The journey to Caer Dallben was so much more pleasant than the journey to Caer Dathyl had been, Eilonwy was tempted to pinch herself every so often to make sure it wasn't just a lovely summer dream. The only thing that stopped her was an unwillingness to wake up.
She had felt no regret at leaving Caer Dathyl. Over their remaining days, the novelty of its grandeur had faded quickly under her confinement, and though its people were pleasant and well-meaning, she couldn't help her mind's habit of slipping back to the stone walls and dark passages of Spiral Castle when she was alone. Several nights she had woken up in cold sweat, overhung with a horrible sense of entrapment, and had to get out of bed and throw open her casement, lean out into the fresh, green-scented air and remind herself that she wasn't in her old chamber next to Achren's. The prospect of a journey through the countryside, under the sun and stars, ending with a sojourn at the peaceful farm about which she'd heard so much, held nothing but delight and anticipation.
Gwydion himself escorted them, along with a handful of his men, and in such grand and capable company no one had any fear of attack, even had there been any faction of the retreating southern armies with such intent. They all rode horseback, even Hen Wen, borne upon a litter like some porcine goddess and looking extremely pleased with herself. Evenings were spent in story and song around the campfires before retiring to bedrolls that seemed near luxurious comfort after weeks of sleeping on the bare ground. Eilonwy lay each night, breathing the sweet air, counting the stars until her eyes closed of their own accord. Somehow it seemed a shame that you could miss such happy hours by sleeping through them.
Fflewddur, having appointed himself official entertainment on the road, waxed eloquent and inspired, unrepentantly snapping harp strings with abandon in his stated intention to break Doli's stoic gruffness and make him laugh before the trip was over. The dwarf had surprised them all with his request to accompany them, and his twinkling-eyed, acerbic commentary on Fflewddur's extravagances only drove the bard to more absurd lengths. The two of them often rode ahead together on the trail, trading barbs of wit, to the amusement of all who rode behind.
Taran, relieved of the burden of leadership, seemed a different person altogether. He was manifestly jubilant to be going home; his smile was frequent; he talked freely and openly and more than Eilonwy had ever heard him to do. He was a far more amiable conversationalist and companion than he had been previously, and wherever he went, Gurgi was close behind – so there was always someone to talk to.
To be sure, her happiness was not without its small pinpricks of pain. From certain remarks he made, Eilonwy gathered that Taran thought she was only coming to see Caer Dallben for a quick visit; what he thought she planned to do after that wasn't clear, though when any conversation trended in that direction he stammered and blushed and changed the subject. She chafed at this, silently and confusedly. His unrestrained eagerness to be home had, by all appearances, eclipsed the shy, awkward eagerness with which he had initially invited her, and though she told herself it didn't matter, she found the memory of his flushed face and questioning eyes popping into her mind far too often to believe in her own indifference. It grew even less easy as the journey wore on. Although at its beginning, Taran had ridden as close to Gwydion as he could get, she found him gravitating more and more to riding by her side with each successive day. She ignored her pleasure at the latter as steadfastly as she would have denied her jealousy at the former. Let him ride by whomever he wanted! She didn't care – though it was nice to have company closer to her age, of course.
She'd lost track of how many days they'd traveled; there came a morning when Taran, riding beside her in a moment of companionable silence, suddenly sat up straighter, surveying the land before them. She heard the sharp intake of his breath.
"I know that view!" His eyes were brilliant and joyful. He threw his arm out toward the gentle ripples of earth in the distance, their emerald glow framed in a dark smudge of trees. A wisp of lavender smoke rose from an as-yet-unseen chimney on the horizon. "It's Caer Dallben. We're home!"
His smile was like a banner across his face and when he looked at her something in her chest broke at the sight; but it was a release, not a shattering, and the laugh it set free danced out and tumbled with his in the sunlight. Gurgi whooped with delight and their horses all, without even a nudge of encouragement, leaped into sympathetic canters, sweeping ahead of the rest of the company, soaring over the turf like seabirds over the waterline.
