Welsh Marches, Shropshire, 22nd January 1219
The journey to Glencaer had taken many days, and the hours spent riding were tiring for one so young. Isabel found herself falling asleep in the saddle, a behaviour which she knew to be most unladylike.
"Isabel, you must stay awake. You are a young lady now, not a baby," her father reprimanded, but his admonishment was mild and unconvincing. He drew alongside her and, leaning across from his own saddle, he scooped her up in one strong arm and placed her gently in front of him, drawing his warm fur cloak around her. "Take her reins," he commanded one of the grooms.
Though Isabel treasured the moment of closeness, her child's body grew tired easily, and it was hard to stay awake as her father's horse moved rhythmically beneath her. Though she struggled to keep her eyes open, she was quickly lulled into a half-sleep, warm and safe inside of his cloak.
"She is little more than a babe," she heard the head of her father's guard murmur to one of his comrades.
"But a precocious little thing," his friend replied good-naturedly.
"I do not envy Lord William," the first man said quietly. "I could not let another man raise my little girl."
Her father's arms tightened around her as his keen ears eavesdropped on the men. "Quiet," he barked, and the men fell silent.
His shout disturbed her. "I am so glad to be with you, papa," Isabel told him sleepily.
Her father's body tensed. "Sleep, child," he said gruffly, but his voice was soft.
Just as Ayleth's voice had been soft. But Ayleth had left her. She had let them take Isabel, even though it had made her cry. That had been fourteen long days ago.
They had left at dawn. Her father had sidled his horse alongside Isabel's small palfrey as their retinue had assembled around them. His large black charger had snorted and danced sideways, although he quickly regained control, forcing the magnificent beast to stand quietly and meekly beside her little pony.
Isabel had twisted around in the saddle, gazing back at her childhood home, at Ayleth and Hugh stood in front of the castle. Ayleth's eyes had been wet, her shoulders shaking. "This is not goodbye forever," she had told Isabel, her face serious. "Just for a little while." But it had been fourteen days now, and fourteen days already felt like forever.
Isabel had stared solemnly back at her, not understanding the gravity of Ayleth not being there - of the woman who had been mother to her from the moment her own mother had pushed her into the world not being around to soothe her when she fell and grazed her knee, nor to kiss her goodnight as she had always done. She understood now - and it made her want to weep.
"Always remember that I love you," Ayleth had said, lip trembling. She sounded as though her heart had been torn from her chest, a vital piece of her stolen away. That was how Isabel felt now, without her.
"Ladies never cry, Ayleth," Isabel had said, confused by her lack of composure.
"No," she had whispered, a gentle smile playing on her lips. "But I could never hope to be as great a lady as you shall be, my little lamb. Your future husband is a powerful man."
"What if I don't like Lord Tristan? Will I still have to marry him?" Isabel had asked her.
"You will like him." But Isabel had heard the lie in Ayleth's voice. "He is very handsome, sweeting."
Yet Isabel had heard tales of her future husband, none of them pleasing. Her father's men had spoken amongst themselves as they mounted up, as if they thought that her age rendered her deaf to their stories. But she had heard their words as clearly as if they had spoken them to her.
"Is he rich?" she had asked, hearing her father's voice in her words. He would be pleased that she had thought to ask, she knew.
"Very rich," Ayleth had smiled.
She had taken Isabel's hand in her soft palm then, kissing her dimpled fist with tender lips. "Don't forget me," she said, her eyes pleading. As though Isabel ever would.
Her father had placed a comforting hand on Ayleth's shoulder, squeezing it gently. Their eyes had met for a moment, and a message was passed between them; it was time. Ayleth had stepped back, her gaze never leaving father's eyes. From somewhere deep inside those black fathomless orbs she had seemed to draw an air of calming tenderness; their dark depths had hypnotised her as the snake's deathly dance soothed and transfixed the rabbit. Father didn't frighten Ayleth as he seemed to frighten everyone else except Isabel. He made her feel safe. He made them both feel safe.
As she turned, Ayleth had swung Hugh into her arms, burying her face in his soft curls. His small face had stared at Isabel over the nurse's shoulder, unfeeling, and Isabel had hated her brother then, for Ayleth had been hers first. Why should she have to leave her when Hugh didn't? She would have happily let him go in her place. He didn't even love Ayleth, not as she did. But Ayleth had to stay behind with Hugh and mother, even though Hugh was only a baby and mother hated her.
Her father had glared at Isabel, his eyes hard. "Don't look back," he had commanded. "You must never look back. Always press onwards, no matter the circumstances."
