The Damned

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

Chapter 38 (v.1)

Submitted: July 14, 2013

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Submitted: July 14, 2013

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38

 

Glencaer, Welsh Marches, Shropshire, 4th August 1230

 

That night Isabel dreamt of Tristan. She often dreamt of him.

She held her hands out, gently cupping the crown of roses in her palms. Tristan knelt to kiss the blossoms, his generous lips a deep, vivid scarlet. He held Isabel’s gaze, his eyes brilliantly blue. There was a raw hunger, a craving, reflected in the liquid depths, lurking beneath the flawless façade. There was blood around his mouth, and when he smiled his teeth were red. But it wasn’t his blood.

The flowers came to life as his breath whispered over them. The stems slithered like serpents, sinuous and deadly, the flowers opening to reveal sharp teeth, teeth more deadly than the fangs of a basilisk. There was a curious beauty in their deathly dance.

Beneath the scarlet petals the thorns lay hidden. They were alive, and they dug their claws into her delicate skin, sharp and cruel, binding her wrists, and suddenly all beauty was lost. She saw a slow trickle of blood run down her fingers. She watched her life draining away with a detached fascination, the blood pooling around her husband’s feet in the form of a rose - the most perfect rose she had ever seen. There was snow on the ground, a pale canvas for the red rose, the winter rose, the wild rose.

As she turned her head, she looked into her brother’s dying eyes. A half-eaten mushroom rolled from his hand as she fell to her knees beside him, cradling his cold body against hers. She snatched it from the floor, desperately trying to identify the poison which had permeated his blood stream, desperately trying to think of an antidote. The cap was a pale olive-green, the stipe white with a scattering of greyish-olive scales. The surface of the cap was sticky as she cradled it in her bound hands. She raised it to her nose, for it gave off a faint but delicious, honey-sweet perfume, yet it began to decay in her palm, and the smell strengthened, became overpowering, sickly-sweet and objectionable. It was Deathcap, Fool’s Mushroom, Death Angel.

She looked into her brother’s half-closed eyes, so like her father’s, and she knew that it was killing him. His sweet lips and his ornate clothes were coated in vomit and his lovely hands were blue. His once golden skin was yellowed, jaundiced. He groaned in agony, his legs curled up against his stomach, and leaned over to vomit again. She knew that inside he was already rotten. She struggled to embrace him, to comfort him, but her hands were still bound, and blood fell onto his cold flesh and smeared across his once-perfect skin.

“Will!” her husband screamed.

She did not feel the blow as Tristan struck her, shouldering her aside. Her hands were still bound, and though she automatically struggled to take the weight of her fall upon them, she only succeeded in tearing her flesh more deeply. Even through the sting of the thorns, she felt the slam of the ground as she fell through the snow, landing on the frozen dirt beneath. She tasted blood and mud. The floor was a carpet of Death Angel, and its sickly-sweet perfume, death’s fragrance, overwhelmed her, sickened her. Her mouth opened, gasping in agony, and she tasted the mushrooms on her tongue. But she would die before their poison could rot her insides.

Isabel struggled, succeeded in pushing herself to her feet, though her body screamed out in protest at the torment of moving. But she did not care, for she loved her brother, and she had to save him from Tristan. Other men stood in her way – his men – but they were nameless and insignificant, easily pushed aside. The blood seeping from her wrists was Devereux blood, and it had sent many – not enough – to their deaths already. It was the same blood which ran through the veins of her dying brother. It would send more to their deaths before her brother lay cold and dead in the ground, and they would hear them scream and beg mercy for their crimes.

She stood behind Tristan, the bodies of his men strewn around her, and lifted her hands. Her bound arms would embrace his neck, crush him against her, and not let go till his last breath danced on his generous lips. He sat, still and motionless, though her blood dripped down on him, the crimson rain running down his skin. She was light-headed, sluggish, struggling to continue. She swayed, but did not fall. Would not fall, even as her body weakened. She was well-enough acquainted with death to know that her wounds were mortal. Little by little, her life slipped away, but she vowed that Tristan would die before her. Blood began to gurgle in the back of her throat, but she imagined that it was his blood, not her own, and she held to that, for before the skies grew very much darker he would lay on the ground before her, his throat torn and bloodied where her thorns had lacerated his skin.

