The perfect wife, p.15
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       The Perfect Wife, p.15
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           Lynsay Sands
Page 15


  "Stew?" Avelynaskedwithsurpriseas she accepted the goblet.

  "Aunt Helen used thebig black pot your mothersentwith you from Straughton. "

  She looked uncertain. "She didask Runildatoask you if itwould be all right. "

  "Oh, aye," Avelyn murmured,recalling the maid chattering away atherwhenshe'd brought the food earlier.

  "Aunt Helen thought itwould make it easierfor Paentoeat if hecoulddrinkit out of thegoblet. "

  Avelyn nodded slowly, wishing she'd come up with the idea herself. It hadn't occurred to her to wonder how Paen was managing to eat. She was a most thoughtless wife.

  "Runilda was supposed to ask if she might borrow the goblets as well,"

  Diamanda said when Avelyn was silentso long. She immediately nodded.

  "Of course,that is fine. " Her motherhad sent sixgoblets with her. All hadbeen speciallymadeand bore her and Paen's initials. There were a lot more than six people in their party, though. "Whatis everyone else eating out of?"

  "The men are eating roastrabbitagain. Aunt Helenonly made enough stew for the family because there would not be enough goblets for everyone," Diamanda explained. "Anyway, Paen suggested I bring you some so that youwould notneed trouble yourself to comeout of the tent and couldcontinuetorest. You were terribly tired today. "

  "Idid not sleep much last night," Avelyn said vaguely in response tothequestion onthe youngergirl'sface.

  "Will you be all right fortraveling tomorrow?"Diamanda queried. "I only ask because Paen is frettingthatyou aresickening and - "

  "I shallbefine. I amfine. I just did not sleep much, sowasweary today. I will sleep tonight. "

  Diamanda didn't look as if she believed her, but nodded politely, thenturned a curiousgaze on the black clothin her lap. "What are you sewing?"

  Avelyn glanceddownand smiled. "Ithought to makesome braesand a tunic for Paen. Hisare in suchadisreputable statefromthe fire. Tis why Iwas so weary today. My stomach wasa tad upset and I couldnot sleep, soIstartedon these. The next thing I knew, it was morning," she explained and held thebraes up for herto see. "Do you thinkhe willlike them?"

  "Oh. " Diamanda's eyeswidenedand shereachedout to touch the cloth. "He will lovethem. "

  Avelyn smiled with reliefandlet themsettleback in her lap. "I hope to have them ready inanothernight or two. "

  "Well, do not make yourself blindworkingon them. Youshould haveanother candle in here. "

  Avelyn glanced towardthecandle onthe chest. She had avague recollection of Runilda entering at somepointand settingthe lit candlethere,but wasn't sure how long ago it had been.

  "The one will befine," Avelyn said, smiling at thegirl'sconcern.

  "Well, at leastset it abit closerso that you do notstrain youreyes. " Diamanda moved to collect the candle as shespoke andset it on thegroundnext tothe furs.

  "There - that is better. Well. . . " She straightened andbeamed asmile at Avelyn. "I should go eat my stew. I shall comebackwhen I have finished andcollect your gobletto clean withmine," she announced,then added firmly, "And I shall expect you to haveeaten everylast drop. "

  Avelyn watched the girlslipout ofthe tent,a smallsmile playing about herlips.

  Despite her occasionalverbalblunders,Diamanda seemedto be a charming young woman, and she appreciated her efforts to befriend her. Avelyn's gaze droppedto thestewand shegaveit a sniff. It did smell delicious, butshewasn't reallyhungry after the fare Runildahad brought her. She didn't wish to offend hermother-in-law, or hurt Diamanda's feelings by not at least appearing to haveeaten it when thegirl returned for thegoblet.

  Avelyn's gazeslidto the tent flap. It hadn't closedall the way, andshe could see thepeoplegathered around the fire inthecenter of the campsite. Setting hersewing aside, she picked up the goblet and stood. Paen had never approached her about tending to personalmatters, and whileshe knewhe hadinsistedthat sheask his permissionbefore going anywhereon herown,surely he didn't include tendingto matters such as finding a handy bush. It would certainly be embarrassing to approach him by the fire to request anescort intothe woods.

  Avelynrecalledthe day before and how uncomfortable it had beenhavinghim stand only feet away - within hearing distance - as she'd wateredthe bushes. No, she decided, he couldn't have meant to include this task in hisorders. Besides,what he didn't know wouldn'thurthim, and she could surely managewithout comingto any harm.

