What She Wants Chapter Fifteen

Hugh was dreaming. He stood in a thick fog, shouting for Willa. He knew she was there somewhere, but he couldn't find her in the swirling mist. Hugh stumbled forward through the haze, calling her name and begging her to answer. But the only response he received was the mournful howling of her wolves.

Hugh blinked his eyes open and, for a moment, thought he was still dreaming. The dim room was aswirl with fog and the concerted howls of Wolfy and Fen were still echoing in his ears. Then he realized that the sound wasn't an echo. Wolfy and Fen were howling. And the fog in the room wasn't fog at all, but smoke... from a fire... that he'd forgotten to light.

"Fire!" He sat up, unintentionally dislodging Willa and tumbling her to the floor. He leaned over to peer at her at once, but couldn't see her for the smoke. "Willa?"

"Hugh?" Her voice was pained and confused, but at least she was answering him. She hadn't in his dreams. Relief slid through him even as she began to cough. Then she asked, "What is happening?"

"The cottage is on fire." He got off the pallet, careful to avoid stepping on her and began a blind search for his clothes. Hugh found what he thought were his braies and started to drag them on, only to realize that he was trying to stick his feet into the arms of his tunic. Cursing, he pulled it on over his head.

"Nay. You forgot to light a fire," Willa said. Her words ended on another coughing fit.

Hugh knew the smoke must be irritating her already sore throat. He had to get her out of there. "Get up, Willa. Find your clothes."

Hugh found his braies and pulled them on as he stumbled in the direction of the door. The smoke was heavy in the room and he couldn't tell exactly where the fire was. He was hoping that opening the door would allow some of the smoke out and increase visibility. He could then help Willa find her gown and they could escape. Hugh would take her naked if he had to, but didn't wish to return her to Hillcrest in such an embarrassing state.

Fortunately, it was a small cottage and he had correctly recalled the direction of the door from the cot. Hugh released a breath of relief and pushed on it. A chill ran down the back of his neck when it did not budge. He pushed again. Nothing. It wasn't moving at all.

Hugh took a step back, then rammed himself against the door. It didn't budge. Stepping back, he tried to understand what was happening, but the sound of Willa coughing drew his attention. He glanced in her direction, but the smoke was thick. As it had been in his dream, he could not see her. Panic seized him briefly, but a coughing fit of his own brought him out of it. Leaving the door for the moment, he followed the sound of her coughs until he stumbled over her.

"Willa?" Bending, he grabbed the first thing that came to hand. Her derriere. She was on her hands and knees. However, she was also partially dressed. She had donned either her shift or her gown, Hugh wasn't sure which. Whatever it might be, it was enough. Shifting his hands to her arms, he dragged her to her feet. "We have to get out of here." He felt her nod against his chest as she coughed.

"The door is barred from the outside."

"There is no bar on the outside," she panted weakly as her coughing fit came to an end.

"Aye, well, there is now."

Wolfy and Fen howled in concert again, and he felt Willa stiffen. "The wolves."

"Aye. Their howling woke me." He stumbled toward the place where the table should be, relieved when his hand bumped against it. "Here, stay here. I am going to try to open the door."

"You said 'twas barred."

"Aye. Something is keeping it closed. Is this cottage of cob or wattle and daub?"

"Wattle and daub. Baldulf once said 'twas almost twenty years old. The back wall has been damaged by rainstorms. He said 'twould have to be repaired or another cottage built soon. He - " She broke off to cough again and Hugh thumped her back a couple of times, then told her to remain where she was and moved to the back wall. Much to his relief it was wattle and daub. Cob would have been much harder to smash through. And Willa was right, it had suffered water damage. It was crumbling under his touch. It was also hot.

Hugh made his way back to the table, following the sound of Willa's coughing again. Finding her hand, he hooked it into the waist at the back of his braies. "Hold on to me. I am going to break through the back wall. Do not let go of my braies," he ordered, then picked up the table and moved toward the back of the small cottage. The table hit the wall first and jarred against him. Hugh felt along the wall until he was sure he knew where the timbers were. He did not want to waste time on the frame of the building. Once assured he knew where to hit, he reached back to make sure that Willa was out of the way behind him. Hugh then used the table as a battering ram and smashed it through the panel of woven sticks with its cover of straw and cow dung. The table went pitching through on the first blow.

