"Aye, and we shall need water to clean with. " Diamanda glancedtoward the door.
"Shall Igoask him?"
"Would you mind?I needs mustcheck upstairsfor the servants. "
Diamanda’s eyes widened incredulously. "Why? Itisnotsafe, and they cannot possiblybe up there. "
"Aye, well,I donot think so either, but Paen suggestedthey may beup there preparing the rooms. "
Diamandasnorted at the idea.
Avelyn smiled slightly. "Please go check with Paen on wherethe well is and I shall look for theservants. "
Diamandahesitated. "Well, be careful. Those stairs do notlook atall safe. "
"Nor doesthe floorupthere," sheacknowledged. "Ishall be careful. "
She waited until Diamanda had headedfor the door,thenstarted cautiouslyup the stairs, gripping the rail when therewas one. She retained a clear image of the bench collapsing beneathLadyGerville,and with her ownrecentrecordof accidentsand calamities,wasnot all thatconfident she was going to master thestairs without at least scraping a knee.
Avelyn grimaced atthethought and wonderedwhy she was even botheringwith this task. In truth,she thought ita fool’s errand. However, Paenseemed to think the servantswould be found upthere, busily preparing the upperrooms, andso she wouldcheck. it was hard to believethey would be busily working away in the bed chambers when they obviously had notlifted a finger to make any preparations in the great hall… or the kitchens, forthatmatter.
If the great hallwas bad, the kitchens were worse. There the floors and counters and tableswere just as neglected as the hall,but alsocoated with layers ofgrease and smoke. Avelyn’s slippers hadstuck to the floor and she’dbeen afraid to touch anything.
Avelyn hadnearlymadeit tothe top of the stairs when the step she was on creaked ominously. She leapt back, nearlyfalling through the missing stairshe’d just steppedover. She landedon one knee on the edgeof the brokenstep, the other leg dangling intospacethrough the hole and bothhands on therailing.
"Soundenough," shemuttered herhusband’s words to herself assheheld onto the rail with a deathgrip and pulledherleg back up through the hole. She didn’t have to lookat herleg toknow she’dscraped itnicely. The burning painin her shin told heras much. Gritting her teeth against thepain, she gotshakilyback to her feet.
Avelyn leaned against the wall briefly andconsideredturning back,but therewere only acoupleof stairs leftafter themissing step. Slowlyletting her breath out, she forced herselftostraightenandcontinued up, this time being sure to keep her foot as close tothe wall aspossible asshebypassed the missing step. She was sure the woodclosest to thewall would bethe least likelytogive outonher.
Much to herrelief, there wasno creakthis time and she continued safely up the last fewsteps. On the landing, she releaseda relieved breath, then paused to lifther skirt and look at her legs.
Aye, she’d done afinejob on her shin, she thoughtwithdisgust as she let the skirt drop back into place. She could only hope the trip back down would be less eventful.
Nowthat she was above stairs, Avelynrealized that she should have brought a torch withher. While the open doors allowed light into the great hall, thehallways were much darker. Avelyneased forward, feeling herway carefully withher foot.
From belowshe had been able to see the great holes inthe woodenfloor and hadno desire to step into one.
Avelyn checked eachof thethree rooms on the second floor. The firstroom was the biggest, and shesupposed it was the one Legerehadused. Ifso, either he hadn’t owned much,orhis possessions had been stolen after he died. The room held nothing but a rickety old bed. The next two rooms, however, had nothing at all.
They weren’t even furnished andboth had at least two holesinthe floor. The last room had the biggest hole, though it wasn’t quiteasbig as she’d thought. Avelyn doubted abed wouldfitthrough it.
She stopped afew feet fromthehole and leaned forwardto peer through it. The great hall below looked no betterfrom thehighervantagepoint. Therushesreally werein a shameful state. Theentire castlewas.
Shaking her head,shestarted to back away from the hole, thenpausedwhen a creak soundedbehindher. Shehad half turned whenwhat felt like a plank ofwood slammed intothe side of her face. Avelyn stumbled under theblow, fallingsideways.
That wasprobably what saved her. She reached instinctivelyforthefloor as she fell, but while herrighthand slappeditwith a stinging impact, her left hand found onlyopen air. Then her headslammed into a broken bit of wood and darkness rushed to claim her as shefelt herselffallingthrough the hole she’d beenlooking through.
The first thingAvelyn noticed on waking was thather headwaspounding. She didn’tthink she’d everexperiencedsuch painand squeezed her eyestightlyshut in reaction, but that only seemedtomakeit worse.
