King of Dublin
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Twenty years after a deadly pandemic ravaged the world, Darragh Fearghal Anluan and the people of his village have carved out a hard but simple life in the Irish countryside. But with winter comes sickness, and Darragh must travel to Dublin in search of medicine. What he finds there is a ruined city ruled by a madman, where scavenging is punishable by death . . . or conscription.
Ciaran Daly came to Ireland with aid and optimism, but instead was enslaved by the so-called King of Dublin. After months of abuse from the king and his men, he has no reason to believe this newcomer will be any different. Except Ciaran finds himself increasingly drawn to Darragh, whose brutish looks mask how sweet and gentle he really is.
The tenderness Darragh feels for the king’s treasured pet is treason, but it’s hardly the only betrayal brewing in this rotten kingdom. Rebellions and rival gangs threaten the king’s power, but not nearly as much as Darragh and Ciaran—whose only hope for freedom is the fall of the king.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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Darragh twisted around, his heart thumping. How long since he’d heard another voice? Days. How long since it had been a stranger’s? Darragh couldn’t remember the last time he’d heard someone speak and not instantly known who it was.
“I said, don’t move.”
For a moment, Darragh was overwhelmed. There was something almost magical about the act of meeting a person for the very first time, something mythical—stories remembered from long ago about places and faces he had to draw from his imagination, stories of wanderers and strangers and mysterious crones—and then his gaze took in the hostile look on the man’s narrow, pinched face and the baton he had clutched in his hands.
One stranger turned into five as men melted into the doorway behind the first. Darragh squinted against the light in their direction.
“What’s your business here?” the first man asked him.
“Hospital,” Darragh said. “I came to the hospital.”
The men exchanged glances; one laughed.
“This is no hospital anymore,” the first man said.
Darragh had known that the moment he’d found the place. An old map and his memories had brought him here, but neither was of any use now. He remembered white halls and fluorescent lights. He remembered curtains with zoo animals on them and a bed that went up and down if Aiden let him press the buttons. He remembered nurses with uniforms the color of soft pastels, who smelled of antiseptic and gave him sweets. He remembered the hospital was where you went if you were sick, where they gave you medicine. He remembered the hospital had been Aiden’s best chance, even if the doctors had described that chance in odds that Darragh hadn’t understood. Fifty-fifty became thirty-seventy, became nothing.
Darragh had come looking for that best chance again, but the city was a ruin, and so was the hospital. Its corridors were filthy. Most of the windows had been smashed out. There had been a fire at one time; Darragh had picked his way through the charred skeleton of a wing before he’d found a section of rooms that were more or less intact. If there had been anything to scavenge, it was long gone.
Now the strangers had him cornered in the place.
“I need medicine,” he told them.
He carried a knife in his pack but couldn’t risk reaching for it. He didn’t know these men and couldn’t judge their intentions. They were hostile, wary, but were they murderous? He couldn’t tell from looking, but the fact that three of them carried guns didn’t fill him with confidence.
Maeve had begged him not to go to Dublin, but another winter like the last one could be the end of them. He couldn’t risk that. Bad enough he’d had to bury six.
She’d warned him that it would be dangerous, but that was only speculation. She couldn’t know any more than Darragh did what things were like outside the valley. If this moment proved her right, it was only by chance. Every ruined town Darragh had passed on the way—waiting until night to slip through if it was too large to go around—should have warned him to turn back, but he’d needed to see with his own eyes. Wouldn’t let anything except experience crush his hopes. Somehow he’d convinced himself that the things he’d seen on the way didn’t count, that the destruction and the decay weren’t proof that Dublin would be the same. He’d even managed to talk himself into the opposite. The more ruin he saw, the more Dublin had to have withstood it. In his memory, Dublin was untouchable. It was shops and movies and trams and more cars than he had ever seen, and at the centre of it all was the hospital, standing like a fortress in his mind. Unbreachable.
“I need medicine,” he said again.
“What?” One of the men leered.
“I need medicine.” Was it his accent that was difficult, or were the words wrong? He was slow with English.
The first man narrowed his eyes. “What do you need, boyo?”
Darragh lifted his gaze from the bat to the man’s face, wishing he could read the expression there. He enunciated the word carefully: “Medicine.”
“No.” Darragh shook his head. “At home. They get sick. Because winter. Because of winter.”
The man gestured around him, both hands still clutching his firearm. “You won’t find anything here.”
Darragh knew that now.
“You come with us,” the man said.
Darragh looked worriedly at their faces. Why? he wanted to ask, but their weapons were answer enough to that, so instead, he asked them, “Where?”
The man gave him a toothy grin. “Come with us and see the king. You’ll get your medicine there, one way or another!”
The other men laughed.
Darragh’s stomach clenched. He didn’t understand the joke, but he understood the tone. “What king?”
The man’s grin widened. “Why, the man himself. The king of Dublin!”
The king’s men formed a circle around Darragh as they walked him through the trash-strewn corridors of the former hospital. Glass crunched under their boots. Darragh assumed they must patrol this place often, because they didn’t walk with half the caution he had; they moved decisively, and every turn they made led them along safe paths.
Even though he was sure he’d never be returning, Darragh still memorized their route. Committing things to memory was a skill and a habit essential to survival now. The ruins of the hospital were overlaid in his mind with images from his childhood, the pieces not quite fitting. Old and new not reconciling easily.
But then, Darragh was used to that. His memories of his father farming included massive machines, loud rumbling, the smell of petrol fumes, but Darragh did the work by hand with the same tools his father had left disused in an old outbuilding, and now it was his father’s machines that were left to rust.
Everything his father had taught him before, all useless. Darragh had no teacher but trial and error. The people of his village had failed more often than not in those early days. Gone hungry, gone cold. Weren’t that much better off now, but at least a couple of Darragh’s crops had survived the wet summer, providing them with stores for winter. But it wouldn’t matter if the winter illnesses took them instead of the hunger.
This king, though, whoever he was—the men escorting Darragh said he had medicine. Darragh hadn’t heard of a king in Ireland, but if the man had medicine, then Darragh would call him emperor president, if that was what it took.
He walked with the men out into the late-afternoon light.
A vehicle waited for them nearby. A real vehicle, an armoured truck that once upon a time would have gone from bank to bank. The man behind the wheel leaned out the window. “What took you?” he called, then spotted Darragh at the centre of the circle, taller and broader than the men on the outside. “Who’s this one, then?”
“Some culchie scavenger.”
The driver made a face. “Big. Get in then.”
Darragh couldn’t remember the last time he’d been in a vehicle. His father’s tractor, maybe. It had rumbled underneath him, bouncing him along the ground as his father laughed and held on to him. Better than a fairground ride. Sometimes his father had hooked the trailer on the back and driven around and around the farm, and all the kids would turn up for a go.
The tractor was still in the north field now, where it had run out of petrol years ago.
Jesus. The king had medicine and guns and petrol? Maybe he really was a king. Just because Darragh couldn’t remember one didn’t mean anything. He’d been a kid when it happened, when everything went to hell. He hadn’t known much about the world then, and he knew even less now.
The king’s men bundled him into the back of the truck, and all but one of them joined him there. The last man stayed out, slamming the door shut between them. A clunking sound came after, which Darragh assumed to be the lock. Trapped. He took a deep breath. Even though the men had been aggressive with their guns and truncheons, they hadn’t given him any real reason to think they planned to do him harm. If they were wary of strangers, Darragh didn’t doubt they had good reason.
