Easky, Sligo, Ireland, 19th May 1218
The sun glittered on the river, the water throwing the light back at the sky, turning the whole world gold. The blue of the day was fading, the heavens blushing a gentle shade of pink, like a cheek warmed by a lover's kiss. The air was balmy, and heavy with the scent of white and coral hedgehog roses. A warm breeze brushed light fingers across Conor's skin as he meandered through the crowd of smiling faces.
They had set up camp on the outskirts of Castletown, in an idyllic landscape dominated by a sea of white-blossomed apple trees. They raised their brightly coloured tents on the banks of the Easkey, and the common folk poured out of their homes in the hundreds to watch the show, drawn by the pageantry and the spectacle: the gypsy horses caparisoned in red and yellow, with ribbons in their manes and tails; the enticement of his uncles' silken words; and the gypsies themselves, the gypsies most of all, cloaked in exoticism and mystery.
The shadow of Hirondelle Castle loomed over the spectacle, sombre and magnificent, refusing to be awed by the pageantry. Conor thought that he had lived in a stone fortress once, but maybe he had only dreamed it…
The people around him did not seem to notice the disapproving glare of the stark lines and ancient stone. The women laughed nervously as they crept into the gloom of the soothsayer's tent, men lay sprawled on the river bank, flagons of ale in hand, and the children flocked to watch the tumblers, their eyes wide and wondering. In the shade of the castle, the atmosphere was relaxed and easy. The lazy hum of a bumble bee rang in his ear, the soothing sound of a summer's day.
Conor's eyes darted to an auburn haired girl, clothed in green, hand in hand with a tow-haired boy. "It is better than the songs," she whispered, her face wreathed in smiles.
But Conor did not know her songs. He only knew this: the smell of horses, the rustle of the tents as they billowed, sail-like, as the wind blew on them, and the comforting feel of his family all around him. But he had known her songs once. There had been a tall man with green eyes and a voice of thunder and honey, but he couldn't remember his face anymore.
His thoughts quickly turned away from the half-forgotten man, his mind distracted by the tumblers who spilled onto the wooden stage. Hezekiah Tanner stood tallest among them, clothed in indigo and cerulean, his strange pale eyes rimmed in deepest blue. His brothers and sisters, his wife and his daughters, his sons and grandsons, surrounded him, moving with the lithe grace of cats.
The grey wolf, Brishan, watched Hezekiah from the edge of the treeline, his eyes fixed on the broad-shouldered man. The wolf was always at his heels. His cousin Concessa said that it was because he was no true Tanner at all, but their great grandsire's bastard, and his grandfather's half-brother. The wild blood ran in his veins too, calling the wolves to him.
Conor was not the only one who noticed Brishan. The crowd around him shifted uneasily, whispering amongst themselves. "In all my years the biggest pack of wolves I ever saw had fewer than a dozen beasts, but the gypsy king keeps a pack of hundreds," the man beside Conor insisted. He had a lined, leathery face, a shock of thick, faded brown hair, and wrinkles at the corners of his eyes. He was a small man, and he seemed to have a way of hunching forward as he stood that made him seem shorter still.
"I heard he keeps nearer two hundred," his companion answered. He was taller than the first, and darker, but his features were as careworn as those of his contemporary.
"It makes you wonder where they're hiding. I wouldn't put it past these gypsies to have lured us here just to let the creatures ambush us. They're a dishonest bunch if ever I met one."
"Ahh, but they're sneaky too. I reckon this would be too public," his friend said matter-of-factly, tapping the side of his nose. "They'll come for us in the dark, when there's no one to see. Any man who finds himself out at night would do well to find a tree to sleep in."
"Because wolves can't climb, you lackwit," he answered, punching his friend in the shoulder. His face wore an amiable smile which softened the blow.
"The lord has a hound which could rip a wolf to pieces," a third man boasted.
"One dog would be no use against hundreds," the first said disparagingly.
The man sighed. "Aye, 'tis true. I've heard them in the night, more than once, up in the hills. A shepherd disappeared from his hut not two nights past, and we all know that he must be lining the bellies of their beasts. They sing a song to curdle a man's blood, as if their victims are inside of them, screaming for justice."
"Some say that they are demons," a woman beside them murmured. Conor heard the men turn, but he kept his eyes downcast, recognising the soft silk of his cousin Mizelli's voice. She was a sloe-eyed girl of eighteen, who wore her raven hair in a long plait which fell to the small of her back. "The pack is led by a monstrous she-wolf, a stalking shadow, fierce and ferocious and feral. They say that she has been known to bring down a stallion by herself, that no trap nor snare can hold her, that she fears neither steel nor fire, and chooses to devour no other flesh but man." On silent feet, two more wolves appeared beside the first. He heard the men gulp, and the whisper of Mizelli's knife slitting the thongs which held their purses to their belts.
Mizelli winked at him as she danced away, melting into the crowd. Conor slipped away in her wake, making for the trees where the three wolves lurked. He knew each of them well. The white wolf was the oldest of the three, the largest, the boldest. Danior, he silently greeted him. Brishan was lighter, faster, younger, Nicabar more cunning, but both were in thrall to the ghost wolf. The old warrior was fearless, strong, and wild born, feral.
