Inis Castle, Kilkenny, Ireland, 13th October 1219
"Conor," Eva called, the brisk wind snatching her voice. She kept him by her side at all times, like a faithful pet, though he was mute and unresponsive. She sighed impatiently as he obediently ran to her side. She tried to be continually kind and patient, but he knew that she could not help but be irritated by his continued silence.
Tucking Conor's arm into the crook of her elbow, she began to talk companionably, beautiful in blue silk and luxuriant furs. "Papa has bought me a new Spanish mare, but I haven't decided what to call her yet. I think that it should be something beautiful, like her, but it needs to be fiery too. Can you think of anything?" She looked at him expectantly, her silver gaze swallowing him whole.
Conor looked at his protector through wide, melancholy eyes, wishing that he could talk, if only to make her happy. He had not chosen to impose such a silence on himself, but talking hurt too much. He couldn't answer their questions. He didn't want to remember. Dara's death was another blow to his wounded soul, de Grey's assault another injury which he couldn't recover from. He was too tired for anger. He knew that it was his fault - Dara had loved him and it had gotten him killed. He didn't need to speak the words out loud.
It was only Dara that he could talk to, a one-sided conversation on a loop in his head. He remembered how Jarin's sword had skewered him, pushing through flesh and bone, the way the blood had trickled down his chin. Why did you do it? Why throw your life away? I never told you to. I tried to stop you. I never wanted you to die for me.
Even in his dreams he found no peace, for Dara was always there. He dreamt of his scarred face, a gentle smile playing on his lips, telling him that he would always be there for him… but all the while the sword was protruding from his chest and the wound was weeping. Blood dripped from his smiling mouth, staining his chin red. Part of Conor knew that it was a nightmare, but come morning he couldn't awake from it. Dara was dead. And he hadn't smiled as he died.
You should have yielded, he chastised him. I tried to tell you, you brave fool. I never meant for you to die.
Jarin's murder had been a simple act of self-preservation, but the de Mandevilles didn't see it like that. In their eyes, he was a hero. In his own, he was a killer. He felt no guilt when he remembered driving the heavy sword through de Grey's muscular body, but Dara's face, the look of shock when the cold metal had pierced his heart, haunted Conor. He had killed him as well. His blood stained Conor's hands, and nothing he did could cleanse him of his guilt.
Conor couldn't rouse himself from the inertia which gripped him. He nodded politely, and smiled when they expected him to, but his responses were automatic. He closed his eyes, and all he could see was Dara's face. He couldn't sleep. The thought of food made him feel sick. He had grown skeletal, but he didn't care. He revelled in the hunger pains which clawed at his stomach, for it was his way of punishing himself, a physical manifestation of his pain and grief. And when he was so numb that breathing felt like too much of an effort, he was finally feeling something.
Eva sighed, her pretty face troubled. "Have you heard the story of Philomela?"
Conor looked at the ground to hide his tears as a stab of sadness cut through him, his mind drawn back to the day when Dara had told him the story of King Conchobar.
"If you've heard it, feel free to interrupt me," Eva said slyly, the sapphires on her fingers glinting like beady little eyes, watching him, waiting.
But Conor only stared at her mutely, all of the words locked inside of him. His throat was too caked by salt tears to work as it should. He was frozen, too frightened to move for fear that the walls would crack and fall down around him. But the monsters trapped inside of him could never be allowed to escape their fragile prison. No one must ever know.
Eva was undeterred. Her gloved hand, so delicate and pale inside its leather casing, traced a gentle finger down his cheek. He could feel the heat of her skin through the fabric, threatening to melt the ice inside of him. "Philomela and Procne were the daughters of Pandion, King of Athens. Procne was given by her father to Tereus, who had helped the king to win a war. Procne soon bore her husband a son, but she was not content. She asked her husband to allow her to see her sister Philomela again.
"To please his wife, Tereus travelled to Athens, and persuaded Pandion to allow him to escort Philomela to Thrace, so that the sisters could be reunited. Pandion agreed, to the delight of Philomela, who longed to see her sister again."
Her finger traced a light path across the scar on his lip, Jarin's mark, a mark of having his face smashed against the hard ground, the squire's hand forcing his head down. "On the way Tereus raped Philomela, and then cut out her tongue to prevent her from telling anyone what had happened."
Conor shivered at the uncomfortable comparison, shying away from her touch. Eva looked at him strangely, as if she had heard the words he couldn't speak, those sapphires glinting, glittering, still watching him, all those beady little eyes fixed on his face. Her eyes, too, drank him in, brilliant and silver and soulful.
