Okay, okay. You all know I'm a ridiculous sap when it comes to Taran/Eilonwy. I was bound to get to something like this sooner or later, but I did try to make it broader in scope, and I hope it doesn't disappoint in either capacity.
This was inspired by a re-reading of The High King, when I realized that, for a guy who was ready to propose on the spot at the beginning of the book, Taran sure took his sweet time getting around to it by the end, where between the journey home and Dallben's news about the Summer Country he had several carefree days, during which he postponed it for no (textually) apparent reason. If I were Eilonwy, I think I'd have slapped him right after saying yes.
But as I maneuvered around the topic, which I found mostly comedic, I was also musing on Taran's immediate emotions as the rest of his companions leave for the Summer Country and he's left with a kingdom on his hands...which was not at all comedic. The turbulence of such conflicting emotions was a difficult thing to balance, and I'm still not sure I did it well. But I'll leave it to the reader to decide.
Thanks to adaon45 for her advice on this one!
Prydain and all its characters are the creation of Lloyd Alexander; may his spirit live on in the joy he has brought to so many.
A Matter of Hours
Bright sunlight blazed off white sails as they billowed outward, filling with fresh wind. Ropes tightened and strained; wood creaked under the stress of changed direction, and the air rang with the shouts of sailors and the crisp snap of unfurling canvas. The golden sun of the House of Don blazed against the black field of the pennant crowning the highest mast. It was a scene that normally would have made Taran's heart race with excitement, yet now he stood with a heavy spirit on the banks of the Great Avren, watching the faces clustered at the ship's railing – faces that would soon be out of reach forever.
His eyes lingered on each in turn. Dallben, the glitter in his eyes visible from this distance - the only outward sign of any emotion, since his expression was otherwise hidden in his windswept grey cloud of whiskers. Gwydion had his proud head thrown back, joy mingled with sadness on his face as he raised a silent hand. Fflewddur, gallantly attempting gaiety, was whooping and waving. Of Gurgi Taran saw mainly a red circle rimmed with teeth as the creature wailed his misery at leaving his master.
"I wish he'd stop that," Eilonwy sighed next to him. "It's bad enough they're leaving at all, but to have Gurgi's howls be the last thing we hear of them! It's like your house burning down while you're out watering your fields."
Taran, with a wistful smile, tightened his arm around her waist as with the other he waved a final farewell. The golden ship began to move, gathering speed as its prow sliced the blue ribbon of the river. With impossible swiftness, the faces began to grow smaller, the voices lost in a confusion of noise. Eilonwy broke away and ran along the riverbank, waving; Taran followed her in a last impulsive gesture, a desperate attempt to prolong the sights and sounds of those he loved, to add just one more moment, one second…
It was over. The ship rounded a bend in the river and was lost in moments behind the forested banks, and Taran felt his heart swell as if to burst. Eilonwy stopped short, covering her face with her hands, and when he approached her she turned and threw herself into his arms, burying her sobs in his shoulder.
It seemed to Taran that they stood thus for endless moments, separated from the world by shared grief as though huddled on a small island in the midst of a howling storm, clinging to each other for warmth and support. Perhaps if he could hold her tightly enough, the ache in his heart might grow less, and in comforting her he would himself be comforted. Likely enough it was anything but the last time they would have such need of one another, he thought, watching his tears print dark circles on the shoulder of her gown, and buried his face in the waves of her hair.
Presently, sadness notwithstanding, he found himself staring at the place where her neck and shoulder met and fighting the impulse that suggested itself, which, tempting as it was, seemed inappropriate at the moment. Even had their embrace been a joyful one, he was acutely aware of the many pairs of eyes on them from the crowd that had gathered for the departure of the Sons of Don.
He wondered if it had been properly dignified of him to run after the ship…like a dog bidden to stay home chasing his master. Taran dismissed the thought with a grimace, annoyed by the plaguing notion that he might spend the rest of his life evaluating every action in light of how it would seem to his people.
How he could even think of such a thing at such a moment was a question that annoyed him even more. It never ceased to be amazing to him that in the midst of great trial and sorrow, when the very world ought to be turned on its head, one could still be distracted by insignificant details. Dallben, Fflewddur, Gwydion, Gurgi, and the rest of his lifelong companions were lost to him now, their faces etched in his mind next to Coll's, Annlaw's, Adaon's, and countless others…and yet he had the energy left for self-consciousness.
