The Flamebearer Chapter Nine

HE WOKE FROM A DARK VISION just as the sun’s rays crept over the battlements.

“You look terrible,” Robyn observed cheerfully. “Are you hungry?” Wedging a loaf beneath his chin, he held out two horns of ale. Ciaran relieved him of one. Robyn sat, tore off a hunk of bread and offered it to his friend.

“Just the ale, thank you.” Ciaran took a couple of avid swallows and rubbed a hand over his jaw. “I’m ripe for a shave and a bath. Have I been sleeping long?”

“An hour,” Robyn reckoned, “maybe two. When was the last time you had a proper meal and a full night’s rest?”

Ciaran stretched, blinked. “I can’t remember. I had the strangest dream,” he mused, but he did not go on. He stood, rumpled but unblemished, and picked the leaves and gorse burrs from his cloak.

“You manage to look elegant even in rags,” Robyn muttered.

Ciaran gave him a diffident smile. “Tomas shall skin my hide,” he remarked.

“And mine.” Robyn drank off the last of his ale and rose to his feet. “Courage now. Best to meet him boldly.”


 

In the solar, Lord Tomas waited, attended by his clerks and officials. Two youths stood behind him, combing out his hair and arranging his sash in neat creases over his shoulders. Ciaran took him in at a glance: the imposing height and robust frame emphasized by the fine woolen mantle, the intelligent eyes, the flowing hair streaked with silver, the gray beard neatly trimmed.

At the sight of his nephew, the lord stiffened, his face fermenting with a mix of anger and relief. “Your timing is remarkable,” he expressed sharply, glancing from Ciaran to Robyn and back again.

Robyn hastened to explain. “He’s unharmed, your Lordship. Surely we can be thankful – ”

“I’ll speak for myself,” blurted Ciaran, snatching at his self-respect. Pride alone held him at attention as his uncle scanned him from head to foot. After a rough assessment, Tomas pronounced, “You appear stout enough.”

Robyn took a step forward as if to shield Ciaran from some invisible harm.

“Ap Gryffin,” said Tomas, “you’ll find your livery in the guardroom. Get into it and report at once to your station.” Motioning to his attendants he commanded brusquely, “The rest of you go. Take your places immediately. As for you, young sir,” he proceeded, fixing his nephew with a stern, but surprisingly temperate expression, “I expect you to provide a convincing alibi as to your whereabouts these past two weeks.”

The room emptied; the two of them stood squarely facing each other, Ciaran in proud defiance, Tomas in restrained judgment, waiting. Waiting for what? Submission? Ciaran drew a breath, expelled it wearily. “Again, I’ve broken faith with you,” he acknowledged, fully resigned this time to accepting blame. “I can not justly lay claim to your leniency.”

Tomas said nothing. He simply observed his nephew in silence. The familiar, hated silence bespoke his disappointment better than any rebuke. “What is it you want?” he asked at length. “Do you rightly know?”

Ciaran stared at a fissure in the floorboards, plagued by a surge of unbidden emotion. He thought of all the things he had longed for since he had been old enough to dream, and now those things seemed to pale in the face of this man’s disapproval.

“Speak, boy.”

Ciaran looked briefly at his uncle, drawing his dignity about him like a cloak. “My lord,” he began, “you remain uncommon in your forbearance. You suffer my existence when many would try to destroy me. I can not estimate what that has cost you but,” he paused, searching for the words to express his ambivalence. The corners of his mouth quivered. “Sir. I would not presume to occupy a place in your hall, nor would I swear my allegiance to you if I thought it would bring you dishonor.”

Tomas’s guard broke. His face momentarily lost its rigid pallor. “Do you mean to gain my sympathy by placating me?” he charged.

“No, sir.” Ciaran stood mute, unable, for the moment, to continue. He glanced around the small chamber with its flat timbered ceiling, the heavy tapestries concealing the massive canopied bed, the worn animal skins covering the floor. He thought of the eerie calmness he had felt on the Mound and for a fleeting, heart-stopping instant he allowed himself a glimpse of Evaine: her milk-white skin, her rosebud lips and those dark, sad eyes that held such inscrutable secrets. At last, he composed himself and went on.

