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I am the one winged bird for flying,
Sinking quickly to the ground.
See your faith in me subsiding,
See you prime for giving in.
I give you all that I am.
- Rob Thomas, All That I Am

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One,
Death Loomed Like a Giant Shadow

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The queen was, as could be expected of a woman in her state, radiant in her opulent golden ball gown, cut to emphasize the nine month swell of her stomach. The women of the court, usually so collected and calculating, fawned and fussed about the pregnant woman as if they didn’t see her every day. As if they liked her.

Court games. They left her sick, made her turn away.

At the other end of the room, as far from the women as they could get, men in the black and silver of the Telmarines discussed business as usual, lying and cheating to get their way. Their mouths said one thing and their hands on their daggers another as they traded land and women, riches and people, for power. Always power. It had been bad enough when Caspian IX had still reigned but since his accidental death, they had degenerated at amazing speeds. Miraz, the Lord Protector who had never once in his life protected anything, encouraged the games, allowing the lords to weed each other out. As long as they fought amongst each other, he and his little game of chess were safe.

She would have wondered how the man could stand to look in the mirror if she hadn’t known that he could stand it just fine. Miraz’ conscience had probably died a lonely death in a lonelier ditch on the wayside to glory a long time ago.

Somewhere in-between the men and women she stood, refusing to play dumb with the women and not welcomed among the men. She hated this place and not only because nothing but the colour on the walls was ever what it seemed to be. For almost ten years she had haunted the castle and she had yet to find something worth saving. Except the prince, maybe.

But the boy was too weak, too young to withstand the court for long. At his age her innocence had already been long gone, her dreams and hopes fallen to dust like a vampire’s ashes. Nothing left but the fight. But Caspian… his uncle taught him nothing of worth and the Professor only filled his head with wild stories of a country and a people gasping its last breath. Oh, she knew the Narnians were not as extinct as they pretended to be, would have known even if her head hadn’t been filled with the information necessary to fulfil her so called duty. She had seen them when she had gone wandering at night, watching from the edges of the woods with dark things in their eyes. But Caspian knew nothing of that and stories would be no use when Miraz finally pulled a sword on his beloved nephew.

In a den of wolves, one did not survive with their head in the clouds. The boy should have been spending his hours in the training grounds, not walled up behind books and artefacts. Scholars had their uses, even Giles and his books, his wisdom and words, had once had their uses before it all turned to blood, but they could still die by a sword and their books couldn’t save them.

It was her job, her task, to protect the young prince, yes, but she refused to do his work for him. And yet, what else was there to do? Her position in the court as Miraz’ oldest daughter’s teacher was shaky at best and no-one would ever listen to a woman trying not only to interfere with a man’s education, but also going against Miraz’ wishes by doing so. The man wanted his nephew cowed and weak and by the time the child growing in his wife’s womb was born, Caspian would be superfluous. The only reason he had lived until now was that Miraz had, so far, only managed to produce daughters, not sons. But this child, this third one, would be a boy. She could feel it in her bones.

And then everything would change. May you live in interesting times, the old curse said but she would welcome any change, even slaughter, if it meant escape from this place.

“Dance with me.” The order was disguised as a question, delivered with a bow and an outstretched hand that did nothing to diffuse the fact that she was a servant and the man before her a noble who demanded her obedience. She took his hand, heavy with rings, and let it lead her where it wanted to go, her mind on other things, her expression blank.

Here, now, things were finally coming to a head. After ten years of playing the meek servant, things were moving. Miraz would make his move and Caspian would meet his fate. It fell to her to make sure that fate was not death.

Why her? Why always her?

They said it was her duty. They said so when they took her from her world and gave her a task. They promised freedom after the deed was done, the world was saved. They lied. And they gave her another task. And another. Always promising freedom. Always giving her more blood, more death, more pain. Gods were fickle beings, no better than the man holding on to her right now, intending to take what he wanted without caring what he did to her in the process.

She had tried dying once, had tried jumping in front of an arrow meant for the one she was supposed to save. It had pierced her chest, bit through flesh and muscle, and ripped a hole into what was left of her heart. It didn’t kill her.

Almost forty years had passed since that day, the day she realized that even that one last route of escape had been blocked from her. Her face, when she glared at it in the dull mirrors of this medieval world, still looked like it had when she’d still had a name. When she had been Buffy.

Nowadays, she was anything you wanted her to be.

The noble swung her around, his arms around her waist, possessive, strong, eager. Greedy. His left hand dipped to places where it had no business being and in her head she broke his jaw, shattered his nose and left him lying on the ground, choking on his own blood. In the real world, she painted a pleasant smile on her mask of ice. At least he was good looking.

Out of the corner of her eye she could make out the arrival of the prince, largely unnoticed at the Professor’s side. He looked around wide-eyed and eager, greeted his uncle with a smile, unaware that behind the older man, his death loomed like a giant shadow, waiting to fall on him and tear out his heart.

The hand around her wrist turned to steel suddenly, as her dance partner turned the direction of their little whirl and swirl toward the exit. She clenched her jaw and followed without protest. Such was her duty. Such was her task. Just one more thing to hate. One more sacrifice.

She had thought once that she had nothing more to give. She had been wrong.

As she trailed after the man smirking at his friends in victory, she looked back to catch a final glimpse of Caspian. She would save him because it was her duty. And then she would either get her reward or kill him with her own hands just to spite the Powers. To spit in their face for dangling freedom in front of her and always, always keeping it just out of reach. One more task, Warrior. One more part of what’s left of your soul. For us. For the greater good.

In the beginning, she’d believed them. She’d hoped.

She’d had faith in better things to come. Now-

A broad chest suddenly pushed into her field of vision, followed by a work-roughened hand devoid of the fancy rings the upper class usually used to denote status. But then, everybody knew who the man in front of her was.

“May I have this dance?” a smooth and little used voice asked. Offering her an excuse to get away from the man that had claimed her as his prize for the night. She was almost as grateful for the help as she was resentful.

But she didn’t turn him down. Pulling her hand free from the other man’s grasp she curtsied – a movement she had still not mastered perfectly – and accepted General Glozelle’s hand, ignoring the growl behind her. A growl, she knew, that nothing would ever come of. One did not cross the man in charge of the entire Telmarine army and get away unscathed. Nor did one take the girl he had his eyes on.

And Glozelle had had his eyes on her for a long time.

“Smooth,” she offered lowly as she let him lead her into something vaguely resembling a waltz.

His face betrayed no emotion as he agreed, “I thought so.”

“Arrogance, my dear General, gets people killed.”

He looked down at her, amusement glinting in his eyes. She fascinated him, she knew. She talked about war despite being a woman, she lived in the castle but took no part in its games, she spoke out of turn and far bolder than befitted a lowly teacher and she did it with a self assurance that most women in this archaic world never gained, even with crowns upon their heads.

“Putting Mosslin in his place has nothing to do with arrogance. He spends too much time with wine and women.” He grimaced mildly as soon as his words registered. She had almost become one of those women tonight.

She raised an eyebrow at the stoic man, challenging him wordlessly.

“You could avoid such manoeuvres entirely if you would agree to be my wife,” he stated. It wasn’t a question anymore. He had asked more than once, surprised that she turned him down only the first five or six times. After that, it became a game. He was fascinated by her and she liked him well enough as the only honest man in a castle full of crooks. But she felt no love for him and had long since stopped getting entangled in the worlds she was sent to. Her anger was enough to keep her warm at night.

“Or I could shave my head, gain fifty pounds and stop washing,” she suggested, deadpan. That was supposed to be the end of it but tonight it wasn’t.

“Why are you so adamant to refuse me, Asmira? I am not a bad catch.” He twirled her around once, pulled her close and then released her again, keeping perfect step with the rhythm without concentrating on it.

“It’s not about you, I’ve told you that.”

“But you have not told me what it is about.”

Past him, at the far end of the room she caught a glimpse of Caspian, weighed down by his uncle’s arm on his shoulders and slimy grin on his face. Not far from them, Caspian’s aunt stood, stroking her stomach absentmindedly as she watched the tableau her husband and nephew presented. Wishing perhaps, for the same for her unborn son.

“One day I just might,” she said absentmindedly, staring at the prince. “And I don’t think you’ll like it.”

“You are a good woman,” Glozelle argued, seriously. He meant what he said. So few people within these walls did.

Despite herself, she smiled. “I might have been once,” she confided in the only person she would call friend after a full decade in this world. “But that time is long gone.”

With that she disengaged from him, stepping backward off the dance floor and into the crowd of guests before he could make a move to follow. Quickly, she slipped through the throngs of people and toward the nearest exit.

Away, just away. In the doorway she looked back, just once, to see the General still standing where she’d left him, his gaze tracking her through the room, face blank and eyes pained.

Hope, she mused as she determinedly turned away from him, was like a virus that set up shop in your body and mutated and changed until it was a whole new disease.

Bitterness.

So much bitterness, wherever she went.

+

Helen Pevensie knew that eavesdropping on one’s own children might be considered in bad taste but at this stage, she really knew no other way to get any sort of useful information out of them. Even Lucy, her sweet little chatterbox, had mastered the trick of speaking without saying a word during her time in the country.

Helen had tried asking them outright what was going on when simply listening had failed to produce the desired facts. But Peter just smiled and hugged her – when had her standoffish, oldest son grown comfortable enough in his teenaged skin to hug his mother? – Susan smiled her gentlest smile and assured her mother that she was looking after her siblings, Edmund chirped an easy ‘fine’ – he had never chirped before, had never even made an effort to put her mind at ease, always content to rebel and glare and make the people around him as miserable as he was after his father went to war - and all Lucy did was nod and start running her mouth off about anything and everything.

At first she had thought it natural, had thought it would merely take them a while to get used to being home in Finchley, but as days became weeks and weeks months, it had become increasingly clear that the four people wearing her children’s faces were, in fact, strangers.

They cleaned without being told to. They straightened each other’s clothes. They covered for each other. They communicated without a single word. They laughed at odd moments and comments. No more yelling matches over who had to do the dishes, no more ratting Edmund out for his latest misdeed – although that might have had to do with the fact that there had not been any new misdeeds. No more treating Lucy like an infant.

Her children had, somehow, somewhere, when she hadn’t been around and hadn’t had a chance to stop it, become adults.

Adults with the sharp tinge of loss in their eyes.

And thus, after almost a year of watching her babies suffer, Helen stood, hidden behind the living room door after sneaking back in five minutes after leaving, listening hard and watching through the cracked open doorway.

Peter was sitting on the sofa, arms spread along its backrest with Susan curled into his side and Lucy sitting on his lap. Edmund entered from the kitchen, tea tray in hand and wordlessly pouring four cups. Susan scooted forward in her seat and reached for sugar and lemon – no milk, not for months now - fixing all of the cups without ever asking for preferences. She handed Peter his with a small smile and put Lucy’s back after she politely declined before sinking back into her older brother’s side, her own tea in hand. Edmund grabbed the last unclaimed cup and sunk to the floor in a heap of teenaged bonelessness – but his back strangely straight and he never really slouched at all anymore, did he – leaning against Peter’s knee. A moment later Susan started carding her fingers through his hair.

How was it that four sibling, two boys, two girls, ages twelve to seventeen, could sit so huddled up and not die of mortification? Why did a fourteen-year-old let his older sister play with his hair like a doll? Why? Helen wanted to cry for the fact that she did not know her children at all anymore. It hurt. It hurt so badly that the fact that Susan and Peter curling up together like that was less than proper and that Lucy was getting too old for such things, too, didn’t even register. What did she care about propriety when her dear babies moved a bit further from her every day?

“I dreamed of Aslan,” Lucy suddenly said into the silence. Susan slumped, Edmund straightened and Peter’s arm tightened around his sister’s waist.

“Lu,” he started, sounding weary and impossibly old, “We’ve talked about this.”

“You’ve got to move on,” Susan added, clutching her cup too close to her chest.

Edmund rolled his eyes unseen and blindly reached behind himself to take Lucy’s hand in silent support. She squeezed it and said, “I do not. You can pretend all you want but I won’t. Stop treating me like I’m crazy.”

“Lu,” the oldest started again, only to be cut off by his younger brother.

“Leave her alone, Pete. She’s right. We were there. We’ll go back.”

“It’s not that simple, Ed.”

Ed let his head fall back until he could look at his siblings upside down, “It would be, if you’d stop trying so hard.”

“What’s that supposed to mean? I’m not trying anything.”

“Oh, so you get into all those fights because it’s fun?”

Fights? This was the first Helen ever heard of any fights. Sure, Peter and Edmund came home a bit roughed up occasionally, but from the cold looks they usually gave each other then, she had assumed they’d been fighting with each other and the girls had always been quick to assure her that it was ‘nothing serious’.

“I’m tired of being treated like we are.”

Lucy snorted and smacked his hand until he released her before leaving one brother’s lap in favour of another’s. Edmund put his cup down and welcomed his little sister with open arms. Only when she was settled safely did she look up at Peter and say, “I don’t understand why you get so angry, Peter. We’re not getting treated any differently than we did before.”

“Exactly.” His voice was sharp and filled with the anger the youngest had just accused him of.

It was Edmund’s turn to snort. “So what? I’m getting tired of bailing you out of trouble and the girls are getting tired of patching both of us back up afterwards.”

“No-one asked you to help me.” Defensive, sullen, this was her golden boy knowing others were right and refusing to admit it. But unlike before, this time his siblings seemed to know it, too.

Susan put a gentle hand on his arm and dared to say, “That’s what we used to do, remember? Help each other out? Work as a team. What happened, Pete?”

Refusing to meet anyone’s eyes he whispered, “You know what happened.”

And just like that, the fight drained out of the room. Helen had never seen her children like this. Angry but not yelling, comforting each other even as they argued and then the feeling of bitter loss in the silence afterward. They held each other close even as it was obvious they wanted to push away, like magnets dancing around each other and something big and invisible that sat in their midst, unmoving and horrible.

For long minutes no-one inside the living room moved and Helen dared not, for fear of being heard. Finally Susan asked, “When did Mother say she would be back?”

“Soon,” Lucy decided after a quick glance at the clock above the mantle. “We should clean this up.” She pointed at the tea set with one hand, even as she reached to quickly drain her own cup.

Wordlessly, Susan rose and picked up the tray. Lucy stood to follow her into the kitchen before stopping and informing her brothers, “You should straighten up here and we promised to clean out the fireplace.”

Both brothers nodded and obeyed their little sister without any trace of complaint. Peter moved toward the fireplace even as Edmund straightened the throw pillows on the sofa and put the small vase back on the coffee table from where it had been moved to make room for the tea.

Helen was about to pull back from the door and quickly sneak back out of her own house, when Peter spoke, his back to the room, his hands busy with the soot and ash from yesterday’s fire. “Ed?”

“Yeah?”

In the kitchen, the clanking sounds of washing up stopped suddenly.

“Do you think we’ll ever be happy again here?”

Edmund turned back to the sofa, straightening perfectly aligned pillows, the weight of his older brother’s pain visibly weighing on his gangly shoulders.

“I don’t know, Pete. Do you?”

Sticking his head deeply into the fireplace, Peter refused to answer and Helen wept silent tears, her hand pressed over her mouth to keep from making a single sound.

Her babies. What in the world had happened to her babies?

+

“Hand me that, will you, girl,” Cook called, pointing toward the rolling pin that sat just outside the big woman’s reach. The blond sitting opposite her gave the thing a push, causing it to roll across the table, where her companion picked it up.

“Thanks, dearie,” the older woman said, smacking a handful of pastry dough on the floured table and starting to flatten it. The other grunted in reply but didn’t look up from her dinner.

“How was your day then? The girl learning good? She’s a nice one. Not too proud.”

A mumbled agreement was the only answer she received as she slapped a spoon full of filling on the dough and starting rolling it up. She sighed.

“Why are you here, Asmira, dear?”

This time the blonde did look up, her green eyes sparking with something akin to interest. That had to be a first. “What do you mean, Cook?”

“Why are you here? In this castle? You hate it here.”

The woman called Asmira dropped her spoon into the bowl set before her and shook her head, her motions suddenly tense, “Here’s as good as any place.”

“You have nowhere you’d rather be?”

Another head shake. “Nowhere to go and nothing else to do. Thanks for dinner,” she said, standing and carrying her dirty dishes over to the large wash basin. With jerky, brutal movements she cleaned her bowl and spoon and then put them to the side to dry on their own, her posture still too rigid.

“I’ll see you.” Her voice was strained suddenly where it was usually only weary and quiet. For the first time in all the years Cook had known her, the blonde sounded angry. Oh, she’d heard about the woman’s glacial temper from the servants, heard how she sent all suitors running with their tails between their legs and how her glares kept away even most of the court. But she’d never seen it. Here, in the solitude of the kitchens late at night, the small woman had always been quiet and pale, a shadow of whoever she was outside these walls.

She turned to leave without a word goodbye and Cook couldn’t let that happen. Never go to bed angry. She’d preached that to her children for twenty years and she wasn’t going to stop living by it now. “I’m sorry, dear. I didn’t mean to offend.”

“People never do,” Asmira threw back over her shoulder, not relaxing, not stopping. She had drawn a cold sort of arrogance about her like a shield at the first sign of attack and she refused to drop it again. Cook’s heart ached.

“Then why are you angry with me?” Cook asked, pushing dough and filling to the side and wiping her hands on her apron, giving the other her undivided attention.

Stopping in the doorway the younger of the two smiled an unhappy smile and offered, “I’ve forgotten how to be anything else.”

“And why’s that?”

A vague hand gesture at shoulder height and a dismissive, “Who cares.”

Cook wanted to say that she did, because somehow this cold and lonely girl touched something inside of her, stirred her maternal instincts, but at that very moment one of the maids came rushing in, almost tripping over herself as she gasped, “The Lord Protector’s wife is giving birth.”

Asmira straightened suddenly, giving the maid a narrow eyed glare before muttering quietly, “And it’s starting.”

She took off at a jog down the hallway, leaving the girl to take her spot against the doorjamb, panting hard, while Cook just stood there, sure that she had, somehow, just lost a friend.

+

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Two,
But a Sacrifice

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And it’s starting, the woman who had once been Buffy, but was now something else entirely, thought as the new heir’s first scream cut through the night like a blade, heading straight for his cousin’s heart.

Unnoticed in a room filled with worried and relieved women, she slipped backwards and quickly out the door before taking off at a dead run.

It had started.

+

Caspian almost had a heart attack and he was sure the Professor did, when the stable door opened from inside as they approached and the Prince was roughly grabbed and pulled inside.

He was whirled around, barely able to make out the Professor attempting to come to his aid and getting roughly pushed away. He made to call out, forgetting momentarily that it would be the death of him.

The next thing he knew was the rough wall against his back and a small, warm hand clenched tightly over his mouth.

“Are you crazy?” a voice hissed and he almost choked as he realized that the person holding him around the neck was a woman. “I’m here to help, so shut up.”

She pushed him into the wall once for emphasis, or maybe as a warning and then let him go, stepping back and pulling down the hood of her cloak. Caspian blinked rather stupidly.

He knew her. Of course he knew her. Everyone inside the castle did. She was the only blonde among a people of black hair and dark eyes and further stood out due to her refusal to wear the traditional Telmarine colours. Instead she wore a green that had become her trademark, something that was, in itself, a scandal.

Only the nobles, the lords and ladies, had their own colours. Teachers of unimportant girls did not. Caspian had spent many hours of his childhood tracking her through the halls of his father, watching her silent derision and cold demeanour. But he had never considered her more than an anomaly of colouring and heritage until now.

He opened his mouth to ask something - anything really - when she rolled her eyes and pushed at his chest with one hand warningly. “Quiet, or you might as well stab yourself and spare Miraz the trouble.”

The Professor seemed to recover from shock faster than the prince, because he stood from where he had fallen during the brief scuffle and asked, voice barely above a whisper, “Asmira?”

“Yes,” the small woman hissed back, unclasping her cloak suddenly and pushing the deep green velvet at Caspian. “Take that. Put it on.”

“But…”

“The guards are looking for you but they are used to me taking midnight strolls. I’ll take your cloak and horse and ride out, you wait for a bit and follow on foot. There’s a horse waiting for you at the end of the bridge. Make for the woods, don’t stop and don’t get killed.”

While she spoke she led the two men deeper into the stable toward Caspian’s tall black horse and started saddling it. She worked quickly and quietly, apparently not doubting that her plan would be followed.

“They will follow you, thinking you are me,” Caspian finally managed in a mostly steady whisper.

The blonde turned and gave him a look so scathing it made him shift where he stood. “That’s the plan.”

“They will kill you!”

The expression that came over her face was nothing short of frightening. She grinned widely at the prince, anticipation shining in her eyes. “They can try.”

“Dear,” the Professor asked, “Why are you doing this?”

She shrugged, smacking the horse’s stomach gently to make sure the animal hadn’t tensed up to trick her into leaving the straps too loose. “Goodness knows you need someone to look after you. Now, put on that cloak and get moving.”

“I cannot-”

She rounded on him sharply, crowding him into the wall yet again. “You can. You will. Because the alternative is dying and I just won’t let that happen. Are we clear, my Lord?”

“Yes,” the Professor answered in his student’s place, nodding. “Yes.” Then, “Caspian, dear boy, come over here for a moment. I have to give you something.”

+

“You got suspended?” Ed all but yelled at his older brother as they met at the school gates after the day’s classes were over.

“Don’t kick up a fuss, it’s only two days,” Peter rebuffed, looking down the street rather than at his sibling, seeming unconcerned and, in fact, annoyed by the whole affair.

“Mom’s going to kill you when she hears.”

Peter whirled to face his brother, clearly about to yell, when Susan interrupted them, “What happened this time?”

She stood with Lucy by her side, both clutching their book bags and hunching their shoulders against the steady stream of students coming from both the boys’ school and the girls’ on the other side of the road.

Peter’s glare shifted from Ed to their oldest sister. “Nothing,” he said curtly.

Edmund rolled his eyes and automatically reached to take Lucy’s bag from her, slinging it over his shoulder along with his own. “Peter got into another fight. In the lunch hall. Suspended until Thursday.”

“Oh, Peter,” Susan started, wide-eyed and half exasperated, half pitying, but never got to finish.

“Don’t bloody ‘Peter’ me, Susan. I don’t need it. I’m going to the park. Tell Mom.” With that he turned on his heel and marched off without giving anyone time to react in any way, his stride long and tense, barely concealing the pit of rage they all knew lurked within their oldest brother, their protector. The one they could always rely on, the one who was always there for them.

But not anymore. High King Peter had been left behind in Narnia. This Peter was an angry boy who didn’t know his place in the world anymore and he hurt them all with his behaviour.

The flow of students trickled down to almost nothing around them as they watched him leave. Suddenly Lucy shot forward, crying, “Oh, Ed,” and wrapping herself around her brother’s waist. “Why is Peter acting that way?”

“I don’t know, Lu,” Edmund said, returning the hug warmly. Barely a year ago, Peter had been his best friend. They had gone to battle together, had lived together, planned together, had been more or less inseparable. Now… Now the only real contact they had was during the brief moments when they all talked about Narnia or when Peter yelled at Edmund for helping him.

Because Peter didn’t need help. Because Peter was a grown up. Because Peter blamed himself for failing to protect his siblings from stumbling back into wartime England, from losing their bodies and fifteen years of their lives, their home, their family, their magic and Aslan and everything they had loved so dearly.

Peter always blamed himself.

But after a year of yelling and fighting and pushing them away, it had become hard to be kind to him anymore.

Dropping her bag at her feet, Susan wrapped both arms around her younger siblings, unconcerned over how they looked, huddled there on the sidewalk for all and sundry to see. Such things had stopped mattering a long time ago. Sometimes she pretended that they still did, but lately she lacked the energy to pretend.

“Pete’s just…” she trailed off, not sure what exactly Pete was. Not anymore. Instead she asked, “Did you get into trouble, too, Ed?”

Because she knew as well as anyone that where Peter led, Edmund would follow, no matter how badly Peter tried to alienate his little brother. Edmund had failed them once and he would spend the rest of his life trying to make up for a mistake that had long, long since been forgiven by all but himself.

“I wasn’t there when it happened. I think he waited until I left to pick that fight.”

That hurt. Worse than anything. Peter didn’t want him there. He’d rather brawl and get beaten into a pulp than let his brother help. So much guilt, so much anger, so much bloody stubborn stupidity.

“Can we go home?” Lucy asked quietly into Ed’s shoulder. “I want to go home and have some tea.”

Lucy had always taken her tea in the late afternoon, on the second story balcony of her rooms with Mr. Tumnus. When Lucy felt too homesick to put it into words, she drank more tea than was healthy.

“Of course,” Susan agreed, but made no move to end the hug.

+

In the end Caspian gave in to Asmira’s plan because he knew that he could not escape in an outright race. He needed at least a bit of a head start. He didn’t want to get it on the small woman’s expense but he saw the determination in her eyes and he knew that the fact that he did not know her at all was unimportant. She would do anything she could to help him.

The question why would have to wait.

And so he let the Professor tug at his borrowed cloak to make sure he was covered from head to toe while they watched their new ally mount the horse and drive it into a fast canter down the main aisle of the stable and through the doors in an explosion of sound and speed without a single word goodbye.

