Hethe's head was pounding something fierce when he awoke - a state he was becoming used to, unfortunately, he decided as he turned his head carefully to peer at his sleeping wife. His wife who wasn't sleeping and wasn't there, he saw with irritation. Did she ever rest? Scowling, he glanced toward the window. The covering was drawn shut, making the room dim except for the light from a small fire in the fireplace. Hethe couldn't tell what time it was. It could bemidnightormidday. Muttering under his breath, he sat up carefully, then shifted to sit on the side of the bed. There he paused to rest his elbows on his knees and clasp his head in both hands. He felt like hell. Dear lord, waking up one day without a headache was sounding like heaven. He never used to wake up every single morning with a sore head like this, not till he consummated his marriage. If this was the cost of bedding one's wife... Well, he supposed it was worth it.
Smiling slightly at his thoughts, he glanced around for his clothes, then realized that those he had been wearing the day before were no doubt off being cleaned. Grunting in annoyance, he turned to the chest by the bed and bent over to open it. He didn't get halfway before his head felt as if it were about to explode and bile rose in his throat. Straightening, he quickly pressed his hands to either side of his head, trying to hold it together until the pain eased. He released a breath of relief when the pain at last abated.
Moving carefully then, he slowly knelt before the chest, and kept his head upright as he opened and rifled through it. Finding a pair of fresh breeches and a tunic, he cautiously straightened and sat on the bed to don them.
Much to his disgust, he was weak and weary by the time the task was done. Hethe decided he was in pitiful shape. Just pitiful. He actually briefly considered lying back down for a bit till he felt better, but, recalling that that was exactly where his wife felt he belonged, safe and snug in bed like a defenseless child, he pushed the thought quickly away. He was no defenseless child or feeble old man. It was bad enough the people here at Tiernay thought him some sort of ogre, he would be damned if he was going to add weak and cowardly to their list of his sins. He was a warrior. Strong and capable and well able to take care of himself. And he was determined to prove that to them... even if it killed him.
Grimacing at the thought, Hethe pushed himself off the bed where he sat to don his boots and slowly made his way to the window. He wanted to know what time of day it was before he staggered downstairs, and a glance outside should answer that question.
He shifted the window covering, gasped as pain shot through his head, then let it drop closed again. It was daylight. Bright daylight. The light stabbed through his eyes and into his head like needles. Well, that answered his question, anyway. Judging by the sun, the great hall would be filled with people partaking of themiddaymeal. He would walk down there and join them and prove to one and all that he was hearty and hale.
Ignoring the weakness that had his legs trembling with every step, Hethe made his way to the door, pulled it open, then jumped quickly back as a body fell into the room at his feet. Blinking through the pain coursing through his head at his sudden movement, Hethe glared at the young soldier who had been leaning against the door. The fellow scrambled quickly to his feet, flushing brightly.
"Good morning, milord," the man-at-arms said quickly and in far too loud a voice.
Wincing at the discomfort it caused him, Hethe scowled at the lad. "What were you doing?"
"Guarding you, milord," the boy answered promptly. Rather proudly, too.
"Guarding me?" Hethe nearly bellowed. He had never needed a guard in his life. Not since he had earned his spurs. The fact that his wife had set one on him just seemed to prove how weak she now saw him. After his fall down the stairs, she had left only the dog with him; now she had him guarded. Where was that dog, anyway, he wondered irritably. He was not at all pleased to find himself abandoned by both his wife and her idiot dog, and left in the care of a wet-behind-the-ears boy. How low had he fallen?
"Who exactly would you be guarding me from?" he asked in grim tones.
The soldier shifted from foot to foot, looking uncertain. "Milady felt since someone had tried to kill you - "
"Where is she?"
"My wife," Hethe snapped impatiently. "Where is she?"
"Oh. She went downstairs to have a word with Lady Shambleau."
