"How is he doing?"
Helen gave a start at the question and turned from closing the bedchamber door to find her aunt approaching down the hallway from her own room.
"Fine. I left Goliath to guard him. He's still sleeping. But I think he will need another dose of Joan's tincture soon."
Aunt Nell raised her eyebrows and gave Helen an amused look as they started toward the stairs. "Just how long do you intend to keep drugging him?"
Helen grimaced as guilt consumed her. Since Hethe had refused to willingly take any sedatives, she'd had Joan give it to him in place of the potion for his aching head that first morning. But Helen had continued to keep him drugged these last two days, pouring the potion down Hethe's throat any moment he showed signs of stirring. She had salved her conscience by convincing herself that it was in his best interests, that his injury had obviously left him confused, else he wouldn't have said those awful things about her being happy were he to die. But, the truth was she had hoped to sort out this problem of someone trying to kill him before he was up and about and vulnerable again. It wasn't that she did not think Hethe could take care of himself, but there were so many people here who could be behind the attack, so many who had suffered under his rule.
Helen had spent a good deal of the last two days subtly asking any and everyone if they had seen or noticed anyone on, near, or going up the stairs before the accident. No one had seen anything, of course.
She was no closer now to sorting the matter out than she had been when he was hurt - and in good conscience, she could not continue to dose Hethe. He had slept for two days and his bruises were beginning to fade. No doubt the aching in his head would be gone by now, too. She would have to find another way to see him safe.
Sighing, Helen glanced unhappily over the people gathering for the evening meal as she and her aunt reached the bottom of the stairs and started across the great hall toward their seats. One of these people had pushed Hethe down the stairs. One of her own subjects. Her gaze slid over the faces again, recognizing many refugees from Holden. Serfs and villeins she had taken in after horrible abuses. Abuses most still thought Hethe had ordered. Any one of them might be harboring enough anger and resentment to wish him dead. She could even understand their rage. So many had suffered so much. Who could blame them for wanting revenge?
She felt a chill run down her back. Suddenly, people whom she thought she knew well - some for years, some all her life - didn't seem as harmless as before. Feeling a sense of danger closing in on her, she clenched her hands at her sides. She had to find a way to be sure none of her subjects would try to kill Hethe again. Could they? Those who were angry enough to kill would remain silent, and if any of her subjects knew of a plot, they were keeping it to themselves - and she supposed she could not really blame them. She might have protected Hethe's would-be assassin herself before she had learned that he was not the one behind the sadistic reign ofHoldenCastleand its lands. The thought made Helen pause.
"Of course," she whispered, her mind racing. She need not find the culprit. She needed only to pass the news around that Hethe was not the one behind the abuses and mutilations that had occurred. Surely, whoever Hethe's attacker was would then realize he had made a mistake and leave him alone.
"Child?" her aunt prompted.
"I will stop dosing him now," she said, in answer to the question her aunt had asked her upstairs. "He has healed enough."
Hethe opened his eyes slowly, an instinctive reaction to the pain pounding through his head. A remnant from last night, he realized and grimaced. He should be grateful that a headache was all he was suffering.
He could easily be dead. It had been a nasty tumble he had taken. An angel must have been cushioning his fall when he had pitched down those stairs.
He didn't feel very grateful though. Oh, he was sure he would be glad to be alive in a day or so, but at the moment his pounding head made death seem a peaceful respite.
"You are really in a bad way," he told himself grimly and closed his eyes. He heard a soft whine from the foot of the bed; then a moment later something warm and wet slopped across his face. Hethe's eyes popped open and he found himself gaping into the smiling, slack-tongued face of Goliath.
"Dear God," he moaned, pushing the foul-breathed beast away, then glanced toward Helen's side of the bed to complain. He found her side of the bed empty. Scowling, he sat up slowly, groaning at the stiffness in seemingly every part of his body. Good Lord, he felt as if he had been trampled. Glowering, he glanced at himself and grimaced at the bruises coloring almost every inch of his body. Which explained his pain. Shaking his head, he eased from the bed and swayed dizzily. He felt as weak as a baby. Damn.
