2020.01.22

It's Wednesday.

CHAPTER 7

THE KING OF MONA

IN THE LARDER WHICH had become a prison, Gurgi was first to hear the shouts of alarm. Though muffled by the heavy walls, the cries brought him to his feet before the other companions were aware of the tumult beyond their cell. All night, fearing the arrival of Magg from one moment to the next, they had vainly sought escape. Exhausted from their efforts, they dozed fitfully by turns; hoping only to sell their lives dearly when the guards at last came for them.

“Fightings and smitings!” Gurgi cried. “Is it for weary tired captives? Yes, yes, it must be! Yes, we are here!” He ran to the door and began shouting through the iron grating.

Now Taran heard what seemed to be a clash of swords. Coll and King Smoit were quickly beside him. Gwydion had already reached the door in two strides and drew away the excited Gurgi.

“Beware,” Gwydion sharply warned. “Fflewddur Fflam may have found a way to free us, but if the castle is aroused, Magg may take our lives before our comrades can save us.”

Footsteps rang outside, the lock of the heavy door began to rattle, and the companions fell back, crouched and ready to set upon their captors. The door was flung open. Into the cell burst Eilonwy.

“Follow me!” she cried. In one upraised hand she held the brightly glowing bauble; and with the other, pulled a sack from her belt. “Take these. The mushrooms are fire, the eggs are smoke. Throw them at anyone who attacks you. And this powder—it will blind them.

“I couldn’t find weapons,” she hurried on. “I’ve set Smoit’s warriors free, but Fflewddur’s trapped in the courtyard. Everything’s gone wrong. Our plan has failed!”Smoit, bellowing in rage, dashed to the door. “Away with your toadstools and rooster eggs!” he roared. “My hands are all I need to wring a traitor’s neck!”

Gwydion sprang through the doorway. With Coll and Gurgi behind him, Taran sped after Eilonwy. From the corridors of the Great Hall, Taran raced into what was neither daylight nor darkness. Huge billows of dense, white smoke rose in the courtyard, blotting out the dawn sky. Like swaying, twisting waves, they shifted as the wind caught them, lifted a moment to show a struggling knot of warriors, then flooded back in an impenetrable tide. Here and there roaring columns of fire writhed through the smoke.

Losing sight of Eilonwy, Taran plunged into the swirling clouds. A warrior brought up his sword and slashed at him. Taran stumbled to escape the blow. With outflung hand he cast his small store of powder in the man’s face. The warrior fell back as if stunned; his wide-open eyes stared blankly at nothing. Taran snatched the blade from the baffled guard and raced on.

“A Smoit! A Smoit!” The red-bearded King’s war cry rang from the stables. Before smoke filled his eyes again, Taran caught a fleeting glimpse of the furious Smoit, armed with a huge scythe and laying about him like a bear turned harvester.

The luckless Gurgi, however, had stumbled with his eggs still clutched in his hands. Smoke poured over him. For an instant all Taran could see of him was a pair of waving, hairy arms before these, too, vanished in the billows. Yelling at the top of his voice, Gurgi spun about and dashed frantically wherever his feet led him. Warriors shouted and fled from this fearsome whirlwind.

King Smoit, Taran realized, was trying to rally his own men around him, and Taran attempted to fight his way toward the stables. Coll, briefly, was at his side. The stout warrior had just gained a blade from a fallen opponent. Flinging aside the hoe which, until then, had served him as a weapon, Coll threw his bulk against the press of swordsmen besetting Fflewddur Fflam. Taran leaped into the fray, striking left and right with telling blows.

Magg’s warriors fell back. The bard joined Taran as they raced across the court.

“Where is Rhun?” Taran cried.

“I don’t know!” Fflewddur gasped. “He and Eilonwy were to open the gates for us. But, Great Belin, what’s happened since then I can’t guess. Everything has changed. One of Magg’s men trod on Glew, and we were discovered before we could go another step. From then on the fat was in the fire. Where Glew is now I have no idea—though the little weasel gave a fair account of himself, I must say. So did Gwystyl.”

“Gwystyl?” Taran stammered. “How…”

“Never mind,” replied Fflewddur. “We’ll tell you later. If there is a later.”

They had nearly reached the stables. Taran caught sight of Gwydion. The Prince of Don’s wolf-gray head towered above the milling warriors. But Taran’s relief at Gwydion’s safety turned to despair. He saw, through the shifting clouds, the tide of battle was turning against the companions. Only a handful of Smoit’s men had been able to rally for an attack; the others were cut off, locked in combat throughout the courtyard.

“To the gates!” Gwydion commanded. “Fly, all who can!”

With sinking heart Taran realized the little band was grievously outnumbered. Dimly, Taran saw the gates had been opened. But more of Magg’s warriors had joined their fellows and the way to safety was blocked.

