Disclaimer: yes, this IS Taran/Eilonwy in post-wedding...circumstances, nothing graphic or explicit, but it does go where none of my stories have gone before. Skip to author's note (chapter 2) if you're not sure about this and want more explanation/info before deciding whether to read. Otherwise, if you trust my ratings, enjoy. :)
Hearts like ours
are not designed
to beat separate for long.
-Tyler Knott Gregson
Tangled up, Whole
The words were very simple, really.
Before these gathered here
I pledge you my troth
Of my own will I bind myself
And will cleave to none other
From this day you are mine and I yours
Until death parts us.
He noticed that, to her credit, she did not wince at the last line, though she had every reason.
It happened so quickly. Months...no, years... of waiting and hoping and dreaming and finally, despairing...and then it was done. Just like that. A handclasp, a few words, and like magic, they were wed.
And she was smiling into his eyes as though they were the only two people in the room, even though it was crowded full to bursting, and his back was being clapped and his unwound hand clasped and there were laughter and well-wishes and joy filling his ears like the hum of so many bees...but all he saw was her smile; all he heard were her vows sinking into his mind, and he wanted to pull them in, as the earth welcomes the roots of a seed growing, anchoring, deepening, spreading, until it could not be said where one ended and the other began, until the most raging tempest could not wrest them from that all-encompassing embrace. He wanted to...
But there was no time for anything. Everyone, everything was moving, a river carrying them on a relentless current of change, and beneath it he clung to her words like an anchor, heard them beneath the announcements made to the gathered crowd, played them in his mind as a refrain under the collective wonderment that greeted the news. Eyes were on him; so many eyes, filled with jubilation and hope and skepticism...but he only really paid attention to hers. As long as she looked at him that way, he could bear any amount of doubt in others.
While he stood and clasped hand after hand and made promise after promise, she stood next to him with calm and resolved composure, jabbing him in the ribs with her elbow when he promised too much, and interjecting comments that drew more than one surprised glance. He wanted to laugh - with gratitude for her presence, with joy at her sheer audacity, with amusement at the expressions on faces unaccustomed to hearing her unapologetic opinions. And he thought of her vows again, and again, in wonder, that the voice so staunchly asserting her authority now was the one that had sworn him everlasting faithfulness with the same unwavering assurance.
He was used to hearing her speak, of course; words rarely failed her, pouring forth from an apparently inexhaustible supply. But never such as those...words like laces, interwoven and pulled taught, pulling two frayed edges into a tight, sturdy seam. He had not expected to feel so much more...complete, by words alone.
"Always pretend you know what to do," Teleria had told her, "even if you don't. Especially when you don't. A queen must never be indecisive."
It wouldn't have done any good to point out that she had no intention of ever being a queen; it would have been an insult, in fact, and a betrayal of her tacit agreement with Rhun never to speak of the open secret of his parents' intentions. And she had to admit that, in its way, it was impressive, how Teleria managed the household and her husband and even certain matters of state with such underhanded, fluttering finesse that no one realized she was doing it. A lesson in subtle diplomacy that could, perhaps, come in handy, once she herself was obliged to handle the stubbornness of an assistant pig-keeper, a thing she fully anticipated. So she held her peace -on that topic, anyway- and listened, and watched, and never once in two years applied the things learned to any notion of eventually ruling a cantrev, let alone a kingdom.
But now she had a kingdom. Well, half of it, anyway...or no, that wasn't how it worked, was it? —they'd both rule the whole, somehow, like two wrens giving orders to a mountain, which probably wouldn't heed any better to both of them than it would to either of them alone, but there it was. Regardless, she would be no Teleria, flitting about, pretending to be mindless while putting words in everyone else's mouths; she had not the patience; her own words, from her own mouth, would have to be good enough.
Anyway, Taran seemed to think they were, from the look on his face as she clasped his hands and recited the verses Dallben held up for them, inked in the Book of Three (though she did wonder, rather wryly, that someone had thought to pen wedding vows into its dusty pages; Llyr, it really did have everything, didn't it?). She rather would have liked to make her own promises, but the whole thing was a bit unexpected and rushed...and after all, they were good words that said everything necessary. Perhaps they were all she really wanted to say while everyone else was standing there, watching them. The rest were only for him to hear, and there would be time, later, for them. For all the rest.
The thought pushed a pulse of heat into her face and throat, and she turned her attention quickly to the things around them; ordinary, unexciting things like doorposts and scratching chickens and the clover growing at the doorstep. And then a succession of extraordinary things: Gwydion, announcing them to the crowds of Commot folk and gathered war bands, cheers and celebration that she could sense would be fleeting. People were willing to cheer anything, just now, if it promised some sort of hope. She suspected, if that hope were deferred too long...well, their most sincere efforts were going to give them a tenuous grip, at best, on the frayed loyalties of a battered and fractured people. Best to begin, then, the way they meant to go on.
And so she swallowed hard, and recalled Teleria's advice, and stood up straight, next to Taran, grateful that she was still only half a head under his height —Llyr's daughters, the queen of Mona had said, with a touch of wistful pride, were tall— her chin out and her shoulders back, and openly accepted honors granted even when the one granting them had obviously been addressing the man at her side. She pretended not to notice the startled gazes turned upon her. She saw, from the corner of her eye, that Taran smothered a grin every time she did it, but his hand squeezed her wrist, and she wondered if he knew how hard she was bluffing.
He wasn't bluffing at all, of course; it wasn't his way; he would charge straight into kingship the same way he charged into thornbushes, with that open and sometimes maddening earnestness of his, and she elbowed him more than once when, in his fervency, he made some commitment she knew would be nearly impossible to keep. For goodness' sake, wasn't that what had gotten him here to begin with? If he didn't temper his good intentions they'd be sunk before they could swim. How did he expect even to remember it all? They'd need a steward, and quickly, just to help them keep track, and perhaps a scrivener, to write it all down, and she sucked at her teeth anxiously, and tried not to show her annoyance. It was a relief when they were pulled away by an urgent call, until she realized the urgency was because their friends were leaving.
