The Stone Gryphon, Part 2, The Queen Susan in Tashbaan
When last we left the story, after a summer in Oxfordshire with Professor Digory Kirke, Peter Pevensie receives a telegram from his brother, Edmund. Edmund reports that he, their sister, Lucy, and however improbably, their odious cousin, Eustace, have just been to Narnia and that Edmund and Lucy are never to return. In his most dictatorial, High King fashion, Peter orders everyone about and rushes to catch the next train on the Varsity Line out of Oxford to Cambridge to see his brother, sister, and cousin. Peter is escorted to the station by two friends of Professor Kirke's, Asim bin Kalil, an Arab mystic and spy for the British military, and Mary Anning Russell, a paleontologist with a passion for hips, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and magnificent drooling lizards.
Upfront blather: This represents Part 2 in The Stone Gryphon story arc. While I will try to bring it all up to speed through tedious exposition and overly explanatory dialogue, if you are new to this story line, you may want to read Chapter 8, Lions' Business, and at least some of Chapters 12-15, Crossroads, of The Stone Gryphon, Part 1, Oxfordshire 1942. Queen Susan in Tashbaan will include characters from my other stories accumulating in this vision, By Royal Decree and The Palace Guard as well Chapters 10 and 11 of The Stone Gryphon, Part 1.
Or, just do what I do and go with the flow, and make it up as you go along.
The following is a derivative work based upon the works of C.S. Lewis which I gratefully acknowledge here. No ownership interest in the work that follows is claimed whatsoever. No compensation has been received or provided. Any original content in my derivative fiction is in the public domain and may be used freely and without notice to me or attribution.
Chapter 1, At The End Of The Varsity Line
Wine can of their wits the wise beguile,
Make the sage frolic, and the serious smile.
The only thing restraining Peter's raging impatience to get to Lucy and Edmund (and Eustace? Eustace? How can that be?) was his confidence that Asim would not have sent him astray. The train would get there even as it sat for hours, waiting for other, more mysterious trains to rumble by in the dark. There was a peculiar moment when a great number of people got on and off at a junction with "Bletchley," which he would not have expected given the location and the hour.
As irritated as he had been at the mothering and provisioning, when he became sufficiently bored to inspect the pack Mary and Asim had thrust at him, Peter was forced to concede that they really did know something about unexpected adventures. He found tins of sardines, packages of nuts and dried fruit, matches (in waterproof container), candles, torch (with battery), compass, notepad, pencils, collapsible container for water, a pocketknife with 23 attachments, and something at the bottom that he was fairly certain was a tightly folded oilskin tarpaulin for sleeping on damp ground. All were things that would have been very useful when they had been summoned into Narnia the last time.
The travel documents were not as helpful and included an outdated railway timetable from Bombay and a steamer schedule from Perth. There was a very detailed map, the topography of which was certainly North Africa, but all in Arabic.
There was reading material as well, including a battered volume of Alice's Adventures Through the Looking Glass, an even more bruised Hound of the Baskervilles, and intriguingly, a slim volume of what he thought might be Arabic verse. Peter was able to puzzle out the name, Muhammad Hafiz Ibrahim and the word an-nīl, which he thought meant the Nile River. There was also a volume of stories in French by Guy de Maupassant. He remembered reading La Parure (in English) in school – the necklace of paste illustrating the principle of irony and all that. Based upon his painful classical Latin and barely manageable French, this collection appeared to be of a different, far more lewd and satirical character. Peter suspected it was Mary's book, although Richard or even Aunt Polly was a possibility as well; he did not know if Polly read French. Maybe in circumstances involving mosquito netting, a lot of gin, and yapping hyenas, it wouldn't matter.
It was after ten when the train finally stopped for good. Peter's only consolation was in checking with the sleepy station manager and learning that the train he might have otherwise tried to catch out of Liverpool had been canceled, and the next three after. It was a dark walk north toward Histon and Impington; he would have to remember to thank Mary and Asim for the torch. Peter found he couldn't quite remember what it had been like when streets were lit with lamps.
He heard dogs bark, the occasional bang of a door, window, or bin, and finally, and it seemed an age, the street on which his aunt and uncle lived. The neat, dull rows of darkened houses lined the road, and he heard voices from the back garden of the third house on the left.
He shined the torch over the fence and in the spotlight's glow saw Edmund and Lucy on the tiny patch of grass in the Scrubbs' backyard.
Lucy squealed and jumped up, Edmund behind her and then they were all fumbling, at the gate, and with the torch, his bag and the pack, until they were holding on to each other like the lifelines they were.
"Trying to pass me up, are you?" Peter said, gruffly, for his brother had gained some height even in the last two months. Though, Ed never had surpassed him when they had done this the last time. He inhaled deeply, caught the scent of the Lion still clinging to them and hugged Lucy tighter.
Somehow, Edmund had become sandwiched between them and the fence and gasped, "Geroff me! Geroff me!"
Peter laughed and loosened his grip, even if he didn't want to let go, ever. However, there was another one here as well who was certainly approaching this reintroduction with some trepidation. Opening up the arm clasped around Lucy, their embrace was now wide enough to encompass Eustace coming warily toward them into the pooling light of the torch.
"Cousin," Peter said softly, "be welcome. You are a Friend of Narnia now."
Eustace Clarence Scrubb lurched forward, though not as awkwardly as he would have only the day before. He was trying to dash the tears from his eyes. There were many reasons for Eustace to weep tonight and he should be ashamed of none of them. His cousin fell into them like a stone, but Peter was enough of a bulwark to withstand it. He kissed the head bent into his shoulder. "Welcome, Eustace" he repeated softly.
