The Damned

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic

Chapter 39 (v.1)

Submitted: July 18, 2013

Reads: 125

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Submitted: July 18, 2013

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39

 

Pompocali Castle, Yorkshire, 8th August 1230

 

In less than an hour, she had been on her way home. Her brother would not die before she had said goodbye. History wouldn’t repeat itself. She would not let it. And Will waited for her, as she had known that he would.

Isabel flung herself down from the saddle, her legs weak from long hours spent riding hard. Formalities no longer mattered. She did not wait to have her arrival properly announced, but instead ran straight up the steps to the solar. Rowan de Bolbec and Lief Montagu stood in the antechamber, surrounded by her brother’s men, heads bowed in respect. Will’s latest whore joined them, her face white as she partook in their grim vigil. The woman prayed for her brother’s recovery, Isabel was sure, but she could see in her stance that she would flee as soon as there was no longer profit in her presence. Though her brother wasn’t dead yet, the mere whisper of it would sweep all of the harlot’s loyalty aside.  But what did it matter to her? She pushed past them, shouldering aside her brother’s playthings.

The room was eerily quiet. She smelled the sour stench of vomit and stale sweat before she saw him. She wanted to press her hand to her nose, turn and run, but then her eyes found him and all thoughts of escape deserted her. Her brother lay in the great bed that had once belonged to her father, its might making him appear diminutive. He wore a chemise crafted from the finest linen, the material clinging to his skin, damp with sweat. He looked innocent as he slept, and so young. She wanted to believe that in sleep she saw a glimpse into his unconscious; that his heart was still pure, though he had done his best, of late, to convince people otherwise. She felt like all of the bad had slowly sapped the strength from his beautiful soul, gradually weakening his body.

But it was hard to imagine him as an innocent now. Again, that conversation came back to her.  Do you pray for their souls? Do you ask God for their salvation? His arm had come down around her shoulders, pulling her close, his breath hot against her ear. What do I care for their souls? He had cared once, but it had been so long ago. Now, he liked men to die screaming. Now, they feared him as they had once feared her father. They feared her, too, though she was not her father with his stained hands, or her brother with his swords and his bloodied teeth. Yet they saw her, with her lightly rouged cheeks and her glittering eyes, as a bed of roses with all of its thorns, just waiting to catch their bodies, to whisper in her brother’s ear and throw them to the wolves.

A bowl of water and a damp cloth were at the side of the bed. Katerina’s head rested beside them, arms folded beneath, still seated on a low stool. Her long tawny curls were spread across the brocade coverlet, hiding her face. The sight of her gave Isabel pause. She was shocked by her presence, having assumed that she would already be inveigling herself into Hugh’s affections, doing her best to stop Will’s death from ruining all of her hard work. Instead, she nursed him, her love for her brother transcending her dark ambition. There seemed something redeemable about her, now, beside him – something which hadn’t been there before.

Though she hated her, Isabel was not blind to her beauty. They looked like a pair of fallen angels cast down from heaven for their dark deeds. And surely Katerina must have been the most expensive treasure in their decadent abode, for her gown was lined with pearls, and her slight frame must have been heavy with the weight of her jewels. Her hair was loose, only held back by a handful of pearl and sapphire encrusted pins. Her golden crucifix, laid beside her hand, seemed to laugh, making her a Madonna even though she wore Venus’ face. Katerina Devereux, the earl’s beloved sister. Look how he clothed her in silk and brocade, his favorite sibling. Look how he weighed her down with a fortune in gold and diamonds and rubies, for he loved her so. Look how her enemies trembled at her presence, for his darling twin had the earl’s ear. Isabel wanted to push her aside, for her poison had corrupted him. He had been good before, when he had been hers and hers alone.

But she daren’t disturb them, for though they were lovely, the frozen tableau was macabre. Will’s cheeks were flushed, but his face was deathly pale, and she feared that if she whispered in his ear he wouldn’t wake up. Katerina stirred slightly in her sleep, but Will did not move. For a moment, Isabel hesitated, imagining that he was dead and she had never told him how she felt. She grasped the door frame, clinging to it to stop herself from falling, for her legs suddenly felt weak.

“Hello, little one.” Her brother must have sensed her presence, for he slowly opened his dark eyes and smiled at her. So still he was, as he met her gaze, and that in itself seemed wrong. He had always been a dynamic man, always in motion. The only times she had seen him still were when he slept, and only then after a night of revelry and drunken excess.

Hearing his voice, Katerina awoke. They rose together, always together, sitting up in tandem, her sister’s arm around her brother’s shoulders, as if he needed her strength because his own had failed him. Katerina’s gaze met Isabel’s, the same as his and not the same at all. Twin eyes, glittering with different feelings, fixed on her. One loved her. The other loved no one but Will.

“Oh, it’s you,” her sister said sleepily, though her expression was already alert and cunning.

Isabel ran to the bed, and flung herself on Will. Wrapping her arms around his neck, she bestowed a flurry of light kisses on his beloved face. Though the stench of vomit and stale sweat lingered in the room, her brother smelled sweet and clean, and Isabel silently thanked Katerina for it, for surely it was her doing. She didn’t want to smell death’s perfume on her brother’s skin. She didn’t want to be reminded of his mortality. His hands were on her face and in her springing curls, and the gentleness was still there.

