The Dreams of the Faithful

doc_carter

Disclaimer: Roar is the intellectual property of Ron Kaslow and Shaun Cassidy.  Keep your paws to yourself, kids.

Rating: PG-13 for images of violence

Spoilers: references to The Chosen, Red Boot, The Eternal, The Banshee's Wail

"Tell us a story, Fergus," said the boy Aidan.

"Isn't a bit late to be startin'?" asked Fergus, glancing at the rising moon.  Usually, he sat with the children a little after the evening meal.  Tonight he had been delayed returning from making peaceful

overtures to a tribe on the other side of the forest.  The night was getting on; if he was too long with the children, there would be irate mothers to deal with.

"You don't have to finish.  You can keep the story going tomorrow, or even the night after that," said Aidan hopefully.  He and the other children waited patiently for the grizzled man to answer.

"All right, lad," said Fergus.  He stroked his bushy mustache thoughtfully.  "What would you like to hear then?"

There was a sudden clamor of noise as each child proclaimed what he or she thought would be best.

"About the Romans!" 

"Magic!" 

"Something about Conor!"

The last suggestion was taken up enthusiastically by all.  They clamored for Fergus to deliver a tale until his immobile face silenced them.  "I'll not have interruptions and the like, though," he said.  The children nodded.  He continued, "But you can ask questions."  They nodded again.  He went back to stroking his mustache, thinking hard.  Though he liked sitting with the children, he wasn't good at coming up with stories on the spot.  Conor, or Tully, was better at this sort of thing.  The children stirred as the moments dragged by.  Finally, Fergus clapped his hands on his thighs.  "I've got it.  How about…the time Conor rescued the Father and took him to Cathbad?"

"You've already told us that one," said Mara.

Fergus wrinkled his brow.  "So I have," he admitted.  Seeing that the children were after something completely new, he decided to go back to the old standby: making it up.  "Here's one I'll bet you haven't heard.  This is about the time Conor went hunting—"

"But we've already heard hunting stories!" wailed a few of the children.

Fergus renewed his glare.  "But you didn't let me finish.  This is about the time Conor went hunting…and found a great adventure that lead to treasure."

"What kind of treasure?" asked Aidan.

"You'll find out at the end of the story," said Fergus.  "Now, this was a full moon, and Conor went hunting for rabbits.  He was creeping through the woods to the south when he saw a flash of fur.  He froze, and saw a rabbit hop out into the open.  He was about to take it with an arrow, but then he saw another rabbit.  'Good luck,' he thought, and prepared to shoot both of them.  Then another rabbit joined the first two, and another after that, and another after that.  Now this was strange.  More rabbits kept appearing, until there must have been about three dozen of 'em.  Then they started to hop away, further south.  Conor decided to follow them, because even if they didn't go anywhere, he'd at least get to bring back some game."

"I'll bet he could've bagged 'em all!" piped up a voice from the back.

"Ah, what's this now?  I've told ye no interruptions," said Fergus, giving a beady stare to the offending party.

"Sorry," said the voice.  "But I still bet he could've."

"Now.  Conor followed the rabbits for about a mile or so, until he came to a bunch of large trees.  And what do you think he found there but a little hole where all the rabbits were disappearing, one by one.  They crawled into the hole, and then vanished.  Conor was even more curious, so he made a torch with some flint that he had and looked.  Inside the hole there was a fox, and he was surrounded by rabbits.  'Here now,' he said.  'What do you think you're doing with all these rabbits?'

"The fox, who was humming to himself, didn't even look at Conor.  He—"

"But how can a fox hum?" asked Bran.  "I've only ever heard a fox bark and such."  The other children nodded in agreement.

"You'll see," said Fergus.  "Just listen to the story."  The children settled back down with a few skeptical looks.

"Conor asked the fox again, 'What are you doing with all these rabbits?'  And the fox went right on ignoring him.  So Conor dug about, made the hole a little bigger, then reached right in and grabbed the fox by the scruff of his neck.  'I asked you, what are you doing with so many rabbits?'  This time the fox snarled at Conor.  He tried to bite the prince and escape, but Conor just shook him until he calmed down.  The fox groaned, and then he put his paws to his head and said, 'You've given me a horrible headache, you great filthy intruder.'

