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Oathkeeper

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My dearest Susan,

I dreamed of you again this morning, most beloved sister. You were standing at the shores of a great lake with a bow and quiver at your feet, calling my name into the wide expanse of the sky. I could hear you, sister, but could not make a sound in return. Instead, I listened to you cry my name over and over and over. I woke longing for your presence.

Sister, I miss you.

The citizens of the Dancing Lawn sent a delegate yesterday, a funny little faun who travelled here with a whole trunk of books and his very own tea set. His name is Tumnus son of Tumnus, and he speaks more like an aristocrat than anyone I have ever before met in Narnia. I should like to think that in another life, he could have been an excellent friend. (For although he is at times entirely too proper and also prone to startling at the slightest shift in shadows, his eyes are kind and he tells the loveliest stories.)

The reason for his visit is, of course, the drought. The people are starving as their crops wither to dust. Our lush green has faded to brittle golden-brown. The rivers refuse to enter our borders for fear of drying up entirely. A harsh dust blows across the plains and in through the windows, sticking to the sweat of my skin. Each day is hotter and grittier than the last —

Strange, but today I have a chill on my skin. The sun already rises, casting its unbearable heat across the land, but I am cold as I think of you. Cold as I have not been since the Witch’s Winter.

+

The soldier sat at the base of the tree with his eyes directed to the North — the destination of their campaign. Aravis had noticed others cast glances in that direction ever since the army had arrived at Anvard. The King of Archenland had given leave for Rabadash’s men to camp outside the city’s walls; he did not approve of Narnia’s new ruler any more than the Tisroc did.

Aravis had cast her own glances to the hills herself, even though she knew the Sun Witch’s country was hidden from sight by the peaks of the mountains. It was the nerves before battle, she knew. That was why she’d come into the woods on her own: to escape the growing tension within the camp. No one knew exactly what to expect upon entering the Sun Witch’s domain, but an ugly battle was assured.

“You can feel the effects of the heat even here,” the man observed when Aravis failed to move away.

She jumped, unaware that the man had noticed her. Awkwardly, she asked, “From the North?”

“Of course.”

He turned around and flinched at the sight of her. She’d known the reaction was coming — had seen it in the face of so many other soldiers already — but even still, Aravis felt her face harden. “I’ll have you know that I am just as capable of fighting as any man —”

“No,” he cut her off with a shake of his head. For an instant, Aravis was ready to fly into a defensive rage, until she realized that he was not disputing her right to be a part of this war. His next words were spoken more carefully: “You remind me of someone.”

“Sister?” she asked, “Sweetheart?”

He laughed a little before falling solemn once more. “Sister. She was lost long ago.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

She knew how it felt to lose a sibling. Slowly, Aravis ran a finger along the hilt of her sword — the sword that had once belonged to her brother — and tried not to acknowledge the pain of loss that even now sat deep in her heart. It was this pain that had sent her fleeing from home, far from family and into the open arms of a war.

With some effort, she turned her mind away from her grief. “You’re from the Islands, aren’t you?”

“The Islands?”

“The Lone Islands, or Galma. Maybe Terebinthia. Your skin is too pale to be from the heart of Calormen, so you must be from one of the outer provinces. I’ve heard that there are plenty of people with skin as white as yours out across the sea.”

“I am not from any island here,” he said.

It was a strange phrasing, and Aravis waited for the man to elaborate, but he fell silent in contemplation again. She considered leaving him, but a fear of battle had been growing over her ever since the army had left the Great Desert behind. The chaos of the war camp would only make this bitter anticipation worse. She much preferred the quiet of the woods — even, strangely, the company of this soldier. So Aravis stepped over the mess of roots to take a seat on the log at his side.

“I am from Calavar,” she said, although she did not voice the fact that her father was lord of that province. She did mention, after another moment of quiet, that she had never before travelled so far North. “And to think that we shall soon cross into the land of eternal heat.”

The man coughed in amusement. “Eternal, my arse.”

“What?”

“It’s propaganda. The summer’s barely lasted fifteen years. According to recent trends, Narnia only has another eighty-five years before it falls into unending autumn.”

She blinked at him, and the man reddened. “I hate Narnia,” he muttered.

“Fitting, since we’re preparing to attack.”

“Mmm.” He lifted his eyes to the hills again, and Aravis got the sense that he wasn’t particularly looking forward to the attack. Rather, he seemed to be dreading it. “I’m sorry,” she told him, making to stand. “You were trying to be alone and I’m not helping.”

