Inis Castle, Kilkenny, Ireland, 17th July 1220
Jarin backed away from him slowly, his eyes wolf-bright with adrenaline. He smiled at his small retinue, before giving Conor a perfunctory kick in the ribs, and walking away, his followers in tow.
The smell of hay filled Conor's nostrils, the scent sweet and summery. He rolled over, studying the wooden ceiling above him. A horse nickered gently, stretching its head over the stable door, straining its neck to reach him.
The lucky ones got to grow into adulthood. Those less fortunate were forced into it. Conor was twelve years old, but his childhood had come to an end the day that Dara had come for him. He had been given a job in the earl's stable, under the care of the head groom, a vile tempered man who enjoyed nothing more than inspiring fear in those who worked under him.
Eventually, Conor was to be in charge of sourcing and training the future earl's mounts, an important role to play when warfare was so fundamental - this was a family who had risen to prominence on the back of their military success. Hervey had everything to prove. His father was a legendary figure, famed for his skill and might on the battlefield. He was terrified of failure.
Dara was Conor's constant friend and companion, protecting him. People were scared of him, for he was a trusted friend of the earl's, and the two men spent much of their time in each other's company. They had gone into battle together, and their comradeship had survived the atrocities they had witnessed and the violence they had inflicted. When everything around them had been brutal, their friendship had been a shining beacon, pure and innocent in the face of horror. But he could not protect Conor from everyone.
Jarin was one of the earl's squires, a brutish, bullying thug. It was true that he was ignorant, but he had an animal cunning, and he was vindictive. He had never forgotten the embarrassment of Dara's chastisement, or the fact that he had been "beaten" by a child. He had made it his life's mission to torment Conor, and Conor lived in constant fear of his attempts at retribution.
It was unavoidable, with his job as a groom, that they should sometimes be forced into proximity. Jarin would find any excuse to beat him and embarrass him in front of the other young nobles. To Jarin, Conor was a rat, a rat to be worried at as if he were one of the earl's terriers. It was all just another form of entertainment to his loutish friends, and they took great pleasure in holding Conor down as Jarin beat him.
The physical pain was bad, but the mental torment was worse, for Conor never knew when his abuser would strike. He lived in constant fear of his retribution. He was always on edge, afraid to turn the corner in case Jarin was lying in wait for him.
Conor sighed heavily, knowing that he would have to face Dara before the shadows which covered him grew much longer. He dreaded the encounter. Dara flew into a rage every time he saw him with a bust lip or a black eye, but Conor refused to tell him who had hurt him. Dara couldn't be with him all of the time, and revealing the names of his tormentors would only make his next punishment worse. It would fuel their anger, like throwing fresh wood on a fire.
Jarin derived a strange gratification from beating him. His eyes would light up with excitement at the thought of hurting Conor, his cries only making the flame burn more brightly. Though the presence of the squire's friends meant more fists to pummel his tender face, and more feet to kick him in his ribs, Conor breathed a sigh of relief whenever he saw that his tormentor was not alone, for he knew that as soon as Jarin got him by himself he would finish what he had started that day. When it had happened, he had been too young to understand what the soldier had been trying to do, but as he had aged he had learnt what went on between men and women, and what could happen between two men.
Deprived of his innocence, Conor's fear mounted. He was like a volcano, the pressure building under the surface, just waiting for an outlet, a crack in the hard exterior. He was so angry. His hostility knew no bounds. Even Dara had started to avoid him of late. He got into fights all of the time, the pummelling of his fists as they bit into the tender flesh of his victims the only way to vent his fear and anger. He hated Jarin, and he hated himself for being so vulnerable. It was the only way he knew of to make himself feel strong. In those moments, as the adrenaline pumped through his system, he was invincible. Nobody could hurt him. He was in control.
But when his tormentor appeared all of the fight deserted him. He never once fought back. He simply let Jarin hit him, dropping to the ground as the squire's fists connected. It didn't matter that his body cried for a reprieve, or that blood gushed from his nose - he allowed Jarin to hurt him. He represented everything that Conor hated, everything that had scarred him. He was the face of his loss, the demon who had stolen his life from him. Conor was powerless to stand against him; beside him, he had always been powerless.
