BEYOND THE WALLS OF NARBERTH, the air tingled with nascent life, elusive, yet potent, throbbing with the rhythms of earth, wind, and sky. Opaque clouds swirled and eddied in a constantly shifting procession, occasionally dispersing to reveal startling patches of blue. Over every mountainside, white ewes grazed while frolicking lambs romped boisterously through the clover and screeching rooks tumbled and quarreled overhead. Every tree, burrow, and copse teemed with creatures waking to the promise of Spring.
Free of the castle’s gloom and damp, the fledgling prince urged his filly through the postern and raced onto the rock-strewn ridge, leaving his bodyguards flat-footed at the gate. In movement he was joyous, riding fast over treeless, grassy escarpments and rocky cliffs. A brisk gallop, that was worth living for, upon his wind-swift mare.
Distant peaks blazed with May fires: beacons kindled by the hill-folk to drive away witches. Ciaran slowed to a canter, a curious thrill penetrated him. He stroked Rhiannon’s slick, damp hide and waited.
Longbows slapping their backs, his companions bounded up, drawing rein behind him. “My lord, you put us to shame,” panted Dafydd. The great, florid Highlander, who referred to himself only as ‘the Bruce’, bridled his mount alongside them, his red-bearded face flushed with exertion. “Aye,” he growled. “A race we’ll give ye if that’s what ye want, but we demand a fair start. That faerie horse o’ yours could outstrip the wind.”
Ciaran turned in his saddle, eyes merry with mischief. “Save your fire, my friends. Today we ride for Bri Leith, to fetch a dowry and a bride.” 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. Heedless of danger and ignoring the persistent warnings of his elders, he defiantly refused even the lightest chain mail. His lone defense against assault other than his personal escort was the knife-edged, one-handed sword belted at his hip. Conspicuous even from a distance, his fine, pale hair easily set him apart from the usual rogues, exiles, and outlaws roaming the countryside, to say nothing of Rhiannon’s renowned snowy hide and lustrous white mane. The prince’s heedlessness forced extra vigilance upon his two champions.
“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. Clearly, there would be no profit in the day’s journey, no raiding over the border, no burning of rick or barn.
“She’s fresh from the cloisters,” Dafydd reported. Always abreast of the latest gossip, he relished exposing details and relating anecdotes covering every station in life from the lowest-born to the lordliest of the ruling classes. “Fair as a flower, they claim, hidden away these years to safeguard her purity. In truth, she’s but chattel: a necessary part of the movables. God pity her, she’s Norman property now.”
Ahead of them, the rough slope plunged into thick, impenetrable 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.”
Fear blanched Dafydd’s young face; he tried to disguise it, but could not mask the reflexive tremor that rippled through his limbs, a condition The Bruce dubbed “going twitchy.” The ever watchful Scotsman fingered the blade of his dagger and secretly wished he had a pinch of salt for protection. “Might there be danger, my lord?”
“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. Rhiannon’s hooves sped over rock and root, skirted twisting thorn and clumps of bracken. In the gathering dusk, 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 the darkening sky and suffused the air with a moist, nearly 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 the Greenwood, the riders caught a glimpse of the bailey. The stone piers and wrought-iron railings appeared stout enough as did the heavily studded door of the gatehouse. A lord’s dwelling, to be sure, though clearly not one of the greater houses of the aristocracy. Hoping for a hot meal and a fire to warm their feet, the three men guided their horses down the slope.
The solitary farmhouse, snug and simple in the old tradition, nestled into a hollow surrounded by fields and guarded by cheerful, barking hounds. Not far from the house stood a water-mill and an old chapel, and beyond, a meadow swaying with tall grasses and delicate, blooming wildflowers. Inside the gate, a groom stabled their horses and led the men to a small courtyard ringed with budding rose bushes. 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 with some annoyance. “The roads are bad enough.”
“Won’t you join us in Hall, sirs?” a maid’s voice called. “Our supper is laid out. We’ll put up a trestle for you and rekindle the braziers.”
The three men shook out their mantles and handed their weapons to the guard, following the serving-maid past the buttery. The smell of freshly-baked loaves from the oven and the pungency of herbs and spices wafting from the kitchen struck them as they entered, putting them sorely in mind of their empty stomachs.
Ciaran proceeded at once to the massive fireplace that dominated the far end of the room. A hound fawned over 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 home-spun cloth and embroidery linens. Bits of colored thread lay matted in the rushes; yarns in a range of hues and thicknesses stuffed an over-sized 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 uneasily, a stranger to so many ladies’ things.
The secret glances of the maidservants did not escape his notice. Did his uncommon height disturb them? Or was it the unnatural pallor of his skin, the prism-like reflections in his eyes? In all likelihood, they had 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 greatly exaggerated, were not entirely untrue. Yet even the most scandalous lies spread and retold by many tongues tended to emphasize the world’s perception of him as “Other.”
