They waited several days for Hethe's leg to heal before they headed to Tiernay. Stephen, however, did not return.
Helen and Hethe spent the time getting to know each other better. They played chess, made love, talked, made love, argued, made love. Hethe caught up on events at Holden with his steward. Helen got to know the household staff. William grew more impatient and eager to leave, but, by the time they left, the rest of the people of Holden were starting to relax around their lord and lady. They had begun looking less tense, and there had even been a tentative smile or two, Helen thought with satisfaction as they entered the gates of Tiernay and rode across the bailey.
They had just reached the foot of the steps when the keep doors flew open and Aunt Nell and Ducky stepped out.
Helen grimaced at her aunt's shriek and quickly dismounted as the woman raced down the stairs toward her with the maid hard on her heels. She managed to get her feet on the ground and turn just in time to be captured by the two women and nearly squeezed to unconsciousness by their hugs as they cried out their relief and pleasure at seeing her. She had been gone for less than a week, but she would have thought that she had been away for years. Or that they had not expected to ever see her again.
Helen glanced apologetically toward Hethe, embarrassed on his behalf for the evil thoughts the women had obviously been harboring, but he was only shaking his head, looking a touch amused. Which was a pleasant change from the pained face he had worn throughout the last part of the trip here. The ride had not been kind to him. It was impossible to ride a horse without being jostled and bounced about. Hethe's ankle had begun to pain him during the last part of the way here, she knew, though he had been too proud to say.
"You look well," her aunt said, drawing Helen's arm through her own and urging her up the stairs as Hethe dismounted and directed the stablehands as to the care of their horses. Nell's obvious amazement at her health only verified Helen's suspicions that the woman had been imagining all sorts of awful ways the Hammer had been punishing her for their earlier high jinks.
"Aye," she admitted, then grinned. "I am very well."
"Do tell." Aunt Nell's eyes widened with interest, then she asked in a quiet voice for only Helen and Ducky to hear, "I take it there is still the possibility of an annulment, then?"
"Oh, nay." Helen blushed bright red.
Her aunt glanced at her sharply, then, "Nay?" she and Ducky gasped together. Helen grimaced.
"There is much for me to explain. But - " Turning back, she glanced at her husband with concern as he limped toward the stairs, William at his side.
"What happened? Did you do that to him?"
"Ducky!" Helen gasped, shocked that the maid might even think such a thing. Then she remembered...
"Nay, of course not. He had an accident."
"Hmmmph." Aunt Nell shook her head, then again took her niece's arm to urge her forward once more.
Hethe and William started up the steps behind them. "Come, you had best tell us what is about, and if there is anything special we needs must do."
Helen grimaced at that, knowing that by "special" her aunt meant things like befoul the food or flea-bait Hethe's bed. Which was no longer necessary, of course. In fact, she was now aware that it hadn't been necessary to begin with. It had been fun, though, she though, then smiled as her aunt pushed her into the keep.
"My, my, my," her aunt commented as they approached the trestle tables. "There must be a lot for you to explain. That is a terribly happy smile. I take it the man is kinder in the bedchamber than he is as a lord?"
Helen's jaw dropped at her aunt's crudeness. "I cannot believe you said that."
"Aye, well, I shall say a lot more, should you not soon explain what is about. Only days ago you were nearly kicking and screaming as Lord Templetun dragged you out of here. I have been worrying ever since. Now you return looking like the cat who ate the cream."
"Lord Hethe did not order any of the punishments the people of Holden have suffered these last five years," Helen announced abruptly to prevent her aunt from speculating on the carnal origins of her change in mood.
"Oh?" Aunt Nell did not look impressed. In fact, it was obvious the woman didn't believe her niece at all. Ducky looked much the same. Neither of them would accept Hethe's innocence easily. The two women both peered at her with doubt and pity, obviously convinced that Hethe had pulled the wool over her eyes.
