In an instant Guy was moving, taking her by the hand. He headed for the window…only to stop when he saw two of Briwere’s guards close by, keeping watch at the back the house, positioned just by the door of the kitchen. If there were guards waiting there, then there were guards all around them. They were surrounded. Guy looked at Cassia, both of them terrified.
“I must go out and confront them,” he said.
Her reaction was instant, and furious. “Have you gone mad? Do you think you can take on an entire swarm of men all alone?”
“I have no choice!”
“There is always a choice, you fool! And I will not give you up that easily!”
He took her by the shoulders, knowing that this was no time for her hardheadedness. He shouted at her.
“LISTEN TO ME!”
She was rendered silent for a moment. He softened his tone, but not his sense of urgency.
“We are surrounded by the sheriff’s men. There is nowhere to run. But I can speak to Briwere. I can persuade him to return with me to Nottingham.”
“But what if he does not go? What if he harms you in some way?”
Taking her by the hand, he pulled her along towards the kitchen. Moving aside a small trunk, he opened the door to a hidden passage in the floor.
“This was my father’s secret hiding place for his valuables. Hide, and do not come out. Do not make a sound until I come for you.”
“Do not fight with me!”
They looked at one another for a long moment. She reached up, clutching his face, and she kissed him firmly on the lips.
“Go!” he said, giving her a slight push. She looked at him one last time, and disappeared into the hole. Moving the trunk back into place, he hurried towards the front door just as the noise of a forced entry began.
“I am coming!” he shouted.
Yanking open the door, he met the sheriff’s dark expression with a stern one of his own.
“What is this, my lord?”
Like a dark hawk, Briwere swept in with his men behind him. Much like a raptor, he looked about, searching for prey.
“Do not pretend to be surprised, Gisborne. Produce the witch, or we shall take her by force.”
Defiant, Guy folded his arms and replied with a snort.
“I know of no witch.”
They looked at one another for a moment before Briwere snapped his fingers at two of his men.
Do not resist, Guy told himself, even as he felt the first stirrings of panic within him. If he fought, he knew his distress would be a clear indication of his guilt. Allowing the guards to take hold of him, he tried to speak more calmly than he truly felt.
“For what am I being detained?”
“For fornicating with heretics. I have my spies, Gisborne. You know this well enough.”
Guy shook his head.“I know nothing of which you speak.”
“I think you may recall a serving wench you once rejected. An unwise decision on your part.”
“What has some discarded whore to do with any of this?”
Now it was Briwere who snorted. “Do not be a fool, Gisborne. You know as well as any man that a scorned woman is an instrument of destruction. On the day of the tourney, your discarded whore was witness to certain visitors in your home. Two women, it is said. Both of whom have long been suspected of being part of a heretic clan.”
Matilda and Cassia. They had been seen by the forgettable but vengeful slut he barely knew. He could not even remember her name. He could hardly believe that one careless moment had led to this, and he stared at the sheriff with cold eyes.
“You believe the lies of a whore?”
“Where there is smoke, there if often fire, is there not?”
Before Guy could answer, Briwere turned to his men.
“Search the house. Destroy everything if you must.”
It took all of Guy’s discipline not to protest out loud or to say Cassia’s name. He listened and watched, helpless, as the men stormed through the house, ransacking everything and turning over furniture. He turned his head away from the sight of them nearing the kitchen, fearing that at any moment, he would hear the sound of Cassia in distress. But he was shocked to hear nothing, A flood of relief filled him when the guards returned, having found nothing.
“There is no one here, my lord.”
A smirk of triumph, very small, rose in the corner of his mouth. He would be taken to Nottingham, and there he would face certain punishment. But Cassia would be safe. As long as he knew that, he was content to face anything.
Briwere made a sudden declaration.
“Set it aflame, then. If the pestilence is hidden, we will drive it out or see it burned.”
Terror gripped him. The trunk he had placed over the door was not heavy. If she tried, she would be able to force her way free. But what if she could not? What if she was trapped in the hold in which he had placed her? Had he unwittingly condemned her to death by trying to protect her?
“You cannot burn my father’s house to the ground!”
Briwere looked disgusted. “Cease with the charade, Gisborne. You cannot save her this time.”
This time, Guy thought. He grasped for understanding.
“You do not recall the incident of long ago, when you saved an old woman and a brat from conflagration? Against my orders?”
Guy shook his head. No. It could not be. That had been so long ago. And yet it made sense in such a strange, extraordinary way – as if fate had intended it to be so.
“The brat you spared?” said Briwere. “It does not take an intelligent mind to decipher that she grew into the same dark temptress you have been bedding. And we will be rid of any such evils that haunt Nottingham.”
Any false mask of bravery he wore now fell away. He knew too well the fickleness of fate. It had seen to it that he delivered Cassia from death as a child. It had allowed him to be saved from the cold, dark waters so he could in turn be delivered into her hands. It had led him to a deeper, purer love that he had never thought he would know. And now, fate demanded payment for such generosity.
“You cannot do this!” he shouted.
“I can do it, and I will! Get him out of my sight!”
He fought with every ounce of his strength as they dragged him away. The smell of smoke soon filled the air. The scent was sickening – the sight of it even more so. And he could do nothing to stop it.
The door would not move. And the smoke was seeping in. Tying her sash over her face, she fought against the fumes of poison that were threatening to overtake her, even as she pushed and pushed at the door above her head. She screamed for help, not caring if it was a guard who found her. Anything would be better than dying in a cellar like a trapped animal.
