Glencaer, Welsh Marches, Shropshire, 18th June 1226
The air was sweet-smelling and balmy as Isabel made her way to the stables. She spent a lot of time in the saddle, riding out in Glencaer's vast grounds. Will had sent her a beautiful mare, Strega, as a gift. Isabel knew that the horse was simply a way of assuaging his guilt and pacifying what little of his conscience remained, yet she could fool herself into believing that she was a token of his love, so that she didn't feel so alone.
If Isabel had hoped for change when Will succeeded her father, she was disappointed. As women, herself and her sisters were still little more than political pawns in the dynastic power game. The young king, Henry III, was just nineteen years of age, and still in his minority. Prior to his death, William Marshall had been joint regent. His demise, however, had left Hubert de Burgh as sole regent. The barons vied for his friendship, for a man who had the ear of a king would be an invaluable asset. His power attracted them like flies to a honey pot.
An air of uncertainty hung around the legitimacy of the young king's throne. His cousin, Eleanor of Brittany, still lived, and her claim to the throne was far greater than his. In a time of such tumult, allegiances meant everything. Will was not averse to forging them by any means possible; an alliance was far stronger if it was based on fear rather than friendship, a lesson he had learned from their father. And so their work had begun in earnest.
Isabel had returned to Glencaer with little pomp and fanfare, to renew her role as voyeur. Though she soon assimilated back into her adopted family, life was so much lonelier without Will for company. She spent an increasing amount of her time alone, distancing herself from those around her. The time for childhood was long past. She had come to understand that affection was a weakness; allowing herself to grow close to those she was watching only made her task harder. She was a snake in the grass once more, and she knew that she couldn't strike if she loved her victims.
At first, Lady Linota had seemed hurt by her coldness. Isabel, who had once been so tactile and loving, had done everything she could to avoid her company. She was as obedient as ever, but she no longer enjoyed doing things for her mistress or spending time with her. Linota had eventually grown weary of her aloofness and stopped trying to mother her, allowing Isabel to be by herself. It mattered little to her, for the only mother she wanted was dead already.
The stable block appeared on the horizon, seemingly deserted, for most of the grooms were accompanying the hunt. Isabel was glad, for she had spent endless hours avoiding company, until she had almost perfected the art. At fourteen she was an awkward, gangly young girl. Her body was too big for the child within - she was stuck between childhood and adulthood, and it was a confusing place to be. Though she tried to affect a sombre adult air at all times, she would often find that she forgot herself, laughing at a childish joke or an act of tomfoolery. Yet she strove always to appear mature and imperious. Though she hated everything that it entailed, she was a Devereux, and that meant something to the world, and to her.
Isabel had slipped away, desperate to leave it all behind for a while. She was too young to require a chaperone when riding out, so she was allowed to roam freely, for Lady Linota had little care for the activities of her charges. Many of the older girls ran amok, but rather than chastising them she would share lewd jokes, and flirt with the young men who entered her rooms.
Dust motes danced lazily in a ray of sunlight as Isabel crossed the threshold, as calm and unhurried as everything in the stables always seemed to be. The smell of horses filled the air, musky and comforting.
The head groom, an elderly, rotund man, looked up as she entered, emerging from the shadows. "Good morning, my lady." He executed a quick bow, and then straightened up to look for an apprentice to saddle her horse. "Where the hell is that boy?" he cursed, then blushed red when he remembered her presence. "So sorry, my lady, please forgive my blasphemy."
She nodded her assent impatiently, stifling a smile, for she wanted to be in the saddle and riding in the open air, with the warm sun beating down on her back. It was the only time she felt free; she could escape all of her duties and responsibilities and enjoy the simple pleasure of being outside. No-one expected anything of her. Etiquette was a foreign concept.
A tall, dark-haired young man crossed the aisle in front of Isabel. She found that she was staring at his broad back, irresistibly drawn to him, knowing that he was somehow fundamental to her. She knew that he was breath-taking, beautiful. She had seen his face a thousand times. His hair was wild and curling, gleaming like liquid jet. As he turned towards her, she breathed in sharply. Hair as black as a raven. Lips as red as blood. "Oh."
He was the man she would love, the same man who would one day destroy her. She had dreamt of him a thousand times, as she had dreamt of her death over and over again.
"Are you alright, my lady? Conor, fetch the lady some water."
