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It is the year 1421. The future of the Kingdom of Bohemia is in question. It has been six years since Jan Hus was burned at the stake for his objections to practices in the Catholic Church, sparking the Hussite Wars. The Royalist Catholic army is commanded by Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund, who has a voracious desire after the Czech crown. This army of mercenaries and foreigners faces off with a cobbled together Hussite army. Despite overwhelming odds against them, the Hussites have seen a series of victories. Surely the Lord is with them.
During these dark days, Pavel, Zdenek, and Radek find the women to whom they pledged their lives. Though these brave men fight on the side of the Hussites, their friend Stepan has sworn his services to the Royalist army.
Pavel and Karin have found a lasting love. That has not meant all is well. Having lost their first child to miscarriage, they found joy in the birth of their second child. In the midst of these challenges, Karin’s wellbeing remains uncertain after a difficult labor. This comes on the heels of Pavel’s father’s death at the hands of a vicious Royalist. Pavel has returned to the front, but the safety of his wife and child, as well as his mother, follow him into battle. The Krejik’s castle, lost to a fire, is now being returned to its former glory.
Zdenek and Eva continue to fight on the side of the Hussites, though his father scorns the very idea. Still, they seek to do the Lord’s will for their lives. Even if that means his father will disown him. And so, after a failed attempt to right his relationship with his father, Zdenek, and his wife Eva, rejoin the Hussite effort.
Radek and Hana have been through much. Though he initially struggled with the happenings at war—questioning the great Hussite general, Jan Zizka, and some of his tactics—Radek found he could not support the Royalists either. Rescuing Hana from certain death as a prisoner in the Royalist camp, the two hope for their happily ever after. Only one thing stands in the way—Radek’s uncertain relationship with his father. Leaving Hana in the care of her father, Baron Novak, he trudges to Horice in hopes of making peace at home.
Stepan struggles with the numerous horrendous things he has witnessed and experienced at war. So much death weighs on his conscience. And even more so, the memory of those who fell by his hand. But he is determined to push forward. Perhaps his father, Viscount Dvorak, will finally grant his son the favor he so desperately seeks.
Patricie has found her purpose in taking the knowledge of herbs and healing taught by her departed mother. She now serves as an apprentice to the Hussite army healer. And she couldn’t be happier for her sister, Eva, who has found happiness at last. But there is the dream and hope for her own happily ever after.
And now, the continuation…
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Singing greeted Karin as she awoke—a soothing lullaby. Bright light filled her vision, a harsh contrast to the gentleness of the melody. Where was she? What time of day was it?
Her eyes adjusted to the sunlight in the room, and she remembered. She had been settled in chambers within Duke Novak’s castle. This room in which she labored and nearly died became her only refuge. Her return to health had been taxing and long. So long.
She turned in the direction of the voice. A maidservant sat, rocking a baby. Karin’s vision cleared as she blinked. It was her baby. Hers and Pavel’s.
A weak smile spread Karin’s lips but slightly. God was good. She had been to the very brink of life and death. And survived. As had her son. It was a long fought victory, due in no small part to many prayers lifted on her behalf.
The nursemaid continued to sway and bounce the small bundle. After several seconds, her gaze drifted to Karin. And the older woman startled. Was she so surprised to see that Karin had awakened?
“My lady,” the woman said as she stood and drew nearer. “How do you fare?”
Karin closed her eyes and made an inventory of her body, taking care as she shifted her limbs to assess their state. A sharp pang stole her breath when her movements reached her abdomen. Beyond that, a dull ache seemed to pervade her whole being. Despite this, she found only gratitude. “All is well. There is some discomfort, but I cannot complain.”
The woman’s brow furrowed.
Just then, the babe cried, distracting them both from any further discussion.
The servant’s warm brown eyes met Karin’s above the babe’s blue ones that squeezed shut. “I think he is hungry.”
Karin nodded. “Help me sit.” She maneuvered her arms to pull herself upward.