Growling, Hethe stepped past the man and started for the stairs, pausing to turn back and scowl when the soldier started to follow. Hethe's eyes widened when he saw that his guard had multiplied. There were now two. "Who the hell are you?" he asked the new fellow.
"Nay. I mean, where did you come from?"
"I was at the end of the hall. I was to stay there and back up Robert here in case of trouble," he explained.
Hethe blanched at the explanation. Not one guard, but two? Lord love 'em! "I do not need a guard," he snapped.
"Aye, milord. I mean, nay, milord," both men agreed in unison.
Hethe's eyes narrowed at their patronizing tone. "I said, I do not need a guard. You are released. Go do something else."
The two men hesitated, then exchanged glances.
"What do you think?" asked the young one who had been leaning against the door.
The other shook his head, then urged his friend a few feet away. Presumably, he thought he was out of earshot. He was wrong. Hethe heard every word he said.
"I'm thinkin'," the guard began, "that he knocked his head pretty good in the fall. And I'm thinkin' Her Ladyship said to guard him. Therefore, guard him we should."
"Aye, but he's the lord. Don't we have to listen to him?" the younger man asked, his higher voice carrying even better than the other guard's, adding to Hethe's building rage.
"Well, now, not iffin he ain't in his right mind. Then we have to obey Lady Helen. And I'm thinkin', like as not he ain't in his right mind - else he'd appreciate a guard. The man is hated here. There's more than one person who'd like the chance to slit his throat."
Hethe had heard enough. He was so furious it almost seemed to be choking him. Worse yet, it was a free-floating fury. He couldn't be mad at his wife for caring enough to post a guard. He couldn't blame these men for doing their duty. He couldn't even blame the people here for hating him for what they thought he had done. He was responsible for all of it. Stephen was his man. Had been his friend.
Turning on his heel, he strode down the hall at a fast clip, his anger eating away at him and intensifying the ache in his head. This time he ignored the men when they fell into step behind him. He acquired a third guard at the top of the stairs. The man had obviously been set there as a backup for the other two. Hethe spared him a glare, then started down the stairs, knowing without checking that he now had all three trailing him.
He had obviously judged the time wrong, he saw as he stepped off the stairs and started through the empty great hall. Helen wasn't there. Neither was her aunt, unfortunately, or Hethe would have asked the woman where his wife was. He tried the kitchens next, not really expecting her to be there, but hoping that maid of hers may be able to tell him something of use. Unfortunately, Ducky wasn't there either, which annoyed Hethe, but not as much as the fact that he found himself tripping over his guards as he turned to leave the steamy rooms. Glaring at the trio, he headed out of the keep and paused on the steps to survey the bailey. They clanked to a stop behind him.
Spotting Helen walking across the grounds with Goliath at her side, Hethe promptly started down the stairs. His escort followed. He could hear the crunch of their footsteps as he hurried across the bailey, and found the sound terribly grating. It didn't help that the headache he was suffering seemed to be amplifying the sound in his head. He sped up. They sped up. He started to jog and could hear them running behind him. He was out of breath and out of patience by the time he reached his wife.
"Husband!" she cried in surprise when he caught her arm and drew her around to face him. That surprise gave way to concern as she took in his flushed face. "Are you sure you should be up? Really, it is too soon. You need your rest to heal. Which is why I was drugging you - "
"Wife," Hethe interrupted grimly. "I realize you have run Tiernay for years on your own and are used to giving orders, but pray stop giving them to me."
Her eyes widened, a wounded look appearing, and Hethe was momentarily sorry he snapped. But then there was the sound of skittering stones as his guard arrived and slid to a halt behind him, and he felt himself grinding his teeth.
"Make them go away," he ordered through his clenched jaw. Confusion replaced her hurt look.
"Who? Them, that's who!" He jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the three men.
"But they are to guard you, Hethe. Someone is trying to kill you." She was speaking in a reasonable tone meant to soothe him, but it was having the opposite effect. The fury that had been growing in Hethe began to bubble and boil at this further proof of her seeing him as weak.