She lifted his hand, pressed a kiss to his bare palm, as though she were sheer sweet gentleness. "But even without her tongue, Philomela could not be silenced. She managed to communicate with Procne, and the sisters fled together from the evil Tereus.
"But Tereus chased after them. In desperation, the sisters prayed to the gods to change them into birds. The kind gods granted their wish: Procne was changed into a nightingale, and Philomela became a swallow."
Conor looked at her, confused by the discrepancy, and saw something hurt and haunted in those silver depths. Something damaged. Secrets that weighed too heavily.
"You see, the gods decided that, since Philomela had lost her tongue and could no longer speak or sing, a swallow was more appropriate, as it could only chatter."
Eva placed soft hands on each side of his face, the cold metal of her rings nipping at his cheeks. "Open your mouth," she commanded.
Conor did as she bid, wanting the words to fall out, wanting her to see the monsters hidden inside. But she didn't see, for his scars were more deeply hidden than tragic Philomela's. Or if she did, she didn't say.
"Aah, you are no Philomela," she said, feigning confusion, "and yet still you remain silent."
A swallow dashed across the field as she spoke, flying low over their heads. The small bird had a dark, glossy blue back, a red throat, pale underparts, long tail streamers. It chattered as it swept past them, its wings trailing above their heads. "Philomela has come to chastise you," Eva said delightedly, her pale eyes following the diminutive form as it soared above them.
But Conor could not smile with her. He could not be brave, even if his Procne, with her silver gaze, urged him to be.
Eva's voice grew serious. "Philomela couldn't speak of what happened to her, Conor, but you don't need to. I was there too."
And he saw that she knew all of the things that he couldn't say. He saw it in her eyes. He saw the sadness, the sweet pity. The crushing grief, the terror, the guilt, all seemed to lift as his eyes followed the bird as it flew higher.
Eva moved closer, her blue skirts sliding against the floor, her great shadow, the shadow of money and wealth and privilege. Her hand was on his arm, her lips against his ear. Her words were barely more than a whisper, her face so close to his that they were secret and safe and shared. "You should have hated Jarin, Conor, and maybe you did. You should have wanted to watch his blood spill for what he did to you. And there would have been no evil in that, believe me. But that's not why you did it. You did it to save me, not to hurt him, and that makes you good and brave and noble."
He wanted to thank her then, for her kindness, for the comfort she wanted to give him. Yet still she didn't understand. Not fully. Not as he wanted her to.
But she had not finished. She drew closer yet. Her breath was warm on his neck, her great sapphire earrings sharp against his cheek. "There is no shame in what happened to you, nor any shame in what you did. There is no shame in not protecting Dara, either. He died because he loved you, but that doesn't mean that his blood is on your hands; it means only that he saw something inside of you worth dying for. Be proud of that. Make him proud."
Conor's eyes stung, blurred. His cheeks were warm suddenly. There was a strange, damp heat, and he knew that his grief studded his skin.
Eva gently squeezed his arm, and walked on then, as if they had never spoken, as if Conor had never cried. "Would you like to ride her?" she said, the question tossed easily over her shoulder, as if those beautiful, hard, heavy words had never been said.
He ran to catch up with her, his hand reaching for hers, grasping. Their fingers twined together, and he could feel the warmth of her skin through her gloves, as though she were almost real, almost human, almost like him. As though she were not untouchable. She looked at him in surprise, but her red lips curved slightly, and he felt her gentle squeeze, her acknowledgement.
Conor found himself smiling as they walked, side by side, to the stables, happy at the prospect of riding out, with the summer sunshine warming their backs. It felt wrong, at first, as if it didn't sit right on his face. He wasn't allowed to be happy, because Dara was dead. How could he forget it?
He could see, in Eva's face, that she had noted his smile, but she never mentioned it; she just carried on talking to him. It didn't seem to matter to her that their conversations were always one-sided. He needed that so badly. He needed her to just let him heal, in his own time.
"She's a very strange colour," Eva mused as the stable block came in to view, the horse already saddled and standing in front of it.
Conor looked at the mare closely, so rich and refined and elegant. Her coat was white flecked with spots of gold, as though her value were stamped on her skin. He could see her breeding in the shape of her neck. But she was flighty, he could see that too. He stepped forward to examine the horse, running his hand down her legs and along her back.
Eva watched him curiously. "What do you think of her?" she invited.
Conor shrugged, staring at her helplessly, wanting to please her, but unable to.
Eva clicked her fingers, her rings glittering in the sunlight as she summoned the nearest groom. "Trot the mare up," she commanded.
