Hethe dismounted with great relief. It had been a long day, and Lord Templetun had managed to make it even longer. The man had spent the entire ride back to Holden lecturing him on his duty as a husband, as a servant to the king, and as a man. It appeared he had let all of mankind down by neglecting to bed his wife. He was a warrior. A man. A superior being. She was only a woman - less intelligent, a lesser being.
He mustn't let the king down again.
Hethe had managed to keep from plowing his fist into the chaplain's face only by a supreme act of will.
Now he ignored the man, dismounted and made his way into the keep, leaving Templetun to follow or not as he wished. Of course, he knew the man would follow. This time, Templetun surely wasn't going to leave until he was wholly satisfied that the marriage was well and truly consummated.
The first person Hethe spotted as he entered his great hall was his second. A quick glance around showed that his bride was nowhere to be seen. If she had any sense, she was hiding, he decided as he crossed to the table.
"Hethe!" Stephen leapt to his feet, a smile of greeting covering his face. "I was beginning to worry that you would not return."
Hethe grimaced, then glanced irritably over his shoulder at his shadow - the king's chaplain. "We had already joined the king's men when Lord Templetun arrived. He had to wait until the day's battle was done for our return."
"Ah." Stephen glanced from Hethe to the older man, then cleared his throat. "Lady Helen is in your chamber."
Hethe couldn't help but notice the way the younger warrior avoided his eyes. It was obvious the man had noticed his wife's odor. Hethe hadn't expected any less.
"You should go up and - " Templetun began.
"My lord," Hethe interrupted irritably. "I do know my duty. Yet would it be possible for me to enjoy some wine first? It has been a long day."
Templetun hesitated, then gave in unhappily. "Very well. A drink first, my lord. But we really must get this finished up."
"We?" Hethe asked dryly. He doubted the man would be so anxious to see this accomplished were he the one having to do the do ing.
It was growing late, and Helen was pacing the master bedchamber when a disturbance drew her to the window. Peering outside, she heaved a long drawn-out sigh when she saw that Lord Templetun had returned with her husband. She had spent the afternoon biting her lip and peering sympathetically at Lord Holden's second as the man bravely tried to keep her company while doing his best not to show how offensive was her smell. He had been incredibly grateful to be relieved of the duty when she had come up here, but it had left Helen with nothing to do but ponder what was to come. Which had quickly become a tiresome exercise. There was nothing to do to put off what was to come, and seemingly, nothing she could do to prepare for it.
Templetun had kept his word; Helen had been unable to persuade Stephen to allow her to do anything about her odiferous state, refusing even to send up a bath. The man had been apologetic, had explained in pained tones that he wished he could - which she didn't doubt at all since he had had to suffer her stench - but, he had explained, Templetun had ordered him to supply nothing but food and drink and to watch while she consumed it. A bath was out of the question.
In the end, Helen had asked to be shown to the master's bedchamber so that she might look around.
That request had, at least, been allowed, but not before Stephen had examined the room. Presumably to be sure there was nothing inside that might go against Templetun's orders. She had spent the rest of her time alone in this room, and she was not terribly impressed with what she found.
Hethe's chambers were large, and they had obviously once been opulent, but everything in the bedchamber was now old, threadbare and screaming of neglect. It seemed very obvious to her that Hethe did not spend much time here. Indeed, poking about revealed that there was not one of the man's personal items in the room.
With nothing else to do but worry about what was to come, and fret over the fact that she was unable to make herself presentable enough that Hethe might be gentle with her, Helen had decided she would do better to lay down for a rest. She had laid on his large bed, wide awake and anxious until a servant came to ask if she wished to go below for the sup, or would wish a tray brought to her.
Helen had chosen the tray. It would have been nice to have company to distract her from her fretting, but she had not been willing to inflict herself on Lord Holden's second or the rest of his people, and so she had eaten by herself. Well, really she had been too nervous to eat, had merely pushed the food around. Then she'd spent the rest of her time pacing and waiting. Now, she grimaced at the sight of her husband dismounting below. It was time.
For a moment, she was overwhelmed by panic. She actually even peered around wildly, looking for someplace to hide or a way to escape. Then she realized there was nowhere to run, and she forced herself to calm down and stop acting like a ninny.
She was a grown-up woman. This was nothing of which to be so frightened. Every woman went through this. At least, every woman who married. Although she supposed they needed not fear it being quite as unpleasant as it was likely to be for her, especially since she had angered her husband repeatedly. That, along with her stench, would probably see her with a painful, ungreased pig. But, then, she had brought it on herself, and it would have all been over by now if she had not tried to put off her wedding night. It seemed that she had brought a lot down on herself lately.
