The Lady and Her Secret – EXCLUSIVE PREVIEW!

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The sounds of a voice singing soothing music greeted Karin as she awoke. Brightness filled her vision. Where was she? What time of day was it?

As her eyes adjusted to the light in the room, she remembered. She had been settled in chambers within Duke Novak’s castle—a room in which she had labored and nearly died. Her return to health had been extremely taxing and long. So long.

She turned toward the source of the music. A maidservant sat, rocking a baby. Karin’s baby.

A weak smile spread Karin’s lips but slightly. God was good. She had survived and so had her son.

The nursemaid continued to sway and bounce the bundle. It took several seconds for the woman to notice Karin had awakened.

“My lady,” the woman said as she moved toward her mistress. “How are you feeling?”

Karin closed her eyes and took inventory of her body, shifting her limbs. A sharp pain stole her breath when she moved her abdomen and there was a general dull ache about her whole being. “All is well. There is some discomfort, but I cannot complain.”

The woman’s brow furrowed. But the baby’s cry distracted the woman from any further questions. “I think he is hungry.”

Karin nodded. “Help me sit.” She maneuvered her arms to pull herself up.

“My lady, I can fetch the wet nurse, I—”

“No.” They had been through this. It was a kindness to be sure, but Karin wished to care for her child in such a way.

The woman frowned.

“Please. I am well enough. Just help me.” Karin grimaced against the renewed pains that were certainly due to her movements.

The woman set the baby down only to have him wail in response. For a moment, the woman stepped back toward the baby, then to Karin, only to turn back to the child.

“Please,” Karin seethed. “Make haste!”

The maidservant assisted Karin as she sat. Then the woman propped a pillow behind her.

“Now, my son.” Karin motioned for the infant.

“Aye, my lady.” The servant woman scooped the baby up and brought him to Karin.

Though her arms felt weak and useless, Karin downplayed her pain as the woman laid the child in her arms.

A few moments later, the baby nursed, content once more. Karin sighed and let her head fall back. Why did everything have to be so difficult?

She almost asked for Pavel to be summoned before she remembered. He had returned to the fighting. The world hadn’t stopped because of her delivery and subsequent challenged recovery.

Sigismund still grasped for the power and control he had lost. He had marched into Bohemia to take background. And so General Zizka, now completely blind, led his men to intercept the Royalist army and try to push them out.

It had taken some effort to convince Pavel she was well enough, that the duke and duchess would see to her comfort. She had been loathed for him to part, but knew he would never forgive himself if things at the front turned for the worst and he wasn’t there. Though now, she would never forgive herself if Pavel were to be injured or…

She stopped herself. She shouldn’t think that way. God was with him…and with the Hussites. Had He not proved faithful already?

The servant bustled about the room, straightening this and that. She picked up Karin’s psalter from nearby. “Shall I have someone read to you?”

Karin faced the woman. “I don’t wish to disturb Father Dominik.”

The servant woman nodded. “If only there were others who could read Latin.”

Karin caught the woman’s gaze. It was true. There were few educated enough to do so. Karin had been fortunate her parents had seen to that in her tutelage.

What would it be like if all could read the words for themselves? To not have to rely on priests and bishops to give them the Holy Scriptures?

But, alas, it was forbidden to transcribe it.


The Catholic Church was no longer the authority in these lands, given that General Zizka and the Hussites could break the Royalists’ hold on the village of Zatec and the surrounding area.

Perhaps then there would be a chance for someone to get the words into Czech. Perhaps.

Karin looked down at her son. What would it mean for him to be able to read God’s Word in his own language?

The babe slept, nuzzled against her body.

She covered herself and held him close. Running a finger gently down the side of his face, she admired the chubby features. Angelic. Her chest expanded as it always did when she held this precious bundle.

A piece of Pavel and her. Evidence of their love.


She had wanted to name him after Pavel’s father. A deep pain surged through her every time she thought about the man, knowing he was gone and would never see his grandson. Pavel had decided that Alexander would be a second name. He wanted his son to represent the peace they were fighting so hard for. So they named him “fierce peace”. 

It was fitting, she had decided. And the name suited him—Jaromir.

She found herself humming the tune the maidservant had sung earlier. And though her arms had tired, she could not make herself relinquish the babe.

A knock on the door broke her reverie.

Her gaze darted to the maidservant.

The woman looked back at Karin.

“I am able to receive,” Karin assured her.

The servant walked to the door as Karin readjusted the top of her gown for better coverage. And as the older woman swung the door wide, a young servant girl stepped forward and into the room.

