The air had cleared with nightfall, and surrounded them with a crisp chill. Overhead, bare branches grasped greedily at the jeweled stars. The company gathered together in a hollow amidst the trees as Fflewddur and Adaon discussed the next route in low murmurs, their breath curling in pale mist before their mouths.
Eilonwy stood close to Melyngar, taking shelter in the horse's warmth as they waited for instruction, and staring stonily at Taran's back. He stood in front of her, holding Melyngar by the bridle, but if he were aware of her presence he made no indication; his head was bowed, his shoulders heavy, and he projected an aura of gloomy uncertainty that needed no magical empathy to see. She felt no compassion for it, however. The prospect of riding behind him, of being obliged to endure such proximity, now filled her with bitter distaste.
It was a confusing sensation, one her mind and heart seemed unable to reconcile with her fundamental patterns and rhythms. She wanted to hate him, but the very essence of her would not allow it, and the resulting internal war made her feel almost sick. It churned in her gut and turned her throat to acid; pulsed in liquid heat from her eyes - this she scraped away mercilessly before anyone who valued his life would have dared to call it tears, until her cheeks stung raw from repeated swipes from the rough wool of her hood. But she did not try to stop. A battle was a battle, and the casualties would show themselves, somewhere.
A few pings of snapped harp strings later, the matter of direction was given over to Adaon's guidance. Eilonwy stood numbly while Taran stepped into the stirrup and hoisted himself to Melyngar's back. He held his hand down to her; she saw his troubled gaze turn guilty once again when he met her eyes, but he said nothing. She resented the strength in his arm as he pulled her up, hated that his assistance was necessary at all; she wouldn't have needed it if her own blasted mount hadn't run off. Resisting the sarcastic impulse to thank him for lowering himself to share his steed with a girl, she settled herself with as many inches as she could put between them, and crossed her arms over her belly, determined not to touch him any more than she had to.
They filed out in pairs, like shadows in the darkness, trying to avoid the thicker stands of bracken that would announce their passing. The creak of leather, clink and jingle of bits, thump of heavy hooves, and breathing of the horses made noise enough, and Eilonwy held her breath as they crept in the direction Doli had indicated as being the fastest one away from the Huntsmen's den.
After a tense half-hour they began to relax, secure in having, for the moment, outsmarted their pursuers. At one juncture, where the trail narrowed between steep banks, Ellidyr spurred his horse to a trot, forcing his way ahead of Melynlas, tossing them a sneer on his way past. Taran, obviously deep in his own dark thoughts, for once did not bother to fight. Affronted at the jostling, Melynlas snorted and pranced sideways, and Eilonwy grabbed automatically at Taran to steady herself. The boy clucked, quieting the stallion, watching the prince and his mount draw farther away in the dappled starlight ahead of them. Eilonwy gazed irritably upon Islimach's retreating haunches. "I wonder," she muttered out loud, "which is the bigger arse."
It was a mistake; Taran obviously took both her touch and her annoyance as solidarity. "I think he really would have tried to bring back the cauldron by himself," he whispered, turning his head back toward her, "and you know how much chance he would have had alone. That's the kind of childish thing I'd have done when I was an Assistant Pig-Keeper."
Incensed at his smugness, she mentally added him to the candidacy, and jerked her hands back to her sides, growling. "You're still an Assistant Pig-Keeper. And you're going to these silly swamps because of Ellidyr. Anything else you say is pure nonsense."
He stiffened, and turned forward again, nudging Melynlas to continue. "Don't tell me it wouldn't have been wiser to find Gwydion," she added acidly, "but no, you have to decide the other way and drag the rest of us along."
These barbs found their mark; she felt it and saw it in the hunch of his shoulders; he leaned forward in a subconscious and futile effort to put distance between them. Almost she continued on, more bitter words teetering on the edge of her tongue. She wanted to let them fall; wanted him to retort, to argue, to give her a reason to unleash the beast that had been straining at its chain since the moment he had so harshly prodded it awake.
Perhaps she had reason enough. But pride stopped her mouth; she would not explain it to him as though he didn't know, as though he were an ignorant child who had no idea what he could have said or done to upset her this time. Such a scenario might be common enough between them, but not in this case; she had seen it in his face: he knew, and somehow that made it all worse.
He said nothing else, and their mutual silence stretched between them like a stone wall, cold and hard and comfortless.
