "Reginald told me what you and Osgoode thought. Murie is not trying to kill you."

Balan would have scowled at his big-mouthed cousin and friend if he could have, but it seemed too much effort.

"She intended to confront you about being in her room that night, and about it not being a dream, but then she came upon you talking to my husband and Osgoode about it in the hall. She heard the explanation you gave Reginald. She also heard his concern for me and that you intended to ask early leave from the king. Murie was afraid Edward would not permit it should you ask, so she went to him herself." Emilie paused to glare at Balan.

"She would not put a thistle under your saddle, and she certainly would not poison your meat and then eat half of it herself." Balan heard Osgoode say something, but forced himself to concentrate on Emilie's face. He could hear the indignation and anger in her voice, so wasn't surprised to see it reflected in her expression as she glared at him.

"Aye," was all he managed to say. Then he passed out beside his wife.

Murie opened her eyes and started to stretch, then paused as she realized there was an arm thrown over her waist. Moving carefully, she turned her head to glance past her shoulder and saw her husband. She peered at him with surprise. The question as to what he was doing in the tent with her had barely risen to mind when she realized they weren't in the tent at all. Her gaze slid around the room in confusion; then she eased out from beneath her husband's arm and got shakily to her feet. Her legs were not happy with her weight and seemed to be threatening to give out beneath her, but Murie needed a privy and could not wait for them to make up their mind as to whether they would hold her up or not. One of her gowns lay crumpled in the rushes by the bed, obviously left there after being removed from her. She picked it up, gently shook it out and donned it, then made her way carefully to the door, holding on to the wall to keep her balance as she went.

"Murie! What are you doing up?"

Emilie's alarmed voice drew her head around as she slipped into the hall. She smiled at her friend, relieved to see her. She had no idea where they were.

"Where are we?" she asked as her friend reached her side.

"Reynard Castle," Emilie answered, taking her arm to steady her. 'You should be back in bed. You have been very ill."

"I need the privy," Murie replied, resisting all efforts to turn her back to the room.

"Oh." Emilie hesitated and then sighed, slipping an arm around her waist. "Come, then. I will help you."

"Thank you," Murie said.

Her gaze slipped around what she could see of the castle. She'd never been allowed to visit Emilie away from Windsor Castle; Emilie had always had to come to see her. 'Your home looks nice, Emilie," she said as they moved up the hall.

Her friend chuckled. "It is. But you have only seen your chamber and the hall. You shall see more before you leave," she promised.

"I do not remember arriving here," Murie admitted. "The last thing I recall is stopping for the night after riding in the wagon all day."

"Do you remember feeling sick?"

"Aye." Murie wrinkled her nose. "My stomach did not like riding in that wagon."

"It was not the wagon ride," Emilie said quietly. 'You were poisoned."

"What?" Murie paused to glance at her with horror.

"It was not meant for you," Emilie explained quickly. "We think Balan was the target, but you ate half the meat you cooked for him."

"The meat was poisoned?" Murie asked with confusion. "But I spiced and cooked it myself."

"Aye, but you left it roasting and came down to the river to bathe, remember?"

"Oh, aye," Murie recalled, and remembered something else: "I told Balan that hearing the call of the curlew foretold death. If I had not eaten half that meat, it would have been so."

"Er. . ." Emilie bit her lip to hide a tolerant grin. "Well, anyway, they think it was poisoned while we were at the river. And they do think that your eating half probably saved Balan's life."

"I ate more than half," Murie admitted with a grimace. "I did not mean to, but it was so good, and I just kept picking at it."

"Aye, well, you saved his life by that action, but nearly lost your own. You were terribly sick."

"Oh," Murie sighed. "Well, I do not mind so much. 'Tis better to be ill than lose my husband."

Emilie smiled faintly. "Balan was most concerned. Sick as he was that night, he dragged himself to your side. Mind you, he fell unconscious directly afterward, but not until he had reached you."

"Oh!" Murie breathed.

"And then, the next morn, he took you up on his horse before him for the last part of the ride. Reginald and I said that we could wait until you had recovered to continue home, but he wanted to get you indoors and to Reynard where my maid, Marian, could tend you."

