The Flamebearer Chapter One

BEYOND THE WALLS OF NARBERTH, the air tingled with new life, elusive, yet potent, throbbing with the rhythms of earth, wind, and sky. Free of the castle’s gloom and damp, the young prince urged his horse through the postern and raced onto the rock-strewn hilltop, leaving his bodyguards flat-footed at the gate.

In movement he was joyous, riding fast over treeless, grassy plateaus and purple moorlands. A brisk gallop, that was worth living for, upon his wind-swift mare. Heedless of danger and ignoring the persistent warnings of his elders, Ciaran refused even the lightest chain mail. An ordinary deerskin jerkin belted over plain hose concealed his princely status, as did the soft leather boots, the studded arm braces, and the unadorned woolen cloak. His lone defense against assault other than his personal escort was the knife-edged, short sword belted at his hip.

Ciaran pulled Rhiannon’s reins and slowed her to a walk. He stroked the mare’s damp hide and waited. His companions bounded up behind him, longbows slapping their backs. “My lord, you put us to shame,” panted Dafydd.

The great, florid Highlander, who referred to himself only as ‘the Bruce,’ reined his mount alongside them, his red-bearded face flushed with exertion. “Aye,” he growled. “A race we’ll give ye an’ that’s what ye want, but we demand a fair start. That faerie horse o’ yours could outstrip the wind.”

“Save your fire, my friends. Today we ride for Bri Leith, to fetch a dowry and a bride.”

Young Dafydd, who made it his business to keep abreast of the local gossip, added, “She’s fresh from the cloisters, they say, hidden away these years to guard her purity. In truth, she’s but a chattel: a necessary part of the movables. God pity her, she’s Norman property now.”

“Playing milk wife to some wee upland hen?” The Bruce snorted. “That’s nae duty for the heir of Narberth.” He cast a disgruntled look at Dafydd. There would be no profit in the day’s journey, no raiding over the border, no burning of rick or barn.

Ciaran grunted in agreement. “The burden should have fallen to Gwilym. She’s his sister. If I hadn’t goaded him into a fight…” He sighed. “Ah, well. He’ll be too lame to ride for at least a week.”

The Bruce coughed up phlegm and spat. “Gae th’ Devil tae th’ wee jobbie, did ye?”

Ciaran grinned. “He got what he deserved.”

Ahead of them, rough slopes plunged into thick forest. Haunted by mists, its ancient oaks housed the souls of long-dead ancestors, its shadows bore secrets as old as time. The wood adjoined the borders of Annwn, the Summer Country, abode of the Lordly Ones, whose help was still sought by those who knew them. The prince’s eyes grew distant. “Soft, lads; yonder lie the hollow hills.”

Dafydd’ s young face blanched. He tried to disguise it but could not mask the reflexive tremor that rippled through his limbs, a condition The Bruce dubbed “gang fliskie.”

The ever-watchful Scotsman fingered the blade of his dagger and wished he had a pinch of salt for protection. “Might there be danger, my laird?”

“All’s well,” Ciaran assured them. “Stay by me.” Stay by him they did, though he tested their mettle with the swiftness of his pace. By late afternoon, the terrain grew wild, shifting and blurring before them until they were sure he had lured them down the wrong road. Dull clouds scuffled across a darkening sky and suffused the air with a moist, imperceptible haze.

Lights flickered through the trees ahead. The fields of Bri Leith stood under a veil of mist. From a rise at the edge of a small wooded copse, the riders glimpsed the solitary manor house, snug and simple in the ancient tradition, nestled into a hollow surrounded by leafy thickets and guarded by cheerful, barking hounds.

A short distance from the house stood a watermill and an old chapel, and beyond, a meadow dotted with twisted and lichened oaks. A lord’s dwelling, to be sure, though not one of the greater houses of Glamorgan or Gwent. Hoping for a hot meal and a fire to warm their feet, the three men guided their horses down the slope, following a narrow cart path bordered with a meandering line of low, stone walls.

