Glencaer, Welsh Marches, Shropshire, 14th January 1225
It was a mild January morning. Though winter's chill nipped Isabel's nose and fingers, a warm winter sun shone on her cheeks, warming her skin and lightening her heart. The landscape was a drab patchwork of blacks and browns, but her mood was bright. Riocus tossed his head, snatching at the reins, eager to take the bit between his teeth. She shared his exhilaration, the sharp breeze carrying the promise of spring and reawakening. Though the earth still slumbered, new life was stirring beneath the frosted soil.
"Shall we canter, Issy?" Will asked her, turning to look over his shoulder. His mare, Amethea, sidled to the left, eager to stretch her legs. Her black hide shone like polished jet.
A sly smile curved Isabel's lips, and she pressed her calves against Riocus' sides, pushing him into a gallop. She shot past her brother, giving the little gelding his head. He was a hardy Welsh pony, and he moved easily across the uneven ground, surefooted as a mountain goat. She could hear the thunder of Will's horse behind her, and she dug in her heels, urging the pony on. Her hair flew behind her like a banner, stating her identity to the woodland creatures.
The mountains rose majestically on either side, embracing the frozen land, their snow-capped tops reaching for the sky. Looking to the left, her eyes were drawn to Oswald's Tree, where King Oswald was said to have met a sticky end. She raised her eyes to the clouds, almost seeing, in her mind's eye, the great eagle which had stolen the king's leg, and then flown away, dropping the limb where St Oswald's Well stood.
Riocus slowed beneath her, but Isabel urged him onwards, encouraging him to find a further burst of speed. He responded instantly, his slender legs reaching and stretching beneath her. The forest lay just ahead, shrouded in mist, promising a land of myth and legend, the land where King Arthur had once ruled. The sound of the Pistyll Rhaeadr waterfall roared in her ears, conjuring an image of the immense skein of water, twining down the mountainside like silk, falling gracefully to the plunge pool below.
With a shout of indignation, Will appeared beside her, Amethea easily matching her stride to Riocus'. His face was flushed scarlet beneath his dark curls. "If you want to race, you know I'll win," he teased, digging his spurs into the mare's side. With an indignant snort, Amethea sprang into a hard gallop, finding a fresh burst of speed.
Isabel's mouth set in a thin line of determination. She lashed Riocus' neck with her reins, urging the little pony onwards, pushing him to his fastest pace. Ahead of them, Will's mare, faster than the gelding, began to falter, her endurance no match for the Welsh pony's. She had only recently recovered from a tendon injury, and her fitness was still below par. She slowed to a canter, Riocus easily drawing alongside.
Will turned in the saddle, narrowing his eyes as Isabel drew level. With a triumphant smile, he reached to grab her bridle, hauling her in close as he would have done with an opponent at a tourney. Riocus' eyes widened, revealing the whites, and he came to a dead standstill. "I win," her brother crowed. "You are defeated, my lady."
Isabel glared at him. "It was a race, not a tourney," she said hotly.
"Then you should have said so earlier," her brother silkily intoned. "Besides, if it was a race we would have been required to start at the same time."
Isabel stuck out her tongue, and pushed Riocus into a brisk trot.
"Where are you going now?" Will called after her, his voice exasperated.
"You promised to show me the wild roses."
She could hear the roar of the falls to her left, overlaid by the delicate, bubbling symphony of the streams and tributaries which led away from it. The sound was enchanting. Will had told her it was the song of the forest nymphs who dwelled in the pools, waiting to lure handsome young men to a watery death among the wild roses which lined the banks.
The path in front of them twisted through the trees, rising gently into a thicket of alder, ash and willow. The horses' legs propelled them easily up the short incline, their nostrils releasing bursts of dragon-smoke into the winter air. The sun was hidden by the tree canopy, and Isabel shivered slightly, the gloom of the forest seeping into her bones.
The thin track opened onto a meadow, the river rushing by to their left, bubbling over rocks and boulders. Pale grass rose to their knees, thin and silvery, swaying like an army of spectres in the gentle breeze. It was like entering a twilight world, ethereal and ghostly. Isabel imagined the boy lurking in the grass like a will-o'-the-wisp, singing the songs of the fairies.
Will dismounted in a single, fluid gesture, dropping lightly to his feet. He beckoned to Isabel, placing a finger on his lips to silence her. She dismounted reluctantly, only the soft swish of her cloak belying her presence. He took her hand in his, and pulled her forwards, walking noiselessly through the tall grass. He crouched in the undergrowth, Isabel falling to her knees beside him, and pointed straight ahead. "Look," he murmured.
