There wasn't much warning, just a burst of surprise-fight/flight-exasperation-worry-determination from the direction of the cockpit, immediately followed by Mal's shout of, "Kaylee! Take us dark, now!" over the intercoms, and three point seven nine seconds later the lights went out with the dull clunking sound which accompanied an emergency ship-wide power shutdown. The engines spun down to a standstill, as did the ventilation fans. The compressors in the life support system released their air-pressure differential with a gentle sigh, and River knew everyone else aboard was holding their breaths out of reflex even though doing so now was useless in terms of affecting long-term oxygen consumption rates, and there were no sensors available good enough to tell another ship whether they were breathing normally or not.
River kept dancing. Her step had faltered when she felt the first wave of Mal's distress, but she adjusted, worked the deviation of motion into a change in tempo into a different rhythm into an entirely new dance. No known composition matched her current need, so instead of dancing to the memory of any particular song, she created her own private music from the steady beat of her heart, the swishing of her skirts, the scraping of her feet on the catwalk grating, and the rustling of her hair brushing against her arms and shoulders as she moved her head. Dancing was good, even in the dark. Especially in the dark. Focusing on the physical helped keep everyone else's mental noise out beyond arm's length where it couldn't gang up and crowd her out of herself, and, should the worst happen, dancing also kept her muscles warm and ready for a fight, not that one seemed likely any time soon. The Captain-part of Mal's brain, which never shut up, especially not when he was at Serenity's helm, said so by the fact that it wasn't muttering to itself about Reavers or Alliance warships, just a small patrol ship out at the far edge of sensor range, not on a course to intercept, easily avoided as long as they played dead instead of trying to bolt. If they kept calm, they could drift right back out of range again and have the power up and the life support system back online before the air so much as started getting noticeably worse than usual.
It was dark, not true darkness, but they were out on the Rim with most of the windows pointed toward the Black, and what little starlight came in wasn't enough to see by. River didn't care whether it was dark or not. She had memorized the layout of Firefly class ships, as well as scores of others, down to the last bolt and circuit breaker long before she ever set foot on one, and she knew all the modifications Mal, Kaylee, and whoever else had done to Serenity over the years, and though her movements may have looked random to an observer, she knew the exact length of every stride and how much further she could go in any direction before she would run into anything or fall from one of the open sections of the walkway. Therefore, it was even more of a surprise to River than Mal's shout had been when she stalked down the catwalk in a move reminiscent of an old Flamenco, twirled with exactly nine hundred degrees of rotation, and then started back the way she had come only to discover a closed door blocking her path.
Only a small change in how the sounds of her movements reflected back from the surrounding hard surfaces kept River from running face first into the door. She reached out a tentative hand, half expecting to discover she was only imagining this new arrival, because as much as Simon's treatments had been helping her, there were still times when neurons misfired and her thoughts skewed off in ways they shouldn't. She was not imagining it. The door was solid and real, mounted in a thin frame pushed against the railings on either side of the walkway but not attached by any fasteners she could feel, though it could have been glue. The texture under her fingers suggested wood, and not just the roughhewn wood of doors on poor settlers' homes on newly terraformed planets but wood valued for its beauty as much as its function, carved and polished with as much care as a luthier would lavish upon their finest violin, and there was no way it could have gotten there. No one had entered or exited the cargo bay since the shutdown, and there were no machines onboard which could operate both autonomously and quietly enough for her not to have noticed one delivering a wooden door large enough to block the whole walkway. Nothing seemed to be holding it in place, but it neither tipped over nor slid backwards when she pushed against it. She stretched her arms wide, grasped the door by both sides, and pulled. It didn't even wiggle. Probing around the front of it some more, River found what seemed to be a carving of a large tree with animal figures under it and, finally, a simple handle and latch which released something inside with a tiny click when she thumbed it. Now a light tug on the handle was all that was needed before the door swung open towards her on well-oiled hinges.