Inside the gate, a groom stabled their horses and led the men to a small courtyard offset by old Gallic Rose shrubs. Ciaran pulled his hood over his head and settled it around his shoulders. “Pray you this drizzle doesn’t turn into a downpour,” he muttered. “We’ll be up to our arses in mud the whole way back to Narberth.”

“Won’t you join my lady in Hall, sirs?” a maid’s voice called. “Supper will soon be ready. We’ll put up a trestle for you and rekindle the braziers.” The three men shook the dampness out of their mantles and left their weapons at the entry, following the maid past the buttery. The smell of freshly baked loaves and the pungency of herbs and spices wafting from the kitchen struck them as they entered, putting them in mind of their empty stomachs.

Ciaran proceeded at once to the massive stone fireplace that dominated the far end of the room. A hound fawned near him; he fondled its ears and glanced about the narrow, dimly lit room. Except for the hunting bow and weapons hanging near the entry, he might have been in a lady’s bower. Scattered everywhere were scraps of homespun cloth and embroidery linens. Bits of colored thread lay matted in the rushes; yarns in a range of hues stuffed an oversized hand-woven basket. Next to it stood a small loom, dressed and ready, and an old harp gathered dust in the corner. The prince shifted, a stranger to so many ladies’ things.

The secret glances of the servants did not escape his notice. Did his uncommon height disturb them? Or was it the unnatural pallor of his skin, the pale sheen of his hair? Had they heard the tales: that he was descended from Faeries, that in infancy his mother had thrown him into fire and that the spirit of the Dragon had possessed him, making him immortal? The rumors, most of them exaggerated, were not entirely untrue. Yet even the most scandalous lies spread and retold by many tongues emphasized the world’s perception of him as “Other.”

A housemaid hovered nearby, wary of approaching him. She bobbed a greeting and offered to take his wet mantle. The girl’s dazzled expression gave him no pleasure. He handed the garment to her, offered her a small, elusive smile, and said nothing. The maid blushed scarlet. Curtsying again, she hurried from the room.

Ciaran cast a glance at his fellows. The Bruce hunched in a corner as if to make himself invisible. Dafydd, dwarfed by the looming giant, stood nearby, taking in the surroundings with his usual curiosity.

“Who comes calling tonight?” came a voice, light and lyrical, with the slightest hint of an Anglo-Norman accent. The lady Evaine descended the short wooden stair from her private chamber, dark curls spilling from a starched linen coif, cheeks rosy in the flickering firelight.

How charming, Ciaran noted with frank surprise.

She caught her breath and for a moment regarded him with curiosity as if trying to recall an earlier meeting. “You come unexpectedly,” she murmured in a faraway voice. Returning to herself at once, she gestured toward the prepared trestles. “Forgive me, sirs. Where are my manners? Your supper will get cold.”

She raised her face to meet the prince’s gaze and a winsome smile came to her lips. Ciaran not only saw but felt that smile. For the space of several breaths, he stood mute, staring as she approached him like the simplest of fools.

Her head just reached his shoulder; perhaps his chin if he lowered it an inch or two but even then she might need to stand on the tips of her toes to stretch that high. Feeling immensely awkward, Ciaran inclined his head and managed a courteous smile as he introduced himself. “I am Ciaran ap Morgan,” he announced, “of Castell y Arberth.”

Her eyes flicked over him, taking in his shirt and tunic, visibly perplexed by the plainness of his dress. “Why, of course. My lord, you must think me rude.” She curtsied low.

Ciaran took her hands at once and raised her. “My lady of Bri Leith. It is Ifanwy, is it not?”

“My family prefers the French,” she said. “Please, call me Evaine.”

“As you wish, then, Evaine. We received news of your father’s death,” he said softly. “My sorrow for it.”

“You’re kind, sir. I thank you.” She kept her eyes averted. Her hands, slender and sylphlike, rested in his for a moment before she withdrew them.

