Glencaer, Welsh Marches Shropshire, 5th July 1221
The weather was beautiful, the air in the room warm and hazy, as Will and Isabel stood before their father. All Isabel could think of was being outside. She hoped that her father's visit would be brief, for the other girls were going down to the river, and she longed to bathe in the cool water.
Her father's visits were infrequent, but she had learned to dread them. Though she remembered her promise to him, her true loyalty now lay with her family at Glencaer.
"What exactly did Lady Linota say to him, Isabel?" her father demanded, rubbing the bridge of his nose. Even in the July heat, his hands were encased in black leather gloves, as though his skin were too vulnerable to expose to his enemies, too delicate an armour for the battles he would wage. His breastplate was forged from velvet, his chainmail from silk and furs. His weapons glittered on his fingers. They told all the world how powerful he was, how invincible.
The procedure was always the same. Lord FitzAlan would allow her father to receive them in his private rooms, away from the prying eyes of the servants. The formalities would be delivered clinically, and then the questions would start.
"I'm not sure," Isabel demurred. Her father's questions were forever probing, and though she could not bring herself to lie to him completely, she had learned to become economical with the truth, for fear of betraying her lovely mistress.
"What do you think that she said?" he rephrased, rubbing his forehead as though it pained him. He shut his dark eyes for a moment, his long eyelashes casting delicate shadows on his golden cheeks.
Isabel found her gaze wandering to the door, the thought of the cool water distracting her.
Her father's eyes snapped open. He moved quickly, grabbing the front of her dress and pushing his face close to hers. His cheeks coloured with fury, and spittle flecked his face as he screamed at her. "You will listen to me when I am addressing you, my girl," he spat.
He pushed her away from him, lurching slightly. Isabel stumbled backwards, her neck snapping, a dull ache beginning in the back of her skull. Her father tilted his head, eyeing her critically, as if checking that his admonishment had been sufficient. His fists clenched and unclenched, his hands trembling.
Isabel nodded tremulously, too shocked to be upset. Her shoulder and side throbbed where he had jolted her. She knew that her father was a hard man - she had seen his cruelty towards her mother - but she had never thought that he would hurt her.
"Are you a complete dolt?" he said furiously, black eyes gleaming. "You will speak when I am addressing you." He staggered towards her as though he were drunk. His gait was strange, jagged, where once he had prowled.
Isabel saw him drawing back his hand. She could already feel the bitter sting of the blow hitting her face, though he had never hurt her before. She shut her eyes tightly, as if she could make him disappear. But the slap never came.
Opening her eyes, she saw that Will had hold of her father's hand, an archer pulling the bow string taut, stopping the fatal missile from being released. Father's broad shoulders were tight, as though every muscle in his body fought his son, yet he seemed powerless to break Will's grasp, as though her brother had developed an almost Herculean strength.
Her father laughed, the sound as hard and cold as the jewels which glittered on his fingers. "So you've finally grown a back-bone," he sneered. "Until this moment I confess I doubted that you were really my son." His face was full of scorn and derision, malice animating his features.
Isabel's fingernails dug into her palms, biting into the skin so deeply that they drew blood. She was terrified for him, for her lovely, gentle brother. Though she had been kept apart from Will since birth, he at Glencaer under the rod of Lord FitzAlan, she at Pompocali, in that first shy glance she had recognised him as true kin, and she had loved him ever since.
"I won't let you hurt her," Will stated, but he sounded unsure of himself. His finely curved lips trembled slightly, his voice shaking.
"All this for a child. Like little girls, do you, William?"
Her brother looked shocked. His perfect face crumpled, his jaw slackening. Her father took advantage of his moment of hesitation. His free arm whipped around, his body turning with the speed and ferocity of a striking viper, and he punched her brother in the stomach. Will dropped to the floor, all the strength in his body gone. He crossed his arms over his torso, hugging himself.
Isabel's father set about him then, punching him and kicking him. He seemed oblivious to her presence. She sat hunched in the corner, eyes tightly shut and hands pressed against her ears, trying to block out the horror of the scene before her. But though she pressed her ears so hard that she felt as if her head was being crushed, she couldn't stop herself from hearing Will's whimpers.
A hot shower of blood splattered Isabel, forcing her to open her eyes. Her father's face was contorted with fury, and Will lay still and unmoving on the floor, no longer groaning. Her heart sank. She ran to her brother's prone form, throwing herself across him, using her body to try and shield his. The action stilled her father's raised arm, and he looked at his bloody fist, his face shocked.