“My lady,” the woman protested as she took another step toward Karin. “I can fetch the wet nurse, I—”
“No.” The word was not gentle. They had been through this. It was a kindness to be sure, but Karin wished to care for her child in this way.
The nursemaid frowned.
“I assure you, I am well enough.” Karin grimaced against renewed pains, due in no small part to her movements. “Just help me.”
The older woman set the babe on the bed—several inches from the side—and turned to assist her mistress.
But the infant’s wails intensified.
With features drawn, the nursemaid stepped back toward the infant. Then to Karin. Only to turn back to the child.
“Please,” Karin seethed. “Make haste!” She had not the time nor the patience in the moment for the woman’s well meaning, but confused intentions.
Proving herself capable, the woman helped Karin raise herself into a seated position. Then propped a pillow behind Karin’s back.
“Now, my son.” Karin motioned for the babe.
“Aye, my lady.” The servant scooped up the infant and brought him over.
Though Karin’s arms felt weak and useless when she lifted them, she downplayed the pain as the nursemaid laid the child in them.
Moments later, and with a bit of maneuvering, the babe nursed and was content once more.
Karin sighed and let her head fall back. Why must everything be so challenging? She parted her lips to ask that Pavel be summoned. But she stopped herself before the words formed. Her husband had returned to the heightened conflict with the Royalist army. The war hadn’t stopped because of her delivery and subsequent difficult recovery.
Sigismund still grasped for control over the Czech lands. And the power he had lost in their forfeit. And so, a month past, he marched back into Bohemia in an attempt to retake ground previously lost. Even now, General Zizka—completely blinded in his last battle—led the Hussites to intercept the would-be king and his army. Zizka’s men—a cobbled together contingency of peasants, farmers, merchants, and warriors—would make every attempt to push the invading force out. If Zizka’s successes up to now were any indication, it would be done. And quickly.
Pavel had needed some convincing that Karin was well enough for him to resume his stand with General Zizka. After all, Duke and Duchess Novak would see to her comfort and safety. She had been loathed for him to depart, yet it was she who insisted he go. Knowing her husband, he would never forgive himself if the conflict at the front turned for the worse in his absence. However, all she could think now was that she would never forgive herself if Pavel were to be injured or…she couldn’t even piece the words together in her mind.
She put a stop to the errant thoughts that would lead to naught but worry. God was with Pavel…and with the Hussites. Had He not proven faithful already?
The nursemaid bustled about the room, straightening this and that. Perhaps only attempting to give Karin and her child some space.
She lifted Karin’s psalter from a nearby table. “Shall I have someone read to you?”
Karin looked at her briefly and then back down to her son. “I do not wish to disturb Father Dominik.”
The servantwoman nodded, but ventured further. “If only there were others who could read Latin.”
Karin’s gaze caught the woman’s before her attention returned to her work. The nursemaid spoke the truth. Precious few were educated enough to read the Holy Writ. Karin’s parents had seen to that in her tutelage, for which she was grateful.
The thought struck her. What would it mean if her son—if all—could read the precious words of the Holy Writ for themselves? To no longer rely on priests and bishops to impart the Scriptures to them? The idea spread wings within her as if preparing to take flight.
But she suppressed even this. It was forbidden to transcribe the sacred writings. Only…
The Catholic Church no longer held authority in these lands. Would there, then, be a chance…a hope that someone could ink these ancient words into Czech?
Karin watched her son. The babe had fallen asleep nuzzled against her body. She covered herself and held him close. With the lightest touch, she traced a finger down one side of his face, admiring the chubby features. Angelic. Her chest expanded as it always did when she held her son—a piece of Pavel and of her, evidence of their love.
She marveled anew at the life in her arms that had not an inkling of the conflict around them. Such innocence. Would he ever know these things that created distance and hardship for his parents? Would he know why they sacrificed? Would he understand? Perhaps…in time. Would that be best? Or dare she hope to preserve his ignorance of these hard things?
