Galmoy, Kilkenny, Ireland, 22nd June 1218
Conor stood chest to chest with Conchobar, eyes closed, absorbing the old horse's tranquillity.
"He likes you," Dara said gruffly.
Conor looked at him timidly from beneath his eyelashes. It had taken them two weeks of riding to draw near to his new master's castle, and each day he felt closer to the old man. Dara reminded Conor of his grandfather. He felt safe with him. Although they still said little to one another, he found that rather than sitting alone when they stopped to rest, he would seek out the old soldier and they would sit together in companionable silence.
"Conor, have you ever heard the story of King Conchobar, my Conchobar's namesake?" the old man asked.
He shook his head shyly.
"Would you like to hear it?" Dara cleared his throat, unsure of how Conor would perceive his tentative gesture of friendship.
With a pang of sadness, he remembered the long hours spent with his grandfather, listening to the ancient stories of their people. The offer of friendship hung invitingly in the air. He nodded again.
Dara walked away from him towards a large log which had been drawn up beside the fire. He hesitated, uncertain, and looked over his shoulder, waiting for Conor to take the next step. The old man had made the first move - now it was his turn. He hesitated only a moment longer, then ran to catch up with him. A smile lit up Dara's aged face, its purity detracting from his damaged features. He sat on the log, and Conor sat beside him, huddling close. The soldier looked surprised, used as he was to his normal reticence, although he did his best to hide it.
"I want to tell you the story of Conchobar and Deirde, because it was my wife's favourite." His voice resonated around the fire, spreading into the darkness of the night.
"When Deidre was born, Conchobar Mac Nessa ruled as King of Ulster. His royal storyteller was a man named Fedlimid mac Daill, and Deidre was this man's daughter. Long before Deidre was born, a man named Cathbad, the chief druid at King Conchobar's court, divined that Fedlimid would have a daughter who would outshine all other women. Kings and lords would go to war over her, much blood would be shed because of her, and the three greatest warriors in Ulster would be exiled for her sake. Hearing this terrible prophesy, many urged Fedlimid to kill his daughter as soon as she was born, but King Conchobar was enamoured by the description of her future beauty. He wanted her for himself.
When the child was born, he stole her away from her mother and father, insisting that she was brought up in seclusion, hidden from the world. She was raised by an old lady, Leabharcham, and Conchobar vowed that when she was old enough he would take her as his bride.
As Cathbad had prophesied Deidre grew into a stunning young woman, her beauty unparalleled. As the girl grew, it became clear that she was blessed with the gift of foresight. She told Leabharcham that she had seen her future, and that she would love a man with hair as black as a raven, skin as white as snow, and lips as red as blood. The old woman told her that she knew the man that Deidre was describing. There was a man at the court of King Conchobar, Naoise, who fit Deidre's description, a handsome youth endowed with many talents; warrior, hunter, singer. With the help of her beloved Leabharcham, Deidre was introduced to her true love.
Naoise was scared to begin with, knowing that she was destined to be Conchobar's bride. Fearing the wrath of the old king, he wanted nothing to do with her. But Deidre seduced him, and intoxicated by her beauty he eloped with her. With his brothers Ardan and Ainnle, the lovers fled to Scotland, where they lived an idyllic life. But Conchobar was outraged, and he resolved to reclaim his betrothed.
Tracking them down, he sent Fergus mac Róich to the lovers, with a message inviting them to return. Fergus himself promised to escort them back safely. The lovers and Naoise's brothers accepted. However, on their way back to Emain Macha, King Conchobar invited Fergus to a feast. Mac Róich had a geis, an obligation, to accept an invitation to a feast. He sent his son with Deidre and the three brothers to protect them on their way back to Emain Macha. They arrived safely.
Hearing of their return, the king sent Deidre's loyal Leabharcham to spy on her charge, curious to know whether her former beauty remained. Desperate to protect Deidre, the old woman lied to the king, telling him that she had lost all of her beauty.
Conchobar didn't believe her, so he sent a trusted servant, Gelbann, to spy on the young woman. Naoise caught the voyeur as he stared at them, and throwing a golden chess piece he took out the man's eye, though not before Gelbann had glimpsed Deidre's legendary beauty. Despite the severity of his injuries, faithful Gelbann returned to his master, and told him of the young woman's loveliness.
Angered, Conchobar gathered his warriors. They attacked the home of Deidre and the three brothers. The men fought valiantly, aided by some of their own warriors, but Conchobar was king, and he commanded the allegiance of the men who fought beside the brothers, ordering them to drag Deidre to his side. A young warrior by the name of Éogan mac Durthacht threw a spear, and poor Naoise was killed in battle, dying the most heroic death of all - a soldier's death. Overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of Conchobar's army his brothers were killed moments later.
Though Deidre mourned the death of her lover, she was forced to marry King Conchobar. But her will could not be broken. Conchobar was angered by her cold resolve, and after a year of marriage he asked her who in the world she most hated, beside himself. Deidre's response was immediate - "Éogan mac Durthacht," her lover's murderer. Determined to break her, Conchobar decided to give her to Éogan.
But this was not enough to sate the king's appetite for cruelty, and as he took her to Éogan, Conchobar taunted Deidre, telling her that she looked like a ewe between two rams. Unable to face the misery Conchobar hoped to inflict on her, the beautiful woman threw herself from the chariot, dashing her head to pieces against the rock. Her grief had killed her."
Dara paused, and when he continued his tone was reminiscent. "My wife used to love listening to that story. I always saw it as a tragedy, but Alana saw it differently. She said it was a story of love and hope, because in the end nothing that Conchobar does can stand in the way of true love. Deidre is content to die so that she can be with Naoise."
"Where is your wife?" Conor said shyly. "Will I meet her?"
"No," Dara said shortly. "She died many years ago." For a brief second, a shadow of sadness crossed his face, but then he smiled, his jollity forced. He slapped his hands on his thighs. "Enough with your questions, boy. We have many miles to travel tomorrow, and it will be a big day for you. You need to be on top form if you are to impress the master, so to bed with you now."
Conchobar appeared behind Dara, resting his head trustingly on the old man's shoulder. Conor walked to where he had laid out his bedding, half-turning as he left the circle of light cast by the fire. Dara was illuminated by the flames, his face sad. His expression was reflective as he stared into the fire, and tears glistened on his leathery cheeks. Conchobar nudged him softly in his back, as if trying to rouse his master from his melancholy. Although Dara's gaze did not stray from the embers, he lifted his left arm unconsciously, placing a large hand on the horse's velvet cheek.
As Conor climbed under his thin blanket, he realised that although he had been stolen like Deidre, in a strange way they had both been blessed; she had been gifted with the loyal Leabharcham, who had loved her like her own daughter, lying to protect her, and he had Dara. Although they were both prisoners, they lived in gilded cages - and they were not alone; that was the greatest mercy of them all.