"Conor shook the fox again and said, 'I'm waiting for an answer.'

"The fox said, 'I'll tell you if you just put me down.'  So Conor put him down and the fox said, 'If you must know, I'm calling the rabbits to me to prepare for winter.  You can't have too much food, you know.'

" 'Yes, but how are you doing it?' asked Conor.

"And the fox said, 'Magic'—"

"Magic like Tully knows?" piped up one of the youngest.

Fergus knew much of Tully's repertoire was clever sleight-of-hand, and impressive though it was, it wasn't magic as the child meant it.  Still, he wouldn't ruin the illusion if he could help it.  "Much like it," he answered.  He continued, "The fox said, 'I learned it from my old master, who let me go when I told him I wanted to live in the wild again.'  The fox told Conor all about his old master, who was a magician who lived on the coast of our island.  Conor decided he couldn't just have a magician out there teaching animals to take all the best game, so he got a horse from camp and rode for a score of days until he reached the coast.  And there, right on the beach, was small hut made out of rocks.  Conor didn't think that this was where a great magician would live, but maybe whoever lived there could show him the way to the magician's home.  He knocked on the hut's door and a young woman answered, who—"

"Was she pretty?" asked Mara.

"Aye, very pretty," said Fergus.  "She—"

"Prettier than Catlin, or my mama?" asked Colleen.

"Maybe," said Fergus.  "But different people see things in different ways.  Now—"

            "I'll bet she wasn't," said Nora.  "Colleen's ma is very pretty."

            "So is Catlin," said Mara.

            The boys were conspicuously silent.

            "Will you let me finish the story?" growled Fergus.  The children hushed themselves again.  "Where was I?  Right—a pretty lass, but who was not prettier than Catlin, answered the door.  She said 'I've been expecting you, Prince.'  Now, naturally Conor wondered how this girl knew who he was, so he asked, and she said 'I know many things.'  Conor thought, now, that maybe there was more than one magician living on the coast.  But the lass distracted him by asking lots of questions and inviting Conor in for a drink and some food, because she knew that he'd been riding for a very long time.  Conor thanked her, but said he didn't have much time; he was on his way to see a very powerful magician who lived somewhere on the coast.  When the girl—"

            "Is the girl the magician in disguise?" asked Bran.

            "Ach, now you've gone and ruined the story," said Fergus, though not without humor.  He saw that the fire was dying and that a few mothers were making their way to the circle of children.  "Bedtime," he announced, feeling relieved.  The children groaned.  Some of them made it plain that they would not be made to move until the story was over.  The approaching mothers clucked at the perceived resistance; it was the work of one or two well-placed fierce looks to herd the children to their respective homes.  A few mothers eyed Fergus with suspicion, as some of his bloodier tales hadn't gone over well with them.

            "I'll finish tomorrow," he promised, which seemed to cheer the younglings up somewhat.  Fergus stood and stretched as the last of the stragglers shuffled off.  Kicking dirt over the fire, he headed back to his hut, thinking that he might sharpen his short swords and polish his shillelagh before going to bed.  A figure slipped out of the darkness to walk by his side.

            "That was some story," said Conor.  "Talking foxes, magicians…"

            "Aye, and I had to make it up as I went along, too," grumbled Fergus.  "Tomorrow night it's your turn to entertain the mites."

            "I think I'll be hunting rabbits tomorrow night," said Conor thoughtfully.  He rested a hand on his sword hilt as he walked toward the Sanctuary's main encampment.  "Why don't you tell stories about yourself?" he asked.

            "Because the little ones always ask for you," said Fergus, letting mock resentment color his voice.  "Don't know why they wouldn't want tales of an experienced, battle-ready—"

            "Bald," interjected Conor.

            "That's quite enough, lad," growled Fergus.  He stooped beneath his door flap.  "You're not too old for a good hide-tanning.  I've half a mind to bend you over my knee right now."

            Conor made an indescribable face and faded quickly into the nightfall as he walked away.

* * *

            As he took a long tour of the Sanctuary, Conor tried to remember what he had heard of Fergus's story.  Rabbits and magic foxes indeed.  He smiled at the girls' enthusiastic defense of Catlin.  She was a real favorite with the children; she would make someone a good ma, if she ever managed to settle down—or find a man who could keep up with her.