There was confusion in her father's eyes, terror even. "I seem… irritable… of late. My head hurts and I can't think straight. I cannot think at all. I'm… I'm not myself." He looked at her, lost. His hands were around his neck, his face tilted upwards, as though the weight of his head were too much to bear.
There was skin embedded amongst the jewels in his great ruby ring. Her father pulled it away gingerly, like a crow tearing a shred of flesh from a piece of carrion. He pulled the rings off then, the gloves too, peeling them away as though he were a snake shedding an old skin. They fell to the floor, the jewellery rolling, clattering. He slowly extended his fingers, his hand shaking. His knuckles were bruised and bloody. His sleeve rode up slightly, and she saw the marks upon his skin, around his wrist - great, raw, ugly lesions, the tissue around them red and inflamed. He pulled his sleeve down, picking up his gloves. "Don't stare, Isabel. Ladies never stare."
A soft groan escaped from her brother's torn and bloodied lips. He stirred slightly. Her father turned away quickly, disgusted with himself. "Let that be a lesson to you, Isabel," he said, his back to her. "Your brother has learnt to obey me, so there shall be no need to repeat this unfortunate incident." His voice sounded different - it had lost its assuredness - as if he were trying to convince himself as much as her. "He who spares his rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him promptly. Proverbs 13:24," he said softly. "Do you understand?"
She shook her head numbly, her fear forcing her to be honest.
"It's because I love him," her father said hoarsely. "I love him, Isabel. God knows, I love you all." His great, liquid eyes glittered with tears. He angrily wiped them away. The leather glistened for a moment, dried, her father's sadness sinking beneath his dark second skin, to hide beside the vulnerable flesh underneath.
"Help me to take him to his bedchamber," he commanded. Crouching down beside Will, her father gently raised him into a sitting position. Her brother's head lolled, his eyes still closed. He was dressed in all his finery, simple, but rich to the touch, but it was ruined now, all ruined. They were both ruined. Both covered in blood, a beautiful, matched, damaged pair. Her father slung one of Will's arms around his neck, placing both of his own arms around his son's lifeless form.
As they stood, a groan escaped from her brother's mouth, reassuring Isabel that her father hadn't killed him.
Her father half-dragged Will from the room and up the stairs, staggering beneath the weight of his son. Her father's left leg dragged behind him, as though he had hurt it, as though he were as fragile as any man.
He laid her brother on his bed in the boy's dormitory. Isabel pulled back the covers for him, and he placed Will on the mattress, stripping him down to his shirt. Ordering one of the servant girls to fetch him a bowl of warm water and a cloth, he tenderly bathed Will's battered face, his terrible hands gentle now.
Her father turned to Isabel, his fingers massaging his forehead. "Go to your lady mistress, and do not mention a word of this. I will tell them that William fell from his horse whilst out riding, and instruct them to leave him alone so that he may sleep off the worst of it."
She made to go, but her father's voice stilled her. He reached for her hand, the bloodied leather of his glove soft against her skin. "I didn't mean it, Isabel," he said, his tone beseeching her to understand. "I'm not myself at the moment. I'm tired. I haven't been well. I'll be better again soon. It will all be better."
Isabel pulled away, the gloved hand sliding from hers. Her brother's blood blossomed on her palm, wet and glistening and crimson.
She left the room without replying, and did as her father had instructed, knowing that her inertia made her an accomplice to his brutality. She wanted to disobey him, but she couldn't. She was too ashamed to admit her father's monstrosity. She felt like she was in a trance, her legs traversing the distance to the lake without thought or effort. There was nothing inside of her, nothing good, only guilt and shame, her father's cruelty and her mother's madness. The taint of her blood. A taint that no one must ever see.
As she approached, Lady Linota called out to her. She sat beneath an embroidered canopy, clapping her hands gleefully as she watched the girls frolicking in the water. A look of concern crossed her face as Isabel moved closer. "Are you alright, child?" she asked, pulling her to her.
Isabel nodded dumbly but the worried expression did not leave the noblewoman's face.
She placed a cool hand on Isabel's forehead. "You're hot," she said fretfully. "I do hope that you're not sickening for something. Do you feel ill?"
Isabel nodded again.