Tristan turned towards her then, and her hands fell. She had never seen the look on his face before: broken-hearted, weak, vulnerable. “He’s dying,” he choked, tears mingling with the blood which stained his cheeks – Devereux blood.

She fell to her knees beside her dying kinsman, dizzy, swaying, only the shoulder of her foe stopping her from collapsing to the ground beside her brother. Her poor, broken brother. She could not reconcile the boy before her with the man who had so many quaking at his call. They said that William Devereux, the great soldier, liked men to die screaming, but from himself, there was only silence. But then he was not a man, only a boy now. The brother she had lost on the day that her father died.

“Do you pray for their souls?” she had asked him once. “Do you ask God for their salvation?”

He had wrapped his arm around her shoulder, held her close, his breath hot against her ear. “What do I care for their souls?”

Did his fevered mind care now? Did the boy on the ground remember who he had once been, and how he had once cared?

“Come back to me, Will. Come back,” Tristan sobbed.

It was a long time before she realised that he had been saying those words over and over and over, for hours now. For hours he had supported her. For hours he had cradled her brother’s head in his lap, begging his forgiveness. And all the while her life ebbed away, spreading across the ground in a crimson swirl.

Her brother’s eyes faded, dimmed. His body shuddered, then lay still.

She felt nothing, only a curious detachment. A coldness that permeated her soul.

“Will,” Tristan screamed.

Now was the time to kill him, to avenge her brother. But her body was failing her. She was too weak. Pitifully weak. Her arms were leaden, unmoving. Impotent tears sprang to her eyes as she struggled, failed. 

But the rose was beside him still: the rose forged from her Devereux blood, blood which had seethed with the desire for vengeance. And as his tears fell, the petals shrivelled, withered, turned to yellow. The heavily thorned stem slithered across the ground, curling in upon itself. With a lazy, serpentine motion, it rose, struck, and pierced the heart of her foe. For an instant, Tristan’s face was stricken. Slowly, his body fell across her brother’s, the rose falling beside him, its yellow petals raining down on them both.

 And still she lay bleeding. Dying. Dead. But now she was in the arms of a strong, golden-haired angel.

Isabel’s eyes opened to the blinding light of the rising sun. She felt weak and shaken, as if the blood really had bled from her veins. Her skin was cold and clammy, and she shivered slightly, though the early morning was warm around her, holding her in a comforting embrace.

She pushed the covers from her body and walked to the window, throwing back the shutters. The other girls still slept but she knew that the light would not wake them, for none of them had stirred as she passed, and some still snored in their sleep. She would have been glad of their company this morning, for any distraction would be welcome. She didn’t want to remember what she had dreamt. Already the images were fading, blurring, but she could not shake them entirely, nor could she quell the fear which churned in her stomach.

She stared out of the window, trying to think of anything but the horrors she had glimpsed. The day was warm and dry, and though clouds gathered in the eastern sky, they were pierced by shafts of sunlight. They looked like two huge castles floating in the early morning air, and she instantly thought of them as Glencaer and Pompocali. She could see their walls of tumbled stone, their massive keeps and barbicans. Gossamer banners swirled from atop their towers and reached for the fast-fading stars, and she almost imagined that one bore the rearing Devereux horse, the other the charging FitzAlan bull. The sun was rising behind them, and she watched it paint the castles black, then grey, then a thousand shades of rose and gold and crimson. She wished that Pompocali truly was beside Glencaer, that she could run from one to the other and see Will, powerful and imposing and indomitable. A sharp gust of wind blew them together as she watched. They collided, broke, shattered, and then there was only one castle where there had been two, and she had the most curious sense that she had glimpsed her own future as the castles fractured, crumbled, united, the force of one breaking the other.

The details of her dream came back to her over the course of the morning. By the middle of the day, when Conor met her on the moor, her brother was all she could think of.

Conor lay beside Isabel on the damp ground, his body relaxed. He stared at the sky. “Look, that one looks like a horse,” he said, pointing at a cloud.

“Have you seen Tristan’s new horse?” she asked curiously, an absent-minded finger tracing his collarbone.

