Another one-shot! I know, I know. I'm trying, really.
This was inspired by PrydainViolet's fic Children, and includes a reference to events in her fic Summer Day, so you should all go read them if you haven't already. My gratitude goes out to her for her gracious permission to draw upon them.
Furthermore this fits into the fanon framework I established in my Princess Diaries, in which I introduced the idea that Coll had once been married, and that Eilonwy slept in the loft at Caer Dallben.
As always, Prydain and its characters were created by the brilliant Lloyd Alexander, whose recent passing has left this world a noble spirit short. I hope in a small way that we, his devoted fans, are helping to keep his work alive through these flights of creativity.
A shaft of light from the open loft window, speckled with clouds of glittering dust motes, cut across the dim expanse of the loft like a spear sunk into a tree, ending in a warm yellow square against the dusty boards of the floor. Coll paused in his work, ponderingly brushing a heavily booted toe across the dust before shouldering his pitchfork and tossing another forkful of old straw out into the barnyard below. He shook his head. It didn't seem fitting anymore, somehow. But Dallben had insisted that the princess's old loft be prepared for her return, expected within a few days.
"Eilonwy will be home within a fortnight," the enchanter had said, apropos of nothing, two days previously after their evening sup. They had still been sitting at the table, neither in any hurry about cleaning up, and Coll, busily mending some old tack dumped in an oily heap next to the remains of his dinner, had thought Dallben asleep. Dallben had a way of startling a man with abrupt announcements that came out of nowhere, however, and Coll was used to it by now. Only a pause in the movements of his worn hands indicated his surprise. He did not miss the old man's use of the word "home" and smiled complacently.
"Is she, now." It did not occur to him to ask how Dallben knew it. Dallben knew things, and Coll had long ago given up wondering what mechanisms, magical or mundane, furnished his information. "Well, it'll be good to have her back, that's fact. Shame the boy is still gone. No doubt he'd have liked to be here to welcome her."
Dallben pulled thoughtfully at his beard. "I think he will not return before she does. But word of her arrival will surely speed his coming." He tilted back in his heavy chair, its front legs floating in the air in a way that would have been, for anyone else, a precarious position. But Dallben had been doing it for years, and he never lost his balance, a feat which amazed Coll and rather annoyed him at times, since he had to repair the worn back legs of the chair every few years. Dallben refused to have a new one made, saying the old chair and he were comfortable old friends.
"You'd better clean up the loft for her," he continued, shutting his eyes, propping his bony feet upon the table, and weaving his long gnarled fingers together over his breast.
Coll's hands paused again on the tack, and he glanced up, saying nothing. Dallben opened one eye knowingly. "It's all right," the old man said. "Unless I greatly miss my guess, she won't turn up her nose at it."
Coll shrugged. "Aye, I suppose. But is it truly necessary?" Dallben opened both eyes, and Coll shrugged again, returning to his work. "I had thought just to build an addition onto the house for them. Or do you really think there's a chance she'll refuse the lad?"
Dallben looked mildly uncomfortable. "No, no, highly unlikely," he said testily. "I know you believe all I did was postpone the inevitable, sending her away. But I did have other reasons." His interlaced fingers drummed quietly against the papery backs of his hands and he gazed moodily into the fire. "The future is still uncertain, besides. There may be much more for which to prepare."
Coll was also used to enigmatic statements, and turned his mind toward the practical things that were his domain. "Ah, well. 'Tis time to turn out the old straw, whatever. I'll see to it in the next few days."
Coll's word was his bond, so now here he was, dumping last year's moldering straw harvest into the barnyard, while a newly-cured golden stack of this year's crop, fragrant with the scent of summer, stood ready just outside the paddock gate.
The dust was fierce, and cobwebs clung to the rafters. A poor place for a princess to sleep, Coll caught himself thinking, although she'd been a princess, after all, her whole life, and no one had thought her occupancy of the loft strange before. But now…he wondered if she would be much changed, and pictured her in his mind's eye as he had last seen her. Tall, slender, clothed in patched garments made for a woman fleshier but shorter than she; sunburned and scrappy she stood in his mind, bare feet planted wide and hands on hips in a characteristic pose, grinning at him chummily. He chuckled, then sighed as he tried to imagine her in the velvets and silks of royalty and found it impossible.
Surely even the most stringent lessons in nobility could not completely turn Eilonwy into a very fastidious creature. At least, he hoped not. It was all he could do to look after an ordinary young girl with a penchant for mischief; playing servant to a high-bred woman of nobility was something none of them would know how to do. Even Achren was treated like everyone else at Caer Dallben; courteously, but with an understanding that all who lived there worked side-by-side as equals.
