CIARAN TWITCHED AND WAKENED, blood and skin tightening at the thought of battle. Suddenly hot, he turned over; Robyn’s hair tickled his back. But it was Evaine who pressed upon his heart. The desires she aroused in him were sharp and sweet, yet even in torment he could not let them go.
Dawn came, flooding the chamber with a thin, gilded light. At the tolling of the bell, Ciaran rose and swiftly dressed, moving to the bed where Robyn and Gwilym lay coiled in sleep. Gentle dreamers both, he regretted disturbing those dreams. The time had come, however; they must heed the call to battle. He nudged Robyn, bringing him full awake.
“God’s eyes!” Robyn groaned, squinting in the early light. “Sunrise already? And we two slumbering like babes.”
Ciaran tossed him his tunic and hose. “It’ll be over quickly,” he said. “After that – ” his voice trailed off. He went to the casement and gazed out over the jousting field.
“After that?” Robyn slid from beneath the coverlet, hastily pulling on his clothes. Ciaran had retreated into himself and spoke no further. Gwilym was up, hurriedly clasping his mantle as the guard pounded on the door.
They walked straight from mass into the morning, just as the sun began to rise over the lists. Hands shaking with excitement, Robyn helped Ciaran slither into his mail. It fit like a second skin: white, sleek, scaled. All buckles and cinches secured, Robyn looked him over once more and paused as if unsure whether to embrace him or deliver a wallop. With a smile that was half scowl, he sprinted off to fetch Rhiannon from the stables.
“Did you see de Barre at chapel this morning?” he asked as he led the white mare behind the barrier. “He looked as if he’d been merrymaking all night. You may have a chance, old man – but watch his aim, and remember to keep your head down.”
Ciaran laughed swift as lightning. He let Rhiannon snuff at his hair before donning the iron helmet. “Have no fear, ap Gryffin, I’ll not let you lose your wager.”
Robyn shrugged. “The joust is on everyone’s tongue,” he said defensively. “The stands are filling; bets are flying. I’m not the only one with a stake on the outcome.”
Ciaran clasped Robyn’s arm. “Say a prayer for me, will you? And,” he added, “save me a piece of your luck; I may need it.” He stood, lean and towering, and half turned, a flicker of doubt in his eyes.
Robyn closed his fingers over Ciaran’s sleeve. Ciaran covered them briefly with his own gauntleted hand before hoisting himself into the saddle. Robyn provided the long spear with its bright-tailed pennon, and gave him a wink.
Ciaran rode to the center of the field, saluting his opponent with an edge of mockery, and dipped his lance toward the pavilions. A shout went up. He waited.
Lionel de Barre cantered forward, ruthless and gallant, his shaft upright, his charger tossing its tawny head.
Ciaran sat Rhiannon like a statue.
“Hail, sir,” said Lionel. “You look well-refreshed. I hope your lodgings sufficed.”
Ciaran replied with a tight smile.
“I had hoped a night’s meditation would persuade you to come to reason. I regret to see you are more determined than ever to lose countenance before these fine folk – ” Lionel’s eyes swept the crowd; he leaned closer, speaking in low, earnest tones. “Will you not reconsider? You stand to forfeit much. It would be no disgrace to forsake this foolishness and declare fellowship now.”
“Forgive me, my lord, I cannot.”
Lionel sighed. “Ah, the urgency of youth,” he said. “You spend your courage so recklessly.”
“I fight for love,” said Ciaran. “And freedom.” He turned Rhiannon and cantered back down the length of the yard to mingled cheers and taunts. Looking up at the gallery, he searched the sea of faces, his breath halting as he found Evaine. She met his gaze with a plaintive, anxious look, as if begging him to relinquish this madness now, while the choice remained possible. But he could not stop what he had so impulsively put in motion. Silently, he cried his love with the fullness of his power; he sang it to her with every pounding beat of his heart. Slowly, deliberately, he dipped his bayonet to her; homage and defiance in a single gesture.
The common folk pressed against the fencing, shouting for the match to begin. Ciaran peered at the distant figure at the opposite end of the course. His skin prickled with moisture. Beneath him, Rhiannon danced impatiently.
