Late February, 1194
The snow flew up from the ground, scattered by the pounding of hooves. Guy felt the cold in his very bones. Despite the heavy cloak that covered him, his body ached from the chill, and though he pulled the fur collar closer around his neck, it did little to provide him warmth. The misery further stirred an already flaring temper.
Briwere be damned, he thought. Sending me out on another chase.
All he wanted was to stay hidden in his bedchamber at home, numbing himself with darkness and drink. But Robin of Locksley had thwarted the law once again. And once again, the one giving chase would not be the sheriff, but the Master at Arms. He could picture his fair-haired master sitting before a blazing fire, sipping spiced wine as maidens tended to his every need. There was no need for him to brave the cold when he could send his right-hand man out to do his bidding. And this search would likely end as all the others had.
Despite the bare trees that left no place to hide, it would be just like Locksley and his gang to go to ground like the filthy animals that they were. The outlaws would slip through his fingers again...slinking, slippery little ferrets, every one. And he, Sir Guy, would go crawling back to Nottingham with his tail between his legs, humiliated in defeat. He would be made a fool of by a lord to whom he was irrevocably bound. A lord who saw nothing of great value in him, and found great joy in his sorrow and humiliation. It was enough to drive any man to madness. How many times had he lain awake at night, asking himself why he didn't just end it all?
I am meant to suffer, he answered himself. It is my penance, and I am deserving of it.
Only his mad desire for self-punishment kept him alive. He knew he deserved this fate...this living purgatory. For all the wrongs he'd done, he wanted to be punished. And if death came to claim him in the meantime, he would accept it. The fiery pits of hell were where he deserved to be, for he had destroyed something pure, something innocent. He had destroyed the only woman he had ever loved. And an eternity of punishment would never be enough to right such a wrong.
In the distance, a movement caught his eye. Two figures were hunched over the carcass of a deer, preparing to hoist it onto the back of a horse. He knew the men before him. One was a tall, grizzled beast of a man. The other was slender and tow-headed, garbed in dark green with a quiver of arrows across his back. The two of them paused for a moment, looking up.
Guy's eyes narrowed dangerously at recognizing his enemy...and he shouted the command forward.
"Seize them!" Giving his horse the spur, he charged forward with his men close behind. The two criminals abandoned their kill, mounting the horse together and fleeing fast.
Guy led his men in a mad dash across an open meadow, keeping the outlaws in sight. He was almost upon them.
It happened much too quickly. His horse reared up in fright. All of the horses panicked, and then, one of them suddenly broke through the ground beneath its hooves. The frightened animal cried out in distress, struggling to escape the show-covered sheet of ice that was crumbling beneath him. Guy shouted an order, his voice barely heard above the chaos.
"Move forward! Go!"
There was a melee of shouting men and screaming beasts as the entire band tried to escape the waters. His horse reared up again, and as he was thrown from the saddle, he felt a violent twisting of flesh and bone. His ankle, tangled in the stirrup, was broken as he fell down into the freezing waters.
All became inky blackness around him, the icy water shocking his heart, sapping the air from his lungs.Instinct screamed at him...
In his head, he knew that if he opened his mouth, it would seal his doom. But his panicked survival instinct was too strong...his lungs burning for air. And he could not keep from gasping.
Ice cold water filled his lungs. Deprived of air, his mind began to grow dim. Only by a slight sense of understanding did he feel it when his horse made a final, desperate lunge for the bank, yanking his body along. On the solid but snowy shore, his foot slipped from the stirrup, and his body collapsed in a battered wreck of flesh and bones. Unconsciousness claimed him fast, his injuries and the elements taking their toll as the cold wind gusted.
* * * * *
Cassia yawned as she stirred the pot on the fire. It had been a long, weary day, but there was still much to do before nightfall. The chickens needed feeding. The goats needed milking. And of course, supper had to be prepared. She was currently undertaking that process right now while her father was out chopping wood. As she sipped a spoonful of the soup, testing the flavor of it, the door suddenly opened behind her. A cold gust of wind blew in, making her turn her head away for a moment. She heard her father's voice - his words urgent.
"Cassia, come quickly!"
