EVERYTHING WAS HAPPENING too fast. Ciaran’s guards led him outside into the courtyard; a cool breeze ruffled his hair and stirred a pile of fallen leaves, sending it swirling around the base of a makeshift wooden scaffold stacked with dead limbs and branches. A slight chill in the air hinted at Summer’s end and heralded the coming of the harvest season.
After mounting the platform steps, the executioners stripped him of every last stitch of clothing. They might have spared him this humiliation. A fleeting vision of himself garbed for his wedding day entered his mind and almost made him weep, but he resisted the urge. His eyes must remain clear for this, his final act. They bound his wrists and ankles, tethered him to the heavy timber stake. Ciaran’s pulse quickened and his mouth went dry as dust. Any notion of changing course vanished in that single moment. Time ceased to exist. Each breath, each heartbeat hung in infinite suspension. Why hadn’t he fought them off while the possibility still existed?
Attendants and bystanders began to file into the enclosure, gathering to witness what they hoped would be a supernatural event. They hungered for a spectacle that would elevate the monotony of their daily lives into something extraordinary, transcendent, magical.
Lionel de Barre kept to the shadows beneath an arched walkway near the rear of the plaza, as if hoping to go unnoticed. He had adopted a chaste style of dress; robed in somber hues of unadorned cloth, he affected none of his usual flamboyance. His accustomed entourage of squires, clerics, and nobles was noticeable only by its absence. Dabbing at his face with the heels of his palms, he paced fretfully from one end of the passage to the other, head lowered. His withdrawn demeanor suggested a man in the throes of uncertainty.
Ciaran always saw this man as a tower of strength, a menacing intruder occupying lands not belonging to him, focused with single-minded intensity on depriving Cambrians of their customs, their laws, their language, their fundamental way of life. Now, instead of the formidable opponent Ciaran previously took him for, he emerged a tragic figure in the grip of unrequited lust; a man worthier of his pity than his hate. Yet this ultimate cruelty permitted him, ironically, to claim a hollow victory in the end.
Just as he began to absorb this truth, all time and space stopped, shattered into uncountable fragments by the piercing sound of Evaine’s keening wail. Suffering Christ! Won’t someone spare her this horror? She disappeared against the solid fortress of the Bruce and this reassured Ciaran somewhat while ripping him to shreds inside. He didn’t want to let her go.
Hell, he didn’t want to die. The thought came to him that his all-too-short life was now fixed – from birth to death and everything in-between – this is what happened, this specifically and exclusively and nothing more. Every reckless decision, every hot-headed scheme, every self-centered, angry or ill-considered remark – he could not take any of it back nor could he alter the flow of events in any way. He had loved with the fullness of his heart and hated with equal measure. And it had all come to this: a blazing series of images, one following another in rapid succession, growing bright and quickly fading like the flickering of a tallow light.
Had he simply burned too hot? Maybe that was the crux of it, after all. He had rushed through his days with such feverish haste, so afraid he might miss something, he had allowed a lifetime to slip through his fingers. Perhaps some perverse justice required him to endure an infinitely protracted death.
Glimpsing his fellows among the swell of spectators, his inner turmoil mounted sharply. They huddled together, faces drawn and heads bowed, giving solace to each other’s woe. Christ, don’t cry, he told himself. You can’t let them see you cry.
He spotted young Dafydd bent over behind the Bruce, blubbering like a baby. And in fact, he wasn’t much more than a pup, with his eager curiosity and hero-worship. Ciaran regretted failing to set a better example for the lad. Suddenly filled with shame for having disappointed so many, he realized he had scarcely lived up to his own towering expectations, let alone anyone else’s. For all his promise, what did any of it mean? A brilliant flame to dazzle the eye for the briefest of moments before crumbling into colorless, common ash.
Robyn looked up fleetingly; Ciaran’s eyes sought his and for a moment – an eternity – they held each other’s gaze, a thousand youthful memories racing between them. They had always competed fiercely, but over the years, found they genuinely enjoyed each other’s company. Robyn tempered Ciaran’s penchant for ignoring caution and though his occasional cynicism sometimes chafed like a noose, Ciaran set great store by Robyn’s no-nonsense character and his discerning eye. Never once did he doubt Robyn’s veracity, nor did he question his friend’s devotion. And until now, he’d always counted on Robyn to back him up, no questions asked. This time, lamentably, even the Gryffin’s luck couldn’t save him. The past, with its storehouse of unrealized ambitions dissolved into mist, leaving only the moment, bristling with naked emotion. Pray for me. Ciaran mouthed the words to the air.
