Taking advantage of the interruption, I took my leave of the great hall. The main staircase to the upper apartments lay close, but the distant sound of a woman humming reminded me that Melly usually scrubbed the widest stair at about this time of the morning. As the largest job, I suspected she planned it so she would get a break during the meal before taking on the back stairs and my personal stairs, which went directly from behind the dais to the landing in the corridor outside my chambers in the southern wing.
I made for my private stair. Once I stepped away from the warmth of the blaze, I immediately felt the beginnings of a chill. The heat of my exercise had begun to wear off, and I needed to add layers soon or risk getting ill. Circumventing the high table, I ducked behind the tapestry below the windows.
I started up the stairs without looking ahead. Unbuttoning my collar in preparation for pulling the whole, linen and wool, over my head upon reaching my rooms, I didn’t realize that someone was in my path until my foot didn’t connect with the stone.
She let out a soft sound of distress as I hastily removed my clumsy booted foot from whatever part of her I had stepped on in the dark. Bracing myself against the stone walls, elbow on one side and hand on the other, I peered down into the murky shadows near the floor. My eyes failed me often enough in the best of light that I rarely expected much of them in the dim shadows. The steps near the bottom of my stair had no lanterns lit yet. It was the darkest of places to hide aside from my dungeon.
“Are you well?” I asked.
She had withdrawn by the distance of three steps. I gained a rough impression of dark hair and a pale face when she glanced up at me briefly before lowering her attention again to her offended limb. To my horror, even I could see that I had stepped on her hand.
“Is it broken?”
“I know not.” Her voice indicated tears and no hysterics, but I couldn’t trust that.
“Follow me.” I stepped toward her.
She scrambled backward as she cradled her hand to her chest. Even with my hindered vision, I recognized the clear demeanor of fear as she hunched her shoulders to protect her injured limb.
“Peace. I have no intention of hurting you.”
“I have no way of knowing that, my lord.”
“If you let me pass, we can go where I can help you. My former squire is quite skilled in the healing arts. He should be able to clarify what is needed.”
She looked up at me. Her face was a blur in the dim light. I couldn’t read her expression. If she could just step back two more steps, perhaps I would be able to see her features better.
“Your words say one thing and your face says another, my lord.”
“You glare as though it were my fault you tripped over me.”
“You were on the stair and crouched down.”
“It is hard to scrub the floor in any other position, my lord.”
I scanned the dim space for a bucket before spotting it at my feet. If I had stepped only a few inches to the right, I would have kicked that as well as injured her. “Where is the brush?”
“Here.” She picked it up from the step next to her. “I didn’t want you to step on it, too.”
“How kind of you.” Sarcasm crept into my tone despite my best efforts to remain pleasant. “If you would collect your things and climb the stair, I would like my squire to have a look at your hand.”
“Yes, my lord.” She complied with a swiftness that startled me. As she bent down to drop her brush into the pail, the scent of something filled my nose. I couldn’t place the smell. I was tempted to lean down and breathe deeper of it, but she moved away, climbing the stair, pail in hand.
At the top, she shied away from me like a frightened horse compelled by training to stay but wary of sudden movements.
In an effort to calm her with my lack of interest, I led the way through the door directly opposite the stair. We stepped into the corridor leading to my apartments.
She stopped in her tracks. “Where are you taking me?”
“I prefer to stay here, my lord.”
I stopped and turned. “Pardon?”
“In fact, I wish to leave.”
“Why?” I had hurt her hand. Surely, she didn’t wish to remain in pain.
“The pain has improved; in fact, it is almost gone now.”
“Show me.” I intended to call her bluff.
She hid her hands behind her. “It isn’t proper.”
“What? Last I knew there is no rule against you showing your hand to me.”
She shook her head. “No, it isn’t that. I was told to never enter your apartments. If I did, I would be immediately dismissed and my family evicted.”
I defended my privacy with more vehemence than most, but I wasn’t a complete beast or an unreasonable tyrant. “What if I personally pledge that you will be safe and not punished for entering my apartments?”
“No, thank you, my lord.” She curtsied and slipped back through the door to the passage. Before I could follow her, she was gone.