DUSK FELL ACROSS THE VALLEY, the wind whistling high. Behind them came the thudding of hooves and a dozen arrows whirred overhead. Ciaran flinched as a shaft grazed his shoulder, jolted keenly as another sank into his thigh. A fire gathered in him, burning through the sorrow, the terror, the thickening dark. He summoned the flame, encircling them with a shield of magic, driving out all but the demons who assailed him from within.
They flew as if the Devil himself lashed them on, pounding over hill and valley and mist-laden moor, crashing through brush and thicket into the sheltering forest. Silence fell, wrapped around them like a sleep. In the growing twilight, their horse balked and stumbled. Ciaran reined the great destrier to a slow walk, his ears alert for the rustle of twigs that would signal danger.
Evaine sagged against him. “Give me your hands,” Ciaran said, and her cold, smooth palms slipped into his. He sat very still and listened, hoping to gauge their whereabouts. Instinct told him they faced northwest, and with little else to go on, he decided to follow his hunch.
The greenwood was ancient and wild and could be rightly claimed by no man. Yet, with customary hubris, the Norman invaders had staked out hunting grounds in this part of the wood. They knew this region well and would be sure to send out a search party at first light.
“I think we’ve eluded them for the time,” he said. “How keen are your eyes?”
“Keen enough,” Evaine answered, “but night falls with each breath, and the oaks cast strange shapes in the gloom.” She hugged herself for warmth. “It feels haunted,” she whispered.
Ciaran enfolded her in his arms and kissed the top of her head. “The spirits won’t harm us,” he assured her, though he couldn’t be certain of this.
Evaine persisted. “We chance losing our way in the dark. We’d best stay where we are.”
“Too dangerous,” Ciaran countered, stiff with the wound in his leg. He snapped off the protruding shank. Not deep, but the damn thing hurt like hell, and more to the point, he hadn’t time for this. With great effort he dismounted, drawing Evaine down beside him. He had to hold on to her to steady himself.
“We’ll have to leave the horse and go on foot from here,” he concluded. He bore himself up, and slinging what weapons and gear he could carry over his shoulders, he reached again for her hands.
“Your leg,” she noted. “It’s bleeding. And you’re shaking all over. You can scarcely stand, let alone walk.”
Ciaran clenched his jaw. “Be charitable then,” he said. “Proceed slowly. I’ll peg on behind you. Now go, and mind the nettles and poison oak.
She had no choice, of course. When had she ever had a choice? She’d lived her entire life at the behest of a handful of stubborn, quarrelsome men. With no spirit left to oppose him, she dragged up her skirts and forced her legs to move, catching her hair on slender limbs and stumbling over roots and vines. “I see no trace of a path,” she lamented. “Soon the trees will blot out any remaining light.”
Ignoring her protests, Ciaran urged her on. She knew by his labored breathing he suffered, yet he would no more admit this to her than he would surrender to capture. “We can’t rest so near to the edge of the greenwood,” he explained. “Try to keep on a little further.”
Evaine ached to drop where they stood, with nothing but leafy boughs over them and yielding, damp earth beneath. She bent back plumage and greenery, holding them while Ciaran passed. Glancing up at him, she noticed his face sustained a great many cuts and bruises. Sweat poured from him, and his eyes in the fading light held a feverish glitter, the gash through his left brow livid against the pallor of his skin.
She made up her mind to force him to rest as soon as she came across a sheltered dell. She peered into the coppice. Which way? She may as well have been blind herself. Trusting her instincts, she started off to the west, following a natural trail that meandered past fallen trunks and mossy undergrowth. Silence fell between them as they thrashed clumsily through the dense foliage. Every time she felt inclined to ask what was happening to him now, what did he think, what did he feel, a voice inside silenced her. To think at all was to invite unendurable grief. She must close herself off to discomfort, to foreboding, to all but each measured step.
“Watch your step here,” she cautioned, grasping Ciaran’s arm to help him over a slippery patch of moss. He faltered, lost his footing, and came down heavily against her. She grasped at an overhanging limb with an out-thrust arm, but his weight took her down and soon they both lay panting amid fern and bramble. For some moments they remained tangled together in weariness and despair, fatigued to their bones.
“It’s no use,” Evaine reckoned bleakly. “We can’t go on any longer.” She felt his body cramp, his face so near she heard the catch and shudder of his breath. She placed a cool hand over his forehead to take the heat from his face.
