The Flamebearer Chapter Twenty-Six

CIARAN COULD NOT keep still any longer. Evaine stirred on the borders of his consciousness, softly humming to herself as she bathed in the healing spring. Fortified by the solid, timeless strength of the great stone, he tentatively rose to his feet.

For a time he stood unmoving, braced comfortably against a curve of rock. His skin flushed, blood coursed through artery and vein. A light breeze caressed him and the scents of wild mosses and meadowsweet filled his nostrils. In the misty twilight of this land-between-the-worlds, his eyes seemed to take in more light. He wanted to explore every one of his new, heightened senses separately, though they each clamored for his attention.

He attuned himself to the rhythm of his breathing, its natural cadence soothing him to a deeper awareness of his substance and spirit, and reaching into the very depths of himself, he touched the molten core of his power. For the space of several breaths he waited. An ember caught, flared. With measured care he began to invoke the flame, to coax it up into his belly, his heart, allowing it to expand, to suffuse his body with its radiance.

Lingering in that heated blaze, he stood motionless, asking nothing of the fire but that it feed him. He raised his arms; the fire tingled in his palms and fingers, ignited every muscle and nerve. He looked down at his bandaged leg. Under his will, the bindings fell away. The muscles surrounding the injury contracted painfully as he tried his weight. He inhaled deeply and released the breath, then inhaled again. With infinite caution, he laid a scalding hand over the gash in his thigh, clenching his teeth against the blistering pain. He forced himself to endure this brutal self-punishment, to stanch the flow of blood, cauterize the flesh, seal the wound.

Evaine caught him in a near swoon, his lungs bursting. He slowly began to return to himself, aware that for countless thundering heartbeats he had ceased to draw breath.

“You’re burning!” she cried. “Your flesh is on fire! Merciful God, what have you done?”

Faint, reeling, his limbs sagged; branches and trees swirled above him. He crumpled in Evaine’s arms, bringing her down with him to the cool grass. She bent over him. “What were you thinking? Tempting fate once more when you’ve only just returned from the dead – ”

“Mercy,” Ciaran pleaded through parched lips. “If you please, milady, water -”

She lifted a spring-drenched strip of cloth and held it to his lips. Ciaran sucked on it thirstily. “Now, lie quiet,” Evaine admonished with that deadly serious look on her face, brows drawn, mouth set. Wringing out the damp cloth, she set about washing the grime and sweat from his face. The moisture felt blissfully cool against his skin and the tiny rivulets of water gliding down his cheeks and into the roots of his hair tickled pleasantly. Ciaran dutifully obeyed while she scrubbed his neck, his chest, his arms, and hands. Methodically, she worked her way down to his navel and then silently and reverently began to wash between his legs. At this he was unable to remain still; he pulled her into his arms and began kissing her everywhere, ignoring her protests until he had reduced her to a shrieking, giggling girl.

“I love you,” he panted between kisses. “I – love – you.” He held her so no matter how she screamed and struggled she was helpless to free herself; his kisses became harder and more insistent, his hands moved over her with single-minded determination. At last, he felt her body yield to his, until they were once again entangled in breathless and irrevocable lovemaking. The feel of her skin, the little sounds she made as he moved within her, the way her body melded to his and moved with his, the smell of her hair, everything about her absorbed him completely; he wanted nothing more than to bask in this luxury forever. Following a tumultuous climax, they lay entwined, winded and gasping, their pounding hearts bursting with love and gratitude.

“I’m starving,” Ciaran announced, expelling a long breath.

Evaine’s laughter rose and carried with the breeze. “Try not to think about it,” she advised.

“I can’t think about anything else,” he insisted. “My stomach’s growling like a bear.”

“We shall have to forage for edible mushrooms and blackberries, I imagine,” she said, “unless you think you can spear us a rabbit.”

“What I wouldn’t give for a good bow,” Ciaran mused.

“What I wouldn’t give for a good bed,” echoed Evaine, “with a bolster and quilts to go with it.”

“Aye,” Ciaran agreed. “Damp moss makes a sore substitute. But I fear it will have to do until I work out where to go from here.”

Evaine’s voice grew distant. “Yes,” she sighed. “I suppose it will.”

“I’m curious,” he said, gazing at her with genuine interest. “Before, when you said it wasn’t like you dreamed, what did you mean?”

She sat up, crossing her arms over her naked breasts.

Ciaran took her hands and lowered them. “Come, my love. You are no longer the coy little maiden.”

She gave him a quiet, inscrutable smile, rocking on her heels as she knelt in the grass beside him. Surely she was no maiden at all, but some fertile, life-giving force, and she stirred in him the most acute and passionate desire.

“At Narberth, whenever I caught a glimpse of you,” she revealed, “my heart fluttered in my breast like the wings of a bird. I was sure everyone could see how I trembled when you entered the room.” Her cheeks flamed and she covered her face with her hands, peeping out behind them with an unblinking gaze. “In secret, I couldn’t help imagining what it would be like to feel your hands on me.”

“You pictured us together?” Ciaran asked, astonished and more than a little tantalized at the notion. “Like we were just now?” For a moment his heart stopped, imagining her pleasuring herself as she thought of him.

“I did,” she confessed. “You must think I’m the most shameless harlot!”

