CIARAN DRESSED HASTILY, and peering into a shield, paused to admire his image. In studded black leather and fur-trimmed crimson mantle, a glittering dagger belted at his hip, he looked splendid, and he intended to flaunt it.
Armed guards defended the entrance to the Great Hall; Ciaran brushed past them, refusing to be searched. A low murmur rippled among the guests. A hound growled menacingly; Ciaran subdued it with a look. He entered the crowded chamber with his accustomed stride, discreetly surveying the boards for his men. His eyes swept the high table. The old man, cloaked in furs, peered over a jeweled goblet, torchlight glistening on his white head. A black-robed cleric stooped to whisper something in his ear. Beside him, a beardless, flaxen-haired youth with sullen eyes halted in mid-bite to stare. Ciaran met the boy’s hard glare with one of his own. Gwilym sat at the far end of the dais, dark and solemn, a cup to his lips. Lionel, richly robed in deep blue, light armor only half-concealed beneath his cloak, turned from the table to share a jest with one of his attendants. At the shout of the watchmen, his glance flew to Ciaran, his expression quickly sobering.
Sweeping back his mantle, Ciaran bent before his hosts, flagrant mockery in the bowed head, the crooked knee. His appearance startled, brought heads about. He looked up, aware of the covert glances, the hushed tones, the sudden riveting attention. The lords of Caer Blaen were quiet, perhaps a little bemused. Ciaran tossed them a quick, petulant smile. Oh, he was enjoying this; to wield such power without even trying.
“My lord of Narberth,” said Lionel, returning to himself. “We bid you a hearty welcome to our hall. You will join us, of course.”
“Most willingly,” replied Ciaran. With another swift smile, he strode forward.
Robyn shadowed him, hand on dagger. No one stopped him. He stood behind Ciaran, making himself invisible, and covertly surveyed the dimly lit chamber. An austere place, he thought, with its smoke-blackened walls and faded hangings. Sentries hovered everywhere, beneath arches, poised in doorways. No kindly place, this, but a garrisoned fortress; no comfort for a young bride. He recognized some of the knights, if not by their faces, by the badges they wore. Norman, most of them, or Saxon; here and there, a wary group of Cambrians sat, watched by pikemen, but managing for all that to enjoy their ale.
Chatter slowly resumed; servants came in with replenishment of food and drink; from an overhead gallery, minstrels plucked and sang. Lionel offered Ciaran a place beside him and called for more wine. Already the baron dozed in his high seat, flanked by his clerk and several doting pages.
Ciaran followed the round of introductions, greeted Gwilym with detached courtesy, and glanced curiously about. “Your noble brother is not present, my lord. Did the day’s battle prove too strenuous for him?”
A flush ran up the bearded cheeks; then, to Ciaran’s surprise, Lionel chuckled. “Gerard’s nursing a broken foot. Nothing too critical, by God’s grace, though it’ll keep him out of the running for the rest of the tourney. A spur caught in a saddle girth, and the blessed fool was dragged half round the field yelping like a stricken pup before his squire could cut him free.”
As he talked, Ciaran took in his rival: a tall man, broad-shouldered, straight-backed. Strong, well-developed arms; large, firm, flexible hands, well acquainted with axe and sword. His hair under the torches looked more russet than gold; it was thick and glossy, worn in a careless style that stood out fully around the arrogant, long-nosed face. The vivid blue eyes hinted at irony and biting humor, and when he spread his wide, pale mouth in a smile, he revealed a great many teeth. Ciaran disliked him intensely. The feature that riveted Ciaran’s attention, however, and galled him most, was the lurid gash etched into Lionel’s right cheek, a ripened scar likely earned in battle, marking him for life as a veteran of war. It represented a badge of honor fiercely coveted by Narberth’s unseasoned princeling.
“My lady does not join us this evening,” Ciaran observed, making every effort to moderate his tone. An image of Evaine bloomed clearly in his mind: cool, sweet, fragrant as a flower. The thought of her lying love-locked with this vile, ruddy catamount made him twitch; he immediately shook off the thought.
“She dines in her chambers,” Lionel disclosed, “with the other women. Tonight the hall is reserved for lords, mummers, and harlots.” At this, a raucous thumping and hooting arose; a naked nymph was carried out on a litter, wine flowing over breasts and belly. Torches flared in their sockets, in darkened corners amorous couples entwined. “The lady is weary from her journey; tomorrow, after the nuptials, there will be time in plenty to show her off before the court.”
Ciaran’s heart nearly stopped. “Tomorrow!” he exclaimed, choking on his Bordeaux . “God’s blood! I – ” Robyn held him gently but firmly in his seat. Gwylim glared; Lionel lowered his brows, frowning in mild confusion.
