The Flamebearer Chapter Sixteen

The Antagonist
The Antagonist

 

FLAUNTING THEIR STANDARDS, the men of Narberth cantered on to the field, red banners snapping in the wind. The gleam of shields and armor drew all eyes; stillness fell over the loges. From around the lists came the sounds of scattered shouts and buffetings. Ciaran made a sweeping turn for pride of Rhiannon; then rode forward and dipped his lance before the lord’s gallery.

He raised his eyes, scanning wary, dangerous faces. Bare-headed, hands close to their swords, most of the men were unknown to him. Ciaran felt their eyes passing over him, heard their low murmurings, the whispered oaths. He gave them a swift, careful smile and looked to the lord of Caer Blaen.

The lord’s aging face looked hard and stern under white hair, but his eyes were dark and steady, and they beheld the Cambrian band with cool appraisal.

Ciaran’s French was clumsy. “Tidings, votre seigneurie, du château Narberth.”

The old man sat forward slightly, smoothing his beard. Then he stopped as if he dared not peer any closer. “Might you be the same young ruffians,” he asked, “whose blood is so hot for quarrel you make yourselves a nuisance moving boundary stones and obstructing bridges?”

A smile played upon Ciaran’s lips, but he did not hasten to speak.

“We were a long time at that bridge,” said Robyn, his voice low. “Yet we met none bold enough to stand against us.” A burst of roguish laughter erupted from the cohort.

From the barriers arose a commotion. A large, fair-haired nobleman emerged with his helmet tucked under his arm and a host of squires trailing behind. Ciaran knew him straightaway. Broad-shouldered, erect, the bearded face suffused with a ruddy glow, he strode past lords and officials with the smooth glide of a cat, his manner at once strong, dignified, determined.

Spying the newcomers, Lionel de Barre halted, looking about him impatiently. There was a quivering intensity in his gaze as he surveyed the new faces. He came up the step to the loge and quickly bowed to his father, whispering something at which the lord’s face grew grim. The baron excused himself and, followed by several attendants, left the stands immediately.

Lionel’s eyes flicked over Ciaran, then returned, as if seeing him for the first time. Ciaran remained silent, allowing time for the moment to penetrate. An unwelcome warmth filled him; he felt smothered beneath the heavy links of mail.

“You must forgive my late appearance,” said Lionel in a deep voice both genial and commanding. “The day’s sport has detained me.” Without taking his eyes from Ciaran, he continued in an even tone. “Have you come to see the jousts? Or will you stay and ride in the tourney?”

Ciaran raised his chin a degree. “We would ride, sir. My fellows are keen to pledge their spears.”

“So I see,” said Lionel, glancing briefly over Ciaran’s shoulder at the restless youths. He smiled negligently, then raised his voice to address them. “Sirs, if you would measure yourselves against the knights of Caer Blaen, I hope you come well-equipped.”

There arose an angry clanking of weapons; Ciaran held up his hand to stay them.

Lionel lifted a brow. “Prickly, this pack of hooligans.” He returned his gaze to Ciaran, his smile fading. “And you, sir?”

“I would gladly touch steel with you, my lord.”

“Would you, indeed?” The blue eyes rested momentarily on Ciaran’s face, then moved slowly over him, marking his height, his bearing, the cut of his cloak. A fathomless silence seemed to fall around them, as if there were no others present. Lionel made no pretense of trying to hide his admiration. “God’s pardon, sir, your name – ”

“I have given my name to your marshals and your baron, my lord, but since you so courteously ask, I am Ciaran ap Morgan of Castle Narberth.”

A moment’s silence, no more than a heartbeat, then: “Ah, the mysterious heir,” said Lionel. “I should have known. That face – ” The voice was soft, almost a purr. “So,” he said, “we meet.”

Ciaran inclined his head a fraction.

“You’re young,” said Lionel, “yet your spurs are not new.”

“They belonged to my father.” A strained murmur rippled through the gathered attendants. They all stared now, at him, at Lionel.

“I am well acquainted with the tales. Your father is legend in Dyfed – despite his unfortunate end.”