Suddenly a mounted figure galloped into the courtyard. It was Rhun, astride his dapple gray. The King of Mona’s boyish face shone with a furious light. As the steed reared and plunged, Rhun swung his sword about his head and shouted at the top of his voice:

“Bowmen! Follow me! All of you, into the court!” He spun the mare about and beckoned with his sword. His words rang above the clash of arms. “Spearmen! This way! Make haste!”

“He’s brought help!” Taran cried.

“Help?” echoed the amazed bard. “There’s no one within miles!”

Rhun had not ceased to gallop back and forth amid the struggling warriors, shouting orders as if a whole army streamed behind him.Magg’s men turned to face the unseen foe.

“A ruse!” exclaimed Fflewddur. “He’s a madman! It will never work!”

“But it does!” At a glance Taran saw their assailants had broken away, seeking, in confusion, to engage what they imagined to be fresh attackers. Taran brought his horn to his lips and sounded the charge. Magg’s men faltered, believing the foe was now at their backs.

At that instant Llyan burst through the gates. The men who saw her shouted in terror as the huge cat leaped forward. Llyan paid no heed to the warriors, but raced across the court while the swordsmen dropped their weapons and fled at her approach.

“She’s looking for me!” Fflewddur cried. “Here I am, old girl!”

King Smoit’s embattled fighting men seized this moment to press forward with a mighty surge. Many of Magg’s warriors had already flown; fear-driven, they slashed and stabbed among themselves in blind panic. Rhun galloped on and vanished into the smoke.

“He’s duped them well!” Fflewddur shouted jubilantly. “For all the good those eggs and mushrooms did us—it was Rhun who turned the trick!”

The bard hastened to Llyan. Gwydion, Taran saw, was now on horseback. Golden-maned Melyngar streaked across the courtyard, as Gwydion urged the mare to overtake the retreating foe. Smoit and Coll had also leaped astride their steeds. Behind them galloped Gwystyl. Smoit’s warriors, too, joined the pursuit. Taran ran to find Melynlas, but before he reached the stables, he heard Eilonwy call his name. He turned. The girl, her face smudged, her robe torn, beckoned urgently.

“Come!” she called. “Rhun is badly hurt!”

Taran raced to follow her. Near the far wall the dapple gray stood riderless. The King of Moxia was sitting on the ground, his legs stretched in front of him, his back resting against a cart still smouldering from Gwystyl’s fiery mushrooms. Gurgi and Glew, both unharmed, were at his side.

“Hullo, hullo!” Rhun murmured and waved a hand. His face was deathly white.“The day is ours,” Taran said. “Without you, it would have gone differently. Don’t move,” he cautioned, loosening the young King’s bloodstained jacket. Taran frowned anxiously. An arrow had suck deep in Rhun’s side and the shaft had broken.

“Amazing!” Rhun whispered. “I’ve never been in battle before, and I wasn’t sure of—of anything at all. But, I say, the oddest things kept running through my head. I was thinking of the seawall at Mona Haven. Isn’t it surprising? Yes, your plan will work very well,” Rhun murmured. His eyes wandered and suddenly he looked very young, very lost and a little frightened. “And I think—I think I shall be glad to be home.” He made an effort to raise himself. Taran bent quickly to him.

Fflewddur had come up with Llyan loping at his heels. “So there you are, old boy,” he called to Rhun. “I told you we’d have more than our share of trouble. But you pulled us out of it! Oh, the bards will sing of you…”

Taran lifted a grief-stricken face. “The King of Mona is dead.”

SILENT AND HEAVY HEARTED, the companions raised a burial mound a little distance from Caer Cadarn. The warriors of Smoit joined them; and at dusk, horsemen bearing torches rode slowly circling the mound, to honor the King of Mona.

As the last flame died, Taran came to stand before the burial place. “Farewell, Rhun Son of Rhuddlum. Your seawall is unfinished,” he said gently. “But I promise you your work shall not be left undone. Your fisher folk shall have their safe harbor if I must build it for you with my own hands.”

Soon after nightfall Gwydion, Coll, and King Smoit returned. Magg had eluded them, and the fruitless pursuit had left them worn and haggard. They, too, mourned the death of Rhun, and did honor to all the fallen warriors. Gwydion then led the companions to the Great Hall.

“Arawn Death-Lord gives us little time for grief, and we shall mourn others, I fear, before our tasks are done,” he said. “I must tell you now of a choice carefully to be weighed.

“Gwystyl of the Fair Folk has left us, and continues his journey to King Eiddileg’s realm. Before we parted, he told me further of the gathering of Arawn’s hosts. Magg’s words were not evil boasting. Gwystyl judges, as do I, that Arawn means to defeat us in one last battle. His armies gather even now.

