***Edited June, 2021***
Hours had passed. The sun had long since begun it downward arc, sending longer and longer shadows marching across the valley. Telyn watched from the gatehouse, anxiously surveying the river of warriors as they streamed slowly back toward Caer Dathyl. A roiling mixture of worry, impatience, and hope swelled in her chest like water rising behind a dam, straining against her ribs until she felt sure they would split. Ten warriors reached the gate… then twenty… then thirty… She had expected her companions to be leading the group, but they were nowhere to be seen. Ten more… fifteen… Time limped along at a painful pace. By the warriors' high spirits, Telyn knew the battle must have gone well… But where, then, was their king? Where were her companions? Where was her bard?
"You'll drive yourself mad with searching," one of the archers grumbled as she walked by him for what must have been the fiftieth time. "Why not wait down in the courtyard? You'll still have a view of everyone as they enter, and there will be more room for your pacing."
Telyn shot him a mild glare, but turned and headed down the tower stairway as suggested. In the courtyard she resumed her wait, alternately leaning against the wall and pacing still more, her eyes scarcely leaving the massive portal for longer than the blink of an eye. The outer courtyard steadily filled with warriors in a noisy disarray. The clamor of their triumphant cries, shouted orders, and muddled conversations echoed between the stone walls, jarring her nerves still more.
Then, at last, she saw them. Near the very end of the host, Taran, Eilonwy, and Fflewddur strode through the gates. They were on foot, having lent their own steeds to some of the wounded, and held back to ensure all of the fallen had been properly buried. They looked ragged and weary, but alive.
A wordless cry of relief burst from Telyn as she shoved her way through the crowd and bolted toward them. Before they had even spotted her, she reached Fflewddur's side and flung her arms around him with the force of a charging steed. Stunned speechless, he clutched her tightly in return as she pressed her head against his chest. They stood for a long moment thus, a small island in the current of warriors swirling around them. Eilonwy plucked at Taran's sleeve and led him away with a knowing smile—there would be time for more greetings and stories later.
At last, with a deep sigh of relief, Telyn pulled away from the bard. Only then, when she looked up to meet his gaze, did she notice the gash and growing bruise above his brow. "You're hurt!" she exclaimed, worriedly touching her fingers to the wound. Quickly, she took a step back to survey the rest of him. "And your sleeve is cut to ribbons! I can't imagine your arm is much better underneath…"
"Oh, no need to worry," he clucked as she frantically examined his bloodied forearm. "Shallow cuts, nothing more. Why, I've suffered worse from errant thornbushes!"
"Shallow or no, they need care. Even a small cut can—"
"Telyn!" An urgent cry hailed her from across the courtyard. It was one of the other healers, hurrying toward the tents where injured men were being treated. "Telyn, your help is needed!" he called out, gesturing for her to follow.
She hesitated, looking first toward the healer, then back to Fflewddur, then to the healer again.
"Go on," Fflewddur urged. "I'll manage just fine. Great Belin, it takes more than a rap on the head and a few slashes to bring down a Fflam!"
"But—" she began to protest.
"I will return to my tent and await you there—however long it takes. Don't trouble yourself over me."
Reluctantly, Telyn nodded, her face still drawn with concern. "I will come as soon as I can," she promised, then turned and jogged after the healer.
Fflewddur watched as she threaded her way through the crowd until it swallowed her entirely. Something tugged sharply within him—an invisible cord stretching tight as one end was pulled away. Would there be no end to his waiting? Each time he came within reach of Telyn, the tide of circumstance swept her away yet again.
His thoughts remained with her as he returned to his tent and began disentangling himself from the array of weapons and leather armor slung around him. He pulled off his mud- and blood-splattered jacket, then his tunic and linen undershirt, looking ruefully at the stains and jagged rents that marred them—unsalvageable, most likely, except as patches for other clothing. Cleaning himself up would clearly take more than the meager contents of his leather flask. So, he snatched up his wash-bucket and ducked out again to fetch some water from the well. The air was chill on his bare skin, but he was too distracted to take much notice.
Telyn's embrace… Surely that had been more than the greeting of one relieved comrade to another. Yet, how much more? And coming on the heels of her fervent pleas to accompany him into battle, too… Was her heart turning back toward his? Or, was that simply more vain hope, wishing so hard for something that he conjured a mirage of it before his eyes? Yet, the sensation of her arms wrapped around him and her body pressed against his after so many months pining for her… That had been all too real—a coursing joy so intense, so full, that he'd felt it humming in his very bones.
