“My lady. Lauds.”
Brìghde sighed at the hand on her shoulder, but did not open her eyes. She was so very comfortable in the old but sturdy bed with a new mattress. “Thank you, Avis. Bring me the green kirtle.”
She arose, allowed her chambermaid to help her dress, then sat on a stool whilst the girl brushed her hair and dressed it. She looked in the glass. “That is very lovely. Thank you.” She could see the girl blush and smile in the glass. Brìghde turned and said, “You did very well with my chamber, and by the time I set. I am pleased. If you continue to serve me this well, I shall double your wage.”
“Thank you, my lady,” she whispered.
She looked around. “Does nothing match? Where is everything? Certainly the last occupant of this keep left something?”
She shook her head apologetically. “Not very much, my lady. We searched every corner of the keep for even this much and—” She shrugged helplessly.
“That’s a new mattress. Where did you find it?”
She pulled her lips between her teeth.
“Tell me,” she teased.
“You said all maids were to obey our orders, aye? We ordered one of the hags’—mistresses’ maids to bring us one of their mattresses that had not been swived upon. They have several, stacked upon each other.”
Brìghde beamed, and the girl ducked her head to hide her smile. “Excellent work, my dear. Very good thinking.” She leaned closer. “Which hags and how did they react?”
The maid giggled before she caught it in her hand. “Maebh and Ardith, my lady. They only grumbled because they had to get out of the bed before we could get to it.”
“You and I should get along very well.”
“Aye, my lady,” she whispered shyly. “You must hurry, however. The servants are lining up for roll.”
“Ah, yes. Thank you.”
If Brìghde wanted to get all the servants accounted for before breakfast, she would have to skip morning prayers and go straight to Sir John’s study, where he was awaiting her with his ledger. She went to the door and said, “Kitchen staff first.”
They went quickly, Sir John checking them off, verifying their positions and wages. The serving staff next, who had to hurry to get the tables readied for breakfast. Next, the chambermaids and on down to the last servant in the house.
There were many not accounted for and Sir John shook his head wearily. “I cannot keep up,” he murmured. “If they were dismissed, if they disappeared … ” His eyes were shiny with tears of frustration, and Brìghde would have comforted him, but it was time for breakfast.
“Come, come. A good meal will make everything look brighter. Can you go outside?” she asked as she accompanied him to the table.
“Only with help. Getting down the stairs outside the keep is dangerous business.”
She and Sir John stood by their chairs and awaited Grimme, who appeared in simple breeches, tunic, and boots, which she had learned on the journey back from Fàileach was what he wore under his leather armor.
“Good morn, Papa. Brìghde,” he said cheerfully.
“Good morn, Grimme.”
He seated her, then his father, then he sat. Everyone else then sat and breakfast was served. Brìghde looked at the mistresses’ spots. “Where’s your family?”
“Emelisse is sleeping. The boys are likely also asleep. The others, I don’t know.”
But she saw, out of the corner of her eye, servants with trays going upstairs. That was going to stop.
“When are you going to get me a new chamberlain?” he asked, scratching at the copper-gold stubble on his jaw.
“I asked who would like to shave the earl’s face without a nick or a cut and no one was interested.”
Grimme and Sir John chuckled.
“Is there anything else you need from a chamberlain?”
“See to my clothing,” he mumbled as he ate. “See to my comfort when I’m there.”
“Did you like him?”
“He’s been with me for eight years, so … aye.”
Brìghde pursed her lips and thought mayhap she had been a little too quick to take offense.
He slid a glance at her. “But I want someone I don’t have to train. I train enough pages and squires and knights. And horses. And dogs. I don’t want to have to do it at home, too.”
Brìghde nodded. “Fair. Who occupied this keep before you? There is no furniture in this house.”
“So you said,” Grimme said around a bite. He was wolfing down his food and must want to get out to the training field. “It was empty when we got here. Kyneward has a dower house that may have something in it, but I doubt it. It’s boarded up. I haven’t been there, nor has anyone else, I don’t think. Papa?”
