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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Tempest Revisited - Chapter Eleven, Part One


The journey home was made in silence. With each step she took, Cassia felt the weight of guilt and sadness pressing on her. She had abandoned him, again, after he had begged her to stay. When he woke and found her gone, he would be heartbroken – and furious. And it had been so difficult to leave him. There had been such a look of peace about him while she watched him in repose. She knew that she had done that. And she wanted to stay with him, to see that he never again wanted for love and caring.

But her duty was to her husband. And more importantly, to her father. Edwin had hired a young maid to help care for Robert, as his health was fading with each passing day. She had stayed with him while they attended the tourney, but Cassia had bristled at the idea of someone else doing what she had done for so long. Edwin, however, had insisted that she no longer burden herself with such difficult tasks.

The thought of it weighed on her already low spirits. Ever since Edwin’s return, she had felt such a sense of domination over her life – as if she had been placed in chains, and was expected to consent to every command. She began to secret a wish that her husband had never returned, for what had his return brought her other than misery and heartache?

Her head was lowered as she and Matilda approached the front door of the house – and it opened suddenly, Edwin appearing before them. He looked them both up and down.

“Cassia, where have you been?”

She opened her mouth to speak. But Edwin spoke again, his words giving her a chill.

“Your father has been asking for you.”

As she and Matilda stepped inside, removing their cloaks, Stephen appeared from the back room. He was holding up a candle, and as Cassia approached him, she saw the grave look on his face. It caused a lump to form in her throat.

“Has his condition worsened?” she asked.

Reaching out, he placed a hand on her shoulder. “Go and see him, Cassia.”

The moment she stepped into the room, her eyes filled with tears. Lying back on the pillows, his eyes closed, Robert was still and pale. She feared that he was gone already, but she hurried to his side and took his hand. At the feeling of her touch, he opened his eyes, and she pressed his palm against her cheek, speaking softly to him.

“Father, I am here.”

A weak little smile came to his lips. “I have waited for you, daughter.”

“I am home,” she said.

His words were growing softer. “You are so much like your mother. I will be with her by morning.”

Such a declaration struck her with a vicious pain. Desperate for some way to distract herself, hoping it would delay the inevitable, she began adjusting his pillows and his coverlet. She wiped her eyes with her sleeve.

“Do not say such things. You will be well soon.”

He seemed unable to hear her, speaking on as if she had said nothing. When Cassia looked at him again, his eyes had closed – and somehow, she knew it was for the last time.

“I go home to God without fear. Be a good girl, Cassia. Take good care of your husband. He loves you so.”

Looking up at Edwin, and then back to her father, she kissed Robert’s hand lovingly, stifling a sob.

“I will. I promise.”

A thousand memories seemed to flash in her mind all at once. She was a child again, laughing as he held her up high above his head. She was a young girl, following him and Stephen on a fishing excursion, and then she was a new bride and he was placing her hand in Edwin’s as they stood outside the church. But now, she was looking down at him, seeing the absolutely stillness of his figure as it lay before her. Her eyes searched him, desperate for some last sign of life. But there was no movement. No tremble. Just silence. Lowering her head to her arms, she broke down into shaking torrents of grief.

She felt Edwin’s hands on her back, trying to soothe her.

“He has gone to a better place, my love. He will suffer no longer. We should rejoice for him, for he has found eternal peace.”

Her broken heart, shattered into sharp pieces, pierced her soul. It flooded her body and mind with a rage born of loss. She rose up, wishing she could strike him with her fists. But all she had were words.

“Do not speak to me of rejoicing! Do not speak to me of anything! Just go! Leave me be!”

Her voice broke anew, her head falling back to her arms. She barely heard the broken sound of Stephen’s voice.

“I cannot remain here tonight,” he said. “I must seek solace elsewhere.”

He was going, and she heard Edwin’s response.

“I shall accompany you.”

At the door, Edwin turned back.

“Matilda,” he said, “Look after her.”

“I have done it, and will do it, boy. Away with both of you. Go to the tavern, and find courage in a cup, as all men do.”

“We will return before morning, and with the friar. We will see that he has a proper burial.”

Hearing them talk of a burial, Cassia cried harder, pressing her eyes against Matilda’s shoulder. She felt the gentle, loving arms around her, and she sobbed brokenly.