"I can take care of myself." he snapped.
"I know you can," she said soothingly. "But you no longer need to. You have a wife, and a family, and everyone here at Tiernay to - "
"Kill me?" Hethe interrupted coldly. He had found himself softening when she had said he no longer needed to do things alone, that he had a wife and family now. It had brought a warm squishy feeling rising up in him... until she had added the part about the people here at Tiernay. They hated him and he knew it. The warmth drained out of him to be replaced by rage.
His wife frowned at his interruption, then said quietly. "I should have told you this sooner, I suppose, but you were injured. However, as you seem to think you are ready to be up and about now, you should know that it may be Stephen who - "
"Stephen?" he interrupted in a bellow. "You cannot blame these attacks on Stephen. They did not even start until we came to Tiernay. It was one of your people who pushed me down the stairs, one of your subjects who tossed me off the wall."
Helen stiffened, her eyes narrowing to slits, and she asked coldly, "Isn't it more likely that it was one of your own people who has been staying here for protection?"
Hethe felt as if she had punched him. His head actually drew back, the sudden movement sending pain through his skull. He was still reeling from it when she added, "Besides, Stephen was spotted in the village tavern the night you fell down the stairs. It is likely not one of my people, after all."
Hethe felt the rage explode within him. Pain, frustration and a sense of failure were all suddenly whirling within him, and he clenched his fists to keep from lashing out. He wanted to hit someone. Anyone. And keep hitting them, and -
Shaking his head like a dog trying to shake off water, he turned abruptly and started away across the bailey.
"Where are you going?" Helen called out in alarm. She hurried after him, his guards hard on her heel.
"I do not know. Anywhere but here." His words were sharp and cold.
"You are running away again?" she cried in dismay.
He stiffened, then whirled on her in a fury. "I have never run from anything in my life!"
"Well, you never stay and face things, either! You told me yourself that you are forever running off to battle. No doubt 'tis easier to play at war than to deal with reality." Helen's voice was sharp, full of anger. The fact that he planned to just leave was like a knife to her heart, and she was reacting like a wounded animal, snapping and snarling at him.
"Well, at least in battle you know who your enemy is. You do not have to worry about someone sneaking up behind you to slit your throat!" He turned away, then suddenly whirled back, his cold gaze shooting to the three guards. "If these three know what is good for them, they will stop following me."
The threat in his voice was unmistakable. He turned then and continued on across the bailey.
The men hesitated, their questioning gazes shooting to her. She released them with a slight shake of her head. Nodding with obvious relief, they turned and strode in the opposite direction, leaving her alone to watch her husband walk to the stables. Her heart sank like a stone as he came out a moment later, leading his horse.
Mounting up, Hethe "the Hammer," Lord Holden, turned the horse toward the gates and rode away.
Just like that , Helen thought faintly. Get on a horse and go . Taking all her hopes for a happy marriage with him.
Hethe rode quite a while before his anger cleared enough for him to start thinking coherently again. The argument he had with his wife cycled through his head. The part that bothered him the most was her dismayed, "You are running away again?"
He scowled as the tiff replayed itself. He was not running. Running was cowardice, and Hethe was no coward. The fact that he ran off to battle should prove that he was no coward. Hethe frowned as he considered his own words. The fact that he ran off to battle? That didn't sound very good. Surely he wasn't running to battle, was he?
Well, you obviously aren't staying, some part of his mind pointed out logically. He grimaced. Aye, but there was a difference between going and running, he reasoned. But he couldn't manage to fool himself.
Dear God, he was running. Had been running for a long time. The realization rankled. Hethe had always prided himself on his courage. His bravery in battle was really all he had to be proud of. He hadn't exactly been a stellar son, husband or lord. And he hadn't even noticed his deficiencies in the lord part until recently. Now, the knowledge that his courage in battle was a result of his fleeing something else seemed to take away from all he'd done. What was it he was fleeing? Unpleasantness?
