Hethe's eyes narrowed dangerously on his bride. For a moment, he thought he had seen a glimmer of shame on her face. That fact had soothed his temper somewhat, but then her expression turned defiant and she glared at him as if this situation were all his fault. Pushing the door closed, he moved toward the bed, his hands clenching in fury. He only got halfway across the room before his bride's eyes widened in alarm. Without further warning, she tossed the fur covering her aside, once again fanning the scent out at him.
"Did you wish to try, after all, my lord?" she squeaked.
Hethe paused abruptly and gagged again, then charged for the window. He had already befouled the chamber pot. This time he tossed the rest of the first good meal he had been served at Tiernay out the window and into the courtyard below. A muffled laugh sounded from the bed behind him, and Hethe silently vowed his wife would pay for this. Aye. She would pay.
Hethe was still hanging out the window when a knock sounded at the door several moments later. His stomach empty now, he was no longer tossing up its contents. He was simply breathing in the sweet fresh air that the position offered him. Straightening reluctantly, he turned to shout "Enter," then watched from his relatively safe location by the window as the door opened and a slew of servants filed in carrying a tub and pail after pail of water.
Hethe watched grimly as the tub was set down and water poured into it. It was amazing, really, how swiftly they worked, he thought with amusement. His wife's servants could not seem to finish their chores and leave quickly enough. He did not miss how each of them stumbled in their step, or cringed as they caught wind of the sickly sweet odor that perfumed the air. Without fail, each servant glanced to their mistress, then to him. He had no doubt that they knew what was about, and Hethe grew grimmer with each humiliating moment that passed. It seemed this had not been a silent war of wills at all. He was beginning to suspect that every person inTiernayCastleknew about the battle their mistress had waged. It seemed the only people left ignorant were his men and Lord Templetun.
Hethe supposed he should be grateful that they, at least, were unaware of the humiliating fact that he was an unwanted groom. But he wasn't feeling particularly thankful at the moment.
His wife's maid was the last to enter. Ducky. A basket full of bottles and vials hung over her arm. Hethe gestured for her to approach. Taking the basket from her, he then bent a glare on the servant. Ducky wasn't a stupid woman. Heeding his silent order, she threw her mistress an anxious, apologetic look, then fled the room. She pulled the door closed behind herself and the last of the other servants. Hethe and his wife were alone.
He immediately turned his glare on her. Apparently, she wasn't as bright as Ducky. Either that, or she was stubbornly playing dense. Eyebrows arching, she asked innocently, "What?"
"Get in the bath," he ordered.
She hesitated briefly. Then, apparently deciding not to risk open rebellion, she gathered the fur around her in an awkward sort of toga and eased carefully off the bed. Raising her chin, she crossed the room, walking in a sort of arc so that she passed close by him.
He nearly whimpered when he found himself briefly adrift in the odoriferous if invisible cloud that surrounded her. His stomach churned ominously. Closing his eyes, he concentrated on keeping what was left in his stomach, in his stomach. Her scent, on top of the garlic that had been plaguing his digestion ever since he consumed it, made a rotten combination.
The sickening aroma faded. Hethe opened his eyes to see with some relief that she now stood before the bath. Rather than drop the fur and get in, however, she simply stood shifting from one foot to the other.
He was confused by her hesitation until she began to open the fur covering, then paused to glance over her shoulder at him unhappily. It came to him then that she was reluctant to disrobe in front of him.
Not surprising, really. Despite the fact that they were married, they were nearly strangers. He would have wondered had she not showed some reticence. In fact, had this been a normal wedding night, and she a normal, shy, innocent young bride, he might have given her privacy - at least until she had disrobed and entered the bath. This, however, was nothing near a normal wedding night, and Lady Helen was far from the normal, shy and innocent bride. The Good Lord alone knew what she might get up to while his back was turned. He was not going to turn it.
"In!" he snapped.
Lady Helen's eyes narrowed on him in impotent fury; then she turned away, straightening her shoulders grimly and dropping the fur. Hethe's mouth curved up in slight amusement at the flash of pink skin he caught as she leapt for the cover of the bath. He was positive the fur hadn't even hit the rushes before she had settled herself in the water, knees drawn up, and arms wrapped grimly about them in as modest a position as one could manage in a tub.