If she was the superstitious sort, she might think that someone had cursed her. If she believed God was the cruel, punishing deity of Lord Templetun's beliefs, she might believe he really was punishing her for her disobedience. But Helen knew that this was just pure and simple bad luck. She also believed she could do with some good luck about now, and perhaps it was time to start making her own. Her aunt and Ducky's advice that morning came to mind.
Be "amenable" and "try to encourage some gentler feeling" in the man, her aunt had suggested. "Get naked and jiggle," had been Ducky's advice. Helen considered the matter briefly. She didn't think that she could manage the getting naked part, at least not fully. But she could be amenable and encouraging.
Hethe mounted the stairs, growing angrier with every step he took. Lord Templetun had "allowed" him one drink, and one drink only, then had sent him up to bed like a child. Hethe was not used to being ordered about so, and appreciated it even less in this instance. Of course, this was all Lady Helen's fault.
If she had not gone yapping to the king's man - hell, if she hadn't gone and pulled that ridiculous stunt with the stinkweed - they would not be in this fix! Now, he was expected to make his way to his room and plow a field that reeked like a graveyard. Aye, he was a poorly done-by man. What great sin had he ever committed to deserve this?
Reaching his bedchamber door, he paused and briefly glared at it. Beyond that strip of wood waited a woman whose scent could curl a man's hair. And whose body could curl a man's toes, some part of him reminded. Hethe considered that thought briefly, his mind returning to the various sights he had been shown of that body. Aye, Lady Helen was a fine figure of a woman. And she had a face lovely enough to stir any man's soul. Perhaps he could find a way to overcome the smell... It would not last forever.
On that cheerful note, he opened the door and strode into the master bedchamber. He used the room very rarely on those rare occasions that he was at Holden, but he knew what it contained. Still, this time, he wasn't sure what to expect. A snarling and angry bride, perhaps? Or an anxious and nervous one as Nerissa had been? What he surely did not expect to find was a woman sitting naked before the fire, brushing her hair with long, serene strokes.
Well, she wasn't really naked; she still wore her chemise. But the scrap of clothing was extremely thin, and the way she was positioned before the fire made it so that he could see entirely through the fabric to the lush curves beneath.
For a moment, Hethe was enchanted; then he pushed the door closed and started forward - only to be forcefully reminded that she did not wish to be his bride by the familiar and foul perfume wafting across the room.
That was when he realized the whole situation was surely part of some new trick, some new plan to bedevil him. His disappointment at the realization was keen. Pausing, he glanced around the room warily, but he could find nothing amiss. Everything looked as it always did when he stayed here - except for her, of course.
"What new game is this?" he asked, moving back to lounge against the door. He could still smell her from there, but his desire to gag wasn't as strong.
Pausing in her hair-brushing, she turned slowly to peer at him, and he could have sworn that the uncertain expression on her face was sincere. " 'Tis no game, my lord. No more tricks or plots. It would appear there is no way out of this marriage, so I thought to make it easier."
Setting the brush down, his wife stood slowly and turned to face him, the fire backlighting her so that her face and front were in shadow, but her body was outlined beneath the thin gown she wore. Hethe felt his body stir with interest as he peered at her and nearly sighed with relief. Perhaps they could get this consummation done after all. The question was, how?
With Wee Hethe showing interest, it was quite possible that he could just order her on the bed, rush over, whip up her chemise, pull himself out and thrust into her. He imagined he could hold his breath that long. That would see the deed done, but Hethe had never used a woman so brutally, and despite all she had done to him since their meeting, he could not treat her so. On the other hand, preparing her properly for this, her first time, would take time and finesse, and he suspected Wee Hethe would not stand up to the endeavor. Which left him in a bit of a conundrum.
Grimacing, he shifted from one foot to the other and glanced around the room, pondering the best solution.
"Shall I help you remove your armor?"
Hethe gave a start at the quiet question, and glanced at his wife sharply, then down at the mail he still wore. It was dirty and bloody, and he really should have removed it before coming above, but he had been so upset he had forgotten all about it. "Nay!" He nearly shrieked when she started to move toward him, then softened his voice to add, "J-just go lie down and wait. I shall tend to it myself."
