The Flamebearer Chapter Three

CHAPTER THREE

THE MORNING OF their departure dawned crisp and clear; a strong wind gusted in from the coast. Huddling into her cloak, Evaine pulled the hood over her head. The prince and his men waited at the gate while she bid her farewells. Mindful only of the horses and chattels, they talked and laughed among themselves, eager to set forward.

Evaine had not meant to look back. But despite her brave intentions, her heart bade her steal a last, wistful glance at the old stone and timber house. She had been born in that house; her mother had died in the struggle to give her life. Now both parents lay together in their tomb beneath the chapel’s altar. She had prayed over them there for the last time. Never again would she gaze out over the valley and the wide, green fields, the river, the hay meadow, the deep woods beyond.

When finally she turned her face away, Evaine saw the prince watching her, as if he shared her sorrow. Suddenly, swiftly, he smiled. His smile could melt the snows of Gwynedd, she thought, flushing under its warmth. If only it could thaw the winter of her heart.

Outside the gatehouse, Lord Ciaran turned to his own thoughts, humming to himself. His wind-blown hair lashed his cheek, catching fire in the sun. He rode a few paces ahead, ever alert for danger, his keen eyes keeping watch over the vale, the oak wood, the steep, shining cliffs to the north. High on the northern slopes, a shepherd drove his flock, following the sheep-walk to the upland pastures.

Evaine let her hood fall back; her dark hair whipped across her face.

She nudged her pony forward, heedless of the smile that kindled her own small features, the sudden vivid flush that bloomed on her cheeks. “My lord, you bear your suffering with remarkable fortitude. You seem stronger and brighter than ever.” She spoke with deliberate coyness, her head tilted just so, her green eyes flashing.

“Why lady,” said Ciaran, boldly meeting her gaze, “the gentleness of your own sweet hand sustains me.”

“But I’m no wonder-worker my lord. The only magic I employ is simple prayer.”

Ciaran paused as if to consider her implication. “You believe in your prayers, do you not?”

“Of course, I do.”

“Why then, they have great magic in them.” The prince resumed his melody, a curious refrain, no more than a fragment, yet rich and dark and full of longing. Singing in the ancient tongue of his ancestors, the warmth of his voice deepened into the very essence of mystery.

Evaine listened in silent understanding of the words, strange words without meaning. Yet they held a truth of their own, a haunting beauty born of the sadness inside him. The tune at last faded from his lips, swept away by the wind. “Enchanting!” Evaine exclaimed. “I’m unfamiliar with that one.”

“It’s an air I’ve always known,” Ciaran explained, “though I can’t remember where I learned it.”

“You sing well. Do your brothers share your gifts?”

A muscle twitched on the prince’s cheek. “I have no blood brothers.” His voice, for all its indifference, was oddly quiet.

“Your father?” It was as if he had turned to stone. Alarmed, Evaine stammered, “I beg you, sir, forgive me. If I have said something wrong, I -”

“My father is long dead, I’m afraid.”

Now it was she who fell into silence. Still chafed with grief of her own, she fixed her eyes hard upon the ground. “My lord, I’m sorry,” she murmured.

He dismissed her regret with a shrug. “All men must die one day,” he said. “It was his fate he should die a young man. He might have been lord of all Cambria had he lived. A fierce warrior, they say, though, in the end, he went completely mad.”

“Mad?”

“It’s no secret he took up with a Faery woman.” Ciaran watched her face as if taking some perverse pleasure in unsettling her. “He snatched her away from the very edge of the Wildwood and carried her off to his mountain fortress. It was a famous romance in its day, the proud Prince Morgan and his silver-haired beauty from Annwn.”

Evaine drew a breath. So the tales were true. Yet her fascination went beyond mere curiosity. A dawning compassion arose in her heart as he spoke.

“It was an act of outright defiance,” he continued. “Scandal erupted when I was born. The priests railed against it – an obscenity, they called it. And the families! Imagine what it did to their noble blood-lines.” Laughter, dry and mirthless, caught in his throat. “It wasn’t to last, however. My father, so they say, committed a grave offense: one night in a jealous rage he struck her. He never saw her again.”

Evaine frowned. “She left him? For so little cause?”

