Helen managed to contain herself until she had slid through the kitchen doors. Once the doors had closed behind her, however, her control snapped and she bent abruptly at the waist, covering her mouth as little sobbing sounds came from it.
"Oh, my lady!" Ducky, who had been waiting and watching from the kitchens, was at her side at once.
"Is he so horrid? Did he say something cruel? He didn't hit you, did he?" She gasped in horror, clutching at Helen's shoulders.
"Nay," Nell assured the maid, having slipped into the kitchen in time to hear her concerned words. "I do not think she is crying."
Shaking her head, Helen slowly straightened, revealing that her aunt was right. Rather than tragic, her expression was filled with hilarity. She was laughing so hard that it was coming out as sobs, and tears of mirth were streaming down her face. "I vow he won't go through with it," she gasped. "The poor man is near dead simply from my breathing on him. Oh, God, Ducky! He went right green!"
The lady's maid's face lost its concern, and on it hope slowly grew along with excitement. "It's working, then?"
"Working?" Aunt Nell gave a bark of laughter as an answer. "The man is beside himself. He nearly fell backward off the stairs when she spoke to him, and he appeared quite faint just now as I left." She grinned proudly at her niece, her arm sliding around the girl's waist. "Your plan was brilliant, dear. He will bow out of the wedding. He is probably telling Templetun so this minute."
"Aye." Helen's grin was full of glee. "And if this isn't enough to do it, then the other things in store for him surely will be. We have won ere the battle has even begun. I can feel it!" She hugged her aunt exuberantly, then stepped back and beamed around at the others in the room. She was so happy at that moment that it didn't even offend her when Ducky put a little distance between them once she was assured that all was well.
"We must move on to the next part of the plan," her aunt proclaimed and glanced at Ducky questioningly. "Are the refreshments ready?"
"Aye. I have seen to them. All is ready," Ducky said quickly, and Helen reached out to squeeze her arm affectionately.
"I knew you would. Now, I suppose we had best return." Her gaze moved to her aunt. "You remember your part?"
Aunt Nell nodded. "Aye. I am to keep Lord Templetun and Holden's first distracted while you torture the Hammer," she announced dutifully, a grin spreading across her face. "Oh, this is the most fun I have had in years. I feel so naughty!"
"Whatever is the matter?" Templetun cried in alarm, gaping at Hethe's slumped figure. "Are you taking the ague?"
Still swallowing great gulps of air, Hethe shook his head. "It is her ."
Hethe straightened in time to see his first and the older man exchange befuddled glances. It was William who finally spoke. Moving between him and Lord Templetun, his first put a hand on Hethe's shoulder and murmured, "Well, she is lovely, 'tis true. But not so lovely it should take your breath away like this."
Hethe groaned at the man's words and shook his head. " 'Tis her breath," he hissed grimly. "She has the foulest stench about her I have ever encountered. The woman smells as though she feasts on carrion."
Rather than appearing concerned, William actually looked amused. It took the man's knowing smile before Hethe realized that his first thought he was joking. It was one of the insults they had batted around about her over the years, as he recalled. Lady Tiernay was a hag who feasted on the carrion of warriors and tortured the living with her fetid tongue until she could devour them, too.
"Nay," he started to say, then paused on a sigh of despair as the door to the kitchens opened and Lady Helen and her aunt breezed back out.
"The refreshments shall be along directly," their hostess announced, her concerned gaze landing on Hethe. "Are you feeling better, my lord? You have regained some of your color, I see."
Hethe stiffened in his seat as she moved directly toward him. Pausing to stand on the side of him opposite William, she reached down to clasp his chin lightly and lift his face for her inspection. "Aye. You have your color back," she said into his face.
Hethe held his breath. He didn't know what else to do. He could not insult the woman by pulling back or turning away; she was their hostess. She was perfectly lovely and behaving beautifully and obviously didn't have a clue that her breath was so offensive. So he held his breath and waited... and waited. A frown began to pluck at her forehead.
"Now, my lord, you are becoming rather flushed."
Hethe's lungs were burning. If she did not let go of him soon and move away so that he could breathe...
"Almost blue, in fact. Dear me, you are not well at all," she said into his face.
He had to breathe. There was nothing he could do about it. He was getting light-headed from lack of air.
If he could just time it so that he sucked air in when she did, rather than while she was speaking or breathing out, all would be well, he assured himself. He watched, and when she started to breathe in, he released the used air burning his lungs and started to suck in oxygen.
