Peter and Edmund ride out to check the borders to Archenland. Considering the state of their other borders just from maps and reports, they're not holding up much hope for this one. It'd been lawless enough in their day, so Aslan knows what it's like these days due to neglect. A package of staying away from anything that might be wild and therefore contain Narnians, isolationism and internal fighting means it's almost certainly awful. However, Peter and Edmund would rather assess the situation with their own eyes first, before checking the reports.
"I really would advise against this, your majesties." Galduire cautions as Peter swings into the saddle of his horse. "The Archenland borders are not the safest place. The area is rife with brigands and highwaymen."
Peter looks over at Edmund. "Looks like it might actually be interesting for once, then."
Edmund rolls his eyes. "Peter, you do realise that's supposed to be a curse, not a life philosophy, don't you?"
"...Sire, could I at least persuade you to take your guard along?" Galduire pleads. He'll stop getting headaches over the seeming death wish the High King has someday. He hopes. It doesn't help that all of the Narnian monarchs seem to enjoy dangerous situations and regard them as a challenge, but the younger ones at least have a modicum of common sense. The High King actively seeks out situations that involve certain death. The myths and ballads mentioned this, but you expect ridiculous odds and feats of derring-do of ballads, they come with the territory. Unfortunately, as with so many parts of the tales of the Narnian monarchs, all the more disbelievable bits are the ones likely to be true, and the mundane parts are the made-up bits.
Edmund looks up from putting supplies into a saddle bag. "Actually, Peter, that's not a bad idea. Especially one of them who knows the territory - Aethelstan's from the border country. We'll take him along as a guide."
They set out with Aethelstan trotting alongside them, the wolf a quiet presence alongside their horses. The countryside is still a little odd to Peter and Edmund's eyes, due to the way it seems to vary between large swathes of dark forest and open farmland, with very clear demarcation between the two. There's a lot of wood around any rivers, allowed to grow untrammelled.
Peter shakes his head. "I still can't believe this happened."
Aethelstan shrugs. "Just did, your highness. Telmarines feared the woods, so they made their bit as bloody civilised as they could, and we had the woods to ourselves. Long as we didn't venture out much during daytime, we mostly ignored each other." He cocks his head to look up at them. "How'd it look in your day, then?"
"No big towns, for a start. The farms went right up to the edges of the woods. Most people made their homes on the edges of the woods since that's where the shelter was. It wasn't so obviously them and us." Peter sighs. "What's done is done, we just have to get it working again."
"Dunno how you'll do it, your highness, but you can give it your best shot." Aethelstan shrugs.
As they get closer to the border, the Telmarine towns and villages get sparser until it's a few smallholdings with mostly sheep. Edmund frowns. "Well, this isn't too different from the old days, considering it's getting into hill farm territory, given the terrain... but I'm sure there were more villages here. It runs out a lot faster than I’d expected. There's barely even been an inn for the last stretch."
"Border country, your highness." Aethelstan says. "Too dangerous for the Telmarines' liking. Gets a bit too wild. Can't really tame it, so they didn't want to settle here. They never even bothered
putting the patrols out that they do further north, so the farms don't have any protection. Lawless country, far as the humans're concerned. Lots of raids and you're bloody lucky if you don't get jumped by highwaymen on the road. I'd keep your eyes peeled, if I were you."
"Thanks for the advice." Edmund says dryly, scanning the horizon. "So how much of it is Archenland and how much Telmarine outlaws?"
"Just human, far as most've us're concerned." Aethelstan says. "They don't bother us for the most part since we're not normally carrying money and those've us who're out can normally defend ourselves." He bares his teeth. "Not many sodding highwaymen jump a wolf if they've got a lick of sense."
"True." Edmund returns. He adjusts his hood against the steady drizzle currently falling, and wipes some water off his face. It's cutting down on visibility a bit, but not too much. For the most part it's reducing the view to grey more than anything. "So at what point would you say was most likely for getting attacked?"
"Anywhere. Road's a prime spot for travellers. Villages get raided off and on. Farms lose sheep to them and us." Aethelstan grins savagely at that one. "No bugger of a lord or king's going to come out here, so bandits've got their pick of it. Any merchant with money's got a small army with him."
"And you're sure about the not being able to tell the bandits apart from Telmarine or Archenlander?" Edmund presses.
"Well..." The wolf hedges. "They mostly come from the border, so I'd say they're mostly Archenlander. Got the accent the few times I've been anywhere close."
"Remind me to press for precisely what they think the rate is when we get back." Peter says, and nods at the surrounding country. "This is far worse than even directly after the White Witch."
