Banagh, Donegal, Ireland, 8th June 1218
The tallest was an old knight. An angry red scar snaked from the middle of his chin to the edge of his left eye, dragging the eyelid down at the corner and pulling his mouth into a sneer. His face was fierce, his stance proud, as he rode atop his magnificent charger. He reined his horse to a stop before Conor and his mother. "My lady," he greeted her, inclining his head. "This is the boy?"
A retinue of five large men accompanied the scarred old warrior, all armed and ready to steal him away from his family. Though their faces were hard and frightening, Conor knew that his family would not let them take him. He drew some cold consolation from their numbers and the glitter of their blades, for Conor saw that the earl's son must have known it too, and so expected some form of resistance. It was sweet to know that these men feared his uncles so.
Conor's mother nodded, her body trembling. "This is my son Conor," she whispered.
"You will want to bid him farewell," the scarred knight said gruffly. He wrapped his hands around his ornate leather belt, and looked away uncomfortably.
Conor felt his mother's body tighten as if she were turning to stone. A strangled cry escaped from her throat, and she pushed her hand to her mouth to stifle it. It was naught but mummery, he knew, for she would never let them take him. He watched her face closely, knowing that there would be some signal there, a sign to see that he understood his part in the charade. Her face blenched, as though she fought desperately for composure. She looked nauseous, sick to the stomach at what was coming, but her expression was resolute. She gave a terse nod, her face like ice. He thought that maybe it was a signal to him to run, but if it was she had forgotten to tell him so.
Removing the cross which hung on a leather cord around her neck, his mother placed it around Conor's instead. "For Christ's protection," she whispered, though surely he needed no protection but that of his family?
His mother knelt to his level, and he knew that it must be time now, for her to whisper in his ear, to tell him what he should do. He must wait until the men paid her, but surely the time for such was fast approaching? Yet still she had not told him what to do.
His mother's eyes stared hungrily, as if she were trying to memorise every detail of his visage. She studied Conor from eyes the colour of his own, her fine features creased with anxiety. He could see no signal in those dark depths. Her act was beginning to convince even him.
His mother held him tightly, as if she could absorb him back into herself, and he knew that she would tell him what to do now. "You must listen to me carefully, Conor," she murmured, her breath warm against the delicate shell of his ear.
And he did listen, for he didn't know what she wanted of him. He listened to the ache of damned up grief in her throat as her finger traced the small scar just below his lobe; he listened to her shuddering breaths; he listened to the soft whisper of skin against skin when she wrung her hands. He listened to all, and still he did not understand.
His mother stopped, froze, as if she had lost her train of thought. "You're so small and vulnerable. God, I cannot bear it, and yet I have to, for your sake, without ever showing you how much it's costing me," she choked.
She spoke of cost, and he knew that they would pay her. Was there a signal in her words, he wondered. But he saw naught but charade in her eyes: false pain; false grief; false suffering.
"I need you to be brave for me, braver than you have ever been before. I need you to make me proud," she told him.
"I don't want to go," he whispered, playing along, still watching for a sign. A slight twitch of her fingers to left or right. A subtle nod of her head.
In the distance, Danior howled.
"But you have to."
Conor felt the damp brush of her misery on his cheeks. So sincere she seemed that it began to frighten him. His eyes stung, reacting to her feigned emotions as if they were real. But they couldn't be. They couldn't be. She would never send him away, not truly.
Pulling away, his mother tilted his chin upwards, looking him in the eye. "Remember that I love you, Conor," she whispered in a choked voice. Her striking black eyes were full of tears, clinging to her lashes like morning dew. But they would evaporate soon, surely, when the sunshine returned to her face. When they laughed together at the foolishness of these men.
Two soldiers stepped forward, pulling Conor away from her. Apprehension somersaulted in his stomach as he felt the pressure on his arms. He could feel the resistance in his body. But he did not fight them, for his mother would put an end to her charade soon enough. His uncles would surely appear soon, all eight of them, armed and dangerous. The men would release him then, he knew. He would be forgotten, and he would slip away, hand and hand with his mother. They would take the lord's gold, and oh, how they would laugh afterwards.
