I guess I'm guilty of neglecting my Princess Diaries in order to throw out a one-shot, but this idea wouldn't leave me alone. Perhaps now that it's done, I can get my mind back on the angsty adolescent track. Much love to all my forum buddies, whose delightful conversations have inspired me to new creation.
Note: This is meant to fit into my interpretation of canon as already established in my Diaries fic, in which Eilonwy learns the story of her parents Angharad and Geraint from the natives on Mona. It made sense to me that such a local legend would still be circulating, although much embellished and romanticized.
As always, Prydain and all its characters are the property of Lloyd Alexander. All Hail the Master!
Taran watched as the last laden cart was pulled to its place in line, and bade a good night to the young lads tending it as they unhitched the sweating mules. Shivering and bone-weary, he made his winding way through the camp, all but forcing one foot in front of another. Tomorrow they would journey on to Commot Gwenith, but tonight he would rest. He felt as though he could sleep on a slab of stone.
The camp was dotted with fires here and there, around which dark figures huddled, fighting the bite of the frosty evening. Taran scanned the firelit-faces at each one, and finally found what he sought. In the ring of light around one crackling blaze, Eilonwy and Fflewddur were sitting, deep in conversation. Next to them, Gurgi was soundly asleep, curled so close to the dancing flames that he risked singeing his fur. With a slight lightening of heart, Taran crept to the edge of the light, and lowered himself to the hard-packed earth next to the princess.
She favored him with a cool nod, clearly still miffed at him for tricking her earlier. Fflewddur's greeting was friendlier. He had his harp out, taking advantage of a few free moments to repair several strings, although his long fingers fumbled a bit with cold-induced clumsiness.
"Here, lad," said the bard, pausing in his tinkering to toss him a leather wallet. "Eat something. It's good to see you finally calling it a day."
Taran caught the wallet and grinned ruefully. "Each one ends eventually. Though it's hard, when one has so little hope of the morrow being better."
Next to him, Eilonwy twitched impatiently. "If you joined us just to be discouraging and depressing," she remarked, "you're succeeding. Personally I'd like to think about something else for a while, which is what we were doing."
"I was telling her a bit about our adventures last year," Fflewddur explained, with a wary glance at the girl, who was huffily crumbling bits of bracken and tossing them into the fire.
"You might have told me some of it yourself," she pointed out, without looking at him.
Taran was in no mood be baited. "Pray don't let me interrupt, then." He fished a strip of something from the leather pouch and grimaced in anticipation; whatever comprised the food from Gurgi's magical wallet, it wasn't chosen for its flavor.
"Well," the bard began, returning to his harp strings, "Where was I? Oh yes, the rabbit. You remember being threatened about being turned into frogs by those…those creatures in the Marshes. I thought that was bad enough. But Great Belin! You can't imagine the indignity of feeling your own body take the shape of something else!" He put a hand to his ear and shuddered. "And the worst of it was the way that miserable wizard taunted us. It was insufferable, considering the power wasn't even his – it was all in that little trinket he was dangling about- "
At Taran's near-involuntary gesture of alarm, Fflewddur fell suddenly silent, just as Eilonwy asked, "What sort of trinket?"
The bard's face, already rosy in the firelight, grew positively crimson. "It…the...ah, actually, I don't exactly recall what it looked like," he stammered. A harp string snapped with a musical twang, and the three of them stared at the curled and coiled remnant.
"They do make rather lovely shapes, don't they?" Eilonwy commented dryly. Fflewddur muttered something under his breath.
Taran forced himself to swallow, the food in his mouth gone strangely dry. He cast Fflewddur a reproachful look. What they had learned in Mordda's captivity was a subject he had intended to discuss with the Princess privately, in a moment not so fraught with anxiety as the present. It would be hard enough for the girl to hear even in the best of times. Yet now the suspicious glare with which she turned from the stammering bard to him was clearly going to be unsatisfied with excuses or promises of future information.
He sighed heavily. "It was a silver pendant." He caught her gaze and held it, and kept his voice low and even. "A crescent moon, with a single gem between the horns." He waited, wondering if she would grasp the significance. What he would say if she didn't.
Eilonwy blinked, and the irritation vanished from her face. She said nothing, and after a moment averted her eyes and stared blankly into the fire. Taran, finely attuned to the nuances of her expressions, saw a muscle twitch above her brow. Her hand came up and clutched something beneath the collar of her tunic and she swallowed hard. "Did he…say how he came by it?" Her voice was steady, but unusually high-pitched.
