The Damned

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

Chapter 52 (v.1)

Submitted: November 23, 2013

Reads: 61

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Submitted: November 23, 2013

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52

 

Bero Castle, Bero, Devon, 7th June 1231


The golden haired man was following Conor. He was uncertain of how long he had been surreptitiously trailing him, but there could be no doubt as to what the stranger was doing. 


Conor stalked carefully around the perimeter of Bero’s great hall, his senses attuned to the other man’s movements, his head turning with feigned interest in his surroundings so that he might study him further. Softly, softly, as though the man was a great, golden lion, a hunter who did not know that he had become the hunted.


In the crush of people, another man might have been ignorant of the noble’s keen interest. It was so easy for them to lose themselves in the dazzling chaos of Bero, to be swallowed, caught, tossed and turned around by the sights and sounds and smells of the mighty castle. The decadent confections of silk and fur, their vibrant colours clinging to slender waists… the multitude of voices attempting to be heard over the frenetic strains of violins and citole… the mingling scents of rosewater and orange flower perfume, the smell of burnt wax as it dripped from the great wooden chandeliers, the tang of incense…


But Conor was not like other men. He had haunted the forests and moors, hunted them since childhood. The slightest movement seemed great to him. The quietest whisper was a roar in his ears. Every part of his body was finely tuned, every movement precise. He knew how he appeared, always. He knew whether he was visible or whether he had been swallowed whole by his landscape. And now he played his game again, though he no longer knew if he was the hunter or the hunted. 


It was a curious sensation, to be examined so closely. Yet not unpleasant, for the man was strangely, deliciously compelling. Conor felt drawn to him. There was a hunger, a yearning to be closer to him. 


For he was beautiful. As Isabel had been beautiful. As Eva was. Despite the distance between them, his form alone arrested Conor’s attention. He stood on a height with him, tall and well-proportioned, his garments beautifully tailored to cling to muscular thighs and broad shoulders. His skin was as pale and luminescent as a pearl, his lips as red as blood. 


Conor reached a corner and turned, setting their respective positions at an angle. He paused there, pretending to watch the dancers. His eyes briefly wandered to Eva, but darted back, too quickly, too eagerly, as though no other were beautiful enough to satisfy his gaze. And he felt that it were only fair, really, to watch the man with hot, hungry eyes, for the man watched him as if he would devour him. 


Their gazes met, locked. The other was clothed in black. Plain. Unadorned. Yet still he was more beautiful than all the rest. The other nobles were resplendent in blues and reds, forest greens and rose pinks, the colours bright and brilliant, crying out for attention. But this one’s stark severity seemed designed to blend into the shadows; to make him unremarkable, which he could never be. Beneath the light of a hundred candles, his hair was spun gold, the richest colour in the room. The shade was sunshine and summer days, wildflowers swaying in a gentle breeze.


And there was his mouth… Rich and red and hungry. Lips made for sin: for kisses; seduction; whispered words, cruel and compelling, spilled from a velvet tongue. Words to damn and corrupt. Those lips were sculpted by a master hand, too full, too shamelessly sensual. Made for no purpose but to inspire carnal thoughts and whisper of wickedness. His laughter would sound delightful, Conor knew. They were framed by a strong chin, chiselled jaw, porcelain skin. The being was an angel, perhaps. Or a devil. 


But his beauty alone could never have ensnared Conor, for all beauty paled beside hers. It was the way the man moved that drew him. Like a predator, his gait purposeful and yet seductive, his attention sharply focused. He did not mince his steps or affect the veneer of boredom so esteemed by the upper classes. He was hungry, starving even. He knew what he wanted, lacked the patience to pretend otherwise. 


At present it appeared that what he wanted was to follow Conor. The man watched him with a gaze so intensely hot that he felt it move across his body, felt it run through his dark curls, dance across the nape of his neck. Felt it glide across his broad shoulders, down the length of his spine. Covetous. Coveting.


