"Stephen." Hethe repeated the name unhappily. "You know he must be the one behind this, right?"
"Oh, aye." William, reached out, absently spinning the mug where it sat. "Who else? I doubt any of the servants or villagers are practiced at archery."
"Aye." Hethe watched his first's actions, but his mind was on Stephen and his perfidy. Then he admitted,
"I fear I can see no other answer, myself. I just do not understand why he has taken this so far. I could have forgiven his cruelties to the serfs and villeins... well, perhaps not forgiven them, but given him a punishment and the opportunity for him to right the wrongs he has committed. I do not know why he had to take things to this level. What does he hope to gain?"
"Perhaps he hopes to gain all you have," William murmured.
Hethe gave his first an angry look. "Killing me will not give him that," he said harshly. "Holden would go to my cousin Adolf should I die."
William stilled, then nodded slowly. "Aye. So it would."
"So why would he wish me dead?"
"Perhaps he hates you."
Hethe froze. "Why?"
"Well, you have everything a man could wish for. A rich, powerful estate. A lovely young wife. The king's ear. And he has nothing."
Hethe frowned. "I inherited it all from my father. It was a matter of - "
Hethe scowled, but William continued. "Stephen has the same father as you. But his mother was the blacksmith's daughter. Had your mothers been reversed, he would have been lord and not you. You did not know, of course."
"No." Hethe frowned, his gaze dropping and shifting around the room as he considered. Stephen was his half-brother. Impossible. He had never even suspected. Well, of course he hadn't. "He looks nothing like me. He has red hair and green eyes. You look more like me than he does. Are you sure - "
Hethe paused, his gaze riveted on his first. William did look more like him than Stephen did. William was the same height as him, had the same dark coloring, the same blue eyes, the same mouth - a mouth that was at the moment curving up with amusement.
"Our father was quite prolific," William said, then allowed a moment for it to sink in before continuing.
"As for Stephen, his mother was a green-eyed redhead. He took her coloring. But he inherited our father's size and shape - as we did. He also has the same straight nose and strong chin."
Hethe gaped at his first. Two brothers. He had two brothers. All these years he had thought himself an only child and - "Why was I never told?"
"I suppose our father never bothered telling you because he did not feel it significant enough. He never acknowledged us openly, after all. And Stephen did not know."
"But you did."
William shrugged. "I was taught that it was something not to be discussed. I was never really sure if you knew or not."
Hethe was silent for a moment, then shook his head. "But if Stephen did not know - "
"He learned it once he was older. I told him." William began to spin the mug in place again, his gaze turning away from Hethe and concentrating on it. "We discussed it at length. I know it has preyed on him since. He found it hard to accept that, but for chance, he might have been Lord of Holden. He could have sat at tables with kings, have married a lady. He would have answered to no one."
Hethe frowned at those words. "It is not all as wonderful as it sounds. You know that, and so should he!
I have to answer to the king, if you will recall. In his position, Stephen must only answer to me. He is fortunate. The king can be very demanding. And as for marrying a lady, just look at how I was ordered to marry Lady Tiernay. I hardly would have chosen her to wife."
"But all worked out well. You seem pleased with her."
"Aye," Hethe agreed, his expression softening.
"Well, Stephen likely envies you that, too."
Hethe grimaced. "Then he is a fool. Not that my wife is not worth envying, but why waste his time on such silliness? It will get him nowhere. And, as I said, should I die, Holden will go to Adolf."
"But Tiernay would return to Helen."
Hethe blinked. "Aye. I suppose it would. We have not been married long, and there are no children to inherit. Most likely Tiernay would remain with her and the king would see her remarried."
"So, perhaps your assassin plans to woo and marry her. She might turn to him in her grief to help with managing Tiernay. It will be easy for him to ingratiate himself with her." William smiled, and Hethe felt a chill run through him. "Especially with Stephen still running loose out there."
"It was never Stephen," Hethe realized.
"Stephen was never smart enough to come up with anything approaching a plan."
"He is smart enough, but he is loyal."
"He is a fool."
"You were sending those instructions to Stephen. You were the one mutilating my subjects in my name!"
William shrugged. "You obviously did not have the courage to do what needed doing. You have always been the weak one. Too stupid to learn how to write, too - "
Hethe lunged upward, grabbing up the pitcher on the table and slamming it into the side of his first's head. The blow was one of desperation, with little strength behind it, but the surprise was enough to send William backward, shaking his head.