He shook his head, his fingers twining through hers, pressing her palm flat against his chest.

“It’s got the strangest spotted coat.”

Conor was silent for a moment. His heart beat beneath her hand, steady and reliable. “Do you think you’ll marry him, truly?”

He had never openly questioned whether or not she would marry his master before. Conor had always talked as if they had a future together, though they had none. His words were stories, not promises, nor pledges, though sometimes she would let his words wash over her and they would pretend together. She liked it better than thinking of her future: better to imagine a marriage to a boy who would worship the ground she walked upon, than to picture her death over and over as she did in her dreams. Those awful dreams in which Tristan had called her wife a thousand times.

She bit her lip. “He is my betrothed. Of course I will.”

Conor took her chin between his thumb and forefinger. “Do you want to marry him?”

“I’ve never really thought about it,” she lied. “What I want is irrelevant.”

“Really? If I was you I would have thought about it a lot.”

“Why? It wouldn’t change anything. If it was my decision, I might have thought about it, but you know that it’s not.”

“Doesn’t it scare you?”

“A little,” she confessed. For what was the use in denying it? He would still know. He always knew. Better to say the words aloud. “What are you scared of?”

“I’m scared that I’ll be stuck here forever.”

“Where would you go if you weren’t here?” But she didn’t want to him to leave here, to leave her, not ever.

“I’d go back to my family.”

She knew that he had broken his cardinal rule: never to talk about the family he had left behind. She wanted to know more, so much more. She slithered into his lap, her hand snaking up his thigh, and smiled as she heard his breath hitch. “You have a family?”

“You know that I do. Everyone has a family.” His breath was hot against her lips.

“Some people are orphans.” She gasped as his fingers climbed beneath her gown.

“Not me. You already know that.” His eyes were knowing, amused, as he watched her dance around him, around the subject, seeing how far she would allow him to go.

“Where are they?” She clamped her hand down on top of his, denying him.

He pulled away, sighing in frustration. “I don’t know,” he confessed. “You know that too. They travel around a lot.”

“What do they do?”

He made for her neck, that favourite place where he might feel her pulse, feel the effect that he was having on her. “I’ve told you before. My mother is a performer.”

She did not deny the finger which traced a path between her breasts, but instead took his hand and kept it there. “What about your father?”

He laughed, the sound different, harsher than it had been before. “I don’t have a father.”

“Everyone has a father, Con,” Isabel mimicked. There was a moment’s hesitation, brief satisfaction in her smile.

He turned his head away from her. Turned back. Changed the subject. His thumb brushed against her lower lip, and her heart quickened. “Have you ever dreamt about me?” he asked tentatively.

“Sometimes I see you. Why?”

“You were dreaming again last night. I heard you screaming.”

She looked away uncomfortably.

“Have you ever seen what will happen to me?” Conor rephrased.

Isabel didn’t know how to answer, so she let him pull her close, her legs slipping open to straddle his hips. His tongue was demanding – everything of him demanded now, with the threat of her marriage hanging over their heads. His hand, too, reached between her legs, his mouth smiling into hers at the hitch of her breath.

“Ah,” she reached down, smacking his hand away – and placed hers hard against his neck, where his blood rushed. “None of that now! Not here.”

His gaze flashed devilishly. “Then you must find some way to distract me from the lure of those beautiful eyes. Tell me about your dreams, Issy.”

She laughed quietly, then sighed, rolling her eyes away from his. “My dreams don’t always mean anything. Sometimes they’re just dreams.”

“There is no sometimes, is there?” he said quietly, his hand roaming distractedly from her chest to her waist. A look of understanding passed between them. “You know when you’re having one of those dreams, don’t you?”

“Tell me about your family,” she said evasively, sliding off his lap and running a hand down her wrinkled skirts.

“I will,” Conor answered, “if you’ll tell me about your dreams.”

The day grew quiet around them, as if it held its breath. Isabel could hear the faint rustle of leaves, like spectators whispering to one another in excited anticipation. She thought of Will and the yellow rose, remembered the sting of the thorns as they had torn her flesh. “I don’t have dreams, not anymore, not those dreams.”