“Yes?” the gruff voice of the nursemaid spilled out. Was she so put out that someone would disturb her charge?

“I have a missive. For the Lady Krejikova.”

The older woman nodded, and the young maidservant approached.

Indeed, there was a sealed paper in her hand.

Karin maneuvered the baby so she might reach for it. As she struggled, the nursemaid intervened and took the letter.

With a nod from Karin, the younger servant was dismissed. The older woman closed the door, then approached. “Shall I take him, my lady?”

Karin hesitated. She was anxious to read the missive but did not wish to end this moment with her son. In the end, the need to attend to the letter won out. She handed the babe over with slow, gentle movements.

Jaromir’s face scrunched and, for a moment, it seemed he might wake. But his features smoothed as the nursemaid started to sway as before.

Karin watched the baby settle into sleep. Then she lifted the paper from her lap—Pavel’s seal. Tearing at it, she became hungry for news of her beloved.

She scanned the pages. Pavel first offered soothing words of love and hope. Then he spoke of the soldiers and their wellbeing. And mentioned their preparations for battle. The missive must have been written several days ago.

The Royalists had heard of Zizka’s march toward them and, from all reports, had halted their barrage and pulled back. Would they truly run away? After all their effort, they would pack up and retreat? Was Sigismund so fearful of General Zizka?

She prayed it was so. And that her husband would not have known combat in the days following him penning these words.

Oh how she prayed.

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The castle drawbridge rose behind Radek, cutting off any thought of turning back. He looked upon the inner bailey he had been certain he would never see again. Perhaps he had, at one time, even hoped that. Several guards stared him down from all sides. Did they think he had come to bring harm to their lord? That his plan to storm the castle would look as such?

But he could not begrudge them their concern. It was their way. Their purpose.

The mood shifted. Someone approached.

From across the bailey, a man strode forth from the donjon. His short, wavy brown hair had grayed in places—evidence of the years that had passed. But his beard had the same slight red tint to it that Radek had always found curious. And the lines of his face were deeper set. Radek took in every detail about the man, for he had feared he would also never lay eyes on this older man again—his father.

After the way their last encounter had ended, there was no certainty as to how his father would receive him. But here, he had reason to hope. For his father was ever the gentle caretaker, ever the first one to show mercy. Even to his own detriment.

The Margrave Artur Miklas moved closer with set features. His eyebrows drew together as he gazed on the intruder to his lands. Radek held his breath. What would his father say? How would he receive his long lost son who had laid out his grievances before leaving this place?

As the steps between them narrowed, Radek dropped from his horse. He must face his father’s disappointment no matter how it might sting.

“My son has returned.” The margrave didn’t slow until his arms came around Radek.

As much as Radek did not like such a display, he could not deny that his breaths came easier.

The margrave took a step back, keeping his hands on Radek’s shoulders. “I feared…” His voice faded and he coughed. “I believed I would not see you again.”

Radek dipped his head. “As did I.”

Miklas’s brow lifted. But he did not say anything further. Was he giving Radek space to sort out whatever he intended?

Radek glanced at the men gathered around them. Father’s man-at-arms held back, yet stood some yards away as the closest onlooker. The man averted his eyes from the interaction.

Why did he care what these guards thought? This was why he came—to see his father and heal this rift. Yet he did wonder at this audience and their thoughts.

Radek pressed out a breath, attempting to push these musings out of mind. They would only distract him. Too long had he been afraid of others’ perception of him. Too long had he let them keep him from moving forward.

No more.

He regarded his father once more. The man’s eyes were wider than expected. Did he, too, consider the cost to his pride?

No matter.

“I was wrong.” The words did not have the strength Radek wished they would. But it was what he had to offer.

The margrave’s mouth tightened and he drew a long breath in. “Come, my son. Your mother will be anxious to see you.”

Then his father turned, bidding Radek follow.

Every muscle still held its tension. Nothing Radek said to himself would allow them release. Why was he still so concerned? His father had welcomed him with arms wide. What could keep him from full relief?


They moved through the castle and farther into the Great Hall. It took him a moment to adjust to the dimmer interior. But as he did so, he spotted a woman by the hearth—Mother. She set her stitching to the side and stood. It almost seemed as if her legs wouldn’t quite hold her she was so hesitant.

“My ladywife,” his father announced, his voice warm and bold. “Come. See our son has returned!”

She blinked as if afraid Radek would disappear. But why did she appear disappointed that he did not?

And as she stepped toward them, he saw that the blinking was more likely to staunch the tears that threatened. Had he hurt his mother so with his absence? That had never been his intention.

“Mother—” he started, but she silenced him with a shake of her head.

