"That wasn't so hard, now was it?"
Fflewddur's jocular slap on the back was vigorous enough to make Taran wince, but nothing could have erased the foolish, daft smile he felt himself wearing. He coughed instead, and the lanky bard turned his attention to Eilonwy, admonishing, with a wink, "You'd better take him off and make him believe what just happened. By the look of him, he's waiting to wake up any moment."
Eilonwy laughed her silver-bell laugh with no hint of embarrassment, gripped his hand tighter and pulled him away from the cottage, away from the others, as though it were nothing, as though the fact that heaven and earth had just moved had not ruffled her composure in the slightest. "Come on. Walk with me. If we're going away forever we must say farewell to everything at least."
He followed without question, in something akin to a trance, and thought dreamily that she could pull him right over a cliff's edge at that moment without resistance – not that she would, of course. But as they entered the orchard and the perfume of apple blossom enveloped him, the truth of her words dug in, burrowing stubbornly past the cloud-layer of rosy euphoria to his mind.
Indeed. Farewell to everything.
If Dallben spoke truly – and he always did – then these would be his last steps on the soil of his home, his last moments breathing and seeing and knowing the essence of the place that had formed him since infancy. The sudden dismay of it stopped him in his tracks, and his eyes wandered over the familiar surroundings.
Every memory, and the warm, primitive sense of belonging that sprang from wells even deeper than memory - all were rooted here.
There were the fields…those gentle slopes of earth where he had spent so many endless hours in toil. Even now he could feel the earth caking his fingers, smell the sharp green growing life, taste the warm sweet burst of a just-picked strawberry all the sweeter and richer for the heat of the sun on his neck and the ache in his hoe-wielding arms. He thought of the content satisfaction in Coll's face – incomprehensible to him as a child - as he stood at the garden edge in the evening after a day's work, mopping the shining dome of his head with his ragged kerchief and smiling at the proud, even rows of turnip leaves.
The cottage and outbuildings drew his eye. Every cool, moss-furred stone in the fences and walls knew the shape of his hands. The grass, browned by winter and cropped short by goats he knew, sight unseen, by their individual bleats, was webbed in paths worn bare by his steps. The old oak trees had sheltered him in their sun-dappled shadows and whispered their secrets over him in the breeze. He had listened, on lazy afternoons, to the thick drone of bees bumbling drunkenly from flower to flower; in the golden light of dusk, to swallows twittering love songs in the eaves; listened at night to the cricketsong lullaby drifting into his chamber window from the darkness.
He knew the autumn-smell of leaves burning in Coll's rubbish heap and the sour-sweet pungency of apple mash turning to hard cider; he had soaked in the flame-hued glory of oak, birch, and ash as they shook off their summer green. He thought of winter nights when their bare branches reached up grasping at the frosty stars, the blue-dimpled snow lay a glittering quilt on the earth and the hearth glowed red and warm within. Was it true…could it be true, that the very next morning, he would be torn away from these moorings forever?
Eilonwy, brought up short by his halt, had turned to look at him, her own smile melting away when she saw his face. "Taran. What is it?"
He took in the sight of her; vibrant and glowing, framed by the pink-and-white frill of the blooming trees. She had been present in almost all of his memories; barefoot and dirt-grimed in the next turnip row in kilted skirts and a floppy straw hat, providing running commentary on every detail sacred or mundane; stacking cut wood beneath the autumn oaks, her brilliant crown of hair lost against their blazing foliage; sitting across from him at the hearth, gilt-edged by firelight, her fine-boned yet sturdy hands busy with wool hank and spindle, her laughter at Coll's jokes ringing silver against the crackle of burning logs. It was such memories that he had held in his heart, had informed his vision and hope for their future, and now this, too, was not to be – at least not in the same form.
There were no words for what he felt, but they tried to come anyway, stumbling up clumsy over his reluctant lips. "I…it's…" He gestured at their surroundings with his free hand, held up like an empty cup. "When I dreamed of this – of us, together - I always imagined being here. I am sure the Summer Country is everything it is said to be." But he shook his head doubtfully. "Except home. It can't be that."
Noticing, with a dreamy sense of spiraling fate, that they had stopped under the very tree she had fallen from into his arms, he smiled wistfully. "My most precious memories are here. I…I do not like having to say farewell to it, especially so soon after coming back. Just when everything finally…" he broke off, his heart too full.
"Finally was going to be perfect," she sighed in his stead, and leaned back against the grey-weathered trunk of the old tree, mournfully pensive. Three rose-flushed apple petals fluttered from a twig above and perched like errant butterflies in her hair, and he wondered achingly how the universe could hold so much beauty without consuming itself.
Eilonwy reached out for his other hand and they stood, face-to-face. "I don't think I want to leave either. At least…I don't know. It feels like dying, almost – a journey to who-knows-where with no hope of returning. And it may be wonderful; everyone says so, but it isn't what you know." Her steady blue gaze meandered over the landscape before coming back to rest on his face, and her smile returned, sweet and slow and sad. "This is my home, too, you know. And here I thought, after so long, at last I'd be coming home to stay. And now…" she shrugged, helplessly. "Now I want to be unreasonable and stubborn and have a row about the whole business, but what good is it? You can't swat hornets. I mean, you can, but you'll just get stung for your trouble. It's not even the hornets' fault."
Hornets. It was so like her that he chuckled in spite of himself, and she brightened at the sound. "I can manage it, though, no matter where we are, as long as I have you…particularly now that you've gotten the formalities underway." She winked and he blushed, momentarily forgetting his sadness, and she laughed and squeezed his hands. "What did take you so long, for goodness' sake?"
