SPOILERS: The Serpent (lots of them), plus a few references to Death to the Queen, Vengeance and Honour Thy Father

DISCLAIMERS: I don't own any of the characters used in this story. They're owned by Fireworks Entertainment - no offence is intended, it's just for fun, and God knows I don't make money out of this.

No own fictional characters were harmed during the making of this story - but my Helm muse would like to personally meet the person who suggested hurt/comfort...

Many thanks to Sonia and Eliza (who both helped me enormously when I was writing this) and to Sonia, Anthea, Eliza, Cadey and Brig for beta'ing this baby. This is my first crack at a Queen of Swords fanfic - which wouldn't be possible without ABs and her tapes, many, many thanks to you. This is also the first time I've written fanfic in an active (at least it was when I started) fandom so if I need to put more spoiler info in, please let me know. I hope you like it.

Feedback is always appreciated - from flames to bouquets and all points in between (although really hot flames won't be so much read as used as heating fuel...) - Rachel.Trench@tesco.net

REVENGE OF THE SNAKE

by Rachel Trench
rachel.trench@tesco.net

The pain in his shoulder was like a red-hot dagger. All his medical training told him that the bullet had lodged somewhere in his flesh and would have to be dug out. What hope did he have of achieving that, alone and in the desert as he was?

A shadow blocked the sun. "Dr Helm...?"

He didn't bother opening his eyes, recognising the voice instantly. At least she wasn't one of his pursuers. "Her majesty the Queen of Swords."

"Dr Helm, you're hurt," she stated, a trace of worry evident in her voice.

He gave a bark of bitter laughter. "What gave it away?"

He heard her crouch beside him. "They'll pick up your tracks sooner or later."

"And what? Kill me?" He gave another gasp of laughter. "I'm dead anyway."

There was a lengthy pause. He knew she was still there, he could sense her presence. "If I help you, can you ride?" The concern was more obvious now.

"Ride where?" The vehemence cost him as it sent a fresh spasm of pain through his shoulder. He concentrated so hard on trying not to scream that he almost missed her next words.

"Anywhere...to the Alvarado hacienda--I believe Marta is a healer, she could..."

"Why are you doing this?" he whispered.

"Because I cannot stand by and watch a good man be hunted like a dog."

"Good man?!" He snorted. There was another throb of dagger-like pain through his shoulder, but this time he managed to ride it and continue. "Did it ever cross your mind that just maybe they were right?" He heard her gasp. "Virtually every word of what they accused me of doing, I did."

"Maybe," she replied softly. "Maybe you have done some terrible things, but you do not deserve this."

"It's academic, whether you think I deserve it or now. I cannot ride anywhere. Hell," he added bluntly, "I don't think I can even stand now."

She gave a sigh. "Then, I will just have to make sure they don't find you." And with that, she was gone.

Stupid woman - why is she even bothering? he wondered. But he knew the answer to his own question. She could see this as a way to return the favours he had given her. He knew he should appreciate the effort but surely her time was better spent helping the peasants who truly had done no wrong, rather than he - a mass murderer. That he had killed in the name of his country, under the banner of war, was no excuse...



***The Previous Evening***

Dr Helm gave a quiet sigh as he tidied his office. It had been a busy day - nothing he couldn't handle, there had just been a lot of people to treat today. As he finished tidying his various medications, he heard the clatter of horses entering the Pueblo.

Strange, he mused. Glancing out of his window afforded him a wonderful view of the town's square. In it, he could see the newly arrived riders. Four of them, all wearing British Army uniforms. This was probably not a good thing. When he saw them greeted by Montoya, he decided it was definitely not a good thing.

Can't out-run the past, Robbie boy. If Latham found you, you knew they would.

Helm turned away from the window. "Do I get the hell out of here or do I wait?" he wondered aloud.

The knock on his door neatly solved that question. He opened it to find himself staring down the barrel of a British Army pistol. "Robert Helm?"

There was a hand on his uninjured shoulder. "Dr Helm?" the voice repeated. Not the soldier. The Queen of Swords.

"You came back?" He hated the note of hope and relief that had crept into his voice.

"I came back."

"Why?"

"Because I want to help you," she replied, crouching beside him once more. "I have covered your tracks as best I can."

"What of yours?" he asked.

"I grew up here," she replied, "I know how to not leave tracks. We should be all right here - at least for now."