“Don’t have to lock you up, do we, culchie?” one man asked, and brandished a pair of handcuffs in illustration.
“You do not,” Darragh replied with a shake of his head.
The engine roared to life, and Darragh couldn’t stop the small gasp of astonishment that escaped him. As though they’d been waiting for it, the men laughed. Darragh put his hands on the metal bench seat to feel the vibrations as the truck began to move.
The roads on his way into Dublin had been in bad condition: surfaces breaking apart and potholes the size of craters. Here, the road was still rough and the van lurched several times around obstacles. Darragh had seen plenty of rusted or burned-out cars blocking roads. Swerving around them now, he wondered if their placement was intentional. Barricades, maybe, because who knew what had happened here in those first awful days and weeks? Or maybe they were just like his father’s tractor: left to rust where they’d finally stopped.
Wherever they were now, whatever the streets here looked like, wherever they were going, Darragh didn’t know. There were no windows in the back of the van, and as hard as he tried to memorize the shifts and turns as they rode, he knew he was hopelessly lost. The map in his pack would be useless if he couldn’t pick out any landmarks, and who knew if any would be left. Maybe after he got medicine, the king could give him directions back out of the city. Or maybe not. The future was an uncertain thing.
The van pulled to a stop, and a few moments later, there were three bangs on the heavy steel back doors. “We’re here,” one of the men said. “Look alive, culchie.”
Someone opened the door to the van, and Darragh climbed out.
The afternoon was melting into dusk; the remaining light cast long shadows.
They had stopped in front of a massive building, far enough away from it that Darragh could see the grey statues on top of the roof. A seated woman, an arm extended, flanked by two others. He wondered if they were angels or saints, or something else entirely. Below them, wide, grey columns extended from the roof to the ground. The building really was fit for a king; it belonged to another time altogether.
It wasn’t until the men were escorting him up the shallow steps that he realized the building was not unscathed. There were scorch marks on the facade, and several of the columns were pockmarked with holes that might have come from a spray of bullets. He wondered again what had happened in the city in those early days of panic and terror. Living out in the countryside, he’d at least been spared that particular violence. He didn’t know if it was better or worse that way. He could remember the adults watching television, before the broadcasts stopped. Then radios, and then silence. The end of the world had come quietly to Cúil Aodha.
The men escorted him through the wide doorway, and Darragh blinked in the sudden gloom. The foyer was grand and decrepit at once, a memorial to its own decay. Above them, a grimy chandelier still hung, but didn’t shine. High ceilings spoke of emptiness, not space. Their boots echoed across the dirty floor. Rubbish was strewn in the corners.
Men swarmed around him, all of them hard-faced and narrow-eyed. Nobody spoke as Darragh was escorted further into the building. Not until they arrived in front of a set of wide, open doors. Then the man who had ordered Darragh into the back of the van barked, “Give me your pack.”
Darragh gripped the straps instinctively, then thought better of it. The pack was valuable, sure, but worth his life? He shrugged it off, and handed it over.
“Nothing else on you?”
Darragh shook his head but submitted to the man’s rough handling as he checked.
“Right,” the man said. “In we go.”
The room was massive. A place for giants. It dwarfed even him, and he was taller than anyone else here. It especially dwarfed the small, rodent-like man who stood in the dome-ceiling alcove at the room’s end, past the lit fireplaces with their soot-stained tapestries and a pair of huge columns. Darragh walked the length of the dirty carpet with the king’s men on either side of him, skirting the large table that took up much of the floor space.
They reached the alcove, and one of the men pushed Darragh forwards. “Culchie scavenger, boss.”
“Found him in the hospital,” another added.
The rounded end of the room was actually a raised dais of black and white marble, two steps above the ratty carpet where Darragh and the king’s men stood. The king himself lounged on a filthy red cushion in the dais’s centre, a position that called for someone to be fanning him or feeding him grapes. He was a small, sharp-faced man with a wicked, childish smile and black, glittering eyes, wearing a massive golden collar like a pharaoh’s and holding a silver sceptre.
“And what were you hoping to steal from your king?” the king asked, the question arching as if he’d rehearsed it.
“Not steal,” Darragh said. “I didn’t know.”
“You didn’t know what?” the king asked.
Darragh twisted his mouth in frustration. “I didn’t know there was a king.”
The king looked offended. “You didn’t know there was a king? Are you simple?”
“No. I travel. No king in my home.”
“Of course you have a king. The king of Dublin is the king of all Ireland.”
Darragh opened his mouth to argue that no one in Cúil Aodha had ever heard of him, king or no, and then it occurred to Darragh that maybe he didn’t want this man to know the name of his home. Not to mention he seemed the sort who wouldn’t take such a statement with good grace. “I didn’t know,” he said again.
“Did you travel far?”
“A long way,” Darragh replied. “Days.”
The king looked more closely at him. He had a shrewd gaze. What kind of man had he been, before? “How did you get here?”
Darragh nodded. What other ways were there? He remembered with sudden clarity a children’s picture book his mother used to read him, each page glossy and colorful. Buses and planes and cars and ships and barges and bicycles. Darragh hadn’t had any of those, and he couldn’t risk taking a horse, not when the others depended on the beasts to do the farming and heavy lifting. He had perfectly good legs.
“There were no bandits on the road?”
The king arched his brows. “Maybe?”
“Maybe there were bandits. Maybe they didn’t bother me because I’m big.”
“Too big for bandits, he says!” The king’s men all laughed on cue. “No, I’ll tell you why. Because I’ve made it safe again, that’s why. Because even though big dumb culchies like yourself don’t know it, the roads you travelled are under the king’s protection!”
Darragh didn’t know what to say to that. He didn’t think it was true, but he’d be as dumb as the king thought he was if he said it aloud. He hadn’t met anyone on the road, not bandits and not the king’s men. But he’d also kept off the road whenever he could. After all, he may not know much, but he knew that the garda had gone from Ireland, and without them, surely the criminals would have the run of the place.
Perhaps the king was a criminal himself. A king of criminals.
The king’s smile faded, all playfulness vanishing from his expression. “But you never did say, culchie, what you wanted at the hospital.”
“Medicine,” Darragh said. A king, a criminal, or both. What did it matter if the man had medicine?
“Are you sick?” the king asked, a spark of fear appearing in his dark eyes.
The pandemic had ravaged Dublin. He wasn’t sure if the sickness had come after everything else, or had been the cause of it. But he had seen pictures on the television of hospitals overflowing, of bodies—wrapped in garbage bags or bedsheets—piled up waiting for burials that never came to pass. It had seemed so strange and distant, like a sad movie. But it had come to Cúil Aodha, too. At least there, Darragh and the other boys could bury their dead, even if there were no stones to mark their places in the churchyard or the field.
Darragh shook his head solemnly. “For home. For the winter, so nobody dies.”
The king spread his arms magnanimously. “What medicine do you need, then?” In contradiction to his body language, however, his smile was back: that teasing, cruel smile. If the king was a boy in a man’s body, then Darragh imagined him as the sort of boy who pulled the wings from flies.
Maybe he thought Darragh was an idiot who wouldn’t know the answer, but Darragh didn’t hesitate. “Antivirals. For the flu.”
