SOME HOURS LATER he awoke, his head throbbing unmercifully. He thought he remembered passing out – but hadn’t he come out of it just moments afterward? Memories and images swirled in a disordered jumble, exploding and fading before his eyes like sparking embers. He sprawled beneath a sumptuous layer of quilts, pillows bolstering his head and neck. Someone had dressed him in a loose-fitting linen shirt and wrapped his ribs with bandages.
Lionel de Barre lounged beside him on the bed, gazing at him through heavy-lidded eyes. Making no attempt to disguise his lust, he reached out to stroke Ciaran’s cheek with the back of his hand. Ciaran winced and gingerly turned his face away.
“Your contempt for me is painfully clear,” said Lionel tonelessly, his bearded jaw tightening. Undeterred, he moved closer. Grasping a handful of Ciaran’s hair, he fondled it lightly with callused fingers. “I mean you no harm,” he purred in a low-pitched, seductive baritone. His scent was redolent with spices and the tang of sweat. Stifling his revulsion, Ciaran sucked in his breath and stared up at the beamed ceiling, still as a statue.
Lionel sighed. “You needn’t worry, my young friend; I don’t intend to assault you.” He rolled back and let his hand drop. “Don’t think I haven’t considered it. But your proclivities plainly lie elsewhere.”
Relieved of imminent threat, Ciaran allowed himself a shallow breath. “Where am I?” he asked, glancing about the well-appointed chamber.
“My private apartments,” Lionel responded with a subtle smile. “The rooms are restful and secluded; after your mistreatment by my guards, who, incidentally, were severely censured, I took it upon myself to see to your comfort.”
Ciaran measured his words carefully. “My lord. Your generosity is much appreciated. However, I find your interest in me – unsettling, at best.” The words unsavory, lurid, and unnatural would have been more accurate, but he resisted the urge to blurt out such provocative assertions. “And while I mean no disrespect, you know full well I will never be what you want me to be.”
“No,” Lionel acknowledged, lowering his voice to a menacing growl. “You would rather put your cock in my lawfully wedded wife.”
Ciaran’s stomach came up into his throat. Forcing himself to swallow, he held his body rigid, and through clenched teeth, delivered a deadly dose of truth: “Your pardon, sir, but may I put forth that since neither consummation nor cohabitation ever took place between you and your so-called “wife”, your claim to the lady is in all probability forfeit.”
Lionel conceded, apparently unimpressed. “Be that as it may, you broke a legal contract, and by the laws of Holy Church, you also committed a mortal sin. To say nothing of the affront to my dignity.”
Lionel glowered. “Is that all you can say for yourself?” He seemed taken aback, as if he had expected some lavish justification or denial.
Ciaran grasped that such insolence would surely spark even greater outrage. “My lord,” he continued, adopting a somewhat less belligerent tone, “I regret the blow to your pride, but may I remind you that I, too, suffered grave public humiliation? Beyond that, I lost a brother-in-arms; my lady lost her only remaining kin. My intention was never to flee the battlefield, but as Gwilym lay dying in my arms, he begged me to get his sister to safety. Momentarily confused and agitated with grief, my self-respect in tatters, reason deserted me. With no sight to guide me, I acted on blind instinct.”
Lionel remained silent, the cold, blue eyes visibly pained. He ran a hand through his thick mane of hair and sat up, presenting his back to Ciaran and throwing his legs over the side of the bed. “Damn it, boy, you aggrieve me body and soul. I swear, you are either an angel or a devil, I know not which. But of one thing I can be certain: you’ve cast a spell on me.”
“I assure you, sir; I have done no such thing.”
Lionel turned to look at him, his faced creased with anguish. “By all rights, I ought to have you killed.”
“But you won’t,” declared Ciaran.
“You think not? What makes you so sure?”
“Because you still want something from me. And while killing me may satisfy your immediate craving for vengeance, it does nothing to serve your longer-term goals. Or mine.”
