Just a short one for today. Note: I made a slight change you'll notice about a "Fortnight." I made the change in the previous chapter to coincide with it.
Under the light of the moon, Nottingham Castle looked eerie. The flags waved slowly in the breeze, the sound of their movements giving off a sinister sound. It looked to Guy like a prison, and it felt as though he had been condemned to a sentence within its walls. He was aware that he had no choice but to return here. What else could he do but hope to reclaim his position as Master-at-Arms? After knowing a brief taste of joy and freedom, he was now thrust back on a life of miserable servitude. The thought of it became a sharp pain of despair in his heart. A heart quickly filling with bitterness.
Damn every soul in Nottingham, he thought. They were all to blame. Every noble, every commoner. Were it not for all of their prejudices and superstitions, their fearful ignorance, he might have been able to convince Cassia to come home with him. But she feared their judgment, and so she had forced him to leave her behind. All that anyone had ever wanted was to see him suffering, and now it seemed they had gotten their wish once again.
No, he told himself. I will not know this misery for long. She will come, and when she does, I will know joy once more. And I will not be without her again.
A fortnight. That, in truth, was not so long a time. And once she was back in his arms, all of his unhappiness would be forgotten. All he had to do was wait…
“Well, well. Tis’ not yuletide, and yet it seems we have a miracle before us. Welcome back, Gisborne.”
Guy was silent, his head bowed in obedience as he stood before the Sheriff. Briwere, still in his night robe, walked back and forth in front of the fire in his chamber hearth.
“So,” he said. “You did not perish with your men, after all? You have taken leave these last two months, have you?”
Guy shook his head. “No, my lord. I was incapacitated. But due to the efforts of Samaritans, I am able to return now to my duty.”
The sheriff looked at him with great interest. “So, that drunken fool of a guard was not mistaken, then. He did see his former master in the flesh. I suppose I dispatched him a bit too quickly.”
Despite his words, there was no hint of regret in his tone. He stopped suddenly, looking at Guy with a curious expression.
“Samaritans, Gisborne? Who were they?”
There was a long moment as Guy thought of how to respond. And knowing Briwere as he did, he chose his answer carefully.
“No one of consequence.”
There would be no further explanation…at least none that he would give willingly. He would not endanger Cassia now by revealing her existence. It was his hope that Briwere would ask no further questions of how he came to be here…and that, as it turned out, was just what happened.
“Well then, Sir Guy,” he said with a bit of glee, tapping his fingers together as the wheels turned in his head. “It seems you may finally be of real use to me. I have just had the most brilliant of thoughts. When the brainless peasants of this village see you have returned, they will no doubt believe that the devil has risen to haunt them. We must make the most of their superstitious ignorance.”
Guy gave him a curious look. “My lord?”
Briwere chuckled. “When you were believed dead, your home was in my hands of course, to do with as I wished. I fully intended to install a new tenant there. But it remains unoccupied…and the reason for that? There was a great belief that your ghost roamed the corridors.”
Guy shook his head slightly, not seeing the point. “I am afraid I do not understand, my lord.”
Briwere waved a hand, rambling on and continuing to speak as if Guy were not even there. It seemed he was quite enjoying the vocalization of his strange train of thought…and while the Sheriff’s back was turned for a moment, Guy gave an irritated shift of his eyes.
“Oh you shall have your home back, Gisborne. You will need new servants, but that is for you to see to. What I am interested in is the fear your presence shall bring. Because you see, fear keeps the ignorant in their place. And that is what these people need…to always be reminded of their lowliness, and of who their masters are.”
As if they are not well aware of it, Guy thought. But feeling that it was not his place to question why, he said nothing. In truth, whatever ridiculous plotting Briwere had in mind, Guy knew his own opinion of it did not matter. He was back in the hands of his lord and master.
Rage welled up within him. If they thought him the devil before, they had not seen anything yet. They were all to blame for the miserable life he had endured, and it was because of them that he was alone – his soul emptier now than it had ever been.
If Briwere wished him to be the devil, then so be it…
Guy of Gisborne was back from the dead.
That was the news that swept like wildfire through Nottingham, and many villagers truly believed he was a walking demon. According to whispers, he had appeared like a phantom in the night, demanding to see the Sheriff and terrifying all those who came across him.