It was real, then. She had tried to pretend it wasn't, once she knew she wouldn't have to go, shoved the thought away, like a splinter in your skin that only hurt if you touched it. But it hurt, now, to have it ripped out, and half her heart with it.
Even the farewells were short. There weren't words enough to say everything that should be said, so not much of anything was said at all. Instead there were handclasps and tight, tearful embraces and last, wistful looks where words should have been, and then they were gone, all of them that mattered, except the one standing beside her. And she wept, not because she wished she went with them, but for the void they left behind, that nothing could fill. But Taran's arms around her made it smaller, somehow, squeezed it down from a gaping open gash to a quiet, aching wound that would never, she felt, quite heal, and she leaned into him, the only pillar that still stood upright in this shattered hall of her heart.
She would have liked to be alone with him, then, somewhere they could find comfort in shared grief, someplace where she could pour out what she felt: this tangled knot of pain and bittersweet gladness at her core, in words that would only make sense once he had caught them and given them back to her, softened and surrounded by the warmth and hope she always found in him. Somewhere this circle of his arms could close around her and, for the first time, not be broken, until they chose to break it themselves. He wanted the same, she knew, she sensed it in the tension in his shoulders, in the way he glanced back in the direction of the farmstead and started to speak.
Tears flowed, hands clasped, a few short final words were spoken. Nothing, nothing could have kept him steady and unbroken except her, next to him, as they watched their friends swallowed by distance, lost to eternity. She stood there with her hand in his again, watching them leave, tears tracing white trails of grief down her face, and his heart wrung itself for being the cause of them. He wrapped her in his arms, mute with all the heart-things too deep for words, wanting nothing more than to swear another vow: that she would never be sorry she had stayed behind, ever.
But he could not. How could he promise her that? If he had ever thought there would be anything predictable about his life, the last few hours had made a mockery of it with a vengeance. He could not promise she would not regret it by tomorrow, let alone ever.
She was leaning into him hard, her face pressed tight against his shoulder as if the sheer force of it might hold back the sobs he felt still quivering through her ribs, and he wished desperately that they might escape from the audience still milling about, that he could take her somewhere she felt free to grieve all she needed. He felt, suddenly, exposed; the center of so much attention that it galled him, when all he wanted was to comfort and be comforted, to talk over everything with her - just her, because she was the only one left who really knew him, and the only one ever who would know how utterly baffling this all was; she, whose story had paralleled his, a golden thread woven next to his tangled yarn on the tapestry, now twisted up together into one. None of it would feel real until then. There was so much he wanted to tell her still, and some things he could promise, no matter what tomorrow brought. Words, and more than words, that had smoldered in his heart for months, for years; they wanted to flame their way out now and singe the very air around them, burn away everything else but the two of them.
He looked toward the thatched roofs of Caer Dallben, the promise of peace and quiet and privacy they offered, and took a breath to suggest they head back...
But someone called out to him, or, more accurately, he realized that the words "my lord king" were meant for him after she pinched him in the arm and raised her head from his shoulder to look at the speaker. They were invited — at their convenience, of course — to confer with a few gathered cantrev lords, and King Smoit himself, out in Smoit's camp, his pavilion pitched in the fallow fields right over Coll's bean patch. He cast her a rather dismayed expression, and she shrugged, ever so subtly, her mouth twitching with wry resignation, and they turned and followed the messenger, for lack of knowing what excuses to make.
Smoit wanted them to come to Caer Cadarn, at once, for their own safety, and he pressed them to begin the journey that very day, more and more insistent, until Taran interrupted his entreaties with the declaration that he himself would oversee the packing and preparations for their departure from Caer Dallben, a process likely to take at least a week.
Eilonwy breathed a silent sigh of relief, having been unwilling to argue before a group of strange men against spending her wedding night and several thereafter in an encampment of warriors, and wondering how on earth Smoit could be so obtuse. Llyr, the man had been married once, surely he remembered something of it! She caught Taran's eye, sent him a look of flushed gratitude whose implications she hoped he would catch, and was gratified to see him clumsily drop the quill he'd been using to mark out a rough map of their next moves, and stumble over his own tongue a little before he resumed what he'd been in the middle of - expressing an intention to relocate to Caer Dathyl as soon as possible.
This caused a furor, a multi-directional launch of projectile opinions, and although she interjected her own when appropriate, she could see that they were proving more distracting to him than helpful. He was marvelous, really, fending off objections and making his case for the wisdom of establishing themselves in the old stronghold, for reasons both practical and symbolic, and presenting thoughtful possible solutions to nearly every skeptical question of logistics. But every time she spoke, he broke his concentration to glance at her, and every time, his eyes darkened more, and he looked more flustered and faraway, and it took him longer to get back to the point. She wasn't trying to do it, but maybe it couldn't be helped; every time their eyes met, she felt her heartbeat flutter into her throat, and thought of things that had nothing to do with the words being spoken, and perhaps he could read them in her face as clearly as she read them in his. It was plain that her input, spoken or not, would certainly not help bring this meeting to a resolution any time soon. She needed to leave. Now.
She rose, and instantly the men around the table rose with her. "I shall take my leave," she announced, after rejecting her first, automatic impulse to request it, "for I trust you all have this well in hand, and I have other matters to attend to. I shall expect," she added, to Taran but at Smoit, "to see you as soon as you are finished here."
He took her outstretched hand in a brief clasp, his eyes speaking things impossible to say aloud in company, and she turned to leave the pavilion with the burning delight of silent speech simmering, in a shivering thrill, over her skin.
If he'd known he'd be holding what would turn out to be, in essence, his first council, he might have insisted it wait until the next day. Smoit was incorrigible, and undeniably helpful, and goodness knew Taran was glad to have such an ally in a sea of unknown loyalties. And it was all quite necessary; he could not deny it; many decisions had to be made quickly, but would a scant few hours have made that much difference? Being proclaimed king out of the blue was enough burden, and to have the entire weight of the next strategic moves laid upon him within the same afternoon was, perhaps, something he should have expected. But it was overwhelming to have to bear it all at once, just when he was trying to sort out the loss of his friends and the future he'd anticipated. And speaking of anticipating... just when he would have liked to have a little time alone with the woman sending him covert glances across the table, the unspoken frustration in her eyes louder than any words she might have shouted in his ear.
