When Susan hangs up the phone, she folds her hands in front of her, quietly, and she sits. Her tea grows cold and all the soft light of the London night paints tracks across her face as she sits, unmoving, her heart twisting and beating strangely, as it has been since just before her brother made the call.
When she rises between one breath and the next, all the quiet is gone, and only resolve remains.
She truly hopes that Edmund has called Lucy between their frantic, whispered planning and now. After all, she is about to ask her sister for an almost unbelievable amount of trust, and Lucy would do better to be forewarned. Before, when they were older and closer, there had been no need to ask; after their Return (in her head it's always harsh, always prominent), they'd drawn together out of grief and loss and had been, in some ways, even closer. After Caspian, though, after being flung back and forth a second time, they had all broken in their own ways, and Susan knows she holds an equal share of blame in that. They had all been hurt, but she and Peter (never going back, too old, what nonsense) had hurt the most, and they had turned that pain on each other, as they had always been wont to do. Peter made Narnia his driving force, a memory and a lesson to be protected and loved; she found that she could not. Narnia was an open wound, a task left undone, a family abandoned. So they fought and they split a little more every day, until anger and bitterness overlaid everything, a morass that neither of them could cross.
Edmund had refused to side with either of them and, though he spent more time with Peter, he understood her as well. Their pain they held in common, and so they remained more or less what they had always been, though she’d found it brought little comfort. Lucy had, through it all, abstained.
But she can’t abstain now. They won’t get Peter to agree if Lucy doesn’t; Susan knows he wants to go back, to go home as much as any of them (perhaps more), but he’s always been so damn noble. But he’d follow Lucy. They’d all followed her in the beginning, hadn’t they?
Lucy answers the phone as if she already knows Susan is the one calling. “I’d hoped-” she gets out, but Susan has learned after long practice that sometimes it is best to be right first, and diplomatic second.
“Peter’s going about this all wrong,” Susan says. She misses the feel of a bow in her hand, the surety and the weight of a crown on her brow. “Please, Lucy…”
Her words trail off. She and Lucy haven’t- haven’t truly spoken in years. Before, when they were older- well, many things were different. She would never have needed go-betweens to speak with Peter, for one thing. She would never have felt so lost with her sister’s voice in her ear. She tries to think, and can’t. There is too much at stake, too much to lose. She knows without having to ask (at least that much remains between them all) that Peter and Edmund and Lucy feel it too, the slow twist strangle pull in their hearts, deep in their bones. Peter wouldn’t have agreed to get the rings if he hadn’t felt it. Susan wouldn’t be ripping tender skin off this ravaging ache if she didn’t understand what it means.
“Susan. Su, it’s all right. Ed came to me right after he spoke to you.”
“Good.” It comes out as a strangled whisper. Lucy doesn’t comment, and Susan breathes easier with that grace. She falls silent herself, waiting.
“All right then, Susan.” She can almost imagine that she hears Lucy’s smile, broad and generous and all-encompassing, never sharp, as her own had been. “Let’s go home.”
She hates the way Peter looks at her, like she's lying, somehow, like this is a front or a trick or one of the long games she and Edmund were so, so good at, once upon a time. It's not undeserved, not really, but it still hurts. At her side, Edmund moves closer, uniting them. She's not sure if that makes it better or worse.
"Please, Peter." His voice is low. "You know she's right. You want to go back, too."
The betrayal in her older brother's face fades to granite stubbornness, immovable as a mountain, and he says, "You know we can't. And you know why."
And suddenly this is too much. Even in the face of Peter's stubbornness, and the judgment on her cousin's face, and the disapproval she can feel emanating off the Professor, she says, "No." She too wore a crown, after all. She can be stubborn, too. Maybe Peter forgot that. "I know we were told we shouldn't, but then, we never listened before." Peter doesn't so much as flinch. Eustace looks about to say something stupid; luckily for him, the Pole girl stops him, hand on his wrist and censure on her face. "Oh, you hypocrite; Peter, you already have the damn rings.”
“Not for us,” he says lowly, his expression unchanging. “They are not for us, Susan. Eustace and Jill-”
“Are both. Still. Here.” She bites out every word, the anger bitter in her mouth. Peter has always been so damned stubborn. “If you’re so set on only doing what is explicitly allowed, why do you have those rings?”
“We’ve always said, Peter," Edmund interrupts quietly, glancing between his older siblings, "that Aslan gives us the tools. We have to do the work ourselves.”
Nodding at Edmund’s words, watching Peter carefully, Susan pulls out the truth of her own pain. “And we owe them, Peter. We've left so many times before. We owe them."
The silence that falls is thick, unpleasant, like the morning fog that used to slide in over the river at Glasswater on the hottest of summer days. It's choking, prohibitive, and Susan wonder if her family is remembering the same sight she is- their home, broken and abandoned, windows shattered and burnt out, a legacy lost. Edmund swallows audibly. This is their burden, all of them. Even if they never meant to leave Narnia, even if they would have given anything to stay, they still left. And left, and left, and she can’t be the only one who wakes from nightmares of armies marching and homes lost. If she stopped speaking of it, maybe it was because she faltered in the face of her own betrayal.
And still, Peter says nothing.
"She is right, Peter." Lucy's words drop like scripture. She was nearly more a prophet than anything else, and the surety of Lucy’s faith had been one of the rocks upon which they had rebuilt their home, again and again and again. “We’ve been pulled back and forth before, and our home has been in danger, but now I can feel it breaking in my bones. Aslan gave us to Narnia. What should we do if not help her now?”
Peter’s face softens, and Susan knows she’s not imagining the sudden pain in his eyes. It is that familiar look that makes her step forward, taking her brother’s hand as she has not in years. “It will be hard, Peter. But Narnia is ours.”
He closes his eyes and says flatly, "You won't change your minds, will you." It's not a question. Despite the grimness of his expression, Susan feels his hand tighten minutely on hers, and she begins to hope.
“I don’t like it.” The Professor eyes the yellow rings darkly as Edmund sets them on the table. Lucy has already slipped the green rings, safely tied in their little bag, into some secret pocket against her skin. Susan can honestly say she’s never seen Digory Kirke so disturbed.
“Oh, don’t be foolish, Digory,” Polly says, shaking her head briskly. Her hand, still strong and reassuring, squeezes every shoulder in turn. Susan relaxes into the grip somewhat; it’s nice to have her support, even for a moment. Polly gives her a sad smile. “You know we’d be with them like a shot if our bones weren’t so old.”
“I still don’t like it.” Removing his glasses, he cleans them as he grumbles, “If they were meant to go, I say, Aslan will-”
“Did he take us, the first time?” Polly’s eyes are narrowed; Jill and Eustace look on with wide eyes. “I think not, Digory Kirke. And trying to save your home is a hell of a lot nobler than being curious.”
Susan could kiss her. She refrains, instead stepping forward to take Polly’s strong hands in her own. “Thank you,” she says lowly. There’s really nothing else to say.
Polly squeezes her hands, and again, that sad smile. “Go home, child.”
Susan nods, steps back. Edmund clears his throat.