"Stop weeping, woman," the old soldier growled. "You're frightening him."
His mother slanted the man a furious look, but Conor saw compassion in his eyes, and unease in the compressed line of his jaw. He almost felt sorry for him, for he was old and kind, but his uncles would not care. His uncles would hurt him, he was sure.
His mother stood up slowly. She looked as though she wanted to scream and cry, but there was a smile on her lips. Her mummery was not so good anymore, though, for her smile seemed forced. But maybe it was meant to. What did he know?
"Goodbye, my darling," she choked.
Was that his sign to turn and run? Still he did not know. The money wasn't in her hand, so surely it couldn't be?
"You're a brave lad," the soldier said.
Conor stared from the tall man to his mother, his eyes wide as he tried to take in what was happening. He took a step towards the waiting men, but then turned back, his jaw trembling. He was unnerved now. How would he see her signal if he went with them? "Aren't you coming with me, mama?"
She shook her head, a stifled sob breaking from her lips. It sounded real, horribly real, as if the men really were stealing Conor away, as if his mother really was selling him.
"Come on," another man said, grabbing Conor roughly.
Conor's composure crumbled. He no longer felt in control, not with them pulling at him, dragging him away from his mother. He didn't know what to do without her there to tell him. He clung to her leg, frightened, wanting her to make it stop. "Please, don't let them take me away," he begged.
But she did nothing. He stared into her lovely face, contorted with a mummer's grief, searching for a sign, a signal. Something. Anything. But her sadness was too convincing, leaving room for nothing else: no wicked gleam in her eyes; no flickering glance to left or right.
Conor pressed closer, and the smell of her enveloped him, clean and comforting. It was a smell every child knew - the smell of their mother - a smell which made him feel safe and loved. It was there as he embraced her, familiar and warm, so why did he feel so frightened, so much like he was about to be dragged from her side?
The old soldier looked to Conor's mother. She stared back at him through eyes of the darkest pitch, a thick mane of glossy sable curls falling across her face, mute, horrified, tortured. Conor saw in the man's reticent gaze that he couldn't take her child from her without her permission. But still she did not stop them. She couldn't speak, the words catching in her throat. The other men looked at her uncomfortably, thrown by the striking woman who sobbed and wept, maddened by grief. Her voice seemed to have deserted her, but her nod was enough - they snatched Conor from her arms, kicking and screaming for his mother.
As they pulled him away from her, her arms remained outstretched, and he saw that it was her signal. She was telling him not to go, not to let them take him. He saw that she wanted him to run back to her, and he wanted the same, wanted it desperately. He wanted to run back to her, to fill the space in her arms, the empty place beside her heart.
Conor fought like an alley-cat, desperately trying to evade his captors. He could hear Danior's frantic howls, and the frenzied cries of the other wolves. But they had chained them, and he didn't know why, for surely they could have helped his uncles to save them? He knew how desperately they were trying to break free of their chains, but they were trapped. They couldn't save him. Not this time.
A madness overtook him, and he knew that he could fight them all. Kicking out, he managed to catch one strong man on the shin, forcing him to howl in pain and loosen his grip on his arm. Twisting around so far that the muscles in his neck ached, he bit the other man on his burly forearm, and taking advantage of the confusion he broke free. One soldier grabbed for him, but he reached for the man's sword, snatching it from its scabbard. Its weight dragged his arms downwards, but he staggered forwards, hacking wildly, and the man backed away from him. Others tried to reach for him, to claw him back, but it was no good. He danced nimbly aside as one made a grab for him, ducked under the arm of another, and darted away, still wielding his stolen sword, daring them to approach him.
But he was going in the wrong direction. Somehow, as he had struggled and fought, he had gotten turned around. Conor doubled back, looping wide, and made to run back to his mother.
But it was no good. She had gone. He froze, a stupid expression on his face, her absence throwing him. Time seemed to stand still as he realised that she had abandoned him.
