Aye, Avelyn was sure someone had hit her. But who? One of the missing servants? Therooms had seemed empty, but… Nay, she had notyet even metthe people here. They would haveno reasonto harm her.
The ruined tunic came to mind. Avelyn recalled thescentof pork on the clothand herbrief fearsthatsomeonewas sabotaging her efforts, butshe quickly brushed the thought away. The two eventscould notbe connected. Ruining hersewing efforts was anentirely different prospectthanattacking her.
"Avy! Whatever areyou doingup?" Diamanda rushedtoward her with concern andAvelyn let her thoughtsgo. There was work to do.
The moon was high and full by the time Paen rode back into the bailey. He’dhad a long night. His triptothe village had provedfruitless. If anyone there wasa servant from the castle, theywere not admittingit, and not oneperson hadbeen willingto work at Rumsfeld. Had they been serfs, Paen could have ordered them tothecastle, buthe’d been informed thatthe serfs had fled Rumsfeld long before Legere had died. The inhabitants ofthevillageclaimed toall be freemen,peasants freeto do as theylikedso longas they helped tendthe castle fields. Without any idea what elseto do, Paenhad left the village and headed for Gerville. Servantswere neededto clean upandrun thecastle,andhe had to get them somewhere.
He’d made the long journeyto his parents’ home, explained the situation to his father over ameal, thengot back onhishorseand headedhome, his ears ringing with his father’s promise totake care of thematter. They should have servants at Rumsfeld by early afternoon ofthe next day. Now he was returning to Rumsfeld, arrivinglaterthaneverhe had returnedtoGerville during this past week.
Paen rode straighttothe broken-downstables. He beddeddown his mount, being sure to give him extra feed after the long journey,then walked wearilyto the keep.
The baileywas completely silent ashe crossedit. If it weren’t for the men standing guard on thewallto watch for attack, he would have thought the castle hadbeen abandoned. Inall his years, Paen had never seen a bailey thissilent and empty of activity. It was ratherdisturbing.
Even more bothersome was thefact that thetentwas no longer set up out front as ithad beenwhen he’dleft. The realizationgave Paena moment’s worry before he calmed himself with the thought that Avelyn must have woken upand hadittaken away. She was probably resting and recoveringfrom her injuries inside.
She’dbetter be, he thought, and felt his heartsqueeze as he recalled the vision of herdangling high above thehall. Paenwas sure the sight had scared agoodtenyears off his life. It made him feel sickjust to thinkof it. Even more upsetting hadbeen the stateof her facewhen he’d pulled her up. Avelyn hadobviouslyhit her head in the fall,andblood had drippedfrom a cut on her forehead, spreading down her cheek in rivulets thatresembled the long, thin talonsof avery large bird. Atfirst,he’d feared she wasdead, and had been more than relieved when he’dgottenher up through the holeandsaw her. chest rise and fall as heheld her in hisarms. Paen had then found himself reluctant to setherdown even when the tent was ready and a bed of furshad beenthrown quicklytogether.
Avelyn was eitherthemost fortunate or unfortunate of women. In the shorttime he’d known her, she’dsurvived fire, drowning and nowadeadly fall. Though she hadn’t really been indanger during the fire,he supposed, still… Paen shook his head. His mother had claimed that the fates seemed atoddswith Avelyn since theirmarriage. It hadbeen her first commentwhen she’d heard about the latest calamitytobefall her new daughter-in-law. Thenshe’dexplainedabout the dogs attacking Avelyn’s latest efforts at clothes for him. Paen was beginningto suspect it was something more than that, though he had nothing to base those suspicionsonother than asense that there were just toomany unusual incidents.
Some things weren’t adding up. His mother loved her dogs, but she also demanded obedience and good behaviorfrom them and trained them accordingly. In all the time she’dhad them, Boudica and Juno had neverbefore attackedanything.
Yet, from his mother’sdescription, the animals hadripped the tunicto shreds. And thenthere was the firein the tent. He could stillrecall Avelyn’s earnest face asshe’d assuredhim thatshe’d blownoutthe candle. Her certainty hadwanedonlywhen he’d suggested she’d been in a hurryand hadnot paid enough attention to besure the candlewas out.
This latest incident was what really madehimwonder. Hisfather had askedhow it hadhappened, and Paen simply hadn’t been able to explain it. He and his father both had been in the room whenthey’d first inspected the castle. Even if she hadn’t seen theholes from the floor below, Avelyn would havenoted thematonce on entering the room. She couldn’t have missed seeing the hole. It wassimply impossible.