"Oh! That is better," she said at once, and Hethe groaned aloud, unable to stop from turning his head away and gagging. Fortunately, the arrival of the ale seemed to distract her from his insult. "Ah, here we are. Thankyou, Ducky."
Hethe managed to regain his composure while she saw to her servants. When a mug of ale was placed before him, he reached automatically for it. It was an excuse not to face her again for a bit. Any excuse was more than welcome. Lifting the mug, he swallowed a mouthful, then promptly spat it out. Silence fell around him briefly; then Lady Helen was at his side again, appearing quite distressed.
"Is there something amiss, my lord?" she asked. "The ale is not to your liking? Our alewife is usually quite good, but there are times when a batch goes bad and she doesn't catch it, and - "
"There was a bug in my drink," Hethe interrupted. She paused in mid-flutter, blinking at him with confusion.
"Aye. A rather large, live bug."
"Oh, dear!" She turned to her servant with horror. "Ducky - "
"I'm so sorry, m'lady. I didn't notice any bug."
"Neither did I when I took it from you." She sighed, not seeming to really hold the woman responsible.
"Please check the mugs to be sure they are empty in future."
"Of course, m'lady. I am sorry. Shall I fetch another?"
"Aye." Lady Helen turned her apologetic smile back on Hethe and pushed her own mug toward him.
"Here, my lord. I can assure you that this mug is bug free and that the ale is fine. I have already tasted it."
Managing a rather tight smile, Hethe took the offered mug.
"I hope that did not put you off. We have the finest alewife in this part ofEnglandand are quite proud of that fact," she announced as he peered cautiously into her mug.
Assured that there appeared to be nothing alive in the vessel, Hethe raised it to take a swallow, then nearly spat that out as well. It was politeness alone that made him swallow the rancid beverage. Warm piss couldn't taste worse, he thought with horror, swallowing the flat, yeasty brew. If the lady thought this was good ale, he was in for a long, dry visit. Or perhaps a short, dry visit.
"It is fine ale and no mistaking it," Templetun complimented from behind her, and Hethe's head shot around in shock. The man had even managed a sincere expression as he uttered the lie, Hethe noted with amazement.
"Aye. I daresay your alewife could teach ours a thing or two," William agreed, and Hethe's startled gaze swung to his first. William was never polite. He was a warrior. He spoke plainly and didn't dress anything up with polite lies. Confused, Hethe decided the man was being sarcastic.
"Don't you think, my lord?" William asked.
Hethe nodded solemnly and muttered, "Aye. No doubt Lady Tiernay's alewife could teach ours a thing or two." He lowered his head to peer into his mug with distaste as he added under his breath, "Like how to poison us."
"What was that?" Lady Tiernay asked sweetly, and Hethe glanced up to see that while Lady Helen had not appeared to hear him, both Lord Templetun and William had, and both of them were now staring at him with a combination of dismay and censure.
Hethe shifted under their combined glare, the realization dawning on him slowly that they truly seemed to think the beverage quite tasty. He didn't get to consider that for long, however, because Lady Shambleau was speaking, drawing their attention.
"My lord, I know you wished to have the ceremony when you returned, but Father Purcell is away at the moment and shan't return until tomorrow afternoon. I am sorry. It was unexpected. He was needed to give last rites and - "
"Tomorrow will be soon enough, my lady. Please do not distress yourself. Besides, that gives us time to negotiate the wedding contract." Templetun meant to reassure the woman, but Hethe nearly gave thanks out loud. Another day. He had an extra day's grace. Mayhap in that time he could find a way out of this marriage.
"You must be weary from your journey," Lady Helen commented. "Would you like something to eat right away, or would you prefer to bathe and rest ere the sup?"
Hethe nearly turned to face her, then caught himself and picked up his ale. He pretended to sip at the horrid stuff as an excuse for not facing her while she was addressing him.
"That would be nice, I think," Templetun answered while Hethe busied himself with his tepid, sour drink.
"It is not a long ride, but the weather has been exceptionally dry of late. The road was quite dusty. I, for one, should enjoy the chance to bathe some of the dust away and rest ere the meal."
Hethe nodded and grunted his acquiescence, then set his drink aside and stood. He avoided looking directly at either of his companions, but saw both of them gulping down their drinks where they stood.
That fact made Hethe frown with confusion. How could they stand the brew? It was disgusting. Shaking his head, he turned to follow Lady Helen and her aunt as they moved to lead the way upstairs.
