“Light down, light down, my pretty fair maid,
light down, light down,” cried he;
"for six pretty maidens have I drownéd here,
and the seventh will surely be thee.”
Isabel is feeding the bird in its cage by the window when her younger sister Agnes bursts into their shared tower bedroom. "There's a knight here, Isabel," she says delightedly, clinging to the doorframe; Isabel pauses, hand on the latch of the cage, and says, "Yes, well, that's hardly a shock, darling."
Agnes says, "Oh, don't be like that, Isabel," and Isabel smiles at the quite adult exasperation in the little girl's voice. "This one's new, and he can sing, and he's terribly handsome – "
"Oh?" Isabel says drily.
Her stepmother Alais, pink-cheeked and only half-dressed for the feast, ducks into the room behind Agnes. "Go on and get ready, my dear," she says, sending Agnes off with a pat to the shoulder. Agnes sticks her tongue out behind Alais's back as she goes; Isabel smothers her grin.
Conspiratorially, Alais moves close to Isabel, hands flying to finish the last of her braid. She puts her fingers to the bars of the cage to tease the bird and says, "She was telling the truth, though – he is dashing. Scottish, but we won't hold that against him, will we?"
"Won't we?" Isabel asks innocently.
Alais gives a sigh of impatience and goes on: "Your father told me he arrived in the night, after we were all abed." She pauses, licks her lips, and says, "He's just passing through on his way north; but oh, Isabel, he asked after you."
"And how would he even know about me?" Isabel says. She eyes her stepmother with suspicion. "You haven't been plotting, have you, Alais?"
"Not at all, I haven't had the time yet," Alais says. "You haven't any notion of your reputation in the county, do you?"
"Evidently not," Isabel mutters.
"There's not a man in the neighbourhood who wouldn't fling himself at your feet if you only looked at him twice, and you have no notion of it," Alais says wonderingly. She pauses, looks Isabel over, raises one eyebrow, and says wheedlingly, "At any rate, might you put on something nicer, perhaps, than that? For me."
Isabel looks down at the plain frock she's wearing, sighs, and goes over to the chest to find something prettier. "Is he worth it, do you know?" she says, kneeling. "Has he any land to speak of?"
"If that state of his clothes are any indication, I'd say so," Alais says. She touches Isabel's shoulder a little worriedly. "Such a cynic, dear; I thought you'd be happy to hear of someone new. Someone you haven't sent running in terror and shame five times over."
Isabel pats her hand. "We can't all be romantics like you, Mother," she says, digging to find her prettiest green dress. She takes care to hide her face from Alais; this whole business makes her feel terrifically mercenary, but with two younger sisters coming up behind her she cannot linger on her father's good graces for much longer.
And nor does she particularly want to end her days in a nunnery.
"No, perhaps not," Alais says. Isabel finds the dress and tugs it free as Alais says cheerfully, "But do perk up. He's a far sight handsomer than your father, anyway, and at least he has the use of both his legs."
"Alais," Isabel says, scandalised, and Alais laughs.
She hears him before she sees him.
The sound of the lyre being gently plucked stops her short with her hand on the door to the hall; he blows his horn both loud and shrill, as the rose is blown, a voice sweetly sings, and her heart gives a great throb in her chest and she stands there for a moment, giddy and flushed. Her brother Hugh comes up behind her and pushes past her into the hall; "Are you coming, then?" he says over her shoulder, and Isabel, flustered, settles her gown before coming in after him.
She freezes, framed in the doorway, at the sight of the knight. He is even lovelier than his voice would lead her to believe, dark and pale and tall as any of the heroes of Alais's favourite romances. His fine eyes go to her straight away, his gaze blazing like lightning down her spine, and her lips part, just a little, as he lays aside his lyre and hastily stands to greet her.
Oh, she thinks, her heart lost entirely.
