He wakes to the forlorn cry of gulls still ringing in his ears.
There's commotion and then light, and he wonders, briefly, if he's finally arrived in hell. It's not until hands cup the back of his neck to gently pull him upright, not until the beaker is set against his lips and he takes the first sip of cool, clear water, that he accepts that he is undoubtedly and wretchedly still alive.
Above him, someone is murmuring encouragement in a language he does not understand. His eyes are still adjusting, the world swimming into focus like mist lifting from the surface of a lake, but slowly, surely, he makes out a shock of brown hair and a pair of concerned eyes.
A boy, he thinks, half wanting to laugh and half wanting to scream.
Another boy, like the ones during the Crusade; the ones he'd watch bleed out their lifeblood on the field of battle after being cut from neck to navel. Like the ones he'd cut open himself.
The boy makes a worried sound above him, brows furrowed. He should not waste his care on a man whose hands drip red with the blood of innocents. He wishes he could tell this boy so, but the darkness is rising again, the cry of the gulls drowning out everything else and before he can tell the boy that he is wasting his time, blackness swallows him whole.
Th second time he wakes, the gulls are gone. There is only the sound of the wind, high and hollow, and when he raises himself on his elbows to take stock of his surroundings, it's to find himself on a bare pallet in a cramped cell, the grey shale of which is shot through with patches of moss and lichen.
There is no door, and when he finally heaves himself upright and staggers outside, it's to the sight of monks pausing in their work to take stock of him. Monks, yes, by their tonsures and their robes, but none like he has ever seen before. Their garb is black and plain, unadorned with either holy sigils or crosses.
Of course, he would end up in a place like this, he thinks bitterly. How cruel God's mercy can be.
One of the monks approaches, and he takes a lurching step forward to meet him, only to end up half sprawled in the man's arms. He is speaking, the same tongue as before, but it makes no more sense now than it did the first time he heard it. His throat is parched, and the words he wishes to speak to let this man of God know that he cannot understand him, do not want to come. Instead, he braces himself until he can stand by his own power, squints his eyes and shakes his head.
I do not know what you are saying, he tries to convey.
It works well enough. The man releases him slowly, as though he is afraid he will stumble again if he removes the protective circle of his arms. And then he speaks again, first in lilting English and finally in accented French.
The former he knows in passing, but the latter is the language of his birth.
'You are not yet well enough to be outside,' the monk tells him, somewhat sternly. 'You must rest.' He nods at this, a sign of comprehension, but when he tries to speak his throat still seizes and all that comes out is a dry, barking cough. The monk eyes him critically and then calls out again in his strange language.
Another one answers, and then one of the younger monks steps forward with a bucket and ladle.
It's the boy from before.
Their eyes meet as the boy hands him the water-filled ladle, and to his surprise, the concern is still there. But there is something else in the boy's gaze as well, something soft and questioning that makes him close his eyes and tip his head back as he swallows down the offered water.
He's more grateful than he could ever recount that when he opens them again, the boy is no longer staring directly at him, but has turned his attention to his fellow monk.
'Do you have a name?' the monk asks.
He does not answer. His throat is no longer parched, and therefore he has no reason not to.
No reason whatsoever.
The boy's head swivels, his gaze seeking.
He does not answer.
'A mute?' the monk continues, indicating his ears.
He has no reason not to answer.
Instead, he nods.
Another of the monks calls out something to the one in front of him, followed by a short bout of discussion in their language. The boy interjects several times, and each time he does, he turns his attention to him, eyes keen and measuring.
Finally, the monk in front of him raises his hands to quell the uproar. 'Do you understand me, as I speak to you now?' he asks.
He nods his agreement.
'Do you have a home? A family?'
A shake of his head. None that he can return to now, none that he will divulge even to these men of God.
'You are not crippled?'
'Then, once you are healed, would you be willing to work for food and lodging?' This is met with a low susurration amongst the other monks, all of whom are watching the exchange warily.
He nods a final time. The whispering fades to nothing.
'Then you are welcome here, stranger, for as long as you have need of shelter,' the monk concludes. 'I am the abbot of this monastery. In due course, you will meet the other brothers in service here, but for now, Brother Diarmuid, our novice, will suffice as your guide.' This is accompanied by a gesture in the boy's direction. 'Now, if you will excuse me, I must get back to my chores. Rest up, and when you are well, Brother Diarmuid is to bring you to Brother Ciarán, who will instruct you on your chores.'
With that, the abbot turns and makes his way back towards the main body of the other monks, leaving him alone with the boy.
Belatedly, he realises he's still clutching the ladle. He hands it back, not quite daring to meet the boy's eyes again, and turns back to his cell.
'Wait,' the boy says in halting English, tugging at his arm, hands work-worn and callused, and this is how he realises he is without a shirt, his shame and scars plain for all to see. 'Are you hungry?' the boy asks.
He is tired and far wearier than he ever remembers being, but when the boy asks if he is hungry, his stomach growls its displeasure as though it had been addressed itself. He nods again, and it already seems a rote gesture.
