My name is Aravis Tarkheena and I am the only daughter of Kidrash Tarkaan, lord of the province of Calavar.
The brush and shrubs about her, familiar in leaf and root and bough from months of living among them, suddenly seem alien. They poke and prod, scratching her legs through the thin cloth of her shalvar as she hesitates at the edge of the road. Hwin whuffles at her shoulder, and stamps, but says nothing: she is to be a dumb beast now, as she was for all those years in Calormen.
It isn't too late; Aravis can still change her mind.
She looks off to her left and sees a flash of black-and-white as a Magpie flits through the trees. It is probably Aris, on his way to Arrowhead with the day's messages. Or Shasta told him to check on her. She rolls her eyes: that is, after all, quite likely. Even after all of this, the months living hard, running and fighting and tending the dying (and she now knows that the race from Tashbaan to Archenland was nothing by comparison); even after all this, Shasta still sometimes thinks of her as only a girl.
It is enraging, when it isn't strangely reassuring--Shasta is a king now, a leader of men and a veteran of many battles, but he is still Shasta. Cor. Whoever.
Well, she isn't going to let him prove her wrong, not after that last enormous argument. Aravis tosses her head, reminding herself of the old story of the Tarkheena and the Eagle, and leads Hwin out into the road. They have a long way to go, and the day is already well along. They should get started.
The Hermit had a magical pool under a tree in his garden, and in that he watched, and described to Aravis and the horses, Rabadash's assault on Anvard. At first, things seemed to go quite well for the Archenlanders. Shasta must have delivered his message, for the little castle was locked up tight, and the Hermit saw the steel caps of soldiers in places along the walls.
Two hundred horse had seemed like a small enough force as they talked about it during the race north (Aravis had heard that the Tisroc brought 50,000 men to the Battle of Calteena), but from the Hermit's description of them ranged outside the walls, they seemed quite an army. There was a short parley with the Archenlanders (the content of which they could not hear, the Hermit's pool providing only the images, and none of the voices), and then Rabadash's forces pulled back a little bit and some of them went into the woods while others dismounted and tended their horses.
"That doesn't sound like they're going to leave," said Hwin, in a worried tone, and Aravis had to agree.
The Hermit said something and motioned with his fingers, and then he could see what was happening inside the castle walls.
"I see your friend Shasta," he said, and Bree stamped in relief. "He has new clothes, and is talking with three men--one of them is King Lune. And now the King has shouted something and is kissing Shasta on both cheeks. He looks very confused--Shasta, that is. Everyone else seems very happy, though."
"What's that about, I wonder?" said Aravis, but no one could answer her.
Nothing else seemed likely to happen soon, and the Hermit went off to prepare lunch while the horses grazed. Aravis sat quietly, for her back still hurt when she moved, and watched the light flickering off the surface of the pool. She imagined things were very busy in Anvard right now. Soldiers would be carrying barrels of spare arrows to the top of the walls, and sharpening spears, to be thrown at the Calormenes below.
Calormenes. Aravis bit her lip; they were Calormene soldiers out there, men of her own people. Maybe even men of her own province, although she had never heard that any men of Calavar served with Prince Rabadash. The officers were men like her brother and cousins: young noblemen seeking to make their name and fortune in the service of the Tisroc. The other men were like the men she would see in the market, or working the fields: brothers and husbands and sons of the women who danced for Zardeenah at the festivals.
When she fled her marriage to Ahoshta Tarkaan with Hwin, Aravis had not thought very far; had not realized that it also meant fleeing her own people, maybe for good. She imagined the people in the castle: they were probably all fair-skinned and light-haired like the Narnians she had seen in Tashbaan. Their food and clothes, their armor, and their weapons would all be different from what she was used to. She looked at her own hand, and held it up to compare it to the Narnians she had seen: no, she would never truly fit in in Narnia or Archenland.
