The room was warm. But Cassia was trembling underneath the coverlets. A bowl of chicken broth, half-empty, sat on the bed table. Guy had ordered it brought up, along with the tea she had requested. She had taken some of both, but sleep had soon overwhelmed her. Sitting beside her, he continued to press the cool, wet cloth to her head and face, as he had done several times in the last few hours. Her maid-servant, Celeste, had been willing to see to the nursing of her mistress. But Guy sent her away, and ordered all others to stay away from the room, especially the children.
When he wasn’t bathing her, in an attempt to control her fever, he was bending his head in prayer.
God had been so generous to him and to those he loved. But with each bestowing of good fortune, there had always come a feeling of foreboding. It was foolish to believe that fate would always smile upon them. The Almighty would demand compensation for His kindness, sooner or later. And sitting there, seeing the way his wife suffered in her sickness, Guy could not help but fear that the time for reckoning had come.
Not her, he silently pleaded. Do what you will with me, but I beg you…spare this woman. This wife. This mother.
What would his children do without her? They would be lost…as lost as he would be. His breath caught at the thought of it. They were one soul. He doubted if two human beings had ever been so spiritually entwined, as they were. In their bed, they always slept close together. He recalled how, once, they had somehow entered into a discussion on the subject. She had made an observation, which seemed to come from out of nowhere…
Are you aware, husband, that most couples do not occupy the same bed night after night?
He had given her a curious look. Woman, what are you leading up to?
Do you not think we should set an example for our children? Should we not let them observe us a traditional mother and father?
He had pursed his lips in disgust. Surely you jest. In four years, we have never slept apart unless circumstance called for it. It would be nonsense to break such a habit now.
She had shrugged. I would like to try it, just once.
I would not, was his stern reply.
They had argued for several long minutes, and then, she had slipped away from him, a playful look in her eyes.
Let us experiment, my love. Let us see if we are capable of managing on our own.
She had left their room with a childish giggle, sneaking away into a chamber down the hall. His pride had had kept him from going after her...for about five minutes. After which, he had searched the rooms until he found her in a chamber at the end of the hall.
Enough foolishness, wife. Return to our bed this instant.
Reclined on the bed, with her elbow supporting her head and her hair falling around her shoulders, she gave him an enticing smile.
I think I shall remain here for the night. I have often wondered how it would be to have an entire bed to myself. She had flattened herself out on the bed, stretching her limbs. He had stepped to the side of the bed, looking down at her. A smirk had come to his lips.
I would like to continue this argument in our bed. Come, let us go.
With a mischievous gleam in her eye, she had hesitated. She was challenging him…teasing him. And his response had been swift. She had squealed and laughed as scooped her up in his arms and carried her off.
I am afraid I must insist, madam, that we continue our sleeping situation as it is. I am old and set in my ways, and I cannot alter my habits now.
She had not protested as he returned to their room, where he reminded her how very close he wished her to be…
He needed her more than anything. She was a part of him. And without her, he knew he would be nothing more than an empty shell. It was she who knew him best. There was no one else who knew the real Guy of Gisborne. Only she knew his deepest fears, and only to her did he reveal his most tender thoughts. Only she knew the secrets of his heart. To lose her would be to lose himself, and without her, he would cease to exist.
He placed his head in his hands, not to weep, but to make an attempt at calming his growing fears. She would want him to have faith. His mind had always tended towards the dark and dreary, and in truth, he felt safer in that realm of thought. It was easier, in his way of thinking, to keep his expectations low to avoid the pain of disappointment. But Cassia, stubborn thing that she was, clung to hope in every aspect of her life. And for her, he would believe.
She will be well, he told himself. And looking at her, he found that the corner of his mouth had turned up. He spoke softly to her.
“My beloved, obstinate angel.” Reaching out, he gently took her hand. “You will not leave me. Your work here is not yet done. For who else but you can temper my wretched soul?”
Lowering his head to the mattress, he retained her hand as he closed his eyes, seeking a few moments of rest.
A soft light, like the dawn, feel on his closed eyelids. He blinked, then squinted, turning his head in an attempt to shade his eyes. Slowly, as his eyes adjusted, he realized that the entire room was filled with the strange, almost ethereal light. And looking down, he saw that he was in bed. Odd, but he could not remember leaving the chair. Beside him, his bedmate was facing the window, the coverlet pulled up to her shoulders. Reaching out, he placed a hand on her arm. She seemed to be lying quietly and peacefully. He could feel no trembling, and to his surprise, her skin was cool to the touch. Leaning over, he whispered to her.
“Beloved, are you awake?”
