The Damned

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

Chapter 44 (v.1)

Submitted: November 12, 2013

Reads: 156

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Submitted: November 12, 2013

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44

 

Glencaer, Welsh Marches, Shropshire, 25th April 1231

 

Conor saw them as he and Isabel cantered back across the moor at dawn. Two cloaked and hooded figures, wrapped in the shadow of the trees, their figures shrouded by the early morning mist. He knew, without knowing how, that they were waiting for him. They looked up in unison, and he felt the thrill of their power, sensed the very essence of them flying on the wind towards him like an unseen wraith. They pushed their hoods back. Their long, unbound hair was jet, the blackest shadows in a sea of darkness. They stood in silence, in beauty. He recognised them instantly. He felt the shock through his body, the physical jolt as the stallion tuned into his emotions, faltered. 

Conor threw himself from his horse before his mount had stopped, ran to them, threw his arms around the older woman. There were so many things he wanted to say to her, so many words of anger and hatred locked in his heart, but he could do naught but breathe her in. The smell of her was earth and spice, familiar and soothing. His gaze was reverent, his eyes drinking her in. He had been dying of dehydration, his emotions shrivelling, shrinking, and only now did he realise it. When he pressed a kiss to her forehead, the feel of her skin against his was the sweetest tonic on his parched lips. “Mother!”

The years had been kind to her. Clothed in green, she was still beautiful and vibrant and lovely. Enchanting. Strands of silver streaked her raven hair, but her olive skin was soft and smooth. She was still his. Still recognisable. “Oh, my baby,” she said, pushing his hair away from his face so that she could see him better. He could hear the tightness in her throat, the sorrow and the affection. “My beautiful boy.”

The second figure inclined her head in greeting, her eyes wary. “Conor.” The woman was as taut as a strung bow. She was as tall as his mother. As beautiful. As familiar. Her cloak was charcoal grey, clasped at the throat by two wolves on a silver brooch. They were locked together in battle, fighting, their lips drawn back in savage snarls. There was something wolfish about the woman who wore them, too. There was a feral glitter in her eyes, a dangerous, distrustful cunning. 

“Concessa.” Though he recognised his cousin, Conor saw the change in her. She was a woman now; the curves beneath her dark cloak left no doubt of that. He saw that she had changed in other ways as well. The bold, overconfident little girl was gone. The friend who had been blind to their differences had had her sight restored. He was not like her, and now she saw it as everybody else had.

Yet it didn’t seem to matter. There was no sadness left for her. He had lost her so long ago. He had grieved for her years before. Now he hated her. She had abandoned him, the same as all the rest. She was nothing to him anymore.

His mother was not so changed. The girl was almost a stranger, but when his mother held him she smelled the same, felt the same. When she looked at him, she saw him as she always had. He wanted to spurn her as she had spurned him, yet somehow he couldn’t let go of her. 

Isabel stood apart, uncomfortable, as if she felt she was intruding on their reunion. She appeared incongruous beside the earthy beauty of his family. She wore a gown of red silk so sheer and fine that it revealed the spun gold and jewels beneath. All of her wealth and her exalted status were revealed to those he had once loved, her unsuitably engraved into the rings which weighed down her slender fingers. And he saw that the other women despised her for it.

But Conor loved her: he loved her long red curls, her lovely face, her milk-white skin. But most of all he loved those eyes. She looked at him from the crimson hood which covered her bright hair, staring at him from a sea of silver. And there was knowledge in that lovely gaze, understanding. 

He wondered if she had recognised his mother as he had; if she had seen Conor in the black eyes of a woman she had never met. Did she hate her for abandoning him? Did she condemn her for her cruelty?

But the condemnation was theirs, not Isabel’s. Conor saw that the other women reviled her, despite her loveliness. Yet she belonged beside him, more than they ever had. “This is Isabel,” he said softly, for it was only right that they should know her.

Mistress Isabel?” There was something cold in his mother’s voice, in her eyes.

Isabel shook her head shyly, unnerved around his mother’s gimlet gaze, knowing that the older woman had seen what others had so long been blind to. “No.”

“Lady Isabel,” Conor corrected her. His eyes flickered to her face. He wanted her to disapprove. Wanted her to approve. Wanted her to care. “Lady Isabel Devereux.”

His mother slowly sank into a deep curtsy, her lip curling in distaste. Her long gown pooled around her feet, such a deep green that it seemed to have stolen all of the colour from the pale grass around it. “My lady.”

Concessa’s rouged mouth curved in a silken smile, as though his mother’s disrespect amused her. 

Isabel nodded acknowledgement of his mother’s feigned deference, looking uncomfortable. He loved her for that, for not rising to their bait, even as she must have known that they mocked her. 

“You may leave us, Lady Isabel,” Concessa said coldly. She pulled her long black braid across her shoulder, toying with the ends of it. 

But Isabel did not move. 

His cousin laughed, raising large, lustrous eyes to Isabel’s lovely face, her smile widening. “The girl will not heed me, Aunt Aoife. Perhaps if you were to ask her…” 

His mother’s black eyes narrowed. “My niece asked you nicely, Lady Isabel, but it seems that I must be more forceful. Leave us.”

A draft of chill air came howling from the dawn sky, sending Conor’s cloak flapping and swirling around his legs. The hairs on the back of his neck prickled. He felt the remembered thrill of dread. 

And then it came. He sensed the push as his mother’s magic gathered, grew, took aim. Strega shifted beneath Isabel, ears pinned back, tail swishing. The mare danced from foot to foot, fighting with her red-haired mistress, desperate to flee. The power which had always frightened him, which his mother had warned him he must never use, pulsed inside of the sorceress. He saw the confusion on Isabel’s face as his mother’s sinuous ability wrapped itself around her mind, taking control of it, trying to manipulate the direction of her thoughts. 