'Good, then I will fetch you bread and berries and gruel, and afterward, you will rest again,' the boy tells him with a smile that lingers about his eyes.
He says nothing to this and instead turns back to the scant comfort of his borrowed cell.
Brother Ciarán is the resident herbalist, and also the abbey's taskmaster. He is strict but kind, and his affection for Brother Diarmuid shows clearly in the chores he assigns the boy.
He watches all of this and slowly learns the mechanisms of monastic life.
He learns that he is in Ireland, a place called Kilmannán, and that it was Brother Diarmuid who had found him after his currach had washed up on the shore. He learns that the language they speak is called Gaelic, and that it is, according to Brother Rua at least, as old as the land itself. He learns that the abbey was built on the foundations of a much older site and that the natives from the neighbouring clans and steads hold it as an ancient place of power, and therefore generally steer clear of it for fear of being cursed.
He works himself into tired contentment each day, learns to tan hide into leather, to fetch pails of water from the brook a way off from the monastery, to weave baskets and rope from grass and reed and fibre, to hunt for clams on the beach and to care for the abbey's three goats and single gelding and handful of chickens.
He learns, and learns, and learns, and most of it, to his surprise, comes from Brother Diarmuid.
Brother Diarmuid doesn't speak French, unlike the abbot and Brother Ciarán, but his English is passable, if halting, and as a result, he frequently peppers his speech with bits and pieces of Gaelic like flotsam and jetsam strewn hither and yon.
He learns to understand the strange sounds and loping intonations and when Brother Diarmuid notices, he undertakes the painstaking journey of teaching a man who does not speak to understand a language he does not know.
Some days fare better, and some days fare worse, but by the time autumn gives way to the first brittle bite of winter, he can understand Brother Diarmuid well enough that the boy is capable of carrying on whole conversations, filling the silence between them with endless, inquisitive chatter.
It has been months now and he still hasn't uttered a single word.
The other monks have taken his silence at face value after his initial interaction with the abbot, never questioning the authenticity of the account, and so he becomes a mute.
It is easier, this way. He does not have to speak, does not have to recite prayers during Compline and Matins and Lauds and all the other countless little hours. He is rarely questioned, and never expected to answer. And perhaps the easiest of all is that he does not have to give thanks to God for his miserable life, save for if he feels like it.
Slowly, the memory of his life before the monastery starts to dim.
He has been reborn, on this island so seemingly far removed from the rest of the world and the ails that plague it, and with each passing day, he becomes something new, someone new. A man whose hands are no longer stained with the blood of boys barely old enough to hold a sword, a man who does not wake sweat-soaked in the dead of night when the bells toll with a scream trapped in his throat or a broken cry wedged in his lungs.
And in this, too, he learns from Brother Diarmuid.
Learns by watching the wonder on the boy's face when he shows him how to catch fish with his bare hands in the shallows, learns it from the closeness that grows between them, bent together like saplings against the wind as they lean into one another for even the smallest of words or gestures.
He learns it in the softness of Brother Diarmuid's eyes when he recounts how he came to the abbey, brought by his mother's kin after she had died from fever and how the other monks had taken him in, welcomed him and made him one of their own.
He learns, and he changes, and for a while, it is enough.
It is his third spring at the monastery when a problem arises.
Nothing that would jeopardise his place amongst the monks, no, but a problem all the same.
They are collecting shells on the shore, a rare day where Brother Ciarán's indulgence has allowed them the luxury of foregoing the worst of their chores for the afternoon.
'You spoil him,' he'd heard Brother Rua say to Brother Ciarán in passing on his way back from tending the goats earlier that morning. 'He will never be able to take his vows in earnest if you keep treating him like a child.'
'He'll only be a boy for another summer or two, Rua,' Brother Ciarán had answered. 'One afternoon spent wandering with the mute will not go amiss.'
And here they are now, combing up and down the beach like a pair of wayward sandpipers.
'Look at this!' Diarmuid calls, and he makes his way over from where he'd been inspecting a broken bit of shell.
Diarmuid's holding up a piece of driftwood, the grain worn smooth in sinuous patterns, bleached white like a bone.
'Isn't it beautiful?'
He nods, as is his wont now, and gently takes the piece from the boy's hands. It would make for a fine carving, he thinks, before gesturing to the satchel slung over his shoulder.
'What will you carve from it?' Diarmuid asks as if he'd heard his thoughts. Not surprising, given that Diarmuid knows him almost better than he knows himself, even though no word has passed his lips in years.
He shrugs and grins, stowing the driftwood. Perhaps he'll fashion Diarmuid a cross or an icon of the Christ from it as a gift.
'Do you ever wonder if anything at all lies beyond those boundless, churning waves?' Diarmuid asks after a moment, turning back to the roar of the sea, shading his face with one hand as he wades in up to his thighs. The water billows his habit up before slowly soaking through, leaving it clinging to the slender angle of his hips. His eyes are dark and thoughtful as they look out across the vastness of the ocean, hair tugged into flyaway wisps by the salt tang of the breeze.
