Gisborne . . .
I washed, mended and folded not just his clothes but all those of the senior household members and at night was so exhausted, I could barely find a bed. I removed myself as far from others as I could and found a warm corner in a stall in the stables. I pilfered one of the heavy caparisons and wrapped myself in it for warmth and to protect my body from the scratching straw. But in truth I was so tired it wouldn’t have mattered if I had slept naked in a field of stubble.
In a week, I earned my food and keep, if you could call my lodgings ‘keep’. The food was often the gravy, crusts and remains of the lord of the manor and his men and I decided it was no wonder the kitchen maid ate the pig swill. But food and keep was not enough . . . I worried how I could earn coin because I wanted to move on quickly. Staying too long so close to . . . to this end of the country was not safe.
Today had been a windy day and I washed sheets, manhandling them onto a line I had one of the ostlers hang for me. As they flicked and flacked, I noticed a tear which needed mending along with a frayed seam in one of his silk under-shirts. It was the mending above all that gave me peace and comfort, even though my chafed skin caught on the fabric with a sound not unlike a rip, as I pushed folds around in order to place my needle.
This evening, I had the silk shirt with me and mended it by the light of a candle. The work I did was meticulous, the stitching tiny and I was careful to fold it and blow out the candle before I settled for the night, sleep descending on me like an avalanche of stone.
I vaguely heard a voice much later, or maybe it was only a minute. ‘Hey! Get up, thief and trespasser. Wake up!’
Something was grabbed from near my head and then there was another explosion of sound. ‘And you dare to steal my shirt!’ The caparison was whipped away, leaving me lying in my ragged linen chemise with its torn lace edge. I jumped up, wrapping my hands around myself with desperate modesty.
‘You.’ His eyes drifted over my form.
I sighed, reaching for my kirtle and holding it against me. ‘Yes, me. Your laundry maid.’ I pulled the clothing over my head and was glad it slid to my toes as I grabbed the loose sash. Tying it, I then ran fingers through my hair. ‘Sir, I sleep in the stables, as far from the rabble that is your staff as I can and I did not steal your shirt. I mended it. It had a fray in the seam under the arm.’
He had the grace to look discomforted but retorted anyway. ‘As I remember, you are part of the staff you call a rabble. And what would you know of good or bad staff anyway?’
‘Enough.’ I turned away and picked up my cloak, for I doubted I’d be working here at dawn.
‘So you have been in big houses?’
‘Is that how you managed to secure a chemise of good linen with lace at the edge?’
Damn. ‘A gift from my previous employer.’
He grinned and with a sarcastic edge, asked,’ For services rendered?’
‘In fact, yes. I ran the household and I dressed accordingly.’
‘You say,’ he drawled. ‘And where is this fine house?’
‘Far away, Lord, and belongs to another now as the family died out and the house changed hands.’ True enough.
He stroked the neck of the horse in the stall. The animal had been my only friend and companion since I took up residence at the tax-collector’s manor. She was a quiet old mare whose time was no doubt running out, as was mine.
‘You are called Prudence, if I remember.’
‘You are well spoken and I believe there is a history behind you that you are loathe to tell. Well, Prudence . . . the Sheriff is accompanying the Prince to the estate in a week. I need someone to organise the domestic issues of the house as my bailiff has little idea. If you do it, I shall forget your transgressions this night.’
My transgressions? I who ran a house as big as a castle and served meals to nobles nightly? If only you knew, Sir Tax Collector. Ah yes, I know who you are, your lineage and your reputation. But you shall never know mine. ‘Then I shall do it, Lord. As long as you make it clear to your rabble that I am working to your orders.’
He laughed. ‘What a way you have, Prudence. Quite Lady High and Mighty, aren’t you?’