All of the fight went out of his body, and he sagged to the ground, his legs no longer able to hold him.
He lay there for what seemed like an age, although it could not have been more than a minute, face pressed against the ground, twining the long grass around his fingers, praying to God to help him. It was just long enough for his captors to find him.
A booted foot kicked the sword from Conor's feeble fingers. Rough hands hoisted him upright. The man who he had bitten stood before him, his face livid. "Gypsy vermin," he spat, and cuffed Conor around his head with such force that the blow made his ears ring.
Conor stumbled, stopped. He stared at the bright blue of the sky, trying not to feel the pain that lanced through his head. The day was strangely beautiful, considering. The sun shone brilliantly, and it seemed that he had never seen so many pale clouds. They were whiter than usual, cleaner. How could such a day be so lovely?
The soldier's face was red and angry as he stared at him dumbly, hatred burning in his eyes. Conor's blank gaze seemed to enrage him further. He wanted to elicit a reaction, to prove that he had the ability to frighten him.
The large young man pushed Conor to the ground, kicking him in the ribs. He lay motionless on the floor, letting the blows rain down on his body. He no longer cared what happened to him. He thought that he would quite like to die, for even if he went to hell it could be no worse than where he was, for there would be other people there, surely. People who loved him, perhaps. And if there was nothing, as he suspected, he would still be alone, but at least it would be peaceful. At least it wouldn't hurt so much.
His energy spent, the soldier crouched down, pressing one knee on his windpipe. Conor struggled to draw breath, the scene before him turning black. He felt detached from everything around him. He could hear the man's voice as if it came from far away; he was asking him something, pressing him for an answer. He could hear what he was saying, but he could no longer comprehend what any of the words meant.
Howling with rage, the soldier punched him with all of his might in his stomach. The movement of the man's body released the pressure on his neck, the blow expelling all of the air which had been trapped in his lungs.
His consciousness seemed to have taken refuge in a corner of his brain, far removed from the pain and the sense of desolation he was experiencing. He thought, quite calmly, that no one could possibly feel so much pain and not die.
As the white hot burning in his stomach began to fade, Conor seemed to recover his senses. The man was still talking, muttering heatedly under his breath, the words a torrent of unadulterated anger. "Someone needs to teach you a lesson. When I'm through with you, you'll never forget the price of your insolence." His spittle flecked Conor's face.
The soldier smiled, relishing the thought of his punishment, and placed both knees on his back to anchor him to the ground. The action was pointless, for Conor was beyond resistance. He didn't care what happened to him anymore, for nothing could be worse than the pain of losing his mother. Something inside of him had broken, something far more fundamental than bones and flesh. He wanted to cry out for someone to help him, but he realised there was no-one. He had begged God for his help and he had ignored his pleas. He had heard that a person's heart couldn't break, but the pain which crushed his chest like a vice begged to differ. It would kill him. It must.
Grabbing both of Conor's thin wrists in one meaty hand, the man held his arms above his head. His other hand stroked Conor's cheek, the action strangely tender. The man's eyes flamed with excitement and something else. His hand trailed down Conor's body, as lazily as one let their fingers trail in a stream, past his cheek, down the curve of his neck, past his ribs, his torso. He began to pull at the string of Conor's hose, tugging eagerly as if he was trying to remove the ties which bound a present, wanting to reveal the delights which lay hidden beneath the wrapping.
An angry shout cut through the silence of pain, and the ground beneath Conor vibrated slightly as the thunder of hooves rent the air. The man beside him ceased his clumsy ministrations, a stupefied expression on his face.
"If I ever see you lay a finger on that boy again, I swear on all that is holy that I will have you flogged to within an inch of your life. Do you understand me?" The voice was hard and angry - it was the voice of someone who was used to being obeyed. "He's not to be touched."
The brutish youth nodded, sneering.
"I said, do you understand me?" The disembodied voice had dropped to a whisper, far more threatening than the blatant anger which had preceded it.
Even the stupid young man picked up on the menace in the other's tone. He nodded again, sincere this time, his blind abandon deserting him.
