The Flamebearer Chapter Twenty-One

CIARAN SUFFERED THE humiliation of being led to the castle gates. White as death, he entered the Great Hall as if going to the gallows. Robyn had washed his face and brushed the blood and dirt from his hair. Over his left eye he wore a patch Robyn had fashioned for him from a scrap of leather.

“The boards are thronged,” Robyn exclaimed. “There must be a hundred torches – it’s like the blaze of noon.”

A taut silence followed, broken by a curious little noise from Ciaran’s throat. He had to moisten his lips to speak. “I see nothing,” he said grimly. “The darkness grows darker still.” Heat from the crowded chamber bore down upon him. Someone thrust a cup into his hand; he raised it to his lips but could not force himself to drink. Serving men plied past him; youths sang out shrilly, their lewd verses greeted by the feasters with obscene delight. Ciaran stifled a dry cough. The pungency of roasted meats and wine-sodden cakes sickened him; the shriek of viols and pounding of drums resounded painfully in his head, bringing fresh agonies.

Guardsmen, menacing in his blindness, moved to surround him. Ciaran held himself straight. “Get back,” he warned. Something struck his shoulder and he recoiled, helpless and angry.

Robyn steered him gently but firmly forward. From all around him came whispers: scornful, pitying. Ciaran felt his kinsmen close by. Fragments of their appraisal played in his head; he sensed their uncertainty and their rancor. Crippled with shame, he bowed his head, shielding them from his despair.

His rival appeared in high spirits, oblivious, shouting over the bawling minstrels for more wine. Tossed in confusion, Ciaran shrank into himself.

Inescapably, Evaine infused his awareness. Regret lanced his heart, tore it raw and bleeding from his chest and laid it at her feet. How much would she pity him, how sharp was her pain? He heard her voice, not wanting to hear it, unable to defend himself. Too late, my prince.

He swayed, knocking over a tray. Robyn bolstered him; a dog growled.

He felt his face burn, felt all the eyes of this alien place boring into him, mocking him. The Cambrian prince, blinded, disgraced. This was beyond endurance. All glory was gone, all hope defeated. Yet he could not let them devour him limb by limb. He set his teeth and schooled himself to stone.

“Ah, the young prince,” came a voice, foreign, yet familiar, with no trace of mockery in it. “So, our belated guest has arrived. And you have come under your own power,” said the lord of Caer Blaen as if speaking to a child. “Come, sit. There is still plenty to eat and drink. Renew yourself with our excellent wine.”

Someone provided a bench; dutifully, Ciaran sat. A servant placed a goblet in his hands and this time Ciaran took it, drinking more deeply than he had intended. It brought a welcome warmth to his belly. Flames leaped in his head, red lightning darted through his blindness.

Through stiff lips, Ciaran spoke. “Salutations à vous, mon seigneur, et à vous, Madame, la plus belle des épouses.”

He sat motionless, fixing her with sightless eyes. Grateful he need look at nothing else forever, he wished he need never speak again, yet every ear in the assembly strained to hear what he might say. He forced his mouth to open, his teeth to part. Scarcely having the strength to speak, he managed to rasp out a whisper. “Lady, I have failed in battle to win you. For me there is no greater disgrace. In my heart, I shall love you always. I only pray you will find it in yours to forgive.”

He waited unmoving for what felt like an eternity. And then, she spoke in silence, so only he could hear: You would have been my choice of all men, had that choice been mine.

He lowered his head. “I’ve been a fool.”

“You have sacrificed much,” she said aloud. “Perhaps, if I had been wise or brave, I could have prevented it. But I think not.”

“No one could have dissuaded me,” he admitted, “though many tried. Even your new lord, who sits beside you.” His mind whirled in a burning, wearying round. I have lost you forever. I can only hope my folly has killed your love, so you might be spared the anguish that ravages me.

At first, she said nothing. And then from the depths of her sorrow came a muffled sob, and her heart cried out: If only love could die! Your name has become a rhythm in my blood. My dreams move to the sound of it; my body aches to feel your touch. Even now, knowing I look upon you for the last time – ” Grief drowned her thoughts and she sobbed again.

