With Goliath's help, Helen easily found the spot where Hethe had been felled; the dog, who had been jogging along happily a few feet in front of Helen's mount, stopped dead at the spot and sat down.
Drawing her mare to a halt, Helen got down and moved carefully forward, her gaze sliding past the seated dog to where he was sniffing. The dirt path was a dry cinnamon brown everywhere else, but the spot in question was soaked a much darker, richer brown - Hethe's blood. Kneeling, she examined the leaves and bits of debris lying about, and saw several splashed red with dried gore.
Helen felt tears swim to her eyes as she took in the scene. The stain was rather large. So much blood.
She hadn't known he had lost so much. She suddenly realized she could lose him. The thought was a painful one. She had grown quite used to his presence in her life.
Liar, her heart cried out. It was more than that she was used to his presence. She liked it. She enjoyed his ready wit and amusing company. His very presence sent little shocks of sensation through her. She felt electric when he was around. Felt energy zip through her like a small inner storm whenever he was near.
He made her feel alive. Whether they were having a war of wills, a battle of wits, or making love, she felt unique around him. She felt competent, beautiful, special. He made her feel that. He looked on her with admiration and approval, and she felt herself bloom beneath his gaze like a flower under the sun.
She loved him.
Helen felt that admission resonate deep in her soul and knew it was true. She loved her husband, the Hammer of Holden. She could not lose him. And she would not, she assured herself grimly. Joan had said that the true danger had passed. He would survive this latest attack. And Helen herself would make damn sure there wasn't another.
Taking a deep breath, she straightened slowly, patted Goliath on the head, then glanced around. The ground had been muddy from the rain the night before when Hethe had ridden here. The prints were clear and easy to read - even for her. She saw the evidence of two horses. One was Hethe's, coming from Tiernay; the other seemed to lead from the opposite direction, toward Tiernay.
Helen frowned. Stephen had been spotted at Tiernay a day ago. Why would he have been coming from Holden?
She peered at Hethe's horse's prints again, noting that it looked as if he had started to turn back.
Perhaps he had seen his attacker coming and had tried to turn away and run. But that did not seem right.
Hethe was not the sort to flee from a battle. A verbal battle, perhaps, she thought dryly, but a physical one. Never.
Putting the mystery aside, for the moment, she carefully peered over the tracks. She could see quite clearly that someone had come from Holden. Stephen? Those tracks met up with Hethe's, then continued toward Tiernay, sinking deeper in the muddy ground. It would have been Hethe's added weight that caused that. Then a third set of tracks appeared off to the left, also headed from Tiernay.
They continued on toward Holden where Hethe had been headed. Helen felt in her bones that these were Stephen's tracks, from his return journey.
Grabbing her mount's reins, she walked past the spot where Hethe had fallen, digging his tunic out of the sack she had attached to her saddle. Folding it so only the back of his shirt, where there was blood she was sure was not Hethe's, she called Goliath to her side and offered it to him. The dog sniffed the shirt briefly, then began to nose around the ground. Several moments later, he barked and pawed the earth.
Pulling her horse behind her, Helen moved to his side to see what he had found, her eyes narrowing on a splash of blood. She was in luck. Stephen had been injured. He had left a trail of blood. Whirling back toward her horse, Helen remounted and collected her reins.
"Go," she ordered her hound from her mare's back. "Find."
The dog set off at once, following the trail for some ways, then turning off it onto a lesser traveled path she would never have noticed on her own. They traveled this new track for quite a while, and Helen knew they were onto Holden land when the path suddenly gave way to a clearing surrounding a small cottage. Trotting to the door, Goliath sat down patiently to wait.
Helen drew up her mount and surveyed the clearing warily. There was no sign of a horse. Or people, for that matter. Shifting on her steed, she glanced nervously back the way she had come. She hadn't been afraid when she had set out, determined as she had been, but now she was suddenly aware of how alone she was.
Goliath's whine drew her gaze back around. She wasn't alone. It was time to settle this, she told herself and slid from her mount's back.
Pausing, she pulled a dirk from her sack - she had not come unprepared - and clasped it firmly in hand, then walked to the door. Stopping, she caught her dog's collar with her free hand and opened the door awkwardly with the one holding her weapon. Pushing it open swiftly made it crash against the wall. Light spilled through the doorway around her, splashing across the small interior of the one-room cottage and illuminating the naked man rising from the bed.
"Lady Helen!" Stephen gasped, then collapsed.
