The Flamebearer Chapter Thirty-Three

 

CIARAN HAD SCARCELY gathered his wits before they were crashing through trees over rock-strewn undergrowth, bursting out of the Greenwood at a gallop. The overcast sky shed meager light, and he feared the horses might lose their footing as darkness engulfed them, but all protests quickly vanished as they left the shelter of the forest and charged straight on to sloping, treeless grasslands, shielded by nothing now but the night.

The only sounds were the wailing winds and thundering hooves as they streaked over the wild hills, cloaks billowing behind them. Ciaran bent over Evaine as if the sheer strength of his will could conceal her. For the love of God, how did he ever let her talk him into this madness?

One thing he knew for certain: the joy he had felt only hours earlier in anticipation of a daring sortie with his cohorts was now irrevocably lost, overwhelmed by the nightmarish prospect of her capture and torture. He’d heard of such sadistic acts as cutting off a woman’s breasts or hanging a man by the stones until his weight caused them to tear from his body. Perhaps these only amounted to threats designed to deter the would-be adulterer, but he believed such horrors had actually been committed in some parts of the world. Pray they hadn’t reached the outlands yet.

Holding to the shadows beneath the cliffs as they approached Caer Blaen, they slowed their pace as they began the ascent, keeping their senses attuned for signs of danger. The winds prohibited most spoken communication, and the lack of light prevented hand signals or eye contact, so they rode on in silence.

Ciaran encircled Evaine with his arms and body, resting his cheek against hers. Even without the exchange of words, the sweetness of this simple touching soothed him, infused him with comforting warmth and inner peace. He closed his eyes and let the sensuous rhythm of the horse swaying under them and the smooth curve of her spine pressing against his chest ease his fears and calm his anger. This silent communion of bodies and souls gave him hope and filled his heart with gratitude.

The dark shape of Caer Blaen loomed on a bluff high above them, silhouetted against a constantly shifting sky. From this distance, not even Robyn’s keen eyes discerned any unusual activity; they would have to get closer. Stealth, speed, and the happy accident of a moonless night were their allies as they advanced nearer their target.

The wind softened again into a gentle breeze and finally ceased, but now a heavy fog began to creep through the valley below them, filling the air with an unearthly silence. The moist air brought a chill more bitter than the wind, clinging to skin and hair and sending them deeper into the refuge of their hoods and mantles.

The wind had loosened Ciaran’s hair from its ties, and to his annoyance, the fine, feathery strands now stuck to his forehead and cheeks.

Evaine twisted around to look at him, her eyes grown accustomed to the dark. “Remind me to show you how to braid it,” she said. “That should keep it out of your face, at least.”

Ciaran frowned dismissively. “It won’t stay in braids either; I’ve tried,” he said, picking at the errant strands and stuffing them under his hood.

“The trick,” said Evaine, “is to make them very thin. Fine hair like yours is too slippery to hold a thick braid.”

Ciaran scowled. “I might as well just cut it all off.”

“Don’t you dare!” exclaimed Evaine, her eyes wide with alarm. “You must know your hair is the envy of all the ladies.”

“Losh!” the Bruce chortled.  “He’ll be a-certain to cut it off.” He scratched his bearded chin, appraising Ciaran as if sizing up a head of cattle. “Come to think of it, such flaxen locks might fetch a handsome price.”

Evaine put a finger to her lips. “Let’s not fill his head with notions,” she chided. Ciaran’s heart swelled with quiet affection watching her conversing and laughing with his friends. He welcomed this fresh, new alliance of tenderness and courage awakening in himself.

As they drew within range of the enemy’s fortress, they saw evidence of recent construction not far from the original castle. “A lookout tower, most likely,” said Robyn. “I doubt they’d put a new keep so near to Caer
Blaen.”

“We’ve got to get to higher ground,” said Ciaran. “And fast. The night’s half gone already.”

“Onward and upward, then,” said Robyn.

Chapter Thirty-Four

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