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Carpetbaggers

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If you are reading this story, that means that you have probably already read a book called The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which tells the story of four children, named Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy Pevensie, and how they fell through a wardrobe in a country house into a magical land, where it was always winter and never Christmas. And you know how they defeated the evil Witch who had enchanted the land of Narnia (for that was its name), and how Aslan, the magical Lion who was the Son of the Emperor-Over-Sea, crowned them kings and queens of Narnia, saying "Once a king or queen in Narnia, always a king or queen."

But the book doesn't tell the story of what happened after they were crowned, and how they came to rule Narnia during a Golden Age of peace and happiness, before they fell back through the wardrobe and became English schoolchildren again. The book skips over all that, and goes straight from the coronation to the time when they were all grown up, which I think is a pity. Because they must certainly have had many adventures as they grew up, while trying to rule a land full of magical creatures and talking animals.

So this is the story about some of the adventures the Pevensies had, on the way to becoming strong and successful kings and queens of Narnia.

*

The day after Aslan left, taking the magic with him, just about everyone else left, too.

Lucy woke first, rolling out from under Susan's arm and onto the stone floor. Her brothers and sister were all bundled together like puppies on and under the dusty old rugs that were among the few furnishings still left in the castle of Cair Paravel. The sun was just peeking in the eastern window overlooking the beach, and even this high, Lucy could hear the gulls crying.

She shook out the skirts of her gown, brushing at the spot where Edmund had spilled some faun wine last night, and went out into the corridor. The floor was cold under her bare feet, and she wasn't sure where her shoes were. Or if she even had any shoes; she frowned. She couldn't remember whether she had been barefoot during the dancing last night.

Her stomach growled, so instead of going out into the courtyard, she turned and went down another flight of stairs: she was pretty sure the kitchens were this way.

During the party--well, coronation festival, but it was really a three-day party--there had always been someone bringing around more food, more drinks, always musicians playing and Fauns and Dryads dancing in the great hall. There were people everywhere. Well, Narnian people, anyway, which included Talking Dogs, and Beavers, and Centaurs and Dryads and even a Talking Moose, who was almost too large to fit through the door into the Great Hall.

This morning, though, she saw no one, and heard no voices in the vast and lofty rooms. When she stepped through the open doorway into the kitchens, nobody was there, not even the great Cave Bear who had organized all the cooking for the past few days. There were clay pots and wooden platters piled around the counters, and copper pots stacked on shelves: most of them were dirty. Morning sunlight streamed through a few small windows high on the wall. In the fireplace, a few bits of wood smoked, and Lucy, looking closer, recognized them as table legs. The room smelled of cold ash and spilled ale.

"Where is everyone?" she asked the empty kitchen.

There was a loaf of bread on the table, and a small pot of what turned out to be honey; Lucy grabbed them up, half-afraid they would disappear just like all the Narnians had, and ran back upstairs to her siblings.

*

"All of them?" asked Susan, astonished. She scowled as she tugged her fingers through her damp hair, separating it for plaiting. They had no combs and no mirrors, so Lucy pushed her hands aside and began to do it for her.

"Most of them, anyway," admitted Peter. "I saw Tumnus in the courtyard, getting ready to leave."

Lucy bit her lip but said nothing. Not Mr. Tumnus, too!

Edmund raised his dripping head from the bucket he'd dunked it in. He'd had more faun wine last night than any of them, and still looked horribly green, Lucy thought. "Where was he going?" he asked, and wiped his face on Peter's red cloak. A bit of fluff caught in his hair, and Susan leaned forward to pluck it out.

Peter shrugged. "Had to get back home, he said. He did promise he'd be back, but wouldn't say when." His voice was casual, but there was a frown caught between his eyebrows.

"I don't understand," said Lucy. She had tangled up Susan's hair and had to unwind before starting again. "We are their kings and queens--Aslan said so! Why are they all leaving?"

There were a great many dirty dishes in the kitchens, after all. Who was going to wash them? At home, she was too small to reach the cabinets, but Susan always made her dry, anyway. She had thought that, as a queen, she wouldn't have to wash up any more.

Susan's face was hidden, her head dropped forward as Lucy wove her hair together. The dark wet strands dampened the green cloth of her gown. But her voice was clear as she said, "Because they were just freed from one hundred years of winter, Lucy. They have lives and families to look after."

"Oh." Lucy got to the end of the braid and realized that she had nothing to tie it off with. After she looked around helplessly, Edmund pressed a faded pink ribbon into her hand. "There, all done," she said, hoping Susan wouldn't mind that the bow was rather lopsided.

They might have sat there all morning, except Lucy remembered the bread, so at least they had something to eat. She had forgotten to bring a knife, however, and Peter had to tear it apart, and then they took turns dipping it in the honey. It was sticky and sweet: soon they were laughing about Edmund and the faun wine, and Susan dancing with Aurelius the Centaur.

By the time breakfast was over there were crumbs all over the faded crimson of the carpets, and Edmund had honey in his hair. But the worried look had eased from Peter's face, and Lucy decided that having an entire palace to themselves was just another adventure. Aslan had brought them this far, after all.

 

~

 

Edmund could not determine how Susan kept finding things in the castle, which seemed empty and echoing to him; it was less friendly now than it had been when it was full of Narnians drinking and dancing. But in a chest in one of the upper rooms (Edmund wondered why the chest wasn't burned for fuel during the Winter, the way the rest of the furniture probably had been, and finally decided it was too difficult to break apart without tools) Susan found some worn clothing, a moldering book that Edmund seized upon, sundry household implements, and some lengths of twine.

Edmund eagerly exchanged his wine-spotted velvet doublet for a short-sleeved green tunic that reached midway down his thighs. Susan raised an eyebrow, but Edmund expected that she'd follow suit by noontime: Aslan's summer, even here on the breezy shore, was as hot as any July he remembered in England.

Ignoring the clothing, Peter picked up the ball of twine, and started untangling the mess. "Ed," he said, nodding at the window and the beach beyond. "You think there's any fish out there?"

Which is how they found themselves spending the first afternoon of their rule as kings and queens of Narnia fishing on the beach under the sparkling windows of Cair Paravel. It took some time for the two boys to carve fishhooks, and Susan insisted there had to be something other than the last of the bread to use for bait. In the end, Lucy went into the overgrown garden behind the kitchens and brought back a handful of worms, but she could not bear to watch Peter bait the hooks.

"Lucky we've got this breakwater," said Edmund as he threw his lightly-weighted line back into the water. They didn't have a bucket and his two fish and Peter's four were left in the water, strung on a line looped around Peter's ankle. "Be too hard to fish from the beach without poles."

Peter gave his line a small tug and nodded. "More than luck; I think this might have been a quay once. Can you picture it, the big ships tied up there and there?" He jerked his head sideways, and Edmund realized that the wooden stubs poking up out of the jumbled rocks must once have been stanchions.

"It's all fallen apart--but the castle's fine. Shouldn't the castle be falling down as well?" Edmund looked over his shoulder just to be sure, but the walls of the castle, clean and shining golden in the afternoon light, were as solid as they had been that morning.

The light reflecting off the water flickered across Peter's face, which was growing pink in the sun. Lucy shouted something to Susan a hundred yards down the beach, her voice full of easy cheer.

"I think it has something to do with Aslan, and with the prophecy," Peter said after a long moment. "Magic." He smiled, and then let it drop away again, his brows drawing down the way they had when Mother had put them on the train to Professor Kirke's house. "Ed, I think--I think we might be in trouble, here."

Edmund's fishing line jerked, and this time he didn't yank back, but let it play through his fingers before gradually slowing it down. "You mean, we are crowned kings and queens but we have no food, second-hand clothes, and no apparent subjects?"

Peter chuckled and leaned sideways, nudging Edmund's shoulder before straightening. It wasn't something he would have done before Narnia. (It wasn't something Edmund would have wanted him to do, before Narnia.) "Yes, that's what I mean. I think the hard part might just be starting."

"Susan's worked that out," said Edmund, bringing his fish in carefully, hand over hand on the wet line. The salt water stung some scratches on his fingers that he must have collected that morning--all his other wounds had been healed by Lucy's cordial. "Why do you think she went digging through the castle like that? She's even started an inventory in the back of that book."

"An inventory? That's clever--Ed, what is that?" His voice suddenly sharp, Peter pointed out into the bay, where the turquoise water was stained by a darker shade, an indigo shadow moving quickly shoreward.

A great dark shape, moving faster than any fish, and heading straight towards the girls, who had their skirts above their knees as they waded in the shallows.

"Susan!" Peter shouted, and dropped his line, fish forgotten. He tried to jump up to the next rock in the breakwater, but tripped on the string of fish tied to his ankle, and fell heavily. "Blast! Ed, go, go!"

Edmund ran, casting glances over his shoulder into the bay. It was moving faster than he was. He tripped, nearly fell, caught himself on one of the great jumbled rocks, and forced himself onwards. "Lucy!" he yelled, but he couldn't tell if she heard him.

He'd left his sword in the castle. Why had they assumed that Narnia was safe, just because the Witch was dead?

Stumbling again, and again recovering just in time, Edmund leaped from the base of the jetty onto the wet sand. "Susan!" He waved his arms, and he saw Susan turn towards him--just as something enormous breached the water behind her.

Once, when he was even younger than Lucy, the family had taken a trip to the Isle of Wight, and on the ferry, Edmund had scanned the waves, eager for a glimpse of a whale or a shark. In the end, he'd seen nothing but the seabirds skimming the water in the harbor, but later that summer he had seen a killer whale, stuffed and mounted in a museum. It had made a serious enough impression on him that he dreamt of it for months.

This was far more terrifying than any killer whale.

It was too long for Edmund to see all of it: all he could see was the enormous head, twice the size of a man's, with tendrils springing out around its mouth, and water streaming through the great white teeth. And a great long neck, rising up and up out of the water, as if it would never end.

Lucy shrieked, yanking at Susan's hand, and the two girls fell forward into the sand, just out of the monster's first snapping lunge. Edmund was still too far away, and he had no weapons, nothing but--he leaned down, still running, and snatched up a stone from the beach, and then another.

The monster--serpent, really, it had to be a sea serpent, it was so long--drew its head back, clearly preparing to strike again. Edmund forced one last effort out of his aching legs (only four days ago he had nearly died, he thought) and staggered to a halt in front of his sisters.

"Back!" he gasped, not sure whether he was warning Susan and Lucy, or the sea serpent, and wound up, throwing the first stone as hard as he could at the serpent's face.

The stone struck true, hitting it in the right eye. It reared back, hissing, the green and purple tendrils about its mouth whipping about, the color vivid against the paler grey-green of its scales. From a distance, if it weren't trying to eat them, Edmund thought it might actually be rather pretty.

He gripped the other stone in his hand, waiting for the right time to throw, not looking at his sisters. Only later did he realize how foolish he was, thinking he was their only defense. Because instead of hiding behind him, they flanked him, Lucy to his right and Susan to his left. And Susan, like Peter, had brought her weapon to the beach with her.

Lucy and Edmund flung stones, and Susan shot at it. The first arrow missed as the serpent's head swerved: the arrow whooshed past and disappeared into the water.

Edmund threw another stone, and Lucy threw two more, making the serpent jerk, opening its great mouth even wider. The teeth were as long as knives. It looked angry, now, and it lunged forward, coming further up onto the beach.

But Susan had settled herself now: when she shot again, she hit it--one, two, three arrows, striking hard and deep into the creature's neck and body. It thrashed, hissing, great coils of its body churning in the shallows. But it did not retreat; indeed, it continued to strike at them, but more weakly, bleeding heavily. As if it were mindless in its rage and hunger, Edmund thought. The three of them backed away to a safe distance.

"And here I thought you needed my help!" Peter's voice was full of humor, but he was flushed and gasping from his race down the beach. Rhindon was unsheathed in his hand, the blade shining silver.

Susan lowered her bow: the serpent's head had dropped, and though it continued to hiss, it rolled in the light surf, body washing back and forth with the waves. "What shall we do?" she asked. "It seems unfair to kill it now."

"Whatever we decide," said Peter, "it should be soon."

"Why?" asked Lucy, still fingering one of the stones she had picked up.

Edmund looked at the breakwater, and then squinted, shading his eyes against the sun. "Because there are mer-people watching us," he said. "There, and there--see them, on the rocks?"

Peter nodded. "They're waiting to see what we will do."

"But why didn't they help? They were here for the coronation!" Lucy protested. "They sang for us!"

Susan looked out at the mer-people, her face thoughtful. "I don't think they set the sea serpent on us, but they don't know us. We're going to have to prove to them we can be the kings and queens Aslan named us."

"Oh." Lucy scowled. "So what shall we do?"

Edmund looked at the serpent gasping in the shallows, but before he spoke, Peter was striding forward, sword in hand.

It was over quickly; Peter kicked the head up onto the dry sand with a grunt, and stepped away from the pink-tinged water washing the beach. There was a shout from the mer-people on the breakwater, and a flash as of a spear thrust into the air. And then they were gone.

Nobody wanted to fish after that, and not even Edmund could bring himself to suggest eating the sea serpent. They ate stale ends of bread that night, with dandelions gathered from the weedy garden next to the keep.

But in the morning Edmund found a glistening spear thrust into the sand at the high-tide line, tied to a rope running into the water; and at the end of the rope was a string of fish, twice as many as they had caught and lost the day before.

 

~

Susan was a list-maker. Long before she came to Narnia, she had made lists: of her school-work, of her friends, of clothing to be packed for trips. Her mother relied on Susan's help to organize the household for Christmas and the summer holidays.

So it seemed perfectly reasonable for Susan to find herself on top of the tallest tower in Cair Paravel, making lists. Although the list-making would be easier if she had something other than a bit of charcoal to write with.

The wind was light, the sky clear, and from her perch on the wall, Susan could see for, oh, hundreds of miles, she thought. In the east the ocean ran out to the end of the world, glittery and golden in the morning sun--although now she knew it was perilous, too.

Just south of the castle the coastline curved sharply to the west, to meet up with the Great River flowing into the sea. From what Peter had said, that bay would likely make a good harbor, if there were any people here who had ships. So far, they had seen no sails on the water, but if there had been a quay here once, someone must know how to sail somewhere. Perhaps there were nations out there who had traded with Narnia, and filled the strand with bustling activity. What would they do if they discovered the Winter was over?

South beyond the bay, she saw open plains sweeping yellow for what looked like mile after mile, and past that, a line of snow-capped peaks marching clear to the ocean. It looked unlikely that one could get past those mountains by staying on the coast: Susan imagined sheer cliffs dropping a thousand feet into churning waves, and wondered what they would find beyond those mountains.

To the west Susan followed the sparkle of the Great River until it disappeared behind a tree-covered rise. In that direction lay the fords of Beruna, and the hillside where Aslan had killed the Witch, and beyond that, the Stone Table, the Beavers' lodge, and Lantern Waste where Tumnus lived. In the far distance, where the horizon blurred into a blue haze, she thought she saw even greater mountains, taller and sharper than any she had ever seen. Hundreds of miles away, they had to be. There was so much more country to the west than they had seen: there could be entire towns and counties out there.

And to the north it was more of the same: a coastline of little forested bays and steep hillsides, fading away into blurred blue-grey hills piled upon hills. Narnia was locked in, barricaded by the earth itself, but there was so much of it; it was hard to believe Aslan had set the four of them in authority over it all. How could four children from Finchley possibly be responsible for all this?

Peter caught her there, chin on hand as she stared over the battlements, lists forgotten on the stone beside her. He made enough noise coming up the stair that she wasn't startled, but she didn't turn her head when he came to stand beside her. In the corner of her eye she saw the hilt of his sword, the lion's head on the pommel facing forward over the countryside.

"It's too big, Peter," she said with a sigh.

He leaned against the wall next to her, looking out at the endless forests and hills. "I don't think so," he replied, and she looked up at him, surprised at the certainty in his voice. "I think helping Aslan beat the Witch was just the first part of what we were sent here to do."

"Sent by whom?" she asked.

"Aslan, God, the Emperor-Over-Sea," he said, shrugging. "Does it matter? There must be a reason it's us here now, and not, oh, Jerry Berwicke and his brothers."

Susan giggled. "I can just imagine." But then she sobered again. "I just... I worry. I know Edmund is better now, but he's not said what she did to him. And I don't think he understands completely what Aslan did for him, either. We're not safe here, Peter."

Edmund had been such a pill for so long that it was a joy to see him now, enthusiastic and creative, talking with his sisters and brother without snapping or lying. Susan couldn't regret that change, but he had nearly died, and he had looked so terrible when he was rescued from the Witch. And Aslan was gone: who would protect them now? Lucy was still such a little child, after all.

"No, we're not." Peter put an arm around her shoulders and pulled her close. "But we did all right yesterday, with the serpent, didn't we? I think we can do this--I know we can do this--if we stick together and do our best."

Susan relaxed against him, wrapping one arm around his waist. Edmund wasn't the only one who had changed in Narnia, she realized. Peter was all surety now, the worry and uncertainty burned away; he even looked bigger, in his red tunic and boots, with a king's sword at his side.

She wondered how Narnia had changed her, and then put the thought away. "All right," she said, and picked up the book she had been using for her notes. "Then let's talk about what we need, and what Narnia needs, and start making plans."

~

Three meals of fish in a row were two meals too many, as far as Peter was concerned. He appreciated the mer-people's gesture, probably more than any of his siblings. But fish got fishy after a while, and it didn't travel at all.

Not that any of them, even Susan, yet understood the need for food that traveled well. Peter would dearly love to find a secret cache of hardtack and dried meats in one of those secret stores Susan kept finding.

He knocked Rhindon's hilt against the north wall of the Great Hall, shrugged, and moved down the wall ten feet before trying again.

"You know, that might work better if you used a stick," said Edmund from behind them. "Besides, I don't think Father Christmas would approve if you scratched up your sword after only using it once."

Peter snorted, but hooked the scabbard back to his belt. "Twice," he corrected, idly, as he scanned the room for a piece of wood large enough to sound the walls. "No, wait, three times. I forgot about the Wolf."

Edmund was still, standing in the doorway to what Susan had identified as an audience room. "Wolf?"

There was a stool sitting next to Peter's throne: he hefted it in one hand. It would do for the purpose, he decided. "One of the Witch's Wolves went after Lu and Susan after we met up with Aslan." That was, he counted on his fingers, seven days ago, he thought. Maybe eight. Seemed like months, so much had happened since.

For one, he was now a king, and if he didn't come up with some resources soon, he was going to be a hungry and country-less king. With some very unhappy siblings.

Clonk, clonk, clonk, went the stool against the stone walls. "There has got to be a secret passage in here somewhere!" Peter muttered. "Ed, isn't there always a secret passage?"

His brother didn't answer. Peter turned around; Edmund was still in the doorway, but his jaw was clenched. After a moment, he shrugged, muttered something under his breath, and came fully into the room.

Peter's eyes narrowed, but he let the moment pass. Edmund needed a light hand; it was something Peter had only recently learned, to his shame. He was learning many things in Narnia, more than he'd thought possible: not all of them were lessons he wanted to learn.

"Think maybe you can help me find this secret passage? One of the Dwarfs at the coronation mentioned the possibility, and if it's true there might be supplies we can use. What do you say?"

Edmund laughed, and if one hand clenched too hard on the leather of his sword belt, and his voice sounded hollow, at least it was a laugh. "I think you're out of your mind if you think you can trust anything the Dwarfs said that night. Do you remember how much they were drinking?"

"I'm surprised you can remember how much they were drinking," Peter replied, and then wished it unsaid for a moment, but Edmund just snorted at him, and went to pick up the stool by his own throne.

Clonk, clonk, clonk, clonk.

*

An hour later, even with Susan and Lucy's help, they still had not figured out how to open the hidden door behind the dais. Peter was on his hands and knees, crawling along the intricately-tiled throne room floor, and pressing the lion-head tiles in complicated combinations, when Susan tapped him on the shoulder.

"Peter? I think you need to get up. We have a visitor." Her voice was controlled, which meant she was worried.

He scrambled to his feet, thinking this was an awkward way to find the High King of Narnia, and turned around.

There was a Wolf at the door.

It was large: as large as the Wolf Peter had killed only a week ago, but much shabbier-looking. She had a ragged grey-black coat, with a bare patch on her left flank where it looked like she had been wounded. One of her ears was notched, but both of them were straight upright, focused precisely on Peter.

Peter put his left hand on the hilt of his sword, and then hesitated: the Wolf was sitting down in the doorway, and had not moved. A breeze ruffled the fur on her shoulders, which was, if patchy, lying smooth; Peter was pretty sure that Wolves were enough like dogs that her hackles would be raised if she were about to attack him.

So he said, "Welcome to Cair Paravel. I am King Peter, and these are my sisters Queen Susan and Queen Lucy, and my brother King Edmund." Keeping his left hand on Rhindon to steady the blade, he gave a shallow bow.

The Wolf bowed back, dropping her nose almost to the floor, before raising it again and saying in a rough voice, "I am Rhea. I heard that there was a king again in Cair Paravel, and I came to see if this was true."

"Great, tourists," muttered Edmund, but Susan coughed, and might have kicked him, Peter couldn't tell.

"As you see us," he said, and raised a hand to indicate the tall, splendid, and rather empty throne room. He decided not to explain why he was crawling along the floor and muttering about secret passages.

Rhea blinked at him, and her ears relaxed a little, swiveling outwards. She turned that dark gaze on Edmund, Susan, and Lucy, before looking back at Peter. "You appear somewhat short of courtiers, good king."

There was a muffled snort from behind him, but Edmund kept his mouth shut otherwise. Peter suddenly wished Susan would take over, as she was much better at talking to strangers, but the Wolf appeared primarily interested in him. Lead Dog, he thought suddenly, recalling all those Jack London stories he'd read when he was younger.

"Narnia has only just been restored after a hundred years of oppression and winter," he said carefully. "It is more important to rebuild our nation than it is to put on a royal display."

There was another snort, but to Peter's astonishment it came from Rhea. "You mean they don't know what to do with you," she corrected him, in that growly voice. "Narnians have always been more interested in their own business than politics; of course that's how the Witch got into power in the first place."

Edmund stepped forward at this, and approached the Wolf closer than Peter would have liked. "You sound like you disapprove. Do you come to offer counsel?" He kept his left hand on his sword, as well--Peter was relieved to see that Edmund had learned his lesson, and went nowhere now unarmed.

Rhea's ears flickered back and sideways, then relaxed again. "Counsel I have none, good kings. But service I can offer, to redeem my littermate's shame."

"Shame? How so?" Susan asked. Peter took the opportunity to look at the girls, and was reassured to see that Susan looked far calmer than he knew her to be, while Lucy had her hand clasped around the knife at her belt. Her face was white, but she stood stoutly next to Susan, by no other measure showing any fear. The last time they had been so close to a wolf of any sort, it had nearly killed all three of them.

But not Edmund, who had not been there; except it was Edmund who put the pieces together. "I recognize you," he said, and dropped to one knee, putting his face on the same level as Rhea's. "You were Maugrim's littermate, weren't you?"

Horror ran through Peter, and if it weren't for Susan grabbing his arm, he would have drawn Rhindon.

Rhea nodded, unmoving, and stared closely at Edmund. "In Aslan's name, I bid you, kings and queens, tell me his fate."

Edmund shook his head. "I don't know--I suppose he might have survived the battle--" but Peter cut him off.

"I killed him." No point in explaining where, why, how. The Wolf was dead, and Lucy and Susan were alive, and Peter would not apologize for that.

Rhea stood slowly, and paced forward, passing by Edmund so closely that he could have touched her coat. Drying mud clotted the hair on her tail and the backs of her legs: she looked like she had traveled far and fast cross-country. When she came before Peter, she bowed again, and then lay down on her side, exposing the pale fur of her belly. "Take my thanks, Peter of Narnia, and my service. You have freed my pack from the taint of the Witch, and we can now hunt without fear or shame in the western forests."

Lucy gasped, but Peter swallowed, and following Edmund's example, squatted down, his sheathed sword scraping against the tiled floor. He put his right hand, his sword hand, on Rhea's chest, and felt her breast-bone under the soft hair. She was dreadfully thin. He searched for words, and, surprisingly, found them.

"I accept both your thanks and your service, good Wolf. Rise, in Aslan's name, a servant of Narnia."

Chapter Text

Rhea had proven their trust almost immediately; when she realized they had almost nothing to eat in the castle, she had disappeared into the fields and returned an hour later with three rabbits.

"Oh," Lucy said, staring at the still-warm bodies Rhea had laid at her feet. "They're not--I mean, I met Mrs. LongEars--"

The sound of a Wolf laughing was remarkable: it made chills run down Lucy's spine at the same time it made her laugh, too. "No, queen, these are but poor dumb animals. No Narnian would eat a Talking Beast, not even in direst circumstances. And think you not that in one hundred years of winter, we had dire circumstances?"

The Beavers had had plenty to eat, Lucy remembered. But perhaps they were rich, or lucky. She stared at Rhea, thinking for the first time about how long one hundred years of winter would really be. No gardens would grow, and it would be too cold to hunt most of the time, and the days would be short. "Did, did people starve?"

The Wolf cocked her head, ears twitching. "Indeed, queen. And worse."

"What's worse than starving?" asked Edmund, picking up one of the rabbits. At home, their meat had always come from the butcher skinned and cleaned; Lucy didn't think even Peter knew how to skin a rabbit.

"Outlawry and betrayal, king." And Rhea's eyes met Edmund's in challenge before she turned and disappeared out the castle's front gate.

Lucy wasn't sure she liked Rhea.

Edmund stared after Rhea for a moment, face blank, then shrugged and picked up all three rabbits. When he spoke he sounded like he was forcing himself to be cheerful. "Lu, want to learn to cook rabbit? It'll be a nice change from fish."

But Lucy remembered the worms, and decided she would help Peter look for the secret passage instead.

She found him on his throne, one foot tucked up on the seat and his chin resting on his knee. He looked frustrated, but smiled when she came in the door. "Oh, good, you can help me. Ed's no good at this. I've been all over this place, Lu, I just can't find it."

Lucy stood in front of where they thought the secret door was--because the stool went clonk there--and folded her arms. "If I were a latch to a secret door, where would I be?"

She heard Peter laugh, but she ignored him. She had found Father's keys, hadn't she? And she had known to trust Tumnus when no one else did. And Peter and Susan and Edmund sometimes thought too much about things: not everything was as complicated as they claimed.

The wall behind the four thrones was grey stone from the floor to a raised lip at about the height of a doorknob, and then pale, creamy stone above that. The raised lip was actually a narrow line of carving: winged horses followed elephants and bears, and the crevices in the stone were still colored red and blue where the paint had stayed bright in the years since anyone had lived here. "If I were a secret latch," she said again, stepping forward to run her fingers along the railing, "I would be somewhere very close to the door, so nobody could see me using it."

One of the animals in this section wasn't an elephant, a winged horse, or a bear, she noticed: it was a lion, and as Lucy pressed against it, there was a distinct click. A breeze wafted across her face as a three-foot segment of wall simply swung outward, revealing a dark entry.

*

Peter wouldn't let her go down the stairs she had discovered--"I will never doubt you again, Queen Lucy, but no, you still have to wait,"--until he'd run down to the kitchens and brought back Edmund and Susan.

Susan was still complaining when Peter towed her through into the throne room, but she stopped talking when she saw Lucy standing next to the great wedge of darkness behind the stone door. Susan liked to act like she was all grown up, but Lucy could tell when Susan was just as excited as the rest of them. She was simply quieter about it, that was all.

"Come on!" Lucy said, and couldn't help bouncing up and down. "Can we go down?"

"Careful, Lu," reminded Edmund. "Don't get your hopes up: it could be just the dungeons." He had two short candles in his hand, and Peter held a third, sheltering the flame with one hand.

Lucy stopped bouncing. "Dungeons! Oh, really, Ed? But I thought this was a nice castle."

"Don't worry," said Susan, and frowned at Edmund. "Nobody hides a dungeon behind a secret door." She patted Lucy on the shoulder.

Finally they were ready, and Peter led the way because he was the High King and besides he had the candle. But Lucy insisted on following right behind him, counting quietly as they went down sixteen stairs, and then they were at the bottom.

"It's not a dungeon, anyway." Peter walked into the middle of the large room, holding the candle up to light as much as possible. There were tables along both walls, topped by shelves that went all the way to the ceiling.

"Oh," said Susan, and brushed past Lucy to pick up something from a table. "It's a library, I think. It's all books and papers."

Edmund followed her, and then lit one of his candles from Peter's and went on to another table, and then another. "Trading records, taxes, census documents, even diplomatic reports. It's not a library," he said, his voice excited. "It's better than a library, it's an archive. Peter, we've found the royal Narnian records!"

Lucy sat down on the bottom step and sighed. Papers. She had been hoping for a treasure room, something exciting like gold or magical swords, not boring papers.

~

"I just think someone should stay here. In case more people come. And besides, someone needs to look at these records--" Edmund waved a hand at the pile of papers and books he had carried out of the archives room and stacked against one wall. This small room, not far from the chambers where they had all been sleeping, had plenty of light from windows that looked south and west, and the north wall had a lovely faded mural of Dryads dancing in a wooded glade. It might have been the office of a high minister or an important courtier, once upon a time. Edmund pictured himself here, studying the records, learning all about Narnia from words written down a hundred years ago or more.

Susan, however, shook her head. "Nobody's staying behind; what if you were alone here and something happened?" She had changed out of the blue gown she had been wearing for days--and somehow managed to avoid staining as Lucy had hers--and was now wearing a sturdy tunic and breeches, just like the boys. She thrust a brown wool blanket into his arms, and slung her bow and quiver over her shoulder.

She looked like an outlaw, or an adventuress. Edmund hesitated. He really did want to stay and look at the archives: there was so much they didn't know about Narnia, after all. Where everything was, were there any towns, what were the major industries, did they have enemies?

But the truth of it was that he didn't want to leave the castle and meet more people who would look at him the way Rhea did. So he just shook his head.

"Edmund," said Peter, from the door. He looked like he'd grown another inch, somehow, and he'd changed his sword-belt so Rhindon's hilt stuck up over his shoulder instead of hanging at his waist. "I need you to come. And so do the Narnians, they must meet you--they must meet all of us."

There was a click of nails on tile floors in the hall, and then Rhea's nose poked into the room. "It's time to go, king, if we don't want to sleep wet." Peter nodded, and she withdrew, muttering something under her breath that Edmund didn't catch.

When he'd talked to Aslan that day he'd been rescued, he had thought everything would be better now. When Aslan had said it would be hard work, Edmund hadn't understood, even though he'd said he did.

Edmund the Traitor, people were going to say.

"You don't understand," he said, his fists clenched, looking away from them. It was so easy for Peter and Susan, who got everything handed to them. They hadn't fouled everything up, they hadn't nearly ruined it all--hadn't betrayed Tumnus and their siblings and Aslan himself--and now they wanted him to go out and let everyone stare at him.

"No," admitted Susan, but she came over and hugged him anyway. "But we have to go, Edmund, you realize that. All of us: Aslan named you king, too."

Edmund thought about spending his entire life in this little room, growing pale and withered by himself, and yet still shook his head, trapped and uncertain. It would be so much easier not to go. Except that wasn't what Aslan had said: he'd said, "It will be hard, Edmund."

Peter put his hand on Edmund's shoulder. "Besides, if you stay here, I'll be completely outnumbered--even my bodyguard is a girl! That's hardly fair, Ed!"

Susan swatted Peter on the shoulder, and he clutched at his arm, crying, "A hit! A hit! I am undone! King Edmund, you must protect me!"

Edmund tried to hang onto his anger, but it was too much like when they were younger, when they had all gotten along so much better, laughing and playing in the garden for hours. Maybe Peter and Susan were right, maybe it could be like that again. He flung his hands out in surrender. "All right! All right, I'll come! Just--clear out of here and let me pack!"

"Brilliant!" shouted Peter, and actually picked him up in a great hug. "Don't keep us waiting, I think Rhea's looking hungry..."

*

"So, where are we going?" Edmund asked, trying to adjust his bedroll so it didn't interfere with his sword-belt. It was bulkier than the others', since he had, in the end, shoved two books and one packet of papers into the middle of it before wrapping it all up. It was ungainly and heavier than he expected, but he wasn't going to complain. At least, not where anyone could hear him.

The trail they were following--Edmund had seen no roads since coming into Narnia--was narrow and winding, taking them on a leisurely route northwestward and away from the sea. The trees here were mostly pines and oaks, their needles and leaves bright green with new growth and full of birds (and bugs: Edmund slapped at a mosquito before wondering if Narnia had Talking Insects, too).

Rhea didn't look back at him from where she paced slowly at Peter's side, but she said, "There is a settlement of Dwarfs at the foot of Pattering Hill; we should arrive there about sunset, if we do not dawdle."

Dawdle? thought Edmund, and rolled his eyes at Lucy, who just smiled at him sympathetically. She had picked up a stick and swished it through the tall grass alongside the trail; a butterfly startled up and circled around her three times before fluttering off into the trees.

"Is that the nearest settlement to Cair Paravel?" Susan asked. She was walking in the center of their little group, keeping up easily with Peter's steady pace. She had found herself a knife somewhere in the castle, which she had strapped to her belt. (When they got back to Cair Paravel, Edmund decided, he would have to follow her, because he didn't understand how she could find so much in what appeared to be entirely empty rooms.)

Rhea leapt easily over a fallen tree, and didn't wait for the rest of them to climb across it before continuing on. Edmund offered Susan a hand, but she didn't need it, and Lucy clambered right across with a grin. She already had mud splashed on her boots, and grass-stains on her knees. She was completely happy.

When they had caught up with her, Rhea answered Susan's question in a round-about way. "The Witch didn't want anyone going near the castle, even though it has the best harbor on the coastline. The Dwarfs of Pattering Hill have a small fishing camp they use sometimes, up the coast north of the Cair, but I doubt they'll be there now."

"Dwarfs fish?" asked Lucy.

"Should they not, queen?" But Rhea went on without waiting for an answer. "The fishing camp at Black Point kept many Narnians alive during the Winter, as there were very few other sources of food."

But certainly people must have eaten something other than fish, Edmund thought. It was a big country. "What are people doing now for food?"

Rhea's steady gait hitched, as if he'd surprised her, and she turned her head to give him a long, level look. Point for me. "Aslan's summer has forced many fruits to ripen, and animals--both dumb, and Talking--are breeding as fast as they may."

"Ah." Peter scratched the back of his head. "That reminds me, Rhea. Aslan broke the winter, and it's obviously summer now, but do you know what time of year it is outside Narnia?"

Susan took a sharp breath. "Oh, that's a good question."

"I don't understand," said Lucy, and neither did Edmund, although he wasn't willing to admit it. "Wasn't it winter everywhere?"

"No," said Rhea, and her ears went back as though she were thinking. "The Witch's winter only extended to Narnia's borders; the lands outside were unaffected. When I was a pup, we often spent part of the year in the Western Wild, where the winters are harsh, but the summers are lush, and there is much game."

Edmund still wasn't sure he saw the problem. "So if it's summer here--"

But Peter cut him off, speaking slowly, as if he was trying to reason it out for himself, as well as the others. "It's like getting two clocks to be at the same time. If one of the clocks says it's noon and the other says it's six o'clock, you have to speed one up or turn one back to make them read the same, right?"

Edmund thought about this, and was concentrating so hard that he walked right through a big mud puddle without seeing it. It wasn't until he felt the wet seeping through his boot that he looked down. "Blast! All right, let me think. So what you're saying is if it's winter in the rest of the world, then it will probably stay summer here a long time, so that the seasons line up, right?"

Ducking under a low-hanging branch, Susan nodded her head vigorously. "And if it's autumn outside Narnia--"

Peter finished it for her. "--then we're going to have a very short growing season, and a fast, hard winter."

Rhea growled, and then snapped at a fly on her flank. "I begin to understand why Aslan chose you all," she said, although her voice was irritated. "I would not have thought about that, and now I see that winter's end does not mean we are free from worry."

"No," agreed Susan, blushing at the Wolf's unwilling praise. "And if everyone is having children, there will be many more mouths to feed, and not much more to feed them than there was already."

"Well, do we know?" asked Lucy, scratching at her nose (which merely served to smear mud even further on her face). "What season it is out there, I mean?"

"No," said Rhea, and picked up the pace. "We do not."

 

~

It was warm under the trees: the air was hot and still, and Susan thought longingly of the breeze on the towers at Cair Paravel. She could feel the sweat on her back under the strap for her quiver, and plucked at the front of her tunic.

They had been walking for most of the morning, with a short break for water when they crossed a small stream, and in that time they had climbed some distance into the hills Susan had seen from the castle. In England, she would be panting and exhausted, her feet blistered and her muscles aching. But here in Narnia it was different: she was working hard, but her body felt stronger, fitter than at home. As though Narnia itself--or perhaps Aslan--was ensuring she was strong enough for the job she had to do here.

She glanced back over her shoulder at Edmund and Lucy, following her up the latest rise, their feet kicking through hundred-year-old leaf litter. Just then Peter gave a soft exclamation, followed by a growl from Rhea.

Susan spun back around, her hand reaching for the bow slung across her shoulder. It was unstrung, and would take her valuable seconds to prepare for battle, but she realized after a moment that they were in no danger yet.

Astride the narrow trail, blocking it completely where it had been empty before, was a great figure in brown and green, his features hidden in the shadow of the trees. As Susan stepped forward, coming up behind Peter, she realized the stranger was not a Giant, but something else, something she had not seen yet in Narnia.

"You trespass in my wood, Wolf," said the stranger. Up close, his clothing was not, in fact, clothing, but bark and leaves. His body resembled a great tree-trunk, his feet planted so solidly in the ground they might have grown there. The beard on his face was more like twigs than hair, and acorns were caught in it.

Rhea stood her ground, although she might have been squashed flat by one step of his mighty feet. "You hold this wood in stewardship from the Great Lion, Oak-god," she replied calmly, though her hackles were lifting. "And Aslan himself would never bar honest travelers from passing through."

"Aslan," rasped the Oak-god, and acorns fell from the trees around them. Susan caught her breath and reached one hand behind her to grasp Lucy's arm. "Aslan left us to freeze. What care I for Aslan? My saplings shattered in the cold, their life-sap freezing in their trunks, and the Dwarfs burned their shards in their furnaces. Do not speak of Aslan to me."

"Even though it is Aslan who ended the winter?" challenged Peter, head thrown back to meet the Oak-god's eyes. "Aslan who saved us all from the Witch?"

The Oak-god bent forward a long way, leaning down far enough to look closely at Peter. He unbent one gnarled hand and poked Peter in the chest with a woody finger. Peter swayed, but did not stagger.

"Humans," the Oak-god said with a snort, and raised himself back up to his full height. "Aslan and his pet Humans, again. Pssshhht," he said, and the sound was like the wind rushing through the forest. He looked at Peter again, and then at the rest of them, his glance touching on Susan like a cool breeze, before shaking his head. He stepped back and sideways, clearing the trail. "For all that he has failed us, I will not challenge Aslan: I know the Deep Magic is beyond me. Pass on through, Humans and Wolf. But I think you will find few enough to shelter you, here in the north reaches. Be gone from my wood."

And with that he was gone, the trail empty before them, with no footprints to mark his passing.

Rhea shook herself, shaking every bit of her body in sequence, from her head to her tail, before setting off up the trail without a word.

"Blimey," said Edmund, and Susan nodded. Aslan had not mentioned this sort of thing; she began to wonder what else he had not mentioned.

*

They stopped to eat an hour later, after crossing a low ridge and dropping down into a shallow valley. There were fewer oaks here, Susan noted with relief, and Rhea brought them to a halt at the edge of a wide clearing. "We should be safe here," she said, and sat down to scratch at one ear with her right leg.

Susan choked back a laugh--she was still adjusting to the fact that the Talking Animals of Narnia were people, while still animals--and shrugged off her bedroll and weapons. They spent the next few minutes drinking water from the nearby creek and eating cooked rabbit and greens collected from the edge of the meadow. After they were settled, Rhea disappeared into the brush, and did not come back for some time, reappearing finally with a satisfied look and a spot of blood on her coat.

They were apparently not pushing right on yet, and Susan leaned back against a boulder and stretched her legs. It was still hot, but cooler in the open, with a light breeze rippling the grass in the meadow. She stared out at the scene, unwilling to think about all they had to do and the little they had to do it with. Birds swooped over the grass, chasing bugs in the warm air.

Susan sat up suddenly, actually looking at the grass, instead of past it. "Edmund," she said, and poked her brother. He'd been dozing, and he started up, grabbing at his sword-hilt, before glaring at her in resentment.

"What?"

Susan pointed at the meadow. "What do you see there?"

He followed her hand, eyes narrowing. "A field."

"A field of what?" She could not be imagining this. The rocks and boulders they had sat upon for their lunch were clustered along the edge of the meadow, and the grass in the center was remarkably even in color and height. As though the land had been cleared.

Edmund leapt to his feet. "A field of corn! Susan, you're brilliant!"

"What? What!" Peter rolled over from where he had been sleeping, face-down in the grass. "What is it?"

"It's a farm," said Susan. "Or it was, once." She walked out into the meadow and squatted down, her boots sinking into the soft dark soil. The crop was nothing she recognized, but then she wasn't a Land Girl. Young green stalks grew a foot tall, mixed in with some other three-leaved plant that clung to the earth. Perhaps a weed, or perhaps the two were planted together, the way it was sometimes done.

"Rhea," said Edmund, who had followed her out into the field. "Was there a farm here? Or a village nearby? Who would have planted this?"

The Wolf's ears twitched the way they did when a human would have shrugged. "I can't answer you. This is not my countryside, and I was born but two-score years ago. Whoever tilled this land is many years gone now."

"There was a farmhouse over there, I think," said Lucy, pointing up the valley. There was a clear and level spot sheltered by the hill, and close to the creek, where great stones lay tumbled about. If Susan squinted, she could imagine those boulders were a sturdy stone house, and maybe a barn as well.

Peter clapped Lucy on the shoulder. "Good eye, Lu. Which means there may be no one to harvest this crop, when it comes the time, though. We'll have to make sure it gets done."

Susan had a sudden image of herself wielding a scythe under a blazing sun, and groaned. "Are we going to have to thresh and grind our own corn? Oh, Peter, we are kings and queens! This simply cannot be what Aslan meant for us to be doing!" He would not have brought them across the worlds to farm, after all.

Edmund flinched, and Lucy looked shocked, but Peter met her gaze evenly. "You know Aslan as well as I do, Su--I would not presume to speak for him."

Well. Susan pressed her lips together, flushing. After a moment, she said, stiffly, "Should we go on? Don't we have some Dwarfs to visit?"

Peter didn't say anything for a long moment, but then shrugged and nodded. "Yes, let's get moving."

 

~

 

They met no one else on that day's walk, although a Crow passed overhead at mid-afternoon, circled back, cried, "Humans! Humans in the north reaches!" and disappeared west over the trees.

When they took a break a little while later, Rhea went off to drink from the creek they were following upstream, and Peter turned to Susan. She had been silent since lunch time. "Su, I'm sorry I said that." He needed Susan with him, even more than Ed and Lucy: they couldn't afford to be at odds.

She tossed her hair in that affected manner Peter had hated even before they came to Narnia, opened her mouth, and then hesitated. "No, I'm sorry," she finally said, and she looked a little pink. "I think that being kings and queens in Narnia won't be like being royalty in England. It won't be all parties and pretty dresses." She looked down and tugged at the front of her tunic, then raised her head again, her face solemn. "We're here to serve, I think, not be served."

Lucy hugged Susan, and there was a lump in Peter's throat. He swallowed, forced a smile, and put a hand on her shoulder, tugging at the strap of her quiver. "Even if it means harvesting and grinding corn?"

"Even if," she agreed, although she rolled her eyes a little. "I do hope, High King, that Aslan won't ask it of us."

He had to laugh at that: he could not see either of his sisters on their knees before a grinding stone, dust in their hair. "Indeed. But speaking of what Aslan is asking, I think we need to plan how we will approach the Dwarfs of Pattering Hill. You heard what Rhea said about them?"

Then Peter laid out his thinking before all of them, squatting in a circle while Edmund drew random squiggles in the dirt with a stick. It was Lucy, surprisingly, who disagreed most: but then she was also the most trusting of Aslan's plans. She seemed to think that if they simply stated who they were and that Aslan had sent them, things would fall into place.

"But Lu," explained Edmund, "you saw how the Oak-god reacted. I don't think crowning at Cair Paravel is enough for many of these people. They've lost a lot, and some of them blame Aslan."

"Until now," Susan added, "we've mostly met Narnians who were fighting the Witch openly, or at least resisting her some way. They would naturally support us and Aslan. But I think there are likely many people who just stayed quiet and tried not to get into trouble. They weren't in the battle, didn't see Aslan, maybe don't care about the prophecy or Human kings and queens at all."

Lucy's face scrunched up as she thought through this. "But we're not going to lie," she said finally. "That wouldn't be the right thing to do, either."

"No," assured Peter, with some relief. "But we're not going to march in and insist on being called King Peter, Emperor of the Lone Islands, Knight of whatever and so forth, either. We need these people, and they need us, but we can't even learn how to help them if we offend them right off."

Rhea cocked her head. "This is a wise line to follow, king. Dwarfs are proud, and those of Pattering Hill have kept themselves better than many in this country: they will not welcome a new ruler merely on your say-so. Or Aslan's, even."

"All right," said Lucy, her voice still doubtful.

Susan gave her a quick hug. "It'll be fine," she said, although she shot a quick glance at Peter, that was anything but certain.

It better be fine, thought Peter, and pushed himself to his feet, brushing the dust off his breeches. Or this was going to be merely the first of many uncomfortable meetings. "On we go," he said, and waved Rhea forward to lead them over the ridge to Pattering Hill.

*

"Humans in Narnia," said the Clan-Mother, tapping the edge of her ale-cup against the table. "How unusual." She had not offered them anything, although Rhea had said that Narnian hospitality was both generous and sacred; instead she merely stared at the four Pevensies from dark eyes in a weathered face.

The clan-house of Pattering Hill was a low stone building, built into a steep hillside to shelter it from the north wind. The main hall was long and low; behind the Clan-Mother, Peter could see several doors leading deeper into the hillside. The hall was sparsely furnished, but for a long table on short legs, and even shorter-legged benches. The Pevensies sat on the floor, and still felt too large for the room (except for Lucy).

"So we understand," said Susan. She met Peter's eye, and he gave her a tiny nod: she would likely be better at this. He ignored the way Rhea shifted her weight uncomfortably. "But many things have changed," Susan continued, "now that the Witch is dead."

If they thought to surprise the Clan-Mother with that news, they were disappointed. She merely pursed her lips, as unimpressed as she had been since they had appeared at her door. The fading sunlight through the windows did not illuminate her face, which was deeply scored with age and worries. Peter wondered how old she was, and if she remembered the days before the Witch had come.

"I have heard this news," she said. "But there have been thaws before, in the Winter, more than once long enough to start planting--and then the hard freeze strikes again and all our labor is lost. What proof have you?"

Edmund stirred, but Peter raised a hand and his brother kept his silence. "What proof would you accept?" asked Susan, still with that calm voice, as though she were pouring tea for Mother's knitting circle. "We do not carry around her head in a bedroll, and her body is scattered to the winds."

The Clan-Mother nodded, considering this. "What of her wand?" she asked, and Peter saw her eyes glitter; this she found important.

Susan turned a hand over, motioning gracefully to Edmund. "My brother shattered it in battle. There will be no more such devilry in Narnia."

The Clan-Mother's head jerked minutely in apparent startlement. Finally, thought Peter. The half-dozen Dwarfs arrayed beside and behind the Clan-Mother, male and female, whispered to each other, until the Clan-Mother lifted a finger, and they went quiet. "Impressive, if true," she said, glancing at Edmund.

Peter clenched his fist to keep himself silent, and he could see Edmund struggle not to respond to the implied slur. Susan, however, stayed calm. "We have no reason to deceive you, mistress," she said. "But this is, however interesting, beside the point. We are here with a purpose."

"Ah," said the Clan-Mother, and put her ale-cup down with a thunk. "So we come to it. The Witch is gone, but her demands must still be met--she had her armies to pay, and now your treasuries are empty. I am unsurprised, but you may find us less malleable than she did, especially without her wand." Her dark eyes flashed.

"Demands? Indeed not, mistress," countered Susan smoothly. "We are here to discover what you need. The Winter is broken, and the roads are opening, the fields are springing to life in the warmth of Aslan's Summer. What can Narnia bring to the Dwarfs of Pattering Hill?"

There was a silence, and Peter bit his lip hard to keep from grinning. Susan had shocked the Dwarfs into speechlessness. She went on: "There will be markets for your coal and your silver; soon there will be grain for fresh bread, greens for your dinners, even beef and pork from the herds on the south plains. Carpenters will be needed, at Cair Paravel and the great market at Beruna, to build furniture and houses, and--Aslan willing--even ships, to carry your fine silver and your cousins' ironware across the seas."

"Tell me, mistress," said Susan, and she leaned across the table, and dared to put her young brown hand on the Clan-Mother's tough age-spotted wrist, "what can Narnia do for you?"

We have them, thought Peter, oh, we have them.

The Clan-Mother laughed, an enormous guffaw that echoed off the (admittedly low) rafters. "Oh, you are fine, girl. You could be one of my own, your tongue is that silver." She swiveled her wrist and caught Susan's hand in her own, peering at it closely before releasing it. "And I see you are still young, yet--you will be tying them in knots when you are grown."

Susan might have blushed.

"But?" asked Peter. He heard it coming.

The Clan-Mother looked straight at him, with eyes that were as shrewd as Rhea's and far older. "You'll be the eldest, then," she said. "Well, son of Adam, I think we shall have many a fine talk betwixt us, about the whethers and hows of Narnian trade, but for this day, and the next, that is not our concern."

"And what is?"

Her face went still and hard, the dark eyes flat; all trace of humor was gone. "You say Aslan broke the Witch's Winter, and that's as may be. What we know is the workings are flooded, and my youngest son's team trapped in the North Oak Seam by the rising waters."

Which is how, on their first night away from Cair Paravel, instead of receiving a hot dinner followed by a mug of ale and a warm bed, the Pevensies found themselves thigh-deep in frigid water, heaving on pumps all night, a hundred yards underground.

Chapter Text

Some time around midnight, one of Clan-Mother Pekana's grandsons came to relieve Lucy. She wasn't strong enough to work on the great pumps further down, and had been pumping with the Dwarfs on one of the shallower levels, mud caked to her knees and her feet cramping in the cold water. When the young Dwarf touched her shoulder, she jumped, startled: the poor light from a stub of a candle wasn't enough to illuminate more than the occasional sweat-shiny face. But he didn't argue when he waved her away from the pump handle, for she was numb with exhaustion and desperate to curl up somewhere warm and dry.

Another Dwarf pulled her away from the pump-handle and towed her staggering up the stairway into the great stone cavern that was the main entrance to the Pattering Hill mines. There were lanterns there, and the air was warmer; Lucy just leaned against the rough wall for a few minutes, letting the heat soak in. She thought she might have cried a little, she wasn't sure. Finally someone lifted her hand and wrapped it around a cup of something warm.

Lucy opened her eyes to see Pekana watching her, head tilted sideways. "Thank you," Lucy mumbled, and struggled to lift the small cup to her mouth. It was tea: black, stewed and bitter, and completely wonderful. When she tried to hand the mug back, she couldn't seem to open her hand, though, it was so stiff from the work she had been doing.

Pekana took the cup from her hand and frowned. "How old are you, child?"

Lucy wanted to protest that she was a queen, but she remembered in time that they weren't going to talk about that. "Nine," she said.

"Lion's mane, and we've put you to work in the deeps!" Pekana looked outraged. "Pagleaf, take this child to the bunk rooms and put her to bed. We will not work children like grown men."

Another Dwarf, one of the girls, Lucy thought--although the girls and boys dressed the same in rough blue or grey tunics--dropped a curtsey to Pekana and tugged gently at Lucy's sleeve. "This way," she said, and Lucy followed her, through a doorway and down a hall to a low wooden door.

She didn't remember changing her clothes or climbing under the scratchy blankets in a Dwarf-sized bed. (A Dwarf-sized bed is very small indeed, too small even for Lucy, unless she curled up tightly.)

When she awoke, she was warm and dry, and her sister's face was smashed into her shoulder. Lucy shifted sideways and sat up, careful not to disturb Susan. They were in a small room, with beds arrayed along the walls, one atop the other. At the end of the room was a window through which Lucy saw bright sun illuminating several grey and white geese on a green lawn. About half the beds were occupied, and next to her own bed she saw a pile of filthy clothing: based on the color, she decided it was Susan's.

Her stomach growled, and she realized she didn't remember eating since lunch yesterday, when they had finished the last of the cold rabbit. No wonder she was hungry. She swung her feet out of bed and realized she was wearing a Dwarf girl's dress, which was too short for her, and her breeches and boots were gone.

Well, she could hardly stay in bed, after all. She turned and looked at Susan, but her sister was deep asleep, her hands still clenched as though wrapped around a pump handle. She must have worked half the night, and the boys might still be down there.

Lucy left the room and followed the sound of voices. She found herself in the same room where they'd met the Clan-Mother yesterday, but now it was full of Dwarfs carrying dishes and platters. She realized, standing in the doorway, that they were clearing away from a meal; she looked mournfully at a bowl of something as it went past.

"Oh, you're one of the Humans. Do you want something to eat?" A Dwarf girl looked at her with friendly attention, a far cry from yesterday's suspicion.

"Oh, yes, please!" Within half a minute Lucy was seated at the table with a bowl of something, and a mug of tea. She was too big for the cups to be very useful, and the Dwarf girl finally brought her a small serving pitcher to drink from, which worked much better.

The work continued on around them, but the Dwarf girl who had spoken to her sat down across the table and watched while Lucy ate something dark and crunchy and savory. "What is this?" Lucy said, once she felt less like a starving lion. "I've never had it before."

"Seaweed," said the Dwarf. "We collect it at Black Point, and it doesn't need summer to grow. It's very good for you, although it is boring if you have it every day." She grimaced.

"Seaweed!" Lucy was startled. She'd heard that one could eat it, but she'd never imagined doing so. "What else do you eat?"

"Fish--lots of fish," said the Dwarf with some distaste. "And eggs from the chickens, and sometimes goat, or goat cheese. Once a ship from Calormen ran aground just off Black Point. There were these funny round fruits, bright green, with the most wonderful orange insides, so sweet and juicy. My gran says that when she was a little girl, they had fruit all the time." She looked skeptical.

Lucy hastened to reassure her. "But the summer is here now--there will be fruit again, all kinds. I even saw cherry trees blossoming, and oh, you will love cherries!"

The Dwarf girl looked impressed, and opened her mouth to ask something, but they were interrupted by Edmund's voice. "Lu?" He stood at the door, looking half-asleep and entirely silly in a Dwarf-sized robe, which only came partway down his thighs. "Do you know where our clothes are?"

Lucy jumped up and grabbed his hand. "Ed! Come and eat! Do you know, they have seaweed for breakfast--no, don't worry, it's lovely--and they've only ever had fresh fruit once!"

"All right, all right," he grumbled, but sat down when she pushed him. "Who're you?" he said, around a mouthful.

"Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't even ask!" Lucy said. "I'm Lucy, and this is Edmund."

The Dwarf smiled. "I am Panna, and my sister Pagleaf helped you to bed last night, though I don't think you remember."

"How was the pumping," Lucy asked Edmund. "Is it done?"

"Oh, no," said Panna, her smile dropping away. "There is still so much water. It will be days yet before--" she stopped speaking and looked down at the table. After a long moment, she said, "They must be so cold and frightened."

Edmund put his spoon down. "Your uncle?"

"My father, and my cousins," she said. "They were trapped four days ago when the water rose suddenly. I wonder--I was told when I was young that Aslan wouldn't fail us, the mothers always said that he would come back and save us from the Witch. But the only reason they're trapped is because of the summer, and the snowmelt now--" Panna broke off, looking horrified at what she had said.

"Is that tea?" Edmund reached across and grabbed the pitcher. He took a long drink, and then another, although it was cold by now. He was staring into the air: when Lucy turned to see what he was looking at, she saw only a blank wall. Finally he finished off the tea in a series of swallows, and then put the pitcher down with a decisive thump. "Right. Let's go find the others, I've got an idea."

~

 

Peter was a heavy sleeper at the best of times, and the morning after spending hour after hour in snowmelt to your thighs, throwing your weight against an ancient rusting pump assembly in the cold darkness, was far from the best of times. So Edmund was not entirely surprised that it took Peter rather longer than everyone else to emerge from the bunk room they had been guided to after their shift on the pumps ended.

The rest of them--Edmund, Lucy and Susan, Rhea, Pekana, Panna, and Pekana's son Radnulf--were all outside in the sun for several minutes before Peter staggered out the door, his face bleary and hair sticking straight up on one side. He had one of the beer pitchers in his hands, and Edmund hoped it was full of tea.

"Good, you're here," Edmund said, and turned back to Radnulf. "You're sure they were here--" he pointed to a spot on the large parchment drawing Radnulf had laid out on the ground, "--and not here?" He tapped with his forefinger another spot, one at a lower elevation.

"I am sure." Radnulf wasn't cheerful and talkative like his niece, or cynical and knowing like his mother; he was, Edmund decided, phlegmatic: a radio-play's idea of a Dwarf, down to the hobnailed boots and coal dust ground into his hands. "They meant to go to the North Oak Seam and work there until sunset."

Peter nudged Edmund's shoulder with his knee, and Ed shifted over so Peter could sit down and get a view of the plans.

"What are you planning, Ed?" asked Peter, in what he probably imagined was a calm voice. It sounded more like he was about to bite someone's head off, and Edmund was relieved when Susan answered him. Peter and mornings rarely got along.

"We are planning a rescue," she said. As efficient as ever, Susan had managed to bring or find clean clothes that fit her: she was wearing a dark green tunic and a brown split skirt. Edmund tried not to notice the way his own knees stuck out under his too-short Dwarf tunic. At least Peter didn't look any better: none of the Dwarf clothes would fit him, and he was entirely wrapped in a blanket.

"I see." Peter leaned over the plans, tracing the same line Edmund had been looking at (while his other hand held the blanket together). "What's the distance here?" he asked, looking up at Radnulf.

The Dwarf tugged at his beard thoughtfully. "Thirty yards, maybe forty," he said.

Lucy shook her head. "That's awfully far. Mightn't the water have gone down?"

"Maybe," Edmund said. "But we can't count on it." He kept studying the drawing, looking for another option.

Rhea stretched a long nose over the parchment before sitting up straight again. Her muzzle wrinkled. "It will be dark on the other side, and they'll be panicky. You'll have to keep your head about you."

Edmund looked up at that, but Rhea wasn't talking to him; she was looking at Susan. "Actually--" he said, but Peter cut him off.

"She's right, it has to be Susan. She's the strongest swimmer of all of us."

"But--"

Susan folded her arms and gave him that look. "But what, Ed?"

"But... we'll need a really long rope. It'll be heavy," he warned.

"And cold!" added Lucy, and shivered theatrically, although they were warm in the sun.

Pekana folded her arms across her chest and stared down at the drawing, then up at Susan, frowning. "I would not have you do this, if we were not children of Earth. Water will not carry us the way it does you Humans. It will... we will owe you a great debt, if you save even one of my people." She didn't sound happy about that indebtedness, although Edmund suspected that was mostly for effect.

Edmund glanced at Peter, who was keeping his expression neutral. No, his brother wasn't beyond exploiting a tragedy for a little political gain. But to be fair, they would have made the offer anyway: having Pekana owe them was just icing on the cake.

"We don't care about that," protested Lucy. "We just want to help!"

"Then we should begin," said Pekana. "Waiting out here will make it no warmer in the workings, and they have waited long enough in the cold dark." If they are still alive went unsaid.

Edmund climbed to his feet, still feeling yesterday's long hike and longer stint at the pumps, and was shamefully grateful that he wasn't the one going into the water. Susan was a strong swimmer, but this wasn't going to be much like the 100-yard breaststroke at the school swimming gala. "You'll need rope," he said, thinking out loud, "and grease."

"And robes," Susan added, turning to Panna. "The warmest ones you can find. Lanterns, so we can see the light through the water. And ten or twelve more Dwarfs, to help."

The next half-hour was a flurry of activity, as they pulled together supplies and recruited volunteers to help bring everything down into the mines. Someone found clothing for Edmund and Peter, and if it looked a bit like a woman's dress with the hem let down, Edmund wasn't going to say anything if Peter didn't.

He found himself walking next to Susan, carrying a lantern behind Pekana as she led the way through the tunnels. In the uncertain, bobbing light, Susan looked only a little concerned, as though she were thinking about a maths problem. Except when Edmund touched her hand with his, she grabbed it, and held on tight for the rest of the way.

All too soon the low, wide tunnel turned and cut downhill, and the sound and smell of water met them. The air was dank and cool, but still warmer than the water was: Edmund's bare feet cramped up as they stepped into it. The ground here was relatively smooth, but uneven enough that he stubbed his toes three times before learning to pick his knees up high at each step, splashing water as he did so.

There were voices all around, people talking quietly or warning one other of obstacles, as they followed the tunnel northward for a few hundred yards, past the occasional glimmer of gemstone or seam of precious metal. These mines were enormous, but then from what Panna had said the Dwarfs had been here for generation upon generation. And they'd spent the last hundred years huddled inside, with nothing to do but extend the workings even farther and deeper. Edmund tried to think about what the Dwarfs would be able to trade in the future, in order to keep his mind off his numb feet, but it didn't really work.

How could Susan possibly swim through this, if Edmund could barely walk in it? But she still looked determined, striding along through the water clad in a sleeveless shirt and breeches, with nearly all of her exposed skin covered in a thick layer of goose grease. The Dwarfs in the kitchens had not been happy about that, but Pekana had overruled them.

At last the company drew to an awkward halt, and there was some shuffling about as the Dwarfs made way for Susan. She let go of Edmund's hand, and went forward without looking at him, to meet Pekana and Radnulf where the roof of the tunnel began to cut sharply downward. Just a few yards away was the spot where the rock of the ceiling disappeared into the water.

"Su," said Peter, and began uncoiling rope, the finest line they could find. He looped it around her chest and shoulders, tying it together in the middle of her back, and left the rest of it piled in Radnulf's arms.

She shrugged her shoulders and raised her hands towards the ceiling, checking her movement. "That's good," she said quietly. "Double-check the knot, Ed?"

Peter snorted, and Ed smirked, but did as he was asked. (There was an old family story about Peter and knots: it took twenty minutes to tell, and always ended with a cheer for Edmund. Mr. Pevensie liked to tell it at the holidays, and Peter always blushed scarlet.) "It's solid."

There was a splash as Lucy threw herself at Susan, but Susan caught her arms and held her off, careful of the grease protecting her. "Be careful!" Lucy whispered. "Aslan protect you, Queen Susan."

"He will," Susan assured her, and gently pushed her into Peter's arms. She nodded at her brothers, and to Pekana, and then took a great breath, then another. There was no room for a proper dive, so she took three fast steps and threw herself into the water.

Within moments, the only movement in the cave was the ripple of water against the tunnel walls, and the quick shuffle of Radnulf paying out line.

Now, all they could do was wait.

 

~

 

She had never been this cold, not even those first days in Narnia, in the snow. Then, they had furs, and within just a day or so, the snow had melted and the air had been warm and full of promise. But this cold sank into Susan's muscles, into her bones, slowing her strokes, dulling her brain. This was the kind of cold that killed.

Thirty yards.

Thirty yards was only a little farther than the length of the pool. She could swim the length of the pool without coming up for air, had done so dozens of times during swimming practice. She was strong, she had won prizes for her swimming, and Narnia made her stronger. She could do this: lives were depending on it.

But this was not a school baths, with lane markers and clear light illuminating everything. This was a lightless tunnel hundreds of feet underground, with no crowd cheering for her, and nothing to see in the darkness, not even the pale flicker of her own hands as she stroked forward through the frigid water.

The water tasted like minerals on her lips, and it felt thick through her fingers, like mud rather than liquid. She wasn't moving fast enough, and she kicked harder, losing the smooth rhythm of her stroke. She forced herself to even it out: she couldn't afford to panic.

The Dwarfs at the other side of this tunnel--if they were alive at all--were just as cold and miserable as she was.

But the tunnel was endless. What if she got lost, what if she had turned around and wouldn't reach the air again? She didn't want to die here, in the cold and dark by herself.

Her air was beginning to run thin, her strokes becoming ragged. The urge to breathe--just open her mouth and gasp for air--was becoming desperate. She let herself move upwards, and scraped her hand on the rock of the ceiling. She wasn't there yet.

It was too far. She had been so sure she could do it.

Aslan, Susan Pevensie thought, as if the Lion could come to her here, lost in dark water--and saw a light flickering up ahead. She kicked hard, arrowing towards that intermittent gleam.

One last burst of effort, and she came gasping up into the open air. She blinked the water out of her eyes, seeking the light, but it was completely dark: the light she had seen was gone. She wondered if it had been there at all.

"Hey!" There was a shout nearby, and more voices, but Susan ignored them, just letting herself breathe, drawing the blessed air into her lungs.

At last she spat out some water and said, "Is that Rikald, are you here?"

The voices clamored again, and finally one of them shouted the others down. "Aye, that's me, girl. There are four of us yet alive."

Four; which meant one of his Dwarfs had died. Susan stroked toward the voices and fumbled her way onto a narrow rock shelf. "My name is Susan, I'm here to get you out."

Several of them cried out in relief, but one of them laughed, a harsh sound in the darkness. "You? A slip of a girl?"

The stone under her hands was crumbly and rough, but she followed it up and--oh, thank Aslan--out of the water entirely. It didn't seem any warmer, though. She couldn't see the light she had seen through the water, but she could hear the four Dwarfs around her, and smell their bodies in the tight space.

"Yes, I'm a girl, but I'm strong enough for this," she said, finding it hard to form the words. Her lips and mind both were still slow from the cold. "You'll have to untie me, I can't reach the knots," she added.

"Anything to get out of here," said Rikald, and she felt his hands go fumbling up her body. When he reached her hips, he gasped and his hands fell away. "You're no Dwarf!"

"Lucky for you," she said, and sank to her knees to let him reach the knot on her back. "Here, undo the knots on my back so we can use the rope for you."

There was some grumbling from the laugher, whose name Susan found out was Bandorf, but within a short time Susan had been untied. The darkness tangled them up, but after a few minutes' fumbling she had roped the four Dwarfs in a line, with Rikald at the front. "You understand, you will have to kick, too," she said again, leading--or pushing--the four Dwarfs into the water.

They were afraid: Dwarfs were not naturally swimmers, and once in the tunnel there would be no air. She tried not to think about that. "Take some deep breaths, and go deep in the water so you don't hit your head on the roof. You can do it--your families are waiting for you, on the other side. They will pull you through--just hold your breaths, and kick as hard as you can."

With that, she picked up the rope in front of Rikald and gave it a great heave, walking it back through the water to make sure Peter got the signal through the tunnel. If he didn't--

But he did. Just as she let go of the rope, she felt it began to move. "Down!" she shouted to them, as the Dwarfs were pulled past her, crying out and splashing before they disappeared. She hoped they listened to her, and imagined them kicking one another in the face as they were towed through the tunnel.

She was truly alone now, without even the rope for a guide. She had better be careful, here in the dark, or she would be utterly lost. And she was, suddenly, so very tired. She knew she should dive into the tunnel and swim back, but instead she went back to the ledge and climbed out onto the dry land.

Now the Dwarfs were gone it was silent in the cave; she couldn't even hear any water dripping. The stone was rough underneath her, but she couldn't feel it. Her skin was numb with cold, and her hands were stiff with it, so cold she couldn't bend her fingers. She shouldn't have stopped moving. There was no way she could warm up here: she had to go back through the tunnel. But her legs and arms ached, her eyes hurt from the strain of looking at the complete darkness, and the blankets and hot drinks on the other side of the tunnel seemed so far away. It would be so hard to go back into the water.

Lucy was waiting for her. Lucy, who had called her "Queen Susan", as though she truly were; and Edmund and Peter, who had trusted her to be strong enough to save these lives, and wise enough to negotiate with Pekana when they had arrived. Even Rhea, who had treated her as a real person, not someone caught halfway between child and adult.

Blankets and hot drinks. And Aslan, who had demanded this of her.

Susan stumbled forward into the water again, took a deep breath, and dove back into the tunnel.

 

~

 

The rope was soaking wet, so much heavier than it had been when Peter carried it down into the mine. Now he hauled it up out of the water, working in unison with Ed and the dozen Dwarfs behind him, hoping the weight on it was the missing Dwarfs, alive and healthy.

