THE SUN ROSE and shone full in Ciaran’s face. He stood on the battlements and gazed out over the immense valley, a little drunk with the heat spreading through his limbs. The Fire was changing him, darting through heart and lungs, muscle and brain. It infected his senses as vividly as if he had taken poison. Shapes, colors, and sounds sharpened, grew richer, more complex.
He wavered on the brink of some infinite realm where the boundaries of flesh no longer contained him. Yet it had its heavens as well as its hells: the caress of the moving air, the shadows falling obliquely across the flagstones held a peculiar fascination for him. There was music in it. Delight. He felt wild and wanton, each step longer and more buoyant until he imagined he might actually fly.
But he could not. He could not fly from the memory of past sins, fancied pleasures, the fears and hates and cravings of his life. Oppressed, yet stimulated, he sensed looming danger from this mysterious and intangible force. Even so, he felt powerless to free himself. Was he never to behold the world again through mere mortal eyes?
Leaning against the screens, Ciaran watched his long-time friend Robyn ap Gryffin finish the last of his morning meal: a horn of ale and the heel of a loaf, taken standing outside the buttery door. Still rumpled from a night’s lodging in the Great Hall, Robyn raked the straw out of tousled, russet-brown hair, slung his drinking vessel from his belt and yawned: a long, supple stretch that engaged every muscle of his lanky frame.
“You’re not eating this morning,” Robyn observed.
Ciaran tossed his head dismissively. “I’m fasting,” he stated without explanation. He threw an arm over his friend’s shoulder. “It’s good to see you again, lad. I missed you this past month. While you were out ranging the hills I came to naught but grief.”
“Aye? Who’ve you killed?”
“No one, yet. I ran afoul of a burning building.” Ciaran retrieved a bed-straw from the coarse folds of Robyn’s collar and smoothed it with idle fingers. “I’ll tell you about it one day. In the meantime, I want you with me in the mêlée at Caer Blaen.”
Robyn squinted at him through keen hazel eyes. “We’ll be contestants in the mêlée? That’s full-blown combat; I thought only knights were allowed.”
“You’re not balking, are you?” Ciaran chided. “Since when does the Gryffin back away from a battle?”
“I’m not balking. But Tomas hasn’t agreed to equip us.”
“He hasn’t yet, but he will.”
“Sure as the Devil, aren’t you?” Robyn loosed a grin. Then, sobering, he looked pointedly at his friend. “Caer Blaen’s not a company of fools, you know. Most of them are seasoned warriors.”
“Intruders is what they are. A blot on our borders.”
Robyn scratched a mole on his cheek. “I harbor no love for the Normans myself. They make quarrelsome friends, even worse enemies.”
“Don’t let them awe you. We’ll prove ourselves at Caer Blaen; after we’ve attended to that we’ll be well equipped to settle with them permanently.”
“I wouldn’t worry,” Robyn reckoned. “We’ll see bloodshed soon enough. As for the tournament, ransoms are what I’m after. I’ve little to lose but my horse, and I’d stake that on one of those strapping Norman chargers.”
Robyn laughed. “You’d beard the lion in his den if someone dared you.” He clapped a hand over Ciaran’s shoulder. “Have a care, old man, if you know what’s good for you. I’ll see you in hall tonight. I’m on guard in the east tower till midday; after my watch, I hit the field. I have a lot of catching up to do.”
“You manage all the luck. I’m charged with restoring Gwilym to full fighting condition. Curse him and his blasted knee. I’d rather be out with the hawks.”
Robyn stood in the doorway, straight-faced. “From what I hear, you had it coming.” He laughed soundlessly at Ciaran’s expression. “Did you see Gwilym this morning? The little brute is spitting nails.” A smile stole across his face. “But that sister of his – now there’s a tidy piece!” With a wink, he bounded away.
