Pompocali Castle, Yorkshire, 15th October 1215
The countess’ high-pitched screams echoed through Pompocali like the song of a banshee. She had laboured for hours, her pain turning the castle into a house of bloody horrors. Women moved through the rooms like an army of ants, carrying hot bowls of water to her bower, then removing them later, the liquid cold and stained with blood. Clean linen was sent to the midwife to be massacred. When it left the room, it bore telling signs of the butchery of childbirth.
The screams stopped. Ayleth’s face was pale. Her arms tightened around Isabel. Long minutes passed in silence as they waited to hear whether the noble lady’s blood travails had brought life or death to the gothic fortress. Ayleth prayed for the countess, her knuckles so tightly clenched that the bones threatened to burst through her skin. She prayed for her even though she hated her, for Lady Lynessa was her mistress, her rival and her enemy, but a woman too, and a mother. Isabel’s mother. How easy it would have been to hope for her downfall, and yet she loved the child too much to wish away the mother, fool that she was.
The door to the nursery was flung open, shattering the quiet of the room, and William strode in, swathed in his customary black. His handsome face was radiant. “You have a brother, Isabel,” he crowed, pulling the little girl from Ayleth’s arms into his own. He raised her high into the air, her legs kicking furiously as she squirmed in his embrace. His smile was infectious, the child’s face mirroring his expression. Bringing her to rest on his hip, he turned to Ayleth. “I have a son, Ayleth, a healthy boy,” he said happily, his face still glowing.
A boy. She looked at the child in his arms, so beautiful and vibrant and intelligent, the very image of her breath-taking mother, except for the hair, that glorious hair. A girl nonetheless. Useful, perhaps, but not necessary. Yet Isabel was all Ayleth could give him, and even Isabel was not her own, however brilliant Ayelth might raise her to be. She was the countess’ too. And William’s. And in that way the countess had won.
Yet it was a sad victory, she supposed, pitiful, and surely it must ring hollow. It was hard not to feel fear at the thought that Isabel might share her mother’s fate, for the child was too precious to be spurned so. She ought to be adored every day of her life. But Ayleth feared that her little aristocrat was not destined for such pleasure. William loved his daughter now, maybe he would still love her later, but Isabel would be naught but carrion for her father’s crows, a piece of meat to entice them down from their lofty heights, into William’s waiting arms, a cage of greed and blood and ambition. She did not pity them, for they were devils too. But she pitied Isabel, lest she ended up like her beautiful, pitiful mother. And she did pity the Lady Lynessa, even as she hated her.
Ayleth forced a tight-lipped smile onto her lips. “Congratulations, milord.” She turned away quickly, busying herself in the corner of the room, unwilling to recognise the sharp stab of jealousy in the pit of her stomach.
She could feel William’s gaze resting on her back, his dark eyes anxious. “Ayleth…” he implored, putting his hand out in a gesture of appeasement. “Children are vulnerable creatures: their fragile bones are too easily broken; their small hearts too easily stilled…”
“How well we both know that…” she choked. She turned around, her eyes bright with tears. “You needed another son, milord,” she said quietly. “You are an earl. You are not like other men, so you cannot love like other men do. I understand.”
“You know that I don’t love Lynessa,” he murmured, wrapping his arm around her waist. His breath was hot on her neck, and she did love him so.
You do, she wanted to tell him, but she didn’t, as though letting his lies pass unchallenged would transform them into reality.
“Hush,” she whispered instead, gently stroking Isabel’s cheek. “Not in front of the little mistress.”
Such a beautiful pair they were, father and daughter, fire and shadow. The sight of them together made her ache with love, but there was pain there too, for they would never be hers, even as her heart insisted that they were. It was a foolish organ, ignorant of reality.
Ayleth walked from the room, her shoulders hunched, her arms empty without her child to fill them. She glanced backwards as she went, half-turned, wanting to be selfish and call them to her. William took a step towards the door, recognising her summons, as if to follow her, but then stopped as a baby’s furious wail rent the air, telling all the world of his wife’s victory. And Ayleth knew that he would always choose them over her. That was the way it should be, yet still it hurt.
Lynessa lay in the great bed, studying her reflection in a looking glass. The image was blurred, but she saw that the delicate skin beneath her eyes was bruised, the trial of her recent ordeal still evident. Her hair had been neatly arranged, so that it fell across her shoulders in a golden skein. Though her skin was pale, her face shone with triumph.
But she looked old, older than the other woman, though her rival did not suit her husband half so well as she did. William was sleek and refined, but his whore was buxom and vulgar, laughter falling too easily from her red lips. Lynessa was a more fitting consort. Her bosom was covered, not falling out of her clothes like the girl’s; her sleeves were long and slim; everything about her delicate and civilised in comparison to William’s bawdy mistress.
“Not like that,” she snapped at the maid, slapping her hands away from the covers as the woman tried to position them around her. She placed the mirror on the bed beside her, and drew in a sharp breath as she heard William’s footsteps.
