~ Always On The Guard ~
In Year 7 of the Golden Age, the same day as Chapter 5, The Cheetah Guard of the High King in The Palace Guard by rthstewart
Merle is dead. Dead.
Edmund said the words over in his head, once, twice more, but repeating them proved no use against the numb barrier separating him from the pile of parchment on the library table. He scraped the top sheet violently toward him and scanned it, reading not a single word.
“Is there anything you need, Your Highness?” asked the Centaur, Eirene.
Edmund shook his head to convey that her attention was not necessary, then nodded toward the door. She quietly exited the library.
Blast this intrusion into his head! He knew the observant Centaur was well able to see his grief over the dead Boarhound who had been his years-long companion and Guard. Even with a (Temporary, he had to remind himself) Guard less perceptive than some, Edmund felt hunted. Sending Eirene out to the other side of the library door only called further attention to his distress. He could not even be left alone to mourn!
Edmund closed his eyes and sat back in the chair, a token attempt at rest, but the blackness behind his eyelids flickered and resolved into the horrific images of the ambush that had claimed Merle’s life.
- # -
A beautiful day - one that gathered together all that was breathtaking about Narnia and wrapped it up in one bright, shining gift to Her citizens. The Songbirds twittered about, and the few Dryads in this part of the Western Wood shushed among themselves as if enjoying the lazy breeze tousling their leaves. Not even Edmund’s allergies dared today to interfere with such perfection. Perhaps they were over for the season, and good riddance to them.
He rode a dumb horse, and was thankful for it. The beast provided no conversation, and Merle, his Boarhound Guard, was too busy snuffling enthusiastically among the trailside bracken to be bothered with talk. This suited Edmund, for he had been swaying back and forth all morning over a tricky bit of tax policy. He had just about firmed up the tariff on textiles imported from the Lone Islands, and now gone on to wondering how much ground Narnia might gain regarding the import of raw wool before the Islanders balked.
He might, he thought, install a lower tariff on the export of Narnian wines. Good wine was cheap in Narnia. The grapes were easily grown with the encouragement of wood spirits (and the occasional visit from Bacchus), and the flavor was incomparable to that of the wines available anywhere else. A ready bargaining chip, should he need it.
He drew a deep, satisfied breath of woodsy air. The best part of today, he conceded, was the opportunity to be alone, inasmuch as it was in his capacity to be so. Presently his attention returned to the myriad small sounds of the forest and the sniffing of Merle. He let that sink in and overcome the soup of ciphers and circumventions always bubbling in his brain.
They rode ever deeper into the Wood on their way to visit a family of Foxes on the Wood’s westernmost edge. Here there were no Dryads, and not even the capricious breeze found its way under the dense canopy to disturb the foliage. But for Merle’s exuberations, there would be total silence now.
As alone as he would ever get, Edmund let that rarely-visited part of him - Peace - expand and run rampant as the Hound did through the undergrowth. He let it chase with Merle through bushes and brambles, sniffing and tasting and wagging and reveling in the simple act of being. And from the depths of him came a long sigh that he’d been holding in for months and maybe years. He closed his eyes, listening for the thump of Merle’s footfalls with a smile.
A growl from the Hound drew him out of his blessed lack of thoughts. Ed opened his eyes. At first, he wondered if it were a squirrel. Merle had no reservations about chasing after squirrels, dumb or otherwise, and was bothered neither by scolding nor thrown missiles as the animals escaped him into the trees ... which they always did.
But no squirrel.
Ed caught the creak of leather not his own, and jerked his sword from its sheath at once. From the trees burst three creatures - an Orc, a Minotaur, and a Werewolf fully shifted into its Beast form.
Scavengers, he thought. Remnants of the White Witch’s army, probably, reduced to hiding and looting and preying on travelers. He and Peter had been systematically combing Narnia’s wild places in an effort to remove such threats to Her people. Clearly, they had work yet to do. Ed had no time to lament his serious lapse in attention before the mob was on him.
Edmund’s horse reared and its hooves struck the Orc, who fell back swearing. Merle roared into their midst with a snarl more frightening than anyone would have believed him capable. Ed swung with his sword, just missing the Minotaur’s cheek. After that it was all growls and snorts and slashing weapons.
The Werewolf was on the Hound, savaging him without mercy. Merle snarled and grappled. Every time the Werewolf went for Edmund instead, the Hound harried him off again, drawing the Werewolf’s focus back to himself. Edmund knew Merle had taken on the greater threat on purpose. A Werewolf bite would be nothing more than a wound to a Beast, but to a Human, it would mean becoming a Werewolf, himself.
Drawn back to his own foes, Edmund fought bitterly. They managed between them to unhorse him and drive his mount away into the woods. Everything blurred into flashing steel, and Edmund could barely remember anything, except for one blazing, clear thing.
The sound slashed open Edmund’s gut as cleanly as an ax blow. Hardly noticing as he did it, Edmund stabbed the Orc, and then the Minotaur ... but by the time he reached Merle and the Werewolf, it was too late.
Both lay in broken heaps at the side of the trail. The Werewolf was dead, but a low-pitched whine from Merle revealed the Hound still alive. Edmund rushed to him and knelt, checking the extent of the Hound’s injuries. What he saw sickened him, but he marshaled his face into a calm mask.
“Sorry, Ed,” Merle whispered. “I smelled them, just before ...”
“It’s all right, Merle,” Ed said quickly. “You’re going to be ...” But he couldn’t bring himself to say it, that most Human of platitudes, that everything would be all right when it most certainly wouldn’t. He struggled against tears, knowing that Merle would forgive him such a weakness, but unwilling to succumb to it.
His fault. He should not have let his guard down, not for an instant.
He should not have let his Guard down.
His best friend.
Merle stretched out a forepaw over Edmund’s arm. His tail thumped twice against the leaf litter, and then went forever silent.
- # -
When Jalur found them, the Tiger had been blessedly wordless. They had collected Edmund’s horse and made the long, agonizing trek with Merle’s body back to Cair without talk, not even an inquiry as to what had happened. Edmund was more grateful for that than anything else.
Afternoon light slanted into the tower library through the window. The square of sun had shifted onto the stack of navigation charts before him.
A few moments later, a knock came at the door. “Mr. Hoberry comes, Your Majesty,” came Eirene’s voice. This announcement was followed a few seconds later by the neat tap of hooves.
“Let him enter,” Edmund called.
The Faun housekeeper entered the library at Eirene’s admittance, looking quite unpleased about whatever news he’d been sent to deliver. Edmund could almost predict the words that fell from his lips. “Your Majesty, your presence is requested at the barracks. Captain Roblang would like a word.”
Edmund didn’t bother stalling the “request” this time. Likely that called both the Faun’s and Centaur’s attention to his troubled state of mind, but he saw no use in prolonging the issue. Eirene would need to return to her duties, and he would have to contend with whatever new Guard might now be placed with him.
Better to confront the problem before it confronted him. If he chose the most unsuitable Beast possible, everyone might be fed up enough to let him choose a permanent Guard for himself. The end result didn’t really matter.
None of them was Merle.
Carefully, Edmund gathered up his papers, laid them in their box, and replaced the splints. “Lead on, Eirene, Good Faun.”
Faun and Centaur preceded him out the door. Edmund paused on the threshold and reached into his pocket. There lay a tiny tooth - Merle’s first pup tooth, lost when he’d begun to grow in his adult set. I am sorry, my Friend, he thought, swallowing back the knot in his throat. I will never let my guard down again.
~ End ~