The anger came then, when she acted so cruelly, when she tried to manipulate someone he had always fought to protect. Anger for Isabel. Anger for himself. Anger for all of the years alone. Supressed fury tightened his throat. “Who are you to command her, mother?” he snarled. 

The rage coiled in Conor’s stomach, reared up, struck, its fangs biting into soft, tender flesh. He stepped in front of the mare, pushed back. Delighted in the shock on his mother’s face, for he had always been more powerful than she was. He felt sweat on his brow as his cousin’s gift joined with his mother’s, but he pushed against them both – easily, effortlessly – beat them back, for his gift was so much stronger than theirs. None of them had been as strong as he was.

The pupils of the women’s dark eyes expanded, all colour obliterated by their blackness. They were gleaming jet beads, enormous and compelling. His body stiffened, his tongue freezing, rendering him mute. His feet tingled painfully, then lost feeling and seemed rooted to the floor. Conor’s mind screamed: Damn you! You won’t do this to me. 

He drew power from somewhere deep inside, fought off the frigid paralysis. And his mother blinked, breaking their spell, leaving his cousin alone. Concessa stumbled, tottered, and the thread of her magic snapped. The muscle-fettering ice melted away. 

Conor’s stare fixed on Concessa. His cousin raged as he pushed into her head, fought him, looking at him with eyes which promised murder. But he only smiled at her.

His triumph was fleeting. Conor pulled away, stumbled, reeling. The feel of it inside of him, the knowledge of what he could do, frightened him. He had gone inside of his own mother’s head, controlled her, taken all choice from her. He had taken over her mind. Influenced her. Had he influenced Isabel, too? Had he forced her to her folly even as she fought against him? The thought sickened him. 

The fear fuelled his rage. “You will be the one to leave,” he snarled. “Leave, mother, and take your she-devil with you. Leave and don’t ever come here again.”

The furious glint in his cousin’s eyes dulled. She touched his cheek, her red lips curving. “You’re frightened. You fight your nature when you should glory in it,” she murmured. 

Conor glared at the girl. She had raged against his presence, felt his abominable gift take control of her. Yet still she encouraged it. “I don’t know what you speak of, witch.”

“Don’t talk of it now, Cessa,” his mother said sharply, her gaze darting to Isabel. Her dark stare fixed on Conor. “I did not come here to fight. I needed to see you, to see for myself that you’re happy. I’ve missed you, my beautiful boy.”

“You’re a liar, mother. You abandoned me. How can you miss something you so easily gave away?”

His mother closed her eyes for a moment, her fingers fastening around her golden pendant, her face pinched with distress. The wind seemed to sigh in time with her. “I was offered the chance to give you a different life - a better life. Would you condemn me for trying to save you from our darkness?” She held her hands out in a silent plea. “Try to understand, child. There is not a single day since you left me that I haven’t thought about you.” 

“I didn’t leave you! You sold me, mother” he growled. 

His mother’s eyes filled with tears. “I grieved for you. A part of me died when you left, and I have lived as one who was only half alive every day since.”

“Don’t cry. It’s not fair! What of me? What of my grief? Was that nothing to you?”

“I’m not the monster you think I am.”

“Then why did you do it? I have tried to see what would make you do such a thing, but I don’t understand. Tell me, mother, what price was high enough to make you sell your child?”

His mother looked at him with wounded, angry eyes, her face as bleak as the barren moorland which surrounded them. “You think I chose money over you? Are you really such a fool? Did the first ten years of your life mean so little to you? Teach you so little about me? I had nothing to offer you, Conor. No future to give you. I wanted something better for you. And you’re happy now, aren’t you?” she said desperately. 

Though he was still unbearably angry, Conor nodded, his gaze wandering to Isabel. Her eyes were downcast, her thick dark lashes resting upon her cheeks, but she raised them, meeting him stare for stare. His Isabel. His joy. “I have known happiness here.”

“That’s all I needed to know,” his mother whispered, turning as if to go.

Conor felt the panic, as if he was ten years old, still stood in that field, surrounded by soldiers. “Don’t leave me again.” His voice was plaintive, his eyes beseeching as he addressed her. “Not yet. I need answers.”

Concessa reached for his mother, the delicate scent of roses wafting into the cold air as she moved. “Wait, Aunt Aoife. At least tell him why we are here.”

His mother slowly nodded her agreement. “Then let us talk alone.” 

Concessa turned her gaze on Isabel. He felt the throb of her power humming through his body, gathering. He summoned all of the strength inside of him, moved out of his self, forced himself into his cousin. Concessa arched her back and groaned, fighting him wildly. Her hands flailed, shook, trembled. 

Conor pulled back as she staggered, watched with wary eyes as she drew a deep, shuddering breath into her lungs. “I warned you,” he snarled. 

Though she glared at him, his cousin inclined her head slightly, and he knew that she would not make such an attempt again.

“Go, Isabel,” he said wearily. “My family and I need to talk.”

“I’ll leave you,” she murmured, placing a soft kiss on his lips. Her lovely face peered out from the crimson confines of her velvet hood, hidden from the gypsy women’s stares. She narrowed her eyes, her gaze shining like molten silver. “If that’s what you want.” 

He nodded slowly. “This won’t take long.”

Isabel smiled reassuringly, placing another gentle kiss on his lips. “Be brave, Con,” she whispered, her breath warm against his ear, before she turned Strega and cantered away across the moor. 

Conor watched her retreating figure in silence, his back to his family. Only when his lover had disappeared over the brow of the hill did he turn back to the gypsy women. “Tell me what you want,” he demanded.

