After the death of his father, King Caspian the Tenth, King Rilian inherited the throne of Narnia. If he often seemed sad, it was taken for grief, for Rilian had loved his father dearly. But while he ruled wisely and well, growing more confident and knowledgeable in the course of time, his melancholy did not fade.
One year after he took the throne, his best friend and Chief Minister, the Lord Drinian, found him sitting alone in his room, watching the leaping flames in his fireplace, his gaze filled with hopeless longing.
Drinian coughed to catch his attention. “Your majesty, your father was a great man, and we all mourned him. But he is in Aslan’s country now, and he would not wish you to waste your years in melancholy.”
Rilian replied, “Indeed, I loved my father and grieved for him. But I was not thinking upon him.”
“Then are you mourning the years lost to enchantment underground? That is indeed a loss, but that time is gone. It would be better to enjoy the time that you still have.”
“I was not thinking upon that either,” said Rilian.
“Then what?” Drinian asked.
“Bism.” Rilian was looking into the fire, not at his friend. “I caught a single glimpse of the land at the heart of the world, all heat and color, and it captured my soul. Perhaps it would have killed me if I had tried to descend into the land of flame. But I think it would have been worth it.”
Rilian turned then, and saw by Drinian’s baffled expression that he did not understand. “It is only a fancy. I shall set it aside. Perhaps it is merely the last lingering taste of my enchantment, and will fade away under the Narnian sun.”
“It must be so,” Drinian replied, relieved.
After that conversation, Rilian did not speak of Bism again. Nor did Drinian again catch him gazing into a fire as if he wished to step into it.
But Bism was not a fancy, nor was it a relic of enchantment. In our own world, sometimes people encounter something for the briefest of moments— a glimpse of another person in the window of a train passing alongside their own, a verse of poetry, the sound of church bells, a photograph of another country— and are struck with longing in the heart and soul. They may become a poet, or a citizen of that other land. Or they may long in vain for the object of their desire, which will remain forever distant and unknown to them.
So it was with Rilian and Bism. He had glimpsed it once, and would long for it forever. And yet the way to Bism was closed.
Two years after Rilian took the throne, he went for a walk alone in the woods near Cair Paravel. He walked and walked, lost in thought, until he came to a well. There he stopped, surprised. He had thought he had known every inch of those woods, but he had never seen the well before.
He walked up to it and leaned over its low wall of gray stone. The well brimmed with something absolutely black, without sheen or ripple or reflection. It was as if it held darkness instead of water. Puzzled, Rilian leaned over farther, thinking to touch his hand to the surface.
He fell in.
For an instant, Rilian was more startled and confused than frightened. He hadn’t been leaning far enough to fall, but he hadn’t felt a push, either. And he was tumbling through air, not water.
Rilian craned his neck, which is not easy to do when you’re falling, and tried to look for the sky. He could see nothing. It was as if was tumbling through a night without stars.
Then he was frightened, thinking that he had fallen from such a height that he would surely die when he struck the bottom. But he was not afraid for long. As soon as he had that thought, he began falling more slowly, like the Earthmen floating down into Bism like leaves.
Bism! Rilian thought with a shock of joy. Perhaps I am falling into Bism!
He landed with a thud that bruised his hip and shoulder. Rilian painfully picked himself up, blinking into the light.
He was in a formal garden, but not of the sort they had at Cair Paravel. The ground was soft not with grass, but with a velvety gray-green fungus. The trees were tall brown mushrooms, branched like a stag’s horns. The bushes were fungi tipped with frilled red or yellow or orange caps that might be taken for flowers in a single glance or in a dim light. They looked poisonous.
But it was the light, even more than the vegetation, that told him where he was. It was faint and gray, casting pale blue-green shadows, and seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. It was not the near-painful brilliance of Bism, but the melancholy dimness of the Shallow Lands— the land of the witch who had called herself the Lady of the Green Kirtle.