Tiernay was larger than it had first appeared to Hethe. As they had ridden in, he had noted that, contrary to what he'd suspected, the fiefdom hadn't seemed to suffer any under it's new leader. It looked just as green and prosperous as it had when Helen's father had ruled. Its people were plump and apple-cheeked, its orchards in bloom. Still, he didn't expect much in the upper part of the keep. He assumed that there would only be two or three rooms, and that he and William would have to double up until the wedding was over. He was wrong. There were at least half a dozen rooms on the upper level.
"It has been unusually dry of late and I knew your journey would be a dusty one," Lady Helen commented as she started along the hall. "I suspected you might wish to wash some of the dust away on your arrival, so I instructed the maids to prepare baths for each of you when you were spotted by the guards on the wall."
Hethe grunted an unintelligible response as he followed his fiancee and her aunt along the passageway, trailed by William and the king's man.
"My Lord Templetun." Lady Helen smiled at the older man as she paused and opened a door. "This is your room, my lord."
Hethe peered curiously through the door as the older man moved eagerly forward. He peered around the large, well-appointed room, a small fire burning cozily in the fireplace and a steaming tub sitting before it. Then his gaze fell on the pretty young miss pouring water into the tub as Lady Helen announced, "Your maid is Ellie. Ask her, should you need anything, and she will see to it."
"Thankyou, my lady." Templetun beamed at all three women as he slipped into the room. "I'm sure I shall be most comfortable."
Lady Helen smiled back, then pulled the door closed and gestured for the other men to follow as she and her aunt continued sedately to the next room. "This is your room, Sir William."
She opened the door and smiled encouragingly at the pretty little maid standing patiently beside another steaming tub. This was another large room, another cozy fire, and Hethe felt himself relaxing, forgetting the unpalatable ale as his first started into the room. William waited patiently as Lady Helen introduced the maid and repeated the comment that the girl would see to any needs.
Pulling that door closed, she turned and smiled at Hethe. "Yours is the next room, my lord."
Hethe followed her eagerly, already anticipating a soothing bath and the soft hands of a sweet young girl to scrub his troubles away. He paused politely when she stopped by the next door. Hethe could almost feel the warm water rinsing away the dust coating his body. Then the door opened. The first thing Hethe saw was the maid. It was no sweet young girl waiting for him. His maid was as old as Methuselah. A crone. A hag. And a bent, nasty-looking old hag too, with a wart hanging off her nose like an apple dangling from a tree branch.
"Dear God," he breathed in dismay.
"This is Maggie. But of course you will remember her from Holden," Lady Helen said expectantly, and he was positive he heard a reprimand in her tone. Unfortunately, he didn't have a clue why, and didn't really recognize the woman. She looked vaguely familiar, but he could not place her at Holden. He supposed that with that wart of hers he should be able to, but he had spent little enough time there over the years. Since she seemed to be waiting for some response, however, he grunted a vague agreement and nodded to the witch.
"She is the head of the chambermaids here now," Lady Helen continued, and again he felt sure there was some reprimand for him in her words, though he had no idea why and had little time to worry over it as she moved on. "We are very grateful for her knowledge and experience. That experience is why she shall be seeing to your needs personally rather than one of the younger, less knowledgeable girls. We thought it suitable that she serve you, the most important of our guests."
Hethe could hardly fault his soon-to-be wife's reasoning. Still, he wished he could as he thought of the pretty young women now attending William and Lord Templetun.
"Your room is a little smaller than Lord Templetun's and William's," Lady Helen went on cheerfully,
"but we felt that as it was only for one night, it would be best to put you here. After the wedding, of course, you will be moved to the master chamber. There seemed little purpose in giving one of the other men this room, then switching them about after the wedding."
Hethe tore his gaze away from the dangling-wart-faced old crone to see that the room was indeed small.
Nearly as small as a privy, he saw with dismay. There was barely enough room for the tiny bed it held and the tub both.
"If you require anything, just ask Maggie and she will see to it." Lady Helen's words drew his gaze back to the crone, who offered him a snaggle-toothed smile. He closed his eyes briefly.
"Enjoy your bath, my lord," Lady Helen added with a good cheer that made the hair on the back of Hethe's neck prickle. He turned abruptly to search her expression, but was in time only to see the door close on her and her smiling aunt. The smile did nothing to relieve his sudden anxiety. There had been something almost feral about it, he decided.
Pushing his worries aside, Hethe straightened his shoulders and turned back to face the crone, only to have those shoulders slump again when the crone winked at him.
"Dear God," he breathed miserably to himself.
"There now, your bath is all ready, my lord. Shall I undress you?"
Hethe gave a start, his eyes widening on the old maid as she advanced eagerly toward him. He could have sworn there was a mischievous look in her eyes. Throwing his hands up instinctively, he eyed her warty hands and took a step back.
