CIARAN’S PRESENCE KINDLED a flush of excitement through the Great Hall. Burning under the stares and murmurs, he entered the room with none of his usual dispatch. Simply to move seemed a bewildering strain, his limbs heavy and his senses dull as with too much wine. The thick stone walls crushed in on him; the familiar smells of sweat, wood-smoke and cooked meats turned his stomach. Instead of the welcoming warmth he had hoped for, the place sweltered with perceived danger. He yielded to a deepening sorrow.
As he approached the high table, his breath halted in his throat. There, in full ceremonial display lay the scarlet mantle of the kindred, blazoned with the crest of the Red Dragon; beside it, a shimmering coat of mail, its metal links burnished to a white sheen. And gleaming brilliantly beneath the lamps, the symbols of his status laid out for all to admire: his father’s gilt spurs and the great, white-bladed sword.
Ciaran stood unmoving, aware of the hush that had fallen. He felt queasy and almost afraid. He glanced around the festooned hall. It was a trap. For the space of several breaths, he stopped cold, and nearly bolted, his only thought to escape this snare before it imprisoned him.
“You’ll not get away so easily this time,” came a familiar voice. Robyn’s hand nudged the small of his back, gently urging him forward. Lord Tomas joined them, followed by Hywel ap Gruffydd and the lady Gwenllian. Soon the hall bustled with serving boys bringing in flagons of ale and steaming plates of roast fowl.
A dozen courses had been prepared in his honor, yet all Ciaran could do was to pick at the savory meats and herbed stuffings. He sat listening to the songs of the bards and the excited chatter of the men with an oddly passive indifference. He must be dreaming still; they all behaved as if he had been away for months as if he had been deemed dead and suddenly restored to the living.
A flurry of merriment swept over the table. The lord and lady exchanged glances; the others went on with their eating and drinking. Tomas stood and held up his hand for silence.
He spoke in the language of his countrymen, his deep voice carrying even to the guards at the rear of the chamber. “Kinsmen and friends: tonight we celebrate. A day that began in anger and worry has ended, mercifully, in joy – our princeling has returned to us.” He glanced at his nephew, his eyes quietly reassuring. “It is true he has committed an offense against this court by quitting it without my leave. For this, he owes compensation; yet, though it is within my right to deny him, I have prayed on the matter and found it in my heart to forgive. He is bound to me by blood, and by the oath I swore to my brother Morgan: if ill-fate should befall him, I would guard his son as my own.” He turned and drew Ciaran to his feet. He took both of Ciaran’s hands between his own and placed a kiss on each cheek. “By my bond,” he announced, “I take you, Ciaran ap Morgan, my nephew and heir, into kindred. Tomorrow we will unite in the circle of trust for the formal dedication.”
Blood prickled the back of Ciaran’s neck, crept into his cheeks and spread all the way to the roots of his hair. He caught his own voice rising, then halting, with hope and doubt. “Do you mean this, my lord? You would swear to this upon holy relics, before God?”
Tomas’s laughter was affectionate, and in no small measure amused. “I do and I would. Besides,” he added with scant irony, “I’d be worse than a fool to renounce you.”
Ciaran stood on the edge of a cliff, looking down at the long, steep slope he had climbed. His breath came fast and shallow, his voice cracked with emotion. “You flatter me, uncle. Indeed, you exalt me beyond my wildest hopes. You have granted me the liberty to seek my fortune in the world and to glorify the names of my forebears in all of my undertakings.” Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted the gleam of his father’s sword.
“I expect,” said Tomas, “you to choose your course wisely. Since you’re bent on joining battle at any risk, I aim to give you every advantage. It’s a costly business and it may ruin me, but you were bound to demand your endowment sooner or later.”
Ciaran waited a moment, studying his uncle’s face. He absorbed the man’s thoughts, though he could not read them; still, he recognized the gentleness and the pride and the humor behind the stern expression.
“I’ll be captain of my own band?” he asked, glancing out over the heads of his foster-brothers.
“Of course,” said Tomas, “provided you turn them not against me.”
Struck mute, Ciaran had to gather his wits to remember how to breathe. A giddy laugh burst from his mouth. It was all coming back to him now. For one heady moment, he felt his heart erasing every memory of the Faery Mound with its false promises. Every secret rapture, every new power with its fascination and delight, forgotten. He leaned forward, a spark of mischief in his eyes. “And what,” he pressed, “of tournaments?”
Tomas’s brows came together in a mild frown. “A young man’s sport,” he said. “Still folly, to my mind. But you’re of age. I’ve no right to hold you. You’ve long boasted of your skill; you’ll now have occasion to prove it.”
Ciaran’s joy broke free. He flung his arms around Tomas’s shoulders, kissing both his cheeks, then released his startled uncle and raised a goblet in tribute. “For the greater glory of my lord, I vow to join battle gladly, to uphold and protect the law as befits my rank. And let me avow,” he cried, the words streaming from him in a torrent of passion, “if by Mars under which I was born I do not acquit myself bravely at Caer Blaen, I shall forfeit my spurs, my horse, and my good name. Before our Heavenly Father, I swear it.”