It strikes him then that he has seen a sight like this before, and the memory of it nearly takes his breath away.
Her hair had been almost the same shade as Diarmuid's; her eyes blue instead of brown, but in their depth and regard all too alike.
She'd been with child when he'd left her. And now she is sundered from him not only by an ocean much like this one, but by the long span of years between the innocence of his youth and the harsh reality of the present.
Diarmuid turns to look at him again, and he suddenly knows, unequivocally, that this is to be his punishment for all the sins that have come before.
He'd loved once before, and he loves again now, and he wishes he had the strength left in him to curse God for it.
The seasons come, and they go, and they take with them an endless procession of near-idyllic days spent in prosaic drudgery.
By now he and Diarmuid are inseparable, and the other monks have long since forgone the notion of trying to part them short of during prayers and sleep. He is a constant shadow, dogging the boy's steps wherever he goes.
And Diarmuid lets him; always welcomes his presence the way one welcomes the warmth of the sun after a long and difficult winter.
The knowledge of what lingers in his heart does not lighten, but with time the burden of it becomes easier to bear and, after a while, he even comes to cherish it. His only fear is that one day, one of the other monks will look at him and see straight through to the core of him and denounce him for the sinner and pariah that he is.
Later, much later, he will come to think that perhaps it had been precisely because he had so feared being found out, that he eventually is.
He is chopping firewood one afternoon when the abbot walks over to him. From his place at the chopping block, he has a near perfect view of the rest of the monastery grounds, including where Diarmuid is feeding the chickens, murmuring and clucking encouragingly at them.
'He is growing fast. Soon he will no longer be an initiate, but a brother fully fledged,' the abbot says, following his gaze.
He nods, somewhat stiffly, hewing another log. The abbot does not often speak to him, not like Brother Ciarán and the other monks; certainly not like Diarmuid does, and he feels out of his depth at the man's scrutiny.
'I think it a shame, sometimes, that the monastery is all he has ever known,' the abbot continues with a weary sigh, seemingly oblivious to his discomfort. 'God wills as He wishes. But still I worry, and I wonder. Perhaps seeing the world would not be so bad a thing, for one so young as him.'
For the first time in nearly four years, words seem ready to boil forth from his mouth. He wants to tell the abbot that the world and its troubles should be kept as far away from Diarmuid as possible; that its horrors far outweigh and outnumber its marvels and that he would sacrifice life and limb, without hesitation, to prevent Diarmuid from experiencing even one whit of the daily tragedies of ordinary men such as himself.
He opens his mouth to say all this, and more, but the abbot forestalls him with a raised hand.
'I am glad he has someone who is willing to keep him from harm,' the abbot says shrewdly, and it's all he can do to close his mouth and lay out another log on the block. 'I thank God every day that Diarmuid found your currach on the shore that day, three summers past. Your time spent together has tempered him. He will grow into a fine man, I think, but until then, it is good that he has one such as you to care for him.'
The axe in his hands arcs high and true; the wood beneath splitting as cleanly as dried parchment. He meets the abbot's gaze then and tells himself he has nothing to hide.
He's prepared to see disgust or anger or even aimless pity, but not understanding.
His palms seem to lose their grip on the axe's haft, and he has to set it down or risk maiming himself with a missed swing. The abbot claps him on the shoulder.
'God creates nothing that is not worthy of His love, nor did He create man without the means with which to redeem himself. Sometimes, that redemption comes through contemplation; less often, it comes through bloodshed and tears. Most often, however, it comes through the love of others. Remember that when you feel that your burdens have become too much to bear, my son.'
And with that, the abbot leaves him to make his way towards their small chapel, no doubt to prepare for the midday prayer.
Inadvertently, his gaze swings back towards Diarmuid, who catches him watching and grins brightly before raising a hand and waving at him.
The abbot's words still rattling around in his head, he tips his chin in acknowledgment and returns to his task.
The axe swings high again, and the next log splits the same as the others before it.
It is early morning, nigh an hour past Matins.
'That one they call the Bear,' Diarmuid says, gesturing at a cluster of stars. 'See it rearing up on its hind legs?'
He does not. The stars all look alike to him, save the Evening Star. Even if they didn't, he would still not pay them much mind, not with their light caught silver-bright in Diarmuid's hair and their cold fire seeming to catch in his eyes.
They are lying side by side in the heather atop a hill overlooking the valley, arms comfortably outstretched as they take in the vast expanse of the night sky overhead.
'And that one there is Lugh, the Long Arm, with his mighty spear Areadbhar raised aloft,' Diarmuid says softly, reaching out to trace the stars that make up the famed son of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
He knows about the Aos sí now, has learned about them from stories whispered in the refectory (only ever when the abbot's back is turned), and from Brother Rua, who likes to regale Diarmuid with tales of the fair folk to pass the time whenever they tend the crops or weave baskets or sort herbs.
None of the monks seem to believe the stories they tell, but he has found that by and large, the Irish are a superstitious lot, even among the Faithful. He's cleared away his share of small offerings of bread and cheese and milk, everywhere from the stables to the cells; has learned to leave the small circles of fungi that occasionally pop up around the monastery well enough alone and not to disturb any collection of seemingly randomly placed stones he comes across.