The man walked the mare away from them. Conor cast his eye over her as he trotted her up and down the yard, admiring her loose, fluid movement. Her muscles rippled like water beneath the silk of her coat. But though she was beautiful, Conor could sense the tension in her body. It showed in her sharply pricked ears and her crested neck, hidden beneath a cascading mane of molten silver. He narrowed his eyes, shaking his head slightly, seeking to communicate his unease to Eva.
But Eva did not want to heed his warning. She walked towards the mare, the braids that hung below her veil shining in the afternoon sun. She was dressed for riding in a gown of midnight blue, a small whip in her hand. The mare started as she saw the crop, and Conor wanted to run forwards and pull her away, his sense of danger increasing. "She's spirited," Eva purred. "I think that we shall complement each other wonderfully."
The mare stamped the ground restlessly as the groom held her for Eva to mount, kicking at her stomach with an iron-shod hoof, whinnying nervously. Eva set one foot in the stirrup, and the groom boosted her onto the mare's back. She sat with a perfect position, steady and comfortable in the saddle. She slid the reins through her fingers, gradually tightening them as she increased the contact on the horse's bit. The mare shifted nervously from foot to foot, but Eva instructed the groom to let go. He did so reluctantly, looking at the mare fearfully.
Eva was undeterred. She urged the horse forwards, pushing her into a high stepping trot. She handled the mare wonderfully, using her hands and her legs to keep her firmly under her control. The spotted horse floated across the ground as she relaxed beneath her mistress. Eva pushed her into a rocking horse canter, sitting easily to the horse's smooth gait. Conor watched her with undisguised admiration burning in his eyes, and found himself smiling, naturally, easily.
Twenty minutes later, Eva drew the mare to a halt. "Your turn. Let's see if you can do any better than me," she challenged. Her eyes met Conor's, and he felt as though he would fall into their blue depths. She loosened her reins, letting them slide through her jewelled fingers as she prepared to dismount.
There was a sudden loud crash, and a mangy dog dashed from the stable block, tail between its legs, straight into the mare's path. She started violently, her head thrown up as the hound darted past her. The horse bolted, the reins hanging slackly around her neck. Eva clung on to the horse's mane, her face pale, eyes wide.
Conor watched them in horror. The mare shied sideways as she completed the circuit of the yard, passing the point where the dog had crossed her path. The gesture knocked the reins from her neck, so that they trailed along the ground dangerously, flapping between her legs. Conor knew that if one of her legs were to become caught, the horse would somersault, taking Eva with her.
The groom stared in open-mouthed shock at the scene playing out before him. Motionless. Powerless. Conor sprang into action. Spreading his arms, he leaped in front of the horse, forcing her to a standstill. She reared up in front of him, Eva desperately clinging to her neck as she plunged and snorted. Gathering all of his courage, Conor dashed between her legs, grabbing at the dangling reins. He threw all of his slender weight behind him, trying desperately to pull the horse down.
Taking advantage of the momentary lull in the storm, Eva kicked her feet free of the stirrups, and threw herself from the saddle, her face ashen with shock. She stumbled away from the plunging horse, turning to stare at Conor in sick fear.
Conor released the mare's bridle, and the animal reared up again. "Whoa!" he soothed, forcing himself inside her head. His voice was rough and cracked from its long silence, but the command was unmistakable. As her feet returned to the ground, he took a slow step towards her, placing his hand on her quivering neck. She quieted instantly, his mind blanketing hers, wrapping it in a gentle, comforting embrace. Her violent rearing turned to trembling, wide-eyed surrender.
In that moment - that beautiful, earth-shattering moment - a part of himself that had been cut off reconnected itself. He had not done it in a long time. It was a gypsy trick, a trick of togetherness, and he had been alone. He had not wanted to share his soul with anyone. He had not wanted to remember who he was or what he could do. Why play at magic when it was so dangerous a game, when it brought such closeness? Once he had shared his mind with wolves, but even they had left him. He had no sense of them now, not even in his dreams. He had been alone, utterly alone, for the longest time. But not anymore… For her, for his beautiful Eva, he played with fire again. He felt again.
Conor released the bridle experimentally, drawing the reins over the mare's head, and turned to Eva. His hands were scored with red welts where the leather had burned his palms, and his face and clothes were flecked with foam. He hastened across the yard to his friend, his eyes wide with concern.
Though her hair was bedraggled, and her clothes were dusty where she had fallen to the floor, Eva's face was radiant, a smile lighting up her features. She was unperturbed by her ordeal, her fear banished by her excitement. "Thank you, Conor."
He smiled in reply. His tongue was loose now. One had no use for words when they were alone. But he wasn't alone anymore. "My lady," he croaked, bowing lavishly before her.