During a recent re-read of The High King, this plot bunny hit me quite suddenly and wrote itself in a matter of hours. It's quite a bit darker than my usual fare and I confess I felt a little morbid, but perhaps appropriately so.
Prydain and all its characters and histories remain the creation of the greatest of bards, Lloyd Alexander.
Alone in her chamber, the Princess of Llyr paced the floor, scowling. Though it was well into the wee hours of the morning, she was still up and fully clothed, pointedly ignoring the nightshift laid out upon the bed, whose linens were turned down invitingly. The chambermaid who performed these duties would have been better sent with the other women to the eastern strongholds, thought Eilonwy savagely, than remaining here to provide such frippery for those who didn't need it.
The ungainly weight of a sword pommel banged irritatingly against her hip, and she fiddled absently with the straps of her scabbard for the umpteenth time that night, trying to find a comfortable position for the weapon. It was useless. Her primary means of defense she would not discard, but it was cold comfort.
She noted the rough calluses on her hands as she re-buckled the straps, and smiled wryly. For all her complaints in the preceding months about the dull labor she had undertaken during the rallying of the Commots, she could not deny that the work had been useful. Two years spent embroidering and curtseying in the castle of Mona had left her soft and unfit for the present ordeal, and it had taken every day of steady trudging alongside provision wagons, hauling at the bridles of recalcitrant mules, and lifting heavy bundles of supplies to work off the ravages of courtly life.
She had been dismayed in the workshop of Hevydd the smith to discover that the sword he had chosen for her, though the lightest he possessed, felt heavy and unwieldy in her grip. Silently cursing needlework, she had spent every free moment in experimental parries and thrusts, working her already aching arms into near exhaustion and earning a few sarcastic jibes from Taran about always waving swords around; she recognized the irony but ignored it.
The effort was well-spent. She was back in decent form, if not the warrior princess she had once believed herself to be; practical enough to recognize that in hand-to-hand combat it would be her wits and lithe quickness rather than any match of brute strength that would save her.
Not that it mattered. There was no place for her in the gathering of men currently taking place in the courtyards below. Eilonwy paused in her pacing and glared through the open casement. Her chamber was on an upper level in the east wing of Caer Dathyl and afforded a fine view over the sprawling fortress and the broad plain beyond its walls. The courtyard was teeming with activity even at this late hour as the Sons of Don and their allies readied themselves for an expected siege. Moonlight glinted from helm and shield and from the ends of lances; the ring of metal-shod hooves against cobblestone and the steady murmur of tense voices rose to the princess's ears. There was an air of foreboding overhanging all like a chill contagious mist; she watched the men huddling together in knots of four or five, their shoulders and elbows touching in involuntary gestures of comfort and companionship, and winced with envy. They all faced the same impending doom, yet she was denied the comradeship they shared, separated by her gender even as she separated herself by choice from the few remaining women in the castle.
The injustice of it galled her, though not in the way it would have a few years previous. She hoped she had outgrown the childish idea that the questionable ability to lop off people's heads made a woman "just as good" as a man; knew now that the real reasons her sex was generally barred from combat were far more complex and even sensible than she had once supposed. No, what bothered her was being left so completely in the dark, treated as though what was happening was something about which she need not know any details…like a child, sent to play like a good girl while her parents planned a revolution.
It wasn't as though the castle was invincible, after all, and those inside it had a right to know their risk. Suppose one of the defenses failed and the fortress was taken – there would be little warning and no safety within the walls of Caer Dathyl once breached. Eilonwy rested her hand involuntarily on her sword pommel, knuckles whitening. To be locked in, waiting for destiny, with no knowledge of which way the tide was turning outside…intolerable. She thought of the few women who remained, closeted together in the keep under a guard of only ten men, and shut her eyes.
A commotion in the courtyard made her open them; the head and shoulders of one proud figure was sweeping through the milling sea of men, which parted deferentially before him. Only Gwydion would attract such attention, and she watched him intently as he moved through the courtyard, straining to see the faces of those with whom he stopped to speak. Somewhere in the roiling mass, Taran, Coll, and Fflewddur were busy in preparation. A glimpse of any one of them would be reassuring, if fleetingly so. Again, her ignorance pressed upon her; she had no idea where they would be stationed, no way to find them after the battle even assuming they were victorious. And victory would come at a price if it came at all.
Against her will a vivid image flashed through her mind: Taran, lying lifeless and torn upon the bloodstained earth, his clear eyes staring blindly at the merciless sky. A strangled sob escaped her lips and she pressed her knuckles tightly against her teeth as though to force back those that would follow. If he did fall, she would have no way of knowing…there would be only days of dread-filled waiting, waiting for a closure that might never come, since he would either be buried by his comrades or burnt by his enemies before she was even let out of the keep, likely.