Even after fifteen years of marriage, her husband held her in thrall. He stood silhouetted in the doorway for a moment, and she recognised him for the black alone. He cut past her maids, on the prowl still, his eyes searching for the feast she had laid out for him, like a black lion searching for the gift his golden mate had brought him.
The moment he entered the room she was transformed. The hard mask softened, melted, and her eyes lit up. She could feel the change inside of herself. She looked over at her new-born son, and she wanted his father to crow over her triumph. For a moment, she was a girl again, the little girl he liked before her belly had swelled so many times, before they had grieved together, when she smiled rather than sobbed.
He had been a god then, or a devil. When his name was brought up as a potential match, she had heard the rumours. And she did listen, for she was not the fool they all believed her to be. But when she had seen him, she had forgotten all that talk of his dark ambition. The whispers of his womanising were silenced, or else had never been spoken at all. The talk of the danger he posed ceased to have existed. All had seemed vicious lies, then only insignificant. There had been a shy sweetness lurking beneath the guarded indifference in those dark eyes. There was only William and her, and she had begged her father to proceed with the match.
William reached for his son, and the child curled a tiny hand around his finger. There was tenderness there, a tenderness that only she had ever seen. For all his guardedness, her husband had always been affectionate with their children, proud. They existed, and they were living proof of his vigour. But it was not only that. It was easier to be soft towards those who did not need to fear him, and whose rejection he need not fear. Later, his attitude would harden. Later, when he must command them like soldiers on a battlefield, when he must send them away. But for now there was only pride.
Watching them together, a weight seemed to be lifted from Lynessa’s shoulders. She laughed easily, triumphantly, golden laughter, which danced throughout the castle, echoing off of the walls, a song which beseeched him to love her. She had the most beautiful laugh, her husband said, like the tinkling of bells. Hard to forget, but too rarely heard. She must laugh for him now, and hope that it was not too late.
Isabel clung to her father, her eyes wide and curious. She stared at the tiny bundle which lay in Lynessa’s arms, tightly swaddled. William proudly placed her daughter on the bed beside her. The little girl raised herself onto her knees, and gently moved the blankets aside. A tiny face stared back at her, the deep blue eyes unfocused. A soft, downy covering of golden hair curled on the baby’s tiny head. Her daughter raised a gentle finger to stroke her brother’s cheek. Lynessa knew that his skin would be hot beneath her fingers, like silk warmed by the sun.
She watched Isabel with an intermingling of distaste and pity. She wanted to scream at the child not to touch her new-born brother for fear that she would tarnish him. Her daughter’s presence made it harder to smile. She could not help recoiling as the little girl’s hand brushed against her own, for she looked at her, and all that she saw was death.
Isabel stared at her mother curiously, feeling her body jerk as she brushed against her. Lynessa glanced at the mirror beside her, seeing herself as her daughter must; her eyes were bright with unshed tears, her face proud and tender. She wondered whether Isabel realised, when she saw love shining in her eyes as she cradled her new-born son, that her mother was supposed to love her too, or that her father should look upon her with the same pride which sat handsomely on his lovely face as he touched his little boy’s tiny, fisted hands. And she wondered whether her little girl had realised yet that she was supposed to love her mother as she loved the serving woman who tended her. What Lynessa knew was that her daughter didn’t. Once upon a time, with another little girl, such knowledge would have destroyed her. But this child was a stranger to her.
Lynessa’s gaze moved to William. “A second son for your empire, my love. Now you must make it so great that there are spoils enough for two, or else he must enter the church, though surely no son of yours would be suited for such occupation.”
“Perhaps God will look more kindly on us if we give him our last child.”
She felt her eyebrows arch. “Our last child?” There it was. She could easily conceive again; they were young enough and strong enough. But in the other room his whore waited, and she had warmed William’s bed every night for the past four years, except for the night when their son was conceived. And Lynessa had not minded, not in the beginning. But this child had brought her to life again. He was strong and healthy and alive. She would not lose him. She had a reason to live again, to love again. “When were you granted the gift of foresight? When did you become as I am?”
Feeling her eyes on him, William looked up for the briefest second, before looking away. His expression was full of guilt. “You have done well, my lady. You have fulfilled your duty. I ask no more of you.”
His eyes flashed, warning her. “Don’t.”
And she did not want to push him away again. She did not want him to storm from the room, to drive him away with cruel words and a raised voice. She had done that too many times before. So she tempered her expression, made it sweeter. “I thought that we could call him Hugh, for your father” she said cautiously, desperately wishing that she could turn back the clock.
“If it pleases you, my lady,” he said absently, and she saw that there was only distance between them now.
“William…” she murmured, reaching for his hand.
He pulled away as if her touch had scalded him. “Don’t, Lynessa. I tried, before, but it is done… We cannot be mended.”
Tears began to stream down her face. “No, William, please…”
“My mistress is exhausted,” Muriel murmured, seeing her sorrow.