Soon enough, he was back at his tent with virtually no recollection of his trip to the well, yet somehow with a full wash-bucket in hand. He did his best to scrub away the sweat and grime, wincing a little as he took a first pass at cleaning his wounds. Careless, he thought. Far too close for comfort. A Fflam should have skill enough to avoid such injuries. Although… the sight of Iscawin getting what he deserved was certainly worth the pain…
The day's battle had left him in an incongruous state of exhilarated exhaustion: too spent to do much, yet too hot-blooded to remain still. Needing something to preoccupy himself, he set about cleaning his sword properly: wiping it down once, then twice, then a third time for good measure; burnishing it to a shine, as though he might see an answer reflected there if only he polished enough. Telyn had not yet come. So, he turned next to cleaning the scabbard itself… then his dagger… then his buckler… then to oiling all of the leather strapping… Then, he paced aimlessly a bit, for want of anything else to clean. Still, there was no sign of Telyn.
Finally, he pulled his harp from its case and sat down on his low pallet to play. His mind was far too scattered for complete songs, so he plucked away at fragments instead—random snatches of melody that flitted into his head like passing birds. If he could catch one or two, perhaps they might become songs…
Abruptly, the entrance flap of the tent swung aside. Telyn entered, as if summoned by the harp. Fflewddur's stomach fluttered and his hands stilled. In her own hands, Telyn bore a water basin, a mortar filled with herbs ground into a poultice, and some strips of linen for bandages. "Now I can set you to rights," she said, her voice sounding as drawn and weary as the expression she wore. "I am sorry you had to wait so long—most of the injured warriors were not too bad off, but there were many…"
"Oh, that's quite all right," Fflewddur said as he set the harp aside. "I've kept myself occupied. Why, the time flew by in an instant! I hardly even noticed it passing."
Telyn sat down on the pallet beside him, placing the basin and mortar within reach. She tipped some water from his leather flask into the basin and dipped in a cloth. Then, with great care, she began wiping his wounds clean—first forehead, then arm. She pressed the poultice she had mixed against his skin, then wrapped clean bandages around, and around, and around his arm again, knotting them carefully just above his wrist. Silently, Fflewddur watched her work—the sure movements of her hands, the intensity of her focus, the arc of her bent neck and sweep of her hair… It was the sweetest of torments, having her so close again—like a goblet of water held just beyond the reach of a thirsting man.
"I still can't fathom how well most things have fallen into place," he mused aloud, attempting to pull his thoughts away from one looming thing that had not resolved. "Just think: us returning to Caer Dathyl when we did; you and Eilonwy scouting in exactly the right location to reveal Iscawin's treachery; warning Taran and the rest of us just in time; Iscawin falling in battle—and just wait until you hear how that played out; Meilyr having enough sense to stand down… I don't know who is pulling the strings of destiny, but I must say they've tied up the loose ends rather nicely."
Telyn's already pensive expression darkened further, and she gripped the basin hard. "Destiny?" she asked bitterly, staring into the dark pool. "No—all is chance and turmoil. We only talk of fate to give ourselves solace and free us from regret." She shook her head grimly. "Nearly everything burned to ashes. Gurgi was lost. Nearly all was lost, including you—" Her voice hitched. A long silence followed. "And I am partly to blame," she murmured at last. "Had I not left Caer Dathyl, we might have been here to see this coming. We might have stopped it before it went so far…"
Fflewddur, taken aback, did not reply at first. The distress writhing beneath the surface of Telyn's words made him long to wrap his arms around her—to give her something solid to cling to amid the torrent of emotion. Yet, he feared that would only startle her, and cause her to break away.
Words, then—he could embrace her with words, at least. "That may or may not be true," he admitted slowly. "But it seems to me you had a hand in saving us all, too. And if there is no such thing as fate… Well, then I suppose we keep spinning our own stories, don't we? We, ourselves, can create purpose for our lives." He ventured a wry smile. "You have always been mistress of your own story, that's certain. The way you charge after whatever you desire… There is risk of regret in that, true, but there is also the chance of great reward."
Telyn remained silent and still, head lowered, worrying the rim of the basin with one thumb for a while before setting it aside. She drew in a deep breath. Fflewddur found himself doing the same, waiting. Always waiting.
She faced him, then, raising her eyes to his—sunlight and storm, golden fire and darkest sea, Llyan and Telyn both. "May I stay with you tonight?" she asked quietly.
It took him a moment to comprehend her words. Then, a surge of raw emotion flooded him. "Belin…" he exhaled, almost in a whisper. "Any night… Every night." It was an invitation. It was a plea. It was layer upon layer of armor cracking and falling away from his heart, allowing hope to pierce it once again. "I never want to be without you again…"
"Nor I without you."
That was all Fflewddur needed to hear. In an instant, he'd pressed his lips to hers, kissing her as though it had been years, not months, since the last time—as though he might never have the chance again. Telyn returned the kiss in kind, pushing back insistently, urgently, claiming him without reservation.