"It is true," Helen insisted. "He was horrified when I told him what has been going on at Holden while he has been absent. He has been away, fighting for most of these last ten years, you see. Stephen, his chatelain," she explained, seating herself with a sigh once they reached the trestle table bench. "He has been running Holden these last five years. And that is when the trouble started, if you will recall. The man was doling out unsanctioned punishments."
"He was, was he?" Aunt Nell exchanged glances with a hovering Ducky. "And did Lord Holden punish the man?"
"Nay. Stephen rode out the morning after Templetun brought Hethe back, and he has not returned. No doubt he fled for fear of Hethe's wrath."
"Hmmm." Nell seemed to consider that seriously, and Helen felt herself begin to relax. At least her confidantes' doubtful expressions were easing somewhat. They were considering that what she claimed might be possible.
Turning, Helen glanced toward the two men slowly crossing the hall toward them. She didn't like to see her husband in pain. There must be something they could do for him. "Where is Joan?"
"Good morning, my dear."
"Good morning." Helen bent to press a kiss to her aunt's cheek, then slid onto the bench beside her.
It was the morning after their return to Tiernay. Helen had spent the better part of the previous afternoon and evening explaining things and reassuring first her aunt, then Ducky and finally Maggie that Hethe wasn't the monster they thought he was. Maggie had been the hardest to convince. She had been insistent on believing that Hethe and not Stephen was the true devil of Holden. Helen still wasn't sure she had fully convinced any of them, but at least they had stopped protesting and agreed to consider the possibility.
"How is the Ham - your husband this morning?"
Helen smiled wryly at her aunt's slip, but merely said, "I left him sleeping. He had a restless night. His leg was painful and kept waking him up."
"Hmmm. He should have let Joan give him one of her tinctures."
"Aye," Helen agreed absently, her gaze moving to the staircase as she recalled the grumbling and cursing that had woken her up repeatedly throughout the night. The man really should have let Old Joan give him a potion, but he had said that it would just make him sleep, and he hadn't wanted to. Actually, he had sounded a good deal like a protesting child, she thought with amusement, her mouth curving into a slight smile. He was so adorable when he was grumpy.
It took Helen a moment to realize what she was seeing. Her gaze was trained on the stairs, but she was really hardly taking them in when movement tore her mind from her thoughts. When she discerned that the movement was a body tumbling down the stairs, she gasped, her hand rising to her chest. Then she recognized whose body it was, and she leapt to her feet.
"Hethe!" Helen flew toward the heap at the bottom of the staircase, her heart skittering wildly inside her chest. He was dead. She knew it. She knew he was dead. He had to be. No one could crash down stairs like that and live. He was dead. Helen was positive of it when she reached the still and twisted form of her husband. Collapsing to her knees beside him, she hesitated, then reached out to touch him tentatively, a relieved hiss slipping through her lips when he weakly moaned.
"Is he alive?" Aunt Nell gasped, catching up to her, the majority of the great hall now crowding about.
"Aye. Fetch Joan," Helen ordered, shifting to turn her husband over. He didn't make a sound as she flopped him onto his back. Helen would have felt better if he had, but it appeared that the first moan was the only indication she was going to get as to his life.
"I am here, my lady," Old Joan spoke up, pushing her way through the crowd to kneel at Hethe's other side. "Took a tumble down the stairs, did he? I told him he should stay off that leg for a bit!"
"Aye, well, it appears he doesn't take direction well," Helen grumbled. "He is hardheaded."
"That may be a good thing in this instance." The healer's answer held some slight amusement as she ran her hands quickly over his head. "Two bumps back here, one on the side, and this one on his forehead."
"The one on his forehead is likely from his accident earlier," Helen explained. "As is one the lumps on the back of his head."
Nodding, Joan let her hands trail quickly over Lord Holden's body, checking his arms and chest and legs. "Doesn't appear to be any broken bones."
"Amazing," Aunt Nell breathed from where she hovered over Helen's right shoulder.
"He must have hit his head at the start of the fall," Joan guessed. "Only a limp body can take a fall like this and not end up a pile of broken bones. Breaks usually happen when a body tries to save or brace itself. It's why drunks rarely break a bone despite stumbling about. They're too soused to tense up."