Nay, that couldn't be it, he decided.Battlewas terribly unpleasant, yet he never fled that. Was it fear, then? Hethe considered that seriously, but it did not seem right. He hadn't fled Tiernay because he feared his wife, or because he feared whomever was trying to kill him. He was aware of the threat and felt confident he could guard against it... now that he was sure it wasn't a mistake.
"So, why are you not back there sorting it out?" he muttered to himself in frustration. With a sigh, he forced himself to calm down and think clearly. The answer probably lay in the first time he had run off to battle. He considered that time now, allowing the memories to wash over him. He had had an argument with his father. Well, he supposed calling it an argument was a bit misleading. Mostly it had been his father shouting, roaring and criticizing him.
Just remembering it made the old fury build within Hethe, and he suddenly knew the answer. He had been fleeing his own anger. He had stood there that day, growing more and more enraged as his father tore at him. His fists had clenched, a buzzing had sounded in his ears, and his blood had seemed to boil.
He had wanted to strike out. He had wanted to tear his father limb from limb. It had been a killing rage.
And that had terrified him. He had left Holden that day and headed for battle, where he could work off that urge productively. And he had done it every time that rage had reappeared - which was pretty much every time he had returned to Holden while his father still lived.
Then there was Nerissa. But she had not caused rage in him. She had been sweet, and innocent and soothing. It was her death that had affected him badly. It had turned his rage at his father toward himself.
He had failed her. Her death had been a result of his failure to postpone the consummation. He could clearly recall his own frustration and fury at her death. His desire to hurt someone as he himself hurt. He had headed right back to battle.
He supposed he was doing that now, too. His anger and frustration were consuming, as was his guilt over what had been happening at Holden these last years. Again he had held people's lives in his hands, and again he had failed to protect them. Hethe had left Tiernay intending to ride until he found the king's men, someone engaged in battle in which he could bang some heads. Which, he realized suddenly, was what had left his people at Holden vulnerable to Stephen's cruelty.
Worse, looking back, was the fact that none of the times he had fled to battle had made him feel better.
In truth, his rage and anger had remained the same over the years, a cold, hard lump in his chest that burst into flame every time it had the chance. He had found no peace by fleeing, because he could not escape himself, the rage built in him by his father but stoked by himself over many years. It was time to let the fire go out.
I should turn around and go home to my wife, he thought, and a picture of her laughing face rose up in his mind. His mouth eased into a smile, and he actually felt soothed by just the thought of her. Then he recalled her hurt and anger in those last moments before he had left, and Hethe felt an ache in his heart in response. He hadn't meant to hurt her. He also hadn't expected hurting her to pain him. But it did. Oddly enough, making her happy made him happy, too. He slowed his mount as these thoughts coursed through his mind, and for once he knew exactly what they meant.
He loved her.
The thought didn't surprise him. He had liked and admired her from the first time they met. Love wasn't a large jump, from there and she was definitely a woman worthy of such devotion. But was he a man worthy of her love? The question caused a small ache in his heart. Then he recalled their lovemaking, their laughter, her pride and beauty - and her caring. She had shown him more of that since the night they consummated their marriage than his father had in all the years of his life. But then, she was a special woman.
They had talked some the afternoon they had consummated the marriage. After that first mating, they had moved to the chairs by the fire, to eat the food and drink the wine that the servants had left behind.
Helen had been wrapped in her linen, Hethe had been naked, and they had eaten in an oddly awkward silence at first. Then the wine had loosened her tongue. Then Hethe had begun to ask her questions and draw her out.
He had learned about her childhood, the loss of her mother, how her aunt had taken that role in raising Helen. She'd told him of the death of her father and the burden of responsibility that had become hers upon his death. She took that responsibility very seriously. And he had felt shame as he had listened. She held great affection and responsibility for her people. She knew their names, their jobs, their woes and joys, their strengths and weaknesses. Lady Helen of Tiernay had been - was - truly noble.
