The Damned

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

Chapter 35 (v.1)

Submitted: July 01, 2013

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Submitted: July 01, 2013

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35

 

Glencaer, Welsh Marches, Shropshire, 27th March 1228

 

Strega’s skin twitched as another fly landed on her neck, her tail swishing irritably. Isabel swatted it away absent-mindedly. The mare’s coat was hot beneath her fingers, like satin warmed by the sun.

The young stallion Conor rode sidled towards them. He allowed the movement, using the horse’s own momentum to bring him up beside Isabel. A twig snapped beneath the weight of his hooves, and she flinched as the sound intruded on her thoughts. “I’m glad that you’re here, Issy,” he said sincerely. “It’s been so long since we’ve been alone together.”

She had been enjoying the silence, and her reply was more waspish than intended. “It’s Lady Linota you must thank. She thought that I looked pale and could do with the fresh air. I had little choice, for I could hardly say no when I’ve always been so eager to ride out in the past, could I?”

She was learning. When she was younger, when Ayleth still had charge of her, she could never grasp why she should always seem to do as she was told. Then she learned. When people trusted you, they watched you less. Isabel could act the pious lady to perfection. She may indulge in a little flirtation, but she was chaste and unresponsive to the men’s advances. Nobody knew about Conor. Nobody else saw the wild woman who rode the moors as if the devil were at her back, her long red hair flying behind her, wimple discarded.

“I shall have to remember to thank her,” he said tightly, his lips compressed.

“Don’t be ridiculous, Conor,” she reprimanded him, feeling the need to remind him of his position. “Were you to speak one word to her, Tristan would have you flogged to within an inch of your life.”

“What’s wrong with you?” he seethed.

 “I don’t like to feel obliged to be somewhere that I don’t want to be,” she said cruelly. Liar, whispered a voice in her head. You don’t want to be anywhere except beside him.

There was a moment’s hesitation, a second in which she glimpsed the pain in his eyes. And as much as she wanted him to feel nothing for her, something within her stirred at the heart he would place before her feet. Anger followed on its heels, flaring in his gaze. “You’re impossible,” he snapped, wheeling the stallion in a tight circle. The horse rolled its eyes, ears back, dancing uneasily as it felt the touch of his tightly clenched fists on the reins.

“Wait,” she said, pitying him, not wanting to be apart from him.  Her voice had been too sharp, so she painted a sweet smile onto her face. “If I have to be here, then I would rather it were with you than by myself.”

He shrugged, nodded, turned the horse back to her. “How could anyone resist such an invitation?” he said sarcastically.

“Resist me, then,” she invited, letting him draw closer, allowing him to place his hand on her cheek.

He sighed. “Why bother? I am young. I have time to waste on cruel women.”

Oh, Conor, if only you saw the truth of your words, she thought. If only you realised that time spent with me is wasted, for I can never love you, never give you the gifts your eyes beg me to bestow, the gifts of touch, longing, affection. “If you would choose to squander your time, then you will find none crueller,” she warned him, pulling away from his touch.

He laughed quietly. “And you, Isabel? Is the time you spend with me wasted?”

It is treasured, she wanted to reassure him. But she only sighed, forcing her eyes from his lovely face. “I have no better use for it.”

He didn’t bother to disguise his disappointment, the exasperated sigh as she pushed Strega ahead of him. “Then I must try harder.”

Her laughter was harsh, and a lesser man might have flinched. But Conor was used to her cruelty, her tongue stabbing his core, demeaning him, belittling him. “You will never be enough for me. I am a Devereux.”

He drew back a little. When he spoke, his voice was apprehensive, almost reticent. “I want to show you something, Issy.”

She turned to him, her curiosity aroused, one eyebrow raised in question. “What?”

“Putting it into words would not do it justice. You will see soon enough,” he said, pushing the stallion into a canter.