Robyn looked away first, lowering his head and wiping his eyes with the back of his gloved hand. The tragedy of the immediate proceedings amplified his thoughts: a rare, but poignant occurrence. The sharpness of those thoughts pierced Ciaran’s brain like the finely hewn tip of an arrow: the predictable anger intended to mask the bitterness of a wounded heart: Damn it, Cei, of all the ill-timed, bone-headed occasions to exercise your honor. All you had to do was name de Barre and we’d all be riding out of here toward Narberth and freedom!
The death wardens approached and thrust a burning torch into the tinder at his feet. Flames leaped up around him; instantly Evaine broke loose from the Bruce’s grasp to claw her way up the scaffolding on hands and knees. Arms spread wide, she reached for him through billowing smoke amid the clamor of her immeasurable grief. I don’t know how to let you go. Her anguish resounded throughout the abyss of his own despair; he lamented the sudden and irrevocable end to all their hoped-for tomorrows. They had barely begun to learn all the ways to love each other.
Through the shimmering inferno, he glimpsed the Highlander’s giant form lurching forward to enfold Evaine in his arms and drag her back into the crush of onlookers. He enveloped her like a human suit of armor, shielding her face with his huge hand to defend her against the abomination taking place before them. Thank God for the Bruce. His rock-solid muscle had saved the day more than a few times, and come to think of it, so had his uncanny wit, his gentle heart, and his obstinate faith. Ciaran felt certain Evaine would in time come to cherish his friendship.
His awareness rose and fell like a tide whose inexhaustible power carried him up out of the clutches of fear into a boundless sky flooded with dazzling sunlight only to dash him against jagged black cliffs looming over a tempestuous, raging sea. The force that had more than once swept him to the pinnacle of ecstasy had now turned traitor, becoming a tyrant of destruction and terror.
The ravaging flames vaulted higher. He gritted his teeth to ward off the intensifying pain, no longer mindful of where he was or how to extricate himself from the rising panic. Streams of sweat poured from his face and saturated his chest and his back. A merciless shaking took hold of him, his defenses gone, the unceasing agony stretching beyond endurance. Raw screams rent the air, disconnected staccato notes crisply consumed by the roar of the fire. His body writhed and twisted like some ancient demon-ensorcelled Oak. He was on fire, bereft of any weapon to quell the total annihilation of his mortal flesh.
He must by some means divert his mind from the outrage of his physical immolation, but he had lost command of his senses. Ghostly visions danced before him as if carved out of the living flame. A radiating current darted upward from the root of his spine, bringing a subtle transformation of being. His body turned into a column of fire from the tips of his toes to the crown of his head, vast currents circling and eddying in the ether surrounding him, redirecting his spirit on a wholly new path. He abandoned himself to the ongoing process, as a small boat adrift upon the surface of a swiftly-moving river, without knowing where it would lead, without the skill to chart a course. I am dying, he realized, melting away. He found the idea oddly comforting, so close was he now to timeless and everlasting extinction. He became a disembodied observer of this weird drama unfolding both within and without.
For the span of a single heartbeat, he was sure he heard the rush of an angel’s wings hovering just above his head. A diaphanous mist settled into the space around him, gentling him with its radiant coolness. Divine peace seeped into the very substance and texture of his being. The significance of this dimensional shift eluded him, yet he recognized in some profound way he still lived, floating above and apart from the nightmare playing out below him.
The bailey eventually grew dark and only a handful of observers remained: the curious, the prurient, and those faithful few who stayed to mourn. The night wore on, the embers turned cold, and even these few remaining figures, at last, turned up their collars and quietly slipped away, seeking the comfort of their beds, or perhaps consolation in the arms of a spouse or a lover. Tomorrow they might ask forgiveness for their sins and pray for the salvation of their souls, wondering in secret where does the essence of a vigorous, thriving, breathing human being go once it abandons its mortal flesh?