“You’re lying, Issy. I’m not the only one who has heard you. All of Glencaer knows that you scream in your sleep. The serving women talk of it as they gather water from the well, and the guards in their hall. Some of them call you a witch. Tell me what you’ve seen. Tell me what it is that’s frightened you so much,” he cajoled.

She darted behind him, and sank to her knees, her hands resting on his broad shoulders. Her lips nipped at his neck, kissed, rising higher until her mouth was beside his ear. “I don’t want to. It was just a dream, and dreams could mean anything or nothing.”

“Some nights you might dream as everyone else does, and those dreams might mean anything or nothing,” Conor said, “but the dreams that wake you screaming in the night are different. Those dreams come true. You told me so.”

Her laughter was hard, and her hands tightened on his shoulders, her nails digging in. “I don’t have to tell you anything.”

“People are given many gifts, Issy. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

She pulled away from him. “I’m not ashamed,” she said hotly.

“Then what is it?” He gave an exasperated sigh. Then his face paled. “You saw my death, didn’t you?”

She slowly shook her head. “Last night I dreamt of Will’s death.”  

Conor’s mouth fell open. He quickly feigned indifference, but not before she had seen the horror in his eyes. He held her to him, so that she couldn’t see his face, his breath rustling her hair as he spoke. “You said yourself that your dreams don’t always come true, Issy. Remember all those thousands of dreams that you dreamt which didn’t come true. It won’t mean anything. Your brother will be fine,” he comforted her, though he didn’t sound convinced.

Of course Conor had the truth of it, she reassured herself, but the fear lingered inside of her.

Sensing her doubt, Conor rolled onto his back again, pulling her with him. “That one looks like a swan,” he said, pointing at the sky in a futile effort to distract her.

“I hope you find your family,” she said quietly. “When you have to leave me, I don’t want you to be alone.”

“I hope that you don’t have to marry Lord Tristan.”

“Why?” They both knew the answer. Both knew that she had forbidden him from speaking the truth out loud.

“Because you deserve better. You have to marry, and marry well, but it doesn’t have to be him.”

“Do I deserve better?”

“Of course,” he reassured her, his lips allowing that affectionate brush against her hair. The one that could be brotherly, if they were indeed brother and sister, not servant and mistress.

“Is that your only dream, Conor? To find your family again?” She placed her hand against her mouth, her teeth scraping against her ring, a ring of gold and diamonds and rubies, for she was a Devereux, and her family did so love to smother themselves in their wealth.

He did not answer her directly. Not as she wanted him to, feared that he would. “My impossible dream,” he sighed. “What’s yours?”

She glanced across to him, her love and her weakness. Her impossible dream. “You know that I don’t have one. Dreams are something to work towards, and I already know my end goal.”

He shook his head, his dark curls trembling. “That’s your family’s end goal, not yours. Don’t you have an impossible dream, Issy?” he invited.

She reached across and touched his cheek, their faces so close together that she could taste their mingled breath. “What would be the point? Why say the words aloud?”

“I don’t know,” he said helplessly, “but I know that I want more for you than Tristan.”

“More for me… or more for you?” Isabel threw herself back down beside him. “I suppose we shall have to run away together,” she said, sighing theatrically.

“Then I shall have to marry you,” he said latching on to her fantasy. “We’ll elope together and find my family.” His lips were gentle on hers, and when he withdrew, his hand remained on her cheek.

“But first you must profess your undying love like Abelard did for Héloïse.” They laughed together. The purple heather was crushed beneath Isabel’s body, releasing its sweet fragrance into the air, as she leaned across and placed a chaste kiss on his forehead.

“My love for you is undying.” Such sweet sincerity.

Isabel sobered. “But Abelard was castrated for his love of Heloise.”

He twined their fingers together. “I would kill them all if they tried.”

“Is that your pledge to me?”

“It is. But first you must ask that Will release you from your pledge to marry Tristan.” He didn’t sound as if he was playing now.

Isabel wrapped a coil of Conor’s hair around her finger. “He would never do that. He couldn’t.”

“Then you must break it off yourself.”

Her clawed hand cupped his cheek, her talons digging into his flesh. “Oh, Conor, you do not belong to this world, do you? You speak of such impossibilities as if they are possible. Must we have this conversation again?”

