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Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Tempest Revisited - Chapter Nine, Part Two

Riding through the marketplace, he hardly noticed his surroundings. It was his duty to look for trouble among the people of town. But his head was too full of thoughts. His feelings were in too much turmoil over Cassia to worry about the useless residents around him.
Why did she not come?
It was a question that had swirled round and round in his head all night, disturbing his sleep. It had not left him in the light of day, and it was with him now. He wanted to believe that some dire circumstance had kept her away. She was the only woman he had ever made an effort to trust, and even now, he clung to the hope that his faith in her was not in vain. But old memories and betrayals haunted him, making him wonder if she had chosen to think of him as nothing more than a memory. Would she discard him so easily, as so many others had?
He stopped his horse and leaned forward in the saddle, letting out a despondent sigh as he cast his glance aside.
A hooded figure caught his eye. There was something familiar about that female form, hidden even as it was in a long cloak. He sat up straight, his senses heightened. He knew it was her. Even without seeing her face to face, he knew her. Sliding down from his horse, tying it to a nearby post, he stealthly pursued her. He waited for the right moment. It would not do to have a confrontation out in the open. When he saw her headed towards a certain path, one that he knew went by several houses with alleyways between, he circled around back and waited, preparing to intercept her. It did not take long. She was distracted by some sound or noise just before she passed, looking in the opposite direction. And he seized the moment.
She gasped as he snatched her by the arm, yanking her into the shadows.
“Deceitful witch!” he cursed her. He pressed her against the wall, his eyes wild as they stared into hers.
A tumult of wild emotions fought for mastery of his heart and mind. The delight of seeing her again – of having her near, a mere fraction of a space separating them. God in heaven, he had never longed for someone more! And yet he could not forget how he had waited for her that night at the cottage. How he had longed for her, hoping for her. But she had never come. The thought of it brought his fury to a fever pitch, and his hands shook as he grasped her arms.
Her response was bold – her tone as fearless as ever. “I did not deceive you!”
She fought against his hold, but he would not release her. Not when he had her after all this time. And he demanded answers.
“You made a promise to meet me and you did not! I will have an explanation!”
She broke free from his hold, moving back a step. Her gaze met his, her dark eyes shining with courage. And after a moment,  they were shining with tears. “My father is dying, you selfish bastard!”
He slowly released his hold on her. He watched as she turned away. A weight rose from his shoulders – the weight of fear and anger that had held him in a grip for two weeks. Just as quickly as his temper had exploded, it dissolved into a feeling of great shame. He hardly knew what to say to her.
“Dying?” he asked. Watching her, he saw it when she wiped a tear from her eye. His heart ached for her. If he could have been certain that she would accept his consolation, he would have eagerly gathered her against his heart and comforted her. But he knew he hardly deserved the right to be near her - stupid, untrusting fool that he was. Instead, he listened, letting her speak without molestation.
“He never recovered entirely from that night you rescued him. Now he is gravely ill, and unlikely to ever rise from his sickbed.”
He cursed himself. Good God, I am the worst of men.
“Forgive me, Cassia. I did not know.”
She replied in a pointed way – her barbs meant to wound him. “No, you did not know. You only assumed the very worst of me. You think only of yourself, as all men do.”
Never in his life had he asked for a woman’s forgiveness - except for Marian. And he did not want to think of her at all. Cassia was all he could think of, and if she asked it of him, he was prepared to plead for her mercy. He came to stand behind her.
“How am I to express my deep regret? How can I convince your of my sincerity?”
She said nothing in reply. When she dropped her head into her hands, weeping, he could remain passive no longer. He cared not if she hated him for his selfishness. Moving closer to her, he gathered her into his embrace, gently placing her head against his chest. He thanked heaven that she did not fight him. She seemed to want his comfort, leaning against him in a way that left him enthralled. He feared upsetting her further by speaking his inner thoughts, so he was silent as he comforted her. But never had he been so joyful. Having her so near, feeling her soft warmth against him and the sweet lavender scent of her soothing his senses, he was overwhelmed.
“Guy, there is something I must tell you.”
He felt so happy having her in his arms. He recalled the way it had felt to hold her that night in the barn – the soft words between them. The feeling of sheer bliss and utter peace in his soul. She was the only source of such contentment. He replied softly to her – softer and more gently than he had spoken to any woman.
“What is it?”
It was a moment before she said anything. He wondered at her silence, and gently setting her back a space, he noticed how she kept her head lowered. Cupping her cheek, he made her lift her head to look him in the eyes. And he saw that her tears were flowing again. It worried him to see such sadness in her expression – and it stirred the fears that had just begun to ease.
“What is, it Cassia? What is wrong?”
She swallowed a lump in her throat. And then she answered. “Edwin is taking me to France.”
He shook his head in disbelief. “France?”
“When my father is gone, Edwin does not wish to remain in Nottingham. He was granted a barony in Marseilles, and he wants to return there.”
No, he said to himself. This cannot happen again.
“He will take you from me?”
When she removed his hand from her cheek, a feeling of panic blossomed in him – stronger and more vigorous than before, wrapping itself around his insides and crushing him in its grip. She was consenting to all of this. Not willingly, though. He could hear the pain in her voice. But she was consenting all the same.
“It is how it must be, Guy.”
 The reality of their circumstances came crashing back down on him. His face grew dark with frustration and anger, and he pulled her tight against himself.
“It is NOT how it must be!”
Her voice was so gentle, so full of tenderness for him. She did not want this. He knew she did not. But she was making her farewell, despite the cruelty of it – despite the fact that it was tearing them both pieces. She pleaded with him.
“Guy, do not torment yourself. You must try to forget what has happened between us.”
Her words like knives piercing him, and his cry was one of torment. “I cannot forget!”
“You must,” she said, her voice breaking. “And I must return to a life with my husband.”
“He is not your husband! He has been away all of this time, never sending a word to you, and now he appears from the blue and demands his place at your side – in your bed?”
“It is his right…
“It is MY right!”
The fire he so admired in her sparked into a flame then, giving her strength. The strength to make her last words to him ones that were spoken with a fierce boldness.
“You must face the truth of things, Guy of Gisborne! We both must face the truth of things, no matter how it pains us!”
For a moment, he was rendered frozen. She fled from him so quickly, it took him too long to react. And then he was rushing after her, determined not to let her get away. Not this time. He would drag her away if he needed to, away to the cottage or somewhere even more distant. But he had to get to her first, and she ran like a doe in flight. He was nearly upon her – she was but a small distance away. But suddenly he was stopped short in his pursuit. The sheriff stood before him, blocking his path.
“Ah, Gisborne! There you are! I must speak to you immediately. Meet me in my castle chambers at once. Make haste!”
He was not listening, his mind too engaged in his pursuit of Cassia. He looked for her, his eyes straining to catch a glimpse of her. But she was gone.
“GISBORNE!” Briewere shouted. “Are you deaf, man? I gave you an order!”
His eyes still searching, his hope fading, he managed a grumble of a reply.
“Yes, my lord.”
As the sheriff  turned and rode away, Guy moved slowly through the crowd, still searching. But she was gone. Out of his life once again. And with a crushing feeling, he feared he would never see her again.
 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Tempest Revisited - Chapter Nine, Part One