“To her, it was enough.” Again, that brittle tone, as if just speaking it opened an ancient wound.

“What of you? You must have been but a small child – she took no pains to keep you with her?”

Ciaran tossed his head. “No. She forswore everything, including her curious, half-breed son.”

“And your father,” Evaine asked, “What became of him?”

“For years he searched,” said Ciaran dispassionately, “roaming the hills in pursuit of a ghost. He never found her. When death came, at the hands of the Normans, I think he welcomed it. He lies beneath the Mound of Narberth, and perhaps, as some believe, she comes to bring him blessing there.”

“Oh, pray let it be so,” said Evaine wistfully, caught up in the mystery and romance of the prince’s tale. Both fell into silence for a time, and when finally she spoke, Evaine’s words lay bare the sorrow they shared. “We are both orphans, then.”

Ciaran looked away, but he could not conceal the sorrow that etched the hard, bright angles of his face.

Evaine’s heart ached as if it bore his long-buried grief as well as her own. She had not meant to press him into a confession. He had revealed all this to her quite openly as if she warranted his trust. Yet she knew for all his strangeness, a mysterious kinship prevailed between them, despite the fact that he was not, she reminded herself, truly human. She shivered, and her thoughts turned to remembrances of her own late father. They rode on for a long while in silence.

By the time they reached Prince’s Gate, the sun cast long shadows before them. In the warmth of Spring, Evaine shunned her doubts and rode side by side with her princely escort. “Is it far to the castle?” she asked, her vision blurred from the gusting wind. “Not far. We’ll soon be to the footbridge; it’s only another league or so beyond the oak wood.”

“We’ve come so far already,” said Evaine, glancing back at the fading headlands. She had long since lost sight of Bri Leith.

As they wended their way up the steep, well-traveled track toward the inn, the trees arched over them. Ciaran bent forward over his mount, the green boughs brushing his shoulders. Shafts of light pierced the dust motes that danced in the air, crowning his head with a ring of flame. Evaine felt something stir within her, a sense of foreboding that held within it a clamorous and disturbing pleasure. Her limbs tingled, a flush rose to her throat. With effort, she tore her eyes away from that splendid face and whispered a silent and fervent hymn to the Virgin.


 

By early evening a deep mist had settled into the glen, shrouding it in silence. The oak and mountain ash of the Greenwood stood veiled in shadow; clouds darkened the distant cliffs and set a raw chill in the air. Evaine shivered, shrinking into her mantle. The heather and bracken grew dense as the wayfarers followed the narrow track up into the hills, winding past small streams and boggy flushes. High above them, a kestrel soared, screaming.

A faint whistle penetrated the silence, a sound almost like wind, yet it seemed to echo with startling clarity. Evaine’s spine tingled. She cocked her head to listen. The sound trilled, piercing the air. Across the moors, the notes rang with unearthly poignancy. Through the mists a light shone, dim at first, growing in brightness as they approached.

“What could it be, I wonder?” Evaine nudged her pony closer to Ciaran.

“Our guide, my lady. With the fog hanging over us we’d be lucky to reach Narberth by nightfall. Yonder piper provides a beacon.”

Evaine felt a rush of delight, awe, perhaps a trace of fear. She peered through the fog, her chin lifted, straining to see. An eerie light glowed in the mist. Evaine’s pony shied, dancing backward. Her maid’s sharp cry pierced the air behind them.

Reining his mount, Ciaran laughed. “Greetings, minstrel!” he shouted. “Might we have the pleasure of seeing you?”

Through the haze, a figure appeared. He sat cross-legged upon a mound covered with glistening bluebells, a flute to his lips. Slight, faun-like, his face narrowed to a softly cleft chin, the pale brows arched over vivid, golden eyes.So like a man he was, yet glittering and wild as a gemstone plucked from a mountain cave in Annwn.

A boucca spirit, Evaine thought, a shape-shifter, called up by the prince himself. She glanced at Ciaran. A shiver rushed through her. They were the same, and yet, some quality distinguished them. It was the subtlest difference, the way the light reflected off the skin, perhaps, the length and texture of the hair, the angle of the jaw.