From somewhere above, she heard the sound of a voice calling her name. Was it Guy? Her mind was too overwhelmed to know – but she still had strength enough to respond.
“Here!” she cried. “I am here! Help me!”
There was a clattering from above – the sound of boots and the moving of furniture. And then the door was flung open, and hands were pulling her up and out. She felt herself in the security of two strong arms, and as they carried her away, she shut her eyes against the burning brightness and the heat of the flames.
Taking the fresh air into her lungs, she heard a familiar voice in her ear. A wet cloth was placed on her eyes, easing the burning.
“Good God, Cassia. Are you all right?”
Stephen. She knew her brother’s voice. Overwhelmed with relief, feeling the unleash of emotions from escaping death, she pressed her head against his shoulder.
“I am well, brother. Thanks to you.”
“Tis’ not only I who you must thank.”
She lifted her head. Looking around, she saw the band of thieves that she knew so well, and their leader – the man she had despised for so very long.
“Praise God we found the location to which Gisborne had borne you. Otherwise we might have been facing a very different scene.”
From behind Robin, another figure emerged. Cassia felt a rush of emotions as Edwin appeared before her. His eyes were cold as he looked at her.
He knows, she thought.
“I am pleased to see you are unharmed, Cassia.”
The tone of his voice was painful to hear. So sad, so angry, and so relieved, all at once. But she could not linger on thoughts of him. Her thoughts instantly went to another.
“Where is Guy?” she asked.
It was Edwin who answered. “The sheriff has taken him.”
Removing herself from Stephen’s arms, she rose to her feet, urgency in her every movement.
“We must help him!”
All was silence in response. She looked from one man to another, searching for hope, but seeing nothing. Only looks of coldness and apathy.
“We cannot let him die! He saved my life! He kept the guards from finding me!”
Edwin suddenly burst out in anger and disgust.
“Were it not for him you would not have been in danger!”
The vehemence in his words shocked her, and when he took her by the arms, she was frightened by the look in his eyes.
“You desire to protect your lover, but you will never see him again. You are MY wife, Cassia! And if you think to run to him again you are mistaken!”
He meant every word. She could see it in his face and hear it in his voice. But no matter what he thought of her or what he would do to her if she defied him, she could not let Guy be killed. She struggled against Edwin’s hold.
“You cannot let an innocent man die!”
“Guy of Gisborne is no innocent!” Robin shouted. “He killed my brother! Because of him, Marian is dead! He does not deserve mercy!”
Angry, bitter tears filled her eyes. “May God curse you to hell, Robin of Locksley! Unforgiving, hypocritical animal that you are! You claim to fight for the freedom of all but you have never cared for anyone but yourself!”
Stephen came forward, attempting to be the calm voice of reason.
“That is enough, Cassia. We must forget what has happened here. And you must forget Guy of Gisborne.”
“Stephen DeWarren, if you do not do something about this, I will never forgive you. Never!”
“There is nothing to be done, Cassia.”
Her eyes searched his face, and she saw how he turned his head away. No matter what guilt he may have felt, he would not be swayed from his decision. She looked at every face, clinging to hope. But there was none.
Suddenly she flung Edwin’s hold off. She ran, not knowing where she was going for certain, knowing only that she had to escape. And she had to get to Guy. Somehow, some way.
She heard the sound of her purser behind her. And she knew he would catch her, but still she rushed on. Until she was knocked to the ground, and Edwin’s hands were trying to cease her fighting. She screamed in protest – until he struck her across the face.
The world seemed still for a moment. The impact of the blow had rendered her incapable of feeling much, other than the shock. She felt Edwin releasing her, his moving slightly away. He would not let her go. He would probably kill her before he would allow her to be free. She belonged to him, body and soul. And Guy would die because of it.
Sobs began pouring from her, even as she heard Edwin’s attempt at an apology.
“Forgive me, Cassia. I should not have struck you. And I swear I never will again. But you belong to me, and I will not give you to someone else.”
As she lay there, weakness threatening to overcome her, she felt a strange sensation – as if an unseen presence was at her side. It whispered in her ear.
Let not your womanhood be a justification for weakness.
Lucinda’s words. A gift she had often turned to, as she did now.
She was only a woman, shackled by society and owned by her husband. But she was not weak. And by God, she would save the man she loved.
“No, you will not set me free, husband. And I will go with you willingly. But only on one condition.”
Sitting up, holding her face to her throbbing cheek, she looked at him. In his eyes, she could see his regret and sadness. And his curiosity.
“What condition?” he asked.
Her words were deeply serious – her sincerity unmistakable.
“You will go with Robin Hood and his men. You will lay siege to the castle, and you will set Guy of Gisborne free.”
“And if I refuse?”
“If you refuse me this, then I will end my own life. Perhaps not today, perhaps not a year from now. But one day, when you least expect it, I will free myself from the chains of this life. And I will do so without singular regret.”
He said nothing. She waited, expecting a response. He was silent, taking her by the wrist and pulling her along. When they returned to the clearing where the men all stood, Edwin came to Stephen. Cassia felt herself being given over to him.
“Take her home to Marseilles, brother. I will follow in time.”
Stephen was stunned. “You will not come now?”
Edwin looked at Cassia, his eyes lingering on her for a long moment.
“I have one last task to do before I leave Nottingham.”