They rode on until they reached a small meadow, bordered on one side by the lake. There they stopped to rest the horses and shelter in the cool of the trees.  Isabel dismounted to stretch her aching legs, wrapping Strega’s reins around a branch. “I’m going to the bridge,” she told Conor.

“The bridge?”

She pointed deeper into the forest, to a place where she knew a small stone structure nestled between two towering oaks, spanning one of the small tributaries which flowed through the forest. “In the trees, where the stream feeds into the lake.”

“Shall I come?” he said tentatively.

“If you wish,” she shrugged. It was a place which belonged to her brother and her childhood, a place so intimate that allowing Conor to see it would be akin to letting him glimpse inside her heart. But she couldn’t tell him so.

“I could stay with the horses if you would prefer.”

She smiled slightly, and held her hand out to him, the gesture expressing the sentiments she couldn’t. His fingers twined around hers, binding them together. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. Her shoulders, for the first time in so many months, felt light, as though his presence and the freedom of the forest had combined to create an elixir to soothe her soul.

Something sparked in his eyes; surprise, perhaps, at the sweetness of the sentiment. His lips brushed against her hair affectionately. “You need never apologise to me, Issy. Spending time with you is recompense enough for any tongue lashing.”

She was warmed by his forgiveness, but made awkward by his kiss. His eyes looked at her as if he wanted to devour her. She forced a smile onto her lips as she freed herself from his embrace, but didn’t dare to meet his gaze. Instead, she turned and walked towards the bridge, pulling him in her wake. “When I was younger, Will would bring me down to the lake, to the bridge. It’s a magical bridge, you know,” she said with arch seriousness, trying to divert his stare from her face to the tumbled stone.

“A magical bridge?” He raised an eyebrow questioningly, a gentle smile playing on his lips. His gaze was brotherly now, indulgent, his eyes playful, not insistent.

“You’ll understand when you see it,” she promised. “The fairies live on the other side of the bridge in a land called Elfhame. If you cross you can never come back. Elfhame is a different world, a world away from here, where the men are not soldiers but poets, and a queen rules in place of a king.”

“It is the world as you both wished it could be.”

“It is.”

“Did you ever enter Elfhame?”

“We would walk to the end of the bridge, but we never set foot on the other side. We couldn’t, for then there would have been no turning back. We would have had to leave everything behind.”

His gaze flashed sharply. “Could you? Leave everything behind, I mean.”

They turned a corner and she was saved from answering. The bridge stood before them, shrouded in mysticism. Sunlight spilled through the trees, dappling the stones. They were green and thick with moss, and she imagined 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.

She stepped onto the bridge, the moss springy beneath her feet. “Come on.”

“Are we to cross to Elfhame?”

“We can never go there. The other side is forbidden territory.”

“You’ve truly never been to the other side? Don’t you want to see?” he enticed.

But the other side frightened her, in the same way that he frightened her. Its allure was too brilliant. “Elfhame exists only in dreams. The other side would only be the other side. If we were to cross, it would shatter the magic. It would be gone forever,” she tried to explain. “Here…” she murmured, handing him a petal. “You must close your eyes and make a wish and then give it to the river.”

“Why?”

“So that you are forced to admit all of the things that you want, to consciously dwell on them. You must recognise your deepest desires and then consign them to a watery grave.”

He looked at her strangely, his eyes fevered, and gently raised his hand to her face, his fingers warm against her cheek. “I recognise my deepest desires.”

She laughed, took a step away from him.  Her foot smoothed the grass. “Forgive me, for I speak of a game for adults. But today we are children again. Today, our wishes will be granted because the river shall take them to Elfhame and the ears of the fairies. But Elfhame doesn’t exist, and so we fate those wishes to live forever in a realm where they can never be realised. It is safer that they remain there. Do you understand, Conor?”

He laughed bitterly, shaking his head. “Of course I understand.”

She wanted to reach out to him, but she turned away, and tossed the petal over the side, too frightened to even consider what she would truly wish for if anything were possible. As it fluttered down to the rushing river below, she hurried to the other side to witness its re-emergence.