“I am told you are soon to wed,” Ciaran continued. Not knowing whether she viewed the event as an occasion for joy or distress, he refrained from offering congratulations, for fear that such sentiments might be unwelcome. “My uncle has sent me to escort you and your retinue to the castle to begin your preparations.”

“So soon?” She let out a small, unthinking sigh. “Forgive me, I’ve only just returned from the convent and–”

Ciaran nodded. “I regret arriving at an ill time.”

She blushed again. “My lord, surely it is not customary to dispatch the prince himself on such an errand.”

“No,” he concurred. “A minor mishap forced a change of plans.” She gave him a questioning glance, but did not inquire further.

Ciaran turned to take a seat at the trestle with the other men.

“Oh no, please,” Evaine insisted, offering him a place at her table in front of the fire. “Allow me to attend you.”

A maid brought a tray of sliced beef, a basket of fresh oatcakes, a jar of honey, a jug of wine. Evaine filled his goblet and waited for him to help himself before speaking further. “We’re informal at Bri Leith,” she said. “You must excuse our humble fare. This is an old house, and we’ve few servants. We’ve no grand variety of dishes to offer you.”

“An open hearth, strong drink and a round of bread are all a man needs for comfort.” Christ, what ails me? Ciaran wondered. He did not know why her beauty should so distract him. Her brother, for all his conceit, was not an ill-looking man. “Lady, you are–” He paused, setting himself back a pace. “We are strangers,” he stated. Then, swallowing his tumult: “Though I would prefer we not remain so.”

Evaine’s cheeks flamed. “I am privileged to share your company,” she said. “But, pray tell me – if I am not discourteous – why is it you have come, and not my brother?”

Her formality distressed him more than her question. He hesitated a moment before giving an answer. “An unfortunate mishap,” he said again, eyeing her over the rim of his cup. “He fell off his horse.”

Evaine stifled a quiet burst of laughter. “Gwilym? Fall off his horse? Come, sir. There must be some mistake.”

“If you must know,” said Ciaran, growing bolder, “I helped him.”

“You what?”

“It was his fault. He thought he could beat me. I proved him wrong.”

From their trestle along the west wall, the Bruce chortled, helping himself to another slice of beef. Dafydd shot him a knowing look and drizzled honey over an oatcake before stuffing it into his mouth.

Evaine frowned, unconvinced.

“The leg will mend – sooner than his pride, I’ll warrant.” Ciaran sat back, meeting her look with a brief, triumphant smile. “There’s naught to this Norman way of fighting any Cymro can’t master if he sets his mind to it.”

“Gwilym is a disciplined warrior,” Evaine reminded him, jumping to her brother’s defense. “They knighted him on the field at Deganwy.”

This rankled Ciaran more than he cared to admit. “If I am not mistaken,” he said stiffly, “a band of my uncle’s henchmen destroyed Deganwy soon after: a short-lived victory for the Normans.”

Evaine moved a strand of hair from her face, sipped her wine, and studied him for a moment.

“I’ve offended you,” said Ciaran. He set down his cup. “My lady, I beg your forgiveness. Humility, I am told, is not one of my virtues.”

Evaine regarded him evenly. “These things are not for me to judge. I only hope you haven’t aroused my brother’s wrath. For all his gentleness, he can be ruthless in matters of honor.”

“Aye, and that’s the truth. That brother of yours is more deadly than he looks. Despite our differences, it seems we have a thing or two in common.”

Changing the subject, Evaine glanced at her father’s harp. “Do you play?”

“My uncle’s house employs one of Cymru’s finest bards,” Ciaran boasted. “My facility cannot compare to his by any means, but I have been schooled in the fundamentals. It would give me pleasure to entertain you, my lady.” He extended his hand to retrieve the instrument; by chance, his fingers grazed hers. A powerful current raced between them. Pretending not to notice, they swiftly separated. Ciaran fumbled with the key, making a show of tuning the strings.