“Careful,” Katerina snapped. She glared at Isabel as the bed shook under her vigorous display of affection. There was something undeniably dangerous about her eyes, as if they were forged from the poison she was said to wield. Though her voice was sharp, the retort froze on Isabel’s lips when she saw the genuine look of concern on her sister’s face. For all of her faults, her sister loved her twin, and Isabel could tell that the prospect of losing him terrified her. As with everyone else, she had been helpless to resist his warm charm, and her cold heart had melted under his kind onslaught.

“My little Issy!” Will murmured, rubbing his thumbs across her cheekbones. “You are as beautiful as Kat now.”

Katerina’s lips curved, a great slice across her golden visage, though her eyes were hostile. “Oh, but she is lovely! Though you must be careful, sister, for I have heard it said that no man or woman can be too powerful or too beautiful without disaster befalling them. And I would so hate it if anything were to happen to you.”

Will’s lips twitched. “Play nicely, Kat.”

Katerina stood up and stretched lazily, the action cat-like. As always, her movements were as graceful as those of a dancer. “He wants to speak with you alone. But first, I would have a word with you.”

The sadness and the resignation in her sister’s eyes made Isabel’s heart pause. “What’s wrong with him?” she asked in a thread of a voice, and realised that despite her lack of volume she sounded perfectly calm. Her sister had taught her well.

Katerina looked to their brother, hesitating to say the words in front of him.

Her brother’s fingers twined around those of his twin, his thumb caressing her knuckles. “Say what you must in front of me, Kat. I’m not one of your lordly playthings. I like you honest.”

The mere arch of Katerina’s eyebrows sufficed for her assent. “Will is dying, little sister. They have poisoned him. You see him here, smiling still, and I can see the hope in your eyes. But he will not recover. It is Death Angel. I know the signs: nausea, vomiting, stomach pains, thirst, blueness of the hands and feet. Then the skin yellows, for Deathcap rots a man from the inside. He will be conscious almost to the end, before he lapses into a coma and dies. I have given him something to ease his pain, but I cannot cure him. You must say your goodbyes now, for he has hours only.” There was none of her charm, only flat honesty.

“You must send for a physician,” Isabel demanded.

“He’s dying, sister. There’s nothing more to be done for him.”

Isabel felt no pain; only wonder. Wonder that anyone would dare to cross her magnificent brother. Wonder that anything existed which was strong enough to conquer his indomitable spirit. The tears would come later, she knew, but now there was naught but a welcome numbness and the instinctive need to be beside him.

Katerina looked at her, head tilted, checking that her words had been understood. “I’ll be back soon. Try not to tire him out too much.”

“There will be plenty of time to sleep when I’m dead,” Will said blackly.

“Not where you’re going,” Katerina quipped.

Dead. Not where you’re going. Dead. Dead. Dead. Round and round in her head. How could they jest about such a thing? “Don’t.” Tears filled Isabel’s eyes as she spoke, her grief hitting her, crushing her. “Please don’t. You can’t leave me, Will. You can’t.” Her voice rose, growing hysterical. 

Katerina’s eyes narrowed. She took Isabel’s chin in her hand, her long nails digging into her skin. “No one in this family cries, Isabel. Whatever happens, we never cry,” she said quietly.

“We do. But only for each other. I know the game, Kat,” she snapped. Her anger was better than sadness. Her anger made things easier. She knew that she lashed out at her sister only because she couldn’t lash out at the spectral figure which hovered beside her brother, just waiting to steal him from her. Her pain spilled from her tongue, lessened slightly.

“I hope so.” Katerina turned from Isabel, her gaze fixing on Will. Her mouth quivered. “You won’t go without me, will you? Don’t leave without saying goodbye.”

Their brother caught Katerina’s other hand, squeezing her fingers tightly, and pulled her down beside him. His thumb passed across her jaw, so that he must have felt the tremble of her lips. His expression was guarded, but Isabel knew that there was a message for Katerina in those dark eyes. “Don’t be long, sister.”

Looking into her twin’s gaze, Isabel’s imposing sister was reduced to a little girl with too-large eyes. “No.” She turned her cheek, her eyes bright and narrowed and spilling over with what must have been tears. “No, Will. Let me stay.”

“Isabel can stay. You have matters to attend to. Be brave for me, Kat.” He pressed a kiss to her palm, lips brushing the token she wore in place of a wedding band, a gift from him.

Katerina nodded, one slender finger briefly tracing down his cheek. Their lips were only a ghost’s breath apart. “Wait for me.”

She half-fled from the room then, though not before Isabel saw the stain of tears on her cheeks, as though they were one being: Will hurt and tears of pain sprang to Katerina’s eyes; Katerina bled and Will felt the sting across his own skin.

Will sank back against the pillows, his face contorted in mute suffering, as if Katerina’s life force had been sustaining him, and without it he weakened. Isabel wanted to call her back, to press them together again, for surely if Katerina’s heart beat beside his, his must keep time with it. It could not falter nor stop, for it was naught but a mirror of the heart which beat inside his twin.