When the trail widened again, Taran clucked to Melynlas, giving Ellidyr a wide berth and jogging near to Adaon, greeting him in a low voice.
The young man turned to look at them and Eilonwy stared. The strange, disturbing expression he had worn in Gwystyl's hovel was gone; he sat straight and graceful with no hint of weariness, and his clear eyes were alight with calm and joyous confidence. Her intuition reached out toward him and confirmed it: he did not feel like a man fleeing one danger toward another, he felt like one who knew no danger could ever touch him again, and it made her heart stutter a little, surprised by an incomprehensible sense of aching wistfulness. He slowed his horse to match their pace, and nodded at Taran to continue.
"I am troubled," Taran murmured, "and I wonder now if we should not turn back. I fear you have kept something from me, and had I known what it was, I would have chosen otherwise."
Adaon's gaze turned inward. The peaceful expression did not leave his face, but it seemed to direct itself elsewhere, no longer a light for them but an anchor of his own assurance. "There is a destiny laid on us," he said, after a long pause, "to do what we must do, though it is not always given us to see it."
Eilonwy shifted uncomfortably. She had little patience with riddles. Adaon seemed to think in another language, one which lost something in translation when he expressed his thoughts aloud, as though there were more within them than mere words could hold. What did he mean? Of course they would do what they must, but one still had to choose. If destiny dictated everything, then choice had no meaning at all, and one direction was no more wise or valid than another. Was that why he'd allowed Taran to choose their course?
"I think you see many things which you tell no one," Taran answered. He hesitated, then went on, with many pauses. "It has long been in my mind…and now more than ever—the dream you had, the last night in Caer Dallben..."
He stammered off, as though afraid to speak it, and Adaon nodded again. Taran took a breath. "You…you saw Ellidyr and King Morgant. And to me you foretold I would grieve. But…" he paused again, and Eilonwy heard him swallow. "What did you dream of yourself?"
Obviously she had missed the conversation that had spawned this thought process, but she knew well enough what it was to have disturbing dreams, and something in the tenor of Taran's voice made her scalp crinkle. But Adaon focused upon them again and smiled, a genuine smile, light and reassuring. "Is that what troubles you? Very well, I shall tell you. I saw myself in a glade; and though winter lay all around, it was warm and sunlit. Birds called, and flowers sprang up from bare stones."
Well, then. Nothing so ominous in that. "Your dream was beautiful," she said, "but I can't guess it's meaning."
"Yes," Taran said slowly, "it is beautiful." He sounded uncertain. "I feared it had been unhappy and for that reason you chose not to speak of it."
The confidence in Adaon's mien seemed to flicker, for just a moment, so swift that she thought she must have imagined it. He glanced at her, a quiet, piercing second, and his smile flashed once more before a cluster of brush forced the horses to separate, drawing distance between them. She stared after him with vague, lingering doubt. A smile could mean many things, but it was no explicit contradiction of Taran's fears.
On they rode, the hours sliding by like dark dreams. Eilonwy found herself nodding off several times, jerking awake just as she slumped against Taran's back. "You can lean on me if you need to, you know," he said, the third time. "When did you last sleep, anyway?"
Glaring at the back of his head, she realized it rather unwillingly. "Since the night before we joined you," she muttered, "the one before the horses ran off."
"That was two full days ago." He turned back toward her a little, voice risen in concern. "No wonder you're exhausted. Why are you fighting it?"
She leaned back, away from him, looking off into the trees with a stubborn frown. "Shouldn't want to be a burden."
She had meant for it to be sharp, a verbal dagger to prick him in the face, but it turned at the last moment, a knife pulled from her own chest in anguish. Taran turned around to face ahead again, slowly, and sighed. Silent minutes stretched out, and the wall between them stared at her, almost visible in the liquid glaze burning her eyes.
"Eilonwy," he said then, low, and the barrier cracked and shivered. She froze, listening.
"I didn't…" He stopped, and swallowed, and tried again. "I'm not…"
Silence. Her heart thumped, in a slow and cautious cadence, or maybe that was the horses' hoofbeats, dulled by the dead and rotting leaves.
She saw his chest expand suddenly, as if he himself were striving to hold back something that would take his breath. "I am terrified," he gasped. "I don't know why Adaon let me choose our course. I'm not the leader. I don't know if I chose rightly. I shouldn't have made any decision at all while I was angry with Ellidyr, and…and I shouldn't have said what I did about you. I didn't mean it. I'm sorry." His voice cracked at the end, that wavering break he had outgrown since last spring, and he sounded, for a moment, as young as he had been when she had first laid eyes on him, beaten and bruised and striped with the shadows of a grate in Achren's prison. "I'm truly sorry."
