RHIANNON BORE CIARAN in a joyous caracole around the lists; the ladies pelted him with flowers, gloves and veils. Begging for mercy, he rode down the turf past the platform and threw up a salute to Lord Tomas. Goaded by the stamping crowd, the young men plunged onto the field, whooping like boys.
They hurled themselves upon each other in a frenzied charge, ready for anything. Ciaran screamed his challenge and plowed straight into a wall of shields. Sword whirling, shield up, he dodged blows that seemed to come from everywhere. Two spearmen came at him and fell with grunts and oaths, dragging their horses down with them. Rhiannon reared, then sprang forward, nearly trampling them underfoot.
From out of nowhere, Robyn rode up, screaming above the tumult, “Holy God! To your left, Cei! Be quick!” Ciaran turned, borne back by a deadly, striking hoof. He took a sharp blow between the shoulders and reeled, spitting blood, then roared a curse and repaid the strike with the strength of ten. Rhiannon wove like a dancer through the snarling press; Ciaran laid about him, laughing fiendishly.
Cheers arose from the stands. Sunlight glanced off shields and helms; horses and riders blurred into weird shapes in the dust. Before the game dispersed in a mighty brawl, Tomas marshaled the hellions and sent them cantering around the trampled field two by two, amid deafening hurrahs and trumpet blasts.
The morning spent, appetites whetted, the company packed into the great hall where they gorged and guzzled until dark. The long trestle tables groaned under piles of meats, blossoms, fruits and cheeses; wine flowed from endless jugs. All crowded in, thrusting their way up to the high table, hoping to see and be seen.
Ciaran collapsed on a bench, bruised and sweating, elation slipping into a weary calm. Triumphant, smiling to himself, he reached for a goblet and drank. Robyn hovered nearby, or as near as the packed assembly would permit, watching all those around Ciaran with an artful eye. Ciaran nodded toward him. “Nothing to fret over, ap Gryffin. Keep the mob at arm’s length, if you can. Should I decide to steal away later, I’ll need you to stand guard for me.”
“Don’t you even think it,” Robyn warned, swiping a fig from a passing tray.
“You’re my man. Aren’t you?” Ciaran chided.
“Faithful as a hound,” Robyn declared.
“Truly?” Ciaran reached out, lightly smacking Robyn’s chin. “What will it take to gain your obedience? Beatings?”
Robyn straightened, eyes ironic. “You have my obedience. Sir.”
Ciaran seized him in a rough embrace. They grinned at each other, faces glowing. Assaulted with kisses and caresses and a constant stream of gifts, Ciaran received them all with grace. At every opportunity he searched for Evaine. He caught sight of her once, pressed into gossip with some visiting lord. She paused as if startled, and looked up to notice him gazing at her. Her face reddened and she turned swiftly away.
Over the barking, shouting, and revelry, Ciaran met the eyes of his uncle. Tomas yielded a slow smile, nodding as he did, and raised a tankard in silent salute. Ciaran returned the gesture and as he lowered his cup to his lips, he spotted Evaine again, her cheeks blooming in the light of the torches, threading her way through the crush of visitors. Ciaran hastened to his feet.
A little breathless as she approached him, she stepped with lifted skirts through the rushes. Her hair curled damply at her temples, the white flowers charmingly askew. Tiny beads of moisture shimmered on her brow. She lowered her gaze and gave him a graceful curtsy. “My lord Ciaran.”
His breath halted at the sound of his name on her lips. It tripped off her tongue with a round little trill, its sweetness sending a shiver of delight through him. He inclined his head toward her.
“You were splendid today,” she said. She glanced briefly at Robyn and back to Ciaran. He remained waiting, alert, hopeful. Evaine gave him a small, courteous smile. “They’re all saying you defy the laws of nature; you seem to be in two places at once.”
“Do they?” Ciaran answered her smile with one of his own, if only fleetingly. Her fragrance flooded his brain; even amid the rich aromas of the feast he caught the sweet scent of roses in her hair.
Something changed in her face, though she tried to hide it. To prevent her from slipping away, he moved closer, putting out a hand but drawing it back short of touching her. “Lady,” he said, his voice hushed so only she could hear, “at our last encounter you made it clear you held me in disfavor. Are you still of the same persuasion?”
She averted her eyes. “My lord, I am – ” she broke off, but did not back away from him. Nor did she step any closer. “My lord,” she began again. “Pray, what do you require of me?”
“Your forgiveness, Lady, nothing more.”
Evaine flushed, looking at him with her head turned a little away. “My dear sir, one does not keep a lady waiting in an empty courtyard without provoking suspicion. I am not, however, inclined to hold a grudge. I
plainly misread your message; I presumed too much.”
Ciaran scarcely heard her words. He at once imagined her alone with him in the garden as he confessed to her all he longed to say; that he burned for her, that he had never meant to insult her. “You did not misread it,” he said, ashamed. “It is I who erred, and for that I am humbly disgraced.” He bowed his head in obeisance, hoping she would at least accept his sincerity.
She moved a step away from him. “Do not sport with me my lord. My heart won’t bear it.”
“This is no sport.” Without meaning to, he touched the hem of her sleeve. She recoiled slightly, and he rushed on. “You said I was full of myself. I won’t argue with you; I’ve reproached myself for it endlessly, but it’s not true there’s no room in me for another. From the moment we met, I’ve thought of nothing and no one but you. I’ll admit it sounds like madness, but I felt you were the one I’d been seeking all my life only I didn’t know it until I saw you.”
Evaine looked as if she wanted to believe him and yet could not.
Desperate, afraid she would once again withdraw, Ciaran persisted. “I would have sacrificed my life for your safety at Bri Leith,” he said, his voice low. “Have you forgotten?”
“Of course not. But that does not give you the right -”
Ciaran stepped toward her. “Ah, lady,” he whispered, his hand closing on her arm, “could we not slip away together now into the garden? I would make it all up to you, I swear it.”
Her voice was soft. “To what end, my lord?”
Indistinct, rushing, Ciaran dared it: “I – I loved you since the moment I first set eyes upon you. Your rejection hangs over me like the black of night.” He stood there, mortified by his own words. Buffeted by a lurching youth in a red mask, he saw Evaine swallowed up in the throng. She rose to her toes as if to reach for him. He cursed himself, once for his haste in speaking to her thus, twice for his cowardice in not clinging to her. Regrettably, it was too late.
A rowdy group of boys lifted him up and bore him upon their shoulders to the high table surrounded by the drunken merriment of the feasters. From these heights he could see her, attended by her maid, making her way to the aisle. She stood for a moment, fanning herself with her hands, and then she reached to lift the damp hair from her neck. He knew then if he could not have her he would go mad. He watched in an agony of desire as she slipped through the door and vanished from his sight.