A priest came to usher the wedded couple to the marriage bed. Soul and body whipped by a thousand lashes, Ciaran stood. The marriage bed. Would she find torment in that bed? Or pleasure? He could not stop himself from picturing it. It stabbed at him in the shadows amid the bellowing, drunken throng. Rampant, murderous visions assailed him. Suffering is good for the soul, he reminded himself.

She was mute as they swept her away, even her mind withdrawing into silence. He could not reach her. Bedeviled by visions of blood and sacrifice, Ciaran rose in a glassy trance and let himself be carried along by the pressing crowd, pushed through a door, down a narrowing corridor, through another door. The way was long and dark, as his life would be without her.

The perfume of incense lay thick upon the air; minstrels played softly from an ante-chamber. Ciaran stood waiting, ensnared between rage and grief, ashamed of the violence beating in his heart. He quickly cast out an image of her, pale before the fire, silently pleading, awaiting her lord’s passion. Jangling impulses raced inside him. She loves me, he told himself. Nothing will change that. Yet, in time, with no one else to love, might she not come to care for him?

Buffeted by drunken lords and serving boys, Ciaran remained silent. He must not betray himself by any ill-timed movement. The company, driven out of the wedding bedchamber, packed the nearby ante-room, ears pressed against the bolted door. At last, mastered by cold, they began to move back along the passageway, their songs and jests slowly merging with the merriment from the banquet.

Ciaran waited, blood shaking. His kinsmen would be coming for him, to lull him with wine and song, promising comfort in the arms of some unfortunate wench. Pain stabbed again, spearing his brain, and yet he saw nothing but dim shapes through a mist of tears. Above his head he felt the heat of a torch glowing in its sconce; he moved instinctively nearer to it. For the first time he realized how cold he had been. He stretched out his hands to the flame. It swelled, danced before him, goading and beckoning.

He stood utterly still. Had the Bordeaux taken his wits, or had they forgotten him? For the space of several breaths he waited, reaching with his inner senses. He perceived no other presence, heard no other voice. Only the beating of his own, wounded heart. Swiftly and without thought he seized the torch from its sconce and thrust it into the rushes at his feet. The straw erupted. He felt a growing fever, smelled the smoldering rushes, his body rapidly heating, and fervently he prayed all craving and want might be consumed in that sweet blaze.

The acrid smell of scorched wool filled his nostrils; his cloak had caught fire. From somewhere he heard shouts; the sounds of mailed feet pounding along the corridor. Too late, Ciaran thought, the heat searing his face. Soundlessly, he began to laugh as fire shot to the rafters. Let it take me, he implored. A troop of men descended upon the inferno, shouts coming from everywhere. Someone flung himself over Ciaran, cursing abominably, struggling to stifle the fire with his body. Others beat at the flames with their cloaks.

Ciaran’s senses grew keen to all around him; yet he held the fire close, loathe to let it go. They were trying to save him, the fools! Didn’t they know he wanted to die? In moments it would have been over. But they wrestled him to the floor, smothered him in woolens, and finally, his flesh pummeled and bruised from their efforts, dragged him from the room.

He lived, but his spirit grew cold. Bitter notions assailed him, tearing like claws. He shuddered and peered about him in the gray gloom, seeking in the shadows not comfort but oblivion. He thought of Evaine, dove-soft and fragrant, clasped in the arms of her lord and his heart writhed within him. Had she gladly given her maidenhead? Had she clutched at him with eager fingers, her face blooming with pleasure as he took her? And with their desire spent, had they talked and laughed until drifting off to sleep in each other’s arms? Had she given the least thought to him, who suffered and grieved in infamy and disgrace?

Suddenly he hated and could have cursed her, for her very existence that bore him such misery. He wept awhile, and then, shivering beneath the bleakness that weighed upon him, he fell into a dark, dreamless sleep.

Chapter Twenty-Two