Avelyn caughtthe hemof her skirt on both sides and lifted it up over her h*ps as shedropped to squat in thebushes, thengave a startledlittle squeal of painand straightened abruptly, one hand goingtorub her bottom. Stingingnettles – leave itto hertosquat in apatch of them.
Grimacing,she movedseveral feet fromwhere she’d been, felt cautiously around with herhand to be sure there wereno nettles here, then repeatedthe procedure.
This time shemanaged the task without incident.
Relieved tohave thematter tendedto, she started back toward the tent, then paused. She’dforgottenthe goblet. Staring into the darkness around her, Avelyn considered returning for it inthe morning, but feared she wouldn’t know where exactly to look. Ontop of that, Diamanda was going toreturn for it to clean. How couldshe explain losing the goblet? The girl would know she hadn’teatenthestew, andherfeelings wouldbe hurt.
Heaving a resigned breath, Avelyn moved to where she thought she’d first stopped, and knelt to feel around for it. Of course, she found the stew first.
Muttering under her breath, she wiped her hand on the grass, then continued searching,andthis time foundthe stinging nettles.
It justwas not her night, Avelyn thought with exasperation, rubbing the tips of the injured fingers with her other hand, then tried one more time. Fortunately,she found the goblet without furtherincident and stood up with relief.
There,thatwasn’t so bad, she toldherself silendy as she madeher way backto the tent,but evenshedidn’t believe it. Avelyn pausedbehind thetent and peeked around first to be sure noone waslooking, then hurriedquickly aroundto the flap andslipped inside with asigh ofrelief.
She setthe goblet on the ground by the furs, picked upher sewing and winced at the irritated sting in her fingers. Sheswitched thesewing to her other hand. The moment she putweight on her bottom, she was remindedthat her fingers weren’t the only thing that had comein contact with the nettles.
Gasping,Avelynshifted to herknees, then dropped thesewing altogether and lifted the back of her skirtin aneffort to see howmuch damagethe nettleshad done.
Of course, no matter how she strained and twisted, she couldn’t see much.
However, when she ran her uninjuredhand over the area, shecould feel welts.
Avelyn letherskirt drop back into place with a disheartenedsigh. It didseemher husbandmight be rightabouther wandering off onher own. Her behind stung from squattingin the nettles, the fingersof her right handtoo, and she’d apparently knelt in the stew. Shepluckedoff the bit of meat stucktothe knee of her gown.
Avelyndropped themeat inthe goblet, set thesewing out of the way and lay downon her side. Itwouldtakean hour or so at least beforethe welts wentaway.
Sewing was out of the question for now.
She supposedit wasforthebest. She’d determined to sleep tonightanyway. She would just get more than she’d hoped for, Avelyn told herself. Still, she was depressed by her own ineptitude.
"Well?"Paen asked themoment Diamandareturned from the tent.
"She is asleep," the girl said apologetically. "Iwas not sure,shall I wake her,or – ?"
"No," Paen said on a sigh. He’d asked Diamanda to invite Avelyn out to join them if she was feelingbetter, but it seemedthat wasn’tgoingto happen. Heshook his headandpushed alogfurther into the fire with the toe of his boot.
"Did she eat anything?"he heardhis mother ask and glanced up asDiamandaheld upthe goblet she’d fetched while there.
"Aye, all but one little piece of meat. "
"Well, Iam sure she is just a little weary from the journey," his mother said.
Paen grunted. "She slept through thejourney today, and she is sleeping again now," hepointed out grimly. "I think sheis ailing. "
"Iam sure she isfine, Paen," hismother insisted, but he wasn’t fooled. He could see theconcern on her face. Still, he let the matter drop; at leastoutwardly. Paen couldn’t help but think that he had themostfragileof wivesand he would haveto take special care withher to be sure he gother homesafely. Oncethere, away from the rigors oftravel, perhaps shewould dobetter.
Theyshould reachHargrove’s lateonthe morrow,where he could collect his new squire. It was only atwo-dayjourney back after that. It was reallyonly a two-day journeyfrom Straughtonto hisfamily’s home, but the need to collect his squirehad taken them out of their way. He’d suggested thathismother and father continueon home with most ofthemen, leaving only a small escort for himand Avelyn,but his mother wouldn’thear of it. She wantedto be closeby tochange his bandagesand assureherself that hedidn’t further hurt himself.
His gaze slidtothetent, and he decided he would keep Avelyn on his horsewith him for the remainder of the journey. That way, she could rest and conserve whatever strength she did have.