He gave a hiccup of laughter. He knew it for the hysteria and shock it was - but he couldn't seem to stop it either. "Well that's just fine and dandy. You do realise I'm not going to leave this spot as anything other than a corpse, don't you?"

Suddenly, he felt her hand on his forehead, gently brushing back a few strands of hair. He leaned into the touch seeking the offered comfort, even as his mind balked. "I know that's a possibility, but there must be something that I can do to prevent it," she murmured softly. And he knew that there was much more to this than simply the returning of a favour.

He sighed, all traces of hysteria leaving him. "Unless you know how to dig out a lodged bullet, clean a wound and staunch the flow of blood..."

"I don't know those things." She paused. "But you do. Show me. Tell me." When he hesitated over his reply, she added, "If you truly are dying, then it can't do anymore harm - and it might just do some good."

The whole idea was crazy. He was semi-conscious with blood loss and dehydration. She didn't know the first thing about medicine. "I have nothing to lose - if you go wrong, I just die quicker." He gave a lopsided shrug.

"What must I do?" She was almost begging him for the information.

He sucked in a breath and tried to gather his scattered wits. "Do you have water and a sharp dagger?"

"There is a stream close by - they used to mine not far from here, and my water cantina is full."

"And the dagger?"

"I have one."

"Good." He paused for a few moments, fighting off unconsciousness. "First, you need to uncover the wound."

He wondered if she would balk at the thought of removing his shirt, being a woman of obviously high birth, but before he could complete that thought, he could feel her fingers delicately unbuttoning the shirt. Carefully, she removed it, trying to be gentle where the dried blood had stuck the garment to his skin.

"That's done," she said eventually.

"Tear of a strip from the shirt, wet it and clean the wound," he instructed.

He heard her rip a section of material from the shirt, and moments later he felt her start to mop away the dried blood. In spite of her attempts at being gentle, the mere action of wiping the tender wound sent shooting pain right through the abused joint.

***The Previous Night***

"What is the meaning of this?!" exploded Helm as he was prodded into one of the gaol cells by the soldier who had knocked on his door.

"Ah, Doctor," began Colonel Montoya, smiling, "I am truly sorry for the inconvenience, but these gentlemen," he indicated the other British soldiers, "brought me some interesting information. I have been asked to place you under arrest until the morning when they will esc..."

"What am I being charged with?" Helm asked, cutting Montoya off in full flow.

Montoya glared.

The senior man amongst the British troops stepped forward. "Lieutenant Robert Helm you are hereby charged with treason and murder. You are to be escorted..."

"I did not commit treason," Helm answered quietly. "I followed my orders to the letter."

The officer glared. "That, sir, is the point. Your commanding officer was a traitor. The troop emplacements that you were ordered to destroy on your last missions were British."

"Dr Helm?"

That voice intruding on the memory didn't belong there.

"Dr Helm?" She sounded more worried.

"Sorry," he croaked.

She stroked his forehead again in a soothing gesture. "What do I need to do now?"

He put his other hand to the wound and cautiously probed it. Not deep, maybe this would be possible after all. "Give me your hand." Blindly he groped for her hand and once she placed her hand within his grasp, he drew it to the wound and lightly pressed her fingertips to his shoulder. "Do you feel that? The hard lump..." His voice cracked as she placed a little too much pressure on the wound.

"Yes," she answered.

"That's where you need to set your dagger and cut...the...the lump is the bullet."

"I understand."

He heard the whisper of cloth as she started to move. "Wait...I...need to..." He gulped in a breath of air and tried to gather his rapidly scattering wits. "Before you do it, you must rinse off your blade...to clean it off first... Once you have the bullet...rinse the wound with more water...and apply pressure to the wound...you need...to stop the bleeding...if you don't...I'm dead..."

"I understand."

Her words were laced with fear and determination. An analytical corner of his mind assessed her voice as being incredibly calm in the face of being getting this wrong would kill him. Then a new sound reached him; the sounds of water splashing as she rinsed the blade.

"This is going to hurt," she commented.

"I know."

He clamped his jaw shut and gritted his teeth as he felt the point of the dagger enter the wound. Then white-hot pain lanced through him once more.

***That morning***

Hands bound, Helm was dragged from the gaol and tied by a long rope to the saddle of the officer's horse.

"You will walk - and if you stumble, you will be dragged," the officer had stated.

Helm felt numbed. The news that he had been responsible for the murder of approximately one hundred British troops, along with the assorted French was too much to contemplate. He could feel the peons staring at him as the soldiers paraded him through the streets of Santa Helena as if he was some kind of trophy. Somewhere, he knew Montoya would be gloating. Grisham too.