Why? Did she not wish to hear his reasons? Or did they not matter to a mother approaching her son thought gone for good?

Her lips pinched.

His chest tightened as he watched her fight with her emotions.

She paused when she was but an arm’s length away, staring into his eyes. The stirring within the hazel of her eyes squeezed at his heart.

She lifted a trembling hand.

His eyes slid closed as he prepared himself for her touch.

Then she slapped him.

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Pavel’s focus fell to his horse beneath him. Would the animal be able to continue? The destrier had been his valiant companion these last weeks. But today he pushed the massive horse hard.

There was much to be grateful for. Pavel had survived the massacre of the Hussites at Kutna Hora when the mercenary army cut them off from the war wagons. Many among them had been killed. And all would have been lost, but General Zizka proved just as useful with no vision as when he still had one good eye. Their hand cannons had freed them from complete loss. 

Now, days later, they pursued the retreating army southward. Was Sigismund so afraid of what Zizka was capable of? Had he assumed the Hussites would be weaker having lost their great general’s vision? If that was the case, he had been terribly mistaken. They were as strong as ever. And as determined. And now the crusading army retreated.

Pavel and his troops moved into the town of Habry. Sigismund’s attempt to maintain control of it had been pitiful at best. The Royalists had fled. And so Pavel pushed his troops toward Nemecky Road.

Nothing could have prepared him for what he would find. As they approached the delayed Royalist army, he discovered that their bodies jammed the bridge as they had pulled back.

The entirety of the surface was covered with fleeing men. And they seemed not to have a care for their fellow soldiers. Pushing and butting others, the mercenaries fought for freedom. There were some who, pressed by the approaching Hussites, attempted to make headway by crossing the frozen river. Surely, that was madness! Were they so desperate?

“What say you?” a voice called out to Zizka.

“Move forward!” the large man bellowed.

Pavel maneuvered his horse alongside Zizka’s. “General, the men are running. And the bridge is clogged with the sheer number of them trying to get across. Many have taken to the ice-covered water to get to safety.”

Zizka’s features remained hard. “We shall overtake them.”

Would this not be a time for mercy? Pavel was just as angry about the brethren they had lost in the massacre. But this? This did not suit him—picking off men who fled for their lives.


The crackling and splintering sounds drew his attention toward the retreating figures. And to the river. Was that the source of the noise?

And Pavel saw, to his dismay, that too many men attempted to cross at the same time. The ice would not hold up. Indeed, even then, it crunched under their weight.

A louder crash and whoosh filled the air, and the ice gave way completely in places. Before he could utter a sound, the openings had spread across the entire surface of the water.

Men fell into the chilled depths. They would not make it. 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 it meant.

“Onward!” he cried.

The troops around Pavel continued to advance.

A mass of chaos and bodies ensued. Who was friend and who was foe in these tight confines? Pavel fought against the men who had paused to take on the Hussites. And it wasn’t long before all movement ceased. Indeed, the bridge and the surrounding ground were littered with fallen soldiers.

The Hussites celebrated as the last vestiges of the retreating army faded. Yes, they had dealt a serious blow to the Royalists today. But at what cost?

Pavel dismounted as his men’s cheers drowned out all other sound. But his eyes were on those who had lost their lives. From both sides. Pulling his horse alongside himself, he walked the bank of the river. So many lives snuffed out…too many dead. Pavel believed in their cause, but this had been the difficult part for him—the sheer number of those who would not return home. On both sides.

They weren’t just mercenaries to him. They were someone’s brother, cousin, maybe even a husband and father. It weighed on him. He thought of his own wife and son, tucked safely away. He imagined Karin receiving news that he had fallen in battle. The cavern in his chest expanded and then contracted as a wave of emotion overcame him.

May it never be, he prayed.

So, he took some moments to walk the area and pray for the men—their families and their souls. As he moved toward the outskirts of the bodies, movement near the water caught his eye. He looked over the men scattered there, having crossed only to breathe their last on this side. Tragic.

But as he turned to continue on, he spotted something. He shifted his focus back to the bank and saw that there was indeed a man struggling for life. His leg had been badly wounded by a sword. It was doubtful any intervention could save him.

Pavel watched. What should he do? He wanted to drop and offer what comfort he could for this man’s final moments. But if the man became aware of his presence would he take up his sword or a dagger and strike at Pavel?

But try as he might, he could not make himself walk away and leave this man to his final minutes of agony alone. So he knelt beside the now-stilled man and prayed. His words were spoken aloud, hoping he might bring some peace to the fallen soldier.