“We’ll rest awhile,” he declared with a heave of breath. “When we’ve recovered, we’ll go on.” Blades, pikes, and cloaks heaped beside him, he slumped against a moss-covered trunk, fists pressed to his temples.
Evaine studied him gravely. “Can you see anything?”
“The barest silhouette of your head and shoulder,” he replied. He reached out and brought an unbound tress of her hair to his lips. With his fingertips, he traced the curve of her cheek, her chin, and let his hand drop.
“You’re tired,” she said softly.
“Aye. And you? You’ve hardly spoken a word since we quit the field.”
She made no answer. Grief had numbed her, sealing her heart within. She did not dare expose her anguish, knowing he too sorrowed, yet endured it without complaint.
Ciaran shifted his legs and gasped. Reflexively his hand went out to the wooden stub till jutting from under his surcote.
Evaine looked more closely at his injury and observed with alarm that it had begun to swell. “You’ll not get far with that bolt in you. It will have to come out,” she asserted, fully allowing she would have to remove it herself.
Ciaran released a low moan. He did not move or speak, he only turned his face into the tangle of her curls and tightened his arm around her shoulder.
He must have sensed her squeamishness. No question he shared her fear. His face was white as chalk and he stiffened a little as he let go of her shoulder. Steeling himself for what was to come, he inhaled sharply through gritted teeth.
“Pull it out.”
“Do it,” he ordered, “before we both lose our nerve.”
Her hands shook so badly she doubted her fortitude. Carefully she loosened his garter and with her brother’s dagger, she ripped open his blood-stained hose.
Her anxiety mounted as she stared at the proud flesh surrounding the broken shank. “Wait.” She hesitated, covering her mouth with her hands. Tears sprang into her eyes. “I’m behaving foolishly,” she admitted. “But I can’t bear hurting you.”
“An unpleasant task, I’ll grant you, but you’ll do fine,” Ciaran reassured her. He pulled her near, and the heat radiated from his face as from an open fire. “We’ve both suffered much thus far. What more can this add to our trials? And besides, there’s no help for it. It must be done.”
Evaine shivered uncontrollably, commanding herself to be calm. “As you will. Ready?”
“I’m ready,” he panted. “Go.”
She took hold of the arrow, and with infinite care, began to coax it from the inflamed muscle.
“Christ!” he bellowed, his lips drawn back in a terrible grimace.
Startled, she let go at once and burst out crying like a scolded child.
For an instant, his eyes, though sightless, blazed with fury and he loosed a torrent of oaths that would have appalled the Devil himself.
“I’m sorry,” she sobbed, hating herself for displaying such weakness.
“For the love of God,” Ciaran said roughly. “Yank the cursed thing and have done with it!”
Exhaustion and physical distress had doubtlessly exposed his least admirable traits. She suspected they would both behave better after they had gotten some much-needed rest. Shoring up her resolve, she took a full breath and held it. This time she did not hesitate but gripped the offending bolt with her fists and gave it a swift, decisive tug. His eyes widened in shock as the iron barb tore loose. He struggled briefly and then without making a sound, he went stone cold. Evaine sat frozen, clutching her heart. When she returned to her senses she found him collapsed in a dead faint. Quickly she bound his wounded limb with the only thing available: a strip of her own velvet sleeve. She wiped the perspiration from his face and neck, noting he had bitten his lips until they bled.
How frail and unprincely he looked, the hollows of his jaw shadowed and gaunt, his face smeared with grime. The realization rushed through her now like a sudden gale: how fiercely she loved him. Any lingering doubts she may have harbored evaporated like mist. Exhausted, Evaine rested her head against his chest. To her relief, she was able to discern a heartbeat, frail, but steady. The uneven sound of his breathing mingled with the wind stirring in the trees. She retreated into her mantle. And here we lie, she thought, only Heaven knows where, without food or water or shelter. She felt strangely removed from herself, hollow as an empty well.
Ciaran’s body stirred and he shook all over. “Is it out?” he asked.
He groaned, tightly grasping his thigh with both hands. “Mother of God, it hurts.”
“Please forgive me.” The tears started down her cheeks as she embraced him.
“You mustn’t weep, little one. You did what you must. I thank you.” He was quiet for a moment, the breath hissing between his teeth. Evaine clung to him, afraid to let go. If we are to die, she thought, let it be now, so our souls might fly together to Heaven. “I shall love you always,” she murmured, barely aware that she spoke.
“And I shall always love you,” Ciaran echoed. He kissed the fingers she laid upon his lips, shifted slightly as if to sit, then moaned and lay still. “I’m weak as lamb,” he complained. “And I’ve a Devilish thirst.”
