"What are you doing?"
Helen straightened from rifling through her chest at the dismayed cry from the doorway. Turning to see her aunt rushing into the room and closing the door behind her, Helen gave her a nod of greeting, then turned back to her search.
"I am looking for a dress," she explained. "An older one. One I will not mind losing should this stench not wash out - Aha!" She straightened, a suitable garment in hand.
"Oh, nay, Helen. You cannot go below like this," Nell protested, covering her nose with her hand as she hurried to her niece's side and urged her to her feet. "You should stay up here for a while. Give your rash the opportunity to heal, to go away and - " She paused mid-sentence to turn her head away and gasp for fresh air. "Dear Lord!"
Trying not to be offended by her aunt's reaction, Helen shrugged her relative off and shook out the gown she held, trying to remove the worst of its wrinkles from being stored in the chest. "I must speak to Templetun. Tell him that the marriage isn't consummated, that it must be annulled."
"Nay." Her aunt snatched the gown away, then, using it to cover her nose and mouth, began to urge Helen back to bed. The woman's voice was muffled as she said, "Not as you are, Helen. You cannot let the man see you this way. He will know at once what you have been up to. Mayhap if you are... better tomorrow, you may see him then."
"But - "
"Do you really think the king will be pleased to know what we have been up to here? Why, the Good Lord knows what he would do if he should hear of our behavior. He certainly would not congratulate you on the idea. He's having enough trouble with a disobedient son; do you think he will be pleased with a disobedient vassal?"
"Nay," Helen agreed reluctantly. Shoulders slumping, she stopped resisting and allowed herself to be marched back to her bed. "I shall wait till the morrow. But you must not let Templetun leave before I can speak to him."
"I won't," Aunt Nell promised through the gown still pressed to her face. She used her free hand to tug the linens up around Helen's shoulders. "Now, you just rest," she instructed, then made a quick exit, still covering her nose with the dress as she slipped out of the room.
Sighing miserably, Helen lay back on the mattress and tried to ignore the fact that every single inch of her body seemed to be begging for her to scratch it. Which was all his fault, of course. The oaf. The ass.
The... She gave up on maligning him with a sigh. There simply weren't enough words to describe the man. At least, not words nasty enough.
Her mind drifted back to their earlier argument and the things he had said. "A stinking, blotchy, rash-covered wench who doesn't have the sense to know when to be grateful." Ha! What had she to be grateful for? Marriage to him? The Hammer of Holden? The crudest bastard in northernEngland? A man whose people crawled to Helen begging for charity?
Realizing she was scratching her arm, she stopped and peered at the ugly red blisters covering her skin.
They really were ugly. She must look a mess. Perfectly horrid. The thought was terribly lowering. Helen had never thought of herself as vain, and she had always considered looks unimportant, but right at that moment, she felt horrid. Ugly and itchy... and miserable. Something ran down her cheek and she lifted a hand to find wetness there. Tears. She was crying. Oh, great.
She sniffled miserably, then winced as her own odor offended her. She had been compelled to breathe through her mouth to avoid her own stench through the last miserable night, and had not slept a wink.
While she had been numb to the odor at first, after a while it was as if the scent changed, leaving her inhaling a new form of stink with every breath. The only way to avoid it had been to cover herself with the furs. But those were so warm they had merely irritated her rash, driving her mad with itchiness.
Neither state - nauseated or covered in hives - was conducive to sleeping. The first streaks of light were creeping into the sky before Helen had finally drifted off due to sheer exhaustion.
She had been woken mere moments later by that oaf she had married the day before, that buffoon who had the gall to call her blotchy and stinky. Her tears were starting to come in earnest now, and Helen sniffled once more, but this time it was not due to the olfactory assault. Her nose was plugged up from weeping. Which just went to show that there truly was a bright side to everything, she supposed miserably, then proceeded to cry herself to sleep.
"It is a larger estate than I had thought."
Hethe tore his gaze from the land they were riding through to glance at his first. "Aye," William agreed quietly. They were just returning from surveying the Tiernay estates. They had not managed to cover them all, but had covered a good portion of the fiefdom.
Lady Helen was an excellent manager; she knew what she was about and appeared to be doing an excellent job. Hethe's gaze slid to Boswell, Lady Helen's man, whom he had enlisted to guide them on this tour. The man had proven himself extremely knowledgeable. He had also been extremely polite all throughout this trip, but his resentment and dislike had shown. As had the resentment and dislike of most of the villeins they had come into contact with, that day. Admittedly, those were few. While Lady Helen had dragged him to every cottage with a baby in it, and while the people he had met with her had been quiet but not openly antagonistic, Boswell had seemed to deliberately steer them clear of the majority of Tiernay's people. And those few they had come in contact with had been surly and resentful.