They moved their scrum back out onto the little patch of lawn. Peter grudgingly admitted that as odd as Alberta and Harold were, their extensive Victory Garden was lovely in the moonlight. A summer of enjoying Kwong Lee's cooking had given him a new appreciation for the Scrubbs' vegetarian lifestyle; it was just too bad Harold and Alberta couldn't cook a whit and murdered perfectly innocent vegetables.
"I want to hear everything," he said, "but before we begin, Eustace, could you get us some cups?"
He opened up his case as Edmund and Lucy grinned at him.
"By the Lion, Peter, thank you!" Edmund said with heartening enthusiasm.
Mary and Asim would have been truly disturbed if they had known that practically the only thing Peter had packed was a single change of clothes and two bottles of wine from the Professor's shelf. His tutor would begrudge neither the wine, nor the cause in which the bottles would be consumed.
Lucy followed Eustace through the back door. Peter fished the pocketknife out of the pack, removing some of the other supplies to reach it.
"What's all this?" Edmund asked, fingering the compass and one of the food packages.
"Courtesy of my logistics and supply officer," Peter said, tossing Edmund the matches. "Light the candle, would you? We might as well save the torch."
"I'm your logistics officer, Peter. Are you saying after barely two months, you've replaced me?"
"Never, brother. It was a temporary appointment, only." Peter found the corkscrew attachment and started in on the bottle as Edmund lit the sturdy plumber's candle.
"So there's a story in it, then?" Edmund asked.
"It will wait. I want to hear your story first." With a glance back at the house, Peter asked a silent question.
Edmund snuffed the glowing match between his fingers; he'd always been fond of fires that way.
"A changed man, Peter, truly, by Aslan's grace. As profound a change as my own, once."
With a sigh, Edmund carefully set the candle in their little circle. "To answer your immediate questions, we were pulled in this morning, we landed in the water, in the middle of the Eastern Sea, Caspian picked us up in the new flagship of the Narnian fleet, three years had passed for them, we were at sea for, by my count, some months, though we lost track of time in the end, and we sailed to the End of the World and the border to Aslan's own country."
Edmund's voice thickened at the end of his recitation. Peter wanted to say, "I'm sorry," but knew that was wrong, and would just make the feelings worse. Instead, he pulled his brother into another rough embrace.
"It's not what you think," Edmund muttered into his shoulder. "Really, it's not. It's different." Peter just held on tighter. He had no idea what his brother meant, but it didn't matter. They'd get through it all in good time.
With the sound of the door shutting, they pulled apart. Eustace and Lucy came down the steps, holding mugs – there would be no wine glasses in the Scrubb household, of course.
"I'm sorry," Eustace said, handing Peter the cup. "It's all we have."
"Eustace, the only thing a Narnian needs to drink wine is something with sides and a bottom," Peter told him, pouring wine into his cousin's mug.
"Centaurs drink wine out of buckets!" Lucy giggled, though there was an edge to it.
"I think I've done that before," Edmund commented, taking a mug from her and holding it for Peter. "Though I'm not sure I remember."
"You have," Peter said, pouring. "I remember it. Vividly. And do not recommend it."
Lucy settled next to him, as close as she could be, and held her mug for Peter to fill. "Thank you for coming, Peter," she whispered, resting her head on his shoulder.
"So," Peter began for them, "this morning, the day started perfectly normally, and then you found yourselves treading water in the middle of the Eastern Sea." He put the bottle down, wrapped his free arm around his sister, and leaned in toward the candlelight. "Tell me everything."
"So what was she like? The Dawn Treader?"
"You'll be able to see a picture of her in Lucy's room. She's a fine ship."
"Small, nothing like the Splendor Hyaline, but they were so proud of her, Peter. It was so good to see them reviving shipbuilding and seafaring after so long."
"Eustace?" Peter asked, wanting to be sure his cousin continued to feel part of the tale.
Eustace took a sip of wine from a mug, looking so mature, and thoughtful, and normal, Peter caught his breath. "Well, I was a right beast, at first, so…"
"Eustace!" Peter said sharply, "none of that." More gently, he reminded his cousin, "Given the Good Beasts of Narnia, that particular term is one of highest praise for us. Tell me of the crew."
"Reepicheep was aboard."
"Speaking of Good Beasts," Peter said fondly. "There was never a braver Mouse."
"He greatly admired you..."
The words got stuck and Peter helped him, divining some of his cousin's hesitation. "Call me as you always have, Eustace. My name hasn't changed."
Eustace stared into his mug then with a shaking hand held it out, silently asking for a refill. "I miss Reepicheep already."
"We landed first at the Lone Islands," Eustace offered. "It was a mistake to go in as we did."
Peter looked at Edmund and Lucy, waiting for some sign from them, but neither made any effort to contradict or correct Eustace's blunt critique. "Oh?"
"We ran into trouble, straight off," Eustace continued.
Peter did not say anything about the very many ways those small islands had been trouble for them. He wondered what Edmund's reaction had been on returning to a place that had assumed such a prominent place in his life. He tried to catch Lucy's eye, but Edmund stopped him.
"Drop the covert looks, Peter." It was so strange to hear this undercurrent of abrupt irritation in his brother's voice again, after so long. Peter had not heard that particular warning tone since Narnia, the first time. There was no reason for it to have ever arisen since, either here or during their second time, with Caspian. The unspoken subjects, the wine, the dim light of a fire, and the way the cup sat in his hand, were all nearly the same; it was the lawn on which they were sitting and the presence of the others that were different.
"I didn't say anything," he told Edmund.
"You didn't need to," his brother snapped.
