Pompocali Castle, Yorkshire, 7th April 1221
Will and Isabel rode across the grey landscape in silence. Pompocali loomed before them, but she took no comfort in the sight of its familiar walls. She felt terribly guilty. She couldn't shake the nagging sense that it was her fault. If she had loved her father better, maybe he would never have left her. If he had loved her better, maybe he would have wanted to stay. The remorse hit her harder than her sense of bereavement. Her father had died alone, and she had never had the chance to tell him how much she loved him. They had parted on such bitter terms - had he believed that his own daughter hated him? Despite everything he had done, to her and to Will, she had loved him. There was so much that she wanted to say to her father, for as much as she had feared him, she had been in awe of him too: he was charismatic, charming, wonderfully intelligent. She had so badly desired to make him proud, yet she feared that she had been naught but a disappointment to him.
Will felt the same way; she could see it in his eyes. Something inside of him had changed; he had become harder. After all that their father had put him through, her brother had only ever wanted to impress him. He had believed that the way their father treated him was down to his own shortcomings. He couldn't see that it was their father who had been broken, not him.
In the days leading up to their departure, she had begun to see less and less of her brother - at the time when she most needed him, he was slipping away from her. He was drinking more, and gambling more, doing everything in excess. She felt like her beloved Will was being replaced by a stranger. Isabel didn't know the man that he was becoming.
It was early afternoon when they reached the walls of Pompocali, a crescent of dark stone that seemed to stretch on forever, with the gatehouse in the centre and a square tower to either side. The stone of the towers was paler than the rest, unmarred by moss, unscarred by driving rain, for her father had raised them himself, in an attempt to create an even more impressive façade than the one which had existed before - a great man needed a great home to reign over, and a great man he had undoubtedly been. From the safety of her nursery, Isabel had watched them rise from the ruins of the old. She could still hear the dull thunder of collapse. That was power, to be able to demolish great stone structures with only a word. To watch other men sweat to see your dreams realised.
The gates stood open to them, like the arms of a great mother waiting to embrace them. The shining iron portcullis was drawn up, and her father's household guards watched them from the battlements, wide-eyed with curiosity. They had known and served a great man, and now they waited with baited breath to see if the son would live up to the father. For the daughter, they cared little.
Beyond the curtain wall the scene was little changed from the day she had left her home. The stables were here still, and the kennels, with a scatter of other outbuildings visible in the distance. Sheep and swine huddled in their pens while the castle dogs ran free. But the dogs, at least, were different. They regarded her with strangers' eyes, no childhood friend breaking from the pack to greet her. Indeed, no friend at all waiting to greet her. No Ayleth.
A fresh-faced boy warily approached, ringing his hands in consternation. "Milord, milady, I am sent to escort you to your lady mother."
Will frowned. "I am your lord now. By whose bidding do you command me?"
"Your father's chamberlain."
Will pulled off his gloves. "So you do know who I am. Why is my chamberlain not here to greet me?"
"He awaits you inside, milord, as your sister instructed. She wished to speak with him."
Will smiled. "She is up to her old tricks then."
Isabel felt a stranger. She knew not of whom they spoke, and yet this was her place, and her family. Nothing had changed, and yet she did not know the castle she had once called home.
"Show me to my chamberlain, boy," Will commanded.
Bowing jerkily, the boy led them across the compound. That, at least, she remembered: the imposing stone towering above her, coloured by moss; the wuthering of the Yorkshire air screaming through the turrets; the scent of wild heather blowing across the moors.
But it was not the homecoming Isabel had imagined. She had always pictured herself pulled into Ayleth's familiar embrace, her father beside her, smiling proudly. But her father was dead, and if his ghost lingered, he was condemned to roam forever in a land he had neither known nor loved. He was not here. He would never be here again.
The door was dark wood studded with bronze. The boy tried to push it open, but found it barred from the inside. He darted a nervous glance at Will, flushing red. He hammered on it with his fist, cursing as a splinter lodged itself in his finger, turning redder still. After a moment, the door was opened from within by a guard. They silently walked inside, with the hushed reverence of worshippers entering a church.