Starting forward, he was forced to push Goliath away when the dog stepped into his path.
"What are you doing here, anyway?" he asked irritably as the dog again stepped before him, almost as if trying to stop him from getting up, "I thought you trailed your mistress like a shadow, hmmm?"
Goliath whined, then paced to the door and back.
"Abandoned you, too, did she?" he asked dryly. Moving to the chamber pot to relieve himself, he added, "Well, I shall let you out in a minute. Just let me - " Sweet Jesu , Hethe realized. I am talking to a damn dog .
"Must have knocked my head harder than I thought," he muttered, finishing with his business and hastening to pull on his clothes.
Goliath was waiting patiently by the door when Hethe was finally ready and made his shaky way to it.
He fully expected the beast to bound out and race below to find his mistress as soon as he opened the door, but the dog didn't. Instead, it kept apace of Hethe, walking him down the hall to the stairs, then accompanying him down those as well. Hethe found himself feeling some affection for the beast.
As he descended into the great hall, Hethe started toward the head table, only to pause halfway there when he realized that while her aunt was there, his wife was not.
"Where is she?" he called out to Lady Shambleau. Goliath promptly set out for one of the side tables.
Hethe hesitated, then followed the beast. The dog led him directly to one of the lower boards. There, he found his wife seated, chattering away. She was so distracted with what she was saying, she hardly seemed to notice Goliath's arrival, merely reached down to absently pat the dog as she continued speaking to the young woman beside her.
Intrigued, Hethe stepped closer to listen.
"Oh, my, yes. It is true. He did not order Stephen to do any of those things. In fact, he tried to confront him on the matter while we were at Holden, but the man has disappeared. Which is an admission of guilt if I ever heard of one. Do you not agree?" Before the woman could respond, Helen added, "Oh! And he has tried to rectify some of the things that his second did. He has brought back as many of the older women as he could to the castle, and he wants to settle a pension on some of those who were unfairly maimed or - "
"Wife," Hethe interrupted.
Helen stiffened at his voice, then shifted abruptly on the bench to gape up at him. "Husband! You are awake. How do you feel?"
Launching herself from her seat, his spouse hurried to his side to peer at his forehead with concern.
Hethe seized the opportunity to take her arm and hustle her over to the fireplace, out of earshot of Tiernay's people. Goliath followed at a happy lope, dropping to the ground by their feet as Hethe paused and turned to face her, not releasing her arm.
"What are you doing?"
"Standing, talking to you," she answered cagily.
He narrowed his eyes at her. "What was all that blather you were spouting to that woman? And who is she?"
"Oh, that is Gert," his wife answered quickly. "And I was just... talking" she ended lamely.
"You were just gossiping about my private business," he corrected. "And I want to know why."
Helen bit her lip, hesitated a moment, then admitted reluctantly, "Gert used to be from Holden."
"Oh?" He felt his stomach tighten. "And?"
"And there was some trouble."
Hethe looked back to the woman, surveying her more closely. "She does not appear to be missing any limbs," he said with relief.
"Oh, nay." Helen glanced back at Gert, too, and seeing the woman looking their way, she offered a smile, then turned back to Hethe. "Well, you cannot see her ears, of course. She wears her hair to cover it."
"To cover it ?" Hethe asked reluctantly.
"Aye," His wife said apologetically, obviously sorry to have to impart another tragic story. "She was a laundress at Holden."
"And?" he prompted, knowing he really didn't wish to hear.
"And the beau of one of the other laundresses started paying too much attention to Gert. The girl was jealous and accused her of stealing linens to sell in the village. Stephen sent someone to check her cottage and found evidence. Now, Gert swears she did not take anything. She confided to me that she suspects the other girl planted it before accusing her."
"And?" Hethe asked bleakly. "How was she punished? Stephen cut off her ear?"
"Nay. Well, not exactly," Helen said solemnly, regret in her eyes. "She refused to confess, so they put her in the pillory. She stood there for days. Then Stephen claimed he got the order from you to urge the matter along. He nailed her ear to the pillory. She eventually pulled free but lost a good portion of ear to the effort."
