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By Lynsay Sands
Dorchester PublishingCopyright © 2007 Lynsay Sands
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSeptember 1351
Balan shifted in his seat and flexed his shoulders uncomfortably. His blue doublet was too small and restricting, but then, it hadn't been made for his large frame. It was his father's best, the one he'd always worn to court. That had been years ago, however; now its color was faded and it was threadbare in places. Still, it was the best Balan had. He had others that fit better, but none in good enough condition to wear here.
"Look at Malculinus over there, smirking like a fool," Osgoode said with disgust.
"He is smirking at us," Balan replied to his cousin, his mouth tightening. "Or, to be exact, at our garments."
"Then he is a fool." Osgoode snorted. "He looks a peacock in his own outfit. I ask you, would you be caught dead in a scarlet houpeland over a green doublet with purple cuffs? And who would then add a blue baldric edged with gold balls?" He shook his head. "The man has left his taste at home. He looks a complete idiot. Even in our slightly worn clothes we look better than he does in that garish spectacle."
Balan grunted, wishing it were true. Unfortunately, he feared he and Osgoode looked like exactly what they were: poverty-stricken warriors come to King EdwardIII's court in search of a wealthy bride to save Gaynor from a desperately hard winter.
"Well, 'tis true," Osgoode insisted. "The man is pathetic. I have heard he has his doublet padded. As for skill ... he has none. Malculinus never practices at quintains or with the lance, nor has he been in battle. At least we have strength and skill at arms to offer. We have stories of our deeds. All he has is his father's gold."
Balan didn't comment; he heard the envy in his cousin's voice and knew Osgoode was feeling just as foolish and uncomfortable as he. Among so many finely dressed nobles, they were the poor cousins at the table.
"At least we have a better seat than he," Osgoode added, cheering.
Balan smiled faintly. His cousin's chest had puffed up. Their seats would indeed be the envy of everyone present, but they'd earned them with blood, sweat and loyalty. Balan and Osgoode had spent the better part of the last several years battling for their king against the French. In fact, they'd both still been away in France after the capture of Calais, when the plague had struck. It had probably saved them from joining all those Englishmen mowed down by the deadly disease. The plague had taken a terrible toll. At least a third-some said almost half-of England's population had fallen victim to the Black Death. They'd died and been buried en masse. Balan had returned to a country underpopulated and in chaos.
"Even Malculinus must envy our placement at the high table," Osgoode continued with a sort of glee. "We are close enough to hear every word the king says. 'Tis a fine reward for our fealty."
Balan merely grunted. While this had been meant as a reward, it felt more like a punishment: to be put so on display when their raiment was so poor. As for being close enough to hear the king speak, they were closer than that; they'd hear the man if he should pass wind! They were only two seats away from the monarch, or would be when he arrived.
Balan had barely finished that thought when the doors to the hall crashed open and King Edward III strode in. In his late thirties, the man was tall, strong and a sight to behold. His vestments were rich.
"Robert," Edward barked as he claimed his seat.
"Yes, sire?" A servant moved to his side with alacrity.
"Fetch me Murie."
Much to Balan's surprise, the servant didn't rush off at once to do the King's bidding, but hesitated, an alarmed expression on his face.
"Did you not hear me, Robert?" Edward growled. "Fetch me Murie."
Swallowing heavily, the servant nodded and acquiesced, backing reluctantly away.
Balan and Osgoode exchanged raised eyebrows. Both men had heard tales of the lovely Murie, the King's goddaughter and much feted favorite. It was said she was stunningly beautiful, with bright blue eyes and golden hair and a sweet smile. It was said the king had been charmed by her upon first sight and had doted on the girl since her arrival at court after the death of her parents, Lord and Lady Somerdale. It was also said he'd spoiled her rotten and that the girl was a horrible brat. In fact, her actions had earned her that very nickname at court. Judging by the servant's reaction to the idea of merely fetching the female, it seemed gossip must be true.
"Becker," Edward barked, and an aide stepped quickly to his side.
"Aye, sire?" the man murmured. "Is there something amiss, sire?"
"Aye." Edward announced heavily. "My wife has decided 'tis time for Murie to marry."
"Ah." The servant was well-trained and merely arched one eyebrow, pursed his lips, then breathed, "Oh dear."
"Aye, exactly," Edward muttered. "This news is not going to be well received by the child."
"Nay, well ... Nay, I fear it will not," the servant admitted carefully.
The king's expression was glum.
"However, she is well past the age of marriage, sire," Becker pointed out. "Perhaps 'tis indeed time she marry."
Edward sighed. "Aye. 'Tis time. There was no way for me to win the argument with my wife and convince her to put off the matter."
