Chapter Six: Goodbyes
He left her standing in the hallway as he rushed away with the soldier who had just told him his wife was dead. Shiloh was not sure whether she should follow, or go back to the room, so she stood there waiting. She had the feeling that something would go horribly wrong if people saw her now. She might pass as Byron's wife's twin, but if they had been married for two years, who would believe it?
She could hear the sounds of the feast die down as she stood in the alcove wondering what to do. Had he told them about his wife? Were they sitting there wondering what was happening, why they were gathered to feast? Were they anxious for Byron to come? Were there rumors about her?
She wondered then if Byron had thought to warn the maid not to speak a word. She had been seen by three people- the woman in the cell, whose ravings were sure not to be regarded, the guard who had found her, who might have some credibility, and the maid who had brought her a nightgown. Three people who could spread the word that a woman who looked exactly like Byron's dead wife was now living in his rooms.
Shiloh peeked around the corner of the alcove, saw that the hallway was empty, and nearly ran back to Byron's room. The longer she stayed here, the more she felt that she should hide herself. Yes, she had been able to convince Byron that she was not his wife, but would anyone else believe it? The woman in the cell had called her angel, goddess. She had been terrified. What would they do if they saw her, thought she was a dead woman walking?
A shot of anxiety ran through Shiloh as she sat on the bed and stared at the door. This could potentially be the worst nightmare she had ever lived. Old legends and stories ran through her head; stories of peasants' disbelief, self-righteous priests condemning innocents, mobs. They might think she was a witch, and burn her, or that she was demon-possessed, that she was a ghost, a curse.
It would endanger not only her, but also Byron. If he hid her and they found out, they would most likely turn against him as well.
Burying her face in her hands, she groaned. "You know, God, I wasn't serious about really wanting to live in this period of time."
Suddenly, the door opened, and a maid entered. She did not spot Shiloh at first, but went to the fireplace to stoke the fire and clean up the ashes on the hearth. Shiloh held her breath. This maid was a different maid. She had tears running down her face, an expression of anguish in her eyes. What was she crying for? As Shiloh watched her, the maid knelt down at the fireplace, made the sign of a cross over her chest, and said some words foreign to Shiloh's ears.
When she rose, there was a little less sadness in her eyes. And then she looked up, and saw Shiloh. The fear that crossed her face was much like the expression the woman in the cell had had. She started to shake her head.
"Impossible." Her hand rose to her mouth.
Shiloh stood. "This isn't… what it appears to be."
"Phantasm!" the woman gasped. "Ghost! Demon!" She turned her face away and backed towards the door, spouting what Shiloh could only guess to be Latin.
"No, no… I'm not… Shiloh." She stepped forward to get the maid's attention. "I'm not Byron's wife."
The woman only raised her voice and said her words with more emphasis. Her eyes were wide, suspicious, and she glanced back at Shiloh as if she was going to attack.
"Please, believe me. I'm not the walking dead," Shiloh pleaded with the woman. Right then, she wished she could go back to being an angel or a goddess. At least then she knew it wouldn't really get her in trouble.
The maid's eyes narrowed slightly, and her voice lowered. "The devil walks among us and takes on him many disguises."
"The… devil?" Shiloh sputtered. The maid jerked the door open and slammed it behind her. Shiloh rubbed her forehead. "Oh, crap."
Byron came into the room after a few hours of Shiloh's impatient pacing the floor. In the hours that had passed, the enormous room had become small. The high stone walls caged her in. The window did not offer a view diverting enough to escape her thoughts. The bed did not acquiesce to her request of it for some sleep. She wasn't sure what to do.
When he walked in, she immediately rose from the chair she had just sat in. "The maid thinks I'm the devil!"
Byron sat in the chair she had just vacated and shook his head, running his hands through his hair. "What?"
"She came in while I was waiting here for you, and she thinks I'm the devil. Or a ghost. Or a the walking dead. I mean, do I look like a zombie?" She threw up her hands. "She just started spouting some Latin at me and she left, after telling me that the devil walks in many disguises."
She paced the floor next to his chair. "Now what are we going to do? No doubt the maid will gossip, and get everyone else to believe her, and then there will be a witch hunt for sure. They'll hunt me down and burn me at the stake for being a demon. Which I am not, and never ha--"
Suddenly, Byron simultaneously caught her hand and stood up. He pulled her close, cupping her face in his hands, and he smiled brokenly. It was then that she remembered he'd just been told his wife was dead. His green eyes were rimmed with red, the tracks of tears still visible on his haunted face. He looked as though in just a few hours he had aged years. Shiloh felt guilt run through her. In her panic for her own well-being, she'd forgotten that he was going through the worst pain a human could suffer. True love's death.
"I'll not let them hurt you," he said hoarsely. "I won't let you die, too."
Shiloh took a deep breath. "I'm sorry."
"It's not your fault." He let go of her face and simply stood there, staring at her, but no doubt seeing his wife. "She drowned." His voice broke on the last word. "It was the fault of no one."
"But you loved her." Shiloh lowered her eyes at that word; she could see emotion in his eyes that was not meant for her. "And I am sorry that you… lost her."
Slowly, Byron sat down, and he looked at her with almost unbearable longing. "What is this?" he asked her. "I don't understand why… why God would take away my wife only to leave me with a woman who is… exactly the same. I do not understand how it is possible. I don't… I don't know what to do with you."