“Am I to lose everyone that I love? Am I never to know lasting happiness?”

Matilda said nothing, just holding her, and she wept until she could weep no more.

*****

Guy rolled over in his bed, feeling the heat of the sunlight on his face. Somewhere in his mind, he recalled that his bedroom window faced the west. West, he thought. Afternoon.

His eyes flew open. Sitting up quickly, half-dazed with sleep but quickly becoming alert, he saw that he was alone.

Cassia, he thought. Had he dreamed it? Had she been here, in his own bedchamber? Had she sat beside him, looking after him with such tenderness and love in her manner? He felt a pain in his arm, and looking down, he saw the neatly done stitching there.

There it was. The proof of her presence. And yet, she was not here. She had not remained with him, as he had asked her too.

His soul raged at the thought of it. And he leapt to his feet.

Snatching up a nearby shirt, he threw it on quickly, not bothering to call for his valet. He shoved his feet into his boots and fastened on his sword-belt, and then he rushed out the door, shouting for his housekeeper. She appeared after just a few moments, looking and speaking in a nervous way.

“Yes, my lord?”

“The woman who was here last night. The one who tended to me. How long ago did she leave?”

“Not long after she arrived, my lord. There was an old woman with her, and they departed well before dawn. They said the Sheriff had sent them for you.”

Clever witches, both, Guy thought. They knew how to cover their tracks to avoid trouble. And he was not about to expose their scheme. But neither did he plan to ignore the fact that they had been here. Cassia had been here, and if not for the fact that he had fallen asleep so easily, she would be here still. For he would never have let her go.

Never will I let her go again, he told himself.

Rushing down the stairs and out the rear door that led to the stable, he ordered his horse saddled, and soon he was hurrying away towards Sherwood Forest.

Twice now, she had left him. And not of her own free will. It infuriated him to think that she still clung to the loyalty she was convinced she owed her husband. And yet, she had come to him last night, caring for him when all others had cursed him and cheered for his failure. She loved him, he was certain. He had seen it in her eyes and heard it in her words – had felt it in her touch. Then why the hell could she  choose him over her husband? Why did she have to be so damned honorable?

He had grown weary of waiting and hoping, of begging for her love. Once he had her where he wanted her, away from the influences that were controlling her, she would give him her love. And he would never be without it again. She belonged with him…under his roof, at his side, and soon enough, in his arms again.

*****


As he approached the clearing, he saw the familiar little house. His heart beat slightly faster. A strange feeling of happiness stirred in him for a moment. This small, simple home had been the source of the only joy he had known since childhood. He could not help feeling oddly glad to be in sight of it again.

Cassia is here, he thought. And for a moment, he was overjoyed. In just a few moments, he would see her again.

But his slight smile changed then. His mouth formed a grim line, his eyes narrowing. Her husband and her brother, as well as her father, would all be here. Men who had conspired to kill him at one time. Men who were against him in every way – especially when it came to Cassia.

Damn them, he thought. They will not impede me now, by God.

He rode forward, fully intending to see them at any moment, and preparing himself for a confrontation. But he stopped short of the front door, noticing how quiet everything was. Except for the sound of the animals nearby – and the beating of a stick against fabric. Sliding down from his horse, he looked around. There was a figure behind a line of laundry. He could see the womanly shadow, and he approached slowly.

Cassia, he said to himself. She is alone. How perfect.

Reaching out slowly, his hand paused for a moment. And then he yanked the sheet aside, expecting to see her.

Matilda rose up from her work, looking startled for a brief second. And then her eyes narrowed.

“What do you want?”

A feeling of disappointment came over him. “Where is Cassia?” he asked.

She turned away from him, continuing with her work. “That is not for you to know.”

His question became a demand. “You will tell me where she is!”

“She is not here!”

She was lying. He was certain of it. He turned and made his way towards the door, ignoring her protests as she followed him.

“Is she in the house?” Guy questioned her. “Is she with him?”

“I told you, you fool! She is not here!”

“Why should I believe you?”

“You will NOT disturb a house in mourning!”

He froze instantly. Shock extinguished his flame of anger. “Mourning?”

“Her father died last night,” said Matilda. “We buried him just this morning at dawn.”

