FOLLOWED BY HER maid, Evaine slipped into the coolness of the evening. Warmed and emboldened with wine, she went at once to the garden, fragrant with the scents of lavender and meadowsweet. The muted sounds of pipes floated on the air. “Your hair, my lady. It’s falling out of its plaits. Let me fetch your comb.”
“Don’t bother, Lowri. I’ll not have you fussing over me.” Cooled by the night air, Evaine began to spin, lifting her dark tresses and piling them atop her head. “I wish I were a man,” she mused, “to wear a mantle and tunic instead of this heavy gown, to crop my hair short, to ride wherever I please. What would it be like, do you think? Would I be happy?” She whirled about, her eyes flashing.
Lowri stepped toward her urgently. “What did he say to you?” she asked.
Evaine let out a small sigh. “He loves me. Or so he claims.”
“And you believe him?”
Evaine glanced up at the dim shape of the battlements. “I know his heart,” she asserted. “For he is my other self, as I am his. How can I doubt him?”
“You’re bewitched,” Lowri retorted. “You’re too far gone in wine to hear your own words. If there were any help for it, I’d put a stop to all this at once.”
Evaine advanced on her. “It was you who put me up to this! Should I have stayed in my room, weeping like an infant?”
Lowri jumped. She swallowed, then reached to pluck a flower from Evaine’s hair. “I wished only to cheer you,” she argued. “Alas, I fear I’ve put the Devil in you. I pray it won’t be your undoing.”
Evaine laughed, turning a pirouette beneath the Rowan tree. A shower of white blossoms fell in her hair.
“Hush!” hissed Lowri. “Someone’s coming!”
Evaine straightened. She turned slowly, peering into the darkness beneath the wall. A tall figure emerged from the shadows and began to walk toward her, his hair limned in silvery light, his mantle flung over his shoulder.
A moment’s panic engulfed her. She looked about for Lowri; the maid had disappeared through a side door, leaving her to her folly. If her heart beat any faster it would burst. She could not look at him directly; he seemed too powerful a presence suddenly, too bright, too near. She had no time to make an escape; all at once he was standing in front of her. She felt an urgent hand on her arm, the strong, slim fingers closing over her velvet sleeve, and as she turned, he caught her up and pulled her swiftly into his arms. At first, she resisted, stiffening under his touch. Then against all sense or caution, she yielded, her body molding to his in the heat of that irresistible embrace.
His heart pounded as fiercely as hers; she could hear it as he pressed her head against his chest. He stroked her hair over and over with those long fingers, and the white flowers fell silently around them.
“Evaine.” It was a breath, a sigh. He clung to her as if he were afraid to let go, his tremors passing into her. Something thundered in the air between them, something nameless and compelling and infinitely complex. She looked up at him then, and it seemed he held her motionless with the strength of his gaze. A long moment passed. “Say it to me,” he commanded, his voice low and breathless. “Say my name; I want to hear you say it.”
“My lord, I – ”
“Say it, please.”
“Lord Ciaran,” she murmured, and they both let out a breath, and then they laughed a little, wondering how long it had been since they had dared to breathe.
Ciaran’s face darkened for an instant, but he did not move to release her. “Does this frighten you?” He lifted his hand to her face, lightly stroking back her hair.
“No – yes.” She stood very still and turned her face a little away. A small thrill raced through her. “My dear lord,” she said softly, “you allow me no peace. I can’t comprehend you at all.”
His fingers played with the loose ribbons in her hair. Despite her qualms, she reached to take hold of his hands. “You come into my very sleep,” she declared. “Even in dreams, you entice me.”
He spoke in a whisper. “Do you think me a Devil?”
That made her look up at him. “A Devil!” she exclaimed. “You look more like an angel. Sir, you are beyond understanding. You are strange. You are a wonder.”
“Some say I’m damned,” he replied, “yet you look on me without loathing. What do you see?”
She tilted her head back, gazing at him now as the curious treasure he was. “You’re like a diamond,” she testified. “Hard, bright, full of mystery. There’s a secret concealed in you, something that taunts and beckons. Some say your soul is made of fire, and that you can never die.” She felt him stiffen, and she clung more tightly to his hands.
Ciaran was silent. Seeing the flicker of anguish in his eyes, she reached up to touch his cheek. “For many nights,” she confessed, “I have wrestled with my heart. It troubles me sorely, yet it yields but one truth.” And this, she whispered: “If it be sin to say so, my lord, still – I love what I love.”
Many moments passed before he spoke. “Love?” The word quivered on his lips and hung in the air between them. Everything stilled save for his trembling, and Evaine’s heart beating wildly in her breast. She rose and linked her hands behind his neck, and then, drawing his head down, she laid the softest kiss upon his temple where the pulse throbbed.
“When I am near you,” she avowed, her lips against his ear, “I am on the border of some strange land. And though wisdom would advise against it, my prince, I would enter that land gladly, for in spite of all my apprehensions, I must admit you have captured my soul.”
Ciaran stood as if stunned. He drew back from her, eyes glistening, staring at her in silence, the moonlight racing between them. Then all at once, he lifted her chin, and suddenly, swiftly, as if he wanted to do it before his fear stopped him, he bent down and closed his mouth over hers.
She was too dazed to struggle. His lips were like fire. His hand cupped the back of her head, holding her so tightly she couldn’t move; his fingers thrust through the thick strands of her hair. And then she felt his other hand move on her back, while his mouth crushed the breath from her.
She began to be frightened. He was hard and strong and full of purpose. She felt the warmth and the pressure of his lips, the quickening of his breath, and then the tender assault of his tongue nudging open her mouth. Just as she began to writhe against him in dissent, he released her, holding her apart from him to look into her eyes.
The taste of his lips still burned her mouth. It was all she could do not to reach up and touch it, as if covering a wound. Deeply, she looked into his eyes, his strange, sad eyes with their hidden power.
Before she could speak, he drew her up tight against him, so she could feel his trembling and feel once again the strong, rapid beating of his heart. “Evaine. My love. If I’ve worked magic on you it was not my will to do it. No, that’s a lie. I wanted you from the first time we met. But if you love me -” He drew in his breath so sharply it made her gasp; she looked up at him and saw in his eyes a raw tenderness that both surprised and moved her.
He stared at her helplessly. “Sometimes, my lady, I think it is you who have bewitched me.”
Between tears and laughter, they clung to each other. “Don’t let me go,” Evaine pleaded. Ciaran held her more tightly, his lips against her hair, and he began to rock slowly back and forth. Evaine shivered and sighed, nestling into his uncanny warmth.
“And so” he said, “we love. We’ve spoken it.”
“Words so sweet,” she said, “and yet so perilous.” Frightened for a moment, she pressed her cheek against his chest, wanting and yet not wanting to deny what her soul believed and her heart knew. “My dearest prince,” she said, “I think now our sorrows do begin.”