The perfect wife, p.26
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       The Perfect Wife, p.26
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           Lynsay Sands
Page 26


  "Oh, well, perhaps. . . "Avelyn paused. She had startedto walk around the animal, but had onlytaken a couple of steps before she sawwhat the trouble was. "Oh, dear. "

  "What is it?" Diamandaasked, moving curiously toward her.

  "Iam afraid weare notmovingherfor awhile. "

  "What? Why?" the petite blondeasked, then reached Avelyn's side, peered at the animalandbreathed, "Oh. "

  "What? What isit?" Lady Helen did not come closer, and Avelyn wasstartingto realize the woman was afraid of the sow.

  "She is birthing!" Runilda said with delighted surprise as she moved to join Diamanda and Avelyn.

  "Oh, no!" Lady Helen cried with horror. "She must notdo that inside,not here.

  DearGod. "

  "My lady!"

  Avelyn turned toward the door as Paen's squire rushed into the hall, nearly stumbling over his feet in his hurry. Managing to reachherside withoutfalling, David gasped, "Lord Paensent me totellyou that Lord Gervilleand hiswife are riding through the gates. "

  Avelyn's eyebrows rose at this news. Paen had said last night that his father was sending servants, but had madeno mention ofhisparents returning with them. She supposed sheshould have expected as much.

  Avelyn went outside to greet them,andmoments later, Paen's mother was making a fuss over her headwound and telling hernot to worry; she intended to stay for a couple of days andwould tend to everything untilAvelynfelt better. The words brought aresigned sigh from Lord Gerville beforehe left to findhis son.

  "Now, youshould go lie down and rest. "Lady Gerville ushered Avelyn up the steps intothe keep. "I will set the servants tounloading things andsetting - Oh!"

  She stopped abrupdy and staredaround thegreat hall. "You have madea good start of it despite yourinjury. " Her gaze slidacross the freshrushes spread over the clean floor, then to the newly repaired stairs. "Why, it looks ever somuch better already. "

  "Paenordered his men to fix thestairs andthe flooraboveafterAvelyn'sfall,"

  Diamanda informed her.

  "Aye," LadyHelen agreed. "And he orderedthe men to clean while heheaded out in search of servants. We directed them untilAvelyn felt well enough to move about. "

  "I see. "LadyGerville's gaze slid again to Avelyn's forehead witha frown. "You should go rest,dear. Head wounds are such trickythings, and - " She stopped again as her gaze slid around the hallandlanded on the sow in the back corner. "Oh, dear, I seeshe is back. "

  "I am afraid so. She seemsto see the open doors as an invitation to enter. "

  Avelyn followed asPaen's mother moved toward the animal. "The doors are inneed of repairand will not close. I had meant toorder a couple of men to repair them today, but I was notquick enough. Unfortunately,she is inlabor, so I fear we shall not gethermovedfor abit," she added as Lady Gervillestarted towardthe backend of thesow.

  "Oh,my, sosheis,"Lady Gerville agreed, thenheaved a sigh. "Well, we shall have to let her befor now, Isuppose. " She turned her attention backtoward Avelyn.

  "Now,why do younot go rest? We have several servants with us,and more are ridingwith the carts andshouldbearriving soon. I am afraid I wastoo impatientto ride as slow as the wagonstravel. "

  Avelyn resisted the lady's urgings toward the stairs. Really,she hadalreadyslept most of the day away and hadthings she wantedto get done. "I have just awoken,"

  sheadmitted as Lady Gerville began tofrown at her resistance. "And itissuch a lovely, rare sunnyday, Ithought Imight just takea smallstroll. . . to clear my head. "

  "Oh. " Lady Gerville smiled. "That may be just thething foryou,dear. Why do you not take Diamandawith you in case you have any problems? AsI say,head woundscan be tricky. "

  Avelyn hesitated, reluctant to agree to thegirl'spresence. She liked Diamanda well enough,but had been hoping to sneakdown to the village and - "That would benice. I'd be happy to come with you," Diamandasaid brightly, obviouslyeager toavoidall thecleaning that was about tohappen. Thegreat-hall walls stillneeded whitewashing, therewerestill the two smaller roomsabove stairsto be tendedto,and the kitchens as well, not to mention the herb garden. Avelyn couldn't blame the girl forherrelief in avoiding thosechores.

  Supposing there wasno help for it, Avelynnoddedand agreed, "Thatwould be nice. "

  "Off you go, then,and take Runilda with youto keepyou out of trouble. Lady Helen and Ishallsee to thingshere; you have a nice walk," Lady Gervilleshooed them out of the keep.

