CIARAN DRESSED HASTILY and arranged his store of weapons into an orderly grouping, ranked according to value: swords, pikes, daggers. “I’m going ahead to meet them,” he told Evaine. “You come along when you’re ready.”
He had to admit to himself he was eager to reunite with his fellows. He wanted to hear all about the aftermath of the mêlée, the political climate along the March, his uncle’s mood, and of course, Lionel de Barre’s reaction to events. Had there been any backlash?
“Backlash!” blurted Robyn. “You could call it that. Caer Blaen’s henchmen are scouring the countryside, going from village to village harassing the people and stirring up no end to trouble.”
Ciaran’s brows jumped. “Who do they think they are,” he inquired with a wry smile, “Cambrians?”
Robyn snorted. “They’re taking some of the menfolk into custody, in hopes of threatening them into revealing your whereabouts. Lionel de Barre’s singular focus, apparently, is on bringing you in. What he intends to do with you is anyone’s guess. But my gut tells me you’d best pay heed to what’s behind you.”
Ciaran nudged Robyn’s shoulder. “That’s up to you, my friend.” He pressed further. “The mêlée? What was the outcome?” The question elicited subdued laughter, throat clearings and a restless shifting of legs from the men. Ciaran looked from Robyn to Bruce and back to Dafydd in rapid succession. “Anyone? Davy?”
“All went to holy Hell,” Dafydd reported, rubbing the back of his neck. He cast a sideways glance at Robyn. “Lucky for us, your man here kept his wits about him. Split us off, each in a different direction – ”
“The wee bastards dinnae ken who to chase,” the Bruce interrupted with a snicker.
“Planned chaos,” added Robyn. “Once we had them thoroughly flummoxed, we circled around and met up, then made like Old Nick back to Narberth before the whoresons knew what happened.”
“It’s what I’d have done,” affirmed Ciaran with a crisp nod of approval. “Well played, lads.” He paused, brows drawn. “How’s Tomas?”
An uneasy hush descended over them. Robyn kicked a clod of dirt with the toe of his boot. “If you ask me, he’s off his head since Gwilym – ” He coughed, leaving the thought unfinished. “And when you turned up missing, well, he’s convinced we’re headed for war; Narberth is deep in preparations.”
No one spoke of their fallen brother, though all thoughts rested with him. Heads bowed and without a word, each man offered a silent prayer in his memory, while wrestling with their personal fears. It hung over all of them, that unknowable, eternal dark.
After a solemn pause, Robyn went on. “It was an easy bet you’d seek refuge in the forest. We decided to come after you once the Normans gave up the hunt. Whether we found you or not, we intended to stake out Caer Blaen, find out what they’re up to and dash back to Narberth at a tidy lick with the news.”
Ciaran knew the risks. Even so, the thought of a high-stakes exploit with his brothers-in-arms got his blood pumping. “Good,” he said, attempting to hide his excitement. “Once my lady is safe and secure, we’ll go.”
Evaine emerged from behind the great stone, lifting her ragged skirts as she stepped lightly over fern and bramble. A crown of ivy entwined with tiny flowers graced her brow.
Ciaran caught his breath. She looked like a faery stepping through a veil of illusion.
He stood to greet her, heart swelling with pride. “My lady,” he said, inclining his head toward her as she approached. The other men rose, eyes widening at the sight of her, clumsily tugging at tunics and scraping hands through hair. She gave each of them a soft smile and gently slipped her arms around Ciaran’s waist.
“You look beautiful,” he whispered.
Her eyes shone as she tipped her head back and mouthed the words, “I love you.” Ciaran pulled her in close to him and took a deep, slow breath, noting with satisfaction the looks of deference upon the faces of his companions.
“She’s been good for you, that much is plain,” remarked Robyn. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you so – well, content.” The rest of the men nodded in agreement.
Ciaran smiled privately at Evaine, his eyes softening with affection. She cast him a sidelong glance and blushed charmingly. “Gentlemen,” she proclaimed, changing the subject, “there is cold water for you and your horses to refresh yourselves. We found a wonderful little spring near the base of the great stone. May I welcome you into our private chambers?” Taking Ciaran by the hand, she motioned for them all to follow. The men and their mounts fell into single file behind her and, as if leading King Arthur and his knights into the enchanted Otherworld, she beckoned them to step into their secret bower.
“Now I see how you were able to elude capture for so long,” Dafydd observed. “The place is completely hidden. Almost as if defended by magic.”
“Indeed, it is,” Evaine attested, her eyes sparkling. “Please, sirs. Won’t you rest awhile?”
After they had cooled their necks and throats and watered the horses, each found his own sunny spot and settled back for a quick nap among the wildflowers. Dafydd produced a small wooden flute and entertained them with a haunting, nostalgic tune while they dozed.
