HE AWOKE TO A BURNING THIRST. Muted bells chimed in the distance; the chapel ringing for prime. Ciaran lifted the coverlet to inspect himself, noting with no small surprise his utter nakedness. By some miracle, he was still whole, though he had walked like a demon through Hell itself. What was he made of, that he could endure the touch of fire on flesh? He bore no trace of any wound. To the contrary, his body surged with renewed strength, keen as a blade tempered in the forge.
He heard the hushed voices and muffled footsteps of the servants as they moved about the hall, felt the uncertain whisperings of their thoughts. The reek of smoke clung to his hair and skin, to the bedding, the walls, the very air. But there was still a roof over his head, God be thanked, and mortar to keep out the damp.
A rustling of skirts came near the door. Quickly, he covered himself. Evaine entered – dressed and cloaked as if to guard against some perceived danger. The morning’s ambiance brought a rosy flush to her cheeks.
“God’s greeting, my lord.” She hesitated slightly. “Pray, how is your health, sir?”
Ciaran noted with a sinking heart the crisp formality in her tone. “I am well,” he declared, studying her frankly.
She cast him a dubious glance. “To be sure, you seem hale enough, for all your heroics. But shouldn’t you be lying down? You’ve been quite ill.” She did not, he noticed, remove her cloak.
“Have I?” Ciaran tugged at the bed linen.
“For hours you burned with fever,” Evaine replied, her manner, at last, warming a little. “You thrashed about so fitfully, we thought you might injure yourself; your mountainous protector out there grudgingly volunteered to watch over you.” She studied him gravely. “By daybreak, you went quite cold. We thought you were dead.”
Death does not come easily to one such as I, Ciaran thought. He mustered a smile. “Yet I live,” he pointed out. “Due in no small part to your tender care. I’m grateful. I’m – I -” he stammered, grasping at any excuse to keep her there. “Please, my lady, before you go – you mentioned my companions – are they unharmed? And the house – what treasures have you lost?”
“Your fellows are well, my lord, though they’re fretting over you like a couple of nursemaids. The boy, Dafydd, seems especially anxious. I’d stay at arm’s length from the big red-haired one, if I were you, until his temper passes. I think he’s still peevish from the interruption to his rest.”
Ciaran chuckled, knowing the Bruce’s penchant for harboring a grudge. “Don’t take him too seriously,” he said. “He’s much softer than that crusty hide would suggest.”
She paused, appraising him briefly. The moment their eyes met she looked away. “As for the house,” she continued with calm detachment, “a bit of thatch, a proper scrubbing, perhaps a coat of lime ought to put everything right. Had I not witnessed it myself, I’d say the fire was naught but a frightful dream. Still,” she added, her voice low, “I can’t help wondering what evil it bodes.”
Ciaran was silent. What evil indeed?
Evaine let out a small sigh. “But we’re all sound enough, by God’s good grace.”
“And what of you?” he asked, impulsively reaching for her hands. To his relief, she did not recoil, but let her fingers rest in his.
“A whit rattled, but none the worse for it,” she admitted.
Your hands are cold,” Ciaran remarked. He stared down at them, suddenly self-conscious. The pallor of his own narrow hands next to her glowing, delicate skin appeared unnatural. “Lady, forgive me. I never meant to bring you harm,” he whispered.
“You mustn’t blame yourself,” she said. A lock of her hair brushed his shoulder, fragrant with the faint perfume of roses.
Ciaran wet his lips. “I’d like to do what I can to mend the damage. I regret your loss more than you know.” He sought her eyes, binding her fleetingly with the intensity of his gaze.
At last, she withdrew, moving discreetly about the room collecting candlesticks and bits of wax from the lamps. Ciaran observed her with growing dismay. Something deeply meaningful had passed between them, and he was certain she had experienced it as he had. Despite this, she seemed resolved not to acknowledge any of it. They would remain strangers after all.
He knew she sensed his eyes upon her, yet she would not raise her face to look at him. “Lowri will be in with bread and broth,” she said. “You must be starved.”
“Hungry as a pack of hounds.” It was a lie, but it wrung a smile from her.
“You are feeling better,” she said, looking at him at last. She stood, modestly smoothing her skirts, her face in shadow. Her smile was soft as the moon.
Don’t go, he longed to say, but his tongue had frozen. As if gazing through the veils of sleep, he watched her gather up her tallow lights. Before he could summon the wits to call her back, she slipped away, elusive as a dream.