Hethe thought back with two minds. One focused on the similarities between him and his wife. While she never said so, he heard in her stories how little attention her father had paid to her, how cold and indifferent he had been. Not unlike his own father, who, when he had bothered to speak to Hethe at all, had only done so to criticize. Their mothers had both died while they were young, and where Helen had seen her widowed aunt step in and fill that void, Hethe had known William and Stephen.
Also, both he and Helen had been disappointments to their fathers - Hethe because of his difficulty with writing and reading, and therefore with much of his lessons, and she because she was not the boy her father had hoped for.
Aye, there was much that was similar in their backgrounds. But there were also differences. The stories she had told had pointed out how whenever there was a problem or conflict, she had rolled up her sleeves and confronted it. As she had when Templetun arrived with the king's order of this marriage.
Despite thinking Hethe a cruel butcher, who could have done harm even to her, she had not fled to the safety of a nunnery and hidden behind vows. She had decided to stand and fight, to devise a plan and carry it out. Which was just the opposite of what Hethe had always done. He had always turned and walked away, leaving all his responsibility in Stephen's lap and retreating to the emotionally distant safety of warfare. He could see that now, though he hadn't at the time.
He wasn't going to flee again, he decided now. It was time he stopped reacting like a child and started acting like a man. Time to face up to his responsibilities, no matter how inadequate he felt to deal with them. He could not do worse by trying than he had by fleeing. Aye. He would return to Tiernay and tend to matters there. He would also, he decided, do his damnedest to make his wife return his love. Oddly enough, that determination to face things, to confront his fears, gave him a sense of purpose. It also seemed to remove the last embers of the rage that had been burning in his chest.
Hethe drew his mount to a halt and had started to urge it to turn when the pain hit. Dragging in a shocked breath, he glanced down sharply at his chest and saw the arrow protruding there even as he started to slide off his horse. Everything was numb, he realized as his hands and body refused to obey his commands. He hardly even felt it when he slammed into the ground. He heard the noise though and heard his horse's panicked snort before it charged off, leaving him lying alone in the path.
He sprawled half on his side, his cheek pressing into the ground at an angle that allowed him to watch his life's blood leak out of him. Staring, he saw the ground eagerly soak it up and distantly thought that it was really rather a shame. Now he would never get to tell Helen that he loved her.
Helen blinked her eyes open and forced herself to sit up on her bed. She had come upstairs to lie down after Hethe's leaving. Not right away - she had tried to act as if nothing had happened and to go about her business at first, but had found the effort too much after a while. She had come up and lain, dry-eyed, for a good long while before at last dropping off to sleep.
"My lady!" The second cry sounded just before the door burst open to let Ducky inside. Her panicked expression had Helen on her feet at once.
"What is it?" she asked, hurrying to meet her maid.
"His Lordship! Injured! Again!" The maid drew the last word out in a sort of horrified disbelief, and Helen felt her chest tighten painfully.
"Not another head wound?" she asked in despair.
Ducky didn't get the opportunity to answer: William and Boswell stumbled into the room then, bearing Hethe between them. Helen took one look at the arrow protruding from her husband's chest and felt the blood leave her face. A head wound would have been preferable. At least she knew the man was thick-headed enough to survive that. But this? She took in his blood-soaked torso and swayed weakly on her feet.
"Set him on the bed," Joan ordered, bustling into the room with Aunt Nell on her heels. "Be sure you don't jostle him too much."
"What happened?" Helen asked faintly, moving to the bedside. She was only barely aware that she was clutching Ducky and being held up by the woman as she moved forward.
"Some fellow just rode up to the gates and set him down," Boswell answered, shaking his head.
The chatelain frowned. "A red-haired fellow. Didn't stop to give his name, just set him down, then turned and rode off."
"Red hair," Helen murmured.
" 'Twas Stephen," William said grimly.