She had promised to find him, once they were out of harm’s way but Caspian had not met her eyes as he accepted her words. The chance of her escaping his uncle was small. And yet, what choice did he have? If he died now, this country was lost. If it had just been his own life on the line, he would have turned down her help – if she had let him, that is – but it wasn’t. His uncle would ruin this kingdom if left unchallenged.

And so Caspian watched his saviour go with the taste of bile in his mouth and cold guilt in his stomach. “She is not a distraction,” he muttered as he quietly counted to thirty in his head, “But a sacrifice.”

“A willing sacrifice,” the Professor reminded him quietly before giving his shoulder one last pat. “Go now, my Lord, go before they raise the bridge again.”

With a single look back at the man that had more or less raised him and the castle that had never been home, Caspian went. He’d make it out alive. He owed it to the woman who was, at this moment, probably dying in his place.

+

“Susan? Where is your brother?”

No question which brother her mother was asking about. Edmund and Lucy were sleeping entwined on the living room sofa, clutching each other tightly enough to leave marks.

“He went to the park,” she answered, scrubbing harder at a particularly stubborn stain on the kitchen counter. Lucy drank tea when she felt homesick. Susan worked until she dropped. And Peter fought and Edmund go so very, very quiet.

“What is he doing there?”

“Avoiding us, I imagine. Don’t worry. It’ll be fine.” When had Susan become the mother and Helen the child?

“Are you sure?” Something fragile and shaky in her mother’s voice. Breaking. Did she know how badly her children loathed this house, this city, this very world? Did she know that they would give up their entire lives in a heartbeat, just to go home?

Pretending to scratch her nose, Susan surreptitiously wiped at her eyes and continued scrubbing.

“Yes, Mother. We’re fine.”

“Oh, I… would you like some help, darling?”

Please, Aslan no, just walk away. Just leave me to cry in peace, Mother. Please.

“It’s okay, Mother, I’ve got it. I’m almost done here anyway. Do you think we have what we need for biscuits? We haven’t had any since we got back from the Professor’s.”

“I… I don’t know, Susan. I will check the pantry.”

“Thank you, Mother.”

What was that stain? It refused to come off, no matter how hard she scrubbed, Susan thought, setting her jaw and using both hands to apply useless pressure to the rag.

She hoped they had everything for biscuits. She had already cleaned her own room and Lucy’s and the kitchen was almost spotless. If only that bloody last stain would come off.

+

Well, she thought, at least the plan worked. Mostly. Except for the little detail where she suddenly had twenty soldiers hot on her tail and no proper weapons. But she’d known this would happen – relied on it, in fact – so she had no room to complain. She’d had worse. Much worse. And, armed or not, anticipation was already thrumming in her veins, yearning, waiting for the fight to come. Blood and pain, they were the only proof she was alive, these days. She only hoped the boy had gotten past his knee jerk reaction of wanting to protect her and actually did what she had told him to.

She hit the tree line at breakneck speeds and dug her heels into the horse’s flanks sharply to keep it from slowing down. The soldiers were gaining on her as it was and she wanted them as far from the castle as possible when they discovered she was not the one they were hunting.

Away from the castle and away from Caspian whom she had seen streaking in the other direction only minutes ago, her green cloak fluttering behind him, offering enough protection to get past the guards.

Glozelle – leading the hunt for the young prince – had notice the second rider, too, and sent five of his twenty men after him. As few as he could afford to without seeming suspicious. He had seen through her ruse.

Smart man. Stupid, idiotic, noble and smart man. He had once served the late King Caspian and apparently, although they had never talked of allegiances and loyalty, her impression that he felt uncomfortable with Miraz’ way of things had been correct.

Glozelle was protecting the prince. Or he thought he was protecting the woman he intended to marry as she fled the castle for no reason he was familiar with.

The trees got denser now, the branches lower. There was no choice but to slow down to a hurried canter, eyes half on the path in front, half on the enemy behind. Moving, moving. By her best guess, they had been chasing her for about twenty minutes, first over the open fields surrounding the city, then across the river and finally into the forest.

The first step inside the tree line had jarred her, torn at her with the feeling of familiarity and loss. She knew this place. In her hearts of hearts, she had never left it.

Far enough now. Far enough for this.

She pulled her feet from the stirrups and brought them up before her, for once grateful for her slight build. A bigger man, or woman, would not have been able to sit in the saddle the way she was right now.

She released the reigns, tying them in a knot so the horse wouldn’t get caught in the underbrush and then waited patiently until she found just the right spot.

A branch about six feet above her, little space to manoeuvre but few brushes to hinder her footwork. Jackpot.

Muscles coiled as she jumped, timing perfect, grabbing a hold of the branch and watching her horse keep running, not yet aware that its rider was gone. She pulled up her legs and swung them over the branch before letting go with her hands and, upside down, she unclasped her – well, Caspian’s – cloak.

Beneath her the first rider passed – Glozelle, unmistakable even in armour and helmet, taller than most men – followed by his soldiers. She counted six of them before deciding that was enough. They would hopefully take a few seconds to notice what was going on behind them and keep going, giving her more time. She swung her cloak to catch the next rider in the face, causing the man to flail wildly and take a backward tumble off his horse as she yanked hard on the garment.

He landed on the narrow path, forcing the next horse to either stop dead or trample the flailing man. It chose to stop, rearing instead, jostling its own rider. She used the chance to drop from her branch and unseated the man, keeping a hold of his sword as she kicked him into the nearest tree, knocking him out cold.

She tried to avoid killing humans if possible. She jerked her new mount around and smacked the nearest soldier in the face with the flat side of her equally new blade. He yelled, clutching his broken nose and losing control over his horse, falling backward and joining his two comrades on the ground.

One comrade, she amended, as the first one she had downed finally freed and threw himself at her. She kicked him in the side of his head, a move made very effective by the too big helmet Telmarines tended to wear. They rang like gongs if hit hard enough. The man went cross-eyed and dropped like a stone.

By then the seven she had let pass before had caught on and were coming at her full throttle. She used the few seconds she had left to slash one more soldier in the chest and knock two into the surrounding flora. Five down, ten to go, plus Glozelle.

Four of them attacked at the same time, swords drawn. She blocked two and was forced to lie flat on her mount to avoid number three but used her new position to soundly dislocate number four’s kneecap and then dump him from his horse.

Another got a sword pommel to the neck and she deftly claimed his weapon as he went down, blocking more strikes at her chest and head. Grunting at the effort it took to keep control over a nervous horse while fighting enemies on all sides, she decided to hell with it and threw herself off her mount with a backwards roll, landing on her feet and slashing at two men’s legs simultaneously. Both reared back in pain and dropped out of the fight.

They were soldiers. Their wages were not good enough to get back into a fight with a serious injury. Not when their commander wasn’t standing behind them, cracking his whip. Glozelle, she noticed out of the corner of her eye, had more or less frozen at the edge of the fight.

Six left. She spun, ducked and rolled under a horse and out of the tangle of limbs and weapons that had surrounded her, taking another one down from the outside before he had time to adjust to her new position.

Five.

Plus the General.

Speaking off, she found his grim face in the melee and sent him a bright grin. She’d told him once she could fight and while had hadn’t laughed at her as most Telmarines would, he hadn’t appeared to be particularly interested in her claim either. Now she seemed to have his full attention. And all it had taken was whipping the collective butts of what, ten men twice her size?

She flung her sword at another, breaking his nose even as she used her free hand to rip a rather scrawny guy out of the saddle and smack him into a tree.

Make that twelve.

Then the horn rang and all fighting momentarily stopped. She breathed a sigh of relief. The horn didn’t sound like one from Telmar, meaning it was the one the dear Professor had been carrying around these past few weeks. Relic from the Golden Age, blah blah, bringing aid to whoever blew it, blah blah. She didn’t know if its properties were actually magical but she knew that the Narnians believed in its power. They would protect Caspian now with their very lives.

The first part of her job was done. Get the kid to the Narnians.

In her head, all the steps needing to be taken were very neatly ordered, bullet points and all, written directly into her mind by the powers of this world. She knew, without thinking about it, all they thought she needed to know. Like she was a machine, something to feed information and send on an errand. Here’s your briefing, now go save a world.

Still, Caspian was mostly out of danger.

Now to save her own butt. She smiled grimly as she watched one of the three remaining soldiers, a young one, probably no older than Caspian, turn his horse around to run from her. In his panic he missed a low hanging branch and knocked himself out.

She was a thing to be feared even here, in this dark wood filled with fairy tales. He preferred facing the wood alone over facing her. It made her smile feel brittle.

The last two went down with a broken arm and leg respectively, leaving only Glozelle standing, or rather, sitting on his horse. She twirled her two new swords once, changing the grip on one so the blade ran parallel to her forearm and then patiently stood, waiting for her friend’s move.

“What are you?” were the first words out of his mouth and even after all these years, she flinched.

“Human,” she bit out. “Mostly. Are you going to try and fight me?”

He looked around at his men, lying broken, bleeding and knocked out all around them. “Would I win?”

“No.” Cold truths, she knew, were better than warm lies. Always.

“Why are you doing this?”

She lowered her blades but didn’t release them. Glozelle noticed and grimaced. The line had been drawn. She felt sorry. Sorry for putting him in the position of choosing between her and his lord, for lying to him – if only by omission – and for never giving him a chance in the first place.

“Nothing personal. It’s my job.”

He finally slung one leg over his horse’s back and slipped out of the saddle. He had always seemed taller than he did now, standing in front of her.

“You protect Caspian?”

“Yes.”

“Then...,” whatever he wanted to ask her, he found the answer in her face. Or maybe he didn’t want one after all, because he shook the question away and ordered instead, “Then go. You got away.”

She hesitated. She shouldn’t, but she did and damn him for being noble and nice and good. “Did I?”

Some of his men were conscious. They would rat him out, if given enough incentive. He looked around, following her thoughts without needing to be told. Then he nodded. “Yes. I understand now, why you never….”

She could have told him that wasn’t the reason, could have said a million things about how she was broken goods, held together only by the pit of rage she concealed inside. She didn’t. Instead she gave him one last, sad smile and turned, taking off at a dead run. She stopped once to take the sword sheaths and belts of two soldiers, slinging them over one shoulder.

Within seconds, she was lost in the woods.

Lost among creatures of nightmares and fairy tales. Where she belonged. Far from noble men that liked her when they should hate her for her callous disregard.

+

“Ed?” Lucy asked without lifting her head from his chest.

In the kitchen they could hear the clatter of pans and the soft keening sound that they knew to be their sister’s crying. Their mother, who hadn’t recognized the sound, had left a few minutes ago to try and find some sugar on the black market for her desperate daughter.

“Do you think we’ll ever get back?”

Before Peter got himself killed being stupid, before Susan’s eyes turned glassy for good, all wonder forgotten under her painted on faces. Before Lucy forgot how Aslan’s mane felt under her hands and Edmund couldn’t remember what it was like to be as tall as his brother.

“I don’t know, Lu,” he said, softly stroking her hair and pulling her closer, glad, so glad, that at least his youngest sibling was still as she’d always been although she had been hit hardest by the change. Going from twenty-eight to thirteen had been jarring but going from twenty-six to eleven had to have been so much worse. There wasn’t the first trace of her adult body left in her eleven-year-old. Ed still at least had most of his height and the beginnings of familiar features in the mirror.

“I wish Aslan would come and take us home.”

“Me, too.”

There was silence for a long couple of minutes before the smallest Pevensie stirred. “I should check on Susan. She is likely to burn down the house in her state.”

With that she untangled herself from her brother and stood, her twelve-year-old frame almost bursting with her twenty-seven-year-old self inside, a child walking like a queen, speaking like an adult.

How strange they had to look to others’ eyes, so completely alien in this world.

Edmund remained on the sofa, staring at the ceiling, for a long time.

+

Barely a mile south of where Gozelle still stood, staring blindly into the trees, Trufflehunter- the badger - and Nikabrik - the dwarf – stood over the unconscious Prince Caspian, breathing heavily. Around them, the rather battered remains of three Telmarine soldiers lay. One of them was still breathing and, with an almost absentminded motion, Nikabrik stepped on his neck, producing a harsh crunching sound followed by a vicious smile.

Served the Telmarine bastards right!

He gave up staring at the unconscious one in favour of looking toward the tree line, where the remaining two soldiers had fled to, Trumpkin in their clutches. He could make out neither hide nor hair of them and spat angrily at the ground.

“Why can’t we kill him?” he asked the badger, yet again.

“He blew the horn,” Trufflehunter replied, voice still even and unconcerned.

“So?”

“So he’s the one prophesized to defeat the Telmarines and save Narnia and bring about another Golden Age. Which is why you can’t kill him. Help me?”

The last was more a groan than a request as the small animal tried to move the human and failed spectacularly, almost knocking himself out with the arm he was pulling on without any visible result.

“Why can’t we leave him here? He won’t fit in the tree anyway.”

“He’s the one prophesized to defeat the Telmarines and save Narnia and bring about – “

“Another Golden Age. I get it. Shut up, Badger.” The dwarf grabbed the human’s other arm and together they managed to move him. Slightly. It would take forever to get him inside and even longer to erase the drag marks the three of them were leaving in the muddy ground.

“Great Lion,” Nikabrik growled as he stumbled over a root, “I hate Adam’s Sons.”

Trufflehunter rolled his eyes and didn’t say another word. He had to concentrate. It wouldn’t do for Narnia’s last hope to wake up a drooling idiot because they had smacked his head against a rock.

Besides….

There weren’t enough Narnians left to wait for another saviour to come by. It had to be now, or they truly would be extinct. Fairy tales and nightmares. Nothing more. Never again.

+

Miraz looked at the strange, small man Glozelle and his men had brought back, his mind working overtime as plans stumbled over plans and entirely new ideas formed in his head. Narnians existed. Which meant they could be blamed for Caspian’s disappearance. Which meant…

And the woman, his daughter’s teacher, he could use her, too. Impossibly strong, the soldiers muttered, and fast. A Narnian spy, come to kill him and his family. Yes, it would sell. Sympathy for the victims.

Oh yes. Yes, Miraz would have his war and then he would have his crown and his kingdom. As soon as these abominations had helped him on his throne. Yes.

+

+

Three,
Weren’t Meant to Save Worlds

+

After leaving Glozelle standing in the woods, lost and bitter, as she had always known he would be if she let him too close, she headed south.

She converted the stolen belts into a sort of harness that allowed her to carry the swords on her back in an X-shape. They were short, but still too long for her to wear at the waist and they would have hindered her as she ran.

Within half an hour she found the spot where Caspian had made his stand, marked clearly by the dead soldiers. She noted that most of them had injuries on their legs, indicating a fight against something smaller than a regular human. Narnians, whatever kind.

She’d never been a great tracker, though, and so she had to content herself with the knowledge that Caspian had found the Narnians and apparently won this scuffle. She would have searched for him regardless, but something was pulling at her like a rubber band around her middle.

South, south, farther south. Having long since gotten used to the strange and annoying ways most gods used to communicate their desires, she recognized the feeling as something alien in her body. “Okay,” she grumbled at thin air. “A simple note saying, ‘work this way’ would have been enough.”

But she went. She always did. That’s what good little dogs did, after all. They followed orders. She kicked a tree, fought the urge to bark and took off at a brisk jog, intending to put as much distance between herself and the castle as possible before sunrise.

+

When Caspian woke with a blinding headache he spent a few seconds wondering when the ceiling of his room had come so close. Then he heard soft and unfamiliar voices close by and the events of the night came rushing back. The Professor. The horn. The woman, Asmira, sacrificing herself to give him a chance. The chase, the fight and then…

What?

He stood as quietly as possible, listening to the two voices – for they were two – discussing what to do with him. One of them was all for killing him. He grimaced as he looked around for his weapons without success.

He peered carefully around a corner and got the shock of a lifetime. A dwarf and a badger. A talking badger! They were supposed to be extinct!

With sudden clarity he understood why the Professor and Asmira had both insisted he head for the tree line. Narnians. These strange, small creatures were both Narnians!

And there, a fireplace. Fireplaces had pokers. Pokers were acceptable weapons. He made a rush for the pokers, grabbing one just in time as the small man – dwarf, he had to be a dwarf – drew a sword and blocked the exit.

“See, I told you we should have killed him!”

The badger sighed rather put upon, staring to pick up the tray and dishes Caspian had knocked out of its –his? – paws on his way to a weapon. “You know why we can’t.”

Caspian, seeing that the two were unlikely to kill him on the spot even if the dwarf did look very angry, asked the most pressing matter. “A woman,” he said, “There was a woman who entered the woods at the same time I did. Did you see her?”

Both animal and dwarf stopped what they were doing and gave the human a quizzical look. “Why? She about to break down the door?”

The dwarf eyed said door, grabbing his sword tighter.

“No. She… she drew the soldiers from me. I am afraid,” the poker hit the ground as reality reasserted itself completely, “she gave her life to save me.”

Someone had just died for him. The soldiers that had been after him were probably dead, too. He had no home anymore, no-one to turn to and explain things. He didn’t even have his weapons. He slumped, picking up and putting the poker back where he had found it, all fight leaving him.

The woman - Asmira, he could at least call her by her name – had died for him. Why? What was there about him that had made her….

He turned to the badger, who had finished picking up the fallen dishes, and offered, “I am sorry.”

The animal straightened a bit, compassion in his eyes. “So are we. About your friend.”

Caspian looked at his hands, silently counting the beats of his pulse in the throbbing in his head. “She wasn’t my friend. I didn’t even know her by name until last night. She took my horse and my cloak and told me to make for the woods. She knew you would not kill me. Why?”

The badger looked at him long and hard before turning and walking to the small table, taking something in both paws and raising it reverently. It was the horn the Professor had given Caspian. For his time of greatest need. “Don’t you know what this is?”

The prince shook his head and watched the faces of his companions fall in disappointment.

+

Another fight.

Peter had spent the past two days sulking at home and only just been allowed back to school and he had barely lasted until four in the afternoon before picking yet another fight. His left cheek looked puffy and reddish and Susan ached to check it and put something cool on it, but she knew she would only be rebuffed and belittled for her ‘mothering’ if she tried. So she fussed over Ed instead, who allowed her ministrations but refused to meet her eyes, glaring at his brother’s back with more hurt than anger. Lucy sat next to him, holding his hand, silent and lost as she tended to be since they had all fallen apart.

After a few minutes of oppressive quiet and the occasional snap from either of the brothers, Peter let himself drop on the bench next to Edmund, arms crossed, glaring straight ahead.

A boy Susan knew – and tended to flee from – came down the platform and she turned away, a bitter taste in her mouth and cold longing in her chest. She wanted to like this boy but it felt like a betrayal. To him, to Narnia, to her siblings. All wrong. Everything wrong.

Then Lucy jumped, yelling about having been pinched and everything went fast, so fast.

Five minutes later, they stood in Narnia.

Home.

They were home.

+

She had to take several detours and walk in circles to avoid various groups of Narnians on the march. It seemed that the entire forest was on its feet, hurrying somewhere, buzzing with excitement. She figured it had to do with the horn and the prophesy attached to it but had no desire to find out. As always, the information in her head reached only far enough to ensure she played her role. Machines didn’t need extra information to do their jobs, did they? She gritted her teeth at the thought but found that the fire and blind rage that usually accompanied such thoughts felt somewhat flat and lacking.

Yes, she knew where she was, alright.

The tugging increased by the minute, telling her to hurry up, to get there faster. Wherever ‘there’ was in the first place.

She had a small pack with enough food to tide her over for a few days if she was careful and water was easy to obtain, even this deep in the forest. She had two usable swords, which was good, but no daggers, which she preferred for sneak attacks. The dense trees and funny play of light and shadow practically screamed for an ambush. But she would have to make do with brute force and her two weapons. She would have also preferred to get out of the floor length dress she was wearing but she had long since resigned herself to fighting in what she would once have called ‘full girly mode’.

Surprisingly many worlds in need of divine interference still clung to the concept that the only good woman was one in a dress. She’d gotten used to it. As long as there was room to manoeuvre she would deal.

She always did.

Always and always and always.

At least the shoes were flats.

After two days of travel, the other end of the invisible rubber band around her waist started to shift. Her target was moving.

She adjusted to the change in destination and kept the scowl well hidden behind a blank face. There was no use in cursing.

+

Cair Paravel, gone.

Mr. Tumnus, gone.

Their things, gone.

The beavers, gone.

Their friends, gone.

Phillip the horse, gone.

Their people, gone.

Oreius, gone.

Everything they had loved, gone.

Everything they had known, gone.

That night, in the ruins of what had once been the most beautiful place in all the worlds, Lucy wept bitter tears in Edmund’s arms while Susan sat by and stared at the dark sea, lost and lonely, and Peter paced like a caged beast, snapping at anyone who got too close.

They were home.

But home was gone.

+

Prophecy.

Saving Narnia.

The new King.

Following Trufflehunter and Nikabrik through the forest, Caspian’s mind raced, his bruised temple ached and the floor seemed to tilt a bit under his feet as he tried to wrap his mind around what the two Narnians had told him.

He was supposed to save them all.

Unfortunately he had no idea how one went about saving people seeing as how he had needed help to save himself not two days ago and gotten one of his helpers killed in the process.

So he followed his new companions through the dense underbrush, carefully setting one foot in front of the other. Moving forward.

There was no going back anymore.

+

They found Trumpkin on the next day in the late afternoon and saved his life, more or less. He insulted Susan and Peter, fought Edmund and made instant friends with Lucy before growing suddenly somber and asking them what they knew about the situation.

The siblings, only vaguely aware that there even was a situation, all shook their heads and settled down to listen once they had abandoned the boat they had taken from the Telmarines and gotten over the scare with Lucy and the bear.

They had been gone for thirteen hundred years. The Telmarines had conquered Narnia and its people were thought to be extinct. Many races were. Talking Animals had forgotten how to talk, the dwarves had withdrawn deep underground, the centaurs and minotaurs had gone into hiding. What was left of them, anyway.

Narnia, as it had been during the Kings and Queens’ reign, didn’t exist anymore and the destruction of Cair Paravel had only been the beginning. Lucy and Susan had tears in their eyes and the boys didn’t look much better by that point.

Trumpkin hurried on. There was hope. A boy had blown the horn. He had brought back the Kings and Queens of Old. And they would help him make Narnia a safe and happy place once more.

How?

The dwarf didn’t know.

But he believed, that much was obvious even through his disdain and grumbling. He believed desperately. All Narnians did. If they hadn’t believed, they might as well have thrown themselves into their own swords or gone for a walk in Telmar.

By the time he had finished his tale, the younger Queen had once more found the younger King’s side for comfort. Once upon a time Peter would have cuddled her close and held her tight but Lucy had stopped wishing for her big brother months ago. Susan was staring fixedly at her hands and Peter was sharply interrogating their new friend, getting tenser and angrier with every ‘don’t know’ from the small man.

Finally Edmund had enough. “Come, Lu,” he said, setting her on her feet and following suit. “We’ll need firewood if we’re to spend the night here.”

He took her hand and called over his shoulder that they would be back in a while. Then he slowed down, waiting for the inevitable warning to stay within earshot and be careful that had followed the two youngest siblings not only through childhood but well into their twenties, without fail. Until now. Susan refused to look up and Peter only grunted in acknowledgement. No doubt, if asked in five minutes where his siblings were, he wouldn’t be able to give an answer.

Still, both King and Queen dragged their feet until well into the tree line, waiting for any sign that their oldest brother, their protector, had noticed them leave at all.

It didn’t come.

+

She could feel that she was getting closer by the hum resonating inside of her, like bees directly under her skin. It made her antsy and jumpy, this feeling but she gritted her teeth and kept walking because she knew from experience that the only way to get rid of it was to find whatever this world’s gods wanted her to find.

She had tried ignoring the rubber band and the itching just once and within days the sensations had become absolutely unbearable. She had taken it as the last proof as to what she was to them. A pet with a few useful skills. That, and a short leash.

This time it seemed actually better than usual. Less bad at least. Right. And next they were going to release her and set her up on the Bahamas with a handy retirement fund. Sleep deprivation was making her stupid.

Their voices were the first warning that she was close and she quickly ducked into the shrubs to avoid detection, unsure how she was going to be received. Getting skewered for trying to help would unfortunately not be a new experience but it was one she liked to avoid if possible.

One female, one male, but they sounded incredibly young. Children, she realized, closing her eyes tightly. Children. Younger than Caspian, younger even than she had been when her first call to arms had come.

She peered around a tree and saw them. A gangly, black haired boy in blue, wearing a sword and carrying a load of wood. A teenager, but not an old one. Thirteen, maybe fourteen, yet he carried himself strangely straight and proud.

The girl was even younger, ten maybe twelve, but there was no way she had hit her teens yet, wearing a cute reddish and white dress with her light brown hair loose. She looked like she belonged at a make-believe tea party, not the middle of a forest that was about to become a war zone.

“Oh, Ed,” the girl asked, sounding tired but surprisingly not whiny, as girls her age usually did, “Why are Susan and Peter acting so strange? Aren’t they glad we’re back in Narnia?”

The boy peered over his stack of firewood to give the girl a wobbly little smile, “Of course they are, Lu, they’re just having a hard time now, is all.”