“We’re here to take you home,” his mother murmured.

“What?”

“This isn’t where you belong.”

He laughed scornfully. “Then where do I belong? Not with you.”

“Maybe you do. Maybe I was wrong to doubt it.”

“What can you offer me now that you could not offer me before?”

His mother sighed. “Nothing. But I gave you the chance to escape and you could not take it. Now I offer you the life I tried to save you from. You will be an outcast, never doubt it, but you will be free.”

“I don’t need you. I will win my own freedom.”

Concessa laughed patronisingly, her dark eyes mocking his naivety. “With her? How do you think that this will end, Conor? Do you expect to work in the stables? Care for her fiancé’s horses? Are you to slave as her underling, always pining for her from afar? Perhaps you hope that you will share a tumble in the hay as often as possible until she either marries or grows fat with your child?”

Conor felt rage rising within him. His fingers twitched, begging him to unleash his power on her. “Don’t ever speak of her in that way. I’m warning you, Concessa. You don’t know her. You don’t even know me anymore.”

His cousin laughed again, the sound high and derisive. “I know that you have drifted far from reality.”

His mother’s voice was softer, yet still it condemned him. “There is no place for you in such a picture. You are worth more than she can give you. You think you will run away together? You won’t. 

“And what of the little aristocrat, Conor? Doesn’t she deserve more than you have? What can you give a woman such as her, child? You have nothing to offer, nothing with which to support her, and no title to give her prestige.”

“I know all of that. But I love her, mother. Is that not enough?”

She placed a finger on his lips. “Hush, baby. Your love is not as precious as you think. Its worth is not high enough to expect her to sacrifice all that life has given to her. It never will be.”

“I cannot leave her. I have no notion of how to free her. She is ingrained in me, as much a part of me as you once were. The only way I will ever be parted from her is if she sends me away.”

His mother sighed, shook her head. “Come away with me, child. If she loves you so greatly, then she will follow. Force her to choose. If she does not choose you, then find somebody who will.”

“If I leave it will break her heart.”

Concessa studied her nails disinterestedly. “Unfortunate, but not something you can spare her.”

“This is not the place for you, baby,” his mother murmured, gentle but inexorable. “The wild blood is too strong. It’s time for you to come home.”

“I have no home but this one. You sent me here. You did this to me.”

She shut her eyes and opened them again. “I thought that you could live among them, when you could not live among us. But I was wrong. I should have raised you in the camp. Then you wouldn’t want things which are beyond your reach.”

“Isabel is not beyond my reach. I have her already.”

“And what else do you have?” Concessa asked him, shaking her head. “Nothing! And that will never change, not while you remain here. Nothing good will come of aspiring beyond your God-given place, little cousin.”

“I want to stay here,” he said adamantly. “I want nothing more. I choose her over everything.”

“Even your freedom, Conor? Don’t let her enslave you,” his mother pleaded.

“I have no choice. Our fates are already too tightly woven. Whatever you do now, and whatever you could have done differently, Isabel and I would have met at some point, at some time.”

Concessa’s gaze darkened. “Is that what you believe, or is that what the girl believes?”

“Perhaps it’s my gypsy blood talking. My wild blood,” he said derisively. 

Concessa smiled, looking at him as though he were a fool for mocking them. “The girl is born of the blonde-haired countess, is she not?” she said delicately. “The Lady Lynessa? Do you know what that means, Conor?”

He could see that she was baiting him, that she wanted to demonstrate his stupidity to him. “Of course,” he said warily. “I know what Isabel’s family are, better than anyone. I know the power they possess.”

“No, you don’t,” his cousin baited. “You know nothing of their power.” 

His mother narrowed her black eyes. “Concessa is right, though she shouldn’t provoke you so.”

“What does she mean, mother?”

“The little Devereux heirs are the children of Lady Lynessa Swail, and the Swails are a haunted family. Some say they’re cursed.”

“Are they?” He looked to his cousin. Her tall frame rested against the trunk of an ancient oak, languid and elegant, her long black hair cascading down her shoulder like a river of ebony silk. But despite her grace and loveliness, she was a child-woman, not a woman grown, with her soft hands and little giggles, a girl who still delighted in provoking him. “Tell me, Cessa. Please.” 

She laughed again. “Some call them witches. And all say that their women are mad.”

Conor turned to his mother, tired of his infuriating cousin. “What if she is? You met Isabel. You know she’s brilliant and beautiful. And we’re a haunted family too. Do you think such knowledge will make me love her any less?”

His mother’s face darkened. “The girl will bring you nothing but tragedy. You don’t know the power you possess, Conor, and nor does she. Your gift with horses is prized by your master, but it is only the first bloom of your wild talent. You can do more – so much more – than you know. And so can she. There are many old stories about the powers of their womenfolk: an ability to commune with the dead; dreams of the future; dreams of death. But more than anything else there is madness. It drives all of them mad in the end, the gifted ones. Will you still love her when she is tearing her own hair out? Will you still love her when she no longer recognises you nor any other living man or woman, for she has seen so much of death that she is trapped in a world of ghosts?”

“Maybe she is mad already. Maybe we both are, for is what I can do any less strange than her dreams of death? We are not like everybody else. We are the same, Isabel and I. I have kept her loneliness at bay, and she has saved me from mine. I will never leave her.”

“You must, Conor.”

“Why? You could be wrong about her. What if you are? Why should I heed your warning? For if I do, this person, this precious girl who I so love, will be lost to me.”

His cousin’s face darkened. “We’re not wrong. I felt the girl’s talent. I felt it as you feel it.”

You are mad. You both are. Not her.”