He wasn’t a fool. He was on a fool’s errand maybe, but he wasn’t a fool. He and some of the others had pored over the books left in the tiny village library, learning what they could when they weren’t working. Farming, first aid, carpentry, husbandry, sewing—all skills that their ancestors had known but the modern world had forgotten. Well, they remembered now. They’d taken what they could from the books, and the rest they’d learned by experience. Hard-won, sometimes deadly experience. Last year, six had died of the flu. This year, they had the knowledge to be prepared. Antivirals hadn’t done much to stay the original outbreak; there hadn’t been enough of them stockpiled, especially not in a country on the verge of economic collapse like Ireland, and even then their effectiveness had been hit or miss. By the time they’d gotten their beggars’ hands on more, it was too late. The drugs hadn’t worked consistently or on a large scale, but maybe they would work better on the newer strains of the illness, or on these hardier survivors. Maybe, maybe not. Darragh had to try, even if it only saved one person. He couldn’t do nothing. Not again.
“Very well, then. I’m a generous king. I’ll give you what you require . . . in return for your service, that is.”
“Why, yes. I’m generous, I’m not a charity. You’ll get your medicine, but you’ll work for it.”
Darragh drew a breath. “For how long?”
The king raised his eyebrows. “Impertinent, aren’t you? Don’t worry, you’ll be home before winter.”
Darragh didn’t want to push his luck, but he had to ask. “What would I have to do?”
The king narrowed his eyes. His face twisted. “What you would have to do, culchie, is whatever the fuck I tell you to do.” His voice rose, echoing in the vaulted alcove. “You can go home before winter, or not go home at all! After all, you were trespassing on the king’s property with intention to steal from the king.”
A frisson of fear chased up Darragh’s spine.
Then, as quickly as the king’s anger had appeared, it was gone. He relaxed back onto the cushion. “A big brute like you, you’ll put the fear of God into your king’s enemies, won’t you?”
“I will,” Darragh said. There was no other answer he could give.
“Good man. I knew you’d come around.” The king extended a hand. “Boy! My knife!”
Darragh stiffened, fists clenching at the word. Knife. But no, the king wanted his aid, and he’d agreed. No reason to kill him now.
He twisted his head as movement drew his gaze.
A shadow in one of the dark, oak alcoves set into the king’s wall had solidified into the childlike shape of a young man. He must have been there the whole time, waiting to be summoned for whatever the hell this was. He was lean, but pampered looking, shirtless and glittering with gold. Gold armbands around his small biceps, gold cuffs around his wrists, a gold torque at the hollow of his throat. None of it, though, quite compared to the gold of his hair. Even inside this grim, shadowed room, it seemed to gleam. In the sunlight, Darragh thought, it would burn.
The boy approached the king silently, balancing a knife in his raised, uplifted palms. He knelt at the king’s side with it. The king’s pet? A lover? Well, Darragh supposed, a king could do what he liked. And who he liked. It wasn’t any of Darragh’s concern.
The knife certainly was.
“Kneel on the stair, culchie, and take off your shirt.”
Darragh glanced anxiously at the king’s men, but their shuttered faces didn’t give him any comfort. He raised his fingers to the mismatched buttons on his shirt and fumbled with them for a while. Then he shrugged the shirt off, screwed his courage, and went down onto his knees.
The king leered and sat forwards. “What do you think of him, Boy?”
Boy’s face was as shuttered as the others’. “Very big, Your Majesty.”
Darragh grimaced. They kept saying that, but it wasn’t like he was a freak. His father had been this size, and so had most of his uncles. On both sides. He had the body of a man shaped by hard work. Maybe they just bred them small and rat-like in Dublin. That was another thing he’d probably be better off not saying aloud.
The king took the knife from Boy’s hands and twirled it thoughtfully in the air. “State your name, culchie, and swear loyalty to the king.”
“Darragh Fearghal Anluan, of Cork. I swear loyalty to the king of Dublin,” Darragh recited, held in a trance by the glint of the knife as it twisted and caught the firelight.
He hissed as the blade made contact with his skin, and one of the king’s men grabbed his shoulders to hold him still. Darragh was bleeding before he even realized the blade had cut him. The pain was sudden, sharp, and then it was over; the blade had sliced a thin, shallow path down his chest, no more than a handsbreadth long, above his heart. The man holding his shoulders released him, and Darragh pressed his hand to the wound, staring wide-eyed at the king.
“A blood oath,” the king said. “Sworn and witnessed. Welcome to the ranks of the king’s men.”
“Thank you,” Darragh said, because the king looked like he was waiting for a response. He climbed slowly to his feet again, holding his shirt in his right hand. His left was slick with blood. He’d have to wait for the bleeding to stop before putting his shirt on again; it was one of only three that he owned, and he wasn’t so sure washing it in the Liffey would work out well for him. Maybe the king, a man with such luxuries as petrol, palaces, and a boy swimming in gold, would have a laundry tub and soap as well. But now, in the middle of this weird, unasked-for ceremony, probably wasn’t the time to ask. He figured his status as a dumb culchie would only grant him so much leeway with the king’s strange temper.
One of the men clapped him on the back.
The king waved. “Go and get him settled in.” He dropped his hand to Boy’s head, teasing strands of gold between his fingers. “Show him the ropes.”
“Will do, boss.”
The king curled his hand into a fist in Boy’s hair and tugged gently.
Darragh watched as Boy turned, wetting his lips with his tongue, and bent towards the king’s lap. Boy lifted his hands to the king’s fly, and Darragh’s breath caught in his throat.
“Come on, culchie,” one of the men laughed. “Let’s get you sorted.”
Darragh, his face burning, turned away quickly and followed the king’s men—his fellows, now—from the room.
Ciaran sat in the darkness of the narrow storeroom and waited for the morning. He was tired and his head ached. The daylight might make it worse, but it could also be from dehydration. In the morning, if Boru remembered where he’d left him, he’d at least be able to get out and fetch a drink of water to see if that made it any better. Until then, he was stuck here in this damp, dark, makeshift cell at His Majesty’s pleasure.
At His Majesty’s pleasure. A phrase “King” Boru liked to throw around. It could mean anything, depending on his temper at the time. Sometimes it meant Ciaran was treated like a pampered pet, and sometimes it didn’t. It was currently at His Majesty’s pleasure that Ciaran get a faceful of cum and then be locked away as punishment for not being grateful enough. The headache was the least of his problems really, but one that he had some power to fix. So he held on to that.
Ciaran stretched his arms up to try to ease his aching shoulders. He clasped his fingers together and arched his spine. The movement didn’t help. Rather, it ignited a fresh flare of pain in his right shoulder. Rotator cuff? Nothing too serious, or he wouldn’t be moving it at all, he supposed, but the pain was enough to make him drop his arms again.
He fiddled with the wide gold cuffs around his wrists. He’d become used to their tightness, but the sharp edges still sometimes irritated his skin. When Boru had first put them on him, he’d joked they must have come from a child. Or a woman. That small insult no longer stung.
Ciaran closed his eyes for a moment, wishing he were tired enough to sleep.
His stomach growled, and he tried to remember the last time he’d eaten. There was no point in dwelling on his hunger. Like his aches and pains, it became acute when he fixated on it. Better to ignore it.
How many months had it been since he’d taken food for granted? Since hunger had been nothing more than an academic question? He and his father had argued about it over dinner, of all things.
“Because they’re hungry!” Ciaran had said a hundred times. “Why can you not see that?”
