A Matter of Hours
Recollection had flitted past him like a dream…the kind which seems to encompass many days, and yet is found upon waking to have taken place in the heartbeats between first light and full sunrise. He had seen once again the blue eyes framed by a rusty grate; heard the silvery voice flinging down insults and compliments in the same tone, as though its owner did not know the difference. Images flashed quickly before his mind's eye; a sudden flare of light, a flash of silver from a crescent pendant, a sideways-quirked smile of amusement at his bewilderment. An anxious scowl as she clutched a black-sheathed sword away from his eager hands. A sweep of red-gold hair as she tossed her proud head. The terror in her eyes as he pulled her through bracken, a horned monster on their trail. Her quickly-veiled expression of unimaginable relief when he, alive against all odds, opened his eyes in a chamber in Caer Dathyl. Lips curled into a mysterious, self-satisfied smirk when he'd asked her to stay at Caer Dallben.
Eilonwy had not been at the little farm a fortnight before Taran had wondered how he had ever passed the time without her there, loath as he would have been to admit it to anyone. Satisfying as it was to have any companion his own age, she in particular seemed to belong. Her enthusiasm and energy had been a welcome stimulant to a life he had often found dull. Even her frequent explosions of temper, much as they often baffled him, had kept things interesting. He had sensed her subtle admiration of him and found it elating, pushing himself to seek ways of increasing it. Many had come back to haunt him, but her very exasperation at his blunders was somehow comforting; that she had expected better of him was complimentary, and it had challenged him to expect it of himself.
She had changed, too, under the influence of a wholesome life in which Coll's gentle wisdom and Dallben's compassionate guidance replaced the merciless tyranny of Achren. Over the years there were fewer outbursts, less sharp-tongued criticism, and her laughter lost the note of irony it had often borne. Her smile was softer, her sarcasm rarer, giving way to sincere expressions of joy. Somehow it had seemed to Taran that she brought light wherever she was, since the very moment her bauble had flooded his cell with golden warmth that fateful evening in Spiral Castle.
He had found himself confiding his hopes and dreams to her, unburdening his troubles, and discovering an ear at once sympathetic and pragmatic. Eilonwy allowed him to be neither overly idealistic nor cynical. Speaking with her sometimes calmed him, sometimes frustrated him, and sometimes, depending on her mood, confused him utterly. There were times when he understood her not at all, yet the mystery was intriguing. He wanted to understand. She seemed to understand him, often all too well.
And then Dallben's decree that Eilonwy be sent to her kin on Mona had fallen like a bolt of thunder from a blue sky, leaving a sudden cold dismay in Taran's heart, a tumult of turbulent emotions in his mind. The prospect of living at Caer Dallben with a gaping emptiness where Eilonwy should have been was an unthinkable thing. In a moment of pain-conceived clarity he had realized he loved her, but the knowledge brought him little joy, for he knew also how little he had to offer her. Nevertheless he had determined to speak to her something of what was in his heart. The least bit of encouragement from her would give him hope; a goal for which to strive, to prove himself worthy.
His efforts had been thwarted at every turn as surely as if fate itself was determined to separate them, in one vicious circumstance after another on Mona. A rivalry with a feckless Prince, whose affability made it impossible for Taran to detest him as he would have liked; the impotent anger and helplessness he had felt at knowing Eilonwy's life was in danger; the earth-shattering agony of her rejection of him while under Achren's spell; the terror of watching her tumble lifeless amid the flames at the foot of the dais of Caer Colur. His heart had been rent more times in the space of a few days than in the rest of his life together…and then one simple assurance from her, one unforgettable moment on the beach at Mona, had sealed it back together and sent him home with visions of the future dancing in his dazzled eyes.
Taran had kept that moment treasured in his heart in the years that followed, only laying it aside in one shameful season of despair spent in a shepherd's hut. His eager journey back to Caer Dallben, predicated upon Eilonwy's return there, had been made the lighter and swifter for the hope of his dream being so soon fulfilled. Yet once again had fate twisted a blade into his back, and the very day that brought him the joy of seeing her once more had tipped them all over the brink into war. Eilonwy had been a comfort and strength to him in that dark time, and Taran shuddered yet to think of the three nights and days she had been separated from the company, the events of which she still had not relayed to him in full.
Victory gained, they had returned in triumph and joy to Caer Dallben, and still Taran had felt that his efforts to speak with Eilonwy could not have been thwarted more neatly. He began almost to suspect a deliberate conspiracy on the part of everyone he knew. It had taken a very awkward moment on the second evening of their homecoming to assure him that this was not, in fact, the case.