A mulish expression soured Concessa’s face. “No good can come of loving her. The girl is worth too much to her terrible family. Do you think that they will let you take her from them?”

“I do not intend to ask their permission. I know her family. Isabel has told me all of this herself.”

“They will kill you, Con, if you seek to take her from them,” his cousin said. Her voice was cold, as if his death would be nothing to her. “Never doubt that. They will reclaim her, no matter where she goes or how. She will be disgraced and you will be dead. Is your fantasy really worth so much to you?”

“I love her.”

“Of course you do, for she is like us,” his cousin responded. “You are one born with the talent, and so is she. She is tied to us by blood, you fool, just as your old master, the Earl of Hetchell, is.”

“What?”

“The Swailes family are not entirely Norman, Con,” his mother said. “When the Normans came, one of them took an Irish princess to wife. This woman was a daughter of one of our own princesses. She was lovely and royal, irresistible to him… and she was gifted, too – that most of all.”

“The Norman man was a beast, little cousin. He had to have the girl, and nothing would deter him.” Concessa’s ripe, red lips curved in a mocking smile. “But the conqueror paid the price of his folly for, all unknowing, the Norman bequeathed his poor children the gift of arcane powers from their wild ancestor.” 

 “There is wild blood in her veins too,” his mother explained. “The link is over two hundred years old, yet still the magic exists.”

“You think that sharing a grandmother two hundred years ago will dissuade me from loving her now?”

His mother took his hands, her black eyes sad, and kissed his knuckles. “Both you and Isabel have magic in your veins. You are hearing an explanation of how such gifts came about. The blood of your ancestors gave you your gifts, Conor, and her blood gave Isabel the curse she bears.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

Concessa answered. “We’re telling you because you have only ever half-believed in the future she has shown you. You always thought that you would be the one to save her. But you can’t. What the girl has seen will come to pass.”

“What do you want me to do with this information?”

“It’s not been my purpose to wound you, baby,” his mother murmured, her voice soft with affection. “I tell you only because, if you ever doubted the truth of the girl’s magic, you must see that you cannot doubt it any longer. You know your own curse. You understand it, have experienced it. So understand this, also: her magic is as real as yours. Whatever fate she has seen will come to pass. You cannot change it.”

“She says she will marry Tristan FitzAlan,” he muttered.

His mother raised her hand to his cheek, cradling his face in her palm as she had when he was a child. For too long he had yearned for such a touch, such a comfort. Now he despised it, for he hated the words which accompanied it. “Then spare yourself the heartache of watching her love another, and come away with me instead. Give the girl the chance to be happy with this man.”

“Does she have such a chance?”

“Not with you around to remind her of what she truly wants. But if you leave, then perhaps, for you say only that she will marry him, not that she will be unhappy. Has she seen more?”

“She says not.”

His mother took his face in her hands, pressed a kiss to his forehead. “Then give her the chance. You must leave Isabel to her fate and come home to yours.”

“I won’t do it. Even if I wanted to, I can’t.”

She pulled away, staring at him from eyes so like his own that it seemed he was looking into a mirror. “Tell me, Conor, do you want to damn her to unhappiness?”

“No.”

“Then let her love somebody else.”

“Why would you force me to make such a choice? Why must you force me to give her up? I cannot be apart from her.  I cannot leave her. It is impossible.”

His mother sighed. “Don’t be angry with me, my son, for your own sake. You will need me, once you let her go. And you will let her go. You must, for we do not only come to plead with you on the girl’s behalf.”

“I know why you are here. You come to plead with me for your own sake, mother. The guilt is eating away at you. But why should I offer you absolution?”

“Aunt Aoife has not come to you for her own gain, Conor. She is here because I asked her to be,” Concessa said.

“You?”

His cousin’s dark eyes softened. “Is that so hard to believe? We were friends once, were we not? And we’re still family.”

“Why are you here, Cessa?”

“I share the same blood as the girl, just like you. She is not the only one to know things she shouldn’t, Conor. Her gift may be stronger than mine, but I am gifted too. I came here to warn you.”

Cold sweat broke out on his brow. “Tell me what you saw, Cessa.”

His cousin’s lovely young face looked wretched. “I saw death. Your death – and the girl’s. A golden haired demon is waiting to snatch you away from the world of the living. This man is carved from marble, a statute, yet he moves and breathes and lives. But do not doubt that he is a dead thing. He is hungry, Con. He burns with hunger, lust. Black blood - dead blood - drips from his mouth. Beware, little cousin. He knows where you are. He waits for the day when he will claim you. You must leave here. You must flee from him and the death that he will deliver.”

“I dare any man to try and take my life. I will fight this demon you speak of. I will defeat him. But I’m not leaving here. I’m not leaving her.”

“I had a vision. A powerful vision. You understand that I saw your death?”

“Yes. But don’t you see that I belong with her? She’s the only one who will ever understand me, and I’m the only one who will ever understand her. We recognised it in each other, on the very first night that I met her. It was exactly as you said.”

Concessa shook her head, and gave him a hard, angry glare. “You have your own fate, and she has hers. You have to move away from each other.”

“That’s impossible.” They would have to kill him first. 

His mother’s eyes narrowed. “Are you really such a love-struck fool? You truly think you would die before you would leave her?”

Conor looked at her, silenced. He remembered her power, her magic. He knew that she had taken the thought from his mind.

A strained laugh escaped from Concessa’s lips. “Don’t look so shocked, Con. You have been too long away. You let us in too easily. But we can help you. We can teach you.” 

His mother spoke then, her voice soft. “Conor, we’re trying to keep you alive.”

“Let us save you,” Concessa murmured.

“Where is the difference between us? If you can save me, why can I not save her?”

