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Holborn, London, July 1586
Isobel Marston rocked back and forth in agitation, desperate for release from her captivity. Not only was she stuck in this small, stifling room, she was also imprisoned by her mind, forever struggling to remember anything. Each time a memory was in her grasp, it drifted away like thistledown on the wind, and ofttimes, she forgot her own name.
Today was one of the days when she barely felt complete. Her remedy for this was ever the same—to look in her polished steel mirror. She could always find herself in that—gazing into the troubled green eyes that stared back at her from a pale, anxious face. Alas, the mirror gave her no sense of being, but at least it confirmed her existence. Which was better than nothing.
She comforted herself with the words of her cousin, Hubert Pike. “You’ve been ill, Isobel. We’re here to care for you while Edward’s fighting abroad. None can harm you while we’re here to keep you safe.”
Her flawed mind managed to picture Hubert—the hard intelligence in his eyes, the ostentatious high ruff around his neck, and his silken clothing. She remembered the face of his pot-bellied manservant, Flinders, too, and the slovenly housekeeper, Goodwife Avice Quill, who administered her bitter-tasting medicine. It wasn’t every day she could remember them all, for their faces often blurred, and became meaningless.
The mirror trembled in her hand. “I’m not sure they grant me the loving kindness a caring relation should,” she told her reflection. “Take your medicine like a good girl and don’t complain. Your brain sickness will soon pass if you do as you’re told.” She imitated Avice’s insidious whine. One day, when she felt strong enough, she’d dash that foul-tasting stuff in the woman’s face. Nay, she must not. A well-brought-up gentlewoman would never behave thus.
Next, as an exercise for her faulty memory, Isobel concentrated on Flinders. A thickset man who was a stranger to washing, and whose breath smelled like rotten meat, he was her “special protector”. But she was revolted by him and had repeatedly told Hubert she couldn’t stand having him near her. Her cousin always gave the same response—it was a symptom of her illness that she should develop delusions about people. She shouldn’t trust her feelings.
Her head snapped up, and she dropped the mirror on the bed. She could hear an uneven step on the cobbles below—someone was coming. She hurried to peer through the diamond-shaped panes, hoping for a visitor from beyond the walls, but expecting to see only a servant. It wouldn’t be one she recognized, however—they all seemed to be different from those her father had kept when her parents were alive. Mayhap Edward had employed some new ones to manage Marston House in his absence.
How long had her brother been gone, now? It seemed months since he’d last dwelled here. The house had changed in his absence—there were fewer items of quality furniture, not so many decorated jugs and inlaid boxes as there ought to be. Or so she imagined—this brain sickness of hers had attacked her memory and twisted everything, like yarn on a spindle.
Why was she looking out the window? Was it for something important, or was it just to see if it was fine enough to go outside and do some gardening? That was a task Hubert was happy for her to do, working in the walled garden—that, or reading quietly in the tiny chamber which had become her world. Not that she had any books other than her Greek mythology. She’d read it over and over, until the characters came to life in her head, steering her thoughts as the gods had steered Mankind in those ancient days.
There was a bubble of excitement in her chest—why? Ah, yes, she’d heard someone at the front of the house. But if it were a visitor, they wouldn’t be here for her. Hubert had explained he couldn’t allow anybody to disturb her in her fragile state of mind.
But that didn’t mean she couldn’t look, did it?
Cautiously, she tried her door. Not locked! And the chair in the passageway, where Flinders usually sat, was empty. With a brief flash of insight, she realized he must be with the kitchen wench who’d taken his fancy. Nobody knew she noticed such things, but on a good day, she noticed a lot.
Tiptoeing to the gallery above the main entrance into the house, she bent and peered down.
A servant, his broad figure obstructing the doorway, was in a heated discussion with the visitor. The argument lasted but a moment—the new arrival thrust the servant aside and marched in, limping a little. Isobel gasped. She’d never seen anyone shoulder their way in before.
