CIARAN DID NOT HAVE A PLAN. He rode forth with all the exuberance and vigor of a young King Arthur, his only ambition to seize what he wanted from wherever he could find it. Within him raged the twin demons of love and hate, joined in fierce and splendid battle. No plan. Only the resourcefulness of an enchanter touched by madness, and, fueled by the fires of reckless youth, the confidence of a fool. Rushing headlong toward whatever fate awaited him, he laughed in the face of fear, utterly convinced of his own immortality. Such thoughts traveled with him to Caer Blaen.
Tomas had dispatched heralds to announce their arrival, and as a precaution, archers rimmed the thick woods along the border. Ciaran had chosen eight horsemen to accompany him, all young, avid and defiant, ready to prove their skill and their uphold their honor. Banners fluttering, surcotes flowing in riotous color over leather hauberks, they journeyed with pride, shields and swords and lances gleaming.
Fired by the eager, clanking troop, Ciaran smiled broadly. “Their devotion stirs me, Robyn,” he said, sitting tall and radiant in his saddle. His hair, bleached white by the summer sun, fell loosely from its ties, his surcote streamed over polished mail.
“Much, if not all, depends on it,” said Robyn. “I hope you know what you risk. You know these marcher lords: bloody of mind and intent.”
“Have faith, ap Gryffin. Whatever the challenge, I’ll meet it.”
“Tall words for a fledgling prince who’s barely won his spurs.” Laughing soundlessly at Ciaran’s expression, he turned his horse to join the rest of the cohort.
Ciaran insinuated himself between Gwilym and an attendant, nudging his horse near to Evaine’s. She raised her face to look at him. Dazzled, defenseless, she searched his eyes, seeking refuge in his smile. He shone like a comet, yet how quickly his light might be extinguished. She could not imagine him failing, yet the thought of his victory disturbed her even more. She glanced up at the distant, towering shape of Caer Blaen silhouetted against the sky. “Pray, my lord, tell me your thoughts,” she whispered.
His smile curved wickedly, telling her all she needed to know. A hot flush rose to her cheeks, her fears promptly eclipsed by the memory of that fervent, impetuous kiss.
Grave suddenly, Ciaran’s eyes shone with affection. “Courage, my heart. Whatever fate awaits us, we must meet it bravely. But I promise you,” he said, giving her his secret smile, “nothing shall stand between us.”
High on its narrow ridge, battered by winds, the massive fortress of Caer Blaen brooded over valley and river, its steep towers looming as shadows against a calm, blue sky. Turrets, arches, and trees seemed to thrust upwards at a slant, threatening.
Robyn and Ciaran exchanged glances. Trudging through dense trees, they fixed their eyes ahead of them as if stalking some gigantic beast. Sounds and smells alerted ear and nostril, smoke drifted up; sky stretched vast and sudden above them. Soon they glimpsed the ragged, pulsing life of the common folk gathered along the grassy banks beyond the lists. Men-at-arms hovered near the gates, stern and helmeted, alert to the slightest danger.
The arena swirled and clamored, teeming with heralds and minstrels perspiring in vivid costume. Lodges and pavilions of every hue decked the banks along the river. Behind wooden barriers, knights thronged, gleaming in new armor.
“We’re outnumbered,” muttered Robyn. “Just as I thought.”
Ciaran’s laughter rose sharp over the din. He glanced at his bright, devoted band, then at Robyn, from whom nothing could be hidden. Silence stretched taut between them.
Above the clamor, trumpets blared. An attendant ran up, throwing wide the gate. Ciaran sat erect, smiling a little, and rode forth. Then as if one look could sustain him forever, he sought Evaine’s eyes. She kissed her gloved hand and gave him a hopeful little nod.
Strength surged through him; he held out his hand. Robyn thrust a spear into it, the pennon whipping in the wind. Behind them, lances pointed skyward, the retinue waited. Ciaran’s eyes gleamed dangerously. With a pounding heart, he summoned them forward.