The day had been spent in feasting and revelry with various Commot folk and cantrev nobles who had begun to congregate. The spring nights still held enough briskness to make a fire welcome, and that evening saw many groups of companions settled around various bonfires that dotted the fallow fields. Snatches of song and pipe-music played in the air, and laughter rose from more than one quarter. Around the small blaze closest to the cottage, however, the conversation was subdued, with many a thoughtful silence. Taran, Eilonwy, Fflewddur, Doli, Glew and Gurgi surrounded it, Dallben having retired already and Gwydion having business elsewhere.
The mood was not a somber one, although a tinge of melancholy still lay over Taran. Every object and view at Caer Dallben had brought him fresh grief over Coll's death, and he had spent the previous day in mourning. Smoit's arrival had allayed it somewhat, for the bearlike King had a presence too merry and overpowering to resist. Now, gazing into the embers, he felt peaceful and content, surrounded by his friends, and aware of the warm weight of Eilonwy's head on his shoulder. She was curled next to him in a manner he found pleasantly distracting, but as the fire burned low she sat up and yawned.
"Ugh," she said, grimacing a little. "It's well that Smoit's sort of feasting is rare, isn't it? I feel like I've swallowed a stone. And the wine is sloshing about in my head. If I sit here a moment longer I'll never get up again." She glanced up at the star-strewn sky. "It's late anyway. I'm going in."
There was a chorus of murmured good-nights, and she hesitated at the edge of the firelight. "It feels a little odd, doesn't it? After so long in encampment."
Taran roused himself enough to ask, "What does?"
She tossed him an odd expression made up of equal parts exasperation, amusement, and something else he couldn't place, and answered tartly, "Sleeping alone."
She turned on her heel and left them before anyone could reply, and Taran watched her go with the feeling that he'd just had a brick thrown at his head. Across the fire he could see the dim white gleam of Doli's teeth as the stocky dwarf grinned, and from within the depths of Fflewddur's drawn-up hood came a low whistle.
"You walked into that, my lad, as clean as anything," the lanky bard declared. In the absence of his harp he had taken to pipe-smoking, and now fragrant puffs emerged from the hood. "Whatever can you be waiting for?"
Taran frowned, shifting uncomfortably. "What are you talking about?"
Doli snorted loudly, and Fflewddur pointed the long stem of his pipe in the direction Eilonwy had taken. "Asking that girl to marry you, of course," he said. "Great Belin, if I have to intercept another smoldering look between the two of you, I think I may burst into flame."
His face growing hot, Taran opened his mouth and closed it again, too embarrassed to speak. He felt suddenly as though every eye within range was fixed upon him, right down to the ember-like golden irises of that blasted giant cat curled behind Fflewddur's back.
"Numbskulls," Doli growled amiably. "It's like you humans, to dance around a thing like a bunch of wandering moths, never settling down to it. You've had plenty of time."
"Wasn't it what that infernal quest for your parentage was all about?" Fflewddur put in, puffing away. "And that was months ago now. Don't tell me you think she'd refuse just because you didn't find the answer you wanted."
Nettled beyond endurance, Taran threw up his hands. "Of course not. I mean, of course I'm going to ask her. It just…it hasn't seemed the right time." He glared at the bard and dwarf, united in their amusement at his expense. "Would you ask a woman such a question in the middle of…all that has been happening?"
"Oh, if you were waiting for all to be peace and safety again, that I could understand," said Fflewddur, "but it's been nearly a week since we left Annuvin. We were four days just on the ship."
"Yes, precisely," Taran snapped, for it was a sore point. He had, as a matter of fact, been impatient to speak with Eilonwy during their return journey, but the ship had been crowded fore-to-aft, and the impossibility of catching her alone had driven him to despair. "On a ship where we were all rubbing elbows with one another the entire journey. I had planned to speak to her privately, if that meets with your approval." He folded his arms, sulking. "You two are hardly qualified to give advice. What do either of you know of such matters?"
"Nothing from experience, thankfully," Doli snorted. "The Fair Folk have no use for all this human romantic nonsense. But we observe enough."
Fflewddur cleared his throat. "Yes, well. I was a youth once, myself, you know, but there's no need to go into that. A Fflam has his honor." He knocked his pipe out into his palm. "All I say is I can see past the end of my own nose. And that," he admitted, "is saying something."
Glew, who had been engaged in cleaning the remaining shreds of meat from a bone, piped up. "When I was a giant"—
"Oh, Belin." Taran scrambled to his feet in outrage at this final indignity. "Enough. If I am to have no peace in your company tonight I shall seek it alone."
