CIARAN CAME BACK TO HIMSELF with a shiver. Wrapped in their mantles, neither of his companions stirred. The Bruce sprawled in an alcove, snoring like a buzzing hornet. Beneath a tangle of hair and a crumple of cloak, Dafydd curled, quiet as a child. Relieved that his folly hadn’t drawn their attention, his thoughts turned to his closest friend, Robyn ap Gryffin. It was a damned good thing the wise-cracking archer wasn’t here to see this; he’d be laughing in his imagined beard.
The pallet provided was ample enough. There was a bolster for his head and a warm woolen blanket, and his hostess had granted him an unexpected luxury: he could stretch out beside the hearth. But despite these comforts, sleep would not come. He listened to the logs crackling on the grate, the drumming rain outside the wall. And lay there stiff as a post for all he could do.
Ciaran tossed onto his back, flinging the blanket away with a sweep of his arm. A mounting apprehension swelled in him, a familiar restlessness. It was always the same: the throbbing in his head, the ringing in his ears, the urge to leap into motion. His heart quickened as he fought to count breaths. He compelled himself to focus on the timbered ceiling. Always the same: the power waking, his will weakening.
He sat up, huddled nearer the embers. They glowed blood-red. The base of his spine burned with fire, the radiant light within him blazed in a primordial rhythm. Outside, shadows beckoned. He longed for the cliffs and the moors and the wild places where his spirit could roam free. But here, he could not escape. The light within expanded, burned white hot. No longer could he contain it. It slipped from his grasp as if fueled by a sudden gust of wind, born aloft, a fiery ambassador rushing toward his heart’s desire.
In a blinding instant, it bore a vision: Evaine, trapped, trembling like a frightened rabbit as spears of flame shot under her door. She screamed.
Ciaran surged upward. This was no dream. “Sweet God! Fire!” he bellowed. “Everyone! Get up! Get out!” He vaulted up the staircase and plunged headlong into the blaze, lashing at it, driving it back. The lady slumped in a silken heap a mere arm’s length from him. He reached for her through a solid sheet of flame.
Heat and smoke assailed him, forced him choking and cursing from the room. Ciaran drove into it again, hurled himself into the heart of the inferno. It enfolded him. Like an ancient dance, its rhythm sang in his blood. Arms outstretched to embrace its raging elemental power, he stood erect, the strands of his hair whipping and crackling about his face.
The world exploded with the roar of fire, or was it the clamor of his own pounding heart? He could not count how many moments passed. His body gathered an immeasurable strength. Commanding himself to resolute stillness, he drew the radiant light about him like a cloak. With every ounce of his will, he summoned the blaze back to its source.
Already the room had begun to cool. Moist air moved through an open window. His fear returning, Ciaran uttered a frantic prayer and fell at Evaine’s feet. He lifted her limp shoulders, smoothed the white linen of her robe. Her small face shone pale and still, half concealed behind the dark masses of her hair. He swept her up, pressing her to his chest. She stirred in his arms, gasped, choked, stared out of wide, frightened eyes.
Gripping her cold hand, Ciaran’s lips brushed her forehead. “You mustn’t fear,” he whispered. “I’ll let no harm come to you.” He carried her through the blackened doorway, embers still glowing on the timbered floor.
They sat shivering on the storm-drenched flagstones of the courtyard, listening in dull shock to the shouts of the servants. Evaine stared into his soot-blackened face. His eyes, red-rimmed and watering, shone like fire opals. Yet for all his strangeness, she did not shrink from him. “You’re shaking.” She took his hands, the long fingers closed around hers.
His eyes widened, he drew a breath. “I know who you are,” he said as if suddenly roused from a long spell-induced sleep.
She stared at him in wonder and terror. A flame-red aura surrounded his head, bathing his face in light. Yet she could not take her eyes from him. “Who?” she implored. “Who am I?”
Ciaran released her hands. His trembling fingers brushed her lips. “My dark lady,” he said. Then, so faintly she had to strain to hear, he murmured, “my soul.”
HE AWOKE TO A BURNING THIRST. Muted bells chimed in the distance; the chapel ringing for prime. Sensations of heat spread through his limbs, simmering just below consciousness, and behind closed eyelids, images danced, remnants of a dream.
Fire! His eyes flew open in panic, his heart pounding. Gasping for breath, Ciaran thrashed about in the darkness beneath a pile of heavy quilts, blindly wrestling with the confining layers of bedding in pursuit of fresh air.
Warm flesh met the brisk tonic it sought, and he calmed himself, sucking in several deep, refreshing breaths while waiting for his eyes to adjust to the deep grayness of the dawn.
The small, windowless room was cool and dark, and he began to make out the shapes of trunks, crates, and boxes stored against one wall. A long, wooden table littered with various utensils and other items too indistinct to identify abutted another. Judging by these objects, he guessed the chamber was an old larder or storage closet adjoining the main room. Ciaran could not remember how he got there.