Finally, they broke apart just far enough for a breath, still with forehead pressed to forehead. A sigh shuddered from Telyn's lips.
"My offer still stands, you know…" Fflewddur murmured. "Will you still not accept it?"
Abruptly, Telyn withdrew, her gaze uneasy. An instant later, she rose and moved to step away.
Fflewddur caught her hand and pulled her back around to face him. "No, don't go pacing about like you do," he said. "Look at me. Hear me out. I know, I promised I would say nothing more about that matter until you did, but—well—the truth of it is, patience has never been one of my strengths, as I'm sure you've noticed."
A thin smile bent Telyn's lips. She said nothing, but nor did she turn from him again.
"You gave your reasons before, and fair enough reasons they were," Fflewddur continued. "And yet, I cannot help but ask again. You can't possibly doubt my love for you—and unless I'm sorely mistaken, you care for me in return. And it may not matter much to you, but you ought to have the status you deserve…"
Telyn's head tilted slightly in skeptical consideration but, still, she gave no reply. He clasped her hand more tightly. "And I want you to have a home that is truly yours, forever, no matter what happens to me… Resources, security… And… and an end to the gossip fools throw about behind your back—I know that troubles you more than you let on, you know. And… Um… And it would… Uh…" He foundered, looking increasingly bewildered as he grasped for reasons that might persuade her. "And it would make the story so much better?" he trailed off weakly.
At that, a brief laugh sprang from Telyn; her eyes glinted with affectionate mirth. "Oh, my gallant, sentimental Fflam… Is that what you are really after? A typical happy ending to your tale?"
"No! Not only that," Fflewddur protested. "Oh, drat and blast—I'm mucking this up horribly, aren't I?" He shook his head ruefully. "What I mean to say is: I love you, Telyn. I love you, and I want every last person in this land to recognize that without question."
Telyn's amused expression turned thoughtful, searching. With bated breath, Fflewddur waited yet again for her to speak.
"It is not the way of kings to marry for love," she said quietly. "Is that truly what it signifies to you?"
"I just said as much, did I not?"
Another pause. Another thoughtful, searching look. "And you would trust me, now, not to stray from you?"
"Of course!" he replied earnestly. "I learned that lesson in about the hardest way imaginable."
"And I could trust that you will not constrain my freedom, even when law and custom would allow it?"
"Without a doubt! I have no desire to keep you on a leash, and never have—I merely want to walk beside you."
"And you would continue to love me?" she asked, taking a step closer. "Even when I am not what the world expects of a queen, or a wife, or even just a woman?"
"I cannot stop loving you," Fflewddur swore. "Goodness knows I tried to when you left—but I simply couldn't, any more than I could stop breathing. Besides," he went on, "I am certainly no paragon of kingship, as we both know all too well; so, we'll make a fitting pair, really."
Telyn paused for a moment longer, a smile edging back into place and her gaze softening. "Then let us be wed," she declared.
Fflewddur beamed. "As good as done!" he shouted, leaping up from the pallet. "Done a hundred times over! A thousand times!" He pulled Telyn close for yet another ecstatic kiss, then swept her up into his arms and spun her about in a wild circle.
"Oy! Watch your arm—I just bandaged that!" she cried out, though her radiant smile belied her scolding.
Fflewddur laughed heartily, but obligingly set her back on her feet. "Tonight, then—at the feast! Great Belin, what better way to end a victory celebration than with a wedding? The whole of Caer Dathyl shall bear witness!"
"Hold, hold!" Telyn said, laughing herself. "You wouldn't deny your subjects a chance to celebrate, would you? Should we not wait until we return home?"
"Two celebrations, then—one here and another there! A Fflam never does anything by half-measures!" he exclaimed.
"All right, all right—tonight, then. You've waited this long, and I shan't make you wait much longer," Telyn agreed. "But for now," she added, reaching up to twine her arms around his neck, "no more words for a while. I've had my fill of talking."
"But of course! A Fflam knows when to speak, and when to—"
Telyn gave him no chance to finish, stopping his mouth with a hungry kiss.
Nearly all light was gone from the casement, and the room had grown dark. "I suppose we had better get ourselves to the celebration, hadn't we?" Eilonwy sighed into the crook of Taran's neck.
"Mmnngggh… Can we not simply stay here?" he groaned in return, hugging her even more tightly to his side. "It's warm, and comfortable, and nothing down there is going to be any more enjoyable than—"
"It would be poor form for the High King and Queen to miss their own victory feast," Eilonwy cut in. "I'm afraid we've stolen about as much time for ourselves as we can afford." Reluctantly, she pulled away and sat up, combing her fingers through her tangled hair. Taran pulled the blanket over his head with another groan of disapproval. "Oh, come now," she chided, thwapping him with a pillow. "I don't want to leave this bed any more than you do, but duty is duty."