“Where is it?”
“In the southwest corner, just on the inside of the border between Kyneward and Sheffield.”
“How far is that?”
“Where are the keys?” she asked breathlessly.
“I have them,” Sir John said.
Grimme slid her another glance. “Not this week. I will send knights with you, but we are conducting important training practice. Sheffield guards the border heavily to make sure we know they are there, and I don’t want them to mistake you for a wench who’s lost her way, and they would be very happy to see a beautiful woman alone and vulnerable. Wedding you would not be at the forefront of their thoughts.”
It irritated her, but she could see his point. “Very well. I have things to do.”
“Aye, and one thing you must do is adjudicate the villeins’ and merchants’ complaints against one another.”
She looked at him, aghast. “You do not have a manorial court?”
Brìghde thought she would never overcome the shock at what this earldom lacked. “Uh … do you not adjudicate them?”
Grimme shook his head with finality. “No. My method of adjudicating conflict is to let the soldiers fight it out until one of them surrenders or dies.”
“Then … who does do it?”
“Father Hercule, when he can. Otherwise, no one.”
“So they’ve been fighting amongst themselves all this time?!”
She leaned over her platter to look at Sir John. “Do you not have a lawyer here?”
Sir John and Grimme both looked at her strangely. “We should have a lawyer?”
“Oh, sweet Virgin Mary and Joseph,” she moaned, planting an elbow on the table and rubbing the bridge of her nose.
“Brìghde,” Grimme said stiffly, “I am the bastard son of a wealthy merchant, not a noble. I should not even have been made a knight, much less an earl and I have very rarely been in a noble’s home, and that only to sup occasionally. I have been an earl a mere six years, most of which I have spent in France or building my army here. Neither of us knows how a noble household runs, which is something that has become painfully obvious to both of us over the last two days. We have done as well as we can with what little knowledge we have. There is no such thing as lessons in how to be an earl.”
“And I,” Sir John said darkly, “have been busy building a fortune, at which I excel, in case you haven’t noticed.”
Brìghde swallowed at the chastisement and wondered if she would lose both her new friends in all of three days.
Grimme went on, “I don’t even know how to get my sons legitimized, and my incessant missives to London have gone unanswered. We understand that you are learned in these matters, and we are grateful that you are, and that you have consented to see to putting us to rights. However, if you could refrain from pointing out how dim-witted we are, we would appreciate it.”
She flushed. “I’m sorry,” she muttered. “I— My mother is— I try not to be like her but … ”
“Forgiven. Do you know how I can legitimize my sons?”
“I only know Scots law,” she mumbled, flushing, utterly ashamed of herself because she had suddenly turned into her mother and she had sworn never to do so. She looked at Father Hercule next to her. “Please tell me you studied law before you took your vows.”
He smiled. “I did.”
“How can Lord Kyneward legitimize his sons?”
“He doesn’t have to legitimize them; he only has to declare an heir.”
“Suggested that,” Grimme said. “Sheffield said it would not hold if challenged, which was a threat to me that he intends to challenge it at some point. Further, making a wise decision as to an heir amongst my sons is not only difficult at their ages, it would cause much strife amongst their mothers. ’Tis much easier to get a legitimate heir because none of them have any expectations.”
“You know the laddies,” Brìghde said to Father Hercule. “What do you think?”
“Pierce,” he said immediately. “His mother is the daughter of a noble, however minor. Both the other mothers are commoners. ’Twould make a difference if challenged.”
“He’s five,” Grimme grunted.
“That is whom I would choose and that is my reasoning,” Father Hercule said firmly.
“You’re hired,” Brìghde told Father Hercule. “Send for a new priest.”
• • •
When she returned to her chambers just after midday meal, after having sequestered herself with Father Hercule to build a list of complaints to be heard and to set a regular weekly court day, her chambermaid was stacking wood by the hearth.
“Oh! Good afternoon, my lady,” she said, curtsying.
Brìghde smiled. “Come. Let us talk.” She offered her one of the mismatched chairs in front of the hearth and Brìghde took the other. The girl looked scared.