He wondered if Smoit could possibly be as oblivious as he seemed to the charge in the air, how anyone could miss a bonfire in their midst, but maybe it was only obvious to him, the one it was searing so mercilessly, in which case perhaps he should be relieved that he hid it so well.
It was a relief when she excused herself from the gathering, with a rather terse remark that seeing as they all had things well in hand, she was going to attend to other matters, and would expect to see him as soon as they were finished. The parting shot was sent with a quirk of mouth he knew well, and he could not quite tell whether its irritation was directed at him or at their bearlike host, who rose with the rest to bow her out, but otherwise carried on just as he had for the previous hour. Taran found the proceedings no less wearisome, but at least he was able to give it more of his attention without the constant distraction of her burning eyes on him, her voice at his shoulder. He could not recall ever having been quite so acutely aware of her presence, and after she left her absence gnawed at him insistently, a tug behind his breastbone, or an empty space the shape of her, pressed against his ribs.
She would have liked to slam a door for relief, but tent flaps don't slam, and anyway it was opened for her by a guard, who saluted and closed it gently after her. So much for that impulse.
Her mind chewed ferociously at the next few hours looming suddenly in front of her, a prospect that made her feel several incongruous things, foremost a frisson of nervous anticipation like the tremulous flicker of lightning. But this, at least, she could do something about; if she and Taran weren't going to be left in peace now she might as well use the time to prepare for when they would be, later. Better than listening to a lot of men pontificate; they couldn't debate all day and night, could they? She frowned. Maybe they could. But no...Taran would put his foot down, eventually, if he knew what was good for him. Certainly he looked like he did, when she left.
She turned toward the farmstead, marching over the empty furrows, thinking. They had walked the fields and grounds together yesterday, a walk punctuated by stolen moments of heart-pounding exploration that had left them breathless and unsatisfied, and she had answered his impatience with laughter and flippant remarks about the lack of any accommodations at the cottage that would suit a wedded couple. It had been amusing, then, to tease him, when the need for such a thing was still comfortably far off. But beyond the jest, it was quite true, and now it was a stark and immediate reality; they were married, and no one's private chambers had magically expanded. It would have been convenient, come to think of it, to throw that in, while she was wishing her powers gone, though no doubt there would have been some silly reason the magic wouldn't have worked on frivolous requests like wedding beds. Too late now, but something had to be done, or else they might as well camp out in some pavilion after all; the ground was plenty wide enough for two, but hardly what she had envisioned. That she had envisioned anything at all was something she would only admit to herself, of course, up until now, but there was no point in tiptoeing around the thing any longer; she needed help, and cast about for the most appropriate place to find it.
Voices called from nearby, breaking her concentration; she turned in surprise. A handful of Commot women, gathered around a cooking fire in front of one of their makeshift tents, were curtsying to her, with apparent sincerity. They were plain folk: sturdy, middle-aged matrons; she recognized a few of their faces from her time in their villages, and remembered that her general perception of them had been positive; a people full of common sense and good humor, without pretense.
Just the sort. In a twinkling she made up her mind, and stepped forward, prepared to pretend, once again, that she knew exactly what she was doing.
Despite weariness, frustration, and lingering grief still waiting in the corners of his mind, he stepped from the pavilion with a sense of cautious satisfaction. It would do, for the day, and it felt good to call it done, and have no one argue. The purple hue of the sky startled him; twilight already? —it had been early afternoon when they had entered the tent, but he had thought his sense of the length of the hours was an exaggeration of his frazzled mind. Smoit immediately bellowed for meat, and pressed him to stay and feast with his men, but Taran looked toward the cottage, where a light shone like a golden star from the loft window, and found himself without much interest in food.
The memory of her face during the discussions, the tilt of her head and brows and the quick glint of eyes from beneath lowered lashes that had spoken a thousand words in one eloquent glance, took hold of him like a fever. There were oddly similar symptoms; he felt lightheaded, shivered cold and flushed hot at the same time; his pulse pounded in his ears, and...no, he did not want to feast with any men just now; he did not even want to see another man for the rest of the night.
He made his excuses to his host, half expecting and dreading some sort of bawdy commentary, but Smoit only winked and wished him a very good night. The men within earshot raised their mugs in salute, with a round of knowing grins, and he realized, reddening, that they had all known, all along, that neither his mind nor heart had been fully focused on the afternoon's proceedings.
Despite his lack of appetite, he swallowed a hurried meal by a cook fire in the camp, after being waylaid and all but ordered to so do by a group of matronly women, wives and widows of Commot warriors who had joined the march to Caer Dallben. They murmured and clucked over him like tolerant and amused hens, admonishing him, over his questions, that the queen was busy in the cottage and he'd find out soon enough with what.
"The evening chores are already done," the ringleader declared, "so you can go right to her. You might make yourself as presentable as you can," she added, in a tone that made him blush at the obvious implications. "No bride wants a groom coming to her with the dirt of the fields still under his nails or anywhere else. A bath and a shave, young man, king or no, before you go inside. You've got the means for such around here, I suppose?" She clucked even more at his stammering assurances. He heard them whispering and giggling as he walked away, felt them all watching him as he made his way to the scullery to perform the recommended ablutions, and felt somehow ridiculously cowed, like a naughty child suspected of trying to sneak away before attending to the dirt behind his ears.
He washed and shaved thoroughly; one might say zealously, in agitation, trying not to allow his mind to jump too far ahead of the present, trying not to wonder what on earth she could be doing inside, beyond waiting for him; surely she'd done more since she'd left the council than wait. Shivering in the chill air, he looked at his discarded clothes and wondered how many of them to put back on. Silly to get fully dressed when you were heading to bed. Yet to underdress might look somehow presumptuous. On the other hand, wasn't it safe to presume that...Belin, he thought, and donned his leggings and shirt, bundling the rest and hurrying from the scullery before he could lose his nerve.
