Brìghde supervised the loading of her linens and livery, which was a true count according to the bill Sir John had received. Furthermore, she had all the clothing she had ordered. She beamed at the seamstress, for the clothes were well sewn and softer than they looked.
“’Tis too plain for you, my lady,” the seamstress said. “You should be in green or black velvet.”
“Oh, I will be!” she assured her. “I ordered many new gowns in Hogarth. Only one black, but don’t tell Lord Kyneward. He hates black. But the clothier tried to sell me a yellow fabric, do you believe.” The seamstress studied Brìghde’s complexion then grimaced, and Brìghde nodded in agreement. “Just so. ’Twas the most expensive fabric in the shop, which is no surprise. My wedding dress was a red split kirtle over a turquoise skirt.”
“Oh, that sounds lovely.”
She sent the cart back to Kyneward with all her purchases, then she pulled the seamstress aside and whispered sweetly, “If you ever attempt to cheat me again, I will burn down everything you hold dear. Make sure every merchant in one hundred miles in every direction knows I will destroy anyone who attempts it.”
The seamstress dropped to her knees, sobbing and begging, pulling at her skirts, pleading and apologizing.
“And now we will act and converse and conduct much business together as if this never happened, aye?” Brìghde said brightly.
“Aye, my lady,” she sobbed. “Aye. Thank you, my lady.”
Brìghde next attended the cobbler, who afforded her four new pairs of boots where she had only ordered one out of merchant credit. Brìghde exclaimed over the workmanship and gave him a sweet smile. “We understand each other now, do we not?”
“Aye, my lady,” he said nervously.
“You may be assured of Kyneward’s continued patronage.”
“Thank you, my lady.”
The only tradesperson in Waters who had not puffed up his bills to Kyneward was the blacksmith, from whom she bought daggers for the boys, and requested small swords of metal be fashioned.
“Oh, my lady, I already have some,” he said, surprised. “The pages at Kyneward need them. I thought the boys would already have their own.”
“They don’t,” Brìghde said flatly. “There are many changes afoot at Kyneward now that I am in charge.”
The corner of the big man’s mouth curled up and he winked. “Are there now?”
She grinned and leaned in. “Oh, aye, there are.”
He lost his humor, looked away, tapped his fingers on his anvil, and twisted his mouth.
He looked at her warily.
She sighed with irritation. “I cannot repair it if I do not know.”
He sucked in a breath. “You have made it clear you know about the bills the merchants here send to Kyneward.”
Brìghde was surprised he would approach it so bluntly, but was careful to keep her expression calmly interested and she nodded.
“There is a reason for that, my lady. The mistresses. They come here to shop. They do not pay in coin, and they do not seem to give Sir John their bills. If they did, he would pay them. The other bills are higher to account for what the mistresses take but have not paid for.”
Brìghde’s jaw dropped on the floor and her eyes widened. Her hand went to her breast. “On the sweet Virgin Mary,” she breathed.
“The merchants asked me to deliver ye this news, as they have not cheated me, and thus I have had no reason to attempt to reclaim the loss.”
“Why did you not go to Sir John? Or send a duplicate bill for what they took? You know he would not cheat you.”
He shrugged. “The merchants are very angry, my lady. ’Twas easier to manage this way, and, well, aye, the overages may have gotten a little out of hand.” He paused at Brìghde’s flat look. “Very out of hand.”
“What about Lord Kyneward?”
“He does not … ” The blacksmith considered his words very carefully. “Ah, that is to say—”
“Aye, I know,” she snorted. “He doesn’t get involved in household business.”
“Aye. And there is no estate court. Even if there were, we could not find a lawyer, must less pay for one.”
“There is now, but ’twill not come to that, as I will deal with this. Tell every merchant in this village to sum what the mistresses have taken, to subtract the overage Sir John has paid, and to account for whatever merchant credit I have assumed today, and if Kyneward still owes them, I will pay it personally, and I will forgive what is owed Kyneward. I want a true accounting, though. I will not cheat you if you do not cheat me. Mayhap— Oh, I know! I shall call a meeting to reconcile.”
“We would appreciate that, my lady.”
“No one is to ever serve the mistresses again if they have not the coin to pay in full.”
He bowed deeply. “Aye, my lady. Thank you. Now, about those swords for the young masters … ”
Hugging four boy-sized swords and matching daggers to her breast and feeling very proud of herself, she strode to the livery, where Grimme and his boys were getting along magnificently, Gaston helping Terrwyn and Max assisting Pierce where their heights made the difference in the task. But as she watched, she noticed that they were all moving very slowly and painfully and groaning. Then the swords slipped from her grasp and fell in a crash, startling everyone, even the horses.
“Sorry!” she called and crouched to pick them all up.
“What’s this, Wife?” Grimme said as he strode to her and crouched to pick them up and examine them.
“The boys need swords of metal, and daggers too.”
His eyebrows flew up into his golden-red hair and she smiled. “You thought of my sons whilst you were out?”
“We are here today for them, are we not?” she asked softly.
His expression faded to confused wonderment. “Aye,” he said vaguely, looking at them from across the stable. “Aye we are. Boys, come see what Lady Bridget has brought you.”
She gasped at the sight of them. Their lips were fat and bloody. Their faces were covered in bruises. There were tiny crusts of blood around their noses. Their arms were also bruised and they were limping. Slowly. Gaston seemed as if he could barely breathe and he was clutching his side. He was also waddling just the tiniest bit. Brìghde had six brothers. She knew why he was waddling.
As they stood in front of her, weary, bleary-eyed, aching, and listless, she pulled her lips between her teeth. She looked at Grimme, who could barely keep from laughing.
She looked back at the boys because Grimme was going to make her laugh if she looked at him much longer, put her hand over her mouth, and said, “Oh my.”