A moment’s hush filled the hall. Through tears, Ciaran took in the faces of his kinsmen. In their eyes, he recognized loyalty, affection, a new respect. All at once, the company exploded in a jubilant roar. One by one, they all surged to their feet, pledging themselves to the challenge.
Tomas had no heart to oppose them. “Any who can afford the expense are at liberty to take part,” he shouted, “provided you stake your own fortunes. I’m ill-equipped to supply horses, armor, and weapons to the pack of you. You might well come away rich in ransoms, but I’ll not sustain you if you come back to me beggared.”
Ciaran bounded from the dais to embrace his foster-brothers. All leaped to surround him. As he reached to clasp arms, to receive buffets and shouts of praise, he felt Robyn at his shoulder.
“I’m captain, Robyn, of my own band!” Ciaran hooted, half-delirious. “He’s bloody arming me – spurs, belt, weapons – the whole lot.”
“Aye,” Robyn growled, “and you forfeited them all before even winning them. That vow of your was a trifle reckless, don’t you think?”
Ciaran wrenched away from him. “Ap Gryffin, you heretic! By God’s blood, I’ll do what I swore to do and make fools of you all.”
Boisterous taunts erupted from the crowd; vows and pledges flew like arrows.
“You’re stone mad,” muttered Robyn, shouldering his way through the press of high-spirited boys. He stalked to a bench and sat, kicking a hound from under the trestle. It yelped and cringed away.
Ciaran followed him. “Why the foul temper?” he prodded, honestly confounded. “You’d gamble away your last meal if the stakes were high enough.”
“Aye, and double the ante. I believe in my luck.” Robyn sighed. “Ah well, it’s the way of princes to make vaunting pledges for the sake of their virtue.” He hoisted a tankard in mock salute.
Ciaran glared. “I’ll grind those Norman whoresons into the dust, by God, and I’ll need none of your luck to do it.”
Robyn scowled into his drink.
“I thought you’d be proud,” Ciaran proclaimed hotly.
Robyn snorted. “I knew this time would come,” he said. “I’m happy for you. Tra-la-la! Heaven be praised.”
“What’s this?” yelled Ciaran over the din, more incredulous than indignant. “Envy? I don’t believe you!” A serving boy came to refill their cups and quickly vanished into the crowd.
Robyn shifted uneasily on the bench. “Not exactly. ” He paused, scratching his jaw. “I don’t know. It feels like an end to something.”
Ciaran squinted at him in the torchlight. “Nothing’s different,” he declared roughly. He planted a hand on Robyn’s shoulder. “What ails you, lad? You’re not losing your nerve?”
“Surely not,” Robyn snapped, wrenching away from Ciaran’s grasp. He fingered the handle of his drinking vessel, lips twitching. “I gave you my word I’d ride to the ends of the earth for you. You know that. But I’ll ride as your second, and I’ll carry your banner or I’ll not ride at all.”
Ciaran coughed to keep himself from laughing. “Sweet Christ! Is that what’s deviling you?” He seized Robyn by the neck and pulled him close. “I can’t do without you, Gryffin. You ought to know that by now.” Setting a specious blow upon Robyn’s cheek, he stated firmly, “You’ll bear my standard then, and guard me with your life, and damn you, let that put an end to the self-pity.”
Robyn disentangled himself. “Right enough,” he spluttered. “No need to get mawkish about it.” Solemnly, he professed, “I consider it a privilege. My lord.” The sly brow gave him away, as did the devious grin creeping into the corners of his mouth.
Ciaran howled. “Oh, I can see this will be some fine business! What a cohort we’ll make, the mad-brained lot of us!”
At last Robyn loosed a spirited whoop and raised his cup in salute. “Drink a toast to us, then. To Narberth and the Red Dragon!”
Ciaran knocked back a couple of swigs and shook his head. “I still can’t believe it.” He cast a glance at his uncle. “You know what he’s done, don’t you? He’s set me free.”
“To freedom!” pledged Robyn, growing bemused in his cups. “And to your would-be war band. In truth a crew of half-grown brigands hot for blood and glory.” He swilled more wine. “It’ll drive Gwilym mad, won’t it? He’ll be hounding us like the very Devil, full of caution and blind panic. God rot him, how will we stand it?”
A clamor of voices arose behind them; some disturbance at the entry. Ciaran turned. Below the arched entry, dressed all in violet with a chaplet of gillyflowers in her hair, Evaine stood, more radiant than any jewel. Ciaran closed his eyes for a moment, trying to still his fluttering heart, and then slowly opened them again, fully absorbed by her beauty. The light moved over her dark, bounteous hair as she walked, shone on her face and in her eyes. Without knowing it, he had begun to move toward her. His cloak slipped from his shoulders; someone behind him lifted it and settled the heavy folds around his neck. “Have a care, my friend,” warned Robyn. “All Narberth watches you tonight.”
The hall crowded with advancing figures, flushed faces. Ciaran saw nothing but Evaine.
“My lady. You’ve come to take part in the festivities?”
