Foxwood Hall, Yorkshire, 15th December 1537
Conor swung his booted feet to the ground, his elbows coming to rest on his knees, his head in his hands. "From that moment forwards, we were inseparable. We would talk to each other about anything and everything, never growing bored of each other's company. It didn't matter that she was two years older than me. Age was irrelevant; our bond went deeper than that. I had saved Eva's life, and in return she had saved mine, just by being there. She had seen me at my lowest ebb, and because of that I could share anything with her, without fear or embarrassment, because if she could handle seeing me at my worst, then nothing was going to scare her away."
He did not seem as fierce now, or as imposing. He appeared vulnerable, pained, as if the telling has sapped him of his strength and vitality, eaten away at the rage that had glittered in his black eyes. But he was frightening still, like an injured bear whose wounds weakened it, angered it, rendered it terrifyingly unpredictable.
"What was she like?" Thomas whispered, awed by the woman whose mere memory seemed almost to have brought the beast to his knees. Surely, she could not have been lovelier than Isabel. Isabel, whose own memory had brought Thomas to his knees in this very room, the pain of her absence tearing a hole in his gut, flooring him.
Isabel lashed out, quick as a snake, to take Conor's wrist. "You must forget her, Conor. She is gone. No good can come of remembering those whose company immortality will forever deprive you of."
He snatched his black-gloved hand from hers, a glower etched across his face as he defied her. "Eva was the most enchanting person I have ever known: high-spirited, funny and beautiful. I could look at her face all day long without growing bored. We didn't have to talk; even when our conversation ceased the silence was companionable. She fixed me."
"What happened to her?" Even as he asked, Thomas' stomach tightened, bile rising in his throat. He did not want to know what fate befell those who loved the beautiful monsters before him, and yet he had to. With the macabre curiosity of one who is informed of a death, but must see the body to believe such a horror, he had to know what had happened to one who had once been beloved of the otherworldly creature whose face crumbled at the memory of her.
Conor's expression grew cold. He moved to the window, running his gloved hand across the dusty counterpane, his ring glittering in the firelight. "For a few golden years we were happy together, content in each other's company. And then she left me too, as they all do in the end. No-one is around forever, Thomas." He looked pointedly at Isabel as he said it.
"What?" Thomas didn't follow. There was no word of death or destruction. Conor spoke as if she had been allowed to simply walk away. "But why did she leave you?"
His shoulders dipped. "The old man died. It was strange, for the times, that he had kept his daughters around as long as he did, but he loved them in a way that nobles weren't supposed to love their children. Her witch of a mother and Hervey couldn't wait to marry her off to the highest bidder. But she loved the bastard as soon as she set eyes on him, though he would bring her nothing but heart-ache. His name was Richard de Somery, and he was a powerful Marcher Lord. She packed her bags and left without a backwards glance, and I was on my own again, left at the mercy of her awful brother. "
"And that's how you ended up at Glencaer?"
Isabel picked up where he had left off, reminding Thomas, with a pang of jealousy, that this was their story, not just Conor's. She sidled up behind the dark-haired monster, running her hands over his shoulders, so that he must turn to look at her, give her his full attention. "I believe that every moment is commandeered for some purpose. Everything that happens in life, however small, triggers a chain of events. If we could rewind time, changing the smallest detail could alter the whole course of history."
Conor stood up suddenly, unable to stand the building pressure. He paced the floor as he spoke. "If that boy hadn't been walking down the aisle when I was, would I have hit him? If it never happened I wouldn't have admitted everything to Dara, and Dara would never have confronted Jarin. Do you see?" His eyes beseeched Thomas to understand.
Thomas was lost in their obsidian depths. It was hard to concentrate on what he was saying when Conor's face was so beautiful. He was unnaturally still as he gazed into Thomas' eyes. He could have been carved from marble.
"The smallest incident can catalyse the most momentous events." Conor's expression was desperate as he tried to instil the gravity of what he was saying to him.
Isabel walked across to him, pressed her body against his. Her hand stroked his pale cheek in a brief gesture of tenderness. She smiled sadly, and raised her wine glass to his lips. He took a long, slow gulp as she watched, and when she gently lowered it, it was to replace the brim of the cup with her lips. She was softer with him now, almost pitying. "If fate had dealt me a different hand that night, my prize would have been death. If I had never known you, if our destinies had never entwined, I would have been laid to rest a long time ago. And maybe I would have been happy," she murmured.
Conor looked away, past Isabel, to Thomas. "But you can't turn back time. No matter how much you might want to. Regret is futile; it doesn't change anything. Whatever you decide tonight, you will die. But what happens afterwards is down to you."
Isabel glided across to him, took his fingers, stroked his face with a maternal sort of affection. She was a creature of light still, he thought, even as death spilled from her lips, and her confessions coated her hands in blood.
She wrapped her arms around his neck then, brought him close to bury his face in her throat as she murmured in his ear. "You have to understand the magnitude of what we're proposing. This is the source; whatever you choose will alter the course of your life, which is why you need to know the whole story, and you can't know the whole story until you know our stories."