"Yes, my lord," she had said obediently, head dutifully inclined.
But she wanted to look back. She wanted to stay back, now that it was time. For days, she had been eager to leave. She was going to ride on a horse of her own, all the way to Wales. She was going to be a real lady, and live in a great castle, the castle her husband ruled. There were ghosts there, she expected, down in the dungeons where terrible things had been done. Her father did terrible things in his dungeons, too, but she wasn't allowed to go there. But she would go to these dungeons, she had decided. No one would be able to stop her, for she would be mistress of them all. It gave her a shiver just to think of it, but she wasn't afraid, not then. How could she be? Her brother would be with her, and her husband, too, with all of his knights and a shining sword in his hand. She would make them go with her. She would command it.
Yet on that day, the day that they had ridden away, she had felt lost. Pompocali was the only home she had ever known. Pompocali was her castle, not Glencaer. The immensity of what was occurring had hit her suddenly; she would be going to a place which was alien to her, the people strange and unfamiliar. What if nobody liked her?
Her lip had begun to tremble then, but she knew that a lady must never cry, so she had focused on her saddle instead, studying the intricately woven pattern on her saddlecloth. Her little grey gelding, Riocus, had nickered softly, turning his head towards her and nuzzling at her foot. His gentle brown eyes looked concerned, and she had taken comfort in knowing that she was not completely alone. But she knew that he wasn't enough. He wasn't Ayleth, or even her beautiful little brother, who always looked at her with such cold eyes. He was just a pony.
Isabel was lying in her papa's arms, slumbering, when they first approached her lord's castle of Glencaer. Her father roused her gently a couple of miles before the great stronghold came into sight. Reining up, he signalled his guard to stop. He dismounted swiftly, his great black cloak swirling around him like an angry cloud, and lifted her from from the saddle, carrying her in his arms as he strode across to Riocus. He gently seated her in the little gelding's saddle. Father stood before her, face serious, black gloved hand resting on her knee. "The most important thing to remember is always to obey your master and mistress. Their allegiance will be valuable to us, and one day, when you are older, Lord Tristan will take you as his wife. It will go easier for you if he likes you. Always please them, serve them in any way you can, and go out of your way to make them happy.
"But as many favours as they confer upon you, and however dear they become to you, always remember that your true loyalty is to your family - you are a Devereux, Isabel, and always will be. It is your Christian duty always to obey me, and God sees everything. He will know if you do not honour me in all that you do. Swear to me, Isabel, that you will always put your family first."
Above those liquid eyes, his dark brows were furrowed. The intensity which showed in his face made a feeling of apprehension knot in her stomach. "I swear."
"Good girl," her father said happily, his normal joviality returning to replace his unfamiliar solemnity. He never spoke to her like that, so seriously. He never had such a bitter twist to his mouth, not when he was with her.
At that moment, Isabel vowed to herself that she would make him proud, for he was beautiful and brilliant and hers. And because he was sad, she could see. He didn't smile when he was away from her and Ayleth, and sometimes, when he sat her on his knee, his face would crumple suddenly. He would clench his fists then, teeth gritted, as though something was tearing at his flesh, devouring him from the inside out. She thought that it might be his heart which hurt, for her sisters were dead, and her mother looked at him with such cold disdain that it must freeze him to his core. It hurt when mother looked at you like that. She did it to Isabel, too, sometimes. But father could always make her smile again. Isabel wanted to make her father smile in return. She wanted to make him happy again.
They rode the rest of the way in silence, and then Glencaer was before them, rising out of the mist like some great, stone monster, dark and hunched and terrible, its arms gnarled and thick and twisted. It was a grey stone labyrinth of walls and towers and courtyards, spreading out in all directions, its claws sunk deep into the earth. It was bigger than Pompocali, much bigger, and uglier too. One day it would be hers.
And she would share it with her husband, the beautiful young earl who had sold his soul to the devil for this great and sprawling castle. She wondered what he looked like, sounded like, this terrible, important man, the young Marcher lord who ruled Glencaer as if it were his own kingdom, and sought to make her his queen. She would be a queen in all but name, her father had promised her, for the beautiful earl had vast reserves of manpower, and power enough to rival that of the king. He would be a strong ally. Her father wished to bind them, and so it would be. Her father would make her a countess, and together the earls would make her as great as the queen.
