No, he thought. No! It is a lie!
Grasping Robin’s shirt, he shook him. “Locksley!”
There was no response. The man was dead, and the truth gone with him.
All around him was chaos, people running to and fro. But it was nothing compared to the chaos in his mind and heart.
Dead, he thought. Lost beneath the wreckage.
It was not possible. It could not be. But what if it was true?
God, no, he muttered.
Rising to his feet, he staggered away from the scene. He was only vaguely aware of where he was going. He needed to reach the stables, if they were still standing. But such was only a dim thought in his mind.
Lies, he told himself, clinging desperately to the denial. Robin of Locksley had carried his hatred to his grave with him. It was not impossible that he would spout such a foul and villainous tale as this just to seek a final revenge. Guy moved along in a daze as people rushed by him, occasionally running into him and nearly knocking him from his feet. At last he reached the stables, which were still standing, though there was not a hand to be found. All had fled, it seemed. He was shocked to find his own horse among the tenants, and as fast as he could, he saddled his mount. He silently tried to assure himself as he put his foot in the stirrup and climbed up.
She is with her family. Matilda, the old witch. Stephen, her brother. They have her in their keeping. She is well.
It had to be so. Locksley had lied about her death out of pure spite and hatred. He had never recovered from the loss of his brother, and more so, the loss of Marian. He thought only of making his sworn enemy suffer, and Guy told himself so again and again.
But the seed of doubt had been planted. As he rode away from Nottingham, heading towards the cottage, the curse grew and spread until it was squeezing his heart and lungs, stealing his breath.
If she was alive, why had Edwin Middleton been in Nottingham? If she had been rescued from the fire, would her husband have not taken her away, and as quickly as possible? Where was Stephen DeWarren, and why had he not been there during the siege? He had always been a friend to Robin Hood. In truth, he was one of his closest allies. Good God, the pair had once tried to kill him in his bed – a failed attempt to avenge the death of Robin’s brother. A terrible image came to him then. The thought of it weighed on him like a crushing pile of stone.
Perhaps Stephen was kneeling over her grave at this very moment, desperately mourning the loss of her. Driven mad with despair and hatred for his wife’s killer, Edwin had rushed to Nottingham with Robin Hood, joining the siege that would destroy the castle and bring death upon the sheriff.
No, no. It is impossible, he told himself. I will not believe it. Not until I see the proof of it with my own eyes.
Urging his horse to a faster pace, he came to the clearing and stopped. And he gave a shuddering gasp.
What had once been the cottage – the site of an all too brief but unimaginable happiness – was now a blackened wreck. Guy slid down from his horse, moving towards the site, unsure if his limbs would support him. Locksley’s words repeated in his ear, ripping at his insides.
We could not save her. The fire was too much. The house fell in…
Oh, God! It was the truth! All had indeed crashed in. Only parts of a wall were left standing, but the rest was a charred heap of rubble. When he reached what had once been the kitchen, his legs lost their strength. Falling to his knees, he stared at the calamity before him. He found he could not breathe, the air sapped from his lungs by the horror of one thought.
What if she lies here, beneath this ruin?
Crawling forward on his hands and knees, he forced himself up. Tearing at the broken slabs of wood and mounds of stone, he searched for the door to the cellar where he had ordered her to hide. His hands were soon raw and splintered, and then they began to bleed, but he kept digging. At last, he saw a familiar metal ring. The handle to the door. His injured hand hovered over it for a brief few seconds, the awful possibility of discovery just below his reach. Stepping back for a moment, he placed his hand over his mouth.
What if she is there? he wondered. God in heaven, how could he bear the sight of her in such a way? His death would come from a mad frenzy, then - a wild tumult of despair. He was certain of it.
But he had to know.
Reaching down to grasp the handle, he flung the door open and descended into the pit – and found nothing.
For a moment, a wave of overwhelming relief flooded his soul.
Praise heaven, she had not been trapped and burned here. That, at least, was a small consolation. But where was she? Had she died here, but her body spirited away to another grave entirely?
Climbing out of the pit, he shook his head.