“Take my hand, Jill,” he instructs, his other hand already tight around Susan’s. The girl looks torn between indecision and awe; Susan wonders exactly what sort of stories she’d heard about the Kings and Queens of Old when she was first in Narnia. “And Eustace, you take Lucy’s.”
“We shall be adventurers together again, cousin,” Lucy says, capturing Peter’s hand fiercely even as she accepts Eustace’s with good grace.
“Though I doubt it will be the same sort we had before,” Eustace replies grimly. It will be interesting to see her cousin in Narnia, though she wishes they would just get on with it. Her heart twists harder.
“I don’t doubt you’re right.” Edmund looks over their group, nodding. “Now, don’t let go. I don’t know what happens if you’re lost in one of these between places, and I do not intend to find out.”
So saying, he nods again to Jill and Eustace who, in something that Susan best could describe as horrified fascination, reach forward for the twin yellow rings on the table.
“Together?” Jill asks.
“I’d rather say so.”
She is underwater, but not. The light filters down dimly, like light through the great forest of Telmar that was; she can’t breathe, but it doesn’t hurt. She feels Edmund’s hand tighten in hers and suddenly they are surging up and up and…
Light, air. They break the surface of the small pool in utter silence; no sound of water splashing or frenzied gasps for air. Her hand still held in her brother’s, and Jill Pole holding his other, they move towards the mossy bank, careful not to let go until they have all exited the pool. Not a stitch of her clothing is so much as damp. As Jill, so young despite her bravery in this, turns to regard their surroundings with absolute awe, Susan and Edmund turn back toward the pool, waiting.
It takes only moments for Peter, Lucy, and Eustace to break through, their hands clasped tightly. The grin on Lucy’s face as they emerge from the still water would eclipse the sun, if there were a sun here. Susan is quite sure there is not.
They cluster together on the mossy shores of their pool, looking out at the unending line of trees and pools and cool dim light surrounding them. How many worlds, she wonders, how many realms. How many unexplored places. How many of them dead.
Polly and the Professor had warned them about Charn, spoken of it in low urgent whispers, and Susan had seen Polly Plummer flinch for the first time in her life, when Edmund had drawn the rings from his pocket. Now, watching Eustace and Jill slip yellow rings off their fingers and into the bag that Lucy holds out so carefully, she wonders if Polly and the Professor had known, when they stumbled from world to world. If they had guessed, or if they had heard the low thrumming she does, pulling her towards the pool next to the one from which they had all emerged.
“Are you ready, then?” Lucy asks, excitement bubbling in her voice as she ties the top of the bag tightly. “Ready to go home?"
“How on earth are ever supposed to know which pool it is?” Eustace asks, and though Susan knows her cousin has reformed, she can still hear the officious whine he’s never quite lost. “We could search forever, cousin; look at all of these!” he cries, flinging his hand wide in emphasis.
Lucy laughs. “I can hear it singing, of course.” And with this pronouncement, Lucy, tucking the ring bag carefully back down against her skin, grins again and whirls away from the pool, Eustace and Jill not far behind. Edmund gives her the first smile she’s seen since they concocted this mad, desperate plan, and then he, too, is away after their sister.
Standing by the pool next to Peter, Susan marks the silence of the place. The others are barely reached the edge of the next pool, their way out, and already the immense quiet has returned. At her side, Peter shuffles uncomfortably. The scant space between them seems a gulf that stretches on and on.
With a small shake of her head and a quick glance back at the pool, she too starts after Lucy. Peter’s hand on her wrist is nowhere near restraining, but it stops her as abruptly as a shackle. When she turns, cocking an inquiring brow at him, his hand falls away. He has no idea what to do with her, what to make of this. He is only here, she knows, because the rest of his family is. And, she can’t help but think, because she’s right. “Yes?”
“We should,” he starts, pauses. He looks at the pools around them, looks to the sky, and sighs. “We should mark the pool, at least.”
She considers it for a long moment, holding her brother’s gaze. He looks… old. Hurt. She wonders if he’s thought of why they can hear Narnia even in this in-between place, yet England is silent. “Well.” If there is only one thing she knows, it is this. “I’m not coming back this way.” Peter flinches; she ignores it. “Are you?”
The cold water hits her like a battering ram, forcing a shocked hiss from her throat. Despite the sudden cold, however, it's not the water than has her head reeling but rather the feeling of familiar, comfort, home, mine. It’s more beautiful than she'd dared to hope, and more painful that she could ever have imagined. She can hear her family splashing in the water alongside her, and she doesn't have to speak to know they feel the same.
She raises her eyes and, there, tied to a damn tree, is what she assumes is the Narnian king. Well, never let it be said she doesn't enjoy a challenge.
Edmund is the first to pull himself from the stream, coughing and sputtering, and he reaches back immediately to haul their cousin and Jill from the water. Susan can hear Peter splashing behind her, following her and Lucy out, making sure, as ever, that he is the last.
On the stream’s banks, Eustace and Jill are huddled close, eyes wide, whispering urgently to one another. Susan catches a snatch of “-feels much more like the time with Rilian-” from her cousin as she passes them by; they’ll be fine. This Narnian king, however, she’s less sure of.
Edmund stands before him, a king despite his sodden shirt and trousers, and says quietly, “You appeared to us, called to us.” It’s not a question, not really. Susan waits, face carefully clear, to hear the reason why her heart has surged uneasily since the night Edmund phoned her.
“You are- you-” the man sputters, looking from face to face. Perhaps he’s in shock, or thinks them ghosts or phantoms. He stammers on for a moment, then falls silent, his eyes wide. Lucy, after a long pause, has mercy on him.
“I am Lucy, and I’m sure you can guess, that is Edmund.” She juts her chin towards their brother as she wrings the water from her braid. “And then there’s Susan-” she inclines her head laconically, watching him still- “and our cousin Eustace, and his friend Jill Pole, and, of course, the one still standing in the water is the High King Peter.”
Lucy finishes this with a fierce grin; the man looks torn between awe and terror. “And this is- you are- you have- you have truly come! Else I have gone mad, or am dreaming once more,” he mutters, gaze flitting between each of them, never truly resting on any one.
“You’re not mad, nor are you dreaming,” Edmund says, and though his voice is calm, his eyes are probing. “But we would appreciate your name, sir. And it would be best to tell us why you called upon us.”
He looks startled that they do not know him; most assuredly the king, then. But he tries to straighten in his bonds, bowing his head politely at them all and saying, “I am Tirian, King of Narnia. And I have called upon you in Narnia’s hour of greatest need, for there is a false Aslan roaming our lands, and Calormenes besides.”
Eustace and Jill gasp, while Lucy and Peter share a look that is equal parts anger and disbelief. Susan, on her part, casts a contemplative glance at the bound king and Edmund beside him, carefully cutting Tirian’s bonds. Quietly, she says, “It is not totally unexpected, I suppose.”
The king jerks his head, nearly causing Edmund’s blade to slip on the ropes at his knees. “Not- not unexpected, Queen Susan? I beg pardon, your Majesty, but who would-”
“No, she’s right,” Edmund says, rising to steady Tirian as he wobbles from the tree on unsteady legs. “It never happened in our time, but…” he sighs, his eyes distant. “Jadis made herself a false god, in as much as she could. It was always a possibility that someone would try again.”