And then he stumbled. Part of him expected the soldiers to halt, in spite of what he had been told. They kept right on going. By the time he regained his feet, his shoulders felt as if his arms had been about pulled from their sockets.

Then, finally, they were clear of the pueblo and the gawking onlookers. The cavalcade came to a halt about a mile outside the town.

"You know what," hissed the officer, "death is too good for you, you bastard." He cut the bonds around Helm's wrists with his dagger. "We're going to hunt you down like the animal you are... Run Bobby boy..."

That was when he realised these weren't real soldiers. But it was too late. One of the others pulled a gun and aimed. He had a split second to decide and then he was off. He heard the crack of the gun as it fired. That bullet missed, but then the four mounted riders over took him. They wheeled around and for a long drawn out moment, they stared at one another.

"Why?"

"Because we can."

Then another gun was fired - and this time the bullet lodged in his shoulder. The flash of pain brought him back to reality, and he turned and ran...

"Dr Helm?"

The wisps of consciousness returned to him once more. "Did it come out?" he croaked.

She took his other hand and pressed a small, misshapen object into it. "It came out."

"Is the bleeding stopped?"

"For now, I think so." She paused. "But you need to get to Marta. She will be able to take care of you better than I can."

"What about..."

She smiled - he was sure of it, although he didn't open his eyes to confirm it. "They've gone."

"You're sure?"

"As sure as I can be." She hesitated. "Do you think you can stand?"

"I...am not sure." He hated the hesitancy and weakness that were obvious in his voice. "Before I try, there is one last thing that you need to do. You need to tie my arm up in a sling so that I can't injure my shoulder any more."

Silently, and carefully she complied. It took all of his control to not scream aloud when she moved his arm, but then the sling was done and after a few moments, the pain receded.

"My horse is only a few feet away, Dr Helm. With my support, do you think you can manage to cover the distance?"

Briefly he forced his eyes to open, long enough for him to judge how far away the horse was. "We won't know until I try, I suppose."

Gathering what strength he had remaining, and allowing her to help him, he managed to get to his feet. A hundred and one bruises and sores made themselves known from his helter-skelter race through the desert and foothills, but he gained his feet. Then, leaning heavily on her, he managed to put one foot before the other long enough to reach the patient horse.

The smell of blood made him gently wicker his dislike, but other than that, the horse made no motion to run at seeing his mistress with a man. Painstakingly, she helped him lean against the animal and then gave him every assistance she could in getting him into the saddle.

Agilely, she climbed up behind him. "Do not worry about falling, Dr Helm. I won't let you," she murmured, reaching around him to take the reins.

He should have felt insecure and precarious but he felt strangely safe with her arms either side of him as they set off.

The ride passed by in a blur. Not even the press of a feminine body against his back was enough to focus the scraps of consciousness he had remaining. The gentle rocking gait of the horse was not enough to send new pain through his injured shoulder, but it was just enough to lull him closer and closer to unconsciousness. He faintly heard the scolding voice of Marta say something and knew his saviour made some reply then the blackness finally consumed him.

~*~

"Madre de Dios!" Marta exclaimed. "What happened to him?"

"El Serpente's men tricked Montoya into believing they were from the British Army," Tessa replied. "The maricon bastardos! They told him he was being charged with treason then dragged him from the pueblo and hunted him like a dog."

Marta shook her head. "We must get him inside, quickly."

Between them, the two women managed to carry the unconscious man into the house.

"What if Montoya or El Serpente's men come looking for him?" Tessa wondered.

"This is only now occurring to you?" Marta retorted. "The wine cellar. It is cool down there and he is feverish." Marta stopped as a fresh thought occurred to her. "He was shot, no?" Tessa nodded. "Do you know if the bullet is still in the wound?"

"No..."

"You mean it went straight through?"

"No."

"Then..."

"Marta, I will explain, but please..."

Marta smiled. She could hear the worry in her young charge's voice. She could also guess what had to have happened. If nothing else, there was still blood decorating Tessa's hands.

"Tessa go - change and wash. I will take care of him."

Tessa gave a quick nod and left. Marta looked down at her new charge. She knew he was dangerous - had known it from the very first instant she had met him. There was something about him that told her Death was a close companion of this Anglo, and yet she had - if anything - encouraged Tessa to get to know him in one form or another. She certainly hadn't discouraged it. For all the signs of Death, he was a good man.