Danior was Conor's wolf, more than any of the others. Brishan was Hezekiah's, Nicabar one of his grandfather's pack, but Danior had been his from that first moment. Many a freezing night the white wolf's shaggy pelt had blanketed him as he lay in his bed, keeping the cold at bay. The wolf foraged for him as he wandered the woods and wild lands, dropping rabbits at his feet, and many a growled warning had curved his lips, threatening those who wished the boy harm, beast and man.
The dogs were the easiest to bond with; they lived so close to men, so close to Conor, that they seemed almost human. He had crawled among them as a babe, used one of his father's hounds to pull himself to his feet for the first time, his mother said. Befriending them was the easiest thing in the world. Even the ones which growled and charged had been shaped to accept the touch of man, to walk beside him. Seeing through their eyes was like donning a well-worn boot, its leather already moulded to the shape of its wearer.
But it was Danior's skin which slipped over his as if he had been made to wear it. It was different with the wolf. Conor had befriended him, but he could not tame him as he had the dogs. The wolf was part of him, and Conor was part of the wolf, but Danior would never blindly obey him. The wolf thought for himself, and what he gave, he gave because he chose to, not because he had been commanded to. Sometimes, the wolf shared things with him: he would stare into Conor's eyes and Conor would glimpse landscapes he had never seen; he would lick Conor's hand and he could smell and hear events far beyond the reach of his own senses.
Sometimes he saw other things, too, though not all creatures were willing to share. It required a beast capable of empathy and intelligence, and a familiarity with man: horses, dogs, even the wolves which had been domesticated first. The minds of cats always remained closed to him, though they still cleaved to him as all animals seemed wont to do. Others provided only incoherent glimpses of strange, distracted thoughts: rabbits; mice; rats.
His mother and his brother, his uncles and his cousins, shared his gift, but none were as strong as his grandfather, not even Lorcan, who could gentle the old bear, Tawny, with just a glance and a whispered word. Many of the wolves chose a man or a woman for their own, but his grandfather was always surrounded by a pack of seven: Nicabar; Jal the Wanderer, who always returned to his side; Lash the Warrior, who had torn the throats out of two men when they drew a knife on his grandfather; Wesh, who was found in the woods with Danior, beside their dead mother, when they had still been blind pups; and the three she-wolves, little Chavi, beautiful Dudee, whose pelt was the colour of sand, and black Tasaria.
It wasn't just the wolves he tamed; his grandfather could take any beast he wanted, and not just gentle them, or bend them to his will, but see through their eyes. Dog or wolf, horse, bear…
His grandfather had said that the gift was strong in Conor, too, but his mother had hushed him, her black eyes flashing an angry warning. She had smoothed his hair with shaking hands, her palms pressing against his ears, as if she could make him deaf to his grandfather's words.
A small hand tapped his arm, demanding his attention. His cousin Concessa stood doubled over beside him, her breathing fast and ragged.
"What's wrong with you?" he asked her.
She raised wide chestnut brown eyes to his face. "I nearly got caught."
Conor looked around nervously, expecting to see an angry, red-faced man barrelling through the crowd and up the hill, but the slope was deserted except for the small, familiar figure of Cadhla, one of his cousins, none of the common-folk daring to come so near to the wolves.
They never stayed in one place for long - they couldn't, because the performers on stage were not the only actors. From the moment they could walk, the Romany children would meander through the crowds, as silent and unobtrusive as a gentle summer breeze. Small hands would reach into pockets, or cut leather purses from belts. They were invisible, spectral shapes, faceless little innocents.
Once, when he had lived in a castle, it had been wrong to steal. But not here. His grandfather said that the lords in their stone fortresses took what they wanted from the men and women who farmed the land, so why shouldn't they? If people were fool enough to sweat for another man's profit, then they were fool enough to lose their money one way or another; it just happened that he was clever enough to take it.
Cadhla came running towards them. "He chased me, Cessa," he whimpered, looking at their cousin accusingly. His stare was otherworldly, his gaze so pale that it felt as if his eyes were a clear mirror down into his soul. All of the colour seemed to have leaked from his iris', and pooled at the edges, rimming them in deepest blue.
Concessa took him by the shoulders, glaring at the younger child, who wilted before her gaze. "Is he still following you?" she demanded.
"No. I hid under granddaddy's caravan and he went away."
Her shoulders slumped, her wary expression dissolving. "Well, that should teach you to run faster," she said, grinning mischievously.
Concessa raised her eyes to the sky, a look of concentration on her face. Conor turned to make for the woods, where Danior had disappeared only a moment ago, Brishan and Nicabar at his heels, but his cousin's gaze dropped to his face. "Where do you think you're going?" she demanded.
He shrugged his shoulders, cowed by the force of her tone.
Her frown melted into an easy smile, a teasing look in her eyes. "If you're not going anywhere, I command you to escort me back to my father."
"Can't Cadhla go with you?" he protested.
Concessa looked at their younger cousin disparagingly. "He's a little boy, and he's frightened of everything. He's not going to protect me." She tossed her long hair impatiently. "Besides, I have a mind to marry you when I'm older. Then I shall be your wife, and you will have to take care of me. Would you like to be my husband, Conor?"
A furious blush burned his cheeks, and he shrugged again.
Concessa sighed theatrically, folding her arms.