“Greetings, traveler.” The voice was a woman’s, sweet and clear.
Rilian spun around. He had slain the witch in her serpent form, but to hear a woman’s voice here, in a place so like hers, made his heart freeze up inside his chest.
He relaxed when he saw her. She was not the witch, though she was nearly as beautiful. The woman before him was curved where the witch had been slim, and strong-featured where the witch had been delicate. She was clothed with simple elegance in a white dress without ornament, though there were pearls in her hair.
A female Earthman was working nearby, trimming the fungi with a pair of garden shears. A basket full of mushroom clippings lay by her bare webbed feet.
“Greetings, lady,” Rilian replied, bowing. “I am King Rilian of Narnia.”
“A king!” The woman’s tone held pleased surprise, but not awe. “I am Lady Aliana. Welcome to my home.”
She indicated a small castle by the garden, near-hidden by a tall hedge of ornamental fungus.
“How do you come to live here?” Rilian asked. “I had thought these lands had been destroyed.”
“Oh, no.” Lady Aliana shook her head. “Only a small portion of them. My people have lived here always, in peace with the Earthmen below.”
Rilian glanced at the Earthman gardener. She was taller than many of her kind, nearly his own height, with a head of wild coppery curls. Her features first struck him as startlingly ugly, and then as merely oddly proportioned. A fluttering pair of gauzy wings protruded from her back, much too small and delicate to bear her weight in flight.
“Please, be my guest,” said Lady Aliana. “It has been too long since I have had company.”
“I thank you, lady,” said Rilian.
He followed her into the castle, through doors ornamented with gargoyles. It was richly appointed but strangely empty; their footsteps echoed eerily on the marble floors.
Rilian had the sense that someone was behind him, and whirled around. The Earthman jumped in surprise, and a few mushroom bits fell from her basket.
“It is only my servant,” Lady Aliana said.
“Of course,” Rilian muttered, embarrassed by his reaction. He should have remembered how soundlessly the Earthmen walked.
The Earthman scuttled off as soon as they went inside. Once they were seated at the dining room, she brought them their food.
Rilian had been bracing himself for mushrooms, but it proved to be as pleasant a meal as could be offered at Cair Paravel: venison in a sauce of berries, buttered turnips, crusty bread, and red wine.
But Rilian had more on his mind than food. Before he ate a single bite, he asked Lady Aliana, “Do you know of Bism?”
“Bism,” the lady said thoughtfully. “The heart of earth and fire.”
The phrase awakened a longing like a knife in his heart. A loud sniff made him start, horrified at the thought that he’d given sound to his feelings. But then he saw that it had come from the Earthman servant.
For an instant, their eyes met. Hers were a startlingly bright green, and welling with tears. But before he could address her, she turned and fled the room.
“She is a strange one,” Lady Aliana said lightly. “Even for an Earthman.”
“Do you know the way to Bism?” Rilian asked.
She shook her head. “That way was closed in the cataclysm.”
“Is that what happened to the rest of your servants? They all went back before it closed?”
Lady Aliana sipped her wine and nodded. “Please, eat. You must be very hungry.”
As soon as she said it, Rilian realized that he was. But the memory of the servant woman’s tears was stronger in his mind than his own needs.
“And only one servant was left behind?” Rilian asked.
“Even so,” said the lady. “Poor thing.”
Rilian felt a pang of sympathy for that stranded Earthman. “Is she—”
“Won’t you at least have some wine?” Lady Aliana asked, topping up his glass. “I feel like a very poor host, drinking alone while my guest has none!”
Abashed, Rilian immediately took a sip. It was excellent, and before he knew it, he’d drained his glass. The wine awoke his hunger, and he fell upon the food.
Lady Aliana and Rilian had both been trained in conversation, so they spoke quite easily. She was a delightful dinner companion, and quite beautiful. It seemed sad that she was all alone in a castle underground, with no one but a single servant for company. He wanted to take her to Narnia, where her charms would shine for a deserving audience.