“You think me uncanny, milady?” The Faerie’s voice lilted like music. A torch blazed near him, planted in the earth. “A trick of the light, nothing more.” Thin as a reed he stood in his dark hose and blue velvet tabard. Shaking out his mantle; the flute disappeared into the heavy folds.

He wrenched the torch from the earth and raised it before him. “In ancient times, any nobleman who sat upon this Mound did not leave it without one of two things: he would either be wounded, or he would see a marvel. You, milady, are surely a marvel. I bid you and your retinue a fine welcome to Castle Narberth.” He doffed his cap, bowing low. A riotous mane of curls shone gold in the torchlight. “Permit me to conduct you. The way can be treacherous in the mists.”

Ciaran’s eyes darted toward Evaine. She smiled at him thinly, heart pounding.

“You have returned from your journey without mishap, thank the Powers,” said their guide. “I trust you’ve encountered no adversities?”

Evaine cast a sidelong glance at her maid, who returned a diffident smile and a quick, nervous gesture.

“None,” said Ciaran without reserve.

The boucca turned, his long fingers outstretched. From behind the mound, a white palfrey appeared. He mounted her easily, raised his torch, and led them up through the swirling mists.

A rattling of nakers and a wailing of pipes swelled through the fog. A few steps closer and dim shapes appeared: the tattered cloaks of a band of strolling players. There were five of them: two pipers, a singer, a clarion player, and a man with a pair of drums slung at his waist. They had gathered outside the battlements, singing a bawdy chorus in hope of an invitation into the warmth of the Lord Tomas’s hall.

The piper began a new tune; the singer, spying the lady and her maid, sank to his knee in a deep, courtly bow. “Madam, my heart is yours.”

“Up, rogue,” said Ciaran a whit churlishly. Chains clanking and timber creaking, the portcullis groaned open. Riders and gleemen clattered over the drawbridge and on through the torch lit causeway. Within, the porter barked at a groom to stable the horses and shouted orders to a mailed guard, then vanished again into the gatehouse.

Ciaran dismounted at once. Leading the horses to the mounting block before the hall, he turned to help Evaine from her saddle, silently cursing his shaking hands as they circled her waist. He leaned dangerously close, almost near enough to brush his lips against her cheek. “Welcome to Narberth, my lady,” he said under his breath.

She faltered, slipping against him. Setting her firmly on her feet, he paused before releasing her. She turned, face uplifted, and for a startled instant their eyes met. He had her hands. In hot haste, he bent to kiss her on the spot, the Devil take the groom, the guards, his men-at-arms and the whole troop of caroling minstrels.

“Little sister!”

Sweeping around to find the owner of the voice, Evaine pulled away and at once she was running, her skirts kilted up, looking for once like the girl she was.

“Gwilym!” She had him by the waist, nearly toppling him to the flagstones. “Oh, my dear brother, you’re injured; oughtn’t you be resting? Look at you!” He teetered on a wooden staff, his leg bent and swollen underneath his tunic.

Glancing at Ciaran, he glowered darkly and leaned to kiss Evaine on both cheeks. He held her at arm’s length, his scowl turning to a sudden smile. “Saints, lass, you’re a woman grown!”

“I am,” she said, turning a pirouette. “And you’re as handsome as I remember. More so, now I see you smiling.” She embraced him again. “Oh, Gwylim, how I’ve missed you. But you’re a proper knight how, and I’m soon to become a proper lady.” She straightened herself, all dignity, and linked her arm through his. “Will you see us into the hall or must we wait here in the courtyard all night? Come, Lowri, give good greeting to my noble brother.”

Gwilym pivoted on his staff and called to the waiting men. “See to my lady’s chattels if you please.” Then, turning to Ciaran, he said tersely, “Lord Tomas will see you in his chambers.”

Ciaran watched as they climbed the stone steps and vanished in an eddy of color, the troubadours sweeping through the entrance behind them. Evaine’s face, her smile, her delightful laughter beat in him like a silent song. He whirled about, his cloak billowing up in a gust of wind, and cast a burning glance from the Bruce to Dafydd.

“Well?” he demanded roughly. “What are you standing about for? Unpack the mules, by God, and get these trunks inside. You heard the man. My lord summons me; I’d best not keep him waiting.”

Chapter Four

 

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s