We’re getting near the end, folks! This climactic chapter is short but action-packed. A scouting group of four of the Horned King’s warriors spot our heroes and spur their mounts in pursuit. Taran pulls out his sword, but Fflewddur wisely tells him “Arrows first.” They unsling their bows and shoot at the horsemen. Gurgi hits one in the throat, which, good job, Gurgi, but has he ever used a bow and arrow before? Archery is hard. And sure enough, the remaining arrows they fire glance off the horsemen’s shields, except one from Doli, which takes down a second attacker. The two remaining scouts head back the way they came, and Fflewddur says they’d better run before the Horned King sends a war band. Taran doesn’t want to leave Hen Wen but realizes he has no choice; he has to return to his quest of heading to Caer Dathyl to warn the Sons of Don. But can they get there in time? Doli thinks there’s a chance.
They travel all day and into the night, at one point hiding from a group of horsemen with torches, but as dawn breaks, Taran sees the valley is filled with the Horned King’s warriors. “Too late. We have failed,” he says. Fflewddur says that Caer Dathyl is straight ahead, and they should make a last stand. Taran tells Doli to take Eilonwy and Gurgi to safety, because that always works so well! This time it’s Doli who protests that he won’t be sent away. Not that he cares about them, but he “can’t stand a botched job” and won’t watch them get hacked to bits. Just then an arrow flies past his head, and a group of warriors on foot spring out from the woods. Fflewddur throws Taran and Eilonwy in the direction of Melyngar and tells them to “Ride as fast as you can, or it will be death for all of us!” I like how Fflewddur is finally acting like the adult here and taking charge. (Plus I’m a sucker for anyone described as “eyes blazing” as he makes a heroic last stand.)
Taran pulls Eilonwy into the saddle behind him and Melyngar takes off. Taran looks back to see that the Horned King himself is pursuing them on his black steed. Seems a little unlikely to me that he would give chase himself, but oh well. The Horned King’s horse pulls side by side with Melyngar, who rears to strike at it, throwing Taran and Eilonwy off. They flee into the woods, and the Horned King dismounts and follows them. Taran raises his sword, but the Horned King shatters it with one strike of his weapon. Then he pauses dramatically before dealing the death blow, giving Taran enough time to remember that Eilonwy has Dyrnwyn and to tear the scabbard from her shoulder. The Horned King pauses again, this time “as if in fear.” Taran tries to unsheath Dyrnwyn, but it won’t come free. He pulls on it with all his might, and then there’s a “blinding flash” and it tears loose from his grip, throwing him to the ground. Brave Eilonwy throws herself at the Horned King, but he tosses her aside. He looms ominously over Taran, sword raised to strike… but then! A tall figure behind the Horned King shouts out a word Taran can’t make out. And the Horned King starts to burn! He roars in rage and pain as his skull mask melts like iron. Taran covers his eyes, and the ground seems to open beneath him. “Then there was nothing.”
I got curious about whether there was a trope named after the young hero who passes out right as the Big Bad is defeated, and wakes up later to have the events explained to him in a denouement chapter (spoiler alert: Taran’s gonna be OK). It feels like familiar territory; I’m certain J.K. Rowling used it in the Harry Potter series at least once. TV Tropes led me to the Thwarted Coup de Grace, which definitely describes the Horned King’s pausing, just as he’s about to finish off Taran, long enough for an unseen attacker to finish him off instead. But I can’t find anything that seems to specifically fit Taran’s role in the almost anti-climactic defeat of the Horned King. Anyone have thoughts on this? Let me know in the comments!