Conor appeared beside her as it disappeared around a bend. “What did you wish for?”

I didn’t wish for you. I daren’t. She smiled sadly and reached for his hand.

In that moment, the clasp of her bracelet, weak with wear, relinquished its hold on her pale wrist and dropped into the water below. She felt the loss of weight, but could only watch helplessly as it fell. It was a beautiful expensive piece fastened with a golden clasp, with sapphires dangling from strands of interwoven gold. But Isabel cared little for its material value, and far more for its sentimental worth. It had been her father’s last gift to her. A feeling of loss punched into her as she lost all that she had left of him. The bracelet glimmered dully as it slowly sank beneath the water.

She gasped, ran back across the length of the bridge and fought her way through the brambles and wildflowers until she stood at the river’s edge. She sank to the ground, and began to hastily remove her riding boots.

Conor had followed behind, and he knelt on the ground beside her, his arm around her shoulders. “What is it?” he asked, bewildered, his face tender, concerned.

“My bracelet,” she said. “It slipped from my wrist…” She began to remove her other boot. “My father…”

“Did you see where it went?”

“Right out in the middle,” she half sobbed. She slid down the slight embankment, the ground slippery beneath her bare feet, the hem of her skirt becoming wet with mud.

“Wait,” Conor called, pulling his tunic over his head, tossing it onto the river bank and pulling off his boots.

“I have to find it.”

“You can’t go in the river, Issy. Not fully clothed. How will you explain it when you return dripping wet?”

“I’ll tell them the truth.”

“Which version will you choose? The one where you went riding in the woods alone, or the one where you took a chaperone, but he insisted that you go in to the river and retrieve the bracelet yourself?”

She glared at him. “I have to find it.”

“Let me find it for you,” he offered, indicating his bare feet.

She nodded, lifted her skirts, and ran back to the bridge so that she could locate the place where it had fallen and guide Conor to it. Her heart thundered in her ears. Every ounce of reason told her that retrieving it would be impossible, but he had told her that he would find it, and he had never failed her before.

Time and again, Conor rose and dived as she searched the water, but just when she had resigned herself to its loss, his dark head broke the surface beside his fist, and in his hand the sapphires gleamed.

She ran to the bank to meet him, throwing her arms around him before he had even stepped out of the water. A triumphant smile sat easily on his handsome face as he returned her embrace. “I told you that I’d find it,” he crowed.

When she pulled away from him, her dress bore the imprint of his body, and it seemed to her a statement of her guilt. She had enjoyed his touch too much, she knew. But as he stood before her, dripping wet, clutching her bracelet in his large hand, she was suddenly and overwhelmingly conscious of his strong, masculine physicality. She could not avert her eyes from the water which beaded like sweat on his skin, the muscles in his bare arms, or the dark eyes which seemed so effortlessly to draw her gaze. She should not – could not­ – feel those things, not for him. But she wanted nothing more than for him to pull her against him again, and hold her as tightly as the bracelet which glinted between his clenched fingers.

Yet he only smiled proudly at her, and gently deposited the bracelet in her hand. She took it gratefully and awkwardly turned away as he bent to retrieve his clothes, as if not looking would erase the memory of his bare chest. Yet she knew that a seed had been sown, had taken root somewhere deep inside of her.

*

His hair was still wet, despite the heat of the summer’s day, and he could feel the irritating trickle of water down the back of his neck.  His shirt clung to his damp skin uncomfortably. Conor twisted his shoulders, trying to shrug off its cloying touch, but only succeeded in sticking it to more of his flesh.