Taking a step away from the door, he rubbed his mouth with his hand, taking a deep breath. Wherever Cassia was, she was suffering a pain he knew too well – a pain he still remembered, even after all these years. Last night, she had come to him when he needed her most. Now, he would do the same for her. And no one, not even a protective old witch, was going to stop him.

“Where is she?” he demanded to know.

For a moment they stared at one another. He was tempted to curse her, or to shake her senseless if it meant he would have his answer. But something made him pause. His tone grew soft.

“Where is she, Matilda? I must know.”

He watched, seeing how she took in a deep breath and let it out slowly.

“She has gone walking. She took the path towards the lake.”

He waited a moment, searching her eyes for a hint of deception. But he could see that she spoke the truth to him. He turned away from her, hurrying his steps towards the lake and Cassia.

He found her at the water’s edge, kneeling. She was covered in a black shawl. And weeping openly. Carefully, he approached her, pausing by her side. He said her name in a gentle way.

“Cassia?”

Only silence came in reply. He fought for the right words to say.

“I am sorry for this. Robert was a good man. I owed him my life.”

She continued to sob, and he could not remain passive for another moment. His movement was awkward…uncertain and unsure. But slowly he knelt, putting his arms around her. And to his relief she did not refuse him. Instead she huddled against him like a scared kitten, pressing her head against his breast as she poured out her sorrow. He stroked her back, talking softly to her.

“It grieves me to see you in pain.”

She was silent, and it pained him to see her this way. He kissed the top of her head.

“Cassia, I am taking you home with me.”

He felt the shake of her head…the tension that grew in her frame. He knew that a refusal was coming. And he quickly silenced her.

“I will not leave you here alone. And I can see that your husband is not here. I am here, and I will never leave your side. Not ever.”

After several moments, he felt her figure soften in his arms. Confident that she would not fight him now, he adjusted his embrace and picked her up from the ground. Carrying her to his waiting horse, he lifted her into the saddle and followed behind her. Securing her in his arms he gave his mount the spur, not looking back as he took her away.

 

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Tempest Revisited - Chapter Ten, Part Two

