OK, so let’s talk about a Susan who never moved on, who buried her family in English soil and spent the rest of her life trying to find her way home. She did not believe lions were kind, but she always remembered a bow in her schoolgirl hands.
She looked in every old wardrobe she came across. It was casual, everyday– the first day in a new lecture hall, she checked the back of the coat closet. Friends had her over for Christmas dinner and she excused herself to go the bathroom, checked every cabinet and closet, and then headed back in for pudding. She went home with a cute boy she met in a smoky little pub and she checked the back of his wardrobe before she headed home the next morning, heels in hand.
She looked in other places, too. She had to believe that there was more than one path to Narnia. On a hike she spotted a perfectly circular pond, blue and deep in ways that seemed magical, unreal, so she took a running start and leapt in, shoes still on– if it worked she wouldn’t want to be barefoot when she came out the other side. She pushed through lilac archways when they were hit just right by sunlight on a cloudy day. She looked for magic. She listened for it.
She also went to college, got a political science degree she had to fight for. But Susan had won wars, stopped them before they started, calmed angry merchants and raging satyrs– she knew how to fight. She got a byline in the local paper, a few ladies’ magazines, then a larger regional publication. She had mimosa brunches with friends and dated a fellow reporter on and off for a few years, until it finally went off for good. She read detective novels with a fierce passion, never touched fantasy, and finally one day she stepped through an old stone archway tucked in the back garden of an old neighbor barely thinking about it and–
She was standing in a treeless plain, all yellow grass and blue blue skies. The wind was shrieking and unkind. It reddened her cheeks, the tip of her nose, and when she inhaled sharply it stung her throat, too. There was nothing around her for miles– no stone archway, no familiar figures, no landmarks. She picked up her skirts (she liked skirts, so sue her) and started running.
(Her shoes were pretty, all leather pressed with fake-gold patterns, but she hadn’t worn anything but practical, capable footwear in years. You never know when you’re going to get where you’re going. They thudded into the earth, crushed the dry grass, and she didn’t turn an ankle or form a blister.)
She ran until she had to walk, and then she walked until she saw a mass of waving banners and rising tents and stirring horses in the distance. She had recognized nothing so far– just grass and sky, dirt and sky, little white flowers and blue blue sky. She waited for dark and then she made her way towards the camp. She found a deserted supply tent, knicked some more appropriate clothing, and tucked all her long dark hair up under a cap.
When Susan saw Dernhelm picking her way through the gathered troops, she knew. When Eowyn saw the young woman in a pilfered uniform move through the crowd of Rohan men, she knew, too. She picked her way over. “Hey,” Eowyn said. “Why don’t you come sup at my fire?”
Eowyn didn’t ask her why she was here. She thought she knew– Eowyn thought about bird cages, hands manacled in silk and kindness, sword calluses won in stolen moments all her life.
When Susan hesitated in the morning, as all and sundry leaped upon their horses’s backs, Eowyn found her a mount. She hesitated herself, handing the lead reins over, but Susan took them and leaped as nimbly up onto the mare as a woman who had been riding for years. Eowyn had been uncertain, but perhaps she was a born Rohirrim after all.
Susan didn’t recognize the names they used, for places, people, regiments. They didn’t sound Telmarine. None of the horses spoke, but after all that had faded in Narnia by Caspian’s time, anyway. (Susan remembered Lucy, chin trembling, trying her hardest not to cry over silent trees).
There was tell of dwarves, but not fauns or satyrs or giants– mention of wizards, but not witches– they talked of elves that had no place in her Narnia and sounded nothing like the cheery tiny shoemakers she knew from bedtime stories back home. A short young man they all called a halfling (they also called him Merry) tagged along behind the woman called Dernhelm, and Susan stared at his hairy bare feet and wondered where the hell she was.
