The Flamebearer Chapter Twenty

CHAPTER TWENTY_He struggled out of nightmare to find himself in Hell_002 HE STRUGGLED OUT OF NIGHTMARE to find himself in Hell. At first, there was only darkness. Then followed the tortured throbbing as if someone had ripped his eye from its socket. His hand flew to the source of the ache ; he flinched, finding only bandages instead of the blood-filled hole he had imagined.

Someone touched him; warm breath, soft on his face, pushed back pain and terror. A small, cool hand coiled around his. Fragrance of roses. Evaine.

He kept still, hoping to ease the pounding in his head, and spoke reassuringly. “All will be well, cariad. I’ll win your freedom. Soon, we’ll be together.” Was she weeping? “Take heart, little one,” he soothed. He took her hand in both of his. “This is nothing. I’ll recover. I swear I’ll not fail you.”

“No.” Slight tremor in her voice. Prick of nails against his palm. “You are too late, my prince.”

“Too late?” Ciaran’s head twitched; the movement stabbed like a knife. He swallowed, let out a long breath. “Not for us. We’ve scarcely begun.”

She was weeping now, quietly. “Here, love,” Ciaran entreated her. “Come nearer. Let me touch your face.” Memory defined her image clearly: the dark, rippling waves of her hair spread like a cloak over her shoulders, the soft, sweet curve of her cheek. He tenderly stroked her tears away, caressed her lips with his fingertips. Her chin trembled; he cupped it in his palm. “Tell me you love me,” he implored.

“No, I -”

“You love me. Tell me again. Please.” He waited, so sure of her answer. He heard its echo within his own heart.

“I cannot,” came the unexpected, crushing response. “There’s nothing for us now. All we ever had was a dream. The dream has ended; you mustn’t try to keep it alive.”

He remained still, hearing but refusing to believe her words.

“They’re coming for me,” she said softly. “I’ll be well looked after; you needn’t fear for me.” She bent over him, kissing his bruised cheek, his lips. Gently she brushed the hair from his forehead. “God keep you,” she whispered. She withdrew her hands, and without another word, she left him.

So cold. He shivered, groping for something to cover himself. He made out voices close by, and in the distance, the tolling of a bell. Tomorrow, he thought. I’ll rest awhile. Tomorrow, I’ll put everything right.

For hours he lingered in the dark, listening to the calling birds outside his tent, to the strains of music drifting from far away. He had to lie completely still to silence the Devils ramping in his head. Someone was moving about nearby. He identified the crackling of twigs, the rustle of cloth, the chink of metal.

Someone came in smelling of horse, and he’d been drinking ale. He’d brought broth of some kind. The smell was thick and steamy and thoroughly unpleasant.

“Are you awake?” Robyn inquired, drawing up a bench.

“Take that away, please.”

“Come,” Robyn chided. “it’s not so bad. Besides, you should eat something.”

Ciaran made no reply.

“As you will, ” Robyn acquiesced with a sigh. “Perhaps later. But you can’t stay here all night. A man is waiting outside with a litter.”

“Tell him to go. I’ll not be carted about like a lame dog.”

“There’s no disgrace in accepting help when it’s needed,” declared Robyn.

Ciaran’s voice grated. “Before Christ, ap Gryffin. Spare me.”

“As you wish,” Robyn conceded. “Rest now. Later we’ll get you out of here.” He went away temporarily and came back – without the stew, mercifully. “You’ll not begrudge me my ale, then? There’s no telling what sport I’m missing because of you.”

“Drink,” Ciaran ordered. He moved a fraction, moaning as the blood leaped and throbbed in his head. He was certain he had forgotten something – some secret, some duty that would save him. “What’s the hour by you?” he asked. “Is it light out? Or dark?”

“Neither,” Robyn answered. “Somewhere in between. Near compline, I think.”

