Banagh, Donegal, Ireland, 6th June 1218
"He's a fierce young man of twenty, desperate to show the world his strength. He's extravagant and decadent, keen to demonstrate that he has money, thinking that wealth equates to power. He had not yet succeeded to his title, and he's anxious to show everybody that he's just as impressive as his legendary father. He has a proposition for us," his uncle explained.
"Go on," his grandfather invited.
Aidan looked at the ground as he continued. "The boy is a spoilt tyrant who has never been denied anything. He saw Conor performing and he was enchanted, enthralled by his magic. The young lord mistook his kinship with the animals for power. We all know that he doesn't have to subdue the terrified horses or the grizzled old bear, only befriend them, but the heir apparent saw his display as one of authority rather than equality. The earl's son wants what Conor has, and if he can't have it for himself he is determined to have the boy. He wants to buy him from us."
"You can't be serious," Finian said. His eyes widened in disbelief. They were the colour of cognac; a warm, medium brown with golden rays streaking the iris.
Conor lay as still as possible, feigning sleep. The familiar landscape of his mother's caravan seemed smaller, packed as it was by her brothers and her father.
Aidan looked at him coldly. "Deadly so."
Segan interrupted. "If it was Cadhla he wanted you would not even consider it."
"You're right, I wouldn't. But Cadhla has a future here."
"Conor belongs here," Segan said, his voice resolute.
Aidan sighed. "He is my nephew too, and I am fond of the child. But he will never belong here. We might accept him, but no one else does."
"Does it matter what anyone else thinks?" Eoin interrupted. His black-brown eyes gleamed in the half-light.
"Of course it does. This community is made up of more than just the sum of our family. When we're gone, who will protect him then?"
"Our children will. Concessa loves him like her own brother," Conan said.
"Cadhla is his shadow, Aidan," Ronan interrupted. "Your own son would protect him with his life."
"As would I," Segan pledged.
His mother spoke then, her voice broken. "I know that you would, and I love you for it. But Conor needs more than your protection."
"He will need a wife," Aidan said. "Would any of you allow your daughters to marry a half-gorjo?"
The men shifted uncomfortably.
"The others will feel the same. A man needs a wife. Is it fair to condemn him to live alone?"
The men were silent.
After a minute, Segan spoke. "We are the lucky ones; we are no-ones to command. Is it any fairer to make him live as one of them? These are brutal times. All men are expendable. People go to war and witness horrors beyond their wildest imaginings, most never come back, but as long as their lord's side is winning individual lives don't matter. And they are the fortunate ones. Ordinary men are forced to do back-breaking work every day until they die, when they are buried in the soil they wasted their lives reaping. Is that the life you would condemn your son to live, Aoife?" he asked quietly.
"He will have the chance to use his gift. That is the best I can give him," she said softly.
"It is your choice, Aoife," Aidan said gently.
"What about his father, Aoife?" Niall probed. He was the closest to her in age, and he adored his elder sister.
"No, I couldn't live a life confined to the bower, and neither could Conor," she negated. "He would always be an outcast, the gypsy whore's bastard. He will never be one of them."
"And if you send him away to serve some lord he will fare better, fit in more easily?" Niall said dubiously.
"Yes, because no one need ever know who he is."
"You don't have to do this, Aoife," his grandfather said.
"I do," she whispered, tears in her eyes.