Hethe opened his eyes and stared at the bed curtains overhead. He felt like hell and had to wonder what was the matter with him now. He felt dried out, his mouth as though it had been stuffed full of wool for several days. It was like that time he had been struck down by fever. Was he sick? He searched his memory, trying to find the last thing he recalled, when a movement drew his gaze to the side.
William stood with his back to the room, peering out the window. His hands were balled into fists that were propped on his hips. His expression - what Hethe could see of it - was grim and furrowed his forehead in lines of discontent.
"You look unhappy." Hethe had meant to speak the words, but they came out as a parched rasp. I need water , he thought impatiently. But, whispered or spoken, the man heard his words and sharply turned.
"You are awake." His first sounded startled by that.
"Aye. More's the pity." Hethe started to shift, then winced at a pain in his shoulder. Glancing down, he saw the bandages covering him there and closed his eyes. He had been shot, he recalled. How had he managed to get back here to Tiernay? The last thing he remembered was thinking he would die out there in the woods without ever having told Helen how he felt about her.
William moved to the bedside, drawing Hethe's attention away from thoughts of his wife. His first peered down at him, a disturbed look in his eyes. Something was obviously bothering the man. No doubt it was Stephen's betrayal, Hethe decided unhappily. They had grown up together, the three of them, as close as brothers. He himself had certainly trusted Stephen like a brother. And through all those years, there had never been a sign of a cruel streak, or of the betrayal that would come. Not one. The man hadn't even liked violence; he certainly never seemed to care for battle as William or Hethe himself did.
He had fought at Hethe's side when necessary and fought well, but he had always preferred the running ofHoldenCastleand its estates to warfare. He had never seemed at all to mind being left behind to tend to the estate while William and Hethe had ridden off to battle. In fact, he had seemed to prefer it, claiming battle too bloody for his tastes. Had Stephen really preferred the unconscionable maiming of helpless serfs and villeins to a fair fight?
Shifting impatiently as he was besieged by his bitter feelings of betrayal, Hethe started to struggle against the linens and furs covering him, trying to sit up.
William hesitated a moment, searching Hethe's face as he struggled, then brought his feeble efforts to a halt with a hand on his shoulder. "You are too weak to sit up. Just rest."
Hethe gave up his attempt to regain some dignity with a sigh and allowed his weak muscles to relax.
They hadn't been succeeding anyway, had been set to trembling by the very attempt.
"So," he sighed, after a moment to regain his breath. Just trying to sit up had left him gasping. "Why so bleak? Am I going to die?"
William hesitated, then shrugged. "You survived again, it would seem. You are the luckiest bastard I know."
Hethe grimaced, not feeling particularly lucky. After all, he'd been nearly trampled, knocked out and tossed down the stairs, knocked over the head and tossed off the wall, then shot in the woods and left for dead. He supposed it was all a matter of perspective. His gaze moved to the chest beside the bed, alighting on the pitcher and mug there. "Is there anything to drink?"
"Aye." William busied himself pouring the liquid from the pitcher to the mug, then helped Hethe to sit up somewhat, lifting him with one arm and holding the mug to his lips. It was water, pure and cool. Hethe drank a bit, forcing himself not to gulp, then gestured that he had had enough. William eased him back onto the bed and set the mug aside.
Hethe sighed. "So, what were you thinking when you were looking out the window? What makes you so grim?"
William peered down at him solemnly. His eyes were burning slightly as he admitted, "I was thinking that it is well past time this mess was resolved."
"Aye." Hethe felt himself overwhelmed by sadness at what must be done. "It is well past time. Next time he may succeed at killing me."
"Better?" Helen asked, easing the glass away from Stephen's mouth and leaning back to peer at him warily.
"Aye." Stephen nodded, then grimaced. "My lady, I am sorry to have received you like this." He gestured to the fur she had drawn up over his nakedness. "I heard your horse and feared William had found me. I had to know if it was him."
Helen frowned at the man's formal tones. He wasn't acting like a crazed killer. She decided it would be best to get right to the point. The man was in no condition to be much of a threat to anyone. She had seen the bandages wrapped around his chest and the blood seeped into them. He was obviously weak and even a touch feverish.
"Are you the one who shot Hethe with the arrow?"
"Nay!" he cried, obviously shocked by the question. "I would never do that. I collected him and brought him back to you, so you could mend him."
"Ripping your stitches and ruining all my hard work while you were at it, too."
