The journey from Fàileach to Hogarth, the biggest town closest to Kyneward, took another day, and Brìghde and Lord Kyneward chatted for most of it. He was witty and learned, even for a young man who had spent most of his life on a battlefield, as both his father and the ancient knight he had served as page and squire valued education. Further, Brìghde engaged his man-at-arms in conversation as well, drawing him out, learning of him. It was easier to rule a household when one knew who was in it.
Every night, the earl slept with her for reasons she did not know, but did not mind.
“I’m not going to run away,” she had said testily, although, she thought as he draped his bare arm over her waist, he did make a fine substitute for her dog.
The closer they got to Kyneward, the more Brìghde looked forward to taking over as castellain until she was quivering in anticipation. She would miss her mother, of course, but it meant she would be in total control, without having to do everything the way her mother did it, having to avoid her father, having nothing at all to do in the MacFhionnlaigh household where she would not be a countess, and enduring Roger’s mother to boot, or having to tiptoe around the four women—seven including maidservants—her husband was bedding. She felt it best to keep that to herself. If he didn’t know how that many women could share a man’s bed and not have strife, he would never know what Brìghde might have to do to them to rule the household.
They might not obey the earl’s father, but they would obey Brìghde with or without the earl’s sanction. Indeed, her mother had broken more than a few contentious women over her knee, as had her mother before her, and Brìghde was her mother’s daughter.
“Bridget,” asked the earl as they drew closer to Kyneward land, “do you think it is possible we will both benefit disproportionately from this arrangement?”
“If there is to be an arrangement, it should always be disproportionately advantageous.”
He laughed. “You are delightful company, my lady. Do you perchance play chess?”
“Aye, I do!”
“Excellent. Ahead is the village of Hogarth. ’Tis twenty more miles to Kyneward, but there is a smaller hamlet between the two.”
Hogarth was in fact quite a big town, with fine clothiers and merchants of other refined goods that were not to be had in tiny hamlets and villages. There were several inns and liveries, and many, many taverns.
“When you are settled,” Kyneward said as they stopped at a livery and took an inn for the night, “we will come outfit you as befits a countess. We would do that tomorrow, but it will take many days and I am eager to get home to my family.”
“Thank you. Grimme. I have nothing to wear but my wedding dress and these clothes for a lad. Surely we could find something already made that I can wear until we can shop properly? And as to that, I have nothing else either. Brush, hairpins, dagger.”
He grimaced. “Of course. I apologize.”
“I must also go to the kirk.”
“I, too,” said the earl, surprising her.
“You do not seem the devout sort,” she said as they walked in the direction the innkeeper had pointed.
“As much as I can be, whilst keeping a harem,” he grinned at her.
She was still laughing when they entered, and he poked his elbow in her ribs to make her stop laughing, but she could barely bite back her giggles.
“Shhh,” he teased, then whispered, “What are you praying for?”
“I want to give thanks for my disproportionate advantage. And you?”
The earl again slept with her.
“We’re not in the forest anymore, my lord.”
“It occurred to me that I should not have left you alone in the room in Laight. This inn is far nicer than the one there, but I do not want to house a woman who is in my care in a room alone. If you were not my wife, I would sleep on the floor or have my man stand watch, but he also must rest if he is to be of any use to me.”
She shrugged. Why not. Nothing untoward would happen and even if something did occur, she was his wife and she had promised him sons (or at least to attempt them), so it would not, in fact, be untoward. She had bargained with full knowledge of having to bed him and, thanks to her brothers’ big mouths and a few—many—moments of witnessing the act, knowing exactly what bedding entailed.
The earl might have an amorous aversion to her, but she certainly did not have an aversion to him, and after several delightful days of conversation and laughter, and his admission of his appetites, she wouldn’t mind if he did have amorous intentions.
That could be, she reasoned, simply by comparison to Roger MacFhionnlaigh, from whom the earl had saved her by a breath.
Aye, that was it. She had never had a true suitor because everyone knew her final destination was Roger’s bed.