The man pushed up; his movements slight. He let out a groan as he peered up. And Pavel lost his words. The man was none other than his long-lost friend—Stepan.

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Patricie grimaced as she peered at the man’s leg wound. It was bad. The healer had already been and gone. He had charged her with keeping the wound clean and applying fresh bandages as needed.

She had come to enjoy her work with the healer these last weeks, but she never got used to the damage done to a body. This man was no exception. His leg had been battered. It was amazing that he still breathed. But he did. And she would give the whole of her effort and skill to preserve it.

Pushing her long dark braid over her shoulder, she leaned over the marred limb. She had managed to clean and rebandage without much trouble. Once more she was thankful for the warm inn which afforded them refuge. The room might be small, but they were not outside in the chill of winter.

She settled a thin blanket back over the man, and stole a long look at his face. His features made him appear rather young. But Lord Krejik said the man had been his good friend. That must mean the soldier had more years than it seemed.

His mouth twisted.

She did wish he was more at peace in his sleep. Did he sense what was going on around him? Did he know his body had been through so much? Or did he simply fight to maintain his hold on his life?

Not for the first time, she settled beside him. What was he like? Why had he, a Czech, chosen to fight with the Royalists?

Lord Krejik mentioned that he had been close with this enemy soldier. And Krejik was one of the Hussites she most admired in all of the camp. So, this man…had Lord Krejik called him Stepan? If he had been a friend to Krejik, he surely couldn’t be all bad. Would he change his allegiance when he woke to find himself in the Hussite-controlled town? If he ever would.

The healer still wasn’t certain of his recovery. That made her task all the more vital. Her ability to maintain the repair to his leg and tend to him may very well determine his fate.

There was a time when this thought would have felt heavy. But after working with the healer for some time, she knew she was capable. She would not lose this man to the depths. No, she would fight every day. And she would win.

He had come so far already.

She took a cooled wet cloth and rubbed his face, shoulders, and chest, cleaning any lingering dirt. 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 of that coursed through her—working on one from the enemy camp. It seemed dangerous. And oddly exciting.

Might be so thankful for their efforts to save him that he would renounce the Royalists? She imagined his eyes open and his lips spread in a smile. Perhaps he’d be grateful. That would open many opportunities for him.

She knew precious little, but Krejik had supplied some details. Stepan was a nobleman—the son of a Viscount. How would he have held himself? Patricie imagined his shoulders raised, strong and proud. Was his presence overbearing? Or was he more genial?

That must be the case, she decided. For certain, he must be kind. And concerned about all the happenings in Bohemia. But how did that fit with the reality that he chose to fight his own brethren in this war?

She continued to rub the cloth down his arms. Her mind had wandered rather quickly. Enough daydreaming. It was time to finish and move to her next charge. Dragging her arm the length of his, she pulled the cloth back toward herself.

A hand shot out and grabbed her wrist.

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.

She opened her mouth, but found herself unable to push words out.

“Who are you?” he demanded, his voice hoarse.

She again tried to pull free. His hold was firmer than she would have imagined—especially in his weakened state.

“My name is Patricie. The healer charged me with tending your wound.”

He grimaced at the mention of it. Did it pain him? For certain, his body must be one large ache.

“Please,” she said as she attempted to free her arm again. “Turn me loose.”

His steely glare pinned her. But he did not slacken his grip. If anything, his hand tightened.

“Where…?” His voice caught. No doubt talking was difficult with such 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. Still, all she could do was nod.

He thrust her arm away.

The abrupt movement surprised her. 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 so diligently these last few days. The man she had been certain was kind…perhaps only misunderstood.

Rubbing her wrist, she soothed the skin there.

He afforded her movements a brief glance before looking to the roof. “I will speak with someone of standing.”

“I assure you, my lord, I—”

“I do not wish to say it again.” His features were stony, and he now avoided looking at her. As if she were beneath him. Indeed, it was as if he had slapped her across the face for the sting she felt. Never had she been treated thusly.

She grabbed the small bowl of water, tossed the cloth within and rose. “I don’t know how I thought you anything but—”

“What?” His eyes were on her again—accusing and stern.

Had she spoken aloud? Though she had not intended to do so, she would not shrink away. “I only mean that all this time, I believed you had a heart despite your allegiance to that brood of vipers. I see I was wrong. You are just like the rest of them.”

His eyes widened before narrowing. “I care not to speak with you further.”

She had no words. So she picked up her things and left the room in a huff. After closing the door, she leaned against it for strength. Why had she allowed her mind to carry her to such fanciful places? This Stepan was as rotten within as a Royalist soldier should be. And, though she would continue to see to his care, she did not have to interact with him. Or have kind regard for him.