Looking down, she could see all the signs of his various injuries. The worst was his shoulder, swaddled in what had probably been his shirt. His trousers were ripped and torn. When Marta looked closer, she could see the grazes and cuts on his knees. She suspected there was probably bruising and aching muscles too - although those would only be known about when the Doctor came around.

Lightly stroking his forehead, she eased away the frown that had creased his brow. So serious; so wary. Even in unconsciousness. Marta shook her head. It was time to properly bind that wound so that infection didn't set in - not that Tessa had made a bad job of it, it just needed a few herbs and some clean bandages - and then see to the other visible injuries.

~*~

He was dreaming. He had to be. That was the only answer for what he could feel - a woman's hand gently caressing his brow.

"Shhh," murmured a voice. "Rest, doctor."

The voice was familiar. He tried for a moment to put a name to it. But thinking seemed to be too much of an effort, so he just relaxed and did as the voice instructed.

~*~

"Te-ssa!"

On hearing the cheerful call, curses that would have made a sailor blush rushed through Tessa's mind. The caller was Vera - comfortably the last person she wanted to see at this moment. She wanted to be helping Marta care for the doctor. But...

"In here Vera," Tessa replied, forcing her voice to be light and thanking her stars that she had done as Marta had suggested. Vera might be shallow, but she was not stupid.

Vera entered the room, almost bouncing. "It is so terrible - about the doctor, no?"

Tessa was momentarily stunned. "What about the doctor?" she finally asked.

"Haven't you heard?" Vera asked. "It is terrible!"

Tessa wanted to cross the room and shake the information from her, except that the woman she pretended to be would never do such a thing. "I have been a little unwell, the last couple of days," Tessa replied. "What's happened?"

"Some of El Serpente's men came and kidnapped him. Colonel Montoya and Capitan Grisham were unable to stop them."

Tessa's mind was reeling. Montoya knew they were formerly employed by El Serpente?

"No one has seen the doctor since this morning," Vera was continuing, "when they dragged him from the pueblo."

"They dragged him from the pueblo?" Tessa echoed, more for show than anything. She had already guessed that part based on her own observations.

Vera nodded vigorously. "Why would they do that to doctor Helm?"

He was the one who killed their leader, Tessa thought to herself, although aloud she simply said, "I can't imagine."

"Do you think he is all right?" Vera wondered.

A multitude of replies flashed through Tessa's mind, none of them suitable. She finally settled on a shrug and no comment. Vera gave a sigh. "Whatever will we do without Dr Helm?"

"I am sure everything will be all right."

"Ah - you are probably right. El Capitan and the Colonel will find him, no?"

Not really likely, Tessa mused. "Let us hope so."

Vera nodded and smiled. "I came to ask you if you would join us for dinner tomorrow evening..."

The rest of Vera's conversation bypassed most of Tessa's mind - she gave suitable answers and politely pleaded continued ill health as a reason to not go to the social gathering the following evening. But the rest of her mind was concentrated on the news that Vera had brought. If it's true, at least it means he won't feel he has to leave, Tessa decided as she bade goodbye to Vera, refusing to examine her feelings about that any closer.

~*~

Opening his eyes, Helm found himself staring up into the kindly face of Marta, which surprised him a little bit. He only vaguely recalled the journey to the hacienda and didn't recall the arrival at all. He opened his mouth to speak but she shook her head. "Rest, doctor," she said gently. "Do you want a drink?"

He tried to nod but it sent pain through his shoulder. She guessed what he wanted; she carefully lifted his head a fraction to allow him to drink from a beaker she had ready. When he had taken his fill, she gently let go of his head. "Better?" she asked.

Rather than risk another nod, he smiled his thanks.

"Good - now you sleep. You will feel better in the morning."

Lightly, she stroked his brow. Drowsiness - so different from the unconsciousness of earlier - stole over him and before he could really think about it, he was asleep.

~*~

Silent as a shadow, Tessa crept up to Montoya's bedroom. It was late in the evening and she knew the colonel had gone to bed. It was time for the Queen of Swords to officially take an interest in what had happened to Dr Helm.

She climbed in through his window, careful not to wake him too soon, stole across to the bed and placed her dagger against his throat.

The kiss of metal had an instant affect. Montoya came awake with a start and he started to say something. "Ah - not a sound," Tessa murmured, "or I might press just a little too hard." Montoya froze. "Now, what have you done with Doctor Helm?"