"Marian." Murie smiled at the name. The woman had cared for Emilie since she was a child and was very knowledgeable about medicinals and such, but she'd also been terribly kind to Murie whenever the two had met at court. Murie had been sorry when the woman announced that she was far too old to be making the journey anymore, and had ceased accompanying her mistress. That had been the year before Emilie married Reginald. The maid had eventually moved to Reynard, but that was the last move she'd made. She now stayed at Reynard all the time. "How is she?"

"Getting old," Emilie said on a sigh. "It scares me to see how paper thin her skin is getting and how fragile she grows. I fear I shall lose her soon."

"Nay," Murie said with certainty. "She is a strong woman. She will live to see all your children born -  and perhaps even their children as well."

"I hope you are right," Emilie replied.

They reached the privy and fell silent, Emilie waiting outside while Murie attended her needs. She then helped Murie back up the hall, but as they neared the stairs, Murie said, "I am hungry."

"That is a good sign. After I help you back to bed, I shall find you something to eat."

"I do not want to go back to bed," Murie announced stubbornly. "I want to be up and visiting with you."

"Perhaps later," Emilie suggested.

"But I want to visit with you now."

"Then I shall sit with you," Emilie said patiently.

"Balan is sleeping in our room. We cannot visit there. Can we not go below? I could see more of your castle that way." Emilie's lips began to twitch, making Murie narrow her eyes.

"What is it?" she asked.

"I had forgotten that when you were sick was the only time you truly lived up to your reputation," Emilie said with amusement.

'You were always a poor patient."

Murie made a face but didn't deny it. She'd always found herself impatient with illness, not wanting to be held back by it. Perhaps because she knew others would see it as yet another weakness and a good opportunity to launch further verbal assaults.

"Very well." Emilie led her to the top of the stairs and paused there to call out, "Reginald! Pray, come help me bring Murie below."

Lord Reynard had been seated at the trestle table in the hall, but he was on his feet and up the stairs in a trice. "Should she be up?" he asked his wife with concern as he paused before them.

"Aye, she should," Murie snapped. He was ignoring her as if she were too ill to make up her mind for herself!

One eyebrow arching, amusement tugging at his lips, Reginald shrugged and scooped her into his arms to carry her downstairs.

"Very well, but you shall be the one to explain to Balan when he gets up. He will not be pleased, I am sure. I know I would not be, were Emilie up and about so soon after being so ill." Murie scoffed. "Then I suspect you will find yourself annoyed with her every time she is ailing, because Emilie is no better a patient than I, if I recall correctly."

Reginald chuckled, his chest vibrating against her side, and Murie smiled. She added, "Have I ever told you how grateful I am that you love my friend and are a good husband to her?"

"Have I ever told you how grateful I am that you did not ask the king to have me drawn and quartered for marrying her and stealing her away?" he returned.

Murie scowled over his shoulder at his wife. 'You told him about that?" she asked with embarrassment. She'd been most distressed to learn her friend was to be married to some lord from the north. Emilie's parents' castle had been close to Windsor, and her visits prior to that had been most frequent. Neither of them had been pleased that she would be married and moved so far away. Murie had toyed with the idea of asking the king to prevent it, but then Reginald had arrived at court, and the couple had fallen so obviously in love that Murie had not.

Shaking her head at Emilie's unrepentant grin, Murie turned to Reginald and said, "I would have, had you not been so perfect for each other."

"Then I should tell you that I am grateful you have always been a good friend to my wife, Murie Somerdale," he replied solemnly.

"That would be Lady Gaynor, Reynard! And just where the hell is it you are taking my wife?"

The three paused at the foot of the stairs, and Reginald turned back with Murie still in his arms to stare up at Balan. Murie bit her lip. Her husband was wearing only a cotehardie and no leggings, and his hair was standing up every which way, and he really looked angry. It was enough to make her burst into speech.

"Good morning, husband. I got up on my own. I had to go to the privy. Fortunately, I happened upon Emilie in the hall, and she showed me where it was, but when she tried to get me to go back to bed, I explained that I am very hungry, so she asked Reginald to carry me down here, and now I am going to sit at table and eat because really I have been very ill, and I do need to build my strength back up, and I did not wish to disturb you while you were sleeping." She paused in her almost panicked explanation to take a breath, then asked, "Did you sleep well?" A sudden burble of laughter from Emilie made them all glance her way. She held an open hand before her face and shook her head. "I am sorry. Ignore me. It is probably being with child making me hysterical."