Guy found himself the leader of nocturnal raids upon the village residents. Barging in with torches in their hands, the guards pulled people from their beds in the dead of night and forced them to kneel before Gisborne, whom they looked upon with absolute terror. Many had taken to wearing small makeshift crosses around their necks in the hopes of warding off his evil presence. Their cries of mercy, pleading for their immortal souls, fell on deaf ears. It was his feeling that if they were ignorant enough to believe in such nonsense, they deserved what they got.
Briwere was quite pleased with his strange game of intimidation. He had his favorite henchman back to do his dirty work, and he reveled in it. But he seemed to notice there was something more to Guy’s darkness than he cared to reveal.
One afternoon, only a few days after his return, they stood watching an execution, and Briwere saw how Guy turned his head away. At the gallows, a dark-haired young woman and her family were being put to death. Looking from them to Gisborne, Briwere snorted in disgust at Guy’s obvious displeasure.
“What is the matter with you, Gisborne? Does the wench remind you of your deceitful former fiancé? Will you weep like a fool for her for the remainder of your useless life?”
There was no reply. And Briwere had no way of knowing…it was not Marian that Guy was thinking of.
He was home at last.
After several days residing in a room at the castle, waiting for the manor to be made ready, he was finally back on his own grounds…back to his own life.
A useless life, he reminded himself, his mouth turned down in a sullen frown.
Dismounting from his horse, handing it off to the groom, he made his way inside. All of the servants…some of them familiar, some of them not…had assembled in greeting. They bowed in obedient submission. But he had no desire to speak to them, except to make an inquiry to his housekeeper.
“Is my bedchamber in order?”
She nodded. “Yes, my lord Gisborne.”
There was a nervous light in her eyes…one that he saw in the faces of nearly all who were around him. But he cared nothing about their fears, thinking only of his own concerns.
“Do not disturb me. If I require anything I shall call for it. Is that clear to you?”
Again she nodded. And he passed them all by, climbing the stairs to his room.
Walking into his bedchamber, he glanced around at the comfortable surroundings…so different than the Spartan conditions of Nottingham Castle. Except for Briwere’s private chambers and those reserved for important guests, the castle bedrooms were used as barracks, with the luxuries kept to a minimum. It had been so long since he’d known these comforts, he had almost forgotten what they were like…and he looked forward to re-familiarizing himself with them.
The large feathered bed was turned down and waiting for him. The candles were lit, the fire burning strong in the hearth. On the bed stand was a flagon of wine and a jeweled goblet. He went to it, pouring himself a full cup and downing it quickly. Filling it a second time, he carried it to the large velvet-cushioned chair before the fire, where he sat down with a weary sigh. Everything was quiet and comfortable. All was as it should have been. But just like it had been in his castle chamber, there was something about the room that struck him cold. There were just too many things that the space around him lacked. And sitting in his chair now, he knew very well just what was missing.
He let out a breath, longing for the soothing smell of lavender. Water and lavender had been used to clean the room where he’d resided, and the flower’s oil had burned in a tray to ease other scents that weren’t so pleasant. Over the last two months it had become very familiar to him, its essence so calming. But it wasn’t nearly as soothing as the sound of a certain voice. He had come to enjoy and eagerly anticipate those dulcet tones of hers, whether they were speaking gently to him when he was in pain…or cursing him for some foolish thing he had said or done. Even in her angry moments, there was something in her eyes that told him she wanted to be near him. That she desired his presence as much as he desired hers.
It wasn’t the look he was given by the people who surrounded him. Most times, there was fear in their faces, and a clear desire to escape his presence as quickly as possible. Then there were the looks that some of the servant girls gave him. He had seen those lusty glances before, particularly from the women residing in the castle. Obviously, the rumors of his being some sort of evil being did not turn them all away.
But since his return, he had been in no mood for company, even of the female kind. He was too preoccupied with other things, one of them being his old injuries from the accident. The pain of his foot seemed, if possible, worse than ever. It flared at the most inconvenient times, usually as he was walking fast. He was often forced to stop for several minutes until the wave of pain eased. At times he received strange looks from passersby, who wondered why he stood with his head hung as he groaned in misery.
As if to mirror his thoughts, he suddenly felt a throbbing of pain in his ankle. Putting his wine goblet aside, he reached down to remove his boots. Pulling a stool close, he elevated his foot on it, and while it helped to have his foot free of the confines of a boot, it did little to ease the ache. He closed his eyes, resting his head against the back of the chair…and he thought of what he truly needed. What he truly wanted…
A pair of soft, warm hands. A gentle touch that could ease his body and soul, even on the darkest of days…
Not long after his return home, he found himself being closely watched. He often felt the eyes upon him as he walked through the door, and at various other moments during the day. It was a pretty young maid…blond, buxom, and doe-eyed…who looked at him so closely. At first he ignored her, having too much on his mind to consider her flirtatious movements and her wicked looks. Lusty serving wenches were the last thing on his mind.