Not ten feet from where they hid, several does and fawns crept into the meadow, ears pricked, alert to any danger, their movements wary. Their reddish-brown coats shone in the weak sunlight. One of them raised her head to scent the air, though Isabel and Will were downwind of them.
Riocus threw his nose to the sky, his eyes rolling, searching for his little mistress, as if he shared her unease at entering the land of the fey. His shrill whinny pierced the silence of the meadow, and the deer fled in a pageant of raised tails and high-stepping leaps.
"It's a good job the men are not hunting today," Will said grimly, staring after the harem.
"Why?" Isabel said in confusion. "I thought that red deer were a prize."
His eyes were dark. "They are. But I hate it, Issy. I enjoy the hunt, but never the killing. It is as if they cannot see something beautiful without wanting to destroy it."
"They?" she probed.
A melancholy expression soured his face. "Tristan. Tristan and all of the others."
Isabel's stomach clenched, as it always did when anyone mentioned her future husband. Tristan frightened her, and she didn't know why. Something about him reviled her. "I don't like him, Will," she whispered. "I do not think that I want to marry him."
Her brother smiled, and kissed her cheek. "I didn't mean to frighten you," he apologised, squeezing her hand. "Tristan is a hard man, but he will be on your side. He has been a good friend to me, Issy. You have nothing to fear."
"I won't marry him, Will," she confided. "I have seen my future. I will love a man with hair as black as a raven, skin as white as snow and lips as red as blood."
Her brother smiled indulgently, but his eyes were sad. He crouched down before her, gently tucking a stray curl behind her ear. "We do not marry for love, Issy. We marry who we are told to marry."
"But can I not love somebody else?"
Her brother laughed. "And what of poor Tris, dearest sister? Will he not be sad to learn that you cannot love him?"
"I know that it is my duty to marry him," she said demurely, eyes downcast, as her father would have expected.
"Your duty," Will said bitterly, his face hardening. He rose to his feet in a single, jagged movement. "Your duty to whom? Our father? You owe him no duty, little sister."
She wrapped her arms around her brother's waist, sensing the familiar, sad anger that any mention of her papa provoked. Will cast a pitying look at her, but forced a smile onto his lips. "Come, Issy," he urged, touching her shoulder. "I promised to show you some roses."
He moved silently, Isabel trailing behind him, and clambered down the steep, frosted incline until he stood at the water's edge. She hastily followed in his wake, slipping and sliding on the damp grass. Her brother reached for her as he made the bottom of the small hill, lifting her into his arms and setting her down beside him. She looked around her expectantly, but saw nothing besides a tangle of blackberry bushes, their thorny hides protecting their coats of winter brown. "I don't see anything" she said, her lip protruding petulantly.
Will smiled. "Close your eyes," he commanded.
She did as he bid. His hands came down on her shoulders, steering her along the water's edge. The river roared beside her, mounting to a deafening crescendo as they walked onwards. The ground was hard beneath her feet, the frosted ridges making the ground uneven.
Isabel stared out onto a miniature falls, the water dashing against the rocks and crashing down into a small plunge pool. The cold spray dampened her cheeks, and she saw a flash of silver as a fish darted beneath the choppy surface of the water. She looked to Will in confusion. His eyes crinkled in a smile of amusement, his gaze darting tellingly to a spot behind her. She turned around slowly.
"Winter roses," her brother whispered reverently.
A profusion of flowers greeted her, the heavy blossoms hanging from thick, heavily-thorned canes. The delicately veined leaves were a pale silver-green, creating a soft bed for the flowers. The red roses exploded from the pale landscape in a dramatic display of colourful blooms, striking out against an abundance of foliage. The flowers danced in the breeze, releasing their heady fragrance into the cold air.
"They look beautiful," Isabel murmured. "Can I pick one?"
"I want to press it, so that I can keep it forever."
Will's face darkened. "Choose the most perfect bloom," he ordered.
Isabel took a step closer, studying the roses. The blooms were a kaleidoscope of whorls and soft curves. Her eyes fixed on a flawless specimen, its coat a deep, rich red. Dew misted velvet, its diamonds clinging to the stem, falling to the floor as her breath whispered across the petals. Her fingertip lovingly caressed the waxen texture. The flower blushed with a warm beauty, and Isabel was enchanted by its soft sophistication. "This one," she murmured.
"Then pick it."
