"You may kiss the bride."
Frozen in place, Helen watched unhappily as her new husband turned to bestow upon her the bridal kiss. This was the worst day of her life. She was sure of it.
She stood stiff and unresponsive as his mouth closed over hers, expecting a quick peck. She got much more. His lips brushed hers lightly; then his tongue slid out to lave her mouth, startling her lips into parting.
Immediately, his tongue swept in, and Helen's eyes widened abruptly at the pungent taste that assaulted her.
"You!" she gasped accusingly, pulling back. The man had the nerve to give her a slow, satisfied smile.
"Fire with fire," he murmured, to the confusion of those near enough to hear him. Then, leaning forward, he put a finger to her chin and pushed it upward, closing her mouth so that he could brush it again lightly with his own in a more proper kiss. Straightening, he turned back to face the priest and finish the ceremony.
Helen did not turn. She simply stood staring at the monster beside her. She had seen the look of victory shining in his eyes. He was getting what he wanted. He wanted this wedding. The realization sank in slowly and painfully. She had been fighting this battle assuming that he would not care either way, that he merely needed to be shown how unpleasant this marriage could be. But nothing was going as she had planned. First, he'd claimed to love all that she had created for him to hate; then he'd turned the tables on her at that picnic, then she had fallen in the river rather than he, and now he had turned her own weapon back on her. Garlic! she thought angrily. I should have had a backup plan , she realized. Something in case the first plan did not work. Poison in his porridge, perhaps, or a knife in his heart.
Or, she realized suddenly, I should have thought out more thoroughly why he had not promptly refused the wedding . She had not exactly endeared herself to the man with her complaints to the king over the years, surely. Why had he not refused outright? Why had he come here entirely ready to carry out the wedding?
The answer to that was so simple and obvious, Helen nearly groaned aloud. Tiernay, of course. She had forgotten how rich and prosperous the fiefdom was, how attractive it would be to him. Helen herself was just small part of what he gained through this marriage. Tiernay was the prize. And one well worth having.
Suddenly, she realized where she had gone wrong. It was Tiernay she should have made appear as unattractive as possible. It was Tiernay she should have made smell and painted black.
For a moment, she was terribly excited at the realization, but then she realized that it was too late in coming. Or was it? Could she still delay the consummation of the marriage? Could she still find a method to escape? She had to!
She spent the celebration that followed in a tizzy, her mind racing about like a crazed mouse. She had to do something. She had to think of a way to put him off long enough for her to make Tiernay unattractive.
Something he could not combat. Around her, the festivities continued. There was much toasting and cheering. Much ribald teasing and laughter. But she was oblivious to the lot.
It was not until the last course of the feast that inspiration finally came to her. Standing abruptly, Helen ignored her new husband's startled and questioning glance and hurried toward the kitchens. As she had expected, Ducky was there.
Hethe rubbed his stomach absently and watched his new bride disappear into the kitchens, a sense of foreboding overtaking him. His gaze slid to her aunt to find the woman looking after her niece with a concerned expression. He had a feeling it was not a good thing. He had been aware of his new wife's silence throughout the meal. She had not touched a single bite of the food set before her. He had almost been able to see her mind working over the problem of his having combated her bad breath with some oral stench of his own. And it had worked. At least, he assumed it worked. With his own mouth garlic-drenched, he had not really been able to tell if she had flouted the directives of their contract and chomped on the stuff herself. It mattered little, he supposed. What mattered now was that with the garlic filling his own breath, hers had not been the least offensive. For a moment, before she had pulled away, he had found himself enjoying that kiss more than he expected. The wedding night would not be a trial for him.
In fact, now that the problem of her offensive breath was out of the way, he was anticipating the coming night with great hopes.
The opening of the kitchen door drew Hethe from his thoughts, and he watched curiously as his new bride returned to the table. She looked slightly anxious and distracted, he noted with a frown, and he arched an eyebrow as she reclaimed her seat. If she saw his questioning look, she ignored it, merely picking up the quail drumstick in her trencher to handle it with an obvious lack of interest.
"Is the food not to your liking?" he asked solicitously, knowing that was not the problem, but unable to keep from teasing her a bit after the torments she had put him through. Not to mention for what he had been forced to do to combat it. Eating the garlic, himself for instance. It was a terribly clever idea, but now his stomach was roiling rather ominously. He would have liked to blame it on the meal he had just eaten, but as per the contract, he and his wife were eating out of the same trencher. As he had hoped, that had greatly improved the flavor of his meal. Dinner was delicious. It was certainly not the cause of his stomach upset. The garlic he had consumed was wholly to blame for that. It didn't seem to be sitting well with him, and he had been burping it up ever since.