Helen closed her eyes, and then, letting go of her concerns about who had done what and how, she turned her attention to doing what she could to help Joan mend her husband. The weakness that had gripped her since they brought Hethe in suddenly disappeared, replaced with purpose. She hardly noticed when the men moved out of the room.
For the next half hour the women worked frantically, stripping his blood-soaked tunic from him, cleaning the blood from the wound, removing the arrow, then washing and sewing the wound. Helen held Hethe up while Joan poured a potion meant to give him strength down his throat; then, having done all they could, the healer and the other women left.
Helen moved a chair next to the bed and sat down to watch over her husband. She watched him through the rest of that day and night, hardly noticing when her aunt or Ducky checked in. Afraid to leave him, she waved away all offers of replacing her, even those so that she might sleep or eat. She nodded off occasionally in the night, only to awake with a start and reach out to feel Hethe's forehead. His skin was cool and dry each time she checked, and Helen fervently thanked God that at least he had no fever.
When her aunt joined her at dawn, Helen gave her a distracted smile, then quickly returned her gaze to her husband. It was almost that she was afraid he might stop breathing, or suddenly develop fever after all, should she take her eyes off him.
"Has he stirred at all?" Nell asked after they had sat in silence for several moments.
Helen shook her head and tried not to think if that might be a bad thing. Her concern up until now had only been with infection, or fever. A fever could kill no matter if the actual wound hadn't. Now she began to worry that his long, deep sleep was a bad sign.
"He probably needs the rest," her aunt murmured soothingly.
"Aye," Helen agreed. "Has anyone gone out to search for Stephen?"
"I believe Sir William sent some men out yesterday, right after bringing Hethe up."
"Where is Sir William?"
"In the great hall. He has not left there since going below. He just sits at the tables, fretting and asking if there is any change each time Ducky or I come from checking up here."
Helen nodded. "I hope to God that they find Stephen. I cannot take another incident like this."
"You believe it was Stephen who did this, then?"
Helen glanced at her aunt with surprise. "Of course. William recognized him."
"Aye. William saw him bring Hethe here and leave him at the gate, but he did not see the man shoot an arrow into him."
"Well, aye, but - "
"Does it not seem odd that Stephen would shoot Hethe, then bring him here for help?"
Helen sat back, confused. That really didn't make much sense. "You are thinking it was not Stephen?"
"I am thinking it would be hard for someone with carroty red hair to walk through the bailey, into the castle, and nearly kill your husband, then walk out through the bailey again without being noticed. Twice.
And then bring Hethe for assistance."
Helen considered that briefly. "Perhaps my guards are protecting Stephen."
"Helen," her aunt said firmly. "They may not like or think much of Hethe, but they love and respect and are loyal to you . They would not lie. Besides, their opinion of Hethe is starting to change. Word is spreading about his not knowing what was going on, and most are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt."
"But if it is not Stephen, then who? And why has he been hiding?"
"Maggie simply said he was at the tavern the other night. Perhaps he was not hiding."
"Then why did he not come back to Holden while we were there? And why did he not stay when he brought Hethe back?"
Aunt Nell was silent for a moment, then said, "I noticed there was rather a lot of blood on the back of Hethe's tunic."
Helen remembered it, and she nodded.
"But the arrow did not go through to his back," Aunt Nell reminded her.
Helen's eyes widened. "You think Stephen was injured, too."
"Hethe would have been seated on the horse before him, his back leaning against Stephen's chest."
"A chest wound," Helen murmured, then stood abruptly.
"Where are you going?"
"I have to sort this out. I have to find him."
"Nay, Helen," she cried in alarm. "Send Sir William or - "
"Nay. William is so mad at Stephen, he would kill him without learning the truth."
"But - "
"Aunt, he may be injured. He may need help. And we owe him that for helping Hethe." Seeing the uncertainty on her relative's face, she added, "I will be careful. I will take Goliath. Watch Hethe for me.
Let no one near him but William. I will return as quickly as I can."