"He's not to be touched," the voice repeated. "He belongs to the master, and the master wants him in one piece. If you disobey me, I swear I will kill you with my own hands, and to hell with the consequences."
The ugly youth walked away, kicking tufts of grass furiously as he went, like a spoilt child who had been denied something.
The man who had spoken jumped down from his horse, crouching on the floor beside Conor. It was the knight on the white charger. Although the scar on his worn face made him look as if he were scowling, his eyes were tender. He reminded Conor of a hawk, his features sitting strong and proud on his gnarled face. Conor looked at him sullenly, too hurt and tired to move.
Gently, the old soldier placed one arm under his neck and the other beneath his knees. He hoisted Conor easily into his embrace, as if he were weightless. Transferring him into one strong arm, he cradled him against his chest as he grasped the reins with his free hand and swung himself into the saddle.
Conor lay there, staring up at the sky, watching the clouds moving lazily across the vast blue expanse. The rocking motion of the horse soothed him, helping his broken body to relax. The man didn't force him to talk, just held him in his strong arms as silent tears streamed down his cheeks.
Dara dismissed the men once they had made camp, ordering them to get a good meal and a night's rest in anticipation of the long day ahead. The men who accompanied them had kept a respectful distance as they rode, as if they were slightly wary of the scarred old soldier, and they lay apart from him to sleep. But the horses which conveyed them seemed inexplicably drawn to him, and his old white charger rarely left his side.
Conor lay on the cold ground, wrapped in his cloak, watching the old soldier. He was neither awake nor asleep, but stuck in some limbo between dreams and reality. The white stallion grazed beside the scarred man, never straying far from his master, like a sentinel on alert, his presence calm and soothing. Conor thought that you could tell a lot about a person from the way animals reacted to them. Something about the soldier had earned him the horse's loyalty, and that in itself was enough to make Conor feel safe around the fierce-looking man.
But despite trusting him more than he trusted the others, the man was still his captor and Conor his prisoner. He knew that he must escape. He listened to the night. The wind sounded like a wailing child. He wanted to wail in time with it. If he were a child of the wind he would bring a tempest down on all of their heads. And when they were blinded by the gale, he would run with all the speed of the wind back to his mother. Beneath the wind was the soft gravel of men's voices, the sound of the horses tearing the grass from its roots and the hiss of a log as it was consigned to the flames. The sounds were quiet, muted. If he were to run, they would surely hear him. But he wasn't a normal boy, he reminded himself. He could move through the forest without disturbing a single leaf.
Conor slowly raised himself to his knees. He pictured his mother's face, and his brother's. He pictured Danior and Bavol and his grandfather and his uncles. You didn't have to send me away, he wanted to tell them. Concessa said that she would marry me. His heart was thumping like a drum, so loud that he feared it might rouse the soldiers from their slumber. He could hardly breathe. He shifted into a crouching position, and looked around him furtively.
Conor jumped as something wet and cold slithered down his cheek. He looked up slowly. Rain was falling. Silent tears slid down his face. He pushed his fists against his mouth, in a redundant attempt to muffle the sound. It isn't fair, he wanted to scream. Rain would ruin everything. The ground was already soft and damp from an earlier downpour. Anymore rain and the fields around them would turn to a mud bath. The rain was growing heavier, soaking through his thin cloak. He could run, but they would track him easily. With their horses, they could travel five times as fast as he could, and he couldn't steal a horse for they would catch him if he tried. And the wet mud would make the ground lethal to gallop across even if he were successful. He would risk his horse slipping, falling, breaking a leg.
He was done, Conor realised, his escape thwarted before it had even begun. He was lost. If he tried to run tomorrow, he would have nowhere to go. His family would have moved on, and he would never find them again. The rain fell harder and faster, washing away every hope of escape.
Conor's sobs grew louder, audible now, and he realised that Dara had been watching him the whole time. He met the old man's stare defiantly, wanting him to see the pain that he had inflicted, but the soldier turned away from him, feigning ignorance.