The Flamebearer Chapter Thirty-Four

AT LAST THEY reached a favorable vantage point on a ridge strewn with boulders a few yards from the castle walls. The rocks provided cover for the horses, allowing the men to climb down the escarpment, slipping in and out of shadows to avoid being seen by the guards pacing the allure. From here they could see into the torchlit bailey with little obstruction, and right away it became evident something was afoot.

They noticed a proliferation of horses and saddlery, too many for the stables and tack room to contain, and the armory, though silent at this hour, appeared to have produced an overflow of shields and pikes.

“Looks like they’re stockpiling,” Robyn surmised. “There’s definitely a build-up going on, though in itself that doesn’t tell us their intentions. The accumulation of coursers worries me, though. It could signal they’re planning an attack.”

“I agree,” said Ciaran. “It’s not likely we’ll glean much more insight tonight. But we dare not hazard staying this close until daybreak. I say we make our way back down to the vale and pray the fog lasts until we’re well out of sight.”

“Aye?” asked Robyn. “Since when do you put caution above risk?”

“Tha’ wee lassie up the hill micht ha’ a thing or two tae do with it,” suggested the Bruce. Ciaran gave him a wink, then motioned them all back up the slope.

Evaine greeted them anxiously, clutching the front of her cloak as if to still her beating heart. “What news?” she asked breathlessly as they scrambled up the bank toward her.

“It appears they’re gathering forces for war,” Ciaran reported. “We’ve got to get back to Narberth to warn Tomas.”

“War! We have to stop them!” exclaimed Evaine, clinging to his sleeves as he urged their mount down the side of the ridge, its hooves slipping and faltering over pebbles, roots and clumps of grass. Soon the sky would begin to lighten with streaks of pink and orange, illuminating the clouds from beneath with a golden glow.

They had let the night slip away from them, and now, with dawn rapidly approaching, they had scant time to traverse the ground between Caer Blaen and the valley below where they might disappear into the mists before the Normans spotted them. But the descent proved more arduous than any of them had anticipated. The horses, anxious and unsure of their footing, kept crouching and backing up, ears flicking nervously.

“We’re not going to make it before daylight,” Dafydd concluded, his anxiety mounting.

“We’ll make it,” Ciaran reassured him, “as long as we don’t panic. Everyone stay calm and keep moving.”

Robyn and the Bruce exchanged glances, wary of their friend’s newfound composure. They cautiously made their way down the steep embankment in the stillness before sunrise, praying their cover would last. Ciaran’s focused yet unhurried demeanor puzzled everyone except Evaine, who seemed inexplicably serene. The two of them stayed contained within their shared secret world, embodying an unmistakable dignity, unity and peace.

The terrain began to level out just as the sun’s first rays crept above the horizon. A faint mist still hovered over the dale, but not the heavy fog they had counted on. Now they faced a clear possibility of discovery before gaining enough distance to put them out of danger.

They hadn’t bargained for what awaited them directly ahead. Breaking into a full gallop, they crashed headlong into a furious assault, blind-sided by a Norman mob intent on inflicting serious injury. Beset on all sides, the cohort instinctively encircled Ciaran and Evaine, blades flashing from scabbards. “Hold on!” Ciaran shouted to Evaine, his sword whirling. Evaine shrieked, ducking down under Ciaran’s arms to grab the horse’s mane.

Ciaran stood in the stirrups, his hood falling back. Instantly, the Normans knew who they had and surrounded him.

“Holy Christ, Cei! They’ve got you!” bellowed Robyn. The Bruce roared up from behind and dragged one of the assailants from the saddle, his screams rending the air as a dozen hooves trampled him underfoot. In retaliation, two more fell upon the Bruce, pummeling him mercilessly about the neck and shoulders. Robyn and Dafydd leapt in to defend him, leaving Ciaran and Evaine for the moment unguarded.

Ciaran lay into the surrounding knights with a series of savage blows, managing to temporarily sideline one with a yawning gash to the arm. Jabbing and slashing furiously, he dropped another by slamming the side of his head so hard it knocked him senseless.

Evaine’s high-pitched shrieks and squeals rose above the clashing steel, the shouting men, even the terrified, whinnying animals. Taking everything in at a glance, Ciaran’s heart sank, knowing they stood little hope of winning this battle. Their opponents seriously outnumbered them and could afford to lose a man or two. The cohort couldn’t stand to sacrifice a single one. Better to surrender now, before these brigands pounded them all into the dirt.

“Robyn! Bruce! Dafydd! To me!” Ciaran called out. He sheathed his sword and threw his arms up, crying, “We forfeit! Put down your weapons, for the love of God!”

Ebullient, the Norman aggressors couldn’t help dramatizing their accomplishment with elaborate and unnecessary restraints, tethering the Cambrian troops together and shackling the men’s arms behind their backs. Possibly oweing to her nun’s habit, they showed Evaine mercy, thankfully, binding her hands in front and allowing her to remain with Ciaran.

Their arrival at Caer Blaen provoked further gloating and grandstanding, the Norman captors making a spectacle of marching their prisoners off to the dungeon.

In the darkness and damp of the prison chamber, Evaine collapsed against Ciaran’s chest. He ached to hold her in his arms, but the weighty iron shackles tethering his wrists made embracing her impossible. Fear loomed over him, yet he remained strangely subdued, offering quiet reassurance to his companions.

Bone-tired and bleeding, the Bruce slumped in a corner, his head tipped forward, eyes closed. Robyn sat nearby, his shoulders taut with discomfort, rolling his neck from side to side. Dafydd leaned against a pillar, dispirited, staring at nothing.

“Take heart, lads,” said Ciaran. “We’ll demand an audience with Lionel de Barre as soon as possible.”

“Aye?” queried Dafydd. “Begging your pardon, my lord, but do you think he’s going to let us go, just like that?”

“Probably not,” Ciaran conceded. “Still, he’s a reasonable man. Surely he can be persuaded.”

“God’s blood!” swore Robyn, lifting his head, his voice rising in disbelief. “Are you forgetting you challenged the man to a joust, and for all practical purposes, he won? And despite all that, you still managed to abscond with his bride? How reasonable do you expect him to be, especially now we’re apparently on the brink of war?”

Ciaran frowned. “You’ve made your point, ap Gryffin. All we can do is try.”

“Let me talk to him,” Evaine said privately to Ciaran. “He hasn’t yet heard from me. Perhaps curiosity will entice him to listen.”

Ciaran’s belly tightened. “What would you tell him?”

“What’s in my heart.”

Remembering to breathe, he consciously softened the tension in his body. “Evaine, I know you feel a need to speak up. But please consider the consequences. Lionel de Barre may not be as receptive to what you have to say as you hope. And he could easily decide to use it against you. Against both of us.”

“Yes,” she granted, “but if I allow fear to silence me, nothing has changed. I have to believe our love is worth the risk.”

Chapter Thirty-Five

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