Achren. Coll paused in his work, his brow furrowing. Achren and Eilonwy, once again living in close quarters. Well, no doubt Dallben knew what he was about.
It would be good to have her back, to have a young woman around the place again. And not just for the extra labor, either. Achren was dutiful, after all, but grim company. No, there was something pleasant and homey in the very presence of a young female in the house. He had forgotten how pleasant, for many years, preferring to bury the memory of his sweet young wife when he had buried her, until Taran had returned from his foray to Caer Dathyl with that feisty little redhead in tow.
It was odd, then, that the memories should come rushing back like they did, because Eilonwy was nothing like his wife. Rhian had been soft and dimpled, black-curled and crimson-cheeked, with a steady, even nature that was slow to anger and quick to forgive. How often he'd wished she were there every time that spitfire of a princess blazed into one of her spectacular tempers! Coll chuckled to himself, remembering the volatile living conditions of Eilonwy's first few weeks at Caer Dallben. He'd lost more crockery in those first few days than in all the rest of the years put together, and there were places in the stone wall that still bore reddish-brown streaks in testimony to the sudden violent contact of earthenware.
He'd been shocked at the girl's total ignorance of all useful work. She could rattle off the names and proper implementation of spells that would do unspeakable things to life and limb, but knew nothing about even the most basic of household tasks. Quick to learn and eager to please, she had tried valiantly, but the constant need for instruction and correction was a blow to her pride, and woe unto him who laid the last straw onto that straining load. Swift she was to cool down after one of her eruptions, genuinely ashamed and sincerely apologetic, but it was a strain living with such an unpredictable personality. Coll had wondered many times in those first months whether he would ever again be able to enter his own home without feeling as though he should first throw his cap in the door to see which way the wind was blowing.
Very different than Rhian, indeed. Yet the memories still had come, one by one, prompted by a sudden ring of girlish laughter, perhaps, or the sight of a linen undershift fluttering on the clothesline, or a distinctly feminine comment about the rudeness of belching around the dinner table. There was something that felt whole and complete about the house when a girl was in it. He was glad she was there, for all their sakes, even though he knew it was primarily for Taran that Dallben let her stay.
For her effect on Taran was substantial, and, for the first year or two, undeniably positive. Taran was a good lad, to be sure, but his head was full of dreams and moonshine, and while he could never have been called lazy, his attention to his chores and the general business of running the farm had always been something short of ideal. He was bored by agriculture, would have liked horses instead of pigs, and was uninterested in blacksmithing unless he could make a sword. Trying to get him to mend tack or sew a patch was a useless endeavor unless you wanted a dismantled harness and drafty clothing. Altogether he was difficult to motivate. At least, until Eilonwy had arrived.
The girl was so genuinely interested in everything. Taran had seemed to awaken, and see his world as a novelty through her eyes. No doubt there was a fair bit of showing off involved, too – Coll knew the allure of impressing a girl with one's superior knowledge as well as any man – but he had been amazed at how patiently the lad would answer her endless questions, how humbly he responded to her snippety remarks, how diligently he did his work when she was watching. And since what is done on the surface eventually winds its way to the heart, Coll had seen Taran gradually come to sincerely appreciate the life he led at Caer Dallben and to take pride in his work there. Then, too, when the boy had gone off into one of his daydreams, a few tart, pragmatic words from Eilonwy would bring him back to earth with thundering speed. She had a way of settling his spirit.
For a while. Eilonwy's last few months there had seen Taran becoming a bit witless, and it didn't take a brilliant man to see that her presence was becoming a distraction of an altogether different kind. Indeed only a blind man could have failed to see it coming, and it seemed to Coll a thing natural as breathing, but Dallben had disapproved, and begun to speak of sending her away for a time. It wouldn't do, he had said, to have the boy's head all muddled up with hot blood when he still had so much to learn and accomplish. This could not be argued, but Coll had asked to break the news to Taran himself, knowing he would be gentler about it than Dallben, who had so little sympathy for the pangs of youth that Coll sometimes wondered if he had skipped his own entirely.
He had not been able to put it off too long. Dallben was already making arrangements for the girl's departure when the opportunity presented itself. He and Taran had been hoeing up weeds in the turnip patch; it was a hot day and Eilonwy had brought them water. He remembered it clearly. She had bound her bright hair in heavy braids around her head, and a few escaped locks curled at her neck and temples. As she gripped the bucket for them to dip from, the sunlight reflected from the water shimmered across her flushed face in a dancing web of light. Altogether she was a pretty picture, and Coll suspected the effect was not lost on Taran, though the boy was busily pretending to be annoyed by her nonstop amiable chatter. The suspicion was confirmed when she left them, for Taran watched her walk back toward the house until she turned a corner around the apple orchard and was lost from view. Coll deigned not to notice this, but, seizing the moment, said casually, "A good girl, that. Never would have expected her to turn out so well when she arrived here."