Recognizing Diamanda’s voice, Aveylnforced her eyesopen and peered up at the girl with confusion. She staredat the prettyblonde’s anxiousface, thenlether gaze driftpasthertothe cloth overhead and all aroundthem.
"Thetravelingtent. " Her voice wasa huskywhisperand shelicked her lips,then swallowed beforetrying again. "Why?"
"Paen hadthe men set it up so that we would have someplace to put you,"
Diamanda explained. "Youhit your head pretty badlywhenyou fell. "
"Fell," Avelyn echoed with confusion; then her heart jumped as she recalled standing in the upperroom,being hit, fallingforward andher left hand findingno purchaseas it went through theholein the floor. Shealso now remembered herhead slamming intowhat hadfelt like broken wood. Theedge of the hole, she thought.
Then she’d realizedshe wasfalling through the hole.
"Someonehit me," Avelynsaid. "I fell throughthe hole. "
"Hityou?" Diamandashook her head. "Paen saidyou must have hit your headon the side of thehole. Your face was scraped, and there was blood on the planks upstairs. "
"No, someonehitme," Avelyn insisted weakly, thenglanced toher other side as Lady Helen patted her hand and leaned forward.
"It musthavebeen a dream,dear. You were alone above stairs. " Shegave her a reproving look. "You never should have gone up there in thefirst place. You are fortunateyou didnot fall down the stairs andbreak your neck. Asit is, if it weren’t for your skirt catching on the edge of a brokenplank, you would have certainlyfallen toyour deathwhenyou stumbled throughthe hole. "
"My skirt?"Avelyn asked.
"Aye,my lady. " Runildastepped closerto the bed, peering at her over Lady Helen’sshoulder. "I was cominginto thehallwith buckets and abroom when you fellthrough the hole. " Themaid pressed ahand to herchest as if the very memory made her heart flutter. "Youfell severalfeet, butyourskirt caught on somethingand you jerked to astop and just dangledthere, hangingbyyourskirt like a doll made of rags. " Runilda bit her lip and shook her head. "I juststoodthere screaming. "
"Iheard her screaming and came running," Diamanda said.
"Asdid I. " Lady Helen shuddered delicately. "I never want to heara scream like thatagain. I thoughtmyheart wouldstop with fear. "
"Aye. " Diamanda nodded agreement. "it was chilling. I thoughtRunildahad hurt herself, then I sawyou hanging there. " She gave alittleshiver at the memory. "I sent Runilda for Paen and hurried upstairs to see if I couldhelpyou. "
"Whichwas where I caught up with Diamanda. " Lady Helen squeezed Avelyn’s hand gently. "Thesilly child was tryingto figure out how tounhookyouso she could pull you back up, but I cautioned her to wait for Paen. She wasn’t nearly strongenough to pull youback up. "
"The cloth was straining," Diamanda said irritably in response to her aunt’s condescending tone. "Iwasafraid the clothwould tear andshe would fall toher death. "
"That wasa concern," LadyHelen admittedon a sigh, "Buthad you unhooked heras you wantedtodo, you might bothhave goneover. "
Diamandasnorted with irritation at thepossibility "I’m strongerthanyou think. "
"Child, she is muchheavierthan you,"Lady Helensaid patiently. "You never could have held her weight. "
"SoPaen gotmedown?Or up,as the case may be?" Avelynqueried to end the argument.
"Aye. " Diamandaturnedtosmile,her eyes brightening. "Heis so strong. He lifted you with one hand. He just knelt at the side of the hole, reached down, caught your skirt and lifted youright up. Then hecarriedyou below and started bellowing orders tothe men. "
"The men?" Avelynpeered at her with confusion.
"Aye. Well, when Runilda went running down to fetchPaen, the men hurried back with him," Diamanda informedher. "They alljustfrozeinthe hall staring up at you fora minute, even Paen. They were allhorror-struck, of course; then Paensent the men to fetch the tent cloth and they heldit out tight beneath youinthe hall, in case you fellbefore he could pull you up. "
"Of course, by the time they had thematerial stretched outbeneath you, Paenhad alreadyreached youand was pulling you up"Helen said. "Once he’dcarried you downstairs, he orderedthemen to set up the tent out infront ofthekeep so that he would have someplace to layyou whileyou recovered. "
"Aye,my lady. Your husbandwas so concerned, he held you thewholetime while the men setup the tent," Runilda told her with a smile. Avelynwas just feeling herheart thrill atherhusband’spublic showof affection when Diamanda spokeup.
"Well, of course he did. There was nowhere to set her down untilthetent wasup andwe’darranged thefurs inside," the girl said practically.