All manner of expressions crossed Montoya's face - too many for Tessa to identify - before he finally settled on exasperation. "I have done nothing to the good doctor. It was El Serpente's men."

"And you did nothing to stop them." Tessa pressed a little harder against Montoya's throat.

"I did what I could. Grisham caught them this afternoon... they will hang in the morning. But by the time he found them, the doctor had... vanished."

Tessa held the dagger in place a little longer, absorbing the information. It was not as straight forward as Montoya was making out - of that she was certain - but the rest, the truth, would have to wait until the doctor was well enough to be able to tell his side. Her pressure on the blade eased. "What will you do without the doctor to defend you?"

Tessa froze for a second as understanding hit her. This had never been about the doctor at all - it was about her. All kinds of responses flashed through her mind. Most of them vehement denials that the doctor did defend her - except she knew full well that he had done just that on a couple of occasions.

"You had better hope you never find out, senor," she replied softly.

Then before he could reply, she was gone.

As she descended to ground level she heard him yell for the guards. By the time they were entering the courtyard, she was already mounted and on her way.

~*~

"Dr Helm?"

He didn't really want to wake up, but it seemed his body had other ideas. Besides, he wanted to thank 'her majesty' - even if he felt he didn't deserve what she had done for him. On opening his eyes, the only person he could see was Tessa Alvarado.

"I thought the Queen of Swords was here," he blurted out before he could stop himself.

Tessa gave him a strange smile. "She was - but she had to go... once Marta was sure you would be all right."

He started to close his eyes again. "Oh."

"She said that she would return later," Tessa added.

"Oh." He reopened his eyes. "I...thank you, senorita. I..." He moved to sit up, only for a fiery pain to shoot straight through his shoulder.

Tessa ignored all rules of proprietary and gently pressed him back against the pallet. "Marta says you should not try to move just yet, doctor," she gently admonished.

He smiled weakly. "Marta has a point," he admitted. It felt alien to admit the weakness - especially in front of a preening socialite such as Tessa Alvarado - but he felt too tired to actually care.

"Would you like some water?" Tessa asked, as he closed his eyes once more.

"Yes...please." He felt her lift his head and help him to drink just as Marta had done.

Soon the drowsiness returned. As he drifted into sleep, he thought he could feel the faint touch of a hand against his brow.

~*~

Tessa looked down on the doctor as he slept. "What do I tell him, Marta?" she asked softly, well aware that Marta had entered the cellar.

"The truth," Marta counselled.

"But he doesn't like me. I can see it in his eyes."

"No," Marta corrected, "he doesn't like Maria Teresa Alvarado - spoiled aristocrat. That is not you. Well," Marta added with a smile, "not you most of the time."

"Marta!" Tessa blushed. She looked round and saw the teasing light in Marta's eyes. "That's a maybe - but when he learns that all this is because of me...because of the Queen..."

"You cannot know how he will react."

"No," Tessa admitted.

"Give him a chance, Tessa."

~*~

Marta pottered around in the kitchen, preparing a midday meal, her mind not really on the task. Tessa had refused to leave the wine cellar and Marta could sympathise. She could well imagine the emotional turmoil passing through her Tessita's mind. The man she loved - and if Tessa was blind to that fact, Marta most certainly was not - was seriously injured and not certain to live. That fact was hard enough for Tessa to digest. But then came the killer blow. The injury had been caused because he had become accidentally involved, not with Tessa herself, but with the Queen of Swords.

Marta shook her head. Montoya - he was the root of all the trouble, as always.

"Ah, Marta."

Speak of the devil and he is sure to appear, Marta thought savagely. Aloud she simply said, "Colonel Montoya - what a...surprise."

"I am sorry for the intrusion," Montoya began, "but when I knocked, there was no answer." Marta said nothing and glared, waiting for him to reveal the reason for his visit. "I was wondering if I might speak with Senorita Alvarado..."

"Tessa is unwell today," Marta retorted, just barely making her reply polite.

"Oh, I hope it is nothing serious," Montoya replied solicitously. "Perhaps I might leave a message?" Marta inclined her head. "It is more in the nature of an invitation. I am hosting a party tomorrow and I would like for her to attend. If she is well, of course," he added with a smile.

"I will pass that on, Colonel."

"Good."

Montoya offered a polite bow and departed from the kitchen. Marta viciously stabbed at a carrot. Snake in the grass - that is what he is.

~*~

He woke again and wondered aloud how long he had been asleep. "A couple of hours, doctor," said a voice. Not the Queen of Swords.