"Hmmm," Becker murmured. A moment later he said, "Well, perhaps Murie will take it better than we fear, sire. As I say, she is well past the age when young women usually wed. Surely she has realized it would eventually come to pass that she would be forced to do so. Mayhap she has already resigned herself to it."
"Do not be ridiculous," the king snapped. "We have given her everything she has ever wanted, and never once made her do a thing she did not wish. Why would she imagine that would change?"
"Aye, this is true, my lord," Becker agreed. "And I fear, by all accounts, that Lady Murie does not wish to marry. She has said as much on several occasions."
Edward nodded unhappily. "I am not looking forward to the coming interview."
"No, I would imagine not, sire," Becker said.
"She is a charming child, but can be quite ... difficult at times."
"Indeed, my lord."
King Edward shifted in his seat, then muttered, "Stay close. I may need you."
"As you wish, my lord."
The moment the two men fell silent, Osgoode clutched Balan's arm and whispered excitedly, "Did you hear that?"
Balan nodded slowly. "It would seem the king is finally going to force the Brat to marry."
"Aye," Osgoode murmured. "Aye." He was briefly lost in thought, then pointed out, "She is very rich."
Balan peered at him with dismay. "You were not thinking that I-?"
"She is very rich," Osgoode interrupted. "And we do need a rich bride to bring Castle Gaynor back to its former glory."
Unhappily, Gaynor Castle was in desperate need of coin to rescue it from ruin. The Black Plague had, in laying waste to a good portion of England, decimated the Gaynor and its nearby village. Half of the servants and villagers had died in horrifying waves of pustules and fever. Most of the other half had fled, either out of fear or in search of happier circumstances. There was only one solution: Finding their own villages and servants ravaged by the plague, many wealthier lords had given in to desperation and offered high wages to anyone who would work for them. These were the lords who'd replaced the people they'd lost to disease.
Gaynor had once been a wealthy estate. Unfortunately, Balan's father had spent a great deal of gold on installing a new fish pond two years earlier, and that had been followed by a wet season the summer before the plague, which had further eaten up their resources. By the time the Black Death hit, Gaynor was in no position to match the offers made by more fortunate holdings. They now found themselves without the manpower-or even the coin needed to bring in temporary manpower-to reap the harvest. The better part of the crop this year had rotted in the fields, further crippling the castle and its remaining inhabitants. They were in desperate straits.
On top of everything, Balan's father had been among the many who had perished when the plague rolled across the country, and Balan had inherited the man's title, castle, what loyal servants remained and all the attending troubles. Now they where all looking to him to return Gaynor to its former prosperity.
"I," Balan corrected sharply. "I am the one who needs a rich bride. I am the one who has to live with whomever I marry, and you are quite mad if you think I would even momentarily consider marrying the king's spoiled goddaughter."
"Well, I realize it would be a trial," Osgoode conceded. "But we must all make sacrifices in this time of need."
Balan scowled. "You keep saying we, but there is no we. I am the one who would have to marry and live with the wench, not we."
"I would if I could," Osgoode assured him, looking earnest.
Balan merely snorted.
"She cannot be as bad as all that," Osgoode said reasonably, trying another approach. "You could just marry her, bed her and then ... then spend your days out in the bailey with us men, neatly avoiding her as much as possible."
"And only have to face her recriminations and whining every night?" Balan suggested dryly.
"Exactly." Osgoode nodded, then grinned and suggested, "She cannot whine and recriminate with her mouth full. Just keep her busy at night. That part shouldn't be too bad. By all accounts she is quite lovely."
"Of course she is lovely," Balan said, as if only an idiot would think otherwise. "That is why the king dotes on her. She arrived here, all big blue eyes and golden curls, and wrapped him neatly around her little finger. He denied her nothing. That's why she's an enfant terrible. And that is also why I shall not be marrying her," he announced firmly. A moment later he exclaimed, "Dear God, I cannot believe you would even suggest it! The Brat? Do you really want a woman like that at Gaynor?"
"But nothing," Balan interrupted. "Besides, spoiled as the girl is, she would hardly look favorably on my suit. She would take one look at my clothing and laugh herself silly. And-seeing how he dotes on and spoils her-the king would hardly be willing to marry her off to someone with an estate in the sad shape Gaynor is in."
Osgoode frowned. Obviously, he hadn't considered that.
"Nay," Balan went on grimly. "He will want the best for his pet-the wealthiest, handsomest, most powerful lord he can find. Not a poor baron with a vast estate but nary a coin to his name."
"I suppose there is that," Osgoode admitted.
"Aye." Balan nodded, relieved at the concession. But that relief faded with his cousin's next words.
"Now that you mention it, I fear no lord will wish his daughter to be married into such circumstances. We have a tough job ahead of us in finding a bride for you, what with the resources Gaynor requires."
