There was something twisting deep inside him, as he stood atop the great sea wall— a dull ache, like that of an arrow lodged into bone, but somewhere closer to his heart. He looked down at the sea and grimaced. With an incessant and mighty roar the waves cast themselves against the stones below as though trying to tear them from the earth, flinging brine as fine as mist up into the sky, leaving it to hang, for a breath, like smoke in the air before it settled on his cheeks, made his face slick. The wall stood vast and monolithic above the surf, a dark gash that separated the grey sky and the churning waves. To the left, a flicker of colour caught his eye. Eilonwy made her way towards him along the wall-top.
“Watch your step,” he cautioned as she approached. “There’s nothing here to catch a fall.”
She snorted indignantly. “I’ll have you know—not that you don’t know already, but I’ll have you know it all the same, either because you’re an idiot or because you seem to have forgotten—that I am perfectly capable of walking,” she said, giving him a sharp look as she drew up next to him. “That is to say,” she continued, “that I’m not a child, Taran.”
He turned to her. A smile flitted across his lips, fleeting, silent, a ghost or a whisper. Her hair whipped around her face, dancing in the wind like an open flame. “And yet you retort as though we were still in our youth.”
She stiffened beside him, raised her head high and tilted it back imperiously as she drew in breath to argue. But when she met his eyes and found them unsmiling, her mouth closed and pressed into a hard, thin line. She gave him a wan smile as he turned back to the ocean, to face the saltspray, the waves, the melange of greys along the horizon. Her gaze followed his there, all the way to the edge of the sea.
“It’s beautiful,” she offered.
He hummed in agreement. “So many years, and my promise is now complete,” he said. “One promise of many, at least.” He lapsed into silence for a few moments, breathing deep of the cool air— air that tasted of salt, settling in the back of his throat with each breath and leaving it dry and parched. “Perhaps,” he added with a sigh, “I shall never finish them all, but this one at least I have kept.”
“It’s certainly impressive, and I think Rhun would have loved to see it,” she said. “In fact I’m absolutely certain of it. It would have made him happy to see it complete. And you did that for him, though you didn’t have to.”
He shook his head. “But I did. I owe him.”
She frowned. “What could you possibly owe a man dead so long as him?”
“Mind you he saved my life once,” he said, “and for that I owe him everything. For that, I will gladly pay this debt or any other.” More than sea salt stung his eyes, and as he bowed his head he screwed them shut. “Mind you,” he went on, voice wavering, “there would not be a man standing here before you if not for his sacrifice.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Nor a woman,” she said, turning her indignant eyes toward him. “He saved my life too, you know— all our lives, really. Gwydion as well as Fflewddur, Smoit, and all the others. You seem to think you’re special, Taran of Caer Dalben—not that I don’t think you are, but it seems to me that it’s really all of Prydain that owes him that debt and not just you. And to think that you alone should shoulder that,” she continued, “why—well, that’s just it, isn’t it? It’s monumentally silly.”
“But his debt is mine more than any others,” he said. “It was my promise to build this wall, and mine to rebuild this land. I gave my word.” He smiled sadly, looking up at the dreary sky. “Now I must bear that burden,” he continued, “and though it is not quite a vicious beast, it is still a heavy shadow.”
Again, she stiffened, her eyes narrow. For a moment she only glared at him. “Well,” she said finally, “if that’s how you feel about it, I suppose.” She turned her face away and tossed her head.
He turned and stared at her. “What do you mean by that?” he asked. She looked resolutely forward, a haughty glare. It was common enough, that. He would say something, he never knew what, and she would turn away and refuse to speak to him— though they had long since forgotten the threat of ‘never again’. “Eilonwy,” he said, urging her to speak.
At first, she refused to meet his eyes. He reached out, grabbed her hand. It was soft, warm, yet shaking almost imperceptibly. “Eilonwy,” he said again, almost a whisper. She closed her eyes.
“I made a promise too,” she said, with a voice that was quiet and yet hard like steel all the same, “when I gave up my magic— a promise to you. And you—well, you made that same promise to me as well. That it’s my burden as much as yours.” He said nothing, just pulled her close. She sighed. “It’s just that you can be such a fool, Taran,” she murmured, turning her body to face his, pulling him close, clinging tighter to him.
“I know,” he said simply, and she laughed. “I’m sorry.”
“I know,” she repeated with a smile, wider this time, something light— almost radiant, golden.
And that was enough for them. It always was. As he held her close and looked over the waves the ache seemed somehow less painful, less bitter, and the roaring ocean spoke more gently, a tender purr.