What awaited River on the far side of the door was even more impossible than the door itself, because rather than the rest of Serenity's catwalk and faint glints of starlight, there was what appeared to be a crepuscular forest of conifers. She knew she should have gone to fetch Simon by now, just to make sure she really was not imagining this, or Mal because he hated crew members leaving the ship without permission, or Zoey or Jayne because they might have liked the chance to hunt up some animal protein if there was any to be had out there, or Kaylee just because she would have liked the adventure of it all while waiting for Mal to let her turn the power back on, but a puff of breeze blew through the door carrying the freshest, cleanest, most alive smelling air River had ever known, and she was somehow instantly certain that this door was meant only for her and no one else. Even as she thought about it, she distrusted the inexplicable feeling of certainty, wondered if it might be a trap to lure her back to her former captors, but something called to her without sound from the other side and it was difficult to resist.
"You don't belong here, do you?" she whispered to the door, and knew she was wrong the instant that she said it. For all its impossibility, all her senses were telling her that this point in time and space was exactly where this door belonged. In the end, River decided to go through the door and into that impossible forest for the simple reason that it had been so long since she last felt soft pine needles under her feet and because she reasoned that if Blue Sun could teleport doors onto Serenity against all known laws of physics, then they probably also had ways to get her off the ship which required less effort. She wedged the door open with a stray wrench she had had in her pocket, just in case, and stepped through. She paused on the threshold to look around, then stepped all the way through when she could not detect anything hostile. River had only traveled a few paces in when she heard a soft click behind her. She spun around to see how the door could have come un-wedged and closed itself, but the entire door was gone just as suddenly as it had appeared. And though she did not know its name yet, this was how River Tam came to find herself in the land of Narnia.
There was life all around her. It was not just in the singing birds and the visible greenery; it was everywhere. The plants were thinking, mostly quiet thoughts about the wind through their leaves and the worms tickling their roots, but they were thinking all the same. Most of the trees were taking an afternoon nap and dreaming of what sort of what beautiful saplings their pinecones would produce, but a few were awake and watching her. Even in things which had no right to be alive, had no biology, had nothing even approaching the chemical complexity required to produce or sustain life were somehow alive. The very rocks in the ground were inaudibly humming to themselves with songs of the cycle of the seasons and memories of a moment of creation which was far too recent for their non-volcanic nature.
Had this been any planet in the 'verse River knew, then it would have been overwhelming to have so much life crushing in from all around her with all its different private thoughts and rhythms, but somehow, here in this place on the other side of an impossible door, it was comforting, like when Simon put a warm blanket around her shoulders and hugged her close. She wanted to see more. She did not forget the disappearing door and the dangers such quantum impermanence represented, but they were not her topmost priorities when there was so much else to explore here. Simon would have argues had he been here with her, but she was alone and needed data. River looked around, memorizing the exact pattern of surrounding trees for this location, though she knew it would be of no use should the trees prove to be as prone to disappearances as the door through which she entered. Then, she listened for the brightest nearby mind and followed its call to see who or what she would find.
Several minutes later (River knew the exact number of the seconds and the distance traveled in that time, but such things were not nearly so important in Narnia) she came upon medium-sized stream rushing merrily through the woods, and in this case 'merrily' was not a case of anthropomorphization. The stream really was that happy to be going about its business and had a sparkly wet mind capable of thinking as much. Curious, River dipped her toes into the stream's cold water and heard its thoughts give a brief start of surprise followed by the sense that it was pleased to be able to offer respite to a weary traveler. River considered telling it that she was not weary at all yet, but the stream seemed so proud of being of assistance that she kept it to herself. She let her feet soak for a few more moments, because it really did feel very nice, and then began to withdraw them so she could continue with her exploration.
The water swirled around River's ankles in ways which could not be explained by normal hydrodynamics, and suddenly a woman burst out of the stream and pleaded, "Oh please don't go yet!"
River rolled backwards and came up in a wary crouch, equally ready to fight or run.