"That, or the fact that my husband is standing up there in no leggings, flashing himself to all and sundry in the hall," Murie said. She glanced at Balan, trying not to stare up his cotehardie.

"Really, husband .. . perhaps you should finish dressing." Balan did not cover himself or look embarrassed. He merely scowled harder, then turned to stalk back to their room. Reginald continued on to the table, carrying Murie, a giggling Emilie following. Murie said wryly, "Well.. . now everyone knows how well endowed my husband truly is. Is that not nice?"

"Already?" Murie stared at her husband in dismay. He'd been glowering and glaring since returning to the great hall fully clothed, but she'd not thought that he was annoyed enough to cut short their visit to Reynard and make her leave the day after they got there.

"We have to get to Gaynor and prepare for winter," he said.

"Aye, but you said we might stay a week - or a few days at least. I heard you tell Reginald that," she accused.

"Aye, and we have been here a week."

"What?" She gaped at him in disbelief, but recalled from what he'd said to Osgoode back at court that he wouldn't lie to her. Still... Her gaze shot to Emilie for confirmation.

The woman nodded solemnly. 'You have been very ill, Murie. It hit you much harder than it did Balan. You were delirious for this whole week."

Murie slumped in her seat with dismay, not having realized how long she'd been under the weather. She did not even recall waking since arriving at Reynard, yet they said she'd awakened several times this last week. Incredible.

"I am sorry that you will not get to spend more time with Emilie while you are conscious," Balan added, "But we cannot spare the time. We will give you this day to recover and visit, but we will have to continue on in the morning. Reginald has offered us the wagon for the remainder of the journey so that you may rest."

"Rest? In that hellish contraption?" she asked. She shook her head. "Oh, nay. I shall ride a horse. I am not riding in the wagon."

"We are almost there."

Murie glowered at her husband from where she was bouncing about in the back of the wagon. He looked so bloody cheerful, while she was horribly miserable. She wanted to snatch his smile right off his face. It had been a long and horrible journey. The only good thing about it was that it had been just one horribly long day in length. They had set out at sunrise - just Osgoode and Balan; and Murie and Cecily in the wagon; and of course the wagon driver, who would be making the return journey with an escort of two soldiers on the morrow after resting at Gaynor for the night.

Balan and Osgoode had not bothered with men-at-arms for their journey to court. Her husband had explained that all the men he'd brought back from battle had been needed to help keep Gaynor running now that so many servants had fled or died; he hadn't wished to take them away when they were so badly needed at home. Besides, while he'd gone to court hoping to gain a bride, he'd not expected success to be so quick.

Without men to help guard their party, Balan had insisted on a grueling pace, not stopping to eat but eating in the saddle - or in the back of the wagon as was the case for Murie. However, food was not the only reason to stop. Murie had been suffering with a full bladder for much of the last two hours - not an easy thing when one was being jostled. Now she feared she might not make it to the castle without embarrassing herself.

As she was annoyed with her husband, Murie was reluctant to ask for anything, but she had no choice. Heaving a put-upon sigh, she called out and gestured him over to the side of the wagon. Peeling his mount away from Osgoode's, Balan immediately moved to her side, keeping pace with the wagon as he raised an eyebrow in question.

"I need to visit the woods," she announced.

"What?" he asked with disbelief.

"I need to visit the woods," Murie repeated through slightly gritted teeth.

"Why?" He frowned.

"To ... I... To visit the woods," she said lamely, blushing bright red. She could not believe he could not grasp the concept. For heaven's sake, surely he must need to relieve himself by now, too!

"I believe she needs to tend to privy business," Osgoode said helpfully, having moved to ride beside Balan.

"Oh!" Balan's eyes widened with understanding, he asked in mild irritation, "Well, why did you not just say so?"

"I did," she muttered.

