Susan has just reached the well, leaning over to grasp the handle, when a small glint by her foot catches her eye. Frowning, she kneels and brushes aside the dirt and grass to pick the object up. It is an ornate, stylised golden horse with rubies for eyes – no, one ruby, the other seems to have fallen out. A chess-knight, she realises, rubbing dirt out of its indentations with her thumb.
The weight of the gold horse is strangely familiar in her hand, its ruby eye reflecting sunlight dazzlingly. She abruptly remembers the way it used to reflect the firelight in Edmund’s chambers as they played chess after a long day of diplomacy and administration, occasionally discussing particularly thorny issues over the board, with Peter or Lucy sometimes joining them and chiming in with their opinions on where she should move her bishop or how to deal with the centaurs’ requests. She remembers the other boards she had set up in the great hall sometimes, gently teaching fauns how to play it, laughing at how small the pieces seemed in a giant’s hands as he oh-so-carefully nudged his rook forwards.
The chess piece has a painstakingly carved bit and bridle, decorations flowing across the straps, and she remembers bridling and saddling her own dark mare, urging her into a gallop down the beach and laughing to feel the wind in her hair, guiding her through the trees while hunting. Susan turns slightly to stare at the beach again, and as magical as it had seemed when they had first arrived she realises now that the beach is too empty, too barren, devoid of the mermaids sitting on the rocks and combing out their hair and singing strange, entrancing songs. Her hands clench in the dirt.
This can’t be Narnia. It can’t be her Narnia. Cair Paravel wasn’t abandoned and in ruins, the forests and beaches weren’t eerily empty, surely other long-gone kings and queens in other lands had golden chess-pieces.
She forces herself to stand and walk back to her siblings, eyes still on the chess piece in her hand. Then she realises that her feet are taking her on an automatic, long-remembered route from the well to the great hall by themselves, that the ruins she’s passing are too familiar.
“Look,” she says quietly, and the others turn. “I found it by the well.” Peter takes it from her hand and Edmund and Lucy crane to see it. Lucy recognises it first. How can she still sound so cheerful?
“Cheer up, Su,” and she would laugh in Peter’s face if she wasn’t trying so hard not to cry.
"I can't help it," she says instead. "It brought back -- oh, such lovely times. And I remembered playing chess with fauns and good giants, and the mer-people singing in the sea, and my beautiful horse -- and -- and -- " She gives up, the pain and loss flooding back, and Peter turns away as she begins to cry.
She had half-forgotten, or had made herself forget, growing up in Narnia and spending her entire life devoted to it, ruling it, loving it. Growing from a frightened girl clinging to logic into a woman, a queen, surrounded by fauns and centaurs and Dryads and secure in the knowledge of Aslan’s blessing and her country’s love, turning down suitors from Archenland and Calormen and the Lone Islands because Narnia would always come first. Berating herself every day she was back in England for not having spoken up, for not insisting that they leave the White Stag alone and return to Cair Paravel. Waking up in the middle of the night remembering Narnian battles and unsure if she was still in England, still a child. Staring into the mirror searching for traces of the woman she had been in the wrong, too-small body she has been forced back into, that body shaking now with the force of sobs.
It had been so much easier to forget, to remember Narnia only as a dreamy game she had played with her siblings in the country to keep Lucy entertained. But the walls have crumbled and Susan mourns for everything she has lost, everything Narnia has lost, because they never got around to establishing a succession – perhaps she should have accepted a proposal, borne an heir, that should have been her duty to Narnia as its queen instead of treaties and councils and hunting, she had been so selfish – or finishing the outermost garrisons. They had gone hunting and abandoned Narnia, and her land has paid its price. How long has it been for Narnia? How had they managed without their monarchs and war leaders? Her home is in ruins, everyone she knew and loved is gone, and while Peter and Edmund and Lucy indulge in logical discussions about the layout of Cair Paravel and what could have happened, pointing out the remnants of siege catapults, she feels another stab of guilt and loss.
This might not be Cair Paravel; Professor Kirke had told her about the Wood between the Worlds, and they might be in another world with long-gone inhabitants who had similar taste in board games. Susan wants to hope that it isn’t Cair Paravel, doesn’t want it to be so, but she has always been logical and the evidence is stacking up. And even if they aren’t in Narnia, it doesn’t erase the fact that they were roughly pulled out of their lives in the world they had grown to love, or their loss.
Lucy reminds them of the treasure chamber’s location and Susan wipes her eyes roughly and gets to her feet, hoping that there is nothing but stone there, instead of the damning, crumbling wooden proof of their reign. She takes a deep breath, posture straightening.
They have returned home. And Narnia needs its Queen.