But the rope ran down into the water, following the line of the rock ceiling, and as they pulled, it came slower and harder. The light from the lanterns was poor, but Peter could feel the surface of the rope was ragged, torn by the way they were dragging it across the rock. If the rope survived being towed against the rough and jagged surface of the tunnel ceiling, Peter wasn't entirely sure the Dwarfs would.

"Heave!" he cried, and they pulled the rope as one, then walked their hands up it, and "Heave!", and so they worked their way along the line. It was so much longer now than it was when they fed it out after Susan. Surely the Dwarfs must be through the tunnel by now?

And then suddenly, there they were: dark heads popping up out of the water as he pulled. One, two, three, four. The first one began shouting, but the tunnel was suddenly echoing with cheers and whoops, and Peter couldn't hear him. He kept pulling, and then they were in reach, and Peter stepped deeper into the water to help the first of them up.

"Rikald!" shouted Pekana, and rushed forward, tripping over the rope and nearly sending herself into the deeps. She hugged her son, but then had to pull away so the other Dwarfs could come to shore and be freed from the tangled mess Susan had made of their knots.

The next few moments were a chaos of unbinding and Dwarf chatter as the families celebrated and the rescued tried to tell their stories, and blankets and mugs of tea were passed around. Only after the last of them was freed and passed up the tunnel towards dry ground, did Peter turn and look back into the water.

Susan should have followed right behind the Dwarfs: that had been the plan.

"Where is she?" asked Lucy.

"I don't know!"

There was a touch on Peter's arm; he looked down to see Pekana watching him. He looked away. The light from their torches and lamps rippled on the surface of the still water, and something dripped, and they said nothing. Peter clenched his fists, suppressing the urge to leap into the water and search for Susan.

It seemed a long time, but it was only a few moments later, when there was a soft pop and a gasp. "Susan!" called Edmund, and Peter heard splashing.

"Help her," commanded Lucy, her face white with fear.

Peter flung himself into the water at last, gasping with shock as the cold hit, and thrashed forward until he felt his hand catch in his sister's hair. She was floating on the surface, and he felt her move, but she couldn't seem to swim any further.

"Su, it's me," he said, and pulled her over onto her back so he could tow her to shore. She didn't say anything, and barely reacted even when they came within reach of the others, and were pulled up onto the shore.

Pekana touched Susan's face and neck, and announced, "She's too chilled, we must get her up into the heat, and dry her off. Can you carry her?"

It took Peter a few heartbeats to realize she was talking to him. "I can try," he said, although it had been years since he'd given Su a piggy-back ride. "Help me get her up, Ed," and between the two of them, they heaved Susan up into his arms. Her drenched hair hung loose, swaying as he walked, and her face was very pale.

In later days he didn't remember much of that journey out of the mines, just flashes of exhaustion, bitter water on his legs, and fear for Susan. Edmund and Lucy walked next to him and behind him, to steady him when he faltered or Susan slipped. It was less than a mile, but it felt like hours, as the tunnels stretched on before him, dark and chill beyond the reach of the lantern-light.

At length they came into the great cavern, but Pekana shepherded them forward, out of the compound altogether and into the sun. It was perhaps three hours since they had sat here on the grass in front of the dining hall, and the sun was still well above the trees: mid-afternoon, perhaps.

Rhea was there, waiting: she jumped up and came to them, sniffing at Susan's face as Peter carefully laid her down on the robe Pekana spread for him. In the sunlight, Susan looked blue, her eyes sunken. Nasty scrapes marked her shoulder and the side of her face, as though she had run into the tunnel wall at one point.

Pekana snapped orders and someone came running with hot stones wrapped in cloth, and a pitcher of tea. "Take those clothes off her," she told Lucy, "and put these stones around her. See if you can get some tea into her, she needs to warm her gut as well as her skin."

They bundled her in furs and hot stones, and Peter propped her up in his lap so Lucy could put the mug to her lips. It seemed ludicrous, with the sun so warm on his face, and the heat from the stone wall at his back, that Susan could still be so cold.

"Should I use my cordial?" asked Lucy, and unlatched its case on her belt. "Aslan gave it to me," she explained to Pekana. "It can heal almost anything."

"A gift from Aslan? That's precious indeed, girl," said Pekana, crouching next to Susan and putting a hand on her face, then her belly. "But, no, I think you can save that for now. All she needs is time in the warm."

An hour went by; Rhea curled up next to Susan, sharing what heat she could. Lucy hovered, still anxious to be doing something, despite Pekana's reassurances, until Pekana sent her and Edmund away to change into dry clothes. "No use all of you falling sick," she said, which was so much like something Mother would have said that Peter could have wept.

Lucy and Edmund came back, and Edmund made Peter switch with him so Peter could go change--and oh, Peter had never been so grateful to have his own second-hand tunic back again, warm and dry and clean. And when Peter came out of the hall this time, Susan's eyes were open and she was smiling at Lucy.

*

It rained the next day, and while Peter put on a show of disappointment, he was actually grateful, because he wanted Susan to have another day to rest after her ordeal. It also let them do more planning.

"So we're here, then," Edmund said, tapping at a spot on the map spread out over the table. "And the Cair is here, and that's the Stone Table there. But what's all this here to the northwest? Does anyone live there?"

"Dryads do," said Panna. "It's mostly woods, and then Centaurs." She wrinkled her nose.

"What's wrong with Centaurs?" asked Lucy. "I thought we liked them."

Rikald shook his head. "The northwest horde is different, barely civilized. Story is that they still use stone tools. Rough country," he concluded, sitting back.

"Story is?" repeated Edmund, quizzically. "Don't you know, then?"

Shrugging, Rikald shook his head again. "Got no reason to go that way, and we couldn't, not in the snow, like. The Centaurs never come down here, neither. They got their herds to watch, up there in the high country."

The winter, Peter realized, had done more than just keep the Narnians cold and hungry: it had isolated them from one another. He didn't know whether Centaurs and Dwarfs might have had more to do with one another, otherwise, but it seemed possible. Dwarfs--well, these Dwarfs, anyway--produced silver and coal, cheese and eggs, and fish and seaweed. Surely they had something the Centaurs would be interested in. And if the Centaurs had herds, that meant they had cattle of some sort. They must want metal-goods, mustn't they?

"And what's past the hills to the north, then?" asked Susan, sweeping with her hand across the mostly-unmarked area of the map.

"Giants." And there was no mistaking the distaste in Rikald's voice. "We don't go there."

"Oh," said Lucy. After yesterday's excitement, she seemed a bit less enthusiastic about adventures, Peter had noticed. He doubted that would last, however.

Pekana was in the doorway: as Edmund asked another question, she stared at Peter and motioned with her head towards the kitchen. He glanced around, but nobody else had seen her. Muttering something about getting more tea, he climbed to his feet and padded quietly down the length of the room, ducking low to get through the doorway into the kitchen.

Pekana was leaning against the counter near the enormous iron stove, her arms folded. Her blue skirts were wrinkled, the bottom hem raveling; it didn't make her any less of a presence. Peter hesitated, and then sat down on the floor across from her: it was the closest he could get to equalizing their heights.

"So," she said. "Queen Susan, hmm? And what are you, then?"

He allowed himself a smile. "Well, there are four thrones in Cair Paravel."

That surprised a laugh out of her. "And you would be the chief, then."

He shrugged. "Aslan called me High King. But you can keep calling me Peter, if you want."

"What I want," she said. "You keep asking what we want. What do you want, High King Peter of Cair Paravel?" She said it with a smile, but there was an edge in Pekana's voice that told Peter she was not, in fact, jesting.

The Dwarfs, and these Dwarfs in particular, are proud, and skilled negotiators, had said Rhea. They are not unkind, but they want value for value, and very little comes free.

Instead of answering, he posed his own question. "How long do you think it would take for us to travel all around Narnia? Without stopping for too long, but not pushing too hard either."

She frowned. "Two months, maybe, if you hit all the major settlements from here to the southern border. Why?"

"Then what I want, Clan-Mother Pekana, is for you to bring yourself, and your best trade-goods, to Beruna in ten weeks' time."

"Beruna? That's five days' travel for us. Why should we go?"

"That's what I want," he just said. "Oh, and one more thing. I know you have been fishing for years at Black Point, but the bay at the mouth of the Great River has some excellent fishing, and I understand there used to be a salt-works nearby."

Pekana's lips twitched. "And?"

"And I think that salt fish might be another thing to bring to Beruna, in as many barrels as you can fill." With that, Peter stood up, and bowed formally to Pekana.

She didn't smile, but her narrow eyes gleamed as she curtseyed to him in return, sweeping her skirts across the smooth stone floors. She was a tiny woman in a stained blue skirt, with grey-shot dark braids coming undone about her shoulders, and eyes the color of a mountain lake in shadow. Her voice was cracked, her hands twisted with age and scarred by hard use. But she was, he thought, also his first victory, and he loved her for it.

Chapter Text

"Did humans live in Narnia before the Witch came, Rhea?" Edmund asked.

They had been walking since late morning, following the course of a stream west and north across a wide valley. This area was sparsely wooded, although Lucy could see a dense forest on the hills ahead of them. A gust of wind rattled the shrubs along the banks of the stream.

Yesterday's rain had stopped by nightfall, and today was bright and clear, only wisps of clouds overhead, and the air less muggy than it had been on the hike to Pattering Hill. Pekana and Panna had seen them off with many thanks, and more importantly to Lucy's mind, many gifts. Now each of the siblings wore a sturdy pack, with food for several days and spare blankets, and Pekana had even given Peter a flask of wine. Rhea had twitched an ear at that, and Lucy had resolved to ask her later what that meant.

Now the Wolf gave her equivalent of a shrug, and said, "Some few, I believe. But I was not taught much Narnian history as a cub--the Witch outlawed it, and the penalties were severe."

"I wonder why?" said Edmund.

"Why what?" asked Lucy, adjusting her pack. It was better than the bedroll, and even had a waist-belt, but it was still hot and sticky against her back.

Edmund chewed his lip. "Why she cared. What did it matter what people knew about history, if she was in control of the whole country? She was powerful enough to bring down a winter for a hundred years, and keep out both Aslan and Father Christmas."

Rhea cocked her head, tail waving gently. She'd been a lot nicer to Ed, Lucy had noticed, during the last few days. "Well, she wasn't that powerful all at once. Once Queen Swanwhite was gone, it was still years before the winter settled in for good."

"There was a queen?" asked Lucy, at the same moment Edmund asked, "It took her years?"

From behind them, Susan laughed. "You two!" she said affectionately. She still looked worn from her swim in the tunnels, and she had to be shaken awake that morning, but she seemed much better than the day before.

"Well, it's important, Su--" said Edmund, and then they came around a turn in the trail, and many things happened all at once, and very quickly.

Peter was in the lead, as usual, and Lucy nearly walked into him because he had stopped in the middle of the path. She heard a growl rising into a roar and Peter shouted, "Get back!" and leaped forward, drawing Rhindon from the sheath on his back.

Rhea spun around and threw her body against Lucy, shoving her back down the trail. "What is it?" Lucy cried, but then she saw, past Peter, the green skin and misshapen shoulders, and heard the howl. It was an Ogre, one of the fiercest and strongest of the White Witch's henchmen.

The Ogre swung an enormous axe at Peter, who dodged away, ducking as it spun past his head.

Edmund had drawn his sword as well, and pushed past Lucy, but Rhea snarled, "No! No, there's not enough room. Let the king work." And the Wolf was right: the Ogre had come upon them in a narrow spot on the trail, with a rock ledge to one side and a thicket of pines to the other; another fighter in that tight space would merely interfere with the others.

But while Edmund could not help, Susan could. She strung her bow with smooth, unhurried movements, and within seconds had let an arrow fly, and put another to the string. The first did no damage, hitting the Ogre's boiled-leather hauberk at an angle and flying off into the brush. The Ogre didn't even notice, and lunged at Peter, who evaded him again, but this time Peter dashed closer and, swinging wildly, wounded him on the upper arm. Green blood flowed freely, and the Ogre howled in pain.

Peter danced back, out of range, and Susan shot again. This arrow didn't miss, and struck the Ogre square in the shoulder. The Ogre tore the point out and flung it away, roaring, and then threw himself at Peter, not even using the great axe.

With an agility Lucy found shocking, Peter stepped to the side and swung Rhindon upwards, catching the tip in the Ogre's throat as it passed. Lucy gasped as the blood spurted, too fast for her to look away. The Ogre took another step forward, turning towards Peter, and then with nothing more than a gurgle, he collapsed to the ground, and green blood spread out onto the dirt around him.

There was a silence, after the howling was over. Even the wind in the trees had stopped, and all Lucy could hear was the pounding in her ears. She looked at the Ogre, sprawled on the trail: he was much larger than any human, but not giant-sized. He wore torn black breeches and a ragged brown cloak over his leather hauberk, and appeared to have no other belongings: even his feet were bare. She wondered if he had been in the battle, and was running away, if he had been as afraid of the Pevensies as Lucy was of him. She wondered if he had a family, and realized that of course, everyone did. Even the White Witch had had parents, once.

Lucy had seen only the very end of the battle, and had been high in the tree when Peter killed Maugrim. This--this death, this battle--was sudden and terrifying, sharp as the knife Father Christmas had given her. And frightening, to realize that Aslan had sent them to Narnia to kill.

"Pete, are you all right?" Edmund pushed past Rhea, re-sheathing his sword. Peter met him, and they clasped hands, as though they had not seen each other for days, and then Peter tried to wipe his sword on Edmund's shirt, and they laughed.

"Boys," sighed Susan, and unstrung her bow. "Lu, will you help me find those arrows? This is not a magical quiver, I'm afraid."

"Careful, queen," cautioned Rhea. "I do not smell any others, but the wind is behind us."

After a careful search which produced only one of Susan's red-feathered arrows, they continued on up the valley, now speaking in soft voices and traveling more cautiously. The Witch's army might have been defeated, but Rhea said that many of them had fled west and north, into the wild lands; where there was one Ogre, there might be more.

In the mid-afternoon, after a lunch of dried fish and crumbly cakes made of grain and seaweed, they heard voices ahead, and Peter motioned Rhea forward to investigate. She reappeared a few minutes later with a jaunty tail. "Nothing to worry about," she said, and so they followed her down the path into a great copse of berry-bushes.

Instead of monsters or who-knows-what, Lucy was charmed to see a half-dozen Fauns, with coats of brown, gold, or black, picking berries in a clearing next to the stream. "Why it's Humans!" cried one of them, dropping his basket, and they all gathered around to welcome the siblings.

Barely five minutes later, Lucy found herself sitting in a circle on a sunny spot of grass, eating brimble-berries (which grow only in northwest Narnia during the height of summer and make lovely pies), and attempting to talk with the Fauns about politics. To be fair, it was mostly her siblings who talked about politics: the Fauns were as uninterested in the subject as Lucy herself was.

"Were any of you at the battle?" Peter asked, and two Fauns (somewhat reluctantly) said they had been, while the others looked either uncomfortable or bored. Peter shared a glance with Susan, and she picked up the conversation.

"Tell me, where do you all live? Do you have families?" Susan was always good at this sort of conversation, and the Fauns merrily replied, tripping over each others' words.

The eldest of the Fauns was a burly fellow named Vernus, who was a bit more well-spoken than the rest. (Lucy was beginning to realize that Tumnus was probably something of an aristocrat among fauns: none of these fauns seemed likely to own any books, or a tea service.) "We have some right smart caves down the valley," Vernus said, looking quite pleased with himself. "Even during the winter they stayed warm, though it was hard sometimes to get enough fuel for the fires."

"And why is that?" Edmund asked. Rhea rolled her eyes, and Edmund flushed, but looked less annoyed than he would have several days ago.

"Well, the Dryads, you know," said Vernus. "You can't take live wood, after all. And there wasn't much immature wood to speak of, during the winter."

This baffled all the Pevensies, and after some questioning, and confusion, Lucy finally had an answer for a question that had been bothering her; how could people light fires and build with wood in a land where the trees had spirits? And the explanation, as much as she could follow it, was that the spirit of a Dryad grew slowly, as a tree matured, so that saplings had no Dryads, and many or most trees, especially if they were damaged or diseased or simply boring, never grew a spirit at all. But only the Dryads themselves knew which mature trees were safe to chop down, so anyone else had to be very careful to harvest only young or obviously diseased trees.

"I see," said Susan, at the end of Vernus' complicated explanation, which had been interrupted and corrected repeatedly by the other Fauns. "So if someone wished to build a house out of wood, for example, one would have to negotiate with the Dryads to identify which trees would be available for that."

"You've got that right, girl," said Vernus, and beamed at her in approval.

At which point one of the two Fauns who had been at the battle blinked and said, "Oh! You're Aslan's Humans! The kings and queens!" He jumped up and bowed to them (and if you have never seen a Faun, with his goat-legs, bow, it is an awkward sight).

"Kings and queens!" cried the other fauns, and they had to jump up and bow as well, and Peter stood up and bowed back, and so the rest of them did too. Lucy found herself embarrassed by the berry-stains on her tunic, which was silly because she had been perfectly comfortable with the Fauns two minutes before.

When the bowing was over, and they had all sat down again, Peter asked, "So what will you do now that the winter is over?"

The Fauns just stared at him. "Do? Eat, drink, and dance, of course!" said Vernus, as if it were obvious.

"That's lovely!" said Lucy, and meant it. Everyone was so serious since the coronation, at least the Fauns remembered how to have a nice time. Peter's eyes crinkled and Ed grinned straight at Lucy, but not in the old mean way.

"And what will you eat?" asked Susan. "Besides these lovely berries, of course." She took another handful, somehow managing to eat them without staining her fingers. Lucy decided that food that reminded you you'd eaten it half an hour later was more fun, and dug her hand deep into the berry-basket.

"Nuts and vegetables," said Vernus, and "Fish from the river," said another faun, and "Honey from the trees," said a third.

"Do you need anything else?" Edmund asked, although from his voice he didn't expect much of an answer.

"Yes!" said Vernus, to everyone's surprise. "All our vines died during the winter, and without vines there are no grapes to make wine. We need cuttings, good queens and kings." His companions agreed, drumming their hooves on the ground in a thunderous beat that made Lucy want to dance.

Peter put his chin in his hand. "Cuttings for grape vines," he repeated thoughtfully. "Where would they come from?" he asked.

Vernus stared. "Why, Calormen, king! Or, well, perhaps southern Archenland. It's too cold in Galma, and even here we may only plant on south-facing hillsides."

"Of course," said Susan faintly. "Calormen or the Lone Islands. Why ever didn't we think of that?"

"Well, you have a lot on your minds, no doubt, being kings and queens now," said Vernus kindly. The rest of the fauns agreed, nodding with enthusiasm.

At length, after a conversation that carried on for some time but covered no new ground, Rhea coughed and stretched, yawning so widely that her tongue curled out over her white teeth. "It's time to move on, king," she said quietly to Peter. "I would like to be over the ridge before we camp: there are too many insects along the stream."

"Where are you going?" asked Vernus.

"Northwest," answered Peter, with a nod up the valley.

Vernus looked startled, and a bit worried, Lucy noticed. "You're going to see Stormcoat's people? They don't like visitors much," he warned. "They won't hurt you," he added hurriedly. "But they stick to themselves. You'll see."

And that was all the Fauns would say. They made their farewells and returned to their berry-picking, while the Pevensies followed Rhea along the path next to the chuckling stream. More of a creek now, Lucy realized: it ran silver and sparkling through and over grey stones and gravel green with moss. The wind whipped green leaves across its merry surface.

"Calormen, Galma, Archenland?" asked Susan, stepping over a branch across the path.

Lucy added, "And the Lone Islands." She liked the name: she wondered if they were pretty, and if they had palm trees or penguins.

Peter groaned. "Lion's mane," he said. "We're going to have to learn about foreign relations."

 

~

 

"Ed, it's your watch." Peter's voice hissed in Edmund's ear, and he groaned and rolled over, trying to hide his head under his pillow. Except he had no pillow, just something lumpy and hard. His fumbling hand hit something else, closing around it, and he realized it was the scabbard of his sword.

Sword.

Narnia.

Watch.

Oh, right: it was his watch, because there were Ogres and Werewolves and Hags out there, and Wolves needed more sleep than humans did, and Lucy was too young (a point she had challenged, and been overruled on).

Just now, sitting up on his uncomfortable bedroll with the stars still bright overhead, Edmund wished he, too, were too young to keep watch. "All right, I'm up, I'm up," he said to Peter, who whispered "Keep quiet, will you?"

He rolled over, pushed himself up, and picked up his sword. Peter didn't say another word, just collapsed into Edmund's blankets. After a few seconds, Edmund nudged Peter's leg; Peter didn't react at all.

He looked around. It was cooler than it had been: the air had a hint of chill, as if warning that autumn was coming, and he wondered if it was, if Aslan's summer was shortening as they had speculated. He shrugged his cloak over his shoulders and tried to walk around the campsite, looking for anything dangerous, but he saw nothing but the darkness, and nearly tripped over a log himself.

Finally Edmund sat down on a large boulder and stared up at the stars. They were enormous: bright and large, as if closer than the stars in England. Edmund didn't know the stars very well, although he knew that he ought to; still, he thought these constellations were not the ones he would have seen from the back garden in Finchley. One of them, he guessed, was probably the North Star, or a north star. He wondered if Rhea would know, if he asked--or if she would just roll her eyes at him again.

They had lit a fire for their dinner, and although it had died down, there were still a few coals glowing. Edmund poked at them with a stick until one of them brightened and flames licked at the unburned wood.

Rhea probably still thought of him as a traitor, not like Peter, who was a great warrior, or Susan, who was a hero to everyone, the way she had saved the Dwarfs. Even though Edmund was the one who came up with the plan in the first place.

He rubbed his hands on his arms and huddled closer to the fire. It was so cold; it wasn't fair, the coldest time of night was always just before morning. Why did he have to be on watch now? Besides, it was obvious nothing was going to happen. Edmund put another stick on the fire.

Peter and Susan were both warm in their blankets, and Lucy didn't even have to keep watch at all. Edmund was the one who was solving problems for everyone else, and actually thinking about things. They were probably still punishing him, even though he'd fought as hard against the Witch as anyone, and nearly died, even. He wished, he wished...

The little flame he was staring at flared up suddenly, a flicker of gold and heat and a breath of sweetness against his face, as though he were out on that hillside again, the great Lion speaking to him in that voice as deep and joyful as the earth itself. Edmund flushed and jumped to his feet, letting the shame wash away the resentment that he had been clinging to.

The others weren't really punishing him, and Rhea had been much nicer to him the last few days. And oh! how he hated being horrible: it made the world a horrible place, too. Who could bear to be horrible in Narnia, which was so beautiful and had Dwarfs and Fauns and Centaurs, oak-gods and Gryphons?

Edmund was just congratulating himself for breaking out of his funk (with possibly some help from Aslan) when he looked up at the trees around them, to see that the dawn light had begun to fill the sky. And to see that the campsite was surrounded by heavily-armed Centaurs, all of whom were pointing spears at Edmund.

*

Peter was rather insufferable about the whole thing. "The point of being on watch, Ed, is that you watch! Sentries get drummed out for falling asleep at their posts, you know."

"I wasn't!" Edmund protested, as they scrabbled up a steep hillside after the Centaurs. They were not, after all, prisoners; mentioning Aslan put a stop to anything like that, right away. But Windcaller felt it necessary that they meet Stormcoat in person, and since Windcaller had come visiting with six of his brethren, each of whom outweighed all the Pevensies together, off they went.

Rhea paused in front of Edmund, looking not at all as though she were halfway up a mountainside, and Edmund envied her those four legs to his two. "Fire kills night-vision, young king; there was a reason we banked it at sunset." With that, she dug in her claws and shot to the top of the rise, knocking loose dirt and gravel behind her as she went.

"Ow!" said Peter, from behind, and Edmund couldn't keep from laughing.

It wasn't for several minutes that he realized Rhea had called him king for the first time.

Lucy had a harder time than the rest of them climbing up the steep trail, and they stopped at the summit to wait for her and Susan. By the time the girls reached the top, they were red-faced and sweaty, but it hadn't stopped Lucy's tongue.

"--saplings, don't you see?"

Swiping an arm across her face, Susan said, "No, I don't. See if Edmund understands you?"

Lucy gave Edmund an enthusiastic look. "The trees couldn't spread in the winter, could they, because of the cold. So now there's lots and lots of saplings everywhere, like the Fauns said, everyone is having children--"

"Children?" asked Peter dryly, and Lucy blushed, but soldiered on regardless.

"Well, they are Dryads, Peter, so their children are trees!"

"I follow you so far, Lu, but what's your point?" Edmund asked, aware that the Centaurs were beginning to stamp their feet impatiently. They'd been relatively polite so far, but he didn't want to press that courtesy.

Lucy stared at him, and then flung both arms outwards, indicating the entire area around them. They were at the summit of a rise in the woods, on a path that led on--and upwards, Edmund noted dolefully--through yet more trees. Edmund looked around as Lucy indicated, then looked more closely. There were no saplings here: only mature trees. It looked a bit like a farm, except the trees were all different types, but they were all fully adult, and therefore, Edmund realized, of an age to have, or be, Dryads.

"Huh," he said, and Lucy nodded in enthusiastic agreement.

"You see! And what's more, the Dryads here are all very quiet. None of them will come out and talk to me at all. I think they're afraid, or maybe angry."

Edmund and the others stared at her.

Lucy flushed again. "Don't you talk to the trees, too?"

*

Stormcoat's home wasn't like any dwelling place Edmund had ever seen before. Instead of a house or a cave or a castle, the Centaurs of the North Reaches lived in a large open area bounded by a number of three-sided sheds. The open space was mostly trampled dirt, with stone hearths and ovens spaced at even intervals, and a few tall tables next to them. Inside the sheds were bundles and baskets, and Edmund realized they were to protect the Centaurs' belongings from the weather, even though they were too small to fit more than the smallest Centaur infants inside.

Several dozen Centaurs were busy here: some appeared to be cooking at the fireplaces, one was lecturing to a group of younger Centaurs, and a number of youths were practicing with spears at the far side of the meadow. Some distance to the north, the land rose into a series of open hills, on which Edmund spotted the shapes of some sort of cattle, or maybe sheep. He wondered if they talked, too.

The Pevensies and Rhea were escorted into the center of the space, where water bubbled in a finely-carved stone fountain and flowed away in a narrow channel, confined by good stonework. Next to the fountain, which was shaped like a winged horse, stood the largest Centaur Edmund had ever seen.

Stormcoat was a majestic figure, the skin on his human body dark as ink, while his horse body was mottled grey with black spots. His hooves were the size of dinner plates, and he stamped them as the Pevensies approached, his tail whipping across his haunches once before stilling.

"What found you in the wood, Windcaller?" Stormcoat asked, and his voice matched his size: deep and powerful.

"They say they come from Aslan, sire," said Windcaller, with a deferential nod. "We found them camped on the ridge off the Black Oak trail."

Stormcoat peered at them, squinting through the tangled mass of black hair that hung almost to his shoulders. Looking around, Edmund noticed that only Stormcoat looked so ungroomed: the other Centaurs kept their hair braided or bound, and he even saw one older male, who was nearly white on his hindquarters, with no hair at all on his head.

"Are you Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve, then?" rumbled Stormcoat. "Humans, here in Narnia? These are powerful signs."

Lucy made a noise, like a stifled snort, and Edmund seized her hand in his. "Ow," she muttered, but stopped talking when Stormcoat bent his dark gaze on her. Edmund resisted the urge to step in front of her. They were surrounded by armed Centaurs, and if their spears mostly had stone tips, Edmund was sure they were still sharp enough to cut.

"Very powerful, Lord Stormcoat," agreed Peter smoothly. "And yes, we are Humans, and we were called here by Aslan's favor to help break the White Witch's winter. Jadis is gone and Narnia is restored to her people."

"That explains much that I have seen in the stars," said Stormcoat, as the Centaurs around them stirred and murmured. "Aslan has freed Narnia, and the Witch is gone. We are released from the bondage of winter."

"What will you do now?" Susan asked. She turned as she said it, throwing the question to all of the assembled Centaurs. "Now that the Witch is gone and Narnia is free?"

Stormcoat looked at her, and then raised his eyes to the clear sky beyond them. "We shall do as we always have done: worship Aslan, raise our children, tend our herds."

Edmund was getting a feeling. Not a bad feeling, but an uncomfortable one. He was missing something. He glanced over at Rhea, whose ears were twitching uncertainly, her hackles just the slightest bit raised.

"Well," said Peter, a little awkwardly, "perhaps you would consider sending some of your people to Cair Paravel, or to Beruna in two months' time. It's time to start organizing some public defense, and re-establish trade relations outside Narnia, don't you agree?"

Black brows drew down over dark eyes as Stormcoat looked at Peter for a long moment. Then he shrugged and turned away, his tail whipping once. He paced off towards the practice field, his huge feet kicking up dust with every step.

"You are welcome guests, in Aslan's name," said Windcaller, his voice much lighter than Stormcoat's. He hesitated, as though he wanted to say something else, and then he shut his mouth and turned to follow his chief, accompanied by the rest of his patrol.

Most of the other Centaurs drifted away at that point as well, leaving the Pevensies and Rhea standing alone in the middle of the village. Peter looked flummoxed.

"Well, that went well," said Edmund, and sat down on the edge of the fountain.

"I suppose you could have done better?" asked Peter, but there was no venom in it. He just seemed frustrated.

Edmund shook his head. "I don't see how. They don't seem very interested in us."

"No," said Lucy, looking thoughtfully after Stormcoat. "The only thing they're interested in is Aslan."

Susan sat down next to Edmund and put her hand in the water flowing out of the fountain. The light north wind blew her hair into her face, and she tucked it behind her ear absently. "Lucy's right. It's like they're, oh, a monastery or something. Hermits living in the wildnerness. Remember what Rikald said about the stone tools? Look around!"

There were no metal pots on the stoves, only clay. No jewelry or ornamentation of any kind on any of the Centaurs, even the women. The women were all modestly covered with leather or fur vests, although Edmund remembered Centaur women from the battle who had gone bare-chested until it was time to arm themselves. And all of the weapons they had seen were stone; finely-chipped stone, but stone nonetheless.

Peter folded his arms and kicked at the dusty ground, sending a stone skittering into the creek. "Well, what are we supposed to do, then?"

Edmund shrugged, then grinned at his brother. He was beginning to realize the advantages of being the younger sibling. "You're the High King, you'll think of something!"

~

The water from the fountain was sweet and cool; Susan took another drink from her cupped hands, and then let the water fall away to the dry ground, wiping her hands against her skirts. "Well," she said, looking around at the others, "what now?"

Rhea cocked her head at Peter; Edmund just grinned, refusing responsibility for any decision-making; and Lucy looked thoughtful. They all, of course, looked at Peter, who huffed in frustration and sat down on the rim of the fountain next to Edmund.

"I don't know," he said. "Su, what do you think?" For the first time since they had left Cair Paravel, he looked truly uncertain.

Susan looked around, at the Centaurs on the practice fields and working at the stone hearths, and the lowering hills to the north, bare and threatening. "I suppose it's too much to hope for that we should win over everyone right away," she said finally. "We could move on, and come back another time." It was the pragmatic thing to say, although she was quite sure Peter wouldn't listen to it.

Folding his arms across his chest, Peter nodded, and then cocked an eyebrow at Edmund. "Well, Ed?"

Edmund let his smile fall away, and drummed his fingers on the fountain for a bit. "I think these Centaurs are too powerful to leave behind us without some sort of agreement. Sorry, Su."

She shrugged: Peter had asked, and Edmund had answered.

"Lucy?" Peter asked. Susan was startled, but she covered it. Lucy had as much right to an opinion as any of them.

Lucy looked off across the fields to the hills, then back at Peter. "I think we should trust Aslan, and be patient." It was, Susan suspected, exactly what Peter had wanted to hear. Well, it was neither the first nor the last time practicality had lost to optimism. She wouldn't let it weigh her down; she was a queen, after all.

They all waited while Peter considered their options. "I think we should stay," he finally said. "And not just because of Stormcoat's people. Rhea, how far are we from the border, here?"

"You are on it, king," said the Wolf. "Well, nearly. Those hills mark the border, more or less. I couldn't tell you exactly where it is, though I'm sure Stormcoat knows."

"But is his border Narnia's border?" asked Edmund, and no one answered him.

*

They ate a lunch of dried fish cooked into a mushy stew with fresh greens, followed by a bowl full of brimbleberries. The Centaurs at the hearth nearest them let them borrow a pot and bowls, and while the Pevensies ate their salty stew, Susan saw Edmund leaning sideways to watch the Centaurs at their meal.

"What is it?" she asked, since she couldn't see what he was looking at without turning all the way around herself.

He shoveled a spoonful of stew into his mouth, grimaced around it, and swallowed before he answered. "They're eating hay! They have a great pile of hay, and they're eating that as well as fruit and meat from a bowl."

Rhea nosed at her empty bowl with evident discontent. "Well, they do have two stomachs, king, a horse's stomach and a man's. So they must eat the proper food for both."

"It must have been very hard for them, during the winter," Susan suggested.

Rhea nodded. "Many Centaurs died in the first years of the Witch's reign, and it is said more fled west and south into other lands."

"Not north?" asked Lucy.

"North is Giant territory," replied Rhea, her ears going back. "No one would hope for refuge there."

Susan looked again at the rugged hills to the north, and wondered how far away the Giants were.

"But Giant Rumblebuffin is nice," protested Lucy.

"Then he is a very unusual Giant, queen," Rhea said. "For nearly all of our history, Narnia has been at war with the Giants of the northern mountains."

Lucy looked unhappy at this, but subsided. Susan breathed a quiet sigh of relief.

"So what now?" asked Edmund. "I don't think there's any point in following Stormcoat about and telling him how Aslan appointed us kings and queens. That's not the sort of thing he cares about."

"I think you're right about that," said Peter. "But there is something we can do, and we should do, in fact. Come on, and bring your sword."

Which is how Susan found herself watching her brothers practice swordplay, fairly poorly, on the practice field where the young Centaurs were training. It was, she realized, a clever idea, because very shortly they had a small audience, among whom was the Centaurs' weapons-master, a stocky mare named Silversharp.

"No, no," said Silversharp, after Edmund had dropped his sword for the second time. She stamped twice, and the boys looked at her in surprise. "Those forms are Centaur forms, meant for someone with much more height and reach than you. You should be using Dwarf forms, or something closer to that."

"Oh," said Peter, and bowed to the weapons-master. "We don't know any Dwarf forms; would you be able to teach us? We would be most grateful."

Silversharp snorted, and Susan could nearly see her eyes roll. "Very well, but you must do exactly as I say. I will have no Sons of Adam injure themselves in my training."

"Queen," said Rhea, as Silversharp began manhandling the boys into better positions. "There is a set of targets down the field, if you too wish to practice." She glanced at the swordplay and twitched an ear. "Your brothers will be some time with her, I believe."

"And very sore at the end of it," giggled Lucy. "Susan, while you shoot, I want to go talk to the trees some more."

Susan wasn't sure she wanted Lucy wandering alone here; the Centaurs seemed friendly enough, but... She looked down at Rhea, and the Wolf waved her tail in acknowledgement. "I will stay with her, queen."

Lucy looked for a moment as though she would protest, but Susan gave her a hard look, and instead she smiled merrily. "Let's go, Rhea! I think that grove over there is the best place to start!" She ran off at once, the Wolf bounding along behind her.

The practice field was a large area--of necessity, for Centaurs take up a lot of space--and Susan walked slowly down to the end of the muddy field, watching young Centaurs spar and tumble with one another. At the end was a set of targets and a stance, about one hundred yards apart. Susan looked at this distance, and wondered if she was about to embarrass herself.

A handful of Centaurs were at the butts, mostly young ones and one grizzled elder with a beard he had separated into a dozen narrow braids, each tied off with a red bead. It was quite a striking look against his dark skin and greying coat. He grunted at Susan as she came up to join them, but said nothing; his young students watched Susan out of the corner of their eyes as she strung her bow and hooked her quiver on her belt.

She had used Father Christmas' bow but once in the battle, and only a few times since then; this would be her first chance to really see how good she was with it at a distance. She fell into a rhythm, then, concentrating on her aim, the tension in the bow, the power in her arms and shoulders as she drew back, the breath of wind against her cheek just before she loosed. At the end of two dozen shots, she waited until no one else was shooting, and then went down to the targets to retrieve her arrows.

Her aim was better than she had expected; almost half of her shots had landed in the target, even at this range, and some of those were in the center. When she came back to the stance, the archery instructor addressed her directly. "Ye're too straight on to the target, girl. Line yer feet up, so," and he drew a line in front of her, so that she stood at a right angle to the target. He watched her closely as she drew, breathed, and released, and reached for another arrow before the first had landed.

"Better," he said, after she shot five more, and turned back to his students.

It was better. Susan shot five full quivers of arrows, and even tried shooting with the other hand, although her aim that way was much poorer. Her fingers had begun to ache and her arms to tremble, when there was a shout in the distance. She'd heard shouts and cries all afternoon, from the Centaurs training on the practice field, but this was different; it was the sound of someone in great distress.

She saw, coming from the hills to the north, two Centaurs running hard, galloping so fast they threw up great muddy clumps of dirt behind them. They looked thin, light-boned like the other youngsters around her; Susan guessed they were probably shepherds who had gone up into the hills with the herds after the new grass. As they approached, Susan realized one of them was injured: he clutched one arm to his chest and there was blood on his hindquarters.

They galloped past the archery butts and towards the center of the village; Susan unstrung her bow and set out after them at a quick jog. She saw her brothers among the Centaurs also coming in from the training grounds.

By the time Susan reached the area around the fountain, she couldn't see anything, as it appeared nearly every Centaur in the tribe was gathered. However a human is rather smaller than the average Centaur, and she was able to weave her way through the crowd to the front, where she found Peter and Edmund as well.

The injured Centaur, kneeling on the ground so his wound could be treated, was a young stallion with fair skin and a bay coat; his uninjured companion was a mare, her red-brown hair windblown. "--in the meadows past Dullwater creek," she was saying to Stormcoat, her voice shaky with emotion.

"And then?" Stormcoat asked, his face expressionless.

"The herd split, some following the red ewe," she said. "Patchfoot and I followed them, leaving Strongwind, Startail, and Valedark with the rest of the herd. We followed the sheep up the dale, and one of the ewes had got trapped in a crevice. It took us a long time--too long--to free her.

"When we returned to the meadow, the Giants were already gone."

She gasped, tears running down her face. Stormcoat said nothing, merely folded his arms and waited until she recovered her composure. "Half the herd was gone, and Valedark was dead, his body--oh, Aslan--his body carved like meat for the fire. Butchered, like the sheep."

Silversharp spoke then, her voice fierce. "And the others, child? What of Strongwind and her foal?"

The young Centaur merely choked, shaking her head in distress. Finally she said, "Gone, mistress. Gone."

A hubbub broke out, Centaurs shouting, stamping their feet, thrusting their stone-tipped spears into the air in rage. This went on for several minutes, while Stormcoat stood quiet at the center of it all, his arms folded and his head bowed. Finally he lifted his head, and although he said nothing, his silence seemed to spread outwards, until the tribe too was silent, and the air thick with tension. The atmosphere felt oppressive and hot, as though a storm were building, though the sky was clear and a light breeze was playing with the Centaurs' tails.

Susan put her hand out and Peter seized it with a strong grip. She saw he was clutching Edmund's shoulder with his other hand, as if to hold them there, in place with him. And such was the energy in that place it felt as though she could fly away on it, right up into the air, if not tethered by her brother.

The silence held them all for a dozen breaths, and then another dozen, and then Stormcoat spoke.

"Aslan has freed us from the Witch's Winter. But he has left the Giants for us, because he has made us strong. The Winter has made us strong, and fast, and deadly. And there will be no feasting in Galthung tonight."

Feasting. Susan realized, with a roiling stomach, that Stormcoat was not being metaphorical. Strongwind and her foal were captured to be eaten by the Giants, like the sheep they had stolen.

"Ed," said Peter quietly, as Stormcoat began to give orders, and the crowd dispersed around them to make ready. "Go get our bedrolls, and as much food as we can carry."

Edmund nodded, his face pale and tight, and Susan could see the excitement thrumming through him as if he had not just spent several hours in swordplay. But as he turned to go, Susan reached out and seized him by the arm, yanking him to a stop.

Something was terribly wrong. Something more than the Giants, and the Centaurs' planned attack. Susan looked around them, at the dozen or so Centaurs now gathered closely about Stormcoat, and Silversharp counting out arrows, and a male Centaur with red hair and freckles weeping into his hands. So many people, so much going on about them.

"Susan, what--" began Edmund, but Susan turned to look at her brothers, and she felt her face twist with horrified fear.

"Where is Lucy?" she demanded.

~

Peter blinked. "She's not with you?"

Susan shook her head. "No, she went off with Rhea to talk to the Dryads."

"Well, she should be all right, then," said Edmund. "Most of the trees are well south of the border."

It was exactly the logical sort of thing Peter wanted to hear, except a flash of movement caught his eye, and he felt the blood drain from his face. "I don't think so, Ed," he said, and then Rhea was bursting into the plaza, her ears back and her tongue hanging loose as she raced towards him.

"King Peter," she gasped, as she came to a shuddering stop, kicking up dirt with her claws. Susan took a shocked step backwards, but Rhea's attention was entirely on Peter.

Peter looked at Rhea, and past her into the bustle of Centaurs readying for battle. Lucy was nowhere to be seen. "Wolf," he said, and his hand was on his sword-hilt. "Where is our sister?"

"The trees took her," Rhea said, and dropped her head low. "They caught her up and carried her away into the forest, high in their branches. I chased them for some time, but I could not keep up, and so I came to bring you word." She rolled over, exposing her throat to him once again, as she had the day they had met.

Peter stared at her for a long moment, his hand clenching and loosening on Rhindon, while the wind ruffled the pale fur on Rhea's underside. "A poor king I would be," he said finally, forcing the words out (for all that he knew they were true), "were I to punish one who brings me such news. Rise, Rhea, and tell us all you know."

He felt Edmund relax minutely beside him, and didn't let himself wonder what Edmund had been expecting. There was no time for that. Rhea rose, drank deeply from the fountain, and told the story, which was simple enough.

Lucy had led them further and further into the trees, always heading south and downhill, into denser forest. Finally she stopped and sat on the floor amidst the forest duff, and simply started talking. "Meaningless things, mostly," said Rhea. "She talked about Aslan, and your family, and her favorite foods. And at last the Dryads began to come out, first the younger ones, the summer girls and boys, and then some of the older ones, too. There were none of the very youngest, and only a few of the elders. They gathered around her and after she had talked for a long time, they began to ask her questions."

"Like what?" said Susan. She had squatted next to Peter, her bow still in her hands. As Rhea spoke, Susan fingered the fine inlay on the grip of the bow.

"Who she was, who you were--they had seen us, you see, and they knew we were visiting with the Centaurs--and why we were here." Rhea yawned suddenly, and then snapped her jaw closed. Peter suspected this wasn't weariness, but nervousness.

"Then what happened?" Peter asked. So far there seemed no reason for the Dryads' attack.

Rhea cocked her head. "Then one of the summer boys, a tall beech spirit, said, Then you are the queen? And your brothers and sister are kings and queen as well? and Queen Lucy said, Of course, that's what I said. And that's when it happened."

Edmund leaned forward. "That's when they took her away?"

"Faster than I can describe it, king. The beech boy picked her up and tossed her to one of the young oaks, and away they went into the forest. Lucy called out, and it sounded as though she were arguing, but also laughing, and then they were too far away for me to hear her anymore. They move very fast." She dropped her head again. "I am shamed, kings and queen, but I didn't expect such a thing. The Dryads are very civil, and while some of them worked for the Witch, by and large they venerate Aslan as much as any Narnian does. I have never heard of them hurting a child, or any peaceful Narnian."

"What will they do to her?" Susan asked. She looked very worried, and Peter realized she must have allowed Lucy to go off to talk to the Dryads in the first place. Of course she felt responsible for Lucy--but then, they all did.

"They won't hurt her," said Rhea firmly. "They wanted something from her, and they didn't take her until they learned what they needed to. The Dryads are not warlike: Queen Lucy is in no danger." Peter relaxed a small amount: surely Rhea wouldn't be so confident if it weren't true.

"She's a hostage!" said Edmund suddenly, sitting up straight.

Peter stared at Edmund for a long moment, letting the idea sink in. "Against what?"

"Against nothing--they want something from us," corrected Edmund. "Something they can only get from the kings and queens of Narnia."

"But why take her away--" Peter began to protest, and was interrupted, as the butt of a Centaur's spear thunked down in front of him. He jumped, just a little, and was pleased to see he wasn't the only one.

"We leave now," said Silversharp. She had armed herself with three more spears; a heavy mace was slung through a belt around her waist; and she had a bow across her back. Instead of the light vest she had been wearing earlier, she now had a leather cuirass covering her from shoulders to hips, and a boiled leather helm covered her hair. She looked, if possible, even more warlike and intimidating than she had on the practice grounds.

When Peter just stared at her, she thumped the spear down again, and this time Peter felt the impact rattle in his own bones. "King of Narnia, if that is what you are--your people ride to war. And--" here she shot a glance at Susan, "--we need more archers." Having conveyed her message, she lashed her tail twice and cantered away.

Peter looked at Susan, Edmund, and Rhea. Edmund didn't say anything, and his face was a perfect mask of concerned neutrality: this was Peter's decision. Peter stood up and brushed the dirt from his breeches, settled Rhindon, and nodded to Susan. He wished suddenly for the shield and armor he had left at Cair Paravel: he suspected he would need the protection. "All right, let's go," he said to Susan.

But Susan was not with him. Her dark eyes narrowed, she rose as well, her bow in one white-knuckled hand. "Peter, we can't," she said, sounding for all the world like she had when they had first come to Narnia. "We have to look for Lucy."

She was right--they did have to look for Lucy, but they also had to go with Stormcoat. "The Dryads will not hurt her," he said evenly, hoping the strain wasn't evident in his voice. "And we will leave Edmund and Rhea here, to find her and bring her back." Hoping Rhea was right: forced to believe Rhea was right.

"I'll find her, find out what they want, Su," said Edmund, his voice as earnest as Peter had ever heard it.

Susan still looked mutinous. So Peter stepped closer, bent his head, and said, "The Giants are going to eat that Centaur foal. We cannot put Lucy ahead of their children. And we're not abandoning her--Ed and Rhea will find her."

She bit her tongue, then, and after a dark and awkward moment, bent her head stiffly. "As you will, High King," and swept away towards their packs to pick up another quiver of arrows. If they had not been surrounded by Centaurs preparing for battle, Peter would have put his head in his hands and groaned aloud. As it was, he was grateful when Edmund put a hand on his shoulder.

"Buck up," said Edmund, and gave him a confident smile that didn't hide the concern in his eyes. "I promise to find Lucy if you promise not to get killed by Giants." Rhea stood by him, ears back, and tail waving gently in support.

"Or by our sister?" murmured Peter, with a worried look at Susan, who marched past the two boys without looking at either one of them. Edmund snorted, and Peter clapped him on the back before turning to follow Susan. So this must be politics, he thought, and, went to join the small crowd of Centaurs who were gathering around Silversharp. I don't think I like it very much.

Oh, Aslan, he asked, later, as Windcaller's muscles bunched and surged under him, driving them further into the darkening hills, please take care of them. And he couldn't, at that moment, have said exactly who he meant.

Chapter Text

Lucy was flying.

Not really flying, no, but as close as she could imagine: she sailed through the air, carried by the Dryads faster than anything, maybe even faster than Aslan had carried her and Susan the day he freed the stone animals from the White Witch. Every once in a while the Dryad carrying her threw her to another one, and after the second time Lucy knew they wouldn't drop her, and then it really was like flying. Nothing touching her, just the air whipping past and she could almost believe that if she put her arms out she would soar up into the sky.

She knew she should be afraid--after all, they had scooped her up and carried her off without asking permission, ignoring her protests. And they would not answer any of her questions! But despite her worry, she couldn't be frightened: they were too careful not to hurt her, even as she was thrown from one Dryad's leafy arms to another. Whatever they wanted, it wasn't to hurt her. She would trust in Aslan, and see what happened. Although she hoped Rhea and the others wouldn't be too worried about her.

They traveled for a long time--hours, it felt like, long enough for Lucy to become a little weary of the constant swooping and twigs in her hair. But it came to a stop, eventually, in a quiet glen tucked into a hillside, a great distance from the Centaurs' village. Lucy wondered if Rhea had been able to follow them this far, as the young oak Dryad lowered her to the ground. Unfortunately, the Dryad had gotten Lucy a bit tangled up, and Lucy landed on her head, and crumpled down to the ground in a heap.

"Careful!" warned one of the other Dryads, a fir-youth, Lucy thought, all prickly needles and dark skin. "Don't hurt her!"

"I won't!" snapped the oak-girl, and then patted Lucy's back with one of her broad hands, leafy dress fluttering around her. It was the only awkward move Lucy had seen any of the Dryads make. "You are not hurt, are you, little queen?"

"Only a little," said Lucy, rolling over and struggling to her feet. She had put her hand down on a sharp stone when she landed, and a little blood was smeared on her hand. She wiped it against her tunic and looked around, brushing off the twigs and leaves as she did so. She was in a small clearing in the woods, surrounded by trees and Dryads of many kinds. But all the Dryads were facing the same direction, so Lucy turned to see what they were looking at.

It wasn't much, just an old tree. It was, she realized, as she looked more closely, a dogwood tree, in full bloom with broad white flowers on every twisted branch. Of course, as this was Narnia, the tree, old as it was, must have a Dryad, and Lucy looked about for the tree's spirit. Eventually she saw an old woman--well, old Dryad-- sitting on a round stone a few feet from the base of the dogwood.

She was the oldest person Lucy had seen in Narnia: white-haired and wrinkled, bent and withered, but still strong, with brown-green skin and long fingers on her hands. When she saw Lucy looking at her, her dark eyes gleamed and she raised a hand to beckon Lucy forward. Lucy saw there were gold rings on her fingers, sunken into the skin so it looked like they could not come off. Like the rest of the Dryads, she was clad in cloth that looked like leaves, or leaves that looked like cloth, but hers was tattered and stained, like the foliage of a plant that had gone too long unwatered. Her hair hung loose about her shoulders, caught back from her face by a coronet of green vines with tiny white starlike flowers.

The other Dryads made way as Lucy walked forward, feeling a bit as though she were approaching a queen, and wondered if she should curtsey. But then she realized that she was a queen herself, and kept her head high. She came into the tiny open space before the old Dryad and stopped. She was a queen, but she did not have to be rude, so she nodded politely and said, "Hello. My name is Lucy."

"Hello, Queen Lucy," said the Dryad. "You may call me Whipple."

Lucy nodded again, wishing for Susan and her brothers. This wasn't the same as meeting Tumnus that first time in the woods: this was a grown-up kind of meeting. Well, she wasn't a grown-up, but she was a queen, and that would have to do. "Why did you bring me here?" she asked, trying to speak the way Susan would have. "It wasn't polite to take me without asking." She thought about saying that Peter and the others would be angry about the way she had been treated, but decided not to. It was too much like Billy Corwood claiming that his big brother would come beat up Edmund, after Edmund stopped Billy from teasing Lucy. Lucy didn't want to be Billy Corwood.

Whipple tapped one finger on her knee and smiled. "No, it wasn't polite," she agreed, but did not apologize. "Come sit with me, queen, and I will tell you a story." She motioned to the stone next to her, and Lucy thought about it for a moment, and then sat down. The other Dryads gathered closer, and some settled to the ground, looking like nothing so much as an overgrown garden, Lucy thought, but kept her smile to herself.

She realized Whipple was watching her, so she put her hands together in her lap. "I like stories," she said. "Please go on." She tried to look interested and paid very close attention, all the while wondering what had happened to Rhea, and if anyone would be able to find her here, deep in the wood. She wondered if the others knew she had been taken away yet, and what they would do when they found out. Peter would be very angry, she supposed.

"It is a short story," admitted Whipple. "Before the White Witch, before the great winter, my people filled this entire valley, from the Green River to the northern hills, with every type and kind of tree. Beech and elm; dogwood and maple; oak, ash, and thorn. We seeded everywhere, and our saplings grew strong and tall, and many of them grew spirits of their own, and so the wood was renewed and full of life, as Aslan intended.

"But then the Witch came, and brought the winter down, and we could not seed anymore. No one could fruit in the cold, and although we are strong, queen, and we can grow even in the winter, no seeds could sprout, no saplings could push up through the bitter snow. And our mature trees, well, they could grow no spirits, not when the entire land was caught in the Witch's winter." She paused, and looked around at the fresh green leaves on the trees, as if reminding herself that the winter was over now.

"How awful," said Lucy, struck by the thought that there were no new Dryads born in all the time the Witch had been in power. Even the Talking Animals could bear young in the winter, after all.

"Yes," agreed Whipple, "it was awful. But then Aslan returned! And with your help he broke the Witch's winter, and now we may seed again!" Her words were cheerful, but her face, oddly, was not.

Lucy frowned. "But?" The scratch on her hand was still bleeding a little; she moved her hand to her side so the blood would fall on the ground, and not on her tunic or breeches (Susan often tried to get Lucy to keep her clothing clean, and Lucy very seldom managed it).

The other Dryads stirred, murmuring, and Whipple smiled briefly. "Indeed, all is not well, even now. Because in all those years of the Witch's Winter, we lived near the Centaurs, and they have always taken our wood when they needed it, to warm themselves in the cold, to cook their meals, to make their spears and bows. In the days before the Witch, this caused us no harm: they take only the unspirited trees or the immature saplings, after all, and they would leave the best trees, the most beautiful ones, for us. And we could always seed more.

"But during the winter, they took, and took, and took, while no new seedlings could grow. And now there are no more young trees, no more saplings, no more spring Dryads, not from here to the northern hills." Whipple stopped speaking.

Lucy had a terrible thought. "Did they--they didn't--take any of the spirited trees, did they?" The Dryads might have kidnapped her, but they hadn't hurt her, after all, and she could not bear to think of any of them dying so someone could heat up a pot of stew, for instance. Oh! she thought suddenly. They had eaten stew just that day, heated on a Centaur's stove; and she flushed.

"No, they never did," said Whipple, her voice solemn. "They were very careful." She touched the rings on her fingers, one, two, three, as though they were talismans.

Lucy didn't understand the problem: after all, Aslan had broken the winter. "But now you can seed, right? It is summer, and the sprouts will grow!"

Whipple still looked unhappy. "Yes, and no, young queen. Because there are very few young trees left, and the Centaurs still need wood. If we seed in this valley, very few of the seedlings will grow to maturity: they will be taken young and burned for heat, or used for building. The Centaurs still need wood, and we--need them to not need us."

The forest that they had walked through as they climbed to the Centaurs' home had been empty of saplings, Lucy remembered. She frowned, thinking of the fires that had burned in the Centaurs' stoves, and how small they had been. Even if the Centaurs didn't need any new wood now, it would be a long time before any new seedlings grew into adult trees. The light wind in the trees around them died away, leaving behind only the sound of the Dryads whispering to one another as they watched Lucy think.

"What would you like me to do?" Lucy asked Whipple, finally.

"You are our Queen," said Whipple firmly. "Aslan gave you to us, to look after us. We would like you to stop the Centaurs."

Lucy's eyes widened, but she managed to keep herself from answering right away. Stormcoat was the biggest Narnian she had ever met, aside from the nice Giant Aslan had freed at the Witch's castle. And Stormcoat looked very fierce indeed; she did not see how even Peter and Susan together could convince him to do anything he did not wish to do. But she also knew that if she told Whipple this, well.... She was pretty sure the Dryads wouldn't hurt her, but they wouldn't be happy, either.

And maybe she could figure something out, if she thought about it for a while. Or Edmund could: he was smart about things like that.

"Well," she said after a moment's consideration. "I can try." She tried to look like Susan when she said this, but Whipple did not seem convinced. It was hard to be queen-like when you were a nine-year-old in the middle of the forest.

Lucy stood up and held her hand out to Whipple, who stared at it. (Dryads don't shake hands, you see.) Lucy dropped her hand, and speaking as loudly as she could, so all the Dryads could hear her, said, "I give you my word as Queen of Narnia that I will do everything I can to help you protect your saplings."

It had been a very long day, and while the sky still had some light, the sun was out of sight. Whipple's face was hidden in the shadows now, but she nodded her head once, slowly. "Very well, Queen Lucy. We will hold you to your word." There was a murmur of pleased commentary in the crowd around them.

Oh, thought Lucy, a bit worried, and decided not to wonder what would happen if she wasn't able to keep her word. She would just have to keep it, that was all.

"And now, I think we need keep you no longer. Alba," said Whipple, with a hint of command in her voice. "Please escort the Queen back to her family. And this time, be decorous, if you please. She is your queen, not a Faun-child you are romping with." She gave Lucy a grave nod, and Lucy nodded back.

The oak-girl, Alba, curtsied to Whipple, and held her hand out to Lucy. "Shall we go, queen?" she asked, and Lucy sighed. She was so very tired.

"Yes, please," she said. Alba swept her up into her arms and they set off again through the forest. This time, Alba's pace was much slower and more rhythmic, and there was none of the soaring sensation of their earlier journey. Lucy huddled herself in her cloak against the cool night air, and dozed a little, for she was very tired--the day had begun before dawn with the Centaurs rousing them at their campsite down the valley, and had included a long steep climb and an exciting journey into the forest. But she was also very hungry: the fish stew they had had for lunch was a long time ago now.

"Do you have anything to eat?" Lucy asked Alba, as the oak-girl crossed a chuckling brook. It was now completely dark, and the forest was full of rustling sounds: animals and birds, Lucy assumed, and the occasional insect buzzing past her face. If she were alone, she would be a little afraid, but no animal would attack a Dryad, after all. At least, she didn't think one would.

"Oh, you are hungry?" Alba seemed quite surprised, but not annoyed. She paused, and then veered off the path she was taking into a little dell, where she hunched down and then stood up again. Lucy couldn't see what she had done, but in a moment Lucy felt Alba's free hand touching hers, pressing something crumbly into it.

"What is it?" Lucy asked.

"Food!" Alba said cheerily. "It's my favorite, although I don't need to eat as often as you humans do."

When Lucy brought her hand to her mouth, however, it was dry and crumbly and not tasty at all. "Oh!" she cried, spitting it out into her hand. "It's dirt!"

"Of course!" said Alba, who had returned to her smooth and swinging pace. "Don't you like it?"

"I'm afraid Humans can't eat dirt," Lucy said, trying to be polite. "It makes us ill. I'll just wait until we get back," she added, not eager to discover what else Alba might find to feed her.

"Shouldn't be too long," said Alba, and hummed to herself, a whistling, whispering sort of tune that went well with the rustle and crackle of their movement through the night-dark forest. Lucy was hungry, but she was even more tired, and after a little while, the rocking motion of Alba's long strides put her to sleep.

~

"Well," said Edmund to Rhea, as Stormcoat's troop cantered off in the dimming light. The sun had dropped to the top of the western mountains, and the shadows lay long across the trampled ground of the Centaurs' village. "What do you think?"

Fewer Centaurs than Edmund had expected had gone off with Stormcoat; in the end, only about two dozen had gone, mostly young adults--as they made their farewells, Edmund had realized that most of them were unmated, or at least did not yet have foals to care for. The elders and the adolescents of both sexes had stayed behind to guard the rest of Stormcoat's people, and had already thrown up a ring of sentries at some distance from the village. Edmund watched as a young filly, barely Peter's age by the look of her, led a group of youngsters onto the practice fields for a game involving sticks and a hard leather ball.

Rhea sat down and scratched an ear with her rear leg. "I think," she said, her voice jerking as her foot hit her head over and over again, "that it would be unwise to enter the woods by ourselves, king."

"Oh," said Edmund. It had already been proven that Rhea alone was insufficient defense against a mob of Dryads. "Good point. Do you think anyone here--?" he asked, looking around at the activity. As usual with these Centaurs, nobody was paying them any attention. Twenty yards away, two Centaur foals were talking with an older male: he looked older than Silversharp, with raised silvery scars on his roan flanks. From the great sword strapped to his back and the leather armor he wore, Edmund decided he was one of the war-leaders Stormcoat had left in charge.

"Won't hurt to ask," said Rhea, and trotted off to talk to the Centaur. Edmund was going to follow her, and then hesitated: he didn't want to be in the position of asking the Centaurs for a bodyguard. Rhea could do it, one Narnian asking another for help, but if a King of Narnia did it, it sounded like he couldn't look after himself. So Edmund went back to where they had left their packs and started organizing himself for another night in the woods. He couldn't bring Lucy's entire pack, but he put aside some extra grain-and-seaweed cakes from the Dwarfs, and the blanket from her bedroll. If they did find her, she was likely to be cold.

A warm nose nudged against his shoulder, and he looked up to see Rhea next to him, and behind her one of the adolescent Centaurs, a redhead with a brilliant bay coat, who carried a long spear in one freckled hand. "Firefoot here has agreed to join us," said Rhea, with a flick of her ear that Edmund couldn't read.

Edmund stood up and nodded politely to Firefoot, who was much smaller and shorter than Stormcoat, but still of course much taller and heavier than Edmund and Rhea put together. "Hello, I'm Edmund," he said. "I'm glad you're coming with us."

A broad grin stretched across Firefoot's face. "So'm I! At least I don't have to stay in camp with the foals! Do you think we'll meet any Giants? I can protect you!" He swung his spear in a deadly curve, striking with enthusiasm at an imaginary Giant.

Edmund shook his head. "I hope not; we're looking for my sister Lucy, not Giants." He was sure Firefoot was older than he was, but he felt suddenly as though he were at school, watching the new fellows tumble about ignorantly. His one battle, after all, had been confusing and frightening--and he had barely survived it. He was not nearly as excited about battles and glory as he used to be.

Thinking of battle made him think about Peter and Susan, galloping away north into battle, but his job now was to find Lucy, and to trust that his older siblings could look after themselves. Besides, they were with Stormcoat, and it was hard to believe even a Giant could overcome the Centaur leader's fierce strength. He set Peter and Susan aside for now, trusting in Aslan--and Stormcoat--to protect them. His job was Lucy.

It seemed odd to leave the village as the sun sank behind the mountains, but Lucy was out there in the forest, and even if the Dryads meant no harm, she would be cold and frightened. (Although Lucy had been the most fearless of all of them, when they first arrived in Narnia. Edmund, of all of them, should remember that. Nothing in Narnia truly frightened Lucy.)

Rhea led the way, and Firefoot took the rear: the forest was too dense for Edmund to ride on his back, and Edmund had the sense that it wasn't something that was done all that often. Peter and Susan had ridden because Stormcoat was moving fast and the Humans couldn't otherwise keep up; Edmund didn't have that excuse. He didn't mind: he had been very sore after riding Philip for those few days, and of course no one would ever dream of saddling a Centaur.

Rhea led them south down the valley under the light of the bright stars and a sliver of moon; they went over a rise, and then down again, into an area where the trees were thickly-clustered in groves of pine and oak, and slim stands of birch nearly glowed in the darkness. They walked quietly for an hour or more, Edmund occasionally stumbling on a root or fallen branch, as his night-vision was not as good as the others'. Firefoot sang quietly, or hummed, a song that Edmund couldn't clearly hear but that had words like "sword" and "moon" and "hoof" and "blade" in it. If it weren't for the worry for Peter, Susan, and Lucy that lay cramped in his stomach, it would be a beautiful night hike. Well, that, and the exhaustion that was weighing him down like a Dwarf riding his shoulders.

Finally Rhea drew them to a halt in a small glade, the thin grass on the ground nearly silver in the starlight. "This is where we were," she said, suspicion thick in her growly voice. Edmund saw her muzzle wrinkle as she sniffed the air and the ground. "No one has been here since I left," she added.

Edmund looked around the glade for any evidence of anything, but in the dark everything was the same color, and what evidence would Dryads leave behind, anyway? Just twigs and leaves, probably. He shrugged his pack off his shoulders and dug into it: he was starving, he suddenly realized. There was still some dried fish in a package at the bottom of the pack, and rather than try to light a fire and cook it up, he just bit off a tough piece and chewed on it.

"I hate to say it," he said, around a mouthful of salty fish, "but I think we should camp here for now and keep looking in the morning." If he took one more step, he was just as likely to walk into a tree as around it.

Rhea yawned, stretching her hind legs out behind her so she looked twice as long as usual. "Good idea," she said, and nodded her thanks when Edmund poured half of his waterskin into a pan for her. "Firefoot, can you take first watch?"

"Sleep as long as you like," said Firefoot, who seemed disgustingly lively to Edmund. "No harm will come to you while I am here!"

The light was uncertain, but Edmund was pretty sure he saw Rhea roll her eyes, and he stifled a laugh. Instead, he swallowed the last of his fish, managed to say "Thanks!" to Firefoot, and rolled himself in a blanket. He was asleep before he heard Firefoot reply.

He was awoken by a sudden howl and cries of rage, and then something heavy tripped over his legs and crashed to the ground right next to him. In England, Edmund might have jumped out of bed and looked for somewhere to hide; in Narnia, he was upright with his sword naked in both hands before he could see what was going on.

The stars had moved a long way across the sky, and Edmund guessed it was probably after midnight. The moon had long since set, and in the darkness it was hard to see clearly. There was enough light from the bright stars, however, for Edmund to see that he had nearly been flattened by a falling Minotaur, its head cloven in two by a mighty stroke. Across the glade, there was a whirl of fur and slashing claws: Rhea and something else, something misshapen and sort of man-like.

To his left, Firefoot was yelling Centaur curses and swinging his spear at three short figures--Dwarfs, Edmund realized, who were small and quick enough to do some real damage if they could get inside the Centaur's range. And worse, Edmund saw with a sinking heart, one of them had a bow, and had backed away to get an angle over his companions' heads.

For the moment, no one had noticed him. Edmund was ruefully aware of his unarmored state, without even the petty protection of a helmet, but there was nothing for it. Dropping to a crouch, he slid through the shadows along the edge of the clearing, trying not to trip on anything or crash into a bush, until he came up next to the Dwarf archer. The Dwarf had released an arrow--thankfully missing, as Firefoot backhanded one of the other Dwarfs away--and was setting another to string, when Edmund stepped into the clear and put the tip of his sword to the Dwarf's throat.

"Drop the bow," he ordered, and the Dwarf did--but only to free his hands, so that one knocked Edmund's blade up and away, and the other drew the Dwarf's own sword.

"Blast," thought Edmund dimly, wished he'd had more for supper than a small scrap of dried fish, and then the Dwarf was on him.

Two days of weapons-training do not a swordsman make, it must be acknowledged. But perhaps Aslan had a purpose for Edmund Pevensie beyond any he had already served, because everything Silversharp had taught him the previous afternoon came to him as though he had drilled for months.

The Dwarf was like Ginabrik--short and dark, with a long ratty beard and ragged clothing. He laughed scornfully at Edmund's first stroke, and struck back hard and quick; he was clearly a warrior of many years' experience, not a barely-trained boy like Edmund. Edmund blocked desperately, fell back a step, and remembered to breathe, as Silversharp had said. Dwarfs are shorter than you, the weapons-master's voice whispered in his memory, but likely stronger, until you come to manhood. Keep your distance, use your feet and your speed--if you grapple, he'll have you in an instant.

"Ragnor said he smelled Humans," snarled the Dwarf, ducking under a wild swing and lunging at Edmund. Edmund spun away and dodged behind a tree. "You filthy thing, I'll have your skin for my shield, and carry it in her name--"

And Edmund realized in disgust that the Dwarf was mourning the White Witch, that he hated Edmund personally--perhaps the Dwarf even knew of Edmund's role in the Witch's death. It twisted in his stomach, this idea that there had been someone who cared about the Witch, who had loved her, even. His mouth filled with bile, and he spat to the side before lunging forward again, almost skewering the Dwarf, who jumped aside nimbly.

"Humans!" cackled the Dwarf, as he circled Edmund. "Weak and slow--she'd have had you, she'd have had all of you, from the mountains to the southern waste, if it hadn't been for that cursed Lion. The Queen, she knew what to do, she did, she had plans for you vermin--" His voice dropped into vicious mutters, and he swung again, Edmund dodging back and nearly trapping himself between two trees at the edge of the glade.

They circled again, both stepping lightly, ready to jump to either side. Shouts and howls filled the glade, but Edmund couldn't glance away or take his mind off his opponent. The Dwarf however looked over Edmund's shoulder, and whatever he saw made him lunge forward in a new attack, forcing Edmund back, and back again, with short fast stabbing attacks that Edmund dodged, and parried, and--failed to dodge in time.