Isabel rode beside him, seemingly oblivious to his discomfort, her gaze fixed on something only she could see. She was eternally oblivious to him. But for a moment, when she had hugged him, he thought that he had seen something more than her usual disdain, something rarely glimpsed. He loved her, his cruel, tempestuous, beautiful best friend, but she seemed determined to feel nothing for him in return. Yet he had seen that look before, if only for a moment - the conscious, even cunning, look in the corner of her eye. To the naked gaze, she was always as outwardly calm as a marble Madonna, untouched by emotion, but he knew that there was a woman inside of her screaming for escape.

He had known that woman once, when she had been nothing more than a child. He had loved her as his best friend. But where once a kind, sweet, enchanting girl had been, he saw only a sad, melancholy young woman. He had loved the girl for the longest time, and later he had loved the woman she promised to become, but she had fled, had been driven out by a cruel, unfeeling siren. Sometimes she returned, for a minute, or an hour. One day she would come back for him, he knew. She was too good and strong to be lost forever.

But whilst she was gone he missed her. He waited for his Isabel to return, forcing his company on the siren who had taken her form, even as her tongue flickered, serpent-like, to sting him with its venom, for when a soul fell in love, there was nothing else but the yearning to be close. Love was the presence that was felt through a hand held, a voice heard, a smile seen. His soul could not accept the futility of loving her. His heart only knew that it felt right to be with her. That was the reason that he missed her so much; even if naught but a heart grown hard separated them, his soul only felt her absence.

The silence between them threatened to stretch forever, no longer easy as it had once been. “Do you know what the men call you?” he asked her, hungry to draw her back to him.

Her eyes flashed, angry that he was forcing her to converse, but she maintained her composure, her voice civil. “What do the men call me?” She didn’t care, he could tell. Her tone was disinterested. She would have preferred to retreat back into the relative safety of her mind than engage with him.

“The Wild Rose, because you are beautiful, and feral, and no one can tame you.” She was as lovely as the most perfect bloom, with all the sting of the cruellest thorns. And yet she was above reproach, a perfect contradiction of recklessness and poise, as complex and dangerous as a she-wolf.

Isabel’s face grew sad. She bit her lip, her gaze fixed on slender fingers heavy with rings. “That’s not why they named me so,” she said quietly. “Will used to call me his wild rose, for the wild roses grew by the river. We used to escape to the border of Elfhame and walk among them, and each time he would pick me a single bloom. He said that with each gift of the rose, my hair would absorb the red of the petals, my face the beauty, and my tongue the thorns. The men heard his words a thousand times, but a thousand times they misunderstood them.”

“I understand, my wild rose,” he murmured, reaching for her hand. She allowed her fingers to curl around his, but she remained silent and brooding, detached from him.

“You miss him terribly, don’t you?” he said, envying her brother the love Isabel felt for him. He half-believed that her unworthy sibling was the only man she would ever allow herself to love, even though William Devereux happily imperilled her by betrothing her to his monstrous master.

“Every day,” she answered. And for him, there was none of her charm, only flat honesty. She allowed him to see her sadness as she never allowed anyone else to. “What of you? Do you miss your family?”

“I can’t let myself.”

“Why not?”

“Because they are not worthy of my sadness.”

She shook her head pityingly, her jewelled earrings trembling. “Oh, my sweet, you do not have to lie to me. I like you honest. We both know that your family doesn’t need to be worthy. They are your family. That is reason enough to miss them. And you do miss them; I can see it in your eyes.”

Sometimes he did miss her, the mother who had sold him to the highest bidder. He wouldn’t let himself forget what she had done, but sometimes he remembered the way he had felt when she held him in her arms, the way she had kissed him, the way she had loved him , and it was harder to hate her. “Blood does not excuse what they did to me.”

“No, it doesn’t. But it makes you love them, even as you despise them.” And he knew that she spoke of her own family. Her beautiful, terrible family, so consumed by ambition that they had forgotten how to love one another. They were said to be the most handsome family in England. He had seen them before: the father, the brother, the sister. Each exquisitely dressed. Each exquisitely lovely. And Isabel, as beautiful as the rest. Her face was sharper and more elegant now, as age had worn her prettiness away to true beauty. They dressed her like an empress, weighed her down with so many jewels that she became a treasure herself, a prize to entice her betrothed to desire. They had taught her their charming insincere smile, and unleashed it to devastating effect. She was, as she has always been, quite irresistible, but now everybody saw it.