She sighed, considering the name that seemed big for the small child—Jaromir.
Her fervent wish had been to name their child after Pavel’s father. A deeper pain surged through her at the memory of he who had accepted her as his own flesh and blood. He was gone and would never see his grandson. Pavel, however, had determined that Alexander would be the boy’s second name. He wanted for his son to represent the peace they fought so fervently for. And so, they chose Jaromir for ‘fierce peace.’
It was fitting, she decided. The name suited him.
Karin only then realized she hummed—the same tune the nursemaid had just earlier sang to the babe. And though Karin’s arms had since tired, she could not make herself relinquish her son.
A knock on the door broke her reverie.
Her gaze darted to the nursemaid, now across the chamber.
The woman, likewise, looked at Karin.
“I am able to receive,” Karin said, nodding as she permitted a smile to touch her features.
The nursemaid strode across the room as Karin readjusted the top of her gown for better coverage.
“Yes?” The gruff voice of the nursemaid spilled into the hall. Was she so put out that someone would disturb her charges? Karin found comfort in the woman’s concern for them.
Craining her neck, Karin spotted a younger woman who worked to find her voice. The words seemed to crowd her mouth as her tongue shifted within and her lips twisted.
Karin sensed the growing frustration of the nursemaid. The older woman’s body fairly radiated her ire.
After several moments, the servant in the hall managed to state her purpose. “I have a missive. For the Lady Krejikova.”
The nursemaid jerked her head and moved aside, permitting the servant girl entrance.
Karin maneuvered Jaromir so she could receive the letter. But as she struggled, the nursemaid again intervened and plucked the rolled paper from the girl’s fingers.
The nursemaid then shuffled the young servant back into the hall, dismissing her with the flick of her hands, and closing the door. She turned and moved toward her mistress. “Shall I take him, my lady?”
Karin hesitated. She did not wish to end this moment with her son, but her heart ached to see what news the missive bore. Even from this distance, Pavel’s seal was visible.
The letter must hold information about his wellbeing. Now desperate for whatever the papers contained, she motioned the woman over.
Time slowed as the nursemaid set the missive on a side table and collected Jaromir.
His face scrunched and, for a moment, it seemed he might wake. However, his features soon smoothed as the older woman commenced her swaying.
It was all too much. Even distracted by Jaromir, her heart raced to discover the contents of the letter. Now that the babe had settled, she stretched to the very extent of her ability to reach for the message. Indeed, her muscles protested the action.
Ignoring it, she tore at the seal. Her eagerness for word of her beloved almost led to ripped parchment. Soon enough, the stamped wax gave way.
She searched the pages, her first fears quelled as she recognized Pavel’s writing. He was well enough if he could write, wasn’t he? Calming herself, she forced her gaze to still and focus.
Pavel first offered words of love and of hope that her health continued to improve. They were a balm to her heart. Then he spoke of the soldiers and their preparations for battle. Zizka had marched on the town of Zatec to push out the Royalists, who had a tenuous hold on the town. The enemy had halted their barrage and pulled back.
Karin paused. Would the Royalists turn tail and flee? After all their efforts, they would pack up and retreat so quickly? Perhaps Sigismund’s fear of Zizka’s abilities was greater than anticipated.
She glanced at the date. Some time had passed since Pavel pored over these words. Had the Hussites overcome? Or been defeated?
Karin prayed for the former and hoped that her husband would not have known combat in the days that followed. Oh, how she prayed.
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Death. Destruction. Battle. These things—and their imagery—filled Pavel’s mind as he pressed onward, trying to make sense of all that surrounded him. But was there sense to be made? The clash of metal and the smell of sweat and horses assaulted him. Yet, in some measure, they invigorated him. His gaze dropped to the horse beneath. Would the animal be able to continue? For how long? The destrier had been his valiant companion these last weeks…and for the torrent of the day. But in the press of battle, Pavel had pushed the massive horse hard.