She hadn't expected him to take quite so long. But maybe it was just as well. It had taken some time to do all she had in mind, anyway, what with the house filled up and bustling as it was with four extra women chattering and working. They were clearly taking great delight in the process; it would have been a shame to rush them.
She had hung back at first, a little awkwardly, as always feeling a bit wrong-footed among a group of women, and wondering if it would have been different, had she grown up around more of them. Achren had hardly been a wholesome example, but neither had the tribe of young ladies at Dinas Rhydnant been much of an initiation into female companionship; their mysterious social rules and arbitrary pecking orders had only frustrated her. These were different, these mothers and grandmothers; they spoke frankly and openly, with honest affection and without shallow nonsense, and they worked tirelessly while they traded words, as though they fueled themselves with conversation alone. They spoke as if they knew her; they had all been brides once, and queen or weaverwoman, some things were the same, no matter; she found herself drawn into their circle, relaxing her guard, her stiff formality melting away until she was laughing with them, blushing at their banter, willing and even relieved to accept the pearls of seasoned experience she would have rejected, in embarrassment, from any other source. For the first time, she thought it would be...pleasant, actually, to gather more humans around herself; to forge new bonds with new companions — not to replace the old, no, nothing could do that, but...perhaps this aching loss could be healed, a little, in time, and her heart would feel not quite so gashed open raw, if she could find such comradeship in new places.
Even once all the preparations were completed they would have happily continued to fuss over her all evening long, probably right up until Taran arrived if she let them — there had been quite a bit of heated commentary and girlish giggling about the handsomeness of the young king, even from the eldest present — along with expressions of astonishment over her having waited this long, which somehow did not scandalize her as much as it probably should have. But she shooed them off before sunset with final instructions, determined to spend at least a little time alone, where she might collect her thoughts and feelings in peace.
They needed collecting; she felt as though they were strewn about the floor like meadowsweet, and just as liable to need plucking from the hems of her skirts. She sat at the open loft door, as she had so many nights, looking out at the deepening twilight while she unraveled her plaited hair, combing fingers through its waves absently before she picked up a brush. A fragrant breeze whispered in the newly-unfurled leaves of the trees. The house was quiet - oppressively quiet, a testament to its profound emptiness; there were no soft sounds of Coll's puttering or Gurgi's toenails clicking upon the slate tiles, no scratch of Dallben's pen on parchment or even the ambient noise of human breath to make it feel lived-in. She shivered. The occasional pop and hiss of the embers on the hearth in the main room below were the only sounds, and she focused on them automatically, reaching out with that part of her that could command fire by thought alone, and found, with an unpleasant mental jolt, that that part was gone. Not crippled or weak like an unused muscle but just...gone, like an extra hand she didn't realize was there until it was missing.
Of course it's gone, she thought, a little angry at herself for forgetting. It shouldn't have been a surprise; it was only to be expected, but...she stared at the ring on her finger thoughtfully, untangling it from a few bright strands of her hair. She had said she felt no different, and it had mostly been true at the time. But obviously there would be changes. What other senses would be altered, that she'd never even realized were magic until they weren't? Maybe it would be easier, really; if the nightmares that had plagued her all her life had any magical link, it would be a boon to be rid of them; likewise the distasteful tang of certain words that looked or sounded a little too much like those used in spells, the uneasy way her skin prickled, alerting her to enchantments no one else could sense. Fflewddur had always said...
But thinking of Fflewddur hurt too much.
She swallowed the tightness in her throat, and twisted the ring around again, just to feel its edges bite into her fingers. Maybe it was a blessing, after all, that she had never become a real enchantress, that she had always found magic rather more unpleasant than not. She wouldn't regret giving that up. Not really. She could thank Achren for that much.
Thinking of Achren made her frown, and she turned her face to the darkness outside and inhaled, deep and slow. Caer Dallben had a smell; a damp, green, earthy, alive sort of smell that she would forever associate with peace and comfort and happiness and Taran.
Taran. Her breath caught, and her stomach felt full of swallowed moths, fluttering. What could be keeping him? For all the years they'd spent apart, or in company in which the space between them might as well have been miles, these last few hours seemed to stretch into eternity. There were nights on Mona when she had wept into her pillow for loneliness, missing the peace and freshness of Caer Dallben and especially Taran's affectionate voice wishing her good night from his chamber underneath the loft, and even they had seemed shorter than this wait. She'd wished that before she'd left they'd both been willing to acknowledge more, to speak of the thing growing between them that she had pretended not to see, for reasons she did not quite comprehend. But maybe they had been good reasons; in the two years that followed, the brazen dreams that had woken her in a bright sweat with his name still on her lips, that clutched at her mind during the day until she was sharply brought back, red-faced, to the tasks at hand...they were forged from a fire that had to be banked, if either of them were to become what they needed to be. She saw it now; Dallben had known it all along.
What else had Dallben known? He had insisted she return when she did, despite Teleria's reticence, and she had been ecstatic, flush with eagerness, standing in the prow of the home bound ship and willing it forward with all her might. (Several sailors had commented on what a fine sea it was, how easily the wind and currents had carried them, as though Llyr himself were sweeping them south, and Rhun had caught her eye and grinned.) Her mind had been bent on home, and him, the only two things with which her heart seemed ever to feel completely whole; she had been filled with both excitement and uncertainty; what would he say to her; would he have changed; would he would think her much changed; how much and what next?
A question that had been answered in ways neither of them had expected, and now here they were.
Or at least, here she was. Where on earth was he?
As if summoned by her thoughts, there came the sound of the door opening downstairs, a quiet step, and a closing again. She tensed for just a moment, then laughed, softly, at herself, and at the uselessness of trying to make any sense of her tumbled thoughts or feelings. Fine. Let them stay strewn about. Those that mattered tonight would untangle themselves, and she'd sweep up the rest in the morning.
