There will be a third part to this, rather than just two installments. It's turning out to be longer than I intended, so I'm sorry if it rambles. I hope you enjoy it anyway.
“You return to me an Earl. I find it nearly too good to be true.”
He nodded. “And yet it is so. From Black Knight, to Steward, to Baron. Now to an Earl. Who could have foreseen such a path for Sir Guy of Gisborne…once the great villain of Nottingham?”
Cassia paused, turning to him. She clasped his hand in both her own, her expression becoming serious, almost stern. It was a look he knew well…one that she used when she was utterly convinced on a matter, and her mind would not be changed. Even after all of their years together, that look never ceased to enchant him.
“You have earned your title, Guy, through adversity and toil. My brother was of some influence when the King appointed you a barony, but the appointment of an Earldom is your own accomplishment.” She kissed his hand, pressing her cheek to it. She sighed, a sound of love and admiration. “I find such honor in sharing your name…and in rising with you. To think of me, born a commoner. Now a Countess. It is overwhelming.”
He withdrew his hand, and let his arm slip around her shoulders. He drew her against his side as they moved from the orchard to the garden path, nearing the manor.
“When I toiled for Briwere in Nottingham, my ambitions were my own. I pursued wealth and power to better only myself. I was admittedly selfish. But now, my rise in status benefits those that are dear to me…and I would have it no other way.”
Both he and Cassia had been thrilled upon learning of his elevation in status, and they had planned to travel to court together. But when William had fallen ill less than a week before they were to depart, she had remained behind to help care for him. He sighed as he thought of his presentation before the noblity.
“My only regret is that you could not be beside me when they bestowed my title. Without your eyes to bear witness, it seemed an empty moment.”
He cast his glance downward, unable to help the touch of sadness that the memory brought. Her absence at court had been a difficult thing to cope with. And yet, even as he thought of those bitter days, he knew what she would do about his current frame of mind. Hope and faith had always been her strongest weapons, and she drew them with a sure hand. She kissed him, pressing her cheek to his.
“Do not dwell on the melancholy, my love. We are together again, and that is what matters.”
He sighed, but was smiling now…unable to remain somber when she was determined to be otherwise. To please her, he searched his mind for an agreeable subject, and one came to him almost in an instant.
“I have brought gifts from my journey.”
She drew back in his arms, looking up at him with a discerning smile. “I might have known you would do so. As I recall, when last you and I traveled to court, we returned home bearing many treasures.”
His grin was playful. “Aye, and this occasion is much the same. Save for one difference. My time at court has afforded me a particular gift that is worth more than even gold.” Taking her hand, he led her to a bench. Her eyes were curious as he took a purse from his belt. Opening it, he removed a small jar, no bigger than the palm of his hand.
“This was procured from a fellow knight…a soldier of Acre. Perrault was his name. His wife nearly succumbed to the ague last spring. But she eventually recovered, owing a partial debt of gratitude to the maker of this.”
Cassia examined the jar made of clay, a seemingly mundane little object. Removing the lid, she held it to her nose…and yanked her head back at the stench.
“Merciful heavens, what a scent!” She held it away for a moment…before cautiously examining it again. “What is it?” She looked upon the whitish, opaque paste.
“Camphor, it is called.” His voice became low. He glanced about, as if searching for those who might be listening. “It is a Saracen formula.”
Her eyes widened a little. One did not find favor in any matter regarding a Saracen. Their knowledge was not to be sought, and they were not to be spoken of except with the deepest antipathy. The tone of her voice softened, becoming quite solemn.
“Saracens. A sensitive subject to speak of, particularly at court. Your aquaintence…this Duke of LaSalle. For what reason did he risk the scrutiny of his peers? What prompted such generosity?”
“A simple matter, really. His steed had gone lame during a hunt, and I assisted him. We came to be quite civil afterwards, and through some conversation we learned of one another’s families…and their shared concerns.”
“But one favor must be returned for another. What favor or request was granted in exchange for such a gift as this?”
He shook his head. “None that was writ in stone. He has three sons, the youngest being just Evelyn’s age. We spoke on several subjects, one being of possible marital arrangements. But such a matter is not one on which I’m inclined to converse. We agreed to discuss it at length in the future, should he chose to accept my invitation of hospitality.”
She continued to examine the jar, gliding her finger around the rim. In her eyes he could see the turmoil…torn between fear of the unknown and the possibility of hope. She would do anything, just as he would, to keep their son from his suffering. But she was fearful. What if it failed to work? What if it caused his condition to grow worse? All were genuine concerns…ones that he himself had struggled with.
