The Flamebearer Chapter Eleven

A LAMP BURNED ON THE HIGH ALTAR, casting shadows over the polished flagstones of the chapelCiaran approached solemnly, gravely, with gnawing self-doubt. A moist film covered his palms. His arms and legs emptied of strength, he sank to his knees before the Lord’s table.

His father’s sword shone brilliantly in a blaze of candles. Ciaran bowed his head. What was he doing in this holy place? Did the mere fact of his title afford him the right? He had wanted it so badly. Yet as he knelt before the sacred shrine, he felt hollow. His kinship with humankind no longer a distant goal, its truth now rested only in his willing acceptance of it. In the darkness of God’s house, with the long, cold night ahead, his conviction began to falter.

He searched his mind for an image of his father’s face, so long a lonely, hovering ghost. His senses groped through years of concealed pain and a glimmer of magic to reveal a tall, vigorous man with fierce, pale eyes, fair hair shot through with streaks of silver, and a voice rich as a bard’s.

memory returned: a wild ride over the hills of Narberth, his father sweeping him up onto his great charger and thundering across the moor with Ciaran tucked safely into a fold of cloak. The strong arms locked around him, the wind in his face, the rhythm of the stallion beneath sang to him of freedom. He understood, for all his strangeness, he belonged to this man.

The dream blurred into mist. Somewhere in the darkest chambers of his heart festered a long and deeply buried wound. Another image surfaced, hard and brittle as if etched in stoneTomas, galloping through the causeway with a rag-tag band of men behind him, their chargers lathered and gasping, their voices strained, the very air charged with fearCiaran leaped from the edge of the moat and tore through the gate as fast as his boy’s legs could carry him. Scanning the taut faces of the gathered men, he searched among them for one particular face, pricked his ears for the sound of the accustomed voice. His uncle’s grave shout thundered above the din, commanding order out of chaos.

And then he knew. He knew. Through the red haze of his uncle’s rage, he saw the face of battle: horses, confused and panic-stricken, rampaging over a field overrun with Norman soldiers. A singing of arrows, animal cries of agony and fear, the deafening clash of steel on steel. He watched, mute, as the mighty warhorse, impaled on a stake, went down with a tortured scream. Pinned to the wet and trampled ground, his face maddened with pain, Morgan struggled to free himself from beneath the weight of the dying beast. A rival knight fell upon him, driving his blade through the prince’s leather jerkin. In an instant, Tomas’s sword flashed down. Too late! Morgan’s lifeblood and the blood of his enemy poured out and mingled over the uncaring earth.

So much blood. It burst through Morgan’s nostrils, pounded through the veins in his throat, gushed from his mouth. His face spasmed, the powerful limbs convulsed, and then the fair prince lay still. The clear eyes dulled, staring up at the vast, empty sky, and nothing, nothing, nothing would be warm or safe or whole again.

Despair closed around Narberth like a tomb. Silence fell over the battlements; the sounds of footfalls, the curses and the prayers, the songs of lamentation drifted in emptiness, filling every hall and chamber. Ciaran beat against the walls of that emptiness, hurled himself at it, body and soul howling. The world narrowed around him, and his heart turned to stone. He came to hate the proud towers, the steep, gray ramparts, and the silence.

The sound of his own weeping startled him; even now he shook with grief. The passing of time had done nothing to dull the ache, yet he compelled himself to suffer the remembering. As he grew, so did his strangeness. He played like other boys, and fought, and made lofty plans. But none of his friends stared into a hearth and endured wild stirrings of panic and pleasure watching the flames leap and dance to a music only he seemed to hear. He burned inside, but could not quench the fire. Nor could he sit still; his heart beat like a drum as he moved in restless circles around the castle. Even in boyhood, he felt unwelcome in his own flesh.

His will crippled by erratic surges of power, he sought to drive out the Devils that frightened him by driving himself. In danger, he was alive and earned the right simply to be. He moved in a blaze of rage and despair, secretly indulging his dreams of vengeance.

