Actions

Work Header

Adaptive Coloration: Four Identities that Susan Pevensie Never Had To Assume, and One She Might Have Chosen

Work Text:

I. Parisienne

 

The bistro is quiet tonight: the chill, wet weather has kept most Parisiens inside. Susan lets the door close quietly behind her and nods at Andre behind the bar. He lifts a languid hand; her aperitif will be brought to her.

Her usual table is empty. It is too close to the kitchen door to be popular, but it has the advantage of a view of both doors and the front window. Susan sinks into the chair, grateful to be off her feet, and lights a cigarette. It was a long and uncomfortable day; M. Armand had caught errors on two letters, and she had stayed in the office afterwards to re-type them.

She is embarrassed, and angry with herself; the errors were foolish, and worse, they were the kind of error an English-speaker would make. M. Armand knows who she is, but if she cannot be relied upon to maintain her own legend, he will tell Mr. Blaine, and Mr. Blaine will bring her in.

Then Susan will no longer be Mlle. Elise Gratien, orphan stenographer from Bretagne, who lives in a cold-water flat above a boulangerie, but just Susan Pevensie from Finchley, middle-class girl with no university education. Susan knows she can act the part, flirt and file, dress and dance, but her French must be flawless to keep her legend unquestioned.

Mr. Blaine has not said where he intends to place her, but Susan isn't stupid. (She hasn't been stupid for a long time.) The war against Germany and Italy might be over, but the Soviets are as great a threat now; in SIS one hears far more than the general public does, and the news from Eastern Europe isn't good. There are socialists and communist sympathizers in the French ministries, and Susan is beautiful enough to seduce secrets from most of them.

She wears silk stockings and wool suits now, instead of velvet gowns embroidered with golden lions, but the game is played the same. And she is, she knows, very good at it. All her instructors have said so, and not all of them have two legs (or two arms).

Andre brings her meal: it is cassoulet, rich with beans and sausage, much better fare than she could afford on a secretary's salary in Britain. She thanks him, and begins to eat, wondering how long the rationing back home will continue. Perhaps her siblings were able to combine their coupons and host a dinner for their friends, as they used to.

She will go to the Embassy tomorrow, Susan decides, and see if there are any messages for her. Her family, of course, does not know where she is. They believe she is in Lisbon, working as an assistant to the executive secretary for the president of an international shipping company. It is a marvelous opportunity for her. Well, most of them believe this; she's not entirely sure Edmund does. But if he suspects, he says nothing. He knows how the game is played as well as she does.

Yes, she will go, and see if there are messages. It would be good to hear from her siblings, and find out if they managed to have their regular dinner with the Professor and Aunt Polly.

 


~

 

II. Lost Queen

Excerpt from Thornhill's Compendium of Narnian Legends, 675-1650, Chapter III: the Golden Age.

Few written records survive from the century before the Telmarine Consolidation, for reasons which are discussed elsewhere in this volume. Among those few documents is this prose transcription by the Faun historian Janus of the great Lay of the Lost Queen, as told by the Centaurs of the North Reaches in the early years of the reign of King Harluin. Several versions of this legend persist to this day, and researchers continue to argue its historicity. Modern fictional interpretations of the story have focused on the then-unexplained disappearance of the High King and his siblings; note here, by comparison, the storyteller's emphasis on the emotional states of the characters, and the political consequences of their choices.

The excerpt here begins after the Calormene Prince Rabadash has abducted Queen Susan of Narnia from her guest house in Tashbaan, where she has come to discuss a possible marriage alliance. Angered at her stalling tactics and fearing she meant to reject his suit, Rabadash assaulted the house and took the Narnian Queen by force, killing many of her courtiers and gravely wounding her brother, King Edmund.

 

Having achieved his aims, Rabadash, in his arrogance, sent King Edmund and his few surviving companions back to Narnia, as a symbol of the power of the Tisroc, and wed Queen Susan in the Great Temple of Tash on Midsummer Day.

