In the week before midwinter, Queen Susan and Queen Lucy of Narnia rode south over the pass to Anvard and brought a swirl of excitement in their wake.
Aravis, who was finding Northern winters both very cold and very dull -- being both further north and further up, the mountain valleys were both colder and snowier than Calormen, and Archenland had nothing comparable to the round of winter parties in the big Calormene cities that both her mother and stepmother had loved -- was thrilled to see them. She was also slightly confused by King Lune's badly hidden apprehension when the Narnians' herald announced that yes, both Queens had come and intended to stay through Christmas.
"He didn't mind Queen Lucy during the battle, nor Queen Susan when she escorted us back after the Summer Festival," Aravis whispered to Cor and Corin as the grown-ups exchanged courtesies and news in the draughty, tapestry-line hall just inside the main door of the keep. "Do they fight a lot when they're together? Lasaraleen never got on well with her sisters, and I suppose that could be trying to put up with as a host."
Corin grinned in the particular way that meant he knew something Aravis and Cor didn't, and couldn't wait to share the secret. "They do fight a bit, but nothing like you and Cor and since Father doesn't mind you, why should he mind them? No, he's worried because when Susan and Lucy are together for more than a week anywhere outside of Cair Paravel, they're always falling into adventures."
"What, battles?" Cor asked.
"Sometimes! But not always. The last time they were both in Anvard, a traveling circus from Mergandy came through and their magician accidentally turned Queen Lucy into a dumb swan and couldn't remember the spell to turn her back," Corin said with breathless glee. "The time before that, they went down to the cellar to fetch wine and found a secret tunnel that turned out to lead to a cavern full of Spectres. The whole castle was haunted for weeks until Queen Susan tricked the Spectres into revealing their anchors to this world, and had them burnt. And the time before that--"
"I think we see the problem," Aravis interrupted, as Corin seemed likely to continue indefinitely.
"It's only grown-ups who think it's a problem," Corin said in a scornful tone. "Well, mostly Father and Queen Susan. Queen Susan says it's a curse. Queen Lucy thinks it's half nonsense and half good fun. She had the most splendid time as a swan -- you should have seen her chase people around the courtyards, and she said afterward that flying was almost worth losing the ability to speak. But I suppose you'd rather be boring."
"You take that back!" said Cor, flaring up in Aravis's defense. (As if she couldn't defend herself perfectly well on her own! Cor still hadn't graduated to a proper practice sword and was still learning posture and positions with a piece of weighted oak.)
"Shan't," said Corin, and neatly sidestepped his brother's frustrated lunge.
Aravis shoved between them before this ended (as it inevitably would) with Cor getting knocked down. "Find better things to fight about," she said, "or at least be stupid on your own time instead of wasting mine."
Then she looked up and realized that either the brothers' raised voices or her own motion had drawn the grown-ups' attention. Her face grew hot and her stomach lurched with embarrassment. "O my king and O my queens, I offer my humblest apologies for disrupting your conversation. I beg your leave to withdraw and remove my shame from your glorious presence," she said, falling back on the courtesies of her childhood.
King Lune looked pained for a moment, but Queen Lucy merely laughed and held out her hands in a gesture of welcome. "Have no fear, Aravis," she said. "Susan and I know how easily boys that age can stir up trouble."
"So can girls," Queen Susan said, her voice soft enough that Aravis wondered if she was meant to overhear or not.
"We're still sorry," said Cor with an awkward bow. "Um. Father. Shall we go clean up for supper?"
"That sounds a most wise and excellent plan," said King Lune, and Aravis seized the chance to flee before she painted herself even more of a foreigner or fool.
The next morning, Aravis woke to an unexpected knock on her door. She blinked through the gray half-light that seeped through the slats of her shuttered window and wondered who would want to speak with her before dawn.
"Yes?" she called, not wanting to venture out from under her multiple blankets without a compelling reason.
"Good morning, Aravis!" said Queen Lucy. "Susan and I wish to know if you'd like to come riding with us. Last week's snow is mostly gone and today's weather should be clear and not so very cold. We thought you might like to explore Archenland in company with people who haven't traversed every inch of the country a dozen times over."