Hethe tried to bolt from the bed, throwing himself toward the door. He was not a fool. William would never have so calmly confessed had he intended Hethe to live. The man planned to kill him. He had been trying all this time, trying to make it seem an accident. Hethe doubted that this time he would fail. He was too weak in his condition to do battle. His only hope was to get out into the hall and summon help.
Alas, his desperation was not enough to save him. His body, still weak and atremble just from swinging the pitcher and plunging from the bed, gave out on him as soon as his feet hit the floor. He started to pitch forward, but suddenly William was there, pushing him back onto the bed in disgust.
"Now, what the bloody hell was that supposed to be?" the Knight snapped, shoving Hethe back beneath the linens and again covering him with furs. "You are in no shape to be prancing around."
Hethe watched warily as the man straightened and surveyed him unhappily. Then his first sighed.
"I really do not want to kill you, Hethe. In fact, I thought I had taken care of matters when I stabbed Stephen and left him for dead."
"You stabbed Stephen?"
"Aye. Well, I could hardly have him telling you that he had been following your orders. You might have figured it out, then." He pursed his lips unhappily. "I truly thought the situation resolved, that things would return to normal. I was always content to serve as your first. You would return to your old routine as soon as you wearied of your wife. Things would be fine."
"What changed your mind?" Hethe asked through a dry mouth.
"Actually, it was that accident with the horse cart. I had no intention of killing you until then. In that moment, when I feared you were dead, I realized that Helen would be alone. Tiernay would be lordless.
Everything would be up for the taking. And I realized how much I wanted it. I wanted it all, and I deserve it as much as you ever did.
"Of course, then I had to figure out how to get it, and it did seem that the only way was to see you dead.
So I started to make my plans, but decided to wait until we arrived here to set them in motion. I knew that everyone would assume it was a vengeance killing by one of the villeins."
"Aye. Well, at the time, I thought he was dead." Hethe's half-brother shrugged, then said almost kindly,
"Were there another way to get what I deserve, I would surely have gone another route. But you are standing between me and Helen, and she can give me everything I want and deserve."
"She will never marry you," Hethe said quietly.
"Of course she will," William argued as if explaining something to a child. "I get all your leftovers.
Besides, I will be charming and remind her of you. She will marry me out of her confused love and loss.
She will even think it is her own idea."
Love and loss? Despite the situation he found himself in, Hethe perked up at those words. Did Helen love him? William seemed to think so. He savored the idea for a moment, then realized that it might not be a good thing if William were right. If she did love Hethe, she might just marry William, if he caught her at a weak moment, if he used her grief against her. His expression tightened, and he lifted his head slightly. "So, how do you plan to kill me?"
William made a face. "In truth, that was what I was contemplating when you awoke to catch me staring out the window. If I had it my way, the arrow would have killed you. Other than that, a sword cleaving your head from your body is my preference. That would be painless, but it would of course, give away the game." He smiled wryly. "Poison would have been my next option. I would just say you never awoke. But I have none on my person at present and cannot risk leaving you alone. So I guess it will have to be smothering." He picked up one of the furs that had fallen to the floor and began to bunch it up as he spoke. "It is slow and unpleasant, but I really do not have many options." He paused in his bunching and cocked his head. "Any last requests or comments?"
Hethe closed his eyes briefly, rage rushing through him, followed closely by despair. He silently cursed the weakness that made him such easy prey, then opened his eyes. William had moved closer, but paused when their gazes met.
"Well?" he asked.
"Why did you order Stephen to cut that peasant's legs off?" When William appeared thrown by the sudden question, Hethe reminded him. "George. He was accused of poaching. Did you really think it a just punishment, or were you really punishing him for that time he beat you silly when we were boys?"
William's upper lip curled slightly, his hands tightening on the fur he held. "He had no right to touch me. I was the lord's son."
Hethe nodded slowly. An idea had just occurred to him, sparked by William's arrogant expression. It had reminded him of when they were children and William would raise his chin and glare defensively at the other children. That, of course, had not gone over well with the others. Taking his defensive attitude as arrogance, they had often beaten him, and Stephen and Hethe had often had to wade in to help. The worst had been the time George had taunted William for putting on airs, teasing him about only being a lightskirt's son, a woman anyone could have. He had just had her and it had only cost a groat, he had claimed.
William had charged the other lad, but swiftly regretted it. George had been a big boy, brawny and strong. He had beaten William senseless. Thinking of that had made Hethe wonder if the poacher, George, was that lad grown up. It seemed he was. Now he wondered about the others.
"And Bertha?" he asked, thinking of the alewife who had had her breasts cut off. "What did she do to deserve what she got?"
"She was always teasing me, taunting me about thinking I was above myself."