Evaine refilled their goblets and motioned to her maids to clear away the bowls and trenchers and dismantle the boards. On the grate a log cracked, throwing a hail of sparks into the room. “By the Saints, I think we’ve a demon in the house tonight!” she said, clutching at her composure.

“Is something amiss?”

Relieved by the disturbance, Ciaran set the harp aside and knelt before the fire, fanning wayward smoke back up the chimney and feeding the coals with bits of char cloth. A single flame ignited, leaping and swaying beneath a fresh collection of wood shavings, dry pine needles, and small twigs from the tinderbox. A bewildering joy and panic entered him as he crouched there; the dancing flames formed a steady counterpoint to the beating of his heart.

“Is something amiss?”

Lost in his reverie, he did not answer.

“My lord. Won’t you favor us with a song?” She stood next to him, gently passing her hand over the harp’s smooth wooden frame, awaiting his response.

Trying to still his jumping nerves, Ciaran reached for the harp and ran his fingers over the strings. “It’s hopelessly out of tune. Would you still like to hear a verse or two?”

“If it pleases you.” Evaine settled herself beside him as he made ready.

With a slight toss of his head, Ciaran launched into a curious, plaintive self-duet. He plucked the strings, unraveling a tangled skein of notes and rhythms. The harp thrummed with a softly metallic twang, while his voice soared off on a note at odds with the tempo of the strings, the two patterns twisting about one another as if locked in combat.

His compatriots moved closer, drawn to the music as if to a spell. The servants followed, forming a small circle around him.

He sang a strange, sad tale of a boy stolen away from his mother and imprisoned at the beginning of the world.

                            For Modron’s son they call me

                           And Mabon is my name.

                           Who finds me shall have blessing,

                           Who frees me shall have fame.

The rhythm and harmony came together and resolved abruptly on a quivering, mournful note that pulsed in the silence.

All sat motionless, reminding themselves to breathe. “Well done, my lord,” Evaine said at last. “You have an exceptional gift.”

“Sleight of hand,” said Ciaran, flushing a little. “A trick our harper taught me.”

Evaine smiled. “He must be quite the wizard, then. I tried to school myself years ago but gave up after months of frustration.” She rolled her eyes. “I couldn’t even pick out the melody to a child’s nursery rhyme.”

“Perhaps I might teach you,” Ciaran suggested. Surprised and a little embarrassed at such an incongruous notion, he added, “That is, if it would interest you.”

Evaine smiled and a note of wistfulness came into her voice. “My father used to play for us when we were small. I loved to hear him tell the old tales of Culhwch and Olwen, of Gwydion, Myrddin, and King Arthur and his knights. But my favorite was the romance of Tristan and Iseult.”

“I always liked that one, too,” Ciaran confessed, peering diffidently at his companions through lowered lids.

The Bruce scoffed, a trace of mockery in his ruddy brows. Dafydd’s smirk mimicked the Highlander’s expression.

Ciaran ignored them, returning his attention to her.

“I’ve often wished I could learn to play the harp. I tried to school myself years ago but gave up after months of frustration.” She rolled her eyes. “I couldn’t even pick out the melody to a child’s nursery rhyme.”

“Perhaps I might teach you,” Ciaran suggested. Surprised and a little embarrassed at such an incongruous notion, he added, “That is, if it would interest you.”

“Perhaps you might,” she said. She sighed as if willing herself to think. “A night of music is such a rare diversion, I wish it could go on. One grows weary of hymns after a time. But the hour has grown late, and we’ve much to do tomorrow.” She stood, settling her skirts. “I hope, sir, you and your fellows will be comfortable here in the hall.” Before taking her leave, she instructed her maids to lay out pallets for her guests and damp down the fire.

Her smile was fleeting, but it flamed him to his core. He looked on in silence as she left him, mounting the wooden stair to her chamber.

Chapter Two

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.