Eilonwy Daughter of Angharad Daughter of Regat Princess of Llyr was ready to go home.
She had resigned herself, with no little internal struggle, to wearing out a year on the isle of Mona, learning to sew and curtsey and simper and she didn't know what else. It had been no easy thing for her to watch Taran depart the isle, and Gwydion and Fflewddur and the rest of their friends, and remain behind herself. But she'd done it, and gone back to Queen Teleria with nary a complaint – at least, not when anyone could hear them. And she'd started work on an embroidered portrait of Taran and Hen Wen, to try to keep from growing too lonely. And she'd been resigned.
But, night after night, her sleep was plagued by dreams of iron bars and locked cages that she woke from gasping and desolate. It was strange: she knew that the cage was not hers. There was a certain resemblance between Dinas Rhydnant and a cage, to be sure – not so much a gilded cage as a quilted one, padded round with feathers. But she herself held the key to that cage, and knew she did. Teleria and Rhuddlum would no more insist on keeping her there, should she truly wish to go, than they would force her to marry their son. She'd made herself very clear, she thought, on that last point, and after a bit of sighing and fuss it hadn't come up again.
Yet still she dreamed of traps and snares and iron bars, and her heart grew increasingly desperate. Once the year had passed, and another season as well, and once the long summer was drawing to a cool-morninged close, she put her foot down at last.
“My dear child,” Teleria said in the fussiest of her fussy voices, “of course, if you feel it to be necessary -”
“Would it not be more, ahem, proper to wait and be sent for by your guardian on the mainland?” King Rhuddlum added.
“It's time for me to go,” she told them, mulish and blunt and stubborn, and she kept repeating herself until messenger pigeons were sent winging off across the sea, and a little ship was at the ready to carry her back, over the sea and up the Avren and home. She tried to be gracious in her farewells to Mona, but couldn't seem to dredge up any real enthusiasm for the social events that sprung up mushroom-like as soon as her imminent departure was announced.
Rhun had asked to accompany her, but she'd said no – she did feel a bit badly about turning him down, though there'd been no help for it, and somehow she wanted to go alone. Though she knew that she ought to be joyful, her heart was as cold and still as a frozen thing, and she didn't want him there to witness her heaviness. She hoped he would be happy, but she knew, as well as she knew her own name, that she would never be able to be the source of his happiness.
She couldn't keep track of the days of her voyage, but let them pass like beads slipping from a broken string. She remained unwontedly silent. She dreamed more and more, and more darkly each time. She didn't know what was wrong with her, didn't know why she felt so unfree. She thought she should be happy.
When the familiar golden sand of Avren Harbor met her eyes, she felt so, if only for just a minute.
Coll met her there. He nearly picked her up in his strong arms as he handed her down from the gangplank. The old warrior's eyes were worried, but he smoothed a welcoming thumb along her cheek, and she couldn't stop herself from leaning in hungrily to the physical expression of home. Even if she was terribly disappointed that Taran hadn't come for her, and as blue as a forget-me-not deep down inside, in the place where she'd been wanting him for a year and a season.
“Princess,” Coll said, “welcome back. You've been dearly missed, and not only by me.”
She looked up with Coll with questioning eyes, and she did not need to say the name; the old warrior-farmer shook his head. He said, brusque, “Let Dallben tell you all, in time. Give me your news as we ride, for I've little enough of it.”
He'd brought her Lluagor, and Eilonwy kissed the mare's soft nose before mounting, heart-glad that at least one of her friends had not forgotten her. She spent the journey home trying to make Coll laugh – he was awfully somber, and it sat oddly on him. She was better used to his face when it was cheerfully beaming than gloomed over. The story about Wenna and the onions and the unicorn tapestry got a smile from him, and when the bucket of seawater spilled all over the Lughnasadh feasting-table he laughed outright, so she thought she'd done a good enough job of it.
But then Caer Dallben was a green jewel before her, and Dallben was coming out of the house leaning on his stick, and Coll grew dour-faced and sad-eyed once more. Tying the horses, he guided her into the house with the pressure of his large hand against her back, and Dallben too, when she came close to him, pressed a caress against her bound hair.
Taran was not there.
Once she was seated in Dallben's study, piles of parchment and vellum and ink all around her, the old enchanter spoke: “Welcome home, Princess of Llyr. Alas, this is not the homecoming we had either of us hoped for – though I would be remiss in failing to remark on how much you have grown, how pretty you look with your hair clean and pinned up, and how becoming the new wisdom is that has taken up residence in your eyes.”
“I don't care about any of that,” she said. “What's happened to Taran?”
“As to that, my dear,” he replied, voice old and weary, “none of us exactly know. He is missing. There has been no trace of him these three months.”
The shock of it took her breath away, and there was no hope in her heart for comfort. Taran was supposed to be waiting for her, her reward-to-come for being a good girl and doing as Dallben told her to. She'd get to go home to him, and hear the small sounds of his breath in the night through the dark, and run races and cook messes and tell stories up on top of the sweet-smelling hay bales in the gauzy evening, and she would belong, and each day would be a pearl on an endless string. He couldn't be missing; there would be no home for her there if he were gone.
Coll came in through the open door, and he looked tired too. “The boy wanted to know who his people were,” he told her. “You've likely some idea as to why, and for all we told him it made no matter he would go. So we sent him off, thinking he'd find his own answers and come back to us soon enough, just as he always has done.”
Who his people were. Oh, of all the idiotic – how could he still think that mattered to her? But of course he did: she could see him now in her mind's eye, boots on his feet and bundle on his broad back, setting out to – to bring her what treasure he could. Yes, she knew why. But oh, Taran -
“He's been gone from us for more than a season,” said Coll. “His horse and Kaw both came straggling back without him near a month ago, now.”
“The crow brought rumor as well,” Dallben added, “that the Fair Folk are also troubled by a new enemy. I fear that the two are connected, in some way that I have not yet discovered. That creature is no clear messenger at the best of times, and the matter as a whole seems to me exceeding strange.”
Impatience flashed up in her – she needed something – oh, how she needed something to do! Dallben's habitually slow and methodical manner chafed at her like a restraint. More than a season missing, and here he was still wittering on about messages! “Does Prince Gwydion know,” she asked, “and Fflewddur? And Doli?” She did not bother to ask about Gurgi. There was no question that the creature would've been at Taran's side.
“I have sent word to Gwydion at Caer Dathyl, but I do not know if there will be aught he can do in this,” Dallben said. “He commands the world of human beings. He has no sway over the diverse powers of enchantment that bind that world together.” He broke off, sighed, let his head fall for a moment into his hand. Eilonwy bit her tongue, restrained still. At last he continued: “Fflewddur Fflam was with Taran when he was lost, and we can only believe him to have met the same fate. As to Doli, I am very anxious to speak with him, and with King Eiddileg as well – but of yet we have been unable to contact that realm. Kaw has gone to attempt another message. We shall see.”
It was the worst possible thing. To not have Fflewddur's generous heart and ready good humor to carry her through? She feared for the gentle, unassuming man, who had always been a good friend to her. She felt at once terribly frenzied, her breath throbbing fast and shallow, and deeply cold. She wanted to run, but not because running offered her any comfort. But if she held still she thought she might just freeze into an icy statue of a girl.
Perhaps she looked as cold as she felt, for Coll stepped to her side and put a hand at her elbow. “Come eat something, now,” he said. “A bit to eat and some sleep, and you'll feel the stronger for it.”
“There's nothing to be done?” she implored the enchanter and the farmer, still desperate for any action.
They both looked back at her with empty faces. “Can sorcery trace the flight of a fledgling bird?” Dallben asked back in answer, soft and weary.
“I don't know,” she snapped. “But if it can't find a missing Assistant Pig-Keeper, I don't see much use for it.”
“We're doing all we can,” Coll said placatingly. “Lass, you've traveled all this day – come rest now. Tomorrow will wait.”
Starved of all nourishment, her restless energy collapsed in a corner of her chilled heart. She let herself be led away. Dallben stayed at his desk, bent over with cares, as Coll guided her into the kitchen.
The kitchen was small and bright and cramped and sunny, the little kingdom of Eilonwy's brief second childhood, and ought to have soothed her cares. But bent over a rising loaf a dark figure loomed: a silver-haired woman with a cruel lovely red mouth, garbed in black and sour-faced.
She'd known that Achren had come to Caer Dallben to seek refuge after the fall of her hopes into the sea, but had never guessed that the former enchantress-queen might still be there when she returned. The sight of her was like a slap, and Eilonwy was left gasping at the shock of it.
No jewels gilded Achren now, and the braid of her grey hair hung heavy and unadorned; clad in her simple voluminous black she was utterly unlike the harshly brilliant aunt who had had Eilonwy beaten as a child. But she was Achren still, and the curve of her still-red mouth was mocking. “Welcome, Princess of Llyr,” she said, inclining her head, as to a fellow queen.
“A-Achren,” Eilonwy stammered. “I did not know you would be here.”
Achren's eyes glittered, but Eilonwy could not read her expression. “I yet have need of a sanctuary,” she said, “and since Dallben's scullery-girl had gone away to become a lady, I have remained to work in her stead. And have you become a lady, Princess of Llyr? Let me see what Teleria has made of you.”
She looked Eilonwy up and down and the girl stood still, pierced on the point of the woman's gaze, feeling very young and somewhat tattered, though she was now as tall as Achren herself, and her raiment was travel-marked but fine. “Well,” Achren said at last, “a lady you are. Perhaps not the lady I would have made of you – but perhaps not so different after all.”
Eilonwy swallowed. “I've given up everything you would have made of me, Achren. Caer Colur is gone, and Spiral Castle ruined, and I will never now be your dupe.” The words had sounded brave in her mind, but in speaking them she felt a twinge: she protested too much.
Achren knew it. “Yet you are still the daughter of Angharad Princess of Llyr. You cannot deny your blood, girl. The old tools you have surrendered, true, but your inborn power is not so easily destroyed. We are what we are.”
“I'm nothing like you.”
“No? But not like Teleria either, I perceive. She was always a silly little thing, even as a girl. She used to come to Caer Colur in the summers, did she tell you? Her father was of the House of Llyr, though the blood failed in her. You have used her well: taken what you needed and kept yourself from dulling in her company. Still a sharp blade, but more polished now – and you have learned concealment and duplicity into the bargain. It was well done.”
Eilonwy stood silent, biting her tongue, not knowing what to say. Achren spoke no lies, but nor did she speak the truth of things as Eilonwy had lived and felt them, and the girl's cold miserable heart quailed. Twice in her life Taran had freed her from Achren's grasp, and now he was gone and she was left alone with her aunt.
Not really her aunt, Eilonwy reminded herself. Achren's power was broken now. And this was her home. She drew herself up. “Is there anything you need of me, Achren, or may I pass?”
Achren inclined her head again. “Nothing, Princess, save to ask if you would eat.”
Mutely, Eilonwy shook her head and fled away to her loft. Achren watched the retreat, and when Coll came into the kitchen later to look for the girl, Achren only raised an eyebrow and pointed to the stair. Gathering together an apple and a loaf and some sharp goat cheese, Coll left the resultant bundle neatly wrapped at Eilonwy's door and went quietly out again. All the while the former Queen of Prydain and Consort of Annuvin went on, kneading her bread.
Eilonwy found the food soon enough, and ate. Her little loft hadn't changed much, only grown a bit dustier – but there was her pallet with the faded quilt, and the familiar fancifully-carved pegs for her gowns, and the chipped water basin by the open window. She couldn't see Taran's bed from the loft, it being positioned directly beneath her own, but she knew she'd hear the absence of his breath in the night, and wondered if she'd be able to sleep at all in that awful quiet.