"What?" Eustace asked, two steps behind on a conversation he would never learn the full of, regardless.
"Ancient history," Edmund stated firmly. "Not relevant, at all."
Of course that's precisely what Edmund had insisted thirteen hundred years ago, or two years ago, or when he'd been twenty-four the first time, or… Edmund was right, Peter saw. It wasn't relevant.
"What Eustace meant, Peter, was that we ran afoul of slavers," Lucy said, bringing the conversation back with a warning look to both of them.
"We left Narrowhaven in a better situation than it was when we arrived," Lucy said.
"We both had concerns about how Caspian handled the situation," Edmund admitted. "But, he showed his mettle well enough at the end. Lord Bern was a sound choice to govern and we supported him wholly."
"Calormenes slaving on Narnia lands is an ugly business, though," Peter said tightly.
"And Caspian handling it the way he did is likely to alienate any number of folk, both in Carlormen and on the Islands."
"He had to stop it!" Eustace exclaimed.
Peter put up a hand to quell the response that would come from both Edmund and Lucy. "We don't disagree, Eustace. Our concern is how Caspian chose to accomplish it. In acting as he did, he may have actually entrenched the practice, rather than eliminating it."
Lucy now put a comforting hand on his shoulder, knowing how difficult this sort of thing was to say, even to contemplate. It was sickening, to hear of slavery in their country and to know that it was not their responsibility to remedy.
He looked up at his brother. "Ed?"
Edmund took a long, shuddering drink. "I admit it. It was very hard to see that the changes we worked so long to effect there were gone, and as if they had never been. To see Caspian issue the sorts of broad edicts that we made a point of avoiding made it worse. We'd acted so carefully and subtly to shift the Islands' loyalties from Calormen to Narnia. It felt very much of wasted effort."
"Caspian will learn these things as we did," Lucy said, reaching over to reassure Edmund with her touch.
"So, a storm, two weeks at sea, no mast, food, or water, and then land?"
Edmund and Lucy had both gone strangely silent; both were staring at Eustace.
"Aslan always says that he will never tell you any story but your own." Peter put a small splash of wine in his cousin's cup. "Will you tell me your story now, Eustace?"
Now it was Peter's turn to take a shaky drink. Eustace had gone quiet again and was rubbing his arm.
"Does it still pain you?" Peter asked quietly.
"Only in my dreams. It's not a pain I want to forget, if that makes any sense?"
"Of course it does."
"Do you have anything like that … Peter?" his cousin asked, testing the name.
Peter stared at his hands, remembering the calluses and scars and how strange it was when those physical signs disappeared in the Wardrobe on the way back. Phantom pain? There were times when he was certain he felt old Narnian injuries paining him here, even though his skin showed no signs of the scars and trauma. Amputees could supposedly swear to feeling limbs that were gone. That analogy was a morbid one.
"We always remember," Peter decided upon instead. "Narnia is in our bodies and minds, our hearts and souls. You may not see the scars, or think on the skills you learned, but your body and mind will remember them."
"It's why we are drinking wine right now," Edmund added. "Why we can, and still have a taste for it."
Lucy giggled and Edmund shot her an amused look. "Tipsy already, Lu?"
Here or there, Lucy never was able to drink much at all without getting silly, and this was true regardless of her age.
"I liked how I felt," Eustace admitted. "After being the dragon, I mean. I got stronger. I mean, I was never going to have an arm like Caspian or the sailors, or you lot, but I wasn't so soft. I hope I don't go back to the way I was before."
"You won't," Peter assured him, remembering well these same questions they had asked themselves the first time, and the relief they felt in finding that while some things, and the strength to accomplish them, did have to be grown into, the skills and talents acquired in Narnia had stayed with them. "If things atrophy or you forget, it will be for lack of practice, only."
"We should work on that arm of yours, cousin," Edmund said heartily. "So next time you don't go breaking Caspian's second best sword on a sea serpent."
"And then, I made a mistake," Lucy said quietly, staring into her own cup. "I used a spell from the book. It wasn't a big thing, but it was wrong and it was enough, and I should have been stronger."
Peter looked at Edmund, but it appeared that this was the first his brother had heard of it as well.
"Lucy," he started to say, putting an arm about her.
She shrugged him off with a wan smile. "Absolution isn't yours to give, Peter, though I thank you for trying." With a little shake, Lucy continued. "I found the right spell, said it, and it was done. The Duffers were the strangest, funniest things and the magician, Coriakin, was no more wicked than I am."
"They floated," Eustace blurted out. Edmund and Lucy started laughing.
"The Dufflepuds. By the Lion, they were so …"
Mentally, Peter stumbled, hearing Eustace invoke Aslan with such warm and familiar affection. He took a deep, steadying sip of his own, let the laughter wash over him, and concentrated again as Eustace the Un-Dragoned told him of a fallen star.
"And then," Edmund said, turning very grim, "we come to two parts of the journey where, Peter, we'll ask not to repeat over much. By Aslan's grace, we had a narrow shave, found one of the Lords, dead, and it was my turn to be a royal arse."
"Only for a moment," Lucy corrected gently.
"One moment too long, sister."
"After that," Eustace began, but he spoke into heavy, suffocating silence. With a deep breath, his cousin checked himself, which would have been a significant miracle all on its own, even if it had not preceded an even more extraordinary statement. "By Aslan's grace, we had a narrow shave and found one Lord, alive."
Peter wanted to ask of Jadis' knife and how it had come to be there and what Lucy thought of it. But Edmund had gone cold and silent, and so he would wait.
Instead, his sister went all girlish on them. "Unless I am much mistaken, I think Caspian shall find a Star's daughter waiting for him on his return," Lucy said, with a dreamy lilt to her voice.