He abides by these superstitions, but he does not believe them, not in the way that the people of this strange and ancient land do, as though the truth of such things were writ into their very bones.
'Do you think it possible that God could have created the fair folk?' Diarmuid asks, turning to look at him. 'That they, like us, are His creations, but have simply gone astray?'
He gives a shrug because he truly does not know. If such creatures exist, they would surely be in defiance of the laws of nature according to scripture. But at the same time, nothing can exist that was not created by God, and if that holds true, then how did the belief in such beings come to be in the first place? It is a riddle with no solution, at least not one that he can offer.
'It seems strange that there is so much in the world we can give no accounting for, and yet we are always told never to question either.'
Like this, face half-shadowed in the dark, Diarmuid looks like something out of a dream. He doesn't seem real, as if a single touch could dissipate him, like the morning mists that rise and disappear with the coming of the dawn.
Perhaps, he muses, this is a dream, and Diarmuid is a síd himself, sent to trick him and trap him and lure him away into the shadows.
God creates nothing that is not worthy of His love.
No, he thinks. Diarmuid is no síd, no spirit or demon sent to torture or tempt.
The moon is a baleful sliver against the blackness of the night, its wan light struggling to compete with the myriad stars wheeling high above. Beside him, Diarmuid is a warm and welcome presence, his eyes slipping closed as the hour grows ever later.
He makes to sit up then, but a hand on his arm stalls him, keeps him where he is.
'A few moments more,' Diarmuid begs, trying to stifle a yawn.
He shakes his head and lays back down with a rueful grin, and tries to think nothing of it when Diarmuid shifts closer, seeking heat.
Not a síd, no, but some manner of miracle nonetheless, he thinks, even as his own eyes slip shut.
He would be a fool not to notice the way Diarmuid looks at him.
It is the summer of his fifth year at the abbey, and he has settled into life here as though he'd been made for it.
He has even, of late, found the courage to speak to God again, and in the small hours before dawn each morning, before Lauds, he makes his way to a small copse of wind-bent trees to prostrate himself and offer prayers of his own.
This is how Diarmuid finds him one morning, bare save for his breeches as he makes his way back to the abbey and the day's chores.
'Brother Cathal sent me to fetch water for the crops,' he says, holding up four worn wooden pails; two for each of them.
He does not miss the way Diarmuid's eyes linger on his scars, nor the way they trace the curvature of his arms or the broad swell of his chest.
It is gratifying, in a way, to be so admired, but it is exactly for this reason that he hastily pulls his shirt over his head and gestures for the pails. He will carry all of them until they get to the brook, as is his habit, and Diarmuid hands them over without another word.
It is better for both of them this way, he tells himself.
Diarmuid has begun to fill out, of late; growing broad in the shoulders and square of jaw, the soft curves of baby fat giving way to the angular planes of adulthood. Just last winter he'd sprouted up again, and it will not be long before Diarmuid will be of a height with him, the final vestiges of his boyhood fading faster than either of them are ready for.
Soon, too soon, Diarmuid will take his full vows and devote himself to God completely. He will shave his head and keep the remaining hair shorn short, a sign of his humility; he will remain celibate, leading a life untouched and devoid of temptation, striving to remove himself from all earthly desires in order to become closer to God.
Soon, he knows, Diarmuid will have to leave him behind.
He tells himself that it is better then, to smother the weight of his own regard in its infancy before it can grow and consume them both. If he pretends that Diarmuid is still a boy and not nearly a man fully grown, he can stifle his own desires, quash them easily before they can turn his mind towards things he has not thought of since before he left his wife, young and full-bellied, for the causes and calamities of other men.
The walk to the brook is spent in uncharacteristic silence, one not even Diarmuid seems keen on breaking for once.
It is only after all four pails have been filled, and they are making their way back to the monastery, that Diarmuid finally speaks. 'Are all your scars from battling in the Crusades?' he asks.
He does not answer, but that is usually an answer in and of itself between them. Instead, he raises a brow as if to say, perhaps, perhaps not.
'And the cross on your back?'
This one he does not answer even with his silence and Diarmuid falls quiet once more, chastened.
The silence after is awkward and laden, and the walk itself seems to last an eternity before the abbey finally comes into view again.
When they arrive back, Diarmuid makes to take the other pails from him.
Instead, he catches one of Diarmuid's wrists, keeping his grip loose enough that if Diarmuid were to tug, he could easily break free. Slowly, deliberately, he strokes the inside of Diarmuid's wrist; once, twice, three times. It's not an apology, but it seems to work nonetheless, and Diarmuid gives him a small, effusive smile that lights up his entire face.
'You may keep your secrets for now,' he murmurs, seemingly mollified. 'You can share them with me when you are ready.'
He nods by way of answer.
It's a compromise, and one he takes easily. He doesn't know if he'll ever be able to tell Diarmuid the truth behind the scars or the cross; doesn't even know if he wants to. But he is willing to try, so long as Diarmuid is willing to wait for him to reach the point where he can finally give voice to the myriad horrors of his past.