He’d wanted so much to help. He’d spent a few months working in the refugee camp at Crossmaglen. “Camp” was a misnomer because it wasn’t temporary and the people weren’t moving on to anything better. A ghetto, maybe. Most of the residents had been there since the collapse of society after the pandemic. Many had been born there. A few people still trickled across the border—if they could afford to bribe the guards—looking for a better life in the North, but they didn’t find it. Whatever hopes had drawn them across the border—food, shelter, jobs, a society that wasn’t as entirely ruined as the one they had left—were shattered in Crossmaglen. Even in the North, a country as ravaged by the pandemic as anywhere else, a country full of empty houses, there was no room for the refugees. A drain, Ciaran’s father called them, on already overstretched resources. Like they weren’t his people at all but only numbers on a page.
Danny had shown Ciaran Crossmaglen. Danny had been a passionate advocate for the refugees. He had introduced Ciaran to Richard and Sarah, who wanted to start an aid mission across the border, inside Ireland itself. Helping people on the ground before they became refugees because, like Danny said, that was where the battle had to be fought and won.
Danny had been full of rhetoric and ideals. Ciaran had worshipped him.
He hadn’t thought twice about crossing the border to help set up the aid station.
He should have.
Ciaran opened his eyes again and blinked in the gloom.
Boru, the king of Dublin. They hadn’t even heard whispers about this self-styled king who’d risen from the rubble of the disaster. But evidently Boru had heard whispers of a bunch of stupid kids sitting on a stockpile of supplies with no protection.
So much for rhetoric and ideals.
Ciaran fought back against the familiar ache in his throat that warned of tears. Fixating on what had happened was as stupid as fixating on his hunger. There were a hundred things he could have done differently, but he hadn’t. So that was that.
He thought he heard movement outside and held his breath to listen. Footsteps, possibly, but they passed. Maybe one of Boru’s men on his rounds, or maybe Boru himself.
Ciaran wondered what the new man made of it. The big, blue-eyed country boy. And he wondered if there were still pockets of people who, even if they hadn’t escaped the effects of the pandemic, had at least escaped the violence and the ruin of the major cities. Maybe there were more people out there like Darragh Fearghal Anluan of Cork, who had thus far escaped Boru’s influence. Until the big, dumb culchie had blundered right into it, of course.
In the darkness it was safe to smile at the memory of what the idiot had said: “No king in my home.”
Lucky for him, Boru had been in one of his better moods. A statement such as that, and made so plainly, without being couched in apologies or pandering praise, was liable to set the man off in deadly ways. Ciaran had certainly been on the sharp end of that temper, and had the deep yellowing bruises to prove it. All he could hope now was that Boru’s good mood would extend until morning. No telling, though.
Ciaran closed his eyes again, and wished his headache away. But the more his headache lessened, the more the hunger gnawed at him. He hated this. Hated how these hours locked away without food or company or light made him crave Boru’s company as relief.
He tried to picture the culchie’s company, instead. After all, as bewildered as his expression had been, it hadn’t been cruel, either. Maybe life wherever he’d come from, in Cork without a king, hadn’t hardened him the way the men of Dublin—the king’s men—had been hardened. Maybe, possibly, Darragh Fearghal Anluan was kind.
Or maybe Ciaran was just grasping at straws.
Even so, he couldn’t help picturing himself in Darragh’s bed (wherever that was) instead of Boru’s. Because he was big, his body hard but his blue eyes gentle, and in Ciaran’s fantasy he was kind, and once upon a time Ciaran had taken men to bed for pleasure, not because it was the only thing keeping him alive. Once upon a time, he might have walked up to a man like Darragh and taken him by the hand or touched his lower back. Once upon a time, Ciaran might have chosen him.
So he would allow himself the fantasy, to distract himself from the bruises, and the hunger, and the pain in his shoulder that seemed to have settled into a dull, throbbing ache, because he’d earned the fantasy, hadn’t he? Boru didn’t own all of him.
He settled back against the wall, rolling his shoulders and closing his eyes.
The fantasy was safe enough. With a mouth like his, the culchie wouldn’t last long in Boru’s court anyway.
Speaking of that mouth, Ciaran pictured it wrapped around his cock, gently suckling him, not to torture but to pleasure and tease. How long since Ciaran had had pleasure without a price, without shame? Without fear?
He rubbed his temples.
And dwelling on that was exactly as pointless as dwelling on his growling stomach.
He tried again to summon up the image of the culchie sucking him, but it just wouldn’t solidify. Rather than the gentle teasing flicks of tongue, all he could imagine were those big hands with a crushing grip on the base of his cock and newly cruel eyes commanding him not to come. And then the fantasy wasn’t of Darragh at all; it was Boru, his eyes black as a shark’s and just as bloodthirsty. Ciaran pulled his knees to his chest and tried to breathe through the burning in his throat.
That was how Boru found him. Even though the king’s chamber was dark, Ciaran’s closet was darker still because the light from the abruptly opened door seared his eyes.
“What are you doing in here, Boy?”
You put me in here, you spanner. But Ciaran couldn’t say that, of course, so he just gave Boru a pathetic, watery-eyed look, like a scolded dog, and said nothing at all.
“I thought I made it clear. At the end of the day I expect you in my fucking bed. What part of ‘bed slave’ is so fucking difficult for you, you stupid boy? Or did you think that by hiding in here you could avoid your duties?”
Lower your eyes. Don’t provoke him.
Ciaran unfolded himself from his seated position and shifted so that he was kneeling, instead. Eyes down. Hands behind his back. “I’m sorry, Your Highness. I wasn’t hiding. I’ll come to bed now. Right away, Your Highness.”
Ciaran tried not to hunch under the king’s intense gaze. It was so hard, sometimes, not to cringe. All these months, and he still hadn’t quite mastered the art of not squirming when he was stared at.
He expected Boru to lead him out into the bedroom, but instead he just . . . stood there. Looming over Ciaran, waiting.
As much as Ciaran hated it, he knew exactly what the king was waiting for. “I’m so sorry,” he murmured, leaning forwards and pressing his face to the jointure of Boru’s groin and thigh. He breathed deep, like he couldn’t get enough of the smell. “I’m so, so sorry, Your Highness. What can I do to make it up to you?” He turned his eyes up, sweet and obedient, and kissed Boru’s trouser leg. Exhaled so that the heat of his breath would sink through the fabric to the man’s skin underneath.
Yes, the king loved to make him suffer, watch him cry in pain, see him shiver with fear. But the king also loved to be flattered. Loved to think that even with all the petty cruelty, he still held sway over Ciaran’s desire.
“You little whore,” the king said, and the gravel in his tone meant Ciaran had successfully predicted his appetites. His hand tangled in Ciaran’s hair, giving it a tug that burned Ciaran’s already tender scalp. “Sometimes I think you don’t want to go home at all.”
Ciaran froze for a second, faltered, and hoped to hell that Boru didn’t notice it. “Let me serve you, Your Majesty.”
Let me change the subject.
“It’s a good thing, too, because I’m beginning to think your father doesn’t even want you back.”
So much for that.
Ciaran exhaled again. There was no response he could give to that, so he knelt there and waited for Boru to speak again. Waited for the next cut.
“Not to mention that I’ve become quite accustomed to your presence here. Even if your father were to provide your ransom, I’m not sure I could bear to part with you.”
“I couldn’t bear to part with you, either, Your Highness,” Ciaran recited.
“I think it’s my cock you couldn’t bear to part with, my pretty little slut. Or maybe you don’t want your daddy to know you’ve been fucked by the king of Dublin!” Boru laughed and tousled Ciaran’s hair affectionately. “Would he like to hear about that, do you think?”