When King Edmund and his companions returned to Narnia without the Queen, and told their tale, High King Peter became as a man of stone, and spoke not for three days. Ever after, his hatred of Calormen burned like a flame that would consume everything before it. And when his rage had cooled enough that he could speak, he called for his generals and his sword, for he purposed to ride against Calormen and retrieve Queen Susan.

But Queen Lucy, through her tears, for she loved her sister greatly, pleaded with King Peter to temper his rage. "For is it not true," she said, "that were we to cross the great desert in force, and come unto the gates of Tashbaan itself, would Rabadash not remove our sister to some other fastness, more secret and more secure? She is the jewel for which he has defied his own laws and his own gods, and he will kill her before he relinquishes her to us."

And King Edmund, most unhappily, agreed that this was so, and so the High King put away his sword, but his anger and grief lived on in his heart.

And so matters remained, for several years. No word came to Narnia of the fate of Queen Susan, for married noblewomen of that country do not go about in public, and Rabadash refused all messages. But King Edmund had not given up on his sister, and long he thought about what he might do, to free her from her imprisonment.

Nor had Queen Susan given up, but she was wise as well as gentle, and as she saw no means of escape, she bound the Prince to her with her beauty and her caresses, ensuring her own safety and achieving some limited freedom. Thus her life in Tashbaan was secure, though strictly confined, for the women of the Tisroc's household are born, live their lives, and die, in that great sprawling palace on the edge of the great desert. Within a year she had borne Rabadash a son, and he rewarded her richly with jewels and silken robes, although in her heart all she longed for was to see the clear blue sky above the northern mountains. She kept this desire hidden, as indeed she hid all her thoughts from the Prince, and spoke instead words of loving thanks for his gifts.

And so the time passed, in Calormen and Narnia.

On a winter's day Queen Susan nursed her daughter in a small garden surrounded by high walls. She was still more beautiful than any woman in Calormen, or so her attendants said, but she was weary with grief and loneliness. Her beloved brothers and sister were far away, and (as is often the practice in noble Calormene households) her son, Rostam, had been taken from her as well, to be fostered in a Tarkaan's home far to the south. He would be five years old soon, but she had not seen him for over a year, and she knew well how quickly young children forget their mothers.

Her daughter, Sholeh, was still an infant, but already Queen Susan feared that she would live her life behind walls. Better, Queen Susan swore, to be a poor woman selling olives in the streets of Tashbaan, than the daughter of the Tisroc. Rostam, as eldest son, would be raised as a warrior and a prince--and she hoped that he would grow into a more honorable man than his father--but life for Sholeh would be but a series of beautiful cages.

She thought, and she worried, in the tiny sunlight garden, and a bird came and sat on the branch of a tree above the garden wall.

"Queen Susan," said the Bird, in a voice soft enough that not even her closest attendants could hear. "If you could, would you return to Narnia?"

And Susan gasped, and whispered into her daughter's hair, "If I could bring my daughter with me, not even the Lion himself could stop us."

And so the Bird knew that the Queen was still a true daughter of Narnia, for no Calormene would ever swear by Aslan. The Bird came back the next day, and the next, and then not again until a month had gone by.

In the spring of that year, Queen Susan fell ill, and none of the Tisroc's physicians could cure her. She writhed in pain, her skin red and swollen, and one by one the physicians came and went away again, their chants and potions, poultices and medicines useless. At last, after many days, a Tarkheena was told by a fortune-teller of a wise woman who lived outside the city, and who had performed many cures that amazed even the priests of Tash themselves. The Tarkheena told her husband; and the Tarkaan spoke to the Grand Vizier Ahoshta; and the Grand Vizier brought the tale, at last, to the Tisroc.

The Tisroc bade his son bring this wise woman to the palace, for Queen Susan had given Rabadash a son and thus he owed to her all that she required, up to half of his inheritance, for such was the law in Calormen. Rabadash bowed to his father and had the wise woman sent for.