The open and apparent distrust of his newest subjects was a tad disturbing to Hethe. He was used to spending his time around his warriors on the battlefield, and every last one of them was faithful and respectful. Not only that, they also liked him. Hethe did not understand, and he did not care for this animosity being directed his way. He would have liked to blame it on Helen, but since her presence on the day of their picnic had seemed to prevent this very behavior, he did not know what to think.
"You slept late this morning." There was a touch of teasing in his friend's comment, and Hethe nearly wore down his teeth grinding them together. It was not that he was angry with his first; it was that thoughts of the night before - his wedding night - made him want to smash something. God! What a debacle.
It had not started out badly. He had a vivid recollection of his bride's body soft beneath him, her lips opening beneath his like a flower to the sun. Her tongue stroking his. Her moans and sighs. The way she had arched into him. The way his body had responded to her eagerness, turning hard and demanding.
Unfortunately, he also had vivid recollections of the scent of her once that fur had been stripped aside, and of puking up his dinner out the window after forcing her into the perfume-laden bath. Damn, one memory made him hot for her, the other made him want to throttle her. But the memory of her initial response to his touch gave him hope. He was sure that if it had not been for her rude scent intruding on them, he would have consummated the wedding last night - and with Lady Helen's blessing. She had certainly moaned and sighed and arched and shuddered beneath him like a willing wench. Until her trick had called them both back from their passion.
"Long sleepless night?" William teased now, making Hethe realize that he had not responded to the earlier comment.
"It was my wedding night," he pointed out, somewhat uncomfortable regarding the dishonesty of that implication. "One is not expected to sleep much on his wedding night."
"Nay." The other man grinned, then shook his head and sighed. "I must admit, I envy you. She is a beautiful woman."
"Aye. She is."
"And she has a sweet voice. I find it hard to believe she is the Tyrant of Tiernay."
"I don't," Hethe muttered artlessly, then scowled. "I mean, I don't believe it myself," he lied to cover up that there was anything wrong with his marriage. Much to his relief, the group left the woods then and began to cross the open land that circled the castle.
Hethe immediately spurred his horse to a trot, grateful for the excuse to avoid his man's questions.
Helen was pleased to find the great hall relatively empty when she crept downstairs. She had hoped it would be so, since it was late morning and there was a while yet until the people would congregate to enjoy theirmiddaymeal. Still, the way her luck was going lately, she would not have been surprised to arrive to find the room crawling with people. There were just half a dozen servants moving about, though, each seeing to his chores.
Helen went in search of food. She had not eaten much at the wedding celebration the night before, then had cried herself to sleep this morning instead of breaking her fast, so when she had woken up several moments ago, she was famished. She had dressed, brushed her hair and made her way below questing for sustenance hoping to get something to eat and drink, then slink away before the hall started to fill up.
With that thought in mind, Helen approached the nearest servant, grimacing when the woman glanced up to see her and briefly smile. Very briefly. The look was quickly replaced with one of horror as Helen drew nearer and her stench became apparent.
Muttering rather desperately that she would fetch Ducky, the servant whirled away and hurried toward the kitchens. She was followed quickly by all the other servants as the stench surrounding Helen slowly began to fill the hall. No one wished to be near her.
Trying to convince herself not to take it personally, Helen moved to sit at the trestle tables with a sigh.
They had already been cleared, of course. There was not a scrap of bread, a bit of cheese or a mug of mead about for her to partake of while she waited. It wasn't long, though, before the sound of the kitchen door opening drew Helen's attention away from her hunger.
Glancing over her shoulder, she saw Ducky moving cautiously closer, and she stood to greet her. The maid paused several feet away, her nose wrinkling briefly before she controlled the instinct and managed a smile.
"Good morn, my lady," Ducky began, then bit her lip. "Your lady aunt said that you would not be coming below today. She seemed to think it would be best if you remain in your room until the worst of..." She gestured vaguely toward Helen, a gesture that might have referred to her smell or to the angry red rash covering her once pearl-white skin. "Until it had passed."
"I know, but I woke up and was hungry. I came in search of food."
"Oh. Of course. Well, I can bring something up to your room for you and - "
"There is no need for that, Ducky. I would rather eat here. It will be less trouble for you." When the maid looked doubtful of her plan, Helen sighed. "I am sick unto death of sitting in my room. There is no one around right now. If I eat quickly, I can be done and return above stairs before anyone comes."
"But your aunt - "
"Where is my aunt?" Helen interrupted impatiently.
