The Flamebearer Chapter Twenty-Two

CIARAN WOKE and saw dawn rising red as blood. Flashes of light darted behind his eyes, bringing with them dull stabs of pain. On the walls he could make out faint pictures, no more than traces of light and shadow, and within him, fire.

He moved awkwardly about the small chamber, annoyed as he fumbled about in the dark for his clothes. He knew he had only one duty left: to get his men safely back to Narberth.

In the hall the knights gathered, making ready for a day of jousting and friendly combat. Yet underneath the conviviality, there lurked a subtle threat, some corruption in the air that smelled of danger. Assaulted by premonitions, Ciaran kept ear and nostril sharpened, his power tight-coiled, ready for quarrel.

His thoughts went longingly toward the battle, thinking of the onset, the thrusting of spears and the clash of shields. His brothers might take issue with him over his injury, but their fears were easily allayed. For all his folly, he was still Prince of Narberth, and though his sight remained frail, his spirit would brook no defeat. Perhaps, just perhaps, he might win back his honor on the field today.

“You dream like a child,” exhorted Robyn, rousting a dog from the stables. “What can you do half-blind and dazed you couldn’t do with all your senses intact?”

“I could do something,” Ciaran insisted. He stroked Rhiannon’s mane as the horse nuzzled his cheek. “With my own wits and Rhiannon’s muscle I might save for myself a grain of pride. Allow me this one chance.”

“You deserve no more chances,” Robyn said irritably. “Haven’t you brought enough shame to yourself, and to the Dragon? Must you wallow in it before all your countrymen?”

Ciaran replied with a derisive laugh. “Never mind the sympathy, ap Gryffin. Should I be rent today by my enemy’s spear, I’d suffer it gladly.”

“Over my mortal bones,” Robyn vowed. “For once you’ll listen to reason, or I’ll half-murder you myself.” He waved an arm before Ciaran’s face. “How many fingers am I holding up?”

“None,” said Ciaran. “That’s a fist.”

Robyn chortled. “Lucky hazard. Now how many?”

“Three.”

“You’re off by a mile.” Quicker than a striking adder Robyn’s blade flashed, its steel tip lightly caressing Ciaran’s cheek. “And this? You never even saw it coming.”

“All right. You’ve proved your point. I’m blind as a beggar, but I can still ride. We’ll form together and charge as one. ”

“Your wits have deserted you entirely,” Robyn muttered, sheathing his dagger. “With any luck, we’ll strike short and escape while we’ve still half a chance, pray with our skins intact.”

 


 

A soft rain had come in the night. The vast muddy grounds beyond the castle thronged with knights come to challenge their Norman hosts. A ragged gathering of common folk clustered outside to watch, excitement mounting as they pressed closer to the palisades, only to be swept back again by guards. On the wind came shouts, restive laughter, the barking of dogs, the throbbing of drums. All along the barriers horses and men assembled, aided by eager young squires.

The morning fanfare dragged on forever, the endless processions across the grounds a mere prelude to the great battle they had all come to see. Ciaran lifted a hand to his temple, let the hand drop. His head teemed with images, some half-glimpsed through blurred and bloody vision, some only imagined in the flush of his cresting anticipation.

After an interminable wait, the trumpet sounded. Beginning to sweat with fever, Ciaran mounted and rode out on to the crowded arena to join his fellows. Some gave low gasps as he approached, though none dared to challenge him. Within moments they all moved to shield him, covertly nudging their horses into a tightly formed wedge around Rhiannon. Robyn’s curse was not lost on Ciaran, nor the grudging respect behind it.

A small, dark figure pressed close, the gauntleted hand reaching to grip Ciaran’s arm. “It’s scant luck you bring us today,” a voice said roughly, “but I’m glad you’re here.”

“And a fair morning to you, too, Gwilym. God be with you.”

Tension gripped the cohort as trumpets blared and guards shouted above the din. A rhythmic pounding erupted from the stands, waking fresh throbbing in Ciaran’s temples. He struggled to remain alert. No time for regrets now; he had done what he must.

The crowd grew disorderly, the clamor rising; wrathful excitement stirred the men as they flung boisterous oaths at their adversaries. Ciaran, trembling but completely unafraid, peered grimly across the yard. It swam with the indistinct colors of banners and shields.

“Mercy,” breathed Robyn, staring across the boggy tract at the waiting Normans. “They’re armed to the teeth! And moody-mad and ticklish by the look of them.” From everywhere came sounds of swords dragged from scabbards.