Birdsong made Avelynstraightenfrom her sewing and glancetoward the tent flap tosee that dawn wasbreaking. She’dworked through the night again.
Her nap after the encounter with the stinging nettleshad beena shortone, but it had been long enough that her backside had recovered. She’d found that after sleeping allday, she wasn’t tired. Avelynhad settledinto sewing, tellingherselfthat she would only work for a little while, then would sleep. Of course, she hadn’t. The sewinghadgone sowell, she’d workedthrough the night again.
She knewshe would regret it later today,but at the moment,Avelyn was terribly pleasedwith herself. She’d finished the braes and had made a goodstart on the tunic. Another nightandshe mighteven have itdone.
Imagining her husband’s pleasure when she presented them to him, Avelyn straightenedher back from the hunchedpositionshe’d been working in,then got slowly and painfully to her feet. She should have moved around some toprevent the stiffness fromsetting in,but she hadn’t thought about it at thetime. Now she was paying the price for sitting in one position for hours.
She folded the unfinished tunicneatlyandput it in her chestwith the braes,telling herself she didn’t mind that her husbandhad again neglectedto joinher in the tent.
Avelyn wasn’t a very convincing liar, eventoherself.
Marriedlife seemed to be a lot lonelier than she’d imagined it would be. Or perhapsit wasjust her marriage.
Sighing, she moved tothe tent flap topeer hopefully out. Now thatshewasup and about, Avelyn was aware of a rather urgent need to relieve herself again.
Unfortunately, none of the lumps of male flesh around the fire were moving or showing any sign of waking up yet.
Glancing toward the surrounding woods, Avelynthought she spotted a pathon the opposite side of camp. Itprobably led to the river, she realized, then glanced again at thebodies asleep around the fire’s ashes.
She’dencountereda bit ofdifficultyon her errand last night, but thathad been in darkness and Avelynwas sure shecouldmanage fine now that therewas more light.
But her husband had ordered her not to wander offagain without his permission.
Avelyn started to consider the repercussions of disobeyingher new husband, but herbodywas making itsneeds painfully clear. If she didn’t go outand attendto the matter,she would beattendingtoit inthe tent,like itor not.
Muttering under her breath, she stepped out of the tent and moved stealthily around camp till she founda path.
She walked the path for several moments until it opened into another small clearing. She gazed around then, a bitbefuddled. There was no river in sight. Still, shecould seethe beginnings of anotherpath directly across from her. Shrugging, she crossedthe clearing and starteddown thenew path, but itseemed to grow smaller as shewentalong until it dwindledout altogether.
After a moment’s hesitation, Avelyn gavein toneed and relieved herself, then turnedback theway she’d come.
At the small clearing she’d just crossed, Avelyn paused. There were the beginnings of two paths across fromher and Avelynwasn’t sure which she’d used.
The oneon the right?The paths were rather closetogether,and it could havebeen theone on the left. Decidingto go with herfirst instinct, she started upthe pathon theright,assuring herself that if it was the wrong one,she’d simplyturn back afew minutes later, andtake theother one. However, when Avelyn did turn back, she seemed to walk an awfully long time before findinga clearing,and then it seemed smaller than theclearing she’d started out from.
Decidingshe was imagining things, Avelyn took a new path and headed out again… and ten minutes later admitted to herself that she was lost. Worse yet, considering that the sun was nowfully up in the sky, there was no wayshe could slip back into the tent without her husband noticing.
Avelyn feltready tosit right down and have a good cry. It was almost asif the fatesweretellingherthatthis marriage was doomed. However, it washer considered opinion that the fateswere a stupid bunch ifthey didn’tknow enough to giveher these warnings before she’d married rather than after.
Forcing away unwanted tears, Avelyntook a deep breath, peered around the clearing and then chose apath at random and startedout once more.
She’d walked perhaps a hundred feet when she nearly knocked someone over.
Herrelief at finding somebody lastedaboutas longas it took for her to realize who she’dnearly knockedover andwhat he’d been doing at the time. The manpresently cursingat the interruption was LordGerville. Her father-in-lawhad obviously come out to tend to the samematter asshe, and hadmorethan just the situation inhand at the moment.
"Oh!" Avelyn whirled away from him. She even started back along the path, desperate togive him privacy. However, she hadn’t gonefar when she realized he was her only hope of returningtocamp before the day wasout. Avelyn paused.