The sun sank low, and then slid underneath the line of the horizon, and the stars glimmered in the darkening sky. Before she lay down in her bed, Eilonwy slipped out to Hen Wen's enclosure, cloak wrapped around her over her shift to keep out the coolness of the late summer night. The oracular pig was glad to see her, plain as pudding, but there was an underlying melancholy in the animal's expressive face. “I know, Hen,” she said, trying her best not to let the sobs that were climbing her throat out. “I miss him too.”
In the morning, Eilonwy awoke to the unmelodious sounds of Kaw's speech. She'd slept through the dawn, and her first feeling on waking was the weight of a terrible need. Still sleep-fuddled, it took her a moment to connect the sounds of crow-talk below with – with everything – but as soon as she did so she went tumbling down the stairs from her loft still in her shift, eager to hear the tame crow's news.
When she arrived, barefooted, on the floor, she saw that Kaw was not alone; the crow was sitting on the shoulder of Gwystyl of the Fair Folk, who stood looking very grey and unhappy in the entryway to Dallben's house. Dallben himself stood within, having risen to greet their guest, clutching his threadbare robe around his bony shoulders. Neither Coll nor – she shuddered inwardly – Achren were anywhere to be seen.
“Kaw! Gwystyl!” she said, throwing herself at the little man, not patient enough to stand on ceremony. “Gwystyl, if you know where Taran is, you have to tell us!”
“Ah,” he said. “I should have known you'd be here eventually.” He cringed back. “Please don't shake or squeeze me, Princess, I'm really not up to it today. Where Taran is? No, I haven't the slightest idea. But my King sent me out for Dallben's aid, and then here was this stupid crow lighting on my shoulder and refusing to get off, and saying no end of nonsense. Something about a finger? I suppose he's bitten someone's off, or something equally cheerful.”
“Princess! Princess!” Kaw squawked happily, abandoning Gwystyl to perch pertly on her wrist. “Llyr!”
“Yes, Llyr,” Dallben said with a sigh, and Eilonwy heard significance in his voice, though she didn't understand why it would be there. “Gwystyl, is it? What need has the King of the Fair Folk for the services of a humble enchanter?”
“You walk the world, much good it does you,” Gwystyl said, speaking more formally now. “We don't tend to, not so much. All sorts of nasty things in the world, you know. One of them's threatening us right now, and we don't know what it is.”
Gwystyl paused, waiting for Dallben's acknowledgement, but Eilonwy cut in before her guardian could speak. “Doli,” she said hopefully. “Can you take a message to Doli for us? About Taran?”
Dallben silenced her with the sharpest look she'd ever received from him. Usually Taran was the one who got that look; Eilonwy squirmed at the new experience. “The Princess Eilonwy speaks out of turn,” Dallben said politely to Gwystyl. “You must forgive her; she is young, and cannot always control either her feelings or her tongue.”
Gwystyl waved a long-fingered hand vaguely in the air. “Oh, of course, of course. There's no question of messages to Doli, you know. He's gone missing, you see. Months ago. Just like every other scout we've sent near that bend in the Ystrad. Master Dallben, what word may I take back from you to my king?”
Eilonwy, steeling herself against Dallben's displeasure, interjected again. “Which bend was that?” she forced herself to ask sweetly – she wanted to shake him! “Only, Taran went missing the same time, and it's as plain as the sun in the sky that they were together when whatever's happened – happened.”
Gwystyl looked shaken, though she'd held herself back. “Your enemy seems to be my own,” he said. “Oh dear. I'd hoped to get this over quickly, or that it would turn out not to be so bad after all.”
Dallben did nothing to outwardly show Eilonwy disapproval, but nor did his expression lighten at the apparent tangle of Taran in the affairs of the Fair Folk. “My sight is unclear at present, Gwystyl of the Fair Folk,” he said. “Hen Wen's letter sticks have spelled out only nonsense, and the Book of Three grows extremely, hem, unspecific in parts. Portents of the powers of Llyr have long filled my dreams, but I had thought,” he added, with a sidelong glance at Eilonwy, “that they were in relation to certain recent events.” She met his eyes sharply, keenly aware that she had not spoken nor written of her ordeal with Achren to the aged enchanter. But then again, he was Dallben, and Eilonwy was used to him knowing the unknowable – and at any rate, Taran would have told him most of it, if not all.
Gwystyl drooped mournfully. “Then you can give us no aid? Well, I hadn't really hoped for any.”
“I can help you,” Eilonwy said, feeling anew the cold hardness of heart that had been creeping up on her of late. “As you said, your enemy is my own. Can you lead me to the bend in the river where your people were lost?”
“Princess,” Dallben murmured, quiet but censorious – but she didn't care.
“There's no one else to go,” she told him. “You can't make me stay here, and abandon him. You of all people – you're the only family he's ever had!”
The old enchanter sighed heavily, and Eilonwy was struck by how frail and spent he looked, bowed beneath the burden of his long years. He'd never used to look like that, before, and the pang of sorrow that went shooting through her was enough to quiet her anger – for a moment. “Do not think, Princess,” Dallben said, “that you are the only one who cares for his fate.”
She nodded, silent. He went on: “You surrendered the powers of Llyr at Caer Colur. You were marked there for your heritage, and for the power that you still carry within yourself. Your grandmother Regat was a great queen and a mighty enchantress, and her blood flows true through your veins. Just as Achren once wished to control you, so others may come to desire access to your power. It would be safer for you to remain under my protection in such circumstances as these.”
“Stay here?” she flashed out, hearing the reason in his words and not caring a fig about it. “I'd like to see you try and make me! I came home to find him, not to be protected like some stupid piece of porcelain.”
Dallben nodded, and she knew that he would not try to dissuade her again. “You, too, must walk your own path,” he said. “And,” he added, with a half-smile, “I have no doubt that you will take it well in your stride.”
Eilonwy left Gwystyl to Dallben and climbed back into her loft, shrugging into a clean shift and smock and lacing up a pair of old leggings under her skirts for easier maneuvering, before pulling on her boots. Her hair she braided back sensibly. The gold circlet she'd worn home from Mona sat winking in the patch of sunlight beside her pillow long after she'd gone, riding out with Dallben's blessing, a bundle of provisions from Coll, and the dubious companionship of Gwystyl. She saw no sight of Achren as she rode away, and was not sorry of it.
Eilonwy and Gwystyl traveled for three days, fording the Avren at the great shallows, which took hours to ride across but were slow-flowing and sand-bottomed. They stopped only when they had to. The light of her bauble allowed them to ride well into the gathering night, and she didn't feel the need of much sleep – or care what Gwystyl felt the need of, for that matter. His odd-boned long-faced horse had more endurance that one might have thought, just by looking at it. After the first half-hour, Eilonwy had begun to hold her tongue, preferring even silence to Gwystyl's perpetually negative and somewhat nasal tone.
A tiny flicker of flame had kindled at the deep center of Eilonwy's frozen heart, and its waxing power drove her onward like a spur. She kept remembering Taran's face, the night he'd climbed up to rescue her from Caer Colur. Now that Achren's spells were shattered, she could remember more of him than she truly wanted to: the warm happy hope and joy that had broken like a wave over his dear familiar features when he'd first found her there, the bewildered frightened abandonment that had made his mouth tremble, when he'd found her without memory of him, the sharp misery on his reddened cheek after she'd struck him that horrible blow.
It began raining as they crossed into the land of the hill cantrevs, a steady downpour that dampened her hair against her neck and her feet through the soles of her boots, but not the ardor of her heart.
On the morning of the fourth day, when Eilonwy could no longer hear the rush of Great Avren behind them, Gwystyl halted abruptly. Eilonwy had put him ahead of her, where she could press him onwards with fair efficacy – and also because he knew their destination and she did not, but she did have to push him a bit; the creature was a terrible dawdler. “What is it?” she said, as Lluagor nearly tripped over his bony steed.
“Oh, ah – a member of my kindred somewhere nearby, I think,” Gwystyl stammered nervously. “I do hope they don't want to visit, or claim sanctuary, or anything awkward like that. We can always feel it, you know,” he added, “when one of the Folk is near, and there are no wayposts here.”
As they rode on, no voice called out to them in greeting. Eilonwy wondered aloud if Gwystyl wasn't just looking for an excuse to stop and rest. But then - “There it is!” Gwystyl called out, and dropping rather gracelessly from his saddle he stumbled over to a heap of old cloth that lay damply folded on the ground.
She dismounted, too, and looped Lluagor's bridle around the branches of a silver aspen. As she drew nearer, she recognized it: “That's Taran's cloak,” she said, voice barely more than a whisper. It was stained and sodden, but she could still make out the mark of the court tailor of Mona who had made it for him, that first night. Taran's cloak – he'd stood in this copse, right where she was now, and somehow that combined with the pitiful little bundle of torn fabric he'd left behind made it all seem terribly, inexorably real.
Gwystyl was unfolding the fabric; the cloth had been soaked through with the recent rain. And - was that - “A frog?” she asked, taken aback. “What on earth would a frog be doing sleeping in Taran's cloak? That doesn't seem at all a froggy sort of place to be in!”
“I'b dot a frog, halfwid,” it croaked.
“Hullo, Doli,” said Gwystyl.
Doli was tired, hungry, and ill. “That hare-brained pig-keeper left me here months ago,” he said as soon as they'd got him untangled from the heavy wet wool. “And it was dry as a bone, I'll tell you. I've been estivating for ages now, and being sleepy helped to pass time. Then it started raining. Raining! It woke me up well enough, but I'm sick and tired of dampness of any kind!”
He was, of course, a frog, and Eilonwy understood that that must be a rather difficult thing to bear – but he was, for the most part, all right. “I'm surprised to see you here, Princess,” he croaked, somewhat clearer of voice now that he'd got back into the habit of it. “The last I heard of it, you were on Mona.”
“I came back,” she said, petting a fingertip down the broad green expanse of his forehead. “Good old Doli, you can tell me what's happened to Taran, can't you?”
The Doli-frog looked at her, and perhaps because he was a frog rather than a dwarf Eilonwy had a hard time telling if he meant it to be pointed or knowing or just rather put out. “I can,” he said. “Gwystyl, you come here too. I don't want to tell the story of this whole bungle more than once, and you'll need to get word to Eiddileg when you hear what I've found out.”
Doli's tale sent shivery feelings down the small of her back. Their enemy had a name: Morda, the enchanter who could enspell the Fair Folk. Who had imprisoned Doli in an animal-body and left him to die. Who could do things to the Fair Folk that no human sorcerer ought to be able to manage. “And Taran and Fflewddur were mixed up in this?” she said, feeling terribly afraid.
“They were headed to his lair when they left me,” Doli said. “I was getting sick, and couldn't keep up with them – the idea of it! Me, unable to keep pace with those two yawps! But they left me behind, and that's the last I've seen or heard of anyone for months.”
“Oh dear, oh dear,” said Gwystyl, wringing his long thin hands. “I was worried it was going to be something of this sort. Bad fortune never fails.”
She didn't know any words to describe how she felt at that moment – all hot and cold at the same time, as it were. It was a bit like having a fever, but she felt strong with it rather than weakened. Her heart was hot with anger, and her body was cold with an implacable determined rage that she hadn't known she could feel – that she never had felt before. Eilonwy's anger had always been fire and sparks, quickly roused and quickly doused. But then again, nobody had ever stolen Taran before. On Mona, he'd done the rescuing. Now, she'd have to manage it.
She stood. “Doli, you know where to find this Morda?”
The frog leveled a stern eye at her for a long moment and then nodding, damply but decidedly. “I do,” he croaked. “Carry me with you, and I'll show you the way.”
Bending down again, she looked into his – admittedly somewhat goggling – eyes. “Are you well enough?” she asked.
“It doesn't matter,” he said. “There's no other way. I let him go alone, and look how that turned out!”