Boru still brought this up sometimes, the ransom that Ciaran was sure he’d never even asked for, and whether Ciaran’s father would pay it if he knew his son bent over and took it from a man. If Boru had contacted Ciaran’s father at all, it was to brag that the king of Dublin had captured his son. He’d probably bragged about what he’d done to Ciaran as well. For all Ciaran knew, it was common knowledge in the North that Ciaran Daly was the king of Dublin’s slut.
“You don’t really want to go back to your so-called ‘civilized’ world, do you, Boy?”
Ciaran nuzzled Boru’s trousers, his lips following the hardening line of his cock. “No, Your Highness.”
Strange that he could say that without choking.
In some way it was almost the truth. He didn’t want to go back north. He’d wanted to come south to help people, to help restore Ireland, and, like Danny had said, to fight the battle his father was afraid to.
Ciaran knew bringing more refugees north wouldn’t magically solve the world’s problems, because the “safety” of the North only extended to a privileged few. The rest weren’t much better off than the king’s pitiful subjects. After all, at least here they weren’t under constant surveillance. Nobody had to produce papers. There was no threat of deportation or imprisonment. Only death by hunger, death by disease, death by the elements—the same as in the camp—and perhaps death by the king . . . but only if you were within his reach. And his arm wasn’t nearly so long as he fancied, judging by Darragh’s testament today.
“You like it, don’t you, Boy?” Boru tightened his grip in Ciaran’s hair again. “You’d take it from anyone, wouldn’t you?”
“If it pleases you, Your Highness.”
Boru tilted Ciaran’s head back sharply. His eyes were narrow. “I saw the way that culchie brute looked at you, little whore. Like he wanted you.”
Ciaran hissed in pain and tried not to struggle. “If he looked at me, Highness, then surely it was only to marvel at your wealth.”
Bow and scrape, bow and scrape.
“Whore,” Boru repeated, his mouth twisting around the word. “I should throw you to him like scraps to a dog and let him fuck you until you bleed, until you scream, until you rip apart.”
Ciaran sucked in a shuddering breath. “If it pleases you.”
“Whore,” Boru murmured, and for a moment he seemed almost tender again. Then he stepped back, pulling Ciaran with him by the hair. “Whore!”
Ciaran scrambled on his knees to keep pace, afraid that Boru would tear his hair out. It was impossible to escape the king’s temper when he was like this. Impossible to try to deflect it. He could only whimper out words of appeasement, of surrender, and hope that eventually Boru would respond favorably to them.
Boru flung him across the floor of his bedroom—a vast chamber with a vaulted ceiling like a church or a palace. One of many in the labyrinth. The place might have been built to hold the parliament that had been abolished only years after the completion of construction, but it had seen so many changes even before Dublin fell that Ciaran couldn’t be sure of the room’s original purpose.
His knees skidded on marble tiles. “Please, Your Majesty. I live to serve you, please.”
“Your place is in my bed,” Boru said, his voice hardening. “Get to it!”
Ciaran climbed to his feet. God, his head felt like it was going to split open. He hurried over to the king’s bed. “How do you wish to take me, Your Highness?”
All of these questions and responses, all learned through experience. Learned quickly, as well. Fear was a powerful teacher.
Boru breathed heavily. “On your back.”
Ciaran unfastened his pants and let them drop to his ankles. He crawled onto the bed and lay on his back. He drew his legs up and apart. Held his knees. Stared at the intricate designs on the ceiling.
And thought, every single time, of the first time.
His shock, his fear, and his disbelief—This can’t be happening. He can’t do this—as though his refusal to accept what was being done to him would somehow make it unreal. As though, despite everything he’d already seen of the king and his men in action that day, it was his rape that was most incomprehensible.
“Pretty, pretty whore,” Boru said, positioning himself between Ciaran’s thighs. He fumbled in his trousers, then pressed the head of his cock to Ciaran’s entrance. “Can I make you bleed today, my pretty little whore?”
Ciaran hissed and bit his lip as Boru pushed into him. No prep, no lube, none of the consideration that Ciaran had always taken with his partners. He tried to force himself to relax, tried to let his eyes flutter closed. Tried to not feel the pain. It would ease soon enough, he told himself every time. Either Boru’s pre-cum would lubricate him or blood would, and it would ease. That was what he told himself.
“Look at you,” Boru said. “All decked out in gold, the most precious treasure in all of Ireland. My Boy. Make some noises for me, Boy.”
Noises were easy. Hard not to make noise when a man was shoving his cock into you, not caring if you tore. It was forcing himself not to cry and beg and scream when the man clearly craved expressions of desire that was difficult. He twisted, arched his back, forced out a moan that still sounded more like pain than pleasure. Sometimes Ciaran couldn’t believe just how fucking twisted it was—he fought to control himself, to force himself, and did all of Boru’s work for him. Sometimes it felt like Boru wasn’t the only monster in the room. There was nothing Boru had ever done to him that Ciaran hadn’t made the very rational, very logical decision not to resist. Not once he’d learned.
“Do you like that, Boy?” Boru reached down and gripped the gold torque at Ciaran’s throat.
“Oh yes,” Ciaran managed to say through gritted teeth, ignoring the tears streaking down the sides of his face.
“I wonder . . .” Boru pumped his hips, fully sheathing himself in one burning stroke. “Would you like it better if it was that culchie on top of you instead of me?”
Hard to reply. The pain was blacking out everything else. “Only . . . you.” Ciaran’s eyes rolled back in his head, his fingernails digging into the tender undersides of his knees, ten new points of pain.
Don’t pass out. Don’t pass out. Stay awake. Tell him what he wants to hear.
“Don’t lie to me, Boy. I saw you looking at him. Do you think his cock is as big as the rest of him? I bet he’s hung-n-ngh like an animal. Little pain slut like you, I bet you’d love to have the brute split you open.”
No. Don’t you steal him from me, too. Whoever he really was, in Ciaran’s mind, he was gentle, considerate, slow. Not painful at all. Kind. He was kind.
“I-if it pleases Your Highness. If Highness watches.” He let out a pained cry then, tossing his head, every muscle in his body contracting at once.
Boru’s hand tore at his hair, forcing him to face forwards. “Open your eyes, and say that again. Make me fucking believe it, Boy.”
Say that again? Say what again? Ciaran couldn’t remember. Could barely remember who he was. The pain, the pain was too much.
“Say it again! Damn you! Say it again!” Boru slammed Ciaran’s head back, whiplashing his neck, but at least they were on a mattress and not the floor or against the wall.
Ciaran forced his eyes open and blinked away tears. Stared up at Boru’s face looming over him. “Wh-whatever pleases you.” God, please let that be right. “Whatever you command! You are my king, you are my king.”
“That’s right, my treasure.” The hand tugging Ciaran’s hair softened suddenly. Swept down to stroke his wet cheek. “I am your king, and you worship me.”
“I do.” Ciaran tried to catch his breath as Boru slipped into a less-punishing rhythm. The pain eased at last, and Ciaran’s muscles relaxed. “I do.”
Marriage vows. That’s what it sounded like.
“That’s right,” Boru said. He rubbed a thumb under Ciaran’s eye, collecting the moisture from his lashes. “That’s my good Boy.”
Ciaran’s breath sighed out of him, the sharp, stabbing pain fading to just another dull ache. He gazed at Boru’s face, hoping he was reading this moment right. “The greatness of kings does not come from their size.” He unclasped his right hand from his knee and lifted it carefully towards Boru’s face. Made his trembling fingers brush against the king’s sweaty brow. “Truly great kings are strong because of their wisdom, because of their cunning.”
Boru didn’t react to Ciaran’s touch.