As fast as she had been, he had still caught a titillating glimpse of her shapely legs and behind. Had his stomach not still been roiling, he was not sure he would have appreciated it more. As it was, he merely noted that her arse was as generous as her bosom. That pleased him. He straightened grimly and began to root through the basket Ducky had provided. She had taken his order seriously and brought anything that might be thought pleasing in scent. Dried herbs usually used for cooking lay nestled among the desiccated petals of various flowers. There were also several different oils and tinctures. Hethe opened one or two bottles, sniffing the contents suspiciously.
They were all pleasant enough, Hethe supposed. But then, next to his wife, cow dung probably would have smelled like heaven at the moment. That thought made him pause and glare briefly at her slender, curved back. Which was, of course, a waste of time. She was wholly unaware of his stare. Giving up, he turned his attention back to deciding what to try first.
His wife's putrid stink drifted across the room to him now that the fur no longer cloaked it. One whiff was enough to make him decide that he would use the largest container of scented oil first, and if that wasn't sufficient, would add another. Straightening determinedly, he sucked in a deep breath and held it as he strode forward.
Pausing beside the tub, Hethe dug through the basket of containers for the largest. He snatched it out, opened it and tipped its contents into the bathwater between his wife's pink back and the rim of the tub.
She stiffened, but neither spoke nor looked around.
Hethe hesitated a moment, then replaced the container in the basket and bent to swish the water around with one hand, splashing some onto her back, over her shoulders, and even onto her head. She squawked in protest as the water ran down her hair and face; then she turned her head to snarl at him over her shoulder.
Ignoring the look, Hethe straightened, hesitated, then risked a quick breath of air. A noise of disgust nearly slid from his lips, but he caught it back. The one container of oil, of course, had not been enough.
Hethe retrieved the next bottle, opened it, and dumped the contents in as well.
Holding his newest foul breath, he dug another container out of the basket and quickly dumped it in. His lady wife jerked around to stare as he was dumping in that third container. Her eyes widened briefly in horror; then she set to squawking.
Hethe thought she was shrieking something about mixing the scents and not to use all of them, but he wasn't sure. He was growing a bit light-headed - though he didn't know whether it was from holding his breath so long or from having the revolting stench of her trapped in his lungs. Whatever the case, he was not going to be deterred. Ignoring her protestations, he quickly emptied the last of the containers into the bathwater; then, holding the empty containers awkwardly in one hand, he upended the basket over her, raining flower petals and herbs over her hair and shoulders into the water. She stopped squawking then and quickly lowered her head to avoid getting any dried goods in her eyes or mouth.
Hethe gave the basket a good shake to make sure that every last flower petal and bit of herb was in the bath with her, then staggered away from the tub, dropping the now empty containers back in the basket as he did. Once a good distance away, he released the foul air trapped in his lungs and took a tentative breath. Much to his horror, despite his efforts, there was no lovely perfume to the air. If anything, the smell now was worse than it had been. And he was standing further away than before.
"What?" he choked out in horror. His wife's head swiveled, her eyes fastening on him with murder in their depths as she glared out from beneath the bits of dried flowers and herbs that had caught in her hair.
"As I was telling you, my lord. One should never haphazardly mix perfumes and herbs. They do not always blend well."
Hethe closed his eyes with a groan. Not only had they not mixed well together, it seemed to him they didn't mix with her at all. At least not with the eau de stinkweed clinging to her. If anything, adding the herbs, flowers and oils had only accentuated her original stench, amplifying it. Rather than defeating, he had aided her. The realization was rather galling.
A sudden solid mass at his back brought Hethe's attention to the fact that while he had been thinking, he had also been unconsciously backing away from his bride. He now stood against the wall next to the window. Even there he could not escape her stench. His eyes were beginning to sting and fill with tears as they were assaulted by the pungent air.
Hethe cursed under his breath. It looked as if consummating the marriage was definitely out of the question, now. The only positive thing about the situation was that his bride looked about as miserable as he had been since arriving at Tiernay.
Aye, this definitely made up for his cold, mean room, ancient maid, frigid bath, horrid food, awful ale, flea-ridden bed and his bride's unbearable breath. Not to mention her little scheme to get him in the water today. And whereas he had been able to at least escape his flea-ridden bed and room, she could not escape her own stink. Aye. Had he planned this, it would have been a brilliant strategy.
Drawn from his thoughts, Hethe glanced at his wife sharply, noting with dismay that her face was turning a bright red. "What?"
"Those flower petals. What were they?" she asked urgently.