Her husband urged his horse up beside the driver to tell him to stop, and Murie was out of the wagon almost before it did. She immediately forced her stiff legs to carry her into the woods along side the path, not bothering to wait for accompaniment. She did not care if it annoyed her husband that she was traipsing off by herself; she had to go and had to do so now, and she was annoyed with him anyway for making her ride in the cart. He could be annoyed back if he liked.

She carried out her business quickly and with much relief, then returned to the horses and wagon much more slowly than she'd left, uneager to climb into the uncomfortable contraption again. Oddly enough, it seemed a much longer walk back than it had been out.

"Murie!" Balan yelled.

Frowning, she paused and glanced back the way she'd come, wondering how her husband had got behind her.

"Murie!" Osgoode's voice called from the same direction, and she turned and started that way, frowning with concern at the anxiety in their voices.

"Aye!" she shouted, moving a little more quickly. She hadn't retraced far when Balan and Osgoode stepped out of the woods, relief on their faces.

"Were you lost?" Balan asked, looking her over as he approached.

"Nay, of course not. I was just coming back."

"You walked out a terribly long way and took so long we were worried," Osgoode explained. Balan was urging her back the way they'd come.

Murie bit her lip and realized she'd been heading away from the lane where the wagon waited. How had she got herself turned around like that? she wondered. The question flew from her mind, however, when the call of a cuckoo sang out nearby. Murie immediately threw herself to the ground and began to roll.

"Wife!" Balan was at once kneeling at her side, forcing her roll to an end. "Are you all right?"

"Of course," she said, sitting up. "But you really should not have stopped me."

"What were you doing?" he asked with bewilderment. Murie frowned. "Did you not hear the cuckoo? Nay, of course not, else you would have rolled on the ground, too." There was a moment of silence, and then Osgoode cleared his throat and asked, "Why would Balan have rolled on the ground, too?"

"Because 'tis good luck to do so at the first sound of the cuckoo's call," she explained. "I would not normally do so, for fear I might ruin my gown, but with someone trying to kill my husband, it seems a good idea not to take any chances or miss any good luck we may gain. After all, I may be annoyed with him right now, but I am sure 'tis a temporary situation. I shall forgive him eventually. I would not wish him dead ere that happened."

"Ah," Osgoode murmured. His worried gaze found Balan, who stayed silent.

Murie frowned at her husband's unreadable expression, then shrugged, stood and continued the way they had been heading. Behind her she heard Balan mutter, "I have married a mad woman."

"Aye, but at least you know she is not trying to kill you," Osgoode replied with amusement.

Murie whirled on them. "You may laugh if you wish, but did you not sneeze to your left ere we began this journey, husband?

And have we not had bad luck? And then, did you not step on St. John's wort and get carried away by a horse? And did we not hear a curlew before you were poisoned? Aye." She nodded grimly.

"Laugh if you wish, but each event has been foretold by unlucky omens. You mark my words, you shall be grateful for my silly superstitions someday."

Turning on her heel, Murie flounced back to the wagon and crawled miserably into the back. The men remounted. She'd barely settled herself when her husband rode up and leaned over the side, hooked an arm around her waist and lifted her out onto his lap and the saddle.

"Thank you for troubling yourself to roll on the ground - even though it might ruin your gown - to gain some good luck for me," he whispered in her ear as she remained stiff in his arms. Murie released a little sigh at his words and sank into the comfort of his arms. This really was much better than the wagon.

"You are welcome, husband," she murmured. "And thank you for removing me from that horrible wagon."

"I could hardly have you riding up to the castle scowling like thunder. You would scare off the few servants we have left," he said, then smiled at her as her glower returned. "Aye, just like that."

Murie went stiff in his arms and tried to turn to ignore him, but Balan leaned down and began to nuzzle her ear. He whispered,

"Besides, it allows me to do this."

Murie gasped as his tongue slid out and whorled around her ear, the action having a surprising and immediate effect on other points of her body. Her stiffness was suddenly gone, and she pressed into him, her head turning to make his suckling easier. Chuckling at her response, Balan caught her by the chin and turned her face until he could kiss her,his tongue thrusting into her mouth and claiming ownership.