Evaine took Ciaran aside. “They’ve come to take you from me,” she predicted with a slight quiver in her voice. Her arms tightened around him. Ciaran hugged her closer and glanced down briefly. She toyed with a lock of hair, twining it around her finger.
“Be brave, little one,” he soothed. “All will be well; trust me.”
Robyn shook off his drowsiness. “We’ve lost time today already,” he noted. “I suggest we wait at the edge of the wood until nightfall, aye? We can go under cover of dark to St. Elen’s priory, not more than half a mile from here.”
Ciaran tried to ignore his sinking stomach. He turned to look at Evaine, giving Robyn a distracted nod. This is it, then, he thought. Only a precious few more hours together.
“Take heart,” he told her, pressing a fist against his chest. “You’ll be safe at St. Elen’s; I’ll come back for you when I can.” He couldn’t bear to see the pain in her eyes; nor did he want her to witness his own anguish. His eyelids burned; he blinked furiously and squeezed his eyes shut, burying his face in her hair. “By my faith,” he vowed, “No matter what happens, we’ll get through this. Hold to that, my love. It’ll make the time go more quickly.”
Evaine stayed quiet all the way to the forest’s edge, turning into herself and speaking only when spoken to. Instead of nestling into him as he had envisioned, she leaned forward, head low, shoulders slumped as if born down by a massive weight. Ciaran encircled her waist, hoping his embrace might reassure her, but sorrow lay heavy over both of them.
They arrived at the perimeter just before dusk. The breeze that had refreshed them during the heat of the afternoon had turned to a brisk wind, whipping up leaves and woodland clutter, tousling hair and disarranging hoods. The horses, tense and alert, pawed at the ground and swished their tails, while the men made use of what light remained to check and recheck their weapons.
“I’m going with you,” Evaine announced suddenly.
“No, we’re taking you to St Elen’s,” Ciaran replied flatly. “I want you safely out of danger until we assess the situation.”
“Ciaran ap Morgan, you will not intimidate me,” she insisted.
“Evaine, I mean only to keep you from harm.”
“Yes, and I appreciate your concern. But I will not allow you to act as my jailer. Nor will I sit by and wait for a rescue that might never come.”
Robyn shot Ciaran a look.
“But, Evaine, why needlessly imperil yourself? No. The stakes are too high.”
“Have you forgotten what you’ve jeopardized already to liberate me? Not only from a loveless marriage, but from myself? If not for you, I might never have imagined anything more. I might have lived out my entire life in a prison of my own making. You waked me from my sleep and introduced me to a beautiful dream of love. What does that love mean if we can’t face our fate together?”
Ciaran clasped his hands behind his neck and set to fretful pacing. “Evaine, you’re frightening me. What’s gotten into you?”
“Why, you have, darling! I was always so timid; not once did I have the courage to stand up for myself. But you showed me how I sabotaged my own happiness for the sake of “peace.” You gave me the strength to tell the truth; you are the flame that lighted the path to my spirit. I can’t – I won’t – go back into the dark.”
The men stirred restlessly, casting furtive glances at Ciaran, who continued his absent-minded pacing. He scraped back his hair and looked imploringly to Robyn. Robyn gave him an ironic smirk and a shrug, a clear signal that he would not be jumping to the rescue in this fight. He returned to join Dafydd and the Bruce, who stood about with heads inclined, idly kicking the dirt, waiting for someone to make a decision or give an order.
“Christ!” swore Ciaran, furrowing his brow. He came to an abrupt stop, hands waving about impotently, then started up again. “Bloody Christ!”
“Blasphemy won’t help,” said Evaine, giving him her infuriating little smile. She rocked forward and back on her toes with her arms wrapped around herself and her head tilted just so.
“Woman,” he said, halting in midstride. “You put me in an impossible position! What do you expect me to do?”
She considered this for a moment. “The sun has gone down,” she said. “I think the time has come to mount up and ride for Caer Blaen.”
“Caer Blaen!” came a chorus of male voices.
“Caer Blaen,” she repeated calmly, “is precisely where we need to go.”
His face lit by a sudden surge of flame, Ciaran approached her directly, took her by the shoulders and leaned in close. “Don’t ever do this to me again,” he warned, his voice low.
“You know perfectly well what,” he said. “You are never to contradict me in front of my men.”
Taken aback by his chastisement, Evaine recoiled momentarily but refused to let him shake her resolve. At the risk of provoking him further, she stood her ground. “I understand how important it is that you maintain your authority, Sweeting, but in this case, I must insist.”
Ciaran exhaled vociferously, nostrils flaring. Without another word, he hoisted her into the saddle and sprang up behind her. “You heard the lady, damn it,” he said. “Time to pay Lionel de Barre a little visit.”