Eustace made a choking sound. Edmund clouted him on the shoulder. "Make too big a fuss, cousin, and when the time comes, we will be sure to remind you and the lady of every protest you make now."
"Such the experts you are," Eustace said sourly, with something of a return to his surly self.
"Don't!" Lucy squeaked with perfect mock horror. "Don't tempt them, Eustace, I beg you. I cannot possibly listen tonight to my brothers on the subject of women!"
"Women?" Eustace scoffed. "Peter and Edmund aren't that much older than I…"
Lucy urgently waved her hands to halt this alarming discussion. "Eustace. Stop. Look at them."
Peter had to admit, Edmund was sporting a bit of a leer. He couldn't quite stop the grinning himself. He and his brother hadn't had a good jaw on the subject of the pleasurable and necessary company of women for months. If Lucy and Eustace hadn't been there, he would have counted on Edmund to give him an untarnished and more candid assessment of the Star's daughter.
Eustace looked between the two of them and a wordless "oh" formed, along with a probable blush, although it was difficult to tell by candlelight.
"Cousin," Edmund said, helping himself to the second bottle, "a gentleman does not speak of such things."
Lucy snorted and Peter almost spit out perfectly good wine with that utterly outrageous statement.
Not gentlemen perhaps; knights, brothers, and kings were another matter entirely.
Edmund ignored them, expounding at his most deliberately pompous. Peter suspected that he was the one actually being parodied. "No denying it though," Edmund declared, "it was good to be a King."
"Where sky and water meet, Where the waves grow sweet, Doubt not, Reepicheep, To find all you seek, There is the utter East." Lucy recited the Dryad's prophecy softly.
Peter sensed his family was nearing the end of their ability to tell the tale. "And so, you came to the End of the World and Reepicheep went on."
Eustace was nodding, briskly wiping tears away.
Lucy was leaning against his shoulder. "We saw Aslan," she murmured through a yawn.
"Lucy and I are not to return," Edmund said flatly into his empty mug.
"Ready for bed, Lucy?" Peter asked her softly.
She sniffed, nodded and yawned again.
Worn with care, joy, and sorrow, his sister was light and no burden at all to bear into the spare bedroom. Peter tucked her in and saw that someone, probably Lucy herself, had set out a blanket and pillow on the floor. It would be a hard bed, but he'd had worse.
On his way out of the darkened room, Peter tripped over a stack of magazines. In the dim light of the hallway, he picked up the volume on top, and reading its title, shook his head with bemusement.
He slipped out into the hallway where Edmund was waiting.
"Proceedings of the Royal Geography Society, 1937-1938?" he asked.
His brother shrugged, not at all apologetic. "If you had been more forthcoming, I wouldn't have been concerned."
"As you would say, Edmund, it wasn't relevant. In the slightest," Peter emphasized.
"And how often do you believe me when I assert the same thing?" Edmund anxiously clasped his arm, concern etched all over his tired countenance. "Speak truly, Peter. I nearly hopped the train a dozen times over worrying for you."
It was so completely and thoroughly and typically Edmund, Peter wanted to shake him. A day here, months in Narnia, now never to return, and Edmund still, somehow, found the capacity to fret over him, over this.
"Edmund, what was our one adage, hard learned, hard earned? What was the one, single, guiding principle to steer us through such things, as applicable there, as here?"
His brother grinned, the relief obvious. "Never…" he began.
Together they finished, "be the ass."
When Peter woke, the floor was predictably hard, the sun was bright, and Lucy still sound asleep. She had pulled a pillow over her eyes and would be sleeping it all off for some time yet. The first night back from Narnia would be like that, sleep to recover, sleep to escape, sleep to dream.
Listening closely, he was relieved to hear the sounds of footsteps, faint voices, and the door shut. Harold and Alberta were leaving for the day, and so he would be able to put off the awkward meeting. He'd forgotten to even ask if Eustace had told his parents that another unwelcome and unwholesome cousin was coming.
The pile of journals he had stumbled over last night was, he now saw, barely the beginning of it. There were neat piles everywhere, undoubtedly organized in some convoluted filing system only Edmund would invent. His brother must have been in quite the state to have accumulated so massive a collection to confirm a problem that wasn't.
Slowly, quietly easing away from Lucy, Peter collected his bag. Intending to creep out of the room, he made a point of looking first for the picture of The Dawn Treader they had said was on the wall. There was only one picture in the room. Spying it, his bag slid from his hand and landed with a thump so loud, Lucy mumbled in her sleep and rolled over. Peter stared at the picture.
"Do you see dreams, Peter?" Asim asked.
It was one of those statements that always reminded him of the Centaur sages and mages. Part philosopher, part scholar, part mystic, part soldier, Asim seemed to encompass all these things, and more besides.
"I have dreams," Peter admitted. "Doesn't everyone?" They were of Narnia, occasionally. Or, just silly dreams, about Brussels sprouts, or rugger, or girls with long hair and longer legs.
"No," Asim corrected. "I speak not of dreams that we have, but of dreams that we see. These are the dreams that God shows to us. Do you have dreams like that?"
"No," Peter said after a time, mulling the distinction. "God does not speak to me that way."
"I saw a dream of a ship, green, with a dragon on her prow, with a purple sail. She sails on a sea of lilies. Have you ever seen a ship like that?"
The Splendor Hyaline had been nothing like that; nor any other ship he had ever seen, before or since.
"No, Friend, I have not. Someday, though, I should like to."
And here she was, hanging on a wall in Harold and Alberta's spare bedroom, sailing to the end of a flat world as the flagship of the Narnian fleet, and shown by God to an Arab Muslim in a prophetic dream.