“Is that so?” inquired Lionel, his curiosity piqued. He moved to take a seat in a cushioned chair next to the bed.
“My lord, I know many grievances exist between us, and many are likely to remain. But I believe we each have a stake in seeking to resolve them.”
“Do tell.” Lionel folded his hands in front of him and leaned forward slightly, intrigued.
Ciaran took in a slow, calming breath and deliberately assumed an open bearing, spreading his arms and turning his palms up. “May I be candid?”
Lionel inclined his head, urging him to continue.
“My lord, I do not wish to start a war. In fact I’m at pains to prevent it, whatever the cost. I see no advantage to combat for combat’s sake; as we both know, wars are notoriously harder to end than to start. I can’t countenance my small country blasted, burnt and exhausted for no cause but personal enmity.”
Lionel nodded. “You make a persuasive argument,” he admitted.
“Then if it be God’s will, and yours, to hold me to account for this regrettable turn of events, I’ll abide by whatever judgment the law decrees.”
“Your fate does not rest entirely in my hands,” asserted Lionel. “If I were you, I would fear the power of the
Vatican far more.”
“Perhaps,” said Ciaran. “But if that’s so, ‘let he who is without sin’, as the saying goes.”
Lionel stroked his beard, sitting back and appraising Ciaran through slitted eyes. “You’ve made your point,” he stated flatly.
“When first we met,” Ciaran went on, “I regarded you purely as a rival for my lady’s affections. That belief colored my entire assessment of you. That, and the hatred I harbored against those I blamed for my father’s murder.”
“‘Murder’ is not a term I would’ve chosen,” countered Lionel. “As I understand it, your father died honorably in battle.”
“A battle,” Ciaran said tersely, “in which he and his men were outnumbered three to one. Hardly an equitable fight.”
“I knew your father by reputation only. By all accounts, your admiration of him is just.”
“I was a callow boy when he died,” recalled Ciaran softly. “Death claimed him when he was only a few years older than I am now. But the point is, I judged you through the veil of my own assumptions, and while I’d like to see myself as a man of principle, in fact, I’ve been reckless and unyielding, clinging to past injuries, refusing to accept the world as it is.”
Lionel studied him intently. “You have matured. What changed?”
“I opened my heart to love,” Ciaran answered simply. “Evaine changed me. Her faith in my better nature showed me how things might be if only I would surrender to life as it unfolds instead of striving to mold matters to suit my own purposes. I finally came to understand that a world that honors love over hate is the only kind of world worth defending.”
“Lofty ideals,” Lionel proclaimed. “Your sincerity is surprisingly convincing. And remarkably rare, I might add.” He paused, and for the briefest moment, his face betrayed a secret sorrow which, to Ciaran’s surprise, revealed in the intense blue eyes an unexpected vulnerability.
“Release my brothers,” Ciaran implored, hoping to exploit this momentary lapse. “Return them to freedom and by my sword, they will be no further nuisance to you.”
“I’ll give it my consideration,” said Lionel unconvincingly.
“My lord, I beg you, you must allow Evaine to go back to the convent, where she might find solace as a daughter of Christ.”
Openly skeptical, Lionel raised a dense, golden brow. “You are willing to relinquish your claim to the girl?”
“Yes,” Ciaran replied without equivocation, “if you can assure me no discipline will be imposed upon her. All I ask is she be spared any suffering.”
The lord of Caer Blaen grew quiet, slumping in his chair, hands pressed to his temples. He appeared to weigh Ciaran’s arguments. Yet something appeared to eclipse these considerations, some deeply subjective and disturbing preoccupation. Whatever tyranny oppressed the man’s thoughts prohibited Ciaran from gaining any additional insight for the time being. He thought it prudent to refrain from any gratuitous remarks. He had stated his case; his uncle would no doubt approve of the way he acquitted himself. He could do nothing more now but wait.