Hethe stared at her blankly for a moment, then noticed that her eyes were growing puffy and turning red - rather like they had that day they had picnicked in the field. His eyes widened incredulously. Was it his imagination, or did he vaguely smell... ? Peering down at the basket he held, he lifted one vial after another out to briefly sniff. It was a whiff of the largest one that made him pause. This was the bottle he had poured in first. The one he had mixed about in the water before splashing it over her head and shoulders. His eyes turned to his bride in horror. She didn't notice. She had raised her arms out of the water and was peering at them in dismay. Even from where he stood, Hethe could see the angry rash beginning to form on her skin.
"Posies!" she shrieked, suddenly leaping from the water as though it were acid. That was when he saw that the irritation did not just cover her arms. Every inch of her that had been submerged in the water was now growing a dark red rash. Oh, dear, this definitely made up for everything she had done or tried to do to him, he thought faintly as she held her arms away from her body and turned slowly to face him.
"You threw posies in here with me?" she cried in disbelief.
Unable to speak, Hethe merely held up the empty vial. It hadn't been petals, he was sure; it had been the oil. Her howl of misery nearly deafened him. Guilt suddenly enveloping him, Hethe began to ease his way toward the door. This was not good. Not good at all. Nope. He had never meant for something like this to happen. This was... Well, it was awful, he decided as he reached the door and scrambled to open it.
Just seeming to notice his attempt to flee, Helen stopped howling and transfixed him with her eyes.
"Where are you going?"
"Going?" Hethe gave a guilty start, then hesitated briefly, his hand pausing on the doorknob.
"Aye. You are not just going to leave me like this, are you?" she cried miserably.
"Leave you? Nay, nay." He began to scrabble at the door latch again as she started forward, her scent billowing forward in a noxious cloud.
"Nay, of course not," he assured her solemnly, but the humor of the situation and the way her plans had backfired were suddenly striking him as terribly amusing, and he was having trouble keeping a smile off his face. He knew his lips were twitching, and that only seemed to infuriate the woman before him more.
"Nay. I merely thought to fetch your maid up to attend to you... and perhaps your aunt, too," he murmured, then pulled the door open and slid through it while he could. Hethe barely got the door closed before a frustrated screech sounded and something crashed against the door.
His amusement dying, replaced by concern now that she was no longer standing before him, arms outstretched, hair and body littered with bits of herbs and dried flowers, he hurried for the stairs to the great hall in search of assistance.
Helen was rolling on the bed scratching herself like mad by the time her aunt and Ducky appeared. Their arrival didn't stop her, though. She didn't even look around to see who it was. She simply continued to writhe on the mattress scratching whatever she could reach with her hands. What she could not reach with her nails was chafed against the rough fur with her wriggling and writhing.
"Oh, dear God! Helen!" Her aunt rushed to the bedside and put a restraining hand on her shoulder.
Helen flinched and immediately nudged the hand away to scratch, even as Nell got a first whiff of her and jerked back in horror. "What has he done to you?"
"The oils and flowers didn't mix well with the stinkweed," Helen cried out between little gasps for breath.
"I can smell that much," Nell muttered, pinching her nose closed with a thumb and finger. "But the itching, Helen. What happened to cause the itching?"
Helen curled into a fetal position to scratch her legs, feet and between her toes before answering. "There was essence of posies in one of the vials Ducky gave him!"
"Oh, no!" the maid cried in horror when Aunt Nell turned on her. "I didn't know. I swear. He said to fetch everything that smelled good. I raided the kitchen, then went to Old Joan the Healer and told her to give me anything she had that was pleasant smelling. I did not even think to check what each was." She turned to peer guiltily at her writhing mistress. "Oh, my lady, I am so sorry."
Too agonized to answer, Helen merely continued writhing and twisting, aware that her two friends were watching helplessly. Then her aunt turned to Ducky and said, "Go find Old Joan. Explain what's happened. She must have a salve or something that will help. Bring her here."
Nodding, the maid hurried from the room. Aunt Nell waited until she had gone, then turned her concern back upon her niece. "Helen. You must try to stop scratching. You will cause scars. Please." She moved close enough to lay her free hand gently on Helen's shoulder. This time, when Helen reached up to nudge her hand away, Nell caught her fingers and held them firmly. "You must try to stop."
"No," Helen moaned, trying to pull her hand free. "This rash is driving me mad."