"Sir William, my eldest daughter, Lady Isabel," her father says, introducing them with a nod before turning back to his conversation with Geoffrey, his steward. Isabel, cheeks brilliantly hot, smiles and comes forward as William bows before her, elegant and neat.
"An honour, my lady," he says. Her blood sings to hear the roll of his accent; she licks her lips to reply, but no answer comes. He smiles at her, warm and sunny. She dips her head, and when he takes her arm to lead her to the table a thrill goes through her at his touch quite unlike anything she's ever felt before.
She tries again to talk once they are seated together, ducking her head near to his so he can hear her over the noise. "You are from the North, then?" she says.
"Yes, just over the border," William says. "Have you travelled so far before?"
"No, but I hear it's beautiful country," Isabel says wistfully. "We've only ever gone south, to the City." And that only once, a fact which has always rankled in her heart.
"Ah," William says. "It is quite unlike London – and a sight more dangerous, in its own way. The terrain," he adds by way of explanation. "My father's estates are extensive, but they are quite rocky and treacherous."
Alais, sitting beside Isabel's father a little way down the table, gives Isabel a pointed look when he mentions his father's estates. Isabel gives her a look in return and then turns back to William with interest.
"I do so long to see that country," she says, and she means it - but then, horrified, she corrects herself, saying, "rather – I don't long to see your home – though I am certain it is beautiful as well – I only – "
He laughs, not unkindly. "I understand," he says, covering her hand. She does not gasp but she does bite her lip, cheeks flushing again. "And, truth be told, I think you might like the family home. My mother's done a great deal in the past few years to renovate in anticipation of my future wife."
Tongue-tied again, Isabel doesn't answer.
William leans in close and adds, low-voiced, "It is a seductive prospect, is it not?"
Isabel goes stock-still and looks from his lips to his eyes, waiting.
"Travel, I mean," he says. He reaches up, brushing aside a stray curl that has fallen from beneath her veil, his touch lingering on her cheek. "Escape."
"Yes," she breathes, and he smiles again and leans back in his seat.
William has eyes only for her through the whole feast, which Isabel does distantly find a little surprising; Alais, sitting in prominent display at the head of the table, is only three years older than her and still as delicately beautiful as she was on her wedding day, enough to turn the heads of most of her husband's men. But, oh, Isabel doesn't care; and so they sit there together quietly, he offering her the best cuts of food from his trencher, she telling him about the countryside and the people, all of which he seems keenly interested in. She is content to sit there drinking in the sight of him drinking in the sight of her, and she thinks, quite hazily, that were she to be any happier at this moment her heart would surely burst.
She lingers when the feast is done in the small hours of the morning and the crowd is left either snoring at the hearth or trickling off to their rooms. She is at the foot of the stairs to the tower when William dashes up behind her, catches her by the wrist and pulls her into an alcove just out of sight. She blinks up at him, breathlessly aware of his touch on her skin.
"Come away with me," he says.
She stares at him, astonished. "I don't know you," she says, a little laugh hitching her voice.
"Do you love me?" he says.
"I don't - I don't know," she says wretchedly. "This is all new to me - all I know is that when I look at you my head goes dizzy and my heart feels like it's about to leap from my chest; all I know is that when you take my hand I never want you to let it go. What would you call that?"
He grins, relieved. "You do love me."
She, taken aback, says, "Why – yes. Yes, I think I do."
And it's true; she doesn't know how, but she loves him, loves him beyond all reason. He laughs, bright and delighted, and squeezes her hand.
"Well, then, is that not your answer?"
Isabel looks into those dark eyes and is left speechless. William lifts his free hand to touch her chin and says, "Truly, now: is your life here so happy that you would be loath to leave it behind?"
"No-ooo," she says slowly, and she thinks and adds, "But nor is it so miserable that I would wish to hurt my family by abandoning it. Do you see?"
William shakes his head impatiently. "It would not be forever," he insists. "The only reason I'm asking you of this now is to spare us the torture of a long betrothal. You know they'd be pleased to see us married, and I just know that my mother would adore you as her daughter. But - but do you not want to be my wife?"