But he surprised her. “Stay, if you wish. Company is good on the eve of battle.”

“Have you been in many battles before?”

“Too many. This part, the waiting — it never really gets any easier.”

“This will be my first,” she admitted, then added hastily, “I’m not scared.”

“Only the foolish are not scared.” He looked to her again. “But you do not seem foolish to me.”

“Aravis,” she said after a pause, feeling that sharing her name would be easier than to admit the truth that fear curled in her stomach.

“I am Edmund,” he told her in return. “Some call me Wandbreaker.”

Her mouth fell open. Aravis had heard of Edmund Wandbreaker before — everyone in Calormen had heard the stories. This was the boy who, upon witnessing the death of his brother at the hands of the White Witch, had shattered her wand and escaped into the winter wilds with naught but his life. The boy had grown into a man featured in the tales of the poets; he was said to be a foreigner to every land, a wanderer in search of a sister long lost, a warrior who chose to fight on behalf of the innocent. She had heard other soldiers whisper that the Wandbreaker had joined Rabadash’s company although she hadn’t believed such speculations. Edmund Wandbreaker was the character of stories; it was inconceivable that she might find herself seated on a dirty log at his side.

He saw her shock, of course. “Storytellers exaggerate,” he said wryly. “But stay by my side and I will see you through this battle.”

His reassurance was meant to be a comfort, but Aravis’s hands shook as the reality of war began to set in once more. She stood abruptly, muttering a phrase of gratitude before fleeing into the thick of the woods. The camp was ahead and the Wandbreaker behind when she stopped to lay her forehead against the cool trunk of a tree.

“Oh Zardeenah,” she whispered into the bark, “Protect me. I have run away from home and the duties expected of me, but I am still your maiden. I don’t know what I am doing. I don’t know anymore why I am here. I can only hope you still have a plan for me, even so far from all that I have known. Keep me safe, Zardeenah.”

She waited, but the only answer to her prayer was the sultry breeze rustling leaves overhead. Aravis pulled away from the tree, looking warily about for fear that someone had witnessed her moment of panic. She was alone.

Aravis returned to camp, and was careful not to look to the North.

+

Susan, when the Winter ended, the skies opened up and rain poured from the heavens for a year and a day. Riverbanks flooded, fields melted to swamps, ravines filled into lakes, and waterfalls poured from the highest of cliffs. Narnians were driven from their waterlogged homes, slogging through the mud and mire in search of dry land and survival. Camps were struck in the tallest hills, the refugees praying to whatever gods they still believed in that the waters would not creep into their beds while they slept.

No one wanted or needed the water then. I did not wake each morning to their moans of thirst, nor fall asleep to their cries of hunger.

At that time, in the Northern realm of the country there grew an inland sea between two hills. In the centre-most point between them rose a proud stone castle of jagged spires and crooked arches. Do you remember the Witch’s palace of ice? It is said that her successor turned the Witch’s spells against her to cast the ice into unmelting rock. In truth, the stone castle had been there long before the Witch took up residence; her ice simply melted away with the summer rains and helped to fill the lake.

Is this the lake you stand beside in my dreams, Susan? When I raise my eyes to look out my window now, I imagine I can still see your silhouette on the far shore. Oh, but how the water levels have fallen even here, and the water itself is thick and stagnant and stinks of algae.

Tumnus told me that the most desperate of the fauns have tried harvesting the algae off this lake. They must be careful, he says, for the wrong blooms can be poisonous. He also says that some, the most traitorous amongst them, whisper that at least Jadis’s rule had afforded them food. Others agree — but quietly, in the privacy of their own hearts. The White Witch had sent spies everywhere; even years later, they fear I do the same.

(I told Tumnus that it was not in my interests to punish those who suffer already, though my heart did burn to think that my people might not be grateful for all I have done for them. Was it not I that freed them from the Winter? Was it not I that cast away the flooding rains? Did I not call down the Sun in answer to their pleas? Who are they to whisper in fear of my reign?)

+

He found her again the next morning as Rabadash’s army wove through the mountain pass towards Narnia. Aravis hadn’t actually expected him to honour his word from the night before, but Edmund Wandbreaker had apparently been serious when he offered to see her through battle.

“You have the makings of a great warrior,” he told Aravis when she questioned why he would concern himself with the likes of her. “I can see it in your eyes, and hear it in your voice. Given time and experience, you could become formidable.”