“Hardly!” he laughed. “To my mind, you’re more enticing than ever. You are all my joy and all my delight. Please, go on.”

She gazed at the sky as if searching for words. The corners of her lips curved in that enigmatic little smile and she shrugged a shoulder, tilting her head and playfully rolling her eyes. “I didn’t know it would be so powerful. The act itself is primitive and raw, yet somehow it reaches for the sublime. A merging of bodies and souls, like the rushing together of two rivers.”

Ciaran’s chest filled with a potent surge of affection.

She reached out and brushed a wisp of hair from his face. “The Church may call it sin, but I believe it’s the body’s hymn to the glory of God.”

Ciaran shook his head in amazement. “You are nothing like when we first met.”

“We have both changed,” she conceded quietly. “We’ve challenged death itself. We’ve exchanged blood and tears. Perhaps our souls now dwell within each other.”

Ciaran nodded. She went right to the heart of things, artlessly and without so much as an eye-blink. “We are alike,” he acknowledged, frowning a little. “And yet, different.”

“I’m a small, insignificant woman,” Evaine said. “But you -” She regarded him adoringly, her eyes shining. “You are something brilliant and rare, loosed upon the world by the Immortals. Some would say you are unnatural, that my love for you is wicked, that in loving you I’ve damned my very soul.”

Startled into silence, Ciaran stared at her. Swallowing the ache in his throat, he asked, “Do you regret what we’ve done?”

Evaine returned his look. Her face betrayed no shame and no defense, only a knowledge great and constant as the stars. “Regret?” she repeated, almost whispering. “Our love has upset all of God’s intentions, turned the world upside down. Still, dear my lord, I am unrepentant. I would not change one mad, impossible moment of it.”

Ciaran’s heart boomed like a drum. He wound his hands in her hair and dragged her down, kissing her fiercely. “I thought you’d changed your mind,” he breathed, his voice breaking.

Evaine took his hands, held them to her cheeks. “No doubt the world would judge it a sacrilege,” she allowed. “But how can sin be so sweet? Must we be damned for loving?”

“Never,” he proclaimed, fighting the gloom growing in his heart. He held her fast, inhaling the scent of her hair and her skin. “You, my lady, are by no means insignificant,” he assured her. “You are no less than the keeper of my soul. Give me your word, Evaine, if ever you begin to doubt if what we’ve done no longer seems worth the price – ” he drew a trembling breath. “Swear to me, you’ll speak your heart. For I couldn’t bear your suffering on my account. You’ve already sacrificed so much.”

Evaine simply held him, cradling his head as she smoothed his hair. “I swear,” she promised.

As the mists swirled around them in the gathering dusk, Ciaran found renewed strength. Willing himself to rise, he took his first tentative steps since his dark descent. His eyes grew keen in the gloaming, his senses deepened and memory haunted him. He shivered, fearing the spirits, both living and dead, that visited the boundaries of this place. He had not wanted to acknowledge their presence, yet Evaine too seemed to sense them, at times growing silent and watchful.

He would have turned back time if he could, back to Bri Leith and their first meeting. Yet could he have willed himself, even then, to seal his heart to the promise of her? He had forsaken everything and had brought her to this. Was exile in the untamed forest a better fate than lifelong confinement in Lionel de Barre’s fortress? He feared for her now, watching her moving about in the glowing twilight collecting ferns and mosses for their bed.

What would they do to her if he were to take her back into the world? Accuse her of adultery, witchcraft, fornication with the Devil? She could be tortured or hanged. Or worse – burned at the stake. The horror of such thoughts brought unendurable remorse; he cast them out at once, banishing them to the shadows.

“We’ve no flint to kindle a fire,” she said cheerlessly after she had assembled a great pile of boughs. She drew the rags of her mantle close about her and shivered in the cold.

“A fire would be ill-advised in any case,” said Ciaran. “Come, let me warm you.” He held out his arms to her and she fell into them gratefully. “Hold on to me,” he murmured as he laid her down on their mossy bed. She slipped her arms around his bare waist beneath the ragged folds of their cloaks. It would be a simple thing, this expediency of power; he had only to summon the smallest spark, ignite it readily within the matrix of his spirit’s essence and –

“Oh!” she exclaimed. “Bless you, my love, this is sublime!” She melted into his arms, shivering and moaning euphorically. She gazed at him, frankly astonished, and then, drawing a deep breath and exhaling it through her lips, she took both of his burning hands in her own. Gently, she opened his fingers, turned his palms toward her and traced the deep web of lines crossing them; then she placed a tender kiss in each. “Enchanter,” she said, her voice soft with wonder.

Ciaran closed his eyes and smiled. What would the nuns think if they could see her now, he thought wickedly, clasped in the arms of a proven conjurer, swooning to the rapture of his magic fire? He laughed aloud in spite of himself.

Evaine joined him in his laughter. “I am gladdened, my love, to witness the return of your spirit.” She kissed his eyelids, his nose, the cleft of his chin.

His body wakened in response; he tightened his arms around her and ventured a series of eager little kisses that began at her throat and ended between her breasts. “You are heaven to touch,” he whispered. “Are you still cold?”

“Not at all,” she attested, nestling into his warmth. And then she took his breath away, reaching down to guide him into the sweet, dark refuge between her legs.

Chapter Twenty-Seven

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