Then he thought of The Duke. When Perrault had spoken of his wife, how her symptoms had been eased because of the camphor, such a light of elation had shined in his eyes. He had great confidence in the medicine’s power, despite its origins. Guy recalled his words, spoken with fervor…
If there is such power to be found in this, surely it is God’s doing, Gisborne. Wisdom is not an instrument of evil, as the church would have us believe. We have been blessed with the gift of knowledge, and if that knowledge should better the life that God has given me and mine, then so be it…
Over the years, Guy had learned to count his many blessings. His belief had grown deeper, his devotion stronger with each happiness that was bestowed upon him. Heaven had smiled on him and the ones he loved…and he saw no reason why it should change now.
Perrault kept his faith, he thought, And was rewarded for it. So too, then, will I trust in a higher power.
Taking the jar from her, he capped it and returned it to his purse. Reaching out, clasping her hands in his, he rose to his feet with her. He placed a soft kiss on her temple. She leaned on him, twining her arm with his, and they walked to the house together.
That evening, the great hall was filled with laughter and the noises of a great feast, all in celebration of the master’s return. Evelyn, permitted attendance by her father, sat quietly beside her mother. The allowance of a child at the main table was a great privilege, and she was aware of it. So she sat, calmly and properly, eating her meal as a young lady should.
Guy’s eye occasionally looked to her, and he could not help but smile. She was doing all that she knew how in order to be good…cleaning her knife on her trencher and not the tablecloth, wiping her cup with her napkin after each sip. But he could see that she was restless, judging from her occasional little sigh of impatience, and the periodic nibbling of her bottom lip. Her mind was overwhelmed with anticipation at the possibility of a gift, though she dared not inquire of it directly, for fear of having it rescinded. She had been so very good, despite the threat of her childish impulses, and he decided that it would be cruel to delay her further. He turned to one of Cassia’s ladies, who stood nearby.
“Take Lady Evelyn to the solar. Wait with her there until we come up.”
The maiden curtseyed, coming forward. Cassia leaned down and kissed her daughter’s cheek. As Evelyn passed her father’s chair, she smiled at him…her eyes glittering with excitement. He smiled back at her. And with a gesture of his head, he sent her on her way.
Evelyn knelt before a cushioned stool, her shoulders hunched in anticipation as a footman brought in a carved wooden box. As it was placed on the stool, she was instructed to close her eyes, which she did…while trembling with giddiness. The lid was removed, and the servant lifted up the fluffy white creature from within. When it meowed, Evelyn opened her eyes…and could not contain herself. She clapped her hands in delight.
“Oh Papa!” She reached out and quickly gathered the kitten to herself, burying her nose in its warm fur.
Guy looked on with pride, delighted in making his youngest child happy. Standing beside him, Cassia smiled at seeing Evelyn’s joy.
“You shall have to think of a proper name,” she said.
Evelyn’s reply was instant. “He will be called Sir Guy.” She turned to both of her parents, particularly to her father, who was looking on with amusement. “Papa, and Mama, may I keep him in my room? Please?”
With a quizzical expression, and a little smirk, Cassia looked at Guy. He, in turn, looked back at Evelyn. Her expression was so eager, so earnest…her feelings born not of selfish pleasure, but of true gratitude for his gift, that he could not resist giving in to her request.
“I do not see the harm in it.”
She flung her free arm around his leg, clinging tight to him. He smiled as she broke into an excited rattling of French, proclaiming him the greatest father in all the world.
“Oh Papa ! Merci, merci! Vous êtes le meilleur père dans tout le monde!”
All of their children had a duality of language, being born in a French land but parented by an English mother and father. Guy encouraged them to remain true to their English roots by making it their first language, but there were times when their French habits appeared spontaneously. For Evelyn, it seemed to be when she was very happy and excited, as she was now. He reached down to give her an affectionate pat on the head.
“It is late. You had best go to bed now. I shall be there shortly to speak to your brother and sister. And if they should make commotion over your gift, you are permitted to remind them of the error of their ways.”
She giggled, hurrying off with her new pet secured in her embrace. Guy turned to his wife, who wrapped her arms around his middle.
“You are the most generous of men. She shall be in her glory for some time to come.”
He leaned down and kissed the top of her head. He sighed, a sound of both pleasure and weariness. He’d fulfilled a fatherly duty, and had found delight in it. But there was much more to be done before he could allow head to be put to pillow.
“I must see the house secured for the night.”
Concern came to her eyes. “Emile has managed well enough in your absence. Allow him to do so for one night more. You should find sleep. Your countenance is marked with fatigue.”
His reply was firm. “My Steward shall be rewarded for his faithful duty. But I am home, and I shall be the master once again.” He kissed her hand. And she nodded, acquiescing.
“Do as you must, then. I will bid goodnight to Owen and Thea. And then I shall sit with William.”
He shook his head. “You have spent too many a night alone at his side, fraught with concern. I will see you no longer so burdened. I have endured weariness before, and shall do so again. My place is beside you and our son.”