Taran grunted noncommittally and returned to his work, wielding his hoe with perhaps more vigor than was actually necessary. "I can't see that she's changed much," he said after a few moments.
Coll swallowed a grin. "Well. Not in certain particulars, maybe." He took his hoe and jabbed at the earth a few times thoughtfully. "It's no place for a young lady to be growing up, really. Surrounded by a bunch of men. Dallben says she's getting beyond him."
Taran said nothing, but his hoe slowed its pace slightly, and Coll cleared his throat. "He's of a mind to send her away to her kin for a little while," he said, carefully not looking at the boy's face.
Taran's hoe stopped moving altogether. Coll continued to work, slowly and deliberately, waiting. The silence was a long one.
Finally the lad spoke, quietly. "I thought she hadn't any kin left." His hoe scratched feebly at the dirt.
"None immediate," Coll said lightly. "Some distant relations, I think. He spoke of the island of Mona; near the old strongholds of Llyr it is. The royal family there have offered to take her in."
"That's kind," said the boy, his voice oddly strained. His hoe slashed suddenly awry and sliced through a few turnip leaves, and Coll glanced up in concern, but Taran's face was turned away from him. "For how long?"
Coll shrugged. "A year or two, maybe."
"Within the month, I think." He pulled out a kerchief and mopped his forehead. "He's said you can accompany her on the journey, if you like."
Taran glanced up quickly, a mix of pained expressions on his face. "I…" he stammered, and looked down. "I suppose I should. She'll just get herself into trouble." His hoe swiped viciously at a clump of milkweed. "Does she know?"
"Dallben did mention it to her a while back," said Coll, "but I reckon she's forgotten. It was when she'd hurt her foot, and that dwyll-leaf he gave her addled her a bit."
"She did say something about it," the boy muttered, almost to himself. "I thought she was delirious."
He had said nothing more and gotten back to his work with due diligence, and Coll had deemed it wise to let him chew it over without interruption. Least said, soonest mended, like as not. All in all, he was pleased. Taran had taken it well…of course, the boy knew from long experience that when Dallben decreed a thing there was no use arguing. Eilonwy knew it, too, but it hadn't stopped her. Dallben had done the telling in that instance, and Coll had not envied him the task.
He did not know what, if anything, had passed between her and Taran on the subject before she left, although Taran had told him plaintively that she had put him off whenever he tried to broach it. Off they'd gone, and the lad had returned less than a fortnight later in better spirits than Coll had expected. The boy was cagey about the details and grew snappishly embarrassed when pressed, but Coll was satisfied that some kind of understanding had been reached or, at the very least, encouragement given. That whole business with Achren was somehow key to it all, but she was certainly no fount of information.
So it had been no surprise when the restless boy had announced his plans, although Coll was still bemused about this pressing need to know his parentage. If Taran thought the girl would be swayed one way or the other by the circumstances of his birth, then he didn't know her as well as he should by now. Ah, but youth was ever blind. The boy needed to find himself, and for his own sake – that, Coll suspected, was the real goad that drove him, whatever Taran himself might believe about needing parents to please a princess. Well, there was nothing like fending for oneself to make a man out of a boy.
One last forkful of straw floated down in dusty clouds to join the rest, and Coll exchanged the pitchfork for a broom and began sweeping out the dusty remains. Evicted spiders scrambled madly across the floorboards and disappeared into cracks. Coll's eye followed one particularly large one as it scuttled over to a dark corner, where the rafters meeting the chimney made a small cramped space that was jumbled with odd bits of flotsam from downstairs. He paused, ruminating over a few of the stored-away remnants. There was the old chest that had held various of Rhian's garments, long ago aired-out and re-fitted to clothe Eilonwy. He rubbed at his chin, thinking of the first time the girl had come down in one of those gowns, and how he'd briefly wished he had disposed of them long ago and saved himself the pain of seeing someone else in Rhian's clothes. It was momentary, however, one swift stab of aching memory, replaced quickly by resolution. After all, it was good that these things should be of use – Rhian herself, ever practical, would have been glad of it.
It had taken far greater resolve to put the next item to use. Coll propped his broom against the wall and reached over the chest for the long narrow wooden object that had been haphazardly balanced at odd angles in the space behind. The dust flew, and he brushed away years' worth of spiderwebs before setting it at his feet. A cradle.