Helen frowned. "But he was not 'soused.' It is morning. He has had nothing to drink and refused to take your tincture - "
"Nay." Joan shook her head. "That's why I say he must have hit his head when he first fell. It probably knocked him unconscious and saved him during the rest of the way down."
"He'll be a sore mess of bruises soon, though." Joan glanced at Helen. "We should get him up to bed."
"Aye." Helen glanced about, relief covering her face when she saw William pushing his way to the front of the crowd.
"I shall carry him," the man murmured, stooping to pick up his liege and half-brother.
"Thankyou, William," Helen said.
Lifting him with a grunt, the knight nodded and turned to make his way up the stairs. Helen immediately followed, aware that her aunt, Joan and Ducky were trailing.
Once inside the master bedroom, the women made quick work of stripping Hethe. Joan's prediction that he would be well bruised proved true. Great, ugly discolorations were already beginning to form on several parts of his body. His right hip. His left shoulder. His upper right arm. His left leg and each of his sides. Helen took in each new bruise with a wince. Hethe was going to be terribly stiff and sore when he woke up.
Helen gave up looking at her husband and quickly pulled the linens up to cover him. She glanced at Joan. "Are you going to give him something for the pain?"
The woman frowned down at her patient thoughtfully, then shook her head. "He took a nasty knock. I'll see him awake before I mix up a tincture."
"Oh." Helen wasn't too happy with the pronouncement, but she didn't disagree. While she didn't like to think of her husband in pain, she knew that head wounds were a tricky business.
"I will sit with him," Joan announced, glancing around until her eyes settled on the chairs by the fire. She had already started toward them when Helen spoke.
"Nay. You go on down and finish your meal. I shall sit with him."
Joan hesitated, then nodded and turned toward the door. "Call me when he wakes, milady."
"Aye," Helen whispered as the door closed behind her. "When he wakes." Then she glanced to her aunt and Ducky. "You two can go eat, too. I will be fine with him."
"Are you sure you would not like company?" Nell asked, but Helen shook her head.
"Very well," Aunt Nell agreed, and with that she and Ducky left her alone.
Helen sighed as the door closed behind them, then glanced from the empty space in the bed beside Hethe to the chairs by the fire. She supposed it would be better to sit in one of those than to possibly disturb him by sitting on the bed. Walking over, she tried to lift the nearest of the chairs, but it was solid wood and extremely heavy. Wincing at the racket she made, she grimly dragged the chair back to the bed, then dropped into it with a sigh.
"Are you trying to kill me?"
She gave a start at the husky question and leaned quickly toward the bed. "Husband?"
Hethe moaned in agony, one hand lifting weakly to ward her away. "You are trying to kill me."
Helen covered her mouth guiltily. It seemed her enthusiastic response to his awakening had proven too loud for his poor head. She waited until the pain eased from his face and he let his hand drop weakly away, then whispered. "I shall go fetch Joan."
"Nay." He winced at the sound of his own voice, but caught her hand before she could move away.
"Who was it?"
Helen peered at him blankly. "Who was what, my lord husband?"
"Who was it that hit me?"
Helen could hardly conceal her shock. "What? Someone hit you? That is why you fell down the stairs?"
"I fell down the stairs?"
They stared at one another, each absorbing different bits of information; then Helen sank onto the side of the bed and eyed her husband with concern. "Did someone hit you?"
Hethe grimaced. "Aye. I had just reached the landing at the top of the stairs. I heard a sound, started to turn and..." He winced and shrugged. "Something smashed into the side of my head. Felt like my brains exploded. That's the last thing I remember." He took in her unhappy expression. "I take it I fell afterwards?"
Helen nodded solemnly. "Fortunately, you did not break anything. Joan said it was because you were unconscious. She thought that you must have hit your head on your first tumble," she added hopefully, but he shook his head grimly.
"I was hit before I ever started down..."
"But who would... ?" She paused abruptly at the solemn way he was eyeing her. "Surely you do not think that I - ?"