“How many?” Ciaran asked.

Robyn paused to count heads. “De Barre’s rallied about twenty, I think. But contenders are pouring in from God knows where – Christ, I’ve already lost count. The barriers are teeming with contingents I don’t recognize.”

Ciaran grasped the hilt of his father’s sword, the fire rising in him amid the tumult, his head pounding as every nerve stretched taut. His earthly senses dimmed, he would have to trust what remained of his power to carry him. “What of Lionel? Can you see him?”

“Aye,” Robyn replied. “girdled in iron. Malignant, he looks, with that noble luster in his eye.”

“Fiend.” Ciaran set his jaw and flared his nostrils wide, summoning up the blood, the rage, the battle heat. He sucked in a breath, exhaled it sharply. “Leave him to me,” he said between clenched teeth.

“They’ll try to lure us into scattered fights,” cautioned Gwilym, “but don’t break formation. After the first charge, turn sharp and come at them again. Fan out, so they can’t surround us. And whatever happens, keep to your mounts.”

Ciaran no sooner heard the signal than his horse leapt into a gallop. He pulled in next to Robyn as the roaring, crowded band charged into the tangled fray. Rhiannon, all legs and hooves, reared; Ciaran cleaved to her flanks with feverish determination, jerking the reins just as a Norman destrier crashed at his feet.

“Stay down!” Robyn screamed, his lean body bending over his bay as a trio of spears whirred above them. The next moments blurred into a slow, eerie dance. Horses faltered in the mire, shouts echoed amid the deafening clash. All around them writhed a chaos of shrieking beasts and shouting men. Soon it became impossible to distinguish his own men from those of the enemy, impossible to get his bearings. Caught up in the frenzy, Ciaran lurched, twisted in his saddle, attacked wantonly any who came near enough to strike. Flanked by his brothers, he rode on, impotently thrashing about as some around him began to fall.

Before he could parry, a heavy axe slammed down across his shield, splintering it. Incredulous, reeling, Ciaran growled in fury and laid about him in a frenzy. Two combatants went down, and the bodyguard redoubled their strokes, fighting shoulder to shoulder with their prince. Ciaran battled on, weirdly inspired. No longer able to sense any order in the pressing confusion, he struck and stabbed as if possessed, hoping only to keep his brothers from harm.

Above the din Gwilym’s raw voice barked a warning. The Normans had closed in, crushing and hindering them until they could hardly lift their weapons to retaliate. The entire cohort, panicked and desperate, fought to deflect blows coming from all sides. Cheers arose from the stands as the troupe of Cambrians appeared hopelessly cornered.

A clamor arose at Ciaran’s left side, a blood-filled groan resounded in his ears. From pure instinct, he struck. Then against all reason he leapt from his mount to safeguard his fallen companion. “Gwilym’s down!” he roared, his chest pounding in sheer panic. He dragged Gwilym’s head on to his shoulder, shielding him with his body as the mêlée swirled around them. The troops rallied, harrying the attack away from Gwilym, whose body contracted in agony as Ciaran bent over him.

“Cursed horse just fell,” Gwilym wheezed. Shaking and sodden, he struggled to draw his sword against nothing. Mud soaked his feet and legs. From under his coat of mail a thick stream of blood flowed. Ciaran removed the confining helmet, and wiped the damp, matted hair from Gwylim’s dirt-spattered face.

Recognition slowly dawning, Gwilym labored to breathe. “For the love of God, what are you doing?” he challenged, lips tight against the pain. “Never dismount, man, never break the line -”

“Lie quiet, bach, you’re bleeding,” Ciaran grated, pressing his hand against the wound. Blood spurted between his fingers. Christ. Summoning what he could of his own ravaged strength, he focused his will on the source of his power. A spark grew to flame, settled into the rent in Gwilym’s flesh. It became a futile battle as the blood continued to flow, and all around them echoed the cries of combat. Still, Ciaran persisted, defending against his own growing despair. A crew arrived with a litter, and from somewhere near came the sound of a woman’s weeping. A moan escaped Gwilym’s lips as pain overwhelmed him; men lifted his shivering body on to the litter and dragged him to safety.

Ciaran shook with a sudden chill. Still kneeling in muck, with no patience for care or caution, he tugged at his helmet and flung it away. Rhiannon, lathered but still edgy with battle, came to a dancing halt beside her master. Ciaran rose to his feet and, promptly astride, made his way along the barrier, cursing his blindness. His ill-timed impulse to defend his fallen brother had caused him to lose all track of his men.