“There is grave risk, and perhaps fatal risk, in leaving Dyrnwyn in Arawn’s grasp,” Gwydion went on. “Yet we must face the more pressing danger. No longer will I seek the black sword. Whatever strength it may yield him, in my own strength I will stand against him to the death. I ride not to Annuvin but to Caer Dathyl to rally the Sons of Don.”

No one spoke for some moments. At length Coll replied. “To my mind, you have chosen wisely, Prince of Don.”

Smoit and Fflewddur Fflam nodded their agreement.

“Would that I were as sure of my wisdom,” Gwydion replied heavily. “So be it then.”

Taran rose and faced Gwydion. “Is there no way one of us can breach the Death-Lord’s stronghold? Must the search for Dyrnwyn indeed be given up?”

“I read your thoughts, Assistant Pig-Keeper,” Gwydion replied. “You will serve me best if you obey my commands. Gwystyl warns that a journey to Annuvin can mean only wasted life—and more than that: a loss of precious time. Gwystyl’s nature is to conceal his nature, but among the Fair Folk none is shrewder or more trustworthy. I heed his warning, and so must all of you.

“Gwystyl has promised to do all in his power to gain help from the Fair Folk,” Gwydion went on. “King Eiddileg has no great fondness for the race of men. Yet even he must see that Arawn’s victory would blight all Prydain. The Fair Folk would suffer no less than we.

“But we dare not count too heavily on Eiddileg. Our own armies must be gathered, and our battle host raised. In this, our greatest help will come from King Pryderi of the West Domains. No lord in Prydain commands a mightier army. His allegiance to the House of Don is firm, and between us are strong bonds of friendship. I will send word to Pryderi, and pray him to join his host with ours at Caer Dathyl.

“There must we all meet,” Gwydion continued. “Before then, I ask King Smoit to muster every loyal warrior in his cantrev and the dominions closest to his.” He turned to the bard. “Fflewddur Fflam Son of Godo, you are a king in your own Northern Realms. Return there without delay. To you I entrust the rallying of the northern cantrevs.

“And you, Assistant Pig-Keeper,” Gwydion said, seeing the question in Taran’s eyes, “your own task is urgent. You are well known to the folk of the Free Commots. I charge you to raise whatever force you can among them. Lead all who will follow you to Caer Dathyl. Gurgi and Coll Son of Collfrewr will ride with you. So, too, will the Princess Eilonwy. Her safety is in your hands.”

“I’m glad,” Eilonwy murmured, “there’s been no talk of sending me home.”

“Gwystyl tells us many of Arawn’s liegemen are already marching,” Coll said to her. “The Valley Cantrevs are too dangerous, whatever. Otherwise, Princess,” he added with a grin, “you would long since have been on your way to Caer Dallben.”

WELL BEFORE DAWN Gwydion and Fflewddur Fflam rode from Caer Cadarn, each to follow his separate path. King Smoit, girded for battle, set out from the castle, and with him went Lord Gast and Lord Goryon, who had learned belatedly of the attack on their king and now hastened to join him. Faced with the common danger, the two rivals had put aside their quarrel. Goryon declined to take insult at Gast’s every word, Gast refrained from giving offense to Goryon, and neither so much as mentioned cows.

That same morning a gnarled, gray-headed farmer strode up to Taran in the castle courtyard. It was Aeddan, who had befriended him long before in Smoit’s cantrev. The two clasped hands warmly, but the farmer’s face was grim.

“There is no time now to speak of time past,” Aeddan said. “I offer you friendship—and this,” he added, unsheathing a rusted sword. “It has served once and can serve again. Say where you ride and I will go with you.”

“I value the sword, and value more the man who bears it,” answered Taran. “But your place is with your king. Follow him and hope that you and I will meet on a happier day.”

As Gwydion had ordered, Taran and the remaining companions waited at Smoit’s castle, hoping Kaw might arrive with further tidings. But when the following day brought no sign of the crow, they made ready for their own departure. Eilonwy’s needlework had gone unscathed and she carefully unfolded it.

“You’re a war leader now,” she said proudly to Taran, “but I’ve never heard of a war leader without a battle flag.”

With leather thongs she bound the still-unfinished embroidery to the end of a spear.

“There,” said Eilonwy. “As an emblem Hen Wen may not be properly terrifying. And yet, for an Assistant Pig-Keeper, she’s very likely the most fitting.”

They rode through the gates. Gurgi, at Taran’s side, raised the spear high and the wind caught at the banner of the White Pig. Above the smoke-blackened fortress and the burial mound, whose fresh earth was already frost-covered, the clouds had grown heavy. Soon there would be snow.

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