"I suppose so," he offered, knowing that his cousin would hit him harder than any of the boys if he displeased her.
"Good. We are betrothed then," she said, linking her arm through his, and pulling him, unresisting, along the path. "Come, I want to see Uncle Segan make Bavol dance."
Concessa led the way, Cadhla at their heels. The night was growing dark, and Conor stayed close beside his cousin. The forest felt different without the white wolf to guard him. The shadows lengthened, creating twisted, deformed creatures which silently stalked them, skeletal fingers reaching for them. The ground was rocky and uneven, and it seemed to shift and move beneath him in the half-light. He kept his gaze downcast, watching where he placed his feet, for fear that the gloom would conceal a dip in the road which would send him sprawling to the floor.
"We should hurry," Conor urged.
Concessa pulled him to a standstill. "Do the monsters frighten you?" she asked, with just the hint of a smile.
"The monsters?" Cadhla said nervously.
Her eyes were bright with mischief as she turned to the younger child. "The trolls and the spirits, the dwarfs and the fairies."
"Don't worry about them," Concessa said softly. "It's the fairies you must fear. On summer nights they congregate for their dancing parties. They like to choose secluded vales in the forest where they can dance to the rhythm of the gurgling water. They play their music on fine evenings, inducing mortals to linger, but only danger may be incurred by listening to such siren melody, for if you see them, they will wreak vengeance on all unbidden interlopers at their revels."
"What will they do, Cessa?" Cadhla shivered, his blue eyes wide and fearful.
Concessa smiled. "Are you sure you want to know? Both of you?"
Conor did not rise to the bait. He was older than his cousin, and he knew that Concessa's stories were nothing more than tales for the old women to tell to their grandchildren. "There are no fairies," he said stubbornly.
"There are. Or at least, there were. Unity told me."
"There are no fairies," he repeated.
"Are they dead then?" Concessa challenged.
"They have never existed."
"What proof do you have?"
"My mother said. If she says they are nothing more than tales, that's proof enough for me."
"Then what's that?" Concessa murmured.
Conor followed her gaze, staring into the trees, eyes narrowed in concentration. "I don't see anything."
"Listen," his cousin urged him.
He heard the strange sound of crackling furze blossoms, and he remembered the stories: the sound heralded the presence of fairies. They oft chose to shelter in gorse thickets, for the smell of the flowers was sweeter than honey to them, and the taste lovelier yet. They would sit and sip the ambrosial dew from out of the yellow cup leafed blossoms, growing merry on the nectar.
But there were other sounds, too: the crack of a twig as someone stepped on it; the whisper of leaves as something brushed past them. Conor knew all of the stories, and the stories said that when the fairies danced their light-footed dance, their feet touched the green grass so delicately that they barely shook a drew-drop from its stem. They glided lightly across the ground, with not a mark to tarnish the dirt and belie their presence. The creature which disturbed the still of the night was much larger than the diminutive fairy folk, and not near as graceful. "My mother said that fairies make no sound as they move," he countered.
"People say the same of us, but you move with all the stealth of a charging bull," Concessa replied. Her voice echoed, too loud in the twilit forest, and Conor knew that someone was listening.
"It's getting darker," Cadhla pointed out. "I want to go. Now."
Concessa glanced at the sky disinterestedly. "It does that every day about this time. Are you frightened of the dark, Cadhla?"
Pink mantled his younger cousin's neck and cheeks, but Conor could still see the terror in his eyes, which stared out nervously from under the thick mop of hair which fell across his face. Conor knew that it was more than the dark. His little cousin had spent his whole life in the forest, trailing at the heels of his father since he had learned to walk. They had all walked these woods in the dark before, but he had never seen the nervous tension which seemed suddenly to have infected Concessa too as she hurried onwards, nor the look in her eyes, which came perilously close to fear.
Conor shared their disquiet. He had been seven years with his mother's family. The first night in the woods, with his uncle and his mother, the darkness had terrified him, and the feel of a thousand eyes on his back had set his legs to trembling. But he had been in a hundred forests on blacker nights than this, with no friendly moon to light their way. The woods and the dark held no more terrors for him.
Until tonight. Something was different tonight. The wolves had gone, but he could still feel Danior's anxiety. There was an edge to the darkness that made the white warrior's hackles rise. And there was something lurking in the trees, Danior knew. Danior was coming for him, faster and faster and faster, but not fast enough. And the wolf saw a pale shape running ahead of him, darting in and out of the trees, taunting him, playing with him. It was cold and fierce and dangerous, and Danior wanted nothing more than to turn tail and flee. But it watched the wolf children, and the wolf children were his pack: his to protect; his to die for.
"Wait." Concessa stopped suddenly, grabbing Conor's arm and jolting him away from Danior. "If there are fairies, don't you want to see them?"
"There are no fairies, but something is here, in the woods. Do you really want to stay and find out what it is?"
Concessa seemed not to hear him. She studied the deepening twilight with a fevered curiosity.
Conor had spent enough time with his cousin to understand that she was almost impossible to sway when she looked that way. "Cessa," he urged.
His cousin moved forwards on mute feet, heading back the way they had come. No one could move through the woods as silently as Concessa. Her stealth was frightening and otherworldly. Whatever was stalking them would be deaf to her approach, and when she surprised it…
He made a grab for her arm, and forcibly dragged her in the opposite direction.