The Dwarf's blade cut through the thin cloth on Edmund's leg, slicing a long and shallow line along his thigh. His leg was suddenly warm as the blood flowed down his leg, soaking his breeches and pooling in his boot. It didn't hurt yet, but it would, and he knew enough about blood loss (now) to know he didn't have much time. He had to end this.

In the darkness, the Dwarf probably couldn't see how shallow the stroke had really been, so Edmund staggered, groaning in pain. He let his left hand drop away from the hilt of his sword, so the tip wavered: it was too heavy for him to hold in only his right hand for very long. The Dwarf, as he had hoped, leaped forward. And Edmund dropped to his right, drawing his dagger with his left hand; coming up inside the Dwarf's reach, Edmund stabbed him neatly in the armpit, jamming the blade to the hilt and then letting go.

The Dwarf didn't make a sound, just folded up on the ground like a broken toy, barely half Edmund's size. He almost regretted it, until he turned and saw Firefoot on the ground next to the corpse of one of the Dwarfs, and the last Dwarf standing over them with a blade in his hand.

"No--" Edmund gasped out, and dashed forward, swinging his sword as he went. Whatever he meant to do, the Dwarf didn't live to touch the Centaur again, because Edmund caught him from behind, and he made no more noise than his companions had as he died.

"King!" A voice startled Edmund, and he whirled to see Rhea approach, her flanks torn and bloody, one ear ragged. Behind her was a crumpled form which had to be the beast she had been fighting. "Are you badly harmed?" she asked, nosing at the blood on his leg, and he shook his head, turning back to Firefoot.

The Centaur lay on his side on the ground, panting heavily. One of his legs was bent awkwardly, and Edmund realized with a sickened feeling that it wasn't bent, it was broken: he saw to the side a small hammer, and realized how deadly Dwarfs could indeed be to Centaurs. Firefoot had been pierced many times in the chest and abdomen. His coat was the color of his blood in the dim light, hiding the damage, and it was only when Edmund knelt beside him that he realized the Centaur was unlikely ever to rise. Firefoot had already lost so much blood that it formed a great muddy pool about them, his blood mixing with Edmund's on the dry ground.

Edmund grabbed his blanket and tried to make bandages, but the wounds were so many, and his hands slipped and cramped as he used his knife to tear strips from the tough wool. "I won't--" he muttered between his teeth, "Not another one--" and he couldn't have said what he meant, but his mind was full of Aslan on the Table as Susan had described it, and the Rhinoceros and the Leopards at the battle with the Witch, and now Firefoot, too. Death would have no more of his people.

"King," said a soft voice, and Edmund looked up from his blood-soaked hands to see Firefoot's face. "King," said Firefoot again. "I killed the Minotaur." And he smiled, that brash and joyful smile with which he had met Edmund, just hours before.

"You did, brave warrior," said Edmund, through the tightness that threatened to close his throat. "And two of the Witch's Dwarfs as well. You did mighty work, and your people will sing your name around the council fires." He could see it suddenly, so clearly, the Centaur harpists striking the tune, and the half-grown foals stamping the rhythm as the horde chanted the names of the great warriors of legend.

"I am ... honored," Firefoot said, "to have fought at your side, king. And yours," he added with a little gasp, his gaze shifting to Rhea.

"As I am honored," said the Wolf, and she dropped her head down, bowing to Firefoot the way she had bowed to Peter in the throne room at Cair Paravel.

Firefoot sighed, and his eyes closed. His chest, which had been rising and falling ever more shallowly, stilled completely.

"No," said Edmund. "Aslan, no! Not like this, not in the dirt!" He slapped his hand on the ground, wanting something--anything--to do, and merely splattered bloody mud all over himself. "No!" He slammed both hands down, mindless in his rage.

A shaggy head forced itself under his arm. "Peace, king," said Rhea. "He is in Aslan's Country now, and deserves our honor, not this childishness. Peace."

And Edmund put his arms around her, buried his head in her bloody ruff, and wept.

*

Some time later--Edmund never knew how long, but it was before dawn--he sat up. "Someone's coming," he said, and Rhea raised her head, sniffing.

"I don't smell anything," she said, but she pushed herself to her feet and padded across the glade, limping a little. When she got to the far side, she stopped, hackles rising, and then spun around and came back to Edmund. "They're downwind, moving quietly," she said in a low voice. "Hide yourself, king: we are neither of us fit for another battle."

Edmund was just about to agree, when he stopped and raised his head; it was as though he heard a voice he knew, even though he heard nothing. Something inside him said, Wait: it is a friend, and so he shook his head at Rhea, and instead climbed wearily, painfully, to his feet. If he was wrong, well, he was too tired to run, and at least he would meet it with his sword in hand.

They waited. Rhea stood beside him, poised to leap, fur on her back and shoulders bristling, as the sky lightened and clouds in the east turned green and rose.

At length, when Edmund had begun to think he'd just gone mad from the exhaustion and strain, the trees at the other side of the glade swayed and shifted, and two figures emerged from the wood. One was a tall Dryad, an oak-girl in green-brown and grey, all broad leaves and deep green eyes; and the other was Lucy, her face white with worry. Leaves were caught in her hair.

"Oh, Edmund!" she cried, and rushed across to throw herself into his arms, as though she had been missing for weeks, instead of less than a day.

~

Silversharp offered a hand to Susan as the Centaurs gathered to ride, and it was only when Susan saw Peter heave himself into place on Windcaller's back that she understood what the weapons-master was offering. No one had ridden any of the Centaurs in the battle with the Witch; she paled even to consider putting anyone astride Oreius, who had come close to Stormcoat in force of presence. But this was different--a lightning-fast raid into enemy territory could not wait on Human speed.

"Thank you," Susan said, and allowed Silversharp to pull her up onto her wide back, broad and flat as a sideboard. And, Susan thought as they began to move, about as comfortable. To distract herself, she asked questions. "Where is the boundary between Narnia and the Giants' territory, weapons-master? Do we know, specifically?"

"Hard to know, now," said Silversharp, her breathing as even as Susan's, even though they were moving at a steady canter across the open fields. Ahead of them the hills rose, bright green on the open hillsides and darker green where trees followed the drainage lines and water courses. Beyond the closer summit, the land climbed into murky distance under a sky studded with clouds. "Before the winter, I always heard the border was the ridgeline of these hills. There are more hills beyond, of course, climbing to a high plain and then past that there are mountains and rivers to the top of the world."

Susan looked at the hills ahead, which in the fast-falling night were fading to a washed-out grey. "Well, where was the border during the winter, then?"

Silversharp shook her head. "The snow ended at the foot of the hills, which is how we were able to keep our flocks alive by grazing them in the hills."

So the border was that close. Susan began to ask why the Centaurs didn't just leave Narnia, if a land free of snow was nearby, but Silversharp anticipated the question. "The snow, for all that it made life so hard, also protected us from the Giants. They would not dare to trespass on the Witch's territory. Also, we are Narnians; leaving Narnia would be to forswear Aslan. So we stayed."

"Hmm," said Susan, and lapsed into silence, thinking about borders and boundaries. Without the winter, Narnia was again a green and rich land, and without the Witch or Aslan, it lay undefended. It was likely no mistake that had brought the Giants down into the Centaurs' hills to raid their herds and their herdsmen.

She said as much to Peter when they took a break, a few hours after sunset, in a narrow dell ill-lit by the stars above. "I was thinking that too," he said, around a mouthful of dried mutton the Centaurs had supplied. He chewed, with difficulty, and swallowed, and went on, "The borders are open now: soon our neighbors are going to notice, if they haven't already. They've been kept out for a century, and they must be wondering what happened."

"And if they knew about the Witch," Susan speculated, "they might be wondering what she left behind. Treasure?"

It was too dark to see Peter's expression, but she saw his head nod against the lighter shadow of the canyon wall. "Good point, Su! That hadn't occurred to me. We shall have to investigate that castle of hers. But look, Narnia has more than that, we also have timber and mining and fine metalworking. Furs and hides from the dumb animals, and probably rich farmland in the land along the Great River. We'll have to protect ourselves, and soon."

"Border forts," Susan said thoughtfully, thinking of her history. "Like Hadrian's Wall!" She stood up and bent over, trying to work out the stiffness in her body from riding on Silversharp's back for so long.

"I hope not," said Peter dryly. "When we can barely feed ourselves, much less build and arm an army! But a border patrol, yes, maybe. It's what Stormcoat was doing already, I think."

"What I don't understand," said Susan, following the thought of Hadrian's wall back to Hadrian himself, and then to Rome, "is why the Witch never expanded beyond the borders of Narnia. I mean, she was more powerful than Aslan! She had a century to build her power: why did she never go south of the mountains, or west?"

Peter blinked, staring, as he digested what she'd said. "That," he said finally, clapping Susan on the shoulder, "is a very good question."

And Susan, not sure she wanted to know the answer, could only grimace in reply.

Shortly after that they were on the move again, following the Giants' trail further into the hills, with one of Windcaller's team leading the way. Centaur eyesight had to be much better than human, because in the darkness Susan could see almost no evidence of Giant footprints. Around midnight Stormcoat drew them to a halt in a hollow of the hills, closed in on all sides by trees with long prickly needles. The air about them was close, stuffy with the damp of the trees and the pungent smell of Centaur (which is rather like that of horses, truth be told).

"The Giants are camped on the other side of the rise," Stormcoat said, his voice low. "As we had hoped, they are over-confident, and moving less quickly than they might."

"Are the captives safe?" asked Susan, and Silversharp cast her an approving look.

"I saw Strongwind," said one of Windcaller's team, a young mare with a coat and skin even darker than Stormcoat's. In the night, she would be nearly invisible, Susan realized. "She is hobbled and bound, but looked uninjured. I could not see Startail."

"What is your plan, Lord Stormcoat?" asked Peter, and Susan was grateful he was treading so carefully with the Centaur leader. Aslan had named Peter High King, but insisting on that here, where Stormcoat's own people were at risk, would have been a dangerous move.

"Once they go over the saddle, they will be on the high plain, and from there it is an easy day's journey, in open ground, to Garthung." Stormcoat tapped his spear-butt on the ground, as if pointing to a spot on a map. "We must stop them before they reach the plain: in that country, we cannot defeat them."

"How many are there?" Susan thought to ask. Because she was surrounded by over two dozen Centaur warriors, armed with spears and bows, clubs and shields: it seemed impossible there was any creature they could not defeat.

The dark mare said, "At least eight, maybe more. The fire was dying and it was hard to count."

"That many," said Peter, staring down at the dirt. In the dim starlight, Susan couldn't see his face, just the line of his jaw. "Is there a sentry?"

Oh, no, thought Susan. Peter had an idea, and she was afraid she knew what it was.

The dark mare tossed her head, and her bound hair slapped against the leather of her cuirass. "Only one, and he seemed half-asleep. They are fools, to think they are safe in our own hills."

Susan decided not to point out that they were no longer in Narnia, not since they'd crossed the first ridge a few hours ago. The point remained that the Giants were mostly unguarded.

"Come the dawn, when they set out again, we strike," said Stormcoat. "They will be in a line, easier targets, and we shall have less fear of hurting the captives in the attack."

"Wouldn't it be better," Peter said, cautiously, "if we got the captives out first? Then we wouldn't have to worry about them, and could concentrate on the Giants."

Stormcoat bent his head and gave Peter a long look. It was clear that he knew exactly what Peter was proposing. Susan knew, too, and her stomach clenched.

"It would," Stormcoat conceded. "But I would not require anyone to take this risk."

"In Aslan's name," said Peter, and went to one knee before Stormcoat, "I offer."

"As do I," added Susan, and knelt beside him, ignoring Peter's look of surprise. There was no chance that she would allow Peter to sneak into the Giants' camp without her. Lucy was lost in the woods, and they had left Edmund behind: at least here she would stay with Peter. They would succeed or fail together.

*

The Giants had camped in a large clearing in a steep-walled valley, surrounded by pines and bushes with withered little berries on them. Windcaller and the dark mare, whose name was Shadowrunner, led Peter and Susan along a narrow game trail to the edge of the cover. Beyond this last scrim of trees was the clearing, and the sleeping Giants.

Stormcoat had armed Susan with a long stone knife, its edge as sharp as Rhindon's, and both she and Peter had smeared mud over their arms and faces, to hide themselves in the darkness. Susan had dithered over her bow, but in the end had decided to bring it, just in case. She was far better with a bow than a knife, in any event. Peter had Rhindon, of course, on his back, and a dagger at his belt as well.

"Remember," said Shadowrunner, her voice almost inaudible. "The sentry is on the north side, away from the creek. Stay east and south, and move slowly. You have time: dawn will only come after Revana has dropped beneath the western wall of the valley." She pointed upwards, and through the branches Susan saw a bright star with a greenish tinge.

"We will stay here," added Windcaller, "and if you need us, we will help." But the rest of the troop could not come into the valley, for fear of alerting the Giants to their presence: there was no way for two dozen Centaurs to move quietly. And two Humans and two Centaurs were no match for eight Giants--if Peter and Susan called for help, it would only mean that Windcaller and Shadowrunner would die with them. Susan and Peter both understood this: their eyes had met when Stormcoat first told them the plan, and Peter had nodded solemnly, squeezing Susan's hand.

There was no moon, and while the Narnian stars were bright, they did not make up for the lack of any other illumination: it was quite dark. She and Peter would have to move slowly, Susan thought, or they would trip over the Giants right away and be captured (or worse) on the spot. With a final nod of farewell to Windcaller and Shadowrunner, Peter dropped to his knees and began worming his way through the brush. Susan followed, grateful she'd thought to strap her bow to her back, and that she was wearing breeches instead of skirts.

They had left their cloaks behind, and the night air was chill, but the difficulty of working their way through dense undergrowth without making a sound was enough to keep Susan warm. In fact, within a few minutes she felt sweat streaming down her face, and she hoped it would not wash away the mud. Long pine needles wormed their way inside her tunic, and dried leaves crumbled under her weight, each soft sound echoing in her ears, as loud as the whisper of wind in the trees and the occasional mutter of a sleepy bird. She wished she had thought to ask how good Giant hearing was.

At length, although it could have been barely five minutes, they reached the very edge of the clearing. Peter stopped crawling, raising his head cautiously to look around; Susan followed suit. The clearing the Giants had chosen for their campsite was roughly triangular, the northern tip ending in a narrow canyon that wound up into the hills and eventually to the pass onto the high plain. Susan and Peter were close to the southern end, in a copse of trees that came closest to the Giants' actual campsite. On the far side of the clearing, from what Shadowrunner had said, there was a narrow creek running north to south, entering the valley from a steep and narrow wash on the western side. Susan could just hear a faint trickle of water, and she realized that here, outside Narnia's borders, the summer was dry and the water level low.

Peter touched her arm and pointed to their right: barely discernable in the darkness about forty yards away was a tall figure that she had mistaken for a standing stone. But as Peter pointed, it moved, the lump on the head swiveling, and Susan realized to her shock it was the Giant sentry, standing with his back to the camp, watching the surrounding forest. He had to be at least ten feet tall, she calculated, and even broader than Giant Rumblebuffin. As her eyes adjusted, she saw he was leaning on a stick or pole of some sort--probably a spear. And there were how many of them? Eight, twelve?

Exhaustion swept over Susan suddenly: they had awoken before dawn, walked many miles, trained with the Centaurs, and now here they were, in the forest after midnight, hoping to infiltrate the Giants' camp. Without more than five minutes' rest at any point, and only a few mouthfuls of dried mutton since noon. If only there were a way out of this--but there wasn't. And it had to be easier than swimming through that tunnel, she told herself.

Peter put his mouth to her ear. "Come around from the south, I think. Or split up?"

Split up? Not even for a roast beef dinner and a week's sleep: Susan was not letting Peter out of her sight. She shook her head and, without waiting for Peter to agree, started moving to the left, keeping her body flat to the ground and moving in small, silent increments.

Thirty yards became a universe in miniature: ten breaths to that clump of grass there; still and silent and listening for ten breaths; check the sentry, hadn't moved; now onward to the thistle that caught at Susan's clothing and dragged along the exposed skin of her arm. Ever so carefully, as the stars wheeled slowly overhead, they crept closer and closer to the camp itself, until they were a mere arms-length away from the body of one of the sleeping Giants.

The Giant lay on his back, covered only with a rough cloak, and snored through a wiry beard Susan could see jutting up against the starlit horizon. She was just about to edge past him, heading for the center of the camp where they expected the captives to be bound, when she heard movement, and the tramp of heavy feet. Susan froze, and something went "thump"; it sounded loud enough to wake all the Giants.

Peter's hand closed on her shoulder and Susan twisted her head to look, keeping her shoulders low: the sentry had left his post, and was standing only ten yards or so away, poking with the end of his spear at one of the sleeping Giants. When the sleeping Giant muttered something and sat up, Susan realized it was the change of the watch. Was that good or not? Would the new sentry be sleepy, or attentive? Oh Aslan, she thought. May he be lazy!

The new sentry pushed himself up--and up and up, and Susan realized to her horror that he was even taller than the old sentry, and the old sentry rolled himself into the new sentry's bedroll. The new sentry stretched, mumbling something that Susan couldn't decipher, but that she felt in her ribs like a heavy lorry passing by. Then he stamped his feet and walked across the campsite, going right back to the spot where the old sentry had been. Which was, she thought, blessedly fortunate: if he had picked another spot from which to keep watch, the two Pevensies might well have been spotted, or even stepped on.

A dreadful thought occurred to her. If they think Centaur meat is tender enough for feasting, what would they do with two Human children?

Which was so very much not the sort of thought she needed to be thinking, right then. She took a breath, and then another one, and squirmed on. She passed the sleeping Giant's feet (they smelled so terrible she nearly coughed, which would have doomed them all), wriggled between two Giant women who slept with swords at their sides, and finally found herself at the edge of the now-dead cooking fire. Lifting her head a tiny amount, she twisted to see where Revana was, and was astonished to see the star Windcaller had pointed out was only a handspan above the ridgeline. They were running out of time.

There was a tug at her sleeve; Peter nodded to the right, and Susan peered around him. They had found the captives. The adult Centaur, Strongwind, was bound most conservatively, with rough cords pinning her hands behind her back and more loops hobbling her feet together. She was gagged as well, and lay on her side in the dirt, sleeping or unconscious to all appearances. The foal, Startail, was similarly confined--but his eyes were open, and he was staring at Susan and Peter.

Peter eased himself up onto his elbows and dared a look at the sentry, and then put his head close to Susan. "Might be asleep, hasn't moved in an hour."

Which was useful, but not to be relied upon. Susan bit her lip; it had occurred to her that the fastest way to safety was into the woods at the east side of the clearing, but that would take them right past the sentry. And the Centaurs, even freed from their bonds, could hardly slither out the way the Pevensies had come into camp. Any escape would have to be upright.

She drew her knife and worked her way slowly over to the prisoners. "Stormcoat sent us," she whispered in the foal's ear, and he nodded once. The bonds on Startail's wrists parted slowly, and he barely moved once they were loose. Susan nodded reassuringly and shifted her position so she could work on his feet.

Peter pushed up close to her, and she paused in her slow sawing when she felt his hand on her shoulder. "You free them: I'll distract the sentry." She couldn't think of anything to say: it was their only chance, after all. Peter backed into the shadow of one of the snoring Giants, one hand nearly coming down on the end of the sleeper's spear, but at the last moment, he saw the danger and moved his hand. And then he was gone. Susan blinked away water in her eyes and returned to her task. Aslan protect him, she thought fiercely.

At length Startail was free. "Be still," Susan whispered to him. "Until I give the word, and then we go quietly and fast, that way--" she pointed a finger southeast.

The foal nodded in acknowledgement, although his face was full of desperate hope. "Good boy," she said, and eased past him to get to his mother.

Strongwind had been hit on the head, and there was blood on her face. When Susan touched her shoulder, gently, the Centaur mare jerked, and Susan hissed, "Quiet, we're here to free you. But you must be still." The gag was only cloth, fouled with blood and mud and saliva: Susan cut through it easily and dropped it in the dirt.

The ropes on Strongwind's arms were thicker than the ones on Startail had been, and it took Susan much longer to cut through them. How far away was Peter now? What kind of distraction would he make? He wouldn't expose himself to the Giants, he wasn't that foolish, was he?

She felt the minutes trickling past, heard every beat of her pulse in her ears like a clock. It was a race now, to free the Centaurs before Peter's distraction, to get everyone out of this horrible little clearing before the dawn light trapped them all. Her hand was cramping around the hilt of her knife, muscles in her forearm burning as she sawed. She switched to her left hand but that was too awkward, and she switched back. Finally the last fiber of the rope on Strongwind's arms gave way, and the Centaur let out a long soft sigh as she brought her arms around in front of her. Susan couldn't imagine how much pain she must have been in, bound like that for hours, unable to move or speak to her foal.

There was a rustle in the woods behind them, on the far side of the creek. Susan's eyes widened: how had Peter managed to cross the creek without being spotted? She couldn't imagine, but it didn't matter because the sentry had turned around. Oh, no, Susan thought--if the sentry followed the sound, he was going to walk right past her.

But he didn't, because the rustling sound moved north along the creek, and now there was a soft tink, as of a piece of metal knocking against a rock. Not too loud, just a little suspicious--nothing to wake the whole camp for. The sentry strode across the clearing, passing by the campsite entirely and stopping at the edge of the water. He was facing away from the prisoners, now. "Go!" whispered Susan to Startail, and the foal scrambled to his feet. He hesitated, looking at his mother, and Susan waved him on desperately; he turned and went, stepping delicately with his narrow hooves among the sleeping Giants.

The sentry grunted something, and Susan heard a splash--he must have waded into the creek. Frantic now, she slashed at the cord around Strongwind's legs, and either the Giants had been running out of cord, or the knife had magically become sharp again, because they fell away as though they were cobwebs. "Now," Susan said.

Strongwind surged upwards, knocking Susan aside, and it was too much to hope for that the sentry wouldn't notice this. But Susan couldn't look at him; it was all confusion as she jumped to her feet and felt Strongwind's hand grab hers. She was slung over the mare's back like a rug, dusty hair prickling her skin, hands scrabbling for something to cling to as Strongwind leaped forward.

In two bounds they were out of the campsite, and Strongwind slowed then, just enough for Susan to swing herself around into a proper seat. Behind them there was a roar of outrage, and a spear whistled past: Strongwind didn't stop then, but plunged directly into the trees. There were more shouts behind them now, echoing off the steep valley walls.

Strongwind crashed through the brush and trees, Susan clinging like a leech to her back. "Startail!" shouted Strongwind, her voice rusty and cracking, and they heard the foal answer from deeper in the wood. That was enough to drive them onwards, and so they fled through the forested darkness, following the slope downhill, towards Narnia and safety.

 

~

 

Peter crouched under the bush at the edge of the creek, uncertain. How much time had passed? Was Susan ready? They should have arranged signals. Peter was going to have to assume she was; they were running out of time. He squinted into the darkness, bit his lip in hesitation, and shook the branch once, and then again. It made a rustling noise, loud in the midnight silence.

There--the sentry had turned around. Peter scrambled north along the creekside, making little effort to stay silent for this. It was actually harder than he expected, to draw attention: this side of the little valley had less undergrowth, and the ground climbed steeply away from the water.

The sentry seemed to be following him upstream, away from Susan and the Centaurs. Peter slipped around an enormous boulder, and Rhindon clanked against it before he could prevent it. He threw a glance across the creek, and yes, there was the Giant, right there on the edge of the water. What should he do now? Susan was still surrounded by Giants--even if the Centaurs were free, it was going to be horribly dangerous for them to get away.

Nothing for it. He was crouched in the brush at the edge of the water, and the creekbed was lined with small water-worn stones, perfect for throwing. He picked up a handful of stones.

Scooting carefully back from the creek, he found a stance in the shadow of a great pine, took up the first stone, and shied it across at the sentry. Just as the stone left his hand, however, there was movement in the background, and a flash of pale skin that just had to be Susan. They were off! Abandoning secrecy, then, Peter threw another stone and another, hurling them into the Giants' campsite as fast and hard as he could. "Look this way," he muttered. "Over here!"

In the poor light, he couldn't tell exactly what was happening, but certainly the Giants were rousing: there was shouting and activity, huge dark figures moving around, and the faint clinking of mail or edged weapons. Peter was running out of stones when one of the Giants kicked the fire back to life, and flame spread from one spot to multiple locations as torches were lit. One torch went off to the southeast, following the Centaurs, and another came in Peter's direction. Time to run.

Except there was hardly anywhere to run. Barely a dozen paces west, the slope steepened sharply, and even in the darkness Peter could tell that there was very little cover up the hillside that direction, as the trees spread out. North took him up a narrow canyon, with nowhere to hide, and east took him right back into the Giants. But south was going to be difficult, as the noise of Giants hunting for both the Centaurs and Peter began to fill the valley.

"Over here!" someone shouted from the creekside, in a deep voice that reverberated in Peter's ribcage.

Blast, thought Peter, and realized he was out of options: south it was. He got pretty far, too, racing through the trees and managing to miss almost all of them despite the darkness, but he heard the Giants following. One Giant or many: he couldn't tell from the sound of hallooing from Giant lungs and branches breaking under Giant feet. But at some point the area between the creek and the valley wall narrowed even further, and it was climb the cliff (it was a cliff here, no question); climb a tree and hope the Giants didn't see him (unlikely, as the trees here were mostly scrub pines); or cross the creek and run for the woods on the other side of the clearing.

He was three steps into the knee-deep water, when he put a boot down and it touched nothing, and neither did the other. There was a strange pressure around his chest and shoulders--and Peter realized he was rising up into the air.

The world spun. "Blood and bone," rumbled a voice above and behind him. "I didn't know Dwarfs came this big!"

The Giant must have grabbed his sword-harness and lifted him by it. Peter kicked, but his feet touched nothing, and the way he was suspended he realized he couldn't draw Rhindon. Which didn't mean he was unarmed.

"Not a Dwarf!" he gasped, and drew the dagger at his belt, a long blade he had barely used so far. He raised the dagger over his head and stabbed down blindly behind his neck, striking at the Giant's hand. He felt the knife hit something, and there was a shout, and then he went flying through the air. For a bare second, the wind felt pleasantly cool on his sweaty face and neck.

He hit hard about a dozen yards away, halfway in the creek, with his upper body on the shore. The Giant swore foully behind him, stamping and splashing. It was going to be on him in a moment--he had to run, had to go now.

Peter scrambled forward, boots slipping and splashing beneath him, and dug into the muddy bank with his hands. He'd lost his knife. He pulled himself up onto dry ground, but it was too late. The Giant was upon him. He threw himself to the side just in time, as a club the size of his head smashed into the ground next to him. He rolled, and then again, and then came up on one knee.

The Giant stomped towards him, a huge figure dark against the slowly lightening sky. Peter looked around, but there was little nearby, hardly any trees, no stones, just a a broken branch within reach, and that would have to do. Peter swept it up, and swung it with all his strength.

The branch connected with the Giant's knee with a satisfying thunk. Peter ducked fast, and dodged back as the Giant staggered, grunting in pain.

Successful as the attack had been, however, it might not have been wise--because apparently bashing a Giant in the knee didn't put him down. The Giant lunged forward, shoulders and arms blocking out the little light from the sky behind him. Peter backpedaled, trying to get enough distance to swing the branch again, but Giants have enormous legs, and it--he--covered the distance easily.

"Bugger," said Peter, and, dropping the branch, somersaulted forwarded, rolling between the Giant's legs like a football. As he came to his feet, he drew Rhindon from the sheath on his back. The ring of the sword spun the Giant around, but by then it was too late. The razor-sharp edge of the blade cut through the Giant's hamstrings as though they were nothing, and with a howl, he fell over sideways, nearly catching Peter with one huge hand as he went down.

Peter looked at him, wondering what he was supposed to do now, and then realized he was being stupid. There were shouts behind him, and he had no time to worry about an enemy that was no longer any threat. Time to run.

*

Once he was out of the little valley and down the slope, he lost them almost immediately, by staying in the densest brush and moving as quietly as he could. Giants were just bad at sneaking (for obvious reasons). As he picked his way downhill through the wood, it occurred to him that he had a good chance here of getting terribly lost--it wouldn't take much for him to miss Stormcoat's party and spend the next few days wandering these border hills by himself.

But he didn't get lost, through luck or the grace of Aslan, and the eastern sky was flushing with pale greens and purples when he heard voices off to his left. He turned and headed that way, going straight up the hill as directly as he could, because it might be more sensible to approach at an angle but he was far too exhausted to be sensible anymore. He wanted a wash and a sandwich and eighteen hours in a bed--but he reckoned he'd be lucky to get a few scraps of smoked mutton and the chance to doze on Windcaller's back as they returned to the village.

Stormcoat was in the center of the small clearing, and with him, Peter saw with a flash of relief, were Susan and a Centaur mare he hadn't seen before. That must be Strongwind, then.

Windcaller spotted Peter approaching, and coming forward, clapped him on the shoulder, almost knocking him to his knees. "Well done, son of Adam! All are safe, and we owe many thanks to you and your sister."

"And to Aslan, of course," amended Stormcoat, "without whom we would be naught but beasts in the woods, or worse."

"Right," said Peter, too tired to say any more, and Susan hugged him, her arms strong and fierce about him, and then released him just as quickly.

She cast an angry look at Stormcoat, and then said to Peter in a low voice, "You must help me, you can't let him do it, it's not right!" Her face was flushed, even under the now-dry streaks of mud they had applied so many hours ago. She had her bow clutched in one hand, the other now on her hip as though lecturing Lucy about the proper way to sort the silver. But she'd never spoken about chores with quite that note of righteous fury in her voice.

"Let me, daughter of Eve?" Stormcoat's voice was equally low. "Whatever position you may claim by virtue of the Witch's death, you have no power to command me." He stamped once, and the chatter around them died away into silence. Centaurs turned to look at them.

"What are you talking about?" asked Peter, glancing around. The Centaurs looked ready to move, but they had bundled their small packs to one side, and most had their weapons in hand, as if preparing to fight. Oh.

Stormcoat spoke impatiently, now pitching his voice so everyone in the troop could hear. "The Giants have most horribly violated our sovereignty; they have killed and kidnapped our people. They must be punished."

"But we won," protested Susan. "We rescued Strongwind and Startail! And Peter's back safe, too! We can go home!"

"There must be vengeance for Valedark, and for blood spilled on Narnian ground," said Stormcoat stolidly. "The Giants are in disarray, hunting through the woods for their lost captives. Now is the perfect time to hunt them in turn and remove them. Not one will ever return to Garthung to tell of their end."

Peter blinked. "You want to kill them all?" He hadn't been able to count the Giants, but there were a lot of them, at least a dozen, and they were big. Bigger than Rumblebuffin, bigger and stronger than the Centaurs. It would take a lot to kill even one of them, and he didn't see how they could kill the entire raiding party without losing some of their own people on the way. But Stormcoat had to know that.

"Do you offer counsel, Son of Adam?" Stormcoat looked down at him, his face patronizing, and Peter found himself wrapping his hand around his belt to keep from throwing something.

"Yes." Peter ran a hand over his face, wishing more than anything for a cup of tea. Or a nap. Both would be fine. "Listen," he said, and stepped closer to Stormcoat, lowering his voice so only the three of them could hear it. "We just finished a war, Lord Stormcoat, in case you didn't notice. Narnia's just been freed, after a hundred years under the Witch's rule. We have no government, no roads, no resources, and no army."

Stormcoat stamped again, and said, "I will not--"

But Peter had had enough. He was filthy and exhausted, and had spent several hours crawling through the dirt to rescue lives that Stormcoat seemed ready to just throw away. He put as much snap into his voice as he could, while still keeping it low. "Be silent! Aslan named me High King, and by the Lion's Mane, Lord Stormcoat, you will let me finish."

Susan raised an eyebrow; Stormcoat drew his head back in surprised affront, but after a moment nodded sharply, his eyes narrowed.

Peter took a long breath to bring his voice back under control, and went on. "Slaughtering the Giants' party might be good vengeance, Lord Stormcoat, but it is bad policy. We do not have the strength right now to take on a pitched war with the Giants, which is what such an action would precipitate. Would you put all of your people at risk to salve your wounded pride, that two Humans could do what you could not?" That struck home, Peter saw with satisfaction, and Susan's lips pursed as she suppressed a smile. "Not to mention all the other Narnians the Giants would harm in such a war, peoples who have no role in your battles, and no voice in your councils." He thought of the Fauns they had seen just two days ago, and how little chance they had to protect themselves against Giants.

"And last, my lord, as my sister no doubt said, consider what Aslan would say. Do you truly believe he would approve?"

Stormcoat stared down at him, brows lowered, his dark face thunderous. Oh, Aslan. Help him see reason.

Peter was so very tired. He felt himself sway, and Susan put her shoulder up against his, propping him up surreptitiously. They waited, and Peter found himself holding his breath as he watched Stormcoat think.

At length the Centaur chief spun about, stamped one foot, and shook his spear in the air. "We return home victorious!" he cried, and Peter sagged in relief.

Now all they had to do was get back to Narnia without running into any more Giants. And find Lucy. And hope Stormcoat didn't accidentally-on-purpose stomp on Peter or Susan for challenging him openly. And convince the Centaurs Peter had just offended to join up with him in defending all of Narnia, not only this corner.

And then maybe, just maybe, he could sleep.

*

Peter fell asleep and toppled off Windcaller only twice during the return to the village, which he considered a bit of a triumph, although Susan rolled her eyes at him. After the second time, she made him belt himself to Windcaller, which was less comfortable for both of them, but undoubtedly safer in the long run.

They arrived back in the village shortly after noon, and it was only after dismounting stiffly that Peter realized Lucy had attached herself to him, and Edmund was looking particularly grim. "Oh, good, you're back," Peter said, and weaving slightly, found his way over to their packs and bedrolls. He didn't later remember lying down or unrolling his blankets or anything, and there was a good chance Edmund had done it for him.

He awoke to music, and rubbed at his eyes blearily before sitting up. The sky above the western hills was stained pink and purple, and the stars were beginning to show in the east. Susan was asleep, her face buried in Lucy's bundled-up cloak. Peter thought about waking her, but decided she wouldn't thank him for it.

His stomach growled, and it took some thought to determine that the last thing he had eaten was a handful of dried mutton last night. He was starving.

He was also filthy. He found a clean shirt in his pack--the only clean shirt he had--and walked downstream from the fountain until he found a likely spot. The water was cold, and washing woke him up, but didn't do much for the soreness from the ride, and the crawling, and being thrown across the creek by a Giant. (And falling off Windcaller's back. Twice.)

"Bloody--" Edmund's voice startled him, and Peter dropped his shirt. "What happened to you?" Edmund asked, pointing at the bruises which were beginning to darken his side and chest.

"Ambushed by a Giant," said Peter, pulling his shirt over his head. When he got it on, he shook his head, and grinned when the water splattered Edmund's face. But then he frowned: Ed wasn't smiling: his face looked tight with tension. "What happened to you?" Peter asked in return.

But Ed didn't answer right away. Instead he demanded, "You're sure you're all right?" He'd been doing so much better the last few days; he'd been cheerful and creative, and this worry was new. It was Peter and Susan's job to be overprotective, as it was Ed and Lucy's job to be impulsive and demanding.

"I'm fine," said Peter shortly, picking up his jerkin. "What's been going on here? Ed, you're all right, aren't you?"

Edmund started leading them back to the village. It was nearly dark now, and it was shocking to realize that only twenty-four hours ago they had set out with Stormcoat after the Giants. It seemed so long ago now, as though the chase and the Giants' camp and the escape had taken days, or even weeks.

"I'm fine now," said Edmund, shrugging. Peter couldn't see his face. "Tell you the rest after Su wakes up."

That was all Peter could get out of him, while they found their way to the bonfire in the practice grounds, where the Centaurs were dancing and feasting and celebrating their victory over the Giants. Which it was, Peter guessed, even though they hadn't actually killed any of the Giants, as far as he could tell. Although he wasn't sure about the one he'd hamstrung; he grimaced at the memory. The way the Giant had fallen to the ground made his bowl of stew suddenly unappealing. He made himself keep eating, though: he'd noticed, looking at Edmund, that they'd all lost weight, and they couldn't afford to get sick or weak. Not here. So he ate the bland stew and tried not to think about the Giant's blood on his blade. It would have killed him, anyway, if he'd let it.

Lucy found them there, at the edge of the firelight, and snuggled under Peter's arm without saying anything.

"Oh thank God, is that food? Let me have it!" Peter's bowl disappeared from his lap and Susan dived into it, eating as ravenously as he'd ever seen her. He stared as the stew disappeared, and caught a grin, however fleeting, on Edmund's face.

"Hungry, were you?" Peter asked with a smile, and laughed when she gave him a glare from under her loose hair. Like him, she had washed before coming to the bonfire, and was wearing skirts again, but her hair was loose around her shoulders. You couldn't tell that eighteen hours ago she had crawled through the dirt and the woods to free two captives from the middle of an enemy camp.

"Right, we're all here," said Edmund, and stood up. "We need to talk." He led them away from the bonfire, and back into the village. They ended up near the fountain again, sitting on the stone ledge, or on their bedrolls.

Susan still had her bowl of stew--well, Peter's bowl of stew, but he wasn't going to fight her for it--and she took another couple of bites before putting it down on the stone pavement. "You first," she said, pointing at Lucy. "Then Ed, then us. And where's Rhea?"

"Here, queen," said the rough voice of the Wolf, from the shadows next to the fountain. "I backtracked your trail, to make sure the Giants didn't follow you."

"And?" Peter asked.

Rhea edged forward into the uncertain light from the torches set around the center of the village. "No sign of them, king." She sat down, her ears perked attentively.

"Good. Now, Lucy. Tell us--why did the Dryads run off with you?"

It was a long tale, and Peter had some trouble following it--Lucy wasn't all that good at storytelling yet, she kept going sideways or backwards to explain or describe something, and Peter got confused by the forays into Dryad biology. Edmund's story was easier to follow, but harder to hear, despite Lucy's well-timed arrival with her cordial. At the end, Peter leaned over and put his hand on Ed's shoulder. He wasn't sure what he could say, even now when he and Ed were mostly getting along, so he didn't say anything. Susan of course hugged Edmund, who turned his head away so they wouldn't see his face. Peter was pretty sure he hadn't told it all, but Rhea would have made sure nothing important was left out.

Peter and Susan's story should have been told faster, but they kept interrupting and correcting each other, and of course they had two separate tales for part of the night. When they stumbled to a halt with their return to the village, Peter felt nearly as tired as he had at dawn that morning.

They sat in silence for a few moments, until finally Lucy burst out, "Well, what do we do now?"

Peter shook his head. He'd hoped to use the escape from the Giants as a way to bind Stormcoat and his people to the rest of Narnia, but he feared Firefoot's death would throw a wrench into the works. And he hadn't the least idea what to do about the Dryads.

"Susan was right," said Edmund quietly. "We should have left."

But Susan shook her head. "No, I was wrong. If we'd gone, Strongwind and Startail would be dead--eaten!--and the Witch's creatures might have attacked the village. We saved lives, and that means we were right to stay."

"Well said, young queen." The voice came out of the darkness on the other side of the fountain, and Peter leapt to his feet, his hand going to his sword-hilt. The shadows stirred, and Stormcoat stepped into the light, the flickering illumination of the distant torches shimmering on his skin. He looked different: less stern, the lines of his face softer than Peter had seen them since they'd met him. Rhea barely twitched an ear, and Peter realized she'd known Stormcoat was there all along. Why hadn't she said anything?

Edmund put a hand on his sword hilt, and stepped forward to kneel before Stormcoat. "Lord Stormcoat, I took Firefoot into danger, and lost him: he saved my life at the cost of his own. This is a debt I can never repay."

"As I owe your brother and sister for the lives of my granddaughter and her mother," replied Stormcoat. He looked gravely down at Edmund, and then away towards the west, where clouds were beginning to veil the brilliant stars. "I think perhaps these are debts we should not attempt to repay," he went on, his voice reflective. "These are the ties that Aslan uses to bind us to one another: we may call on one another, and must answer those calls, to honor those debts."

"Oh," said Edmund, scrambling to his feet far more awkwardly than he had knelt. He looked at Peter, at a loss.

"Thank you, Lord Stormcoat," Peter said, and couldn't think what to say next.

"Aslan's voice is not always easy to hear, young king," said Stormcoat, and something in his voice made Peter wonder what he'd heard. "But I have unstopped my ears. He has led us to a new road, and it would be shameful to turn aside merely because it is new. We will hear what you have to say, about this new Narnia you are building."

Susan cleared her throat, but Lucy jumped in, her expression pleading. "But what about the Dryads? We need to do something for them, too!" She looked up at Stormcoat, who was nearly three times her height, her face shining in the torchlight.

And Stormcoat, astonishingly, laughed.

In the end, it was Lucy and Edmund who solved it, while Peter drew aimlessly on the ground (maps, mostly), and Susan tried to keep the conversation on track. When she realized they had an actual proposal drafted, Susan and Peter went into the forest with Rhea to find a Dryad negotiator, and they returned with an oak-girl whom Lucy greeted with joy.

Yet more arguing followed, and Peter forced himself to pay attention, because really, this was what it was all about. If it was harder to be interested in diplomacy than fighting Giants, well, who could blame him?

The Dryads would work with the Centaurs to guard the border, seeding the line of the border itself with sturdy oaks and elms, and patrolling together for thirty leagues east and west of this location on a regular basis. The Centaurs would ask the Dryads what trees were good for felling, would stop taking saplings unless specially approved, and would guard the Dryad's woods against Giants and evil creatures. And lastly--this was Edmund's contribution, and he was justly proud of it--the Centaurs would get coal from the Dwarfs at Pattering Hill, so they would need much less wood from now on.

"Sheepskins for coal," said Susan, as they watched the signing ceremony: willowy Dryads sweeping through the crowd of burly Centaurs, and Stormcoat and Whipple together leaning over the parchment on a great oak table. "Coal for the Centaurs, Centaur protection for wood, and wood for corrals and barns for sheep."

"It's kind of perfect," Peter said, and yawned.

Chapter Text

The Centaurs' village wasn't very much fun in the rain, Lucy decided. The Centaurs were able to mostly ignore the weather, with their sturdy hooves and thick coats, but Humans had a harder time with the rain, for if they got soaked through their clothes (and while their cloaks were warm, they were not mackintoshes), they were likely to get ill. And Lucy did not think it would be pleasant to be ill here in Northern Narnia, where there were no houses and no chicken soup and no mothers to look after them.

So while Windcaller and Strongwind went out on patrol along the border, the Pevensies huddled in the largest shed, sitting uncomfortably and damply on crates and bundles of supplies and trade goods. Sad to say, Lucy thought it was as boring a day as any at Professor Kirke's house (although she would not have said so). Even Narnia could not be all adventures all the time, after all.

After playing four rounds of "I Spy", and several other games, not even Susan could be convinced to continue. Lucy sighed loudly and flopped back against a bundle of burlap-wrapped sheep fleeces (which smelled a bit strongly, but were still more comfortable than the crates or the damp floor). Peter had drawn his knife (Stormcoat had given him an obsidian blade to replace the one he had lost) and was doodling on the dirt floor. Susan was stitching up a hole in her cloak with a needle Silversharp had given her.

"Oh!" said Edmund, suddenly. He pulled his pack into his lap and excavated for some time, tossing aside various dirty items of clothing which Susan greeted with a scowl, and finally unearthed a bundle wrapped in a clean but threadbare shirt. It was a book, a great large leather-bound volume like the ones on the Professor's shelves, but with no gold print on the leather. The edges of the pages were shabby and uneven, and the binding looked like it had been nibbled by mice.

"What's that, Ed?" asked Lucy, scooting forward to look at it more closely.

He didn't look up, but flipped it open and began leafing through the pages carefully. They seemed thicker and sturdier than paper, but the ink was spotty and faded. "I found it in the castle archives, brought it along because I didn't have time to look at it there. It looked like it was..." His voice trailed off as he traced a finger along a spidery line of text.

"Was what?" asked Peter. He leaned forward but the book was upside-down to him and the writing looked hand-written, in an ornate script that was hard to read even the right way up.

"I thought it was a history, but it isn't really," said Edmund. "It's like, oh, you know the Domesday Book?"

Susan shook her head, but Peter nodded. Lucy didn't like the sound of it; nothing fun could be written in a book with a name like that.

"It was a record of property, wasn't it?" said Peter. "After the battle of Hastings."

"Right," said Edmund. "This lists the, um, estates and vassals and taxes taken in all the districts in Narnia for, oh--" he flipped the front of the book and then back to the end, "--the last twelve years before the Winter began."

"That doesn't sound very interesting," said Lucy, but Edmund shook his head.

"No, it is, Lu, look--" and he turned a few pages, scanning rapidly, and then pointed at one line. "Greentree Manor, held by Tumnus Faun son of Tumnus, of Earl Shandon of Lantern Waste, under Queen Swanwhite in this the thirteenth year of her reign. One hundred acres of woodland, six acres of pasture, four families of Fauns as tenants. Yearly tribute of two cords of wood, four weeks of service, and two silver Lions, received on the first day of Spring."

"Tumnus son of Tumnus!" repeated Lucy, thrilled. "Was that Mr. Tumnus' father?"

"Or his grandfather," said Susan. "I can imagine a line of Tumnuses, stretching back to the beginning of the world."

"Right." Peter stared at the book, frowning. "So this tells us who owned all the land and how it was organized. We could re-instate them, if we knew who they were, or their descendants."

"Assuming no one else has moved in, in the meantime," amended Rhea in a dry voice. Lucy jumped; she had thought Rhea was asleep, as the Wolf had been curled in the entry with her tail over her nose for the last few hours.

Susan nodded thoughtfully. "Good point."

"Well, why should that matter?" asked Peter. "The only way they could have it now is if the Witch gave it to them."

Edmund shrugged, and looked uncertain. "I don't know, Pete: if someone has been living on the same land for the last ninety years, it seems rather unfair to kick them off because of a change in government. Um, assuming they didn't do anything wrong themselves."

"Pretty big assumption there, Ed," said Peter, and he looked like he was about to say something else, and then he shut his mouth instead.

Edmund flushed a little, but met Peter's eyes, as though he knew what Peter was going to say.

Rhea yawned and stretched, and Lucy looked over at her, and at the open ground outside. It was still raining, as it had been all day. Two soggy crows sat on the edge of the fountain, looking bedraggled. One of the Centaurs went by, his large hooves churning up the mud in front of the shed. Lucy sighed, but was grateful that at least it wasn't cold; just wet.

When she looked back at the book, Edmund had skipped on, past Tumnus' entry. Susan reached over and tugged at something half-hidden under the book. "What's this, Ed?"

"I forgot about that!" said Edmund and unfolded the paper to reveal a large map in multi-colored (if faded) inks.

"Oh, how beautiful!" said Lucy, and it was. She squeezed in next to Edmund so she could see it right-side up.

"This is much better than the ones the Dwarfs had," said Susan. "Look, Peter, it even has the Giants' castles north of the border!"

"And more," said Peter, scanning the outside edges of the map. He read the names out loud: "Rhidia, Telmar, Archenland, Calormen, Terebinthia, Doorn, Galma--by the Lion, we're surrounded! And look, there are cities in those places! Do we know who lives there? Are there Humans? Or more Talking Animals or Fauns and Dwarfs? Are they friendly?"

Susan nodded, tracing the southern border of Narnia where it wove through the mountains. "And were they friendly with the Witch? If they were, they might not be friendly with us."

"Well, that's an uncomfortable thought," said Edmund.

Lucy didn't like that idea, either. The cloth draped over the opening to the shed flapped in the rising wind, and when Lucy looked up she saw one of the bedraggled crows hunched stolidly in the edge of their shelter. It turned its head when she looked at it, shrugged its wings, and sunk its head, muttering.

"Look here," said Peter, pointing back at the map. "If we follow the river here, and then cut west, we can come out just north of Lantern Waste, not far from the Witch's castle. I think we need to take a look, there. Could be a century's worth of, well, just about anything inside."

Susan nodded slowly. Lucy liked the idea: they could visit Mr. Tumnus! But Edmund just frowned down at the map, and didn't say anything. "Ed?" Peter asked, his voice softer than it used to be, when he talked to Edmund.

Edmund didn't look up, but after a moment, he shrugged and said, "It's a good idea. We should do it." And then he got up and went out of the shed into the rain. The crow, startled, flew off as well, circling twice about the fountain before disappearing into the grey and misty day.

*

 

Once the decision was made, they didn't wait around on it. Before dawn the next day, which was (thankfully) clear and sunny, they arose and arranged their packs. In addition to everything the Dwarfs had given her, Lucy had to add a short bow and arrows made from wood provided by the Dryads, and a green woolen jerkin embroidered with small gold lions along the bottom. The other also had new jerkins, although it was too warm to wear them.

They set out after a hearty breakfast (and many farewells from Stormcoat, Silversharp, and Windcaller) and headed south along the stream. Rhea ranged well ahead of them, circling back now and again to make sure the children were following her lead. They walked for a long time, following narrow game trails through the piney woods, stepping on red-brown needles and soft dirt. Bird song accompanied them: cheeps and chirps and long trills, and a striking black-and-white bird with a yellow bill followed them for some time, chattering occasionally and staring at Lucy. When they stopped to eat cheese sandwiches Strongwind had given them (Lucy thought the sheep cheese was too sharp), Lucy tossed a bit of her bread to the bird. It picked it up, but refused to come any closer.

"Is that a Talking Bird, Rhea?" asked Lucy, pointing to the bird.

Rhea cocked her head sideways; the bird jumped backwards. "Oh, a magpie. Some of them do talk, queen, although many don't. It's hard to tell."

"Really?" asked Edmund, looking up from the book he'd barely put down since yesterday. "That could be rather useful."

"Oh?" said Susan, and then her tone changed completely. "Peter, look!" Lucy followed where she was pointing. They were seated on a rocky promontory, and Susan pointed at a shrub just a dozen feet away on the edge of this small open space. It was nothing much, just a small bush, but some of the wide glossy leaves on it were a brilliant shade of red.

"What do you--oh." Peter sounded unsurprised. "Well. Do you think people know?"

"Know what?" asked Lucy.

"That the summer's ending," said Edmund. He looked up at the cloudless sky, his face bleak.

*

In the late afternoon, the game trail petered out in a great meadow. They had come over a ridge and down the other side, and then up and over another, and now they were in a much broader valley, with a river meandering across the middle of it, and very few trees. A flock of birds--ducks, maybe, although they had bright green heads and yellow wings--burst up from the river and winged away southward. The grass about them was knee-high, brilliant green, with heavy nodding heads full of seeds. Edmund picked some and fingered it thoughtfully.

"Look," said Peter, and pointed down the valley. "What's that?" There were buildings down there, clustered together, barely discernible against the hillside behind them.

Rhea flicked an ear. "Probably Wiggles," she said, "fishing the river. You should meet them." She added, with an amused curl of her tongue, "You'll like them. They're different."

Different was the word for it, Lucy decided. Wiggles (River-Wiggles, to be precise) were tall, skinny people with mud-colored skin and webbed hands and feet. Their hair hung loosely under floppy hats, and they wore no boots. Their dwellings were only mud huts, thatched with straw, but they had built an elaborate series of docks along the water's edge, to which were tied a number of small water-craft. Out in the river, many sticks and logs stood up out of the water, and Rhea said that was a fishing weir.

"Oh, aye," said the Chief Wiggle, a tall man (Lucy thought he was a man, but she wasn't completely sure) by the name of Reedpuller, "we seeded those fields as soon as the snow was off them. But the effort was wasted, for sure the winter's hard upon us. We'll have snow in the week, or maybe a hurricane. The grain will all mold or rust, and we'll be starving by spring."

"You think?" asked Peter doubtfully. "I expect you've got some time yet."

Reedpuller looked at Peter with a smile that made Lucy think of the day that she had tried to teach Mrs. Jenkins' cat to come when it was called. "Oh, it's nice to see Aslan's kings and queens are so full of optimism. The castle will be a place of cheer, I'm thinking. If the hurricanes don't flood it."

"So you know who we are?" Susan asked. "I don't remember seeing you at the battle."

Reedpuller shook his head, which made the long lobes of his ears wobble. Lucy bit her lip so she wouldn't giggle: it wasn't polite. "Wiggles make for poor soldiers, queen. But we hear what there is to hear, from the Dryads and the river-spirits. All of Western Narnia has heard the stories, now, of your defeat of an army of Giants, and how you pulled the Dwarfs of Pattering Hill up out of the endless pit after the mine collapsed. It's an honor to have you visit our sad little village, although I'm embarrassed to say all we have for you is fish, and poor enough at that. It'll likely make you sick."

Far from being poor fish, dinner was marvelous: freshly caught trout, or something similar, fried up with butter and greens and served piping hot. They hadn't enough forks to go around and Edmund ate his with a spoon, but there were no complaints. Even Rhea seemed to enjoy her meal, and she generally preferred her meat much less dead, and preferably bloody. Reedpuller and his wife Greenpool also offered them fried potatoes, explaining that the seed potatoes had been planted before the Winter, and had matured with Aslan's summer, just as if no time had passed at all.

"What other news have you?" asked Peter, after the dishes had been scrubbed with sand and rinsed in the river, and Reedpuller had lit a pipe which smelled so horrible Lucy and Susan had to move upwind. There was a hint of chill in the air, but the stars were out and the wind had died, and so they sat around the fire in their Centaur jerkins and Lucy felt very comfortable and happy indeed.

Greenpool looked up from her knitting, raising her eyebrows. Wiggle women look much the same as Wiggle men, except their hair is longer, bound in thick braids with green ribbons, and their hats have no brims. "News, king? Little enough. I'm sure we'll be at war right soon, between the Giants and the Telmarines, and even the Archenlanders--King Col's sons haven't forgotten their history. But the Dryads say the Deer of the western foothills are fighting over grazing territory, and Giants have killed dozens of Centaurs in the North Reaches. And the Dwarfs of Pattering Hill are near to blows with the Red Dwarfs of Yellow Bluff over the rights to a copper mine west of Cair Paravel."

"That is more news than we have had for some weeks, Mistress Greenpool!" protested Peter, and bowed to her from his seat next to the fire. He should have looked silly, but Lucy thought he looked polite.

Reedpuller shook his pipe out, looked mournfully into a little pouch at his belt, and then tucked the pipe away. "Aye, but there's more. Ugly whisperings about treasure, and revenge, and some folks swearing violence to get their own back--"

A harsh voice broke in. "--That's not ugly whispers, Wiggle, that's plain thievery."

Edmund and Peter both started up, Edmund drawing his sword. "Who's there?" snapped Edmund, and for the first time Lucy thought he sounded like a king, and not just her brother. But they had been facing the fire and their night-vision was poor, and it took some time before Lucy could see the heavy-shouldered figure shuffling out of the shadows. It was a Badger, Lucy saw finally, with a grizzled muzzle and a limp.

"No need to go skulking around our fire in the darkness, Broadclaw," said Greenpool mildly. "We'd have been happy to have you for dinner, as you well know."

Edmund stepped back a pace, making room for the Badger to approach the fire. He didn't lower his sword, though. "That's as may be, ma'am," said the Badger as he moved forward, "but I was in Lantern Waste at noon yesterday and it's a long climb up from there. I've not even been home to dandle my own kits." He ignored Edmund completely.

"Then sit you down and we'll try to feed you, although likely it'll be cold and smelly," said Greenpool, with a look at Reedpuller. He put down his mug and went off into the darkness straightaway. Lucy decided she liked Greenpool a great deal. She wasn't sure about Broadclaw, though; after peeking sideways at his feet, she decided the name fit a bit too well.

"Sit down, Ed," said Peter, and Edmund sheathed his sword at last. "What did you mean, there, about thievery?" Peter asked Broadclaw. "What have you heard?"

Greenpool poured a mug of ale for Broadclaw and he took it in his two front paws and drank it straight off, just like the men in the Black Swan at home in Finchley. Lucy put her hand over her mouth and felt Susan shake beside her, as she stifled a giggle. "Heard? Seen, more like," the Badger answered, though his voice wasn't as sharp as it had been. "Badgers remember, more than we ought, maybe, but we're not fools, not like some, who'll grab what they can, thinking the Lion's looking the other way now."

Edmund looked up sharply at that, and then leaned over to whisper something to Susan that Lucy couldn't hear. Susan nodded, frowning. Peter ignored all of that, keeping his attention on Broadclaw. "Are there are lot of them, these people who are taking advantage? Or do most people trust in Aslan?"

Reedpuller was back now, and the smell of fish frying in the pan was almost enough to make Lucy hungry all over again. It had been a long day of hiking, after all. But Broadclaw ignored the food, and looked straight at Peter. "It's not a matter of trusting the Lion, boy, is it? It's a question of power. With the Witch gone, well, there's plenty who'd have been happy to sit on her seat, cold as it was. Now they've got their chance. And what are you going to do about it?"

~

 

The cold water wasn't helping his feet much. Edmund pulled one foot out of the river and looked at it skeptically. "Blast," he said quietly. It was early yet, and he didn't want to wake anyone.

"Ed, what are you doing?" Peter's footsteps echoed strangely on the wooden planks of the dock. The early mist was rising off the river, and the water was very still but for the ripples where an occasional fish jumped. Somewhere upstream a sleepy duck quacked.

Edmund didn't answer his brother, merely held up his foot so Peter could see the raw, chafed spots on his instep and heel.

"Ouch," said Peter sympathetically, and squatted down next to him, one hand on Edmund's shoulder. "That from your boots? I wondered why you were at the back of the line yesterday."

"They're too small," explained Edmund. He dropped his foot back into the water with a sigh.

Peter stared at him critically for a long moment; Edmund shifted, uneasy. But Peter grinned. "I think you're taller, too. Narnia agrees with you."

Edmund couldn't help the flush of pride that gave him, but his mind quickly returned to the problem at hand. "But my boots are still too small. And I don't think the Wiggles know anything about shoe-making."

"Good point," said Peter, snorting. He stared across the river, eyes unfocusing in thought, and didn't say anything for a while. Edmund's feet began to get cold.

More birds began to call from the trees on the other side of the river, and in the bushes along the riverbank upstream. When Peter spoke again, he didn't look at Edmund. "Are you going to be all right? If we go to her castle, I mean."

If we go to her castle.

Edmund had avoided thinking about the Witch for the last few weeks. It had not been very difficult: everything they were doing was about moving forward, about building ties within Narnia, and binding Narnians to Cair Paravel. But Peter's question put him right back in that cell again--worse, it reminded him of the moment he had so stupidly said Tumnus' name to the Witch. The Faun could be dead now, indeed they all would be dead now, because of him.

He had Aslan to thank for preventing that, and for killing the Witch. Edmund made himself remember the sound her wand had made when he broke it, and the way she had looked so small and crumpled on the ground after the battle was over. (Oh, yes, it had been nasty, but Edmund had forced himself to see her body, to make sure she was truly dead. Susan had gone with him, and neither of them had spoken of it again.)

Aslan had saved him, had saved all of them, had done it by going willingly to the Witch.

"It's just a castle," he said finally, and looked at Peter.

Peter nodded. "Let's go see Lucy about your feet," he said, and stood up. "And we'll keep watch for a cobbler's shop."

*

Peter's obsidian knife was sharp enough to cut through the toes of Edmund's boots: it was the only solution they could come up with, and they had at least another day to travel before they reached Lantern Waste. Lucy was nearly beside herself with excitement over seeing Tumnus again, although Edmund did wonder how happy the Faun would be to see her. He did, after all, leave Cair Paravel without even saying good-bye.

In the end, they did not leave the River-Wiggles' village until after noon. They had lingered over breakfast, and then Peter had insisted on practicing swordplay with Edmund, and Lucy had demanded knife lessons from Reedpuller, which made her brothers nervous. "But I'd rather she can defend herself," said Susan, and given how easily the Dryads had snatched her away, Edmund had to agree.

They walked all afternoon, mostly downhill, along narrow trails and through broad meadows, slowly descending from the northern hills into the wide and rolling country on either side of the North Fork of the Great River. Twice they saw people working in fields in the distance: Fauns and Dwarfs, and once a group of very thin and tiny people who appeared to have wings. Lucy kept looking back at them, as Rhea urged them on.

Around mid-afternoon the river took a sharp turn southward and dropped into a narrower channel. The ground grew rough and the trail swung away from the river, taking them into the hills above what was now clearly a gorge. The river surged between those narrow rocky walls, throwing up great white spumes of water, and Edmund looked down from above, wondering if the Wiggles ever took their boats down this.

"River's higher than I've ever seen it," said Rhea, coming up next to Edmund. "All that snow-melt."

Edmund looked down at the water, thinking of the village near the fords at Beruna. That was miles and miles away, of course, far downstream. "Will there be flooding, do you think?" he asked.

"Sure to be," she said, and laid her ears back. "One hundred years of snow, king. The floods at Pattering Hill were just the beginning, I expect."

The water would rise, and keep rising, and there would be no sandbags, no levees to block it. The crops in the fields, freshly planted after the thaw, would be swept away. And so would some of the people, those who couldn't run fast enough or climb high enough. Houses would be destroyed, lives lost.

Edmund swallowed. "How could Aslan allow this?"

"I don't think he does," said Lucy. She looked down into the gorge with her arms folded across her chest, but the expression on her face was that of someone much older than nine. "I think it's just ... natural. This is what happens when snow melts. And Aslan can't magic that away, or maybe he shouldn't. After all, he couldn't come into Narnia until we'd been here first, and he couldn't magic the White Witch away, either. No matter how much he wanted to. I think the flooding is like that."

"It's just... what happens," said Edmund, doubtfully, and Lucy nodded. "Well, it's bloody awful," he snapped. "Is there anything we can do? Can we send messages downstream to warn them?"

Rhea cocked her head, one ear flopping over sideways. "Certainly," she said. "We'll do it when we camp."

They camped on a rise above the canyon, close enough to hear the river's roar below. While Edmund built a fire (and Peter criticized), Lucy went off to talk to the trees, this time accompanied by Susan. They came back a short time later, but Susan shrugged when Edmund looked up. "No new news, just the same ridiculous stories," she said. She sat down and poked at the fire with a stick.

The sun was setting behind the hill to the west, setting the sky afire in purples and reds. Edmund had never before seen sunsets like the ones in Narnia. Nor sunrises, either, but in England he had always done his best to sleep until noon when he could. Narnian mornings, he wanted to be awake for.

"Well, it's good to know the Narnian gossip network is alive," remarked Peter, pulling his jerkin on as the evening chill set in. "How do we send a message, though? We could tell the Dryads, but it's sure to get garbled within three miles."

"Easy enough," said Rhea, around a mouthful of feathers. With a swing of her head, she tossed a fat bird to Edmund, who caught it defensively. It was still warm. He plucked a feather while Rhea turned around and said to a nearby tree, "Are you going to just follow us around, or be useful?"

A black and white bird popped out of the leaves at that, bouncing forward along a branch until the limb drooped gently with the bird's weight at the end. "Fine, then," said the bird, in a harsher voice than Edmund had expected for a bird of that small size. "What do you want?"

"To send a message to Beruna," said Peter, after a moment. "Warn them about the flooding."

The Magpie fluffed its feathers and said, "And what's in it for me, then? Flying all the way down there, dodging eagles and Harpies and Lion-knows-what."

Rhea said, with a hint of a growl in her voice, "Service to your kings and queens, Corvin. And to your people. Unless you'd prefer that the valley villages be lost? Thinking of good eating afterwards?"

"None of that, Bitch," snapped the Magpie, with an angry flutter of his wings. "I'm not a vulture. I'm a good Narnian, and don't you ever say otherwise."

"Then you'll go?" asked Edmund, uncomfortably aware of the dead bird in his hands. It seemed strange to be talking to one Bird, and getting ready to eat another one. "It's really important."

Corvin flicked his tail irritably. "Fine, fine, fine, I'll go. Floods coming, get out of the plain, that sort of thing? All right then, I'm off."

And he sprang into the air, disappearing above the trees before anyone had a chance to speak.

"He'll get it right, won't he?" Lucy asked Rhea. "He won't forget?"

Rhea shook her head, and sat down to scratch. "He'll be fine. Magpies were the traditional messengers for the royal house of Narnia, or so my mother told me once. He'll be lording it over the other birds, before long."

"Well, good," said Edmund. And then looked down at the bird Rhea had brought them. "So, does anyone want to help pluck this?"

*

Around mid-morning they climbed a last difficult rise, bush-wacking through dense growth that tore at their clothes, and came out on a rocky promontory with a clear view to the west. "By George, look at that!" burst out Peter, and Edmund had to agree. So close and clear that Edmund thought he should be able to touch them, were the Western Mountains, their tops trailing cloudy banners. They looked like an impenetrable barrier, but peering closer, Edmund saw a few breaks in the line that might be high passes.

"What's on the other side, Rhea?" asked Susan, after a long moment.

"Other side of what?" Rhea said, not looking up from the stone she was sniffing around.

Edmund raised his eyebrows. "The mountains, of course!"

Rhea did look up at that, flicked an ear, and then went back to her stone. "I can't see them, but if you mean the Western Mountains, so far as I know, it's more mountains. Rough country, mostly, although there's a pass in the southwest that will take you to Telmar. Not sure why anyone would want to go to Telmar, but there you go."

"You can't see the mountains?" Edmund repeated, momentarily forgetting questions of geography.

"I have a nose, king: Aslan did not see fit to give me a Human's eyes, as well." And there was no real answer to that.

From this point their path was almost all downhill, scrambling down rocky hillsides and narrow treacherous game trails, until they came at last down into more open country, and Edmund began to recognize the shape of the hills around them. "We're in Lantern Waste!" he said, with some pride.

Tumnus' cave was only an hour or so away now, and after stopping for a quick meal (greasy cold grouse, wrapped in the last of their clothing from England: Edmund suspected it was Peter's shirt), they struck out across the broad valley.

They were about to ford a narrow creek when the wind shifted, and Edmund smelled smoke. Rhea's hackles went up, and she said "Quiet!" in a fierce but low voice, before she moved off upstream, nose in the air to follow the scent. Motioning the rest of them to stay in cover where they were, Peter followed Rhea carefully, his unsheathed sword in one hand. The two of them disappeared into the trees within moments.

Edmund stayed with his sisters, holding his sword, and wished furiously for a shield, or better yet an army. He felt exposed, here on the creekside. Susan strung her bow, and took three arrows in her left hand, ready to draw.

They waited, listening to the wind in the treetops. Edmund suddenly remembered Beaver saying that "Some of the Trees are hers, you know." He glanced around uncertainly. If there were still supporters of the Witch in Narnia, here in Lantern Waste, so close to her castle, was a likely place to find them.

It was some time before Peter came back, walking cautiously but not as silently as he had left. He had returned Rhindon to its sheath on his back. His face was somber. "What is it?" Edmund demanded, jittery from the long and frightening wait.

"Murder," said Peter shortly. "Someone set fire to a grove of beeches, and killed--well, we couldn't tell. Maybe a Beaver, Rhea thinks. There wasn't anything left, but there was a lot of blood."

Lucy gasped, "Not the Beavers! Oh, Peter!"

"Not the Beavers we know, Lu," said Peter. "Rhea said there used to be Beavers on every stream or creek in all of Western Narnia, and we're an hour or more from Mr. Beaver's lodge."

Which didn't make it any better, Edmund thought, that it was a stranger to them who had died. Was this war ever going to be over? Edmund sheathed his sword, but kept his hand locked on the pommel. "They must have left a trail--we could follow them."

But Peter shook his head. "Rhea smelled Harpies: they're long gone. Must have been done yesterday, the fire's mostly cold now."

Rhea came back then, slinking along silently, her coat a-bristle and her ears constantly in motion. She didn't say anything, not that there was anything to say, and they set off again. This time they walked very quietly, staying in cover and trying not to leave footprints.

It was a slow and trying afternoon: they were all jumpy and hungry when they finally came within sight of Tumnus' cave. Lucy leaped into Tumnus' arms as soon as he opened the door to Peter's knock, and he appeared to be just as happy to see her, although Edmund noted that he was less enthusiastic about Rhea's presence. To be fair, the Faun had been captured by Rhea's littermate Maugrim, and badly treated as a result.

Tumnus' cave seemed almost fully restored to its previous state (although Edmund had only seen it once), with a new door, freshly painted, and some comfortable chairs arranged around a briskly-burning fire. "Well, now that we're settled," said Tumnus, as he poured the tea (which was in fact rose hip tea, for Tumnus had long since run out of proper tea), "do tell me what you've been up to. There are so many stories going around, and they simply cannot all be true!"