Her hand slid down the green stem, her fingers curling around it as Hugh's cruel grip had once curled around her long, red hair. She pulled gently. She felt a sharp stab in her finger, and pulled away with a cry of pain, a fierce thorn having drawn blood to her careless fingertip. The plant swayed as she released it, a few waxen petals dropping, and floating upon the glassy surface of the river, as a crimson bead of blood welled on her pale skin, in perfect imitation of the roses which bled on the clear surface of the water.
Will bent to the floor, where a scarlet flower lay forlorn on the frozen ground, its former beauty having ceded to life's decay. Wrinkles creased the discoloured petals. "God has gifted you with beauty, Issy. Here is my offering, a token of homage to your loveliness," he said, handing her the withered rose. "Many will follow this one, but I fear I shall be the only man who understands that a wild rose should be left untouched, for it is perfect without men seeking to meddle with it. It should be allowed to blossom naturally, or else it will wither and die prematurely. Let this bloom lend its fire to your hair, its loveliness to your face, and its sting to your tongue, my wild rose."
Her brother's strange mood lifted as the day passed, and by evening, when they sat in the great hall with the remnants of their feast strewn before them, he smiled again. Matilda's fingers stilled, no longer dancing along the length of the lute as she played. Her face was flushed. The sound had been wild and happy, like the songs of the fey. The music possessed an ethereal essence, the essence of the gypsy youth, the fairy boy. Matilda cast a long, slow look at William, whose eyes had devoured her as she stood near the dais. Only a hint of her hair escaped from her wimple, but it was the colour of spun gold.
Lady Linota clapped delightedly, her face bright. The torches on the walls guttered in their braziers and cast a magical glow on the scene, gilding her flaxen hall and bronzing her skin. Her green eyes possessed sparks of deep golden-orange, which seemed to burst into flame as the light caught them. Isabel thought that her first impression of her, as a fairy queen, was not so far wrong - she charmed people just as surely as if she had cast a spell over them. Her rooms were always full of laughter, and no-one who met Lady Linota could fail to be enchanted, by her beauty or her vivacity. She would be a fitting monarch for the fairy child. "Will you recite one of your poems for us now, William?" she implored Isabel's brother.
Will smiled easily. "It would be my pleasure, my lady," he acquiesced, eager to please her. He loved her like his own mother, and he and the young lord were frequent visitors to her rooms.
The few years Isabel had spent at Glencaer had been a time of joy and happiness. She was finally allowed to be young, to play and laugh. Lady Linota believed that children should be allowed to have a childhood and that the time for manners and formality would come later.
"Isabel, come and sit up here beside me," Lady Linota implored. Isabel ran to her eagerly, and the noblewoman pulled her close.
Will's voice was rich and smooth as he began, reverberating around the room, his recital passionate and eloquent. His eyes never left Matilda's as he wove his tale of love and tragedy and wild roses in winter.
Tristan pushed his chair back suddenly. "I'm bored," he said rudely. Tristan FitzAlan was zealous, volatile, over-indulged and spoilt, having inherited none of his mother's goodness, but all of her beauty. His eyes were wide and very blue, and his mouth was large and sensuous. He had Lady Linota's open, affable face, but his lovely gaze belied an inherent nastiness. "You must amuse yourself with your own ladies, mother, and stop stealing my playthings."
She smiled indulgently. "William, my darling, you heard my lord. He needs entertaining."
"Come, Will," Tristan ordered. He was used to getting what he wanted, because his gentle mother had been so scared that he was fated to a life of austerity and enforced captivity that she had never refused him anything. She had wanted to give her son a lifetime's worth of love and indulgence in a few brief years, and her love had ruined him for everyone else.
His mother placed a hand on his arm. "Aren't you forgetting something?" she teased.
"How could I forget?" he smiled. When Tristan was with her, he was the most charming company, openly affectionate and tactile. She could never see any other side to him. He leaned down, and placed a kiss on her cheek.
The young master strode from the room, lewdly delighting in studying the girl's chests as they rose to curtsy before him. He had an aristocrat's face, imperious, and faintly cruel. His lithe young body was strong and supple, and he moved through his territory like a young lion, with an animal grace which suggested both strength and surety - absolute king of his domain.
Matilda and Joan flicked coquettish glances at him from beneath lowered eyelashes. They were in thrall to him because he could have anyone he desired, his attention making them feel beautiful and alluring. Tristan was notorious for his love affairs, his passion burning brightly, but fading quickly.