"No, no, I'm fine," she said hurriedly, embarrassment causing her cheeks to flush red.
It was him, the young boy, though he was now a strong, beautiful youth. His eyes were dark and brooding as he met her gaze. Isabel had never seen such perfection, though she had dreamt of it - of him - so many times. He was simply breath-taking, with his raven hair and gypsy curls.
She had rarely seen the elfin boy since the day her father had died, for the mares were housed in a different building to the stallions. She had not seen him grow and change. She had been greatly relieved, for she was embarrassed that he had seen her in such a state. For the nobility, showing emotion was a faux pas, and she deeply regretted her display of anguish. Life was cruel, and if she wanted to stay on top, Isabel knew that she would have to harden her heart to the worst of its brutality. But she would be vulnerable before him again, she knew. She knew so many things that she shouldn't, but she hadn't known of him, not then. She should have known, even then, even as a child, that he would grow to be the man from her dreams, the man she would love. She had not recognised her destiny that day, but she knew it now.
"Are you sure, my lady?" the older man said. He was evidently worried, for he knew that he would be on the receiving end of her lord's wrath if anything were to happen to her.
"Please, sir, just saddle my horse for me." She yearned to stay beside him, to look upon him and see her dreams brought to life, for forever and a day, but she must not. To love was dangerous. Her love for him must never be allowed to grow. The only true love she could ever feel must stay trapped in her dreams.
"Very well, boy, you heard the lady. But I insist that you allow Conor to accompany you, for I cannot allow you to ride out alone in such a condition."
"Please," Isabel begged, "I'm fine." Fear and anticipation tore at her flesh, their sharp teeth making her skin tingle. It couldn't be him. His dark beauty was too dangerous. Even to be close to him was dangerous, for there was a love lurking in the shadows, waiting to wrap its insidious fingers around their hearts, to bind them together.
"All the same, my lady, the marshes are a dangerous place…" His voice brooked no argument.
Angrily, Isabel inclined her head, for she could see that nothing would change his mind. The consequences would be grievous if anything happened to her when she was riding, and he couldn't afford to lose his job. She was tempted to affect an illness, so that she would not have to hack out in company. But curiosity prevented her from doing so.
Stepping outside, nervousness encroached upon her. Her stomach somersaulted as she waited for him. The boy looked like a Greek Adonis as he walked up the centre aisle, leading their horses behind him. The sunlight illuminated his lovely face, making his blue-black hair shine in its warm glow. Leaving his own horse tied up in the aisle, he walked her mare towards her, bringing her to a standstill beside Isabel.
"My lady." His bow was low and extravagant, though his deference was unconvincing. His wild hair fell forwards as he inclined his head, exposing his vulnerable neck. Isabel wanted to reach out and stroke his soft skin. The thought made a shiver of unfamiliar desire ripple through her. Though he continued to bow, he raised his face, boldly meeting her gaze. She felt as if his dark eyes could see inside of her soul - and she shivered at the thought of what would be reflected there.
"You may rise," Isabel said. She grasped the reins in one hand, and the pommel of the saddle in her other, relieved to have an excuse to look away from him, for his beauty was distracting.
Coming up behind her, he pressed his torso against Isabel's back, causing her to shudder with a new and embarrassing longing. The smell of him was familiar, safe. He leaned down to grasp her knee and her ankle, and propelled her into the saddle as if she were weightless, letting his hands remain there a moment longer than was necessary.
Looking into his face, Isabel saw that he was well aware of the effect he was having on her. It made her feel angry, for she tried so hard not to let her emotions rule her, never letting her composure slip. She had seen what passion had done to her mother and Felicia, and she was determined not to end up like them.
"Remove your hand," she said coldly.
The look of surprise on the boy's face was comical. He was clearly unused to women not melting before him. He had the sense to look embarrassed. As he mounted his horse in silence, Isabel cantered away.
His face, when he finally caught up with her, was red and angry. He looked fierce and indomitable, as he had looked so many times before. "I know you think that you're too good to spend time with me, but I don't even want to be here." Even in anger, the accent she had grown to love was melodious, and she welcomed the sound as though it were her favourite song.
His lack of deference shocked her into retorting. "I didn't ask you to come."
"But you wanted me to. I saw the way that you were looking at me," he sneered.
Isabel's lips tightened into a thin line of anger, for she had loved him in her dreams, and he was ruining all that she had felt for him. There had been no cruelty before, only a sweet serenity, a gentle love. "How dare you speak to me like that?"