Susan and Peter and Ed and Lu? Somewhere in the vicinity of magical horn bringing aid a bell went off in her head. She knew those names, not because she’d heard them before but because they had somehow been included in the information dump she always received before getting booted into a new world. Susan and Peter and Ed…Edmund and Lucy!

That was it. The Kings and Queens of the Golden Age. But they’d been adults and those two were so painfully, obviously children. Still, the names were the same and it fit with Caspian blowing the horn. Besides, the itching and crawling of her skin had stopped. She was where she was meant to be.

And because there was no time like the present she stood and quickly adjusted her swords so they weren’t quite as visible from the front. Luckily the Telmarines favoured short blades because pushing the weapons down meant they would be digging into her rear if they were any longer.

Her own weapons. Daggers. Jeans. Showers. She shook her head and stepped forward, intentionally loudly. A twig cracked and broke underfoot and both children whirled around to face her, the boy dropping the wood and going for his sword, the girl pulling out a dagger. They were fast!

“Woah”, she said, hands open at her sides, far from her weapons, “Slow down, kids. I’m here to help.”

The girl lowered her dagger slightly, the boy shifted in front of his sister and didn’t move. “Why should we believe that?”

Too old, too old, too old, those eyes in that slim, pale face, like a tunnel through time, thirty years into the future. The eyes of a man in a boy, eyes of a warrior in a child. She knew that look, knew all the pain and rage and fury and grief that came with it and felt the sudden, inexplicable urge to pull those children close and rage at the world for what it had done to them.

Why was it always the young that suffered and the old that lived?

“I mean Narnia no harm,” she said, her face blank and her emotions not reaching her voice. She wouldn’t pity those children for what they had seen and done. They’d obviously survived it and for that they deserved respect. “I swear.”

Something in her voice must have been good enough because the boy lowered his sword and said, “We’ll let Peter decide that.”

Then he stepped back, still keeping between her and the girl and pointed at the dropped firewood. “And you’re carrying that.”

She scowled and bent to pick up the wood without a word. Smart kid.

+

When a stranger came out of the trees with her arms full of wood and Edmund with his sword unsheathed at her back, everyone in their makeshift camp was immediately on their feet and reaching for their weapons.

The woman made no move to acknowledge them, choosing instead to dump the wood in a somewhat tidy pile close to the pit Trumpkin had already dug for the fire.

She was wearing a green dress that looked a bit worse for the wear and carried weapons of some kind on her back, made obvious by the harness of belts strapped across her hips and chest. Her hair was flowing freely and about as long as Susan’s, only blonde. She looked like she was at most three or four years older than Peter, who, as the oldest sibling, was seventeen. She carried herself straight but without being stiff, her movements smooth and easy, her face carefully wiped clear of any expression and her eyes dark with something all four of the Kings and Queens had seen before. War. Death. Loss.

“Who are you?” Peter’s demand was like a whip, sharp and angry. He was trying to sound as he once had, filled with strength and power and he failed because he tried so very, very hard. He sounded like a sulking child.

“Not your enemy. You’re looking for Caspian, right?”

Blank looks met her inquiring gaze.

“The kid who blew the horn? Telmarine prince? Ring any bells?”

Trumpkin snorted, “That was a prince? Fine one, getting knocked over the head like that.”

Peter ignored the dwarf. “Then yes, we’re looking for him.”

“Well, so am I. Because you see, he’s kind of my job?”

“Your job?” Susan asked.

“Yes, my job, mission, whatever. Keeping him alive, getting him on the throne, saving Narnia. So if you are who I think you are, we want the same thing and it’s no use trying to get rid of me because I’ll follow you like a lost puppy if you try.” Her voice was bland but there was a definite spark of dark amusement in her eyes.

“Not if we kill you,” Peter returned, deadpan.

She smiled and it wasn’t a pretty thing. “What makes you so sure you can kill me?”

Before the High King could start yelling at the stranger, Edmund interrupted smoothly, “Why are you protecting Prince Caspian? Who gave you the order?”

The blonde shrugged. “Whatever powers run this world.”

Lucy’s eyes widened and sparkled, “Aslan? Aslan sent you?”

The woman looked at the youngest queen unconcernedly. “If that’s what he’s called in this world, yes.”

Peter took a step forward, “You claim to be sent by Aslan and you don’t even know his name? I find that hard to believe.”

She turned her eyes on him. “I don’t care what he’s called. I do my job here and I get out of this world and handed off to the next small time deity in need of a tool to save the next poor idiot that’s been chosen for some grand destiny and just can’t deal. If you’ve seen one god, you’ve seen them all, believe me.” Something bitter slipped into her voice and she crossed her arms under her chest, looking not sullen but cold and resentful.

Lucy blinked, obviously willing away tears. “But Aslan’s nice. Why are you talking like that about him?”

For a moment everyone was sure she would yell, but the newcomer stopped herself at the last possible second and took a deep breath, releasing it as a sigh. She uncrossed her arms and made an effort to smile, although it fell a bit flat since she was obviously not used to the motion.

“Look kid… Lucy, right?”

The girl nodded.

“There are hundreds, maybe thousands of worlds running parallel to each other and every one of them is ruled by a god of some sort. They like to pass me around as a sort of last minute band aid for their problems. They throw me into their little corner of the universe to fix their messes for them and they’ve been doing that for a very long time. I’m not given a choice in the matter. It’s always one more job and then you’re free, just one more. And that’s been going on for a long time.”

Too long by the sounds of it. Lucy and Susan both remembered the woman’s tone of voice and her expression from their early days as Narnia’s monarchs, when their brothers had gone on campaign after campaign, trying to make Narnia a safe place for everyone. Sometimes, in between one battle and the next, they seemed to have forgotten that there was something outside the fighting, outside the constant pain and grief of battle. This stranger looked exactly like them, sounded like them. Tired. Worn. And angry with some invisible power for dumping all that weight on her shoulders, asking the eternal, human question of why me?.

She looked like she hadn’t laughed, really laughed, in far too long.

“Sorry to tell you, but your Aslan is like all other gods I have ever met. Arrogant, proud and too lazy to clean up his own mess.”

All five people present opened their mouths to protest the slur against the lion loudly, but she raised her hand and stopped them all, “If he weren’t, he wouldn’t have dumped me here ten years ago without so much as a by your leave.”

Four people shut their mouths, but Lucy, Valiant Queen of Old could not, would not let anyone insult her beloved friend. “But Aslan’s not like that. I’m sure there’s an explanation. Aslan doesn’t hurt people. He’s nice.”

The blonde shook her head and gave Lucy a sad look. “If he’s so nice, then why is he drafting children for his war?”

Lucy’s mouth was open again, but this time no defence came. She didn’t have one. She could have protested that she was not a child but she was. Once she hadn’t been and now she was again and that left her, all of them, really, all too aware of the limitations of a child’s body.

Eleven-year-olds weren’t meant to save worlds.

Somehow, they all looked away, eyes cast to the ground.

In the end, Peter was the one who spoke and got the conversation back on track. “But that still doesn’t prove that you’re on our side.”

“I know her,” Trumpkin spoke up suddenly and squirmed unhappily as all eyes turned on him. “She comes walking in the woods sometimes. She’s seen us, too. But as far as I can tell, she’s never sold us out to the Telmarines.”

“I haven’t. Miraz is vermin.”

The dwarf nodded, agreeing with the assessment as he continued, “That’s enough for me right now.”

Lucy, still with tears in her eyes, nodded bravely and so did Edmund. Aside from speaking badly about Aslan, the blonde had done nothing to harm them in the thirty minutes they had known her. Susan just shrugged helplessly, words about foreign worlds and involuntary soldiers still ringing in her ears. Why children, when adults could do a better job of saving Narnia? She, the most logical of all her siblings, had asked that question herself many times over the course of fifteen years. And no-one had ever been able to answer her.

In the end, Peter put his sword away, too, because there was really nothing he could do at the moment. Once upon a time they had ruled this land on the basis of forgiveness and chances and even if that Narnia was gone, they still remembered their own lessons. Trust until you have a reason not to trust.

The woman introduced herself as Asmira and as the sky grew dark and they lit their fire, she stayed at the edge of the group, outside, but there.

She had had to convince people of her sincerity many times over the years and this time it hadn’t been so bad. Those children knew of gods and destinies at least. Plus, they were, despite their old eyes, still children in some ways. They were far more willing to believe in the good in people than any adult. So all in all, her convincing them had been easy. Easy and painful. A bit like a knife to the gut, she mused as she put her cloak on the ground and pretended to go to sleep.

+

+

Four,
Dead in His Head

+

When Asmira was still there the next morning, it seemed the siblings and dwarf accepted her as a part of the scenery, neither paying much attention to her, nor ever completely forgetting she was there. Which was just the way she liked it.

Lucy still looked at her wearily from time to time, opening her mouth, obviously to pick their argument from the day before back up. But every time she tried, she would close her mouth again after a moment, shake her head and look despondently around, as if searching for something.

All four siblings did. They kept jerking around at odd moments every time a yellow batch of flowers or a pile of leaves caught the sunlight and shone brightly through the dark green wood.

Trumpkin eventually joined her at the end of the group when he got tired of fighting with Peter over which was the right way and they walked silently side by side, watching the Kings and Queens carefully.

It wasn’t hard to figure out the group dynamics between them. Peter was the undisputed leader of the four. He decided where they went, when they stopped, what they did next. The others obeyed, silently, but with looks of hidden pain and sorrow in their eyes. Apparently, the Golden King had not always been the harsh, hot-headed man – child - he was now. From Lucy’s and Edmund’s mumblings she gleaned that he had always had a temper, but never had it been directed against his own siblings.

She could guess where the new heat came from. Coming back to find your home in ruins could do that to you. Especially if you felt responsible and were already torn up about other things. And the way Peter looked at his siblings when he thought they didn’t notice said that he was very torn up. In short: The boy was running himself into the ground and his siblings were suffering more from his refusal to accept help than from his sharp tongue.

Susan, the second oldest, was trying to temper her older brother and keep everyone else calm. She was peace-loving and deeply logical, but sweet and gentle in a way few people could maintain past their early childhood. But there was also a shadow of desperation in her as she clutched her bow tightly, as if afraid it would be taken from her. Afraid all of Narnia would be taken from her again. Pain made Susan quiet instead of loud, and distant in a way that was completely different from her brother but still the same.

The younger two were more accessible. Edmund was obviously his brother’s shadow and every look in the other boy’s direction spoke of acute loss. He looked at his brother like his puppy had died. He was also quiet and strong, something for his littlest sister to cling to. He had protested her joining the group least, but watched her most. She got the impression that he was withholding judgment until he had facts to base it on.

Lucy, the youngest of them was also the brightest. She was smart and insightful at times, but most of all she loved, she cared and she believed so absolutely in the things she could not see that it hurt. She undoubtedly had a temper on her, but the impression was that even yelling and screaming in a rage she would still be much the same, sweet and exploding with love and life. Just being in Narnia seemed to fill her with enough joy to light up a major city. Looking at her, Buffy drowned in memories.

But above and below all that, the four siblings carried a weight and an age that was well beyond their bodies. Even little Lucy looked at the world with the eyes of someone much older. It made Asmira gnash her teeth and curse this Aslan in the privacy of her head. Damn him for making children soldiers, damn him for taking their childhood away, for giving and then taking away whatever had left the obvious, dark space in the middle of them. They clung to each other far tighter than siblings their age should, looked around for each other far more often and never could go long without having some sort of contact, verbal or physical. As if they had to reassure each other that they were still there, still okay.

Even Peter, pissed off Peter, joined in those little games of word and touch. Even when his glares were fit to melt rock, he couldn’t seem to resist running a hand down someone’s arm or ruffling someone’s hair.

And she didn’t understand it. Didn’t understand the contradiction of four needy children who were war-worn adults, who were thousands of years old and not yet grown. So in the end she gave in and slipped past the dwarf to Lucy’s side, hoping to learn more as she asked, “Tell me about that Aslan of yours then.”

And Lucy did.

+

Not far from his lord’s place in the council chambers, General Glozelle stood, doing what he did best. Watching and worrying. He recognized the spark in Miraz’ eyes well enough and he knew that before the month was over, blood would stain his hands yet again in the name of a false lord and his pursuit for power. The Narnian prisoner he had brought back had been the last piece in a puzzle the man had been trying to put together ever since he had killed his brother nigh on ten years ago.

Glozelle was well aware that letting Asmira escape could eventually mean his death. If not now, then later. Miraz had a long memory and little mercy. But he could not convince himself to regret his actions. Not if she was protecting Caspian from his mad uncle.

Not if… he had once believed himself in love with her. Over time the feeling had faded and become grudging admiration and honest friendship. He cherished her simple and direct ways, her sober and dry witted observations and her shrewdness. He admired her for not falling into the power games the court seemed to have utterly succumbed to.

And he had wanted her as a partner, as the mother of his children. Someone to rely on. Someone to talk to. A promise of a future. A promise of somewhere to come home to after the latest senseless and purposeless campaign.

After watching her in the forest he knew he would never have that, knew that she was well beyond his understanding.

What remained of their relationship was his memory of the good times she had given him and the silent grace in everything she did.

With her by his side, maybe Caspian would become the man needed to put Miraz in his place and save this country.

Even if he might not live to see it, Glozelle could not regret that.

+

Lucy told of a wardrobe in England and a faun in a land of eternal winter, of a White Witch and a lost Edmund, who blushed and ducked his head in shame as his part in the story was explained. Traitor.

Susan hugged him wordlessly and Lucy went on.

Beavers. Wolves. Centaurs. An army and a lion. Aslan. Who died for Edmund and came back to life, who helped them fight the White Witch and save Narnia. Who made them Kings and Queens over a land full of joy and warfare and watched them for fifteen years as they grew and made Narnia into a golden land in a Golden Age. Fifteen years of campaigns and balls, of war and battles and games on the beach and hide and seek in the forests.

She told of hunting the White Stag that fulfilled wishes if caught and of a lamppost and the vague memory of the country of Spar Oom, of falling through a wardrobe and being eleven years old again. Of living in England, hoping and waiting for Aslan. She looked sad as she told of Susan’s parties and make-up to hide behind, of Peter’s fights and Edmund’s attempts to help, told of her own dreams of Aslan and the long, long wait.

A whole year they’d waited to be allowed back, even after fifteen years had been stolen from them. Even after everything else that had happened to them. All they wanted was Narnia. And Aslan.

And inside Asmira a girl called Buffy ached for those children who were adults who were warriors who were children who were Kings and Queens who were children who were lost.

How could Lucy call her Aslan a benevolent god after he’d made them work so hard for their peace and happiness only to take it all away from them and dump them back where they had come from, exactly where they had come from. How they must have feared and wondered if Narnia had ever been real, if they had ever been there with no physical proof and not a shred of evidence beside their memories.

At least Buffy had always known that her life was real, what she was fighting for. She had known there would be an ending, brutal and bitter, but an ending. No to and fro, no back and back again. No games. Just a life from beginning to quick end and then peace. Only it hadn’t happened like that, had it?

How old was she? How old were the Pevensies? And where had all the years gone, all the memories? Peter’s anger seemed so much easier to understand suddenly, his quiet rage that was in truth hurt and grief over what was lost and guilt over failing to protect his siblings.

In that instant, when Lucy finished her story with tears in her eyes and a brave smile as she stumbled forward to slip in between her sister and brother to be hugged and cherished, Asmira did something she had not done in many, many years.

She got attached. Blame it on those children, blame it on the land under her feet and the air all around her. Blame it on Narnia. And she swore, on her own grave marked with a stone that bore her name, her lost, forgotten, real name and self, that she would see these four happy, even if she had to kill another god to achieve her goal.

+

The badgers remembered because that was their way. Those were Trufflehunter’s words but he doubted anyone, even the star gazing centaurs understood just what that meant.

From father to son, from father to son, from father to son, the stories were handed down, word by word, phrase by phrase, learned by heart and never forgotten. The good ones. The bad ones. The ones with a lesson to learn and the ones without.

Any story. Every story. The badgers knew them all.

Narnians talked about the Golden Age still, with a kind of mythical reverence, with wonder and hope in their eyes and, as far as he knew, the Telmarines didn’t talk about the Golden Age at all.

But there was more to it, so much more. The Narnians remembered dancing fauns with red scarves, laughing Queens in the apple orchards of Cair Paravel, the duels and mock battles of the Kings. They remembered the White Witch falling and her vile followers fleeing before the glory of the four.

They remembered this:

High King Peter, the Magnificent, King of Summer, burning gold far beyond the borders of his land.

King Edmund, the Just, King of Winter, shining cool and calculating silver, temperance and wisdom.

Queen Susan, the Gentle, Queen of Autumn, dark hair and blue eyes, the fairest of Narnians, the mother of all.

Queen Lucy, the Valiant, Queen of Spring, youngest, brightest, loudest, filled with laughter and joy as pink as fresh apples.

But they forgot how the Golden King scorched the land and swept over his enemies like a summer storm, hot like fire. Forgot the ice cold rage of the Silver One, his unforgiving sense of justice that knew no mercy once a certain line was crossed. He never stopped, never forgave, not even himself. They forgot that the Gentle Queen rode to war with bow and arrow, killing her enemy without regret or hesitation. Matron of her country, she punished all misdeeds with a mother’s ruthless love. They even forgot the smallest one with the biggest temper who flew into battle with her brothers at her side, hot like the Summer King, quick and deadly and slow to calm.

In short, they forgot that Narnia of the Golden Age had been a war zone and the four monarchs, soldiers.

But the badgers remembered. Trufflehunter remembered. And as he walked beside the prince and listened to him questioning Glenstorm on the old tales and stories, he wondered if young Caspian had any notion of what he had called with that horn.

For when they came, the Kings and Queens would not wave their magic wands and make peace. No.

They would make war.

The kind of war this country had not seen since the White Witch’s fall and the banning of evil.

+

Trumpkin and Peter were at it again. At this point, the dwarf jumping the High King and trying to bash his head in seemed a sure thing. The only question was when. If Peter kept going like he was the answer would be: soon.

Susan and Lucy had wisely fallen a few paces behind when the fight had gone into the next round and Edmund had followed half an hour later, after multiple scathing looks from his brother every time he tried instil something like peace between the combatants.

Asmira was left to walk by herself between the two groups, listening to conversations both in front and behind her until Peter’s snarling drew her attention yet again.

“You said you last saw Caspian at the Shuddering Wood and the quickest way there is to cross at the River Rush.”

Turmpkin was about to reply, no doubt with a hefty dose of insults and sarcasm, when the blonde quickly stepped between them and asked, “We’re looking for Caspian?”

Five pairs of eyes turned to her as if she’d just realized that sky was blue. “What else would we be looking for?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know? Weapons? An Army? A place to turn into a base? You know, useful things? It’s not like you people tell me anything?”

Peter muttered under his breath about ‘wondering why that is’, but she ignored him. “If we’re trying to find Caspian, we’re going the wrong way. He’s not that way,” she pointed at the stone wall Peter had come up against.

Closing her eyes she turned once in a complete circle, head cocked to one side, as if listening to something. She stopped and held out one arm, pointing in a direction about forty five degrees to the right of Peter’s chosen path. “He’s this way.”

“How do you know?”

She dropped her arm, opened her eyes. “Did you listen to me? Caspian is my mission. Knowing where he is and when he’s in danger is part of the package. I can feel him. And he’s that way.”

“Are we supposed to believe that you can actually feel him?” Peter shook his head, answering his own question.

Susan fidgeted in place for a moment before agreeing, “It seems a bit strange, you’ve got to admit.”

That seemed to be enough for the oldest brother because he turned back to the stone wall blocking the path and said, “We’re going that way.”

Trumpkin, who didn’t as much believe the Telmarine woman as he was simply glad to have someone on his side of the fight, snapped, “But unless I’m mistaken, there’s no crossing of the Rush in these parts.”

Peter’s expression got smug as he shot back, “That explains it then. You’re mistaken.”

Then he took off to find a way around the rock formation and the others were left to either follow or rot where they stood. The siblings exchanged looks and then did as they always had done, following each other to hell or salvation. Asmira and Trumpkin exchanged looks, too, but they both rolled their eyes and resigned themselves to a long detour. Eventually, Peter would have to admit defeat. All they could do was hope it would be soon because they didn’t fancy retracing their steps completely.

+

Caspian’s first question to any he talked to was if they had seen any trace of a blonde woman, short and fierce, wearing green, somewhere, anywhere within these woods.

The answer remained the same, verbally or not, a head shake or a quick apology. They did not know. And Caspian looked at them, at the weapons at their sides, the determination in their eyes as they spoke of beating back Telmar and taking what was theirs and he feared, feared deeply, that Asmira had only been the first of many to die in his name.

He couldn’t accept that.

And so he asked, hoped and waited, knowing her dead in his head and refusing to give up with his heart because while he had, during that long, terrible night, believed not to know her, almost a week of contemplation had taught him differently.

He had gone riding with his uncle and a regiment of soldiers and there had been an accident. Some wild beast and his horse had reared, turned, broken away from the others. His uncle’s pursuit of him, he now realized, had been much slower than it could have been.

She had been there, suddenly, cloaked and covered, but recognizable by her golden hair. She had stopped his horse and probably saved his life. His uncle had found him later, leaning calmly against a tree, watching squirrels fight above. That had been the first attempt on his life. He had only been seven.

She had been there again the night his father died in his sleep, when little Caspian had been forgotten among the panicked servants, the arguing lords and the stirring people and army. She had taken him to the kitchens, fed him cake and warm milk and told him a story of a man called Charlie the Brown and his noble friend, Snoopy. He had fallen asleep with his head on her shoulder and found her gone the next morning.

Even later, after the Professor had taken him under his wing, she had been there. Barely noticeable, slipping in and out of his life like water, she had distracted various greedy lords from coming too close to him, had simply been there when Miraz had tried to get his nephew alone and out of everyone’s earshot. To his shame, Caspian had never noticed her. The ways she had interfered in his life had been so small, so brief. But he was sure now, thinking back, that almost every time some servant had come to his timely rescue or he had been given some small kindness, he had seen a flash of golden hair somewhere close by.

Asmira, whoever she was, had spent most of his life looking out for him for some reason he might never understand.

It made him angry, angrier than he had ever been in his short, sheltered life, that he might never get the chance to thank for all she had done. She might never know, that after his father’s death, warm milk and cake had always been his best defence against night terrors.

+

Peter ran out of steam – and path – about three hours later at the top of a steep gorge. He had been right, the River Rush was there. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on which side of the argument you stood on, Trumpkin had been equally right. There was no crossing. There might have been one, thirteen hundred years ago but there most certainly wasn’t now.

Asmira could hear the High King grind his teeth from where she stood, four feet away. If something didn’t give soon, the boy king would explode. He abruptly cut off Susan’s monologue about eroding soil and turned to go back from where they’d come from, still not asking Trumpkin, or even her, for directions.

They had all turned away from the gorge when Lucy suddenly yelled, “Aslan! It’s Aslan over there!” Everyone shot around, looking wildly in the direction she indicated and seeing nothing. “Well, can’t you see?” She turned back around herself and found, “He’s right – “

Nothing.

There was nothing.

“-there.” Lucy finished her sentence belatedly, all elation gone from her voice. Asmira bit her lip and turned away from the girl’s dejected face. This is what you do, Aslan, she thought. This is what you all do.

Trumpkin tried to be gentle as he asked if she could still see the lion, but Lucy caught on. She wasn’t crazy. She’d seen him. The worst part was that she probably had. She’d seen him and he’d disappeared again without a word. No advice, no warning. Nothing.

It was all gods were good for after all.

Edmund stood by Lucy, saying he believed her. It was a sweet gesture but in the face of Peter’s stubborn denial it meant nothing. Shaking his head, the oldest brother gave his back to the gorge and the invisible Aslan, walking away.

“I’m sorry, Lu,” was all he had to offer his heart broken sister. “Let’s find that ford at Beruna.”

Asmira, who had been silent until then, keeping her thoughts to herself, spoke up. “You can’t cross there. It’s swarming with Telmarines.”

She’d rustled up a scout the day before finding the siblings and beaten the information out of him. Now she was grateful for it. Running right into the enemy’s arms didn’t seem like a good plan.

Peter rounded on her, eyes blazing. “Why should I believe you?”

“Better question: Why shouldn’t you believe your sister?”

The silence following her words was deafening. Even Trumpkin, who had no reverie for potent moments, held still and waited for the inevitable explosion. When it didn’t come after a few moments, Susan reached out and gently touched her older brother’s shoulder. “Maybe she’s right, Peter. Lucy’s always known when and where Aslan would show up. Just because we didn’t see him…”

She broke off mid sentence when he jerked away from her touch, rounding on her with fury. “You’re ganging up on me now? Fantastic, why don’t you – “

Lucy’s scream rent the air in two as she broke through the ground at the very edge of the gorge and fell. Trumpkin, the only one who had noticed her move and followed his new friend, threw himself on his stomach, reaching down without any real hope of catching the youngest Queen. The others were a split second behind him, all racing forward to the edge, fear plain on their faces.

Only Lucy wasn’t down there, broken on the rocks. Instead she was grinning up at the dwarf from where she sat at the very beginning of a path leading downward, only a few feet below the top.

She was safe and sound. And right. And Peter was wrong. Had been wrong for a long time. After running his eyes over his little sister to make sure she really was alright, he abruptly turned and broke into a dead run, fleeing.

