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All in all, it was Richard Grey’s idea of a perfect day.  The sun was shining, the sky clear, the weather just warm enough to warrant doing absolutely nothing all day long, which was exactly what he was engaged in doing just outside the castle gate.  Spring had finally arrived at Covington Cross, after a long, dull, interminably brown winter.  It wouldn’t have been so bad, in Richard’s opinion, if the weather would have made up its mind and let the snow lie a little, but the past three months had been a vast wasteland of frozen mud.  Now, the air had warmed, the sun had deigned to grace England with its presence, and while everything was mostly still brown, some sickly yellow-green patches of waking grass had begun to color the ground.

He leaned against the cool stone of the castle wall and watched a pair of birds chase each other through the sky.  They’re getting an early start on things, he thought with a chuckle before tipping his head back and closing his eyes.  Yes, it was turning out to be a typically perfect spring day.

“Propping up the castle, brother?”

Richard opened one eye, though he knew from the voice that it was his brother, Armus.  “Well, someone has to, while you spend all your time locked away with your books.  What’s detained you all morning, then?  A fascinating account of some battle no one has ever heard of, aside from the historian who penned it and the fool reading it?”

Richard received a punch on the shoulder for the barb, but it was clear that Armus’s heart wasn’t in it.  “No, it’s a manual on torture.  Places on the body that cause the most pain, that sort of thing.”

“That will come in useful,” Richard remarked.  “Maybe you could teach me how to break Eleanor’s thumbs in the most effective way possible.  Keep her from pawing through my belongings when I’ve got my back turned.”

“What did she get away with this time?”

“A pair of gloves.  My good ones, too.  And they’re never the same when I get them back.”

“Yes, well, she does have rather large hands, for a woman.”

Richard was about to nod in agreement when loud, frantic shouting caught both men’s attention.  A moment later and a dark head appeared over the rise in the road leading to the castle, attached to a furiously running body.

“Cedric?  What the hell has he done now?” Armus wondered aloud, not sounding as alarmed as his youngest sibling, who had nearly reached them.

“Help!” Cedric shouted as he flew through the castle gate and disappeared around the corner.

Richard looked to his older brother, then turned his attention back up the road, where two more runners-- peasants, from the rough look of their clothes-- tore down the slope.

Armus stepped forward, arms crossed over his chest, somehow managing to appear larger than he actually was-- a fine trick, considering how physically intimidating he was in the first place.  “Halt!” he shouted, and the two men skidded to a stop in the dirt.

His plans to do nothing woefully abandoned, Richard pushed off the wall and came to stand beside Armus.  He fixed the two strangers with his most arrogant, appraising stare.  “What’s your business here?”

The first man tried to stammer a reply, but the second, a shorter, but almost identical copy of the first, was bolder.  His freckled nose scrunched in disgust as he jabbed his finger in the direction of the castle.  “Him that went in there, he’s got to answer for what he’s done!”

“And what has he done?”  Armus had a way of sounding instantly impatient that Richard admired.  It put people in their proper place.

If they were smart.  It appeared this peasant was not.  “He... defiled our sister.  She was innocent as a child, ‘til he came along.”

Armus sighed.  “Do you have proof?”

“Only that which I saw with my own eyes, down by the river.  I don’t wish to offend you, M’lord, but they was, well, they was--”

“You can stop there,” Richard cut in.  “Who is your sister?”

It was the taller of the two peasants who spoke this time, nervously scratching the ginger-colored hair behind his ear.  “Izzy Dyer.”

“Izzy Dyer, the maid from the Magpie’s Nest?”  Even as he said it, Richard realized the absurdity of the claim.

Armus did, too, judging from the way he rolled his eyes at the men.  “I’m sorry, gentlemen, but I don’t believe the man you’re after is responsible for your sister’s... innocence.  Or lack there of.  If you’re looking for anyone to blame there, I’d wager you’re possibly three years late.”

“Now, just what are you getting at?”  The shorter one puffed out his chest and took a few stupidly brave steps toward Armus.