The boy led them up a set of twisting stairs to the solar which had once been their father's. They found their mother seated before a roaring fire, staring into the flames. There were jewels woven into her hair, and they sparkled in the firelight, lying like tears amongst her golden curls. At the sound of footsteps on stone, she raised her eyes to behold her long absent children. She had not changed, though she was smaller than Isabel remembered, and so very gaunt. She was as beautiful as ever, though her grief was clearly written on her face. After twenty years of marriage, the man she had loved and hated in equal measure had left her. She didn't know how to be without him. They had told William that she wandered around like a lost soul, a look of confusion on her face; that she did not speak to anyone; that she forgot to eat unless reminded.
"William," their mother said absently, as they walked into the hall. She looked at him in confusion, as if wondering why he was there. Tears filled her eyes, sparkling like the diamonds in her hair, as she raised a shaking hand to his face. "You look just like him," she murmured, her voice choked. "Ten years it has been, and now my little boy has returned to me, wearing his father's face. Can it really be you?"
Isabel half-prayed that her former acid-tongued viciousness would return, for at least then they would know that there was life behind the countess' dead eyes. They said that the soul continued after death, but Isabel wondered whether it was also possible that the body could continue after the soul had departed, for nothing remained of the mother she had known.
"It's me, mother. I may wear his face, but I am your son. For ten years, I have yearned to be reunited with you, and now I am here, and we shall be together again." Will raised their mother's gaunt hand to his lips, placing a tender kiss on her protruding knuckles.
"My beautiful boy," the countess murmured, tenderly stroking his cheek.
"I bring my sister, also. I knew that your heart would be gladdened by seeing your youngest daughter again."
"Mother," Isabel greeted her.
The countess turned to look at her, her face hardening, before she walked away. Isabel felt her eyes fill with tears of rejection, and she hated them for betraying her so.
Will placed a comforting arm around her shoulders as they stood together, watching their mother's retreating figure. "She wasn't always like this, Issy," he said, his eyes full of pity, whether for Isabel or for her mother she did not know. "She was a good mother once."
She shrugged her shoulders, feigning indifference, though a part of her seethed with self-hatred. She didn't know why she still allowed her mother to wield the power to hurt her. Her mother hated her, she always had, yet Isabel could not stop herself from desiring the countess' love. "Never to me," she said with a tight-lipped smile.
They broke apart at the sound of footsteps. A man approached them, his care-worn face anxious. He wrung his hands nervously, his eyes darting to Will's face. Behind him stood a small party of household knights and brightly dressed vassals. "My lord," he said hesitantly, appraising her brother from beneath thick eyebrows. His small dark eyes fixed Will with a gimlet stare, like a sparrow beadily assessing a worm.
Her brother nodded.
"I must apologise for not greeting you sooner. I am Rowan de Bolbec, chamberlain to your late father, and this is his constable, Lief Montagu," he said, gesturing to a man in full armour.
Isabel forced herself to listen as her brother was introduced to the company one by one. She knew that it was good manners to remember names, since her father had always said that names were a valuable asset when it came to handling their owners, but she cared little for anything but her own grief.
The castle seemed empty without her father's larger than life personality to fill it; a vacant shell. Their great fortress needed to be peopled. Her family was here, she knew, but in her mind Pompocali was still a place of empty halls and draughty corridors. She heard the names falling from her brother's tongue, but her mind had no faces to put to the bodiless spectres she had clung to for so long. Returning was strange, like revisiting a long-ago memory. The reminiscence was hazy, half-forgotten. There were places, people, that she had once known, but they were strangers to her now. They were here, but to her they were still grey, bodiless. She needed them to come alive before her eyes. She needed to see her father in them. She had far more interest in seeing these strangers whose blood she shared than in listening to the problems which plagued her brother's earldom.
Nodding to Will, Isabel covertly slipped out of the door, and back down the twisting steps which led to the great hall. At the base of the stairway, she blended into the shadows as she heard footsteps on stone. A sudden fear seized her at being introduced to those she so desperately wanted to meet. She imagined them all staring at her from her mother's face, their cold gazes seething with distaste. She stepped further back as the footsteps grew louder, only emerging as they faded.