“I'm not him,” she said, picking him up and cradling him in her cupped hands.
The frog said, “No, you're not. If anyone can deal with this Morda, it would likely be you. I've never known you to fail when you'd set your will to something.”
“Thank you,” she said. Rising, she looked over her shoulder at Gwystyl. “We'll go on foot,” she told him. “I don't want to risk the horses – and besides, I don't think I should much like to ride and hold Doli at the same time. You stay here and watch them, and be assured I will throttle you if any harm comes to them, or if you run off.”
Gwystyl looked anxious, but he nodded clearly enough. She stroked Lluagor's nose once in farewell, and then set off, at Doli's direction walking north toward a dark and dripping wood.
It was gloomy beneath the dense late-summer canopy of leaves, heavy with the recent rainfall, and Eilonwy nearly tripped three times before she exasperatedly tied a pocket into her cloak, creating a place for Doli so that she might have her hands free. As soon as she did so, she took her bauble in her hands. It kindled, lighting the forest with a gentle sunny glow, creating strange shadows but giving her enough luminance to find a way by. “Not far now,” Doli said, and Eilonwy felt her heart beating strong and wild against her ribcage. Not far now. They were not far now.
She wasn't sure if she ought to be frightened or not. It would be foolish not to: this Morda was evidently a rather nasty personage, and he'd bound and defeated her companions even with numbers against him. He could enchant the Fair Folk – he must have power, and to spare. But Eilonwy was grown oddly accustomed to power. Achren all her childhood, and then Gwydion and Dallben, and Orddu and Orwen and Orgoch, and Achren again, and even herself in the hall of Caer Colur when she'd been – well, that was rather a lot of power all told.
Some things sent cracks of fear running through her: the fear that Taran would be dead or lost, and an unspoken fear of what she herself might not do if he were. Morda, though? Eilonwy smiled grimly. Let him be afraid of her; she couldn't be bothered to reciprocate.
The path grew clearer beneath her feet, animal tracks pressed into the impressionable loam. And then, as abruptly as if the wood had been cut off with a knife, it ended in a wall of thorns that towered over her head and out of sight. “This is it: Morda's defenses,” Doli, transfigured, croaked out from her knotted bundle. “Be careful of his wretched traps!”
“He's on the other side of this wall? Not very welcoming,” she murmured as she stretched out a hand to touch one of the long thorns that protruded from the densely-woven growth. But to her very great surprise, she could not – because the thorn moved away from her hand, pulling back rather than drawing her blood.
She reached out more firmly, trying to grasp a thorn in her hand, testing the thorns' aversion. This time, several vines unwove themselves to get away from her skin. Alongside the nearest thorn, a tiny white blossom-bud was springing up, and then there was another, swelling along the path of her hand. Now the white buds were wicking out like dye into cloth, spreading and becoming more numerous and threatening to burst into bloom.
Doli drew in a long, whistling breath. “Llyr,” he said, naming it. “The powers of Llyr.”
“They won't hurt me, or let me hurt myself with them,” she said, as a thorn grew soft and dull-pointed against her fingertip. “Very polite of them, considering that they're nothing but plants, and rather unpleasant-looking ones at that.” Doli said nothing, but waited. No other trap sprang up to meet them, or bar their passage.
She laughed like bells, and it was vicious. “So much for his defenses!” she said, and walked through the wall of thorns, Doli tucked against her side and her bauble blazing in her hand. The vines writhed around her like living things, clearing her path swift as serpents. White buds swelled beside the thorns, and as she passed through the archway they'd formed each flowered and unfolded its petals until the walls were white and fragrant with them.
Morda's house, revealed by the increased light of the clearing as well as by the radiance of the bauble, was small, ugly, and in every way unimpressive. Eilonwy curled her lip in scorn as she took in the ramshackle dwelling, the dirt and general disrepair in the midmorning light. After having Achren as an adversary – Achren, who moved from castle to castle as if they all belonged to her, who looked as if she'd been born covered with jewels – this squalor was frankly a bit of a disappointment.
“This is how he lives? If he can bend even the Fair Folk to his will, I'd think he'd have something a bit – well, larger, for one thing, and better-kept. A castle, or a nice house at least.”
Doli shook his green-brown head. “That's not the way with all,” he said. “Power Morda desires, yes, but not so he might enjoy it. Some take only so others might not have, and he's one of that sort. Don't let your guard down,” Doli warned her. “He's enchanted me, and taken Taran and Fflewddur and who knows how many others. The hedge and the thorns yielded to you, but we may not be so fortunate again. Don't let your courage get the better of your sense.”
“I won't,” she said. “But I don't want to take you in with me, either.” When Doli began to protest, she silenced him with a gentle finger. “No, Doli, he's done you harm before – you just told me so yourself! And you've been ill. No, I insist that you stay here, where you're safe. Though I do rather think he's the one who ought to be worried.”
“I know better than to argue with you,” he said with as much of a sniff as a frog could really be expected to manage. “And this does seem to be your fight. But I expect you to come back, and to bring that foolish boy and the harper back with you.”
Unknotting her cloak, she set Doli gently down beside the profusion of still-flowering thorns, and went alone to the threshold of the hut.
The door was low and locked, squat and dirty. “Morda!” she called from the threshold, letting her voice ring with all the authority she could muster. “False sorcerer! I charge you, in the name of my ancestor Llyr Half-Speech, to face my challenge.”
There was a noise within, and the lock turned over. The door opened slowly; impatiently, Eilonwy knocked it back. The man revealed by it was withered and bent, but his pale eyes shone with a hard light. “Who are you,” he said in a scratched, feral-sounding voice, “girl, who are you to challenge Morda?”
She said nothing, just looking at this man – at her enemy. He was of middle height, not much taller than herself, wasted and thin and bald as an egg. He was dirty and unkempt, and somehow absolutely foul in a way that made her want to shrink back in disgust and fear. His eyes glittered like stones, and there was an answering glitter at his throat: a crescent moon on a silver chain, with a clear jewel held in its points.
On seeing that, her breath caught in her throat. Memories flashed through her: a lock of curling red-gold hair, a voice, the jingling sound of metal hung on a metal chain, and a pair of eyes that shone gold in her bauble's light. “Mother,” she said, reeling breathlessly back from the blow. She recognized that pendant, had seen it hanging over herself in her cradle. It was her mother's – her mother whose fate she had never known – her mother – “Angharad.”
“What does that name mean to you?” Morda snarled. “What would you here?” He was impatient; his withered hand curled like a claw around the old wood of the door.
She said nothing in response, held silent by the crushing weight of thought and feeling that pressed down on her mind and heart. The sea was rushing in her ears, just as it had on Mona – just as it had in Caer Colur. The power of Llyr, Doli had said. When she had been a little girl in Achren's keeping, she'd dreamed of finding her mother again. It had never come to pass, and as she'd grown older and sharper she'd fantasized about avenging Angharad instead, having learned to replace the soft family word with the proper name.
She'd asked Achren about it once, when she was about seven years old. Asked why she didn't have any mother or father, why she lived in Spiral Castle, what it meant to be Princess of Llyr. That was when she'd learned the names of her mother and grandmother, never having heard them before. Achren told her that her mother was dead, and said that she didn't know how Angharad had died, and that Princesses of Llyr were all enchantresses, and that Eilonwy's kinsfolk had sent her to her Aunt Achren to learn how to use her power. Eilonwy had always wondered just how many of those things had been lies, and how many truths: they were the right names, and she was powerful, but Achren was no kin of hers, and no kinsfolk had sent Eilonwy to her. Did Achren truly not know how Angharad had died?
But Achren would never tell her anything more, and anyway by the time she'd left Spiral Castle with Taran she'd almost stopped thinking about Angharad.
The ghosts of old dreams sitting on her shoulders, she said, “I had thought that I was here to rescue someone from your rather ghastly clutches. But I was wrong, Morda. That is not why I have come.” Her voice was low and quiet.
“Your name!” he insisted.
“I am Eilonwy Daughter of Angharad Daughter of Regat Princess of Llyr,” she spat in answer. “Recently of Caer Dallben. You have taken a dear companion from me, and around your neck you wear a jewel that belonged to my mother, who I have mourned for many years. This makes you twice over my deadly enemy. Tell me, Morda-” voice rising into a clear call -“tell me how you came by a device of Llyr!”
The sorcerer quailed back from the heat of her rage, but did not move to retreat or surrender. Instead, wreathed by the heavy shadows of his dwelling, he spoke in a hissing voice. “So. There was a child after all. I had wondered.”
“You know of me?”
He laughed, and his laugh was like bad news. “She could speak of nothing else when she stumbled over my doorstep, though she was more than half-dead already. Stupid girl. So many other things she could have said, to command aid for herself – but all she would do was call and prattle for her baby. And you have survived?”
“No thanks to you,” Eilonwy said. “Tell me, Morda: did you kill her for that jewel?”
When Morda grinned in answer she saw the bones of his face clearly through the thin veneer of his flesh, the skull that lay under skin and blood pushing closer to the surface. “I did not,” he said, and she set her teeth.
“Of course,” she said, dangerously polite. “And of course, after she died in your house, what reason had you to hold back from robbing her corpse?”
He said nothing, leaving her own last word resounding in her ears. A terrible thought struck and lodged against her heart. “Did you bury her?” she asked in a tremulous whisper. “When she died – her body -”
“Disposed of,” he said with a curl of his lips, dismissing her along with her mother's ghost.
Eilonwy thought of Adaon's grave, the long dark mound of earth she'd helped her friends raise over the dead man's body. Taran had wept, and hidden it from her; Fflewddur had done so openly, and she'd curled up against him to cry as well. And the barrow had looked strangely beautiful when at last they had to leave it behind, somehow solemn and graceful and imbued with a secret hope. “You did her a great wrong,” she said, still abstracted in that old sorrow. “And I never had the chance to mourn her, as I should have.”
“Blame whoever it was sent a Princess of Llyr wandering alone in this inhospitable land, rather than me.” His tone dismissed her, as if she were as airy a thing as a puff of cloud. “I did not bring Angharad here, and I know nothing of what did.”
Eilonwy did know; they had told her on Mona. Her mother had left her home and her people for the love of the man who would become her father – but she knew no more, nor ever had until today. The sea was roaring at her again, and she remembered the great sweeping rush of waves that had greeted the destruction of Caer Colur: the white-maned wave-horses riding to the defense of the powers of the enchantresses of Llyr. And while she had to choose to still those powers, while she suffered again in the grasp of Achren and caused her companions to suffer beside her, this nasty little husk of a man had been playing enchanter with her mother's relics!
Something in her that was also wild like the sea stirred, and she felt a sudden deep anger that anyone had dared profane or abuse that power. She'd abandoned Llyr, but it didn't seem like Llyr had entirely left her. Her body tensed and trembled, and she felt febrile and half-feral.
“I know that you did kill her, Morda, and then robbed her body when she was dead. But even if you had not,” she said, and pulled back her lips in a twisting snarl, “I would never leave her crescent with you!”
Something was burning Eilonwy's heart; it hurt, tongues of fire flickering along her throat and collarbones. “She was my mother,” she yelled, losing her control. “I loved her, and she was my mother, and you let her die! I spent years enduring hells you could not imagine at the hands of an evil you couldn't begin to imagine, wizard, because my mother was dead and nobody knew it, or looked for me!”
Morda struck at her before she could unleash her attack on him. Advancing over the threshold swift as a snake, Morda darted his bony hands out toward her neck. He cried, dry voice cracking horribly, “I grow weary of this conversation, Princess of Llyr! Better to kill you now, and take your powers in addition to your mother's!” She could feel his foul hot breath on her face as he spoke, and the gnarled length of his fingers closed around her throat.
