Hethe, Lord Holden, sat at the head of his table and gaped at the man before him. Hethe had just returned from several weeks of battle, fighting for his king. It was something he spent more time doing than anything else of late. Actually, it was almost all he had been doing since his wife's death ten years ago. Before that even. Henry II was forever extending his power, and Hethe had utilized his sovereign's ambition to provide an excuse to avoid the home he had shared first with his hypercritical parents, then with the sweet young Nerissa.
He rubbed the weariness from his eyes, wishing he could take the memories away as easily. Thoughts of his poor dead wife always made him contrite. They had been too young. She had been too young.
Turning away from the thoughts as he always did, he scowled at Lord Templetun. "Explain to me your presence here again to if you please, my lord," he ordered carefully.
"The king sent me with this message," The man pushed the scroll at him again, no doubt hoping that this time it would be taken. "And ordered me to collect you and take you to Tiernay to marry Lady Helen."
"You cannot marry that hag!" William exclaimed as Hethe reluctantly took the proffered scroll and broke its seal.
"Lady Tiernay is not a hag," Templetun said with a reproving glance at Hethe's first - the man who, above all others, was supposed to look after his lord's best interests. "I just came from there, and she is quite lovely."
"Oh, aye. Well... you would say that, wouldn't you?" William muttered.
"Have you ever seen the lady in question?" Templetun asked irritably, then nodded in satisfaction when the man reluctantly shook his head. "Well, I have, and she is quite lovely. Quite." His mouth turned down then, and he added almost under his breath, "Though her aunt is something of a termagant."
"What was that about her aunt?" Hethe asked abruptly, handing the king's missive over so that William could do the actual reading. He himself was interested only in the signature, and had recognized it at once as the king's. He had received enough missives from the man to know Henry's hand by now. That was enough to tell him that Templetun's claims were probably true. Not that he had really doubted it. Why would the man lie about something like this?
Templetun's expression promptly turned testy at the question, but he merely shook his head and asked,
"Well, what say you? Will you marry the lady or not?"
"Do I have a choice?" Hethe asked with a bark of laughter, but he glanced at William rather than Templetun for the answer. His first glanced up from the scroll he was reading and shook his head with disgust.
"I thought not." Shifting, Hethe pushed a hand wearily through his hair. The last thing he needed right now was another wife to worry about. Even if he had been looking for one, Tiernay's tyrant was the last he would have chosen. Dear God! The woman was an abominable busybody, forever sending messages berating him for the way he dealt with his people. At least, so he had heard. He never read the messages himself, but William reported to him on the matter. His first received the news from Stephen, his second, whom Hethe left in command while he was off fighting. The younger man was horribly harassed by the woman.
Now it seemed that he himself would be the one harassed - and not by impersonal messages. He would have to deal with the woman personally. Most personally, indeed. The thought was enough to make him shove himself from his seat and hurry toward the stairs. Templetun was immediately on his feet and following.
"My lord? What are you doing?"
"I am going to take a bath," Hethe announced without slowing his steps. "I trust I will be allowed to bathe the stench of death off me and enjoy a night's rest ere I must rush off to wed the wench? It is not as if she is going anywhere."
"Oh. Nay." Templetun stopped at the foot of the stairs and allowed Lord Holden to continue alone. "I mean, aye - a bath and rest are fine. I will send a messenger to warn Lady Tiernay that we will be leaving on the morrow. After we break fast?" he added hopefully.
"After the nooning meal," Hethe corrected. "I would hear how things go on my land ere I rush off to a new holding."
"Aye. After the nooning," Templetun agreed reluctantly.
Grunting in response, Hethe continued up the stairs and to his room. He was standing staring out the window several minutes later when a tap came at the door. Calling out for whomever it was to enter, he wasn't at all surprised to see the door open to reveal servants bearing a tub and numerous pails of hot water. He hadn't ordered the bath, but had spoken his desire to bathe aloud to Templetun. That was enough to see the deed done here. Holden's servants were well trained and swift about their duties. That was good; his men had chosen and trained these workers well.