Hello? Aslan? I'm listening. Really.
He stared at the painting a long time, waiting for a heavy paw to land on his shoulder or, more likely, thwack him on the side of the head. Eventually, his knees started to ache from kneeling and Peter, feeling a greater fool than ever in his double life, stumbled out of Lucy's room, wishing they had not drunk all the wine last night. At this point, a shot of that vile plum liquor Lightning the Dwarfs distilled might be even better.
It was so quiet that when he made his way downstairs, he was surprised to find Eustace in the kitchen. His cousin was standing on a wobbly chair, rooting around in a cupboard, muttering to himself.
"Eustace?" Peter asked.
His cousin jerked his head and banged it on the shelf above. "Oww!"
"Sorry," Peter said, hurrying over. "You alright?"
Eustace pulled his head out of the cupboard. "Hullo, uhhh…"
"Peter," he prompted.
"Right. Sorry. It's just everyone called you High King."
"That can raise eyebrows here, Eustace. I don't recommend it." He gestured to the cupboard. "Are you looking for something?"
"Yes. I know your brother has stashed some tea bags here, not being the sort of thing Harold and Alberta take to. Do you know where he might have hidden them?"
"If they aren't in a locked box…"
Eustace shook his head.
"Then they will be underneath something hidden in plain view that's not used much."
Looking back into the cupboard, Eustace pulled out a tin labeled, Sugar. "The whole country is rationing it, so, of course, Harold and Alberta have pounds of it, unused." He tucked the tin under his arm, screwed off the lid and, "Excellent!"
As he took the tin from his cousin, Peter couldn't help noticing that Eustace was more nimble teetering on a stool than he ever would have expected. The old Eustace would have never made it on to the chair in the first place. Sea legs, he supposed, and the effect of Narnia overall.
Eustace hopped down and kicked the chair back toward the kitchen table. Peter couldn't help smiling as he dusted off the tea bags Edmund had buried in the sugar.
"What?" Eustace asked, with a hint of his old defensiveness.
"You're a different man, Eustace," Peter said. "You don't even realize it."
Looking down at the floor, Eustace thrust his hands in his pockets, and kicked at imaginary dust. "You think so? Truly?"
"Do you doubt it, cousin?"
He shook his head. "Not really. It's more just that I can't quite believe it. I mean, I still feel like I'm a prat."
"Maybe," Peter agreed. "But the difference is that it's no longer an excuse."
Eustace nodded and turned quickly away. He was trying to hide his emotions again, and Peter would respect it. He put the kettle on and waited for Eustace to begin again.
"Alberta thought I was sick this morning," Eustace said suddenly, as he put the cleaned mugs from last night on the table and sat down. There were neither tea cups nor wine glasses in the Scrubb household. "She gave me cod liver oil." He made a vile face.
"That's going to happen until you get better at hiding the more obvious."
Eustace looked up from his contemplation of the tea bags and wrappers scattered on the table. "Were you always this wise and King Arthur-like and I just was too much a brute to see it?"
"Eustace?" Peter asked, instead of answering the unanswerable. "Just say, 'I'm sorry, Peter,' and we'll be done with this, alright?"
Flushing and stammering, Eustace managed to get it out. "I'm sorry, Peter. You don't know how sorry…"
Peter grasped his hurting cousin's hands from across the little table. "I accept your apology, I am sorry as well, and I am far gladder to see you improved and a Friend of Narnia, than as you were and a stranger to us." The hold became firmer. "I mean that, Eustace."
Eustace's hands shook a little and he pulled back to brush his leaking tears away against his shoulder.
The kettle whistled, tea was poured and Peter enjoyed, guilt free, a far sweeter tea than that to which he had been accustomed.
Eustace was drinking his tea strong and dark, a sailor's brew.
"Friend of Narnia," his cousin suddenly blurted out. "You've called me that twice."
"Yes," Peter responded mildly, waiting for Eustace to elaborate. This discussion could veer in several directions.
"I'm trying to work out what it means to be Narnian here. I heard Edmund and Lucy say that 'Once a King or Queen of Narnia, always a King or Queen.'"
"We heard that from both Aslan and from Professor Kirke."
"Lucy and Edmund mentioned him. Professor Kirke, I mean. You were with him this summer, right?"
"Yes. When he was a boy, he went into Narnia with a girl, Polly Plummer. They were there for several days at Narnia's Creation."
"Thing is, I'm not a King." Even when speaking so bluntly, Eustace's bad-mannered habits of yesterday were softened, even as his body and stamina had toughened.
"Professor Kirke was not a King and Miss Plummer was not a Queen, but they are both Friends of Narnia still."
"So how do you stay a Friend of Narnia? I should probably ask Professor Kirke this, but you're here, so I'm asking you. I wasn't a Narnian King, and there's something about it that doesn't sit with me well. Royalty isn't terribly democratic, is it?"
The statements, all run together, were classically Eustace –tactless – yet, Peter respected the very genuine sentiment behind them. In fairness, Peter was also making more of an effort to be patient. While his cousin had apologized first, he had been owed one as well.
"You are really asking about several things, Eustace. Most important, you are a Friend of Narnia and, even more, been Un-dragoned, by Aslan's grace. This means there are high expectations for how you conduct yourself and treat others, and that applies regardless of titles and so on."
Eustace stared into his steaming mug. "I figured that, and I have been trying. Like I said last night, I don't want to go back to the way I was before, and it's more than just feeling a bit stronger. Even," his voice dropped to an embarrassed whisper, "braver."
