From the Back of A Broken Dream
Summary: What if Isabella's life charted a different course? From befriending Hareton to leaving Heathcliff for good, what if Fate made her take different road, an unseen path nobody could ever imagine and deem possible? [Eventual Heathcliff x Isabella]
Hey there, folks! This is the Druid half of TVATD (The Valkyrie and the Druid) speaking. If you clicked on this, then we didn't scare you away with that radically non-canonical pairing. Yippee for us!
You're probably a little skeptical about that, but don't worry, we can pull it off, and maybe we'll even change your mind about alternate pairings. Hopefully you'll even enjoy the story a little. And so, without further ado, we present the first chapter of From the Back of a Broken Dream.
DISCLAIMER: We do not own Wuthering Heights! We just like to mess with it.
Chapter One: So Cold
Chapter One: So Cold
"One day she will tell you that she has had enough."
-The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus, "Face Down"
It was the cold that did it.
Not the cold outside, no, though the wind and rain had whipped themselves into a gale fit to chill the pits of Hell. That was nothing to her, just a part of everyday life, a physical mirror to the emotional torment that reigned at the Heights.
It was the cold in his eyes, the pitch-black bottomless pits that stared unflinching at her as the back of his hand cracked mercilessly against her cheekbone. Her face burned from the force of the blow, but the power of his gaze sent a knife of ice into her heart.
He didn't care. He never cared. She was nothing more than a tool to him. A specimen. A thing.
Isabella's cornflower-blue eyes burned with tears. She had wandered right into his trap, a willing victim, foolish and naïve. She had pined for him as she had never done for anything or anyone in her life—but he couldn't even repay her with something as passionate as hatred. Even until now, she'd held on for that much, some sign that he felt something, anything for her.
But she looked back into those obsidian eyes and saw only a frigid abyss.
He turned his back on her as though she were a dog, leaving her kneeling on the floor, cradling her cheek. She was so sick of this. Sick and tired of subjecting herself to this demeaning cycle of victimization and self-pity. She wanted it to stop.
Slowly, the murky chill of woe gave way to a burning sensation, one that spread out from her chest to the very tips of her fingers. It scorched away at her depression, searing all the thoughts of her martyred existence until her head throbbed with it. Isabella staggered to her feet, suddenly energized by the blazing presence that had consumed her.
Heathcliff had not yet left the room, and she found herself glaring sharply at his back, letting her righteous fury engulf her. Who was he to treat her like this? More importantly: who was she to tolerate it?
The sound of her own voice almost startled her as much as it did Heathcliff; the dark man whirled around, clearly not expecting such a strong tone from the Linton heiress. When he registered her words, he grew a world-class sneer, looking down his nose at her and her petty defiance. "If you think you can muster the spine, please do. I'll be glad to be rid of your pathetic shade."
"You don't understand," she continued, voice low yet perfectly intelligible, cauterized into clarity by her anger. "I. Am. Leaving." She raised her chin high, meeting Heathcliff's eyes in a way she had never dared before. For a moment she fancied that she saw some spark of intrigue, some brief indication that she had finally done something to merit his attention—but it was gone as soon as it came, and it was too late for him in any case. She was through.
Without saying another word, Isabella quitted the room, leaving her former master behind.
It wasn't until she was in the middle of packing her trunk that she realized how badly her hands were shaking. Her rage had carried her up the stairs and into her room, but the flare of emotion was beginning to wear off, leaving residual dread. She had to move quickly, before he decided that he wanted to keep her at the Heights to continue studying her torment. She shuddered to think what that beast might resort to in order to restrain her from leaving—
It doesn't matter, a part of her said. No matter what he does. You will not be held to this place any longer.
Her pale hands had stilled. She took in a deep breath—one that already seemed to taste and feel of freedom—and shoved more items in her trunk, recharged by that small, precious part of her. Her mind opened into sharp clarity once more as she took inventory of everything she would need on her journey to a destination yet unknown. Clothing, of course, and a few luxuries such as her hairbrush and mirror.
Isabella's eyes wandered to the small table next to her bed, where a crudely carved wooden figure rested. It was supposed to be a dog, though it had no tail and its head could be easily mistaken for a fifth leg. Still, it was invested with all the fumbling care that a child put into his projects. The blonde smiled wryly as she thought of the creator of that little wooden canine and how wary he'd been of her when she first came to Wuthering Heights…
"You stay away from me!" Hareton's little-boy voice squawked. "Master Heathcliff says I mun have nothing to do wit ye!"
Isabella pursed her lips, repressing the urge to just leave the dirty little scamp alone as he commanded. It would serve him right, treating her so foully when she was simply trying to be cordial to him.