Will shadowed him from the room, but not before bowing extravagantly before Matilda. Yet even as he paid homage to her, his eyes tracked Tristan's departure. He seemed drawn to the young lord, Isabel thought, and they were rarely apart, spending hours every day hunting and hawking together. They were a strikingly handsome pair, adored by all of the ladies in the house. They were two libertines, happy to sate their admirer's lusty affections, and both devoted their youth to pursuing all the pleasures life had to offer, drinking, living and loving in excess.
Stopping in the doorway, Will winked at Isabel, and she smiled happily back at him. If the nights were Tristan's, she knew that the days were hers, for when her brother was not with the young lord, they would spend golden hours together. He was her best friend and her protector.
That night she dreamt of Tristan FitzAlan. She dreamt of him a lot, and the nightmares were always so vivid. She didn't know the men she dreamed of, didn't know any of them except for him.
Naked and alone she stood, surrounded by enemies, their backs turned towards her. They laughed together, as if they were blind to her plight. A stone wall pressed against her back. Glencaer, she knew. She could feel the immense weight of the castle around her, pressing against her. She knew that she was home, that the place was hers.
The raven-haired man was stuck behind the wall of unseeing eyes. He dashed himself against the impenetrable mass of people, over and over and over, but he couldn't reach her. But as long as he was there, nothing could hurt her.
And then Isabel wasn't alone anymore. Seven figures encircled her, their bodies pressed against hers, hiding her nakedness. They wore cowled robes that hid their faces, but she knew their forms: her father, her mother, Will, two women who looked like her mother, a dark-eyed girl, and the blonde-haired man she had dreamt of so many times before. In their hands were yellow roses.
The figures surrounded her, two in front, two behind, and one to either side. The tallest, her father, moved to the head of the formation, and slowly walked towards the stairs. The crowd parted easily before him. They spoke not a word, the only sound the soft whisper of the petals which spilled from their hands as they passed.
The women fell away as they reached the base of the steps, but Will and the blonde-haired man wrapped their hands around the top of her arms, giving Isabel no choice but to ascend. Up and up and up, and all the while she knew that in the room above her doom awaited. Something dangerous and terrible lurked out of sight, something which wanted her, and they were giving her to him. She tried to stop, but they dragged her onwards, her feet scraping against the unforgiving stone.
The staircase ended abruptly on echoing darkness. A wooden door was set in the thick stone of the wall, opened in invitation. Isabel could sense a vast, cavernous space before her. She took a step backwards, and found herself teetering on the edge of nothingness. The stairs had crumbled to the ground, leaving only a slim plateau to stand on. The men pushed her through the gaping black maw and into the room beyond, and she heard the door slam shut behind her, plunging the room into utter, blinding blackness. She fell to her knees. Her mouth was open, but the sound was muffled, as if black velvet covered her lips, the darkness suffocating her.
"You're standing in your grave, Isabel Devereux." The whispered voice echoed around the shadow-wreathed chamber, the quiet words deafening in the silence.
The sound was clear, but when Isabel spoke, the shadows seemed to swallow her words. "Am I going to die?"
"We're all dead." The words swelled. There were a dozen voices, chanting the words like a prayer. Their voices were thin and reedy, ethereal, and the mantra became a song.
And then there was light. A woman stood beside her, pale and beautiful, a brand flaming in her hand. Her hair was red in the firelight, her eyes silver. She was surrounded by others, their hair the red and gold of fire.
"Who are you?"
"You are the sum of us, Isabel Devereux. We are blood."
"Why am I here?"
"This is your place, little mistress. This is your legacy and your death." The woman turned to go.
"You can't leave me."
"We already have."
"Stay with me," Isabel begged. "Don't leave me here alone. Don't leave me in the dark." The monster waited for her in the darkness, but they were walking away from her, taking the only light in her world with them.
"You're not alone." The red-haired woman was the last to leave. She kissed Isabel's cheek, and then she was gone.
Loud footsteps sounded on the wooden floor, and Isabel knew that her doom awaited her. She whirled towards the sound… but saw only light. She moved in a circle, steeling herself to face the monster which lurked in the darkness.
The gloom receded, her eyes growing accustomed to the glare. The figure which bore the torch was tall and broad-shouldered. The light was so dim that Isabel could barely see his face, but she knew that he was breath-taking, beautiful. Black eyes stared at her. Black curls glittered like liquid jet. His muscular chest was bare, and though he was cloaked in shadow, she knew that he was naked too.
