The Flamebearer Chapter Twenty-Five

THEY LAY TOGETHER beneath the holy megalith, wrapped in each other’s arms, and through a veil of glistening leaves, beheld the sky’s first blush. All flourished in the secrecy and safety of this enchanted place, each branch, and leaf and tangled vine, each warbling bird, each fruit, each flower.

Ciaran sensed his own reflection in the timeless grace of the old oaks, the silence of the great stone, and the clear, blue brilliance of eternal sky. He was alive. His sight was returning, and the wound in his thigh, though still painful, would mend. He would run again and ride, and dance with the wind.

They rested for a long, quiet time, hearts beating against each other, hands entangled in each other’s hair. Deeply and silently, Ciaran gazed upon the face of his beloved. He looked into her eyes, into the mystery and the miracle of her. She was like fathomless water, like the richness of wine, the dark fire of rubies. She was a cave, abundant with ore, yet unexplored. Whatever sorrow those depths concealed, he didn’t care. He only wanted more of her and more.

She traced with her fingers the arch of his brow. “Your eyes,” she said. “They look different; they bear an uncanny glow. I can see into your soul.”

“And what do you see?” he asked.

“A thousand mysteries,” she answered. “Riddles inside of riddles. Questions without answers. ”

Ciaran smiled. “It’s extraordinary. There’s a strange nimbus encircling everything, and a pulsing current connecting each thing to the next.”

“Even you and I?” Evaine stroked his long arm, sought his hand and let her fingers twine in his.

“Especially you and I.” He raised her hand, kissed it, held it up to trace its luminous contours. “Do you see it?”

“No. But I sense it, like a hidden fire.”

A lock of her hair blew across his face. He took it between his fingers and caressed the silken tangle of it, burying his face in its fragrant profusion. He brushed her lips with his fingertips and followed with his mouth, exploring and tasting with his tongue every subtlety of her sweetness. He ached with tenderness for her, yearned to put all her burdens to rest, to free her from the memory of pain and death and loss.

Her trembling stirred his passion. “Evaine,” he breathed, drawing her nearer. “I want to touch you. I need to feel your skin against my skin.” She remained still, lifting her dark eyes to his. Her eyes, full of trust and sadness, bespoke immeasurable truths. “You’re so beautiful,” he declared. “I burn for you. But I would not take from you that which is yours alone to give.”

Evaine bundled closer to him still, her cheek against his brow, and spoke softly in his ear. “I have given you my heart,” she affirmed. “Once I reproached you for taking it from me, but I was wrong. You have always been the other half of me, even when my fear denied it. Yet what would the future be for me without you? A long, visionless exile in the heart of darkness.”

This took the breath from him. “You have changed,” he said.

“Yes. Only not in the way you think.”

He studied her face as if to preserve it in memory for all time. She appeared at once tender and fierce, her face streaked with dirt and tears, the leaves and twigs clinging to the reckless coils of her untended hair, and the berry-red bud of her mouth petulant with its little frown. Until now he had been afraid of wounding her, of sullying her innocence with the ruthlessness of his lust. But an unmistakable change was beginning to manifest in her, some mysterious alchemy that intrigued and baffled him. She bore the essence of Child and Woman simultaneously inside a single form. His own eyes witnessed their dual emergence. Yet somehow she transcended the merely physical.

This subtle unfolding did not diminish his need but ignited it all the more. Inflamed with passion, he sensed a dawning rage at what might have been done to her, what had been done to her. Ciaran took her in his arms as if to shield her from some violence of which he was only dimly aware.

She cleaved to his solidness as if she feared he might shimmer and fade even as he enfolded her in his strong, protective embrace. Her hands pressed against his back and she tugged at his belt, yearning for his flesh as he hungered for hers.

“Help me,” he beseeched her, his heart hammering, too weak to divest himself of tunic, shirt, and – he realized with sudden irrational modesty he was not wearing hose or garters. “Why you little wanton, you’ve half undressed me already.” Evaine stifled her laughter against his shoulder. “You forget my lord, how I tended you after the fire at Bri Leith. I got a look at more of you then than you ever guessed.”

She confounded his every expectation. His mastery of the situation swiftly collapsing, Ciaran blushed furiously and allowed her to strip him bare. Having rendered him utterly defenseless, she rose and unlaced her gown, letting the thick folds fall at her feet. Ciaran watched in mute suspense, scarcely able to take a breath. When at last she settled beside him clad in nothing but her skin, his entire being caught fire.

It all struck him as a fantastic dream, that she lay unclothed beside him in the green-entangled shade of this wilderness refuge, giving herself to him so honestly and openly. Turning away from death and darkness, they reached toward the radiant light within each other, vowing to reveal everything, to strip away the masks they wore to protect themselves, to transmute fear into love.

Evaine let her palms glide smoothly over his pale, sensitive flesh, taking unconcealed delight in exploring every Moon-white inch of him. Ciaran labored to steady his breathing, to slow down, to hold off. He wanted to give her all the time she needed to learn every angle and curve of his body, to wonder at the sheer translucency of his skin with the blue veins visible beneath. She explicitly marveled at his hard, muscular slenderness and masculine beauty. Her open sensuality and the pure joy she expressed in touching him melted away a lifetime of shame.