The wise woman was a bent, withered old woman, with nut-brown skin and black eyes, but she was sharp of wit and her hands were still strong. When she saw the illness of Queen Susan, she bade the Queen's attendants leave the room while she worked, for her cures could harm as well as heal.

Four hours later, the wise woman emerged from the Queen's chambers, wrapped as she had arrived in her stained and tattered robe. "The Queen sleeps," she said, "and must be left until the sun is high, for the rising light of Tash will restore her strength. Do not disturb her until then."

The Queen's attendants were loth to let the woman leave, but one of them crept into the bedchamber, close enough to see the Queen's head on the pillow and hear her breathing. And so the wise woman departed the Tisroc's palace, a heavy purse in her hand, and Prince Rabadash was told that his wife would recover.

Great was their astonishment in the morning, therefore, when the Queen's attendants entered her bedchamber, to find the Queen's bed empty but for a pool of water and the scattered tresses of the Queen's long hair. And great was Rabadash's wrath when the nursery attendants began to wail, for at the same moment the Queen's disappearance was discovered, a great eagle swept through a window into the royal nursery, and carried off the infant princess Sholeh!

King Edmund had laid his plans carefully. Queen Susan was met at the edge of the desert by two Talking Horses, an Eagle (who surrendered Sholeh to her mother's waiting arms), and a Cheetah. The Horses had crossed the desert before, and they led the Queen by secret ways across the sands, fleeing the Prince's wrath.

The rest of the lay tells of Queen Susan's flight across the desert to Narnia, where she is restored to her throne for several years, until she and her siblings disappear, at which time Sholeh is crowned, thus beginning the Susanic Dynasty, or the House of Flame (as the romantics call it). In this variation of the legend, the storyteller assumes the audience already knows that the wise woman is a water-nymph in disguise; there is a sequence of tales of Archenland provenance that purport to tell the nymph's adventures in escaping the Tisroc's palace and traveling through the Tashbaan sewers into the harbor, and thus home to Narnia. [FN1]

Readers interested in the eventual fate of Susan's son Rostam are referred to Bravebeak's Desert Throne: A History of the Tisrocs of Calormen, Vol. II, which covers the multiple attempts of Susan and her siblings to retrieve Rostam, his short career as Crown Prince of Calormen upon Rabadash's accession to the throne, and his death in the campaign against the Sikorsian Heresy. [FN2]

[FN1] Many naiads assert that they once had the ability to change shape in such a controlled and specific fashion, however no research satisfying current academic standards supports this claim.

[FN2] Several legends from southwestern Narnia, mostly from Farsight Valley, assert that Rostam survived the Sikorsian campaign, and rejecting his Calormene heritage, found his way to Narnia, where he was re-united with his mother prior to her disappearance. While exact dates have not been found in Caloremene records, it is to be noted that this was unlikely, as at the time of his mother's disappearance, Rostam would have been barely fifteen years of age, and thus too young to be participating in military action, much less traveling hundreds of miles on his own.

 


~

 

III. Heir Apparent

 

Jadis of Charn was, even her enemies would acknowledge, an intelligent and perceptive woman. (Murderously evil, certainly, but that is not in question.)

Which is why, when she met the child in the snowy wood, she did not use her wand right away on the chit, and instead made provision for the future. The judicious application of magical foodstuffs--children are so captivated by sweets--and several subconscious suggestions were enough, Jadis thought, to meet her needs.

She waved the child off with some optimism, and had the Dwarf whip up the reindeer with a smile on her face.

And Jadis was not, in the end, disappointed. In her many years of subversion and perversion of the stupid creatures in the Great Lion's territory, she had learned how to bring someone into her service, without them even being aware that they were being guided. The best manipulation, after all, is like ice on a rose--invisible to all.