Just a short one for today. Note: I made a slight change you'll notice about a "Fortnight." I made the change in the previous chapter to coincide with it.
Enjoy! :)
 
*****
 
Under the light of the moon, Nottingham Castle looked eerie. The flags waved slowly in the breeze, the sound of their movements giving off a sinister sound. It looked to Guy like a prison, and it felt as though he had been condemned to a sentence within its walls. He was aware that he had no choice but to return here. What else could he do but hope to reclaim his position as Master-at-Arms? After knowing a brief taste of joy and freedom, he was now thrust back on a life of miserable servitude. The thought of it became a sharp pain of despair in his heart. A heart quickly filling with bitterness.
 
Damn every soul in Nottingham, he thought. They were all to blame. Every noble, every commoner. Were it not for all of their prejudices and superstitions, their fearful ignorance, he might have been able to convince Cassia to come home with him. But she feared their judgment, and so she had forced him to leave her behind. All that anyone had ever wanted was to see him suffering, and now it seemed they had gotten their wish once again.
 
No, he told himself. I will not know this misery for long. She will come, and when she does, I will know joy once more. And I will not be without her again.
 
A fortnight. That, in truth, was not so long a time. And once she was back in his arms, all of his unhappiness would be forgotten. All he had to do was wait…
 
*****
 
“Well, well. Tis’ not yuletide, and yet it seems we have a miracle before us. Welcome back, Gisborne.”
 
Guy was silent, his head bowed in obedience as he stood before the Sheriff. Briwere, still in his night robe, walked back and forth in front of the fire in his chamber hearth.
 
“So,” he said. “You did not perish with your men, after all? You have taken leave these last two months, have you?”
 
Guy shook his head. “No, my lord. I was incapacitated. But due to the efforts of Samaritans, I am able to return now to my duty.”
 
The sheriff looked at him with great interest. “So, that drunken fool of a guard was not mistaken, then. He did see his former master in the flesh. I suppose I dispatched him a bit too quickly.”
 
Despite his words, there was no hint of regret in his tone. He stopped suddenly, looking at Guy with a curious expression.
 
“Samaritans, Gisborne? Who were they?”
 
There was a long moment as Guy thought of how to respond. And knowing Briwere as he did, he chose his answer carefully.
 
“No one of consequence.”
 
There would be no further explanation…at least none that he would give willingly. He would not endanger Cassia now by revealing her existence. It was his hope that Briwere would ask no further questions of how he came to be here…and that, as it turned out, was just what happened.
 
