Happy Holidays to all my fellow Prydainiacs, and especially for the Taran/Eilonwy saps among us; this story is my gift to myself and you.
It might be a tad AU; I think this much of an "understanding" between them at this point in The High King pushes the limits of canon, but heck, it's Christmas, and I am feeling indulgent.
All thanks and credit to the creator of Prydain and its characters. Merry Christmas, Lloyd. I'm sure it's celebrated in the Summer Country.
"This sword I forged in the workshop of Hevydd the Smith."
Armed with her bauble's warm, familiar light, untroubled with the moody unpredictability of the torch Gurgi carried, Eilonwy found it first.
Lying askew amidst the heap of weaponry Magg's guards had dumped in Smoit's armory, it glinted dimly, drew her eye. Taran's sword. She picked it up and studied it, ignoring an odd sensation that she was spying on him by doing so, and laid it aside, separating it from the other weapons stripped from the companions. She and Gurgi, tasked with their recovery, left the gear in a neatly organized pile in the chilly sunlit courtyard of Caer Cadarn where their owners might find them. But Taran's sword…she hesitated, weighing doubt against shrewdness, mixed with something that felt uncomfortably manipulative. Finally she tucked it under her arm and went in search of him.
Manipulative or not. At least he couldn't avoid her if he wanted his sword.
Avoid…it wasn't quite the right word, was it? Crossing the courtyard, she kicked savagely at an inoffensive pebble and listened to its satisfying scuttling retreat across the flagstones. Avoiding was something you did, like hiding behind walls, not something you didn't do, like not speaking to someone or…for goodness' sake, not even looking at someone more than you could help it. And not acting like yourself, or even the self you were two years ago if you couldn't manage more. She had spent that two years, after their parting on Mona, expecting…well, much, upon their reunion; certainly not to be standing forlorn before a guarded, locked-up gate where an open door should have been.
She was sure it had not been his intention, either – at least if his eagerness upon their meeting again at Caer Dallben had been any indication. The glow in his face, the joy in his voice…the question bursting behind his eyes. She had even thought, alarmed, that he was going to ask it right there, in the cottage in front of everyone, and had begun a frantic mental hunt for an excuse to pull him outside when the door had burst open.
And with one door flinging wide upon a wounded prince, every other had apparently slammed shut. She hadn't realized it at first – too many other, more urgent predicaments had presented themselves at the time, and it was hardly the moment to lament over lost romantic opportunities. Then again, she thought, twisting her mouth wryly, perhaps the possible impending End of Everything was exactly the right time to mourn certain things left unspoken, undone. Nevertheless, she could not begrudge him his silence in that regard, had it not spilled over into every other. Day by day his distance had dawned on her, distance even in the everyday, practical details that shouldn't have held any significance at all. Finally she could no longer shrug it off as the paranoid product of unfulfilled imaginings, and was forced to admit that since the journey had begun he had scarcely spoken a dozen words to her, and rarely met her eyes. That, Eilonwy decided, her mouth set in a grim, thin line, was something she would no longer stand.
Though what exactly she was going to do about it was taking its time coming to her.
She found him in the stables, currying Melynlas, blessedly alone. The horse whickered a quiet welcome, and Taran turned his head; his smile, when he saw her, hitched and wavered uncertainly. She winced, acutely aware that it was their first moment alone together since reuniting, and smarting that his reaction to it should be so lukewarm.
There was a pregnant moment while he looked at her and said nothing, then with steady deliberation traded his currycomb for a brush and resumed attentions to Melynlas. Because his eyes resolutely followed his hands, she found that hers did as well, sliding along the planes and valleys of the horse's muscular shoulders, curving over haunches, dipping into hollows. Black earth, reminders of Rhun's recent internment, still lined his fingernails. The sound of the brush, softly rough like the stroking of velvet against the nap, whispered a hypnotic rhythm against the silence.
It made her want to scream. She hated his silence. It seemed crammed full of all the things neither of them were saying, beating against her like caged birds flailing their wings against the bars. Moreover she hated how helpless she felt against it; she had never felt so, with him, before, and to flounder about now – now when there were actually things worth saying – Llyr, it was maddening. Like picking up your favorite book, and finding you'd forgotten how to read.
"I found this in the armory," she said, and was immediately irritated at the loudness, the brassiness of her own voice breaking the stillness like an alarm bell. She held up the sheathed weapon. In the dim stable his eyes sparked. "My sword."