  Mind madeup, Avelyntookthegobletof stew with her and slidout of the tent, then quickly around behind it. it was dark here away from the campfire, and she hadn't a clue where the path to the river would be since her husbandhadn'tseenfit to take her there, but she moved into the woods, pushing her way through the clawing branches untilshe feltshe was agood enough distancefrom the tent. Then she turnedthegobletover andgave it agood shake to make sure allthe stew was out, then setthe goblet down whileshe tended to her needs.

  Avelyn caughtthe hemof her skirt on both sides and lifted it up over her hips as shedropped to squat in thebushes, thengave a startledlittle squeal of painand straightened abruptly, one hand goingtorub her bottom. Stingingnettles - leave itto hertosquat in apatch of them.

  Grimacing,she movedseveral feet fromwhere she'd been, felt cautiously around with herhand to be sure there wereno nettles here, then repeatedthe procedure.

  This time shemanaged the task without incident.

  Relieved tohave thematter tendedto, she started back toward the tent, then paused. She'dforgottenthe goblet. Staring into the darkness around her, Avelyn considered returning for it inthe morning, but feared she wouldn't know where exactly to look. Ontop of that, Diamanda was going toreturn for it to clean. How couldshe explain losing the goblet? The girl would know she hadn'teatenthestew, andherfeelings wouldbe hurt.

  Heaving a resigned breath, Avelyn moved to where she thought she'd first stopped, and knelt to feel around for it. Of course, she found the stew first.

  Muttering under her breath, she wiped her hand on the grass, then continued searching,andthis time foundthe stinging nettles.

  It justwas not her night, Avelyn thought with exasperation, rubbing the tips of the injured fingers with her other hand, then tried one more time. Fortunately,she found the goblet without furtherincident and stood up with relief.

  There,thatwasn't so bad, she toldherself silendy as she madeher way backto the tent,but evenshedidn't believe it. Avelyn pausedbehind thetent and peeked around first to be sure noone waslooking, then hurriedquickly aroundto the flap andslipped inside with asigh ofrelief.

  She setthe goblet on the ground by the furs, picked upher sewing and winced at the irritated sting in her fingers. Sheswitched thesewing to her other hand. The moment she putweight on her bottom, she was remindedthat her fingers weren't the only thing that had comein contact with the nettles.

  Gasping,Avelynshifted to herknees, then dropped thesewing altogether and lifted the back of her skirtin aneffort to see howmuch damagethe nettleshad done.

  Of course, no matter how she strained and twisted, she couldn't see much.

  However, when she ran her uninjuredhand over the area, shecould feel welts.

  Avelyn letherskirt drop back into place with a disheartenedsigh. It didseemher husbandmight be rightabouther wandering off onher own. Her behind stung from squattingin the nettles, the fingersof her right handtoo, and she'd apparently knelt in the stew. Shepluckedoff the bit of meat stucktothe knee of her gown.

  Avelyndropped themeat inthe goblet, set thesewing out of the way and lay downon her side. Itwouldtakean hour or so at least beforethe welts wentaway.

  Sewing was out of the question for now.

  She supposedit wasforthebest. She'd determined to sleep tonightanyway. She would just get more than she'd hoped for, Avelyn told herself. Still, she was depressed by her own ineptitude.

  "Well?"Paen asked themoment Diamandareturned from the tent.

  "She is asleep," the girl said apologetically. "Iwas not sure,shall I wake her,or
- ?"

  "No," Paen said on a sigh. He'd asked Diamanda to invite Avelyn out to join them if she was feelingbetter, but it seemedthat wasn'tgoingto happen. Heshook his headandpushed alogfurther into the fire with the toe of his boot.

  "Did she eat anything?"he heardhis mother ask and glanced up asDiamandaheld upthe goblet she'd fetched while there.

  "Aye, all but one little piece of meat. "

  "Well, Iam sure she is just a little weary from the journey," his mother said.

  Paen grunted. "She slept through thejourney today, and she is sleeping again now," hepointed out grimly. "I think sheis ailing. "

  "Iam sure she isfine, Paen," hismother insisted, but he wasn't fooled. He could see theconcern on her face. Still, he let the matter drop; at leastoutwardly. Paen couldn't help but think that he had themostfragileof wivesand he would haveto take special care withher to be sure he gother homesafely. Oncethere, away from the rigors oftravel, perhaps shewould dobetter.

