His senses were slowly returning. There was a throbbing, blinding pain in his head, and he tried to reach up to rub the soreness away. But he could not move his arms. And there was something pressing hard against his back. A cloth was gagging him, not allowing him to shout. As his mind came fully awake, he realized that he was tied with rope and bound securely to a post. Fear rose up fast within him, but he took a deep breath through his nose, calling on his soldier’s discipline to maintain his self-control.
Looking up, he saw the light of the moon coming in through the slats of the barn’s walls. It was one of the barn’s support posts he was tied to. His arms were positioned behind him. His wrists were tied tightly, and his arms were bound as well, keeping him secured to the post. Whoever his attackers were, they had seen to it that escape was impossible. But why had they left him this way? Why had they not killed him? Was it their intent to come back and finish him off?
What the hell had happened? One minute, he had been in utter bliss. The next minute, he was tied and bound like a criminal captive. Who had struck him, and why? And where was Cassia? Did she know he was here, held against his will in this way? He was helpless, unable to move or to speak. And his captors were out there somewhere, probably waiting and plotting an attack against him. He could only hope that Cassia would come in search of him. There was no one else he could rely on. He was certain that she would soon begin to wonder about his absence, and before long, he would hear the sound of her voice falling on his ear.
Where are you, Cassia? he wondered…
She heard voices saying her name. Men’s voices – voices she had not heard in so long, and yet she knew them so well.
No, she said. It cannot be.
She slowly opened her eyes, and the unbelievable truth stood before her. She knew their faces so well. One was dark-haired and blue-eyed – the younger image of Robert DeWarren, who was sitting nearby. She was lying in the bed, and she slowly sat up with her brother’s assistance.
“Stephen,” she whispered.
Her eyes turned to the other man who stood at Stephen’s side. How can this be? she asked herself. Her husband. Edwin Middleton. He looked the same, and yet, so different. His eyes were the same shade of soft brown, his hair nearly the same color. He was just as lean and athletic as she remembered – the fitting form of a soldier. And yet, there was no longer the light of youth in his eyes. It seemed he had aged a lifetime in just a few short years. But his voice was just the same. He spoke tenderly to her.
“Cassia, are you well?”
Lord, this is all too much, she thought. For a moment, she could not answer.
“Cassia, speak to me,” said Edwin.
She shook her head, looking between the two of them, her eyes wild with confusion and disbelief. “How can this be? How can you both be here?”
It was Edwin who answered. He took her hand, holding it gently in his own.
“We both survived the battlefield, Cassia. We spent many long months regaining our strength.” He looked over at Stephen, as if silently urging him to continue the story.
“I saved the life of a duke,” said Stephen, “And as a reward, I was offered a garrison to command. I am a man of property and rank. I am a baron, sister.”
“And I am his steward,” Edwin declared.
Cassia felt as though she might faint again. She wagged her head. “This is impossible. It cannot be.”
For the first time in nearly three years, she felt the press of her husband’s lips against her skin. He kissed her temple.
“It is true, my love. We have been supremely blessed. We can begin our lives anew.”
From nearby, Robert broke his silence.
“You forget one thing.”
They all turned to look at him.
“Guy of Gisborne.”
Guy, Cassia thought. Oh, God!
Stephen’s expression grew dark – the look of an old hatred reborn.
“We shall deal with him soon. For the moment, he will remain imprisoned like the criminal he is.”
Imprisioned, she thought. Why have they imprisoned him? Anxiety grasped her voice, making it tremble.
“What have you done with him?”
“It matters not,” said Edwin. He was speaking so calmly, as if he took no notice of her distress. She pulled her hand away from his hold.
“You will tell me what you have done to Sir Guy!”
He gave her an odd look. She knew he was probably wondered at her concern for Guy. But she had to know.
“He is tied up in the barn. But he is no longer your concern, wife. Robert has told us how Matilda found Gisborne, and how you kept him in your care. But you need not worry anymore. He will soon be gone.”
He thought she was merely fretful over her patient. He assumed it was nothing more than a passive worry over a man she had been responsible for. He knew nothing – and a pang of guilt washed over her. But she could not think of that now. Getting off the bed, rising to her feet, she moved towards the doorway. But Stephen’s hand grasped her arm.
“Where are you going?”
She looked him boldly in the eyes. “You cannot hold him captive, brother. It is wrong.”
The old tension between them rose up anew – their definitions of right and wrong clashing in the same way they always had. The years had not changed things, it seemed.
“You would free him? Just so he can hurry to Nottingham and bring the Sheriff to our door? Are you mad?”