Hareton glared up at her, dark brown eyes filled with the spontaneous dislike that children produced so easily: yet there was also a hunted quality, a more calculated wariness that no child should have so young. Already Hareton had learned to watch out for his own skin lest he incur the wrath of the Master. He regarded Isabella as though she were a poisonous snake, as though if he let himself be ensnared by her he would soon suffer the consequences of his disobedience.
He reached down to the ground and picked up an errant stone from the path, holding it in his little fist and threatening to throw it at Isabella. As his sleeve fell down his arm, Isabella was reminded of why she was being nice to him when she saw how thin his wrists were. His skin seemed to stretch tight across his muscle and bone, showing the lines of his anatomy in almost painful relief. It only confirmed her suspicions that Heathcliff hadn't been letting the boy eat.
Softening her expression, Isabella extended the chunk of bread she held towards the little boy. "Here," she said gently. "Mr. Heathcliff's gone out for a walk along the moors, he won't be back until sundown. I'll keep Joseph distracted so you can take this and have it in the stables. It won't be so bad eating there since you're already quite dirty." Isabella bit her lip on her last sentence, instantly regretting letting it slip out. She knew Hareton had inherited the Earnshaws' fierce pride; the last thing she wanted was for it to get in the way of her plan. Of course she didn't bear any particular affection for the boy, but seeing him grow so wasted when he should be hale and strong made her heart constrict.
Hareton's eyebrows furrowed expressively, and for a moment Isabella was certain he would refuse her. But then his eyes lit upon the bread and learned pride was overtaken by instinctual hunger. Quick as a squirrel, he dropped the rock and snatched the bread from her hand, holding it close to his chest so much like the aforementioned rodent that Isabella had to smile slightly. He still looked at her like a hunted animal—but there was a small flicker of gratitude in his eyes as he scurried off to the stables.
Isabella scrubbed vigorously at an appallingly filthy skirt, dunking it into the icy water before going at it again with a lump of lye. The delicate skin of her palms felt chafed and raw, and her forearms seemed to have raised permanent goosebumps. She had held out as long as she could without resorting to this servant's task, but at long last her clothes had become so dirty she couldn't stand the sight of them and had taken matters into her own hands. She'd seen Zillah perform the task of laundry enough times that she felt she could mimic it; she had not foreseen how difficult it would be for her as an aristocrat who'd never done a hard day's work in her life.
The blonde wiped sweat from her brow, feeling disgusted. How did the servants do this? It was a horrible business.
"Lady," said a small voice from behind her.
She turned to see none other than Hareton—who was looking considerably less emaciated these days, thanks to her sneaking him food. The little boy was holding a bundle of a few articles of clothing, probably all the ones that he owned. He looked up at her sheepishly, though he seemed almost frustrated with himself that he'd come to converse with her. "What is it, Hareton?" she asked, trying to keep her irritation with the laundry from showing. Hareton was her one slim chance for an ally in this desolate place, and from the brief time they'd spent together she'd grown almost fond of the boy. He seemed to have a potential in him that was going to waste at the Heights; she wanted to be the one to help bring it out.
"Could you—" Hareton screwed up his little face, an expression that looked nothing but adorable. Words failing to describe his situation, he shoved his dirty laundry at Isabella and looked up at her pleadingly.
She glanced from the rags in the washbasin to the ones in Hareton's arms and sighed. Well, what was a few more, really? They were such small articles that they wouldn't make much of a difference. She was even starting to get the hang of this whole "washing" thing… somewhat.
Carefully, she extracted the laundry from the young boy's arms and placed it into the washbasin. Isabella expected to hear his footsteps pattering away, but to her surprise, Hareton stayed by the basin—on the opposite side from her, but still in her proximity. He gave her a warning glare as though he was daring her to steal his clothing, and then he sat right down on the floor to show that he wasn't going anywhere and would allow her to do no such thing.
Isabella felt a giggle rise in her throat at his behavior. He certainly had intensity, but his behavior could be seen as any young boy's. The importance he placed on trivial things was simply… cute.
As she set back to scouring the laundry with renewed spirit, she realized that this was the first time she'd come close to laughing since coming to Wuthering Heights.
"Yes, good, Hareton. Now what is this one?"
Isabella pointed a slender finger at a letter she'd written on a piece of paper that she kept guarded jealously from Heathcliff and his servants. The boy's dark brows shifted in their expressive manner again as he strained to recall his previous lessons—indeed, to even recognize the letter in the flicker of candlelight.
"That is… 'i'."
"Right again," Isabella said, unable to keep a small note of pride from her voice. She'd been correct in assuming that Hareton was smarter than everyone thought; he'd been advancing rapidly in his lessons, evidence of a keen mind yet unpolished, a diamond in the rough. "Now, can you find the letter 'v' for me?"