A chambermaid hovered nearby, wary of approaching him. She managed a curtsy, murmured a greeting, and offered to take his wet mantle. Ciaran unfastened the clasp and slipped off his hood. 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.
“Who comes calling tonight?” came a voice, light and lyrical, with the slightest hint of an Anglo-Norman accent. The damsel descended the short wooden staircase from her second-floor apartment, dark curls spilling from a linen coif, cheeks rosy in the flickering firelight. How fetching, Ciaran noted with frank surprise. A lamp flared, sending a fountain of sparks over the herb-strewn floor. Hastily, he snuffed them out with the toe of his boot and fixed his eyes upon the sputtering wax as if to subdue it by the sheer force of his will.
The lady welcomed her guests, making a cursory visual assessment of each of them before deciding which of the three was the leader. Modest clothing aside, Ciaran’s height, bearing, and colorless, almost delicate complexion instantly captured her attention. She appeared to catch her breath and for a moment stood searching his face as if trying to recall an earlier meeting. “You come unexpectedly,” she said in a far-off voice, her thoughts elsewhere. Quickly recalling her manners, Evaine gestured toward the freshly prepared trestles. “Do forgive me, sirs. 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; it bloomed in him, sudden and sweet, and for the space of several breaths he stood mute, staring like the simplest of fools.
Her head only just reached his shoulder; perhaps his chin if he lowered it an inch or two but even then she might well need to stand on the tips of her toes to stretch that high. The charwomen tried to conceal their laughter by pretending to cough into their sleeves; even Evaine could not hold back a titter of amusement. At last remembering to breathe, Ciaran inclined his head and, feeling immensely awkward, managed a courteous smile as he introduced himself. “I am Ciaran ap Morgan,” he announced quietly, “of Castell y Arberth.”
Her eyes flicked over him as if seeing him for the first time. “The Prince of Narberth. Why, of course, my lord, you must think me terribly 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. I regret arriving at an ill time. My uncle has sent me to escort you and your retinue to Narberth.”
“So soon?” She let out a small, unthinking sigh. “Forgive me, it is not long since my father died and I only recently returned from the convent – ” She blushed again. “My lord, I did not anticipate the prince himself – “
“No,” he concurred. “A minor mishap forced a change of plans.” She did not inquire further. She kept her eyes averted; her hands, slender and sylphlike, still rested in his. “We received news of your father’s death,” he conveyed softly. “My sorrow for it.”
“You’re very kind, sir. I thank you.” She withdrew her hands.
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. “Allow me to attend you.” A maid brought a tray of mixed grains, a jar of honey, a jug of wine. Evaine filled his cup and waited for him to help himself before speaking further. “We’re quite informal at Bri Leith,” she explained. “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 presence 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 calmly. 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, Gwilym?”
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 tankard. “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.”
“It was his fault. He thought he could beat me. I proved him wrong.”
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 and studied him for a moment.
As he watched her looking at him he forgot everything. Time ceased to flow as usual; the moment hung suspended as if moving in reverse. Peering deeper, he deduced the timbre of her thoughts, her cool appraisal. Swift and strong perhaps, but surely no match for her Norman-bred brother. Undeceived by his princely arrogance, she sensed the wildness in him as if he had come not from the court of a great chieftain, but from some spirit-haunted Cromlech. And, he observed, in spite of her poise, her heart beat measure for measure with his own.
“I’ve offended you,” said Ciaran, instantly contrite. “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, you speak the truth. That brother of yours is more deadly than he pretends. It seems we have a thing or two in common.”
“Indeed.” Evaine turned away, scalded by his look. She glanced at her father’s harp. “Do you play?”
“My uncle’s house employs one of Cambria’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 fingertips 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 motioned to her housemaids to clear away 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 have a demon in the house tonight!” exclaimed Evaine, clutching at her composure.
Relieved at the disturbance, Ciaran set the harp aside and knelt before the fireplace, fanning wayward smoke back up the chimney and feeding the coals with bits of char cloth. A single flame ignited and began to leap and sway beneath a fresh collection of wood shavings, dry pine needles and small twigs from the tinderbox. For a moment he sat watching the flickering light, savoring its warmth. A bewildering joy and panic entered him as he crouched there; the dancing flames presented a steady counterpoint to the beating of his heart.
“Is something amiss?”
Lost in his private reverie, he did not answer.
Evaine moved nearer. “My lord. Won’t you favor us with a song?” She stood next to him, awaiting his response.
Trying to still his jumping nerves, Ciaran reached for the harp and ran his fingers lightly over the strings. “It’s hopelessly out of tune. Would you still like hear a verse or two?”
“If it pleases you.” Evaine settled herself beside him as he made ready. Unsettled by her nearness, he nonetheless began to pluck the strings, unraveling a tangled skein of notes and rhythms. His compatriots moved closer, drawn to the music as if to a spell; the housemaids followed, forming a small circle around him. Ciaran leaned into the melody, eyes closed. He sang a curious, 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
He finished on a quivering, mournful note that pulsed in the silence. All sat motionless, scarcely remembering to breathe. Evaine tried to speak; she swallowed. “Well done, my lord,” she 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. Still, you do play cleverly.” She spread the fingers of both hands, turning the palms up and down before returning them to her lap. “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,” she admitted, poking fun at herself.
