"Wife!"He caught her armto try tostop heras she started to duck into the tent, recalling hisbandaged hands only when his linenstump slid uselessly offherarm.
Cursing, he ducked intothe tent after her.
"’Tis all right," his mother said as she turnedfrom surveying the damage. "No onewas hurt, and that is the most important thing. "
"Aye," his father agreed, moving quicklytohis side.
Judgingby the mournful cryas Avelynstared at the charred remains ofthe furs, Paen guessed shedidn’t agree.
"What happened?" he asked grimly.
"It looks asif acandle set the fursalight," his father admitted reluctantly.
Paen immediately glared at his wife and growled, "I told you it was too close to the furs. I also told you to blow it out before comingwithme. "
"Idid!" she cried. "I didblow itout. "
"Obviously not," he snapped. "No doubt youwere in a rushand justgave it a goodblow, then came after mewithoutwaiting to see that it was out. "
Avelyn’s shoulders saggedin defeat. "Youareright,husband. That mustbewhat happened. Thisis all my fault. "
Paen frowned at her reaction; she sounded heartbroken, and huge tears were rolling down hercheeks. It was damned hard to give hera dressing-downfor this latest catastrophe when sheappeared sobeaten.
Sighing, he shifted on his feet andmuttered, "Well, ’tis justa bunchof furs. No onewas hurtandnothingimportantwas damaged. "
"Nothing important," Avelyn echoed, then,much to hisbewilderment, droppedto herknees and burst into greatnoisy sobs.
Paen was more thanrelievedwhen his mother shooed him and his fatherout of thetent, assuring themshewould tendto Avelyn. He hadn’t a clue whatto do for her. It was obviousshe’d grownanattachmentto the fur bed – thatwas the only thing he could think of. Her chest was at the oppositeend of the tentand untouched by the fire. It was only the furs thathad suffered. Apparently, someone had noted the firebefore it spread far. Even the tent itself was undamaged.
Aye, it mustbe the furs she was upset about, Paen decided, and determinedto get awhole passelof them for her when they reachedGerville castle. He’d have them arranged in frontof thefireplacefor her so shecould lieonthem whenevershe liked.
In fact,he would join her there. The ideawasappealing – relaxing beforea roaring fire on a chill winter evening, drinking mulledcider.
No, no cider, hedecided. Avelynwouldprobably spill itdownher dress. Taking thecider away might affect her self-esteem, though, andmake her think he believed her clumsybeyond redemption. Perhaps if he gother nak*d first and then gaveher mulled cider beforetheroaring fireon the furs?Aye, thatwould work, he decided, smiling at the image. Avelynnaked, a goblet of mulled cider in her hand. He wouldn’t even mind ifshe did spill itthen. He would simplylean forward and lick it off of her.
Now, that was an idea. Licking cider off ofher full roundbreasts,letting his tongue curl around her n**ples, coaxingthem erect, then – "What the hell are yesmiling about?Yerwife just setyourbed on fire," his father snapped.
"Aye, she did. "Paen’ssmile widened, thenhe caught himself and managedto dampenhis expression.
" ‘Tis sorry I am, son. Avelyn is a nice enough girl, but she does seem proneto calamity. IfI had realized – "
"She is fine. Thereis no need to apologize. I amwell pleased with her to wife. "
"What?" Wimarc Gervillestared athimwithamazement. "Didshe knock you over so ye hityour head while the two of youweredown by the river?"
"No, of course not. "Paen scowledat the suggestion.
"Well, somethinghas happened," his father said. "You’ve donelittle butfretand worry that she is sickly andineptsince first seeing her. And now, when she has burned yourbed to a pile of ash, you are ‘well pleasedwith herto wife’?"
Paen frowned attheolderman inirritation,but didn’t arguethepoint. Instead, he calledhis new squire tohim and headed for the riverto bathe andconsider ways he might start work on hiswife’sself-esteem.
"Avelyn,my dear. Please do not take on so. " Lady Gerville knelt beside herand wrapped her arms aroundher.
Avelyntriedto stop weeping,butcouldn’tseem to helpit. She simply sagged againstthe woman and sobbed her heartout. She wasexhaustedfrom lack ofsleep, and really, this was just too much. Everything hadgone wrong since the wedding, absolutelyeverything. Thisburning of the furs was justthe final straw.
