CIARAN SCARCELY SLEPT for the remainder of the night. Shattering visions of captivity, torture, and isolation defeated any hope of rest. So to focus his mind he began to rough out a plan. First, he would need a horse, and next, a suitable disguise. And he must get Evaine to safety. These things could be easily accomplished once he located the nearest priory. Of course, she would protest, but he would try to convince her of the virtue of his strategy.
“And what then?” she demanded after he had laid out his intentions. “Back to Narberth? You are totally unaware of what ambush lies in wait.”
Ciaran opened his mouth to speak but she held up a hand to stay him. “Consider,” she warned, “the possibility of unimaginable horrors dwelling immediately outside this wood, ready to ensnare us the moment we venture forth.”
“You don’t know that,” he said dismissively.
“Perhaps not, but you can’t say with any certainty I’m wrong.”
“Evaine,” Ciaran replied with some annoyance, “you are beginning to try my patience.”
She gave him an infuriating little smile. “Why are you in such a hurry?” she goaded. “Do you weary of me so soon?”
“Of course not. But I abandoned my brothers and fled the battlefield in mid-clash. Duty requires me to return to the fray and finish what I started.”
“Or let them finish you,” she pointed out. Tears sprang to her eyes; she quickly wiped them away. “I don’t want you to go,” she said, her voice quavering with anxiety. Clasping her hands, she sat rocking fretfully, imploring him with those sad, green eyes. And tacitly, her clamoring inner voice cried out: please, don’t leave me!
Her silent entreaty completely overwhelmed his resolve; his plans lay in ruins as he took her in his arms. “I won’t leave you,” he promised. She suddenly seemed so fragile, so defenseless, he couldn’t imagine forsaking her for some meaningless, half-remembered code of honor. He took her chin in his hand and raised her face so he could see himself reflected in her eyes. “Evaine, my heart,” he said lovingly. “You cause me to forget everything I thought I knew. When I am with you – when I am in you – I am mindful of something profound and extremely old, though I can find no words to describe it. But I’m sure of one thing: we belong one to the other, like the sea to the shore, like the earth to the sky. Whatever path we choose, we’ll choose it together.”
She dissolved in a flood of tears. Giving comfort to her fears, he held her tenderly, reassuring her with his strong, gentle hands. He sensed in her a vast sorrow, born of so many hurts and past losses. Grief haunted her, rising and falling on a sweeping tide. Yet surprisingly, he suspected her immense capacity for joy and for love and yes, forgiveness. She embodied a far reaching, nearly limitless expansion of being that mystified him, terrified and enthralled him all at once. An irresistible desire ignited his body; ashamed, he hastily rearranged his limbs to conceal it from her.
“Don’t be embarrassed,” she soothed. “Come here.”
“Oh God, forgive me,” he moaned, distractedly squirming out of her grasp. “You put me in a constant state of -” he swallowed, blood rushing all the way to the roots of his hair.
“Exuberance?” teased Evaine, finishing his sentence with a bewitching little smile.
Ciaran fell back in a mock faint, throwing his hands up in surrender. Surely this beguiling creature with her perpetually shifting moods would turn his wits entirely. Whatever pretense of authority he may have contrived was now hopelessly forfeit. She outplayed him every time, not by deception, but by sheer artlessness.
“Evaine, I – I’m -”
Placing a finger upon his lips, she gently hushed him and took his face between her hands. “I understand you’re troubled over the welfare of your companions,” she acknowledged. “But Lionel de Barre has no quarrel with them; I doubt he aims to do them harm. You’re the one who maligned his dignity and brought disgrace to his good name. He’s justified in seeking revenge on you.”
Ciaran nodded. “I reckon I deserve his ire. I’d be a bit ill-tempered myself if some reprobate made off with my bride.”
“The situation is nothing to jeer at,” Evaine countered. “I hardly know the man, but something tells me he’s not laughing.”
“No. I’m sure he’s deadly serious.”
“This is why I don’t want you to go. What have you to gain? Not a thing, and you could get yourself killed.”
Ciaran let out a sigh of defeat. “But I still feel I owe my uncle and my fellows a debt.”
“Oh, please. Must we continue with this heroic nonsense?”
Ciaran lifted a brow, bristling a little. “Nonsense, is it?”
“Call it male hubris if you like,” Evaine insisted, refusing to give an inch. “When will you learn you don’t constantly have to prove your worth?” She gave him a patient little smile and wagged her head as if indulging a recalcitrant child, then reached out to stroke his cheek with the back of her hand. “Don’t you realize you’re perfectly acceptable as you are?”
Ciaran sighed. “Love is blind,” he said, chuckling softly. “But we can’t simply take up residence in the forest.”
“I suppose not,” Evaine yielded finally, gazing through the leafy canopy at the blue sky above. “Though I do rather like it here.”
Ciaran scoffed. “We’ll see how much you like it after a pelting rain.”
She let out a long breath and tipped her head back, staring up through the mesh of branches. “But it’s so peaceful here. I love listening to the twittering birds and the wind whispering through the trees. For once in my life, I’m not afraid all the time. I think this is the first time I’ve ever felt truly alive.” She looked at him again, her eyes reflecting the deep longing and ambivalence swirling within her. “Sometimes I wonder if a place exists where love can honestly take root and grow and thrive. The world abounds with cruelty; the bonds of mistrust wrap themselves around us so tight. We erect walls to keep us safe, only to find they’ve become prisons where happiness cannot enter.”
“The Summer Country is such a place,” Ciaran asserted, hinting at some knowledge he didn’t possess. “There, violence and superstition cease to exist. Perhaps, one day, we’ll seek love’s eternal bounty in that enchanted realm. Until then, we must do what we can to survive in this one.”