She struggled, writhing against his grip, fighting to draw breath. He bore down on her, somehow stronger in body than she for all his emaciation. Darkness began to fringe her sight.
She carried no sword, but then again she didn't really need one. She wanted to kill him with her bare hands. She wanted to rip out his heart. She wanted to feel the heat of his blood. Eilonwy had never hated before, not even Achren, but now she was on fire and she couldn't contain herself. Reaching up, she jerked her hands upward and broke away from his hold, only just fast enough to avoid being strangled entirely – and she suspected she'd have bruises on her neck later, he'd come so close to managing it. Gasping and dizzy, she dropped to her knees in the loamy soil.
Morda, malevolent and unbeaten, moved quick as a snake for a new weapon. His skeletal hand strayed again and again to touch the jeweled horns of Angharad's crescent silver moon, only waiting for her move before he struck. He circled her, and as he walked he spoke. “Can you fight against Angharad's power?” he whispered, voice insinuating itself in her mind like an unwelcome guest. “Fight against her?” And the moon glistened in his withered, disfigured hand, the light winking out from the gap where one of his gnarled fingers had gone missing.
The slimy feeling of his manipulation against her mind! “She was of Llyr,” Eilonwy ground out through her roughened and abused throat. “She never would have done the things you do. You're not worthy to speak her name, much less hold her legacy. I won't share my inheritance with you, wizard. I'm going to destroy you.”
He laughed; it was a dry sound, and horrible. “Witless wench,” he wheezed. “Down on the ground, and still making threats? You have no power that can save you. Ah, but at least you've more guts than the boy who came here before you – he wanted to spare me, and drag me back in fetters to his master. But it was my fate to chain him, and not the other way around.”
Taran! It was like losing all the air in her lungs to be reminded of him. But now, at least, she would have an answer for her fears: “And did you chain him, wizard?” she said, panting.
Morda's eyes glittered. “I did,” he said. “You are angry, Princess of Llyr. You do not like this? But there is nothing you can do! Foolish girl, I cannot be killed. My life is not in my body, and so cannot be yours to claim.”
“I don't care where your life is,” she said. “It belongs to me.” She was angry, and more than angry. A corner of her heart wept for her friend, but her determination did not falter. Instead, the image of Taran's dear face joined the piecework memories she still had of her mother's eyes and voice in the white-hot center of the growing fire of her intent. She stood; her knees only shook a little, and not at all when she locked the joints beneath her. Morda raised her mother's jewel, serpent-fast, but she was faster.
With her right hand she lifted her bauble, which grew brighter and brighter in her grasp until it blazed like a small sun. “You have given me two lives now to avenge, Morda! You turn them into animals?” she said. “I'm going to turn you into an animal's dinner.”
Morda cried out as the onslaught of light touched him, reeling back away from her bauble, from her. His hand dropped from Angharad's pendant, which fell to swing sparkling against his chest. He cringed back from the light, and could not seem to find word nor motion come to tongue nor hand.
She opened her eyes fully to the bauble's brilliance. The light dazzled her, and she could see very little, except – a shadow, a shadow like a sliver of darkness, hanging in the air immediately in front of Morda's left hand. And then she understood, the matter of his spell darkly radiant against her bauble's golden spill.
Her own left hand moved to grasp the crescent moon she'd worn at her throat since before she could remember, and she pulled hard on the chain to break it. It hurt, the tiny silver links cutting sharp into the back of her neck, but she tugged again and again until the moon was loose in her palm. Crossing her arms at the wrist, she held the crescent up in front of the Golden Pelydryn, and all the light turned silvershot.
“Morda, you are undone,” she said, and then willed it so. Unseen by her, in the depths of the dripping, sodden forest, inside a plain metal box soldered shut, a little fragment of polished bone collapsed in an instant into dust. Morda cried out once and then was consumed in brightness, and when the light subsided he lay face down on the loamy ground. There was no breath in him.
She stood still and breathed hard for a long moment, nothing more, only breathing in and breathing out. And she had the oddest sensation in that moment that she was not the same girl she'd always been – but then the feeling passed, and she felt herself wholly herself again.
Eilonwy crossed to the body. There was something terrible and unsettling about it, as if the death that had come to the sorcerer had not been entirely natural – as if he'd not properly died at all, just ended. It was awful; it felt like having wet riverweeds trailing up and down her arms, but much worse. But there was something she had to do, and in order to it she had to deal with the corpse of her slain foe.
Leaving it lying prone she bent to retrieve Morda's jewel, flicking open the clasp of the chain and lifting the pendant away from the corpse. Had she killed him? she wondered. She had undone his spells, and they'd been preserving his life; he'd died as a direct consequence of her action. But did that count as killing a man, or was it more like not saving someone from killing themselves? And, for all that, was not saving someone really that different from murdering them? They were dead either way, and she couldn't think that they would see much difference.
She'd rather he be dead than profaning her mother's jewel.
Morda's body was withering before her eyes, flesh dissipating into grey dust blown away by the light, blossom-scented breeze. Soon he would be gone entirely, but she had neither the time nor the inclination to watch the process unfold.
Eilonwy straightened herself and looked around with blinking, dazzled eyes, shaken and strengthened all at the same time by her victory. The sun was at its zenith, but Morda's doorway was like a portal into a dim twilight in front of her. Her heart stuttered, and breathing quickly she tore her gaze away, letting herself draw comfort from the sight of the living world around her. Not far from where she stood she could see Taran's old cloak, still bundled on the ground, and the top of Doli's green frog-head atop the grey woolen – “You haven't changed back!” she said, going to him, surprised not to see him in his more familiar dwarf-form.
“No, I most certainby have not,” he said, sounding rather congested again. “Why would I have?”
“I unmade his spells,” she told him, lowering herself down to her knees. “He was drawing on the power of Llyr.”
“I can't speak to that,” Doli replied. “Wouldn't know anything about the power of Llyr – you're the only one of that line I've ever had dealings with. It'd be rather an odd thing for a man to use those powers, though, wouldn't it? Enchantment always ran in the Llyr distaff line, or so I've heard.”
“Yes,” she said. “It always did.”
She'd been holding her mother's necklace in the same hand that still clasped her own, the twin moons interlocked. Now she opened her palm, tucked her own into her bodice, and held up Angharad's jewel to the light. It winked at her, as if it knew some delicious secret that she did not.
“All right,” she said with a long sigh that was like dying and being born again all at once, and then with her right hand pointed the ornament at Doli, horns outward, and willed again, imagining the rematerialization of the sturdy-yet-ill-tempered dwarf she'd known for so long.
And there he was, damp and dripping, red eyes glaring up at her just as they'd always been, his transformation like nothing more substantial than a strange dream. “Doli!” she exclaimed, and knelt to embrace her companion. He suffered the caress, even going so far as to pat her back once or twice, before extricating himself.
“Well done, Princess,” he said, “and thank you. Now, we'd best go see to that dratted Assistant Pig-Keeper, not to mention the bard and Gurgi. Fool humans don't have the sense they were born with, and who has to go after them? Doli, that's who, no different from ever.”
One corner of her mouth curved upward a little in response to Doli's accustomed grumbling, but the better part of Eilonwy's face was sober. Fighting Morda, understanding the way in which her lost mother was caught up in his corruption, had distracted her from the worry that gnawed at the roots of her spirit, and for a little while she had forgotten the heaviness of her grief for her lost friend. Now she longed again for Taran with all her heart and mind. More than a year, now, since she'd seen him – and if he were not all right, if she could only avenge and not save him?
The door of Morda's cottage still hung open, and as she approached she could begin to see into the gloomy interior. Sparse furnishings, all grubby with the dust of the dirt floor – a low pallet in a corner – and cages and baskets lining the walls. Many were empty; some were not.
Moving into the room, she surveyed the creatures imprisoned there. A pinioned pine marten looked up at her with dark beady eyes; a firefly beat its wings against a linen enclosure; a thin, rather smallish dog was muzzled and tied to a structural support; a tawny-gold eagle sat brooding in a cage. The dog was nearly starved, and one of the eagle's wings hung at an unnatural angle.
She knew that most of them were likely enchanted, and not really animals at all, just as Doli had not really been. She had undone the enchantment on him. Taran might be among these creatures, and if he were she might yet be able to save him – but how could she tell? How could she know?
“I've no way of knowing until I try,” she said aloud, trying to steady herself and controlling her breathing again. She knelt to untie the dog, which was bound closest to the open door. When she got down on the floor she could feel the draft of fresh cool air that blew through it, and that heartened her a bit. “Sit here while I try to disenchant you,” she told the animal, certain that if it really was a person it would appreciate the courtesy, and that if it wasn't there was no harm in her looking a bit foolish. It sat patiently as she raised her mother's jewel again, took aim, and sent out her intention. And then nothing much happened at all, until at last the dog whined softly.
“Why are you still a dog?” she asked him, and he looked up at her and whined again.
“Cythraul,” Doli said, “I don't know why you're making animal noises like a ninny, but I suggest you start talking sense!”
“But I can't – I can talk?” said the dog, which Eilonwy had to admit looked very strange.
“Of course you can,” snapped Doli.
“You know him?” Eilonwy asked, feeling rather as if the entire affair had spun out of her control. If she hadn't known Doli as long as she had, she'd be likely to think he'd gone mad.
“Does no one have any wits but me?” he said, throwing his hands up. “Of course I know him – as if anyone else could have those ears! Cythraul might be a Child of Twilight, but he's got kelpie's ears.”
Doli recognized him. Thinking with all her might, Eilonwy looked from the creature to the dwarf and back again, as things began to come clear. “Both Fair Folk,” she said aloud. “Both turned into animals. One spell I can undo, and the other I couldn't. So what's the difference?” Looking back at Doli's familiar old face, she thought, “Is it that I knew who you really were, Doli? I wasn't just willing the spell to be over, I was imagining you back at the same time.”
“You know who Cytheraul is now, or at least you do a little, so give it another try,” said the dwarf, interest gleaming in his eyes. He thought she was onto something! If she could only break this second spell, she could at least hope ...
This time, when she held up the gem, Eilonwy did her best to imagine what Cytheraul, child of twilight, and his kelpie's ears might be like. She blinked, and in that moment the dog was gone and a small thin pale personage was looking back at her. His ears were rather funny. “It works,” she breathed. “Doli, it works! I can fix this.”
Taran, her heart was singing – Taran, Taran, Taran. Lowering the gem, Eilonwy looked again at the assorted creatures that filled the wizard's hut. A sparrow flew in through the sole uncovered window, and a dun hare hopped in at the door. “More victims of Morda?” she asked.
“They recognize your magic, most likely,” Doli said.
She wasn't entirely sure of herself yet, and fears still whispered away at the back of her consciousness, but hope was blooming in her heart like a flower that could not be stopped by any force. “Doli, go and look for any more of your kindred who have been enchanted here, and see if you recognize them. I'm going to look for Fflewddur and Gurgi and – Taran.”
Doli bent down to look at the hare as Eilonwy turned her attention to the poor caged creatures that lined the cottage walls. Bending, Eilonwy picked up the linen box that held the firefly. She opened it, and let the little insect out into the free air. It flashed and fluttered there, but she felt no flash of knowing as she looked at its small body. Nor did she feel any particular sense of recognition when she bent to look at the pine marten.
At the far end of the cramped space the eagle's thick-barred cage hung, and looking up she caught the bird's deep solemn brown gaze. Its eyes were like heartbreak, arresting and sharply painful, and she took a few faltering steps toward the cage without even thinking about it. As she drew nearer she could see that the eagle was not the only occupant of the enclosure: curled up at the bottom, pressed up against the raptor's fearsome talons, a small grey-brown mouse peered at her and twitched its whiskers.