He lifts the hand he is still holding and presses a kiss to her knuckles, eyes hurt and hopeful. "Oh," she says faintly, and then he turns her wrist over and tenderly kisses the heel of her hand. "Oh," she repeats.
"Come with me," he whispers into the skin of her palm.
She shivers, fingers curling into his, but the word slips past her lips before her mind has a chance to catch up: "Yes," she says.
"Yes?" he repeats.
She giggles; Isabel, who has never giggled in her life. "Yes," she says, surprised at herself but happier than she could ever express, and he kisses her on the cheek, and she goes quite sick with longing.
"Get what you can from your rooms," he whispers, close enough in her ear to make her shiver, "and when the family's asleep, meet me in the courtyard, Isabel."
His voice caresses the syllables of her name like it is something holy and treasured. "Of course," she says. "Of course."
He holds his hands to his heart as she foolishly walks backward up the staircase. How lucky, she thinks dazedly, how lucky I am to have found him.
William is waiting for her just outside, holding the darling white mare Alais is so fond of and her father's finest dapple grey. You did not bring your own horses? she thinks to ask, but then he speaks: "Ready?" he says, settling the last of his saddlebags.
"I am," Isabel says, smiling bravely, breathing in the fresh night air. She is, and she wants this so terribly, but –
The thought goes no further than this for he takes her quite suddenly by the waist and kisses her, on the lips this time, shameless and hot and wet. Isabel sighs into his mouth and wraps her arms around his neck, and his lips curve into a smile under hers and he says, "Let us go, then."
He urges them on at a fast clip, quickly leaving the roads behind for the forest. Isabel is a good rider, but she knows that were she on her own she would never be able to pick her way through the brush so well.
Though that is a curious thing itself, for a Scotsman only passing through this part of the country –
The cold still air is bracing. Isabel, who has spent the night in a hot giddy flush, finds it clears her head remarkably, but every time she attempts to latch onto some thread of logic he looks back at her or takes her hand across the distance between them and she loses it entirely. It's not until they've been riding for hours and the sky is beginning to lighten that he finally slackens their pace and nudges his horse to a stop.
"Are we pausing here?" Isabel asks. They have come out through the woods at last; she wonders, distantly, squinting through the dim light, why the land before them looks so strange, when she realises that they are at the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea.
He has already dismounted and, ignoring her, begins to go through the saddlebags as if in urgent need of some supply. She waits for him to help her down, but he doesn't offer. Confused, she slides to the ground next to him, holding her skirts down to keep them from rucking up around her knees.
"It's not nearly as much as I thought," he says, and then he turns to her abruptly. "Your rings."
Isabel blinks at him, taken aback, busy disentangling her hands from the reins. "My rings, sir?"
He seizes both her hands. She gasps, outraged, and tries to pull away, but he is already forcing the three rings she is wearing down her fingers until her knuckles are raw and scraped. He holds them up in the dim grey-blue halflight, squinting appraisingly; Isabel huddles into herself, cradling her hurting hands to her chest.
"Not worth a great deal," he says, tucking them away into the saddlebags, "but they'll do."
"Sir William?" Isabel says shakily. One of the bags has been left half-open, and a heap of something metallic and bright is winking out at her. "Is that – is that my father's gold?"
"And his jewels, and whatever else I could find of value, yes," he agrees. He steps back and drops his hand to the pommel of his sword, eying her now. "Simply liberating your dowry, my darling, or did you not think of that? Off with those clothes, now if you please; they're far too rich to rot in the ocean, I could turn a neat profit on those."
Her blood turns to ice in her veins and she inhales sharply, eyes wide and terrified. He steps closer.
"What did you think would happen here, girl?" He tilts his head at an unnatural angle. "That we would be married, that we would ride off into oblivion and live happily together forever in my fine castle? A pretty picture, I am sure, but I'm duty-bound to tell you that you're not the first to delude yourself so – "
"You bespelled me," she says.