Ciaran smiled thinly, swallowing a sudden, unreasoned gall. He loped down the long corridor past the servants’ quarters, rounded the tower stairs and came to a halt at the entrance to the guardroom. A pair of young wards sat before a heap of shields; the chamber rang with the sounds of their hammering. At Ciaran’s arrival, they raised their heads, nodded a greeting, and went back to their work.
Ciaran searched the room for Gwilym. He spied the young knight sitting across the chamber, dark and solemn, wrapping linen strips around his injured leg.
“Gwilym, bach,” he called, his voice bearing more than a trace of condescension. It was a favorite double-edged diminutive that conveyed affection and familiarity while alluding to everything from Gwilym’s smaller physical stature to his rank, his status, his intelligence and his maturity.
Gwilym glanced up, scowled, and returned to his task. Ciaran stepped around the pile of assorted weapons and took a seat next to him on the bench. Slight, yet solid, Gwilym seemed tight-strung and edgy. His cheeks had shed their usual flush, the skin now an ashen gray. A light film of sweat covered his forehead.
“I’m sure you’re no more pleased about this than I,” Ciaran surmised. “Tomas ordered me to keep you from going soft.” Gwilym ignored him, hitching bandages with a wince and a frown.
“Look, by God. After sitting through one of my lord’s lectures on courtesy and restraint, he’s convinced me of the error of my ways – the least you can do is acknowledge my presence.” It was as close to an apology as he would get.
At last Gwilym spoke, his voice gruff with annoyance. “You’re repentant as Lucifer, you scoundrel. Get my chausses, will you?”
“Aye, sir, and what then? The thing has swollen the size of a melon; you can scarcely bend it.” Ciaran shook his head. “You can’t ride like this.”
“No thanks to you.” Gwilym shifted his weight to his good leg and stood, reluctantly bracing himself against Ciaran’s shoulder.
“I’ll admit I make a feeble excuse for a squire,” Ciaran conceded, rising to his feet. He towered over the shorter man. “But now we’re stuck with each other, I’m sworn to acquit myself. I’ll not abandon you until you’re back on both your feet, is that clear?”
“Quite. Now take your hands off me.” Gwilym squared his shoulders and limped toward the door. Ciaran collected his buckler and helm from the wall and followed.
They found a set of benches along the wall on the southern rampart, flanked at either end by watchtowers. Guardsmen paced past them at intervals. Below, a stable boy in dirty leather beat an old hound; it yelped and ran off. Gwilym sat and leaned back against the parapet. Ciaran knelt before him and lightly placed his hands on either side of the inflamed joint, feeling with his power the way to mend it.
“I wouldn’t fret,” he said. “It’s not as bad as it looks.” Gently he drew out some of the heat, easing the stiffness, subtly coaxing sinew and bone back into harmony. “You need to strengthen the ligaments here, by moving it up and down, like this, till you can’t suffer it any longer.”
Gwilym’s dark eyes narrowed. “You’re no physician.”
“Trust me,” Ciaran insisted. “What choice have you got?”
Gwilym braced himself and slowly straightened his leg, grimacing with the pain. Having done his duty, Ciaran sat back on his heels. “Are you still angry with me?”
“You disgraced me in front of the garrison and applauded yourself for doing it. Wouldn’t you be angry?”
“Furious. But you’ll have your chance to get even with me.” Shading his eyes from the sun, Ciaran caught a glimpse of himself reflected in his shield. The face staring back at him seemed alarmingly pale, the skin nearly translucent, the eyes too bright. With effort, he softened his appearance. “Bri Leith,” he remarked casually, after a pause. “Do you still intend to render it up to those grasping foreigners?”
“It’s done; you needn’t concern yourself.”
Ciaran stiffened. “Concern myself? Pray, tell me then, sir, with what shall I concern myself?”
There was a brief silence. Gwilym looked quickly at the ground, unable to meet Ciaran’s vivid stare. “I spoke unwisely. Such things are not for me to say.”
“No, they are not. But I shouldn’t be surprised to learn you’ve risen so high,” said Ciaran, his voice menacingly soft. “My uncle favors you.”
