Author's Note: Taran/Eilonwy fluff, set several years after The High King. Spoilers for the series in general; rated T to be on the safe side of things.
He had been gone for three weeks.
Three long, dreary weeks that took her eerily back to her time on Mona, when all she had to occupy her days were dull studies and vapid nobility fluttering about and Queen Teleria's grating, girlish voice, constantly reminding her to act like a lady, like a royal descendant of the House of Llyr, for heaven's sake! and to keep her chin up and her back straight and not to talk so loudly, if you please.
The summer she left, she had often watched him at work in fields, stripped to his waist in feeble effort to remain cool and save his tunics from sweat stains. She would watch as he weeded down the rows of turnips, his skin lightly bronzed from being in the sun and wind, his thick hair tousled against the breeze. Llyr! How she had wanted to touch the muscles in his back out of sheer curiosity, to see if they were hard or smooth or whatever else muscles could be, because she had no idea and theylooked hard and smooth... And perhaps it wasn't lady-like, and perhaps it was too brazen, but she simply couldn'thelp it. Maybe that was why Dallben had decided to send her away. Maybe he had noticed her dazed staring, and realized how she really felt, when she was still coming to terms with her feelings herself. But Taran never seemed to notice her gaze, which was both perfect and infuriating all at once – as long as hedidn'tnotice, she could stare as often as she wished, but on the other hand, she wishedshe were worth staring at, too. It had been so disheartening to think that he mightn't feel attracted to her, because Belin knew she was attracted tohim.
She had daydreamed of him incessantly while on Mona, whenever Teleria had started lecturing or the court became too stuffy. It was so effortless to do so, after all. To simply slip into a fond memory or picture his face in her mind, grinning boyishly at her. Or perhaps it was simply whenever they were separated that she started to daydream of him, because she was certainly thinking about him all of the time right now. Three weeks, already! She hated being apart from him; it was absolutely maddening. She felt completely lost and out of place, as though she had forgotten her own name.
He stuck his head in the scullery once, shortly after she had arrived at Caer Dallben. She had been desperately trying to make bread to go with dinner, but she hadn't quite got the knack of kneading yet, having never learned proper household chores. He'd chortled at her silly attempts to pound the thick, sticky dough with her small fists, and in a sudden burst of anger at his teasing, she started to shout at him. He ducked inside and quickly but encouragingly placed his hands over her flour-coated ones to show her exactly how she should go about the process, and she marveled at how simple it was once she got the hang of it (though still pretending that she wasn't speaking to him, of course). However, as soon as she was able to do it on her own, he'd stepped back and, before she realized what he was up to, he threw a handful of flour in her face. For a moment she had stood there, her mouth hanging open in shock, before she shrieked with indignation, grabbed a handful herself, and lunged at him. Five minutes later, they were both nearly completely white and Dallben was positively furious with the pair of them. Thank Don for Coll, who had found humor in the situation where Dallben had clearlynot, and taken them both outside and doused them in water to rinse the flour off. They never had another flour fight again...mostly out of sheer terror of being frozen to death by cold well water and watching Dallben turn a nasty shade of blotchy purple.
It was strange, she thought, how it was always the littlest things that broke the surface of her mind. Never the life-changing events that had shaped their adolescence, like saving all of Prydain. Always the small, seemingly insignificant things that bubbled up first. The things she treasured the most. The truest milestones of their lives.
Come spring, he would sometimes steal off to the stables and climb to the lofts to sit amongst the fresh hay, and spend a good thirty minutes polishing Dyrnwyn, as though oil and soft rags could make the scarred, blackened metal look more presentable. Eventually, the Master of Horse would find him and grin cheekily, while the King of Pyrdain mouthed wordlessly, silently begging the man not to shout out loud for the entire castle to hear where he was. It never did any good though, for the Master of Horse was a consistent, steady type, and he always revealed the King's hiding place to whoever happened to be trying to locate him to sign a decree or listen to a proposal or update him on whatever was happening about the land. Once his hiding place had been compromised, Taran would always sigh, resigned, before sheathing the ancient weapon and trudging back into Caer Dathyl to continue his never-ending duties, stopping only once to give the Master of Horse a scowl that was returned with a bold, cheerful laugh.