It was a kind offer. And yet, it was very early, and Aravis suspected that Lucy's definition of 'not so very cold' had little to do with her own understanding of temperatures.
"Where are you going?" she asked to buy some time.
"That is a secret!" said Queen Lucy. "But listen a moment: what if I told you there lies a place within a quarter day's ride from Anvard, but where no one from Archenland ever goes? When I ask Archenlanders why they avoid it, they can give no reason why -- no tale of direst woe and warning -- and no matter how I've tried, I can't rouse any curiosity or alarm in them over what strange or dangerous things might be astir right under their noses. So I thought that since you, Susan, and I are not from Archenland, we should fill that blank space on their maps for them. Doesn't that sound fun?"
Aravis thought it sounded nothing of the sort, but she had to admit that a place to which nobody ever went sounded suspicious and ought to be investigated. Besides, she was well and truly awake now, and even if the mystery turned out to be trivial and harmless, it would be nice to get out of the castle for a day.
"I'll come," she said.
"Splendid! We'll meet in the stables in half an hour," said Lucy, and her footsteps retreated down the corridor.
Aravis burrowed deeper under her mound of blankets for a moment, steeling her nerves to face the cold air and cold floor of her room. Then she sprang to her feet, broke the thin crust of ice on her washbasin, and began planning what to wear and bring for a long day of winter riding. Three layers of clothing might be enough to keep her warm, without making it impossible to stay on a horse. A spare blanket and a fire-starting kit might also be wise, and some bread and cheese for lunch.
Then she remembered Corin's words about the Narnian queens and their accidental adventures, and adjusted her plans to include her sword.
The ride itself offered a few moments of excitement, as hooves slipped on patches of ice or strange noises emanated from the pine forests that shouldered close on both sides of the narrow road, and the last mile was altogether trackless (as suited a place to which nobody ever traveled), but they arrived safely at their destination before the sun reached its zenith.
"You see? Here we are and naught has gone wrong at all!" Lucy said as she, Susan, and Aravis reined their horses to a stop near the top of Mount Pire. The mountain itself was mostly of a piece with the rest of Archenland's range -- steep, stony, and covered in either pines or pastures -- until the last thousand feet or so, where a strange formation of smooth, gray-white stone thrust skyward from the grass and scree, forking halfway up into two massive, jagged columns, each easily as broad as they were tall. A narrow, thread-like stream plunged down from the vertiginous, U-shaped valley between the twin peaks. Now that stream had frozen into a solid pillar of ice that glittered blindingly in the midday sun.
"You ought to know better than to tempt fate," Susan told her sister as she swung lightly down from her horse and tethered the beast to a nearby bush. "Now one of us is bound to break her leg at the very least, assuming nothing stranger occurs."
"Faint heart never won fair lady!" Lucy returned. "As you love me, Catchlight, fly up to take a look round the peaks."
The Talking Raven who was serving as their messenger and scout took wing from Lucy's saddle horn, spiraling upward through the frigid air. While she flew, Lucy joined her sister on the ground and began to pull a mess of rock-climbing gear from her saddlebags: metal spikes, an oddly-shaped leather harness, a tangle of ropes with a handful of attached pulleys, and other less familiar items. Susan and the other scout, a dark-furred She-Wolf with the rather unlikely name of Rhyme, busied themselves trying to talk Lucy out of her intention of climbing the frozen waterfall to its source.
Aravis tuned the well-worn argument out in favor of studying the mountain itself, nudging her horse to and fro to examine it from various angles.
"It can't possibly be a real Giant," she said eventually.
"What?" said Lucy, glancing up though her hands continued their steady untwisting of ropes.
"The mountain," Aravis said, waving her mitten-covered hand toward the stones in question. "It's not shaped anything like a person, even if Pire did have two heads. Either he had two torsos as well -- and in that case, what became of his arms? -- or each peak is a head, in which case he would have been at least two thousand feet tall and he would have died from starvation a long time before he ran into Lady Liln and Sir Olvin, not to mention a single sword stroke would have no chance on earth of killing him. That story is nonsense."
