you were born with a fire inside you,
and this world is determined to stamp it out.
But you must never ever let them take
those flames from within your soul,
Instead, you must burn brighter than ever
because you are a Daughter of the Sun,
And you belong only to yourself, not to this world.
~from For Girls Filled With Fire, by Nikita Gill
The fire wouldn't light.
Oh, it would've lit just fine the ordinary way - a few twigs tossed into the embers and breathed into life, the method she'd mastered, to her satisfaction, in the past year. She even knew, now, how to catch the sparks struck from a flint shard into a handful of dry peat, and turn the resulting wisp of smoke into a blaze, if it so happened that an improperly-banked fire had no embers to offer in the morning.
But today both embers and flint sat to the side, ignored, as Eilonwy focused intently on a swatch of tinder that sat, stubbornly cold, in the ashes of the big fireplace. She shut her eyes, looking inward, felt the quickening in her blood as she whispered the strange words that should make the little pile of wood shavings burst into a fine, crackling flame with a mere snap of her fingers. She waited until the tingle in her fingertips reached a certain point, took a breath, snapped...
Nothing. For the fourth time, nothing.
With a growl she snatched an iron poker and jabbed at the ash pile until the embers beneath were exposed, shoving the tinder over them as though it deserved immolation for being personally offensive to her. The heat seared her face as she bent to blow on the coals, careless of how her angry puffing sent ashes flurrying onto the hearth. Let them fly. She'd sweep later.
A creaky voice behind her made her jump. "The angrier you get," it said mildly, "the less you'll be able to do."
Eilonwy whirled around, feeling simultaneously guilty and indignant. For a man so frail he looked like a butterfly sneeze would blow him over, Dallben moved as silently and stealthily as a cat, and always seemed to turn up just when your behavior was most likely to be the sort you didn't want witnessed. He was sitting at the big oaken table now, with a sheaf of parchment in front of him, his glittering eyes surveying her with amusement.
"I wasn't angry the first try," she said peevishly, "but it still didn't work."
Dallben only grunted, turned his eyes downward, and produced a quill and inkwell from somewhere among his robes. The scratch of the nib upon parchment grated at her ear and she grit her teeth, pulling back the words that pounded, like fists at a closed door, behind her mouth. He was ignoring her on purpose and she knew why. It had been a full six months after her arrival before he would even say the word "magic" around her, and now, over a year since she'd come, he still brought a lesson to an abrupt and unceremonious halt the instant she lost her temper.
"Achren could do magic even when she was angry," she had muttered once, sulking, and his sleepy eyes were suddenly piercing silver flames in their deep sockets.
"That," he had said, "is reason enough to control yourself."
So now she turned away, chewing the insides of her cheeks while she fed kindling onto the smoldering little blaze and arranged larger logs around it, building the spaces for air to flow as Taran had taught her, a process she always found both satisfying and soothing. By the time the flames leapt, crackling and cheerful, the tight feeling in her throat was mostly melted away, and she sat back on her heels and sighed.
Sensing the shift, Dallben glanced back up, with a twitch in the corner of the whiskers that obscured his mouth. "Now, tell me again how you weren't angry the first try."
The sardonic note in his voice made her laugh, to her own surprise. "I was," she admitted. "Not at the fire though. Or...well, at the not-fire. Something completely unrelated."
"Magic," Dallben rumbled, "doesn't know the difference. Try again." He pushed an unlit candle in its stand across the table toward her.
Almost without thought, she whispered to herself, snapped her fingers. The candle flared, with an audible pop, just as Coll walked in with an armful of firewood. He blurted a startled exclamation.
"Belin! How's a man to get used to that? One spell-flinger in the house was enough, whatever." Belying his words, he winked at her as he stacked the wood on the hearth, and Eilonwy giggled, standing to throw her arms around his broad middle and kiss his leathery cheek.
"Dallben never flings spells. You know that." She released him, noticing what he carried; from a sack over his shoulder he pulled a brace of snared rabbits, already skinned and dressed. Her stomach growled hopefully. "Roast today? Not pottage?"
"Both," he said, laying the meat on the chopping table near the fire. "Bit of a feast. Be a good lass and fetch the turnips and onions, will you? Three baskets each." He straightened up as she turned to leave, and said, "Smoit coming?"
"Who?" she asked, confused, but he was looking at Dallben, who, nodding affirmation, repeated sharply to her, "turnips and onions" as though she hadn't heard. With a little huff Eilonwy departed through the side door, slowly enough to hear Coll mutter "won't be enough" under his breath as she left.