“Because she doesn’t want to be saved. Who would ever wish to forfeit such a charmed life? If you had the power to persuade her, you would already have done it,” his mother said, her hand on his arm.

“She would come away with me, if I asked her to.”

“He’s right, Aunt Aoife, she would. But you must never ask the girl, Con, for you will be the one to lead this demon to her,” Concessa said softly. “To save her, you must leave her.”

“You’re lying.”

“I’m not. It’s you that he wants. But he will take her too, if you lead him to her.” 

“Who is this man?”

“I don’t know. He looked familiar, yet he is no one that I know.” 

“Show him, Concessa,” his mother murmured.

His cousin took his hands between her own. “Close your eyes,” she whispered.

Conor’s eyelids fluttered shut, letting her power bear him away. And he saw. And what he saw terrified him. 

His mother placed her hand on his cheek as his stare met hers. “She will destroy you,” she said, “and if she does not, then you will destroy her. You have seen it, Conor. If you stay together, then you condemn each other.” 

“How can that be? She’s the one who’s kept me alive. Without her, there would have been nothing left of me. There would have been nothing for you to try and salvage.”

“You’ll let us try then?” his cousin asked. 

He narrowed his eyes, staring into her dark eyes, trying to see into her head, her heart. “Is there any chance for us? I need the truth now, Cessa. I have to know that I’m not giving up on Isabel when there is a chance for us to find happiness together. I beg you to answer me with honesty.”

“There is no chance for you in this life. You will never be together. If you stay you will only ruin her. Your worlds are too far apart, baby. In the middle there is only a great, gaping black maw, a hungry mouth to swallow you whole,” his mother said, so sadly.

He took her hands in his. “Was my father so far above you?”

“As far above me as the stars,” she murmured. 

Tears came to her eyes then. Conor looked at her for a moment, so wretched and vulnerable, so hurt, even after so many years. He saw the sacrifices she had made, all of the things she had wanted for him. He remembered her tears on the day that she had let him go, and he knew that she had loved him, had sacrificed her own happiness to buy the promise of his. His arms came down around her, pulled her to him. “I forgive you,” he whispered. “Now take me home, mama.”

“I’m sorry, my lovely boy, so sorry that I failed you. I wanted you to have everything, and now I come here and insist that you are to have nothing.”

“You’ve given me the chance to save her.”

“You will give her up, then? You will come back to me?”

Conor swallowed. Nodded. “I must. I have no choice but to spare her.”

 

*

 

Tristan was waiting for her when she returned, arrogant and cocksure as always. He adopted a manly pose as he heard her approach, hand on his hip, one foot thrust out. He raised his brilliant blue eyes to Isabel, looking at her distractedly, his fingers stroking the soft, mottled breast feathers of the young peregrine falcon which perched on his gauntleted fist. “Lady Isabel.”

The stables seemed strangely hushed by his presence. The normal bustle was muted. The grooms were half-hidden in the shadows, though from time to time they darted fearful glances at their master. Where the men should have shouted and jested, they only whispered now.

“My lord,” Isabel murmured, inclining her head, her deference half-hearted. 

“Will you ride out with me, my lady?” 

Though he had posed it as a question, Isabel knew that it was an order. Her heart beat faster. Tristan had never asked her to accompany him before. She had always been William’s little sister, a child to him. She had seen his eyes roving her body appreciatively enough times, felt his fingers moving across her thigh, but he was like a raging bull, his lust insatiable, and he treated all of the girls in a similar manner. He wanted her, as he wanted them all, but he had never before singled her out for his affections.“You wish to talk with me?” Her voice was steady, concealing her apprehension. 

“I do. Do you know why, Lady Isabel?” His eyes twinkled, but they were hard too – like bright chips of stone. The supercilious curl to his top lip made her loathe him. 

Isabel’s stomach curdled. “I can guess.”

Tristan arched one arrogant brow. “Can you indeed?”

He mounted Oberon as Strega stood in the courtyard, waiting patiently. The stallion’s eyes rolled as he was brought forward, the great warhorse unnerved by Tristan’s callous manner and Conor’s absence. He turned in tight circles as his master tried to mount, sweat breaking out on his sable neck. Foam flecked his mouth.Tristan was unperturbed. He was a strong, confident horseman, and Oberon’s behaviour was no deterrent. 

Isabel watched the way he handled the horse, and she wanted to weep, for there was such a sharp contrast between his cruel manner and Conor’s tenderness; Tristan dominated the stallion where Conor befriended him. She flinched as she heard the crack of the whip on the horse’s black hide, wanted to cry when she saw the blood which dripped down his sable skin. And when the warhorse finally stood, broken and trembling, she could have crumpled to the ground, curled up in a ball and sobbed. For in the soulful eyes of the great beast, so troubled and afraid, she saw a precursor of the fate that she was destined to suffer. She knew that she would marry this beautiful devil, and she knew that he would break her too. The girl inside of her screamed, but Isabel had turned to stone. The child inside beat her fists against the stone effigy that watched the tyrant rage and curse and hurt without so much as blinking, but still the woman did nothing.

They rode out in silence, each unsure of how to act around the other. The great, stone fortress fell away behind them as they cantered side by side, the horses climbing the steep track which led them out onto the surrounding moorland. The peregrine falcon flew high above them, its wings casting dark shadows on the spring landscape. A crow sang its mournful song as they trampled the purple heather, a harbinger of doom. The ground was still coated with early morning frost, and an icy mist enveloped them. The day possessed a cold, unearthly beauty, but its beauty twisted like a knife inside of her.