Angered by his intent to dominate, the same way he always had, she flung his hand off in defiance.
“He will not bring danger upon us. We saved his life, and he saved ours. He rescued father from the hands of bandits.” Thinking of her father, she clung to a thread of hope. “Tell them, father. Tell them how Sir Guy came to your aid.”
When Robert looked away, she felt a sting of tears in her eyes. His words felt like a cruel betrayal.
“I have told them, daughter. But one good deed does not make up for a lifetime of wickedness.”
Turning to Edwin, she approached him with a fearful look in her eyes.
“What will you do?” she asked. And his answer struck her cold with dread.
“It is not for you to concern yourself with. Stephen and I will take the matter into our own hands. You will be free of all association.”
“You will kill him?”
He gave no reply, but she needed none. She could not forget the hatred that Stephen and Edwin had long harbored for Guy of Gisborne. In their very hands now, they held the chance to be rid of him forever – and they would take it. She had no doubt of it. And she could not allow it.
In the short time she had been a wife to her husband, she had only spoken against him once. Then, she had been a girl, pleading with her husband not to leave her for the want of going to war. But she was a girl no longer. And she rose up in defiance of him. Her cry was angry, her voice breaking in despair.
“You cannot do this!”
The sudden rising of his voice stunned her. His eyes flashed with fury.
“You are my wife, Cassia! You will not question what I do and you will not forbid it!”
Taking a step backwards, she sank down into a chair. They would murder Guy, and there was nothing she could say to stop them. Lowering her head, she covered her face with her hands. A moment later, she felt a hand on her shoulder.
“Forgive me,” Edwin said softly. “I did not mean to speak cruelly.”
She moved her shoulder, dislodging his hand. “Leave me alone. Both of you. I cannot bear all of this. Not now.”
Silence fell, and after a moment, she heard the sound of their footsteps moving away. They closed the door, leaving her in solitude.
She curled her fingers against her lips. Tears spilled down her cheeks. How could her world have changed so dramatically and in such a short time? Was this to be her punishment for being with Guy - to share rapture with him one minute, and see him given his death sentence the next?
No, she said. This cannot happen. I will not let it.
As a woman, she knew she was quite powerless now. Edwin was back, and he had every right to command her – even threaten her, if he wished, though she could not imagine him ever harming her. But she could remember his expectations of her. He was a kind husband, but he did not tolerate disobedience or disrespect, and though he had never raised a hand to her, his commanding tone of voice had always been enough to keep her compliant. He was her husband, and though it broke her heart to think of how Guy would react when he learned of this, she knew there was little she could do.
But she owed Guy a final debt. And it would be paid.
She saw his dagger lying on the trunk at the foot of the bed. He had left it there. After he had saved her father’s life. Rising to her feet, she picked the dagger up and secured it in the tie of her sash. Guy’s boots were lying nearby as well. He had not worn them since the day they had found him, his foot being too tender to be put into a pair of footwear. Picking them up, she clutched them to her breast. He would have no choice but to wear them now – and at the thought of what that implied, her heart ached. She moved towards the door and carefully opened it, looking out.
Edwin, Stephen, and Robert were gathered together in a corner near the fire, their backs turned to her. They were deep in conversation, and they never noticed her as she slipped out the front door.
Guy’s head was lowered. He had fought against his bonds, but it was a futile effort, and it was tiring. But when he heard the creek of the barn door, he looked up.
Cassia, he said to himself.
She had come for him. He watched, overwhelmed with relief and a strange sense of overwhelming joy. As she hurried to his side, he saw the concern in her eyes. Who had ever looked at him in that way? Who else but her had ever given a damn about him? When she released him from these bonds, he would take her into his arms and thank her properly.
But looking closer at her, he saw a strange light in her eyes. Was it sadness and fear that he saw in her? A feeling of dread began to grow inside of him. Reaching up, she touched her finger to the cloth that covered his mouth.
“You must be very quiet,” she said. “We must not be heard.”
What goes on? He wondered. But he nodded, allowing her to remove the gag from his mouth. He took in deep breaths as she worked to cut the rope binding his wrists. They soon fell away, and the ropes around his arms soon followed. Instantly he reached for her, desiring the feeling of her soft body against him. But instead, he felt the pressure of her hands against his chest, holding him back.
“No Guy, we must not.”
Bewildered, he shook his head in confusion. “Why not?”
He saw her swallowing a lump in her throat. His feeling of dread grew – and a sense of panic began to brew with it. Something was terribly wrong, and he wanted to silence her in some way. But she spoke before he could.
“My husband and my brother have returned. And you cannot remain here. The danger is too great.”