"Nay," Helen at last answered, managing to produce for him a somewhat stiff smile. "I mean, aye. It is quite good. I just find I am not very hungry."
"Ah. Too excited for the night ahead," he suggested, a smile coming to his face. He nearly burst out laughing at her reaction to his gibe. The woman blanched, her expression twisting into one of incredulous annoyance before she seemed to realize what she was doing. Forcing a smile that held only a tinge of sarcasm, she spoke dryly.
"Aye. That must be it," she muttered, then glanced to the side where her maid had suddenly appeared.
Hethe watched curiously as the woman leaned down to whisper something in her mistress's ear, then the woman rushed off toward the stairs, and Helen turned to beam at him.
Hethe blinked. His wife was absolutely lovely. A beautiful creature. He had been so distracted of late, he had quite forgotten that.
"Yes, husband. In fact, I am so excited I think I shall go above stairs now and spend a little extra time preparing for you. Will you excuse me?"
"Aye," Hethe murmured, helpless to keep from smiling in return. Helen was such a lovely thing - eyes sparkling, lips curving, just for him! He watched her stand, gesture for her aunt to follow her, then hurry off toward the stairs. His gaze dropped, and he watched her hips sway as she walked away.
"Where are they off to?" Lord Templetun asked in a curious voice.
"Hmm?" Hethe tore his gaze away from his retreating bride reluctantly.
"Lady Helen and her aunt," the man repeated. "Where are they going?"
"Oh. They are going off to prepare for the bedding." Various images flashed through his head as he heard his own words. He pictured Helen stepping naked into a tub of water with rose petals floating on its surface.
Templetun's question startled Hethe back to reality. He glanced blankly at the old man, then around the room. The meal was not yet even over. Most people were only half done. The feast had been arranged to follow hard on the heels of the wedding, so it was still extremely early. Too early for the bedding, or preparing for it. Suddenly the picture that had risen to his mind's eye a moment before returned. This time, however, instead of stepping into a tub of warm water with rose petals, his wife was stepping into a tub with large brown things floating in it. If he concentrated hard, Hethe could tell they were cow patties.
"Sweet Jesu!" He popped up from the bench as if a spring were under his arse, but before he could move away, Templetun caught his arm and pulled him back.
"Now, now, there is no use in being overeager. It may be early for the bedding, but if she wishes to prepare herself special for you, you should let her. Now that I think on it, it is rather marvelous the way she has resigned herself to this union. I probably shouldn't tell you this, but when I first came with the king's order that the two of you were to marry... Well, let's just say she was not the most eager of brides," he confided with some amusement. He added, "In fact, by the time I left for Holden to collect you, I feared I might very well have a war on my hands."
Hethe groaned in response. Had no one else yet become aware of the silent war that had been taking place since his arrival? No, of course not. She had never breathed her putrid breath on them, and neither Templetun nor William had had to suffer the cold, the scalding or the fleas. And Hethe had not told them of the incidences, either, his pride would not let him.
"Now, now." Taking his groan the wrong way, Templetun patted him on the back encouragingly. "As you can see, she got over it quite quickly. It was most likely simply nerves. She is obviously quite pleased with the situation now. Look how she's preparing."
Hethe's only response was to loose another moan and drop his head on the table in despair, barely missing his trencher. His mind was filling with a variety of ways that she could be preparing right that moment. Not one of them was good.
"Ugh! Oh, Gawd! Oh, this is just horrible... Oh!"
"Aye," Aunt Nell agreed from her position near the door - a safe distance from her niece and poor Ducky who was helping.
"Oooooh... I cannot - This is - It is good I did not eat, else I would surely be tossing it up right now."
Helen muttered with vexation, then groaned and sighed before crying out, "Oh, God! 'Tis unbearable!"
"Aye. 'Tis," Ducky agreed, her nose wrinkling with distaste under the strip of linen she had tied around her face to cover her nose. However, catching the tears sparkling in Helen's eyes, she decided a bit of encouragement was needed. "But that is all to the good. It means this plan of yours should work. I mean, he'll not touch you when you're like this. Of course," she added a bit worriedly, "now that the wedding is over, there's no telling how he'll react. What if he beats you, or - " She paused, her concern fading abruptly to be replaced by a sly smile. "Nay. He'll not wish to get close enough to beat you."
Helen's answer was another groan. She did not wish to be close to herself just now. This was just awful, the best and worst idea she had ever had.