Glancing to the stairs which led to the solar, she saw an ethereal vision in a rose-coloured gown fleeing upwards. The pale beauty was the living image of Isabel's mother, an ice queen of silver and flaxen. The beautiful woman turned to look at her, as if sensing Isabel's gaze upon her, and glared at her through eyes which seemed to have grown tired of life and everything it entailed.
A slender, dark-haired man followed hard on her heels, grabbing roughly at her delicate, jewel-adorned wrist. The woman seemed to wilt beneath his touch, as if he were a succubus slowly draining the life from her lovely form. They moved to the doorway of an adjacent chamber, and Isabel moved in time with them, creeping on silent feet to stand in the centre of the spiral, staring up at them.
"That will have to change," Will said sharply, his tone of voice causing Isabel to divert her gaze from the arguing couple and turn to her brother, who had begun to descend the stairs, his entourage at his heels.
"Of course, my lord," the chamberlain wheedled, "but it has been hard for us without your father here to steer the ship. Your lady mother used to rule in his absence, but of late she has not been… as competent as she once was."
"The dowager countess is grieving," Will said through gritted teeth. "Surely you could have taken some of the burden from her shoulders?"
The man looked at the ground, uncomfortable beneath her brother's gaze.
They reached the bottom of the stairs, seemingly blind to Isabel's presence. She took advantage of the distraction to slope away, curious to see again the woman she had glimpsed. She darted behind them, and moved on silent feet to the bedchamber, stopping halfway up the stairs. She heard them arguing above the sound of the wind whistling through the draughty tower of the castle. Creeping closer, she stopped at the doorway, pressing her head against the stone wall to listen to the raised voices.
"Why do you hate me so much? What can I do to make you love me? I want nothing more than to be a good wife to you," the woman sobbed.
"Yet you will not fulfil your wifely duty and bear me any children. I never pretend to love you, and I ask only one thing of you; that you give me a son. But still you cannot do it. I rue the day that I married you. I never wanted you in the first place," the man raged.
Isabel heard the woman weeping. She peeped around the doorframe. The woman threw herself at her husband's feet, clinging to his legs. "Please, don't say such things. I want nothing more than to please you, my lord. Surely you know this?"
Her eyes were tragically eloquent, begging him to love her. But Isabel saw that the woman's husband was not a man capable of such a dangerous, delicate emotion. Despite the lady's beauty, Isabel knew that she did not incite any affection in her husband's cold heart.
"Don't beg, Felicia, it's unbecoming of a lady." With that he pushed her from him, leaving her crying on the floor.
Felicia, Isabel thought. My sister. My future.
She drew back from the door in fear, scared that the man would see her and know that she had been spying on them. But he was oblivious to her presence as he marched from their quarters. Isabel turned her back on the pitiful figure of her sister, as if her parents' cold indifference had infected her, for only monsters could survive.
Five people stood with Will in the great hall as she entered, all swathed in jewels and velvet, their backs angled towards her. She recognised one of them, a dark-haired, dark-eyed man, as her sister's husband, who had stormed down from the room above only moments ago.
"Issy," Will called, beckoning to her.
The group standing with him turned to greet her, the women's gowns hissing across the floor.
A blonde-haired woman moved to meet her, wrapping her arms around Isabel as she drew closer. Her gown was bright blue, the colour as vibrant as she was, with her rosy cheeks and her golden curls. "It is so lovely to meet you, Isabel," she said warmly.
Though she had never seen her before, Isabel knew that she had to be another of her sisters. It was strange to see herself reflected in unfamiliar faces. Such beautiful, unfamiliar faces. The blonde-haired women were breath-taking, unearthly, like the legendary sirens of Greek mythology. But this one seemed so much more alive than the other. She seemed real, earthy, as though she still possessed the power to feel.
"I'm Sophia," the woman introduced herself. She was the mirror image of her older sister, though her face was warmer, softer.
"This is my husband, Robert," Sophia said, gesturing towards an unfamiliar man. Her sister's face, when she looked at him, was soft, tender. Isabel saw that she had been lucky, and married a man that she had fallen in love with. She envied her that, for her own fate promised to be so very much sadder.