It had ever been a danger of having no organized religion in their land; they had spent hours discussing it, once upon a time. The danger of Aslan’s infrequent appearances had been the risk of imitation; everyone wanted to meet the Lion, after all. There had been little true danger of it during their reign, so soon after the Witch’s fall, but she had seen the seeds planted in Caspian’s time, and had feared them then. Perhaps they all should have been more explicit in their warnings, or perhaps this was always destined to happen.
“Well,” Lucy says suddenly, rousing her from her thoughts, “I say we go find this false Aslan.” Her voice is still bright, but her eyes are steel. “Eustace, Jill, your rings, please. We don’t want to lose anyone by accident.”
The two, seemingly glad of someone taking action, drop their rings gratefully into the waiting bag, which, once more, swiftly disappears against her sister’s skin. Lucy smiles. “Now, Peter,” she commands, turning to their brother, still observing from the stream’s bank, “stop hanging back. We have work to do.”
“We are in Lantern Waste?” Edmund asks, a steadying hand still on Tirian’s elbow.
“Yes- yes, King Edmund.”
“And have you reinforcements nearby?”
“There is a guard tower, where we might find new clothing and perhaps cold steel, but my guard is with Roonwit some miles east.”
Susan closes her eyes to ward off frustration; Tirian reminds her of Peter, in the earlier years of their reign, forever riding off on his own. He’d learned quickly, though, and she suspects that Tirian has enough experience to know better. Still, Narnia has never bred cool-headed leaders, and she can’t find it in herself to fault him for his compulsiveness, given the situation. She can still wish he were wiser, though.
“And Jewel, my good friend, was captured by the Calormenes with the false Aslan, near Cauldron Pool. I cannot leave him.”
Finally, finally, Peter speaks and, though he sounds reluctant, he also sounds like himself. “Well, then. I suppose we’re going to Cauldron Pool, aren’t we?”
Susan stands pressed against the bole of one of the great trees on the southern boundary of the Western Wood, silent as a shadow, watching the night. Cauldron Pool is somewhere below them, lost in the gloom. The roar of the falls is dim from this distance; both a blessing and a curse, for it masks all footsteps with impunity. So Susan breathes lightly, and watches.
The guard tower, with its stash of weapons and clothes, was an unmitigated gift and entirely welcome. Tirian had to go back for Jewel, and Edmund wanted information, and Peter wanted specifics and horses. They decided upon three as the perfect party: Tirian to free his friend, Peter to get the lay of the land, and Lucy because she has always loved disguises. And because her hands are ever steady in a fight.
And so the three slipped into Calormene armor and slathered their faces in dye, and Susan felt gratitude that, during her reign, they’d always been able to do the spying with no dyeing of body parts, though in Tirian’s defense, they had never faced down the might of Calormen with only a few spare pieces of armor and pigment during her reign, either.
Eustace and Jill, with dry clothing and blades they could handle, made a sparse camp in a small copse a quarter mile from the wood’s edge to wait out the night, settling in as the saboteurs left for the Calormene encampment. Susan and Edmund were left to guard.
And so Susan stands in the dark quiet, Edmund her twinned shadow not a stone’s throw away, waiting for Lucy and Peter and Tirian to return. The time ticks by agonizingly slowly, each quiet moment bringing thoughts of new ways the plan could fail. “You should have gone,” she whispers, letting the wind carry her words across to him.
“Lucy’s more agile, Peter more useful in a fight.” He shifts, though the only thing to notice is a subtle difference in the texture of the darkness where he stands. “Besides, I’m more useful here.” She knows he is smirking. “In the shadows with you, sister.”
Any retort she would give is broken by the cry of a whippoorwill, Lucy’s signal. One moment they are alone in the darkness; in the next, two poorly-faked Calormene soldiers and a Unicorn appear before them.
“Where’s Peter?” Edmund’s voice is tense, his hand on the hilt of his blade.
“Coming around from the side; he’s got horses, and he’s in quite a mood. We’re to meet him at the copse.”
Susan returns her waiting arrow to the quiver on her back and relaxes minutely; if Peter had been able to steal horses, their enemy was stupider than she’d feared. Or, unsettlingly, very convinced of their superiority. “It worked, I see.”
“There’s a dead Ape and several dead Calormene soldiers who would protest that,” Lucy says shortly, eyeing Tirian thoughtfully. “But, yes, more or less.”
“And the false Aslan?”
“That’s Peter’s tale, and you’ll not like it,” Lucy replies. “Now, we have to go.”
The trip back to their meeting site is quiet; Tirian and his friend Jewel are disturbingly so. He looks at Lucy as though he’s never seen a thing like her before, which, Susan suspects, he rather hasn’t. It will be a useful lesson, if this all falls out the way she suspects it will.
Emerging in the copse, they are met by the sight of Peter in, as Lucy said, a mood, with five well-bred horses. At least Peter had the wherewithal to take the best of the lot; the quiet, angry voice in the back of her mind hopes he’d lamed the others, or at least cut the girths. Jill is already settled on the back of the largest, tamest-looking of the lot, trying to coax Eustace up behind her, no doubt driven by the palpable temper Peter’s emanating.
“Peter?” Edmund queries, his face carefully blank.
“It’s worse than we feared. It’s not an incursion, it’s the forerunner to a damned invasion.” There is blood on his cheek, though not, Susan notes, his own. “We need to find Tirian’s people.”
“Wait.” Edmund catches Peter’s forearm, stilling him for a moment. “The false Aslan?”
Peter huffs a breathless, humorless laugh. “A lonely Donkey in a lion’s skin, led on by an Ape’s lies. Hardly the stuff of legend.”
“Lucy told us the about the Ape.”
“Mm. Yes.” Peter turns to a fierce-looking gray and runs his hands along the horse’s flanks. “We got the Donkey out of the camp, told him to make his way home as carefully as he can. I doubt he’ll be bothered. And,” he adds, seeing the distressed look on Jill’s face, “he’ll be safer if he’s not with us.”
The four share a look, and for a moment it familiar, a new crisis, a new evaluation to be made. The false Aslan is no more, but the damage remains. And, more worrisome, so do the Calormenes. Susan moves forward to takes the reins of high-strung bay, running a soothing hand along the mare’s neck. “So we find Tirian’s people. Where?”
As one, the four look at Tirian. “I- Roonwit was to bring a small contingent northwest to meet me.”
“But the greater body of the army is at Cair Paravel?” Peter’s voice is tense. Susan knows he is calculating in his head: what strength can Calormen bring? How quickly? Where can Narnia meet them? Can they win?
“Some, but many are in the southern plains, conducting exercises before the winter sets in.”
So he’d split the army and cut himself off from all command; he might as well have invited Calormen personally. Susan wonders how long Tashbaan has been waiting for this chance. “Cair Paravel is paramount.” She says, eyes on Peter. “If we can reach it, take command of what part of the army is there, and the navy…”
“Yes.” Peter swings himself into the saddle of his stolen mount, waiting as the rest do the same. “We ride southeast. Hard.”