“Why don’t you rest here,” she suggested. “I made out the sound of rushing water earlier. Perhaps a small stream runs through this part of the forest.”
“Evaine -” He sucked in a shallow breath. It caught in his throat; he expelled it harshly. “I won’t let you go off into these woods by yourself. You might get lost.”
“My dearest lord,” she said with a hint of irony, “we are both quite lost already.”
Ciaran began to contradict her, but then paused to reconsider. “I suppose we are,” he owned finally. His arm slackened around her and she sat up, straightened her rumpled gown and hastily replaited her hair.
“I’ll not be gone long,” she promised, stroking the sweat-damp hair from his face. Ciaran sighed and closed his eyes. Evaine pulled his cloak around him and rose to her feet.
“Wait,” he protested. “Come here.”
“My lord, you are in no condition to argue.”
“A moment please, I beg you.”
Dutifully, she knelt before him. This was difficult for him, that much was plain. To his mind at least, her safety was his responsibility. He fumbled in his blindness for her hands, clutched them as if he meant to restrain her.
“Take a knife,” he said, “and don’t go far. Keep calling to me, so I’ll know you’re unharmed. Place your feet mindfully and whatever happens, don’t wander astray.”
Evaine gave his hands a little squeeze. “Rest here,” she said. “And don’t worry. I’ll come back to you soon, I promise.” He nodded, but still would not let go of her hands. “My lord,” she said, gently but firmly, “I must go now, while there is still enough light to find my way back.” At last he relented, setting a kiss in each of her palms before releasing her. She stole away before he had time for another change of heart.
Ciaran listened to the crackle of twigs under her feet as she moved away from him. His body, despite the command of his will, no longer possessed the strength to defend against paralyzing fatigue. He sat there, bereft of everything. He didn’t even know if he could move; he no longer had the will to try. It was all he could do just to languish there, fighting to stay awake. Thoughts drifted in him like vagrants. He did not know where he was or what had befallen the world. It had vanished. He embraced the darkness, let it enfold him like a shroud, and wept into the emptiness of it like a child.
Each breath ignited searing agony. The slightest movement sent hot thunderbolts through hip and groin. He strained to open his eyes. Or, perhaps they were open; it no longer mattered. He had only vaguely seen the sun rise that morning. He wondered if he would ever see it rise again. His friends were probably all dead. No more battle, no more striving after elusive accolades that never came. No lusting after fleeting pleasures, no ambitions, no plans.
It struck him as right, somehow, though odd, to harbor such notions. What had he done? What had he been thinking of doing, only recently? This was surely some far uncharted country he had entered, with no discernible destination. Only dimly aware of his body now, he retreated into the swirling mists. His head had grown too heavy to hold up. He let it fall forward; even inhaling seemed too great a strain. Bone-tired and depleted, he had to fight to remind himself to listen. The wind cried, as his heart cried, and then all sensation faded, drifting inescapably into black.
Water, cold and sweet, moistened his lips, a cooling hand caressed his forehead. “You must wake, now,” came a voice, infinitely tender. But this was not possible, not yet. He wanted to linger just a little while longer, here in the dark.
“Please, you can’t leave me here alone!” That voice again, fearful, imploring. “You must fight to live, don’t let the shadows claim you. You must struggle to find your way back to the light.” And then, whispering: “Please, my love, I need you. Just beyond those trees, only a few, precious steps away, is a small clearing with a giant megalith and a native spring. We’ll be safe there; we can rest.”
He must not pause, no matter what happened. He must push through the pain. Ask no questions. Simply move. Trees hovered over him like claws, the wind lashed at his flesh, sinking its cruel fangs into his nerves. His muscles screamed with a hundred torments.
Ciaran wept, grieving his failed sight, his useless limbs. He shook with a cold so profound it penetrated his core, all traces of fire extinguished.
A fine, thin thread, woven into the fabric of his dreams, glinted faintly in the dark. He quivered, groaned, reached out to grasp it, but he could not hold on; he sunk back down into the Void. In this shattered world of fragments and parts, he found no track, no guide. There was only himself, cold, broken, forlorn. Only one slender cord kept him fastened to the light.
A soft, fragrant touch, soothing against his skin, gentled him, hinted of paradise amidst the chaotic gloom. Oh, how he hungered for it, that haunting sweetness. All through the long, bitter night he cleaved to it, to his one hope, that single, shimmering strand.