Pompocali Castle, Yorkshire, 7th December 1215
"Her beauty was so extraordinary, and the king so reluctant to leave her side, that the people whispered that she was a siren, who had cast her spell over the king," Ayleth finished. She sat opposite Isabel as they breakfasted, telling her a story about the day she had seen Queen Isabella, her voice reverent.
"Was she as beautiful as my lady mother?" the child pressed, her silver-blue eyes wide.
Ayleth's mouth thinned, though she forced her voice to remain light as she answered. "She was very beautiful, but so is your lady mother."
Isabel narrowed her eyes, dissatisfied by her answer.
William came charging in, diverting his daughter's attention. His strong arms lifted the little girl from her seat, and he swung her around. She squealed with delight, wrapping her arms tightly around his neck. Ayleth looked at him with mock disapproval, though her eyes were creased with happiness as she watched them together.
Seating himself, he placed the child on his lap. "Is the queen more beautiful than my mother?" Isabel asked him.
He looked from his daughter to Ayleth. She turned away awkwardly, though she could sense her baited breath as she waited for his answer. "No woman can be more beautiful than the queen," he answered diplomatically. But Ayleth thought of the countess, with her great blue eyes and her pale curls, and doubted his words. She was utter perfection.
"Why?" Isabel persisted, her nimble fingers toying with a loose thread on her father's tunic.
"Because she is the queen," he said simply. He looked at Ayleth with a slightly martyred air, and she smiled, amused by the child's inquisitiveness. Isabel furrowed her brow, considering.
Apprehending further questions, William interrupted her. "Shall I tell you a story?" he offered. She nodded eagerly.
"Tell me about King Arthur," she commanded.
William smiled. "King Arthur?"
"Ahh, the lovely Guinevere. Guinevere was the queen consort of King Arthur, and her name meant the white enchantress, for she had skin the colour of snow, and hair the colour of moonlight. She was a woman so beautiful that she cast a spell over men." William's eyes were bright as he spoke, their presence soothing him. There was a darkness inside of him that the light of day could never quite touch. But being with her and his daughter in the quiet of the nursery transformed him, making him light-hearted and playful.
"She sounds like my mother," Isabel said matter-of-factly.
"I suppose she does," he acceded. "She seems to share some of your mother's less becoming traits as well," he murmured, catching Ayleth's eye.
Ayleth didn't know whether to love or hate this maelstrom of energy, with his cold courtier's smile. William was charming, yet cruel; beautifully terrifying. He had an air of ferocity which never quite left him - his smile was cold and dead, his eyes lifeless.
But he was… magnetic. His sultry gaze had enchanted her sweet virtuousness, turning her into a shameless adulteress. They were like two halves of a whole; William dark and dangerous, and she light and gentle. She loved him because she knew that she was the only one who could save him, and he loved her because she was everything which the terrible loss he had suffered had destroyed inside of him. William said that she made him believe in redemption.
"Was Guinevere more beautiful than the queen, because she was a queen herself?"
"I expect she was equally lovely."
"What colour hair does the queen have, papa?"
"She has hair the colour of a raven's wing, and eyes the grey of a stormy sky." Isabel's eyes were wide as he spoke, his liquid gaze casting an enchantment.
Ayleth watched him too, enthralled. He had a face that she could study forever: handsome, with dark eyes, generous lips and a strong jaw. His black hair was sleek and full. No-one could look upon him and not fall in love with his beauty and his eloquence, she thought. She knew that as unremarkable and modest as she was, she could not resist the passion and danger of those seductive liquid eyes and everything they promised any more than the child's beautiful, vain mother. She was a woman like any other, ruled by her desire, though she liked to think it was love. Perhaps they were one and the same. But at least the countess could admit her very human failings, the shallow, material urges which drew her to William, she thought bitterly. She had wanted to believe that there was something pure and noble about their love, but there wasn't. In the end, people were all the same in love.
"Will I be as beautiful as the queen?" Isabel pressed as William's story came to an end.
He smiled indulgently. "Only God knows." Ayleth looked at her, an intermingling of fear and pride in her stomach, thinking that the child would far surpass the vain Isabella.
"But I want to know too," Isabel sulked.
"Hmm," William pondered. "Give me your hand, ma belle fille." Isabel placed it in his. He traced a gentle path across the lines on her palm. "Aah, you will be a great beauty," he promised, stroking her hair.