“Well then, Sir Guy,” he said with a bit of glee, tapping his fingers together as the wheels turned in his head. “It seems you may finally be of real use to me. I have just had the most brilliant of thoughts. When the brainless peasants of this village see you have returned, they will no doubt believe that the devil has risen to haunt them. We must make the most of their superstitious ignorance.”
 
Guy gave him a curious look. “My lord?”
 
Briwere chuckled. “When you were believed dead, your home was in my hands of course, to do with as I wished. I fully intended to install a new tenant there. But it remains unoccupied…and the reason for that? There was a great belief that your ghost roamed the corridors.”
 
Guy shook his head slightly, not seeing the point. “I am afraid I do not understand, my lord.”
 
Briwere waved a hand, rambling on and continuing to speak as if Guy were not even there. It seemed he was quite enjoying the vocalization of his strange train of thought…and while the Sheriff’s back was turned for a moment, Guy gave an irritated shift of his eyes.
 
“Oh you shall have your home back, Gisborne. You will need new servants, but that is for you to see to. What I am interested in is the fear your presence shall bring. Because you see, fear keeps the ignorant in their place. And that is what these people need…to always be reminded of their lowliness, and of who their masters are.”
 
As if they are not well aware of it, Guy thought. But feeling that it was not his place to question why, he said nothing. In truth, whatever ridiculous plotting Briwere had in mind, Guy knew his own opinion of it did not matter. He was back in the hands of his lord and master.
 
Rage welled up within him. If they thought him the devil before, they had not seen anything yet. They were all to blame for the miserable life he had endured, and it was because of them that he was alone – his soul emptier now than it had ever been.
 
If Briwere wished him to be the devil, then so be it…
 
*****
 
Guy of Gisborne was back from the dead.
 
That was the news that swept like wildfire through Nottingham, and many villagers truly believed he was a walking demon. According to whispers, he had appeared like a phantom in the night, demanding to see the Sheriff and terrifying all those who came across him.
 Guy found himself the leader of nocturnal raids upon the village residents. Barging in with torches in their hands, the guards pulled people from their beds in the dead of night and forced them to kneel before Gisborne, whom they looked upon with absolute terror. Many had taken to wearing small makeshift crosses around their necks in the hopes of warding off his evil presence. Their cries of mercy, pleading for their immortal souls, fell on deaf ears. It was his feeling that if they were ignorant enough to believe in such nonsense, they deserved what they got.
 
 Briwere was quite pleased with his strange game of intimidation. He had his favorite henchman back to do his dirty work, and he reveled in it. But he seemed to notice there was something more to Guy’s darkness than he cared to reveal.
 
One afternoon, only a few days after his return, they stood watching an execution, and Briwere saw how Guy turned his head away. At the gallows, a dark-haired young woman and her family were being put to death. Looking from them to Gisborne, Briwere snorted in disgust at Guy’s obvious displeasure.
 
“What is the matter with you, Gisborne? Does the wench remind you of your deceitful former fiancĂ©? Will you weep like a fool for her for the remainder of your useless life?”
 
There was no reply. And Briwere had no way of knowing…it was not Marian that Guy was thinking of.
 
*****
 
He was home at last.
 
After several days residing in a room at the castle, waiting for the manor to be made ready, he was finally back on his own grounds…back to his own life.
 
A useless life, he reminded himself, his mouth turned down in a sullen frown.
 
Dismounting from his horse, handing it off to the groom, he made his way inside. All of the servants…some of them familiar, some of them not…had assembled in greeting. They bowed in obedient submission. But he had no desire to speak to them, except to make an inquiry to his housekeeper.
 
“Is my bedchamber in order?”
 
She nodded. “Yes, my lord Gisborne.”
 
There was a nervous light in her eyes…one that he saw in the faces of nearly all who were around him. But he cared nothing about their fears, thinking only of his own concerns.
 
“Do not disturb me. If I require anything I shall call for it. Is that clear to you?”
 
Again she nodded. And he passed them all by, climbing the stairs to his room.
 
Walking into his bedchamber, he glanced around at the comfortable surroundings…so different than the Spartan conditions of Nottingham Castle. Except for Briwere’s private chambers and those reserved for important guests, the castle bedrooms were used as barracks, with the luxuries kept to a minimum. It had been so long since he’d known these comforts, he had almost forgotten what they were like…and he looked forward to re-familiarizing himself with them.
 
The large feathered bed was turned down and waiting for him. The candles were lit, the fire burning strong in the hearth. On the bed stand was a flagon of wine and a jeweled goblet. He went to it, pouring himself a full cup and downing it quickly. Filling it a second time, he carried it to the large velvet-cushioned chair before the fire, where he sat down with a weary sigh. Everything was quiet and comfortable. All was as it should have been. But just like it had been in his castle chamber, there was something about the room that struck him cold. There were just too many things that the space around him lacked. And sitting in his chair now, he knew very well just what was missing.
 
