Oh, dear God, Avelyn thought, blushingwhenPaen reachedout and attemptedto push her breast backinside the hole with one bandagedhand. Handicapped as he was, it was an impossible effort.
Brushinghis hands away, she took over the task herself. Avelynslipped her breastback inside the tunic, thenshifted the cloth so that thehole wasn’t in quite such a dismayingspot. She then kept her head lowered, tooembarrassedto raise it andmeethis gaze.
Her downward glanceleft her staring athis bandaged hands, and Avelyn sucked in a startled breath as she actually looked at them. As thick as the bandages were, there was bloodshowing through thecloth on both hands. It looked fresh.
This little rescue attempt had apparently not been good for him.
"My lord!" She snatchedat his hands, only to releasethemabruptly when he drew in ahissing breath. Avelynraised her eyes to his and shook herhead slowly, amazed that he hadbeen able to carry her through his pain. "We must get you back andtend to them. "
Paen’sanswer was a dismissivegrunt, but hedidstand. When he offeredone bandaged stubto assisther, Avelyngrasped hisarm above the wristand got up as well,no longer caringhow she must look standing therein naught buthistunic,her damphair falling in snaky tendrils downher back. Now she was wholly concerned with her husband’s well-being. Taking his elbow,sheurged him back tothe horse, thenhesitated and facedhim.
"Shall I help you mount?" sheaskedwithconcern.
Paen snorted at thepossibilityand merelycaught herunder the arms with his bandaged hands, neatly tossing her up ontohis horse. The action was quick, but not so quick that she did not catch the pained grimace that briefly tightened his expression. Biting hertongue to keep fromberating him forhis prideful behavior, Avelyn sat quietly as he mounted behind her and grabbed up the reins toturn the mountback toward camp.
Lordand Lady Gervillecame rushing forwardas soon as theyre-entered camp, but Paen did notstophismount bythe other horses. Instead, herode straightto their tent. Relieved that she wouldn’t need to crossthe campsite inherskimpy attire, Avelyn quickly slidoffthehorse. Out ofthecorner ofher eye, shespotted Lord and Lady Gerville rushing forwardand heardtheirconcerned questions as toher well-being. Noteager to standaround any longer than necessary in her holey tunic, she left Paen to answerandduckedinto thetent.
"Oh, my lady!" Runilda rushed forwardthe momentAvelyn entered, anxietyon herfaceas she grabbed her arms and looked her over. "Are you all right?"
"I am fine, Runilda. Truly,"she assured her whenthe maid’s concern did not ease.
"Oh, thank the good Lord!" she said at last, relaxing. "I near todied when Lady Gervillesaid youhad drowned. Thank God Lord Paen was able to bring ye back around. " She wasbustlingAvelyn across the small tent tothe makeshift bed they’d built offurs andlinens. Themaid had beenbusy, Avelyn saw; the tentwasnow as comfortable as it could be. There waseven a flickering candle set on the chest, adding light asevening darkened the sky.
"Now you get out ofthatwet tunic. Wemust getye warmand bundled upelse ye maycome down with thelungcomplaint," Runilda ordered.
"I will not get the lung complaint," Avelyn assured her, but quickly stripped Paen’s tunicoffas the maid movedthe candleto the floor so that she could open anddigthrough the chest. When the maid then held outa strip oflinenforher to dry off with,Avelyn waved it away. Her ride on the horse had seen to drying her. Other than her hair she was no longer damp. She was, however, eager to get dressed before Paen returned.
"Find the bagofherbs andfresh linenswe packed away to tend the injured, Runilda," Avelyn instructed as shepulled onafresh shift and then accepted the black gown the girl handed her.
"Wereyou injured?"Runildaasked withconcern as she started hunting for the required items.
"Nay, but my lord husband did hishands little good with all this carting me about andsuch. "
"Oh. Aye. Sely,Lady Gerville’s maid, said that hishands were mightilyburnt," the girl murmured, herhead deep in one of the chests. "She thinks ’twill be a couple weeks erehe heals, and that is only does he not do them more harm with this journey. "
Avelyn frowned. Shehadn’t beenfullyaware of how injured he was, but had suspected it wasn’t good when his mother hadbeen so concernedabout his riding onthe journey backtoGerville. Shewould be glad to get thechance to see the depth of theinjury to hishands when he returned to thetent.
Avelynhad a longwait. She was just beginning tothinkshe would have togo after him when the tent flap waspulled aside.
Relieved thathehad finally arrived,Avelyn stood, a bright,welcoming smileon herfacethatfaded when she saw that it was Paen’smother and not Paen himself.