“Do you know Lord Kyneward’s chamberlain?”
She flushed. “He’s … me uncle, mum.”
“Oh, is that so!”
“Take me to him.” Her eyes popped out of her head. “I am not going to accuse him of thievery. Lord Kyneward values him, and I would offer him his position back.”
Her face lit up. “Oh, mum, thank you!”
Brìghde hopped up and gestured at the girl to hurry. She clipped down to the kitchen, surprising the kitchen staff, and asked where she could find carrots. They scurried to get them for her and she sweetly said, “Thank you,” then ran back up the stairs. It was pleasant to walk outside, as she had not been outside in a full day. “Come, we must visit my pet first.” She led the girl to the stables and Troy whinnied at her as soon as he saw her. “Good morn, my sweet little laddie,” she said and puckered up to smooch his snout. He lipped her nose. “Today I have carrots for you.” He gobbled them as fast as she could pull them out of the sack. “Sweet Mary! Do they give you nothing to eat?”
“Pardon, my lady, but he’s spoilt.”
She turned to see whom she assumed to be the marshal. He bowed, but was trying to keep his smile in check.
“Are you accusing me of spoiling this magnificent warhorse?”
“Aye, my lady, I am.”
She turned to Troy and nuzzled his snout again. “I can spoil you all I want, can I not, my beast?” She looked over her shoulder and said, “He’s a Trojan horse.”
“Aye, mum,” he chuckled. “Do you need him saddled?”
“Oh, no. I am going to walk. I just stopped by to pet my pet. Aye, he is. Who’s a good laddie? You’re a good laddie.”
“Ah, mum, I was wondering— We do need him to train and—”
“Any day, any time after breakfast. If I need him, I will try to request him in advance. Tomorrow, in fact.”
He bowed again. “Thank you, my lady.”
“Are you going to breed him?”
“Already done, by Lord Kyneward’s orders, mum.”
“Let me see her.”
The marshal led her across the outer bailey to a different stable. “This is where we keep the breeding mares.”
“Oh! ’Tis why you have so many horses!”
“Aye, mum. Lord Kyneward breeds and trains horses for sale. As he had Ares and now his sons, his horses are much in demand and nobles from all around come to purchase.”
He took her to a stall where a lovely bay mare who was almost as big as Troy stood munching oats. “Oh, good day,” Brìghde sighed, holding her hand out for the lass to sniff. “What’s her name?”
“Helen.” Brìghde gaped at him. “All our mares are named Mary until Lord Kyneward decides upon a name. We have mares who’ve been with us two or more years who still haven’t been named. Since this one and Troy took a liking to each other almost immediately and she was already in heat, ’twasn’t difficult to get him on her. So my lord named her Helen. He has a gift for knowing which stallions to breed to which mares and he spends quite a bit of time with their lineages.”
“Oh, what a lovely lass you are,” Brìghde cooed, but Helen did not seem to appreciate her attentions, so she stepped back. “I suppose I’ll not be riding her.”
“No, you will not. Nobody has been able to ride her but my lord and then only barely. She’s thrown him dozens of times.”
“Ah, ’tis not just me, then.”
“No. She is five, but her previous owner practically gave her away for she could not be trained. If anyone can train her, ’twould be my lord.”
“Does Ares have a consort?”
“Aye, he does. Come.”
She was mostly white with big black splotches, and mixed black-and-white mane, tail, and feathers. She too was almost as big as Troy. “Why, good day to you, Mistress Aphrodite.”
“Oh, no, mum. Her name is Enyo.”
Brìghde searched her mind for an Enyo, and could think of nothing. “Why?”
“I don’t know. You’d have to ask Lord Kyneward.”
“Do you breed her?”
“We do, but Lord Kyneward would rather not, as we don’t have Ares and Lord Sheffield will not allow him to mate her. At the moment, she’s not in heat, but we cannot afford to leave her fallow, as her foals are too fine.”
“Why did Sheffield not take her too?”