The day had seen more than its share of bloodshed, but there was much to be grateful for. Pavel had survived the massacre at Kutna Hora. The Hussite army was betrayed by some villagers who had opened a gate for the opposing mercenary army. They then cut off Hussite forces from their war wagons. And disaster ensued.
Many of Pavel’s comrades-in-arms had been cut down. Indeed, all would have been lost—and should have been—were it not for General Zizka and his tactical skill. The man proved just as capable despite having completely lost his ability to see. Their hand cannons had driven the Royalist forces back and freed the remaining Hussites from complete loss.
And now, days later, they pursued the enemy army southward. Was Sigismund so afraid of the great general and his army? Had Sigismund assumed they would be weaker without their general’s vision? If that was the case, the would-be king had been terribly mistaken. For they were as strong as ever. And ever as determined. Their efforts to defend life, limb, and freedom had soon seen the crusading army’s retreat.
Pavel now led his troops into Habry. Sigismund’s attempt to maintain control of the village had been pitiful at best. Again, the Royalists fled. And so Pavel pushed his troops in pursuit of the enemy.
Even with all he had seen these last days, it did not prepare him for what he found when he reached the bridge. A few feet away, a horde of Royalist soldiers jammed the bridge as they sought escape.
Pavel called for his men to hold.
The entirety of the bridge’s surface teemed with fleeing men. And they seemed to no longer have a care for fellow soldiers. Pushing and butting others, the mercenaries fought for release from the crowded mass. There were some who, pressed by the approaching Hussites, attempted to find their freedom by crossing the frozen river. Surely, such was madness! Were they so desperate?
“What say you?” a voice called out to General Zizka.
“Forward,” the large man bellowed.
Pavel maneuvered his horse alongside Zizka’s. “General, the Royalists are fleeing. And the bridge clogs with the sheer number of them fighting to get across. Many have taken to the ice-covered water to claim safety on the other side.”
Zizka’s features remained hard. “We shall overtake them.”
Was this not a time for mercy? Pavel was equally irate about the brethren lost in the massacre only days ago. His sword hand weighed heavy, eager for vengeance. But this? This did not suit him—picking off men as they ran for their lives.
The splintering sounds drew his attention to the turmoil upon the bridge and the men desperate to save themselves. And also to the river.
Pavel paused. Had that noise come from the bridge? Or the ice? Far too many men tried to cross the hardened surface of the water. The frozen expanse would not hold. Even then, it crunched under their weight.
A loud crash and a whoosh filled the air as the ice gave way in several places.
Before Pavel could utter a word, openings to the watery darkness spread across the entire wintery covering of the river. Men slipped into the chilled depths. They would not survive this. Not with their armor, not with the freezing temperatures.
He turned back to Zizka. The man’s firm expression betrayed that he, too, heard the sound and knew what went.
“Onward,” Zizka cried.
The men around Pavel advanced as commanded. How could Pavel not join them? Though with much resistance within himself, he pushed forward.
A mass of utter chaos in the thick of bodies ensued. Who was friend and who was foe in the tight confines? Pavel fought against Royalists who had paused to take on the coming Hussite soldiers.
Despite the efforts of the mercenaries, all movement ceased before long. Pavel stopped and breathed for a moment—just one—to survey the damage and try to find reason. He took in what remained. The bridge and surrounding area—both river and ground—were littered with fallen men.
The Hussites cheered as the last vestiges of the retreating army—at least those able to escape their doom—faded. Yes, they had dealt a serious blow to the Royalists today. But at what cost?
Pavel slowed his horse as yells and shouts of celebration drowned out all else. Yet he did not cheer. Rather, he absorbed the scene and the devastation it contained. His gaze pulled to the forms of those who had lost their lives—from both sides. Directing his horse along the side of the path, he dismounted and walked the riverbank. So many warriors’ lives had been snuffed out here…too many.