Duties – that was precisely what had taken him from her this time. Quite normally she accompanied him, for she wouldn't hear of anything else, and he had long-since stopped his futile attempts to convenience her to remain at the castle while he went traipsing across the kingdom on his next task. She had always traveled with him, and thought she always would. But this time was different. This time, she had no choice but to remain behind and oh! How she downrighthated being apart from him. Loathed it, even. It wasn't fair, but there was nothing to be done about it.
She loved the way he would sometimes look up at her from the dining table after finishing dinner, his index finger and thumb slowly stroking the stem of his wine goblet in a sensual gesture, his eyes glittering dark and smoky in the dim light of the guttering candles as he cocked an eyebrow in silent questioning. It was an expression that never failed to make her breath hitch and her stomach flutter. It was so unfair that he could merely look at her like that, and utterly obliterate her senses! She often wondered if she had the ability to do the same to him. The one time she asked (an hour afterwards), he'd stared at her as though she were crazy to evenhaveto ask such a ridiculous question.
The Fallows had been a task that had required more thought than the rest of his promises, in some ways. Rebuilding Caer Dathyl had taken months, yes – but it was constructed stone by stone, timber by timber, and was eventually completed to stand tall and proud once again. Rhun's seawall had been the same; block by block of granite, until it rose high enough to keep the highest of tides from flooding the town. But the Fallows were unpredictable – they were so saturated with the blood of men that it was impossible to know if they would ever be fertile fields again, and it was not something that could be done in a step-by-step process. It wasn't quite like placing stones one on top of the other. It took patience, trial and error, love and care.
When they had gone to Mona to complete Rhun's task, she had inhaled and gasped with pleasure at the way the salty sea air assaulted her nostrils, the way the wind tossed her fiery golden hair, the way she knew the sand would feel beneath bare feet if she could get away with taking her slippers off. Llyr! She had almost forgotten how lovely the sea was! How the breakers crashing far out upon the ocean like low rumbles of thunder and the waves rolling endlessly upon the beach made her heart leap. For no matter how much she loved the Eagle Mountains, the sea would always be her ancestral home, and something crept through her veins and made her eyes drift shut for the want of more of it.
She had especially wanted to visit the Fallows with him this time to pay tribute to Coll, as she had done the past five springs. It seemed wrong that she should have to stay behind, as though she had broken a promise of her own. She always placed a wreath of apple blossoms upon Coll's humble barrow, in remembrance of the cost of war and freedom. In remembrance of friendship and mentorship and love. But then, Coll would surely understand why she'd had to remain behind this time. If anyone could understand, it was Coll, who had always been so solid and friendly and cheerful. Yes, she knew he wouldn't have been upset that she hadn't come this year.
He had asked her to walk with him to the orchard to escape the crowds of warriors gathered at Caer Dallben in celebration of victory, two days after their arrival. She couldn't help but notice how shy and embarrassed he seemed. She had willingly accompanied him, walking perhaps a little too close, relishing the warmth and solidity of his body next to hers, hoping desperately that he might embrace her and whisper that he loved her. They had just reached the orchard when the wind caught the apple blossoms, she had looked up into his face expectantly, noticing how he seemed to lean towards her...and then someone had shouted for him to come help with something-or-other back at the camp, and his shoulders had slumped in disappointment. There was nothing else for it though, especially when a young lad appeared at the orchard gate a moment later, going on about horses or what-have-you, oblivious to the fact that two young lovers wanted to be alone. She had watched sadly as he left her behind, but he'd glanced back once at her, and she tried to smile at him, hoping the picture of her standing in a beautiful blue gown, surrounded by petals, would be burned into his memory and make him come back to her soon.