"Like what? Like we're equals? In my eyes, we are, my lady." The last words were said with a snarl.
Even as it appalled her, his anger fascinated Isabel. She furrowed her brow, trying to understand where the courage to resist her stemmed from. "You do realise that I could have you punished?"
"Go ahead, my lady," he challenged, holding her stare. The eyes which had wept blood were hard and unfeeling.
And yet she could not help but love him, for even his anger was familiar to her. It seemed comical, suddenly, that she should have expected him to recognise her as she had recognised him, that she had expected him to lay his heart at her feet. She started to laugh, and though he didn't know why, he laughed with her, as if he found her amusing. Isabel stopped seeing how beautiful he was, and started to see the child within. Looking at him more closely, she realised that he was only a few years older than her. Not yet the man from her dreams. Still only a boy.
"Can we start again?" she asked, the smile on her lips warming her tone. She wanted to treat him as an equal, for she had always treated him as an equal before. He seemed to know that she must, for she could see that he would not defer to her, that his gaze demanded respect.
His face softened as she kowtowed to his covert demands. "Hmm, I'm not sure… that all depends on whether you can keep up with me." Turning his horse around, he galloped away, leaving Isabel by herself.
She hesitated, scared to let go of the false air of maturity she so desperately tried to affect. And then she spurred Strega forward, following the boy across the heather strewn moor. The wind grabbed at her hair, whipping it away from her face and pulling it free, so that it streamed behind her. The sense of speed and power was exhilarating, as every sinew in the mare's body reached and stretched. The wind thundered in her ears as they surged forwards, drawing level with the boy. Isabel whooped with delight as she over-took him, all sense of decorum abandoned. Pulling to a stop, she waited for him to catch up. The adrenaline rushed through her veins, making her feel light-headed and excitable.
"That was pretty good… for a girl."
"Do you concede defeat, sir?" she teased.
"I do, my lady. What shall your prize be?"
"How about the pleasure of your company?"
"That could be arranged." It was spoken as if he had some choice in the matter, for he still believed that he did. He had not seen what she had seen. He couldn't know that they would be together, that he must love her.
A hunting horn, sharp and sudden, trespassed on the summer stillness, and the boy spun around with the jagged alertness of a fox who had once been harried by the hounds, peering down the hill, through the trees.
Isabel's eyes greedily drank in his distracted face. The man from her dreams. The man she would be promised to. He was handsome, beautiful, but with him it was something more than the loveliness of generous lips and a perfectly sculpted face. It was the beauty of stillness, an exquisiteness that induced a sense of tranquillity, as though she stared at the divine figure of an angel. His black eyes were grave beneath his perfect black brows, giving the impression of sorrow past, deeply felt and poorly mended. Beneath his wary gaze, there was a terrible vulnerability, a delicate fragility. He was tall and lean, no longer lanky. His ebony hair fell longer than was fashionable, the curls brushing against his collar, tickling his sharp cheekbones.
She watched him survey the landscape, slowly, deliberately, from where he had frozen, his horse as still as he was, as though they were one being, controlled by a single mind. His gaze rested, finally, on a spot in the far distance, and she realised that he had sighted the hunter's quarry. A red stag ran on swift feet, following the path of the river. Drops of water flew beside it, as though it were trapped in a net of diamonds. It looked behind it furtively, and she heard the baying of the hounds on its trail, though they were still hidden by the woods.
"Very clever," the boy murmured. "The water cannot hold his scent, and, so long as he can stay out of sight of the hounds, the trail will run cold, and he will escape. But he must turn left where the river forks, for the right bend doubles back on itself, and they will surely glimpse him then. With luck, you will not feast on venison tonight, my lady."
He swung down from his saddle, landing on silent feet beside his gelding. He moved to a towering oak, standing behind it so that the hunt would not see him as they passed below. His eyes were fixed on the hart. The magnificent animal stopped dead, turning its massive head towards him, and as their gazes met the boy's lips seemed to move in a silent entreaty, as though he communed with the creature. And the creature seemed to listen, his ears swivelling as though to catch the whispered words carried on the breeze. His utter absorption made him fascinating. Isabel's sense of propriety was no match for her curiosity, and so she simply sat and watched.
The boy leaned back, almost imperceptibly, his body angled to the left, then forwards again, his concentration absolute. His fingers, she noticed, fell long and still at his sides. Inert.
