Potential reader, be warned. This story is a sad one, though I have tried to leaven the sorrow with hope and love. After telling pieces of the story of the Chief Bard Taliesin and Cerys, the wife I invented for him, in my other fics, I felt that for the sake of completeness I had to include an account of her death. (By the way, not to flog my own work too insistently, but to appreciate fully what's going on here you might want to read my other fics first, especially "The Measure of Our Hearts.")
This world, of course, is not mine but Lloyd Alexander's. I remain endlessly inspired by how the Prydain chronicles blend grief and loss with the hope that, as Alexander once remarked, "is the Ariadne's thread to guide us out of the labyrinth."
Love Most of All
In the Hall of Lore in the castle of Caer Dathyl, the Chief Bard Taliesin sat at a beautifully carved wooden table. In the stronghold of Prydain's ruling family, the Sons of Don, the treasures of bardic learning through the ages were gathered in this unassuming building, books of all sizes and shapes ascending in seried rows to the lofty ceiling. It was a cheerful room, smelling pleasantly of parchment and the faint mustiness of old volumes. Casements set high along the sides of the room provided natural light, today admitting bright spring sun. White-haired but still handsome and vigorous, Taliesin laid down the tome he had been gingerly handling. So ancient was the book that, when touched, it shed showers of yellowing paper.
He glanced across the table at his son Adaon, who would be nine in the fall. Black-haired as his father in his youth, the boy wrote painstakingly on parchment with a scratchy quill. Every once in a while he would purse his lips, as if offended by the pen's squeakiness. Glancing up as if fearful of bothering his father, he met Taliesin's eye and smiled, apparently relieved the bard did not look annoyed.
"I can't keep it from making noise, Father," he explained apologetically. Taliesin assured him he didn't mind, and the boy went back to inscribing a row of ancient runes. His father regarded him affectionately. The Chief Bard had, unsurprisingly, surrounded his son with learning from a tender age—after all, the boy was sitting even now in the Hall of Lore—and from early on, too, Taliesin had shared the rich store of his knowledge with his only child. Still, the father could not help but be amazed at his son's abilities. The boy was already advanced in rune translation, a subject not even all full-grown bards could master.
Of course, Adaon was the son of two of the more extraordinary bards in Prydain's history, so perhaps his talents were not surprising. Generally a modest man, Taliesin was honest enough not to undervalue the worth of his own splendid achievements, and he certainly was not about to downplay those of Adaon's mother. Despite her youth, Cerys Daughter of Ceindeg had been one of the great poets of the age, a prodigy who had blithely overcome male prejudices to attain bardic initiation, a rare feat for a woman.
Had been—the past tense still smote Taliesin. Today was, in fact, the date on which Cerys had died four years ago after giving birth to their second child, a daughter, who had died with her mother. Taliesin had not mentioned the significance of the date to Adaon, though his conscience bothered him as a result. Adaon, four and a half at the time of his mother's death, had loved her dearly; the boy was mature enough to learn to commemorate her. Taliesin knew he should speak of this to his son. Before, he had always been able to convince himself the boy was too young, but now . . .
"Have I done these correctly, Father?" Adaon's question brought his father out of his abstraction. Taliesin looked down at the parchment, reached for his son's quill, and made a minor change before handing back the paper with a smile. Adaon looked a mite crestfallen he had made even one mistake. If anything, Taliesin thought, the boy wished to please his father too much, although it was also likely he had inherited his parents' perfectionism along with their intellect. And, there was no denying it, Adaon devoured whatever learning lay in his path with the voracity of a young locust.
"Adaon," Taliesin reminded his son gently, "That is a very complicated rune. Don't be disappointed if you didn't write it correctly the first time." He was glad the boy looked relieved.
"Why don't you go outside now and play in the garden?" Taliesin suggested. "It's a lovely day, and Banwen"—he referred to the old woman who helped take care of his son—"is, I believe, planting seeds. Perhaps you can assist her."
Adaon ran to the door. "Won't you come too, Father?" he asked.