How well he remembered that wild wet night when Dallben had returned suddenly from a long journey, walking into the cottage where Coll sat before the fire carving wooden spoons. Dallben had murmured a greeting and then pulled from somewhere within his voluminous robes the last thing any man could have expected – a baby.
Spoons and carving knife had clattered to the floor as Coll leapt to his feet. "Belin! What in the name of all—"
"Yes, yes, I know," Dallben interrupted, shushing him with a wave of his long-fingered hand. "It's not something I ever foresaw myself doing, either, but…here we are." He unceremoniously handed the child to Coll before beginning to doff his wet outer garments, and Coll nearly dropped the baby in his confusion and nervousness. He held it out at arm's length, and the infant, fully awake, looked quizzically at him from serious dark blue eyes. Wrapped in tattered woolen blankets, the child was sturdy, of an age to sit by itself, with round red cheeks and a shock of dark hair. Uncomfortable at being held in such a manner, it began to squirm and fret, one pink hand escaping the blanket and attempting to shove itself inside its owner's mouth.
"Here, here, that's no way to hold him." Dallben turned to him and took the baby back, producing a skin water pouch with a loose cloth patch tied around the neck, which the baby reached for eagerly. Dallben pulled his chair near to the fire, settling the child in his lap as it sucked contentedly at the cloth patch, milk dribbling down his chin. "You'll find a new nanny goat in the paddock," Dallben informed him, with a nod at the pouch. "And she needs the best feed you can give her. It's no substitute for a mother, but fortunately he's not too young to eat pap as well, so he won't starve."
"Belin," Coll said again, weakly. "Where did you find it?"
"Him," said Dallben firmly. "The lone survivor of a slaughter." He grimaced a little at the fire, as if the word had an ugly taste in his mouth. "It seems a long chance, I admit, but…well, you know for what I have been searching. I found no one who fit the prophecy of no station…until I chanced upon him."
"Him?" Coll could not keep the disbelief from his voice. "The answer to the prophecy? This…foundling the future king?"
Dallben looked at him calmly. "There is no knowing, but why not? There is no shame in being a foundling. Others of that ilk have done well." His grey eyes twinkled in the firelight, and the baby reached up and jerked at his long whiskers.
Coll, beginning to recover, chuckled a little at the sight. "No offense to foundlings, whatever. It's only that this...this is…"
"Not what you expected?" Dallben finished, untangling the little fingers from his beard and holding the baby out of its reach, on his knee. "Answers to prophecy rarely are." He bounced the child and it laughed, a gurgling, delightful sound against the crackle of the fire and the roar of rain outside.
Coll rubbed his brow. "What are you going to do with him?" he asked, thinking with some little dread that he already knew.
"Keep him, naturally," the answer that he feared came out blandly. "If he is the answer to the prophecy, he will need a proper bringing up. I can teach him wisdom he would never know otherwise."
"Wisdom, aye," Coll said, frowning. "But we must keep him alive until he's of an age to learn it. I don't suppose that book of yours has any chapters on baby-keeping."
"No," Dallben admitted, with some amusement. "But I find that simply attending to the needs of the moment has been sufficient so far. And the present need is for a place to put him to sleep." He winced as the child, who had been gripping his fingers, suddenly closed its mouth over his thumb and bit hard. "And perhaps a bone to chew on."
A place to sleep. Coll was silent and still for a moment, then crossed slowly to the loft ladder and made his way up heavily. Once there he found the object he sought and stared at it for some time; a long wooden cradle, beautifully crafted and carved. He had made it himself, years ago, for his own child.
It had never been used. The child slept entombed with its mother in the mound at the edge of the forest. He had nearly destroyed the cradle in those early days of grief, the way he had all other reminders – the wood-carved toys, the tiny garments. But the cradle and Rhian's clothes had escaped his wrath somehow; for reasons even he could not fathom he could not bring himself to touch them. Perhaps it was only a desire to have something to prove to himself she had lived.
He ran his hand over the curved wood, nursing a selfish impulse to keep the thing up here, hidden away. This cradle meant for his own flesh and blood seemed sacred in his heart; a relic not to be lowered for the use of the orphaned waif Dallben was dandling downstairs. He shut his eyes, remembering Rhian's face when he'd brought it to her, how she'd positively glowed with affection and pride. "Any child with such a gift will know it is loved," she'd said.
Coll opened his eyes.
Any child. Did not the poor parentless mite deserve love as much as his own child? He looked again at the cradle and gave it an experimental tap, setting it rocking.