"Did we not fulfill our duty sufficiently this morning?" he grumbled. "Defeating one traitor and turning another into something of an ally?"
Eilonwy pulled the blanket back from his face and leaned in close. "No," she replied sternly, though her eyes sparkled and Taran could see a smile nudging up the corners of her mouth. "Finding an end to royal duty would be like trying to empty the ocean with a bucket."
He grinned crookedly in return, then pulled her down for another long kiss.
Too soon, though, she was pulling away again, slipping out from between his arms like silk. "I mean it, Taran—we must go," she said. "You've put me quite outside my wont at the moment, needing to be the one all hard-headed about duty, and it takes quite a lot of effort. We must get dressed before my resolve fails entirely…"
When they crossed the inner courtyard a short while later, the blazing orange sun was already sinking below the blue horizon, and torches were blazing beside the doors of the Great Hall. Raucous shouts, laughter, and indiscernible chatter from within tumbled through the chill spring air, beckoning them onward.
The moment they stepped across the threshold, they could see that Medyr had done his work well. One would never have imagined that, just that morning, the same space had teemed with frantic warriors making their final preparations for a perilous battle. Now, the long trestle tables were set back in place and laden with all manner of food. Bright banners hung from the rafters. Wine and ale filled every drinking horn. Music and peals of laughter were chasing away the day's pain, grief, and worry. All around, many a heart was soaring at the sheer relief of being alive to enjoy it all.
At first, Taran's heart soared, too, when a hearty round of cheers rose to greet him and Eilonwy. Yet, as they made their way around the room to thank the warriors and common folk who had served so well, he felt his heady joy begin to ebb. Brightly though the torches and candles shone, and as bustling as the Great Hall was with life, in the cast shadows and gaps between men he saw the figures of those who had not survived the day. The toll had been far less than it might, but that seemed a hollow consolation. One empty seat in particular haunted him fiercely—all the more so upon realizing he had briefly forgotten his grief for the one who usually sat there.
Eilonwy followed his suddenly somber gaze to where it rested upon Gurgi's place. "I miss him, too," she said quietly, taking Taran's hand as they went to their own seats at the high table. "He would have been utterly beside himself tonight, with all of this food about…"
"Indeed," Taran murmured. "And it is not only for Gurgi that I mourn… or over whose fate I feel guilt."
"I understand," Eilonwy replied as she took her seat. She glanced around the room, then, studying the faces of all those assembled. "You might say something, you know—to everyone here, I mean. I've no doubt some are feeling as much grief as you beneath their outward cheer. It might help them to hear their king acknowledge it."
"I do not want to cast a pall over this," Taran said, gesturing toward the lively celebration below. "Many truly are happy, and I've no wish to diminish that."
"Suit yourself, but they'll be expecting some sort of address, regardless," she reminded him.
Taran considered that for a moment—and thought, too, about how knowing what to say was often one of the most difficult aspects of kingship. So much rode on every word. At last, slowly, he rose from his chair and then raised his hands in turn, waiting for silence rather than calling out for it. One by one, the guests saw him and fell into an anticipatory hush.
"This night," he began solemnly, "we mark a great victory against the forces of disorder, dishonor, and destruction. Together, we stood our ground, and together, we spared this land from a broader war. Yet, that victory can only be bittersweet, knowing that many who helped win it cannot join in celebrating it. Queen Eilonwy and I share in your great happiness tonight. But so, too, we share in your grief for those who perished today. No death in battle holds greater value than the life lost, and we mourn that grim necessity forced such an unfair exchange. We have buried the fallen with honor and gratitude, and hope that their spirits are at peace, knowing their sacrifices were not in vain."
Taran paused then, pulling a deep breath from the silence to sustain what would follow. An encouraging look from Hevydd and a nod from Llassar carried him onward. "There are two who served equally well and sacrificed as much, but whose bodies we were unable to show the same honor: Erim of Rheged and Gurgi of the Forest, who went forth as scouts and never returned. I will leave Erim's due to King Rhodri, who knew him better." So saying, he gestured to the older king, who rose and paid tribute to his fallen scout. Taran scarcely heard him, so preoccupied was he with his own search for words.