Something like jealousy curled in her gut at his use of the possessive, and she impulsively moved the sword away from his outstretched hand. "Ah, it is yours, then. I was almost sure, but I never got a proper look at it." Stepping into a large square patch of light slanting from the open door, she drew the blade in a swift motion, conscious that he had left Melynlas's side to step toward her. "You made it yourself, I think you said?"
"I did," he affirmed quietly, and she prickled at the world behind his words, so alien to her. Tell me. You would have done it, years ago; you'd have talked about making a sword until I wanted to pitch it into the nearest river. Why won't you tell me now? She felt his eyes on her, and cleared her throat, trying to draw the moment out, to come up with something relevant. "It's…ah…well, it's…"
His sudden laugh broke like a burst of sunlight into shadow. "Go ahead, you can say it. It's hideous." A weight, as of a mass of ice, slid from her shoulders at the warmth in his voice, and she looked up to see him wearing the kind of expression he had been wont to wear – before. Humor, affection, and wry self-deprecation, and so utterly him as she remembered that she nearly dropped the sword in a wild impulse to throw her arms around him, to make sure this breach in his invisible wall stayed gaping open.
"I wasn't going to say that at all," she protested, face warming, failing to hold back a smile. "It is, perhaps, not the most elegant weapon ever seen, but…" She held it parallel to the ground, bounced it experimentally on two fingers. "The balance is good. The edge is true. I'm no expert, but it feels like a good blade." She grasped the pommel, and swung the blade in a slow arc, watching the wan light gleam on its edge. "It's a bit odd, when you think of it, that we consider any swords to be beautiful, considering what they're for. But after all, there are plenty of handsome things in the world that turn out to be weak and useless on the inside. Perhaps it's best for a sword to be the other way 'round."
His eyes met hers openly for the first time in days, and his mouth took on a vague, rusty form of the teasing smirk she adored. "Did they teach you that kind of diplomacy on Mona?"
"Pssh." She grinned. "Diplomacy is when you say what you don't mean to appease people you can't defeat, and I'm terrible at it. No, that was truth worthy of Dallben. I shouldn't be surprised if there's a line in the Book of Three about it somewhere." The blade slid back into the scabbard with a metallic rasp, and she flipped it around and held it out to him, hilt-first. "But I still don't understand why you needed a new one. What happened to your old, the one Dallben gave you?"
The one I girded on you? She did not speak the thought, but his eyes caught hers knowingly, and she remembered his face, glowing and flushed with boyish pride, that day in the scullery. He was so different now, she thought wistfully; so unfathomably more, and she had loved him even then.
Taran took the sword from her, a shadow crossing his face, his posture suddenly stiff. "It was…taken from me," he muttered, "in a forced duel in which I had no wish to participate." He seemed to struggle internally for a moment before continuing. "The less said about the villain involved the better – to speak his name is more honor than he deserves." She watched his fingers tighten around the pommel, and her own hands twitched in an aching impulse to cover his, caress the tension out of them, even as hot indignation toward the unknown antagonist flamed in her chest. An irrational yet vivid wish to meet him herself and enact some sort of justice crossed fleetingly through her mind.
Taran looked up at her, clear-eyed. "Yet when I met him again, it was this-" he held up his self-made weapon, "that saved my life." She sensed rather than saw the change in his bearing; the strength, the straightness. "He attacked me with my old sword, and it shattered against the new."
Shattered. Eilonwy sucked in a quick, cold breath as the word struck; she felt it in the soles of her feet, in the base of her spine, with such icy clarity that for an instant she saw shards glittering, scattering, arcing away through empty air. Of course, that was the word; that was what she felt; her image of the boy he had been, all his impetuosity and bravado and well-meant blundering - gone, shattered against the stark reality of who he now was. No wonder she floundered; his very familiarity mocked her; it was no more than a memory, a thin veneer over a mystery she could not fathom. It left her hollow, hungry, impatient; the memory had sustained her but it was empty now, now that the man stood before her and would not let her in. She wished suddenly that she hadn't returned his sword; it seemed the one thing about him she had, briefly, possessed.
She felt the child in her wanting to shout, to shake him, to berate and storm and do all the things she would have done years ago in an attempt to provoke a reaction – any reaction, so long as it broke through his reserve. But she had changed, too, and was wise enough to know the futility of that route – she might as well swing at him with the broken hilt of his old sword - yet not enough to know what to do instead, apparently. Here she'd come to press him into speaking with her and she found herself with nothing to say – or perhaps, too much, too brimful of simmering longing and frustration to let words spill over, lest the resultant eruption drive him further away.
Wildly she thought she might be about to burst into tears; Belin, not that, not now, please…better to leave with some shred of dignity. Now it was she who could not meet his eyes, but cleared her throat, said "well, then…" in a hollow voice, and turned to the stable door.