He let out a breath, longing for the soothing smell of lavender. Water and lavender had been used to clean the room where he’d resided, and the flower’s oil had burned in a tray to ease other scents that weren’t so pleasant. Over the last two months it had become very familiar to him, its essence so calming. But it wasn’t nearly as soothing as the sound of a certain voice. He had come to enjoy and eagerly anticipate those dulcet tones of hers, whether they were speaking gently to him when he was in pain…or cursing him for some foolish thing he had said or done. Even in her angry moments, there was something in her eyes that told him she wanted to be near him. That she desired his presence as much as he desired hers.
 
It wasn’t the look he was given by the people who surrounded him. Most times, there was fear in their faces, and a clear desire to escape his presence as quickly as possible. Then there were the looks that some of the servant girls gave him. He had seen those lusty glances before, particularly from the women residing in the castle. Obviously, the rumors of his being some sort of evil being did not turn them all away.
 
But since his return, he had been in no mood for company, even of the female kind. He was too preoccupied with other things, one of them being his old injuries from the accident. The pain of his foot seemed, if possible, worse than ever. It flared at the most inconvenient times, usually as he was walking fast. He was often forced to stop for several minutes until the wave of pain eased. At times he received strange looks from passersby, who wondered why he stood with his head hung as he groaned in misery.
 
As if to mirror his thoughts, he suddenly felt a throbbing of pain in his ankle. Putting his wine goblet aside, he reached down to remove his boots. Pulling a stool close, he elevated his foot on it, and while it helped to have his foot free of the confines of a boot, it did little to ease the ache. He closed his eyes, resting his head against the back of the chair…and he thought of what he truly needed. What he truly wanted…
 
A pair of soft, warm hands. A gentle touch that could ease his body and soul, even on the darkest of days…
 
*****
 
Not long after his return home, he found himself being closely watched. He often felt the eyes upon him as he walked through the door, and at various other moments during the day. It was a pretty young maid…blond, buxom, and doe-eyed…who looked at him so closely. At first he ignored her, having too much on his mind to consider her flirtatious movements and her wicked looks. Lusty serving wenches were the last thing on his mind.
 
He had tolerated his duties before. But now, he was finding them almost unbearable. While the night-time raids were random in their timing…Briwere wanted to use the element of surprise…the rest of his duties were back to the strict regimen of previous days. His mornings were filled with menial tasks, particularly the endless hours of meetings with Briwere and his council of nobles. Those gatherings were mind-numbingly boring, and each afternoon he had been relieved to escape to the silence of his private chamber. He might have been glad of it…if it weren’t for the fact that rest did not come easy. There was an ache deep inside of him, almost like hunger. But food did not appease him. Neither did wine soothe him, though both were in plentiful supply. Each night, he tossed and turned in his bed, his rest fitful. Such sleeplessness only made his days worse, especially when Briwere took notice of it. One morning, as the council was assembling, Guy could not stifle his yawning. His eyes were bleary…his hair unkempt and his face unshaven, as he’d been in no mood to tend to such things. Briwere gave him a disgusted look.
 
“Good God, man. You look wretched. What have you been doing at night? Shagging strumpets like an animal? You might try and control yourself for once and remember your duties.”
 
Guy gave no answer to the insult. It was enough that he was able to keep his temper in check, instead of sending his fist into his master’s jaw. No doubt that would have been one way to relieve some of his tension…if only for a moment.
 
*****
 
 As he had on so many nights of late, he sat in his chair before the fire. And as it had become his habit, he sighed in frustration. A bottle of honey mead sat on the table beside him, untouched. He’d reached for it several times only to put it back again, knowing it would not cure his ailment.
 
The fortnight was nearly gone. Four days remained. But time seemed to have stretched into an eternity.
 
It felt like a lifetime since he had seen her. And he wanted nothing more than to leap on his horse and ride back to the house in the forest…to throw open the door to her house, pry her away from her husband’s arms, and carry her off.
 
Her husband.
 
A burning wave of jealousy came over him. Reaching for the bottle beside him, he gulped down the alcohol, desperate for some way to numb the pain and emptiness within him. It was eating him alive. When he thought of her with her husband, it drove him mad with furious despair. Edwin Middleton had every right to touch her. To kiss her. And to lie with her. And imagining it, he felt a wild desire to commit murder.
 
Rising up from the chair, he took to pacing back and forth, trying to control the wild impulses that were overtaking him.
 
Four days, he reminded himself. Just four days, Gisborne, and you will be with her again.
 
Thinking of her – imagining the cross expression she would probably wear if she saw him this way – he felt his temper easing. He had never known a woman with such a fire in her belly. And in that same little being, the most tender heart. He returned to his seat, calmer now, finding some measure of peace by recalling every moment he had spent with her.
 
He thought of her eyes. In them, he had always seen a softness he could not quite describe. Even when she was angry, that light had not diminished. It struck something deep within him, touching a part of his soul that no one else had ever reached.
 
It was affection, he had slowly come to realize. She cared for him…truly and deeply. No one had ever looked upon him with such feeling.
 
