Breakfast was long over by the time Brìghde dragged herself out of the earl’s warm bed, the chamberlain nowhere in sight, went across the hall, divested herself of her coverlet and wedding dress, leaving her in her peasant boy’s clothes, pulled on a pair of her new sturdy slippers, then went down to the great hall, which was empty. She continued on down the stairs to the cellar kitchen for food. It was a relaxed chamber of household servants, cooks, and bakers eating and chatting. She cleared her throat, and was cast glances of contempt and suspicion.
“Who are ye an’ where’d ye come from an’ why’re ye dressed like a boy?”
Brìghde, knowing her hair was a mess, said, “New ’ere. Was told to come to the kitchen for a meal ’fore gettin’a work.”
“Who told you that?”
“Some ol’ man.”
“Aye, right, then.”
A cook arose and put together a very fine platter of food for her, far too rich for a servant, much less one they’d never met. “What’s yer name, girl?”
“The ol’ man said he’d assign me as soon as I ate. Who is he?”
“That’s Sir John, the keep’s steward.”
“Don’tche worry he’ll catch ye lazin’?”
Someone snorted. “Sir John canna get down the stairs. He’s’na been down here for a year and a half.”
“Aye. Ol’ codger don’t know nuffin ’bout what goes on ’round ’ere.”
“Never had one. Earl don’t know how to be an earl, an’ the old man’s a merchant by trade.”
She’d already deduced as much.
Brìghde made sure to talk with food in her mouth. “Fine eatin’ for servants.”
“With Sir John not bein’ able to keep count, we eat what we want when we want how much we want. An’ then we take more ’ome. Only thing’s sure is don’t let the earl suspect nothin’s goin’ on. Feed ’im an’ his men good, an’ you can hide everythin’ else from Sir John, so long’s it’s not on the main floor.”
“What about pay?” Bridget asked.
“Did he tell ye? Pay once a week, ’stead o’ every day. Old man takes some time to get his body creaking to the coin chest. Don’t wanna do it ever’day”
That also made sense.
“So it’s like this. Ye do as little as ye can get away with—and pray to God ye don’t get one o’ the hags, ’cuz they run ye ragged if they notice ya doin’ a good job—take food ’ome at night, sit on yer arse here or catch up on yer work at ’ome, collect yer wages.”
“Earl’s got four harlots who fancy ’emselfs ladies of the manor, mostly that Frenchie one, what’s been widdim for years.”
“Aye, an’ any blonde maidservant ’e can get ’is ’ands on.”
“We only got three,” someone else said around his food.
“Seven women’s enough, don’t ye fink?”
“Not for him.”
Brìghde snickered. “Ol’ man said ye got a countess yesterday.”
“Ain’t seen her,” someone said flatly. “Still abed, like as not.”
“’Ja see the look on the Frenchie’s face when the earl put her out o’ her chair?”
The room exploded in cackles and Brìghde didn’t bother to hide her grin.
“Can’t wait to see what the new lady’ll do widdem.”
One of the bakers sobered. “Don’t wish too hard. She may be the death of all of us, worse than all the hags put together. So we’ll have them and her.”
That was, indeed, a sobering thought.
“I’d best be on up to the ol’ man,” Brìghde said as she wiped her mouth on the back of her sleeve, “see what he wants me ta do.”
“Good luck. Come back for supper, after the betters’ve eaten. I’ll send a bundle home wit’ ye.”
“Aye, and thank ye.”
“Oh, ye might wanna watch out for the earl’s bastards. Four o’ them, too. They get inta all sortsa things and last thing’s we need’s the hags down here. They ain’t bad boys, but they’re … ”
“Lads,” Brìghde finished.
“Aye, cooped-up ones, which are the worst kind.”
She nodded and waved, then climbed the—
“Not those stairs, girl! The back stairs. Where’s yer brain? Ye wanna get caught?”
Back stairs. Aye. She’d forgotten. Brìghde managed to look just confused enough.
With another thanks, Brìghde climbed the back stairs and emerged in a covered walkway in the bailey. She stood there and thought. The servants were stealing the food and getting paid to do as little as possible, but instead of being angry, Brìghde was sad. Sad that Sir John had built the earldom to prosperousness, tried to control the spending, but did not know what was going on in his stewardship anymore simply because he couldn’t climb stairs, which meant he also could not go outside to supervise the villeins.
The earl did not want to be bothered with household business. The keep had never had a lady, so it was no better than a barracks that happened to have four women and four children ensconced at the top of the tower awaiting the lord’s pleasure. None of the mistresses seemed to have any authority to do anything at all, even if they knew what to do or wanted to try. Sir John had been a merchant, so the earldom might be prosperous, but he had no idea how to run a household and did not know that he did not know. A skilled and strict housekeeper would have gone a long way, but neither the earl nor his father nor the commoner mistresses knew how a noble house functioned.
“Sweet Mary and Joseph,” she whispered.
She didn’t blame the servants; that was what a rational person would do when left unsupervised with the most minimal of duties having to be performed to keep from detection. She didn’t like it, but it was logical and once upon a time, she would have gloried in serving in a household such as this one.
Brìghde wouldn’t put them out. The food, whether it was being stolen or not, was excellent. She snorted. It was excellent because they were cooking for themselves. All she had to do to keep them in line was visit the kitchen every so often without warning, take quill, ink, and parchment, and make notes. That, to a servant, was terrifying.
She turned to go up the back stairs to the second floor and hoped she could find her chambers. She needed a gown and to rearrange her hair so as not to reveal herself.