'I should get going before I get scolded for dallying,' Diarmuid says finally, grinning sheepishly before gently easing out of the hold on his wrist, turning away to head towards where Brother Cathal is waving him over.
He's not at all surprised when Diarmuid keeps looking back over his shoulder to steal glances at him as he goes.
A compromise, he thinks again, shaking his head.
He turns to go feed the goats then and tries to ignore the phantom sensation of smooth, unmarked skin beneath his fingertips for the rest of the day. So much for his resolve.
He takes ill shortly before winter arrives that year.
'It's the fever,' Brother Ciarán mutters, their foreheads pressed together. A distressed sound follows, and out of the corner of his eye, he can see Diarmuid hovering near the doorway of his cell, a familiar look of worry drawing his features into austere sombreness.
'Fetch me more water, and bring my satchel,' Brother Ciarán instructs, but Diarmuid stubbornly remains where he is. It's not until the other barks out, 'Now, boy!', that Diarmuid reluctantly peels off, casting a vulnerable look at the both of them as he goes.
His entire body is an aching, writhing mess, sweat soaking through his tunic to the pallet below; a sour stink that seems to pervade the air in his cramped cell. Every part of him quivers and shakes, and with each new wave of motion, his muscles contract and protest, bunched up like knot-braided cords.
It seems like hours before Diarmuid returns, handing Brother Ciarán the requested items before kneeling beside him to smooth back his sweat-slicked hair.
'It will be alright,' Diarmuid tells him, voice faltering.
He remembers Diarmuid telling him of his mother, of the fever that had taken her, and even with his mind clouded and his body wracked with pain, he feels a surge of protectiveness that has him reaching out one trembling, tired hand to cup the side of Diarmuid's face.
'You will be well again soon enough,' Diarmuid says, eyes wet and shining.
If ever I have gained your favour and forgiveness, Lord, let me live for his sake.
He has never prayed on another's behalf for his own life before, but doing so now requires far less effort than simply keeping his hand to Diarmuid's face does; than splaying his fingers across the curve of his cheek in a gesture of attempted reassurance.
'Diarmuid,' Brother Ciarán murmurs quietly, laying a hand on his shoulder and handing him a cup that smells of herbs, bitter and pungent.
His mind casts itself back to a time long past, as Diarmuid moves to tip his head up and hold the cup to his lips, softly urging him to drink. They'd met in much a similar way, he recalls, though he suspects he hadn't been quite as near to dying then as he might be now.
It strikes him as strange that he should come into Diarmuid's care time and again; weak and weary where he should be strong, Diarmuid's concern the only tether that keeps him tied to this life.
He grins lopsidedly when Diarmuid lowers the cup and slowly moves his hand to run his fingers through a mop of windswept hair.
Diarmuid's eyes are still shining, but he smiles back and lets out a faint chuckle. 'You will be well,' he says again, sounding a little surer of his words this time.
'The herbs will make him drowsy,' Brother Ciarán says from over his shoulder. 'He will sleep soon.'
They all know he means it as a slight reprimand, an admonishment for Diarmuid to leave him to his rest.
'I will stay,' Diarmuid says instead, stubborn as a mule, eyes never leaving his own.
Brother Ciarán sighs heavily before rising. 'The abbot will set your punishment then,' he tells them, resigned.
'Yes, brother,' Diarmuid answers with a faint smile as the other leaves.
No long after, he slips into fitful sleep; Diarmuid by his side, clasping his hand throughout.
He does not like the look of the Cisterian, and neither, it seems, does Diarmuid.
There is a hunger in Brother Geraldus' eyes, zealous and covetous as he takes in the reliquary once it has been drawn from its sanctum; the look of a man who has seen a treasure and is already considering how best to spend the spoils.
Still, when the abbot instructs him to pack and hitch the monastery's single cart, he does so without preamble.
'You are to accompany them,' the abbot tells him as the rest of the monks scurry to prepare for the journey their holiest relic is about to undertake. The abbot casts a look over his shoulder to where Diarmuid is packing provisions for the trip, gaze still fixed consideringly on the Cisterian.
'Though, I am not sure you would have stayed even if I had outright forbidden you from going,' he says with a faint smile.
He returns it with a wry quirk of his lips.
The abbot draws him into an embrace then, speaking loud enough for his ears alone, 'Take care of them. They will have need of your strength before their journey's end, I fear. Do this last task for me, and know peace, my son.'
When the abbot pulls away, he nods his understanding.
'Go with God,' the abbot tells him.
They both know it means farewell.
If God is with them on this journey, it seems His wrath goes with them also. Brothers Rua and Cathal huddle close and murmur amongst themselves once the relic has been covered with its sheepskin again, while Geraldus walks ahead of the cart as though he is leading a procession through the very streets of Rome itself.
He looks to Diarmuid, notes the frown that has settled over his features like a cloud, and thinks of the tales of scripture he'd been read as a boy growing up; tales of a vengeful and unforgiving God who slaughtered more often than he saved.