It brought her up short with her hand on the doorpost; when was the last time he'd said her name? She didn't remember…nor did she remember that the sound of it had left her breathless before. Her fingers tapped nervously at the rough wood as she struggled with herself and gave up; fear of what he might see in her face kept her from turning. She willed him silently to continue. Speak. Just keep talking so I can keep breathing.
"There is…" a breath, measured. "There is something that doesn't quite satisfy me about this sword."
Curiosity broke the spell; she faced him, mystified and wary. He was holding the sword in both hands, parallel to the ground, like a sacrifice. His gaze upon it was fond, almost wistful, and he shifted it at slight angles, watching the light play on the scabbard. "You see, I never had it properly girded on." His eyes met hers then, green fire blazing beneath black brows, and a rush of warm comprehension broke upon her in a flood.
Here was an open door indeed, and yet, damnable irony, she hesitated to walk through it; why did it feel so much like surrender? Heart pounding, she found herself instinctively retreating, searching for the security of the banter that was familiar territory. "Hmph. Were there no young ladies in the Commots? I seem to recall someone once implying that one was as good as another."
Taran cocked his head at her shrewdly. "I never said that, though I'm sure what I did say was just as foolish. And yes, there were plenty of young ladies in the Commots." At her sudden, involuntary frown he grinned, and she realized she'd just given him a perfect target. "Taran of Caer-"
She swallowed the rest, whirled around on her heel; ostensibly in annoyance but really to give herself a moment to reign in a burst of unbridled happiness so intense it threatened to pulverize her self-possession into dust. He was teasing her; nettling her deliberately in a way he had not done since before Mona, and she wanted to sing with the joy of it.
"It's not done this way, you know," she chided, turning back on him with dancing eyes. "You've already been wearing that sword for months. I learned the ceremony at Dinas Rhydnant, but I also learned all the rules involved. And it wouldn't be proper to do it now."
He quirked an eloquent eyebrow upwards. "Hm. You care about propriety, do you? Mona has changed you more than I thought."
She bristled; this really was annoying, the dare in it less so than the realization that he instinctively knew the right words to disarm her. How dare he be so mysterious himself and then see right through her?
For a long moment she faced him, gaze level, a trifle irritated, until she realized that all trace of jest had disappeared from his face. In its place was an intense expression she had seen once before, and for a moment she smelled salty air, heard the crash of surf, felt the blood rush warm to her face and the breath swell heavy in her chest. It was an expression she had dreamed of often in the intervening years, though there was more in it now: the wisdom of experience, the refinement of suffering, the joy of hope renewed, the frustration of dreams deferred – yet at its core it was still a yearning, waiting question, one that now, as then, everything in her rose up to answer, to assure.
She stepped forward, closed the gap between them, took the sword from his hands. His fingers grazed her wrists in passing; she glanced at the battered battle horn that hung from his waist, remembering.
The blade rang from the scabbard again, and she held its naked edge up before her, stark in the space between them. Focusing on his face glowing behind it, she pulled the words from the recesses of memory.
"A warrior's sword is his constant companion."
She shut her eyes, reliving tapestry-hung halls lit with smoking torches, the smell of stone floors, the bright colors of regal raiment. Opened them upon a stable in various shades of gray, dust motes glittering in the sunlight, Taran's face before her, and thought it more noble than any of the faces of Mona's court.
"With it, he guards his life, his king, his country."
She saw the same face, years previous, grimy from the dirt of Achren's dungeons, white with grief at the supposed death of Gwydion, yet set and determined as he declared his intention to travel to Caer Dathyl and warn the Sons of Don of the coming attack.
"Wielded with valor, it brings honor in battle, justice to the wicked, and vengeance to the traitorous."
His face again, etched with terror as he threw himself between her and a giant, horn-crested shadow; wracked with pained resignation as he agreed to Ellidyr's self-serving demands; blazing with helpless fury as Magg leered from the shadows of Caer Colur.
"Wielded with wisdom, it brings liberation to the oppressed, protection to the weak, and fulfillment in the service of others."
The same face, weeping openly as he cradled the head of the dying Adaon; lingering regretfully over an iron brooch before it disappeared into an old crone's gnarled fingers; glowing radiant in the light of the Peladryn as it woke her from a walking nightmare.
"I charge you to be thus; a warrior worthy of his sword."
It occurred to her, somewhere deep in the back of her mind, that he had already fulfilled most of the charge without using a sword at all, and she thought not many could make such a claim.
