The Damned

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

Chapter 36 (v.1)

Submitted: July 01, 2013

Reads: 58

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Submitted: July 01, 2013

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36

 

Glencaer, Welsh Marches, Shropshire, 30th April 1228

 

The town was a place she seldom entered, for Glencaer was her world, and one rarely transcended their own reality. As they wended their way deeper into the tangled streets, she watched the world disinterestedly. What use was there in prying into the lives of others, of glimpsing a world which didn’t belong to her? The day was warm but overcast, and for the most part there was little to see: tumbledown buildings; horse-drawn carts returning empty from the market she had just left; occasional children staring at them, their eyes wide in their dirty faces, running around them, gathering like vultures, pointing at their party, hands out begging for their favours.

Then, down one street, the shock of coloured streamers, people thronging, the muffled thump of a drum. The world lost its grey tones, full of colour suddenly. There was something in the air; an aura of vitality.

Isabel turned to Arlette de Remy, the woman who rode beside her, her eyes still fixed on the crowd. “What is this? What’s happening here?”

“It’s the May Dance, my lady. The villagers are celebrating May Eve. It is a terrible unchristian thing, a pagan ritual, but my lord permits it to flourish. Time and again his mother has entreated him to forbid it, but he refuses. He says that it is tradition, that the villagers expect it, and so they still dance their pagan dance, though it is an affront to God. They’re savages. My lady has tried all ways to cure the people of their ignorance, but they pay no heed.”

Matilda laughed under her breath. “If his mother’s dying wish was to forbid it, Tristan FitzAlan would dance on her grave on May Eve. The men will never see it banned; it is the highlight of their year to go and ‘wear the green’. On May Eve, the women are harlots and the men are animals. I imagine it is Tristan’s idea of paradise. I only wish that I could join them.”

Arlette blanched at Matilda’s words, her hands clutching at her crucifix. She was a pale, nervous, moth-like woman whose only desire had been to enter a nunnery and devote her life to God. Though her father had denied her, Arlette was more pious than The Virgin. “We must stay inside and pray for their souls, Lady Isabel.”  

But Isabel had no intention of praying for their souls; she wanted to dance the devil’s dance beside them. She had heard the dairy maids whispering of it as she walked past them, but it was another thing entirely to glimpse the village green turning into a different world. She watched, captivated, as their party crawled down the street towards the river. Ribbons swayed in the breeze, hanging between the tumbledown houses like colourful spider webs, zigzagging right the way along. A band of men played fiddles and flutes in the midst of a crowd who had gathered to laugh and clap at their antics. Children wove between adults, dragging more ribbons in their wake, the silken material swirling and darting on the wind with the delicate beauty of flames. Men and women mingled around the crackling oxen and pig roasts, the coneys and chickens which were skewered across little firepits, yellow dripping cackling and hissing at it fell to the ground. The youths were loud and uncouth, staring at them openly as they swigged ale from mugs.

Their men formed up around them, shouting and striking at the peasants that blocked their way, struggling to clear a path for them.

“Mad, the lot of them,” the man next to her complained. “Pagan savages.”

But Isabel only smiled, enjoying their happiness, feeling as though she were passing through a fairyland, for where in real life could such freedom reign?

When they clattered into the stables at Glencaer, coated in dust from their long journey, she threw herself from Strega and ran breathlessly to find Conor, who she knew would be waiting for her, her usual wariness having deserted her. Amid the melee of grooms and nobles, she pulled him into an empty stall, eyes bright with excitement.

Conor was reluctant, but Isabel implored him, persuaded him finally to meet her that night, to accompany her back to the May Dance. They spent so little time together, she tempted, and when might they have the opportunity again to lose themselves in such a vast crowd? No one would know them there. It was safe.

That night, as darkness held them in its embrace, Isabel led the way back from memory, half believing she would never find it again, for such freedom seemed too lovely to have been real. Half believing that the enchanted festival would have disappeared like a fairy ring in a child’s tale. But soon enough the frenetic strain of the fiddlers’ instruments, the excited cries of children and the raised voices of men who had already drunk too much assaulted her ears, a welcome greeting, and she knew that freedom lay ahead.

And then they turned the corner into wonderland, began to wander down its streets. Isabel shut her eyes for an instant, embracing the beautiful sense of anonymity which consumed her, and the loveliness of holding Conor’s hand in her own as they stood amongst hundreds of people. The moment was dream-like, too simple and uncomplicated to be real. The warm breeze carried a sweet tonic: the rich smell of food, the sweat of the revellers, the sweet stench of ale – and the smell of him, beside her, strong and masculine and hers.