"Let go of me," she hissed, struggling to free herself. "I want to see."
"No, we're going back."
She dug her heels in. "You can go back if you like, but I'm not. The camp is only half a mile past that next ridge. Even you couldn't get lost," she said scathingly.
Cadhla whimpered suddenly.
Conor let go of Concessa, and turned to look at his younger cousin.
The boy shivered violently, tears swimming in his strange eyes.
"What is it?" Concessa snapped.
Cadhla raised a trembling hand, pointing into the trees, where the shadows trembled and swayed like black flames. "Dead… dead men. And the… the… other," he gabbled.
"I don't see anything." Concessa's voice trembled, belying her fear. "What… what exactly did you see?"
"I saw men, on the ground. They weren't moving. And the other. He… he was… feeding… on them." Cadhla shivered violently, his eyes seeming to see beyond Conor and Concessa, as if his mind were fixed in the moment he recounted.
"Did you see any blood?" Concessa's words shook, spoken with such delicate vulnerability that it seemed as though the gentle breeze would blow them away before Cadhla could give answer.
The little boy swallowed loudly. "No, but he dropped the man when he saw me, and there were holes in his neck." Cadhla's hands fluttered up to his throat, as if to establish that the same fate had not befallen him.
"Did you see any weapons?"
Concessa took a deep breath, as if swallowing the composure which had threatened to flee in the face of her terror. When she spoke, her voice was calm, the question rational. "Then how do you know that they were dead?"
There was horror in the little boy's eyes, a dread terror aroused by the mere prospect of recounting what he had witnessed. "No living creature ever lay so still. They weren't breathing, Cessa. They were just lying on the ground, like somebody had dropped them."
"Or lying on the ground like they were sleeping," Concessa suggested.
"They had fallen there, Cessa," Cadhla insisted. "Nobody sleeps like that. They looked… broken."
Concessa took a few wary steps in the direction Cadhla indicated, then halted, shivering slightly despite the warmth of the evening.
"Are you cold?" Conor asked, trying to hide her anxiety from the younger boy.
"A little," she murmured, though they both knew that she was lying.
Concessa turned back to Cadhla. A shower of leaves fell from the tree above, as a squirrel leapt from one branch to the next, and she shied away from the falling foliage, as if someone had spilled hot oil down her back. The whispered protest of the trembling oak was eerie and unnatural, as if the tree were talking to its neighbour. Though Conor knew her nerves were on tenterhooks, she drew herself upright, and placed a comforting arm around Cadha's shoulders. "You imagined it," Concessa reassured the younger boy, reasserting her position as the voice of reason. "I frightened you with my stories, but they're not real, Cadhla. There are no trolls, or fairies, or spirits in these woods. There's nobody here but us."
"No, I saw him," he said, turning to Conor. His strange eyes pleaded with him, begging him to believe what he had seen.
Conor could see the truth in his cousin's transparent gaze, though he was desperately afraid to acknowledge it. "If Cessa says you imagined it…" he began.
"Did you hear the twigs cracking?" Cadhla interrupted him.
"That was him."
"The woods are never quiet," Concessa interrupted.
Conor frowned. The forest was full of creatures, but it had sounded like the tread of a man, though lighter, somehow, and faster. "It didn't sound like an animal," he pointed out.
"So a drunken man stumbled into the woods, and got lost. Cadhla was scared, that's all, and he imagined something that wasn't there. Look for yourself, Conor. There are no men, and there are no bodies."
But none of them wanted to stay. The woods stretched in front of them for another half mile, surrounding them on all sides. Conor went in front, delicately picking his way through the undergrowth. The well-worn path was dry and dusty, and clouds of red mud rose like desert sand storms in miniature with every step he took. He was careful not to send any loose stone skittering along the ground, for fear that he would alert whatever unseen horror lurked in the trees to their presence. Roots sprawled across the path, but he moved as easily and as silently as his mother now. Cadhla came next, breathing heavily. His fear was palpable, and Conor imagined that he could almost hear the frantic beating of his little cousin's heart. Concessa brought up the rear, muttering to herself of their foolishness, though she took care not to tarry.
Twilight deepened. The cloudless sky turned the purple of a fresh bruise, then faded to black, as if the night had swallowed all colour in its gaping maw. The stars seemed slow to appear, though a full, swollen moon rose, lending a welcome light to their journey.
"Can't we go any faster?" Concessa called.
Cadhla whimpered, clinging to Conor's back.
"Not in the dark, no. But of course, feel free to take the lead," he snapped, his fear make him short-tempered.
His cousin did not reply.
From across the miles, a lonely howl trembled through the night. Danior. Conor recognised the call of the white wolf, and then the haunting symphony of his pack brothers. He felt safer knowing that the wolves were close. Not close enough. The thought came into his mind unbidden, but its voice was persistent.
Cadhla stopped suddenly, causing Concessa to walk into the back of him. "There's something wrong here," he whispered.
Concessa gave him a disdainful smile. "Is there?"
"Can't you feel it?" he asked her. "Listen to the darkness, Cessa. Listen to the wolves. They're warning us."