“My lord, did you never ask if what you wanted from this world was worth the struggle?”

For a long moment, Tomas tacitly appraised him, the displeasure reshaping itself by degrees into something softer. “Sit,” he put forward at last.

Ciaran obeyed without thinking. The chair was the lord’s own, plain, but sturdy, its cushions a welcome respite from the burden of standing at attention.

His uncle revived the dying fire and pulled up a bench, stretching his legs toward the hearth. “Say on,” he submitted, his voice low.

“I am not your son,” Ciaran stated frankly. “I will never be more than what I am: a creature given into your care whom you might never love, who might never bring you anything but grief.”

Tomas inhaled deeply as if to compose himself before speaking. His voice was as kindly as Ciaran had ever heard it. “This world is full of suffering,” he testified. “My small disappointments seem petty in the face of it.”

Ciaran closed his eyes. There was a time when he would sooner die than fail this man. “Long ago I made a promise,” he recalled, “to serve you, to renounce my mother’s lineage and all it might bequeath to me.” He bowed his head; a small sigh escaped him. “It has not been an easy vow to live up to, my lord. I never intentionally swayed from my purpose, though forces dwell within me I can neither excuse nor deny. I cannot pretend I never yielded to them. Many times, to my everlasting disgrace, my will weakened. Throughout my life, I battled these urges, though I often suspected they might still bring me to ruin. Yet even as I confess this to you, I can’t honestly say I’ll not submit to them again.”

Tomas appeared to weigh all this. He sat gazing into the fire, absently stroking his jaw. His strong face, creased with feeling, reflected a vast store of sorrow and regret. “You never spoke of this,” he said, “though I guessed at your loneliness and the anguish it caused you.” He delayed slightly before continuing, carefully measuring his words. “If I treated you harshly or unjustly, it was only because I feared for your safety, knowing what you are. I could not predict how the world would judge you. I did what I could to impart the skills you would need to survive, provided you chose to use them wisely.” He shook his head as if annoyed with himself. “I realize I can’t go on shielding you from the world. By virtue of your own furious haste, you’ll carve out your destiny, whatever the price.”

Ciaran nodded, his eyes brimming. “I hoped,” he continued, “my pledge would bind me to this earth, and to you, and to my father’s memory. More than anything, I aspired to honor his legacy by proving myself worthy of his name. I never doubted the rightness of the goal, only my right to a place here.”

Shadows deepened the hollows of Tomas’s cheeks. He lowered his head into his palm, thick fingers rubbing the space between his brows. “Boy,” he said, his voice uncommonly mild, “you’ve always had a place here. In many ways, you are the very heart of Narberth. There is much I can never teach you. Had my own sons lived, I’d have granted you your freedom long before this. God knows, if Fate drove you from here, no power of mine could have stopped you.”

Ciaran frowned. “Sir. I – ”

Tomas took hold of his shoulder. “Hear me,” he said. “For your own protection, I insisted you conduct yourself as any other boy under my patronage. To succeed among men, you must learn to act and live as a man. I never intended to punish you unfairly, boy, you must believe me. In attempting to raise you as your father would have, I erred time and again. Many things I did not understand.” He waved his hand in a gesture of helplessness. “I’m just a man. In the end, that’s my only defense.”

Ciaran’s eyes overflowed. Was it love or shame that bound him to this mortal? He wiped his face with the backs of his hands and struggled to form a coherent thought from the snarl of violence and affection welling in his heart. The gentle reassurance of Tomas’s arm around his shoulder brought him a measure of comfort. Tomas’s voice came soft in his ear. “Come,” he said, “the hall is filling; they’re waiting for us. This is no time for remorse or recriminations.”

Ciaran bore himself up, gathering the rags of his composure. He felt frayed and torn, exposed in a way he had never been before. “I am most grateful for your tolerance,” he said. “Though unexpected – I assure you, my lord, it is in every respect appreciated.”

Tomas gave him a quiet nod and then stood, straightening the folds of his cloak. It caught the light and shimmered as he turned and strode briskly from the room.

Chapter Ten

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