"Youmay kiss the bride. " The way the priest saidthe words suggested that it wasn’tthe first time he had done so.
Paenturned tofully face his bride, frowningatthe way she was breathing. She was taking quick shallow breaths, almostpanting. She was also lookingterribly faint.
Suspectingthat this mightbea short marriage thanks to her obvious illhealth, Paen bent to presshislips to hers. She tasted of honey mead. Her lipswere softand warm and… gone?
Paen opened his eyes with amazement as the crowd around him let out a collective gasp. He wasjust in time to catch hisbride’s fallingform. She had fainted.
Paengapedathisunconscious bride, part of his mind inshock, theother part noting that she was indeed passably pretty. More than passably pretty now that unconsciousnesshadstopped her from sucking in her cheeks. Infact, other thanher unusual pallor, she was lovely.
"What’s the matterwiththe girl?"
It was Paen’s father who askedthat question. His words acted as something of a spell-breaker for everyoneelse. The mobbroke out inimmediate chatter even as Avelyn’s family rushed forward to surround Paen wherehe stood holding heragainst his chest.
"What is going on? Is she all right?" Lord Straughton bellowed, sounding alarmed. Paen had to takethat as a good sign. Itseemedto suggest that thegirl wasn’t taken to fainting and that this mightbe an unusual occurrence. That was encouraging.
"She is fine," Lady Straughton assured everyone even as she and two maids crowded forward to fan Avelyn’sface.
"Here, perhapsIshould – " Warin Straughton, the brother, tried towrest thegirl from Paen’s grasp, and that was when Paen’sown shock passed.
Scowling at the manfor trying to do what it was now his duty to do, Paen elbowed him aside and swept Avelyn up into his arms… Sort of. His new bride wasn’tvery sweepable. Infact, from h*ps to neck she was alarmingly unbending. She ended lyingflat across his arms like aboard,with herhead andknees hanging off like trailingivy. it was mostdisconcerting.
Grunting, Paen moved forward, quickly losing the fanningwomen as he forced his way through the chattering crowd.
His gaze dropped several timesto hisbride’sface as he crossed the baileyto the keep. The factthatshe wasprettyshould have cheered him. After all, no man wished tobed a fish-faced wench, buteven her fairness was notenough in hismind tomake up for herobviously weak constitution. In truth, he would rather have a healthy homely wife than aprettybut ill one.
Paen’syears oncampaign had filled himwith certainhopes whenit cameto a wife. He had spentmany – too many – yearsfightingbattle after battle, living inmean tentsthatleakedwhenit rainedanddid nothing to keep out the night chill.
Atfirst, it had been a grand adventure. He’d enjoyed the camaraderie of his compatriots. Butas battle hadfollowedbattle,and manafterman hadfallen at his side, leaving himknee deepinblood and death, the grand adventure hadbegunto pall. Paen hadfound himself yearning for the comfort ofa dry bed, a warm hearth and the softbreast of agood wifeto lay his weary head on. Only his fealtyto his king, and his desireto protectand watch over his younger brotherAdam, whohad followed himto battle andwasslowerto lose his enthusiasmfor it, hadkept Paen fromleavingthe war trail and returning home. But when Adam died, a Saracen sword through the chest, Paen lost his heart for battle. Seeming to recognizethis, KingRichardhadgivenhimleave to take newsof his brother’s death home, andhad suggested that Paen might wish to tendto his weddingnow. Paen had returned at once withthe sad tidings. Afterallowinga shorttime for thegriefto pass,hehad thensent news that hewished to claim his betrothed.
All the while he had been hoping, expecting even, that his bride would be comfortingly plump and strong. Awomanhe would not crushwhen he beddedher andwhose full, softbreasts could bea cushionfor his head on cold winter nights.
Paen left off his thoughts at that moan. His bride was coming around. He suspected it was the fresh breeze slapping her cheeks thatrevived her. When she liftedher headand peered at him weakly,hetriedto adjust her to a more upright position in his arms, butshe stilldid not bend.
He didn’t get to ponder that fact andwhat itmight meanfor long because she began to strugglein his arms. "Well, that was akind description. Stiff asher middle was, what she wasdoingwas more like flopping her headand lowerlegs across his upraisedarms.
"Pray! Let me stand!" She was both out of breath and seemingly terribly embarrassed by the whole ordeal.
Trying to soothe her, Paenoffered areassuringsmile and said, "Rest. "
Avelyn stopped her struggles and lay stillwhen her newhusband grunted that word. She couldn’t tell ifhe was angry or not. He didn’t sound angry, but his expression was a grimace. She supposed hewas somewhatput outby herfainting.