She shifted slightly. Slowly, she turned to him. And he gasped in utter disbelief at seeing her face.
Marian. No! It cannot be!
In terror he shrunk away, leaping from the bed as his heart pounded in his chest. It had to be a dream…no, not a dream. A nightmare. He backed away as she rose from the bed, walking slowly towards him, her dark hair spilling over her shoulders and her white nightdress flowing over her curvaceous figure. In long ago dreams, he had envisioned her this way, imagining the glorious way she would rise from their bed in the morning. But as she stood before him now, he saw nothing of beauty in her. He saw only an image of a long lost soul…one who now stood in the place of the woman he loved. His voice rose in fear.
“Where is my wife?”
She came to him, her arms outstretched. “I am here.”
Terrified, he evaded her embrace, and rushed from the room. Tearing down the darkened hallway, he called out for Cassia…for his children. Surely, he would find them all together in the nursery. Cassia often slipped away in the night to look after them. She was there. She had to be there.
The hallway seemed to go on forever, until at last he came to the familiar door, and he threw it open. From the darkened hall, he rushed forward into a blinding white light. For a moment, his eyes burned so that he threw his arm across them. When he lowered his arm, he saw not the nursery, but an eerily familiar chamber. Gone were the little beds of his children, and the baby’s cradle. No toys, no tapestries, no woven rugs to soften the steps of bare little feet. It was cold and drab, with little decoration and few furnishings. And suddenly, he recognized his surroundings.
The Sherriff’s counting room.
A dreadful voice…a loathsome, hated voice, suddenly spoke to him. He turned, and sitting there, at a desk, was the Sheriff of Nottingham himself. His cold blue eyes, eerily pale, looked at him with a familiar light of distaste. He sneered.
“Good God, Gisborne. You have the look of a madman. Has another woman lost her life at your hands?”
"God, help me!" He cried.
He ran from the room. And he found himself not inside, but out of doors, in the middle of a raging winter storm. The snow was blinding…the wind biting his flesh and stealing the breath from his body. He managed only a few painful steps forward, when the ground suddenly gave way beneath his feet. Black, ice-cold water washed over him, and violently he struggled against the freezing depths that were dragging him down…
With a shout, he flung himself upwards, gasping for air. The waters were gone…the blackness replaced with the soft glow of candlelight, as he realized it had all been a nightmare.
Frantic, he checked his surroundings. Looking down, he saw himself sitting in the chair beside the bed. The bedchamber was dim, the air cool, due to the window that had been opened. But his thoughts were on nothing else but the woman lying in front of him. He rushed forward, fearful that he would disturb her, but trembling with worry at what he would find. He reached out, brushing the dark hair back from the forehead…and he nearly wept with relief at the sight of Cassia’s face. He wanted so badly to kiss and caress her, to convince himself of her realness. But he fought his impulse, knowing how ill she was. She needed no disturbance.
And yet, he could not help himself entirely. He took her hand, gently, and pressed his lips to it. Dear heaven, how he cherished the feeling of her soft, slender fingers. What would he do without the gentleness of her touch? As he kissed her palm, he felt her slowly shifting under the covers. He looked at her, and he saw that she was looking at him through heavy eyelids.
“Guy,” she whispered. “Are you well?”
He fought back a sound of amused disbelief. Leaning closer to her, bringing his face near hers, he brushed his fingers against her cheek.
“It is you who lies ill, and you inquire of me.” He kissed her temple, noting that her skin, though warm, was not nearly as hot as it had been. “Think not of me, but of yourself. We must have you well.”
The corner of her mouth turned up. “You cannot do without me, it seems.”
He smiled, a gentle laugh escaping him. He kissed her hand again, and softly he replied. “Without you, I am lost.”
For days, Cassia remained feverish, but it gradually subsided. The illness left her physically frail for quite some time, but she was determined to regain her health. Guy watched her constantly, looking for any sign of weakness or ill health. Cassia leaned on him for support, both emotionally and physically, and he was more than happy to have her holding close to him as they took a walk each day.
“I cannot take ill again, Guy. Do not let me.”
They walked along the garden path, and he smiled at her words. “Were it my choice, I would never allow it. You must know, I would gladly take your suffering onto myself.”
She shook her head. “I would never wish that, Guy. Never.”
He studied her, a curious look in his eyes. “So, then. If neither of us will permit the other to succumb to illness, what shall we do to avoid it?”
“We will keep in good health and not die,” she replied, and she clung closer to him. “Heaven has enough souls, do you not think so?”
He shook his head and laughed, ever so joyfully.
Author's Note: If you would like more of the Gisbornes, keep an eye out for a new story. Coming soon...