The feast of St. Nicholas was waning, and the happy evidence was all around. In the air, there were the mingled scents of pine boughs and a grand feast – a civet of hare, a quarter of stag which had been a night in salt, stuffed chicken, roasted goose, and lamb. Beyond the meats, there had been hard-boiled eggs covered with saffron, sliced cheeses, and breads. For dessert, there had been cakes drenched in honey, fresh fruits, and plums stewed in rose-water. Despite the hearty appetites of the entire household – of nobles and servants alike – there was quite enough left over. The Mastiff dogs had certainly partaken in the abundance of food. The three of them lay together, stretched out before the roaring fire – their bellies filled with the remains of roasted goose and lamb and all else that had been dropped to them under the table. The table itself was now being cleared of empty trenchers and goblets, as well as what remained of the meal. But it certainly would not go to waste – not if the lady of the house had anything to say about it.
From his seat near the fire, Guy closely observed his wife. Despite being heavy with child, she was just as active as ever. Despite his concerns over her condition, he found something of satisfaction in seeing her go about her duties – ordering the dishes cleared, telling what should be disposed of immediately and what could be salvaged. Some of the fruit could be made into jellies. The bread loaves could serve as trenchers, and much of the remaining food would be given to the hungry and homeless. Nothing was to be wasted – not even the fruit and cheese rinds, which could be made into extracts, infusions, and cleaning elements. Onion skins could become cooking stock. Pomegranate peels were of particular use, being valuable as a dye for cloth.
Every now and then, Cassia would turn to look at him, and he was granted a joyful smile. Looking at her now, he delighted in the sight of her round belly, grown large with their child. She was one of the most cheerful people he knew, with a mischievous sense of humor, and a laugh that tingled his senses and set his heart to fluttering. One of his greatest pleasures was kissing her while she laughed. When their lips met during a moment of glee, he always felt a great rush of giddy pleasure.
“You are hopeless, boy.”
Matilda’s voice broke his revere, but did not dampen his mood. It only shifted his attention to her, sitting beside him. Her head was lowered as she concentrated on her needlework, but he saw the crooked upturn at the corner of her mouth.
“Hopeless, am I?”
“Have you no shame in eyeing your wife as you do? You look upon her always like a dog wanting a leg of mutton.”
He could not deny the truth of that fact. And only she was permitted to make such a bold observation. They had long ago ceased with any true animosity, but it was amusing to pretend that it remained. Theirs was a friendship more akin to a bond between two men – full of brash retorts and shows of false bravado. He sipped his wine, not attempting to hide his smile behind his cup.
“Envious, are you? I doubt you ever knew such admiration.”
She scoffed. “Hah! I bore seven boys, so do not speak to me of admiration!”
“I pity the poor fellow who was chained to you in matrimony. No doubt he found much peace in his journey to the world to come.”
“Watch your tongue, Gisborne. Or I will curse you with an entire house full of female offspring, all of which will look like me.”
He gave a snort, making a reply of mock disgust. “God forbid.”
A moment later, he felt Cassia’s hand on his shoulder.
“What is this noise between you two?”
“Nothing but the ramblings of an old hag,” he replied.
“And the slobberings of a mongrel,” Matilda shot back.
Cassia smiled, shaking her head. “Do you two never tire of sparring?”
Matilda rose to her feet. Guy felt a pang of concern as he watched her slow and deliberate movement. Her advanced age was showing, and in a certain way, it bothered him to think of her as actually being old. But there was one consolation to be found.
Her tongue was as sharp as ever.
Bending down to retrieve her stitching, she replied. “Cassia my child, I could settle this matter with a heavy rock to his thick skull. But you seem fond of the wretch, so I will let him live.”
Guy smiled as he watched her give Cassia a kiss on the cheek. And as she passed him by, she smiled at him – and smacked him on the back of the head. It did not hurt, truly, but still he reached up to massage the back of his head. Cassia came to his side and put her hand on his arm.
“I am tired, husband. I think I shall retire for the night.”
“I will join you,” he said, linking her arm with his. As they went up the stairs, he put his arm around her, supporting her. She endured many difficulties in making their house a happy home – filling it with life and love in her own special way. She rarely complained. She was expected to suffer in silence, despite what she might have been feeling, be it physically or emotionally. And as her husband, he was expected to maintain an emotional distance from her during such times. She did have, after all, a household of females to rely on for anything she needed. Indeed, one of them – her lady maid – was not far away, following at a respectable distance behind. But as he was wont to do, he dismissed such a thought – out loud, with a frown and a curse.