She did not hesitate...until she came to the open doorway, where she became still with shock. Her father had gone out for a moment and now, he was backing in as he struggled with the body of an unconscious man. Matilda was with him, helping to move the body into the house. Looking down at the figure, Cassia gasped as she recognized the stranger's face.
"It is Sir Guy of Gisborne!" she cried.
"There has been an accident," said Matilda. "I was on my way to your door when I heard the cries of distress. I found him this way, lying in the snow near the lake."
Cassia followed, watching as Matilda and Robert carried Sir Guy into the room at the rear of the house - the only room with a bed.
"He may very well die yet," Robert whispered. "And if the sheriff discovers that a man has died under our roof, God have mercy on our souls."
Cassia's reply was instant and firm. "Then we must pray to God that he does not die. And he will not, Father. I will not let him. This man saved my life, and Lucinda's. We must do our best to save him."
There was a long moment of silence between them...and then Robert shook his head, as if to return his focus to the man before him.
"Light, daughter. I must have more light. Bring more candles...a lamp."
She went out and came back quickly, setting several large tallow candles on the bed stand. Lighting them with the fire from the lamp, the room quickly grew bright. She held up a lantern as her father and Matilda looked the patient up and down.
"We must remove his garments," Matilda said. "And then we must get him warm, and quickly. Cassia, fetch blankets. Go!"
Coming back in a moment, she witnessed the sight of Guy's soaked garments being removed. The wet tunic and the undershirt, which was plastered to the skin, were tossed aside. Cassia felt her eyes stinging with tears as she looked upon the battered figure before her. It was heartbreaking to see such a strong man in such a state. He had superbly toned arms...the arms of a man who hefted a heavy broadsword. His chest was broad and solid, his abdomen flat as a board. It was a terrible thing indeed to think he might perish before his time.
"Fetch my shears," Robert ordered her. "Bring water and rags."
She left to fetch the materials. When she came back, Guy was covered from head to toe with several heavy blankets, his head and feet now the only things exposed. Bringing the requested items to her father, she came close and examined Guy's face, which was bloody and battered. Under one eye was a jagged cut, and many blue and black marks were already forming all across his skin. It pained her to see his strong and manly features so marred.
"How do you suppose he received the facial wounds?"
Matilda shrugged. "I must assume it was the broken ice that damaged him so."
Walking to the end of the bed, Robert examined Guy's swollen foot. He pressed his fingers to Guy's ankle. "Since he was lying near his horse, I believe he must have been dragged to the spot he was in. Perhaps that also explains the ankle. It is certainly broken, judging from the feel of the bones. And it must be set."
Cassia turned her head, unable to watch as her father corrected the ankle with a hard twist. When she turned back again, he was taking up the shears. Moving back to the head of the bed, he began quickly cutting away Guy's matted hair as Matilda supported his head.
"When I felt his skull before, my fingers came away with blood. My hope is that the wounds there are only superficial. If there is internal damage, I fear there is nothing we can do for him."
Cassia held out a small basket to catch the long, dark locks, and she couldn't help thinking how glad she was to see the ugly mane removed. Since the death of Lady Marian, Guy had grown into quite the vagabond. Since that day at the church, she had rarely seen him, even at a distance. When she had managed a glimpse of him, it had saddened her to see him so disheveled, so deep in his bitterness that he began looking more like an animal than a man. She was glad, now, to restore him, at least in part, to his former self.
As the hair was cut away, she saw the gruesome wound revealed...a large, bloody gash just at the base of his skull. She watched, anxious, as her father probed the wound. And she sighed with relief when he declared it deep, but not life threatening. There were other small cuts in places, but the large wound was of most concern.
"His skull feels intact. But we shall have to bind the skin. Daughter, fetch me a needle and thread."
Nodding, she went out again and made haste to return. Handing him the materials, she assisted Matilda in holding Guy's head. The sight of the bloody wound, of the needle working its way in and out of the flesh, didn't move her. She had seen such doings many times before. But it was the thought of Guy, enduring such a gruesome procedure, that tormented her. Many patients she had seen had been wide awake during such a process. They'd been given a stick of strong wood to clamp between their teeth, and nothing more. She gave silent thanks to God that Guy was unconscious through all of it.