Nell's mouth tightened, and she was silent for a moment. To Helen it seemed that she was listening for something. She understood what when Nell said, "You are wheezing, girl. Are you having trouble breathing? Damn! I should have told Ducky to have the others bring up a fresh bath. We should be trying to wash the posy essence off you." Releasing Helen's hand, she whirled away and hurried out of the room.
Helen promptly resumed scratching herself. She knew she shouldn't, even wanted to stop, but she felt as if her skin were crawling with hundreds of spiders, their little legs tickling across her flesh.
It seemed like hours that her aunt was gone, though in reality it was probably only moments. The woman returned with a battery of servants bearing Lady Shambleau's own private tub and fresh bathwater.
Ducky was hard on her heels, leading the old woman from whom she'd gotten the scented oils.
The healer took one look at Helen and rushed to the bed to grab her hands and hold them. "No," she said firmly when Helen tried to struggle. "Don't let her scratch," she ordered Ducky. The maid rushed forward to take the healer's place, but it required Nell's added strength to restrain Helen enough so that the healer was free to begin mixing her salves and ointments.
"Try not to remove the smell," Helen ordered spitefully, writhing so that the fur would scratch her back since she could not use her fingers.
Joan turned an exasperated glance on her, but it was Nell who spoke up: "Surely you do not think he will try to consummate the marriage now?" she cried in disbelief.
Helen's thoughts at that moment were more along the lines of revenge. She could no longer discern the foul stench clinging to her. She was positive it had killed her ability to smell. But she could tell by the reaction of the others that it was still strong upon her, and as she lay there, desperate to relieve an all-over body itch that would not be relieved, she was thinking that she and her husband should spend a lot more time together. Should get better acquainted. She was going to cling to him as English ivy did a wall, she decided grimly.
"Just try to not remove the smell," she hissed when she realized they were still waiting for her answer.
Shaking her head, Old Joan tossed aside the herbs she had been mixing and started afresh.
Hethe crept down the hall, mostly feeling his way in the darkness. The sun had not yet risen, though he had spied the orange and pink streaks of dawn on the horizon from the window of the small, cold bedchamber he had been given. It had not been a comfortable night. He had shunned the bed so as to avoid the fleas and had again slept huddled in the cracked chair by the cold fireless hearth. Even so, it had been better than sleeping in the room his bride had poisoned with the odors of posy and stinkweed.
Dear God, just the idea of returning there now made him wince. But it must be done. Lord Templetun had retired directly after he and the other men had seen Hethe to his bridal bed. At least, the man had not been below when Hethe had gone down to find Lady Shambleau and his wife's maid. Templetun had also apparently managed to sleep through the disturbance that had followed the bedding ceremony. That being the case, the man was ignorant of what had gone on last night, and Hethe was hoping to keep him that way. Which meant that when the king's man arrived to demand proof of the consummation, Hethe would provide it. He doubted if his bride was in any state to do so. From all accounts, she had had a rough night.
There would surely be hell to pay if the king's man wasn't provided with proof and Hethe had had just about enough hell of late. So, as the first streaks of light peeked over the horizon, he'd ripped a strip of linen off the top of the bed - as far from where the flea-ridden fur had been as possible - shook it out, then tied it around his face to cover his nose and mouth. Then he had inflicted a small cut on his hand, bloodied the center of the linen, and tugged it off his bed. He now crept down the hall of Tiernay Castle, headed for his wife's room. He should have shaken it out better, he realized as a sudden itching began beneath his arm, right where the bundled linen rested. The sheet was still infested.
Picking up his pace a bit, he was relieved when he felt the wall give way to another door. Pausing, he took a deep breath, then eased the door open and slid into the room. While the windowless hallway had been pitch-black, the sun had risen quickly during Hethe's slow journey and his wife's bedchamber was already filling with an orangish golden glow. Taking a reluctant step away from the door, Hethe peered toward the bed and the woman sleeping in it. The light really wasn't very complimentary to her present state. It just accentuated the blotchy red rash covering her once flawless skin.
Hethe had the grace to feel guilt wash over him. He truly hadn't meant to cause this. He had lost his temper and acted rashly, not even thinking before dumping the vials of oils and such into the bath with her. He knew better than that. Acting rashly could be terribly dangerous. It often got men killed and, apparently, caused rashes on women.
He was grimacing over that fact when a rapping sounded at the door, startling him. Head jerking around, he started toward it only to pause partway there. He could hardly answer the door as he was. He reached up to tug the linen off his face, scowling and scooting closer to the door as the room's foul atmosphere assailed him. Trying not to gag, he released the linens long enough to tug his tunic off over his head, then drop it to the side. Retrieving the linens, he stood so that the door would block him and opened it a crack to shove the linens out at whomever had knocked.