Releasing a sigh of relief, Hugh grabbed Willa's hand from the back of his braies and bent to charge through the splintered opening. He didn't stop running until he was sure they were well clear of the burning cottage. He paused and turned toward Willa then and cried out when he saw that the back of her gown was on fire. Throwing her to the ground, he used his hands and the untouched parts of her own gown to smother the fire. Hugh had just doused the last of it when Wolfy and Fen came charging around the cottage. For one moment, he thought that the beasts were going to attack... and they did. They leaped on Willa, licking her face with joy to see her alive and well.

Cursing, he pulled Willa up into a sitting position, then paused to survey the burning structure. The cottage was now nearly completely aflame. The thatch roof was one large torch; the walls had gone up like tinder.

"You said their howling woke you?"

Hugh glanced down at Willa and nodded. He frowned. "I wonder where they were when the fire was set?"

"Probably still sleeping after their meal," Willa said. Her eyes sharpened. "When the fire was set?"

"Hmm." Hugh helped her to her feet and started around the cottage toward the clearing. He wasn't really concerned that whoever had started it might still be present. Wolfy and Fen would have taken care of him if he were, but he wanted a look at the front door. He wished to see what had been barring it from opening.

It was a wooden plank. They barely got around front in time to see it before the roof collapsed into the cottage. The walls followed quickly, and the wolves immediately took flight and disappeared back into the surrounding woods. Hugh glanced at Willa to see that silent tears were running down her cheeks. This had been her home for ten years, he recalled, as he hugged her to his side. It would be hard for her to watch it fall like this. They stood in silence for several minutes watching it burn, then Hugh recalled his horse and led her to the stable. It was a relief to find the animal still there. Leaving Willa leaning against the door, Hugh walked inside and quickly checked the animal. Finding him uninjured, he saddled, then led him out of the stable. Hugh mounted, then lifted Willa up before him.

It was a silent return journey. Willa huddled before him in the saddle, careful not to touch him more than necessary. Her face was pale and drawn and Hugh could feel her tremble. What worried him most, however, was that her eyes seemed empty. It was like his dream, in a way. He felt as though he had lost some vital part of her in the smoky cottage and now could not find her. She had withdrawn from him, and he didn't like it.

Hugh rode his horse straight up to the castle stairs, and gently deposited his wife on her feet there. She stood there, looking lost, and Hugh noticed for the first time that her face was soot-streaked. The wolves had cleaned some of it away with their joyous greeting, but had missed much of it. He also saw, with some regret, that the bottom of her hair had been singed when her gown had been afire. It would have to be cut off a little above her waist.

"Go change. Order a bath to help remove the smoke and soot," he added as she started up the stairs. "I will send Baldulf up to wait outside our chamber for you. Do not leave until he arrives."

Willa didn't say anything, but he thought she nodded. Hugh watched her until she disappeared inside the castle, then turned his horse toward the stables. He wanted to leap off his horse and take her upstairs himself. He wanted to bathe away the signs of the fire from her body, then make love to her until he had also banished it from her mind. But he had to talk to the men. This was the third attempt on her life. He wanted the culprit caught before there was a fourth.

Willa made it all the way upstairs to the bedchamber she shared with Hugh without anyone stopping her. Once there, she didn't seem to have any idea what to do. She had a vague recollection of Hugh telling her to do something, but the memory was hazy. She stared around the room. Today had been a glorious day. Today had been hell. This morning her husband had taught her passion beyond anything Willa had dreamed of. This afternoon she had nearly lost him to death.

Of course, Willa had nearly died, too, but someone had been trying to kill her all her life. Every day she breathed was a gift. But the assassin had nearly killed Hugh today; as he had killed Luvena years ago. Her own mother had died giving Willa life. Ilbert had died while guarding her. The man who had raised her as his own child had died just days ago...

Willa was terribly tired of losing those she loved.

She dropped onto the edge of the bed with a moan. Her feelings for Hugh were new and confused. Willa had thought herself in love with the man before she'd ever met him. It was her duty to love her husband. But before these last few days, the thought of his dying would not have affected her as it now did. She was sure if he had died ere they had met, she would have felt sad regret. Nearly losing him today had caused terrible fear and wrenching pain. Willa didn't know if she could bear losing Hugh. She did know she couldn't bear it if she lost him to someone who was trying to kill her.