His anger overtakes his sense when Geraldus focuses his attention on Diarmuid.
He doesn't know whether the Cisterian is hunting for any signs or heresy amongst their group, or whether he truly wishes to prove the conviction of his belief when he holds out his skein for Diarmuid to drink from, but it matters little.
He grabs the skein and drinks the tainted water like a man dying of thirst.
Geraldus' eyes widen at first and then narrow suspiciously, but he can say nothing in the face of an act of perceived gratitude.
Later, when Diarmuid leans in to offer him watermint to prevent the cramping, he catches Geraldus watching them like a hawk, sharp-eyed and critical, their closeness not gone amiss.
There is another meaning altogether underlying his words when he asks, 'What is that, boy?'
It is only when Brother Ciarán intercedes and Geraldus falls back to professing his unwavering faith, that his regard leaves the two of them.
After, the warriors that brought the Cisterian to them depart to face their own fates.
'Brothers,' Geraldus says with a reassuring nod and a smile that does not reach his eyes.
They have no choice but to continue, and so they do.
He recognises the young Lord De Merville long before the soldiers recognise him in turn.
He knows the standard of this house, a white griffin on a field of burgundy; remembers it soaring high above the field of battle at Constantinople, borne aloft on winds thick with soot and ash and the cries of the dying and near-dead.
Unbidden, as well, comes the memory of a sword in his hands and the rush of blood in his ears and the terrible, cloying panic of simply trying to stay alive amidst the chaos.
He shakes his head to clear his mind of the images, resolving to keep his head down for the remainder of De Merville's escort.
They come across the Mordha's warning at midday.
He has only a moment to ruefully note that De Merville's temperament hasn't changed a whit before the man turns his attention on himself.
The questioning is a game, one he knows De Merville likes to play on occasion. He'd seen it first hand during the trials of the Greek heretics, the menacing wend of the young Lord's words hoping to draw a confession before having to resort to more creative means.
He knows to expect retribution for his silence.
What he does not expect, however, are the monks of Kilmannán interceding on his behalf, all of them to a one coming to his defense, their reticence giving way to near-open enmity towards the Norman in the case of both Diarmuid and Rua.
Once again, it falls to Brother Ciarán to diffuse the situation.
'How lucky to have friends who would vouch for you, on faith alone,' De Merville says snidely, taking in their group before his second-in-command draws his attention to the grisly prize in his hands.
After, he steadfastly refuses to meet anyone's eyes until they reach the Norman camp. He has no way of expressing his gratitude for the conviction of their belief in him, nor that he is deeply ashamed at his own inability to have stepped forward and faced De Merville like a man, instead of huddling away like the coward he feels.
They all share a tent that night in the middle of the camp.
For all the merriment of the soldiers around them, there is a profound and unsettling sense of foreboding in the air.
Diarmuid looks troubled and does not speak, and it takes all of his willpower not to reach out and pull him close.
Sleep still only comes much later, and even then only fitfully at best.
He is busy with his morning contemplations when he hears the voices. He'd woken early out of habit; had left the tent and the sleeping monks inside undisturbed.
Not fifty paces from where he'd been praying, in a small clearing near the camp kitchens, he comes across De Merville interrogating Diarmuid, who looks somehow smaller and more subdued than he'd ever had back at the abbey, and again his anger rises like a vengeful beast woken from its slumber.
Diarmuid's eyes are wide and fearful, De Merville circling him like a hound, and he steps loudly and purposefully into the clearing to announce his presence.
Diarmuid catches sight of him first, his gaze darting to and from De Merville, who swings around and mutters, 'You...' as he approaches.
The air shifts as De Merville moves forward, Diarmuid temporarily forgotten in the face of a more challenging opponent, and for this he is glad. The fear has not yet faded from Diarmuid's eyes, but now there is something else there as well, a grim sort of encouragement.
The pending fight is interrupted by the arrival of Fournier, and for a brief moment, he feels a flicker of disappointment that they will not be going head to head after all.
'Another time, then,' De Merville tells him before stalking off, and the moment fades as though it had never been.
Diarmuid briefly looks after the departing form of De Merville before coming over, still looking shaken.
'Thank you,' he says quietly.
He merely nods and turns to go and retrieve his shirt, forgotten at his place of prayer.
As he goes, he thinks again of what the abbot had asked of him before setting out, and of the lengths he would go to in order to protect Diarmuid.
He's not surprised to find that when he considers the situation, there is nothing he wouldn't do for Diarmuid, no act he is unwilling to commit to ensure his safety.
Somehow, the knowledge of it fills him with a terror like nothing else that has ever come before.
There is a red fog in his mind, thick and unrelenting as he moves to strike.
'It's me!' the figure calls. 'It's me! It's me!'
He raises his fist, prepares to land a blow, and then another, when hands catch at his face and the voice resolves itself as Diarmuid's.
'It's me,' Diarmuid sobs hoarsely, and just like that, the spell is broken. His hands fall limply to his sides as though they've been struck from his body.