Helen glanced around sharply at those irritated words. An attractive older woman stood in the open door, glaring at the man in the bed with displeasure. Her hair was red, like the man's in the bed, but streaked with gray. Her face was freckled like his, and her eyes were the same bright green, though hers were spitting fire at the moment and his were tired and glassy. Stephen's mother? Helen wondered. The young man's next words answered that question.
"I could not just leave him lying there in the path, Mother."
The woman's mouth tightened, but she merely shook her head and moved to drop near the fireplace the wood she carried. Apparently she had been out collecting it when Helen arrived.
"If not you, then who shot him?" Helen asked, glancing back to Stephen. Her gaze narrowed when he avoided her eyes.
"I did not see. I was headed for Tiernay to talk to Hethe. I found him lying on the path - already wounded." He gave her an innocent look that was in no way convincing.
"You may not have seen, but you have an idea who it was," she guessed. When he flinched, she knew she was right. "Who?"
Stephen shook his head. "I must talk to Hethe first."
"William." The answer did not come from Hethe's second.
"Mother!" he bellowed, and Helen glanced sharply at the woman as she straightened from feeding the fire. Their gazes met, and the older woman nodded. "He was always the bad one of the three."
"He was not bad," Stephen amended. "He was just - "
"Mean," his mother finished. "Spiteful. Always picking on those smaller than him."
"He was the one always being picked on," Stephen argued. "The other children in the village made fun of him - because his mother was a lightskirt. They were jealous because of our father, because we were being taught with Hethe."
"But I thought your mother was the light - " Helen cut herself off as she realized what she was saying and in front of whom. When Stephen frowned at her, she flushed and said apologetically, "William told me that his mother was the blacksmith's daughter."
"I am the blacksmith's daughter," Stephen's mother announced dryly.
"Oh." Helen glanced from one to the other, then felt a moment of fear. If Stephen was not the power-mad man who had caused so many wrongs... "Did Hethe order you to punish George by cutting his legs off or not?"
"I do not know."
Helen was torn between shock and annoyance. "What do you mean, you do not know? Did he order you to or not?"
"I received those orders, aye. And they were signed by Hethe."
Helen felt as if her heart had been ripped out. She heard the lost sound in her voice as she murmured,
"Then those orders came from him after all."
"I do not know."
She peered at him in confusion. "But you just said - "
"That those orders were written on the messages Hethe signed," he repeated carefully.
Helen shook her head in confusion. "Then he must have - "
"Unless William was writing down things he wished to happen, things that Hethe had not ordered."
"William? Why would William write Hethe's messages to you for him?"
"Hethe cannot write. Nor can he read."
"What?" she cried in amazement.
" 'Tis why his father brought us to the schoolroom to be taught alongside him," he explained. "Hethe could not read. Our father thought it laziness. The teacher tried to tell him that he had encountered it before, that it wasn't lack of effort, that Hethe needed special lessons, that he sometimes saw the letters backward and such and needed assistance... But Lord Holden would not listen. He tried to use us against him."
"So you covered for him," Helen murmured, remembering what William and Hethe had both told her.
Neither had said that Hethe could not read or write, though, just that he had difficulty with it.
"Aye. William or I were always with him. One of us reads for him and writes. He merely signs his name."
"He can write his name?"
"Aye. He can read some, too, but it takes him a long time and is laborious. It is easier just to let us do it."
"So he never actually wrote any orders to you?"
"Nay. William did."
"Dear God." She sank to sit on the side of the small bed. "It has been William all along."
"I fear so, yes." He sighed unhappily. "When the orders started coming in to do those things, I... Well, it did not seem like Hethe to me. But I could never ask him. He was so rarely at Holden, and when he was there, he was usually tired from battle or his journey and would put me off. Then he would either leave at once, telling me to write if I had any concerns, or William would send me on some task or other and - "
He shrugged helplessly. "He claimed the orders were always from Hethe. I could not refuse. I had just started to suspect that William was deliberately keeping us apart when everything got out of hand."
Helen raised her eyebrows, and he explained. "The morning after Templetun brought first you, then Hethe, back to Holden, William returned. He sent me to the village on a minor task as soon as he arrived. Then he showed up and stopped me on my way back to the castle. He said he was concerned about Hethe's mental state, that he was growing more and more cruel. He said he wished to talk to me. I thought we were finally going to get to the bottom of things. He suggested we ride a bit and discuss the situation, and I agreed. We had not ridden far when he attacked me. I did not see it coming." He shook his head. "He left me lying there in the woods for dead."
"But you did not die," Helen said.
"Nay. I was able to regain my mount and head here."