Her eyes opened on chaos, beautiful chaos: people hung out of windows, calling to those below, singing, toasting the May. There was happiness, pure merriment, jocular conversations, rude riddles, looks exchanged and promises made as dancers flung themselves down to rest for a while before returning to join hands around the Maypole. Isabel watched wide-eyed, clinging to Conor’s arm, pointing this way and that, laughing with delight at the people who had started dancing around the great Maypole which dominated the sky. And all the while, he was beside her, with her. She was his, and he was hers, and nobody minded.

They stopped to watch the dancing, joining the growing crowd. Quickly assembled seats encircled the dancers, simple planks of wood stretched across timber boxes, and they sat together, beside each other, hands clasped. A slender woman with rosy cheeks and masses of red curling hair balanced on a stool by the fiddlers and the flautists, singing and slapping a tambourine against her crimson-clad thigh. The audience whooped, shouting encouragement, and Isabel was dizzy with the noise and the heat and the flowing skirts which whipped past her, moving in time to the wild, jaunty evolutions of the women who laughed and twirled all around them.

She was enchanted. She had never seen such revelry. She had laughed and danced at a hundred parties, but always she could feel their eyes on her back, all watching her, watching each other. The dancing had been orchestrated, tame, self-aware. Like a starving man sighting a feast, she was hungry for the delights which were spread out before her, tempting her: the freedom; the savage, primitive wildness. She clapped and laughed, crushing Conor’s hand with the strength of feeling. “They’re wonderful,” she said, unable to tear her eyes from the men and women who locked eyes and smiled at each other, arms linked as they swirled and stomped and whistled, gazes desirous as skin burned against skin. They were riotously, unrestrainedly beautiful, dancing in defiance. “Aren’t they wonderful?”

Up on the hill, the castle was a silhouette in the twilight. Isabel knew that she ought to be there, closeted in the bower with Linota FitzAlan and Arlette de Remy, praying for the erring souls of the villagers as Matilda rolled her eyes in silent rebelliousness, but she didn’t belong with them. She belonged here, with Conor.

Slowly she raised her hand and laid her palm upon his chest, not caring who saw them. Here, she was nameless, faceless. No one knew her. Tonight was May Eve, and people’s eyes were blind to scandal; they were too hell-bent on their own wickedness to notice the sins of others. Tristan had long ago gone into she shadows with one of the village women, and there was no sign of any of his men.

Conor’s fingers wrapped around hers, but his eyes darted to the castle, the glitter of wariness in their black depths. “You should be at Glencaer with the other women,” he said nervously.

She kissed him full on the lips, rubbing her hands over his shoulders. “What other women? All of the village wives and their daughters are here. The serving girls and the dairy maids are here, too. If you mean with Linota FitzAlan and Arlette de Remy, then no, I shouldn’t.” She tossed her head defiantly, but her eyes teased. “I suppose you want me safely locked away so that you can go ‘wearing the green’ with whomsoever catches your fancy.”

Conor grinned, his eyes flickering to her, his stare no longer fixed on the castle. “I was going to say that it isn’t safe for us to be here tonight, but I know that if I question you, you will only use your wicked will to seduce me into thinking as you do, so why bother? The rules do not apply to you. They never have done, my lady of fire.”

Isabel’s knees weakened at the timbre of his voice. Her whole body quivered. She was poised with the anticipation that he was going to touch her, and the fear that he would not. She did not dream of running away, of dissuading him. She might be betrothed to Tristan, but Conor had always belonged to her.

“We have to go back in a while,” he murmured, but the caution had disappeared from his voice. He pulled her tight against him, hip to hip, groin to groin, then spun her away in a muted rhythm of the wilder dance around the phallic pole.

“But not yet.” Isabel stepped lightly, a smile on her face, her breathing pleasantly short as he drew her against his body once more. They arched together, side-stepped and parted, maintaining the link of hands.

“No, not yet.” She could feel his breath on her neck, his mouth so close that his teeth almost nipped her skin.

They danced and drank, danced and drank, apart from everyone else.

The sky was black when an old village woman waddled up to Isabel and crowned her long curls with a chaplet of white hawthorn, and she realised that hours had passed. “You have to honour the goddess on May Eve, young mistress, if you want the corn to grow,” she laughed, rosy-cheeked with inebriation.