She felt his body relax and his breathing shallow out, and felt oddly disappointed.
The three of them spent the next morning gathering basic necessities: two plain kirtles of uninspiring colors—
“I … would rather you not wear black,” the earl said when she fingered a fine linen. He was staring between her and the cloth as if he feared she would suddenly betray him. She could not decipher his expression, nor fathom what about the black disturbed him.
Confused and a little wary, she said, “Is it important to you that I not wear black?”
“Ah … well, aye, it rather is.”
“Please,” he said courteously, his voice strained.
—girdle, hairpins, ribbons, brush, comb, a glass—
“Grimme. That is expensive.”
“Do you have one at home?”
“Aye. My father is wealthy and my mother gives me anything I want.”
“Then you should have one here. You do not have to worry about the state of my coin chest.”
“Until I do,” she quipped, but he did not laugh.
“Aye,” he mumbled distantly, as he had been since he asked her not to buy black.
—parchment, quills, ink, a lovely dagger she saw in a window and sighed over, stockings, two pairs of sturdy daily slippers and one pair of leather boots, and a lovely pouch to carry it all in.
“Will that do?” he asked, concerned when she said she was ready to get back on the road.
“For the next week or two, aye.”
They had stayed in the most expensive part of Hogarth, so they traveled south around the less savory part of town, and headed out.
In another fifteen miles was the hamlet of Waters. It boasted only the basic necessities to support a keep and goods that knights and peasants needed and could afford. But it also had an overabundance of taverns for a hamlet.
“My forces eat here. I supply rations, but I also pay them enough to find their own food.”
The earl was greeted with bows and curtsies and smiles and well wishes, and then they were through it in a blink. The road from Waters to Kyneward was a well-trod five miles of rolling hills that presently forked, giving way to a route around the keep that continued south, a road that continued west, and the third a long lane leading to the keep, which was, indeed, small. To either side of the lane were tiny thatched cottages with kitchen gardens just beginning to sprout, and beyond, more green rolling hills as far as the eye could see spotted with sheep on one side and cows on the other, and, beyond the keep, fields of grain just showing their green heads.
The lane itself was lined with tall, neatly trimmed boxwood hedges.
“That’s lovely,” she said.
“That is not their purpose.”
“My arbalists will hide there in case of an invasion. What think you, Lady Brìghde?” Kyneward asked earnestly.
“Your keep might be small, but your lands are prosperous,” she said approvingly.
“My father’s work.”
“You, ah … your west walls … ” She said hesitantly, not wanting to be like her mother, finding fault with everything first. “They are crumbling.”
“There are architects and stonemasons at the back of the keep rebuilding the walls and building a third bailey to protect the villeins within the fortress. You can hear them if you listen to them closely enough.”
“Oh, aye,” she chirped. “You have no moat.”
“No need. The whole fortress is dug down to solid rock.”
This was getting better and better.
Then they were noticed.
“My lord! My lord! Lord Kyneward is home!”
And, as had happened in the village and in the hamlet, Kyneward was suddenly swimming in goodwill from the villeins, serfs, and cottagers, which he returned wholeheartedly, with laughs and waves and jests and good-natured taunts.
Indeed, Lord Kyneward’s homecoming was like nothing Brìghde could imagine. The villeins in the fields stopped and waved enthusiastically. Servants emptied the keep and ran down the slope to meet their company, gathering around their horses like the foam of the sea around a rock. “Come now, come!” he called, laughing. “Let us through. We may celebrate when we have rested.”
They all ignored him, men, women, children, dogs, all too excited to see their lord to allow him to get out of their reach.
Brìghde’s father would never have gotten a reception like that, and her good fortune was looking more and more disproportionate. She could not be more pleased.
“Papa! Papa’s home!”
Brìghde saw four boys racing out of the keep and the biggest threw himself at Kyneward, who laughed and hoisted him up onto his lap.
“Papa! Papa!” One of the big ones pulled the smallest away so hard, the little boy fell on his arse. “I want a turn!”