His body smarted from Jarin's blows. He knew that they could see the bruises on his face, their dark petals blossoming above his shirt, but none of them cared. Why should they? He was nothing to any of them. His back ached with the weight of the pail he carried, but he knew that nobody would help him.
There were others here, others like him, young and alone. Some of them smiled as they worked, whistled even. They were the foolish ones, the ones that he hated most of all. They were weak and stupid and they let themselves be chewed up and spat back out. They were content to settle for the hand fate had chosen for them.
Conor was not such a fool. He was not so easily broken. Night after night he polished his hate as Dara polished his old sword, sharpening the edges, making them dangerous enough to cut. The head groom, John, wielded his horse whip like a sceptre, as though it gave him dominion over them all, and he hated him for it. He hated Hervey for offering his mother gold and the chance to be rid of him, and he hated the earl for being his master. And Jarin, who beat him bloody, he hated even more. He hated the other squires for hurting him, the young lords for seeing him as naught but a toy, the young ladies for being perfumed and pampered and cruel. He hated his father for abandoning his mother, his mother for abandoning him, and his family for letting him go. At times he hated Dara, too, for colluding with them all.
The pail weighed more heavily now, dragging at his aching muscles. One of them walked down the aisle towards him as he moved the bucket to his other hand. Red-haired, doe-eyed, he whistled to himself as if he were happy to be here, as if he had a life which pleased him. He was a fool though. Perhaps he thought that he meant something to somebody, or that the work he did was worth something. But it wasn't.
Conor moved aside to let him pass, but the stupid boy moved in the same direction, smiled at him as if they shared some secret joke. So Conor moved the other way, and still the fool mirrored his action, laughing now. Again, they side-stepped. The red-haired boy shrugged good-naturedly, and squeezed past him, though there was room enough for two, as if to walk a few steps to the right were too much effort. The bucket in his hand caught, tipped, dashed itself from the idiot's hands. The water gushed around Conor, splashing him and drenching his clothes. Laughter escaped from the fool's lips.
Conor's blood turned to fire in his veins. He was so angry, so very angry, all of the time. He snapped. His fists were no longer his own. Everything was grey suddenly - the world drained of colour. All he could see as his nails gouged bleeding ribbons down the boy's face, and his knuckles dug into his cheeks, was red, the red of his victim's blood as it spilled on the floor. He lusted for his blood. He needed to make him suffer, so that, just for a moment, he could alleviate his own pain.
Strong hands dragged at Conor, trying to pull him away from the prone form. The other boy was on the ground, defenceless, one hand raised in a feeble attempt to shield his freckled face from Conor's blows, yet still he kept hitting him, needing to hurt him more than he was hurting himself. He was impervious to their restraining hands, fighting against them as if he was possessed.
Then John, the head groom, was there, and in his hand was a long horse whip. The leather ribbon dug into the tender skin of Conor's back as he lashed him, trying to calm him in the way that one would calm a snarling dog, using violence to combat violence. Conor howled in pain, but still he hit the prone form. He had been hit so many times that he barely felt the sting anymore.
"Stop," another voice bellowed, the one voice which could quiet him.
Conor's fist froze in mid-air, his breath catching in his lungs. He turned around slowly.
Dara stood behind him. Conor could see the disappointment in his eyes. He wasn't angry - he was horrified.
When he spoke, the old soldier's voice was quiet but authoritative, brooking no argument. "I'll deal with him."
John opened his mouth as if to protest, but chose to remain silent when he saw the look on Dara's face.
Dara turned and stormed out, his pace so brisk that Conor was forced to run after him, just as he had run after him on their very first day. Conor had been so scared of losing him in the crowd, and now the same fear plagued him all over again. He couldn't lose Dara. He needed him. He needed someone, anyone. But he would lose him. He would be alone.
Dara carried on walking, right out of the castle and across the drawbridge. They walked for miles, though the day turned grey and hail began to fall from the sky, stinging the exposed skin on Conor's face. When they eventually stopped, Conor almost walked into the back of Dara, for the action was so sudden and abrupt.
Dara's shoulders slumped. He turned towards Conor, and all of the anger had disappeared from his face. He looked sad - sad and old. "What am I going to do with you?"