But Katerina was gone, and only Isabel remained. She would not leave his side. Conor would doubtless say that she was a fool for love, a woman so far gone that she surrendered even the last shreds of her pride, for she tended to a man who would bind her in marriage to a monster. But he was her brother. Conor did not understand what it meant to be a Devereux. He had never known the love of a sibling. They were set against one another now, but she had loved him her whole life. To the outside world, Will had grown older and more terrible. But not to her. She knew him as he always was. She knew his heart. They lived outside the touch of time and the reach of corruption.

Isabel took the damp cloth, bathing his feverish body with her own hands. No servant would minister to him out of duty whilst she was there to nurse him out of love. It was no longer the body she remembered, slender with youth. It was a sculpture of white muscle now, of broad shoulders and arms honed by hours of swordplay. Time hadn’t yet allowed the corruption of vice and wine and overindulgence to ruin the beauty of youth. Time would never play its tricks now.

The tears came faster then, hot and salty and stinging her cheeks. “I’m sorry,” Isabel whispered, furiously brushing them aside, though more always followed to replace those she vanquished.

Her brother pulled her into his arms, and she pressed close to him, taking her rightful place at his side. The way it should have been forever. “Don’t be foolish. Your tears are like gold to me, for they show me how much you care.”

She swabbed his brow with rose water, desperate to cool the heat which rose from his skin. “But you should know that already. I should have told you. Why do we never tell each other how we feel?”

“Because we already know. We don’t need words to reveal the secrets of our heart.”

“So I don’t have to tell you how much I love you, because you already know.” She looked into his eyes as she said it - her fallen angel, her felled god - silently pleading with him to understand how deeply she adored him.

“And I don’t have to tell you how much I love you. And how proud I am of you. Or that, wherever I am, I will always be looking out for you, because not even death could stop me from being there if you need me. You already know that, don’t you?” Tears glistened in her brother’s dark eyes, and for the first time Isabel saw the fear that lurked just beneath the surface.

Will looked away from her as he continued. “I fear I have left some things too late, and done some too early. This isn’t how I wanted it to end. I wanted to see you grow up, and I wanted to be there to make sure that no-one could ever hurt you. I wouldn’t have let you end up like Licia. I would never have made you do anything you didn’t want to. You know that, don’t you?”

The lie was instant, sweet venom, and she wanted to believe it. She wanted to believe that she still came before his ambition. But she couldn’t. Isabel nodded despite her doubts, for she loved him so.

But she couldn’t speak. She knew that if she tried she wouldn’t be able to hold back her tears nor censor her words; once the floodgates opened, and the dam burst, all of her emotions would escape, and she didn’t want him to know how much she hated him for leaving her, nor how she doubted him. She wanted to lash out at her brother and provoke him into staying. Will had promised to look after her, and now he was reneging on his side of the bargain. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t who they were. They never failed each other.

He smiled and bestowed a kiss upon her cheek, but his eyes held a warning. It was the look he had given her on the day that they saw the harem, when they had spoken of her marriage to Tristan FitzAlan. Now they spoke of it again, but this time, his reassurances were not so well gilded, and the truth could be glimpsed through the gaps where the golden paint had flaked away. “Katerina does not care for your feelings so much. She will have you marry Tris. Be careful, Issy. You will be yoked to each other for better or worse and it is your duty to pull the plough in the same direction. Do as you are bidden. Don’t fight him.”

“As I am bidden,” she repeated, and shivered, for she could not stomach the thought of ploughing beside such a mismatched companion.

“You will be the Lady of Glencaer,” he said softly. “A powerful woman – and a great one.”

“Tristan FitzAlan does not want me to be his lady, Will. He only wants my sons to be great lords. It is always about the power of men.”

He tenderly tucked her hair behind her ear, brushing it away from her face. “You do not know what power you wield.”

“I do,” she said helplessly, for she felt helpless. She possessed no power but that which she derived from her brother, and her brother was dying, leaving her at the mercy of the man who would be her husband.

“You don’t. Realise that you don’t have to approach every difficulty as if it has to be bludgeoned into submission. Power comes in many forms. Ice melts in sunlight when it does not do so in the frozen dark. Our father knew it and it was what made him so brilliant. He knew how to conceal his fire beneath a silken cloak. He knew how to charm. Katerina and I know it, too, and now you must learn it. Learn how to manipulate your husband, how to make him think that your desires are his own.”

“I don’t want to learn. Not if it means being like her.”

Not if it means being like you, either. Before he was the earl, he was just a boy with a father who expected too much. A boy with an easy smile permanently etched across his face. But now the son had become the father, and the smile was not so amiable. He had acted the part so well that it had become the truth for him. He moved among people with a lupine grin and dead eyes. Though he had never lost his charm, he was callous and emotionless and unfeeling towards everyone. How much of that was a façade he had been forced to adopt? How much had he concealed or changed to suit his own interests? Isabel wanted her truth as it was, all unvarnished. As her brother had once been.

“Don’t set yourself against her. Kat needs you, little sister. Our family needs you.”

“Our family needs me? To sell to the highest bidder? For I am your dearest sister, am I not? The sister who would do anything to further her brother’s successes?” She played with her crucifix, one of those that Will had given to her. “As you would do anything for me.”

