Authors: Irina Shapiro
I was vastly relieved when we finally reached the outskirts of Guilford by nightfall. Traveling down the narrow, muddy roads between the villages left me feeling vulnerable and exposed, our silhouettes in stark relief against the open ground and bright sky. We saw the occasional farmer with a loaded wagon or a lone traveler, but for the most part, we were alone. Hugo seemed calm and in control, but I couldn’t help worrying that we would be overtaken by Lionel Finch and his men, especially since our progress was slow due to Jem. Hugo overrode Jem’s feeble protests that he could ride on his own and insisted that Jem ride with him, which left Jem torn between a desire to prove that he was all right, and the need for protection and comfort which he so desperately needed. He sat in front of Hugo, his bright face alternately alert and flushed with pride, and drowsy, his chin resting on his chest as he nodded off. Hugo gently pulled him against his own chest to make him more comfortable, and Jem smiled in his sleep as he felt Hugo’s arm come around him and hold him tight.
I kept looking back, unable to believe that Lionel Finch would just calmly continue going about his business after what occurred yesterday morning. He had to be raising an army to pursue us, all reason obliterated by his lust for vengeance. The men didn’t bother to search the horizon for signs of pursuit, but they were alert, their backs stiff and their weapons at the ready should anything occur. I fell in line with Archie at one point, eager for someone to talk to since Jem was asleep and I didn’t want to disturb him by talking to Hugo over his head.
“How long has it been since you’ve seen your sister?” I asked, hoping Archie would be in a talkative mood and tell me what I wanted to know. It took him some time to answer, his face a closed book as he stared ahead, deciding how much to divulge.
“It’s been some time, Mistress Ashley,” he finally replied. “I hardly recognized her.”
“Has she been there long?”
“About five years now, I reckon. She seems happy, for what it’s worth.” I could tell by Archie’s demeanor that he didn’t approve of his sister’s choice, but he respected it and was glad to see that she didn’t harbor any regrets.
“Has she always wanted to devote her life to God?” I asked, trying to phrase my question in a way that wasn’t as prying as asking him straight out what made his sister give up the outside world and shut herself away in a tiny community of nuns in the forest, possibly forever.
Archie mutely shook his head. “In my experience there are two types of religious women: those who believe they have a vocation, and those who turn to God to escape from something. My sister is the second kind,” Archie finally replied, spurring on his horse to indicate that the conversation was over. He didn’t want to discuss his sister or the circumstances that led to her decision to withdraw from the world, and I didn’t blame him. He’d told me enough.
I looked around with interest as we rode through the outskirts toward the center of town. Guilford wasn’t like the sleepy villages we’d encountered on our journey, consisting of a cluster of houses, a village green, and a church. This was a bustling metropolis, its history stretching as far back as the Romans and Saxons who settled here after the end of Roman authority in the area. Guilford had grown exponentially over the centuries, becoming a center of commerce and progress, and even figuring in some works of fiction such as Sir Thomas Malory’s
Le Morte d’Arthur
of 1086 as the holding of William the Conqueror.
The shadowy bulk of Guilford Castle could be seen rising in the distance, its unyielding Norman keep silhouetted against the darkening sky; just as it must have done when King John, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Henry III visited it several centuries before. I wondered if it were occupied at the present since not even a flicker of light could be seen in the narrow windows, giving the impression that the castle was just a solid block of stone. It had been initially built to intimidate the citizens of Guilford, and it still managed to do so, even in times of peace.
Hugo slowed his pace as he rode through the town, which was a warren of streets and alleys, some of them leading to the town center where the market was held on Saturdays. It was growing dark, but the streets were still alive with passersby and traffic. Wagons rattled down the wider streets, while mounted riders and pedestrians navigated the narrower lanes. There was a smell of rotten vegetables, human and animal waste, and a whiff of rotten fish coming off the River Wey, but as we drew closer to the center of town there was also the appetizing smell of roasting meat, fresh bread, and boiled vegetables wafting from nearby taverns.