Nodding, she moved to the end of the bed, then hesitated. As she was no longer cast in shadow by the fire, he could see the extent of her rash. In truth, while it was not as angry as it had been the night before, it still looked painful and slightly blotchy. He could overlook the blotches he decided, though he had to wonder if it hurt. He did not wish his touch to pain her. Caught up by such concerns, he was completely taken by surprise when she began to remove her chemise. That was unexpected; he had not thought her to be so brazen.
The blush that followed the trail of the gown told him she was not quite as brazen as the action suggested. Still, it had been a brilliant move on her part. Wee Hethe had been stirring lazily, but it now sprang to immediate life. Aye, they just might get this done, he decided as she turned and sat on the end of the bed, then lay back on it, her legs still draped off the edge of the mattress, her body supine.
All he had to do was step up to the bed, move between her legs and -
He stopped that thought right there. He could not just plow into her like some rutting dog; he would have to prepare her first. Annoyed with himself, he set to work at removing his sword belt, then his mail hauberk. Hethe usually had his squire to help with such tasks, so was surprised at how heavy the metal tunic was. Grunting as he tugged and pulled and pushed and wriggled his way out of it, he decided that, in future, he would be sure the boy was around to help.
"Are you sure you would not like me to assist you with that?"
"Nay, stay there," Hethe said quickly, sighing in relief as he finally finished pulling the heavy armor off.
Straightening, he gave his wife a triumphant grin and let the mail shirt drop to the floor, wincing at the clatter it made. The sight of Lady Helen, pushing herself up on her elbows and smiling uncertainly back, made Hethe swallow. Damn, but she was a beautiful picture, despite her blotchy skin.
Hethe immediately bent to set to work at undoing the laces of the mail chaussures on his legs. Within minutes, he was panting, twisting and contorting himself about in an effort to reach behind his knees to unfasten the blasted things. It appeared that Edwin had tied the straps in rather nasty knots when he had dressed his master this morning, for Hethe could not seem to get them undone. Cursing in vexation, he snatched for his dirk.
"Do you wish my help now?" his wife asked again.
"Nay," Hethe snapped, then sighed and straightened to eye her in annoyance. He would either have to let her help him, or ruin a pair of perfectly good chaussures by slicing through their leather ties.
"Oh, aye. All right." He slumped in defeat, then quickly sucked in a breath as she scooted off the bed and rushed toward him. She flushed deeply as his gaze slid over her, but picked up speed and hurried to move around him to kneel at his back. Hethe craned his neck and peered back over his shoulder and down, getting a lovely picture of her prettily flushed back.
The straps of the chaussures must have been knotted as he had suspected, for she was bent at the task for an inordinate amount of time and seemed to struggle to untie them. Or, on the other hand, mayhap it only seemed like a long time because Hethe was holding his breath.
He held that breath until his head began to spin and his lungs burned. Every time he weakened and wished to take a new breath, he recalled her odor and forced himself to hold out longer. But, by the time she finally managed to undo one chaussure and it dropped to the floor with a clang, Hethe could stand it no longer. He let his breath out in a gasp, then sucked another lungful up, nearly fainting from its polluted state. He prayed vigorously as she set to work at the other chaussure. This one seemed to go much quicker, and Helen released a murmur of triumph as it fell. Then she straightened behind him, hesitated before skittering back to the bed and lunging into it.
"Thankyou," Hethe gasped, expelling the breath he had been holding and drawing in a fresh one. This time he allowed himself a groan of disgust. Her scent stayed behind like an invisible sulfur cloud and it's effect on Wee Hethe was devastating to say the least. The wee warrior suffered a sudden death, dropping as fast as any man struck down on the battlefield. Much to Hethe's dismay, even peering at his wife where she again lay prone on the bed could not reverse the effect.
"Is there something else you need help with?"
Hethe grimaced at the question and shook his head. "Nay. J-just... just stay there. I have to..." Backing toward the door, he searched his mind for a likely excuse to leave, but none was forthcoming. Settling on a vague shake of his head, he opened the door and slipped from the room. He really needed a drink.
Helen gaped at the closing door in shock. Where was he going? What about the bedding? What had she done wrong, Helen wondered with dismay. She had done everything she could think of to be amenable and encouraging. She had even got naked as Ducky had suggested. And hadn't that been one of the hardest things she had ever done? But none of it seemed to have worked. She had encouraged him right out the door.
Shaking her head, she dropped back on the mattress and stared at the bed draperies overhead, mystified.
Hethe took the stairs two at a time, then stormed across the great hall as if he were riding off to battle.
