As I hinted in my last chapter of Diaries, we now get a certain scene from Gwydion's perspective.
This was more difficult than I expected - mainly because I felt a need to turn it into something more than let's-look-at-Eilonwy-from-someone-else's-eyes. Not everyone finds her as interesting as I do, and this was supposed to be about Gwydion. It took me quite a few re-writes - including some action that prequels this and turned out to be unnecessary, but may be fodder for another one-shot down the road - to get something I felt was reasonably...um...thematic. I mean, the story has to beabout something, right? (I'm getting very verbose, aren't I? This is what comes of reading Robin McKinley's blog. Man, does that woman not do brevity.)
Anyhow. I don't know that this is my strongest story from a does-it-have-a-point perspective. But in the void of Gwydion-centric fic, I guess it's a start.
Prydain and all its characters are the creation of the incomparable Lloyd Alexander.
An ugly word, a word that twisted the tongue and ground the teeth together, thundered through the trees. The Prince of Don, having shouted it at the top of his straining lungs toward his adversary, heard a sound like a great sigh as though the earth itself, horrified at his utterance, had held its breath. Then, with a scream that rent the air between land and sky, the Horned King burst into flame.
Gwydion watched grimly as the antlered giant stumbled flaming among the trees, unflinching at the gruesome spectacle. The smoldering fury of battle rage still surged within him with familiar intensity and he did not seek to quell it; the screams of innocents, burning within cages of death, still rang in his ears, and the prince had hungered savagely to hear that scream issue from the throat of the one responsible. Grateful as he was at the effectiveness of the spoken Name that had overthrown his enemy, he found himself a little perversely disappointed not to have the satisfaction of driving a blade through the big barbarian's vitals. Disturbed at himself, he finally turned his face away. The line between justice and violence was often too thinly drawn for his own good or comfort.
The screams of the dying man went on, a horrible sound, accompanied, he realized suddenly, by other screams, higher-pitched, interspersed with hysterical sobs. A commotion as of some large animal crashing carelessly through the underbrush made him turn back in time to intercept something very much unexpected.
A frantic figure was stumbling blindly through the trees in his direction, shrieking to wake the dead, and he had just enough time to register that it was a young woman – a girl, really, just on the edge of childhood – before she ploughed into him, momentarily blinding him in a flurry of fiery hair. Automatically Gwydion grabbed her by the arms, whereupon she launched into a frenzied assault, fighting like a thing possessed with strength he would not have believed possible were he not familiar with the abilities panic and trauma temporarily lent a sufferer. He grit his teeth as her flailing feet made contact with his shins, and struggled to pin her arms down, grunting in pain when she sunk her teeth into his hand.
Clearly it was not the time for harshness, so Gwydion bit back the words he would have used with a panicky boy and called upon his knowledge of calming frightened horses. Even as he fought with her he spoke gentle, soothing words in a low monotone, and when he succeeded in catching her arms he clutched her tightly against his chest, rendering her immobile, and rocked back and forth like a mother with a newborn. She struggled, but was weakening; her screams had changed to gasping sobs, interrupted by occasional hiccups.
He occupied the time by studying what he could see of her, which wasn't much, as her face was buried in his jacket and obscured by long unkempt hair badly in need of a wash. He was no judge of the age of young females but she was certainly not more than twelve or thirteen, wiry and thin; the wrists he had seized were bony. Her garments were too small, ragged at hem and sleeve and would never again be their original white, but the material was fine, the workmanship masterful. Traces of gold embroidery still clung to the threadbare neckline.
A mystery indeed. That she was certainly not from Caer Dathyl, he was sure.
Her sobs were subsiding and he felt her relax, and in a moment thought it safe to release his grip. With a sniff she drew back and looked him in the face.
And the Prince of Don missed a breath.
"Lord Gwydion," Queen Regat gestured to her left, where stood a slender girl, arrayed in ceremonial finery, a silver circlet crowning her braided masses of red-gold hair, "may I present the Princess Angharad."
The statement was accompanied by a none-too-subtle nudge in the princess's ribs, and she dropped into a practiced curtsey with the air of doing something obligatory rather than desirable. Gwydion bowed in return, amusement pulling at his mouth, and rose to face her appraising sea-green stare.