He knew what she asked of him. “I would. I did. But I cannot save you. I cannot free you. Know that I tried, though. Forgive me, little sister. I thought that I had more time.”

Isabel leaned forward, her mouth grazing his. There were tears on her cheeks, and the salt mingled on their lips. “I do. I forgave you long ago, dearest brother.”

Will took her hand in his, twining their fingers together as he would with Katerina. “You know the game, Issy.”

She lowered her eyes, quiescent except for the bitterness in her voice. “Oh, I know the game.”

He wrapped a coil of her long hair around his finger, his eyes bright with fervour. “We will be victorious, you and I. It’s our family, Issy – Felicia at Dudley, Sophia in the north, Hugh and Katerina at Pompocali, and you in Glencaer.”

“Me, a rich lord’s plaything in Glencaer.”

“Of course.” And beneath his amiability was an edge. “Would you defy my wishes?”

Isabel pushed her brother’s damp hair away from his forehead, pressing their noses together. “I couldn’t even if I tried.”

He softened then, her father’s reflection disappearing from his eyes, and sighed. “I wanted so much more for myself as well. I wanted to be in love with somebody I was allowed to love, not one who was forever denied to me. I wanted to marry, and have children, and grow old. Live your life for the both of us, Issy, for I want you to be happy more than anything else in the world.”

It was so hard to stop herself from crying. Isabel bit her lip, wanting the pain to distract her. “I’ll try, my love.”

“And you must look after Kat for me. You must promise me that you will love her as I have.”

They had talked of love, and his thoughts had turned to their sister. I wanted to be in love with somebody I was allowed to love. She remembered the rumours, then. The sins which only added to their legend. They say he’s fucking his sister. Things Isabel hadn’t listened to. Things that seemed slanderous until she thought of the times she had seen them together, alone in the private of their solar. Kisses that lasted too long. Her brother’s hands on her sister’s waist. Her sister’s hands on her brother’s face.

And Katerina, the earl’s beloved sister, was such a prize. Yet still unmarried. Still living in her brother’s home. Their enemies said that he liked to keep her close so that each night he might retreat to his sister’s bed and settle between her legs.

The images came faster then. The times they had slipped out of banquets, rubbing the blood and wine from one another’s faces, laughing and heady and drunk. She imagined Will unlacing her sister’s gown, shaking her hair loose and running his fingers through it.

But she stopped, for she could not imagine further sins. She didn’t need to know and she didn’t want to. Katerina and Will had always lived by their own rules. They were twins. They were one soul in two bodies. They loved each other. And perhaps it was a blessing that they did, whatever form such a love took, for they were incapable of loving anyone else. And she did so want him to have felt the emotions she had.

“You need not ask for such a promise. We are family. We are Devereuxs together,” Isabel reassured him.

But still her brother appeared troubled. He struggled upright, looking like a resurrected cadaver, and grasped her hand tightly in his. “You remember, then. You have not forgotten what it means to be a Devereux?”

Isabel gently brushed his damp hair away from his forehead and pressed him back down against the pillows. “We are power and danger and cunning. They all want to stand beside us, and none would dare to stand against us. We must never betray each other. We must always love our family above all others and think of our family before everything else. We must always act for each other.”

“And yet there are those who have dared to stand against us, and so I must ask one more boon of you, little sister. Devereux commands have sent many to their deaths. But not enough. Those who dared to poison me would not hesitate to poison you and Kat and mother and Hugh if you stood in their way. You must teach them what it is to cross a Devereux. You must kill them. Let their bodies rot beside the rest. Make sure you hear them scream. Make sure they all hear. I want them to die screaming, to cry out the way they would when I had them on the rack.” Little by little her brother’s life slipped away, but still he fought on, grinning as his soft-spoken words delivered their deaths.

Isabel shook her head, her great earrings, purchased with their family’s terrible wealth, trembling with the movement. “Stop it, Will. You frighten me so.”

“Why? We are exactly the same, my little Devereux. Are you frightened of your own shadow?” His fingers were tight around hers, sharp and unyielding. Grasping like his whole being. “You speak all of the right words, but you do not like to soil your hands, do you, sister? Do you think I liked it, to begin with? Ruling is a dirty business. Power corrupts. Do not judge me so harshly, for I have always taken care of you, haven’t I? You never spurned the silks I sent you for your dresses, or the gifts and tokens and perfumes I delivered to your door. You liked being a Devereux well enough then.”

“I never asked you to corrupt your soul for me.”

Will fixed burning eyes on her. “What do you think would have happened if I had shown weakness, Issy? The wolves would have come creeping down from the hills and torn me to pieces, fighting each other for every last scrap of our father’s carcass. I have been no crueller than I needed to be.”

“I’m sorry, Will,” she soothed. “Please, do not be angry with me. Not now.”

Her brother laughed. “I am angry at myself. The world was mine to do with it as I wished. I should have shown no mercy. I should have crushed all those who opposed me. I could have wiped them from the face of the earth, but I didn’t. I was kind, weak. And now I lay dying, when once I had the power to exterminate them. They trembled to hear me at their door. Not one dared show me his enmity, for one word in the ear of my man and their heads would have fallen at my feet. I had the power to decide who lived and who died, who succeeded and who fell. I held their lives in my hand.” And not until then had she recognised that her brother was so much more than her brother – to everyone.