“How fair you are,” she remarked, drinking him in like a rare wine.

Ciaran found himself blushing like a maiden. His hands, with wills of their own, moved over her without thought or purpose, other than to savor every aspect of her loveliness.

Evaine trailed her hands over the firm, sinewy muscles of his chest and arms, caressed his long, narrow hands. She set her lips upon the hard pulse throbbing in his throat, and when her mouth moved over his temple, he detected the faint tingle of her breath and a tremor rippled through him.

His desire kindled and he pulled her close, his hands cradling the soft, yielding weight of her breasts. He heard her little gasp as his fingers brushed the sweet, rosy tips, and he brought her up tight against him, exposing his body’s searing readiness. To hold her like this was maddening, yet he managed to temper the fire. This suppleness, this perfection gave life to his soul, breathed strength back into him.

“Look at me,” he said. He wanted their coupling to unfold in complete awareness of the moment; nothing hidden, nothing withheld. Their eyes met and locked; Ciaran could not have torn his gaze from her if he tried. “Evaine, if ever I loved you before it was nothing to what I feel now. Once you were a vision, some marvelous creation of my longing. But now, God help me, you are real. I am hopelessly and completely conquered.”

Her little nod and the roses that bloomed on her cheeks were all the reply he needed. Growing urgent in his lust, he grasped her hips and pressed her hard against him, aching to pierce her irresistible softness. The friction between his legs surged into his belly. But he contained the fire, endured the ache, and kept his hands moving ardently over her body.

Her breathing quickened and she could not quite keep her eyes upon him as he fondled her. He bent his head down and began to suckle her breasts, coaxing fervent moans from her. This he continued at length, savoring the way she arched her back and clutched at him, uttering the sweetest little murmurs of affirmation in his ear. At last, flushed and quivering, he raised his face again to look at her. She curled against him with her eyes closed, the dark brows slightly drawn, her lips parted, absorbed in her body’s sensations.

“Evaine, I want you to touch me.”

A vivid glow flooded her cheeks as she half-opened her eyes.

“Don’t be afraid,” he told her. “You know what to do. The body knows.” He took her hand and discreetly drew it down, showing her the strength of his arousal. Stiffening further under her touch, Ciaran held himself still, suspended in a rushing, burning void. “Just hold me,” he panted. He held her hand firmly against him, motionless, and his breath came hard and fast, knowing that with this intimate caress he revealed the whole of himself to her.

They lay entwined together, fully exposed and defenseless, rapt with each other. Help me to understand this mystery, he prayed. Help me to tell the truth, to be humble, to be wise. Sensitively, he began to stroke her belly and the soft, dark hair below, and with infinite tenderness, his fingers slipped into the moist, secret cleft between her thighs. Her breath halted and her legs trembled a little. “I’ll be gentle,” he promised. “Tell me if it hurts.”

Gradually, she opened to him, and her hips began to rock with the steady, rhythmic motion of his hand. “I want to give you every pleasure,” he said. “I’ll wait if I must; I want it to be right, for you, for me. I want you to want it as I do.” She began to grow damp, and she tossed her head a little and raked his back with her nails, her breath quickening as he went on moving his fingers inside of her. Holding her securely in the crook of his arm, he moved his hand with scrupulous patience, his long fingers reaching, caressing, probing.

At that moment he grazed the barrier of her innocence. In a chaos of confusion, he froze with his fingers still deep-sheathed in her. “Evaine,” he said, swallowing his tumult, “Lionel de Barre did not penetrate you.”

Her face went ashen and her brows came together in her little frown. “No,” she said quietly. “Are you angry with me?”

“Christ, no! I’m – ” Ciaran shut his eyes, laboring to breathe. “I’m leagues away from angry. But I thought – Evaine, in the name of all the saints, why didn’t you tell me?”

“I tried to tell you, but I was ashamed,” she said. “Clearly my Lord did not take a liking to me. I told you I had not changed in the way you imagined.”

Not knowing whether to laugh or cry, Ciaran seized her in a frenzy of exultation and gratitude. “Then as Heaven wills it, my love, I am your true husband.”

She melted in his arms, her lips upon his mouth. “Then take me, my husband. Take all of me. Take my love.”

His heart came into his throat, and for one agonizing moment, he hung suspended, dancing on the raw edge of a blade. Turning on to his back, he drew her with him. “Come on top of me,” he urged.

“Yes,” she said. “Oh, yes.” She moved over him, her hair tumbling over his face and chest. Her lips trembled and tears spilled from her eyes, streamed over her flushed cheeks, leaving little white pathways through the smudges of dirt. She sucked in her breath and held it as she looked down at him.

“Gentle,” he murmured. He guided her carefully down upon him and experienced a small, sharp explosion of pleasure as she fitted her body to his. “Ah. Oh, love. There you are. Don’t move.”