“Have more wine.” Lady Aliana refilled his glass.
Rilian drained his glass, thinking how her simple gesture showed how kind, thoughtful, and gracious she was. And how desirable. Her skin was like the finest pearl, her hair like black diamonds, her lips like rubies. Why should he waste his time longing for the living jewels of Bism, when he had a living jewel right in front of him?
“Lady Aliana, will you marry me?” Rilian asked. “I would take you to Narnia and make you my queen. I mean, once I find the way back.”
She smiled enchantingly and pressed her lips to his offered hand. Even that small contact nearly made him swoon.
“King Rilian, I would be honored to accept,” she replied. “As for Narnia, I feel certain that we will find a way.”
Then she frowned, glancing across the table. Following her gaze, he saw that all the wine had been drunk and all the food had been eaten.
“You are weary,” she said. “I must not keep you.”
“Oh, no,” Rilian protested. “Lady Aliana, I could talk to you all night.”
“I am weary,” she said firmly. “I will see you in the morning.”
She rang a bell to summon the Earthman servant to escort Rilian to his guest chambers. He left reluctantly and with many backward glances, then walked through the echoing marble corridors, his mind filled with thoughts of the lovely Lady Aliana.
“Here you are.”
The voice made him start. The Earthman stood before an open door. He had completely forgotten about her, or where he was going.
The room was cold and dark. Rilian sat on the bed, lost in dreams of his lady. But gradually, he became aware that the Earthman had lit a fire and set globes of glowing fungus around the room. Now she was heating water for his bath.
She worked with her head down, so Rilian could only see her back and her dragonfly wings. But he remembered the tears in her eyes. If he had conceived such a longing for Bism from a single glimpse, how much more terrible must it be to have known that fiery land but never be able to return?
He wondered, too, what would befall the woman once her mistress married him. Golg, the Earthman he’d spoken to after the witch’s spells had crumbled, had been horrified at the thought of walking under an open sky. Could this woman bear to live aboveground? And if not, what would become of her?
Rilian opened his mouth to ask if she feared the sky, then realized that he didn’t know her name. Before he could inquire, she turned to him.
“You asked about Bism,” she said shyly. “Have you been there?”
“No,” Rilian said with a sigh. Then he told her of his single glimpse of her land. By the time he finished, tears again welled in her eyes. Though he didn’t want to add to her pain, he couldn’t help asking, “How did you come to be shut out?”
She swallowed miserably. “I was exiled from Bism. I can never go back.”
“Exiled!” Rilian stared at her. “Why?”
“My mother was a Daughter of Eve. No Man may ever set foot in Bism.”
“But…” Rilian found that prohibition strange, though he did not know why. When he groped for the reason, his thoughts felt muffled, as if they were wrapped in cotton wool. He must have drunk too much wine. Then he had it. “But I was invited to Bism. And I’m a Man.”
The woman’s strange face creased in confusion. She too seemed to be struggling to think. Finally, she said, “They must have changed the rules later.”
“But if you’re half Man…” Rilian shook his head fiercely. What was wrong with him? He hadn’t drunk enough wine to affect him so. “Where are your parents?”
“They’re… I think… I think my mother… I don’t know.” Her green eyes met Rilian’s, narrowed with confusion. “How strange. My thoughts slide away from me when I try to remember.”
Rilian bit his lip, trying to concentrate. The sharp pain cleared his head, but only for a moment. But it was long enough for him to remember another time when pain had made it easier to think rather than harder.
I must act now, he thought. While I still can.
Rilian snatched his sword from his belt and sliced it across the back of his left hand. The shock of the pain acted like ice water in his face. The cloudiness faded, replaced by a vivid memory of the silver chair. And then all his memories came rushing back, along with with the realization that he had indeed been under a spell. Again.