Conor stared at the ground sullenly, his foot kicking at a tussock of grass. All around them was moorland, the wild heather coated with a blanket of hail.
"You're determined to alienate yourself from everyone. You won't let anyone in in case they leave you too. But I'm not going anywhere, despite your best efforts."
Conor looked up, surprised, for he had been so certain that he was going to lose him. How could he not? He was cruel and evil and angry. He didn't care for anyone. Nothing moved him anymore. There was no tenderness left inside of him. What was there now, but darkness and hatred? What was there to redeem him? Why should anyone want to help him?
Dara gently shook Conor's shoulders, a tender reprimand in his eyes. "But you have to stop this. Just because people hurt you it doesn't give you the right to hurt somebody else. I should know. I tried that a long time ago. In the end, you're the only person who can put an end to this."
"I don't know how to. I want it to stop. But if it does, if you can make the anger go away, then I'll be empty. Don't you see? There will be nothing left inside of me. This is who I am. Why should I change?"
"There is more to you than anger, Conor. Much more. There is kindness and bravery and courage. But most of all there is fear, I can see it in your eyes. Let me help you. Tell me who it is that's hurting you. I can make them stop. I can make all of it stop."
"You can't. It will only make things worse."
"Please, Conor, let me in. Don't make the same mistake I did."
"What did you do?"
Dara turned his dark eyes on Conor, grimacing. There was something awful and wounded in his introverted gaze. "I got it wrong. I thought that keeping everything locked inside was brave, and that admitting how much I was hurting would make me a coward."
Dara paused, struggling to explain. His voice was faltering. "I've seen terrible things, Conor - God knows, I've done terrible things. War does that to you. One day, you stop being shocked by everything you see, and it all becomes normal. When that happens, we lose the very thing that makes us human - our ability to empathise and show compassion for other people."
"I've done terrible things, and I feel nothing. Does that make me a victim of this war I wage? Does it make me a soldier?"
Dara turned his head and looked at him with those haunted eyes, as if he were seeing right into his heart, leaving him naked and exposed. "You feel everything, Conor. That's why you're so angry all of the time."
Conor shrugged, knowing that Dara was wrong. He didn't feel anything for anyone. He didn't care. He should have felt guilt, but he felt only the cold detachment which always followed on the heels of his anger. "So there's hope for me yet?"
"You don't understand, boy. You won't let yourself see the futility of your actions, the pointlessness of them. I see it. I have lived it. When the wars were over, I kept on fighting - raging against the unfairness of life. I kept it all bottled up - in here…" - he drummed his clenched fist against his chest - "… and I didn't let anybody in. I spent all of my time drinking and gambling, because I was too scared to face up to what I'd done. I just wanted to forget. My wife begged me to confide in her, to tell her what was going on inside my head, but I couldn't. I was so desperate to be brave," he sneered.
"You are brave."
"But I wasn't brave then. I was frightened, Conor. I was running scared. By the time Alana died, she hated me. She hated me because she had had to live through my demons with me, without every really understanding what I was going through, all because I was too afraid of being called a coward to share it with her. I didn't want her to know how scared I was. I was terrified all of the time, and I wanted to make it stop.
"I never even knew she was ill. How awful is that? We were so distant, so very distant, that I never saw it coming. I couldn't see beyond my own suffering. I came back, and she was gone. I was left with nothing."
"I already have nothing. Who should I be better for?"
Dara laid a spotted hand on his shoulder. "It hurts, boy," he said softly. "Being alone… it has always hurt. And always will. I know."
"You don't know," Conor said bitterly. "No one knows. I didn't choose this. Fate didn't choose it for me, either. My mother did. My own mother. And none of them tried to stop her."
Dara sighed. "Have you heard nothing I've told you, Conor? Do you think you are the first to be left alone? The first to have been abandoned by your family?" He shook his head, a gesture weary beyond words. "I had sons. Where are they now? Not here. Not with me.
"But you're not alone. You have me. Be better for me."
"Why are you so desperate to save me?"
"You will have to live with the choices you make all the rest of your days, as I have. There are so many days still ahead of you. I want you to make the right decisions. Let me help you, Conor. You're too young to destroy yourself like this. It's too late for me, but there's still a chance for you to put everything right."