There were times when he felt the impulse to call out for her, thinking that she would appear from the next room. But then he would remember where he was…that she was no longer near, to come to him whenever he was in need. Each time a servant came to his aide he was overwhelmed with deep disappointment, for there was only one face he wished to see. And for the moment, she was beyond his reach.
 
Nights were even more unbearable, as his imagination cruelly taunted him with images of what was forced to be without. Even now he envisioned her. Those soft lips on his skin…that sweet voice whispering heated endearments in his ear as her arms slipped around his neck…
 
His thoughts were interrupted by a sudden knock upon the door. He ignored it, silently cursing the disturbance. But it came again…and then the door was squeaking open. A low, throaty female voice spoke from behind him. He knew which of his servants it was. He didn’t have to look.
 
 “My lord, is there anything you require this evening?”
 
He heard the familiar sound of an invite in her voice, and for a moment he considered her. Perhaps a mindless encounter with a willing female was what he needed to ease his frustration. Perhaps he could close his eyes and pretend it was the woman he wanted, and not just some convenient piece of flesh. Cassia would not have to know about it…not that he required permission to do as he pleased. Without turning to look at the maid, he called her over.
 
“Come here, wench.”
 
He listened to the sound of the door closing…the sound of her slight footsteps as she slowly approached him from behind. A moment later he felt her hands upon his shoulders, gently massaging them. Then she came around his chair to face him, and she wasted no time in undoing the laces of her gown, exposing her ample breasts. Moving herself close she placed herself in his lap. She brought her lips to his ear and softly nibbled his lobe, while reaching down with an eager hand to fondle him. Her lips were full and moist, and she tried to bring them to meet his…but he turned his head away. Kissing was much too personal, too intimate for this. He wanted no emotions between them. He didn’t even wish to know her name. She was here to slake his lust, and nothing more.
 
But even with her fingers stroking him, and her mouth dropping hot, wet kisses on his chest, he found himself responding with only the slightest twinge of excitement. She was lacking in several ways that were making him lose interest quickly. Her hair was much too light…not the rich chestnut tresses that felt like silk when running through his fingers. The face was a bit too round, the eyes an uninspiring shade of hazel. He wanted to behold a pair of eyes that were dark and deep in their color, glittering like two onyx jewels. Staring at the inadequate form before him, with her eyes now meeting his, he saw how her lips were parted slightly in anticipation. Using her free hand, she linked her fingers with his and guided his palm to her breast. She began thrusting against his hand…and he found both the feeling of her body and the expression in her eyes to be repulsive.
 
What he saw was pure, selfish lust. No real feeling. He could have been any sort of man…any nobleman, particularly…and it would not have made a difference. How many other men had she spread her legs for, all in the hopes of seeking some kind of personal gain? It disgusted him to think that he had once offered coin or jewels for the favors of women like her. Her lewdness was appalling...and he’d had enough of her.
 
“Get out,” he growled at her.
 
She blinked in response, confused by his sudden demand. He pulled his hand from hers. He gripped her roughly by the shoulders, shaking her.
 
“I said get out! Now!”
 
Her face turned quite red, and she fumbled with the ties of her dress as she slid from his lap. When she was gone from the room he went and slammed the door, bolting it, lest there be any others who would try their hand at tempting him. He wanted none of them. Instead, he returned to the bottle of wine on the table. Partaking of wine wouldn’t solve his problem. But perhaps if he got roaring drunk, he might pass out and find some measure of peace.
 
*****
 
The incident with the maid had not been without benefit. It had served to erase his doubts on one particular point. He wanted Cassia back, more so than he’d realized before. He needed her back. He would not be satisfied otherwise. In a few days more, he would have her again. She would come to the cottage, and when she did, he would have it prepared for her. To be certain that she came to a suitable abode, he found a carpenter to assess the property. All was sound, he was told. The house needed only a good cleaning, and for that he enlisted the work of several servants. He paid them extra to ensure that a few special touches were added. He knew little of flowers or tapestries, but he was certain that Cassia would appreciate a woman’s touch. He was all anticipation. Why could the time not go at a faster pace?
 
His frustration was reaching its breaking point, particularly after a long night raiding and half a day of being ordered about by Briwere. He would fall into his bed exhausted, only to find that his rest was disturbed by vibrant imaginings. His mind and body were gripped by feverish memories of the hours he’d spent with her. He relived each delicious moment, only to wake and find himself alone in his empty bed. It was a torment the likes of which he’d never known, and he didn’t know how much more he could take. His only consolation was the thought that soon, he would be with the woman he desired more than anything in the world.
 
Soon, Gisborne, he reminded himself. Soon…
 
*****
 
A fire was burning in the hearth. Candles were lit in the sconces, giving the room a soft glow. Leaning his head against the mantle, Guy took in a deep breath. She will come, he told himself. She will come. She will not betray me.
 
