The Brat


Chapter One

September 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 Edward Ill'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