She had not been found in this devastated wreck. And that fostered in him a renewed sense of hope. Until he saw another grave – and God willing, he would not – he refused to believe that all was lost. His Cassia was alive. She was waiting for him. And he would find her.
The numbness in his hands was beginning to wear off, and the pain was excruciating. But it was strangely welcome – a reminder that he was alive, and that while he lived, there was always hope. Mounting his horse, he rode in the opposite direction, towards another clearing and another small house.
She is there, he told himself, his heart aching with hope. She waits for me.
He urged his horse into a gallop, riding fast towards the DeWarren house. He uttered a proclamation to her, convinced that she could hear him, even across the distance.
I am coming, beloved. Wait for me. I am coming.
The sun was setting as he came to the house. And instantly, he sensed the emptiness of the place. There was only the sound of the birds twittering in the trees. Still, he dared to hope. Rushing to the door, he pounded on it with his fist, calling her name.
There was no answer. He tried the door, and it opened much too easily for his liking. Stepping in, he saw in an instant that it was deserted. Still, he walked about the small space, overcome with memories. This was where it had all started. Where, it seemed, his life had truly begun. He looked at the table before him, and a tiny smile came to his lips. He had pursued her around this table. And then, he had kissed her for the first time. Lord, how he missed her. He missed the delightful changeability of her kisses – sometimes passionate and hot, sometimes gentle and sweet. He longed for the loving warmth of her embrace, and the feeling of her fingertips on his skin. In her arms, he felt a strength that defied description. A joy that could not compare to anything else in the world. A peace that could not be replicated. He could not live without her.
Leaving the empty house, he made a slow and cautious walk around the grounds, fearing that he might see a grave. There was nothing, and a weight was shed from his soul.
She was alive. He could feel it. His confidence grew as he left the house, setting out on a new search. Riding through the forest, he searched his mind for other possibilities as to her whereabouts.
Perhaps her brother had taken her away. They might have been on their way to France at that very moment. But where in France? He cursed himself for never having discovered the exact location of Edwin Middleton’s barony. But perhaps there was another who knew of it.
He could not be sure that he could find her. Perhaps she had gone to France with them. But nothing was certain now. He had a vague memory of hearing that she lived to the west of Cassia and Robert’s home. He turned his horse in that direction, his body set in a frame of determination.
If Matilda was not there, he would travel to France on his own, without aid. If it took the rest of his life, he would find his love. For what life was there without her?
The road to the coast was a ride of two long and wearisome days, and the sailing from Portsmouth to Cherbourg was not an entirely smooth one. The tedious journey tested the limits of all the passengers, particularly Cassia. She kept mostly to herself, hating the constant swaying of the ship and the confines of being on a boat. But mostly she wanted to avoid Stephen.
In her eyes, he was just as guilty as Edwin was of holding her prisoner. Beyond a few brief words, she hardly spoke to him. Again and again he attempted to engage her in conversation, but she wanted no part of it. All she could think of was Guy.
He will come, she thought. I know he will come.
Just before they had sailed, word had come that Robin Hood and his band of allies were setting out to take Nottingham Castle. She knew Locksley well enough. He would succeed in his mission, and Guy would soon be free. And nothing would stop him from finding her. But she pined for him so. And she worried for him. What had he endured during his imprisonment? It would not have been a kind and comfortable existence. Indeed, he might have suffered any kind of unspeakable torture. And if he was free, what was he enduring now in his quest to find her?
She wished that Matilda had come with them. She longed for the company and consolation of her beloved aunt, and she would have found comfort in Matilda’s bold nature. If she was here, she would surely have been handling Stephen with a strong hand and a sharp tongue, and Cassia would have welcomed it. But she had chosen to stay in the home she had shared with her husband, and Cassia was left to endure the company of an overbearing brother who understood nothing of her feelings. He saw things only from his own limited point of view, and it was enough to drive her mad.
The door to the cabin opened slowly, and Cassia turned her back to the sound, knowing it was her brother. He stood nearby, speaking quietly.
“The captain says the weather is very favorable. We will reach the coast in a day or two.”
Cassia was silent, wishing he would go away. But he talked on.
“When we are home, Cassia, Rosalyn and the children will help you to forget your troubles.”