Isabel could think of nothing to say to the man beside her, for they had nothing in common. She neither knew nor cared about his likes and dislikes, for whatever they were, none would match hers. He was not made for her; Conor was. She had watched him her whole life, and she saw him for what he was: arrogant, abrasive, rash. He had a reputation for excess: he was a womaniser, a gambler, a heavy drinker. She knew that she would never love him. She knew that it was better that she did not know what moved him, for to get too close to him would be to see into the heart of a devil.

Tristan drew Oberon to a stop as they reached the summit of the hill, letting the reins slide through his fingers. He turned to Isabel, a frown etched across his perfect face. “We are to be married, my lady,” he sombrely announced. 

Though she had expected them, his words struck fear into Isabel’s heart. Her stomach curdled. She understood that it was not a proposal; the deal had been forged many years before, and she had no choice in the matter. The marriage would come to pass, whether she wished it or not. She forced herself to meet her betrothed’s brilliant stare. “When?”

“Soon. Your mother, brother and sister will join us tonight to celebrate our engagement and to begin the preparations for our wedding.”

Nausea surged. Too soon. Too soon. “No.” The words were out of her mouth before she had time to think about what she was saying. 

“The arrangement displeases you?” Her future husband sounded mildly surprised. She saw that it had never crossed his mind that she might have an opinion on the matter. “Why? Do I disappoint you?” 

Tristan raised his arm, and the peregrine falcon soared down from above them, settling itself on his fist. For a moment she bated on the perch, the sound of her beating wings filling the space where no words fell. Tristan pulled a bloody strip of venison from the pouch at his belt and fed it to the bird, stroking her with a gentle forefinger until she settled. 

Isabel narrowed her eyes, staring at him, wanting to love him, desire him, hunger for him. She studied his features with a distracted curiosity, wondering how such beauty could fail to move her. His hair was a rich, glossy brown, with a gleam like layered feathers. His eyes were brilliantly blue, their arrogance and fire mingled with a bright intelligence. And cruelty. That, too. But still the man was lovely. Truly lovely. A devil should not be so divinely handsome.

She looked at him warily. “I can’t marry you, my lord. I do not love you yet,” she said carefully.

A flush mounted in Tristan’s cheeks. “Do you not desire me, Lady Isabel?”

“You are beautiful, my lord.”

“But you do not desire me.” He sat taller and jutted his chin. “That will change, in time.”

“Will I learn to love you, too?”

Tristan’s complexion darkened. “We’re getting married, my lady. Love has nothing to do with it.”

“No. I will not agree to it.”

He studied her carefully, his head tilted slightly. “Don’t be a fool, my little Devereux. It doesn’t suit you. Accept this proposal with good grace, as you know you should.”

“I cannot. Do not do this to me, Tristan,” she pleaded. 

His gauntleted hand found hers and held it. “Marry me, and you will want for nothing, Lady Isabel. Be mine, and the world will be yours.” He brushed his thumb across her palm, making her shiver.

“Please, my lord, I beg you to give me some time.”

He frowned, pursing his lips as if considering her words. He shook his head. The twinkle was gone from his eyes, only the bright hardness remaining. “You have had time enough. I have let you grow, have I not? I have waited too long, Lady Isabel. You are beautiful already. Beautiful and adult. What more could you hope to gain? You are perfect as you are. You will make a fitting consort, my lady. You will be my countess. I will settle for none other.” With that, he turned and cantered away, leaving Isabel to stare at his retreating figure. 

The landscape blurred. Fear gripped her heart. She could see the bars of her cage being constructed around her. But she wouldn’t do it. She wouldn’t let them trap her, and nor would Conor. Tumultuous thoughts tumbled over one another in her head: they would elope; they could escape all of this, and all of them; they could be together properly. She knew then that she would leave. She had never believed it before, but she saw now that there could be no other future worth living. Tristan would give her everything but the gift of choice. He would make her powerless, though there was no submission in her.

 

 

Her mother was reclining in an ornate chair when Isabel entered the solar, Lynessa’s hands resting regally on the chair arms. Her gaze was far-away, as though she were not there with them at all. She was a perfect stone effigy, so still and pale that she could have been carved from marble. The only outward signs of mortality were the lines that rimmed her mouth and eyes, scars of a life fraught with grief.

Katerina stood with her back to Isabel, facing the fireplace. Her slim figure was ensconced in a long, royal blue gown, and her hair was free, worn in the fashion of a virgin, deceptively pure and innocent. Her slim waist flared out into womanly hips, her perfect figure making Isabel want to grab her from behind. 

A golden-haired boy stood behind her mother’s chair. She knew him instantly, though too many years stood between them. Hugh. Her brother. At sixteen, he was a truly beautiful youth. He still had her mother’s golden curls, but his dark eyes betrayed her father in him. He and Katerina both turned to regard her with those seductive, liquid eyes as she entered the room.

And she remembered another room, and another boy. A fallen angel. But even he had not been as lovely as the pair that greeted her now, so perfectly formed from head to toe that it seemed impossible that they were entirely human. Katerina took his hand, and together they approached her. 

“Isabel,” Katerina murmured. 

“Kat.”

Katerina gently pushed Hugh towards her, her fingertips brushing along his palm as she moved away and their hands separated.

“Brother,” Isabel curtsied.

He returned a swift bow. “Sister.”

Katerina, as ever, was to the point. “Don’t ruin this for us, little sister. This alliance will be invaluable.”

Isabel swallowed. “I won’t marry him, Kat. I don’t love him.”

Her sister poured wine for the three of them, and passed it around. She raised her goblet to her lips, and slowly sipped the red nectar, looking at Isabel over the rim of her cup. “Of course you don’t, yet, but you will – with time. Now drink, sister. It’s not poisoned.” 

