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The Last Defense of Cair Paravel

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This is the story they tell in Western Narnia, on the longest darkest nights; I would say on winter nights, except all nights are winter nights now. Fauns tell it huddled in the warm goaty darkness in the rotted-out trunks of ancient great-trees; Wolves tell it under the moon when the skies are clear and there is no one else to hear; I do not think the Dwarfs tell it around the fires deep in their smokey caverns, for the Dwarfs find no honor in the tale. The Centaurs have made of it, and the other great tales, a chant they sing the night through on the Longest Night, calling the sun to return.

Other stories tell of the felling of the great Tree of Protection, which was planted by the Lord Digory at Aslan's order on the second day of the world, and how the loss of that tree allowed Jadis of Charn (and where that ill-omened country is, no one now can say) to return to Narnia after many centuries. This Jadis was a sorceress of great power, tall as a Beech Dryad, and her heart was black and loved destruction. But she also was cunning: she suborned the Giants and many Dwarfs to follow her, promising them riches and sovereignty (although she lied, of course: any who believed her became her slaves, not free creatures); and she was subtle in her movements, so that much time had passed, and much damage done, before anyone in authority had any idea of the danger Narnia was in.

In those days, the Earl of Lantern Waste was a Human named Shandon, who was descended through many mothers from King Frank himself, although several of her fathers were river-gods rather than Human. Shandon was a good friend of Queen Swanwhite her cousin, and many thought she would name Shandon her heir if she never married. But Shandon never cared about that: she was not a courtier or a flatterer, but a bluff and plain-spoken soldier and hunter, who preferred to spend her time in the woods of Western Narnia. She knew the foothills and river valleys from the northern border to Tellik Pass on the shoulder of Farsight Peak, and many were the nights she walked home to her lodge in Lantern Waste with fresh game across her shoulder.

But one spring the Queen called Shandon to her, and asked her to go on embassy to the Lone Islands. The reason for this embassage is now lost, and perhaps it was a ruse by the Witch to distract the Queen, but it was important, and so Earl Shandon bowed her knee to her Queen in the tall throne room at Cair Paravel, with the lions on the tapestries and the western doors gilded to shine in the sunset, and took ship for Narrowhaven.

It was over a year later that Shandon returned, in a ship battered by storms and with only half the company she had left with, for they had been attacked by pirates off the coast of Calormen, and then lost more to wind and wave. And in that year everything had changed: the Queen was pale and aged far beyond her years, Cair Paravel was crowded with refugees from Northern and Western Narnia, and many of the Human Narnians who had lived in the eastern lowlands were gone entirely.

When Shandon asked after her Human cousins and friends, few would answer her straightly, but would look away and say something about "trading opportunities" in Calormen or Galma, or the appeal of settling in open country in Telmar beyond Tellik Pass. Finally one old Centaur took her aside and told her of many mysterious deaths and disappearances, and the way Baron Longspear had died in a fire with all his household, not two months gone. Something evil was abroad in Narnia, and while it mostly targeted Humans, many magical creatures were going missing as well.

That day and the next, Shandon put on her oldest cloak and went down into the town below Cair Paravel, and sat drinking and listening in The Winged Horse for many hours. And then she went back to the castle, put on her courtliest gown, and went to see the Queen at breakfast.

But the Queen did not wish to speak of the deaths and disappearances, nor even the rumors Shandon had heard over her Dwarf ale in The Winged Horse. Rumors that, if true, spelled disaster for the royal house of Frank and Helen. Far too many of the Humans who had left Narnia had not been heard from since, and there were Dwarfs and (rumor had it) Hags in their homes now.

Every time Shandon tried to talk about these things, the Queen paled, and became confused, and asked her about elderly cousins many years dead. She drank too much faun wine, even at breakfast, and startled when her servants came into the room. None of her councillors would answer Shandon's questions, and at least two closed their doors in her face. Shandon went away then, her heart sore and full of foreboding.

She took with her some of her company that had survived the return from the Lone Islands: fierce Fauns and Satyrs, and a pack of great Dogs such as no one has seen in Narnia in a hundred years, built like bulls with jaws of iron. As they rode out of Cair Paravel under a darkening sky and an unseasonable wind, no one stood on the walls to see them go, as if the court were hiding its face from the storm it saw coming.

