Hethe washed himself the best he could with cold water and no soap. Once satisfied he had done all he could, he stood and stepped out of the tub, dripping on the floor until he spotted his tunic. Snatching it up, he used it to wipe most of the water off him, shivering in the breeze from the uncovered window as he did, then hurried to the bed. A nice rest and then a good meal would go a long way toward correcting his mood.
Reaching the bed, he tossed his now soaked tunic aside with disgust and crawled quickly under the bedclothes, noting that there were no furs to warm him, just the lightest of linens. Muttering about that, he huddled there briefly, trying to warm up, then shifted around, trying to find a comfortable position. Then tried again. And again.
Hethe twisted this way, then that, shifting again and again, but there didn't appear to be a position that might make him comfortable. The damn bed was as lumpy as the old hag's chest had been. Also, it was obviously stuffed with straw. No matter what position he chose, he could feel the straw poking him. He continued to shift about briefly, then forced himself to stop. He had slept on worse beds and in worse conditions, he reminded himself grimly. He had slept on the cold, hard ground a time or two. On horseback. Even in the snow. This problem was not so heinous. Surprising, perhaps, considering the wealth of Tiernay, but nothing that would stop him from sleeping. He could suffer to nap on this lumpy old bed.
Finding his mounting irritation eased at these thoughts, Hethe sighed and forced himself to relax. Though it was only half over, it had been a long day full of disappointments and travail. A little rest would right his world. After some sleep, he would see all these things as the pesky little irritants they were - nothing for a warrior to get all upset about. All was well.
That little lecture allowed him to relax fully. He felt his body ease, his muscles giving up their tension, his mind beginning to drift. He actually even began to doze when he became aware of a mild irritating itch.
Shifting sleepily, he scratched his hip, then settled again. A moment later he scratched the spot again, then drew his leg upward so that he could scratch a sudden itch in his calf as well. He had barely satisfied that itch when he was forced to draw his other leg upward to scratch at the ankle.
Hethe was fully awake now. No more dozing for him as he began to scratch the tender spot just above the big toe on his other foot. Dear God, now it was his wrist. Pulling the offending body part out from under the linens where his hand had been busy relieving his other itches, Hethe scratched at it irritably.
His scratching slowed to a halt as he saw the small lump forming there with a bloody dot in the center. It was some sort of insect bite, he realized with dismay. He gaped at it briefly until other irritating itches drew his attention; then he stiffened abruptly and pulled the linens aside.
Hethe's eyes widened in horror as he stared at the small black dots hopping about. They were almost impossible to see until they moved. One leapt from the linen to his leg. Another leapt from his ankle to his calf. At first glance he could see more than a dozen of them, leaping and hopping everywhere.
Fleas! The bed was infested with them. And they were making a meal of him! Moved to action, he scrambled to remove himself from his berth, only to get his feet tangled in the linens. It didn't stop his momentum so much as slow it, and Hethe landed on the floor at the side of the bed with a crash.
Cursing, he shoved the linens away with disgust and sat up, his gaze moving warily to the bed as if he expected an entire army of the little hopping pests to be swarming toward him. The fleas were in hiding, however. All there was on the bed now was a small dark brown square. Easing to his feet, he leaned over the mattress to get a better look at the item and stilled. It was a small patch of fur - and it was positively crawling with fleas.
Hethe straightened abruptly but merely stared at the offending item as his mind tried to sort out what it meant. Then his gaze slid around the room, taking in the uncovered window, the lack of fire, the tub of water that had at first been scorching, then cold. He recalled the hag, the ale, the missing linen and even his betrothed's horrific breath. It was all coming together in his mind now to make a sort of sense.
Hethe released a laugh of disbelief. The wench Lady Tiernay wasn't as resigned to this wedding as she would have everyone believe, he realized. She could not refuse the order to marry, or betray her displeasure openly, so she had used strategy and plotted against them all.
Perhaps she had hoped that he would refuse the order. No doubt she hoped he could put an end to it, and she had done all she could to encourage him to do so. But she was wrong; he was as helpless in this as she herself was. Though the wench wasn't all that helpless, he considered wryly. The girl didn't just have a dragon's breath, she had its claws too. That fact actually made Hethe feel better. She was a clever little female.