Isabel gently wiped the sweat from his brow, the scent of the rose water sweetening the cloying stench which pervaded the room. “But still you could not free me,” she softly accused.

“I would have done.” Will paused, eyes narrowed as he studied her face.  “I could still free you - but Tris’ life would be the price you had to pay. Do you want-?”

“No!” Isabel shook her head, that tantalising question hanging over them still. “No, I don’t. I can’t. And how could you? He was your friend, Will. Your best friend.”

“And you are my sister.”

Isabel paused in her ministrations, thinking of all that his death would do for her. “It would…”

Even as his body weakened, her brother seemed to have grown in stature – he was so dark now, so much bigger and greater than he was when they would stare across to Elfhame. “It would..?”

The moment hung between them. Isabel was shocked by her steady grip on the bowl of rose water, the impassive way she met his stare, as though they were discussing the most normal subject imaginable. If nothing else, her very ability to project the demeanour of a devoted sister at her brother’s sickbed proved how monstrously they had warped her heart. “It would be wrong.” But I want it.

“So it would, my love. But you need only ask and it is yours,” he murmured, gently touching her cheek.

And she saw that her brother was great and terrible, and so ready to lay a heart at her feet. Taking Will’s elegant hand in hers, Isabel lifted it to her lips. “You would do that for me?”

He looked into her eyes. “I would do that for you,” he whispered.

But she did not want Tristan’s heart, in her hand or otherwise. If he was to die, then she would be like Will and Katerina, like her father, and there would be no more hope for a life outside of theirs. No life outside of blood and diamonds. Conor would not love her then. The thought, so tantalising, would be a door shut. A door shut on happiness, on a love outside of the family. Everything. All of that gone with Tristan.

But the devil in her head whispered that there was no escaping the family. The stench of death, the cruelty, the sin. Why not give in to her destiny?  

Isabel drew back. “Let’s not talk of such things anymore. Let’s remember how it was. I meant it, Will, when I said that I would rather have you alive than great.” Her fingers slipped through his. “But it’s too late for that, though we can still pretend, for a little while.”

Her eyes were downcast as she tried to hide her tears, but Will tilted her chin upwards, forcing her to meet his gaze. “I don’t want to pretend. The things I have done will be forgotten soon enough, as will I. We need not hasten such an abhorrent reality towards its conclusion, little sister.”

“Would it be so terrible to forget?”

Will gave her a small smile. “It would be terrible to be forgotten. There is no child of my blood to immortalise me; I will live on only in the minds of others.  Issy, you must promise that you will not forget me. That’s my greatest fear. I don’t want to disappear into the oblivion of history.”

“How could I ever forget you?” she whispered.

He didn’t seem to hear her, for he had to say everything that he needed. Once he had started, he had to finish. His voice was so much softer now, so much weaker. She could see his body failing. “I always thought that I would do something to make people remember me – I thought that I had time to do it, whatever it is. But life isn’t a dress rehearsal. There are no second chances, though I desperately wish there were. I’m not proud of everything I’ve done. I have regrets. But I don’t have the time to put everything right nor to do the things which I should have, so promise me you’ll remember the good times. Because we did have quite a few of them, didn’t we?”

Tears streamed down Isabel’s face. Did he regret his cruelty, or only his weakness? Did he yearn for the man he had lost?

Her brother’s eyelids fluttered, his eyes rolling back in his head. His gaze grew unfocused, and she knew that his sight was gone, for his hand desperately sought hers, crawling across the embroidered coverlet like some great, ungainly spider. “Isabel!”

“I’m here,” she murmured, pressing her lips to his forehead.

His body relaxed, his gaze no longer struggling to focus. He closed his eyes, his long eyelashes casting delicate shadows on his cheeks. “Love me when I’m gone,” he said, his voice fading to a whisper. And they would not know him now, those men who, mere days before, would have quaked at his call.

“Always” she whispered, placing their entwined fingers on her heart. She looked at his beautiful, golden hands, tipped in blue now, encased in her own, and she knew that they would never grow old.

“Katerina,” Will breathed. His eyes were still closed, his face so white it blended with the linen.

Isabel turned on the bed, searching for her sister, ready to call for her, but she knew it was too late. If she left her brother now, he would die alone. “No, she’s not-” The denial froze on her lips, for the rattle was audible now, his breathing so shallow it scarcely lifted his chest.

“Kat.” Those men – the men he had tortured – had cried out for God. No matter how heinous their crimes, they had given their last breath to Jesus. His went to Katerina, his dark heart. His mouth was ajar, that awful deep gurgle in his throat reminding Isabel of the sound stone-filled udders made when children played ball on the cobblestones.

Isabel took her brother’s hand. When her fingers grazed his skin, she felt the heat emanating from his pores, though the skin itself was cold. She felt his fingers tighten in hers, and then go limp. “Yes, my love. It’s Katerina. I’m here now, my heart.”