"I'm sorry," said the woman who could not really be a human woman because she had the exact same sparkly wet mind as the stream did. "I didn't mean to frighten you." She raised her hands in a conciliatory gesture, backed up a few steps, and sat on one of the larger rocks in the middle of the stream. "It's only that it has been so long since I have been able to spend much time with a Daughter of Eve, and you haven't even had a drink yet. We are a long way from anywhere, and you must be very thirsty."
"What are you?" River said.
"I'm a naiad, of course."
River searched her memory all the way back to the book of Earth-that-was mythology and folklore which Simon had given her when she was three. She had grown out of the need for bedtime stories rather quickly and not had much use for them since then, but the memories were still there despite all the cutting the Academy had done. Naiads: water spirits of wells, streams, and other fresh water bodies; a subset of genius loci; often depicted in art as naked or scantily-clad young women. At least this one was fully dressed, though the dress in question looked suspiciously like it was mostly made from fish scales with waterweed trim. There was just one problem with the woman's assertion. "Naiads are a myth," River said. "That means they aren't real."
"We were all saying the same thing about Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve for quite a long time after it looked like your lot had gone extinct, and yet here you are, the sixth one I've seen in the past month, though you're the first one who has stopped long enough to talk to," said the naiad. "Are you sure you don't want a drink?"
"Do you have cryptosporidium, giardia, or any other pathogen, biological or otherwise?"
"Pathogens?!? I would never! My waters are among the purest and cleanest in all of Narnia! Some may be my equal, but none are superior!" gasped the naiad, and River could feel more than enough offended denial at being mistaken for one of those streams rolling off of her to know that it was true.
"Good. I don't want to have to explain to my family where I got a fresh case of parasites. My brother is a doctor. The lecturing would go on for hours."
"The waterways where you come from may be riddled with cryptosporidium and giardia, but Narnian waterways take pride in our healthy drinkability! Why, I haven't even had so much as an unpalatable algal bloom in the past century," continued the naiad, beginning to sound a little sulky.
"I'm sure you're very tasty," River said and reached out to cup some water in her hands, but the water pulled back as if changing course to flow around an invisible boulder with River at her center.
"No, no, it's too late now. You've made it very clear what you think of my waters, so you should just continue on your way. The rest of the Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve are at Cair Paravel, a few miles that way," and here the naiad pointed downhill in a direction perpendicular to the way River had been traveling. "You go talk to them, and I'll stay here and talk to the local beavers. At least they know a thing or two about giardia and who does and does not have it!" Then the naiad vanished back into the water. She did not jump in and swim away as a human might. Instead she simply dissolved back into the rest of the stream with an irritable splash.
Still feeling the anger radiating from the water, River stepped away from the stream and began walking in the direction the naiad had pointed. It was as good as any other direction at the moment, and River figured that if she could find a settlement then maybe she could learn something about how to summon appearing and disappearing doors. Birds darted around in the tree branches above her. Some felt like ordinary birds. Others had minds far too intelligent to have been housed in normal sized avian brains, and yet there they were. They peered at her with obvious curiosity, and River heard a few calling to each other in English in the distance, but none of them spoke to her. Some were merely shy. Others had been warned away by the rumors of her rudeness spreading away from the stream (clearly a babbling brook if ever there was one) at the speed of gossip.
River did not mind the relative silence. She could travel faster this way anyway. The ground was soft and springy under her feet, almost like walking on carpet, and an hour and twenty three minutes later she arrived at the entrance to a castle without a single scrape or blister to show for her journey. She had seen larger and fancier buildings before; the Core worlds were filled with them. However, this was an impressive enough example of stonemasonry if it truly had been constructed using only minimal technology. A dog and a curly haired man with little horns and goat legs (too dainty looking to be a satyr, so probably a faun, suggested River's memories of that same mythology book) guarded the left and right sides of the gate respectively. It was the dog who greeted her.
"Hello, Daughter of Eve," he said, wagging his tail as eagerly as any non-talking dog River had ever seen. "Are you here to be another queen?"