“Great kings,” Ciaran said, his heart stuttering, “win victories against men ten times their size.”
Boru thrust again.
Ciaran tried not to wince. He dropped his hand to his knee again and held himself open, pliant. His gaze drifted to the ceiling, and then back to Boru’s face. He wet his lips with his tongue and rocked his hips. Feigned his pleasure like the whore Boru said he was. “More, Majesty, please.”
Boru stilled, shifted, and pushed back in. A new angle, new agony.
“More,” Ciaran moaned. “Please. Faster, please.”
Faster because he wanted it over with, and because it stroked Boru’s ego. Sometimes Boru punished him for his impertinence—who did Boy think he was to make demands of his king?—but sometimes it pleased him.
“Whore,” Boru grunted, but the word sounded affectionate now.
“My king.” Ciaran let his eyes slide closed again. “So strong.”
“As strong as—” Boru slammed into him. “Fuck! As strong as that fucking culchie!”
“Stronger,” Ciaran groaned.
Boru grabbed a fistful of Ciaran’s hair again and bellowed as he came. Then he collapsed, spent, into the cradle of Ciaran’s trembling thighs.
“Stronger,” Boru muttered.
Ciaran released his knees and flexed his aching fingers. “Conchobar was a great king who best knew how to use Cú Chulainn. The dog may be the savage beast, but the man who holds his leash is the one who is truly strong.”
Boru grunted and pushed himself up.
Ciaran flinched as Boru’s cock withdrew with the same lack of care as it had entered.
Boru tucked his cock back into his trousers. “You’re still as tight as a virgin, Boy.”
Ciaran knew better than to close his legs or reach for a blanket to cover himself. He lay there as Boru stood, trying not to feel the king’s cum dribbling out of him. Legs spread, arms draped over his head, like he was posing for a photo. Debauched and pliant and a whore.
He watched and caught his breath as Boru undressed the rest of the way. “Go get cleaned up,” he ordered, stretching lazily. “And bring back something to wash me with, as well. And a drink.”
God, yes, a drink. Ciaran still needed that water. He rose from the bed, wincing as he bent down to pick up his trousers. He stepped into them awkwardly. His shaking hands had trouble with the button on the fly.
“No need to get dressed, Boy. You’re just coming to bed with me after you get back.”
Which meant he’d have to walk naked to the courtyard rainwater tank for bathing water, and to the supply vault where the king’s personal stores of distilled drinking water were housed.
He burned with humiliation. “Of course. How stupid of me.”
Boru stared at him. “What’s that, Boy? Is that lip?”
Ciaran dropped his gaze. “No disrespect, Highness. It really was stupid of me. I’m a stupid whore.” He shoved his pants back down and stepped back out of them again. “Would you like something to eat from the stores, as well?”
Your stores of food that should go to the hungry and the needy of this country?
Boru waved his hand. “Find something.”
Ciaran slipped out of the room.
He moved quickly through the wide passageway, quietly. The hall was lit with lamps that stunk of kerosene. Black smoke curled out of them, staining the walls. The scant light they provided hardly dented the looming darkness that gathered in the arched ceilings.
Ciaran knew his way through the place, darkness or not. He thought he would go to the courtyard first and clean up. He was unlikely to be observed there. Boru’s massive court was largely unattended at night. No need. His men held this part of the city securely, and there was little chance of attack from the rival gangs that sometimes rose up against him. No way in hell would any of them make it as far as College Green. True, the king’s men made occasional patrols through the hive of buildings Boru had claimed as his own, but Ciaran could probably avoid them. Most of Boru’s men were quartered over in the ruins of Trinity and wouldn’t attend the court until morning.
So wash first. Then down to the vaults—left over from the building’s time as a bank—to fetch Boru his food and water. It wasn’t a sign of trust that Ciaran was allowed the task. It was because Boru would flay him alive if he dared take a thing that didn’t belong to him. And the king would take great pleasure in it as well. He wasn’t really looking forward to being this hungry and facing down an entire stockpile of food he could not eat.
How would he even know? the hungry voice in his head cajoled, but his fear was stronger. Better to be hungry than to be punished.
How would he know?
Because some strange primeval part of Ciaran’s brain was so terrified of Boru, so stricken with fear, that it almost believed he was a god. And why not? What was a god except the being who ruled your universe and could smite you without pity? That fear ran so deep in Ciaran sometimes that it drowned out all logical thought.
Ciaran heard the sound of boots before he’d even reached the courtyard. And caught in the middle of a long corridor, a mile away from the nearest door, he could do nothing except stand there, head bowed, as the men rounded the corner. Maybe they’d pass him by. Some of the men just thought he was weird or creepy and refused to acknowledge him. Others . . .
“Well, well, well, lads. Look what we’ve got here.”
Ciaran tightened his hands into fists and kept his gaze low. Maybe if he didn’t respond to them, they’d go on their way.
“This is the Boy,” one of the men said, as if introductions needed to be made anymore. Unless—
Ciaran looked up before he could help himself. Of course. They were giving the new man a tour of the place and pointing out all its fixtures. Including Ciaran.
The culchie stared at him, expressionless. Did he even understand what he was looking at?
Whatever. It didn’t matter. Whatever the culchie thought, however he felt right now, it didn’t matter. He was one of them now, and the sooner Ciaran accepted that, the sooner he could let the stupid foolish hope go. Because which fantasy was more likely? Ciaran’s, where the culchie was a kind man, a good man, or Boru’s, where the culchie would rip Ciaran apart?
He knew which, knew it right down to his bones.
The culchie would hurt him, and probably laugh as he did. At His Majesty’s pleasure.
Michael. Colm. Hugh. Eamonn. Noel. Seamus.
Darragh recited the names in his head over and over again, visualizing the faces that matched. Michael, with the red hair. Colm, who had a scar on his jaw. Hugh, with the massive head. Eamonn, with the potbelly. Noel, tattooed up both arms. Seamus, the cruel-faced man who seemed to be in charge here. They’d shown him to a dead man’s bed in Trinity, in a building across the way from where the king made his headquarters. It seemed the men all made their beds there, every room filled with bunks and personal effects and the courtyard outside a stinking latrine. He had been given a moment to put down his pack and attend to his chest wound, and then they’d been off to a communal supper, a bland meal of nutritional gruel—rations from the king.
Now they patrolled the king’s grounds, the five of them and Darragh, a route that also served as a tour. Darragh was quiet and attentive as he followed, not that he had much of a choice in the matter. He didn’t have much English, which meant there was always a pause between one of the men saying something and Darragh coming to understand it. And as for speaking, it seemed in his best interest to be known as the dumb culchie. Let them underestimate him, let them make fewer demands of his mind and tongue as they walked.
Darragh had been learning more about the men who were now his compatriots than the buildings themselves.
Seamus and Noel were old enough to remember the city before the pandemic and economic collapse. Old enough to remember the way that people had lived then. They’d run with the king of Dublin back when he was nothing but a hoodie youth offender, always in trouble with the garda and the courts. They were still running with him now, only this time they owned the city. They said it like they were proud, as though they didn’t mourn the dead at all, or find anything pitiful about their existence. Like they saw the collapse of Ireland as something glorious, something that had elevated them by razing everything else to the ground.
Darragh didn’t see anything grand about inheriting a ruined city, but he still carried country air in his lungs. They didn’t live like rats in the country.
The others were younger. If they had memories of a different Dublin, they didn’t bother to share them. They didn’t seem to think it was a laugh to be living in Trinity, like Seamus and Noel did. They didn’t seem to think it worth remarking on at all.