He paused at the cottage door, beset by an odd urge to knock, and shook it off, pushing the door open. The interior was dimly lit by embers gleaming upon the hearth, but the main room was empty. From the loft overhead, behind its curtain, a warm glow of lantern light gleamed. He swallowed, and shut the door softly behind him.
"Eilonwy?" His voice rasped, and he coughed, steadying it. "Are you here?"
Her voice floated down from above, cheerful and nonchalant. "In the loft. Did you have supper? I told the Commot women to make sure you ate."
"They carried out your orders admirably," he said, with a strange sense of relief at the familiarity of her voice, and laid his bundled belongings, boots and swordbelt on the table.
"I'm sorry I couldn't be there," she continued. "I've been quite busy here. Did you work things out with Smoit? And all those others...Madoc, was it? And Cadogan? We shall have to learn all their names rather quickly. Bit unfair, when they've only got to learn ours."
He laid a hand on the loft ladder and took a slow breath. "We've settled things for now. I'll tell you what's been decided, so far, but...later. I don't want to think about it anymore."
She huffed in mild indignation. "I don't blame you. I suppose it couldn't be helped, really, but it could have waited a day, at least. Forgive me for abandoning you there, but I thought I'd bite someone's head off if I had to listen to any more of it just then. Anyway, you were doing quite well, and I thought I could make better use of the time."
"No doubt you did. May I..." he hesitated, and took another breath. "May I come up?"
There was a brief and pregnant pause, and when she spoke again she sounded a little breathless. "You're the king," she said, in a low murmur laced with amusement, "so you can do whatever you like."
This made his knuckles go white on the ladder rungs, and he swallowed once, and then grinned wryly to himself as he stepped onto the lowest. "I'm not such a fool as to believe that, from you."
He heard her chuckle as he climbed, and paused to collect his composure before pushing aside the curtain. He froze there, gaping in surprise at the scene before him.
The hayloft, ordinarily, was a disordered space, its whitewashed walls backing stacks of wooden crates and kegs while the dark, exposed beams of the roof displayed dangling tools, hanks of rope and yarn, and other bric-a-brac that had no space below. Eilonwy had always slept in the corner near the warmth of the chimney, on a narrow, straw-stuffed pallet of coarse linen, at an angle that enabled her to look out the large loft door, when it was open, and watch the moon and sunrise. The place had become her own domain, with an unspoken air of being forbidden to him, though he had entered it on rare occasions from necessity, and noticed, with a sort of curious admiration, the small touches she had added - a string of colorful feathers hung between the rafters, fresh wildflowers tucked in a cup beside her bed, bright pebbles arranged on the doorsill. It was cozy nook, but cluttered, plain, and rather dusty. At least, that was how it usually looked.
Now he did not recognize it.
The tools and farm implements hanging from the rafters were gone, the crates and kegs hidden by swaths of fabric. Small lamps were hung at intervals, their candlelight flickering upon fragrant boughs of apple blossom that had been tacked from beam to beam. More long swaths of white linen draped between the beams, forming gauzy curtains that framed a wide, ample mattress on the floor, its snowy expanse piled with cushions and thick woolen spreads. The open loft door streamed moonlight upon the scene. Eilonwy, standing before it, was silhouetted against the silver glow.
His mouth went dry, heart pounding; all his surprise at the altered surroundings eclipsed by the sight of her. Lamplight gilded her in soft gold, glittered in the river of her unbound hair, warmed the tones of the creamy linen nightshift she wore. Her expression was arch and expectant, mouth curved in an uncertain smile, and he knew he must say something.
"...This?" he managed, after a few false starts, gesturing incredulously around at the setting in awe. "You did...all this, just today?"
"I did have help," she said, visibly relaxing at the utterance of words, her stiff shoulders sloping into serenity. "I conscripted a number of Commot women - it's wonderful, how willing people are, when you're the queen. I shall try not to take odious advantage of the position, but it was quite useful today. They were properly horrified over the state of things, anyway, so it didn't take much convincing." She stepped away from the door, further into the room toward him; her hands swept a brush through the shining ripples of her hair, mesmerizing. "I know we shan't be staying here long, of course," she continued, with a rather sheepish shrug, "but it seemed worth the effort for a royal wedding night. I hope you don't mind."
He coughed out a bewildered laugh. "Mind? No...though I did wonder what you were up to all afternoon. Where did all this come from?"
"You mean the linens? Gifts from Teleria." She glanced at the curtains, the bed, and looked quickly away, her cheeks reddening over a self-conscious smile. "I thought it was all quite overdone at the time, but now I'll have to thank her. The rest of it was gathered up, here and there. Boughs from the orchard, donated candles. Everyone was beautifully resourceful. They were all married women, full of ideas. And advice," she added, reddening further.
He stared at her in admiration, until the silence grew thick. She dropped her gaze a little, fumbling with the hairbrush, and on impulse he reached out and took it from her. "May I?" he queried, in answer to her surprised glance, motioning toward her hair. " I've...I've always rather wanted to..."
"Have you really?" She looked flustered but pleased, and touched her hair; then her eyes narrowed. "It's prone to tangling, you know. Are you sure you know how?"
"I do have some experience," he assured her, "after all, I have groomed—,"
"Don't you dare compare me to your horse," she interrupted tartly, "because that would be a very poor beginning, and I don't think I could forgive you for it." But she smiled as she turned around, gathering up her tumbled waves of hair and shaking them down her back for his access. He raised the brush to the crown of her head, watched the bristles sink into the shimmering strands, parting them into individual threads of spun gold. His other hand followed as a guide, fingers twining through the silken ribbons the brush made of her tangled locks; light dripped like liquid, ran fluid over each wave, and he did not realize he was holding his breath until his hands had glided through the full length of the strand, and watched its curled ends drift down to join the others hanging about her hips. Something in her hair smelled faintly floral, sweet like honeysuckle, and he inhaled slowly, in a rapturous daze.
He reached up again, pressed the brush at her temple. The curves of her ear and cheek were visible for an instant, then disappeared behind a sweep of red-gold veiling. Tiny knots caught at his fingers, yielded to gentle and deft unraveling. The process took on a rhythm; press, slide, pull, release, pause, and then again. His knuckles brushed the back of her neck, and he thought she shivered, but she said nothing, and the only sound was the soft crackle of hair yielding to brush, and possibly the pounding of his own heart.
