The Flamebearer Chapter Twenty-Seven

EVAINE KISSED HIM awake and popped a juicy, ripe strawberry into his mouth. Its sweetness exploded on his tongue. Blinking in sleep-dazed astonishment, Ciaran opened his eyes.

“There’s more,” she announced excitedly. Crawling into their mossy bower beside him she produced a huge canvas-lined basket filled with loaves of bread and cheeses and slices of meat. “Pears, apples, plums, sweetmeats, cakes, and, oh, blessed Saints, red wine!” She fairly bubbled with joy as she explored the contents of the hamper, extracting one mouth-watering morsel after another.

“But, where – ” Ciaran started to ask.

“I found it here when I woke,” she replied. “An answer to our prayers!” She handed him an apple. “Saints, I’m hungry,” she exclaimed, biting into a pear. The juice dripped down her chin; oblivious, she continued digging to the bottom of the container, pulling out a handful of figs and some salted fish wrapped in a scrap of cloth.

Ciaran tore off a hunk of bread and consumed it, washing it down with several swallows of wine. “Are there more strawberries?”

Evaine indulgently fed him one, following it with a lingering kiss. Licking the juice from his lips, she giggled and curled in his arms; then set to work on a succulent, purple plum. They went on eating and drinking, taking turns feeding each other until at last, their hunger sated, they lay together in luxuriant, golden contentment.

“Are you happy?” Evaine asked, smiling up at him.

“Completely,” he answered. “But I’ll admit I’m troubled over our secret benefactor. On its face, it would seem a simple kindness, but it means our presence here is known to someone.”

“Yes, but what harm could there be in a basket of food?”

“None that strikes me as obvious, but we would do well to remain vigilant,” he said.

The rest of the day they spent attending to domestic chores. Ciaran took an inventory of weapons, while Evaine did her best to launder their clothes in the spring. Once they had completed these tasks, they set about collecting mosses and tree limbs and pieces of bark to build a protective barricade around their secret shelter.

By nightfall, Ciaran had grown heavy-hearted, withdrawing into himself and refusing to engage in even polite discourse with Evaine. This sudden change in his mood disturbed her deeply, but after endeavoring numerous times to coax from him a response, she decided to leave him to his melancholy.

She kept a close watch on him while maintaining her distance, hoping he would come to her on his own. But as the night grew darker, his humor showed no signs of returning, so Evaine huddled into her cloak and made ready for a long, cold, sleepless night alone.


 

She did not remember drifting off, but sometime during the night, she became aware of blissful warmth as he slipped his arms around her. Nestling into that warmth, she felt his muscles tighten, heard his breath catch, and suddenly realized he wept. He pressed his body against hers and clung to her in the dark like a lost child.

Afraid he might pull away again, she pretended to sleep, secretly covering his hands with hers. Her heart broke to hear him cry; his emotion awakened the sorrow she held imprisoned within herself, and despite all efforts to keep it there, the ache in her throat soon gave way to the sting of tears.

She asked herself what made him weep; was it grief, perhaps, or fear, or physical pain? She knew only the terrors lurking in the deep places inside herself: that having found each other, they might for some inexplicable reason be forced to separate. The thought of losing him tormented her, for without him she faced nothing but isolation and unrelenting solitude.

He laid his head against her cheek and whispered her name, soft, like a prayer. “Evaine. I love you beyond all measure. How can you ever forgive me?”

She gentled him with soothing hands, stroking his arms and holding him close. “Forgive you? For what? My dear heart, my joy, you’ve done nothing wrong.”

“But I have,” he lamented. “I bore you away from a life where you might have had some degree of protection and brought you to this – this half-world, where safety is no more than an illusion. We both know we can’t stay here.” And then he spoke the truth they had thus far avoided: “Nor can we ever go back.”

“No,” she acknowledged. “They’d tear us apart.”

“Worse than that,” Ciaran said ominously. “You could claim I abducted you against your will, but I doubt it would be enough to spare you from unspeakable punishment.” He shuddered. “Suffering Christ, Evaine, in trying to free you from danger, I’ve put you in far greater peril.”

His body writhed with anxiety and remorse. Evaine turned to enfold him in her arms. “My love, you mustn’t torment yourself. We’ll find a way.” She kissed his forehead. “I treasure you, Ciaran; now more than ever. My devotion is unbreakable, no matter what happens. And besides,” she reminded him, the world of men holds nothing for me now. Wherever you go, whatever you must do, my place is with you, now and always.

Chapter Twenty-Eight

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