Pompocali Castle, Yorkshire, 29th April 1225
Sophia sat beside Isabel, humming a gentle tune as her quick fingers embroidered the tunic she had made for Robert. In the weeks following her father's death, Isabel found that she spent more and more time with Sophia, as Will drifted away from her. Her sister was like a ray of sunshine, thawing the icy atmosphere in their home. Isabel loved being around her, because her happiness was contagious. Though the mood in their house was nothing short of macabre, she could always make her smile. She wanted nothing more than to be like her; to love and be loved.
Isabel spent as little time as possible with her other siblings, even less with her mother - her mother who dwelt with her ghosts, blind to those who still lived. Maybe they had simply passed beyond the countess' recognition, for Isabel herself no longer recognised Will. He was becoming as cold and calculating as the rest of them. Perhaps he had always been that way, and that side of him had simply lain dormant under Lady Linota's positive influence. The drink made him brash and arrogant, and brought out the worst in him. But it wasn't just the alcohol - it was all of them, together. Apart, they could control that side of themselves, rein it in a little. Together, their brilliant minds plotted and connived, egging each other on, pushing each other to go one step further.
Katerina was the leader. Her femininity made her fallible, but acting as puppet master to an earl she was untouchable. Felicia was happy to go along with everything they proposed, for with them she felt powerful. Her husband degraded her constantly, making her feel weak and pitiable. Standing with the other Devereuxs, she was unbeatable. Together, they could have anything they wanted. The world was theirs to command. Isabel's father was alive again, inside of them, still calculating. Will would never have been able to do it without them, to carry on in her father's stead. But with his sisters beside him, her father's skill and cunning was trebled. Isabel truly believed that her papa was proud of him, though she wished that the sentiment was as complimentary as it sounded.
The three of them were like a poisonous coven of witches, but she wanted nothing more than to be part of their charmed circle. She ached to be loved by them, though part of her longed to be free of them. She thought bitterly of the three of them sat together, excluding her. She wondered if she hated them. But their occasional glimpses of vulnerability were enough to make the bitterness inside fall short of hatred. She saw their weaknesses, their sweetness, and she loved them for it.
As she had loved her father. She forgave him, now. She understood him. Her father had been redeemable, whatever people said - anyone who had the capacity to love was redeemable. Few people were truly bad. Even in the blackest of hearts, there resided pockets of goodness. She reminded herself of that often, holding close the memory of the father who had loved her when her mother wouldn't. However badly he had acted, he had always stood beside her. His cruelty was necessary; it had been naught but a defence mechanism, emotional armour to shield him from life's barbed arrows. William and Felicia were redeemable too. They were not bad people - they were good people with a capacity for cruelty, but they were good all the same.
Sophia's voice interrupted her train of thought. "Would you be a dear, Issy, and go and fetch me some more embroidery?"
Isabel nodded. "Where is it?"
"There should be some in the bedchamber, in my travelling chest."
Isabel ran through the long, lonely corridors, her footsteps echoing off the vaulted ceilings and arched doorways. It was quiet now, too quiet, as if the spirit of Pompocali lay rotting in the ground beside her father. Laughter accompanied her brother and her beautiful dark sister everywhere, but it fled in the wake of their graceful forms, leaving the rooms they abandoned cold and empty, dead. There was no happiness without her brother, but her brother didn't want her anymore; he had his twin now, his breath-taking Katerina, his own self in perfect feminine form.
Katerina. It was her doing. Isabel's own sweet sister, who doted on Will, would destroy their brother, their home. She wanted him to listen to her as she dripped her poison in his ear, for they were one soul, one heart, one ruler. Katerina and Will, together, would be her father's heir - and her father would be forgotten. Only the castle missed him, languishing in silent misery. He would be replaced, and Will would be corrupted.
She stopped dead on the threshold of the solar, sensing instantly that someone lurked in the shadows of the room. The last light was fading in the sky, darkening the windows, turning the room to grey. Grey, instead of the gold of a lord's solar, which should have been bright with light. Which the servants should have lit with candles and warmed with a fire. But someone had called for gloom instead. Only one existed who had the power to order darkness where there should have been light, to brighten a room or dim it.
"Brother," Isabel murmured, flitting into the room, her fingers tracing the rough, familiar stone of the walls.