Edmund made to follow his brother – as he always, always did – but Asmira stopped him with a firm hand on his arm, doing something she never, never did.

“I’ll go after his High Idiocy. You four get across that thing,” she jerked a thumb at the gorge and Lucy’s newly discovered path. “Set up camp on the other side?” She made it a question only so it wouldn’t seem like she was trying to take control. She was support cast only. She’d stopped playing centre stage hero a few dozen worlds ago. “It’s late enough to settle down for the night.”

Edmund, who wasn’t the oldest after Peter but still the one who commanded in the absence of his brother, nodded. “You have an hour before I come looking for you two,” he allowed and she was reminded that he had once been – still was – the Just. A chance for everyone, even strangers with stories that didn’t quite add up.

“Give me two, and we’ll be there.”

“Alright. See you there.”

“On the flip side,” she agreed and took off after the wayward King before anyone could ask her to explain.

+

+

Five,
Rat Race, Peter

+

Some of the men weren’t happy with what was going on. They were foot soldiers only, true, but nobility tended to forget that even foot soldiers and simple workers had functioning minds and opinions.

There had been enough people around on the night Caspian – or rather, Asmira as Caspian – had ridden hell for leather out of the castle. They knew that their prince had not been kidnapped. In the light of the war Miraz was so obviously planning, the news of that little detail travelled fast.

It wasn’t much. It wasn’t loud. It wasn’t enough. But the malcontent, the quiet questioning, they were there. Some people wondered if their Lord Protector was truly protecting them as well as he should. Why go to war against an almost extinct people? No-one had even seen any Narnians in centuries. And suddenly they were a threat?

After ten years of campaign after campaign, Telmar was tired of burying sons.

It would not lead to a revolt, or indeed any sort of protest. But if, say, the leadership of Telmar were to change, the people were less likely to rebel against it.

So the soldiers whispered in the hallways and barracks and whenever Glozelle came upon a hastily dropped conversation he made a point of turning his back and walking the other way.

+

She found the sulking High King a ways up the path, sitting on a boulder by the wayside, glaring moodily at the surrounding trees. She took a moment to watch him sit there, very still, arms and legs crossed, refusing to acknowledge her presence. How many times had she sat in a similar pose on the porch roof in front of her window back in… a long time ago? She knew the way he held himself, the glint in his eyes, the desperate rage, knew that most of it was turned inside and just the barest edges of it reached up into the outside world. Something was eating Peter Pevensie alive.

Lucky for him, she had experience with that, too.

“D’you know how to use that?” she asked, tapping the sheath of his sword with a delicate finger.

“Go away.”

“No, seriously. Do you? Or is it just a big boy’s toy you carry around while playing soldier?”

Boy. Playing. Toy. She was pushing all his buttons and as he turned his head to glare at her out of the corner of his eye, she saw that he knew it, too. He knew what she wanted. The question was, was he going to give it to her or not?

For a moment he didn’t seem too sure himself. Then he slid down from his perch and drew his sword, stepping onto the path that, while not exactly spacey, would give them more freedom of movement than the surrounding forest.

She reached for her swords and when he didn’t complain, drew both of them. She liked fighting two bladed. It allowed for more efficiency on the battlefield and when one was as fast as her, more blades were actually an asset rather than a hindrance. She flipped one of the weapons immediately to a backwards grip, using the blade as a sort of shield.

Peter, trying to turn the game around, refused to be the first to attack until she flitted behind him and struck suddenly and at a totally unexpected angle, swatting him on the butt with the flat of her sword. He yelped, glowered and threw himself at her with a move intended to take off people’s heads.

She bent backwards out of reach and kicked out at his knee before flipping over and waiting for the next attack. He evaded her feet and came at her again rather nimbly, feinting left and striking right. She parried with one sword and swiped at his stomach with the other, almost drawing first blood.

Then they both drew back and assessed each other. Peter was a good fighter. If he had space and enough opponents, he was probably a fearsome thing. Fast, precise and powerful in his strokes. It was a style that allowed well for a shield to use as a battering ram, but he’d left his at the foot of the boulder, apparently feeling a bit cocky. Or eager for pain. But there was also a distinct weakness in his fighting style. It was designed for a bigger body, longer arms, broader shoulders. For the man he had once been, not the boy he now was.

He overbalanced a bit, pulled back further than he had to in order to evade an attack. It cost time and strength. Still, fighting him was fun.

So she raced at him, going for his neck and guts at the same time and managing to nick his arm as he blocked. First blood was hers. She grinned fiercely and wasn’t surprised to find Peter returning it.

+

Edmund didn’t like letting his brother out of his sight. He never had. When they got separated, one of them tended to get almost killed. But he knew – painfully – that he wouldn’t get through to Peter. Not this time. Not after the other boy had spent the past year pushing his once best friend away.

So he agreed to let Asmira go after him. It hurt and it was a hard decision to make, but it was the best. Edmund could do that, put his feelings aside and think logically, rationally. Coldly. He was the strategist. The judge. Emotion had no place.

But somehow being fourteen again didn’t make it any easier.

He led the others down Lucy’s path, across the river and back up the other side. And as soon as they found a place to camp for the night, he’d turn around and go back for the others.

For Peter.

It was stupid and unnecessary and wouldn’t help anything because Peter would think he wasn’t being trusted, but he had to.

Edmund followed Peter. That’s just how it was.

+

Peter had been itching to know if she could fight with those swords she carried ever since she had first turned her back to him and he had seen them. But that was not why he let her goad him into this mock mock fight - a fight pretending to be a spar, rage pretending to be the joy of battle.

No, he fought her because earlier, at the edge of that gorge he had listened to Lucy’s words and he had wanted to scream at her until his voice snapped to shut up, just shut up and stop telling him how to do things, where to go and what to see. To stop rubbing his nose in the fact that she could see Aslan as she always had and he couldn’t because he was lost, wasn’t good enough, hadn’t kept his siblings safe, hadn’t kept his kingdom safe.

And then Susan had agreed with her younger siblings and the urge to scream had turned into a physical beast, demanding that he push her into the ground and shake her, shake her until she took it back, until she said she didn’t believe because if he couldn’t, how could she, how could logical Susan believe when he had lost all faith?

He’d run. Run as fast as he could away from them, away from his beloved siblings, the ones he would die for, do anything for. Not hurt them. Never hurt them. He was supposed to protect them from harm and instead he wanted to cause it himself. Great Lion, could he be any more of a failure?

So he ran. And he sat on that boulder, trying to kill the anger in himself, to smother it into ashes and soot and failing like he had failed for the past year. And then she’d come and offered a fight and yes, oh yes, maybe this would be enough. Maybe blood would drown out the fire and let him have some peace.

After the initial attacks they both pulled back for a moment to assess the other but not for long. He couldn’t wait. Couldn’t stand there and hold still. He needed… he needed.

He rushed her, sword held high and barely avoided losing his head by ducking and slashing at her knees. She jumped over the blade, used her own against him, parried, ducked, swung, slid to the side and around him. He fell to his knees, blocking with his sword above his head, just barely, feeling his pulse thud in his veins, his heart in his ears, feeling the burn of where she’d nicked his arm and he knew, he knew that it wasn’t enough.

With a mighty heave he pushed to his feet and twisted, taking one of her blades from her, sending it flying through the air. No more blocking. Then he went at her again and again and again, until he thought the next breath would make his lungs catch on fire, until his knees shook and refused to hold him properly, until the burn of the shallow cuts she inflicted on him faded to a dull throb as they stopped bleeding.

And she let him. All the while she kept pace with him, letting him burn off his rage. She was humouring him. She could have gone faster, hit stronger, defeated him within moments. But she let him have his fight.

That, more than anything she could have done short of sacrificing herself for his siblings, proved to him that she was trustworthy. Because she understood.

In the end he ducked below a head swipe and stayed there, on his knees, unable to move another muscle. He felt like he had just gone to battle and fought all day long. And in a way he had. Only this time the enemy hadn’t been visible and tangible.

He let his sword fall into the soft moss beside him - they had long since left the path and fought their way between trees and brushes - and fell backwards, aching all over.

He didn’t need to see her to feel her collect her lost sword and then lay both of her weapons down beside his, sinking to the soft forest floor with far more grace than he could manage at the moment, muscles shaking and protesting.

They stayed like that, silent, staring at the patches of sky visible through the trees, until he had caught his breath and put his heart back where it belonged. Then she said, “You’re an idiot.”

He stiffened. “How so?”

“You’re hurting your entire family because of whatever guilt trip you’re on.”

He kept his gaze fixed straight ahead, not trusting himself to look at her without the fire returning. “I am not-“

“Wallowing in childish self pity? I think you are.”

Maybe it was the accusation of self pity. Maybe it was being called childish after fighting for the past year to get used to this gangly, weak, small, pathetic body, but the fire returned with a vengeance and he threw himself on top of her, pinning her hands and pushing her into the ground.

“How dare you,” he snarled, “It’s not self pity. I failed them. I failed –,” He cut himself off abruptly, realizing what he was saying. No-one was supposed to ever hear those words. The High King of Narnia didn’t doubt and he didn’t fail.

But he did.

He had.

And it burned.

“What could you have done?” she snarled right back, twisting her hands until the choice was between letting go and breaking his own wrists. She rolled them over until she was sitting on his chest, her face inches from his, spitting, “What. Could. You. Have. Done?”

To keep his siblings in Narnia? Nothing. To keep this country save more than a thousand years after he would have died a natural death, had he stayed? Nothing. In his head, he knew that. But his heart had never communicated very well with the rest of him, always so sure it knew the way, knew what was best.

His temper wasn’t legend because he was a head person. Peter loved and lived and thought and fought with his heart and that was a violent, loud and all encompassing beast.

He looked away from her green gaze.

She sat up straighter, releasing her hold on him and said, her voice once more its usual lacklustre blankness, “Thought so.”

“I should have – “

“Nothing,” she called, smacking her hands into his chest with a loud cracking sound. He winced. “You could have done nothing. If you want to spread the blame, put it on your damn lion!”

“Aslan isn’t to blame!”

She glared at him with more ferocity he had ever seen in a human being. In savage and hurt animals, yes, in the fell beasts of the White Witch, yes. But not in human eyes. That expression, that green fire, that was hate. But then it flickered and wavered, like a candle flame in the wind, before resettling over her features.

“Yes, your precious, all knowing uber-king is never to blame, is he? Here’s a thought: If he’s as wise and powerful as you all seem to think he is, then he must have known what would happen when you hunted that stag, right? He must have known what would happen. What you would lose. Right?”

Unwilling to do it but knowing she was right, Peter nodded with a small jerk of the head, refusing to meet her gaze but unable to get away as she wouldn’t budge from her seat on his chest.

“Then why didn’t he stop you?”

“Aslan knows what he’s doing.”

“Yeah. Obviously. Forcing children to fight his war, taking away fifteen years of their lives and then having the gall to call them back. Some god you’ve got there, kid.”

“Don’t call me a kid.” When had he lost control of the situation so completely?

“That’s right, you’re not, are you? How old are you? Over thirty? And yet you look like a teenager. How’s that feel?” She didn’t give him a chance to answer, knowing very well how he felt from the grinding of his teeth. “And whose fault is that?”

He bit his lip, refusing to vocalize the name she wanted to hear. Refusing to believe what she was saying. Instead he met her gaze levely, calm in a way he had not been for a long time. “Why do you hate Aslan so much? You never even met him.”

Just like the fight had left him, it now left her. She slumped. “I have my reasons,” she finally muttered and made to stand.

He grabbed her around the waist and anchored her to his lap, keeping her there. She had dragged all his horrible secret truths out of him. She owed him.

But while she didn’t resist his hold on her, for almost five minutes she also refused to speak. Then, apparently reaching some sort of decision, she sighed and said, “I guess it’s only fair I tell you some of my story after Lucy told me yours.”

+

Susan was not used to Narnian soil anymore. The feel of rocks under thin slippers, the treachery of wet stones and loose earth. She had forgotten them. For fifteen years she had been Queen Susan of the southern sun, ruler over the south, the very region they were now wandering in and her feet had never stumbled, her steps never faltered. She’d walked the land like she was one with it.

And now she kept slipping on wet rocks like a toddler on her first outing.

It put tears of frustration into her eyes.

She had tried so hard. When Aslan had thought it best to send them back to England – which was only England and never home – she had tried so hard it hurt. She had painted her face with English make-up, had worn the scratchy English dresses, eaten the bland and tasteless English food.

And now, here, back where she belonged, she felt tainted. Tainted by that other country. Her feet knew only asphalt now, her hair had lost its shine without the products she used to care for it. Her face felt strangely empty and mobile without make-up and her feet ached from walking so long.

It wasn’t right.

She’d done what Aslan wanted, hadn’t she? She’d taken her exile without complaint, without resistance. The lion knows best. But now….

Now everything was wrong and her own skin didn’t fit anymore.

Lucy, always the most perceptive of her sibling’s feelings, was there suddenly, at her side, taking her sister’s hands and leading her across the stones as she had once led her into a wardrobe in a spare room.

And Susan, too proud to wipe the tears from her eyes, followed blindly and prayed for her feet to remember their old grace.

+

He watched silently as she looked around for a long time, gaze sliding past trees and rocks, into the sky and down again, looking for something to fix on, to hold on to. She found it in a gnarled tree just past his shoulder and stared at it almost unblinkingly until, suddenly, she was staring right through it.

“Where I come from we didn’t have centaurs or minotaurs or dwarves. We had vampires, demons and pissed-off hell gods.”

His mouth opened of its own volition, but he remained silent. There were many worlds out there. In one of them, magic was as real as air and water. How could he doubt what was real in hers?

“I was a regular girl. Just, make-up, boys, clothes. The usual stuff. And then this guy walked up to me and told me that from now on, protecting the world from the hordes of hell was my job. I was the only one between earth and destruction. Hated it, of course. I didn’t want to be a hero. I wanted to go to the movies.”

She shrugged. “But it didn’t go that way. I fought. I won. I died. Friend resuscitated me. I lived. I fought. I won. I jumped off a tower to save the world. Found peace. Was brought back by magic and greedy friends. I lived. I fought. I won. I flat lined on the operation table. I lived. I fought. I won. I was twenty one, that’s four years past the average life expectancy of someone like me, and I was done. Two lovers sacrificed, two major buildings burned down, countless friends dead, a dozen apocalypses averted, the armies of evil beaten and one town fallen literally into hell. I was done. Finished. Over. No more fighting for me. I had this plan where I drink disgusting tea until the end of my long, boring life and die when I fall asleep while watching jeopardy reruns on TV.”

She quirked a sad little smile and Peter mirrored the expression, even though he didn’t get the joke.

“Instead I suddenly find myself in this place beyond the worlds, where the gods of my world reside and they say, we got a job for you. I didn’t want to. I was finished. Sacrificed all there was to be sacrificed. But they convinced me. There was this guy who was a bit like me. All alone, supposed to save the world. I agreed to one last job. And I did it. And I landed back in that place afterwards and they told me, there’s another world that needs you.

“I’m too good at what I do. More powerful than I was ever meant to be, stronger, faster, smarter. I’m too good for them to let me go. So I get handed off from deity to deity, from world to world. Whenever the shit hits the fan, I’m there. One last job.”

She finally met his eyes and they were blazing. “It never is. Always another, always more. For almost fifty years. I’m a glorified attack dog, a weapon to be used. All I want is to die and have my peace but they won’t even let me have that. They won’t even let me die. And your great Aslan is just like the last…I don’t even know how many. He needed someone to save his little experiment so he shoved the necessary information in my head, pointed me in the right direction and dumped me in this world.”

She slid backwards into his lap as Peter sat up and they were perfectly at eye level when she asked, “Have you ever wondered why we exist? What the purpose of this all is?” She waved a hand around to make ‘this all’ clear.

He shrugged and then nodded. Hadn’t everyone?

“I’ll tell you what it is. The gods build worlds and they put all sorts of creatures into them and then they settle back with a cold drink and they watch what happens. The universe is a giant, damn rat race, Peter. And I’m their favourite rat.”

She was sitting fully in his lap, staring at him from only inches away and Peter had a single stray thought about kissing her. He didn’t. because he thought he was bitter and he had nothing on this woman who seemed so far beyond hope, she’d forgotten what it felt like. The hatred he’d seen blazing in her flickered again, guttered and stuttered, and then died.

So instead he wrapped his second arm around her waist, too and said quietly, “I understand.”

She looked surprised. “You do?”

He nodded as he stood, pulling her with him and setting her on her feet. “I do. You’re wrong about Aslan, but I understand why you hate him.”

He smiled down at her stunned expression and couldn’t quite resist brushing a stray strand of hair out of her face and grinning. Then he let go of her abruptly and bent to collect their weapons, handing hers back to her. “Time to go. Ed is probably about ready to mount a search.”

+

Edmund waited the two hours he had promised their new companion and then he exchanged a look with Trumpkin that clearly said, “Look after my sisters, or else.”

The dwarf accepted the burden with a serious nod and a sardonic grin and watched as the younger king took off back down into the gorge like they hadn’t just spent the past hour climbing the slippery path. There was one thing Trumpkin was quickly learning about the Kings and Queens. They loved Narnia more than life itself, but they loved each other even more. And if Edmund had to cross that bloody gorge twice in one day, then that’s exactly what he would do.

Shaking his head, he brushed past Lucy with an almost involuntary smile and started scouting ahead for a good camping place while behind them, the Just King cursed violently but didn’t slow his pace.

He reached the river in record time and glared balefully at the cliff he had to climb, yet again. The things he did to make sure his sulking brother did not get jumped by Telmarine scouts and killed unawares. He made his way up faster than they had come down, this time not slowed down by short legs and dresses and spent five minutes at the top catching his breath. Then he picked up Peter’s tracks and followed them, silently amazed that Asmira seemed to hover above the ground, as she left practically no foot prints. But then she seemed to not be much heavier or bigger than Lucy, so that wasn’t really a surprise.

Lucky for him, the blonde seemed to have at least some sense of time because he found them not five minutes later, heading his way. And because he could and was pissed at Peter and feeling a bit vindictive, not to mention curious, Ed threw himself behind some conveniently placed shrubs and watched his brother’s approach.

The first thing he noticed was that Peter looked like he’d taken a sound beating from Oreius on the training grounds. Since both Oreius and the training grounds had been gone for over a thousand years, that was a bit worrisome. But under a fringe of sweat soaked hair, Peter’s eyes were almost calm. They had lost their diamond edge and seemed almost…mellow? It was an expression Edmund hadn’t seen since they had chased the White Stag through the Western Woods so long ago. His brother seemed, for the first time in a year, almost at peace.

Asmira walked by his side, not looking much worse for the wear, except for a few scratches and stray forest debris caught in her hair and dress. They seemed content to walk in peace and quiet until Peter asked, “Say, Asmira is a Telmarine name, isn’t it?”

The blonde nodded. “Yup.”

“Then it’s not your real one.”

“No more real than the last dozen names I used,” she agreed, surprisingly willing to give the information away.

Peter, registering her willingness to talk, stopped and asked, “Then what’s your real name?”

A moment of silence before she turned her gaze away into the trees and said, “I don’t remember.”

She was lying.

Ed stood from his hiding place then and demanded, “Pete, what the hell happened to you?”

His brother jumped at his sudden appearance but didn’t answer as he watched his companion silently trudge ahead. They both watched her go and then Peter turned to his little brother and opened his mouth, about to brush him off. Edmund knew that’s what it was because Peter never quite managed to meet his eyes when he did. It was a small mercy that he couldn’t look when he hurt Edmund.

Ed thought it was the only reason he had been able to forgive it for so long. But this time Peter met his gaze and admitted with a sigh, “We sparred. She bloody killed me, Ed.”

It was a gift, that confession, because Peter hated to appear weak and helpless and here he was, stripping down in front of his brother.

Things weren’t alright, the past year wasn’t forgotten and their troubles were not over, but Peter understood now, it seemed, the pain he caused.

Ed grinned and took the wordless invitation for merciless ribbing and for a moment, all was well in the world.

+

“Okay,” she said, as soon as the boys caught up with her at the beginning of the steep downward path. “There’s no way I’m going down there.”

Edmund snorted, “I did the whole thing twice already. It’s not that bad.”

Peter added, “There’s no other way, you said it yourself.”

She looked at them, noting how they stood almost shoulder to shoulder and glad that at least something of her little intervention had gotten through and corrected, “I said I’m not going down there.”

Then she stepped back in the wall, made sure her swords would hold and took a deep breath. “See ya,” she chirped and with a wicked grin, threw herself over the edge.

Above her, she could hear twin screams of fear as she twisted in mid-air and thought idly that she was getting too attached to those kids. But she couldn’t really help it. They reminded her so much of things she’d rather forget. They were brave and stubborn and strong and still children in ways, and adults in others and they were… they were brilliant. They shone like nothing she’d seen in this world before.

And she wanted to… she’d wanted to tell Peter her name, the name of the girl that still lived somewhere inside of her. A name she hadn’t used in fifty years. That was bad. That was very, very bad because she was setting herself up for so much more pain when Caspian finally sat on the throne and that blasted lion kicked her out of his playground.

She didn’t need that kind of pain.

Curse Aslan, curse Narnia, curse the dirt under her feet for sucking the fight from her.

Her landing was automatic, almost mechanic, feet first, bend in the knee, arms spread to keep the balance, she came out of her forty feet fall like it had been five, spinning on her heel to grin up at two gobsmacked kings and then quickly starting to scale the other side of the gorge. She needed to get away for a while.

To clear her head.

To sort things out.

Buffy may have lived somewhere inside Asmira, screaming for human contact, for friends, for someone to hold on to, but Asmira had a lot of practice in ignoring her.

+

+

Six,
The God of Power and Lies

+

By the time the stragglers found the sisters and dwarf, the camp was mostly set up. There was enough firewood to keep them moderately warm through the night and since they had no tents to set up, there wasn’t much else to be done. Susan had been gathering all sorts of berries and nuts throughout the day and the other two girls had added to her collection, so they wouldn’t starve. Although Peter wouldn’t have minded a proper meal at this point. How long had it been since they had come back to Narnia? A week? He didn’t think it was that long yet, but it felt forever.

Susan tried to fuss over his bruises, but he waved her off. He’d washed down by the river and he wasn’t going to die from a beating that he had, quite literally, begged for. He felt better than he had in ages, mellow, tired, worn out. Like he had done something useful. Like he’d gotten somewhere. After a year of standing in place, the feeling was amazing.

He also had a lot to think about after everything Asmira had told and shown him. She was amazingly fast and strong and had shown no signs of tiring even after almost an hour of fighting. He caught himself wondering if there were more of her kind and then shied away from the thought. The price was too high. The price she paid for gifts she didn’t want, the price for being as she was.

Still, or maybe because of that, he found himself wishing he knew what she’d been like before. She had a sense of humour, dry and sharp, even if she didn’t let it show often and under the blankness of her face, there were emotions. Well hidden, but there.

Somewhere inside of the cold shell she had fashioned for herself, there was the person she’d once been and he wanted to meet her, wanted to drag her into the daylight because Aslan would come – he had to believe that now, after Lucy’s fall and it felt good, so good to have proof and he knew that meant he was weak, but he didn’t care – and when he did, Peter wanted her to be able to look at the lion without hate.

He was sure, absolutely sure, that she was beautiful when she was happy and he wanted to see it. Hold on. He stopped himself mid-thought and tilted his head to one side. Where had that thought come from? Certainly not from his seventeen-year-old side. No, that had been the man speaking, the king.

Strange. Peter had thought the other side, the grown up part of him, was lost. He’d spent the past year looking for him, trying to be him, but he had failed. Like Susan, he’d been nothing but a child playing grown up and hadn’t fit in his own skin.

Shaking his head, pushing all heavy thoughts out of his mind, he turned to watch the girls. They had set up a makeshift target and started practicing, Su with her bow, Lu with her dagger. It had been Asmira’s suggestion to train and all three of his younger siblings had shot her down, saying they knew how to fight. They weren’t really children, after all.

“When was the last time you fought?”

Silence.

“In these bodies?”

After that they had all moved willingly to try and get used to their smaller bodies, Lucy in particular. She was used to being able to hold her own in a fight, but in her current body, any enemy could pick her up and fling her aside without breaking a sweat. They needed to adjust their fighting styles, as Peter had learned rather painfully as he’d kept miss-stepping and over-extending himself during his earlier fight.

Edmund, without his usual sparring partner, sat around polishing his sword and checking for nicks in the blade, looking a bit forlorn but resigned and his brother remembered that Ed, too, had fought already in Narnia. He’d duelled Trumpkin after they had first met him and he had to have noticed the shortcomings of his own body.

But why hadn’t he said anything? Peter would have –

Would he? Would he have listened to his baby brother? Helped him? Sparred with him like they used to? The answer was the same to all questions and Peter hung his head in shame. Oh Ed, what have I done to you?

In the end Asmira, who had been borrowing Lucy’s dagger with an expression of bliss on her face, nudged the younger King with her foot and asked, “Wanna fight?”

Edmund looked up at her, confused, then turned to Peter. “But you already…”

Fought my brother into submission? Peter grimaced. His pride stung something fierce but he knew that he’d never really stood a chance against her. She hadn’t even broken into a real sweat. And her little plunge into the gorge had more than proven just how far beyond human she was.