He had arrived in the late afternoon. Coming through the door, he had hoped to find her waiting there. But he had found only silence. He took to walking the surrounding pastureland and woods, trying to pass the time. At dusk he returned, anticipating the sight of her, desperate to see that she had come to him. Lord, he missed her so dreadfully.
 
But as darkness fell, he found himself still alone. Turning away from the fire, he walked slowly back and forth. His hope was fading…and his bitter despair was rising once again. Was he condemned forever to only know the feelings of hopelessness and anger? It slowly dawned on him that Cassia was not coming. A crushing weight of despair fell on his heart.
 
Why? he asked silently. Why have you not come?
 
Pained by his deep disappointment, he reached for the pitcher of ale that was nearby. He had intended to share it with her. He had imagined so many delightful things they would share this night. But instead, he found himself in the same manner of being that seemed to be his eternal fate. Alone. Weighed down by hopelessness. Besieged by anger.
 
He picked up the pitcher, and bellowing a shout of rage, he watched it shatter against the wall.
 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Tempest Revisited - Chapter Eight

His senses were slowly returning. There was a throbbing, blinding pain in his head, and he tried to reach up to rub the soreness away. But he could not move his arms. And there was something pressing hard against his back. A cloth was gagging him, not allowing him to shout. As his mind came fully awake, he realized that he was tied with rope and bound securely to a post. Fear rose up fast within him, but he took a deep breath through his nose, calling on his soldier’s discipline to maintain his self-control.
Looking up, he saw the light of the moon coming in through the slats of the barn’s walls. It was one of the barn’s support posts he was tied to. His arms were positioned behind him. His wrists were tied tightly, and his arms were bound as well, keeping him secured to the post. Whoever his attackers were, they had seen to it that escape was impossible. But why had they left him this way? Why had they not killed him? Was it their intent to come back and finish him off?
What the hell had happened? One minute, he had been in utter bliss. The next minute, he was tied and bound like a criminal captive. Who had struck him, and why? And where was Cassia? Did she know he was here, held against his will in this way? He was helpless, unable to move or to speak. And his captors were out there somewhere, probably waiting and plotting an attack against him. He could only hope that Cassia would come in search of him. There was no one else he could rely on. He was certain that she would soon begin to wonder about his absence, and before long, he would hear the sound of her voice falling on his ear.
Where are you, Cassia? he wondered…
*****
She heard voices saying her name. Men’s voices – voices she had not heard in so long, and yet she knew them so well.
No, she said. It cannot be.
She slowly opened her eyes, and the unbelievable truth stood before her. She knew their faces so well. One was dark-haired and blue-eyed – the younger image of Robert DeWarren, who was sitting nearby. She was lying in the bed, and she slowly sat up with her brother’s assistance.
“Stephen,” she whispered.
Her eyes turned to the other man who stood at Stephen’s side. How can this be? she asked herself. Her husband. Edwin Middleton. He looked the same, and yet, so different. His eyes were the same shade of soft brown, his hair nearly the same color. He was just as lean and athletic as she remembered – the fitting form of a soldier. And yet, there was no longer the light of youth in his eyes. It seemed he had aged a lifetime in just a few short years. But his voice was just the same. He spoke tenderly to her.
“Cassia, are you well?”
Lord, this is all too much, she thought. For a moment, she could not answer.
“Cassia, speak to me,” said Edwin.
She shook her head, looking between the two of them, her eyes wild with confusion and disbelief. “How can this be? How can you both be here?”
It was Edwin who answered. He took her hand, holding it gently in his own.
“We both survived the battlefield, Cassia. We spent many long months regaining our strength.” He looked over at Stephen, as if silently urging him to continue the story.
“I saved the life of a duke,” said Stephen, “And as a reward, I was offered a garrison to command. I am a man of property and rank. I am a baron, sister.”
“And I am his steward,” Edwin declared.
Cassia felt as though she might faint again. She wagged her head. “This is impossible. It cannot be.”
For the first time in nearly three years, she felt the press of her husband’s lips against her skin. He kissed her temple.
“It is true, my love. We have been supremely blessed. We can begin our lives anew.”
From nearby, Robert broke his silence.
“You forget one thing.”
They all turned to look at him.
“Guy of Gisborne.”
Guy, Cassia thought. Oh, God!
Stephen’s expression grew dark – the look of an old hatred reborn.
“We shall deal with him soon. For the moment, he will remain imprisoned like the criminal he is.”
Imprisioned, she thought. Why have they imprisoned him? Anxiety grasped her voice, making it tremble.
“What have you done with him?”
“It matters not,” said Edwin. He was speaking so calmly, as if he took no notice of her distress. She pulled her hand away from his hold.
“You will tell me what you have done to Sir Guy!”
He gave her an odd look. She knew he was probably wondered at her concern for Guy. But she had to know.
“He is tied up in the barn. But he is no longer your concern, wife. Robert has told us how Matilda found Gisborne, and how you kept him in your care. But you need not worry anymore. He will soon be gone.”