The Earthman stared in horror, her knuckles pressed to her mouth. “What have you done?”
Hot blood ran down Rilian’s hand and dripped from his fingertips. “I was under an enchantment. I think you are too. It’s broken by pain.”
Rilian hesitated to make the next suggestion, but the woman did not. She thrust out her hand. “Cut mine too.”
He drew his sword across the back of her hand, more carefully than he had against his. She started to cry out, then forced her mouth shut.
They looked into each other’s eyes, abruptly wide awake. The Earthman was transfigured with joy, her green eyes alight, her wide mouth cracking open in a crooked grin. Her wings fluttered and fluttered, catching rainbow glints from the cold dim light. Suddenly, she rose into the air, her wings beating madly. She hovered for a moment, her bare feet dangling a few inches above the floor, then settled back down with a laugh of sheer happiness.
“I was enchanted by the Lady of the Green Kirtle,” she said. “And then the witch Aliana caught me while I was running toward Bism. I think they are cousins, or some such. I have been here for years. I had forgotten how to fly.”
“I too was enchanted by the Lady of the Green Kirtle,” Rilian said.
The woman nodded. “I remember. I bound you once into the silver chair.”
Rilian could not fathom how he could have forgotten her. Perhaps it was because enchantment had smothered her true self, making her seem a mere face in a joyless crowd. Now he saw her as if for the first time. She wasn’t ugly at all. Or perhaps she was to the eyes of some Men, but to Rilian she was more than beautiful. She was like Bism: strange and different, haunting and unforgettable.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Sala,” she replied. “What’s yours?”
Sala held out her hand to him. “Come with me, Rilian. I’ll take you to Bism.”
“But the way is closed.”
She smiled her crooked smile, knowing and joyous. “There are many ways to Bism.”
They bound their wounds with strips of sheet torn from the bed, then hurried out of the room. Sala led him through the corridors, walking soundlessly on her bare webbed feet. Rilian did his best to keep quiet, but kept his sword at the ready.
They reached the door without incident. But when Rilian touched it, a carved gargoyle opened its marble eyes and squawked, “Lady, awake! The king and the servant are getting away!”
Rilian didn’t wait to see what new enchantment Lady Aliana might have ready. He kicked the door open, grabbed Sala by the hand, and ran. Her fingers were hot in his.
“This way,” she gasped, veering past a mushroom tree, and then, “This way!”
Rilian followed her directions and never looked back. Finally she halted at a crevasse, a narrow crack in the earth that looked too small for even Sala to fit, let alone a grown man. Steam rose from it, and when Rilian peered down, heat smote him like a blow. He wondered again if it was possible for a Man to survive in Bism.
“Jump,” she said. And the radiance on her face as she looked into the crack was as lovely as what he remembered of Bism.
Rilian threw himself into the crevasse.
He braced himself to scrape or crash against the hard stone sides, but he didn’t. The heat was intense but bearable. He fell hand in hand with Sala. Her wings beat hard, braking their fall until they fluttered down like falling leaves.
The light grew more and more bright, blazing with colors Rilian had never seen before. A hot, tingling smell met his nostrils, and he sneezed. Sala giggled.
They touched down lightly in the land of Bism.
Colors burned everywhere he looked, nearly blinding him. But his eyes didn’t hurt. Slowly, his vision cleared. Earthmen were everywhere, some tiny and some far taller than Sala. They were laughing and talking, working and playing. Some reached into streams of lava, fishing out strands of molten gold and molding them in their hands into fantastical sculptures, airy and bright. Some plucked jewels from trees of polished crystal and popped them into their mouths. Some sat by the river of fire, conversing with silvery shapes and ripples in the flame.
“That is your way home.” Sala pointed to a black whirlpool in the middle of the river of fire. Her voice sounded strange in the heated air, each word ringing out with impossible clarity. “I have thought of jumping into it, ever since I was a child. But I was afraid. Everyone says the sunlit lands are terrible.”