She could not. She would not.

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Stepan heard the door slam. He was somewhat surprised that it stayed on its hinges. Goodness, this place was decrepit. With the woman gone, he allowed his gaze to travel around him.

A simple room. Small. Where was he?

His mind felt fuzzy from his languid sleep and his vision blurred in intervals. How long had he been here? Unconscious?

Pain rushed into him, more and more every second. But nothing hurt so much as his right leg. He tried to sit up and look at it, but his body screamed at even the slight movement. So he surrendered his weight to the bed once more.

He had been coming around for the last several hours…maybe days. He’d been aware of her ministrations—both the sharp ache in his leg as she worked and the tenderness of her touch on his torso. How often had she done these things?

Closing his eyes, he pushed through the pain to think. Yes, he’d caught glimpses of her—the long dark hair framing her face. And that gentle voice. The memories were but snatches. It was his fitful dreams of her that were most disturbing.

And 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 needed to turn his mind to more productive things: What was his condition truly? What were his options for escape? He could not let these dogs keep him here…minding his wounds only to then have him executed. There had been talk in the Royalist camp of what the Hussites were capable of. And he had no delusions that he would be treated any better.

The door creaked once more. Did the villainess decide to try again? He wouldn’t have it.

He gathered what strength he could and prepared to send her away again…as much as he could in his state. There was nothing he was able to do to enforce his desire to expel her from the room.

But it was a man who came closer

Stepan met his gaze. Who was this? Someone who had control of his future? That couldn’t be. The man was simply dressed. Then again, these Hussites had no care for station. Perhaps he was, in fact, the authority here.

As the man drew near, Stepan steeled himself to defend his person in any way possible. But as he opened his mouth to naysay the intruder’s continued steps, the man spoke.

“You ought to think before you send away the hands that have kept you alive these last days.”

How dare this man condescend. He was more peasant than anything else from the look of him. And, while he might have some position with the Hussites, he did not speak for Stepan. Why would he, then, let this man continue? Stepan opened his mouth to speak and again the man cut him off. 

“It is a miracle you are breathing. And that is how you show your gratitude?”

Stepan swallowed. Then he reminded himself the man had no right to chastise him. “I believe I will no longer require her assistance.”

“Oh, you will. Unless you 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 his retort. He did not want to die. Not even for the momentary relief of throwing these remarks in this man’s direction. Or toward that woman.

“Yes, I should think you might reconsider.”

Stepan pressed a breath forth, preparing to respond. But again, fought with himself.

“I have done what I can for you. And your fate now depends on our ability to maintain your wound.”

Stepan looked away, staring instead at the roof once more. “What if I don’t wish it?”

“That cannot be so.” Another, more familiar voice spoke from the doorway.

Though he strained to catch a look at the man, Stepan’s body would not angle that way. But he had to know if his ears but played tricks on him. For it could not be who he believed.

Footfalls told that the interloper came closer. And soon enough, as his vision homed in on the face, he found his eyes clashing with his old friend—Pavel Krejik.

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The mass came to an end. Karin had waited for this moment, but now that it was here she could hardly make herself stand. It was not her physical condition that made it so. As much as she wished it wasn’t true, there was a hesitation in her spirit. What she sought, what she planned to ask…went against everything accepted. Though she could not deny the urgency within her to move forward with her plan.

At some length, she did rise and make her way to the front of the chapel…little by little, hesitant step by hesitant step. Until she stood but a few feet from Father Dominik. The priest was an understanding man, but her considerations were rather unorthodox. How would he respond?

She closed her eyes and said a quick prayer to the God Who Sees. As she finished, she was flooded with a calm that went beyond herself. And a renewed sense of purpose.

Moving closer to the priest, she paused only long enough for him to finish his current conversation with one of the knights. But as they spotted her, the priest motioned for her to come near.

She complied, not wishing to interrupt nor overhear anything of a private nature. However, as she did move closer, she caught words that indicated the man’s interaction with the priest was about nothing more than the weather. Dare she intrude though? Did the guard intend to speak more intimately?

Regardless, she heeded the priest’s behest to draw nearer. As she did so, the knight nodded to the priest and then tipped his head toward her before taking his leave.

Father Dominik opened his arms and again curled his hand inward. “Come, my child. What might I do for you this day?”

Karin pressed a smile to her face. A smile she didn’t feel, but hoped to. “Please excuse the interruption, Father, but I must speak with you.”

He glanced about and then set his eyes on her once more. “What is the nature of your need?”