And wasn’t that what she had always wanted: to become a warrior as fearsome as her brother? She could still remember training with him in the fields behind her father’s house, could still recall the pride in his voice the day she finally managed to disarm him. Her brother had paraded her about the house, lauding her accomplishment, until their father finally stormed out of his study to scold them both for making so much noise.

In years to come, Aravis had learned how to act as the daughter of an important Tarkaan. But still she practised in the fields behind her father’s house with a resolve that had only renewed after her brother’s armour and sword was returned to them.

“Your sister,” blurted Aravis before she could think better of it, “Was she a great warrior as well?”

It was a rude question, but Edmund still graced it with a reply. “She would have been.”

“Forgive me,” Aravis mumbled, turning her attention back to the reigns in her hand. Feeling that she ought to explain herself, she continued, “I have a brother who died. He was a soldier, too. This was his sword.”

She slid it partway from its sheath, and Edmund nodded in approval. “It is a good sword.”

“Yes.” She replaced it quietly.

“I had a brother, too,” he told her. She’d known that; everyone knew that Edmund Wandbreaker had first gone to Narnia with a brother and two sisters to try and claim the Paravel thrones. One sister had died, one had disappeared, and his brother had been turned to stone.

Thinking of that, Aravis asked, “Why didn’t she turn you to stone, too?”

“She tried,” he said, and held out his left hand between their horses. He was missing the smallest finger, but when Aravis looked closer she saw that his knuckle was made of granite. It was cold when she touched it, and Aravis shivered and pulled away.

“I cut the wand as she was casting the spell,” he continued, “Then broke off my finger for fear the magic would spread. The knuckle still turned but the rest remained living flesh.” He shrugged, and wiggled the rest of his fingers. “I suppose I am lucky.”

It horrified her to think how it must have felt as his skin and bones hardened into immovable stone. “She can’t — I mean, the new witch can’t —”

“There have been no reports that the Sun Witch has that power,” he assured her. “Even the White Witch needed the wand to cast that magic. Probably that is why the Sun Witch was able to defeat her; if the White Witch could have cast any spells with the broken wand, its power would still have been greatly lessened.”

All at once, the path twisted and Aravis could see for the first time into the country their company intended to invade. Everything looked dead and brown from the dry heat. The weather was like Calormen’s, she thought, but the Narnians did not know what plants to grow nor how to irrigate fields. Was this what Calavar had once been like before her ancestors came and settled the land?

“The Sun Witch does not need a wand to cast her magic,” she said, looking out over the dying country.

Edmund breathed out a long, apprehensive breath. “No,” he said solemnly, “And this fight will be more difficult because of it.”

+

Tumnus told me other rumours too.

It is said that in the deepest dungeon of this castle rests a stone statue of the Witch forever locked in her first and only moment of true fright. Others argue that the Witch died screaming in a pillar of fire called down from the blazing sky. Some say I found a book of spells and battled the witch from the lowest dungeon to the highest tower.

(In truth, I only located the Booke of the Sun upon searching the castle after the witch’s defeat.)

The rumours are grand, Susan, but they forget my greatest victory came only after my biggest failure. I have not forgotten. It was my betrayal that first led you into the heart of the Witch’s stronghold, sister. It was my fault you and our brothers fell into the Witch’s hands.

No — I had no magic when I confronted the Witch. I had nothing save a sharpened pocket knife and a thirst for vengeance fuelled by my own guilt.

No one speaks this truth, Susan, for there was no one else in the dungeon to witness my actions. Even you had already gone cold and still in the thickening pool of your own blood. Your eyes were sightless by the time I attacked.

+

At the great doors to the Witch’s castle, Edmund hesitated — caught, perhaps, by the memories of his past. A leopard leaped at his head and, almost without thinking, Aravis stepped between them with her sword raised high. There was a horrid moment of disorientation and when the world settled again, the great cat lay motionless at her feet.

It was her first kill and Aravis wanted to be sick. But Edmund had shaken off his paralysis, and he nodded to her in solemn gratitude before racing forward through the stone portal. Aravis cast one more look at the fight waging around her, swallowed the bile in her throat, and followed.

They were not the first of the Tisroc’s soldiers to enter the Sun Witch’s castle. Enough had gone ahead that any Narnian soldiers who had remained within to guard the inner keep were already engaged; Edmund briefly swiped at a leaping satyr, Aravis hastily side-stepped a minotaur’s spear, and then they had burst through the next set of doors into the Sun Witch’s throne room.