And a girl-child just on the cusp of adulthood, with all those changes to her body and mind, and the social and familial pressures telling her to be mother-figure, object of desire, and innocent child all at once--well, such a girl was easy prey for a witch as experienced as Jadis. Easier by far than a younger girl would have been, or a boy of any age. Jadis understood boys, but she had been a girl, no matter how many centuries ago: she knew what it took to twist those desires, frustrations and resentments into deception and treachery.

It was therefore no great surprise when, a bare day after Jadis met the girl in the wood, the girl came striding into the great entry hall of the castle, leading all three of her siblings behind her, like ducks on a string.

"Well done, Susan," said Jadis, and smiled coldly. The girl smiled back, equally cold, and fearless in her twisted righteousness.

Perhaps, thought Jadis, as she lifted her wand, she need not kill them all. Not just yet.

 


~

 

IV. Regnant

 

A gust of autumn wind blew open a window so that it crashed against the wall. The sound shocked Susan out of sleep, startling her so much that she was off the bed and crouched against the wall with a naked blade in her hand before she realized what had happened.

After three breaths, a broad striped head appeared in the doorway. "Your majesty? Is everything all right?"

Susan forced herself to relax and lay the knife back on the bed. "It's fine, Bella. I was just startled. Is the tea ready yet?"

"It's just coming now, your majesty," said the Tiger, and bowed herself back out of the doorway. Queen Susan of Narnia had tightly-scheduled days, full of argument and disruption, but the first half-hour after rising was always sacrosanct. Not even her bodyguard was allowed to disturb her during her morning tea.

When the Oak-girl Alba (why were so many of them named Alba, Susan wondered--it was impossible to tell them all apart!) brought in her tea and then left, Susan poured a cup and settled into the sturdy chair next to the window. From her room here in the highest tower, to which she had moved after the incident with the Telmarines just before her wedding, she could see halfway to Galma on a clear day.

This day was not clear, though, but grey and windy, promising rain before noon. Even at this height, Susan could see white-caps on the bay, and the morning's fishermen were already beating their way back into harbor. It was too early in the year for this sort of weather, but then this year had been unusual that way anyway.

She wrinkled her nose and sipped her tea, wondering if the fall shipment from Terebinthia would have some new blends. Thirty years in Narnia, and she still had not found a tea that tasted quite the way tea ought to. She wondered if the fault was not in the tea, but in her.

Dara, the brown and white spotted Dog who kept Susan's calendar, came in with Susan's dresser, Meret. Dara reviewed the day's schedule while Meret fussed with pale blue velvet and gold lacings. When she was done, Susan surveyed herself with some dissatisfaction. "Why the blue, today, Meret? I look like a child." She could not remember the last time she'd worn this shade--she was over forty, after all, and had no need to present herself as a girl anymore.

The dresser hesitated, her skin flushing green, and she cast a desperate glance at Dara.

The Dog stepped in smoothly, not even flicking an ear. "Ah, your majesty has been too busy of late to look at the calendar. Today is the Remembrance Festival for your brothers and sister."

"Today!" said Susan, and then shut her lips tight.

Twenty years, then. She stared at herself in the mirror, wondering. She was still tall, still slim, still able to outshoot any archer in the kingdom and outride any horseman. But the years and pregnancies had softened her, given her richer curves, sprinkled some grey in her dark hair. She had authority where once she carried only graciousness, and her hands were now far more bloodstained than Peter's had ever been. Would they even recognize her now?

Peter, Edmund, and Lucy would always be young and beautiful; Susan was the one left to age along with the world. She wondered sometimes when the anger at her abandonment had turned into wistfulness. Things had been too frantic for her to notice, between the wars and assassination attempts, the Great Drought, the revolt on the Lone Islands, and the need to secure the succession.

She had long since stopped wishing she had not fallen ill the day of that last hunt. If she had been with them, if they had all disappeared together--well, she shuddered to think of what might have happened to Narnia. Without a clear Human claimant for the throne--and no, neither of Lune's sons were acceptable to Narnia, not after Aslan had crowned the Pevensies--things would have collapsed into anarchy in short order.