Conor thought of Claire with the dull ache he reserved for his first love.  They might've had children.  Conor would have liked to have had a son, to whom he could teach the ways of his father's sword, how to hunt, how to remain true to the land.  It was easier to remember Claire these days.  She was free.  Shannon had helped him realize that he shouldn't trivialize Claire's bravery and love by feeling guilty. 

Looking up, Conor saw a lithe figure standing watch in the shadows of the surrounding forest.  Catlin's black form stood out against the starry night sky when she moved, her silhouette made odd by the full quiver strapped to her back.   Conor crossed into the trees to reach her as she paced quietly across a stretch of mossy ground. 

"You're taking a late watch tonight," he remarked as he approached.

"Speak for yourself," said Catlin.  She added, less bluntly, "I didn't feel tired."

"Nor do I," said Conor.  "I suppose I'll stay the watch with you."

Catlin gave him a grateful smile.  Her eyes were piercing, even in the dark.

Conor wasn't aware of the time, but he was plainly surprised to see the sky to the east start to turn grey.  He rubbed his eyes, suddenly aware of his body's rhythms again.  He and Catlin had talked the whole night, through two sentry changes.  She glanced at the lightening horizon, yawned, and stretched.  "Morning in an hour," she said.

"Aye."  He couldn't take his eyes off of the growing light.

"What is it?" Catlin asked.

A crisp breeze ruffled Conor's hair and sent goosebumps down his bare arms.  "I haven't had the time to wait for a sunrise for a while," he said in a low voice.  "I've been caught up in keeping our people together. We're always going to the next tribe or running from the Romans.  It's nice to be able to sit with a friend and let yourself be still."  The eastern sky was a soft, glowing red, tinged with lighter blues that faded gradually into the remaining night.

"The first sunrise I ever saw," Catlin said in voice to match Conor's, "Was enough to make me forget that I was a slave, for a little while."

"You're not a slave anymore," said Conor tearing his eyes off of the grayish light filtering through the treetops to give Catlin a solemn look.  "And I promise you'll not be a slave again, not while I live."  

* * *

            Feeling sleepy, Conor joined the men gathering at the Sanctuary's gate.  "About time," Fergus growled through his mustaches.  He twirled his spear impatiently.  "Thought you'd sleep the morning away."

            "I wasn't sleeping, Fergus," said Conor.  He took a spear from another hunter.  "I was on watch."  He didn't bother to explain his all-nighter with Catlin.  He wanted to keep the experience to himself for a little while, at least.

            "Let's be off, then," said Fergus.  With a last look in Conor's direction, he tramped off into the undergrowth, the sounds of his passage fading away rapidly.

            "Didn't see you or Catlin at breakfast this morning," said Tully, who remained at Conor's left after threading his way through the trees for several minutes.

            "We were both on watch," said Conor lamely, not understanding why he suddenly felt defensive.

            "Don't usually take the early morning," said Tully with a shrug.

            "I didn't feel like sleeping," said Conor.  He gave Tully a friendly push and indicated that he should circle around a large clump of bushes choked with undergrowth.  As Tully shuffled through the loam, he managed to scare out a rabbit.  Conor caught a flash of tail and kicking feet before the rabbit shot off into the forest.  He gave chase, sighting the rabbit and drawing back his arm to throw his spear.  Before he could let his arm snap forward, an arrow found its mark between the rabbit's eyes—a clean kill.  Conor backtracked along the arrow's flight to see Catlin, grinning at him as she lowered her bow.  She drew a knife and began preparing the rabbit for the trip back to camp, passing one foot through the other leg's hock.

            Once again, Conor wondered how Catlin had become so proficient an archer.  Surely, as a female slave, she had not been allowed to touch weapons.  She seemed natural with bow and arrows, drawing and firing more quickly than any man in camp, and more often than not with better accuracy.

            A cry of triumph made Conor turn his head as Tully caught a squirrel with one of his throwing knives.  He shook his head; at this rate, they wouldn't need to do much more hunting, and he would go back to Sanctuary empty-handed.  In the distance, he heard a trample of leaves, guessed a hunter must have spotted a deer and sent it running with a stray noise.  Odd, though, it didn't sound like a deer, though it was much too large to be a rabbit or any of the smaller game.