Conor could feel it too. His body was as taut as a strung bow, and the cold finger of fear caressed his spine. His skin was drenched in sweat, and his fists clenched and unclenched involuntarily, as if he no longer had control over his body. Seven years in the woods, hunting by night, in the darkness, and he had never felt so afraid. What was it he could sense?
"The wolves. The wind. The leaves rustling. What sound is it that frightens you so greatly?" Concessa said disparagingly, but her bravado was forced, and her lips trembled, the words seeming to trip over themselves as they fell from her mouth.
When Cadhla couldn't answer, Conor took his cousin's hand and pulled him forwards, heedless of the noise he made. The only thought in his head was to reach the edge of the treeline, to escape this haunted place. He could hear Concessa close on their heels.
Conor led them across a thicket, threading his way through the slender boughs of the saplings which seemed to grow everywhere. They formed an almost impenetrable barrier between the massive oaks, which stood as still and strong as watchtowers, as if the fairies had built them to guard their forest kingdom. The ground was softer here, and their feet sank into it, leaving footprints to mark their presence, to point their hunter in the right direction. The floor was a mass of roots which slithered across the floor like venomous snakes, just waiting to strike, to trip them up so that whatever followed behind could devour them. Though he moved with the stealth of a wraith, he could hear the rustle of the leaves as Cadhla hurried past them, and the muttered curses which flew from Concessa's mouth as she struggled to keep up. A branch grabbed at his clothes, and he fought violently to free himself, frightened for a moment that the monster which stalked them had caught him in its grasp.
The beast which hunted them was closer now, he knew it with a dread certainty. A blue gum tree towered above them, rising higher than any other tree in the forest. Its lowest branches were a bare foot off the ground. Conor knew that they could not outrun the monster, but they could at least try to out-climb it. The wolves were close. They only needed to buy enough time for them to arrive, and then they were safe again. He pushed Cadhla in front of him, inclining his head upwards.
He heard the scuff of Concessa's feet as she gained the tree. "Climb up," he whispered urgently, his gaze darting to Cadhla, who was already half way up the bough. "It's here, Cessa. It's found us."
Concessa did not move. "There were no dead men," she said stubbornly. "I looked, Conor. It was just a stupid story. None of it was real. There are no monsters."
Conor's voice abandoned him as fear constricted his throat. He searched for words to make her understand, but they were all gone, fled along with his wits. He glanced at his cousin helplessly, before turning from her, and beginning his ascent.
He heard Concessa start climbing. He half-turned to look down at her, clinging to the tree for support. Her eyes were wide and frightened, and for once she did not speak. There was no use in arguing. Something was coming for them.
Soon Conor's legs burned with the effort of climbing, and his hands were sticky with sap. Fear filled his gut like a meal he could not digest, but fear was good. It spurred him on. When his body was so exhausted that every movement made him want to scream, it bit at his heels with the tenacity of a rat terrier, harrying him onwards and upwards. He whispered a prayer to God to preserve him, and slipped his hunting knife from his belt, clamping the dagger between his teeth to keep both hands free for climbing. His mouth filled with the bitter taste of metal, but in that moment it was more delicious than any food he had ever tasted. It was the taste of hope, of survival, of the slimmest chance of self-preservation.
Down below, he heard Concessa's sharp intake of breath, and then the silence which followed as she froze. "Who goes there?" she called.
Conor heard the terror behind her challenge, the desperate hope that no one would answer. He stopped climbing, taking the knife in his hand. His grip was slick with sweat, his whole body trembling, with the effort of holding on, and with the fear which seized him in its iron grasp, shaking him with the relentless energy of a pit dog tearing a rat to pieces. He waited, listened, watched, every sense on red alert.
The forest seemed to give answer, as if it had ears to hear them: the leaves whispered to each other as the breeze rustled through them; the stream murmured lazily, like a disinterested spectator grown weary of the mere promise of violence; the creatures of the woods and the wild places called a warning of danger, the snowy owl screaming into the darkness, joining its voice to the desperate howling of the wolves.
But the monster had grown silent, and that was more terrifying than anything he had ever heard before. The snapping of twigs, the rustle of the leaves, and the light tread of a man's boots on the hard ground were gone, as if the beast had merely been toying with them, as if it had wanted them to know that it was there all along. It had played them as a cat played with a mouse, but it wasn't playing anymore; it was hunting.
"Answer me," Concessa wailed. The worldliness had disappeared from her voice, and Conor thought that she had never sounded more a child than she did in that moment.
From the corner of his eye, he caught the briefest hint of movement. A hooded shape darted between the trees. He turned his head to follow it, his eyes fixing on it as if he could not look away. The creature seemed to sense his stare upon its back. It half-turned, and Conor glimpsed a pale face in the darkness of its hood. He clung to the image, trying to preserve it, but the beast was gone, and the memory was blurred, as if the terror which hunted them had moved so quickly that his eyes could not keep time. The quality of the memory was dream-like; it seemed to slip through his fingers as if it belonged to an illogical part of his mind which had no place in reality. But he knew that he hadn't imagined it, for the branches still swayed gently where the creature had passed.
"Conor," Concessa called. "Conor, where are you?"
"I'm just above you."
"Did you see anything?"
