Pompocali Castle, Yorkshire, 5th April 1217
"Come here, sweeting," Ayleth said, wiping the remainder of Isabel's breakfast from around her mouth.
The child squirmed as the wet cloth touched her face, glaring at her angrily.
"Isabel," Ayleth admonished, "people would think I was an absolute witch if they saw you scowling at me like that."
Her charge looked at her mutinously through a curtain of tangled auburn curls, but dissolved into giggles as her surrogate mother tickled her.
"I hope you don't plan on looking at your brother like that," Ayleth said. "It would frighten him half to death."
"I wouldn't," Isabel said, hurt. "I like to make Hugh laugh."
"Well then, you will have to help me to make him happy. I expect he will be quite sad when Sybille leaves today."
She thought of the softly spoken peasant woman who had been employed as the boy's wet nurse with a sharp pang of guilt - guilt because she would remain, and the other woman would not.
"Where's Sybille going?" Isabel asked.
"She's leaving today," Ayleth said sadly. "Hugh doesn't need her anymore. I'm going to look after both of you."
She felt a deep sympathy for the wet-nurse's plight. This was the woman who had given her William's son life, had nourished him and cared for him as if he were her own child, yet her dismissal was cold, clinical. She meant no more to William and the countess than an old dress, discarded the moment it fell out of fashion. Lady Lynessa had no qualms about sending her back to a life of toil and hardship. It could so easily have been her.
"Are you going to leave me, Ayleth?" Isabel's voice was panicked.
"I will never leave you, sweeting," she whispered, kissing the top of the child's head.
"Do you promise?"
"I promise you as your father has promised me."
But in another life, if she had not been saved by William's love, she knew that Sybille's predicament could so easily have been hers.
But thank God fate had decreed otherwise: she was the mother of Isabel's heart, and the wife of William's, and she loved each of them with equal fervour. She could never have walked away from either of them.
"My brother left," Isabel told her.
"Where did he go?"
"The little lord went to live in a great castle, where he could learn to be an earl."
"But we live in a castle. Why couldn't he stay here?"
She loved the little girl to distraction, but the child had a terrible habit of posing questions with no easy, reassuring answer. She thought carefully about how she should respond, mindful of her own distaste for the practice of sending small children away from their mothers. "Because he had to learn how to run a great household like Pompocali, and your father could not teach him by himself."
"But what if he misses my papa?"
He was just a little boy, Ayleth thought, with a pang of pity. But no-one cared that he needed his mother to stroke the hair from his forehead when he awoke screaming from a nightmare, or kiss away his tears when he grazed his knee. She smiled reassuringly. "Your father says that he is a brave boy. I am sure that he is fine, sweeting." To her own ears, she did not sound convinced.
"Do you remember him?" Isabel asked her.
"I wasn't here when your brother was. I only came to your father's castle when you were born, Issy."
"I don't know what he looks like," Isabel told her.
She had no memories of her brother, Ayleth realised; only the ghost of the little boy's laughter remained to haunt the draughty corridors of her home. "He is dark haired, like your father."
"Tell me about my sisters, too," her charge commanded.
Ayleth knew that she longed to meet her brother and sisters, but Isabel had been brought up isolated from her siblings, an only child in all but name. The child dreamed of having a companion, someone to share all of her secrets with: to be her confidant, playmate, best friend. "I have never met them, either," Ayleth replied. "But I can tell you what I know, little one."
"Yes, tell me," she said imperiously.
"Your elder sisters Katerina and Sophia serve as maids-in-waiting to two of your father's closest allies."
"Why?" Isabel pressed.
"Because they need to learn the skills they will need to survive and prosper as adults, and one day, when they are older, they will marry into those families and run those households themselves." But that wasn't true, Ayleth thought. In reality, it was a way of staying abreast of what was happening in the homes of William's fellow peers: a dark spider strategically placed to catch the secrets of a family in its silken web. Maybe, in the end, that was all that his privileged children needed to learn.
If any scandal had arisen, it was Katerina and Sophia's job to make sure that William was aware of it. He wanted leverage in order to boost his own position. She knew that William didn't earn people's friendship; he demanded it. From the moment they were old enough, he had seen his little girls as political pawns, poor children. They were his eyes and ears, spectres lurking on the periphery, all-seeing. As adults, they would be currency; his daughters for their allegiance.
"What do they look like?" Isabel asked, rousing her from her dark thoughts.
"I don't know."
"Hasn't papa told you?"
"He told me that Katerina is darker than the others. He said that she is the only one of his daughters that looks like him."
"What about Sophia?"
"I expect she looks like your mother." The familiar knot of envy tightened in her stomach.