“I!—won!” Pierce barked, glaring at Gaston.
“Me too!” Terrwyn chirped.
“Well! Maybe you four need not have daggers and swords after all. I doubt your mothers would appreciate your killing each other.”
“I hate their mother!” Pierce screamed.
“We hate yours too!” Max returned.
Gaston glared at Brìghde. “We hate you too.”
“I don’t care.”
He looked puzzled.
“Gaston,” Grimme growled. “Do not ever speak to her that way again.”
“Oh, no, he may,” Brìghde said matter-of-factly. “That way I know what their mother is telling them.”
Grimme looked at her strangely.
“Well, I have been perfectly reasonable and have been willing to give them what they want, but their mother is keeping it from them. Their hatred has to come from somewhere.”
“You made Papa send us to the stables to work.”
“No, she did not,” Grimme snarled, making Gaston’s eyes go wide with fear. “Now. Do you want the swords and daggers Lady Bridget bought for you or not?”
“Aye, Papa,” Gaston and Max whispered, cowed.
Terrwyn and Pierce snickered, but that, too, earned a glare from their father. It did not keep them from continuing to snicker, much less cow them.
Brìghde thought it was all entirely appropriate, with the appropriate responses, and she was pleased. “Hm. Grimme?”
“Aye, parcel them out. They’ll need them tomorrow on the fields.”
They all gaped up at Grimme. “All except Pierce.” He looked at Gaston and Max and said pointedly, “He’s too young.”
They looked like they were about to cry.
“I will assign you each to a knight so that you may begin your instruction. I cannot send you out to another knight anywhere in England or France at your ages to be trained from anew. ’Tis shameful, a ten-year-old and a nine-year-old not knowing the most basic of tasks, unable to ride, unable to take a five-year-old and a seven-year-old in a fight, crying and wailing like babies.”
Tears sparkled in their eyes.
“Grimme,” Brìghde said firmly. “’Tis not their fault.”
“Aye, ’tis mine,” he replied, gently placing one hand each on Gaston’s and Max’s heads and squeezing very lightly, then stroking down their backs to rub them, pressing them to his body.
“But Papa, I hurt,” Max whinged.
“You will be hurting for the next several years. Accustom yourselves to it. Enjoy your chambers and your mothers and your meals tonight, because by sundown tomorrow, you will be sleeping in the encampment with your knights. Now, collect your weapons Lady Bridget has bought for you.”
They started digging in the pile before she could catch them.
“No, no, no, no, no, no!” Brìghde cried as she shooed them away. “They each have your initials on them so you do not mix them up.” She picked up a sword and looked at the end of the pommel. “Gaston.” She checked the daggers and gave him his. “Terrwyn.” And so forth until all the boys had their own swords and daggers. She took Grimme’s hand when he offered it to assist her to her feet. She looked up at Grimme. “He did not have scabbards,” she apologized.
“We will get those in Hogarth,” he murmured, looking down at her with an uncertain expression.
Brìghde then wondered if she had offended him. “Are you … angry with me?”
His face cleared. “Nay,” he hastened to assure her, bringing her hands to his lips for a kiss. She nearly melted in relief. “I simply— I had not thought— Their mothers—”
Brìghde’s mouth flattened and she turned away, clutching Grimme’s hands and swinging him around with her. “Your women,” she hissed, “have been stealing from the merchants. That is why the bills are so puffed up.”
His eyes widened.
“I have taken care of the situation with the merchants and hopefully have established some goodwill and trust. I have instructed the merchants to let them take nothing they cannot pay for with coin, and I suspect that the only reason Hogarth’s merchants were not doing so is because they did not want to spend the coin or time to ride forty miles to deliver duplicate bills. I want access to your women’s chambers to take an inventory—”
His mouth dropped open.
“—before I allow them any more coin at all.”
“Bridget!” he whispered harshly, his eyes wide, “I won’t order that.”
“I have the keys to the keep,” she growled. “And I will not tolerate such behavior. If you do not rein your women in, I will, and no one is going to be happy. What are you afraid of? That they will deny you their cuntes? Ha! Hardly. That is their sole purpose.”
His eyes narrowed throughout her speech. “Bridget—”
She pointed at him and whispered hotly, “No. For too long you have set aside your responsibility to your father and to your sons because you do not want to face your women, and the proof is that you said nothing to them about the bills from Hogarth. They didn’t give them to Sir John because they didn’t want to be subject to his anger that they didn’t ask first because they knew he’d refuse them, and he would not allow them to go to Hogarth again. Yet all he can do is rage because you have denied him the authority he needs to rule in your stead. He has no power to do anything the way it should be done. I am here to do what you will not do because I will take the power whether you want me to or not. If I have to lock them in the donjon whilst I take inventory of their chambers, by all that is holy, I will do it.”
He stared at her, his nostrils flaring, his chest heaving, but she would not look away.
“Our bargain,” she said low, “was that you would enforce my position as castellain in return for a legitimate heir and a spare, and you could get sixteen daughters out of me before you get one son, and women die in childbirth, you ken! You do not fulfill your part, I do not fulfill my part. All you have to do is stay out of my way and pay the bills.”
“They will come to me endlessly!” he hissed.
She rocked back on one heel, crossed her arms over her chest, and gave him a dead stare, her jaw grinding.
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “Very well. I will order their chambers opened for inventory only. Do not take anything.”
She growled, and he held his hands up in apology. “I can see why you were dismissed,” he grumbled.
She grinned. “And if they don’t comply or get in my way or otherwise make it more difficult than it has to be?”
He looked over his shoulder at his sons, who were each off on their own admiring their swords and daggers instead of clanging away at each other. He looked back at her and sighed. “Put them in the donjon.”