Hethe watched silently as his bath was prepared; then he dismissed the servants. One of the maids stayed behind, prepared to assist him in the bath, but, buxom and pretty though she was, he waved her out, too. He wished to be alone. He had to consider this matter of his marriage. To be married again. To have another wife for whom he was responsible.
Feeling his muscles tense at the very thought, he quickly stripped off his clothes and stepped into the tub.
The water closed around him as warm and inviting as a mistress, and he leaned his head back, his eyes closing as he felt his body slowly relax and his mind drift.
He had been a mere twelve years old and Nerissa seven when their marriage had been contracted. He was seventeen and she not quite twelve when their parents had grown weary of waiting and decided to hold the ceremony. Both sides had been greedy for the merger between the families - Holden offering his family name and title and Nerissa her father's wealth. Young though he had been, he had been old enough to suggest - rather sensibly, it turned out - that they delay the wedding until the girl was older.
But neither side had wanted that.
Unfortunately, Nerissa was the one who had paid the price for their parents' ambitions. She had grown heavy with child right away, then been sacrificed on the birthing bed. She had not yet seen her thirteenth year.
Hethe would never forgive himself for failing to persuade his father to wait. Or perhaps he could have refused to consummate the marriage. He might have allowed them all to think it was consummated, then secretly waited until she was a year or two older. But he had not. Seventeen he had been, and as randy as any young man. And she had been a lovely girl - even at that age. A combination of drink and his father's firm instruction had ensured the deed was done. Nine months later he had listened to her screams as their child fought to make its way out of her. The child had failed, and Nerissa had bled to death with their babe still inside her.
And so Hethe had been fighting his demons and the king's enemies ever since. He spent weeks and even months covering battlefield after battlefield with blood. He would fight until he wearied of the stench and sight of death, then return home, always hoping that this time he would be able to rest. That this time, home would be the haven he sought. But he'd never found that haven. For him, Nerissa's screams still echoed through the castle halls as they had for nearly three days those many years ago. Quickly, sometimes even within hours he was eager to leave again. He could find no peace.
Today was no different, he thought grimly. Though this time it was not the screams of Nerissa that made him wish to flee Holden's cold stone walls. Nay. This time, the thing that would send him running back to the battlefields was the message which the king's man had just delivered. Marry again - and to the tyrant of Tiernay.
It was ironic, really. This time he would be the sacrifice, and to the king's whims. He couldn't say he was amused.
A tap at the door drew him from his unpleasant thoughts and he sat up slightly, calling "enter" as he began to splash water over his skin. He was no more surprised when William entered than he had been to see the servants appear with his bath. By now his first would have had a report from Stephen, and he would pass the news on to him. It was the usual routine.
"What news while we were gone?" Hethe asked, cupping his hands together to scoop water up and splash it over his head, dampening his hair.
"Nothing really. At least, nothing we had not heard from Stephen's missives." William shrugged, then sat on the end of the bed to consider Hethe unhappily. "You are not really going to marry her, are you?"
Hethe was silent for a moment, then asked, "Did the letter sound like a request or an order?"
"An order," the man admitted reluctantly.
Hethe made a face, then shrugged at his thoughts. "I suppose I have to. I had to marry again sometime,"
he added, trying to resolve himself to the matter.
"Aye, but... to Tiernay's tyrant..." William looked pained, and Hethe laughed slightly at his expression.
"Aye, well. I'll marry her, bed her; then we shall see if the king can't use our services in subduing that son of his. If we leave my wife at Tiernay and I make infrequent visits, things should not change so much."
William's relief was palpable, and Hethe understood it. The other man had been a smallish boy, often picked on by others. But in his late teens, he had a growth spurt that had started him toward the tall, strong man he now was. That, plus his training at Hethe's side, had turned him into a skilled knight. Hethe knew that his friend hoped to gain glory, the king's attention, and perhaps a grant of land and his own demesne, by his sword. It was the reason the other man had never hesitated to ride into battle with him, why he even encouraged Hethe in volunteering himself and his men to Henry. Hethe suddenly settling down with a wife and avoiding warfare could hamper such ambitions. But William needed not fear; Hethe had no desire to settle.