Peter opened his mouth, hesitated, and then closed it again. Edmund shrugged: there was too much to tell, and he looked at Susan instead.

Susan took her tea, put a lump of sugar in it, and said serenely, "We have been traveling around the countryside, meeting people. And--solving problems, where we can."

"And we met Dryads!" said Lucy, in between bites of buttered toast. "Dryads and Centaurs and Wiggles; and a Badger, too," she added somewhat more doubtfully. "It's been ever so much fun! Although this is lovely too," and she looked around Tumnus' cozy little cave, with its trinkets and books and aging but still sound furniture.

Edmund looked, too, and for the first time it occurred to him that Tumnus had tea and toast, and the Beavers had had a ham in their lodge, and yet the Dwarfs at Pattering Hill had been living on dried fish, seaweed, and goat milk for the last hundred years. He opened his mouth to say something, looked at Lucy's cheerful face, and decided to bring it up later. Preferably with Rhea, or Susan.

The conversation had gone on while Edmund wondered about "inequities of income" (to quote his aunt Alberta, which would have disgusted Peter no end, although in this instance Edmund was pretty sure Alberta was on the mark), and now Peter was talking.

"--thought we would visit the Witch's Castle tomorrow. There must be loads of supplies there, that we can use to help people out now that the Winter is over."

Tumnus dropped his toast. It landed butter-side down on the carpet, and Tumnus spent quite an unnecessary amount of time picking it up and brushing crumbs off his chair, before he looked back at Peter. His voice was strained and nervous as he said, "But King Peter, you mustn't, you really mustn't go to the Castle! Oh, no, it won't do at all!"

There was a bit of a silence then, as everyone looked at Tumnus. He flushed quite fiercely, even his chest coloring a bit. "Well, you see, there is--there is someone already living at the Witch's Castle. Several someones. And they--I don't think they would be at all pleased to see you, to be perfectly honest."

~

 

Of course, Susan thought. Why hadn't she expected it? A castle was enormously valuable--just think of all the battles in England over various castles, after all. And the Witch's castle--she and her siblings could never have been the first people to think there might be something valuable in it.

"This is what Broadclaw meant, isn't it?" said Peter, and Edmund nodded.

Susan put her tea down on the tray. "Who are they, Mr. Tumnus? The people in the castle?"

Tumnus looked at her miserably, as if he were somehow responsible. "They call themselves the Western Narnian Patrol, Queen Susan. They moved in, oh, weeks ago. Before I came back from Cair Paravel. They might have moved in as soon as--" he blanched a little, recovered, and went on, "--as soon as Aslan freed those of us the Witch had turned to stone."

"The Western Narnian Patrol," repeated Lucy wonderingly. "It sounds like they're in the Guides, or Gurkhas!"

"I don't know what you mean, Queen Lucy, but they are--not nice people." Tumnus looked down and picked at a scratch on the table.

"So who are they?" Peter repeated Susan's question, with an edge in his voice. "Are they the Witch's followers? Ogres, Hags, Harpies?"

Wolves, thought Susan, with a glance at Rhea. She was sitting by the half-open door, her attention apparently on the evening outside, but Susan was certain she was hearing every word.

"No, no, nothing like that," protested Tumnus. "They're all ordinary Narnians. There are mostly Talking Animals, two or three Holly Dryads, some Dwarfs, a Stag. And an Owl, I think. And the Bear, of course. Bruno."

"Bruno. Of course," said Edmund, in such a dry voice Susan nearly laughed.

"Bruno is in charge, if anyone is, although I don't think they're very organized. It's not like Aslan's army was, you know."

"Well, if they're ordinary Narnians, why won't they want to see us?" asked Lucy, not for the first time cutting through to the heart of the matter. Susan wondered if Lucy had any idea how unusual that was.

Tumnus, however, didn't really have an answer. He hemmed a bit and fumbled with his teacup. Only after a long, uncomfortable moment did Susan take pity on him. "They don't want to see us, Lucy, because we are a threat to them. They have a castle, after all, with whatever treasure or valuables the Witch had inside, and they won't want to share it with anyone."

Much less a group of children imported from another world to be their rulers, she added silently, not for the first time wondering about Aslan's purposes in doing so. If Lucy was right, the Deep Magic had demanded the presence of Human children in Narnia to break the Witch's power, and allow Aslan to defeat her. But why then put those same children on the throne, for pity's sake? They were doing their best, but honestly! It was more than a little ridiculous.

Peter got up and wandered over to the bookshelves. He was, Susan had noticed, much more restless than he used to be: he would now seldom sit when he could stand, or stand when he could walk. He paced now, taking long strides back and forth across the worn carpets covering the stone floors. "I don't like it," he said, and Susan smiled. He glanced up, saw her face, and shrugged in sheepish acknowledgement, and then continued, speaking slowly and thoughtfully.

"It's not just this 'Western Narnian Patrol'--and you'll have to tell me if they really are patrolling anything--it's also that murder last night, and what Broadclaw said. I would have expected the area closest to the Witch's castle to be the most loyal to Aslan, the most likely to rally around the--well, us. But it's not like that, Tumnus, is it?"

"Indeed, my king, it is not," said Tumnus, into his lap. "I am ashamed to say that there are some Narnians who believe that Humans have no place in Narnia, no matter what the prophecies say, or the histories. They blame the last Human queen for Narnia falling to the White Witch (although I suspect the Witch in fact killed poor Queen Swanwhite), and of course the Witch also claimed she was human and that gave her the right to the throne. There is a great deal of resentment. Not that I agree with any of it," he added hastily, looking around at them.

"What are they doing, then, in the castle?" asked Susan. "Are they capturing people, claiming taxes, causing trouble? Or just squatting there?"

"It's not the most comfortable place," noted Edmund quietly. "Not a great spot for a holiday."

Peter nodded, toying with the stone knife at his belt. "And what about that murder? Tumnus, someone killed a Beaver about five miles northeast of here, above Little Raven Creek. We think it was Harpies, but they also set fire to a birch grove, and that could have killed some Dryads too. Would that have been this Patrol, or someone else?"

"Harpies?" Tumnus' ruddy face went pale. "Oh, no, the Patrol is--no, I don't think they would have anything to do with Harpies, or any of the Witch's creatures. They are, well, they're claiming that they're protecting us from evil, from those of the Witch's army that weren't killed or captured in the battle. They say there are thousands of them, Ogres and Werewolves and Hags, scattered all over Narnia, and the Patrol is our only defense."

The fire was dying; Lucy added a log and stared into the fire for a moment, before looking up to say, "But if they had been protecting Narnia, then that Beaver wouldn't have died. They're not doing a very good job."

Slumped in his chair with his arms folded, Edmund might well have been asleep. "That doesn't matter, Lu. They're like those gangsters in American films--they tell you they're going to protect you and you have to pay them for it. Except you're really just paying them to not burn your house down."

Tumnus nodded, his face a mask of misery, although Susan was quite sure he didn't get the reference. "They have been going about to the steadings and the holts, demanding 'support' as they call it. Supplies, food, even labor. They 'recruited' Sharpnose the Fox's two sons last week, even though they're still quite young. When Sharpnose argued with them, they broke three of her ribs."

"I don't believe this!" Peter flung up his arms, almost slamming his hand into the carved stone ceiling of the cavern. "If all of this was going on, Tumnus, why didn't you tell us?"

There was a snort of laughter from the doorway. Susan jumped, startled, as Rhea paced into the center of the room. She sniffed at Tumnus' chair, walked once around it, and settled herself next to Edmund, but she directed her words to Peter. "You forget what I told you when we met, king. Narnians are terrible at politics. They think that if they avoid a situation, it will magically go away.

"Besides," Rhea went on, with an even sharper look at Tumnus, who had drawn his feet in and was staring at her in some distress, "why should they have called you? They didn't actually believe you would do anything."

Lucy swiveled around to face Rhea, looking upset. "What do you mean?"

"She means," said Susan, bitterly, "that the only people who think we are actually the kings and queens of Narnia, and not some puppets whom Aslan brought in solely to break the Witch's power, are, well, us."

"Oh, Queen Susan, I'm sure that's not--" protested Tumnus, but his voice trailed off in the face of Peter's flat stare and Rhea's unblinking regard. His ears drooped. He stammered for a moment and then went on weakly, "I'm sure many Narnians do, it's just that it's such a difficult time right now, and once things settle down...."

"You all expected us to just disappear afterwards, didn't you?" asked Edmund, sounding strangely clinical. "Aslan couldn't possibly have meant for four children to be in charge. We were supposed to go back where we came from. It must have been quite a shock when the stories started coming in from the Dwarfs and the Centaurs."

Tumnus twisted his hands together, the firelight flickering on the golden tips of his horns, but didn't have anything at all to say.

"Bloody hell," said Peter savagely, and swung his arm in a great blow, knocking two goblets and a book off the sideboard. The goblets rang on the floor, the sound echoing from the stone walls of the chamber.

Susan leaned her head against the back of her chair and stared at the ceiling. What on earth were they going to do?

"Not a tame lion," said Edmund, and laughed.

*

The sun was slanting late through the half-open doorway when Rhea stretched, yawned a yawn that curled her tongue out over her white teeth, and went to the door. She was going hunting, Susan realized, and in that moment decided that she wanted nothing better than to be out of Tumnus' stuffy little cave. She stood, slung her bow over her shoulder, and followed Rhea out into the sunlight, ignoring Peter's questioning, "Susan?"

When Susan caught up with her at the edge of the trees, Rhea didn't say anything, just cast Susan a sideways look, snorted once, and kept on into the wood. In the end, it turned out to be much more pleasant than staying in the cave, where Peter was stalking around like an angry bear and Edmund stared blindly into the fire. She crept along behind Rhea, arrow on the string, stepping cautiously over sticks that would crack underfoot or stones that would roll and twist an ankle. On occasion they would stop and Rhea would explain what they were doing, why they needed to be downwind of the meadow, or why this root here would be a good spot for a snare. Rhea of course couldn't tie a snare, but she knew a lot about hunting, and explained things very clearly. Susan listened, and watched, and (she hoped) learned.

When they finally turned their steps back towards Tumnus' home, Susan had three rabbits tied to her belt and held a grouse's feet in one hand. She had shot down the grouse on the wing, under Rhea's careful direction, and was still full of prideful astonishment when Rhea, on the path ahead of her, suddenly froze.

Susan stopped moving, as well. It was full dark now, and she likely wouldn't have been able to find her way back without Rhea. She looked up and around and didn't see anything.

She began to ask, "What is it?" but Rhea crowded into her, forcing her back and off the trail into the brush. "Back and down," said the Wolf in the softest of growls, and Susan dropped to her hands and knees and slid backwards, ending up nearly prone under a thicket of thorns. Dead leaves and twigs caught at her clothing and she was sharply reminded of laying in the woods watching the Giants' camp. Rhea crouched beside her, her dark coat making her nearly invisible in the shadowy brush. She was watching the path they had left, and so Susan did too.

After a minute or two, Susan sensed movement, and caught the sound of voices, too soft to make out the words. Bodies passed by along the path, darker shadows among the trees, their shapes indistinguishable. She counted them, silently, and lost track at about twelve. Several more went by after that, and then the path was clear.

A nightbird called, and an owl answered. The sense of movement died away, and Susan and Rhea stayed where they were, waiting. Finally Rhea stretched and stood up, and led her back onto the trail. The sky above them was clear, but Susan saw the faint flicker of movement above: bats, she assumed. She wondered if they talked, the way the Wolves and Badgers and Beavers of Narnia did. "Who were they?" she asked Rhea quietly.

Rhea wrinkled her nose in a silent snarl. "Ogres, Hags, and Goblins," she said. She sniffed at a spot on the trail, and bristled. "They stank of blood. Someone died tonight."

*

"I told you!" said Lucy, as Susan stepped in through the door. "Peter, you owe me a cheese sandwich." Lucy cast a triumphant look at Peter, who sighed tolerantly.

"Next time we find either cheese or the wherewithal to make sandwiches," added Edmund, from his seat by the fire, where he was paging through his Domesday Book.

Peter nodded to Susan as she raised her hands to show him her catch, and then frowned at Lucy. "How did you know, Lu? That Susan was coming, I mean?"

Lucy looked puzzled, and plucked at the front of her tunic. "I don't know. I just did."

The Domesday Book had to be very interesting, because Edmund didn't look up, but Susan thought she saw his shoulders tighten.

"I see," said Peter, thoughtfully, and shrugged. Susan shrugged right back, and went to get a knife to clean the game. She wasn't entirely sure she liked all the new skills Narnia was teaching them.

*

Dinner was mostly silent. Susan and Rhea's news about the party of Ogres and Hags had been met with worry from Lucy and Tumnus, and pursed lips and thoughtful looks from Peter and Edmund. But Tumnus had been cheered by Susan's offering of fresh meat, and in short order all five of them were sitting down to braised rabbit with carrots and leeks from Tumnus' root cellar. (Rhea took one of the rabbits outside for her own dinner, which Susan appreciated.)

There wasn't enough salt, and Susan felt strange eating an animal she had seen hopping across a meadow two hours before. She found herself pushing the fragile bones of the rabbit around her bowl, and finally picked out the vegetables and simply ate those. Edmund gave her a glance when she pushed her bowl away, and then fished out the meat for himself. He needed it, she decided: he was too thin.

The lantern suspended above the oak table swayed, and Peter's face went from shadowed to shining and back again, but even in that uneven light, Susan found the expression on his face worryingly familiar. She glanced at Edmund, and caught the glint of satisfaction in his eyes. "All right," she said, and set down her spoon. "What is it?"

Lucy giggled, and poked Tumnus in the shoulder. "I told you she would guess! Susan always knows."

With a solemn bow, Tumnus produced a silver coin (from where? Susan wondered) and handed it to Lucy. "In payment of our wager, my queen," he murmured, and Susan nearly applauded. He was the perfect courtier.

"Well, we think we have a plan," said Peter. "I think it should help us deal with both of our problems at once."

"We only have two?" murmured Edmund, but stilled at a look from Susan.

She turned back to Peter and raised an eyebrow. "Pray continue," she said, in a soft parody of Tumnus' courtliness.

Peter snorted, but pushed the soup bowls aside and began gesturing at the (empty) salt-cellar and the butter dish. "We have the Patrol, and we have the remnants of the Witch's army, who have clearly collected themselves somewhere nearby, and they're causing trouble that the Patrol isn't doing anything about."

"Lots of trouble," Tumnus acknowledged. "People are have gone missing, and the Talking Beasts of the forest are afraid. Even the Dryads are nervous, and they never had much to worry about from the Witch."

Poking at the salt-cellar, Lucy said, "Do we have to call them 'the remnants of the Witch's army'? It takes too long. Can't we say, 'the black hats' or 'the enemy' like they do in films?"

It was too serious a discussion for Susan to laugh, so she put her hand over her mouth and just smiled at Lucy. But Edmund didn't laugh--well, he started to, and then he stopped, the sound cutting off as though sliced by one of the Centaurs' sharp stone blades. He stared into space for a moment, his eyes narrowing, and then he nodded and clapped Lucy on the back. "Lucy, that's brilliant! We need a way to draw people together, right, and to have a clearly-defined enemy, and it is awkward to refer to them as 'the Witch's people', as if that's all they are. But they are dangerous and important, and they need a clearer name, one that defines them for everyone.

"So I think we should call them Rebels." He grinned at Susan, flush with triumph.

She turned it over in her mind. Rebellion put them on the outside of legitimate authority, cast them as the enemy, and more importantly put anyone fighting them on the side of right. "Edmund, you're a genius," she said, and his smile was incandescent.

Peter paused, and coughed, and said, "Now that we've established that, can we get back to my plan, please?"

"Your plan?" protested Edmund, still grinning. "I'm the one who came up with the best bits!"

"Yes, right, you just like being underestimated." Peter rolled his eyes.

"Well, I'm very good at it," said Edmund, and Susan laughed. No one who knew Edmund for more than a week would ever underestimate him. But then that was the point, of course: very few Narnians knew the four of them at all.

They talked late into the night, with the candles melting onto the scratched surface of Tumnus' dinner table. At length Lucy fell asleep, her head cushioned on one arm on the tabletop, and Peter carried her over to a pallet against the wall. When he returned, Tumnus opened a dusty bottle of something that smelled like cherries and oak trees when he poured it into shallow wooden bowls.

"It's nearly the last bottle my father put down before the Winter," he said, with an expression caught somewhere between pride and embarrassment. "The vines, over on the south side of Greymantle Ridge, all died many years ago."

Susan lifted the bowl gingerly and took a sip. It tasted of cherries and blackberries and honey and something else, something bitter and old, underlying all the rest. "Oh," she said. The taste of the wine filled her mouth, even after she swallowed, and lingered there, becoming smoother and richer over time. It was fuller and broader and somehow older than anything she had ever tasted, even at the party in Cair Paravel. "It tastes like Narnia," she finally said, and Tumnus flushed, his eyes shining. "It's wonderful."

"It is," conceded Peter, looking at the maps Edmund had spread on the table as if all the answers of the universe were there. "But back to the question at hand. I'm still not comfortable relying on the Patrol, I admit. From what you say, Tumnus, they were in league with the Witch, after all."

Tumnus stilled, as though Peter's words were the Witch's own wand. Susan began to speak, but was interrupted by Rhea.

"You'd have to search a long way to find anyone who wasn't associated with the Witch in some way, king." Rhea stretched, stood up from where she had been curled in front of the fire, and padded loosely over to the table. "Pour me some of that, Tumnus, would you? I'm going to need it."

As Tumnus poured, Susan asked, "What do you mean, Rhea?"

They all waited as Rhea lapped at the rich red wine, without splashing or dribbling at all (unlike any dog Susan had ever seen drink from a bowl), and then sat back on her haunches. "I mean that I owe you an apology, king," she said, looking at Edmund. "A traitor in Narnia today is merely someone who got caught doing what we all did."

There was a quiet clunk as Peter drained his bowl and set it back down on the table. He opened his mouth, closed it again, and then said, carefully, "How did everyone survive the winter? Nothing would grow, there wasn't any trade, and whatever had been put by couldn't possibly last more than a few years." It wasn't, quite, a question. Because Susan could tell he didn't want the answer.

"There must have been some trade," Susan offered, more to take that look off Peter's face than because she thought it was true. Or at least it wasn't all the truth. "Black market trade, hidden from the Witch, with food imported across the borders."

The Wolf's ears twitched in appreciation. "You are right, queen. But the black market by itself wasn't enough, not nearly."

"So what happened?" Edmund asked. Susan felt like they were in a school play, saying the lines they were required to pronounce to make the scene move onward, except it wasn't a scene they wanted to come to the end of. They didn't want the conclusions they knew were coming.

"People left." Rhea lapped at the wine again, and then continued. "They went west into the Wilds--hard country, but there are four seasons there. Some went south into Archenland or even the desert, or southwest into Telmar. The ones who didn't leave, well. Some starved."

Susan took another drink of the wine, although it didn't taste so wonderful now. "And the ones who didn't starve?"

Tumnus had been staring down at the table, gripping the edge of it as though it kept him from flying off into the darkness outside. "The Witch had supplies, you see," he said to the table. "And people were hungry. And at the beginning, she didn't ask for so very much."

There was a silence that went on for too long. Finally Edmund said, "The Beavers had a ham. And a sewing machine."

Rhea nodded, and something in the way she was sitting made Susan think she was keeping her hackles down by force of will. "Nearly everyone, my kings and queen. At one time or another, nearly everyone took food or other supplies from the Witch."

"--In exchange for what?" asked Susan, her mouth dry.

White teeth flashed as Rhea turned away to bite at something on her flank. "What did Jadis want? Names. Service. Errands. The Dwarfs dug ore for her, the Centaurs fought her wars, the Beavers brought her wood and built her furniture."

And Tumnus had very nearly brought her Lucy. But he hadn't, of course, Susan reminded herself, and he had suffered for it terribly. For that she would always be grateful. She reached across the table and took his hand; his breath caught and he squeezed her hand tightly in response, eyes shining.

"But the Beavers--!" said Peter.

"Oh, king," said Rhea, with such patient affection in her voice it brought tears to Susan's eyes. "Narnians who were all good, who were too pure to have anything to do with the Witch--they died, my king."

~
~

The Magpies were annoying. Chatterboxes, all of them, swarming and swirling around Peter and Susan until finally Peter put his fingers to his lips and gave the shrill whistle his father had taught him. The Magpies startled, bursting upwards in a storm of black and white feathers, and then under his eye, settled slowly down, until they clustered on the branches and boulders of the small clearing outside Tumnus' cave.

"I'm told that the Magpies are the traditional royal messengers of Narnia."

"Oh, that's right all right," said one of them, a bedraggled older male with only half a tail. "We carried the Kings' and Queens' word, all across Narnia, and my great-grand-dad, he even went to Calormen once. We're the messengers."

"I have a job for you, then," said Peter, and tried to fix each of them with his gaze. Hoping that they could be trusted, inasmuch as anyone could be. No one is perfectly clean, king, said Rhea's voice in his head. He took out the paper he had labored over with Tumnus and Ed all morning, the list of names from the battle with the Witch. Some of them, at least, must be nearby, and some of them would surely come when he called. They had followed him into battle once before, hadn't they?

This is different. Aslan's not here.

Susan stirred beside him, as he hesitated, and she spoke before he could summon the right words. "This is the message that we charge you to carry. The White Witch's forces have committed murder and arson in Lantern Waste, in defiance of the will of Aslan. Your kings and queens are raising a force to drive these Rebels out of Narnia for good. Protect your families, your friends, and your country: gather at the Ford of White Pines, and bring your arms. You are so charged," she concluded, her voice firm as she met the eyes of each of the Magpies, "In the name of Aslan, son of the Emperor-Over-Sea."

When Susan had finished, the Magpies fluffed their wings and muttered. "Do you need it repeated?" she asked sharply, but the eldest bobbed in his place and said, "No, we have it, we have it, queen."

"Good." She turned and nodded to Peter, who lifted the paper and began to read.

"Carry this word to the Beavers of Beaversdam on the Great River. The Three Goats of Red Hill. Naussa the Panther, Spearfast the Centaur and her sons, Fleet-as-Wind the Cheetah..."

It wasn't a lot of names: they didn't have enough time to raise anywhere near as large an army as had fought the Witch. It just needed to be large enough to do the job.

When he was done, he looked up at the Magpies. "Well? Do you know where you're going? Fly straight and safely, then." And they were gone in a rush, leaving behind a quiet clearing in the mid-day sun, and a few stray feathers.

"How long, do you think?" Susan asked, as they turned back towards the cave. Yesterday's sunshine had given way to a cooler day, with fast-moving clouds and gusts of wind that rattled the limbs of the pines. Peter hoped it didn't portend a storm.

Peter shrugged. "The closest ones may come today; the rest, maybe tomorrow or the day after. You and Ed should probably head out this afternoon to get ready for them."

The others were performing their own tasks while Susan and Peter met with the Magpies, but the kettle on the stove was still hot. Peter poured the tea while Susan began sorting through gear.

"Can I wear this, then?" she asked, and shook out Peter's leather jerkin with a laugh. It was too large for her, but she had nothing similar, no armor at all. He would rather go without himself, than see her so unprotected.

"I think you should," he said, and smiled at her, but it was strained.

"But not your sword," she said, half-joking, and Peter barked a laugh.

Time crawled by. Peter drank three cups of rose hip tea, made up piles of equipment for each of them from their own supplies and a cache of ancient arms they found in a chest at the back of Tumnus' storeroom, and rehearsed Susan on the strengths and weaknesses of Narnian archery. "I hate waiting!" he finally burst out, and leaped up to go to the door again. "What's taking him so long?"

Susan looked up from the map she was studying. They had been trying to determine just where the Rebels were gathered; it had to be a large enough open space for the Harpies to get into the air and the Ogres to keep from fighting one another, with access to water. And not too many Dryads nearby.

"The Patrol won't hurt him," she said calmly, although Peter saw the line between her eyebrows that marked some concern. "He's too valuable."

"So they could keep him as a hostage!" Edmund, captive again in that castle: it was just one of Peter's nightmares.

"Not if they honestly see the Rebels as a threat," Susan pointed out, and sat back from the map, giving him her full attention. "Some of them must have been at the battle, must realize how useful we--and Aslan's backing--can be. And they can't be all bad, can they, or they'd be out with the Rebels."

"But we're a threat to them, too! You heard what Tumnus said." Why had Peter agreed to this plan? (He ignored the fact that he and Edmund had come up with most of it.)

She sighed, looking at him with affectionate frustration. She tapped on the table with the dagger she had been using as a map pointer. "But we're also a tool. Let them think they're using us--it's what we want them to do! And Peter--trust us to do our jobs."

He laughed, suddenly, staring at his cautious, well-behaved sister, sitting in a cave with a naked blade in her hand.

"What?" she asked.

He folded his arms and stared back at her. She wore tall boots with breeches and a green woolen jerkin over a worn tunic: she looked like a pirate queen from the days of old, not a fourteen-year-old schoolgirl. "You wouldn't have said that two months ago."

She raised an eyebrow, glanced down at the knife in her hand, and flipped it suddenly, so it spun in the air and then landed with a solid thump back in her hand. Lucy wasn't the only one who got knife lessons from Reedpuller. "No, I suppose I wouldn't have."

Peter grinned, and then looked outside again. No sign of them. He was just no good at standing around.

"You should go now," Susan said, from behind him, and put a hand on his arm. "Someone needs to confirm that--" she waved back at the table, where the maps lay weighted down by Tumnus' family silver. "And I can send Rhea after you when she comes back. You'll go mad, waiting here."

He caught his breath; the prospect of striking out across the Narnian countryside, fording streams and climbing hills, completely alone for the very first time since they had stumbled through the wardrobe--it was impossibly tempting. And they did need the intelligence. Susan didn't say anything more, just watched his face, as he balanced his desperate need to move with an instinctive caution. He was the High King: he wasn't supposed to put himself in danger--except he was the High King: if he didn't put himself at risk, how could he ask anyone else to?

And with that, the decision was made. "All right," he said, and went to the side of the parlor, where they had piled all their equipment. He quickly picked out his pack, added a waterskin, the last of the dried mutton from the Centaurs, and some writing materials stolen from Edmund. His cloak was too bright; he traded the scarlet for a weathered green one, and slid a stone dagger Stormcoat had given him into his boot.

He hugged Susan at the doorway, feeling ridiculously like a character in a film. The knife at her waist dug into his ribs, and she laughed, before drawing his head down and kissing him on the forehead. She looked like she was going to say something serious, and then dimpled, and just said, "Don't get lost, Pete."

He snorted, clapping her on the shoulder like he would have Edmund. "Make sure you send Rhea on as soon as they return--I want to know exactly what they said." And he turned and jogged away into the wood, feeling more than anything else like it was his first day at a new school, or the first time he took the train alone. His veins felt like they were buzzing with soda water; the wind fluttered the edge of his cloak; and a crow cried out, far overhead, as he struck out northwest, following the winding route of Whiterush Creek.

*

But Peter's quick scouting expedition turned into something rather more dangerous, when after successfully locating the Rebels' camp and getting a rough head-count of their forces (too close, and too many, in that order), Peter picked up a follower on the way back to Tumnus' cave. Rhea hadn't found him: he forced himself to assume it was for legitimate, non-worrisome reasons. But it made things more difficult, since without her nose and ears he was having a hard time determining what, exactly, it was that was following him.

It was also darkening rapidly. He had a suspicion the days were getting shorter, although without a watch he couldn't be sure. (He couldn't remember where his watch was: he thought maybe he'd left it in Cair Paravel, and had a mental image of it sitting on the chest in the girls' room where they'd left most of their English clothes.) It was colder than it had been this morning, and the scudding clouds had become a solid ceiling of light and dark grey. It was going to rain: Susan would be unhappy about fighting a battle in the mud.

This would be the third time he had tried to catch whatever it was that was following him. The first two times it had slipped away--around or past him, he wasn't sure--and he couldn't risk going any further with it on his trail. He suspected he could probably lose it if he cut west, into the steep and unforgiving canyons leading up into the mountains, but he was also sure that if he did, he would lose himself as well. So he had to handle it now, before he led it--whatever it was--right back to his siblings.

This time he decided he'd go for a classic--if it had worked for Robin Hood, it should work for King Peter, right?--and had found himself a great oak with broad, spreading limbs. After laying an obvious track down to the creek's edge, he'd backtracked cautiously and scaled the tree, ending up crouched against the trunk on a branch that had seemed much wider when viewed from the safety of the ground.

It occurred to him, as he waited in the growing gloom (and growing discomfort), that this would be a damned foolish move if it was a cat that was tracking him. He shifted his weight, realized how hard it would be to draw Rhindon in a hurry like this, and carefully swiveled around until he could draw the sword. Then, of course, he was faced with the problem of how to stay in the tree with a large and heavy bastard blade in one hand. And how was he to get down quickly without falling on the sword? In the end, he sat astride the branch with the sword balanced crosswise in front of him, and hoped his enemy had Rhea's eyesight (but not her nose).

Peter had been walking, or running, or crawling, for many hours by now, with hardly a stop to rest. So it was no surprise when he found himself dozing on the tree, and only woke with a jerk as he began to tip over sideways. Swinging an arm wildly, he righted himself, but just enough to see Rhindon slide sideways, pommel first. He made a grab for it, but not fast enough, and he was awake enough not to seize the blade with his bare hands. The sword fell, the hilt bouncing off Peter's boot so that it spun forward into the middle of the path. Peter's eyes followed it, and it hit the ground--right in front of a shaggy grey creature, which leaped backwards in surprise.

Werewolf! thought Peter, and then he realized he had overbalanced in his grab for the sword, and he was falling from the tree as well.

The next few moments were a jumble: he landed on his shoulder, on something that gave under him, and then the rest of his body hit the ground hard. "Ooph!"

Werewolf, Peter reminded himself, and pushed himself up, looking for Rhindon. There was the blade, just a few feet away--and there was the Werewolf's face, even closer. Peter scrabbled backwards, still on his hands and knees, and the Werewolf lunged at him, snapping. He wore no armor: the Werewolf's teeth caught at his left shoulder and ripped through cloth and skin as though they were wet paper. The pain was shocking, but Peter couldn't stop moving or he would be dead. He flung himself sideways, rolling, and managed to get his feet under him.

There was nothing he could do about his shoulder right now, and Rhindon was out of reach, twelve feet away. A distance he could cover in two strides, were it not for the creature in his way.

"So this is what a Human tastes like," hissed the Werewolf, in a voice that sounded like meat frying. It made the hair on the back of his neck stand up. "Thin and weak-blooded, like your Lion," it scoffed, and rising up on its hind legs, it leaped forward at him.

But now Peter had his dagger in his hand, and he met it, stepping forward, dodging the swinging arms with their dirty claws, and ducking low to drive the stone blade upwards. The Werewolf was quicker than he had expected, though, and it slipped sideways, so the blade merely scored along its ribs. It was a messy wound, but not a dangerous one.

This had to end soon, Peter thought. Blood was flowing freely down his left arm, dripping on the dirt so he tracked bloody footprints across the ground as he stepped sideways. The Werewolf wouldn't let him get any closer to Rhindon, though, and instead charged forward again with a savage snarl.

Peter couldn't afford to grapple with it: he wasn't nearly strong enough. But he remembered what his father had done once, when they were out rambling and a dog had charged them from behind a hedge. And Peter had played a lot of football. His kick took the Werewolf hard in the abdomen, so hard he heard ribs crack, and the creature fell backwards with a howl. That was all it took: Peter staggered to Rhindon, swept up the blade and swung about, just in time to spit the Werewolf on the tip of the sword. It died cursing him, or Aslan, he wasn't sure.

Leaving him alone and bloodied in the forest, with a shoulder that felt like it had been turned into mince, and a long walk home in the dark.

Perhaps he should have waited for Rhea to come back, after all.

*

Peter wasn't sure when it was that he heard someone approaching. Except that wasn't right. Someone was approaching, that was for sure, except he wasn't hearing anything. It was more like he felt the footsteps, as though they reverberated softly in his own chest, like a heavy lorry driving past the house. Except it wasn't that, either.

He had sacrificed his shirt, crouched shocky in the bloody mud next to the Werewolf's body, as he tore the cloth into strips and tied it roughly around his upper arm. It was wet through almost immediately, but there was nothing for it. Then he had cleaned his sword (always clean your sword, Sir Peter), sheathed it, and began to walk as evenly as possible down the trail.

He'd seen a film once, in which a man bitten by a Werewolf turned into a Werewolf himself. If that were true, surely someone would have mentioned that before the battle with the Witch, he tried to reassure himself. Regardless, it was hard to keep the thought out of his mind.

It began to rain. If Peter had had the breath, he would have laughed, but it was all he could do to keep moving forward, one step following the other with increasing uncertainty. At some point it had grown completely dark: he was pretty sure that was a natural phenomenon, and not a result of the fact that he'd lost a great deal of blood.

The sound of the rain on the leaves drowned out everything else, everything but the way the pain in his shoulder swelled and faded with his pulse. And yet there was that sense--someone was coming. He stopped, swaying gently, and considered hiding behind a tree, but the closest tree was six or seven feet away: clearly too far. Whatever was coming had better be friendly. Perhaps it would be the Unicorn he had ridden during the battle; Peter couldn't remember its name right now.

The sense of someone approaching grew stronger, and then a voice came out of the darkness. "Oh, king. I came as quickly as I could."

Rhea. Oh, thank the Lion, it was Rhea. Peter nearly staggered, and then he felt the warmth of the Wolf next to him, supporting him as best she could. He couldn't lean on her, but she was there, pushing against him, leading him away from the trail and down towards the creek.

"You need water, king, you've lost too much blood." Peter blinked the rain out of his eyes and found himself kneeling at the edge of the water. He was suddenly desperate with thirst, and leaned forward, scooping the cold water up with his right hand, over and over. When his belly was so full of water he thought he might slosh with it, Rhea shoved her head under his arm and with her help, he levered himself back to his feet.

"How far are we?" he managed to ask, as she led them back up the bank to the trail. "To Tumnus?"

"An hour, maybe two," she said gravely. "Your siblings are all there, and safe. King Edmund negotiated the agreement with the Patrol, and Queen Lucy roused the Dryads, although they are few in this area."

Peter nodded. He remembered being very worried about Edmund, but it was hard to hold onto that. His legs were so heavy, and his arm hurt. He'd hurt it somehow: maybe when he fell from the tree. Why had he been in the tree? It was raining: why were they out in the rain? Shouldn't they be somewhere warm and dry? Mother used to tell stories on wet and stormy nights, because Lucy (and Edmund) would sometimes be afraid of the wind and the thunder.

"Tell me something," Peter said. Mumbled, maybe. "Tell a story."

There was a soft snort from his right, and very briefly a warm tongue swiped his hand. They walked for a little while longer, and then Rhea said, "Very well. I will tell you the story of Earl Shandon and the last defense of Cair Paravel." If you would like to know the story Rhea told, you may read it here, and perhaps you will enjoy it more than Peter did.

*

Peter followed Rhea's voice, as she spoke of battles and treachery, murder and sacrifice, leading him on, until it seemed as though he had always been walking in the wet and slippery darkness, and always would be. Then suddenly there were new voices and hands touching him, which barely reached through the fog of pain and exhaustion, and he stumbled forward as one of them pulled his good arm across a shoulder and led him into a place of warm brightness.

Then followed a period of confusion, in which he was seated, and there was more light, and then heat--and pain--as his clothes were pulled off. And then another voice, shriller, and then, finally, blessedly, warm silence as he fell into darkness.

The door to the cave was open when Peter awoke, the morning light streaming in across the floor. He blinked at the bright sun, and then looked about: he was arrayed on Tumnus' divan, stripped to his underclothes underneath a deep pile of moth-eaten blankets. He turned his head, cautiously, and then felt at his left shoulder. It didn't hurt. Although the skin felt strange: he drew the blankets down and looked.

Where yesterday morning there had been smooth pale skin, with a few freckles, there was now a wrinkled mass of scarred flesh, the size of his palm, just below the point of his shoulder. As though he had been bitten years ago, and fully healed. It didn't hurt, and he seemed to have full use of the shoulder.

"Lucy's cordial can't fix everything, we've learned," said Edmund, handing Peter a cup. "If it's been too long since the injury, I guess it just doesn't work as well."

"Well enough, though," said Peter, raising the arm to demonstrate.

Edmund smiled, though there was a strain about his eyes that hadn't been there yesterday. "You gave us a scare," he said, and drank some of his tea, staring down at Peter. "What were you thinking, going off alone?"

"I was thinking we needed the intelligence!" protested Peter. "Besides--" but it wasn't fair to blame Susan, so he amended the sentence to, "--you were late coming back! I was bored."

Giving him a sour stare, Edmund said, "Part of the point of that exercise was to convince the Patrol that you were well away from here. Getting yourself jumped and chewed on is not lying low, Pete."

"Fine," Peter said, and pushed himself to his feet. "Where are my clothes, and what happened with the Patrol, anyway?"

His clothes had been hung to dry by the fire, and they were still damp, but at least someone had knocked the worst of the mud off them. He struggled into his breeches, just in time for Susan and Lucy to come yawning from the inner room. Susan headed for the teapot, while Lucy threw herself at Peter and hugged him hard. "I was so worried!" she said, her eyes wide. "You were all grey and floppy, it was frightening!"

"Well, you fixed me right up," Peter said, hugging her back gratefully. "I'm sorry I scared you."

"And you left him a brilliant scar he can impress girls with," noted Edmund, and then ducked a lazy swat from Susan.

"We're all back now," Susan noted, dropping into a chair close to the fire. "I think Rhea's outside with Tumnus--Lucy, can you call them in? We need to plan for today."

When they had all settled around the hearth, and Peter had a bowl of lukewarm rabbit stew to eat, he pointed his spoon at Edmund, and demanded, "Talk. What happened yesterday?"

"You want the whole story?"

"You know what Oreius said," said Peter. "Details--"

"--are important. Fine." Ed sounded annoyed, but he looked reassuringly relaxed as he poured himself more tea and settled back into his chair. "Tumnus and I got there later than we planned--the White Rush is running high and it took a while to find a safe place to cross. You'll want to keep an eye on your Dwarfs, I think. We left Rhea and Lucy in a copse of beeches about midway there, and got to the gates around mid-afternoon. There was a small group of people outside, I think they were waiting for handouts--they all looked hungry.

"I couldn't count without looking obvious, but there were maybe 40 or 50 people inside the castle, all armed in some way. Dwarfs, two Cats, a Stag, a couple of Otters, some Fauns, a Horse with an unpronounceable name. Bruno's one of those American bears, a Grizzly, I think, must be at least fifty stone. Tumnus talked fast at the gate, got us in without any trouble, and the guard took us to meet him in one of the rooms."

"Not the throne room?" asked Susan in some surprise.

Edmund shook his head. "No, he was in some other room, looking through crates. There are a lot of crates there." He paused and took one of Tumnus' biscuits, then frowned at it before popping it whole into his mouth. Crumbs fell out of his mouth and Susan rolled her eyes.

Tumnus took up the tale while Edmund chewed. "I made the introductions. Bruno knows me, High King, and we have never caused each other trouble, possibly because I have become very good at staying out of his way. He's not well-liked in Lantern Waste--he's always been a bully, and for all that he's now claiming to protect his neighbors, he was more willing than most to cooperate with Maugrim and the Secret Police. But he received us with some courtesy, and although I think he was skeptical he was willing to accept King Edmund was who I said he was."

"So did he agree with you?" Peter asked. He'd finished his stew and he was still hungry. Susan saw him looking and handed him her biscuits.

"Eventually," said Edmund. "He didn't like the idea much, and I think he suspected I was trying to get access to all the goodies he's found in the Castle--not that he's wrong about that! But we got lucky, sort of. While we were there, a messenger arrived, a Fox who'd found a small Faun holt burned out up in the western hills. And one of the Cats came in, and she'd been at the battle, Pete. She recognized me, and more importantly, she told Bruno about how we crushed the Witch's forces."

"That's a bit of a stretch, isn't it?" Susan interjected. "You weren't exactly winning when we arrived with Aslan!"

Edmund scowled at her and ignored the interruption. "Anyway, that seemed to do the trick. The Cheetah laid it on pretty thick about our strategic brilliance, and you could see him thinking how useful I could be in taking care of all his competition in the area."

"And then thinking how easy it would be to take care of one small Son of Adam when nobody was paying attention," added Tumnus, with unexpected grimness.

"Edmund!" Lucy cried, sitting up so fast she spilled her tea. "He wouldn't really, would he?"

Even now, after all they'd seen, Lucy was still so much herself. Peter wanted to reassure her, but he didn't want to lie to her, either--she was, after all, a Queen of Narnia. The silence lingered for a moment, and finally he said, "He might try, but Ed and Su will look out for one another. And Rhea will be with them. It'll be all right, Lucy."

Edmund brushed some crumbs off his tunic. "I'm not going to get killed, Lu, not even to prove Pete wrong. We can handle Bruno." But Peter thought his voice was a little uncertain, and after all, fifty stone was a very large Bear. He decided he would have a private word with Spearfast, if she came, before he left. Just to make sure.

"Anyway," Edmund continued, filling his voice with confidence that seemed only mildly forced, "Bruno has agreed to ally with us, at least for this. These people are dodgy, but they saw the value of acting against the Witch's forces."

"Rebels," reminded Lucy, and Edmund grinned.

"Exactly. I'm guessing Bruno's smarter than he lets on; he may hold something up his sleeve. And he's got his own intelligence--even before Tumnus introduced us, I got the sense he knew who I was, and he definitely knew we'd come down from the North Reaches."

"Peter, it must have been that crow!" interrupted Lucy, waving one hand. "The one I saw at Stormcoat's village! I knew there was something strange about it, and I was right, it was eavesdropping on us, and then it must have flown off and told Bruno we were coming!!"

Tumnus put a hand over his mouth to hide a smile. Peter just nodded, his mouth full, and waved a hand at Edmund, who drank some more tea and continued.

"Well, there was a crow, so Lucy may be right about that. I didn't recognize him. Anyway, Bruno's heard something, so he quizzed me about you, why we had separated, all that. By the way, you and Lu have spent the last few days on your way to Beruna, to help with the floods. That's why you're not here, so do me a favor and stay out of sight from now on?" Peter didn't reply; Edmund shrugged. "He said he would bring his troop to the rendezvous by sunset today, and the rest of the schedule depends on what you learned on your adventure yesterday."

Peter put his bowl on the table and poured himself more tea. "I got a good look at the rebels' camp. It was pretty big: I'd say they had nearly a hundred people there. Ogres, Hags, Goblins, Werewolves. Quite a few Dwarfs, too--you'll have to watch out for their archery. And Harpies. Oh, and some Wolves." Rhea stirred at that, but didn't say anything. "They're camped--let me see--" He turned back to the table and shuffled through the maps. "Here. On the west side of ... Blackthorn Ridge, just north of an oak grove."

Edmund and the others gathered around, and Edmund traced White Rush Creek with his finger, until he hit the point where it curved away west. The map didn't have topographic lines, like the ones their Uncle George used on his hiking trips, but it did mark the landmarks, like hills and rivers. "Here," Peter said, tapping the map. "Here's their camp. It's not a bad place for a battle, but it depends on your numbers. If you're outnumbered, I'd rather you draw them to you, say at this spot here." He pointed to a rise further down the valley. "I think the hilltop is clear, but there's a lot of trees on the lower slope, it would serve to break their forces up. How many do we have so far?"

"Word has spread very rapidly, King Peter," said Tumnus. "There is a sizeable encampment already at the Ford, and more are arriving every hour."

"Great," said Peter. "Are there any archers?"

"Two squads of Faun archers who fought with us before," said Susan. "You remember Fraxinus and his brothers?"

Peter raised his eyebrows; when that squad of Fauns had run out of arrows, they had dropped their bows and charged screaming into the melee. They had cut quite a swath through the Witch's Dwarfs, as Peter recalled. "How many troops so far, do you think?"

Edmund shrugged. "A few dozen, but like Tumnus said, more are coming in all the time." He turned back to the map. "That looks like it would take us about half a day to get that far, with the entire force. If we can bring them to battle, it won't be before tomorrow afternoon. Which reminds me, how do you want to split up?"

"Do we have to?" asked Lucy. "Split up, I mean."

Susan gave her a look. "You're not going into battle with us, Lu."

"Well," said Peter. "At least, that's not the idea." When Susan glared at him, he shrugged helplessly. "We have to get into the castle somehow. I promise, I won't leave her unprotected."

"I don't need protection!" protested Lucy, apparently forgetting that she wanted to be where the danger was.

Susan folded her arms, frowning. "You know, I'm not sure I like this plan. Too many things can go wrong."

Peter looked at her, scowling at the map, and then down at the parchment spread across Tumnus' table. They were just children, he thought, barely able to defend themselves, and they were taking on this enormous challenge. Driving off the Rebels, sneaking into a fortified castle--it was madness.

But it was what they had to do. Peter sighed, and bent over the charts, and tried to figure out a way to get a group of soldiers into range of the Witch's castle without anyone noticing them.

Chapter Text

When last Lucy had seen the Witch's castle, she had been with Aslan and Susan, and the Lion's glory had overshone everything; between that and the excitement of freeing Tumnus, she didn't recall much about the castle itself, other than the stone statues in corners and on landings, and all over the outer courtyard. Now, looking at it from the wooded ridge to the south, it looked smaller and meaner than she remembered.

But not so very small that it would be easy to take.

The mail-shirt was heavy and hot. Lucy scowled down at it, barely concealed under her tunic, and kicked one boot at the ground, listening to the soft jingle of the rings. She knew Peter was right about the need for armor, but she still disliked it: it would be hard to run like this, and it was tight across her chest and shoulders, making it difficult to draw her bow. She hoped she wouldn't need to fight, although she wasn't afraid to. And this was her chance to actually do something useful and valuable, the way Susan had in the mines, or with the Centaurs. Lucy was tired of being left behind, of being the baby, always protected. If there was some way she could help, she wanted to do it.

Mr. Beaver sat next to her, placidly chewing on a length of wood as they waited. Beyond him, deeper into the woods, Lucy saw Rex, Dora, and Barton, the three Dogs who were acting as Wolves in this bit of deception. Rex was scratching his ear with one oversized foot, and Barton lay on his back next to a tree with his feet splayed, as comfortable as if he were in front of a cozy fire, instead of just about to go into battle. Rankin the Dwarf tested the string on his bow: it went twang quite loudly in the humid afternoon air.

Susan and Edmund had left Tumnus' cave the previous afternoon with Rhea and Tumnus, to meet the recruits gathering in response to Peter's call. Some hours later, Tumnus had come back, accompanied by two dozen Talking Animals and other Narnians, whom Edmund had sent to help Peter and Lucy in their assault on the Witch's castle. Tumnus and his cousin Torvus had led them southeast for some distance, pacing quietly down forest trails in the dark, before doubling back north. They had camped in the woods east of the castle before midnight. The hours since dawn had been spent in planning and argument, as one strategy after another was considered and rejected by Peter and Torvus, who was a Faun with a great deal of military experience and only a little resemblance to Tumnus. The current plan was one Peter had agreed to in desperation, and only if Lucy carried a bow, wore the mail shirt she had borrowed from one of the Dwarfs, and stayed with Beaver at all times.

Edmund had sent a message a few hours ago that he and Susan were on their way to engage with the Rebels. There had been no word since, and Lucy had begun to worry, although she knew she would be wiser to be concerned about her own part here, rather than worry about a battle miles away she could have no effect on.

In frustration, she stood up, stomped around in a circle, and sat down again on the rock next to Beaver. Lucy wondered idly why the Beavers didn't have names, the way the Fauns and Dogs and Bears did. What would Beaver call his children, after all? "Peace, queen," Beaver said, spitting out some bits of wood. "We'll be on the move soon enough."

And he was right, because not thirty heartbeats later, there was a flash above as a Cardinal came to rest on the tree above Lucy. "They are in position, my queen," the Cardinal said, and bobbed a bow. Lucy liked the Cardinals: they were prettier than the Magpies, but apparently not as good at remembering long messages.

"That's it, then," said Beaver. "Ready to run, my dear? Just like old times!"

Her bow and quiver were already over her shoulder, and her knife and cordial were at her belt. Lucy squatted to make sure her boots were properly tied, then took a great breath and stood up again. "I'm ready," she said. "Now, remember," she said to Rankin, "you must make it look as though you are desperate to catch us, so give us a good lead." Rankin just nodded. He wasn't one of the talkative Dwarfs.

The Dogs all leapt to their feet, and Rex gave a kind of all-body shimmy that made Lucy smile. "Well," she said. "May Aslan's blessing be with us all!" And she began to run.

Lucy and Beaver burst out of the woods due south of the castle, directly opposite the gates, which had not yet been rebuilt after Giant Rumblebuffin destroyed them. The castle sat in the middle of a small plain or a great field, surrounded by open ground, so anyone approaching the castle from any direction would be sure to be seen. It was some distance across the field: several hundred yards, at least, and there was no road. The grass grew thick and dense, and grasshoppers and butterflies burst up and out of the greenery around them. Beaver galumphed along behind her, moving remarkably quickly. They were not sprinting: they would need their wind at the end, and they were trying to convince the watchers in the castle that they had been fleeing for some time. But they were still running quite fast, and Lucy could feel it in her legs and her lungs.

It was much harder than the last time she had raced anyone at school, but then of course she hadn't worn a mail shirt or carried any weapons. Sweat ran down her face and into her eyes, and she swiped it away with an impatient hand. "Do they see us yet?" she gasped to Beaver, but he didn't answer.

They were out in the middle of the field now, halfway between the castle and the wood. If anything went wrong now, there was little chance of getting back into cover. Oh! Lucy had forgotten she was being chased. She looked over her shoulder and was relieved to see that Rankin and the Dogs were already closing the distance, moving fast. If Lucy had not known better, she would have been quite frightened: Rankin had such a look on his face, and the Dogs were snarling, their hackles raised.

"There!" gasped Beaver, and Lucy looked ahead to see that it had worked! People were coming out of the gate towards them. Two, three, four--Lucy lost track, but it was a group of Narnians, led by two Dwarfs.

Now it was time for her play-acting. "Help!" she cried, as she and Beaver came closer to the castle walls. "Help, please, they're going to kill us!" She slowed down: it would not do to go into the castle, not yet.

Peter and the others must be on their way by now, she thought, and then she was stumbling forward into the middle of the crowd from the castle. Which was not, she remembered belatedly, the plan: they were all supposed to meet at the same time, so she would not be isolated.

But she had run too fast or Rankin had waited too long, and now here she was, surrounded by the members of the Western Narnian Patrol, with nothing to protect herself with but her dagger and her unstrung bow. This was not how it was supposed to work, and if things went wrong, Rankin and the Dogs were too far back to help her. Well, she would just have to play her part and hope it worked out.

"Please," Lucy gasped to the Dwarf who seemed to be in charge, a red-faced fellow in sturdy mail with a yellow cap on his head instead of a helmet. "Please protect us! The king will reward you!"

"Reward?" said the other Dwarf, who looked younger than the first and wore no mail, just a quilted doublet. "I could do with a reward, Brikamun."

Brikamun scowled, but nodded. "Aye, true enough. Dinabrun, show them they're in our territory now. Filthy Witch-lovers! They should know better than to come near here."

Dinabrun strung his bow with quick movements and put an arrow to the string. Lucy caught her breath: surely they weren't just going to shoot Rankin or the Dogs? But Dinabrun merely sent the arrow into the ground in front of the little group, and Rankin came to a halt, his bow raised.

"That's our prisoner!" he shouted. "You give her back!" Which was more than Rankin had said since dawn, although it still lacked something of the drama Lucy expected.

"Please, no!" she cried, and clutched at Dinabrun's arm (thereby fouling his aim). "They'll kill us!"

"They won't have you," said Brikamun, and leered at her with brown teeth (it was possible he was trying to smile, but if he was, it was the most horrible smile Lucy had ever seen). Lucy tried to hide her reaction, since she was pretending to be grateful for the rescue. "You'll come back inside with us and we'll have a nice chat, won't we?"

Which was the moment when they heard the shouting. Lucy spun around to see Peter pounding towards them, sword in hand, at the head of nearly two dozen Narnians, including a Bear, an Eagle, half a dozen well-armed Fauns, and a Centaur with a sword as long as Peter was tall. Lucy gave a little shriek, which was drowned out by the yelling of the Patrol members around her, as they realized they'd been ambushed.

Brikamun was smarter than Peter had expected, because only a moment after they saw Peter, he grabbed Lucy by the arm and yanked her to the side. Lucy twisted and pulled, but he were very strong. There was a confused moment while she was struggling and she heard Beaver shouting, but she couldn't get free.

When the shouting stopped, she realized that Brikamun had his arm around her neck and a dagger in his other hand. He was shorter than she was, but much stronger. When Lucy grabbed his arm to free herself, it tightened, until she was gasping for breath.

He said, with an ugly laugh, "You be quiet, girl, or there'll be blood, and it'll be your fault, see?"

He jerked her forward, though she turned her head to look for Beaver, and she staggered along with him, feet catching in the long grass, until he came to the front of the small group of Patrol members.

The gate-guards were completely surrounded by Peter's Narnians, and beyond them, Lucy saw more of Peter's company entering the castle through the unguarded gate. Peter stood just ten yards away, sword in hand and tufts of hair sticking out the ear- and horn-holes in the absurd Faun helmet he was wearing. His face went blank when he saw Lucy, which meant nothing good, she feared.

"Lay down your weapons!" shouted Torvus, and Dinabrun shuffled sideways a little, as if he were considering it. But Brikamun snarled at him, and he stopped moving.

"I have your girl here!" shouted Brikamun, shaking Lucy with one arm, and waving his dagger with the other hand. Lucy stared at the dagger: it was quite long, and looked poorly-kept, with a rusty spot near the hilt. "Let us go or I start to cut her! You don't want her pretty blood spilt, do you, Human?"

Shoot him, Lucy thought at Torvus, who had his bow drawn and an arrow on the string. But Brikamun was smart enough to keep her in front of him, and it would be a difficult shot for anyone, even Susan.

She was supposed to be afraid, she knew. Her heart was pounding, and she was very worried about Beaver, and about everyone, really. Except herself. Why wasn't she afraid? Oh, she thought, she almost had it, and then Peter raised Rhindon and held it in front of him, blade pointed at Brikamun.

"If you hurt her, I will kill all of you. No one will survive. This I swear, as High King of Narnia." Peter's voice carried clearly, echoing from the walls of the castle. He didn't look silly anymore, even in the Faun helmet. He looked like he could, in fact, kill them all. Like he was eager for an excuse.

Dinabrun looked uneasily at Brikamun, opened his mouth, and then closed it again. He wasn't alone. As the Patrol members around her shifted uneasily, edging away from Brikamun, Lucy remembered why she wasn't afraid.

"Human king!" sneered Brikamun, and spat. He shook Lucy again. He smelled like smoke and something rancid, and his beard scratched against her skin. "What good have Humans ever been for Narnia? The Witch was right about you after all! You're a fraud, and so is this child-bride of yours--aiyeah!"

Brikamun's words turned into a howl of pain. Because as he spoke, Lucy had taken the small knife at her belt and slashed his leg open, just below the bottom of his hauberk. He dropped his arm from around her neck in shock, and before anyone else took a step, Lucy spun out of his hold and then set the bloody tip of her blade to his throat. The Dwarf's eyes went wide, and his face paled as he stared at her.

"My name is Lucy Pevensie, and I am your Queen," she hissed, and pressed with the tip until a drop of blood welled up. "Drop your weapons."

And they did.

*

 

The first time Lucy had seen the Witch's castle, it had been an eerie sight, tall glowing towers and smooth walls, coated in ice lit from within. It had been mysterious and terrifying--unnatural in a way different from the homely, ordinary magic native to Narnia. Now it was smaller: dull, in fact. The walls were an uninteresting grey-brown stone, topped with wood and tile roofs. The doors were the same as Lucy would have expected to see in any castle in England: sturdy oak bound with iron bands. Even the sharp towers now seemed short and squat, and Lucy wondered if the Witch's magic had affected even the appearance of the castle from a distance, in order to keep Narnians in fear of her. She would not be surprised if it were so.

"Spread out!" Peter directed his miscellany of followers: Fauns and Dwarfs, Dogs and Badgers, Mr. Beaver and (surprisingly) Broadclaw the Badger, who had arrived while Lucy and Beaver were beginning the diversion. "I want to know everything that's in here: supplies, weapons, prisoners. Let's clear this place out, make it clean enough to serve a new Narnia, as Aslan would want from us."

Before they had entered the castle, Peter had hugged Lucy hard, the leather of his cuirass flattening her nose against his chest. Then he pushed her away and examined her carefully, keeping his hands on her shoulders. "You're sure you're all right, Lu?"

Lucy had nodded, and forced herself to smile weakly. "I'm fine. I don't want to do that again, though!" She looked down and sheathed her knife. If there were time, she thought she might like to sit down and maybe have a little cry, but there was no time. And she wouldn't shame Peter by weeping now, besides which it would undo all the arguments she had made earlier. Queens do not weep in public. So when he turned away, she strung her bow, and made sure her knife was secure in her belt, and hoped no one saw her wipe her eyes.

Now, she stood attentively at Peter's side, as he sorted his company into groups to search through the castle. The Patrol members who had been captured outside were bound and guarded in the courtyard. If Edmund had been correct about the numbers, there would still be eight or ten of the Patrol in the castle, but Peter did not seem very worried about them.

"Keep your weapons with you, and look sharp. Let's go, then!" And he waved them on. Torvus led a squadron of Fauns through the front door of the main hall, while Peter took Rankin, Broadclaw, and some of the Dogs up onto the ramparts.

Lucy looked around, and found herself surrounded by more Dogs, and Beaver, who nodded serenely. "Are we going, queen?" asked Rex, one long ear flopped open endearingly. Barton was on his feet, quivering with eagerness, while Dora looked half-asleep, her head on her crossed front paws.

"I think we must," said Lucy, and led her little team up the long flight of stairs into the great hall. Torvus and his team went off to the left, so Lucy turned right. The rooms were smaller than she had expected: dank and musty, as if the melting ice had gone to mold. In one of the larger rooms, they found a magnificent dining set: a long table and a dozen chairs made of some dark and shining wood that smelled faintly of spices, carved with scenes of camels and a great bird with a vulture's head. Lucy would have found it lovely, but there were dark stains on the floor, and when Dora sniffed at them, her hackles went up.

A storeroom behind the dining hall held bags of flour, or some other ground grain. Beaver made a note on a slip of paper he had found somewhere. In the distance, there was a shout, and Lucy jumped, but nothing else happened, and she decided to move on.

After the storeroom, the hall passed the kitchens (which were almost empty, and Lucy wondered what the Patrol had been eating and then realized they probably didn't cook at all, as most of them were Beasts), and then ended in another iron-bound door. This one had a key in the lock; Lucy looked at it uncertainly.

"High King Peter did say to search it all," Beaver said, and Lucy sighed.

"Yes, he did." She turned the key, which was very cold (although it was a warm day), and the door opened stiffly. A cold breeze eased through the doorway, and in the dim light from the high windows, Lucy saw a narrow stairway going down into darkness. "Someone fetch a torch," she said. (It only occurred to her much later that this was the sort of thing a queen would say, and expect to be obeyed, and she had said it without even thinking.)

Several minutes passed while Rex was gone. Lucy leaned against the wall and tried not to think about what would be in a dungeon belonging to the White Witch. Jadis had been fierce and strong and hateful: she had tormented Edmund and killed Aslan in a frenzy of hate and ambition. But she had not been as powerful as she thought: Aslan, of course, had broken her power, turning her malice into glory.

But standing here in the Witch's own fastness, Lucy was reminded of the strength of the Witch's hold on Narnia. One hundred years she had ruled, and in that time Aslan himself had not been able to break her power. Narnians had starved and fled and fought and compromised and died under Jadis' rule, but none of them had defeated her, not even the good Giants or the wise and powerful Centaurs. And if the Witch had been willing to sacrifice Aslan himself for power, what else might she, could she, have done?

What evils took place in these walls? Lucy shivered, and rubbed her arms.

Rex came running up the hall, a half-extinguished torch held sideways in his jaws. Lucy rescued it before he dropped it or drooled enough to put it out entirely. After a few moments, the flame settled into something that might serve. She swallowed and set her foot on the first stair. She couldn't carry both the torch and her bow, so she kept her bow on her shoulder, and instead drew her knife with her left hand. "Let's go," she said.

The stairs led downwards in a straight, short flight, and paused at a broad landing on a hallway that stretched away to the right and left. Lucy listened: there was nothing living down here, not if her ears or that strange knowing she had developed were to be trusted. "Dora, Barton, you check that way," she directed, and led Rex and Beaver the other direction.

What they found were empty rooms: cells, to be precise, as they had ornate wrought-iron doors which could only be locked from the outside. They were, thankfully, empty of any prisoners, although the chains and shackles gave evidence of frequent use. There were stains on the floor Lucy didn't want to examine, and the cells smelled of urine. In the second room Lucy examined, she found a scrap of cloth on the ground, and stared at it for a long moment before identifying it as Edmund's pocket handkerchief. She picked it up and folded it carefully before tucking it away inside her jerkin. He probably wouldn't want it, she knew, but it seemed wrong to leave it here.

All the cells were empty, the shackles on the walls hanging open. Lucy was grateful for that: at least the Patrol wasn't imprisoning any other Narnians. But the stairway continued down, past this floor of empty cells. Where did it go? Nowhere good, she had to assume.

This time, Rex insisted on leading the way: Lucy followed his gently-waving tail down into darkness. It wasn't like the royal archives at Cair Paravel (the discovery of which now seemed to be years in the past, not merely a few weeks): the stairway was much narrower now, and it twisted upon itself at least twice, so they lost sight of the doorway above. The air changed, as well; what had been merely dank above became thick and foul, reminding Lucy of nothing more than rotted vegetables.

Something horrible was down here. She wished she had more light than this single torch.

Beaver, sticking close beside her, hesitated between one step and the next. "We could send for help," he said, quietly, but Lucy shook her head. She had three Dogs and Beaver, and her knife and bow. The Witch was gone. And Aslan was with her, as he always was.

The stones beneath her feet were smooth with wear, worn down in the center of the step as though thousands of people had passed before her. How old was this castle, she wondered; perhaps it wasn't built by the Witch after all. She should ask Tumnus about it.

She stepped forward again and was startled as her foot hit the floor. They were at the bottom. The hall led away to the left (west, if Lucy's sense of direction was still sound). Rex sniffed and said, "No one living is here, queen."

Dora growled. "No one living, no." She pushed past Lucy and Beaver, and padded up to the first door on the right: a sturdy wooden door, bound with heavy metal bands, different than the cell doors upstairs. She sniffed, and the fur on her shoulders rippled, and then settled. She went on to the next door, this time followed by Barton. Their nails clicked on the stone floors: tick-tick-tick-tick-tick as they went, pacing down the hallway in the torchlight.

Lucy followed, until Dora stopped at the fourth door. She sniffed, clawed once at the bottom of the door, and then whined. "Here," she said, and this time her hackles didn't settle. Her voice was thick with anxiety as she said it again: "Here, queen. Here."

There was no key to this door: just a heavy bar made of iron and oak, the wood discolored with age and the metal rusting. Lucy levered the bar out of the brackets with Beaver's help and set it on the floor. It made a dreary, dull clank as it hit the flagstones. Now she wished she had sent for Peter, but it was too late. She wiped her hands on her tunic and pulled on the rough iron handle. The door swung slowly outwards, as if too heavy for the hinges set deep into the stone walls.

On first glance, in the flickering light of the torch, the room was much like the cells they had already seen upstairs. It was a small room, perhaps ten feet by ten, with a low ceiling and a narrow trench in the floor on the far side. Metal rings were set into the walls (presumably for chains). There was nowhere to place a torch, which Lucy found upsetting: the prisoners held here were meant to live in constant darkness. The room appeared empty, but as Lucy raised the torch, she saw a pile of rags in the corner, and something glittered.

Her mouth dried up, and the torch shook in her hand. I watched the Witch kill Aslan, she said to herself. I can face this. She forced herself into the cell, and Dora paced alongside her, body pressed close to Lucy's legs.

The bundle in the corner was in fact a pile of rags, but not only rags. Something white and smooth protruded from under the dark blue cloth, and Lucy flinched. She looked for the glitter that had caught her eye, and instead saw a shoe.

It was a sturdy shoe: made of leather, with laces and a rubber sole. A boy's shoe, as the blue wool coat was a boy's coat, and the tweed cap laying on the ground was a boy's cap. An English boy's cap, Lucy thought, or close enough: not a Narnian cap. Narnians didn't wear caps.

"Human," said Dora, after a sniff.

"Eh? What's this?" Beaver bent down and picked up something. When he held it up to the light, Lucy drew in a shaking breath. It was a watch: steel on a leather band, like Peter's, though the leather was rotted and moldy. It said that the time was 3:17.

Lucy turned and stumbled out the door, nearly dropping the torch. When she reached the hallway, she wanted to sit down and cry, or maybe be sick, but instead she forced herself to cross to the door on the other side of the hall, and open that. Empty. She went on, to the next one, and ignored Beaver and the Dogs as they asked questions and followed along behind her.

The next cell was not empty. This cell held bare bones under scraps of something filmy and pale blue, like a dress Susan used to wear to church when she was younger. Beaver pulled at the torn and threadbare cloth, revealing long pale strands of hair, and Lucy barely left the cell fast enough.

There should be only four occupied cells, she thought. But she was wrong. There were seven, and the occupants of the last three were not, she thought, English. Their clothing had been rough, multi-colored woolens (now rotted with age--the cloth fell into pieces as Beaver handled it); their shoes were leather sandals, their hair was darker even than Susan's. Lucy didn't know, couldn't tell, where they were from: India, the Americas, maybe even Australia. Or perhaps they were from the countries outside Narnia's borders, if there were Humans in those lands. How long had they lain here, alone and forgotten in these cold and empty rooms? Long enough for there to be nothing left but bones and tattered rags of cloth.

The rest of the cells were empty. Lucy did not allow herself to wonder about unmarked graves under the snow during Jadis' Winter.

Even Beaver was silent now. The torch was burning down; Lucy let Rex lead them up the long dank stairway. As they wound their way through the castle corridors, Lucy moved faster and faster, until when they came out into the evening light of the courtyard, she was running.

Peter was standing in the open gateway, speaking with Tumnus, while around him Fauns and Dwarfs piled, sorted, and counted supplies. He looked lively and clean and hopeful, his blond hair tousled by the breeze. When Lucy threw herself against him, sobbing, he didn't say anything, just held her while she wept into his jerkin. She didn't care about looking like a queen anymore.

When she was done, he gave her his handkerchief, which reminded her of Edmund's, and the tears restarted, but she forced them back. Peter's handkerchief was soggy by the time she pulled away and wiped her eyes. "Peter, you have to see," she said.

"See what? Lu, what is it, what did you find?"

She shook her head, and instead waved at Beaver, who was very politely staring at something across the courtyard, just out of earshot. "Beaver," Lucy said, when he approached, "can you show my brother what we found? He must see it."

"All right," said Peter, and she could tell he thought she was over-reacting to something; he had that same look on his face when she first told the others about Narnia. He should know better by now, but she was too sick at heart to be angry. He would learn, as she had.

"Go," she said. "Before it gets dark." She would stay here, in the sunlight. And think about prophecies, and thrones, and Deep Magic, and the Son of the Emperor Over Sea.

~

 

With a whoosh, the axe skimmed past his helmet with inches to spare. As it flew over, Edmund surged up and swung his sword in a vertical arc, using it more like a cricket bat than the weapons-master Silversharp would have approved. But it worked--he caught the Minotaur squarely in the crotch, and the creature howled and dropped to the ground, writhing in pain. It dropped its axe in its distress. Out of sympathy, Edmund hesitated an instant, then remembered that this Minotaur had just killed two Dwarfs before Edmund's eyes. He couldn't leave it alive to do that again. He cut its throat, and moved on.

He did not bother to clean his sword: it would be bloodied again soon enough. And at least his hands had stopped shaking.

The battle did not much resemble the last (and first) battle Edmund had fought in; this was much smaller, with fewer participants, and cramped into a shallow meadow bounded by a deep but narrow river on one side and a dense mixed forest at the other. It was neither as orderly nor as epic as the battle against the White Witch. It was also, frustratingly, not where Edmund had intended to fight.

No plan of battle survives contact with the enemy, the old maxim said, but it did at least assume contact with the enemy before one threw the plan of battle out the window. Edmund ground his teeth and plucked up a fallen spear, its shaft smeared with its owner's blood. He looked around and then dove back into the melee, following Fraxinus' gang as they charged a covey of Harpies savaging a Centaur.