“Do you despise them all, even your sweet Lord William?”

Her mouth tightened. “I love my brother, and he loves me, more than anybody else ever will,” she said vehemently.

“More than your husband will?” he said cruelly.

There was neither anger nor malice in her reply, as though she understood his need to lash out, as though she allowed his unhappiness in place of her own. Isabel would fight with him until she won, but it seemed that she had no stomach to fight against her brother’s wishes. She could only acquiesce. “More than anybody will,” she reiterated.

But he looked at her and he thought: nobody will ever love you as much as I do. He was going to be the person who loved her most for her entire life. He didn’t believe that other people were capable of loving like him, for it was utter, reckless madness. There could be no calculation in such a state; no cunning; no manipulation. The people around him were skilled in such arts, but love drove a sword through the heart of such talents. It opened a man up, left him utterly vulnerable. He would never open up to anyone as he had opened up for her. He would never let anyone in as he had let her in. He had not chosen to act so – it had simply happened. Her presence was like a surgeon’s scalpel, cutting through his flesh and revealing his soul to her.

 “We’re here,” he informed her, reining Balios to a stop. A pile of tumbled stones lay to his right, marking his gift to her.

“Where is here?” Her nose wrinkled in distaste, disappointment etched on her lovely features.

He swung himself to the ground, and tethered Balios to a nearby branch. “I’ll show you.”

The course of the ancient walls was still visible beneath a latticework of brambles, weeds and wild roses, but the stones which had once stood so tall and proud lay scattered in the undergrowth, as if the hand of an ancient god had sent them crashing from their lofty height. He slowly traced their path, smiling as he heard her swing down from Strega, her footsteps echoing his.

Part of the Roman ruin still stood, and it rose up out of the forest as he drew nearer. He heard Isabel stop behind him, a soft note of surprise escaping from her lips. “Where are we?”

“A forgotten place. It had a name once, I am sure, but I couldn’t tell you what it was.” He led her through the rubble to an arched entrance, half-obscured by a flowering current heavy with blooms. He pushed it aside for her, its heady fragrance perfuming the air.

The inside of the building was dappled with sunlight, the roof replaced in parts by a latticework of branches. Moss grew thickly in clefts between the stones, and trees sprouted from the foundations. Fragments of clay tiles lay on the ground like terracotta tears. Two sides of the villa had been replaced by piles of collapsed boulders. Where once beauty had resided, there was only decay and ruin.

But two sides still stood, facing them across the courtyard. They clambered across mounds of fallen stones, covered over by moss, until they gazed upon a remnant of Roman might and power and elegance. Slender columns rose above them, some of them snapped off like broken spears. Blackberry bushes twined around the pillars, daring anyone to touch, as if the forest wanted to protect what remained of a monument it had once sought to destroy.

“Let me show you something,” he entreated, reaching for her hand.

She took it in silence, and allowed him to lead her along a dim corridor and into an adjoining room. Half of the roof was gone, and sunlight penetrated the thickly woven branches overhead, flooding the space with light.

“Look at the wall,” he instructed.

She moved forwards as though she were in a trance, her fingers seeking to touch and make material the image before her. A perfectly illustrated couple stared back, their eternal forms rendered in thousands of tiny pieces of coloured clay. The mosaic was perfect, untouched, a startling reminder of the grandeur which had once existed. The lover’s embraced, ageless, timelessly beautiful, the woman’s naked form graceful, cloaked only by a mane of red hair. Her eternal companion was tall and muscular, black curls falling to his shoulders. They clung to one another, inseparable, the woman’s delicate fingers caressing his cheek.