"And Adam? Surely that seven-year-old was too young to have bothered you."
"His mother was a worse slut than my own. She spread her legs for everyone and never charged. But when it came to me, she said she'd have no bastard between her legs."
"So you punished her by maiming her son?" Hethe sighed, his eyes closing. Stephen's doling out unsanctioned punishments had not made any sense. Unfortunately, William's reasons did. He had been using his position to wreak revenge.
A rustling sound made him open his eyes, and he saw that his first was moving forward, raising the furs as he did.
"Where is my wife?" Hethe asked, to stall him, some hope forming that she might suddenly appear and save him.
"She is resting, I think." The other man seemed surprised by the question. It was obvious he hadn't considered her whereabouts. His gaze slid to the door and he hesitated briefly, then shook his head.
"Aye, she is most likely resting. She has spent a great deal of time at your side - what with your sudden tendency to get injured." The man glanced back at Hethe and shrugged.
"Well, we had best get this finished, ere she decides to check on you," he commented easily. And with no further ado, he stepped to Hethe's side and leaned down to press the fur firmly against his face.
Hethe struggled, his hands reaching out, first, to try to push the fur away, then searching for the face of the man smothering him. If he could gouge William's eyes, or reach his throat, he thought desperately.
But the other man, strong and unhampered by injury or weakness, avoided him easily.
Hethe felt his lungs begin to burn from lack of oxygen. He felt his head begin to swim and knew he was dying. He had a vague recollection of himself asking, "Why so bleak? Am I going to die?" and the other man's shrug. He had been going to die. He just hadn't realized it.
"My lady!" Ducky rushed forward when Helen burst into the keep, Goliath hot on her heels. "Is something amiss? Do you - Who is that?"
Helen paused and glanced over her shoulder to see Hethe's second struggling up the stairs behind her, with his mother's aid. "That is Stephen. Is my aunt with Hethe?" She prayed Nell was, but Ducky was stuck on the first part of the conversation.
"Stephen?" the maid asked, eyes wide with alarm. "Here? But he - "
"Nay, he did not," Helen said quickly. "William did."
"William?" If anything, Ducky looked even more horrified.
"Aye. Where is he?"
Ducky paused, eyes wide with horror. "He is sitting with His Lordship. Your aunt was nodding off in her chair, and he suggested she take a nap. He said he would watch Hethe for her."
"Sweet Jesu," Stephen swore, arriving in time to hear her explanation. Helen didn't say a word, just whirled toward the stairs and made off at a dead run. Stephen, his mother and Ducky promptly chased after her, but she left them behind on the stairs as she raced ahead.
Hethe gasped in shock, sucking air into his lungs with relief as the fur was suddenly removed from his face. For a moment, he was too busy filling his lungs to care why it was gone. Then the buzzing in his ears receded and he became aware of a good bit of screaming and banging. Opening his eyes, he glanced around until his bleary gaze settled on a hunchbacked William turning in crazed circles in the center of the bedchamber. Another moment later, he was able to see that William hadn't suddenly gone hunchbacked.
The hunch was his wife.
Lady Helen was hanging from William's back, one arm around his neck choking him, and the other hand tugging viciously at his hair. She was screaming like a banshee. He had suspected from the first that Lady Helen of Tiernay was a dangerous enemy to have, and here was his proof, he thought proudly. He cried out in fury and alarm when William managed to cast her off his back, sending her tumbling to the floor in a heap.
If that were not bad enough, William pulled a short, sharp blade from his waist. Hethe felt his blood run cold. Suddenly, fury fired through him and he shot from the bed. Of course, he didn't have much more energy or strength than the last time he had tried the maneuver, and he tumbled forward as soon as his feet hit the floor, but he managed to grab William's ankle and hold on fast. He tugged the man weakly this way and that, trying to overset him, bellowing the whole while. It took him a moment to realize that another enraged roar had joined his, another pair of boots stepped into view. He looked up.
"Stephen," he gasped as his second lunged for William's knife. The man managed to hook his arm over William's and hung weakly from it, restricting its movements. Then an older, red-haired woman joined the fray, leaping over Hethe to grab and swing from his first's other arm.
William gave a bellow of rage.
Hethe had not seen Ducky step up for her turn, but she must have run around the other side of Stephen, for Hethe heard the conk as she slammed a chamber pot over William's head. It was not empty, and Hethe instinctively released his hold on his enemy and tried to move out of the way. The pot's contents flowed down over his would-be killer. Stephen and the redhead were also rather quick to get out of the way, leaving William turning in stumbling circles, slashing out blindly with his knife as he tried to see through the muck oozing over his face. Hethe's heart nearly stopped in his chest when the man turned on Helen. She had regained her feet and was trying to get out of his way, but was cornered by the wildly stabbing man.