Isabel smiled and secured the chaplet to her hair, wishing that the night could stretch into eternity. She raised her eyes to the dark, star-spangled sky, and she was glad that she was not Arlette de Remy, bent over her crucifix, praying for the souls of the fallen. Instead, she was in the vast, starlit hall of the Goddess, so different from the stone coldness of the hall of God. All her life she had worshipped at the altar of one; now she found beauty at the altar of the other. The night was sacred; there was sanctity in feeling so much, so strongly.

The woman grabbed her arm and tugged her towards the Maypole, its rounded phallic tip thrusting at the sky. “Come, dance the sacred dance,” she exhorted.

The rhythm was infectious. It grew wilder, gaudier, flowing through each pore, seeping into her blood, making her skin burn. The lashing music pulled at Isabel’s very essence.

Then there was the warmth of Conor’s lips beside her ear, pulling her back. “I’m thirsty, Issy. Let’s go and find something to drink.”

Isabel hardly heard, but she shook her head, certain that she could not leave, could not lose such a feeling, abandon such a moment. She realised that she’d been holding her breath, and released it on a long sigh, swooning at the beauty of their freedom. “I can’t leave. You go. I have to stay and watch.”

He hesitated, his hand hot on her arm. “I don’t want to leave you.”

“I’m happy here.” She laughed headily, for she was, truly.

His head tilted, as if he could not fathom her feeling such an emotion, as if it did not matter that tonight she was more alive than she had ever been before. “There are many men here who have come to ‘wear the green’, and you are a sight to make any of them forget his reason,” he warned.

“Even you?” she asked provocatively, running a ruby-ringed finger along her bottom lip.

He leant towards her, his black eyes devouring her. “Especially me. You are beautiful and wild, like the May herself.”

Isabel stopped him with her hand against his chest, her lips pressed to his. Breaking away, she pushed her cheek against his, warm skin against warm skin, and stroked his wild hair. “Nothing can hurt me tonight, my love,” she reassured him.

The hand which bound her to him held firm a moment, then slowly loosened on her arm. She sensed his withdrawal from her, as she always did. As if something fundamental to her had gone. But she could not watch him go, as she usually did, for tonight there was too much to see. To hear. To feel. Tonight was hers and hers alone. She was captivated.

Soon his place was filled, the heat of someone else’s thigh pressing against hers. Isabel turned her head slightly to take stock of the man whose masculine aroma engulfed her: animalistic, musky, hot. He met her stare: a dark-haired man, handsome, not beautiful like Conor, his eyes hungry. A slow smile curved his mouth as he leaned closer, his thumb cocked towards the laughing couples. “Would you dance with me?” She could smell the alcohol on his breath. His eyes were pale, green, trained on her.

“Oh, no, I couldn’t.” Though she refused, her mouth was sweetly curved, inviting. “Thank you, but I’m with my brother,” she told him, as she knew she should. Her eyes swept the crowd, searching for Conor. She thought she saw him through the smoke, standing on the other side of the fire, a mug of ale in his hand. “He won’t be long.”

The man tilted his face, holding his hand out in a silent enticement, still smiling. “Come on. Just a little one.”

Isabel narrowed her eyes, searching the darkness again, the smoke beginning to sting. But Conor had disappeared into the night. She wanted to dance. It didn’t feel like a betrayal. It felt as though Conor had betrayed her by not noticing the change in her, not understanding the wild heat which had infected her soul.

“Well?”

She turned back to the green-eyed man. He looked at her expectantly, and she realised that she didn’t want to dance – she needed to. There was music everywhere, and her body ached to move in time to the wild rhythm. She bit her lip. What purpose did life have if not to seize at opportunity? She nodded, then shook her head. Uncertain. Tempted. “I’m not sure I know how to.”

The man grinned. He took her hand in his and drew her up, pulling her into the heart of the spinning melee. And she was dancing, spun into the movements of the Maypole jig. Somehow, in his strong grip, she knew the steps. Knew them well enough. They skipped and turned, swept up in the current of the other couples, until she felt as if their movements, their very limbs, were her own. The beat of the drums and the skirl of the bagpipes filled the night, the notes darting skywards like the long tangerine sparks from the bonfire. Fiddles sang, hands clapped, boots stomped. The world was reduced to two circles of men and women, weaving in and out, backwards and forwards. The sweaty paw of Glencaer’s miller grasped hers, swung her round and passed her on to one of the grooms from the castle. She saw the flash of his white teeth, smelled his animal scent, looked into his blind eyes. He didn’t know her. None of them knew her. They looked at her admiringly, not recognising her, holding her only long enough to whirl her away to the next man in the line while the music pounded relentlessly on, pulsing to the hammering beat of her heart. Her wild, free heart, which sang to no tune but her own.