"We should let Avelyn rest," Lady Helen saidwith a frownatDiamanda as the small smile that had started on Avelyn’s facedied aquick death. "We should go see how themenare getting on. "
"The men?" Avelynaskedas Diamanda’sauntstood.
"Aye," Diamanda answered. "Paen set someof them tofixingthe stairs and the floor on the upper level. The rest are removing the oldrushes fromthegreat hall so thatit may be scrubbed. "
"Isee," Avelyn whispered.
"Do not fear,"theyounger girl said as shegot to herfeet. "Youneed not see the mentoday. Rest and recover – wewill overseethem. "
"Why would Inot wishtosee themen?"Avelyn asked with bewilderment.
"Well…" The petiteblonde looked nonplused foramoment, thensaid, "I just thought you may be too embarrassed aftereverything. "
"Everything?" Avelyn asked, feelingdread well in her. "What everything?"
"I thought you mightbeembarrassedthat they had allseen…" She paused as if just realizingthatAvelyn didn’tknow.
"Come, lether rest; there is noneed for her to know. " When Lady Helen tugged at Diamanda’s arm, the girl followedherquickly outof thetent.
Avelyn turned her gazetoRunilda. "There isnoneedfor me to know what? What did all the men see?"
Themaid sighedunhappily, but knew her mistress well. Avelynwouldrequire an answer.
"You weremostlyupright, hanging by the back ofyour skirt, my lady," Runilda explained with discomfort and gestured behind herself.
Avelyn staredat her with dawning horror. "Was all revealed?"
"Nay," themaid hurried to reassure her. "The skirt caughtunderyourarms at the sidesand draped over… er… well it was above your kneesinfront. Well above,"
"And the back?" Avelyn asked. Runilda’s expression was answer enough. It seemed – like theday Paen had thought she’ddrowned – the men had once again gotten agoodlook atherbackside. "My husband must thinkme such apickle. "
"Oh, nay,my lady. " Runilda knelt at her side andsqueezedher hand. "Truly, he wentwhitewhenhe saw you werein peril, and he would notput youdownonce he hadyou in his arms. He held you for ever solong, just staringat you with concern. I think he isgrowing to care foryou. "
Avelyn found that hard to believe. She was not exactly the perfect wife. In fact, she would guess thatto Paen she was something of a nightmare. Too tired to once again make a mental listing of all theinjuriesand accidents she’dcausedorbeen involvedwithsince her wedding day,Avelyn simply asked,"Where is my husband?"
"After heassured himself youwouldrecover, he set the men to work, then rode out forthe village. I believe heis going to seeabout servants. "
Avelyn grimaced atthisnews. Paen was supposed to tend tothe outside of the keepwhile she tendedtothe inside. Once again her clumsiness had simply laid more of aburden onPaen. Her husbandmay not have beeninjured this time, ashehad when his hands had gottenburned in thefire she’d started, but the chores he was tending to were supposed to beherresponsibility.
Well, she would not allowthat. It wastoo late to stop him from going to the village in searchof servants,but she couldatleast oversee themen while he was gone. Avelyn started to rise, pausing half upright on the furs when pain rushed through her and nausea followed.
"Please,my lady. " Runilda was immediatelypushing at her shoulders, tryingto urge her back down. "Rest. You were sorely injured. "
Avelyn gritted her teeth andbrushed the maid’shands aside asshe forced herself upright. "I wish to get up, Runilda. My head will ache whether I am lying or standing. "
Givingan exasperated sigh, Runilda stopped trying toforce herback downand instead put a handunder her armtohelphertoherfeet.
With Runilda’said,Avelyn managedtostand. She leanedheavily on the maidand made it outof thetentbefore thefirst wave of nausea hit her. Standingvery still, she took deep breathsand assuredherself thatthe longershe was up, thebetter she would feel. Avelynwasn’tsureshe believedit, butit mattered little. Her husbandhad continued todo everythinghe had to do withinjured hands. Shewould manageto order some men about with a sore head.
As Runilda helped her intothe greathall, the firstplaceAvelyn looked was toward the floorsoverhead. She spottedthe hole she thought she’d fallen through and stared at it silently,recalling the last momentsbefore the fall. Despite what Dia-mandaand Lady Helen had said, Avelyn was sure she’d been hit. Hermind was atad confused, but… She could still feel the stunning blow; thepain hadbeen sharp andhardand had knocked her off balance. She remembered falling, and realizing there was nothingbeneath her lefthand; thenshe’d sufferedanother sharppain as herhead hit the farbroken edge of the hole.