A growl from the door drew Hethe's attention then, and an idea came to him quickly upon spotting Goliath. He didn't know what order the dog had been trained to respond to, or even if he had been trained to attack. However, he did know one command the beast had been taught lately. Reaching out, Hethe capped William's ankle and shouted, "Look Goliath, it is Lord Holden!"
The large wolfhound was on the man at once, clasping William's waist and humping for all he was worth.
Hethe's first bellowed at the attack, slashed at the dog, then instinctively tried to save himself as the weight of the animal started to tumble him to the floor. William twisted in the air, trying to break his fall with the fist holding the knife, but such was folly. A grunt of air slid from his lips as he crashed down, impaling himself on his own blade.
No one moved, all eyes frozen on the inert body. They all knew it had been a killing wound. The dagger had caught him at the throat, going right through. A pool of blood was fast forming around his body.
"Well," Helen murmured after a moment of silence had held the room. "It is obvious that the chambermaids are growing lax while Maggie is away helping her daughter. That pot should have been emptied yesterday."
Hethe's gaze slid to his wife. Suddenly a smile tugged at his lips, then a hysterical laugh bubbled up from his chest. He shook his head. "Dear God, woman, I love you."
The words were spontaneous and not at all how he had intended to tell her, but there they were. Hethe waited for her response, a disappointed sigh slipping from his lips when all she managed was a tremulous smile as she got to her feet. She moved to Goliath who had not moved from where he had landed next to William. Hethe frowned in concern at the pained whine the beast gave when his wife sifted through his fur.
"Is he all right?" he asked, shifting weakly to a sitting position and leaning against the bed in an effort to get a look at the dog over Helen's shoulder. It was damned frustrating being so weak.
"He is cut. I do not think it is too deep, though. Ducky, come help me get him on the bed."
Hethe watched helplessly as the women coaxed the injured dog to half walk to the foot of the bed, then got him up on it.
"Should I fetch Joan?" the maid asked.
"Aye. And find a couple men to remove... him," Helen ordered, giving a shudder of disgust as she peered over her shoulder to where William lay covered in waste. Ducky nodded and quickly left.
Hethe watched as his wife straightened from the dog. She glanced from a swaying Stephen to where Hethe sat on the floor beside the bed, then said to the little red-head, "You get Stephen, and I shall handle my husband."
Nodding, the redhead promptly moved to Stephen and took his arm. She led him toward the chairs by the fireplace.
Helen paused next to Hethe and said, "Nay, bring him to the bed, instead." After a hesitation, the woman did as she'd been bidden.
Helen knelt to offer her assistance to Hethe. Now that the crisis was over, he was pretty much out of strength. He did his best to help, but knew his wife was doing most of the work. When he finally collapsed on the mattress, it was to find the other side occupied by an equally weak Stephen.
"Ducky said I was needed," a voice cried out.
Hethe looked up to see Tiernay's old healer rush into the room. She took one look at the three injured males crowding the bed, then made straight for Hethe. He was quick to wave her away, however.
"I am fine. See to Goliath. He has a fresh wound; I merely need re-bandaging." He was amused to note the surprise in her eyes before she turned her attention to the dog at the foot of the bed. Hethe turned to the man beside him, noting only then the bloodied bandages covering his half-brother's chest.
"What happened to you?" he asked with a frown.
"William," his brother answered.
Instead of speaking, Stephen grunted in pain as the redheaded woman began to remove his bandage.
Hethe glanced toward his wife as she began to undo his bloodied wrappings as well, then he looked back to the redheaded woman.
"Who is she?" he asked curiously.
"My mother," Stephen answered through gritted teeth. The woman in question was poking and prodding at his wound.
"Oh. Pleasure to meet you," Hethe said politely. The redhead ignored him.
"She is mad at me," Stephen said, excusing her rudeness apologetically. Then, he added, "And you."
"Why me?" Hethe asked in dismay, hardly wincing as Helen began to examine his injury, so distracted was he with the news. Everyone always seems mad at me , he thought with irritation.
"She blames you for reopening my wound when I found you in the woods and brought you here."
"That was you?"
They both fell silent then and cast sympathetic glances Goliath's way as the dog whined. Joan continued cleaning his wound. Helen and Stephen's mother began to re-bandage them, and Hethe tried to think of a way to broach the subject that had consumed so much of his thoughts since his discussion with William.