Men and men and men, until she was back in the arms of the green-eyed man once more, laughing, exulting in her freedom. This time he pulled her against him, hip to hip, and instead of spinning her round and passing her to the next man, he drew her out of the dance and into the flame-lit shadows at the side of the great bonfire, so that they danced their own dance. The man linked an arm through hers, elbow to elbow, and round they spun. She laughed louder. She couldn’t help herself. Lady Isabel Devereux was gone, and only Issy remained. She had never felt such rushing freedom. She turned her face towards the night sky, eyes closed, and felt the kiss of warm air on her eyelids, her cheeks.

She opened them again, searching for Conor as they spun, for she needed him with the wild, driving urge of a diver whose starved lungs needed air. She longed to dance with him. Be held by him. She gazed into the sea of faces, certain that there had not been so many before, but she was turning too quickly. They were naught but a blur of eyes and mouths and words.

“I…” She was out of breath. She clapped her hand to her partner’s bare neck, pressing her mouth against his ear. “I have to stop now. My brother will be back.” She pounded on his shoulder as he continued to hold her, continued to spin. Said right into his ear: “That’s enough. Thank you.” And Lady Isabel Devereux had returned, her imperious tone ringing from Isabel’s mouth, saddening her.

For an instant she was frightened that he wasn’t going to stop, that he was going to continue turning, around and around, never releasing her. But then she felt a loss of momentum, a rush of dizziness, and they were near the makeshift bench again.

It was full now of other spectators. But not Conor.

Dizzy, her brain still in motion though her feet had ceased to move, she swayed and staggered, then looked up at her green-eyed partner.

“Where’s your brother?” said the man, running his hand through his dark hair.

“He’ll be here,” she replied, more assuredly than she felt, her eyes scanning strange faces. She blinked rapidly, trying to rid herself of her giddiness. “Soon.”

“No sense sitting out in the meantime.” His hand was around her wrist, pulling her away from the bench, his grip rough. He seemed bigger than before.

“No.” She planted her heels. “Thank you, but I’ll wait here.”

The man pulled harder. “Come on. Keep a man company, my beauty.” He ran a lazy finger down her cheek.

“No,” Isabel said, more firmly. “I’ve had enough.”

The man’s grip loosened. He shrugged, ran his fingers over his stubble, his neck. He turned to leave.

Suddenly, out of the darkness, movement. A shadow. Upon them.

Conor.

She felt an elbow in her shoulder, and then she was falling. There was a shout: Isabel’s or the man’s or Conor’s. She collapsed into a wall of onlookers, the music of the band still ringing in her ears, the clapping and the stomping too.

A savage pain shot through her head as she landed, and her hands rose to cover her face – too late – as a booted foot, made swift by the exhilarating prospect of violence, stamped on the left side of her face. More people stepped over her, on her, but soon they formed up around her, claiming their place in the front row, their legs splayed across her, protecting her.

From where she had fallen, Isabel glanced upwards. Conor was on the man. Fist pounding. Pounding. Again. Again. Again. The brilliant red of splashing blood seemed the only colour left in the world.

Panic. Heat. Fear. She was pinned to the ground, powerless to turn away. She raised her hands to her face, pale and nervous, shrinking from the sight of tearing flesh.

She lowered them as she heard Conor’s laughter – mad, deranged. His face was twisted into an expression somewhere between sneer and smirk. The other man had drawn a blade, but Conor side-stepped it, his lips curved. So close he came to death with each lunge of his opponent; and yet never did he lose control. The game was his. The fight was his. And she saw that he wanted it. He wanted blood.

“Conor!” Isabel screamed. “Conor, stop!”

A cloaked man to her left peered down in confusion, saw her body pinned to the ground. He pulled Isabel to her feet, shoving people aside as though they were weightless, freeing her. She did not have time to thank him, time to think on the pain which plagued her body. She pushed her way through endless people, grabbing at anything she could.