He said it so furtively Peter wondered if Eustace thought he might be mocked for expressing a noble impulse. "I assure you, Eustace, that sort of thing tends to happen when you have been in the company of the Lion."
Eustace nodded, round face scrunched up in thought. "I've been wondering what happens now? What am I supposed to do?"
"We four are all working that out," Peter said, for such heartfelt honesty deserved the same unvarnished truth. "You are asking the right questions. Narnians strive to do Aslan's will, and that guides us here as much as it does there."
"So Aslan is here?" Eustace asked. "Never mind," he said abruptly. "Of course he is. Harold and Alberta have a picture of The Dawn Treader on a wall in their house."
And in an Arab's dream. Peter took a sip of his own hot tea, struck by Eustace's comment and the ease with which he had arrived at so profound a conclusion.
"What?" Eustace asked, his pugnacity pushing through for a moment. "You look funny. What did I say?"
"I was thinking about what you were saying and how perceptive it is."
If Peter had said a Talking Mouse was hiding in the cupboard, Eustace could not have looked more shocked.
"Really?" Eustace choked out.
Peter nodded. "Really," he affirmed. "I've come to see this summer that some of the best things of Narnia are here as well, if I make the effort to see them. It is harder to find them because the War really colors everything."
Eustace was looking thoughtful again; Peter steeled himself for another startling revelation.
"It was so beautiful there," Eustace said wistfully, "and it is all so ugly here. But, from what the others said, it was plenty ugly in Narnia at times, what with the Witch and Caspian's uncle, and his ilk. So I know it's not a fair comparison at all."
Peter cupped his chin in his hand, staring at his cousin, all amazement.
This time Eustace did not take a defensive turn. He did stammer, a little shyly, "at least, that's how I'm trying to see it."
Peter was almost embarrassed the thought had not occurred to him before. "You are right; it is not a fair comparison, and having been back there twice at the end of two tyrants' reigns, I really should have understood that." Poor England. How could she possibly compare to Narnia in the circumstances under which they had best known Her?
"For me," Peter confided to his cousin, "it has helped being with Professor Kirke and Aunt Polly this summer, as well as some of their friends. They all are able to look beyond the War and see this Creation as a very good one. Their enthusiasm and affection are infectious."
"I heard Edmund and Lucy talking about that some." Eustace dropped his eyes. "I suppose I listened in on them."
"You've apologized to me, Eustace. I assume you have done so to them as well. Try to improve going forward and not do it again."
His cousin nodded slowly and took a deep breath. "At any rate, you got to know Dr. Richard Russell, didn't you? And Dr. Mary Anning Russell?" His expression became openly admiring. "They're famous. I've even heard Harold and Alberta talk about them and the Russells publish lots of articles."
"I did come to know them very well," Peter said, feeling a sudden pang of guilt. Richard had wanted him to come by today to talk about owls. "I spent a lot of time with Richard, in particular. I think, after seeing some specimens at the Oxford Museum, I have a better appreciation for your bug collection."
Eustace's hands jerked in surprise, splashing his tea. "It's not very impressive, or anything." He had to shake his wrist to flick the tea off. "I just have your common English bugs and beetles, plus a few some of Harold and Alberta's friends have collected for me."
"Do you think you might show them to me?"
They were in the drawing room looking at the beetles in Eustace's curio cabinet when they heard Edmund stumble into the kitchen.
"Oi! Peter!" his brother bellowed. "You told Eustace where to find my tea, didn't you?"
"We aren't speaking to you, Edmund, until you fix yourself a cup," Peter hollered back.
"Bloody High King you are, commandeering my tea!"
Eustace looked at him in mute horror, evidently not realizing the brotherly prerogatives at work.
They heard grumbling and eventually the sound of the kettle.
Eustace was extolling upon minute differences in carapaces and thoraxes as evidence of environmental adaptations when Edmund finally wandered in, still in pajamas, and looking every moment the grumpy English schoolboy in his brother's hand me downs and not at all like a Narnian King.
"First morning back, always the worse," Edmund muttered, staring at the neatly pinned and labeled bugs Eustace had ordered on cards on the floor.
Brimming with enthusiasm, Eustace looked up at his cousin not yet into the first cuppa. "You never told me that Narnian Crows would wager on beetle races!" He brandished a card in Edmund's direction. "Peter thought Narnian beetles looked like this one! Do you think so?"
Peter inwardly winced, regretting that he had not warned Eustace to tread more carefully. He waited several beats before looking up at his brother. A thousand different expressions were crossing Edmund's face, each more unreadable than the last, before he finally settled on mild interest. His brother was determined to show he was as emotionally detached as he purported to, and might in actuality, be.
"A bit," Edmund said with a shrug. "The Crows could see differences in them that we couldn't. I always thought they looked like black bugs."
Edmund took a sip, grimacing with the heat of tea and veered away to ask the obvious. "Lu not up yet?"
"No," Peter said, humoring the mood. "I'll take something up to her; we can't let her sleep all day."
Deciding it would be best to not subject Edmund to Eustace's enthusiasm for beetles, Peter started returning the cards to the cabinet. "Can we go over this more later?" he asked his cousin. "Maybe after we dredge up some breakfast?"
Eustace was looking at Edmund with a slight, sad frown. Peter nudged him, and with a shake Eustace complied, and followed back into the kitchen.
He started tea for Lucy while Eustace pretended to stare in the cupboards again. Peter had to stifle his own sigh as he heard a slight sniffle, and then a tentative, "Peter?"
"Is Edmund angry with me?" Eustace asked in an overly loud, raspy whisper. "Did I say something wrong? Or is it just that he's upset because he can't go back and I might be able to, if I please Aslan? Because I am sorry about that, even if it's not my fault."