They rode west, crossing the Great River at Beruna and seeing nothing of special concern other than skittish and close-mouthed Narnians, almost none of them Human. On the second day, she said to Firetail, a great Dog who was her second-in-command: "I begin to fear that there are less than fifty Humans left between the Western Wild and the coast."

When they came to Lantern Waste, and found the Great Tree fallen, its fruit shriveled in the ripening and its millenia-old roots seared with flame, Shandon fell from her horse and knelt with her face covered for a long while. When she stood up, her face was hard as stone, that had been a cheerful, friendly visage. "Narnia is at war," she said to her company, and did not speak again that day, or the next. They slept in her lodge, armed and equipped themselves from its stores, and rode out again in the morning, dressed for war.

But it is one thing to know you are at war; another to find the enemy if they will not be found. Shandon and her company chased rumors through the end of summer and into the autumn, tracking north and south across Narnia like a dog on a squirrel's trail. They seldom found anything; more than once they came across a farm or a steading that had been burned, but the identity of the attackers was hidden from them. "It's magic," said Firetail.

Shandon agreed, but she was no magician, nor did she know any she could trust. She had only this company, the cold steel of her sword (handed down from the days of King Gale), and the strength of her arm.

It was not enough.

They came at last, after dark in the evening of the year, to Cair Paravel. They had been harried across the land from the northern marshes by an unseen enemy, who struck in silence and fog, leaving behind nothing but the bodies of Narnians struck down by no known weapon. When the bodies were found at all, that is.

The gates of the citadel were shut, but opened slowly to Shandon and her shrunken company. She found the keep near-deserted, the fires cold and torches unlit in the tall throne room with its lion-headed tiles on the floor. The barracks built along the inner walls were empty but for a dozen Fauns, two aging Centaurs, and six great Cats, all that remained of the Royal Guard.

"The Queen!" Shandon demanded, mud from the road still on her boots as she stood in the doorway. "Where is the Queen of Narnia?"

The Tiger's tail lashed once before she answered, saying, "The Queen sleeps. The Throne sits empty. Aslan has abandoned us."

Firetail leaped across the room and pinned the Tiger to the ground with his great teeth in her throat. "Do not speak so," he growled through the Tiger's fur. But the Tiger laughed at him, her eyes wide with mad despair.

Shandon left them there and went up into the Queen's Tower, following the winding marble stair up as it spiralled around the inside of the tower: seven flights, to the rooms set aside for the Queen and her attendants. When she came to the door, she found it unlocked and unguarded but for a young Faun with a tray in his hand: he dropped the tray in surprise as Shandon entered, spilling a carafe half-full of deep red wine across the rich carpet.

"The Queen?" snapped Shandon, and the Faun looked at the inner door. Shandon swept past him and went in.

Queen Swanwhite of Narnia, the most beautiful woman since the days of the Warrior Queen Elena, lay wan and lifeless under a quilted coverlet embroidered with the Lion of Narnia. She had always been fair of skin and red of hair, with eyes the color of the summer sky, and while she was no longer young, she was not yet old. But now she looked faded, as a red cloth left in the sun fades to pink over time, and ravels along the edges. Her skin was nearly as grey as some of her hair, and her bright eyes did not see Shandon, though she stood at the foot of her bed in her travel-worn leathers and patched hauberk.

She looked at Swanwhite, and called her name, and took her hand (and wept over it), but the Queen lay unseeing. Her mind was lost, perhaps, trapped in the same enchantments binding the rest of Narnia. Earl Shandon came away from that room, and did not return there again.

"This is the end," she said to Firetail. "May Aslan someday forgive us the crimes we have committed, that he has allowed this sorcery to upend the world."

"What shall we do?" asked Firetail, who was a brave Dog and a fierce fighter, but like many Dogs he did not think about the future much.

Shandon picked up her sword belt and buckled it on. "We fight," she said, and went out to the walls.

Most storytellers usually stop here, because no one really knows what happened after that. Shandon sent away the few servants still loyal, who carried the tale with them, but no one who stayed in Cair Paravel after that lived to say what happened in the end. Well, no true and honest Narnian lived to say.