"All the thrones are already taken, Greypaw, so stop offering them to every human you see," the faun scolded his fellow guard. "That last son of Adam may have been relieved when he learned he would not really need to be made a king, but someday one of them might not be so sanguine about having such an offer made only to be immediately revoked." Then he turned to River and said, "My apologies, my lady, but we are all of us still new to our duties. Please, enter freely if you come in peace. The kings and queens are holding open court today and will receive any who seek an audience." He sidled a little closer and added in an awed whisper, "There are rumors Aslan himself has come today, though if he has then he did not do so by this gate, not that He would need to of course."
"Now who is forgetting his duties, Brellus?" said the dog, but he was still wagging his tail with good humor. "Stop chatting and let her enter."
"Yes, yes, of course," said the faun, leaping back to stand at attention by the door, then dipping into an only slightly awkward bow and motioning her through the gate. "Please, do enter, Daughter of Eve."
And so River entered. The castle was as pretty inside as it was outside, though its interior did not look like it would be particularly defensible should an enemy ever breach the outer walls. Soon River made her way to the throne room, where she found four well, if archaically, dressed children, who were staring in bemusement as a very familiar looking man tried to have an argument with something which was not really a lion while remaining as respectful as possible. River ignored the not-really-a-lion for the moment, because though it was bigger than any Earth-that-was lion, bigger even than any of the lion-tiger hybrids which never stopped growing as long as they lived, and had a mind like a giant pillar of fire, there was no sign that the not-really-a-lion had tried to eat or otherwise harm anyone in the room, not even the smallest of the children, who looked like she would be the perfect tender snack should such a great cat desire one.
Instead, River leaped and wrapped her arms around the startled man with a joyous shout of, "Shepherd!" for this was indeed none other than the dearly departed Shepherd Book. She had forgotten until this moment just how much she missed that warm mind with its core of jagged steel. She had not missed his lurking wild mane of hair, but at least that was still neatly braided into its orderly little rows, not a strand out of place. He looked better than the last time she had seen him, but of course the last time she had seen him.... River frowned. She released her hold and dropped back to the floor.
"What's the matter, River?" the Shepherd asked.
"You died," she said, and reached out to poke him in the chest perhaps a bit more accusatorily than she intended. He was too solid to be a ghost and too lively to be the corpse she had last seen, and though there were plenty of ways in the 'verse to fake a face, no one had yet managed to fake a mind, so she felt she was owed some answers.
"Yes, I suppose I did," he said cautiously, and River felt the memory of that death flick through his mind, surprisingly free from all the pain and fear she remembered feeling from him when it happened. Shepherd Book turned back to the not-really-a-lion. "Is she...?
"Fear not, my child," said the not-really-a-lion, and River could feel that pillar of fire mind give a calming flare of warmth, and she could feel the Shepherd feel it too, even if he did not really understand what he was feeling. It wasn't the dangerous calm that told a person to lie down and stop fighting, not like so many drugs tried to give. It was the calm that still kept a person alert, gave them more control instead of less, let them settle, focus, and see the truth. "She is only a temporary visitor who I have brought to help you accomplish your task."
"I am not helping create more child soldiers," the Shepherd said, and though he turned his eyes away as if ashamed of himself for feeling anger at such a magnificent Beast, his tone of voice indicated this was an argument which had been going on for quite a while before River arrived.
River looked at the children in question. She read them. They were standing a fair distance away, but that was out of respect rather than fear. The boys had already seen battle, already more dealt death than they allowed their conscious minds to quantify, and the humming filaments of quantum potentiality hummed and whispered that only premature death could prevent the girls from someday being required by circumstance to do the same as their brothers. She reached a decision.
"They are going to fight whether we help them or not, Shepherd," River said, taking the Shepherd's hands in her own. They were warn, ever so slightly sweaty, and at least in this strange land, very much alive. "Their enemies will force them to no matter how much their allies try to protect them," River continued. "They are not child soldiers; they are monarchs, ones tied to this land far more than any ancient chieftain of Earth-that-was who knew he would be sacrificed to aid fertility should the harvest ever fail during his reign."
