(Continued from previous post)
From a distance, he saw her through the open window of her work room – a little stone outbuilding covered in ivy and jasmine, located behind the kitchens. A mortar and pestle in hand, she was occupied with some manner of preparation. Medicine, perhaps. Or spices for the kitchen maids to use in cooking. Watching her there, doing what she did with such skill, it touched a certain place in his heart – taking him back to when they had first met. From his sickbed, years before, he had watched her do these very same things. He watched her now as he had then, hoping she would look at him. And she did, if only for a moment. She gave no smile. But there was a softness in her expression – one he knew well, and it was an unspoken gesture of invitation. He could approach without fear of a rebuke. So he did, though warily. As she went about her work, he came to stand in the open doorway, just watching her for a few moments before saying something.
“You were not abed when I woke this morning.”
Putting down her mortar and pestle, she wiped her hands on her apron, her back to him. She reached for a clay pot, filling it with the powder from the bowl.
“I was at prayer,” she answered him.
He bristled at the evasiveness of her reply. She never went to morning prayers without him, and never before the sun rose. Unless something was wrong. Or unless she had done it just to get at him, knowing he would wake up and be upset to find her gone, which was precisely what had happened. Such behavior was typical of a woman. But he dared not say so out loud. Matters were already tense enough between them.
“You went so early?”
She replied with another evasive answer. “Yes.”
He grumbled under his breath, frustrated. But just as he was near to losing his patience, she spoke in a quiet way, with words unexpected.
“Forgive me if I angered you last night.”
He stepped further into the room, unsure of how to act or what to say.
“If I dishonored you, that was not my intent,” she said. “I should not have dismissed your concerns as I did.”
What was this? Did she play at some game? Did she truly believe the fault had been hers? When she turned to look at him, he felt a sting of pain when he saw the look on her face. Reaching out, he took her gently by the arms, drawing her closer.
“I should not have spoken harshly, beloved. It was my own fault.”
He felt her head pressed against his chest, and the roundness of her belly against his. His heart swelled with tenderness and pride.
“You could never dishonor me.” He kissed the top of her head, relishing the contented little sound she made. She was happy again, and it pleased him. But he found his own pleasure tempered by the very feelings that had started their quarrel. Frowning, he said to her what he had feared to speak of. But he knew it needed to be said.
“I dishonored myself with my cowardice.”
She leaned back in his arms, looking up at him with those lovely dark eyes, full of love and tenderness.
He always felt safe in her arms. Stronger. More sure of himself. Withdrawing from her embrace was always difficult – painful, even. But this time, he felt he must. Turning away, he stared out from the open doorway.
“I am what my father always condemned me for being. I am small and weak.”
Cassia came to his side, a look of concern in her eyes. “Guy, I do not understand.”
“Last night,” he said, “You told me I should not be concerned. And your meaning was intended to ease my fears. But in my foolish and prideful way, I let it strike at the very nature of my own insecurities.”
Taking his hand, she pressed it to her cheek. “Oh, Guy, my love.”
He turned to her. The feeling of her soft cheek against him palm was wonderful, and he brought his other hand up to join it, cupping her face in his hands.
“Your courage astounds me, Cassia. There is little that you fear. But my own fears overwhelm me. What manner of man am I to be so cowardly?”
“To fear is not to be cowardly,” she replied.
He sighed, his heart full of love – his soul full of self-loathing. Turning away again, he went out to the stone bench just beyond the doorstep, needing the air to soothe him. She came to sit beside him, as he knew she would. But she said nothing, giving him the freedom to speak. She deserved to know what sort of weakling she had been saddled with – even if she was already several years into the bargain.
“I am your husband. I should fear nothing. I am not meant to seek comfort from my wife, and I am certainly not meant to speak of my worries and fears. I am to carry myself always with courage. As a knight would prepare for war.”
These confessions of his worries were not new to her. She had always loved him in spite of them. But he found he could not help being haunted by them. Was he less of a man because of them? That, he knew deep down, was what he truly feared – that one day, she would come to harbor a secret contempt for him. He could not bear the thought of it. She clung to his arm, leaning her head against his bicep.
“To fear is to be real, husband. To fear is to be human. And to admit to it, with honesty – I think it the greatest show of bravery.”
There was such genuine love in her words. No trickery, no deception. The corner of his mouth crinkled up.
“You do not think less of me for it?”
He knew the answer already. But he was eager to hear it, and to feel the caress he knew would accompany it. Her arms tightened around his waist.
“No, my love. I do not think less of you. I am honored to have a husband who cares for me as you do. Your worries for me are a great emblem of love and devotion. Not every wife is so fortunate as I.”
She was such a contradiction. A tougher and more hard-headed woman he did not know. She had the heart of a warrior, so it seemed to him. And yet, she was a soft, warm, sweet-scented woman – so delightfully feminine, especially with her belly so round with their coming child. She was delicate and vulnerable in this state of being. No matter what strengths she possessed, she could not elude fate if it chose to be cruel. He spoke in a hushed tone against her hair.
“I would be lost if anything were to happen to you.”
“I tell you, Guy of Gisborne, as I have so many times. You will never be without me.”
He smiled, his spirits buoyed by her confidence. Desiring the sweetness of a kiss, he placed his hand on her cheek, preparing to lean in – until she made a sudden noise, as if something had disturbed her. But there was a smile on her face.
“Oh, my!” she said, softly laughing. “Our child is restless. I can feel him repositioning himself.”
Placing his hand on her belly, he could feel the movement, even through the material of her dress. Leaning down, he placed his cheek there so he could feel it more easily. Since the first time he had experienced this wondrous sensation, during her first pregnancy, he had made a habit of doing it. A part of him wished it would urge the child to be born – as if it needed to know of his closeness and to feel his eagerness about the arrival. And he knew that Cassia loved it when he was so genuinely involved.
“Have your fellows discovered that you possess such sweetness?” she asked, her fingers in his hair.
He rose up, smiling at her. “They know nothing of it.”
“So it is still my secret, then? Mine alone?”
He nodded, kissing her lips. “It remains yours, and only yours.”
“How delightful. And I hope it remains so. I am the only one permitted to find such joy in you.”
“Speaking of joy,” he said, pressing his lips to her neck. “I wonder if we might go on a walk together. Down to the lakeside. Just you and I.”
Leaning back to look at her, he expressed his disappointment. “Why not now?”
Her answer was a smile. “Because today is the day you gift the children with their ponies. Thea has been asking every day. You cannot deny her any longer.”
He sighed – but it was a pleasant sound, accompanied by a grin. “Very well. But tomorrow, it is I who will not be denied. Remember that, wife.”
“Yes, yes,” she laughed, pushing him away when he tried to steal another kiss. “No more kisses, Guy of Gisborne. Go, and do your duty as a father.”
Reluctantly, he left her side. But he looked back as he went, seeing her as she returned to her work. Through the window he saw her looking back at him – and then she pulled the shutters closed. But not before giving him a cheeky look. He walked away, his steps light and his soul flying...