The flourish of the blade as she saluted him came at the expense of an hour of Teleria's longsuffering instruction, but the kiss she placed upon the hilt needed no prompting. Deftly she sheathed the blade again, gathered the belt in her hands and looked at him expectantly.
When he did not move she cleared her throat. "Raise your arms."
Taran blinked, as though shaking off a dream, and raised them. She hesitated for a heartbeat, then leaned in, willing her hands not to tremble. He was slim, but it still took the full span of her arms encircling his waist to find the end of the belt, and for a moment she was surrounded by the earth-and-woodsmoke smell of him, his warmth, his solidity. His chin brushed the hair at her temple, and her fingers, abruptly clumsy, fumbled and almost dropped the belt.
"I thought you said all those things didn't apply to Assistant Pig-Keepers," he murmured, his breath feathering on her cheek like the brush of a butterfly wing. She breathed in once, slowly and deliberately, and leaned back from him, with a sensation a little like relief, to fasten the buckle. "I suppose I'm as guilty of speaking foolishness as you, then. But in any case, I think you are more than that now."
Finished, she straightened, looked him in the face. His arms lowered; his hands caught hers and curled them to his chest, and her own pulse throbbed audibly in her ears. "If you believe that," he whispered, "then I will try to become so."
"But you don't have to try," she answered, laying her palms flat against the thick wool of his jacket, as though to push the words into his heart where he would believe them. "You already are; I can feel that much, but I don't…I don't know yet how much. You're like…like that sword, all plain and rough on the outside, but worth more than a thousand more refined underneath." Frustrated at the insufficiency of words, she dropped her forehead to his chest, staring unseeingly at his feet, searching inward for the right thought. Once again the faint scent of woodsmoke rose around her - applewood; they always burned apple at Caer Dallben when they could…
Without warning she pushed herself upright, realizing with regret that the arms he had just begun to curve around her shoulders fell away in the process. That could wait, however; she had to make him understand. "Do you remember what I told you, about climbing the apple trees? How every year they are new, and you have to learn them all over again?"
A fond, reminiscent smile curled the corners of his mouth, drawing her eyes, irresistible; she swallowed hard and continued. "You're like that, all made over and grown new, and I…have to learn you again." She pushed at him slightly for emphasis. "And you haven't been making it easy."
Taran's eyes clouded; she felt the swell of his chest as he sighed, "Eilonwy," and was silent for a long moment, until she thought he was not going to speak again. Then – "I have no wish to cause you pain." He spoke earnestly; his hands gripped her shoulders, compelling her to listen. "If I have been distant, it has been to spare you my own…worries, my uncertainties. I can..." he paused again, struggling. "I can make you no promises, and it seemed better to speak little than to say that which might bring false hope, or…disappointment. Perhaps I have been mistaken." There was self-doubt in his face; anxiety, but a wan smile broke through it. "You may think me more now, but where you are concerned, I fear I am still a dense and blundering Assistant Pig-Keeper."
She laughed, and pressed a finger to that alluring corner of his mouth. "Well, at least that gives me a familiar place to start."
Eyes kindling, he snatched her hand, pulled her into his embrace. She thought swiftly of Mona beach, colliding noses and the salt on his lips, the fluttering awkward sweetness of it, but no…this had changed, too; now it was a mingling, melting away into crimson and gold, blood and fire, and…and it's about time, she laughed to herself, silently, but he felt it in the changed shape of her mouth, and broke away to look her in the face. "What is it?"
She sighed, and settled herself more securely within the circle of his arms. "Just…when you do decide to communicate, you're remarkably eloquent. For an Assistant Pig-Keeper."
He threw his head back in a real, honest laugh, the first she had heard from him since the journey had begun. A sounding of the bell from the guard tower interrupted him; she counted the peals and frowned. "Bother! That's a summons for the whole castle. Smoit must have an announcement."
His arms tightened one last time and released her with tangible reluctance; the air felt colder when he stepped away and she wrapped her own arms around herself; but she was warmed within, and her smile was content. Missing her at the stable door, he turned, and she studied his profile, the tall, straight shape of him, dark against the light. He cleared his throat. "Aren't you coming?"
"Yes. I was just thinking," she explained, "how much that sword suits you."
He glanced down at the blade hanging anew at his side, and rested his hand comfortably on the pommel, as on the shoulder of an old friend. "You were right, you know. We are alike, it and I," he observed. "Only now, it lacks nothing, and I…" he raised meaningful eyes to her, worlds behind them. "I am still waiting."
Taran held out his hand; she took it, and stepped with him through the open door.