"She went down to the village. Lucy had her baby and - "
"Lucy had her child? Oh, I should go see her!" Helen's excitement died abruptly at her maid's horrified expression, and melancholy took its place. "Oh. No, I suppose that wouldn't be a good idea, would it?"
"Why do you not just sit down, my lady, and I shall bring you something to eat and drink," Ducky murmured. She'd evidently relented on forcing her mistress to return to her room, and she was eyeing Helen now pityingly.
Nodding despondently, Helen sank back onto a trestle table bench and sighed miserably as her maid hurried off to do as she'd promised.
Hethe's relief upon returning toTiernayCastlewas short-lived. He had barely taken two steps inside the keep when his nose was assailed by the most godawful smell. He knew at once that his wife was somewhere about. Still, it took him a moment to place her as the woman seated at the trestle table.
Mostly, he supposed, because he could not believe that her stench could reach so far. She must have just come below, he decided, leaving a trail of foul air to drift in the atmosphere behind her. He took in her forlorn pose with a weary sigh.
"Dear God, what is that smell?" William exclaimed, a step behind his master.
Hethe promptly turned to face both him and the men who had accompanied him on the tour. They had all been eagerly looking forward to a drink to wet their dust-filled mouths. "You and the rest of the men go down to the village tavern for a drink, William," he instructed grimly. "I shall follow directly."
His first hesitated a moment, then shrugged and turned to herd the men back out of the keep.
Hethe waited until the door closed behind him, then cautiously approached his wife. He found he could only manage to get within ten feet of her before the smell became completely unbearable. Taking a seat on a bench some distance from her, he turned about to eye her. He was positive she was aware of his presence, but she did not trouble herself to address him or even look his way.
She was pushing meat and cheese around in a trencher, looking completely miserable. Hethe felt his heart soften somewhat for how she must be suffering. She could not get away from herself. Also, he experienced some guilt because he was responsible for worsening her state. Yet, he remembered, she had brought it on herself with that damnable weed. He frowned over at her.
"Is there something wrong with your food?" he asked. As an opening gambit it left much to be desired, but it did make his wife raise her head to look at him. Hethe nearly winced at the sight. Her face was pale, the only color being dark shadows beneath her eyes and those damnable patches of raw skin. Her hair was pulled sharply back from her face, leaving it looking somewhat hawkish.
"Then why are you not eating? If the fare isn't acceptable, you should let Cook know."
She heaved a sigh at that. "There is nothing wrong with the food. It is me."
"I cannot smell anything but myself, and therefore can taste nothing I eat," she explained quietly.
Hethe grimaced. He could understand that completely. The smell was certainly killing the appetite with which he had returned from his tour. Unfortunately, there was nothing he could do to rectify the stink, so he struggled for something with which to change the subject. He suddenly noticed that she was wearing the ugliest damn dress he had ever seen. Not just ugly, it was faded and tattered and even a bit too small.
He scowled as he peered at it. "What the Devil are you wearing?"
At her husband's words, Helen glanced down at herself with disinterest. "A dress."
"Well, I can see that. But why are you not wearing something more befitting a lady? You have better gowns than this. I have seen at least two of them on you."
"Those are my good gowns," she explained patiently. "I thought I should save them - " She paused abruptly as a servant suddenly appeared at the table with a mug and a pitcher of ale. The serving maid set the mug before Lord Holden and poured drink into it, then hesitated, her gaze shooting reluctantly to Helen. "Did you wish for some ale, too, my lady?"
It was obvious the girl was hoping that Helen would say no, and Helen almost did out of pity, but she had awoken with a terrible thirst and had quickly consumed the mug of mead Ducky had brought with her meal. Grimacing apologetically, she pushed her mug as far along the table as she could in answer.
The servant bit her lip unhappily, then straightened her shoulders like a soldier going into battle, sucked in a deep breath, held it, and raced forward. She filled the mug with more speed than care, slopping much onto the table in her rush. In an effort to redeem herself, Helen supposed, she then pushed the mug halfway back toward her mistress before whirling to rush away. Her gasp as she released the air she had been holding was quite plain in the silence of the room as she rushed toward the kitchens, sucking in great gulps of air.
Helen sighed, her gaze sliding to the Hammer. The man was gazing after the servant and, even as she watched, amusement began to curve his lips. A laugh bubbled up inside him, until he caught her glare. He straightened his face at once.
"Hmmm," he said, clearing his throat and grimacing in an obvious effort to kill his desire to laugh. Surely he knew she would never forgive him, or allow him into her bed, should he laugh. He'd be lucky if she ever -
"Yes, well... We shall have to get you some more dresses, then," he announced, distracting her from her ire. His humor contained, his gaze slid over her again. "I do not wish you to wear your hair like that, either. I prefer it down. Do not dress it so again."