But her husband frightened her, for he was cruel and dangerous and her papa expected her to please him. How could she please such a man? Would she have to grow up to be as wild and beautiful as he was? For he was wild. And he was beautiful. He had been a second son, resigned to a life of monastic tediousness, destined to devote his existence to God, as younger brothers, surplus to requirements, often were. But Tristan had not wanted to be a man of God, so he had made a deal with the devil, promising his soul if Lucifer would deliver the death of his brother. And so the devil had, for not even he could resist this man's beauty. Now men said that he lived as if the devil were always at his back, demanding payment for the death he had wrought. He behaved as if every day were his last, never knowing when the debt would be recalled. He was desperate to experience everything he had thought would be denied to him, and was renowned for his love of whoring, gambling, and drinking, or so her father's men said.
Her father saw Tristan as a young lion, unaware of his own strength, who could be brought to heel before he realised his might. Yet Isabel did not know how to tame him. But her father would know. He must. And he would tell her. He would command her brother to help her, too, she was sure. He would know that she couldn't control the earl all by herself. He had sent her eldest brother to serve at Glencaer eight years before, and so her brother must have a part to play. But would he choose to help her, this boy who did not know her? Would he even like her?
He waited for them by the stables, the brother she had never met. She knew him instantly. Recognised him instantly. And yet still he took her by surprise, for nothing could have prepared her for the beauty of the youth who stood waiting to greet her, such a perfect, lovely replica of her father. The only thing which was missing was the darkness. He seemed too pure to have been sired by the black angel and the golden witch, his breath-taking face evoking only a gentle innocence. His brown hair was softly curled, his mouth generous. His liquid eyes, so large and expressive, sparkled with life and vitality. The boy was beauty incarnate, and she knew that her husband, however lovely, would seem less fair beside him. Such delicate splendour did he possess that he seemed a perfect, painted sculpture of a boy, expertly crafted from ivory and blushing roses. And when he smiled, it reached his eyes.
Her father greeted him abruptly, as if pained at having to acknowledge the boy as his own. When he spoke to him, his gaze was dismissive. "How now, son?"
Her brother bowed low, the action deferential and respectful. "I am well, my lord. And yourself?"
Their exchange was short and strained, as if neither particularly desired the company of the other, though her father took Will to the side, extending their awkward reunion. He spoke to her brother in a low, conspiratorial voice, too soft for her to hear. One long arm was slung casually over her brother's shoulder, a gesture which appeared gauche and uncomfortable. The scene was all wrong, like two strangers being forced to embrace one another. Will looked pained as he answered, staring guiltily at the floor. He seemed to be recanting a story, his face embarrassed, cheeks red. Her father's nod at the end was curt and dismissive; her brother had done his duty.
Father broke away from his son so eagerly that it seemed as though the boy's touch must have burned him. He turned to the men who accompanied her brother, the men that Isabel had been blind to. Their clothes were velvet and damask, silk and satin, as if they were lords themselves. Her husband was rich, undoubtedly. She saw the gleam in her father's eyes as he noted their jewelled belts, the rings on their fingers, and knew that his thoughts wandered the same path as her own. "I must see Lord FitzAlan," her father commanded.
"I'll take you to him," her brother offered, starting towards their father.
But her father raised a gloved hand, stilling her brother. "Does my son perform the role of a steward whilst he lives at Glencaer?" he said, his finely curved lips twisting in distaste.
A faint blush coloured her brother's cheeks for a moment, but he smiled at his father, as though it were the easiest thing in the world. "I only thought that we might talk to Tristan together."
"You are not an earl yet, William. These matters are for men who understand the responsibilities they carry, not foolish boys. Remember that."
Her brother's lovely face was petulant, though his voice was soft and refined, hiding his anger like a velvet glove on a clenched fist. "Very well, my lord. Arno will take you to him," he said, gesturing to one of the men.
"I leave your sister's charge to you, boy. Summon a girl to take her to your mistress. Tristan will not want the child getting under his feet."
Her brother looked at her resentfully, but he nodded.
Returning to Isabel's side, her father embraced her woodenly, made uncomfortable by the presence of his men. "Farewell, daughter" he said stiffly, and with a nod to her he strode away to find the lord of the castle, his retinue dispersing to the kitchen and stable block as her brother's men flocked to take their places.
Isabel stood alone and without instruction, scared and wishing desperately that Ayleth was beside her. Her brother approached her slowly, languidly, smiling at her, though there was resentment in his eyes. "So," he drawled, "you're the sister father has told me so much about."