Will sat alone, in a rare moment of solitude. He had his head in his hands, elbows resting on his knees. He looked defeated. Hearing footsteps, he raised his eyes to her as Isabel approached. His physical displays of affection had become infrequent, but he put his arms out to her now and pulled her close, resting his cheek against her stomach. "Isabel, do you think that our father would be proud of me?"
She thought of all the plotting he had done in recent weeks, all the hours spent in cahoots with the ice queen and the dark witch. She nodded solemnly.
"I feel like I'm losing myself," he said honestly. "We parted on such bad terms. I want only to redeem myself, for the truth is that I hated him, Issy. He was my father and I hated him. What's wrong with me, that I should feel that way about him?"
Isabel took his face between her hands. "There's nothing wrong with you, Will. Father was not kind to you. You're not responsible for what happened. It is God who decides our fates, not us, and He doesn't have time to act as personal assassin for all those who wish ill on others." Isabel didn't believe the words she spoke. She didn't think that her brother was to blame, for she loved him too much to tarnish him with her father's demise. But he was voicing her own dark thoughts, and a small voice inside her head whispered: If you are to blame, then so am I.
Will's mouth twitched, and a reluctant smile lit up his face. For too long it had been absent. He held her away from him, staring into her face, his expression wry. "From the mouths of babes is spoken much truth. When did you become so wise?"
He kissed her on the forehead. "Go now. You are far too young to be burdened with my melancholy."
She turned to leave, her steps slow and reluctant. She had missed these moments of closeness, for Will was one of the few people who had ever been affectionate towards her.
"Issy," he called after her, "I love you." Emotion choked his voice as he spoke.
Her heart swelled at his words, and she knew that, however badly he acted, she couldn't hate him. He was her brother; they were two halves of a whole.
That evening, they feasted, and the old Will seemed to have returned. He sat atop the dais on his magnificent carved throne. Those around him fawned over him as if he were a demi-God. Her mother sat beside Isabel, her expression vacant. She barely touched her food, though her face had grown gaunt and her chest was thin and bony. On either side of her brother were Katerina and Felicia. Felicia was quiet and reserved, as always subdued in the presence of her husband, who sat beside her. Katerina was her usual seductive self, however, whispering her poison in Will's ear. With their bronzed skin and dark eyes they were a beautiful pair, exuding a sense of decadence and a libertine air of danger as they laughed and joked in tandem. All eyes were on them.
Oliver stared at Katerina as if he had been hypnotised, catching her eye over Felicia's head. Isabel could see the pain in her eldest sister's eyes as she listened to her younger rival's throaty laughter, and tracked her husband's gaze as his eyes caressed Katerina's golden curves. Though she couldn't reach her, Isabel wanted to lean over and take Felicia's hand in hers, for she could see her sister's heart breaking anew every time Katerina and Oliver's eyes locked over her head.
The countess stood up abruptly, weaving slightly as if she were drunk. She seemed to have forgotten what she was doing, for she looked confused suddenly. "Excuse me. I wish to retire to my room." Her voice was distant and far-away, her attention already diverted by something else.
"I'll come with you," Felicia interjected, desperate to escape the seduction she was witnessing.
Their mother nodded wearily, not caring whether she had company or not.
Isabel chose to stay awhile, for there was a warm ambience in the room, and she knew that the mood would lift further once her mother and Felicia had departed. The thought was selfish, but her sister's sadness was wearying, and being in the presence of melancholy only made her heart ache for Ayleth all the more. It was hard to be happy when she was around someone so cold and sombre. She was only thirteen years old, and she knew that she did not understand the ways of men and women, but she half-blamed Felicia for her husband's harsh, unfeeling behaviour, for she believed that if she just cheered up a little their union would be a much happier one.
Isabel was fascinated by Katerina's subtle seduction. She laughed at everything Oliver said, tilting her head backwards so that her slim throat lay exposed, and her back arched upwards, revealing her rounded breasts. She fluttered her eyelashes, coyly peeping out from beneath her dark lashes when the conversation became too rowdy, affecting a false air of meekness. As the conversation peaked, Katerina stood up gracefully, executing a deep curtsy to Will and her sisters' husbands'. "Gentlemen, sisters, please excuse me."
Her brother inclined his head graciously, though his eyes twinkled. "Leaving us so soon, sister?"
"It is not proper for a lady to retire too late, do you not agree, brother?"
"Of course," he smiled. He knew exactly what she was doing.
