“You weep for Gisborne?”
Cassia felt Edwin’s eyes upon her, examining her face. Her eyes were fixed on the competition field where Guy was slowly rising to his feet. She watched, heartbroken, as he made his exit while the crowd still jeered him. She could see the way he moved with difficulty, as if he was in terrible pain. Her heart ached for him. She replied to Edwin with an air of quiet defiance.
“He was my patient, husband. I came to know him in the time I cared for him. If I pity him, I cannot help it.”
Edwin took her arm as they rose from their seats, joining the crowd as everyone began to depart. He spoke as he always did – with a calm authority, as if he knew that his dominance over her was absolute.
“He is your patient no longer. If you have feelings for him, they must cease. You must give your heart to only one man, and Gisborne is hardly deserving of anyone’s heart, above all yours.”
My feelings will never cease, she thought. Never.
She wanted to go to Guy. He was injured, and suffering. And who would care for him in the way that he needed? It was all she could do to keep herself from rushing to him. The only thing that kept her from it was Edwin, who had a firm hold on her arm. He would not allow her to go. Why would he allow his wife to go to another man, even if it was only to care for him? No, he would not let her do that.
But she could not abandon Guy. He needed her.
There had to be a way. And fate seemed to know what she needed, sending it to her in the form of Matilda.
“There is my dear aunt,” she said, looking out towards the town square. “I should go and speak to her.”
“Go if you will. I shall wait for you.”
A tremor of concern passed through her. She had to find a way to free herself from him without his knowing her intent. She feared his refusal if she told him to go – but she had to try.
“There is no need, husband. I know you long for the company of your fellows. Go and be with them, and I will spend the evening with Matilda.”
His eyebrow lifted, a quizzical look in his eyes. “Are your certain? Who will escort you home?”
“Do not fear for me, Edwin. She will see me home when the time is right.” Giving him a little smile, she touched his hand, as if to emphasize her sincerity. He rested his other hand over hers, and bringing it to his lips, he kissed it gently.
“Be safe, my love. I shall see you tonight.”
Nodding, she left his side – careful not to seem in too great a hurry. A part of her felt guilty for deceiving him. He was, after all, her husband. And he was not a cruel monster. In truth, she was certain that he loved her truly. But his love was not the kind that stirred her soul and made her heart rejoice. Only one man was capable of that, and right now, he was suffering. She had no choice but to go to him.
Matilda saw her and came to her with a smile and a kiss of the cheek. But Cassia knew that her own distress must have shown in her face. She saw how Matilda’s smile lessened. She took Cassia’s hand into her own.
“What is it, child? What troubles you?”
Cassia sighed, a sad sound. “Oh, Matilda. I am in need of you.”
Matilda embraced her, rubbing her back gently. “What is wrong?”
“Did you see the tourney?”
“Only in part. I saw that your Guy of Gisborne was defeated. The crowd was quite pleased by it.”
The recollection of it pained Cassia’s heart, drawing her mouth into a frown. As Matilda drew back in the embrace, she wore a curious look.
“You are unhappy with this, I see? Is this the source of the trouble I see in your eyes?”
“I must go to him, Matilda. He is in need of me.”
They looked intently at one another. Cassia lowered her eyes, feeling a flush of warmth in her cheeks. Matilda was her confidant, and they shared a deep and loving relationship, but would their bond be tested by this? The revelation of her feelings for Guy were a perilous thing.
“You are in love with him?” Matilda asked, her tone soft.
Cassia lifted her head, meeting her aunt’s eyes, but she did not answer. And none was needed. She knew that the truth was written in her very countenance. In response, she felt the squeeze of her aunt’s hand, and a grateful smile came to her lips - a wordless agreement made between them.
Cassia stood behind Matilda, waiting at the door to Guy’s manor. How would they explain their presence? How would Guy react when he saw them both? She was uncertain of her aunt’s plan, but she trusted her implicitly. Matilda reached up and knocked, and a moment later, a stout little old woman answered. She was the housekeeper, it seemed, and she eyed them with suspicion.
“What do you be wantin’ at this hour? There is nothing for you if you are beggars.”
“The Sheriff has sent us,” said Matilda. “We are here to see your master.”
The housekeeper looked them over, still doubtful of their true intentions.
“The master wishes to be left alone. He gave orders.” She tried to shut the door quickly, but Matilda put her shoe in the way, stopping it.
“The sheriff gave orders,” said Matilda. “Will you refuse him? He will not be pleased to know that a servant denied his command, leaving his master-at-arms in ill health.”
Cassia waited, holding a nervous breath – and then the door was opened for them. They stepped in, and she watched as her aunt seemed to take instant command of the household.
“Where are the other servants? Are you the only one?” She looked around, examining the well kept abode. Cassia’s gaze fell over everything as well, the proof of Guy’s status evident in the fine furnishings and tapestries, and the large stone hearth set with a generous fire. The housekeeper answered Matilda, her tone still uncertain.
