He looks up sharply at the tone; accusatory words, but
strained, as though they had burst forth against the will of the speaker. He
had not even realized that Taran had followed him into the room.
It is unlike the boy to be anything but reverential to a
fault in his presence, but it is no trouble guessing what manner of passion
drives him now. Taran’s face is flushed in anger, but his gaze is pained and
troubled, torn in many different directions.
Gwydion winces at the sight. At the sound of his own
misgivings spoken aloud by this boy, who once thought he could do no wrong. Any
such utterance by a warrior or advisor under his command would bring on a swift
reprimand for insubordination. But he cannot bring himself to stern speech now.
It is all he can do to look Taran in the face.
In the face. He
realizes, with a sudden little chill, that the boy is as tall as he is. He
stands, in this cramped chamber in Dinas Rhydnant, silhouetted against a
window; slim, but broad-shouldered, straight as an arrow, his head thrown back
in challenge. Their eyes meet on a straight, even line.
He waits, stoic, for whatever must be said.
Taran swallows hard. “You used her as bait. You knew it was dangerous, and you didn’t
warn her. You didn’t let me warn her.
We could have…made her part of the plan, and instead you just let her–”
he breaks off, his breath labored.
Gwydion struggles. An insidious whisper in his mind reminds him that it is
outrageous to be expected to explain himself to an underling. Better judgment
wins; he measures his words carefully. “I did. I said, at the time, that I
was not happy. There was nothing else to be done.”
Taran looks away abruptly, out the window, his knuckles white against the sill.
A muscle twitches in his jaw. "I
remember.“ It’s a thick, resentful mutter. ” I followed your orders.
I watched and waited and stayed at the castle. I did everything I was told and
I still-“ He cuts himself off
before his voice can betray him completely. "She was almost lost.”
Gwydion stiffens. A wave of grief washes over him, as though
it were yesterday; that white-faced messenger bringing news no one wanted.
The rumors are
confirmed. The island lies in ruin; only the castle still stands, and it barely.
The queen’s body was found, unmarked but lifeless, upon the dais in the great
And the princess?
He had asked it in a tone whose implications no one present
could possibly have mistaken.
A whisper, reluctant. A
traitorous elopement. Disappeared. Not seen to leave the island; presumed dead.
Taran is staring at him again with that expression of
uncomprehending anguish, the face of one who has discovered that the gods of
his childhood are mere men after all. Gwydion has no words, remembering the
blind rage at some unknown man; the need to blame, to accuse, to find a reason
for his pain. To turn anger into a shield against it.
“You are angry,” he acknowledges, finally,
“as am I, that anyone dear to you should come to such peril. Especially if
it could have been avoided. And perhaps, in this, I erred. Given more time,
perhaps I could have found another way.” He sighs, feeling suddenly weary,
and runs a hand across his face, pulling at his own clenched jaw to loosen it. “It
is not given to any one of us to know every possible outcome of our decisions.
I did what I must. More lives than Eilonwy’s were at stake.”
Before the last words are cool in the air, he regrets them,
for Taran recoils. “Is that what it means to be a prince? A leader?”
The betrayal is as palpable as bile in his voice. “To be willing to
sacrifice one for the sake of all? Any bait will do, if it will trap an
enchantress who threatens your crown?”
The words sting like a lash and the Prince fights down the
anger they threaten to release, but a thread of it runs through his return.
“A leader will sacrifice himself before any other. As I would have lain down my life, no less
than you, for her. Do not think, had we lost her, that I would not suffer as
A face burns into his mind’s eye; sea-green eyes and an arch
expression crowned in red-gold; he shuts his eyes and turns his back toward the
boy. This boy who loves the girl who should have been–
But he never allows himself to think that.
The sound of the sea,
a distant mournful rumble, drifts in through the window.
Taran stammers, his voice low and cowed. “My lord,
I…I’m sorry.” Gwydion turns back, gazes at him impassively. “I
spoke out of my own grief,” the boy continues. “It was insolent of me
to question you. Forgive me.”
“Nay,” the Prince murmurs, “It is I who asks
The anguished face turns to him, disbelieving.
“You asked if it means this, to be a leader,”
Gwydion says. “I tell you: sometimes there is no good way. Sometimes all
ways are bleak, and you must choose the one that seems least so.” He takes
a step toward the window, stands beside Taran, looking out. “Whatever the
outcome, some - perhaps many -who look to you will be unhappy. And you must
bear the weight of their unhappiness, as willingly as you accept their praise
and admiration when all is right with their world.”
Taran bows his head. “I would not add to your
“We all add to one another’s burden,” Gwydion
answers, “as well as to each other’s joys. And that is why we all bear
them - or enjoy them - together. Such is the lot not only of a prince and a
leader but an assistant pig-keeper as well, if they mean to stay friends.”
Taran meets his eyes again, a glimmer of humor touching the
corners of his gaze. “It hardly sounds fitting, does it?”
Gwydion smiles. “Then say not a prince and a
pig-keeper,” he replies, “but one man and another - no more or
The boy blinks, and blinks again, and his face flushes dark.
His drooping shoulders straighten and he turns to look out again, obviously
both pleased and embarrassed, though in his eyes the Prince can still see
sadness - the monument to a buried idol.
Taran clears his throat. “Lord Gwydion,” he says,
and hesitates, before continuing, haltingly, “Do you think a princess
would ever marry a…well, someone who isn’t a prince? Or even nobly-born at
all?” He glances at him anxiously.
Gwydion forces his face into a smile he does not feel, and
hopes his voice holds no trace of revelatory bitterness.
“I am told,” he admits, “that it is not
without precedent in certain families.”