Pavel firmly believed in the Hussite cause; however, this was trying—the reality of the sheer number who would not return home. On both sides.
They weren’t just mercenaries, though they had been his enemy and sought his death. Still, each was someone’s brother, son, cousin, maybe even a husband and father. It weighed on him. He said a prayer of thanks that his own wife and son were tucked safely away. His shoulders tightened as images of their faces filled his mind. What if it were Karin who would receive news her husband had fallen in battle? The cavern in his chest expanded and then contracted painfully as a wave of emotion overcame him.
Lord, may it never be.
Pavel walked beside the river, praying for the men, their families, and their souls. Regardless of which side they had fought on. As he moved toward the outskirts of the remaining bodies, his breathing became labored. And his body reminded him of how he had pushed it.
Relenting, he shifted to return to his men. Something—perhaps a movement—at the water’s edge caught his eye. He scanned the embankment and the bodies scattered there, having crossed only to breathe their last on this side. Tragic.
But there was nothing of note. He must have imagined it. Mayhap nothing more than hopefulness born of desperation. As he turned once more, he closed his eyes, prepared to leave this nightmare behind. As much as possible.
But when he lifted his lids, there it was again—definite motion.
An arm flailed.
Pavel halted and focused.
A man, dirtied and damaged, struggled for life.
Even at this distance, Pavel took in the figure. The man bled, most profusely from a leg badly wounded. By a blade? Or perhaps crushed by fleeing soldiers? Taking a step closer, confusion cleared. And what was once hope became dismay. With so much blood loss, it was doubtful any intervention could save this man.
Still, Pavel could not simply dismiss the enemy soldier. Though…what could he do? What should he do? He thought to offer what comfort he could for the man’s last moments. That thought was followed by a warning—what if the man were more aware than he seemed? Would the man take up his sword or a dagger and strike at the one lending aid?
Pavel frowned as he considered his options. And, despite the danger presented, he could not walk away and leave this man alone in his final minutes of agony. Drawing nearer, Pavel knelt beside the now-stilled man and prayed. He spoke the words aloud, hoping it might bring some measure of peace to the one who breathed his last.
The man’s torso convulsed and lifted, his movements slight. He groaned as his eyes opened. Did he seek the source of the prayer?
Dirt marred and scarred the man’s face. His features all but lost. As his eyes became visible in mere slits, Pavel lost his words. This was his long-lost friend—Stepan Dvorak.
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Patricie crept into the room of her next charge, mindful to keep her footfalls light. The day had worn long and she had become weary. Yet her work served to reinvigorate her. Perhaps the part that made her happiest was the opportunity to hone what skill she had gleaned from her mother. As much as Patricie relied on the knowledge passed on to her, the memory of it stung. It had been too long since she sat with her mother poring over various plantlife. The woman had been known for her ability to heal with herbs. Patricie prayed for but a piece of that respect.
The room had been darkened, but not completely. Beams of light filtered in and warmed the space. She wished to throw the drapes back and bask in it. Her charge’s need of recovery stilled her hand. Yes, the dimness assisted his rest.
“Dobry den,” she said as she drew closer.
There was no answer. Not that she had expected any. The man had yet to regain consciousness since being brought to the healer.
She set her supplies—bandages and a bowl of herbs—upon a stand, one of the few pieces in the room. The inn had been a godsend in the midst of great loss, even if it was sparsely furnished. But as Ludek said, they would celebrate the victories as they could and make do with the accommodations.
Patricie smiled at the still form. “How are you today? Still abed, I see.”
It helped her to make conversation, even if it was with herself. How else was she to pass the time? Besides, it made her feel closer to the men she cared for.
“Why don’t I take a look at that leg?” She settled onto the edge of the bed, pulling back the blanket from the man’s lower limbs. It was important to retain as much modesty as possible for the soldiers. And for her purposes, she need not venture beyond baring wound sites.