“No one can force you to marry him. They cannot make you say the words. You are free to do as you choose.”

Isabel patted his hand, her many rings glinting in the sun. “No woman is free, Conor, and very few men are, either. My father told me that once. He said that only children and fools think otherwise. I could refuse, it is true. I could even walk out of here. But I would have to provide for myself, though I have no useful occupation. I was born and raised to be a noblewoman, and a noblewoman I shall forever be. If I left, I would end my days on my back in a whorehouse. Better Tristan’s wife then a diseased whore.”

He lowered his eyes, his jaw locked into that familiar, stubborn set. “You would have me. I would take care of you.”

She laughed; a hard, bitter laugh. “Don’t you see? Even if I could make a life for myself, I don’t want to. I would have to put aside any thoughts of returning to my family. I would never see any of them again, and I couldn’t bear that.”

She thought of her brother then, so rich in choice. It was so easy for him to command her, to command them all. Those dark twins sat in their castle, carving out the world they wanted. Will would sit in his grand chair, grand as a throne, and his clerk would put one paper after another in front of him. And each time he desired to make his wishes come to life, he need only dip his quill in his ink and sign. Another clerk at his side would lean forwards, candle in one hand and sealing wax in the other, and drip red wax in a neat puddle on the document. A split second was all it would take him to press his ring to make the seal, and then his wishes were material. So easily. So effortlessly. Or else a word in the ear of a hooded man. Each would have the same effect. Just once, she would have liked to hold such power in her own right. She would have liked to sit in her brother’s place, put her initial on a command, and know that her word was law. That her choices mattered. That her commands would be done. That she could choose her own destiny.

“Would the brother you love so well really turn his back on you?”

“He would have no choice. I would have disgraced him.”

Katerina had told her tales of those who had disgraced him, disappointed him. Tales which always seemed to finish with an unhappy ending for every Devereux enemy. Worse still were those unfortunate creatures which had become naught but faceless strangers, fading so far back into their Devereux minds that Katerina could only call them things like my squire or that whore Will chased. She could not bear the thought that her brother would forget her.  

Conor’s mouth tightened. “Then he is no true brother.”

“My brother and my family are everything to me. Never seek to criticise them again, Con, for it only makes me hate you a little. But not them. I will always love them, and I will always be a Devereux before anything else.”

“Are you fool enough to believe that your brother is oblivious to the peril he is placing you in? My master is a dangerous man. A cruel man. Your brother knows that. Your brother knows him. Does he set your worth so low?”

But Conor did not understand her brother as she did. Will could not see danger, only advantage. Her marriage was still just a game to him, no different than the times he played chess with Tristan and the other men, each trying to outsmart the others. It was not in his nature to imagine that he might fail, that she might suffer for it. Even the death of their elder sister at the hands of her husband had not served to chasten him, it would seem. Lucia had thrown herself from the top of the tallest tower rather than live another day at the mercy of her husband.

Though she had threatened him with her hatred, Isabel would forgive Conor for the things he had said, for he couldn’t understand her brother as she did. Just as no one else understood Conor as she did. Her raven-haired love could be cruel, his tongue possessing venom which burned more painfully than a snake bite. Isabel knew that, and forgave him. During all the long, angry years of her adolescence, only he had ever sought to look beneath her flaws; only he possessed the patience to slowly burrow beneath the thickly ridged scar tissue of her basest emotions, and see the delicate miasma of feeling hidden beneath. For that, she would have forgiven him anything; for that, she would see beyond his imperfections, however cruelly his words lashed her skin.

“We will speak no more of it,” she said, pushing herself to her feet. “Come.”

“Where are we going?”

“To our palace.” She darted into the trees, crisp leaves crunching beneath her feet, half-rotten sticks snapping as she passed. Twigs caught in her long auburn curls, grabbed her ornate gown, and lashed at her pale cheeks, but still she ran, lifting her skirts, her speed increasing.

