The Flamebearer Chapter Twenty-Four

CIARAN’S EYELASHES FLUTTERED against his cheeks, tears glistened in them under the quivering lids. His belly rumbled and he moved his leg a fraction. It caught fire. He drew a short, ragged breath and opened his eyes. Moonlight. Movement. A tangle of black hair against his face. He leaned into that softness, embraced it, feeding on her warmth and her life, taking in gulping breaths of her.

His hands moved over her body, his only desire to savor the sweet, silken mystery he held in his arms, to restore himself in the richness of her life-giving embrace. The warmth of her skin, the smell of her hair could sustain him forever.

Even in slumber, she wept. Her breath shuddered with her sobs. As he held her, she appeared to grow smaller, shrinking to fit the confining dimensions of her fears. She coiled against him like a small child, her back curving into his chest and belly, her arms crossed over her breasts as if to withhold her grief from him.

Ciaran enfolded her in his arms while she cried, her sorrow piercing his heart with a thousand arrows. He peered into her suffering, reached into it as he had groped through the thorns and thickets of his own torment. If only he could wash it all away.

With infinite tenderness he let his hand move over the crook of her arm, let his fingers curl around hers. She stirred, waking under his touch, and covered his hand with her own. For a moment, neither of them moved or spoke.

“You’re alive,” Evaine pronounced at last. “I thought I’d lost you.”

“I’m not lost,” Ciaran answered sleepily, his voice cracking a little. “I’m right here.”

She turned in his arms, lifting her face to look at him in the pearlescent morning light. Ciaran smiled at the dirt and tear-stained mess of her, stroking her smudged cheeks with his thumbs.

She failed to recognize the gesture at first. Then, observing how his eyes tracked and held her gaze, she gasped. “You can see!”

“Yes,” he testified. “Well enough to see you’re fair as I remember.” He caressed the smooth arc of her forehead, her cheek, her trembling chin. “I’m right here,” he repeated, saying it more to himself than to her.

She took his face in her hands and looked at him. “Such an exquisite face,” she said.

“Even with this unsightly score through my brow?”

She traced the deep, red mark running through his eyebrow and ending just below his left eye. “Does it hurt?” she asked.

“Only a little.”

“Your first battle-scar,” she mused. “I regret it was on my account.” She let her fingers move over his throat and down to his chest. “Strange,” she reflected, “Somehow, I’m sure I knew you even before I met you. My life up to that day was just waiting for you to arrive.”

“I tried to tell you that once,” he reminded her. “You thought I was mad.”

“Yet in truth we hardly know each other at all.”

“Perhaps not,” he acknowledged, “but somehow my mind knows your mind; my heart knows your heart.”

She answerd him with a sigh and a little nod. “I was so afraid you would pass away during the night,” she whispered. “I could not imagine what I would have done.”

Ciaran reached down to inspect his bruised and bloodied leg. “Shaft’s gone,” he noted with relief. “You apparently did surgery on me at some point.”

“Yes,” she verified. “You don’t remember? You got so angry with me.”

“Angry? With you? Sweetness, I would never – ” He pulled her close, soothing her with gentle caresses.

“You startled me half to death with your oaths and your shouting. I suppose you did what you had to – to force me to face up to the task.”

He gathered her in his arms. “My love, forgive me, I never meant to frighten you.”

“No harm done. How is it now?”

“Not bad as long as I lie quiet. The slightest movement, though, and the damn thing throbs like the Devil.”

Evaine frowned sympathetically. “There was naught for a bandage but my sleeve,” she went on. “I tied it as tightly as I could and I found some turmeric root for your cuts and bruises.”

“I owe you my gratitude. Lord knows how I would have coped without you.” He turned his face into the masses of her hair, and for a long time, he clasped her to his heart, letting the pulsing life of her stream into him. The rustling of wind in the trees brought him back to himself and ushered in fresh understanding. “Evaine,” he declared. “You saved my life.”

She looked at him again with her sad, dark eyes. “You almost seemed to will death upon yourself,” she said. “You withdrew so far into the depths only the angels could have called you back.”

“I recall no angels,” he told her truthfully. “Only the slenderest thread that somehow kept me connected to you.”

“I too have visited the darkness,” she revealed timidly. “Unwilling, and besieged with grief, I could not stop myself from peering into its black heart.”

“And yet,” Ciaran surmised, “you are no stranger to the dark places. I think you know them more intimately than you pretend.”