But the man did not approach. Nobody ever dared approach. For he was not one of them, though none would presume to acknowledge it. Best not to acknowledge him at all. He belonged to the beautiful duchess, and none ventured to covet that which belonged to her. Why were the man’s eyes not drawn to her instead? His raven-haired enchantress danced and laughed, so lovely and sweet and gentle, a prize so much greater than he was.


Conor let his gaze travel back to the man, looking at him directly so that the other would not have to wonder whether he was watching him. His dark eyes summoned the creature, challenged him to approach. His stare could leave the golden-haired one no doubt. It demanded that his long legs resume their deliberate stride and bring him to Conor. He wanted the lovely, pale-skinned being before him, so that he could experience all of the details of him: the timbre of his voice; the scent of his tall, broad-shouldered body; the impact of proximity to his alluring loveliness. 


And he wished to know what he wanted. Conor wanted to understand the strange connection he felt to the other: the tension in his body; the thickness in the air; the way their eyes caught, locked. All were anomalies which must be explained. And the man’s beauty. His hunger. Those, too, must be experienced, understood.


The other visibly responded to his challenge. He pushed himself away from the wall, straightened. His posture was no longer one of louche, unapologetic coverture. His eyes drifted across Conor’s body, glittering in the shadows. A moment passed, time he barely registered. Men and women swept past him, momentarily obstructing his view, then revealing him again. The other shivered slightly, his chest expanding with a deep breath.


“Conor.”


The low, cultured drawl, so intimate and familiar, seemed almost to caress him. He turned to the beautiful woman at his shoulder, always glad to see her there, and placed a light kiss on her cheek. “Darling Eva.”


“Who are you looking for?”


“I was…” But his gaze found only an empty space where the other had been. Gone. His eyes darted around the room, frantically searching the sea of people. But the stranger’s golden beauty was absent, and with it some of the light seemed to have left Conor’s world. 


Eva looked at him curiously, her brow furrowed, glancing around in much the same fashion. “It is too much to hope that you were looking for me, then?”


“I was seeking a phantom, nothing more.”


“A phantom?” Her brilliant blue eyes laughed at him, their chilly depths warmed by her amusement. He was the only one, now, who seemed capable of inspiring such an emotion in her. For all others there was only dangerous boredom. 


“Yes, my love.”


“Was this a frightening spectre? Or something more interesting.”


“I know only that he followed me.”


“I look at you and it is not hard for me to understand why.”


The intimate timbre of her voice was not lost on him. He took her face between his hands, pressed his lips to hers. “Naughty woman.”


She laughed, and the guests around them stared. So did he. Merriment transformed the widowed duchess from the epitome of an ennui afflicted aristocrat to a woman of surpassing loveliness. 


Eva began to stroll, expertly carrying him along with her. Conor looked at her, and he knew that none of them saw her as he did. They saw only the duchess, so cold and hard and fierce. Perhaps she could have lived with that depth of interest, if they had not met first. But they had met, and become the closest of friends. Now lesser connections displeased her. She only came alive when they were together. 


 They would never marry, he knew. It was unspoken between them, yet understood. And he did not mind as he had with Isabel. He did not need her to parade him before them all, to declare her undying love, for he was not in love with her. He wished that he could be. He wished it every day. But he loved Isabel, and even as he despised his weakness, still his heart stayed true. 


“Where are your thoughts now?” Eva murmured.


“With you.”


She came to a halt and faced him. Despite the shadows, her cream coloured gown gleamed like ivory. She was an angel, pure and sweet and unsullied. “You are not being entirely truthful.”


Several gatherings stood nearby, engaging in various conversations, but all were casting curious glances in their direction.


“Why do you court me, so publicly, before them all? Why do you flaunt me so?”


“You do not like to speak of her, do you? But you must know that you will not dissuade me.”


“You must feel their gazes upon us.”