“Catch me if you can!” Her heart pounded so loudly in her chest that it masked every other sound around her. She hadn’t run like this since she was a child, since the days when her brother had chased behind her, loud and laughing. His favourite game had been to melt into the forest, to let her believe herself utterly lost, before reappearing, quietly prowling, snapping twigs, growling, making her think that he was a wolf intent on devouring her. But it wasn’t fear that drove her forwards this time; it was the excitement of the chase

Isabel could sense him closing in on her, and from time to time she caught a flash of black or tan darting through the brush as one of his hounds ran before him. The hounds were faster than he was, beasts designed by God to hunt and capture, but not so much more than Conor. There were times when she felt strong fingers clawing at her damask skirts, but she couldn’t tell if they were her lover’s hands or tree limbs fighting to slow her. Their touch urged her to move faster, heedless of the branches which slapped her skin and the stone and bark which scraped her hands and legs. He would catch her, there was no doubt, but not until she made him run her down.

Isabel hungered to feel the anticipation build and mount inside of her as much as she yearned for the outcome, desired to draw it out as long as she could. So easily they would expect her to give herself to Tristan. So obediently. But here she had choice. Here, she would make Conor earn her affection.

The walls of Glencaer were invisible now, but the great evergreen forest was familiar to her, for she and Will, and later she and Conor, had rode and hunted here as children.  It was a different kind of hunt now, one predator stalking another, but the trees would sing of fallen prey soon enough. She would be hunter and hunted, predator and prey. She would make a feast of his desire, as he would be sated by hers.

But she couldn’t run forever, nor could she anticipate every trap laid by the ancient oaks and beech. As light on her feet as Conor had taught her to be, as deft and swift as her footfalls were, there were hidden dangers. Her foot landed in a pile of thick, half-rotten leaves and caught in the twisted arch of a gnarled root which lay hidden beneath. Her hands instinctively shot forth to cushion her fall, her fingers sinking into damp, cool soil. The entire forest seemed to fall silent for a moment, holding its breath, waiting to see if she would scramble to her feet before he got to her. She struggled to rise, but it was not so much as a heartbeat before he was upon her, his hand on the back of her neck, holding her down. He stole a brief kiss on her cheek, before lurching to his feet. She rolled over, and looked up at him through a tangle of auburn curls. He extended his hand, his eyebrow quirked in amusement. “Lady Isabel.”

She took his fingers, allowing him to raise her from the ground. “What took you so long?”

Conor lunged forward, pinning her back against a tree. One of his hands dove under her skirt, whilst the other pinned her to the tree by her shoulder. His fingers made quick work of the layers of fabric, pushing them aside and sliding his hand up the exposed skin of her thigh. Her breath caught, his fingers seeking out the warmth between her legs as his mouth closed in on her throat. His teeth nipped her skin, chasing the quiver of her heartbeat up the side of her neck. Twigs caught in her long hair and scratched her skin as she leant back, tipping her head to give him more skin to caress. She felt his lips curve into a smile, and his mouth grew softer, placing gentle kisses on her milk-white neck. As his head moved lower, the tip of his tongue and his teeth grazing the slopes of her collarbone and the hollows they made, he slowly slipped his fingers inside her to draw out another heavy moan.

Isabel had never had to teach him how to touch her. He’d always been so eager to please her that he was quick to learn for himself what made her knees buckle and her hands tremble. It was the power she gave to him, the power to make her vulnerable, to consume her in a way that no one else could.

Later, when they lay sated in each other’s arms, not an inch of skin neglected by his teeth and tongue or the knowing touch of his fingers, he rested their foreheads together in a sort of prayer. “I once promised you that I would take you away from here - and I always keep my promises. I’m prepared to wait until you change your mind.”

She could see that he was. But whether it was the persistence of a hunter outside a burrow or the gentle patience of a farmer attuned to the seasons remained to be seen. “That will never happen.”

“I think it will. You do not want such a life for yourself. You have no desire to be the Lady of Glencaer. In your eyes I have read that to be enthroned is to be enslaved, my darling Issy. Your spirit is as wild as the May. To keep you here would be to cage an eagle. No matter how gilded the trappings, you will always yearn to be free of them.”

There were those who would gladly lap up the scraps of such a life. Like jackals they would slaver over the corpse of the woman she had been: this one picking away the rings, this one the dresses, this one the husband. They would strip away all that she was. But without those things, who would she be?