Isabel thrust away the wine, making it slop over the edge, for it was another way to defy her sister. “I will never love him,” she spat.“I cannot stand the man.” 

Katerina’s tone became harder, the false honey replaced by her signature venom. “Tristan is not any man – he is an earl. And he will be your husband. You have been promised to him since you were three years old, and now he shall have you. You are years past the age to wed, Isabel, but Will loved you so greatly that he hesitated to force this union upon you. Our brother cared that this marriage displeased you, but I don’t. Your love, or lack of, is irrelevant. You don’t have to like Tristan. You don’t have to love him. All you have to do is keep his interest for long enough to get him into your bed and fill your womb with his son.”

“I won’t do it.” 

Katerina reached out to her, but Isabel drew back. Her sister lowered her arm and smoothed her skirt instead. “You will have every luxury. What more could you want?” 

Isabel gave her a long look. “Would you change places with me?”

“I’m not like you.” 

“Your compliance is irrelevant,” Hugh said lazily, inspecting his nails with half-hearted interest. 

“You can’t force me to marry him.”

Katerina’s voice came again, from behind Isabel’s shoulder, toying and provocative. Her sister’s long fingers curled around the back of her neck, making her shiver. “You underestimate me, sister. When will you learn that I can make you do anything I want?”

“Why now? Why must he have me now?” Of course she knew why Tristan wanted her: he wanted to dominate her and wear her on his arm like a tamed goshawk; he wanted to see the envy in other men’s eyes that he had a Devereux at his beck and call.

“Tristan wants an heir.”

“I’m still young. Make him wait, Kat, just for a little while.”

Her sister gave a caustic laugh, her fingers tightening, her nails digging into Isabel’s skin. “No.”

Isabel turned to her brother, who had so coolly observed the exchange. “Hugh, please…”

Her brother took their sister’s mouth in a long, luxurious kiss, his hand cupping her spine. “Why do you turn to me, Isabel? Katerina speaks for me. She has told you what I demand of you. You will do as I wish, sister, whatever it takes. If Tristan wants to gouge your eyes out for his pleasure, I expect you to smile as he does it.” His calm was unearthly and terrifying, his words serious. 

And in that moment, as their eyes met, Isabel recognised him. She saw the man that he had grown into: the man from her dreams. Though Will had been the true Devereux heir, the eldest, the one born to rule, Hugh was the living embodiment of their dark blood. His eyes were burning pitch, his moods as sudden and furious as a wildfire. Life seemed to bore him, nothing holding his interest for long, nothing ever exciting him. Except for the screams of his prisoners. She had heard that he seemed to like those. The squires whispered of the Devereux boy. They said that his victim’s pleas for mercy lit up those dark eyes until her brother looked like the devil himself. His men warned each other to beware of his rages: Beware the rage of the golden lord, for there is little else in him but that.

“Do not do this to me,” she begged.

Her mother spoke then, her hands clenching the arms of her oaken throne. Her voice trembled. “It is better that you do not love him. It will be less painful that way.”

Katerina’s dark eyes were sharp and assessing. “Let me put it a different way, sister. I know that you’re the stable boy’s whore. No, don’t try to deny it,” she said, before Isabel could form the words. “If such a truth were ever to get out, it would destroy you. You would be worthless to us. Do you think that we are fool enough to maintain you as a pet? If such a reality came to pass, we would not keep you, Isabel. You must fulfil your duty, or there is no place for you in this family.”

“Don’t you understand? This life does not matter to me as it matters to you. I care nothing for money and titles. Cut me loose and I will rejoice at my freedom. I will take his name and be happier for it.” 

Her sister heaved a sigh. “You still don’t understand. You won’t have your stable boy. There will be no marriage. He had no right to lay his dirty hands on you. Seduction and rape of a lady is, I believe, a hanging offence,” she said delicately. 

“I wanted him to do it. I’ll tell them all that it was my decision.”

Hugh interrupted her. “Except that you won’t be permitted to give evidence, I’ll make sure of that. You will be locked away from everyone, to recover from your ordeal. If you refuse to marry Lord FitzAlan, your lover will hang for it. You might not put the noose around his neck, but you will be his executioner.” 

His words hung in the air, heavy and leaden. Isabel felt her shoulders slump in defeat, as though the things they said would truly come to pass. As though her marriage would truly happen, and she had truly had to plead for its postponement. It didn’t feel as though she could ever be free of them. 

Katerina’s face lit up delightedly, knowing that they had her. A surge of fury seized Isabel. She struck her sister across her smug face with the back of her hand, the blow making a loud crack as it landed. 

“How dare you touch her?” her brother roared. His hands were around her throat, his face so close to hers that she could smell the wine on his breath. He threw her aside roughly, knocking her to the floor. “Get out of my sight. We will speak again tomorrow, and by all that is holy you will give me a different answer or suffer the consequences.”

Scenting victory, Katerina straightened up, smiled, unperturbed by the angry red mark which marred her perfection. “I’ll tell Lord Tristan how much you’re looking forward to becoming his wife then, shall I?” 

Isabel slowly rose to her feet, defiantly meeting her sister’s gaze. “If you do this, you send me to my death. Would you have my blood on your hands too?”

Katerina moved to the mirror which hung above the fireplace. A dozen candles illuminated her reflection, their wavering flames turning her sister’s skin to molten gold. She carefully smoothed her tawny hair, artfully arranging her curls so that they tumbled down about her shoulders. So beautiful. So cruel. How could such delicate loveliness mask such a rotten soul? 

Her sister turned to Hugh, her small hands brushing over his chest, tenderly arranging his cloak about his shoulders. But her eyes fixed on Isabel. “If you are weaker than your fool of a husband, then you don’t deserve to live, little sister.”