Kyneward flashed Brìghde a grin and dismounted so he could gather all four boys in his arms. He arose and tossed the two oldest on the back of his horse, threw the next youngest on his back, and plucked the littlest one off the ground to hold him in his arms.
Something within Brìghde suddenly began to ache. Her father would never have greeted her thusly, and in fact, no one had ever been that happy to see her. Her mother had barely noticed when she’d arrived home from the convent except to note that she was happy to have her second-in-command back and Brìghde immediately needed to see to this task and that errand.
“Lord Grimme! Lord Grimme! You’re home!”
Brìghde looked up the hill to see the most beautiful woman she had ever seen in her life running down the path, followed closely by three other equally bonny women. They were all tall, blonde, fair of skin, and light of eye. In fact, they were so alike, she would have thought them sisters if Grimme had not told her about them. Brìghde, who had never had a reason to doubt her own beauty, felt embarrassingly out of place, with her black hair and deep emerald eyes (though equally fair skin) and being so appallingly underdressed in her boys’ breeches, shirt, and boots. It was far from the first time she’d felt out of place, but it was the first place where she would be expected to stay for the rest of her life.
The woman in the lead threw herself at Kyneward and gave him a lusty kiss, which he returned wholeheartedly, her arse filling his big hand. Brìghde simply watched, curious how the other three reacted to that kiss, but … nothing. Then it was their turn and they each gave and received an equally lusty kiss.
They acted like a family, which shocked her. After the way he had so lightly spoken of them, she had assumed his “household” was a collection of wenches who had had his children, but that he did not pay attention to until he wanted to satisfy his lust.
Treating all his women as if they were dear to his heart was not normal. The mistress—one—who may or may not have the lord’s heart, had her own residence and the wife pretended to be ignorant of the mistress’s existence.
The fact that all these women and children and its lord lived together as a family was an unfortunate development, for it would be a much more delicate balance than a mere collection of whores. Brìghde would have to balance herself against a collection of women and children that functioned as a happy family revolving around one man who treated his women as dear wives.
“Where is she?” she heard one of the women demand.
Kyneward waved his hand toward Brìghde, who gave a little wave and smile.
All four of the women’s jaws dropped.
“Please don’t mind my garments,” Brìghde called helpfully. “I was getting married to someone else, but then I was compelled to ride for an hundred twenty miles. I know I am a fright.”
“She doesn’t act abducted,” a different mistress said, still looking at Brìghde with some suspicion.
“I really didn’t mind,” Brìghde assured them, which was likely the wrong thing to say, since all four of them then glared at Grimme, who held his hands up in surrender.
“Were you hoping I would bring home an unhappy wife? Emelisse, Ardith, Dillena, Maebh, this is Lady Bridget Fallack.”
“Have you not married her yet?” the first woman demanded. In French. “Must you torture me with a wedding, too?”
“I have wed her,” he returned in the same language. “It so happens that we are preferable to her own family.”
“Does she know who we are?”
Again all four sets of eyes, light blue, looked at her as if she were a ghost.
“You’re going to bed her?” she practically screeched.
“Not until I absolutely must,” Grimme said as he turned away and strolled up the hill toward the portcullis, his arms draped over two of the women’s shoulders, the children dancing around them, the other two women walking backward in front of him to chatter at him excitedly.
“If you could dismount, my lady,” said a boy from below Brìghde, “I would take your horse to the stable.”
Brìghde watched Grimme and his family. She had never felt so empty, watching what she had never seen, much less hoped for for herself.
She shook herself. “Yes. Um, of course,” she murmured and dismounted with the boy’s help.
“’Tis too much horse for you, pardon my sayin’ so.”
“Mayhap,” she muttered vaguely. The boy stood with the horse’s reins whilst Brìghde gathered her meager things and clutched them to her breast.
She was the wife, the countess, the lady of the manor, the castellain, the Lady portion of Lord and Lady Kyneward, yet here she stood in a dusty road dressed like a bedraggled boy, with serfs, servants, and knights flowing around and past her as if she were not there, whilst the Lord portion of Lord and Lady Kyneward capered with his family and forgot she existed.
