Under a chill, gray sky, two riders jogged across the turf. Taran, the taller horseman, set his face against the wind and leaned forward in the saddle, his eyes on the distant hills. At his belt hung a sword, and from his shoulder a silver-bound battle horn. His companion Gurgi, shaggier than the pony he rode, pulled his weathered cloak around him, rubbed his frost-nipped ears, and began groaning so wretchedly that Taran at last reined up the stallion.
"No, no!" Gurgi cried. "Faithful Gurgi will keep on! He follows kindly master, oh yes, as he has always done. Never mind his shakings and achings! Never mind the droopings of his poor tender head!"
Taran smiled, seeing that Gurgi, despite his bold words, was eyeing a sheltering grove of ash trees. "There is time to spare," he answered. "I long to be home, but not at the cost of that poor tender head of yours. We camp here and go no farther until morning."
They tethered their mounts and built a small fire in a ring of stones. Gurgi curled up and was snoring almost before he had finished swallowing his food. Though as weary as his companion,Taran set about mending the harness leathers. Suddenly he stopped and jumped to his feet. Overhead, a winged shape plunged swiftly toward him.
"Look!" Taran cried, as Gurgi, still heavy with sleep, sat up and blinked. "It's Kaw! Dallben must have sent him to find us."
The crow beat his wings, clacked his beak, and began squawking loudly even before he landed on Taran's outstretched wrist.
"Eilonwy!" Kaw croaked at the top of his voice. "Eilonwy! Princess! Home!"
Taran's weariness fell from him like a cloak. Gurgi, wide awake and shouting joyfully, scurried to unloose the steeds. Taran leaped astride Melynlas, spun the gray stallion about, and galloped from the grove, with Kaw perched on his shoulder and Gurgi and the pony pounding at his heels.
Day and night they rode, hardly halting for a mouthful of food or a moment of sleep, urging all speed and strength from their mounts and from themselves, ever southward, down from the mountain valley and across Great Avren until, on a bright morning, the fields of Caer Dallben lay before them once again.
From the instant Taran set foot across the threshold, such a commotion filled the cottage that he scarcely knew which way to turn. Kaw had immediately begun jabbering and flapping his wings; Coll, whose great bald crown and broad face shone with delight, was clapping Taran on the back; while Gurgi shouted in glee and leaped up and down in a cloud of shedding hair. Even the ancient enchanter Dallben, who seldom let anything disturb his meditations,hobbled out of his chamber to observe the welcomings. In the midst of it all, Taran could hardly glimpse Eilonwy, though he heard the voice of the Princess very clearly above the din.
"Taran of Caer Dallben," she cried, as he strove to draw near her, "I've been waiting to see you for days! After all the time I've been away learning to be a young lady--as if I weren't one before I left--when I'm home at last, you're not even here!"
In another moment he was at her side. The slender Princess still wore at her throat the crescent moon of silver, and on her finger the ring crafted by the Fair Folk. But now a band of gold circled her brow, and the richness of her apparel made Taran suddenly aware of his travel-stained cloak and muddy boots.
"And if you think living in a castle is pleasant," Eilonwy went on, without a pause for breath, "I can tell you it isn't. It's weary and dreary! They've made me sleep in beds with goosefeather pillows enough to stifle you; I'm sure the geese needed them more than I did--the feathers, that is, not the pillows. And servitors to bring you exactly what you don't want to eat. And washing your hair whether it needs it or not. And sewing and weaving and curtsying and all such I don't even want to think about. I've not drawn a sword for I don't know how long ..."
Eilonwy stopped abruptly and looked curiously at Taran. "That's odd," she said. "There's something different about you. It's not your hair, though it does look as if you'd cropped it yourself with your eyes shut. It's--well, I can't quite say. I mean, unless you told someone they'd never guess you were an Assistant Pig-Keeper."
Taran laughed fondly at Eilonwy's puzzled frown. "Alas, it's beenlong since last I tended Hen Wen. Indeed, when we journeyed among the folk of the Free Commots, Gurgi and I toiled at nearly everything but pig-keeping. This cloak I wove at the loom of Dwyvach the Weaver-Woman; this sword--Hevydd the Smith taught me the forging of it. And this," he said with a trace of sadness, drawing an earthen bowl from his jacket, "such as it is, I made at the wheel of Annlaw Clay-Shaper." He put the bowl in her hands. "If it pleases you, it is yours."