“You weep for Gisborne?”
Cassia felt Edwin’s eyes upon her, examining her face. Her eyes were fixed on the competition field where Guy was slowly rising to his feet. She watched, heartbroken, as he made his exit while the crowd still jeered him. She could see the way he moved with difficulty, as if he was in terrible pain. Her heart ached for him. She replied to Edwin with an air of quiet defiance.
“He was my patient, husband. I came to know him in the time I cared for him. If I pity him, I cannot help it.”
Edwin took her arm as they rose from their seats, joining the crowd as everyone began to depart. He spoke as he always did – with a calm authority, as if he knew that his dominance over her was absolute.
“He is your patient no longer. If you have feelings for him, they must cease. You must give your heart to only one man, and Gisborne is hardly deserving of anyone’s heart, above all yours.”
My feelings will never cease, she thought. Never.
She wanted to go to Guy. He was injured, and suffering. And who would care for him in the way that he needed? It was all she could do to keep herself from rushing to him. The only thing that kept her from it was Edwin, who had a firm hold on her arm. He would not allow her to go. Why would he allow his wife to go to another man, even if it was only to care for him? No, he would not let her do that.
But she could not abandon Guy. He needed her.
There had to be a way. And fate seemed to know what she needed, sending it to her in the form of Matilda.
“There is my dear aunt,” she said, looking out towards the town square. “I should go and speak to her.”
“Go if you will. I shall wait for you.”
A tremor of concern passed through her. She had to find a way to free herself from him without his knowing her intent. She feared his refusal if she told him to go – but she had to try.
“There is no need, husband. I know you long for the company of your fellows. Go and be with them, and I will spend the evening with Matilda.”
His eyebrow lifted, a quizzical look in his eyes. “Are your certain? Who will escort you home?”
“Do not fear for me, Edwin. She will see me home when the time is right.” Giving him a little smile, she touched his hand, as if to emphasize her sincerity. He rested his other hand over hers, and bringing it to his lips, he kissed it gently.
“Be safe, my love. I shall see you tonight.”
Nodding, she left his side – careful not to seem in too great a hurry. A part of her felt guilty for deceiving him. He was, after all, her husband. And he was not a cruel monster. In truth, she was certain that he loved her truly. But his love was not the kind that stirred her soul and made her heart rejoice. Only one man was capable of that, and right now, he was suffering. She had no choice but to go to him.
Matilda saw her and came to her with a smile and a kiss of the cheek. But Cassia knew that her own distress must have shown in her face. She saw how Matilda’s smile lessened. She took Cassia’s hand into her own.
“What is it, child? What troubles you?”
Cassia sighed, a sad sound. “Oh, Matilda. I am in need of you.”
Matilda embraced her, rubbing her back gently. “What is wrong?”
“Did you see the tourney?”
“Only in part. I saw that your Guy of Gisborne was defeated. The crowd was quite pleased by it.”
The recollection of it pained Cassia’s heart, drawing her mouth into a frown. As Matilda drew back in the embrace, she wore a curious look.
“You are unhappy with this, I see? Is this the source of the trouble I see in your eyes?”
“I must go to him, Matilda. He is in need of me.”
They looked intently at one another. Cassia lowered her eyes, feeling a flush of warmth in her cheeks. Matilda was her confidant, and they shared a deep and loving relationship, but would their bond be tested by this? The revelation of her feelings for Guy were a perilous thing.
“You are in love with him?” Matilda asked, her tone soft.
Cassia lifted her head, meeting her aunt’s eyes, but she did not answer. And none was needed. She knew that the truth was written in her very countenance. In response, she felt the squeeze of her aunt’s hand, and a grateful smile came to her lips - a wordless agreement made between them.
*****
Cassia stood behind Matilda, waiting at the door to Guy’s manor. How would they explain their presence? How would Guy react when he saw them both? She was uncertain of her aunt’s plan, but she trusted her implicitly. Matilda reached up and knocked, and a moment later, a stout little old woman answered. She was the housekeeper, it seemed, and she eyed them with suspicion.
“What do you be wantin’ at this hour? There is nothing for you if you are beggars.”
“The Sheriff has sent us,” said Matilda. “We are here to see your master.”
The housekeeper looked them over, still doubtful of their true intentions.
“The master wishes to be left alone. He gave orders.” She tried to shut the door quickly, but Matilda put her shoe in the way, stopping it.
“The sheriff gave orders,” said Matilda. “Will you refuse him? He will not be pleased to know that a servant denied his command, leaving his master-at-arms in ill health.”
Cassia waited, holding a nervous breath – and then the door was opened for them. They stepped in, and she watched as her aunt seemed to take instant command of the household.
“Where are the other servants? Are you the only one?” She looked around, examining the well kept abode. Cassia’s gaze fell over everything as well, the proof of Guy’s status evident in the fine furnishings and tapestries, and the large stone hearth set with a generous fire. The housekeeper answered Matilda, her tone still uncertain.
“No, madam. There be three of us women in the house, and two men to work the barn and the garden.”
“I will have you all give us aid. Have you a bathing tub?”
“Yes, madam.”
“Fetch it, and bring it to your master’s chamber. Which room is it?”
The old lady pointed to the stairs. “The left door, up there.”
“Fetch water as well,” Matilda commanded.  “And see it heated for a bath.”
The housekeeper nodded. “Yes, madam.” She turned to go, but Matilda reached out and took her arm. Taking a purse from her belt, she dumped the contents into the old lady’s palm.
“For your silence,” she said, “And for the silence of your fellow servants. If you do as I command and see it through, there will be further payment.”
Suspicion changed to surprise in the housekeeper’s eyes, and then she was away to do Matilda’s bidding. Cassia came close to her, wearing her own expression of surprise.
“How came you to have such funds?”
Removing her cloak, Matilda draped it over a chair. Looking around, seeing a nearby candle in a taper, she took it to the fire and lit it. “I keep some monies hidden away. One never knows when a bribe will be called for.”
Cassia smiled for a moment – until Matilda looked at her with a serious expression, coming to stand before her with the candle in hand.
“I have sometimes sensed your feelings for this man. But you must know this, niece. You cannot remain with him long. We put ourselves in danger coming here, and your husband will certainly question your absence.”
Cassia nodded. “I understand.” Her eyes fell, her voice becoming sad. “I will see that he is well, and then I shall do as I must. You have my word.”
It was the cruelest promise she had ever been forced to make. But she knew there could be no other way. At least they would have this last time together. She could dwell on it forever if she needed to. Following Matilda as she held up the candle, ascending the stairway, they made their way to Guy’s door. They looked at one another for a long moment. Matilda handed her the candle. Taking a deep breath, Cassia reached for the handle of the door.
*****
He lay in the dark of his bedchamber, staring upwards. The room was all blackness – like his soul. Rarely had he felt such a sense of emptiness and self-loathing. And pain. He could not remember feeling such hurt, and not only from the wounds he had sustained in the battle. The pain was in his very soul. Even in the silence of the darkened room, he could still hear the sound of the jeering crowd – the hatred they had for him. The hope they had for his failure. But the pain of that humiliation paled in comparison to the barbs piercing his heart. He was certain he was dying inside, his heart and soul withering away, deprived of nourishment. But who was there to nurture it – to give it life and strength? Who desired such a task? Only one person had ever cared enough to attempt it, and she was lost to him forever. That beautiful, tender spirit – so full of fire and energy. The loss of her was a wound so deep, he was certain it would never heal. The pain was killing him, and in a moment of extraordinary sorrow, he wished it would. Death would be preferable to this.
 