She, too, scanned the area. Those in attendance were farther away. Many moved toward the door at the back. No one appeared close enough to overhear.

“Father, I confess that my need is rather…singular. And I must put it forth directly.”

He nodded. “Please.” Then he drew her farther away from the crowd to provide even greater privacy.

Content that no one could hear her words, she began. “I have been…thinking. About many things.”

“Oh?” His kind eyes were intent on her. But so was his attention.

“I have concerns…about the limited access people have to the Holy Writ.”

His brows furrowed for a moment, then settled back into their position on a placid expression. “Yes?”

She took in a deep breath, grateful he gave her leave to speak her mind. So many other men of the cloth were more concerned with expressing their own thoughts and not enough, in her opinion, on actually listening.

“There are not many who have God’s Word within reach. And fewer who are able to read Latin.”

His features scrunched. Did he guess what she asked? A part of her wanted to back down, but there was a fire in her soul that would not let her.

“What if…all could read these holy passages in their own language?”

Again, his face smoothed to become an unreadable mask, but he shook his head as he spoke. “My child, why do they have need when God’s servants are ready and willing to shephard them?”

Karin chewed on her lip. This was not the reaction she hoped for, but it was as she anticipated. Though Father Dominik may align himself with the Hussites, the old ways of thinking were not easily dismissed.

“Lady Karin, you have much on your mind. And your thoughts toward the people are generous.”

She watched him as he continued his speech. But her heart sank as she listened to his words.

“Perhaps it would be best to focus on your child and your health for this time. Your thoughts seem scattered and, if I may, your concern misplaced. There are greater battles to fight today. More…pressing battles.”

Karin nodded, but dropped her regard to the floor. What else was she to do? Though kind and tender, he had dismissed her. With finality.

“Now, is there anything else you wish to speak with me about?”

She shook her head as she lifted her eyes to his once more.

“Then let’s hear no more of this…dangerous intent. You well know the consequences should anyone attempt to do as you suggest.”

Fighting to keep her features as much a mask as his, she gathered what courage she could. “I understand, Father. Thank you for your counsel.”

He studied her. As if he wasn’t certain she had understood the weight of his words. “May God bless you. And your child.”

She watched him walk away, but her heart squeezed. It was only wisdom to follow his advice. Yet something in her was not at peace with that.

What was God asking of her?

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Stepan wanted to look away from the intense gaze of his former friend. But he couldn’t. Something goaded him to maintain eye contact and, if possible, issue an unspoken challenge in the way he glared back.

Only…that didn’t settle into him well. But he did his best to press it onto his face.

“You cannot wish death upon yourself. No matter how obstinate you can be.” Pavel’s words shook him. But did not have the bite that he would have expected.

And that, Stepan could not abide…his one-time friend showing mercy. Or worse—pitying him. That would not do. His lips curled into a snarl. “As if you care.”

The healer stepped to the side, allowing Pavel to move closer. “You know better.”

“Do I?” Stepan challenged. “Or do you not remember that when last we met, our swords clashed over the woman who became your wife. The woman you stole from me!” Looking away, Stepan attempted to hide the pain that may be leaking onto his features. He silently cursed such weakness.

Pavel remained quiet for several moments.

The door shut, drawing Stepan’s gaze. His mind so clouded he was uncertain how he would have missed Pavel moving farther away.

But his old friend stood as he had been. The healer, however, was no longer attending to their conversation.

“I cannot imagine what you hope to gain here,” he spit out.

“I only wish to ensure you are well cared for. And thriving.”

Stepan could not bear the weight of his kind regard. He turned away again. “The healer has assured me that my death may still yet be possible. That should satisfy you.”

“Why would that satisfy me?”

“How can you care? After all that I…that happened.” He had almost said too much. There would be no recovery if the ever-forgiving Pavel knew that Stepan still had nightmares about nearly ending Karin’s life. But he wouldn’t take the blame. Pavel had betrayed him. Karin had betrayed him.

“Your memory, it seems, has holes about it.” Pavel frowned, but did not move closer nor back away.

Stepan turned away, glaring at the wall. “My memory is fine.”

“Do you not remember that you helped us escape your father? That—”

“Do not so much as speak my father’s name, coward. It is unfit for your lips.”

Pavel held up his hands in surrender. Then he sidestepped to the wall and leaned on it, crossing his arms. “You seem to have also forgotten that you brought Karin a wedding present. And that you and I nearly met our blades at the Battle of Vitkov Hill.”

Why would Pavel invent such lies? What had he to gain from—.

An image filled his mind of Pavel, horseback, with sword drawn. Then the man who had been his dear friend moved his horse to the side and let Stepan escape into anonymity.