She shrugged, “Yeah. But that was a warm up at best. I can go for days, literally. Super soldier, remember?”

Ed looked doubtful but he still nodded, eager to test his new limits. If he hated anything it was being a burden and not being able to fight properly made him feel like one. He never saw all the other things he brought to the table, never saw his own worth. It was the Witch’s last curse for Edmund. To never understand just how much his siblings and people cherished him, needed him.

Peter had forgotten, too.

He drew his sword quickly and whistled to catch his younger brother’s attention, before throwing Rhindon at him. The boy caught it smoothly and looked quizzically at its owner.

“You fight better with two blades,” Peter said with a shrug. “And so does she.”

He hitched a thumb in the direction of the blonde woman and sat back, honestly curious how they would fare against each other because their styles were similar. Fast, sneaky, never within reach but always close enough to land another blow. The only difference was that Asmira’s fighting style seemed more exotic somehow. A mixture of different styles, combined for maximum damage. Edmund had some fancy moves in his repertoire, but the woman could move her body in ways that should not be possible according to the laws of physics.

They both drew their weapons, one of them falling into the by now familiar position of one blade forward and one backward, while the other kept both his blades steadily pointed at his enemy, like Oreius had taught him over a thousand years ago.

And then the fight was on.

+

In the end, stealing weapons from Miraz’ army was a lot easier than Caspian had dared hope for. His uncle’s arrogance, it seemed, new little bounds. There were seven wagons filled to burst with swords and the long daggers that were an important part of the Telmarine fighting style. They would make good weapons for the smaller members of their army like the dwarves and the animals.

He told Glenstorm so and was startled to see something that passed for a smile cross the taciturn centaur’s face. Apparently, he’d said the right thing.

There was only one guard per wagon – the source of Caspian’s thought on Miraz’ arrogance. Apparently, the man was more worried about his own people trying to steal single weapons than about the Narnians robbing him blind. Good for them. Bad for him.

The twelve mouse knights, teamed up in groups of two, covered six of the guards and Nikabrik volunteered for the seventh with a bloodthirsty little smile on his face. They snuck up behind the guards, unnoticed for their size and took them out on a cue from Caspian, all at the same time. It was over in a matter of moments.

After getting the all clear from their scouts, the rest of the members of the raiding party rushed from the cover of the forest with bags and blankets to bundle up the blades for transport. Caspian meanwhile enlisted Reepicheep’s help in carving a message into one of the wagons. As anticipated, the little mouse got the job done much faster than the prince ever could have.

Within half an hour, several hundred blades were ready for transport, no-one was dead and the guards were staring to wake up. Glenstorm whistled the signal for retreat and the Narnians pulled back into the darkness of the forest.

Within seconds, the night was silent and still again.

+

Lucy couldn’t sleep. Which was annoying because she was dead tired after trying to keep up with everyone else on her blasted short legs all day. It was funny how everyone immediately saw her body as a problem when it came to things she could easily do, even as a child. Like fighting. She wasn’t stupid enough to think she’d be any use in close up combat, but Susan wasn’t the only one good at taking out enemy soldiers from a distance.

But they forgot. Peter, most of all, forgot. She was the littlest sister. The one to protect.

Somehow, though, they never slowed down to accommodate her shorter legs. She pitied the poor DLF because he had to be having a much harder time than she was having, still. She was grateful for Asmira’s suggestion to set up camp earlier that night, especially after crossing the river. All that climbing had been exhausting and they were all tired from the strain of the past few days.

Still, the gorge and what had happened on the other side had given her hope that maybe, now that they were back home, they others were starting to remember Queen Lucy, the Valiant, instead of just little Lu.

But she was being unfair. Ed had never forgotten who she was. He had been there for her in England when she had cried tears of frustration when her mother had sent her away for playtime. He had stood up for her when the dreaded sentence came, the one she hated as badly as she could ever hate anything. You’re too young.

Edmund had stood by her. And she loved him for that, so very, very much.

Still, no sleep.

She sat up with a sigh, looking around her, Asmira was sitting by the fire, wide awake, face blank as she watched the dance of the flames. Lucy didn’t understand that strange woman who claimed to hate Aslan. Aslan was love personified, so that was impossible. Yet she could see the bitterness in her, the pain. She was so very sad and Lucy wanted to make her better.

Not tonight, though. Tonight was for sleeping, by the Lion.

Maybe she was just too cold to sleep. Yes, that was probably it. But the others had formed a closed circle around the fire with their bodies, so there was no heat to be found there. Quietly, Lucy stood and made her way around Susan and Peter, feeling Asmira’s silent, watchful gaze on her and, on impulse, sending the woman a bright smile across the fire.

She looked startled. Poor dear simply wasn’t used to nice people, it seemed. With a yawn, Lu decided to change that. It could be her new project, since she wasn’t going to be allowed to fight. She had the time.

She came to a halt between Peter and Edmund and for a moment she was torn. She had always gone to Peter for comfort but in the past few months, she had been sent packing more than once. Not through any malicious intent on her biggest brother’s side, but simply because his bad mood made her sad. Lucy didn’t like being sad.

And now she was afraid of putting Peter back into his bad mood by waking him. No, better let him sleep. Let him sleep and let Edmund know that he was not as useless and he always thought he was. He was just as good at coddling her as Peter was. At least. Maybe better because he could do it without treating her like a baby.

So she lay down next to him, her shoulder touching his, enjoying the warmth radiating from his body. After a minute or so he grumbled, rolled onto his side and wrapped his arm around her waist, pulling her into his chest with a grunt and a mumbled, “Lu.”

She smiled brilliantly into the dark and within minutes, she was fast asleep.

+

When Lucy woke, she felt a strange pull inside of her and, never one to disobey such feelings, she followed it through the forest until –

“Aslan!” She threw herself forward, never once hesitating or doubting, burying her face in the great lion’s mane. “Oh, I’ve missed you so much!”

She pulled back after a long moment, grinning, enjoying the fact that for once, she could say the words, “You’ve grown.”

The lion smiled. “Every year you grow, so shall I.”

Lucy giggled before her face suddenly fell. “Where’ve you been? Why haven’t you come to see us? It is because of Asmira? She’s so angry with you, Aslan. And she’s sad.”

The lion sighed and turned his head to the side. “I know, dear one. Your friend has reason to be upset. But remember, Lucy Pevensie, everything changes. Nothing happens the same way twice.”

Somewhere, a twig snapped and Lucy woke for real.

+

Glozelle watched Miraz’ retreating back as the man returned to the castle, far from the men he had just sentenced to death. For propaganda. For a lie. For power.

The General stepped forward and lifted the back of the wagon again to read what Caspian had carved into the boards. You were right to fear the woods.

Maybe, he thought, they should have feared the castle instead. Maybe instead of running scared from fairy tales, they should have feared the dragon in their middle, this man-eating monster called war, called greed, called Miraz.

Too late now, much too late. His conscience should have spoken up ten years ago, when Caspian IX had still been alive. When there had still been hope and a proper King. But he hadn’t known Asmira then, hadn’t known to question orders, to think for himself. He hadn’t seen all he had seen now.

And this was the last straw.

He turned to the three men that had died in the attack. He knew all of them, had fought with them more than once. They were loyal, good men, with families, all three of them. To lose them in battle would have been a tragedy. To kill them in peace time for the sake of war-mongering was too much. Too much for an already stained soul, for a man who had lost all faith.

They stood, shuffling their feet but meeting his eyes head on. Stoic, resigned. Why weren’t they running from him? Why weren’t they screaming bloody murder?

He knew why. They remained where they were because of him. They had fought all their lives under him. Their loyalty was not to Miraz, but to him. And they would die to protect him from the Lord Protector’s wrath.

His stomach turned. He swallowed bile. “Come,” he ordered curtly, and brushed past them, downstream and into the woods. And gods help him, they came. Like lambs they followed, willingly letting him lead them to slaughter. Senseless, useless slaughter on the altar of the god of power and lies.

They walked for fifteen minutes, during which not one of them made a single sound. All Glozelle heard was the drum beat of his own blood in his ears, mocking him. If he followed his orders, soon those men’s hearts would not beat anymore. Their families would starve. Their children would suffer. And he would never, never be able to look another human being in the face again.

“Sire?” one of the men, the oldest, finally queried when they had been walking too long.

Refusing to break his stride and turn around, Glozelle spoke as he walked. “You chased them as they retreated. You hunted them downstream for a while. Until here.”

He stopped and pointed at the convenient sandy patch by the side of the river.”They killed you savagely and threw your mutilated corpses in the river. We found only your weapons and blood.”

He grabbed the helmet of one of them, pulled it off, smacked it against the nearest rock, hard and then dropped it.

“We need blood,” he said, as he started trampling in the sand, to create the illusion of a fight.

“Sire, you will…” Get caught? Get killed? Lose your position, your life, your dreams? He almost laughed. His dreams were long gone, his hopes too, and his King was lost in the woods with only a single woman to protect him and no chance against Miraz’ well-oiled machinery of war.

All he had left was his life and that would be worth nothing, nothing if he ever raised a weapon against his own men. He’d rather throw himself on his own sword and take his last smidgeon of honour with him to the grave.

“Not kill my own men,” he finished the sentence before repeating, “We need blood.”

None of the men moved. He stopped what he was doing, and whirled to look at them. “I will not kill you. Miraz may have my head if he so wishes, but I will not do this. Now help me and we may just get away with this.”

For an endless moment he thought they would refuse, would stubbornly insist that he take their lives to protect his own. Then the youngest – the one with the twin babies and a pregnant wife at home, Glozelle remembered – drew his dagger and made quick work slicing his hand open and squeezing the cut, bleeding on the sand. The others followed. They banged up parts of their armour and threw them around, carefully splashed water on the blood to make it look like more than it was. Two of them even dragged the third through the sand to make it look like the Narnians had disposed of their bodies.

Then, five minutes later, they stood in front of him, looking humble, scared and so impossibly relieved it made him ache even more. “Where do we go now, sire?”

They couldn’t go home. That much was clear. He answered without hesitating. “Find the Narnians. Find Asmira. She should be with Caspian. A blonde woman, a warrior. Tell her…”

-

”Shade without colour, paralysed force,” she whispered as she watched from the balcony of his room, the return of the new recruits from their first border skirmish. He stood next to her, taking in the drawn faces and lowered shields, the empty eyes, glazed with the horror of war. There was no glory in those victorious home comers.

“I beg your pardon?” he asked, unsure.

“It’s from a poem, called The Hollow Men. Learned it at school. My teacher had a total hard-on for Eliot. Hated it. Stuck anyway.”

None of that meant anything to him, but the title seemed fitting.

-

“Tell her I am without colour, too. And then tell her everything you know. I will care for your families until you can return.”

“The enemy, sire?” the oldest again, a man older than him, actually. He had less to lose than the others and he had fought for Telmar for too long. Betraying his country seemed a crime to him, even now.

Glozelle smiled bitterly. “The enemy is already among us and it is not Prince Caspian.”

The old soldier shifted and then nodded. He had been there when the old King died. He knew the truth.

They went. Glozelle watched the tree line on the opposite shore long after they had disappeared, wondering if he would see them again, but not for a single second questioning the rightness of his actions.

+

Caspian did not think very far ahead. When he saw a man – a human – with a drawn sword creep around an overgrown pile of rocks, apparently getting ready to attack Asterius, the taciturn minotaur, her simply acted.

He drew his own weapon, waited until the stranger was directly below him and then jumped him, sword raised for a decapitating blow. The man reacted like lightning, twisting sideways and parrying the prince’s stroke before attacking low, going for Caspian’s legs.

By the time Caspian noticed that the man was neither, in fact, a man, nor dressed in the drab Telmarine colours, it was too late and the fight already in full swing. He went for the boy’s head again, only to be met with the other’s sword in a move that almost disarmed him.

Both of them pulled back, breathing hard and then went at each other again, only to be jarred right out of the fight when a new set of blades suddenly caught both of theirs and stopped them dead in their tracks.

Both boys seemed to dumbstruck to move until the newcomer ordered, “Could you not kill each other?”

Caspian, startled by the familiarity of the voice, blinked and lowered his weapon, finally taking in the entire scene. He and his opponent were surrounded on all sides by Narnians and a small group of children who were quite obviously itching to go and check on the boy he’d fought. But they didn’t keep the prince’s attention for long. No, his eyes were fixed on the slight figure that had stopped the fight, a Telmarine sword in each hand, looking him with a familiar, flat, green gaze.

“Asmira,” he called, jumping forward to hug the woman, despite the fact that between them, they carried three unsheathed swords. “I thought you were dead.”

The woman kept her arms at her sides and her weapons away from him, but she held still for a few seconds before stepping back in an obvious plea to be released. Realizing just what he was doing, Caspian flushed and let her go.

“I apologize,” he said, not quite meeting her gaze.

She chuckled and shook her head, sheathing her weapons. “It’s okay. And for your information, in takes more than a few Telmarines to take me down, alright?”

He nodded.

“Good. Now,” she pointed at the boy he’d fought, “High King Peter,” she shifted to point at him, “Meet Prince Caspian. Prince Caspian, meet High King Peter. I’d appreciate it if you could refrain from loping each other’s heads off for the time being.”

She stepped back with a nod, leaving the two monarchs to stare at each other rather dumbly. Caspian wasn’t sure what to say.

In the end, High King Peter recovered first and sheathed his sword with a grin, “I heard you called for us.”

He nodded, looking around at the word ‘us’, realizing that the other ‘children’ he had spotted had to be Queen Susan, King Edmund and Queen Lucy. Oh dear. Oh. Dear.

He sketched a bow to all of them, receiving nods and curtsies in return. Dear. “I am glad you came,” he finally managed, although he wasn’t at all sure what use four children could be. Where were the legends of Old? The saviours of Narnia? These… the High King himself looked barely as old as Caspian. What could he say to that?

Nothing. He could say nothing. So he avoided them altogether by bending down and picking up his pack, untying a green piece of cloth from it and unfolding it to reveal it as a cloak. He held it out to Asmira. “I believe this belongs to you.”

She rolled her eyes and took it with a wink. “Afraid I lost yours on the way.”

Beside her, King Peter laughed.

+

Caspian refused to look at any of the siblings. Peter wasn’t sure why but he knew the prince wasn’t shy because he seemed to be talking to Asmira just fine. They were walking a few paces ahead of where they Pevensies had found their place among the soldiers and Caspian seemed to be making up for lost time.

“I remembered,” Peter could hear him say, “After we parted ways and I had time to think. I remembered all those times you came to my aid and I realized that I had never before notice what you did.”

She snorted and shook her head, “That was sort of the point. Keep you alive and not get noticed doing it. Although I think Miraz had his suspicions. I just kept popping up at the most inconvenient of times.”

“Why?”

She looked at him sideways, her face closed up again as it usually was and said, very carefully, “That is what I do. I keep you alive and I put you on the throne that belongs to you.”

“Oh,” the prince said, apparently lost for words and trying not to look dejected at realizing that he was a mission to be fulfilled. When it didn’t seem like Asmira was going to amend her words to something kinder after a few moments, he repeated his quiet, “Oh,” and sped up his steps to check the front of the column for trouble.

She let him go and Peter felt a violent surge of something at the fact that the blonde had not felt it necessary to explain to the prince what she had explained to him the day before.

He sped up his steps as well, ruffling Lucy’s hair as he passed her and Trumpkin and fell into step beside Asmira. He tried to think of something to say that would not sound goading or pleased and came up empty handed. Instead he asked, “How long have you been in this world?”

“Ten years,” she replied, with a shrug. “Long time, huh?”

It was his turn to shrug.

+

+

Seven,
Her Voice like Splinters

+

The landscape had changed tremendously over the past thousand years, so it wasn’t really surprising that none of the siblings figured out where they were headed until they got there. The raiding party stopped at the edge of the field that surrounded the old structure and everyone in the vicinity heard Susan breathe, “Aslan’s How!”

Lucy, who stood beside her sister, clutched her hand tightly and observed, “But look at it, Su, it looks terrible. Remember how it used to shine in the sunlight after it was finished?”

Peter didn’t have to turn around to know his siblings looked stricken. When they had found Cair Paravel, joy of finally being home had still outweighed the truth of what they faced but now, to see something they had had built in ruins drove home a painful point.

Their Narnia was gone.

The Golden Age, where Aslan walked freely across the lands, where Cair Paravel was always lit and balls to be had, a time when this very place had been a place of worship, of peace and joy, was over.

Their time was over.

All that was left now were ruins.

“At least it’s still standing,” Ed muttered and Peter knew his brother was thinking of the Cair’s splendid ceilings lying in heaps of rubble, of their thrones reduced to dust, just like he was.

“Aslan used to stand there, at the very top, on Midsummer morning,” Lu was whispering, to herself as much as to anyone who would listen. “And he would roar at the sun and… Oh, Su,” she finally broke off, throwing herself into her sister’s waiting arms. “Why is everything gone?”

“I don’t know, Lu, I don’t know.”

But Peter did. It was gone because he hadn’t been there.

He shook his head fiercely, drawing Caspian’s attention as he put a hand on his smallest sibling’s shoulder. “Let’s go inside, okay?”

Lucy nodded and wiped at her eyes, giving him a dim smile and then they set off toward the How. The Centaurs, wordlessly proving that they remembered the old ways, welcomed them with swords raised. It should have made them feel better, but Lucy’s smile wobbled and the rest of them had to lock their knees. But they made it inside with their heads high and their backs straight and that was really all anyone could ask of them.

Inside, the How looked completely different from how they remembered it. It was a war camp. Weapons were forged and sharpened everywhere, countless bedrolls and bundles pushed up against the walls. This place, whatever it had once been, now housed an army.

Susan, always quickest to discover the vital things, called them toward her and, with a torch in hand, she showed them something else that was new. The carvings.

Carvings of them, of their fight against the White Witch, of Aslan’s sacrifice, their coronation and everything that came afterward until, abruptly, the carvings were replaced by smooth wall.

The day they had disappeared. Back through the wardrobe into good ol’ England that had never felt right again. Caspian, understanding their quiet and depression better than Peter would have thought, led them wordlessly down into the heart of the How. Aslan’s tomb without a body, the room of the Stone Table that was broken.

As the prince lit the room, all four siblings, plus Asmira, stared at the carving of the lion, four in wonder, one in wordless distaste.

“He must know what he’s doing,” Lucy offered reassurance but Peter wasn’t sure what exactly that was. Aslan obviously knew what was going on. He had led them across the gorge. He had sent them his warrior.

Then why wasn’t he here? Why wasn’t he helping?

The High King shook his head sadly, lowering his torch. “I think it’s up to us now.”

Lucy tried to protest, but Asmira was faster. “He’s not coming. Why would he?”

Instead of flinching back from her harsh tone, Lucy seemed to grow on it, turning angry eyes on the woman. “Because he loves us. Because he’s Aslan and he will save us.”

Susan stepped up to her sister’s side. “Asmira-“

“Buffy Summers,” the older woman snarled, confusing everyone.

“Pardon?”

“Buffy. Summers,” she repeated, sharply, her voice like splinters of ice, every single one piercing skin. “That is my name. It’s the only thing I still have. They, your damned Aslan and a dozen others like him, they took everything else. The only thing I have left, the only one, is my name. Believe all you want, but don’t come crying to me when it doesn’t work out.”

She turned on her heel and stormed out of the room, leaving behind the taste of hope turned bitter and silence.

The only triumph Peter was left with was the fact that he had been right about her name. She did remember it. Her last possession. Somehow he got the feeling that by telling them, she had just given away that, too.

+

When Caspian made the first move to go after As-Buffy – what a strange name that was, so very unlike the woman it belonged to, so strange on the tongue, more alien and less fitting even than a made up Telmarine name that meant nothing at all – Peter stopped him with a sharp command that tolerated no disobedience.

“I’ll go after her,” he said, sharper than he meant for it to be and he could see the prince starting to protest so he quickly waved a hand at his siblings. “You can start filling them in.”

Lucy and Susan both made noises at being degraded to distractions, but not very loudly. They needed to be caught up to the facts of the army they were supposed to command. Edmund, the most loyal soldier that had ever walked this world, had only one question.

“Peter?” A single word, only his name, but Peter understood every nuance of it. Why are you going after her? Why don’t you stay here? Why don’t you let him go? Why do you care? What happened yesterday?

The answer to all of those questions was simple.

“I owe her one,” Peter said and took off at a jog, hoping to catch up with her before she found a place to hide from them until her mask was back in place because he had no doubt at all that that was what she was trying to do. She hated losing control as much as he did, maybe even more. And losing control over yourself was simply unacceptable.

He needed directions from a dwarf and a hare, but he found her almost at the top of the How, sitting on one of the great steps leading to what had once been solely Aslan’s place to greet the sun. Now sentinels were posted up there. And while Peter was well aware that nothing remained sacred in war, the sight of the two fauns up there in the lion’s place made him ache fiercely.

“So,” he asked as he dropped down next to her, dangling his feet, “Can I call you Buffy?”

She flinched, then shook her head, not looking at him. “Sorry. I haven’t heard my name in a long time. I… I didn’t mean to blurt all that out. Just… seeing your sister so naïve, she reminded me of me. I believed that everything would turn out alright in the end, too, for so long.”

She looked at him then, willing him to understand. She thought Lucy was setting herself up for a horrible fall, like she herself had and Peter looked away because he would not doubt again. Not this time. He had been pathetic before, trying too hard to be something he wasn’t anymore. Just a few minutes ago, he had wondered. But not anymore. He was back now, in his home, and he would do all he could to save it. He would believe and looking at her disappointed face, her tired eyes, made it hard.

Suddenly a thought occurred to him and he let himself be readily distracted by it. “Hey, ‘Summers’, that means ‘belonging to Summer’, right?”

As-Buffy raised an eyebrow but nodded. “Why?”

He grinned and shrugged, causing her to raise her second eyebrow and try to demand and answer. Before she could, however, a cry of alarm went up from the tree line.

Neither of the two blondes looked at each other, they just started jumping down the different levels of the How and took off at a dead sprint as soon as their feet touched the ground.

+

Once Peter left the Table chamber, Caspian looked around at the remaining three Golden Monarchs and once more fought a quiet surge of disappointment that had, until now, been held in check only by the fact that Asmira was alive and well. Her being alive gave him hope that maybe he would not be the reason for the end of Narnia after all.

And in the same thought, the young faces of the three monarchs made him worry that they would be. What could they do, younger than he himself? The smaller one of the girls looked like she would be more at home in a playroom far from all talk of war and her sister, while older, seemed too delicate to be a fighter. Their brother, Edmund, just seemed gangly and skinny, the sword at his side too big and heavy for him.

The only one Caspian could see as an equal was High King Peter and the boy, man, King, whatever, obviously had different priorities.

Still, those four were all he was going to get, so he had better make the best of it. He carefully placed the torch in one of the metal rings in the wall and then turned back to face the three monarchs, intending to get this over with. But Queen Lucy, how hard it was to think of her as a queen when she was so small, so childish, moved forward, her hand tracing the edge of the broken table. As she was halfway around it, she stopped and looked at him. “When we last saw this room, it was still above ground.”

He nodded at this piece of information, not sure what to do with it and stunned by the implication of what she was saying. Now, the room was deeply underground. She had been here when it had not yet been buried. A thousand years. For the first time, Caspian wondered just how Narnia must look to their eyes. Had they known any of the now extinct beavers? Had the trees really been alive in their time? Had they danced? Had there been river gods and harpies? Unicorns? Did they even think this Narnia worth saving?

“So,” Edmund suddenly asked, “Are you going to tell us what you are doing here, or do we have to guess?”

Yes, guess, he wanted to say, to test the child. See how much you understand of what you see. But as the King stepped into his field of vision he was calm, composed. His face was smooth and his eyes sharp and there was an air of command about him that could not be denied.

Without thinking about it, Caspian found himself complying to the demand for information.

+

As the oldest of the three men, Meldan automatically assumed leadership over his two companions, though they were equal in rank. Daglan didn’t protest and Gelprian was too lost to do anything but follow as he led the way across the river and into enemy territory.

But, as the General had said, the enemy had been among them for a long time. The river was an imaginary line that separated human from not human, but not enemy from friend. Meldan himself was human, but his wife’s mother had been part red dwarf and he knew her stories, knew her ways. Knew their side of the story of how Telmar defeated the vicious heathens.

The Narnians told it differently. They told of a Golden Age, a time of peace, a splendid, green land, and of a greedy pirate people that robbed them of their home. As a soldier, he wasn’t paid to listen to stories. He was paid to go where he was told to go and fight who he was told to fight.

But now… now everything was off kilter. His Lord had ordered him dead for no crime, his General had sent him behind enemy lines to find protection there and his own faith in the order of things was precariously dangling from a single thread. He wasn’t sure which he preferred, to be killed on sight by the Narnians, or to be left alive. One would mean the world was still right in some ways, even as he died and the other would throw it completely off its axis even as he survived.

In the end the decision was taken from him when he suddenly found himself not in the forest but at the edge of a sprawling field with the enemy rushing at him. And by the gods, were they fast. Their legs, he realized, they were the legs of goats. No wonder they could run.