“He doesn’t care about mares, my lady.”
The marshal chuckled.
Unlike Helen, Enyo seemed to like her quite well, even going so far as to wrap her neck around Brìghde’s shoulders to hug her, and Brìghde fell in love. “Oh, you bonny lass,” she cooed, with her arms around the mare’s neck, scratching her. “I am pleased to make your acquaintance and shall return to see you soon, aye, I will. What a lovely wee lassie you are! Thank you, Marshal. We’ll be off!”
The day was overcast, but warm. Brìghde paid careful attention to the villeins’ cottages, all of which needed a few repairs. Sir John was right; they would need a land steward before those few minor repairs turned into many major repairs.
“This way, mum,” Avis said softly, and led her off the main lane through a pathway cut between cottages three rows back from the lane. She stopped at a cottage and knocked.
“Hamond, ’tis me, Avis.”
“Girl!” came the gasp and the door was ripped open. “Ye shouldna be away from the keep! Go back afore ye get—”
Avis tilted her head to the left. He looked at Brìghde and though he was surprised, he kept his expression carefully back.
“I made a mistake,” Brìghde said crisply.
Both Avis and her uncle gaped at Brìghde. Admitting error was another trick of her mother’s. Being forthright made one seem trustworthy.
“Lord Kyneward values you highly and he allowed me to dismiss you to honor a bargain he and I made, but he did not like it. Thus, since he has said nothing about it, much less complained, and he will not ask me to request your return, I would like to honor his gesture to me. If you would care to return, I will double your wages.”
Avis gasped and Hamond’s jaw dropped open. “My lady,” he breathed, stepping out into the small pathway.
“Before you accept or refuse,” she said, “we must have a bargain amongst the three of us. I don’t know you. You don’t know me. Hamond, Lord Kyneward values you. Avis, you showed me your worth when you put my chambers together within your power and in the time I gave you. This is all I have to guide me; however, I must trust someone. You two must be my eyes and ears. I mean to set the keep to rights the way a noble household should be run. I will need to know what goes on belowstairs or I will be crawling all over the keep at all hours of the day and night and nobody will see or hear me and I do not like to hear bad things about myself because then I will get angry. I want to know all the household goings-on. Who’s swiving whom. Who has a grudge against whom for what reason. Who is stealing what from whom, where, and how. Who’s a layabout. Who causes trouble.”
Hamond was nodding along and Avis seemed to be soaking up the instructions as if she had accepted the terms.
“I do not want to know anything about where Lord Kyneward puts his spindle.”
They both choked.
“Do we have a bargain?”
“Aye, my lady.”
“Oh, aye, my lady.”
“Excellent. If you hurry, we can have you in livery by supper.”
And the livery was awful. Brìghde grimaced when she saw Hamond dressed in his finest. The three of them stood in Grimme’s chambers and Brìghde tilted her head. “When was the last time you had new livery?”
“I couldn’t say, mum.”
Brìghde groaned and dropped her head in her hand. “So much.” She mimicked sobbing for a moment and then drew up a deep breath. She turned to Avis. “How long have you had that?”
She shrugged. “Don’t know, mum.”
Then Brìghde glanced at the unmade bed, which a maidservant should have made, and Hamond would have made sure she did. She pointed to the bedsheets. “Those are very worn. In fact, so are mine. That’s not something an earl and countess should be sleeping on.”
“That’s the best we have, mum.”
Brìghde sighed and closed her eyes. “Very well.”
Suddenly the chamber door opened and there stood Grimme, in his leather armor and mail, who stopped short. “Oh. Good afternoon, Hamond.”
“Good afternoon, my lord,” he said, bowing.
Brìghde opened her mouth, but Grimme held his hand up. “Household business.” With that, he dropped to his knees, looked under his bed, pulled out a sword, and left.
“Hamond,” she said suddenly, “do you know why Lord Kyneward does not like black?”
He looked surprised. “His tournament armor is black and his horse, Ares, is black.”
“Hrmph. Suffice it to say, your new livery will not be black. Suggestions?”