She was quite close to the cage now, and slowly she reached out one hesitant hand to lay it against the bound branches that formed its bars. “But he's your natural predator,” she told the furry thing. “Don't you expect him to kill you?” The mouse flicked an ear, and the great bird shifted a bit, keening when the motion pulled against its damaged wing.
She reached her fingers through the bars, half-expecting them to be snapped clean through by that beak or torn by the eagle's talons, but neither creature moved to harm her. Instead, the eagled laid its golden head against her hand, and the little mouse jumped and chittered at the bottom of the cage. She felt that her heart was either going to burst or just stop beating; they could be none other than Taran and faithful Gurgi. She'd found them, oh, she'd found them – and Fflewddur must be close, too.
She laughed, exhilarated and dizzy with relief. “Oh, I should have known he wouldn't be able to separate you! Taran, Gurgi – it will all be all right now, Taran, I'll have you out in a minute.”
Withdrawing her hand from where it rested against the eagle's – against Taran's - soft feathers, she set to working at the opening of the cage. When she got the thing loose, the little mouse that was Gurgi came skittering out in a rush.
She looked back into the cage, meeting the eagle's deep eyes, and this time she saw their glazed quality, the look of fever or despair that darkened them. She looked at the wing again, and saw the unnatural shape of its bones, the traces of blood dried onto the pinions. He was hurt, and ill maybe – Morda had hurt him. And there was something else in those eyes, something she didn't want to name. She reached through the open door of the cage, and as before the great bird allowed her touch, fingers sliding over the feathered smoothness of his throat, the delicate skin around the great dark sad eyes, even the ivory-strong curve of the beak. Taran surrendered to her caress, closing his eyes for a moment.
Thick with sorrow and stung by unshed tears, she turned back to the little mouse. It said nothing – maybe Doli and Cytheraul could only speak as animals because they were of the Fair Folk? - but she spoke to him nonetheless. “Gurgi,” she said, “that is, I'm pretty sure you're Gurgi, and I'm going to assume for now that I'm right – I think I'm going to need help to get Taran free, so I'm going to try to disenchant you first. All right?” she added, looking back at the raptor, which only continued to look at her with that dark, serious gaze. Part of her was vibrating with the familiar feel of his presence, and part of her was weeping like a child at the hurt in his eyes, and it was almost more than she could bear.
She turned the gem on the little mouse, picturing her old friend in its place, remembering the first time she'd ever met dear funny Gurgi and how horrid he'd been back then, and smiling a little bit despite her heaviness. And quick as a wink there was Gurgi sitting on the floor before her, smelling comfortably of wet wolfhound and looking sorely in need of crunchings and munchings. She threw her arms around him. “Hallo, Gurgi,” she said.
“Kindly Princess saves Gurgi and his master,” the creature said, weak and hoarse but happy. “Gurgi did not think to ever see her again. She will help his master?”
Eilonwy pressed a kiss to the top of Gurgi's hairy head, and the tears slipped loose no matter what she tried to stop them. “Of course I will,” she said. “It was tremendously brave of you to stay with him, Gurgi.”
Gurgi hid his eyes. “Better to have helped him,” he mourned.
“Help me now,” she told him, trying to swallow her worry back down. “Are you all right? Can you stand?” Gurgi nodded and rose to his feet. He was unsteady, but seemed otherwise all right. “I have food and a camp nearby,” she told him, “and you can eat and rest your dear loyal head there soon.”
Gurgi peered up at her and smiled wanly. “Gurgi can wait,” he said, and she kissed him again.
“We need to get Taran out of that cage before I dare do anything else,” she said, “and I don't like the look of that wing. Can we break the cage, maybe, and open it around him?”
Doli, overhearing, crossed the room to her. “You'll need my axe for that,” he said, nodding to Gurgi. “I think I've figured out who most of my folk are, so once we've dealt with this one it should be easy to restore them. One or two I don't know anything about, but Eiddileg will have people who can find out.”
“All right,” she said, looking distractedly at the wounded eagle. “All right.”
In the end, Eilonwy was the only one of the three of them who was tall enough to cut the lashed vines that bound the eagle's cage together. Working carefully with the sharp blade she slashed them through one by one until the cage fell in on itself, spreading out like a wicker star. Taran held very still, looking at her and not moving a muscle. “All right,” she said again, feeling the pounding of her own heartbeat in the tips of her fingers and underneath her breath. She raised her mother's jewel for the fifth time, and it glimmered like twilight and evening.
Letting her eyes drift shut, Eilonwy pointed the jewel at the broken cage. Taran, she thought, Oh Taran, come back to me.
She allowed herself the indulgence she'd repressed all through her stay on Mona, and let herself remember: the flush that streaked his cheekbones when she'd taken him off his guard and actually got in a compliment, the seriousness of his eyes and the warmth of his hands on Mona shore when he'd promised not to forget her, the low whisper of his voice through the dark. They'd each had their share of bad dreams, and though he slept out of sight of her loft in Caer Dallben they were nevertheless near enough to one another to hear ragged breathing or sobs in the night. He'd never been more gentle with her than he was in the darkness after her dreams, and she'd never been more sure of how terribly she loved him.
She remembered that her Taran had long dark hair, gathered in a shaggy tail at his neck but often falling loose around his face, and dark green-brown eyes that could look sadder and further away than the top of the sky. His skin was golden-tan from years of working in the sun, and his hands were all she had ever known of strength: there'd been something safe in them even when they'd been children, and she'd had to rescue him from Achren's castle.
She limned him in her mind, mentally tracing again and again the long planes of his back, the shape of his mouth when he smiled. The way he cared so much about the smallest of things, the way he could change in a minute from boyish bluster to a more sober sweetness, the deep sense of honor and loyalty and courage that made up his core. And oh, she wanted him back! Wanted him more badly than she'd ever desired any other thing.
She opened her eyes, and the eagle-shape melt away like the matter of a dream. Like smoke, it curled away bit by bit to reveal his familiar long-limbed form, broad-shouldered and narrow-waisted and completely bare in transformation of so much as a stitch of clothing. No longer held balanced by wing and talon and tail, he fell, tumbling down to the earthy floor in a boneless heap. Eilonwy went to her knees by him, suddenly crying so hard that she could scarcely see to pull him into her arms. He was warm and solid and he smelled just the way he always had, like growing things and old homespun and fresh air. She clung to Taran as she'd never let herself before, not caring if he thought her forward, not caring how scandalous or brazen or nitwitted she was being, or that she was acting like a sentimental girl, or that he'd know if he so much as looked at her just how very much she loved him. None of that mattered anymore.
A hand came up to touch her shoulder, tentative at first and then firmer. Taran was trembling, and when at last he spoke his voice was hoarse and cracked from disuse. “Eilonwy,” he said slowly, as if he had to search for each word, “Eilonwy, why are you crying?” - and that was so like him that she stopped crying and started laughing instead.
Rocking back on her heels, Eilonwy dashed the tears from her eyes so as to be able to get a proper look at him. There was clearly something wrong with his arm, and he'd turned his torso over so as to protect and cushion it, but she was more shocked by how pale he was, and how thin, whittled down to something almost ghostly. His dark hair fell longer than was his wont, tangled and unbound, and a terrible sorrow pulled at the corner of his mouth. His eyes were flickering over the cottage, taking everything in as if he still didn't quite believe what had happened – but then they met hers, and she couldn't breathe.
From the corner of her eye she could see Doli leaning on his axe-haft and grinning, Gurgi curled up on the floor beside him like a weary hound, worn yet joyful. “Taran,” she said, trying very hard not to start crying again. Really, how silly was it for her to fall apart after everything was all right? “I thought – I thought-”
The hand slid down her arm to twine with her fingers, and she let the warm weight of it comfort her. “You found me,” he said, still haltingly.
She brought her head up swiftly to search his face. “You believed I wouldn't?”
His eyes answered for him: he'd been painfully alone and unsure, and for too long. And it was true that she'd had a great deal of luck in finding him, and in freeing him. There were so many other things that might have happened – so many ways she might have lost him. “Taran of Caer Dallben,” she said, giving his hand a squeeze, “you can't get away from me so easily!”
Their eyes met again, and something sparked and kindled and glowed in the air between them. “Eilonwy,” he said again, and then looked down and blushed. “Can I have something to wear? Please?”
She squeaked; she'd been so glad to see him at all that she hadn't completely noticed how much more of him she was seeing than usual, and now that she had she felt very odd about practically sitting in his lap. His bare exposed chest was thin, and she could see the shapes of his ribs beneath his skin, but the curve of his shoulder was just as she'd dreamed of it all the long nights. Scooting quickly backwards, she unclasped her cloak and handed it to him to cover himself with. It wasn't perfect, but it would have to do.
But then he grabbed at it one-handed, and when he tried to wrap it around himself he twisted clumsily and then shuddered with pain. On her knees again, she went to help him, took the cloak and shook it out to encircle him. His bare body was so close to her own. She could feel the heat of it as she tucked the corners of the cloth back into his good hand. “What's the matter with your arm?” she asked him, tangled up inside between happy golden shivering warmth and gnawing worry.
His face was paler than it had been a moment ago; her worry was winning over the glow. “I don't know,” he said. “I think something might be broken, and it was bleeding before. But I don't know enough about birds' bones, I -”
“Hush,” she said, laying her hand against the warmth of his lips. Silly boy, he always did babble on when he was nervous or frightened – but she didn't want to think about why he was scared. Carefully pulling her cloak back from his right shoulder, she looked at his arm. The skin was marked with old blood, just as the eagle's pinions had been. “I should look at this,” she said, “and you ought to eat something, and Gurgi too.”
Hearing that name, Taran looked around the hut again, searching until he found Gurgi curled at Doli's side. His eyes widened in recognition when he saw the dwarf, but reached out his good hand to Gurgi, who came to him. Taran stroked his good hand through the tangled fur. “Best of friends,” he breathed, “thank you. You never gave up on me.”
“Gurgi would never leave his master,” the creature said, eyes like dark-watered pools. “Let wicked wizard turn him to beast or feast, he does not go.”
“Taran,” Eilonwy said, really worried now, seeing the constraint and stiffness and pain that characterized his every movement. “I really think I ought to have a good look at your arm.”
“In a minute,” he said, face serious. “First, can you help me up? I want to go outside.”
“Please? Eilonwy, I – please. It's been an awfully long time.”
She held her tongue as she pulled him to his feet and led him to the door, though she wanted to chide him for being foolish, to convince him to let her look after him. He swayed and stumbled against her, legs weak and disobedient under him, and fine tremors ran through his good arm as he held on tight to her. The wounded one was cradled to his chest; she still couldn't tell, just by looking, what was wrong with it.
But then she stood quiet in the doorway, just watching the joy and awe and wonder that spread across his face as he felt the touch of the sun. He was blinking furiously, either from the unaccustomed brightness or to disperse tears, she couldn't tell. “Were you in that cage the whole time?” she asked him.
“He said it was to be my punishment,” Taran murmured.
“I think I killed him too quickly,” she said confidingly, and he almost laughed.
“You really killed him? He's dead?”
“Quite dead,” she said, not bothering to conceal her satisfaction. “He killed my mother, a long time ago.”
He nodded uncomfortably, looking terribly pale even in the streaming afternoon light. “I know,” he said. “I tried to – to take revenge for you, I suppose. I didn't do very well at it.” He was hanging now on the doorframe, and Eilonwy could see his fingers going white with the strain of keeping himself upright.
“Stop that,” she snapped, “and come sit down! You're being silly, and you're not strong enough for it.”
Taran nodded, ducked his dark head, and dropped into the solitary chair that accompanied Morda's table. As soon as he did Gurgi was there, nuzzling under Taran's good hand insistently. Taran smiled at him, but the lines of pain at the corners of his mouth did not vanish.