She made a point of walking behind the men as she exited the dais, brushing against the backs of the wooden chairs as she passed, her long gown rustling on the floor. As she reached the end chair, where Isabel sat, she leaned down, as if to kiss her on the cheek, a devoted sister wishing her younger sibling good night. "Always leave them wanting more," she whispered in Isabel's ear.
Isabel saw that Oliver's dark eyes were fixed on Katerina as she leaned over her, her breasts spilling over the top of her low cut gown. The way she walked from the room, hips sashaying from side to side, made her want to grab her from behind. Within minutes, Oliver had excused himself.
Will turned his attention to Sophia and Robert, the topic shifting to the more adult matters of politics and religion. The musician's melodies washed over her. The good food and the warm summer's night made her eyelids feel heavy, and Isabel excused herself too.
As she left, she turned back to look at them. Will's complexion was golden in the light from the torches, evoking a sense of divinity; he was king and master of all that he surveyed, and it showed in the confident tilt of his head, and the gazes of his enraptured audience. He had more of her father about him than he realised.
As Isabel walked along the corridor she felt happy for the first time since her horrible nightmare had begun. Her life seemed to be on the up: Will was going to make a fantastic lord and earl, and she had her whole family around her for the only time in her life.
She could hear panting and groaning coming from ahead, and as she turned the corner she saw the door to the larder was slightly ajar. She knew what adults got up to in the dark of the night, and voyeurism got the better of her. Curious, she tiptoed inside.
Katerina and Oliver were silhouetted in the light cast by one of the brazier's. Katerina's skirt was raised to her waist, and she was balanced on his strong thighs. Oliver's back was towards Isabel, but Katerina caught her eye as she stood frozen in the doorway. A smug smile crossed her face. She only wanted him because he was Felicia's.
Isabel ran from the room, shocked and embarrassed by what she had seen. She knew that Katerina had wanted to make Felicia jealous, but she had never dreamed that she would go so far.
The great chamber in which her mother and father had once slept was empty. But along the corridor Isabel could hear the sound of her mother's shallow breathing as she slept. As she walked to her own bed, she heard a low moaning noise, coming from Felicia's quarters.
Isabel hesitated, unsure of whether or not she should go to her. She approached cautiously. Felicia lay with her back towards her. Isabel didn't want to surprise her, so she cleared her throat to alert her sister to her presence, then walked slowly round to the other side of the bed.
Felicia's fist was stuffed into her mouth as she desperately tried to stifle her sobs, and her arms clutched at her stomach. Her breath-taking eyes were red-rimmed and puffy from crying. A crimson stain bloomed on her white night-gown. "I swear that if you tell anyone about this, I'll kill you," she hissed. Her tone fell short of being threatening - it was closer to pleading.
Isabel nodded, and crawled onto the bed behind her, nestling her face into Felicia's back as her body shook with racking sobs. Her sister's hand lay on the bed in front of her, and Isabel placed her own small one in Felicia's larger hand. Felicia clutched it tightly, though she didn't turn around. When the sobs finally subsided, she turned towards Isabel.
Her voice, when she spoke, was pleading. "Why doesn't he love me? I don't want to make him unhappy, but everything I do displeases him. I so badly want to give him a son, to have a little baby to hold in my arms and love, but it's never happened. What if there's something wrong with me? I can't carry a child to term. This is just another little life cut short. What if I am fated never to become a mother? I'm so scared, Isabel. I haven't told him about this baby, because I knew that he would blame me if it went wrong again. I can't lose this baby too, I just can't. It will send me mad."
"Hush, Licia." Isabel cuddled her closer, unable to give her the answers she craved, or to comfort her. In that moment, she knew that she loved her sister, because she wanted nothing more than to take her pain away. Though Felicia was older than Isabel, she felt fiercely protective of her. She was too gentle for their world, and completely unequipped for the harsh realities of life. She wasn't the cold, unfeeling person Isabel had presumed her to be; she was just scared and lonely. Isabel vowed never to let her feel that way again.
"Never give your heart to another," her sister whispered. "Promise me, Isabel. Promise that you will never be like me. That you will be stronger."
"Shh, lovely Licia. You are kind and beautiful and loved. I love you. Our brother loves you. And so will your husband, when you give him a son. You can be strong and brave. You don't need me to do it for you."
But to herself, she made the vow: never to be like her sister; never to be like her mother; never to be weak; and never to love.