Ciaran frowned. “The last I remember,” he recalled, “I was lounging in a sumptuous bed, forced into sharing it with the unlikeliest bedfellows.”

Robyn gave a short laugh. “Implausible, but true.”

“Where are we now?” Ciaran wondered aloud, wrestling an expanding confusion. “My head’s exploding. Have we joined battle?”

Robyn didn’t answer right away. He emptied his cup and sat fidgeting with something.

“Come, ap Gryffin. I’ve been lying here trying to puzzle things out.”

The silence grew stark. Ciaran lifted a hand to his head. Stiffened strands of his hair caught in the folds of bandage; he swore; his fingers shook. “Take it off,” he rasped through his teeth. “Take it off, for Christ’s mercy, or I’ll -”

Robyn wrested his hands away. “Not now, Cei. Not yet. Leave be.”

Ciaran groaned; he lay quivering. “Am I blind then? Speak plain.”

Robyn readily returned to his bench. The words came hard and clear, with no pity in them. “You came that close to losing your left eye. The surgeon held out little hope you’d regain sight in it.”

“And the other one?”

“The other one seems right enough, but with the blow to your head, no one can predict. With rest and proper care, there’s a modest chance it’ll mend.”

For the space of a heartbeat, Ciaran held still. He continued in a slow, measured tone. “Help me up, Robyn. I want you to tell me everything.”

Robyn cursed. “You’ve not listened to a word I’ve said.”

“No time. Something urgent -”

“Lie quiet,” Robyn insisted, restraining him with a firm but gentle hand.

“Don’t fight me, damn you.”

With a sigh and a curse, Robyn slid an arm around Ciaran’s waist to support him. “You’ll start the bleeding again.”

“So be it, then.” Ciaran rested woodenly against Robyn’s shoulder, his face stiff with effort. “Tell it out, man, and spare nothing. Begin with the oath-taking.”

“Sweet Lord,” Robyn proclaimed, “we’re a long way from Narberth. Don’t you remember anything? The feasting, the celebrations? The ride to Caer Blaen?”

“Caer Blaen.” Ciaran repeated the words dully.

“We’re in the physician’s lodge. You, in your profound wisdom, challenged Lionel de Barre to a contest of arms.”

“Did I indeed?” Ciaran submitted, smiling thinly. “Say on.”

Robyn grunted. “You might have defeated him if you kept your fool head down like I told you. By a stroke of the Devil’s luck, a fragment of his lance struck your eye. For all that, you held your seat. The final pass ended in a draw. But you collapsed after the last course.”

Ciaran’s smile vanished.

“You gave him splendid battle,” Robyn went on. “The match cost him; you could see the exhaustion in his face. Still, he seemed to regret what happened. He wouldn’t let anyone near you; he even held your head while they dressed your wound.”

Ciaran sat very still. The only sounds were the ragged catch of his breathing and the soft rustling of wind against the canvas. “I’ll demand a rematch,” he stated calmly. “A fight to the finish.”

“Madness,” grumbled Robyn, as if his opinion mattered. “Anyway, you’re wasting your strength. De Barre has already claimed the prize.”

Ciaran turned his head, ignoring the nausea and the swirling agony. He couldn’t have understood properly. “Evaine,” he breathed. “Where is she now?”

“It’s getting dark,” Robyn noted, disregarding the question. He rummaged about for a candle and struck a flint to light the wick.

“Where is she, Robyn?”

“She’s – ” Robyn’s words faltered. He reached out and took Ciaran’s arm as if to steady him. “She’s in the Great Hall. At the wedding feast. Cei – ”

Ciaran withdrew his arm. He gripped the edge of the cot so hard his whole body shook. He straightened, sucked in his breath. Unsteadily, and with perceptible difficulty, he stood. “My sword, Robyn. Where is it?”

“Far from here, you should thank the Almighty.”

Ciaran stumbled over a shield and cursed, kicking it savagely, and thrust himself through the opening into the twilight.

