The Flamebearer Chapter Seven

CIARAN SAT GAZING into the dying embers of the day’s fire, absorbed in his dreams. He was alone in the towering darkness of the great hall; alone but for the slumbering shapes of men, wrapped in dreams of their own. The muted strains of a harp drifted in from the solar; a flagon of claret sat at his feet. He reached for it, held it to his lips and drank deeply.

He could have summoned her back. Might have, perhaps, but that every eye in the hall had been upon them. Even now, if he willed it, he could compel her into his arms. He felt her as keenly as if he could touch her. Her soft, naked limbs curled against her body like the petals of a flower; how fragile she was in sleep. Dear God, she was real. He hadn’t imagined her. There was an elusive sweetness about her that seemed to mask an immeasurable strength, deep as the earth of which she was a part. And her soul bore a profound sadness that mirrored his own. She had become for him a mysterious torment; igniting in him both hope and despair.

Driven by a maddening desire, he collected his thoughts and began to shape them into a focused vision, like a memory: the moonlight, the garden, the white flowers in her hair. More than a thought or a wish, it became an incantation, a charm, a spell. We will meet.

He moved closer to the hearth, reaching out as if to stroke the smoldering embers. A dark pleasure kindled in him; he spread his hands and began to coax from the ashes a spark, inciting the inevitable flame. Like the sinuous movement of a serpent, white heat swelled within him, consuming all but the single, relentless need: to blaze, to burn, to extinguish any last trace of his will.

Fleetingly he felt the softness of Evaine’s caress as if she reached for him from the depths of her slumber. She remained still but for the shallow rise and fall of her breasts; he could almost hear the sound of her breathing. Like a spirit haunting a moonlit grove, he wove himself into her innermost being, drew her close and held her, moving in a soundless, Otherworldly dance to the rhythms of the fire.

The sounds of someone approaching intruded upon his reverie. He released her at once, shuddering, ashamed. The fire blazed quietly on the grate. He watched it, suddenly cold, emptied of all sensation. The flames blurred and for a moment his eyes saw nothing but blackness. Ciaran rose in confusion, lurching away from the hearth, away from the searing heart of his power.

“There you are. Drunk as a lord, too. I’ve hunted high and low for you.”

Ciaran peered into the shadows. “Robyn? Robyn! Where the Devil have you been?” He draped a long arm over his friend’s shoulder. “By my sword, it’s like Hell’s kitchen in here tonight. My head is splitting.”

“Aye?” Robyn tossed him a shrewd glance. “One too many jugs of hippocras, I’ll wager.” He bolstered Ciaran as they stumbled through the dimly lit passage to the courtyard. “Or have you been dipping into the mead? You know you can’t drink that Saxon poison,” he chortled. “It turns you into a cloven-footed bard.”

A guardsman stopped them; eyeing the young prince in the torchlight he nodded and let them pass. Robyn steered Ciaran toward the tower. Freeing himself from his warder’s grasp, Ciaran hauled himself up the stairs to the walk, Robyn trailing behind.

“Saxon poison,” Robyn repeated, shaking his head. Squatting on the flagstones, he loosened a wine-skin from his belt and took several long swallows before offering it to Ciaran. Bleary-eyed, Ciaran thrust out an unsteady hand. “On second thought,” Robyn reconsidered, “the last thing you need is more wine.” Deftly avoiding Ciaran’s attempts to swipe it from him, Robyn secreted the wine-skin under his hem. “Come, old man. You’re all out of measure mournful. What ails you?”

Ciaran sighed gloomily. “Anything you can name.”

Robyn leaned against the parapet, mail grinding against stone. “Breathe some night air, friend. Cool off. Things will have a brighter sheen tomorrow.”

“Not bloody likely,” Ciaran lamented. “No matter where I aim, I manage to miss the mark by a Roman mile.”

Robyn snorted. “Now you’re wallowing.” He asked himself what happened to beget such a black mood.