Taran took the lead and Eilonwy followed, relaxing back in the saddle, into the fluid rocking motion of a horse canter, her head back, hair flying. Oh, lovely, lovely this...this. All of this, the green and the grass and the wildflowers bowing as they swept past, that flock of birds that took to the wing like the flags of an honor guard, the air and the sun and the sky and ahead a home...not hers, not yet, but perhaps...for the first time, a very real perhaps.
She heard answering whoops of excitement from the entourage behind them, Fflewddur's joyful shout and the thunder of many hooves, but Taran's mount Melynlas, a stallion born of Melyngar, was too swift and had too great a lead to be overcome. On they flew; the wisp of smoke grew more opaque, the trees took form and shape, and golden-thatched roofs peeped over their tops. Stone fences roped a meandering grey net over the green and it all came closer and closer; Eilonwy held her breath as they rounded a last bend, reined up and trotted their panting horses into the open space amidst a cluster of small whitewashed cottages and outbuildings. Taran, already calling out for Coll and Dallben, tumbled off Melynlas and almost fell; chickens scattered in every direction and Eilonwy heard a shout from one of the buildings.
She turned toward the sound and beheld a giant of a man, bald-headed and very red in the face, running toward them, his mouth open in a roar of welcome, though whatever words it contained were incomprehensible amid the laugh that accompanied it. Taran ran to him and the giant threw his arms around him, lifting him off the ground in what looked like a bone-cracking embrace.
The rest of their party was tumbling into the yard, Fflewddur, Doli, Gurgi and Gwydion and a few of the rest; but all reigned up and stayed back, respectfully, waiting and grinning at the spectacle. Eilonwy slid to the ground, amused but a little awkward as she listened to Taran's stammer overcome by Coll's – for it had to be Coll – unabashed expressions of happiness. They tussled back and forth a little, and then the big farmer suddenly looked past the boy's head and at her; his face lit up. "And who's this?"
Taran looked at her breathlessly; his face flushed, an odd mixture of pride and embarrassment. "This is...Eilonwy. She's...er...she's..."
Before she knew what was happening Coll had thrown his burly arms around her with another burst of laughter; she squeaked in surprise as her feet left the ground and he set her down, beaming, and held her out by the shoulders. "Oh, welcome, welcome, lass. It's far too long since we've seen a girl around here. Where'd he find you, eh? And you, boy," he let go of her to cuff Taran across the top of the head. "Don't you know you should always introduce the lady first? You see, that's what comes of being all bachelors here. No manners whatever."
He was rough and homely; he smelled like earth and salt and she loved him, instantly, without even needing to close her eyes and sense the gentle joy underneath his bluster and blow. No wonder Taran had been homesick.
A cough from behind them turned everyone's heads; in the door of the largest cottage there was...Llyr, what was it? Her eyes said it was an old man, bent and frail. But in her mind this being was a multi-colored pillar of mist and light, wind and flame, stone and earth, a presence of such tremendous weight and power that it seemed to block all other senses when she looked directly at it. It sucked at her consciousness like the pull of a riptide, and she blinked and gasped and looked away, trembling. Taran shot her a concerned look, and she took a breath and looked again, and saw only the old man. His keen eyes pierced her for a heartbeat, as though he knew her thoughts, before turning to the boy who was now running toward him, vaulting the low stone wall before the cottage.
"Dallben!" It was a joyful call, but restrained, respectful, in comparison to his meeting with Coll. The old man smiled, however, and reached out; his bony arms closed very briefly around Taran's shoulders, clutched and released.
"Well, well, so you've done it." The enchanter said, in a voice that creaked like a rusty gate. "Well done, boy." Taran looked surprised, then so pleased that Eilonwy suspected Dallben's words of approval could no further go. "We've been expecting you – and the rest, too," the old man continued. He nodded over Taran's shoulder at the entourage that had gathered behind them all. Eilonwy noticed, with some awe, that Gwydion bowed. "Welcome, all. Lord Gwydion, Sons of Don. Fflewddur Fflam, Doli of the Fair Folk, and..." he raised a scraggly eyebrow in amusement, "...and yes, you as well, Gurgi." He waved a thin hand toward one of the buildings. "The stables are there. Coll can help you see to your mounts, and you shall find a more tangible expression of welcome inside the house. Please make yourselves at home. Ah!" He looked past them all and brightened; they all turned to see the last of the party- Hen Wen, squealing joyfully, and the handlers assigned to her horses – had arrived.