"They didn't raid so openly then." Edmund replies. "What do you suppose is more responsible, the raids or the lack of trade?"
"Well, no bugger's going to try and settle out here with no protection, is what I reckon." Aethelstan says.
They're a bit further along the road - maybe three miles from the foot of the hills, where the land alternates between scrub and thickets of trees, when all three of them stiffen. Senses for the wolf, long experience for Edmund and Peter. "Keep close and wait for them to attack. Don't warn them off." Peter says quietly, urging on his horse at a normal pace.
Several men on horseback burst from cover, going straight for Peter and Edmund. For two, they don't get much further than the first few steps out, since they fall from their horses with knives lodged in their throats.
The others don't seem to notice how quickly those two fell, pressing on, swords out. No crossbows, since the strings would get soaked too quickly in this weather to be of any use. The first to get close goes down as Aethelstan leaps at him, the horse rearing back in the face of the attacking wolf. Aethelstan snaps at his face and arms as he tries to bring his sword up, knocked back by the weight of the full-grown wolf as he hits the bandit, Aethelstan using the force of his leap and weight to knock him out of the saddle, and tearing at his throat and face as he goes down. The flailing of his arms doesn't last long - the wolf didn't even get cut, since the bandit'd had his sword knocked out of his hand as he fell off his horse. One down, more to go. Aethelstan turns to get involved with the rest of the attack.
They'd got close enough to the kings when Aethelstan's finished with his to be in sword range. The High King keeps his horse stock still, drawing back and getting the first one to go for him with a parry, twist and swinging his sword again to catch the man across the throat on the backswing, the bandit riding forward several steps before he manages to clutch his hand to his spurting throat, but by then it's too late and he'd been dropping from his saddle. Edmund dodged the next one's swing, waiting for his momentum to get him off balance as he over-extended, having expected to hit something and finding nothing there, then turning his horse and coming in with his sword to knock the bandit from his saddle. His foot's still in the stirrup, so he's dragging from that on the floor, trying to avoid his horse's hooves and untwist his foot from the stirrup at the same time. Aethelstan grins, pouncing, closing his jaws around the bandit's shoulder, and yanking hard enough to pull his foot from the stirrup as the man had been trying for, then silencing him by tearing his throat out.
Peter knocks another back, and the last makes a break for it, no longer fancying his odds in the face of these experienced soldiers. They'd looked like pretty easy pickings - two youngish riders with their wolfhound, from all appearances - but turned out to be nothing of the sort, and they'd got his mates easily enough. No-one plans for trained wolves, at least not unless you've got a crossbow in dry weather, or throwing knives. He doesn't manage to get far, as Edmund surges forward after him, kicking his horse into a run and riding him down, dodging the bandit's desperate swipe with his sword and knocking him from his saddle with his. The bandit falls from his saddle fairly cleanly without catching his feet in the stirrups, but he hits the track all the same, landing on his shoulder with a crunch and thwacking his head on the ground for good measure, and blacking out.
Edmund goes to round up the horses with the help of Aethelstan. "Good job." He comments. "Are they normally like that?"
Aethelstan nods. "Enough to get a few travellers, at any rate. Doubt they were expecting the likes of you, though."
Edmund smiles. "Well, few tend to expect Peter."
When they're back, Peter looks at the horses Edmund's got by the reins. "All of them? Good." He's standing over the bandit Edmund rode down, and nudges the bandit in the side, sword trained to his throat. "Time to wake up, I think."
Rhys emerges from the blackness of hitting his head as he hit the track, shoulder killing him. He'd been trying to escape this bloody trap that'd been set for them. They'd looked easy enough. Just two of them and a wolfhound, and well-dressed at that. Obviously not peasants, so they'd have a purse on them. Instead, the bastards had stopped and waited, taking two out with throwing knives before they'd got halfway to them, but they'd thought they still had a chance. The wolf - it was a wolf, not a wolfhound, but what wolf walks alongside humans in Narnia of all places - had leaped for the next, and he'd gone down in a blur of blood and his horse's scream. The taller of the men just sodding waiting for them, that's what they were doing, waiting, took out the next, and the shorter knocked the next from his saddle, poor bastard unable to get his foot out of the stirrup before the wolf was on him. The next went down on one last try against the taller one, he'd gone, so Rhys had decided to make his break now he was outnumbered, not fancying his chances in the slightest. Only they'd gone after him and he opens his eyes to see one of them standing over him, sword held so it's pointing at his throat. Behind him, the shorter one and that bloody great wolf are bringing up the rear, grim faced for the human's part, mouth open to pant and show teeth on the wolf's.