She did, indeed, find her chambers, doffed her boy’s clothes and donned one of her new kirtles, a deep rich green that the earl had suggested. It didn’t fit as well as she’d like, being too snug over her breasts, the waist too low, and the hem too long, but it was the best she could do in a color other than black. She still found his reaction to a mere length of cloth a tad disconcerting.
She dug in her pouch for her glass and groaned when she saw what a mess she was. The kitchen servants would never suspect the peasant girl they’d fed was the countess. Unfortunately, they would also not suspect this woman was a countess because she was not richly dressed and coifed enough. She looked for a water pitcher, which had not magically appeared in the night.
She dug her brush out—she was ever so happy she had requested the stay in Hogarth—fixed her hair quickly, then licked her fingertips and scrubbed her face. She checked her glass. It would do.
Well rested, well fed, with daylight streaming through her beautiful (if undraped) windows, she felt more able to tackle the day. The trick was to keep herself from getting overwhelmed with all that must be done, and to discern the proper first steps.
She opened the door next to hers. Empty. The door next to the earl’s. Empty. All four of the remaining chambers were also empty.
She went up the back stairs to the third floor where maidservants were milling about looking bored, some sitting on the floor, one lying down. They did not notice her. Brìghde counted. Fifteen.
“What are you doing?” she asked, startling most of them. Two others were sound asleep.
“We’re waitin’ on the ladies’ pleasure,” one said a bit snidely. “Ain’t you here for the same thing?”
“Noooot quite. I’m Countess Kyneward, and I am not happy.”
Their eyes narrowed as they swept her up and down. “Ye think we’re stupid, do ye? Ain’t no countess dresses like that.”
This was unfortunate, but entirely foreseeable.
“Which door is Lord Kyneward most likely to be behind?”
They all pointed to the same one.
Brìghde took a deep breath, marched herself through the gaggle of maids who were so surprised they did not try to stop her (that would have been a mistake), went to the door and started pounding on it.
“GRIMME, GET YOUR ARSE OUT OF BED!”
The maids gasped and stepped back.
There was much cursing and scrambling behind the door before it was snatched open to reveal an enraged woman—until she realized the intruder was Brìghde. Before she thought to take advantage of the situation and deny that Brìghde was the new countess, which would have caused Brìghde no end of problems, she dropped a bare curtsy and said, “My lady,” through gritted teeth.
Two other doors opened and three other tall, willowy, blue-eyed blondes stepped out, who also curtsied and murmured, “My lady.”
Thus began the scramble of the maidservants to wake up, hop to their feet, curtsy, and deliver many apologies.
“What’s your name again?” Brìghde demanded.
“Let me make one thing perfectly clear to all four of you. I do not care about you, I do not care about your dealings with Lord Kyneward, I do not care that you are here, I do not care why you are here. I care that you—” She twisted and swept her finger at them, then turned back to the favorite. “—have a stable of fifteen maidservants doing nothing whilst awaiting your pleasure, I have none, I spent the night freezing in a bed that was not made before I slept in the barracks with the knights before the earl found me and dropped me in his bed.”
“You slept in his bed?” she shrieked.
“I did, because I HAD NOWHERE ELSE TO SLEEP!”
This was not an auspicious beginning.
Oh, and there was Brìghde’s husband, naked, hair rumpled and swinging around his shoulders, jaw stubbled, coming up behind his mistress. He was more beautiful naked than clothed and she did not bother to look away from his spindle.
“What’s the matter?”
Brìghde repeated it, only louder this time, because now she was beyond furious.
He spread his hands. “What do you want me to do? This is household business. You told me you would relish taking over. Here you are. It’s yours.”
“The problem is—”
He held a hand up. “No. I do not want to get involved. That was the bargain.”
“Your chamberlain goes first.”
He paused. “I’m listening.”
“Your order to prepare a room for me last night was ignored,” she growled. “The bargain was that you enforce my position here. How can you enforce my position if your servants ignore you and they do not know who I am? Such as, say, your chamberlain, who slammed the door in my face last night, forcing a countess to sleep with soldiers for some warmth.”
His face flushed and he immediately disappeared.
With a smug look, the mistress slammed her door in Brìghde’s face. But conveniently, she had slammed it so hard it bounced, so the latch did not catch, such that the door stood minutely ajar.
Brìghde cracked her neck this way and that, looked at the maids who were trying not to giggle, said, “Watch this,” stood back, raised her skirts, and kicked the door open.
The mistress, shocked, looking half terrified, skittered out of Brìghde’s way as she stalked through the chambers until she found the one with the bed by which her husband was dressing.
“Aye, aye,” he grunted from inside his tunic as he pulled it over his head. “I take your point. No need to kick doors in.” Then his head popped out and he grinned at her. “That, my lady, was very impressive. I shall have to get you a velvet glove for your iron fist.” Brìghde gaped at him, but he pointed at her and chortled. “The look on your face.”
She huffed and slumped over, her rage leaving her in a whoosh. “Stop trying to make me laugh. This is serious.”
“Are you laughing? You’re laughing. Try not to laugh. Grimme, get your arse out of bed!” he mocked in a high-pitched voice then roared with laughter.
She broke down and snickered.
“Aye, I know it’s serious,” he grinned, “which is why I am going out of my way to involve myself in household business. You’re welcome.”
“I have nothing to thank you for,” she said as he brushed by her.
“Roger MacFhionnlaigh!” he called on his way out the door.
Brìghde huffed and stalked back through the chambers and out into the hallway where four identical blondes and fifteen maidservants stood frozen. She jabbed her finger at the stairs. They all bolted.