His arrival, and in such a state, was enough to make Stephen and Lord Templetun, who were seated at the trestle tables, gape at him in wonder. They continued to do so as he reached first for Stephen's ale, then changed his mind and instead grabbed up the half-empty pitcher between him and the king's chaplain. Raising it to his mouth, Hethe downed the entire contents in one long, loud series of gulps, then lowered it and bellowed for more. "Lord Holden," Templetun finally began. "What - "
"I am thirsty. Cannot a man drink in his own castle?" Hethe snapped, shifting impatiently from foot to foot as he awaited the arrival of more ale. Losing his patience, he started for the kitchens himself.
"My lord!" Templetun was on his feet and trailing him at once. "I hope you do not expect me to believe you have accomplished - "
"I do not expect anything from you, Lord Templetun. I am merely..." He paused abruptly halfway to the kitchens, then turned on the man and hissed, "She smells ."
Templetun managed to catch himself before crashing into Hethe, then regarded him sympathetically.
"Oh, aye... Well... I had noticed that, my lord." He heaved a deep sigh and pondered a moment, his wrinkled old face twisting and contorting and tugging this way then that before he shook his head. "You have my deepest sympathies, my lord, but this must be done. Surely you can bear her smell long enough to... er... accomplish the necessary deed? Or..." He brightened suddenly and suggested, "Perhaps you can hold your breath?"
"Hold my breath?" Hethe scowled. "I tried doing that while removing my armor. It took so bloody long that I had to breathe in and - "
"But your armor is off now," the man pointed out cheerfully. He clapped Hethe on the back and turned him back toward the stairs he had just descended. "All you need do now is cross the room and finish the job. Surely you can hold your breath that long?"
"Hmmm." Hethe considered the possibility. If he took a deep breath before opening the door, then rushed across the room... Let's see , he thought. There were perhaps ten good strides from the door to the bed. He'd need another moment to push down his breeches and position himself between her legs -
"Here we are."
Hethe glanced around with a start to realize that while he had been thinking, Templetun had led him back upstairs. They were now back outside his bedchamber door.
"Just take a nice, deep breath," Templetun instructed, sounding inordinately pleased with his plan.
"That's it," he said when Hethe dutifully inhaled. "Now hold it and get in there and do your duty!"
With that encouraging hiss, the king's chaplain pulled the door open, gave Hethe a shove that sent him stumbling into the room, then promptly closed the door behind him.
Hethe shuffled to a halt a few bare steps into the room, then glanced toward the woman on the bed. She still lay exactly where she had lain when he left her. Apparendy, she had decided to obey him for once.
He wasn't really fooled by this sudden turn in her behavior. If she was playing nice now, it was for a reason. Perhaps she had finally realized that she could not win against him and was hoping for good terms of surrender. Too bad she hadn't tried that tactic earlier... Suddenly realizing that he was wasting time, something that definitely wasn't endless at this point, Hethe hurried forward, tugging his tunic off as he went.
He found his wife's eyes were wide and anxious when he reached the bed. Hethe tried to give her a reassuring smile, but it was difficult with his cheeks all puffed out like a chipmunk's. Tossing his tunic aside, he paused to consider her briefly, unsure where he should start. Despite what Templetun had said, he could not simply leap upon her without any preparation. No matter that she probably deserved it after all her stunts, he simply could not do it. Besides, he needed a little time to ready himself. His own flesh wasn't exactly throbbing with desire at this juncture.
So, should he caress her breasts? Fondle her feet? He usually started with kissing, but that, of course, was out. His thinking had barely got that far when he realized he had used up his breath. A puffy-cheeked frown tugging at his face, he turned and hurried back to the door to gasp out the air he had sucked in. He dragged in another breath.
"Is something wrong, my lord?"
Hethe had trouble formulating a response to his wife's anxious question. Was something wrong? Nay, nay. Nothing was wrong. Except that this was impossible!
"Is there something I can do to help?" she asked.
Hethe rolled his eyes. Now, she wants to help? She could not have been more biddable on their wedding night, waited abed for him all sweet and perfumed then? Nay! Then, she had made herself as unappealing as possible. Now that she smelled like stinkweed and posies, now she was eager to be helpful? Women!
"Should I jiggle my breasts or something?"
"What?" He whirled on her, his eyes wide and incredulous.
"Well," she said with obvious embarrassment. "Ducky said that when her Albert was alive, all she had to do was jiggle her breasts at him and he would - "
"Oh, please," Hethe interrupted faintly, trying to banish the sudden image of the plump, middle-aged maid jiggling her not unimpressive breasts. "I really do not want to know such things."