Peter held up a hand, and keeping a wary eye at the adjoining door, knew that if Edmund wished to, he would overhear every word. Eustace stepped closer, accepting Peter's offered comfort of an arm across his back. "He may be angry," Peter whispered, "although he also knows he should not be. Whatever Edmund and Lucy are and will be feeling doesn't have anything to do with you, even if it seems that it does, and you'll just have to remember that."
Eustace frowned, with something close to, but not quite, surly. This whole business of thinking about others was a very new experience for him. "I guess I don't understand."
"You don't need to understand what may be saddening them, Eustace. Just try to be understanding." He put the hint of an order in this. The Eustace of yesterday would have taken this as a personal invitation for obstinacy, teasing, and needling; the Eustace of today chewed his lip as he turned the issue over in his mind and then nodded thoughtfully.
"Thank you," Peter told him with real feeling, truly meaning it. His cousin, brother and sister were going to be blundering about raw and sensitive for a time, and it was really impossible to know what might set a person off. Not getting upset over every unpredictable outburst would help immeasurably in getting them all through the next few days.
The kettle was singing and demanded his attention. "I need to see Lucy now. I suggest not seeking Edmund out; he will come around quicker if you give him the chance to speak to you first."
Leaving Eustace slicing tomatoes and bread, Peter headed upstairs with a brimming cup for Lucy. From the landing, he saw Edmund staring moodily at the beetles in the curio cabinet; Peter said nothing.
Lucy's door was ajar. His sister was still in her nightclothes, sitting cross-legged on her bed, eyes closed. She was praying and although she undoubtedly had heard him, she would not stop until she was ready to do so.
He loitered at her door, feeling the cup cool, and stared at The Dawn Treader. Since Aslan was certainly with Lucy, Peter had a concededly dim hope that perhaps the Lion might speak to him as well, being as he was already, so to speak, in the neighborhood. Peter tried clearing and focusing his mind, but he sensed nothing other than annoyance that he had been too thick-headed thus far. This was undoubtedly his own interpretation of the situation, and not especially helpful.
Without opening her eyes, Lucy said, "Thank you, Peter." She held out her hands, and Peter placed the tea in them. She inhaled the aroma deeply. "Aslan says hello, and thanks you for coming to see us, and for being so supportive of Eustace."
"Does he have anything else to say to me?" Peter asked, with another glance at the painting on the wall.
"Silly goose!" Lucy scolded. "You know he won't tell me your story."
But it would save ever so much time.
"Sit," his sister instructed. "I shall be done in a moment."
Peter did as he was commanded to do, and waited, hearing, but not listening to, Lucy's murmured conversation. She then fell silent altogether.
He was studying the picture again when his sister's voice broke in, "Edmund and I knew this was coming, so we were more fortunate than you and Susan." She had opened her eyes and now sipped her tea. "If we went back, we thought it was probably going to be for the last time."
Peter settled himself more comfortably on the bed. "Susan and I had wondered if you both had come to that; we thought it likely as well."
Lucy cradled the cup in her hands. "I remember you saying it was not as you expected. I can accept that I won't see Narnia again." She sighed and rubbed her eyes. "It's Aslan I shall miss ever so much."
"As Eustace pointed out to me," Peter said, indicating the picture on the wall, "Aslan certainly is here. He finds ways to bridge his two worlds, and reach into this one, even if we cannot."
She smiled, perceiving where the most notable in his statement lay. "It really is remarkable, isn't it?"
"Eustace's change is nothing short of miraculous. I am very grateful to Aslan."
Returning to his sister's point, he offered, "I know you'll miss him, Lucy, but you have always had the strongest connection to Aslan. You certainly hear him more clearly here than the rest of us."
Snorting, Lucy repeated her old instruction. "That's because I know how to listen for him, Peter." Her smile made it a gentle admonishment. "I know he is with me. I know I'll see him again. It's…"
She trailed off, her voice hitching.
Peter gently pried the cup from her hands and set it on her nightstand. "What is it, Lucy?"
"I hear him, very well, as you say. But, I am going to miss seeing him, and being able to throw my arms around him." She hiccupped and the tears started again. Peter pulled his sister into his arms, wishing he could make that ache go away, and that he couldn't. They had all felt it. There was no wisdom he could impart that Lucy had not already divined, and long before he had.
"He is here, but not as the Great Lion; that's gone. For now. I feel him in my heart, but I can't touch him. Here, Aslan doesn't have soft, golden, fur and that beautiful fragrance. I can't see the grass turn greener as he walks with me or hear him when he teases Trumpkin or Cook."
He held her and let her weep out her grief.
"More than any of us, Lu, he knew you had the faith and strength to continue to know him here, even without that touch. You don't need it, even if you want it." Peter murmured the platitude, but really it was just patently absurd for him to say anything to Lucy on the subject of Aslan.
She sniffed. "I know it's a sort of childish dependence. I shouldn't need him that way and I know he wants me to be able to do his will without it." She uttered a little humph of indignation, and shot a dirty look at the picture. "But, you also know I don't like it at all when someone tries to tell me I can't do something."
Peter was not sure if she was speaking to him, or to Aslan – probably both.
"We're all like that Lucy. We all assume we can do anything." Except Latin and Greek, Peter thought with a silent, muted scowl of his own. "Aslan loves you so much, he accepts you are going to be angry with him for taking this away. He will understand, at least for a little while."
She smiled at him through her tears, and again, Peter felt the fool for trying to offer anything to his youngest sister on this. "He told us that the way to him and his country, for us, is through this world, not Narnia. He said he was trying to tell us how to get there all the time."