A knock at the door made all three women freeze, their gazes clashing. It wasn't until the second knock that anyone moved.
Dropping to her haunches, Helen instinctively huddled behind the bed, then peered over it to hiss at Ducky, "See who it is. But do not let them in."
When the maid nodded, Helen dropped a little lower, taking the opportunity to peel and pop into her mouth one of the cloves of garlic Ducky had smuggled in earlier without her aunt seeing. The contract be damned, he had consumed garlic, and she would not be caught again without it. She glanced over the side of the bed as she chewed to see that Ducky had reached the door. The maid hesitated as Aunt Nell shifted to one side to be out of the way, then opened the door the barest crack to peer out. Helen heard the low murmur of a man's voice, then Ducky's higher response. The maid had barely answered before she shut the door with a snap and whirled.
" 'Tis Lord Holden's first. He says Lord Templetun sent him to see if you are ready. The Hammer is eager to come above, but Templetun wanted to be sure you were ready first."
Helen hesitated. Her first reaction was an emphatic "No!" But the truth was, she was ready. Or as ready as she would ever be. Biting her lip, she nodded. Ducky flashed her a sympathetic look, then turned back and started to open the door.
"Wait!" Helen cried, and Ducky promptly slammed the door she had just started to open.
"What is it?" Aunt Nell asked with concern, taking several steps toward her niece before freezing, her nose twisting in distaste. She promptly scuttled back to her spot beside the door. "What?"
"We need to air out the room, else all will know what we're about." Helen explained to her aunt, then instructed Ducky, "Tell them I shall be ready in just a moment, that you shall come fetch them when I am."
"Aye, my lady." Ducky nodded and turned quickly to open the door and pass on the message.
"I am going up there." Hethe got to his feet determinedly, only to be yanked back down rather abruptly by both Lord Templetun and William.
"So impatient, my lord," Templetun chastised gently. "She will be ready soon. William said that he thought they were going to have you go up already, but that your wife forgot something. No doubt the maid will be down any - "
"Here she comes," William interrupted.
Hethe followed his gaze to see the maid crossing the hall toward them. Nothing could have held him in his seat then. Popping off the trestle table bench, he started across the hall toward the stairs at once. The others were a little slower to react. He heard Templetun mutter in frustration then the sudden scuffling of feet as all the men in the keep scrambled after him. He winced inwardly. He had already tried to convince them that there was no need for a bedding ceremony . After all, he'd pointed out, his wife had taken only her maid and her aunt to see her above stairs, so they should just forgo any men taking him up. But the men had all, every one of them, merely laughed at that suggestion. Especially his own warriors. He was not to escape without their interference.
Hethe would not have minded except that he was not sure what he would find once they got up there.
He was beginning to get an unsettled feeling, a sense of doom's approach. He had given up his brief fantasies that she was bathing and perfuming herself for his pleasure. Instead, Hethe very much suspected she was preparing another battle tactic and was not overeager for the public to know that his wife was not pleased with their marriage. He had not kept silent about her tricks and stink warfare only to have it revealed at this juncture, and quite so publicly.
"Just a minute," Templetun hissed, catching up to Hethe in the hall outside the master bedchamber, drawing him to a halt. "We are supposed to carry you in, not follow you like lackeys."
Before he could protest, Hethe found himself hoisted on the shoulders of his first and another of his warriors. He grimaced. On the night of his wedding to Nerissa, he had had to be carried because he was too drunk to walk. He suspected his father had known that drunk was the only way he would carry out his husbandly duty on the young bride. Now he was reluctantly being carried into this room because he feared what awaited him. It was the last thought Hethe had before Templetun opened the door and he was carted forward.
"Here he is. Your groom," Templetun called out cheerfully as he led the small crowd of half-drunk men into the room.
Knotting his fingers in the hair of the warrior whose shoulder was under his right arse cheek, Hethe tried to keep from toppling backward off their makeshift chair as he peered quickly and suspiciously around the room. All seemed fine at first glance. His wife's aunt stood out of the way by the covered window.
There was a bed, a fire, two chairs, several chests, and his bride in the bed, her hair spread around her in golden glory. That was all Hethe caught a glimpse of before he was lifted from the shoulders of the men carrying him and set on the floor. His feet had barely hit the ground when the group converged on him.
Ribald jokes and his clothes were suddenly flying through the air; then he was naked. And cold. Once his clothes were missing, he realized that the room was oddly chill. His gaze shot to the fireplace, but as he had seen, there was a raging blaze there. Before he could consider the matter further, Hethe was being dragged to the bed, where he was tucked in. Then, still laughing and tossing around some vulgar remarks, the men allowed themselves to be herded from the room by a beaming Templetun. Lady Shambleau, who had stood by silently throughout, left at a more dignified pace.