Daglan went for his sword but Meldan motioned for him to leave his weapon alone. If they appeared threatening, they were dead and the other side could not be blamed. No, if they wanted to live, they needed to surrender.

One of the men – fauns, that’s what they were, fauns – reached them and struck, hitting him in the jaw with the pommel of his sword sending him to the ground, followed shortly by his companions. Gelprian was frozen, Daglan was scrambling for his sword and got brutally kicked in the arm for it.

“Asmira,” Meldan finally called, remembering the name the General had given him. “Asmira,” he repeated, when some of the fauns hesitated. “We have a message for her.”

He refused to beg. He hadn’t survived twenty years of war by begging. He would not, could not, ask for his life. Either he lived or he didn’t. He had already lost his country. What did it matter?

“A message from whom?” a strong voice suddenly demanded, followed by a young lad who pushed through the throng of soldiers. They moved aside for him, though he could not be older than sixteen, crowded each other to make room for him. In their eyes was only deference.

Who was that boy?

“For Asmira,” he clarified. He would not pass on his message to the wrong person. To give her the message had been the last order he might ever receive from a man he had served for many years, and he would see it through.

“That would be me,” a voice said behind the boy and a young woman pushed past him, blonde and small, as the General had described her. He recognized her now, from around the castle. How could he not? Telmarines were dark haired and she had always stuck out like a sore thumb. “Who sent you?”

“The General Glozelle. He said to tell you that he is without colour, too.”

For a moment he thought she did not understand. Then a small but genuine smile bloomed on her face as she ordered brusquely, “Leave them. They are no threat.”

The boy frowned at her but waved an arm. Only then did the fauns comply and ease up on the Telmarines. “What does that mean?”

“Shape without form, shade without colour, paralysed force, gesture without motion,” she said.

Understanding dawned in the boy’s eyes. “The Hollow Men,” he breathed. “Does that mean you’re from….”

“One similar to yours. Not the same,” she nodded.

“What does is mean, sire?” One of the fauns asked, sketching a bow as soon as the boy’s eyes fell on him. He shrugged and redirected the question with a glance.

“It means,” the woman called Asmira explained, “That we have an ally in the Telmarine camp.”

She smirked and the motion was echoed by all those around them. Then she held out her hand to help Meldan to his feet and requested, “Tell us everything you know.”

And because the wild beasts of Narnia had spared him where his own Lord Protector would not, Meldan did.

+

Only half a day’s march away, a woman stood over the cradle of her newborn son, watching him as he slept peacefully amidst such troubled times. His own father had barely held him since he had been born, too busy with the latest war looming on the horizon.

But while Prunaprismia had always been a loyal soldier’s wife, had never complained, never protested and never gotten involved, she could not help the feeling of dread pooling in her stomach this time.

The morning after her son’s birth she had asked for her nephew, finding it strange that he had not come to visit her as had become his habit. He came to inspect his newborn cousins as soon as he was allowed, without fail, for every one of her now four children. And when her second born had died, he had been unfaltering in his attentions until she had felt able to smile again without breaking her face and heart in two.

But he had not come to inspect his newest cousin. She had asked Miraz about it, thinking he might have sent the boy away for training or some such. Instead of a verbal answer she had received a look that had chilled her.

Her husband, she had known that for a long time, was no saint. Some would say he was not even a good man. But he cared for her and his daughters, he loved his son and he always stayed true to himself and his beliefs. That was worth something and so she had ignored the less than shining tales that sometimes reached her ear, ignored the hungry glint she sometimes saw in his eyes.

On that day, however, that glint had been directed at her dead brother’s son and that was something she could not allow. Caspian was a good boy. A bit of a dreamer perhaps, but that might just be what a war ridden country needed. Someone who knew how to dream of better times.

The boy, still unnamed because that was a father’s duty and this boy’s father had yet to hold him for more than an instant, woke and instantly started crying. Prunaprismia lifted him from his crib and held him close, cooing at him as she had once cooed at little Caspian in the weeks between his mother’s death and his Nurse’s arrival.

She held the boy close now as she had held the boy back then and she hoped for a future for both of them, prayed for it with all her might.

The ball of dread in her stomach did not loosen.

+

Meldan was the only Telmarine left in the Table chamber, unless one counted Caspian and Asmira, neither of which seemed to be feeling particularly Telmarine, if the subject of their discussion was anything to go by. A badger and a fox had led the other two soldiers outside some time ago to feed them and find a place where they wouldn’t be in the way. No-one had asked them to fight for them and that was a relief.

Meldan sat, mostly forgotten, on a stair, watching what seemed a whole gaggle of monarchs, a centaur, a mouse, two dwarves and Asmira discuss plans of attack.

“Our only hope is to strike them before they strike us.” The boy, whose name was Peter, argued. “You heard what they said. Miraz is going to attack in force as soon as he has that bridge built.”

Caspian shook his head wildly, “But that is crazy. No-one has ever taken that castle.”

“There’s always a first time,” Peter insisted, looking to the other humans for support. The two girls looked worried and the young lad stubborn and willing to fight. But unlike other boys going to war for the first time, he lacked the enthusiasm and the grand standing of ‘future heroes’. This boy, actually, all four of those children, carried themselves differently. Carefully. Like they were prepared for the world to rear up and jump at them at any moment, but unwilling to hide.

The aging soldier watched as the argument went back and forth between the few who wanted to attack the castle while the army was elsewhere and the majority who wanted to hole up here and outwait the army. There were a few that seemed to be waiting to be convinced, pointing out that both plans had glaring weaknesses.

Yet without knowing these people, Meldan knew who would win the fight. Peter had some sort of respect among the Narnians that Caspian could not match and his expression said he would walk over bodies to get what he wanted. Hot tempered, charismatic and desperate. A bad combination for any who preferred to survive their wars instead of dying in them.

+

The argument seemed closed when the Glenstorm agreed to follow the boy into the castle. Or into death. It was a silent warning that went ignored by all.

But then Lucy, sitting on the broken altar in the middle of the room, spoke up. “That’s what I’m worried about.”

All eyes turned on her. “Sorry?”

“Well, you’re all acting like they’re only two choices: Dying here or dying there.”

“I’m not sure you’ve really been listening, Lu,” Peter warned sternly.

Before the girl could answer, Buffy did for her. “I think she did listen, Peter. You want to hear my opinion?”

He nodded.

“It’s stupid.”

A mutter went through the assembled people, stopped when she held up a hand. “Hold on, I’m not finished. When trying to storm a castle, listen to the people who’ve lived there. Meaning Caspian. If he says it’s impossible to pull off, believe him. Assume we do it. We even have surprise on our side. They still outnumber us. And they’re fighting on home turf. There’s a city around that castle. You attack it, soldiers won’t just be fighting for some far off ideal. They’ll be fighting to protect their families and friends. There is just no way this can work.”

“Great,” Peter told her, completely dismissing every single point she’d just made “You don’t have to come.”

“I didn’t say I wasn’t coming. I just said it’s a shit plan and you’re gonna get us all killed.”

“And you’re still going along with it?” the older of the two girls cried, flinging up her arms. “Are you all mad?”

The blonde shrugged.

“This is not a game!” Susan exploded as Buffy callously shook off her own words of warning.

“I know that. But your brother’s not going to leave it alone, is he?” She turned, directing the last bit at the king in question, who shook his head.

“There’s a chance that we can do this, Su. A chance to end this was before it begins.”

“A chance to get killed, you mean.”

Peter rolled his eyes at her and said, “Who’s in favour of going?”

Hands rose throughout the room, no more or less than before. They had all known the risks before Buffy had laid them on the table. “Against?”

Again, the numbers had not changed significantly. They were going to storm the castle.

“Alright then. But we’re putting strong fighters in the back.”

“Why? They’re of more use in the front, to head the attack.”

“Because the courtyard is a death trap with only one exit. We lose that, we might as well go and drown ourselves in the river right now,” Buffy said as they all gathered around the makeshift map lying next to Lucy on the Table. “You go and play hero. I’m going to get us all out alive when you’re done.”

She received a glare for the obvious implication that Peter’s plan would fail, but didn’t budge. “I want minotaurs at the back to guard that gate.”

“No. We need them to head the charge.”

“Put the centaurs up front. They’re the better runners anyway.”

“No.”

It was going to be a long night.

+

They were still hashing out details by dawn, finishing only late in the morning, tired, annoyed, dissatisfied and all dreading the coming fight because all of them, even Peter, knew that the entire plan had catastrophe written all over it.

Still, they went along with it because the Narnians would follow Peter simply because of who he was and once had been and they could not just let others die. So they were all going to come along and try to keep the count of dead low. Susan, the most reluctant of them all, had tried time and again over the course of the night to get her brother to change his mind to no avail.

Peter was trying too hard again, wanting too badly. He was thinking with his heart instead of his head even while he managed to convince himself it was the other way round. The worst combination of frustration and denial there was.

Buffy had proven to be shrewd in the extreme as she kept coming up with additions and changes to the plan that made wholesale slaughter less likely. She had insisted on an extra team to take the courtyard walls, so they wouldn’t get shot to death while fighting below. The extra guard for the gate and the gatehouse had also gone through in the end, as had various other, smaller, ideas.

By the time they all separated, more than fed up with each other, Susan was sure that the plan was as safe as it was going to get. Short of knocking Peter out and locking him into the How until the war was over, there was nothing more she could do.

She hated it, but she went to find some food for herself and Lucy quietly because, in the end, Peter was not only Narnia’s High King but also hers. And Susan was loyal to her lord brother and always had been.

+

+

Eight,
Memories Inside of Her

+

Caspian caught up with Asmira – Buffy – as she left the How, apparently going for some fresh air. He silently fell in step beside her, just watching her as he had done all night.

She knew, knew the plan to take the castle would end badly and she was still going along with it. He didn’t understand it and, in the end, as they reached the end of the field, he said so.

She looked at him sideways and simply observed, “You’re coming along, too.”

“Because I wish to free the Professor. You are merely catering to King Peter’s childish whims.”

He was stopped abruptly by a hand on his arm as the small woman turned him around to look at her. “Don’t mistake Peter, or any of them, for a child. They are not children.”

He shook his head, unable to believe what he wasn’t seeing. He had been almost willing to believe after his discussion with King Edmund, but then Peter had presented his plan and it was impossible to think of someone so foolish and stubborn as a grown man.

“If not for him, then why are you agreeing with the raid?”

“My mission is to get you on the Narnian throne. To do that, I’ve got to keep you alive. To keep you alive, I’ve got to keep Peter alive. And to keep Peter alive, I’ve got to go on that raid.” She tried to sound callous, but the edge was missing from her voice, turned dull and gritty, as if she could not find the rage required to be so cruel.

“So this is all about the mission?” Caspian demanded, taking back his arm.

“Yes,” she replied curtly and turned to resume her walk, not caring if he followed or not.

There was a moment of silence as the prince contemplated what he had just learned. Then he called after her, “I don’t believe you!”

She stopped, crossing her arms, one eyebrow raised. “And why’s that?”

He smiled briefly, as if he’d achieved some goal. “The night my father died.”

Her expression fell, becoming as remote as it had been while they had discussed battle plans. “I was doing my job.”

Caspian’s smile didn’t falter. He had her and he knew it. “There was no threat to my welfare that night and yet you sat with me until dawn and told me stories when the rest of the court had altogether forgotten of my existence.”

She looked away from him in the trees, her gaze distant. “You weren’t supposed to remember that,” she mumbled, to herself, not to him. He didn’t think she meant for him to hear.

But he did.

“You were kind to me that night. Like a sister might be, or a mother.” The last came out hesitant and unwanted, a slip of the tongue and silly childhood dreams. Caspian had never known his mother at all, as she had died when he had been only two weeks old, but he had always imagined the things a mother might do based on what his beloved Nurse and his aunt had done. And since he had started brooding about Asmira and remembered that night, he could not help but feel that if he had had a mother growing up, she would have sat with him that night, just as the blonde had.

But he should not have said it out loud. Her expression became a frigid mask of something that wanted to be rage but couldn’t quite get there. “I am not your mother. Get that through your head, Prince. I am nothing to you. You are a job to be done. Nothing more. Don’t delude yourself into thinking we mean anything to each other.”

This time when she started to walk away, he made no move to stop her for long minutes, standing rigid, frozen by her cruel words. He meant nothing to her. Just like he meant nothing to his blood family, to his people, to the Narnians who wanted only to be free but cared little for him. He was nothing. A burden. A mission. A job.

No-one wanted him. Not really. Not ever.

+

“Why are you so mean to him?” the question, asked in the childish, high tones of little Queen Lucy carried through the forest on a breeze and reached him just as he was about to return to the How on numb limbs, feeling as empty as he ever had inside the castle walls, waiting for the day the Professor or Nurse wouldn’t come, would finally forget about him, too.

Now though, his feet carried him closer to the origin of the question without thought.

“I wasn’t mean, I was realistic.”

“But you care for him. You were worried before we found him, weren’t you?”

He found Buffy and Lucy sitting against the base of a tree, the older watching the younger making daisy chains in silence, seemingly contemplating her answer. Caspian held his breath.

“It’s better not to get attached,” she finally said.

“Why?” Lucy asked, without looking up from the deft movements of her fingers.

“I’ll be gone as soon as this is over.”

Silence again as the girl finished braiding the chain and tied it off expertly. She ran her hands over it once before tucking in her feet and rolling so she was kneeling. She reached out and placed the crown of flowers on Buffy’s head, carefully pulling a few strands of hair out from below it and laying them on top, to fix her work in place.

“But you are already attached,” she said very quietly as she sat back on her haunches to admire her work.

The newly crowned Daisy Queen’s eyes were full of sorrow.

+

Caspian watched the two females for a few more minutes until he had himself back under control. Then he stepped out of his hiding place, their lack of surprise letting him know that they had been aware of his presence, making him feel like a wayward child. How was it that a twelve-year-old girl could have that effect on him?

“May I have the pleasure of your company?” he asked politely, receiving no verbal answer. Instead Lucy patted the grass beside her and started on another daisy chain, this one apparently meant for him.

He sat in the indicated spot on the girl’s free side and, as Buffy did, watched her work quietly. After some time, the little Queen started singing softly. “Queen of Spring, babbling rivers, youngest bloom and endless fields to run. She is the lively, lively, lively one.”

Caspian started after the first few words, blinking at her in surprise. He knew the nursery rhyme she was singing, as did almost every other Telmarine child, but the melody was all wrong. He had known it as a fast ditty all his life, but Lucy sung it slowly and with breaks.

As he still wondered where she had learned the words, she stopped singing and hummed the melody, before starting on the second verse, her voice sweet with little effort behind it as most of her concentration was on her hands. “King of Summer, longest day, brightest skies and splendid sun. He is the burning, burning, burning one.”

She hummed again and this time when she started singing the last two verses, Caspian quietly sung along, testing her slower melody. “Queen of Autumn, shining colours, golden leaves and harvest drum. She is the gentler, gentler, gentler one. King of Winter, whitened fields, crystal air and turn of the sun. He is the harshest, harshest, harshest one.”

As they finished their singing, Lucy beamed up at him radiantly, “You know the song!”

He smiled and resisted the urge to ruffle her hair, reminding himself of what Buffy had told him. They were not children. “Every Telmarine child does, I imagine. It is a common tool for teaching children about the seasons. But we sing it differently, faster and happier. How is that you know the words?”

Lucy’s expression fell. “The seasons?” she asked, “But have you forgotten what the song is about?”

He looked at her, head tilted, not sure what she was talking about but aware that she seemed stricken all of a sudden. “My Lady?”

“A faun wrote it,” she said, looking at him with big, watery eyes, “For the tenth anniversary of our coronation. It’s about us, Prince Caspian.”

“I am sorry, I do not understand.”

She smiled at him weakly and held out the half finished daisy crown for him to take. “I was the Queen of Spring.”

Her, the Queen of Spring? He guessed he could imagine it but it seemed impossible that Telmarines would sing of Narnian legends, that the song could have a meaning completely different from what everyone believed. “But clearly,” he argued, “the four verses describe the four seasons.”

The Valiant Queen nodded, the shook her head, lowering her hand with the flower chain back into her lap. “Yes, but it is also about us. I was spring, Peter was summer, Su autumn and Ed winter. It described us, too. I am the lively one, Peter is the burning one, Susan the gentle and Edmund the harsh.”

“Burning and harsh?” Buffy queried from the young Queen’s other side.

“They called Peter the burning one because he was a terror it battle. He burned all that got too close to him. Once I got hurt in battle against the werewolves. I was trapped and their leader tried to use me as a hostage. Peter said that if he hurt me, he would hunt down every single werewolf there was.”

“Did he?” Caspian demanded, finally hearing what he had wanted to hear. Stories of war, stories that showed a man, a King, not an angry boy.

Lucy blinked up at him, biting her lower lip, saying sadly, “Werewolves are almost extinct.”

What? What did that have to do with…? “Are you saying they are on the brink of extinction because of the High King?”

She nodded gravely. “The pack leader almost bit off my arm.”

And as revenge, the King of Summer had slain an entire race, had killed almost every member of its kind. He had made a promise and he had kept it. Over Lucy’s head, Caspian met Buffy’s gaze and he understood her warning about treating them as children. Not only because Peter knew war, but also because of the way Lucy told of it. She had been hurt despite her brother’s warning. So he had killed those that hurt her. There was nothing childish about the way she retold the event.

“And Edmund was the Just,” she added, almost as an afterthought. “He was the judge and he was always fair, but when you didn’t deserve mercy, he didn’t give it to you. He helped Peter, back then, with the werewolves. Do you understand now why we sing the song slowly?”

Numbly, the prince nodded. He did understand. The song he had always thought to be nothing more than a nursery rhyme with a hidden lesson was so much more. It was a warning.

A warning to beware of the burning King and his just brother, of the Valiant Queen and even, in a way, the Gentle Queen by association alone. Not children. He knew that now.

Suddenly Buffy spoke up. “Hold on. Did you say Peter was the King of Summer?”

Lucy looked at her, a comical expression on her face. “Yes?”

She startled as Buffy jumped to her feet, brushing off her dress with fire in her eyes. She turned to Lucy with a solemn expression on her pretty face. “Excuse me, I have to go and kill your brother.”

She took off before Lucy could to more than eep quietly.

+

Peter was alone in the room that had quickly become the royal bedroom once the siblings had arrived at the How and Caspian had insisted on sharing what had been ‘his’ room until then with the rest of them.

He was lying on his bedroll, staring morosely at the ceiling and second guessing himself, as had become his habit over the past year. His brooding was interrupted by quiet footsteps followed by a tart, “Belonging to summer, huh?”

He winced as he sat up, facing Buffy and taking a moment to marvel at how quickly they had all adapted to calling her by her real name. It was like the other one, the made up one, had never been hers to begin with, had never fit.

“How did you figure it out?” he asked, ducking his head.

“Your little sister likes to sing when she makes daisy chains.” There was a fondness in her voice that made him look up and notice for the first time, that she had been crowned by Lucy. He remembered a hundred different occasions when Lucy had disappeared into Cair Paravel’s gardens only to come back with new crowns for all of them. When Peter or Edmund had tried complaining, she had simply told them it kept them humble and their pride down to size.

Lucy, for all her childish whims, had always been the wisest of them. Still, did she have to sing that song?

“I meant nothing by it,” he assured Buffy, not quite meeting her gaze.

She hesitated in the doorway for a moment before entering the room with a mighty sigh and sinking down in front of him, on Edmund’s make shift bed. “Blatant arrogance and chauvinism aside, Peter, I don’t belong to you.”

“I know that!” He’d just been running off his stupid teenaged mouth again. Hadn’t he?

“Do you?” She asked.

Instead of responding, he raised his eyebrows and just looked at her, head tilted to one side. It was a look that had, once upon a time, made minotaurs shuffle guiltily.

Silence.

Then, “It’d never work, you know?”

“How so?”

“Well, for one, I’m too old for you.”

Peter snorted. The matter of age had given him too many headaches already in the past year. Every time he tried to figure out how old his siblings were, his head started spinning. “How old are you? Physically, I mean? Twenty? Twenty-five?”

She inspected her hands for a moment. “A month or so short of twenty-two.”

“So you’re twenty-one,” he corrected. “That’s only four years older than me.”

“Ah, but I’m in my late sixties, actually.”

“And I’m in my thirties. Or, if you want to be specific about it, in my thirteen hundreds.”

She chuckled involuntarily. “You’re looking pretty good for a pile of dirt, though.”

He grinned widely, watching her freeze as she realized what she’d just said. “Peter, no. Whatever you’re thinking, no.”

“Why not?” he demanded. He hadn’t really thought about it before now, hadn’t exactly had time to consider romantic entanglements but if Susan could flirt with Caspian, Peter could flirt, too. Sure, he didn’t really know Buffy and she didn’t know him, but what he knew, he liked. Her company was soothing and she didn’t look at him with her eyes filled with expectations.

Besides, Peter had watched enough people die, here and there, to know that sometimes you didn’t need love. You just needed a bit of happiness before everything was taken away. Here, now, he wasn’t some love sick, desperate teenager. He was the High King, a man in his thirties, who knew what he wanted and how fleeting the good times could be.

“I have no interest in you,” Buffy answered, distant again all of a sudden, all joking around forgotten.

Peter leaned back on his elbows, mustering her from head to toe and back. Finally he offered, “I don’t think you’re half as cold as you would like us to believe.”

“Oh, really?” Biting sarcasm.

“Yes.”

“Alright then, you want the truth?” She was looking at him like she expected him to refuse.

He smiled. “That would be nice, yes.”

“I’m messed up. I’m paranoid, violent, pissed off as hell, broken, bitter and tired and I’m going to be gone as soon as this war is over.”

Somewhere along the lines this had turned from a hypothetical conversation into a real one, an accumulation of reasons why the two of them together would be a bad thing. But if they had so many reasons against it, that had to mean they wanted it, didn’t it? And that meant… Peter had no idea what that meant, only that it did mean something.

His expression never wavered as he answered with a shrug, “And I’m angry, confused, bitter, sad and messed up and will probably be sent back to England once this is over. What’s to lose?”

“Everything,” Buffy answered immediately as she stood, looking down at him. “Lucy said it, I’m already too attached. Leaving here is going to be bad enough already and I don’t… Why start something that’s bound to end?”

“That’s very nihilistic.”

She snorted and half laughed as she turned to leave him alone again. “Yeah. Wonder where that comes from.”

“Why do you always wear green?” Peter asked, apropos of nothing.

She looked at him askance. “I don’t exactly have a full wardrobe on me, do I?”

“You want to know what I think?” he asked, rolling to his feet as well.

Predictably, she shook her head and turned towards the door. “No.”

Not deterred in the least, his arm shot out, catching her around the waist. He had no illusions whatsoever about the fact that she had allowed him to catch her, though. He took it as a good sign. She wasn’t screaming yet, wasn’t raging and cursing Aslan for her predicament. In fact, she had yet to get angry at anyone all day, as far as he knew. And she had obviously stopped fighting with Lucy at every turn.

“Green is the colour of hope,” he whispered in her ear, pulling her closer.

“And you really are a child if your believe that,” she retorted, eyes fixed ahead, ignoring the way his breath felt against her cheek and neck. “Now let me go.”

He considered it for a moment before simply saying, “No.”

She could have broken his hold. She didn’t.

“Not before you tell me why. The real reason this time.” He wasn’t asking about her choice of dress either and they both knew it.

They stayed like that, his arm around her waist, her back to his chest, too close for propriety, for almost five minutes until she slumped, shoulder sagging.

“I don’t wanna hurt,” she finally admitted before violently wrenching out of his hold and fleeing the room.

She still wasn’t screaming.

+

For the longest time after Buffy’s abrupt departure, Caspian sat in silence, watching Queen Lucy play. He had better things to do, admittedly, but he couldn’t very well leave her alone in a forest swarming with Telmarine scouts. Even if she wasn’t a real child, she was small and weak as one.

So he sat and waited and let his thoughts drift to everything he had learned in the past twenty-four hours since meeting the siblings. Adults in children’s bodies. He hadn’t been able to see it until Lucy’s song. Until her story.

Blood and death and memory inside of her, inside of all of them. They acted like children, Peter most of all, Susan least, but they were not. If you looked into their eyes, you could see them as they really were. Old and sad.

Grieving, perhaps, for a Narnia that none but they remembered.

He tried to imagine travelling a thousand years through time to find everything he knew completely changed and found he could not. So instead he tried imagining being an adult in a child’s body and failed there too, because he had yet to be a real adult. He acted like one, fought like one, but in his heart he was seventeen years old.

He had no concept of how they had to feel.

He was torn out of his reverie by a hand on his knee and a soft voice. “Caspian, it’s finished.”

Queen Lucy held out a second crown of daisies and he took it with apprehension.

“It’s for you,” she said.

He tried not to grimace. There was no way he was wearing a flower crown. King Peter was already undermining any standing he had with the army. He didn’t need to be caught wearing flowers to enforce the notion that he was useless as a leader.

“Would you not rather wear it, Queen Lucy?”

He was met by a tiny scowl. “It’s Lucy,” she ordered, “Or I’ll have to call you Prince, Prince. And it’s much too big for me.”

She pushed the crown at him again and looked at him, expectantly.

“I couldn’t.”

“It’s easy,” she told him, jumping to her feet and taking it from him, trying to put it on his head as she had for Buffy. He resisted until she spoke again. “You just have to forget your pride and be yourself.”