"Well, yes," he says. The brogue has slipped away from his speech to be replaced by a different accent entirely, one new and strange. "Take that as a comfort or not, as you see fit."
Idiot girl, she thinks, and she chokes on a sob. "How many before me?" she asks through numbed lips.
"Six," he says. He smiles. "You're one of the prettiest, if that's any comfort. The first was quite handsome but for her nose, the fourth lovely but dim; she never saw it coming until the very last second. The last had blue eyes like yours, but she fought me till the end. It did not end so well for her, I'm afraid."
Isabel can picture it; oh, God, she can see it all in her mind's eye in monstrous detail, watches herself joining the girls before her in their watery graves. "You – you are going to kill me?" she says.
"Eventually, yes," he says.
Haughtily, Isabel lifts her chin, willing her teeth not to chatter too badly. "T-turn your back, then, while I undress," she says. There, almost.
The knight steps still closer to her, stripping off his gloves, looking into her face. "Do you not understand what I am going to do you?" he says wonderingly, a small smile playing at his red lips. His hands move to his waist, unbelting his scabbard, eyes still fixed on hers; he leans back and then smiles still wider, teeth white and terrifyingly sharp.
"Oh, I understand, sir," she says, voice ringing clear in the still cold air. This small triumph emboldens her, and she says haughtily, "But you will leave me this one dignity at least, or you are no true knight."
"You make the mistake, my lady," he says with that unearthly grin, "of assuming I am a knight at all, or even, I think, a man." He drops his sword to the frosted, matted grass and then swoops suddenly forward and draws one finger along her jaw, tilting her face up to his. She holds her breath and fights to control the shudder that bolts down her spine; looking up into his shining black eyes, she wonders how she ever thought him human, or beautiful.
No, she knows what he is now.
"Oh, very well," he says finally, dropping his hand, examination of her through. He adds, turning away to face the sea, "Do be quick about it. You're not doing yourself any favours, dragging things out, you know."
She sets to the business slowly, untying her mantle first and leaving it over the crooked arm of a bare low-hanging bough. Next comes her hair: she removes the thin circlet that bands her head and pulls away the light veil that covers her unbound hair. He will want the circlet, she reflects, turning it over in her hands; made of gold and finely wrought, it will fetch him a pretty penny.
"I'm waiting," he says. Still looking out to the sea, framed against the lightening pre-dawn sky, he is stripping himself of his tunic. As she watches him, she can see the flash of a weapon she hadn't seen before, a dagger strapped to his waist.
Isabel ducks her head. Hurriedly, she sheds herself of green surcoat and pink kirtle, folding them neatly atop a nearby boulder. Her hand lingers over the fine heavy fabric of her surcoat, made over from a dress of her mother's; she remembers being just a small girl, watching her mother and her ladies labouring over the delicate embroidery for hours on end, and how when her father took the whole family to court for Christmas that year even the bright and gaudy fur-trimmed gowns of the women of the royal family couldn't match it for beauty, and now it will go with her father's jewels and gold to fill the coffers of this monster along with the stolen dowries of six other murdered girls –
She stands straight, shivering in her thin linen chemise, crossing one arm across her chest.
"Sir," she says.
He turns, rolling up his shirtsleeves now as though setting himself to work. "Is your little farce over with?" he says. "Good, now we can – "
He stops. Isabel is holding the circlet out to him, her gaze demurely focused downwards. "I thought you would want to put this aside with the rest of it," she says, voice small, abandoning the brave façade completely, "before… before you kill me, that is." She lets a little quaver creep into her words; her fingers tremble where they grasp the cool gold of the circlet.
"Very well," he says impatiently, about to step forward to take it – but she tosses it to him like she is playing at hoops with her younger siblings.
He is not expecting it. The circlet sails past him and when it lands, it lands on the rocky edge of the cliff, just teetering over the precipice.