The Hermit brought lunch (strange bread, softer and thicker than the bread she ate at home; soft cheese; and several fruits she did not recognize), and they all gathered around the pool again to hear and see what would happen next. Aravis was not sure what she wanted to happen: she didn't want Anvard to be conquered, but she did not want these men she might have grown up with to die, either. But she said nothing of this, merely ate her bread and fruit and listened to the Hermit explain what was happening.
Just as they finished their meal, and Aravis stood up to brush the crumbs from her shirt (she was still wearing the slave-girl clothing Lasaraleen had given her, although it was all rather the worse for wear), the Hermit said, "Look! The assault is beginning!"
The assault began, and continued, and went on late into the afternoon; Aravis could not tear herself away from the pool, not even when things began to go badly for the Archenlanders. The light started to fail, and it began to be hard for the Hermit to see what was happening in the castle, even when the defenders and attackers both lit torches.
Darkness fell just as the castle gates burst under the blows of the battering ram, and while the Hermit could see the flicker of firelight after that, he could make no sense of what he was seeing in the pool: it was just too dark. "Enough!" said the Hermit, and the blurry images in the pool disappeared. It was, again, no more than a shallow green pool inhabited by several large orange-and-black fish.
The Hermit looked very grave, and Aravis felt a little sick. She had never seen a real battle, and even only described by the Hermit, it was not brave and noble like her brother and father had said, but horrible and frightening. So many men and women had died as she sat here listening in a quiet garden. Both Archenlanders and Calormenes, and what did it mean? What was she supposed to do now? If she had gone with Shasta, would she be fighting at his side? Should she be?
She wanted to ask what had happened to Shasta, but the Hermit would have said if he had seen him. The horses stood nose-to-nose, sorrowfully, as the stars came out and the Hermit's garden was drowned in shadow. For the moment, there was nothing to be said.
There was a scratching at the Hermit's gate late that night, long after sunset. After supper, Aravis had spoken with Bree and Hwin at length, and they had decided that the wisest thing would be to leave for Narnia in the morning. Whether or not Anvard had fallen, Narnia might still be able to help, if word could be gotten through. They worried about Shasta, but could think of no way to help him, with all of Rabadash's army in the way.
The scratching woke Aravis, and she woke the Hermit and the horses before drawing her sword and going to the gate. "Who is it?" she asked. The moon was bright overhead.
"Shasta! Let me in!"
With a shocked gasp, Aravis drew back the latch and opened the gate. Shasta stumbled inside, followed by two others: a young man and woman dressed in soot-stained clothes. The man wore a mail shirt, and carried a sword naked in his hand; the woman had a bow over her shoulder.
Pushing right past her, Shasta staggered to the pool and dunked his head in, then drank thirstily. The woman followed him, but the man bowed shallowly to Aravis and the Hermit. "Forgive us, my friends, for we have come as refugees. My name is Dar of Shadowvale, and this is my sister Darina. You know Prince Cor, of course."
Aravis blinked. "Prince?"
Bree said, "Cor?"
"Later!" said Shasta, brusquely, and turned to Bree. "Come on, we have to go, it's not safe here."
"Go where?" Aravis grabbed his arm and swung him around to face her. In the light of the Hermit's lantern, Shasta looked haggard: eyes red, skin soot-smeared and bruised, with blood-stains on his clothes. Aravis pointed at the blood. "Is that yours? Are you hurt? What happened?"
"Anvard--" he said, and gulped, and shuddered, and then turned away, putting his hands over his face.
"My lady," said the other man, Dar. "Anvard has fallen. King Lune is dead."
"That's terrible!" said Hwin, and Bree shook his head and mane in wordless distress.
Aravis realized in horror that these three might be the only survivors of the castle. "That is grave news indeed," she said. "What can I--what will you do?"
Dar had a very sweet smile. "I see that you do not understand."
His sister spoke for the first time, stepping forward into the lamplight and dipping into a deep and formal curtsy in front of Shasta. "The King is dead," Darina said, her long hair hiding her face. "Long live the King."
"Long live the King!" repeated Dar, dropping on one knee in front of Shasta, and propping his bare sword before him, so that the moonlight shimmered on the notched blade. Hurriedly, both Bree and Hwin bowed as well, bending one knee to the ground and dropping their heads humbly. The Hermit bowed his head without kneeling.