His hands fell away. Be yourself? When had he ever been allowed that?

He realized that his moment of inattention had cost him because suddenly the small Queen pulled back, laughing brightly, her hands empty. Timidly he reached up to feel his head and yes, there it was. He had been crowned Daisy King to match Buffy’s Queen.

Lucy, sensing that he was about to remove the offending object from his person, grinned impishly and asked, “So, are you as keen on Susan as she is on you?”

He sat, gaping, his mind stalling completely. The Valiant Queen giggled.

+

A bit over a day later, after all preparations were finished and the raiding party ready to leave, they set out. Peter and Glenstorm were at the head of the column, going over the plan for one last time with a reluctant Caspian trailing behind, listening in but not bothering to protest anymore. He had been shot down too many times to count in the past day and he had no desire to bring morale down further by openly fighting the High King.

Beside, walking close to Peter had the distinct advantage of keeping him away of Queen Susan, who was barely on speaking terms with her own brother. Ever since Queen Lucy’s observations the day before, he had been avoiding the older of the two sisters whenever possible, blushing furiously on the rare occasion when he could not.

Buffy, who was, like Susan, avoiding the High King had set up shop at the end of the line, her entire demeanour icier than anyone, including Caspian, had ever seen it before. She rarely spoke more than a word or two at a time, kept her face blank at all times and stared off into space regularly.

She had even sent King Edmund, usually the most patient of all his siblings, packing when he had tried to make conversation with her. She had simply answered all his questions with a monotonous ‘yes’ or ‘no’, obviously not listening at all, her focus turned entirely inwards. In the end, the younger King had retreated to the middle of the column where he had met up with his sister, walking glumly beside her, like a man walking to the gallows.

Four of the five key players for the raid were not on speaking terms with each other and the fifth had all but given up trying to shake some sense into them.

The rest of the raiding party had watched indulgently as their leaders had quarrelled back at the How but now that the attack was looming ever closer, tension rose and morale went down. How were they supposed to win a war, much less a battle, when their leaders were sulking like children?

No-one knew an answer and so, as the afternoon progressed, the column grew more and more quiet as a blanket of apprehension settled over it.

No-one, not even those who knew little of the risks involved in the plan, could quite shake the feeling that they were marching to their doom.

+

At the end of the silent column, more of a funeral march, really, people marching to their own funeral, Buffy walked, refusing to talk to anyone, thanks to High Idiot Peter and his refusal to let things rest at all.

Lucy had said it, she was already attached to these people, these children who weren’t children at all. They reminded her too much of home, of herself, of things she’d tried to forget for so long. She could not help but be drawn to the weird mixture of adult seriousness and the childish ability to laugh in the face of gloom. Lucy was too adorable for words and Edmund and Susan were both smart and interesting, wise, each on their own way. Caspian had long since grown on her in the manner of a little sibling, someone to watch over and be proud of. And Peter. Peter who burned like the sun, stubborn and proud and stupid and more alive than she’d been in fifty years.

Do not get attached. It had replaced her old First Rule many years ago and she had always stuck to it religiously before. But this time it seemed impossible. Ten years in this strange world and only a week with the siblings and Caspian and she cared. She cared enough to make her ache and for the first time in a long time, want.

She wanted to stay.

And her anger, her sword and shield against the emotions battering her, was failing her, failing altogether.

It made her bitter, so bitter, that she knew she would not be able to stay. As soon as this war was over one way or another, she would be whisked away to start all over again elsewhere.

She would lose the five children that had grown on her so quickly.

And if that realization, the knowledge of loss to come, wasn’t bad enough, Peter had to go and open up old wounds. When had she last taken a lover? Ages and ages ago. When she’d still hoped.

She had lost him like she lost everyone else and she had, at the time, thought it would kill her. She’d thought that the pain of losing him would manage what Glory and an army of hell had not. To break her into tiny, dead pieces.

Never again, she’d sworn. Never again. She’d drawn up the anger, built the walls and stopped hoping, stopped dreaming, stopping living. She existed. That was all anyone could ask of her. No more than that. Not ever again.

Until Peter made that stupid quip about her belonging to him, bringing up the mere idea of her and him. Of them. She should have run right then.

She didn’t want to get hurt. That’s what she had told him before rushing out on him. But now, after the possibility had been presented and her heart had not rejected it as completely as her head, she already hurt.

Don’t get attached, but she was attached.

Don’t dream, but she was dreaming.

Don’t get hurt, but she would be. She was.

Did that mean she threw all her rules to the wind and simply lived, for as long as she had?

Or did that mean that she had to lock herself up tighter, had to push them away harder, to minimize the pain later? Could she even do it? Here, in this damn place, this country?

In the end it came down to a single question. Was she brave enough to invite all that pain? Or was she too afraid?

The answer, something that would have been so, so clear once upon a time, when she’d still been brave Buffy, the one that never stayed down, never admitted defeat and never stayed afraid for long. But she wasn’t that person anymore.

She wasn’t stubborn as a brick anymore.

No more Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Here she was only Buffy, the girl who wasn’t allowed to even die.

And she had no answer to that one, all important question.

+

+

Nine,
They Left Their Dead

+

Buffy watched from her place between Asterius, the taciturn minotaur and Rainstorm, Glenstorm’s son, for the all clear and the return of the griffins.

The all clear came in the form of a signal from Edmund and his torch, followed shortly by the griffins that had carried Peter, Edmund, Susan, Caspian and Trumpkin to where they needed to be. She tipped an imaginary hat at the minotaur that she would be seeing again later and took off to the back of the group, where her own people were waiting to be picked up.

Defence from the archers had been one of the points she and Peter had argued endlessly about and she’d won despite his protests that they needed everyone they had on the ground. The argument, “They’re no good when they get turned into pincushions,” had finally ended the fight.

They had a dozen Griffins on their side, all the adults that were left of their race, and they would carry two passengers each (plus one who would carry only Buffy, who was the biggest of her crew) onto the castle’s roof, where they would be waiting to shoot the shooters in the back. It wasn’t very honourable, but if it saved lives she couldn’t really work up the energy to care. All’s fair.

She came to a skidding halt next to Nikabrik and the motionless body of an unfortunate Telmarine that had surprised the dwarf. She listened briefly but found no heart beat. With a sigh she turned away, motioning for everyone to get into groups of two for their pick up.

Her group consisted of dwarves and small animals, small, light beings that could easily be ferried onto the roofs by the giant griffins. Edmund had made a joke or two about her not being much bigger than her team and earned himself a sound smack around the head for it, king or no king.

A low whistle was the only warning she got before she suddenly found herself airborne, with nothing but two sets of claws holding her there. It wasn’t exactly a great feeling but she bore it with dignity, unlike one of the dwarves, who couldn’t keep from squeaking. His travel companion punched him in the shoulder and then they flew on in silence.

A minute later, twenty-two archers, plus Buffy were dropped on the roof of the three buildings boxing in the court yard. The fourth side was made up of only wall and gate and there was no space for them to hide there. Buffy’s senses caught commotion inside one of the upper rooms, but she forced herself to hold still. Her place, for now, was here.

She had to restrain herself again when Edmund got into a scuffle with a guard and had a minor heart attack when it looked like he had lost his torch. Without torch there’d be no reinforcements and without reinforcements, there’d be only four monarchs inside a castle filled to burst with enemies. And then there’d be the bodies of four monarchs in a castle filled to burst with enemies. And that simply didn’t fly, no pun intended.

Down below, Peter and Susan were finally having the fight they’d been gearing up for the past two days, at the most inopportune moment possible, with Caspian interjecting his opinion every now and then, making Peter even angrier.

Lucky for them all, Ed finally got the torch working again and sent the signal to attack in the nick of time, breaking up the argument below as it was now a moot point. It was too late to stop the raid now.

Behind them, Telmarine soldiers gathered, called to arms by an alarm that suddenly went off, messing up their plans before the proper fight had even started.

Then all hell broke loose.

+

Inside the castle, the commotion Buffy heard was Caspian with his sword at Miraz’s throat and the truth burning a hole in his mind and soul. His father. Miraz had killed his father. And he had wondered why Buffy had been there that night, by his side. Now he knew. After killing the reigning monarch, killing a little boy in the same night would have been easy, no?

All lies, all of it. Nothing had ever been true. And to think he had, until this moment, harboured some sort of guilt for fighting his uncle. Not anymore. He watched as his aunt woke fully, fear and confusion written all over her face and underneath it, underneath it was a resignation that he had never seen on her, his father’s sister.

She hadn’t known, not for one second did he believe that, but she had suspected. She had suspected and done nothing, left him in the web of her husband’s weaving, a lonely, defenceless boy who’d clung to his only family like a life line.

Then she went for the crossbow above the bed and the young prince felt something precious inside him die.

+

As the battle between the newly awakened and rallied Telmarine soldiers and the invading Narnians broke loose, Buffy yelled for her teams to start shooting the newcomers to the fight, while they had nothing else to do. It was hard work, picking off enemy soldiers in the darkness, without hitting their own people, but they got a few at least, before the walkways below them suddenly filled with Telmarines and their crossbows.

Without needing the order, her entire team refocused their efforts on picking the archers off before they could start firing into the courtyard. Half of the Telmarines fell immediately before the rest caught on and threw themselves flat against the walls, making them hard to hit and almost impossible to kill. Wrong angle. Wrong, wrong, angle.

Barely fifteen minutes into the attack, everything that could go wrong was going wrong already. The Telmarines were fighting back, their leaders were divided, their troupes scattered and outnumbered, their chosen battleground a disaster. With a curse, Buffy flung her arrows down next to Nikabrik, who lay on his stomach a foot away from her and mirrored Edmund by sliding down the roof and starting to pick the archers off physically.

The first got her bow in his face and dropped like a stone into the courtyard. She didn’t take the time to look, but she thought the Telmarine curse she heard directly below indicated that he’d taken out one of his own as he fell. The next got a sword in the gut and the third a foot in the face as she kept picking them off, one by one, working her way through the row until her side of the walkways was clean.

A quick look told her that Edmund had most of the archers of the other side chasing him and not shooting the people below. On the third side, a pair of dwarves had copied her movement and flung themselves into the fray. They weren’t faring too well but there was nothing she could do for them, except pray. Since she’d never been very good at that, she settled for making sure they had a way of getting out alive if they made it off that walkway.

She tried to make out Caspian in the fray, remembering that this was his first real battle, but couldn’t find him at all, neither fighting, nor on the ground. He was gone. She knew she should have stayed by his side, as was her job, but she couldn’t focus on just one life when so many people were in danger. She was doing more good up here than she could down there. Tactically, she was a weapon best used for large scale damage, not bodyguarding. Still, with terror clawing at her gut she absentmindedly kicked an awaking Telmarine in the face and then simply jumped from the third storey walkway into the fight below.

She landed feet first on a Telmarine, probably saving Glenstorm’s life. He returned the favour by cleaving the head off a soldier who was coming at her from the left and covered her for the second it took her to orient herself and find what she was looking for.

The minotaurs making up the rear guard.

There were five of them, lead by Asterius, the oldest of them. Armed with about two dozen axes and swords between the five of them, they kept the area surrounding the gate clear of all Telmarines. Unfortunately, they could not influence what happened above their heads. Someone cut the chain holding the weights that were part of the mechanism and the heavy iron gate started closing. She noticed at the same time Asterius did and both of them took off at a dead run toward it, intending to hold it open.

She’d known, known that this would happen. And she thanked whoever was listening that Peter had given in in the end and let her have her rear guard because her path was suddenly blocked by two rather nasty, big soldiers hell bent on ripping her to pieces. She returned the favour, simply slicing them open as she ducked between them, but she knew she was too late to catch the gate. Asterius had had less trouble in the cleared area and caught the heavy construction on his shoulders with a cry of pain.

She hurried over to him, afraid he wouldn’t be able to take the weight, but he rallied and stood up straight under the weight just as the first call to retreat rang out. She was almost at the minotaur’s side when something whizzed past her left ear. Automatically she dropped one of her swords and caught the crossbow bolt that had been headed directly for the only one that stood between them and imprisonment followed shortly by certain death.

Shooting around, her second sword already clattering to the ground, she caught another bolt out of the air and met Miraz’ gaze across the courtyard. He was standing on a balcony, crossbow in hand, trying to bring down Asterius. He looked stunned for a moment, as she caught yet another bolt in midflight before an expression of ice cold hate took over his face. She mirrored and matched it, and returned it tenfold for ten years of having to play meek, of watching him terrorize his nephew from the shadows. Ten years of everything that had gone wrong, everyone she despised and all the ugly things she’d been forced to do. She blamed it all on this man and she felt a grim sense of satisfaction as he flinched. Here, outside the borders of Narnia proper, her rage bubbled and burned again.

Tonight she had the slayer in her gaze and she made no attempt to keep her down. Beside Miraz, Glozelle stood, frozen. She looked him over briefly before looking away, hoping he got the hint. There was no use in giving the game away now. If he really was on their side, he was of more use where he was than with them.

He understood and pulled the trigger, firing another bolt at her, trusting her to catch it and she did. Another minotaur came to her aid, but she brushed him off.

“Get moving,” she yelled. She could move fast enough to avoid getting shot. The minotaurs definitely couldn’t. They were rocks, not water. She kept up the amazing bolt catching act as their people filtered past her and Asterius. Bolts were piling up around her by the time the centaurs, who had been leading the charge and thus were the last to get out, galloped past her. Peter and Caspian, thank goodness for that, came charging after Glenstorm on horses.

Peter held out his hand for her to take, but she shook her head, turning and running on foot. Asterius stood facing the courtyard, so there was no way he could pull out running. She built up as much speed as she could possibly manage over such a short distance and met his eyes briefly, silently communicating that she was very sorry, this would hurt, but it would probably save his life because without her to cover for him and Miraz in a rage up above, he was as good as dead.

Then she hit him in a picture book shoulder tackle, slamming him out of range of the Telmarines. The two of them rolled in a tangle of limbs and came to a sudden stop at the edge of the slowly rising bridge just as the gate slammed shut behind them with a bone crushing crack. Both jumped to their feet and this time, when a hand entered her field of vision, Buffy grabbed it readily and let herself be pulled onto Peter’s horse.

For a moment they both looked back at the closed gate and the dead beyond. There were less, a lot less than there could have been, but they had died for nothing. The raid was a failure. They had followed Peter because he had believed, because he was their leader of legend. But he’d been wrong and now… now.

She heard Peter gasp and choke back a cry and found herself hugging him tight around the waist, burying her face in his back.

“Let’s move,” she called and he obeyed.

They left their dead behind, senseless and unburied.

+

They fled as fast as they could, out of the city and then downstream to a place where they could cross the river without having to fight their way through the entire Telmarine army. By the time the entire party was on the right side of the river once more, it was well past noon.

Wordlessly, they trouped into the woods until they were invisible from the shoreline and then, by some silent signal, collectively collapsed. None of them had slept in twenty-four hours, most longer, and the fighting and running had wearied even the hardest of them

“Two hours,” Peter’s voice rang out. “Then we move on.”

It was the first thing he’d said since they’d left the castle. Buffy watched as he jumped off his horse and immediately threw himself into helping the wounded, guilt plain on his face and in his every motion.

Buffy pulled her cloak tight around herself, intending to find a secluded spot nearby and get a nap while she could. She had to get away from the defeated, injured and broken Narnians all around her. Once more, she was falling apart inside the borders of Narnia, leaving her bone-weary and war tired.

On her way away from the group, she suddenly spotted Edmund, sitting on a low rock, staring straight ahead. He had been the last to leave the castle and she had no doubt that he had seen the entirety of their failure from his position on the griffin. She studied him for a moment, before turning to stare into the trees. Back to the king and back to the solitude of the forest.

Human or silence. Help or evade. Friend or loneliness. Attached or not attached. Why was she even pretending to be thinking about it anymore? She unclasped her cloak at the throat and walked up to the teenager, who seemed lost in his own world. Spreading the cloak with both hands she settled it on his shoulders, resisting the urge to pull it closed and ruffle his hair while she was at it.

Then she quietly ordered, “Scoot over.”

Edmund, who blinked at her in dumbstruck surprise, obeyed and then attempted to give back the cloak. She waved him off. “You look like you need something to hold on to.”

He looked away and for a while they just sat next to each other, one staring at the ground, one watching as a makeshift camp sprung up around them. One of the younger minotaurs walked past, stopping briefly to bark a curt, “Warrior,” before marching on.

Buffy made a questioning noise at the back of her throat before shaking her head. “This is getting weird. I swear, earlier, at the river, one of the centaurs bowed to me.”

Ed looked at her sideways, one eyebrow raised. “They all know who insisted on the rear guard and the archers on the roofs. You saved us.”

She shook her head again, refusing the praise. “Last count said we have seventy three dead,” she told him. They’d started out with about two hundred men. A third of them were now dead. There was nothing there that deserved praise.

“It would have been worse if we hadn’t gotten out when we did,” Ed argued, quietly. “You saved a lot of lives last night.” He snorted depreciatingly, pulling the cloak tighter around his shoulders. The dark green made him look even paler than he was, a vivid purple bruise colouring the left side of his jaw and neck. “Unlike me.”

“You were loyal to your brother. There’s nothing wrong with that. I might have been able to stop this whole thing, but I didn’t.” It was true. For some reason that even Peter himself didn’t quite understand, he listened to her when he listened to no-one else. Maybe it was because she was ruthless in pointing out his mistakes, maybe because she didn’t revere him like the others did.

It was Ed’s turn to shake his head. “I could have stopped him, too, but I didn’t. I just… I was the traitor once,” he confessed, his voice barely above a whisper. “I swore myself that wherever Pete leads, I follow and so….” he trailed off, not quite sure what ‘so’ was.

“You follow your general into victory and you follow him into defeat. Most people don’t understand that following someone isn’t easy, and it certainly isn’t something you can change your mind about,” she told him, remembering her own army and their betrayal, the way they wanted to follow only when they liked where she led. It didn’t work like that. Loyalty couldn’t be dependent on the weather. If you followed someone, you had to follow them everywhere, not just until it got too hot. And sometimes, that was harder than leading, something she had learned only after she had stepped into the role of support herself. “You’re a smart man, Edmund Pevensie.”

He smiled at her, and it was an honest thing, born not only from appreciation for her understanding of his motives, she thought, but also from the fact that she had called him a man. Even if she hadn’t known his story, after watching him slide down a roof to save his brother from getting shot, she couldn’t have called him a child anymore.

Suddenly his smile turned into a grin. “Yeah, you’re not too bad yourself. Warrior.”

She smacked him in the arm and reared back, surprised, as he flinched violently. At her questioning gaze he shrugged. “Those shingles I slid down weren’t exactly smooth as glass.”

She nodded in understanding. She’d had a few bruises herself from those. But hers were almost gone already. Unlike his. She tried to imagine how his back had to feel.

“Alright,” she ordered, standing and reaching out a hand to pull him up, “Off to the healers with you.”

He groaned, but accepted her hand, letting her take most of his weight. His back really was one big bruise. She led him to the centre of the impromptu camp, where the few non-combatants they had with them had set up shop, treating the injured that had, until now, gritted their teeth and simply kept moving out of necessity. Since the king’s injuries were unpleasant rather than life threatening, he merely informed the healers of his presence and then sat on the rough ground, content to wait his turn. Buffy joined him, figuring she had nothing better to do.

Peter passed by their spot a few minutes later, carrying a badger sporting a badly bandaged arrow wound in one leg. They watched him put the animal in the healer’s care, stress and guilt both obvious in the way he ran himself into the ground to help the injured.

He stopped in front of the two of them, asking Edmund with worry heavy in his voice, “Are you alright?”

Ed nodded and managed a grin. “I’m fine. Just bruised. Buffy insisted on having someone look at it but I’m really okay.”

For a moment it seemed that Peter would argue because when it came to his sibling’s health, he always argued. But apparently the event of the past night had been a strong reminder that he was not always right and so he believed his little brother with a weak nod.

“And you?” He turned to Buffy, running his eyes over her, looking for obvious signs of a wound and finding none. She’d only gotten bruised and a bit banged up tackling a minotaur twice her size and four times her weight. Some ribs were probably cracked, she thought, from a lucky kick landed by a Telmarine on the walkway, but nothing was broken. She would heal. Besides, Peter had no reason to worry about her.

She shrugged. “I’m fine,” was her curt reply.

He hesitated, opened his mouth to speak and then walked away, shoulders slumped. Out of the corner of her eye she noticed Edmund looking at her critically. “What’s going on with you and Pete?”

“Nothing. Come on, I’ll but some bruise salve on you myself. Faster that way.”

She made to stand but found herself stopped by a hand grasping at her skirts. Edmund looked up at her critically. “I’ve known my brother for a lot longer than you. That’s not nothing. What’s going on?”

She spun on her heel, forcing him to either let go or fall face first in the dirt. “He wants something he can’t have. Now stay there, I’ll be back in five.”

It wasn’t hard to get her hands on some salve that was supposed to stop swelling and ease muscle pains, ideal for bruises. She took a jar full, waved it in the direction of the hare in charge of smaller wounds to indicate where it had gone and then made her way back to the bruised king, finding him exactly where she’d left him, pensive expression on his face.

Seeing the small jar in her hand, he wordlessly stripped off her cloak, his shoulder guards, leather jerkin, belts and finally his shirt, exposing his back to her sympathetic gaze. She winced. “That’s got to hurt.”

He grunted and winced, too, as she applied the first goop of the herbal mixture and started rubbing it into abused muscles. His entire left side, from shoulder-blade to hip was dark blue, almost black. She expected that the bruises went on below his waistline but she wasn’t about to try and make a teenager strip in the middle of a camp, no matter how mature he seemed to be. He was male. As such, he would rather suffer in silence than drop his pants. Still, those shingles had really done a number on him.

Carefully and with gentle fingers, she worked her way down his back. Eventually he relaxed as the herbs in the salve started doing their job and numbed the pain a bit. By the time she was finished, half the jar was gone and she didn’t bother returning it to the hare. Instead she simply dropped it in his lap as he redressed himself and winked when he gave her a questioning glance. He rolled his eyes and bravely refused to blush as he strapped his sword to his waist. Once everything was back in place he handed her back her cloak with a smile and a wink of his own before saying, almost conversationally, “You know, an interesting fact about my brother? He always gets what he wants.”

“Not this time,” she countered lightly, trying to have the last word but she didn’t need to be a mind reader to know that Edmund’s silence was not defeat but indulgence. “He won’t.”

Ed shrugged and offered, “Thanks for helping with my back.”

That was the end of the conversation.

+

When Susan finally hurried her steps to make peace with her brother, Caspian, having no desire to be anywhere near the High King, fell back in the column in search of conversation to keep him awake. He had given his horse up to an injured faun long ago and so was walking, which helped keep him awake, but fact was, he was dead on his feet and the two hours of rest had barely been enough to find some water and help treat the worst injuries.

He passed the Professor in the middle of the group, but there was little they had to say to each other. There were no more fantastic tales to tell now and as much as the prince had burned to tell his old teacher what he had learned about the song about the seasons he had once sung himself as a boy, now he didn’t feel like talking at all.

His aunt, the last of his flesh and blood, had picked her husband, her murdering, thieving monster of a husband, over him. His father had been murdered. More than a third of their party was dead for no reason other than a man’s hubris and pride. He felt like the world had ended when he hadn’t been looking.

He found his protector at the very end of the raiding party, following idly in the wake of the others, her mind somewhere else entirely. Falling in step next to her, he checked her over for injuries, the fast spreading tale of her heroics still ringing in his ears. But she seemed completely unharmed. Unlike most of the rest of the party.

She spoke suddenly, startling him, as he had not been aware that she’d noticed him at all. She’d seemed so deep in thought. “Where’s Susan? You seemed inseparable earlier.”

He kicked a bit at a pebble, resisting the urge to repeat the motion. It was childish and petulant. “She went to make peace with her brother.”

“Good for them. Peter is tearing himself apart enough already.”

He rounded on her, livid, “How can you say that? We lost a third of our party and it is his fault!”

Buffy seemed entirely immune to his rage and that, in turn, made him even angrier. “There was a chance of success. A chance to stop Miraz before he ever crossed the river.”

“But you didn’t believe in it. No-one did! The chance was too small and the risk was too great!”

“Peter believed,” she told him, growing calmer all the time as he grew angrier.

“Yes, and he got our people slaughtered.”

Finally, she reacted to his fury. She stopped, hands loosely at her sides, and looked him straight in the eyes. She was smaller than him by a head. Funny, he had never noticed before. “It was his decision to make.”

“It was the wrong one!” He flung up his hands, almost yelling at this point. Did she not see? Did she not understand? Dozens of people were dead because Peter had refused to simply listen.

“Do you think that every decision you make as a leader will be the right one? That being king automatically makes you infallible? Peter leads. These people follow. That is how it goes. If we’d succeeded, everyone would be singing his praises now. We didn’t. We failed. And he’s being eaten alive by guilt. He doesn’t need you to add to that.”

“I would never lead my people to slaughter!”

Buffy’s smile was uglier than any expression he had seen on her before because it was tinged with bitter disappointment, as if he’d done something horribly, horribly wrong. “Then you’re never going to lead them anywhere. Being the boss means making the hard choices, Caspian. If you can’t do that, you can’t lead at all.”