Had he a choice, as she seemed to think, her plan probably would even have worked. He probably would have done whatever he could to avoid marrying her. She had chosen the best route to deter him.
Really. An ugly wife? Well, a man could always blow out the candles or close his eyes. A fat wife? Well, again, one could close his eyes...besides, plump women had their benefits. They made a soft pillow for a man. A shrewish or abusive wife could be beaten or put in the dunking chair to encourage a more pleasant nature. But a beautiful bride with such an offensive odor? That was enough to make any man cry. Blowing the candles out and closing his eyes would never have fixed that. Nor would thirty gallons of rosewater.
Aye, she was clever, so it seemed there were brains to go with her beauty. But what to do about it? He supposed he could confront her, tell her he couldn't refuse the king's order and that she was wasting her time. Hethe grimaced at the thought. He would most likely flub that. Hethe didn't like confrontations - verbal ones anyway. He could handle a sword as if he had been born with it in his hand, and was never one to shirk from battle, but arguments were another matter. His tongue ever seemed to tangle when verbal conflicts erupted. Hethe's father had had a tongue as sharp as a knife and had lashed him with it repeatedly during his youth. And he had been beaten when he'd tried to respond in kind. By the time Hethe had become an adult, his tongue just seemed a flaccid piece of meat in his mouth when it came to arguing his case. He knew what he wanted to say, but his brain never seemed able to put it into words.
He had once found it terribly frustrating. He supposed he still did, but, mostly, he just avoided verbal confrontations as much as possible and relied on his battle skills. And that was what he would do now, he decided suddenly.
Despite having been married before, Hethe was not all that experienced a husband. But this - this was war, and if there was one thing the Lord of Holden knew a lot about, it was war.
Hethe began to chuckle to himself, until a constant irritating itching managed to make its way through his thoughts. Sighing, he turned away from the bed and moved to the broken chair. There he could itch in some mild comfort as he planned his strategy.
Helen was just coming out of the kitchens when she spotted Lord Holden descending the stairs to the great hall. She hesitated briefly, wishing her aunt were around, but the woman had retired for a small rest before "the real battle began," as she had put it. Managing to paste a surprised look on her face - something she had practiced during the days while they had been awaiting his arrival - she rushed to the bottom of the stairs, peering up at him in concerned amazement.
"Is there something wrong, my lord? Could you not sleep?"
Hethe smiled at her widely. "I did not even try. My bath invigorated me and I found myself wide awake."
Helen felt her smile slip, but she quickly forced it back into place. "Oh. Well... isn't that nice? Did you - ? Would you - ?" She glanced briefly around the empty great hall, struggling with her disappointment at his missing what she considered the best part of her plot - his flea-ridden bed. Still, that just meant he would encounter the fleas later this evening, she reassured herself, then tried to think up something to distract him until mealtime. "A drink?" she offered at last, it being the only thing to come to mind at the moment. Helen did hate when there were variations in her plans. In fact, it quite annoyed her that the man hadn't simply gone to bed as expected.
"My, yes. Some more of that fine ale would be wonderful."
Helen's head snapped around at her guest's claim. Fine ale? God's garters! Didn't the man have any taste? She was certain her plan had gone perfectly earlier. Both his mug and hers had held stuff that had turned and been allowed to go flat. The bug he'd found had been placed deliberately, though they had expected Lord Holden to see it, not nearly drink the thing. She had planned to offer him her mug, too, to make sure he didn't realize that Templetun and William were drinking a different brew entirely.
Now, the man was describing her nasty trick as fine ale, and, well -
"Is there something wrong, my lady?"
Giving a start, Helen flushed as she realized that she had been standing there ruminating for far too long.
Clearing her throat, she forced a smile and started across the room. "Nay, my lord. Pray, seat yourself, and I shall call for servants to fetch you some ale."
She didn't watch to see if he listened; she simply hurried to the door to the kitchens and pushed her way inside. Vexed, she frowned mightily as soon as the door closed behind her.