The Harpies were the worst: Edmund had no air power, no Gryphons or Phoenix, merely a handful of messenger-birds and two Eagles. Nothing big enough to do much damage. He did, however, have Susan and her archers. He grunted approvingly as one of the Harpies took to the air and was promptly skewered by a red-fletched arrow.

The two forces were roughly matched in size, although to Edmund's inexperienced eye, the Rebels had the advantage in weight: there were several of those one-eyed giants (Cyclops? Fine, call them Cyclops), Minotaurs, and Ogres spread out across the field, most of them holding off determined assaults by Edmund's lighter forces. To his right, he saw Bruno and one of his Wolves taking on one of the Cyclops, but not doing a great job of it. The Grizzly was powerful and sneaky, but slow to react, and the Cyclops was taking advantage of that. Edmund shrugged: he was too far away to help, and if Bruno died, well, that might take care of one of their problems. (Lucy would be appalled at his calculating attitude, but Edmund rather suspected Susan would agree. She had grown distinctly unfond of Bruno during the morning's march, not without good reason.)

Fraxinus was a devil with a morning-star, and before Edmund caught up with him, he had driven most of the Harpies away from the Centaur. The Centaur was one of Spearfast's sons, and his left rear leg was broken. He might be able to get off the battlefield, but he wouldn't be able to keep fighting like this.

Of course, as a Centaur, leaving the battle wasn't even on his mind. "Give me your spear, king," he said urgently. "I will guard your back." Oh, Aslan, not another one eager to die for Edmund's sake. Well, to blazes with that.

"No, you won't," said Edmund. "Head for the rise--Ilexus, you go with him. You can stay in one place and guard my sister." He tossed the bloody spear to the Centaur.

Not that Susan really needed any guarding, with Rhea by her side, but the command certainly perked the Centaur up, and he hobbled off with enthusiasm. Edmund felt suddenly exhausted, as though he were forty years older than the Centaur.

There was a shout behind him. Edmund spun, Fraxinus leaped forward, bounding a good twenty feet on those goat legs, and the battle swept around them again.

This was not how it was supposed to go. Their company was supposed to have surprised the Rebels at their camp some miles further north, but something had gone wrong, and the Rebels had come crashing into them while they were still marching through the forest. They'd been cut neatly in half, strung out as they were along the rough trail, and only Spearfast's mad charge had saved them. As it was, they'd lost half a dozen Dwarfs, Fauns, and an Elk along the trail, before breaking through into this meadow where they could make a stand.

It was ugly and disorganized; there had been no time to establish an order of battle, and Edmund missed, desperately, the clear lines of communication they had had for the battle with the Witch. You were not prepared for this, said an ugly whisper inside his head, and he couldn't argue. He was eleven years old: what had made him think he was ready to lead a company into battle?

The battle now was, so far as Edmund could tell from the perspective of one surrounded by bloody madmen, complete chaos. The only thing he was sure of was that Susan and her archers were on a low rise to his rear, protected by Rhea and a number of Dogs and Great Cats. Fraxinus and his squad stuck like glue to Edmund, watching his rear (and his sides, and usually his front too), but other than that Edmund had no clear idea what was going on in the rest of the battlefield. He wasn't tall enough to see over Fraxinus' shoulders, much less over the rest of the scrum. He didn't know if they were winning or losing, how many casualties they had taken, or even if the Rebels had a leader.

"I need a scout!" he shouted to Fraxinus, while dodging a wild swing from an Ogre. It was smaller than the one Peter had killed in the forest, but better armed: this one had an axe in one hand and a club in the other.

"For what?" shouted Fraxinus back, and swung his morning-star at the Ogre. He missed, though: the Ogre was faster than expected, and its return lunge nearly took off Fraxinus' head.

Edmund rolled his eyes and swung at the Ogre from behind: he missed the hamstring, but hit it hard enough behind the knee to send it staggering forward. "Intelligence! Are we losing or winning?"

Fraxinus seized the opportunity Edmund had given him, and moved with dispatch, sending the Ogre to the ground, clutching at his ruined throat. "We're not running away, king, that must mean we're winning!"

But when Edmund merely snarled at him, Fraxinus shrugged and put a small pipe to his lips. The whistle he sounded was piercing and thin, almost too high for Edmund to hear, but then he was not its intended audience. Within moments a dark shape was winging to them over the battlefield, jinking around the Harpies making snatches at it, and at least once dodging an arrow from one of the rebel Dwarfs not killed in the first crash of battle.

The Magpie spiraled around them once, and came to a fluttering halt on Fraxinus' shoulder. "I hope this is important, did you see that Harpy, it nearly got me!"

"What's the situation?" asked Edmund, turning so he could keep an eye on Fraxinus' back. "Are we winning?" They were in a temporary lull, a pocket of quiet as the battle went on around them. In the distance he saw arrows fly, and a Harpy shrieked in rage, but he couldn't tell if they'd hit anything.

"We're not losing," responded the Magpie. Edmund stared at him balefully, and the Magpie gave a long-suffering sigh and launched himself into the air from Fraxinus' shoulder. Up he went, climbing fast, and then when he was out of arrow-range (if not out of range of the Harpies), he swung into a wide circle, and then another. Edmund gritted his teeth and glanced around uneasily. He hated staying still while others were fighting, but he really did need to know the state of the battle before deciding what to do next.

At his feet was the body of a Red Dwarf Edmund recognized from last night's campfires. They'd come in from the west, some tiny village in the hills that even Fraxinus had never heard of. The Dwarf (Edmund wished he could remember his name) had been gutted, and his sword, only a little longer than Susan's dagger, lay broken at his side. Edmund swallowed, grateful that he had not eaten breakfast, nor anything else since dawn. He looked around, realizing that he was desperately thirsty, and then the Magpie returned, coming to rest on his own shoulder this time.

"Well? How does it look?"

"It's a mess, king. Everyone's scattered all over, but there's a crowd of the Rebels forming off that way." The Magpie nodded to the northeast. "A Minotaur is pulling them together. It'll be trouble for us." Scatterbrained the Magpies might be, but this one knew the gravity of his message, and he bobbed his head nervously when he finished speaking.

Edmund bit his lip, considering, but he really had few options.

"Look out!" shouted Fraxinus, and tackled Edmund as a Harpy swooped down on them. They landed in the mud next to the dead Dwarf, and the Harpy screeched with disappointment; it carried away with it Edmund's helmet, and some of his hair. Edmund pushed Fraxinus off and scrambled to his feet. His exhaustion was at least for the moment replaced by rage, or fear (it was hard to tell the difference).

"We pull back," he said, and spat out a mouthful of bloody mud, mixed with trampled grass. "Get the word out: we're re-grouping at Susan's hill."

"Hill" was an overstatement: Susan had stationed her archers on a low rise at the edge of the trees, barely ten or twelve feet higher than the rest of the field. As their forces gathered around him, Edmund wiped his sleeve across his face, and stared out at the battleground.

The Magpie had been right: they weren't winning. There were more of the Rebels than of his own Narnians, even with the Patrol added to their numbers. And the Rebels were better armed, and more wild and vicious in their attacks--Edmund suspected they were fighting out of despair and revenge, rather than any real hope of victory. They had seen Aslan defeat the Witch, after all. Surely they couldn't think they could still take Narnia back?

While Edmund's forces were pulling back, the Rebels continued to press them. As one group of Fauns and Dwarfs retreated, a Dog turned (foolishly or bravely, Edmund couldn't decide) to face a Cyclops that was in pursuit. As soon as it came within range, however, the Cyclops swung a great spiked club, and took the head off the Dog. Edmund swallowed, and another Dog nearby sent up a great howl.

"Archers!" Susan cried from behind him. "One flight, mid-range, on my line. Notch! Draw! Release!" A flight of arrows flew raggedly overhead, and fell amongst a group of Rebels approaching from the northeast, mostly Hags and Werewolves. Two of them fell, and several others roared in outrage. "Again!" shouted Susan, and another flight of arrows swept past, but fewer this time.

A large group of Rebels had gathered, just out of arrow range, in the middle of the meadow. All of the loyal Narnian fighters had pulled back now, or were injured and trapped somewhere in the field. A long-legged Cheetah stood next to Edmund, a low throaty growl quivering her whiskers. Beyond her was a Dwarf, wearing a Fisher around his shoulders like a stole, both of them covered in mud.

"Give it up, Boy!" shouted someone on Edmund's left, and he glanced over to see Bruno, his great bulk looming over Dwarfs, Fauns, and Cats. "We're beaten!" said the Grizzly, waving a bloody paw at the battlefield. "We've lost, it's time to go!"

Edmund stared: Bruno's legs were caked in mud, and blood dripped from his enormous claws. But instead of digging in, getting ready to resist the Rebels' final charge, the Grizzly was swinging his heavy head around to the rear.

"No!" cried Edmund. "No, you can't, we have to--we need you!"

But the Grizzly sneered at him. "I'm not going to die for some bloody Human's mistakes--you won't take me for that kind of fool!" Bruno dropped down to all four legs and pushed his way through the second line of fighters, forcing his way towards the back of the company.

"Coward!" yelled Edmund. But the Grizzly was gone: within moments he had disappeared from sight.

The Stag who was Bruno's second-in-command stared after him, and then looked back at Edmund, clearly uncertain. Half a dozen other members of the Patrol were gathered behind him, also looking undecided. Edmund hesitated, unsure what he could say: how could he get them to stay, to hold off the Rebels, when indeed they might all die?

Fraxinus looked up from where he was sharpening a long knife, apparently unconcerned about their looming fate. "You claim you fight for Narnia!" he challenged the Stag, who, startled, tossed his antlers.

"Yes, we do!" the Stag replied.

Fraxinus lifted an eyebrow, although Edmund doubted anyone other than he could see it, the Faun's face was covered with so much dirt and blood. "Then now's your chance to prove it!" He pointed with his blade across the meadow. The large group of Rebels were approaching, Minotaurs and Cyclops in the lead, and then they were moving faster and faster, clearly planning to break through the Narnian line.

"Brace yourselves!" bellowed Edmund to the entire company, and hunkered down, wishing desperately for a shield. The Stag and his companions brought themselves into the line at Edmund's left, filling the hole left by Bruno's departure. The Stag dropped his head so the tines of his antlers were at chest-height to a Faun or a Man (if not a Dwarf). The rest of the company did likewise, raising weapons and digging in their feet as best they could in the churned and muddy soil.

The Rebels came with appalling speed, their feet and hooves hammering on the ground, splattering mud (and blood) all over as they charged. Maybe we should just let them through, realized Edmund, but there was no time for second thoughts, as the Rebels hit the Narnian line like a cannonball against a wooden palisade.

They broke through, of course. Even with the Stag and Spearfast the Centaur anchoring one end of the Narnian line, they just didn't have the mass to withstand that charge, and the Narnians fell back, were brushed aside, or were simply overridden by the Rebels' assault. The center, inevitably, gave way, and the Minotaurs and Cyclops charged through, heading for the archers.

Edmund had been knocked down by a Cyclops' swinging fist; his head rang, but he struggled to his feet in time to meet the smaller Rebels swarming in on the heels of the heavyweights. He stabbed a Hag in the belly and her scream nearly deafened him: he was still tugging his sword out when something slammed into his back with such force that he was thrown back down to the ground.

There was a fierce growl from above him, matched by an equally fierce snarl, and then the weight on his back was suddenly gone. "King? King, are you all right?"

Edmund put his left hand on the Hag's body and pushed himself over. At least he had not sliced himself open on his own sword, although it was a near thing. A bloody muzzle sniffed at him, wrinkling, and he realized it was Rhea who was standing over him, looking worried. Behind her, Fraxinus was fencing (brilliantly) with an enormous Goblin.

"I'm fine," Edmund managed, still trying to catch his breath. It took him two tries to get up, and the second time he had to duck as an Ogre lunged for him. It would have caught him, too, if Rhea hadn't sunk her teeth in its arm. It howled and swung its mace at her, but she dodged it nimbly, and sliced open its other arm. Given that useful a distraction, Edmund felt constrained to take advantage, and managed to hamstring the creature while its back was turned. It fell hard, spraying bloody mud all around.

"Well enough," said Rhea, over the writhing body of the Ogre. "But come! Your sister needs you--" And she turned and dashed away, to where the archers had been stationed, at the top of the rise.

Edmund followed her, ducking and weaving around knots of fighting. He couldn't tell how they were doing, but it didn't look good. How could generals in England possibly keep track of their own battles? It was all a great confusion.

The archers had been hit hard, were still being hit, although several had fled into the nearby woods, followed by Hags and Werewolves. The rest were at the center of a roiling mob of fighters: Minotaurs, Cyclopses and Ogres, struggling with Dwarfs and Fauns and Dogs and Beasts of various types. The noise was unspeakable, and somewhere in there was Susan, with only a knife and Peter's leather jerkin to protect her.

Edmund looked around desperately, but there was no help. The Narnian line had broken, and aside from the melee on the rise, his forces were dispersed and scattered. Fraxinus had killed his Goblin but was now being forced back by two Hags and a Minotaur, his face bloody and one arm hanging loose. The Stag was being harried by two Wolves and a Werewolf, surrounded on all sides by bloody snarls and snapping teeth. As Edmund stood there, frozen with horrified indecision, one of the Ogres in the closest knot of fighters lurched backwards, and threw something over his shoulder, like a laborer chucking a bit of rubbish out of his way.

It landed at Edmund's feet. But it wasn't trash: it was the Fisher he had seen earlier, now crumpled and broken.

They had lost.

Edmund had not believed it could happen, not truly. Aslan had defeated the Witch, and Susan had saved the Dwarfs, and they were building a new Narnia, bringing people together. It couldn't end this way. Aslan surely didn't mean it to end this way. But Aslan had given over command of Narnia to schoolchildren who had no idea what they were doing, and Narnia was falling apart again.

"King!" snapped Rhea at his elbow, and Edmund wheeled around. "This way!" She had found an opening in the knot of fighting, and thrust herself into it. It was no struggle at all to follow her, because fighting his way to Susan, and maybe dying in the attempt, was better than watching his little army collapse and die around him.

The melee was madness, as tightly-packed as the London Underground, mud slick underfoot and everywhere weapons, claws, teeth flashing and striking. Edmund stayed as low as he could, because he wasn't heavy enough to do any damage in these close quarters and there was no room for his sword. He drew his dagger with his left hand as he struggled past a Wolverine wrestling with a Dog, and was nearly knocked off his feet by the stench from a Hag being strangled by a Faun.

Rhea's tail was his guide through the mad scene, as though she knew where she was going. At last (although it was less than a minute after entering the melee) she stopped, and nosed at a figure on the ground, sprawled at the feet of another Cheetah. Edmund was pretty sure she said something to him, but he couldn't hear it in all the noise; he didn't need to, anyway.

Because it was Susan on the ground, her face very white and her side covered with blood.

The sound of the battle around him was suddenly very far away, attenuated as though echoing down a railway tunnel. Edmund could hear the blood pounding in his own head, though, and feel the slick warmth of Susan's blood on his hands as he opened her jerkin and tunic and tried to stop the bleeding. She had a deep gash in her side, narrow like a sword blade had made it, and the blood pulsed from it regularly. It wasn't spurting, which Edmund suspected was good, but it wasn't stopping, either.

He couldn't use his tunic as a bandage without taking off his own cuirass; his blood-wet hands slipped on the buckles and he snarled with frustration.

This wasn't supposed to happen. Aslan had named them kings and queens, set them on the thrones of Cair Paravel, had died to save Edmund. Susan wasn't supposed to die in the mud of an unnamed field because Edmund had buggered up his first real command. Firefoot had died, the Fisher had died, but this was Susan, his sister. He refused to let it happen.

The buckles finally came loose: Edmund tore the cuirass off and wrenched at his tunic. It needed to be clean, he remembered that much. Not that there was any part of his clothing that was clean, but at least he could use something that wasn't covered in mud or someone else's blood.

"King!" shouted Rhea in his ear, and he snarled back without looking away from his filthy hands tearing at his tunic, "Leave me alone!"

"No, you must look!" cried Rhea, and put her foot on his hand. She had enormous feet, broad with sharp claws, now coated with mud. "Look!" She took his shoulder in her mouth and tugged him sideways, forcing him around.

The sounds of the battle around them had changed. Instead of grunts and shouts and the clang of weapons, Edmund heard--and felt--a rhythmic pounding thunder. The vibration, as of a herd of buffalo stampeding across a plain, came up through his feet and rattled his ribcage. Above that noise, came shouts and cries of surprise--and fear.

The Hag, just a few feet away, tore loose from the Faun and scrambled backwards, diving into a nearby copse of brimbleberry bushes. Her escape left an opening through which, even kneeling, Edmund could see most of the battlefield.

It had only been a few moments since Edmund had fallen to his knees next to Susan, and yet everything had changed. Instead of a crowd of deformed and vicious Rebels sweeping across the field, chasing the broken Narnian forces, Edmund saw dozens of Centaurs crashing through the Rebels' lines. They came from the north, and their stone spear-points glittered as they charged, chanting Aslan's name, throwing up bloody clods of turf like a child splashing in a mud puddle.

"Oh," said Edmund, and watched as the Minotaur who had been leading the charge against the Narnians was felled in an instant by a stocky roan mare wielding a spear and a long-bladed knife. As the Minotaur collapsed, she did not pause before turning and launching herself at the Cyclops nearest Edmund. The swing of her bound hair was what jogged his memory, and he knew her, then. Silversharp, the weapons-master.

Which at least gave him some warning (if not a great deal), so that a moment later he was not quite as surprised as he might have been to find himself confronted with great stamping hooves and the carved and painted butt of a long spear. He looked up.

A dark-skinned Centaur with ragged untamed hair met his gaze with a nod. "King Edmund," he said, voice deep. "I would wish we had come in better time."

Edmund knew he needed to say something. He looked at Susan, and then back up at the Centaur. "Stormcoat," he said, finally, his voice cracked and dry, "I need--can you help my sister?"

"I will do all that I can," said Stormcoat, and turned to wave at someone. "A healer here, quickly! The queen is injured!"

Edmund looked back at Susan. She breathed shallowly, a frown etched into her forehead and one hand still clutching her bow. The bow was bloodied at the ends, as though she had been using it as a weapon, and the string hung free, broken or cut at some point in the battle. He could not see her dagger--it must have been lost in the fight. Not three feet away lay another body: a Dwarf, collapsed onto his face with a short sword in his hand. It might have been him that struck her down.

Something nagged at the edge of his attention; Edmund was forgetting something.

A Centaur mare lowered herself to the ground next to him, and unfolded a brightly-colored woven bag to reveal small bottles of liquid, clean cloths, and sharp stone tools. She murmured, "Oh, that does not look good," and gently shifted Edmund to the side so she could examine Susan's wound.

"The cordial, king," said Rhea. "Do you have the cordial?"

The cordial! Edmund surged to his feet. He staggered, as his legs suddenly seemed too weak to support him, but Rhea let him lean against her until he regained his balance. The mare kept working on Susan, not looking up. "I need the Eagle," Edmund said, and gazed around distractedly. "Where is she?"

"I don't know," said Rhea. "But look, here is Fraxinus, he can call her."

Fraxinus looked nearly as bad as Susan did, although he was still on his feet, barely. He swayed dangerously, but Edmund had only to mention the Eagle once before Fraxinus again brought out his little pipe. Edmund propped him up while he played it, and then carefully let him down next to Susan.

"Will she be all right?" Edmund had to ask the Centaur physician, who was carefully cleaning away the mud and blood from Susan's injury.

"She is very badly hurt," said the physician, without looking up. "But she will not die under my hands."

Wings flapped behind him, and Edmund turned to see the Eagle, settling awkwardly to the ground next to Fraxinus. "Yes, what is it? I am not a Dog, to come at a whistle!"

Edmund bit back the urge to snap at the bird. Susan's injury was not her fault, after all. "I need your help, good Eagle. Can you fly to the Witch's castle and find my sister Lucy? Tell her we need her cordial desperately."

The Eagle ruffled her feathers uncomfortably. "The Witch's castle? Are you sure? That's a terrible place. I could go somewhere else instead..."

Rhea growled and took one pace forward.

The Eagle jumped backwards, looking rather less noble than she doubtless intended. "Or I could go to the Witch's castle, which I'm sure is perfectly safe since the Witch is dead, of course. Find Lucy, get her cordial, and...?" She cocked her head sideways.

"Bring it back," ground out Edmund through clenched teeth. "As fast as you can."

"Well, all right! No need to snarl at me!" The Eagle leaped into the air; the downdraft of her great wings nearly knocked Edmund sideways. She was out of sight very quickly, disappearing over the ridge to the east, flying straight and fast.

Edmund looked around then, feeling as though he were supposed to do something but not quite sure what. His brain felt thick and slow and he wondered if he'd been hit on the head without knowing it. Around him, Centaurs were herding prisoners into the center of the meadow, binding the wounds of the injured, and tending to the dead. Nearby, Stormcoat spoke with Silversharp, who had not yet cleaned her weapons. Edmund did not see Bruno anywhere; he suspected the Grizzly was halfway back to the Witch's castle.

"King," said Rhea quietly. "While we wait for the cordial, there are other wounded, as well. And your sister is in good hands."

Edmund stared at her for the long moments it took her words to sink in. "Oh," he said finally. "Right. I see." Peter had not mentioned this as a duty of commanders, and Edmund wondered what else he had missed while he slept after the end of the battle with the Witch. He found it easy to imagine his brother talking with the wounded, holding someone's hand as they were treated, and cheering them up despite their pain just by listening to them. Edmund cringed inside--he was not Peter, after all--but then he thought about Firefoot. He could do no less for these than he had for the Centaur foal.

The next minutes were something of a blur: soft voices and moans and cries of pain; the smell of blood, and mud, and worse things; grasping hands (or paws), the feel of wet fur, and the tacky sensation of blood on Edmund's hands. Too many were already dead, and too many more were past any help the Centaurs could provide. But many were merely hurt, and they would soon be walking again, making their way home to tell the story of Stormcoat's Charge and the breaking of the last remnant of the Witch's forces in Narnia. (Edmund hoped for all their sakes that it was in fact the last remnant and not the start of some long-running conflict that would exhaust them all.) They spoke to him with cheer and pride in their voices, talking of their deeds in the battle, or (more frequently) their homes and their families, and everything they meant to do now that the Winter was over.

It was that purpose, that cheer, that lifted Edmund from his fog in the end. He stood up at length from beside a Dwarf who had taken a bad knock to the head and seemed confused by the sun and warmth around him: the fellow had forgotten everything that had happened since some time before Aslan broke the Winter. As he turned away, already looking ahead for the next injured soldier, there was a cry overhead.

The Eagle was back, and in one of her clawed feet she clutched a small crystal vial.

~

 

The first thing Susan noticed was that she didn't hurt. The last thing she remembered was the pain, and the warmth on her skin as the blood flowed down her side, soaking her clothes. Now, though, she didn't hurt, not even a little. What had happened?

The battle had not been going well, she remembered that much. Maybe they had lost, and she was dead, and what did that mean? Was she in Aslan's Country, or in the heaven the vicar talked about? Edmund and Peter and Lucy would be so sad, and how would they tell their family? Would they ever return to England at all? She thought of the Professor's face as they talked about Lucy, and decided he would not be surprised at their disappearance.

But their parents would not take it nearly so well, and Susan swallowed as she pictured her mother's face, grieving for her children. And then realized that she had swallowed. Her eyes flew open.

She was on her back, because the cloud-spotted sky was above her and there was a small stone poking into her shoulder. Voices rang in the air, but they were no longer shouting battle-cries, just giving orders and asking questions. She moved her left hand, and touched the cold and crusty spot on her tunic where her blood had dried. It had happened, then, the Dwarf seizing her and the blade going into her side, so smoothly, and coming out with so much pain--but she was alive after all. And there was a taste lingering in her mouth that reminded her of the smell of Aslan's mane, and the sunlight of the morning he had risen from the Stone Table.

"Lucy?" she asked then. Her voice didn't seem to work, and she swallowed and tried again. "Lucy?"

"Su!" Edmund's face appeared, bending over her. He was filthy with mud and blood, his leather jerkin hanging half-open and his helmet missing entirely. He smiled at her, and then looked away to the right, saying to someone out of sight, "She's awake!"

A Centaur mare bent low over her, and helped Susan sit up. "How do you feel, queen?"

"I'm all right," said Susan, looking around. There were Centaurs everywhere. It was late afternoon: the sun was just above the mountains, and a cool breeze ruffled the leaves of the brimbleberry bushes. She could not have been unconscious for very long, but everything had changed. "What happened?" she asked Edmund.

He grimaced, then nodded towards the middle of the meadow, where many people were gathered. "Stormcoat came," he said. "They drove off the Rebels, and I sent the Eagle to Lucy for her cordial."

"Oh," said Susan, and gave Edmund her hand so he could pull her up. He grunted a bit: Susan eyed him suspiciously. It would be just like Edmund to be injured and not mention it to anyone. But he didn't seem to be limping, so she left it alone for now.

Standing, she picked up her bow and quiver. The bow was bloodstained and sticky under her hands: she remembered using it as a club at the end, after her quiver had run empty and she'd lost her knife. It wasn't a pleasant memory: she pushed away the rage and terror she had felt, and tried to focus on where she was now, alive and whole. She wiped her hand on Edmund's tunic, but it didn't make much difference, and he didn't even notice.

He glanced at her and then looked away. "I wasn't sure what to do," he said, "but we had the cordial, and so many people were hurt..."

Susan frowned in confusion and followed his gaze to the Centaur physician, who was examining a young Faun. There seemed very few serious injuries in the people around them. "Oh," she said. "Well, I think you had to. I think it would be selfish of us to keep it for ourselves."

He brightened, surprisingly; Edmund didn't usually admit he cared what she thought. "I didn't use too much, and I had Brightblade show me the ones who wouldn't heal without help."

"It's what Lucy did after the first battle," she confirmed. She stood a moment, looking out over the battlefield. A group of Rebels were seated in a group, many of them bound, many of them injured; they were guarded by some of the younger Centaurs. Susan thought she saw Windcaller among them, and lifted a hand: he nodded to her, but did not take his hands off his spear. "What about the prisoners?" she asked Edmund. "Did you heal any of them?"

He looked at her blankly, and then flushed. "It, uh, didn't occur to me. Do you think we should?"

It would be easy to say, "No," because of course it was such a tiny bottle, and they were likely to need it again and again, she thought. Narnia was wonderful, but it wasn't safe. And yet the cordial was, in some way Susan could not quite explain, a part of Aslan--the magic of healing was the touch of Aslan or even his father the Emperor-Over-Sea. Who was she to deny that to anyone, even Hags and Werewolves who had tried to kill her? But she could not come up with a way to say that to Edmund. So instead, she said, "I think we must. They are Narnians, too, and we were not made kings and queens of only the friendly part of Narnia."

Edmund frowned at her. "You didn't see what they--" he began, and then stopped. His eyes were dark, and he looked away, across the field where, Susan saw, Centaurs and a few Dryads were piling wood. "That's a lot to ask," he said at last, reluctantly. "But you're right."

He bowed his head, and she put her hand on the back of his neck. Like the rest of him, it was sticky with dirt and sweat. "Aslan doesn't only ask us to do the easy things," she said, and then flushed, thinking about her conversation with Rhea in the wood. "I'll do it, if you'd rather not."

"Would you?" he asked, looking up. His eyes looked damp, and she wondered what he had seen, and then decided she didn't want to know. "I'll, ah--" He looked around uncertainly, and Susan laughed.

"Maybe you should clean up," she said. "Anyone who meets you like that won't believe you're a king."

*

The prisoners did not look at her as she approached them with the cordial in her hand: most of them stared sullenly at the ground, a few of them tugging at their bonds while they glared at Windcaller and the other Centaur guards.

"Queen," Windcaller greeted her. "It is good to see you." He looked unharmed except for a scratch on his shoulder, although there were bloodstains on his leather breastplate.

"And you, Windcaller," Susan replied. "I have come to see the wounded prisoners. Are there any here who are in great pain, or who are beyond the help of any physician?"

She did not bother to keep her voice low, and several of the prisoners overheard the question. One of them, a red-haired Dwarf with a gash above one eye, laughed harshly. "And what'll you do with us, then, if we're no use to you? Feed us to those Cats of yours?"

Susan looked at the Dwarf, then back at Windcaller. "Lend me your knife?" she asked, and he lifted an eyebrow, but drew the stone blade and handed it to her, hilt-first. She crossed the little distance and dropped to an easy squat in front of the Dwarf, keeping the blade unsheathed in her hand. She was not so foolish as to give the Witch's people another chance to kill her.

Sometimes she forgot how small Dwarfs were, because she had few other Humans to compare them to. But even squatting, she towered over the seated Dwarf. She looked him over. He was poorly dressed, in ragged clothing and a mail shirt that was more rust than steel. In addition to the gash on his forehead, he had one hand wrapped in a bit of stained cloth, and his hair was matted with blood and mud. "You know better than to believe that," she said. "And you would have to be much cleaner to appeal to the Cats, for they are indeed picky eaters, as all Narnia knows."

That startled a laugh out of one of the Dwarf's companions, a Goblin with his hands bound before him. Promising, she thought. But the Dwarf just glowered. "What is your name?" Susan asked him.

He sneered, but she waited, and he said, "Bindle."

"My name is Susan," she said in return. "Are you badly injured, Bindle?"

He stirred uncomfortably and looked at the Goblin, who just shrugged, and then down at the ground. Susan eased herself back and sat cross-legged. She waited. "My hand," said Bindle, and raised his bound hands together. "One of them stepped on it," he went on, shooting a vicious look at Windcaller (who nobly ignored him).

"Why did you keep fighting, after the Witch was killed?" Susan asked him. "Why keep killing?" She did not want to say anything about healing cordials yet: she wanted the truth, unaffected by gratitude or special pleading. And it was important to understand why the fighting was still going on, if they had any hope of stopping it.

"She en't dead!" protested the Goblin, his ears flopping. "She's the Empress, Empresses don't die!"

Susan raised an eyebrow and looked at Bindle. "I saw her body," she said. "But I can't force you to believe me."

Bindle shook his head. The last rays of the setting sun struck fire from his red hair, but even that warm light could not disguise the grey tone in his skin: Susan suspected he was in a great deal of pain. "Wasn't anything else to do," he said, face set in a scowl. "We have to defend ourselves, and that Lion, we killed him, didn't we? Nobody lets that go."

"And if we were to let it go?" She did not think she could speak for Aslan, but if peace in Narnia meant forgiving the Witch's soldiers, Susan would make it happen.

"Fah!" spat the Dwarf. "We know better than to trust you lot. Traitors and thieves, turning on the Queen after she'd fed and trained them all! Just because that Lion came and gave them that shiny armor and banners and all. And you--you Humans are all the same, trying to take Narnia away from us rightful owners." He scowled at her again, and spat on the ground. "Humans!" he closed with, as though it were an insult.

Susan pondered that for a moment, then shrugged. "That doesn't make any sense, you know," she said, and set the cordial on the ground next to her. "But it doesn't matter. Give me your hand, please."

He looked like he would have refused, but Windcaller stepped closer and lowered his spearpoint six inches. So Bindle held out his hands, and Susan cut through the bindings with a single stroke. Then she set the knife aside and carefully unwound the wrapping, ignoring Bindle's muffled whimper as she jarred his hand. Exposed, it was ugly and swollen, with many broken bones. Perhaps in England his mobility could be saved, but Susan suspected that this was beyond even the Centaurs' medicine to heal. She took up the cordial and hesitated for a moment: need it be swallowed? He might think she was trying to poison him, and if he struggled she could spill it.

So with a silent plea to Aslan (Please make this work), she tilted the vial and let a single drop fall on the Dwarf's twisted hand. The smell was heavenly: it smelled like Spring come again, even here in the muck. And then the smell was gone, and Susan looked at Bindle's hand to see it healed. Perfect in form, shapely and strong as it had been before the battle ever started.

"There," she said, and ignoring the Dwarf's open-mouthed astonishment, pushed herself to her feet to find the next patient. She had a lot of work to do.

*

She found Edmund after dark, sitting next to a fire on the rise where she had fallen in battle, in deep conversation with Stormcoat and Silversharp. Fraxinus was with them as well, although more than half his attention was on the stewpot balanced precariously at the edge of the fire. Susan couldn't tell what was in it, and didn't much care, so long as it was edible: she was famished.

"Su," said Edmund, and shifted over on his log so she could squeeze in closer to the fire. It was still summertime, but the night had a touch of chill in it nonetheless, and Susan suspected they would see some leaves turning colors soon. "Where were you?" Edmund asked, as Fraxinus spooned out something mushy into a wooden bowl and handed it to her.

Susan looked at her bowl dubiously and took a bite, swallowing the nearly-tasteless mash before answering. "With the prisoners," she said, nodding towards the three fires in the center of the battlefield, where the prisoners were being kept under guard. "I healed some of them, and spoke to most."

"Indeed. That was well done, queen," rumbled Stormcoat.

Susan flushed at the praise. "We need to understand," she said, and took another bite of mash. "How can we make peace if we don't know what everyone wants?"

"What is there to know?" asked Fraxinus, with an edge in his voice. "They hate Aslan and they want to kill us all. How can you want to make peace with that?" The Faun was healed from his wounds but he still looked angry. Susan remembered him being in the thick of the fighting, even in the battle with the Witch herself.

Edmund raised a hand, and Fraxinus subsided. "Peace or war," Edmund said, "Susan's right. We need to understand in order to protect ourselves. What did you learn?" he asked Susan.

"That there are as many reasons for fighting as there are stars in the sky," she said with a sigh. "But most of them involve fear."

"Fear of what? They nearly beat us!" Edmund exclaimed.

"But they did not, because you are binding Narnia to you," answered Stormcoat, and Susan nodded.

"I think that is some of it. They are losing--or have lost, and they were the Witch's people: they served her, profited under her, enforced her decrees. They were the schoolyard bullies, and now their victims are in charge, and they're terrified they'll receive just what they dished out."

Edmund nodded at that, and she knew he was thinking of his own troubles at school. "And that's why they won't surrender, because they don't believe in forgiveness--they wouldn't have forgiven themselves, after all." His voice was almost emotionless; Susan shifted sideways to press against him. His sword hilt jabbed into her side, but she felt the tension in his body ease.

They sat for a moment, thinking, as the fire crackled and Susan finished her now-cool mash. She handed the bowl back to Fraxinus with a quiet "Thank you," and propped her head on her knee to watch the flames.

Stormcoat stirred, his long tail whipping once and hissing against a tree branch. "What shall you do, then?"

Susan swiveled her head to see Edmund's face. He looked as uncertain as she felt. "I know what I want to do," he said at last, "but I can't make the decision on my own."

Which was almost exactly what Susan was thinking. She sat up. "There are only thirty prisoners or so," she said, and looked at Edmund.

"So?"

She sighed. "So with Stormcoat and his people here, we have enough soldiers to guard them. We can take them to Peter to make a decision."

"We were supposed to meet him at the Castle anyway," Edmund said. "Think he'll mind if we show up with thirty cranky Dwarfs and Ogres?"

"I think he would mind more if you let them loose to wander the countryside," said Stormcoat dryly.

*

Even the bird-song was muffled in the misty pre-dawn morning. Narnia's stars, so much larger and brighter than England's, were paling, and a faint green light crept up the eastern sky. Susan shuffled her feet, toes curling cold inside her boots, and rubbed her hands on her arms.

Beside her, Edmund puffed with effort as he drew the tiny bow back and forth, drilling into the wood. Fraxinus looked on from Edmund's other side, and grunted once (in approval or discontent, Susan couldn't tell).

Around them, people were gathered, standing silent in the clearing; in the darkness they were just odd-shaped shadows, no two the same size. But for all the chill in the air (and again Susan wondered about the turn in the weather: how soon would Autumn come? Would they be ready for it?), they stood quietly, even contemplatively. Well, mostly quietly: one of the Centaurs stamped, and was hushed by Silversharp.

A spark, at last, sprang from the end of the drill: a flicker of light in the darkness. And another, alighting in the shavings and punk Edmund and Fraxinus had gathered. Edmund didn't speak yet, but gathered tinder, feeding it to the tiny fire until it was a fist-size flame, burning merrily in a copper bowl chased with the same runes Susan had seen on the Stone Table.

"Now, king," said Fraxinus quietly, and Edmund stood up, balancing the bowl between his palms. He went to step forward, and then stopped, and turned toward Susan.

"I think..." he said, and extended the bowl towards her.

Susan caught her breath, nodded, and lifted her hand to take hold of it. Thus, carrying the fire between them, they stepped forward towards the pyre.

The dryads had worked through the night, bringing wood and stacking it just so; the Centaurs had laid the dead among the logs, washed and wrapped and limbs straightened: gathered in, in whichever way was appropriate for their people. The two great Cats were curled tight like house cats on a pillow; the Dwarfs all faced their beloved earth; the five Fauns each had given up a horn to a comrade-in-arms before being laid with their heads toward the rising sun. Even the Goblins had their right hands bound to their left shoulders in the ancient tribal salute.

The sun was just about to rise. Susan and Edmund paced once, twice, three steps, and then stopped. "How do we light it?" Susan asked in a whisper, her face flushing. She had not realized she had a role in this, and had slept while Edmund conferred with Fraxinus and Stormcoat about the ceremony.

"Torch on your right," hissed Edmund. "Light it from the bowl."

The pyre climbed high before them: too many dead to count, and Susan wondered what had happened to the dead after the first battle. They had been carried away to Cair Paravel without a thought, afterwards. Surely the bodies did not still lie on that plain, skin withering in the summer sun? Surely not.

She made sure Edmund had the copper bowl firmly in his hand, and reached for the torch. It was lighter than it looked: a length of dry oak bound at one end with pitch and grasses. She raised it to the crowd around them (it seemed the right thing to do) and lowered it to the bowl.

There was a crackle, and then fire sprang up in a bright crown at the top of the torch. Susan lifted it again to the crowd. Edmund stepped away for a moment, and then touched another torch to hers. In the flickering light, his face was pale and set. He looked away, over her shoulder, and shook his head. "Not yet," he said.

They stood there, holding the burning torches, watching the horizon, until at length a single ray of light came over the hills to the east to touch the treetops around them. "Now," said Edmund, and began to pace clockwise around the pyre.

Susan turned and walked slowly counter-clockwise, and at every step she touched the torch to the bundles of tinder and kindling in the pyre, stacked under and around the (too many) Narnian dead. At the south end she saw the Cyclops' body, and caught her breath in a gasp, but did not shame herself. She recovered, lit the bundle with the torch, and went on.

By the time she met Edmund again where they had started, the fire was beginning to spread throughout the pyre, crackling and snapping. It was no longer quiet in the clearing, and it was quite uncomfortable so close to the flames.

Edmund led her away from the pyre, still walking slowly and ceremonially, and finally stopped where it seemed that everyone could see him. "We send our brothers and sisters to Aslan's Country, with honor and love," he said. "May they find rich grazing, good hunting, fertile soil, and the peace he promises us. Honor and peace to them all."

"Honor and peace to them all," said the company, and with that Edmund and Susan reversed their torches, extinguishing them in the damp earth.

They left the pyre burning behind them, tended by three of Stormcoat's Centaurs and one of the Goblin prisoners (Goblins have specific requirements for their dead that other peoples find disturbing), as they struck camp and headed back south and east towards the Witch's castle. Susan was glad to put the battlefield behind them, but the smell of the pyre followed them for some miles until the wind changed in mid-morning.

Armies, even small ones, travel slowly, and armies burdened with prisoners even more slowly. So it was no surprise that Rhea met them at mid-day near Tumnus' cave, returning from the Witch's castle with word from Peter and Lucy.

"Well?" demanded Edmund, as the Wolf fell into step with them, near the head of the line. They were at least out of the forest and into more open country now, and could spread out a bit; Susan had been uncomfortable at how they had been strung along in a long line. That was, after all, how they had been caught off-guard yesterday.

Was it only yesterday? Astonishing.

"They are both well," said Rhea, with a sly flick of her ears. "The Castle is taken, with no losses. They were naturally concerned about you, queen," she said, looking at Susan, "after the Eagle's garbled message, but I was able to reassure them."

"Next time, I'll send a Magpie along," promised Edmund.

"Anything else?" Susan asked.

Rhea's hackles ruffled, and she dropped her voice. "Your brother is unsettled. By what, he did not say, but I think they made some disturbing discoveries in the castle."

Susan wasn't surprised, although it wasn't something she had thought about, either. But the castle had been the Witch's home, and her prison as well. She didn't like to think what it was they had found--had there still been prisoners locked away? How horrible!

"He'll tell us when we get there," said Edmund, frowning.

"No doubt," said Rhea, and glided away to greet Stormcoat.

They walked on for some distance, following the advance guard, a squad of Fraxinus' Fauns and two young Centaurs. In the distance a scout came cantering out of the trees. Over breakfast, Stormcoat had had a long talk with Edmund about battle array and things like that. Edmund's face had turned purple once or twice, but he hadn't stomped off the way he used to when Peter dressed him down, so Susan decided it went all right.

"I don't like being separated like this," she said, as they approached the trees. "I worried about Lucy all day yesterday."

"That's odd," said Edmund, thoughtfully. "I didn't."

Susan scowled. "Edmund--!"

He waved a hand at her as he stepped over a fallen log. "Not like that, Su. Just--I can't say how, it's like I just knew she was all right. When I thought about her, I wasn't worrying."

"Well, I worried," said Susan. She stepped over the log too, and adjusted her bow so it hung more evenly. "But--but I wasn't worried this morning." She touched Edmund's shoulder, and he glanced back at her with an inquiring look. "Why wasn't I worried about Lucy this morning?"

"Because she was all right," he answered.

Susan rolled her eyes. "Yes, but how did we know that?"

Edmund just shrugged, and then put out a hand as a Stag came cantering up. He stuttered to a halt in front of them, dust puffing in small clouds about his cloven hooves. "Yes, king?" he asked, and Susan recognized him as one of Bruno's people. She suspected that nobody had yet told him that the Witch's castle was no longer in the hands of the Western Narnian Patrol, and wondered if that was Edmund's intent.

"Walk with us," invited Edmund, and the Stag tossed his head, but willingly swung his long body into line on Edmund's right. Susan saw Fraxinus, behind them, glower, but he said nothing.

Edmund didn't say anything for a few paces, so Susan spoke first. "What's your name? I'm Susan, and of course this is Edmund."

"Oh, I know," said the Stag, nodding his heavy head. "I'm Elmshadow of Cauldron Pool, but I mostly grew up in the Western Wild."

"You're not the only one who did, I think," said Edmund casually.

The Stag, who was a fine specimen, with more flesh and a healthier shine to his coat than most of the grazing animals Susan had seen in Narnia, shook his head so his antlers flashed in the afternoon light. "Well, no; we had to eat, and you get summer there, and food is much easier to find. But it was lonely. There are few Talking Beasts in the Western Wild, and it is hard country. My parents told me stories about Narnia, about the festivals and long warm summers, that their parents had told them. It sounded wonderful, like a dream."

"And what happened when you came to Narnia, came back I mean?" Susan urged, when Elmshadow stopped talking.

He pawed at the ground, looking uncomfortable. "It wasn't like they'd said it was. Everyone was hungry, and there wasn't much food. Nobody would talk to me, and I didn't know anyone. It wasn't like Nini had said it would be, at all."

Is it ever? thought Susan. "And so you joined the Patrol?"

The Stag's ears dropped and then came back up: Susan realized this was a deer equivalent of a shrug. "They had food, and a plan. They seemed organized, like they knew what was going on."

"And what did you do for the Patrol?" asked Edmund, again quite casually. Elmshadow was officially still their ally; they didn't want to frighten him off if they could avoid it. But it would be best to settle the question before they arrived at the Witch's castle.

"Oh, not much," Elmshadow said, looking shifty. Susan wasn't sure how she knew the Stag was dodging the question, but she knew he was. One more Narnian lesson: how to read the body-language of Talking Beasts. "Guarded the castle, that sort of thing." He was probably muscle, Susan decided, for when the Patrol threatened the locals: with his size and broad spread of antlers, he would pose quite a threat to most of the woodland population.

"Guarded it from whom?" Edmund asked, and stepped over another log across the trail. "Isn't the Patrol protecting the local Narnians?"

"Some of them don't understand that we're here to protect them," said the Stag, with a borrowed earnestness. "They tried to steal supplies, and Bruno couldn't allow that."

"Supplies? What supplies?" asked Susan.

Now Elmshadow looked distinctly uncomfortable. "I don't really know. Some food, I think, and there were lots of boxes in some of the rooms. Bruno would trade some of it, sometimes."

Bruno, who had abandoned his people on the battlefield, and run away when it seemed that they were going to lose. One of the Dogs had followed his trail for some distance, after the battle was over; she'd come back covered with burrs to report that the Grizzly had headed west into the mountains. If they were very lucky, perhaps he would stay there (but Susan rather doubted it).

"What did he trade for?" Susan asked. She hoped they would reach the castle soon; she was very tired, and still sore from the battle, though her wounds were healed. She wanted to sit down and have a nice cup of tea, and sleep in a bed. Except she knew there would be no tea, and dinner would be mushy stew again, and they would sleep on the ground. Again. (Not that she would ever complain out loud: she knew that much about being a queen, after all.)

In any event, this also was important: talking to Elmshadow, learning about the Patrol. Turning the Patrol, really, if they could.

"I don't know," said Elmshadow, and now he looked genuinely unhappy. He tossed his head a few times, and finally burst out: "Bruno said that he was protecting us, that--that Aslan wasn't going to look after us, and we had to do it ourselves. He said that the stories about the new kings and queens were just, just stories."

And you believed him, thought Susan, because why shouldn't you? We hadn't done anything to prove ourselves, after all. Which wasn't entirely true, she knew: they had helped defeat the Witch, and that had not been solely Aslan's work--she'd heard Edmund and Lucy talking about the Deep Magic, and what it meant. But it was close enough to true for Bruno's purposes. Close enough to fool Narnians who hadn't seen Aslan, those who were a little naive or a lot selfish, those who wanted to take power now that the Witch was gone.

"And now?" Edmund asked, very gently. "What do you think now?"

Windcaller appeared out of a grove of trees up ahead, where the trail curled up and over a wooded ridge. "The castle is just ahead!" he cried, and cantered past to bring word to the rest of the company.

"I--" Elmshadow hesitated, and then stomped one hoof on the dusty trail. "I choose to trust Aslan," he said, firmly, and when he tossed his head this time, his antlers caught the late sun like wood polished to a glossy sheen.

~

 

The sun was swinging into the west, and although the rooms at the top of the tower were dim, the heat was stifling. Below, voices echoed in the courtyard and hallways as Torvus and the others searched through the rooms, tallying and cataloging the quite enormous amount of material the Witch had compiled. No wonder Bruno had seized the castle as soon as the opportunity presented itself: it was a treasure-trove of foodstuffs, trade goods, and raw materials, all of which could be traded or distributed for Bruno's benefit.

It was all so much that Peter was forced to wonder why the Witch had accumulated it all. She hadn't decorated the castle in gilt, or furnished it with ornate art. She hadn't filled her cupboards and chests with jewels or luxurious clothing, nor had she purchased loyalty from her subjects with largesse. In fact, she had, by all reports, gone out of her way to keep them miserable, rewarding only a very few of them with enough to keep them comfortable. It was a conundrum, and Peter longed for Susan to come help him solve it.

He shrugged and swiped his sweaty forehead against the sleeve of his shirt, before tugging open yet another heavy wooden door. This door had been hidden behind stacks of barrels and crates, and when opened, led to a small room piled with bales wrapped in rough cloth and bound with leather straps. Peter raised an eyebrow: whatever this was, it wasn't food. Was it goods shipped in, or something the Witch had planned to use for trade? The room had a familiar smell: a little musty, reminding him more than anything of his great-aunt Nell, but Peter couldn't place why it reminded him of her.

With the door ajar, there was enough light to see his way well enough. Peter stepped into the room and drew his dagger. It was the work of barely a minute to cut the leather bonds on the nearest bale and saw through the wrapping about the outside.

Some minutes later, there were shouts in the courtyard, cries of greeting and welcome. These sounds were followed by the clatter of hoofprints on the paving stones, and then the rumbling voices of Centaurs and at least one Wolf.

Peter sat on the floor under the window, in a spot where he could see the door to the storeroom. He didn't move, even when he heard his own name called. The sun moved in the sky, just enough that the light came in through the window and illuminated his filthy hand resting on his thigh. He hadn't put away the knife. He turned it over, and watched the light reflect off the blade. Sweat trickled unnoticed down his back.

"Aye, king, I think I saw your brother upstairs," said a voice clearly from the floor below. Peter didn't stir.

Quiet footsteps, softer than a Faun's clickety tread, came up the stairway, and then stopped at the doorway. "Pete!" said Edmund in surprise. "Didn't you hear us?"

Peter didn't look up from the knife. It was preferable to watch the knife than the storeroom. "I heard."

"Are you hurt?" Edmund was across the room in an instant, and on his knees, gripping Peter's arms. "What's wrong?"

Finally Peter looked up. Edmund had a black eye and had lost some hair on the side of his head, but was otherwise unharmed. He was wearing just a torn and filthy tunic over his breeches. "Lose your boots?" Peter asked.

"What?" Edmund looked down. "Oh, no, they just fell apart on the march back. I hope I can talk someone into making me more. Maybe there is some leather here we can use?" He looked around the room hopefully.

Peter nearly gagged, and he wrenched away from Edmund, stumbling to his feet.

"What? What is it?" Edmund jumped up as well, putting out a hand to support him. "Pete, are you all right?"

One hand on the wall, Peter leaned over, fighting the nausea. At length, he straightened and pointed to the storeroom with the point of his knife. "I found that," he said in explanation, and didn't turn to watch as Edmund went to investigate.

There was a long silence. Peter heard the rustling as Edmund examined the open bale, and then his brother's sharp indrawn breath as he came to the same realization Peter had. He stood without moving, leaning against the cool stone wall, until his brother came out. As Edmund crossed the ray of sunlight through the window, the light revealed fresh tear-tracks on his face.

Edmund sank down on the floor next to Peter and put his face in his hands. Peter concentrated on breathing; he was pretty sure he wouldn't vomit anymore, but he didn't want to be seen weeping, even by Ed. He was High King, and this was far from the worst thing he was going to need to handle.

"She was going to sell them," Edmund said, muffled behind his hands. "The furs."

Peter nodded. The smell, so familiar, choked him: the smell of their grandmother's treasured mink coat. She brought it out only at holidays, or in the coldest winter weather. Susan had always loved to stroke the soft fur.

But the furs in the bales weren't mink--or weren't only mink. They were spotted, striped, and parti-colored. Cheetah and Lynx, Rabbit and Wolf, Beaver and Badger. Rich and thick and lovely, so carefully cured and packaged for shipping to some far-away land, where the purchasers couldn't hope to know that the original owners had been thinking, feeling, Talking Beasts.

"Do you think Bruno knew?" Edmund asked after a moment.

Peter swallowed hard, and pushed himself away from the wall. "I hope not," he said.

"Bloody hell, Pete," said Edmund, staring at his hands in his lap. "I don't think we can tell anyone. It's too horrible."

"No," said Peter. "I don't think we can."

"Not even the girls." Edmund's face was pale and unhappy.

Shaking his head, Peter crossed the room and shut the storeroom door firmly. "We should probably tell Susan. But Lucy would ... come to think of it, I don't know what Lucy would do. She stabbed one of Bruno's Dwarfs yesterday, Ed. She was amazing."

Edmund took the change of topic as it was meant, and after wiping his face once more, put up a hand for Peter to pull him up from the floor. "She didn't kill him, did she?"

Peter put a hand on his shoulder. "No, he's fine. Listen, Ed, I didn't think--are you all right? Here, I mean?" He waved the other hand around, indicating their surroundings. Not even eight weeks ago, Edmund had been shackled in one of those cells downstairs.

"I'm OK," Edmund said, shrugging. "Just don't send me down to the dungeons." He gave Peter a smile that looked only partly forced.

"I won't, but you should know what we found there."

*

"Peter!" Susan's voice echoed in the small hall, where Peter was carrying one end of a heavy crate, while Torvus struggled with the other. It was full of weapons, but it had jammed in the doorway and they were on their third attempt to get it out of the castle before giving up and just taking it all out one bit at a time.

The end of the crate slipped in Peter's sweaty hands, and he grunted as a splinter dug into his thumb. "Busy here, Susan... No, turn more left, no the other left--" he directed Torvus. Finally, with a huff of satisfaction from its bearers, the crate slipped through the doorway with only an inch to spare. Peter just missed trapping his arm between the crate and the door, and followed Torvus out through the great hall and into the courtyard before dumping the crate on the cobbled ground with a crash.

"Ow," he said mildly, grinning at the Faun. "Was that the last one?"

"I think so, king," said Torvus, and then stepped out of the way as one of the Centaurs lifted the crate they had struggled with and swung it easily up to his shoulder. "Put that with the materiel, not the food," he called after the Centaur, who twitched his tail in acknowledgement.

"Peter!" said Susan again, and tugged at Peter's arm. "Come with me, you have to see this!"

"Go, king, I will finish up here," said Torvus, with half a bow, and Peter swiveled to follow Susan, who was already leading him around the wall of the keep and into what they'd been calling the back gardens. (Of course, the Witch had had no gardens, but it was an empty area between the keep and the outer walls: what else could it be?) She disappeared around one corner, then another, and Peter finally emerged into a sunny and overgrown yard, with flowering vines crawling up the outside wall and bees humming in the air. Against the far side was a jumble of tools and supplies piled against a half-built stone wall: part of a shed or stall that had been left unfinished.

Susan stood in the center of the garden, facing the unfinished shed, her fists clenched at her sides. She had not yet bathed after the march from Whiterush Vale: dust and sweat were smeared on her cheek, and her oversized tunic was spotted with grime and blood. "Peter, look," she said, and pointed at the shed. "Look!" Her voice shook.

It was just a stone wall. Peter walked closer. A stone wall, made of the same grey stone all the rest of the castle was; he put a hand on it, and then jerked it back with an oath.

It was stone, but the wall was made from many smaller pieces of stone, irregularly-shaped and fitted together and then mortared in place. The stone that Peter had touched ended in something that looked like a canine nose. Next to it was a roundish stone with a prickly surface, like a hedgehog's back; below that, clearly distinguishable, the broad underside of a bear's paw.

"I'm right, aren't I?" said Susan, from behind him. Her voice shook. "It's what I thought."

Peter nodded, still staring at the wall. Most of the individual stones were small enough for Peter to pick up in two hands, and some were even smaller: they all had sharp, raw edges, as though they had been shattered with some great force. At the unfinished end a single curved horn stuck out: a cow's, or a Minotaur's. The wall was some ten feet long and a foot wide, abandoned at about waist-height. He turned around slowly, but there was no more loose stone in the garden.

"We--Aslan never came back here, that morning," Susan said, her voice thick. "I would have remembered. And I--could even Aslan have done anything about this? Oh, Peter--" she wrapped her arms around herself and tears trickled down her face.

They stood there for what seemed to Peter like a long time, although it was probably just a few minutes. The shadows in the garden lengthened, and Peter felt himself growing very cold, although they were in the sun. The walls and grass and flowers around them seemed to recede into the distance; his pulse thrummed in his ears, growing louder and louder, like the pounding of a military drum. All right! he thought. I hear you now.

"Susan," he said, his throat dry and his voice raspy, and turned her about so he could see her face. "Come on, now. We have work to do."

She smeared the tears away with the heel of her hand. "Work!" she protested. "But--"

"Yes, work. Let's go." He took her hand and towed her along, ignoring whatever she was saying: he couldn't really hear it, anyway, because of the drumming in his head. They came out into the front courtyard and found Torvus and Edmund elbow-deep in a barrel of arrows. Lucy was nowhere in sight: someone would have to find her.

"Edmund," Peter snapped. Edmund looked up, his expression of inquiry switching quickly to concern. Peter didn't wait for the question: he couldn't wait, the need to act was becoming desperate. "I need the rest of this all moved outside, and everyone out of the castle. Make it happen."

"Susan," he went on, as brusquely as he had with Edmund, "find Lucy and keep her with you. Then get all the prisoners together, settle them out in the field with a strong guard. Things are going to be... busy here shortly."

He could feel her eyes and Edmund's on him, could see the frown between her brows. But instead of challenging him, they exchanged glances, and nodded. "Where are you going, Pete?" asked Edmund, as he picked up a stone to hammer the lid back on the barrel.

"I'm going to light a fire."

Edmund's eyes widened: his sure movements became brisk and efficient. And Susan left the courtyard at a run.

The storerooms on the lower levels had contained quite a lot of supplies, including several small barrels of cooking oil, which were not too large to carry under one's arm. Peter didn't think the oil tasted like anything much, but it was oil: it would burn. The castle was built of stone, yes, but also wood: wood supports and beams, wood floors and furniture, wood underneath the slate roofs. He just needed to find the best place to start it.

Chewing his lip, Peter looked around the great hall, which was tall and windowless, with a few pieces of furniture at the inner end, including the Witch's "throne". There, he thought, and carried his barrel over to the tall seat. He put the barrel down and levered the bung out with his dagger. It was a small piece of light wood, about the size of his thumb; he tossed it over his shoulder and picked the barrel back up, tilting it so a dollop of oil came out and poured into a smooth puddle on the seat of the Witch's chair.

The oil was a clear yellow-green. Peter smiled grimly and tilted the barrel back upright, just enough so a thin drizzle streamed from the opening. Keeping the barrel at that angle as best he could, he made a loop through the entire first floor of the castle. He didn't have to go through every room, but he wanted to make sure he covered a lot of ground.

He went upstairs and did it again; and then again; and then went up into the towers, trailing oil behind him on the narrow wooden stairs. Coming down the stairs in the west tower, he slipped on the oil and nearly broke his neck--a last-second grab with his free hand at the window saved him. Gasping, and a little shaky with adrenaline, he stood for a moment and peered out the window.

The sun was low in the sky behind the castle: from this angle he could see the shadows of the towers stretching east over the fields. People were still going in and out the castle gateway, but there was a great pile of supplies and equipment growing, a good hundred yards out in the meadow. He couldn't see Susan or Lucy, but he could see the prisoners: three dozen or so figures mostly seated on the ground, surrounded by Centaurs and Fauns. Good: he liked his Dwarfs fine, but they were clannish, and if a cousin was among the prisoners, he didn't want to put any of his own to guard them, just in case.

The last tower was the tallest, the one where he'd found the furs. Peter up-ended the barrel over the furs, soaking them, and with a strength fueled by the rage he'd been throttling back, he split the barrel apart and cast the wood around the room. "Be at peace in Aslan's Country, my brothers and sisters," he said, breathing heavily. "You are avenged."

The flint and steel that the Dwarfs of Pattering Hill had given him were clumsy in his hands. He had to strike nearly a dozen times before the first spark sprang off and landed on the oil-soaked burlap. It fizzled out; Peter struck again and again, and then, at last, it caught. A tiny flame arose, the smell of the burning oil and cloth pungent in the small room. Peter stood, watching, as it spread, the oil feeding it: in seconds the flame was the size of his hand, and then his head, and then it covered the entire top of the bale and was over a foot high. Peter nodded with satisfaction and left the room, leaving the door wide open.

Halfway down the stairs, on the landing, he stopped and took out the flint and steel again. This time it went faster, and as he clattered down the steps below he could see the light from the flames on the ceiling above. He came all the way down, crossed to the west tower, and lit another fire on the third-floor landing. When he looked out the window as he came back down, he saw smoke billowing out of the top of the central tower.

He lit a fire in the scullery, broke open another oil barrel and rolled it down the stairs to the dungeons and threw a torch after it, and finally found himself back in the great hall. The smoke was pouring down the stairs now, and rolling out of the doorways into the hall. Billows of it gathered in the rafters.

There was shouting outside; he heard Susan's voice. "Peter! Peter, where are you?" He supposed it was time to leave. But first he had one last fire to set.

The door crashed open and the rush of air sucked more smoke into the room. Peter couldn't even see who was at the door, but it didn't matter. He struck a spark and it flew off and landed perfectly on the oil-soaked seat of the throne. It was very hot now: he could feel the sweat pouring down his face and neck, and the smoke was burning his eyes.

A hand seized his shoulder and jerked him around. Susan, her eyes wide with horror, was shouting, but Peter wrenched away to check on his fire. Ah! It had caught, and now a small flame was licking up the tall back of the seat. In moments, the entire chair would be ablaze. He smiled, and looked at Susan, and then a cloud of smoke wrapped itself around them, obliterating the room and choking the breath in their lungs, and Peter realized, quite suddenly, that he might have killed them both.

*

In later years, when these early days were half-legend to most Narnians, those few who had fought at the Battle of Whiterush Vale were often asked to tell the children about how High King Peter burned down the Witch's castle, and emerged from the fire followed by his sister, with the flames shooting into the sky behind them. The veterans were happy to tell the story, and always made it sound heroic and dramatic, the tall golden-haired king with his sword on his back, silhouetted by the furiously burning castle as the sun went down behind the mountains in the west.

What Peter remembered was crawling to the door on his hands and knees, pulling Susan for a space and then Susan pulling him; getting lost at least once and almost ending up in the anteroom; and the two of them tumbling down the long flight of steps into the relatively clear air of the courtyard. And the sound: the roar of the fire itself, the flames hungrily eating everything consumable in the castle, and the horrifying groan as the west tower began to collapse inwards. Peter didn't realize what it was, but Susan looked up, and her mouth dropped open, and she grabbed Peter's shirt and dragged him along the cobblestones until Peter scrambled to his feet.

They came staggering out of the castle gate, holding one another up, covered in soot and coughing so hard Peter realized later he had sprained a muscle: he couldn't laugh comfortably for days afterwards. There wasn't an inch of exposed skin that was clean, and Edmund stared at them in horror for a moment before dashing forward to take Susan's other side.

With his help, and Tumnus supporting Peter, they came away from the castle to a safe spot out in the field, where Lucy was waiting, with the cordial, clean clothes, and--blessedly--clean water for washing. When they had finally stopped coughing, and had drunk enough water to wash the taste of the fire out of their mouths, Peter carefully eased his filthy shirt off. He stared at it: even in the dim evening light, he could see the charred holes where sparks had landed on his back as they fled the castle.

"Well," said Edmund pointedly, handing Susan another mug of clean water. "That was stupid." Susan's face was almost invisible in the darkness, but Peter heard her snort in agreement, and then cough.

"But necessary," Peter replied. It had to be done: the castle was a taint on Narnia, a blight that, if left standing, could have spread outwards to ruin everything they were working for. The grief and horror permeating the place could only be cleansed if the entire edifice was taken down, stone by stone. He wasn't sure how to say that, though: it was all tangled up with the drumming in his ears, which could have been Aslan's voice--or so he hoped, unless it was merely his own unmanageable anger. He just knew that it had to be done, and now the rage was gone, leaving an unfamiliar certainty in its place.

He looked around; the camp was settling in for the evening, with fires leaping up around the field, and Narnians passing back and forth with equipment and food. Rhea lay nearby, watching him with bright eyes. Peter desperately wanted something to eat, and then to sleep around the clock, but there was one last thing he had to do tonight. And it wasn't something he could hand off to one of his siblings: this, too, was for the High King.

"I see that look on your face," said Lucy from beside him. "You aren't going anywhere until you drink this, wash your face, and put on a clean shirt." She thrust a bowl into his hands.

"Do I have a clean shirt?" Peter asked plaintively.

*

"I don't think this is a good idea," said Susan. She had washed her face as well, but the flickering firelight showed Peter the strain and exhaustion of the last few days. Just a day ago, he realized, she had been near to death. "They're our enemies, I don't want you that close to them."

Peter raised an eyebrow. "Didn't you go talk to them by yourself just yesterday?"

She flushed, and shot an angry glance at Edmund, who shrugged. "Yes, but I'm no threat, and I'm not the High King! And haven't you already risked your life once today?"

"I'll be fine. Besides, I'm not going unarmed." Peter reached back, ignoring the stiffness in his arms and the stab in his ribs, and drew Rhindon. The gold pommel gleamed in the darkness, catching light from all the fires around. "And you can keep an eye on things from out here."

"I will!" she said, and turned back to their campsite, presumably to fetch her bow.

"Don't get yourself knifed," said Edmund with a quirk of an eyebrow, and stepped back as well.

Peter nodded to the Centaurs guarding the prisoners and walked past them into the circle where the prisoners were being held. It was, he realized, a bit unfair to put them all together, because there were two quite distinct groups of prisoners.

First there were the Narnians who had held the castle for Bruno and assaulted Lucy, of which there were maybe fifteen or so. (The Patrol members who had followed Bruno into battle, and survived, now seemed quite comfortable following Edmund and Susan; Peter assumed this was because Bruno had abandoned them during the battle. But there could be trouble there in the future, and he made a note to keep an eye on the situation.)

And then there were the Rebels, those remnants of the Witch's army who had survived and surrendered at the Battle of Whiterush Vale. There was little sympathy between these two groups, and they had separated, leaving an empty space in the center of the great circle.

Perfect. Peter walked to a spot near the center of the circle, sword in hand, and sank as gracefully as he could down into a cross-legged position. He lay Rhindon on the ground in front of him, crosswise.

When he looked up, he saw that all the prisoners were watching him. He had positioned himself so that most of them were in front of him: a great arc of faces and suspicious eyes, with a gap in the middle. On one side were the Rebels; on the other the remainder of the Western Narnian Patrol. Ogre and Minotaur, Goblin and Hag on one side; Cougar and Wolf and Dwarf on the other. (None of the Harpies had surrendered, Edmund had said, with a grimace.)

"I am Peter," he said, speaking hoarsely, but as clearly as he could through the damage the smoke had done to his throat. He could not pitch his voice to carry past this small crowd of prisoners, but then he didn't mean to. If he kept his voice quiet, they would have to attend to him, and that was what he needed. "Peter High King of Narnia, by grace of Aslan, and Lord of Cair Paravel." At that, they stirred, and one of the Werewolves gave a mocking laugh.

"Jadis is dead," he said, gesturing to the still-burning ruins of the castle, "and that Narnia with her. Yet we are not without challenges, in this reborn Narnia. Jadis' Winter is over, but the natural round of seasons is begun again, and there is frost already in the high country. Do we have enough food set aside to feed all the children? Do we have homes for all the Narnians returned from exile?

"Jadis' ice and snow no longer protects our borders, and the Giants have already begun to press against us in the north. We may have enemies on the west and south, who will see our strife and disorganization, and take the opportunity to invade. After one hundred years of isolation, who knows what has transpired in the outer world?

"We need information, supplies, industry and organization. Soldiers and messengers and farmers and herders. Weavers and miners, smiths and carpenters and foresters. Traders and businessmen, shipwrights and sailors.

"There is no room now for Narnians who think only of their own clans, their own people, their own needs. We must all work together to rebuild, or we shall assuredly all fail on our own--and Aslan will take Narnia away from us, who could not protect her, and give her to someone who can."

He stopped and looked around. The light was poor, but there were enough fires and torches that he could meet every eye. Some of the prisoners met his gaze levelly; others sneered; others looked away, mostly down. The Cougar gazed at him unblinking, her eyes lambent in the firelight.

"This is my proposal to you. You have until Aravil sets to come to me at the edge of the circle there, and give me your oath. If you do that, all debts shall be held paid." That got their attention, and not just the prisoners': there was a gasp and a thud from the guards, as if someone had dropped a spear. Peter swallowed painfully and went on. "I shall take your oath, and give you mine, and as you deal honorably with me, so shall I and all of Narnia deal with you. But mark me--" here he looked around again, catching every eye he could. "This is only for tonight.

"If you choose not to give your oath to me tonight, and thereby to Narnia, you shall no longer be of Narnia. You will be escorted to the border and set free there, to find your own way in the Western Wild. You will be outlaw in Narnia, forbidden to return."

The prisoners shifted again, the Dwarfs looking at one another, and one of the Minotaurs lowed uncertainly. Peter smiled grimly. "Make your choice. But know that this oath is binding: you shall swear by your blood in Aslan's name, and Rhindon, here, shall answer to oath-breakers. If you cannot take oath to Narnia with your whole heart, better you should live in the wilderness."

It was done. Peter sat quietly for a few more breaths, and then took the sword again into his hand and stood as smoothly as he could (stumbling now would be dangerously embarrassing). At the edge of the circle, he saw Edmund staring at him, brows drawn. "Come to me," Peter said to the prisoners, and walked away to where the guards and his siblings waited.