Of all of them, Michael seemed the most affable, but even when he smiled, there was a hard edge to it. Dublin had made these men cruel. The sooner Darragh got back home, the better. Until then, he could bite his tongue, keep his head down, and do whatever was expected of him.
Though sometimes, keeping his head down was easier said than done. Like now, rounding the corner in the middle of the night and finding the king’s boy standing there.
Darragh flushed right up to the roots of his hair.
“This is the Boy,” Noel said, and Boy looked up, a brief look of horror plastered across his too-pretty face before it melted into bland disinterest. “The only boy precious enough to wander around the king’s palace alone.”
Darragh stared. Couldn’t believe the boy just went about naked like that. Except for the gold, of course. He tried to shift his gaze away, instead of down, but too late. He’d looked. He was looking. Boy had a lithe, small body, nearly hairless except for the gold curls at the base of his soft cock. Pale, curvy thighs you’d want to use as a pillow. Boy’s body gleamed as bright as the gold in the scant light, damp with sweat, and suddenly Darragh had an image in his mind of exactly what Boy had been up to. An image that was followed very quickly by the first stirrings of heat coiling tight in his belly, and lower.
Darragh really shouldn’t stare. Boy wasn’t his to look at, and certainly wasn’t his to have. It seemed a bad start to his time here to be coveting the king’s lover.
“You smell like cum, Boy!” Seamus taunted, elbowing Darragh in the ribs as he laughed. “Doesn’t he smell of cum, culchie?”
Darragh clenched his jaw.
“It’s a fucking slut,” Hugh said. “You go that way, culchie, and you can have a lend of it.”
“No,” Boy said suddenly, his gaze darting between them. “I serve the king. If you smell cum on me, it’s the king’s cum, and you’d do well to remember that.”
Seamus snorted and reached out to pat Boy on the cheek. Boy pressed back against the wall. “Don’t pretend you haven’t bent over for half the king’s men, screaming out for it like a fucking woman.”
Boy shrank even smaller against the wall, if such a thing were possible. “Don’t say that. N-not even as a joke. Because I wouldn’t. I’ve never.” The panic in his voice brought it high and reedy, but then something changed in him, and he lifted his chin defiantly. Brave again. “I’d never stray from the king’s bed. I’m loyal. Although you certainly aren’t looking it just now. I’m his prized possession, and you know what happens if you take from him without permission.”
Seamus dropped his hand. “You threatening me?”
Boy nodded, never breaking eye contact. “That’s right. I have his ear. You know I have. All day. All night. So you’d best let off me, right now.”
Seamus curled his thin mouth into a smile. “Maybe I will. And maybe the next time the king offers me a boon, I’ll take your ass again. You spread your legs fast enough last time, didn’t you?”
“I serve the king,” Boy said. His chest rose and fell rapidly as he breathed. “I do what he commands.”
“Damn right you do,” Seamus replied and stuffed his hand between Boy’s legs. “And you love it, too, don’t you? Little whore.”
Boy’s head tipped back against the wall, his eyes falling closed in an expression that Darragh couldn’t discern as pleasure or pain. But then, for some, pain was pleasure. Maybe Boy was like that. Maybe the cruelty of this new world suited him, the same way it suited bloodthirsty brutes like the king’s men. Nothing in this place would surprise him.
“Come on,” Noel said, rolling his eyes. “We’re to show the culchie the ropes, remember?”
Seamus grinned at that. “Doing the Boy is the ropes.”
The others laughed.
Michael caught Darragh’s glance. “It’s true,” he said. “There’s a few we keep over at Trinity, but they’re not so pretty. Please the king and you’ll get your turn with this one in time.”
Darragh scoffed and curled his lip, looking at the pale little thing clinging to the wall, still glaring at the men who surrounded him. “Don’t want a turn,” he said. And he didn’t. Whatever heat the Boy had inspired in him before, it had been extinguished. Darragh just wanted to leave him and his sick loyalty behind. Dublin was a hard, cruel, ugly place, and as beautiful as he was, Boy was the living essence of it. Better to return to the countryside; things there may be plain and simple, not a single glint of gold, but they were good. He hadn’t known how good until he came here. Somehow he’d always worried about what they’d lost but never realized how much they’d held on to as well. And just like that, a wave of homesickness broke over him. “Come on,” he pleaded. “Can’t stand to look at him.”
“Ha!” Seamus cried, throwing a companionable arm around Darragh’s shoulder and leading them all down the hall, leaving the Boy behind. “Fancies himself straight, the culchie does. Well, just know, culchie, it don’t make you a poofter to fuck this one, since he’s such a slut ’n’all.”
“I give it a month,” Colm said, showing broken teeth when he spoke, “before his balls are so blue he’s knocking down doors to get to the Boy!”
“The king don’t like women. Don’t want them around. Thinks they divide loyalties. Useless, too, when they’re always pregnant or got babbies hanging off their saggy tits. Not to mention I think he just likes bein’ surrounded by ass and cocks!” Seamus laughed. “You can try and have a go with the rats you take, but don’t let the king hear wind of it. Not that he cares a whit about any woman’s virtue, but he’s convinced men turn traitor after a taste of their cunts.”
“Whatever you do, straight culchie,” Hugh advised, “know that most of the women of Dublin run wild as a pack of feckin’ dogs. You’re either with the king or you’re against him, and since there’s no women with him, that means they’re all against him.”
Noel grabbed a fistful of his crotch obscenely. “Birdies of Dublin don’t like the king’s men. Don’t like our cocks, either. That’s how Colm got his scar.”
Colm nodded somberly. “It’s true. I’m beginnin’ to think the only women tough enough to survive ’til now have only done so by eating the balls of men.”
The men all laughed, except for Darragh, who looked over his shoulder just in time to see the king’s boy slinking away around a corner like the coward he was.
Darragh didn’t sleep at all that first night. He tossed and turned in his bunk, unable to stop thinking of the king’s boy. How had he come here, and why? Maybe there was no real mystery; you did what you could to eat in a world like this. But it took a real different sort to whore himself out like that, so blatantly. Just another thing Darragh was glad he didn’t understand. Rather be a dumb culchie any day. At home, they were a family. Sometimes they fought and sometimes they even came to blows, but at home you didn’t have to debase yourself for anyone. If you had any pride to begin with, that is. Maybe Boy didn’t.
He should be pitying the boy right now. Not resenting him, and yet there it was. Maybe the resentment was for himself, for his attraction to such a pathetic little creature. Even now, if he let his mind’s eye linger on images of the boy’s body, he felt his cock stir. So gently shaped. So smooth. To have those lean legs wrapped around his waist, to have that cock and balls covered in his saliva, to suck on those nipples or squeeze and spread that plump ass.
Damn. He tightened his hands in the scratchy wool blanket that covered him to keep from touching himself, from palming his growing erection. He wouldn’t let himself into the fantasy. He wouldn’t think of Boy that way. Wouldn’t use him like the other men had. Wouldn’t have any part in the sad enterprise at all. Not because he was straight, as the other men believed—he wasn’t, not even remotely, had known since childhood that he wasn’t like the other boys in his village—but because simultaneously hating Boy’s desperation and wanting to take advantage of it, even in fantasies, was vile and poisonous hypocrisy.
The sooner Darragh got out of Dublin, the better.
