The Flamebearer Chapter Eighteen

GWILYM LEANED AGAINST THE BOLTED DOOR, visibly shaken, too outraged to speak. Pacing before the hearth, Robyn’s movements cast immense, fitful shapes on the wall. “You are raving mad,” he growled.

Ciaran remained silent, stretched out on the bed. His face, for all its incandescence, was eerily calm. No violence leaped behind his eyes; no malice touched the corners of his mouth. He lay still, absently studying the raftered ceiling.

Robyn stopped in mid-step. “You court disaster as if it gave you some perverse pleasure,” he ranted. “What are you aiming for? Flat-out war?”

Ciaran answered softly. “I had no choice.”

Emerging from the shadows, Gwilym spoke, his voice low with barely hidden contempt. “What if you fail? Will you pledge your loyalty?”

“You haven’t seen him in combat,” Robyn added. “You don’t know his strength. A man provoked is a dangerous beast.”

“He will not defeat me,” insisted Ciaran with some irritation. “I’ve a longer arm and keener sight. I’ll unhorse him on the first pass.”

Gwilym snorted. He moved closer to the fireplace, scraping his dark hair away from his face. “What if you win? Do you think de Barre will simply turn my sister over to you?”

Ciaran smiled, self-satisfied. “That is the agreement.”

“Then by God’s blood,” swore Gwilym through his teeth, “you’ll have to fight me too.”

Robyn gestured for silence. “Have you forgotten there’s an ear to the door?” he whispered. He sank down on the bed, anger and fatigue turning to annoyance, and ultimately to resignation. He began pulling off his boots. “It’s too late, Gwilym , he’s already signed his death warrant. Leave him to the gallows.”

Ciaran sat up, observing Gwilym impassively for a moment. “I laid you by the heels once, my friend. Do you want me to do it again? I’ll engage you if I must, but I’d rather you gave me your consent. Evaine’s Cambrian, not Norman. Aside from that, she loves me. She said so, the night of the oath-taking.”

“Love! What does she know of love? She’s a maid half-grown. She’s bedazed by your looks, simple as that. Give her up!”

“Never.”

Gwilym cursed, deflecting his angry eyes away from Ciaran and toward the hearth. He stared long at the flames, brooding silently. Finally, he spoke, his voice soft. “What will you do with her if you do manage to win her? Evaine merits some place in this world, some protection.”

“Her place is with me.”

“With you! What will you do? Pack her off to Narberth and flaunt her as your mistress before all the court?”

Ciaran shifted a little, frowning defensively. “I’ll attend to her protection.”

“And when your lust turns to indifference? By what bounty will you safeguard her then? You see only the sweetness of her youth; but youth passes, beauty fades. When you’ve spent your passion, what remains?”

“Gwilym ,” said Ciaran calmly. “I don’t claim to grasp all the intricacies of love. I reckon only that the heart wants what it wants. I love her. There is nothing else.”

“Naught but your witchling bastards,” Gwilym muttered under his breath.

Ciaran’s mouth twisted, his eyes glistening. “So,” he said, “the truth will out, at last.”

“Stay!” hissed Robyn, rising from the bed. “Or I’ll silence you both. Isn’t it enough we’re locked in this chamber with guards listening at the door? Hold your tongues, if you hope to live through the night.” He scowled first at Ciaran, next at Gwilym . “Whether he wins or loses, this moonstruck fool rides for a fall tomorrow – there’s no help for it. Best leave him to his folly.” He drew a breath; the breath turned into a yawn. “Don’t either of you sleep? I, for one, am done in. I plan to rest while I can; I suggest you do the same.”

Silence hung in the room. At last, Ciaran broke it, with a hint of contrition but no word of apology. “This is a wide bed,” he said quietly. “I don’t need it all to myself.”

Gwilym and Robyn glanced at each other, briefly contemplating the luxury offered by the bed. Within moments they had all stripped and burrowed beneath the bedclothes.

Ciaran yawned and turned to his side. He closed his eyes. “Strange,” he said. “Tonight I think I’ll sleep more soundly than I have in years.” Clasping the warm woolen blankets to his chin, he drifted, dreaming of love and battle. From without, a bell sounded, and all was still.

Chapter Nineteen

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