"It's lovely," answered Eilonwy. "Yes, I shall treasure it. But that's what I mean, too. I'm not saying you aren't a good Assistant Pig-Keeper, because I'm sure you're the best in Prydain, but there's something more--"
"You speak truth, Princess," put in Coll. "He left us a pig-keeper and comes back looking as if he could do all he set his hand to, whatever."
Taran shook his head. "I learned I was neither swordsmith nor weaver. Nor, alas, a shaper of clay. Gurgi and I were already homeward bound when Kaw found us, and here shall we stay."
"I'm glad of that," replied Eilonwy. "All anyone knew about you was that you were wandering every which where. Dallben told me you were seeking your parents. Then you met someone you thought was your father but wasn't. Or was it the other way round? I didn't altogether understand it."
"There is little to understand," Taran said. "What I sought, I found. Though it was not what I had hoped."
"No, it was not," murmured Dallben, who had been watching Taran closely. "You found more than you sought, and gained perhaps more than you know."
"I still don't see why you wanted to leave Caer Dallben," Eilonwy began.
Taran had no chance to reply, for now his hand was seized and shaken vigorously.
"Hullo, hullo!" cried a young man with pale blue eyes and strawcolored hair. His handsomely embroidered cloak looked as though it had been water-soaked, then wrung out to dry. His bootlacings, broken in several places, had been retied in large, straggling knots.
"Prince Rhun!" Taran had almost failed to recognize him. Rhun had grown taller and leaner, though his grin was as broad as it had ever been.
"King Rhun, actually," the young man answered, "since my father died last summer. That's one of the reasons why Princess Eilonwy is here now. My mother wanted to keep her with us on Mona to finish her education. And you know my mother! She'd never have left off with it, even though Dallben had sent word Eilonwy was to come home. And so," he proudly added, "I finally put my foot down. I ordered a ship fitted out, and off we sailed from Mona Haven. Amazing what a king can do when he sets his mind to it!
"We've brought someone else along, too," Rhun continued, gesturing toward the fireside where Taran for the first time noticed a pudgy little man sitting with a cook-pot between his knees. The stranger licked his fingers and wrinkled a flabby nose at Taran. He made no attempt to rise, but only nodded curtly while the scraggly fringe of hair around his bulbous head stirred like weeds under water.
Taran stared, not believing what he saw. The little man drewhimself up and sniffed with a mixture of haughtiness and wounded feelings.
"One should have no trouble remembering a giant," he said testily.
"Remember you?" replied Taran. "How could I not! The cavern on Mona! Last time I saw you, though, you were--bigger, to say the least. But it is you, nevertheless. It is, indeed! Glew!"
"When I was a giant," Glew said, "few would have forgotten me so quickly. Unfortunate that things worked out as they did. Now, in the cavern--"
"You've started him off again," Eilonwy whispered to Taran. "He'll go on like that until you're fairly wilted, about the glorious days when he used to be a giant. He'll only stop talking to eat, and only stop eating to talk. I can understand his eating, since he lived on nothing but mushrooms for so long. But he must have been wretched as a giant, and you'd think he'd want to forget it."
"I knew Dallben sent Kaw with a potion to shrink Glew back to size," Taran answered. "Of what happened to him since then, I've had no word."
"That's what happened to him," said Eilonwy. "As soon as he got free of the cavern, he made his way to Rhun's castle. No one had the heart to turn him away, though he bored us all to tears with those endless pointless tales of his. We took him with us when we sailed, thinking he'd be grateful to Dallben and want to thank him properly. Not a bit of it! We almost had to twist his ears to get him aboard. Now that he's here, I wish we'd left him where he was."
"But three of our companions are missing," Taran said, glancingaround the cottage. "Good old Doli, and Fflewddur Fflam. And I had hoped Prince Gwydion might have come to welcome Eilonwy."
"Doli sends his best wishes," said Coll, "but we shall have to do without his company. Our dwarf friend is harder to root out of the Fair Folk realm than a stump out of a field. He'll not budge. As for Fflewddur Fflam, nothing can keep him and his harp from any merrymaking, whatever. He should have been here long since."