"Nay, nay. I can do it myself," he said quickly, suddenly wishing he had waited for his squire to come in from overseeing the care of his horse before allowing Lady Helen to urge them above stairs. Then he would have had an excuse to send the woman off.
"A shy one, are ye?" The hag cackled, then busied herself gathering soap and a strip of linen he presumed was for him to dry himself with afterward. He wouldn't want her help with that either, he thought, a shudder running through him at the idea of her hands on his skin. Forcing the thought away, Hethe reluctantly began to undress himself.
"Ye sure ye don't need my help there, my lord?" the hag asked, tossing the linen over her shoulder and turning to survey his slow progress.
Shaking his head, Hethe at last resigned himself to disrobing, removing his sword belt and dirk. The hag stood watching him silently, her eyes lighting with interest as he removed his tunic. With that distracting him, it was rather amazing that he noticed that the room wasn't as warm as it should have been.
Scowling, he glanced around the small, cramped quarters until his gaze came up on the window. It was uncovered, allowing a cool afternoon breeze in to fan over him. "There is no covering on that window!"
The wench raised her eyebrows and peered at him in surprise. "On a fine day such as this? Nay, my lord. Besides, it was sent down to have the dust beaten out of it. In your honor," she added, making him feel churlish for complaining.
"Well, then you should have built a fire," he grumbled. "I shall catch a chill getting out of the bath if you do not."
Her eyebrows rose again and she repeated, "On a fine day like this? Well, I thought a strapping figure of a man like yourself wouldn't be needing such fuss. But, if it's a fire you're wantin', I'll build one as soon as I have you settled in your bath."
Mouth flattening in displeasure, Hethe quickly continued to undress. By the time he got to his breeches, her eyes were practically burning holes in his flesh.
Muttering under his breath, Hethe resisted the urge to cover himself like a timid virgin and pushed off his leggings. He left them puddled on the floor and strode quickly to the tub. Awareness that the old witch's eyes were roving over him as he moved, and mostly over the area below his waist, made him pick up speed as he headed for the water. This was ridiculous, really. He had never been shy before. But he could almost feel her eyes burning into his groin - and the sensation was not pleasant. At least not from her. Now, if it had been one of the merry young maids that had been sent to Templetun and William, that might have been a different story. However, this one's gaze just made him rush forward and nearly leap into the tub, slopping water everywhere in his eagerness to hide himself.
"Yow!" Hethe popped upward out of the tub with a roar. The water was scorching hot. Blistering. He would be lucky if his balls hadn't been boiled right off. It was hard to tell at that point; every inch of skin that had been submerged in that moment before his nerve endings had reacted was now screaming in agony. Hethe stumbled in his eagerness to get out of the hot water, but he had only pulled one foot out of the tub when the old hag suddenly rushed forward with a pail of cold water. He supposed she was trying for the tub, but her aim was off. The icy liquid sprayed over his still-heated skin, leaving him gasping in shock as it ran down his body, half splashing into the tub, half onto the floor.
"Sorry, my lord. It seemed fine to me. It's the way Her Ladyship likes it. Guess you're a little more delicate." She set down the one pail, grabbed up another, and splashed it too over him as she spoke.
"We'll have it right in a minute, though."
A third pail splashed over him. Hethe heaved a resigned sigh and merely reached down to cover his more important bits as she rushed away for more water. This is a test , he told himself soothingly. The good Lord is trying my patience as some sort of lesson . Hethe feared he was going to fail the test.
Putting up one hand defensively as the hag stooped to trade her empty pail for another full one, he roared, "Enough!"
"Cool enough now, is it?" she asked cheerfully, straightening and turning to peer at him.
"Aye." Hethe dropped his hand back to cover his lower regions when her gaze dropped there, then plopped down to sit in the water again. Aye, it was cool enough now. If anything, it was too cool. Tepid at best, he realized with disgust.
"Shall I wash your back for you, m'lord?" the hag asked solicitously.
Hethe's gaze snapped to her as she advanced, soap in one warty hand. "Nay," he said quickly. "In fact, I am quite sure I'll need no more help. You can go."
"Go?" Her eyes widened in surprise. "But who will help you out of the bath?"
"I can get out on my own," he assured her grimly. "Just go. Now."
Shrugging, the old woman sidled to the door, but her eyes never left his free hand once. Hethe supposed she feared he might hit her. He was rather proud that he hadn't.
"If there be anything else you're needing, m'lord."
"Out!" Hethe snapped. He would die of his needs ere calling on the old hag to do anything else for him.