"Oh, God," Hethe breathed in horror.
They were both silent for a minute; then Hethe peered at his wife and slowly shook his head. "I do not understand how he could have hidden such a monstrous streak. Stephen was always the quiet and peaceful one. 'Twas why I left him at Holden. He did not care much for battle."
Helen patted his arm sympathetically. "He seemed a perfectly nice man to me, too. And I am usually a very good judge of character," she added, as if that would make up for the fact that she, in moments, had not seen what he had missed with years of opportunity.
"You should have something to eat, my lord," she said when she saw him sway. Taking his arm, she urged him toward the head table. "You will feel better after you do."
Hethe knew that food would not help in this instance, but saw little else that would. Shaking his head, he started toward the head table. He had taken several steps when he realized that Helen was not with him anymore. Scowling, he swung around, wincing as the abrupt action sent pain shooting through his head. It did not help when he saw that, indeed, his wife was headed in the opposite direction.
She paused at his call and turned back questioningly. "Aye?"
"Where are you going?"
"Oh, I was just going to..." Her voice trailed away, and the hand she was waving vaguely toward the other tables sank slowly to her side. Sighing, she moved back to join him. "Nothing. It will hold till later."
Eyeing her suspiciously, Hethe took his wife's arm and escorted her to their seats.
"How did you sleep?" she asked solicitously as they took their places at the head table.
"Like the dead," Hethe muttered. When she looked disturbed by the remark, he amended, "Very well, t hankyou."
"Oh, good." Helen's response was distracted and apparently unhappily so, it seemed from the tone, as a servant placed a trencher before each of them. Another servant followed with two mugs of ale. When Hethe started to raise his, she quickly snatched it away and handed him hers own.
"What are you doing?" he asked when she handed his full mug to a passing servant.
"Nothing," she answered innocently, removing his trencher and sliding her own between them.
She widened her eyes at his plaintive tone. "It is in the marriage contract, husband. You had it put there.
We are to drink out of the same mug and eat out of the same trencher. There you are." She pushed her dish a little closer, encouraging, and Hethe scowled.
"There is no need for that now. That was just to prevent you from giving me bad ale and rancid meat,"
he pointed out. "You are not doing that anymore."
Helen shrugged and plucked a piece of cheese from their plate, avoiding his eyes. " 'Tis in the contract."
"Yes, but..." He paused, and she glanced at him warily. He saw the fear in her eyes, and his mind made the necessary leap. "You are not worried about bad food; you are worried about poison!"
"Who? Me? Poison? Do not be silly."
He glared at her. "What were you saying to that woman?" When she shrugged and avoided his eyes again, he thought back to everything he had heard, then slammed the mug he had just raised down on the table. "You're still being forced to tell them I am not an ogre!" Just how long would he be cursed for having made a poor decision in choosing his second? He was not such an awful man, and it was wearing on him to be seen as such. And to have people trying to kill him because -
"I just thought it would be good to spread the word that you were not responsible for the punishments Stephen inflicted."
For a moment more he was furious; then he released his breath on a sigh and forced himself to relax.
She had been trying to help. Catching a movement out of the corner of his eye, Hethe glanced over his shoulder to see Joan approaching.
"Good evening, my lord. How are you feeling?" the old woman asked, her eyes examining him closely.
Hethe almost snarled in response. "Like hell, actually. My head is pounding like the blacksmith's hammer."
"Your head?" Helen asked, then glanced at Joan. "Should his head not be better by now? It has been two days."
"It is probably from the tincture," the healer answered. "Several days' use can cause headaches."
"Oh." Helen relaxed somewhat, then caught a glimpse of her husband's shock. She gave another "Oh!", this one a little guilty.
"Did you say two days?"
"Oh, dear," Helen breathed.
"And what tincture? I did not take any tincture." He glared at Joan, who was peering at Helen.
"I told you you should not slip it into his drink that way," Lady Shambleau murmured, drawing Hethe's gaze to her before it shot to his wife in accusation.
"You dosed me without my knowledge?" he roared.
Helen jumped slightly. Her hands picked nervously at their trencher as the entire great hall went silent.