"Prince Gwydion as well," Dallben added. "He and I have matters to discuss. Though you young people may doubt it, some of them are even weightier than the homecomings of a Princess and an Assistant Pig-Keeper."
"Well, I shall put this on again when Fflewddur and Prince Gwydion arrive," said Eilonwy, taking the golden circlet from her brow, "just so they can see how it looks. But I won't wear it a moment longer. It's rubbed a blister and it makes my head ache--like someone squeezing your neck, only higher up."
"Ah, Princess," Dallben said, with a furrowed smile, "a crown is more discomfort than adornment. If you have learned that, you have already learned much."
"Learning!" Eilonwy declared. "I've been up to my ears in learning. It doesn't show, so it's hard to believe it's there. Wait, that's not quite true, either. Here, I've learned this." From her cloak she drew a large square of folded cloth and almost shyly handed it to Taran. "I embroidered it for you. It's not finished yet, but I wanted you to have it, even so. Though I admit it's not as handsome as the things you've made."
Taran spread out the fabric. As broad as his outstretched arms, the somewhat straggle-threaded embroidery showed a white, blue-eyed pig against a field of green.
"It's meant to be Hen Wen," Eilonwy explained as Rhun and Gurgi pressed forward to study the handiwork more closely.
"At first, I tried to embroider you into it, too," Eilonwy said to Taran. "Because you're so fond of Hen and because--because I was thinking of you. But you came out looking like sticks with a bird's nest on top, not yourself at all. So I had to start over with Hen alone. You'll just have to make believe you're standing beside her, a little to the left. Otherwise, I'd never have got this much done, and I did work the summer on it."
"If I was in your thoughts then," Taran said, "your work gladdens me all the more. No matter that Hen's eyes are really brown."
Eilonwy looked at him in sudden dismay. "You don't like it."
"I do, in all truth," Taran assured her. "Brown or blue makes no difference. It will be useful--"
"Useful!" cried Eilonwy. "Useful's not the point! It's a keepsake, not a horse blanket! Taran of Caer Dallben, you don't understand anything at all."
"At least," Taran replied, with a good-natured grin, "I know the color of Hen Wen's eyes."
Eilonwy tossed her red-gold hair and put her chin in the air. "Humph!" she said. "And very likely forgotten the color of mine."
"Not so, Princess," Taran answered quietly. "Nor have I forgotten when you gave me this," he added, taking up the battle horn. "Itspowers were greater than either of us knew. They are gone now, but I treasure it still because it came from your hands.
"You asked why I sought to know my parentage," Taran went on. "Because I hoped it would prove noble, and give me the right to ask what I dared not ask before. My hope was mistaken. Yet even without it--"
Taran hesitated, searching for the most fitting words. Before he could speak again, the cottage door burst open, and Taran cried out in alarm.
At the threshold stood Fflewddur Fflam. The bard's face was ashen, his ragged yellow hair clung to his forehead. On his shoulder he bore the limp body of a man.
Taran, with Rhun behind him, sprang to help. Gurgi and Eilonwy followed as they lowered the still figure to the ground. Glew, his pudgy cheeks quivering, stared speechless. At the first instant, Taran had nearly staggered at the shock. Now his hands worked quickly, almost of themselves, to unclasp the cloak and loosen the torn jacket. Before him, on the hard-packed earth, lay Gwydion Prince of Don.
Blood crusted the warrior's wolf-gray hair and stained his weathered face. His lips were drawn back, his teeth set in battle rage. Gwydion's cloak muffled one arm as though at the last he had sought to defend himself with this alone.
"Lord Gwydion is slain!" Eilonwy cried.
"He lives--though barely," Taran said. "Fetch medicines," he ordered Gurgi. "The healing herbs from my saddlebags--" He stopped short and turned to Dallben. "Forgive me. It is not for me tocommand under my master's roof. But the herbs are of great power. Adaon Son of Taliesin gave them to me long ago. They are yours if you wish them."
"I know their nature and have none that will serve better," Dallben answered. "Nor should you fear to command under any roof, since you have learned to command yourself. I trust your skill as I see you trust it. Do as you see fit."