“Why?” Peter asks, his voice only barely louder than the subdued rustling of the fire, dying down now to embers. She’s had an answer ready for him since the first day they returned from Caspian’s Narnia, since the second time her heart broke. She’s always had this answer, but never known if she would have a chance to give it.
Peter is made of conviction, the same way Lucy is made of faith. Susan is made of darker stuff. Gentle, she knows, was never so much a descriptor as an admonition, and Aslan could be brutal in his lessons. Susan sighs soundlessly, lets her hand slip out of the bedroll and curl against the dark earth. Leaves crumple in her hand as she digs her fingers into cool earth and listens. Narnia, so different now, old and fragile and hurting, sings the same beautiful, devastating song she always has, but her power is banked, waiting. It aches, but it also resonates.
“Peter,” she murmurs. At her pause, she sees him lift his head, look towards her. Though she can’t see more than the gleam of the fire reflected in his eyes, she imagines they’re hurt, the same look he gave her the last time she left his flat, the day she refused to name this place. By the Lion, who knew they’d end up here?
“I was angry,” and she was, she is. “I was hurt.” The song pulses through the ground, through her fingers. “This was- is- our home. Of course I was angry. Not all of us can accept exile, Peter. Maybe we never should have.”
She rolls away from her brother, turns her face to the thousand, thousand stars above them, knowing that, here, they’re each dancing, spinning, reeling with purpose. The stars in England always seemed so far away: beautiful, yes, and lovely, but distant and cold like mountains. The stars here sing and speak and, sometimes, they come down. “Peter, try to understand.” The stars shimmer, and she can’t be sure if they are dancing or if she is crying. She has never cried over it before. “I would have stayed in England. I would have made my life there. But we could not turn away from this. I know you felt it, too, that fist around your heart. We left so much of ourselves here… I’m not sure what remained with us when we were sent back, but whatever did, it belongs to this place.”
The last embers of their fire crack mournfully. Across the ashes, Eustace and Jill huddle closer against the oncoming autumn chill. Lucy lies with one hand on Jill’s shoulder; a comfort, if an unconscious one. Somewhere beyond their tiny circle of dim light, Edmund is taking his watch, while Tirian and Jewel come to terms with what they have allowed on their watch. “I know you understand that. And maybe I was selfish to withdraw as I did, but I couldn’t accept it like you, even though I knew should have.”
“Sister, I don’t know what you mean.” His voice is gentler now; he won’t have seen her like this often. As they’d grown, she’d stopped taking her fears and uncertainties to him, for they were as foreign to him as his moral certitude was to her. He’d never understood her, not really, but he’d always loved her.
“Oh, Peter. Everything always came so easily to you, I felt.” Lying on her back suddenly feels too vulnerable, and she draws her knees to herself and rolls on to them, pulling her blanket about her shoulders as she goes. “I hated you for it,” she adds. She can feel his eyes on her, even in the darkness. Banishing the old schoolgirl feeling of inadequacy she hasn't had in years, she summons the queen and meets those eyes. She thinks he might be crying.
“You made our exile, our abandonment, seem- simple. You made it noble.” Her voice is threatening to rise above a rough whisper and she quiets it; this is for no one else. Her hands, she notices, are shaking. “You made your hurt noble, this beautiful thing you could learn from, and it made you greater. Mine was dark and vicious and ugly. And I wanted it.” She spits out the last, eyes locked on her brother's now. “It hurt and it was ugly, but it was mine.”
In the darkness, Peter is no more than the impression of movement and the smallest of sounds, and then he is settling down beside her. She hasn't cried like this since Anvard, since they almost lost everything through their own miscalculation. After the Return she had been too numb and, after Caspian, too angry. But this- Peter is just as solid as she remembers, his arms just as fast around her. She lets herself hold him, too. They've hurt for too long, she thinks.
Susan is already awake when the pale morning light creeps through the trees, bag packed. The rest of their small, bedraggled party is up and awake not long after, and their cold breakfast is eaten in the saddle as they move swiftly eastwards through Lantern Waste towards the Western Wood.
Lucy is the first to notice the Eagle flying above them, circling lower and lower as it drifts from thermal to thermal above them. “Tirian,” she calls, jerking her head towards the sky, “please tell me he’s one of yours.”
The king looks skyward, searching for a clear view through the branches, but it is Jewel who answers first. “Farsight, your Majesty.” And then he lets out a great Unicorn’s cry, and the Eagle plunges down.
He flings his wings out at the last moment, spooking the horses but slowing himself to perch on a low-hanging limb just before their party. “Your Majesty,” he croaks in the wrecked voice that all Eagles seem to have, “by the Lion’s grace, you yet live.”
“Indeed, dear friend.” Jewel surges forward, bringing the king closer to his messenger. “What news can you give us?”
“Two sights I have seen,” he says, fixing a dark eye on each member of their party in turn. “One was Cair Paravel filled with dead Narnians and living Calormenes: the Tisroc’s banner advanced upon your royal battlements: and your subjects flying form the city- this way and that, into the woods. Cair Paravel was taken by sea. Twenty great ships of Calormen put in there in the dark of the night before last.”
Silence falls, deafening in its totality. Susan closes her eyes against the sting of it; not since the Winter has Cair Paravel fallen. Even during the Telmarine invasion it was abandoned, broken by its own people who would rather see it destroyed than fallen to enemy hands. She has not imagined that things would have progressed this far.
Edmund recovers first, though his hand is clenched tight enough to turn his knuckles white. “And the other.”
“Roonwit the Centaur, with a small contingent of your Majesty’s guard, has found sanctuary with his cousin Gaius, whose clan patrols the northern mountains. He narrowly avoided a lethal ambush as they fled Cair Paravel, and he feared your Majesty dead.” Farsight tilts his head, considering Tirian. “I must tell you, your Majesty, I never imagined such dark days would fall in our time.”
“Nor I, old friend,” Tirian says, his face pale.
“We must go to Roonwit and Gaius, then,” Jewel says firmly. “They can best protect our king.”
“Your Majesty must flee,” Farsight says, shifting on the branch in agitation.
“His Majesty must fight.” Peter’s word comes down like law. “Calormen cannot be allowed to simply take this country.” He pauses, looking from face to face; his glare softens when he reaches Susan, and the iron grip around her heart lessens, if only for a moment. “We are here, by Aslan’s design or our own, and here we shall stay. I have recently been reminded that we belong to Narnia. We cannot turn from that, Tirian, and nor can you.”
Tirian straightens, meeting Peter’s eyes and holding them. His face is grim, and pale still, but when he nods, it is regal. “I will stay and fight, and count myself blessed to stand alongside such Kings and Queens of Old.”
She doesn't pause to watch her first arrow's flight; that's an amateur mistake, and the release sends such a hum of right home belonging through her, she knows it will strike true. Eustace, for all that he looked paler than snow when the pair of horsemen appeared, has his sword drawn and has taken a half-passable stance at her side. So long as he stays out of her peripherals, she can try to keep him alive, at least. As another horseman appears, the next arrow is nocked without conscious thought and it all feels so right: the brace on her arm, the quiver against her back, the comforting discomfort in her muscles. She has always preferred fighting wars with polite barbs and carefully placed informants and dangerous smiles, but by Aslan, she’s always been good at this, too.