"Bedding the tyrant of Tiernay," William said, the man's words drawing Hethe's attention to his feigned shudder. "Ugh. You have my utmost sympathies."
"And I appreciate those sympathies, William. Truly, I do." He spoke in arid tones, but his mind tried to recollect a picture of the woman. She had been a mere child the last time he saw her, perhaps ten. He had gone to Tiernay after his father's death to discuss and ensure the continuation of the treaties between Holden and Tiernay with this woman's father. It had been the year after Nerissa's death. Aye, she would have been about ten - only a year or so younger than his own bride had been when he had married her, but Tiernay's daughter had shown none of the curves or beauty of his Nerissa. She had been a scrawny little thing. All teeth and elbows, as he recalled. She had probably not improved with the passage of time, either. Helen of Tiernay probably resembled nothing more than a naggy old buck-toothed horse.
"Child! They are here! I saw them from the window of my bedchamber. They are arrived!"
Dropping her sewing, Helen stood abruptly, her hands suddenly tangling themselves in her skirts and clenching the fine material as her aunt flew down the stairs. For a moment she just stood there, panic blanketing her and stealing her thoughts; then she cast it off and regained her senses enough to shout for her maid.
Ducky must have heard Aunt Nell's anxious cries, because it was a bare heartbeat later that she came flying out of the kitchens. She carried a mug and looked just as panicked as Nell. The two women nearly collided as they rushed across the great hall toward Helen. For some reason, their frenzy had an immediate calming effect on Helen.
All was well. The messenger from Lord Templetun had arrived at mealtime last evening. They had been warned and thereby given time to finish the last of their preparations. She was ready, she reassured herself, but ticked off the checklist in her head anyway.
She was wearing her finest gown. Her hair was clean and lay in soft waves about her face. She looked as good as she possibly could. Helen almost wished she was filthy dirty and dressed in rags, yet, had she done anything of the like, Templetun would have realized right away that something was afoot. After all, his arrival had caught her unaware the first time. He had seen how she normally looked. Blackening her teeth and wearing an overlarge gown stuffed with cushioning did not seem a prudent or particularly intelligent approach to scaring her would-be husband into refusing the wedding decree. Her plan had to be more subtle than that, and it was. There were only two things left to do, but for the sake of potency they had to be left until the men's arrival.
"Do you have the garlic?" Helen asked Ducky as the servant and Aunt Nell came to a halt before her.
"Aye, my lady. I have it here." She handed her mug to Helen's aunt to hold, then dug in her pocket for the small stash she had been carrying since the messenger had informed them of the Lords Templetun and Holden's expected time of arrival. Retrieving a handful of them, she began to peel away the thin, dry, outer layer of one clove, then handed it to her mistress and turned her attention to peeling another.
Expression grim, Helen accepted the offering and promptly popped it into her mouth. She winced as she chewed the pungent herb. It felt as if it were burning her mouth, but she continued to chew and popped each newly peeled clove into her mouth until she had six of them in there and was alternately chewing and pushing them about with her tongue. Ducky and Aunt Nell grimaced sympathetically as they watched her work the garlic around. Once she finished, she swallowed the whole mess, then held out her hand for the mug her maid had given to Nell.
Her aunt lifted the mug first for a sniff, and her expression and the way she jerked her nose away warned Helen of the liquid's potency. Nell handed it over. Helen lifted the mug to her own nose then, only to jerk it away just as quickly. She had rather hoped that the garlic would temporarily kill her ability to smell, and aid in her consumption of the concoction they had brewed to strengthen their plan. Such was not the case. Dear God, I cannot drink this , she thought with horror as her nose was assaulted with the foulest scent it had ever been her displeasure to smell.