They simply hadn't had enough time at that point. Fifteen years just wasn't long enough to rebuild Narnia back to the point where she could have held together without them. If Susan had forced herself to join the hunt that day--which would have been almost impossible, as she had spent the night vomiting up most of what she'd eaten the previous day--the result would have been disaster for Narnia. And the vultures outside her borders would not have waited a season before sweeping in.

"Your majesty?"

Meret's uncertain voice interrupted Susan's musings, and she shook herself, irritably. She had far too much to do to spend the morning dreaming about might-have-beens. "Thank you, Meret, I'm sorry I forgot. When is the ceremony, Dara?"

"At sunset, your majesty."

"Of course. Dara, send someone to remind the Prince Consort. This is precisely the type of function he prefers to miss, I am afraid."

"Yes, your majesty." Dara bowed, and with a final tweak to the fall of Susan's sleeves, Meret took herself away.

Susan surveyed herself again in the mirror. Meret really had done a lovely job, now that Susan recognized the intent of the dress. It was the same pale blue as her coronation dress, the same color she wore in the mosaic in the entrance hall, which illustrated the defeat of the White Witch and coronation of the Pevensies. The color was the same, but the cut was more mature, and the higher neckline hid the scars she had received in the Second Battle of Beruna, when she and Corin (together with a mixed company of Fauns and Dwarfs) had held off the Telmarine advance until the Centaur reserves arrived.

"The Galman trade delegation will meet you in the green parlor," Dara reminded her, and Susan snorted at herself and left the room. Bella padded along beside her as they wound down the staircase into the central keep. Susan frowned; why was she so prone to reminiscence today? She was far too busy for this sentimentalism.

Just outside the green parlor (which Susan realized Dara had chosen because it would coordinate so well with her blue gown, and how on earth had a Dog developed such a fine sense of color and style?), her name was called, and a stocky man in a leather jerkin and breeches came striding up to her. Bella eyed him benignly, and let him pass.

"My Queen," Corin said, with a half bow, and brought her hand to his lips in a salute that was half-serious and half-tease. "I trust you slept well?"

Susan smiled, putting a hand to Corin's right eye, which was reddened and swelling in an alarming manner. "Well enough, my husband, but how have you managed to hurt yourself at so early an hour?"

He snorted. "Holfast caught me off guard, it's nothing. We're training for the fall tourney in Anvard. Would you come this year, it'll be great fun!"

She opened her mouth to express her regrets, then caught herself. In truth, she owed Corin so much, for his good nature and his support, of both her and their children. He had no desire for the throne, but he was an able administrator when he had to be, when she traveled to other courts or rode to war. All he had ever asked of her was the honor of her regard, and (to him) the even higher honor of being her champion in the lists.

"It has been too long since I watched you joust against your brother the King, my Prince. We shall all come to Anvard for the tourney." At her side, she saw Dara's ears go back, and she silently apologized. But Corin's answering smile was joyful, and Susan could not regret the impulse. "And now I have a meeting, but you will join me for lunch on the terrace?"

At his assent, she kissed him before sending him on his way. Then with a nod to Dara, she opened the parlor door and went in, hoping that Mrs. Fandle the cook had been inspired to send up rashers of bacon for this breakfast meeting. It was looking like only bacon and eggs would be enough to get her through the morning.

Two hours later, she had had enough talk of salt fish and timber tariffs to last her months. She escaped at last, promising that her secretary would draft the agreements and send them along within the week. Without waiting for Dara, Susan walked quickly along the south corridor and out into the eastern garden. Bella followed, silent as ever despite her bulk.

The threatened rain had not yet arrived, but the wind was even stronger than it had been this morning, tearing Susan's hair out of its careful pins and into her mouth. It reminded her of racing Peter along the beaches below, their horses' hooves throwing up great gouts of sand as they ran, and Susan's hair streaming behind her like a banner.