 

 

The shadows lengthened. The red evening sun walked slowly along the frescoed walls, lighting up one scene, and then another, as she anxiously paced the length of their palace. Isabel looked at the room distractedly. With its marble columns and mosaic floors, it had once been a study in opulence. It had been as beautiful and magnificent as the castle that should one day have been hers. But someone, at some time, had chosen to abandon it, just as she would abandon Glencaer. She had sworn to give it all up. Soon there would be nothing left to say she had ever dwelt there, just as there was nothing left here to tell her who had once dined in the ruined rooms, and bathed in the cracked pool. Her room would stand empty, her clothes left abandoned to gather dust. Her brother would have laughed at her foolishness. 

Isabel’s heart raced as she heard the thunder of hooves. The hour was late, the sky almost black now. She strode to the arched doorway, standing still and quiet in the shadows. Conor entered on silent feet, sadness and despair darkening his beautiful face. He sank to the ground in the entrance hall, burying his face in his hands, his long legs outstretched at a careless angle.

“Conor,” she murmured, emerging from the darkness. 

He stood slowly, his tall, broad-shouldered frame towering over her. His arms came down around her, and he pulled her to him, wrapping his big body around hers. “Isabel,” he breathed. “My beautiful Isabel.” 

She buried her face in his chest, inhaling the primal scent of him deep into her lungs. The tears came then, falling as they never fell for anyone else, wetting the rough material which scratched her cheek. 

“What’s wrong, my love?” he said, holding her away from him so that he could see her face. Concern resonated in his voice, as though he couldn’t bear to see her cry.

“Everything. We have to go.” Her voice was distorted by strangled sobs. “We have to leave here.” 

“I don’t understand. What’s happened?”

“They say I’m to marry him. It’s starting, Con.”

“You’re to be married to Tristan?” 

She nodded, her bottom lip trembling. 

“Then it’s time for us to say goodbye, my darling.” Conor’s voice was low, his eyes pained. He looked away as he said it, unable to meet her gaze. 

“What?” She knew that she had misheard him. He couldn’t have spoken thus.

“You have to marry him, my love. You always knew that it would end this way.”

A tumult of thoughts raced around her head. There had to be something she was missing, some concept she was unable to grasp. “I don’t understand.”

“It’s the right thing to do, my lovely little aristocrat. It was selfish of me to fill your head with fantasies. You must see that we can never be together. We have been living in a world of make-believe, as you always knew, and now we must re-join reality.”

How many times had she uttered those sentiments? How many times had she urged him to leave her? She had pushed him and pushed him, but only now did she realise how badly she needed him. Only now did she realise that she didn’t want to lose him. “Why are you saying this? I thought that you loved me.”

“You know that I do. I will always love you. But you cannot eat love, nor buy a horse with it, nor warm yourself on a cold night. I won’t let you sacrifice everything for me, Issy,” he avowed, fierce determination strengthening his voice. 

“It’s not a sacrifice. The only thing I care about is you. Nothing else matters.”

“No. I won’t let you throw your life away for me. I can’t,” he refused. 

She looked at him in confusion, her face wet with tears. “Where is all of this coming from?” 

“We thought we could have it all. We were naïve, Is. You are as great a fool as I was. But I’m learning. I see so much more clearly now. You were right, my darling, to fight this love that we feel. If you stay with me, all I can offer you is the life my mother fled from. I can’t let you turn into her. She had to give up her own child because she knew that I’d have a better life away from her. What does that tell you about the sort of life I can give you? I have nothing. But you can have everything. All you have to do is let me go.”

She took Conor’s face in her hands, forcing him to meet her gaze, trying to impart her conviction to him. “Give me your love. That’s all I need. All I want.”

He pulled away from her, turning his head to look into the shadows. “No.”

Isabel’s hands dropped limply to her sides. “Please, Con. I love that you would sacrifice so much for me, but you don’t have to. I don’t want you to. I want this as much as you do. I want to escape here – to escape him. I will never marry Tristan FitzAlan. Leave me, if you want, but not because of him. You can run away, but it won’t change anything. I’ll wait for you forever and a day. I will follow you.”

He cursed softly. “Why must you be so stubborn? You are forcing me to be cruel. They’ve come to take me home, Issy. Me, not you. You can’t come away with me. I want my family, and they want me, but not you. You will never be one of us. I have to choose, and I have chosen them. I don’t love you as much as I love the life that they’re offering me,” he said in a low, rough tone.

His words stung her, like the lash of a whip across Isabel’s skin. “Don’t say that. I know that you don’t mean it.”

“I do. I enjoyed us. I enjoyed you. But you mean nothing to me, Issy, when I compare you to the life that I can live without you.” In the cold moonlight, his beautiful face was hard, his dark eyes cruel. 

“Conor…” Her voice broke, her eyes blurring with fresh tears. 

“Don’t,” he whispered. “Don’t pretend that it is any different for you. You liked having me in your bed, but not enough to give up all of this. Don’t be a fool, Isabel.” 

“I would give this up gladly, for you.”

“You will lose everyone you love.”

“You’re worth it.”

Conor looked at her through heavy-lidded, emotionless eyes. “You fool, Isabel Devereux. No one is worth such a price. Not me. And not you.”

She crumpled to the floor, the pain of his rejection hitting her like a blow to the stomach.

Conor turned to go. Stopped. “Please, Issy, don’t cry.” He approached on hesitant feet, slowly reaching out to her, trying to put his arms around her.

“Don’t,” she screamed, pushing him away forcefully. “You promised you’d never hurt me.”

“I’m sorry


© Copyright 2019 Jordana J Sacks. All rights reserved.

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