            Instead of a deer, a man came tearing out of the nearby trees.  "Keep a sharp eye out; there's a boar gone mad," he warned.

            Conor and the others scanned their surroundings warily.  On the occasions when they had managed to stumble upon a boar, they usually hadn't tried for it, no one being equipped to deal with a raging, corpulent beast that would keep fighting though impaled by a hunter's spear.  Usually they played it safe with wild pigs.

"Where are the others?" Conor asked the newly arrived hunter, Lochabar.

            "Over to the west," he said, gesturing vaguely with his bow.  "Fergus and a few others were after a stag.  They must be on their way back to the Sanctuary by now."

            "Then we'll do the same," said Conor.  He started back, his sense of direction turning him about, when he heard a rustle to his left.  Instinctively, he turned with his spear ready, braced on the ground to receive a charge.  Unfortunately, a boar might run onto a spear, then—still fighting mad—push itself along the spear to gore the hunter.  Conor's spear had no cross-ties to halt a charging boar; it was little more than a long, straight branch, sharpened and hardened in a fire. 

            A squeal resounded through the trees and the boar burst through a ground-hugging bush with inhuman speed.  A quick dodge barely took Conor out of the boar's path; he felt something sear through his leg as the animal, though relatively nimble, was forced to carry on with its momentum.  The glancing blow spun Conor around and he fell heavily.  Catlin took swift aim and loosed a shaft at the same time that Tully hurled a long knife at the animal.  Both weapons embedded themselves in the boar's tough hide, but only seemed to enrage the animal further.  It turned and charged again.  Catlin's second arrow took the animal in the eye.  As the arrow pierced the boar's brain, its gait broke and it stumbled; it flopped into a heap and slid to a stop.  Cautiously, the hunters lowered their weapons.

            "Nice shot," said Tully, the business end of his spear gently prodding the dead boar.

            "Nice throw," Catlin returned.  She turned to look at Conor, still sprawled on the ground from his hasty evasion.  She automatically checked him over for injuries and saw none.  Still, when he stood, his left leg nearly gave way beneath his weight.  "You're hurt," she said, moving away from the boar.

            "It scratched me," dismissed Conor, standing awkwardly on his right leg.  His pale face gave the lie to his nonchalance.

            "Nay, lad," said Lochabar, bending to look at Conor's wound through the ragged edges of his torn pants.  "He gave you a good one, deep."  The hunter tore a strip of cloth off the hem of his roughly woven shirt and bound it tightly around the wound.  Bright red blood began seeping through cloth almost immediately.  " 'Tisn't much, but it'll have to do," he said, trying to look cheerful.

            Conor waved ineffectually at Tully, who took Conor's arm around his neck.  Lochabar took Conor's other arm, and the three managed a fair pace as they headed back to the Sanctuary.

            Perhaps it was their erratic, stumbling gait that saved Tully's life; when Conor's bad leg caught on a bramble, all three stumbled and Tully was swung backward.  An arrow barely missed impaling him through the heart, instead embedding itself deeply in the tree immediately behind him.  "Everyone down!" said Tully.  He and Lochabar pushed Conor to the ground.  "Can you see anything?" Tully asked Catlin, who was crouched behind a large oak with an arrow already nocked.

            Catlin peered around the oak's trunk, scanning the forest in the direction from which the arrow came.  She saw a flash of metal, glinting under the high sun.  "Romans!" she hissed.  Quickly taking aim, she loosed her shaft and was rewarded by the sound of gurgling a moment later.  The soldier crashed forward into the brush, the arrow fixed in his throat.

            The beleaguered hunters flinched as a small storm of arrows rained down on their position in response.  Seeing that Lochabar had strung an arrow, she nodded to him.  "Tully," she said very quietly, "Take Conor back to the Sanctuary.  Loch and I will cover you."  Conor looked like he wanted to argue, but saw the wisdom in her strategy.  He was losing blood fast.  Tully nodded once, grimly, got a firm grip on Conor, and pulled back as swiftly as possible.  Immediately, Catlin and Lochabar fired at the Roman soldiers creeping forward.  The first two went down, transfixed.  Already, Catlin was firing again with Lochabar not far behind.