She'd thought at first to pillage Morda's cupboards and to take food from what store survived him, but there were – unpleasant – things in many of them, and after peeping into a fair number she began to feel quite ill. She quite welcomed the interruption of Doli coming back into the hut; he'd gone to walk the perimeter of Morda's land to see if he could find any remaining victims of the sorcerer. Leaving Taran huddled at the table, Gurgi beside him, she turned her attention to the beasts that accompanied the dwarf.
Four of them he introduced her to: the firefly, the swallow, a turtle with a beautifully painted shell, and a broad-clawed badger. Each of these regained a form of the Fair Folk when she turned her mother's jewel on them, after having been so introduced, and for a while both she and Doli were quite occupied in dispensing care and explanations. But at last only two remained, the hare and the pine marten sitting together in the open doorway and looking at her expectantly.
“Do you know either of them?” she asked Doli.
He shook his head. “I'll take them to Eiddileg,” he said. “He'll sort it out.”
Taran had been nearly drowsing, head pillowed on his good arm on the old grey wood of the table. Now he started and stood all in a rush, his chair falling to the ground with a clatter. He nearly followed it down, but managed to stumble down to his knees in the doorway without falling outright. He was shaking again, and the cloak fell away from his legs and left them bare. “Fflewddur,” he said, “Fflewddur,” and reached out to touch the long-eared hare.
She went to them with a smile. “Is it?” she asked Taran. “Of course it is, I ought to have known him by the ears. Not that your ears are at all like a hare's, Fflewddur,” she added, “but that somehow this is exactly what they would look like if they were a hare's, do you see?”
She pulled Taran down to sitting. “Stay there,” she said, “and don't try to go running about the room, or you'll fall and I won't be able to catch you. Stay there – Fflewddur, you too – and I'll get mother's necklace.”
Fflewddur was easier to disenchant than any of the others had been, as if he was waiting just under the surface of his animal body to emerge. His blond hair was longer, too, and fell into his eyes in long spines instead of spiky up in its accustomed way. He still had all his clothes, and now that Eilonwy thought of it, Doli and his kindred had all reappeared fully clad as well. Which meant that Taran's clothes had been taken from him before he'd been transformed. She shivered and cringed away from the thought.
Fflewddur's face was thin and dirty, but when he smiled up at her Eilonwy couldn't help smiling back. “Ah!” he said, stretching out his long legs and running his fingers through his already-messy hair. “My own ears at last! Which are not lapin in the slightest,” he added, shooting Eilonwy a look.
She thought that Fflewddur was going to rise to his feet, but instead he stopped at bended knees, and then proceeded to bow his head to her! “What on earth are you-” she began, but he met her eyes and she fell silent. Lowering his shaggy head once more, Fflewddur said, “My grateful thanks to you, Lady of Llyr, for releasing me from my enchantment.”
Eilonwy twisted her hands together, not at all sure of what she was supposed to do. She was very conscious of Taran's eyes watching her. She'd learnt a ceremony on Mona for accepting fealty, but somehow that felt all wrong. This was Fflewddur, not some new-sworn vassal, and she'd known him since she was a skinny little girl with a sharp tongue who belonged nowhere. Maybe she could use part of it? “I receive your thanks with gladness, King Fflewddur Fflam Son of Godo,” she said, thinking that if she was going to do this at all she may as well use all his names.
And then, in a quite different tone, she asked, “Was that all right? I've never said it for real before,” and Fflewddur was looking up and grinning sideways at her, and everything felt much better. They'd always been friends, ever since the beginning, feeling a simple unalloyed affection for one another that was devoid of the complications that tangled their relationships to Taran. Fflewddur stood. “Very nicely put, Princess, and all formalities aside, I'm happy you came when you did! It's well enough to be turned into a hare, but living with the ears and the teeth and the nibbling and the startlement gets wearing. Great Belin! A bard into a hare! I count myself lucky to have survived unscathed, I can tell you.”
“At any rate, I came through better than you did, my boy,” he said, turning to Taran, who still sat on the earthen floor, weary and worn, and Eilonwy saw his blue eyes darken. “I stayed as close as I could – I heard some of it – you've had a rough time. What's wrong with your arm?”
“That's what I've been trying to get him to let me figure out,” she said. “Now that everything that could possibly need doing is done, will you let me see to you?” Taran bowed his head in affirmation; he looked tired, and his skin was grey.
Doli came back into the cottage without the string of Fair Folk who had followed him out of it. “I've sent them off to Eiddileg,” he said, “but I wanted to make sure you lot weren't getting into trouble.” Noticing Eilonwy's hand on Taran's arm, he hurried over to her. “Here, Princess, you'll need better light that this to see to him, and a place to lay him down while you do it. There's a good clearing by that hedge. The flowers make a nice touch, whatever.”
Fflewddur nodded enthusiastically at this. “Yes, yes, very good,” he said. “The sooner we're out of here the better, I say.”
Eilonwy looked at Taran. He looked so tired and grey, and she could tell that he was sickened at heart by the place. She thought of how desperate he'd been to get outside, and of how long he must've been locked up for in that horrid little cage with only four dirty walls and the voice of Morda for company, and she thought of the sorcerer's body falling into ruin on his doorstep. She made her decision. “Fflewddur, will you help Doli pitch camp? I'll bring Taran.”
The bard made no answer. He was rummaging about furiously in Morda's belongings, suddenly possessed with a great energy or need. She was about to question him, but before he could speak he let out an triumphant exclamation. “Yes, here it is!” Turning back to her, her grinning friend held aloft his familiar, well-loved, oft-mended harp, and she couldn't help but smile. She didn't see him sling something else around his shoulder; she was already pulling Taran to his feet and looping her arm around his waist to help him walk away from his cage.
When at last they had Taran settled in the cool deep loam, it was nearing sunset. Doli pulled the dark heavy cloak away from Taran's arm and spread it out so that they could see the dull length of it clearly. It had been broken, sharply, so that the bone of the arm hung crooked - and some time ago, too. Long enough that the bone had begun to knit itself at wrong angles, pulling strangely as it worked to grow whole again.
Fflewddur sucked in a long breath when they saw that, and Doli nodded his head. “It will have to be broken again and reset,” he said curtly. “It's been botched for too long.”
Eilonwy reached out a hesitant hand to touch the badly-healed bones, and Taran drew his breath in through his teeth at the pressure of her fingers, slight as it was. “I tried to hold it properly,” he said. “But they were wing-bones then, and I didn't know what was best for them, and there wasn't any room...”
“Hush,” she told him. “There was nothing you could have done. He's dead now, anyway – though I still think I killed him too quickly.” Taran's dark eyes were bleak and glassy, and Eilonwy's heart was hot again with rage.
“Have any of you ever reset a bone?” Doli asked.
“I bound Fflewddur's arm when he broke it before,” Taran said quietly, “but that was a clean break, and new.”
“As for me, I've tended – well, to very little. I try not to get too hurt myself, and get those that are to healers,” said Fflewddur, quickly revising his words as the chiming strained sound of almost-breaking harp strings met his ears.
Doli looked at Eilonwy, and she only shook her head. She had a fair idea of what would have to be done, but she'd never been as good at learning medicinal lore as Taran was, and had always had a distinct tendency to daydream when Dallben began in on botany and physiology lessons.
Doli sighed. “You're the best qualified,” he told Taran, “but I don't think I'll ask you to assist me.” Taran smiled a little in answer, and then flinched again as Doli touched the malformed join of the half-healed bone. “You might not know much of healing, Princess,” Doli said, “but I'd still ask you to help me with this. You've nerve enough to make up for knowledge.”
A length of leather between his teeth and a pull from Doli's flask burning down the back of his throat, Taran lay back on the pallet and closed his eyes. Fflewddur held him still, pale-faced and breathless, but it was Eilonwy who snapped the clotting and cartilage that had begun to knit the bone back together. She could feel it bend and snap under her fingers, and felt she might faint. She didn't, but Taran did, sagging against the ground insensate as the bone snapped. Her hands were trembling too much to hold steady the splint Doli had cut, and Fflewddur had to help bind it on in the end. Taran didn't move, nor make a sound, which she supposed was better for him, but which caused her no end of discomfort and worry. He looked so horribly lifeless, lying there with his arm bound crosswise against his chest, as if for a burial.
When Fflewddur had finished binding the splint firmly down with twine and knots he stood and stretched. They'd left Taran's top half was bare, and Fflewddur had wrapped his lower body in a breechcloth before covering him with a blanket to ward of the chill of the encroaching evening. “Well, lass, there's that taken care of,” he said with a yawn. "Did you bring anything to eat? I'd be more than happy for a bit of bread - or fruit! Anything but grass and tubers, you see, as they're all I've eaten of late.”
“There's a broth cube in my pack,” Eilonwy said dreamily, dizzily. “You could eat that. Oh, but there's no fire. And my pack is still with Lluagor, on the other side of the hedge.” She frowned, so tired and hungry and chilled that she felt herself made of lead. She could feel the marks of Morda's hands along the length of her throat darkening into bruises.
“You humans sit down, then,” Doli grumped at her. “I'll go get your great bloody horses - I suppose you were sensible enough to leave them tethered?” She nodded, and he marched off into the darkened line of the forest, muttering all the while.
Eilonwy sat by Taran's still body as the sun went down, one hand absently carding through the tousled masses of his hair. The softness of it was reassuring, and this close she could smell the comfortable scent of him: homespun and hay, and apple-skins, and hot metal, and green growing things and salt.
Fflewddur knelt by them, peering into Taran's lax-featured face. “He'll be all right,” he told her. “He's taken some harsh punishment, but he'll heal well enough. Great Belin, he's always been quick to mend.”
“I hope so,” she murmured, tangling a curl of his hair around her fourth finger. “But I'm more worried about the rest of it.”
“What do you mean?” Fflewddur asked, cocking his head at her.
She bit her lip. “If there hadn't been – but even before this – I don't know what to say to him.” Fflewddur said nothing, only looking encouragingly at her. So she tried again: “This will have hurt him. He has all these silly thoughts, you know, about honor and bravery and I don't know what, and he trusts too easily to luck and others' hearts and then blames himself. He's been here months, and – and – and then there's the rest of it. He came out here looking for his family, and I'm sure you know why as well as I do.”
Fflewddur's face was serious now, and his eyes glinted in the setting sunlight. “Ah, yes,” he said. “I had thought – that is, it was quite clear what it was he hoped for.”
Eilonwy looked down into Taran's face again, looking for something she didn't have a name for. “I don't know how to tell him that he's wrong,” she said at last.
“Wrong about – his hopes? Or something else?” Fflewddur asked carefully.
“Not wrong about his hopes at all. It's just that he thinks I care about – things like that – and I don't, I never have! Sometimes I wish that Gwydion had kept his mouth shut about me being a princess, and that nobody had ever needed to know of it.”
Fflewddur pursed his lips consideringly. “I understand what you mean,” he said, still slow and deliberate, “and I've often wished myself this last season that I could knock some sense into him. But after seeing you today – Eilonwy, would you truly wish to not be who you are?”
She blew her breath out gustily. “It's complicated,” she told him. “The part of being a princess that means being a lady? I'd rid myself of it in an eye blink. It only means that I have to be bothered with skirts and spangles that I don't want, and that people want to marry me off to their sons, and that people kidnap me, and that Taran – that Taran doesn't see. But the part of being a princess that means being of the House of Llyr?”
She'd hidden Angharad's jewel in a fold of her cloak, paired once more with her own snapped silver moon and chain. Now she took it out and fingered its curved horns. “I didn't want to destroy Caer Colur,” she said. “I didn't have a choice – I had to – but I didn't want to. I wanted to belong to something.”
Fflewddur blinked at her in the failing light; Taran still lay motionless and pale and unaware. “I wanted to say,” the bard stammered out, “how sorry I was to hear about your mother's – about your mother.”