Hethe watched the door close with amazement. His entry had come off without a hitch. There had been no public humiliation, no sign that his bride wished him anywhere but here. Speaking of his bride...
He turned to peer at the woman in the bed beside him. The men had sat him on the mattress, and Helen lay there flat on her back. She had been silent and serene throughout his men's rude jokes and gibes. She had merely lain calmly under the covers waiting. She was still lying serene and calm, waiting, he saw as he peered down at her.
"Well." He cleared his throat. She wasn't even looking at him but staring at the drapings over the bed, her cheeks pink with embarrassment. Hethe cleared his throat again, realizing for the first time that this was a damned uncomfortable situation. He tried to recall his first wedding night, to remember what it had been like, but truthfully, he had been young and nervous that first time and had drunk quite a bit as a result. It was all rather a blur. He had the vague recollection of merely pouncing on his first wife.
But he had been young and unskilled them. It had been forgivable. It was not now. He sure wished he could, though, he admitted with a sigh. Worse, Wee Hethe was wide awake and urging him to do so. He could feel the way the linen on his lap was tenting with his excitement. But he had to show some finesse here. It would be shameful to just pounce.
Instead, he tried for some conversation. "Well, that was not so bad. I had feared they may get carried away."
Lady Helen squeaked something of an agreement, but didn't move. Hethe sighed. "I - "
"Shall we get to it, my lord?" she asked in a voice that was not quite steady. Hethe paused, his eyes widening. Dear Lord! She had just given him permission to pounce!
A smile of relief splashing across his face, Hethe turned in the bed and leaned over to press a kiss to his new wife's lips.
Helen stiffened as his mouth covered hers, her body going rigid with shock at his touch. She hadn't expected him to start like this! Well, she really hadn't considered how he would start, else she would have realized that a kiss was the most natural beginning. He would hardly just rip the linens aside and go at her like a dog after a bitch in heat.
His lips moved over hers, infinitely gentle yet firm. Much to her dismay, she had the most amazing desire to soften beneath the caress. That was enough to panic her, and Helen began to shift beneath the linens, intent on pulling her arms out from where they were pressed to her sides under the bedclothes. The moment she began to shift, however, Hethe lowered his body on top of hers, effectively trapping her where she lay.
Helen promptly opened her mouth to ask him to let her up, but the moment her lips opened, something filled them. His tongue, she realized a bit dazedly as it swept inside. Her next thought was a rather incoherent Oh, dear as she felt her body begin to churn out sensations she had never before experienced.
There was an odd sort of warm hum going through her blood as he kissed her. It was creating the oddest instinct in her to arch beneath the linens, to press herself closer to him, though they really couldn't get any closer with him lying half atop her as he was. Then she felt one of his hands cresting over the heavy fur beneath the linens covering her, smoothing over one mound that was her breast and closing there briefly, giving a gentle squeeze, then a firmer one that made her moan into his mouth.
The sound of her own pleasure grated in her ears. Shock, embarrassment and panic swelling inside her, Helen began to struggle. She was suddenly desperate to get her arms out, but she was well and truly trapped and knew it was all her own fault. Then his hand moved away from her breast. It slid over the linens, across her stomach, tracing the impression of her body to the mound between her legs. He paused there to press gently, and this time Helen couldn't stop herself from arching up. She actually lifted him slightly with her reaction, a combination of startled surprise at both the touch and the heat that it ignited deep inside her.
Shocked as she was, Helen's legs parted of their own volition beneath the linens. Not much. Just the few inches the tight bedclothes binding her allowed. But it was enough for Hethe to ease his hand between her legs and press the bedclothes against her more intimately.
As she felt the spark within her deepen into a fiery ache, Helen stopped lying quiescent beneath him and began to kiss back hungrily; her mouth widened under his, her head shifting slightly, her tongue braving out to meet his. She wasn't sure she was doing this right, but didn't much care - she was just doing what felt good. And, God, did it feel good. Without realizing it, she closed her legs around his hand, trapping it there briefly as she kissed him, pressing it tighter against herself. Then she felt him pull his hand free and moaned her disappointment into his mouth.
Chuckling softly, Hethe broke the kiss and smiled at her. "Don't worry, little one. I - "
Helen blinked and glanced down when he stopped talking so abruptly. His gaze had traveled downward and he appeared confused. Glancing down at herself as well, she saw the fur he had revealed by removing the upper linen while she was distracted. The desire inside her died a quick death. Uh-oh , some part of her brain cried out like a child. Helen steeled herself against what was to come.
