That night Brìghde dropped into her bathtub with a hiss and a sigh, leaning back and thinking about how sore she was going to be on her ride to Hogarth with Grimme in the morning, to which she was looking forward a little less now. Riding forty miles round trip after a day of hard labor was no mean feat.
It had taken a mere fifteen minutes for some forty servants to scrub all the tables and chairs in the great hall with hot water and lye soap to her satisfaction and take them out to the bailey to dry.
However, it had taken hours for the forty of them—and Brìghde—to dig up several inches’ worth of compacted filth, discarded rotting food, and dog shit upon the stone floor with scrapers. It had taken Brìghde a half hour to teach them what she expected and how to do it and on her hands and knees, by the Virgin Mary, and she had spent the rest of the afternoon tending them to get the floor completely clean and a thick carpet of rushes and herbs laid by suppertime.
Three of the paramours had drifted down the stairs just in time to see Brìghde, dressed in her boy clothes, on her hands and knees digging and scrubbing. They had begun to snicker and whisper. She had looked up and said, “Unless you want to join us, I suggest you go find something else to do.”
They simply curled their lips at her. She got to her feet and approached them. In disgust of her filthy clothes and hands, they backed up with contemptuous grimaces—all the way up two flights of a spiral staircase as Brìghde stalked them with a vicious glare, threatening to touch their persons with hers.
Unfortunately, the lads, who had been ordered to stay indoors although the day was a perfect day for four wee laddies to be outside playing, thought all the water on the floor was for splashing.
Finally, Brìghde could take no more.
“Lads!” she said with forced gaiety. “Let’s go out to the stable.”
They stopped splashing immediately. Pierce dashed outside immediately. Terrwyn followed. That left Gaston and Max, the two oldest. “We don’t take orders from you,” Gaston snapped, crossing his arms over his chest.
Brìghde shrugged. “’Tis not an order. You may stay here if you want.” She gestured to Max. “Shall we?” When he hesitated, she said, “Your father approves.”
That got him out the door. She left Gaston behind without a glance. Once she’d gotten the other three to the stable, she asked the grooms to take them in hand and have them brushing the warhorses. “’Tis a great responsibility,” she said gravely down at them, “grooming knights’ steeds. They must be beautiful.”
“My lady,” the head groom whispered to her, “they’re all out in the field. May I suggest the ponies? They do need to be groomed.”
“I don’t care. Just put them to work.”
“Aye, my lady.”
When she walked back into the hall, there was Emelisse standing at the bottom of the stairs, unwilling to walk in the water, Gaston beside her looking triumphant.
“What have you done with Max?” she demanded.
“He’s working in the stable,” Brìghde grunted as she walked around to correct this servant or that servant, and to point out missed spots.
“Gaston, go get him and bring him back.”
“Sweet Virgin Mary!” she burst out. “Nothing is going to happen to him in the stable with a legion’s worth of grooms. Quit being such a bloody coward and let him go play with his brothers.”
Emelisse snarled at her and snatched Gaston up the stairs after her, but Brìghde didn’t miss the quiver of his bottom lip and his longing look at the keep door.
Sir John had not appeared at supper, and she dare not seek him out to see to his welfare though she did send a girl with a tray and wine. Grimme did not ask her about it.
Now she lay in the bath, her eyes closed, almost asleep, when the door opened suddenly, and she started and whirled, crossing her arms over her breasts.
“Emelisse said you sent my sons out to the stable today,” Grimme growled.
“This is my house.”
“I am in the bath with no clothes on and you are holding my door open for any passerby to see.”
He slammed the door.
“Again. I have no clothes on. Go away until I am bathed and dressed, and we can argue like civilized people.”
“You’re my wife,” he said flatly. “I have the right to see you naked and I will argue with you whenever and wherever I bloody well please.”
She curled her lip at him, turned and laid back down in the water, hoping it was dark enough he couldn’t see. “What is wrong with having sent them out to the stable?”
“’Tis not that you did. ’Tis how you did it.”
“Oh, sweet Mother Mary and Joseph,” Brìghde grumbled, her brogue thickening with her irritation.
“Do not speak to my sons that way again.”
“Like this? ‘Lads! Let’s go out to the stable.’ Like that?”
“That is not how you said it.”
“You weren’t there.”
“I didn’t have to be. Emelisse told me all about it.”
“She has absolutely no reason in the world to lie to you about me, none at all, nooooooo.”
He was silent.
“Did you ask your sons?”
“Wake them up.”
He sighed heavily, went to the hearth and dropped into a chair, his back to her, and dropped his head back on its top. “I do not,” he muttered, “want to be drawn into this war.”