He came to himself with a start, the memory slipping back into the recesses of being, and stared at the face before him in wonder. It was a mirror image of the face in his mind's eye, right down to the sharp, calculating expression. The brilliant hair, the arched brows, the freckle-sprinkled nose, the full mouth and saucy pointed chin – all were there, all identical. Even the proud, faintly defiant tilt to the head was the same.
Angharad. Impossible. Angharad had been a child when he had seen her, some twenty years ago. And these eyes, he realized abruptly, were blue instead of green, and bore a guarded wariness that had not been present in Angharad's frank gaze.
His eyes dropped to the silver crescent pendant dangling from a chain around the girl's neck and again his breath caught. The symbol of Llyr. There could be no doubt, then. This could only be Angharad's child.
Questions rose like flocks of birds in his mind, all squawking for supremacy. Angharad had disappeared some fourteen years previous; did she still live, where, and how? Llyr itself was in ruins, its stronghold destroyed in some unknown catastrophe, the nature of which had cost him and the High King more than one night of sleep. Would this waif know aught of its demise? How was it that no one knew of the existence of a daughter – the only surviving heir of the royal house – where had she been all this time, and by all the gods what was she doing here? From whence had she come and how, and in a state clearly indicative of lack of care?
In the time it took to take a breath the Prince, long used to the discipline of focusing on immediate concerns, pushed the raucous flock of questions to the bottom of his mind and asked the one that seemed most practical: "Are you hurt?"
His voice seemed to shock her into thought; Gwydion saw comprehension dawn upon her face. She burst into a fresh wave of tears and he tried to pull her close again, but she jerked away, turning back in the direction from which she'd come, gasping out broken fragments of speech whose meaning he strove to grasp as he followed.
It was difficult. She was close to hysteria and nearly incoherent, but he caught several repetitions of the words "sword" and "Taran".
Taran! Gwydion sucked in his breath through clenched teeth and strode ahead anxiously. He had thought the boy killed in the ruin of Spiral Castle and had dreaded bearing the news to Dallben, knowing the old enchanter's secret hope concerning him. That he should have survived that catastrophe to come so far and then fall at the very gates of Caer Dathyl would be grim fate indeed.
The scouts from Caer Dathyl had seen their prince follow the Horned King into the woods and fanned out to protect him from the rear; now they approached from different directions to fall into the trail of their leader, with baffled glances at his disheveled young escort. Gwydion caught their eyes in turn and warned them, with a look, not to interfere.
She led him back to the ring of trees where the body of the Horned King lay in smoldering fragments, and ran past it, throwing herself tearfully beside a figure that sprawled on the ground – one Gwydion recognized though it was much the worse for wear. He knelt beside the boy and bent over him for a few uneasy moments, silently willing him to survive.
Taran was pale and limp, but the pulse in his throat throbbed under the prince's fingers. Gwydion let out his breath with relief, only at that moment becoming aware that he had been holding it. He saw the girl's anxious glance and smiled at her. "He lives. Be easy, Princess."
She showed no surprise at the title, erasing any lingering doubts he may have had, and bent over the lad with surprising tenderness, her long hair dangling over his face. Gwydion politely pretended not to notice while, sniffling a little self-consciously, she brushed at the dead leaves stuck to the boy's jacket as two of the men arranged to lift him.
"Lord Gwydion," another scout approached, holding a sword sheathed in a battered black scabbard. "We found this beneath yonder tree." He held it out, and Gwydion found his eyes drawn to it, but before he could reach up the girl snatched it away.
"That's mine," she declared, with a look of outrage at the astonished scout. Her shrewd glance flickered back to the prince. "Gwydion?" she repeated slowly, then, in a rush, "Gwydion, Prince of Don?"
He nodded, wondering amusedly what she knew of him.
"We thought you were dead!" she blurted out, then, seeming to sense her own impertinence, added quickly, "I'm terribly glad you aren't, of course."
Gwydion forced down a laugh but his men were not so polite. The girl flushed at their unabashed mirth, and suddenly knelt before him with trained formality. She knew something of court manners then, though where she had learned them he could not guess. With ceremonial poise she held out the black scabbard toward him.