"Nay." He smiled faintly at the idea. "You can be troublesome when you are fighting for something you want - or do not want, as the case may be - but you are hardly a murderer."
"Murder?" Helen's voice rose with her alarm, and her husband winced. She immediately muttered an apology, then asked in a hiss, "Surely you do not think someone was trying to murder you?"
"What would you call it?"
Helen was silent for a moment, her expression troubled. Murder. Someone here at Tiernay had tried to murder her husband? She simply could not seem to grasp that possibility. Her people would not do that.
Realizing that she was clutching his hand rather desperately, she promptly released it, then gave it a pat as she rose. "I shall fetch Joan up here. She may give you something to help you sleep."
"Nay." He caught her back again. "Nay. I want none of her tinctures. I want my wits about me. Besides, I need to get to the bottom of this." He began to push the bed linens aside in preparation of getting up.
Helen promptly put her hands on his shoulders to hold him there. "Nay, husband! You need to rest to heal."
"I need to find out who hit me so that it doesn't happen again," he argued, but winced in pain and allowed her to push him back in the bed, one hand going fretfully to his brow. "Damn. I am not pleased to be waking up with another headache."
"No," Helen murmured, pulling the sheets back up to his chest. Opening his eyes, Hethe scowled at the action and pushed the bedclothes away impatiently.
"I am not staying abed, wife. I have to sort out this mess. Someone tried to kill me."
"Yes. But, should you not wait until you are feeling better?"
"Oh, you would like that, would you not?" he snapped, glaring at her. "Lie here and wait for them to try again, to succeed this time. Then you wouldn't have to stay married to me. A state you did not want in the first place."
Helen stiffened at those words, hurt by them despite knowing how cranky men got when they were ill.
Her father had been worse than a baby when not feeling well. It appeared Hethe wasn't much better. But she could hardly believe he would suggest something so cruel after the intimacy they had shared. Surely he didn't really think she would rather see him dead than be married to him?
No, of course not, she assured herself. Head injuries could leave a mind confused and... well, confused.
That must be it. Which just proved her point. He really shouldn't be up and about right now. He would probably bluster his way right into whomever had pushed him down the stairs and get himself killed. She couldn't let him do that. But what could she do?
Straightening, Helen glanced toward the door, her hands unconsciously catching in the skirt of her gown and twisting it. She needed to get a sleeping tincture into him so he would sleep and regain his strength.
She needed him in fighting form to face whomsoever had done this. And she needed to post a guard at the door to keep him safe while he regained that strength.
"Damn." Helen glanced back at that exclamation to see Hethe half upright, his head clasped in his hands, his face contorted with pain.
"Perhaps Joan has something for an aching head that would not affect your wits," she suggested tentatively. When he opened his mouth in what she suspected would be an automatic refusal, she quickly added, "I should call her up here just the same. I want her to check you over to be sure that you are all right."
Hethe looked fretful for a moment, then lay back with a small sigh. "Very well. Fetch Joan back with something for an aching head. Bring William back, too."
Nodding, Helen moved quickly for the door before he could change his mind. She would have Joan give him something for his aching head, something that would make him sleep. Then she would post a guard at the door to keep him safe while she sought his would-be murderer. Tiernay had always been her home.
The people here were her responsibility. And if one of them had tried to kill him... Well, as embarrassing as it was to admit, they might very well think they were doing her a favor. She quite clearly recalled the day Templetun had given them the news of the upcoming wedding - Ducky's suggestion that Maggie knew "this and that about herbs", or Joan "might know of something we could give him to - "
Kill him, she now finished what she had stopped her maid from saying at the time. Dear Lord, there probably wasn't a person here at Tiernay who wouldn't think they were doing her a favor by killing Hethe, and it was partially her own fault. His reputation as a cruel ruler was probably part of it, but it didn't help that she had made her wishes on the matter so clear with her smelly potions and rotten food.
Which put her in a terrible spot. She had to keep her husband safe from her people, and her people safe from her husband, until she could sort the whole mess out.