He thought she was merely fretful over her patient. He assumed it was nothing more than a passive worry over a man she had been responsible for. He knew nothing – and a pang of guilt washed over her. But she could not think of that now. Getting off the bed, rising to her feet, she moved towards the doorway. But Stephen’s hand grasped her arm.
“Where are you going?”
She looked him boldly in the eyes. “You cannot hold him captive, brother. It is wrong.”
The old tension between them rose up anew – their definitions of right and wrong clashing in the same way they always had. The years had not changed things, it seemed.
“You would free him? Just so he can hurry to Nottingham and bring the Sheriff to our door? Are you mad?”
Angered by his intent to dominate, the same way he always had, she flung his hand off in defiance.
“He will not bring danger upon us. We saved his life, and he saved ours. He rescued father from the hands of bandits.” Thinking of her father, she clung to a thread of hope. “Tell them, father. Tell them how Sir Guy came to your aid.”
When Robert looked away, she felt a sting of tears in her eyes. His words felt like a cruel betrayal.
“I have told them, daughter. But one good deed does not make up for a lifetime of wickedness.”
Turning to Edwin, she approached him with a fearful look in her eyes.
“What will you do?” she asked. And his answer struck her cold with dread.
“It is not for you to concern yourself with. Stephen and I will take the matter into our own hands. You will be free of all association.”
“You will kill him?”
He gave no reply, but she needed none. She could not forget the hatred that Stephen and Edwin had long harbored for Guy of Gisborne. In their very hands now, they held the chance to be rid of him forever – and they would take it. She had no doubt of it. And she could not allow it.
In the short time she had been a wife to her husband, she had only spoken against him once. Then, she had been a girl, pleading with her husband not to leave her for the want of going to war. But she was a girl no longer. And she rose up in defiance of him. Her cry was angry, her voice breaking in despair.
“You cannot do this!”
The sudden rising of his voice stunned her. His eyes flashed with fury.
“You are my wife, Cassia! You will not question what I do and you will not forbid it!”
Taking a step backwards, she sank down into a chair. They would murder Guy, and there was nothing she could say to stop them. Lowering her head, she covered her face with her hands. A moment later, she felt a hand on her shoulder.
“Forgive me,” Edwin said softly. “I did not mean to speak cruelly.”
She moved her shoulder, dislodging his hand. “Leave me alone. Both of you. I cannot bear all of this. Not now.”
Silence fell, and after a moment, she heard the sound of their footsteps moving away. They closed the door, leaving her in solitude.
She curled her fingers against her lips. Tears spilled down her cheeks. How could her world have changed so dramatically and in such a short time? Was this to be her punishment for being with Guy - to share rapture with him one minute, and see him given his death sentence the next?
No, she said. This cannot happen. I will not let it.
As a woman, she knew she was quite powerless now. Edwin was back, and he had every right to command her – even threaten her, if he wished, though she could not imagine him ever harming her. But she could remember his expectations of her. He was a kind husband, but he did not tolerate disobedience or disrespect, and though he had never raised a hand to her, his commanding tone of voice had always been enough to keep her compliant. He was her husband, and though it broke her heart to think of how Guy would react when he learned of this, she knew there was little she could do.
But she owed Guy a final debt. And it would be paid.
She saw his dagger lying on the trunk at the foot of the bed. He had left it there. After he had saved her father’s life. Rising to her feet, she picked the dagger up and secured it in the tie of her sash. Guy’s boots were lying nearby as well. He had not worn them since the day they had found him, his foot being too tender to be put into a pair of footwear. Picking them up, she clutched them to her breast. He would have no choice but to wear them now – and at the thought of what that implied, her heart ached. She moved towards the door and carefully opened it, looking out.
Edwin, Stephen, and Robert were gathered together in a corner near the fire, their backs turned to her. They were deep in conversation, and they never noticed her as she slipped out the front door.
*****
Guy’s head was lowered. He had fought against his bonds, but it was a futile effort, and it was tiring. But when he heard the creek of the barn door, he looked up.
Cassia, he said to himself.
She had come for him. He watched, overwhelmed with relief and a strange sense of overwhelming joy. As she hurried to his side, he saw the concern in her eyes. Who had ever looked at him in that way? Who else but her had ever given a damn about him? When she released him from these bonds, he would take her into his arms and thank her properly.
But looking closer at her, he saw a strange light in her eyes. Was it sadness and fear that he saw in her? A feeling of dread began to grow inside of him. Reaching up, she touched her finger to the cloth that covered his mouth.
“You must be very quiet,” she said. “We must not be heard.”
What goes on? He wondered. But he nodded, allowing her to remove the gag from his mouth. He took in deep breaths as she worked to cut the rope binding his wrists. They soon fell away, and the ropes around his arms soon followed. Instantly he reached for her, desiring the feeling of her soft body against him. But instead, he felt the pressure of her hands against his chest, holding him back.
“No Guy, we must not.”
Bewildered, he shook his head in confusion. “Why not?”