A thud drew Willa from her thoughts and she glanced toward the wall between this bedchamber and the master chamber that had been Richard Hillcrest's. As far as she knew, there was no one staying in that room. She heard a muffled scuffling sound and found herself on her feet and walking to the door. It was probably just Lord Wynekyn looking for the letter, but anything that distracted her from her thoughts was welcome.

She stepped out into the hall and found it empty.

Willa had a vague recollection of Hugh saying he would send Baldulf up. The guard hadn't yet arrived. The hallway was quiet and growing dark as the bedchamber door swung closed behind her. The rest of the doors leading off the hall were already shut, leaving the passage dark. Though it was not late, the torches should have been lit.

Willa was a little more than halfway to Lord Richard's room when it struck her that they must have been lit when she had come above stairs just moments ago or, surely, she would have noticed. A frown crossed her face. She couldn't really swear to that; she had been rather distressed at the time. She still was. Willa considered fetching a candle and glanced back toward the bedchamber she and Hugh were using. Then a cool draft drifted around her. It stirred her hair and made her toes curled inside her shoes. That explained the unlit torches, she decided. A breeze from one of the rooms had put them out.

A soft click drew her gaze down the hall. Willa was sure it had been Lord Richard's door closing. She stared into the inky blackness ahead, trying to make out whether anyone was there. "Lord Wynekyn?"

Willa moved cautiously forward, feeling along the wall until she touched the wood of the door. She paused there, her ears straining to make up for her lack of sight. She would swear she could hear someone else breathing. Another click made Willa pause and peer further along the hall. Another door had been softly closed. She listened for a moment, but could hear nothing above the sound of her slamming heart. It was only then that she realized her heart was racing violently. It was acting as if she had something to be frightened of.

"Silly," she reprimanded herself as she reached for the door. Lord Wynekyn would be inside with candlelight, searching Papa's chamber. She opened the door, but found herself hesitating on the threshold. Her gaze slid nervously around the interior. The chamber was cold and musty smelling, but there didn't appear to be anyone inside the room. That just made her more nervous. She was sure she had heard someone in here.

A clatter made her eyes jump nervously to the window. Willa gave a nervous chuckle as she saw that one side of the tapestry that had always hung over the shuttered window had fallen away. The shutters had also been unfastened, allowing sunlight and a cool breeze into the room as they clattered open and shut. That was probably the sound she had heard from next door.

Feeling foolish for jumping at shadows, Willa started across the room to pull the shutters closed.

"Willa girl! Where are you? Willa!" Baldulf's panicky call reached her and Willa wrinkled her nose. At least she was not the only one made nervous by recent events.

"In here, Baldulf!" she called as she reached the window and leaned out to grab the swinging shutters.

"What the devil are you doing in here? Hugh said he had ordered you to stay in your room until I - " His surly words ended on a grunt that made Willa turn toward the door. She caught a glimpse of someone slipping out of the room, but it was just a glimpse. Her dismayed gaze was focused on her friend as he crumpled to the floor.

"Baldulf!" She rushed to his side with alarm. "Baldulf?"

Kneeling at his side, she turned the old soldier onto his back. She examined his pale face with concern and whispered, "Oh, Baldulf," as she brushed the hair back from his forehead. He moaned in pain, but his eyes did not open.

Biting her lip, Willa lifted his head with one hand. She ran the fingers of her other hand carefully over the back of his head until she found where he had been hit. There was a bump and some blood.

"Willa? Yoohoo! Hello?"

"Jollivet?" Willa called uncertainly.

"Ah, I thought you were up here. I saw you return with Hugh and thought we might discuss the latest fashions to see what sort of gown you would prefer. He asked me to help you assemble a new wardrobe and - Whatever are the two of you doing on the floor?" he asked with amusement as he reached the door to the bedchamber. Then concern replaced his amusement and he rushed forward to kneel on the opposite side of the fallen guard. "Faith! Is Baldulf alright?"

"Someone hit him over the head. Can you fetch Eada for me?"

"Aye, of course." Letting the parchment he had been carrying slip to the floor, Jollivet launched himself to his feet and hurried from the room. He began shouting the moment he was out of sight.

"You did not see who set the fire?"

Hugh scowled at Lucan's question. He had left his horse at the stable and sought out Baldulf first. He'd taken the time to give the soldier a quick rundown of the situation so he would be aware that vigilance was needed. The moment the guard was on his way to Willa, Hugh had gone in search of Lucan and Lord Wynekyn. He had thought clearer heads than his were needed to sort out this mess. Hugh was too furious to think clearly at the moment.