While the stranger stood and looked around him, the harried-looking servant raced to the parlor door and announced the visitor to those within. Sir William Cavendish. That was a grand-sounding title—was Hubert in trouble with the authorities? Isobel snorted. She wouldn’t mind if he were.
Cavendish removed his high-crowned hat and placed it on the carved chest in the entranceway, then—after a moment’s hesitation—unbuckled his sword.
She stared down at him, anticipation stealing her breath. Cavendish was a tall, broad-shouldered man, with a short cloak worn on one shoulder, and tightly-fitting doublet. His upper hose were paned and padded, and his stockings clung to well-muscled calves. Not as finely dressed as she might expect a knight of the realm to be, but perhaps he’d been traveling. Or mayhap she’d forgotten what a peer should look like.
Tawny gold hair framed the kind of face a classical sculptor would have adored, and there was an air of virile decisiveness in Cavendish’s movements. It made her breath catch.
“What a beautiful man—it must be Apollo. No, foolish girl—the gods don’t come to earth any more. It could be a demi-god—Orpheus perhaps. But then, where’s his lyre?”
He was out of view now, but by leaning her head as close to the handrail as possible, she could overhear every word spoken down below.
“Sir, permit me to introduce myself. I’m Sir William Cavendish, a friend of Edward Marston’s. We fought together overseas.”
“Hubert Pike, at your service. Any friend of Edward’s is a friend of mine. Have you journeyed long this day?” The stiffness in Hubert’s tone belied his words of welcome.
“I disembarked yesterday, at cockcrow, and rode directly here.”
“What reason had you for such haste?” Hubert’s voice held disapproval. Isobel pressed her forehead against the carved wooden banister and tried to recall where she’d heard the name “Edward Marston” before.
“I considered my news urgent. I would have arrived ere now but, alas, I had a wound that festered, then bad weather held back my sea crossing.”
She liked the sound of the man’s voice. It had a resonance to it that was strong, commanding. But then, if he was Orpheus, his songs could calm the hearts of savage beasts, so he was bound to have a good voice.
“Sir, I bring ill tidings, I fear.”
“Bad news? Not about poor Edward, I hope.” That name again. Why was her mind so muddled when she tried to remember anything? She knew Edward, surely?
“I regret to inform you of his death. I hope it will soften the blow of his loss to hear that he died nobly and bravely. I was with him to the very end, so I can vouch for everything. His family may be justly proud.”
“Oh, dear! Excuse me. I think, mayhap, a drop of sack to calm my nerves. Sir?” Hubert sounded horrified.
Isobel heard the clink of glass from below. “Oh, my poor darling Isobel. This could be the end of her.”
She froze at the sound of her name. Hubert rarely sounded so concerned about her.
Cavendish asked, “The end of her?”
There was a hard edge to his voice. Perchance he cared no more for Hubert than she did herself. Nay, she should not be so ungrateful. Her cousin was trying to make her better, and he kept away ignorant physicians who didn’t understand such maladies as brain fever.
“Edward and Isobel were very close, you understand. She is greatly changed since he went away, care-worn and worried. With good reason, it appears.”
“You weren’t close to him yourself, sir?”
“Alas, no. Our sires quarreled you see—one of those ridiculous feuds that can take hold in even the best of families. I have endeavored to make amends since their demise, of course. How fortunate that we did, or the girl would have had no one to care for her in her darkest hour. Are you certain Edward is dead? Where did it happen?”
There was a pause before Cavendish answered. “I watched him die—I cannot tell you where. I’ve barely slept the night through since.”
“Cannot, or will not tell me? Edward never did say where he went to make his name as a soldier.”
“My lips are sealed. You must appreciate that youngbloods seeking favor at court are wont to get themselves into mischief—I would not harm his memory by revealing his secrets. But if you don’t trust my veracity, I have here the seal ring he gave into my keeping. And a signed note—it’s in my baggage, and can be fetched if required.”
Had Orpheus been fighting? Perhaps in Greece, or at Troy? Isobel shook her head—this was very confusing
“Where is Isobel? I was charged to give her my news in person.”
She sat bolt upright. Was she going to be allowed into the parlor? That was where her harpsichord was—how she’d missed being allowed to play it!