Eva sighed. “We will speak of her. But not tonight, perhaps. Let them look, Conor. My life has always been regimented and compartmentalised. Everything was orderly and firmly in its place. I fulfilled the role they expected of me exactly, and all it brought me was sadness. You are my folly, but you are my joy, too, and I deserve some of that, don’t I?” 


She brushed her thumb across his palm, making him shiver. 


“I serve the opposite purpose in your life. I am your anchor. You saved me and I saved you. You cling to me because I am safe and comfortable, and you need that now, my lost little child. You know that I am one of the few who remembers the boy that you were.”


“Have I changed so much?”


“The passing of time changes all of us. You are sadder now. And angrier, too, though no one else can see it. Your anger has turned in on itself, swallowed you whole. I’ll be the one to save you again.”


“Am I so transparent to you?”


“As clear as glass.”


“Why would you wish to save me?”


“Oh, Con, do you really need to ask? You are perfect for me. I enjoy your company. I enjoy your honesty and our ability to talk freely, as we have always done. You remember me as I was, when sometimes I forget it myself. Who would not wish to preserve such a treasure?”


“But I am broken. I have nothing left to give.” 


“I do not ask for you to fall in love with me. I have loved once, and it was enough to last me a lifetime. You cannot hurt me, and I cannot hurt you, for we do not attribute actions to emotions that are not there. I love you, my beautiful boy, and I will value you until I take my last breath.”


“I do love you, Eva, in every way that I can.”


“I know,” she murmured, placing a kiss on his cheek.


She took a moment to straighten her skirts and pat her ornate plaits. His gaze wandered as he waited. In the deep shadows, a figure loitered, cloaked in darkness, his gaze fixed on Conor. He recognised his phantom by the black alone. And the gold, so pale in the obsidian gloom.


“Eva,” he murmured, reaching out blindly to clutch her arm. “Do you see that man over there?”


He felt her attention turn as he directed. “Yes.”


“Do you know him?”


Eva rearranged his grasping hand to rest upon her forearm. “That’s Henry. He’s an old friend of Hervey’s. He’s rakishly charming and scandalously beautiful, and my brother is in awe of him. He’s a Norwegian merchant, delightfully rich and rather mysterious. He visits from time to time. Do you want me to introduce you?”


Conor’s gaze narrowed. “No. I was simply intrigued. I didn’t know who he was.”


“Your Grace,” a voice greeted Eva. 


They both turned to face the man who approached, though his eyes did not seem to register Conor’s presence. Both knew that he wished only to speak to Eva. 


Conor leaned towards her, lowering his voice for her ears only. “Will you excuse me a moment? I may introduce myself to Lord Henry after all.”


The nobleman smirked. “Do not leave on my account.”


“I desire to stay on your account less.”


Eva’s lips curved as she gently squeezed his arm. “Of course, Con. Go.”


He moved a short distance away, his gaze drifting around the smoke-filled hall, seeking out Lord Henry’s angelic form. But the stranger had disappeared again, blending into the crowd. Conor frowned. He had to know the man. His curiosity ate at him. There was such intensity in the way the stranger had looked at him, such a sense that he had seen him before. The moment when their eyes had met lingered in his thoughts. 


Frustrated, he turned and spun on his heel, making for the dais. The guests parted before him: as though a king passed; as though a plague victim walked among them, bringing the contagion with him. Perhaps he was both to them. A false king. A beggar whose misfortune might be catching. They feared him and they envied him. 


He threw himself down on his oaken throne, his fingers clicking impatiently, summoning a boy to refill his empty goblet. Once, he had been so much lower than this child who served him, yet Eva had made him great, in his way. And how they hated that! It made him want to laugh, sometimes, the sheer absurdity of it. The merry widow was too valuable to let a great man rule beside her, and so they let her have her stable boy. They let him reign over them, even as they believed themselves to be so much better than he was. Well, let them curse him! When they had been so far above him he had cursed them every day of his life.