"Not just yet," smiled Taliesin. "I have work to do first."
Of course, he thought as Adaon closed the door, that was a half-truth. The work he had in mind was not scholarship but the task of memory. He owed it to Cerys to think about her on this day. It wasn't as if he didn't think of her all the time, actually quite the opposite. He spoke of her a great deal, too. Although he didn't dwell on his mother's death with Adaon, he constantly referred to Cerys in other ways, noting things she had loved or evoking happy memories so that the boy would not only remember her but associate her with life rather than with loss.
Still, today it was the loss that Taliesin remembered. Tenderly, reverently, he lifted the veil from the most painful episode of his past to honor his wife's courage. Like countless other women who had died in childbed, Cerys had shown a bravery above that of any warrior Taliesin knew. Moreover, the battle in which she had perished was one he could respect more than the usual male carnage, as her struggle had been not to destroy life but, rather, to bring it into the world. And, in addition to paying tribute to her heroism, he needed to remind himself that her death was not truly an ending. It had certainly not been the end of his love for her, but neither had it, he was sure, been the end of her love for him and their son. And so, in his mind he travelled back to that spring four years ago.
Cerys had had a harder time carrying the second baby than she had Adaon. Worried about the baby's placement in the womb, the midwives attempted, as was their habit in similar cases, to shift the infant's position before birth. While such efforts were often successful, this time they were not. As the baby's advent approached icy fear invaded Taliesin's heart, though he tried to hide his trepidation from Cerys. Yet Cerys was not unaware of the increased danger; indeed, beneath her outward joy about the new child she quietly marshalled every particle of strength she possessed for the upcoming ordeal.
Once her labor started things went wrong very quickly. Given the concern about the baby's position, three midwives were in attendance rather than just one. Because of the difficulties, Taliesin was not, as he had been with Adaon, able to catch the baby. In any event, he needed to attend to Cerys, whose pangs were even worse than they had been last time. When the baby—a girl—appeared, there was a flurry of movement around the small white form. Taliesin scarcely had time to register the terrible news that his daughter had lived only moments outside the womb, and to weep with Cerys, who was wild with grief, before the tragedy doubled. As the afterbirth was expelled Cerys began bleeding very badly, so badly that the lower half of her body was soon soaked in red. The midwives worked frantically to stanch the bleeding. Having done all they could, they looked despairingly at Taliesin and ceased their now-useless ministrations. In agony Taliesin turned to Cerys. Her face white as her shift, she trembled uncontrollably as her frame was assaulted by the loss of her life's blood. He moved to embrace her, as if to anchor her to this earth. Before he could do so, however, with a strength that seemed more than mortal she wrenched herself into an upright position and grasped his shoulders. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he supported her while she gazed at his face as if memorizing its beloved lineaments.
"Taliesin." She was shaking less violently now, and her voice, though low, was clear. "Look after Adaon." A spasm of grief crossed her face, but she went on. "Give him the love I would have given him as well as your own." In what was now a ragged whisper she formed the next words carefully, her eyes on his. "And remember, love, I will always be with you."
She seemed to cough, her body relaxing in his arms. He scarcely needed to lift her head, which had drooped on his shoulder, to know the light had fled her eyes. He brushed shut her lids, and, with infinite tenderness, laid her back on the bed. Kneeling beside her, he rested his head where her heart should still have been beating. He heard a terrible sound—a great animal howl of pain—and only realized he had made it when sobs tore his body.
The following days passed in a haze. The first violence of grief spent, Taliesin moved as if sleepwalking through the rituals of loss. He kept the death-watch by Cerys's bed, where she lay beautiful and remote as a princess in one of the legends they had read together. Clad in the gold-and-green gown she had worn for their wedding, she cradled her daughter in her arms. The sight of the baby temporarily pierced the numbness that enveloped Taliesin's heart; weeping, he bade farewell to the child he would never know. Then, his eerie calm restored, he watched mother and daughter laid to rest and received endless condolences, including those of the royal family, white-haired King Math and Prince Gwydion, his green-flecked eyes somber in his weathered face. After the burial, Taliesin held and rocked Adaon, who alternated between crying for his mother and clinging to his father as if loath to release for a moment his remaining parent.