“They are,” Rilian replied, thinking of a shining green serpent. “But they are beautiful, too.”
A head too bright to look at directly popped up from the burning river. Rilian looked away, leaving the shimmering afterimage of something like a dragon dancing before his eyes.
The salamander spoke in a voice like fire. "All lands are terrible. And all lands are beautiful."
Another salamander said, “Welcome, Rilian, king of Narnia.”
Rilian bowed. “Hail, salamanders.”
“You have returned a daughter of earth and fire to her rightful home,” hissed a salamander. Rilian thought it was the same one who had greeted him.
“To one of her rightful homes,” spoke a salamander. Perhaps it was a third one, but Rilian couldn't be sure. All his senses were dazzled. “We thank you.”
Two people ran toward Sala. One was a tall and stately Earthman with great folded wings, and one was a small woman with a head of wild coppery hair. They embraced her, weeping for joy. Their tears fell to the shining ground, and hissed in puffs of steam.
Sala told them her story as they spread a soothing ointment over her wounds and Rilian's, and bound them up in cloths that felt cool and soft, but shone like hammered gold. Then she clasped him by the hand. “Come with me. I will show you my home.”
Afterward, Rilian was never quite able to describe his time in Bism. “It was like a dream,” he would say, and then correct himself. “No— it was more real than that. It was more real than anything I had ever known. Think of waking from a dream. Bism was like waking from waking.”
He heard the tale of how Sala's mother had fallen into Bism, and then fallen in love. He walked over fields of diamonds, brilliant as stars underfoot. He learned the games of the Earthmen, and dined with them on ripe sapphires and emerald juice.He danced in groves of jeweled trees, conversed with salamanders, and swam in rivers of liquid light.
He plucked living rubies from vines of twining silver, and he and Sala played at tossing them into each other’s mouths. The juice was hot and sweet, the perfume dizzying. The gusts of heated air that rose from the river of flame allowed Sala to soar high, and even to carry him with his arm around her shoulders and hers tight around his waist.
There were no days or nights in Bism. But Rilian sensed time passing. And much as he gloried in the touch of living gold, the hissing voices of the salamanders, and most of all, in Sala's company, he knew that he could not stay forever.
He found Sala swinging from a rope of living silver, and haltingly explained to her that he had a kingdom to rule and people who would be worried about him.
“Of course,” she said. “You must not let them worry. But may I come with you?”
Hope rose warm within him. “You would like to visit Narnia?”
“If I may,” she replied. “I have always dreamed of it. Let us go take our leave of my parents.”
Sala’s parents kissed her and wished her well. Then her mother turned to Rilian and pressed a living diamond into his hand. “If you keep it, it will live forever. If you plant it, it may grow or it may die. I doubt that it will take root in the cold earth of the Overland. But you could try.”
Rilian thanked her and tucked it away in his pocket. Then they walked through fields of brilliant colors and forests of solid light, and leaped into the dark whirlpool in the blazing river.
For an instant, it burned. But then they were falling upward into a delicate light. When they found themselves in the forest by Cair Paravel, it took Rilian a moment to recognize that dim yellow light as a sunny summer day.
“Oh!” Sala cried, looking upward. “The sky!”
“Does it frighten you?” Rilian asked.
“Oh, no,” she replied, turning her head this way and that. “It’s beautiful. Everything here is so lovely! The colors are so delicate, and the air is so soft.”
He laughed to see her running around, trailing her fingers over trees and grass, sniffing the air and holding up her hands to catch the wind. She leaped upward, her wings beating like a rainbow blur, and managed to lift herself a hand's width above the earth and skim above the grass. Everything was so new to her. But the more he watched her, the more he began to see with her eyes. Every ordinary leaf was a wonder. At times he ran beside her as she flew, and at times he lifted her to stand on his shoulders and touch the higher branches, their shared joy bright as a polished jewel.