His joints ached and his head throbbed, and he thought longingly of the hour when he might finally get a chance to sleep. His awareness shifted in and out of focus, reminding him of the days, the weeks, he had purposefully avoided sleep, prowling the breastwork and the narrow wandering passageways of Narberth, crawling on all fours to explore the stone-vaulted compartments below the main floors.

Over the years, this became a ritual, this descent into the dripping blackness of the vaults. What did he seek in these cavernous depths? Not peace or refuge, but a kind of self-imposed purgatory. He drove himself down into the musty chambers until he could hear the water coursing against the base of the castle, and he realized he had reached bare rock. Here he forced himself to suffer the darkness as if it were a way to extinguish the radiant light of his power.

Once he discovered an underground passage that led to a secret sally-port by the river. If its existence was known to anyone at Narberth, he had never heard it mentioned, not even by Lord Tomas. Beyond the damp rock walls, he could hear the boom and gurgle of unseen water, smell the earth and decay give way to the sharp, clean scent of the rapids. There, at the end of the passage, caught in the river’s rushing surface, shone the distant glint of moonlight.

At night, sleeplessness drove him into the hills. Running over moist, black soil, the twisted oaks blurring into demon shapes in the dark, he filled his nostrils with the mountain smells of turf and bracken, water and wind, and let the night enfold him.

He remembered a dream, a specter both terrible and mysterious: a tall tree growing on a river bank: half of the tree dressed in leaves of glistening green, the other blazing from roots to crown in blood-red flames. All at once he understood the meaning of that shadowy vision: it was himself he witnessed, his own essence, the undeniable paradox of his being.

A flurry of air gusted through the chapel, blowing the candle lights obliquely and ruffling his hair. Ciaran lifted his face and trained his sight on the altar before him. The light gleamed on his father’s sword, on the links of mail and the crest of the brilliant helmet. This, he said to himself, this is my birthright. This is where I belong.

From the primordial fog of his earliest formed memory; he beheld a face: a woman’s face, a girl’s. Sheer as a wraith, she spoke to him through the corridors of time. Ciaran drew a shuddering breath. “Mam!” he cried aloud. His heart plunged into sorrow, and he had to bite his lips to prevent a deluge of unbidden tears. “You abandoned me,” he accused her bitterly. “You taught me nothing, if not to scorn and shrink from the part of me that came from you.”

“You must make room for all of who you are,” said the phantom, “the dark and the light. Fully affirm your life, cradle its joy and its grief, turn away from none of it.”

“But how,” he wondered, “am I to face what lies before me if every step is haunted by contradiction?”

A smile played upon the ghostly lips. “With open eyes and a stout heart, my son.”

Ciaran let out a long, uneven breath. Strangely, it calmed him. “I always thought I had to make a choice,” he said, “between the world of flesh and the world of fire. I thought my allegiance to one meant the denial of the other. But how can I choose?”

“Your life will find a way of guiding you in the right direction,” replied the spirit. “You must learn to let the path unfold as it will. You may discover some of your finest strengths lie hidden right in front of you. Don’t be afraid. Perhaps what you are avoiding is the very thing you must embrace.”

Puzzled and weary, Ciaran sighed. The sigh became a yawn. “It’ll never be resolved,” he said. “The riddle of my existence.”

“Some things will always be unknowable,” said the apparition. “You must learn to honor the mystery.”

The candle flames burned low; dim, gilded light crept through the high windows. Ciaran shifted slightly. He had been on his knees for hours now, his body stiffened with cold and hunger. He looked around to confirm to himself he was alone.

“Give me honor,” he prayed. “And wisdom. Give me the courage and the will and the strength – the grace – to meet my destiny wherever I may find it .” He paused in his prayers, letting the peace of the morning settle over him. “Set me on the right course, and dear God, whatever the cost,” he asked at last, “teach me what it means to love.”

Chapter Twelve

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