Isabel began to sob. She was tired and alone and frightened, and nobody had told her what to do. Her brother tilted his head, narrowing his eyes, like a fox sensing a trap. The easiness disappeared, and he seemed young suddenly, and awkward. He reached out tentative arms, and gently pulled her towards him, into his embrace. The smell of him was young and sweet and clean. Not manly, not yet. Closer to Ayleth than her father. Ayleth who she wanted desperately. She wrapped her arms around him tightly, burying her face in his chest. She felt his body relax beneath her. He slowly raised one of his elegant hands to her hair, stroking her curls with light fingers as he murmured endearments.
When Isabel stopped crying, her brother gently took hold of her hand, and she grasped it as desperately as a drowning man, adrift in a lonely sea, grabbed the rope which he was thrown. "I want to show you something" he said intriguingly, attempting to distract her. "If you'll let me."
Isabel looked at him shyly. His beauty was there before her, overwhelming: those finely curved lips, the frank brown eyes, the soft curls. There was something in his face that made her trust him at once. In his lovely face there was a breath-taking purity, as if their world had not touched him. It was easy to nod in assent when he beseeched her so.
She walked beside him eagerly, almost forgetting, for a little while, that she was alone and frightened, for she didn't feel alone and frightened, not anymore.
Her brother led her to one the stable blocks, to an empty stall. He put a finger to his lips to hush her as they approached. Opening the wooden door, he pulled her inside and crouched down before a tall, rangy, steel grey bitch, reclining on a deep bed of straw. Her puppies were small dark bundles of fur, curled up beside her, their eyes shut tightly as if in sleep.
"One day," Will whispered, crouching before her, "these puppies shall be some of the finest hunting dogs in England. But before that can happen they will have to leave their mother, or they will never become brave enough and strong enough to join the master on his hunts. Do you understand?"
Isabel nodded, her eyes wide with owlish solemnity.
"We are like them," Will pressed on, his gaze beseeching her to understand. "One day we will rule England, but to grow clever enough and resilient enough to do that we must leave home and learn everything we need to know from our lord of Glencaer. Do you think that you're brave enough to do that?"
Again, she nodded.
"Yet even the bravest lords and ladies are scared sometimes," her brother said conspiratorially. "If you feel unhappy, know that I am always here for you. Even the most courageous little girls sometimes need their big brothers to give them a cuddle, little Issy," he said, winking as he pulled her to him.
His words made a feeling of warmth spread throughout Isabel's body. "I love you, Will," she said, and she meant it with all of her heart.
"So easily?" he laughed. He kissed her gently on the head, and stood up, his hand still clasped around hers.
His footsteps were quiet as they left the stable. The large dog stared at his retreating figure, whining softly, as if begging him to stay with her.
He had that effect on people too, she quickly realised. He was as magnetic as their father. Being around him was like standing in front of a fire, the warmth he emanated keeping the cold, and the misery, at bay. When her brother entered a room, he commanded people's attention, his stride confident and purposeful. One look in his direction and those who were mere mortals beside his charismatic presence were hooked, the beauty of his face and the friendliness of his smile drawing them in. When Will smiled, the world smiled with him, as though his happiness were contagious. He made her feel as if she were the only person in the world he wanted to see, just like her father. But Isabel knew that people carried out her father's commands because they feared him; people did as Will asked just to see him smile.
As they walked together, Isabel began to understand the vastness of the castle which would be hers. It was a place to get lost in, a place to get swallowed up whole. When the wind blew, it was easy to believe that people had been eaten alive here, for it screamed and wailed through the cracks in the stone, as if the lord who died had been walled up inside the great walls, and was still alive inside of them, screaming for his release.
Will took Isabel to the main hall, and asked one of the maids if she would take her to see the mistress of the household, milord's mother, Lady Linota. The girl smiled at him flirtatiously, batting her eyelashes and curtsying low, so that her creamy breasts spilled over the top of her gown. Her brother smiled at the girl lazily, and her pretty cheeks flushed red.
She returned within minutes. "The Lady Linota will see you now," she informed them. The girl held out her hand, her face friendly.
Although her manner was affable, Isabel longed to stay with her lovely brother. She drew closer to him, wrapping her arms tightly around the top of his leg, and stared shyly at the girl. Will gently pulled her away, and, crouching down before her, he murmured in her ear, his breath tickling her face as he spoke. "You must be brave now."
Isabel nodded reluctantly, pained at leaving her gentle brother so soon after having met him. But though she was only seven, already Isabel knew her duty as a noble woman, so she stepped boldly forwards and grasped the proffered hand.