Almost a sennight of his most delightful company and … he’d forgotten all about her.
She looked over her shoulder, back toward the forest-lined road from which they’d come. She could walk away right now and no one would ever notice.
She looked around to see Kyneward far away, surrounded by people who loved him, whom he loved, smiling at her, waving and shouting at her to join them.
His women were not smiling.
She cast him her brightest smile, pulled her shoulders back, and marched herself up the hill to the castle entrance as if she were the lady of the manor.
“Well!” she exclaimed brightly. “Isn’t this lovely!”
The lands were, but the keep wasn’t. It was much bigger than he had led her to believe, but it was not nearly as big as Fàileach. The ditches outside the walls were littered with rotting wood and other building materials. She was glad there was no moat, for moats stunk. The outer bailey was almost all stables, well built and pristinely kempt. The inner bailey, however, was a disaster. The sheds and outbuildings in the inner bailey close to the keep were in dire need of demolition and rebuilding in more efficient spots.
The women and children continued to talk at the earl, who answered as he could get a word in. He was happy here, she saw, and she wanted to be happy here, too, but she was not sure that would be completely possible, with four women who were not mere whores, as Brìghde had thought, and thus, set against her already by virtue of her station.
His head mistress should be his wife and she was understandably bitter about it. He didn’t need to marry a noblewoman. He wanted to marry a noblewoman, likely to establish to himself that he was a noble. He’d only been an earl for five years and before that had had no expectation of becoming one. If he hadn’t wed the woman in eleven years, there had to be more reasons than that she was not a noblewoman.
Brìghde’s best course of action would be to make sure none of the women had reason to fear Brìghde would take over the earl’s spindle. Aye, he was extraordinarily pleasing to the eye, but he wasn’t worth going to war over. If he really wanted a legitimate heir, she’d get his spindle eventually anyway, and she’d have his naked beauty right next to hers until she caught.
Her former betrothed could not lay claim to any beauty more than as a particularly ugly imp. Unfortunately, she had once informed him of this, and though they had been a mere six and eight years old, he had never forgiven her. Of course, if he had not been mean to her, perhaps she would not have been forced to make such an observation. She had not been able to look into his face since, and God help her if she had not been abducted to escape a wedding night with him.
She and Roger hated each other, and she was quite sure Roger was as happy about her abduction as she was.
“You’re welcome, Roger,” she muttered.
Brìghde followed them up the stairs and into the keep. In the great hall, a priest stood next to an old man, who would have been the earl’s height as a younger man, leaning on a cane. His expression alit when he saw the earl. “My son,” he croaked as he held out his arms.
“Papa,” the earl said warmly and embraced him. “I have brought you a gift,” he said as he released him.
The earl gestured to Brìghde. “Come.”
Brìghde squeezed through the paramours, who deliberately blocked her way until she elbowed one in the ribs, and stood in front of the earl’s father. Even hunched over and with a cane, he was far taller than Brìghde.
“My bride, Lady Bridget Fallack Kyneward.” The priest and old man both gaped at the earl, who shrugged sheepishly. “I unwittingly snatched the wrong woman, but ’twas a fortunate turn of events for both of us. Lady Bridget, this is Sir John Kyneward, my father and castellan of Kyneward.”
“Lady Bridget,” he said tremulously and attempted to bow.
“No, no!” she breathed, concerned, and held onto his arms so he would not fall, then grasped his hand. “None of that.”
“She assures me she will be a good candidate for the position of castellain. I will leave it for you to decide.”
The man’s face softened even further and his smile was one of joy and relief. “Oh, I pray so, my lady.”
Brìghde gave him a saucy wink. “You shall see.”
“Castellain?” the first woman said in alarmed French.
“Oui,” Grimme said with some measure of excitement. “And was that not fortunate!”
“I am not going to allow her to tell me what to do.”
He either had not heard that or he was ignoring it. “And this is Father Hercule.”
He bowed. “Welcome, my lady.”