He half-expected her to argue with him. But instead she smiled, and he sensed that she was relieved, knowing that he would keep vigil with her. Her duty as a mother was to bear the burden of worry, but his duty was to protect those he loved, and if it meant sharing the weight of concern, then he would do it.
Entering the room of his daughters, Guy looked from one side of the room to another. To his right, Thea was sitting on a stool while Claudia tended to her. Her hands were folded in her lap, her head down as her hair was brushed and braided for the night. She kept her eyes lowered, her unhappiness quite evident. Seeing him, the nurse came to attention, but he gestured her back to her work…and turned to the other side of the room.
Evelyn was fully prepared for bed…her hair braided, her nightcap on. But she was hardly quiet and still, as she should have been. She lay on her stomach, dangling a ribbon over her kitten. She was giggling as it swiped and pounced, and wordlessly he went over, not pleased with having to disrupt the happy scene, but knowing he must. Taking the kitten away for a moment, he motioned for Claudia, who had finished tending Thea. When she’d situated Evelyn under the covers, he handed the cat over to her.
“Find a basket for the beast and place it nearby.”
As she curtseyed and left, he looked down at Evelyn, who was grinning up at him. He leaned down to give her a peck on the forehead. Then, he turned to the other occupant of the room. Coming to her bedside, he looked down at her. Her fingers clenched the rim of her coverlet, pulling it to her chin. Sheepishly, she stared up at him.
“Are you still angry with me?”
Keeping his composure was very difficult when confronted with those bright blue eyes of hers…eyes that pleaded for his forgiveness and the assurance of his affection. But it was a father’s duty to impose discipline, and he kept his expression grim.
“I am very disappointed.”
Her bottom lip protruded. Her tone grew quite soft. “I am sorry.”
It was near impossible to remain angry when she looked at him in that way. She was a Gisborne in every sense of the word…dark in her features, and quite often in her temperament. But no matter what offense she committed, he found it hard to be cross with her for any great length of time. She was, and always would be, his darling. Still, it was wrong for a father to be too soft, and even though the corner of his mouth took a slight upward turn, he kept his tone cool.
“You have my forgiveness.” Leaning down, he placed a kiss on her forehead. “But now you must say your prayers and seek absolution from the Almighty. Do not forget that God visits during the night. He judges more harshly than I, and he does not look kindly upon such wickedness.”
She nodded, her expression becoming quite serious. As she folded her hands and whispered in prayer, he moved to adjoining room. In the bedchamber that his son’s shared, Owen was lying awake, his eyes on the ceiling. His arms were folded across his chest. When Guy sat beside him, their gazes met, and Owen’s eyes became wide with stubborn determination.
“I am not a beast,” he said.
Where William was kindly, with the manners of a young gentleman, Owen was very much a rouge. He preferred action, not words nor thought. Someday, when he wielded a sword and shield, his aggressiveness would serve him well. But for now, he was only a boy…and he needed to learn his lesson.
“Your behavior seems to suggest that you are, indeed, a beastly lad. ‘Tis not the behavior of a future knight. Remember that which is written in the code of chivalry. ‘Thou shalt respect all weaknesses, and shalt constitute thyself the defender of them.’ Women are counted among the weak, and must not only be defended, but respected.”
The reply was quick, for Owen’s mind was razor sharp.
“But I must not recoil before my enemy.”
He knew most of his chivalrous codes already, even at his tender age. Guy’s heart swelled with fatherly satisfaction, for his younger son had shown an early aptitude in memorization and quick thinking. But his pride did not deter him from the subject at hand.
“Your enemy she is not. She is your sister…your blood relation. That is a thing most sacred, and you shall honor it. Do you understand?”
Owen sighed, but reluctantly he nodded. “Yes, Papa.”
“Very well, then.” Guy reached out, giving him a gentle pat on the head. “Speak your prayers and sleep well.” He rose to his feet, moving to the door. As he went, he heard a small stubborn voice behind him…
“I am not a beast.”
He closed the door behind him. And he allowed himself, at last, to smile. According to the rules of society, it was indecent for a man to be emotionally devoted to his children. He was expected to be harsh, and he was not supposed to find delight in some of the things they did. But in truth, he loved and adored his children in every way. For the sake of appearances, he was quite good at hiding his real feelings. But at times, he envied the freedom that his wife enjoyed in being a mother. She was permitted to interact more intimately than he was. She played games with them, running foot races or spinning about the maypole. As a small boy, William had delighted in being held by the hands while his mother swung him about. Guy had always watched from afar, wishing he could rush in and join in their merriment.
In a different time and place, it might have been possible. But these were dark times, and there was little use for soft feelings. The leader of the family had to be dominant and strong. And so he was. Only in quiet moments…or in the darkness, when no one could see…did he allow himself to express what a joy he found in his children.