Grimme had to do something. Gaston was ten. He should have been gone to apprentice as a page three years ago. Max was nine. He should have been gone two. Terrwyn was seven, and he should be preparing to go right this moment.
They could barely get into the saddle, much less ride. His head groom had told him the boys were so defiant about grooming, they were affecting the horses, so Grimme had ordered them to muck stalls and had had to stand over them to get them to work. He didn’t want to thrash them, but he was willing to, and since he had never expressed anger toward them before, this was dire.
First it was Brìghde’s tale of being willing to work to get what she wanted in spite of being a spoiled adolescent noblewoman, working her way up England and Scotland hundreds of miles to get home. Then it was the unpaid bills. Then it was Emelisse’s flat refusal to exercise the mares when he asked; the fact that she had never, in his recollection, done anything of value to him, and the list of what she wouldn’t do in bed made him only too aware she wasn’t of much value there, either. Then Maebh, Ardith, and Dillena had happily acquiesced to exercising the mares, apparently eager for something new to do and know that they were helping. They had shocked Grimme into a confused, “Uh … thank you” and his sudden recollection of their temperate and helpful natures had befuddled him a little. Now Emelisse’s sons’ refusal to work had him in a thunderous rage.
It was not the boys’ fault, but he continued to have to remind himself of it.
Then! He learned that only the two youngest had ever gone outside the keep’s walls at all, and five-year-old Pierce had walked to Waters and back alone at least once! It was infuriating, and he didn’t know with whom he was more angry—their mothers or himself, and suddenly Father Hercule’s opinion of Pierce’s aptitude for ruthlessness started to make more sense.
“When I was your age, Gaston,” Grimme began gently, whilst showing each of them how to unsaddle their ponies, “I was doing everything for my knight’s horse.”
“We can’t help it, Papa,” Max said. “We aren’t allowed out of the keep.”
“But now that Lady Bridget’s here—” Terrwyn put in.
“I hate Lady Bridget!” Gaston yelled.
“Me too!” Max echoed.
“Well, I don’t!” Terrwyn screamed.
“I like her!” Pierce declared.
Grimme closed his eyes and rubbed his fingers in his eyes. “I do not care,” he said wearily, but the argument was getting louder and soon they would be pushing and shoving, “whether you like her or not—” They weren’t listening. War was about to break out, just as Brìghde had said. “—she is here to stay.”
It was when Gaston and Max started shoving their younger brothers that he stepped in and picked up Gaston and Max by the backs of their necks. He looked at each of them in turn. They were squirming, but Grimme’s hands were huge compared to little boys’ necks, so he held on easily. “I am going to let you go. You will not touch your brothers.” Yet. “Understand?”
“Aye, Papa,” they squeaked, but when he dropped them they rubbed their necks and glared at the younger two, who were snickering. Max pointed at them and accused, “Do you see, Papa, what they do? They poke at us until we want to thrash them, then they run outside like cowards. ‘You can’t go outside,’” he mocked. “‘Your mother makes you stay inside like a baby.’ ‘Where’s your toy sword? Did your mother take it away from you?’”
Grimme scowled at him. “Well? Did she?”
“Aye,” he grumbled.
Suddenly, Grimme wished Brìghde hadn’t left. He sighed and propelled them all toward the door.
“Where are we going?”
Behind the stable and beyond the pen, where there was soft grass and few people milling about.
“Sons,” he said, “you may continue your fight.”
They looked at each other, confused. To Grimme’s not-altogether shock, Pierce took the first swing, such as it was.
Grimme simply stood and watched while his sons brawled, his arms across his chest and his legs wide. The fight went to ground almost immediately, which was normal.
Men gathered around. After the appropriate bows and respectful “my lord”s, the conversation with Grimme gradually turned as if he were one of them, commenting on each boy’s strengths and weaknesses, and eventually, wagering on which boy would conquer.
Grimme and all his villeins flinched and winced and grimaced every once in a while and poor Pierce was on the receiving end of a lot of it, but he battled as fiercely as a five-year-old could against two boys twice his size, save when Terrwyn rescued him from one or the other and then it was again one to one.
The fight shifted as they tired and their strengths and weaknesses really started to show. The younger boys had an advantage the older two did not: they had more endurance, likely because they went out to play and the older two weren’t allowed. They would outlast the two older boys easily.
While Grimme was happy it was a somewhat fair fight, he was not happy about the reason, and he certainly was not happy to have to tell Brìghde she was right. Again.
By the time Terrwyn and Pierce had beaten their two older brothers into submission, they were all worn out, lying on the ground panting, crying (every one of them—Grimme shook his head wearily); they were also bloody, cut, swollen, and bruised. Nothing seemed to be broken.
Grimme and his villeins continued to calmly discuss the fight and its particulars.
Finally, Grimme said, “Is everyone happy now?”
“No!” cried Pierce, who hopped up, his tears immediately dry. He went over to Gaston and kicked him in the bollocks.
The entire huddle of men groaned, flinched, and clamped their knees together whilst Gaston screamed in pain.
Gaston rolled over in sobs and curled up to protect himself from a five-year-old’s kicks, wailing, “Papa! Papa!”
Pierce was ready to go again, and Terrwyn not soon after, who went after Max.
After a while, Pierce slowed down, then stopped when he started limping around panting. Gaston and Max were still curled up sobbing and crying, “Papa!”
Terrwyn also finally stopped raining clumsy punches down on Max’s head, then kicked Gaston for good measure and flopped to the ground on his back, splayed out to pant and rest. Pierce joined him.
The villeins cackled and collected their bets, bid Grimme a respectful “my lord,” and faded away.
“Gaston,” Grimme finally rumbled once the two older boys’ weeping had subsided to hiccups. “Max. Get up.”
They slowly, painfully, lumbered to their feet and then trod to him for comfort, but Grimme stepped away and they stumbled. They looked up at him shock and confusion.
“Mayhap that will teach you not to start battles you can’t win. Terrwyn, Pierce. Up. Back to the stable. We have a lot of work to do.”