The walls around the garden here were lower, because the cliffs beneath the castle provided an ample defense against assault from the sea. Driven by an odd restlessness, Susan climbed the stairs to the ramparts, reluctant to return inside, where yet another meeting awaited her. When Dara whined, she said, without looking around, "Stall them, Dara. There must be some value in being Queen."

Tucking her hair behind her ears, she leaned against the wall and stared out at the roiling sea. Was this the beginning of the foul weather, so early in the autumn? She hoped not, and there was no reason to think so, but even so Susan drummed her fingers on the stone parapet, staring at the waves as if they held the answer to questions yet unasked.

Perhaps it was the absence of her children that made her so unsettled. Alyx was visiting with the Beavers in Western Narnia, as she did this time every year. And Frank and Dickon were in Anvard for their training as esquires under King Cor's kind (if strict) tutelage. They were all nearly grown, now--even the boys were almost the age Susan had been when she first took the throne. Happily, their childhood had been less traumatic than their uncle Cor's had been, though this did not prevent them from causing nearly as much trouble as their father had at that age. Susan missed their cheerful exuberance, but she admitted that she did not miss the almost-constant uproar of the last few years. Cair Paravel was much more peaceful with the twin princes at a distance.

The Dwarfs from Farsight Valley were waiting. Susan sighed, and turned away, intending to descend the stairs to where Dara and Bella awaited. But something caught her eye, and she looked to her left, to see the great golden eyes and rich golden mane of an enormous Lion.

"Oh!" Susan said, and hesitated, but this was Aslan, unlooked-for. Her feet as light as a girl's, she sprang forward and threw her arms around him, as Lucy had used to do. "Aslan," she said; the name tasted like honey on her tongue.

The wind had died away: all Susan could hear was her own breath, and the faint thrum of the great Lion's heart pounding. His fur was as soft and warm as it had been when she was a child; she felt tears trickling down her face. It had been so long.

"My child," said Aslan, in a voice that rumbled like thunder in the distance.

Susan pulled back, startled; she did not remember him sounding so dangerous. "Aslan?" she said, hesitantly.

"Dearest Susan," he said, and touched his nose to hers. "You have done so well, most beloved of daughters."

Susan shook her head, sinking down to sit at his feet like the child she no longer was. "I tried, Aslan. I did try. But I failed so often! I couldn't save them all--there was the Drought, and the Giants came, and they were gone, I was alone--"

His breath was rich and sweet, curling into her soul and soothing the hurt she had buried beneath years of struggle and duty. "Peace, Susan. You were never alone. I was always with you, and though your siblings were gone, you made another family, one that will serve Narnia for long years to come."

She sat silently, considering this. He did not speak, and there was no sound about them, as if the world itself had stilled. At last, she looked up, and her voice was Queen Susan of Narnia again, the Adamant Queen as she had been since the day she could no longer afford to be Gentle. "You're taking me away, aren't you?"

He bowed his head in silent assent.

She struggled to her feet. "But you can't--the children! They're not old enough! Alyx isn't ready yet, she's only fifteen!" Alyx, her darling, who had Lucy's cheerful disposition, Edmund's bloody-minded tenacity, and Corin's (or Peter's) skill with weapons. But she was still just a girl, who hid from her tutor to race beetles in the gardens, and was constantly losing her earrings. She wasn't ready to be queen.

"You were younger still," Aslan reminded her, with a look in his eyes that brought back every memory of those early days as if they were yesterday. "And you leave her with a trained staff, a loyal army, and a strong right arm in her father."

"But--" Susan protested, and then stopped. The Lion's eyes were filled with grief for Susan, and her children, and Corin, but it was a grief unavoidable. She swallowed, and straightened. She was Queen of Narnia, she would not hide from her fate. "Where shall I go?"