Helen's hand went to her hair at once. She had pulled it back tightly and tied it with a bit of leather Ducky had fetched. As it was, she'd been too weary and miserable to fix her hair properly. Now, she let her hand drop a bit irritably. What did she care if he did not find her attractive?
"I took a tour of our estates today."
Helen glanced sharply. "Our," not "my"? The choice of words surprised her, for everything she'd owned was now his by law, or would be once the marriage was consummated. She experienced a quick memory of last night. For a moment, she was back in bed with her husband's body pressing down on her, his mouth delighting hers, his hands caressing her. She felt her nipples harden, heat pooling low in her stomach at the memory, and she flushed with embarrassment at her body's betrayal. Turning, she picked up her ale to hide her reaction and took a quick drink.
"I get the feeling that I am not well liked by your people."
Helen swallowed with a vaguely amused grimace. His saying that he was not well liked was an understatement. Everyone at Tiernay feared and hated him. And with good reason. Crofters who built too close to the border of his land had been known to find themselves burnt out. Cows who wandered onto his soil were kept. And everyone knew how he treated his people, especially since some of the Tiernay villeins and servants had once been Holden people but had fled here for protection.
"I blame you."
Helen nearly spit out the ale she had just began to swallow. Forcing it down her throat, she turned to gape at him with disbelief. "Me? You blame me because the people around here - your own included - fear and despise you?"
"My people do not fear and despise me," he argued, obviously affronted.
She grunted. "You could have fooled me, my lord. I have taken in enough of your people who claim that they do."
"What?" It was his turn to gape at her. "None of my people have come here."
"They certainly have. I have paid a fortune purchasing your serfs and - " She paused abruptly and stood. There was no sense telling him what he already knew. Lord knew, she had added to his wealth by buying away those servants he would otherwise abuse.
"Where are you going?" her husband snapped, turning on his bench to glare at her as she headed for the stairs. "I am not finished talking to you."
Helen turned around at once. She could be a dutiful wife when the occasion called for it, she thought grimly, enjoying the way he blanched and rose abruptly to fall back from her approach. Continuing forward, she widened her eyes innocently. "Why, my lord, I thought you wished to continue speaking to me? Was I wrong?"
Covering his nose, Lord Holden retreated desperately. She could see the thoughts in his head. A good warrior knew when to attack and when to retreat. This discussion was one best kept for another time. In a few days perhaps. Or a week. When his wife was not quite so ripe. Turning abruptly, he rushed for the keep doors. "I am going to the village tavern to join my men. I want the hall aired while I am gone. See to it."
The door slammed on his last word and Helen sneered at it.
"See to it," she muttered, turning toward the stairs. He could see to it himself when he returned. She was going to her room for a good cry. Perhaps if she cried hard and long enough, her nose would stuff up again and she would be free of her stink long enough to get some more rest. Sighing despondently, she started up the stairs.
"We should have eaten at the keep. I thought you said the food at your picnic from here was good."
Hethe glanced up at William's miserable comment. He couldn't blame the man for making it, though. He had thought the meals placed before him at the keep unpleasant, but this tavern's salty stew, tough and blackened meat, and watered-down ale were worse than anything he had been served by Helen's cook.
William had not been treated to the same awful fare that his master himself had suffered. And this was nothing like the chicken he'd had the other day from this tavern. Ah well, perhaps they were waiting for more supplies... or something.
Sighing, Hethe chewed determinedly at the black meat he'd been given. He could not even hazard a guess as to its nature. It may have been beef; then again it may have been chicken. It was charred and dried out to the point that he could not tell.
The tavern owner's wife came forward, slamming a pitcher with more diluted ale on the table, spared a moment to glare at her guests, then marched away. Well, she tried to march, but it was really more of a waddle. The woman was pregnant, obviously so, and very far along, and Hethe was surprised she was still waiting tables in her advanced condition. He watched her waddle through the kitchen door, his eyes sharpening as they landed on an old woman waiting on the other side. Hethe stopped his chewing at once, stiffening where he sat.
It was the old hag who had nearly boiled his balls off with his bathwater the day he arrived. Dear God, the old harpy was following him around, making his life miserable, he realized with dismay. First she was in the castle, now she was here - and he didn't doubt for a minute that she was behind this horrendous meal.
Standing abruptly, he spat the inedible meat on the floor and made his way grimly toward the kitchen. A sudden silence fell over the room as he did. Hethe ignored the sudden absence of conversation, his focus on the kitchen door and the old hag behind it.