Isabel raises a hand to her lips.
"Oh, heavens," she says, eyes wide. "How clumsy of me."
He glares at her but turns and bends to pick it up and in that instant she is already running, snatching up his scabbard with one hand and pulling the sword free with the other. It is heavy, brute and broad, but in her grasp it feels no more of a burden than a needle or a pen, and her arm doesn't even shake as she strikes forward lightning-fast to hold the blade to his throat.
His black eyes fix on hers. For a moment Isabel hears nothing but the pounding of her heart and the crash of the sea on the rocks below, and then he slowly raises himself to stand, hands spread innocently. The circlet falls from his hands, pinging once, twice, three times off the face of the cliff before it disappears into the water.
It is a long drop.
"Do you think I've never touched a blade in my life?" she says. "Me, my father's only child for nigh on a decade. He loves me, sir, and he taught me to defend myself well."
"Now, wait just a moment, my lady," he says. Isabel can see the smile start to curve his mouth again and before he has a chance to move she darts forward to steal the dagger at his waist with her free hand, dancing back just as quickly out of his reach.
He snarls with inchoate rage, lips pulling back from those sharp, sharp teeth, moving toward her on instinct. Without pause, she levels the dagger at his heart and presses the edge of the blade harder into his neck. He snaps his head back with a hiss as the sword bites merrily into his flesh, instantly splattering the steel with blood that looks nearly black in the rosy light of almost-dawn.
"Don't," she says.
He stops hard enough that a chunk of still-frozen dirt comes loose and slides away down the cliff, following the circlet to the sea in a shower of pebbles and dried mud. He has to dig in his feet to find purchase, blood steadily dripping down his neck all the while, soaking the collar of his shirt in horrible dark spreading maroon.
She watches with grim pleasure as he fights to regain his balance, drawing the sword away to let him speak.
"So," he says at last. "What is your plan here, girl?"
Isabel tilts her head. "I rather thought I would return home," she says, "and then live out the rest of my life in happiness and peace. How like you that?"
"It's a pretty fantasy, if you think you can manage it," he says, all pretense to charm and good humour abandoned entirely, face white and contorted with rage. "And what is to become of me, pray tell?"
"You will make a very handsome bridegroom for the six ladies you've left slain in yon ocean," she says, "and a splendid marriage bed it will make for you, sir."
He lunges for her, teeth bared, and with one short sharp stroke she stabs him in the heart with his own dagger.
He staggers back, astonished. His fingers curl around the dagger where it is buried up to the hilt in his chest. She watches as dark blood wells up between those white sharp teeth and he chokes, trying to speak.
"No," she says, letting her hand fall away from him, "I think you've done quite enough talking for one evening, don't you?"
He is backed up to the very edge of the cliff now. Isabel hefts his sword in both hands now, trying to gauge the balance of it. She remembers the banquet they held when one of her cousins came home from the war, remembers sitting by him at the head table while he teased Alais about the romances and ballads she so loved. All that chopping of limbs and heads, he'd said; your poets clearly have no notion of the strength it takes to do it at all, let alone in one neat stroke, and he had known, poor Edward, hadn't he, his right hand gone at the wrist after the latest campaign.
She has strength enough for this, she thinks, and she shifts her grip on the hilt and draws the sword back for the blow.
"No," he says. "No, please – "
"Goodbye," she says, and then she swings.
She watches what happens next through a faded haze of horror. His head bounces disturbingly, red mouth gaping wide, and then it tumbles away down the cliff. She stares, frozen, holding the sword awkwardly with the point dug into the earth now – she thinks that swing must have wrenched her shoulder half out of its socket – and then she pushes his teetering body after his head into the sea with the flat of her free hand. It falls, bonelessly limp, smacking off the rocks as it goes, and the sound of it as it hits the surface of the water goes straight down her spine, the seventh corpse in this ocean grave. Isabel drops the sword and falls to her knees, shaking and sick. She bows her head and curls her hands into the soil, for she can still feel the rattle of the blade through the palms of her hands as it sliced through sinew and flesh and she knows in her bones that she will never, ever forget the feel of it, the gruesome noise, the sight of that hot spray of blood –
Isabel sobs and presses a fist to her mouth. He is gone, she tells herself over and over, a desperate litany of want and fear; he is gone, he is gone, he is gone.