“Come, come, my dear,” said the old man, weakly tugging her hand. “You’ve had a week to get acquainted with my son and now I would see what you know.”
He led her slowly through the great hall, past the chapel, and into a large study. “This is my domain,” he murmured as he bid her enter and closed the door behind her. “The witches can’t come in here, even if they wanted to. Sit, sit.”
“All pardons, but I have been sitting for the last week,” she said dryly.
“Of course, of course.” He shuffled toward a chair and fell back into it with a sigh. His head tipped back and his eyes closed as he caught his breath. “I do not know you, know of you, know any of your qualifications, but I know that my son seems to be happy with your presence, and he is an excellent judge of character.”
Brìghde coughed into her hand.
“Mostly,” he amended with a fleeting smile, his eyes still closed. “He is also dazzled by tall, willowy, blue-eyed blondes, but the Kyneward men have always been a lusty lot and my son is no different.”
Brìghde decided to walk around the study, which was lined with books. There was even a clock and a globe. “I heard all about his insatiable lust and his ability to break women,” she teased.
He barked a laugh. “You are forgiving.”
“Forgiving, no. Uncaring, aye. The women may want to claw my eyes out, but I do not care enough about them or Lord Kyneward to want to claw theirs out. He has no amorous intentions toward me, so I am perfectly happy to ply my trade far away from home and free from a marriage contract I abhorred.”
“And what of a legitimate heir?”
“When he feels he can bear to bed a brunette, I will be more than happy to comply, which was one reason I made the bargain.”
He laughed. “Does he know that?”
“I would rather he not,” she mused as she walked around looking at the lovely things Sir John had. “He is only attractive to me by comparison to my other groom and I have never been allowed other options, so he is a novelty simply because an option was presented to me. It will fade, but he would tease me about it forevermore, and I canna laugh at myself.”
“Then rest assured, I will not tell him.”
“Now tell me about your trade.”
Thus, Brìghde began to list her qualifications for the position of castellain, what her mother did, how she did it, how Brìghde would have liked to do it but for her mother’s insistence that her way was better. When he nodded, she was encouraged to forge on. She told him how she would stock the larders and storage rooms, what supplies she would lay in, when, and in what season, and what outbuildings would need to be built.
“Good, good,” he murmured.
Even more emboldened, she revealed her ability to do many of the jobs in the castle: candle-making, baking, weaving, spinning, sewing, brewing, dying, laundering—
“How did you come by such extensive knowledge?”
The half-lie rolled easily off her tongue. “My mother made sure of it, you see, to give me reference for what was a reasonable time spent in each occupation.”
She did not notice, but dusk had fallen whilst she spoke—
“Light some candles, will you, my dear?”
“Goodness! I have chattered your ear off.”
“’Tis a lovely way to lose an ear, if I must. I am impressed.”
So very, very pleased with his approbation, she was nearly in tears. Now, if he only stayed happy with her. She found the flints and lit the candles she saw, then returned to her chair when she had gathered herself and said nothing more. The noise in the great hall rose and the soft swish of the door opening to admit a servant interrupted the peace in the study.
She dropped a curtsy. “My lady, Sir John, my lord requests you join him for supper.”
“Please inform my lord that I am in council with Lady Bridget and would request the leisure of dining here. Then bring us our supper and wine.”
The servant curtsied again and scurried away.
“Will my lord not find that a slight?” Brìghde asked.
He waved a hand. “Grimme gives me whatever I want. He’ll not insist. You read, write, and work sums?”
“Aye.” She hesitated. “Ah, but … I cannot manage the estate outside the inner bailey walls. I do not know how.”
They sat in silence for a few moments, awaiting their suppers, which came promptly, and ate in companionable silence. As she ate, she began to wonder if the earl’s father did not deem her fit for duty after all, if perhaps his words were simple courtesy.
Then he spoke. “The outer bailey is all stables and training pen. The stable master keeps a tight rein on it.”
She snickered at his jest, and he winked at her.
“We will hire a steward together. ’Tis too much for one person. I should know.”
