The sleeping vegetable fields stretched in gentle slopes to the edge of the forest, a view broken now by dozens of makeshift tents. In the westering blue light, the campfires of the Commot refugees were flaring like a handful of golden stars scattered over the fields. Eilonwy, surveying it from the edge of the trees, shook her head with a sigh. "Poor Coll would be heartbroken. They're trampling all over the bean and cabbage patches."
Taran, stepping up next to her from the shadows, surveyed the damage with a conflicted expression. "It seems odd to be upset over it, doesn't it? When we're leaving and it won't matter to us. Yet I feel that his memory is being dishonored, somehow."
"Of course it is," she returned a bit tartly. "It's worse than if someone had desecrated his barrow. He'd mind that less. But," she added, softening in spite of herself, "he'd also have said people are more important than cabbages. It's not as though it's an army camping there…just families, mostly, and they had to go somewhere. I suppose someone will mend it all eventually. They're not going to leave a place like this sitting fallow."
She found herself frowning at the thought of others living in the place she had come to think of as her cottage, working these fields, and scolded herself silently for it. Of course someone would live there, and manage the farm – a great boon to a family displaced by the war. Better that Caer Dallben should be tended and verdant, better filled with the love of another family and laughter of someone else's children than sitting empty like a shrine to a barren memory. That would be desecration indeed.
She glanced at Taran's face and saw a frown similar to her own furrowing his brow; the straight, firm line of his mouth and chin were set determinedly, and she knew, somehow, that he was thinking the same thing. Of course he was; warm pride spread lazily through her like the flush of a long draught of wine. He caught her eye and quirked an eyebrow. "What is that look for?"
"Because I could see what you were thinking," she said, trying and failing not to sound a little smug. "And you're absolutely right. If it doesn't belong to us, it should belong to someone."
He shrugged and smiled ruefully. "I must have been a selfish fool most of my life for that to impress you so much, now. There's nothing honorable about acknowledging the obvious. It should have been ours, but…what is the use of a farm that isn't worked? It would be no better than the Red Fallows."
She shuddered involuntarily and nestled closer to him, suddenly cold. "Ugh, don't. It could never be like them. I had such horrible nightmares the whole time we were there, even while I was awake." She brushed her hands across her own arms, as though trying to clear off cobwebs, and was glad when he covered them with his own to still them, the warmth driving out the memory of the moldering pale dust of the fields. Even after the company had left the Fallows behind, their dead soil had seemed to cling to clothes and hair and skin longer than it should, carrying with it a sense of sadness and waste. Several of the men had complained that it felt haunted, but it was more than that; the very essence of the place had oppressed her; weightless and hollow it had still somehow dragged at her limbs, while bodiless voices muttered at the edges of her consciousness.
Taran was watching her face with a look of regretful concern. "Don't look like that. I'm sorry I brought it up." He ran a hand through his dark hair in agitation. "Leave it to me to spoil the moment."
She forced a laugh and pulled his arm tightly around her. "It wasn't you. I still have nightmares, about…all of it. And will for years, I expect. Did you ever notice how lovely memories fade over time, while terrible ones hound you like a hunter on your trail? I wonder why that is. I'd dearly love to forget some things." Before the words were out of her mouth she regretted them; like an assault, a sudden vision of Dorath's ugly, broken-toothed grin in the darkness shoved itself before her mind's eye. She swayed on her feet, choking back a wave of nausea.
Taran held her up, his alarm pulsing in the clutch of his hands. Dimly, as though from far away, she heard him say her name, ask her what was the matter. But she shook her head, buried her face in his shoulder, breathed deeply the familiar, comforting smell of him until the horror subsided.
Talk about spoiling the moment. "It's nothing," she mumbled, muffled in the thick wool of his jacket. "That is…I'll tell you sometime. Not now." He should know; but she shied away from the thought of conveying it to him; later, always later…perhaps one day she could revisit the event without feeling ill, or…or as though she were sullied, somehow, by no more than a few offensive prods of rough hands. Nothing had happened, really, and no doubt she was being oversensitive about the whole thing, but…well, bless Medwyn and his wolves. Perhaps it was ironic, given her revulsion at the memory of Dorath's face, that she could think about the sight of his throat being torn out and feel nothing but numb satisfaction. But then, it was only one bloody recollection among many.
Taran stroked her hair and was silent; his characteristic quietness often piqued her but just now she wanted nothing more than the strength of his wordless embrace; it was a solid, anchoring presence and she clung to him gratefully, thankful for his silence. He broke it, finally, many heartbeats later.
"I have nightmares, too," he confessed. "I see men's faces in battle again – sometimes they're attacking and I'm tied up and can't defend myself. Or I see the cauldron-born coming for me, and the rock on Mount Dragon, and I reach for Dyrnwyn and it's not there." She felt him tense, and tightened her arms around him. "Sometimes I just see the faces of the men I killed. And those are the worst."
The pain in his voice drove all other thoughts from her mind; she raised her head to look at him, cupped his troubled face in her hands. "You only did what you had to do. It was a war."