He opened his eyes and found himself staring up at Marta again. She offered him a smile. He wondered how she had known what he was thinking. "Gypsy trick," she answered.

"Stop doing that!" he complained.

Marta grinned. "You must be feeling better - that is the first time you have snapped at anyone since you got here."

He wondered how he should take that particular comment and decided that no comment was better than trying to find a suitable reply.

"I have brought you a little food," she continued. "Do you feel up to eating?"

He thought about it for a couple of seconds. "Yes...please."

"Good." He hadn't noticed, but Marta had been carrying a tray, which she now set down. "Let us see if we can get you sitting up - don't move that arm," she added.

He felt like saying he wasn't a masochist and he certainly was not a sadomasochist, but judging by the look on Marta's face, she might not believe the comment. Especially if Tessa had told her about his earlier attempt to sit up. Instead, he patiently allowed Marta to bustle around until she was in a position to help him up.

In spite of their better efforts, the wound was still disturbed and for a few seconds, white-hot lances of pain drove through him. But then the pain passed and he was in a condition to look around and see where he was. "The wine cellar?"

"It was the safest place," Marta answered as she gently set the tray on his lap. "This way no one could accidentally find you here."

"So I am a fugitive," he murmured, his shoulders sagging.

"No - at least," Marta amended, "only from Montoya's schemes. And aren't we all those?"

He frowned. "I don't understand."

"It's not time to understand," Marta replied, "it's time for you to eat."

Looking down at the tray, he saw it was a broth of some kind. It looked delicious and tasted better, but after only a few mouthfuls, he was full. If he had been the one nursing, he would have coaxed a few more mouthfuls into his patient, but Marta merely smiled and nodded. "Would you like me to bring a book down to you?" Marta asked as she moved the tray away.

He thought about it for a second and realised sleep was returning. "No - thank you."

"Then, lie back and rest," Marta murmured, helping him to do just that.

Again there was the burst of pain through his shoulder as he moved, but that faded quicker than the earlier burst, and then sleep rushed up to greet him once more.

~*~

It was early evening when Dr Helm next awoke. Marta smiled at him as he opened his eyes. "How do you feel, doctor?" she asked. She watched his face as he considered the question.

"Better," he admitted.

"Good." She stepped closer to redress the wound. "There is someone who wants to see you - are you up to a visitor?"

"Depends who it is," he replied cautiously.

Marta smiled. "And if I said it were Grisham or Montoya?"

"The answer would be no."

"I thought as much." Marta grinned. "It is neither of them."

"Then who is it?"

He sounded so puzzled and impatient Marta had to take a couple of moments to avoid laughing. "In good time, doctor." The dressings changed, Marta moved her attentions to helping him to sit up. "Now, for your visitor."

Then before he could stop her, Marta disappeared. He sat there, wondering just what was going on. Then he heard steps. Looking round, he saw no one in the dark shadows cast by the wine barrels.

"Dr Helm?"

He didn't need to see the owner of the voice to know whom the speaker was. "Her majesty the Queen of Swords," he answered. His eyes finally came to rest on her lithe form. She was standing at the foot of the pallet.

"How are you feeling?" she asked.

He smiled a little self-consciously. "Better... I should thank you for what you did."

"Do you still think you didn't deserve it?"

"Yes. I didn't, and don't." He sighed, looking down to avoid her steady gaze. "What they accused me of..."

"Was a batch of lies created by Montoya, to get to you."

"No it wasn't. You remember what I told you - about suddenly realising that the French thought of me as being the evil one?" She nodded. He didn't see the movement, but he sensed it. "The last mission I ran...before I...left the army, was to destroy a troop emplacement. About one hundred French troops had dug in around a piece of high ground and I was ordered to...sabotage the placement. Now," he added, "Montoya may have bent the facts; created a false treason charge - I know that placement was French. The fact still remains that most of those one hundred French soldiers died by my hand."

"But it was war..."

"It was still murder. And one of the survivors found me...or I found him...and he called me an evil English devil. He told me that I would burn in hell for my sins. That I was the enemy. The evil."

"And so you took an oath to save lives, not take them."

"Yes," he hissed. "And I broke it four days ago when I killed El Serpente."

This conversation was simply going round in circles - much as it had done earlier in the week. He almost wished she would go.

"Why?"

The question caught him off guard. "Why what?"

"Why did you kill him?"

He frowned. "Instinct...I suppose."

"And what did that instinct tell you?"