“It is you and I,” she said softly. She laughed, and there was a harsh, raw sound to it, like the tang of torn flesh. “If you and I were not a stable boy and an earl’s daughter.” Her voice dripped with scorn.

“We do not have to be a stable boy and an earl’s daughter here. Here, together, this can be the Palace of Elfhame,” he entreated, his hand on her arm, attempting comfort. He wanted to create a castle for his lost love to reign over, a place where the girl ruled, and the siren could not enter. A place free of pretence.

She flinched at his touch, delicately shrugging him away. “No, this place belongs to them.”

“It did, once, but this can be our place now.”

“Is this all that you can offer me, my love? This place is naught but a monument to death and ruin. Don’t you see? Being here makes me want to weep. There was laughter here. There were gardens bright with flowers and rooms filled with people, but they are all dead. The ground sang as lovers’ footsteps played their tune, and beneath this broken roof Venus and Mars sealed their love with a kiss. But now they are dead too.” She turned to leave, the jaggedness which had edged her voice tempered by the porcelain smoothness of her movements, as though she had never felt anything at all.

He snatched her hand as she tried to escape from him, pulling her towards him. “If I had the means, I would clothe you in purple damask, and make you my lady love. I would give everything to have a title to share with you.”

Isabel smiled, her mouth growing pleasant, no longer cruel, the sweetest sadness in her eyes. Once she had possessed the smiling charm of her brother, but she had lost it long ago, so that now, even when her lips curved, there was no happiness in her eyes. Her thumb brushed across his lower lip. “You were not made to be lord of a stone castle, my prince, nor to have a lady wife.”

“Prince?”

She slid behind him, her head resting against his back, her arms around his waist. She raised herself on tiptoe, her lips against his neck as she whispered in his ear. Her voice was red velvet, rich and sensuous, shivering across his skin. “You are a prince of the woods and the wild places. Clothe me in a gown of golden leaves, and tie my hair with grass. I will be your lady of the forest, for I think we should be happier that way.”

He turned around, took her chin in his hand, her skin like a warm pearl beneath his fingertips. “No, you were born to be a lady. If you were my lady I would dress you in the most exquisite satin and the most expensive cloth-of-gold. You would wear my jewels and hold my hand and sit beside me at every feast. We would live in a castle filled with our sons and daughters, and I would never love anyone but you.” The dream was sweet venom on his tongue, a poison which promised destruction. A heartbeat would close the gap between them, if only he could take it.

She turned her head, breaking his grip, not as convinced of his devotion as she should have been, for it was her blood and her curse that she should never trust anyone. “A sweet dream, Conor,” she murmured, gently stroking his cheek, “but you must know that a dream is all it will ever be. You and I can never be as you wish. I will marry Tristan and put you aside, and you will marry a serving girl or a dairy maid and be glad that you have a woman who is not so impossible to love.”  Her hand fell to her side, jewelled ring glinting in the sunlight, reminding him of all the things he couldn’t give to her.

“And if I wish to love you?” The words were dangerous. His fingers reached for her, hungering for the cool silk of her skin.

But Isabel lashed out, quick as a snake, grasping his wrist. “Then you condemn yourself to misery. Do not seek to lay your heart at my feet, my love, for I will be the cruellest of mistresses.”

He broke her grip easily, his hand moving to cradle the slender width of her neck. She raised her great blue eyes to his, her body trembling beneath his touch. “You’re not cruel,” he said with conviction. “You are kind and caring and loyal to a fault. But you have lost yourself. Come back to me now. I miss you. I miss my Issy.”

A chaplet of flowers made from gold and precious stones encircled her wild mane, and she bowed her head as if its weight had grown too great. The sun sparkled against the jewels, glittering, gleaming, haloing her, turning her red hair to fire. She was a perfect pagan goddess, and yet she was fierce no longer. She seemed fragile now. “That’s not what everybody else thinks,” she said, barely loud enough for him to hear, “so perhaps you are mistaken.”