"Oh," said Aravis, staring at Shasta.
"You should go home."
"Why? Besides, I can't."
"Why? Because you're Calormene, Aravis! And we're--we'll be fighting your people!"
"I know! But my people wanted to marry me to a man fifty years older than me. If I go back I'll have to marry him, and I won't. Besides, my people want to enslave your people. I'm pretty sure my people are in the wrong, here."
"Fine. But don't you have brothers? Cousins? What if they are in the army?"
"My older brother is dead. My younger brother is too young to go to war. And my cousins do not ride with Prince Rabadash, who they say is a poor war-leader. He loses too many men in stupid ways, but he is the Tisroc's heir, may-he--, he's the heir, and cannot be removed or disciplined by any of the generals."
"It's going to be long, Strongfoot says. And ugly."
"Don't think you can scare me off, Shasta. I am the daughter of a Tarkaan, even if I never see Calavar again. And maybe no one in Archenland will ever see me as one of them, but I heard the Tisroc approve an invasion because that Narnian queen wouldn't marry Prince Rabadash--he was willing to sell his men's lives just to avenge a slight! There is no honor in that!"
"Did they make you ashamed to be Calormene? Because of what they did?"
"No, how could they? I'll never stop being Calormene. It's what I am, just like you have strange blue eyes and funny hair. I think your clothes look silly and I don't like this butter and I miss food with flavor. Have you Northerners never heard of garlic? I'm going to be cold all the time. But my father sold me off, I have no sisters, and even my closest friend can't understand why I would not want to marry the Grand Vizier. And despite how I look, and sound, everyone here has treated me with respect and honor."
"Well, almost everyone."
"That's not your fault. And, I don't know. That day I heard the Tisroc--that day, I stopped being only a Calormene. I love these mountains, and the Talking Beasts, and, and, I think you're going to need a friend, Shasta."
"Oh. [Pause] ...do you think that's enough?"
"That's not your decision, is it? Even if you are king."
Corin returned to the hidden dell in the dark hours before dawn, a time when the chill of the mountain air always settled most deeply into Aravis' bones. No matter how many furs she wrapped around her, or warm woolen socks knitted by matronly Narnian Badgers she pulled onto her feet, after midnight she was often too cold to sleep. So she took that watch in the small hours, walking briskly about the camp hidden in the tiny glen, and sometimes slapping her chilled hands against her arms to warm them.
This night there was little sleep in the camp, for the strike they had attempted that day had gone sadly awry. For no fault of her own (or of Shasta's), for once; just sheer bad luck. The wagon train from Arrowhead on the coast, where the Calormene ships unloaded, had been as poorly-guarded as the Magpie messenger had claimed; but just as the three Centaurs and Darina began to sort through the goods and the Dwarfs, Aravis, and Shasta bound the drivers and guards, there was a shout from further up the road.
Dar (Aravis wondered, sometimes, about Archenlander names), who had been on watch, had come flying towards them, shouting and waving his arms. "Calormenes! A full troop!"
They had dropped everything and dashed for the horses, but the Calormenes were well-mounted and fresh, and although Darina knew every inch of this rugged country east of Anvard, they weren't able to shake their pursuers until they'd crossed the White Salmon and dodged through the thick forests on the north side of that river. It had been a hard and weary journey back to the dell, with many pauses and winding routes taken to deter pursuit, and by the end of it even Bree's head had hung low with exhaustion. Worse, Stronghoof the Centaur and Parkin the Dwarf had been injured, and they lay awake under the limited care of Darina, who knew some leechcraft (little, to be frank, but still more than Aravis or Shasta knew).
So it was that when Corin led his pony around the last corner on the narrow (and well-hidden) trail that led to the dell, he found the camp awake, and Aravis at full draw in the moonlight, an arrow aimed right for his heart. Even with a mail shirt on, at that range the shaft would have punched right through him, for Aravis had become an archer of strength and accuracy in this ugly little war. Not that she had ever actually shot anyone: she would do a great deal for Shasta and the freedom of Archenland, but she could not yet bring herself to shoot one of her own people.
