Athlone, Westmeath, Ireland, 15th June 1218
Conor's body ached as he lay on the ground, hot and exhausted. They had been travelling for a week, and he had not slept properly since they had left; his body yearned for sleep, but his brain resisted its pleas. The beating he had suffered had taken a toll on his physical strength, but the harm inflicted on his mind and soul was far more severe; he felt as if they had been damaged beyond repair.
Before, whenever Dara had touched him, even if he innocently brushed against Conor in passing, he would flinch and draw away. Dara did not press him on the issue nor force him to endure his company. Now, as the old man mopped his head with a damp cloth, he was too weak to resist his ministrations, and though he lay there woodenly, Conor drew some comfort from the gnarled hands which brushed the hair off of his forehead.
Conor found it hard to focus, his mind constantly drifting between reality and thoughts of home and his mother. He pretended that the gentle hands which tended to him were his mother's. He let himself imagine that her fingers gently caressed his cheek, that she smiled at him, whispered that she loved him… but all the while she was crying, and her tears burned his skin where they fell. Part of him knew that it wasn't real, even as he dreamt it, but though the pain was terrible, he didn't want it to stop. He didn't want to lose her again. But in the morning his mother would still be gone. He whimpered occasionally, too tired to try and hide his tears.
"I know what it's like to lose someone you love," Dara said softly, tears glistening in his brown eyes. His words drew Conor back to the corporeal. "It physically hurts, and the pain feels as if it will never go away. But our hearts heal, just like every other part of our body, and in time the pain numbs, until only a dull reminder is left. But please, boy, don't make me grieve for you too. I don't have time enough left to heal."
It was the most he had ever said to Conor. He didn't believe the pain would ever go away, but he took comfort in the old soldier's kindness, though he turned his face away from him so that he didn't see the fresh tears which welled in his eyes.
"You're beyond understanding, aren't you?" the old man said sadly, rubbing his hand across his face.
Conor could understand him perfectly, the fever offering him no respite from reality, but he remained still and silent.
"Never mind. I sometimes think it's easier to talk when no-one is listening," he said quietly. Dara rocked back on his heels, staring at Conor. "It's like seeing a little ghost," he murmured, shaking his head. "Seeing you makes me feel old, boy, too old for stealing children from their mothers. I've long since cast off the youthful indifference of a soldier, the unfeeling detachment that allowed me to burn people's homes to the ground, and run my sword through boys not much older than you."
Conor's curiosity was piqued. "Whose ghost?" he said groggily.
Dara started at the sound of his voice. "The little boys I should have seen growing up. I should have watched them as they slept. I should have been there."
"Are they dead?"
He gave a tired smile. "Two of them are, and the other two are a long way from here."
"I'm dying," Conor murmured.
"No, you're not, child. You must live."
"Stop telling me what to do. I'll die if it pleases me."
"Are you such a coward, boy?"
The word shocked Conor. He was a brave boy, the son of a she-wolf. No one had ever called him a coward. Other things they called him, yes: bastard, gorjo, freak. But he was fearless, never craven. Even those who looked at him with suspicion in their eyes never doubted his bravery,
"No, but I still wish that I was dead," Conor said mutinously.
"You don't," the old man growled. "You wish that you were at home with your mother. But you're not, and you're never going back."
His words made Conor angry. He clung to that, feeding the flame within his heart. Anger was better than tears, better than grief. It didn't hurt as much. He looked at the old soldier steadily. "That's what you think."
Dara's mouth twitched. "I hope to God you prove me wrong. Prove them all wrong, boy. Don't die here, like this, but live, and fight, and take revenge. What they have done to you is wrong, unjust, trading a vulnerable child as though you are an animal, but you will not be weak forever. One day you will be a man, and your destiny will be in your own hands."
Conor looked at him warily, his mouth set and determined. He was no coward. He was strong, and one day he would be stronger yet. The old soldier had the truth of it. He could not die. His mother would be waiting for him. They had forced her to this, he was certain. She would not forget him. She would yearn to be reunited with him. And Faelan, his little brother, who loved him. His uncles and his grandfather too.
And when he grew older, his enemies would be waiting too: the young lord who had forced his mother to this; the soldiers who had stolen him away as she wept, even the one before him; and all the ones who would spit on him for his gypsy blood.
Conor's stomach cramped again, and he groaned, wrapping his arms around his body. But he gnashed his teeth together, fighting to stifle his cries. He would not weep anymore; he would not give them the satisfaction. He would make his eyes go dry and his heart go dead, so that nothing they did could hurt him anymore. But he would not forget. He would bide his time.
"You'll fight this illness easily enough," the old man said gruffly. "I can see it in your eyes."
Dara stayed up with him all night, gently mopping at his fevered brow. When the morning broke, Conor's fever broke with it, and though his body still ached a part of him had started to heal, making the first tentative steps towards recovery. He knew that somebody cared about him, and that made all the difference in the world.
He had seen that something was broken in Dara too, and a certain wary kinship grew from the revelation. They were no longer captive and guard. Dara had seen him at his lowest ebb, and in return he had shown Conor his own weakness, making it harder to hate him. They had become comrades in arms, soldiers battling against their grief.
And Conor would battle until he defeated them all. He would let the anger turn to rage. He would strike and shout and scream and fight until he had torn the world apart, and only then would he know that it had been duly punished for not being as he wished it to be.
As dawn lightened the sky, he made himself eat, forcing down every spoonful. He ate again that evening, and the next day. Live, he told himself harshly, when the pain shot through his jaw with every mouthful, live for mother, live for Faelan. Live for Cadhla and Concessa. Live for vengeance, for one day you will be strong, and then they will fear you. Then, you will strike terror in their hearts, and they will be afraid, not you. Not you. Not ever again.