"Would you have preferred I ask sometime while we were all on the march?" Taran asked, mildly exasperated, though more at the circumstance than at her. "In a war company, surrounded by grime and filth and roughnecks? You could have asked me if you were in such a hurry."
"The thought occurred to me." She narrowed her eyes. "But I didn't want to shame you into it."
He winced at this before suggesting, "Perhaps during a battle, then. Memorable setting, very romantic no doubt, but rather a short engagement if one of us had gotten a sword through the gut thanks to the distraction."
Chuffing indignantly, she pretended to push him away, but her hands twisted into the folds of his tunic and as a result, pulled him closer. "Oh, you find me distracting, do you? I'll give you distraction, you – it's been days since we left Annuvin. You've had time."
"And there've been people everywhere," he protested, the internal struggle to remain coherent in such close proximity causing him to be, perhaps, more defensive than the situation warranted. She smirked at him as if she knew it. "Or haven't you noticed that we've not had a moment to ourselves for months?"
"I noticed," she replied, in a voice like sawdust.
"It wasn't for my lack of trying," he insisted, hoping her suddenly serious expression meant she believed him. "All I wanted was to speak with you alone. In the end, I didn't even manage that much," he admitted ruefully, and reached hesitantly toward her face to twine a long golden strand of hair around one finger. "Forgive me. There was so much more I wanted to tell you."
In one quick fluid movement that caught him totally unaware she dipped forward, molding against him like melting wax and sliding her arms around his waist. "You could," she said, "tell me now." They were cat-purred words, soft as velvet, but they stung like fiery arrows upon his lips and there was only one sensible, one possible response to such an onslaught.
Instant, unconditional surrender.
Belin. He had kissed her before but not like this…nothing in his first heart-pounding taste of her on Mona beach or even the relief and joy of the embrace she had coaxed out of him in Smoit's stables compared with this…this…what was this? This lightning river flooding fire through his veins, the immediate eager response of his entire being to her unrestrained invitation? He'd done his share of imagining it, naturally, ever since the involuntary first fevered dreams of his adolescence, but those vague phantoms were vaporizing into pale ash in the heat of this flesh-and-blood blaze. He swayed on his feet, arms and senses full of her, an intoxicant as dizzying as any wine, and thought he could at last sympathize with Smoit's insatiable appetite. This was a feast, a banquet, and it was not enough; only his reason's faint, insistent reminder about all those people still wandering around, any of whom might happen along at any moment, kept him from pulling her down into the petal-strewn grass at their feet to find out just how much more there was.
His blood was hammering in his ears when he broke away for air; he found that he could breathe just as easily – or not, but what did that matter – with his lips pressed against her throat. At any rate there was no reason for more distance than that; not while his name was a shivering sigh on her breath, her fingers weaving into the weft of his hair. He forced himself to slow-breathe the honey-warm smell of her skin, and wondered aloud how anything in the Summer Country could ever be better than this.
She sighed against him and spoke, her voice thick and a trifle slower than was her wont, but with its familiar note of wry humor. "Well…there is our wedding, of course. I rather hope there might be something better involved…unless you enjoy stopping here."
He growled against her neck in response, and realized, with a rush of pleasant surprise, that he could feel her giggling. The vibration in her throat tickled his lips, and softened a little the blow of the thought that had just broken upon him, which he blurted out longingly. "I do not. Why are we waiting until we get there, again?"
"It was your idea," she pointed out, pulling far enough back to look him in the face. Her cheeks were scarlet and her eyes dark and dancing.
"Then why didn't you tell me I'm a fool?" he demanded, scowling. "We might be wed now, for goodness' sake."
She laughed airily and bent toward him again. "And where would you have liked to spend our wedding night?" she murmured against his mouth. "In your chamber, in that old cot you barely fit in by yourself? Or perhaps out in the grain shed where Achren slept? I'm sure she arranged it very comfortably." Her teeth closed briefly on his lower lip, prompting a ravenous urge to devour, but she evaded him with a playful, maddening duck of the head, and went on. "There's always my loft, of course, with nothing but a curtain between us and the common room. But I'm sure nobody would mind. They've all known us since we were children, so that wouldn't be awkward at all."
"Enough." His ardor was cooling by the moment at these mental pictures, but he refused to concede the point yet, and pinned her against the tree trunk. "I'd bring you out here under the stars. We've spent enough nights outdoors not to find that uncomfortable."
"Sleeping. How dare you insinuate anything else?" She had enough temerity to grin even when trapped; even when the heat in her face, tangible from inches away, betrayed her mock propriety, promptly discarded entirely. "Don't you think we'd frighten the animals?"
He could think of no response to this that would not break whatever tenuous bonds of chivalry still restrained him, so he kissed her again to avoid further verbal sparring. He'd never been a match for her on those grounds anyway.
It struck him, when he released her long moments later, that there was something oddly familiar in her countenance; the blazing eyes and crimson cheeks and breathless parting of lips that had always meant she was angry – spectacularly, magnificently angry. It had never occurred to him that they could herald a different passion entirely, but a glimmer of understanding of why he'd always found her particularly captivating when she was miffed at him flared into brilliant clarity.
The sheer delight of discovery made him laugh. "Did you bring me out here just for that?"
She shrugged a little sheepishly. "No. Well, not altogether. I really did mean it, about saying farewell." She must have felt his slight disappointment in the deflating slope of his shoulders, for she added, cheeks dimpling impishly, "But that was a memorable addition to this location. Perhaps every one of our favorite spots deserves its own. It might ease the parting considerably."
He stepped back into the orchard row, silently thanking the fates for her and her steadfast, bottomless joy. "It seems we have more memories to make, then."