The numbness continued for the week after Cerys's death. Then came the guilt. Would Cerys still be alive, Taliesin asked himself, if he had not wed her? She had died bringing their child into the world. If he had not fallen in love with her, would she not—eventually getting over her love for him—have gone on to marry someone else? Perhaps she would have concentrated on her scholarship and never wed, thus evading childbirth, marriage's dangerous companion. It was in vain that his reason told him that Cerys had wanted him; that she could have died having someone's else's child too; that she had loved children and would have borne them whatever the risk. Nothing could budge the conviction that he had betrayed her, that he had tricked into accepting a trite female fate a being who had soared above the conventions of her sex. In his mind he kept begging her forgiveness, although he could not imagine granting such pardon to himself.
He thought he would go mad and nobody would know. Inwardly he split into two people, one who trudged through each day without obviously collapsing, the other imprisoned in a dungeon of remorseful grief where only he could hear his own cries.
This dual existence seemed to last forever, though in reality it continued about a month. When that time had elapsed, one night Taliesin sat next to Adaon's cot after putting his son to bed. Unable to bear the room where Cerys had died, Taliesin had moved a bed—he could not stand to keep the one he had shared with his wife—into a smaller room along with Adaon's small couch. Settling his four-year-old for the night was the only time when Taliesin felt not like two men but one—a grief-shattered man, true, but one who was fully present for his child. For a few hours the guilt-crazed prisoner burst his chains and escaped to the land of everyday chores and love. He cuddled Adaon, rocking the child and reading him stories or coming up with ones of his own. Although Adaon still cried at times for his mother, he was, like all children, unable to remain grief-stricken for long. Sitting in his father's lap, he would beg Taliesin to invent ever-more extravagant tales. As the boy loved forest creatures, on the evening in question Taliesin concocted a thrilling offering about an adventurous badger family. Gently refusing his son's demands for more, he tucked the child in and played his harp quietly to help him drift off. Once Adaon was asleep, Taliesin moved to a chair near a table on which burned a rush-light and opened a book. He had difficulty concentrating on anything but pretended to anyway.
Suddenly, he felt a thrill that reached to his fingertips. Cerys was in the room. Not her earthly body, of course—Taliesin was not delusional—but her luminous spirit filled the space around him. It did not occur to Taliesin to doubt his sanity, as he had often done during the past month. In addition to his other talents he had latent magic powers; indeed, he could have been a mighty wizard were not the life of the mind enchantment enough for him. Nonetheless at crucial moments he felt what he did now, the certainty of being accompanied by a presence outside himself. In this case, the presence was Cerys's. He knew as surely as if he scented the herbal fragrance that had always clung to her clothes. He could smell nothing, of course, nor could he see her, though his eyes instinctively searched the shadows of the room. Yet the very air seemed charged with her brilliant dust. "I will always be with you," she had said. Why had he not believed her? She had been there all along.
What else had she said, long ago on the day of Adaon's birth, when he had apologized for accidentally waking her? "No need for guilt, Taliesin." She had known that about him, and loved him for it—his uprightness, his compunction about causing harm or distress—at the same time she gently reminded him not to get too entangled in his own scruples. "I have done it again, haven't I, love," he thought.
After that, things became not so much easier as possible. Freed, the former prisoner could walk the earth and see its beauties. His body ached for Cerys's, he missed her horribly, but he was able to go on.
For the second time that day Taliesin was roused from a reverie by his son. Back from the garden, Adaon stood in the doorway with a smudge of earth on his cheek. Even without a closer look Taliesin was certain the boy's fingernails were in dire need of cleaning.
"You look sad." Adaon had come to his father's side, concerned but also puzzled. Taliesin was about to deny that anything was wrong, then changed his mind. It was time, surely, to admit to his own grief and allow his son the chance to express his own.
"I was a little sad," he admitted. "I was thinking of your mother."