Reaching out her arms, her mistress pulled her onto her lap. Isabel was enveloped in her expensive scent, in the voluptuousness of Linota FitzAlan and her billowing skirts, her soft curls. It felt so very sweet to be held again, loved again. She wanted Ayleth then. Wanted her more than anything. There were tears on her cheeks suddenly, and her shoulders shook so violently that it felt as though her body would break into a million shattered pieces. Linota's arms tightened around her, and she let her weep into her golden hair, soothing her with her voice and her hands until Isabel fell asleep, exhausted.
She dreaded going back to the castle that night. As the group approached, a servant boy ran up to Linota. Isabel's heart quickened as she saw her mistress' face crease into an anxious frown. She looked at Isabel pityingly. As the noblewoman approached, she wanted to scream, to tell the whole world that it was her father who had done it, that he had murdered her brother.
But Will was not dead. Her voice gentle, Linota repeated her father's lies to her, concern evident in her sweet voice, and asked her if she wanted to go and visit her brother. Although Isabel acquiesced, desperate to see Will, part of her baulked at the idea, not wanting to remember the monstrous scene she had been witness to. Her legs felt heavy and wooden as she forced herself to climb the stairs to the boy's dormitory.
Isabel paused on the threshold, reluctant to enter her brother's sick room. The drapes around his bed were drawn, but a candle flame flickered, creating a shadowy image of the scene in the bed. A figure lay half-reclined, propped up on the pillows, and another form bent over it, their faces so close that they appeared to be kissing. As the second figure drew back, she heard a familiar voice. "Kissing shall be better when you are prettier again," it said playfully. The voice was male. There was a laugh of delight from the figure in the bed. She had heard that laugh many times - it was Will.
Isabel was scared that she had walked in on a secret exchange. Not wanting to be seen as a voyeur, she raised her fist and knocked loudly on the wood of the door to alert whoever was inside to her presence. Both figures stiffened. One of the men stood up quickly, as if he had been caught doing something terrible.
"Will," Isabel called.
"It's just my sister," her brother whispered. "Now go, before anyone else comes."
The second figure bent down, and kissed him on the lips again, the action long and lingering.
The second man stepped around the bed. It was Tristan FitzAlan. His expression froze as he looked back, reluctant to leave, and saw her brother's figure illuminated by the light of the candle. A look of horror crossed his face. Tristan turned away from Isabel, trying to shield his face with his hand, and hurriedly left the room. She stared after him in surprise, confused by what she had witnessed.
Isabel walked around to the other side of the bed, feet thumping on the wooden floor. As she rounded the corner, and Will came into view, she gasped in shock. His handsome face was almost unrecognisable. One of her brother's eyes was black and swollen, the eyelid forced shut. His straight, noble nose was laced with thin lines of crimson, and his lips were bloody and distended.
Isabel flung herself across Will's body, sobbing into his chest. He gasped in pain, and she pulled back reflexively. Her brother smiled grimly, trying to divert her attention and play down his injuries, but she was determined to see the extent of the damage to his broken form. Reaching forward, she lifted the hem of his shirt, revealing angry blue bruises which extended across her poor brother's stomach and around to his back.
When she lifted her gaze, she saw that his eyes were averted, his face guilty. "Will…"
"Don't," he said softly, "it was my fault, Issy. I provoked him. He didn't mean it."
"Yes, he did," she rebutted.
"Father warned me not to disappoint him. I should have known better," he chastised himself. "Hasn't father always told us that we can become a victim or a pupil? I didn't learn my lesson, and so father was forced to do it. He only wanted to teach me. He cannot leave Pompocali to a man who is not worthy of the honour. I'll do better next time," he vowed. He turned away from her, as though he wished that his foolishness had not been put on such public display, as if he did not want people to know how badly he had wronged his father. She could see that his body cried out in protest at the movement.
"No," she said in horror. "Stop it, Will. You were looking after me. You did nothing wrong."
He began to cry then, and she placed her arms gently around his smashed body, the roles reversed; it was her turn to look after him. In that moment, she hated her father. She hated the man who had wounded her brother. It hurt to see him cry. It made her want to tear the world apart with her bare hands, to fight for him until all of his enemies lay slain at her feet. She vowed that she would never give Will cause to grieve. He had hurt for her, suffered for her, and she would do the same for him. Their parents had failed them, but they would never fail each other. She would love him, always. Protect him, always. He would never cry again.