He opened his mouth to answer, but the words seemed to freeze in his throat. Perhaps it had been a trick of the moonlight, the swaying branches shaking their fists in remonstration at a fox which had slipped by them. What had he seen, after all? Naught but a shadow.
"Answer me," she demanded. He could hear her scrambling up beneath him, moving at a ferocious speed.
He clung more tightly to the trunk, his eyes scanning the darkness, trying to confirm what he thought he had seen. His face pressed hard against the bark, and he could feel the indentations it punched into his skin, material and tangible, not something he had dreamt, not some trick his mind had conjured. The sap was wet against his cheek. It felt real, so very real.
He looked down, wanting to reassure her, to tell her that none of it had happened, that it was a silly game which had gone too far, but the words caught in his throat as a dark shadow emerged from the gloom.
The breath went out of him in a long hiss. A man stood at the foot of the tree, tall and broad-shouldered and muscular, his face hidden in the shadow of his hood.
"Come no farther," Conor warned.
The man stood very still, and somehow Conor knew that his eyes were fixed on the trunk of the tree, gauging how easy it would be for him to climb up in pursuit of them.
The menace in the stranger's stance seemed to disappear as he shifted, as if he had grown tired of the hunt. He raised his gaze to Conor's, an amused laugh escaping from his generous lips. "May I know your name, young warrior?"
Conor looked at him warily, sensing a chilling detachment in his light eyes, as if the stranger were interacting with players in a charade rather than living, breathing people. But he saw no immediate threat in the relaxed lines of the man's body. "Conor."
"Conor." He turned the word over, as one would turn a diamond in their hands, savouring the value of it.
Conor knew that he was not of their world. He was a magical creature from a story. The man possessed a strange beauty which made it hard for Conor to tear his eyes from his face.
"Are you a spirit of the forest?" Concessa called from beneath him. "I have a fairy shot sewn into my dress. You can't hurt me."
"A spirit of the forest." He smiled at the idea. His lips were too red, his teeth too perfectly white. "Alas, I am only a poor nobleman stranded in the woods."
Conor eyed the deep blue of his cloak, with its lavish ermine trim. His fingers were heavy with a fortune in gold and silver. He knew that the fur would be soft between his fingers, and that the man's rings would jangle melodically if he swung Conor into his strong arms. Memories which he thought he had lost rose to the surface, clamouring to be heard, but he was blind and deaf to everything but the man who stood before him.
"A nobleman," Concessa echoed.
"Do you know where I can find Hirondelle Castle?" he enquired.
"It's half a mile past that ridge," Conor said cautiously.
"Could you show me?" He held his hand out in supplication. "My horse grew lame a few miles back, and I was separated from my companions. I cannot seem to escape from these woods. I must have been going in circles for the last three hours."
"Where's your horse now?"
"I don't know. Even lame, he still managed to bolt when he heard the wolves howling. I only hope that they haven't made a feast of him."
"Did you see the wolves?" Concessa said, hope singing in her voice.
"Thankfully, I did not."
"Oh," she said softly, as if she had been hit in the stomach, all of the air expelled from her lungs.
"Do they frighten you?" the man asked. "If you accompany me to Hirondelle, you need fear nothing, child," he promised, drawing his sword from its sheath. Jewels glittered in its hilt, and the moonlight shivered along the cruel steel, as if running a tentative finger along its sharp edge. "I'll protect you." He smiled wolfishly. There was something terrible about him, beastly and inhuman. A chained animal raged behind his civilised façade.
"I want to go home," Concessa whimpered.
"I'll take you."
Concessa looked at him suspiciously, but Conor could sense that she was poised for movement. The man stood waiting just beneath her, his arms reaching out to take her.
"No," Conor shouted, grabbing her wrist to prevent her from climbing down.
"Do you want to stay here, boy? The woods are dark and full of dangers. You never know who might be lurking in the shadows." His eyes were hungry.
Conor's hands trembled, but he bravely met the stranger's stare. "I want you to leave us alone."
"I can't do that." The man's voice was a soft sing-song. It was a beautiful voice, rich and deep and sonorous, but it frightened Conor. There seemed to be a hidden meaning behind everything he said, a meaning that only the stranger could grasp.
"Please," he pleaded.
"Not even when you ask me so prettily. I know your father, Conor Ua Cleirigh. I owe him a duty to take care of you. How could I ever forgive myself if I left you here in the woods, when all around us the night echoes with the song of the wolves? If I leave you, they will feast on your flesh, boy."
"They would never do that," Concessa said defiantly.
Conor's breath caught in his chest. "You know my father?"
The man smiled. "I know your father," he confirmed. "I could tell you about him - if you let me save you from the wolves."
"I don't need saving."
"Now that is interesting."
Everything happened at once then. Conor heard a sudden, shocked inhalation of breath, and then Concessa was on the ground beside the creature, one strong arm crushing her against his body. She must have fallen, to have moved with such speed, he reasoned. It was impossible, as if she had simply appeared there. His cousin tried to push the man away, but he seemed as still and implacable as a glacier, as if the strength of her blows was nothing more than a simple annoyance, a fly to be swatted away. He took both of her wrists in one large hand, holding her away from him with ease, though she struggled and twisted ferociously as she fought to break his grip.
"Now are you going to come down?"
"I'm frightened, Conor," Concessa wailed, her voice cracking.