Robyn leapt after him. From out of nowhere Ciaran had drawn a dagger. “I’ll kill him,” he vowed grimly, dispassionately. “Try to stop me, ap Gryffin, and I’ll cut you to pieces.” He took a step forward, arms casting about in a wide arc, the naked blade glinting dangerously in the fading light.

“Holy Christ, man, put that thing down and come to reason.”

Ciaran turned, stiff-jointed and unsteady. “Take me to him,” he demanded. “I’ll rip out his heart.”

“It’s over,” argued Robyn. “Let be.”

Ciaran stood trembling in every limb. So low Robyn had to strain to hear him, he protested, “It’s not over. It’s just begun.” He cocked his head as if to listen, ran his tongue over dry lips. For some moments he simply stood, breath rasping in his throat. Then something broke in his face and he crumpled, all the light gone out of him.

Robyn half turned away, ashamed to witness this raw suffering. The knife still glittered in Ciaran’s hand; Robyn feared he might turn it upon himself. “Let it go, Cei. Fate travels many roads, and your whole life’s ahead of you. Perhaps now you can begin to live it.”

Ciaran groaned. He raised the dagger high and with a wail that sent a cold chill through Robyn, he drove the point of it deep into the earth. A tremor shook him. He shrank into himself, imprisoned in darkness, rocking with silent tears.


 

After a long time, he raised his face. He reached out as if to support himself, but there was nothing there. “Robyn? Robyn, where are you?” he pleaded, his voice tremulous with sudden fear.

“I’m here,” Robyn assured him. “I’ll not leave you.” He put an arm around Ciaran’s shoulders and lifted him, deftly guiding him back toward the canopy. “The gates will be closing soon,” he remarked. “They’ll be sending someone down for us.”

Ciaran shivered. “Build me a fire, Robyn. I’m cold.”

Robyn set to work quickly. When he finished he rose to help Ciaran nearer to the blaze, but found he had no need. Ciaran crouched before the flames, heedless of smoke or heat. He stretched out his hands as if to draw the fire into himself.

“Are you hungry?” Robyn asked. “There’s still the soup, though it’s gone cold by now. I’ve half a loaf in my pack.”

Ciaran made a low sound in his throat. “The fire feeds me,” he claimed. He reached up and pulled at the bandage covering his eyes; this time it came away in his hands. He sat rigid, listening or perhaps, seeing, the pupil of his right eye vibrating slightly. The left eye was swollen blue-black.

“Christ,” Robyn swore faintly. He moved closer. “Does it hurt?”

“It feels hot.”

Festering. “God’s wounds! We’ve got to have the surgeon look at it.”

Ciaran stared into the burning embers, silent. Shadows deepened around them.

Robyn held his breath and waited. At last, he could bear it no longer. “Do you see anything?” he pressed anxiously.

“I see a great many things,” came the reply. “My sight is keen; it knows no limit.”

Even in the half-light, his battered face was shocking. Robyn poked at the fire, fighting a sudden chill.

Ciaran’s voice grew cold with grief. “What a fool I’ve been,” he admitted, “thinking I could bend the truth to my will. My need was so great, Robyn. I believed the sheer force of it would bring me victory. May God forgive me, I wasn’t strong enough. I failed.”

Robyn put a hand on Ciaran’s shoulder. “You’re not dead,” he reasoned. “Subdued, perhaps, but not conquered. You’ll mend soon enough.”

“I’m disgraced,” Ciaran lamented. “I’ve lost everything.” His shoulders sagged; he turned his face away. “I wish you’d kill me.”

Robyn scoffed. “There’d be no sport in it.”

“I’ve been blind all along, haven’t I? Stone blind. I thought the mere wanting of her could bring her to me. And now there’s nothing, and no one. I’ll never sleep with her in my arms. I’ll never -” He caught his breath, half choking. “I’ll never look upon her face again.”

Chapter Twenty-One

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