Inis Castle, Kilkenny, Ireland, 23rd June 1218
The sky was very blue, no clouds present to mar its azure brilliance. Inis appeared to be floating on the busy river. The castle was built atop a small island. It encompassed the whole landmass beneath its stone foundations, the earth which bore its weight invisible beneath its majesty. Its stone fingers reached high into the sky, so that it seemed to sit in the void between water and space, the might of Mother Nature diminished by man's ability to build such immense structures.
Conor gazed, open mouthed, at the mighty building which rose before him as Conchobar thundered across the wooden drawbridge, the sturdy planks connecting the fertile lands they had traversed on their journey with the wonders which lay within Inis' walls. He looked down on the still blue waters, and saw the castle's twin reflected there. His own face, too, stared back at him, rippling, distorted, uncertain, dwarfed by the great, imposing power of his new home.
Yet Conor was enthralled; though his heart still ached, he saw that he had been blessed with a fine prison. The man who owned the fantastical palace must be a demi-God, grander even than the king - the king with green eyes and a voice of thunder and honey. The realisation frightened him almost as much as it thrilled him, for the man was his enemy, one of those he had sworn to destroy. A castle would not protect them from his wrath, nor its great walls. One day he would tear them down and defeat them all as they cowered inside their stone fortress.
But it was hard to linger on hatred when there was so much to see. Passing inside the castle walls his eyes were assaulted by a pageant of colour and movement. The place swarmed like a hive: servants carried heavily laden platters of food, and stable boys groomed horses, whilst squires practiced sword play, their young bodies strong and lithe as they moved in an imitation of the deadly dance of war. Although the servants were clothed in naught but a short cotte, with a belt and hose in dull hessian brown, they were lost in the sea of colour created by the beautiful, expensive clothes of the lords and ladies who presided over them, most of whom were gathered outside, taking advantage of the warm weather. Groups of young maids sat on the ground, creating daisy chains, whilst the men lounged on the grass, or stood conversing in small clusters, their talk interrupted by occasional bouts of raucous laughter. They were the most beautiful creatures he had ever seen, so clean and colourful and civilised.
The women were the most enchanting of them all. That made it harder to hate them, for they seemed gentle and innocent, ethereal in their silken dresses. They wore floor length gowns with long sleeves which clung to their slender arms, richly embroidered and painted in vivid splashes of colour: blues, reds, purples and greens. Jewelled belts cinched in their small waists, heavy with rubies and diamonds and sapphires, covered in scrollwork. Their hair was beautifully, elaborately styled so that it framed their lovely faces. Many wore their long tresses hidden beneath coifs. Others wore decorated crespines, delicate nets which held their hair in place, in hues which matched their gowns, or else woven from golden thread, spider-web fine. As they twisted their graceful necks to talk to one another, Conor caught brief glimpses of the silken thread amidst their shiny locks. They were beautiful, magical even. They were angelic beings, not beings a man could destroy, so delicate and vulnerable, with their soft, pale hands and their rosy cheeks.
A strange memory of his mother dressed as they were briefly pushed its way to the surface of his mind, and then slowly sank back down, like a silver fish which had risen to the surface, but quickly retreated to the safety of the black depths in which it chose to lurk, safe and invisible. But she could not have been as they were, not ever. She was his mother. She was wild and earthy and alive, a barbed rose besides such gossamer flowers.
He did not linger long on such thoughts though, for the people were not the only treasures. A rich aroma spilled from the large wooden kitchen building, and great hunks of beef, mutton, pork and venison were being carried into the great hall, in preparation for the lord's dinner. Their mouth-watering smell made him salivate, for he had not eaten since dawn, and never had he eaten such delicacies.
A broad-shouldered soldier greeted them as they reined up. "Dara," he greeted.
"Does my lord know that I've returned?" Dara said brusquely.
"The earl and his family await you in the solar. Milord asks that you attend him immediately."
"And the boy?"
"This is the young lord's latest toy?" the man said curiously, his fingers on Conor's chin, tilting his face upwards.
A muscle in Dara's cheek ticked, and he pulled the man aside. The noise of the courtyard was overwhelming, and individual voices were indiscernible in the vast melee of sound, so that Conor found it impossible to hear what the men spoke of, but he saw that Dara looked angry. The man did not smile so easily when they broke apart. He looked at Conor sullenly, before turning and leaving.
Conor could see Dara's lips moving as he turned to him, but it was impossible to determine what Dara was telling him to do, for it was so very loud here. There was naught but beautiful, dazzling confusion, swallowing him whole, and though he wanted to hate it, he was in thrall to its enchantment. It felt as though he had been cast down beneath the waves, and found himself surrounded by mermaids. The noise of the great sea deafened him, crashing in his ears, yet his eyes delighted him as he watched this strange new race smile and dance and laugh.