The women in the kitchen must have been warned by the silence in the common room, for both of them stood frozen inside the door, huddled together and watching warily when Hethe appeared. He paused just inside the room, his gaze moving from one woman to the other. The younger of the two looked terrified, her eyes great round holes of panic. The older just looked grim and resigned. She shifted, placing herself before the younger in a protective gesture.
"Is there something wrong with your meal, m'lord?" The old hag had the audacity to sneer as she spoke the title, Hethe noted, greatly taken aback.
"You're not afraid of me," he realized with amazement. The silly old witch should be afraid of him. Any commoner with any sense - especially one who had just served her liege a meal unfit for dogs - would have been terrified of his temper. The old hag wasn't.
"I'm an old woman," she pointed out with a smile. "The worst ye can do is beat and kill me, and how many years of my life would you really be taking?"
Hethe stiffened. "I do not beat or kill old people," he snapped impatiently.
"Sure ye do. Old Bets was eighty if she was a day when ye had her killed. And ye've done worse than that, too. Ye'd do it to me easy enough, I'd wager."
"Old Bets? Who the Devil is she? And who filled your head with these black lies?" Hethe asked with disgust.
The old hag tilted her head slightly, eyeing him with consideration, but it was the younger woman who spoke, her voice quavering with fear as she did. "He's right, Mom. He never beat or killed any of the servants himself. He always had that other feller of his do it. He just gave the order."
Before Hethe could respond to such defamatory accusations, the door opened behind him. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw William standing there, his expression grim. The man was obviously prepared to back him up in whatever way necessary. But Hethe didn't need any backup. This wasn't a battle. He was just talking to two deluded village women. And he didn't want the situation to get out of hand - which it surely would if his first witnessed the insolence of these two peasants. He turned to leave, then paused, dug out a coin and tossed it at the feet of his accusers. "For my meal."
With that, he led William out of the kitchen and then out of the inn.
"What happened?" his first asked once they were outside, mounting up to return to the keep.
"Nothing," Hethe muttered, but his mind was on what the women had said. Lies, all of it. He had never in his life beaten or killed, or ordered to be beaten or killed, an old servant or villein. Or a young one. But both those women believed he had, with all their heart. "Who is Old Bets?"
William glanced over sharply at the question. "Old Bets?" he asked with confusion. "I do not - "
"Never mind," Hethe interrupted with a sigh. He would find out about the woman on his own. He would get to the bottom of this if it was the last thing he did. Someone was spreading horrific lies about him.
No wonder Lady Helen had struggled so hard against being his wife. Unless she was behind the slander... He considered that as they rode silently back to the castle. He didn't like the idea, but supposed it was possible. That would explain why the lies had been easily accepted by Lady Helen's tenants as God's own truth. They wouldn't expect their lady to lie about such a thing. Still, why would she dislike him enough to spread such foul tales?
He would get to the bottom of that, too, he assured himself. If he could ever get close enough to the woman to question her. If she had any more tricks like that stinkweed of hers -
"When do you think we will be able to return to the fighting? I'm sure Henry could use us by now."
Hethe glanced over at his first. He wasn't too surprised by the man's question. He and William had rarely stayed in one place for long these last ten years. No doubt the man was growing extremely restless, as his men surely were.
In truth, Hethe was growing a mite restless as well, though he knew where to lay that blame: his wife. His desire for her had been sharp and biting all through the meal after the wedding, and then once he was in bed with her... Her breath hadn't bothered him in the least once he had dosed himself with those garlic cloves, and he had nearly drowned in the softness of her mouth. She had responded to his kisses, too, making his passion even hotter. He had been like a randy lad, wet behind the ears. He could still taste that desire.
Of course, it had died an abrupt death once he had pulled the furs aside and gotten a whiff of her. His nose twitched now just recalling it. Damn, where she had come up with that stinkweed was a question he would like answered. The bogs, no doubt.
Startled out of his thoughts once again, Hethe realized that he had not answered his first's question.
When would they head back to war? In truth, he wouldn't mind leaving right away. He was weary of this battling to bed his bride, and the Good Lord alone knew what next she would come up with to forestall him. Maybe his best bet was simply to go back to war and give the Lady Helen time to get used to being married to him. Perhaps once Templetun was out of the way, once things had settled down again, she would give up her ridiculous resistance and resign herself.
"And maybe pigs will fly," he muttered derisively.
"What was that?" William asked.
Hethe shook his head. "Nothing. I am thinking that we should go to the fighting soon. Very soon.
Tomorrow morning, even," he announced firmly. There was nothing really to hold him here.