“It's all right,” Eilonwy said, sounding hollow even to her own ears. “I always knew she was dead.” She tucked the gem back into her bodice, not wanting to touch the cold metal of it any longer.
Fflewddur was silent for a long moment. At last, he said, “It wasn't so bad, you know, being a hare. The moment of transfiguration was rather terrible, of course. The feeling of my ears stretching out like that is one that I shall never forget! But then it was over, and I was free. An animal knows how to care for itself. It took a little while for me to realize it and stop fighting to think like a human, but – well, good old Doli learned to esti-whatsis, didn't he? I just had to follow my nose and keep out of sight.”
He sighed. “It was different for him,” he said, looking down at Taran with an odd expression. “He was caged.” He caught her eyes with his own, and they were unwontedly serious. “Only be patient with him, and remember that he generally means well.”
She said nothing, only listened to the small noises of gathering nightfall, and so long did that quiet moment stretch that a sudden word at her back made her start and gasp.
“Did you mean to wait for full nightfall before stirring yourselves? There's no fire! You've no sense at all, even between the two of you.” Doli, the two horses and a long-faced Gwystyl in tow, planted his hands firmly on his hips. “Harper, leave off messing with your ears and come help me. It's clear enough that the princess is all in.”
They made their fire, and found the broth and made it up. When she could smell the salt heat of it, Eilonwy rose to unsteady feet and left Taran's sleeping-place in favor of the fireside. Eating, she felt warmed and strengthened.
Gurgi looked up at her through eyes that glinted in the firelight. “Kindly princess is well again? Now she is pink and warm again, not stern and shining.”
Eilonwy smiled at him, feeling for the first time in more than a year that she was really and properly home. She tangled her fingers in the coarse fur at Gurgi's neck, pulling him close, feeling the animal heat of the creature safe and strong against her. “I am,” she said. “I feel much better. Was I shining?”
Gurgi nodded. “Wise princess shines often,” he said solemnly. “She has gold all around her, and sometimes clever watchful Gurgi sees it, oh yes. Today she was shining more than Gurgi has ever seen, except in fearful castle of magics and waves. Very bright, very gold, with a shadow behind it then – but princess had no shadow today, just shiningness.”
She swallowed. Was she glad to know that? She didn't know. Gurgi's eyes were fathomless. She wouldn't find answers there. And Taran, drat him, was still sleeping even though she needed him.
She sighed. “I just wish he'd wake up,” she said, looking into the shadows where she knew he lay unconscious. “It's like waiting for a horse to foal – you know everything will turn out well, but you can't help thinking about all the ways it might not.” Gurgi ducked his head, and she could read his expression easily enough now: sorrow and worry and guilt and love.
When the broth was gone Doli rose, and glared at Gwystyl until he did the same. “We must take our leave of you,” the dwarf said. “We'll travel through the underground, so it won't much matter if we go in day or night. King Eiddileg needs our news.” He bowed to Eilonwy, and Eilonwy felt herself blush. “Princess, you have our thanks, and the thanks of all our people.”
Her blush deepened, and she rose as well, meaning to return his gratitude. But as she did so her mother's jewel, still secreted in her robe, pricked her ribs. “Oh,” she said. “Angharad's jewel. Doli, I think maybe I ought to give it back to you.” And she held it out, silver, winking through the dark, in her hand.
Doli's broad face creased into a warm smile. “You're a good lass,” he told her. “You'd give up your mother's heirloom?”
“I hadn't thought,” she replied, heart stuttering a little in her breast. “I think I must. It's so dangerous – and I've given up my claim to Llyr. I don't think I can keep it.”
“Do you want to?”
She said nothing; she didn't know what to say.
“Here,” he said, reaching out his hand and grasping the gem. Bending back down over the fire, he placed the gem on a large flat stone and drew a tiny iron tool out of a pouch on his belt. A few blows of it against the silver moon and the claws that had held the faceted stone were opened, allowing the sparkling thing to fall free with a tinkling chime. Leaving it glittering there, Doli straightened and put Angharad's crescent back into Eilonwy's still-open hand. It was cool to her touch, and sharp-edged. “I'll take this part, you that,” Doli said to her, and she smiled and hid the little silver moon away again, linking it once more with her own.
“Make sure that that noddled Assistant Pig-Keeper minds himself,” the dwarf said gruffly, “and keep well yourself.”
“And you,” she said, and then watched as the two faery forms, one tall and one short, vanished as if into nothing and were gone.
Quietly she looked around herself. Fflewddur still sat by the fire, chin propped up in his hands, eyes lidded. Taran lay a little further off, and there was only light enough for her to make out his dark unmoving form. Faithful Gurgi was crouched beside his master, and his eyes shone animal-like in the night. Lluagor stood tethered nearby, head down. Her family, Eilonwy thought. All safe.
“You look tired, dear heart,” Fflewddur said to her gently. “Shall I take the first watch? I feel fresh as a daisy, you know, having never slept so well in my life as I did while enchanted.” She looked at him through narrowed eyes, waiting for the inevitable sound of the breaking string, but it never came. He was telling the truth, and she let out what felt like all the breath in her body with a great shuddering sigh.
Drained, dreamy, she nodded. Fflewddur fetched her bedding from Lluagor's pack and spread it out on the cool ground, and then left her to her sleep with a caress pressed against her cheek. She cast one single look back at the place where she knew Taran was before she snuggled down into the safe warmth of her quilt and let herself sleep.
On Mona, Eilonwy had lost the habit of waking in mid-night, emerging from dark sleep into darker waking. And so when Fflewddur shook her awake she blinked and struggled. “Is it my turn?” she mumbled.
“Yes,” Fflewddur said, voice small in the vastness of the night.
She sat up. “Has he woken?”
The quiet answer: “No.” But Fflewddur hastened to add, “Nevertheless, he's slept deeply and well, and you needn't worry.” As he said this the bard yawned tremendously, and stepping out of her blankets into the cool late-summer night Eilonwy waved him to his own rest. Gurgi was already asleep, curled up beside the fire-embers.
She settled herself cross-legged on the dew-damp grass beside Taran's pallet, and sat there listening to the rhythm of his sleep for she didn't know how long, still half-dreaming and lost in unspoken reflections. It was motion that first caught her eye: the glint of starlight in dark eyes momentarily interrupted by the sweep of concealing lashes.
She drew in her breath sharply, and her heart felt as if it had skipped a beat. “Taran,” she said involuntarily, and then blushed in the darkness: that had given away more than she meant it to. She lit her bauble, and he blinked rapidly in the expansive golden glow, the flutter of his lashes sending shadows chasing off along his cheek. “Are you – how do you feel?”
He looked at her, and again her breath caught in her throat. “It hurts a little,” he said, and she knew that meant that it hurt a lot.
“Just a moment,” she told him, “and I'll bring you something for it.” The coals of the campfire were still hot, and her store of willow bark close to hand, and so it didn't take her long to be sliding her arm behind his shoulders and helping him up to sitting, or to press the hot pain-relieving infusion into his shaky hands. “There,” she said, watching him as he drank. “It will be better soon. Taran, however did it come to be broken?”
He dropped his head, and his overlong hair fell about his downcast face in a dark curtain; she could no longer see his face. “I fought Morda, and his cage,” he said. “I lost.” Then he looked up again: “But what of you? How did you come to find me here? I – I had thought – you would still be on Mona.”
She remembered the long weeks she'd spent there, waiting and dreaming of cages. “I came home,” she said simply. “I came home and you weren't there, and – Taran of Caer Dallben, did you truly not think I'd come for you?”
“You were so far away,” he whispered, brows knitted with trouble, “and he was so strong. He killed your mother. I didn't want you to put yourself back in danger, Eilonwy. I wouldn't have been able to bear it if he'd done you harm.”
It was horrible, but she could feel her tongue growing tart with irritation. Avoiding his eyes, she pulled back the blankets away from his hurt arm and ostentatiously checked over the splint and bandaging. “You do know that you're being absolutely ridiculous about all of this, don't you? All of a sudden I'm someone other than who I am, needing to be protected from sorcerers and not caring if you get hurt in the process – and caring about your parentage, which I've never done at all! It's as if you've decided that I'm a strange girl wearing a familiar face – as if you'd decided to forget how to speak, and then got confused at not being able to remember!”
By the light of her bauble she could see the color leaving his face. He looked shocked, and his eyes were huge and shadowed. There was still a little fresh red blood staining the bindings on his arm. “My parentage?” he choked out. “Who told you that?”
“Coll confirmed it for me,” she replied airily, “but he didn't need to tell me much. As soon as he said 'his people' I knew what it was about.” She tried not to let hurt creep into her voice, but knew she couldn't help but fail. “Did my pledge mean so little to you?”
“I have it here still,” he replied, pulling away from her, awkwardly pushing aside the collar of his tunic with his good hand to show the baldric from which the enchanted horn hung. “Fflewddur found it with his harp. And - there have been times, this last year, when it was my only comfort. But, Eilonwy, a magic horn and a pledge of remembrance are not the same as -”
“As love?” She almost shouted the words, desperate to cut off the foolish things he was saying. Both sat quite silent for a moment, that single word echoing in each of their minds until it had become a tolling bell. At last she took her courage up in her hands and met his eyes. They were wide still, and shocked, but there was a heat and a passion present in them that she had not seen there before, and something in her heart sang out in triumph. “I meant them to be.”
He said nothing, swallowing heavily.
Greatly daring, she reached out and laid a hand on his cheek, turning his face fully toward her own. “Look at me, Taran,” she said. “Am I clad now as a princess? Do I wear any crown?”
Mutely he shook his head, and she went on. “I have left two courts for you, now: Dinas Rhydnant, yes, but Spiral Castle before that. No, it's three, because I could have been the lady of Caer Colur too, if I'd chosen differently.”
'Taran, the first thing you ever knew me to do was to leave a castle! Did you think I came to Caer Dallben with you because I hadn't anywhere else to go? I might've gone to Gwydion in a moment, and quiet easily claimed a place for myself in Caer Dathyl. I didn't. I went back to Caer Dallben with you - because I wanted to - because you were these, and I didn't mind not living as
a princess so long as I could live as a person! And you've been thinking all this time that you had to bring me a title or a fortune. Oh, you make me want to shake you! But I won't, because it would likely start you bleeding.” And with that all her words were used up, her frustration spent.
Taran sat very still and quiet, his eyes gone wide and stricken. At last he smiled a little, in a small sad sort of way. “I'm sorry,” he said to her.
“You should be," she shot back, but without anger. Reaching out, she stole the cloak that covered him in addition to his blankets, wrapping it around her own shoulders to ward off the cold. It smelled of him, and she exhaled.
“I've had time to think, these last months,” he said. “There was nothing else for me to do. I could see a sliver of sky sometimes, when Morda's door stood open, and I would look through it and think of you. When the door was closed, I'm afraid I thought mostly of myself. I think I've been a very great fool.”
“Well,” she answered diplomatically, “you have and you haven't. But really, Taran, you've done very little save to make yourself unhappy.”
Taran's head dropped, his face vanishing again into shadows. “Yes,” he said bitterly, “precious little. I've only got myself imprisoned, Gurgi and Fflewddur transmogrified, and failed to bring your mother's murderer to justice.”
“Stop that,” she said, tart once more in response to his despondency. “In that case you did your best - and anyway, everything turned out for the best. Why is it wronger for me to have struck him down that it would have been for you to have done the same?”
His face was bleak, his mouth still sadly smiling. “It's only wronger for my vanity, I suppose. I never knew how vain I was, before.”
She snorted inelegantly. “It's not as if you hid it well. Even when we were children, you cared a great deal about your own glory.”
“I'm sorry,” he said again.