The invisible wall trembled; every word displaced a stone in it, and she felt his fear, his remorse, pouring through the gaps in a flood. It conquered her; the wall collapsed, and she leaned forward, burying her face in his hood, and muffled a sob in its thick layers of wool. Taran reached behind his back and she let him clutch her cold hand, draw it up in his strong grasp and rest it at his side, a grip that communicated volumes more than words. She leaned her full weight against him, hiccuping as she fought down further sobs. Oh, Llyr, but it would be good to finally have that cry, whenever she got the chance for it! How else was one to feel so many things in one day?
"Try to rest," he whispered hoarsely. "You really oughtn't to have come, you know, but…but I'm glad you're here."
Her heart skipped a little at this, at the words, the tone, and at something she sensed behind them…an unfamiliar emotion peering through his haze of anxiety, nascent and tentative, like a newborn foal taking a wobbly first step. She held her breath, waiting, suddenly warm, and fancied she could hear his heartbeat, thudding between his shoulderblades. He took a breath, and the feeling fled, chased away by the note of irony in his voice. "If this all turns out to be a terrible mistake, you can tell me you told me so all you like."
She huffed, a slightly hysterical sound in the stillness. "Don't think I won't."
He squeezed her hand, and the silence wrapped around them again, no longer a wall but a quilt, warm and unifying. Melynlas's slow gait rocked her side-to-side, and for a long time she was unaware of anything at all.
When she was jostled to consciousness once more, the eastern sky was streaked with pale light, and the company had halted in a glade of level ground, the surrounding trees still clinging to the last shreds of autumn leaves. Taran was shaking her gently. "We're resting here. Can you get down on your own?"
"Mmph," she grunted, and swung her leg around, sliding limply to the ground. He followed, but his attention was elsewhere; tethering Melyngar to a nearby sapling, he turned and strode to where Ellidyr was crouched, examining Islimach's foreleg. Eilonwy watched, alert for trouble.
The roan mare whinnied at Taran's approach, the whites of her eyes gleaming, and he stopped, holding up his hands, his voice low. "She's gone lame. Unless we can help her, I fear she will not be able to hold the pace."
"I need no pig-boy to tell me that," Ellidyr snapped. But his hands were gentle as he prodded the slender leg.
She saw Taran hesitate, could see him weighing whether to continue. Finally he went on,"If you lightened her burden it might ease her for a while. Fflewddur could take you up behind him."
The other boy stood up and glared at him. "Do not give me council on my own steed. Islimach can go on. And so she will." He turned away, his face creased with bitterness, and Taran took a step forward.
"Let me look at her. Perhaps I can find the trouble." He knelt at the horse's side.
Eilonwy froze as Islimach snorted, throwing her head up. "Do not touch her!" Ellidyr warned. "She will not abide a stranger's hands." Taran did not flinch, and the prince laughed scornfully, backing away, flinging his hands out in derision. "Learn for yourself, pig-boy. Her hooves are sharp as knives, as you shall see."
Islimach reared and Eilonwy stifled a shriek, stumbling toward them, but the commotion had disturbed Melynlas. He snorted, and pulled at his own tether, and she turned to him hurriedly, catching his halter and muttering soothing words until he had settled. When she looked again it was as into a mirror; Taran had Islimach's head in his hands, crooning near her ear. The whites of her eyes still gleamed, and she trembled, but made no further attempt to break away as he bent and raised her hoof.
"There now," she heard him say, in a constant, gentle stream, "lovely girl, it's not your fault. You've a bit of stone here, wedged back beneath your shoe. Of course you can't walk on that. No one could, comfortably. I'm going to take it out for you. Be easy, now, there's a good girl. Here we are, then."
His knife flashed, and something dropped to the ground. Taran straightened, patting the mare's flank, turning toward Ellidyr. "It's happened even to Melynlas," he explained quietly. "There's a place deep in the hoof - anyone can miss it if they don't know. It was Coll who showed me how to find it."