"I spoke the truth when I called this mine," she said, glancing imperiously at the scout from whom she'd snatched it, "for it was I who took it from the barrow beneath Spiral Castle."
Spiral Castle, Gwydion noted with a start. Achren. Glimmerings, like puzzle pieces waiting to be fit, hovered at the edges of his mind, but the girl was still speaking and he boxed them away to be studied later.
"It wasn't doing any good for its previous owner," she went on, as though fearing an accusation of thievery, "but to be honest it doesn't do me much good either. Since it's mine to give, I should like to give it to you, Lord Gwydion." She smiled at him, a sight to melt the heart. "It says on the scabbard that it's only to be drawn by one of royal blood. I daresay you fill that requirement better than anyone else."
Gwydion thought, with a pang, of that same smile on another face twenty years previous. You are shorter than I thought you'd be, she had said, and the queen had rolled her eyes skyward in exasperation at her daughter's impudence.
He dragged himself to the present and took the proffered sword, noting the etchings in the pommel and scabbard, warding symbols and old runic letters. That she could read the inscription intrigued him, for only those trained in magic and perhaps a handful of the bards could decipher such writing. The power of Llyr was not yet extinguished then, and someone...Achren...had known it.
The metal was cool in his hand and it tingled a little; he was familiar enough with magic to recognize that he held an object of great power. The girl flinched almost imperceptibly when he drew the blade. It blazed white in the dimness of the woods, and a tongue of flame that was not really flame licked up the edge and sizzled at the point.
"It is an elegant weapon," Gwydion said, "and a noble gift." Probably she had no idea how noble, nor of the value of what she had just given him. "I thank you, Lady." He smiled at her and she drew herself up with dignified pride, and he thought to test her knowledge of ceremony, and handed the weapon back to her. "Perhaps you will do me the honor?"
She hesitated a moment, biting at her lip, and then took the sword, fumbling at the belt buckle. Gwydion glared at his chuckling scouts with all the gravity he could muster while she fastened the sword at his waist. She omitted the pretty speeches that normally accompanied the task but clearly was impressed with the importance of the performance, stepping back to admire the effect when it was done.
Questions hammered at the prince's mind once more, but there was work to be done and time was pressing. He had no doubt that the knowledge that their leader was slain would set the enemy to route, and crossed over to the body, grasping one bone-white antler to pick up the skull mask, grimacing when what remained of the neck and face beneath crumbled into cinders at the movement. From the corner of his eye he saw the girl shudder and turn away.
A ringing neigh interrupted his orders to his men, and the sound of hoofbeats pounded through the trees. Gwydion raised his face with a glad call as Melyngar came crashing through the bracken toward him. Her sides were foam-streaked and heaving, but her speech, forming itself into words in his mind, was joyful.
They said you were dead, but I did not give up hope, she told him in a contented whicker.
Hope, he thought, pausing with a hand on her bridle, the word striking a chord within him. Of all the torments in Achren's considerable arsenal, despair had been the hinge upon which the rest turned. In Oeth-Anoeth, hope had been mocked and abused; degraded as futile, infantile, and illusory.
Yet here he stood, whole and victorious, with the emblem of his enemy grasped in his hand.
He glanced at the girl, who was fluttering around the men carrying Taran, admonishing them indignantly on the proper way to care for him. Angharad's child, living, found…beyond all hope.
And Taran himself. Upon first meeting the headstrong boy, Gwydion had known moments of thinking Dallben an old fool, one whose great learning had perhaps addled his mind at last. Yet the boy who had thrown himself into a thornbush, nearly drowned himself in the Avren, and panicked under a gwythaint attack had somehow escaped from Spiral Castle and traveled to the very gates of Caer Dathyl in one piece, presumably from a sense of duty. Furthermore, he had faced down a formidable enemy and would live to remember it. Given the circumstances, Gwydion thought, these were no small feats.
How many countless thousands of hopes were pinned unknowingly on this boy, lying limp as a rag doll in the ungentle grasp of his warriors?
Gwydion smiled. Hope. It could never be quite destroyed.
He swung into Melyngar's saddle, a joyful cry of victory rising from his throat.