No, this was nothing like grooming a horse.
His eyes blazed so bright she felt bare, notwithstanding the nightshift — one she'd had made to her own specifications. Teleria had thought it was a ridiculous design; who had ever heard of a garment, even an undershift, completely without sleeves? — falling silent when one of the ladies-in-waiting had pointed out that it had been a common style on Llyr, even on an overdress, and relenting, no doubt thankful that the princess hadn't requested such a scandalous thing as that on top of all else. Eilonwy, for her part, had mainly wanted something more practical for layering, expecting to spend her future summers working outside in the heat at Caer Dallben. If she had also considered that the unusual cut would happen to show off her bare shoulders and arms to beautiful effect, she hadn't discussed that with the tailors or anyone else it didn't concern.
But it certainly had an effect now, judging by Taran's face, and she felt a little self-consciously glad of the way her own unbound hair curtained her like an extra layer of clothing. She thought he might give more notice to the transformation of the room; she had worked the afternoon on it, after all, along with the women. But though he was as surprised as she had hoped, after his first cursory reaction he seemed to mostly forget about his surroundings, and she thought, with mildly irritated amusement, that she might have saved a lot of time and trouble in the end by just throwing two straw pallets and a few blankets by the hearth downstairs. It was a compliment to her, of course, that he had eyes for nothing else, but...well, at least she felt braver, in beautiful surroundings.
He was barefoot and sparingly clothed, and damp strands of hair framed his face; a simplicity of appearance combined with a trick of the light that made him look, somehow, a little younger, a little softer, more like the boy he'd been before she'd left, the boy he had been when she had first realized she loved him. Then she stepped closer and the boy disappeared, into broad shoulders and lean muscle and a face whose sculpted angles and straight planes she had to tilt her head back to look into, and when he held out his hand for the hairbrush, she stared at the long curves of his forearm, watched them move as he gripped the handle, and yearned for things whose very existence she would have denied knowledge of, those years ago. She was almost glad he gave her an excuse to turn her back to him; it was too much, for a moment, this sweltering heartbeat of space between them.
She'd enjoyed having her hair brushed and dressed at Dinas Rhydnant, one of the few things she did enjoy about having aspects of her grooming assigned to handmaids. It was a soothing, meditative sort of sensation: the ebb and flow of hands moving, the lift, tug, and fall of weight at her scalp, the natural association of human touch with care and companionship. She had said as much, to him, that first night of his return, when she'd combed and cut his hair, all the while knowing instinctively that he had found that experience anything but relaxing. His hands, clenched at his own thighs, the muscles twitching in his jaw, the pulse throbbing in the flushed hollow of his throat, had told her exactly how soothing he thought her hands were in his hair, and if it had surprised her, her own mischievous delight in teasing him so mercilessly had surprised her even more.
So she supposed it was only fair play, this turn about.
She could feel the heat of him, standing behind her, even before he touched her; his presence a gravity that pulled at her like a tide. His broad hand spread over her scalp and laced through her hair, slow and rhythmic, and she shivered, not from cold; the night air was chill enough but she might as well be a melting candle, ready to set the whole room aflame; it was just as well she couldn't do that accidentally any longer.
She heard the low rush of his breath, but he said nothing. He had always been better at doing things than speaking; it was she who felt the blistering impulse to fill up a silence with words, any words, as though her feelings and thoughts did not quite know what they were until they'd been defined in syllables and tested upon the ear. She had wanted to speak with him, all afternoon, about many things, wanted to be alone with him from the moment they had watched their friends and makeshift family disappear, so that she could pour out everything in her heart to him, but now...
Now there were words pounding at her teeth, but she recognized, even through the fog deliciously smothering her mind, that most of them were complete nonsense, irrelevant and obvious attempts to diffuse her own razor-edged tension. The last thing she wanted was to babble like a fool and make the moment ridiculous. So she shut her teeth, and swallowed the words, and thought about what to replace them with; she wondered what he was thinking, if he was thinking at all, and if his thoughts were as snarled up and tangled and utterly...
Her breath hitched and held as his knuckles brushed her neck like warm satin and she shivered again; gods, in a moment she would jump right out of her own smoldering skin. Was he just going to brush her hair for hours? Enjoyable, certainly, but...really, there was only so long one could be content with preliminaries while the main course was smoking on the table. A remark from one of the Commot women came to her, a snippet of salty advice: he'll be as nervous as you are, love, she had said, to a round of knowing nods, probably even more. Don't be surprised if you have to take the lead.
Oh, very well, then. Once again, she would have to bluff her way through.
"You're rather late," she observed presently, with quiet amusement.
"I was bathing. Someone once told me," he murmured, "that I should always clean up, before..."
She turned, swiftly, with a little laugh, took the brush from his startled hand and tossed it to the floor. He lost his breath and his words as she leaned toward him and murmured, "I'm so pleased you remembered. Is there anything else you've always wanted to try?" Her eyes danced. "While we're on the subject of grooming, Melynlas seems to enjoy a good rubdown as well, at the end of the day."
"I...would...never compare the two of you," he protested feebly, frozen at the mental image implied, and she laughed again, curling her bare arms around his neck. He tried to steady himself, breathing deep, inhaling apple blossom and raspberry leaf and something warm and earthy and wild that seemed to hang around her like a cloud. Her fine-woven gown dipped low in front, and lamplight flashed upon her pendant and poured soft gold over the curves of her neck, melting into the promising shadows below it. He watched the pulse beat in her throat, and laid his hands at her waist, tentatively, as one might lay hands on a glass vessel.
She glanced about at the room significantly. "Do you remember the last time you were up here with me?"
Confused by the sidetrack, he thought back. "I...I suppose I do. Just before you left for Mona. That nightmare you had. I came up because you were crying in your sleep."
