It’s magic time! Remember that mesh of grass Gwydion wove back in Chapter 2? He pulls it from his jacket and tosses it at the first warrior. It becomes a net of liquid flame that expands to trap the warrior. One down, four to go. Gwydion gives Taran his hunting knife, saying it’s the only weapon he can spare: “Use it as well as you can.” Because he has time to belittle Taran even in the heat of battle. Taran manages to stab one of the riders in the leg with the knife. Melyngar tramples another – two down. Gwydion dispatches a third with his sword. The last two hang back, making way for – oh shite – two Cauldron-Born. They are described as silent, grinning warriors with pale faces and eyes like stones. Gwydion is described once more as wolf-like with “his green eyes glittering, his teeth bared.” He orders Taran to “fly!” (He does not say, “you fool,” but it’s implied.) Taran of course does no such thing, but stays in the fight. It’s over quickly, as Taran is wounded in the arm and Gwydion in the side. The Cauldron-Born disarm them, tie them up and throw them over Melyngar’s back.
Gwydion asks Taran why he didn’t flee as ordered, but does give him props for being brave and fighting well. Taran asks about the magic mesh, and Gwydion says it’s a trick Dallben himself taught him. One of the Cauldron-Born lashes them with a whip to shut them up. Gwydion whispers, “If we should not meet again, farewell,” and it’s very moving; I feel like Gwydion finally shows Taran some respect as a companion, if not quite an equal.
They arrive at a fortress and are dragged into a throne room, where a beautiful woman with long silver hair awaits them. She acts appalled and commands the warriors to bring food and wine and to see to Taran’s and Gwydion’s wounds. Then she does the whole White Witch seduction routine with Taran – calling him “poor boy” and touching him gently, which makes him feel deliciously warm and comforted, though she stops short of offering him any Turkish Delight. She starts to question him about where he came from, but Gwydion interrupts, “She is Achren! She sets a trap for you!”
Taran, of course, is surprised that the sweet, pretty lady is the horrible Queen Achren, but he believes Gwydion and shuts right up. Achren feigns surprise at Gwydion’s discourtesy, then offers him a bargain, saying she has much that he could profit from. He doesn’t give her the chance to elaborate, but shouts that her promises “reek of Annuvin” and that “It is no secret what you are!” She freaks out at this, hissing and scratching his cheek with her blood-red nails, then holding his sword to his throat. But in Bond-villain style, she decides that death is too good for him, that he will “beg the mercy of a sword” before she’s done with him. She unsuccessfully tries twice to destroy Gwydion’s sword, first striking it against a stone pillar and then hurling it to the ground. Finally, she uses a dark magic incantation to break it in pieces and screams “So shall I break you!” – which would have been way more bad-ass if she had broken it on the first try rather than the third. Taran and Gwydion are dragged away by the Cauldron-Born, and one of them hits Taran over the head with a whip handle, knocking him out.
So, in the past day or so, Taran has sustained sword wounds in his back and his arm, nearly drowned, been beaten with whips, and now the poor kid is probably concussed. It’s pretty amazing that he survives this book at all, considering. Fortunately, things are about to get a lot brighter (literally) in the next chapter!