Conor stepped. The man raked his blade across his shoulder. Blood spurted. Isabel’s breath quickened. Her heart beat against her chest. Her mouth would not shut, as if she had to breathe in the red, the rage, Conor.

As the scarlet of another cut scarred his skin, slashing the black of his tunic, Conor bellowed, the sound more animal than man, his massive hand wrenching the blade from his opponent. He raised his fist, the knife glittering as the light of the flames caught and danced along its length. Raised it as if he would cut off the other man’s head. But for a second he paused, as if to savour his victory, to revel in his anger. 

The music had stopped as people gathered to the fray. The silence was deafening. Somehow Isabel pressed between them, made her way to the front. She clutched at Conor’s tunic. “Conor!”

He shook her off. Turned briefly towards her. His eyes were blank, not meeting hers. Not seeing her.

The man’s fist met Conor’s face. And he was atop, the blade flying from Conor’s hand, burying itself in the ground three hundred yards away.

Blood.

Isabel screamed. “No! Let him be. Please let him be.” She was crying now. “Somebody help.”

She was not sure exactly how it ended. She didn’t know the name of the man who came to her assistance, to Conor’s assistance, the same tall, hooded figure who had raised her from the ground. He pulled the dark-haired man off, as though he weighed no more than a child, and dragged Conor to the wall. Conor looked at him strangely, almost as if he recognised him, but his eyes were still glazed with rage, with alcohol, with blood lust, and he only shook his head and turned away from them both.

The tall man’s hands were gentle as he passed her a mug of water, and his voice was sympathetic when he told her to take her husband home and put him to bed. She didn’t protest, didn’t tell him that Conor wasn’t her husband, for he belonged to her still.

Whoever he was, he had been unsurprised by the evening’s events. He had laughed and told her that it wouldn’t be a May Dance without a couple of the boys setting one against the other. He had shrugged, and told her that they had both had a drink, that was all. Then he had packed them off, Conor leaning on Isabel for support.

They attracted hardly a glance as they made their way along the street, leaving the dancing, the merriment, the clapping behind them. As though they belonged together. As if no one minded that they had chosen each other.

Later, by the river, Conor sat on the ground, staring into the water, and Isabel knelt before him. He had said little when they left the dance and she hadn’t wanted to ask. What had overcome him, why he had pounced, where he had been. She guessed that he was asking himself the same sorts of questions, and she was right.

“I would have killed him” he said eventually. His fingers were in his hair, his dark curls hiding his face. “If you hadn’t been there. If you hadn’t stopped me.”

“Shh,” she said, wrapping her arms around him. “It’s over.”

Conor shook his head, closing his eyes. Beneath his thin lids, his thoughts flickered. She wished that she could hear them. That she could understand. She barely heard him when he spoke. “I’d have killed him,” he whispered. “So help me God, I’d have killed him.”

“No.” She shook her head. “You wouldn’t have. You couldn’t have.”

His black stare met hers, cold suddenly. Distant. “I killed a man once, Isabel.”

She trembled, swallowed, her hands shaking. “Is that why won’t you ever talk about your life before Glencaer?”

Conor didn’t answer, only turned away from her.

Isabel held her breath, wondering if she dared to ask. He seemed so dark now, so much bigger and more imposing than the boy he had been when they would lie in the grass by the river, staring at the clouds. “Is it because you killed somebody?”

He looked at her profile, his fingers tugging roughly at the grass, ripping it from the ground, exhaled and shook his head. Then he started to laugh softly, without humour. He reached out to lay his hand gently along the side of her face. “Aren’t you shocked, Lady Isabel? Aren’t you frightened?”

“Is that it?” she whispered, undeterred, still not looking at him. His skin felt cold against her cheek, as if cooled by the touch of Death. “Is it because you killed a man?”

Still he didn’t answer. His silence terrified her.

“Tell me, Con.”

His hands pulled at the ground relentlessly, tearing the grass out by its roots. “Don’t ask me. Please.”

“Was it murder?” she asked, finally turning towards him.

His eyes met hers. Such dark eyes. Like wet paint; full of secrets. “Define murder.”

Isabel started to pull away, not wanting to know. Angry at him for keeping his secrets. Angry because he hadn’t denied her accusation.

Conor sighed. She knew that he didn’t want her to leave him like this. Angry with him. But what had he expected? “I killed a man, Issy. I drove a sword through his heart. But it was… survival, not murder.”