She takes down two Calormene scouts and turns just in time to see Eustace knock the third off his horse. There is an arrow in his throat before he can scrabble for his sword. Their horses race off, panicked, into the trees. Lowering her bow and releasing the tension from her frame, Susan relaxes down into the earth, into herself, as she has not done since she sat on a throne of her own. Closing her eyes, she breathes deeply, sweeping fingertips along an arrow’s fletching. Breathing.
The thunder of hooves just over the ridge wrenches her eyes open. They can’t be Calormenes. They’d never be able to ride so quickly through these woods, not with their damned wide formations and claustrophobic mounts. At her side, Eustace gasps.
“Are there- are there more of them?” His breath comes in great heaves but he grips his sword grimly; she like him more now than she ever has. Flitting her eyes to the ridgeline, she catches Edmund’s signal as he appears through the trees, all clear, and smiles, offering her cousin a hand. His palm is soft, but his grip is strong.
“No, Eustace. There are more of us. Now, go to Edmund.”
She watches his retreating back, fiercely proud of him in this moment. And then, bowing to the bane of every archer, she bends to collect her arrows. The Calormenes seem so young, all of them, even as she pulls her arrows from their chests and backs, careful not to crush the fletching. But then, she’s thought every soldier she’s ever seen to be young, as far back as Beruna. The last scout, arrow embedded near his spine, has fallen onto his back and broken the shaft beyond repair. She still leans over him, taking in his face, before reaching out to close his eyes. The benediction comes to her unbidden, and she lets the words slip out, still familiar after all these years.
Edmund's sharp whistle (watch, wait, aware) draws her from her reverie, and she jogs up the ridgeline to meet him. “Roonwit’s cousins,” he explains as she draws near. “And their, ah, extended martial family.” He doesn’t even try to hide the amusement in his voice, and her heart thrills to hear it. Just like old times. Eustace stands overlooking the clearing just below them, and his eyes are wide, showing far too much white. Following his wild gaze, she smiles at the sight that greets her.
Though Susan has always been far closer to the Centaurs than her sister (archers, after all), Lucy has always been the better rider, and seeing her now, Susan remembers why. Lucy laughs as she guides her mare in a gentle pirouette, grinning at the contingent of Centaurs circling her. There is a storm of flying hair and tails, the flash of Lucy’s red-gold braid in the sun, and, there, the high, pure cry of the horn, ringing out over the noise of galloping hooves and answering calls, shouts that pierce her with an aching joy.
They could be anywhere, any time, they could have been plucked from history and dropped here, and Susan aches with how familiar it is. The hurt is a comfort, a reassurance: the sound of their old formal greetings drifting through the woods is like music.
Eustace, faintly, asks, “What is this?”
Closing her eyes briefly against her laughter, Susan remembers. Beruna and Anvard and Glasswater and the Northern Marches and Stormness Head and… When she opens them again, her gaze is accompanied by a wolf’s smile. “This, dear cousin? This is the Golden Age.”
The Centaurs, under the stern leadership of Gaius, have cleared Lantern Waste of much of its infestation already, and in less than two days they are prepared to move out south and east, to Shuddering Wood. Susan stays out of the delicate negotiations between Peter, Tirian, and Gaius; the king, while obviously in awe of Peter, retains no little pride, and it is difficult for him to cede authority entirely. Peter, on his part, has no desire to take it, but by the Lion, he’s so much more efficient that it’s almost necessary. Gaius stays stoic through it all, but Susan suspects he finds the whole thing amusing. One of her favorite things about the Centaurs has always been their rather suspect sense of humor.
When the delicate negotiations are finally complete, they leave a small party in Western Wood to hold the reclaimed land against any Calormene incursions. The rest- Gaius’ crew and Tirian’s guard under Roonwit- ride southeast. Hard.
With Eustace staying close by Edmund’s side whenever they call a halt, Susan takes it upon herself to keep an eye on Jill Pole, whom she has found she rather likes. She’s much more sensible than Eustace; she fits in well here, and reminds Susan of no one so much as Lucy. When they finally stop for the night in the northern reaches of Shuddering Wood, Susan goes to find her.
“You seem somewhat lost,” she says.
Jill startles as Susan settles next to her by the fire, twisting her neck from side to side as she lets her aching body acquaint itself with its new log perch. It’d been a hard ride today, and despite her learning curve she’s still not acclimated. Jill and Eustace must be considerably sorer. In the firelight, Susan offers the girl a quiet smile, saying, “I suppose none of this-” she gestures towards the few commands tents they’ve erected, the soldiers sharpening weapons- “was in the stories you heard during your last trip here.”
“Ah, no. Not really.” Jill has her hands wrapped in what looks like a crumpled, balled-up version of the cloak Tirian had given her earlier; Susan raises one brow, discreetly, at her nervousness. “You’re- you’re fairy tales, all of you, the golden kings and queens who ruled a beautiful land. Rilian,” and she pauses, looking pained. Susan can sympathize; after all, she went away from Narnia for a year of her life, and when she returned everyone she ever knew was dead. The grief of such loss is difficult to process. “Rilian, he knew all the stories, loved to tell them on our journey south. But he never told me…”
Sighing, Susan reaches over and liberates the cloak, taking Jill’s hands in one of her own. “He never told you that we were real people.”
“Well, of course I knew you were-”
“What I you need to understand, Jill Pole, is that Narnia is and always has been a small land, surrounded by greater neighbors, and that when we first came here, the world was wilder. And now,” she adds, squeezing Jill’s hands gently, “all these ages later, the memories have faded and the stories have changed, but we have not.”
Jill blinks, frowning in thought as she begins to try and fit the beautiful stories of the Golden Age with what she has seen the heroes of those stories do thus far. Unless Susan is greatly mistaken, and she very much doubts she could be, Jill will see them do far more before they are done here. Calormen, after all, has taken the chance it has always desperately wanted and sunk its claws deep, deep into Narnia, and that cannot be allowed.
But the Narnia they have taken, the Narnia they think they must pacify, is the Narnia of several hundred years of peace, and a thousand years of complacency before that. But Susan’s Narnia- her family’s Narnia- was a Narnia of Wolves and Lions; a Narnia of grace and power, carved inch by painstaking inch out of a world that would see it fall. The Calormenes think they face a people built for gentle times, but Susan and her family are made of steel, made to fight the unwinnable fight, and prevail.
They are wolves and lions themselves, and now they are loose.
The white flag over the Calormene encampment makes her uncomfortable. Tactically, the Narnians are better off, camped in the hills of Shuddering Wood as they are, though Susan suspects that may be less tactics on the Calormenes’ part and more that they are simply unwilling to enter the Wood. But she also knows that the force flying the flag of parley down by the river is a small one, only a fraction of what the invaders can bring to bear, and the Narnians fortifying themselves here are the main bulk of the fighting force they have been able to call together.
Peter, eyes on the flag, grimaces.
“What in Aslan’s name do they want?” Tirian asks the watchers, Roonwit and Gaius at his side. “They can’t possibly think we’ll treat with them.”