The next morning, they ate a communal breakfast in the Trinity dining hall, served by shifty men dressed in rags who never spoke or made eye contact. More bland nutritional gruel, which made Darragh miss the fresh eggs from the village chickens and milk with the cream on top. As he spooned the gruel into his mouth, he wondered where it came from. There were no farms here, no means of production, but the king’s men weren’t starving. If they didn’t produce the food themselves, did it come from the North? And what could they offer in exchange? Because nothing was free in this world.
“You got a weapon in that bag of yours, culchie?” Michael asked him after they ate.
“Bring it,” Michael said. “We’re going on patrol.”
Today, Darragh rode up front in the armoured van, squeezed in with Michael and Hugh. Hugh drove, peering around the cracks in the windshield, and Michael pointed out landmarks to Darragh. Some of the names he’d heard before and read about in the books from home or on his map. But most of them were nothing like their pictures anymore.
“Still get scavengers sometimes,” Michael told him and grinned. “You know all about that though.”
Darragh returned the smile uneasily. “I surely do.”
“Where you from anyway, culchie?”
“The country,” Darragh said.
“I know that.” Michael reached out to hold the dash as Hugh took a corner fast. “No hiding that! But this place in the country, does it have a name?”
“Don’t remember it,” Darragh told him. That couldn’t be unusual. Plenty of things taken for granted in the old world were gone and forgotten in the new. Why not names among them? He stared out the window. The day was grey, overcast. Darragh looked at the river as the van roared over a bridge. It reflected the clouds above.
The king’s patch, from what Darragh could tell, was essentially a square mile surrounding his palace and Trinity. He owned the city, no doubt of that, but that square mile or so was his heartland, and it was secure from his enemies.
“What enemies?” Darragh asked when Michael had told him about it.
That was a mistake.
Laughing, Hugh threw the van into reverse, causing the men in the back to bang against the walls, which were too thick to make out what they were yelling. Darragh guessed it wasn’t complimentary.
They pulled up by the river. Darragh didn’t know where they were. An open space, an old space, the stones overgrown with weeds. There was a stone plinth in the middle of the space, but if a statue had ever stood there, it was long gone. Railings ran along the side of the river. Posts lashed to the railings were topped with weird misshapen somethings that Darragh couldn’t quite make out as he climbed out of the cab.
Hugh went to let the others out.
“See over there?” Michael pointed across the river, further down. “That’s the king’s docks. So all the boats that pass, they pass here, don’t they? And they all see this.”
The wind turned, blew back towards them, and Darragh caught the sudden stench of it in the back of his throat. The things on the posts were heads. Human heads, in various stages of decay.
The king’s enemies.
Michael and the rest of the king’s men watched him, and Darragh understood that this was a test. He stared at the posts, at the things that still didn’t look like heads even though he knew they were—strange and distorted like they’d melted in the sun—and wondered if this was where he would have ended up if the king hadn’t liked him.
Where he could still end up.
“Keeps his enemies down, don’t it?” Seamus said at last, his thin mouth twisted into a smile.
“It does, sure,” Darragh said.
They wanted him to be scared? Fine, he was. However dumb they thought he was, he wasn’t dumb enough to mistake this as anything but a threat: Stay in line or this is you. Didn’t have to be a genius to work that one out.
In a few months he’d be home again, with medicine, and none of the others would have to know what he’d seen here.
“Do boats still come?” he asked Michael, looking past the heads to the river.
Michael nodded. “Mostly traders. We trade for supplies. ”
Darragh drew his gaze back, frowning. “What do you trade?”
He couldn’t imagine anything worth having in Dublin. Not even the king’s gold, but that might have been his naivety talking. Couldn’t eat gold. Couldn’t grow anything from it. Could there really be something in Dublin after all these years that was worth trading?
It was Seamus that answered, his mouth pulled back in a grin that looked like a rictus. “Wanna see, culchie?”
Darragh shrugged, careful not to show his unease. “If you like.”
The warehouse was full of people, penned in like cattle—worse somehow than the heads on posts because they were still alive, still full of fear and hope.
“Trader can get three hundred for one in good condition,” Hugh said. “That’s worth a few bags of supplies our way.”
“What happens to them then?” Darragh asked. His brain felt like it was stuffed with cotton. He couldn’t think.
Hugh shrugged. “Don’t much care.”
“Isn’t that the way of it, though,” Seamus said. “Even in the old days, the only thing Ireland ever had of value for export was the Irish.”
But never like this.
“These traders. They are . . .” Darragh struggled for the word. It seemed so childish, a word from a fantasy like elves or wizards, but no, he knew it was real, even if it seemed absurd. “Pirates?”
Noel laughed, the sound terrible and twisted in this place of human suffering. “I think Viking’s the better word, considering. But sure, some are pirates. And some are pirates in the hire of governments, not that the ones paying them would ever admit it.”
Governments trading in human chattel, and the king turning a profit.
And now Darragh was aiding them in the effort.
Medicine. He needed medicine. Not wealth or power or boys dripping with gold.
Medicine, upon which the lives of his people depended.
He looked down at the pens below, at the people standing huddled together, shifting and hugging themselves in the cold. Men, women, and even children. The whole place stinking of desperation and human waste.
Their lives for the lives of Darragh’s kin.
A grim trade, to be sure.
As grim as any the king might make.
They made their rounds through the empty streets, the van following a complex path of routes blocked by barriers of wrecked cars and collapsed buildings. Everywhere they went was deserted, ruined, the great and wonderful city of Darragh’s memories brought to its knees.
“Where are the people?” Darragh asked, because he needed to know there were still free men and women in Dublin, that they weren’t all sold as slaves at the docks.
“They hide when they hear the van, the rats.”
“Ah.” What sort of life that was? One of constant fear, he imagined.
Years ago, a pack of dogs had found their way to Cúil Aodha. Big, feral things, like wolves out of a fairy-tale book. At night, the doors to the house barred, the little kids had huddled together and cried when the dogs howled outside. They had no fear, those dogs. Predators with no enemy. Even during the day they were fearless. Maeve had barely gotten away when she’d rounded the corner to find the pack waiting there. The sound of her screams had made Darragh’s blood run cold. He’d been thirteen at the time, the oldest of the village survivors. Maeve was twelve, fast and long legged. She’d climbed a wall to get out of their reach, and that’s where Darragh and some of the others had found her: standing there, still screaming, as the dogs leapt and snapped at her feet.
Darragh had never killed a living thing in rage until that day. Never in a fight, with his blood up. Never kill or be killed. But he did that day; they all did. A pack of kids armed with bars and scythes, and a pack of dogs with slavering jaws. He’d been terrified of dying but more terrified of what would happen to the smaller kids if he did. He had ended up with a vicious bite to his lower leg. Cathleen had lost a finger. And Brendan had bled from the throat until he died.
They’d burned the dog carcasses in the south field, and buried Brendan near his parents.
Darragh never wanted to feel like prey again, cornered and desperate.
The van roared through the streets, and Darragh remembered the sound of those dogs growling and the way it had raised the hairs on the back of his neck. He imagined people, hidden away and huddling together in the ruins of the city, cringing at the noise of the van.
If he hadn’t been sure before, Darragh knew now without a shadow of a doubt that the king’s men were monsters. A pack of predators, and he’d joined them.
Well, if it came to it, there was no way he’d hand another human being over to be sold as a slave. He’d turn and run before that happened. Until that time, he’d shut his mouth and keep his head down and earn his medicine from the king.
But this was not loyalty.
Powerful. Brutal. Hopeful.
The writing is what made this such an enjoyable experience.
[A] dark story, but one full of hope.
[A] read that led me to unexpected places emotionally.