Avelyn gave upon the food after just acoupleof bitesand set it aside,then lay back on the furs. Sheclosed her eyes andtried torelax, hoping herstomach would settle given the chance,but onceshe lay quietand still, there was nothing todistract herfrom her body’s complaints and Avelynwas simplymore aware ofthetingling of her tongue and her upset stomach. Shealso started tofeel abit crawly, as if ants wereracing acrossherexposedskin.
Frowning, she rubbed her hands up her arms and over her face, then sat up abruptlyas her stomach went intofull revolt. Covering her mouthwith one hand, Avelyn pushedherself toher feet and hurried out of the tent, rushing around behind itand dropping to her knees just in time for whatshe’d eaten to come catapulting out. There wasnoheaving, little warning, justa suddenviolent expulsion of the food.
Gasping for aironce she was done,Avelyn sat back onher knees and pressed onehand to her stomach, reluctant togetup until she wassure her ordeal was over.
Fortunately, shehadn’t eaten much, andthemoment it wasout, herstomach mostly settled down, pleasedto be emptyagain. Itseemed she wasn’t going to beeating tonight.
Avelyn ran her fingers slowly overherstomach, pressingsoftly and wincing at the tenderness there fromthe bruising ride. Atingling tongue and tendertummy – she was a mess. The fates did seem to haveit out for her atthe moment.
Shaking her head at her own fanciful thoughts, Avelyn stood cautiously and waited another momentto be sure she wouldn’tbe sick again,then made her way back around tothe front of thetent,her gazeslidingover the people around the camp-fireas she did. No one appeared to have noticed her suddenrun from the tent.
Nor did theynotice herslipping back inside, thank goodness. Thelast thing she neededwasfor her husband to know she’d thrownup. It would justreinforce his concerns regarding her hardiness.
Thesight of the food restingbeside the bed made her grimaceand herstomach rumble threateningly, as if warning herof what it would do if she again tried to eat.
Avelyn had no intention of doing so, but neitherdid she want her husband comingto bed and seeing thatshehadn’teaten. Pickingup the meat, she movedback to the tentflap, made sure no one was looking, then slipped out around behind the tentand tossed the food into the woods.
Back inside the tent,Avelyn picked upPaen’s discarded tunic. Runilda normally wouldhave picked upany clothes lying about, butAvelyn supposed she wouldn’t know what to do with the scrap of cloth. it was Paen’s, and goodforlittlebut arag anymore, thoughshe doubted herhusband would agree with thatsinceit was all he had to wear. He was outthere nowwithout even it tocover him. Not that it would havebeen much use in keeping himwarm, she thought, examining the holes in the item.
Turningthe cloth over in her hands, she glanced towardherchestagainst one wall of thetent. There was cloth in therethat her motherhad sent with her,cloth tomake new dressestoreplace the twothat had been destroyed onher wedding day. Surely she could make her new husband newclothes? He certainlyneeded them, and it would be something she coulddo to pleasehim.
Avelyn dropped the tunic on theend of the fur bed and movedto the chest.
Setting the candle carefullyon the floor beside it, she openedthe chest and peered in,then frowned. There werethree different colors of cloth – ared that was deeper and lovelierthan the red gown she’d lostin the fire, an ivory cloth, and ababyblue very similarto the cloththey’d usedin her wedding gown. Avelyn dropped the red andbaby blue, butset the ivoryaside and picked up ablack gown similar totheone she waswearing.
Avelyn peered from the dress to the ivorycloth, an image rising inhermind ofher husband in black braesand a white tunic. Once the image took hold, she couldn’t seem to let it go. Itwouldmean tearingout the seams oftheblack gown, Of course, but there was plenty of cloth there forher to make Paen a pair of braes from it.
Besides,she alreadyhadoneblack dress. Who needed two?
Decisionmade, she moved tothebed to begin work on rippingopenthe seams of theblack gown.
Once shehadthe stitchesout, Avelyn spread the cloth of the skirt out on the furs and began to cut it. She had sewnalot of clothesfor bothher brother andher father. Byher guess, her husbandwas more herbrother’ssize than her father’s, but still bigger. She cut accordingly, then beganto sew, happy to finallyfind something she could do to please her husband.
Avelyn worked until the candle beganto gutter inits wooden holder on the chest.
Frowning, she rubbed her sore eyes and glanced toward thecandlejust before it wentout. She should have been left in completedarkness,but wasn’t. Gray light was filteringin throughthe open flap of the tent.
Setting the unfinishedbraes aside, she gotto her feet, groaninglow in herthroat as her body complained at the movement after sitting so long in one position.
Rubbing her aching back,Avelyn moved tothetent flap and peeredout,dismayed tofind herselfpeering outat the palegray predawn. She’d worked through thenight.
