Glencaer, Welsh Marches, Shropshire, 30th March 1225
Isabel dreamed that her father was dead, and she woke with a scream. It had been the same dream again. The sky was dark, the woods black and frozen, as Isabel watched her father run. She saw roots tangle around his feet as he passed, snaking towards him across the ground as they tried to catch him and crush him. The frigid branches whipped his face, leaving thin stripes of blood across his cheeks, as though a woman's nails had gouged his flesh. He fought his way through blindly, undisguised panic in his eyes. She stood so close beside him that she could hear his laboured breathing. Their shoulders touched, and she felt the heat of his skin against her own. But she was invisible, spectral, not really moving at all, only floating. Mercy, he half-sobbed, as if he could sense her beside him. Mercy, mercy.
From behind, a cry to curdle the blood, female voices, more banshee than siren. Her father glanced back over his shoulder, wide-eyed with fear, and she turned with him, as if they were one being, both animated by his thoughts. Together, Isabel and her father sighted them. Together, they recoiled in terror. Two women chased them, running like wolves, with an animal grace and economy of motion. Their mouths were red slices across their pale visages, and blood dripped from their mouths, burning holes in the snow where it fell. Every stride brought them closer. Isabel's father tried to run faster. The muscles in his neck bulged, as every part of him pushed harder, but his legs seemed to falter, slow. He trembled, gasped, stumbled.
The women fell on him, so close that Isabel could smell the hot breath of the sirens, a stink of brimstone and corruption. Their slender arms ensnared him, and they cradled him tenderly as their pointed teeth began to tear at his flesh. He made a wet choking sound, thrashed, but the iron embrace of the two pale women held him immobile. The elder woman laughed as she tore out his heart. He shuddered. He lay still.
Two blonde-haired heads turned to Isabel. Two pairs of blue eyes stared at her. Ayleth and her mother smiled.
But it was naught but a dream, something which should not be dwelled upon, not now, when she had been summoned. She could not let her mistress see her dishevelled and soaked with sweat. Yet the memory of the blood dripping from the mouths of the creatures made her shiver.
All of her dreams had been the same of late, each more hideous, more graphic, than the one before. The night before she had dreamt her father dead, too, a letter written in blood clenched in his cold fist. Her mother had knelt beside him, her great blue eyes filled with tears of blood, her hands dripping scarlet drops across his bloodless face. "This was never what I wanted," her mother had whispered, as she placed a kiss on dead lips which could never again answer her. "But you gave me no other choice, my heart."
The dream had receded by the time a servant brought her water. She scrubbed the sweat and sleep from her body as she hurriedly donned her clothes, for she would not leave Lady Linota waiting on her. Apprehension tightened her stomach, for she could not imagine such an urgent summons heralding anything good. Her face would be pale, her lips trembling, belying her nervousness, but she must always appear composed, for she was a Devereux.
She took care to choose a gown which would lend colour to her cheeks, and beautiful rings which would detract from the trembling of her hands. She donned a dress of red velvet, and arranged her long hair so that it fell in rich, glossy curls across her shoulders. Last of all, she slipped the bracelet her father had given to her the last time she had seen him around her thin wrist, as if to do so would conjure his indomitable courage inside of her.
Outside her door, Linota's steward waited to escort her to her mistress. Isabel fell in beside him, his footsteps sounding in her ears like a death knell as they walked.
Linota waited for her on her carved throne. Her eyes were pitying, though behind her sadness Isabel thought she glimpsed something darker than grief. Ambition, perhaps. Glee. She turned a letter over and over in her hands, though she set it aside as she sighted Isabel. Her rooms, which usually rang with the voices of the other girls, were ominously quiet, everybody else still abed at such an early hour. Will was beside her, his eyes red and puffy. Isabel curtsied to them automatically.
The noblewoman opened her arms to her, gesturing for Isabel to stand beside her. She approached her mistress' chair warily, a knot of apprehension tightening in her stomach. She didn't know what Linota was about to tell her, but she knew that it was bad, and she didn't want to hear it. "Such beauty…" her mistress murmured, rising to her feet, her fingers sliding through Isabel's silken curls. "Such a lovely face should never appear unhappy." The noblewoman pulled her into her embrace, her kind eyes filling with tears as she kissed the top of Isabel's head, resting her cheek on her warm curls. "I'm so sorry, my darling… It's your father." Her voice choked, and Isabel drew away from her.
"Is he hurt?" She was terrified suddenly. She wanted to clamp her hands over her ears, blocking out what Linota was about to say. She could see the truth in the noblewoman's eyes - she could see death - yet she could not truly fathom the loss of her father. She didn't want to believe the small voice in her head, a harbinger of doom.