Heat flooded Ciaran’s brain. “I – I did not think it would be so soon,” he stammered, trying to form a coherent thought. “I hoped, that is, with Midsummer’s Eve still days away – ”
Lionel gestured toward the knights, who grew bold in their dicing and drinking and fondling. “The combatants are impatient. We’ve forestalled them long enough with games and jousting; now they lust after more serious entertainment.”
“And you?” Ciaran heard himself say. Gwylim shook his head anxiously, eyes darkly cautioning.
Lionel smiled in some confusion; after a moment, he laughed. “Let’s just say I’m willing, if not eager. I’ve long viewed marriage with suspicion.” He leaned forward, elbows resting against the table’s edge, meat knife in hand. “My claim is genuine, and not without benefit to the girl, provided she’s dutiful. Her looks are pleasing enough – straight teeth, a dainty, witching mouth -” He smiled appreciatively and swallowed more wine. “A bit narrow of girdle, perhaps, but I’m in no haste to sire a brood of lawless Cambrian sons. I’ve rivals enough.”
Ciaran went rigid. Robyn’s hands on his shoulders gripped like vises. Gwilym glared in silent warning. Ciaran’s voice thickened. “You insult the lady. It is not wise.”
“I meant no affront,” said Lionel, blotting his lips on his sleeve. “Do you threaten me?”
“I challenge you, sir.”
Lionel gave a short laugh. “To what? Mortal combat?”
Gwilym choked; Robyn bore down upon him with the full force of his weight. “A joust. Real weapons or blunted. You choose.”
“So,” said Lionel, with deceptive laziness, “you wish to get yourself killed. It would be a pity; beauty such as yours is rare. A credit to your elusive mother, no doubt.” He regarded Ciaran with frank pleasure. There was something sensual about it, the way he sipped his drink, letting his eyes wander. “So young,” he said with a faint sigh, “and fair as a maiden.” He shook his head sadly. “And far too keen to forfeit your honor for so little cause.”
“I am not what you think I am,” said Ciaran. He quivered, rage eclipsing all caution. “I am a prince and a man entire. Should you care to see me prove it, you will accept my call to arms.”
Lionel continued to study him as if looking for some flaw in an otherwise flawless face. “If I win?”
“You will not win.”
Lionel quirked a brow. “How certain you are. But Fate is fickle; she does not always do a man’s bidding. If I win?”
“You are entitled to a suitable ransom,” said Ciaran. “My horse, my armor.”
Lionel sat back, quietly considering. “I’ve seen your horse; a remarkable beast, of whom you are duly proud. It would be a pity to rob you of her. Your armor – ” He paused, evaluating Ciaran’s long, supple frame. “It might fetch a reasonable price; though shaped as you are there isn’t a man in all the king’s realm who could wear it.” He smiled, relishing some private indulgence. Suddenly, he leaned forward. “There is a prize I covet.”
Ciaran frowned. “What prize?”
Ciaran was silent. His voice when he spoke was venomously soft. “I repeat, my lord. You will not win.”
Lionel loosed a double-edged smile. “You’re a rebel and a rogue, young fellow. I’d rather have you with me than against me. Pledge me your fealty, for I’m sure to be the victor. However,” he continued, touching his beard, “if, by some devil’s stroke I am not -”
“I’ll have your betrothed.” Ciaran bit his tongue, but the words had flown from his lips before he could stop them.
Lionel roared. Gwilym leaped up; Robyn cursed; a guardsman crashed his pike against the flagstones, waking the baron. Everywhere, hands darted to belts. Ciaran and Lionel both surged to their feet.
Lionel stayed his attendants; order promptly restored. “Give me this again?” he demanded, head cocked, eyes narrowed. “You would have my bride as ransom?”
Ciaran raised himself to his full height, gaining some small satisfaction in forcing his adversary to look up into his eyes. “I would.”
Lionel bellowed in disbelief. “God’s passion! You go beyond folly!” He planted a broad hand on Ciaran’s shoulder. “More to the point, my young ram, you are too late. The ceremony is tomorrow.”
Ciaran struck the hand away. “My challenge stands. I have named the price. What is your reply?”
Blades glinting, the guard closed in. Ciaran stood motionless, breathing heavily, striving to bridle his anger.
Lionel stared at the taut, slender face, the piercing, flame-filled eyes. Silence lengthened. He drew a breath. “Very well. Let’s see if you are as fierce as you pretend. We’ll use real weapons, the better to test your mettle. We take the field at dawn.” Almost reluctantly, he tore his eyes away. “Foolish boy,” he said. I would prefer to let friendship reign between us.” He motioned to his man-at-arms. “Sheath your sword,” he said softly. “You will escort our guests to their chambers. For their protection, see they are closely guarded.” With a sigh, he added, “Another toast to tomorrow’s contest, and then, everyone, to rest.”