"My lady?" Ducky was at her side in an instant, concern covering her face. "Has something happened?"
"Aye. Lord Holden wants some more of our fine ale ." Her words were grim, and Ducky's eyes widened in amazement.
"Fine ale? And why is he not resting ere the sup?"
"He is not tired," Helen answered dryly, then suddenly asked, "Did you remove the fur from his bed?"
When the servant merely looked uncertain, Helen sighed. Maybe it had been good fortune that he had not wanted to sleep; maybe they had been pushing things too far. Lord Holden might have discovered the fur and put things together had he tried to take a nap. "You had best go check on it. And have someone fetch him some ale. I shall see if I cannot convince him he is tired after all."
"How?" Ducky asked with amazement.
Helen grimaced. "How, indeed?" she muttered, and started to push her way back out of the kitchens, only to pause and glance back. Perhaps now was the time to resort to the trick she'd taught her dog.
"Ducky," she began. "I let Goliath outside. Fetch him back and bring him to me."
The maid swallowed thickly at the order, her eyes round and worried. She knew what Helen planned.
"Oh, my lady. Do you think you should - "
"Yes," Helen said firmly. "I do." She pasted a bright smile on her face, then she stepped back into the hall. Returning swiftly to the main table, she recalled her fetid breath, and her smile became a little more natural. Of course! She might not need to use her trick. She merely had to talk to Hethe for a few moments, then he would be as eager to escape to his room as he had been earlier. Perhaps she might even make him wish to flee the keep without unleashing Goliath.
But was her bad breath fading? she wondered. Ducky had not turned away in disgust during their conference. She could not expect to win a battle if her weapon was blunted. Spinning abruptly, she hurried back to the kitchens. She would only use the dog if it looked like there was no other way.
Hethe settled himself down to wait at the trestle tables. After a few minutes, the sound of the door to the kitchens swinging open made him glance over his shoulder. Lady Helen came out smiling brightly, then paused halfway to the tables, her smile fading. After the barest hesitation, she whirled away and hurried back into the kitchens. He had no idea what sent her running back out of the hall, but he suspected that it was something to do with this battle they were wagging. And they were waging war now, though she might not realize that he had joined the fray rather than fallen victim to it.
Hethe's strategy was a simple one. Negate everything. He would tell her that the ale was fine, her breath was like the sweetest flower, and the maid she had chosen for him had proven as capable as she should be. Lying on his bed was like sleeping on a cloud, and he was truly enjoying the fresh air the lack of window covering allowed into his room. He was going to love everything if it killed him.
The worst of it was that he was going to have to keep from trying to escape the assault of her breath.
No more turning his head away. No more holding his breath. He was a man. A warrior. He could do it, he encouraged himself grimly, then glanced over his shoulder at the sound of the kitchen door again opening.
Lady Helen, another brilliant smile widening her lips, hurried toward him as if she couldn't bear to be out of his presence. Clever little witch, he thought with amusement. Two can play at this game.
Standing abruptly, he hurried to meet her, smirking inwardly at her startled reaction before she controlled it. He supposed that, to anyone watching, they might have looked like eager lovers as he grasped her hand and smiled gently down on her. He was especially proud of the fact that his smile didn't falter when she lifted her gaze and very deliberately breathed into his face. God's teeth! She must have gone back to the kitchen for a refresher of whatever foul mixture she used to taint her breath. His eyes began to water from the assault. Ducking his head to hide his reaction, he brushed a kiss over his fiancee's knuckles that would have made a court gallant proud.
The action obviously caught her by surprise. He heard her swallow as he straightened, and her face held a rather stunned expression. Smiling widely, Hethe shifted and slid one arm around her waist, using it and the hand he still held her with to guide her to the table.
"I must tell you, my lady," he murmured as he saw her seated and cozied up next to him on the bench. "I am pleasantly surprised by all I have found here."
Her eyes widened in a sort of incredulous horror. "You are?"