“As I said—she has not been herself since Edward went away. I fear for her sanity. It is neither meet nor proper that she should come down and receive these tidings in her present state. I shall tell her when I deem ‘tis right.”
No! Hubert was going to deny her. Tears pooled in her eyes.
“You’re welcome to stay the night and recover from your journey. You’ll soon see we have nothing to hide.”
She dashed the tears away. Orpheus was staying the night? There was hope yet she might meet him face-to-face.
“Most hospitable of you, sir, but I must see Mistress Marston. ‘Twas a deathbed promise I made to her brother, and thus cannot be broken.”
Hubert made no answer—he hadn’t expected the stranger to be so persistent, had he? Isobel clenched her fists—it was as much as she could do not to fly down the stairs and tell the stranger how desperate she was for company.
“Mayhap I’ve not made myself clear enough,” Hubert said. “The young lady is barely in her right mind. Her wits have been addled for some time now, and the information you bring could unhinge her completely. I’m sure Edward would not have wished you to take such a risk, had he known.”
She heard a chair scrape back as someone got to their feet. “Perchance I’ve not made myself clear. I wish to see Isobel Marston in the flesh, forthwith.”
“Very well. On your head be it if she falls into a rage or a swoon, and all the goodness we’ve lavished on her these last few weeks is wasted.” Hubert was clearly irritated. “Be warned—you’ll not care for what you see. But be assured we know her mind well enough and will tell you if she’s likely to strike you.”
Yes! Hubert had given in. Isobel scuttled back to her room, closed the door and sat on the bed, heart pounding. Soon, the heavy tread of Flinders’ feet could be heard on the stairs—he’d be angered at being torn away from his kitchen wench. Hopefully, he’d not revenge himself on her.
Moments later, Isobel was ushered into the parlor, Flinders’ thick fingers gripped tightly around her elbow.
Sir William Cavendish spun around, his breath catching as he stared at the woman he’d waited so long to see. He’d been expecting a well-bred, proper young lady, not this wild sprite who looked as if she’d just stepped out of the madhouse. Tall and willowy, Isobel Marston moved with grace, keeping her elfin chin up. But her raven-black hair was unconfined by coif or hat and straggled about her face and shoulders. Disturbing green eyes stared at him intently beneath dark, lustrous lashes. Her flawless skin was pale, with shadows around the eyes and beneath the cheekbones, and she wore a worn skirt and bodice, haphazardly laced and with several of the waist tabs hanging off.
No wealthy young lady, this. More like a guttersnipe. Will could barely keep the astonishment from his face. Astonishment laced with anger.
“Had we expected you, Sir William, we would have made her more presentable. ‘Tis pointless bedecking her in finery on an ordinary day—as you see, she tends to ruin clothes.”
Fie on the fellow for discussing Edward’s sister as if she were less than a person! Will had learned a lot about her, and about his friend’s home, Marston House, during those grim days in the Lowlands. He’d been eager to meet the accomplished young woman whom Edward held in such high esteem.
He stood before her and proffered his hand. She stared at it as if it were some new kind of vegetable, then raised her bewitching green eyes to his.
Master Pike cleared his throat. “My apologies. Since her illness began, she has forgotten her manners. Shake hands with Sir William, Isobel.”
She cowered, then took Will’s hand. And failed to let go.
What thoughts passed behind those beautiful, unfathomable eyes? She had no polite smile for him, no maidenly blush. Mayhap, after all, he should not have insisted on seeing her when she was so clearly not in her right mind. He gently disengaged his hand.
“It’s Orpheus, returned from the underworld.” She sounded like some actor in a Greek tragedy, proclaiming their lines. “Don’t look behind you, or Eurydice will sink back into the depths, and you’ll never see her on the earth again.”
Baffled, Will looked at Pike.
He smiled sympathetically. “Be not alarmed. She rarely speaks two words of sense together. When she’s like this, I doubt she’ll understand the tidings you bring—though you may attempt it if you wish. Sit down, Isobel.” Pike raised his voice when he spoke to her, enunciating every syllable clearly. “Sir William has something to tell you.”