She hadn’t made a very good showof it at thewedding, what with her lispingand fainting and all.
Recalling her lisp when she had said her "I do’s" made Avelynrealize that she was no longer suckingin hercheeks. Shequicklydid so now, hopinghehadn’tnoticed her chubby face. She then peered pasthisshoulder to seethat theentirewedding partywas following themsome distance back. He was walkingvery quickly despite the burdenof carrying her, andleft the others furtherbehind with each step. She sighed unhappily. Thiswas all terribly embarrassing. It also could not be good for herhusbandtocarry her so far. Warin had carried her down thestairs, butreally this was a good distance further than that.
"Pray, my lord," she tried again, releasingher cheeksbriefly tospeak. "Put me down ereyoudoyourselfan injury. I am too heavy for you to – " She paused uncertainly. Her new husband had stopped walking andwas now staring at her in amazement. Even as she notedhis surprise, he suddenly burstout laughing.
Aftera moment, he shookhis head and said, "I shall hardly injuremyself carrying a littlething like you. Women!" He saidthe last in atone ofexasperated bemusement andcontinued to walk again, seeminglyoblivious to the fact that Avelynhad flushed an even deepershadeof pink. Shewas hardly a "little thing" but gave up her protests andsuffered the rest of the journey in silence.
It was a great relief toher when they finally reached the keep and entered. It was evenmoreof arelief to be set on the trestle-table bench. Avelynbusily straightened her skirts andavoided meetingthe gaze ofthe man now positioning himself on the bench beside her. She was sonervous that it wasalmost a relief when the keep doors opened and peoplebegan bustlinginto thegreat hall.
Lady Straughtonwas at the head of the crowd rushing to fill the room. She moved quickly to Ave-lyn’s side,her expression concerned. "Are you well, dear? Have yourecovered?"
"Aye," Avelyn answered.
"You look much better," a womanshe could only assume was Paen’s mother commented, coming to a halt beside Lady Margeria.
"Aye. Youdo. " Lord Straughton paused at her side and patted her shoulder awkwardly. Then he shook his head and told aman who looked very much like an olderversionof Paen, "Thisis most distressing. Avelyn has neverfainted aday in herlife. Itmust beall theexcitement. "
Avelyn closed her eyes, wishing everyone would just sit down andletthe matter go. It was allterribly embarrassing.
"Iam sure it is just theexcitement," someone said, and Avelyn opened her eyesto peer at the speaker. The woman wasabout her mother’sage, withgrayingpaleblond hairanda pretty face.
"Aunt Helen is right," a petiteblond girl agreed. "My cousinwas like that as well.
She was ever the most stalwartof women. She never fainted a day in her life__until she got with child. Thenshe would faint atthe dropof a feather. "
"Diamanda!" the olderblonde, Aunt Helen, gaspedwithshock.
"Idid not mean that Lady Avelyn is – Of course she could not be with child," the girl said quickly. Shewas flushed and looked horrifiedthat her words had been taken so. "I just meant’twasthestrain of child-bearingthat – And ’tis most like the strain of the wedding and everything…" Her voice faded away as she peered helplessly aroundat the horrifiedgazes of those around her. Diamanda’s expression suggested she might like nothing betterthantosimply disappear on the spot.
Knowing that feeling well, Avelynfelt pity stir in her for the girl. She knew how uncomfortable it was to bethe cynosureof all eyes. She detested it herself,and it was even worse whenyou were at the center of attentionbecause ofsomething silly you saidor did. Forcinga smile, she braved that verything to aid the unfortunate girl.
"Of course you did not," she said gently. "This is allvery silly, really. Ihavebeen working hard tohelp arrange everything. Then, too, I wasnervous and haven’tbeen sleepingwell. And it was quite stuffytherein front of the church witheveryone crowded around, was it not?"
"Aye," her mother agreedquickly,tryingto help her diffusethesituation. "Come, we should sit.
Cookhas been working for days on this feast and planningit for even longer. She is most likely eager to start serving it. "
Much to Avelyn’s relief,everyone began to settleatthe table. She let out a little breathof reliefat thatand glancedshyly to the side, onlyto drop her eyes at once whenshe sawhernew husband peering ather.
"Thank you. "
She glanced backto him with surpriseat those softly spoken words. "For what, mylord?"
"For not getting offendedby Diamanda’s unfortunate choice of words, and for helping to defusethe matter. "
Flushing, Avelyn gave a small shrugandbegan to absently smooth the white cloth hermother had insisted be laidover the head table. "I amsureshe meant no insult. "
"She’s a childstill and awkward attimes," hesaid, then added with a wry twistto hislips, "and, I fear, a bit spoiled. Mother always regretted not having a daughter andshowered Diamanda with affection when she arrived totrain at Gerville. Mother will be sorry to see her go. "
"Ishertraining done, then?" Avelyn asked.