She was silent for a moment, then asked, "What should I do, then?"
"Just lie there," he ordered grimly. "Just - I need another drink."
Turning on his heel, he strode back out of the room without even bothering to retrieve his tunic. He walked down the corridor, straight down the stairs and across the great hall with the same grim strides as before. Reaching the table, he picked up the ale pitcher - it still rested on the table, and he was relieved to find that it had been refilled - and began to gulp down its contents.
"Oh, dear," he heard Lord Templetun mutter somewhere behind him. "This isn't going at all well."
"Well, the first time, he was minus his armor, and now he is minus his tunic. At least he is making progress," Stephen pointed out, his voice sounding suspiciously amused.
"My lord," Templetun began at last as Hethe lowered the emptied ale pitcher. "I really think - "
"I do not want to hear any more of your thinking," Hethe interrupted.
"But you must - "
"Tell it to Wee Hethe, Templetun. He's the one not cooperating."
"Oh, dear." Templetun's gaze dropped briefly below Hethe's waist with speculation. "What appears to be the problem with, er, Wee Hethe?" Was there laughter in the old man's voice?
Hethe rolled his eyes at that and bellowed the obvious: "She reeks!"
"Well, aye. But wee Hethe has no nose. How would he know?"
A guttural growl sounding deep in his throat, Hethe started toward the man. He would be mocked no longer! Luckily, Stephen jumped to his feet and moved between them. "A mask!"
Hethe glanced distractedly at his second. "What?"
"Can you not wear something over your nose to dull the scent?"
Hethe made a face at the suggestion. "I tried that the morning after the wedding. It blunted the smell, but did not keep it entirely out."
"Oh." Stephen and Templetun sagged with disappointment, then seemed to chew the matter over again.
After a moment, his second perked up and suggested, "Perhaps, if you perfumed the mask - "
"A brilliant idea!" Templetun decided, nodding excitedly. "That will do the trick!"
Hethe didn't know whether to laugh or cry.
Helen sat up on the bed, her gaze moving resentfully to the door. Really, this was too much. How many times was the man going to flee the room like that? She would almost think it was funny, were it not for the fact that she was so anxious.
What with the conversation she had with her aunt and Ducky that morning, Helen was as nervous as the virgin she was, and her husband's constant retreats were not helping much with her anxiety. Not to mention the discomfort and embarrassment. Lying here on the bed, splayed out and awaiting his pleasure, was humiliating. Helen was not used to being passive... in anything.
She glanced toward the door again, her mind considering what was to come. What her husband's...
She couldn't help but wonder what it looked like. She had a vague idea, but she hadn't had the sense to look on their wedding night now, she wished she had. How big was it; she wondered. The concern seemed a valid one. The man had colossal shoulders. Was his... was it just as colossal? Her legs slid together at the thought. She wished he would get this damn act over with. It was like awaiting stitches, or having a tooth pulled.
A rattle from the door warned of Hethe's return, and Helen promptly fell back on the bed. She heard the door open but refused to look up. Perhaps if she pretended she wasn't here and this wasn't happening...
"Sweet Jesu!" she shrieked suddenly, scrambling up the bed as a masked figure stepped up before her.
"It is I, Lord Hethe," it said. The muffled voice slightly ruffled what she saw was a strip of linen tied around the figure's head.
Helen merely stared. Surely her husband did not intend to wear that while he... Dear Lord, yes, he did.
Biting her lip, she immediately dropped her head.
"This was Stephen's idea," he explained, untying the laces of his breeches and beginning to shove them down. "This way, your smell should not prevent the... You are trembling. Your shoulders are shaking.
Do not be frightened; I will not hurt you."
Helen managed to subdue the dismayed laughter making her body shake, and she raised her head. The first thing she saw was his manhood, and it had a detrimental effect on her composure. She had been so terrified all day, so frightened of the object before her that actually seeing the wrinkled little bit of flesh sagging between his legs now was rather anticlimatic. She was expecting something huge, something terrifying. But, nay... This was the great hog? This could cause her damage? "Not bloody likely," she muttered aloud and burst out in gales of rather hysterical laughter.
Catching the stricken look that immediately filled Hethe's eyes, she tried to stem the flow of her amusement, but really, she had been so tense and anxious for so long, she could not seem to stop the sudden outpour.
"I am sorry. Truly," she gasped out as sincerely as she could while laughing uproariously. "It is just that you look - " Her voice died on a sigh as he tugged his breeches up and whirled away from the bed with disgust.