"You needed to rest and recover," she whispered, flushing under all her subjects' eyes.
"I told you I did not want any damn tincture! How long... two days!" He answered his own question as he recalled what Helen had said a moment before. "You have been dosing me for two whole days?"
"Now, husband," his wife anxiously replied. "I was just - "
"I do not want to hear it!" Hethe snapped, rising.
"Where are you going?" She asked.
He heard her gasp in alarm as he turned away; then, pausing, he swung back and snatched a chicken leg out of her trencher. "For some fresh air. I need to think. By myself," he added coldly when she started to rise. He needed to be alone.
Helen sank slowly back onto the bench and watched unhappily as her husband left. At least, his anger appeared to have energized him, his pace was steady and strong, he no longer swayed as he strode away.
"You know, I do believe you may be right," Aunt Nell said, from beside her. "He did not react at all to the news that you have been drugging him as I would have expected. Perhaps he really did not order those punishments."
"I told you he did not," Helen snapped.
"Aye, but..." Aunt Nell paused, her gaze moving past her niece.
Turning curiously, Helen was shocked to find Maggie. She hadn't seen the woman for the past two days, as Maggie's daughter had gone into labor the morning after Hethe's tumble down the stairs. The mistress of chambermaids had gone down to the village to help out, first with the labor, then in the tavern while her daughter and the baby recovered.
"Hello, Maggie," Helen began. "Is something wrong?"
"Nay, nay," the maid assured her quickly, then frowned. "Well, I am not sure. As you know, I have been helping out in the tavern these last two nights..."
"Aye, I know. That is fine. We will make do till your daughter can manage on her own again."
"Aye. Thankyou, but..." She hesitated, then blurted, "Stephen was in the tavern the night His Lordship took that tumble."
"What?" Helen stiffened with alarm.
"Aye. I wasn't going to tell you, but it kept bothering me. Then, when I learned today that His Lordship didn't fall down the stairs but was bashed over the head and tossed down them, well..."
"How did you know about..." Helen whirled to glare at her aunt accusingly. Nell was the only one she had told.
"Well," the older woman said with an apologetic look, "I went down to see the baby and it just sort of slipped out."
"Anyhow," Maggie continued, "I just thought as you should know that Sir Stephen is around. I should get back now. It was busy when I left, but..." She shrugged and turned away.
Helen watched the old woman go with a frown. Stephen had been in the tavern the night of Hethe's accident. Had he been at Tiernay during the day, as well? She had to tell her husband and warn him.
Hethe leaned against the castle wall, his gaze roving over the star-studded sky. Much to his relief, the headache with which he had awoken was passing as he breathed in the fresh air. A few more minutes and it would be completely gone. It must have been caused by the tincture, as Joan had suggested.
Hethe grimaced at that reminder of his wife's perfidy. The blasted woman had dosed him with the potion, sneaking it into his drink despite her knowledge of his wishes. He shifted, grimacing at the stiffness in his shoulder and side. Even after two days, he was terribly sore, and for a moment he was grateful he hadn't been awake.
He laughed at himself wryly. So, was he angry or grateful? A little of both, he supposed. The woman was too smart for her own good. He rather liked that about her, but at the same time found it frustrating as hell.
The scuff of a foot was the only warning he got. Stiffening, Hethe started to turn when he was struck.
Blinded by the stabbing white lights shooting through his head, he stumbled under the blow, then felt himself lifted and pushed. Air rushed past him. He was falling, flying through the air. He heard a shout, then a splash as he crashed into water and sank into darkness.
Helen was halfway across the great hall when the keep doors crashed open. Pausing, she turned curiously, her eyes widening when William and her man Boswell stumbled in with a sopping, sagging Hethe held upright between them.
"What happened?" she cried, rushing forward.
It was Boswell who answered. "He tumbled off the wall into the moat," her chatelain said breathlessly, shifting Hethe's arm which he had draped over his shoulder to help hold the unconscious Lord Holden up. "I heard what sounded like a shout and glanced up in time to see him falling through the air and into the moat."
"What?" Helen cried in disbelief.