“Of course we will,” Edmund says; Susan makes a quiet noise of agreement.
“Treat with these invaders? Why should we dignify them with such courtesy?” Tirian looks indignant, which Susan might find amusing if it weren’t so dangerous. “We need offer them no pleasantries.”
At that, Edmund laughs outright. “It’s no pleasantry on our part,” he says. “It’s a gift they’re giving us, and we are going to take it.”
Tirian shakes his head; Edmund sighs. “You’ve never fought a war against a stronger power, have you?”
“There has been peace in these lands since my grandfather’s time,” Tirian admits. “Calormen has never been our ally, but she has not threatened us.”
“Calormen,” Peter interjects, voice firm, “has been waiting for the time to take Narnia since before we reigned. The Witch was too dangerous, and then we were too secure, and then the Telmarines were their client state and they had no need to physically invade. They have long wanted this land, and if I guess right, this parley is their chance to gloat.”
“Calormen will want to see our strength; or rather, our weakness,” Susan says. “And they will want us to see their greatness.” They always have; it is their enduring flaw. “So we will go, and look, and show them what we want them to see.”
Edmund nods, a trace of a smile beginning to show. “That is why we go to parley. Almost nothing is more dangerous than what we do not know, nor more valuable than what we choose to show. If they’re willing to sit down with their enemy and share their plans, I’ll hardly stop them.”
Peter snorts; Tirian looks fraught. He’s still so young, and never been a king in a crisis. Oh, Susan is certain he’s fought monsters and rebels, and perhaps even had some court intrigue, but he’s never sat down with Calormene ambassadors and soldiers, knowing they would eat him if they could, never walked that fine line between perfect diplomacy and perilous war. This will, at least, be instructive.
Their party is small: only she and Edmund represent their family. Tirian wanted to take both Roonwit and Gaius, but Centaurs look rather too… capable for their purposes. Susan herself looks helpless, dressed in the loose skirts she’s borrowed from one of the Dryads about the camp. Edmund has cultivated the look of a lowly foot soldier; judging from his tunic, he’s rolled in the dirt to do so. The rust on his chainmail is carefully cultivated.
Of the lot, only Tirian looks capable of anything other than fainting or swearing. It is perfect.
Edmund holds their party back for nearly an hour after they see the Calormene delegation arrive at the tent. They don’t move to cross the scarce fields separating their positions until they begin to see the guards at the rendezvous site shift and change rotations. It is either a mark of stunning disrespect, or blatant incompetence; Susan wonders how intelligent the Calormene commanders are.
They direct their mounts in an easy canter across the no man’s land between them, slowing just as they reach the tent. Edmund, who led the party across, dismounts first, making a show of bowing when Susan and Tirian dismount in turn. Dressed as he is, none of the Calormene soldiers notice when he takes the reins of Susan and Tirian’s mounts, tying them off before moving to stand near the Calormene guard. He gives her one subtle flash of a smile before she straightens her shoulders, fixes her hair, and follows Tirian into the cool shade.
The interior of the tent is opulent, surprisingly so, given how little time Calormen had to erect it. But despite the rich tapestries and carpets, and finely carved chairs and the exotic refreshments off to one side, Susan has eyes only for the men against whom they are arrayed.
Of the two men before them, rising from their chairs to bow and welcome them, only one is important. Oh, yes, the tall solemn one is a general, a military historian greatly admired by Roonwit, but the younger man… he is the Tisroc’s brother, if Farsight and Roonwit are to be believed. Watching him, Susan believes it. This invasion is the product of his machinations: she guesses it is his first major move on the chessboard of Tashbaan’s deadly politics, and if he succeeds his position will be infinitely strengthened, moving him one step closer to the throne. Susan would, she thinks, greatly like to shoot him in the eye.
Instead, she blushes and allows the two to bow over her hand, hoping it does not shake with her rage.
“Great King, you honor us with your presence,” the general begins, waiting until Susan, Tirian, and his own lord have sat before sinking into his own seat. “I am al-Nabd, serving under my great Lord Qasir, brother of the Tisroc, may he live forever.” He pauses, waiting for Tirian to return the greeting.
Tirian, heavily coached and, Susan guesses, generally incensed, says nothing. Al-Nabd frowns, but continues.
“My great Lord Qasir believes we can end this war with no more egregious loss of life, which must surely be pleasant to all parties involve-”
“Your companion, King Tirian. Who is she?” Qasir’s voice is sleek as the rest of him; curled lazily in his chair as he is, Susan is reminded of a cat sunning itself, or a cobra waiting to strike. He is lovely in the way that all poisonous things are. Susan smiles shyly into her lap.
“No one of import, I assure you, General al-Nabd.” She keeps her voice smooth, deferential. “A friend of the throne from many years ago.” She flits her eyes up to meet his, holding her demure smile while she searches his expression. “I am here to support my king’s spirit.”
The general looks outraged. “We do not negotiate in the presence of-”
“No, no, General,” Qasir says, leaning forward, his focus on Susan. Noting it, she simpers. “A man, even a great king-” here he nods to Tirian- “may need the guidance of others in times of trial.”
Sensing her moment, Susan murmurs, “Your lordship is wise.”
His smile broadens to a leer. “And he must be a great king indeed to keep such a beauty beside him. No, General, let her stay. Even a woman must understand the import of such a meeting as this.”
“My lord,” she replies, bowing her head again.
And just like that, she is forgotten, relegated to the status of a vase or a sculpture: a nice addition to the proceedings, and beautiful to look at, but quite harmless.
Al-Nabd, looking between Qasir and Tirian, clears his throat and begins again. “My Lord Qasir extends generous terms for your surrender, King Tirian. Your Majesty may even be able to reclaim the throne, if you are willing to accept our offer of friendship and guidance.”
So, a puppet king, then. Susan had suspected they would be more direct; she guesses now that Calormen has been unable to stamp out the pockets of resistance throughout the country, little rebellions that have been spurred on by whispers of the legendary Kings and Queens fighting alongside King Tirian, sent by Aslan to free Narnia once more. If they are offering a false throne in exchange for compliance, the rebels must be more irritating than she had hoped.
“I will not be a lackey of Tashbaan,” Tirian says tightly, clenching his hands over the chair’s arms and leaning forward. “Such an offer is an insult, my lords. Truly.”
“Tirian,” Susan whispers. “My- my lord. Is it not better to listen to their words? You have fought so hard and…” she trails off, hoping she’s not overdone it. In her time, Calormen had perceived of women as so useless that it had been comical. She’s relying on the same trait in this.
“The lady is wise,” Qasir says, grinning unpleasantly. “For you will fall, King Tirian. No matter how you fight. Your army hides in the mountains, fleeing from its first taste of Calormen’s strength. Your city is taken, your advisors dead. And you cower in the woods, spreading lies of legends come to save you.” His grin shifts to contempt as he veritably spits out his next words. “But your lies and myths will not avail you. You are defeated, little king. Know your betters.”
She can nearly feel the rage roiling off Tirian; she places a hand on his wrist, hoping to keep him from rashness that would destroy everything. “You know not of what you speak,” he snarls back; he looks ready to leap across the narrow table and rip Qasir’s throat out with his bare hands.
