As usual, I find occasions for Taran/Eilonwy moments in random places; this time, in a single phrase from The High King, in which it is mentioned that all the companions "found each other" in the makeshift camp set up in the woods after the razing of Caer Dathyl. Suddenly, intensely indignant that these three words were all that were given to a reunion scene that should have been gut-wrenching, considering what they'd been through, I set about remedying the situation.
All characters and settings created by Lloyd Alexander. I don't blame him for the omission, mind you; he had a bigger story to tell. Besides, if he'd given us all these details, what would we write about?
My thanks to adaon45 for the proofread.
She wasn't there.
He could barely bring himself to register the truth of it. His mind was quieter if he just kept moving, meandering through the camp, stepping around the prone bodies of wounded men and ramshackle stacks of supplies, ignoring the stink of blood and the ugly sounds of suppressed pain, searching every face. There were too many young striplings in this army, too many lads of her build and height; every time he saw one he tensed, peering beneath hood or helmet only to feel something twist in his chest when it wasn't her because she wasn't there.
The others dearest to him were already accounted for. Coll was tending the wounded in one of the makeshift tents. Gurgi gathered firewood in the surrounding forest. Fflewddur was assisting in organizing weapons and supplies under the watchful golden eyes of Llyan. His heart had swelled full at sight of each, but there was no time, in all the bustle, for anything more than a fervent clasp of the hand, a few encouraging words, a reluctant admission that no, none of them had seen her either. Wasn't she supposed to be inside Caer Dathyl?
The irony smote him, a double-edged blade. Yes, she was supposed to be inside Caer Dathyl, but he didn't even have the vindictive luxury of anger at her disobedience, since that fortress now lay in rubble, the columns of smoke from its ruins rising black against the blood-red sky. He shuddered at the unspeakable thought of what would be happening to her now had she remained within it, and clenched his teeth and his fists against it.
He was thankful for his brief glimpse of her on the battlefield, though at the time, knowledge that she was involved in the fray had all but unmanned him. At least now he knew she had been there, and alive. How alive, he could see when he closed his eyes, remembering the buoyant curve of her back, the dangerous toss of her head as she had ridden past him in those heavy, charged moments just before the melee began.
But where was she now?
The question ate at him; would not let him sit and rest, though his body ached everywhere, all the way down to weary fingertips. Neither could he concentrate his attention on any of the numerous areas that clamored for it. Disgusted by his own sense of uselessness, he had tried to assist in several different capacities within the camp, and every time, unable to focus, had blundered through and done more harm than good. Despairing, noting the exasperation of his companions, he had given it up, given himself up to waiting and searching the faces that trickled into camp with agonizing slowness, each of which refused, maddeningly, to be hers.
He knew the folly of believing that waiting for her would somehow make her turn up sooner, or at all, but he could not stop himself. It was the only way to stave off the nightmare images his mind's eye kept conjuring up, of her lying broken and lifeless on the plains below. That this was the most likely scenario, given the day's brutality, was something he refused to contemplate.
He had lost track of how many times he'd circled the camp, when a thunder of hoofs and cries of recognition and reverence beat upon his consciousness. Looking up, startled, he broke into a run as the far edge of the camp overflowed with activity at the arrival of Gwydion and a few dozen warriors on horseback. The Prince of Don was immediately surrounded by men; men shouting, men questioning, men starving for reassurance after the day's defeat. Taran, shouldering his way through the crowd, barely registered the drawn weariness in the prince's bearing, but saw the hardened face brighten at sight of him as the older man swung down from his horse.
"I am glad to see you here," Gwydion murmured, clasping his arm, "though I would it were under better circumstances."
The usual formalities stuck in Taran's mouth, choking themselves around the only question he had been able to think or ask for the past hours. "Eilonwy," he burst out. "My lord, have you seen her?"
The prince abruptly jerked to a halt; in the midst of the tumult he became a void, a well of pained silence. The face he turned upon Taran could not wholly veil the horror and guilt behind his mask of practiced stoicism. "The princess remained within Caer Dathyl, on- on my orders." The proud voice broke almost imperceptibly, then carried on, his tone quiet and pained. "I know of no survivors there."
"But she didn't," Taran blurted, his words running together in what he feared must sound like nonsense. "She was on the field, just before battle joined. I told her to go back and—"
"You saw her?" Gwydion's green eyes flashed wary hope. "Are you certain?"
The very question made him nearly frantic; he was tempted, at this point, to doubt his own senses; to have someone else doubt them only added insult. "She wore armor and rode Lluagor," Taran insisted, "and she shouted back at me. Told me not to be rude." The memory of her cheeky grin played in his mind, mocking him, and fear writhed like a snake in his gut.
Gwydion's tense figure suddenly relaxed; he shut his eyes and passed a forearm, streaked with blood, across his brow. "Thank Belin," he muttered. "I grieved at the thought that my orders were her death sentence, or-" he broke off, and did not finish the thought, but turned his eyes west to the forsaken silhouette of Caer Dathyl, his gaze grave.
Taran followed it with a tightening throat, but he had no energy to spare for weeping. Exhaustion and anxiety clawed at him. Gwydion's hand on his shoulder tightened as keen eyes returned to his face. "That rebellious streak of hers may have worked in her favor this time. She may be among those who still wander the woods, driven apart by Pryderi's bands. I have already sent out parties to search for them and rejoin us here. We will find her. If she lives," he added, as though he could not stop himself from speaking truths, however harsh. Taran winced.