“You heard Tomas,” said Ciaran. “He calls me his “edling”, his heir, yet he has no faith in me. I’m still his brother’s half-breed bastard, an orphan nurtured of his charity.”

“He’s mortal, Cei. He lacks your fervor. Give him time; he knows he can’t keep you chained to Narberth forever.”

“No? I sometimes feel I’ve waited all my life for something – anything – to happen. I should have attained my majority years ago. Everyone knows it. Tomas fears for his own neck, that’s why he obstructs me. If I were to seek some better service, perhaps in the North, where rebellion runs in the blood…”

“Ach-a-fi!” Robyn snorted. “Fratricide’s what you’ll find in the North. Greedy assassins, the lot of them, with brains for naught but murder and mayhem. They’ll slit your throat as good as look at you. Tomas may be blind to some things, Cei, but in all, I’ll venture he aims to uphold you.”

Ciaran emitted another weary sigh and heaved himself from the cold stones. He slumped against the parapet, staring into the dark. He was quiet for such a long time, Robyn wondered if he dreamed, with that curious beguilement that came over him. He suspected there was more to the prince’s melancholy than his foiled honor – so plainly did he wear the complexion of love’s grief – but wisdom stayed Robyn’s tongue.

“Your discretion’s admirable,” Ciaran said, taking note of Robyn’s silence. “There’s no sense trying to shield you from the sickness that plagues me. You’d have puzzled it out on your own soon enough. A sorrow’s taken hold of me, Robyn – a curse in the shape of a woman.”

Robyn groaned. “God preserve us,” he said, his head sinking into his hands. “Pray, who is it this time?”

“An ill choice for my affections, I’ll admit, but what is love if not an affront to reason?”

“Right enough,” Robyn granted. “I’ll take bachelorhood over romance any day.”

“Spoken like a true libertine. The hell of it is she’s pledged to that leech, de Barre.”

“Gwilym’s sister! Leave it, old man, you’re delusional.”

“It’s no delusion. I love her.”

Robyn fixed him with a wary eye. “Is she of the same persuasion?”

Ciaran frowned as if misunderstanding the question. “She hasn’t spoken it, but I know her heart. I knew it the moment I set eyes on her.”

“Careful now,” warned Robyn, “best not make full show of this. Let it remain a courtly game and pursue your little amours elsewhere.”

Sudden anger lit the violet-tinted eyes. “Would to God it were that simple!” Ciaran shook his head, the fire at once turning to pity. “How little you know of love, my friend.”

Robyn shrugged. “Life’s not such a tangle as I see it. Dicing, drinking, whoring – why complicate things?”

Enshrouded in his own private anguish, Ciaran stared desolately into the dark. “By my faith,” he murmured, “I’ll find a way to cross this marriage.”

Robyn could not let the assertion stand without comment. He leaped to his feet, advancing on Ciaran. “Damn you, think!” he exhorted, keeping his voice low. “There’s more at stake here than thwarting Gwilym’s plans. You’ll have Tomas roaring like a bear, and if you’re not mindful, you’ll have the pack of marcher lords at our throats.”

Ciaran nodded but said nothing.

Robyn eyed him suspiciously. “The deuces!” he said. “You’ve not despoiled the girl -”

“God’s passion! What do you take me for?” The fire returned to Ciaran’s eyes; he took to fretful pacing.

“Ballocks!” Robyn swore. “For all your appeal, look you, you’re a hopeless judge of character. Especially in women. They all sigh after you; it doesn’t mean they’ve lost their heads. Don’t deceive yourself – she may be unworldly, but I’d lay money on it she’s no simpleton. Nor is Lionel de Barre. He’s powerful and rich and crafty as a fox. Not exactly a poor alliance; surely not someone you’d want to cuckold.”

Ciaran halted.

Robyn braced himself for one of Ciaran’s lightning blows. It never came. Instead, the young lord simply stood, his eyes glistening. Roughly, he pushed Robyn aside, and with two long strides, he was gone.

Chapter Eight

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