Conor clung more tightly to the tree, looking up to Cadhla, rather than down to his cousin's terrified face. He closed his eyes, but reopened them when he heard the hiss of the man's sword as he once more pulled it from its sheath. It was alive with moonlight, a ghost-light playing around its edges.
The stranger pressed the dangerous steel against Concessa's slender throat. "How about now?"
"Please," he begged.
"Come down, boy, and I'll let her go."
"And if I don't?"
And then he had Cadhla too. But this time Conor saw him disappear. He was gone for longer. Not long, but longer.
"Do you really want to see what happens next?"
"Show me," Conor breathed, pushing away from the tree trunk and lurching backwards along the branch. It was too narrow for two people to walk side by side, and too slender to bear more than a child's weight. He would force the man to come after him, force him to leave Cadhla and Concessa unguarded. It would be harder to be taken here.
The creature scaled the tree at an impossible speed. Conor was so startled by the rapidity of his ascent that he almost lost his footing. The hunter's eyes narrowed, an emotion akin to panic staring back at Conor. He paused at the point where trunk diverged into branch, moving with the stealth and silence that one would use to approach an untamed colt. His hands were raised in supplication. "You're going to fall, boy. The branch isn't strong enough to support your weight," he warned.
Conor took another step backwards, widening the distance between them. There was another branch below the one he stood on, a slender bough, only a few inches wide. He tried to stretch his toes towards it. Too far. He would never reach. His body trembled with the movement of the wood below him, and he had to spread his arms wide to regain his balance.
"Come to me, you little fool," the man demanded, reaching for him. His face was distorted with rage, no longer handsome or amiable.
"I can't," he whimpered. If he could just draw the man a little closer… except then the bough might snap beneath their combined weight. But his cousins would be safe. His cousins could run for help. "Please…" he said, his arm outstretched towards the hunter, "you'll have to come and get me."
The creature stepped forwards as slowly as a cat stalking a bird, the branch trembling beneath his weight. Just a little further…
"Run, Cessa. Run, Cadhla," Conor screamed. For a heartbeat he dared to hope.
But they remained where the man had left them, still and unmoving, as if his touch had turned them to stone.
The beast was so close now. Conor's heart lurched into a gallop like a bolting horse. A giant foot seemed to stamp on his chest, constricting his ribcage, making it hard to breathe. He took a step back, dancing along the branch, away from the monster's reaching fingers.
He was in too great a hurry. The wood beneath his feet bucked and writhed, and his legs slipped from under him. Suddenly he was falling. He heard Concessa scream. There was a sickening lurch in his stomach. His hands clawed at empty air, grabbing for the branch where moments ago he had stood. He felt splinters tearing the skin beneath the nails of his right hand, but his left hand caught the slender wood. He dangled one handed for an instant, before his searching toes felt the branch beneath. He dropped onto it, though he daren't let go of his handhold.
He might die, he suddenly thought. For the very first time, he understood that his life could end. He could die. Now, or one day soon. A fine deep tremor began in the bones of his legs, making it hard to balance. Conor's wits scattered. His eyes blurred with tears, and he wanted to scream for his mother, his father… A dark, cold hollowness seemed to grow inside of him as he contemplated his demise, growing larger and larger, until the fragile shell of his being seemed about to crack. He wanted to close his eyes, and imagine the scene away, to make it into another of Concessa's stories.
But the creature still stood above him, his hand outstretched, inviting Conor to save himself. And there was no one but the monster to help. "Take my hand," he cajoled. "Before you fall a second time. Luck is like fortune; it never strikes twice. Lady Luck spared you once today, but if you were to invite death a second time…"
"I won't come," he said, shaking his head.
A strange look appeared in the man's eyes. "Not yet. But in time, you will welcome me with open arms. You will be mine, Conor Ua Cleirigh," he said with loathing.
Conor wrapped his right hand around the hilt of his dagger, which he had shoved back into his belt before trying to make his escape.
The man's gaze cleared, his eyes darting to the knife. "Don't play the fool, boy," he warned him, stepping closer. His feet were mere inches from Conor's fingers.
"I'll jump," Conor threatened, begging his courage to rise up and fill the cold, hollow space inside of him. He closed his eyes, focusing. At first it felt as fluid and insubstantial as water, flowing into his limbs, rising through his stomach and chest. Slowly, another, stronger creature, that was both Conor and something else far greater than he was, forced its way up through the tight column of his throat until it reached his eyes. He burned his attacker with a wolf's fierce gaze, unflinching in the face of danger.
"It's harder than you imagine," the creature said, "to surrender your life."
"Better to die by my own hand than yours."
Bitter laughter bubbled in the beast's throat. "Even I draw the line at killing children." He took a step forwards.
"I'll do it," Conor said desperately.
The man stopped. "You're ten years old. Are you really so willing to throw your life away?"
Conor gulped. He didn't want to die. He shuddered at the thought of his death. His heart felt smothered, as if it didn't have room to breathe. Fear rose inside of it, pushing the wolf's foolhardy bravery aside.
The man laughed, and took another slow step forwards. Conor flinched away from him. He lost his balance. He could feel himself falling. He clutched desperately at the leaves, but they tore away in his hands. He closed his eyes, waiting for the jarring impact as the ground rushed up to meet him, but it never came. His descent seemed to stop, as if time stood still, as if he had frozen in mid-air.