Light spilled from windows and doorways, the sound of people talking, singing, and at times arguing erupting for a moment as the door to some establishment opened and then closed again. I was worn out and eager to reach our destination, but this was my first exposure to an actual seventeenth-century town, and I was curious despite my fatigue. Several torches burned in front of the entrance to the Guildhall, but it appeared to be closed, the windows dark and shuttered against the coming night. I wondered where the Royal English Mint might be, although I wasn’t sure if the Mint were still in existence in 1685. I’d have to look it up once I got back to my own time.
Hugo turned into High Street and I gazed around with interest, having read that in 1995, a chamber had been discovered in this very street which might have been the first synagogue in Western Europe. I peered into the gathering shadows to see if I might spot anyone who appeared Jewish. Would there be any Jews in Guilford in the seventeenth century or had they left and resettled someplace else? The article hadn’t mentioned how long the chamber functioned as a place of worship, only that it had been established as early as the twelfth century.
We passed several respectable-looking inns, but Hugo kept going.
“Hugo, where are we going?” I asked, wondering why he hadn’t stopped at any of the inns on High Street.
“I prefer not to stay anywhere close to the hospital,” he replied, silently indicating the solid, three-storied building across from Trinity Church at the top of High Street. “Too great a risk of infection with people visiting the sick or working at the hospital, and then coming to an inn for a drink or a meal or spending the night.”
Jem perked up at the sound of the hospital being mentioned, his pale face round as a moon in the glow of the torches by the gates. Hugo hadn’t said so directly, but now I began to guess why he chose to stop in Guilford. He would take Jem to the hospital if he weren’t better by tomorrow. I felt an overwhelming sympathy for Jem as he tried his best to look alert. The poor boy was terrified of being left behind and would do anything to convince Hugo that he was recovered. He did look a little better, but the bandage was crusted with dried blood at the back of his head, and his gaze looked a trifle unfocused in the gloom of the street. Hugo sensed Jem’s agitation and laid a hand on Jem’s shoulder in a gesture of reassurance, as he whispered something softly in his ear, which made Jem smile and visibly relax. Hugo pulled Jem against him and I was glad to see that Jem didn’t resist, but laid his head on Hugo’s chest and looked up at the sky which was barely visible through the thick smoke belching from every chimney in the city.
We finally stopped at a small, but comfortable-looking inn overlooking a canal. Several small boats lay moored, their elongated outlines just visible in the darkness, their owners at home for the night before their workday began at dawn. Guilford business owners were able to access the Thames through Weybridge, which gave them a boost of prosperity not yet enjoyed by many other landlocked towns. I expected the canal to give off a dank, pungent odor of debris and human waste dumped in its waters, but it smelled pleasantly of fresh water, mud, and wood from the boats. We were no longer in the center of town, and the air was somewhat fresher here, a light breeze blowing off the canal and dispelling the stink of wood fires, refuse, and medicinal odors emanating from the hospital.
I had to admit that I was glad we'd be staying at an inn. Sleeping alone in the nun’s cell last night made me realize just how much I’d grown to rely on Hugo. He made me feel safe and protected; a shield against the cruel and senseless world beyond the walls. He’d been true to his word and never touched me inappropriately, but I was deeply aware of him as he rested next to me, his lean body warm and strong beside me.
I wasn’t exactly sure exactly when the realization hit me, but I suddenly knew that I trusted him body and soul, something that I couldn’t say of anyone I’d ever known before, not even my parents. Especially not my parents. Hugo had risked everything to save me, and had been willing to commit murder against a man who laid a hand on me. A buried memory had come floating to the surface as we rode through the verdant countryside in the early afternoon. I’d suppressed it because I couldn’t bear to think about it, but it suddenly popped out of nowhere, underlining the difference between Hugo and the man I thought I’d loved.