He tipped his head back, gulping down the rich vintage with a vulgar relish. Let them judge him. Let them see how unsuitable he was. He delighted in provoking them. That was why he did not hear the stranger’s approach.


He felt him though. The hair on his nape tingled with awareness. “I was looking for you,” he murmured.


“I know.” Lord Henry sat down beside him, taking Eva’s vacant seat. His tall, pale form vibrant with a strange potent energy unlike anything that Conor had ever experienced before. So vital and strong and alive! In the candlelight, the man’s blonde locks glittered like beaten gold, and his eyes gleamed with the very intensity that had goaded Conor to seek him out. He wore a full cape, the red velvet lining providing a sensuous backdrop to his black garments, enabling him to fully appreciate the size and power of his frame.


Conor’s eyes sought Eva, for he dare not look directly at the other. Not yet. She danced gracefully to the music, her long skirts swirling around her. She was as enchanting as a sylph, a little forest nymph. Together again, she had started to come alive once more, like a flower in spring, her petals slowly unfurling to reveal their former glory.


He and Eva lived in a world of masquerade, pretending that they were happy, though spectres haunted them both. Their eyes were dead behind the painted smiles. She wanted to be entertained constantly, for the grief came when it was quiet. In the dark of the night she would sob as he held her in his arms, his own tears falling silently. They danced till their feet ached, dined till their stomachs hurt and drank till their heads reeled. People flocked to them, revelling in their wild abandon. Conor reigned as king beside her, the great usurper. Rules didn’t matter; what happened at Bero stayed at Bero, all of the sex and the debauchery. The great, the good and the not-so-good dined at their table as he sat beside her, looking down on them all.


This man was the king of the not-so-good, he could tell. He raised his gaze to the lovely creature. Henry was the most alluring being he had ever seen. His perfect skin was unnaturally pale, and his blonde mane framed his face like a halo. His blue eyes burned in his white face. His beauty was so overwhelming that it was like gazing into the bright light of the sun, its dazzling glare forcing him to drop his eyes.


“Henry,” the golden-haired man said, proffering his hand. His voice was deep and low, deliciously accented. 


“Conor,” he returned, taking the outstretched fingers. They were cold to the touch, as if he was shaking the hand of a cadaver. He dropped them quickly, staring at the stranger more closely. 


The man seemed oblivious to his searching gaze, picking up the decanter and refilling Conor’s goblet with a movement so swift it was hard to perceive. He placed the ornate chalice in Conor’s hand. “How is it that someone like you ended up sitting up here?”


The man had said the unspeakable. No-one else would have dared to question Eva’s behaviour. “Excuse me?”


“Do I lack manners? Forgive me. I’m simply curious,” Henry said, his face affable as he held Conor’s gaze. “You seem to live by no rules but your own.”


“We are born and then we die, and we have no control over either of these things. But what happens in between is ours to decide. I grew tired of the life I had. I wanted more than they would give to me. So I broke their rules.”


“And you do not fear retribution?” The stranger’s face was alight with curiosity. His delicious lips pursed slightly. He was the most charming man, his gentle probing effortlessly engaging Conor. 


“Whose retribution, my lord? Do we talk of religion now?”


“We talk of gods and men. One cannot exist without the other.” There was something almost mesmerising about his voice – it was full of elemental music, like water running over rocks.


“Gods?”


“God.” 


“I do not believe that some divine hand will smite me down, no. Religion is simply a tool used by those born to a charmed existence to stop people from questioning their right to change things. The world favours them and it would be to their detriment if those below them started to think for themselves, and to wonder at why they should pander to the whims of their masters, why their sons should be used as human shields in the nobility’s wars, or why their children should starve to death to feed their lords when it is their toil which has sown the harvest seeds. The divine order is a man-made concept.”


A breeze blew through the room, ruffling the man’s tousled golden locks. His hair stroked his cheek, and Conor could think of nothing more delightful than feeling such perfect pale skin soft beneath his fingertips. 