He rumbled, and she knew he was pleased. "That is up to you. You may choose: either my Country, to join all my children who have left Narnia before you, or you may rejoin your brothers and sister for the rest of their journey."

She gaped. "Then--they aren't dead?"

His head tilted, as if he knew a secret he would not share with her. "They are not in My Country, although they may come there in the end."

"And I must choose now?" She looked around, and realized that for all the time she had been speaking with the Lion, the world around her had simply stopped. Dara stood in the garden, looking up; Bella was frozen on the stair with two paws in the air as she leaped upwards; a beach leaf hung in the air, caught unmoving. And, at the far end of the rampart, Susan saw a small figure in a green tunic, with an arrow on the string. "Oh," she said, looking at the assassin. "Is it the Black Dwarfs of Stormcrow, then?"

Aslan smiled. "You have grown into wisdom, my daughter. Now, will you choose? The result will be the same, for those you leave in Narnia; nothing you can do will change it."

No one really knew what Aslan's Country was like, for no one had ever returned to Narnia from that place, or so it was said. But Susan knew, just as she knew her own name, that it would be a place of beauty and rest, where she would be free from care and want and worry for her family and her land. And yet--she looked at the Lion keenly, searching for a hint. She would lose her family here, for a time, but oh, if she could see her other family again!

"I see," he said, before she had a chance to speak. "You choose the harder path, my child, but there the rewards are the greatest. Seek me there, as you have found me here: you will not be alone."

Aslan stepped forward and kissed her; the arrow flew; Susan felt a great pain in her heart, and fell. She heard Bella roar with grief and rage, and the sound of it followed her into the dark.

*

She tripped over someone's foot and fell onto a dusty wooden floor.

"Ow!" said a boy's voice. "How did--Susan!"

"Susan! How did you get here? I thought--weren't you sick?"

Someone touched her arm, but Susan wiggled away, rolling sideways until she hit the wall, and pushed her hair out of her eyes. She would have had a dagger in her hand by now, except there was no dagger at her belt, or in her sleeve, and she seemed to be wearing no boots.

Three strange children stared at her in astonishment. A blond boy about Alyx's age, a darker boy a bit younger than the twins, and a dark girl younger still. They were all dressed in ugly clothes. Ugly clothes that were maddeningly familiar.

"Susan?" said the girl. She looked very worried.

Susan stared at them, and then looked down at herself. She wore a short skirt, and her hands were white and soft, unscarred by blade or time. The room was empty but for the four of them, and a great carved wooden chest--not a chest, a wardrobe, said her mind. And this is the house in the country, where we were sent to be safe from the war.

"And you are my family," Susan said aloud.

Even with all three of them around her, it took a long time for Susan to stop weeping, and a longer time still before she could explain to them why.

 


~

 

V. Adventuress

 

Father Christmas' bow is gone, but one can still find archery supplies in London, although the hobbyists had little time or energy for such things during the war. Still, this is London: one can find anything in London if one is willing to look for long enough.

The shop Susan finds at last, in a dingy alley even now not yet completely rebuilt, is staffed by a young man who nearly refuses to sell her what she asks for. At length, after half an hour of arguing, she pays (too much, not that it matters) for a sturdy recurve bow and a quiver of hunting arrows. He does not believe she is strong enough to draw the bow; she sees no need to prove it. The knives are easier: any number of shops carry knives good enough for her purposes.

It takes some time to make all the arrangements. Susan, after all, does not wish to leave anyone worried or grieving for her. (She smiles at the irony, and keeps packing.) First there are the estates to settle--estates, multiple, although three of them have nothing worth settling. The legal niceties take long enough that by the time she sorts the clothing for the charity shop, she only breaks down weeping twice.

"Susan, are you sure this is wise? Traveling alone, so far?" asks Aunt Alberta when Susan stops by to leave her the keys. The house will take longer to sell, and Susan will not wait. Cannot.