“This might hurt a bit, but I promise I’ll be gentle.”
She peeled back the bandages and peered at his injury. And grimaced. It was bad.
Ludek had tended and sutured as best he could. And then tasked her with keeping it cleaned, dressed, and the proper herbs applied as needed.
While she enjoyed her work with Ludek, she had never quite become accustomed to the damage done a body. This man’s leg had been terribly battered. So much so that she knew not how he still breathed. But he did. And she would give the whole of her effort and skill to preserve him.
“How did this happen?” she asked, not for the first time. “What did you get yourself into?”
This, she knew the answer to. He had fought in the recent battle and quite nearly died at the bridge.
Pushing her long dark braid over her shoulder, she leaned closer to the marred limb. She worked as quickly as possible while maintaining some level of gentleness about her movements. Just because he was unconscious didn’t mean she shouldn’t take care.
“It is a wonder. But I don’t have to tell you, do I?”
The stitching held and the heat radiating off his body had lessened. Mayhap he improved, then. The danger of the wound becoming putrid still existed, but perhaps the worst had passed.
“It is fearful cold outside today. I had the hardest time making my fingers work when I went to the stream.”
She glanced at his face.
Nothing. His strong, square jaw was still and his mouth remained set.
Once more she considered, with gratitude, the refuge the inn provided from the frigid temperatures. True the rooms might be small, but they were not at the mercy of the winter chill. Except for her trips to gather water.
“There now.” She straightened her back. “All done.”
She tugged the thin blanket back over his extremities. And stole a long look at his face. His features gave the appearance of youth. But Lord Krejik had said something of this man having been a former friend. That being so, the soldier must have more years than it seemed.
“Not so bad today, was it?” Her words were soft as she watched him.
His mouth twisted.
She did wish he could be more at peace. Did he sense what went on around him? Did he know what his body had been through? Or did he simply fight to maintain his hold on life?
Not for the first time, she lingered and thought on this man who would be her enemy. What was he like? Why had a Czech chosen to fight with the Royalists?
Perhaps she could take heart in Lord Krejik’s mention of friendship with the man. Might that be reason to hope? As one of the most admired Hussite warriors in the camp, Lord Krejik’s good opinion held weight. So, this man—had Lord Krejik called him Stepan?—couldn’t be all bad. It was possible he would change his allegiance when he awoke to find himself in this Hussite-controlled town. If he ever did regain consciousness.
The healer still wasn’t certain of the man’s recovery. This only made her more determined, her work all the more vital. Her ability to maintain the repair to his leg and tend him may very well determine his fate. Not so long ago, that thought would have weighed heavy. But after working alongside Ludek for some time, she knew what she was capable of. She would not lose this man to the depths. No, she would fight it every day. And she would win.
He had come so far in such a short time. After all, the fever had abated. Surely his wounds would heal. Maybe not completely, but enough for him to live a full life yet.
“I am hopeful,” she said more to herself than him.
Patricie plucked a cooled wet cloth from the basin that she would have to refill soon. She rubbed it over his face, shoulders, and to the opening in his tunic.
He was solid. Well built. But such was the case for many of the soldiers she tended.
Still, there was something different about him. Perhaps it was only the thrill and curiosity of working on one from the Royalist side of this conflict. It seemed dangerous.
“Not that you would ever hurt anyone.”
Wishful thinking. It was likely this man had snuffed out the lives of many of her people. Yet she couldn’t find it in herself to hate him. Not when she worked so diligently to see him healed.
Might he be thankful for their efforts such that he would renounce the Royalists? Anything was possible.
“I’m letting my thoughts run away with me again.” She bemoaned that tendency within herself.
The truth was that she knew precious little about him. Nothing more than the scant details Lord Krejik had supplied. Stepan was noble, the son of a viscount. How would he have held himself? She could imagine his broad shoulders raised, strong and proud. Was his presence overbearing? Or might he be more genial?