As Rhodri concluded, Taran cleared his throat quietly, then began again. "And I," said he, "would like to speak for a moment of Gurgi, my steadfast companion of many years. We crossed paths under odd circumstances, he and I, and had even stranger adventures in the time that followed. Despite danger, and injury, and fears for his own head, never did his faithfulness flag. Never did he withhold help when it was needed. Never did he cease striving to be more than what he was. Although a creature of the forest—a coarse and unusual beast to unfamiliar eyes—in courage, loyalty, friendship, and deed, he more than lived up to the full measure of a man. He—"
Suddenly, Taran's voice snagged. His throat closed. His tongue refused to heed his intent. He swallowed hard… bit down on his lip lest it dare to tremble… looked to the rafters, looked to the assembled crowd, looked to the insides of his own eyelids, trying to will away the tears burning behind them. He knew that he must continue his address, and simultaneously knew that he simply could not. It was too much. To utter one syllable more would rupture the thin wall that barely contained his grief.
The touch of a warm hand on his pulled him back to solid ground. He glanced down at Eilonwy, whose own eyes were spilling over with tears but fixed determinedly on the space before them. She gave him a quick nod, her gaze briefly meeting his before flicking away again. "It's all right," she whispered, her lips barely moving. "It's all right, Taran. It's enough."
It would have to be. Heart bursting with sorrow for Gurgi and love for Eilonwy, Taran raised his chalice high in a silent toast, closing his eyes and bowing his head. Then, he sank into his chair as the Hall resounded with reverent, approving applause.
Into that rumbling approbation came the creak of heavy doors, a scramble of clawed paws on stone, and a near-breathless shout of exultation and greeting.
There was Gurgi himself.
Before Taran and Eilonwy could truly recognize what they were seeing, he'd streaked up the center of the Hall and kneeled before the high table, panting but grinning wide. The poor creature was much the worse for wear. His fur was matted, blood-darkened, and tangled with so many leaves and twigs than he seemed more plant than animal. A makeshift bandage bound his left leg from ankle to thigh. He looked exhausted; he looked battered; he smelled like an entire pack of wet wolfhounds who'd spent the day rolling in every foul thing they could find. But he was alive.
Eilonwy and Taran sprang to their feet, shouting exclamations of joy that may not have contained anything intelligible except Gurgi's name. They certainly couldn't hear their own voices over the triumphant cheers of all others in the Hall who recognized him. It mattered not. Gurgi was alive, and he'd found his way home.
Medyr, too, leapt to action without awaiting his king and queen's command. He sent one page running for a healer, another to fetch a cloak for Gurgi to wrap himself in, and a third to alert the kitchen staff that several cauldrons' worth of hot water would be needed for a bath. He, himself, set to work assembling a platter of Gurgi's favorite foods. A loyal friend returned from the dead was a guest of honor indeed—and Gwyn the Hunter take him if Gurgi was treated otherwise on his watch!
Already, Gurgi had scampered up and around the high table to greet his friends fully. Taran clasped his paw heartily, beaming. Eilonwy hurried to embrace him, heedless of his filthy state.
"Gurgi… how?!" Taran exclaimed, still quite unable to render his thoughts as full, coherent sentences.
"We thought you were slain!" Eilonwy added, pulling back to marvel at the sheer fact of his presence. "Iscawin's scout told us you were slain! What happened? How did you escape? Are you injured? Are you thirsty? Hungry? Oh, Gurgi, we were heartbroken to think we'd never see you again!"
Gurgi's grin could have guided a march on a moonless night, so brightly it shone. "But Gurgi is here!" he cried triumphantly. "There is no need for tearful weepings and sorrowful sobbings. He is alive and mostly well! But hungry, yes—hear how his empty belly is moaning and groaning with emptiness!"
"And food you shall have, of course," Taran said. "But tell us what happened! Did Meilyr's advance guard set upon you, as Powel said?"
Gurgi's eyes narrowed angrily. "We were," he growled, "because Powel led us right to them! Ohhhh, wicked, rotten scout! He knew right where the warriors would be because he was working with them! He called out and they attacked. Fiercely, Gurgi fought, with great pawings and clawings after they stole away his weapons—strengthful smackings about Powel's traitorous head!" He swiped wildly through the air, miming the fight. "Erim fought, too, but—woe and sadness—they cut him down," he moaned. "Gurgi could not fight them all alone, so he fled—deep and deeper into the darkest woods. Mighty warriors chased after him, but clever, cunning Gurgi knows the ways of the forest much better than they! Their seekings and peekings came to nothing, and Powel limped off to bring you evil lies. Gurgi tried to come quickly to warn you—but alas, his leg was too twisted in the fight." He bowed his head sorrowfully. "He has failed…"
"Now, that's hardly true," Eilonwy assured him. "You recall that watchtower you discovered on Hawk Hill? It was from there that Telyn and I saw Iscawin's trap being set. Without that tower, we could not have warned Taran. So you see, your scouting did save the day—just not the scouting mission we all thought would do it."
At that, the creature's woebegone expression brightened once more. "Gurgi did not fail, then?"
"Not at all," said Taran. "Your keen eyes and ears have served us well, as so many times before—and your stout heart is worth ten times more. You have the makings of a fine scout if you wish to become a proper one."