He ran his hands over the smooth muscles of his chest and down over his belly, flexing his toes and stretching his long legs. By some miracle, he was still whole. He bore no trace of any wound. His body surged with renewed strength, keen as a blade tempered in the forge.
His ears pricked up to the sounds of hushed voices and muffled footsteps as the servants bustled about the hall. The reek of smoke clung to his hair and skin, to the bedding, the walls, the air itself. But there was still a roof over his head, by the grace of God, and mortar to keep out the damp.
The rattle of a key in the door sharpened his senses further. He shifted his weight and hoisted himself into a semi-sitting position, pulling the quilts up to his chest.
The lady entered–dressed and cloaked, carrying a small tallow lantern and a tray of refreshments. The morning’s chill brought a rosy flush to her cheeks.
“God’s greeting, my lord.” She set down her tray. “Pray, how is your health, sir?”
Ciaran noted with a sinking heart the crisp formality in her tone. “I am well,” he said.
She cast him a dubious glance. As if to guard against some perceived danger, she did not remove her cloak, but kept it wrapped closely about her. “You seem hale enough, for all your heroics. But shouldn’t you be lying down? You’ve been quite ill.”
“Have I?” Mindful of his bare shoulders, Ciaran tugged at the bed linens, slouching down beneath them to shield from her his nakedness.
“For hours you burned with fever,” Evaine replied. Her manner, at last, seemed to warm a little. “You flailed about so fitfully, we thought you might injure yourself. Your mountainous protector out there grudgingly volunteered to watch over you.” She studied him gravely. “We feared you might not survive the night.”
Death does not come easily to one such as I, Ciaran thought. He mustered a smile. “Yet here I am,” he pointed out. “Due in no small part to your tender care.”
“You fainted after the fire,” said Evaine. “Your giant friend plucked you from the flagstones and threw you across his back like a satchel of twigs. After he hauled you inside, we rubbed you down with vinegar to draw the heat from your body and, once the fever broke, we wrapped you in quilts and put you to bed.”
“I’m grateful,” Ciaran said. “I’m – I -” he stammered, grasping at any excuse to keep her there.
From the clutter on the table she found a pair of candles. Lighting the wicks, she let some wax drip into the base of a matching pair of candlesticks and set the lighted tapers into them, illuminating the room with a soft, yellow glow.
“Please, my lady – you mentioned my companions – are they unharmed?”
“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 sleep.”
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 with interest. The moment their eyes met she looked away. “As for the house,” she continued offhandedly, “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 safe and sound, by God’s good grace.” She poured liquid from a small pitcher into a goblet on her tray. “Are you thirsty?” she asked. “The wine is sweet mulberry from our cellar.”
“Parched,” Ciaran said, running the tip of his tongue over dry lips.
She approached his cot and placed a slender hand beneath his head, holding the rim of the goblet to his mouth.
“Thank you, my lady. You’re kind.” He took some wine into his mouth and let it linger on his tongue before swallowing. She was so near he could smell the sweet, tender scent of rose water in her hair. The thought crossed his mind that if he feigned weakness, he might gain more of her sympathy. After taking another sip of wine, he let his head fall back, closing his eyes and releasing a sigh.
“You need rest,” she said, her voice soft. Replacing the goblet on the tray, she turned back to him. “Shall I send one of the maids in with a boiled egg and some oatcakes? Or would you rather sleep a while longer?”
“I’ll be all right,” Ciaran said, gazing at her through lowered lids. “But what of you?” Impulsively, he reached for her hands. To his relief, she did not recoil, but remained beside him, her small hands resting in his.
“Your hands are cold,” Ciaran remarked. He stared down at them, unexpectedly self-conscious. The pallor of his own narrow hands next to her glowing, delicate skin appeared unnatural. “Lady, I beg your forgiveness. I never meant to bring you harm,” he whispered.
“You mustn’t blame yourself.” A lock of her hair fell from her coif and brushed his shoulder.
Ciaran wet his lips. “I’d like to do what I can to mend the damage. I regret your loss more than you know.”
“Thank you, my lord. But you’ve done what you can. As I said, there remains little to do now but patch a few things and then we must begin packing the trunks, and saddle the mules for the journey to Castle Narberth.”
The journey to Narberth. His lord uncle, not to mention Evaine’s brother, would doubtless be wondering what had detained them.
The lady withdrew from him at last, 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 as they knelt together on the rain-drenched flagstones of the courtyard, and he was certain she had felt it as he had. Despite this, she seemed resolved not to acknowledge any of it. They would remain strangers after all.
“My maid will be in with your breakfast,” 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 with a touch of humor. She stood, modestly smoothing her skirts. 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 candlesticks. Before he could summon the wits to call her back, she slipped away, elusive as a dream.