What Dallben had meant by "tangible expression of welcome" was soon clear; once the horses and Hen Wen were attended to, they went inside and found enough food laid on the rough table within the main room of the cottage to feed all of them twice over. Coll, bedecked in an apron, his bald head shining, beamed with pride as the company complemented the simple, hearty fare, all of it fresh from his fields. Taran ate and looked around like someone in a happy dream, though occasionally Eilonwy saw a shadow cross his face. He glanced at her often, and always seemed on the verge of saying something and then changing his mind. She thought, impatiently, that she'd rather like to kick him under the table, but it seemed impertinent in his own home, and she had an uncomfortable sense that Dallben saw everything that went on here, even out of his view.
Presently he set down the chunk of bread he'd been crumbling and turned to her. "Finished eating? Want to go see the rest of the place?"
Eilonwy nodded and nearly jumped up from the wooden bench. He grinned at her eagerness, and led her from the cottage with a backward assurance to Coll that he'd help with cleaning up, later.
Together they strolled the grounds and he pointed out all the places from the stories he'd told her; the oak trees he'd climbed, the goat pen, the granary and smithy, Coll's turnip fields and the apple orchard, laden with green fruit, full of promise. Eilonwy found herself strangely surprised to find it all unlike her mental images. But it was beautiful...all the more for being real. It was real, and verdant, and Taran, in the midst of it, glowed like a jewel in a crown. Whatever his ambitions, whatever his frustrations with this place...he belonged here, a part of this place, of the earth, all green and wholesome and full of life. No wonder he'd got on so well with Medwyn, she thought suddenly, watching him scratch the ears of the goats that came frisking up to him; they were two of a kind.
She found herself uncharacteristically quiet, taking it all in, observing him, and his own remarks grew farther between, as though he were discomfited by her silence. She probed at him mentally, felt his hesitation and embarrassment masking some strong emotion, and held herself back from intruding further. But when they came to Hen Wen's enclosure and the white pig trotted up to them with a grunt of delight, she had to laugh. It was just too ridiculous to think of all that had happened because of a pig.
"So this is where it all began," she remarked, leaning against the cool stone wall and reaching down with a fallen twig to scratch between the white ears, already dirt-caked from the pig's rolling. "I don't mean to sound critical, but I don't think you should have had so much trouble keeping her in."
Taran looked mildly affronted, and she felt him forget his awkwardness, a little, and grinned at him. "It's all as lovely as you said it was. You should be glad to be home."
"Mmph," he said, vaguely affirmative. He picked at the lichen growing on the wall, and she suddenly remembered his picking at his own bedclothes in Caer Dathyl, and felt her heart flutter in that way that was becoming familiar and yet startlingly, nerve-rattlingly new.
It made her have to break the silence with something, anything. "What will you do now? I expect you'll go back to assistant pig-keeping."
"I suppose," he said, and cleared his throat. "Eilonwy-"
She froze, waiting, listening to her own breath.
"I was hoping..." he said.
"I mean, I was wondering..."
Breathe. Wondering WHAT, you daft boy? SAY IT.
He gulped for breath, and then they both jumped, startled, at the crackle of a snapped twig nearby. Coll was there, at Taran's elbow, and looking a little sheepishly amused, as though he knew he was interrupting something vital. He whispered in Taran's ear and the boy looked anguished. "Now?"
Coll grunted and Taran sighed. "Eilonwy, I-"
She looked at him, and regretted it, for when their eyes met he seemed to deflate, his courage shattered. Without another word he turned and trudged off toward the cottage.
She let her breath out in a whoosh, realizing that, in spite of her own advice, she'd been holding it at the last. Coll glanced at her, a sympathetic twitch of his mouth the only indication that he read something of her thoughts. "Well, now," he said, reaching down to scratch Hen Wen's head himself, "I gather you'll be staying with us for a while. Tell me, what sort of lodgings does a princess require?"