"I know." His gaze met hers reluctantly. "It's odd. When I was young I thought of battle heroics all the time, but never about the fact that people actually died. It's different in your imagination; they're all faceless, or…or just so simply evil that it doesn't matter."
"Or in some cases," she added dryly, "already dead anyway."
A bitter laugh escaped him, as though from a carefully guarded gate, and he pressed his fingers to his brow and shut his eyes. "It was so much simpler when it was just cauldron-born. But when Pryderi's army…" he shook his head. "I always wondered how many of them only followed because they had to. How many wives and sons and daughters are alone now, down in the southern cantrevs, because one man decided we were the enemy." He opened his eyes, gold-green in the dying light, and seemed to look past her at something she couldn't see. "Slaying your enemy is only the beginning, it seems. Harder still is washing his blood off your hands."
Or from the ground, she thought, mindful of the Fallows. The anguish in his eyes hurt her; and hurt, as usual, took refuge beneath anger, bubbling up from deep within like a hot spring and setting her simmering. What had it all been for, anyway – now that they were all going away? To well-earned peace and safety, perhaps, yet not to enjoy the peace they'd bought here for so high a price?
"You're frowning now," Taran observed, with a wry half-smile. "Didn't we come out here to make good memories? Or did I dream that as well?"
"Oohh," she huffed and stood up straight, preoccupied with her own frustration; stepped away from him and gestured, with a wide sweep of her hand, down toward the fields. "I just…what good was it all? What did we fight for, in the end? Nothing but the right to walk away from what we won? Look at them."
The fires were bright now as the sun sank toward the horizon; brave little stars, she thought, to battle the darkness. "It's not fair, is it? Not right, somehow, that we should be so happy and fortunate, going off where we'll have no more cares or troubles, while so many who fought as hard, and lost more, maybe, must stay and try to patch themselves back together. And without a proper leader, too. I wonder what is to become of them."
Taran stepped close to her again, but now his silence was irksome; she wanted him to share her rising ire, and went on heatedly. "The Commots could go on very well, I suppose; they always have, but what about the rest? The cantrevs will tear each other apart. And what's to prevent someone else coming up and replacing Arawn? You don't need to have powers of enchantment to do plenty of damage."
Her anger surprised her; she felt a perverse desire – not without a guilty pang of loyalty, but a desire no less - to shake Dallben and Gwydion for being so willing to hand over their responsibilities and sally off to the Summer Country without a look backward. Perhaps it wasn't really their fault, but…but it should be someone's.
"At least they will be free from the shadow of Annuvin. They have a chance now," Taran offered. "That counts for something." But his voice held a hint of doubt, of disquiet, as though even he were not sure of his own words. He took her clenched fist and gently pried her fingers open, interlacing them with his own and drawing it in, until his heartbeat thumped against the back of her hand. "You can't change what's happening by being angry about it, you know. Save your energy-'"
"-for honest work," she said, swallowing a sob and leaning back against him. It had been a favorite proverb of Coll's. "If there's any honest work to be done in the Summer Country."
"What is that supposed to mean?" he queried, a note of amusement creeping back into his voice.
She snorted. "All that lovely talk about it being a place of rest and laying down of burdens. They make it sound like we'll just lie around all day, listening to harps playing and…and eating strawberries and cream and honey." Her conscience pricked her quietly. It was not an altogether true nor fair accusation, but she couldn't let go of her irritation so easily.
Not even with his other arm snaking around her waist from behind. Though it was distracting. Almost as distracting as his breath tickling her neck.
"I certainly hope," he muttered against her ear, "that there's more to it than that."
Disarmed, she giggled and elbowed him in the stomach, while some separate, casually observant part of her mind wondered how it was possible to be grieving and angry one moment and flushed sweetly warm and expectant the next. Terribly odd, like going straight from day to night with no sunset in between. And actually, a bit annoying. If he thought he could get her to forget about being angry – with him or anything else – just by being irresistibly flirtatious…well. She'd have words with him about that later.
"Of course, Dallben did say Hen could come with us," she said, turning her head to grin at him. "And I'm sure even in the Summer Country pigs have to be fed. So you'll always have something useful to-" But he cut her short in a manner that was becoming rather dangerously, dizzyingly effective. Probably it should annoy her. But at least he was no longer thinking about death and war – hopefully – and she had no intention of spoiling the moment again…not now, when all her happiness was like a bubble, beautiful and shining and perfect.
She would not be the one to shatter it.
a/n: Just want to add here that her thoughts about being "oversensitive" to the memory of a near-rape experience are her own (incorrect) thoughts in an attempt to come to terms with it, not an injection of author opinion, lest anyone think I would trivialize that. In fact I almost put a trigger warning on this chapter.
Taran's line about it being harder to wash your enemy's blood off your hands came from my husband. I promised I'd credit his brilliance. :)
Those familiar with my Matter of Hours fic might recognize her rant about the leaderless state of Prydain; I had not originally intended to revisit it but this was where the story took me. I personally liked the extra twist of drama inherent in the idea that she could actually blame herself for unwittingly starting the ball rolling on Taran's decision, but I also found it satisfying to imagine that in the end, although she stays behind primarily to be with him, she also shares his sense of justice and duty to the country.