“No, madam. There be three of us women in the house, and two men to work the barn and the garden.”
“I will have you all give us aid. Have you a bathing tub?”
“Fetch it, and bring it to your master’s chamber. Which room is it?”
The old lady pointed to the stairs. “The left door, up there.”
“Fetch water as well,” Matilda commanded. “And see it heated for a bath.”
The housekeeper nodded. “Yes, madam.” She turned to go, but Matilda reached out and took her arm. Taking a purse from her belt, she dumped the contents into the old lady’s palm.
“For your silence,” she said, “And for the silence of your fellow servants. If you do as I command and see it through, there will be further payment.”
Suspicion changed to surprise in the housekeeper’s eyes, and then she was away to do Matilda’s bidding. Cassia came close to her, wearing her own expression of surprise.
“How came you to have such funds?”
Removing her cloak, Matilda draped it over a chair. Looking around, seeing a nearby candle in a taper, she took it to the fire and lit it. “I keep some monies hidden away. One never knows when a bribe will be called for.”
Cassia smiled for a moment – until Matilda looked at her with a serious expression, coming to stand before her with the candle in hand.
“I have sometimes sensed your feelings for this man. But you must know this, niece. You cannot remain with him long. We put ourselves in danger coming here, and your husband will certainly question your absence.”
Cassia nodded. “I understand.” Her eyes fell, her voice becoming sad. “I will see that he is well, and then I shall do as I must. You have my word.”
It was the cruelest promise she had ever been forced to make. But she knew there could be no other way. At least they would have this last time together. She could dwell on it forever if she needed to. Following Matilda as she held up the candle, ascending the stairway, they made their way to Guy’s door. They looked at one another for a long moment. Matilda handed her the candle. Taking a deep breath, Cassia reached for the handle of the door.
He lay in the dark of his bedchamber, staring upwards. The room was all blackness – like his soul. Rarely had he felt such a sense of emptiness and self-loathing. And pain. He could not remember feeling such hurt, and not only from the wounds he had sustained in the battle. The pain was in his very soul. Even in the silence of the darkened room, he could still hear the sound of the jeering crowd – the hatred they had for him. The hope they had for his failure. But the pain of that humiliation paled in comparison to the barbs piercing his heart. He was certain he was dying inside, his heart and soul withering away, deprived of nourishment. But who was there to nurture it – to give it life and strength? Who desired such a task? Only one person had ever cared enough to attempt it, and she was lost to him forever. That beautiful, tender spirit – so full of fire and energy. The loss of her was a wound so deep, he was certain it would never heal. The pain was killing him, and in a moment of extraordinary sorrow, he wished it would. Death would be preferable to this.
When he heard the slow creek of his bedroom door being opened, he did not take his eyes from where they were fixed on the canopy of his bed.
But a familiar scent came to him then. The sweet calming scent of lavender. He turned his head to look…and there she stood, at his chamber threshold, a candle in her hand. Was she real, or just a figment of his imagination? No, she could not be real. She had abandoned him to be with her husband. Why, then, did he hear the sound of her soft footsteps on the floor, coming towards him? Ghosts did not make such noises. And God in heaven, they did not speak in such sweet, melodic tones.
“Guy of Gisborne, why do I find you in such a neglected state?”
He opened his mouth to speak – but just as quickly, he closed it entirely, and he turned from her, pulling himself up to sit on the edge of the bed, giving her his back. Only yesterday, he would have given anything to have her here, in his bedchamber – at his side, just within his reach. But seeing her now, he could not help feeling a terrible sense of degradation.
“Why have you come? Why now?”
She said nothing. He sat with his head lowered, waiting for her reply. But none came. He looked up when he saw the sudden change of light in the room. His gaze was directed towards the fireplace, where he saw her stirring the logs in the grate. His eyes were fixed on her every movement. She rose to her feet, coming to his side.
“Your arm is in need of mending.”
“Tis’ but a scratch,” he muttered.
“Have you no willing wench to care for you?”
Under other circumstances, her teasing would have roused his spirits. But he could feel only misery and shame.
“There is no one who cares for me.”
Her eyes were examining him. He could feel her scrutiny.
“Why did you not fight as you should have, Guy? I was watching, and it was clear to me that your opponent was hardly a match for you. Why did you not best him?”
So she had seen him. Like everyone else, she had been witness to his defeat. He lowered his eyes, unwilling to look at her. He was a dirty, bleeding, defeated failure of a man. Why did she stay, when she had her husband to look after? What need did she have of him?
“It was not my choice,” he replied at last. “I was ordered to give him the victory. But what difference does it make? It would have been better for me if he had ended my humiliation by running me through.”
She shook her head, letting out a sigh, but saying nothing. She moved away for a moment, and he heard the sound of water splashing softly in his wash basin. When she returned, it was with a wet rag in hand, and he looked up at her, seeing a familiar light of determination in her dark eyes.
“Take off your shirt and your mail,” she ordered him.