“That’s because nobody else knows you as I do. They see what you want them to. They can’t see behind the façade. I can.”

Her eyes flickered to his. “A part of me wishes that everybody could see me as you do, that I could always be your Issy, for I like her much more than Lady Isabel Devereux. But they would destroy that child, Conor. They would tear her apart with the ravening hunger of a pack of wolves falling upon a lamb. She is gone, my love. There is only me now.”

“Then they have destroyed you already.”

She pressed a kiss to his neck, rough, her teeth nipping his skin. “Your love grows cold. I can see it dying.”

It shrunk, shrivelled, but it refused to die, for Isabel was a creature of light still, despite the shadows beneath her eyes. She was as pale as the waxen petals of a lily in shade, though out in the fields, with the sun shining down on her skin, she had once bloomed like a rose. And roses died only to be reborn. She was not lost to him forever, only sleeping beneath a crust of frozen soil, waiting for summer. He could thaw the ice inside of her. “It is not so easy to kill.”

She wrapped her arms around his neck then, brought him close to bury her face in his throat. She twined her fingers in his hair, tipping his head back, her eyes fixing on his. Her melancholy expression lent a haunted beauty to her face. “One day you’ll get tired of me.”

It would be lovely and terrible to watch her like this, he thought, so vulnerable and honest, for all eternity. He pressed his lips to hers, his kiss as chaste as a brother’s, gentle and reassuring. “I think it will be the other way around.”

There was something harsh and shattered about her now, and she rested her forehead against his, her words sounding like a vow. “No, it won’t.”

*

She hated that he could so easily deconstruct her defences, revealing her soft, vulnerable underside. He made her feel like a peeled snail, exposed by the deft flick of a man’s knife.  But she wanted her shell back, for it had taken her long enough to make. It was easier, safer, when she could retreat inside of it. It was a haven constructed of silver and diamonds and façade, golden scales overlapping like plated armour. But when he smiled, the sharp edges of his teeth pierced her chainmail, and there was only a scared, frightened little girl cowering beneath it. He smiled at her, and she remembered that once they were friends.

“Issy,” he murmured, his voice gentle. He gave her no title, no formalities, as though she were not the daughter of an earl, as though she was nobody at all. He placed tender fingers beneath her chin, gently tilting her head back so that she was forced to meet his gaze. “If you are happy living here, with every decision taken from you, and your future already decided, then I will not say another word.”

“I’m not happy,” she breathed, as though somebody else spoke for her, as if the friend he remembered had seized control of her tongue.

“If you know yourself imprisoned, then let me rescue you from them.”

“I am imprisoned, and I despise my gaolers.”

“Then one day we will leave here,” he promised her.

“Why would you wish to save me, Conor?”

He smiled at her, a world of invitation in his black eyes. “Why do you think?” The question was laced with the haunting beauty of a love song. The notes seemed to shiver across her skin, as though his hands caressed her naked flesh, making her blush.

 It was only Conor who knew how deeply she hurt, how desperately she hungered for freedom. He knew it because he knew her. He understood her, and he cared enough to think about her, to wonder how she was faring, to see through the façade of quiet strength to the screaming desperation beneath. He was the only one who could see that she needed saving.

It was cruel, she thought, that it should be Conor who understood her so beautifully, for she would gladly have married him and taken him to her bed, but she was Lord William Devereux’s daughter and he was common-born, the bastard son of some gypsy whore. Too lowborn for me to wed, she considered, but who would know if I were to bed him? 

“Shall I be your champion then, my sweet lady?” he murmured. He smiled as if he were proposing the most delicious game, as if asking her to betray her brother was as easy and frivolous as inviting her to dance.

But she could not help smiling at his heart-breaking sincerity, her fingers straying to his face. “How should we escape?”

“Oh,” he whispered, “it would take time, planning. We would have to meet often, I am sure.”