"Oh. " Aware that her smile was fading, she tried to rescueit, and then explained apologetically,"I was expecting Paen. His bandagesneedrepair. "
"Ialready took care of that," Lady Gervilleassured heras she straightenedinside the tent. "He sufferedlittle damage,thankgoodness, and does he givethem the chance to recover, shall beback to himself in a couple of weeks. "
"Oh. " Avelyn sagged somewhat, disappointment surging through her. She was feeling ratherredundant asa wife. She didn’t appear to be needed for anything that a wife normally did. She’d beenwedded, but hadyet to bebedded. She’d not even seen her home yet, so hadn’t taken on any wifely tasks there,and seriously doubted she would beallowed to since his motherwas stillalive and welland no doubtfirmly in charge at Gerville. And now shewasn’t even allowed to tend tohisinjuries as a goodwifeshould. Itbegan to look asif she wasn’t really needed at all.
"Iam sorry,Avelyn," Lady Gerville said. "’Tis yourplacetotend him now. I fear it shalltake sometimefor me to get used tothefact that myson now has awife for suchthings. "
" ‘Tis all right, mylady," Avelynsighed, dropping to sit on the furs: "I fearI am something of a failure as a wife. "
"Oh, nay,child. " Lady Gerville moved forward, dismayon herface. "You are a lovely wife, and perfect for Paen. "
"Ibelieveyou may mean perfect for pain,’" Avelynsaiddryly. "Sofar I have set my parents’ castle on fire, gettingPaen burnt as hetried toput it out,and increased the injury by making him thinkI was drowningso that he had to – "
"Making him think?" Lady Gerville interruptedona gasp. "You were pretending?"
"Nay, of course not, buthe misunderstood. Iwas just floatingon my back. Then Paen was suddenly draggingme outof thewater and lugging me around nak*das the dayI was born. "
LadyGerville gapedin horror. "Whydid you not say something?"
"I… well, at first I was too startled, and then I thought perhaps wewere being attacked. He wasshoutingsomething aboutdrowning anddevils, and I was notsure what washappening. I thought perhaps someone hadattackedand drowned you or Lord Gervilleor…"She shrugged helplessly. "By the time I realizedwhat wasreally amiss; I wasbare-bottomup on thebackofthe horse. "Sheshook her head. "I couldhardlyembarrass him byletting him know he had erred, soI let him think he had saved me. " She fell silent, positive that Lady Gerville would be horrified byher stupidity. The woman did gape at her in a rather horrified manner for several moments.
Ducking herhead in embarrassment, Avelyn was grateful that Runilda had gone outto join Sely by the fire and so wasn’t there to witness this most humiliating confession. As far as she was concerned, it was just another failure on her part. She stiffened, then raised her head at a muffledsound fromtheolderwoman, then stared at hermother-in-lawwith disbelief as it came again. A soundvery like a gigglehad slipped muffled frombehindthehand Lady Gerville had raisedto her mouth. In the next moment, the womangave up theobvious struggleshe was waging and burst into gales oflaughter.
Avelyn smiled uncertainlyandwaited forheramusementtofade.
"Oh, Avelyn," Lady Gerville sighed at last. Easing down to sit beside her on the furs,she put anarm aroundAvelyn’s shouldersand briefly hugged herclose. "You poor dear, ’tisnot youIamlaughing at,’tisall of us. The last few days havebeen onecalamity afteranother. Firstthere wasyourfaintingat the wedding, then the fire, now thisdrowning that was not a drowning. "
"Aye. Iappear to be something ofa clumsy oaf. "
"You? Nay. Not you, child. Yourmother told me ’twas her ideato bind you for thegown for the wedding. Asforthefire,you may have knocked the candle over, but Paen was the one whotriedto put it outwith his hands. Wereit not for you running belowto fetchhelp, his pride probablywould have seen himexpireinthat fire. Then today, the man misconstrued the situation, mistook your floating for drowningand carted youabout like amadman. None of that was really your fault.
‘Twas… well… fate, I suppose. But fate does seem to be working againstyou at the moment. "
"Against me?" Avelyn glancedat herwith surprise. "I am not the one getting injured by these incidents. Paen is. "
"Aye. But…" Lady Gervillehesitated, and thenadmittedruefully, "I spent the entire time Iwas bandaging Paen’shands listening to him fretover the possibilitythat his bride may not be what he’d hoped. That you appear fragile, unskilled and accident prone. "
Avelyn frowned over this news. She was anything but fragile. She was also well trainedand terribly efficient… usually. Asforbeing accident prone,she didn’tused tobe. "What do I do?"
"Well…" Lady Gervillebrieflyponderedthematter. "I suppose we could tellhim thathe wasmistaken inthinking youhaddrowned,"she offered, sounding doubtful.
Avelyn shook her head. "Then he would feel a fool fortrying to rescueme. Nay, I could notdo that. Awifeshould protect her husband’s pride. "
"Aye. Well…" Lady Gervillethought for another moment. "I suppose you could admit that you really doknow how to ridehorses. "
"You knew I could?"Avelyn asked with surprise.