It was huge. From the outside, the stone castle had looked small and designed for defence rather than grandeur. Aravis could not have imagined the opulence contained within this one room, which rivalled even the Tisroc’s palace in Tashbaan. The walls shone with gold leaf, the pillars with glittering gems, and the floor with smooth marble inlaid with precious stones. The ceiling, three stories overhead, had been painted in red and yellow and gold to create the impression of a giant sun hovering above. The room was hot — hotter even, Aravis thought, than the Great Desert at noon — from the unnatural flames that flickered along the base of the walls and ringed the throne’s dais.

And on the throne itself waited the Queen of Narnia.

The woman was dressed in a gown as golden as her hair, and she radiated strength and power and certitude. When she rose from her throne — slowly, as though two foreign soldiers were hardly worth consideration as a threat — Aravis noticed a long and slender sword in her hand. It hung almost casually at her side, as though the act of holding the weapon was merely for formality’s sake.

“To enter my domain wishing harm upon myself or my people is an offence punishable by death, soldiers.”

Edmund had raised his own sword in preparation of whatever attack would come. “I am not here to harm you.” His voice sounded odd and Aravis shot him a glance. A strange look had crossed the warrior’s face, one she could not immediately decipher. She remembered what he had said to her in the solitude of Anvard’s forests, that only the foolish felt no fear. Edmund Wandbreaker did not seem foolish to her; he seemed afraid.

When he did not speak further, Aravis lifted her own sword and finished his declaration. “We are here to kill you.”

The Sun Witch smiled in amusement, though her eyes remained hard. “Brave soldiers, the both of you,” she said. “You, girl — you remind me of someone.”

“And did that other girl wish you dead as well?” asked Aravis, before it occurred to her that perhaps she did not want the answer.

“No,” the woman admitted. “She burned with the desire to destroy my predecessor. And she succeeded — but I think she had more motivation than you. Set down your sword, girl. I can see by the fire in your eyes that you will find success in battles elsewhere, but in this room you are outmatched.”

“I am not scared,” retorted Aravis, and maybe in that moment she had become one of the foolish for she found that her words were true. What had once been fear now was different: not anger, exactly, but something like it tempered with a fierce sense of determination. She was bold, she was strong, she was courageous. She was ready to fight.

“Valiant child,” laughed the Witch. She lifted her own sword at last, and Aravis steeled herself for the attack.

But when the Sun Witch’s weapon swung down, it crashed hard against the sword of another. At the last second, Edmund had slid in front of Aravis to take the blow. The Witch’s lips parted in shock at his intervention but that was the only sign that she had been taken off-guard; the two fell into a duel that was faster and more deadly than any Aravis had seen before.

She knew then that her own skills with the blade were far outmatched by the Sun Witch’s own, and that she would have been dead in seconds had Edmund not interceded on her behalf. Still, Aravis longed to leap forward to his aid in some way, though the movements of the duellers were so fast that she knew there was no way to intercede.

“It has been a long time since we last fought,” said Edmund, apparently recovered from his startled inability to speak. “Though I believe back then our weapons were words.”

“Less dangerous,” agreed the Sun Witch easily as she pulled back, “But just as painful.”

It was a chance for Edmund to strike past her guard, but he held back. “Very painful,” he echoed.

The Witch’s eyes narrowed, and she opened her mouth as though to voice a question — then reconsidered and swung her sword again. The clash of metal echoed around the room as Edmund blocked it. “You said you fought another,” he continued. “Your predecessor. I fought her, too.”

Narnia’s Queen laughed scornfully. “No one fought the White Witch and lived.”

“No one but you… and me.”

Her next blow had more force behind it, driving Edmund several steps back. As their position shifted, Aravis caught sight of a movement among the flickering flames behind them. A faun was drawing himself up from behind the throne, nervously wiping at his face with the silk scarf that hung about his neck while fumbling with a dagger in his other hand. He gathered his courage and then leaped from the dais —

Aravis met him halfway across the room, before he could reach the duellers and attempt harm to Edmund. Her sword found his blade, and a shiver ran down her arm at the impact. Somehow, the faun kept his grip on the knife; he stabbed low and Aravis blocked again. She struck once more, easily slipping past the faun’s flimsy defence, and felt the steel of her blade slide between his ribs.

Behind her, the clash of swords broke off once more. “I know you, brother,” said the Sun Witch to Edmund at last.

The dagger tumbled from the faun’s grip, and he blinked twice in sad resignation. Aravis pulled the sword back, and the body of her opponent crumpled to the floor. The red on her blade was as bright as the paint overhead.