"Courage," Aunt Nell murmured almost under her breath, and Helen glanced over at her. The woman forced a bracing smile to her face and nodded. Realizing that there was nothing for it, Helen released a pent-up breath, then plugged her nose and tipped the mug's entire contents into her mouth. Her first instinct was to gag, her second to spit, but Helen clenched her fingers and even her toes and stood firm...
waiting for those impulses to pass. They didn't.
Eyes beginning to water, she forced herself to hold the brew in and even to swish it around. It wasn't until she was sure it had coated every last inch of the inside of her mouth that she allowed herself to swallow the foul stuff. That act left her gasping as the liquid shot downward, seeming to take her breath with it.
"Oh, God!" She coughed as both Aunt Nell and Ducky thumped her heartily on the back. Their expressions were almost tragic with pity.
"Are you all right, dear?" Aunt Nell asked anxiously as the coughing began to subside.
Helen nodded, breathed in deeply, then realized that her action wasn't really helping since the air came in tainted by the foul brew coating her mouth. She forced herself to breathe normally and handed Ducky the husks of the cloves she had consumed.
"Aye," she said at last, though she wasn't really sure. The potion was not lying lightly in her stomach, but seemed to be causing a terrible upset there. It was just as repugnant to her innards as to her mouth, it seemed.
"Then perhaps Ducky should get rid of the evidence and we should go greet your guests."
"Aye." Straightening, Helen gave her maid a reassuring smile. "Be sure the ale and food are ready too, please, Ducky. And don't forget to see to the baths." The woman nodded and moved reluctantly toward the kitchens, taking the remains of the garlic and the now empty mug with her.
Helen paused a moment to brush down her skirts, then started for the main door to the keep, her aunt at her side and Goliath at her heel. She ran through the plan in her head as she walked, and tried co reassure herself that it would work. The Hammer would cry off this marriage. It was the only hope to which she could cling. She had to believe it. If she allowed herself to consider the other possibility -
Helen cut her thoughts off right there as she reached the main doors. She reached out to open them when her aunt stopped her.
"Smile," Nell instructed gently. Helen immediately pasted a polite smile on her face, then awaited approval.
"Well," Nell said after a hesitation. "I suppose you shouldn't seem overjoyed at their arrival. That might make them suspicious. And it is not as if you are going to enjoy torturing the Hammer of Holden."
Her last words had the desired effect. While Helen's smile did not widen, it did become a little more natural, the tension in her face relaxing as she considered the scenario to come. Nodding her approval, Aunt Nell pulled the door open and ushered Helen outside.
Her eyes sought out and found the men riding into the bailey, and Helen knew at once which one was the Hammer. He and Lord Templetun were riding in the lead with a couple of dozen men following, and Helen gasped as she caught her first sight of him. He was terribly handsome. That was something she had not expected. She supposed she had always assumed that a person's nature was reflected in his looks, and she had expected him to be as ugly as his actions. This man was far from ugly. His head was turned and bent slightly toward Lord Templetun, who appeared to be speaking, so she wasn't getting a full picture, but what she was seeing was enough to take her breath away. She was almost sorry for a moment that she wasn't going to marry the man, but then the party reached the foot of the stairs and began to dismount, and Helen's breath caught in her throat again.
Dear God, now that the men were off their horses and standing, the very size of her would-be husband became obvious. He and the man who drew his mount up opposite Lord Templetun were the largest of the knights and soldiers in the group. They were both also twice as broad as the older, shrunken Lord Templetun. But it was Lord Holden with whom Helen was concerned, and he looked nothing less than the killer he was - strong, broad and grim.
Helen forced herself to recall with whom she was dealing: The Hammer. A cruel, angry man who she was sure could snap her in two with little effort. Up until then, she had been focused on nothing but getting out of this wedding. Now she focused firmly on the fact that her plans would probably infuriate the man who had come to collect her. What if he took that fury out on her? What if he -
"Courage." Apparently sensing the panic welling within her, Aunt Nell spoke the word quietly. It was enough. Helen firmly pushed her unpleasant worries and fears aside. Stiffening her determination, she forced her chin up a bit and pasted a smile firmly back on her face.