            As Tully half-supported, half-dragged him, Conor could hear the death cries of the Romans slowly fading behind them.  He risked a glance back, saw that Catlin and Lochabar were holding their ground, not following as she had promised.  "We have to go back!" he said hoarsely.  Tully remained silent.  He kept pulling Conor away from the other two.

            "What are you doing?" asked Conor.  "They're not following us.  We have to help them!"

            "We can't," Tully grunted.  He did not look at Conor.  "They'll meet us at the Sanctuary.  If we go back, we'll probably die."

            "Then we die," said Conor.  "We can't leave them to face a squad of Romans alone."

            "You can't face a Roman, let alone a squad," said Tully.  He pushed on relentlessly, though he was biting his lower lip so hard it was starting to bleed.  "Catlin and Lochabar are making a stand for us.  You're our leader, Conor." 

            Conor pulled away from Tully, intent on stumbling back to his friends, but Tully caught hold of his arm, yanked him back in the right direction.  "Don't let their faith in you be for nothing," he warned Conor.

            They arrived at the Sanctuary with Conor close to tears with rage and frustration.  As the young prince was escorted to a hut where he could be tended, Fergus grabbed Tully by the arm.  "Where's Catlin and Loch?" he asked.

            "Conor got hurt by a boar.  The Romans ambushed us.  Catlin and Lochabar gave us time to escape," said Tully shortly.  He refused to speak more of it and spent the rest of the day on the edges of the Sanctuary, eyes fixed on the forest where Catlin and Lochabar had stayed behind.

            Fergus sat with Conor late into the night as the healer first cleaned the wound, then stitched it closed.  Conor grimaced as he felt the needle pull fine thread through his skin.  He wouldn't look at Fergus, kept his face towards the wall.  "It'll heal clean," said the woman, knotting off her stitches, then wrapping Conor's leg in linen bandages.  Seeing that she wouldn't be needed, she told Fergus, "Make sure he sleeps.  The wound'll heal faster."  Fergus nodded and the healer left.

            After a minute alone, Fergus said, "So, lad.  What d'you have to say for yourself?"

            Conor frowned.  "I left them behind," he said.

            "Seems as if you didn't want to," said Fergus.

            "You think I'd leave my people to the Romans?" asked Conor angrily.

            "Lad, I think if you hadn't been slashed open by a boar, you would've taken on the whole Roman army to protect them," said Fergus. 

Conor turned his head to look at Fergus.  "Do you think they're dead?" he whispered.

"Aye, more likely than not," said Fergus.  He dipped his head into his rough hands and did not look up.  "But they didn't die in vain."

"They would have died for me," said Conor.  He turned his eyes onto the ceiling of the hut.  "I told Catlin she would never be a slave again, and I left her."

"She knew what she getting in to when she joined us.  So did Loch," Fergus reminded Conor.

"But—"

Fergus stood angrily.  "If you think you can lie here feeling miserable for yourself, then remember that Catlin and Lochabar made their own choices.  I won't have you sullying their memories by thinking they chose wrongly or without purpose." He marched out, leaving Conor alone in the rapidly fading light.

"They're dead," Conor said to himself, as if to feel out the words; attempt to invoke some kind of emotion.  He could not cry.

* * *

With Tully and Conor headed to safety, Catlin motioned for Lochabar to start retreating.  They had harassed the Romans long enough to give the other two a good head start.  Firing steadily, they faded into the trees, still scoring hits.  Catlin was about to make a break for it when a cold voice stopped her in her tracks. 

"Well, if it isn't an old friend."

Catlin threw herself to one side, startled by the voice behind her.  She rolled and came up ready to fire.  Four Romans stretched taut bowstrings in reply, another five with drawn swords behind them.  Sitting astride a handsome chestnut mare, Diana smirked.  "Not today, brat."  As Catlin prepared to fire, Diana motioned with one hand and a guard cudgeled Catlin at the base of her skull.  She collapsed silently onto the ground.

Lochabar was hauled, struggling, before the upstart queen.  He spat on the ground before Diana when he saw Catlin.  "Witch!"

Diana tsk-ed.  The same guard took his sword hilt to Lochabar and he, too, sank into darkness.