When he heard the slow creek of his bedroom door being opened, he did not take his eyes from where they were fixed on the canopy of his bed.
 
But a familiar scent came to him then. The sweet calming scent of lavender. He turned his head to look…and there she stood, at his chamber threshold, a candle in her hand. Was she real, or just a figment of his imagination? No, she could not be real. She had abandoned him to be with her husband. Why, then, did he hear the sound of her soft footsteps on the floor, coming towards him? Ghosts did not make such noises. And God in heaven, they did not speak in such sweet, melodic tones.
 
“Guy of Gisborne, why do I find you in such a neglected state?”
 
He opened his mouth to speak – but just as quickly, he closed it entirely, and he turned from her, pulling himself up to sit on the edge of the bed, giving her his back. Only yesterday, he would have given anything to have her here, in his bedchamber – at his side, just within his reach. But seeing her now, he could not help feeling a terrible sense of degradation.
 
“Why have you come? Why now?”
 
She said nothing. He sat with his head lowered, waiting for her reply. But none came. He looked up when he saw the sudden change of light in the room. His gaze was directed towards the fireplace, where he saw her stirring the logs in the grate. His eyes were fixed on her every movement. She rose to her feet, coming to his side.
 
“Your arm is in need of mending.”
 
“Tis’ but a scratch,” he muttered.
 
“Have you no willing wench to care for you?”
 
Under other circumstances, her teasing would have roused his spirits. But he could feel only misery and shame.
 
“There is no one who cares for me.”
 
Her eyes were examining him. He could feel her scrutiny.
 
“Why did you not fight as you should have, Guy? I was watching, and it was clear to me that your opponent was hardly a match for you. Why did you not best him?”
 
So she had seen him. Like everyone else, she had been witness to his defeat. He lowered his eyes, unwilling to look at her. He was a dirty, bleeding, defeated failure of a man. Why did she stay, when she had her husband to look after? What need did she have of him?
 
“It was not my choice,” he replied at last. “I was ordered to give him the victory. But what difference does it make? It would have been better for me if he had ended my humiliation by running me through.”
 
She shook her head, letting out a sigh, but saying nothing. She moved away for a moment, and he heard the sound of water splashing softly in his wash basin. When she returned, it was with a wet rag in hand, and he looked up at her, seeing a familiar light of determination in her dark eyes.
 
“Take off your shirt and your mail,” she ordered him.
 
He was too exhausted to fight her commands. In silence, he began pulling his garments over his head, but it was apparently too slow for her liking. She tugged them off of him quickly, and he gave a slight grunt of pain. Dropping the offensive garments into a corner basket, she came back with the wet rag in hand and wiped the blood from his arm. Reaching into a small purse on her belt, she took out a vial and used the oil within it to rub into his wound. Then she took out a needle and thread, and Guy watched her as she prepared it. He muttered another objection, knowing she would not listen to his protest – and in his heart, he was relieved to know it.
 
“It will heal on its own. It does not need binding.”
 
“Do not be so foolish!” she scolded him, her voice rising in a way that roused something within him. This was what he needed – what he longed for. This woman, who was at one moment tough, and in the very next, so tender. As she was now.
 
“Be as still as you can,” she said, her voice soothing. “This will be unpleasant.”
 