And for noticing how deliciously a woman's jawline melted into the hollow behind her ear…
Eilonwy stiffened suddenly, and disentangled herself from his arms with a little push. She was sniffling, and swiping at her remaining tears, but something in her arch glance and the corners of her mouth suggested she knew exactly what he'd been thinking. Her subsequent smile was watery and wistful. "There's one thing to be glad about," she said, taking his hand as they walked back to the small crowd gathered at the riverbank, "and it's that I'm standing here and not on that blasted ship, being carried away from you."
Taran squeezed her hand, with a pang that was an odd mix of pleasure and pain. "I am still not sure I should have let you stay," he murmured, half-aloud. "When I think of what you have given up—"
From the corner of his eye he saw the toss of her head, and could picture the exasperated expression that accompanied it. "Nothing I regret. You let me, indeed. As if you could have stopped me!"
Taran chuckled, profoundly grateful. "Well...but Eilonwy, eternal life…"
"Without you," she broke in, "just so much time. Too much. Like a day that never ends, when you want to see the stars. Besides, Dallben said the Summer Country is where you find your heart's desire. How was I supposed to do that, with my heart's desire suddenly having an attack of noble obligation and staying behind?"
She elbowed him playfully in the ribs, but Taran understood the sincerity in her words and was comforted. After all, it was impossible to be completely given up to grief on your wedding day…even if encumbered by the sudden, unexpected, and undesired weight of a kingdom.
He didn't particularly want to think about that at the moment, yet it was inescapable. The very people who now crowded around them, hailing them with friendly respect if not reverence – thank Belin, not reverence yet, he didn't think he could bear that – brought the fact continuously before him. Many of them were those he called friend, and he found it embarrassing to see their bows to him, halting and awkward as though such unnatural formality embarrassed them as well.
As he and Eilonwy mounted their horses and turned back in the direction of Caer Dallben, those others who had ridden formed something of a procession behind. One of the Commot youths, overcome with high spirits, galloped ahead, calling back that he would announce their return, and the High King turned to his Queen with a grimace. She shrugged at him, a rueful smile playing at her lips. "Might as well get used to it, you know. It'll be this way from now on."
"You mean no privacy? Wonderful," he muttered, wondering if their retirement together that evening would be heralded with the same inconvenient enthusiasm, and felt his ears grow hot. He flicked the ends of his reins in her direction. "You know, you're supposed to be encouraging."
Eilonwy laughed, a sound that drowned all others from his ears. "Just think – you'll never be in danger of having no one around to scratch where you can't reach."
He snorted. "Is that an official court position? Royal back-scratcher?"
"You could make it one," she suggested gaily, nudging Lluagor into a canter and darting ahead of him on the road. Taran laughed in spite of himself as he watched her, the sunlight streaming off her blazing hair making him momentarily forget that he was King. Melynlas tossed his head and pulled at the bit.
"I know," Taran murmured to the stallion. "Quite irresistible, isn't it? I daresay she knows it, too. Very well, then, go on." He loosened the reins and tightened his knees as the horse sprang forward in pursuit, and felt his heart lighten in the exhilaration of motion and speed as trees and brush began to fly past. There was a hubbub of excitement from behind him as many of the other riders joined in the race, apparently having appointed themselves a sort of unofficial honor guard. Crowds of Commot folk and cantrev nobles encamped in the surrounding fields shouted and waved as they swept past.
Melynlas was the swifter of the beasts, but Taran checked him as he came nose-to-flank with Lluagor. To win a race to Caer Dallben might be the stallion's aim, but his master had other intentions. Eilonwy turned in the saddle, saw him, and bent low over Lluagor's neck as she urged the horse to greater speed. Her silvery laughter drew him on until they rounded the last greening hill into the fields of Caer Dallben and reined up, flushed and windblown.
Eilonwy whirled Lluagor around so abruptly that Taran nearly collided with them, and Melynlas rose onto his hind legs, snorting. "You let me win," she accused him breathlessly, with an indignation obviously feigned; her eyes were merry.
"If you thought I would take more pleasure in winning than watching you," Taran said, grinning at her, "you were mistaken. But I don't believe you really thought that."
Her scarlet cheeks confirmed it, but her gaze darted to something beyond him and her smile faded into an expression of polite attentiveness that she must have learned on Mona; it nearly succeeded in masking her annoyance. From behind him a man's voice called, "My Lord King."