Taran noted Fflewddur's warning glance from opposite her, but there was no retreat available now. He put a tentative hand on her shoulder; she flinched and he removed it, sighing. "From a young woman who stumbled upon his lair, weak and ill…"he paused, without meaning to, "…and despairing over the loss of her infant daughter." He waited, but Eilonwy sat as still as death. She seemed not even to breathe.
Taran found he could not look at her, and delivered the last information to the ground under his right knee. "According to him, she died of her illness a short time after arriving there."
A long silence followed, broken only by the crackling of the fire and the occasional gurgling snore from Gurgi. Finally, Fflewddur cleared his throat loudly as he rose from the ground. "If you two will excuse me," he said, "I seem to have put my foot into something rather nasty. I'll just, ah…go and clean up." He nodded apologetically to Taran. "Or leave you to do it, lad, more likely." Taran raised an eyebrow at him, and heard him mutter to himself as he turned away, "Very useful, oh yes. Why can't the blasted pot break strings before I say the wrong thing?"
The silence stretched on. Taran continued to stare at the ground without seeing it, and startled when Eilonwy spoke again.
"When were you planning to tell me?"
He looked up to find her staring at him, her blue eyes bright. He had expected accusation and braced himself for it; past experience told him her first reaction would likely be anger at him for keeping the knowledge a secret. But her tone was neutral, her expression unreadable. To all appearances her question was one of honest curiosity, and yet Taran felt inexplicably guilty.
"I'm not sure," he admitted cautiously. "I've been waiting for a moment that felt like the right one…but perhaps there never would have been. With so much fear and doubt pressing down on us…" he indicated their surroundings with a vague wave of his hand, "…I did not want to burden you with knowledge that could only bring you pain." He frowned suddenly at the irony of it. Out of all the things he had been putting off telling her, that this would be the one she would surprise out of him.
Eilonwy looked bemusedly at his frown. "That was noble, I suppose," she sighed. "But you needn't have worried, really. Achren had told me from the beginning that Ang…that my mother was dead." She picked gingerly at a thread of her shirt-cuff. "It's always been easier to call her by name; isn't that strange? As if somehow it meant I didn't really have to be sad about it." The thread broke, and she wound it around her little finger with great deliberation. The ring on her left hand glittered in the firelight like a wayward spark
"Of course Achren lied about a lot," she whispered. "I couldn't help hoping that maybe…" She shook her head. "Well, it doesn't matter. I'm glad to know, at any rate."
Taran's heart ached for her. "You are braver, then, than I. I could not be content if the only knowledge I had of my parents was the manner of their death."
"But that isn't all I know," Eilonwy countered, with some vehemence. "I know a great deal, as a matter of fact, about both my parents. There is much I learnt on Mona beyond how to make badly-embroidered banners."
"Then there is much you haven't yet told me," Taran chided her gently, and was rewarded with the ghost of a wry smile. Encouraged, he reached out to tuck a lock of stray hair behind her ear, and this time she did not flinch. "But perhaps that's because you're so often not speaking to me."
"Well," she said tartly, "That's your own fault." But her smile deepened, and her gaze grew thoughtful. "You've never been content, anyway. Wasn't discovering your parentage what your whole quest was about?"
Taran shifted a bit uneasily, suddenly conscious that a sharp stone was poking him in the back. "Partially. At least, that was how it started." He picked up a nearby twig and began vaguely scratching at the dirt, wondering if he should continue. He glanced up; she was watching him expectantly, and he realized why he had avoided being alone with her since the beginning of all the present trouble, for all at once he wanted nothing more than to take her hand and run, to escape – to anywhere, so long as it was just the two of them, away from all sober responsibilities and dour expectations of the future.
It was madness, of course – sheer selfish whim, and he knew she would scorn him for suggesting it. And so he had distanced himself deliberately, that her very presence should not tempt him to thoughts of anything beyond the duties of the moment. Certainly there were enough of them to keep him occupied. He reflected sardonically that it was, perhaps, a good thing she insisted on wearing men's garb; masking all that thundering femininity made her that much less distracting.
"Well?" Eilonwy asked, and Taran understood she was still waiting for him to clarify his statement.
He threw the twig into the fire. "Well…that's another thing I'll tell you all about at the right moment." He grinned disarmingly and she chuffed at him, scowling, but underneath the scowl he saw a glimmer of pleasure in her eyes, and wondered uneasily how much she had guessed. She so often seemed to know him better than he knew himself.
A tense silence followed, and then Eilonwy sighed, and stretched out her booted legs to the fire, settling against the low stone wall at her back. "Since Fflewddur's not still a rabbit," she remarked, "you could at least tell me how the story ended."
Taran relaxed, grateful for the escape, and wondering if she had deliberately given it to him. "Well," he began, "it involved a finger bone…"