CIARAN HEARD THE LONG MASS, or pretended to, through a haze of weariness. Twice he stopped himself from dozing off. Yet as he sat there, joined quietly by Lord Tomas and Lady Gwenllian and a small gathering of high folk, a caressing calm settled over him. He accepted the bishop’s kiss and at last proceeded from the crowded chapel into a morning bright with promise.
A group of his foster-brothers in jerkins and leather breeches ushered him boisterously into the great hall, where a breakfast of stout ale and roast pheasant awaited him. Ciaran finished his meal in the presence of much noise and spirited laughter, inwardly rejoicing in his new-found composure, and then retired to his own chamber to dress.
Robyn waited at the door, watching his friend with a mildly skeptical grin. “You’re not half pleased with yourself this morning, are you?”
Ciaran stepped past him, ducking beneath the arched doorway, and went at once to the casement to peer into the courtyard below. “And why shouldn’t I be? Listen to them.”
Robyn followed him into the room. “I’m ignorance itself,” he said dryly. “Considering your festering doubts of yesternight, your alacrity surprises me. Why the change of heart?”
Ciaran turned, setting aside the shouts from the concourse. He unclasped the scarlet cloak, shrugged it off his shoulders and stood holding it for a moment. “Joy exalts me this morning, Robyn, not vanity.” He sat and began unlacing his shirt, regarding his friend with a smile. “I’m about to be sworn,” he said softly as if even now he scarcely believed it. “It’s a long time coming, and I’m glad of it with all my heart.” He stood and stripped off his hose, looking around for his shift.
Robyn handed it to him. “You’re not disappointed, then? That it came so easily?”
A shadow passed over Ciaran’s face for an instant; he shrugged it away. “I’d be a fool to argue, wouldn’t I? I admit I feel something of a thief, but better to take what he gives me now, while his heart’s in it.”
Ciaran laughed. “You aim square and shoot straight, don’t you, my friend?”
Robyn sat on the narrow bed and looked at him. “For all the years I’ve known you, I’m still mostly baffled by your moods. We all thought you’d quit Narberth forever, you know.” He turned a little away, his voice low. “You left in such a rage – ”
Ciaran hushed him with a gentle nudge. “You said so yourself, ap Gryffin. I must have come back for a reason. Apparently, this is it.”
“I wonder what changed his mind,” said Robyn.
“Who, Tomas? Fear, no doubt. It would serve him naught to turn me against him. I’m all he’s got. In the end, what choice did he have?”
Robyn laid a hand on Ciaran’s shoulder. “Well, you’re back,” he said, dismissing all else for the moment. “To my mind, that’s cause enough for celebration.”
Friends of Lord Tomas milled around outside the chamber, having come to witness the prince’s preparations and offer their compliments and congratulations. Soon a servitor rapped on the door, announcing all was ready.
Ciaran strode into the teeming enclosure, purest white from head to foot. For once he made no pretense of rebuffing the frank admiration of everyone who gazed upon him, lords and ladies alike. Standing tall and dignified, he basked in the sounds of their blessings and salutes.
Twin trumpets blared, announcing the ceremony. Ciaran glanced about, his quick, bright eyes sweeping over the silks and fine woolens, until at last, he saw Evaine. She wore the green gown, the one he had commissioned for her, and seeing this, his heart swelled. Her long hair, bedecked with small, white flowers, fell in a dark profusion over her shoulders. He beamed, knowing she had dressed especially for him.
Accompanied by the festive assembly, Ciaran crossed the bailey and went forth to the exercise ground. He moved with his accustomed stride, full of purpose and princely grace. As he proceeded through the cheering throng, something in him began to sing. He arrived at the rostrum several steps ahead of the spectators and mounted, bowing before his lord.
Tomas received him graciously, kissing him on both cheeks, and then drew him into the company of trusted nobles and countrymen to stand at his side. Howell ap Gruffydd stood to Ciaran’s right, and the others, men of virtue and distinction who battled courageously under the banner of the Red Dragon, took their places around the circle.
Ciaran’s heart began to beat a little faster, spurred by a swelling tide of expectation. He closed his eyes and drew a deep, calming breath. Tomas lifted the jeweled goblet filled with rich, fragrant wine, red as the blood of his ancestors, and passed it to his nephew. “Drink,” he said, “and remember your father and his father before him. Do nothing to tarnish their names. Know you join with all present today in this company, the blood flowing in your veins one with the blood of your kindred, and hold firm in the knowledge that you shall know honor among them.”
Ciaran brought the cup to his lips, tasted the wine, held it in his mouth. The blood of my kindred. Silently he repeated each word, and as he swallowed, he let his eyes move deliberately around the coterie. As he looked into the eyes of the gathered men, he sensed the apprehension behind their rough affection and pride.
Tomas took the cup from him and motioned for him to kneel. With a grave smile, he laid the sword once belonging to Prince Morgan in his hands. “Use it in good faith, my boy,” he said, and his voice broke just a little.
Ciaran grasped the hilt and placed a kiss upon its Ruby center stone. His voice seemed to come from very far away as if someone else spoke. “I, Ciaran, son of Morgan, son of Bran, call on Heaven to witness that I am your man. As Prince of Narberth, I swear to uphold the name of my lord in all things, to lead my men in battle and to draw first blood.”
Tomas nodded and covered Ciaran’s hand on the pommel of Morgan’s sword. “I, Tomas, in the name of my brother Morgan, and my father Bran, do swear by God to be your faithful lord, and to be worthy of your loyal service.”
Tomas drew him to his feet, and Ciaran sheathed the sword at his side. “And now, Lord Ciaran,” Tomas commanded, “Son of Morgan, son of Bran, Lord of the southern provinces and Prince of Narberth, be brave. Revere all fighting men and love God. Go!”
“Thank you, fair Liege, and may God heed you.” Ciaran raised his eyes to look out over the crowd of youths, bright-shined and eager, properly mantled in full livery. “And now,” he shouted, “to all who would unite with me, let them come forth.” He descended the dais surrounded by ringing shouts and cheers.
Towering over all the others, the giant, red-haired Bruce shouldered through the onlookers, young Dafydd tagging behind. “Let us be the first to pledge our swords,” the Bruce declared, sea-colored eyes shining beneath copper brows. One by one, his fellows approached him, all swearing their oaths of loyalty.
Robyn, spruce in his finest leather and wearing the emblazoned cloak of Narberth, winked at him privately amidst the jostling and plaudits. Gwilym appeared detached and remote, yet he bore no hint of ill-will, only a courteous diplomacy that distanced him from the rest and stirred in Ciaran a wary interest.
Tomas waved to his marshal. “Bring in the horse!” A freshly barbered stable boy led in Ciaran’s beloved Rhiannon, faultlessly groomed, in dazzling harness. Ciaran’s exultation broke free. He ran, leaping joyously, effortlessly, to the saddle at one bound, and as was the custom, without touching foot to stirrup. The shout went up.
Robyn sprinted up with Ciaran’s lance, its’ brilliant, long-tailed pennons streaming and handed him his newly painted shield.
Ciaran’s breath caught. Fire filled his eyes. Then, suddenly laughing, triumphant, he lifted the buckler, raising it high for all to see. It blazed green and white and scarlet with the proud emblem of the Red Dragon.