Paen shrugged. "She trainedat Gerville because she wasto marry my brother Adam. Nowthathe is dead, her fatheris looking foran alternatehusbandfor the girl.
He haddecided she should return home while theymake the search, and her Aunt Helen came to collect her, but motheris tryingtoconvincehimtoallowDiamandato stayuntil shehas tomarry. A note has been sent toher father, and Helenis staying on until we get a response. " Hisgaze slid along the table to the girl. "I fear Mother will be disappointed. "
"You do notthink her fatherwill letherstay?" Avelyn asked with surprise, and he shook his head.
"She is aprettychild. I suspect her father may already have made a matchforher andwill want her hometoprepare formarriage. "
"She lookstobe at least sixteen,mylord. Hardly achild. "
"She is fourteen," hecorrected.
Surprised, Avelynglancedalong thetable tothe girlin question. Diamanda did havea young face,clear skin, pixie features. Avelyn supposed shehad been misled by the child’s figure. While she was small in thewaist and in height, shewas also extremely welldeveloped in the bustarea. Still, at fourteen she was oldenough for marriage andnot considereda child. Avelyn thought no moreof thematter as the door to the kitchens opened andservants began to file in carrying platters of food.
The firstof the servers moved to the headtable, while the others spread themselves among the lower tables. The foodsmelled delicious, and Avelyn smiled at thegirl who stopped before herand Paen toserve them. Paen began topile foodonto the trencher they shared,leavingAvelyn to concentrateonhermisery.
She wasstill finding itdifficult to breathe. It wasbad enough when she stood, but whilst sitting she felt as if there werea great band around her ribs, crushing them.
Which,of course, there was. Avelyn could not even imagine beingable to swallow anyof the foodPaen was piling onto the trencher. If there wasn’t room tosuck in something as ephemeral as air, therecertainly wasn’t roomforfood… which seemed likesome form of torture to Avelyn, forshewasquitehungry. Shehad been too nervous to eat the day beforeas they’d awaitedthe arrival ofher betrothedand his family. In fact, Avelyn recalled now,she’d been rather nervous the night ere that too and hadmerelypicked at her food, soit wasnearly two days now since shehad actually eaten. And here wasshe, alltrussed up like a turkey and unable to eat.
To make matters worse, she was also hot and sweaty, and becoming uncomfortablyitchy where the binding stopped below her br**sts. Thetop of the cloth seemed to bechafing the undersides ofher br**sts, irritating the tenderflesh there mightily. Avelyntriedstretchingouther backbonein an effort to find some relief and perhaps a bit of air, butthe effort appeared to do little good.
"Hmmm?" Avelynglanced distractedly at the man beside her. Hehad apparently finishedpiling theirtrencher and hadalready dug in. Paen gesturedto the mealand repeated, "Eat. "
WhenAvelyn peeredatthe foodwith secret longing, but did not move to take any,he sighed and said, "I had hoped for a healthy wife,witha healthy appetite. "
The disappointment inhis voice was enoughto make Avelynpick up a drumstick fromthe selection on thetrencherand lift it to her mouth. She didn’t bite of it, however, but merely held it under her nose andbefore her lips andbreathed in. The succulent scent of the roasted meat nearlyhad her swooning with pleasure and longing, but she knewpositively thatthere was no way the food would fit intoher presently constricted stomach. It would mostlikelylodge itselfsomewhere between herbreasts and add to her discomfort.
" Tis good, is it not?" her new husband commented, apparently searching for conversation.
Avelyn nodded at once, andtook abite since he was watchingher expectantly.
Unfortunately, he didnot turn hisattention back tothetrencher asshe’d hoped, but continued towatch her,and Avelyn was forced to chew… and chew. DearGod, it tasted like mannafrom thegods. Still, she feared she’d choke on it if sheswallowed, soshe chewed the meat into mash in her mouthas he watched, then chewed some more.
"Ithink you have chewed enough," he commented at last with amusement.
With little else to do, Avelyn swallowed the bite ofmeat. Much to her relief, the food did not lodgein herthroat as she had feared,but foundroom in her squeezed stomach. Avelynwas just breathing a sigh of relief when she heard and felt the binding give way a bit. Alarmfilledher atonceand shestiffenedwhereshe sat, straightening even further to trytopreventmore tearing of the cloth, but it was tono avail. The rending soundcameagain.