Her eyes fastened upon him in breathless astonishment. For the space of several heartbeats, they beheld each other with wondering, reverent silence. Evaine bent low over him, her forehead against his, shuddering with a little convulsion as he began to move inside her. “It’s not at all how I dreamed it,” she confided.

Ciaran released his breath into her hair. “You dreamed of it too?”

“Too many times to count,” she confessed.

This new revelation aroused him to his core. He took her face in his hands and kissed her mouth, long and searchingly, as he moved inside her. Within the flowering matrix of her love, he found the answer to years of longing. In her open-hearted surrender, he found release from the anguish of his self-denial. In her easy acceptance, he found deliverance from his lifelong exile. He had come home, at last, to himself.

He let his hands move over the smooth curve of her back. Then, deepening his thrusts, he grasped her firm, round buttocks and pulled her down hard against him. She gasped, her eyes wide with shock at the intensity of sensation, her glowing face the only thing he saw, the only thing that mattered. Her face became his universe, the life in him surging toward her. He could not hold back any longer, could not tame the fire threatening to consume them both.

He knew with vast regret it would soon be over. He wanted it to go on forever, wanted to reach the very depths of her, to lose himself in the sensuality and suppleness of her warm, willing body. Trembling and panting in sweet agony, she writhed above him, her cheeks inflamed, eyes half-closed.

Rapidly losing command of his body, Ciaran swelled into her honey sweetness, his thrusts lengthening and deepening with each stroke. “Evaine,” he panted. “I’m nearly – ah, oh God, can you feel me?”

“Yes!” she cried out. “Oh – yes, yes!”

Rushing irrevocably over the edge, he groaned as the fire and the life streamed into her, his body convulsing with its volcanic release. He arched his back, straining to reach her moist, exquisite center.

Helpless, sobbing, she opened wide to receive it all, all, all of him. Her breath in his breath, her tears on his face, her entire being yielded to him, surrounded and absorbed him, pulled him all the way into the deepest place where their spirits and souls and bodies converged. And she cried, “Yes!” again and again and again.

Their hearts clamored as if they would burst. For a long time, they clung to each other, joined in quivering, panting amazement, waiting for their breath to return to them. Ciaran could not bear to let her go. Love sang in him, expanded far beyond the linking of bodies to embrace everything, every breath and heartbeat, every dream and every desire. To love like this, he thought, to love like this! It is to belong to each other forever.

Returning to earth by degrees, Ciaran awakened to the cruel throbbing in his thigh. He set his jaw against it. “My leg,” he groaned. “I think we’ve started it bleeding again.”

A flood of empathy washed over Evaine’s face as she looked at him. “Lie quiet,” she whispered. With utmost care she withdrew from him, covering her mouth with her hand as she inspected the blood-soaked rag binding his leg.

“We are both bleeding like slaughtered lambs,” Ciaran proclaimed, heaving a great sigh. He struggled to raise himself. With her arms around him for support, he sat, half-leaning with his naked back against cold stone.

“Dear Heaven!” she exclaimed, reaching for a crumpled cloak to cover him. She embraced him generously as she wrapped it around his shoulders, and then stood, clothed in nothing but her hair. “Don’t move,” she warned. Before he could restrain her, she was scampering over the dew-laden grass, bending down to soak the tattered remnants of her sleeve in the sparkling spring.

Oblivious to her dishevelment, she ran back to him, shivering. Immediately, she began tending his wound. Brows drawn in concern, she worked at the knots in his bindings with small, deft fingers. He observed her intently, stricken by her guilelessness. Had this fey creature been his destiny from the start? She had become more a spirit of nature than a girl, and he found her emergent wildness totally engaging.

He tried vainly to remember what she been and found to all reckoning he could not. Had she refashioned herself in his blindness, or had he been blind to the reality of her all along? Would she, like a clever shape-shifter, transform again and again, until he was dizzy with her capriciousness? Something primitive had awakened in her, whether she recognized it or not. She was no longer of the ordinary world, of this he could be certain. He longed to comprehend this mysterious substance of which she was made, to let it wash over him, amaze him, shock him, even alarm him.

Catching him looking at her, she paused in her labors and wiped her face with the backs of her hands. “I must look a fright,” she said, “with my snarled hair and my dirty face. And both of us covered in blood.”

“I find you more lovely than ever,” was all he could say. He flinched at the sting of her potion as she worked it into his ragged flesh. “And how did you learn these ancient arts, my little witch?”

Her eyes widened in pious horror. “It is simple folk medicine, my lord, and you should be grateful to the nuns who taught it to me.”

Ciaran laughed. “Indeed I am,” he replied, sinking into the warmth of his mantle. The air felt cool against his skin and uncommonly peaceful as if the world had taken on a radiant new color and pitch. Nothing was as it had been. All the fears and torments of the past had dissolved, leaving him breathless with new hope.

She evoked in him such potency, a power more compelling than any he had ever known. The veracity of it pierced him, made him quiver. In her, he had found a lost part of himself. Never again would he want for anything. In that moment, all suffering perished in the blaze of his own fierce joy.

Chapter Twenty-Six

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