He had spoken often of his wife and two young children, who were waiting eagerly for him at home. Rosalyn was a good and generous wife, he said. He felt he had made a good choice of her from the ladies at court, for although she was born of noble blood and he was not, she did not secretly scorn him like much of the nobility had.
“It is a very different life you will lead now, as the sister of a baron. Edwin benefits already from being my steward…”
She rose to her feet, intent on leaving the room. “Do not speak to me of Edwin.”
Stephen took hold of her arm, stopping her.
“He is your husband, Cassia. He loves you, and it will not be long before he returns to France. You must remember your place as his wife.”
She shook him off, her eyes cold. “He will not own me forever. Guy will make certain of it.”
Away she went, seeking something of the sunshine and fresh air to be found above deck. For a few minutes, she relished the peace and quiet. But Stephen soon followed.
“Guy of Gisborne is not your husband!” he said.
Cassia turned on him, returning his protest in equal measure.
“He has been more of a husband to me than Edwin ever was, or ever will be, and nothing you say or do can break our bond!”
Stephen lowered his voice slightly. It became a low, angry growl.
“What will you do? Be his mistress and bear his bastards? Do you think Edwin will allow such a thing?”
“Edwin may do whatever he wishes with me, but it will change nothing. He may lock me away in a tower, or in a nunnery. He may see me punished, or he may end my life. But he will never have my heart. I have given it to Guy of Gisborne, and there it will remain forever, the consequences be damned!”
Fleeing from him again, there was nowhere to go but back to the cabin. And there she fell down on the narrow bed, weeping. And it was not long before Stephen was at her side again.
“You will be happy in Marseilles, Cassia. The coastal breezes and the warmth of the Mediterranean will give you peace. You will have a fine home and enough wealth to live a comfortable life. I promise you.”
I will not be happy there, she thought. Not until Guy is returned to me.
A light in a window.
Guy sighed with weariness, but with relief too. At last he had found it. Sliding down from his horse, he hurried to the front door and knocked. He waited, tense with impatience. At last the door opened, and when he saw Matilda, he became momentarily beside himself. Without thinking, he reached out and took her by the arms, giving her a slight shake.
“Where is she, Matilda? Where is Cassia?”
She pushed him off. “What madness is this, boy? Coming upon an old woman in the dark of night!”
“Where is she?” he shouted. “You will tell me!”
He swore he could see a hint of amusement in her eyes, and she responded in a cool way, removing his hands entirely and turning away. She returned to the pot on the fire she had been tending to.
“Calm yourself, you beastly creature. She is well enough.”
Frustration gripped him as he stepped forward, demanding…
She answered with an weary sigh, looking back over her shoulder at him.
“Stephen has spirited her away to some place called Marseilles.”
Marseilles, he thought. At last, he knew where she was. His heart raced with joy, and turning away, he made for the door. But Matilda turned back to him as quickly as she had turned away.
“Good heavens, boy! What kind of mad fool are you? One moment you appear at my door, and then the next you turn from it, all with a devilish fire in your eyes.”
Pausing at the door, he turned to look at her.
“I will go to her, and there will be nothing to stop me.”
“And you will go as you are, looking as wild as Nebuchadnezzar himself?”
Confusion came over him, and he gave her an odd look.
Watching her as she came forward, he saw a look of great determination in her features, and then he felt the tugging of his sleeve by her hand.
“Come and sit down, heathen devil.”
The thought of delaying, for any reason, troubled him deeply. And he tried to turn away, shaking his head.
“I will not sit.”
Before he could get away, she had a firm hold of his arm and would not let go. He had nearly forgotten how strong she was – physically, and in spirit. She pulled him along, scolding and ordering him about.
“You will do as I say! Did you not learn your lesson the first time?”
He knew it was useless to fight her. And in truth, he did not realize until that moment how tired and hungry he was. When she forced him to sit in a chair near the fire, the weariness came over him all at once, and he let her do as she pleased.
“Judas, boy! Look at your poor hands!” she cried. “And your face is several colors all at once! Coor! Your time in prison is evident on you.”
With a sigh, he shrugged. “What of it? I survived it, did I not? I need no sympathy.”