She made him a curtsy. “It is your night, my lord. I came to wish you well.” Her voice was cool, expressionless; she did not look at him.
Gradually, talk resumed; the music began again. Trestles were swept clean and some of the feasters, merry with wine, climbed upon them to dance.
“You do not look at me as you ought,” said Ciaran.
“I do not wish to offend you, sir.”
He stood watching her. “Have you changed toward me, then?”
A knowing look passed between Evaine and her maid. “Indeed, my lord, I believe it is you who have changed.” The notes of the harp quickened, gathering strength; beneath them, the drums throbbed. They lingered in the arch of the doorway, mute, motionless, each waiting for some sign from the other.
“Will you join me in the dance?” Ciaran asked when at last he found his tongue.
“Is it proper?” Her voice, though halting, was unreachable, detached.
“As you said, this is my night. I can have any lady I wish.”
“I am not,” she flashed at him, “any lady.”
“Of course not. I didn’t mean – ” Ciaran could not bear it. “Don’t be angry with me,” he pleaded, holding out his hands to her.
“Did you think I would not be angry?” she said, ignoring his hands, staring at his cloak, his boots, anything but his face. “Did you think you could cozen me with gifts?”
“The gown – the one I had made for you – you’ve seen it?”
“It is not seemly for a lady to accept favors from any man but her betrothed,” she said.
“No. But I thought – ” He cut himself off in mid-sentence, his mind a welter of longing and regret. “I thought it might please you.” He reached across the gulf for her hands, and before she could withdraw, he had them, gripping them almost cruelly. A sudden shock and pleasure sped through him. “You received my message,” he whispered as if he scarcely dared to believe it. “You waited for me in the garden.”
She looked up at him at last, her eyes bright with outrage and injury, and he realized she was waiting still; waiting for some word, some clue to explain this strange and charismatic force that drew them to each other. In his mind he saw the garden, the mist, imagined the frantic beating of her heart as she tarried there alone, searching the battlements.
He strained toward her. “You understood my message,” he repeated. “How could I know you would heed it? I won’t lie to you. I was lost in my own miseries. I meant to come, only I – don’t turn away from me, I beg you…”
She pushed his words aside with a strength he had not known she possessed. “You trifle with me, my lord. You amuse yourself at my expense. You are – unkind.”
“No, you misunderstand.” He pulled her close. He noticed her little gasp and the pressure of her breasts against him. Oh, but this was more than he could endure. He sensed the shifting of velvet, the supple skin underneath, and then he felt her heart withdraw as she struggled against him, repelled by his urgency. The music stopped. Against his body’s wild protest, he released her.
Her eyes had grown moist, dark, full of terrible confusion, her face like a flower trembling under a sudden rain. She looked as if she wanted to strike him even as the tears started down her cheeks. “You take my heart from me,” she accused. “You make no pretense of trying to win it. You’re so full of yourself, there’s no room in you for anyone else.”
“No, you are everything – ” he started to say, but any fool could see she considered him vain and insincere. He tried again. “Lady, when I look at you, even in passing, the mere sight of you consumes me. I don’t know if I can survive your rejection.”
She took a step back, acknowledging nothing. “Look at me as I am, my lord, not as you would have me.”
Ciaran ached. He yearned to kiss her lashes, to cover her perfect, rose-pink lips with his mouth. He wanted to take her into his arms and hold her forever in an impassioned embrace. He stood, struggling to reach her through a maze of anguish. She was moving away from him. All was drifting, dissolving into fragments. He watched her disappear down the endless, empty corridor, harrowed by his own helplessness, miserably fighting tears.
All too soon they were spiriting him away. Someone stripped him and tumbled him into a bath; a long soak in a wooden basin, languorously pleasant, though his thoughts remained disordered and fretful, indifferent to the purity of this solemn ritual. To think anything could wash away the taint of his birth.
He emerged from the tub and started to dress. Robyn intervened. “Na, that’s for me to do,” he said, helping Ciaran into the stainless white shirt. “This is to advise you to keep your flesh from every stain if you should expect to reach Heaven.”
“Too late,” Ciaran replied. “And I doubt I’ll get to Heaven in any case.”
Robyn lifted a brow. “In the interest of modesty,” he said, holding out the black silk hose, “I’ll let you don these yourself. Lovely bit of symbolism here: the somber hue is to inform you that you must die.”
Ciaran cast him a dubious glance.
“Ah, the white girdle. A warning to keep your soul chaste.” He fastened the belt at Ciaran’s hips.
“Is there anything written about soulless half-breeds?”
Ignoring him, Robyn gathered up the scarlet robe. “Finally, my lord, your mantle. To counsel you: you must be ready to pour out your blood for Holy Church.”
Ciaran stood silent for a moment, feeling vulnerable and weary. Robyn adjusted his mantle and fastened the brooch. He stepped back, regarding his friend with a small nod of satisfaction. “Come, good prince,” he said. “Tomorrow you’ll pledge your oath and, God willing, embark upon a long and illustrious career.” He paused, looking at Ciaran with great pride and affection. “Aye,” he said, “I’m sure of it.”