Gritting his teeth, he was silent as she pierced his skin and began carefully weaving the needle in and out. As she sewed, the door to the room opened, and he saw several of his servants bringing in a wooden tub. They began filling it with water, and Guy looked at Cassia with curious eyes.
 
“What is this about?”
 
She broke the thread off, leaving his arm bound with a neat stitch. Putting her purse aside, she answered him in a matter-of-fact way.
 
“I have paid them to be at my command, and I have ordered a bath prepared for you. You will sleep better if you are clean.”
 
To be ordered about by her in this gentle, wifely way was an experience that soothed his battered heart and spirit. He needed her to care for him, to love him. But he did not want her here if it was mere pity that motivated her. Was it that? He feared to know the truth. His pride forced him to utter a last protest.
 
“I do not need a bath.”
 
She placed her hands on her hips, staring at him. Her dark eyes were shining with that fiery spirit he so adored.
 
“You are filthy, Guy of Gisborne. You smell positively horrid. Now stop being so quarrelsome and do as I say. Remove your wretched boots, and the rest of your garments.”
 
Too exhausted to protest, and too willing to allow her to have her way, he did as she said. She took his boots and clothes from him, handing them off to the servants as they left the room. He sat on the edge of the bed, naked as the day he was born, but when Cassia came to him, there was an absence of sensuality that would have normally stirred between them. There was a deeper, more profound feeling stirring – something he had felt growing slowly before. It seemed so much stronger now, with her beside him in this way, aiding him to stand as his battered body protested the resting position he had kept himself in. The water in the tub was hot, and as he sank into it, he let out a deep sigh of pleasure. He sat with his head lowered, too weary to do much of anything, other than to allow Cassia to care for him. She washed the sweat and dirt from him. He made contented little sounds as she worked, and occasionally he opened his eyes to look at her.
 
“You have blessed hands, Cassia.”
 
She smiled slightly. “Have I?” She ran fingers through his soapy hair, scrubbing his scalp.
 
“When I was ailing, I do not know what I would have done without you.”
 
Making him lean forward, she gently rinsed the soap from his head, and he thought of those days when they had first known each other.
 
“I could not in good conscience let you suffer,” she said. “You were in such a state at the time. I did what I felt was needed, despite the occasional abuse I endured for my efforts.”
 
She had probably hoped to be lighthearted in the conversation. That was her way, he knew. To use humor and teasing to make light of things that were often dark in nature. But after a long moment of silence, he turned his eyes to her. A feeling of great sadness and sorrow returned to him. Reaching out, he clasped her hand.
 
“You cannot know how I abhor my past behavior. Words cannot express the regret I feel for my actions.”
 
He turned his head away, lowering it once again.
 
 “How can you care for a man such as I? I am two and thirty years of age, and I have made a useless waste of my life. All of the world seems to see what you do not.”
 
“And what, pray tell, do you think they see?”
 
He muttered darkly. “A degenerated wretch of a man, full of ugliness both outside and in. My sins too numerous to count. Their hatred and scorn are a punishment I deserve.”
 
After a moment, she leaned towards him, putting her arms around him, resting her cheek against his temple. She spoke soothingly to him.
 
 “It is fortunate, then, that I see the world not through the eyes of others, but through my own.”
His heart swelled with desire and love for her.
 
Love, he thought. I do love this woman. More than I have ever loved anyone. More than my very own life. God in heaven, how I wish she was mine to have forever!
 
He was but a moment from declaring the feelings that were stirring so wildly in his heart. But fear kept him silent. If he told her, she would only remind him that she already belonged to another, and at that moment, he could not bear to hear such a truth. She was here with him now, loving him. He would not give up such a joy.
 
As he rose from the tub, he felt the last of his strength fading. He was able to dry himself and get into a pair of clean breeches, and with her help, he made it to his bed before he collapsed in exhaustion. He forced his eyes to remain open as long as he could, looking up at her where she sat beside him. He spoke to her in a quiet, pleasing voice – no pride left in him.
 
“Do not go, Cassia. Stay with me. I beg you.”
 
He felt the softness of her lips against his cheek, but heard no answer. His eyes were so heavy now – too heavy to remain open, despite his best efforts. He fell asleep, his last thoughts being a prayer of hope that she would be there when he woke in the morning.
 

The Tempest Revisited - Chapter Ten, Part One


 
CONTAINS ADULT CONTENT
 
*****
 
He would come to her bed tonight.