The root cellar was cool and dark and musty and always reminded her a bit of the tunnels underneath Spiral Castle. Hastily she filled two large baskets and hoisted them onto her hips, staggering back out into the brisk autumn sunlight. Six baskets of onions and turnips! She'd have to make three trips. And this after setting her to baking enough bread yesterday for a small army. What on earth were they planning?
A halloo from the stables interrupted her thoughts; Taran was trotting toward her, having finished his morning chores, rumpled and still shaking loose bits of hay from his tunic and hair. He whistled when he saw her heavy load, and reached out for the basket of turnips. "You bringing up the whole cellar? Why so many?"
"Coll asked," she answered, gratefully releasing the basket. He swung it to his shoulder with careless ease and she smothered a frown, a trifle vexed - not at him, exactly; he couldn't help how he'd grown and strengthened in the last year - but at herself, for always noticing. "I've got to bring up two more loads of each. And he's brought in skinned rabbits for roasting - half-a-dozen of them. Who do you think they're expecting?"
"You know I haven't any idea," Taran answered, scowling, as they trudged the worn path back toward the cottage door. "But I've had to muck out every blasted stall - even the empty ones. On top of all the harvest! So there's at least three coming; maybe more. It'd be nice if they'd tell us - when the work has doubled."
He fell silent then as they entered the cottage, for they both knew the work had more than doubled for Coll, and were ashamed to complain in his earshot. The sturdy farmer was busy skewering the rabbits for the spit, and already the biggest iron cook pot was standing on its squat legs upon the hearth, half-full of water. Dallben, still sitting at the table, was nodding over his parchments.
"Ah." Coll turned and eyed the baskets approvingly, eyes glinting with pride at the pile of creamy, rosy-tipped turnips. "Look at the size of those. Good harvest this year." He favored Eilonwy with a lopsided grin. "It's good luck, having a lady around."
Taran snorted and she cast him a venomous look before returning Coll's smile. "I don't believe you've ever had a bad harvest. But happy to oblige."
"Good," he replied, "then you can start peeling and chopping those" - he chuckled at her muffled groan - "and you" - aside, to Taran - "just for that noise you made, you can go get the rest. Two more baskets each."
Taran grinned, caught the frayed linen towel Coll snapped at him, and snapped it back. They tussled for a moment, laughing, before the old warrior managed to catch him by the shoulders, spun him around, and planted a boot in his backside to shove him toward the door.
Dallben's voice brought an end to the commotion like the stomp of a foot. "This house," the old enchanter croaked crossly, "once upon a time, was a place of peace and rest. Take that foolishness outside, or conduct yourselves with more decorum. For that matter," he added, looking severely at Taran, "are your chores done?"
Unabashed, Taran grabbed an apple from the wooden bowl on the table and grinned around it as his teeth cracked the skin. "Not anymore," he declared merrily, muffled around his mouthful. "I've got onions to fetch." He bowed, and swept out the door with the self-important pomp of a courtier taking leave of a king.
Eilonwy held her breath and pressed her lips together, for Dallben was muttering he needs more to do and Coll was quivering beside her. If he said a word she'd explode with laughter.
Dutifully she took up a knife and went to work on the turnips, humming to herself, content. It was nice, this...all of it, even the menial tasks that Achren would have said were beneath her; it was pleasant to be useful, to know how to do practical things, to be a part of the small, self-contained world of Caer Dallben. A year in, this life was still too new for her to scorn any of it as dull, though she knew Taran often found it so. Perhaps if she'd lived here always, as he had, she'd be more sympathetic to his restlessness; they'd had adventure, after all, but it, and her world prior to it, had mostly been an uncomfortable business, and she was glad for the peace and predictability of the farm, for the easy affection among its inhabitants.
It had taken time to adjust, of course. The amount of labor alone had been a shock; she had looked forward to rising with the sun but hadn't realized rising didn't just mean getting up and dressed but also starting fires and feeding chickens and getting breakfast-cooking lessons from Coll, immediately, the very first morning. It meant washing-up in the scullery and then joining Taran and Gurgi in the gardens, learning the difference between weeds and vegetables, how to claw up the roots of the one without harming the other; how to tell when a pea pod was full and fat enough for picking, how to lay the firm golden apples in their bins without bruising. It meant carrying water, endlessly, from the well to the house and the animals' troughs, until one day she had noticed that she no longer minded the weight of the yoke and its burden, and smiled at the sight of her own hands, sun-browned and strong, on the ropes. It meant hauling piles of linen to scrub in the creek at the edge of the gardens, hanging it all up on the lines near the house to flap in the sunshine and bring in, smelling of grass and freshness, to be put away.