"Aye. Such a fine holding and a lovely bride." He gave her one of those hot, smarmy looks he had seen other men turn on the women they loved or desired. He wasn't sure it was working, however. The woman blinked, certainly, swaying closer, but that could be just so that she could breathe at him more effectively. He struggled on, acting the swain. "I am the most fortunate of men. There cannot be a more perfect woman inEnglandthan you."
"No?" There definitely was suspicion in her eyes now, he realized and just managed to contain a grimace. He needed to distract her. Some flowery compliments would be needed, he decided.
Unfortunately, Hethe was the direct sort. He had never bothered with such foolishness before. And wouldn't now, he decided suddenly, an idea taking form in his head. He would insult her with compliments. Oh, this would be fun.
"No. Your hair is... yellow," he began sweetly, his smile widening at her confused expression before he added, "Like those little plants my horse tramples in my meadow."
She made a choking sound that might have been disbelief, but might just as easily have been amusement.
She was definitely distracted. The suspicion was fading from her eyes. With this success, he decided to press his attack. "And your eyes are big... like a cow's. Only they aren't the same color as a cow's, of course," he hurried on as she made a strangling sound in her throat. "Cows usually have brown eyes, and yours are a much nicer - er - "
He hesitated briefly as he gazed into her eyes. They had appeared as blue as the sky outside when he had first met her. Now they seemed to be a greenish blue. "Well, they aren't brown," he said at last.
"Really, my lord," she began, but Hethe jumped in with the killing blow.
"And your breath is as sweet as the sweetest wine."
He was quite pleased to see her face flush, a choked sound slipping from her lips before she bowed her head. He couldn't see her expression then, but he could see that her hands were clenched in her lap.
Victory! He was just celebrating the success of his endeavor when she suddenly lifted her head again. His own gaze narrowed as he saw the fire shining in her eyes. She was mad, all right, he realized, and felt a new wariness creep over him. There was good reason for it, too, he realized, when she suddenly leaned closer and sighed gustily into his face.
"Oh, my lord, you are too kind. Do I really have breath like fine wine?"
Groaning inwardly, Hethe barely managed to keep down the spoiled ale he had drunk earlier and forced his smile to widen. "Aye. Like the finest aged wine." Old and moldering after having sat about for years, he added silently, but was pleased with how smoothly and easily he spouted his lies. He sat a little straighter. Damn, I'm good, he thought and nearly burst out laughing at the vexation that flashed across Lady Helen's face.
She was obviously displeased. Any last lingering doubt that everything he had encountered was part of some plan she had to rid herself of him was quickly squelched. Aye, this was war she was waging. But he was going to win it. Hethe had never lost a war. A battle, perhaps, but never a war... Yet.
He had barely finished his self-congratulations when the main doors of the keep opened and Lady Helen's servant entered with the great mangy dog that had been sitting on the steps when they arrived.
The maid glanced at where Hethe and Helen sat at the table with what Hethe judged to be trepidation, then released the wolfhound and quickly backed out of the keep, pulling the door closed behind her.
If the servant's expression had not warned him that something was amiss, the way Lady Helen instantly relaxed and began to smile as she spotted the animal was a warning in itself.
"Oh look! It is Goliath. You two should meet, my lord." She got to her feet, smiling as the dog started toward them, then moved forward herself to meet him. "Come."
Hethe hesitated, suspecting that he would be sorry should he follow her, but his plan called for him to be as sickeningly agreeable as he could. Deciding that if she had done something foul like train the beast to bite him on command, he would break the animal's thick neck, he got cautiously to his feet to join her.
He knew his mistake the moment her smile widened in spiteful satisfaction.
"Look Goliath! It is Lord Holden!" she cried brightly, reaching out to tap Hethe's arm. The dog gave an excited bark and raced forward. For one brief moment, Hethe was sure she had indeed trained the beast to attack him. The dog did launched itself forward. Hethe was a bare breath away from grasping the dog's stupid, tongue-lolling head and breaking his neck with a twist when Helen cooed gleefully from beside him. "Oh look, he likes you! Is that not nice?" Hethe stilled then and focused on what the animal was doing. Goliath was not in the midst of attacking him at all. At least, not a snapping kind of attack. His betrothed's damned dog was humping him!