Evan and I had gone to see a show in the West End. It was a mediocre show with a thin plot and forgettable score, but it had been a lovely summer evening, and we were happy and in love. We’d only been dating a few months and at that point Evan was everything I’d always thought I wanted in a man: smart, ambitious, and very attractive. We decided to walk back to his flat instead and maybe stop for a drink somewhere along the way. The streets were still crowded at that time of night, and London had never appeared as magical to me as it did on that evening. We stopped at a pub, planning to get only a beer, but realized we were both starving and stayed for a late supper. It was well after midnight by the time we finally left and continued our walk.
The crowds had vanished, leaving in their wake a few passersby who either walked unhurriedly arm in arm, or trotted at a brisk pace to get to where they were going. A nearly empty bus rumbled past us and several taxis slowed down in the hopes of a fare. Evan put his arm around me and drew me to him as he kissed my temple. It was such a romantic gesture that I wrapped my arms around him and kissed him right there in the middle of the street, completely oblivious to the people around us.
We were only a few streets away from Evan’s building when a young punk came toward us out of a shadowed doorway. By now, we were alone on the street, the lights not quite reaching that particular stretch of pavement. The boy couldn’t have been more than sixteen, but he held a knife in his hand, and his eyes were glazed in a way that suggested that he was high as a kite.
“Give me your wallet, guv, and no one gets hurt,” he growled, inching closer. The boy’s hand shook slightly, whether from drugs or from fear, but he advanced on us, ready to strike.
I didn’t expect Evan to take him on or play the hero; no amount of money was worth a possible injury or death. The credit cards could be easily replaced as was the cash, but not as easily replaced as my faith in Evan. As he fumbled in his pocket for his wallet, he took a discreet step back, putting me between him and our assailant. The boy hardly looked at me before, but now I was directly in his line of vision, and he ordered me to empty out my purse.
He grabbed Evan’s wallet and extracted whatever cash he could find before flinging it back in his face. My purse would be more difficult since he’d have to lower the knife to open the clasp and look for my wallet.
“Take the money out,” he barked. I had only twenty pounds on me, but he yanked it greedily out of my hand before giving us a mock bow and making a run for it. He disappeared into the darkness within moments, but Evan stood rooted to the spot, afraid to move. He didn’t ask me if I was all right or offer any comfort.
“He could have killed me,” was all that Evan said as we finally walked away. I guess I should have known then that Evan would always put himself first, but I was too naïve and too infatuated to clearly see the man that he was. I smiled to myself as I imagined what Hugo’s reaction might have been. He would have made minced meat of that kid. The punk would be paying Hugo to let him go and not the other way around.
I snuck a peak at Hugo as he jumped off the horse and gently pulled Jem into his arms. I had no doubt that whatever Hugo had whispered in Jem’s ear had to do with food. The boy would sell his soul for a sweetie and Hugo had probably promised him a feast, complete with a jam tart or syllabub for dessert. I could see the hungry look in Jem’s eyes as he looked toward the inn. He’d have a soft bed all to himself as well. I wasn’t sure if Jem even noticed, but Hugo kissed the top of his head as he held Jem close, his face softened by the light from the window and the love he obviously felt for the boy. I suddenly envied the child in his arms, wishing that just a little of that love could be directed at me. The realization made me feel vulnerable and suddenly very lonely. I was a woman alone in a world where no one loved me.
The inn was practically a five-star hotel by seventeenth-century standards. It was probably full on market day, but being midweek, the innkeeper was able to offer us his best rooms and a supper that would have put any fine cook to shame. We had roasted partridge and a flaky pastry filled with wild mushrooms in cream sauce. There were also roasted potatoes, and a cucumber salad made with dill and a dressing of vinegar and oil. I would have eaten boiled mutton with a hunk of bread, having had nothing since morning, but this was a feast for the senses. I smiled as Jem tucked into his jam tart, licking his lips and fingers after he finished, so as not to miss a single crumb. He looked much better after having eaten, but his eyes were heavy with fatigue, and despite trying to stay upright he was leaning heavily against Archie, who was still grumbling about Jem not sharing his tart.