But it wasn't all work all the time. Summer had also meant racing Taran and Gurgi, in the warm afternoons when the sun beat hot, down to the hidden place in the woods where the brook poured over a dark shoulder of slate in a silver curtain, into a deep pool where they threw themselves like shrieking gulls diving after fish, like otters sliding slick over the mossy banks into the water. She had taught Taran to swim, shocked at his ignorance, and yet could not answer him when he'd asked where she'd learned it. He had taught her how to drop a line along the brook bank so that she could yank it out with a trout flashing at its end, though she never learned to mimic his trick of reaching beneath that same bank with his bare brown hand, sliding it under a fish's belly and stroking it until he caught it by the gills and flipped it from the water with one quick movement.
Summer meant ripe strawberries, fresh cream and honey and sun-bursting blackberries on their porridge, goat's cheese and butter spread upon their bread, and earthenware jugs of milk kept cool and frothy in the creek. It meant warm nights when she lay and gazed out her loft window, its shutter thrown open, listening to the crickets and the occasional ghostly warble of an owl, drifting among the broad sweep of stars spilled like salt and mist across the depths of sky, until her memories of the dank curtains and closed darkness of Spiral Castle seemed like an old nightmare, stale and harmless.
Autumn had followed summer and that had meant harvest, long, long, back-aching days in the barley field, stacking the golden swaths of cut grain until she saw them in her sleep, turning up root vegetables and piling them in the cellar by the cartload, tying up bundles of the last herbs before frost and hanging them in the scullery to dry, cutting wood to be stacked and laid in against the winter. Every night she had fallen into her straw pallet in the loft too exhausted even to undress, but it was a satisfying kind of tiredness, a sense of having done something important and good. When Coll had lit the celebratory bonfire on the last day of harvest, she had danced around it, full of a wild joy that seemed to come up from the very earth, something that crackled up through the scarlet-and-gold of the flames and the fiery-leafed trees and out, upon the smoky air, up into the night and the gold-ripened moon.
And then, for the first time in her life she had found she did not hate winter, saw beauty in the crystalline transformation of the world, in the comfortable coziness of family and hearth while the wind shrieked in white fury outside the closed shutters. Winter meant evenings round the fire - after more cooking - drinking hot cider and mending holes in stockings or sewing patches over threadbare knees and elbows, letting the seams out of garments grown suddenly too short and tight for her, oiling tack and leather shoes, watching the wood shavings curl golden from Coll's knife as he carved knots and chains into the handles of wooden spoons. Dallben read aloud from the Book of Three and gave her magic lessons, and Coll told stories and bantered with them all, or they sang together, old songs, some of which she knew, just barely, whispers in her mind that came back like the memory of a dream.
Spring had come, with its melting and mud and the green mist of buds on all the trees, and birds twittering and nest-building in the boughs of apple trees turned to draperies of pink sweetness. There were baby goats, born before her eyes and stumbling on their lumpy awkward legs within the hour, chicks who nestled warm like tufts of pussywillow in her cupped palms, a mewling puddle of silky kittens discovered in a corner of the loft. The horses, even proud Melynlas, snorting at the indignity of a harness, his winter coat coming off in clumps, dragged the sharp plough through the dark earth by turns, turning up the rich loam to warm in the sun and crumble under her bare toes as she walked behind, dropping the seeds saved from last year's crop.
And then it had all begun again, another glorious summer, too short, another harvest, with the ashes of this year's bonfire just gone cold these two days. The air outside was crisp, and golden with down-drifting leaves, and the cook-fire in the big hearth was a welcome, cheering thing.
Eilonwy tossed the pile of chopped turnips into the iron pot, dumping the parings into Hen Wen's slop bucket, just as Taran returned with the second load of vegetables with Gurgi gamboling on his heels, hoping for spilled largess. The creature's attention was instantly diverted when he saw what Coll was doing.
"Oh, joyous crunchings!" he gurgled, clapping his hands. "Meat for smokings and stewings! And bones for chewings and chompings! Gurgi will help with the cookings!" His wooly arm stretched out, one black-clawed finger plucking eagerly at a rabbit, and Coll smacked it lightly with a wooden spoon.