"That El Serpente needed to be stopped. I didn't think...I just reacted. I could have done anything else...I could have...should have..."

"But could you?" she countered.

In his mind he saw El Serpente's death again. "No."

Silence descended over the wine cellar for a few moments.

"Dr Helm, you are a good man," she began. "You see a situation and you try to make it better. You fight for what you believe. And I couldn't let El Serpente's men destroy that. Your patients like you because you treat everyone as equals. I couldn't let Montoya take that away from the people."

"And those same people all now think of me as a traitor..."

"No they don't," she replied, cutting him off. "I know what Montoya told you - what El Serpente's men told you. But what he told the people was closer to the truth. He told them that El Serpente's men were kidnapping you. He had Grisham scour the desert for them - and for you. The plan was for them to kill you, Grisham finds your body and them..."

She didn't need to finish for him to understand. "Montoya set it all up."

"Yes. Are you telling me you deserve that?"

He sighed. "No."

Silence descended again. He wrestled with his conscience. She was right - and he now understood Marta's earlier comment about Montoya. But he still felt deeply disturbed how quickly he had fallen back.

"You haven't fallen," she whispered. "A doctor's duty is to protect life, and that is what you did."

"Are my thoughts so loud that you can hear them?" he asked, finally meeting her gaze.

She smiled. "No - I am not Marta. I have no gypsy gifts."

He smiled back. "And then there was what happened afterwards." For the first time in more than a week, real amusement forced itself to the fore as she blushed.

"Yes. There was another reason I helped you yesterday, and if that makes me selfish..."

"It just makes you human," he replied, smiling.

There was another moment of silence after that declaration. He studied her expression and judged that she was fighting with herself about what she said or did next.

"Doctor, what would you do if I kissed you now?" she asked softly.

"I might be forced to kiss you back," he answered, trying to sound stern and knowing that he was failing miserably.

She took a couple of steps forward and lightly pressed her lips against his. He felt her hand on his cheek and he tried to strengthen the feather-light pressure, but she drew away again.

He looked up at her, feeling even more confused than the first time she had kissed him.

"We...I...you..."

"That's a lot of beginnings," he observed, when all three attempts at a sentence trailed into nothing.

"This is harder than I thought it would be."

"Isn't life always?"

She paced away, into the shadows of the wine cellar. "Do...what..." she stopped and turned back to him. "I trust you, doctor Helm." He waited, sensing there was more to that declaration. "And I said that if you told me your secrets, I would tell you mine."

A memory of a night spent breaking into Montoya's private vault to steal an Indian Death Mask leapt to the front of his mind, and he nodded in recollection. For a response, she raised her hands to the back of her head and undid the ties that held her mask in place. "This is my secret."

The thin lace slid away from her face. For one, tension spun moment, there was utter silence in the wine cellar as he stared at the unmasked features of the Queen of Swords.

"So you're the vigilante," he stated, deliberately keeping his tone neutral. "Maria Teresa Alvarado."

She winced. "This was..."

"I knew."

"This...what?!" she stopped. "What did you say?"

He smiled kindly. "I knew...guessed," he amended, "from the way you spoke of Marta earlier, and from when I thought that 'the Queen' was here - when it was 'only' you. Your reaction to what I said was...wrong." She looked puzzled. "My role in the army was as a spy, and much as I might like to forget the training, I still notice the kind of things that once saved my life."

She smiled a little ruefully. "Never try to lie to a spy."

He smiled again. "Not generally a good idea."

"So what do you think?"

"I think my life has just taken a very interesting turn."

~*~

Marta had promised Tessa an hour to talk with the doctor alone. While she was certain that the doctor would understand, Marta was beginning to be a little anxious. Finally, the longest hour of her life was over. She picked up the doctor's supper tray and headed down into the cellar. As she neared the storeroom, she could hear the buzz of hushed chatter. At least they are not screaming at one another, Marta mused. Then suddenly the talking stopped.

Marta hastened her descent into the cellar and entered just as the kiss came to an end. Politely, she coughed to warn them that she was there. Much to her amusement, Tessa shot across the room as if she had been caught stealing cookies from Marta's cooling racks. The doctor also looked abashed.

"Supper," Marta announced, deciding to make no comment. "And then I believe we might have some planning to do."

Helm raised an eyebrow. "Planning?"

"Montoya," Tessa answered.

"He is holding a party tomorrow night," Marta added, finally delivering the invitation. To her great amusement the reaction of both Tessa and the doctor was the same - they both groaned, loudly.