Qasir, however, snarls right back. “Your little tales of ancient kings will not save you.” He pauses for a moment, watching the emotions play out across Tirian’s face before continuing. “Oh, yes. Your tales of a Golden Age and your lion god have your damned country in an uproar. And I won’t have it.”
“There is little you can do.”
“Is there not?” Qasir’s face is ugly with self-satisfaction. “When I break your army, little king, when I find those you’ve been parading around as myths, I’ll hang them from the walls of Cair Paravel. You’ll hang with them, if you continue this pointless rebellion.” He sneers, jerking his head towards Susan. “Your little mouse here can tell you. You can’t win.” He stands, his voice growing louder. “When I’ve destroyed your paltry excuse for an army here, I’ll pursue the survivors in the mountains. I will route them out, destroy them. I will raze your country and salt its earth. Narnia will not survive.”
Panting, he pauses, taking a moment, to slick his hair back and regain his composure. “Or, King Tirian, you can accept my offer. Live in your palace. Command your people. Give your false legends over to me.” The look he gives Tirian is that of a viper with prey in sight. “Live.”
Tirian himself is breathing hard, his face bloodless. The chair’s arms creak beneath his crushing grip. Susan squeezes his forearm tightly, feeling the tendons shift beneath her hand.
“I will take your offer to my advisors,” he finally grits out. The words sound as if they are wrenched from him.
“Please do.” Qasir’s voice is all pleasantness again, the viper hidden behind honeyed tones. “But be quick. Calormen will not wait forever.”
They rise as one, bowing and curtseying as protocol dictates. Qasir lingers too long over her hand, and when he lifts his head from his bow, he murmurs, “Perhaps we shall not raze the entire rebellion, my little mouse.”
Susan pauses, considering.
The smile she gives him is wolfish.
“We need to send someone into the western mountains. Preferably one of the four of us, possibly two.”
“Lucy should go.” The idea has been in her mind since Qasir first mentioned the rumors of legends flying through the pockets of rebellion. If the Narnian army has retreated to the mountains, thinking their country overrun and their king most likely dead, they will have to send someone to raise them, someone to drive them to action. If they have heard the rumors of the Four in Narnia again by Aslan’s grace, so much the better. Tirian has to stay here, as does Peter. But Lucy… Lucy has always been the spark that ignites the flame. She shines just as brilliantly now as she did during their reign, and Susan doubts anyone can deny that.
“Yes,” Edmund says, looking around the circle of their war council. Their single command tent is ill lit, half in shadow. The flickering light makes everyone look weary. “If you’re willing, Lucy, there’s an army to be raised in the west.”
Lucy’s eyes dart from Edmund to Susan, taking in their expressions. “Of course I’ll go,” she says firmly, with none of her usual levity. The reports of Qasir’s threats have angered her, bringing out the lioness that lives beneath the bright girl she appears to be.
“You should go with her, Edmund.” Susan stares down at the map spread out on their makeshift table and traces the poorly charged ranges to the west. “You’ve spent more time in the mountains than any of us, and you know what rumors the Calormenes whisper.”
“As you say.”
“And you should take Gaius.” Tirian’s voice is quiet; he has been subdued since they returned from the parley. Susan rather thinks that the Calormene threats have shaken him more so than any other. He handles it well, though. “His brother is a lieutenant, if he’s still alive. He knows the lay of the land. And his second can command under me here until your return.”
“That gives us your army, less those killed in the initial battle. If we are lucky.” Peter’s face is calculating. “It won’t be enough,” he says, sighing as he, too, traces lines on the map, though his fingers linger over Cair Paravel.
“Roonwit. You have a suggestion?”
The old Centaur shakes his head. “A rumor only, good kings and queens, though one I have heard for many years.”
“We live in the land of rumors and legends now, friend,” Edmund replies. “What harm can one more do?”
Roonwit nods slowly, shadows masking his expression. “Since I was very young, I have heard tales of those who live in the West, who have gone there for solitude, or peace, or to be away from the politics and frivolities of Narnia.” He shrugs. “No one knows the truth of it, though it is known that there are fewer Dryads in Narnia these days, fewer Satyrs and Fauns and Centaurs. Perhaps they have gone to the West.”
“And if they have…” Tirian begins.
“If they have, perhaps they will return, if called,” Lucy finishes. “It has happened before.”
“Aslan willing, it will happen again.”
Edmund and Lucy have been gone for a fortnight; no word has come, but this makes the morning of the fifteenth day, and Susan knows they can afford to wait no longer. They’ve spent the time harassing the Calormenes in any way they can: Tirian and Peter lead raids on supply caravans, cut horse lines in the night. The few Raptors who have made their way to Tirian’s camp wreck spy on the invaders from above, and they deploy what Talking Animals they can, in whatever way they can, to harass the Calormene lines. Still, after two weeks, they have withdrawn to the western regions of Shuddering Wood near the Telmar River, pulling back and fortifying their positions. Qasir and General al-Nabd have withdrawn to Cair Paravel, she knows, but a contingent of Calormenes is encamped not a mile away, waiting.
So on the dawn of the fifteenth morning, when grey light begins to filter through the trees, Susan rises to find Peter already saddling their horses. Tirian, nearby, looks torn between despair and desperate hope.
They slip away from the encampment, riding out to the plains along the river. Mountains rise high and cold before them, still half-shrouded in night. Peter's face is stone, and at his right, Tirian's is little better, if less certain in its stoicism. Susan keeps her own face carefully calm, guiding her mount through the dying grass and trying not to see ghosts. Here by Shuddering Wood, so many years ago, they would hold harvest festivals, dancing through fields and hills of gold. With such a memory as that, the browning fields and low fog, even beneath the rising sun, are dimmer, colder. Her brother's presence at her shoulder as he draws near, the current king trailing behind him, is the only warm thing about this place.
“We must be prepared for the worst.” Tirian’s pronouncement is quiet, though unsurprising. Watching his country fall beneath the invader has made quite the cynic of him.
“Have a little faith, Tirian,” Peter says. She’s not sure how deeply Peter believes that Edmund and Lucy will find what they’re looking for, but the strength of his words is reassuring nonetheless.
“I am trying, King Peter. But perhaps Aslan is not with us in this.”
Susan wants to reassure him, but she does not have the words. She has never had the words. Her faith has long been in her family, in Peter’s righteousness and Edmund justice, and Lucy’s brilliance. She believed for them, and through them. She can counsel no one in a crisis of faith.
So she turns her eyes to the foothills, watching and waiting for that faith to be rewarded. When it happens, a shift in the gloom, a movement from the trees, Susan smiles grimly and says, “Perhaps he is not, Tirian, but we are.”
The air rings with the pure, clear notes of a horn; not Susan's gift, the horn that brought them back to save Narnia the first time, but rather the horns of Narnia's ancient armies, the horns that proceeded the arrival of one of the Four, the horns that spoke comfort to friends and struck fear into enemies. Susan's heart clenches at that sound; Peter makes a sound like a man struck by a sudden, invisible blow.
And then, then, the sunlight strikes the fog, and from it emerges Narnia of Old, like Susan had not quite dared to hope.