“Damn such nonsense.”
She smiled, and eyed him with a curious look as they entered their bedchamber.
“Have I troubled you in some way?”
He shook away his darker thoughts. His voice and smile became soft.
“You are a constant trouble, wife. Much like your beloved Matilda.”
“She thinks very highly of you, Guy. And you think well of her, though I am not sure if you will say so.”
He crossed his arms, watching with rapt attention as her maid started helping her take down her hair. The process of this unveiling had fascinated him since the early days of their marriage. Despite the distraction of observing her, he went about his own ritual of the night as his valet helped him prepare for bed. They continued to talk as she went behind the screen to put on her nightdress.
“I must admit to having an affection for Matilda. She has shown great devotion to me and mine. Without her, this life we know might never have been.”
Her voice was slightly muffled as her nightgown was pulled over her head. “Tis a very great truth, my love.”
As she emerged from behind the screen, his reaction to the sight of her was a familiar one – a slight intake of breath, a quickening of his heart and his pulse. Lord above, he loved the sight of her with her hair down, and he felt the first stirrings of lust – until he saw her hand go to her belly. Her face twinged slightly in a sign of pain. His smile turned to a concerned frown.
“What is it?” he asked. But he wasn’t surprised when she shook her head and tried to smile.
“Just a slight discomfort. It will pass.”
Her maid helped her into bed, the weight of her belly making her movements awkward and difficult. Once she was comfortable, the servants left and they were alone. He felt her head against his shoulder – usually, a precursor to tender or passionate moments. But it was different this time. There was tension in the air. Felt only by himself, perhaps. But it was there just the same.
“Must you always pretend where your well-being is concerned?”
She looked at him in that way of hers. Calm. Confident. “I am very happy, my love. Humor me.” Touching his arm, she leaned in to kiss him. A temptation, to be sure. But something inside him – a rare spirit of husbandly sternness – rose up, making him lean back a space, just enough to keep his lips from hers.
“I will not humor you this time. Speak, wife! Is your time upon us?”
She shook her head, not bothered by his very serious look and manner.
“No, Guy. It is several weeks away. I am certain.”
“Explain, then, these moments of pain I have seen on occasion. You had them the previous time, did you not?”
“I did. So you should not concern yourself.”
Her tone of voice displeased him greatly. It seemed she was telling him, in her own subtle way, that her condition was none of his business. And perhaps that was, in essence, the truth. But it was a truth he had grown tired of hearing, being constantly reminded of it at every turn. She was always kind about it, of course, and usually he was content to be mollified by her kisses and gentle touches – her sweet words of reassurance. But there was something in him at this moment that resisted such mollification. And she seemed to sense it.
“Is something wrong, Guy?”
His expression grew closed, almost dark. “Nothing. You say I should not concern myself, so I will act accordingly.”
“That is not what I meant,” she said. “I only meant to say that you should not be worried for me. I am well and happy, and you have nothing to fear.”
“So I should be heartless and cold? Am I to feel nothing?”
The sharpness of his tone was stronger than he wanted it to be. But he found he could not help it. She sighed – a sound of weariness.
“You are talking nonsense, Guy.”
“I am not a fool.”
The abruptness of his words stirred her. She sat up, looking at him.
“I did not say you were. Why do you twist my words around?”
“I am aware of your true meaning.”
She shook her head. “This is nonsense, husband. Let us make peace. What has come over you?”
Petulant. Angry. In the back of his mind, he knew very well what an unreasonable beast he was being. But pride and fear had a hold of him, and without considering his words, he looked at her coldly.
“You should not concern yourself.”
I am a monster, he instantly thought, shaming himself, and he found he could say nothing as they stared at one another. Her look, however, was enough of a scolding.
“Perhaps I should not.”
Yanking the coverlet forcefully, she wrapped it around herself. She blew out the bedside candle with an overly strong puff of her breath, and turned her back on him.
The rebuff was hurtful, but he knew he deserved it. She had every right to be hurt and confused by his behavior, and clearly she was, as well as being angry. But how could he make an explanation to her, when he himself could hardly understand what he was feeling? His emotions had overwhelmed him so. He had an odd desire to speak to Matilda at that moment. A healer, a sage. She would no doubt have harsh words for him if he confided in her. But her words would be wise ones, which was precisely what he needed…