Of course, their lessons were hardly formal or consistent. They had to be conducted in utmost secrecy during the night, in hushed voices so that no one could discover their activities. She knew with awful certainty that if Heathcliff discovered she was teaching Hareton to read, he would see to it that they could never spend time alone together at all—and would likely beat either one of them senseless to ensure it.
Needless to say, she was very, very careful not to give herself away through shows of hopeful spirit. Most of the time she didn't have to act; she was perfectly miserable when Heathcliff or Joseph was around, and neither of them truly gave a fig to ask how she was otherwise. Hareton was a small bright spot in the dinginess of the Heights, and she would not let them take that away—for her sake, and for Hareton's.
As he pointed with his small, still-growing finger at the letter 'v', Hareton let loose a wide yawn, remembering to cover his face halfway through. "I'm tired, Miss Isabella," he said quietly. "May I go to sleep?"
"Of course. You've done very well for tonight."
Hareton crawled atop the cot that served as his bed and curled up underneath a tattered blanket; Isabella was about to exit the room when his little-boy voice called her back.
"Miss Isabella," he asked, voice fuzzy with the prequel to sleep, "will you read to me? Just until I fall asleep."
Isabella paused, unsure if staying in his room much longer would alert one of their antagonists. Surely, though, if she kept her voice down, and was stealthy going back to her own chambers, she could go unnoticed.
She settled back into the chair next to Hareton's bed and opened an old book, one that she had kept close to her ever since she discovered it at the Heights. Her voice seemed to pour out of her, gently washing over Hareton as his eyelids flickered, lulling him into sleep.
"When April with his showers sweet with fruit
The drought of March has pierced unto the root
And bathed each vein with liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower…"
Isabella stroked her fingers along the little dog, recalling all of the time and effort she had invested with Hareton. She couldn't leave him to fall under Heathcliff's influence again, not when he'd come so far. Not when they'd grown so close.
She placed the little dog in her trunk and snapped it shut, lugging it out of her room with both hands. She lurched down the hall, forgoing grace in favor of speed. The extra time she had spent in her room could possibly work to her advantage; Heathcliff would assume she had simply run upstairs to sob and wail, and would have gone off to gamble or drink or whatever the hell he did when he wasn't in the house. Still, he could be lurking in some corridor of the manor. It wouldn't hurt to move quickly.
After what seemed like five years, she discovered Hareton sitting on his cot, studying the sheets of letters she had left, his lips moving in silent practice. "Hareton," she breathed, feeling her lungs laboring from her exercise. He glanced over his shoulder, his dark eyes lighting with curiosity at her state.
"I'm going to leave, Hareton," she said more firmly, keeping her gaze locked on his young face. So very young, with still so much to learn. "Will you come with me?"
Hareton considered the weight of her words, sensing that they were more than an insincere claim; his eyes seemed to deepen as he gazed around the room that he had spent most of his life in. She could see him remembering everything he had gone through at the Heights, all the hardship and cruelty… and, occasionally, the moments of hope. When he looked back at her, she saw in his countenance a shadow of the person he would grow up to be: a strong, intelligent man, one too good to remain trapped here.
"Yes. Let's go, Miss Isabella."
Once outside, the wind and rain beat them harshly, whipping Isabella's hair about her face and tangling her cloak. It was as though some malicious druid had called up the elements to drive them back to their place of torment. Still they pressed on; Isabella kept Hareton's hand clutched tight in hers, driving through the storm with all the willpower that she had saved up over the years.
When at last they saw the lights of Thrushcross Grange, the sight of her childhood home helped to spur her forward, her aching muscles feeling as though they could simply snap with every step. "We're almost there," she said, her breathing heavy. Hareton made no verbal response, but he gave her hand a hearty squeeze and she heard his pace accelerate to match hers.
She imagined that the two of them made quite a picture when she saw Nelly's expression upon opening the door; she ushered the dripping wet Hareton inside first, then followed quickly, not missing her own small puddle that she created.
"Forgive me, Ellen," she said, her manners returning as she took in the ambience of her former home. "I need only stay to call a carriage. Hareton and I, we've just run from the Heights—" Her voice faltered as her left leg quaked, and Isabella staggered. The weight of the trunk suddenly felt enormous, unbearable, as though it could pull her arm from its socket. She felt Nelly's strong, stout arms support her, and she saw the nursemaid's face take on an expression of compassion.
"You two set down in the sitting room," she said, biting her lip in worry. "Mr. Linton's asleep upstairs. I'll call a carriage for you and get you both something hot to drink. And some dry clothes as well."