"Isabel," he breathed, pulling her into strong arms. The smell of him was familiar, safe. She buried her head against his shoulder, trusting him implicitly. The darkness retreated a little more.
"I'll keep you safe," he promised, his accent strange but melodious.
And then there was a sword in his large hand, and the torch was in Isabel's. The metal edges shimmered, the flames dancing across its length. He moved the weapon back and forth. It hissed through the air with all of the speed and grace of a striking serpent. The shadow of the sword shivered across the walls, the man's reflection parrying every stroke.
They moved through the dark room, floating on their island of light. A black sea surrounded them, and Isabel knew that something stalked them in the shadows. The man's movements were slow and cautious, and with every step he turned and listened. Their footsteps echoed off the walls, dashing around the perimeters, monstrously loud in the silence.
"What lurks in the darkness?" the man asked.
"But I would never put you in danger." His tone was heavy with affront. The light danced across his broad shoulders and his dark curls. His face was angry, as if her words had offended him. He looked fierce and indomitable, and Isabel felt small and weak beside him.
"You didn't bring me here," she said in confusion.
"Didn't I?" he whispered sadly. Tears fell from his eyes, tears of blood.
"Something comes." Isabel froze. She stared into the darkness, narrowing her eyes. Something - someone - was stealing through the shadows.
"A man," her dark haired protector said, his fists tightening on the hilt. He raised his sword before him, his stance wary.
A hooded figure approached. He emerged from the blackness at a slow walk. His feet made no sound as they struck the wooden floor. His face was hidden, his features indeterminable.
He raised his head, and his gaze met Isabel's. The darkness masked him, but his eyes shone a brilliant blue, burning from inside the hood of his cloak. They were a lord's eyes: cold and cruel and full of judgement. She did not need to see the rest of his face to know who he was.
"Husband," she greeted him. She was his wife. She belonged to him - Tristan FitzAlan. The glimmer of gold danced across the walls, and the ring finger on her left hand burned, the weight of her wedding band biting into her flesh.
"You belong to me." Her husband's eyes summoned her.
The dark haired man stepped in front of her, his sword raised in readiness. "She was promised to me," he said, so sadly. "I promised to love her."
"She was always mine."
"She was going to marry me," he whispered.
"But she married me. Come to me, wife," he commanded her.
Her feet moved of their own volition, as if she possessed no power to refuse the handsome man who claimed her for his own. She stared helplessly at her raven-haired protector, her eyes pleading with him to save her.
A battle cry tore from his red lips, and he charged at her husband. Tristan stared at him unflinchingly, and the man emitted a high-pitched scream, as if her husband's brilliant blue stare had burned him. He stumbled and pitched forwards, and Isabel saw that in the place of his sword was a crimson rose. The blossom was strikingly red against his olive skin, the colour of the blood which dripped from his fingers. The stem of the flower was a rich, vibrant green, and heavily thorned, its cruel claws sinking into the man's skin, gouging his flesh and binding his wrists. He writhed on the floor, staring at her in mute agony.
Tristan closed the space between them in a single stride, his striking blue gaze rooting Isabel to the spot. He took her face between his hands, and gently turned it from side to side. His fingers caressed her cheekbones almost tenderly. A soft sigh fell from his generous lips. "You are mine," he murmured, his tongue roughly exploring her mouth. She tried to pull away but his hands tightened on her cheeks, digging into her flesh.
His fingers moved higher. "You know you're not allowed to look," he whispered, as he gouged out her eyes.
Blinded, she fell to the floor, her hands groping along the rough wood. Her heart pounded in her ears, and terror curled its steel fist around her throat. She tried desperately to crawl away from her husband, but he was inescapable. And then she knew that the strong hands which tightened around her slender throat did not belong to her fear, but to her husband. She slipped into a deeper darkness, down and down and down, until she was out of her body entirely.
Isabel stood beside the black-haired man, watching tears of grief coat his cheeks, painting his unblemished skin scarlet. A red-haired woman lay on the floor, Tristan crouching over her. She looked like the woman who had welcomed Isabel to her grave, but she was younger, and her hair was darker. Isabel knew with the certainty of dreams that the woman was her.
Tristan's strikingly blue eyes were blind to her as he stared at the girl on the ground. Almost tenderly, he stroked her cheek, and placed a gentle kiss on her forehead. "All beauty must die," he whispered in her ear, as he planted a rose between her teeth. As death touched its petals, they shrivelled and fell to the ground. But the girl remained perfect, as if mortality had no dominion over her.