Will smiled serenely, and she huddled down into his arms again, her eyes closed. They fell asleep like that, their bodies tangled together. As she drifted into an uneasy slumber, she knew that her brother would never wake up, but she vowed that he would stay in that place beside her heart forever, immortalised by her love. Her children would know his name, and her children’s children. She would commission monuments to his memory, name her son’s after him. He would live on through her.  

As the last breath danced on her brother’s lips, Isabel fell into dreams. She found herself on a sun-dappled forest path with great towering oaks rising to either side. The floor was a carpet of bluebells. On the right, a weeping willow kissed the fast-flowing stream as if the spirit of Narcissus resided in its elegant lines, desirous of its own reflected beauty. Its pale leaves swayed gently in the soft, warm breezes of eternal spring.

She felt the weight of someone’s hand in hers, and she knew that it belonged to her brother. Feeling his eyes on her, Isabel turned to Will, and found him laughing and happy. He sauntered along beside her, each of their paces effortlessly matched to the other. In his hand he held a bouquet of red roses, wild and vivid and perfect. He smiled at Isabel and was about to speak when the day erupted into a chorus of birdsong. A murder of crows took to the sky as gentle humming disturbed the quiet of the forest.

Two tall, elegant women with red hair, their skin pale, dressed in flowing white gowns, glided towards them on silent feet. Roses of all colours sprang up wherever they passed. They paused a dozen yards away and held their arms out to her brother.

Isabel recognised them, even then. They were the women from her dreams, those who had warned her of her future. They were her sisters. Her blood. They had come to meet her brother so that he wouldn’t have to travel alone the rest of the way. And though she knew she should release Will’s hand, she didn’t think that she would ever be able to let go of him.

Her sisters looked at her, not with pity nor anger, but only gentle welcome. Her brother’s hand gently slipped from her own, the act more his will than hers. Isabel stood frozen as he slowly walked to meet their sisters, to be cradled by slender arms that had once held him, and kissed by soft lips which had once whispered sweet endearments in his ear.

They stood at the entrance to a bridge now, the beautiful trio, haloed by the sunlight which spilled through the trees, dappling the stones. They were green and thick with moss, and she knew that they would make the softest bed to lie on. The reedy river banks sloped gently towards the water’s edge where sprays of purple and yellow and pink wildflowers exploded, spilling onto the stone of the bridge itself. The air was heavy with their perfume and the lazy, insistent drone of the bumble bees which swarmed around the blooms.

With a final glance, a final smile, the siblings crossed the bridge, hand clasped, and entered the land of Elfhame.

A bloodcurdling groan roused Isabel’s unconscious mind. Katerina stood in the middle of the room, isolated like a lone tree. She was wearing one of her most ornate court robes and everything was bound up and stiff and overlaid by jewels. Her face was tight, her skin grey as stone, so that she might almost have been her own effigy. She fixed Isabel with an empty stare. “Will is dead,” she said in an empty voice. “How can that be? Why isn’t mother dead instead? Why not me?”

A nightmarish haze blurred all. Isabel swallowed, feeling the sickness rise in her again. She lurched from the bed, not wanting the memory of her brother’s cold body pressed against the warmth of her own.

She wished that she could embrace her sister, to comfort her and be comforted by her, but she knew that Katerina would only push her away as she pushed everyone. Will had once told her that their sister had a hard exterior sheltering softness within, but no one would ever know how soft, because she refused to let anyone close enough to find out.

Isabel’s voice emerged as a hoarse croak. “It is the will of God you should live, sister. I too would more than gladly have taken his place.”

“And why was it God’s will that he should die?” Katerina’s chin trembled. “When it started, I laughed at his self-pity. He seemed so strong and indomitable. I could not imagine that anything could weaken him. We all feasted together, but they only poisoned him… I thought that we would always be together. He was supposed to become a husband and a father. He was supposed to be here to help and guide his own sons, to be their backbone… as he was mine. What am I going to do now that he is gone?”

A shudder ran through Isabel, for they had become a ship without a rudder, a family at the mercy of a child, relying on him to protect them all. And Will was gone. Gone. Gone. Gone. And he was never coming back.

“I brought him to this by dripping my poison into his ear,” Katerina said. “I should have listened when he told me that we pushed too far, and now it is too late to do anything but say ‘should have’.” She pressed her palm across her mouth.

“Don’t,” Isabel said. “It was his cause too. He was never going to rest until he saw our father’s ambitions fulfilled. Bettered, even.”

“I will have to be Will now, as well as myself, but how, when he was the better part? No one can take his place. Those who remain with me here were already here when he was, so how can we make up for what is gone?” Katerina made a soft, anguished sound.

Isabel went to her and set her arms lightly around her sister. For a moment, Katerina laid her head on her shoulder. Isabel’s grief deepened. She ached beyond belief with emotion for her, but it was part of her own much greater pain. “I do not know what to tell you,” she choked.

“And you were always so good with words.” Katerina’s voice was brittle. “Have you none for me now?”

“They are all cold and dead,” Isabel said hoarsely. “I will bury them beside him – all the ones that matter anyway. It is down to us now, Kat. We must harden our hearts until the hearts of men are brittle wood beside the steel in our souls.”

Katerina drew back to look at her, her face drawn. The emotion seemed to drain from her face, leaving her cold and dead inside. “You are right. We must be fiercer than any man.”

