Pine and spruce dryads were the best at sewing and knitting.
The first time Queen Helen's fingers blistered on her needles, she felt an unwelcome pang of envy for the dryads and naiads who clothed themselves in bark with a thought.
Listening to owls gossip in the dark hours because she was too tired to sleep, Helen missed the country village of her childhood more than she missed London.
She missed the post office and store, with its baskets of bright-colored yarn (that she hadn't spun, herself) and its glass jars of jewel-like candy (that she hadn't made, herself, boiling sugar over an open fire while sweat beaded on her forehead and her hair collapsed lank from its bun) and its pins and ink and paper and elastics.
She missed the expectation of letters on cream-colored paper, the spidery writing crossed to save postage, with stories of far-off lands, meant to be read safely by a kitchen fire.
Most often, she missed milk delivery.
The first time she saw a Talking bear eat a non-talking rabbit, her stomach contracted.
It's not a person, she told herself. The rabbit was smaller than the Talking rabbits who helped with the cooking. Its eyes lacked the brightness of intelligence. The way it held its ears was different. . . but her gut reacted to soft fur, now spattered with blood.
"It's one thing for the animals that have always eaten meat," she told King Frank. "We don't have to do it, though, do we?"
After a month of grain and vegetable and fruit, while her muscles thinned and protested the work, she snapped the neck of a goose with the gesture she'd mastered as a girl.
"They're not people," she said.
Looking across the raw village, she wondered if she's misunderstood the lion.
If she and Frank had done something else, would they have been fed and clothed as freely and easily as the naiads and the satyrs?
"We were told to rule," Frank said. His hands are cocked on his belt over the handles of the knives he uses for everything: to whittle a tool from a downed branch, to dress a non-talking beast for roasting, to slash through undergrowth toward the fertile soil.
The pride in his expression was a reflection of the landscape. Grain and vegetables rose in neat lines, waiting to provide for the winter. The latrines provided fertilizer and kept waste separate from fresh water. (She'd gotten in the habit of calling them necessaries in London, but training the bears to use them had erased any lingering delicacy.) The one stone hut that they jokingly called the palace was small, but it was sturdy and water-tight.
"What if ruling meant something else?"
With the harvest in and the food preserved in salt (dug by badgers and dwarves) or sugar (it grew in mines here, too, to Helen's amazement), the days grew shorter and the nights colder. Knitting filled the stone cottage with the scent of spruce needles, awakening in Helen a longing she had to work at naming.
"There was never a baby in a manger here," she said to Frank after a long day of stirring the juice of crushed mint leaves into boiling sugar-water to make a sweet that soothed sore throats and calmed upset stomachs.
"Maybe there doesn't have to be," Frank said without looking up from the knife he was sharpening. "Maybe we all need a time to rest and sing."
"The baby came to redeem us from our sins, though. If he hasn't come. . ."
"That lion made it sound like he'd come someday, Helen. If that horrible pale harridan does something or other. But maybe she won't."
"Is that a good thing or a bad thing?" The baby had died for people's sins. If he'd grown up and not died—if he'd lived a long, happy, and wise life—would it have all been better or worse?
What if everyone misunderstood? Helen wondered. Or was the lion bound by different rules, so innocents wouldn't need to suffer here?
She spread the word by rabbits and naiads about the Christmas feast—she'd meant to call it Winterfair, but the words kept twisting on her lips—and set in motion the work of stewing and baking and candying.
A person has to do something, and just being alive here in the cold, clean air was worth celebrating.
The feast overflowed with laughter and song and the smell of baking.
Helen had never tried to count the people of Narnia, and they wouldn't hold still long enough for her to do it now. But the rabbits seemed to have multiplied, the forest must have thickened to produce so many dryads, and every female faun and centaur seemed ready to foal in the spring.
The joy in the air seemed to lift her into a place where she was queen of smiles, presiding over a court of joy. Watching the dryads dance with the grace of swaying trees to a beat the dwarves improvised on drums. . . well, no one would believe this back in the ash-covered grime of London. She let her hands be filled with berries she'd never known to harvest—everyone brought something, as if they'd known the meaning of the feast without being told—and let herself be toasted with Frank as the hosts of the day.
When the bearded person all in green and red slipped into a seat at the great table, her eyes were so unaccustomed to fellow humans that she fumbled to name his race. A centaur with no back haunches. A faun with tender feet. A bear without hair.
Human. Like us. But how?
She should have greeted him, but he'd moved so quietly, and a squirrel had just found chestnuts to roast, which wanted help from a person with thumbs who wasn't made of flammable wood. When Helen looked up from the crackle of the fire as she scooped hot nuts into chilly paws, the man was usually talking with his neighbors.
Every now and awhile, he'd beckon a bear or a mouse or a naiad to him. They'd talk quietly, then he'd pass something to the other person. Their expressions ranged from joy to awe to inward-looking thought, but none left frowning.
His eye caught hers and she felt herself called. Helen, first Queen of Narnia.
I ought to help here. But she wiped her hands on her apron—the apron of queenship, she and Frank jokingly called it—and went to him.
"How goes it, Queen Helen?" His voice was soft and deep, like snowdrifts.
"You see it." She gestured around her, suddenly aware of the chill in the air, the red roughness of her hands, and the well-meaning poverty of it all. "We've built something here. It'll be better, someday. But look at them. They're singing. We're doing well enough to have something to celebrate."
"So you are." His eyes, while merry, contained such depths that she couldn't find the bottom. "I've come with gifts of the season. Name the thing you want, Queen Helen."
Sewing machines. A proper coal stove. Things made other places. Some kind of certainty that we're doing it right. The list that swarmed through her head seemed unendingly long, but to ask meant admitting that this wasn't enough.
The lion had given her and Frank this place to rule. That had to be enough.
Her urge was to curtsey, but she was Queen here, so she inclined her head instead. "Thank you kindly, but there's nothing I want that we can't do for ourselves."
The stranger's laugh ran through her like the memory of steaming tea on a cold day. He reached for her hand as if to kiss it, but instead he set in her palm a plain glass jar.
"When you rub this salve on your hands, it won't take away the callouses you need, but it'll heal the blisters and protect you from the sun." At her puzzled expression, he added: "You've overcome envy, sloth, fear, and doubt to get this far, Queen Helen. You made your own salve for your heart. The salve for your hands is just a little thing."
"Nothing here is a little thing." She wasn't sure whether to smile or cry. Her mouth and eyes felt like they were crinkling together in a great unspeakable thank you blurted in relief.
"Nothing anywhere is a little thing." The stranger passed her a small packet wrapped in plain paper as he rose from his chair, gathering his woolly robes around him to depart—to where? He raised his voice to a shout, though Helen was not sure she believed the words she heard. "Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!"
Amidst the clamor of farewells—geese have to say everything twelve times—Queen Helen of Narnia turned aside to open the paper-wrapped packet.
Pins. Needles. Enough pink and blue yarn for two pairs of tiny booties. Three horehound candies. And elastic.