She had sent the wreath along with her husband this spring, sullen because she could not accompany him herself. He had taken it from her with a soft smile of understanding, and promised her that he would be home as soon as possible.
She had noticed his hands during her first summer at Caer Dallben. His fingers were always covered in dirt it seemed, for he was always helping Coll in the fields or the forge. She had never minded in the least, and so thought little of his hands – until they had been tasked with locating the cauldron and destroying it. And it was when he had been holding that incredible brooch, twisting it slowly in his fingers, his expression thoughtful and heartbroken and sad all at the same time, that she truly noticed. He had well-sculpted, strong hands that would be an indication of his future build in general, but his body hadn't quite caught up with them yet, for he was still growing taller and broader. And then, too, his hands were still rough and calloused, but yet it seemed they were gentle at the same time that they were rough. That had been the first time she had felt that strange, odd flip in her stomach, as though it had lurched forward and upward, and the first time she had actually realized what she was feeling. It wasn't an unpleasant feeling, but it left her confused and nervous and shy, which she most certainly could not be whilst traveling with her companions on such a dangerous adventure! But hishands– so gentle and so strong at the same time – it was truly amazing, she thought, and yet it shouldn't be...should it? Besides, they had so many other impending problems that his hands shouldn't be the foremost on her list of things to ponder. And yet, they surfaced in her mind more than she could have recounted during that journey, usually as she was preparing to sleep upon the hard earth at night, and she would blush fiercely and turn away from the others so they wouldn't notice.
She wondered if the Fallows would ever be whole again. It had seemed, the previous spring, that they didn't seem quite as red as before – that the earth had seemed a bit browner, and the rows that the field hands had plowed the year before were still visible. She hoped that this year, perhaps something would actually grow there. Nothing had grown as of yet, but then again, Taran only ever planted a few things in the field, as a test to see if the land was ready. Wouldn't it be amazing if something actually sprouted? She hated that she might miss it, for it would mean that the fields were recuperating from their tragic past; that they were becoming whole again.
At night, while she ached for him to be home again, she would recall the way his hair tickled her skin as his chapped, eager lips ghosted between and beneath her breasts. The way his muscles jumped when her fingertips skated over his bare chest, all tan and hard and smooth, except for a single trickle of fine, dark hair at his navel. The way his breath came in gasps whenever she dragged her own lips across his collarbone and clutched at his biceps, pulling him closer, needing him.
A soft gurgle jolted her back to reality and she turned from the window to smile into the nearby cradle, where a tiny baby with reddish-gold hair and green eyes giggled happily at her, finally awake from a much-needed nap.
The reason she had not been able to accompany her husband to the Fallows this spring.
His fingers trembled as he touched the still-small bump upon her waist, as though terrified he might hurt her. She could feel the slight roughness of his skin against hers and it felt wonderful, in a soothing sort of way, easing the tension out of her back and shoulders. In response, she pressed her hand over his, flattening his palm against her stomach, encouraging him. Her voice had been bemused and teasing: "I'm not made a glass, Taran. I won't break, you know."
She lifted the baby from the cradle and cooed back, twisting happily in the sunlight as she whirled on light, satin-encased toes, watching her child smile brilliantly at the motion. Then, quite suddenly, she heard a shout from the green hills beyond the castle. Coming to an abrupt halt, the baby still in her arms, she glanced out of the window, her breath catching in her chest. She could just see the golden standard starch against the breeze, still a quarter of a league away, but approaching quickly.
She would never forget the way he looked when he burst into the cottage after she had returned from Mona, as he returned from his quest. She would never forget the heat in his eyes as they lighted upon her, standing there waiting for him. As though he had thought of nothing except her for the past year, just as she had thought of nothing except him. She would never forget how her entire body had felt as though it were as tight as a bowstring at the mere sight of the tall, handsome man she hadn't seen for so long.
Her husband was home again.