"Let me lead a party, then," he begged. "I cannot rest while she may be in danger."
The prince's face was understanding, but firm. "I shall confer with the remaining leaders shortly, and I need you to be among them." Seeing the droop of Taran's shoulders, he clapped him on the back. "Take heart, my friend. Eilonwy's courage has never failed her yet. What would she say to see you so captive to fear?"
Taran swallowed hard as the words sank in. "Forgive me," he murmured, lowering his face in shame. "The battle, the retreat…Caer Dathyl." He waved his hand toward the smoke on the horizon. "It seems to me incredible that any of us have survived, and I have allowed myself to despair."
There was compassion in the older man's shrewd gaze. "No man here has not felt so, and today's grim work will have shaken harder warriors than you. But I tell you this," he straightened, his face blazing suddenly. "We are not without hope. Not while this army still stands."
With that Gwydion turned his attention elsewhere, but the words struck a faint spark and glimmered. Somewhere deep inside him, a gate to his last reserve of will swung open, unlocked by the iron undercurrent in the prince's voice. If Gwydion, who had lost not only kin but kingdom today, could look him squarely in the face with the fires of Caer Dathyl still reflected in his eyes and speak of hope…
Taran took a breath, and faced the camp, resolute.
He spent an hour working alongside Coll in the invalid tent, winding bandages, preparing poultices, setting splints, driving his mind always before him to the next task, away from the temptation to slide back into the dark recesses of fear. He forced himself to stop searching faces, instead consciously commanding each motion of his own body: step, move, bend, carry, hold this, tie that, because if…no, when she arrived in the camp, she should not find him there quaking helpless like a frightened child. When she arrived. When she arrived. The words circled in his head, taking up a silent chant in rhythm with his movement.
Engaged in grinding herbs, he was concentrating so intensely that he jumped in surprise when a battered leather helmet was tossed at his feet; looked up to see a slim figure crowned by tousled red-gold braids falling to its knees next to him. The tension he'd barely held in check broke like a tidal wave, releasing a flood of relief that swayed him bodily off-balance.
He stumbled, crouched, dropped mortar and pestle to catch her as she tumbled toward him, pulled her to his heart. She trembled exhaustion, breathed in a ragged cadence, for once wordless. Her face, glimpsed as she fell, had spoken for her: the face of one who had seen – and dealt out – too much death in one day, blank with a hollow horror that drained the eyes and whitened the lips. Understanding, he said nothing, only held her tightly, found her hand and curled her coiled fingers around his own, willing her to share whatever remained of his own strength. In surprise, he realized he no longer felt drained, and wondered who was strengthening whom. For the first time since his arrival in camp, he felt whole, as though until that moment he had unknowingly been missing part of himself.
With an exclamation of concern, Coll hurried over, offering water; she roused herself with a little shiver to take it, drank, and tossed what remained into her own face with a grimace. The resulting effect was alarming, but once Coll had attended to her features with a rough towel, Taran noted with relief that most of the blood on her did not seem to be her own.
Coll was examining her closely, squinting at the dents in her armor and patting at her knees and ankles, clucking as he would to a lame animal. A faint smile crossed her face. "It's all right, Coll." Her voice came out in a hoarse croak. "I'm not hurt –just tattered up like an old moth-eaten horse blanket. And tired." Satisfied, the old farmer patted her cheek, called her a brave lass, and left them, and she turned weary eyes to Taran, many unreadable thoughts behind them as he waited for her to speak again.
When she did, some spirit had returned to her voice, a limpid note beneath the crack of ice. "Under the circumstances," she murmured, "I hope you don't expect me to apologize for leaving the castle."
He sighed, and for answer raised her scraped knuckles to his lips and held them there. He felt her eyes rest, dark and thoughtful, on his face for a moment before she laid her head back against his shoulder.
Anger, sudden and fiercely protective, rose up in him, surprising him with its ferocity. Anger at a world where she should have seen and done what she did today; anger that any of them should be placed in such a position of unending, ugly peril; anger that duty bound him to see this war through to an end that was still so uncertain, when all he wanted at that moment was to bear her away – somewhere peaceful and beautiful, somewhere she in all her vibrancy belonged, where he might see her smile void of the bitterness it had borne for the past weeks,.
She might have sensed his sudden tension; her head shifted, and the hand in his grasp turned, molding the palm to his chin, thumb pressed warm against the corner of his mouth. "I'm glad you're here," she said, in a hoarse half-whisper. "If I'd arrived and couldn't find you, I'd be sick with wondering where you were."
His agitation drained away as abruptly as it had come, deflated by such unwonted vulnerability in her touch and voice. Pleasantly surprised, he wavered on the verge of responding in kind, but somehow the moment was too crucial, too fragile; he feared to shatter it in his eagerness. "It is well I got here first, then," he remarked lightly, his voice muffled against her hand, "because I wasn't worried about you at all."
A silent chuckle rippled through her; he felt it in the quick quiver of her ribs, and wondered if she, like he, ever heard harp strings snapping when none actually were. She knew the truth, and nothing else needed to be said.
She was there. And for now, that was enough. It had to be.