You would be his, whispered the voice she tried so hard to silence.

“Once I dreamed of a future such as mine. When I was a child, I wanted to be a lady. I was proud to be a Devereux – happy to be one.  I thought it was a story, like the Arthurian legends my father told me. I imagined that my life would be nought but a parade of beautiful dresses and handsome knights, and that these things alone would make me happy. Now I see that being a Devereux is a pitiless life. Power is a game of chess and Will has me as one of his pieces. Now he uses me on the board, next I may fall to one side and he won’t even think of me, as he brings another piece into play. Katerina, perhaps. Or, in time, one of his own daughters.”

Conor sat up, taking her hand in his. His black eyes burned into her. “Then forfeit the game, Issy. Withdraw from it.”

She reached upwards, patting her ornately looped hair, and lifted her headdress from the ground. She cradled it in her hands for a moment, studying it. The jewels glittered as the sun hit them, painting delicate patterns on the forest floor. She turned it slowly, watching the reflections dance across the leaf-strewn ground. It was another present from her brother. He did so enjoy weighing her down with gold and diamonds and brocade. Not because he loved her, but because he enjoyed seeing men unnerved by their wealth. She had seen the way that they glanced at her, eyes flickering from head to toe. The nervous bob of their Adam’s apple.  And Will would catch her eye, laughter in his gaze, for they were so intimidated by her riches, so overwhelmed by the heavy, intoxicating scent of her perfume. It was a reminder of her brother’s power – and it frightened them. How much lighter her head would be without the weight of gold upon it. And yet, the bracelets which adorned her wrists, the rings which glittered on her fingers, the earrings which trembled in her lobes, were her brother’s tokens, his touch. A gift to wear beside her skin, almost as if it were his hand on her wrist, his lips on her fingers. And she loved her brother.  “I can’t.”

“Aren’t you afraid of falling off to one side?”

“Yes.”  But her brother was everything, and without him she was nothing. And oh, her handsome brother might plot, but he loved her still. She could charm him, for he adored the little girl she had been when they were young together, and he liked to remember how he had been. It was easier for him to remember when he stood beside her. She was her brother’s weakness. She would not let him cast her aside.

Conor’s face wore the mask of Mars, the God of War. She could see that he fought to suppress his anger, that he wished to have them all before him so that he could fight for her and their future. His fists clenched. He sprang to his feet and began prowling up and down, like a caged beast spoiling for a fight, knowing that gladiators waited in the ring, and that soon he could unleash his pent-up fury upon them, his teeth tearing their flesh, his claws ripping their delicate skin. But his voice was wheedling, so at odds with the fire in his eyes, as he tried to persuade her. “Then why pursue such a fate? Come away with me. Be mine instead of his. My equal. Not the female version of me, but the compliment.”

He seemed to devour life, to savour every bite. How she wanted to do the same! Conor drew out the real Isabel, the one with dreams of breaking free of everyone and everything that reined her in. “Stop, my love. Don’t say these things to me, I beg you.”

He laughed, the sound so harsh that it seemed to pierce a hole in her stomach. His fingers were against his forehead, and he tapped the side of it. “Sometimes I whisper my thoughts into Oberon’s ear, because if I left them in my head they would consume me.”

“I think you are wise,” she said quietly, watching him pace. “Let the words drown in the black silence of the night.”

He spun on his heel, the movement jagged, and knelt before her, running his thumbs across her cheekbones. “I do, Issy, but it does not mean that they were never spoken or thought. Their imprint stays in my memory, and all you need do is ask me for them. My heart is yours to do with as you see fit.”

Isabel placed her hand on his chest, the beat of his heart throbbing through her fingers. “Then keep it silent. That is all I want.”

“Is it?” His beautiful face so eloquently expressed his desire, and she knew that it must be a mirror of her own.

Her voice was pitched low so as not to carry, though so far out in the forest there was no one to hear them. “Do you think you are the only one with unspoken words burning your tongue? I cast aside my dreams to build my nightmares. For the sake of my family, and for your sake, too.”

“Don’t turn me into an excuse not to pursue this.”