"She is correct, my child," the not-really-a-lion said. "I am not asking you to teach them how to make war, but how to survive wars started by others, how to end those wars, and when possible how to prevent those wars from beginning at all. Teach them tactics and defense, Shepherd. Leave the combat skills to River. For her, it is time that the student became the teacher. It will be best for all of you."
The youngest looking of the children now approached and spoke for the first time. "Please, Aslan, must we fight?" she said. "Father Christmas said battles were ugly when women fought." She was holding a small knife, still in its sheath, clutched against her chest.
"Aren't battles always ugly?" River countered, and the child nodded with memories of a battlefield with the strangest collection of combatants River had ever imagined flashing through her mind. "And it is even uglier to just stand and let others hurt you when it serves no purpose."
The child flinched, and now River saw another memory, this time of jeering figures, and stone, and ropes, and knives, and turning away to miss the sight of a killing stroke. "Sometimes it looks ugly even when it serves a purpose," the little girl whispered.
The not-really-a-lion leaned in and nuzzled the little girl's cheek. "The purpose of that has been served, and it will never need to be done again," he whispered in her ear in a deep bass purr. The girl wrapped her arms around him as far as they would go in a fearless hug. "All will be well in the end." He gently nuzzled her once more, and she finally untangled her fingers from his great golden mane and released her hold on him.
"It will not be all bad, Lucy," River said, fishing a name out of the child's mind. As the not-really-a-lion withdrew slightly to give them some space, River knelt down so that she and Lucy were eye to eye and then asked conspiratorially, "Do you like to dance?"
Lucy nodded again but said nothing, though her mind was rushing in all sorts of directions.
"Dancing has many skills in common with fighting," River said, "and I won't make you fight until I'm sure you can dance very, very well." River shot a meaningful look at the other children and added, "Your brothers too." And now Lucy was grinning at the prospect of what was to come. River gave Lucy's shoulder a squeeze and sent her skipping back to share the news with her siblings.
"Are you sure you know what you're doing?" Shepherd Book asked her.
"I know a lot of things not to do," River said, watching the children converse amongst themselves, the boys wearing distinctly disgruntled expressions though their thoughts were just as interested and eager as the girls.
"I suppose that's a start," the Shepherd said. "But is it really necessary to--," he cut himself off mid-question when he saw that his intended questionee, the not-really-a-lion, had silently vanished from the throne room when none of them were looking.
River cocked her head to one side, listening, and repeated what the very stones of the castle told her. "He does that a lot," she said. "He'll be back eventually but won't just come when we call. The castle says he isn't a tame lion. It is quite smug about that fact."
"It really is good to see you, River," the Shepherd said, laughing and ruffling her hair. "Do you think maybe now you might be ready to have a discussion about impossibilities and belief?"
"Later," River said. "Right now, it's time for us to teach some kings and queens how to dance."
And that is exactly what they did.
And what followed were years of teaching, and fighting, and children growing into men and women, and everyone working to build what would one day be known as the Golden Age of Narnia, and in between there were grand feasts with dancing just for the pure joy of dancing, and on those occasions River danced with the kings and queens of Narnia, and with Shepherd Book, and with fauns and nymphs, and naiads and dryads (though that one naiad never fully forgave her for the insult to her water quality),and dwarves and giants, and centaurs and unicorns, and gryphons and dragons, and all manner of talking Beasts, and Bacchus and his maenads, and sometimes even with Aslan himself. And through it all River was finally able to piece together all those last little broken bits of herself which Simon had said only time would be able to heal.
Until one day, River and Shepherd Book were walking through the gardens of Cair Paravel, having a spirited debate over the nature of fate versus free will, when suddenly they found two doors in the garden wall where previously there had only been solid stone. "It's time to leave now, isn't it?" River said, though she was no longer talking to the Shepherd, because she could now feel a mind like a pillar of fire behind her.