"Oh no, you don't," he said, as Gurgi snatched his hand back with a yelp of surprise. "Last time you helped with the spit, we wound up with nothing but bones, and you sitting there with gravy on your face, pretending to know nothing about it." He spoke sternly, but his eyes twinkled, and Gurgi huffed and fell back, his ears flat against his scraggly skull. Abashed, but unable to feel truly downcast in the presence of so much food, he folded his long, oddly-jointed legs onto a stool to watch the proceedings, his amber eyes gleaming. Eilonwy tossed him a turnip peel and he caught it in his teeth, wiggling all over with joy and beaming at her.
Taran returned presently with the last load, and, noticing the full slop pail, picked it up. "Hen Wen's bath day," Coll remarked, as if to the air, and Eilonwy heard Taran suppress a groan. It did seem an odd thing to bathe a pig, who was just going to get right back in the mud and roll anyway, but Coll and Dallben always insisted on it. Of all the creatures on the farm, the white pig was the most pampered and, to all appearances, the least useful; the only living thing there that did not earn her keep. Eilonwy's own experience had shown her, very vaguely, that something extraordinary lay within the creature's humble exterior, but it was tempting to disbelieve it based on day-to-day observation, and though she knew and was glad that Hen would never meet the fate of any other farm pig, she wondered why they didn't at least raise piglets from her. "We haven't got a boar," Taran had said when she asked, as if that settled the matter, and looked so horrified when she'd expressed a craving for bacon that she'd never brought it up again.
It took nearly an hour to prepare the pottage and stoke the fire until it simmered, and then there were the breakfast things to wash and put away in the scullery, around the back of the cottage, warmed by the outer wall of the fireplace. Scullery work was dull, but it left her mind free to wander, and she rather enjoyed being alone there, her own small domain walled by stacks of earthenware and kegs of cider and ale; roofed by bunches of dried herbs dangling from the dark-beamed ceiling and filling the space with their smells. She was proud of being able to name them all now, and of knowing their uses.
Setting out pots that needed scouring, Eilonwy frowned at the edge of her tattered sleeve, too short to roll to her elbow but still long enough to get in the way. She was outgrowing her clothes again, and where were new ones to come from this time? -for this was the last of the stash of clothing left behind by Coll's lost wife, and there was little fabric for making new things; they traded for cloth goods, Taran had told her, with the Rover caravans that passed through the area periodically, and they had not come these past two years. She had taken to wearing Taran's old outgrown leggings under her skirts to make up for their shortcomings - and also because it was so much more practical and comfortable - but he had no shirts to spare, for he wore them to tatters before he outgrew them. For that matter he needed new things, too. The garments they'd been gifted at Caer Dathyl were long-since worn out and outgrown; Coll could do wonders with deerskin, and did, but one needed linen and wool for certain things, and both were in short supply.
A loud commotion from outdoors interrupted her thoughts; voices shouting angrily - Taran's she knew, but the other was strange and harsh; neither said anything articulate. Pot still in hand, she hopped over a crate and ran to the scullery door.
Across from the cottage, next to the pigsty, a strange man on a thin, speckled roan mare was leaning out over the far side of his saddle and seemed to be struggling with something. For a moment she thought he was trying not to fall off his mount, but as the horse turned and cantered closer to the cottage she realized, with a jolt of furious indignation, that he held a thrashing, roaring Taran by the front of the jacket, and was dragging him over the turf toward the front door.
With an angry cry she shot from the doorway just as the stranger threw his burden on the ground, so hard that Taran went sprawling head over heels. Chickens scattered, squawking in terror, and Coll and Dallben both appeared at the cottage door.
Eilonwy scrambled to help Taran up, though by the time she reached him he was staggering to his feet. He pointedly ignored the hand she offered; his wounded pride and embarrassment were as thick as fog in the air around him and she choked back the outraged shout that rose to her throat, knowing it would only make him worse. Besides, the stranger was already shouting and wouldn't hear her.
"Are you Dallben?" he demanded, with a tone that made her stare up in amazement that anyone should so impudently address the owner of that name. "I have brought your pig-boy to be thrashed for his insolence."
"Cheek," she hissed, but Dallben was speaking, and only the knowledge that Dallben would disapprove of the two or three hexes that presented themselves to her mind as subtle alternatives to violence kept her silent. She wrapped her clenched fists in her skirt, and without realizing it, stepped in front of Taran, shielding him.