“Perhaps I might teach you,” said Ciaran impulsively. Surprised and a little embarrassed at suggesting such an incongruous notion, he added, “If it would interest you, of course.”
“Perhaps you might,” she said. She sighed as if willing herself to think. “A night of music is such a rare diversion these days – one grows weary of hymns after a time. I do wish it could go on. But the hour has grown late, and we’ve much to do tomorrow. Lowri, prepare pallets for our guests and put another log on the fire.” Tentatively, she touched Ciaran’s sleeve. ” I hope, sir, you and your fellows will be comfortable here in the hall.” She stood, settling her skirts. Her smile was fleeting, but it flamed him to his core. He looked on in silence as she left him, mounting the stair to her private chamber.
Ciaran covered his sleeve where the warmth of her touch lingered. It was a damned good thing ap Gryffin wasn’t here to see this; he’d be laughing in his imagined beard. The pallet provided was ample enough. There was a bolster for his head and a warm woolen blanket, and he’d been granted an unexpected luxury: he could stretch out beside the chimney. Despite these comforts, however, sleep would not come. He listened to the logs crackling on the grate, the drumming rain outside the wall. And lay there stiff as a post for all he could do.
Wrapped in their mantles, neither of his companions stirred. The Bruce sprawled in an alcove, snoring like a buzzing hornet. Beneath a tangle of hair and a crumple of cloak, Dafydd curled, quiet as a child. Ciaran tossed onto his back, flinging the blanket away with a sweep of his arm. A mounting apprehension swelled in him, a familiar restlessness. It was always the same: the throbbing in his head, the ringing in his ears, the urge to leap into motion. His heart quickened as he fought to count breaths. He compelled himself to focus on the timbered ceiling. Always the same: the power waking, his will weakening.
He sat up, huddled nearer the embers. They glowed blood-red. The base of his spine burned with fire, the radiant light within him blazed in a primordial rhythm. Outside, shadows beckoned. He longed for the cliffs and the moors and the howl of wolves. Had he been at Narberth, he could have fled the steep battlements, could have run, run into the wild sanctuary of the misty forests. Here he could make no escape. The light expanded, burned white hot. No longer could he contain it. In a blinding instant, it bore a vision: the girl, trapped, trembling like a frightened rabbit as spears of flame shot under her door. She screamed.
Ciaran surged upward. He was not dreaming. “Sweet God! Fire!” he roared. “Everyone! Get up! Get out!” He vaulted up the scorched staircase and plunged headlong into the flames, lashing at them, driving them back. The lady slumped in a silken heap a mere arm’s length from him; he reached for her through a solid sheet of fire. Heat and smoke assailed him, forced him choking and cursing from the room. Ciaran drove into it again, hurled himself into the heart of the blaze. It enfolded him. Like an ancient dance, its rhythm sang in his blood. Arms outstretched to embrace its raging elemental power, he stood erect, the strands of his hair whipping and crackling about his face. The world exploded with the roar of fire, or was it the clamor of his own pounding heart? He could not count how many moments passed. He saw only fire, heard only fire. His body gathered an immeasurable strength. Commanding himself to resolute stillness, he drew the radiant light about him like a cloak. With every ounce of his will, he summoned the blaze back to its source.
Already the room had begun to cool. Moist air moved through an open window. His fear returning, Ciaran uttered a frantic prayer and fell at Evaine’s feet. He lifted her limp shoulders, smoothing the white linen of her robe. Her small face shone pale and still, half concealed behind the dark masses of her hair. He swept her up, pressing her to his chest. She stirred in his arms, gasped, choked, stared out of wide, frightened eyes. Gripping her cold hand, Ciaran’s lips brushed her forehead. “I’ll not harm you,” he whispered. Gingerly, he carried her through the blackened doorway, embers still glowing on the timbered floor.
They sat shivering on the storm-drenched flagstones of the courtyard, listening in dull shock to the shouts of the servants. Evaine stared mutely into his soot-blackened face. His eyes, red-rimmed and watering, shone like fire opals. Yet for all his strangeness, she did not shrink from him.
Remnants of his charred tunic clung to his shoulders; it crumbled away at her touch.
“You’re shaking.” She took his hands, the long fingers closed around hers.
His eyes widened, he drew a breath. “I know who you are,” he said as if suddenly roused from a long, spell-induced sleep.
She stared at him in wonder and terror. A flame-red aura surrounded his head, bathing his face in light. Yet she could not take her eyes from him.
“Who?” she implored. “Who am I?”
Ciaran released her hands; his trembling fingertips brushed her lips. “My dark lady,” he said. And then, so faintly she had to strain to hear, he murmured, “my soul.”