Then Helm's expression brightened. "There is a use to having Senor Montoya think I'm dead or missing - I don't have to go..."

"Ah." Marta shook her head. "Unless you are planning to leave Alta California or live in this wine cellar, you will have to show him you are still here. Why not tomorrow night?"

For a fraction of a second, Marta thought he was going to say that he wasn't staying - in spite of the feelings he clearly had for Tessa. Then he gave a rueful smile. "If you have something I can wear."

~*~

The following afternoon, Tessa watched Marta pounding herbs in preparation for one of her medications. "What's that?"

"It's for the doctor," Marta answered, adding the pounded herbs to a pan of boiling water. "Not that he would tell you this, but I am sure he is still in a lot of pain." Tessa thought back over the occasion she had been shot. It had only been a flesh wound and it had ached for days after. "So this is something to ensure he won't pass out tonight."

"He won't like it," Tessa observed.

Marta had a wicked grin on her face as she strained the mixture. "I know."

~*~

Helm looked up as Marta entered the cellar, took note of the steaming beaker in her hand, saw the expression on her face, and blanched. "Beware of gypsies bearing herbal remedies," he murmured.

Tessa, who had followed Marta into the cellar, giggled. Marta meanwhile glared and did her best to look stern. "This is good for you, doctor," she stated.

"Probably," he countered, "but in my experience these things taste as though they should never be fed to a human being."

"Does this mean you're not going to drink it?" Marta replied as she reached the pallet.

He saw the predatory gleam in Marta's eyes. "I promise I will drink it like a good boy."

"Good."

Marta handed him the beaker. The smell was just as bad as he feared, but since she was hovering in attendance he had little choice. Grimacing, he put the cup to his lips and drank.

"Good God above, woman what the hell is in that?!" Marta glared imperiously and reeled off the list of ingredients. He nodded thoughtfully. "Well it won't kill me, but by God it tastes as if it might."

Marta sniffed. "Of course it won't kill you." Reclaiming the beaker, she turned on her heel and started to leave the cellar. "Don't be too long, Tessa - you have to get ready for the party."

"She likes you," Tessa observed once Marta was out of earshot.

"I'm not entirely sure that's not what's worrying me," he admitted.

Tessa smiled. "You would not like it if she didn't."

He thought about this for a second. "No, I don't imagine I would."

~*~

As the evening drew in, Marta readied the pony trap for the trip into the pueblo, while Tessa helped Helm with the last of his dressing. The need to be careful of his shoulder had made dressing incredibly difficult and by the time the borrowed jacket was in place, Helm wondered at the sanity of even attempting this now. Finally, it was done.

As a last measure, Tessa carefully tied his arm up in a sling - a move which sent fresh starbursts of pain through the slowly healing wound, but once she was finished and the pain died away, it felt amazingly comfortable.

"There," she said, stepping away.

"Perhaps I should have taken you up on the offer of working as a nurse," he stated.

Tessa grinned. "Perhaps. I think Marta's ready now." She started to lead him from the hacienda.

"You know that I will have to continue acting as if Maria Teresa Alvarado is..." he began.

"I know." She cut him off. "As long as we know the truth, I can cope."

~*~

Montoya surveyed the scene of his party and reviewed the events of the week with some satisfaction. El Serpente was no more; his men were no more; the irritating axis that appeared to have been forming between The Queen of Swords and Dr Helm was at a terminal end - just a shame it was not her terminal end. I cannot quite have everything, he decided, but without her ally, her downfall is only a matter of time.

Just then a voice pierced his train of thoughts:

"Doctor! So glad to see you!"

Doctor? Montoya scanned the crowds carefully. Surely not. It couldn't be...it shouldn't be...they swore...

Then his eyes came to rest on the man himself. True, his arm was in a sling and most certainly true he looked worn and pale. Other than that, Dr Helm looked remarkably alive and well. Montoya started to grimace. Almost as if sensing Montoya's attentions, Helm chose that moment to look up.

For a second, their eyes met, and Montoya knew that Helm was aware of exactly what had been planned. Then Helm raised the glass in his hand in a mock salute. Grimly, Montoya returned the gesture, and resolved to discover just how Helm had escaped.

~*~

For a brief moment, Helm wished either Tessa or Marta was within earshot. The expression on Montoya's face had been worth all the discomfort and boredom. Oh yes, life had definitely taken on an interesting turn.


TO BE CONTINUED...