Nay, Paenfelt sure no onecouldbe this unlucky. Something was amiss,and he intendedtoquestionhis wife carefully about thislatestaccident. Hewouldalsokeep a closer eye on her. And wouldfinally start on his campaign toshowAvelynher own value. It was somethinghe’dtoo long neglected.
Thekeep’s doubledoors were wide open in welcomeand Paen stepped inside.
He pausedtolook around his greathall. Every lastone of the menwas sprawledon the great-hall floor, snoring up a storm. They were sleeping the deep sleep of the exhausted,andit took littlemore than aglancearound to seewhy. They had worked hardinhisabsence. Thehallfloorwas now covered withathickcarpet of fresh rushes. He couldn’tsee the stairsinthe dimlight from the fireplace, butsuspected theywereprobablymendedandsafe again.
Paen wassurethere were otherchanges as well, butit was late and he waswilling towait until morning to inspect them. For now, he simply wantedto knowwhere his wife was. Hewouldn’t be able to relaxuntil he’d seen that she really hadrecovered.
His gaze was drawn tothe tent in the center of the hall. Tired as he was, he’d scarcely noticedit at first. This, then,was where the tent had gotten to. It hadbeen movedfrom outsidetothe middle of the great hall. Hehadnodoubt it was hiswife’s idea – and he fullyexpectedtofind her inside.
Had he the energy, Paen wouldhave laughed at the sightof thetent surrounded bysleeping men. Shaking his head at her ingenuity in providing herself and himwith a privatehavenin the midst oftheir people, Paen began to weave hisway through the bodies ofhis sleeping men.
it was a testament to their exhaustion that not one of the men stirred as he crossed the floor. Paen supposed thatspending the morninghaulingrock for the outerwall,then the afternoon and probably early eveningcleaning and repairing the castle,had knocked out the majority ofthem. Hemanagedto reach thetent withouttrippingoveranyone, then slippedsilently inside. In here it was pitch-black. He realized therewould be noway to check his wife’sinjuries. Heslowly moved acrossthetent toward the back rightcorner, where he imagined the furs would be laid outas they hadbeen onthe journey to Gerville.
Paen immediately stumbled over something on the floor.
Put off balance, he muttered a curseand halfhoppedand half stumbled to the corner. The moment his foot hitthe furs, Paen lost the last of his balance and tumbled to the floor, grunting ashelanded. The women had beenawfully sparing with the furs, itseemed, but he supposed heshould just be grateful he had not landed on and crushed hiswife. It hadbeen a closecall,he realized when she rolled over inhersleep and curled against him as he lay there.
Paen froze when those words came to him from outof thedarkness.
"Runilda?"he asked, sure it washis wife’smaid’s voiceaddressing him from the floor near where he’d tripped. "Aye, my lord. Why are you not above stairs J with LadyAvelyn?"
Paen froze,his eyes shootingdownward as he tried to make out the figurelying nexttohimin the dark.
"Paen?"Diamanda’s sleepy voice drifted up to himand hefelt her hand move againsthis legsas ifshe couldn’t believe he was there.
And then,astonishingly, Lady Helen was heard to mutter,"Good heavens – what is going on?" fromanothercorner.
Cursing, Paen launched himself to his feet andstumbled backacross the tent, so flustered by his mistake that he didn’t even think to mutter an apology before escaping out intothe safetyof thegreat hall.
Hehurried across thehall, leapingoverbodies and moving too quickly through the darkness. He nearly knocked his wife over beforehe sawher.
"Husband?" Avelyncaught at his arms to keep her feet ashereached to steady her.
"Aye. What are you doing up?"
"Iheard you ride in. When you did not comeabove stairs, I realized you did not know where our bed is. So I came to find you. "
"Oh. " He sighed as she felt forhis hand in thedark, then followed when she turned tolead himup the stairs. Paen remainedsilent as they movedthrough the pitch-black hall, depending on her to know theway. Muchto his relief, whenthey reached the room he was able to see again by the soft glowof a fire in thefireplace.
The light revealed thebandage around her head,and Paen frowned at the sight of it. "Howis yourhead?"
"It’s fine,thank you," Avelyn murmured, then changed the subject. "Runilda told me youhadgone to thevillage. "
"Aye. "He glanced around theroom, noting that she’d not only hadthe room cleanedand new rushes put down,but had had their chests moved infrom the wagon. She’dalsohad the old bedremoved. Paenknew Legere’s bed hadbeen in bad shape,but had expectedto make dountil a new onecouldbemade. However, Avelyn had made a nest of furs forthem to sleepon.
"Ithought you were inthe tent,"he blurted out.