The young woman settled herself obediently onto the high-backed settle, and continued to stare silently at Will. Then she gazed around the room, a slight frown between her brows as if she were looking for something.
“Mistress Marston, let me make myself known to you.” He was determined not to lose face in front of Hubert Pike, nor to fail in his quest. Not when he’d come so far, and been through so much. “I am Sir William Cavendish. I served as a soldier with your brother.”
There was no response. She looked to have forgotten his existence. He approached the settle and crouched before her, ignoring the protest from his injured leg. “You remember your brother, Edward, Isobel? It must be around seven months since last you saw him.”
She focused on him again. Encouraged, he continued, “I regret—I bring you bad tidings. Your brother died during a raid. I got him to the surgeon, did what I could, but his injuries were too severe.”
He paused and swallowed hard. The scene of carnage after that raid at Venlo had never left him. The blood, the sickly color of Edward’s face, the sheer horror of it all. He’d been so shocked by his friend’s wounds that he’d not even noticed his own. Until the surgeon had pointed it out—after which point, he remembered but little.
He cleared his throat. “Before your brother died, he bade me take good care of you.”
A sharply indrawn breath from Pike distracted him. Of course, the man would not welcome any interference in his dealings with Isobel. But Will was bound by a deathbed promise, and too hardened by his recent experiences to give a farthing for Pike’s feelings.
Still no response from Isobel, who continued staring dazedly around her, as if she knew not where she was. Had she any idea of the significance of what he’d just said?
He turned to Pike. “I have Edward’s rapier outside, strapped to my horse. Mayhap that will push the message home. Shall I have my saddlebags brought in at the same time, if your offer of a bed for the night still stands?”
Not that he had any great desire to spend more time in the company of Master Pike and his insane patient, but weariness and pain were starting to take their toll.
The gigantic manservant fetched his belongings, but Will refused to entrust Edward’s sword to him. He’d had a box made to accommodate it, and carried it reverently into the parlor, like a sacred relic. He set the box down in front of Isobel.
She stared at him, avidly. “Sir—what, pray, have you done with my harpsichord?”
“I—” He caught Pike’s attention, but the man just shrugged. “I’ve done nothing. I didn’t come here to speak of musical instruments. Isobel—”
As he looked into her blank but delicate face, his gut twisted. Was he attempting the impossible in making her comprehend her brother’s death? Was he the only one left to mourn Edward’s passing? Pike’s sympathetic expression was unconvincing, and Isobel was trapped in a world of her own—unknowing, unseeing.
Seating himself on the settle beside her, he made a final effort. “Mistress Marston—Isobel—your brother, Edward, is dead. He charged me to give you this, in remembrance of him.”
When she reached for the box, optimism stirred. Until she smiled and exclaimed, “Pandora’s box! I have always wondered what Hope looked like.” She opened the lid.
A tragedy that a woman so clearly out of her wits—and with little in the way of genuine hope—should look to an ancient myth in search of that valuable thing.
Jaw set, Will looked at Pike. “Wherefore does she cite so many classical references?”
Pike shook his head. “There may be reason or connection in what she says, but I have yet to understand it.”
“No!” Will grasped Isobel’s wrist in time to stop her pulling the sharp blade from its scabbard. She seemed startled for a moment, then reached out slowly, and stroked the side of his cheek. He gazed, transfixed, as her face fell. Did she understand what had happened, at last?
“After the Maenads tore him limb from limb, his head floated singing down the river.”
Will recoiled and removed himself to a chair.
“Another classical reference, to Orpheus, I believe.”
“Yes, yes, Master Pike. I know that.” What he didn’t understand was why. Why was she talking in riddles? Why had this lovely woman been reduced to this state, and how? Edward had said nothing of any sickness of the mind. Indeed, he’d portrayed his sister as a handsome, lively, witty and accomplished young woman.