Watching her as she searched for something on a high shelf, he was reminded of Cassia when she used to go about her duties. Coming back with a small clay jar, she reached for his hand, and she shook her head.
“You speak too much, Gisborne. Be silent and still so I might fix you up proper. If you are to go to my Cassia, I will have you healthy and whole.”
For a moment, he found a surge of pleasure and joy at her words. The prospect of reuniting with Cassia, even if it was only spoken of, was enough to give him comfort.
Until Matilda applied a stinging salve to his hands. He cried out in pained anger, trying to take his hand back.
“Lord, woman! Do you find pleasure in tormenting me?”
“Oh hush your weeping.!” was her firm response. “Never in my days have I known a man of such constant complaint.”
He might have fussed, were it not for the fact that he was so reminded of Cassia at that moment, and he smiled slightly. He found he could not help it, and his amusement showed in his voice.
“I can see why Cassia is such a tyrant. She has been educated by you.”
Now it was Matilda who smiled, her eyes twinkling even as she continued her work, binding his hands with thick strips of cloth.
“Indeed, she was a student of mine. A proud, stubborn lass she is too. And you would not have her otherwise. Am I right?”
Lowering his eyes, a feeling of lightness swelling in his heart, he could not disguise his expression of delight. Thoughts of Cassia – his sweet, stubborn darling – were at the heart of it, and he answered Matilda with an unabashed honesty.
“No. I would not have her any other way.”
He had a bath in a small tub – this time, without Matilda’s assistance. She provided him with a change of clothes, and he gladly joined her for a hearty meal of fish, bread and cheese, and strong ale. And they talked. Their conversation was friendly and pleasant – something he would not have foreseen at one time not so long ago. Sipping his drink, he looked at her with a curious eye.
“Why did you not go with Stephen and Cassia?” he asked. “Why do you remain here, alone?”
She was quiet for a moment, partaking of her own drink. At last she answered. “I have no wish to live under a strange roof, in a country I know nothing of.”
Looking her up and down, listening to the sound of her voice, he sensed a sadness in her – despite her strong words.
“But Cassia surely longs for you,” he said. “I am certain. Will you not long for her as well?”
“Indeed. I shall miss her very much.”
“Come with me, then. Follow me to France and we shall reunite with her, together.”
Her eyes widened a little. For a moment, he thought she would consent. But then she stubbornly shook her head, refusing.
“I have no desire to be in the company of Edwin Middleton. Never have I liked him.”
“Edwin is dead.”
The announcement hung in the air for a long moment. Matilda put down her cup, dabbing at her mouth with a cloth.
“Do you intend to take his place, then?”
“No,” he said, and he righted himself in his chair, his stance proud. “I intend to take my place. And my place is beside the woman I love.”
Responding to his boldness, the corner of her mouth rose. “And you would have me with you?”
“Why not?” he asked, his excitement growing at the prospect he was creating for the both of them. Still, Matilda was hesitant.
“What place would there be for an old harridan like me?”
He poured himself another cup of ale, and filled her cup as well, passing it to her.
“Cassia relies on your friendship and consolation. And she will need your assistance and wisdom in the near future.”
Guy looked at her, examining her reaction to his words, and he found himself smiling at her curious expression. Her eyebrow rose slightly.
“You will marry her?”
I will marry her, he thought. She will be my wife. The thought of it bred a feeling of excitement in him. It swelled within him, making his voice strong and bold. More so than usual.
“Yes. I will marry her, and make many children with her.”
Matilda’s eyes shined with delight. Her smile grew, and he returned it, speaking on with growing enthusiasm.
“She will need someone to aide her in her mothering.”
He saw how she turned her eyes away, still holding to her stubbornness. Her reply was rather quiet – but in it, he heard the sound of her reserve crumbling.
“You will have a household full of servants for that.”
He could tell by looking at her that she was nearly at the tipping point. She needed only a slight push. He spoke at her with mock anger, slapping his hand down on the table.
“Cease your prattling, you obstinate old crow! Say you will come with me.”
Folding her arms across her chest, she lifted her chin in defiance, but smiled at him. And she answered as he expected her to. With stubbornness.
“I shall consider it.”