Cassia trembled with nervous tension at the thought of it. Since Edwin’s return, they had slept apart. She had asked it of him, feigning illness, and he had allowed her to sleep alone. But tonight, while they ate supper, she knew from the way he looked at her that he would wait no longer. He was her husband, and he had a right to share her bed and take pleasure in it whenever he desired. And he desired her tonight.

But she was sickened by the thought of being with him. And she was sickened by the feeling of guilt that would not leave her.

Tonight, she would betray the man she loved…and that man was not her husband. Tears filled her eyes as she thought of the devastation she had seen in Guy’s expression. He had never declared himself in love with her, but it was clear to her that whatever he felt for her, it was deep. Whether it was love or not, his distress had not been concealed, expressed in such a bold way that she hated herself for hurting him so. She wept silently, covering her mouth, fearful that Edwin would hear her. He would be coming to her at any moment, joining her in the loft that they would share until their departure to France. She knew she had to calm herself, but her misery overwhelmed her for quite some time. She was thankful to God that Edwin did not come until quite late. By then, she had regained her composure. But she could not hide the unhappiness that showed in her face. As Edwin came up into the loft, she tried to turn her head away so he could not see her. But he was too perceptive, it seemed. He sat near her, untying his shirt. She could feel him staring at her.

“Cassia,” he said after a time, “Tell me what troubles you.”

She tried to keep her voice calm. “I am not troubled.”

If only you would go, she thought. God in heaven, grant me mercy.

“You have hardly spoken since my return. And I see the unhappiness in your eyes. I am your husband, and if there is something wrong, you should confide in me.”

Her words were insistent. “It is nothing, husband. Nothing at all.”

Darkness, she said to herself. If I am to endure this, I will have darkness.
 
 
Quickly, she blew out the candle. She could not bear the thought of looking into his eyes, or having him look into hers, seeing the evidence of her broken heart. It would be difficult enough to give herself to a man she no longer had feelings for. She could only pray that it would be over quickly.

She could hear him removing his boots, and then his belt. Closing her eyes, she tried to numb herself in preparation, and she kept herself turned away from him. It was dark, but she swore she could sense him watching her. He was trying to be affectionate as he touched her. His hands did not act in a rough or demanding way, as some men might have done after being so long away from their mate. His touch was gentle, lingering in places as he explored her body – and every moment was a torment. His kisses never progressed beyond being tender, but a part of her wished he would be cruel in some way if it meant he would be done with her sooner. If he was cruel, at least she would have reason to despise him. But he was trying so earnestly to be loving. She could feel his desire for her. Despite her lack of passion, his breathing was growing erratic as he pressed his body against hers. His hands moved up and down her legs, and then he grasped her hips. Squeezing her eyes shut, she felt a discomfort when he took her at last. She felt no pleasure. There were no waves of wild, intense ecstasy as she had known in Guy’s arms. If Edwin noticed her discomfort, he gave no sign of it. Clearly, he was finding much satisfaction in the act, moving in and out of her many times, uttering sounds of great pleasure. When at last he finished, her self-control broke. Tears spilled backwards down her face as she stared up, and a tiny sob escaped her. It was too late to hope that he had not heard. He rested against her for a moment, catching his breath. He lifted his head, questioning her.

“What is it, wife? Why do you weep? Have I caused you pain?”

She could no longer bear the feeling of his body against hers. And if he would scold her for her rejection, she did not care. She pushed at him, trying to move away.

“Leave me be. I beg you.”

It did not surprise her when he protested. His pride was wounded.

“I will not when you are in such a state. Tell me what I have done wrong!”

Her struggle was stronger then, and at last he consented, allowing her to move away. She turned her back on him, but she could feel his eyes examining her. Why could he not understand the misery he was causing her?

“You have been away, Edwin. You left me long ago, and now you return so suddenly, expecting me to act as your wife without hesitation. It is a duty I have forgotten how to perform.”

She wondered for a moment if he would be angry at her admission. But in that way of his – that quiet, almost cold way – he replied. Reaching out, he placed his hand on her shoulder.

“You will learn again,” he said. “It is something you must do.”

“And if I cannot? Will you hate me then?”