Henry pushed it back impatiently. His arms crossed his chest. It was a challenging pose, yet it delighted Conor, for it seemed to indicate an intention to stay. “But who weaves the threads of destiny? For surely someone or something decrees that they are born to their position; that this child is born to that mother?”


“Call it God or fate; it’s all the same in the end. I refuse to be bound by the shackles of my birth. If something is wrong, I do not need God or his henchmen to tell me so. I refuse to believe that the good book is anything more than a handful of pretentious men’s personal opinions on how people should behave. For how can one believe that the slaughter of men for the gain of foreign lands is something that a merciful God would decree his royal messengers to enact? Men use the divine as an excuse to coerce people into playing the part they have commanded on the grand stage of life. I chose to take the casting into my own hands.”


 “What a delightful existence.” Something about him unnerved Conor. His gaze was predatory now, and his eyes blazed with a feverish light. “It’s strange, but you remind me of a younger, less-good looking, version of myself,” he mused, leaning back in his chair. “You are wild and fierce and you are ruled by no man. I remember a youth who was not so dissimilar to you.” 


Conor was taken aback by his arrogance, for people had always fawned over his own beauty. The man’s tone was admiring, though his words were less than complementary, suggesting an abrasive, cock-sure egotism. And he was confused by his statement; Henry couldn’t have been very much older than him.


“And what of you? What of your existence?”


“I, too, live by my own rules. The wishes, the whims, the feelings of others mean nothing to me. Nothing moves me, now, but beauty. I live in a perpetual state of boredom, and such an existence does not lend itself well to caring for the desires of others. You would bore me too, if it were not for your loveliness.”


“Does such an existence not doom you to a life of misery, Henry? You love beauty, but beauty is a fragile, transient thing. All beauty fades. Beauty must always die.”


“All that lives must die, Conor, but not all beauty. I surround myself with eternal loveliness. With works of art. Jewellery. Tapestries.”


“You are a merchant, are you not?”


“A collector. I collect objects of beauty. Merchants see little of worth in anything not directly related to the creation of monetary wealth. I seek wealth of a different sort. A wealth of new experiences. The century is young and so am I. There are too many things to do to become bogged down in business.”


“Yet you are obscenely rich, my lord, is that not so?”


“Of course you noticed such a truth, for you love wealth almost as much as you despise it, do you not? You like delicacy and refinement – and beauty, that too. You wish you had such things for yourself, for you suspect that, perhaps then, you would be happy.”


“Wealth is immaterial to me.”


“You lie. Wealth is the means by which one can possess things. And there are things which you yearn to possess, boy. I am the same. I like to own things. I would like to own everything, if possible, especially beautiful things. I take what I want, for I have the means, and add it to my collection of objets d’art, for then it is mine to enjoy. No one else may damage or ruin its loveliness. Only I have such a power.”


“Is that not selfish? To deny others the pleasure of seeing such beauty?”


“If I am selfish then so are you. You long to possess the one you love. She is a creature of loveliness, is she not? Yet you want her all for yourself.”


“It is not possession I seek, not in the sense that you mean. I want her to give herself to me, but I do not wish to own her.” 


“Don’t you?” He was silent for a time, musing. Finally, Henry stood. “How charming to have met you.”  A fleeting look of amusement crossed his face. “I have a feeling that we’ll meet again.”


“You’re leaving?”


“Lady Eva is looking for you,” he murmured, without taking his eyes from Conor. 


He nodded, but made no effort to free himself. His gaze stayed locked to Henry’s. Watching. Waiting.


He leaned forward and brushed his lips against Conor’s. “Goodbye,” he whispered, his hand on Conor’s cheek, before turning and stalking from the room in a billowing flare of black. He was gone like a wolf on the hunt: light, swift, focused. The doors at the back of the hall briefly swung open, the chill of the night sweeping into the room, before the darkness swallowed him whole.


 


 


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