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We Hold On

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"But why aren't there any Talking Beasts anymore? And why can't I say anything about them at school?" Bethany asked as she climbed into her bed. "Teacher smacked my hand with her ruler and said I was telling lies! Papa doesn't lie to me, and he says there were so Talking Beasts, for years and years and years, before they went away."

Edith fought to keep a worried frown off her face. She knew she should have been firmer when she told Lir to watch his words around their daughter. No matter how vital it was to pass on the truth, Bethany was too young still to understand the importance of keeping secrets.

But done was done, and all she could do now was try to fix the damage.

"Your papa didn't lie, but it's a secret story, dear heart, very long and sad. It makes the kings and lords and gentry look bad, so they don't want anyone to remember it," Edith said as she pulled the covers up to Bethany's chin and smoothed out the wrinkles. "That's why you got in trouble at school for asking about Talking Beasts."

Bethany blinked in sleepy confusion. "Because I said bad things about the king? But I didn't! I didn't say anything about him, or the lords."

Edith tapped her the tip of her daughter's nose and smiled when Bethany crossed her eyes and wrinkled her nose. "Not this king, but his many-times-great-grandfather. You see, when the Telmarines first came to Narnia, they didn't understand the Beasts and Beings. There weren't any dryads or dwarfs or centaurs or fauns or talking beasts in Telmar, just like there aren't any in our towns now. So the Telmarines weren't used to thinking of anyone but humans as people."

She bent and tidied the bottom corners of the bed. Bethany had a terrible habit of kicking the sheets in her sleep. If Edith didn't tuck them in again each evening, her daughter would kick them loose in the middle of the night, wake up with her feet like blocks of ice, and come fetch Edith or Lir to search for the White Witch who had come to snatch her away into the far frozen north or some other nonsense.

She continued talking as she worked. "If you don't understand a person -- if you don't think of them as people -- it's terribly, terribly easy for fear to slip in, and where fear travels, hatred and violence are sure to follow."

"Like when Jorjen and Almaria get in a fight in the kitchen?" Bethany asked. "Because they say Papa can't afford to keep them both on?"

"Very like indeed," Edith said, and resolved to keep a closer eye on her husband's apprentices, and also to tug on the gossip webs when she went to market on the morrow, to see what had given them such a gloomy impression of the family finances. A goldsmith rarely wanted for work, particularly now with the king's wedding fast approaching. But that was for later.

"The Telmarines were afraid of the Narnians, and thought they couldn't live safely in a country with people who weren't also human. And so, though Caspian I's reign began with fair words of fellowship, the civil war simply changed its second cloak for a third. The people of Narnia were driven into hiding in the deep woods, the deep earth, the deep waters, where the Telmarines could not find them."

"But Mama, we're Narnians, aren't we?" Bethany asked.

"So we are. For though Narnia is not a land for humans, the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve have always been welcome within her borders. But the Telmarines forget that. They think, because we have no fur or feathers, because we have blood in our veins instead of sap or water, because we don't feel the earth in our bones, that we are their allies. That we have turned our backs on our country and our people."

"That's not right! We wouldn't be mean like that!" Bethany said, jerking halfway upright in indignation.

Edith placed a hand on her daughter's shoulder, pressing her gently back down onto the bed. "No, we wouldn't. But for now, it's not safe to let the Telmarines know the truth. Not the lords, not the gentry, not even the ordinary townsfolk like us."

"Not even Almaria and Jorjen?"

"Not even them."

"But I like them," Bethany protested. "They're not mean. I bet they wouldn't be scared to meet a Talking Beast. And you and Papa like them too, or they wouldn't live here."

Edith did like Lir's apprentices, particularly Almaria. It was rare for a Telmarine woman to venture into business in her own name, rather than act as her husband's right hand. But there was a difference between trusting a person not to lighten the cashbox, trusting a person to listen to a master's instruction in a chosen craft, and trusting a person to keep silent and condone sedition and treason, no matter how minor.

"Even so, you can't tell them," she said. "This is a secret for Narnians alone. One day Aslan will send a sign, or return himself, and Old Narnia will wake. Our brothers and sisters will rise from the shadows, and when they lay siege to the walls, we will be here waiting, ready to open the doors from inside. We will let the forest in."

"And then it's happy ever after!" Bethany said. "Oh, I want to meet a Talking Lion. Or a dryad, or a dwarf. I won't tell, but can't we go into the forest someday and find them? And make sure they know we're waiting? That we haven't forgotten and turned into Telmarines?"

Edith stroked her hand along her daughter's hair. "No, Bethany. It's too dangerous. People who go too far into the forest are called turncoats and traitors, and I love you too much to lose you that way. So be a good girl, go to school, don't talk back, and remember that one day -- maybe soon, maybe not -- one day things will change."

"When Aslan comes?" Bethany said.

"When Aslan comes," Edith agreed. "Now close your eyes, dear heart. Tomorrow will come faster the sooner you go to sleep."

Bethany rolled onto her side and smiled sleepily toward her mother. "Do you think Aslan will come faster too?"

"Maybe he will, maybe he won't. He's not a tame Lion, you know." Edith blew out the candle on the chest beside her daughter's bed, dropping the room into darkness. "Now sleep, and fear no dreams or witches. Your father and I are keeping watch."

"Good night, Mama."

Edith eased out of Bethany's room and shut the door behind her.

She needed to talk with Lir.