The one standing over him, water dripping down his face from this drizzle says mildly "Now. Tell me why were you attacking us."
Rhys would shrug if his shoulder wasn't killing him. There's a chance he dislocated it from the angle he hit the ground at. "You looked like you had money. What kind of idiot rides so close to Archenland borders without protection anyway? Brought it on yourselves."
"Our kind of idiot, it seems." The other says, wiping water from his forehead with a swipe of his forearm. Still holding his sword. "Pity for you that we carry our own protection."
The one standing over him continues. "And you do this often?"
"Decent living." Rhys replies. He's no idea why they're questioning him. He's a bandit, what more do they want to know? His mother's name?
"Bandits." The wolf says, snorting. Oh bloody hell, that's all Rhys needs. It's a talking wolf. Not a dumb animal like most of them in Narnia. No idea why it's willingly aiding humans. The beasts of Narnia, the few that're left, they'd sooner kill a human than help them.
The human standing over him raises his eyebrow. "Archenlander, I take it?"
"Telmarines don't police the border, so why not take advantage of it?"
"Why not." The shorter one shrugs, then cocks his head. "You've heard that there's a new regime in Narnia?"
Everyone's bloody heard about it. The beasts rose up and defeated Miraz with the help of Aslan and now there's some new monarchs on the throne. Doesn't make any difference to the border, though. "Yeah, supposed to be the Narnian kings of old come again. Like anybody'd believe that. We've been seeing more beasts walking around, true, but that's it."
The one standing over him says softly "Does this sound like a Telmarine accent?" He's right. He sounds like the Narnian beasts that you see in Archenland sometimes, the ones sensible enough to leave.
"Don't know many Telmarines accompanied by Narnians, either, mate." The wolf growls.
"No, but -" He stops, since the tall one touches his sword to his throat, pressing lightly, and he could swear he feels a trickle of warmth in amongst the drizzle on his throat.
"You had the misfortune to run into High King Peter." The shorter one says, amused. He's got a Narnian accent too. "He never did like Archenland raiders. I'd tell your friends if I were you." He glances round at the scatter of bodies around them. "Well, the ones still alive."
The taller one steps back, and Rhys staggers to his feet, clutching at his shoulder and getting out of there as fast as he can. They're not following him, retrieving their knives from the first ones they picked off, and checking their bodies over for more weapons. He wouldn't know them from whoever they say the new kings are, but he's not about to stick around to find out.
Susan's waiting for them with Trumpkin and Chiana when they get back to the city. "So how are the borders these days?"
"Oh, definitely interesting." Edmund says.
"Glad to hear it."
"Dunno why you bothered riding out." Trumpkin snorts. "Any fool could've told you the Archenland border's bandit country."
"Yes, but forgive us if we like to check things with our own eyes." Susan says. "We're not always inclined to trust the reports we get from the Telmarines. They're the ones that would have sworn blind that Narnians no longer existed some weeks back, remember?"
"Didn't have to go risking your lives -" Trumpkin stops and rolls his eyes. "Listen to me. Who'm I talking to again?"
Once inside the castle, Susan and Edmund convene a council of advisers on foreign policy. They're sitting around a table, and Susan taps her thumb on the table thoughtfully. "Tell me, how bad is the problem with the raids? My brothers find it quite lawless on inspection."
Galduire clears his throat. "It is considered to be quite a problem in the area."
"Hmm. Get me the Archenland ambassador, will you?"
It doesn't take long to get the Archenland ambassador there, but he does look somewhat reluctant to be there. Unlike other ambassadors, the Archenlanders preferred to keep a distance and play a watch and wait game rather than jump straight in. After all, they're the ones who border Narnia, even if the Telmarines seemed to prefer to believe that there weren't any other countries of any note beyond its borders. And they preferred to wait it out, for these new monarchs to prove themselves as who they claimed to be. Archenlanders have just as good records of the old Narnian kings and queens, and portraits that are faster to check than the Calormene ones. Archenland's history with Narnia is far more complex and tangled than the Calormen one with Narnia ever was, and they're certainly in no rush to abase themselves in as shameful a manner as the Calormen did. The story of that one spread around certain areas of court nearly as fast as wildfire, since several have very good hearing. But then the Calormene culture does seem to consist of having no spine or pride on several occasions - their insistence on abasing yourself totally before any lord of sufficient rank has always brought a sneer to the Archenland face - and having utterly misplaced definitions of what you should defend your honour against, not to mention the way they go about that. Time's proved that the Narnian monarchs are certainly the Pevensie family they claim to be, but still. Better to wait until confrontation is actually necessary.