“I think what my brother is trying to say is that we’re very sorry you caught your sister in such a compromising position.  And we’re also sorry to inform you that it wouldn’t be the first time.”  Richard couldn’t help the smirk that crossed his face.  Izzy Dyer had, fortunately, escaped the curse of the weak chin that had struck her brothers, and her company was eminently more enjoyable than that of her brothers, too.  Richard's only regret was that Cedric had enjoyed that company, as well, and now he and Armus were left to defend him.  “Now, if there is nothing else, I shall have to ask you to leave our land.”

The taller man turned, but his brother seemed inclined to argue further.  When he saw Richard’s hand go to the hilt of his sword, he grimaced and followed the other man.

“Tell your sister Armus Grey sends his regards,” Armus called cheerfully after them.  At Richard’s chastising look, he shrugged.

Richard mentally crossed Izzy Dyer off his list of ways to spend a drunken evening-- he didn’t like to share anything with his brothers, least of all women-- and went through the gates, into the castle yard.  Inside, a pile of hay moved seemingly of its own accord and asked in a muffled voice, “Are they gone?”

“They’re gone.”  Richard plunged a hand into the shifting straw mound and helped his brother to his feet.

Armus came to stand beside them, clearly annoyed.  “But perhaps next time you’re entertaining company, you could pick a more discreet location.  Somewhere not in the open, in broad daylight, for a start.”

Richard nodded in agreement.  “Or, take your sword with you and pray you can use it with your pants around your ankles.”

Shaking bits of straw from his dark hair, Cedric made a few disgruntled noises of protest.  “As if you two were so smart.”

“I’ve never been chased by angry brothers.  At least, not someone else’s angry brothers,” Armus amended.

“That’s because you’re the size of a bull.  They’re likely scared you’ll throw a hay wagon at them,” Cedric shot back.

“All we’re saying,” Richard began patiently, “is that this is getting tiresome.  Look, we’re young noblemen.  We’re supposed to dally with the village girls now and again.  It’s almost expected of us.  But we still need to show a little discretion.  The thrill of getting caught is only thrilling if--”

“You don’t actually get caught,” Armus put in.

Cedric picked some hay from his sleeve.  “Izzy thinks the river is romantic.”

“She thinks stable stalls are romantic, too.”  Richard pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes, trying valiantly not to lose his temper.

“I suppose you have better suggestions, then?”  Cedric demanded angrily.

It was their duty to mock their brother, and Richard planned to exploit it fully.  “You used to be so fond of the dove house... maybe you could try there again.”

“I’ve always found the cottage in the shepherd’s meadow is quite comfortable,” Armus suggested.

“If you’re really brave, you could sneak her in here.”

“Yes, but I’ve always found it’s the getting them to leave that’s difficult.”  Armus paused.  “If you were desperate, you could always just pay for a room at the inn.  But that does spoil some of the fun, doesn’t it?”

Cedric stopped and faced them, fists clenched at his sides.  “Are you finished now?”

“I think we’ve offended him,” Armus chided, but Richard recognized when enough was enough.

“All right, Cedric.”  Richard made sure to sound as serious as he could.  “We’re not being fair.  We won’t mention it again.”

Cedric stopped and turned, sill not quite trusting his brothers, if Richard judged correctly from the look on his youngest sibling’s face.  “Thank you.  You have no idea how... humiliating this experience has been for me.”

“We’re sorry.  We will be more considerate of your feelings.”  Armus sounded genuinely penitent, but he’d proved in the past to be a good liar.  Richard suspected he wouldn’t let this afternoon go for quite a while.

“Thank you.  And for that kindness, I will do you a favor.”  A wicked gleam lit Cedric’s green eyes.  “The next time I see Izzy, I’ll ask her to stop telling people that of all my brothers, I am the most... talented.”

With a smirk, Cedric turned and went on his way, whistling.

“Next time, I say we let them catch him.”  Richard looked to his brother for agreement, but Armus was stalking away, toward the castle gate.  “Where are you going?”

Without stopping, the eldest Grey called back, “To find Izzy Dyer and prove her wrong!”

Richard sighed.  Spring.

He followed his brother out the gate and resumed his position leaning against the stone.  He would likely fall prey to the seasonal madness that had clearly gripped his siblings.  But not today.

Today, there was a castle that needed propping up.