OK, here's some more for those who are willing to keep reading. As always, comments are welcome! :)
The daylight had gone. The fire burned bright – the only light in the room. But it was an eerie light. It did not warm the senses, nor give the sense of security that a good fire usually provided. Sitting beside Lucinda, Cassia shivered. Now and then she looked up at her grandmother, seeking comfort from a kind smile or a word of reassurance, but their eyes did not meet. Lucinda had not spoken for some time now. Ever since that afternoon, when Stephen had left with Robin, there had been little conversation among any of them. Robert had gone after the furious pair of young men, hoping to stop them, and now Lucinda and Cassia were alone, anxiously waiting for the sound of a return.
Cassia felt tears welling up in her eyes. She wanted to badly to ease her fears with a good cry, but that would not do. Lucinda had said so already. There were times for a woman to weep, and times for a woman to maintain her senses. This was one of those times. And so they sat in silence, waiting.
They lifted their heads at the sound of hoof-beats. From many horses. Lucinda rose to her feet and Cassia followed, both of them looking out the window opening, and they saw the band of men coming. Not Stephen, not Robert, and not Robin of Locksley – but the Sheriff of Nottingham, along with his lieutenant, Sir Guy. They were accompanied by a small band of soldiers.
Sir Guy of Gisborne.
So he lived, it seemed. Stephen and Robin had not killed him. But where were they now? Had they been captured? Or killed? Cassia looked up into her grandmother’s eyes, terrified. And the words she heard gave her chills.
“Say a prayer for our souls, child.”
It all happened in what felt like the blink of an eye. There was no time to run, no time to hide. In only moments the Sheriff and his men had stormed in, and as their presence seemed to take the very air from the room. Cassia clung to Lucinda, terrified. William Briwere, dressed in black robes that contrasted sharply with his pale features, was a fearsome sight to behold. His icy blue stare was directed squarely at Lucinda.
“Where is Robert DeWarren?”
Lucinda answered boldly, her arms around Cassia’s shoulders. “He is not here. He has not been home for many days.”
“Then where is the younger DeWarren?”
“He has not been home either. I do not know where they have gone.”
Briwere looked at Sir Guy, then at his men. He raised his eyes, looking around the room, and then his order came.
“Seize the woman and the child.”
Tears of fright spilled down Cassia’s cheeks as she tried to cling to Lucinda, but she was ripped away, her arms gripped in the harsh hands of a soldier. Lucinda was held just as fiercely, and the guard holding her stared at her for a long moment. Cassia heard Sir Guy speak, his deep voice flat and emotionless.
“Will you send them to the dungeons?”
The Sheriff’s reply was cool. “Soon enough, Gisborne. For the moment, let them witness the destruction that comes when one associates with criminals. Have the house torn apart. Find out if they harbor either of the dogs that made the attempt on your life. Report your findings to me when you return to the castle.”
He turned to leave. But one of the guards - the one holding Lucinda - called out to him.
“My lord Sheriff! This one is rumored to be a witch! What shall we do with her?”
Cassia’s terrified mind instantly recalled her brother’s words…
The rumors of witchcraft will not go away, and one day, they will put us all in danger.
“A witch, eh?” said Briwere. He pondered the declaration for a moment. A silence, thick with tension, hung heavy in the air.
“Shut them both in. And burn the house to the ground.”
The order gave him a strange sensation of feeling in his chest. Guy stepped out the front door, following behind the sheriff.
“My lord, should we not spare the child?”
He was not surprised by the snort that Briwere made as he mounted his horse.
“Spare the child, Gisborne? For what purpose? So she may grow to be a common criminal like her brother, or a witch like her female kin before her? They will both be sent back to the devil from which they were spawned. Remain until the deed is done. I am going to find my warm bed. This bloody cold is making my bones ache.”
Turning away, departing as he usually did when such a foul order was given, William Briwere had once again left his master-at-arms with the task of supervising a heinous act of punishment. Guy’s dark brows knitted together as he mounted his horse. His mouth turned down in a frown, his head lowering as he listened to the sound of the house being ransacked and the cries of the two women within. The old woman was cursing the men. The child was crying hysterically.
Duty, Gisborne, he told himself. He took in a deep breath of the cold night air. Remember, this is your duty.
Robin of Locksley and Stephen DeWarren had entered his home after dark. He had not known, at first, who the attackers were that had tried to murder him while he slept. Somehow he had fought them off, unmanning one of them with a hard kick to the groin, and while that one was down, he had tossed the other across the room and into a piece of furniture. Before he had been able to subdue them both they had fled into the night. But a sharp-eyed servant had identified them both.
They will pay for their crimes, he said to himself. They will pay with their lives.
If either of the rogues had been here, he would have felt no guilt in seeing them both executed on the spot. They would be hanging from the nearest tree – a warning sign for all those would attempt such deeds. And he would have watched without flinching.
But the murder of a child…
He shook his head, trying to lose the sense of guilt he felt. Was she not a member of their family? Was the blood of a witch not in her veins? Perhaps she was not possessed of the devil yet, but one day she would become so.
The sound of a soldier’s voice took him from his thoughts.
“My lord Gisborne, the men are not to be found.”
Lifting his head, he looked at the captain of the guards, who was awaiting his command. For a moment, he hesitated. Then he spoke in a gruff voice.
“You have your orders, captain.”
With a nod, the guard went back into the house. Guy listened to the commotion from within – the screaming and shouting, the sound of terror from two souls who were about to be put to death. All the while, as the windows and doors were barred from the outside, and the thatched roof was set aflame, he turned his head away.
This is what you do, Gisborne. This is your lot in life.
The soldiers gathered around him, watching the conflagration. He felt a quickening in the pit of his stomach as he smelled the burning in his nostrils and saw the glow of the growing fire in the corner of his eye. In a rage he shouted at his subordinates.
“Return to your duties at the castle!”
Guilt had a hold of him. It ate at him, gnawing away at his insides like a vulture picking at a carcass. He watched the men going, and when he was along, he turned to face the sight of the house engulfed in flames.
He could bear it no longer.
Sliding from his horse, sprinting to the front of the house, he tore down the bar that was in place. Kicking in the door, he held his hands up as the heat and smoke momentarily blinded him. Choking on the fumes, dodging the embers of the roof that were falling in quickly, he spotted the woman and child underneath a table, huddled together. Without conscious thought he seized the woman first, dragging her out of the burning building and dumping her body in the snow. She was insensible when he left her there, and for a moment, he was certain she was dead already. Rushing back in to pick up the child, he felt her limp form in his arms, and he wondered if she too had already been poisoned by the smoke. Then, as he stepped out into the night air, he heard her give a little cough. She was alive, praise God. And he felt a strange relief at the notion of it.
Out in the yard, the old woman was sitting up, though her head was hanging as she wheezed and coughed, trying to rid her lungs of the smoke. Guy came to her, depositing the child at her side. He looked at them, feeling a moment of pity and relief. Then, his face closed from all feeling. His mouth formed a grim line as he gave them a dark warning.
“Get out of this village while you have the chance. And never return.”
The woman said nothing – only looking at him strangely. He feared that she would utter some words of gratitude. And such sentiment was more than he could bear. Mounting his horse quickly, he rode away towards the castle, never turning to look back.