He had not even bidden her a proper goodbye. There had been no time; immediately after Pryderi's departure, the great hall had erupted into activity, Math and Gwydion conferencing between themselves and giving instructions left and right over the general hubbub. When Taran rose at the order to lead the warriors in his command to the armory, Eilonwy had risen with him and followed, only to have her arm caught at the door of the hall by the Prince of Don. Gwydion's piercing green gaze was shrewd. "You are to stay within, under the king's protection," he said shortly, his expression brooking no opposition, and though she bristled internally, she had grown beyond the days of blurting rebellious retorts. Taran had noticed the exchange; he hesitated, their eyes meeting, and she read his relief and exasperation as clearly as if he himself had given the order. One moment more he paused, some strong emotion welling behind his eyes, before the tide of warriors bore him along in its current and he turned his face away. She had not seen him again.
Idiot, she thought bitterly, not knowing whether she applied the epithet to Taran or herself. It would have been simple enough to pull him into some convenient corridor and refuse to release him until he'd swallowed whatever maddening hesitation was holding his tongue. She thought she knew what he wanted to say and had a vague idea why he was postponing it, but if ever there had been a time to throw reserve to the winds it was at that moment. A musty corridor in a besieged castle might not be the most romantic setting but prospects for anything better were fairly weak.
She might speak first, of course. Eilonwy had never been one to wait for someone else to act when she might take initiative herself. But something in their interactions made her bite back emotional words; Taran, with his idyllic notions of honorable manhood, would want to be the one to make the first heartfelt declarations. It was simply his way, and she would respect it…though it was irksome, so much so that she had been unwontedly chilly towards him for the past few weeks, a thing she now regretted. If anything Taran should face Pryderi's warriors with the assurance of her respect and admiration, for in truth she was quite ridiculously proud of him.
The Princess turned from the casement, wrapping her arms around herself protectively. Her eye fell upon a jumbled pile of leather oddments squatting in the corner of her chamber like some misshapen animal and she crossed to it. With some difficulty she pulled various elements free and arranged them on her bed, heedless of oil stains on the linen, until the mass unfolded itself into a leather breastplate, greaves, and gauntlets.
She had waited in the shadows of the doorway of the Great Hall until Gwydion, distracted by his duties, moved on, then quietly joined the moving current of men. Snatching a discarded leather helmet from a nearby table she'd donned it quickly, tucking the wisps of her still-damp hair beneath its edge as she followed the crowd down to the armory. The grim, weary-faced men charged with outfitting the warriors had taken no second glance at her figure, obscured in its baggy tunic and thick jacket; if they had looked at her face at all they saw no more than another fair, slender boy, too young to be caught up in this dark business.
Eilonwy assuaged her guilty conscience by telling herself she was not disobeying the spirit of Gwydion's order. Even if she stayed in the castle, no one could blame her for arming herself for defense… if Caer Dathyl fell, a young warrior within its walls might escape unnoticed – or, at the very least, be put quickly to the sword rather than suffer the atrocities typically inflicted upon captive women.
A surge in the noise from the courtyard brought her back to the casement, to see a burst of activity as groups of warriors moved off in different directions. Only the bowmen on the walls were keeping their stations. This was odd. What could be happening? Once again she cursed her seclusion and coerced ignorance, and glanced surreptitiously at the armor she'd laid out, biting her lip.
The decision took only a moment, and carried a certain air of inevitability. Perhaps this really had been her plan from the beginning, Eilonwy thought wryly as she buckled on the gauntlets, not admitted to herself until now. Or perhaps she was merely going to find out what was going on, in which case the disguise was purely discretionary. Fully outfitted, she took a last glance around the chamber with a sense of finality, tucked her golden sphere into a pocket of her cloak, and crept into the corridor, shutting the door.
She made her way cautiously toward the great hall, listening to the tense murmurings of men in the corridors she passed in hopes of picking up any clue about the situation at hand. Presently a figure smaller than her own darted past her, laden with bulging sacks…a page, carrying provisions. "You, boy!," she called sharply; the lad stumbled and turned. His face expressed surprise and a little indignation at being addressed so curtly by one he took to be of his own station, but she had no patience for pleasantries.
"What news?" she demanded, taking him by the sleeve. "Why do the warriors abandon the courtyard?"
"Have you not heard?" the boy said, breathless, his excitement and agitation evident. "Word from the scouts is that Pryderi does not advance to attack tonight. Lord Gwydion says he will not wait for a siege. He brings the battle to the enemy!"
Eilonwy sucked in her breath, stunned. The boy made to break free and she gripped his arm tighter. "The Commot warriors – those who follow the banner of the White Pig. Where has Gwydion ordered them?"
"I know not," he said impatiently, shaking her off. "Think you the Prince tells me his plans? I must go…do not hinder me." He tore away and sped off down the hall, leaving her standing a little bowed, clenching and un-clenching her fists, her mind in a dizzy whirl of dismayed indecision.
It cleared within seconds, and she straightened, firm resolve in her bearing, having realized all at once that the only thing that had reconciled her to confinement within the castle walls was the knowledge that those she loved would also be within the fortress's boundaries. But now…to be separated, perhaps by leagues, was not what she had anticipated, and it was unthinkable. She would not stand for it.
If she lived there would be time enough to beg Gwydion's pardon for her blatant disobedience. If she did not...well, there was no point in thinking about that.
The upcoming hours would see fate play a bloody sport with all of them. She would not spend such time in ignorance.
Abruptly the Princess turned on her heel, headed for the stables.
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