Her sister pulled free of her embrace and sat gently down beside her twin’s still form, the subtle movement of the bed beneath their brother’s body imitating animation. “Will,” Katerina whispered, pressing her lips to her brother’s curls, “my beloved Will. I am incomplete for the rest of my days.” Her shoulders shook with silent sobs, but Isabel heard her words distinctly as she whispered in his ear. “Do not stray far, brother,” she murmured softly. “Wait for me.” As she leaned down to kiss Will’s cold lips, Isabel saw the tears which studded her cheeks like diamonds. That kiss was a goodbye to the only person Katerina would ever love without reserve, her last farewell to her twin.

“I’m so sorry, Kat. You should have been here. But there was no time to call you.”

Katerina’s hands gently stroked the earthly remains of their brother, her breath catching in her throat. “How could he leave without saying goodbye?”

“He thought that you were with him.”

A terrible anger flared in Katerina’s dark eyes, her sharp stare cutting Isabel like a dagger. “Why did you play him false? He wouldn’t have gone if he had known I was not there. He wasn’t meant to leave me alone. We were supposed to die together as we were born together.”

“Sister-”

Katerina raised her hand, compelling her to be silent. “Your feeble excuses mean nothing to me, little sister.” She lifted the goblet beside their brother’s bed and raised it to her lips, a shadow darkening her face. “If he had just let me be there, I would have gone with him, but I do not have the courage to go by myself.”

“Kat, no-” Isabel called as she grasped her sister’s meaning. She knocked the jewelled chalice from Katerina’s hand, the lethal mixture dashing the walls and floor, dripping down Katerina’s beautiful face, staining her priceless gown.

Some of it seeped down her sister’s chin, and she angrily wiped it away with her sleeve. She seized Isabel by her shoulders, pushing her against the wall. Isabel’s neck snapped back, a dull ache beginning in the back of her head. Her fingers curled around Isabel’s throat. “It should have been me, not you. I would have married Tristan a thousand times over to have spent so many years with my brother by my side. All those years we spent apart… All those years we wasted… And you, you had him all to yourself, like some jealously hoarded treasure,” she snarled.

The door banged, and Katerina’s hands fell away from Isabel, shoving her roughly aside. She whirled around, her skirt flaring around her feet like the hood of a cobra readying itself to strike. Her dark eyes flashed as they fixed on Rowan de Bolbec and Lief Montagu, who stood and gawped at them. Her brother’s men were gathered behind, staring at them with the voyeuristic curiosity of an audience watching actors on a stage. Only, Isabel and her sister were real. All of it was real. Her brother’s death was real. The men teetered in the doorway, stopped by her sister’s dark eyes, warning and reproachful.  

“De Bolbec, Montagu,” Katerina drawled, her gaze daring them to acknowledge the scene they had witnessed.

Her brother’s chamberlain cleared his throat. “Lady Katerina,” he said, his head bowed deferentially, “might we step outside?”

Isabel wondered at the need for privacy, for her brother was dead and she had witnessed the light fading from his eyes. What could her brother’s chamberlain say which would hurt her more than that?

“Why go outside when we have the luxury of such lovely surroundings in here?” Katerina said pleasantly. She pushed the shutters wide, her movements jerky and erratic. Sunlight flashed off her jewelled rings, creating a bright mosaic on the whitewashed walls.

Isabel blinked, adjusting her vision, which had grown accustomed to the gloom of the sick chamber. It was a lovely day, she thought faintly, and wondered how such a thing was possible.

“Come, my lady,” Lief Montagu enticed, reaching for Katerina, though he dare not touch her. “Let your brother rest now.”

Katerina cut him down, her voice like daggers. “He’s dead.” She clasped her hands together, appearing utterly composed, utterly untouched by grief. “Earthly concerns can no longer distress him.”

Rowan and Lief exchanged a puzzled glance, before Rowan gave a subtle shrug. “Indeed, my lady.” His hand attempted comfort on Katerina’s arm. “But perhaps it would be better if your sister was not burdened further.”

Katerina strode to the window, turning away from them all. “Say what you must in front of her. She is a Devereux, after all.”

Rowan hesitated, but Isabel knew that he dare not disobey her dark sister. His voice issued forth, clear yet reticent. “We have the poisoner in our custody. He was approached by a man he did not know and offered money to slip a mushroom into the earl’s food. He swears that he thought it was nothing more than a merchant trying to see that his wares were served to a lord in order to ensure further business.”

Katerina laughed, and there was a harsh, raw sound to it, an essence evocative of the sting of torn flesh. “He lies.”

Rowan’s eyes darted to her sister’s face, silhouetted in profile, and Isabel saw that he was so intimidated by Katerina’s dark gaze, her malevolence, her cunning and, most of all, her femininity. “Indeed.”

She lifted a golden goblet to her lips, gulping down red wine as if her very life depended on its haze. “Does he profess to have worked alone?”

“Yes, my lady.” De Bolbec cocked his head, as if trying to apprehend her next command. And in the presence of their brother’s body, he had cleaved to her as his liege, though his new master awaited him in the room below, ready to rule him. But there was always some of that before, too. Her brother’s men had always looked to Katerina as an extension of Will, allowing her voice to steer them when their brother had remained silent.