"And this is your niece, Amiria." Sophia pulled a tow-headed child towards her, lifting her into her arms. The little girl smiled broadly as her mother placed a tender kiss upon her head. She was beautiful, with golden curls and large blue eyes. They were both beautiful, the most lovely, perfect Virgin and child. So happy too. So full of hope. But the Devereux name would corrupt Amiria too, if her father let it. She hoped that he would not. She hoped that he would save his daughter as he had saved his wife.
The unfamiliar man wrapped his arm around Sophia's waist, and took the little girl from her. Amiria wrapped her arms around his neck. Isabel watched him closely. He seemed happy with the child, though she was only a girl. Perhaps he would save her after all. Perhaps he would love her, truly.
"You will be hoping for a son next, my lord," Will said, smiling at his niece.
"One of each would be nice," Robert said amiably, "but I would also be happy with a second daughter. What man could be disappointed to father a child who is going to grow up to be as great a beauty as her mother?" he said sweetly.
Sophia visibly glowed with love and pride as her husband tenderly kissed her cheek. Isabel saw that her rightful place was at her husband's side. Her mouth was pleasant, not cruel as the countess' was, as Felicia's was. They were right and lithe and lovely together.
Isabel studied Robert thoughtfully. His face was altogether too angular to be considered handsome, and he was a head shorter than her brother, though she found her eyes drawn to his, which were so light as to be almost without colour. They possessed the translucent quality of water, and were utterly without guile, so that looking into them felt like looking into his soul. He smiled easily at her, his face attractively affable. He was less beautiful than her betrothed, but she liked him better than Tristan FitzAlan.
The second woman pushed past Sophia. "Katerina." The words were almost confrontational. She threw her arms around her in an extravagant gesture of affection, enveloping Isabel in expensive scents, in the voluptuousness of Katerina Devereux and her billowing skirts, her jewels and her finery.
Isabel knew that the girl was another of her sisters, for looking at her was like looking at her father in perfect feminine miniature. She was the only one of his daughters that resembled the earl. Her skin was much darker than Isabel and her sisters' ivory pallor, and her eyes were liquid brown like her papa's. Her long hair was golden brown and hung down her back in a shining cascade of glossy curls. She was exotic and sensuous beside their other sisters' milk-and- honey beauty.
She did not only resemble her father in looks. A low, throaty laugh rippled from her throat, the sound husky and inviting. "Well, don't just stand there gawping. Introduce yourself," she said to Isabel. The words were intended to embarrass her, though Katerina said them lightly. She was as charming as he had been, and as cunning. Isabel could tell that nothing Katerina did was spontaneous; there was always an underlying motive. She smiled again. "It's a good job I know who you are, Isabel Devereux, for you seem to have forgotten."
Isabel gawped at her through wide-eyes, slightly frightened by the malevolence in her sister's gaze. Katerina stared back at her for a moment too long, challenging her, though her smirk never dropped. It was Isabel who looked away first. Katerina's mouth split into a wide smile as she did, a great crimson slice across her perfect visage.
Katerina placed a familiar hand on the arm of the man Isabel had seen arguing with Felicia. "This is Oliver de Montfort," she introduced him, "our brother-in-law."
The man grinned wolfishly, looking at Katerina with a predatory gleam in his eyes.
"He's married to our sister, Felicia, though I believe she is… indisposed," Katerina said delicately, looking to Oliver for assurance.
He nodded his head, his eyes darting to the staircase.
Oliver looked at Isabel critically. He placed hard fingers on her chin, tilting her head towards him. "I see the promise of great beauty in the child, Devereux," he said, turning to Will. "I can see no reason why her betrothed would be anything less than delighted by his young bride when she comes of age. FitzAlan will be a useful ally to have. Your father chose the alliance wisely."