Hethe stared rather blankly. It was not a cold night. Fur was not needed; a simple linen would have done. But his wife was swathed in a fur that was tucked tightly around her body, covering her from the neck down. Even her arms were under it. He hadn't noticed it when they had hustled him into the bed, but now, as he stared at it, he felt the passion inside him fading away to be replaced with apprehension.
All of his earlier suspicions regarding her "preparations" returned. This fur, he suspected, did not bode well. Part of him wanted to think she had covered up out of shyness, to prevent any of the men from seeing anything that only he should see, but he very much feared that wasn't the case. Deciding he had best look and get it over with, Hethe reached out grimly and pulled the fur aside.
Helen waited for the explosion. She fully expected one. Shrieking, shouting, roaring, bellowing. Perhaps even hitting. She had known it was a good possibility; this was the Hammer, after all. But she got none of that. In fact, at first she got no response from him at all. The man just sat, frozen beside her, as the odious scent of the plant Ducky had called stinkweed began to waft out into the room around them. Helen had rubbed the plant over every inch of her skin as if she were putting on some lotion.
It was terribly potent, she knew, but Hethe was not responding as she had expected. He just sat. Then she chanced a glance at his face and realized that his eyes had gone round with horror, his mouth opening and closing silently, and his nose had pinched closed all on its own. He was pale, but quickly gaining a greenish tint.
"Is something amiss, my lord?" she asked when she couldn't stand the silence any longer. She hoped she managed to infuse complete innocence into her voice. "Are we not going to consummate the marriage now?"
Just to add to the moment, she brazenly whipped the covering away from her body completely, revealing herself, but also fanning the odor outward at him. The trap was sprung! She watched with interest as he blanched, gagging under the assault, then made a mad scramble off the bed.
He backed away from her, his eyes shooting wildly about the room until they settled on the chamber pot.
The next thing Helen knew, her new husband was hanging over it, heaving out his meal.
Surely this would push him over the edge and send the man running to the king to have this wedding annulled, she thought with satisfaction. More importantly, so much for the wedding night, she thought with an amusement impeded only somewhat by the misery her own scent was causing her. The amusement fled her face and she eyed him warily as her new husband's retching finally ended, and he straightened to glare at her.
He was not pleased.
Actually, she would say he was furious. Enraged. Yes, she had certainly gained his attention with this stunt. This was no longer a silent war. It was out in the open.
"What is that?" he asked grimly.
Helen didn't even bother to pretend not to know what he was talking about. "Ducky calls it stinkweed.
It grows in a marshy area not far from here." She smiled sweetly and asked, "Did you wish to try it on, like you did the garlic? I am sure Ducky could fetch some more, should you wish."
She felt immense satisfaction when he blanched in horror. There was no need to fear consummation tonight. She had won. Helen had barely formed that satisfying thought when Hethe suddenly strode to the door and flung it open. She wasn't all that surprised to see Ducky and her aunt outside, having huddled by the door to await his reaction. They had probably both feared he would kill her; Helen suspected he may just have done so, had he been able to bear coming near her. He was furious .
For a moment, Helen feared he may take that fury out on the trembling maid and her aunt, but he didn't.
His voice was cold with rage, but controlled, as he ignored her aunt and snapped at Ducky. "You will fetch a bath up here. You will also fetch every ounce of perfume, every flower petal, every anything that smells pleasant and bring it up here as well! Do you understand me?"
"Aye, my lord." Ducky scurried away as quickly as her feet would take her. Helen saw the woman crossing herself as she rushed toward the stairs. Her husband's gaze then turned to Aunt Nell, who took a wary step back.
"I think I shall just..." She waved vaguely and made a quick escape under his glower.
Helen shifted in the bed, tugging back the fur to cover herself. The action immediately drew her husband's gaze back to the bed. If looks could do harm, his would have burnt her to a cinder on the spot.
Helen peered down at the fur covering her and began to pluck at it nervously to avoid his gaze. Much to her amazement, she was suddenly suffering guilt. It was a wife's duty to submit, and she wasn't exactly submitting.
Irritated by the discomfort her own conscience was causing her, Helen reminded herself that this man was a cruel, heartless bastard, and that she didn't want to be his wife. The fact that none of his behavior since arriving at Tiernay really backed up the bad opinion she had gained of him these past few years was somewhat damping to her sense of righteousness, but she forced her chin up grimly anyway. There was nothing for her to feel guilty about.