"Let me do yours," she urged, taking his larger hand in hers, her tongue sticking out of the side of her mouth as she concentrated.
His palms were lightly calloused, the skin dark against the porcelain of Isabel's. He had the most beautiful hands, long yet strong. Ayleth liked to think that they were writer's hands, musician's hands, a sign of nobility and sensitivity - but she knew she was wrong. They were soldier's hands, delicate yet deadly. They were finely tapered and elegant, as skilled at strumming a lute as they were at wielding a sword, strong and precise. He could drive a blade through her heart at the same time as he smiled and shook her hand. Love blinded a person to such truths.
It was the sense of danger which emanated from William that made him so irresistible to those around him; he could kill a person without a seconds remorse, effortlessly, yet he chose to let them live. He could have anyone, yet he wanted to spend time with her. It was addictive and unhealthy, but it was impossible not to want to seek his approval. When he was unhappy, brooding, he would make Ayleth feel as if it was her entire fault, as if she was personally to blame. And when he was happy… when he was happy he made her feel like the most important person in the world, as if he cherished her above all others. Lynessa could never bring herself to stop loving William, and nor could she.
Her eyes were drawn back to Isabel. The little girl's face had paled. Her tongue no longer protruded from her mouth. Instead, her jaw was tightly clenched, and her bottom lip quivered. Her big blue eyes were wide and frightened, her gaze still fixed on her father's hand, though she seemed to be looking at something beyond the room they inhabited… beyond the world they inhabited. There was something terrifying about the horror in the child's stare. "Isabel," she said anxiously, reaching for her.
The tranquil atmosphere of the nursery was shattered by the arrival of the countess. She stormed into the room, her eyes flashing with anger. Her wraith-like body ensconced in becoming black, she was like a beautiful, terrifying pagan goddess, all-powerful, an entity which mere mortals longed to behold, but whose presence they feared. "How could you?" she screamed, hurling herself at William. Her fists beat against his chest, raining blows on his muscular body.
Isabel cried out, frightened, running to Ayleth. Ayleth raised her in her arms, her head down, the picture of humility, like a golden virgin warding off Hecate's dark magic.
William's eyes were hard and cold as he watched his wife dispassionately. Hearing his daughter's whimper of fear, he grabbed Lynessa's wrists, holding them roughly in his hands. Her wimple lay discarded on the floor, trampled where it had fallen. Her chest heaved. Her hair had tumbled from its braids, and framed her face becomingly. She reminded Ayleth of the wild fairy women from her grandmother's stories; beautiful but feral.
Lynessa was famed for her loveliness, of course, she thought jealously. She had heard the servants whispering of it. After eight children, she was still one of the most alluring women Ayleth had ever laid eyes on. Her flaxen hair hung to her waist, blonde curls cascading down her back. Her eyes were the colour of a summer sky, and framed by an exquisite fan of thick, dark lashes. She was more beautiful than Aphrodite, more enchanting than a sorceress.
But though Ayleth envied her striking beauty, she envied her William's love even more. He had loved her once, everybody told her so. The older servants said that the halls had rung with laughter when William and the countess had been newly married, and their eldest daughters nought but babes in the cradle, but those days were too many years gone.
"It is our marriage bed. You cannot share it with her. I won't let you," the countess shrieked in William's ear.
But William always got what he wanted, regardless of whom or what stood in his way. Once, he had wanted an heir. Now, he wanted Ayleth. With the ease of a rich man throwing away an old tunic, Lynessa had been replaced. There was no longer any need to pretend that he loved her. She was nothing to him.
"You will do as I command you, Lynessa," he snarled.
"Never," she hissed, pulling away from him violently. "I will never let you go, William. I am your wife."
He looked at her distastefully, as if he beheld a mad woman. For the sake of his sons, Ayleth knew that he would not replace Lynessa, but nor would he ever love her again. He glowered at her blackly, and tears filled his wife's eyes.
He sighed, softening, and ran his fingers through his hair in exasperation and anger. He clenched his fists, straining to control his pent up rage, part of which she knew was self-directed. He had ruined the countess, she thought guiltily - they both had - with the memory of his affection, and the reality of his indifference. William looked at Ayleth despairingly, as if begging her to save him from the beautiful woman he was chained to, Lynessa's efforts making him need her all the more.