At Cair Paravel, they both received a warm welcome. Rilian told the story of his adventures, and he and Sala were given a grand feast.
Afterward, he led her to a quiet garden. There he knelt and dug a small hole in the ground. The smell of earth and grass rose up. With a pang, Rilian thought that Sala’s mother was right, and the diamond would only die if he buried it. And then he would never again smell the wild tang of living gems, or indeed anything that was not of the sunlit lands.
The diamond lay hot and plump in his hand, bursting with the juice of light. It shone like a living star. The thought of burying it in the cold ground, where it would no doubt rot rather than take root, almost broke his heart. But he had to try. The jewels of Bism lived and grew. It would be wrong to keep one forever, unchanging as the dead gems in his crown.
A loud sniff caught his ear. Sala was ecstatically inhaling the air.
She picked up a crumbling clod of dirt and brought it to her nose, then offered it to Rilian to smell. “The scent is so rich. So clean. I never thought that a simple bit of earth could smell so different, just because it’s on the top of the world instead of the bottom.”
Her face was alight with joy, as it had been when she’d first glimpsed the sky, or her enchantment had been broken, or she’d embraced her parents, or watched Rilian take his first taste of a living gem. As he let the good Narnian earth fall over the glittering diamond, he did not mourn its loss, but rather thought of where he could take her, what he could show her, and how much he liked the crooked curve of her lips.
“Come,” said Rilian, and offered her his hand. “Let me show you the sunlit lands.”
The living diamond did indeed take root in Narnian soil, though it did not grow as it would have in Bism. Its bark had an unusual hardness and sheen, but it was bark, not stone. Its leaves were brittle, of an exceptionally brilliant shade of emerald green, and shattered into facets when they broke. Its flowers looked like pink tourmaline, and though they fell, they did not decay. People gathered them to wear as jewelry, and Talking Magpies and Talking Pack Rats snatched them up to decorate their nests.
In the hottest week of summer, the tree bore fruit. They were the size and shape of plums, but a translucent white like moonstone. The fruits were hot to the touch, no matter the temperature of the day, and glowed with their own inner light. The scent was wild, hot, intoxicating; the flavor was like the finest brandy, and burned pleasantly going down. Rilian and Sala called them diamond plums.
Sala spent many months in Narnia, becoming beloved of all who met her. In those months, Rilian’s melancholy faded. He had been to Bism. Even if he was never able to return, his longing had been fulfilled. And it was hard to be sad when Sala was a constant presence at his side.
One day they sat beneath the diamond plum tree, squeezing the juice of the fruits into each other’s mouths. When the sun lowered over the horizon, Sala stood to go inside, for she found the nights beneath the sky to be very cold.
Rilian went down on one knee before her. “My father married the daughter of a star. May I marry the daughter of earth and fire?”
Sala tugged him up with a laugh. “I thought you’d never ask!”
And so Rilian and Sala were married, and reigned together for many years. Sala’s mother came to her wedding, as did her father and a few of her best friends, but they were the only Earthmen who attended. Though they were happy for Sala, they often glanced skyward as if they expected it to suck them up into its endless blue. They vanished after the final dance. None saw how they had come or whence they left, but all knew that they had returned to Bism.
You may ask all over Narnia, but no one can tell you the path to Bism. It is closed, people will say; closed until the end of the world.
But Queen Sala was never seen in Cair Paravel in the cold winter months, and no one could say where she went. King Rilian too was rarely at court in winter, leaving the rule to his trusty Chief Minister Drinian, and yet no one ever boasted that they had been visited by the king while snow blanketed the land.
Every spring, a new sapling rose near the tree of diamond plums. They grew quickly and bore fruits that had never before been seen in Narnia, fruit that glowed with its own inner light. There were ruby pomegranates and garnet apples, emerald figs and topaz peaches. The juice was hot, even on cool days, and those who ate them dreamed of Bism.