"How many hours is that?" Peter asked quietly, leaning unobtrusively (or so he thought) against Edmund. Exhaustion was like a lead weight on his shoulders. "Until Aravil rises?"

"Aravil rises before midnight, king," rumbled Stormcoat from behind him. "It will not be long. And see, here is your first recruit." And Stormcoat was right: the Cougar from the Patrol was already approaching the line of guards, her head held high.

"Someone get a chair," said Susan, coming up to Peter and pressing her lips to his cheek. "It's going to be a long night."

In the end, all four of the Pevensies were there for the first formal oath-taking of their reign, seated on logs and stones and crates of supplies as, in trickles over the next four hours, fully half of the prisoners swore themselves to Narnia under Peter the High King. Susan, Edmund, and Lucy sat as witnesses as Peter drew the hand (or paw or foot) of each oath-taker along Rhindon's edge, and smeared his own blood with theirs as they recited the oath.

Rhindon grew slowly dimmer in the torchlight as bloodstains spread across its shining blade. But in the morning, the stains were all gone, and that too became part of the tale that was later told.

Chapter Text

Dew wet on her bare feet, Lucy crunched another bite of her apple and stared happily out over the hills and valleys, a thousand shades of green in the just-rising sun. Narnia, she had decided, was not just exciting (and sometimes terrifying): it was also beautiful. In England, the view would be marked with the lines of hedgerows and railways, and the square shapes of fields and yards, barns and houses; here she could see no such evidence of the work of hands. Just trees and rivers, hills and taller hills, mist pooling in the valleys, until far away in the distance snow-capped peaks reflected the sun back at her.

A hand snaked into her field of view and snatched away her apple.

"Hey!" Lucy protested, but Edmund tossed it in the air with a grin before examining it thoughtfully.

"Where did you get this? I've never seen one like it." Edmund was right: it was unusual, a glossy yellow-green apple with a golden sheen in the morning light. It tasted sweet and tart, the flavor so perfectly apple that it made the memory of all the other apples Lucy had ever eaten fade into dust.

She put out her hand. "Give it back and I'll tell you." When Edmund had done so, she took another bite and chewed it slowly, smiling as his expression grew impatient. When at last she had swallowed, she pointed into the woods to the southeast, just below the rise. "Over there--there's an old orchard, with tons of apples."

"Well, that's good to know, but Lu, you know you shouldn't go about by yourself. What if something happened?" They were, after all, some distance from the campsite, at the far southern end of the great field, out of earshot of any of their friends.

"I have my knife!" she protested, but had to admit that her knife had not protected her from the Dryads. She grimaced and kicked at a tussock of grass. "All right, fine. But I didn't mean to, really. It just happened."

"What, you came out here at dawn for no reason?" asked Edmund, skeptically. When she just nodded, mouth full of apple, he frowned, then his expression brightened. "I say, let's get some more of your apples and bring them back for breakfast." And so they did, carrying two dozen apples back to the camp in a bag made of Edmund's shirt, while he shivered bare-chested in the morning chill.

"Do you think we'll ever go home?" Lucy asked him, as they walked across the field, their bare feet leaving tracks in the wet grass. "To England, I mean." She didn't know why she thought of it: perhaps it was the apple, reminding her of picking apples in Aunt Nina's garden. When she thought about something specific, like apples, England didn't seem very far away; and yet it seemed as though she could go for days without thinking of England, or Finchley, or her parents, at all. It was very odd.

Edmund tossed an apple core away and plucked another out of his shirt. "I don't know," he said. "I mean, I suppose Aslan could send us back anytime he likes. But it's not--well, it's dangerous here, Lu. If one of us..." He didn't finish the sentence, and it took Lucy a moment to realize what he was saying.

"You mean we could die here?" A shock ran through her at the thought. But Edmund had been very badly injured in the battle with the Witch: Lucy remembered how white he had been, how her hand had shaken as she tilted the vial to give him a drop of the cordial.

He moved his shoulders, uneasily. "Everyone else can. Why not us?" He lifted his apple as if to bite it, and then put it back with the others. "But we're here because Aslan wants us to be. So maybe we'll be sent back when we do what we're meant to, or if we don't do what we're meant to..." His voice trailed off, and then he blinked, shrugged, and looked down at her feet. "Whatever happened to your boots, Lucy?"

"They hurt, and we're not marching today, so I left them off. What about yours?"

He grinned and stuck one foot out in front of him and wiggled his toes, hopping on the other foot. "My feet got too big. I guess we'll just have to go barefoot for a while."

The camp was fully roused for the day now, and they wove between small fires and Dwarfs rolling up bedrolls to find their own campsite. "There you are!" said Susan as they came into view. "You'll never guess what Mr. Tumnus found!" Susan carefully ladled something dark from a pot next to the fire and handed the lopsided metal mug to Lucy.

"Tea!" Lucy dropped down on the nearest bedroll (which was Peter's, and she was lucky not to sit on his stone knife) and put her face over her mug. It smelled wonderful, and it tasted wonderful too, even without milk or sugar. "Wherever did you find it?"

"Err, in the supplies from the castle," said Tumnus. "I thought there might be some..." His explanation trailed off, and Edmund gave him a sharp look.

"Was she your source, Tumnus?" Edmund asked, his voice casual. Tumnus nodded, not looking at anything but his own mug. "Do you know where she got it? Is it grown in Narnia?"

"Oh, no," said another voice, a strange, dark, croaky kind of voice. Lucy looked around to see a large black bird--a Raven, she thought--standing on the log next to Susan. "Tea, or Camellia sinensis, needs much warmer weather than we have here in Narnia, even without a century of sub-freezing temperatures. No, no, tea is grown for export in Calormen and the lands to the south, and in some sheltered areas of Terebinthia and the Lone Islands. It must all be imported to Narnia. Hmmph." He clacked his beak once or twice, and then sunk his head and fluffed his feathers, as if cold.

"Oh, Lucy and Edmund, meet Sallowpad," said Peter from the other side of the fire. "He's come up from Beruna with word for us."

"Hallo," said Lucy, a little uncertainly.

"What is the word from Beruna?" asked Edmund. He untied the knot he'd made of his shirtsleeves and let the apples roll out onto Peter's blankets.

"The warning your majesties sent came in good time," said the Raven, and Lucy felt a sudden thrill at being so addressed. "The village is small by other nation's standards, but we would have lost a great deal. As it was, we were able to save most of the trade goods set aside for the Autumn Market, although we lost of course most of the crops that had been planted."

"Oh, good," said Lucy, and tossed an apple to Peter, who caught it and grinned. "No one was hurt, were they?"

Sallowpad clacked his beak again, making Lucy jump. "We were lucky, but not that lucky, I am afraid. The Naiads saved one of the Dryads, but three others perished, along with Rana the Dwarf and a Horse from the south plains, whose name I never learned. And there might be others, further upstream."

"Damn." Peter scrubbed his hand through his hair. He had cleaned off the worst of the soot from yesterday, but his shirt was dirty again and his eyes were still red from smoke. "Has the river fallen? Can you rebuild?"

"I should think so, your majesty--" began Sallowpad, only to be interrupted by Torvus, towing an unfamiliar Dwarf by the collar of his mail shirt, and surrounded by a motley group of other Narnians. Lucy recognized one of Spearfast's sons, Barton and Rex, and a cowed-looking Goblin who had (to everyone's surprise) sworn to Peter in the firelit darkness last night.

"What is this?" said Peter quietly, and stood up, one hand resting on Rhindon's hilt, as Torvus pushed the Dwarf in front of him. Lucy caught a shocked breath: the Dwarf had been shaved, and was both bald as an egg and beardless as well.

"I know you," Susan exclaimed, and leaned forward. "You're Bindle! What happened to you?"

Bindle looked at her, eyes wide with shame and fear, and then shook his head. "Jumped on the way back from the latrine pits in the dark," said Torvus succinctly. "Won't say who did it." He looked disgusted, but Lucy couldn't tell if he was affronted by Bindle himself, or by what had been done to him.

"That's awful!" Lucy cried, unable to stop herself. "He is a Narnian now, as much as any of us! Who would do this?"

"Likely someone whose home he burned, or took to the Witch to turn to stone," someone muttered in the gathering crowd. Lucy glared about her, but she could not tell who said it.

"That doesn't make it right," she insisted. "He swore an oath, he must have the chance to prove himself."

Peter raised a hand, revealing the scab where he had cut himself to take Bindle's oath last night, and all those others. "Enough, Lucy." He drew a breath, let it out, and said, raising his voice, "Whoever has done this has broken faith with me, and with Narnia. All debts are paid, I said, and I shall hold to that."

There was a disgruntled rustling. "Fine for you to say!" came the same voice, from somewhere in the crowd. "They didn't put you off your land for a hundred years, starve your family, burn you out!"

At this, Susan stood up and stepped forward to stand beside Peter. She had washed and rebraided her hair, and looked much more like royalty than any of the rest of them, with their torn clothes and bare feet: Susan had somehow even managed to find a clean shirt. "Come forward," Susan called. "Come forward, and speak your words so all may hear them."

Lucy expected the heckler to flee, but to her surprise a Faun shouldered forward through the crowd, one whose face she knew. "Fraxinus!" exclaimed Edmund, in some surprise.

Fraxinus looked nervous, but also determined, and he hitched his belt so his sword hilt jutted forward.

"Say what you wish," said Susan, after a glance at Peter. "You shall not be harmed."

The Faun looked even more alarmed now, and Lucy bit her lip on a flush of vindictive anger. Be afraid, she thought, and Edmund put his hand on her arm; she felt his tension in the strength of his grip.

"You don't--" began Fraxinus, hesitated, and started again. "He's the enemy!" he said, pointing at Bindle, who couldn't look less threatening if he'd been stripped naked. Lucy had not realized how much of a Dwarf was made by his beard: without the hair, Bindle looked like little more than a child, not a deadly fighter.

"He, and his kind--they served the White Witch, they were loyal to her! Not because they had to, but because they wanted to. They took people away at night to her dungeons, they stole food if they thought you'd been hoarding, they cut down mature trees for her to burn in her stoves! They're not Narnians, they can never be Narnians!" Fraxinus wound up, his face flushed, hands shaking with emotion.

Peter and Susan were watching Fraxinus as he spoke; Edmund was watching Bindle. Lucy looked at the crowd, which had grown to include nearly everyone in the camp. Over a hundred Narnians were gathered around them, watching and witnessing this first real challenge to the new authority. And she was dismayed to see more than one head nodding approvingly, and hear some murmurs of assent; on the other hand, a few familiar faces--Torvus, Dora, Beaver, Stormcoat--looked worried rather than angry. Silversharp, she noticed, had somehow slipped around and was now behind Peter and Susan, standing nearly on top of the pot Susan had used for the tea. Rhea stood next to Edmund, her hackles lifted and her ears fixed forward.

If they turn against us, Lucy thought, we might be able to get away. But a lot of people might die, if there was fighting, and she didn't want to run without even any boots to wear.

Peter had folded his arms during Fraxinus' speech. He looked exhausted, and Lucy wondered if he had slept at all. "I see," he said. "And you, Bindle? Do you have anything to say?"

"You are under our protection," Susan added, with a sideways glance at Peter.

"For whatever good that does," muttered Edmund, too quietly for anyone but Lucy to hear.

Oh, Aslan... thought Lucy, but couldn't think of what to ask for. Were they wrong? Surely forgiveness couldn't be wrong; but this was not what she had expected. She slipped out of Edmund's hold and knelt down next to Bindle, who had remained stubbornly silent.

"Where are you from, Bindle?" she asked.

He looked up at her, a flash of fearful dark eyes, and then back at the ground. "Red Hill," he muttered. "South of the Great River."

Lucy could feel Peter and Susan staring at her, and she knew Peter had his hand on his sword again. But she wasn't afraid: Bindle wasn't Brikamun. Bindle was broken, somehow, the way that much of Narnia was. She curled her toes into the deep grass and kept her voice sympathetic. "Now that the war is over, are you going to go back there, to Red Hill?"

He laughed, a choked gasp that startled her. "There's nothing to go back to, queen! Red Hill's been empty this fifteen years!"

"Is that why you worked for her?" Edmund asked, his voice level. Lucy shot him a grateful glance.

Bindle put his hands over his face for a long moment, and then dropped them; although he kept clenching his fists, he didn't touch the small knife at his belt. He seemed otherwise unarmed, but then he had been a prisoner only twelve hours ago; his weapons were Aslan-knew-where.

"Where else could I go? They were all dead, and no other clan would have me," he said, his voice despairing. "At least I could eat..."

"While the rest of us starved!" spat Fraxinus, disregarding Susan's glare. "You turned on your own people! King," he went on, appealing to Peter, "You cannot trust his oath! He has no honor, no loyalty to Narnia or Aslan--he must pay for his crimes!" The crowd muttered agreement.

"And in the course of justice, none of us should see salvation," murmured Susan, and Peter snorted, and then sobered again.

"That's enough," he said, and though his voice was still rough from the smoke and he was tired and dirty, he sounded like a king. Everyone quieted. "Susan's right. None of us have clean hands, except by Aslan's grace. If every single crime is to be punished, we will end up killing each other here, repaying old injuries until we are nothing but bloody ruin in this field." He pulled Rhindon six inches from the sheath. "Do you truly want to start fighting again, when we have a chance for peace at last?"

Fraxinus paled, the certainty fading from his expression to be replaced with shock. "You would defend this? Over loyal Narnians who fought next to you--next to Aslan?"

At that, Edmund raised his head; his eyes were dark, his face somber. "Take care, Faun. Don't try to speak for Aslan on this. He is not a tame lion."

There was a croak, as Sallowpad the Raven circled once about the gathering and then landed heavily on Peter's shoulder. Lucy saw Peter wince as the bird's sharp claws closed over his woolen jerkin. "The boy-king speaks truth," said the Raven, and despite the harshness of his voice, his words carried over the crowd. "Aslan never promised that peace would be easy. Easy was the old way, killing and taking from others, like dumb beasts, who don't know any better. That's how Jadis liked it, because when we hated one another she could do what she wanted. We need to be smarter than we were."

"And kinder," added Lucy, as loudly as she could. "Aslan can forgive anything, don't you see? And if he can, we have to try, too!"

She could see some faces in the crowd growing uncertain and thoughtful. One or two of those in the back shook their heads and turned away: Lucy couldn't tell if that was a good sign or not. Peter let his sword slide back into the sheath.

But Fraxinus was brave, and stubborn in his enmity. "They burned the holts and killed the children," he said, his voice cracking with grief. "And the vineyards died, because of her, because of what he helped her do. Oh, king," he pleaded, holding one hand out to Peter, "You can't ask me to pretend it didn't happen. I don't want to fight you, but I can't walk beside him, as though it was nothing, as though it didn't matter!"

Susan whispered something in Peter's ear, too softly for even Lucy to hear. Peter's face eased a little. "I won't ask you to, then," he said to Fraxinus. "If you honestly do not trust yourself to serve beside Bindle, and Goblin Drust, and the Stag Elmshadow--I will not require it of you, not right now. But there must be no more violence, do you hear? This shames you, shames Narnia, shames Aslan. It must stop."

Fraxinus hesitated, clearly torn, and Lucy held her breath. At length he bowed his head, and said to the ground, "As you say, king." And like that, the confrontation was over. Fraxinus melted back into the crowd and Bindle was helped off, walking stiffly, by a small group of the Oathsworn, all former Patrol or former Rebels, drawn together by the distrust of the other Narnians. Lucy stood up and brushed the grass off her knees, and sighed when she realized her tea was gone cold.

"You know that's not going to be the end of it," Edmund said, when the crowd around them had dispersed, and it was just the four Pevensies, Sallowpad, and Rhea at the fire. Even Beaver had backed away, going back to a quiet conversation with Tumnus.

Peter dropped bonelessly onto his bedroll and groaned aloud. "I know, Ed! I know. I just... What else can we do right now?"

"Find someone new to fight?" suggested Susan dryly; Peter started to laugh, but it turned into a racking cough until he swallowed half a mug of cold tea with a grimace.

"That's not a bad idea," said Edmund, from flat on his back on his blankets. "Except for the fact that we're in no way prepared for even another battle, much less a war." Lucy wondered what he had seen in the battle, that made him sound like that.

"Sallowpad is right, though," said Lucy. "And Aslan wouldn't give us something that was too hard for us to do. So, maybe we just, well, act as if it were all going to be okay?"

"Pretend until it's true? I suppose that's what we've been doing so far," said Susan. She took a shirt out of her pack, examined it, and dropped it on her bedroll, and then added a few other pieces of clothing. "Lucy, give me your dirty things, we need to do some washing."

"You're doing the wash?" asked Peter, cheering up. "Can you--"

Susan snorted. "No, I will not. If you want clean shirts, Peter Pevensie, you must wash them yourself."

"Will we have time to wash, though?" asked Lucy, pulling a pair of balled-up socks out of her boots. "Aren't we moving on today?" She handed the socks to Susan and dug into her pack. She had an extra shirt, a long tunic and a pair of breeches, all dirty, a knitted cap from the Wiggles, and another pair of socks (also dirty).

Rhea yawned and rolled over onto her side, exposing the pale, soft fur on her underside. Lucy wanted to scritch her belly, but instead just smiled at her. "I think we all need rest," Rhea said. "And unless there's new news, we don't know where we're going, yet."

"And there's washing to do," added Susan, with a pointed look at Peter's filthy breeches. "Let's take today off."

"Except for the memorial," Lucy put in. She felt responsible, somehow, for those poor lost children, as though finding them had put them in her care. She had woken in the night, after a dream in which she was locked alone in a cell, cold and hungry; when she couldn't get back to sleep, she took her blanket and curled up next to Susan, who had muttered comfortingly without ever waking up fully.

Edmund had taken the hint and was sorting through his belongings, although he had even fewer clothes than Lucy: half of his pack was taken up with the books he'd brought from Cair Paravel. "What about all the rest?" he asked. "We've got a hundred fighters here; do we take them with us?"

There was, astonishingly, a mostly-clean tunic in Peter's pack; he stripped off his shirt, dropped the tunic over his head, and stepped out of his breeches. The tunic fell only halfway down his thighs, and his legs looked startlingly pale in the morning sun, in comparison to the brown skin on his arms and face. "I've been thinking about that," he said. "I think we should send most of them home, except for the Oathsworn. They can go to Beruna with the supplies, to help with the rebuilding. That will keep them out of the way of Fraxinus and his friends, and there's not likely to be many who recognize them there." He stepped off his bedroll in his bare feet, reaching for his boots, and then paused, his eyebrows lifting. "That's odd."

Edmund sat up. "You feel it too! I thought so."

"Feel what?" asked Susan, looking up from the growing pile of clothes in her lap. "What are you going on about?"

Jumping up, Edmund gave Susan his hand and pulled her to her feet, tumbling clothes to the ground. "Come here, I want to see something." He waved Peter and Lucy forward as well, so they were all standing together on a patch of bare ground. "Okay, now close your eyes."

"Edmund, what is this?" protested Susan, looking baffled, and then Edmund looked down at her feet.

"Oh, wait, Su, you have to take your boots off for this. It'll just be a sec, I promise."

She scowled, but at a nod from Peter, squatted and unlaced her boots. When she stood up again, her expression changed. Lucy knew what she was feeling: a touch inside her mind, a sense of Narnia unlike anything she'd ever felt before. It was green and wide and windy, smelling of the sea and of apples. It had come and gone over the last several days: today it was stronger than ever, with an added urgency she hadn't noticed before. She glanced around to see Rhea watching them with ears erect, and Sallowpad was staring as well, although neither Beast said anything.

"All right, now close your eyes and turn about," commanded Edmund.

Lucy squeezed her eyes shut and spun for several seconds, trying to stay in one place and not bump into anyone. She heard Peter grunt and Susan muttered something, and then Edmund's voice said, "Stop and open your eyes."

The sun was warm on the side of her face, and Lucy squinted a bit as she opened her eyes. She looked about and realized that the others were all squinting too, because all four of them were facing the exact same direction. The same direction she had been looking when Edmund found her this morning. "Oh!" she said in surprise.

"So," Peter said, after a long moment, "I suppose we're going to southwest Narnia."

*

A "rest day" was still a busy day. They held a memorial for the castle's dead--both the children Lucy had found in the dungeons and some Narnians that Peter wouldn't talk about--in a green and shaded spot out of sight of the castle (with the help of a Badger and two Dwarfs). Lucy cried, harder than she had since the horrible night that Aslan died. But she felt better afterwards, and she hoped that the souls of the children had found some rest somewhere. Could they go to Heaven from Narnia?

She wanted to ask someone about that, but instead Susan tapped her on the shoulder and handed her a pile of clothing. "Come on, we're going to bathe, and do the washing."

Rhea came with them, padding through the open forest to the stream that ran northeast to southwest along the valley bottom. They went upstream of the latrine pits, because Edmund remembered that much from school. It was a lovely spot, all green and dappled sunshine-and-shadow playing on the rippling surface of the water. There was even a deeper pool with great boulders to sit on, and Lucy lost no time in stripping off her clothes and jumping into the water.

"Lucy!" protested Susan, but Lucy laughed and splashed at her: after all, they were in Narnia, not England, and Rhea was hardly going to care if they ran around without any clothes on at all. The water was chilly but not too cold, the bottom rough gravel under her feet. Lucy ducked under the water and came up laughing.

A girl came up out of the water with her.

She, too, was naked, but she was made of water. The water flowed and flowed, outlining a young woman's body with long rippling hair; and then the water drained away and she was flesh, but still not Human. Her skin was mottled like the dapples on the water, her hair dark green and a bit mossy, her eyes grey as the gravel underfoot.

"Who gave you leave to enter my realm, Human?" she demanded, and Lucy took a startled step backwards, nearly toppling over.

"Lucy!" Susan shouted, and Lucy looked to the shore where Susan had strung her bow and set an arrow to the string. Rhea was still onshore as well, her hackles raised.

Lucy looked back at the water-girl. "No one," she said. "My name is Lucy, and--is the stream your realm? Is that what you mean?"

The water-girl tossed her head and the mossy green hair hung in the air, as though she were underwater. "Yes, yes, this is the East Branch of the Whiterush, that is my domain, from the headwaters on Beavertail Ridge to the junction with the West Branch." She sounded a little less angry now.

"What's your name?" asked Lucy. She could see out of the corner of her eye that Susan was waving at her anxiously, but this was important. There were people in the rivers! Why had no one mentioned this before? "Oh, and what did you do during the winter? While the water was frozen?"

The green hair stopped tossing and settled around the water-girl's shoulders. She cocked her head. "My name is Aleira," she said. "And we froze, of course. We have only been free for one cycle of the moon. It was very cold, before, but I do not remember much of it."

"Well, Aleira, it's very nice to meet you." Lucy started to put out her hand, and then remembered how confused Mr. Tumnus was by the gesture. So she bobbed a little curtsey. "I'm sorry I came into your realm without asking permission, but I was very dirty--"

"--and smelly," interjected Susan, from the bank.

"--and I needed a wash," Lucy finished without looking at her sister. "May we? Wash in your stream? And wash our clothes too?"

Aleira considered the question, and looked at Susan and Rhea on the bank as well. "Very well. But I remember before, Humans would use smelly rocks on their clothing and it made me ill. If you must do that, keep it out of my water."

"Smelly rocks?" Lucy squinted in confusion.

"I think she means soap, Lu," said Susan. "May we take water out, with buckets? That would keep the soap out of the stream."

"Very well," said Aleira, and then she was made of water again, and dissolved away into the surface of the stream, leaving not a ripple to show she'd been there.

Rhea snorted and lay down on the bank in a patch of sunlight. "Naiads. No sense of courtesy. Even if you'd told her you were crowned queens of Narnia she wouldn't have been any more polite. If you're not made of water they've no interest in you."

"So that's a Naiad," Susan said, and lay her bow down without unstringing it. She put the quiver next to it, and began unlacing her tunic. "Sallowpad mentioned them, but we've never met any."

The water was wonderful; Lucy let herself sink into it, dropping down to sit on the bottom of the stream, and opened her eyes. The sunlight slanted through the clear water in columns, like light through a church window. For an instant she saw a flicker of movement, as of someone passing by on a street, and then there was merely a large fish drifting upstream, its pink belly dappled with silver freckles. She came up out of the water and pushed her hair out of her eyes.

"--can do that?" Susan looked startled, one foot in the water and the other on the bank as she stared at Rhea.

Rhea flicked an ear in amusement. "Well, I couldn't; but you Humans are apparently adaptable. It's how King Frank got grandchildren, anyway: there were no other Humans in the world at all, according to the stories."

"Oh," said Susan, faintly, and stepped into the water, looking unsettled.

Lucy paddled over to her: the water was shallow enough to walk in here, but she knew she should practice her swimming. Falling into the Great River when the Wolves had chased them had been so frightening: she didn't want to go through that again. "What are you talking about?"

There was a faint scar on Susan's stomach: just a thin line. That had to be where she was hurt in the battle, but just like Edmund, Father Christmas' cordial had healed her completely. Without it, she might have died. Lucy thought about the memorial they had just held, and felt cold.

"Nothing important," said Susan, springing forward in a shallow dive that took her halfway across the pool. She stroked across to the far side and came back, moving smoothly through the water.

They played in the water for a little while, Susan offering advice occasionally, and then there was the washing to do. They wore their damp clothes and carried the rest as they returned to the campsite; halfway there, Rhea dashed off into the brush, and returned thirty seconds later with something furry dangling from her jaws. "Tired of salt beef," she explained in a muffled voice, and Susan laughed.

The camp was all astir when they found their fire, dozens of Centaurs stamping about with weapons and bedrolls strapped to their backs. The castle had finally stopped burning, but the wind had shifted since dawn and now the entire area smelled of smoke, and a fine layer of ash had settled on everything. Susan made a sound of disgust and picked up her blanket, shaking it out.

"What's going on?" Lucy asked Peter, who was hunched over Edmund's papers.

"What? Oh, you're back. Stormcoat's leaving; he's going to escort the prisoners to the western border and then go home."

"King Peter, I still think--" protested Tumnus, looking unhappy, but Peter cut him off.

"Sorry, Tumnus. We're keeping the party small, and I think you'll be more useful here, or in Beruna. It's up to you." He frowned absently and then looked down at the papers in his lap.

"As you say," said Tumnus, but he didn't look happy. Lucy went over and sat down, leaning against him; he brightened a bit. "I'm sorry I won't be going with you," he said quietly, "but, well, I'm also frightened. I'm not much for adventures, I've discovered."

"That's okay," Lucy said, and patted his arm. "I'll have your adventures and come back and tell you all about them. All right?"

"All right." Tumnus put a frying pan on the fire and began frying up some small fish, which he had evidently saved just for Lucy and Susan. Lucy would miss him, but she was happy he would be safe; it would be nice to come back to his cave after adventures and have tea.

Susan shook out her clothes and draped them carefully to dry. "Peter, what are looking at? Is that all you've done this morning?"

He flapped a hand at her, frowning, and then looked up. "No, I trained with Ed and sent Sallowpad up to see the Wiggles, and talked to Silversharp about going back to Cair Paravel as weapons-master for a year."

"Oh." Susan looked surprised, then said, "That makes a lot of sense, bringing Silversharp to Cair Paravel. Will she do it?"

"And what's going on with the Wiggles?" added Lucy.

"One, yes, she will, and I'll send some of the Oathsworn with her for training right away; and two, we need to send these supplies to Beruna and Cair Paravel, and the best way to do that is by boat. So, Wiggles." Peter looked proud of himself. "And this?" He shook the papers in his hands, and then reached them over to Susan, who took them with a dubious look. "These are some of the Witch's papers, but we can't work out what they mean."

Susan made a face; Lucy was sure she wouldn't even want to touch the Witch's personal things. The ink was dark: a bold and slanting hand on coarse paper. They'd seen very little paper in Narnia, and Lucy wondered where it came from, and who made it. "I don't know, Peter," said Susan, looking at the writing. "It's mostly numbers and notes. 3,000 C, 200/4 mo. That could be anything."

"It could be," said Edmund, dropping down to sit between Lucy and Susan on an unsteady log that Lucy had already fallen off twice. He smelled sweaty: Lucy wrinkled her nose, but he didn't notice. "But it's clearly something important. Those figures look like money, for one. I don't know what C is, but--"

Tumnus sat up suddenly, and Lucy started to fall over until he caught her arm. "C? That's likely Calormene crescents, King Edmund. They're recognized in many ports, or so I always heard."

"Is that a lot, then? 3,000 crescents?" asked Susan. "And what is the 200 for four months she's selling--or buying?"

Edmund dropped his chin into his palm. "And why did she have such a store of goods here, if there was so little trade with the outside world?" He waved a hand to the east, where the bales and barrels and boxes were all piled (well-guarded by two Centaurs after one of the Dwarfs had tried to carry off a barrel of wine last night) . They had not seemed like so much, distributed throughout the castle in many halls and storerooms, but all in one place, they amounted to a great deal indeed.

The fish were done frying; Tumnus served them out while everyone thought about the question. Finally Peter said, "I think both questions have the same answer, and I'm pretty sure we won't like it, whatever it is."

~

Edmund woke to water dripping on his face. He groaned and opened his eyes; it was still dark, and it was raining. His blankets were damp and getting damper, and his wet hair clung to his face and neck.

When he had struggled to his feet and over to the fire, the situation wasn't much better. The campsite was trampled and muddy, with bits of cast-off equipment littering the area, and the fires were dead or fizzling. It looked like a field after a carnival had ended and the vans had all gone away. Of the hundred-plus soldiers and prisoners who had been there yesterday morning, only Torvus, Silversharp with half a dozen Centaurs, and the Oathsworn were left. The rest of the company had departed for their various homes yesterday afternoon.

Yesterday had been a dry, if humid, late summer day; but today was dreary and wet, rain falling steadily from a lowering grey sky. Susan was snappish, Peter monosyllabic, and Lucy distractible. Even Rhea, normally unflappable under any conditions, looked wilted, her ears down and her wet coat revealing just how skinny she was. At length, with many last-minute interruptions (including the happy discovery of rough woolen cloaks in the Witch's stores, which Edmund half-decided Aslan intended for him to find), they were assembled, packs on their backs, around the firepit for one last cup of hot tea before they departed.

Finally, Peter tossed the dregs of his tea into the fire and stuffed the cup into his pack. "Let's go."

Edmund sighed, but it wasn't going to get any better the longer they stayed here, either. He looked down at his boots, which were held onto his feet by strips of rawhide, in despair. His toes stuck out the front and the sole flapped loose on the left foot. Bindle had promised there was a small Dwarf community on the other side of the Great River where Edmund and Lucy could get some boots, but they had to get there first.

"King, are you sure?" asked Windcaller one last time, as they made their farewells and left the trampled mud of the campsite for the equally-wet but less slick grass of the field. "I could detail one of my Centaurs--"

Peter just shook his head, not even looking aside, and Susan said, her voice more gentle than it had been over breakfast, "Thank you, Windcaller, but no. We have decided it's best to go on as we started. But we will send a message if we need anything, by Sallowpad or one of the Magpies. Aslan will not lead us astray."

No more than he has already, Edmund thought darkly. Then he flushed: Aslan had died to save his life; the least he could do was be gracious about the terrible weather.

"Well, at least it's warm," said Lucy cheerfully from beside him, tripping along in her similarly-abused boots, and Edmund snorted.

She was right, but it still would have been nice to have dry feet.

It was a long walk to the Great River, cutting across country for the most part, which meant slogging up steep rocky grades and down slick hillsides, catching at the brush to keep from slipping and falling all the way to the bottom. Peter had the bit in his teeth, driving them on in Rhea's wake like something awful was chasing them. But Edmund suspected Peter felt something awful loomed ahead, and they had to beat it, what ever it was.

After a quick lunch (cold flat-bread and fish Torvus had caught in the stream that morning), which they ate huddled together in the shelter of a great pine, Rhea took them down into a marshy valley. There was no trail through the marsh, just a series of tussocks a little higher than the surrounding land, and they had to jump from one to the next like pieces on a game board. When they got to the other side at last, they were all drenched with sweat and their feet and legs were splattered with mud and decaying vegetation.

"Let's rest," suggested Edmund, and for once, Peter nodded agreement before slumping against the trunk of a tree. Rhea lay down and began worrying at something between her toes, and Susan helped Lucy empty the mud out of her boots.

Edmund considered taking off his boots but realized he would likely never get them back on. He was staring at the mud under his toenails when Peter said casually, his eyes closed, "I talked to Stormcoat about Whiterush Vale."

Oh, thought Edmund. He flushed hot, then cold, remembering the conversation with Stormcoat and Silversharp, in which the two Centaurs had set out clearly all the very many ways in which Edmund had bungled the battle. He'd known it was bad at the time, but going over the details with the two experienced soldiers had been like living it all over again.

"Uh-huh," he said, finally, and plucked at some grass stuck to the knee of his breeches. "Did he tell you how many Narnians I got killed because I thought I knew what I was doing?"

Peter didn't open his eyes, for which Edmund was grateful. "None of us know what we're doing, Ed."

"Stormcoat does," said Edmund miserably. "And Torvus and Fraxinus and Spearfast and--"

"And you know how they know that?" interrupted Peter, and this time he did open his eyes: they were shockingly blue, in the grey light filtering through the low clouds. "Ed, they knew how to fight a battle because they were officers in the Witch's army."

Fraxinus? "No, that doesn't--but they--" and then Edmund stopped talking, and thought about it, while Peter watched him. With the Winter closing the borders, no other army could have been in Narnia. Where else could Oreius and Torvus and Spearfast have served? He chewed on his lip, thinking, and imagined the moment they realized that Aslan had come, and they could be free, if they fought against their former comrades. "Oh," he said at last, not looking at Peter.

"We have a lot to learn," said Peter, sounding (for once) like a schoolboy from Finchley. "But at least we don't have that behind us."

Well, you don't, thought Edmund, but didn't say it. He felt a little better, though.

They came to the Great River in the mid-afternoon; the rain had let up and the light had improved by the time they came down out of the woods to the broad and trampled swale by the fords. They were far upstream of Beruna still, and there was a great deal of debris caught in the trees and bushes along the riverside. From the look of it, the water was still well above its normal level, and it was running fast. On the far side of the river Edmund saw more forest, and then steep hills to the southwest.

"This is where we cross?" asked Lucy, looking nervous. "Aren't there any bridges, Rhea?"

Rhea slanted a look at her before pacing down to the water's edge. "No, queen," she said. "There are no bridges in Narnia: the river-gods and naiads would not allow it. And during the winter, of course, there was no need."

"Pete, do you have any rope?" asked Edmund, looking at the water. Peter didn't, but Susan pulled a length out of her pack with a pursed smile.

Lucy was secured to Susan and Peter both, and with one last shrug--they couldn't really get much wetter than they already were--they hiked their packs high on their shoulders and stepped into the water. At which point Susan said, "Wait!" in a sharp voice and they all stopped.

"What?" said Edmund, feeling grumpy. He wiggled his toes in the chill water.

Susan shook her head, crouched down, and rested her hand on the surface of the water. "Hello," she said, in a carrying tone. "My name is Susan Pevensie and these are my brothers and sister, and our guide Rhea the Wolf. May we cross here?"

Edmund blinked and Peter looked baffled, but Lucy bounced, grinning. "Smart, Su!"

The water in the center of the river, about thirty yards out, swirled, and then a man rose out of the water--except not a man, he was just water, shaped like a man, with a great beard and broad shoulders. "Long has it been since a Human begged leave to enter my realm," he said, in a voice that hissed and chattered like water running over a rocky streambed. "Your courtesy is appreciated, Daughter of Eve."

Susan straightened and then dipped as graceful a curtsey as one could wish (while one was ankle-deep in a river and carrying a loaded pack, a bow and quiver, and sundry other weapons around one's person). "Do we have your leave, sir? It is important that we cross here: we are called on urgent business, and may not delay."

The river-god's head dipped in reply, and he began to disperse into the water. As he went, though, he spoke one last time. "My brother warned me of the fire-bearer--they have great need of you in the hills, if you are indeed Aslan's chosen. Pass, with my good will."

"Fire-bearer?" asked Edmund, but the river-god was gone, and no one answered.

*

They slept that night, unexpectedly, under a roof. Granted, a low turf roof, in the barn of a Dwarf village clinging to the last hill before the great grasslands of southern Narnia. The village of Grass Hill was tiny and quiet, the Dwarfs reticent to near-silence, and they only said more than two words at a time after Susan revealed a few silver and gold pieces she had discovered in a purse in the Witch's castle. Rhea had warned them not to mention their names: Grass Hill had been considered loyal to the Witch, but from the evidence Edmund couldn't tell that the Dwarfs had done very well from the deal.

So Susan negotiated for a place to stay and some other supplies, with the Dwarfs being very careful to ask no questions. A wizened old woman measured Edmund and Lucy's feet, and promised new boots in the morning. And then an equally-wizened man escorted them to the barn, which was the only building in the village with a roof high enough for Humans for stand in; later a procession of Dwarf children came to the barn door with buckets of hot water and a pot of a savory fish-and-vegetable stew.

Edmund's casual questioning revealed that none of them knew anything about a "fire-bearer".

As before, Edmund had the last watch: he woke early, from dreams in which the dead eyes of a young Centaur stared at him from the flames of a pyre. When Peter came to wake him, he rose without a word and went to the barn door, where he stood unmoving until dawn brightened the eastern sky.

The next days were much like the first, although Edmund no longer had occasion to complain about his feet: his new boots were well-made and sturdy, and nearly as comfortable as his slippers in England. (Lucy adored hers as well, not least for the worked lions and lilies that climbed up the shafts. That detail made Edmund suspect they had not hidden their identities nearly as well as they'd hoped.) The weather remained changeable, going from warm and rainy to blustery to clear and cool in the course of a single afternoon; this would have been less of a problem if they had been able to sleep indoors, or under a tree.

The great southern plain, however, had no inns or friendly Dwarf villages, or even trees; merely mile after wearying mile of rich green grasses, dotted with wildflowers and the occasional scrub-like tree. At night they huddled together under their blankets in the rain, and all their clothing was damp for days on end, though the weather remained warm.

Rhea led them on a steady course southwest, which Edmund surreptitiously confirmed every evening and morning, standing barefoot next to his bedroll. Peter, oddly, didn't seem to need to do even that: his face grew pinched and worried, and he was always the last to agree to a halt (even when Lucy was obviously dragging).

They talked in the evenings, but something about the landscape kept them quiet, even Lucy, who would ordinarily have a comment on everything she saw--perhaps because other than the grass and the occasional bird, there was little to see. They saw horses once, in the distance (or Horses: it was impossible to tell), and another time a small herd of Buffalo passed them. The Buffalo had no news and little interest in Humans; on the other hand, the trampled grass they left behind made for easier walking for a time.

Late on the second day after they left Grass Hill, the ground began to rise, and by noon on the third day they were off the plain and into wooded rolling hills that grew steeper as they traveled. It grew more difficult to see the mountains as the trees grew denser.

"We'll need to be careful," said Rhea, when they stopped for lunch. Peter wasn't willing to waste time gathering greens or nuts; they were down to lengths of dried beef and waybread so hard it needed to soak in hot water to eat. Edmund chewed on his leathery meal and tried not to think about sandwiches.

"Of anything in particular?" asked Susan. She picked up a piece of meat, sighed, and put it back down in her lap.

Rhea scratched at an ear. "The Dryads in this region were thought to be among the most loyal to the Witch; I don't know what their allegiances are now that she's dead. We should keep quiet, and keep on guard."

"Oh," said Lucy, and cast an uneasy look at the trees about them.

But for all their increased apprehension, they might well have been walking through an entirely empty country. The next day they began the real climb up into the mountains; the terrain became rougher, the hills steeper. Rhea had never been here before, and without any guide other than the indefinable pull of Narnia itself, they found themselves wasting time in box canyons and following game trails that went nowhere.

"So I was thinking," said Peter, as they followed Rhea across a broad meadow in a brief moment of sun. The grass and brush was wet, their clothes were wet, and Edmund could even feel his toes beginning to squish a bit inside his new boots.

"Well, that's a change," said Edmund, and Lucy laughed.

Peter ignored him, and stepped easily over a large puddle that Lucy had to jump. "I was thinking that if I were an immortal Witch with enormous power and the ability to take over an entire country, I wouldn't be satisfied with just sitting in a small castle and turning people into stone." He said it casually, but Edmund had seen his face in the room with the fur bales: Peter took nothing about the Witch lightly, not any more.

"I was thinking about that, too," said Susan. She was breathing heavily and her face was flushed: she seemed to be having more trouble with the altitude than the others were. "And you remember, she had an army, after all. Not just the Secret Police, but an actual army."

"Rhea, who did the Witch's army fight?" asked Lucy. Which, Edmund realized, was a very good question.

One of Rhea's ears twitched, which Edmund recognized as a sign of surprise. "Giants, sometimes," she said. "But the last time the whole army was called up was several years ago, for the Marsh-Wiggle Revolt."

"So she did use them against Narnians," Edmund said. He scratched a bug bite on his elbow. "What happened to the Marsh-Wiggles?"

Rhea swung her head around and stared at him. "Right," said Edmund, feeling a bit dim.

"I did hear, though," said Rhea, "that she had begun gathering troops, even before you Humans arrived."

Susan tripped over a rock in the path, swung her arms wildly, and recovered her balance. Pushing her hair out of her face, she asked, "What, before we or Aslan arrived, she was already putting an army together? What for?"

The Wolf paused to sniff at a bush at the side of the narrow track, and then looked back, shaking her head. "I think the only one who might have known was my littermate, and he's past telling us now. But we're lucky she did, because full on half of them were your Army. Things would have gone badly for you and Aslan both if you'd had to wait until they'd gathered in. Instead, once word came that Aslan was here at last, they deserted all together."

"Oh," said Peter, looking disturbed, and Edmund had to agree with him. It was unsettling to learn just how close they had come to complete catastrophe--and it made him wonder how much Aslan had known.

*

The climbing finally ended on the fifth day after they left Grass Hill, when they scrambled up a last rocky slope to find themselves on the rim of a broad, rolling valley. It was an enormous oblong dish, running east-west, with mountains to the south and northwest, climbing from green (and red and yellow) forested slopes to stone and snow-covered tips. Due west loomed the tallest peak of all, its summit wreathed in clouds, which Rhea identified as Farsight Peak. "Just south of the mountain is Telmar Pass; there's a road that goes down into the land of Telmar, but I've never been there."

They continued on west, along the northern edge of the valley, following an occasional trail when they found one going the right direction, but often just striking straight across country, obeying the wordless sense that this way was the way they must go. Once or twice they saw a homestead or patch of tilled ground, but saw no one to speak to (not even a Talking Squirrel), nor any farm animals. The homesteads appeared deserted, but without detouring for longer than any of them felt comfortable, it was hard to tell for sure.

According to Rhea, this area had never been thickly settled, even before the Witch, for the winters were heavy and the spring came late. Still, this emptiness was unexpected, and a bit disturbing. In late afternoon they saw smoke to the south, and Peter agreed to a detour: it was the ruin of a rambling low house, still smoking in the wet air. Rhea sniffed, and dug into the ash and rubble of charred beams.

"Yesterday or the day before," she reported, her ears swiveling uneasily. "Some Fauns went off that way," and she nodded east, the way they'd come, "and some Humans and horses went west."

"Humans!" Peter looked shocked.

"More Rebels?" Susan suggested, but her voice was dubious. She'd strung her bow and had it in her hand, one finger rubbing the worked red leather of the grip.

Edmund shook his head, which over the course of the day had grown heavier and thicker, as though it were filling with water. He wanted to blame the altitude: they'd been climbing steadily for days, but he suspected it was something else. "The Witch's loyalists might do this, but I don't think that's why we're here."

"Ed's right," said Lucy, her face drawn. Even with her new boots, she had found the pace hard to keep, although she had never complained. Edmund and Susan had made sure to let Lucy sleep as late as possible in the mornings before waking her for breakfast, and insisted she eat more than she wanted, to keep up her strength. "It's bigger than Rebels," Lucy went on, turning to look towards Mount Farsight. She waved a hand uncertainly. "It's... it's huge."

There was nothing else they could do there, and so they pressed on, pushing west, deeper into the valley, until the mountains loomed close above. Near nightfall, they passed through a meadow where the grasses were scorched and blackened from the center of the meadow to several trees along the edge of the wood. The ground was damp from the recent rain, which was probably why the fire had gone no farther, but Edmund suspected it was a near thing. Lucy went pale, and Edmund realized there had probably been Dryads living there, who were now dead or hurt or something; he didn't know and didn't want to ask, either.

Peter looked grim and Susan worried, but no one was in the mood to speculate. On top of the worry, Edmund had a slowly growing sense of pressure, of anticipation, as if he were a sprinter at the mark, waiting for the starting gun to go off. He could feel something momentous just around the corner. He couldn't tell if it was something good or something bad--just that it was important, and frightening. And that it was his, somehow, not Peter's or Susan's or Lucy's: just his, the way Firefoot's death was his; and that moment in the wood with the Witch's knife at his throat; and the long talk with Aslan on the hillside, when he felt as though he had been unbuttoned like a coat, exposing his soul for the Lion's examination.

Just at sunset, Peter finally let them stop, in a small clearing near the top of a rise. Mount Farsight towered above them, the last rays of the sun reflecting off its snowy peak, although the valley floor was dark with shadows. Edmund dropped his pack and began gathering firewood, but as he bent to pick up a stick, Lucy cried out and pointed up at the mountain. They all looked up.

A flame spouted on the mountainside, a flash of brilliance against the grey stone and white snow. They all stared at it, mouths open, while the flame flickered, and then disappeared.

And then re-appeared, some distance from the mountaintop.

A long-winged shadow passed overhead, while they craned their necks, staring up into the sky.

"Well," said Edmund, and licked his lips, which had gone dry. "Are there ... Are there dragons in Narnia, Rhea?"

*

The small hours of the night in the mountains of Southwest Narnia were much colder than down on the plain, and they had (for obvious reasons) put the fire out as soon as supper was cooked. Edmund wrapped his cloak more closely about himself and wished for mittens. The cloud cover had finally cleared, and the stars were huge and brilliant overhead.

Dragons. Nobody, not even Aslan himself, had ever mentioned dragons. Rhea hadn't any idea where it came from: she had finally shrugged and admitted complete ignorance on the issue.

"Perhaps it came from Telmar, or from the Western Wild, after the Witch died," Lucy had suggested.

Edmund supposed it didn't really matter: what mattered was that it was here, and it was burning out Faun holdings, setting fire to the forest (and killing any Dryads who happened to be there), and making who knew what other kind of trouble. If no one stopped it, presumably it would just keep on burning, and might even graduate to burning and eating Narnians. If it hadn't already. Just because they'd found no bodies didn't mean nobody had died.

What did it take to kill a dragon?

Up the mountain, there was a bright spark in the darkness.

Dragons were dangerous; and Peter was bound to go after it himself. Edmund knew this like he knew the way Peter put his socks on (left foot first, then right, before he put his trousers on) and the way he disliked sugar in his tea: Peter would not allow anyone else to risk themselves, not against something as enormously dangerous as a dragon. He would go up against it, like the forthright and noble king he was--and he would fail. Edmund could see it, almost like a film: Peter with his sword and shield, versus the dragon's fire and claws and teeth. Maybe someday Peter would be strong enough, skilled enough, to tackle a dragon: but not yet.

That wouldn't stop him, though; Edmund knew. Peter would take on the dragon, because that was what kings did, after all. And Peter would die.

And that was not acceptable.

Aslan had died for Edmund; and so had Firefoot. And Fauns, Centaurs, Dwarfs, and Cheetahs had all died at the battle of Whiterush Vale, under Edmund's command. All lives that he carried, somehow, like stones in his backpack. He could carry the rest of them, maybe, given time enough to grow into the weight. But Peter? Peter would be too much.

This once, Edmund thought, he wasn't going to give Peter the chance to be the hero.

It was early in his watch, at least two hours before dawn. Edmund looked at the others: they were still asleep, Susan with her head pillowed on Rhea's flank and Lucy curled against Peter's back. Moving quietly, he opened his pack and removed his clothes and gear, keeping only his spare socks and the last of the dried beef and waybread, and his water skin. Just in case, he took one of Susan's spare knives, which gave him four, plus the sword. He wished he had a spear or a spade, considered trying to make one, but decided it would take too long. Peter wasn't going to give him much of a head start.

At least he had good boots. He looked at his family, and thought about Mother and Father briefly, but had to stop because they were so far away, and he had a long way to go in the darkness. The ground was cold beneath him when he squatted to touch it, but the call was still there, stronger than ever, reverberating up the bones in his arm like a drumbeat or the rattle of a lorry in the street.

It called him up the mountain, and so he shrugged his pack onto his back, checked the hang of his sword, and followed it.

~

 

Something snuffled in Susan's ear. Something cold and a little wet, like a dog's--oh. She opened her eyes and looked up into anxious dark eyes over a grey-and-black muzzle.

"He's gone, queen!" said Rhea. "Your brother's run off."

"Peter?" asked Susan, throwing back her blanket. It was warm, the sun high in the eastern sky: they had overslept by rather a lot. She looked over at Peter, but he was still a broad-shouldered lump under his dull green cloak, curled on the ground on the far side of the small firepit. "Edmund!" But Rhea was right: Edmund's blankets were empty, and there was no sign of him in the little clearing.

"I can track him," said Rhea, when they had all woken, Peter as foul-tempered as Susan had ever seen him--although not without good reason. "He's gone that way," Rhea said, with an unnecessary nod towards the mountain. "Maybe three hours ago; the scent's just beginning to stale."

Peter scowled, upending his pack on the ground. "I'll take Rhea and go after Ed. Su, I want you and Lucy to backtrack to better cover: we're too close to the dragon here, and I'm worried what it'll do if Ed provokes it. We'll meet you back at that stream we crossed yesterday afternoon. Keep under cover, and see if you can find a Magpie, will you? I don't like it that we haven't seen any."

"But Peter!" protested Lucy, and then subsided at a savage look from her brother. Peter wasn't going to let Lucy anywhere near a dragon, Susan knew, and Lucy couldn't be left alone. It was the obvious solution, even if it did separate them again--something that bothered Susan more every time it happened. They were always safest together.

"If he gets himself killed," said Peter through gritted teeth, "I'll--I'll kill him myself!" He clipped Rhindon to a steel ring and slid it up the strap to his shoulder.

"Try not to," Susan said. "You know he's only done it because he knew you were going to." But all she got in return for that was a roll of Peter's eyes.

And then they were gone, disappearing into the brush at a quick trot, Peter carrying little but the sword on his shoulder, two water skins, and some strips of dried meat in a pouch at his belt.

"Well," said Susan, realizing with a sinking feeling that she and Lucy would have to carry not only their own packs, but their brothers' abandoned equipment as well. "We might as well get started."

A cup of tea would have been a lovely thing to start the morning with, but they were almost out of the tea Tumnus had given them, and besides lighting another fire was too much of a risk. So they washed up, ate cold waybread and some nuts they'd picked the day before, and packed up everything for another long walk. (At least Edmund had stopped carrying about the books from Cair Paravel: he had sent them back to the castle with Windcaller.) Lucy complained, just a little bit, but they were both really too worried about Edmund to concentrate on anything else. As they walked slowly eastward, keeping in the shelter of the trees, Lucy kept looking up through the branches at the sky above.

"Do you think dragons talk, like Beavers and Wolves do, Susan?" she asked, an hour or so later, as they picked their way past a patch of thorns.

Susan said, "I don't know. All the other magical creatures seem to, so why not dragons?"

"But if it talks, it must be a person, so why is it flying around setting fire to things?" Lucy asked, and to that Susan had no answer.

Near noon Lucy was getting that pinched look she had when she was too stubborn to admit she was tired, so Susan stopped in the lee of a fallen pine, and opened her pack to investigate the possibilities for lunch. Not that they had many options now: they were down to leathery dried meat and the waybread they'd bought from the Dwarfs at Grass Hill, with the occasional nut or handful of berries. Susan decided that, if the weather stayed fine, she would try to shoot a rabbit tonight--assuming there were any rabbits about. They had seen very little animal life, and no Talking Beasts, since about this time the day before. She assumed it was because of the dragon, which must have chased away nearly everything in the neighborhood.

"More meat!" she said, trying to put on a good face for Lucy, but Lucy was looking back the way they had come, her expression intent.

Just a moment later, Lucy cried, "Rhea!" and leaped to her feet.

Susan swung about, hand reaching for her bow, but Lucy was right, it was indeed Rhea coming through the trees some distance away. The Wolf was moving fast, her head hanging low and her tongue flapping in the air as she ran. Peter was nowhere in sight.

"Oh, no," said Susan, and stood up as well. "Lucy, put your pack on," she ordered, as Rhea approached, and to her surprise, Lucy obeyed immediately. The last time Rhea had come running like this, the news had not been good; Susan tried not to hold it against the Wolf.

Rhea slowed as she approached, and finally stood before the two girls, gasping for breath, her sides heaving with exertion. There was blood on her side: Susan realized Lucy must not have seen it or she would already have taken out her cordial. "Men!" gasped Rhea. "Humans--they took King Peter. There were too many, I could not stop them."

"Men!" repeated Susan in astonishment. "But who? And where did they take him?"

"And why?" asked Lucy.

"Water?" asked the Wolf, first, and Susan poured out what she had into their one pot. Rhea drank thirstily, staining the water pink: Susan realized Rhea must have fought with the Men who had taken Peter, and done some damage besides. Finally the water was gone, and Rhea began to tell her story.

They had not gone far, only a mile or two, but had traveled more slowly than Peter liked because Edmund had tried to lose them in the rocks. Rhea had had to cast about several times to pick up Edmund's trail. At length they had found themselves on a wide but overgrown track, which Rhea had identified as the road to Telmar Pass. Edmund had followed it for some distance, and so they stayed on his trail, although Rhea had noticed that there had been other traffic, including Humans, on it recently. She had mentioned it to Peter, but of course catching Edmund was the most important thing.

"Except they were still there," said Susan at this point, and Rhea nodded.

"We weren't trying to be quiet, and we walked right into them: they were waiting in a copse of trees along the road, downwind of us. Maybe a dozen of them. Your brother didn't have time to draw his sword, but he cut two of them with a knife before they knocked the dagger out of his hand. I killed one," Rhea drew back her lips in distaste, "--but there were too many, and they had spears and bows. They drove me off."

"And you left?" demanded Lucy, outraged.

Rhea's hackles lifted, just a little. "No," she snapped. "But I got out of sight, and followed them some way before coming back. They were rough with him, but he was alive when I left them, and you needed to know where he was more than I needed to die for my oath."

Lucy flushed with instant contrition. "Oh. Oh, you're right. I'm sorry, Rhea, I shouldn't have said that."

Her heart was pounding so loudly Susan could nearly feel it shaking her body; Peter was captured by Humans and Edmund was Aslan-knew-where. "Where did they take him?" she asked. She fingered the arrows in her quiver: she had those twelve, and another twenty in her pack that she had taken from the Witch's stores. They weren't the fine red-fletched shafts from Father Christmas, but she suspected they would fly straight enough.

Swinging her head around, Rhea looked towards the south wall of the valley, where the mountains along the Archenland border raised their snowy heads. "They went east on the main road from the pass, and then south on a smaller track. There's some villages in the southern foothills, Dwarfs, mostly. Could be where they're going, unless they mean to cross the border to Archenland. But I don't think so."

"Why not?" If Archenland had taken Peter, Archenland would pay for it. Susan was already calculating how long it would take a Magpie to reach Stormcoat in the north reaches, and Silversharp on her way to Beruna.

Rhea was watching her very carefully, a little nervously, as if she could smell Susan's anger. "They smelled wrong. Archenlanders are much like Narnians, or so I always heard. These Humans are different. They smell of mules and coal-dust and food I don't recognize."

Lucy looked close to tears. "Oh, Susan, what shall we do? Edmund and Peter?"

Damn Edmund! Susan had lost all the sympathy she'd summoned up this morning for his decision. If he hadn't run off, this would never have happened--although instead the Men could have captured them all, which didn't bear thinking of. Well, there was nothing for it: she had to make a decision. She closed her eyes in thought, breathing deeply, trying to let her heart stop racing.

Edmund was up the mountain, facing down a dragon, and that was clearly important--Susan was pretty sure the dragon was why Narnia had called them all this way. But Susan didn't think there was much she could do to help: she couldn't imagine having any impact on a creature so immense, armed with claws and teeth and flame. But Humans--Humans Susan knew. Her arrows would work as well against Humans as they did against Minotaurs and Harpies. And Humans in Narnia, kidnapping travelers: well, that was important too, even if one of the travelers weren't her brother, and the High King.

"All right," she said, and opened her eyes. "Rhea, can I find the road without you to guide me?" When the Wolf nodded, Susan went on, "Then this is what we'll do. You two keep going east: I'm sending you for help. Find a Magpie, see if you can spot Sallowpad, raise the countryside, whatever you can. If there are bandits kidnapping people, we need to take care of them--and rescue Peter. Edmund," she took a breath and let it out shakily, "--Edmund shall have to look out for himself." She felt cold, despite the warmth of the afternoon sun.

Lucy gasped, her face going pale, and Susan put her hand on Lucy's shoulder. "Lucy, you must promise me. You must not go after Edmund. It's too dangerous. We must trust he knows what he's doing, and we have to help Peter."

She saw Lucy's lip quiver, but then she straightened her shoulders and put her hand on the knife at her belt. "We're all he's got," said Lucy, and Susan could have hugged her, except that she was close enough to tears already.

*

Rhea was right: the road was easy to find, although Susan wasn't sure she hit it at the same spot Rhea and Peter did. It was broad, with rutted tracks overgrown by grassy weeds; it had been, after all, more than a century since last any wagons came this way. Susan had learned a bit about tracking since coming to Narnia, but she didn't need it now, as the road ran clear and open along the valley floor, and periodically she saw the print of a hoof or a booted foot in a soft patch of ground. She stayed out of sight in the trees along the road as much as she could, which slowed her down, but better that than to be captured as well.

The road led roughly southeast, following the curves of the valley floor, and after what felt like several miles, forked near the top of a rise. The left-hand track turned and cut directly east down the valley until it disappeared into the trees. But the hoof- and boot-prints followed the right-hand track, out of sight around a stand of pines. Susan followed it, hesitated, and then tucked herself behind a tree and peered forward. From this vantage, she could see the road drop smoothly into a small valley tucked between two arms of the mountain. There were cleared fields here and there, and buildings at the south end, where the ground climbed into a steep headwall forested with stands of pine and aspen, the golden aspen leaves flickering in the light breeze.

Figures and horses moved about on the valley floor--quite a lot of them. And the people looked strange: too big for Dwarfs, and they moved wrong for Fauns. It took Susan a disturbing length of time to determine that they were, in fact, Humans. She realized, with a catch of her breath, that these were the first Humans she'd seen, other than her own family, since she'd come to Narnia. How odd.

That must be where they'd taken Peter.

It was late afternoon by the time she had worked her way cautiously along the ridgeline, and then down the hillside through pine trees which were not dense enough to hide her as completely as she would like. She had stashed her small pack in the brush above, and then smeared mud on her face and hands, grateful that her tunic and cloak were dull brown. At length, she found a position behind a fallen tree just above the valley floor; it was deep in shadow and so long as she didn't move, she was sure she would not be spotted.

Closer to, she had a much better look at what was going on. Half a dozen stone and wood buildings were clustered against the headwall, and after a few moments Susan realized they reminded her of the settlement at Pattering Hill. This was a Dwarf village, and that largest building was the central hall, built into the mountain and covering the main entrance to the mines, which probably wound away underground, heading deep into the mountains.

But instead of Dwarfs, the figures about the village, tending horses and going in and out of tents and practicing swordplay on the green, were all Human. And the Humans were not what Susan expected of Humans in Aslan's world: they looked unsavory. Most of them were men, unshaven, wearing stained and patched clothing and mismatched armor. They wore their hair caught back in rough plaits, and were all armed with swords and knives, though a few carried crossbows. They had dark hair and olive skin, and if she had seen one of them on the street in England, Susan might have thought he was from Italy or Spain.

A few women moved among them, dressed more uniformly in green brigandines over leather breeches: they too were armed, although mostly with bows and small axes, rather than swords. They were generally darker-skinned than the men, and wore their hair in complicated braids bound up on the back of their heads. As Susan watched, a tall woman swung lightly up onto a grey horse and cantered off down the valley bareback. Two of the men watched her go: one of them said something to the other (Susan was too far away to hear what), and they both laughed raucously, disregarding the glare of one of the other women.

Time passed as she watched, hoping for a glimpse of Peter or some evidence that he was here at all. The smell of cooking meat and baking bread began to drift across the village. Susan nearly groaned, and at length fished a small piece of dried meat out of her pocket. She chewed on it slowly, making it last. It would have to do: she didn't know how long she would be here, and she'd left nearly everything but her bow, knives, and water skin at the top of the ridge.

Two or three riders came into the yard nearest Susan: more of the green-clad women soldiers. They unsaddled and tied their horses to the nearby fence and joined a group of the men squatting around a fire that looked like it had been lit more for morale than for cooking, as the smell of food was coming from one of the buildings.

At length Susan saw four Red Dwarfs, all men, carrying great trays in their small hands, emerge from the central hall. They had barely crossed half the yard before they were surrounded by soldiers, shouting, laughing, and grabbing at the food.

When the trays were empty, the Dwarfs returned to the hall, followed by oaths and kicks from some of the men. The smallest Dwarf fell flat on his face, and lay there for a moment before pushing himself to his feet and following his companions back into the hall. The door slammed shut behind them.

So, thought Susan. The Dwarfs were not volunteers, or even hosts. These were Narnians, and they were being kicked and treated like slaves. She thought of Rikald in the freezing water under Pattering Hill, and Bindle, humiliated by his baldness but still marching off to Cair Paravel with Torvus and Windcaller, and her fists clenched. But leaping to her feet in rage wouldn't help: she needed information, and a plan.

More time passed. After night fell, the voices around the fire grew louder, as the soldiers told stories and shared drinks from a great clay pot. Several times the talk sparked into argument, and once knives were drawn, but a tall man in mail came out of a large blue tent and yelled at the fighters, and after some grumbling peace was restored. There was no evidence of Peter anywhere, although Susan wondered if he could be inside the mountain with the Dwarfs. If he was, she had no way of knowing where, and no way of getting to him without being seen.

At length, when the light of the waning moon began to creep over the ridge to the east, Susan sighed, trying not to despair, and began to wriggle backwards.

She was stiff from hours of stillness, cold, hungry, and desperately worried. But it wasn't safe to stay here. She had to get out of this valley, choked with enemies, and figure out what to do. Perhaps Lucy and Rhea would have found some help, she thought, or perhaps Edmund would have returned--but she knew, deep inside, that they could not have. Not so soon. This problem was for Susan to solve, and she didn't even know where to start.

It seemed unfair: rescuing people and sneaking around in the woods was all very well when one had a troop of Centaurs and a brother at one's side. Alone, it was much less exciting, and much more frightening.

She cast one last glance back at the village, and then stopped, for there was new movement at the far side of the yard. Two soldiers, one with a torch, were manhandling a shorter figure at the doorway of a small building Susan had taken for a storage shed. The prisoner, too far away for Susan to see his face, had hair that glittered gold in the torchlight. Peter. All she could tell, between the distance and the darkness, was that he was upright and walking, oh thank the Lion, he was alive. He moved stiffly, either from injuries or because he was bound, and the guards escorted him around the building towards a spot Susan had seen a number of the others visit during the course of the evening. The latrine pits, of course.

So they were feeding him and letting him relieve himself: it could be worse. Whatever it was they wanted, they must still think they could get it from him.

And now that Susan knew where he was being held, she had a plan.

The moon was high, but very little light got through the trees as Susan edged her way along the steep hillside. As she moved, thorns and twigs grabbed at her clothes and hair, she caught the end of her bow in the branches, and she tripped over more than one root or downed tree. The noise seemed to echo through the forest, which was almost silent: no night-birds called, and the crickets chirped hesitantly, as if afraid. The temperature had dropped with the sun: her hands were chilled and in the brief moments of light through the trees, Susan could see her breath puffing in the cold air. She hoped Edmund and Peter were warm; Lucy at least had Rhea with her.

The valley broadened as she moved north towards the road: this was where the Dwarfs had planted fields of corn and other crops. If she tried to cross the valley here, she would be dangerously exposed, but it was some distance from the village, and the soldiers should soon be asleep. Once across the valley and in the trees on the far hillside, she could work her way closer to the shed where Peter was imprisoned, and ... Well, she wasn't sure what she would do, then. She would think of something. But she had to get there while it was still dark--there would be no way to get to Peter once the sun had risen.

There was an opening in the trees ahead, and a dip where a gully had formed in the spring thaw. Susan stepped into the clear, picking twigs out of her hair, and turned to tug her cloak free from a thorn-bush.

When she turned back around, there was an arrow pointed at her eye, and a dagger only an inch from her belly.

~

 

His head was throbbing. That was the first thing Peter realized, as he swam back to wakefulness: his head hurt, and he wanted to vomit. He managed to keep himself from groaning, but the nausea was overpowering: he twisted over onto his side just in time to avoid spewing all over himself.

He couldn't twist far, though: as he coughed and gagged, he wrenched at his hands, which were bound together behind his back. It made it difficult to move away from the pool of barely-digested jerky and waybread that he had gulped down before setting out after Edmund.

He spat one last time and, rolling awkwardly, struggled up into a sitting position before looking about. He was in a dark room on a dirt floor, stiff with bruises, and there was stabbing pain in his side that reminded him of the time he had cracked a rib playing rugby. He supposed he was lucky to be alive, although it was hard to feel grateful past the throbbing in his head.

"You finished?" said a low voice in the darkness, and Peter started. The movement made his head pound even worse.

"Who's that?"

A snort, and then a rustle, as of someone shifting their weight. "Just another prisoner, boy. I just want to know if I need to worry about you choking. I've no interest in sharing my quarters with a rotting body."

Peter blinked; as his eyes cleared, he saw that the space he was in was not completely dark: faint light came from a poorly-set plank door, which he assumed led to the outside. The glimmer didn't really illuminate the room, but it was enough to give him a sense of its size (small) and its condition (shabby). It seemed empty but for Peter and the shadowy figure on the other side of the room, which was evidently Human. He had a blurry memory of the brigands opening a shed door, and fighting against them desperately, as if there were a chance of escaping the dozens of armed men and women around him. They must have hit him on the head before throwing him in.

"What place is this?" he asked, hoping that given time, his head would clear. But the pain throbbed with his pulse.

"The shed? Is a shed. In the peaceful hamlet of Silver Pine Village." The voice was sardonic.

"Oh." It wasn't a name Peter recognized, but he was fairly sure he was still in Narnia. "How long have I been here?" He looked at the light from the door. It couldn't be the next day already, could it?

The other grunted. "Maybe an hour. What's your name?"

The brigands had asked him that, too, accompanying the questioning with blows and curses. Peter had told them nothing, but through the pounding in his head, he realized now that it was better to give them a name, even if not his name. Depending on who they'd spoken with, they might recognize the name Peter, and maybe even Pevensie.

"Wolfsbane," he said at last, making it sound grudging and resentful (it wasn't hard).

"Bit young for that, aren't you?"

Peter ground his teeth and let the silence stretch out. "Fine," said the other, and laughed. It was a light, ringing laugh, and to Peter's shock, revealed the other as a woman. "I'll give you your wolf, boy. And in exchange: my name is Eluned of Archenland. Where do you hail from?"

"Nowhere you'd know," he answered. But he noted that there were apparently Humans in Archenland. "Who are these bandits? Where are they from?"

Eluned snorted. "You're from far away indeed, boy, not to recognize Telmarine mercenaries. Although Beva's Troop isn't as well known outside Rhidia and Telmar, it's true."

"But why are they here? In Narnia?"

"Why do you think? The snow is gone, the borders are unguarded--why shouldn't they come, and see what there is to be taken?" was Eluned's answer. "Especially now that they've lost their employer. These days, the Witch's coffers are richer than any in Telmar, by all I've heard."

"But they can't just--just come across the border and take over a village!" protested Peter, and then felt stupid for saying it. After all, that was exactly what the Germans were doing in Europe, weren't they?

"Well, there's no one to stop them, is there?" Eluned's voice was breezy. "Certainly not those Dwarfs; they've got the poor fellows turning over their life's work, just to stay alive. Fancy the stuff they have in those tunnels! If I'd known, I'd have staked my claim long ago, Witch or no Witch."

Lion's mane, Peter was thirsty. "Claim? What do you mean?" He looked around the shed, but if there was a bucket of water, it was well-hidden, and he suspected any attempt to rise would end with him on his face again. He would wait to explore until his head stopped spinning.