"Here. Go away. We are still sleeping," he hissed, then after a bare glimpse of the priest and Templetun's startled expression, and Lady Shambleau's shocked one, he pulled the door closed.
"What is about?" That sleepy question from the bed drew Hethe's gaze, and he turned to gape at his bride. Oh... this light really was not flattering to her at all. No, sir. She was sitting up in bed now, clutching the linen to her breasts and squinting out of her red, swollen eyes toward him. It seemed obvious that she couldn't see a damn thing. Which was probably for the best, for if she were able to see what she looked like just now... Well, she would probably be screaming her head off.
"Nothing. Go back to sleep," He hissed at her in a hoarse whisper, then turned away to open the door a crack and peer out. Lord Templetun, Lady Shambleau and the priest were all moving down the hall toward the stairs, taking the linens with them. It seemed they were satisfied, he realized with relief. At least, Lord Templetun and the priest were. Lady Shambleau was glancing back over her shoulder and, when she saw the door had cracked open again, eyed Hethe with suspicion.
"What are you doing?" There was suspicion in Helen's voice, too, behind him. The sleepiness was completely gone for she had recognized her husband by his voice.
Sighing, Hethe eased the door closed and started back toward the bed, only to be brought up short by the smell. Retrieving from the floor the scrap of linen he had been using to filter the stink, he quickly retied it around his face, then quickly snatched up his tunic and replaced it as well. He took another step toward the bed, but again paused. It appeared his mask was only effective from a distance.
"Who was at the door?"
"That was Lord Templetun, your aunt and the priest," Hethe admitted reluctantly.
"What did you shove out at them?" she asked, squinting even harder in his general direction. Her eyes were nearly swollen shut, and he had to wonder how much she was seeing, if anything at all.
"A bloodied linen," he explained gently. "I realized they would come looking for it this morning, so I crept in here to give it to them," he announced. He awaited her praise for his thoughtfulness, but he should have known better.
"You what ?" She was out of the bed and charging around it at him in a trice, apparently so mad she forgot that she wasn't wearing a stitch of clothing. Unfortunately, it wasn't a pretty sight. Dear God, he had never seen skin so mottled, he thought as he backed away, not out of fear of a physical attack but to avoid her intensifying smell.
"I thought to save you any embarrassment," he said quickly, his feet moving faster than his mouth as he scrambled back toward the door.
"Save me embarrassment?" she snapped, her forward momentum briefly halting - much to his relief.
"What you did was trap me in this marriage! They will not annul it if they think it was consummated."
Hethe felt himself stiffen. He had suspected that this was the purpose behind his bride's actions of last night, but suspecting and knowing were not the same thing. A man's pride could only take so much.
Forcing himself to remain calm, he tried to reason with her. "We were trapped the moment the king decided we should wed. All I have done is - "
"We?" Her head reared back, and she gave a short laugh. "As if you are unhappy about this! Ha! You get Tiernay, a fine, prosperous estate!"
Hethe's eyes narrowed on her; he was losing his temper quickly. "Aye," he agreed. "I get Tiernay.
Unfortunately, it comes with you! A stinking, blotchy, rash-covered wench who doesn't have the sense to know when to be grateful."
A shocked gasp flew from her lips then, her mouth opening and closing like that of a fish. She shut it a moment later, and he could see her winding up to release an insult or two in return, but he forestalled her by adding, "And if you are trying to lure me to your bed, you would do better to put some clothes on . I fear this light does not do a thing for you."
His wife glanced down at herself, her eyes widening as she realized she was standing there as naked as the day she was born. Then she raced back to bed with a squeal. Hethe took the opportunity to leave the battlefield, sliding quickly out of the room and pulling the door closed with a snap. He was pretty sure he had won this round, but it gave him little pleasure. He didn't feel that he had really fought fair, picking on her rash as he had.
And he hadn't been completely honest, either. While the rash detracted somewhat from her looks, it had not hidden the lusciousness of her curves, or the pertness of her breasts. Damned if he wasn't a little excited. If it weren't for her smell, rash or no, he would be very tempted to go back and make the fake consummation a reality.
Damn! Real war was so much easier than this one raging between him and his bride. At least in real war he did not run about aching to make love to the enemy.