"Aye, I was returning from the village when I saw it." Boswell added. "Had to run and pull him out. He swallowed a good bit of water before I could get to him, though."
"Do you want us to take him upstairs?" William asked pointedly, and Helen realized she was blocking their path. She stepped out of the way at once, then followed when they dragged him forward.
She was silent, her mind racing until they reached the bedchamber and William and Boswell moved her husband toward the bed. Then her practicality reasserted itself.
"Nay!" she shrieked as they went to lay him on it. Both men froze and turned to her questioningly.
"He - Here, just set him in the chair until we get him cleaned up."
She glanced around, relieved to see that her aunt and maid had followed. "Ducky, have a bath brought up, please."
"Aye, my lady." The maid fled.
"Where do you two think you are going?" Aunt Nell demanded when Boswell and William started moving toward the door. "We will still need some help with bathing him."
"You want us to bathe him?" Boswell asked in surprise, and Helen caught the way her aunt rolled her eyes.
"Nay, you need not bathe him," Helen said patiently. She began tugging Hethe's sodden tunic up his stomach. "But we will need your help getting him in and out of the tub. In fact, you can help me strip him while we wait for the water."
"I can strip myself."
Helen glanced down sharply at her husband at those husky words. "Husband, you are awake."
He lifted his head slowly, revealing open eyes that were a little dazed. "Aye. More's the pity. I feel like hell. And I smell worse."
"Aye, you do," Helen agreed, then smiled apologetically when he grimaced at her. "What happened?
How did you end up in the moat?"
He lifted a hand to his forehead, frowning in concentration. "Someone knocked me in. Hit me over the head first."
"Again?" Helen cried in alarm. How many times had her husband suffered an injury to the head lately?
Was it three times? And the man still lived. He obviously had a skull as thick as the castle wall.
"Aye. Again. And it is all your fault," Hethe snapped, catching Helen's attention and drawing a gasp of outrage from her.
"Aye. If I had not still been a little fuzzy-headed from your potions, I would have heard the man approach."
Helen gaped at him for the accusation, then her eyes narrowed in fury. "Well, then it is a good thing you are such a hard-headed bastard."
Aunt Nell gasped in horror, and William and Boswell both shifted uncomfortably as silence filled the room. In response, Hethe asked with deadly calm, "And just what is that suppose to mean?"
"Nothing." Helen said sweetly. "Nothing at all. Though I should like to point out that you went completely unharmed while you were sleeping. However, since you won't continue to rest and recover up here where it is safe, perhaps you should wear your helmet should you intend to wander about any more. It would appear you need it."
"You - " Hethe began furiously, but Aunt Nell saved Helen from his words by asking quickly, "Did you see who hit you?"
Hethe paused and glanced over at her. He started to shake his head, winced in pain, then said, "No,"
Her anger dissolving at seeing his pain, Helen released her pent-up breath on a sigh and reached out to caress his cheek. "Do you hurt anywhere besides your head?"
Hethe hesitated, then apparently decided to take the olive branch she offered. He reluctantly admitted,
"My chest and my throat."
"The chest and throat must be from swallowing moat water," she explained. Glancing at his damp, matted hair, she was disgusted to see something move in it. She wasn't sure, but it seemed better to bathe him before checking for any more head wounds.
"You mean I swallowed that filth?" Hethe asked with horror.
Helen nearly laughed at his expression, but managed to swallow it back. "I fear so." She glanced around as her maid came back into the room, leading a contingent of servants carting a bathtub and pails of water. "Ducky, could you get a servant to fetch up some ale?"
"Aye, my lady."
Aunt Nell stopped her, saying, "Nay. I shall do it. Helen may need your help with bathing Lord Hethe."
She was gone before anyone could protest. Not that such seemed likely.
Helen turned back to Hethe. "Perhaps we should get you out of those clothes and into the tub."
Boswell and William immediately moved forward, and Hethe scowled from one man to the other. "I said I can do it myself."
"Aye," William agreed soothingly. "We'll just stick around in case you're needing a strong arm to get you to the tub. Better one of us than you sully Lady Helen's clothes, too."