  Theyshould reachHargrove's lateonthe morrow,where he could collect his new squire. It was only atwo-dayjourney back after that. It was reallyonly a two-day journeyfrom Straughtonto hisfamily's home, but the need to collect his squirehad taken them out of their way. He'd suggested thathismother and father continueon home with most ofthemen, leaving only a small escort for himand Avelyn,but his mother wouldn'thear of it. She wantedto be closeby tochange his bandagesand assureherself that hedidn't further hurt himself.

  His gaze slidtothetent, and he decided he would keep Avelyn on his horsewith him for the remainder of the journey. That way, she could rest and conserve whatever strength she did have.

  Birdsong made Avelynstraightenfrom her sewing and glancetoward the tent flap tosee that dawn wasbreaking. She'dworked through the night again.

  Her nap after the encounter with the stinging nettleshad beena shortone, but it had been long enough that her backside had recovered. She'd found that after sleeping allday, she wasn't tired. Avelynhad settledinto sewing, tellingherselfthat she would only work for a little while, then would sleep. Of course, she hadn't. The sewinghadgone sowell, she'd workedthrough the night again.

  She knewshe would regret it later today,but at the moment,Avelyn was terribly pleasedwith herself. She'd finished the braes and had made a goodstart on the tunic. Another nightandshe mighteven have itdone.

  Imagining her husband's pleasure when she presented them to him, Avelyn straightenedher back from the hunchedpositionshe'd been working in,then got slowly and painfully to her feet. She should have moved around some toprevent the stiffness fromsetting in,but she hadn't thought about it at thetime. Now she was paying the price for sitting in one position for hours.

  She folded the unfinished tunicneatlyandput it in her chestwith the braes,telling herself she didn't mind that her husbandhad again neglectedto joinher in the tent.

  Avelyn wasn't a very convincing liar, eventoherself.

  Marriedlife seemed to be a lot lonelier than she'd imagined it would be. Or perhapsit wasjust her marriage.

  Sighing, she moved tothe tent flap topeer hopefully out. Now thatshewasup and about, Avelyn was aware of a rather urgent need to relieve herself again.

  Unfortunately, none of the lumps of male flesh around the fire were moving or showing any sign of waking up yet.

  Glancing toward the surrounding woods, Avelynthought she spotted a pathon the opposite side of camp. Itprobably led to the river, she realized, then glanced again at thebodies asleep around the fire's ashes.

  She'dencountereda bit ofdifficultyon her errand last night, but thathad been in darkness and Avelynwas sure shecouldmanage fine now that therewas more light.

  But her husband had ordered her not to wander offagain without his permission.

  Avelyn started to consider the repercussions of disobeyingher new husband, but herbodywas making itsneeds painfully clear. If she didn't go outand attendto the matter,she would beattendingtoit inthe tent,like itor not.

  Muttering under her breath, she stepped out of the tent and moved stealthily around camp till she founda path.

  She walked the path for several moments until it opened into another small clearing. She gazed around then, a bitbefuddled. There was no river in sight. Still, shecould seethe beginnings of anotherpath directly across from her. Shrugging, she crossedthe clearing and starteddown thenew path, but itseemed to grow smaller as shewentalong until it dwindledout altogether.

  After a moment's hesitation, Avelyn gavein toneed and relieved herself, then turnedback theway she'd come.

  At the small clearing she'd just crossed, Avelyn paused. There were the beginnings of two paths across fromher and Avelynwasn't sure which she'd used.

  The oneon the right?The paths were rather closetogether,and it could havebeen theone on the left. Decidingto go with herfirst instinct, she started upthe pathon theright,assuring herself that if it was the wrong one,she'd simplyturn back afew minutes later, andtake theother one. However, when Avelyn did turn back, she seemed to walk an awfully long time before findinga clearing,and then it seemed smaller than theclearing she'd started out from.

  Decidingshe was imagining things, Avelyn took a new path and headed out again. . . and ten minutes later admitted to herself that she was lost. Worse yet, considering that the sun was nowfully up in the sky, there was no wayshe could slip back into the tent without her husband noticing.

  Avelyn feltready tosit right down and have a good cry. It was almost asif the fatesweretellingherthatthis marriage was doomed. However, it washer considered opinion that the fateswere a stupid bunch ifthey didn'tknow enough to giveher these warnings before she'd married rather than after.

  Forcing away unwanted tears, Avelyntook a deep breath, peered around the clearing and then chose apath at random and startedout once more.
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