Avelyn hadbarely acknowledgedthat when she realizedthat her husband had never come to bed.
Peering outtoward the center of camp, she glanced over thedarkshapes of the sleeping men andknew that her husbandwas oneof them. Hehad sleptout on the hard earth rather than join her intheir tent.
Swallowing the lump that had suddenlylodged itself in her throat,she turnedand eyedthefurs in the cornerof the tent. She knew thatifshe lay down now, not only would she cry herself to sleep, she would just feel worse when she woke up.
Everyone else would be stirring soon, and the bit of sleep she would manage wouldn’t beenough. Infact, shesuspectedit would justmakeherfeel worse.
Sighing, shemovedtothe chest instead. Avelyn shifted thedead candleasideand fetched a strip oflinenand her browndress fromthechest, then slipped out of the tent. She moved silently out ofcamp, finding and following the pathto the riverwith ease. Paen’s madrampagethrough itthe nightbefore had left a trail.
Atthe water’sedge, Avelyn pausedandinhaled deeply asshe peered around. The air was fresh with early morning smells, and the woods werejustbeginning to stir. It was a quietandpeaceful time. Smilingfaintly, she slidout of her gown and madeher way intothe water.
The river water wascold, and Avelyn was quick about her bathing. She was quickerstill about drying and dressingherself in the brown dress. Shepickedup the black dress she’d slept inandstarted to make her way back tocamp whenshe spied a quail at the edge of the clearing. Avelyn paused.
Imaginingher husband’s surprised pleasurewhen shepresentedhim with fresh eggs cooked in the embers of the night’s fire, she dropped her black dress and moved afterthebird, following it asitwaddled along the trail. Shehadn’tgone far when she spied the nest justoff the trail. Herlips curved at thesight of the eggs nestled there. Avelynshooedthe bird away, then dropped to herkneesto get closer, uncaring thatshewastanglingher hairhorribly in thebranches and muddyingher gown. Shecould repair that later. Shewanted those eggs for her husband.
Paen rolled onto his back, grimacing atthe stiffnessin his bones. He’d never enjoyed sleepingout in the openonthe hard ground,but last night it had seemed the lesserof twoevils. His gaze slid to the tentwhere he’d beenexpected to sleep,and he scowled. After spending the evening unable to stop recalling her nak*d body cuddled against his,the idea of joining hispretty young wife in their nest of furshad beenappealing. Too appealing. Paen had easilybeen able to imagineher warm, soft, nak*d body cuddling into his in the darkness, herbottompressinginto his shaft,her br**stsrestingagainst the arm he would wrap around her. Just the idea of ithad stirredhim, and the knowledge thathe wouldn’t be able to doa damned thing about thatstirringhadkept him away.
Paen pushed away the fur he’d wrapped aroundhimself andshivered at the cool morning air. It reminded-him thathe was still bare-chested. Even with its holesand thestench ofsmoke thatclung to it, his ruinedtunic had affordedsome protection from theelements. But he hadn’t wishedto risk slippingintothe tent tofetch the tunic, not with the memoryof Avelyn’s nak*d breast still dancing inhis head.
Good Lord! Paen had neverconsidered himself a terriblylusty fellow. Hehad the usual urgesandhad, in the past, dealt with themas they’d arisen,but he’d neverbeen one to wallowin carnal pursuits. But withhis wife’simage burned onhis brain as it was,he was temptedto wallow. He’d liketo run his handsand lips over every part of her soft,rounded body and – Killing his thoughts there, Paen gave upany idea of fetching his tunic untilhe’d hada nicecold dip in theriver. A nicelong cold dip. Really long.
Sighing, Paen stumbled sleepily across camp to thetrail leading to theriver. An energizing dipwas just thething, he assuredhimself,and rubbedsleepily athis face, trying to wake himselfupas he moved alongthe trail.
Paen wasn’tgood inthe morning. He usually needed a good head-soaking to thoroughly wakeup.
Stifling a yawn with one hand, Paen tried to planhis morning. He needed to drain thedragon and take a dipinthe river, thenstart waking the othersup toget under way. Hehoped to reach Hargrove today to greet his new squire. The boy was Hargrove’s son. The manhad approached him abouttaking theboyon whenhe’d heard thatPaen’s last lad had been lost, but not untilheknew thatPaen was giving upthe battletrail.
Paen’seyesaliton a berry bush, and his feet slowed as heapproachedit. The berries werefull and ripeand juicy-looking,and heimmediately felt his mouth water in anticipationof eating them. Paen was more ofa meat,cheeseand bread man, but his refusal to allowanyone tohelp him eat meant it had beentoolong sincehehad eaten properly. Fasting wasn’t sobad. Hehad done itbefore, andit wasn’treally affecting him after onlyone day. Fortunately, he wasableto hold a goblet between his two bandagedhands sowas still able to drink,but he washungry enough that in that moment,theberrieslooked as goodto him as wholelegsof lamb roastedand hung from the branches.