"The night of the feast, your mother was telling me of your accomplishments.
Ridingwasamong them. I knewatonce that youwere claiming an inabilityat the skill to prevent Paen’s takingthe reins and damaging his hands further. "
Avelyn nodded. "Aye, and if I admit to that skill nowhe shall insist on taking the reins for therest of the journey," she mutteredunhappily. "And he shall do them more damage. "
"Aye. He may do. Menaresofoolish intheir pride. " Lady Gerville sighedagain.
"Well, then, perhaps the only thing todoisto letthingsgo and show with your future behavior thatyou are capable. AndIshall helpby not stepping in and taking over yourduties in future," she assured Avelyn apologetically. " Tis just thatI am usedtotending such things. If I forget infuture, pray tell meandI shall step aside. "
Avelyn noddedsolemnly,thoughshe knew sheprobablywouldn’t say anything. It was enough for her toknow thather mother-in-law wasn’t deliberatelysetting outto undermine her place inher husband’s life. She had no wish tonagtheolder woman should she forget and act like amother to her own son. "I know you areembarrassed at having been seen unclothedby everyone, but when you are sufficiently recovered, come join us by the fire. Dinner should be ready soon. " LadyGerville patted her shoulder affectionately, and then slipped from the tent.
Avelynhad just built upher courageto the pointwhereshe was willing tojoin everyone around the fire for the evening meal when there was a sudden throat-clearing outside the tent and a tentative, "Avelyn?"
"Aye?"She glanced curiously toward the flap as it lifted and Diamanda peered in uncertainly.
"May I comein?" the younger girl asked.
"Of course. " Avelyn smiledather in welcome,her curious gaze moving to the meatthe girl held on abed of leaves.
"Themen roasted somerabbits they snared, and whenyou did not come outto join us, I realized you must be too embarrassed after the spectacle earlier, so I thought you mightlike me to bringyou some. "
Avelyn blinked at the meat shethrust forward,andthenlifted hergaze tothegirl’s face. Diamandawaspink-cheeked withembarrassment,and Avelyn knewher own facewas sportinga blush after the girl’s blurted speech. She’dbeen so embarrassed at the men seeing her, she hadn’t even thought of Diamanda’s and the maids’ reaction. Burning humiliation now coursed through her at the thought of the undignified picture she must have made.
Realizing that she was being rude, Avelyn forceda smile and accepted the food.
"Thankyou, Diamanda. It wasthoughtfulof you to think ofme. "
Diamanda smiled widely. "I just know that I would havedied ifithad been me carriedthrough campas bare as the day I was born for everyoneto see,and I’m not evenas big asyou. "She smiled reassuringly. "I know yourcousinswere meanto you about it, butyou will be happier at Gerville. Paen and Lord and Lady Gerville will never make funof howyou look, like your cousinsdid. The Gervilles aresuch wonderfulpeople and accept everyone, no matter how big or ugly they are. "
Diamanda blinked as she heard her ownwords, then saidquickly, "Not that you are ugly. I just meant that if you were, theywould… or would not…" Obviously confused andembarrassed at the mess she’d made of what she’dmeantto be a reassurance, Diamandacluckedand turned quickly away to open the flap. "I should get backtothe fireere Lady Gervillewonders where I got to. "
She wasgone before Avelyn could sayanything,thoughshe wasn’tsure what she wouldhavesaid. Part of herfelt as if she should haveagain said thank youfor the girl’s thoughtfulness,but her attemptsto reassureher had managed to make Avelyn feel even worseabout herself.
Sighing dispiritedly, she settledontothemakeshift bed of furs and contemplated the meat the girlhad left. it was a full leg and smelleddelicious, but in truth, Avelyn wasn’tvery hungry. Not that she had been before Diamanda’s visit. After the beating her stomach had takenon the back of the horse, the lastthing she’d beeninterested in waseating. But Avelynknew sheshouldeat. It had been a long dayin the saddle and would no doubtbe again tomorrow,and after learning that Paen was worried thatshe wasn’t the strong and competentwifehe had hoped for, she was determined tokeepherstrengthup.
Grimacing,Avelyn pickedupa bit of meat and took a small bite, managing tobite hertongue asshe did. Mutteringunderher breath, she spat the meat out and rubbed her tongue overthetop of her mouth, trying tosoothe it. She hadn’t thoughtshe’d bitten down that hard,but her tongue was tingling. Shaking her headat hersuddenly clumsytendencies, she sighed and forced herself to take anotherbite of the meat, but foundno pleasurein it. Hertonguewas tingling,and herstomach began to roil themoment the first mouthful hit it. It was not pleased with the beating it hadtaken thatdayandwas infullrevolt at her daringtotry to put anything in it.