“Ah … mayhap a housekeeper also? Once I’ve the house running the way I want, I mean,” she added hastily. “We also need carpenters to rebuild almost the whole of the inner bailey.”
“Whatever you need, my dear. If you can do all you have said, I will die a happy man, knowing my son is in good hands.”
At that, tears did begin to swell. “Do you intend to do so as soon as you have stepped back?”
“Oh, no. I have other plans. Should you find yourself in need of help, I would be willing to keep the books, but I would rather not.”
“The earl said your other candidates were inept.”
He sighed heavily and sipped at his wine. “They were quite adept, in fact. I was too exacting and gave them no time to learn. I was not ready to cede my position, and took any opportunity to find fault.”
Brìghde’s eyebrows rose to hear a man confess his mistakes so easily.
“And now we come to the end of my life when I cannot do half so much they did.”
“Surely you have your own servants.”
He puffed an unamused laugh. “Every time I get a servant trained, one of the witches sends him on an errand and never lets him go. Female servants disappear even more quickly.”
“Do they do this purposefully?”
“I do not believe so; they simply think only of themselves and appropriate the first servant they see and then keep them milling about waiting for commands.”
“And you have not asked my lord to assign any to you permanently?”
He huffed impatiently. “Grimme does not interfere in the workings of the household at all. He thinks I should be able to assert my authority, but he has never given me any over the women, much less my grandsons. If I cannot control the women, I cannot control anything else. He might as well put me out on a wintery hilltop to die. I do not fault him for keeping his women, but I am angry that he ties my hands so, and I do not care for those particular women.
“All my mistresses were intelligent with interests, or at least a willingness to learn new things. They were also kind and the ones who had my babes were good mothers. I could not keep a mistress unless she was my friend. Grimme’s mother was an illiterate wet nurse when I met her, but we became lovers when I noticed that I was spending more and more time with her simply talking. She had educated herself when I wasn’t paying attention. They were all quite different in appearance, as that was never my first reason for taking a mistress. Thus, I do not understand my son’s habits. I tell you this in all good faith. However, should you carry tales, ’twill make no difference as the witches already know what I think and Grimme does not care.
“Emelisse is deceitful and vicious. Ardith is as sharp as a wheel of cheese and without any interest whatsoever. Dillena is the quiet one. She keeps to herself, so in truth, I have no complaint there. Maebh is almost as insatiable as Grimme and she acts childishly sometimes, so she is merely irritating.”
“Do none of them have any redeeming values? The quiet one excepted.”
His shaggy eyebrow rose. “Other than their ability to please my son?”
Brìghde couldn’t help her snicker and the old man winked at her with a hint of a smile. “He said he did not like brunettes, but I find it extraordinary that he has such specific taste.”
Sir John shrugged with confusion. “I cannot explain. I appreciated variety. I will credit them: They do love their children, and they try to be good mothers, but ’tis as if they are too dimwitted to learn how.”
“Emelisse is the mother of Gaston and Max. She keeps them by her side or in their chambers, though they chafe. She is afraid they will get hurt outside, does not want them to be knights, but does not allow them to spend time with Father Hercule at studies, as then they are not within earshot. She treats them like dolls. Beloved ones, but dolls nonetheless. When they can sneak out of their chambers, they run about endlessly, break things, get in the servants’ way. They are everywhere, no one can control them, and no one can find them, which sends her into the trusses, screeching with fear that they are dead, blaming anyone and everyone for their escape, which makes her cling to them that much tighter.
“Dillena is learned and writes stories for her son, teaches him how to read and write, sees to his needs, but other than that, seems utterly baffled by what a boy needs.
“Maebh practically ignores hers, allowing him to do what he pleases, but when she does pay attention, she hugs and kisses him, tells him what a good boy he is, then forgets he exists. None of them make any attempt to discipline them. The youngest, Pierce, Maebh’s, enjoys his studies, but he is the only one. The next youngest, Terrwyn, Dillena’s, doesn’t like his studies, even with his mother, so he will coax the older boys into mischief, over which Emelisse will then panic and scream at Dillena about her ‘monster.’ The older boys resent the younger ones’ freedom and the younger boys resent the attention Emelisse showers upon the older two. And Terrwyn feels completely forgotten by everyone until Emelisse screams at him.”
