THE SOUNDS OF snapping twigs aroused him from his sleep; the smell of horseflesh alerted his nostrils. Silently, Ciaran reached for his dagger and covered Evaine’s mouth with the palm of his hand. She stirred under his touch, eyes wide with alarm. Lie quiet, he warned with a gesture. Slowly raising himself to a low crouch, he waited, knife in hand, senses awakened, muscles coiled for action. The hairs rose on the back of his neck.
The clanking of metal advanced towards them, encroaching dangerously upon the safety of their secret bower. Would the traveler pass without discovering them? Or would he soon find himself drawn into a deadly confrontation? Ciaran’s pulse quickened as the rustling of the intruder drew nearer. Through the early morning haze, he could barely make out the shape of a lone horseman silhouetted against the trees. He had eased his mount to a slow walk, and though his face remained hidden within the dark cowl, something about the way he sat his horse, the angle of his shoulders, the tilt of his head seemed eerily familiar.
The bay had clearly picked up the scent. The rider kept his head down, examining the ground for tracks, and then dismounted to get a closer look. Seizing the moment, Ciaran hastily slipped his shirt over his head and crept around behind the unwary interloper. Taking care not to spook the animal, he inched close enough to apprehend the stranger from behind, catching him off guard. “Looking for someone?” he purred, his blade lightly grazing the man’s cheek. Instantly, his adversary had him by the forearms, twisting the dirk from his grasp. One deft backward kick knocked his feet out from under him, and a sudden forward lurch hurled him head over heels into the dirt. Ciaran lay sprawled on his back, red-faced, gasping for breath.
From behind him came a hearty guffaw. “What’s the matter, old man? Going soft?”
“Ap Gryffin?” Ciaran could scarcely believe his ears. “Outlaw! I could have slit your bloody throat!”
“Ah, but you didn’t,” said Robyn, looming over him. He pulled off his hood and raked out his hair. “And I don’t need to point out who’s lying flat, now do I?”
Ciaran scowled, then arched his back, grimacing in pain. “I must have landed on a damned root. It struck the wind out of me.”
Robyn extended an arm and hauled Ciaran to his feet. “Sorry about that. I didn’t know it was you.”
“Likewise.” Ciaran flung a forearm around Robyn’s neck, pulling him in and landing a series of short, sharp blows to his chest. “Devil damn you, I thought you were dead. What the blazes are you doing here?”
“Ow!” Robyn cried, flinching from Ciaran’s assault. “Searching for you, as usual. Lucky I found you before de Barre and his vigilantes hunted you down. We’ve no time to waste. Is Evaine with you?”
“Of course,” Ciaran replied. “Beyond those trees, beside the great stone.”
Robyn shook himself free. “Judging by the prevailing unrest along the border, she’ll not be safe anywhere near Narberth.”
“Right enough,” Ciaran acknowledged. “We’ve had our disagreements about that. She refuses to go back to the convent, and frankly, she’s very persuasive when she’s made up her mind.”
Robyn lifted a brow. “Your little lass is growing a spine,” he remarked with no small degree of admiration.
A gentle smile softened Ciaran’s face. He nodded, gazing off into nowhere. “Surprising, but I think that spine has been there all along. We were simply too dazzled to notice it.”
“Speak for yourself,” said Robyn.
“You’ll see,” Ciaran assured him. “She’s no docile maiden, now.”
“I gather by the gleam in your eye, you’re more besotted than ever.”
“That obvious, is it?”
Robyn lowered his chin a fraction and glanced at Ciaran from beneath raised brows, offering a one-shoulder shrug. Ciaran had learned during the course of their fellowship to interpret his friend’s unspoken speech, a language built on an asymmetrical stance, a wry grin that started at one corner of his mouth and gradually worked its way to the other, and a distinctly expressive pair of eyebrows capable of conveying extraordinary nuance when the situation demanded it.
“Now I’ve found you,” Robyn went on, “wait here while I go back and retrieve the rest of the cohort. We brought a spare roan and a basic cloak and tunic; we thought it prudent to keep things plain – no need to trumpet your whereabouts to the world just yet. Oh, and for the little lady: a nun’s habit. Odds are she’ll hate me for it, but it’ll have to serve for now.”
“Brilliant, ap Gryffin. How far back are they?”
“Not far. Give me a quarter of an hour.”
Ciaran grinned. “Make it three quarters and it’s a bargain.”