After her father applied a healing salve over the area, they carefully set their patient back against the pillows. As Robert pressed his hand to Guy's forehead, his face was grim. While he cleaned the facial wounds and applied salve to them, he looked at Matilda.
"A fever has begun already." He turned his eyes to Cassia. "Go quickly and boil water with willow bark. If we are to save him, we must get his fever under control."
She hurried away, and when she came back with the steaming cup of liquid, she saw how Guy's figure was beginning to shake under the covers. Sickness had a firm hold on him already. As she brought the healing drink to his lips, sending it into his throat, all she could do was pray that he would live through the night.
* * * * *
Fever held him in a firm grip. And yet he was cold...so very cold. Though he tried desperately to force calm upon his muscles, he could not cease the shaking. Then it seemed he was thrown into a great inferno. Heat burned his every limb, sweat beading from every pore. And during all of it, he felt himself drifting aimlessly.
What was real and what was not? He came in and out of sleep so often, he hardly knew the difference between waking and dreaming. At every moment, agony was his constant companion. He felt it now, especially in his foot, the hurt so excruciating he swore he could hear the pulsations. And in the midst of his pain, there were strange moments of sensation...a constant presence, and a constant fragrance.
Soap and lavender, he was certain. The scent of a woman.
Opening his bleary eyes, he could perceive the soft glow of candles burning. And illuminated by the candlelight was a young woman, her long dark hair loose around her shoulders. In his delirium he reached for her, clutching her hand in a desperate hold. He felt it as she tried to pull free, but he pleaded with her.
"Please stay. Do not leave me. I could not bear it if I lost you again."
A tear slipped from his eye, and he clasped her hand ever more tightly, terrified that she would slip away. With held breath, he waited for her to speak. And at last her voice replied gently to him.
"I will not leave you. I swear it."
He squeezed her hand in response. Then he felt her other hand covering his, comforting and soft. The feeling remained with him, giving him solace, even as his eyes again grew heavy with sleep.
* * * * *
Once again, Cassia wiped the moisture from Guy's brow, watching as he trembled in his sleep. And she listened as he murmured Lady Marian's name time and time again. Even now, all these months after her death, he still mourned her as if he had lost a part of his soul. He was tearing himself apart because of her, and for Cassia, it was both painful and infuriating to witness it.
This past summer, word had spread that Lady Marian had taken her own life. Supposedly, she had declared her undying love for Robin Hood, and before dawn the next morning, Guy had found her lying on the bed of her cell...dead by her own hand.
It was widely thought that he had been driven to madness because of what had happened, and according to those who saw him, he had indeed looked and acted the part. It was clear from seeing him that he teetered on the brink of insanity, disheveled and wild-eyed as he was. There were whispers that he spent most of his free time in a drunken stupor, racked with guilt over Marian's death. And most residents of Nottingham agreed that living in such misery was just what he deserved. He had sinfully coveted a woman who belonged to another. Her blood had been on his hands, just like the blood of so many others. In their eyes, he had no right to sympathy. Cassia's own father had even said so. She knew he would not go so far as to let Gisborne die, for such a crime was not in his nature. But he had always made his feelings clear.
Guy of Gisborne possesses no soul, he had said. If he rages like a madman over what he has done, it has naught to do with guilt. His anger stems from being denied the thing he coveted. 'Twas a crime of possession, not passion. And now he must live forever with his own darkness.
As she looked upon the man lying before her, she thought of her father's words, and she shook her head in denial. If this man had no soul, no feelings, then why did he writhe in torment the way he did, calling desperately for a woman who was no longer there? Why did he weep for her, as she had seen him do several times now?
There is goodness in this man, she thought. I know there is. He has proven it by giving me my life.
And yet, she was no fool. She knew there was still rage swirling within him. She could comfort him now, remaining at his side and speaking gently to him. She could look at his rugged face, admiring its masculine beauty. But she knew these moments would not last much longer. In a day or so, God willing, his fever would break. He would regain his sense of reality, of time and place. The broken man before her, who needed her and depended on her, would fade away.
The tempest would soon make his return. And when he came back, he was certain to be darker and stormier than ever.