The sun is warm on the back of her neck when the trembling finally subsides enough for her to sit up and look around. The frost is melting off the grass into a fine wet dew, and beyond the trees, her father's horses are starting to lift their heads restlessly. Isabel rubs her hands down her knees and stands, still a little unsteady; but she walks away and she does not look back over the cliff.
The morning has half-gone by the time Isabel climbs the stairs to her room at home. The family is already up and about, the place empty; she curls up in her seat by the window and wraps her arms around herself.
How strange, to be back as though nothing has happened, nothing has changed.
"You were missed at the table this morning," she hears her stepmother say from behind her. "Agnes wondered where you were."
Isabel turns a little where she sits. Alais is holding baby Mathilde in her arms, a cross of worry etched on her pale brow. Alais smiles, but the concern in her eyes is unabated. "Where were you?"
"I was – restless," Isabel lies, hoping the boys in the stable will corroborate her story as she's bullied them to. "I went for a ride before dawn, that's all."
Alais clears her throat. "Sir William seems to have made an early start of it, as well," she says significantly. "He was gone before the rest of house rose this morning."
"Oh?" Isabel says.
For a moment they are both silent, and then Alais bends to kiss the top of Isabel's head.
"I won't breathe a word to your father," she says. "It wasn't so long ago that I was in your place. I remember how it was. But, Isabel – "
"Never again," Isabel says.
Alais looks at her thoughtfully. "You won't ever tell me what happened, will you?"
"No," Isabel says. "But I promise you it's for the best. We are well rid of him."
Alais's face is stricken. "How wrong was I, to send you after him?" she says. "And you, my dear; are you truly well?"
"Of course," Isabel says. This is not enough, and she adds, "Yes. Yes, I am. Better than I've been for awhile."
Alais pauses and then nods, satisfied enough. Mathilde reaches out and pats Isabel's nose, babbling quietly to herself; Isabel coos and catches her little sister's fat fist and kisses her fingers, not wanting to meet her stepmother's eyes. Her throat aches with the effort of keeping herself from telling Alais what's happened, but she never will, never can – wouldn't know where to start, even if she could.
"Come help us with the tapestry once you've eaten, then, will you?" Alais says, clearing her throat and hitching Mathilde higher on her hip.
The thought of being confined to the ladies' chambers for the entire day, picking over the threads in the poor light, gossiping with the rest of the hens, is absolutely maddening. Abruptly, Isabel says, "No." Alais looks surprised, and Isabel softens her refusal by adding, "I had some time to think when I was - out riding this morning, you see. And I know that I am so very useless here, but - "
"Don't," Alais says sharply. "Don't talk like that, Isabel."
Eyes shining, Isabel smiles painfully. "Thank you," she says. "Anyway, I thought I might go down to see what Alan's planning to do with the gardens now that the weather has turned? If that's all right. And someone should ride out over the grounds to see what damage has been done by the winter – Hugh is too young to understand it properly, and I know Father is in no fit shape to be on a horse right now, and that fool of a steward doesn't know a hedge from Herodotus, so if you don't mind – "
Alais nods. "Very well," she says. "Yes, of course."
"Thank you," Isabel whispers.
Alais cups Isabel's chin briefly; Isabel looks up at her without speaking, and at last Alais nods again and turns to go.
The bird in its cage tilts its head and chirps.
"Hush, you," Isabel whispers, tapping the tips of her fingers along the sunlit bars of the birdcage. It twitters at her; she smiles, and goes down to join her family.