The army moved across the plains, the land getting flatter and flatter, the men growing grimmer and brighter and louder in turns. Susan gathered what she could of their cause: an ally’s call, a white city on a hill, a dark enemy amassing. She knew this kind of determination, desperation– she had made a last stand of her own, once or twice. These men did not expect to make it through, the pale hidden woman who Susan rode with day by day did not expect to survive. The small person tucked under Dernhelm’s cloak might not have realized it yet, but Susan wasn’t sure.
She did not mean to die here. She meant to run when they got closer. She had a home to find.
“Someone told me once that it is ugly when women fight,” Susan said late one night. Susan’s face twisted and she added, “It’s ugly when anyone fights.”
“But we have to,” said Eowyn sleepily. “The glory. The honor. And they need us.”
Susan tilted her chin out of her blankets, letting cold air rush over her so she could see the stars better. “My sister was a healer. She had a vial… a gift, from an old,” she paused, “wizard.”
“Where is your sister now?” Eowyn asked.
Susan started to say she went a very far way away. She started to say my brothers, too, my parents, my cousin. She started to say I’m going to find them, I’m going to go home.
The stars were bright in the pitch sky above them. After the train crash, the authorities had given her a call in the little flat she could just fairly afford. They had not asked her to identify the bodies– not because there was anyone else left to do it, but because the train had smashed when it went off the tracks, because a fire had swept its carcass, because there wasn’t anything clear enough to identify.
“She’s dead.” she told it to the sky, which was full of constellations she’d never seen before, in her own world or in Narnia. “They’re all dead.”
My brother, too, my parents, my cousin.
“May they be welcomed into the halls of your forefathers in glory,” Eowyn murmured.
“They were,” said Susan and squeezed her eyes shut.
I’m going to find them, I’m going to go home.
Susan took a shaky breath. “The… wizard gave me a bow. But Lucy… she was always the best of us. She could save people, she did, she–”
“We lost my cousin this year,” said Eowyn. They were both speaking so soft it barely stirred the silence. “We grew up together. Theodred was more a brother than anything. I helped my uncle bury him. He… and then he sent my brother away. I’m sorry, I just– I know what it is to miss people.”
As Susan drifted off, Eowyn spoke softly, telling stories of Theodred, of cousins growing up in the rough hewn walls of Edoras. The plains in springtime. The first colt Eomer had learned to tame.
The next morning, riding side by side, Susan told stories about Lucy, about Edmund’s sly diplomacy and Peter’s tendency to get over-competitive on hunts.
Merry talked about the Shire, green fields and mischievous children and peace, and Susan missed England with something fierce in her gut. He talked about gossipy, nosy neighbors and propriety and plump hospitable judgemental matrons and then she missed it less.
Eowyn told them about pranks among the young people of Edoras, about the goose girls who fended off wolves with stones in slingshots, about hearty stew and friendly dogs. She talked about Fangorn Forest, while Merry snored lightly under her chin, about getting lost as a child and imagining she could hear the trees talking.
They were close enough now to the battle that Eowyn was sleeping badly, waking Susan with her shifting and whispering sorries for it. They were close enough that Susan could see the white glint of Minas Tirith on the horizon, though the gathered besieging forces were still hidden by the rise and fall of the hilly land.
The next time that Eowyn tossed and turned and woke Susan with it, Susan turned over. “I’m going to need a bow,” she said.
Susan was across the battlefield when Eowyn faced down the lord of the Nazgul, Merry and his little dagger at her side. Susan was sending arrows into orcs and oliphaunt drivers, guiding her horse with her calves and heels and shifts of her weight.
Susan had had a horse in Narnia she had loved dearly, one she had left in a forest on a hunt for a white stag– but the way this lithe dun mare moved with her, stepped on enemies and dodged blows? Susan could imagine falling in love with her, too. In the middle of landing an arrow in a orc’s bulbous skull, Susan decided to name the horse Peony.
Across a battlefield, a king of men died. A lord of shadow perished. A hobbit and a woman hit the ground.