"Two of my sisters are dead," Isabel said sombrely.
"I know," Ayleth murmured, stroking her cheek. "Does that make you sad, Isabel?"
The little girl shook her head. "I didn't know them."
There was so much of her father in her, Ayleth thought worriedly - too much. "Sometimes you don't have to know someone to feel sad when they die," she explained, hoping against hope that Isabel would show the compassion that her parents so damagingly lacked.
The talk of death brought to mind a shouted exchange between William and the countess that morning. Isabel's mother didn't want her children sharing a nursery. The things she had said to make William heed her… The memory of it elicited a shiver of fear, for the words Ayleth had heard had been dark, though they made little sense. She didn't understand - didn't know why that hateful woman had spoken of her beautiful Isabel in such a chilling way.
"Please, William," the countess had begged, "if you ever loved me, don't give him the chance to love her. The girl is half-dead already." Her hair had been in disarray, her eyes red from crying. Her lip had trembled as she spoke.
"Stop it," he had shouted, grabbing her by the wrists. "This is madness, Lynessa. She's not going to die."
Hard, bitter laughter had bubbled from the countess' lips, the sound chilling Ayleth to the bone. "Hemlock would have cured her of her ailment, but a pillow or a blade would work just as well. I should have given that poor child the gift of mercy long ago." Her words had turned Ayleth's stomach.
"Stop it," William had roared, throwing her away from him. She had stumbled, almost fallen, and he had reached for her, taken her in his embrace. He had looked at his wife with such tender sorrow that Ayleth had wanted to weep with jealousy.
"You love her, don't you?" Lynessa had said, so sadly, her voice muffled by his shoulder.
"She's my daughter."
"Then I pity you both," the countess had whispered, "for death has already claimed her for his own."
He had shaken his head, not wanting to believe his wife's words any more than Ayleth wanted to believe them. "Ayleth says that she is healthy. She sees such a bright future for her."
She had drawn back as he spoke Ayleth's name, her beautiful face turning hard. "That woman may believe what she wishes, and see what she wishes." Her voice had an edge to it, though it had disappeared as she continued. "The child is healthy, more pity her. She will not die in her sleep. She will not go easily. Death has crawled inside of her. He slumbers now, like a dormant volcano, but he will wake again."
William's arms had dropped to his sides, and he had turned away from his wife. "She is perfect and strong and healthy, Lynessa. You cannot know what the future holds for her. "
"I can. Have you learned nothing, William?" Lynessa had seized his arm then. "I do not want Hugh in there with her. Keep them apart. You cannot put him with a dead girl - it is too cruel. He must not be allowed to love her. He must never feel this pain."
He had taken her by the shoulders. "She isn't dead," he had said through gritted teeth.
"She is. That woman cannot see it, nor you, it seems, though I have told you it is so. Death is there, clinging to her, even as we speak."
"She isn't dead, and she isn't dying. Do you think I would make the same mistake a second time? No one will take another daughter from me. A betrothal is not a marriage."
The countess had walked away from him, stopped, turned back. "I gave you your heirs, granted your wish. Now grant me mine."
Isabel's voice drew Ayleth back to the present. "Is that all of my sisters?" she said, moving on with childish imperviousness.
Ayleth prayed that she would learn, for she couldn't imagine a happy future for any child who inherited William's cold, unfeeling nature. But, surely, better an unhappy future than no future at all…
"No, you have one more. Your oldest sister Felicia is a great lady. She is married to Oliva de Montfort and she lives at Dudley Castle." She thought of the beautiful, sad, young woman she had met only once, and pulled Isabel to her, desperately miserable at the thought that this child of her heart would share the same fate.
"Will I have to get married?"
"One day you will."
"And will I be a great lady too?"
"The greatest," she said proudly.
"I don't want to be a great lady," Isabel whispered, clinging to her.
"Why not?" Ayleth asked.
"Because then I will have to become a maid, and I don't want to leave you."
Ayleth drew her into her lap, cradling the little girl in her arms as she gently rocked her, but there was nothing she could say to allay the child's fears.
The sun was high in the sky when Sybille handed Hugh to her, her sobs loud in Ayleth's ears. Sybille's face was swollen, her vision blurred by tears. Her face was sympathetic as she took him from the young woman.
"Promise me that you'll take care of him," Sybille begged. "He's such a sweet, loving child."
"I promise," Ayleth assured her, squeezing the girl's hand.
A fresh wave of tears assailed the woman as Hugh reached for her, a smile on his face. Ayleth gave Hugh to one of the maids, and took the woman in her arms, leading her from the room.