Will had seen too much illness during the Earl of Leicester’s disastrous campaigns in the Lowlands to fear it. He was fascinated by Isobel, while at the same time, consumed with pity. Did anything of the woman Edward had described remain behind those tortured green eyes?
Suddenly her head shot up, her face even whiter than before. “Oh, oh, help me, I beg you!” Her entire body shook with a sudden burst of tears.
He was by her in an instant—had his message about Edward’s death finally penetrated her clouded mind? The urge to take her in his arms was powerful, and deep compassion clutched at his heart. Only—he must remember he had an audience.
“Flinders, fetch Avice. It’s time for Isobel’s medicine. Apologies, Sir William—this is never pretty to witness. But needs must—hysteria will ensue if we fail to calm her this instant.”
An unpleasant scene then followed, in which Isobel’s arms were pinned behind her by Flinders while the woman, Avice, poured some dark, sticky-looking nostrum down her throat. Isobel coughed and choked, then fought with her captor before she was eventually subdued and carried from the room.
Will folded his arms across his chest and raised an eyebrow at Pike, but said nothing. How fortunate he’d agreed to stay the night. The loyalty he owed his friend now belonged to Isobel.
And it looked as if she was damned well going to need it.
Once upstairs, the noisome Flinders shoved Isobel into her room. Then Avice’s rough hands took over, tugging at her laces, wrenching off her shift, petticoat, and shoes. Shivering, miserable and confused, she was forced into her nightgown and made to lie down.
No sooner had Avice left the room, than Isobel threw off the covers and ran over to wrestle with the door. There was a reason she mustn’t be shut away, something she needed to tell someone. But whom? And why could she not remember what it was so imperative she say?
Relief came when the door opened, but it was Flinders who stood there, not Avice.
She quailed, and backed away. His blotchy face was twisted by an evil leer. He terrified her so, she should scream—but she’d tried that before, and no one ever came.
“I’ll brook no trouble from you tonight, girl.” His voice was a growl.
She couldn’t help herself. “But something terrible has happened. I must go… somewhere, do something.” The tears were back, but the fight within her was ebbing away.
“Get back into your bed, wench.” Flinders took an ominous step closer.
“Don’t you come any nearer. Don’t dare lay a finger on me.” She fought the drowsiness in her limbs and her head.
“Shut your noise.” Flinders dealt her an open-handed slap across the cheek. As she wilted, sobbing loudly now, he picked her up and threw her onto the mattress. Terrified, she readied herself for battle, but he didn’t touch her again, only tucked the covers so tightly around her that her arms were trapped by her sides.
Coffins. Her mind was filled with images of corpses bundled in their winding-sheets, trapped in coffins as she now was in her bed.
Fury lashed at her. She spat curses as Flinders left and locked the door behind him, wishing she could free her hands and throw something. But gradually—as it always did—the medicine took hold of her mind, soothed her pain and lulled her into peaceful oblivion.
Only—she wasn’t quite asleep. Or if she was, she had a wonderful dream.
Orpheus came. He brought a lamp and held it aloft, gazing at her. She wanted to tell him to go away, not to look at her when she was like this. Her tangled hair was spread across the pillow, as they hadn’t bothered to tie her coif over it. Her eyes stung from her tears and must be rimmed with red, and the pain in her cheek portended a bruise. He shouldn’t look at her so intently, so softly, when she was at such a disadvantage, but even though her lips moved to chastise him, no words emerged.
He leaned in close, the dream so real, she could feel his breath on her face. Was he going to kiss her? Had she somehow turned into Eurydice? Seldom did her soporific medicine give her so glorious a dream.
He eased away without touching her, and said, “I could almost believe myself bewitched. Or enchanted—I know not. I care not. I swear on my life, I will do what I can to ease your suffering.”
Her heart was full. This glimpse of happiness was no more than a cruel torment. She would awaken in the morning, and all would be as it was before—her room empty of all her things but her precious book of Greek and Roman myths, her blurry mirror, and her comb.
And her memory of the night Orpheus came to earth to visit her. If only there were some way to keep that memory alive. Because some oracular inner sense told her he was going to be incredibly important to her.