By instinct more than reason, he moved toward the moaning injured, straining to hear through the ringing in his ears some clue that would lead him to Gwilym. A small hand clutched his leg. Ciaran leaned low to discover who detained him. “Help us, my lord, please. Help us.” Surely his wits deceived him. For one mad instant he caught the scent of roses and fiercely shook himself, his heart thudding like a drum. The ragged curses of foreign knights rose from the din around him, and he clung to Rhiannon’s flanks to brace himself. “My lord, this way.”

Inconceivable, but it was Evaine’s fearful cry he heard, Evaine’s tentative hand upon his knee. “God’s love, Lady, you’ll be trampled to death! Come up, quick!” Without a pause, Ciaran seized her by the arms and plucked her from the muddy ground, throwing her weightless across Rhiannon’s rump.

“Evaine, what on earth are you doing here?”

“I came down with the other women to help with the wounded,” she panted, clinging to Ciaran’s belt and twisting wildly to right herself. “I saw my brother had been hurt, but by the time I reached the tent I couldn’t find him.” She wrapped her arms around his waist. “Gwilym!” she yelled shrilly and he felt the thrust of her arm go past his elbow, pointing to somewhere just ahead. Her fist struck his shoulder.

“Directly in front of you,” she cried. “There, he’s trying to mount. Gwilym, don’t!” she shouted, her voice rasping with strain. She made ready to leap from the horse, but Ciaran turned and snatched her by the wrist.

“Steady now. Give everything to me as you see it. How far is the battle?”

Her breath came hard in his ear. “A bare fifty yards across the field to your left.”

“How many still ride?”

“Impossible to tell – they’re all over the place. It’s madness!”

“The Dragon?”

“Banner’s still aloft; all horsed, I think, but for my brother. Here, he’s coming.”

Gwilym approached on horseback, riding near enough for Ciaran to hear the rough catch of his breathing.

“Go back, Gwilym. You’re not fit to ride.”

Gwilym spat. “Speak for yourself,” he said pointedly. “I can’t spend all day in that rutting tent. We’re only seven out there now: the Gryffin’s likely cursing us into Hell.”

Ciaran’s head throbbed brutally. “What in God’s name is happening?”

“Riot and ruin, if we don’t move fast. Retreat seems our only hope.”

“They’ve lost their minds,” said Evaine, “every one of them, raving mad. If this is sport, by Heaven, I’m – ” She let out a shriek that raised the hairs on the back of Ciaran’s neck.

A huge shadow bore down on them. Ciaran jerked the reins and swung Rhiannon wide, deflecting a blow intended to hurl them both to the wet earth. Evaine’s arms cinched his middle, her breath halted in her throat as she stifled a cry.

“Forfeit!” bellowed the Norman knight, wheeling his charger and plunging toward them again, blade drawn. “Hand over your weapons and – Christ’s mercy, a woman?”

“Lady, I pray you, for your own safety, stay,” Ciaran rasped as he flung himself from the saddle. Gwilym drew his weapon and dismounted. All three now on their feet, the Norman roared in triumph. “Mon Dieu, if it isn’t the Faerie Prince himself! Well, boy-o, you’ll fetch a fine ransom.”

Ciaran’s belly tightened. Chaos lay all about him. Cornered, he submitted to pure rage. Nothing to do now but fight. Fight for his very life, or submit to final humiliation. He roared, blood rising in him amid the hostile darkness. He made a desperate lunge at the formidable shape before him.

A howl of laughter burst from the Frenchman’s throat, even as the flat of Ciaran’s blade struck his out-thrust arm. In a paroxysm of anger, heedless of all but his own malicious wrath, the Norman unleashed a furious onslaught of blows.

Ciaran staggered back, dangerously exposed, shield splintered, helm gone. Cold fear washed over him. He was trapped. Trapped by this maddened giant bent on killing him, trapped by his own willful arrogance that put him here, blind, defenseless, all pride extinct. His flesh stinging from a dozen sword pricks, he leapt and dodged the deadly whir of his enemy’s blade, set his jaw and lunged, slashing through nothing but air.

Laughter again, contemptuous, mocking. “You’re bleeding, Faerie, and I am not,” thundered the knight, leaping on him more savagely than ever.

“Halt!” commanded Gwilym, heaving himself forward, his blade slicing down between them. But the Norman’s savagery did not abate; his sword heaved, flashed, and in one agonizing, timeless instant, it sheered through Gwilym’s hauberk, steel sinking deep into flesh. Gwilym froze, teetering in mortal shock. Stunned and wide-eyed, he gripped the spear that impaled him, jerked it loose and plunged to the muddy ground.