Conor nodded warily. He understood the man's motive now; Dara wanted to redeem himself. That made him feel safer, somehow. Love was fickle. Everyone he had loved had deserted him. His own mother had abandoned him. She had never cared about him, he knew that now. Everything she had told him, every profession of love, had been a lie. But she had convinced him. He had been a fool. He had truly believed her. It was easier to trust someone acting for their own selfish ends. And he didn't want to be alone anymore. Dara was offering him something more reliable than affection. "Jarin de Grey," he muttered.
"De Grey is the one who's been doing this to you? I warned him…" Dara's nostrils flared with rage, and he stormed away, back towards the castle.
Conor ran after him, tugging at his hand, trying to make him stop and listen to him, but he was immune to his pleas, Conor's words falling on deaf ears.
They reached the castle in half the time it had taken them to leave it, their footsteps resounding loudly on the wooden bridge as they crossed the moat, beating a tattoo to herald their arrival. Dara refused to return the acknowledgements of those who greeted him, pacing furiously around the compound in search of Jarin. His shoulders were tight and hunched, tension etched into every line of his body.
But anger was tiring, and he was too old to sustain his rage for long. "When I see him…" he threatened.
Conor relaxed, taking his half-finished statement as evidence that he was giving up. "When you see him, you will do nothing," he pleaded. "Promise me, Dara. I trusted you. Don't betray me."
Dara hesitated. It was late afternoon, and loud voices could be heard inside of the great hall. Dinner was being served. He turned towards the massive building, not meeting Conor's gaze. "Come on," he said, "let's get something to eat."
Conor had wanted him to promise. He wanted to take back his confession. But he couldn't. The words had escaped into the atmosphere, and hung between them now, as volatile and unpredictable as wildfire.
"I need to go to the stables first," Conor said, planting his feet as Dara tried to pull him behind him.
Dara furrowed his brow, his face concerned. "Is that such a good idea?"
But Conor was suffocating. The long fingers of his confession reached down his throat, burning his lungs like smoke. He had to escape. "I have to. I have to go."
Conor shook his head in silent negation, darting towards the stables before Dara had time to stop him. He needed to be around the calming company of the horses, to feel the anger draining from his body as their presence gentled him, their beautiful souls, as smooth and translucent as water, quenching the fire inside of him. He would whisper his confession in their ears. Whisper his fears. And they would take them into themselves, take them away from him.
The stable block was deserted, everyone else enjoying the lavish spread laid out in the great hall. Conor walked down the shadowy centre aisle, his breathing loud in the silence of the wooden building. He heard a movement to his right, loud enough to make him freeze mid-step. Loud. Too loud. But there was naught to be seen. He was jumping at shadows, he knew. Fool that he was, the sound of a horse shifting in its stall had struck terror into his heart.
But the sound had been wrong. All wrong. Too hard and angry. He felt him before he saw him - someone approaching from behind. Conor froze, startled. He couldn't turn his head. He stood on the spot as if transfixed. In the fading light, the shadow of a stranger loomed ahead, completely covering his own, erasing the only evidence of his presence, swallowing him in its dark maw.
Jarin hit him then, a ringing blow to the side of his head. Conor fell to the floor, his wrists screaming in pain as he tried to slow his fall. He lay there, face down, resigned to his punishment, wondering how many boots would kick him, how many fists would punch him.
But Jarin was alone. The terror came then. He knew what Jarin wanted to do. He tried to push himself up, though his wrists felt as if they had been shattered. But before he could raise himself more than an inch from the ground his tormentor was on top of him, his knees pressing into Conor's back.
He collapsed under the older boy's weight, smashing his face on the hard floor. He felt blood trickling from his nose, bubbling up from his bust lip. Conor began to cry noiselessly. He wanted to scream, but his throat constricted in fear. Jarin's hands were clumsily pulling at the strong of his hose. The horses whinnied in fear, sensing Conor's terror. They were watching, witnessing, but they were powerless to stop him. Powerless. Powerless. Powerless.