"No, no, no!" Gurgi exclaimed, shaking his head vigorously. "Gurgi wants no part of scouting anymore—too dangerous for his poor, tender head! He would be much happier as a cook. Only spoons and soup pots for him, now. No blades but kitchen knives!"
"So be it, then," Taran said with a grin. "In truth, I myself would rather see you cooking than fighting. I am glad you were not in battle today, as much as I might have wished for such a stalwart companion by my side. I am all the more glad that you are safely home, now."
"Gurgi might never have gotten home if not for kindly traveler," the creature added, gesturing toward the doorway. Only then did Eilonwy and Taran notice the unassuming stranger who lingered there. Gurgi eagerly waved him forward. "It was Iestyn who bound Gurgi's wounds and helped him hobble home. He does not say much, and Gurgi did not trust him at first—but Gurgi did not say much to him, either."
Iestyn strode forward, pushed back his hood, and bowed humbly before the king and queen. As he straightened and met their eyes, an uneasy sense of familiarity washed over Taran.
"It was my pleasure to assist your companion, your Majesties," Iestyn said warmly. "However, I must admit that I had reason of my own to visit Caer Dathyl, and cause to be quiet about it. You see… Well… No doubt this will sound quite unbelievable, coming from the mouth of a road-rough traveler… but I have come to warn you about my brother, Iscawin."
Instantly, Taran's amorphous feeling of recognition solidified. Ice water coursed down his spine. Indeed, those eyes, that nose, that broad-shouldered stance… although this man was younger and of shorter stature than Iscawin, there could be little doubt that they were kin. Nearby, Gurgi yelped in surprise, and Eilonwy stifled a gasp.
Iestyn hastened to explain. "I have been in Iwerthon, across the western sea, for several years—hiding from that very brother, who sought my death. It pained me deeply to abandon my homeland and people to his depredations, but I had long since lost whatever power I had to shield them, and had too few allies to wrest the crown from him. I never intended to set foot in Prydain again. Yet, when I heard traders' reports that a new king and queen had risen—a pair unfamiliar with Iscawin's appetite for cruelty and manipulation—I knew I must risk a voyage here to warn you. His crimes are many, and grave…"
"So we've gathered," Eilonwy remarked dryly. "We certainly could have used your report sooner. Iscawin was maddeningly good at covering his tracks—right up until the treason and bloodshed he incited today."
Iestyn's earnest expression fell. "Then, he did cause that battle… Gurgi and I saw the aftermath from afar. I feared it might be so when I saw his battle flag." His eyes lowered, and his shoulders bent. "I have come too late."
"In one sense, yes… and yet, remarkably just in time," Taran noted coolly. His glowing joy over Gurgi's return was fast turning to coal. Here, no doubt, stood another dissembler, another grasping power-hunter hoping to exploit the weakness of a fledgling king. How different could two brothers possibly be? "I suppose you now wish to lay claim to the throne of Arvon," he continued, his words tipped with bitterness. "That is the true cause of your journey, is it not?"
"Your Majesty?" Iestyn asked, looking rather taken aback.
"Iscawin is dead, you see," Eilonwy cut in. "Pardon me for not expressing my condolences, but, from what you've said, I don't suppose you're all that sorry about it yourself. To the point, though: we now have yet another cantrev without a ruler—make that a whole host of cantrevs, really, since Iscawin had taken on many of Pryderi's old lands. Now, here you stand before us: an heir to the throne, arriving just at the moment one is needed. It's as convenient as a shepherd offering to sell you sheep the very day after someone let loose your own flock."
For an instant, Iestyn's lips parted soundlessly in surprise. "What? Oh—no, no! That was not my intent at all!" he objected, shaking his head and raising his hands as if to physically push the notion away.
"Truly?" asked Eilonwy, eyebrow quirked.
"Truly!" Iestyn assured her. "Iwerthon has very much become my home. Farming suits me far better than the life of a noble—and my wife and children would be loath to leave the land of their birth, besides. No, I seek no throne."
The ensuing pause felt as uncomfortable as a wet wool tunic in a stiflingly hot room. For a while, Taran could only stand there, hot with embarrassment. He stole a glance at Eilonwy for support, but she looked equally adrift. "I see… Well… We are most grateful that you took such pains to bring us warning," he eked out at last, "and more grateful still for the help you gave Gurgi. Please," he continued, gesturing toward the high table, "join us for the meal tonight—you must need it as sorely as he does after such an arduous journey."
"No doubt! Gurgi's wounds must be tended to immediately as well," Eilonwy added hastily, leaping upon the change in subject. "Medyr? Medyr!" She looked around and called out to the Chief Steward with a wave.