He was too exhausted to fight her commands. In silence, he began pulling his garments over his head, but it was apparently too slow for her liking. She tugged them off of him quickly, and he gave a slight grunt of pain. Dropping the offensive garments into a corner basket, she came back with the wet rag in hand and wiped the blood from his arm. Reaching into a small purse on her belt, she took out a vial and used the oil within it to rub into his wound. Then she took out a needle and thread, and Guy watched her as she prepared it. He muttered another objection, knowing she would not listen to his protest – and in his heart, he was relieved to know it.
“It will heal on its own. It does not need binding.”
“Do not be so foolish!” she scolded him, her voice rising in a way that roused something within him. This was what he needed – what he longed for. This woman, who was at one moment tough, and in the very next, so tender. As she was now.
“Be as still as you can,” she said, her voice soothing. “This will be unpleasant.”
Gritting his teeth, he was silent as she pierced his skin and began carefully weaving the needle in and out. As she sewed, the door to the room opened, and he saw several of his servants bringing in a wooden tub. They began filling it with water, and Guy looked at Cassia with curious eyes.
“What is this about?”
She broke the thread off, leaving his arm bound with a neat stitch. Putting her purse aside, she answered him in a matter-of-fact way.
“I have paid them to be at my command, and I have ordered a bath prepared for you. You will sleep better if you are clean.”
To be ordered about by her in this gentle, wifely way was an experience that soothed his battered heart and spirit. He needed her to care for him, to love him. But he did not want her here if it was mere pity that motivated her. Was it that? He feared to know the truth. His pride forced him to utter a last protest.
“I do not need a bath.”
She placed her hands on her hips, staring at him. Her dark eyes were shining with that fiery spirit he so adored.
“You are filthy, Guy of Gisborne. You smell positively horrid. Now stop being so quarrelsome and do as I say. Remove your wretched boots, and the rest of your garments.”
Too exhausted to protest, and too willing to allow her to have her way, he did as she said. She took his boots and clothes from him, handing them off to the servants as they left the room. He sat on the edge of the bed, naked as the day he was born, but when Cassia came to him, there was an absence of sensuality that would have normally stirred between them. There was a deeper, more profound feeling stirring – something he had felt growing slowly before. It seemed so much stronger now, with her beside him in this way, aiding him to stand as his battered body protested the resting position he had kept himself in. The water in the tub was hot, and as he sank into it, he let out a deep sigh of pleasure. He sat with his head lowered, too weary to do much of anything, other than to allow Cassia to care for him. She washed the sweat and dirt from him. He made contented little sounds as she worked, and occasionally he opened his eyes to look at her.
“You have blessed hands, Cassia.”
She smiled slightly. “Have I?” She ran fingers through his soapy hair, scrubbing his scalp.
“When I was ailing, I do not know what I would have done without you.”
Making him lean forward, she gently rinsed the soap from his head, and he thought of those days when they had first known each other.
“I could not in good conscience let you suffer,” she said. “You were in such a state at the time. I did what I felt was needed, despite the occasional abuse I endured for my efforts.”
She had probably hoped to be lighthearted in the conversation. That was her way, he knew. To use humor and teasing to make light of things that were often dark in nature. But after a long moment of silence, he turned his eyes to her. A feeling of great sadness and sorrow returned to him. Reaching out, he clasped her hand.
“You cannot know how I abhor my past behavior. Words cannot express the regret I feel for my actions.”
He turned his head away, lowering it once again.
“How can you care for a man such as I? I am two and thirty years of age, and I have made a useless waste of my life. All of the world seems to see what you do not.”
“And what, pray tell, do you think they see?”
He muttered darkly. “A degenerated wretch of a man, full of ugliness both outside and in. My sins too numerous to count. Their hatred and scorn are a punishment I deserve.”
After a moment, she leaned towards him, putting her arms around him, resting her cheek against his temple. She spoke soothingly to him.
“It is fortunate, then, that I see the world not through the eyes of others, but through my own.”
His heart swelled with desire and love for her.
Love, he thought. I do love this woman. More than I have ever loved anyone. More than my very own life. God in heaven, how I wish she was mine to have forever!
He was but a moment from declaring the feelings that were stirring so wildly in his heart. But fear kept him silent. If he told her, she would only remind him that she already belonged to another, and at that moment, he could not bear to hear such a truth. She was here with him now, loving him. He would not give up such a joy.
As he rose from the tub, he felt the last of his strength fading. He was able to dry himself and get into a pair of clean breeches, and with her help, he made it to his bed before he collapsed in exhaustion. He forced his eyes to remain open as long as he could, looking up at her where she sat beside him. He spoke to her in a quiet, pleasing voice – no pride left in him.
“Do not go, Cassia. Stay with me. I beg you.”
He felt the softness of her lips against his cheek, but heard no answer. His eyes were so heavy now – too heavy to remain open, despite his best efforts. He fell asleep, his last thoughts being a prayer of hope that she would be there when he woke in the morning.