Footsteps were running up from behind. Conor couldn't see, for one of his attacker's strong hands still pressed his face into the dirt, but he knew immediately who it was. He was there to save him all over again. But it was too late for salvation…
Dara kicked Conor's assailant in the middle of his back, knocking him aside. Jarin lay there, looking shocked, as Dara stood over him, feet planted squarely on the ground. The old soldier drew his sword, pressing the point of his blade against Jarin's vulnerable neck.
And then the strangest thing happened. The squire started to cry, bawling like a baby. His face turned red, tears spilling down his ugly face. The stench of urine assaulted their nostrils, and a stream of yellow trickled along the dirty floor. He looked weak, pitiful. Powerless.
Dara didn't know how to react. He turned away, trying to save de Grey from the awful embarrassment of people being witness to his cowardice, unused to such displays of fear. And Conor saw that he was brave and noble and courageous, that the knight in him couldn't run the boy through, couldn't kill a defenceless man, however vile that excuse for a human being was, whatever he had done...
"Stand up," Dara barked.
"What?" Jarin's confusion was genuine. He truly thought that Dara was going to kill him as he lay there in his own piss.
He got up hurriedly, before Dara could change his mind. His survival instinct kicked in, and in a heartbeat he had drawn his sword. His eyes gleamed with cunning, a devilish laugh escaping from between his lips. He sprang at Dara, who parried the blow effortlessly. Though he was older than de Grey, he knew how to fight. The deadly dance began, the long steel song playing in Conor's ears.
"Run away, grandfather," Jarin said. "Run away and I might let you live."
Conor tried to stop him - he didn't want Dara to die for him - but the old soldier was too strong, and he tossed him aside as he tried to step between them.
De Grey was a skilled swordsman, but Dara had years of experience on his side. Conor lay on the floor where Dara had pushed him. He didn't want to watch, but he couldn't look away. Dara feinted to one side, pulled his sword back, and then struck again faster than Conor would have believed. He smashed the flat edge of the blade into the young soldier's face, and Jarin staggered back, spitting blood and broken teeth from the ruin of his mouth. Jarin darted towards Conor, but Dara put him behind him, jerking back, cat-quick, as Jarin tried to use the opportunity to slash at his scarred face. The blade thumped Jarin's ribs, sending him reeling. Dara stepped sideways, parried a looping cut, danced away from a second, checked a third mid-swing. The moves were so fast Conor could hardly follow. He knew that if it went on for too long, Dara would tire first. But he was winning. Every thrust of the younger man's sword was met defensively, and as Jarin grew increasingly frustrated, his anger made him reckless. He left himself open, just for a second, and Dara flipped his sword in the air, using the hilt to hit his enemy in the stomach. Jarin crumpled to the floor, and once more Dara pressed the tip of his blade against the thin skin of his throat.
De Grey's fear had disappeared in the heat of battle, and his voice was arrogant as he stared at Dara, hatred burning in his eyes. "Are you going to kill me then?" He twisted desperately, trying not to move his head, swinging his sword at Dara, but the old soldier swept the blade aside almost contemptuously, brittle laughter escaping from his lips. He pressed down on the hilt of his sword, so that a crimson fountain welled up around the point. Jarin drew in a deep breath - and then Dara threw his weapon aside.
"I'm too old for killing. Leave here - and never return."
De Grey sprang to his feet, making for the door as speedily as he could.
Dara turned to Conor, his face concerned as he looked at him, battered and bleeding on the floor. He reached out his hand to help him up, staring in wordless horror at his torn, bloodied breeches. He opened his mouth, as if to speak, but the words never came. They were lost, drowned. A look of shock crossed the old soldier's face. A gurgling noise escaped from between his lips, a trickle of blood raining from the side of his mouth, and Dara crumpled to the ground before him.
Time seemed to slow down as he fell towards Conor. He didn't understand what he was seeing. He sat there, open-mouthed, lost, trembling. And as his body dropped, a figure took its place, standing in the same spot where only moments before Dara had lived and breathed.
But the other man was nothing to Conor as he cradled Dara's body in his arms. Tears filled his eyes, and suddenly he was weeping, his whole body wracked by sobs. He felt then. He felt everything. "Why did you do it?" he whispered in the old soldier's ears. "Why throw your life away? I never told you to. I never wanted that. I tried to stop you."