"You were with me when I woke up," she said, "and I'm not quite sure how it happened, but...you held me until I wasn't afraid any more. And I knew then..." she took a breath and let it out in a long, tremulous sigh. "I knew that I wanted you to be there every time I woke up."
Her fingertips traced his chin and he followed them, turning his face until he rested his brow against hers.
He held his breath, heart pounding. He wanted her now, wanted to pull her down upon the pallet and twist his hands into her gown until every seam ripped, to lose himself in the searing mystery of her until he was unmade, until he knew nothing but her. As he had wanted her for months, perhaps years, and never dared admit until recently, afraid to stoke a fire that could not be allowed, not yet. Now here she was, inviting and open and his for the asking, and he feared the intensity of what he felt, feared that in losing himself he might hurt her, dishonor, disappoint her...
The fear paralyzed him and he made no move toward the lips parted just before his, not though her fingertips had slid across his jaw, left a burning trail down his throat. They drifted across his breastbone, and her palm rested over his pounding heart. "I wanted to touch you like this then," she whispered, "and I was afraid to do it. And for three years I've wondered what would have happened if I had."
"I can tell you what would have happened," he muttered. His hands on her waist tightened suddenly, pulling her flush against him. Her eyes widened, and he felt her ribs expand on a sudden inhale.
"Would it have shocked you?" she queried breathlessly. "Because it did me. My own wanting to, I mean."
"I fear," he said, trying to keep his voice steady, "had you done that, my reaction would have shocked us both."
Her laugh was warm on his chin. "I doubt it," she said frankly, "and so would you, if you could have seen the dreams I had some nights on Mona." She leaned in, pressed herself into him from breast to knee. "And for that matter, the dreams I had here last night," she added, with a sideways smile, a key in the lock of his control, "...and I wasn't even asleep." Her hands found the hem of his shirt and slid beneath it as she continued conspiratorially, "If it hadn't been raining I'd have invited you out to meet me in the woods somewhere just like you threatened yesterday." Her palms were sliding up his bare sides like molten silk. "And imagine how that would have looked when Orddu came looking for you."
A laugh that was almost a groan burst from him, and still he made no move to do more than touch her. She looked at him quizzically, her teasing smirk melting away in mild concern. "You're holding back," she observed. "What is it?"
"I...I'm...having trouble believing this is real, to be honest," he admitted, and laughed again, shakily. "You speak of dreams. I have dreamed of you so long, dreamed of us...together, and this moment...and always you were so far away, melting away the moment I tried to touch you. And now I...don't know what you'll think of me...if I..."
She laid a finger across his lips, and he fell silent at the familiar, sardonic twitch of her mouth. "If you what? Let propriety go? Make a fool of yourself? Do you think I don't feel the same? Taran of Caer Dallben," she growled, "if you aren't the most exasperating creature on earth, I don't know what is. It's long enough we've both been waiting and dreaming —as you say yourself — and having to work and sacrifice so much else all the while, all the time being afraid we'd never get here. And now here we are; finally just us, and you're so stuck in fears and dreams that you can't wake up. How exactly like an assistant pig-keep—,"
He silenced her the only way he knew, pulling her to his lips. Her muffled protest dissolved into a whimper; she melted in his arms. He pressed into the sweetness of her mouth, yielding, melding, sundering, only to join again, and again, in quick and breathless succession. Heat flooded into his face, his chest, his thighs; his heart raced like a runaway horse, wild and desperate.
He clutched at the thin linen wrappings until the heat of her skin soaked though to his hands, and she clung to him like a vine, hands lacing through his hair in tendrils, rising up on her toes until by instinct he bent, caught her beneath the thighs and hoisted her up high. She wrapped her legs around his waist, breaking a kiss to look down at him, scarlet-faced within the curtain of her hair. He fastened his mouth to the hollow of her throat, ecstatic at the furious beat of her pulse against his lips.
He heard her sigh and hesitated, pulling his breath in shudderingly. She cupped his hot face in her hands, and raised it like a chalice to her lips. "Taran," she whispered, in a command he felt down to his toes, "take me to bed."
Never let it be said he was an inattentive husband.
He made the distance to the pallet in a few distracted steps and then paused, loath to set her down but puzzled on how to proceed; finally, with a peal of her silver laugh as accompaniment he turned his back to the mattress and let himself fall, landing with a grunt in a seated position, his lap full of High Queen. "That was resourceful," she remarked, before he shushed her again, and the only sounds she made for some moments were mumbled exclamations as his hands found the gaps in her gown and glided beneath them, skating over skin that burned under his palms.
He said nothing else for a long time. There were no words sufficient for his awe, his wonderstruck worship of her. He found other ways to speak instead, acquiring an entirely new vocabulary within minutes, a glorious exposition in an instinctive and primitive language. She freely taught him what she knew of it; and together they guessed at more, and he thought she was a mystery he would never come to the end of, though he might apply himself studiously all his life.
Impatience overrode discovery, and time fled in a haze of feeling, all thought burned to ash and nothing left to utter but pure song, but it was not in her to be completely speechless. Somewhere in the midst of fire and fusion, she opened eyes dark with hunger, and stared at his face, her gaze distant and glazed, as though trying to remember who he was. Her teeth gleamed in a silky smile, catching the fractured candlelight. "Llyr," she murmured, "Look at us, now. And for a moment this morning I thought I'd never have you." Her smile faded and suddenly she wore an expression to break his heart, her eyes brimming crystal, glittering. "Taran," she whispered, "how could you?"
He could, perhaps, have answered this with clarity, if great regret, an hour ago. Now it only seemed an impossible thing to have dreamed up, some insane nightmare that had compelled him to part from her, to stay of his own free will anywhere she was not, and the thought of what he had almost lost shook him to the core. He clutched her tightly, gasping out a broken apology, and she shuddered in the circle of his arms, tense against him. "Swear to me," she ordered, breathless, "that you will never leave me."
"I swear it." He set it, as a seal, over her heart.
Her hands gripped his hair, tilted him up to face her, and her eyes burned into him, blazing blue fire. "Never tell me I cannot stay with you."