Gwilym hesitated, uncertain of Ciaran’s anger. “My lord has treated me well.”
“And so he has,” granted Ciaran. “He cossets you as if you were his own.” He lowered his voice, turning aside to mutter between clenched teeth. “I should have broken both your bloody legs.”
Gwilym smiled faintly. “I’ve always known,” he confessed, “if you really wanted to, you could take me down with one stroke.”
Taken by surprise, Ciaran raised a brow. “Then why did you agree to that joust?”
“You challenged me.”
Ciaran nodded but remained silent.
“Trying to subdue this pack of ruffians is more of a chore than I bargained for,” Gwilym admitted. “But you – ”
“I’m not what you bargained for either, am I?”
“Hardly. But we’d best resign ourselves. Tomas is determined to put me in charge of your foster-brothers.” He waited a moment, gauging Ciaran’s temper. “I know there’s no love lost between you and the Normans. But I’ve lived among them, fought beside them in combat. I’ve learned from them. Give your little band of ruffians over to me and I’ll teach them to fight like men.”
Ciaran snorted. “You’d encase them in iron, thrust them into ordered ranks; strip them of their courage by teaching them to scorn their traditions. These are the sons of hill chieftains, Gwilym; herdsmen, hunters. They’re not used to control; they don’t obey anyone unless there’s a damned good reason.”
“Precisely. They leap about all over the place; their sole idea of tactics is to chase their enemy into bogs and then run away.”
“They’re pure; they need none of your high-flown military schemes.”
Gwilym sighed. “You’re a rebel root and branch, my friend, and born to trouble.”
“I’m descended from kings,” boasted Ciaran, “every one a fighting man. My fathers were fierce defenders of the frontier. They held this land by right. And,” he added recklessly, “the blood of the Gwyllion flows in my veins. You’ll never tame me.”
“I’d be a fool to try,” said Gwilym. “And in spite of what you might think, I’ve no desire to break you. Only to do as my lord bids, which is to discipline you, and with any luck, to knock some sense into you.”
“You’ve a rough road ahead.”
Gwilym cracked a smile. “I’ve no doubt of it.” He paused, stroking his thigh. “As things stand,” he said quietly, “I’m of little use to anyone.”
Ciaran frowned with regret. He looked at Gwilym’s hunched figure, at the dark hair falling across his brow, at the small, square, roughened hands. There came suddenly a strange light surrounding his head like the flickering of many candles, and at once Ciaran guessed its meaning. In his mind, an image arose, bloody and violent, and somehow he suspected his own part in it. A terrible sorrow moved in him; he shook it off. “Christ, bach, I never meant -”
Gwilym shrugged. “It’s past; you’ve done what you can. I know you mean well.”
Silently cursing his unbidden sight, Ciaran willed the evil vision away. “Besides,” Gwilym was saying, “despite everything, I owe you at the least a debt of gratitude. Evaine told me what you did.”
Ciaran’s heart thundered at the mention of her name. “Sweet God, she told you?” he said, shaken to his foundation. “What did she say?”
“She said you risked your life to pull her out the fire, and if it hadn’t been for you, the house might have gone up in flames. For once your contempt for your own safety seems to have paid off.”
Ciaran reached for his shield. He could think of no clever response, still roiled by conflicting visions of love and death. Turning to straddle the bench he set fiercely to his polishing.
They spent the next hour in silence. When the bell sounded for dinner, Ciaran rose and offered his hand to Gwilym. “I bear you no ill will,” he said, “but, well – oh, Christ, you’ll learn it soon enough, I may as well be the one to tell you. I’m – I -” He stopped himself in mid-sentence and inhaled deeply. “How do I put this? Oh, Hell.” He expelled a breath. “Believe me, Gwilym, I couldn’t have foreseen this, but despite my noblest intentions, it’s happened. I’ve fallen entirely in love with your sister.”