Such a thing was meant to be used. Was meant to show love. He sighed, and picked it up, balancing it on his shoulder as he came ponderously back down the ladder.
Dallben looked up at him with a kind of quiet sympathy when he set the cradle before the fire. "Well done," the old man murmured. "That was not an easy thing, I deem." Coll answered nothing, busy gathering lengths of wool from his scrap basket and arranging them for the child's bed. Dallben lowered him into it gently, but the baby was still wide awake, and sat up the moment he touched its soft surface, gripping the cradle edges and staring up at them both with round eyes.
Coll could not help smiling. "What will you call him, then?" he asked, offering the child a finger to grasp.
Before Dallben could answer, a flash of lightning from the storm outside filled the black squares of the windows with blinding whiteness, followed almost instantly by a clap of thunder so loud it shook the ground and set the dishware rattling on the shelves. It made Coll jump, and he fully expected the baby to scream in terror. But the child, although clearly startled, clapped his hands and squealed delightedly as though he thought they'd caused the phenomenon for his own amusement. Dallben's eyes danced.
"Taran," he said decidedly. "I think he will approve." He chuckled long, as though at some private joke, one that Coll had never gotten.
It had been interesting, to say the least, playing nursemaid to the lad in his infancy. Dallben was very little practical help, and Coll wound up with most of the caretaking dirty work. Balancing this with his work running the farm was no easy task, and Taran had grown up in conditions that likely would have horrified any self-respecting mother. He'd spent most of his toddlerhood running around outside stark naked. Coll grinned at the memory.
Somehow they'd managed to keep him alive, although mayhap it was partly pure stubborn cussedness on the boy's part. Perhaps it had even been for the best, Coll mused. A strong, healthy lad ought to have plenty of opportunity to learn things by hard knocks without a bunch of females always fussing over every bruise and scrape. Coll's own mum had been a bit of a mother hen in that regard, and it had irked him considerably.
Ah, well. Coll pulled himself back to the present with a shake of the head, gave the cradle an affectionate swipe which only marred its smooth coating of dust, and placed it carefully back behind the chest. Perhaps it would be needed again before too long.
In a few minutes he was out in the paddock, the sunlight sparkling off the fresh, sweet-smelling straw as he pitched it up into the loft. Somewhere in his back, a sinew or tendon complained of all this harsh treatment, and Coll tightened his teeth and his grip, fighting the internal suggestion that he was getting too old for all this hard labor. When a man was too old to work, he might as well lie down and die.
But it would be a help to have Taran back.
He looked forward to seeing the lad again. He had come to love Taran as much as any father could a son, and the cottage had been strange and empty without him. Coll knew what Dallben hoped for the lad, and knew, too, that many things of great portent were beginning to converge, building like stormclouds on the horizon. He could not help hoping that the storm would stay its fury for a little while yet. A few years of peace for them all would be welcome.
Only time would tell, however, and Coll had always been one to take things as they came. It was no good spitting into the wind and railing against the weather. Storms would come whether one willed or no, so best to be prepared.
A black streak suddenly burst into his line of sight, accompanied by raucous croaks and caws; he felt his leather cap snatched from his head amidst a rush of wing-beaten air. The perpetrator, a coal-black crow, landed on a fence post nearby and cackled at him maddeningly.
"You rascal," Coll addressed it, tossing a forkful of straw in its direction. "Where have you been? Out romancing the ladies, I'll warrant, while Dallben waits for you these many days."
The bird fluttered up gracefully to evade the flung straw, and landed again, chuckling. "Coll!" it squawked. "Cap! Bald!"
"Aye, that's news to no one," Coll answered, strolling toward the bird, which bobbed and bowed fearlessly. "You'll have to do better than that to insult me, you rogue. Get along to Dallben; he's waiting for news of Eilonwy's return." He snatched his cap away from the crow, who pinched his leather-worn hand affectionately with its sharp beak.
"Princess! Ship! Soon!" The bird cackled, and darted like a black arrow around the corner of the cottage.
So Dallben had been correct. Not that he'd expected anything different. For the second time Coll ascended to the loft, this time to spread and tramp down the new bedding. The yellow straw seemed to glow in the light from the window, lighting up like a carpet of golden threads. He smiled.
Perhaps a room fit for a princess after all.
I just can't get away from Taran/Eilonwy no matter what I write, seemingly, even if it's vicarious. But you all know that by now.
Regarding Dallben's private joke, here's your trivia for the day: "Taran" is welsh for "thunder".
It's too bad everything went all to hell so soon at the beginning of The High King. Like Coll, I'd have liked to see them have a few years of peace and happiness first. If only.