He had tolerated his duties before. But now, he was finding them almost unbearable. While the night-time raids were random in their timing…Briwere wanted to use the element of surprise…the rest of his duties were back to the strict regimen of previous days. His mornings were filled with menial tasks, particularly the endless hours of meetings with Briwere and his council of nobles. Those gatherings were mind-numbingly boring, and each afternoon he had been relieved to escape to the silence of his private chamber. He might have been glad of it…if it weren’t for the fact that rest did not come easy. There was an ache deep inside of him, almost like hunger. But food did not appease him. Neither did wine soothe him, though both were in plentiful supply. Each night, he tossed and turned in his bed, his rest fitful. Such sleeplessness only made his days worse, especially when Briwere took notice of it. One morning, as the council was assembling, Guy could not stifle his yawning. His eyes were bleary…his hair unkempt and his face unshaven, as he’d been in no mood to tend to such things. Briwere gave him a disgusted look.
“Good God, man. You look wretched. What have you been doing at night? Shagging strumpets like an animal? You might try and control yourself for once and remember your duties.”
Guy gave no answer to the insult. It was enough that he was able to keep his temper in check, instead of sending his fist into his master’s jaw. No doubt that would have been one way to relieve some of his tension…if only for a moment.
As he had on so many nights of late, he sat in his chair before the fire. And as it had become his habit, he sighed in frustration. A bottle of honey mead sat on the table beside him, untouched. He’d reached for it several times only to put it back again, knowing it would not cure his ailment.
The fortnight was nearly gone. Four days remained. But time seemed to have stretched into an eternity.
It felt like a lifetime since he had seen her. And he wanted nothing more than to leap on his horse and ride back to the house in the forest…to throw open the door to her house, pry her away from her husband’s arms, and carry her off.
A burning wave of jealousy came over him. Reaching for the bottle beside him, he gulped down the alcohol, desperate for some way to numb the pain and emptiness within him. It was eating him alive. When he thought of her with her husband, it drove him mad with furious despair. Edwin Middleton had every right to touch her. To kiss her. And to lie with her. And imagining it, he felt a wild desire to commit murder.
Rising up from the chair, he took to pacing back and forth, trying to control the wild impulses that were overtaking him.
Four days, he reminded himself. Just four days, Gisborne, and you will be with her again.
Thinking of her – imagining the cross expression she would probably wear if she saw him this way – he felt his temper easing. He had never known a woman with such a fire in her belly. And in that same little being, the most tender heart. He returned to his seat, calmer now, finding some measure of peace by recalling every moment he had spent with her.
He thought of her eyes. In them, he had always seen a softness he could not quite describe. Even when she was angry, that light had not diminished. It struck something deep within him, touching a part of his soul that no one else had ever reached.
It was affection, he had slowly come to realize. She cared for him…truly and deeply. No one had ever looked upon him with such feeling.
There were times when he felt the impulse to call out for her, thinking that she would appear from the next room. But then he would remember where he was…that she was no longer near, to come to him whenever he was in need. Each time a servant came to his aide he was overwhelmed with deep disappointment, for there was only one face he wished to see. And for the moment, she was beyond his reach.
Nights were even more unbearable, as his imagination cruelly taunted him with images of what was forced to be without. Even now he envisioned her. Those soft lips on his skin…that sweet voice whispering heated endearments in his ear as her arms slipped around his neck…
His thoughts were interrupted by a sudden knock upon the door. He ignored it, silently cursing the disturbance. But it came again…and then the door was squeaking open. A low, throaty female voice spoke from behind him. He knew which of his servants it was. He didn’t have to look.
“My lord, is there anything you require this evening?”
He heard the familiar sound of an invite in her voice, and for a moment he considered her. Perhaps a mindless encounter with a willing female was what he needed to ease his frustration. Perhaps he could close his eyes and pretend it was the woman he wanted, and not just some convenient piece of flesh. Cassia would not have to know about it…not that he required permission to do as he pleased. Without turning to look at the maid, he called her over.
“Come here, wench.”