Coll was already hurrying from the scullery with water in a basin. Dallben, who had knelt at Gwydion's side, rose and turned to the bard.
"What evil deed is this?" The old enchanter spoke hardly above a whisper, yet his voice rang through the cottage and his eyes blazed in anger. "Whose hand dared strike him?"
"The Huntsmen of Annuvin," replied Fflewddur. "Two lives they almost claimed. How did you fare?" he urgently asked Taran. "How did you outride them so quickly? Be thankful it went no worse for you."
Taran, puzzled, glanced up at the distraught bard. "Your words have no meaning, Fflewddur."
"Meaning?" answered the bard. "They mean what they say. Gwydion would have traded his life for yours when the Huntsmen set upon you not an hour ago."
"Set upon me?" Taran's perplexity grew. "How can that be? Gurgi and I saw no Huntsmen. And we have been at Caer Dallben this hour past."
"Great Belin, a Fflam sees what he sees!" cried Fflewddur.
"A fever is working in you," Taran said. "You, too, may bewounded more grievously than you know. Rest easy. We shall give you all the help we can." He turned again to Gwydion, opened the packet of herbs which Gurgi had brought, and set them to steep in the basin.
Dallben's face was clouded. "Let the bard speak," he said. "There is much in his words that troubles me."
"Lord Gwydion and I rode together from the northern lands," Fflewddur began. "We'd crossed Avren and were well on our way here. A little distance ahead of us, in a clearing ..." The bard paused and looked directly at Taran. "I saw you with my own eyes! You were hard pressed. You shouted to us for help and waved us onward.
"Gwydion outdistanced me," Fflewddur went on. "You'd already galloped beyond the clearing. Gwydion rode after you like the wind. Llyan carried me swiftly, but by the time I caught up there was no sign of you at all, yet Huntsmen a-plenty. They had dragged Gwydion from his saddle. They would have paid with their own lives had they stood against me," cried Fflewddur. "But they fled when I rode up. Gwydion was close to death and I dared not leave him."
Fflewddur bowed his head. "His hurt was beyond my skill to treat. I could do no more than bring him here as you see him."
"You saved his life, my friend," Taran said.
"And lost what Gwydion would have given his life to keep!" cried the bard. "The Huntsmen failed to slay him, but a greater evil has befallen him. They've stripped him of his sword--blade and scabbard!"
Taran caught his breath. Concerned only for his companion's wounds, he had not seen that Dyrnwyn, the black sword, hung no longer at Gwydion's side. Terror filled him. Dyrnwyn, the enchanted blade, the flaming weapon of ancient power, was in the Huntsmen's hands. They would bear it to their master: to Arawn Death-Lord, in the dark realm of Annuvin.
Fflewddur sank to the ground and put his head in his hands. "And my own wits are lost, since you tell me it was not yourself who called out to us."
"What you saw I cannot judge," Taran said. "Gwydion's life is our first care. We will talk of these things when your memory is clearer."
"The harper's memory is clear enough." A black-robed woman moved from the dark corner where she had been silently listening, and stepped slowly into the midst of the company. Her long, unbound hair glittered like pale silver; the deadly beauty of her face had not altogether vanished, though now it seemed shadowy, worn away, lingering as a dream only half-recalled.
"Ill fortune mars our meeting, Assistant Pig-Keeper," Achren said. "But welcome, nonetheless. What, then, do you still fear me?" she added, seeing Taran's uneasy glance. She smiled. Her teeth were sharp. "Neither has Eilonwy Daughter of Angharad forgotten my powers, though it was she who destroyed them at the Castle of Llyr. Yet, since I have dwelt here, have I not served Dallben as well as any of you?"
Achren strode to the outstretched form of Gwydion. Taran saw a look almost of pity in her cold eyes. "Lord Gwydion will live," she said. "But he may find life a crueler fate than death." She bent andwith her fingertips lightly touched the warrior's brow, then drew her hand away and faced the bard.
"Your eyes did not play you false, harper," Achren said. "You saw what was meant for you to see. A pig-keeper? Why not, if thus he chose to appear? Only one wields such power: Arawn himself, Lord of Annuvin, Land of the Dead."
Copyright © 1968 by Lloyd Alexander. Renewed 1996.