"There is still time to turn tail and run for your life." Hethe's face cracked into a smile at his first's conspiratorial whisper. William had been making such comments all the way from Holden. Hethe just wished that they had not been half serious. The fact that William was as worried over this marriage as he himself was was not reassuring. But then, they had heard a great deal from this wench over the last several years since her father's death - most of it in the form of written reprimands. Ere that, he had known she existed but had not been forced to deal with her. It wasn't until her father's death that she had become a burr in his backside. Suddenly, Lady Helen of Tiernay had gone from being simply the daughter of his neighbor to a pain in the arse.
It had all come about quite swiftly, too, as he recalled. Where before then he had always had a good relationship with the neighboring estate, Hethe had found Tiernay suddenly releasing a barrage of nasty, berating letters, correspondence that chastised him for his treatment of his servants and villeins. As if I have ever mistreated anyone under my rule , he thought irritably. Only Lady Tiernay, now in charge of her father's estates, seemed to think he did. He supposed that, being a woman, she would see some of his punishments as a tad strong or unnecessary, but Hethe had always found that a firm hand produced good results and allowed everyone to know where they stood.
"Dear God." Those words, pushed out on an expelled breath by his first, drew Hethe away from his thoughts. Turning to the man curiously, he then followed William's enchanted gaze to the woman at the top of the steps before them.
"Sweet Jesu," he agreed on a breath of his own.
The woman was radiant. Her hair was long and wavy and a golden color that seemed to capture the sun and reflect it back at the world. Her face, what he could see of it from this distance, was pale and perfectly formed. And her figure... His gaze slid over her body, devouring the becoming blue gown she wore.
This was no hag. This woman did not at all fit the image he had painted in his mind of his soon-to-be bride. Nay, this could not be Helen of Tiernay. There was no way that the harping, nagging wench constantly besieging Stephen with shrewish letters was this angel of loveliness. It seemed he was not the only one who felt thusly, for he heard William ask Templetun in an undertone who the two ladies on the keep's steps were. It was only then that Hethe even noticed the older woman at the younger's side, or the large dog at her heels.
"Ah. That is Lady Tiernay and her aunt," the older man said, gazing up at their hostess with satisfaction and not a little relief. Hethe could only guess by the man's expression that he had feared she might not turn herself out well for their first meeting. He had gathered, from a comment or two Templetun had made, that she was no more pleased about this union than he himself had been at first.
Hethe gave a start at his own thoughts. Than he himself had been at first ? Surely he was not now changing his mind just because the lass was comely? He sneered at the thought. But, much to his shame, while he might not be pleased to marry the tongue that had been carping at him for the last year or so, he found himself quite eager to marry this body. Or at least to bed it. He allowed himself a brief moment of fantasy before he recalled his poor deceased wife and realized that if he married this woman, he would have to get her with child eventually. He could take precautions at first, of course - withdrawing, and all those other tiresome things he had learned in order to keep from getting with child the women he had bedded since his wife's death. But, eventually, he would have to produce an heir. Or try to. He winced as Nerissa's screams echoed through his head.
Templetun's prompt rescued Hethe from his less than happy thoughts. Straightening abruptly, he led the way up the stairs.
"Lady Tiernay," Templetun greeted, jogging up the last few steps to come abreast of Hethe as he paused before their two hostesses. "May I introduce Lord Hethe of Holden. Lord Holden, this is Lady Helen of Tiernay and her aunt Lady Nell Shambleau."
Hethe moved up another step so that his face and Helen's were on a level, and managed a smile as he gazed into his fiancee's sky blue eyes that matched her gown. Actually, his mouth was responding to his nether regions, and it fashioned itself into a beaming grin of pleasure for the woman - until she smiled back and said, "How do you do?"
His smile died an abrupt death, becoming a dismayed grimace. It wasn't the woman's words that affected him so, but her foul breath that blew at him as she spoke. The shock of it made Hethe take a hasty step backward. He would have tumbled down the stairs had William not steadied him with a fist at his back.