Having found Lucan and Lord Wynekyn in the great hall, he'd related all that had taken place at the cottage. Well, he had left out certain personal bits, but had explained about the fire. Then he had awaited their opinion on the matter. Wynekyn had been silent since Hugh had finished speaking. As for Lucan, he seemed more interested in asking stupid questions than in offering any wisdom on how to bring an end to these attacks.

"I told you we were sleeping," Hugh said with forced patience.

"In the cottage?" his friend asked with one raised eyebrow.

"Aye. In the cottage. We were sleeping. I did not see who set the fire," Hugh growled.

"You were sleeping in the cottage?"

"Did I not just say that?" he snapped.

"Aye. 'Tis just such an odd thing to do. Why would you go all the way down to the cottage to sleep on a tiny pallet that would barely fit you, alone, when you have a lovely large bed here in the castle?"

His friend's smile said he knew exactly why Hugh and Willa had been asleep on the pallet. He was just attempting to annoy him. It was working. Hugh was growling deep in his throat when Lord Wynekyn chose to intervene.

"I really do not think that is important, Lucan." He gave the man a reproving look, then added, "I believe it is more important to learn how whoever set the fire knew you were there."

Hugh stiffened at that remark. It had not occurred to him.

"Do you think the arsonist followed the two of you down to the cottage?" Lucan asked.

Hugh considered that, but shook his head. "Nay. I think the wolves would have been aware of that. They would have growled or something, as they did the night of the attack in the clearing."

"Then you do not think he was there the whole time?"

Hugh shook his head slowly, working it out for himself. He really didn't believe anyone could have followed them to the river. The wolves would have warned them somehow.

That meant the person had most likely come after the wolves had left.

"If he did not follow you, how did whoever set the fire know you would be there? Could it have been blind luck on his part?"

Hugh scowled at the question. He didn't believe in that kind of luck. Had he told anyone they were going to the cottage? Hugh considered the matter briefly, but knew he hadn't. Baldulf had known, though. The soldier had been on the stairs with Hugh and Willa when she had said that she must see if she could not coax the beasts to return and stay near the clearing by the cottage. Had anyone else been near enough to hear?

He was pondering the matter when shouting from above drew his attention. Turning toward the stairs, he saw Jollivet rushing down them. "Hugh! Eada! Where is Eada? Hugh!"

Hugh's first instinct was to roll his eyes at the man's hysteria, but then he realized his cousin was coming from above stairs, where Willa was. And he was shouting for Eada. Hugh hurried to meet his cousin at the bottom of the stairs. "What is it? Is Willa hurt?"

"Nay. Baldulf. Someone hit him over the head and - "

"Fetch Eada," Hugh interrupted and rushed passed him up the stairs. He went to his chamber first, aware that Lucan and Wynekyn were on his heels. They all paused in the doorway in confusion on finding the room empty. Hugh turned at once, pushing past the other two men as he bellowed for his wife. "Willa!"


Following the sound of her voice, he hurried to his uncle's chamber, only slightly relieved to find her there. Sparing barely a glance for the man on the floor, he hurried to her side. "Are you alright?"

"Aye. 'Twas Baldulf who was hit," she assured him, then glanced to the door. Relief covered her face. Following her gaze, Hugh saw Eada push past the other two men.

"What happened?" Eada asked, kneeling to examine the fallen man.

Hugh glanced down at the fellow and scowled at his pallor while Willa said, "I heard a noise in here and thought Lord Wynekyn must be searching for the letter. I came to see, but the room was empty." She gestured toward the window. "The tapestry was down and the shutters were banging. That was the noise I had heard. I was trying to close them when Baldulf came in. He was speaking, and then he grunted. I turned, and he was falling. Someone had hit him over the head."

"Did you see who hit him?" Hugh asked.

"I - "

"The letter!"

Hugh glanced around at that exclamation from Lord Wynekyn. The man was holding a rolled scroll. Standing, Hugh moved to his side. "Where did you find it?"

" 'Twas right here on the bed." His troubled gaze lifted to Hugh. "I searched this room thoroughly - several times. 'Twas not here earlier."