He saw her swallowing a lump in her throat. His feeling of dread grew – and a sense of panic began to brew with it. Something was terribly wrong, and he wanted to silence her in some way. But she spoke before he could.
“My husband and my brother have returned. And you cannot remain here. The danger is too great.”
He shook his head in denial. She was making this up – a deliberate trick to vex him. It could not be true. He wanted to deny it. He would deny it.
“Your brother and your husband are dead. You told me so.”
Her eyes were lowered. Her voice was sad. “Do not seek explanations, Guy. Just know that they have come back, and you must go before they take their revenge on you.”
He wondered for a moment if he had gone mad. He should have been concerned only with his own perseverance. But all he could feel – all he could think of – was the loss of her. When she looked up at him, he saw the tears rolling down her cheeks. All the evidence he needed was written in those drops of moisture. She was in pain at the thought of his going. And yet, she was insistent on it. He would not allow this cruelty to be inflicted on him – not when he had been so very close to knowing something of joy in his life. His emotions besieged him – anger and pathos overwhelming him as his voice rose.
“You cannot return to him!”
She was in despair now – he saw it in her face. And yet her voice was strong, teetering on the edge of anger.
“Do you think I am happy? If I could change matters, I would in a moment. But he is my husband. I belong to him, and there is nothing to be done about it.”
Just a few moments earlier, he had imagined taking her into his arms and losing himself in the sweetness of her. Now he held her in a possessive grip, enraged by the thought of her giving herself to another man.
“You belong to me! He has no right to claim you!”
She struggled against his hold, fighting him with a resistance he abhorred. Even in the midst of such emotional turmoil, she had the spirit of a warrior, and she was fierce in her commands.
“Guy of Gisborne, you must GO! NOW! I will not stand by and watch you be murdered!”
Somehow, her words suddenly came through to his senses, calming the chaos of his feelings – if only by a small measure. He thought quickly, desperate for a way to kindle the flame of hope that had been quenched.
“Come to me, then,” he said. “When the moment is right, steal away and come to me at my manor house.”
She looked mortified by the idea, shaking her head.
“You are dreaming, Guy! I cannot be seen with you in Nottingham! Do you not think my husband would hear of it? Everyone would know, and I will not disgrace my family or myself by being openly flaunted as your whore!”
It was true. Nothing in Nottingham was kept secret. Everyone knew that he had sometimes kept company with wanton females. They would think of her as they thought of all the others. Nothing was farther from the truth. But the truth hardly mattered to those unwilling to hear it. He thought again, grasping at any idea. There had to be a way.
“Come to my father’s cottage. It is in the glen near stony creek. I will send word to you in some way, and you will meet me there.”
It infuriated him when he saw her shake her head.
“Guy, I cannot…”
“You are my mistress! I will not give you up. Say you will meet me there, or I will return one day soon and fetch you myself, your brother and your husband be damned!”
She pushed at him with all of her strength, cursing him. “God’s teeth, you are impossible!”
He felt a change in her. He could not explain it, or define it, but he swore that he sensed an easing of her resistance. His voice grew softer, but was still desperate.
“What say you?”
“Yes, I will meet you there!” she cried. “But for the love of heaven, GO!”
She tore herself from his arms, hurrying to the stall where his horse was kept. He shoved his feet into his boots, wincing at the pain they caused him. The reality of everything seemed to fall on him all at once, and he knew at last that he must part from her if he wanted to remain alive. He could stay and fight. But what good would it do? If he somehow managed to defeat both men, then what? Cassia cared for him, but she would never forgive him for slaying two people that were dear to her. And if he lost, they would see him dead, as Cassia knew they would. What good would he be to her then?
Quickly, they saddled his horse, and she followed alongside as they led the beast from the barn. In the yard he paused, turning to her. She handed him his dagger, and he placed it in the sheath on his belt. When she turned her face up to him, a beam of moonlight fell on her face, giving her an etheral glow that he could not resist. He clutched her to him, taking her lips in a desperate, passionate kiss. For a moment, she responded in the way that he now knew and longed for with such eagerness and hunger. Her fingers clasped at the base of his neck. She pressed herself against him, and with his hands on the small of her back, he pulled her in tightly, the contact driving him mad with pleasure.
But all too quickly she was pushing him away. He could not recall a more difficult task than the effort of breaking away from her and turning to his horse. With her help he was able to climb up, despite the pain of his ankle. But the pain of going was worse. Looking down at her, his expression was fierce.
“I will have my mistress. No one will keep me from claiming what is mine.”
Her eyes met his. She said nothing, and he wanted it that way. Her silence spoke volumes. With no words, there was no denial. But he feared it. If he stayed a moment longer, he was terribly afraid that she would say something he did not want to hear. To avoid it, he turned his horse and rode away, heading towards Nottingham – the pain of a heavy heart reminding him that he was leaving behind the only thing in the world that he held dear.
 
 

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