When he found his uncle dead, Eomer went still, regal, hollowed-out. When he found his sister, Eomer fell beside Eowyn’s body like he was himself slain. Susan heard the sound, across the clash and scream of battle, and she turned her trusty little mare.
Eomer was on his knees. Eomer was king. His sister was strewn on the ground before him and he could not see anything else. Susan had taken first aid, though. She knew to check for breath, and she did– and Eowyn breathed.
Eomer was sobbing, angry gasps and a keening Susan had been spending years trying to forget welling up from her own chest. “She’s alive,” she said. She grabbed Eomer’s hands, then his shoulders, shook him. “She’s alive,” she said.
They won the battle. They won, eventually, the war, though both Eowyn and Susan sat that one out. Susan read all through the parts of Minas Tirith’s libraries that she was allowed, trying to figure out where she was, when she was, if they had ever heard of Narnia, of England, how to get home. When Eowyn was well enough to leave her bed, she spent some time on the walls, looking out, but she spent more of it reading beside Susan, listening to her talk of wardrobes and archways and forest pools.
They found nothing, but Susan had found nothing in England either. Eowyn read with Susan, pouring over old stories, possibilities. Susan helped out in the healing wards beside her– Eowyn was either trying to repay a debt to these healers or falling in love with the work. Susan opened every closet and cabinet she found in the wards.
Susan got herself into as many counsels or conversations with advisers as she could, as the unknown but trusted friend of foreign, allied nobility. It was not many, and she listened more than she talked, but when she gave suggestions they were good ones. They invited her back.
Susan took detours so she could pass through every arch in Minas Tirith. When people who weren’t Eowyn asked her about it, she told them she had a fondness for architecture. Eowyn didn’t ask, but Susan told her, “Just in case.”
In the books Susan read, looking for Narnia, she found legend of talking trees, of walking trees. She was as homesick as she had been when Merry talked about green fields and berry bushes, childhood. She asked Eowyn about the legends, about Fangorn, and Eowyn told her stories. She asked Aragorn (because kings would never scare Susan; she had run her hands once through Aslan’s mane) and Aragorn told her to talk to Merry.
“Oh, sure,” said Merry. “Treebeard’s a swell old fellow. Bit wordy.”
Eowyn fell in love. When Eowyn married Faramir high on the walls of the white city, Susan cried–because it was beautiful, because Eowyn was smiling like she meant it and Susan had been so frightened that would never happen. She cried because she wondered what Lucy would have looked like in white, smiling that bright.
After the wedding, after Faramir settled in as steward, and Eowyn as steward’s wife, after Susan advised Eowyn on setting up her counsels and her advisers, about streamlining reports, after Eowyn took out an abacus and taught Susan a few things about accounting and taxes, which had always been Edmund and Lucy’s field– Susan packed a bag.
Eowyn found her packing it, rolling up her shirts and folding her socks like her mother had taught her. Eowyn closed the door and leaned against the stiff mattress Susan had all her possessions strewn out on. “Not enough wardrobes here?” Eowyn said, and the words were bitter, cold. “One day you’re just going to disappear,” said Eowyn. “One day you’re going to step through one of those things and not come back and I won’t even know for sure what happened.”
Susan kept packing, folded a scarf, pressed some gloves into an empty space. “I’m just looking for home.”
“Then make one!” Eowyn sat very still, hands pooled in her lap. “You don’t always get back the things you lose, Su. Sometimes you get new things. Sometimes you’re so busy missing the lost things you don’t realize what it is you do have.”
“What would you know about it?” Susan demanded.
“I watched my mother die of grief,” said Eowyn. Susan, who had been rising to leave, found she couldn’t turn away. “It was slow,” said Eowyn. “It was ugly, and I told myself I’d never do it. When I die, I will be beaten into the ground.”
“That sounds healthy,” Susan said.
“I’ve been learning things lately,” said Eowyn. “I won’t ever die quiet, but I want to live.”
“I want to live!” said Susan.
“You want to run,” said Eowyn. “Every time you go looking for one of those– it’s not the same.”