“I’ll take him up,” Hugo said as Jem’s eyes finally fluttered closed and stayed that way.
“I’ll do it,” Archie volunteered. “You just finish your meal, your lordship.” He scooped up Jem as gently as if he were a newborn babe and carried him upstairs to bed. I was ready to go upstairs myself. The innkeeper’s wife promised me some hot water, so I excused myself and left the men below to drink and dice. They needed to unwind after the tension of the past two days, and I was glad to see that Hugo opted to stay with them.
A young girl, possibly the daughter of the house, brought me two pitchers of steaming water, and I took advantage of my bounty to wash my hair and then scrub down every inch of my grubby skin. I would have killed for a shower, but in seventeenth-century terms, this was the next best thing aside from an actual bath. At least I was warm and clean. I put on my nightdress, poked up the fire, and sat in a chair by the hearth to dry my hair. It was nice to have a bit of solitude after a day spent with the men, but I found myself feeling anxious and depressed. Any time I was alone, the magnitude of my situation began to overwhelm me, but now the direction of my thoughts had shifted, focusing more on Hugo and what would happen to him after I left – if I actually left.
Max never told me exactly when Hugo vanished, but I knew it would be sometime soon.
What was going to happen to him?
I thought frantically. I couldn’t bear the thought of him dying. He was so young, so strong, and so passionate about his cause. It was unfair that his life should be snuffed out so soon. I only hoped that whatever happened was quick, and he didn’t suffer. I knew he’d take whatever came as stoically as he did everything, but there was only so much pain a man could stand before he broke, physically and mentally.
My thoughts were interrupted by a soft knock on the door. Hugo came in, a trifle worse for wear, and locked the door behind him. He wasn’t drunk, but his normally controlled demeanor was somewhat more relaxed, his posture less rigid as he leaned against the door, taking me in as I rose to greet him. He was staring at me in a way he hadn’t done before, and I belatedly realized that the leaping flames behind me made my nightie nearly see-through, illuminating my body in a rosy glow and giving Hugo a tantalizing preview of what lay beneath.
He didn’t budge from his spot by the door, but his eyes drank me in, leaving me in no doubt that he found me desirable. The thought made me giddy, suddenly glad of the fire’s unexpected bonus. I wanted him to say something, but he just stood there, rooted to the spot, a look of anguish suddenly creasing his face.
“Hugo, is something wrong?”
“You might say that,” he replied, finally coming to life and removing his coat. He sat down to pull off his boots, but his eyes never left my face as he peeled off his stockings and tossed them to the floor.
“Well, what is it?” A few hundred horrible scenarios raced through my brain as I waited for him to answer, but he didn’t rush to reply, instead looking away for a moment as if deciding how much to tell me.
“Hugo?” I didn’t mean to sound harsh, but my voice was laced with strain. What had happened in the one hour I was upstairs?
Hugo finally turned toward me, his face alerting me to the fact that he was about to come clean. He’d decided to tell me whatever was on his mind, and I braced myself for the impact.
“After Catherine left me, I didn’t care that I couldn’t marry again; I didn’t want to. She was the love of my life, the only woman I ever wanted by my side. I suppose her betrayal should have cooled my love, but I wanted her all the more, choosing to believe that she still loved me and had been forced to leave me against her will. I believed it still when I heard that our child died and when she gave birth to a healthy son by another man. But in time, my heart knew the truth. She never loved me the way I loved her. She married me because she was intrigued by me, but her feelings weren’t strong enough for her to defy her father. She simply married someone else and made a life with him.”
I nodded in understanding, feeling that no comment was necessary. Drink obviously brought out Hugo’s maudlin side, and he just needed to talk to someone of his loss. Knowing what I knew of him, he’d probably kept it all bottled up for a decade, choosing to bury his pain rather than confront it. When I didn’t reply, Hugo continued.