"He's talking to you," Eilonwy reminded him in an undertone, as he caught himself looking around to see who was being addressed. With an unpleasant mental jolt he turned to see one of Smoit's men approaching on foot through the handful of folk congregating. The warrior bowed low…and remained so, longer than seemed necessary. Taran squirmed in the saddle. Eilonwy nudged Lluagor closer to him and leaned over to whisper, "You have to give him permission to rise."
"Belin," he muttered, and cleared his throat. "Erm…you may rise. What is it?"
The man straightened, a smirk pulling at his mouth that Taran chose to interpret as good humor rather than suppressed insolence. "King Smoit desires an audience at your convenience, my Lord."
Taran glanced at Eilonwy, who gave him half a disappointed smile and shrugged. "Your convenience is rarely to be truly convenient anymore, you know," she said lightly. "Strange how much can change in a matter of hours."
He sighed and turned to the waiting warrior. "Very well. Tell him we will come at once."
The man bowed again and retreated, and Taran found himself staring absently after, pondering Eilonwy's words. Strange, indeed, what changes the last hours had brought him.
Only the day before, he would have predicted himself among those now sailing on the Golden Ship, surrounded by his dearest friends with Eilonwy by his side, anticipating naught but everlasting joy in living free of burden or care. Twelve hours ago he had given up hope of such happiness, foreseeing instead a mortal span of years filled with toil and hardship, mourning the absence of those he loved yet with the hope of doing as much good as lay within his limited power.
And now here he was, High King over the entire land. It was a position whose full ramifications he would take months, no doubt - perhaps years - to realize, though Taran knew enough to guess that one of the most serious difficulties would be getting the scattered people to recognize him as such. An Assistant Pig-Keeper turned King, not by succession, but by virtue of an obscure prophecy and the word of an old enchanter might expect some resistance from those who considered the claim a weak one. The squabbling cantrev lords of Prydain had rarely been united in their loyalties even in the best of times, and now the war-torn areas of the land were likely in near anarchy. The very thought filled him with weary despair, and he yearned for Dallben's wisdom or Gwydion's experience to bear him up. Even Fflewddur, lightly as he had taken his own kingly responsibilities, would have had at least some knowledge to give him.
There was the Book of Three, of course, and he trusted Dallben's faith in its wisdom. But a dusty old tome was cold comfort in comparison to the friendly counsel of those for whom his heart now seemed torn asunder. Taran had seen the deaths of enough beloved companions in his life to know that the piercing emptiness he felt at their absence would eventually subside into the dull, patient ache of fond memory, but it was a hard thing to lose so many at once. The thought that they sailed to life, not death, should have been balm on the wound; but the loss was no less bitter…though admitting that he felt so caused him fresh pain, that he could find so little room in his heart to rejoice in the fortune of his friends.
And yet, in the midst of sadness, there was much to look forward to with eagerness, and Taran knew also the power of work and activity at healing the heart. All the tasks he had set himself, which he had known to be insurmountable for one such as he, now lay within his influence, and the stores of ancient knowledge captured by Arawn were in his grasp. Caer Dathyl could rise again, its treasure-trove of lore and wisdom perhaps unearthed. The Red Fallows might bloom once more. The seawall on kingless Mona would be built, the razed Commots restored, the fields of Caer Dallben tended until they flourished. These things and many more were now in his power to do, or at least attempt.
And there was Eilonwy. He glanced to his side, where she held Lluagor to a dignified walk, and his spirit lightened. This very morning he had awoken with the heartbreaking knowledge that by the afternoon she would be lost to him forever. Yet now here she was beside him, their faithfulness to one another pledged only scant hours before. She had given up eternal life and ease to remain with him, and he wondered how he could ever have doubted how she would answer.
Not that he was entirely easy with her choice. He had been hard-pressed in Dallben's chamber to let her make it without interference from him. A strong sense of self-sacrifice, of wanting what was best for her over his own wishes, had almost made him shout out at her to stop and think, to consider well what she would forsake if she stayed. It was not only eternal life and the happiness of the Summer Country – by wishing her powers gone, it seemed to him she was severing part of herself, and the only tenuous tie to her lofty heritage. Even now Taran wondered if he would ever be comfortable with himself for being the cause, and the beneficiary, of such a sacrifice.
But even as part of him had thought these things, the rest of his mind, wild with desperate hope, had risen in opposition. When Eilonwy had slipped the cold weight of the Peledryn in his hand and murmured her farewell, with an expression only he had seen, his own resolve to stay had wavered for an instant. Always it was the moments he was most sure of losing her that made him realize how he needed her, and every precious memory of their lives together had rushed past him with heartbreaking finality.
Was it any wonder he had been silent?