Avelyn had counted on the tunic and braes repairing much of her husband’s mistaken opinion of her. She couldn’t tell him thatshe could ride, orthat shewasn’t presently proneto misfortune – for clearly she was – but giving him thetunicand braes wouldhave shown at least one ofher skillsin a good light. It also would have given herthe opportunity to let him know that she wasn’t normally sowearyand sickly. She could haveexplained thatshe was exhausted during the daybecause she had been working nights on his clothes. On top of allthat, she’d workedso hard, andall that workhadbeenruined in a moment of inattention. Avelyn had thought the candle was outandeven had avaguememory of the small curl of smokecoming off it, butapparently she’d been wrong.
"Avelyn, dear," Lady Gerville almost moaned as she rocked her in her arms.
"Surelythis isnot aboutthe furs. They arereplaceable. "
Avelyn shook her head against the woman’s chest. Her tears were finally slowing, but she was in no state to talk.
"What is it, then, child? Is it that you fear Paen willjust see this as another example of your clumsinessandineptitude?"
Avelyn paused, then burstinto loud sobsagain.
LadyGerville gave up tryingtosoothe her for a while and simplyrocked her like a child. When her crying finally slowed to sniffles and hiccoughsand Avelyn finally pulled free to hold herselfupright, Lady Gerville took her hand and patted it as she waited forhertospeak.
"Do you think youcan tell menow?" she asked after another moment had passed.
Avelynnoddedwearily, but merely sat staringwith dejection at the smoldering remains of the bed.
"Would you likea drinkfirst?" Lady Gerville prompted. "I could call Runildaand have her fetch some mead. "
Avelyn shook her head.
Another moment of silence passed; then Lady Gerville opened her mouth to speak again, butAvelyn blurtedout, "I have beensewing new braes anda tunic for Paen. "
Lady Gerville relaxed andpatted her hand. "Aye, dear. I know,"she said,then explained, "I was fretting over your being so exhausted all the time and Sely mentioned it to your maid. Runilda told her totell me not to fret,that you were staying up well intothe night, sewing newclothesfor Paen. " She pattedher hand again. "Runilda said tonight that they were nearly done. "
"They were," Avelyn admitted,and muchto her consternation, fresh tears began toroll downhercheeks.
"Were?" Lady Gerville asked with the beginnings of dread inhervoice.
Avelyn nodded. "I was working on them whenPaen came to fetch meto goto the river. I set themaside on the furs, blew at the candle,thenhurried after him. " She shook her head miserably. "I thoughtthe candlewas out. Idid notreally wait to see, but Ijust assumed – "
"You mean they went up with the furs?" Lady Gervilleaskedwithhorror.
"Oh,you poor child!" Paen’s mother drew her into herarmsagain, but Avelyn seemed to bemostlyout oftears. Shedid manageone gaspingsob, but that was it.
The wellwas dry. She’dcried herselfout.
They satin silence for severalminutes,but Lady Gerville seemed to be at a loss as to what to sayto make the situation better. She just kept murmuring "poor child"
over andover,and Avelyn supposed therereally wasn’t anything that couldbe said tomakeherfeel better atthatpoint. She was exhausted. Depressed anddefeated. All she really wantedtodo was sleep.
Just then Selyduckedinsidecarrying a couple of furs.
"LordGerville hadmebringtheseover,"she explained, then glanced behindher and stepped outof the way toallow Runilda toenter. Avelyn’s maid was followed byfourmen.
"Lord Gerville sentthe men toremove the burned furs," Runildasaid. Avelyn knew that whileSely was referringto Paen’s father whenshesaid "Lord Gerville,"
Runildawasreferring to Paen himself as Lord Gerville. Forsome reason, the fact thatboth were Lord Gerville madean almosthysterical giggle slip from her throat.
Lady Gerville lookedher over withconcern. "Come, let us get out of theway, dear, so they canwork. "
Avelyn allowedLadyGerville tohelp her to herfeet, and movedto the corner of the tent withthe olderwoman as the men began to drag the damaged furs out.
Runilda had brought aleaf-filled branch withher and used it to sweeptheremaining ashesoutofthe tent. The moment that was done, she fetched some linens from Avelyn’s chest’s. Then she and Sely fashioned the furs intosomething ofa bedand made it up with the linens.
"Here we are, then. "Lady Gerville urgedAvelyn to thelittle nest offurs andlinen.
"Why don’t yourest for a bit, dear? I shall have Runilda fetchyou whenthe sup is ready. "
"Iam not hungry," Avelyn said dully as sheallowed herself to be tucked into the bed. She didsee theconcerned glances the women exchanged,but couldn’tseemto work up the energytocareabout it.
"Just rest for now, dear,"LadyGerville said finally. "You’llfeelbetterafter some sleep. "
Avelyn dutifully closed her eyes and was asleepat once.