Katerina’s voice dripped with scorn. “Do you believe him?”

“I do.”

Katerina’s laughter was as harsh as the potion she had sent down their brother’s throat, soothing him to death with its bitterness. “Then why did nobody stop him? All should have been loyal to the earl. All should have been willing to lay down their lives to protect him. I pay them to be vigilant, to care for him. If they did not, then they are as culpable as the one who slipped the poison into his food.”

“They mourn the earl as we do, my lady.”

“How many servants work in our kitchens, Rowan?”

The man’s eyes flickered to his cruel mistress, his gaze distrustful. “Around seventy, my lady.”

Katerina’s finger, wearing a perfect pearl ring, caught at her cross. “Hang them all.”

And Isabel knew that he would, even as it made him sick to his stomach. He could not deny her command, lest he cared not for his head.

But Isabel was the earl’s sister too, yet she would not call for the heads of innocents. She could not see them hang for a crime they had not committed, a crime they could not have foreseen. “But, Katerina, there are children…” she implored her sister.

Katerina’s eyes flashed, but she smiled sweetly. “Very well. Spare the children. Make them watch. We will teach them the obedience they could not learn from their parents.”

Rowan de Bolbec bowed and half-fled from the room, as though haste would make his grisly task easier to bear. Perhaps he could not stand to allow himself any time to think upon what he was doing. Or perhaps her sister frightened him so greatly that he feared her wrath would be turned on him if he stayed any longer.

Katerina’s skirts hissed as she made to follow her chamberlain from the solar. She paused as she reached Isabel, enveloping her in expensive scents, in the voluptuousness of Katerina and her billowing skirts, her long curls. Her mouth smelled sweetly like wine, felt wet against Isabel’s cheek. Her nails caressed Isabel’s throat, her fingers digging into her neck. “You will never question me again,” she warned, her voice too low for her brother’s men to hear. “Remember, Isabel, that it is better to become more monstrous than the monster than it is to be quietly devoured.”

And then her sister was gone. She did not glance over her shoulder as she left the room, as though her brother were already in her past.

Isabel sank to the ground, taking her brother’s cold hand in hers. Her own culpability weighed heavily on her shoulders. She should have done more, she knew. She should have protested. Yet nothing seemed to matter anymore, except that her brother was gone. She could not weep for the men and women her sister had condemned, for their loss was nothing compared to the loss of her brother. She could not even fear the taint on her own soul, though she knew that her sister’s sins were hers too. She had never desired their deaths, but their blood was on her hands. “The more I try to please God, the more he tries me,” she murmured, her lips pressed against her brother’s knuckles.

God. The God her brother had risen so far away from. The nights she had spent praying to God, praying for him… Would they matter now? Her fingers reached for her cross and fell short, for she had passed the point of redemption. What God would listen to her pleas now?

“My lady, you must rest…” Lief said gently, placing a hand under her elbow to raise her from the ground.

“No,” Isabel protested, flinching away from him.

He hesitated a moment, but looked away as she fixed him with the same withering stare which her sister had practiced to perfection. “As you wish, my lady,” he said, bowing his head and walking backwards out of the room. 

It was a long time before Isabel realised that her throat felt as if it had been cut, that she had been calling her brother’s name for hours, as if she could rouse him from his eternal slumber. And nobody worried. Nobody looked for her. For she was his sister. Best not to test a Devereux.

So she went on. For perhaps her throat would bleed, and she would taste him there in her Devereux blood.

Will, Will, Will. Above and beyond Lord William Devereux, Earl of Elmet, he was hers.

Finally, Isabel lurched to her feet, to stand and gaze upon his prone form. His pretty face was like marble. He was beautiful and dead. Dead. Really dead, now, not just sleeping. Lying there, in perfect stillness. Everything came to a creaking halt. They were frozen in time, painted figures, tiled creations on a mosaic. The quiet pressed in around her. With the illusory weightlessness of a dream, she experienced the scarce warmth fleeing from his flesh. She stared at his face. Had it not been for his stony pallor, he might have been asleep. He looked a boy again. Death had restored him to the innocent beauty of their youth: a tangle of dark curls on his brow and his long, black eyelashes – the envy of all the ladies at Glencaer – resting like poised butterflies on his pale cheeks.

Such innocent beauty. And she had so many memories of the beautiful youth, more than she had of the cruel lord. She was thirteen, he was twenty-one. They walked the forests of Glencaer together, her arm laced through his. “Do you want to be the Earl of Elmet? Do you want to be like father?”

He had scoffed then, leaning down to brush his nose against hers. “I’ll never be like father. And you will never be like mother.”

“Then who will we be like?”

“We don’t need to be like anybody. I don’t want to be. I don’t need anybody at all, except you, of course. We’ll always need each other. We are exactly the same, my little Devereux.”

We are exactly the same. And she looked in her mirror now, locked eyes with her tear-stained reflection. She found him there, perfect and beautiful and laughing. Again she said his name, whispering it over and over, until it was her own. Until she remembered who she was. His sister. A Devereux daughter. A Devereux through and through.  


© Copyright 2019 Jordana J Sacks. All rights reserved.

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