Brìghde was confused. “Do they not have a nursemaid?”
Sir John shook his head. “We have had several. Emelisse would never give her babes over, and she drove the ones for Dillena and Maebh away.”
“Because she ‘didn’t like them,’” Sir John mocked in a high-pitched voice.
“No, in fact, Emelisse believed them to be contemptuous of the women’s place in the household and she could not bear it.”
“Were they? Contemptuous?”
“Not particularly, but Emelisse will allow no one else to be happy if she is not happy, and she has not been happy since Grimme brought Dillena home ten years ago.” Brìghde could understand that completely. He looked at her pointedly. “The boys need a strong hand.”
“Oh, noooo,” Brìghde breathed. “I’ll not get between a woman and her bairn, and as I am the wee laddies’ stepmother now, ’twould be putting fire to a dry forest. The lord’s first priority should be to see to the proper instruction of his sons. If I remember correctly, are not three of them of age to be apprenticed as pages?”
The old man nodded wearily. “Aye. I have spoken with Grimme, but because it involves the witches’ objections, he sees that as household business. He loves the boys and does not want to send them away, thus he claims he has simply not gotten around to arranging for it. The truth is, he does not want to and he dotes. He is far too indulgent, in my opinion.”
“Where are their chambers?”
“The women and the boys live on the third floor. Emelisse is in the chambers over Grimme’s. Dillena is across the hall from her. Ardith and Maebh are next door to Dillena. The boys have the two chambers at the end of the hall near the back stairs, across from each other.”
“Two of the women share a chamber?” Brìghde asked, surprised.
“They share more than that,” he drawled.
Brìghde pondered that for a second or two, then— “Ohhhhhh,” she breathed, eyes wide in comprehension. Then she laughed. “Well. Isn’t that special.”
Sir John barked a laugh. “Aye, ’tis. How do you know about such? You’re a maiden, no?”
“Aye,” she said airily, “but I have six brothers, we are all a year apart, we played together, and even now, most of the time they do not remember I’m a lass, so they speak freely enough.”
The old man chuckled softly.
She saw no need to mention that which she’d seen, so there was a companionable silence in the room and Brìghde sipped at the lovely wine she had had on the journey here.
She was about to open her mouth to ask something else when she realized that Sir John had fallen asleep, his chin to his chest. He was snoring. She finished her supper and her wine, then went to the door and peered out. The great hall was still loud, but the platters were being cleared away. There was Lord Kyneward lounging in his chair in the middle of the head table, looking out over all his people.
“Psst! My lord!”
Lord Kyneward craned his head around his chair and Brìghde beckoned to him. He shot his chair back and crossed the room in four long strides. “Is something wrong?” he demanded.
“No. He is asleep. I … don’t know whom to fetch. I don’t know where his chambers are or I would take him myself. I haven’t even bathed yet.”
Lord Kyneward smiled and caught a passing servant and instructed him to put Sir John into bed, his chambers through the door at the back of the study. He caught yet another servant and told her to prepare Lady Brìghde’s chambers and bring her a bath.
“Pardon me, my lord. Which chambers are hers?”
“Across the hall from mine.”
Lord Kyneward was turning away so he did not see the minute expression of disbelief the servant flashed him before scurrying away.
“Across the hall from you?” Brìghde asked.
“Aye,” he said with a grin. “’Tis so I can bid you play chess with me and I will not have to fetch a servant to drag you down a flight of stairs.”
Brìghde grimaced. “Ah … did you displace someone else to put me there?”
“No,” he said, puzzled. “Those chambers have been empty since we moved in.”
“Emelisse wanted them,” he continued blithely, “but I want all my women on the same floor.”
Brìghde barely kept from dropping her face in her palm.
“If she begs you for them, do not give in.”
“Oh, I won’t,” she murmured, seeing a very long war in her future.