“What, exactly, do you think happens in a household of four women sharing the same man’s spindle? And what did you think would happen when you brought a wife home?”
“I did not draw you into any war. Your mistress did. The laddies were splashing in the water all over the floor—as if that is the most interesting thing in the world, which is pathetic— I wanted them out of the house for the duration, so I bade them do something productive. Wee laddies make trouble in a house when they are bored, and they are intolerably bored.”
“Intolerable for you or for them?” he muttered.
“For all of us in equal measure. You aren’t paying attention to their parenting. I need them out from underfoot. They need firm guidance away from their mothers, who need to keep their hostilities to themselves. I care not what your women think of the way I treat your sons. Someone has to take them in hand, and since this is my domain, it is my responsibility.”
“What of my opinion?”
“You have had no opinion for ten years, so it is of little use now. As far as I can see, their only value to you is their devotion to an indulgent father. Papa! Papa! Papa! Papa!”
“That is not true. And although I might be willing to concede all the rest of your points, I demand you leave my women be. They are the mothers of my sons and they have done nothing to earn your hatred. Did you call Emelisse a coward?”
“Firstly, I do not hate them. I don’t care enough to hate them. Secondly, aye, I did call her a coward because it’s true. And there poor Gaston goes, up the stairs, when his brother is out in the stables having a semblance of fun, and he wants to be allowed to go too. He thought she’d go fetch Max and the boys could be miserable together, but that is not what happened.”
“Brìghde,” he sighed wearily.
“Grimme,” she said crisply, rolling her R contemptuously, “the bargain was that I would bring order to your house and you would enforce my rule so that I could do that. If you insist I leave your family be when they seem to be preparing to make things difficult for me, I cannot do that. You have forced your father to work around their troublemaking for years, and look what has happened. I will not work around them because my primary goal is to get this earldom working like an earldom in spite of itself. That was the bargain.”
“What has happened,” he said tightly, “is that my father and I don’t know how an earl’s household works.”
“But I do and you are now asking me not to do it. You cannot have it both ways, and since I am the countess and we had a bargain, I am not going to let your family’s jealousy get in my way. No one wants things to change, and your bringing home a wife is a most drastic change indeed, much less one who intends to turn the house upside down and shake it out, which they and everyone attached to Kyneward fears, including the merchants in Waters. And with good reason. If you do not want to be drawn into these battles, keep your women away from me and your sons occupied in the things they should be doing. The two older boys should have been sent out two years ago to apprentice as pages.”
“What have the merchants in Waters have to do with anything?” he asked slowly.
“Household business,” she sing-songed.
“They and the servants are cheating you. Sir John is overwhelmed and too frail to keep up. I had to tell him today and by the time I left, he was sobbing over his desk. ’Twas why he was not at supper. This is what happens when you willfully ignore household business. This is your earldom, your ultimate responsibility, but you have not paid attention to the burden your father carries.
“And let me tell you: It was not pleasant to have to deliver that news because … Will I lose my friend? Already? After five days? That is impressive, even for me. If you expect me to pull you out of this mess, I need a housekeeper, a land steward, and a clerk to start, and I need you to keep your women away from me and your sons occupied. Sir John has earned his rest and to enjoy the end of his life.”
There was a long silence.
“Grimme, the water is cold and I want to get out.”
She saw the silhouette of his hand waving in the firelight. “Get out,” he sighed. “Even if I were looking at you, I am not going to suddenly find ardor that wasn’t there an hour ago.”
Brìghde was starting to shiver, so she took the chance. He didn’t turn when she snatched her towel and scurried to Avis’s antechamber to dry off, then she peeked around the threshold and saw him still facing the hearth. She bound to her bed and dove in, pulling the covers up to her head.
He chuckled, but it was a sad, weary one.
“I understand you don’t want to send your sons away to apprentice,” Brìghde said quietly as she arranged herself under her covers as well as she could without throwing them off to start again. “So why not assign them to men in your forces?”
“Their mothers would harry me, and I do not want to get involved in their squabbles.”
Brìghde said nothing to that. Her mother harried her father over many things, but sending her sons off to become pages to other knights was not one of them. ’Twas the way of nobility.
“You’re the earl,” Brìghde said softly. “You have the ultimate authority here and you are allowing women to lead you around by your spindle.” He growled at her. Well, she’d already lost Sir John. What did it matter if she lost Grimme too? She was here permanently, she had a task to perform, he didn’t want to bed her, and she was right. “They are your sons. They aren’t three years old anymore and wee laddies grow into men. What kind of men do you want them to be? And are you going to allow their mothers to rear them as useless, simpering ones lazing on their father’s successes simply because you don’t want to tell your women to shut up and sit down? Because if you don’t, I will.”