“Of course,” William said, nodding his head. Clearing his throat, he walked from the chamber wordlessly, leaving Isabel as the only witness to her pain.
“Take him from me,” Lynessa sobbed, pushing the baby away, for all of her joy and her pride had fled with her husband.
Leaning over her, Isolde swiftly bundled the infant into her arms, and carried him out of the room.
Her daughter reached for her hand, as if disconcerted by her mother’s tears. Lynessa looked at her in surprise, overwhelmed by the curious, undeserved tenderness in Isabel’s eyes. “Never allow yourself to love anyone,” she said, tears still running down her face. She laid her hand on the little girl’s cheek, the promise of loveliness already there in the child’s face. This time she did not flinch at the feel of her daughter’s skin, smooth and warm, beneath her fingertips. There was no revulsion, only sadness. “They will only hurt you in the end, my beauty,” she warned her.
But she knew that her warning was futile. The child was dead already, her words fated to go unheeded. She had seen it. Isabel would love. And Isabel would die for it.
Noting the pain in her eyes, her daughter tried to climb onto her lap, but Lynessa moved her away, turning her back to her. “Leave me now,” she commanded, for if she let her stay, it would be too easy to love her.
That night, Isabel dreamed of death.
She stood in an unfamiliar hall. The cavernous space was loud with music and laughter, though the sounds were muted beside the fury of the wind which howled through the room, whipping the torches which lined the walls with such violence that the flames screamed and writhed with every lash. Its siren song was savagely beautiful, enticing her to dance to its dangerous rhythm. She raised a goblet to her lips as she listened to its cries, and tasted liquid nectar on her tongue. She felt deliciously light-headed, thrillingly free, as if she were a kite whose string had been cut, the gale sweeping her into its arms and leading her in an exhilarating, fast-paced dance across the floor. The men and women who surrounded her joined in her primitive evolutions, though they were dressed in the finest clothes she had ever seen. They were the epitome of sophistication, but they moved with the wild fervour of worshippers at a pagan ritual. She realised that she stood as tall as any of them, and she knew that she was a woman grown.
And then she realised that the crowd of people surrounding her all had their backs towards her, a thousand unseeing eyes staring at the walls of the unfamiliar castle. Everywhere she turned, they turned away from her. The wind went from screaming to howling, and the string instruments echoed its melancholy cries, as if all joy had been drained from the world. Colours faded, turned to grey and black and white, until all that remained in her colourless world was red – the red of blood. The notes seemed to shimmer as they hung in the air, taking form around her. Their faces were strange and distorted, and crimson dripped from their mouths. The wine turned to ash on her lips, and she knew that she was drinking blood.
A blonde-haired man cut through the unseeing crowd, glaring at her from her father’s eyes. He didn’t stop until his body was pressed against hers, the silk of his cheek warming her face. His breath tickled her ear as he whispered to her, his voice soft but chilling. “You will do as I command, sister, whatever it takes. If Tristan wants to gouge your eyes out for his pleasure, I expect you to smile as he does it.”
She felt her face twist into a horrifying smile, so wide that the corners of her mouth tore open, and blood dripped down her chin. She tried to scream, to cry out for Ayleth, for her father, for her beautiful mother, but none of them came.
The room had fallen silent, but it seemed to grow quieter yet, though there was sound now, the sound of heavy footsteps on the cold stones of the floor. A hooded man strode into the middle of the circle, to stand beside his blonde-haired companion. His eyes were the cold blue of Venetian glass. He smiled at Isabel, and tenderly wiped the blood from her face. It was very red against his skin. He looked at her hungrily as he raised his thumb to his mouth, and slowly sucked the crimson liquid from its tip.
A violent tremor shook her body, and she realised that the room was freezing. A perfect untouched layer of snow blanketed the ground. There were no footsteps where the blue-eyed man had strode across it, and Isabel thought that was the most curious phenomenon; a man whose hands were stained with blood could leave no trace, though there had been blood on his hands even before he had wiped it from her skin. There was a soft hiss as a single drop of blood fell from her ravaged mouth and burned a scarlet hole where it fell to the floor.
The handsome, blue-eyed man frightened her. She turned, tried to run, but her legs would not obey. The crowd still turned away from her, but she could hear the laughter bubbling from their lips as they ignored her struggle. She was dying and all the while they were laughing. She opened her mouth to beg for mercy, but only a strangled moan emerged.
The man smiled, as if she had performed some quaint act to endear herself to him. He opened his arms to her, pulled her into his embrace, her face pressed against his shoulder so that she couldn’t breathe. “Wife,” he greeted her.
And then he was on her, pinching her legs and kicking her in the stomach. He hit her face, and she felt her skin split beneath the weight of his blow. He tore and tore and tore, until there was nothing left but blood. Blood and blood and blood, dripping down her skin in silken ribbons.
And then something moved inside of her.
And the beautiful pale-skinned men wept crimson tears.