"You don't enjoy killing…"
The stag fled as her words cut through the air. The boy stiffened, and the words froze on her tongue as he turned to regard her, for she expected anger again. The smile was slow to his lips, but when it came all hint of melancholy was swept away so completely that she wondered if she had imagined it. Without its serious demeanour, his face was boyish, smooth, almost pretty. His H
"Forgive me," she apologised, her cheeks hot. "I didn't mean to frighten him away."
"You're forgiven." A smile, more fleeting than the first, warmed his dark eyes. "For you meant him no harm. No, I don't enjoy the kill, but nor am I reviled by it. It is the excess which I cannot abide. We must kill to feed ourselves, but not so many, and not him. He has surely earned his life. He has fought and warred for it, and to see him felled by an impetuous child would be criminal, my lady. You are like me - I can see it in your eyes. You understand the necessity, but you will never enjoy the taking of a life."
Isabel stared at him, confusion plucking at her fingertips, animating them. She wanted to ask how he knew so much about her. But more, she wanted to know about him, for he had plagued her dreams for so long, been a part of her life for years. She wanted to know his name. She wanted to know who he was. She wanted to know whether he knew her, recognised her, as she knew him.
He seemed to give her an answer without her asking the question. "So much can be communicated with so little, my lady. You look at me as though you struggle to understand, as if you suspect some sorcery, but it is your own folly which renders you deaf. You do not need words to speak to me. I spend so much time around horses that I have learned to speak a language built on silence."
His words troubled her, for a man who could see inside the heart of another was surely a danger to a Devereux. She had been bred to silence the voice of her heart, to whisper sweet poison in the ears of her enemies, and to smile as she did it. She could not acknowledge the things he had seen, for he frightened her, and to do so would set her legs to trembling. "My brother hates the hunt. He cannot bear to witness the destruction of something beautiful."
"And nor can you," he said smugly, as if to remind her that he already he knew her too well.
"I can bear witness where I must."
The boy nodded. "You and I are not so different, my lady. You may be rich, and your family may wield power, but we are alike; we are fated always to be at the mercy of somebody else's whims. We must bear witness to many things, endure many things."
Isabel stole a glance at his profile, wondering how to ask one who knew her so intimately a question as simple as his name. It felt indecent, rude even, as though she should know it already. She opened her mouth, but found no words forthcoming.
"Why does your brother join in the hunt if he hates it so greatly? Is he not renowned for his prowess in the field?"
"We must all play our parts. Each of us is subject to the whims of others; even those who wield power are responsible for others, and must act on their behalf. My brother will sacrifice his own comfort if such an act benefits our family. There is a reason that kings and great men do not marry for love, and it is the same reason that Will must hunt from time to time, even as he despises it."
"Yes," he said. "I have seen the sacrifices of your noble lords and ladies before."
Isabel raised an eyebrow and the boy smiled. "I have friends in high places, my lady."
"Where did you come from?" The words sounded too blunt, but they escaped from her lips as though somebody else had spoken them.
"Inis Castle, my lady. There was a girl there. We promised to return to each other someday, for Eva is home to me, and I to her. Like birds, I know that we will fly home when the winter is over."
"Will it always be winter without her?"
He smiled sadly. "Spring must come before summer, but even that is a long time coming."
He did not know that it was Isabel who would one day be his spring, his summer, his autumn and his winter. But she did. And it terrified her.
"Do you miss the place where you were born?"
"Inis was never home to me after she had left. It meant no more to me than Glencaer does, my lady. I was not born there, and I had no family there except Eva. Without her, it was just cold, hard stone."
"Then where did you start? Where is your home, truly?"
"My home is in her arms, but Ireland is my birthplace. It is where I was born, and where I travelled. My family were gypsies, my lady. Home was wherever the family was. But that is not home for me, not anymore. They are nothing to me now."
Isabel nodded, shifted uncomfortably to the side. She glanced at the boy, but if she had planned to speak, to put things right, the moment was over too soon.
"Who are you?" she said at last.
"It feels wrong to introduce myself to you, for I think you know that we have already met, Lady Isabel Devereux. You must remember that first glance, for I cannot forget it. The memory is scarred into my brain."
"Then, if it should be that we never meet again, remember this, too: my name is Conor, and once upon a time you saved me."
But they would meet again, and soon enough she would destroy him.