"Do you mean, about how she isn't with us anymore?" asked Adaon. Taliesin nodded.
"Yes. And today, too, is the day she died, four years ago. I always think about her on this day. Not just about her death, but about her life. I like to remember her."
"I remember her," said Adaon wistfully. "She used to sing to me."
"Yes," replied Taliesin. "Yes, she did. She had a lovely voice."
"She was a bard too, wasn't she?" Adaon's grey eyes—so like Taliesin's—were intent on his father's face.
"Yes," said Taliesin. "She was a wonderful bard. And a wonderful woman."
"I wish she were still alive," Adaon said sadly.
"So do I," agreed Taliesin. "But I am very grateful she was with us for some time, at least. Every one of those days was a gift."
Adaon did not reply, and his face remained clouded. Taliesin sighed inwardly. It was too much to expect the boy to come to terms easily with this early, devastating loss. It would be some time before he did—if ever.
Taliesin stood up. "Adaon," he changed the topic, "did you plant seeds with Banwen? Can you show me?"
The somber part of the conversation concluded, the boy brightened considerably. He tugged enthusiastically at his father's hand. "Come, Father," he said. "Let's go right away." Taliesin almost chided the boy for pulling his arm—so it felt—half out of its socket, then stopped. It was good to see his sometimes-too-serious son excited, particularly after he had revealed his lingering sadness about his mother. Laughing, Taliesin allowed himself to be dragged to the door.
Soon father and son were kneeling on the damp brown earth, Adaon happily pointing out places where he and Banwen had sown seeds for herbs. After imparting this information, though, he became thoughtful, his eyes on some loose soil in which he abstractedly traced shapes with his finger. (Yes, Taliesin confirmed, his son's nails definitely required attention.)
"Father," Adaon finally looked up, "Why do people die?" Before Taliesin could begin to respond, the boy quickly added, "I know that people fall ill or get killed in battle. What I mean is, why do they do that? Why do people like mother have to die before their time?"
Ah, children, thought Taliesin. They know how to hit you with the hard questions. To be fair, though, he himself had introduced the topic by talking about his grief for Cerys.
"Adaon," he chose his words carefully, looking the boy straight in the eye, "There are mysteries none of us, even the wisest, can fathom." He noticed the slightly rebellious look on his son's face but forged on regardless. "There is a destiny laid on each of us, to live and die as we will. It is not usually given to us to know what this destiny is. Nor can I tell you why one fate rather than another is chosen for us, or exactly who does the choosing. I can only say there is a shape to it all, a pattern like that a weaver crafts on a loom. All we can do," he finished gently, "is to live our lives the best we can, and cherish the days that are granted us."
Adaon nodded, evidently trying hard to absorb all this. He looked again at his father. "What do you mean by living the best we can'?"
Taliesin smiled. "Do you remember the bardic symbol I showed you recently? The three lines that form an arrow? Do you recall what each of those lines means?"
"Yes, Father," said Adaon, glad to show his father what he had learned. "The lines stand for knowledge, truth, and love."
"Yes," said Taliesin softly. "That is how we can best live our lives, Adaon. With knowledge, truth, and love."
Adaon flashed one of his quicksilver smiles. "Then we are lucky, Father," he said. "Any one of those three is a wonderful thing."
"Oh, yes," agreed Taliesin. "Yes, indeed. Love most of all."
Fans of the Prydain chronicles will hear in the conversations of Taliesin and his son echoes of Adaon's words in chapter 8 of The Black Cauldron about destiny and the gift of life's everyday glories. He had to learn all this from someone, no? And who better than his father?
Also, the bit about Taliesin having the latent talent of an enchanter is inspired by Lloyd Alexander's words, as quoted by Michael O. Tunnell in The Prydain Companion. Under the entry for"Taliesin" Tunnell notes that Alexander said Taliesin could have been the "wisest of kings'" or "the wisest of enchanters, if he had so decided, for he has more potential than anyone. Taliesin could have been any one of those things, but he chose not to be.'"