Math opens the door to the room the council on Archenland is being held in. Queen Susan looks up and smiles, gesturing to an empty seat. "So glad you could join us, Math."
"Your majesty." The Archenland ambassador inclines his head and moves to sit down in the chair she indicated. "How may I be of service?"
He quite likes the Pevensies, personally. They're for the most part cheerful, pleasant, blunt and quite easy to get on with, far closer to Archenlanders in spirit, temperament and outlook than the Telmarines for the most part. They've got a sense of fair play and a decent sense of humour, and believe in living life to the full. They hate being tied down, and he's heard rumour that they're talking of removing themselves from this Telmarine fortress and are focussed on opening up the trade and sea barriers, which is no bad thing. All of them have made it very clear that they despise most court protocol, and are actively halting anyone who tries to use it in front of them. It's cutting down on the time he used to waste dealing with it. Directer and simpler. Of course, they can be arrogant and distant, but in that respect, they're used to being obeyed and running armies. In general, better them on the throne and taking Caspian in hand than Miraz.
It turns out that the Archenland historians shared a lot of the opinions he's forming of them - keep your distance from High King Peter and never forget that he's a soldier first and foremost. Quick to anger, quick to laugh, and always deadly serious. Little patience for diplomacy. Queen Lucy is the one whose brain runs at an angle most won't consider, and will laugh as she runs you through. Very nice, very sunny, healing potion in one hand and dagger in the other. In pictures and stories it's her image that's used as the metaphor for the unpredictable. King Edmund the Just. Lawgiver, King of Shadows and spymaster. The history books described him as quiet, dark and devoted to expediency. There were hints of the Bacchus thing, so it wasn't as much a shock to Math as it had been the rest of the kingdom, but talking to him, you'd still not expect it, since he gives nothing away of his personal opinion or life unless he chooses it. Queen Susan, who he has the most business with in his position as ambassador, is graceful, insightful, and one of the purest diplomats he's ever met, and as history describes, perfectly icy and unknowable when she chooses, with a fist of steel inside the silken glove. He does thank his stars that she's got a sense of humour.
Susan gives him a considering look. "We feel it's time to discuss Narnia's current relationship with Archenland, since it is our closest neighbour. Telmarine policy towards it seems a little unsteady and practically non-existent in several areas. How would you sum up the current situation?"
Math considers his reply. "I'd say it was cordial, your majesty. For the most part, there is very little to disagree about -"
Queen Susan sighs. "Is it as bad as the rest of Telmarine foreign policy?" The rest of the room exchange slightly embarrassed glances. The Pevensies' public scorn for that made most of those involved feel like chastised schoolchildren made to see the error of their ways, and they're all trying to put it behind them.
Math leans back slightly, trying to be politic. "We have regular trade set up."
Queen Susan's face smooths out in that expression that those often called in on council with her are learning is her slightly pained one. "I've heard about that trade policy. I'm certainly impressed by how restrictive it is. How did you manage to keep your face straight whenever the Telmarines insisted that all the Talking Beasts were dead or mythical?" She asks curiously, the Telmarines wincing. It's a sore point and probably will be for quite some time. Trumpkin the dwarf is snickering.
"Practice, your majesty." Math chuckles slightly. "In the mirror, every morning. My instructions were to allow them their illusions, since it meant for an easier life. As for visits by merchants, they were carefully picked and marshalled, and the Talking Beasts kept out of the way. It is certainly easier now." He pauses. "Though some are now considering what other branch of Archenland policy and life they can choose now to pull the wool of Narnia's eyes now that that amusement's no longer viable."
Susan raises an eyebrow. "Feel free to continue to provide amusement for me and my brother." She traces a finger on the edge of the table. "However, there is something I'd like to establish. How often would you say the border raids are? The Telmarine intelligence is hazy on the subject since they preferred to ignore the borders and so have no real figures. Sheep farmers weren't of much concern since they don't provide much in the way of tax. Aethelstan of the guard has said it's somewhat frequent and a fact of life there. He'll attest to the fact that a large proportion of the raiders and highwaymen have Archenland accents."
Math coughs. "I'd say that it's probably as lawless as you can get."
"Not that accurate." Her voice stays casual, but suddenly it becomes almost too casual. "Is it sanctioned or unsanctioned?"