Susan’s eyes dropped down to her sensible shoes. They were pretty, because she liked pretty, so sue her. They were good shoes, sensible and solid and well made, because you never knew when you’d find what you were looking for.
“I’m going to meet Merry’s trees,” she said. “There were talking trees who lived in my Narnia. We called them dryads. They might know something.”
Eowyn gave a long slow sigh. “Remember to write. I’m curious about those.”
“You’re taking your Peony, aren’t you?” said Eowyn.
Susan had been going down to the stables encamped outside the white walls every day since the battle, to brush and exercise the young mare she’d ridden in battle. “I believe technically I stole her,” she said.
Eowyn smiled. “She was a gift,” she said.
Susan had never quite liked camping– you had to keep Edmund from eating all the good bits out of the snacks and from telling the nasty sort of ghost story; you had to keep Lucy from climbing too high after a bird’s nest or getting left behind because she’d stopped to pet a bumblebee. But she set off across the Rohan plains and then into Fangorn with just Peony and deep rich dark silences to accompany her, and it felt peaceful.
When the first Ent stepped out of the shadows and made itself known, her heart rose in her chest and then fell to her toes. Giant and mossy and wild, with kindly liquid eyes and reaching twig fingers– he was beautiful. But he was nothing like a dryad.
The Ents knew nothing of dryads, though they asked her lots of questions about Entwives. “They weren’t like you,” she said. “They weren’t tree women– not women made of trees, but more ones who lived in them. Willow girls would rise up, lilacs would dance with my sister…”
They called up an Entmoot because dryad cousins weren’t Entwives but they were still family, still hopeful. Spindly aspen Ents and solid elms creaked and groaned for days and nights. Susan napped and explored and shot down rabbits for her supper, but mostly she sat and listened. Quick beam, still impatient for an Ent, sat with her and translated each slow creak when she asked him to.
Translation was nearly impossible. She listened to the creaks, the cadences, the way length of the wooden groan was about status sometimes and the flavor of the sunlight at others. She jotted down guesses on syntax and trend and ran them by a thoughtful Quickbeam and amused Treebeard. This would be the work of years. She could feel it welling in her toes. She marched out and found a leaning arch of lilac bushes to crash through, a round beautiful pond to jump in, to see if it would take her away.
None of the Ents who had come knew anything, either. They asked Susan for stories, because they had been dreaming of dying out for centuries and it was something to hear tell of tiny pine sapling dryads chasing each other around the beaming trunk of their mother’s tree. She told them. Treebeard took her on long walks, her just barely keeping up to his slowest stride with Peony following loyally behind.
She kept asking about grammar, about pronunciation. She kept listening to the creaks they passed between themselves, the falling tone that meant a question. She looked. She listened. Once upon a time, a lion had told her to find magic in her own world.
Susan walked out through miles of burned stumps, all the way down to the still-drowned shallows of Saruman’s home. She kicked gently at clumps of ash and brushed her nice shoes off after. She gave a pack of letters to Eowyn to one of the Rohan men who had been left the guard the broken remains. She threw stones in the scummy waters, and then she walked the miles back to Treebeard’s sheltered home.
“They know you’re real now, after Helm’s Deep,” she told Treebeard one lazy afternoon sitting in his branches. “But they still talk about you like you’re legends.”
“We are real. We are also legends, little queen,” Treebeard rumbled. “Harrum,” he said. “So are you.”
“There is no one to speak for you,” she said, a bit tentative. “They know enough to be scared of you, maybe, but they don’t know what you want, what you need.”
“The wizards speak for us,” Treebeard said.
“Yeah, and they seem like they’re doing a crack-shot job,” Susan said.
“Wizards are not men,” said Treebeard.
“Neither am I,” she said.
He gave a gusty sigh. She spoke too fast and too sharp and did not let him finish. “They have many things on their minds. The fates of worlds.”
“I could speak for you,” she said. “In the courts– in Edoras, in Minas Tirith. Your forests could be protected by law. You could have allies against the orcs.”