"Suit yourself," Fflewddur called after him as he strode away, adding something indistinct about more pleasant company for the asking if he'd get on with it. Taran grit his teeth, mentally attempting to salvage the shreds of his pride. How on earth had he even been roped into discussing the matter?
It wasn't for lack of intention that he hadn't spoken, after all. True, the previous day he had been sad and preoccupied, and had spent the majority of time wandering through the familiar groves and fields of Caer Dallben alone with his thoughts and memories. But Eilonwy had been ever at the back of his mind, and he had been glad to see her, in the late afternoon, walking through the orchard towards him. She had finally discarded her warrior's garb in favor of the more fitting garments brought from Mona; her freshly-groomed hair was loose to her waist. The result, as she passed under the budding apple trees, made him catch his breath.
But the moment was fleeting; no sooner had she come within speaking distance than a crowd of Commot children had come dashing through the orchard in some wild game, one falling headlong and wailing in pain over a twisted ankle. Taran had been obliged to carry the child back to a neighboring camp, there pressed to tarry and tell the tale of his finding of Dyrnwyn and the death of Arawn over and over again. Eilonwy had come with him, and toward evening they managed to break away. The moment they left the camp they were hailed by the just-arrived Smoit, who insisted on accompanying them all the way to the cottage, along with his honor guard.
From then on it had been merriment and song and fellowship, and during the feast the next day it seemed to Taran he could take no step without falling over some prone reveler, turn no corner without being called to another group of eager listeners to relate, once again, his part in the defeat of the legions of Annuvin. As flattering as it was, he longed more than ever for a return of the sleepy solitude the little farm normally afforded. It was evident he would be given no chance to speak his heart to Eilonwy until the gathered throng began to dissipate.
So now, to be so nettled by his friends over the delay only added to his frustration, though he was slightly mollified by their implicit confidence that she was only waiting for a word from him. He could not help feeling a little anxious. Certainly there were many moments when he was sure of her affection, but women were perplexing creatures, and Eilonwy perhaps most of all. It seemed presumptuous to assume her answer.
He considered going into the cottage, to speak with her if she were still awake, and glanced up at the little loft window under the eaves. A warm golden glow illuminated it, but even as he looked, it was extinguished. Taran sighed. The next day, then. No matter what.
Of course, the next day had come with Dallben's astonishing news about their voyage to the Summer Country, and in the whirlwind of the moment Taran had forgotten all his notions of proper proposals, pulling the Princess into an embrace and blurting out the first words that came to him in front of everyone. But she hadn't seemed to mind. Indeed, she had seemed to think him a bit daft for even needing to ask. As they had dispersed from Dallben's chamber Fflewddur had slapped him on the back.
"That wasn't so difficult, now, was it?" the lanky bard had asked, with a jovial grin.
He and Eilonwy had spent the afternoon walking among the familiar trees and stones of Caer Dallben for what they had thought would be the last time, and there had seemed far fewer intrusive visitors, or perhaps he simply hadn't noticed, for she turned out to have intriguing methods of capturing his attention. So intriguing, for that matter, that Taran had begun impatiently wondering why on earth he'd made their wedding contingent upon their arrival in the Summer Country, an untold number of days' journey away. When he admitted as much to her she giggled, but pointed out, with a characteristic practicality that made him blush, that there were no rooms at Caer Dallben with a bed big enough for two, so it was just as well.
All had seemed perfect, and for the day they had known nothing but joy. Yet it was something Eilonwy had said that evening which later disturbed his sleep, and led him down the path on which he now tread.
"It's not fair, is it?" she had sighed, as they stood together on a hill against the edge of the wood, looking down upon the flickering lights being kindled in the camps below. "Not right, somehow, that we should be so happy and fortunate. Going off where we'll have no more cares or troubles, while so many, who fought as hard, and lost more, maybe, must stay and try to patch themselves back together." Her blue eyes were troubled. "And without a proper leader, too. I wonder what will become of them all."
And Taran, sobered, had wondered it, too; had wondered so much that in spite of every desire of his heart he had chosen to stay and find out, and found himself somehow thrust into the very leadership for which she had seen the need. And then, heart pounding, he had watched Eilonwy stand with her hand on a Fair Folk ring, about to shrug off her enchantress lineage with as little thought as she would an ill-fitting garment, and he had allowed all his yearning for her overpower that corner of his mind that tried to call him selfish for doing so.
If she did not regret it, neither would he.
That campfire scene was the first thing I thought of in this whole story. It may be terribly egotistical to delight in my own writing, but it still makes me giggle uncontrollably every time I read it over.