Shedid wonder ifshe shouldn’t explain whyshe wasn’tcontinuing forwardto give him more privacy, but before shecould decide what to say, hefinished his business and stomped up next to her.
"Sorry if I gave you a start, girl," he said gruffly. "Ithought Iwasthe onlyone awake orI would have gone furtherfrom camp to tendtomatters. "
Since she’d beenwalkingfor a good halfhour, Avelyn couldn’t imagine how much farther fromcamp he could have gone. However, she didn’t say as much, but merely offered him a smile and hoped theshadows cast bythetrees were hiding just how red and embarrassed she was.
"Ismyhusbandnot yetup?"she asked hopefullyas she fell into step with him.
"He was still asleep whenI left camp,but…" Hepaused as theyboth became aware of the sound of someonecrashing quicklythrough the woods. Shaking his head, Lord Gerville finished, "ButI would guess that is him coming now. "
"Avelyn!" Paen stumbled out onthepath directly aheadof themand cameto an abrupt halt.
"There you are! I feared you had got yourselflostin the woods. Did I nottell you not to wanderoff by yourself?"
"I – " Avelynbegan, but snapped her mouth closed as heused one stump to urge her backinthe direction he’d come. They’d barely taken adozensteps whenthey brokeout of the trees and into the clearing.
"Why,Iwasn’t far from campat all," she said with amazement as the sounds of talk and activity washed overher.
"You were lost,"Paen accused, and Avelyn grimaced. She really needed to think before she spoke.
"Perhaps a little, yes," sheadmitted. "But then Ifound your father, and everything was fine. Besides, I did not go to the riverside, I merelywished to attend to… er… other things," she finished vaguely, thenadded, "Rather urgent other things which you did not take me to attend to yestereve when we stopped forthe night. "
"You did not ask me totake youto attend tothese personal needs," Paen said shortly, soundingannoyed ather tone of voice. "And I know you did not goto the riverside. Weare notcampedneara river today. "
"Wearen’t?" Avelyn asked with surprise. "Then how shall we clean up today?"
"We won’t," heansweredbluntly. "But hopefully, weshallarriveatHargroveby evening and may cleanupthere. "
"Oh. " She frowned over that. Shetrulydidn’t care forthe gritty, dusty feelthat travelingcaused and hadlooked foward to bathinginthe river. Onthe other hand, she supposedafter yesterday’s debacleit mightbe safertobathe at Hargrove.
Sighing,Avelyn turned away andstarted toward her tent, only tobe drawnup short by her husband’s stump on her shoulder.
"Aye?"she asked warily,turningback to face him.
"If you need to drain the… er… use the garderobe," Paen corrected himself quickly,"in future you need onlyask me. I cannotread yourmind on such matters. "
"Oh. " She blinked as his words sankin. He couldn’t read hermind. Of course he couldn’t, yet she’d expected him to somehow know that she needed to relieve herself. While she’d been thinking he mustrealizeshe would haveneed toattendto thematter, hehad probably been thinking she wouldmention it if she did. Sighing, she nodded, "Aye, husband. "
Paen nodded, apparently satisfied, then turned and hesitated in front of hisfather.
"I am goingfor awalk in thewoods. "
Avelyn was justfrowning over the slightly strained voice heused to make the announcement, when his father used the sametone to say,"I shall join you, son. "
She watched them walk away, then shook herhead with bewilderment andturned to makeher way to the tentto start packing. Her husband wouldwish to leave as soonas everyone had broken their fast. Besides, it would help her to stayawake.
Avelyn was already startingtofeel tired. The day aheadwas going to be a long one, but she thought if she keptup a line ofchatterwith her husband,the ridewould be less boring and shecould perhaps stay awake.
"My lady. "
Avelyn glanced up and smiled at the slender, dark-haired boy rushing across camp toward her. David Hargrove,Paen’s new squire, wastenyears old,but tall for his age. He was alsovery slimand hadthe face of an angel. Thelad would break hearts when he was older.
As he rushedtoward her, David stumbledover a rock andcrashedto the ground.
Avelyn had toforce herselfnot to leap toher feet and run to seeifhe was all right.
Paenwas watching from the other side of camp, shaking his head at the child’s clumsiness, and she knew he wouldn’t approve of her hurrying to the boy. She’d learnedthat the day beforewhen they’d arrivedatHargroveto collectthe ladand he’d tumbled down the stairs to land in a heap at their feet. Avelyn had started forward to help the boy then, butPaen had raisedone arm beforeher toholdher back, then shook his head when she peeredat him.