  Runilda and Diamanda fell into step on either side of her as Avelyn headed across the bailey.

  "Wherearewe walking to?" the petite blonde asked when she ledthem past the menstanding guard atthe gates.

  Avelyn bit her lip and tried to decide what to tell her.

  "Avy?" Diamanda asked, her steps slowing asAvelyn ledthem toward the path through the woods.

  Sighing, she paused and glanced back the way they'd come, relieved to notethat theywereout of earshot of the guards. "Ithought to go to thevillage. "

  "What?" Diamanda looked horrified. "But, wecannot - "

  "It is not that far," Avelyn soothed. "We passedit on the ride here yesterday,and it is notfar at all. "

  "But Paen said this morningwhile we were breaking fast that the villagers are angry about Lord Gerville's neglecting them and resent our presence here. We should not - "

  "Ihope to make a startat repairing the rift," Avelyn admitted.

  Diamandahesitated. "How?"

  "Well, we have not gota lickof furniturein the keep, Diamanda. "

  "Aye, Idid notice,"the girl said dryly. "There is no place to sit or eator - "

  "Just so. " Avelyn nodded. "Ithought perhaps we could tend tothat and mend some ill feelings at thesame time if wehired villagers to build them. "

  When the blonde looked uncertain, Avelyn added, "I thought we might also purchasesome foodstuffs, baked goods if there isa baker, and ale from the alewife.

  We cannot produce anyof thesethings yetourselves. "

  "Ale and bread?" Diamanda said, moving her hand to her stomach. "Tis noon. "

  "Aye, and you have not yet broken your fast, my lady," Runilda pointed out.

  "Justso. " Avelyn smiled atthem. "Ibrought coinswith me. We can sample the foods and buy some for the keep, as well aspossibly see about furniture and other things. If the village is as pooras Paen claims, they may be happy forthe trade. "

  "Or they may not haveanything to trade," Diamanda argued.

  "We can but find outone way or the other,"Avelyn said with a sigh, then raised hereyebrows. "Are you willing to come with me?"

  Diamandaglanced back toward the keep, then nodded slowly. "Aye. I fear it will be afailure, butwe may as well go see. "

  Nodding,Avelyn struckout on thepath again. It was a warm, sunny day, and she would have enjoyed thewalk if shewerenot soworried about thecomingvisitto the village. Paen had saidthe villagers resented them,soshe could not hopefora warm welcome,but she was hoping her coins would help.

  "Mayhap weshould have ridden on horseback. "

  Diamanda'svoice drew Avelynfrom her thoughts, and she glanced around. While the village hadseemed only moments away onhorseback, it wasabit furtheron foot. Still, not a great distance, but Avelyn got the idea that Diamanda had led something ofa pampered existenceat Gerville, withservants constantly at her beck andcall.

  "It cannotbe much further,Diamanda. I am sure 'tisjust aroundthis bend. "

  Diamanda grunted with disbelief, then breathed a small "oh"of surprise asthey cameout of the bend and foundthemselves walking intothe village.

  It was smalland not very prosperous, but Avelyn had expected as much. She simplyhadn'texpected such miserableconditions. Thevillage and its peoplehad truly suffered under Legere's leadership. She suspected herproject was goingto be more difficult than she'd expected.

  "Theydo not lookvery welcoming. " Diamanda moved astep closerto Avelyn as they neareda groupof women gossiping outside a rowof tiny, dilapidated hutson th
eedge of the village. The women turnedto gawkatthem,their expressions cold andsuspicious. "Weare notgoing to talk to them, are we?"

  Hearing the fearin the younger girl's-voice, Avelyn gave in to herown cowardice and shook her head. "Nay. We shall go to thevillage center. Perhaps we can find someonethere who appears morehelpful. "

  Diamandamade a sound that couldhave been agreementor not, then asked,"Are you sure thisis a good idea?"

  "Aye," Avelyn answered firmly,but she wasbeginning to wonder. It had seemed a fine ideawhen she'd come up with it, but as theypassed one villager afteranother and were met with silent resentment each time, she beganto doubt her plan would work. Bythetime they reached the village center, she was even beginning to doubt their chances of escaping thevillage without beingattacked,at leastverbally.

  Chapter Sixteen

  "We have a following," Diamanda murmured, glancing nervously over her shoulder.

  Avelyn did notlook back. She'd been aware ofthe growingcrowd following them as they walked. It was part of the reason her confidence in the endeavor was becoming shaken.