They walked briskly down the corridor, Isabel's eyes burning with unshed tears as she tried to be brave for Will's sake. She desperately wanted to look back and check that he hadn't abandoned her, that the beautiful boy hadn't in fact been some fanciful apparition.
Her attention was diverted by her father, who came boldly along the corridor, his gait brisk and purposeful. Both she and Matilda, the girl whose hand she held, dropped into deep curtsies, but her father did not acknowledge them, never slowing his pace or glancing in their direction. She wanted to run to him, cling to his legs, and beg him to take her back to Ayleth.
But she remained where she was, although her eyes followed his path down the corridor. Her father stopped when he reached Will, who stood exactly where she had left him. He grabbed roughly at her brother's arm and pulled him to the side. When he spoke his voice was low and furious. Will seemed to grow smaller beside him, a bright cheerful spring daffodil wilting in the shade of a mighty oak. He nodded meekly at the end, and her father left him, nostrils flaring as he stormed down the remainder of the long passage.
Will stared after the earl's retreating form, rubbing absent-mindedly at his arm. His face wore an expression which sat uncomfortably on his beautiful countenance; a look of burning hatred.
Isabel tried to catch her brother's eye, so that she could smile at him, but he turned away, seemingly oblivious to her presence. The tight, familiar knot of rejection appeared in her stomach, the same feeling that her mother had always roused, and her pace became slow and subdued as she continued down the corridor.
Without her brother to walk beside her, Isabel felt like naught more important than a mouse. The great stone castle dwarfed her, and she knew that she was nothing here, not yet: she was nobody's child; nobody's care; nobody's love. She didn't mean anything to anyone, not here. Like a mouse, she wanted to keep to the crannies and crevices and dark holes, safe and hidden from the sharp gaze of the mighty man who would one day marry her.
She thought that perhaps they were all mice within these thick walls: Isabel, and Will, and all of the knights, and the squires, and the maids. The size of the castle made them all small and insignificant. It was too easy to become lost in such a place, too easy to be swallowed by the shadows. Glencaer covered thrice as much ground as Pompocali, and the castle was so much larger that it could barely be compared. She had thought that she glimpsed greatness when she looked back at her father's castle, but that had been naught but an illusion. Here, the stables housed a thousand horses, the great wood surrounding the castle covered thirty acres, the kitchens were as large as Pompocali's Great Hall, and its own great hall, that chaos of people and noise and fire, was so cavernous that five thousand men could have feasted there.
Still they walked on, the passage long and austere, with a forbidding coldness to its walls. A strong wooden door stood at the end, and Matilda knocked on it, a rapid staccato beat. Isabel's stomach churned with nervousness, for she was terrified of what she would find on the other side: a cat to eat a mouse; a lion to swallow it whole.
"Come in." The voice which greeted her was sweet and melodic - motherly.
Matilda reached forward and grasped the knob. The door slowly swung open before them.
The scene that met Isabel's eyes was utterly magical. Bright tapestries adorned the walls, depicting hunts and woodland scenes. The woman who sat in the middle of the room seemed to her a fairy queen, her throne oaken. Her gown was a deep forest green, and her bejewelled hands rested upon ornately carved arms, decorated with finely wrought wooden leaves. Her face was open and beautiful, the faint lines around her eyes making her look as if she were constantly smiling. Although she must have been around forty, her hair was still golden, framing her face like a halo. Her body was soft and round, womanly.
Gathered around the woman were five noble young ladies. They sat at the Queen of the Fay's feet, embroidering a long tapestry, three on one side and two on the other, with a vacant seat beside one of them, which Matilda quickly occupied. They were all colourfully dressed, like beautiful butterflies adorning the walls of her fairy palace. The girl's faces were bright and animated, happy, and they talked freely amongst themselves, not afraid of being reprimanded. "Hush, girls," their queen gently admonished.
She rose and swept down on Isabel, her long skirts trailing after her. The woman placed a powdered hand on her cheek, tilting her chin upwards. "So you are little Isabel Devereux, the earl's youngest daughter?" she affirmed.
Isabel nodded, too scared to speak.
The woman's eyes narrowed a moment, before she turned and seated herself again, her green gown swirling around her. "Why don't you come and sit here, beside me," she said, gesturing at a spot next to her feet, her plump white fingers heavy with jewels. "You can help me to untangle my yarn."
"Thank you, my lady," Isabel replied, as Ayleth had instructed her to. "It will be a pleasure to serve you."
And it was… It really was.