“I’ve been alone for ten years. There were several mistresses, but I never loved them, and eventually they moved on to men who could give them what they craved. And now, when my life is nearing its conclusion, you appear to me as if out of thin air, and suddenly I want to live. I want to live more than I’ve wanted to live in ten years because now I have something to lose. Only it’s too late, isn’t it?”
I finally understood what he was telling me and my heart nearly burst. He was declaring his love, and asking me to tell him that maybe there might be another outcome to the future I foretold, but what could I say? I wanted him to live more than words could say, but despite my professed “Sight,” I had no idea what was about to befall him. But, we had this moment and it was unbearably beautiful, more so because we both knew it couldn’t last. I walked over to him and gazed directly into his dark eyes. He didn’t say a word, but the emotions that played over his face told me everything I needed to know. He was smoldering, but beneath the heat of desire, there was vulnerability, apprehension about the uncertain future that lay before him, and fear of rejection. He’d bared his soul to me, and I could either accept his precious gift or reject it and leave him to face whatever was coming alone. I reached up and cupped his cheek, and the relief on his face made me catch my breath. How could I have thought his man arrogant and vain? The thought flickered in my mind as I pulled him to me, brushing my lips against his.
Hugo’s kiss was soft and tender, filled with a longing that left me breathless. He wasn’t just kissing me, he was asking for my consent, and I gave it wholeheartedly, melting against him as he pulled me closer, the kiss deepening and turning from tenderness to passion. All my reservations and insecurities fled as I felt the force of Hugo’s desire and his overwhelming need for me. There was no going back now, and I had no wish to. Whatever happened, I wanted this as much as he did. There’d be a price to pay, there always was, but whatever it was going to be, I was determined to have this moment, and this man.
Hugo stood back and pulled my nightdress over my head, leaving me exposed to his hungry gaze. With Evan, I often felt self-conscious, but this time there was no embarrassment. Hugo looked at me not like a man who was searching for flaws, but like a man who wanted to worship every part of me, no matter how imperfect. He saw me as a whole, not a sum total of my parts. I unlaced the ties of his shirt and pulled it over his head. His chest was smooth and warm under my hands, his stomach flat and taut as I moved my hand downward to unlace his breeches. This was unspeakably brazen behavior for the time, but I didn’t care. I wanted him as much as he wanted me, and it was only fair to let him know that. I was no simpering seventeenth-century virgin; I was a grown woman who knew her own mind, and I was going to do this on my own terms.
“Not yet,” Hugo murmured as he lifted me off my feet and laid me on the bed as if it were an altar and I was an offering to the Gods. He gently pushed my hands away as I reached for him, instead pinning my wrists above my head and kissing me hard, his pelvis grinding against mine. I wrapped my legs around his waist in order to spur him on, but he wasn’t about to just take me and be done with it. He bent his head to my breasts and suckled each nipple in turn while his hand slid between my legs, stroking and probing until I was panting with desire. I could feel his hard length against my thigh, but Hugo pulled back once again as I tried to take hold of him.
“I’ve dreamed of doing this since I first saw you,” he whispered to me as he slid lower and pushed my legs apart. All coherent thought fled from my brain as I felt his tongue inside me, his thumb caressing the sensitive bit of flesh just above slowly and deliberately as I arched my back in ecstasy. Hugo’s tongue followed the path of his thumb as his fingers slid inside me, making my legs bounce on the bed with mounting tension.
“Hugo, please,” I begged. “I can’t take it anymore.”
He didn’t reply, just slid back up and plunged into me in a way that made me cry out with exquisite pain. He began to move, my hips rising beneath his, urging him to go faster and harder until my body finally let go of all control and shuddered with unbearable pleasure. Hugo followed a few seconds later, allowing himself release now that he’d satisfied me. He rested his forehead on my shoulder, breathing hard as his heart rate began to slow down, and he grew softer inside my body.
I wrapped my arms around Hugo and held him close as he kissed me lightly, his eyes mere inches from mine. “You are mine, now and forever, and I swear that I will love you till my dying breath.”
“I love you too,” I murmured as silent tears slid down my cheeks.