"Never," he gasped, his last desperate remnant of coherence, before eternity pulled him to its edge and back.
She hadn't expected to cry in the middle of it all.
It wasn't fair to him, what she asked; she knew it as soon as the words left her and saw the naked pain in his face, the self-blame, the anguish over causing her grief, ever. She knew why he'd stayed as well as she knew who he was, and that he could not have done anything else...but in that moment, close enough to be his blood and breath, to know herself undone and remolded in the image of the space around him, to feel his lips curl around the shape of her name and know home in the only place she had ever wanted to fit...and she was suddenly filled and shaken with the fear of how much she needed him, a raw truth almost too painful to bear.
Because he would have given her up.
Would have traded her in exchange for keeping the honor of his promises, for duty and for the greater good and all the high ideals many discussed but he actually believed, and for just an instant she was furious with herself for needing him so much, furious with him for not knowing how much he needed her, for thinking he could just send her off and go merrily on with his life as though it would be worth living just to finish seawalls and rebuild castles and replant gardens. Did he even know what he would have lost?
And fury, as always, made her cry, just as every strong emotion did; grief and fear at their most intense, yes, but also when joy and laughter swayed her hard enough, so it was no surprise that this refining furnace, this blazing storm of contradictory and tangled passions as he apologized and promised her all she demanded, this breaking wave of unifying, molten rapture, could produce tears of its own.
She thought, distantly, through the shivering sparks receding, that she could forgive him for thinking he could get along without her.
She might not ever completely forgive him for being exactly what she needed. Even if it wasn't his fault.
He came to his senses in a drunken haze of contentment, still cradled in the curves of her body, his face tucked into the hollow of her shoulder, resting upon the slow rise and fall of her ribs like a ship on the shifting breath of the sea. Her fingertips traced up his spine and he shivered.
"And just like that," she murmured, low, "we are something new." He rose to his elbows to look at her; she sighed, pushed his damp hair away from his forehead, fingertips gliding at his temple and over his jaw.
There were tear tracks on her face, and he touched her cheek in concern, afraid to ask. "Are you hurt?"
She laughed softly. "No. Not in the way you mean, at least." Her eyes rested on him, inscrutable, a look he knew: there were thoughts behind them she was still sorting out, her lower lip pinched between her teeth to hold them back until they could turn into coherent words...and they would, sooner or later. Probably sooner. He kissed her until her jaw relaxed, and her exhale breathed into him like life, like the taste of stars, dancing sparks across his tongue.
"I still don't quite believe all that has happened," he confessed, and she smiled a weary and knowing smile.
"Some of it will feel all too real in the morning, I expect," she said. "I shall hold you to those promises, you know. What a pity I didn't think of them sooner before you got us both into such a dreadful mess."
He opened his mouth in a feeble attempt at defense, but, still too dazed, could not think of one, and she chuckled. "No argument? Well. I shall have to remember the effectiveness of this method, to be sure. I'm not sure you would have made any such a binding vow under other circumstances."
She squeaked as he enveloped her again, growling into her neck. "Shall I encode that into law?" he managed to grumble out. "Royal promises not binding if made under the enchanting influence of..."
He trailed off in embarrassment, and she slid a torturous bare foot down his calf. "...yes?" she prodded wickedly, over barely-suppressed laughter, "of what? Finish your decree, Your Majesty."
He bit at the corner of her jaw, but rose up again to look her in the eye with sudden seriousness. "I won't," he whispered. "I meant them. You are all the light I have, and I will not be willingly parted from you again."
Her eyes held him in a grip of iron, even as they welled once more; one diamond drop drifted, glittering, from her lashes, down her cheek, and he kissed it away.
"I have loved you," she sighed, "since before I knew you, and if there are many lives, as the ancients say, then I loved you before this one, and I will love you in the next, no matter who we are. And that is why I could not bear immortality, Taran of Caer Dallben." Her fingertip drifted over his lips. "It would have been dying every day, to live without you. I would have thrown myself off that ship before I faced that."
He caught her hand and pressed it against his mouth, both moved and unsettled. "Don't talk that way. The one thing that would have made it bearable was knowing you'd be safe and happy." He winced, remembering the vow he had wanted to make her. "I cannot promise you either."
Her eyes grew thoughtful. "No one can do that for anyone, anyway," she said quietly, "for each moment we're in is the only one we can be certain of. And right now we're in this one," she added, pulling him back down, and shifted herself to curl against his side, "so suppose we don't waste it. It'll be a long road to Caer Dathyl, you know, with nothing but sleeping on the ground and in tents."
"Weren't you the one rejoicing in comfortable roots and rocks, after the horror of goosefeather mattresses at Dinas Rhydnant?" he chided, tugging at a lock of her hair, and she laughed, a bell-chime in the flickering darkness.
"I've also told you I wasn't speaking to you, at least a hundred times. If you really believed everything I say, you silly assistant pig-keeper, you'd have given up speaking to me a long time ago."
"You've said a great deal today," he reminded her, with a wistful smile. "How much of it should I believe?"
Her laugh faded, and she studied his face seriously. He had tried to make it a jest, but she saw the fear, deep, running behind his eyes like an underground spring. He did know, then...maybe he'd hidden it from himself so he could make the decision, shoved down the truth of their wholeness together long enough to pretend being half was going to be enough, but he knew. He would have been as fractured as the land he was given to rule, as barren as its blood-soaked fields, a loose warp of frayed ends, always missing strands from the weft, the image incomplete. It would have never been enough, but he would have tried all the same, even hope-starved, even with the image of her forever young and vibrant and alive held in his mind's eye while he aged and faded and ended... because he kept his promises, and it was just damnable irony that the very things she loved him for were the things that had almost unraveled them both.
How much should he believe? He knew her answer. But maybe he needed to hear the words again, would need to hear them often to know she had forgiven him, and that, she could do; she was good at words; she had enough for both of them.
"King of my heart," she whispered, "I pledge you my troth. Of my own will I bind myself, and will cleave to none other. From this day you are mine and I yours, until death parts us."
And between them, maybe their wholeness would be enough to heal the rest.