The fog is slow to recede, but at least it is no longer the deep crimson well of freshly spilled blood. He collapses to one side as shame and dismay take his legs from him as well. Diarmuid is still on the ground, and God above, how had he not seen, not known? He feels like retching, like taking up the sword he'd appropriated and running off in the first direction his feet will take him.
But then Diarmuid is there again, and this close, it's all too easy to see the wild fear in his eyes and the tear streaks still wet and shining on his cheeks. Diarmuid presses their foreheads together and it's all he can do to reach out, to touch and make sure.
He wishes he could say how sorry he is, but Diarmuid is tugging at him, urging him up, hands splayed against his fevered skin like a benediction. 'We have to go,' he keeps saying, over and over, voice plaintive and pleading.
They stay pressed together for a moment that feels like an eternity, taking what little comfort there is to be had that they are still alive. They are close enough to share breath and if he were to lean forward a bit more, he could press a kiss to the quivering bow of Diarmuid's mouth, could pull Diarmuid on top of him and kiss him senseless, leave him a shaking wreck on the forest floor.
Pressed together as they are, he could almost believe that here and now, Diarmuid would let him. For an instant, the naked want of it burns bright and blazing in his chest, simultaneously a revelation of the utmost profundity and a truth so simple as to beggar belief.
'We have to go,' Diarmuid repeats, and the moment passes as he finally nods in assent. They stand and stumble back towards whatever is left of the caravan like two children lost in the dark.
The Mordha laugh and jest and feast, and begin their desecration of Brother Ciarán's body before De Merville and his men have even properly left the camp.
Diarmuid turns in his arms, presses his face against the hollow of his neck and cries in great, heaving sobs that wrack him and leave him voiceless and shivering in the night air.
It's all he can do to hold Diarmuid close, head tucked under his chin as he offers up prayer after silent prayer.
It's Cathal that comes for them, creeping through the gloom, terrified and empty-eyed.
'We need to leave this cursed place,' he says hollowly, laying a hand on each of their shoulders. 'It's not safe.'
They steal away into the night like thieves, leaving behind nothing behind but ghosts and regret.
He does not believe in rights and rituals.
Still, when Diarmuid picks up St. Matthias' relic, he feels something stir in his breast, strange and nascent and echoing, as though the very bones of the earth have trembled and sighed beneath his feet.
Diarmuid picks up the relic with careful, pious hands, and he thinks, this is what the disciples must have felt like when they had first witnessed Jesus' miracles.
He does not believe in rights and rituals and relics, no, but he does believe in Diarmuid.
Diarmuid, who kneels on the damp ground and reaches forth to lay hands on the relic, Diarmuid who answers Geraldus' question of, 'Where now?' with his faith and his determination.
Diarmuid, who reaches forth with hands surely consecrated by God Himself and prays for their salvation.
He does not believe, no, but at this moment, faith flows through him like a river coursing strong and true, and he takes a knee like he imagines the first knights took when they vowed to reclaim and protect the Holy City.
There is a fire in him, raging and powerful and it sings but one word over and over.
Diarmuid, like a litany pouring from his heart.
There, surrounded by the infinite grey twilight with Cathal and Geraldus to either side of him and Diarmuid, sweet, blessed Diarmuid before him, he hears the bell toll, and believes again for the first time since he'd started running from his sins many long years ago.
There is a madness taking root in Geraldus, one he has seen before on the battlefield; one he knows will doom them all if they do not find safe passage away from Ireland's shores soon enough.
He can see it happen before his own eyes, as the Cisterian grabs hold of Diarmuid and proclaims that there is evil in him.
He moves forward to intervene, to strike, and is stopped by the sound of Cathal's voice.
Upon seeing the reliquary's gems, the madness seems to fade from Geraldus' eyes, replaced by a relief so swift and deplorable it almost makes his stomach turn.
They board the currach once the jewels have been transacted as payment, but his eyes do not leave Diarmuid and Geraldus where they sit at the front and speak in hushed tones.
When they are done, Diarmuid looks to him with worry etched into his brow.
He has no words to offer, not now, not after so long a time spent silent.
But there is understanding, as there has always been between them.
Geraldus will be the death of them all, only if they let him.
'Save us! Save us!' wails Geraldus. Fear has made him a pitiable, groveling thing, wretched and debased as he lies in the shallow channel of the lagoon after being thrown.
He knows what he must do, but the knowledge of it still lies too heavily on his heart. There will be no coming back from this duty, this final obligation.
You reek of blood, brother.
He looks at Diarmuid. There is anger in his eyes, a great and terrible wrath. It is like looking into the face of God.
Do not go, those eyes seem to command. And were he a better man, one not damned by his own hands, he might have obeyed. Instead, he draws the sword from the bow of the currach and looks at the men around him: the traders, Cathal and finally, again, always, at Diarmuid.
This is the only way to clean yourself.
He turns back to the long stretch of the beach, away from all he has come to know and hold dear and in all his life, no task asked of him has ever been harder to carry out.