Though he looked at her dispassionately, Oliver could not entirely suppress the pity which clouded his gaze. He hooked his arm around Katerina's neck, bringing her close a moment, his lips moving quickly. His voice was so low that only Isabel and her sister could hear him. "She seems like a sweet child, but for her sake, I hope that she is not, for I have heard many a man whisper that her future bridegroom has sold his soul to the devil in return for unearthly beauty and the death of his brother. Others whisper that the boy never possessed a soul, and I think them the wiser of the two."
Katerina laughed, laying bejewelled fingers across his cheek. "Then they will be well-matched," she whispered in his ear. "For no true Devereux possesses a soul."
"Katerina," Lynessa called, appearing.
Katerina rolled her eyes, but disentangled herself from Oliver's embrace, and turned her head towards their mother. The countess froze, looked at her strangely for a moment. And Isabel saw why. In that instant, with that expression, her father breathed again. In the countess' dark-haired daughter, the earl still lived, a material echo of the man her mother had adored.
"Mama," Hugh called, running to her and throwing his arms around the countess' legs, shattering the lovely, eerie moment when their father had been with them once more.
Their mother looked at him distastefully, but placed a distracted hand on her son's head. He had been busy inveigling himself in to Sophia's affections, but his mother was a far greater prize. He was a sickly sweet ten year old. He looked as cherubic as ever, but smug malevolence gleamed in his eyes as he looked at Isabel. They both knew that their mother would never have attempted comfort if it was her daughter who had greeted her so.
"Elfwen," the countess called, panicked.
A red-faced woman appeared, bustling in to the room, and took Hugh by the hand, pulling him away from his mother. There was satisfaction in that, a cruel glee. But Isabel did not smile so fast as her brother had.
"Where's Ayleth?" she said in confusion, turning to her mother. In her grief, she had grown oblivious to her absence, though she now remembered that Ayleth's sweet humming had not echoed through the castle to greet her, and her gentle voice no longer calmed Hugh as he whined and wailed.
Her mother looked at her distractedly. "She's dead."
The black arms of tragedy greeted Isabel. Ayleth was dead. The only mother she had ever known was gone, stealing part of her soul, and leaving a great, gaping hole in her wake. She was an orphan, for the mother of her heart and her father were both gone. Tragedy had struck her twice, decimating her innocence. And no-one had even thought to tell her. The woman who had been everything to her had meant nothing to any of them. Isabel was truly alone for the first time in her life.
"I'm going to be sick," she choked, clapping her hand to her face. She pressed her lips tightly together, and shook her head.
Will looked at her worriedly. He placed his hand below her elbow, and propelled her out of the crowd of people, ignoring Katerina's cruel glee and Sophia's gentle concern.
The air outside was cold, and a freezing fog wrapped them in its cloying embrace. Isabel leaned miserably against the stone wall of the great hall, and vomited.
"Issy?" her brother said, rubbing her back. He looked at her in confusion, not knowing who Ayleth was.
She shook her head, indicating that she couldn't talk, the back of her hand pressed to her mouth.
"It will be okay," he reassured her. "I know that everything is changing, but we still have each other. Whoever Ayleth was - your old nurse, or a servant - you don't need her. You have me, and we don't need anyone else."
"I needed her," Isabel snarled, shrugging him away, a feral glitter in her eyes.
He touched her shoulder, thrown by her aggression. "I know it's hard for you."
Isabel raised her gaze to his confrontationally. "Do you, Will?" she demanded, and made to storm away, her eyes dry.
Her brother grabbed her arm, looking at her sadly. "Where did my sweet Issy go? Don't let him ruin you too, dearest sister. I look at you, and I see the child I love slipping through my fingers, leaving a miniature woman, the tragic victim of a lost childhood, in her wake. Come back to me, my lovely little innocent."
Isabel could only shrug free of his grip, turn and run from him. She couldn't tell him that she had been ruined long ago. She couldn't explain that fate had made her a tragic victim before her father had ever corrupted her, or that death spoke to her, whispering his plans in her ear. But this death she had not seen, and it terrified her. Death had grown quiet. His silence horrified her, for she needed to know when he would come for her. She knew that it would be soon. She thought that maybe here, tonight, he had come another step closer. The next death would be her own. He would come for her in the black of the night, and there would be no warning. Perhaps she was dead already.