"Tut," the old man said; his voice was mild, but she read the alertness in his mien. Dallben was never truly angry, but his wakefulness seemed to rise with the intensity of any situation, along with his sarcasm. "Whether he is insolent is one thing; whether he should be thrashed is quite another. In either case, I need no suggestions from you."
"I am a Prince of Pen-Llarcau!" retorted the stranger, who she now saw was barely more than a boy, himself; certainly not more than a year or two older than Taran. His face was thin and fine-boned, pale and sallow, with the beginnings of a very wispy beard.
"Yes, yes, yes." Dallben dismissed him with an impatient flick of his bony wrist. "I am quite aware of all that and too busy to be concerned with it. Go, water your horse and your temper at the same time. You shall be called when you are wanted."
Wonderful, dear Dallben, how fond she was of him. The young man opened his mouth as if to argue, but Dallben's frown, to whose effectiveness she could testify at brooking further debate, seemed to make him think twice. He snorted, without looking at them, and turned his horse toward the stable.
Coll had joined them now, and was brushing the ground-in dirt from the back of Taran's jacket. The boy was bruised and disheveled, his face scraped and streaked with earth and his lower lip cracked and bleeding. "You should know better, my boy, than to quarrel with strangers," the old farmer murmured, with some humor.
"That's true enough," Eilonwy agreed, "especially when he's on horseback and you're on foot."
Taran was clearly unappreciative of their wisdom. He glared toward the stables with clenched fists. "Next time I see him-"
"When you see him again," Dallben interrupted mildly, "you, at least, shall conduct yourself with as much restraint and dignity as possible - which, I allow, may not be very great, but you shall have to make do with it. Be off, now. The Princess Eilonwy can help you to be a little more presentable than you are at the moment."
Presentable for what, she thought, distracted, and waved Taran toward the scullery with a puzzled frown, still gazing at Dallben for a clue. But the old enchanter merely disappeared into the cottage, and she sighed. "Come on."
He followed her in glum silence, all his good-humored gaiety of the morning sucked out of him. Eilonwy wondered whether the stranger would stay long, and if so, where he would sleep, and if she might manage to find something nasty to slip into his bedroll on accident. Taran ducked into the low doorway of the scullery after her and slumped against the edge of a table. His face was a sight. She wrung a towel from the water bucket and dabbed at his bloody lip gently; he winced and kept his eyes on the floor, which was just as well, in these close quarters. Lately, such proximity made her feel very strange. Not unpleasant, no...but...well, just odd. Like something turned inside-out.
"However did it happen?" she murmured, but he only turned his face away a little, frowning, and she sighed. He confided in her about so much that his tendency toward brooding silence when embarrassed rebuffed and hurt her. If he could trust her with his hopes and dreams he ought to be able to trust her with his griefs and pains, after all. Goodness knew he was acquainted with most of hers - but then she'd never been one to suffer in silence.
The stubborn downward tilt of his chin was making her task difficult. Impatience overrode her self-consciousness; she forced his jaw up with her free hand to attend to the dirt underneath, steadily avoiding looking him in the eye. Which was difficult, with his resentful glare turned on her from mere inches away; she knew, without looking, exactly what they'd look like; those black-fringed eyes sulking under his dark brows, green as light filtered through leaves, with that expression that always made her wobble between an urge to shake him for his stubbornness or...or...something else, but she didn't let herself wonder what. Conscious of the warmth creeping into her face, she chewed her bottom lip to keep from saying something idiotic just to fill the thickening silence.
She was concentrating so hard on a streak of grime on his left cheekbone that she jumped at a sudden scrabbling at the window, but not so hard that she failed to notice that Taran was equally startled. Gurgi's shaggy head popped into the window frame, twigs-first, followed by the rest of him as he scrambled over the sill, blithely oblivious to the door a few feet to his right.
"Woe and sadness!" the creature howled, throwing himself between them to pluck anxiously at Taran's shirt. "Gurgi sees smackings and whackings by strengthful lord! Poor, kindly master! Gurgi is sorry for him."
Taran looked sheepish at this excess, but before he could say anything, Gurgi danced in a circle and yelped out, "But there is news! Gurgi also sees mightiest of princes riding! Yes, yes, with great galloping on white horse, with black sword. What joy!"
Eilonwy gasped in delight. Taran leapt to his feet, trials forgotten. "What's that? Do you mean Prince Gwydion? It can't be..."
"It is." A familiar voice, beloved, behind them. Taran was fast, but she was closer; Eilonwy whirled, and threw her arms around the tall figure that had materialized in the doorway.