He bustled over, wearing his usual good-naturedly stolid expression and bearing a sizeable platter of food. "A healer should arrive momentarily, Your Majesty, and a bath is already being prepared. In the meantime, I presume Gurgi and Prince Iestyn will have hearty appetites to slake."
Gurgi was already eyeing the heaping platter longingly as Medyr set it upon the table. "Go on," Taran urged. "There will be time to share more of your story later. We ought to be eating something ourselves, really…"
Relieved at the respite from talking—and further opportunities to put his foot in his mouth—Taran ate in silence beside Eilonwy. She, too, was uncommonly quiet for a time. Yet, he could see that was on account of the dialogue firing away within her mind—he knew that look of intense, agitated contemplation all too well. It was only a matter of minutes before…
"We really are stuck in a thornbush, aren't we?" she burst out. Taran smiled faintly; yes, here it came… "I mean, it's not quite as sharp as the one this morning," she continued, "but the vacant throne in Arvon is no laughing matter, either. A year of fretting, and now here we are right where we began. Who could we possibly put on the throne? Fflewddur has the good nature, but can barely tolerate his own tiny realm. Smoit has no heirs, which will only lead to future trouble. Rhodri is steadfast enough, but already struggles with Cantrev Rheged. Tegwyn and Cedrych are far too hot-headed. Ffion certainly has the political cunning, but that's also cause to be wary since we aren't sure of her loyalties. Besides, there's a chance she'll end up back in Rheged anyway—Rhodri did say he intends to meet with her soon, didn't he? Hmmph." With a sharp jab, she skewered a hunk of meat with her knife, popped it into her mouth, and chewed away furiously. "It would be terribly convenient if Iestyn could be king. He has a blood claim, at least, which would keep naysayers a bit quieter about their grumbling. If only we knew he were trustworthy…"
"His kindness to Gurgi speaks well of him, and it did not appear feigned," Taran remarked. "Yet, kindness alone is not enough to govern a realm. Do you think Telyn would know more of him? Could she vouch for his skill as well as his character?"
"Perhaps… She knows him better than we do, anyway. If she spoke for him, would that be enough to satisfy you? I mean, I trust her judgement, but she is only one person, after all."
"At the least, she could say whether he merits the same chance we granted the other new leaders," Taran replied. So saying, he scanned the room again. "I'm surprised she and Fflewddur are still not here…"
"Really?" He turned and caught a glittering, sapphire look of amusement. "I'm not surprised in the least," Eilonwy remarked, smirking above the rim of her goblet before she took a draught of wine.
Nevertheless, it was not much longer before the doors to the Great Hall creaked open once again. In slipped a slightly rumpled Fflewddur and a rosy-cheeked Telyn, both looking somewhat sheepish for arriving so late. They skirted around the edge of the room toward the high table, where two seats awaited them. Eilonwy elbowed Taran and shot him a satisfied smile.
"Great Belin! Our scout has returned to us after all!" Fflewddur shouted upon spotting Gurgi, who was nearly hidden from sight by the mountain of meat, bread, and cheese stacked in front of him. The creature lifted his head, waved a paw in greeting while continuing to chew, then immediately returned to attacking his meal. "I'll be eager to hear your story—but first things first, I see," the bard continued with a chuckle.
As Telyn looked toward Gurgi, she caught sight of Iestyn just beyond him. "Iestyn?" she exclaimed. "How in the name of Don are you here, too?"
His face lit up with a smile of recognition. "Telyn! I suppose I could ask you the same. What brings you to Caer Dathyl?"
"A long, strange, and winding path… I'll explain before the night is out," Telyn replied. "Oh, it is such a relief to see you! I knew you had fled Arvon, but I feared Iscawin had you followed."
"Ah, well, that's another long and winding story," Iestyn noted ruefully.
"Are you back in Prydain for good, then? Taking up the throne of Arvon?"
"Oh, no. I came only with a warning about Iscawin—and not soon enough, at that."
Telyn frowned. "But who will rule, then? Arvon desperately needs someone with a clever mind and a good heart, both of which you possess. Would you neglect your people twice over—and by choice, this time?"
Iestyn winced. "Even if I did yearn for it, I would not demand a crown that the High King and Queen have not seen fit to offer me. Nor would I expect such an offer after the havoc my brother wrought."
Telyn huffed disapprovingly. "That sounds like an excuse to me." Then, after a pause, "They really didn't ask?"
Overhearing the exchange, Taran glanced inquiringly at Eilonwy. She nodded in return, urging him on. "We did not ask yet, but we wish to now," Taran interjected. "What say you, Son of Nav? Would you take up the crown of Arvon, although you never sought it?"
