Banagh, Donegal, Ireland, 6th June 1218
The stage was a large square of dirt, cordoned off by brightly coloured ribbons. Crowds teemed around Conor's uncles, who leaped and tumbled gracefully through the air in their particolored costumes.
Conor watched Segan charge onto the stage, seated on a magnificently coloured stallion, Bavol. The horse's coat gleamed like polished mahogany in the glow of the torches, interrupted by flashes of brilliant white, as if someone had doused the stallion in paint. His body was heavily boned, powerful and compact, with a short back and neck, strong shoulders and rounded withers. He was sixteen hands of rippling muscle, his silken skin flowing like molten copper over his wide chest. His powerful hooves sent clouds of dust flying with every step he took, the abundant feathering which started at his cannon bone and flowed down over his hooves flaring like the skirts of flamenco dancers in an arid Spanish courtyard. His mane was striped in black and white, like the plumage of a magpie, and fell down past his shoulder in a spill of silk. His tail was so long that it brushed the ground as he walked, trailing behind him like a banner. Bred to pull his grandfather's vardo, Bavol was power personified, the living embodiment of majesty.
Segan vaulted from the horse's back as Conor watched. As he turned to bow, Bavol bowed in tandem. A huge cheer erupted from the crowd. With the most discreet of gestures, Segan sent the stallion into a trot. His other uncles had retreated to the edges of the stage, producing instruments. A wild melody sprang into the balmy air, and they raised their rich voices in an ancient song, the stallion seeming to move in time to the music.
At a second signal, Bavol began to canter round in a circle, Segan running beside him. With the ease of a cat, his uncle leapt into the air, both feet springing from the ground. His right leg swung up to an impossible angle, his left still stretching down. When his pelvis was higher than his head, he lowered his right leg, and landed softly, erect and centred, in the seat, his upper body strong and graceful.
A single stride, and he raised his arms, wrapping his legs around the stallion's muscular body to anchor himself in place. Three more, and he was hopping onto his knees. He stretched his right leg out, holding it slightly above his head, so that it was parallel with Bavol's spine. His left arm he stretched straight forward, nearly at the height of his right leg.
And then it was a succession of dazzling movements: mills, scissors, flanks, stands and spin-offs, and he was pulling Mizelli and Sabina and Athalia onto the horse's back beside him, all of them leaping and tumbling in a flurry of raven hair, until he stood astride Bavol, Athalia draped over him, her whole body supported by his right hand.
Conor watched them in wide-eyed wonder. The spectacle never ceased to enthral him, though he had seen them perform two hundred times. They passed him in a flurry of colour, the gold and silver which adorned them jangling melodically.
The night lent a magical quality to the performance. He drew a deep breath of cool air into his lungs, closed his eyes, tilted his head, opened them again. It was too big, that close sky, heavy with stars, too beautiful. It filled him with a strange sense of foreboding.
The dancers on stage turned towards the crowd, bowing low, so beautiful and mystical. He felt a curious thrill through his body, as if a spark of magic inside of them had lit a smaller flame in him. Long hoop earrings dangled from their ears, and bracelets glimmered on their wrists and ankles, the gold which adorned them turning to flame as the reflection of the torches danced across shining surfaces. His cousins Mizelli and Sabina stood to left and right, such perfect replicas of one another that it seemed it was one girl standing before a mirror. They were as slender and graceful as willow saplings, their matching features doubling the beauty they possessed, the beauty which came of high cheekbones, full lips and olive skin.
But Conor's eyes were drawn to Athalia, his uncle's wife. She had nothing to mark her as a great beauty, except her eyes. She was rather tall of stature, with a plain oval face which wore a constant smile. Her black hair was coarser than the other girls', and tightly curling. When she spoke, her hands moved without her mind's knowledge, and her voice was at least three times louder than anyone else's in the room. Her skin was a rich dark olive, which made her light eyes seem curiously out of place, lending her a strange, mystical beauty. They were startlingly green, and rimmed in kohl. He thought that he would quite like to marry a woman like her when he was older, so that she could join him on stage as Athalia joined his uncle.
They danced off the stage, Bavol walking behind them, as he watched. He turned to look at his Uncle Aidan. His uncle nodded at him, and Conor slowly walked onto the stage.
He looked across the sea of heads to the man who stood at the back. His dark hair had turned to silver, but his indigo eyes shone as brightly as ever as he stared proudly back at him.
Conor heard the thunder of hooves as a herd of five coloured horses cantered onto the make-shift stage. Many animals journeyed with them: the strong, beautiful gypsy horses, performing dogs, and a dancing bear. Enchanted audiences gathered wherever they went, for his grandfather had passed his gift to Conor's mother and each of her brothers to varying degrees, and then to Conor, the most gifted of them all. An aura of serenity clung to him, calming those creatures which gathered around him.
To his uncles', Conor had become an opportunity to make some money. He had begun to perform for the crowds, calming the old bear as he growled and charged, taming the wild young colts they brought to him, charming the birds out of the trees. The audience would whisper amongst themselves, spreading stories of magic and witchcraft. Some called him a sorcerer. They feared him and they loved him. They didn't understand that all he did was listen.
A face in the crowd drew Conor's attention as he performed. His clothes were richly embroidered and obviously expensive, marking him out as a nobleman. He was tall, golden haired, striking of face, and strangely familiar. He watched Conor hungrily from eyes the blue of a sun bleached sky. The colour was startlingly bright against the man's pale skin. His gaze seemed to reach into Conor and weigh the soul inside of him. In that moment, nothing existed but the two of them. In the stranger's stare, Conor saw things; half-remembered dreams and memories which had long ago been buried beneath those he had created since, memories which he had thought lost. But mostly there was desire in those eyes, a savage primitive need, terrible and merciless, which called to him.
At last he looked away. A second figure, similarly clothed, was at the stranger's shoulder, and the stranger turned and whispered into his ear. The dark-haired man nodded, and his companion disappeared into the crowd, leaving Conor with the most curious feeling that something fundamental to him had left with the man.
The second man stood with his uncle, Aidan, as Conor left the stage, their heads close together. They turned as he approached. "Conor, this is Lord Hervey of Hetchell," his uncle said, pointing to the brown-haired man. He recognised the name immediately.
"Yes," the young man said, "my father is the Earl of Hetchell." He looked at Conor covetously.
Aidan's eyes darted from their visitor to Conor, and then back to the young man, his gaze distasteful.