The morning of a battle, the air was usually full of sound: Dwarfs and Satyrs sharpening weapons; the stamping of Centaurs restless for action; bowstrings twanging and harness jingling; the soft chiming of mail as it settled into place. But this dull grey morning, it was as if the world were swathed in cotton wool. The noise that Lucy heard outside her tent flap was soft and muffled, even the voices of passing soldiers low, somber.
It sounds like we've already lost, she thought, and shook her head. Unfortunately this was just at the moment that her squire lowered her hauberk over her head, and her braided hair caught in its folds for several awkward breaths before he could free her.
"Sorry, Cor," Lucy said, smiling at the young man.
The heir to the throne of Archenland was not yet burned brown by campaigning, and he flushed scarlet, the color climbing all the way to the golden roots of his cropped hair. "It--it was my error, Your Majesty. It won't happen again."
Fifteen this year and not entirely adjusted to life as the Crown Prince of Archenland, Cor was still far more responsible and sensible than his twin brother. He might not be as skilled in the jousting arena or capable with her weapons, but she knew she could rely on him to be where she needed him. It was why, when Lune had asked what he could to support her, she had asked for Cor as her squire.
What better way for the King of Archenland to show his trust in Narnia's Queen, than to send his heir to serve her?
But Cor, for all his good sense, was still learning how to behave as a squire, and it was her job to teach him. She did not correct him, or he would become even more nervous, so instead she smiled, and raised her arms to let him buckle the straps. Peter never had this much trouble with his squires, did he?
But if Peter did or did not, Peter was not here. And Lucy was not Peter, could not be: she hadn't Peter's natural authority, Susan's grace, or Edmund's wisdom. She would have to find her own way to command, she who had gathered Narnia to her with her laughter and light feet.
There had been little enough laughter in Narnia these last weeks, and even if they triumphed today, there would be little enough to come.
While she thought about those black-draped thrones, Cor had been quietly, surely (so long as he was unobserved) buckling straps and adjusting harness. Lucy looked down to see she was fully armed and armored, but for--
The white cloth in Cor's arms shimmered, and Lucy would have swiped her eyes on her sleeve if she could. He shook it out: a brilliant white surcoat emblazoned with the red lion of Narnia. Against the trunk, Lucy could see the golden pommel of Rhindon.
"The surcoat, yes," she said, against the tightening in her throat. "But not the sword, Cor."
"Your Majesty," interrupted a deep voice. Oreius, Lucy knew, without looking. "The High King's sword is the symbol of your authority."
Lucy didn't turn around as Cor lowered the surcoat over her head. "No. Rhindon is Peter's, and even if I would carry it, I can't. It's too big for me, you know it."
Oreius did not answer, which Lucy marked as a win. She was an adult, even by English standards, and yet many Narnians treated her as though she were still the child who had tumbled into that snowy wood so many years ago. Oreius was among the worst of them, and if she had not known how much she owed him for his loyal support, she would have chastised him for it. But she could not risk alienating him, and through him, the Centaurs of the northern hills, and so she had bitten her tongue many times in the last weeks.
Instead of the rich worked leather of Rhindon's belt, Cor buckled around Lucy's waist a red leather belt that supported two hand-axes and a dagger. Her javelins were racked outside the tent, ready to be strapped to her saddle. "Are we done?" she asked, as Cor stepped back, his hands empty.
When he nodded, she left the tent, patting him on the shoulder as she passed.
It was still early: they would not meet the Giants for an hour yet, according to the scouts. And they had the high ground, Lucy had made sure of that. But she wished now that she had not slipped away on those nights when Peter and Edmund, Oreius and Stormcoat had fought shadow-battles on the great table in the council chamber, with wine glasses and salt-cellars marking men and positions. Instead she had run off, to dance with the Fauns and Dryads on the lawns, or climb trees in the gardens, or run wild in the wood for days, coming back to the castle berry-stained and muddy.
I was a fool. She had wasted her opportunities, and now she was alone, and had it all to do herself.
Outside the tent the army was waiting: companies and platoons of Centaurs, Dwarfs, Fauns and Satyrs, Horses and other Beasts, and even a precious few Gryphons soaring overhead. They were not, like a Human army, in serried ranks, neatly arrayed, but gathered in clusters and packs, and as Lucy emerged into the open air, most of them turned to look at her.
She stopped, feeling her face flush. She had spoken to crowds before, at the great summer festival, at Christmas, at her birthday feast. But this was different.
"Your Majesty," said Oreius, at her side, motioning to the bay mare who stood waiting.
But Lucy shook her head. She wasn't tall enough for this: she couldn't hope to address her army if she was shorter than three quarters of them. And for this, she didn't want to be on a horse. Or even a Horse. So she climbed up on top of a barrel which had once held salt pork, and grinned, unrepentent, at the expression on Oreius' face--the Centaur was far more concerned about Lucy's dignity than she was herself.
From atop the barrel, she could see her people's faces, or at least their eyes. Horned, furred, hooved, and winged; four legs, two legs, or tailed--they were her people, for whom now she alone was responsible.
"My brothers and sisters," she started, and had to stop, because the lump in her throat had strangled her next words. The crowd around her remained silent as she struggled for control, while the Gryphons circled above and the sun burned away the morning mist.
"I should not be here today," she began again, forcing the words out, clenching her fists as she spoke. "It should be my brother the High King leading you into battle. But Aslan--Aslan has seen fit to take him away, with the rest of my family."
She swallowed, willing the tears back. "Aslan is as just as he is loving: he brought us to Narnia when it needed us, and he cannot have deserted us now. We must have faith in ourselves, the faith that Aslan has in us: we are strong enough now to keep Narnia strong, keep each other safe, even without my brothers and sister.
"This is the first battle since they left us, and it will not be the last, but it is the most important. We will show the Giants, and the rest of our enemies, that we are still strong, and firm in our purpose! The White Witch did not defeat us, the Calormenes did not defeat us, and the Giants shall not defeat us!"
With that, Lucy seized the hilt of of the sword that Oreius held for her and swung it up, so the runes on Rhindon's blade caught the morning sun and shone brighter than any banner overhead.
The cheers of the crowd rang in her ears as she jumped off the barrel, cautiously lowering Rhindon so Cor could take it from her. She was strong--much stronger than she was when the others had disappeared--but that sword was too heavy for her.
"Do--do you believe that, Your Majesty?" asked Cor quietly. "That Aslan took them away for our own good?"
Lucy looked at him, and then away. The cheers continued, echoing down the hillside as the units, urged by their captains, moved into position. An Eagle appeared over the ridge to the north, carrying the red flag that signalled the Giants' approach.
Inside her armor, the tension rattling her nerves was hidden from view, although Lucy was sure the Dogs of her guard could smell her anxiety. In less than an hour, this green hillside would be churned into a bloody mess, carpeted with the dead and dying, the air filled with the cries of the wounded and the clash of weapons.
And none of it would be necessary if Peter were still here, for the story of the mysterious disappearance of the Narnian kings had spread far. Peter had kept Narnia secure, but with him and Edmund gone, their enemies were beginning to test her borders.
If Aslan had taken her brothers and sister away, then it was Aslan Lucy would hold accountable for the deaths on the field this morning.
She looked up to see that Cor was waiting for her answer, his expression worried. He, at least, still had faith in the great Lion.
She should reassure the boy, but the words were ash in her mouth. At last she said, unleashing the bitterness that had darkened all the days since the hunt for the White Stag, "Only if you believe that one hundred years of winter was for our own good."