Iestyn looked first stunned, then deeply conflicted. "Ah… Well… That is a most generous offer, Your Majesty. I do wish the best for Arvon. Yet…" He trailed off, caught on the sharp prongs of indecision.
"I understand your misgivings," Taran said gently, "for I, myself, have had to leave behind a life much like yours is now. I would not force a crown upon you, knowing how heavily it sits upon one's head. Yet, your very reluctance to claim power makes me think that you would wield it justly. Consider how much your people need you. If you are willing to serve, it would be a great boon to your homeland. One year is all we ask of you at the outset—one year for us and you, yourself, to weigh whether the arrangement should continue."
Iestyn remained silent for a time, hands clasped, his gaze gone distant and his posture tense. The persistent background chatter in the Hall only heightened Taran's nervous anticipation.
"You need not decide tonight," Eilonwy noted softly. "You are welcome to stay here at Caer Dathyl while you think it over. I certainly know how unsettling it is to have such a thing tossed over one's head like a bucket of—"
"I shall do as you ask," Iestyn stated firmly. In his eyes, Taran saw the light of solemn determination. "It is not what I would choose first. Yet, I could never again be content with my life, knowing I had shirked my duty in a time of need. I ask only that you grant me time to return to my family and prepare them for the journey."
"Of course," Taran replied, smiling with relief. "We have waited this long for a trustworthy ruler in Arvon, and can be patient for a bit longer. You have our heartfelt thanks."
"Well, well," Fflewddur put in at last, shaking his head in amazement, "nothing can surpass a comrade returning from the brink of his barrow, and a lost prince reclaiming his birthright in the same night! However," he added, his eyes dancing with excitement, "I do have some news that will add to the good cheer…" He attempted to extend a dramatic pause, but his impatience proved too great. "Telyn and I are to be wed!" he announced brightly.
Eilonwy let out a rather unqueenly squeal of delight, and leapt from her chair to throw her arms around Telyn. "I knew it!" she crowed. "I knew it, I knew it, I knew it! I knew you two would not be at odds for long!"
"Those are glad tidings indeed, old friend," said Taran, grinning as he leaned over to shake the bard's hand. "I look forward to celebrating with you."
"You shan't have to wait long," Telyn added wryly. "When he says 'to be wed,' he means tonight." She cast the bard a sidelong smirk. "Before I have a chance to run off again."
"And why delay?" Fflewddur countered merrily. "All are assembled; the music is playing; the wine and ale are flowing like water; and any who might object to us riding the tail of this celebration will hardly notice among the commotion. It's as fine a time as any!"
Before he had even rounded out his argument, Eilonwy took her wine goblet in hand and climbed atop her chair, the better to command the attention of the Hall—if her voice did not cut through the din, the sight of the High Queen in such an un-regal stance certainly would. Standing tall, with her shoulders thrown back and her red-gold hair rivalling the blazing torches, it was not long before the clamoring revelry subsided to a curious murmur.
"We have raised a toast to lives sacrificed, and a toast to lives saved," she called out, lifting her goblet high. "Let us now raise a toast to two lives joining together! Tonight, we shall all bear witness to the official wedding of the finest unofficial bard in all the land!"
Beaming like the noonday sun, Fflewddur clasped Telyn's hand and pulled her around the table to stand with him at the front of the dais. Chuckling and shaking her head as she stumbled to follow, Telyn then took his other hand in hers and faced him.
"Fflewddur Fflam Son of Godo…" Eilonwy continued. "Telyn Daughter of Branwen… Hold fast each other's hands, and by your pledges, bind fast each other's hearts."
All ears in the Great Hall strained to catch the words as they fell—words as simple as drops of water but worth more than beads of gold. Then, vows finished, the room erupted in a cacophony of cheers, whistles, shouts, and stomps as the wedded pair embraced.
"You see? That was easy enough, wasn't it?" Fflewddur said teasingly in Telyn's ear.
"Hmph. If you disregard all of the trials and tumult we went through to get here," she tossed back.
"Worth every one of them!"
"And who knows what might lie ahead," she added. "This is far from an ending…"
"I should certainly hope not!" he replied as he swept Telyn back around to their seats. "Not when we've just reached the best part of our tale…"
For long thereafter, the celebration continued. Torches shone, spilling golden light out through every window. Music and song rose to the rafters and resonated in every bone. Glad hearts burned with the warmth of a thousand hearth-fires, reveling in life and radiating a magic all their own. All the while, high above the Great Hall, glittering stars danced their slow arcs through the midnight sky, turning in kind upon the ceaseless wheel of time.
A/N: 25% substance, 75% indulgence. I am unrepentant. The world needs some extra happiness right now. Also, a gold star to everyone who recognizes where I shamelessly snagged the chapter title from. It was late at night, I had no title, it popped into my head, and it fit the bill.