Behind them, Evaine’s horror rose in a keening, piercing wail; the sound of her anguish shrilled through Ciaran like a cold metal blade.

A black and reckless violence erupted in him, spewing the poisons of long held grief and hatred. In a heartbeat his body turned to flame. With a roar that filled all space he charged the armored knight and drove his blade straight through the Norman’s mailed torso, retribution for Gwilym and for his own dead father in one terrible stroke.

With a strangled groan the knight fell. Ciaran seized the hilt of his father’s sword and, bracing himself with his foot against the dead man’s body, wrenched it loose. He would have taken the murdering dog’s head had it not been for Evaine, who watched in mute entreaty behind him.

Stumbling to his knees, Ciaran caught Gwilym’s crumpled body in his arms. A brief, grim silence thickened the air between them as they clung to each other. “Take her,” said Gwilym, his breath so frail he could barely whisper. “Take her away, out of this world if you have to, but on your oath, brother, get her to safety.”

Faint and heartsick, Ciaran clutched Gwilym’s shoulders. “I will,” he pledged, “if it’s my last doing on earth. By my oath, I swear it, Gwilym. No harm will come to her while I live.”

Gwilym moaned as his hand sought Ciaran’s arm. And then, almost imperceptibly, his body spasmed and the life went out of him, soft as the rain that fell from the barren sky.

Ciaran sat stunned and helpless, staring at nothing with empty eyes. A sob broke from deep in his gut, followed by the acid taste of remorse. He raised his head, still holding Gwilym’s lifeless body in his arms. Cramped and shivering, he held his breath and loosed it in a deep moan, regret blotting out all else. What remained now but surrender, death? His body leaden, his limbs aching and torn, he slumped motionless over his dead friend.

Evaine’s weeping stirred him to life. With the last of his strength, he willed himself to rise, to move, to stagger toward his waiting horse. If he could just climb up on Rhiannon’s back –

“Wait. Here, help me down. Only for a moment, I pray you.” Evaine reached out and fell into his sagging arms. The trifling weight of her against him seemed almost too much and he swayed back, then caught himself and held her, clung to her as if there were nothing else in all the world to cling to. Her arms went around him, her body yielding in brief surrender to his. Then she went rigid as an arrow. “We can’t leave him here. Quickly, help me get him to horse.”

Something cold and brutal had taken her, a will born of sickness and grief. As Ciaran released her, a spark of that will kindled in him. They moved with grave purpose, every nerve and muscle fixed on that one lurid duty.

With stiff fingers, Evaine took Gwilym’s stained and sodden cloak, removed his belt and spurs, then found the dagger hidden in his blood-soaked shirt. His sword lay in the mud a few feet away. She reached for it and a sudden convulsion shook her. But she turned again to stone as she passed her brother’s scant possessions to Ciaran.

He took them without a word and bundled them up in Gwilym’s mantle.

Dragging Gwilym’s body with all their combined strength, they heaved him across Rhiannon’s back; the horse seemed to have grown ten times her normal height. Exhausted by the effort, Ciaran slumped against the horse’s flank, chest heaving. Then he gave the beast a swift, hard blow, and sent her hurtling across the muddy field. To Narberth! He cried silently. Fly, my fleet one. Bear my brother home.

As he stood watching the dim, galloping shape disappear, he whispered, “And may his gentle soul be borne swiftly to Heaven.”

He found Evaine’s hand, pulled her close. “He’s aware of the gift he’s given us, my love. And now, hurry, we’ve no time to lose.” He set to work, stripping the Norman knight of his cloak, helm, belt, and spear.

Donning these, he gathered up Gwilym’s bundle and handed it to Evaine. Then he brought forward the Norman destrier. It tossed its head, the great rolling eye wild beneath the scarlet jupon. Ciaran gentled him with a steady stroke, then mounted hastily, hoisting Evaine up in front of him. He felt her nestle into him as he took the reins; he laid his cheek against her hair. Suddenly she was kicking the horse’s flanks, crying, “Horse, help us! Run!”

Ciaran set spurs and abruptly they were plunging through seething confusion to he knew not where. He harbored no thought but to hang on, urging the great charger forward, past guard and gate, past gusting rain and shrieking wind, past mud, and death, and his heart’s bitter sorrow.

Chapter Twenty-Three

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