“Would we?” She thought of all the hours they had spent together. She remembered laughter and happiness. Nothing dark or fraught. Nothing forced.

“Once a day, perhaps more. For a proper escape, I should want to plan together at least that often. I don’t know that I wouldn’t need to see you all of the time.”

“And what would we do?”

His hands wrapped around the tops of her arms, his lips pressed against her ear, her body trapped beneath his. He was mastering her, but she didn’t want to push him away. She wanted to yield. His breath was warm on her bare neck as he whispered to her, the words spinning a silken web around them both. “We would talk, Lady Isabel.” If she were to turn her head just a little his red lips would touch her cheek. “Why? What would you like to do?”

I would like to turn my head and feel your kiss on my skin. I would like to give you my heart and know that it would be safe with you. I would like to confess that I love you, she thought. And I should like to do this, all day, this delicious play. I should like to feel your eyes on me, and I should like to lay mine on you. I should like you to be not friend, but lover. “I should like to spend time with you.”

He moved back a little so that he could study her face. She could not stop herself from meeting his black stare. She felt colour rising in her cheeks but she could not take her eyes from him.

“Your boot…” he murmured, pulling his gaze from hers, crouching down before her. Her eyes followed his, and she saw that one hastily laced boot had come undone. He took the soft leather ties between deft fingers, fastening them at ankle, calf, and knee. She bit her lip, the careful tightening of the laces, the touch of his hands as they slowly worked up her leg, dangerously sensual. She closed her eyes, longing for the sensation of his fingers brushing gently on the inside of her thigh. She slowly exhaled as he took the hem of her skirt and arranged it around her ankles, as if he would defend her modesty, as if she could trust him. But when he looked up at her, his hand resting gently on her toe, his face was filled with desire. She could feel the warmth of his hand through the soft leather, and her toes curled in pleasure at his touch. 

He took both of her hands in his warm grip as he stood, towering above her. “I think you know that I love you, don’t you, Issy?” he whispered.

She felt as though she had lived in a loveless world for too long, even her brother’s affection denied to her. But still she hesitated.

“I have no one else,” he said simply. “And neither do you, not here. Whoever we are, Issy – stable boy and lady, prince and serving wench – we have nobody but each other now.”

He leaned closer, watching for her reaction, their faces only inches apart, so close that she could feel his breath on her lips. His hands were on her waist, and he pulled her against him. She tilted her head back, mouth parted, terrified, hungry for his kiss. “You shouldn’t,” she stammered, trembling. Isabel knew that many a maiden had run their fingers through his raven hair. Was it not right that she should number among them, she who had loved him since childhood? She was fighting against desire, made fevered by Conor and his promises.

“I know I shouldn’t, but you look so beautiful. It’s like I never saw you before. How did you grow so lovely, when I was here all of the time?”

How to answer a question like that? Except to look at him, and plead with her eyes.

But he bent his dark head and kissed her gently on the mouth. One touch, and she felt a longing for more. He slowly drew away. She took a breath and stepped closer. His arms came around her, and he held her for a moment. “Let me love you,” he pleaded.

It would have been too cruel to say yes, for she was fated to live and die as Tristan FitzAlan’s wife, and no one could escape their fate. But could she not, at least, choose how to live?  She offered her lips to him in silent assent, and let him kiss her face, her closed eyes, her hungry mouth. And she kissed him back, kissed him until she was breathless and had to pull away.

He took her face in large hands gentled by affection. “I’m never going to love anyone but you, Issy. I know it. I’ve got that kind of feeling. Just us, always.”

She was too frightened to pledge herself to him in return, even though she knew that their fates were already inextricably entwined, long ago woven together by the fates. “We can pretend it never happened, and make sure it never happens again. We can never feel that way for each other.”

“But I want to feel this way about you, and it’s too late for me to love or trust anyone else.”

How old she felt, looking at him, knowing it could never be how he wanted it to be.


© Copyright 2017 Jordana J Sacks. All rights reserved.

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