Ayleth warily returned his gaze, her eyes darting to the countess. She thought that William must have been the only man who could look upon his wife without instantly falling in love with her stunning, unearthly perfection. But something was damaged inside of him, and beauty alone could not fix it.
Seeing the look that passed between them, Lynessa ceased her struggles, growing limp in her husband's arms. "Let go of me," she hissed.
William released her experimentally, as if fearing that she had turned mad. She looked at him disdainfully. Her expression was hard, her manner distant and cold. Ayleth could see the pain in her eyes fading, her hurt concealed once more. For a brief, terrifying moment she had been real, but now her robotic composure returned.
Perhaps she had always been that way, Ayleth mused, but she had heard the whispered truth too many times to believe that. Once the countess had been vivacious and kind, so they said, but the ice inside William's heart had frozen her naïve sweetness, transforming her into a distant, unfeeling version of what had once existed, a perfect, frozen ice sculpture, beautiful to look upon, but painful to touch, its cold stinging your skin. The constant scowl on Lynessa's face marred her beauty, she thought unkindly.
William could have saved her, she supposed, feeling an unwelcome sense of pity, he could have nurtured the woman she had the potential to become, but instead he had chosen to destroy her. Her love had saved William, but it had ruined his wife. Why did there always have to be a price attached?
Slowly, Lynessa circled Ayleth, like a man appraising a broodmare. She took Ayleth's chin between her thumb and forefinger, tilting her head towards her. "You think she is more beautiful than me?" she spat, turning to William.
He maintained a dignified silence, shaking his head at the countess, refusing to answer her.
She turned back to Ayleth. "You are nothing," she murmured in her ear. "He will tire of you, as he tires of them all. You cannot keep him, because he is mine."
"I love him, milady," Ayleth said quietly.
"You love him?" Lynessa mocked. "You think that love is enough. Look at you. If I could not keep him, then how can you even hope to hold his interest?"
It was sad to think that she believed her beauty was the only thing she had which was worth possessing, that she could put so little store in her wonderful, quick intelligence, an untapped gift which was only ever deployed to demean and belittle people.
Her words bounced harmlessly off Ayleth's skin, for she knew William, knew what he needed, in a way that Lynessa never would. Still, she could not resist the urge to bite back. "You are far more beautiful than me, milady," Ayleth answered, "but perhaps beauty is not what he seeks. Perhaps you are… lacking… in other areas."
Lynessa looked at her incredulously, her gaze loaded with hatred. The countess snatched Isabel from Ayleth's embrace, pulling the little girl against the unfamiliar, sinewy length of her body. "Get out," she hissed.
Ayleth looked at William. He shook his head, overruling his wife.
Lynessa's eyes narrowed, but she knew that she had lost. She shoved Isabel roughly into William's arms. "Here, take your brat," she snarled. "I do not want her. I cannot stand to hold her in my arms. I look at her, and all I see is you."
The child buried her head in her father's neck, clinging to him with all of the strength she possessed. Ayleth could see the tension across his shoulders as he held her, though he stroked Isabel's back, silently comforting his little girl. "She is your daughter too, Lynessa."
"But I wish she was not. She's just like you; you both love that whore more than you love me."
Isabel closed her eyes against her mother's cruelty, burying her head in her father's neck.
Lynessa's footsteps beat a rapid staccato rhythm as she fled from the room. Wordlessly, William passed Isabel to Ayleth, storming from the room in pursuit of his wife. The poor, beautiful, betrayed countess. She alienated people with her bitter recriminations. She made those around her immune to her venom. It was easy to forget that she was the victim.
William was far cleverer, and far more damaging. Yet it was unthinkable to distance herself from, or stop loving, him. He could be the most divine company, turn on his charm and have her eating out of his hand. Or he could hate her, all in the space of minutes. She adored him.
Ayleth looked at the child who rested in her arms, the little girl she loved more than life itself. She could not help but fear for the future of a woman born from the union between two such intelligent, beautiful, magnificent aristocrats, with such an unrivalled talent for self-destruction. God help her poor Isabel, and God have mercy on any man who chose to love her, for loving a Devereux was like holding onto the tail of a shooting star; impossibly thrilling, but invariably destructive.