“Survival?” The words tantalised, promising redemption

“Adaptation. Survival is a matter of successful adaptation. Some of us are better at it than others.”

Her chest felt tight. Her breathing caught, shuddered, faltered. “Adaptation to what?”

“To life. To living by your wits. The rules of the game. I’m alive because another man isn’t.”

So now she knew. She wondered how she felt about it. “I’m glad you’re alive,” she said, but she felt a shiver from deep down inside. And when his fingers stroked her wrist she withdrew it despite herself.

“That’s why I don’t talk about it. I know that if I do, you will see me for what I really am: a member of the devil’s party moving amongst the regular people as though I still belong, as if I’m not a monster returned from a murderous rampage.”

“Don’t say that,” she said sharply. “You’re not a murderer. You said that it wasn’t murder.”

Conor glared at her, defiant. “I’m a killer.” Said as though she were a fool not to understand that they were one and the same.

Perhaps to the guilty they were. Had her father differentiated between murder and survival? Did Will and Katerina? “It’s different. It was self-defence.” For he couldn’t be what her family were. He couldn’t be what she would become without him.

Conor shrugged. “How do you know? How can it be so easy for you to believe me? You weren’t there. And they’re still dead.”

How could she explain that it didn’t shock her as much as it should, that she was not as reviled by his admission as she should have been? She had wanted him to be different, but she couldn’t condemn him because he wasn’t. The only hands which had ever embraced her had been stained by blood. They had cradled her as a babe, held her hand in theirs when she was a child. She loved others whose crimes were as great as his. But she didn’t want to embrace such knowledge, couldn’t stand to be confronted by it. “They…? Stop it,” she whispered, shaking her head. “I don’t want to know. I don’t like it when you talk like that.”

“Then you shouldn’t have asked,” he snarled.

She sat beside him, not horrified enough to flee. But she wanted to weep. She didn’t like it. She didn’t like to think of him that way, and yet she found she couldn’t stop. That Conor, the boy she knew so intimately, whose hands had run gently, lightly, over her body, whom she trusted implicitly, could have killed changed things. It changed him. Not for the worse. She didn’t love him any less. But she looked at him differently. He had killed a man. Men. Two nameless men, perhaps more. She couldn’t stop thinking about it. She watched his silhouetted form: the lean, muscled arms; his broad shoulders; his beautiful, brutal hands - and she knew that they could kill her.

The silence seemed to stretch into eternity.

“Are you alright?” he said, without looking at her.

Isabel nodded, wondered whether she was. “Yes,” she said finally.

He came to her then, knelt beside her. She must have flinched, for he held his hands up to his shoulders. “I won’t hurt you.”

She knew that he wouldn’t, but death’s perfume adorned his wrists, assaulting her nostrils with the bitter stench of blood and sweat and alcohol. And he had killed a man.

Conor reached out and gently lifted her chin, blanching as he saw her damaged face. “Jesus.”

She softened as she saw the shame in his eyes, and placed her hand on top of his. “It’s alright.”

“No, it’s not alright. You’re hurt.”

There was another long silence as their gazes met, held, asking each other a thousand questions. “What happened, Conor?”

He placed a finger to her lips. He was still breathing quickly. He shook his head absently, and she knew he wanted to explain. Couldn’t. “I’m sorry,” he said simply.

He cupped the side of her face with his hand. She leaned into his touch, her eyes locking with his. Such dark eyes, full of secrets he wouldn’t share. She longed to know them all, determined to earn them from him. And when he kissed her throat, oh, so lightly, she swooned, as she always did.

Her fingers twined in his hair, her head back. They caught in Conor’s dark curls, wet suddenly. Isabel’s heart gave a lurch. She drew away from him, her hand on his chest, pushing him back, out of the shadows, into the spilled moonlight. His hair was matted with dried blood, and on his temple a deep cut glistened red and raw. His left arm dripped blood, and his right hand was scarlet. “You’re hurt,” she gasped. “You’re bleeding.”

“This?” Conor touched his temple, seeking her lips again. But she held him away. “It doesn’t hurt. Nothing hurts me anymore.” He shook his right hand, spattering red droplets. “This blood isn’t even mine.”

“And your left arm?” A drop of bright red blood fell to the floor, and Isabel winced. “Those cuts need to be washed, Con. Take off your shirt and your tunic.”

“Are you trying to seduce me, Lady Isabel?” He kissed her then. His hair smelled of blood and smoke and horses, and his mouth was hard and hot on hers.