“Don't be. I'm tired of being sorry myself. The sorcerer's dead, and the spell broken. And I said something very important to you just now, and you've said nothing to me in reply, and I call that bad manners.”
Taran's expression melted into softness, and Eilonwy felt a thrill run through her like an arrow-shaft. “With a word, I know not how to answer you,” he said, very low, very soft, and his eyes sparkled in the gentle light of her bauble. He rose, somewhat stiffly, to his knees, careful not to put weight on his bound and splinted arm. The motion brought their two faces shockingly close together; she could feel the heat radiating out from his body, smell the scent of his breath. A delicious shiver took her.
Abruptly the glow of the bauble increased, throwing out daylight brilliance into the little clearing. It caught on the white flowers, turning each into a small suspended star. Taran blinked, dazzled and still, but Eilonwy kept moving, leaning further and further forward. She kissed him.
His eyes flew open, and locked with hers, and a flush of trembling heat rose overwhelmingly in the deep center of her body. Taran kissed her back, not taking his eyes from hers for an instant, one arm coming up to hold her close. His lips were soft, a little chapped. As her own parted in an exhalation of pleasure his tongue and teeth came into play; she moaned as he sucked the full part of her lower lip into his mouth. She felt engulfed by insistently-fluttering wings, rising and falling, around and inside her.
Pulling herself up, she pressed him back until he was half-reclining in his nest of blankets, and then she got to her knees and straddled him, her legs against his thighs. She bent down, taking small short kisses from his mouth. Her hair fell down around them like a curtain, shading their faces from the golden pulsing brightness of the Pelydryn of Llyr.
“Eilonwy,” he gasped against her mouth, taking advantage of the second between her kisses, “Eilonwy, we – we should stop. I-”
Nipping him with her teeth, she asked, “Do you want to stop?” She felt something hot and melting and tremulous at her core, and shamelessly let herself rub against him, feeling his desire hard and firm between her legs through the thin layers of cloth that separated their bodies.
“No,” he panted, “I never want to stop! But I think we should. I don't want to – not before you're ready. I want you to be sure.”
His face was serious. She let herself tumble down into the crook of his good arm, still dizzy and trembling with sensation. The bauble was like a beacon, a small circle of stolen day in the middle of the night. “I wonder everyone hasn't woken,” she said, laughing, breathless.
That won her a real smile, all white teeth flashing. “I don't care if they do,” Taran said.
They lay there together, watching the pinwheeling stars overhead, and slowly the bauble faded back to warm soft goldenness. At last, Eilonwy said, “What did you mean, 'not before I'm ready'? Why wouldn't I be ready? I think you're the one who wasn't!”
Taran blushed and stammered, and in a minute Eilonwy blushed as well. “That is,” she temporized, “I meant -”
He laughed. “I'm just tired, I think. You're right – it was too fast for me.”
Trying out a low, purring voice she'd never spoken to anyone else with before, Eilonwy told him, “No need to go fast, darling. I'm not going anywhere.”
This time, she felt him shiver. “I'm glad,” he said, open and earnest. “Eilonwy, I missed you so much.”
“It's not as if it were my choice either,” she retorted. “I'm gladder than glad to be clear of all that ladying. The only thing that could make me gladder than I am would be to be back home in Caer Dallben, all of us where we ought to be.”
Taran was silent for a long moment. “I don't know why,” he said at last, speaking slowly, “but something in my heart is loath to return. You see, I've not completed my quest.” Before she could draw breath to protest, he went on: “I know I named my heritage as the object of my quest, but – well, I've been thinking. I saw Orddu, Orwen, and Orgoch in the spring, and they told me – I want to learn who I am, Eilonwy. I alone, without Dallben or Hen Wen or any of the places where I was a child. And to make up for my many failures, both here and – before – by proving that I can do better.”
She lay quiet beside him, just listening. It had been rare, in the last year she'd stayed at Caer Dallben, for him to speak with her like this, confessing his all. They'd always used to do so as children, but then he'd grown inexplicably reticent, and she hadn't wanted to press the matter.
“Do you want to go back home?” Taran asked her.
She thought about it. On the one hand Caer Dallben, sharp and autumny, with the harvest coming in. On the other – on the other she didn't scarcely know what. She thought of Angharad, that brief remembered glimpse of red and gold, not clear enough for a face. She thought of Achren, cold and pale and glittering in the perpetual shadows of Spiral Castle, and again cold and pale but shrouded now in the kitchen at Caer Dallben. Teleria, forever telling her to straighten up and mind her manners. Dallben, forever talking in riddles, always seeming somehow to bar her way with words. “Where else would I go?” she asked at last. “Rather Caer Dallben than Dinas Rhydnant!”
He chuckled. “Was it really so bad as all that?”
“You have no idea!” she said, laughing, freed from the oppressive weight of consideration and decision and memory. “For one thing, you've never worn court ladies' underthings, though you'd look as good as I did in them. Horrid uncomfortable things! And everyone says these things to you, all insinuation and falseness, but it's even worse when they stop hinting and talk right out. I feared Teleria would cry when I made it clear that I wouldn't marry Rhun – but I put my foot down. Hen Wen might likely fly first.”
Recalled again to troublesome thoughts of home by the oracular pig's name, she asked, hesitant, “Taran, if you don't want to go home – did you have some other idea?”
His voice was growing soft and sleepy through the dark. She snuggled closer, letting the warm familiarity of him surround and enfold her, and just listened. “I'd thought to go to the Free Commots,” he said dreamily. “They make the most wonderful things there. I should love to learn how.”
“The Free Commots?” she repeated, waxing fair sleepy herself. “They sound nice.”
“Mmm,” Taran rumbled. She could feel the vibrations against her cheek. “No lords or kings or princes at all. Just people who make wonderful things. I saw some of them in Lord Gast's treasure house.”
He must've seen something grand, to speak of it with so much longing. And “no lords or kings or princes” sounded like paradise to her just now, after all the fussy royalness of Mona. It would be good for Taran, as well – he was always at his best when he didn't have anyone of higher rank to compare himself to, and wasn't making himself all bitter and low. “It's decided, then,” she said. “The Free Commots. We can -” she yawned enormously - “start in the morning.” And then she was asleep, his breath soft and regular against her neck.
When morning came, Fflewddur was loath to let them go. “The Free Commots? You're still badly hurt, old friend,” he said to Taran, “and, Princess, surely you've been away from home long enough?”
“Not by half,” Eilonwy told the dismayed bard. “We've been in cages. Now we mean to try our wings.” Glancing at Taran's bandaged arm in its sling, she amended, “Well, as much as we can. We'll be fine, Fflewddur. Don't fuss.”
“Very well,” he said, resigned. “If the two of you are agreed on this, I'll not go against you. And I must get back to my own kingdom myself, I suppose. I hadn't meant to be away from it for so long. I do hope it's been all right without me – although it generally is all right, whether I'm there or no.” In the night, Llyan had come creeping up out of the undergrowth and settled herself in a furry curve around the sleeping bard. Now she stood beside him, purring, occasionally rubbing up against him almost hard enough to knock him off his feet. Eilonwy stood on tiptoe to scratch the big cat's ears affectionately.
“Gurgi will go too! Faithful Gurgi seeks Commots of makings and shapings!”
“Are you sure?” Taran asked the shaggy creature. “If you would rather return to Caer Dallben, rest in safety -”
Gurgi shook his head violently, and Eilonwy laughed. “All right,” she said. “The three of us, then.”
Taran smiled wryly at her, and her heart leaped. “I'll have to find something to wear first,” he said, gesturing to his nearly-bare body under his diverse wraps and blankets. “My things seem to have gone missing, and I don't feel comfortable, somehow, riding all the way to the Free Commots in only breeches and a cloak!”
Fflewddur laughed at him. “Here,” he said, pulling off his tunic and then the soft linen shirt beneath it, handing the latter to Taran. “This should help a bit – though I don't know what you'll do for the rest of yourself.”
“Unpick the hems on my leggings,” Eilonwy suggested, “and they should be long enough for you.”
Taran blushed pink, and then smiled up at them both. She left him with her leggings and her little sharp work-knife, carefully cutting stitches, while she busied herself with re-packing her bags and striking camp. As she worked she could hear birds singing in the forest, but she didn't turn her face in the direction where the ruins of Morda's hut lurked.
Fflewddur was ready to leave first, his things bundled up on Llyan's back, his harp slung over one patched shoulder. He grasped Taran's hand, holding close. “Taran,” he said, “take care and go free.” Clasping Eilonwy's in turn, he added, “And you, Princess – you don't need my well-wishes. You make your own fortune well enough.”
Eilonwy smiled, sad and happy all at once, sure that she was not entirely big enough for all her feelings. “Give them to me anyway,” she said. He nodded, and swung himself up on Llyan, and padded away with her into the still-shadowed undergrowth of the forest, and was gone.
“Well,” she said after a moment, “I suppose, with only Lluagor between the three of us, we shall have to go on foot. Perhaps we ought to pick up a pony along the way – and some more clothes for you, Taran!”
They set off when the sun was still rising to its zenith, high enough to send light slanting down through the high treetops to the forest floor: Lluagor packed with blankets and bundles, Gurgi leading her carefully, Eilonwy with her bauble glimmering in her hand ahead of them, searching out the way, and Taran trailing her, leaning on a staff for balance, one arm still bound immobile against his chest. “Oh, bother,” she exclaimed as the dark hedge with its attendant blooms was hidden behind a bend in the road, “we've forgotten to send word to Dallben.”
“It's all right,” Taran said. “He'll know anyway.”
When Eilonwy Daughter of Angharad Daughter of Regat Princess of Llyr rode south in the spring from the Free Commots and across the Great Avren, she brought several things back with her that she had not had on her departure from her home. Taran Assistant Pig-Keeper rode behind her on her bay mare Lluagor with his arms clasped loosely around her waist, and Gurgi followed on a pony almost as shaggy as himself. On her back, a soft warm rabbit fur, the yield of her own trapping, and at her waist a long sheathed hunting knife. Bundled up with her things, a number of little bags of healing herbs and a small glass pots of salve: arnica, willow bark, yarrow and goldenrod for mortality and eternity, honey elixir, marjoram and eyebright and pennyroyal to ease the heart and head as well as they body. And in her head, heavy enough to count as something that had to be carried, a winter's worth of commot disputes and lawgivings, judgments and pleas and compromises.
She hadn't always been perfectly patient, no more than Taran had, but she'd found her wings and done her toil. Moving from Commot Cenarth to Commot Gwenith to Merin and Isav, the pair had served their various apprenticeships, and Eilonwy had watched Taran stand straighter and grow stronger, wondering if she was undergoing the same change. She didn't feel any different, not deep down – but all the same, she could do so many more things now that she'd been able to before.
In Cenarth, each had stayed in a separate house, studying separately. The old weaver-woman of Commot Gwenith, Dwyvach, had taken one look at them and wordlessly gone to set up a pallet for two in her byre, and so they had continued on, spending their nights curled around one another in deep sleep. And when they were no longer sleepy, they'd found that time and space had a way of keeping love from feeling too fast.
In Isav, they'd worked together to fight off a marauding band of outlaws, and her knife had anticipated his thoughts.
Eilonwy knew that the home she was returning to wouldn't be the simple refuge of her childhood anymore – for one thing, Achren would likely still be there, and for another, Dallben would still want to lock her up like a precious thing, and she'd have to resist him if she wanted to keep her freedom. There'd probably be more to do as soon as they got there: another quest, another fight, another enemy, another need.
But she was confident that she would be the equal to any task the world could give her. Urging Lluagor to greater speed, she felt Taran's arms tighten around her waist, and her heart leaped in simple happy expansiveness. As they broke into a gallop, the pair of silver moons that hung gleaming together on the same chain around her neck chimed like bells.