The two men fell into a glum silence as they contemplated the matter, and then both glanced around at the sound of the hall doors opening. The servant, Robert, led a petite blonde into the hall.
Balan sucked in a breath at his first sight of the notorious Brat. He'd never seen her before. He wasn't one for court, attending only those special ceremonies required as a member of the Order of the Garter; but Lady Murie Somerdale was something to behold. The famed golden locks were a halo around the sweetest of faces, framing large eyes the same periwinkle blue as the gown she wore. She had an endearingly tipped nose, soft rosy cheeks and large luscious lips that made a man think of kissing-and other, more carnal pursuits.
Balan let his breath out as he watched her move serenely across the hall, and wondered how serene she would be once she learned that she was to wed. To look at her, it was hard to believe she could be the horror everyone claimed.
"Good day, sire."
Balan almost sighed at the sound of her lovely voice as she greeted the king. It took some effort to force his eyes over to see the king's reaction. When he did, he saw that Edward's first response was to smile widely, but then the monarch scowled and looked away.
"Good day, Murie. I trust you slept well?" Edward asked, avoiding her eyes almost guiltily.
"Of course, sire," she assured him with a bright smile. "How could I not? I have the softest bed in the castle."
"The softest bed for the most delicate lady," he agreed, then cleared his throat and glanced around. He was starting to look a tad beleaguered, though all they had done was exchange greetings.
"Did you wish to speak to me about something, sire?" Murie asked as the king remained silent, his gaze searching the room as if for an escape.
Sighing, King Edward swung his gaze back to peer at her, raised his head and opened his mouth to speak, only to snap it closed again and turn to gesture irritably at the man seated beside him. "Get up, Abernathy. Give her your seat. I would have a word with my goddaughter."
"Yes, sire." The nobleman stood at once, but moving a few steps away paused and looked helplessly around, appearing lost and unsure about where to go. Seeing this, Becker gestured to Robert, who immediately rushed to the man's side. The servant led the noble Abernathy along the table to the only vacancy-one below the salt-murmuring assurances as he placed him that it was only temporary, that it was only until King Edward finished speaking to his goddaughter.
Balan and Osgoode exchanged another glance, anticipating what was to come.
The king took his time getting to the point. He hemmed and hawed and murmured trivial comments for the longest time, until Lady Murie finally asked, "Is there something troubling you, sire? You seem distressed this morn."
Edward scowled down at the table, then glanced at Becker for help. The aide immediately stepped to his side.
"Would you like me to do the honors, sire?" he asked humbly.
Relief immediately washed over the king's face. "Aye."
"Very good." Becker turned to Murie and announced, "I fear the king asked you to come here, my lady, to inform you that 'tis time you were wedded and starting your own family."
Much to Balan's interest, Murie did not at first seem angry. In fact, he would have said she appeared pleasantly surprised by the news, but then her mouth turned down and she scowled.
"Pray do not jest with me, Becker," she said. "The king knows I have no desire to marry and leave court. Why would he wish to force me to do so?" Her eyes narrowed on the hapless aide as she added, "Surely you are not suggesting that he has lost his affection for me, his dearest goddaughter, and wishes to send me far away where I can trouble him no more?"
Edward released something very close to a groan. It appeared that this beginning was not a good sign of what was to come.
"Nay, of course not, my lady," Becker replied quickly, utilizing the diplomacy for which he was famed. "You are very deeply seated in his majesty's affections, and while it will be a hardship on all of us to see you go, it is your own best interests he is looking to."
To Balan's eye, Lady Murie appeared to be winding up for a good screech when Edward muttered, "Oh, bother!"
Murie closed her mouth and turned to him.
"Murie, Phillippa has decided you must wed. She is firm on the matter and will not be moved. And she said I was being very selfish keeping you here at court and denying you the husband and children you were born to have. I am sorry, child. She will not back down once her mind is made up, and 'tis definitely made up now. She is most firm on the matter and will make my life miserable should I fight her on it." The king paused briefly and scowled as he realized everyone near enough to hear was listening to what he said, and he announced loudly, "I am the king and what I say is law, and I say you shall be wed."
Murie simply stared at him for the longest time, appearing unsure how to respond; then suddenly she dropped her face into her hands and began to weep. It was no delicate female weeping, either, but loud and copious tears, sobs so noisy and dramatic that one could almost imagine she were acting. But Balan knew better.
He caught the astonished glance Osgoode sent his way, but continued watching the king. For his part, Edward did not appear so much surprised by this display as resigned to it and perhaps somewhat pleased that she found the idea of leaving him unbearable. It seemed apparent he'd watched this scene played out on other occasions over other issues.
The woman carried on for several minutes while the entire hall looked on in horrified fascination.
Excerpted from The Brat by Lynsay Sands Copyright © 2007 by Lynsay Sands. Excerpted by permission.
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