Trasnavan, Galway, Ireland, 1867
“We have to go.”
Aidan Collins bolted up from his pallet in the sleeping loft, rubbing his eyes against the darkness and straining to make out the hushed voices.
“Ah, no, Liam, don’t be goin’ now.” Ma’s voice. Shrill, terrified. Saturated with tears. “Sure, ye’ll not be leavin’ us now. “Don’t go, son.”
“Ma.” Liam’s hoarse voice vibrated with panic. Rustling sounds told Aidan his brother had caught their mother in his arms. He heard her muffled sobs in the murky darkness. “Ma, I’ve no choice. We must be away...sure, aren’t Old Benny’s men on the lookout for us?”
“’Twas ye and the Crow Boys set that fire?” His father’s voice now, heavy with sorrow.
“Aye, Da. I’m sorry to disappoint you—”
“Never, son.” More rustling. Aidan pictured the three of them locked in a tearful embrace. Envy swept over him. Would Ma and Da ever look at him that way? Ever be as proud of him, the quiet one, the one who yearned to read and write, as they were of the rebel Liam?
Raw panic eclipsed his resentment.
Liam was leaving!
Aidan wasn’t so young that he didn’t understand what happened. He’d known for days—sure, everyone had—that something was in the wind. The Crow Boys had left a warning for their landlord on Christmas Eve, a warning he’d ignored. They’d had to act, had to make a stand for Ireland’s freedom.
He’d heard Liam and Brian talking behind the graveyard at the ruins of the old church. He knew the Crow Boys planned a raid on Bennington House. They had guns, and they had spirit.
And tonight they’d set fire to the Big House.
Something must have gone wrong. Aidan shoved back his threadbare blanket and climbed down the rickety ladder his grandda had built to where Liam stood in a fierce, desperate embrace with their parents.
His brother stiffened. His arms slid away from Mam and Da, and he turned slowly to Aidan. His face was wet with tears, his gray-green eyes filled with pain. Wordlessly, he held out his arms.
Aidan flew into his embrace, shaking with silent sobs. “Take me with you.”
“I can’t. Sure, ‘tis tearin’ the heart from me breast to leave you, but me life’s not worth a farthing to them that’s chasin’ me.”
“Where will ye go?” Their little sister, tiny Caitlin, appeared beside them, and Liam turned to gather her into his arms. “Will we never see ye again?”
Liam’s shoulders heaved. “I don’t know, a gráh.”
The five of them clung together until three sharp knocks sounded on the door, then one more, and another two.
The time had come.
“‘Tis Brian.” Liam turned to kiss his sobbing mother. He held out his hand to his father, but the older man pulled him into a fierce embrace.
“Take care o’ yerself, son. And ne’er forget ye’re a Collins.”
“I won’t, Da.” Liam broke free, catching wee Cait up in his arms. “Don’t you forget me now, love, for ‘tis sure I’ll always remember you.”
Liam put down the little girl. Caitlin turned to fling her arms around her weeping mother.
At last Liam turned to Aidan.
Aidan’s heart splintered. His adored older brother was leaving. Likely they’d never see him again, only hear of him from one of the boys who’d received a letter from somewhere.
Liam caught him in a fierce hug. Aidan squeezed his eyes shut in a vain attempt to stem the tide of tears scalding his throat. “Godspeed, brother. May the road rise to meet you.”
“May the blessing of light be on you. May the blessed sunlight shine on you and warm your heart till it glows like a great turf fire.” Liam pulled back just long enough to stare into Aidan’s eyes. “Look after them, lad. See they’re kept safe. And mind yourself.”
I will. The words strangled in Aidan’s throat. Before he could speak, Liam tore himself away, caught up his bag of possessions, and wrenched open the door.
Aidan stood for a long time, staring out the top of the half-door. A silent vow formed in his heart.
I’ll look after them, Liam.
I’ll make you proud.