The journey home was made in silence. With each step she took, Cassia felt the weight of guilt and sadness pressing on her. She had abandoned him, again, after he had begged her to stay. When he woke and found her gone, he would be heartbroken – and furious. And it had been so difficult to leave him. There had been such a look of peace about him while she watched him in repose. She knew that she had done that. And she wanted to stay with him, to see that he never again wanted for love and caring.
But her duty was to her husband. And more importantly, to her father. Edwin had hired a young maid to help care for Robert, as his health was fading with each passing day. She had stayed with him while they attended the tourney, but Cassia had bristled at the idea of someone else doing what she had done for so long. Edwin, however, had insisted that she no longer burden herself with such difficult tasks.
The thought of it weighed on her already low spirits. Ever since Edwin’s return, she had felt such a sense of domination over her life – as if she had been placed in chains, and was expected to consent to every command. She began to secret a wish that her husband had never returned, for what had his return brought her other than misery and heartache?
Her head was lowered as she and Matilda approached the front door of the house – and it opened suddenly, Edwin appearing before them. He looked them both up and down.
“Cassia, where have you been?”
She opened her mouth to speak. But Edwin spoke again, his words giving her a chill.
“Your father has been asking for you.”
As she and Matilda stepped inside, removing their cloaks, Stephen appeared from the back room. He was holding up a candle, and as Cassia approached him, she saw the grave look on his face. It caused a lump to form in her throat.
“Has his condition worsened?” she asked.
Reaching out, he placed a hand on her shoulder. “Go and see him, Cassia.”
The moment she stepped into the room, her eyes filled with tears. Lying back on the pillows, his eyes closed, Robert was still and pale. She feared that he was gone already, but she hurried to his side and took his hand. At the feeling of her touch, he opened his eyes, and she pressed his palm against her cheek, speaking softly to him.
“Father, I am here.”
A weak little smile came to his lips. “I have waited for you, daughter.”
“I am home,” she said.
His words were growing softer. “You are so much like your mother. I will be with her by morning.”
Such a declaration struck her with a vicious pain. Desperate for some way to distract herself, hoping it would delay the inevitable, she began adjusting his pillows and his coverlet. She wiped her eyes with her sleeve.
“Do not say such things. You will be well soon.”
He seemed unable to hear her, speaking on as if she had said nothing. When Cassia looked at him again, his eyes had closed – and somehow, she knew it was for the last time.
“I go home to God without fear. Be a good girl, Cassia. Take good care of your husband. He loves you so.”
Looking up at Edwin, and then back to her father, she kissed Robert’s hand lovingly, stifling a sob.
“I will. I promise.”
A thousand memories seemed to flash in her mind all at once. She was a child again, laughing as he held her up high above his head. She was a young girl, following him and Stephen on a fishing excursion, and then she was a new bride and he was placing her hand in Edwin’s as they stood outside the church. But now, she was looking down at him, seeing the absolutely stillness of his figure as it lay before her. Her eyes searched him, desperate for some last sign of life. But there was no movement. No tremble. Just silence. Lowering her head to her arms, she broke down into shaking torrents of grief.
She felt Edwin’s hands on her back, trying to soothe her.
“He has gone to a better place, my love. He will suffer no longer. We should rejoice for him, for he has found eternal peace.”
Her broken heart, shattered into sharp pieces, pierced her soul. It flooded her body and mind with a rage born of loss. She rose up, wishing she could strike him with her fists. But all she had were words.
“Do not speak to me of rejoicing! Do not speak to me of anything! Just go! Leave me be!”
Her voice broke anew, her head falling back to her arms. She barely heard the broken sound of Stephen’s voice.
“I cannot remain here tonight,” he said. “I must seek solace elsewhere.”
He was going, and she heard Edwin’s response.
“I shall accompany you.”
At the door, Edwin turned back.
“Matilda,” he said, “Look after her.”
“I have done it, and will do it, boy. Away with both of you. Go to the tavern, and find courage in a cup, as all men do.”
“We will return before morning, and with the friar. We will see that he has a proper burial.”
Hearing them talk of a burial, Cassia cried harder, pressing her eyes against Matilda’s shoulder. She felt the gentle, loving arms around her, and she sobbed brokenly.
“Am I to lose everyone that I love? Am I never to know lasting happiness?”
Matilda said nothing, just holding her, and she wept until she could weep no more.
Guy rolled over in his bed, feeling the heat of the sunlight on his face. Somewhere in his mind, he recalled that his bedroom window faced the west. West, he thought. Afternoon.
His eyes flew open. Sitting up quickly, half-dazed with sleep but quickly becoming alert, he saw that he was alone.
Cassia, he thought. Had he dreamed it? Had she been here, in his own bedchamber? Had she sat beside him, looking after him with such tenderness and love in her manner? He felt a pain in his arm, and looking down, he saw the neatly done stitching there.
There it was. The proof of her presence. And yet, she was not here. She had not remained with him, as he had asked her too.
His soul raged at the thought of it. And he leapt to his feet.
Snatching up a nearby shirt, he threw it on quickly, not bothering to call for his valet. He shoved his feet into his boots and fastened on his sword-belt, and then he rushed out the door, shouting for his housekeeper. She appeared after just a few moments, looking and speaking in a nervous way.