"Perhaps I should… leave?" Shiloh crossed her arms and leaned against the opposite chair. "If it's too difficult for you to see me."
"No." Byron shook his head. "No, I… don't leave. Where would you go?"
Shrugging, she stared at the fire. "I don't really know. Home? I could… go back to my… your wife's mother and father, and they'd never have to know that their daughter is dead."
Byron sighed. "They would know." He let out a short, mirthless laugh. "I knew. I wanted to deny them- the differences that I saw. I thought perhaps the changes could be accounted for by some mental disease. But I knew. Your speech is different, your eyes… more stubborn. And she was… she…" He dropped his face to his hands and his shoulders slumped. "She was three months with child."
Shiloh felt her heart break at his words, his silent tears, his attempts to be strong when he was faced with the death of his wife and unborn child. How could he bear seeing her, when she was so like his Shiloh? She understood why he had denied that she was not his wife. He not only had to face that his wife was gone, but also his child. How did he hold up under this?
Suddenly, someone was banging on the door. Shiloh startled as voices ripped rudely through the air, demanding that Byron open the door and face them. He gestured for Shiloh to hide; the only place she could think of was beneath the huge bed. She just barely squeezed underneath before she heard the door open.
"What is so important that you must invade my privacy while I mourn my wife?" Byron demanded of the little gathering outside his door. Shiloh could see feet; several boots and a few skirts shuffled outside of the door.
"There is a demon in your room, milord," one man spoke up.
"A demon?" Byron scoffed. "As you can see, my room is empty but for myself. What induces you to believe there is a demon here?"
"If you'll pardon us, milord, Isabel, your maid, feared that it was so. She came to me with tales of a woman that looked like your wife, lurking in the shadows of your room, claiming to be what she was not."
Byron shifted. "And you've come to protect me? Or have you come to accuse me of witchcraft, of harboring the spawn of the devil in my room?" He sounded appropriately angered.
"We… were not sure, milord, what to think," the man sputtered. "We have been told by Mary as well, that a she-ghost resides here."
Byron sighed. "I am in mourning, Ormond. I would be grateful if you do not bother me with far-fetched tales that only serve to remind me of my dead wife."
"Apologies, milord. I can see now that we were wrong." His voice did not agree with his words.
Only at the beckoning of Byron after the door was closed did Shiloh scoot out from under the bed. She had been right. The man had not sounded curious; he had sounded upset. Defensive. As if he would have burned her had he found her. Would they go so far? On the word of two maids and a soldier? Against their lord?
He sat in his chair again, leaning his head back and staring at her. "You were right." He sighed. "Ormond was ready with the priest and a scythe. I have no doubt that had they seen you, they would have ignored anything I said, being as I am a man in mourning, and my word would be weak."
Shiloh shook her head, frustrated. "I'm sorry I'm causing so much trouble for you."
"We'll find a way to right it all. It's not your fault." He smiled weakly, and for a few moments he simply stared at her.
She knew that everything in his gaze was not for her, but for his dead wife. The eyes that memorized her face were not trying to remember her, but to recreate his wife in his mind. He did not hide the longing, the love, the despair, the confusion, the anger. All of it registered as he sat there and let his eyes wander over her, as tears slid from his eyes, as the soft green-hazel irises became dark with grief.
"May I ask something of you?" he finally spoke. His strong jaw quivered just slightly.
How could she deny him, though she did not even know what he would ask? "Anything." She nodded. There was only one thing she would deny no matter how pleading his words, and somehow she doubted he would ask it of her anyway.
"Would you permit me to… hold you?" he asked her, and he lowered his eyes. "I know it is forward of me to ask you this, but I…" He shook his head. "If it is too much for me to ask…"
Shiloh rushed forward and knelt beside his chair, grasping his arm. "No. It's not too much." She looked into his red-rimmed eyes, and could not hold back her own tears. "You want to say goodbye. One last embrace before you must acknowledge she is gone."
His thick, dark eyelashes were wet with tears. "Yes," he whispered brokenly.
Feeling as though she was intruding into something personal, Shiloh let him draw her into his lap. She knew he had no ulterior motives. He was saying farewell to his wife through her. He leaned his cheek against her shoulder, and she slowly relaxed. His hands were polite, properly placed, not roaming. She trusted him, and she did not blame him his question or his desire. Closing her eyes, she rested her cheek against his temple, put her arms around him, drew his head to rest on her collarbone. Just as she imagined his wife might have done.
It was then that she felt his sobs heaving. He did not hesitate to draw her closer, and Shiloh bit her lips. Was it cathartic for him to do this? She hoped it was helping; she felt slightly odd acting as the last goodbye for his wife. It felt too intimate for her to participate, but without her he would not have the chance to say farewell to his beloved.
So she rested in his arms, and she thought of her own last goodbyes. She would have wanted to do the same thing. She imagined, as she was held in his arms, that he was her mother, that he was her father, that he was her ex-fiancé. She silently said goodbye to them all as Byron said his last goodbyes to his wife. And when she was done, she felt the pressure of a thousand worlds lift from her soul.
She could only hope that he would feel the same.
A/N: Sorry I took so long to update! Hectic week.
Carrie: I'm so glad you like it!
I hope everyone had a wonderful start to their new year!