Paen hadjustcome in fromoverseeing the men’s training and hadsettled himself at the trestle table to enjoy somemead when thesound of a woman’s soft step made him tense and glance toward the stairs. He relaxed the instanthe realized it was his mother. Fora moment, Paen hadfearedit was his wife. He wasn’t in the mood for hersad face just then.
"Oh, Paen. "His mother moved alittle more quickly when she saw him. "Good – I wanted to talk to you. Where is your father?"
"He’s just coming up from the stables now. He shallbe here shortly," Paen answered,thenarched an eyebrow. "Where is my wife?"
"She is in thesolar, sewing. "
"Of course she is," hesaiddryly. Hiswife seemed everto be sewing, but hehad yet to seeany resultsfrom it. Paen assumed it was anew gown shewas working on.
The few shepossessed seemed all to be dark,drab and too large for her. He’dbeen hoping shewas producing a new onethat would be more colorful and fit properly, but surely itdidn’t take this long to make one.
She had been sewing intheir tent the few times he’dpeeredin tocheck on heron their journey, and it was all she’d done in the three days since arriving atGerville,that or sleeping. Orweeping. Sometimes sheeven weptin her sleep.
While Avelyn hadseemed a happychatterbug during the journey to collect his squire,all had changed onthelast dayof the journey toGerville. Since thenight of thefire, she’dbeen walking misery. Paen missed hercheerful chatter, butmorethan that, he couldn’t stand to see her soweary and unhappy, especiallysince he didn’t have aclue what to doabout it. He’d hopedshe was justmissingher familyand wouldgetover it, but rather thanrecover her good cheer, she seemed toget more melancholy eachday.
"You neednot sound so putout. She is making new braes and a tunic for you.
Again," his mother added testily as the hall doors opened and Wimarc Gerville entered.
"Anewbraes and tunic? For me?" Paen asked with amazement. "Whatever for? She is the one who needs new clothes,not I. "
"Aye," Lord Gerville agreed ashe approached the table. "The girl does not have a single gown that fits her,and every one she hasseems to be darkand drab. " He pausedto kisshis wifeon the cheek, thensettledon the bench next toPaen. "I supposethe blue one that burst atthe wedding dinner and the red one that went up in flames were theonly colorfulgowns shepossessed. "
Lady Gerville frowned at herhusband, then turned to glare at Paen. "Yourwife stayed up nightsduring ourjourney sewing younewclothes toreplace those ruined in the fire. Tiswhy shewas always inthe tent of a night, and always exhausted duringthe day. She was making clothes for you. "
Paen blinked at the news, but it was his fatherwho commented first. "Well,she is damnedslowat sewing if she isnot yetfinished. "
"Wimarc. " Lady Gervillefrowned at her husband. "She had nearly completed them when they burned upin the tent. She was quitedistraught,but started on them again when she got here. I believe shehas another setnearly done. "
"Hmm. " Paen’s father scowled at thereminderof thefire. "Is that why she has beenso unhappy?Because ofa set ofclothes?"
"Ibelieveit is partof it, butIthink she is also missing her family. " Lady Gerville turneda displeasedlook on Paen. "And you are not helpingwiththat. "
"Me?" Hiseyes widened. "What can I do to help with this? I have done naughtto cause her unhappiness. "
"Youhave done naught to prevent it either," she argued. "You payAvelyn less attentionthanthe dogs. You at least throw thema bone oncein a while. "
Paen scowled. "Well, I cannotpay her attention,or have youforgotten my hands are injured?"
"I did not mean bedding her," she said with exasperation. "Have you spoken more than awordtoherat all?"
"Spoken to her?" he asked with disbelief, and his mother’seyes narrowed.
"Have you been soblindallthese years? Or is it that you have been awayon Crusade so long that youhave forgottenthatyour father speaks to me all the time?"
"That is notwhat I meant," Paen said with irritation. "I meant she is the one… well, she used to bethe one who… she was quite – "
"Hemeans hecouldnot get aword in edgewise on thejourney here," his father said with amusement. "At least when she was on horseback. "
"Aye, well,I suspect that was an effort to keep awake," Lady Gervillesaid.
"Aye, Inoticed the girl likes to sleep a lot," Wimarcsaid dryly. "She slepton horseback one day when shewas supposedtobe learning to ride. "
"Only oneday," Lady Gerville defended her. "Andthat was only becauseshe’d beenupall night sewing. " Shepaused, thensighed. "I promised not to tell you but I know she is also upset that you think she is so inept, so I am going to share something with you. "