'You are correct as you so usually are, my child," Aslan said, brushing gently against her side as he circled around to face them. He was still not-really-a-lion, but River loved him enough to let the state of his existence pass unremarked upon. "You have taught your charges all that you were once taught about battle and all that you have learned in the course of teaching them," he said. "It is time for them to continue on their own strengths now, and you are each needed elsewhere."
"I don't want you to die," River said.
"I died a long time ago, River," Shepherd Book said. He smiled as he reached out and brushed away one of the tears which had begun tracing their way down her cheeks. "It's not as if I'm going to do it again. However, we both know we can't stay here forever."
River embraced Shepherd Book for what she thought would be the last time, but through her weeping she heard Aslan's reassurance, "Do not despair, River. Neither of your journeys is at an end yet, though you must now part ways for a time. You will meet again." When the two friends finally released each other, Aslan pushed one of the doors open with a great velvet paw. "Just this once, my faithful Shepherd, let us have age before beauty, and remember, go further up and further in."
"Goodbye for now, River," Shepherd Book said. He waved to her, brushed one hand reverently through the outer edge of Aslan's mane, and then he strode through the door with head held high.
River could not see what lay on the other side of the door, but as it drifted shut she thought she heard none other than Hoban Washburn shouting, "Shepherd, I've been looking for you! Did you see what--" Then the door clicked shut, cutting off whatever else was said. River continued to stare at the door.
"It is your turn now, River," Aslan said.
River glanced at him, and when she looked at the wall again, she saw that Shepherd Book's door had vanished and the one which could only be her own was now standing open, showing nothing but darkness on the other side. She took a step towards it, hesitated, then turned and threw her arms around Aslan just as she had so recently thrown her arms around Shepherd Book, though this set of shoulders was so much wider and silkier. "You never did reconcile all the contradictions and impossibilities," she said with her face buried in his mane.
"Don't worry," he said as the pillar of fire burned bright like a beacon of protection to ward off all enemies and dangers, "someday I will. Now, though, it is time for you to go home."
"Yes," River said, "I suppose it is." She stood up straight, squared her shoulders, and walked forward into the darkness. Over the course of four steps, the grass of the garden gave way to bare earth, which gave way to stone, which gave way to metal grating, which was especially noticeable because somewhere along the way her shoes had disappeared. There was a soft click behind her, and a moment later the lights came on, revealing the interior of Serenity's cargo hold, looking exactly as it had when she left it so many years ago.
"Okay, everybody," Mal's voice crackled out of the intercoms, "we're all clear. Hit it Kaylee. Let's get this cargo to its new home!"
By the time he had finished talking, the engines were already rumbling back to life, and soon after that River felt the light pull of inertia at her innards as the ship shifted course ever so slightly to correct for the time spent drifting in not quite the right direction. She did not need to turn around to know that the door was gone, but she did anyway. A wrench lay near the edge of the catwalk, exactly where she remembered using it to wedge the door open. She looked down at herself. Her Narnian finery was gone, replaced by the loose single-piece dress she had been wearing before. Her hands looked young again too and lacked all the various minor scars she had acquired here and there during her time on the other side of the door. However, River knew it had not been all in her imagination. When she closed her eyes and inhaled, she could still catch the faint scents of both Aslan and Shepherd Book faintly clinging to the skin of her arms.
River closed her eyes and listened to the ship and all its crew. She had not been gone long enough for anyone to notice her absence. She was going to have to start constructing some mathematical models for the relationships between non-adjacent units of four dimensional space if she was going to have any hope of explaining how that had worked. However, her first order of business was much simpler. She was going to go talk to Simon and then all the others, because though they didn't know it, it had been such a very long time since she had last done so.
One thing which River knew she was not going to do was go looking for Aslan. She had no reason to. She knew that the not-really-a-lion was like Shepherd Book's own terrifying mane of hair had once been.
She did not need to see Aslan to know that he was always there, waiting.