That must be the case. For certain, he would be kind. And concerned about all the happenings in Bohemia. Yet did that fit with his choice to fight his own brethren?
She rubbed the cloth down his arms. Her mind had indeed strayed far and did so quickly.
“Enough daydreaming,” she admonished herself.
It was time to finish and move to her next charge. She pulled the cloth back, dragging her arm the length of his.
A hand shot out and grabbed her wrist.
Holding back a scream, she tugged against the iron grip. But it wouldn’t give.
And she knew. She just knew.
Peering down, she found dark eyes watching her. The intensity of his gaze bore into her, stealing her breath.
She opened her mouth to call for help but could not push the words out.
“Who are you?” his hoarse words demanded.
She tried to pull free again. His hold was firmer than she would have imagined, especially in his weakened state.
Drawing in a breath she hoped would still her shaking, she attempted words again. “My name is Patricie. I but tend your wound.”
He grimaced. Did the very mention of the injury pain him? For certain, his body must ache.
“Please,” she said as she worked to free her arm again, pressing down her rising dread. “Turn me loose.”
His steely glare pinned her. Still, he did not slacken his grip. If anything, his hand tightened.
“Where…?” His voice caught. No doubt, he found speaking difficult with a dry mouth. “Where am I?”
“You are in the Hussite camp near Kolin.”
His eyes widened. “The Hussites?”
She did not miss the hardness in his voice. But all she could do was nod.
He thrust her arm away.
The abrupt movement surprised, and almost caused her to lose her balance. But she managed to remain upright. She wished for something to say that would calm him, but she wasn’t even able to draw in a grateful breath before more venom spewed from his mouth.
“Don’t touch me.”
She stared at him. He couldn’t mean that. Not the man she had tended these last few days. The man she had been certain was not as he seemed…perhaps only misunderstood.
Rubbing her wrist, she soothed the skin there.
He afforded her another brief glance before staring at the ceiling. “I will speak with someone of authority.”
Emotion clogged her throat, but she pushed past it. “I assure you, my lord, I—”
“I do not wish to say it again.” His features became stony, and he would not look at her. As if she were beneath him. If he had slapped her across the face, she would not have felt more stung. Never…never had she been treated in such a manner.
She tossed the cloth into the basin and rose. “I don’t know how I thought you anything but—”
“What?” His eyes—accusing and stern—were on her again.
Had she spoken aloud? Though she had not intended to do so, she would not shrink away. “I only mean to say, my lord, that I dared believe—err, hope—you had a real heart beating within your chest despite your allegiance to that brood of vipers. I was wrong. You are just like the rest of them.”
His eyes widened before narrowing. “I care not to speak with you further.”
Just as well. Patricie had no more words. And lacked the ability to form them anyway. She gathered her remaining things and fled the room in a huff.
After closing the door, she leaned back against it lest her legs give out completely. What a pitiable woman she was! A fanciful girl indeed. Why had she allowed her imaginings to create such a fairytale? This Stepan—Lord Dvorak—was as rotten within as a Royalist soldier should be. And though she must continue to see to his care, she need not interact with him. Or have any kind regard for him.
She wiped at the moisture collecting in her eyes.
She could not. She would not.
The door slammed. Or at least Stepan imagined it was the door. Whatever that noise, it had jarred his every sense. An accompanying squeal left him surprised that the door remained on its hinges. Was this place so decrepit?
With the Hussite woman now gone, he scanned his surroundings. He lay abed in a simple room—small and somewhat quaint. What manner of place was this?
The relative size of the space along with the presence of wooden walls and ceiling gave the impression he was within an inn or other simple dwelling. And in Kolin? He gritted his teeth. Hussite-controlled territory. Was there any hope for him?
Stepan’s thoughts remained somewhat hazy…perhaps from his languid sleep. And his vision blurred in intervals. How long had he been here? Been unconscious?