So, the same message. He supposed there was no reason to assume it would be different. "Yes," Peter affirmed, "Aslan said the same thing to me and to Susan."
Calmer, Lucy extricated herself and reached again for her mug. He sensed the conversation wasn't over, that there was still more she wished to say. Peter waited.
Lucy sipped her tea, eyes wandering over the room, but not lingering overly long at the picture.
"Having gone to the effort to take us to Narnia, teach us there, and then bring us back, he expects us to continue do his will here." She spoke so flatly, it was not a question, or even a statement inviting comment. "That's what's confusing me now."
This did surprise him. Given how closely Lucy was attuned to Aslan, Peter had not thought that his youngest sister would have any difficulty divining what the Lion intended for her.
"Confusing … how, Lu?"
"I'm not quite ready to talk about it, Peter. It's something that started when I was writing to you this summer."
Peter did not really know what to say. He hadn't picked up on anything especially unusual in Lucy's letters. They were and had been cheerful, thoughtful, and funny.
"I'm listening, if you want to try to put your confusion into words."
She squeezed his hand, and with a deep breath, carefully picked through her words. "I'm finding I don't have a lot of patience for those who claim to know Aslan and purport to do his will here. I've become suspicious of such people, since I do know Aslan and am mindful of his will."
Lucy paused for a contemplative sip of her tea then continued, "I wanted to speak to Aslan about it and didn't get the opportunity."
"And this is confusing because…" Peter prompted, leading her on.
"I'm confused because I'm not sure yet if what I'm thinking and feeling is bringing me closer to Aslan, or further away."
Peter nearly snorted his incredulity. "I find it difficult to believe that anything you think or feel is taking you further from Aslan, Lucy."
She nodded her agreement, for Lucy's confidence in the Lion and her faith in him was that great. "As do I. Maybe to put it better, I don't know yet if this is what Aslan wants, but I mean to find out. If it is, then I must act on it."
Lucy had this way of speaking with such insight, it robbed him of anything but stammering admiration. She had indeed hinted at a lessening tolerance for hypocrisy in her letters; Peter however, had not followed her musings to this logical conclusion.
"You were always the Valiant one, Lucy, there or here," he told her.
"Yes," she agreed, stating it without any false modesty, "I am. I'm not the least bit afraid or shy about standing against those things and people that I believe are against Aslan, or worse still, when they claim to act in his name, and I know they are not. I healed the wrongs they did with my cordial, and fought them with my bow and dagger. This is what I did in Narnia, and I think this is what Aslan expects of me here."
Unleashing the indomitable Queen Lucy the Valiant upon an unsuspecting England was a fearsome, wondrous thing to consider. Peter stroked the golden head resting on his shoulder, and knew that only Aslan could have given him the words that followed. "So, my Valiant sister, if the Lion so commands, what you must do is find the equivalent of your cordial, knife and bow here."
Lucy threw her arms around him, fortunately setting down her hot tea first. "Yes," she whispered. "Thank you. That's it exactly."
Leaving Lucy to get dressed and collect herself, Peter went back downstairs, hoping, selfishly, that there might be a few moments of relative normalcy.
Fortunately, whatever mood had gripped Edmund had been overcome. Eustace and Edmund were cheerfully munching on toast and tomatoes. They had broken into the rationed butter that, like the sugar, Harold and Alberta had obtained, but disdained.
"Lucy's up," Peter told them, as he pulled a chair to the table.
"We were wondering what we should do today," Edmund said, smearing a slab of butter on his toast that was thicker than the bread.
"Eustace, do Harold and Alberta know that I'm even here?"
His cousin shrugged. "I told them this morning, but I'm not sure they paid much attention. I'm not expecting them back until late tonight, regardless."
"Why is that?" Peter asked conversationally, helping himself to a plate.
"Because that's what they do," Edmund answered quickly.
Belatedly, Peter realized he had not been especially sensitive to the situation. From Edmund's letters, he had come to understand that Alberta and Harold did not concern themselves with their son's life and affairs in the slightest, except to the extent it inconvenienced them.
"So, we're on our own then," Peter said with firm enthusiasm. "Excellent! What did you both have in mind?"
"I'd thought we might visit some of the local churches," Edmund said, chewing on a crust. "There are a number of historical ones around here. I thought Lucy might like that, since we're all missing Aslan."
Strangely, Eustace shook his head. "I don't see that at all." With a sheepish look, he amended more tactfully, "Sorry, Edmund, I didn't mean to be so contrary."
"Why don't you say what you did mean," Peter prompted, before an argument started.
"It's just that I've never been to a church and if you all say Aslan is there, I believe you. But, I never would expect to only find him in a church. He's so big, for one. Remember what Caspian said about how Aslan spoke to him from the picture because he couldn't fit in the ship's cabin?"
Peter looked at Edmund. Edmund returned the look, with a Yes, he does this quite a lot and it does take some getting used to.
"So what do you propose?" Edmund did not like to be argued with, but he was trying as Eustace was to be agreeable.
"I just figured that we'd find Aslan here in the sorts of places we all have found him in Narnia, like a meadow or a pond or a wood, so maybe we should go there today."
"That's a smashing idea, Eustace!" Lucy cried, waltzing into the kitchen. "And I'm all dressed for it!"
Edmund gave her an askance look. "If you tear my trousers on a fencepost, you get to mend them."
"That's my shirt you're wearing, Lucy!" Eustace cried.
"Friend of Narnia you are, cousin," Peter said, through with a laugh. "But you are not officially a member of our family until Lucy steals your clothes."
To follow, Queen Susan In Tashbaan, Chapter 2
In which there is more crying and Peter and Edmund have several overdue conversations.