Ciaran’s throat tightened. He spoke softly. “There are some who believe him still alive,” he said. He glanced briefly at the nobleman’s bodyguard, eyes glinting, enjoying their unease. “They say he sleeps in a cave in the wild west country.”

“They also say he took a witch as his bride and killed her because she was unfaithful.”

“The legends are many,” said Ciaran, rage trembling in him despite his outward calm. “Yet most are inventions of idle minds.” He ignored the stares of the others, aware only of Lionel’s rapt gaze.

Lionel looked away suddenly, the lordly face at once insolent and a little unsettled. Then, abruptly: “My own bride awaits me at Narberth – or so they tell me. What news of her?” Another ripple of disquiet ran across the faces of Lionel’s attendants, though none of them spoke.

“She is here,” said Ciaran. He steadied Rhiannon, looking with schooled indifference into Lionel’s face.

“What, here? At Caer Blaen? Now? Why was I not told of this?”

“You were told, my lord,” a man behind him whispered. “The heralds arrived yesterday.”

Lionel dismissed him roughly. He glanced up at the castle walls. In the dying light, Ciaran saw in his eyes a look of weariness, and heard the faint sound of a sigh.

“So,” said Lionel, turning again to Ciaran. “You bring me my bride. Tell me, then: is she in good health?”

“She is well, my lord.”

“And is she as young and fair as they say?”

Ciaran’s jaw tightened. He had felt so sure of his nerve; suddenly, he felt fragile, open to plunder. He said without flinching, “She is much favored by Venus.”

“Ah,” Lionel mused, lightly fingering his beard. “A maiden all untried. And petite, I am told, though broad enough where it matters.” A titter of ribald appreciation arose from the men around him.

This provoked Ciaran’s ire; he felt his face burn; his scalp prickled.

Lionel smiled, momentarily satisfied. “And so the time has come,” he said. “Caer Blaen has long lacked its châtelaine. The union will placate the priests; the dowry, though not significant, will suffice.” He paused, briefly scanning the faces of Ciaran’s retinue. “It is fitting on such an occasion we should gather in the spirit of friendship. Welcome sirs. I trust you’ll be housed and looked after as you deserve. And now, if you will excuse
me, I must prepare to receive my bride.”

Ciaran waited, scarcely aware of the dispersing crowd, wrathful and helpless in the fading light. Deep in purple, the sky grew heavy with smoke and dust and the smell of roasting meats. Bonfires roared up on hills and knolls. Robyn and the other men went at once to the stables and then to the river banks to pitch the tents.

Long after the field cleared and the men had retired to their lodgings, Ciaran lingered, gazing at the looming shape of the castle. Then, as if pursued, he hurried away, spirit straining toward fire and darkness.

Robyn found him on a lofty hill overlooking the encampments, his eyes red, glaring into flames. He sat crouched, heedless, his weapons heaped beside him, all exultation vanquished.

“You’re not thinking of running off again?” Robyn chanced, glancing back at the dim shapes of the pavilions.

Ciaran did not answer. Remote sounds drifted up: notes from a gittern, the bay of a hound. “They expect us in Hall,” said Robyn, inching closer. “The messenger just came down; I spoke with him myself. Sir Lionel invites us to meat; he’s even offering one of his own chambers for your comfort.”

Ciaran stared past Robyn as if not seeing him. His face looked strangely gaunt in the firelight.

“I think he fancies you,” said Robyn with faint disgust.

Ciaran frowned. He wasn’t really listening, his thoughts distant, stirred by inner violence. “He’ll not have her,” he said at last. “By my oath, I swear it.”

Robyn spat into the fire. “You’ll do naught to antagonize him if you know what’s good for you,” he said. “And for Narberth.”

Ciaran nodded absently, his pupils oddly contracted in the firelight.

“God’s balls,” grumbled Robyn.

With a swift, sudden movement, Ciaran flung himself erect, reaching for his weapons. “I’ll not stand by and watch while all I love is slowly drained away. I’ll fight, by God. And I’ll win.” He stood, buckling his sword belt. Sweeping back his hair, he lifted his face toward the battlements. “I’ll win her back,” he said. “I can do nothing else.”

Chapter Seventeen