Eilonwy looked at him in surprise. "How'd you know?" she blurted out.
"Dallben knows," Coll said, with an easy grin. "Don't ask me how. There's little anyone can surprise him with. You're quite welcome here. By all of us. It's humble enough, but we'll do our best for you, whatever."
His face was so honest and open that she was overcome, and threw her arms around his neck, her heart full, tears pricking at her eyes. Coll grunted in surprise, but returned her embrace, patting her back gently until she regained her composure, crooning as a man might to a frightened horse. She released him, sniffling a little. "I never saw a place that seemed so much like home. You can put me wherever you like."
Coll laid his large hand on her head and rumpled her hair. "Hm. Well, we've a loft I've just finished turning over with fresh straw. I hear you're partial to sleeping outdoors, and it's as close as you can get to that. The outside door faces east, and you can open it and watch the sun rise every morning."
Eilonwy leapt toward him and kissed his rough cheek; he coughed, and set her upright, murmuring, "Get on with you," and chucking her under the chin before turning back toward the cottage, his face aglow. She heard him humming as he walked away.
She wanted to run, shouting, dancing, singing, through the orchard and fields, wanted to roll in the verdant grass and smell it bruised beneath her feet, to run her fingers crumbling through the fertile earth that grew it, to climb every tree in the orchard and know the sweet crush of fresh apple in her teeth, to breathe in this chimney smoke curling into the endless sky, to watch the stars swing over this thatched roof and the sun rise over that eastern horizon every morning. Every morning! I will watch the sun rise every morning.
Her crescent pendant clinked against the stone wall and she gripped it, the smooth, cool shape of it familiar to her hand, steadying the spirit that wanted to burst from her, like a river dammed back suddenly set free. Something twisted in her gut, anxious, restless, a reminder not to forget. Sun and sea. Fire and water. Light and darkness.
I won't. I won't forget. She shut her eyes, and spread her senses outward, out into the trembling life all around. It was light, but it was also mist and shadow, and it enveloped her, filled her with a rare, exquisite peace. I will watch the sun rise every morning, and the moon rise every night.
She opened her eyes as she heard her name called. Taran was running toward her from the cottage, she didn't even need to turn to see him to sense the brimming overflow of gladness that poured out of him, erasing all his hesitation.
"You're to stay!" he burst out as he came near; his hand reached out as though to touch her before he checked it, gulping, gripping a nearby tree branch instead as though it was what he'd meant to do all along. "You're to stay," he repeated, breathlessly, "I've asked Dallben."
Eilonwy wanted to laugh and smack him and kiss him and shake him and...and...Llyr, she didn't quite know what she wanted to do with him, but she was staying and for now, that was enough. This was happiness so overwhelming it almost frightened her and she could not let him see the extent of it, not quite. Not yet. "I suppose," she retorted, tossing her head and looking away so that he could not see her smirk, "it never occurred to you to ask me."
She sensed his befuddlement even before he spoke. "Yes," he protested, "but...I mean...I didn't think-"
"You usually don't," she cut him off, with a longsuffering sigh, and grinned at him sideways so that he'd know he was forgiven. "Never mind. Coll is fixing up a place for me."
Taran stared at her. "Coll? How did he know?" His face wrinkled up in confusion. "How...how did you know?"
"Humph," she snorted.
"Hwoinch!" said Hen Wen.
A/N In the end, Lloyd's own ending seemed to fit the best.
For all my readers who stuck with me this long, a very heartfelt thanks. I apologize for how long it took, and for all the lengthy interruptions, but I have to say this was certainly the most ambitious writing project I've taken on, and I'm just glad to be finished at last.. I enjoyed every chapter and every word. While of course this interpretation of Eilonwy remains my own, I hope it's been convincing enough for others to enjoy, and perhaps to explain a little of why she is so "real" to me. I can't say whether I will attempt to rewrite any of the other books in this series in the same manner - though I'd like to. We'll see where the muse, and my available time, take me.
Happy Wandering, my friends.