With the increased awareness of his body, sharp pains pounded and throbbed through his being. More and more so every second. He attempted to assess the state of his body. Indeed, he ached…deeply. Nothing hurt so much as his right leg. Bracing himself, he shifted his arms to press up into a sitting position. How else would he take stock of the damage? His body screamed at even the slight movement. Releasing the burning muscles, he surrendered his weight to the thin mattress once more.
For some time, he had been returning to himself. Little by little. For the last several hours…maybe even days. He had been all too aware of the woman’s ministrations—both the tearing pain in his leg as she worked and the tenderness of her touch. How often had she been at work about his person?
Closing his eyes, he tried to push through the pain and put his thoughts together. Yes, images of her—perhaps only glimpses—came to him. Her long dark hair framed her face in his limited recollection. And that gentle voice. True, his memories were but snatches. However, it was the fitful dreams of her that he found most disturbing.
Now that he was more aware, he found her not to be the angel he’d supposed, but a Hussite wench. How did she even think she had the right to touch him?
He was surprised at the ache that blossomed in his chest at these thoughts
This would get him no closer to wholeness. He must turn his mind to more productive things. What was his condition? What were his options for escape? He could not let these Hussite dogs keep him here. Did they mind his wounds only to execute him once he was whole? There had been talk in the Royalist camp of what these Hussites were capable of. And he had no delusions that he would be treated any better than those he had heard tales off.
The door creaked. Did the villainess wish to try again? He wouldn’t have it.
He gathered what strength he could and prepared to send her away. At least as much as he could in his state. He could do nothing beyond his words to enforce the desire to expel her from the room.
But the figure drawing closer was masculine.
Stepan met the man’s gaze. Who was this? Was he the one who held control over Stepan’s future?
Calming his thoughts, Stepan attempted to take in any and all information he could. The man was simply dressed. Nothing about him spoke of refinement. He couldn’t be in charge here. Then again, these Hussites had not a care for station. Mayhap a mere commoner was, in fact, the authority here.
As the man came closer, Stepan tightened the muscles in his arms, steeling himself to defend his person in any way possible. But as he opened his mouth to naysay this intruder’s advance, the man spoke.
“You should consider your state before sending away the hands that have kept you alive these last days.”
Did this man dare condescend? He appeared more peasant than anything else. And while he may have some position with the Hussites, he did not speak for Stepan. Why should he, then, let this man continue?
Stepan opened his mouth and, again, the man cut him off.
“It is nothing short of a miracle you still take in breath. And that,” he said as he pointed toward the door, “is how you show your gratitude?”
Stepan swallowed. Part of him tugged toward softening. Though…why did this man think he had any right to chastise someone so far above his station? He drew in a breath and spat, “I believe I will no longer require that woman’s assistance.”
“Oh, you will.” The man’s tone was even and cool. “Unless you’d prefer to face down the Lord God Himself. For that will be your end—and soon—if we cannot keep this wound from becoming putrid.”
Stepan bit back a rising retort. All things considered, he did not want to die. Not even for the momentary pleasure of throwing insults in this man’s direction. Or toward the woman.
“Yes, I should think you might reconsider.” The man’s slender face settled into a thin-lipped expression.
Stepan pressed a breath through clenched teeth, preparing to respond. But again, fought within himself.
The peasant spoke. “I have done what I can. And now your fate depends on that woman’s ability to maintain your wound.”
Stepan looked away, setting his gaze on the ceiling once more. “What if I do not wish it?”
“That cannot be so.” Another, more familiar voice spoke from the doorway.
Stepan strained to catch a look at the newcomer, but his body would not angle in such a way. Still, he had to know if his ears but played tricks. For it could not be who his mind told.
Footfalls on the wooden floor betrayed that the man in question came closer. And soon enough, Stepan’s vision homed in on the face. His eyes clashed with those of his old friend—Pavel Krejik.