The Flamebearer Chapter Eight

ROBYN PACED THE ALLURE, his eyes searching the dark. Days had passed, and still no sign of the lord princeling. Only the howl of a wolf in the distance and faint lights that loomed and dimmed, roaming the opaque blackness beyond the stronghold. Faeries, Robyn thought, or goblins, or worse. A shrill night wind whistled over the battlements, rousting an owl from its refuge in the castle wall. It swooped away in the fog.

Cold and angry, Robyn blamed himself for the prince’s flight. He should have gauged Ciaran’s mood, stayed by him despite the ill temper. Too late now for regrets. For all he knew, the lord errant might be lying dead, torn apart by wolves, or robbed, murdered, left to wither in some stinking bog.

Something rustled not ten feet from where he stood. Without his willing it, Robyn’s sword flashed from its scabbard. That was a credit to his training, at least. He wondered if he could put it to use. His hand shook.

A voice, soft, came from an unlit passage behind him. “Stand down, brother.”

Robyn whirled, eyes straining in the dim light. Cloaked in shadow, his face a luminous mask half concealed by the dark furrows of his hood, Ciaran appeared, arms folded casually across his chest as if he had been standing there all along. The faintest glimmer of fire shone in his eyes.

“Sweet Jesus!” Robyn cried, quickly crossing himself. “You near gave me fits! How the Deuces did you – it must be nigh twelve – ” he panted, clumsily sheathing his blade. “The Witching time. Curse you.”

“The hour when spirits walk,” intoned Ciaran, emerging like a ghost from the shadows. Beneath the amber glow of the torchlight, his face gradually returned to itself, bruised slightly, and smudged with dirt, but still Ciaran’s face. Robyn knew this face so well he had ceased to see it. It was a curiously tender face, young and hard as it was, and filled with a kind of doomed grace. Robyn noted the turbulence behind it.

“Is Tomas about?” Ciaran asked.

Simple question. As if he’d just come from a day’s sport. “He retired early,” Robyn reported, “after scouring the high heavens for you. Out at cockcrow daily since you vanished; he must have beat every bush within ten miles of here.” Trying to sound stern he added, “You’ve got a measure of explaining to do.”

Ciaran cocked his head as if perplexed. “You speak strangely, Robyn. I’ve not been truant a day.”

“Nearly a fortnight!” Robyn corrected, furious. He checked his tongue and waited, anxious and alert, for his friend to say something. But no words came. The inscrutable smile told him everything and nothing.

Around them the wind rushed, cruel and piercing; Robyn fought the impulse to shrink into his woolens, though he was beginning to stiffen with cold. His hands had gone numb an hour ago. Ciaran took Robyn’s hands in both of his own. At his burning touch, Robyn started back, but Ciaran held him fast. By degrees his resistance ebbed until at last, he surrendered to a blissful warmth. His hands, mercifully, had begun to thaw; his indignation had not. “Where the devil have you been?” he demanded.

This time the reply came swift and direct. “I’ve been to the Mound.”

The Mound. The Gorsedd Arberth, ancient and legendary, home of dead kings and princes, and the terror of their youth. No breathing mortal dare set foot upon its slopes. Who could predict what powers haunted its unearthly summit?

“It’s a miracle you’re not stone dead,” Robyn declared. “What demons possessed you?”

Ciaran stood gazing at his own tall silhouette on the torch-lit wall. “I confess a kind of madness took me,” he recounted. “I recall a messenger, slender and fair, of princely bearing not unlike myself. A most uncanny invention of the mind. And yet, I sensed if only I would yield to this apparition, there was no limit to what it might teach me.” He grew still, preoccupied with the dancing light of the torches.

Robyn twitched with some newly suspected fear. “What followed?”

“All manner of outlandish amusements,” Ciaran replied with a subtle smile, “which I now declare with some regret, I was too peevish to enjoy.” He closed his eyes for a moment as if captured by some silvery air. Then, laughing softly to himself he continued. “But perhaps my mind plays tricks on me.” He frowned. “Ap Gryffin, you look troubled.”

Robyn found himself staring at Ciaran’s eyes, at the fine, colorless lashes and the bottomless depth of the pupils, now oddly contracted in the flickering light. The irises reflected a radiant fiery light. “You – ” he began, looked away uneasily, then refocused his gaze. “You look different,” he said. “I can’t say how, exactly, but changed.”

As if fighting back an immense sorrow, Ciaran sighed. “I grow weary of this false world, Robyn. All trouble and torment abide here. In that other place, I sense such peace and promise – answers to the riddle of my existence, an end to my afflictions.”

“But you came back,” Robyn pointed out. “You must have had a good reason.”

“I’m not in my perfect mind,” Ciaran said vaguely, dark robes wrapped close about him in the wind. “Something told me to come back, but now I’m uncertain. Do I truly belong here? Or is this earthly realm forbidden to me?” Always pale, now his face seemed drained.

“Best not think on these things too long,” Robyn whispered. The silence crackled between them. They were in the world, Robyn reminded himself, the real world where things were tangible and sensible. Hadn’t they always vowed to conquer it together? Brothers-in-arms, they swore they’d sacrifice their lives for each other. “Your pulse beats,” he reasoned, grasping at some assurance the living prince now stood before him. “If I reached out to embrace you, I’d find solid flesh and bone.”

Ciaran merely looked at him, as if from across a great chasm. Battling to collect his wits, Robyn took his friend by both arms. “God, man, what’s happened to you?”

Still somewhere far away, Ciaran mused, “Weeks, you say? I could have sworn it was but a few hours.”

Robyn shook him. “You’re Elf-charmed, sure as you’re standing here,” he said rationally. “What you need is a good, sound sleep and a substantial meal. You’ll come back to yourself by first light.”

Ciaran yawned. “This is a curious dream,” he murmured. “To be asleep with eyes wide open, standing, speaking, yet dreaming, surely.” He turned and sat heavily, slouching against the parapet, his long legs stretched out before him.

“You’ve not slept in days, if I know you,” Robyn said, “or eaten. Hunger’s likely what ails you. But no matter.” He pulled a fold of his woolen garment around his friend. “I’ll guard you while you take your rest, and mind your safety.” Even now, in spite of everything, he felt an abiding kinship with this bright, brave spirit, whose naivety and air of innocence stirred some deep well of devotion in him. He wanted to shield him from whatever lay in wait in the dark. A brief smile stole across his face. To observe Ciaran in sleep was to witness a rare transformation: all fire and fury subdued, vanquished for the moment under a veil of stillness. Robyn drew the mantle over his companion, and as dawn began to emerge out of the night mists, the white prince slept.

Chapter Nine

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