"Still here, are you?" Corin said, as suspicious as ever.
"Oh, go soak your head," Aravis snapped. He was Shasta's brother, but that didn't mean she had to like him. She lowered the bow as he passed, leading a heavily-laden mountain pony. She had a little while yet on watch; when Dar relieved her, she could find Shasta and see what news Corin had brought.
When she found Shasta, later, he was huddled in a ragged blanket next to the fire, head-to-head with Corin as his twin spoke quietly but forcefully, stabbing one finger in the air for emphasis. When Aravis sat down next to Shasta, and he shifted sideways to make room, Corin scowled. "You again?"
"Yes, me again," she said, more calmly than she felt. "What is the word from Narnia? Are they sending troops?"
There was an uncomfortable silence. Finally Shasta spoke, his voice still hoarse with the lung-sickness that had plagued him for weeks. "No."
But Narnia was Archenland's ally! And this entire occupation was only a prelude to an invasion of Narnia! Why shouldn't Narnia help defend them? Aravis' face must have shown her outrage, because Shasta rubbed his face and went on, "They want to, but they haven't the strength right now."
"Is that the truth?" Kings and princes often lied, after all, in matters of state.
Corin's face flushed with anger. "Yes, it's true! They're still fighting the Giants on the northern border, and now your Tisroc's sent a fleet up the coast to Cair Paravel. Three galleys are anchored in the bay, and there are eight caravels standing offshore."
"Are they afraid?" Aravis asked scornfully, but really she was worried. They had been relying on Narnia to help, hoping that this embassy of Corin's would be enough to save them. Without Narnia, what would they do? Would there be yet more blood shed?
"No!" Corin leaped to his feet. Aravis could tell he was going to jump into another fierce defense of the honor and integrity of the kings and queens of Narnia, whom he appeared to think more highly of than his own brother. "But they cannot risk open war with Calormen, while most of the army is still fighting the Giants! Are you too stupid to understand that?"
Shasta glared at them both. "Corin, sit down. Aravis, stop poking Corin with sticks. This isn't helping."
Sulkily, Corin did so. Aravis was again grateful that Shasta was the older brother, even if only by a few minutes. To be fair, Corin was brave and honorable, but he was not the right man to lead this war. He was far too impetuous and volatile.
"It's not hopeless," went on Shasta. "From what Edmund writes, Peter is close to victory against the Giants. If we can hold out a bit longer, they might be able to send help in the spring."
Spring, thought Aravis, despairing. Spring was months away, months of lying low and stealing food and doing what they could to disrupt Rabadash's slowly tightening hold on these fair green valleys. Spring meant surviving a winter in the mountains, living on cold scraps of food stolen from the Calormenes or smuggled over the border. It meant sleeping on the hard ground with few blankets, in clothes stiff with sweat and grey with blood and dirt; and Aravis could not truly recall the last time she had not been sore and cold. She had heard enough stories from old Darshah the Blind to know they would be lucky to all survive to springtime.
"Do you have any good news?" she asked Corin, by way of apology.
He sneered at her, but nodded at the pack at Shasta's feet. "Food, messages, weapons. Queen Susan did not send me back empty-handed."
Susan again. Aravis resisted the urge to roll her eyes. She had never met either Narnian queen, but from what she had heard, Susan was at least ten years older than Corin, and had refused offers from kings and princes from as far away as Telmar and the Lone Islands. She was not going to marry a younger son a decade her junior, especially when his patrimony consisted of nothing but the clothes on his back and a stolen sword.
"Well, food and weapons will be useful," Aravis said. "Any news from Arrowhead?"
Shasta grinned briefly, his teeth flashing in the darkness before saying, "Bezzle says there was an 'accident' in the harbor, and two of the galleys sank right in front of the Great Dock. All the ships must load and unload from out in the harbor instead, now. It will be very difficult for our friend the Tisroc to send any more troops or weapons by sea, until the galleys are removed."