"He's dead, you fool. But don't cry. You'll see him again soon enough."
Dead. Dead. Dead. Dara was dead. Hope blew out like a candle in a storm. He was dead too, then. Tears scalded his skin with the acid bite of vinegar, blinding him. He could taste them on his lips, mingling with the blood which stained his mouth. Make it stop, he prayed, just make it stop.
Jarin de Grey smiled at him, his face malicious. Conor knew that he was next, and he didn't care. Once again, he was on his own in a lonely world. He closed his eyes, resigned to the mercy of a blade slowly slicing through the soft skin of his throat. Dara would be waiting for him, he knew. Dara had always been there for him. He wouldn't have gone without him.
Then there were more footsteps. Why couldn't they just let him die? De Grey turned around, surprised, sword raised in readiness.
The figure that froze was small and lithe. One slender hand rose to cover her mouth, a small cry escaping her lips as she saw the bloody form of Dara lying on top of Conor. It was Lady Eva.
De Grey seemed suddenly unsure of himself. Could he really get away with killing the earl's daughter? Conor could see his mind working, questioning. Could he escape before she raised the hue and cry? Could he kill her? He might have been able to dress Dara's murder up as self-defence, but what excuse could there be for slaughtering a defenceless young girl? As he turned back to Conor, the flash of an idea glittered in his eyes, and Conor knew that he would kill her, too, and blame both of their murders on him. He would get away with it, too, for the gypsy child had a reputation for violence. He was bad, he was dangerous, and everyone knew it. And who would speak against Jarin? They would all be dead.
Forgetting Conor, the squire walked towards the girl. She feinted to the left, and then darted to the right as he tried to grab her. She ran from him, as swift and graceful as a young deer. Too late, she realised that the rear doors were closed, that she was trapped. He walked towards her unhurriedly, revelling in the thought of what he was about to do.
Conor turned his head away - he didn't want to see her lovely form mauled by de Grey's bloody efforts. The sword lay beside him, only a few inches from his right hand. Dara's heavy form lay across him, anchoring him to the spot where he sat. The muscles in his arms burned as he stretched his fingers, trying to pull the blade an inch closer. He was terrified that de Grey would see him. He held his breath until he began to feel dizzy, scared that the sound of his breathing would attract the devil's attention.
He had it. The weapon flashed in a ray of sunlight, cold and deadly. Conor pushed Dara away from him, making as little noise as he could as he slid from beneath the old man's lifeless form.
Conor approached de Grey from behind, silently hunting his quarry as his grandfather had taught him. The man's body was pressed against Eva's, one brawny arm crushing her slender neck. She squirmed beneath him, desperately trying to break free. He was enjoying watching the fear in her eyes as she struggled to breathe. His face was pushed against hers, and he was whispering in her ear, telling her all of the things he would do to her whilst her blood drained from her body: horrible, repulsive things. Her eyes widened in surprise when she saw Conor. He raised a finger to his lips to silence her.
Gripping the hilt of the sword in both hands, Conor drove it through de Grey's back. He could feel everything; the brute's bones shattered beneath the blade, skin and muscles parting as the cold metal sliced through his body. It was horrifically intimate. As he pushed all of his weight against the hilt of the sword, Conor knew that he was stealing de Grey's life. He could hear the blood bubbling in Jarin's throat, and he saw it splatter Eva's exquisite face as it frothed from his mouth in a scarlet fountain. De Grey's heavy form fell against her, and she pushed him away in disgust. The blood pooled around him as he fell to the ground, his life's blood swirling around Conor's feet. Conor stood there, mute and trembling, knowing that he had taken his first victim.
Eva stepped delicately around de Grey's prone form. Crouching down beside his still body she pressed two long fingers against his thick neck. "He's dead," she said, matter-of-factly.
Conor stood, staring at Jarin unflinchingly, though his body convulsed violently. Eva took the sword gently from his hands, pulling him to her chest. It felt as though the slim arms which encircled him were the only thing preventing him from falling apart, for his body quivered so fiercely that he thought he would smash into a thousand tiny fragments if she let go of him.
They were still standing there when they found them.