  Afraid to stop walking lest it spur their followers on to actuallydoing orsaying something, Avelyn glanced around a bit anxiously. Whereas they had passednothing but smallcruck housesonthe outskirts of the village,here inthecenter wereseveral larger wattle-and-daub buildings that servedas bothhome andbusiness. The biggest bore asign so faded theonly word legible was Inn.

  Relief pouring through her, Avelyn turned her steps towardit and tried to maintain an unhurried pace.

  The women released arelieved breath as they steppedinside the dim buildingand thedoor closed behindthem. That relieflasted as longas it tookfor theireyesto adjustto the lowlight. They stood in a mid-sized room lit only by a couple of torches. There were twolarge trestle tables,one oneither sideof theroom. There was also a door directly across from them, presumably leading to the kitchens.

  Thereweresix men inthe room, five customers spread out over thetwo tables and a man Avelyn assumed was the innkeeper. He stood in frontof the dooracross from them,arms crossed andstance belligerent. Every last one of themen waseyeing them with suspicion and intense dislike.

  Avelyn sighed. it was obvious thateveryone knew they werefrom the castle. She supposed the fact that they were on foot would be telling, not to mention their clothing. . . orat least, Diamanda'sexpensive gown. Her own dressfit inrathernicely withthe villagers'garb, she noted witha grimace. Though the cloth was a fine expensive weave,it was dark and drab and ill-fitting, as weremostof thegarments the villagerswore.

  Straighteningher shoulders, Avelyn ignored the silent glancesaroundthemand led Diamanda andRunildato anempty space at thetable on theright. While the other twosat, Avelyndid not. Shesuspectedtheywereunlikely to get serviceifthey waited, so she didn't bother. Instead, she asked Diamanda and Runilda if they wished food and drink. Despite complaining of hunger on their walk there, Diamanda shook her head. Apparently,she had lost her appetite. EvenRunilda said nay.

  Avelyn noddedandwalked to theinnkeeper, pasting apleasant smileonherface.

  She saw aflickerof surprise in his eyesas she approached, butthat was all. He did notevenask whatshe wanted. Aye,thesepeoplereally resented theirpresence, she thought on an inward sigh, then simply widened her smile. "Iwill havethree. . . "

  she paused to glance around attheothercustomers andnoticed mostof themwere eating some sort ofmeat pasty. Knowing itmust be the bestfood they served, she pointed to thenearest man and finished, "three of whathe is having,as well as three meads and an ale, please. "

  Avelyn beamed another smileat him as if completely obliviousto the animosity in the air, then turned and walkedback to joinDiamandaand Runilda, afraid that if she gave him the chance,the man would refusetoservethem. She held herbreathas she waited for the man's reaction. Hewas still hesitating where she'dleft himas Avelyn squeezed herself in the smallspace between Diamanda and Runilda, but after a moment, hehuffed with irritation and turned to walk into the kitchen.

  Avelyn letherbreath outslowly, grateful atleast that hehadn't thrown themout.

  The threewomen were silentas they waitedfor theirrepast. It didn'ttake long.

  Within moments,the innkeeper was back, slamming the drinksdown beforethem.

  "Why did you order four drinks?" Diamanda asked as the man movedback into the kitchen.

  "I wish to tryboth the mead and the ale," Avelyn answered, but didn't explain further. Instead, she tried the mead, sippingitcautiously, then relaxing when it did notturn out tobe soured or otherwiseunpalatable. She'd almost feared the man might do somethingtotheir food or drinks to discouragetheir enjoyingit. Of course, thefood hadn't comeyet, shereminded herself asshe set the meaddownand tried the ale.

  Avelyn pausedas theliquid filledher mouth. Although the mead was average, the ale was fine. Quite fine.

  "Who makes your ale?" Avelyn asked when the innkeeper returned with their pasties.

  "Ida What ofit?"

  Avelyn peered around the innkeeper to see awomanstandingin the kitchen door, staring at themcoldly. Hiswife, she suspected. The womanhad probablycometo peekthrough the door atthem, then stepped out on hearing Avelyn's question.

  "Mycompliments," Avelynsaidsolemnly. "It isvery fine ale, someof the best I have ever tasted. "

  The woman's expression became stiffer as if suspecting Avelyn was up to something until she added, "The mead is good enough, butnot as fine as the ale. "

  Suchhonesty seemedtoconvincethewomanthat Avelyn wasn'tbuttering herup forsomething, andsherelaxedenough that she was at least no longer scowling as she noddedandsaid,"The mead today is notmybesteffort. It isusuallybetter. "
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