Eluned's voice was breezy. "My claim to the throne, of course. After all, I'm the rightful heir."

The claim to the throne, of course. "Of course," Peter said slowly. He reached out with his fingers until he touched the splintery wood of the shed wall, and pushed himself backwards with his feet until he could lean against it. "Remind me--they hit me on the head, you know--remind me of why you're the rightful heir?"

"Well, of course I don't expect a peasant boy to know royal genealogy!" Eluned sounded amused. "The first king of Narnia was King Frank, and his son Col was the first king of Archenland. The royal house of Archenland is descended from Col, so it stands to reason that with no living heirs in Narnia, the throne must go to the nearest related claimant, which is me."

"And you are a member of the royal house of Archenland." Peter worked this out: there had been Human kings and queens in Narnia before the Witch; he remembered Rhea telling him the story of the last queen. But nobody, not even Aslan, had ever mentioned that there were potential heirs as close as the country next door. "And the Narnians? They've asked you to take the throne?" Stormcoat would not be pleased. Although Peter suspected that Rhea would just laugh. Rhea--was she alive? Had she followed the mercenaries, or was she left bleeding in the wood?

"Oh, a peasant who thinks he knows politics! And no, not that it matters. After all, they've been ensorcelled for a century: they probably don't know I exist. But I'm a princess of Archenland: they'll be happy enough to have a true Human on the throne. They can't seem to manage by themselves, poor creatures." Eluned sounded quite relaxed about the question, and unbothered by the fact that she was imprisoned in a shed by Telmarine brigands.

It was too much to think about, and beside the point of his immediate problem, Peter decided. "How did you get captured by the Telmarines?" He tugged at the bonds around his wrists, but they were too tight for him to move much. From what he could tell, they'd taken the spare dagger in his sleeve, but he couldn't reach his boot to see if Stormcoat's knife was still there.

"Stupidly," she said in a disgusted tone. "They jumped us on the road east of here: killed my men and shot my horse out from under me. But I took two of them with me, at least."

"All your men?" Maybe someone had survived to bring help. "Won't someone try to rescue you?"

"Rescue me? My brother will be so angry with me, he may well forbid anyone to try!" Although she sounded cheerfully defiant as she said it, there was a hint of fear in her voice. She wasn't as unconcerned as she wanted Peter to think.

"But--" said Peter, but shut his mouth, because the door opened to let in a flood of bright sunlight. The light hit him in the face and he winced, turning his head and squeezing his eyes shut.

"Food for the prisoners," said a rough voice, its accent familiar, and Peter squinted at the short figured silhouetted in the doorway: it was a Dwarf, carrying a large tray. He looked unhappy, and a guard prodded him forward with the butt of a spear.

But the Dwarf wouldn't look at Peter as he set down the tray, unwrapped half a loaf of bread and held out a pottery cup of water. "I can't drink that," said Peter, and shrugged his shoulders to indicate his bound hands. The Dwarf looked at the guard, who scowled and stepped forward. In a few moments he had loosened Peter's bonds enough to re-tie them in front, without giving Peter an opportunity to grab for a weapon. Which wouldn't have done much good, anyway, as there was another guard at the door, and Peter was still feeling sick and woozy.

But the sunlight did give Peter an opportunity to look at Eluned, who was lounging against the opposite wall of the shed as though she had not a care in the world. She was fair-skinned (if bruised), with long blonde hair in an unraveling plait, and was dressed more like the soldiers outside than any princess Peter had ever seen, in leather breeches and a woolen tunic. Her blood-spattered green surcoat was embroidered with a castle in silver thread.

Under the eyes of the guards, Peter choked down the dry bread (at least it got the awful taste out of his mouth) and drank the mug dry of water. "More?" Peter asked, motioning to the mug as the Dwarf took it back, but the guard ignored him. The door swung shut, leaving them in the darkness again.

"Is all Telmarine hospitality this generous?" he asked, stretching his cramped shoulders. What a relief it was, and now with his hands in front, he could slide a finger down into his boot. And yes, his last, smallest blade was still there. He wasn't entirely unarmed.

"At least there's food," said Eluned, pushing herself stiffly to her feet and going to the door. She peered through the cracks, and then put her ear to the opening. "Someone's coming," she said, and then stepped back as the door swung open again.

A tall, dark-haired man stood in the doorway: even with the sun behind him, Peter could tell he was dressed in a finer version of the Telmarine gear, with a silver-hilted sword at his belt and embroidered gloves in one hand. He stared at Peter and Eluned, and then turned to one of the guards. "The boy had it? You're sure?" At a murmured affirmative, he nodded, and then stepped back out of the shed. "Bring him out, then."

Damn, thought Peter, as the guards surged into the shed and yanked him to his feet. The dragged him into the yard and forced him to his knees in the dirt, in front of the tall Telmarine. The pain in his side stabbed at him, and he bent over, gasping. When he looked up, he saw that a few of the mercenaries had drifted over to watch the proceedings. He'd forgotten that most Humans were taller than he was, and he felt very much like a child, kneeling on the ground surrounded by armed men. He tried to hold himself straight, although it hurt to breathe.

"Well, boy," said the Telmarine, gazing at Peter with a dismissive air. "What's your name and where are you from?"

Eluned thought Peter was a peasant, and Peter was hardly dressed like a king: his breeches and jerkin were ragged and stained. So a peasant he would be, frightened and overwhelmed--not that he would be pretending very hard. He was alone, (mostly) unarmed, and far from help. And why, why in Aslan's name had they ever decided to leave Windcaller and his troop behind? He could have kicked himself for his stupidity, if the Telmarines hadn't done such a good job of it for him.

Peter let the fear well up, and stuttered, "W-Wolfsbane, my lord. From Finchley, north of here."

The Telmarine looked at one of the guards, who shook his head. "Never heard of it, Captain."

"It's very small," added Peter. "My father's a shepherd." (He imagined his father's reaction to that, and barely controlled a hysterical laugh.)

"Indeed," said the Captain. He held out a hand and one of the guards handed him a sheathed sword: a sword with a golden pommel, on a fine leather belt. At least Rhindon wasn't lost, but Peter saw the believability of his story slipping away. "A fine weapon for a peasant," said the Captain. "Who did you steal it from?"

"I never stole it!" Peter burst out, clenching his fists. "It's mine!"

The Captain drew the blade partway, tilting it so the sun reflected off the runes in the channel. "This is a finer blade than I carry, boy, and I am Asper of Rose Island. There is no honest way you could have come by such a sword." With a flick of his wrist, Asper sent the sheath flying, and Rhindon was bared, the edge of the blade mere inches from Peter's throat. "Tell me where you got it."

Peter swallowed. Surely they wouldn't kill him over this? He opened his dry mouth, uncertain what to say, and what came out was: "It was a present from Father Christmas!" Truth, for all the good it would do him.

The suspicion on Asper's face deepened, and Peter held his breath, but after several silent heartbeats, Asper laughed shortly. "You are either mad, to think I would believe you, or you have stepped out of a fairy story. Very well, Wolfsbane, I shall let you hide your thievery. These mud-grubbers know of nothing beyond their own walls: let you tell me of Narnia, its strengths and weaknesses, and perhaps I will not send you back to your sheep missing a hand, or an eye."

One of the guards sniggered. Rhindon's steel shimmered brilliantly in the afternoon sunlight: the promise of the blade seemed a bitter joke to Peter, bound and threatened by Narnia's enemies. "Why are you here?" he burst out, stalling for time. "We have no riches, this land is rough and wild! Why bring your soldiers here, where there are none to fight you?" There was a split in his breeches, just across his right knee, where he had narrowly dodged a sword-thrust that morning, and a pebble ground into his bare skin. He shifted his weight, easing his knee off the pebble and onto the bare dirt.

Asper's face darkened. "Don't think you can bluff me, boy," he snarled. "Better men than you have died for it. Even that Witch was wise enough not to try."

"Didn't tell us everything, though," grumbled one of the soldiers, and Asper nodded shortly.

"Bitch never mentioned silver mines for one," he said, casting a bright glance at the Dwarfs' hall set into the hillside. "Where there's some, there's more. And we know the Witch had an army, boy, don't play dumb. Where is it, how large is it, what are their arms?"

Peter was shocked: how had the mercenaries known the Witch, and why? But he was distracted; his gaze kept drifting over Asper's shoulder, off to the left, looking for something on the hillside. There was nothing to see: no movement, no flashes of light on mail as a troop of Narnians came charging to his rescue. Just trees, dark and thick, climbing in ranks to the ridgeline.

He yanked his attention back to Asper as Rhindon's edge touched his bare throat.

"I'm not sure!" he said, scrabbling for something that he could tell Asper, something which was believable but not too dangerous for the mercenary captain to know. "They fought, after the Witch died--I heard there was a great battle." Was it better for the Telmarine to think Narnia was strong, so he would go back to Telmar, or weak, so he could be enticed into battle and then surprised?

Rhindon retreated a notch. Peter felt a trickle of blood tickling its way down his throat. "And?" asked Asper. His face was scarred and hard, his dark eyes sharp. Peter did not think he could be frightened away.

"And I don't know--I'm just a shepherd, my lord!"

Asper's arm had to be growing weary, holding Rhindon outstretched like that, but he gave no sign of it. "Guess."

Peter wished for Edmund's skill with lying, and decided to keep the story as close to the truth as possible, so he could remember it later. "I--I heard the generals had a falling out, afterwards. And they went away, each to his own people."

His gaze returned to the hillside, and just like that, he knew. Susan. Susan was there, in the woods below the ridge. Peter knew it, as sure as he knew that Aslan wasn't going to leap out to save him this time. Susan was coming. He bit his lip to keep from smiling.

"And where--" began Asper, but he was interrupted by a soldier with a message, who waved at the closed doors of the Dwarf hall. Asper listened impatiently, then shrugged and sheathed Rhindon again. "Put him back," he ordered the guards, and walked away from Peter without a glance. Peter couldn't see where he went, because the guards followed their orders, and in less than a minute, he was back in the dark shed again.

*

"Well, you've the Lion's own luck," remarked Eluned with cold-blooded cheerfulness, as Peter slumped against the wall of the shed and raised his hands to touch the blood drying on his neck. "Asper didn't stop asking me questions until I was half bruises, and even then, he only believed some of what I said. What did he want?"

Peter shrugged. He hadn't handled that well, but he wasn't sure how a teenaged king was supposed to handle being interrogated by mercenaries. He had to out-think them, and at the moment he was still too uneven on his feet, and his head too fogged, to out-think even a squirrel. "What did they ask you?" he retorted.

"Nothing to any purpose," she replied sharply. "I spat in his face: I know too much about what the Witch and her bullies have done in Archenland for me to give him anything but despite. He'll get nothing from me but my name." She sounded defiant, but also frightened, which Peter had to sympathize with.

So the mercenaries had worked for the Witch, then, Peter reasoned, following the logic. Was that what the papers in her castle were about? He opened his mouth to ask Eluned what the mercenaries were doing in Archenland, and then shut it again. Best not to reveal either his ignorance or his intelligence so easily. He didn't like what she'd said about having a claim on the Narnian throne; if he said he, Peter, was the High King of Narnia, what would she do? Would she betray him to the Telmarines in order to get him out of the way?

The afternoon passed in silence, the air in the shed growing warm and stuffy from the sun, and fetid from Peter's earlier sickness. Peter dozed against the wall, wondering whether he'd made a grave error in telling Asper what little he had. What if the mercenaries decided to move further into Narnia before anyone could spread word of the danger? Had the mercenaries been the ones to burn that Faun holt, or had it been the dragon?

After sunset, the guards escorted each of the prisoners to the latrine: Peter was grateful for that, despite the guards' rough handling. He sat back down against the wall and worried, wondering what Susan was up to, where Lucy was, how Edmund was doing. Finally, he nodded off, and dreamed of battles and death, and Edmund's face white with fear.

He jerked awake. The shed was even darker than before, if that was possible, but cooler. It must be midnight, or later. Eluned was silent, probably asleep. His stomach rumbled: the Dwarfs had not brought any food since the dry bread that afternoon, and that had been little enough to start with.

There was a scratching just behind him, as if an animal were chewing at the wood of the shed wall. Peter pushed himself away from the wall, twisting around, and as he shook off sleep, he felt that touch in his mind, the sourceless knowledge that Narnia sometimes granted him. This was Susan! There, just inches away, his sister was crouched in the darkness, working on a plan to free him.

He put his head to the wall, searching for a crack between the boards, and whispered, "Susan?"

The scratching stopped. "Quiet!" came the response, a soft whisper he barely caught. "Guards in front."

He nodded, though she couldn't see him, and crouched low next to the wall, as another sound came to his ears. This wasn't the same noise, and it was less regular, marked with an occasional soft "tink". Long minutes passed, and Peter dozed off despite himself. When he awoke, he realized the sound was louder and was coming from lower down. He couldn't feel Susan's presence as clearly as before. What was she doing? "Susan?" he whispered, but the answer came from Eluned.

"You're getting out." The low voice next to his ear startled him. Eluned sounded nowhere near as cheerful as she had before. "You'll take me with you, boy, or I'll wake this whole camp. You won't make it to the trees alive."

"Fine," he hissed, forgetting for the moment that he was supposed to be a cowed peasant boy. "Now be silent. Better, stand by the door and watch for the guards."

She grunted suspiciously, but to his surprise moved away, and after a moment Peter saw a shadow pass across the firelight shining through the cracks in the door. He turned his attention back to the wall, and while he couldn't see any activity, he could feel the vibrations through his hand on the floor: someone was indeed digging. While he waited, he took his stone knife out of his boot and cut through the cords binding his wrists (although he couldn't do it without cutting himself a little, and the blood made the handle of the blade very slippery). He was in for it now: he had to escape before the guards came back and found him with his hands free.

A very few minutes later, there was a crumbling sound, a cough, and a rough and unfamiliar voice said, "King? Your sister says she's gone to start a diversion, because the sun's going to rise soon."

"Bloody hell," snapped Peter, at the same time Eluned said, in a voice sharp with suspicion, "King?"

"Never mind that," Peter said, and found that a small hand was tapping his knee.

"Take this," said the rough voice, and now Peter knew it was a Dwarf woman. Where had she come from? Weren't the Dwarfs all under guard?

He reached forward and found himself holding a small spade, more of a trowel, really. "What--" he began to ask, and then stopped, because it was obvious. "Right, then." He dug the point of the trowel into the hard-packed soil and began to dig.

The digging went on for a long time, it seemed, and Peter's hands were stiff and cramped by the time the hole was large enough for even a small child to fit through. But as Peter paused to shake out his hands, he looked around to see that light was beginning to filter in through the cracks in the doorway. Morning was coming, and with it their chances of escaping unseen were evaporating.

"Eluned!" he whispered. "Come over here and help!"

He cut her bonds and handed her the trowel, and scraped soil away with his hands as she grunted and heaved. It was clear, as they got deeper into the ground, that the Dwarf woman was working on the other end of the tiny tunnel. At length, when the light through the door was clear enough for Peter to see the dirt on his own hands, the Dwarf woman stuck her head out from under the wall, and said quietly, "It's big enough now, I think. Come through, but be silent!"

It was a narrow, twisting tunnel, with stones and loose dirt and even some roots: Peter had to grit his teeth against the pain of his ribs, pushing with his toes against the earth to move himself forward. More than once, one of Eluned's boots hit him in the face--because of course he had let her go first, even if she seemed to think she had some kind of claim on the throne of Narnia. The tunnel was not, in the end, very long, but it was long enough for Peter to be astonished at how quickly the Dwarf woman had dug it--although when he climbed out at the end, he discovered there were in fact two Dwarf women.

He wiped the soil from his eyes and found himself crouched in the thin cover of a flowering shrub, a few yards behind the shed. From here, he could see the fence where the mercenaries' horses were tied, some of the other buildings, and the fifty yards of open ground between where he crouched and the cover of the woods on the closer side of the valley. And while the eastern ridge was high enough that the sun could not yet be seen, the light in the sky was growing and people were beginning to go about their business in the yard.

They were trapped: they could not cross the open space without being seen, and soon they would be spotted where they were, or the guards would discover them gone. There was no sign of Susan, although her bow was tucked under the bush, out of casual view.

"Where is Susan?" Peter asked the older of the two Dwarf women. She had faded red hair streaked with grey, bound in braids about her head, and a wicked-looking knife thrust into her belt. The younger Dwarf answered him, silently pointing towards the horselines. Peter squinted and saw a dark-haired woman was walking briskly towards the horses--but it wasn't one of the mercenary women, it was Susan.

As he watched, she reached the horse line and disappeared behind a tall chestnut.

"King Peter," whispered the older Dwarf. "I am Rena, this is my sister Perrin. We must be ready to move as soon as the queen releases the horses." She looked worn down by labor and care, but still hard as the mountain stones, just like Pekana.

"King and queen! What is this?" hissed Eluned, whose face and hands were filthy from the tunnel. "What right--"

But Peter never did hear what right Eluned thought, or didn't think, he had, because at that moment three things happened, very unexpectedly, and one right after the other.

First, there was a shout from the yard, as a score of horses suddenly went trotting, cantering, and even galloping away, splitting apart like a set of billiard balls across the green fields. People ran after them, although one slim figure in a brown cloak angled towards the hillside, where Peter expected she would disappear. This was Susan's diversion: he began to rise to his feet, but then the second thing happened.

There was a cry and one of the mercenaries pointed: Peter followed the line of her arm to see a troop of horsemen appear at the top of the eastern ridge. They paused for a moment, back-lit by the rising sun, and then began pouring down the hillside, to cries of alarm and dismay from the Telmarines in the valley. The riders were too far away for Peter to see them clearly, but they were evidently not Telmarine, and there were a great many of them. The Telmarines began to run around, and Peter saw the glint of light on metal as weapons were seized.

The third thing was a noise from above: an enormous musical roar that reminded Peter of nothing more than a church organ. He spun around and looked up, towards the bright sunlit tip of Mount Farsight, and realized that their escape had just gotten immeasureably more complicated.

For streaking into the valley like an arrow from Susan's bow was a great gold and black serpent, with bat-like wings half-folded as it sped through the air, and an ominous smoky trail behind it. "Dragon!" shouted a Telmarine, "A dragon is upon us!"

Chapter Text

Rhea wasn't willing to bushwhack as she and Lucy headed back east. "The Great Road runs east out of Farsight Valley and into the plains, queen. It will be much faster, and any messengers will more likely find us along it, than in the bush on the north side of the valley."

So they cut southeast, struggling through a stretch of mucky ground and a line of densely-intertwined pines, but after a few hours, they came out into open ground. Lucy looked down the steep bank to see a road before them, broad as a farm lane in England, although overgrown with weeds and wildflowers.

When they came down onto the road, Rhea sniffed carefully. "Humans on horses," she said, "but not recently, and they were headed west. I think it's safe."

With every step they took eastward, Lucy's heart grew heavier. Peter, Edmund, and Susan were all behind her; surely Aslan could not mean for her to leave them behind? But every time she opened her mouth, she remembered that she had promised to get help, and by herself she could hardly save Peter from bandits or Edmund from a dragon. This was her task, no matter how difficult she found it.

It was not in Lucy's nature, however, to dwell on unhappiness, and she found herself enjoying the peaceful walk with Rhea along the ancient road. They had finally left the rain behind, the day was clear and warm, and the trees were turning yellow on the mountains to her right. Lucy watched for birds, and they saw many, but none seemed to be Talking Birds, and none approached them.

In late afternoon, they discovered the body.

The body was--well, Lucy didn't look that closely, to be honest. It lay at the side of the road, looking smaller than a fox, or a Fox, should. Rhea sniffed at it, then stepped back, looking worried. "It's a nursing Vixen, queen." Rhea put her nose to the ground and began casting about in a widening spiral around the body.

Lucy looked from the body to Rhea and back again. "I don't understand."

"It means there are kits, queen. Babies, who will starve without her." The Wolf's voice was rough, more growly than usual, and her ears lay back against her head in a way that Lucy had not seen before.

There was no question of what must be done, of course. Finding help for Peter and Edmund was important, but babies were starving. That had to come first. Rhea went back and forth, up and down along the road, and Lucy watched silently, wishing as hard as she could. At length, in the lee of a blackberry bush covered with thumb-sized berries, Rhea found the scent she was searching for. She pushed past the bush, ignoring the thorns, and disappeared into the brush, and Lucy followed her.

The trail led them a quarter-mile off the road, across a dry gully and a small meadow, and came to an end at the edge of a river. "I think that's the Rose, queen," said Rhea, nodding at the water. It was a small stream, nothing like the Great River, or even the Whiterush, but it was fast-running in a little rocky gorge that dropped a good twenty feet below the bank on which they stood.

"Where do we go now?" asked Lucy, looking around. They stood in the shadow of an ancient oak, whose branches spread into the air above the stream and whose roots crept down the steep rock face: it looked as though two or three more storm seasons would take it crashing down across the gorge. Under the oak, the sunlight was dappled and dimmed by its passage through the great tree's foliage.

Rhea sniffed at one of the oak roots protruding from the bank. "This way, queen. Can you see where this root leads?"

Lucy hooked her hand around one of the oak branches and leaned outwards very carefully, following the root Rhea had indicated with her eyes. "Oh, no. It goes out and down along the cliff, and then there's a shadow there--there must be a cave. Are you sure?"

Rhea sneezed. "Very sure. That Vixen has come and gone this way many times in the last weeks."

It was, in fact, a very secure den: well-hidden from predators, and almost impossible for anyone to reach, as getting to it required trotting down a narrow, twisting root for nearly ten feet before jumping into the opening of the den. The problem, however, was that the root was too thin to bear Rhea's weight, or Lucy's. If the dead Vixen's kits were in that den, Lucy and Rhea would have to find another way to get to them.

"You think they're in there?" Lucy asked, nervously. "They might have come out..." The shadow she thought marked the entrance to the den was six or eight feet below the rim of the gorge, the face of which steepened considerably at about that point. Anything that fell out of the den entrance (and did not make the leap to the root) would tumble unstoppably down the cliff face and into the swift-running water of the River Rose.

Rhea shook her head and put one foot on the root, before drawing it back in dismay. "No, they're in there. If the mother was still nursing, they were too small to leave the den. We have to fetch them out."

"Don't they have a father?" It would be nice if someone else could help the kits. That cliff looked scary.

But Rhea shook her head. "If they do, he's not been here lately. Just the Vixen."

Lucy bit at a fingernail. If Susan were here, she would give Lucy the eye for that, but Susan wasn't. If Susan or Peter were here, one of them would climb down the cliff face and rescue the kits, and hand them out to Lucy waiting safely on the top. But they weren't, and there wasn't anyone else around. And the kits were probably hungry. Maybe starving.

"All right," she said, and took her finger out of her mouth. "What do I do?"

*

She would have felt safer with a rope. Not safe, but safer. The stream seemed very far away, and it looked cold, and there were rocks in the water.

Well. She should just have to be very careful not to fall. Lucy sat on the edge of the cliff and took a deep breath. She had taken her bow off her shoulder, and emptied her pack as well, piling everything on the ground neatly in the shelter of a bush. She had decided to keep her boots on, as the rocks looked rough.

One more deep breath, and then she twisted around and reached down with one foot, scrabbling for a hold. Ah, there was something under foot. With both hands locked around a tree root, she lowered herself a few inches until all her weight was on her feet, and she was standing on a tiny ledge jutting out from the cliff face.

That wasn't so bad, she realized, and smiled up at Rhea. "Okay so far!"

The next bit would be harder, though, because she would have to let go of the oak roots. The face of the cliff was mostly rock, but not entirely, and it was, thankfully, not smooth. There were many little ledges and places where the rock cracked to form hand- or foot-holds. But they were not regularly-spaced like the rungs of a ladder, and there were patches of moss in places, as well. She might slip.

She looked down at the water, but that turned out to be a very bad idea, because now she didn't want to move at all. The water appeared to be even further away than it was from the top of the cliff, and the cliff much steeper. Lucy wasn't strong: her arms were already beginning to ache. What if she fell? She wasn't a swimmer, not like Susan, and Rhea could not catch her from the top of the gorge. If she fell, she might not even make it to the water--she could hit her head on a stone, like the ledge she was standing on, and be knocked unconscious and drown!

Lucy clung to the cliff, face pressed against the cold stone, breathing quickly. She couldn't move, and all she could hear was the sound of the river rushing by below.

"Queen? Queen, you must move," said a voice from above, and Lucy forced her eyes open. Just a few feet above her, she saw Rhea's dark eyes and grizzled muzzle. "You are almost there," said the Wolf, her voice as soft and reassuring as Lucy had ever heard it.

'I can't!" whispered Lucy. "I'm stuck!" Although she was not, truly, stuck: she was afraid.

"I cannot help you, Lucy," said Rhea. "But Aslan would not have set this task before us if you were not strong enough to accomplish it. And you must, or those kits will die where they are, starving and alone."

"Oh," said Lucy, and thought of Aslan looking at her. That helped, a little. She looked at the cliff face in front of her. There was a horizontal crack right there, with a lip on it. It looked secure. Very carefully, very slowly, she unclenched her right hand from about the root and brought it down to the crack. It fit perfectly.

There was a breath of wind past her face, cool and refreshing on her sweaty brow and neck. It smelled lovely, and it gave Lucy the courage to loosen her left hand, too, and begin to lower herself to the next foot-hold. She worked her way down one more step after that, and then looked back up at Rhea. "How much farther? Can you see?"

"I think you are there, queen!"

And Rhea was right. Lucy looked to her right and saw nothing but rocks and moss; but to her left, just within arm's reach, was a shadowy cleft in the rock, in front of which the root bent in a sinuous curve before continuing on down the cliff face. Something snuffled from inside the cleft. Lucy put her left hand out and shuffled oh, so carefully sideways until she was right in front of the little cave.

Lucy locked her right hand around a sturdy-seeming hold above the cave mouth, and stuck her head into the dark space. It smelled stinky, of animals and waste, but she could see nothing, after the bright sunlight outside. "Hello?" she asked cautiously. "Is anyone there?"

There was a silence, and then something whimpered. "I'm hungry!"

"Quiet!" hissed another voice, and then a third snarled, "No, you be quiet! Mother left me in charge!"

"I'm glad there's someone in charge, then," said Lucy, still peering into the cave. "You'll need to help me get you out of there."

"Who are you?" said the third voice, suspiciously. "Why should we go with you?"

Her hand was getting tired, but she could hold on for a while longer. "My name is Queen Lucy, and I'd like to be your friend. What are your names?"

"Queen!" hissed one of the kits. "Like Mother said! My name is Ruby, and that's Roxy, and that's Rory."

"That's just a story from the Magpies," said the third voice, the suspicious one. Lucy thought it might be Roxy.

"Oh, you know the Magpies? Good! They're my friends, too, and I have another friend at the top of the gorge, who is waiting for us. Aren't you hungry? Wouldn't you like to go get something to eat?" She nearly went on to say something about their mother, and then stopped. Time for that later, as Susan would say.

Ruby and Rory, the younger sister and brother, were inclined to listen to Lucy; but Roxy took some convincing, and by the time her siblings had brought her around, Lucy's arms were beginning to ache. "You will have to help me now," she said, trying not to reveal how tired she was becoming. "You shall have to get into my pack, here, on my back, see? And that way I can climb back up the cliff with you safely."

The kits were dubious, but Roxy, while suspicious, was also the bravest, and so she came forward into the light and clambered up Lucy's shoulder and over it, into the pack. "Ooof!" she said, her voice muffled. "It smells in here!"

"And now the others, up you go!" And so they did, their little claws scratching Lucy's hands and arms, and catching in the cloth of her tunic as they scrambled into the pack. When they were all settled, Roxy stuck her head back out and into Lucy's ear, which tickled. "All right, now we climb back up," said Lucy.

It was not nearly as terrifying as the climb down, for this time Lucy could see where to put her feet and hands, and she knew that there were enough ledges and cracks to support her. But the pack on her back was now loaded with squirming, wriggly Fox kits, and they could not be convinced to stay still. At least once they knocked her off balance and one foot slipped from its hold, sending her swinging into space like a barn door opening. Lucy gasped, and the kits squeaked in surprise, but she managed to pull herself back onto the wall and continue climbing.

Rhea was waiting as Lucy pulled herself over the ledge, and the Wolf came forward to sniff at the Fox kits as they tumbled into Lucy's pack. After she had had reassured herself that all three were safe and healthy, she turned to Lucy and, astonishingly, licked Lucy once on the cheek. "Well done, queen," she said.

*

The kits were hungry. Very hungry. Almost immediately upon spilling out from Lucy's backpack onto the grass, they started complaining.

Lucy looked at Rhea in some despair, because they had no milk about them, nor could she see any way of obtaining any. However Rhea lay down and considered the kits, her tail waving gently, and twitched an ear. "I think they may be old enough for something solid," she said, and Lucy seized upon that with great relief.

Rory was male, and the smallest, and he didn't really like the solid food, but in the end he took a bit of waybread and nibbled on it. Ruby ate three pieces of waybread--more than Lucy herself could eat in one sitting, for it was quite dense and hard to chew--and sniffed about for more. Roxy had a piece of waybread as well, but far preferred the dried mutton, and chewed it laboriously with her tiny sharp teeth.

"Now it's time to go," said Lucy, and then hesitated. How was she to travel with these children? They were quite small, and if she carried them, she would have no room in her pack for her bedroll, water, and food. Well, she would just have to manage something. In the end, she tied her water skin to her belt and rolled her blanket about the food packets so she could strap that to the outside of her pack. Then she piled the kits into the pack and struggled it onto her shoulders. It was heavy--far heavier than it had been before, but it would have to do.

Rhea led them back to the East Road (on a much more direct route than the kits' mother had taken) and they struck out at once. It was now late in the day and Lucy feared they had not traveled far enough. However after only half an hour of walking, there was a flash of black-and-white in the brush ahead of them, and her heart leapt. "Magpie!" she cried, and the bird startled out into the open air, coming to a fluttering landing on a branch next to the road.

"Who calls?" the Magpie asked, sounded annoyed.

"Your queen," growled Rhea. "Know you not that this is Queen Lucy, set on the throne at Cair Paravel by Aslan himself?"

The Magpie fluffed his wings, then bobbed his head towards Lucy. "Your pardon," he said, sounding embarrassed. "Word had not come that the kings and queens were coming to Farsight Valley. What service, queen, can I offer?"

Lucy paused to think, instead of simply babbling out the story, for that would likely confuse both the Magpie and any who heard his message later. "I need you to find Windcaller the Centaur, or Sallowpad the Raven. Windcaller should be in Beruna by now, or on his way from Beruna to Cair Paravel. I do not know where Sallowpad may be, but he said he would look for us, so he may be between here and the Dwarf village of Grass Hill. Tell them that King Peter has been captured by Human bandits from across the border, and we are in need of their help. Then fly back or send a message back this way, and meet me here." There, she thought: that was brief enough.

Rhea gave her one of those sidelong glances, and Lucy felt warm with the Wolf's approval.

"King Peter captured! Fell news indeed! I shall carry the message right away--" and with that, the Magpie was gone, a black-and-white arrow shooting into the sky.

Now that the message had been sent, Lucy realized there was little reason to hurry on east, and she was very tired (as were the kits). They made camp a little ways off the road, in a meadow rich with flowers and surrounded by birch trees whose leaves were golden in the late afternoon light. As the sun dropped towards the western mountains, the temperature fell as well, and Lucy put on her woolen jerkin, layering it under her cloak. She would have liked a fire, but she had not learned to use the flint and steel properly, and after trying for several minutes, decided that a cold supper would have to do.

They sat in the last of the sun, watching the shadows lengthen, and the kits tumbled about the meadow. It was very peaceful, although Lucy worried about Edmund and the dragon, and Peter and the bandits, and Susan in her quest to free Peter. When the sun paused briefly before sliding down behind Farsight Peak, Lucy closed her eyes and whispered, "Oh, Aslan, please help them."

She felt better after that, and after spending much of the twilight playing with the kits in the open ground. They were excited by the adventure of leaving their den, and seemed not to miss their mother too much.

"Rhea," Lucy said quietly, as Roxy chased Ruby over, under, and around a fallen birch on the edge of the clearing, "should we be looking for their father?" In fact, she really wanted to talk about what they should do tomorrow: should they reverse their steps again, head back towards Telmar Pass, and try to help Susan? Should they continue on towards Beruna in hopes of meeting whatever help might be coming? Should Lucy stay here with the kits and send Rhea on her own? But those were questions she was too weary and frightened to pose.

Her tail twitching, Rhea stretched, lengthening her body and legs in a pose that made her seem nearly as long (if not as tall) as Aslan himself. Then she rolled over, scratching her back on the ground in such a way that Lucy covered her mouth to keep from giggling. At length the Wolf sat up.

"Their father is likely dead," Rhea said, putting her ears back briefly. "I smelled nothing of him, and Foxes mate for life. He would not have left them alone for so long willingly."

"What shall we do with them, then? I can hardly carry them back to Cair Paravel with me!" Lucy looked at the kits. Rory had fallen asleep, his stomach rounded after a meal of rabbit that Rhea had caught. Ruby and Roxy rolled on top of one another lazily, and as Lucy watched, Ruby yawned.

Rhea cocked her head. "I don't know, queen. Perhaps we shall find someone nearby who will take them on. They can hardly be the only Talking Beasts in the valley, after all."

"But what if--" Lucy began to say, and then stopped, when Rhea lifted her head, her hackles lifting and ears pricking towards the road.

They were separated from the road by a thin screen of trees and bushes, and in the fast-falling darkness, Lucy could see nothing. "What is it?" she whispered.

"A troop of horse, moving fast," said Rhea, equally quietly. "I think we should go see," she added, looking at Lucy.

The kits seemed safe where they were, curled up on and over one another on top of Lucy's bedroll. Lucy followed Rhea to the other side of the meadow, and, dropping to a crawl, wormed her way through the brush to a spot where she could see the road.

At first there was no activity, just the sounds of insects and nightbirds, and the occasional flutter of a bat overhead as the stars began to come out. But then Lucy heard the sound of hoofbeats, and far to the right, where the road took a bend, she saw a bouncing red light, and then another. "Torches?" she whispered to Rhea, and the Wolf's ear dipped in agreement.

They waited as the sound of hoofbeats grew louder, now accompanied by the jingle of harness and the occasional soft word. Lucy, peering down the road, could not clearly see who they were nor how many, because the light of the torches carried by those in front made it too hard to see past them. "How many?" she whispered.

"More than ten, fewer than fifty," came the Wolf's response. Then she stiffened. "One of them is a Centaur," she said, sounding surprised. "No, wait, two."

The troop was nearly abreast of them now; Lucy squinted past the torchlight to see that the troop was made up of men and women in shining mail, armed with tall spears; they carried shields on their backs, and some of them had bows as well. They were mostly Human, but not all--there were also two Centaurs, a Badger riding pillion behind a soldier on horseback, and a Crow on the shoulder of one of the torchbearers.

In the instant, her decision was made. She jumped to her feet and waved her arms, shouting, "Stop! I need to talk to you!"

~

 

This high on the mountain, the air was thin and cold, although the sun was fierce. Edmund found himself gasping for breath, and stopping more than he wanted to, leaning against the sturdy pines and getting sap all over his tunic. He was grateful long before noon for the streams cutting their way down the mountainside, bitter cold though the water was from the snowmelt above.

The problem was that, although the call told him where to go, it couldn't tell him how, and there was no path to take him straight up the steep hillside. He cut back and forth across the face, struggling through scree fields and across steep-sided gullies, always aiming for a spot high up on the shoulder of Mount Farsight. Sweat poured down his face and stung his eyes, the stones and brush scratched his hands, and he could feel blisters forming on his feet, even inside his marvelous new boots.

It didn't seem to matter. The higher he climbed, the clearer the call came: it was in his bones now, and if he closed his eyes, he could turn and face it, even with his boots on. His head felt light and clear, and while he should have been worried and frightened--as he had been for the last few days--he felt only a strange and distant certainty. He wasn't even thinking about the dragon, or about saving Peter: just about the climb.

I might die, he thought at one point, splashing through yet another freezing-cold rivulet. It seemed likely, after all, but the thought drifted away, while Edmund scrambled up the bank through some red and yellow wildflowers, and back into another scree field. (It was actually all one scree field, millions of stones cascading in a wide swath down the mountain, but Edmund had to cross it over and over as he climbed.)

After noon, when the sun was mostly in his face instead of at his back, he paused to eat. Where he sat, chewing at strips of salty dried meat, he could look down into the great valley below. From here, he could see the road from the pass, which was off to his right, around the shoulder of the mountain. The road wound back and forth, heading generally east, and some distance away (and far below) he saw sparks on it, as if from sunlight glinting off armor or weapons. He wondered briefly about that, but then he turned and looked up the mountain, his attention caught by the next stage of his climb.

Soon, he thought, but couldn't tell what it was, that would be soon, nor even if he was eager or afraid. It just was, like the mountain itself.

When the sun had slid behind the ridge so the shadows draped across all the eastern faces of Mount Farsight, Edmund found, high on the mountain, a narrow twisting trail. It looked like only goats had used it for many years (although he had not seen any goats; the only wildlife he had seen all day were an occasional bird, and three small furred creatures that had darted into the rocks at the sight of him). There was very little vegetation this high up, just some low shrubs with shriveled blue berries on them, and grey-green lichen on some of the stones. The trail seemed to go the right way, so Edmund followed it as it wound across the mountainside, heading generally west.

The trail curved about a horn of rock, and as he came about it, he found himself in full sun again. The sun was just a handspan above the horizon, which itself was yet another range of mountains in the distance. The land between was now mostly in shadow, but it looked like steep cliffs dropping off to rolling hills and a broad forested valley. The trail dipped here, then climbed again to a lower rise, and then curled out of sight around another ledge of rock.

From here, Edmund could look south, as well, and he peered down to see that far below was the road to the pass: he saw the dull brown line weaving through dark-green shadows up and through a narrow notch, and then down again into the broad valley to the west. That was Telmar, then. And this was--he stopped and looked at the narrow trail, and then turned to look the way he had come--this was another path. A narrow, dangerous, high pass, a secret route into Narnia.

But this high pass wasn't the reason he had come here. Edmund took a few steps down the trail, into the hollow, and then he saw it: the shadow on the rocky wall wasn't a shadow at all, but a cleft in the stone of the mountainside. More than a cleft: a great doorway into the darkness.

He stepped closer, and from the dark inside the cave there came a smell. Something both sharp and smoky, reminding him of railway platforms and cold November evenings--and then, suddenly, the world shifted about him.

The call was gone. The certainty was gone. The strange distance he had felt all day had evaporated, and now, in a flash, he was Edmund Pevensie again, with a sweat-smeared face and blisters on his heels, hesitating at the door of a dragon's cave. Miles and miles from any help, high on a narrow mountain path, with a dizzying drop behind him.

Edmund took a great breath of the cold air, and then another. He reached up over his shoulder and drew his sword, and stepped into the darkness.

He found himself in a tunnel about five paces long, leading almost straight back into the mountain. The roof came to a peak high above his head. The cave had a rocky, uneven floor, but there was enough light filtering in through the entrance that Edmund was able to navigate without tripping and falling on his face. Stepping carefully, and keeping as silent as he could, he followed the passageway until it opened up into a much larger space.

The smell was stronger here; Edmund heard something breathing. He squinted into the dimness, and after several heartbeats, his vision began to adjust. It helped that there was a small crack in the ceiling of the cave, allowing in some indirect light from high above.

The space was a great cavern, bigger than his house in Finchley, although smaller than the Great Hall at Cair Paravel. Like the passageway, the walls and floor were rough and uneven, not like a cave in a storybook at all. In the far corner there was a great lump that was not rock: it had a smooth and rounded surface, like something that had been sanded and polished over time.

Edmund stepped cautiously out onto the floor of the cavern, keeping his sword up. Nothing happened. The sound of breathing was a tiny bit louder, but he saw nothing moving. Where was the Dragon? Was that lump it? What should he do?

In the stories, the hero would dig a hole in the dragon's path, and then stab it from below. It occurred to Edmund that this was unsporting, and possibly not the sort of action Aslan would approve. He stood quietly, listening. Either the light improved, or his eyes adjusted, because when he next looked at the lump in the corner, he saw it truly.

The Dragon seemed to be asleep: its head was tucked under itself, its wings sleek against its glossy back, so all Edmund could see were the coils of its scaly skin. It looked like a python he had seen at the zoo: all shining scales in loops and knots, and no head nor tail at all. In the dim light, it had no color but grey.

"Well?" said a strange, low, hissing kind of voice, and Edmund jumped, and the sword slipped in his hand. "What are you going to do, Human?"

The voice seemed to come from all about him, but Edmund decided that was merely the rocky walls of the cavern playing tricks on him. He faced the Dragon, and nodded to it politely. (One should always be polite to something that could eat you, but hasn't decided to yet.) "I don't know," he said, hoping his voice wouldn't break. "What should I do?"

At that, the Dragon snorted and drew its head out from under its wing. It had a head the size of a railway trunk, covered in dark scales, but with large pale eyes. It stared at him, and its tongue flickered out, just like a snake's would. Its tongue was very long indeed; Edmund couldn't control a shudder.

"You should make up your mind quickly, Son of Adam. I am bound only while the sun is in the sky. When the stars are out, I am free. Best kill me now, while you may--" and it shook a leg, with a shocking clanking noise that echoed around the cavern.

Edmund stared; for the Dragon was chained to the cavern wall! There was a great shackle bolted about its leg, and chains ran from it to an enormous U-shaped bolt in the rock of the rear of the cave. "What--how can you be chained?" Edmund asked. "I saw you flying, last night!"

The Dragon gave a great, gusty, sigh (Edmund tried not to cough at the smell) and stretched its head forward. At its fullest extent, it could not quite reach Edmund where he stood, but it was close enough for him to see deep into its gullet, and see the sharp tips of its many teeth. He wasn't sure why he was still here: this was by far the most dangerous thing he had ever done, and by rights he should have fled as soon as the Dragon woke up. Instead, he clutched his sword (little use though it would be against a creature of this size), and his knees shook, and he stayed where he was.

"Did you not hear me? I am bound by day, but by night I am--somewhat--free. Except then, while my wings may fly, my mind is chained and I am no more than a dumb beast. The Witch knows well that I take my power from the sun. So kill me now, while you can. The sun sets even now, and once it is gone, I shall break you like a hound does a rat he catches in his master's yard."

Edmund stared. The Dragon stared back. "But the Witch is dead!" Edmund began, and then hesitated. The sun was setting, and how could he tell how much time he had? He stepped sideways, the Dragon following him with its eyes, and tried to get a better look at the chain. From this angle, it looked familiar: it was not cast iron or even bronze, but a striking silvery-white, almost translucent. Etched into the surface of the shackle and the bolt were letters and runes that Edmund knew he had seen before.

"Dead?" said the Dragon. "And yet I am still bound, son of Adam. Unless you bear with you the Witch's power, none can now free me, then, and I shall live out my days in this dark hole, living only half a life." It snarled, then, the sound filling the cave and making the hair on Edmund's arms stand up. He nearly dropped his sword again, the voice of the Dragon was so full of rage and yearning.

The light was dimming, although the shackle and chain on the Dragon's leg seemed to have a glow of their own. Edmund bit his lip. If the Dragon was telling the truth, it would shortly be free, and Edmund had no way to escape it. But what if it were freed before the sun set?

"What's your name?" Edmund asked the Dragon.

The Dragon cocked its head. It peered at him, tongue flickering. "Name? The Witch took it," it said, finally. It sounded lost, sadly alone. "It's gone, died in the dark and the cold."

For a hundred years, perhaps, this creature had been chained in this cave, nameless in the dark. Even if it meant to kill him, Edmund couldn't be afraid of it anymore. It had been just as much a victim of the Witch as he had--and for far longer.

"How long until sunset?" he asked, wondering if he were mad. What he was considering was the sort of thing Lucy would do, with no regard for her own safety.

"Soon," said the Dragon. "Why?"

Edmund shook his head. "Can you promise not to eat me until then?" he asked. "Because I have an idea."

The Dragon drew back its head in some surprise, tongue flickering. Then said, "Until sunset? Yes. Besides, I don't eat Humans."

"Good," said Edmund, and made himself walk forward, until he was well within striking range of the Dragon's enormous teeth. The Dragon's body was bigger than he had realized, in the poor light, nearly the size of a London double decker, although not as tall. It was more snake-like than he had expected. But he had no trouble finding the leg with the shackle on it, for the shackle was glowing more brightly now; Edmund worried that this signified some magical action soon to occur.

The Dragon's leg was long: longer than a Human man was tall, and it ended in a long foot with five clawed toes. The shackle was bolted above what on a horse would be the ankle, firmly enough not to be removed but not so tight it galled the skin. The shackle, chain, and bolt in the wall were all the same pearly-white that the Witch's wand had been.

He heard a snort, and realized the Dragon's head was immediately behind him, its great eyes peering over his shoulder.

"The wand broke," he said, mostly to himself. He braced himself, and raised his sword above his head with both hands on the hilt. Then he hesitated. "This might hurt," he said to the Dragon.

The Dragon nodded. "I shall not hold it against you. Even if you fail, and I kill you."

"Wonderful," muttered Edmund, and swung the sword down against the silver-white shackle. There was an enormous flash and everything went dark.

~

Damn, thought Susan, as she was roughly forced through the crowd of mercenaries in the center of Silver Pine Valley. Getting captured was not part of her plan, but she'd waited too long to cut the horses free, and two of the soldiers had spotted her as she ran for the trees.

Susan twisted and wrenched, but she had neither the strength nor the leverage to pull herself free. "Thought we wouldn't see you, girl?" asked the tall woman in green, with a grim smile. "Did they send you ahead, then?"

"No, I--" Susan couldn't think of what to say, and they weren't listening anyway. The mercenaries were rapidly forming up into lines, stringing their bows and drawing their swords. If they had been taken by surprise by the arrival of the cavalry, they were reacting fast. Soon this yard was going to be awash in blood, and Susan would be in the middle of it.

As they wove their way among the soldiers, the tall woman neatly took away Susan's knives, and the shorter one nodded to the tall man directing the company. "Captain, we found this girl cutting loose the horses," she said in a hoarse voice, but then broke off, as an enormous noise drowned out what she was saying.

The noise was coming from the sky, and everyone looked up, even the Captain. The shorter woman let go of Susan's arm, gaping.

"Dragon!" someone shouted. "A Dragon is coming!"

It had to be the Dragon that Edmund had gone after, Susan thought, despairing, for how could there be two in Farsight Valley? Had Edmund found it, had he fought it and died? Or had it simply flown away before he could get close to it? She couldn't imagine Edmund hurting it: it was enormous, glittering gold with a black head, tail, and wing-tips, rather like a Siamese cat. It didn't land, although it soared quite close overhead, whipping past before turning above the headwall and coasting back north along the valley. Then it flapped its wings twice and settled into a lazy circle that covered everything from the headwall to the farthest fencelines on the valley floor. It almost appeared to be examining the lay of things.

And "things" were certainly in a right mess, as Mrs. Halifax from the butcher shop would say.

The troop of cavalry had reached the valley floor and was gathered in a tight pack about a quarter-mile distant, on the far side of one of the tilled fields. Susan peered at them through the crowd around her (most of the mercenaries were taller than she was), and realized, to her surprise, that at least one of them was a Centaur. Was it Stormcoat? But no, because the rest seemed to be Humans on horses, clad in green, and they carried a green banner with a silver symbol on it. Susan wasn't used to counting military forces, but there seem to be fewer of them than of the mercenaries.

The mercenaries, meanwhile, had managed to recapture many of their horses, although most of them were staying afoot, some of them with sharp-bladed short spears that Susan suspected would wreak horrible damage on the green troop's horses. She saw, to the rear, a dozen of the dark-skinned women preparing deeply-curved short bows decorated with black feathers.

She could see the shed where Peter had been held, but not the spot where Perrin and Rena had begun digging the tunnel to free him. Had he gotten out? Where were they?

Oh, Aslan, everything had gone so wrong: she could weep, except that she found herself furious instead. Who were all these people? What gave them the right to come into Narnia with their horses and their weapons? How dare they invade this peaceful Dwarf village and abuse them so?

As they had skulked through the woods, Perrin and Rena had told her of the terrifying assault by the mercenaries, and about how the two of them had managed to escape through the woods instead of being trapped inside the workings, like so many others. Since then, and it had been weeks, the mercenaries had been taking boxes and crates out of the Dwarf halls, and the few Dwarfs Perrin had seen had been closely guarded--and badly bruised. Rena assumed the Dwarfs inside were being forced to turn over their silver, and mine more for the mercenaries. It was too awful, like something out of a novel. Why had Aslan not prevented this?

But Susan had little time to worry about the Dwarfs, as the two soldiers ignored her scowl and bound her hands behind her. It was unsettling being among Humans again: they were all so much taller than Susan was, except for one or two of the women in green. And those women were clearly adults--one of them even had grey braids bound about her head. Those few soldiers who even noticed her, in the flurry of their preparations, looked at her with a mixture of scorn and leering dislike that made her face burn. To them, she was nothing but a child again.

"Fetch her ladyship," said the Captain, staring at the troop of cavalry, which was gathered at the foot of the rise, but not yet moving forward. "They'll want to see her, and then we can talk money. If we play this properly, we'll have a good start on a new treasury, on top of the silver from the maggots. Enough to cover what the Witch should have paid us, three times over."

Only a moment later, however, a young soldier hurried up, his broad forehead creased with worry. "The prisoners, Captain Asper--they're gone, both of them! And there's a hole in the floor, a tunnel..."

Susan hid a smile: Peter had escaped, then. One thing had gone right, at least. Although she wondered who "her ladyship" was.

Asper's face twisted in rage, and the soldiers around Susan stiffened. There was a long, terrifying pause, and then he gave a short, harsh, laugh. "Well. We still have the silver, then--and with luck the bloody Archens will be off with the girl, once we've spanked them a bit. Lune's not got the reach to expand this direction, not with the Tisroc snapping at his toes."

"Sir," said the tall woman to Susan's left. "We caught this girl among the horses, figure she's one of the Archen scouts--"

Lowering his gaze from the enemy, Asper turned to examine Susan. His eyes glinted as they looked her over, and she resisted the urge to look away. She would not be shamed by a dirty mercenary; she stared at him fiercely, not hiding her rage.

"Bit young for it, aren't you?" he said, with a knowing grin that made her long for her knife. "Well, you'll do. Keep her out of the way," he said to the tall woman. "I might want her later."

"As for the rest of you," Asper went on, raising his voice so all his company could hear, "Ignore the Dragon. Why should it care what happens here, unless it feeds on the dead? And our dead won't mind it. This is the plan: I want Sentu's archers on the right rear--if you see an opening, swing wide to catch them on the flank. Pedrosian, you get to earn all the ale you've pissed out these last months: your troop takes the front line, to break the charge. The rest of you grubbers, if the horses get through, break apart and let them pass. They'll hit the buildings and we can take them down at a distance. This isn't the end of this venture, not by--"

And then he stopped talking.

For the Dragon had ceased its circling, and was gliding smoothly in for a landing in the open space between the two companies of soldiers. It hit the ground at an angle and skidded to a stop in the middle of the field, flattening several rows of tiny green plants. Even on the ground, it was the most enormous living creature Susan had ever seen, although most of its bulk was in its length: it looked far more like a snake than the pictures she had seen of any Dragon in a book.

But that was not the most remarkable thing about the Dragon. The most astonishing thing about the Dragon was not its size, nor its color, nor the smoke that jetted out of its flaring nostrils; the most astonishing thing was that there was a boy sitting astride the Dragon's neck, and he was laughing.

It was, of course, Edmund. Susan knew that even at this distance, some two hundred yards off. He spoke to the Dragon and it replied, more smoke spilling from its jaws, and then lowered its head and neck to the ground. Edmund jumped off, stumbled on the landing, and then straightened.

Susan must have made a noise, because she was wrenched suddenly about. "You know him?" snapped Asper. "Then he should care what becomes of you!" Gripping Susan's arm tightly with one large hand, he forced his way through the press of his soldiers and out into the open. "Bring her!"

More hands seized Susan and she was forced along behind Asper as he moved across the ground with long, angry strides.

But Asper and Susan were not the only people advancing to what was apparently going to be a parley. For now she saw Peter, walking calmly across the field from the edge of the trees, keeping his distance from the mercenaries, and followed by Perrin and Rena. The Dwarf women both carried their bows, with arrows to the string. Susan tried to see if Peter was injured, but he was too far away. At least she could see that he carried her own bow, which she had left with the Dwarfs.

Beyond Peter, at the edge of the woods, Susan saw another figure, someone taller, with blonde braids, running towards the green troop. When she reached them, their ranks opened up smoothly to admit her. "Her ladyship," perhaps?

Peter reached a spot about halfway between the two companies of soldiers and came to a stop, the two Dwarfs staying some distance behind him. Edmund met Peter there, and they embraced (which made the soldiers about Susan exclaim in surprise), speaking too quietly for Susan to hear at this distance. Asper came up to them then, but he did not approach too closely; instead he stayed about ten yards away, as if waiting for something. Susan and her guards were some distance behind him: close enough to hear if people spoke clearly, but still out of range of her brothers.

The Dragon, only thirty yards away, snorted, and a blast of smoke jetted from its nostrils. Susan's guards jumped and Asper's hand clenched about his sword-hilt, although he said nothing. Susan noticed, belatedly, that Asper was wearing Rhindon, and her eyes narrowed. She couldn't tell if Peter saw it.

Peter said, quite cordially, "Good morning, Captain Asper. I suggest we wait before speaking. I expect the Archenlander captain will want to join us." There was no indication on Peter's dirty face that he recognized Susan, standing behind Asper with her arms bound; she schooled her face as well. She wasn't sure what her brothers were planning, but she was quite sure they had a plan.

After a short time, someone on horseback emerged from the green troop: a man, followed by a great dark Wolf. "Rhea!" Susan burst out, and then shut her mouth again. Thankfully, her guards didn't seem to notice. If Rhea was with the "Archens", as Asper had called them, then Lucy probably was as well. Archenland, Archenland--there, Susan could see it on Edmund's map, in the mountains to the south. They must be very close to the border here.

The rider pulled up equidistant from the others, so they formed a rough square, and Susan saw that the blonde woman rode behind the Archenlander captain. She jumped down easily, and they both strode forward to join the parley.

The six figures--Peter, Edmund, Asper, Rhea, and the two Archenlanders--stood for a long moment, looking at one another across the trampled ground. Other than Peter and Edmund, none of them stood within arms reach of one another. All but Edmund kept a nervous distance from the Dragon, which had not moved since lowering Edmund to the ground, but appeared to be paying close attention to the proceedings.

Susan was, apparently, not a participant in this, but was there merely to be displayed. She had transformed from a queen to a rescuer to a spy to a prisoner, to a hostage--all in less than twenty-four hours. She snorted quietly, then shrugged to herself, trying not to worry. She wasn't going to die: Peter was free, Rhea was with him, Lucy must be with the Archenlanders, and Edmund had a Dragon. If anyone was going to die, it was Asper, but not (she hoped with a flash of viciousness she knew Aslan would disapprove) painlessly.

"Introductions, Pete?" said Edmund, and Susan bit her lip to keep from grinning, despite everything. Only Peter and Edmund would initiate foreign relations in the middle of a field, and grossly outnumbered. Although not, she thought, looking at the Dragon, outweighed.

Peter inclined his head with great courtesy, as if he were in the throne room at Cair Paravel instead of standing in a muddy field, with a dirty face and torn breeches. "I am reminded of my manners. My name is Peter Pevensie, High King of Narnia; this is my brother King Edmund, and my guide, the Wolf Rhea. I know the Princess Eluned," he nodded to the blonde, "and Captain Asper. But I'm afraid I don't know you, sir."

Before Peter even named Edmund, there was a strangled gasp from the blonde, and Asper laughed outright. The Archenlander captain, however, did not smile; instead, he bowed shallowly, and said, "I am honored, your majesty. I am Sir Peridan of Arrowhead, Warden of the West Marches."

The blonde threw Peridan a disgusted look. "This is ridiculous," she announced. "There is no king of Narnia, he's just a child telling stories. Why are we wasting our time with this?"

The Dragon lifted its head when Edmund coughed. "Ah, because we have a Dragon? And your intelligence, Princess, is out of date. We were crowned with--we were crowned at Cair Paravel about six weeks ago. Our apologies for not sending out announcements, but we were a little busy, what with floods and Giants and kicking out the last remnants of the White Witch's army."

On the face of it, Susan had to admit, it looked absurd. Two schoolboys, ragged and filthy, facing off against a princess, a knight, and a captain of mercenaries; and yet Peter and Edmund both seemed so composed, so sure of their authority. Asper shifted his feet and Susan knew that he was considering the possibility. Sir Peridan, a fair-haired young man who looked like he might be only twenty, but who carried himself like a man of great experience, nodded without speaking, his face thoughtful.

"All of which is beside the point," interjected Peter. "We are not here to discuss the legitimacy of our rule, but to address the wrongs that have been committed here. Captain Asper," he continued, and his voice sharpened. "I want your company out of Narnia by sunset today."

Asper laughed, but the line of his back was stiff. "Or?"

Rhea's hackles went up.

"Or we shall make you leave," replied Peter, his face hard. "I should prefer to do this without bloodshed, but you have trespassed on Narnian land, abused and stolen from Narnian citizens, and abducted travelers on Narnian roads. You shall leave, and you shall take with you only what you carried when you came across the border originally."

Sir Peridan stepped forward a pace. "And under the authority granted me as Warden of the West Marches, my company shall assist King Peter in enforcing this order."

Eluned went scarlet, and she grabbed at Peridan's arm, dragging him down to hiss into his ear. He heard her out, but shook his head. Internal Archenland politics looked to be complicated.

Asper, meanwhile, had come to some decision. He jerked his head and said, belligerently, "Oh, we'll leave, all right. But we're taking what we came for. We were owed: we're collecting on that debt. And we've got your girl, see? She'll make sure you don't try to steal from us, or there will be bloodshed," and that last was said in a high, mocking voice, evidently aimed at Peter.

All eyes went to Susan. She kept her face still, realizing finally why Peter and Edmund had not mentioned her, nor even acknowledged her presence. If Asper knew she was Queen of Narnia, he would never let her go. She would disappear into Telmar, to be used as hostage against her brothers and sister, and Asper would bleed Narnia dry with a knife at Susan's throat.

Peter's lips thinned, but Susan already knew he was not willing to kill men and women (or risk Susan's life) over nothing but stolen silver. A Dragon, she thought, was a blunt instrument, better as a threat than a tool.

"Fine," said Peter, at last, his voice clipped and angry. "You will release your hostage to us at the border. And Sir Peridan," he went on, "would you be so kind as to escort the Telmarines to the Pass? I would take it as a symbol of the friendship between our two peoples."

"I would be honored, your majesty," said Peridan, and he bowed again, this time much more deeply, and swept around to return to his company. Eluned glared at everyone, and marched off behind him, her back stiff with rage.

Edmund turned his eyes back to Asper. "You have an hour," he said, conversationally. "Best use it." And behind him, the Dragon yawned.

*

Asper began snapping orders as soon as he was within earshot of his company. "Saddle up! I want all the silver packed on the ponies first, and then the rest of you grunts get your packs together. Standard hazard gear, helmets and hauberks on. I won't put anything past these maggot-lovers and magicians--they say they'll not touch us as long as we have her, but girls like that are easy enough to find. Watch your backs!"

Susan's guards had to pack, too, so they forced her to her knees and tied her feet together, and left her in the middle of the yard. So she sat, and waited, and watched, as the camp burst into activity around her. She would be freed at the border; she held onto that, and wondered what might happen if she weren't. Probably there would, in fact, be bloodshed, and at the thought of that, she might have smiled a little.

She was watching a thick-set Telmarine wrestle a small but heavy crate onto the back of a mule, when there was a sudden, startling roar, and then a horrendous, ground-shaking crash, as if thousands of tons of rock had fallen from a height.

Swiveling around in her cramped position, Susan realized that that was exactly what had just happened.

While the Dwarf village had several free-standing buildings about the yard, which functioned as barns or storage sheds, the central hall was built into the stone headwall of the valley. That headwall soared steeply for two hundred feet above the valley floor, and behind it, inside the mountain, were the dwellings, store-rooms, and mines of the Dwarf village.

As Rena and Perrin had told the story, the Dwarfs of the village, surprised by the mercenaries' attack some weeks ago, had been trapped inside the mountain, and forced to serve the mercenaries, as well as turn over their hard-won treasures. Many of the Dwarf women, and most of the children, had escaped through secret tunnels and passages leading deeper into the southern mountains, but the men had been trapped while they covered that escape, and for the last several weeks had been abused and exploited by the stronger and better-armed Humans. Perrin had seen several Dwarfs badly beaten in the yard, and at least one body thrown into the latrine pits, as if he were no more than an animal.

But it looked as though the Dwarfs of Silver Pine Valley had not been passively waiting for rescue. For now there was a great hole in the headwall of the valley, and a huge pile of broken stone beneath it--over which flowed scores of angry Dwarfs, each with an axe or hammer in his or her hand.

In the open, and trapped between the Archenlander cavalry (still waiting patiently across the fields) and a great many enraged Dwarfs, the mercenaries panicked. Crates and packs were abandoned where they lay, sleeping rolls tossed aside, and even food and weapons left behind. Those who had horses leapt astride them, while many foot-soldiers threw their packs over their shoulders and left the village at a flat run.

Any hope Susan had to be left behind was dashed, however, as the tall soldier who had captured her slashed the cords about her ankles and yanked her to her feet. As Susan stumbled upright, the woman knotted a rope about Susan's neck, scowling. "You come now, or you'll pay for it. We don't have to keep you healthy, just alive until we reach the border."

With that, she yanked on the rope, and Susan staggered after her.

The tall soldier, whose name Susan later determined was Serta, towed Susan out of the village and up the long sloping road that climbed to the western ridge above Silver Pine Valley. They were surrounded by other fleeing soldiers, slowly forming into their separate troops, organization shaping itself out of chaos. The Dwarfs stayed in the village once they'd chased out the mercenaries, except for a squad of about twenty, who followed on behind to make sure the mercenaries were really leaving.

And behind the Dwarfs came about half of the Archenlander cavalry, with Rhea. The Wolf ranged up the line of march, sometimes coming in range of the mercenaries' arrows, although she was swift enough to evade them. But Susan saw her, once or twice, and the knowledge that Rhea was there, watching, was a balm to her heart. She could not see Peter, though she was sure he must be following as well.

She knew Edmund was nearby, for the Dragon glided overhead, an ever-present threat that kept the mercenaries moving long after they would have ordinarily stopped to rest. Serta and the Captain made sure that Susan stayed in the middle of the column, always surrounded by soldiers; if the Dragon attacked, Susan would die along with her captors.

They left the village an hour or two after dawn, and marched at a fast pace all day long, stopping only twice, briefly. As the afternoon bent towards evening, and Susan stumbled more frequently, the road began to climb. It wound back and forth up a narrowing slope that seemed pinned between two great peaks. The ground became rockier, the trees dwindled to wind-swept and bent old pines, and the air became colder and biting.

Susan shivered, but no one heeded her; indeed, even Serta paid little attention to her beyond giving her a few sips of water at the last stop. She felt light-headed with exhaustion (and possibly altitude), and she was covered with dust from the trail and bloodied from falls. She would have given a great deal just to sit down by the side of the road and rest; even on the mad flight from the White Witch, she had never been this miserable.

Instead she blinked sweat out of her eyes, blessed the Centaurs for the warmth of her woolen jerkin, and kept her eyes on the ground in front of her. It was a shock when, after one particularly steep and rough section of road, she walked right into Serta's back. The column of mercenaries had stopped.

It was sunset now: the mountaintops above them were shining gold and pink in the last light of the day, and the wind had dropped. Looking about, Susan saw that they were very high. The land dropped away behind them, the road swiftly disappearing into shadow. She could not see the Archenlanders or the Dwarfs, though she assumed they were still there, invisible in the shadows. Up ahead, over the shoulders of the mercenaries in front of her, she saw the road rise for another hundred yards, and then pass through a narrow notch between the mountains to the left and right. The sunset was streaming almost directly through the notch, and she could not see what lay on the other side.

But just this side of the notch, half in shadow, lay a great golden form, blocking the road. In front of the Dragon stood two small figures, one dark-haired and one bright.

"You have come safe to the border," said Peter's voice. "Now release your hostage, and you may go." With the sun behind him, Susan couldn't see his face.

Asper seemed to have regained some of his confidence on the long hike to the pass: he laughed. "Or what? What will you do if I decide to keep her? Burn us up? No, you won't, not if you value her pretty skin." He waved a hand, and Serta yanked on the rope, pulling Susan forward through the crowd.

Susan bumped against several soldiers, and then staggered into the open beside Asper. He seized her by the hair and forced her head around to face him. "And not just pretty skin, either, hey?" he said to Serta, who shrugged, looking uncomfortable. "The Tisroc has few enough Northerners in his markets, after all. And she's tough, aren't you, girl? You could pay me back some of what those maggots cost me--"

But Edmund, apparently, had had enough. For there was a whisper of movement, and then a large gold and black head appeared just beyond Asper's shoulder. The Dragon smiled, exposing teeth like daggers, and said, in a courteous, sibilant, voice, "I would not recommend that."

Asper gaped. Serta opened her hand with a jerk, so that Susan's leash fell to the ground.

"Queen, will you join your brothers?" said the Dragon, again with that exquisite politeness.

"Yes," said Susan, forcing the word out through desert-dry lips. But before she went, she turned to Serta. "Free me," she commanded, and under the Dragon's gaze, Serta drew her dagger, and with shaking hands, cut Susan's bonds.

Susan stepped over the rope on the ground and turned to Asper, who had at last closed his mouth; now he looked scared, but his eyes were avid and covetous.

"Queen?" he rasped. "What ransom would they have paid for you, girl?"

Susan forced herself to step closer to him, close enough so she could smell the sweat on him, tangy and sharp. With his breath puffing against her face, she unbuckled his fine leather belt, and caught the sword by its sheath as it fell. She lifted it in both hands, and the golden pommel caught the sunset light.

"My ransom, Captain, would be blood," she whispered, and with all the strength she had, struck Asper across the face with the sheathed sword. It was not enough for what he had done: to her, and more importantly to the Dwarfs of Silver Pine Valley. But he would not forget her.

He fell, blood streaming from his nose and a gash on his cheek. Serta and two of the other mercenaries startled forward, but stopped when the Dragon shifted its gaze to them.

Susan turned away and walked, unsteadily but upright, toward her brothers. Peter came to meet her, hands outstretched, but she put a hand up to stop him and then, slowly, sank to one knee. She held the sword out in front of her, horizontally, although it was very hard to keep her balance. She only needed to stay upright for a few more minutes; she could do this.

The sun had dropped behind the pass now, and there was light only on the mountain tops. Peter looked pale as he took the sword from her, and, handing it off to Edmund, lifted her to her feet. His hands were cold around hers. "Su," he said softly, and his voice shook. "I'm sorry, I wanted to--but we couldn't, they had to leave, and if they had no guarantee, they might have fought--"

She had known, all the way from the village, that she was the price of this temporary peace. But her throat had closed, and so she just nodded. "Later," she whispered.

Edmund hugged her, then, and she clung to him--so tall, now, how had that happened?--as Peter stepped forward next to the Dragon. "Go now," he shouted at the mercenaries. "Leave Narnia, and never try our borders again! Spread the word: Narnia is free, and strong again! Now, GO!"

Peter swung an arm, and the Dragon reared up, raising its enormous head and long body like a snake about to strike. The mercenaries looked at the Dragon, and the short distance to the top of the pass, visibly nervous. Then Serta squatted down, and with another soldier, pulled Asper to his feet, his arms draped over their shoulders. She marched forward, half-dragging her captain, and the front ranks followed her. The soldiers shuffled past the Dragon uncomfortably, and then, as the column advanced, they began going faster and faster the farther they got, until by the point the last of them actually crossed the border, they were "going like blazes," as Edmund said later.

"I've got some water," said Edmund, and he guided Susan off the road to a spot behind the bulk of the Dragon's enormous tail, where she could sit down on a large rock. She realized, as Edmund pressed his water-skin into her hands, that she was shaking. He didn't say anything, but he shrugged out of his cloak and tucked it around her, over her own. Susan drank the water, spilling some, and drank some more, and stared at the Dragon's gold-and-black tail, and let her mind go blissfully blank.