"Open your eyes, boy," the stranger commanded.
The man's beautiful face filled his vision, only inches from his own. His hand was clamped tightly around his arm. He dangled helplessly.
"Shall I pull you up?"
Conor looked at the man sullenly. "Let me go," he commanded, struggling to break his grasp. There was a branch just below. If the man released him, he could grab it as he fell.
The man tightened his grip, his fingers digging into Conor's flesh painfully, deterring him from further movement. "You're brave, boy. I like that."
Conor looked at him carefully. He had a face that any young maid would fall in love with, framed by a mane of golden hair that lent an angelic quality to his loveliness. His cheekbones were chiselled, his jaw broad and square. His beautiful eyes looked down at Conor, his generous lips curled in exquisite amusement. His allure was unnatural, indescribable. "What are you?" Conor breathed.
His mouth twisted, distorted by the grimace which soured his expression. "What am I?" he murmured. He was silent for a time, musing, Conor still dangling from the bough. The man yanked him up onto the ledge. The action was easy and graceful, indicative of great strength. He stood Conor before him, though he remained in a crouching position, only his careful balance stopping them both from falling. He leaned forwards, his cheek pressed against Conor's, his red lips against his ear. "I'm damned," he whispered, his breath tickling Conor's skin, "and so are you, boy. You're already soaked in blood. You just don't know it."
The man slowly released him and backed away.
Conor once more drew his knife, brandishing it before him with an air of false bravado. "Let me go," he demanded.
The stranger smiled charmingly, his eyes dark and amused. "You might have noticed that I'm leaving. Today is not the day you die, boy."
Conor half-suspected some cruel trick, intended to lure him into a false sense of security. "The wolves are coming," he warned the hunter. "I think you should run. As fast as you can."
His smile widened. "Your wolves pose no threat to me, you foolish child."
"They're close now. If you stay, they'll kill you. But if you go now, I won't send them after you."
"But those warlike uncles of yours will not be so easily commanded. What will I do when they come after me, flaming torches in hand?" He raised his hand to his heart in a languid mimicry of mortal fear.
"I won't tell anybody that you were here," Conor promised, gulping loudly.
The demon's smile threatened to split his face if it grew any wider. "You promise?"
Conor nodded. "I swear I won't betray you."
The stranger's lip trembled, as if he was fighting to suppress laughter. He crossed the space that separated them, and knelt before Conor, placing a cold hand on his cheek. Conor felt himself grow caught in the man's eyes. "It will be as if I was never here," he whispered.
Conor opened his eyes slowly, staring at the frieze of leaves above his head, which covered the dark sky like black lace. Cadhla and Concessa lay just to his left, their arms around each other, their faces smooth and relaxed as they slept. He couldn't recall lying down to sleep, though he remembered his dream with stark clarity. The fear which had grasped him still coursed through his bloodstream, making his heart beat painfully fast. He gently shook his cousins, not wanting to be left alone with the lingering horror of his nightmare.
Hours later, the memory of his dream had begun to recede, though his sense of uneasiness remained. A fire burned against the imposing darkness, a great bright beast whose shifting orange light threw shadows twenty feet tall across the black clearing. The trees around him seemed to shift and stir with its movement.
He glanced across at his grandfather, shrouded by smoke. He sat on the steps of his wagon, his old dog beside him, still and serene. Occasionally he would hum an ancient song, passed down by generations of their people. Conor felt safer with his fierce, imposing grandpa close beside him, and the wolves stretched out in the shadows around them. The old man quickly skinned the rabbit Conor had snared, his hands quick and precise despite his age. As the tender meat roasted in the pot, a delicious aroma filled the air. Although he was old, his eyes danced with an inner fire which was undimmed by his failing body. Conor revered him.
"A veritable feast you found for us, Conor," his grandfather said happily. "It won't be long till you're a better hunter than Lorcan."
He smiled proudly. His grandfather had taught him everything that he knew: how to track, how to hunt, and how to be. To his grandfather, he was his protégé, his legacy. The old man was the only person who did not look at him suspiciously because of his gorjo blood.
His grandfather's indigo gaze grew pensive. "When you smile like that, you look just like your grandmammy Ita."
"What was she like, granddaddy?" he asked curiously. His grandpa always seemed so unhappy when he talked about her.
"She was very beautiful, and very sad."
"Why was she sad?"
His grandfather looked away. "Because of me."
"Did you mean to make her unhappy?" he said in consternation.
"No," the old man said softly.
"Did she cry?"
He stirred the pot. "Sometimes."
"Why did you make her sad?"
For a moment, Conor thought that he wasn't going to answer. His grandfather's mouth tightened. "Because I was young, and handsome, and I could."
"What did you do?"
"That's a story for another day," he said, picking up the pitcher of ale, the liquid glowing red in the firelight.
"Cessa says I must marry her," he told his grandfather.
His grandfather gave him a strange look. "You will never marry Concessa," he said abruptly.
"Because she's my cousin?"
He closed his eyes a moment. "Yes," he answered, though Conor could hear the lie in his voice.
"Who will I marry then?" he asked curiously.
"Isn't that a question we'd both like an answer to?"