At the fore, the horn still held to lips that Susan knows are laughing, Lucy sits astride her stolen Calormene charger like the queen she was and is and will be. Edmund, at her right, bears a banner that has not flown in this land since the Four had disappeared into the forest all those centuries before: the golden lion upon a crimson field, four crowns arrayed above it. Though clearly hastily put together, the gold and silver figures abstract on their brilliant background, the standard still makes her heart stutter.
And behind them... Centaurs stride calmly, spears and lances held at attention. Fauns and Satyrs, more capricious, leap and dance, blades glinting in the morning light. Dryads and Naiads seem to float over the field, while Dwarves move stolidly alongside them. Great Cats and Wolves, Unicorns and Bears, all move across the field, a picture of a time Susan had almost feared lost. A piercing cry rings out from above, answered by a ringing whinny. Tirian gasps.
Looking up, Susan almost does the same. The Gryphons she had hoped for, but the Winged Horses... it had been so long, and they had perhaps been lost to legend. But now they circle, bathed in sunlight.
She doesn’t cry, though she could, perhaps. Peter does, though he smiles through those tears. But Susan turns to Tirian, the young king struck speechless, feeling truly like the queen who had once sat (with reason and justification) upon her throne, and says, “This is what we were, what Narnia always should have been.” She looks out at the force her brother and sister have brought to them, looks out at the army of her people moving towards them. Turning to Tirian, she catches the young king in the eye and says, “Trust this; there is nothing else.”
The last weeks have been long, grueling work, though nothing like what came before. No longer ghosts, flitting in and out of the trees, they move in strength, Tirian’s flagging troops spurred on by the host that’s joined them. But the Calormenes had for too long been given run on her land to be pushed out easily. They fled from Shuddering Wood, taken by surprise, but they have been firm in Beruna, and on the banks of the River Rush, and even on Dancing Lawn. Even with their rebellion growing day by day, people drawn to follow the twin standards of the King of Narnia and the Kings and Queens of Old, it is no easy battle.
But they fight on, moving surely southward and eastward, towards Cair Paravel. Their victories are not easy, but they are consistent, the arrival of the expatriate forces buoying their strength and their spirits. Susan doesn’t like to think on what they would have done, had Edmund and Lucy not found their people in the western mountains.
They dance one night, not long after they push the Calormene contingent from the Glasswater. Lucy begins it, flitting from fire to fire like a sprite, pulling bewildered Narnians behind her until, like a sudden miracle, there is a bonfire in the center of camp, Lucy leading her string of dancers behind.
It’s beautiful, and it aches.
Susan leans against a tree, watches quietly. She’s always loved to dance, but watching this is like being home, before, and she can’t quite credit it. She still catches herself most mornings, when she first opens her eyes, dreading the sight of her small flat and the sound of traffic on the road just outside her window. She’s killed more people in the past fortnight than she has since she led the excursion down Mt. Pire and into the Great Desert in her last life, and yet every morning that she wakes, cold and aching in her bedroll, is a blessing.
“A dance, my lady queen?” Edmund looks flushed; drinking, she thinks, not dancing. He never enjoyed the spotlight in that way, and it was usually only Lucy who had been able to pull him out into the revels. She shakes her head minutely. He pulls an exaggerated grimace. “Please, sweet lady, none of the other girls will dance with me.”
“Besides,” he is before her now, holding one hand out imperiously. “You look entirely too contemplative. It’s dangerous inside that head of yours, sister.”
She only acquiesces because he’s right, dammit. They’re of a height now, again, which works well for them: they’ve stepped into the middle of one of the whirling Satyr dances from the western hills. It’s not what she remembers, but close enough to fake. As she and Edmund spin around each other, spurred on by the claps and cries and whirling bodies surrounding them, she catches sight of Peter dancing with three Dryads, and Eustace sitting off to the side, his eyes on Peter and his jaw nearly on the ground. She laughs, begins to tell Edmund, but they whirl again and her breath is snatched away.
“It’s good to see you smile.”
Panting slightly at the pace, she replies, “Even in the midst of a war?”
They whirl apart, come back together. “A war we are winning,” he points out. “A route, maybe.” Her left hand clasped in his right, they lean apart and spin, echoing the dancers all around them. Then they are close again, the dance winding to a finish as the pipes and drums slow. “And yes, even so.”
As is traditional at the end of such dances, she goes to sink into a small curtsey; his hand on her elbows prevents that. “You did what I was not bold enough to do- what none of us could do,” he says quietly, holding her gaze. He does not smile. Around them, dancers break apart to seek new partners or rest or refreshment. “Never tell yourself you are not courageous.”
“It’s our home, Edmund. Don’t act as if this were nobility.” She can see Peter approaching, curious, over Edmund’s shoulder, and no matter how they’re fixed the things between them, she doesn’t want him here for this.
Edmund must see something on her face, because he merely sighs, drops a royal kiss to the back of her hand (and how many times have they ended arguments in that way, with the promise of more discussion to come?), and says, “Just ask yourself this, sister: what would have happened to our home, to all of us, had you not demanded we come?”
And then he is gone, retreating to the outskirts where he can more easily watch. Susan is left in the fire’s warm light, her heart tight in her chest, because she knows; they would have been lost, all of them, and her most of all. And the mercy of being here instead: here amongst the dancers and the warriors and the battle and home…
Well, she never said she was brave. But she has always, always, done whatever is necessary to protect what is hers.
When the last battle comes, it comes at Beruna. It feels… right, somehow. True.
Standing with the archers, Susan feels herself flicker between this world and the one that came before. When the cries of horns and the shouts of their army come, she hears the answering scream of Jadis’ creatures and Northern trolls. The first volley of arrows she commands sends her to a long, dusty campaign in the Great Desert. She blinks away after-images, raises her bow, fires again.
On the field below she watches Lucy and Peter charge in with the cavalry, breaking through Calormene lines that mirror those that tried to besiege Anvard. They move closer, the battle thickening, and Edmund with his knives, in among the ground troops as he has always been, is older and younger and the same, dozens of iterations of himself fighting to save the only place they’ve ever truly called home.
She looses her last arrow and plunges into the melee, feeling older and younger and right.
On this hill near the sea and the battered castle that was her home for her longest life, Susan pauses, drags her hand through her sweat-damped hair, and breathes deep. The sea smells the same as it always has: like eternity, like freedom, like home. Before her, Tirian and his force cross the bridge leading to the main keep, taking back what is his. Theirs.
The stamp of familiar feet behind her brings a small smile to her face, and no sooner has Peter rested his gloved hand on her shoulder than her own is resting atop of it. He smells of sweat and blood and horse, but then, so does she, and so do Edmund and Lucy, when they draw near enough to flank her.
The four of them stand, looking out upon the castle that had once been their shared home, their gleaming capital, and Susan has no room for regret. The sea dances under the midday sun, and on the beach she can just make out the golden figure of a Lion bounding towards them.
“Well,” Peter says quietly, and she can hear the smile in his voice. “What’s next?”
As Susan closes her eyes, breathing in that perfect air, she can feel her family move closer as Lucy gleefully says, “Everything.”