He hears Diarmuid's cry as he goes, raw and desperate and betrayed, the sound of it settling like a blade betwixt his ribs.
'Go with God!' calls Geraldus.
I am already forsaken, he thinks, and pulling the shirt from his back, goes to meet his doom.
There is copper in his mouth and bile in his throat and the world runs red, red, red.
He can no longer feel the sting of sea salt nor the grit of sand where his flesh has parted, beneath sword and flail and fist.
There is no place for agony, no place left in him for weariness nor suffering nor regret. The only thing that matters is the man before him, and that he brings about his utter ruin.
'You will suffer and they will watch,' taunts De Merville, but there is ire in his voice, hatred and contempt warring in turn. De Merville thinks he will win.
He looks back at the currach, now a faint shape near the horizon, and rises a final time.
The arrow is a wicked, wicked thing when it comes, twisting and turning, setting his innards ablaze. It is hellfire, and it consumes him.
But he will not burn alone.
'Who are you? Where are you from?!' De Merville demands, forcing the arrow deeper.
And like Lucifer himself ascending from the Pit, rises a word that seems not his own when it leaves his parched throat and cracked lips, unbidden yet fitting.
'Hell,' he growls and rips out De Merville's throat.
The sky is an infinite blue dome above him.
Far off, he can hear the cheerless cry of gulls and, nearby, the lapping of waves against the sand.
He never imagined his death would be so peaceful.
There is commotion nearby, and when he turns his head (it takes effort, so much effort), a figure swims into view as it kneels beside him.
'No, no, no,' Diarmuid mutters furiously, mouth a thin, brittle line. 'Please Lord, no.'
He would laugh had he the breath left for it. Diarmuid has found his fire, and it aches to know that he will not live to see him embrace it.
'Diarmuid,' he breathes fondly, blood and spittle bubbling from his lips.
There is a sharp inhale, and then Diarmuid moves closer, settles on the sand and shifts to cradle his head in his lap. Distantly, he registers the fact that Diarmuid's habit is completely soaked through. He must have waded out from the shallows then, must have seen the carnage on the beach and still come. It should not be as fondly exasperated a thought as it is.
'You spoke,' Diarmuid says then, wonder in his voice. A miracle, yes, because he has forgotten that Diarmuid has never heard his voice before.
He wants to say, a miracle for a miracle, but even here at the end, his words seem to catch in his throat. Instead, he rasps out, 'The relic?'
'It is gone,' Diarmuid says, voice high and tight, betraying some great and awful secret.
He does not press on what happened and does not wish to. There is no time left for holy idols anymore. There is only time left for this. Salvation should not be this easy, he thinks, reaching out to touch Diarmuid's face. His fingers leave black streaks on Diarmuid's pale skin. It makes him look like some ancient pagan god, benevolent and terrible.
A síd, some manner of angel or demon or both, come to spirit him away.
'Diarmuid,' he manages again, wonderingly. The sound of it is thick and slurred, reverberating in the air between them as he chokes back a bloody cough.
It still sounds like a miracle.
His sight is fading, the blue of the sky waning first to dull grey and then near-black at the edges of his vision. Despite this, Diarmuid still burns like a bonfire, bright and true.
'Don't leave me,' Diarmuid pleads with him, taking his hand and clasping it between his pale, trembling fingers. 'I am alone in the world now. Cathal is gone, like Ciarán and Rua. I cannot turn back and I can't go forward. You cannot leave me too.'
He only realises Diarmuid is crying when he feels the warm wetness of tears on his cold face.
'Do not cry for me,' he breathes, squeezing Diarmuid's hand with all the strength left in his failing body. The scriptures preach piety and humility and toil in order to reach heaven, and in all his life he has only ever done one of those things. He is not deserving of this. But he takes it anyway, one last selfish deed in a life littered with them; this salvation, this blessed deliverance.
'You gave me purpose,' he tells Diarmuid, struggling to form the words around the rattling whine in his chest. 'You gave me a home and a reason to live. I could ask for no more.'
Diarmuid gives him a watery smile, leans in close and says with a laugh that turns to a sob halfway through, 'Liar. You never did tell me your secrets.'
He wishes he could laugh, even if only for Diarmuid's benefit. 'I will tell you whatever you wish to hear in the next life,' he says by way of apology, in between ragged breaths.
There is still more he wishes to say, so much more. He thinks, vaguely, calmly, that had any number of things gone differently, they could perhaps have run off and started a new life together somewhere far away from all this. Away from the Church, away from the war, away even from the eyes of God Himself.
An Eden for just the two of them.
But they are here now; alone on a white stretch of beach, one near-dead and one half-damned with no time between them anymore for things left too long unspoken.
'I am tired, Diarmuid,' he whispers instead, and closes his eyes, the last time he will do so.
'Then I bid you be at peace, and go with God,' Diarmuid tells him, voice gentle like the rising of the tide as he kisses his forehead and each of his eyes in turn, his tears a baptism as they spill across cooling skin.
The gulls are still crying overhead, but they do not sound bereft, not any longer.
Rather, they seem to call him home. And so he goes.