The prince took a jerky, stumbling step toward him, his posture so threatening that Eilonwy cried out a wordless warning. He stood close, his sallow face livid, inches away from Taran's. "You have tried to steal honor from me, pig-boy," he hissed. "Will you now rob me of my horse?" His hand rested on his sword hilt, white-knuckled, and Eilonwy held her breath, hot acrid words springing to her tongue, tingling magic at her fingertips.
But Taran, though he flushed, stepped back. "Your honor is your own," he said, with cold calm, "and so is your steed. What stone is is your shoe, Prince of Pen-Llarcau?"
The two stood stiffly, staring one another down, the anger sparking in the space between them nearly visible to Eilonwy. Taran, at last, turned away, heading back toward her and Melynlas with long, agitated strides. When he saw her watching, his walk hitched for just a moment, as though it startled him to know she had observed the exchange. "Well done," she whispered, when he was close enough - words insufficient to express the tremulous mix of indignation, sympathy, and pride she felt, but they would have to do; she held her head high, meeting his gaze, and hoped he could see it.
Taran huffed a little, as though not quite sure how to respond, but the flush in his face deepened, and she saw the quick flash of gratitude in his eyes. They turned together to the circle where the rest of the band had gathered, resting in a hollow of the underbrush.
Gurgi was passing out provisions from his wallet, gloriously happy to be of such use, and they all settled to eat and rest. Ellidyr remained with Islimach and ignored Taran's invitation to join them. Fflewddur snorted, casting a disgusted glance over his shoulder. "That foul-tempered nag is the only thing he cares about," he muttered, "and as far as I can see, the only thing that cares about him. They're two of a kind, if you ask me."
Taran made no answer, and presently rose to speak to Adaon when the older man called to him. They conversed together in low voices, in what was clearly meant to be a private exchange. Eilonwy, though she burned with curiosity, turned to Fflewddur. "He's horrid," she muttered grimly. "I thought they'd fight, just now. Sometimes I wish they would go on and get it over with."
Doli grunted. "That prince is itching for a fight, all right. We've got too many real troubles for him to go making up new ones where no one intended. Why he got included in this business is beyond me."
Fflewddur shrugged. "I heard something about his being the third son of a poor cantrev king; not much to commend him but his name. I know what that's like. But then it never bothered me, particularly."
"You wouldn't have been bothered if you'd been born under a mushroom," Doli grunted amiably. "You'd have liked it better, you blooming scarecrow. But at least you're worth your salt when hard pressed, and don't make extra trouble. Can't say that about him."
The bard had grinned at the jibe, but then sobered. "He does seem a bit of a liability. I wonder why he's got such a bee in his bonnet about our lad, there," he mused, nodding toward Taran. "Seems like they've been at odds since the second they met."
"They have," Eilonwy said thoughtfully. "They were fighting within minutes. He never did tell me why." She frowned, remembering. "It's as though they can't help but fight. Like a couple of roosters. Only Taran keeps trying to be better."
"Ah, well, you see." Fflewddur stretched out his long legs with a grunt and a wince. "That's the difference between them."
They fell silent as Adaon and Taran rose and returned to them. "We rest here until midday," Adaon said. "I hope that Gwystyl's powder has thrown the Huntsmen off our trail, but even so, Arawn will not give up the chase easily. There is cover enough here to hide us from unfriendly eyes. I shall ask Ellidyr to take the first watch."
He left them, and Eilonwy turned toward Taran, crouched nearby, bunching his cloak on the ground beneath a bush. He looked troubled, his gaze turned inward, and when she caught his eye he only shrugged and lay down silently.
Very well, then, let him keep his secrets. She sighed, crept to a flat patch of turf without pebbles, and lay down, pulling her cloak over her head. Oh, it was a relief to stretch out fully, to let herself sink into the ground! Wasn't it lovely to have all the room you needed, not be crammed onto a horse's back with another nearly full-grown rider!
Of course it was. But somehow, every time she shut her eyes, she felt the sway of Melynlas's slow walk beneath her, and the solidity of a sturdy back, holding her up, and a firm hand, clasping her own.
From somewhere deep and scarred, where all ugly things were buried, she heard them again: the barbed, poison words, stinging like wasps. Burden, they said. Girl.
She grit her teeth, and turned her face to the ground. The smell of it was green and damp and alive - even here, even in these woods so close to darkness; it brought to mind the good worked soil of Coll's garden. She breathed it slowly, and peace settled over her again, and other words murmured through it.
I'm glad you're here.
She whispered them into the earth, like seeds that might take root and grow.
I'm glad you're here.