Pausing beside the bush ofberries, Paen glanced backthe way he’d come. No onewas followinghimdown the trail. Licking his lips, he turned his attention backto the fruit, then slid to hiskneesbefore the bushand leaned forward tocatch one ripe berry between his lips. Paen tuggeditfromthe bush, almostmoaning as the fruit burst in his mouth,sprayingits sweetnessover his tongue and the top ofhis mouth.
It wasataste of heaven, thefinestnectar, and he was leaning forward to catch another beforehehad even swallowedthat one. Paenknelt there for quite awhile, gobbling upthe berriesone afterthe other like a bee sucking the nectar from a flower… until he heard acracklingin the bushes to hisright.
Pausing, he peered along the trail in that direction, his eyesnarrowing. There was nothing tosee,but Paen could still hear somethingmoving about inthe brambles, something large. Some sortof animal? He briefly forgot about theberries ashe spied a bird through the branches. Itsstockybody andbrown and buff coloring made it recognizable as aquailbefore it slid back intothe bramblesandout of sight.
Still on hisknees,Paen startedtofollowwithsome ideaof catchingtheanimal for a meallaterin the day, or perhaps following it to its nesttosee ifthere were any eggs there. It mightbe nice to wake his wife with ahot mealtobreak her fast with.
He moved slowly and quietly on his knees, following the sound of breaking branches now. Whenhe spied a flashofbrownthrough the branches ahead, he judgedhimself closeenoughto catch the bird andlunged forward, bandaged hands outstretchedin the hopesthat hecould capture it between the cloth stubs. As it turned out,however,his target was muchbigger than he expected. This became clear as he fell through the branches that had been barring his view. Bythen it was too late – he was already landing on someone’s back and derrierecovered in a long brown wool skirt.
Paen grunted attheimpactas thebody collapsedbeneathhisweight,the sound almostdrowning outthe surprised squeal of the womanhe’d landed on. He rolled offof her at once, and she thrashed away from himbefore rollingonto her sideto gapeat him.
"Husband?" She staredat him with amazement.
"Wife. " Paen stared atAvelynin bemusement, trying to reason what she was doing there. Then he noted her damp hair and his eyes narrowed. "You were swimming. "
Avelyn blinked, then noddedslowly. "Aye. I bathedin the river. "
"After nearly drowning yesterday, you thought you should go swimming this morning by yourself?" Paen glared, furious that shehad riskedherself thatwaywhen he hadnearly lost hertheday before. Where was her sense? Howhad heendedup married to awoman so beautiful, but so dense?It wasbadenough that she was weak and frail and untutored, but how disheartening it was to find she was completely senselessas well.
"Avelyn," he interrupted sharply. "You could have drowned again, andthistime I would nothave been there to save you. "He struggled to his feet in the bushes,then reached down, waiteduntilshe caughthis wrist,thentugged her to her feet.
"Idid not drown – "
"Nay, and Iam grateful for that," he interrupted again. "But sinceGod did not see fittobless youwithcommon sense to match your beauty, in future youwill nevergo anywhere or do anythingwithout asking my permission first,"he ordered grimly, thenfrowned even harder when henoted the state of the front ofher dress. The skirt was mud-covered, but the upper torso of the gown was covered with a slimy mixture that was yellowishin spots and clear in others. Her face and neck also carriedthe shiny goop. "What thedevil is thatall over your face and down the front of yourdress?
"Quail eggs," she admittedon a sigh. "Ispotted aquail asI was about toreturn from theriver and thought youmight like a treat. I was collecting the eggs when you leaptonme. "
Some of Paen’s angerfaded at her explanation. Whether it was because she’dhad the same thought asheand hadhoped topresent him with the same tasty gift, or because he was responsible for the messnow coating her front, he couldn’t say, but most of his anger slid out of him on along sighandhe swallowed the rest of itas he noted the disheartenedexpression on her face.
"Eggswouldhavebeen nice. I thoughtof themmyself when I saw the quail, ’tis how I ended launching myself upon you. Now come," he saidgruffly, offering his hand before herecalled the stubs they presently were.
Avelyn simplyplaced her hand on his arm and ignored his hand.
Grateful that shedid not make abig deal of his temporaryhandicap, Paenledher out ontothe trail and down to the river’s edge. He waited patiently as shewaded into thewater, thenscooped uphandfuls of silt and small pebbles and used it to scour the egg off her face, neck and the front ofher gown. Paen hadratherhoped that she might strip and bathe again, butsupposed the dress would be harder to cleanif the eggs were left to dry before washing.