Queen Susan blinked, and suddenly her smile -- which had been perfectly kind and polite, though in a slightly impersonal manner -- took on a delighted gleam. "My lady Aravis, you are absolutely correct; that story is arrant nonsense when you bother to think through the implications. So many old stories are, at least if humans are the ones telling them. We are dreadful embellishers, and have been since the world began. If you want truth, you must ask a Talking Beast -- though preferably not a Llama, and perhaps not Otters or Hummingbirds either, if rough language is a concern."
"Oh, come now, don't be so quick to write off the tale!" said Lucy. "If magic turned Pire to stone, why should magic not reshape him in the process? I admit that the White Witch's version of that spell did nothing of the sort, but that doesn't mean--"
She cut herself off abruptly, and Aravis noticed all three Narnians had similar awkward expressions, as if Lucy had said something gauche and the others were embarrassed for her sake. (At least, Aravis assumed Rhyme's expression meant the same as Susan's; it was somewhat tricky to read a Wolf's muzzle the same way as a human's face.)
"I never thought of that parallel," Susan said after a moment. "Do you imagine she had aught to do with his venture southward?"
"She might have," said Rhyme in a considering tone. "The Lady Liln was only half-human, you know."
"I didn't," said Lucy.
"Men! Always writing everyone else out of the story," the Wolf scoffed under her breath. Aravis wanted to take offense on behalf of her history teachers and her own training in tale-spinning, but she supposed the world must look different to the Beasts and Beings, and so she held her tongue.
Rhyme resumed her tale: "Whether Archenland remembers or not, Liln was only half a Daughter of Eve. Her mother was a silver oak dryad, her father was a border warden, and she was one of the judges who held summer court underneath the Tree of Protection before the assizes were moved to Beruna in all seasons. Pire must have come very close to the Tree to capture her, and why would he have traveled that way if not to tear it down on someone else's orders?"
"Because he was a Giant of Ettinsmoor, and when have they ever needed reasons beyond love of destruction?" said Catchlight the Raven as she swooped down to land on Aravis's hastily proffered arm in a backwash of icy wind. "But I tell you this: if Pire did end up as a mountain, he's a very strange mountain indeed. That frozen waterfall you see? It has no source. Springs straight out of a cleft in the rock, and what sense does that make when the peak is granite and all the rock around it is shale?"
Lucy looked at Susan.
Susan flung a gloved hand over her eyes and moaned. "No."
"But don't you want to--"
"No," Susan repeated, somehow sounding both more firm in her opposition and more easily and inevitably undermined.
"Because you know what will happen if we do!" Susan threw up her hands in a beautiful illustration of patience stretched to its breaking point.
"Pardon me, O my lady of the wind and sky, but am I allowed to say anything?" Aravis whispered to the Raven on her arm. "Or is this a family ritual?"
"First of all, you don't have to be formal talking to me," said Catchlight in her scratchy voice, "and second, it is a ritual but nobody will mind if you interrupt."
"In that case," said Aravis, and drew herself upright as best she could in the encumbrance of her heavy winter coat and over-trousers. "I think we should climb," she said loudly into a brief gap when both queens had paused to draw breath. "I didn't help save Archenland once just to let it be eaten from inside by unknown magics. If there's something to discover, I say we discover it, and if we learn the real tale of Liln and Pire, we have two Beasts here to help remember and spread the truth alongside the poem."
"Well said!" agreed Rhyme. "Though I may beg off the climb itself. My paws aren't suited to such things."
"That," said Queen Lucy, "is why I brought extra straps for the harness. We can pull you up after ourselves. But first I need to reach the top of the waterfall and find a stable place to stand. There is level ground, Catchlight?"
The Raven bobbed her head. "Oh yes, lots. Since there isn't a pond, nor even a depression to catch the rain."
Queen Susan looked around herself and sighed. "I knew it would come to this. Ah well. I trust there are worse fates than an adventure among friends." And having registered this token protest, she went to help her sister with the climbing apparatus.
Aravis looked upward at the frozen needle of the waterfall and the sheer rock down which it plunged. She thought of climbing that distance with the winter wind scraping at her face and her fingers stiff and clumsy in their fur-lined mittens. She thought of the strange foreign magic that might await them on the peak, and how little use her sword might be against spells.
Northern winters, she decided, were still far too cold for her liking, but they weren't dull at all.