Math freezes. It's not a question he'd expected. He should have. Archenlanders are raised with the story of what the Narnians refer to as the Golden Age, a mythical time for them, but the Archenlanders record that period as a matter of history. Records of battles and deals made document it, along with the more colourful tales of myth and song that were passed down in Narnia, albeit with an Archenland slant on it all. They're not mythic creatures, not heroes. The monarchs of Narnia's so-called Golden Age, the Pevensies, were youthful, beautiful, warlike, and ruthless in both politics and war. Their time on the throne was spent in almost constant sabre-rattling with Archenland. There was never outright war, but there were constant skirmishes and power plays. Narnia was recorded as an ally, but always one to be watched. The peace was forever uneasy and broken at a moment's notice. The records are accurate, as accurate as they can be for a period of history over a thousand years ago, but as everyone is finding out, having a historical figure in front of you always reminds you that many of the nuances are missing, and that a historian is always biased towards their own country and will skim over less than honourable practices done in the name of the home side. Archenland monarchs tend to turn a blind eye to the border raids, and claim that it's out of their hands and impossible to police the actions of a few of their subjects whenever Narnians bring a formal complaint. Queen Susan, however, has brought in a factor that appears to be missing from the histories. The possibility that it was sanctioned means that King Lune, and probably others, used it as a cover for other activities and on purpose.
He keeps his voice pleasant, even if he's sure that Susan - and certainly King Edmund, who's stayed quiet and in the shadows the whole time as an observer - saw his reaction. "Unsanctioned, your majesty. I think it's more that they turn a blind eye, but I can't say how much of it's because it made life difficult for the Telmarine merchants and any attempt to police the border."
"Hmm. Similar to our day." Edmund says, finally speaking up. "We'll have to check how much more serious it is and how much pressure we'll have to use to get Llyr to take steps to discourage it." He catches eyes with Math, and Math's curious expression over that point. "Yes, it is possible." He leans back in his chair, hooking an arm over the back of it to exchange glances with Queen Susan and ask casually. "How long do you suppose their memories are, Su?"
Susan considers that statement, or at least makes the appearance of doing so. "We can always remind them."
"...Your majesties?" Math asks nervously. That's a threat if ever he heard one. And one thing that has always been very clear about the Pevensies is that they don't make idle threats and have no problem using force. Especially High King Peter, who prefers that option to words and council.
Edmund cocks his head at the rest of the council. "Tell me, because I haven't seen this covered by the records I've been going over. What's Telmar's experience in taking wards of court?"
Everyone stares at that one. Pevensie direct ruthlessness surprising everyone once again. Just when you think they're nice and pleasant and willing to talk it out, suddenly the table's kicked over or you find a large knife in middle of the bunch of flowers they handed you.
Math's mind is racing, suddenly putting a historical event in context. Every Archenland child knows about Prince Corin, brother of King Cor. Cor was kidnapped by traitor lords and stolen away to Calormen as a child for many long years - which resulted in the battle of Anvard. They still hold that one over the Calormen as a jibe about their beloved Rabadash the Wise. Prince Corin is always a favourite subject. The adventurer prince, who everyone knows learned to fight from the time he spent in the Narnian court under the tutelage of the Pevensies. Lune's court was made up of doughty warriors, but the histories and tales agree that the Pevensies were the ones deserving of the title warrior kings more than any before or since. But the histories and tales seem to have left out the salient fact about why Corin spent time at the Narnian court that is making Math feel a little sick to his stomach. Now he thinks about it - and he's been studying the histories quite extensively since the Pevensies first appeared to make his life easier and get more of their references - they never gave a reason for the Crown prince of Archenland, as Corin was before his brother was returned, would spend time at a court that shared a very uneasy friendship with his home. Corin had been taken as a hostage for good behaviour from Lune, a way to exert control when other avenues had failed. Oh, a well-treated one, to be certain, looked on as a favoured young cousin while he was there. Queen Lucy's mentioned him and the escapades he got up to several times. But still a ward of court. And if Corin's ward status was a direct result of continual intentional border problems, his advice to his king will be to stop anything like that as soon as possible.
He lifts his chin. "I'm sure that any problems and disputes can be settled long before that is necessary, your majesty."
"Good." Edmund says. "Then I think we need to meet with your king, Math. Send message that we'd like to invite him to court formally. Make a celebration of it while we hold the talks. I'll get a scribe to draft the official letter and send the messenger, but feel free to send your own birds ahead of it." He looks over at Susan. "I'm in the mood for another feast or two, and the Archenlanders were always good company." He looks back at Math. "How're the bards these days?"
Math grins, rightly proud. Archenland bards have a reputation they like to uphold. "They've been keeping up the traditions, your majesty."
"Good to hear."
"We'll have to see how much survived from our day in the way of tunes." Susan says. Math makes an internal note to tell the bards to look up as many of the ancient tunes as possible when they come.