Even Corin laughed at that, but in a few moments he sobered. "I did have an interesting talk with Queen Susan and King Edmund," he said, looking at Aravis directly, to her surprise.
Shasta, who had begun to slump against Aravis, sat up. "No," he said to Corin. "Do not speak of it." When Corin stiffened, Shasta repeated himself. "Do not repeat what they said. That's an order, Prince Corin."
His face a mask of angry resentment, Corin pushed himself to his feet and gave Shasta a stiff bow. "As you say, your majesty." He threw Aravis a meaningful look as he turned away, and she frowned at him as he went.
"What was that about?" she asked Shasta, who was unrolling his blankets on the bare ground.
He didn't look up. "Nothing important, just some ideas Edmund had, but I don't think they'll work for us."
"I see," said Aravis, and looked after Corin thoughtfully, before going off to find her own blankets.
The day after Corin's return was a rest day for the troop, and Aravis had allowed herself to sleep late (although Shasta never did). When she came back from a brief wash at the stream, hoping for something hot for lunch, she found Corin sitting by the fire, sharpening his sword.
"That's new," she commented, serving herself a thin barley gruel with a few shreds of rabbit in it.
"Present from King Edmund," confirmed Corin, as he swiped an oiled rag across the shining blade. It was a far better sword than his brother carried, although Aravis, to keep the peace, did not say so.
Instead she swallowed another mouthful of the flavorless soup, and said, "What were you about to tell me last night?"
Corin looked up, startled, and then his eyes narrowed. Aravis wondered how anyone could have ever mistaken Shasta for Corin. She had always been able to tell them apart, even at the beginning. Shasta was thinner and a few fingers shorter, with much less swagger in his walk. Corin always strode like a prince, or he had. But it was Shasta that Dar and the Dwarfs and Centaurs followed, and not just because he was the elder. Shasta was creative and thoughtful; Shasta was more persistent than the most stubborn Dwarf; Shasta wasn't too proud to ask for help. And Shasta didn't start fights every time he turned around, either.
Which didn't mean Corin was a bad person, she knew. But he had never liked Aravis, and once had gone so far as to accuse her of spying for Rabadash. She was Calormene, after all, wasn't she? She had nearly struck him for that, but Shasta had intervened, and Corin had assumed Shasta would take his side. That had been a miscalculation on his part, for Shasta had known and trusted Aravis long before he'd met any of them. In the end, after a fierce argument, Corin had backed down, although Aravis suspected it had less to do with the fact that Shasta was king than that their small company would rather follow Shasta. The outcome hadn't changed his opinion of Aravis, although he had made more of an effort to be civil, if not actually friendly.
"Queen Susan had an idea," Corin said quietly, glancing across the campsite at his brother, who was deeply engrossed in the dispatches from Cair Paravel.
Aravis wanted more soup. Instead she picked up a bit of stale flatbread that Kebble had cooked up yesterday, and nibbled on it, hoping to quell her hunger. "Yes? What was her idea?" Be polite. They would be trapped together all winter, and it would be unbearable to be at odds with Shasta's brother all that time. (Tempted though she was to dump peppers and radishes in his soup.)
"One of our problems is that we can't get reliable information about Rabadash and his generals, about what they're doing and planning," said Corin, still rubbing the cloth over his swordblade. "Nobody can get close enough." He looked up at her then, and his blue eyes were sharp, piercing in the bright sunlight.
The waybread was very dry. Aravis licked her lips. "I see," she said, slowly. "And this was not your idea?"
A grim smile touched Corin's lips, and was gone again. "Queen Susan thought it would be an excellent use of, what did she say? An underutilized resource. Although, to be fair, King Edmund didn't like the idea. He thinks you're too young."
"I was old enough to be married to the Grand Vizier of Calormen," Aravis noted sourly, turning the idea over in her mind. "Given what that would have been like, I cannot imagine spying on Prince Rabadash could be worse." Although she remembered hiding behind that couch with Lasaraleen, and shivered.