And again the weight of the grace bestowed by this man fell heavy on Stepan.

“It is no matter.” He lied. “None of it matters.”

Pavel drew in a deep breath. “I confess I had hoped to find you more receptive.”

Stepan glanced at his friend and found in his eyes more consideration than he deserved. It pained him. So much that it dulled the ache coming from his injury.

“What…?” Dare he ask Pavel for a recounting of the recent battle. The one that left him perhaps crippled?

“The Hussite army pushed the Royalists across the bridge and all is as it should be. Though…” The man swallowed hard. A crack in his armor? “Many were lost in the river.”

“More of your Hussite heretics?” Stepan all but grumbled. But he could not make himself revel in the death of any Czech despite their cause. Not now. Not after all he had seen.

“No.” Pavel’s eyes seemed deeper in that moment. “Royalists.”

It was Stepan’s turn to swallow his words. If only he had been counted among the dead. Would his father find a hero’s death worthy enough? Or would he have looked upon his son’s inability to survive with disdain?

“Stepan,” Pavel moved toward the cot again. “I cannot expect the kind of restoration I wish were possible between us. Still, I find reason for a miracle…a hope that you would see the light.”

Stepan glared at him, a hardness under his regard. It was unimaginable that Pavel would seek good here. None existed. Not anymore. “You hope in vain.”

The room became quiet, except for the inhales and exhales of the two men.

“Please…” Pavel spoke into the silence. “Don’t let this eat you alive.”

Stepan closed his eyes and focused on deepening his breaths. He meant only to feign sleep so that Pavel would leave him be. But a shroud of unconsciousness surrounded him, pulling him down, down, down…

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Hana watched Lady Karin across the chapel. The baroness held herself gracefully despite what she had been through. Was bringing a child into the world always so dangerous? The woman had nearly lost her own life trying to give life to her son. But now she had a beautiful baby, a promise, a piece of Lord Krejik with her always. No matter what happened.

A chill sent a shiver through Hana. This dreadful cold! She had never been fond of the winter, but even less so now…after experiencing the warmth of what it was to be so deeply loved, cherished, cared for. Only to have it ripped away. Perhaps that was a bit overdrawn in her mind and heart. Radek had left a full week ago for his father’s lands. And for good reason. But he did not wish to take her. His concern over the civil unrest in Bohemia may be well-founded. Perhaps. Though she knew not what she was to do in his absence.

Father Dominick shook his head as Lady Karin finished her entreaty. The kindly face of the priest drooped. He seemed to not be pleased with her request. Was the lady likewise disturbed by his reaction? What had she asked? What was her purpose in singling the man out?

Such was not for Hana to concern herself with. What went between a man of the cloth and one of his parisheners was for them alone. And God. So Hana averted her gaze and nodded at one of the women passing by. What was her name? Hana could not recall. So she simply dipped her head and smiled.

That seemed sufficient for the woman’s purposes, for she moved off and out of the sanctuary.

When Hana looked toward Lady Karin’s position once more, she found that Karin had turned from the priest and now walked toward the door.

Hana moved to intercept her. As she neared, Karin’s gaze met Hana’s. The baroness seemed upset. It gave Hana reason to pause. What exactly had transpired with the priest? Dare she interrupt the woman’s deep thoughts?

The stirring within her was too great. She had to find a place to release her burden. Perhaps Hana should reconsider speaking with Father Dominik. He was a capable listening ear. Not as quick to point out where she erred. Still, Hana needed a sense of understanding. And it was unlikely she would get such from the man.

“Lady Karin,” Hana said as the woman moved closer. She hoped against hope that she wouldn’t be a bother. May it be that she might offer some comraderie for the lady as well.

“Good morning, Lady Hana.” Karin nodded at her and came to stop just short of Hana’s position. “How do you fare today?”

Hana dipped her head. “I am well. Though I might should be asking you. Are you well?”

Karin’s lips thinned, but only for a second. If Hana had not been so intent on the woman, she would have missed it.

“I am. I continue to grow stronger by the day.”

“And your son? How is he?”

At the mention of the child, Karin’s face lit up. “He is wonderful.”

Hana smiled at that. What would it be like? So much about the early days of being a mother was foreign to her. But dare she venture questions in such a sensitive area?

Only then did Hana realize that they stood, all but facing off, in silence. She needed to broach the subject that pained her. A quick glance around portended that while the chapel emptied, there remained too many ears for her comfort.

“I do not wish to keep you from him. Shall we walk?”