The maid carried Hugh across to Isabel, sitting him on the floor beside her. He was a beautiful little boy, irresistible to adults. He had his mother's golden curls, and warm brown eyes, a baby angel fallen from heaven.
Ayleth returned quickly, hastily dabbing her own eyes on her sleeve. Hugh put his arms up to her, begging her to pick him up and hold him close. He placed his small cheek next to hers, and she felt a wave of maternal love flooding through her body.
Isabel reached across to him and he smiled, gurgling happily.
The March sky was dark as Isabel sat beside Hugh, watching him sleep. He looked truly angelic as he rested, his small, chubby hands curled into fists, resting either side of his face. His red lips pouted. Ayleth had put him down to rest, telling her not to disturb him. She longed to touch his smooth, round face, wondering at his perfection.
Temptation got the better of Isabel, and she crouched down beside him, gently stroking his soft cheek. Doing so roused him, and his eyes opened slowly, lazily. She carried on caressing his cheek, marvelling at its silken texture. One of the small hands beside her lifted from its resting place, and grabbed one of the long glossy tendrils of hair which had fallen across her face. Almost unconsciously the tiny fist curled around the chestnut strand. Isabel barely noticed, until the small hand began to pull. A look of concentration animated Hugh's face. Her eyes began to water as he pulled harder. Gently, she tried to disentangle his fingers from her red curls. Hugh looked at her face, and seeing the tears which were streaming down it he began to laugh. Finally, when Isabel's hair felt as if it would be ripped from her scalp, he let go, staring at his hand as if the whole episode had been surprising, the action unconscious.
Isabel ran to Ayleth, her tears painting a damp path down her face. The nurse opened her arms, drawing her close. "There now, my darling," she soothed. "Tell me what's wrong." Her gentle young face was anxious.
"It's Hugh," Isabel said tremulously, the words choked by her tears.
A flash of concern crossed her nurse's face. "Is he alright?" she said worriedly.
Hugh began to wail. She could see that the sound pulled at Ayleth's heart strings. Her nurse stood up, forgetting her completely, and rushed off.
She was left to wipe her own tears, like an old doll, thrown into a cupboard and forgotten, once more surplus to requirements. Already, Hugh had power over her. Already, they both knew that he was more important.
That night Isabel dreamt of the men. The unfamiliar hall was loud with music and laughter, though a cold wind was rising outside, and it screamed through the windows, howling its fury. She raised a goblet to her lips as she listened to its siren song. It was filled with a red liquid, the taste sweet upon her tongue. She was having a fine time, dancing among a sea of men and women, all dressed in their finery. She stood as tall as any of them, and she knew that she was a woman grown.
And then she realised that the sea 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 music did not seem so merry then; it had taken on the haunting melody of the wind, the string instruments echoing its unholy cries. The notes seemed to shimmer as they hung in the air, taking form around her. Their faces were strange and distorted, and blood dripped from their mouths. The wine turned to ash on her lips, and she knew that she was drinking blood.
But the blonde-haired man did not turn from her. He glared at her from her father's eyes. He raised his hand, wrapping a tendril of hair around his finger, and gave it a gentle, familiar tug. When he spoke, his voice was 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." He watched as the hair slowly slid through his fingers.
Isabel felt her face twist into a monstrous smile, so large 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 cold, cruel mother, but none of them came. She called for brave King Arthur, for his Knights of the Round Table, for Sir Lancelot, Queen Guinevere's forbidden love, but no one heard.
The room was silent, but it grew quieter yet, though there was sound now, the sound of footsteps on the flagged stones of the floor. A brown haired man strode into the middle of the circle, to stand beside the first. His eyes were very blue. He smiled at Isabel, and wiped the blood from her face, starkly red against his skin. He raised his thumb to his mouth, and slowly sucked the crimson liquid from its tip.
The room was freezing. She realised that there was snow on the ground. The blood from her mouth burnt scarlet holes where it fell to the floor.
The beautiful man frightened her. She tried to turn and run, but her legs would not obey. The crowd still turned away from her, but she could hear the laughter bubbling from their lips. They were laughing at her. She opened her mouth to beg for mercy, but only a strangled moan emerged.
The man smiled, and opened his arms. "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 force 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 pale-skinned men wept crimson tears.
Isabel woke with a scream, startling Ayleth from her slumber. "It's okay. You were dreaming, little one," her nurse soothed, pulling her into a gentle embrace.
"No. It was real. I was there." Her heart still hammered in her chest, and her body ached where the man's blows had rained down on her. She raised tentative hands to her face, half-expecting her fingers to grow sticky with crimson blood, though they came away as pale as ever.
"I don't know," she whispered.