The Flamebearer Chapter Six

CIARAN STRODE BRISKLY across the floor of the Great Hall, leaving Gwilym speechless at the entry. Torches, stationed aloft in the thick stone walls, scattered a flickering amber light over trestles and benches.

Evaine sat beside the lady Gwenllian at the high table, her hair neatly arranged into coiled braids at the sides of her face. Ciaran loosed an inaudible sigh, delighted once again by her loveliness. Absorbed in conversation, her head tilted to better listen to her companion, she did not see him approaching. Without meaning to, he thrust a thought in her direction. She looked up, startled.

A deep, slow-burning heat spread through him as their eyes met. His lips silently formed her name as he inclined his head toward her. Her answering smile, brief and intimate, kindled fresh joy in him.

He moved to his seat and waited as the guard filed in, taking their places at the boards. The noise and jostling crowded his senses, and the way some of the men ogled Evaine, their eyes slowly passing over her, set his teeth on edge. Several moments slipped by before he realized the lord of Narberth had settled into his position at the head of the table. The bards had gathered; the priest stood ready.

With customary negligence, Tomas tossed his cloak over the arm of his chair and signaled for silence. Ciaran vaguely observed the blessing, and then the room swelled again with laughter, music, and loud talk.

Serving boys brought in mead and spiced wines and kept the trenchers heaped with roast venison, calves’ foot jelly, and meat pies. Ciaran sat listening with half a mind to the chatter, watching Evaine as she ate. Sweet, sinful thoughts, made all the more urgent by her nearness, leaped in him like dragons. Every gesture of her small, delicate hands, every soft parting of her lips sent his stomach churning. She glanced up at him; his body stiffened and burned. He was doomed; he knew it, as surely as he knew there was a just and wrathful God.

“Is it true, Tomas, this delightful young woman is to wed in a matter of weeks?” It was Hywell ap Gruffydd who spoke, smiling pleasantly over the rim of his drinking horn.

Ciaran shot a swift, dark glance at him and then at Evaine. She returned his look only for a moment, shaking her head almost imperceptibly as if to warn him against any unbefitting impulse.

“It is true,” Tomas affirmed. “She is betrothed to Lord Lionel de Barre of Caer Blaen.”

“A Norman?” Hywell frowned. “How times change,” he sighed. “We swear fealty to an English king and marry our daughters off to foreign lords.”

Tomas shifted in his chair. He spoke gently, his eyes resting on Evaine’s young face, “It is our hope,” he said, “the match will smooth our difficulties with the Marcher barons. It has been an uneasy truce and many grievances persist, but with any luck, this union will put an end to bloodshed, at least for the foreseeable future.”

Ciaran leaned forward avidly. “And the tournament, my lord? Caer Blaen has been trumpeting the challenge for over a fortnight. It would dishonor Narberth to ignore it.” A murmur of assent rippled through the great chamber; Ciaran caught the keen glances of his foster-brothers and gave them a quick, confident nod.

“A tournament is a dangerous and foolhardy business,” said Tomas. “God knows there’s trouble enough along the frontiers without making sport of war.”

“But my lord,” Ciaran persisted, “are we not required out of courtesy to make a showing at Caer Blaen?”

“When the men of Narberth ride to battle it will be for just cause,” Tomas declared with some annoyance. He shook his head. “So fond are the French of flaunting their arms and their superior resources in these futile games. But this is empty glory. It is not the way of princes.”

“God’s wounds,” Ciaran swore beneath his breath. “I can master a horse and wield a lance as bravely as any Norman knight.” His anger was tight-leashed, yet palpable. “Do you think I would disgrace you?”

There followed a moment’s pause.

“I fear no disgrace,” Tomas said, gazing levelly at his nephew. His voice crisp with displeasure, he continued, “My aim is to avoid conflict, not to stir it up. I know how eager you are to prove your mettle, but I will not have you waste yourself in useless combat.”

“What then?” Ciaran demanded with sudden venom. “Would you rather I waste myself sitting by the fire, prating of old wars? Will you keep me here, mewed up like some bondsman? Why do you bury me? Equip me with weapons; allow me my birthright and my freedom.”

“Gentle, now,” cautioned Gwenllian, reaching to lay her hand over Ciaran’s clenched fist.

He jerked his hand away. “I am no child,” he growled, “I won’t be cosseted or cajoled.” He turned once again to his uncle, his eyes fierce as flame. “You cannot bind me,” he proclaimed. “One day I will take up arms in earnest, my lord, whether with or without your consent. And then the blood will flow, and it will be the blood of my enemies and not my own.”

“Blood! Battles!” Gwenllian appealed to Tomas. She motioned to Iolo, the old bard, who had begun to pluck the harp with a solemn face. “Let us not forget the occasion. We were speaking of weddings, not war.” She gazed with sympathy at Evaine, whose face had grown small and ashen.

Looking at her, Ciaran reddened with shame. What churls she must think we are, gabbling about jousts and battles so near to the eve of her wedding. He half expected her to break into tears, but she did not. She raised her chin and in a voice at once lilting and serene she said, “I should like to hear music: all the glorious hymns of bards and princes.”

“Yes, comfort her, Iolo,” said Gwenllian.

“I would play for you, my lady,” Ciaran offered almost inaudibly, “if you would permit me. I am no master of bardcraft.”

Evaine smiled. “I can think of nothing I would like better, my lord.” At her words, a high, melodious wailing arose from the gallery overhead. Evaine’s flesh prickled; she looked up. The boucca they encountered at the gate sat perched on the railing, wisps of gold dancing around his head as from an unseen breeze, his silver flute to his lips. He appeared illusory; an elemental limed in mist and shadow.

A hush fell over the aisled hall. Even the torch-flames in their sconces seemed to dim as if the pipes of Annwn cast their glittering spell over all who watched and listened. A fountain of bright notes sparkled on the air. Evaine shivered. The music thrilled through her like wine, flamed in her and drew out her soul. She let her gaze wander to Ciaran. Watching his profile, the narrow cheeks, the straight nose and fine, pale lips, she noticed again that disturbing likeness. Splendid as a white flame, his incandescence shone like the light of a lodestar among the swimming colors of the room. Pierced by his beauty, she dared not let her eyes linger over him too long.

Someone passed Ciaran a small harp. He began to finger the strings, toying with it a little, caressing, dreaming. His rhythms intertwined with the melody from the flute, intricate, uncanny as himself. Pure artistry, it was. Pure mystery. He began to shape a pattern, random yet precise; the music rose with inhuman clarity, weaving its magic like threads on a loom.

Evaine closed her eyes, her inner voice a chaos of whispered warnings. She could have mused over him forever, but for the murmur of conscience compelling her to get away, to disentangle herself from this web of enchantment before it was too late. She willed herself to her feet and sought to find her maid waiting by the door. As she turned to follow, she became aware of the prince’s voice, strangely amplified, though he did not speak with tongue and lips, but in some other language, ancient, immortal. It is already too late, she heard him say. We are bound, one to the other, through all time. The fates that drew us together cannot be denied.

A shiver took her. She made haste to quit the chamber, afraid if she lingered another moment, he might never let her go. Her thoughts whirled like leaves in a gust of wind. At once filled with an immense loneliness, she hurried away down the empty corridor.

Chapter Seven

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