Karin seemed to consider her question. Did she not wish the intrusion Hana might bring into her chamber? Did she think Hana planned to invade that sanctum? At length, however, she nodded. “Please.”

They turned toward the back of the chapel and stepped in that direction.

“What a fine day it is.” Hana breathed deeply. “Even if it is a bit too chilly for my comfort.”

Karin nodded, but did not seem ready to engage with that topic.

“I wonder what is planned for our nooning meal. I understand that there is some fine venison in the kitchen.”

Again, Lady Krejikova nodded. But she did not contribute to the conversation.

What else might Hana speak to? Her father often said she could cross words with a post. Why, then, was this so difficult?

“If it weren’t so cold, I might seek out a ride this afternoon. But I dispise being horseback with so many layers about me. It takes something from it, don’t you think?” When the lady did not answer, Hana glanced at her.

The woman appeared to be deep in thought. Maybe this was a mistake.

Hana cleared her throat, preparing what words may be needed to politely end their interaction.

“Hmmm? Oh, yes…horseback can be difficult in the winter.”

“Lady Karin, I—”

The lady halted abruptly. So much so that it took Hana a moment to stop. She then found herself glancing back over her shoulder.

“I do apologize, Lady Hana, for my distraction.” Karin’s words were just as abrupt, devoid of emotion. “But I will speak plainly. I am grateful for your family’s hospitality and I do not wish to be rude.”

Hana bobbed her head. Where did this statement lead?

“I do wish to avail myself to your need, but I must ask for you to tell me what you seek. My mind is much on other things.”

Hana swallowed. Now she did feel the intruder. But as she considered sharing final pleasantries and letting the woman be, she found she could not. Best be as direct as Karin.

“I…do not wish to overstep, lady. Still, I find I am much in need of your counsel.”

Karin’s eyes widened. What did she think Hana sought? Perhaps it would be best if she came to it.

Averting her eyes for the moment, Hana continued. “I have been rather…put out…since Radek’s departure. I find I cannot…manage myself with him so far away.”

When Hana’s gaze met Karin’s once more she found a tenderness about the woman’s features. However, there were no words forthcoming.

“I…wondered…that is, I hoped…you might advise me.”

Lady Karin’s eyebrows lifted.

Hana glanced about them. From all appearances, they were alone. Still, she lowered her voice. “I have given thought to…journeying to Horice to join him there.”

Karin sucked in a breath. “Joining him?”

Hana watched the lady as she nodded.

“That is very bold indeed, Lady Hana.” Karin spoke slowly, as if considering her every word. “Have you thought about how Radek would receive such?”

Hana drew in a long breath, allowing the pause to fill the space between her and Lady Krejikova. “I have.”


“I do not think it will please him.”

Karin’s features eased. “I think you are right.”

The tightness in Hana’s core that had become her constant compainion moved up into her throat. Would she be able to speak with it as such?

“Radek does what he must. And he may not wish the distraction you would bring.”

“I…know you are right. But I fear my heart cannot resist the impulse to do so.”

“Have you spoken with Duke Novak?”

Hana shook her head. “I do not believe my father would be any more open to the idea.”

“Even should you decide Radek is in need of you, the duke would be the one who must give you leave.”

The lady was not wrong. Perhaps she would be able to convince her father, perhaps not. She had not risen to such thoughts yet.

“I see that these are not the words you expected.”

My, the woman was outright with her thoughts. Hana found it refreshing.

“How do you manage it? With Lord Krejik so far away…at war?”

Karin’s eyes softened and it almost looked as if moisture started to gather before Karin blinked it away. “It is not easy. However…he does what he must…as do I.” The woman appeared more thoughtful in that moment. Was she even speaking to Hana anymore?

Regardless, something in the conviction with which she spoke gave Hana reason to hope.

He does what he must…as do I.

Despite the difficulty convincing her father, despite her fears that Radek would be ill at her arrival…she must do what she must as well. For it was doubtful she could maintain her heart, her sanity with him so far away. Perhaps he did need her. Needed the compassion and understanding she would bring to him.

“I thank you…for your frankness and your words.” Hana looked to Karin once more but the woman no longer watched her companion. Was she, too, deep in thought?

“Lady Karin?”

The lady set her eyes on Hana once more. “My apologies, Lady Hana. I believe I am rather tired.”

“Please allow me to take my leave so you might find your rest.” In truth, Hana needed the space to think, to plan.

Lady Karin moved toward her chamber, leaving Hana looking after her.

Hana held her breath and counted to three. Yes, this just might work out. Pressing down the thrill that expanded her chest, she then picked up step herself. There was much to do.

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