"God's teeth!" he gasped in horror, bringing a perplexed and even slightly offended look to their hostess's face. It also brought him a rather sharp and confused look from Templetun, reminding him of his manners. Forcing a false smile of apology to his lips, Hethe turned his face slightly to avoid the noxious fumes and excused himself by muttering, "Nearly lost my footing."
"Oh, well, you must be careful, my lord," his betrothed breathed at him sweetly. Leaning closer, she snatched his arm through her own, presumably to save him from losing his balance again. She then smiled brightly and sighed gustily into his face. "Such a handsome man. We would not wish you to tumble down the stairs and break your neck! At least, not before the wedding, hmmm?" she teased, her eyes sparkling.
Hethe nearly whimpered. His head was swimming under the onslaught of her poisonous exhalations.
Sweet Saint Simon! He had never smelled anything quite so raw or putrid. He hadn't thought it possible for such a scent to come out of a human's mouth. And the fact that it was coming from the sweet bow-shaped lips of the lovely woman before him just seemed to make the horror of it that much worse.
"Shall we go inside?" the woman's aunt suggested cheerfully.
"Aye," Lady Tiernay agreed. "I am sure you gentlemen are ready for a nice mug of ale after your journey." She spoke the words to Hethe, her breath wafting over his face like an ill wind carrying the stench of death. Feeling his stomach roil, Hethe nodded faintly, more than eager for any excuse to move and avoid the situation he was in.
Lord love me, I have to marry this wench, he thought as he hurried rudely up the last step and into the keep, dragging her a step behind. She would be breathing this putrescence at him for the next fifty years or so, he thought faintly, too dismayed to even realize how rude he was being by pulling Lady Tiernay about and leaving her aunt and the others to follow.
"Oh, my! You are thirsty, are you not?" Lady Helen laughed a bit breathlessly, rushing to keep up with him as he led the way in to the trestle tables set up before him.
"Aye. It was a dusty ride," Hethe muttered, breathing in the sweet fresh air of the great hall. He supposed it wasn't really sweet; it carried the odor of fresh rushes and various other things, but to him it was as wondrous as the aroma from a rose.
Lady Helen put on a little speed and reached the table at the same time as Hethe. She immediately set about directing him to a seat, then plopped onto the one beside him and turned to face him.
She was about to speak again, Hethe realized, and he felt himself quiver in anticipation of the stench about to cloud his nostrils. It actually seemed to him as if time slowed down for a moment as the horrified premonition swept over him. He saw her lips part, her mouth open, caught a flash of nice white teeth, even a glimpse of her tongue as she inhaled deeply to propel her words. Then, as he waited helplessly, she blew all those horrid fumes out over him as she spoke.
Through the sudden buzzing in his ears, Hethe thought he heard her say, "I trust your journey was uneventful?" But he wasn't positive. His whole body, every sense he had, was writhing in agony from her fetid breath. Moaning, he turned his head away, sucking untainted air into his lungs as if his very life depended on it. Indeed, at that moment, he felt as if it very well might.
"Is something the matter, my lord?"
He could hear the concern in her voice. That concern was reflected in Templetun's expression as the rest of the party caught up to them. William was at his side at once, his face furrowed with dismay.
"What is it?" his first asked, watching in alarm as Hethe continued to suck in air, almost hyperventilating in an effort to clear his body of Lady Helen's repulsive exhalations. He could actually taste the scent, it was so strong and pungent. Dear God, it was as if she'd been sucking on a dead man's rotting arm.
"I shall go see about the ale," Lady Helen murmured, her voice tight with anxiety. "Perhaps that will help."
Hethe grunted something he hoped would be taken for an affirmative, and heard the rustle of her gown as she stood and moved off.
"I shall help," her aunt said promptly and chased off after her.
It wasn't until the older woman had disappeared into the kitchens behind her niece that Hethe allowed himself to relax. His shoulders immediately slumped, and he sagged at the table. Dear God, not only was he to marry this wench, he had to kiss her during the ceremony! Lord Holden began to gasp air into his lungs, positive he was suffocating to death.