Though he was deaf to Dara's voice, the hand which summoned him spoke clearly enough. They left Conchobar at the stables, walking together as they made their way across the vast expanse of the compound towards the great hall. Many people recognised Dara, but their greetings were not particularly welcoming. They treated the grizzled old soldier with a mixture of aloofness and respect, as if they were slightly afraid of him. His responses were mandatory, a quick nod of acknowledgement to those who greeted him. Conor wondered how he was not similarly transfixed by the wonders of this enchanted world, for he had to forcibly refrain from simply standing in the middle of the courtyard and turning in a circle in an effort to try and take everything in. Instead, he stayed as close to Dara as he could, scared that if he wandered from his side he would be swallowed up in the mass of people and animals which filled the compound. Dara's gait was brisk and determined, and he had to jog to keep up with him, following in the wake he created as people parted to let him pass.
Four stone towers rose up before them, giant fingers pointing towards the heavens. In the middle of the four stood the great hall, the largest building in the compound. They were mere yards away when Dara stopped abruptly. He made a brusque gesture with his hand, and the man closest to them moved out of earshot. "Were it my choice, I would have left you with your mother until you were a man grown and old enough to make your own decisions. But it wasn't, and the choice was taken from us both. Don't fight them, Conor; obey them. This is your life now. These men are your masters."
"I will never have a master. My people are free."
"You will. You have. Listen to me now, for your own sake, boy. Even if you only play at it, let them master you. Do as they ask. Let them think that you are theirs completely. But inside, you can go far away. You can be free, if you like. But you must play along, Conor. It will go easier for you that way."
"I have no master," Conor said defiantly.
Dara laid a large hand on the back of his neck, and shoved him bodily against the wall, so that the rough stone dug into his skin. "If you think to be brave, they will destroy you." He pushed a little harder, the rock digging into Conor's cheek. "Do you hear me, boy? Obey them."
"I hear," Conor said sullenly.
Dara released him. "Good." He smiled and brushed a pale hair from his cloak. "The earl awaits. Best we do not keep him."
The door to the hall was stout, the heavy oak planks lightly warped by the rain. Dara shoved it open, the iron hinges groaning slightly. Inside was a bustling mass of people. Servants rushed back and forth to the kitchens, frantically trying to prepare the feast on which they were to dine. The fruits of their labour sat atop the long tables which filled the hall. They were laden down with whole carcasses of beef, mutton, pork, and venison, and stuffed birds were artistically arranged in a decorative manner along the wooden trestles. Hours had been spent preparing each culinary masterpiece, though the swarm of nobles would devour them in minutes.
At the far end of the room was a raised wooden platform, where the earl and his lady would be seated, high above the commoners who dined with them. The musicians were already arranging themselves in their positions, mere mortals, though their talent was so great that, for a moment, their music would be enough to enchant their divine audience. He could imagine the beauty of their music with such vivid clarity that the sound felt as though it were composed more of memory than fantasy.
At either end of the wondrous place there sat a massive fireplace, a grand chimney looming over it. Conor had never seen a chimney before. Such luxury! No peasant could afford such a thing, yet the magnificent lord who owned the house had two. It was the height of sophistication. He wondered who they were, the ones who lived here. They must be great people for fortune to have bestowed such affluence upon them. But such great men would be naught to him but great enemies.
"Wait here," Dara commanded.
So Conor waited. And he looked, drinking everything in. Wonderful tapestries adorned the walls, depicting hunts and bloody battles. The scenes they showed were so far from anything Conor had ever experienced that he could not help but be enthralled, losing himself in the dramas they depicted. Every thread had been delicately sewn, so that they created a colourful web, a portrait of life and death.
He was shaken from his reverie by Dara's voice, loud even in the noisy room. He stood at the bottom of a twisting flight of stairs which led to the upper floor. He had a liveried man by his collar, pinning him against the wall. "You dare ask me to wait for an audience with the earl. I should have you flogged for your impudence." He stared down his proud Romanesque nose in disgust.
A figure appeared at the top of the staircase, slim and graceful. He stood on high as if he had been born there, tall and broad-shouldered and handsome. His mantle was a deep royal blue, and edged with ermine. The fabric was rich and luxurious, embroidered with golden thread. Even his pointed shoes were embellished, the design intricate. "Calm yourself, Dara," he commanded.
Dara threw the boy away from him, bowing low. Righting himself, he made a move towards the stairs. Still the boy obstructed his path, though his eyes were wary.
"Let him through, Finn," the voice boomed, God speaking from on high.
The boy stood aside, flinching as Dara passed, as if he half expected another violent outburst.
"Conor," Dara commanded, clicking his fingers, once more the military leader. Obey me, his voice demanded. Obey, obey, obey.
Conor ran to his side as a multitude of faces stared at him with unabashed curiosity. He gazed at the man above him as he ascended the stairs. The walls were cool dark stone, the windowless staircase lit only by the torches which hung on the walls. His shadow marched bravely beside him, though his legs trembled as he approached his faceless master, the earl's countenance wreathed in darkness.
"Remember your manners, boy," Dara barked at him.
Unaccustomed to formality, Conor looked at him in confusion.
"Bow," the old soldier hissed under his breath.