Finally, he just blurted, "So, I hear you're my brother."
"That's nice. Never had a brother before."
"We had another," Stephen pointed out sadly. They both glanced over at William's body. For a moment they were both silent, recalling many memories - mostly good.
The sound of footsteps clomping up the hall preceded the entrance of two of the men who had been guarding Hethe earlier. Ducky was with them, and she directed them to the body. The two burly men considered the mess they were being forced to clean up. One of them muttered in disgust.'
"I wish..." Hethe cut the words off. It was useless to wish that things had been different, that he had known they were siblings, that he had recognized the depth of William's need to make a name for himself. Perhaps if he had seen it, he might have helped him. Things might have ended differently.
"There was nothing you could do."
Hethe met Stephen's understanding gaze and shrugged uncomfortably. The man knew him too well.
"William chose his own path," Stephen added quietly.
"Did he?" Hethe asked bitterly. "Do any of us?"
"Yes," his brother said firmly. "You chose yours... and have now chosen to change it." When Hethe glanced at him sharply, Stephen let a smile tug at his lips. "I have known you nearly all your life, Hethe.
And you have always carried a heavy mantle of rage about you. Some of that anger appears to have abated."
"Aye," Hethe agreed, his gaze turning to his lady wife who, along with Ducky, had turned their attention to cleaning up the mess on the floor. There was no doubt in his mind that Helen was the major reason behind the change in him.
"Well, William had his choices, too. He made the wrong ones. You, I think, have made the right one."
"Aye. I think I have, too," Hethe murmured. He cleared his throat and gave the man a crooked smile.
"So," he joked, attempting to lighten the mood. "I guess with William gone, that makes me your favorite brother."
Stephen gave a laugh that ended on a moan of pain as he touched his bandaged chest. Letting his breath out cautiously, he grimaced and glanced at Hethe. "So long as you do not order me to perform any more harsh punishments."
Hethe winced, knowing how it must have pained the man to carry them out. "I swear it."
Stephen nodded, a smile tugging at his lips as he took in Hethe's expression of combined guilt and apology. "Just how bad do you feel about what you put me through?"
Hethe's eyes narrowed at the amused look that had suddenly entered the other man's eyes. "Not enough for you to get away with whatever you're planning."
"Ah, well." Stephen sighed with feigned regret. "I suppose you are my favorite brother, anyway."
The two men grinned at each other.
Hethe awoke slowly to a complete lack of pain and could hardly believe it. He was so used to blinding agony every time he opened his eyes, this was a feeling to be savored.
A rustle at his bedside made him glance to the left to find his wife there, fussing with his bandages. "What are you doing?" he murmured curiously.
She glanced at him briefly, then turned back to what she was doing. "I am preparing to change your dressing. We must get you healthy again so that you can run off and get yourself killed in battle for the king, mustn't we?"
Hethe sighed at her sarcastic tone. So, she was holding the day he was shot against him. Well, he supposed he deserved it. Had he stayed at Tiernay, things might have turned out quite differently. Still, many good things had come of that ride.
Reaching out, he took her hand and drew her to sit on the edge of the bed. "You need not fear that happening ever again. In fact, it would not have happened that day. I was intending to return. I have given up running; I shall fight no more except in defense of my home."
Her gaze narrowed on him suspiciously. "Truly?"
"Aye. In fact, that is probably what saved my life. I was turning back to Tiernay when William loosed his arrow. Elsewise, I am sure he would have hit my heart. The man was an excellent shot," he told her, then sighed. "I meant it when I said I love you. I do. I realized that on my ride that day. I also realized that I was running, as you said. But from my own anger, and you cannot run away from yourself. So in the future, while I might need to go for a walk or ride once in a while to let my temper cool, I will never run off to battle again. In fact, the king may have trouble getting me to fight at all anymore. Because I love you."
"Oh!" Helen released her breath on a sigh, and leaned down to kiss him. "I love you too, my lord. You are a very special man."
Smiling, Hethe kissed her, putting considerable passion into it. His wife relaxed against him with a sigh, only to pull away and glare at the man who had been asleep beside her husband when she had entered, but who was now trying to slip undetected out of the bed. "What are you doing, Stephen?"
"Oh. I, er, thought you had forgotten I was here," he admitted with embarrassment.
"Well, I had not," she assured him. "Lie down, sir. You will be reopening that wound again do you not, and then your mother will have fifteen fits. Besides," she added with a laugh, "Hethe is too weak to do anything untoward."
"I will never be too weak for that, wife," he said, squeezing her hand. "Never in a million years."