After a while, she became aware that Edmund was speaking, telling a story in a soft voice as the final light of the sunset died from the mountains and the stars came out overhead. "--And when I woke up, it was free, and wasn't angry, but it didn't know anything that had happened. So I told it about coming to Narnia, and Aslan, and--and the battle, and everything. And it said that it wasn't a Dragon at all, but a Wyvern, and they're much rarer."

Susan blinked at that, and turned her head. "Not a Dragon?"

She couldn't see Edmund's face in the darkness. "No. Dragons have wings and four legs, and Wyverns have wings and two legs. Which is why it lands so ... thumpingly."

The Dra--Wyvern's bulk shielded them from the road, but Susan could tell that the mercenaries were all gone. However, a light appeared, reflecting off the Wyvern's golden scales. "What's his name?"

"Oh." Edmund sounded uncertain then. "Well, Ponsonby. He--it, the Witch had taken its memory. And everything, including its name. So I--"

"Edmund, Ponsonby? Really? How could you?" If she had the energy, she would have laughed.

"Ponsonby was a hero of--of--Waterloo, I think. And I was stuck!"

"Oh, very well." Susan finished the water, and leaned against Edmund. She was so very tired, and her feet hurt. "But why do you keep calling him 'it'?"

There was an audible swallow from beside her. When he spoke, Edmund's voice was a little strangled. "It's... well. Wyverns, it tells me, don't actually become male or female, until they're adult and ready to, well. There's so few of them, Ponsonby says, and that helps." He sounded miserably uncomfortable, and Susan was reminded that Edmund was still a boy, and young one at that. She thought about Asper, and shuddered, and then forced herself to remember the look on his face when he fell. Asper was gone, chased across the border back into Telmar, with the rest of his soldiers. If he were wise, he would not be returning.

"Where's Lucy?" she asked, startling herself. She had not seen Lucy since noon yesterday, she realized (nor had she slept in that time, and had barely eaten or drunk: no wonder she was barely able to move), not since they had parted in the woods.

Edmund patted her knee. "It's okay, she's with the Archenlanders, back at Silver Pine Valley. They think she's marvelous--did you know she jumped out of the woods in front of that cavalry troop? Nearly got herself trampled! Oh, and she's adopted--"

"All right, you two?" came Peter's voice, as he walked around the Wyvern's tail, carrying a torch. Behind him, Susan saw some other figures, and now that she was paying attention, she heard horses stamping, and harness jingling. "Peridan is here."

Susan levered herself off her rocky seat: her brain felt as slow and stiff as her limbs did. "Who?"

"Sir Peridan is the leader of the Archenlander cavalry," said Peter, as the young man strode up, his cloak flapping heroically behind him. When he saw Susan, he straightened and took off his helm. Rhea followed him, tail waving.

"Peridan of Arrowhead, your majesty," he said, and made Susan a quick bow. "We came looking for our own lost lamb--" at this he shared an amused glance with Peter, "--and instead found, with Aslan's favor, the four sovereigns of Narnia. And such kings and queens as have not been seen in these Northern lands in many years--minstrels shall sing of your deeds this day, your majesty!"

Susan gaped at him for a moment, startled by the language as much as the sentiment, and then said, "Thank you, although in the end, my efforts were wasted; it was your arrival, and Edmund, and the Dwarfs, who saved the day. I was merely--"

"No, my queen." Rhea pressed her nose into Susan's hand, then stood quietly, letting Susan's fingers tangle in the thick fur of her shoulders. "You risked your life to save the High King--you could have died. You put yourself into Aslan's paws, and he holds you there: there is no waste in such a gift."

"Wonderful," said Edmund, and then yawned enormously. "Can we go now? Because I'm pretty sure it's past my bedtime."

~

The night flight on Ponsonby wasn't something Peter wanted to repeat anytime soon. The Wyvern's neck was smooth and even, with nothing to hold onto: the only way to keep from sliding all the way to its hind legs was to sit just in front of the wings, and lock one's legs in place. As there were three of them, Peter sat in the rear, with Susan between himself and Edmund. Every time Ponsonby dipped, theyall slid forward; every time it climbed, they slid back, ending with a jolt as Edmund and Susan's body-weight pinned Peter against the wing-joints.

It landed them on the ridge above Silver Pine Valley, with another of those long skids that made Peter's pulse race: exhilarating and terrifying at once. Getting off was much easier than getting on: Peter just swung his legs over the side and slid down. The jar of his boots hitting the ground made him grunt. Turning, he reached to help Susan, but she was already down herself. She seemed to have recovered somewhat from the awful trek up to the Pass, but even in this dim moonlight, she looked pale and shaky.

"Nearly there, Su," said Peter. "I'm pretty sure the Dwarfs will give us a bed for the night--Lucy's probably got them eating out of her hand already!"

Susan smiled weakly, and then yawned. Peter put his arm around her to steady her, as they waited for Edmund to bid Ponsonby farewell.

"If you need anything," Edmund was saying, "come to Cair Paravel--just fly east from here and it's the castle on the ocean. Or send word: I still owe you."

"It is I who owe you for my freedom," said the Wyvern, its gold scales glimmering. "But it is good to be free, Edmund of Narnia. Now I go to find my own people!" And with that Ponsonby sprang into the air. The beating of its great gold-and-black wings kicked up dust from the road and blew Peter's hair into his eyes, but he shaded them against the wind, and kept watching as the Wyvern climbed high into the night sky and disappeared at last into the darkness between the stars.

"Where's it going?" Peter asked.

Edmund shrugged. "It said it thinks it came from the Western Wild, far to the north. It's not really sure, though. The Witch left almost nothing in its mind. I can't imagine how awful that must be, not to know anything..."

Peter thought about that, thought about waking up one morning to have no idea even of his own name, and shuddered in sympathy. "Well," he said, pushing the thought away, "let's get on."

"When you do you think Peridan and Rhea will get back?" asked Susan, through another yawn, as Peter led them down the slope into the valley. Although it was very late now, Peter saw lights ahead in the village, and he guessed that the Dwarfs were probably rebuilding already. Much of their living space had probably been damaged by the way they had broken out through the face of the cliff itself. Which meant, he realized, that he and his siblings would likely be sleeping outdoors again.

"Maybe by dawn," said Edmund. "But they'd have to ride all night, and there's no hurry. If they stop to rest, they should be here in the afternoon."

"So we're staying then, do you think?" Susan sounded as if the chilly night air had revived her a bit. Or maybe she was talking to keep herself awake. Peter realized that Susan had not slept for close to two days; no wonder she was stumbling with exhaustion.

He considered the question, but really, it was obvious: they were all exhausted, and there was no particular rush. After a day or so, they could head east, follow the mountains back to the sea and then work their way north to Cair Paravel. Or maybe go to Archenland, like Peridan had said, and visit King Lune. See if Eluned was as outrageous as Peridan hadn't--quite--implied.

Peter rather liked Sir Peridan. He was young (maybe six years older than Peter, he thought), but competent, and unlike the mercenaries and Eluned, he seemed entirely comfortable with non-human Narnians. And Peter gave him extra points for not only not trampling Lucy when she jumped out of the bushes at him, but listening to what she had to say. Not every knight would pay that kind of attention to a nine-year-old girl, even one accompanied by a Talking Wolf.

Eluned, though: Peter wondered about Eluned. He hadn't believed her, not really--had she truly thought she could just ride into Narnia and take the throne? But Peridan had confirmed her story about Col, although he'd also said that King Lune would never approve such an attempt, not after Aslan himself had set Peter and his siblings on the throne. "So she's done this on her own?" Peter had asked, and Peridan had not answered directly.

"Her Majesty the Queen has, at last, given the King two sons. He has an heir now, Prince Cor. Princess Eluned--" Peridan had hesitated, and finished, "--she did not take the news well, after so long as the heir apparent. It has been difficult for her, these last few years."

Peter had thought that was a very charitable description of a real trouble-maker, but he didn't say so. Peridan had given him a small nod, and gone off to meet with his Centaur second-in-command.

They were finally at the bottom of the slope now, walking toward the lights of the village. Peter would have to think of something to do about Eluned, if she refused to return to Anvard with Peridan. Well, it would have to wait until tomorrow.

Except it didn't wait.

"What do you mean, Eluned's gone?" he found himself asking Rena five minutes later, as they stood gathered around a great fire, hands cupping small but welcome mugs of mint tea. "Where did she go?"

"That's the question, king," Rena said, and shrugged. She had been asleep when the Pevensies arrived, and was still barefoot, a striped woolen shawl wrapped about her shoulders. "Nevvik was up on the fell, and he said her horses went east from there, not south. She's not gone to Anvard, despite what she told me."

"When did they leave?" asked Edmund, from the other side of the fire. "Did she take all the men Peridan left behind?"

"Noon, or thereabouts, and yes, but the Badger wouldn't go, he stayed with the young queen, and the kits." Rena nodded at the nearby shed--the same one where Peter had been imprisoned (only yesterday, he realized in astonishment). "They're all abed in there, comfortable as a Wiggle in mud."

East, thought Peter, and pictured the Great Road on Edmund's map, curving eastward over the plains for mile after mile, and then swerving north and east, crossing the Great River at Beruna, and then on, through hill and vale, until it ended at last at the gates of Cair Paravel. Which they had left standing open, trusting Aslan, and Narnia itself, to protect the castle's secrets.

"She's gone to Cair Paravel, hasn't she?" said Susan, whom Peter had caught up on his encounter with Eluned while they flew down from the pass. "To try to take the throne."

The last of Peter's tea hissed as he upended his cup into the fire. He was so tired he could lay down right here, in the rocks of the yard, and sleep for a week. Even his anger felt banked, buried under the ash of exhaustion. "Yes, she has. We're just children, after all, and she claims the right by descent from the first king of Narnia."

"Well," said Edmund, with an edge of humor in his voice. "Reckon we know what we're doing tomorrow, after all."

*

"Pity you sent Ponsonby away, Ed," said Peter, in the morning. He'd meant to rise at dawn and get an early start, but the shed had been warm, the blankets the Dwarfs had provided them as comfortable as his bed in Finchley, and he had not risen until the sun was high.

Lucy, who had not been nearly as weary as the others, had charitably refrained from waking them, and instead brought them cups of tea and slices of chewy Dwarf bread to eat when they arose. Now she was squatting on her heels, picking burrs out of Rhea's coat, as Peter worked on his second cup of tea and Susan sorted through their packs.

Susan looked quite recovered from her ordeal, but had told her brothers not to tell Lucy any of the details. Now, she said, not looking up from the scant pile of waybread she had assembled, "It is quite a long way to Cair Paravel; a Wyvern would have been convenient."

They were gathered around last night's fire, which was much smaller this morning. The Dwarfs of Silver Pine Valley were bustling about them, but by far the most activity was going on at the headwall, and inside the mountain. Given the fantastic rate at which they were all working--even the Dwarf women and children who had fled into the mountains, and had now returned, were working--Peter expected the repairs to be completed within a week.

The sun shone down from a sky spotted with swiftly-traveling clouds, and a wind rattled the treetops, some of which bore red and yellow leaves. In the open yard where yesterday morning a troop of mercenaries had been camped, three Fox kits tumbled over each other, watched over by an avuncular Badger named Softpaw. (A personality more different than Broadclaw could hardly be imagined, and Peter found it hard to believe they were the same species.)

Edmund shook his head, looking stubborn. "Ponsonby did me a good turn, and we're square now. It wouldn't be right to take advantage of it."

"You're probably right," agreed Peter, and then looked down at Lucy. "Lu, the others never met Eluned, but you were here with her after we all left yesterday. Did you talk to her? Did she say anything?"

Throwing a burr into the fire, where it blazed minutely, Lucy sat up and scowled. "I didn't like her," she said, to Peter's surprise. There were very few people Lucy would say that of. "She laughed at me, when I told her Aslan had made us all kings and queens. And she was nasty to Rena and Softpaw."

Rhea twitched an ear, lifting her lip to show a shining canine: she clearly didn't think it was appropriate for anyone (other than her) to laugh at the Pevensies. Rhea had arrived during the night, having left Peridan's troop behind. She looked weary, but comfortable, splayed on her side in the sunlight, while Lucy picked through her coat.

"What did she say, exactly, Lu?" asked Edmund.

"Well, first she didn't believe me at all. But Rena told her it was true, that some of the Dwarfs here had been to the battle and seen Aslan acclaim us." Lucy smiled in recollection.

"And then?" Susan urged her.

"And then she tapped the hilt of her sword, and said something about how a soft hand may take a crown, but--" Lucy stumbled, frowning as she tried to recall the words. "--But it takes a hard hand to keep it. And then she smiled at me, but not a real smile, and she asked me all sorts of questions about Cair Paravel."

Peter thought about that, remembering what Eluned had said about her own claim to the throne, a claim reaching back, if she were to be believed, all the way to the first king of Narnia. "Rhea," he asked, scratching his shoulder, where his scar from the werewolf attack was itching, "does Eluned have a claim on the throne? She said the kings of Archenland were descended from the first king of Narnia."

The Wolf, half-asleep, yawned widely without moving, her long red tongue trailing out of her mouth. "I am not a historian, king. You'd do better to ask the Centaurs, or a Badger. But it sounds likely. Not that it matters--Aslan named you high king. Aslan crowned King Frank, and now he has crowned you. That is all that matters."

"She's right, Pete," said Susan. "So why do we care if Eluned gets to the castle first?" She looked disinclined to set out on another cross-country march, even as she sorted through their traveling gear.

"What do you mean?" Peter asked.

"Well, there's nothing in the castle, is there?" asked Lucy.

Susan nodded. "Lu's right. What could Eluned do if she got into the castle? Read some old records? Sit on our chairs? There's no weapons or treasure, after all."

"So we should just let her go, and take over Cair Paravel?" Peter didn't like that idea. The more he thought about it, the less he liked it. He didn't think it was because he was selfish, or because he deserved it--at least he hoped that wasn't why. It was just that Aslan had given the responsibility to them, to Peter and his siblings, to care for Narnia and look after its people. Even if Eluned thought it was something one could just take on by claiming it, Peter wasn't going to give it up that easily.

Edmund was frowning now, thinking harder. "No, we shouldn't. The girls are right, there's nothing actually in Cair Paravel that will help Eluned take the throne--aside from the thrones themselves, I guess. But the castle's important, it's a symbol. It means something to Narnia, to the people."

"Oh!" said Lucy, and waved a hand as if she were in the classroom. "The poem that Mr. Beaver told us! When Adam's flesh and Adam's bone sit at Cair Paravel in throne--"

"--The evil time will be over and done," finished Susan, with an approving nod. "I think you've got it, Ed. It's like, in all those wars in history, they're always fighting for strategic castles and cities, and not just because they're ports or something. Sometimes it's because it's the emperor's city, and holding it makes people think you should be emperor." Peter looked at Susan, astonished: he knew how much she disliked history lessons. She flushed and shrugged.

The tea in his cup was cold (to be honest, it wasn't really tea, but a hot drink made from leaves of some mountain shrub that stained the water proper tea-color but tasted a bit like pine trees smelled). Peter stared into it, wondering if he turned it upside-down would it give him answers.

"I don't think we can beat her there," he finally said. "She's got a big head start, and we haven't any horses. But we've got to try."

"Maybe you and Su should go ahead," Edmund suggested, looking down at Lucy, who scowled imperiously.

"I can keep up!" she protested. It was true that she looked more capable than she had when they had first fallen through the wardrobe: she seemed taller and stronger, her face browned by the sun and her hair so much longer now, caught back in a short plait that Susan must have done for her.

There was a thump as Susan dropped Peter's pack in front of him. "I don't think we should separate again," she said, her gaze direct as she met his eyes. "Especially for this." And then she deliberately placed her hand flat on the bare ground, and looked around at the others.

Edmund raised his eyebrows, but put his teacup down and leaned over to follow suit. Lucy was already on the ground: she just dug one bare toe into the soil, and looked up at Peter. "Come on, Peter!"

"Right," said Peter, and squatted down, carefully shifting Rhindon out of the way. (He was reluctant to let the sword out of his sight, now that he had it back: he had even slept with it under his hand last night.) The ground under his fingers was dry and gravelly, dotted with occasional grey-green weeds and granite pebbles. But underneath that was a profound sense of well-being, of satisfaction. It was similar to hearing a conversation that was too distant to catch the words, but in which the tone was very clear to the listener. Narnia was pleased, and comfortable, like a well-fed cat on a rug in front of a cozy fire. They had done well, and their reward was to continue with it.

He looked up: his siblings looked, from youngest to oldest: pleased, interested, and happy-but-uncertain. "Well," said Peter, "I guess that answers it, doesn't it?"

Just then, there was a ragged squawking cough from above, and they all looked up, to see a large but ragged-looking Raven swooping towards them. It landed with a final flutter of its wings on the ground at Peter's side, and bobbed at each Pevensie in turn. "I am pleased to find you here, your majesties," Sallowpad croaked, settling his feathers. "Queen Lucy's message indicated you were in dire straits, but you have freed yourself without any of our help, I see."

"Well, not without help of some kind," said Edmund, his voice dry. "Just not yours." And in a few short sentences, he outlined for Sallowpad all that had happened in the past several days, ending with the discovery that Princess Eluned had set off for Cair Paravel, intending to take control of the castle, and presumably the crown.

Sallowpad clacked his beak in agitation, and three Magpies Peter hadn't noticed circled down to land nearby. "That's ill word, but not as bad as it might be, King Edmund. For Queen Lucy had sent for help, and as we speak, Windcaller leads a company of the Oath-Sworn on their way from Beruna. If they stay on the Great Road (which is possible), they may well intercept the Princess."

"I don't want any more bloodshed," said Peter, thinking unhappily of Centaurs charging against the heavy cavalry of the Archenlanders. No matter who won, both Narnia and Archenland lost. "And I'd like to stay on good terms with our next-door neighbors, as well."

Edmund nodded, but pointed out, "Just remember, Pete, if she gets into the castle before us, we may need more than a can-opener to get her out!"

There was another clack from Sallowpad, who said, "Then we should send messages by these Magpies, my kings and queens. One, I think, to King Lune of Archenland, who should be told of the reckless actions of his sister. A second to Windcaller, with instructions to slow Eluned if he can, but to draw no blood. And a third to the Free Horses of the plains."

"What will you tell them?" asked Lucy, but Peter had already guessed. More bare-back riding, he thought, and caught Edmund's eye, who grinned and rubbed his backside in remembered discomfort.

*

It was a long way from Farsight Valley to Cair Paravel: on Edmund's map, it looked to be twice as far as the distance they had come from the Witch's castle. So despite the risks of riding bareback, Peter was glad, halfway through their second day of walking east along the Great Road, to see a cloud of dust in the distance, and shortly later to get Rhea's confirmation on the identity of the approaching Horses.

Among the dozen Horses arriving in a thunder of unshod hooves, lashing tails, and flaring nostrils, was Philip, who greeted Edmund with more respect than Peter would have expected. After all, Edmund had called him "Horsie," which Peter suspected was worse than calling Rhea a dog. (Not that he intended ever to find out!)

Despite their swift journey, the Horses seemed in good condition, and were quite willing to turn about and retrace their steps carrying riders. Indeed, there was a dispute over who would get the honor of bearing the various Pevensies. At length, Rhea stepped in and made the assignments; Susan reassured those not chosen that the journey was long enough that surely all the Horses would have the opportunity to participate. This soothed most of them, but a black mare, of small stature but fine lines, continued stamping and muttering long after the other Horses had settled.

Rhea put Lucy up with Edmund on Philip; mounted Susan on a long-legged chestnut mare with a white teardrop-shaped blaze; and directed Peter to a stocky bay stallion named Fwindorbrinnywhee--or so it sounded to Peter. "Err, can I just call you Fwind? It's rather long..."

The stallion's eyes rolled (apparently Horses have no trouble remembering long vowel-laden names), but he tossed his head in agreement. "Mount up, king! It is many leagues to Cair Paravel."

"Yeah," said Peter, wincing, and with some help from a stone beside the road, struggled onto Fwind's back.

In later days, songs were sung about the Great Ride from Farsight Valley to Cair Paravel, verse after rhythmic verse describing the descent from the high valley into the foothills, and the seemingly-endless plains, the golden grass rustling in the autumn wind, and then the great forests of eastern Narnia, through which the road rolled, crossing streams and meadows as the sun sank earlier every day and the nights turned chill even in the lowlands.

It all would sound glorious, glamorous, even, the sort of thing that would look marvelous in a film. But what the bards--even the Centaur bards, who should know better--would omit would be the things that stuck most clearly in Peter's memory long afterwards. Like the way his bones would rattle like dice as the Horse trotted, jarring Peter's spine all the way to his cranium. Like the way Lucy fell off Philip's back three times the first day, the last time landing so hard on a steep downhill slope that she broke her arm, and had to be healed with her own cordial. Like the look on Susan's face when she slid off her mare's back at the end of their first day, and walked very stiffly away into the brush. When she came back, her face was quite white; despite that, it took a direct order from Peter to get her to use the cordial herself in the morning.

Like the fact that riding horseback for hour after hour across the plains is boring, and one can only spend so much time quizzing one's mount about Horse politics. Edmund evidently was re-inventing the Narnian judicial system while he rode, deep in conversation with Philip, despite Lucy's frequent complaints of boredom. After the first day, she demanded to ride with Susan, who was more interested in the various Narnian peoples.

On the third day of riding they came to the end of the plains, and stopped at a small Faun holt beside a lush meadow, where they received a meal of grilled fish, with nuts, berries, and something that seemed like a potato except it was purple. Ilexus also brought out several sacks of grain for the Horses, which Fwind received with pleasure. Susan gave Ilexus the last of the small coin they had, over his objections, before they departed the next morning.

The woods took another whole day, for the road was quite overgrown and the footing uncertain in the shadow of the trees. Lucy claimed she saw Dryads several times, but they had to push on, leaving the beach-girls and oak-lords behind. Even the fiery black mare, whose name was Shindalinn, was weary by the time they broke out of the trees and found themselves on the bank of the Great River.

A ford was marked by a series of wooden poles set into the ground at intervals wide enough to let boats pass, and on the far side of the river (which was much wider here than it was where they had crossed upstream) Peter saw dozens of buildings. The town of Beruna was built on a rise above the river, but its buildings flowed down the slope, ending in a series of warehouses opening onto docks just downstream of the ford. "Looks pretty good," said Edmund, at Peter's shoulder. "Can't see any flood damage from here."

Sallowpad, who was riding on top of Peter's pack, clacked in agreement. "The messages you sent saved many lives, king. Now, we should cross the River: there will be food and beds for you in the town."

Sallowpad, a marvel of organizational ability, led them to a large farmhouse on the outskirts of town, where they were greeted by a stout Faun and a small herd of Goats, who clattered out to meet the kings and queens with great enthusiasm. After a quick meal (which included cheese none of the Pevensies was willing to eat, for fear it was made from the Goats' own milk), they fell onto soft mattresses on the swept stone floors, and were asleep before the dishes were cleared away.

They rose in the grey of dawn, were mounted within ten minutes, and clattered out of the courtyard still clutching cold sandwiches made of seedcakes and mutton. They circled around the still-sleeping Beruna, and as they crossed the foggy fields, a Magpie landed on Edmund's shoulder.

"What news, good friend?" asked Peter, after swallowing a too-large bite of his sandwich.

"Princess Eluned and her company are at the gates of Cair Paravel, king!" piped the Magpie, who seemed to be very young. Peter groaned. "But fear not!" continued the Magpie, bouncing with excitement and making Edmund wince as its sharp claws bit into his shoulder. "The castle gates are shut, and the Princess cannot enter!"

"Why not?" asked Susan, leaning sideways dangerously, trying to hear. But the Magpie just bounced and nodded, clearly too confused to answer--Peter realized they would get no answers from him.

Peter looked around for Rhea, and spotted her where she had spent much of the journey: just ahead and to the left of his horse. "How much farther, Rhea?"

"We shall be there by late afternoon, king," she said, without looking around. Her steady lope did not falter, and Peter sighed. It would be a long day, but at least it wasn't raining.

Beruna lay on the Great River, which entered the ocean near Cair Paravel, but the river took a great loop southward between them, and so the road cut across that loop, winding through a series of low wooded hills and soft green valleys. Many of the valleys, like some they had seen in northern Narnia, bore evidence of agriculture: green fields of some unfamiliar grain, or neat rows of apple or nut trees. Once, they even passed a terraced hillside planted with low bushes Edmund swore were grapevines, but it was some distance from the road, and they had no time to stop. "Later, Ed," snapped Peter, and hoped there would be a later.

They stopped briefly at noon, feasting on apples picked from the trees along the road, and eating the last of the cold mutton Bilnus the Faun had pressed on them at dawn. A great elm-girl came out of the wood to speak with Lucy, and after a few minutes talk, Lucy hurried to Peter.

"There are people ahead of us! Naned says many people have passed, on the way to Cair Paravel! Oh, Peter, who could it be?"

"More Horses?" suggested Edmund.

Susan pursed her lips. "An army out of Archenland?" But she sounded doubtful; no one could cross the plains in force without the Horses seeing them, and the Horses would have sent word.

"Pirates!" Lucy suggested, and laughed at Peter's expression, then sobered. "Well, the mercenaries were pirates, weren't they?"

"They were," agreed Peter. He looked down at the apple in his hand, no longer hungry. He offered it to his current mount, who was a rangy blood bay named Pillarinwhee; she took it from his palm, and crunched it with an odd delicacy. "Anyway, it doesn't matter: we have to push on. We can't stop now."

Weary as they all were, the Horses picked up the pace when they at last came out of the hills an hour later. The road was a golden snake laid across the open green land, winding several peaceful miles toward where the land ended and they saw the shine of the eastern sea. And now, after so long, where the road ended, they saw the windows of Cair Paravel shimmering in the westering sun.

It was too far away to see anything clearly, but Peter thought he saw something twinkle, as if sunlight reflected off a spear-point or mail shirt. "Sallowpad, go see," he ordered, and the Raven took off, flapping his wings heavily as he climbed.

They set forth at a canter, Peter and his siblings wrapping their hands in their mounts' manes and gripping as tight as they could with their legs. They would be lucky to be able to walk after this, Peter thought, and then just concentrated on staying upright.

They rode hard, the Horses' coats darkening with sweat; they all became covered with dust. It was hot, hotter than it had been since they left the Witch's castle. Between the heat and the worry about what they would find, sweat trickled down Peter's back, and stung in his eyes. He risked a glance at his siblings. Edmund looked stoney-faced; Susan concerned; and Lucy looked as though she were having the most marvelous time. She laughed when she saw Peter looking at her, and he couldn't help but laugh with her.

Sallowpad did not return. Peter looked again at Lucy's face, and despite everything, his heart rose. Aslan had been with them all through this long journey, with its many trials--even if they had never seen him nor touched him, the good luck they had experienced and the good folk they had met clearly showed the mark of Aslan's favor.

Whatever they met outside the castle walls, this was not the end of the adventure.

*

Just before the castle, the road passed through one last copse of trees, hiding the great walls from view. ("We should take these down," said Edmund, as they cantered, ducking under branches. "It would be too easy to sneak close to the walls." Peter just glared at him, and Edmund shrugged. "What? I'm not worried." But his airiness seemed forced.)

When they broke back into the sunlight, the Horses slowed suddenly, and it took Peter several precious seconds to decipher the scene before him. There were a great many people gathered in front of the castle, many of them shouting or making other noise, and the colors of the throng were startlingly bright after the dim shadows under the trees.

A dark shape swept past him, and settled on Susan's shoulder. "My apologies, your majesties," said Sallowpad, shifting his weight from one foot to another, as if he were uncertain. "I was detained. But I do not think you will fault me," he added, with some satisfaction.

Peter stared at him, open-mouthed, and then turned to look again at the crowd. "I...right," he said, and urged Pillarinwhee forward. "Is that a Giant? And where did all those Dwarfs come from?"

As they moved forward, the people closest to them finally appeared to notice their approach, and a cry went up. Other people turned about and saw them, and they too began to shout. "The High King! The Kings and Queens of Narnia!" "By the Lion, it's the King!" "But they were in Western Narnia!" "Well, who else could they be?"

The crowd included Centaurs: some thirty yards away, Peter spotted Windcaller above the crowd, surrounded by several shorter figures he recognized as some of the Oath-Sworn. But there were more people here than just Windcaller's company, or the Archenlanders Eluned had gathered about her--whom he located in a tightly-packed bunch, backed up against the closed gates of the castle. Even from this distance, Peter could see she looked nervous.

And she had every reason to be. For, Peter suspected, even if word had not reached Windcaller, there was no way Eluned could have taken Cair Paravel unopposed. Gathered about her were Narnians, armed and unarmed, of every type and people. He saw a towering green figure that might have been the Oak-god, or his twin; two separate companies of Dwarfs (one Red and one Black); at least two dozen Fauns, heavily armed, with Fraxinus at their head; a Unicorn at the edge of the crowd, its horn sparkling in the sunlight; several packs of Dogs; Dryads dripping leaves and swaying, although there was no wind; and a Giant standing in front of the Archenlanders, with a club in his hand and a remarkably sweet look on his face.

"Rumblebuffin!" cried Lucy. She waved wildly, and the Giant, seeing her, waved back, nearly taking off the head of one of the Archenlander soldiers by accident.

Edmund poked Peter in the shoulder and pointed up; roosting on the tall castle walls were dozens of Birds, including Magpies, Robins, three Eagles, and a great white bird with a long neck. And squatting on the top of the highest tower were two Gryphons.

"Oh, my," said Susan.

"Well," said Peter, and then stopped. He swallowed, hard, threw a beseeching look at Edmund, and realized there wasn't really anything to say. So he patted Pillarinwhee, swung his right leg over her neck, and slipped down to the ground. As he landed, Fraxinus raced up to offer him a hand, which Peter took gratefully while his legs adjusted to solid earth again.

When he felt secure enough, he let go, and Fraxinus immediately dropped to one knee. "My king," said the Faun, and would not get up until Peter ordered him to.

Around him, the others had dismounted as well. Peter clapped Fraxinus on the shoulder and walked into the crowd. Narnians made way, many of them bowing (or nodding, or curtseying, each in their own fashion), and their voices gradually quieted, until there was almost no sound but the panting of the Dogs and the Pevensies' soft footsteps on the dusty earth.

Peter suspected he didn't look very regal, covered as he was with dust, sweat, and horse-slobber. But none of the faces around him betrayed the least uncertainty, and he gathered that trust to him, feeling it buoy him up as he stepped at last into the open space in front of the castle gates.

Rumblebuffin looked down on Peter from his great height, rested his club on the ground, and gave him a solemn bow. "Welcome back to Cair Paravel, High King."

"Thank you, Giant Rumblebuffin," said Peter, evenly. He was very thirsty, but he suspected now was not the time to go asking for a water-skin. His siblings had arrayed themselves about him: Edmund to his right, Susan and Lucy to his left. He knew that if he dropped down to touch the ground, he would feel Narnia itself thrumming in his veins.

The Archenlanders seemed much less intimidating than they had appeared in Peter's mind during these last several days. There were fewer of them than he thought, and Peter wondered if some had slipped away, less eager than their Princess to contradict Aslan's stated intentions. Certainly they had ridden hard: their horses' heads drooped, and all bore the look of hard travel. They were ordinary-looking men and women, most of them dark-haired and fair-skinned, although Peter saw a redhead near the back. Nearly all looked nervous, although two of them near the front had distinctly unfriendly looks on their faces. One of them was a short dark man whose jerkin was badly ripped: he had a bandage covering his right ear.

The other was, of course, Princess Eluned. She had found a new tabard: this one was unstained, and her hair was neatly braided, coiled on her head to fit under the steel cap that hung on her saddle-bow. She met Peter's eyes defiantly, and kicked her horse so it advanced into the open.

"Wolfsbane, is it?" she challenged him, but her voice was shrill and nervous. "Falsetongue, I name you!"

There was an angry rustle about him. Peter raised a hand, and it died away immediately. "Wolfsbane, Aslan named me, the day I killed Maugrim. I never lied to you, Princess." He would have if he'd had to, though.

"So you killed a Wolf, and Aslan made you king? Ridiculous!" She sneered, and Peter had to respect her, still defiant in the face of this great crowd, who could tear her apart so easily.

"Kill a Wolf, kill a Witch, break the Winter," said Edmund, his voice carrying across the crowd. "The Deep Magic needed Humans in Narnia, to bring Aslan back and the spring with him. Why did you never before cross the border, Princess, even though you had a claim on the crown of Narnia? Was the snow too great a barrier, even for such a prize?" Were you afraid? went unsaid, but Peter heard it anyway--and so did Eluned.

She seized her sword-hilt, and the crowd tensed. The hair on Peter's arms stood up, as if there were electricity in the air. "Don't," he cautioned her, his voice low. "I cannot hold them, if you do."

He could nearly hear her teeth grinding, at this close range, but she slowly released her grip on the sword. She stared at him, brows drawn down over blue eyes snapping with frustrated rage. Peter suspected that she was probably quite pretty, when she wasn't trying to steal his throne. (It occurred to him much later that she could have been a good prospect for a marriage alliance with Archenland, if it weren't for the fact that she would never be trusted by any loyal Narnian, no matter what she did afterwards. Well, that and the fact that she hated him, and probably would until the day she died.)

"Peasant!" she snapped, and spat on the ground before him. "I am the sister of the King of Archenland. You shall not touch me, not even with all your rabble."

It was arrogant and offensive, but it was, in fact, a capitulation. Peter nodded to her, and took a step back, swinging to the side; he motioned to the others, and they gave way as well. "Convey my greetings to your royal brother," Peter said loudly. "My Gryphons shall escort you and your company on your journey to Anvard. Ride safely, Princess. And I suggest that further embassies from Archenland come in less warlike guise, so we avoid any further... misunderstandings."

There was a ripple of laughter about them, and the crowd pulled back, clearing the road for the Archenlander company. She snarled and pulled her helmet on with a shaking hand, and then kicked her weary horse into a uneven trot. Her soldiers followed, raggedly.

The Narnians watched them go in silence. They stayed silent until the very last soldier--the redhead at the rear--disappeared into the shadows of the wood. The stillness held for another long moment, and then, spontaneously, a great cheer went up, startling birds out of the trees.

It was a cheer without words: just a shout of delight from three hundred different voices, and it seemed to rock the walls of the castle itself.

Chapter Text

There was, naturally, another party. Lucy danced with her brothers, and with Torvus and Bindle (who was surprisingly light on his feet for a Dwarf), and in a great circle with Beech-girls and Elm-girls, circling about a bonfire in the field in front of the castle gates. The music was mostly drumming, by the Dryads and the Centaurs, but some of the Dwarfs and Fauns had flutes and pipes in their packs, which gave the night a sweet, high, wild sound that seemed to spiral up into the stars, so thickly scattered across the black velvet sky.

She woke with her head on Rhea's flank, the morning sun hot on her face, and a Magpie bouncing eagerly at her feet. "Queen! Queen! There are riders coming, queen!" said the Magpie, and then bounced back into the air, presumably to pass the word along.

Lucy rubbed her eyes and looked around. She had not even made it into the castle yesterday, and had slept on a bed of green boughs in the shelter of the castle walls, far enough from the bonfire to avoid being trampled in the darkness. Truth be told, she didn't remember falling asleep, and decided that Peter or Susan must have put her to bed.

She wasn't the only one outdoors, though: there were bundled sleepers across the lawns, and the only waking soul she saw was the yawning gate-guard and the Magpie skimming over the ramparts. "Rhea," Lucy said, and nudged the Wolf. "Someone's coming."

Rhea sat up, blinking. "You're right," she said, cocking an ear. "Horses, I think: I hear their tack jingling. We should wake the High King."

But they found Peter already in the courtyard, buckling on his sword. "I heard," he said, before Lucy had the chance to say anything. "Let's meet them outside." But before they went through the gate again, he stopped Lucy and picked some grass out of her hair. "I hope it's not anyone important," he said, brushing at his own, wrinkled, tunic. "We look like we've been sleeping in ditches."

"Well, we have!" burst out Lucy, laughing, and he grinned back at her, looking not at all like a warrior-king.

The riders came into view just then: a company of about twenty men and women in green, with a Centaur in the rear. "Oh, it's Sir Peridan!" Lucy cried, and ran out through the gates to greet them.

"Your majesty!" cried Sir Peridan, and dismounted with far more grace than Lucy or her siblings had been able to exhibit. Despite the weariness on his face, he dropped to one knee before her and swept off his helmet. "You honor us with your welcome."

Lucy giggled, although she knew Peridan was entirely sincere. He was always sincere: even when she had first met him, standing in the dark road and tumbling words out about the brigands and Peter and Susan and Aslan and Edmund and dragons, he had not laughed or belittled her, but had believed her every word. They had gone on together, Lucy riding behind him through the night, and had rescued Peter and Susan. (Although she had to be fair, and admit that Edmund and the Wyvern had helped too, and the Dwarfs had freed themselves.)

About them, sleeping revelers began to rise, including the Giant Rumblebuffin, who had been prone in a ditch: when he stood up, several of the Archenlanders jumped, and one of the horses, weary as it was, tried to run away. Its rider was dragged some distance, clinging to its bridle, before he was able to bring it under control.

Peter extended a hand and lifted Sir Peridan to his feet. "You are always welcome at Cair Paravel, Sir Peridan, although honestly I don't know how much hospitality we can offer. There wasn't much in the way of supplies when we left..."

"Oh, that doesn't matter, Peter!" said Lucy, and led the way into the castle. "We have plenty of room, after all, and we can always go fishing for supper, like we did before!"

Peridan exchanged a few words with the Archenlander Centaur, and then followed Lucy and Peter into the great hall. "Erm, fishing?" he asked, tentatively. But Susan and Edmund met them then, and in the fuss about getting breakfast out on the east balcony, no one ever answered Peridan's question.

There was a teapot on a small table on the balcony, and just as Lucy sat down on the bench next to it, a small figure in a blue dress approached, carrying a tray. "Panna!" cried Lucy, leaping to her feet again. And then there were hugs and introductions, and Lucy tried to tell Peridan about how Susan had saved Panna's father, but Susan wanted to pour the tea, and Edmund kept handing around the honey-cakes, and Lucy decided she would have to tell the story later. Panna took the empty tray with her and left, announcing that she would be back soon with breakfast; Edmund looked immeasureably cheered at this.

"She's been here for days," announced Susan, with some asperity, and finally began to pour the tea. "She even brought some supplies with her, Lion knows how. We'll have to figure out how to pay for it--and her." Then she looked at Peridan and flushed. "I'm sorry, Sir Peridan, we haven't exactly settled in yet--"

He smiled as he took his tea from her. "The castle has been empty for one hundred years, your majesty: of course there are going to be some complications."

"Speaking of complications." Peter hadn't touched his tea, nor his honey-cake. "Did you see the Princess on the road?"

Peridan nodded, and his earnest smile faded. "She claimed she was headed to Anvard. And as I have no authority over her, I was forced to take her word for it. If she goes astray, well, at least one of the men she took has more loyalty to me than she knows, and I'll hear about it. I do not envy her the reception his majesty her brother will give her in Anvard, though: I received word from him just yesterday, and he was most wroth."

"Well, she deserves to be punished!" said Lucy, affronted. Eluned had been very rude indeed; if Lucy had spoken like that to anyone, she would have been sent to bed without her supper. And she had tried to become queen, even though Aslan had quite clearly crowned them!

Peridan shook his head. "I do not think she will be punished, valiant queen: she is, after all, the king's sister, and he loves her well, despite her wildness. Or maybe because of it," he added, looking thoughtful. "But she will be shamed, for having embarrassed King Lune in Aslan's eyes--and yours, your majesties."

"And for failing?" asked Edmund. He had bits of honey-cake on his lips, but his eyes were narrowed.

"Ed," said Peter warningly, but Peridan raised a hand.

"No, your majesty, it is a fair question. King Edmund," he said, looking at Edmund directly, "I cannot know King Lune's mind, but I can tell you that he has always been an honest and fair-dealing man. Aslan is venerated in Archenland as he is in Narnia, and it is clear to any with eyes to see that the Lion has acted here. I would stake my life on it, as I have staked my honor: King Lune desires only your good will and friendship, and that Narnia and Archenland be brothers in future, as they were in the long years past, ever since Prince Col came south to the mountains."

Edmund looked at Peridan for a long moment, and Lucy saw Susan exchange an uneasy glance with Peter. But then Edmund nodded, still not smiling. "And that's what you came to say, wasn't it? Give a nice speech to smooth over the mess your princess made?"

"Ed!" Susan said, her voice sharp. "That's enough--Sir Peridan is our guest!"

Peter lifted the tea-pot threateningly. "And, it's breakfast. No more politics until after lunch, Ed. And that's an order."

"Or what?" asked Edmund, but he looked satisfied. Lucy sighed and took another bite of her honey-cake; she didn't like this sort of argument, where everything meant more than the words said.

"Or I'll send you out to spar with Rumblebuffin," said Peter, and as Lucy burst into giggles, Panna came back, with a platter full of fruit, grilled fish, and soft white rolls.

~

After breakfast, Lucy went off to the kitchens to talk with Panna, and Susan disappeared upstairs, saying something about chambers and linens (which struck Edmund as unlikely, but then Susan seemed able to find things in the castle no one else could). This left Edmund, Peter, and Peridan on the sunlit balcony, with the cooling tea and pitiful remnants of the best meal any of them had eaten in weeks.

"King," said Rhea, and Edmund jumped a little: she had been dozing in the sun while they ate, and he'd forgotten she was there. Now she was standing in front of Peter, looking a little uncomfortable. "Do I have your leave to go?"

"Go? Go where?" asked Edmund.

She didn't look at him, but still watching Peter, she said, "My pack has been without me for some time, king. My--I would see my pups again, before the winter comes."

Edmund's jaw dropped. Pups. All this time, and she had never said anything. And they had never asked, either.

Peter was more circumspect, or perhaps he had known, because his expression didn't change. He did, however, kneel down and put his arms around her neck. Rhea sniffed at his hair and licked him once on the neck. "Go," he said, his voice thick. "Take all the time you need for your family, and if they are willing, bring them back with you. May the Lion travel with you."

There was a sound Edmund had never heard from Rhea: it sounded like a whine, and then, in silence, she bowed to both brothers, and disappeared down the stairs. The sound of her nails on the flagstones had died away before Peridan stirred, and said, "That is a most worthy vassal, high king."

"She deserves better than raw meat and a bed by the fire," said Edmund. And then he paused, thinking about that. "You know, we should knight her!"

"Could we?" asked Peter. He looked startled by the notion, as if it hadn't occurred to him that he had that power.

Peridan shrugged. "We have no lady knights in Archenland, but this is Narnia. And if any female deserves the honor, it is she, for the loyal service she has rendered."

Peter nodded, but he didn't sit down again. Instead he went to the railing and looked down into the garden below. "Speaking of loyal service," he said, turning back around and leaning against the railing, "tell me about Telmarine mercenaries."

This was a sudden change of topic. "What are you talking about, Pete?" What did Peter know that he hadn't told Edmund?

Peter ignored Edmund and raised an eyebrow at Peridan, who looked a bit confused. "What do you need to know, your majesty?"

"Who are they? Are they a major power in the region? What can I expect from them in future?" Peter had evidently been thinking about this a great deal, but then he'd spent a lot of time with them. All the same, Edmund was just as glad Susan wasn't here for this conversation: the memory of Asper was still vivid in his mind.

Peridan turned his tea cup around on the table, frowning. "I don't know all the answers to your questions, high king, but I will tell you what I can. Although, forgive me, but I have been on the road for three days with little rest, and if I sit here much longer, I shall fall asleep. Could we walk, while we speak?"

So they went up to the ramparts of the castle, stopping now and then to consider the view or discuss the defensibility of a particular angle. Peridan told them, in fits and starts, of how several years ago Archenland began to suffer from a series of small but vicious attacks in its western territories. "We didn't even know who they were, you see. The villages in western Archenland are poor and isolated, mostly living on their herds in small mountain valleys. The raiders would attack at night, steal or kill the cattle, and burn the halls. Over time, they grew more bold, and last year they attacked the holding of Earl Dann of Shadowvale. The Earl fought them off, with minor losses, but he captured three of them, and thus we learned who they were."

"Telmarines," said Edmund.

"Yes, but we don't know why. We have some trading with Telmar, but we pose no threat to them: we are content within our own borders. And Telmar--you may not know, but the country is fractured and divided. The last king of Telmar died many years ago, before I was born, and since then the various tribes and cantons have each had their own lords and barons, squabbling over small portions of the whole. There is, in truth, no country of Telmar anymore, just Telmarines, all fighting for anything they can get." Peridan sighed and thumped a closed fist against the stone rampart. "It's a shame, for it was a rich land, and many people live there. They could be a great power, even a counterweight to Calormen, if they could but find a single leader to guide them."

"And the mercenaries?" asked Peter, leading them further on, towards the entry to the north tower.

Peridan nodded. He looked as exhausted now as he had claimed, as if the very topic were draining him of vitality. "There are many landless men and women now, as a result of the wars there, and so they hire out their swords to one of a dozen major companies, and twice as many smaller ones. I do not know that I would not do the same, if, Lion forbid, King Lune died and my family lost our lands. What else have I to offer but my strong right arm?"

They followed Peter up three flights of steps onto the top of the tower. The sun was just as bright up here, and from the top, Edmund could see people down in the courtyard. One of them was a Centaur, and he guessed that it was Windcaller, perhaps talking with members of the newly-established castle guard.

He turned back to the others. "So there are Telmarine mercenaries all over, then," he said. "Not just in Telmar, or in Archenland."

"Oh, indeed, King Edmund. There are few great lords from Farallin to Galma who have never hired any Telmarines, and Asper of Rose Island is one of the most renowned. But he has, I admit, a less honorable reputation than some." A look of distaste crossed Peridan's face.

"And if the White Witch offered him Calormene coin to stir up trouble in Archenland, he would have taken it." Peter offered this as a statement, not a question.

"Certainly," said Peridan, promptly. Then his interest turned to astonishment. "Wait--are you saying--your majesty, is that what happened?"

"You didn't know," said Peter, frowning. He was shorter than Peridan, and slighter: he still looked like a boy by comparison. But he had an air of authority about him now, that hadn't been there when they'd all got on the train to go to the country. It didn't seem to occur to Peridan to question him.

Peridan struck his hand on the railing. "Aslan's mane, no! We would never have suspected the Witch. Narnia's borders have been closed since before my grandfather was born, your majesty. No one goes in, and very little comes out--in fact, I don't think anyone outside Narnia had even seen the Witch herself in fifty years."

"But Eluned knew," Peter said, speaking slowly, almost reluctantly. "She knew who had been paying Asper: she said it outright, something about the Telmarines foraging into Narnia because they'd lost their employer. She probably thought it didn't matter: the Witch was gone, and I was--as she thought--just a peasant boy. It didn't matter what she said to me."

Edmund watched as the realization came upon Peridan: what it meant, if what Peter said was true. The fair skin flushed under its summer tan, and then the eyes hardened: it was possible, suddenly, to believe that this earnest young man could lead soldiers into battle. Peridan straightened, and his left hand clenched about the hilt of his sword. "Your majesty," he said, quite formally. "I fear I must take my leave: I have an urgent errand to Anvard, that cannot stay on courtesy."

Peter nodded, then strode forward and clasped Peridan's hand. "Go, with my deepest gratitude and most courteous greetings for your king. Please tell him that I am grieved by this intelligence, and I hope that we may meet soon."

And in a moment, with a flutter of his cloak and a clatter of spurs, Peridan was gone. The sun shone bright across the top of the tower, the turrets casting shadows in such neat lines it looked like a chess board. Edmund looked at the doorway through which Peridan had disappeared, and at the gulls circling above the beach, and then at Peter, who seemed lost in thought.

"What will they do to her?" Edmund asked, finally.

Peter shrugged. "I've no idea. Could be she only just found out, after all. But if she's known for long, well..."

Edmund finished the thought, thinking out loud. "If she's known for long, then she might have been in on it. She was in communication with someone, and thought she stood to gain by it. Maybe she thought the fighting would draw Lune out, and he would get himself killed. Maybe she reckoned destabilizing the country would give her a chance at the throne. Maybe, maybe she didn't think at all." It was an ugly thought: that Eluned had sacrificed her own people, or been willing to have others kill them, just to stir up trouble.

Was it worse than betraying your siblings, and relative strangers, out of petty malice? Or was it just the same? He ought to feel some sympathy for Eluned; Edmund knew that Aslan would expect no less of him. But instead he just felt queasy, as he thought of King Lune, and Lune's young sons, who might never know their aunt now. And of course there were so many others who had died, as well: the Telmarines must have killed many Archenlanders in their raids.

I was different, something inside him whispered. We're not the same. And yet. Aslan had died, and so many others had died during the battle.

A warm hand gripped his shoulder, and Peter shook him gently. "You're not her, Ed. We've got enough burdens of our own without looking out for others to carry."

"Right," said Edmund, a little shakily, and then took a deep breath. It was a beautiful day, and they were home at Cair Paravel, all safe and sound. They were building a nation out of winter's wreckage. And he was, remarkably, after everything, a king. "So, you were saying something about sparring? Think Silversharp can give us an hour?"

~

She would not have thought that being a queen would have required so many lists. Certainly none of the queens in fairy tales ever seemed to worry about inventories and supply orders and payroll; they just danced and sang and married well. (She hesitated, one hand clutching a stubby bit of charcoal, and then shook her head; time enough to worry about that later. And there was still England, after all.) By contrast with those queens of legend and history, Queen Susan of Narnia spent the first morning after her return to Cair Paravel making lists.

Lists of staff, their types, names, and duties (32 of them so far, if one counted the Talking Mouse who had greeted her in the courtyard and volunteered to serve as the High King's armour-bearer; Susan had promised to consult with Peter and given him the temporary position of footman).

Lists of food requirements, existing supplies, storage needs, and where it all could be obtained (this was mostly dictated by Panna, and added to by Torvus).

Lists of rooms, their capacity, and their furnishings (for where would all these people sleep, and what would they sleep on?).

Lists of clothing, what they had, what they needed, where it could be obtained, did they need to hire a tailor along with an armourer (and Susan wondered what the Humans in other countries wore, other than the tunics and mail she had seen on the Archenlanders and Telmarines).

Lists of local Narnian leaders, their homes, their territories, and their history with the Witch (this was begun by Susan, supplemented by Torvus, and likely to require perpetual updating).

Lists of foreign nations, their inhabitants, and their attributes (whether they were friendly historically, did Narnia trade with them, who were their rulers--this last was necessarily left mostly blank, pending new intelligence).

Paper surrounded her. Susan sat on a tall stool in the castle kitchen, her feet tucked up on the rungs, with papers spread across half the expanse of the enormous oaken table that took up much of the center of the kitchen. At the other end of the table, Panna stood on another stool and punched a small fist down into a crockery bowl of rising bread dough. The room was bright and cheery, lit by the double doors open into the kitchen gardens, and full of the good smells of cookery.

It wasn't Susan's first choice for a place to work: she had flour on her skirt, and Panna was prone to talk to her pots. But there was hardly any furniture in the castle at all, the only other table was on the balcony where they had had breakfast, and the wind would have carried half her papers away.

She was just reviewing the staff lists and wondering (not for the first time) how they were going to feed and clothe all these people, when Torvus came in through the garden doors. "Queen," he said, with a shallow bow, "there are barracks inside the castle's outer walls. Think you the Oathsworn could be lodged there?"

"Could they?" she asked. "I don't see why they shouldn't. But where have you been sleeping since you arrived? You've been here for days, Torvus!"

He shrugged, even in his diffidence looking far more confident than his cousin Tumnus. His hair was darker than Tumnus', and he was taller, and his bare chest (Fauns went naked except in battle, which was something Susan would have to get used to) showed scars from sword, axe, and claw. He was altogether the most formidable Faun Susan had yet met. "It seemed inappropriate to to enter without leave, good queen. We camped in the field, and were quite comfortable."

"Winter's coming, though," pointed out Panna, who was now twisting long ropes of dough into fat braids on the floured table. "It rains along the coast, I hear."

"Then let's make sure that the barracks are fit for our Guard," announced Susan, grateful for a reason to put down her pencil. She realized, when she stood up, that her back was stiff: she hadn't sat in one place for so long since, well, since she'd come to Narnia. Every day since had been full of action and movement, and she never lay awake at night, but dropped into slumber as easily as Lucy did. Leaving her papers stacked on the table, she led the way out of the kitchen.

They emerged from the entry hall into a courtyard crowded with people, the very stones ringing with voices. Susan stopped and stared, and realized that the crowd was not so very large after all: it was most of the Oathsworn, gathered into a rough circle. When she pushed forward between Bindle and the Stag Elmshadow, she saw what they were all looking at.

Peter and Edmund were stripped to the waist, and armed only with light wooden wands, they were sparring with Silversharp the Centaur. She too had set aside her armour and her weapons, and held only a shaft of wood about the height of a man, with no tip or edge. And yet she was easily holding off the persistent attacks of the two boys, inside the confined space formed by the watching soldiers.

Edmund leaped backwards just in time to avoid being kicked in the knee, as Silversharp pivoted to parry a slash from Peter. "Oh!" someone said, and Susan looked to her right and saw Lucy watching with great excitement, her eyes shining. With Lucy stood Sallowpad, on the back of a White Tiger whose name Susan didn't know.

There was a shout of approval, and Susan looked back at the fight to see Peter grinning, and a red stripe across Silversharp's upper arm. "Well done, Pete!" cried Edmund, but almost before he'd got the words out, Silversharp's staff had leaped forward and rapped him in the chest, hard enough to send him stumbling backwards. He might have fallen, but Torvus stepped forward and caught him.

"If that were a spear, lord king, you would be dead," the Centaur mare said dryly. She looked both unruffled and entirely cool, while both Peter and Edmund were sweating heavily and red in the face.

"If that were a spear, weaponsmaster," countered Peter, still gasping for breath, "you'd have had a dozen arrows in you before it left your hand." He gestured at the surrounding crowd, and Bindle cackled.

There was a clatter nearby as another Centaur approached, his hooves noisy on the stones of the courtyard. Windcaller looked about at the Oathsworn gathered around the two kings, and raised his voice. "I do not remember granting liberty this morning, when the gates stand unguarded and the armoury is a jumbled mess. I'm sure if you all desire training so much, that can be arranged." His voice was full of a dry sarcasm that brought a flush even to Susan's cheek, and she was not under his command. The soldiers scattered, and in moments the courtyard was mostly empty, but for the Pevensies, Torvus, and the Centaurs. Sallowpad gave a knowing "clack," and flew up to the battlements.

"Come to see us get humiliated?" Edmund asked Susan, grinning.

She grinned back; whatever had been eating him at breakfast seemed to have resolved itself. "No, true humiliation would be if Silversharp had taken you on while blindfolded. This, I think, is just normal humbling."

"Queen Susan is quite insightful," confirmed Silversharp. "Good kings, I suggest you rest in the heat of the day, and drink plenty of water, and then return in late afternoon. We shall work on your strength and stamina." She nodded gravely to Susan and Lucy, and then paced away, heading for the castle gate. Windcaller followed her.

Peter groaned and dunked his head into a bucket nearby. "Lion's mane, that was embarrassing. She barely needed to move!"

Torvus handed Edmund his shirt, who mopped his face with it, to Susan's exasperation. They desperately needed to get more clothes, or at this rate the boys would be in rags by the end of the week. When Peter had wiped the water from his face and handed the bucket to Edmund, Torvus said, "Silversharp is an excellent soldier, my king, and I do not think she would have agreed to come if she didn't believe you worthy of her instruction."

Edmund snickered. "In other words, Pete, shut your gob."

"The barracks are over there, right, Torvus?" asked Susan, and when he nodded, she continued on across the courtyard. Lucy followed after, but the boys went off into the gardens. Susan hoped this meant they would take the steep and narrow trail down to the beach and bathe before dinner.

She didn't really want to be the mother-figure for the kings and queens of Narnia, she thought as they entered the closest barracks building, a broad and solid structure whose rear wall was the outside wall of the castle. She was not yet a grown woman herself, after all, and they did have a mother, even if she was very far away. Strongwind and Pekana were mothers, strong and fierce: Susan couldn't see herself being like that, not for a very long time. But her family did need someone to make sure they were fed and clothed and safe, and for all that Peter was High King and very brave and (mostly) sensible, Susan couldn't imagine he would enjoy counting up barrels of salted fish, as she had done with Panna this morning.

Someday, she reckoned, they would go home, although the image of England had grown oddly blurred in her mind, as if it were a poorly-focused photograph. She would like to be sure that when they had fulfilled this task that Aslan had set them to--for clearly being kings and queens of Narnia was less a reward than another, greater, challenge than the defeat of the Witch--they would be safe, and healthy, and together, as she and Peter had promised their parents they would be.

The inside of the barracks was less promising than the outside: there was little in the way of furniture, and one of the chimneys appeared to have a bird's nest in it. The glass in the windows was all gone, although the wooden shutters were still bolted to the walls. Susan threw open one set of windows while Torvus opened the other, and Lucy rooted around in a pile of debris on the floor. "Oh, look!" she said.

It was a small eating knife, with a worn horn handle and a brass seal on the pommel that looked like a weathered tree. The knife had clearly been well-used, old long before it had been abandoned here among scraps of rotted leather and bits of broken wood.

Lucy turned it over in her hand, and the sunlight reflected from the blade onto the walls and floor. "It's very old," she said, thoughtfully. "It must have been here when the Witch first came. It probably belonged to one of the soldiers in the Guard back then."

People lived here once, Susan thought. People who had eaten and slept and loved one another, and then died. Perhaps they had even died here, in this castle, on these floors, and it was only Aslan, or some aspect of the Deep Magic, that had saved her from finding skeletons or worse in all those empty rooms. She shivered.

Torvus touched her elbow. "I'll send some people to clean the place out, queen. We'll make it fine again. But we'll need to make another place for the Centaurs, these rooms'll not be large enough for them."

"You're right," Susan said, and they went out of the cool stone rooms into the bright castle courtyard. It was just noon, and the sky was cloudless, the day warm: perhaps one of the last good days before the rains of autumn.

The guards were back on duty at the gate. Susan could recognize Bindle from behind, as the only Dwarf with hair that short. And the White Tiger sat on the opposite side of the gate, her head erect but her tail twitching as though she were watching a mouse-hole. From the gardens Susan heard voices; Panna was arguing with Sallowpad about something. High overhead a figure circled, probably a Gryphon, and Susan realized she would have another carnivore to feed soon.

Narnia was Narnia: it held danger and wonder, death and glory, and while sometimes Susan might have to swim a mile underground, other times she might have to clean out old barracks. She rather hoped that in future she got more banquets and fewer battles.

She dusted the cobwebs from her skirts and headed back to the great front doors, her steps quick and light on the cobbles. Peter and Edmund would train with Silversharp and Lucy would run wild about the castle, charming everyone. And Susan? Susan had a castle to organize.

~

They ate late that night, for Silversharp had kept Peter and Edmund past sunset, cantering beside them on a long loop through the open ground outside the castle. They ran, and tripped, and jumped when they didn't fall, and stumbled through fields and over fallen logs and across streams, as the sunlight disappeared and the shadows deepened to blackness. Silversharp seemed made of steel rather than silver, her dry voice never pausing, as she lectured them on logistics and strategy, on how vital it was to be able to move in the darkness, to know their own ground, to be able to keep going long after one wanted to stop.

When at last she let them go, they stumbled across the field to the gates, past the campsites and fires of the Oathsworn, who greeted them with a mixture of friendly mockery and commiseration. "She'll have you up the cliffs next, king, you'll be wishing for the night-time runs!" said one of the Fauns, and a passing Bear slapped Edmund on the back so hard he nearly fell over. At length they found the castle gates and staggered, footsore and trembling, up the stairs to the entry hall, to discover Lucy waiting for them, curled on the floor with a candle and a book in her hand.

As Peter stopped in the doorway, Lucy leaped to her feet. "Oh, you're here, finally! We've been waiting forever, are you all right? Torvus said you would be late, but Susan wouldn't start supper without you."

"Lion's mane, I'm starving," moaned Edmund, who was quite as filthy as Peter, although he hadn't fallen as often.

But Peter shook his head. "Wash first, Ed, or we never will." Lucy disappeared down the stairs to the kitchen, shouting, and Peter picked up Lucy's candle and led the way down the narrow side hall he'd discovered that morning.

"What's this?" asked Edmund, as they descended (unsteadily) a shallow flight of steps. Peter didn't answer. They were, he estimated, below the east tower, and not far, in a direct line, from the path down to the beach. The air was much warmer here. A wooden door stood ajar at the bottom of the stairs, and an odd, damp smell met them.

Peter stepped through the door, put his candle on a ledge at head-height, and began to strip. Edmund followed him in and gasped, gratifyingly. "Where did this come from?"

"No idea," said Peter, working on his boots. He suspected Cair Paravel shared more than a little of Narnia's magical awareness, and hadn't chosen to open the baths to them until they'd proven themselves first. Whatever the reason, he didn't care, now that he had the cool cleansing tub and the enormous heated pool to soak in, large enough for a dozen Humans to share (if they didn't mind bumping knees).

The heated pool was like heaven for his battered bones. If Susan hadn't sent Torvus down to find them, Peter was quite sure he would have fallen asleep there, and possibly drowned. Torvus also brought clothes: somehow during the day, Susan had had their spare tunics cleaned, and his smelled of sun and dry grass as Peter pulled it over his head.

"This way, your majesty," said Torvus, when they re-emerged, and instead of leading them down to the kitchens, he took them up a flight of stairs and to a small room with a crackling fire.

"About time!" cried Lucy. "We're starving!"

"Think how we feel," grumbled Edmund, and staggered forward theatrically to collapse into a heap at Susan's feet.

Peter glanced around and at length recognized the room: it was the chamber they had all slept in after the coronation party. Susan had piled the carpets together so they could serve as seats (if not actual chairs, having no backs), and two tree-rounds were serving as a low table, on which were several platters of hot food.

"Su, you're amazing," said Peter with feeling, and Susan grinned at him as she spooned something red, with meat and vegetables in it, over what looked like plain rice.

"Panna's the amazing one," Susan said, and handed Peter the bowl. "She brought boxes of cooking gear with her from Pattering Hill, including all these bowls, and by the time we arrived yesterday, she'd already been to Beruna at least once for supplies. She's the only reason we're not eating dandelion greens and charred fish again."

Picking up one of the pottery cups, Peter sniffed and raised an eyebrow. "Where's the wine from? There wasn't any in the castle when we left." He lowered himself gingerly onto the carpets and took a cautious bite of the red stuff. It was still warm, pleasantly spicy, and chunky with bits of pork and a number of vegetables. It was even better than breakfast had been.

Edmund shrugged, hunched over his own bowl, which Peter translated as, "I don't know and I don't care, don't you know I'm starving here?"

"Torvus, aren't you eating?" asked Lucy suddenly, and Peter looked up to see the Faun retreating out the door.

Torvus hesitated, looking at Lucy and Susan with a conflicted face, and then shook his head. "I have eaten already, Queen Lucy. But thank you for the offer. I will see you in the morning, no doubt." And he disappeared down the hallway.

"Oh," said Lucy, and looked a little crestfallen. Peter looked around and realized that this was the first time he'd been alone with only his siblings since... Well, since Rhea had first come to them. It made the room a bit empty.

"Seems odd to eat alone," said Edmund, serving himself a second helping of the rice. "Wasn't anyone else hungry?"

Susan toyed with her food a little. "They ate already," she said. After a moment, she went on. "And besides, well. We're the kings and queens. We might like to eat in company, but it makes many of them feel uncomfortable."

The red stuff was suddenly less flavorful. Peter swallowed a mouthful and put his fork down. He wanted to protest, to complain, because he loved Narnia and Narnians, and hated the thought of being set apart like that--but he caught Lucy's eye and she looked unhappy, so instead he smiled at her. "That's fair," he said, a little more forcefully than he intended. "Everyone wants some privacy now and then, after all. It'll work out."

"You think so?" Lucy asked, and Peter said, "I'm sure of it." He almost believed himself.

Susan served them all seconds (and Edmund thirds), and poured the wine (although she refused Lucy and Edmund a second cup, to Edmund's dismay, until Peter reminded him they were training again with Silversharp in the morning, and Edmund carefully switched to water). Susan had found her blue gown again, the one she had worn for the coronation, and she looked far more royal than the rest of them did, Peter had to admit.

The room was a good choice for supper: it was cozy with the fire, the open windows letting in the smell of the sea and the sound of the waves below. Peter pushed away his bowl at last, and sank back onto the carpets, balancing his cup of wine on his stomach. He looked down at the wine, then around at his siblings.

Susan was piling the bowls together in a neat stack; Edmund was considering a bruise on his knee where he had smacked it into a tree; Lucy was idly tracing designs on the faded carpet.

"Well," Peter said. "What do you think now?"

The bowls clanked as Susan piled them onto the empty serving platters. "About what?"

"This." Peter waved a hand at the castle around them, with its tiled floors and mysterious secrets, the history hidden behind every door. "This job Aslan gave us. Think we can manage it?"

"Yes!" said Lucy, with no hesitation. "Aslan wouldn't have given it to us if we couldn't." Her face shone with her surety. Peter grinned and ruffled her hair, and then looked at Susan.

Susan pursed her lips, smoothed the skirts of her dress, and then lifted her head proudly. "Yes, I do think we can manage it. We have a lot to learn, and not much to work with, but we do have something to offer. And Narnia needs us." Peter couldn't help smiling: for all that she claimed to be the sensible one, the one who would stay at home and keep the fires burning, Susan would never turn down a challenge--especially when someone needed her. Aslan had known that, Peter was sure.

He cocked an eyebrow at Edmund, who frowned and picked at a scab on his elbow. "It's not going to be easy," he said slowly, as if working it out as he spoke. "Silversharp isn't training us so hard just for the fun of it. We've got more trouble ahead, I can tell that much. Those mercenaries--I think Telmar will be a problem for a long while. And there's likely more besides, that we don't know about." Edmund looked up at Susan sharply. "And Su--I think you'd better come out with us tomorrow."

Susan frowned. "But we've got plenty of archers now--"

"No, Ed's right," interrupted Peter, pushing himself upright. "You and Lucy both should be training, as well. We don't know what's coming, and--" And I promised to keep you safe, he thought, but didn't say it. "--It's better to be prepared. Just in case."

Susan said, "There's other kinds of training, too," and looked at Lucy. "We should all be in school by now, if we were still in England."

"But there aren't any schools!" protested Lucy, seeing where this was going.

Edmund laughed. "No, but we're surrounded by the smartest people in Narnia. You think you couldn't learn anything from Rhea? Or Torvus or Sallowpad? We need to know Narnia's history, and geography, and politics."

"And agriculture, money-making, road-building, forestry, weaving, smithing, fishing, hunting, and ship-building," continued Peter, and dropped his head back with a groan, to stare at the shadowy ceiling. There was so much to do. But oddly, he wasn't afraid of it.

Aslan had brought them to Narnia, sure they had the skills to succeed. And he had sent them help: Rhea and Sallowpad, Silversharp and Windcaller, Broadclaw and Torvus. They held Narnia now, or maybe they didn't hold it, but they had touched it and started to learn it, and it had begun to learn them. They knew it now, the real Narnia, not the shallow image of it that had formed during the struggle with the Witch, and that had danced to the mer-people's singing during the coronation party. That had been a fairy-tale country, and it had disappeared with the magic when the party was over.

The real Narnia was thigh-deep in cold water underground, picking brimbleberries and planting grape vines, shearing sheep in the summer heat on the northern hills, cutting sheaves of corn with a stone knife and grinding the grain by hand, poling rafts loaded with supplies down a flood-swollen river, hunting elk over the snow in the western mountains, hammering out fine silver-chased mail in a sweltering forge. It was Bindle's shaved face and Fraxinus' tortured memories; Tumnus' shame and Bruno's grandstanding; Pekana's strength and Ponsonby's generosity; and Rhea's steadfast loyalty.

He didn't know how to say any of that, so instead he sat up and put out his hands: they all linked hands together, with an odd, ritual solemnity. The fire was dying and the light flickered across his sibling's faces, making them look, by turns, older and younger, pleased and worried, resolved and joyful. But their eyes were shining.

"I think," Peter said, looking around at the kings and queens of Narnia, "this is going to be the best adventure ever."

And that is the end of this story, which is just one of the many adventures the Pevensies had in their time as kings and queens of Narnia. If you've read the other Narnia books, you know that they went on to be Narnia's most famous and beloved rulers, and under their guidance, Narnia became strong and prosperous again. But between this adventure I have shared with you, and their final return to England after they'd grown to be wise and skillful rulers, there must indeed be many more stories to tell.