Hugh's mouth tightened, but he merely took the scroll and slid it in his belt. Then he returned to stand behind Willa. She twisted where she sat, her gaze sliding curiously from the scroll to his face and back again. Baldulf groaned and she turned her attention back to the man who had guarded her life for so long.

"Baldulf?" She reached out to touch his cheek in an affectionate gesture that made Hugh oddly jealous. He forced the petty reaction away as the man clasped her hand and blinked his eyes open.

"Willa?" He appeared confused.

"Aye." She smiled. The expression was full of a love and tenderness Hugh would have given his title to receive. He silently vowed to himself that someday she would look at him just that way. He just hoped he wouldn't have to receive a kosh on the head to get it. Hugh grimaced over that thought as Willa asked the man, "How is your head?"


"Hmmm. That's good," Eada announced.

Baldulf turned his head to peer at her doubtfully. " 'Tis?"

"Aye. Means ye're alive and well enough to complain."

Hugh had to work to keep from laughing at that comment. Baldulf's outraged expression did not help much. Clearing his throat, Hugh scowled at the woman. "Could you give the man something to ease the ache?"

"Oh, aye." She heaved a put-upon sigh and straightened. "If ye great men could stop standing about long enough to lug him to the bed, I shall fetch some meade and mix him a potion." When Hugh lifted an eyebrow at the order, she added, "The potion will make him sleepy. He can rest here while Willa and I see to cleaning this room. Now that the letter has been found, there is no reason not to move the two of ye here. An earl should sleep in the master's chamber."

Hugh glanced around as he considered her words. She was right. There was no reason now not to use this room. The delay had been due only to the fact that he and Lord Wynekyn had wished to search it for the letter ere moving things about too much. Now that the letter was found, there was no reason not to use it. It was much larger than the chamber he and Willa were presently in. Hugh nodded. "Aye."

"Get him in the bed then," the old woman ordered as she straightened. She ignored Hugh's irritation at being ordered about by one of his own servants and left the room in search of meade into which to mix her herbs.

Uncle Richard obviously had allowed the woman to get away with much during his time as earl. Deciding that it was probably too late to train her to behave more respectfully, Hugh urged Willa out of the way and knelt beside Baldulf. He'd just pulled the soldier's arm over his shoulder when Lucan rushed over to take the opposite side. Between the two of them, they got him into the bed.

Eada returned shortly afterward and dosed the man with something that made him grimace and curse. Having suffered the woman's potions himself, Hugh could sympathize. Still, although he wasn't sure whether it was the potion or Baldulf's disgust with the taste of it that did the trick, the man did have more color in his cheeks by the time Eada was finished with him. Deciding Baldulf appeared recovered enough for the questions he'd been waiting to ask, Hugh stepped up to the bedside. "Did you see who hit you?"

Baldulf shook his head apologetically. "Nay. I was hit from behind as I entered the room. I saw nothing but the floor coming up to meet me. Whoever it was must have been hiding behind the door."

Hugh scowled, his gaze moving to the door in question. He'd been hoping that Baldulf had seen something useful. Of course, life was never that easy. He nodded and stood. "Well, you rest here. We will find the culprit soon enough."

He started toward the door, aware that Lord Wynekyn and Lucan were following while Jollivet hesitated by the bed.

"My lord?"

Willa's voice made him pause. Turning back, he smiled at her wearily. "Aye, wife?"

"The letter?"

Hugh felt for the letter at his waist, relaxing when his hand touched it. He'd forgotten he had the letter, but the moment she'd mentioned it, he had feared he'd dropped it. "Aye. I have it."

"Aye, husband. Did you plan on letting me read it?"

Hugh knew his surprise showed. "Nay. There is no need. I shall tend to it."

"I see."

Hugh felt wariness creep over him at the displeasure obvious in those two short words. "You see what?"

"That you shall keep the secret from me as well," she said quietly.

"There is no need for you to be upset by - "

" 'Tis about me, my lord. About who would see me dead and why. Do you not think I have the right to know its contents?"

Hugh hesitated. He would rather she didn't know the letter's contents. At least not until he'd read it himself. Perhaps not even then if it would hurt her. But, peering at her face, he had the sneaking suspicion that if he did not allow her to read it now, he could be in for some misery later. She would probably refuse him her bed. That was a woman's most effective weapon. He winced at the mere thought. Aye, it was effective alright. His body was cringing at the very idea.

Cursing, he tugged the letter from his waist and handed it to her.

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