He moved away from her, lying back in the hay. Close, but not touching her. “No, I would never hate you. But you will learn to love me again, Cassia. We are husband and wife, for better or worse. In time, we will be as we once were.”

There was a softness to his voice. He had taken his pleasure, and now he was falling asleep. But just before he did, he made one last declaration.

“I failed to mention that Prince John comes to Nottingham on the morrow. We must attend a tourney held in his honor. It will be a day-long event, so rest well. Good night, Cassia.”

In a few moments he was asleep. She could tell by the sound of his breathing. And she buried her face in her hands, weeping.

*****

Guy could not believe was he was hearing.

“I am to lose the match? Deliberately? For what purpose?”

The day-long tourney was to end in a battle of arms. And Guy was to fight against Prince John’s nephew. But it was to be a fixed bought, and he was not to be the victor. Briwere looked Guy up and down, as if there was nothing to question about the planned failure.

“It is to please his majesty, you fool. He champions his nephew, and I would see that our lord has his wishes met.”

Shaking his head, Guy tried to suppress the anger he felt. But it could not help showing in his voice.

“Why can you not find another to be your jester? Why must it be I who is publicly humiliated?”

“Because it is the will of the crowd, Gisborne. They will see the great demon of Nottingham taken down, and they will see their prince happy. Will you deny his majesty that?”

If he wished to live, he could not refuse the prince. In his life, he had no choices. Everything seemed to be set for him -  and nothing was meant to see him happy. All that he hoped for, he seemed destined not to have. Cassia was but the latest loss. Perhaps it was better that her husband had returned to claim her, for she deserved a man who was respected and admired. What woman wanted to be with someone like Guy of Gisborne? A man that everyone despised?

He lowered his head, defeated already.

“I will do my duty, my lord.”

What did it matter, anyway? There was nothing that mattered anymore. Perhaps Prince John’s nephew would take his life from him quickly. At least in death, there would be peace.

*****

Cassia was tired of the events of the day. Sitting beside Edwin, she endured one act of sport after another, feeling no interest at all except for when Stephen competed in a joust. He was unseated from his horse, which frightened her terribly, but he came back strong in the hand-to-hand combat, and emerged victorious. Other than his win, she could find no pleasure in anything. And her mind was occupied with troubling thoughts.

Where was Guy? Surely he would be competing in such an event. This would be one of the last times she might see him, and it was for that reason alone that she had consented to coming with Edwin. For one last time, she would see him on his mighty black steed, sitting so tall and strong in the saddle. She would take that image with her forever, clinging to it and to the memories of their brief time together. Reaching up, she wiped a tear from her cheek, her heart throbbing with pain.

Oh Guy, she thought, her heart breaking. If only you knew how much I love you.

 
She did love him, selfish and brooding beast that he was. He was the most difficult man, the most stubborn – and the most alluring. She knew that for the rest of her days, she would never have such feelings for another man. Not even the one she called her husband. But Guy was not hers to have. She belonged to another, and there was nothing that would change it.

It was near sunset, and at last the final event was before them. A battle of swordsmanship between Prince John’s nephew and an unnamed competitor. There was a wave of curious excitement through the crowd as the prince stood up in his box, raising his hands. And Cassia gasped when she heard Guy’s name announced.

Instantly there were boos and curses from the crowd. Many of them threw things at him as he entered the competition circle, and Cassia felt the sting of tears in her eyes as she watched the fight begin.

It seemed evenly matched for a time, as far as skill went. Neither seemed willing to relent, their swords and shields hammering away as the crowd wavered between joy and hate. But very quickly, Cassia sensed that something was not right. Guy was a large man, and very athletic. The prince’s nephew was tall, but not nearly as well-built. It seemed to her that Guy should have been able to best him easily, and yet, it appeared as though he struggled to keep up. Why was he not giving his all? She watched, eyes wide with attention, as the fight went on. Guy received a blow that drew blood from his arm, his chain-mail breaking under the strike of his opponent’s sword. They fought and struggled for some time, the crowd growing wild at the spectacle. And then the moment came. Cassia watched, horrified, as Guy received a blow that sent him to the ground. He lay still, not moving even when the prince’s nephew stood over him, his sword-tip placed on the back of Guy’s neck. The crowd roared in approval. The prince and the sheriff stood in the box, applauding wildly. And Cassia pressed her hands to her lips, trembling with despair.

 

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