In the old tales, spies were villains and traitors; sneaking and eavesdropping were not behaviors fit for a Tarkaan's daughter. But she had learned, in these past months, that battles were not won only by the honorable; for had not Rabadash killed even the servants in Anvard, after attacking a peaceful neighbor without warning? And in the old tales, while Tarkheenas were not spies, the clever servant girl sometimes heard something from behind a door that could save the life of the king. Aravis was not so proud that a servant could do something that she would not.
And it would be something she could do: something only she could do, something more valuable than standing watch in the cold, and trying to convince Darina that a little pepper wouldn't kill anyone. Even if she were willing to fight Calormenes, a single sword or bow might not make a difference in this war; but if spying would help convince Rabadash to go home, that could be a great thing. She would accrue a different kind of honor, earned in fear and darkness, but no less valuable.
There was a step beside her, and she looked up to see Shasta glaring at Corin. "I gave you an order, Corin."
Blue eyes glared at blue as Corin met his eyes, and then shrugged. "She asked. I cannot lie to a lady, your majesty, nor should you ask me to."
"It doesn't matter," said Shasta. "Since she's not going."
"Oh, yes, I am," Aravis replied, and with that, they were off on one of their familiar arguments. Corin, having dropped the spark into the tinder, drifted off to check on his pony, and everyone else (particularly Bree and Hwin) pretended not to be listening.
In the end, of course, Aravis won. Because Queen Susan was right: they needed the intelligence, as Corin called it, and Aravis was the only one with a hope of getting it.
It was a terrible plan. But it was the only plan.
"Don't be stupid," Corin said, as he checked her dagger before handing her the sheath so she could belt it inside her tunic. "Be as careful as you can." For once, he didn't look resentful or suspicious as he met her eyes, but entirely sincere.
"Why do you care?" Aravis asked. "I thought--" She wasn't rude enough to say what she had thought.
Corin shrugged, glancing over his shoulder at Shasta, who was gloomily going over Hwin's gear, making sure there was nothing in it that could give them away. "If you get killed, he will kill me. And he'll be impossible to live with the whole time you're gone as it is." But he grinned as he said it, dimple twinkling in his cheek, and Aravis thought that--just maybe--it would be all right between them.
Shasta walked with her out of the glen and down the narrow twisting trail to the valley. From there Aravis and Hwin would ride south until they hit the main road from Arrowhead to Anvard, and then the dangerous part would begin.
At the edge of the trees they halted, just above the pool where they sometimes went to bathe. "Aravis--" said Shasta, and Aravis looked at him, and he leaned forward and kissed her once quickly, on the lips. And then, because somehow in the last few months he had grown taller than her, he kissed her on the forehead. "Don't you dare get hurt," he said fiercely, and turned to go.
But Aravis grabbed his arm and pulled him back; she hugged him then, as hard as she could, ignoring the stink of smoke and fear and unwashed boy. "I'll send word, as often as I can," she said, into his shoulder. "And I'll be back in the spring, you'll see."
And then she turned away, wiping her eyes and hoping he couldn't see, and led Hwin down the long steep slope to where the ground leveled and she could mount. She didn't look back at all.
Now she rides along the main road, swaying comfortably to Hwin's familiar swinging walk. A Robin comes to roost on a branch at the side of the track. "There are carts coming! Five of them, with many soldiers! Over the hill!"
"Thank you, my friend," says Aravis, and keeps riding. Her feet are cold in her thin slippers; her shalvar and long coat are torn and stained, and her veil is tattered. She looks exactly like a young Tarkheena who was kidnapped by rebels and escaped to lose herself in the strange Northern woods.
"This is a terrible plan," says Hwin.
"I know," says Aravis. But Aravis Tarkheena can go where a servant girl cannot, and few would dare question her story of kidnapping and escape to her face. It is a great risk, but it is worth the deadly chance she takes.
After all, she is a Tarkheena, daughter of the lord of Calavar, and there is a war to be won.