He listened to the sound of the door closing…the sound of her slight footsteps as she slowly approached him from behind. A moment later he felt her hands upon his shoulders, gently massaging them. Then she came around his chair to face him, and she wasted no time in undoing the laces of her gown, exposing her ample breasts. Moving herself close she placed herself in his lap. She brought her lips to his ear and softly nibbled his lobe, while reaching down with an eager hand to fondle him. Her lips were full and moist, and she tried to bring them to meet his…but he turned his head away. Kissing was much too personal, too intimate for this. He wanted no emotions between them. He didn’t even wish to know her name. She was here to slake his lust, and nothing more.
But even with her fingers stroking him, and her mouth dropping hot, wet kisses on his chest, he found himself responding with only the slightest twinge of excitement. She was lacking in several ways that were making him lose interest quickly. Her hair was much too light…not the rich chestnut tresses that felt like silk when running through his fingers. The face was a bit too round, the eyes an uninspiring shade of hazel. He wanted to behold a pair of eyes that were dark and deep in their color, glittering like two onyx jewels. Staring at the inadequate form before him, with her eyes now meeting his, he saw how her lips were parted slightly in anticipation. Using her free hand, she linked her fingers with his and guided his palm to her breast. She began thrusting against his hand…and he found both the feeling of her body and the expression in her eyes to be repulsive.
What he saw was pure, selfish lust. No real feeling. He could have been any sort of man…any nobleman, particularly…and it would not have made a difference. How many other men had she spread her legs for, all in the hopes of seeking some kind of personal gain? It disgusted him to think that he had once offered coin or jewels for the favors of women like her. Her lewdness was appalling...and he’d had enough of her.
“Get out,” he growled at her.
She blinked in response, confused by his sudden demand. He pulled his hand from hers. He gripped her roughly by the shoulders, shaking her.
“I said get out! Now!”
Her face turned quite red, and she fumbled with the ties of her dress as she slid from his lap. When she was gone from the room he went and slammed the door, bolting it, lest there be any others who would try their hand at tempting him. He wanted none of them. Instead, he returned to the bottle of wine on the table. Partaking of wine wouldn’t solve his problem. But perhaps if he got roaring drunk, he might pass out and find some measure of peace.
The incident with the maid had not been without benefit. It had served to erase his doubts on one particular point. He wanted Cassia back, more so than he’d realized before. He needed her back. He would not be satisfied otherwise. In a few days more, he would have her again. She would come to the cottage, and when she did, he would have it prepared for her. To be certain that she came to a suitable abode, he found a carpenter to assess the property. All was sound, he was told. The house needed only a good cleaning, and for that he enlisted the work of several servants. He paid them extra to ensure that a few special touches were added. He knew little of flowers or tapestries, but he was certain that Cassia would appreciate a woman’s touch. He was all anticipation. Why could the time not go at a faster pace?
His frustration was reaching its breaking point, particularly after a long night raiding and half a day of being ordered about by Briwere. He would fall into his bed exhausted, only to find that his rest was disturbed by vibrant imaginings. His mind and body were gripped by feverish memories of the hours he’d spent with her. He relived each delicious moment, only to wake and find himself alone in his empty bed. It was a torment the likes of which he’d never known, and he didn’t know how much more he could take. His only consolation was the thought that soon, he would be with the woman he desired more than anything in the world.
Soon, Gisborne, he reminded himself. Soon…
A fire was burning in the hearth. Candles were lit in the sconces, giving the room a soft glow. Leaning his head against the mantle, Guy took in a deep breath. She will come, he told himself. She will come. She will not betray me.
He had arrived in the late afternoon. Coming through the door, he had hoped to find her waiting there. But he had found only silence. He took to walking the surrounding pastureland and woods, trying to pass the time. At dusk he returned, anticipating the sight of her, desperate to see that she had come to him. Lord, he missed her so dreadfully.
But as darkness fell, he found himself still alone. Turning away from the fire, he walked slowly back and forth. His hope was fading…and his bitter despair was rising once again. Was he condemned forever to only know the feelings of hopelessness and anger? It slowly dawned on him that Cassia was not coming. A crushing weight of despair fell on his heart.
Why? he asked silently. Why have you not come?
Pained by his deep disappointment, he reached for the pitcher of ale that was nearby. He had intended to share it with her. He had imagined so many delightful things they would share this night. But instead, he found himself in the same manner of being that seemed to be his eternal fate. Alone. Weighed down by hopelessness. Besieged by anger.
He picked up the pitcher, and bellowing a shout of rage, he watched it shatter against the wall.