Her eyebrows rose. "Nay. We ran out of timebefore we could prepare a second room forDiamanda and LadyHelen, so Ihad the tent set up to allow them some privacyfrom themen. Runilda isin with them. "She smiled faintly. "I guess ’tisgood I came to find you ere you stumbled in there and woke everyone up. "
Paengrimaced. "I didstumble in thereand woke everyoneup. It wasnotuntil Runilda asked why I was notupherewithyou that Irealized my mistake. "
Avelyn gave a softlaugh, then shrugged. "They are probably alreadyasleepagain, my lord. Everyonewas exhausted afterthe day’s work. "She paused and asked, "Were you able to convince anyvillagersto work in thecastle? Thatiswhy you wenttothe village, isit not?"
"Aye, that is why, butI had no luck. Noonethere was willing to work for us. The village is poor and in no better shape than the castle. Between Legere and the reavers, they have been beaten down time andagain. They are angry, and resentthat Father neglected to look out for their welfareas he should have done," he admitted on a sigh. " Tiswhy I took so long. Irodeto Gerville. Father promised tovisit the village at Gerville first thing inthe morning and arrange for new servantsforhere. He will send them at once, and they should start arriving by noon. "
"Oh. " She nodded. "Well, good. The mengot alot donetoday, butthere is still much to do. The servantswill be welcome. " Avelyn shifted on her feet, then glanced around theroom. "Are you hungry orthirsty?"
"Nay. Iate atGerville. "
She nodded, thenturned to walk towardthebed offurs. "It is late and you look exhausted. I should stopaskingyou questions and let youget somesleep. "
Paenfollowedher tothe bed, asmall sigh slipping from his lips. Hewas tired, and she’d had a terrible fall today. Neither ofthem was inanyshape for him to bed her, but that didn’t stop him fromwishing he could.
Tomorrow,he promised himself as hedisrobedand climbed intothenestof furs nexttoher. He would definitely make love to hiswifetomorrow.
Paen wasgone and bright sunlight was pouringinto the roomwhen Avelyn woke up. Blinking sleepily, she peeredtowardthe window. While she’dslept,someone had removed the furs Runildahad hung overthe opening the night before. Either Paen had done it beforeleaving theroom, or Runilda had already been upin the room at least once that morning.
As if drawn byher thoughts,the door opened andRunilda entered carrying a basinof water.
"You are awake. " The maidsmiled as shecrossedthe room. "How do youfeel?"
"Better,"Avelyn admittedafter a pause to take inventory. Much to her relief, the pain that had beenhammering at her headthrough the afternoonand evening before was now gone. The factwas enough to makeher smile as she sat up in bed. "Much better,thank you, Runilda. Whereis my husband?"
"He has been working on the wall with the men since first light," the maid announced as she carried thewashbasin to the chest.
AsAvelyn went towashshe pondered what she woulddo that day. Thechests they hadbrought with them were the only furniture theyhad inthe keep andhad doubled as seats and tables the daybefore. Avelyn decided that was asituationthat should be rectified.
The inside of the keep was her responsibility, and she had every intention of taking care of it. She thought she might make atrip to the village thatmorning before the servants startedtoarrive fromGerville. Paen had said the village hadsuffered as badly from the reaversas Rumsfeld had,and Avelyn hoped to relieve some of the poverty andrepairsome of the hard feelings by having all theirgoods made in the village.
Furniture wasn’t the only thingshewould need to purchase,shethoughtasher stomach grumbled. At the moment, theyhad nocook at Rumsfeld, and whilethey did havethe foodsthey’d brought with them, thosewouldn’t last long. However, she suspectedtheywouldn’t be easily replaced either. Theonly animal she’dseen so far was the pigthat haddecided tobed downinthe greathallwhen theyarrived. She feared it might be the only livestock they had.
"Ishall go let the men know they can start work on the floorsin the other rooms now," Runildasaid asshe laid acleangown onthechest. "Lord Paen ordered them not to start hammeringuntilyou were, awake," Runilda explained when Avelyn glanced atherwithsurprise.
"How long have they been waiting?" Avelynaskedwitha frown.
"Halfthe morning,"Runilda said with amusement, then added,"But they kept busy whiletheywaited. Lady Helenhadthem cleaning and carting in the kitchens. "
"Half themorning?" Avelyn echoed with horror. Shehadn’t realized she’dslept so late. "Whydid you not wake me?"
"Lord Paensaid to let you sleep as late as youneeded, that it wouldhelp you heal. "
Avelyn let alittlesighslipfrom her lips. It had beenthoughtful of him,but there was muchshe wished to get donetoday and the morningwas half over.
"I shalljust let the menknow theycan start work, thenI’ll return tohelp you dress," Runildaassured her, then slipped from the room.