When she turned around again, it was just in time to see the Sun Witch strike at the Wandbreaker once more.

+

The Witch was fast but, oh! sister, I was faster. I cut the life from her chest and smashed the crystal crown over her corpse. My fury was too great to contain: I found the Booke of the Sun and called upon its magic; I shattered the Witch’s spell of Winter and slayed any within the castle who might dare to wrong me.

And when I sank again to my knees on the wet stone floor beside your broken body, I vowed to be a better queen than the last. I vowed to be fiercer and stronger, to destroy those who had stood by the Witch’s side, and to protect Narnia from any new enemies no matter the cost to my own soul. I would be a queen of power and light. A queen my people could love.

(Susan, they love me despite their despair.)

Why do I feel compelled to write this for you now, so long after I stole the Witch’s life and country? I have done my best to live by the vows uttered over your body, sister. But my dreams have called up your presence in my mind even in the daylight hours, and I feel a grief as painful as the day I lost you.

For now, sister, now you know the deepest shame of my heart: I could not leap to your defence until it was too late to save you.

+

The blades twisted. The Sun Witch cried out involuntarily. Her sword swung away in a wide, glittering arc before it clattered against the stone wall and fell to the floor. In a flash, Edmund’s blade was at her throat. The woman fell to her knees and they stopped, locked in a moment of indecision.

Aravis caught her breath. Slice the throat, she pleaded silently, slice her throat and end this.

But he hesitated, and Aravis knew then that he could not deliver the final stroke. And so she was not surprised when Edmund dropped his own sword to the floor and stepped back.

They stared at each other, siblings long separated by years of grief and pain.

“Do you know how long I prayed to find you again?” Edmund asked, his words soft. “I never forgave myself for leaving you behind. I swore to return for you, sister.”

“I thought you had died along with Peter,” whispered the Witch. Her hands clenched, and she stared hard at the floor.

“I sometimes wished I had,” he admitted. “But both you and I have survived. Lucy, we have found each other again.” He stretched out his hand, palm up in an offering of reconciliation.

The witch raised her eyes to him. She took his hand gently, tenderly, as if remembering for the first time the warmth of another’s skin. Her fingers twined with his, their forearms tensed, and her golden hair swung as she pulled herself to her feet. For one instant, they stood together as brother and sister reunited: one dark with the bitterness of his past, the other shining with resolve for the future.

“I thought you had died,” she said again. “And then years later, I heard the tales of you. The poets themselves speak of my brother the Wandbreaker. They call you a hero, Edmund. You are the only one who ever truly escaped the White Witch’s snare.”

“We can both be free of her,” he told his sister. “Swear an oath to the Tisroc. Let Narnia become a province of Calormen. We can govern the land together with the strength of the Tisroc at our back.”

Lucy lay her other hand upon his heart and looked into her brother’s eyes. “I honour my promises,” she told him, before her voice grew dark: “But I don’t need pity from the one who left me behind.”

Then her hand glowed with the heat of the sun itself. Smoke curled from beneath her palm, and the smell of burning fabric and flesh twisted in the air. Aravis gagged and lunged forward to help — Edmund clawed at his sister’s arm — Lucy shut her eyes and let out one slow, sad breath —

A hot, red light swelled to fill the room. Aravis stumbled to a halt and looked away, but she still heard the awful dry thud as the Wandbreaker’s lifeless body collapsed to the stone floor.

“I honour my promises,” whispered the Sun Witch, “But I made an oath to another before you, brother.”

When Aravis raised her eyes again, the Witch was staring at her with an eerie calmness.

“Let them call me Oathkeeper,” she told Aravis, “For I have promised to protect my land and my reign from any who dare to invade, and this will I do until my last breath. Now run, girl, before I decide that you too are a threat.”

+

Susan, I am the girl who faced the Witch and won. I am the girl who found a book of Deep Magic and learned to breathe the songs of the sun from her lungs. I am the girl with an oath in her soul, who destroyed one sibling to honour another.

I am Queen Lucy Oathkeeper, Sun Witch of Narnia.

Susan, I see you at the shores of my lake when I close my eyes. I see you beckoning. Sister, I miss you — oh! how I miss you — but my time has not yet come. I cannot join you.

Susan, my sister, my most beloved sister —

Could you approve of what I have done? Could you still hold my hands if you knew they were stained with blood? Could you still love me now that you know the fury in my heart?

Will you still beckon from the lakeside?