"He's dead," Will choked, his voice catching on the words, his face anguished.
There was silence in the moment after he spoke, in the brief seconds between the knowledge of death and the onset of grief.
Will took a step towards Isabel, wanting to comfort her, breaking the beautiful interlude where the world had frozen. Claustrophobia caught her in its cruel clutches, and she had to break free of them both, for their pity was suffocating. No one could make it better. Didn't they understand that? The only way to fix things was to take it all back. It wasn't allowed to be true.
Isabel ran from the room, her heart pounding as she pushed herself, faster and faster. Her feet beat a rapid staccato rhythm on the floor. Tears blurred her eyes, so that she couldn't see where she was going. She ran blindly, not caring where she was headed. She wanted to make herself so exhausted that she couldn't remember her own name, so that her mind would go blank and what they had told her would disappear from her memory. She craved the gentle embrace of sleep - the black oblivion. He's dead, he's dead, he's dead, went round and round in her head, in time to the rhythm of her pounding heart. She ran until she couldn't run anymore.
Isabel was at the stables. She dragged herself inside, legs trembling. Walking into an empty stall, she collapsed on a bed of hay, curling up in a ball. Everything hurt, yet she felt nothing - the pain was like an echo, or a distant half-remembered dream. A sick feeling rose in her stomach, and she vomited, the sensation making her throat burn. She wrapped her arms tightly around her body, hoping that if she could make herself small enough she would disappear, so that nothing could hurt her anymore.
She knew that she was dead too. Dying. Soon enough she would join her father. She would die, and the thought no longer seemed so terrible to her. She could do it now. She could fling herself from a window, put an end to her grief, spare herself the horrors she knew she would suffer. Her body would lie on the stones, broken and innocent, untouched by the man who would be her husband. She could be the queen of death, not somebody's victim.
Minutes passed. Hours. A shrill whinny pierced the air, and Isabel heard someone frantically trying to soothe a frightened animal. She peered out from underneath her arm. A massive black horse reared up in front of her, its rock hard hooves crashing to the floor just inches from her face. The beast's dark eyes rolled in its head. He could kill her. She could kill herself, throw herself under his hooves. But she didn't move. Not even death could take such pain away.
Isabel wasn't scared, because nothing could hurt her more than she was already hurting. And she knew that she wouldn't die. It wasn't time. Not yet. She felt detached as she watched the events unfolding before her. A tall figure hung onto the end of the horse's rope, though it seemed small and slight beside the animal's might. It was the elfin boy. She closed her eyes again, turning her head away, disinterested.
Managing to calm the stallion, the boy tied him up outside. His face was thunderous as he stormed into the stable, standing in front of her with his hands on his hips. "What the hell do you think you're playing at?"
Isabel just looked at him, marvelling at the fact that the world hadn't come to a standstill. Didn't he know what had happened?
"Have you got a death wish?"
The mention of death stabbed at her heart like a knife. She could hear a strange moaning sound, though she didn't know where it was coming from. With a jolt of surprise, she realised that it was her.
Seeing her tears, the anger left the boy's face and his manner became awkward. He was long and gangly, coltish. His body was still too big for him. He rubbed nervously at the backs of his arms, unsure of how to react. "My lady?"
Isabel couldn't say the words, for speaking them aloud would make it real. Closing her eyes, she tried to block everything out, hoping that the misery which haunted her would be unable to find her in the darkness. "It hurts," she whimpered.
His face softened, almost gentle now, as if he understood the truth she couldn't voice. "I know," he whispered.
The boy's footsteps were quiet as he approached. The straw rustled as he sat down beside her. Wordlessly, he pulled her upright. Putting a slender arm around Isabel's shoulders, he drew her close to him. "I know," he whispered again. His fingers were soft as he gently stroked her cheek, his delicacy surprising. She stared at his lovely face, wondering how she had ever thought it cruel. His lips were as soft and red as a kiss, and his eyes were full of the sweetest sympathy.
She had resented the touch of those she loved only moments before, but his she welcomed, his calm reserve comforting her. An aura of tranquillity seemed to emanate from him, gentling the fierce sadness which assailed her. In his arms, the world seemed simpler. They didn't speak again. His hands caressed her hair, the action soothing and rhythmic. He rocked her gently back and forth, as one would a baby. Isabel gave herself to the darkness, to him. She let him see the rotten, oozing grief inside. Her tears dampened his clothes as she cried into his shoulder, until, exhausted, she closed her eyes, and let herself pretend that her father's death was naught but a terrible dream.