A shout drew them apart, and Murie turned to look forward as they broke from the trees through which they'd been passing for the past hour. She got her first view of her new home. The fields still had much of their produce on the vine, rotting. The village ahead and some distance to the right looked oddly still. The castle on the hill was large - and surprisingly lovely.

"We lost many people to the plague," Balan explained quietly, his eyes sliding over the fields. "My warriors have been reduced to trying to reap the harvest, but of course there are not enough of them, and they are not as skilled or quick as the peasants would have been. Much of the crop has been left where it grew."

"The land will be very fertile next year then," Murie noted.

"The soil will benefit from our loss."

She sensed the way his eyes shot to her, but she herself was busy looking at the man hurrying toward them up the lane. He was not a warrior, his body thin and undernourished. His hair was of a salt-and-pepper shade that suggested he was older than his spry behavior suggested, and his face was weathered with both age and exposure to the elements. He was one of the survivors of the village, she supposed.

He paused before them, and Balan reined in. It must have been he who had shouted a moment ago; there was no one else to be seen on this lonely lane.

"My lord, you are returned," the man said, smiling widely. "We heard news you were on the way and that you had yourself a beautiful bride." He turned an unabashed grin to Murie. "We are so very happy to have you at Gaynor, my lady."

"Thank you," she said, smiling in return.

"Murie," her husband said. "This is our stable master, Habbie." Once she'd murmured a greeting, Balan asked the man, "What are you doing out here?"

"Oh, I was thinking to find a little something for the horses," Habbie said with a shrug. "But 'tis all pretty much beyond being useful."

Murie followed the old man's sad gaze over the fields, concern drawing her eyebrows together. "Is the situation so desperate, husband?" she asked.

"Aye," he replied with a sigh. "Hop on the wagon, Habbie. You may ride with us back to the keep."

Nodding, the man moved to the wagon. He spoke a greeting to Cecily in the back, then mounted the bench to sit beside the driver, and they were off again.

Murie examined everything much more closely now. The crop had obviously grown well; the only problem had been bringing it in, as her husband had said. That was important. This was healthy land, then, and likely to grow just as lush and strong a crop next year. Gaynor would recover.

The village was distressing to see. Even from the lane, Murie saw that it was inhabited by only ghosts. Neither person nor animal stirred as they rode past. Doors and window shutters on the small, thatched cottages stood free, slamming open and closed in the breeze. The small gardens around the buildings that had once boasted herbs and spices were now growing wild and filled with weeds.

Murie was relieved when they had passed by. Then she noted the huge mounds that lined the path on each side of them, and she didn't need Balan to tell her that this was where they had buried their dead. So many dying so quickly had forced them to dig mass graves. Fear had been a part of that as well. The plague had made its way through all of England, including Berkshire, where Windsor Castle stood. Fear of the plague had been horrifying and had induced people to do the most appalling things.

Balan's arms closed more securely around her waist, drawing her from her thoughts. She forced a smile for his benefit. Then they were passing over the drawbridge and riding into the castle's outer bailey.

Here there were obvious signs of the plague's effects as well, but they were only due to neglect and lack of manpower. The bailey at least had people in it, mostly men. Obviously they were warriors: most wore tabards and armor as they walked the walls or manned their posts. Others as big and brawny as those in uniform were wearing more serviceable clothes for labor, rough tunics and faded leggings.

Murie eyed all the men curiously, but couldn't help noting that every single man turned toward their small procession with wide relieved grins and obvious welcome. Emilie had mentioned that Gaynor suffered under the plague, but the expressions on the faces of the men told her more than anything how bad things were and how much hope they were pinning on her. She decided then and there that she would not let them down. She would do all in her power to make things better for those here ... and to keep their lord, her husband, safe.

Despite her annoyance with him, Murie had been pondering the matter of how to keep her husband safe as she rode in that horrible wagon. Someone had put a thistle under his saddle in the hope that he would fall from his mount and break his neck. When that had not worked, they had resorted to poisoning him, and only her inability to cook without picking at the food had saved him. Well, all right, she'd more than picked.

Anyway, someone wanted her husband dead, and she intended to find out who and why, and to stop them. She'd already started making a list of the things she would need to do to keep him alive; now she just needed to sort out a plan for catching the culprit.

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