But in Archenland they claim that one of the Witch's Dwarfs repented, and told his story many years later to a Centaur on the Archenland border, and so in Archenland the storytellers finish it thus:

The enemy struck at nightfall, seven days after Shandon returned to Cair Paravel. The town was empty, all its inhabitants fled, but for three Human women who came to the citadel for refuge, as there was no longer any safe passage out of Narnia for a Human. These three women, honor to their names, whatever they were, took up arms and walked the walls with Shandon's company and the last of the Royal Guard.

The enemy struck with magic, enchanting the Queen herself to rise from her bed, come down the long stairs in her nightdress with her hair hanging loose about her, and open the gates in the dark before moonrise. Queen Swanwhite, the most beautiful woman in Narnia since the Warrior Queen Elena, died on the cobbled ground of her own courtyard, struck down by the hand of Jadis of Charn. When the Queen's blood touched the soil beneath the cobbles, the earth of Narnia itself shook, throwing defenders and attackers alike to the ground.

But it was too late for the Deep Magic to help: Jadis had made sure of that. Her soldiers, the cloak of her magic no longer necessary, hunted through the citadel for all the remaining soldiers loyal to Narnia. Shandon's soldiers fought fiercely, and the blood of evil creatures--and Dwarfs and Giants--ran thick on the floors of the great keep. But there were too many of the enemy, and the brave Fauns and Dogs were hunted from room to room, selling their lives dearly.

Shandon was the last to fall, standing at bay on the steps of the royal dais in the throne room itself. She killed nearly all who came near her, her sword and dagger taking a life with every stroke; but in the end she was only Human, and she was alone now. Jadis never came near her, but laughed at the slaughter, until at last, she called her soldiers off.

"You fight well, Human," she said, across the gore-spattered floor littered with the corpses of her own people. She was very tall, dressed in white and silver, with a bloodied sword in each hand. "Poor, pitiful, lost Human. Your Lion has deserted you and your strongholds are fallen. And I will have this world at last, like an apple for the plucking."

"I am Shandon Earl of Lantern Waste," gasped Shandon, leaning against the throne of Narnia and bleeding from many wounds. "Last of the line of King Frank and Queen Helen in Narnia. In Aslan's Name, I defy you, Witch."

Jadis laughed, then, the sound ringing in the high ceilings of Cair Paravel, and spoke one word: "Loose." Arrows flew, piercing Shandon in many places, until she staggered and fell, dropping her bloodied blade across the throne she had sworn to defend.

Now, the Deep Magic is unfathomable. It is supremely powerful, like Aslan himself and his father the Emperor-Over-Sea. It binds us together, makes us Narnians: we are not like those of other lands. But the Deep Magic cannot be predicted or controlled or understood. So no one really knows why or how this happened, but this is what the Centaurs say:

When Shandon died on the floor of Cair Paravel, she was the last living Human in Narnia, and the last Queen of Narnia, having inherited the crown from her cousin at the moment of her murder. And the death of a Human king or queen in defense of his or her people is a matter of great power, is something the Deep Magic concerns itself with, because there were Humans in Narnia when Aslan sang the world into being; and so that is how the Deep Magic works: through Human blood, bone, and faith. Or so the Centaurs say. That is one explanation for what happened when Shandon died; but no one knows for sure.

In that moment of Shandon's death, the citadel of Cair Paravel, which had stood on the shore of the Eastern Sea at the mouth of the Great River since the days of King Frank and Queen Helen--in that moment, the citadel changed. The Deep Magic came to life and, living, changed the world, despite all the Witch's sorceries. When the change was over, Jadis and all her soldiers were outside the citadel walls, which were taller and stronger than they had been, and the gates were locked. Not all the magic or force of arms that Jadis could wield would open those gates.

And that is what they say in Archenland. But all storytellers, Centaurs or Fauns or Wolves, or even Humans, in Narnia and Archenland, say this: Whatever happened inside Cair Paravel on that last night, when the sun rose in the morning the gates were locked, and above the gates, in a golden script that all could read, was written: When Adam's flesh and Adam's bone sit at Cair Paravel in throne, the evil time shall be over and done.

And for all the Witch's power and rage, she never could break down those gates, nor scale those walls, and sure, she hasn't done it yet. That message is still there, bringing hope to Narnians after all these years.

And that is the story of Earl Shandon and the Last Defense of Cair Paravel, that they tell on the longest nights of winter, in Western Narnia and some parts of Archenland.