Robyn ran up with his buckler. “Remember what I told you,” he said breathlessly, “and for the love of God, be wary.” He made a fist, raised it to Ciaran as a sign of solidarity and loped back to the barrier.
Only the moment lived now, charged and tingling, all perplexities gone. At the signal Ciaran struck spurs and sprang into the charge. A ferocious cry broke from his throat as he swept inevitably toward impact, his hand burning the shaft. He marked the nail-heads in his opponent’s shield, the flashing steel tip of his spear. The Frenchman surged up, massive and deadly; Ciaran flung himself forward. He struck, reeling from the shock, his weapon shattered into a thousand pieces. Dust rose vast and swirling and he galloped on, deaf to the thundering shouts from the stands.
Exultant, he wheeled Rhiannon and squinted back at the broad, shimmering grounds. Glittering particles settled about him, stinging his eyes. He singled out his opponent. Lionel remained mounted, an elegant, prancing peacock.
A draw. Ciaran cursed. He guided Rhiannon to her mark. Robyn bounded up, almost laughing with relief, his face flushed. He handed Ciaran a fresh lance.
“God’s praises, you made the first pass,” he said.
“Of course. Did I learn to ride yesterday?”
“You’re fighting a man at the peak of his might, and you’ve barely come to yours. You’re stone mad.”
“Your faith warms me, ap Gryffin.”
“Scoff if you please, but he’s heavier than you; he can apply more power to his thrust. And he controls his mount superbly. Still, you can send him sprawling if you do it right. Feint. Aim high, then drop point before the strike. And mind your head.”
Ciaran cast a glance toward the loges. He caught a brief glimpse of Evaine; she sat erect and still, her hands clenched in her lap, her lips moving as if in prayer. Ciaran bowed his head toward her and claimed his position for the second pass.
He lunged forward again, stronger, surer, his grip on the lance like steel. He drove it home with every ounce of his strength. The blow rang in his ears, merged with the roar from the spectators. Ciaran swayed dangerously sideways, but his saddle held him. Pain streaked through his thighs and back; he hugged Rhiannon’s flanks and clung like a demon to the reins. Turning his mount, he glimpsed blood on his thigh: a drop, no more. He laughed, certain it had come from his adversary. I’ve won, he thought. De Barre lies bleeding in the dirt and Evaine is mine! He sat straight and proud in his triumph, broken pike held high.
Presently he heard the stamping and shouting from the onlookers and knew de Barre was not vanquished. Not yet, God rot him. His eyes stung with sweat; he blinked away the irritation. Irrelevant, he thought. I can do this blindfolded. He maneuvered Rhiannon to her place and waited, blood throbbing in his temples. His body streamed with perspiration, his left arm ached savagely behind the battered shield. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered now but the clash.
“God’s wounds, you’re bleeding!” shouted Robyn, running up with another spear, his face creased with worry. “Wait. Let me -”
Ciaran waved him away. “It’s nothing, ap Gryffin. All’s well.”
“No, Cei, there’s something -”
“Back, damn you. I’m on to him now; let me at him.”
At the trumpet’s blast, Rhiannon sprung forward. The Norman destrier flared scarlet nostrils, thundering head-on toward the final strike. Wild with battle-fury, Ciaran loosed his blood-curdling tribal yell. A shattering blow rocked him; Rhiannon reared, whinnying wildly, and came down hard. Ciaran lurched backward. He lost command of his shield; it dangled precariously from his neck. Somehow he regained control, but an immense pounding filled his head; a fierce, searing pang shot through his left eye. He rode blindly, pulling hard on the reins. Amid the swirling dust and the sweat and the panic, all fell into chaos. What happened? He felt himself spinning, losing focus alarmingly fast. A vague unreality compounded of pain and exhaustion overtook him. He let the spear fall from his hand.
He thought he saw her then, leaning out over the balustrade as if to reach for him. So far, so near. He tried to lift his hands to loosen the heavy iron helm. His arms were dead weights, the fire in his brain leapt into agony. He slumped over Rhiannon, blackness rolling over him, and plunged inexorably to the ground.