A flush came to her cheeks as she looked at him, her eyes full of fear and self-doubt. “I’ve dwelt in the shadows most of my life,” she confessed. “Imprisoned by the good intentions of those who would protect me. But where are they now? Dead, all of them. Dead and gone.” She buried her face in his shoulder, unable now to stop the tears. She lay curled in his arms, hiding her face with her hands. “Sometimes,” she confided, her whisper so soft he could scarcely make out her words, “I secretly prayed for them to die.” She waited for his response, as if expecting him to shrink from the terrible truth of her confession.

Instead, he held her more closely. Her candor coaxed from him every tenderness; he raised her face and looked deeply into her eyes. Speaking to her heart, he reassured her. “You did not cause them to die. You only wished for a chance to shape your own life. Is that a sin?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “Perhaps it is.”

“You were a child, with dreams and longings like any other. Do you not have a right to joy, to love, to some place of your own in this world? Is not every mortal endowed with that right?”

She looked down. “But I am only a woman.”

Ciaran shrugged. “And I, only half a man.” Stricken by the irony, he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Suddenly the smallness of the life he had prescribed for himself struck him as comical. “I’ve lived at such a frantic pace, always pushing, trying to get somewhere, trying to prove myself worthy. And all it’s ever brought me is disappointment and failure.” He exhaled softly, marveling at the futility of it all.

Evaine gazed at him in awe. “The world is such a frightening place,” she said. “All my life I’ve dreaded its cruelty and its violence. To avoid facing it, I retreated into myself, hoping for some small measure of peace and safety.” She looked down, attempting to hide her shame. “I always left the important decisions to others. How can I disavow everything expected of me?”

Ciaran frowned. “Are you to sacrifice yourself, then? Forfeit your soul, surrender, go back to a life of oppression and tyranny at the hands of your husband who most vigorously wants to kill me?”

Evaine sat up. Dragging her hair back from her shoulders, she looked at him and almost laughed. “I never thought of it like that,” she admitted. She shook her head, sighing at the plight of her torn and filthy gown, darkened with blood and dirt. “My husband! The man’s old enough to be my father! It would be humorous if it weren’t so tragic.”

“You said it before,” Ciaran reminded her. “Those who denied you a life of your own no longer possess the power to control you.”

“Perhaps not,” she acknowledged. “Still, I’m not sure how to go on without them. Gwilym was always the wise one. I trusted his judgment completely.” Her face crumpled at the mention of his name and she lowered her head into her hands.

Ciaran’s throat closed as the fact of Gwilym’s death crushed in on him. “Then your welfare rests entirely with me,” he realized. He took this reality to heart, vowing silently to live up to the promise he had made to her brother. Contrasting his life with hers, he recognized another irony: he had habitually thrust himself into the world in an effort to flee the chaotic forces inside.

“I imagine I might still seek charity from the nuns,” she went on, coyly putting his commitment to the test. She paused, pretending to work at the snarls in her hair. “In case you should grow tired of me.”

“Dear heart,” Ciaran assured her, “I do not foresee such a day. Unless, of course, you long for the seclusion of the convent?”

Evaine scowled, and when she did, Ciaran could have mistaken her for Gwilym’s twin.

“The sisters raised me,” she explained. “I grew closer to them than to my own kin. It was the abbess who taught me to read and write, as well as the usual domestic arts: sewing and embroidery, and of course spinning, weaving, and herbal medicine, along with brewing and candle-making.”

Ciaran’s ears pricked up at her mention of brewing. What he wouldn’t give for a pint of ale.

“When I was a child, they let me care for the baby animals. I loved the kids and the lambs best. But I also got to feed the pigs and the chickens. Sadly, foals and calves were off-limits to the little ones, ever since a day-old calf kicked one of the sisters in the head. They say she was never the same after that.”

Ciaran laughed, imagining the poor child wandering the halls of the priory with a slightly addled look in her eyes.

“Saints! Listen to me rattling on. I don’t know what’s come over me – you must think my wits have deserted me entirely, crying like a baby one minute and giving you my life’s history the next.”

“I love you,” he said simply.

Evaine pressed her lips together and covered her mouth with the back of her hand. Rocking gently, she closed her eyes and let the tears come.

Ciaran could only look at her.

“Come, be with me,” he suggested at last. “Let me hold you. Let us claim the moment; it’s all we have.” It was then he noticed the great stone looming over them, the circle of grizzled oaks, the curious, unearthly light settling into their sheltered hollow. “Evaine, my love, whether by fate or fortune, you’ve found for us the perfect refuge. We have been resting here in the grove of the ancients,” he said. “Shielded by magic.”

Chapter Twenty-Five

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