“I want this so much that I could set the world ablaze with what I feel inside.” She pressed her hand to her stomach in emphasis, feeling the pearls which lined her gown, hard beneath her fingers. “Sometimes I think it will consume me and there will be nothing left.”

He took her hand, and pressed it to his lips. “I would go through that blaze for you, my love, gladly.”

She sighed and stroked his face. “You’re still so young, Conor.”

“I’m older than you.”

“Not really. Not in the ways that matter, my love.”

“You’ll change your mind.”

Isabel wrapped her arms around him, burying her head in his neck. His skin smelled of horses and man, strong and comforting. “Never,” she whispered.

His shoulders slumped, but still they sat together as if nothing had happened – and in their game, a game of never moving forward, of being trapped in each other like ice, nothing would happen.

It was like stepping back in time, and Isabel knew, when she saw Lady Linota’s face, that it was happening all over again. The scene was little changed, except that this time it was Tristan who stood beside his mother’s chair, not Will. He could not meet her eyes as she entered the room. The memory, when it hit her, was so vivid that she had to stop, for she feared that she would faint.

Isabel knew, before the words had left Linota’s mouth, that it was her brother. Her sense of etiquette was engulfed by the black cloud which threatened to overwhelm her, to drag her back to that awful place. She did not curtsy, just stood and stared at them blankly. As Linota opened her arms, Isabel took a step backwards, as if she could escape the truth. If she didn’t say it, it wouldn’t be real.

This time Linota’s tears were not for Isabel, but for herself, for she had loved Will like a son. Sobs choked her gentle voice, and she had to take a deep gulp of air before she could say the words. “I’m so sorry…” She couldn’t continue. Racking sobs shook her body, and she turned to Tristan, burying her face in his chest.

“He’s dying,” Tristan said. Isabel had never seen the look on his face before. She had seen him upset and frustrated, but she had never seen him grieve for anyone else. His emotions had always been selfish: anger at not having got his own way, childish upset when his pride had been bruised. But he genuinely looked as if his heart was breaking. He was weak, vulnerable.

“Will?” Even as she was asking, she already knew the answer. She reached for her jeweled crucifix, another gift from the brother she loved so dearly, but her fingers fell short, for it was too late for prayer.

Tears filled Tristan’s eyes when she said his name.

Isabel’s mind dragged her back in time. She was sixteen, and she walked beside her brother, arm-in-arm. He turned towards her, fixing her with those great liquid eyes, so deceptively innocent. “Sister, do you know how old Alexander the Great was when he died?” He didn’t wait for her to reply. “Thirty-two.”

“But he did so much. Was he really so young, Will?”

He stopped and took her chin between thumb and forefinger, tilting her head back. In his eyes was the man who had been hidden in their father’s shadow for so long. He had come to life, her brother, and his jaws were open in a lupine grin, ready to take, to claim her father’s empire.  “I doubt I’ll last so long,” he murmured, his lips pressed against her ear. “Great men rarely do.”

Isabel had never questioned whether her brother would be a great man. Her father had been a great man: his blood ran through her brother’s veins; his spirit flared in Will’s dark eyes. He had been born for greatness. But she pressed a finger to his lips to silence him. “I would rather have you alive than great.”

The FitzAlans were looking at her warily. His men, too, and the ladies. She realised that they were expecting her to cry and wail, or else to scratch at them, claw out their eyes in her grief, for they knew that she was her brother’s dearest treasure, and that she loved him above all others. But they did not know what it meant to be a Devereux. Devereuxs never cried.

Isabel fought to gather the shattered pieces of her heart, to pull them together with untidy stitches. They would only have to hold for a little while, and then she would be home, and they could fall apart again, away from the prying eyes of her enemies. “Thank you, my lord. It was good of you to tell me in person.” She smiled at Tristan, gracious and contained. Her voice, when she spoke, was calm, though it sounded as if it came from someone else. “You must arrange for me to return to him.”

Tristan nodded, still unable to speak.

“I may be too late, but I must be present for his funeral at the very least.”

“Isabel, my darling…”

“I know.” This time she remembered to curtsy, as though her brother and sister stood to either side of her, their hands pressing down on her shoulders. She turned and left before they could say another word.


© Copyright 2017 Jordana J Sacks. All rights reserved.

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