The Flamebearer Chapter Forty-Three

THE BRUCE, ROBYN, and Dafydd had come in quietly, taking seats behind him on the pew. Evaine, upon hearing the horrifying decree, let out an ear-shattering wail of protest and promptly fainted, fortuitously collapsing within the Bruce’s long reach. With one arm he swept her up like a broken doll and draped her across his expansive thigh, fanning her face with a broad hand until she recovered. Reflexively, she reached for Ciaran. The Bruce steadied her, setting her on her feet, but kept a stabilizing hand at the small of her back. She turned to give him a confidential nod of gratitude, and then stood tall, stiffened her spine, and slid past him to the end of the long wooden seat.

She stepped forward to stand beside her man, taking his hand and giving it a little squeeze. “My heart,” she whispered, her lower lip trembling, “Lionel’s treachery is unforgivable. You owe him nothing.”

“Perhaps not,” Ciaran acknowledged, “but naming him would do nothing to alter what I am. And I’d be condemning a mortal man to unendurable agony in exchange for personal liberation.”

Evaine’s apprehension grew desperate. “No, you can’t – I won’t allow you to go through with this.”

“I don’t think we have a vote in the matter,” said Ciaran.

“Well, I won’t let you endure it alone. If fire is to be your fate, then let it also be mine.”

Ciaran’s heart stopped. For several breaths, he couldn’t speak. He turned to meet her brave, sorrowing gaze. “Evaine, I know your devotion is heartfelt. It touches me to my soul. Nevertheless, I can’t permit you to immolate yourself. Besides, you mustn’t forget the likelihood that you carry our infant in your belly.”

Her voice rose high and tremulous as a child’s. “What am I supposed to do?” she implored him, raising her frightened, tear-streaked face to search his eyes. A mournful sob erupted from the deepest caverns of her shattered heart. “I don’t know how to let you go.”

Fighting his own cresting fear, Ciaran took her face in his hands. “Evaine listen to me. Listen carefully. I can’t claim to predict what will happen; I can’t guarantee anything. But if you believe in me, if you believe in our love, go to the Mound of Narberth on the third day at dawn and wait for me there. Never lose hope, my heart; miracles dwell in the invisible.”

Gently, he wiped away her tears. “One more thing. Promise me you’ll watch over these ruffians, will you?” He glanced back at his friends restlessly shifting about on the bench behind him. “They’re going to need your kindness in the coming days, even if they won’t admit it. Also, I’ve seen how the Bruce protects you. Let him. He’s a good man; you could do worse.”

Guards came to take him before she had time to catch her breath. She watched, mute and defenseless, as they dragged him away. Somehow, she summoned the courage and the dignity to approach the lord of Caer Blaen, crossing the flagstone floor to the platform where he stood hidden in shadow. Standing squarely in front of him, she gave him a polite curtsey and in flagrant disregard of custom, she raised her chin to look him directly in the eye.

“My liege,” she uttered in a voice both sweet and solemn, “might I have a private word with you?”

Lionel inclined his head and courteously proffered an arm. Evaine rested her slender hand on his sleeve and together they slipped into an adjoining chamber. The moment the door shut behind them, Evaine flew at him in a white rage, pummeling his chest with her fists. “How dare you!” she shrieked. “How dare you be so craven?”

Lionel grasped her wrists and restrained her until her tantrum abated. “My lady,” he said firmly, “you heard the bishop’s ruling. The affair is no longer in my hands.”

“For the love of Heaven, why?” Evaine cried. “You had no right!” Her bitterness and indignation gave way to intolerable heartbreak; tears filled her eyes and spilled down her cheeks. “He’s innocent,” she wailed. “He does not deserve to die.”

Lionel ran his fingers through his hair, lowering his face to hide from her his shame.

Evaine’s anxiety allowed her no peace. She paced the room in frantic circles, wringing her hands and biting her nails. She clenched a fist to her mouth to keep herself from sobbing. Her heart ached so fiercely she would have expelled it from her breast if she possessed the capacity to do so.

For the sake of his own sanity, Lionel reeled her in. He wrapped her in his arms and held her close to prevent her from struggling. She felt the shallow rise and fall of his chest with each breath and observed a vein throbbing in his throat. Then she noticed, for the first time it occurred to her, his coarse, pitted skin, poorly concealed beneath the flaxen beard. She thought it odd she hadn’t seen this before. Gradually regaining her composure, Evaine dabbed at her eyes with her knuckles. “Were you aware, sir, he chose to sacrifice himself so that you might live?”

Lionel’s face bore deep furrows of anguish, his eyes burned crimson with remorse. It took him a full ten count before he found his voice. “I was not,” he replied, choking back a wave of despair. Drained of strength, he relinquished his hold on her and slumped into a nearby chair.

Evaine’s sympathy awakened at this display of weakness. She deplored suffering of any kind, and though she wanted to hate him, she found she could not. “My lord,” she entreated softly, “Please forgive me. I did not understand until now the nature of your feelings. The irony, it seems, is we both love the same person.”

He would not, or perhaps could not, meet her gaze. He shifted slightly and turned his face away, staring bleakly at a threadbare tapestry near the door. His hands lay tightly closed in his lap and he leaned forward as if to ease an ailing stomach.

“Why,” she pressed, “must you destroy him?”

“I begged him to lift the spell he cast on me,” maintained Lionel. “He refused.”

“Your pardon, Sir, but you are quite mistaken. He cast no spells. I can attest to this myself, as I have been his constant companion over these past weeks. Why can’t you just let us go?”

“As I said, the question is out of my hands,” Lionel insisted, declining to answer for his actions.

“Renounce your accusation,” pleaded Evaine. “Insist on a lesser punishment.”

Lionel only shook his head.

Urgency compelled her to continue. “But death should be a quiet choice made joyfully and with grace after a long life in the service of God,” she argued. “Not thrust in pain upon unwilling flesh.”

Lionel wore his regret like a crown of thorns. Evaine could plainly see the conflict seething within him, and the bitter self-reproach, yet he admitted nothing.

“I wish to have our union annulled,” she announced dispassionately.

This forced Lionel to acknowledge her. He studied her face for a few moments, his expression set in stone. She feared he might refuse her request, but in the end, he made no objection. He betrayed the defeated manner of a man who had lost the will to live. Even the wrath seemed to melt from him as he sat there, shoulders sagging, head in hands, perhaps recognizing, at last, the incongruity and dissonance in their shared grief.

Evaine knew in her heart that in some strange way, he had become God’s instrument, creating a tragedy that desperately called upon each of them to go beyond their raw and tender edges, and reach, instead, for love.

My lord,” she said. “I won’t pretend to know the depth of your sorrow. But if Ciaran taught me anything, it’s that love’s power is greater than any single heart. We would both do well to remember that.” She opened her purse and withdrew a small, silk-wrapped parcel. This she placed in his hand before turning to go.

Lionel glanced at it briefly, then closed his fingers over it and let his hand drop. Locked inside his internal fortress of self-loathing, he bowed his great, golden head and sobbed.

Chapter Forty-Four

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