“Yes, my lord?”
“The woman who was here last night. The one who tended to me. How long ago did she leave?”
“Not long after she arrived, my lord. There was an old woman with her, and they departed well before dawn. They said the Sheriff had sent them for you.”
Clever witches, both, Guy thought. They knew how to cover their tracks to avoid trouble. And he was not about to expose their scheme. But neither did he plan to ignore the fact that they had been here. Cassia had been here, and if not for the fact that he had fallen asleep so easily, she would be here still. For he would never have let her go.
Never will I let her go again, he told himself.
Rushing down the stairs and out the rear door that led to the stable, he ordered his horse saddled, and soon he was hurrying away towards Sherwood Forest.
Twice now, she had left him. And not of her own free will. It infuriated him to think that she still clung to the loyalty she was convinced she owed her husband. And yet, she had come to him last night, caring for him when all others had cursed him and cheered for his failure. She loved him, he was certain. He had seen it in her eyes and heard it in her words – had felt it in her touch. Then why the hell could she choose him over her husband? Why did she have to be so damned honorable?
He had grown weary of waiting and hoping, of begging for her love. Once he had her where he wanted her, away from the influences that were controlling her, she would give him her love. And he would never be without it again. She belonged with him…under his roof, at his side, and soon enough, in his arms again.
As he approached the clearing, he saw the familiar little house. His heart beat slightly faster. A strange feeling of happiness stirred in him for a moment. This small, simple home had been the source of the only joy he had known since childhood. He could not help feeling oddly glad to be in sight of it again.
Cassia is here, he thought. And for a moment, he was overjoyed. In just a few moments, he would see her again.
But his slight smile changed then. His mouth formed a grim line, his eyes narrowing. Her husband and her brother, as well as her father, would all be here. Men who had conspired to kill him at one time. Men who were against him in every way – especially when it came to Cassia.
Damn them, he thought. They will not impede me now, by God.
He rode forward, fully intending to see them at any moment, and preparing himself for a confrontation. But he stopped short of the front door, noticing how quiet everything was. Except for the sound of the animals nearby – and the beating of a stick against fabric. Sliding down from his horse, he looked around. There was a figure behind a line of laundry. He could see the womanly shadow, and he approached slowly.
Cassia, he said to himself. She is alone. How perfect.
Reaching out slowly, his hand paused for a moment. And then he yanked the sheet aside, expecting to see her.
Matilda rose up from her work, looking startled for a brief second. And then her eyes narrowed.
“What do you want?”
A feeling of disappointment came over him. “Where is Cassia?” he asked.
She turned away from him, continuing with her work. “That is not for you to know.”
His question became a demand. “You will tell me where she is!”
“She is not here!”
She was lying. He was certain of it. He turned and made his way towards the door, ignoring her protests as she followed him.
“Is she in the house?” Guy questioned her. “Is she with him?”
“I told you, you fool! She is not here!”
“Why should I believe you?”
“You will NOT disturb a house in mourning!”
He froze instantly. Shock extinguished his flame of anger. “Mourning?”
“Her father died last night,” said Matilda. “We buried him just this morning at dawn.”
Taking a step away from the door, he rubbed his mouth with his hand, taking a deep breath. Wherever Cassia was, she was suffering a pain he knew too well – a pain he still remembered, even after all these years. Last night, she had come to him when he needed her most. Now, he would do the same for her. And no one, not even a protective old witch, was going to stop him.
“Where is she?” he demanded to know.
For a moment they stared at one another. He was tempted to curse her, or to shake her senseless if it meant he would have his answer. But something made him pause. His tone grew soft.
“Where is she, Matilda? I must know.”
He watched, seeing how she took in a deep breath and let it out slowly.
“She has gone walking. She took the path towards the lake.”
He waited a moment, searching her eyes for a hint of deception. But he could see that she spoke the truth to him. He turned away from her, hurrying his steps towards the lake and Cassia.
He found her at the water’s edge, kneeling. She was covered in a black shawl. And weeping openly. Carefully, he approached her, pausing by her side. He said her name in a gentle way.
Only silence came in reply. He fought for the right words to say.
“I am sorry for this. Robert was a good man. I owed him my life.”
She continued to sob, and he could not remain passive for another moment. His movement was awkward…uncertain and unsure. But slowly he knelt, putting his arms around her. And to his relief she did not refuse him. Instead she huddled against him like a scared kitten, pressing her head against his breast as she poured out her sorrow. He stroked her back, talking softly to her.
“It grieves me to see you in pain.”
She was silent, and it pained him to see her this way. He kissed the top of her head.
“Cassia, I am taking you home with me.”
He felt the shake of her head…the tension that grew in her frame. He knew that a refusal was coming. And he quickly silenced her.
“I will not leave you here alone. And I can see that your husband is not here. I am here, and I will never leave your side. Not ever.”
After several moments, he felt her figure soften in his arms. Confident that she would not fight him now, he adjusted his embrace and picked her up from the ground. Carrying her to his waiting horse, he lifted her into the saddle and followed behind her. Securing her in his arms he gave his mount the spur, not looking back as he took her away.