Isabella murmured a "thank you" and drifted into the sitting room with her young charge. They fell upon the couch together, sinking into its plush cushions. Her vision seemed to narrow into a dim tunnel, blurred and dark at the edges; later she could vaguely recall Ellen helping her into a dry dress and gulping down amber tea, but in truth her consciousness didn't return to full clarity until she and Hareton were seated in the carriage, jaunting along the road briskly.
"You mun sleep, Miss Isabella," Hareton said to her from her side. "I'll keep a watch, I will."
Although a corner of her mind protested that she must remain lucid, that she had to stay awake for both their sakes, her body felt that she could trust in Hareton's abilities, and surely it wouldn't do harm to catch just a little bit of sleep…
Just… a little… sweet darkness…
The attack was sudden.
Isabella was wrenched from her unconscious state by the loud report of a rifle and Hareton shaking her fiercely. Her head cleared rapidly and she scrambled upright, hearing men shouting from somewhere outside the carriage. There was another crack of gunfire and her ears rang with the closeness of it. She remained in the carriage, paralyzed by terror, clutching Hareton to her desperately. It couldn't be, he couldn't have found them so soon—!
The barrel of a gun wedged into the window of the carriage, and through it she glimpsed the unwashed face of a truly ugly man, with a squashed nose and eyes that were uneven sizes. "Now then, missus," he said gruffly. "Hand over that trunk of yours and we'll spare you and the boy. If not…" He waved the gun in the direction of the front of the carriage, where the driver sat. "You'll end up like that bloke out there."
Isabella felt herself begin to shake. Though she couldn't see him, she felt that the driver was dead for certain, fear coloring her judgment. She glanced frantically to the other window, but there was another man parked there as well, with a second gun trained upon them. There was no way out, no chance of survival unless they did as the ugly man asked.
Moving slowly, conscious of her trembling limbs and the tears that had begun to wet her cheeks, Isabella reached down and shunted the trunk closer to the ugly man's side of the carriage. When it reached the door, she drew back to her seat quickly, not wanting to get any closer to him than absolutely necessary. Next to her, Hareton was completely still, though she saw a certain steadiness in the set of his jaw. He was frightened, but he had learned not to show it. She wished desperately that she had the little boy's strength.
The ugly man opened the door of the carriage and closed his hand around the handle of the trunk, jerking it from the carriage floor. Isabella remained curled on the seat, quivering like a baby rabbit under a hawk's gaze. It was almost over. Please let it be almost over, she prayed.
The men began to turn away from them and Isabella felt a trickle of relief begin to wash away the horrendous fear—but then an aged, powerful voice echoed from outside.
"What's this, now? Robbing innocent women and children?"
Oh dear Heavenly Father, please… It didn't matter that the voice sounded as though it was coming to their aid; the men had paused and it appeared that their confrontation would be prolonged. Isabella would be fine with them purloining her belongings as long as they left as soon as possible, taking their harsh iron guns with them. Yet the voice continued on, oblivious to her wishes.
"I don't believe I shall stand for this. No, not at all." The voice grew nearer and she discerned that it belonged to an older woman, a voice like old soft leather, wrinkled yet tough. Wonderful. Their savior was to be an old lady.
"Hey, what're you—" THUNK.
Isabella blinked in shock as the business end of a hefty wooden staff smacked the ugly man cleanly between his eyes; he dropped like a stone and a new figure took his place, peering into the carriage. It was indeed an old woman, wearing a shawl of deepest purple with countless bangles and earrings dangling from her person. From what Isabella could see of her hair, it was thick and lustrous despite being almost entirely gray, and her kindly, wrinkled face had a distinctly dusky shade. She smiled briefly at her and Hareton, ebony eyes twinkling, before she pinned the man on the other side of the carriage with a practiced glare. "Now then, sonny, make your move."
The other man gave the old woman a once-over, then glanced at where his partner had fallen and not moved an inch. Seemingly choosing his own skin over that of his comrade's, he muttered and oath and bolted away from the carriage, heading into the hills.
The old woman clucked her tongue as if in disapproval of his behavior and nudged the fallen man with her toe. "They just don't make bandits like they used to. You are unharmed, I hope?"
Isabella nodded quickly, still not quite comprehending what had just happened. Somehow this ancient gypsy woman—and she was undoubtedly a gypsy—had bested two grown men with guns using nothing but a staff and force of personality. "T-Thank you," she finally stammered, terror leaching from her system and being replaced with a kind of wonder.
The woman smiled and nodded in response, then glanced over the two of them: their state of fatigue and disarray, the confused and lost look on their faces. "My name is Anasztasia. You two look like you could use my help."