"He was near dead when he arrived," his mother piped up. "I didn't think he'd survive."
"But I did, thanks to you." Stephen gazed at his mother with love and gratitude for a moment, then went on. "By the time I had healed enough to return to Holden - "
"You were not healed enough," his mother snapped.
"Mother heard news that Hethe had taken you to Tiernay," Stephen continued, ignoring her.
"So you went to Tiernay, too."
Stephen's eyebrows rose. "How did you know?"
"Maggie recognized you in the tavern."
"Maggie." He sighed, obviously recalling her. "How is she? Is she making out all right?"
"Aye. She is fine. Why did you ride to Tiernay? To talk to Hethe?"
"Aye." He grimaced. "But I was warned by an old Holden tenant that Hethe was looking for me. That he thought I had been doling out unsanctioned punishments. Which I suppose I was, really." The young man looked so troubled that Helen took the time to soothe him, despite being impatient to hear the rest of his tale.
"You did not know that. Besides, they were sanctioned. His signature was on them even if he did not know what he had approved."
"Aye." He gave her a grateful smile that turned wry as he admitted, "Anyway, I left at once. Fled in a panic, I guess. I realized my mistake almost at once and was going to return, but decided I needed a plan. But when I returned the next morning, it was to hear that he had fallen down the stairs and was abed. I decided to give him a couple of days to recover before returning. The next time I headed to Tiernay was when I found him in the road. He was unconscious and badly wounded. I knew I had to get him to help, else he would surely die. So I pulled him up before me on my horse - "
"Reopening your wound," his mother added irritably.
"Well, I could not just leave him there," Stephen repeated wearily, and Helen suspected he had said it a hundred times in response to the woman's complaints.
"Why did you bring him to Tiernay, though? Holden was much closer to the spot where he fell."
"I suspected William was the culprit. I could hardly take Hethe back for William to finish the job, so I brought him to you."
"But William is at Tiernay. Not Holden. What made you think he was at Holden?"
He appeared surprised at this news. "I just assumed that Hethe would leave him to act as chatelain."
Helen shook her head. "Hethe said William has not the patience for such a position. He leftJohnson as chatelain."
Stephen considered that briefly, then nodded in approval. "Johnson is a good choice. He - Wait! Did you say William is at Tiernay?"
"Alone with Hethe?"
"Nay, of course not. There are hundreds of people there, too. My aunt, the servants, the - " She frowned suddenly, "Surely William would not try anything with all those people around?"
"Is there someone staying with Hethe? Guarding him?"
"Aye. My aunt is sitting with him. I told her to let no one near him but... William." Helen groaned and saw her own horror reflected in Stephen's eyes. She was on her feet almost at once. "I must get back to him."
"I am coming, too." Stephen announced, shoving his coverings aside and stumbling from the bed.
"Over my dead and bleeding body!" his mother roared, rushing forward to stop him. Helen paused to glance back as the woman added, "I am not sewing you back together again. You just get back in that bed now!"
But Stephen was not listening to his mother. He was already pulling a pair of bloodstained breeches on.
Some of it was likely Hethe's blood, she realized unhappily. "Perhaps your mother is right, Stephen. You are in no shape to - "
"I am going," Stephen insisted, wincing and stumbling toward her as he pulled an equally bloodstained tunic on as well.
"But," Helen began even as his mother snapped, "Don't be an idiot! Get back - "
"Where did you put my horse, mother?" Stephen ignored them both.
His mother glared at him helplessly for a moment, then sagged and hurried to the door. "I hid him behind the cottage. I shall get him for you. Put your bloody boots on."
Helen hesitated as she watched Hethe's second find and then struggle to don his boots. She wanted to leave him there and just go, but could not. Muttering under her breath, she rushed back to help him. She had his boots and swordbelt on quickly, but his mother was quicker still. She had brought his horse around and sat mounted on him when they came out of the cottage.
"What are you doing?" he barked, seeing her.
"I am going, too. Someone has to keep you on this great behemoth of a horse."
Stephen opened his mouth to argue, then seemed to think better of it and merely moved silently forward.
Between his mother's pulling from her perch on the mount and Helen's pushing from the ground, they managed to get him into the saddle. Helen then hurried around to her own horse and mounted it.
Remembering Goliath, she glanced around. She had left the dog outside upon seeing that Stephen was too weak to be a threat. He was nowhere to be seen now. Helen called for him, whistled, and finally relaxed when the dog loped out of the trees.
"Come," she ordered, snapping her mare's reins. And with that, they were off.