Hethe seemed to notice then that both men were as wet and filthy as himself. He turned an inquisitive look on William. "Did you pull me out?"
"Boswell got there first and did most of the work. I just helped."
"Oh." Hethe glanced to the man and nodded solemnly. "Thankyou, Boswell."
Helen's man shrugged uncomfortably, but managed a grim "Milord," when she nudged him.
"Shall we get you into the tub now?" Helen prompted. The servants had finished their business and filed out.
Grunting, Hethe pushed himself to his feet... and nearly tumbled onto his face. Boswell and William each grabbed an arm to steady him, then began to help him undress, despite his protests, which grew fainter as the moments passed. It was rather obvious that he was growing weaker by the moment, and Helen was relieved that the men ignored his assurances that he could manage alone.
A servant arrived with the requested ale just as they helped Hethe to the tub. The girl handed it over to Helen, informing her that her aunt had arranged for baths to be prepared also for Boswell and William, so that they might clean up as well. Thanking her, Helen waited until Hethe was settled in the water, then passed on the news about the baths.
As the two men left, Helen moved to hand Hethe the mug of ale. He was so weak, he nearly dropped the drink in the water, but he refused to allow her to "feed him like a babe." Holding it with two hands, he gulped down some of the liquid, then handed the mug back.
Helen set it on the floor, then with Ducky's help began to bathe him. They washed his hair first, grimacing at the bits of slime and ooze that came out. Everything and anything got dropped into the moat, from animal carcasses to the contents of chamber pots. Both women did their best not to think too hard on that as they scrubbed. Once Hethe's hair was clean, Helen examined his head until she found the spot where he had been hit. The skin was split, and another goose egg was forming on his scalp. He was getting quite a collection.
' Tis a good thing he is so hardheaded, she thought dryly, pleased to see that he appeared to have fallen asleep.
Working as gently and quietly as they could to keep from disturbing him, Helen and Ducky continued washing him until he was once more pink and healthy looking. Or as pink and healthy looking as they could hope, considering his past few blows to the head.
"Ducky, mayhap you had best go fetch the men back to help us move him to the bed," Helen instructed, but Hethe promptly stirred, his eyes blinking open.
"Nay. I can manage," he said stubbornly.
Helen rolled her eyes at the foolish pride of men, but there was little she could do. Shrugging at Ducky's questioning gaze, Helen, who had been kneeling beside the tub, slowly straightened and offered him her hand.
Ignoring it, Hethe braced his hands on each side of the tub and hefted himself up. Much to Helen's amazement, he did gain his feet. Barely. But then he began to sway like a sapling in the wind, and Helen and Ducky both moved forward to brace him from either side. Afraid he would not be able to stay on his feet long, they left drying him off for later and helped him stumble out of the tub and to the bed. He collapsed there with a small sigh, his eyes immediately closing.
"Go make sure Sir William and Boswell are not waiting around to help. He is abed," Helen said to Ducky. As she set to work drying her husband, she heard the door close behind the departing maid. She turned her attention to Hethe's feet and legs, then slowly moved her way upward. When she reached his thighs, her eyes widened. Her husband might be out of it, but his manhood was wide awake. She closed her linen-wrapped hand around it and squeezed gently, smiling when Hethe's eyes popped open and he growled.
"If I were not half dead, I would take you up on that invitation," he murmured.
Helen smiled and widened her eyes. "Invitation, my lord?" she asked innocently. "I am merely trying to dry you." She slid her hand along his growing arousal then, and his breath came out as a sigh of pleasure.
"Dry me well then, wife. You would not want me catching the ague."
Helen chuckled softly at his words, but moved on with her toweling. Despite the interest the lower half of his body was showing, her husband's eyes were again drifting wearily closed and she knew he wasn't really up to anything. Finishing a moment later, she tossed her cloth aside and pulled the bedclothes up to cover him, then gently brushed a lock of hair off his forehead. She had intended to tell him about Stephen, but it would have to wait until the morrow. There was something she had to take care of that could not wait, though.
Straightening, she moved silently to the door, eased it open and slid out as soundlessly as she could.