He shook his head in denial. She was making this up – a deliberate trick to vex him. It could not be true. He wanted to deny it. He would deny it.
“Your brother and your husband are dead. You told me so.”
Her eyes were lowered. Her voice was sad. “Do not seek explanations, Guy. Just know that they have come back, and you must go before they take their revenge on you.”
He wondered for a moment if he had gone mad. He should have been concerned only with his own perseverance. But all he could feel – all he could think of – was the loss of her. When she looked up at him, he saw the tears rolling down her cheeks. All the evidence he needed was written in those drops of moisture. She was in pain at the thought of his going. And yet, she was insistent on it. He would not allow this cruelty to be inflicted on him – not when he had been so very close to knowing something of joy in his life. His emotions besieged him – anger and pathos overwhelming him as his voice rose.
“You cannot return to him!”
She was in despair now – he saw it in her face. And yet her voice was strong, teetering on the edge of anger.
“Do you think I am happy? If I could change matters, I would in a moment. But he is my husband. I belong to him, and there is nothing to be done about it.”
Just a few moments earlier, he had imagined taking her into his arms and losing himself in the sweetness of her. Now he held her in a possessive grip, enraged by the thought of her giving herself to another man.
“You belong to me! He has no right to claim you!”
She struggled against his hold, fighting him with a resistance he abhorred. Even in the midst of such emotional turmoil, she had the spirit of a warrior, and she was fierce in her commands.
“Guy of Gisborne, you must GO! NOW! I will not stand by and watch you be murdered!”
Somehow, her words suddenly came through to his senses, calming the chaos of his feelings – if only by a small measure. He thought quickly, desperate for a way to kindle the flame of hope that had been quenched.
“Come to me, then,” he said. “When the moment is right, steal away and come to me at my manor house.”
She looked mortified by the idea, shaking her head.
“You are dreaming, Guy! I cannot be seen with you in Nottingham! Do you not think my husband would hear of it? Everyone would know, and I will not disgrace my family or myself by being openly flaunted as your whore!”
It was true. Nothing in Nottingham was kept secret. Everyone knew that he had sometimes kept company with wanton females. They would think of her as they thought of all the others. Nothing was farther from the truth. But the truth hardly mattered to those unwilling to hear it. He thought again, grasping at any idea. There had to be a way.
“Come to my father’s cottage. It is in the glen near stony creek. I will send word to you in some way, and you will meet me there.”
It infuriated him when he saw her shake her head.
“Guy, I cannot…”
“You are my mistress! I will not give you up. Say you will meet me there, or I will return one day soon and fetch you myself, your brother and your husband be damned!”
She pushed at him with all of her strength, cursing him. “God’s teeth, you are impossible!”
He felt a change in her. He could not explain it, or define it, but he swore that he sensed an easing of her resistance. His voice grew softer, but was still desperate.
“What say you?”
“Yes, I will meet you there!” she cried. “But for the love of heaven, GO!”
She tore herself from his arms, hurrying to the stall where his horse was kept. He shoved his feet into his boots, wincing at the pain they caused him. The reality of everything seemed to fall on him all at once, and he knew at last that he must part from her if he wanted to remain alive. He could stay and fight. But what good would it do? If he somehow managed to defeat both men, then what? Cassia cared for him, but she would never forgive him for slaying two people that were dear to her. And if he lost, they would see him dead, as Cassia knew they would. What good would he be to her then?
Quickly, they saddled his horse, and she followed alongside as they led the beast from the barn. In the yard he paused, turning to her. She handed him his dagger, and he placed it in the sheath on his belt. When she turned her face up to him, a beam of moonlight fell on her face, giving her an etheral glow that he could not resist. He clutched her to him, taking her lips in a desperate, passionate kiss. For a moment, she responded in the way that he now knew and longed for with such eagerness and hunger. Her fingers clasped at the base of his neck. She pressed herself against him, and with his hands on the small of her back, he pulled her in tightly, the contact driving him mad with pleasure.
But all too quickly she was pushing him away. He could not recall a more difficult task than the effort of breaking away from her and turning to his horse. With her help he was able to climb up, despite the pain of his ankle. But the pain of going was worse. Looking down at her, his expression was fierce.
“I will have my mistress. No one will keep me from claiming what is mine.”
Her eyes met his. She said nothing, and he wanted it that way. Her silence spoke volumes. With no words, there was no denial. But he feared it. If he stayed a moment longer, he was terribly afraid that she would say something he did not want to hear. To avoid it, he turned his horse and rode away, heading towards Nottingham – the pain of a heavy heart reminding him that he was leaving behind the only thing in the world that he held dear.