Nodding, she bobbed a curtsy once she was safely beyond his reach and slid from the room.
Sighing, Hethe released the hold he had taken of his most private bits to prevent their further abuse, then peered around the room. It wasn't just smaller than those rooms he had watched Templetun and William disappear into, it was meaner too. There were no tapestries on the walls, nothing to sit on but the bed and a half-broken chair, and, of course, no coverings on the windows or fire in the fireplace. The air was unpleasantly cool on his damp skin.
It was only for one night, he reminded himself soothingly. Tomorrow night he would share the master chamber with his new bride. Lady Foul-Breath. Groaning, he closed his eyes briefly, then sat up with a sigh and glanced about for the soap. The water was not getting any warmer. The sooner he cleaned himself up, the sooner he could get out. Unfortunately, the soap was nowhere to be seen.
Frowning, he started to stand to look about, but just then an image of the hag popped into his mind. She had been still holding the soap when he had ordered her out. He had a very clear image of that soap in her hand as she had exited the room. He also saw, quite clearly, the linen for drying hanging over her shoulder.
Cursing, Hethe sank back into the tub miserably. Pissy ale. A bath hot enough to boil off his balls, then freeze them. No covering on the window. No fire to dry by. A nasty old hag to serve him. And now, no soap or drying linen. And a soon-to-be wife with dragon breath. Oh, he would have to be sure to send his thanks to the king for this.
Straightening from her bent position outside Lord Holden's door, Helen leaned against her aunt helplessly, doing her best to smother her giggles as the door opened before them. Eyes widening as she saw the two women the exiting Maggie immediately tugged the door closed behind her and urged them all down the hall.
"What were you doing?" Maggie hissed as soon as they were far enough away not to fear being overheard. "Had he seen you - "
"We could not just walk off and leave you alone," Helen explained, her voice bubbling with excited victory. "I was not certain of this part of the plan, and I feared for your safety when you volunteered to do it. But you were brilliant, " she praised. "And so swift, Maggie. I knew you still had some fire in you."
"Aye," Aunt Nell agreed with a chuckle. "And it was very clever of you to keep yourself out of hitting range."
Maggie wrinkled her nose. "Aye. But I don't think it was necessary. He didn't look moved to hit me.
Well, not really," she added at Helen's doubtful look.
"Hmmm," Helen murmured, unconvinced. "Nevertheless, I think we should stick to our plan. It would probably be better if you were out of sight for a bit. A nice visit with your daughter in the village should do the trick. She is expecting you?"
"Aye. And she's grateful for it. She's far along with her baby now, you know, and finds working in that tavern of her husband's terribly wearing. She is looking forward to my help, and I to the visit."
"Good, good." Helen patted her hand, then paused and peered at the cloth she held. "Is that - "
Maggie peered down at the linen in her hands and gave a slightly evil grin. "His Lordship's toweling linen. I forgot I had it when he ordered me out," she said blithely. Her lips puckered into an all-out smile at the twinkle in her mistress's eyes.
"You are a wonder, Maggie," Helen marveled, then turned the servant toward the stairs once more. "Off you go now. Have a nice time."
"Aye, m'lady." Maggie started off toward the stairs only to pause and peer back suspiciously at the pair of noblewomen. "You'll not be going back to spy on him, will you? I don't think it would be good for the two of you to be caught lollygagging about outside his room. He isn't in the best of moods at the moment."
"Nay," Aunt Nell agreed with a disappointed sigh. She began to urge Helen after Tiernay's mistress of chambermaids. "It would be best if we steer clear of the man for a bit. We wouldn't want to give him any reason to suspect something is amiss."
"Aye." Helen acquiesced reluctantly and allowed herself to be dragged away. There was nothing she wanted to do more than to go kneel outside the Hammer's door and watch the rest of their plan unfold.
She supposed it would be an unnecessary risk, however. "Aye. I suppose I should check on the meal preparations anyway."
"I wish I could be here to see the rest of the evening's plans play out," Maggie chuckled, relaxing now that the others were moving down the stairs with her. A grin split her withered face. "Especially that little trick you taught Goliath. It should be quite entertaining."
"Aye," Helen agreed, but with a little less certainty. She had spent the better part of the last two weeks teaching her dog a very special trick to use against Lord Holden. Now that he was here, however, she was a touch nervous about using it. She didn't think the man would take it at all well. In fact, she decided right there on the spot, she would use it only as a last resort. Her other plots and plans seemed to be doing the trick well enough. Yes, yes. They were doing quite well enough without resorting to that .