“A kind offer, but a hasty one, I think,” said Treebeard.
“Gondor sends diplomats all over the world. With Mordor fallen, with Aragorn on the throne, they will send them farther. They could look for the Entwives,” she said.
“Harrum,” said Treebeard softly, and called another Entmoot to nominate her their Entspeaker. The Ents had not had so many ‘moots in centuries, but that was what happened when little hasty people stumbled into your wood with frustratingly good ideas.
Susan spent her springs in the wild-flowered halls of Fangorn. Peony chomped happily on new green growth– it was her favorite season.
Susan spent hot summers in Rohan, racing Peony, arguing with Eomer, drinking with the men, and petting the friendly dogs. She dragged doubting advisors out and introduced them to Quickbeam, who delighted in sneaking up quietly and startling them.
In autumn she walked the streets of Minas Tirith, watching the elegant potted trees shed their leaves and clog the streets. She made allies for the Ents, and she told the Men about the Entwives, asked them to keep their eyes open.
The first time Susan saw Arwen there, she lost every ounce of breath in her. That was what people had claimed she was, the raven-haired beauty, the gentle queen, and she had sometimes believed them. Now she knew, though, as she watched Arwen occupy space just like falling moonlight did– Susan had never come close.
Winters were Eowyn’s. Susan rode Peony out, across the rebuilt bridges, to Minas Ithilien, and curled up in her cozy set of rooms there to live out the snows. Faramir had a soft spot for Susan’s best hot cocoa recipe as bad as Edmund’s ever had been.
She didn’t stop looking in wardrobes. She looked in them, pushed past mothballs and heavy coats, and touched the solid wood at their backs. She told herself she was disappointed when her fingers met wood.
Susan kept quiet in the advisory meetings she got invited to, up until she had something to say. She was of no kingdom that she chose to tell them of, except for perhaps the forests, so there were some secrets she was never told. But this was a new reign of peace and she kept having good ideas.
For the three seasons she wasn’t scowling over paperwork by Eowyn’s warm hearth, Susan wrote her letters. They wrote to each other all their lives– about their responsibilities and their pleasures, their fears, Eowyn’s children and Susan’s apprentice tree-talkers.
One day, Susan would open a wardrobe, push through mothballs and fur, and find winter air nipping at her fingertips. She dreamed about it sometimes. Lamplight spilling past heavy winter coats. Breathing in the snowy air. Lucy’s high thrilled voice cutting through– that was what woke her up, always, the laugh in her sister’s voice.
Susan had woken so many places, missing them. That summer in America, when she had been thinking idly about forgetting Narnia, just moving on, before it had stolen all of them and stolen her fixed attention with it. It had stolen so much of her. Her apartment in the days after, waking discarded on the couch, cycling between exhausted and numb. A starlit field in the midst of strange army, a friend at her side. Amid rough, warm Edoras walls and the fine stone carvings of Minas Tirith.
She woke from dreams like that and she looked at whatever ceiling she had that night– criss-crossing branches or thatch or stone. Her toes were bundled up and warm in every season. She had letters to send and advisers to argue gently down, bureaucrats to convince. She had her notebooks and notebooks of careful notes on Entish. She rolled over and went back to sleep.
One day, she opened a wardrobe door like an afterthought–rich heavy wood, the creak of the old hinges falling on distracted ears. She was thinking about diplomatic missions south, about Eowyn’s youngest’s dislike for spinach.
Cold air wisped out between heavy fur coats.
I’m going to find them.
Lamplight spilled between coats, soft and warm in the sharp winter air.
I’m going to go home.
Eowyn’s laugh rang up the stairwell.
Susan shut the door, relatched it, then unlatched it and swung it open again. Nothing. The smell of must and mothballs.
The diplomats would have to wait for the roads to thaw further. Maybe the little one would prefer peas. Lucy had never taken to spinach, either. Susan turned on her heel and headed downstairs to where her family was waiting.