Isabel trembled in his arms. She clutched him by the shoulders, staring into his eyes. “Promise that you will never turn against me. I could not bear that. Promise me.”

“Why would I ever turn against you? You do not think that I would ever do to you what I did to that man tonight-?”

Isabel knew that he would not hurt her, but she had seen the heat of his anger. She had seen hatred in his eyes. He would never hurt her, but he could hate her. “Promise me.”

“Never, my love.”

She believed him. “I am sworn to Tristan, my heart, but I have belonged to you from the moment that I first saw you, and you have always belonged to me. Yet you are a peasant boy and I am a Devereux. What will we do, Con?”

His hand cradled her face, cool and gentle on her bruised skin. “Why can’t we make this real? Why does it have to be a dream, some beautiful interlude when real life allows me, for a moment, to pretend that you are mine?”

“Darling,” she said gently, running a finger along his right cheekbone, across the ravaged flesh, “I’m a noblewoman betrothed to Lord Tristan FitzAlan, and you are a stable boy. You know why.” She was trying to be light-hearted, to make him laugh, but he didn’t.

“Betrothals can be broken.” The sincerity of his gaze was dangerous.

“Yes, but…” Isabel’s palm pressed against his chest, fighting off the suggestion, fighting him off, though she would never want to, not truly.

“We could run away from here, away from everyone we know. Don’t you want to?” Conor’s thumb passed across her jaw, and she knew that he must feel the tremble of her teeth.

“You know I do.”

“Don’t go back to Glencaer.” He took her wrists in his hands. God, he was beautiful. “Run away with me.”

“You’re not being serious,” she said uncertainly. “You’re teasing me.”

“I’ve never been more serious.”

“Just disappear?”

His hands were on her waist, pulling her close. His mouth drew near, his breath hot on her neck as he placed his lips beside her ear. “Just disappear.”

She was silent for a minute, thinking, her thumb brushing absent-mindedly along his lower lip. “I couldn’t. You know that.”

He released her wrists roughly. “Why not?”

“Lots of reasons…” She thought about them. “Will…” Her brother who stood as the barrier, the wall that separated Isabel from her great and terrifying love, from sacrificing all that she had only to make him hers.

Conor’s gaze flashed sharply. “Fuck your precious brother.”

Isabel flinched. “He needs me.”

“I need you.” And he did. She knew he did. A need both terrifying and intoxicating. “I have to have you. But he doesn’t. He’ll be alright. He’s Lord William Devereux. He is untouchable. Whatever you do, Tristan needs him…”

“They need each other.” Those four words were answer enough, for he knew she would never betray her black-hearted brother.

He moved to sit at the water’s edge, heartbreakingly alone.

Isabel approached him on silent feet, laying her hands on his shoulders. She was sorry for him, for they both knew that she had chosen her brother over him, and would always choose her brother over him. She knew that she must destroy his dream now, for if she did not make it utterly impossible he would ask her again and again and again, and each time it would be harder to refuse him.  “Tristan would find me,” she said. “My family would.”

“I wouldn’t let them,” he said stubbornly.

As she said them aloud, her words convinced her of the futility of her dream. “You don’t know them. They couldn’t bear the scandal.”

But Conor was not so easily deterred. His shoulders were tight beneath her hands. “We would go somewhere they wouldn’t think to look. The world is a big place, Issy.”

Though anger soured his tone, still he looked fragile as he sat there, alone, lonely. She was all he had. She cradled him in her arms, pulling him to her so that his head rested against her stomach.

He softened, his fingers slipping through hers. “I can’t live without you. I’d rather die.” He said it so plainly she shivered, disgusted herself by deriving some pleasure from his words.

“Don’t say that.”

“I need to be with you,” Conor said simply.

But she couldn’t promise that he could be. She sank to the ground beside him, staring into the dark river as if it could wash all of her problems away. As if it could cleanse her of Conor, such an unfortunate weakness, but one she would never be rid of.

The crown of May blossom slipped down, and she would have cast it away, but Conor caught her hand and, taking the chaplet from her, replaced it delicately on her brow. “My Queen of the May,” he said softly, tracing one forefinger down her cheek, “you know what we must do: this, just this, for as long as we can.”

Isabel lifted her face, mutely offering him her lips, for they were all that she had to give to him.


© Copyright 2017 Jordana J Sacks. All rights reserved.

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