Bow, the spectre of his mother whispered, her voice echoing through the corridors of his mind, sweeping through rooms thick with dust, long abandoned. And a man had laughed indulgently, his green eyes sparkling. Conor swept into a low flourish, so that his face was close to the embroidered shoes. Such detail and finesse!
The earl moved forward into the torchlight. Righting himself, Conor was surprised to see his lord smiling kindly at him. The man's dark eyes sparkled. Though his beard covered most of the lower half of his face, it couldn't hide the wide smile which lit up his features. His face was lined and saturnine, only a few streaks of silver marring the lustrous black hair that receded from his brow.
"Come, Dara," the earl said jovially, throwing his arm around his friend and leading him towards a wooden door. "It has been far too long since last we spoke."
Conor followed them into the solar, face alight with excitement, wondering what treasures he was about to behold. The walls were adorned with more tapestries, far more beautiful than the ones downstairs, depicting scenes from the Bible. The women had long, flowing hair created from red, yellow, brown and black wool. Expressions of rapture and sadness were evoked in the faces of the lovely figures as they witnessed miracles, or cried in grief as Jesus was crucified. He could see an enormous bed, the massive oak trees mutilated until they had fallen into the shape desired by their creators, further evidence of man's mastery of Mother Nature. The drapes which hung from the pillars were as intricately embroidered as the old man's clothing, inducing a sense of luxury and decadence. In the small windows, set high in the walls, were panes of glass, confirmation of his lord's vast wealth. In this room, he thought that he glimpsed heaven.
A fire roared in the large hearth. Chairs were arranged around it, covered by rich furs. The floor was similarly adorned. Two massive dogs lay before the fire, resting on a luxurious sheepskin rug. Many men were not fortunate enough to recline in such lavish surroundings, but this man had so much power and wealth that he was able to treat his dogs to a life many peasants would kill for. It was absurd.
The two magnificent beasts were not the only figures reclining before the fire. A charmed circle lounged lazily in the lavish surroundings, happy and at ease with one another. The fire bathed them in a rosy golden glow, their illuminated faces more beautiful than those of angels.
"This is the gypsy child?" asked a woman's voice. She was the oldest of them, a breath-taking middle-aged woman with porcelain skin and flaming red hair. Her intelligent face was still and composed as she studied him, her eyes cold. She sat on an ornately carved wooden chair, a rich ermine cloak draped around her slight shoulders. A young boy rested his head in her lap, his face solemn as they both regarded Conor. The youth's hair was light brown, quite unremarkable, though everything else about him was stunning. His face was innocently angelic, and he regarded Conor from behind startling blue eyes - his mother's eyes. Her soft pale hands caressed his tousled hair absent-mindedly, making Conor long for his own mother.
"It is, my lady," Dara said, eyes lowered deferentially.
"He is truly a prize, mother."
Four brothers were gathered close to her. Conor vaguely recognised the one who had spoken, her eldest son, for he had seen his face in the crowd as he performed. He surmised that he was the man who had bought him, for though they all looked alike his was the only face which Conor felt that he had seen before. Hervey's hair was the same colour as his younger brother's, and like his brother he was blessed with their mother's stunning blue eyes and generous red lips. Though he was beautiful, Conor detected a brash cruelty in his lovely face, and the coldness which he had noted in the mother's face was reflected in his.
"When shall we watch him perform, Hervey?" The man who sat beside him could have been his twin.
To their left sat a fourth lord. "And who shall we set him against? Do you think we could buy a bear, brother?" Though he resembled his brothers facially, his hair was dark and curly, the hair of a painted angel.
"That would be no show at all, Richard. What Hervey saw was naught but a gypsy trick, I tell you. He'll die if you send him against a bear." The fifth son sat to one side of the countess, resting his head against her chair, flame-haired like his mother.
"Not a bear then, Bran. I do not want my gold to go to waste."
"But I want to see a bear, Hervey" pouted a girl in lilac silks, seated between two more. Three sisters, he saw, as beautiful as the sirens of Greek mythology. They were carved from the same stone as their mother, each possessing her alabaster skin and pale eyes. One had flaxen hair, framing her face like a halo, all milk and honey. The girl beside her was the most like her mother, her flaming mane glowing red in the light cast by the fire. But Conor was blind to all except their youngest daughter.
"You mustn't let them kill him father," the youngest said, almost lazily. "He's only a boy. A beautiful boy. Let him live and grow handsome." The young noblewoman lay on the sheepskin rug, head resting on the stomach of one huge hound. Her eyes were silver blue, like the reflection of the moon in a midnight lake. Her skin was as pale as ivory, in stark contrast to the raven tresses which fell to her waist in long, loose curls. Her silken skin was pale above her crimson bodice.
Conor was enthralled by her beauty. She was the most divine creature, a goddess allowed to roam the earth. For the second time that day, he glimpsed heaven.
"Eva has spoken," the earl said. "Be gentle with him, boys, for woe unto any who invoke your sister's wrath."
And his angel smiled, clapping the delicate hands in which his life had rested.