She smiles at her aunt, a petty, small-minded woman she has never liked, and realizes that all the dislike is gone. "I need to go," she merely says, "and I will manage. I always have before."

Of course Aunt Alberta has no idea what she means, and merely smiles, and pours the tea. Alberta knows Susan as Helen's older, prettier, daughter, who had joined the WRNS when she left school. Now she works as a typist in the City, and Eustace says that she has many beaus.

All of that is true, and Susan has no wish to upset her aunt. She says little of her plans, and instead implies that she will visit friends in America before continuing on. "I hear New York is a very exciting city," offers Alberta, and Susan smiles.

Alberta, after all, has lost family, too--son, sister, niece and nephews. Susan turns the conversation to Eustace, and lets the woman prattle on about the son she has known not at all during the last few years of his life.

When Susan leaves, she is drained. She leans against the garden fence, out of view of the house, until she has some of her energy back, and then walks back to the train station. She can sleep on the train back to London.

When she wakes in her flat the next morning, it is a lovely autumn day. The sky outside her kitchen window is brilliant blue, the air crisp and bracing. It is too fine a day to stay inside, so she takes a last ramble in London. She wanders for hours, walking streets she has never seen before, watching the children play in the parks, and the boats on the Thames. She even enters St. Paul's, with only a hint of the old resentment. Mother never understood why she stopped going to church; Peter knew, of course, but never held it against her.

It was never a question of faith, after all.

Sunset has spread a tapestry of gold and scarlet across the sky when she walks at last up the stairs to her flat. She has not eaten all day, and she needs her strength, so she makes an old-fashioned fry-up, with two eggs and the last of the bacon. When she is done, she washes up carefully, leaving the small kitchen shining.

She sleeps well, and deeply, and wakes refreshed. Today is the day.

As an adult, Lucy was Susan's size, and far more inclined to romp in the woods, so Susan finds it fitting to put on Lucy's denim trousers, cinched with a sturdy leather belt. She attaches one knife to the belt and slides the smaller one inside her right boot. On top she puts on one of Edmund's shirts, and a black woolen sweater. Over it all she pulls on a navy peacoat. She swings her arms experimentally: that will do.

The small rucksack holds a canteen of water, some bread and dried fruit, an assortment of toiletries and camping supplies, and a single fine dress wrapped in a woolen shawl--just in case. She rolls up a wool blanket tightly and straps it to the bottom of the pack.

"Well," Susan says to the room, the window, and the grey day outside. "I guess that's it."

The landlord and her friends all believe she is crossing the Channel today, to spend time in Paris before traveling on to America. None of them expect to hear from her for some months.

Her hands shake, just a little, as she takes the box out of her bureau and puts it on the table. It is a small wooden box, carved of a wood she does not recognize; it is scratched and stained, the wood chipped at the corners. She has never opened it, but she knew what it was immediately when the attendant handed it to her with the rest of Peter's things.

When Susan opens the box, the change in the air is immediate. A soft musical hum fills the room, emanating apparently from the five brightly-colored rings in the small box. Three are green and two are yellow. Susan frowns at them, pondering, but at last shrugs. There is a mystery here, but she will not solve it today.

Her bow and quiver are on the bed; she slings them over her shoulder, settling them securely. She stares down at the box on the table, and then tips it out, very carefully. The rings clatter on the scarred surface, and two of them spin before settling. The color is so bright they might be children's toys, newly-painted, although Susan knows they have been buried for decades.

With a careful finger, she edges the green rings away, and puts two of them back in the box; the third she puts in the left pocket of her trousers. Two yellow rings remain on the table. With a pencil, she tips one into the box, which she closes securely and tucks into the rucksack.

"Now I really am ready," she says, and then laughs. "What if it doesn't work?"

But she doesn't really fear that: she can feel the magic in the room, ready to take her. She looks around again, at the dingy flat, the overcast sky, the automobiles hissing by, the world that seems so small and unpromising. "Good-bye," she says, and picks up the yellow ring.