Condescending. She looked at him with green eyes framed by golden hair, the picture of perfection, of purity, looked at him, dirty, grimy, bloodstained, grieving, angry and doubting, doubting his entire existence and he could see the condescension in her. She was treating him like a child, like his uncle did, like everyone did. A child, a child, a child, a burden. Something to be rid off. Go read some books, Caspian, we’ll come talk to you when you’re older, say, in ten years.

“What do you know?” he spat, cold in his fury. “Susan told me what you are. A soldier. A servant of Aslan. You know nothing of leading people.”

Inclining her head to one side, she half bowed in his direction, expression mocking.

“Of course. I apologize for speaking of matters which I do not understand, my Lord. It was presumptuous of me,” she stated, voice saccharine and sickeningly smooth.

The look of disappointment was back and stronger, so much stronger than before. She straightened from her bow and collected her cloak, hurrying to catch up to the rest of the column. Caspian stayed behind, their fight still ringing in his ears, and, worse than that, her parting words.

After a week of fretting over her, of thinking about every single time he had ever laid eyes on her, he remembered all the conversations they had ever had, few as they had been, over the years. Even when his father had still been alive in those early days, even when he had still been the celebrated heir to the throne instead of the family’s black sheep living in the highest tower, she had never spoken to him with such deference, never cowered and crawled before him.

Now that she had, it felt like an insult.

+

+

Ten,
Never Sated, Never Dying

+

Lucy knew that the raid had gone wrong the second she laid eyes on her brothers. Peter was wide eyed, dirty and rugged, a shadow of stubble on his chin and the glint of victory, no matter how small, entirely missing from his gaze. Edmund was beside him, tired and worn, his expression one of worry rather than guilt.

The signs all said one thing. Peter’s plan had failed and the price had been high.

Lucy wished, she wished by Aslan and every other power she knew, that she had not witnessed this scene before but she had. Her brothers had not always returned victorious, had not always returned in one piece. She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment before opening them again and facing the facts of what lay before her. Her siblings, all three, seemed unharmed. The same went for Caspian and Buffy, Glenstorm, the mice and Trumpkin. Asterius was there, too, as were Trufflehunter, Nikabrik and most others she knew by name. But the satyr who told such nice stories had disappeared, as had the faun that looked a bit like Mr. Tumnus. The group that had left two hundred strong had returned a lot smaller.

Too much smaller.

Loss.

Death.

Grief.

The Valiant Queen was a stranger to neither of those but still she felt tears well in her eyes. Where, oh where, had her beloved golden Narnia gone? When had it broken? When had it become this?

Aslan, where are you?

She received no answer.

“What happened?”

Peter marched past her, his expression like midnight, snapping, “Ask him.”

He pointed at Caspian, who reared back in anger, demanding, “Me? You insisted on this raid, despite knowing how foolish it was.”

“I didn’t hear a better plan from you.”

“Then you were not listening!”

Lucy watched as some spark finally returned to Peter as he rounded on the prince. She thought it was better than watching her burning King of Summer so defeated but all the yelling only made her want to cry harder. There was enough blame to go around and enough guilt, too.

Oh Aslan, Aslan, it was all falling apart.

Peter’s gaze landed on her as she was about to turn away, tears in her eyes and all the fire, all the artificial anger he had worked up left as fast as they had come and what was left was a bone tired man she hadn’t seen since their early days in Narnia, when Edmund had been gone from them. Her big brother, the strong one, had looked utterly lost without his little brother to mother, annoy, yell at and love. Like part of him was missing.

But this time all his siblings were there. Peter hadn’t lost them. But he’d lost part of himself. As she flung herself at him, her arms locking around his waist like a vice, Lucy let the tears fall.

A second later she felt his own arms come down around her shoulder, pulling her as close to him as he could without crushing her. “Oh Lu,” he whispered, too quietly for anyone but her to hear. “I’m so sorry.”

And Lucy cried harder into his blood stained shirt because she knew those five words were the only weakness he was ever going to allow himself. He lifted her up, snuggled her safely into his arms and carried her inside silently, allowing his little sister to cry his tears for him. And she did. She knew no other way to help him.

+

Beautiful. Beautiful. It was beautiful, how everything fell into place without him having to do anything.

Caspian racing for his life out of the castle had been the beginning of it. Faith in the Lord Protector wavered. Questions were asked and no answers were forthcoming. Next: The news that the girl Glozelle had been eyeing for a decade had run off with the poor dethroned prince hit.

For the first time ever, that stupid brick of a General had faltered in his stubborn, immovable loyalty. A crack in the wall that kept the throne far out of reach.

And now, glorious, glorious, Caspian coming back on some misguided errand to save his teacher. He was branded a traitor before the sun rose and officially removed from the family tree. Another obstacle removed, another competitor out of the game. All that was left now was Miraz.

By sunset the lords had convened and stamped their meaningless seal of approval on the Lord Protector’s appeal.

As Sopespian placed the heavy crown on Miraz’ head, his mind was already racing ahead. King Miraz, noble defender of his country, stalwart and true in the face of his nephew’s betrayal, would fall in the war against Caspian and his rebel forces.

Glozelle would falter at just the right moment, leaving his lord’s back exposed. And then he himself would deflect, yes, would join his heathen lover from the woods.

General gone, army without a head, Miraz gone, throne without a King. And Sopespian would be there to take it all for himself without ever, ever staining his hands with more than a few well placed words.

Beautiful. So very beautiful.

+

He was tired. He was scared. He was weak. Those were his only excuses, afterward. And they were pathetic. But the monarchs had failed him, Buffy had been driven away by his own words and all hope seemed lost.

Peter. Peter had started it all by insisting on that raid and getting so many killed. Senseless, useless deaths. And yet the people around him pretended there was no blame. Even Susan, the most vehement of protesters, could be found at her brother’s side in the aftermath of his pride and arrogance. That hurt. Caspian liked Susan. But she chose her brother over him so easily, almost effortlessly.

Why? Why was the High King forgiven? Edmund spoke of loyalty, of following where the King led, no matter what. But their King of Old led them wrong, led them astray. His defence was a name that meant nothing, an empty word. Aslan, Aslan, always for Aslan.

There was no Aslan. If he had ever existed, he was long gone. What was left was a boy who relied on the lion’s name to get him through and no matter who he appealed to, Caspian’s worries were ignored. He was only the Prince, the sheltered little Telmarine. What did he know?

He clenched his hands in anger. What did he know indeed? Buffy, the only one he had believed to be on his side, she too had pulled away in the aftermath. She did not speak to the High King, did not even look at him if it could be avoided, but she defended him. She stood up for him.

But she was his. His protector, his childhood memory. The only bright thing in a life filled only with bleak walls and bleak people. She had been his for ten years, existing for him. Defending him. Keeping him alive. His. She was his. Nothing else belonged to him. Not his throne, not his people, not his country. He possessed nothing.

But she was supposed to be his. He had insulted her, had belittled her. He knew that and it made him even angrier. He had pushed her away. But couldn’t she see why? Couldn’t she understand? This was not how things were supposed to be.

This world was not how it was supposed to be.

“Are you so glad of that magic horn now, boy?”

He whirled around at the gruff question, staring at Nikabrik wide eyed. Was he that transparent? His anger and confusion this obvious? His hands clenched tighter, going for his sword and dagger. If the dwarf had come to belittle him again, he honestly did not know what he would do.

But Nikabrik for once kept his opinion about the prince to himself. Instead he spoke out loud the words that had been churning in Caspian’s guts all day long. “The Kings and Queen have failed us. Many are dead and those that aren’t will be soon enough. The Telmarines won’t be long now.”

“What do you want?” Caspian snapped, “Congratulations?”

The dwarf ignored his words and sharp tone in favour of offering, “You want your uncle’s blood. So do we. You want his throne. We can get it for you.”

With that he simply turned and walked away, leaving the prince to either follow or stay where he was, drowning in a sea of disappointment and rage, the very same rage he had accused the High King of being blinded by.

He moved. He had to move. If he stayed still any longer, he would attack the next person to pass him by, would, quite simply, explode.

Whether Nikabrik knew how the young prince felt none would ever know, but he remained silent and focused on his feet as he led Caspian to the chamber of the Stone Table, where he stopped and turned.

“You tried one ancient power. It failed. But there is power greater still. One that kept even Aslan at bay for near a hundred years.”

Steps behind him, even as something wicked and sinister overtook the small man’s expression. Caspian whirled, his sword in his hand by a mere thought, prepared for anything. Or so he thought.

What came out of the shadows was like nothing he had ever seen. Two things, hooded and cloaked in black. One taller than the other, with a furred muzzle and vicious teeth. The other with a beak-like mouth and reptile features, small, hunched. Both of them carried about them an air of wrongness, something that did not belong, steeped in darkness, almost a smell but more, enveloping all the senses, making him gag.

Wrong. Evil. Run. Runrunrun.

Caspian knew what they were. Without a doubt he knew what those two creatures were, even though he had never seen one. They were the fell beasts, the White Witch’s henchmen, fed by her power, by her black magic.

“I am hunger,” the taller, furred one, spoke, its voice like a saw on metal. “I am thirst. I can fast a hundred years and not die. I can lie a hundred nights on the ice and not freeze. I can drink a river of blood and not burst. Show. Me. Your enemies.

Greed. Hunger and thirst, never sated, never fading, never dying. Those things were greed given shape, given form. Caspian knew greed, had seen it shining in the eyes of the lords all his life, had seen it in his uncle’s face when the man had stood on his balcony, looking at Telmar before him. Want. Desire. Need driven to madness.

A need he felt within himself, born of pain and anger and the desire to do something.

“And you can guarantee Miraz’ death?” he asked, his voice weaker than he would have liked it to be, the thing in his chest burning searing hot, screaming.

“And more,” the smaller one rasped, its beak clicking.

Beside Caspian, Nikabrik nodded, looking satisfied.

“Let the circle be drawn!”

Hunching, walking backwards, one of them clawed a circle into the dirt around the prince’s feet, the other standing by, small, black eyes fixed on him like he was prey. Something cold ran down his spine at the greedy expression.

Greed, yes, greed that never ended. Never sated, never dying. Greed would gobble up Miraz and then Telmar, then Narnia and then the rest of the world. Oh, Caspian thought, pulling back, what was he doing? What was he agreeing to?

He turned, trying to escape the circle, those creatures, Nikabrik and his hate. Wrong. This was wrong. But the smaller of the monsters pulled a stick, no, a wand out of nowhere, raising it up and, chanting in a language that made his blood run cold, rammed it into the ground.

Ice spread from the point of impact, filling the circle on the ground, climbing the walls, hiding Aslan’s image from view as something new, something cold grew out of thin air.

A wall of ice.

And inside, a woman, her hair flowing behind her, eyes fixed on him, dark and full of unspeakable things. Caspian reared back, the spell of a new power, the hope of another way, breaking on the shores of reality. The White Witch. Before him, trapped in ice, she floated, a thousand years dead and still here somehow, still alive. Not human. Not… not.

He turned to run for real this time, rage subsiding, anger draining away. Minutes ago he had despised and looked down upon the High King for letting his emotions goad him to foolish risks and now here he was, doing exactly the same.

Failing.

Failing the Narnians, failing the monarchs, failing Buffy, who had warned him, told him, the weight of decisions and their consequences. Loyalty. Royalty. The burden of leading. Failing everything he believed in and dreamed of. Greed. He had fallen for it, too.

But before he could take a single step the creatures trapped him, forced his sword form his hand and cut deeply until blood welled up red and he was too shamed to call for aid. “This isn’t what I wanted,” he managed to wheeze, half choked by the realization of what he had done. They would free the White Witch from her prison, would let her loose upon the world, to wreak havoc worse than anything mortal Miraz could ever cause. A Narnia saved by her, of that he had no doubt, would not be a Narnia at all.

“One drop,” she cajoled from her icy domain, “One drop of Adam’s blood and you free me. Then I am yours, my King.”

He almost laughed bitterly. King. An hour ago someone calling him king would have made him swell with pride. But from the mouth of this creature, it was a vile thing.

“No!” he called, struggling, futilely.

He had never been so glad to hear the High King’s voice as he was right then, when the other boy stormed into the room, yelling, “Stop!”

Behind him, his brother, Trumpkin, Lucy and Buffy followed, all with weapons drawn. They jumped the fell beasts, the kings taking on the furred one while Buffy took the one with the beak and Trumpkin and Lucy faced Nikabrik. He saw all that in a split second as he was let go roughly. Then his gaze accidentally met those of the Witch and he was lost, trapped inside the circle of ice, inside her power, defenceless.

Time stretched and twisted around him, slowing down to a trickle of tar and the rest of the room, the fight, the war, fell away. She could have told him to throw himself on his own sword and he would have done it, without hesitation, without thought, without anything but glassy eyes and total devotion.

And then he felt something impacting on his body and suddenly time sped up again and the world tilted as he flew out of the circle and landed hard on his side, jarred back into reality to see Peter, who had shoved him aside, enter the circle himself. Abstractly, he thought of feeling vindication at the fact that the glorious, golden High King fell into the Witch’s trap the same way he had, but the thought never turned into emotion. There was no fighting her and no shame in losing to her.

No, the shame lay in being weak enough to let those fell beats summon her in the first place. He scrambled to his feet, sword once more in his stinging, bloody hand, ready to help, to finally do something.

But the fight was over and all that was left was Peter staring at the Witch he had once defeated singlehandedly in the battles of Caspian’s bedtime stories. Trapped. Small. Weak. Human.

Peter’s hand moved slowly, his sword lowering. He hesitated. The Great King, King of Old, hesitated.

The blade came out of nowhere, stabbing her through the stomach and shattering the ice, causing it to crash to the ground in a mighty shower of sharp, cold sparks. Behind the crumbling wall Edmund stood, sword raised in both hands, expression bland. He had stabbed her as she had once stabbed him, the traitor turning on the one he had once sold his siblings to. Liberation, memory and horror. His eyes were wide, he was panting hard and as he lowered his sword, he looked at none of them but his brother. The big brother, who had failed. The younger one, who had not.

“I know,” the Just King muttered, “You had it sorted.”

His disappointment weighed heavy in the air, as did that of those behind them, Lucy with tears in her eyes, Susan shocked, Buffy grim.

Caspian, standing next to the oldest Pevensie sibling, lowered his gaze to the ground in shame and knew nothing to say.

Nothing but this. “I am sorry.”

Edmund left, followed by his siblings, Trumpkin and Buffy. Only when there was nothing in the room but the image of Aslan, broken ice and heavy silence, did Peter whisper, “Yes.”

+

Hours later Caspian sat on one of the higher levels of the How, watching the empty field below. The only thing left inside of him was a yawning emptiness where all his emotions had been.

He felt someone coming up behind him, but could not work up the energy to turn and see who it was. Besides, he knew. He could recognize those steps anywhere. For years they had signalled the only fun times of his childhood.

“Why did you never tell me about my father?” he asked his old teacher because it was a safe subject. He already knew the answer and he knew it did not matter. The Professor had been trying to protect him, to teach him the lessons that Miraz would want him to know.

The old man sighed as he sat down next to the prince, dangling his short legs happily. “My mother was a dwarf from the northern mountains. I risked my life all those years so that you might one day be a better king than those before you.”

“Then I have failed you,” he muttered, glumly.

“You are a good man, Caspian.”

“I feel like a naughty child,” the prince admitted, a wry smile pulling on his lips. It had always been too easy talking to his Professor. He’d acted like a child, letting his emotions drive him instead of his head. Anger, grief, and, he was loathe to admit, jealousy. Jealously of Peter and his obvious affection for Buffy. As if he, Caspian, had any claim to her. Until a week ago he had not even been aware of all she had done, had not known her by name.

The Professor, picking up on his mood, just shook his head and offered, “You are not the only one.”

He nodded. Peter had sat on the broken Stone Table after the Witch had been banished once more and still sat there now, staring at the image of the lion, refusing to be moved.

“I don’t think he will move soon,” the older man added.

Caspian, about to answer, noticed something move just inside the trees and squinted against the sun to make out…

A Telmarine soldier. The army had found them.

Grimly he said, “This should move him.”

+

Susan sat among the makeshift smithies of the dwarves, watching them work, impervious to heat and the sparks that flew everywhere. She had found a somewhat sheltered place and curled around her knees, watching them blindly, wondering what they were going to do.

A week ago her biggest worry had been the way her feet had lost their grace on Narnian soil. Now it seemed they had regained their old grace just in time for her to put it to good use in a war.

A war that was neither sanctioned nor approved by Aslan. She wasn’t sure if Peter realized, but in all their years ruling Narnia, they had never once fought a war that the lion had not approved of. Now however, there had been no sign of the lion at all since they had crossed the gorge and that too, had not been much. It had been neither approval nor disapproval, merely a way to find Caspian sooner than they might have otherwise. Hours they had lost to Peter’s tantrum. It had saved them a few hours of useless walking down to Beruna and then back up to the gorge, but that was all.

As far as signs from Aslan went, this one did not even make the list. It might just have been coincidence after all. Lucy said she was dreaming of Aslan, said they just needed to have faith and to look for him. Susan, inclined to believe her sister who had always been strangely attuned to the big cat, did not question Lucy’s dreams. No, her doubt was much worse.

She questioned Aslan’s motive and desires. Why let them fight a war when there was no hope? Was he testing them? Had he tested them when he had abandoned them to wartime England? Or did he not show himself because he disapproved? Of Caspian? Of his campaign? But the prince had blown the horn and that had, ultimately, come from Aslan. A tool to call for aid. Susan was sure that the call had been heard by Aslan, that he had been the one to pull them back home.

But then why wasn’t he with them now? Why was he leaving them to stumble along in the dark? What did he want?

She didn’t know.

And to top it all off, she could feel herself falling for a certain prince without understanding why. She had had older suitors, in her day, better looking, smoother, richer, more handsome. Braver men, with stories to tell and experience to their name. Caspian was a boy and no matter how much he looked her age, or rather she his, she could have been his mother.

Then why did she find herself watching him, thinking of him at all times of the day? Perhaps Lucy was right and they really were children again, but Susan believed in the power of knowledge and experience. As long as she remembered being an adult, she wasn’t a child. So she wasn’t one now, here, in this instant. But she still wanted to find Caspian and talk to him.

Talk to a boy half her age and less than that in experience, a boy who was foolish, angry, without money or power or anything useful. Oh, he was stubborn and brave, too, and he had a certain charm, but really, those things had never been enough to turn her head before. Neither in this world, nor the other. The only thing differentiating him from the poor boy she had turned down at the newspaper stand in England was that he knew how to wield a sword and looked better on a horse.

She didn’t know why she liked him. She didn’t know how to win this war. She didn’t know where Aslan was and what they had done wrong to make him stay away. She didn’t know how to fix broken Peter and sad Lucy, how to make Edmund see his worth and Buffy give up her anger, how to make herself into the woman she had once been, the Gentle Queen, someone she was beginning to fear was dead and gone for good.

But without her, who was Susan?

+

Buffy found Peter where she had left him, in Aslan’s tomb, staring at the lion’s relief on the wall. The only change was that Lucy was sitting next to him, talking to him about faith. About how they had to prove themselves to Aslan, instead of the other way around.

“How about,” she asked with a snort as she sat down on Peter’s other side, “You stop believing and start doing something?”

Luc glared at her but it was Peter who shrugged. “Do what? The last time I tried to do something, a lot of good soldiers died.”

The message implied was clear. Without faith, he had failed. He had decided to take matters into his own hands and now blood stained his hands. Caspian had doubted and almost brought the winter back upon them. Every time they questioned Aslan, something went horribly wrong.

Peter was finding the faith he’d once had, his faith in the lion, unshakable and strong, finding it in the face of adversity and her open questioning. Faith in Aslan. Everything else, it seemed, led to ruin. Buffy clenched her teeth and did not try to fight him on it.

“Sitting here isn’t going to keep them alive,” she argued instead, trying to get him to move.

“But Aslan…”

“Aslan what? He’d not going to win your war for you. He’s not going to fight for you. He’s not even here. So what the heck are you waiting for?”

“You’re right.”

Buffy blinked at the King, confused. “I am?” she asked, used by now, to how the siblings, or anyone really, would shoot her down the second she criticized their precious, absent god.

“You are,” he said, ignoring Lucy’s doe-eyes on him. “We have to do something. Aslan won’t come as long as we feel sorry for ourselves.”

He jumped to his feet, standing straighter than he had since the raid.

“That’s not what I meant,” Buffy argued.

“I know,” he agreed, pulling his grinning sister to her feet. “But I told you before, you’re wrong about Aslan. He’s not like you think he is. Lucy said it. We need to prove ourselves worthy.” He turned to smile down at his youngest sibling. “I get that now.”

“I -“

“Peter,” Ed panted, coming to a halt in the doorway, almost toppling over in his hurry. “You better come quick!”

After that, there was no time for religious disputes anymore. Miraz was here. And he’d brought an army.

+

+

Eleven,
Never Had Any Faith

+

It was close to midnight on the same day and everyone inside the How was still awake, waiting, wondering, while their leaders had locked themselves in the room of the Table that had long since become the heart of their army, discussing plans and throwing one after the other out.

In the end it came down to choosing not the best, but the one least likely to fail.

“Cakes and Kettledrums,” Trumpkin cursed at Peter. “That’s your next big plan. Send a little girl into the darkest part of the forest alone?”

There were murmurs of agreement and just as many of doubt. Everyone was worn out, tired and at the end of their rope.

Peter spread his arms in a helpless gesture, “It’s our only chance.”

“And she won’t be alone,” Susan piped up, giving her sister a hard look to make it clear that this was not negotiable. She may have been the gentle one, but there was no way she was leaving Lucy to do this alone. The younger girl smiled serenely in response, having expected nothing else.

Her DLF on the other hand, looked only discouraged. “Haven’t enough of us died already?” he asked, voice bleak.

Next to him, Trufflehunter piped up, “Nikabrik was my friend, too, but he lost hope and faith. Queen Lucy hasn’t. Neither have I.”

It seemed that, as things reached their bleakest point, all four of the Pevensie siblings had found back to the faith they had once carried ahead of them light the brightest torches. They shone with it, even now, even though no-one understood how or why.

They just did. Buffy guessed that was the root of all faith and averted her eyes, blinded.

“For Aslan,” Reepicheep offered, a call that was picked up by most of the room. Peter spun slowly in a circle, looking for any protest or new ideas. Trumpkin tried to offer his help to the queens but got shot down. Other than that, no-one said a thing.

His gaze landed on the small blonde sitting next to Caspian and his teacher on a stair, watching the proceedings. She and the prince had wordlessly agreed to some sort of ceasefire, which was more than could be said about her and the High King.

Still, she had, Peter noticed, not said a word since the plan to send Lucy for Aslan had been brought up.

“Buffy?” he asked, wanting to know her opinion. The room grew quiet as everyone turned to her. They all knew who had gotten them out of the castle raid alive.

The blonde, looking uncomfortable at being the centre of attention, shrugged, raising her hands defensively. “Don’t look at me. I never had any faith to begin with.”

Susan rolled her eyes. “Don’t you get tired of being angry all the time?”

The older woman rolled her eyes right back and offered, “Nope. Had fifty years and a whole lot of reasons to practice. You should try it sometime.”

The last was said more sharply than strictly necessary as the blonde was as tired of being reprimanded as the others were of listening to her curse Aslan. It was a point of contention between all of them as both sides refused to give in. Over the past week they had mostly settled into a sort of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ routine, where they simply avoided any topics that they knew they disagreed on but this time there was no way around it.

Of all those who tended to fight with the blonde, Peter seemed to be the only one who had caught on to the almost desperate way with which Buffy picked those fights, the flickers in her eyes as she argued, like a guttering flame about to die.

“Look,” the Gentle Queen, always the peace maker, tried again.

“No. You look. I’m not saying abandon your belief and turn into heathens. Well, maybe I am, but that’s your choice. All I’m saying is, don’t put all your eggs in the lion shaped basket because it’s going to get us all killed. Have some faith in your own skills for a change.”

There it was again. When had she stared being reasonable and logical instead of just yelling? Better yet, when had she stopped yelling?

“And if that’s not enough?” Edmund asked quietly from the wall he was leaning against, his dark eyes pensive and piercing.

“Then you die knowing you fucked up. Better than holding out for something that won’t come.”

“Aslan will come,” Lucy insisted, her young voice to serene and sure that for a moment it looked like even Buffy was inclined to just stop arguing and agree with her.

But in the end fifty years of ingrained behaviour won out and the blonde walked over to the young queen to run her hand over the other’s darker hair. “When you talk like that, I’m not sure whether to admire or pity you.”

Lucy, recognizing the peace offering as the only one she was going to get, grinned.

“Still,” Ed interrupted, “We need to give you time to find him in the first place.”

“If I may,” Caspian suddenly spoke, hesitant but without the glassy look in his eyes he had been carrying around since the White Witch’s appearance. The fact that no-one had mentioned the incident once probably helped. “My uncle may be a tyrant and a murderer but as king he is subject to the traditions and expectations of his people. There is one in particular that may buy us some time.”

“And what’s that?” Peter asked, interested.

“A duel,” Buffy answered for the prince before turning back to Lucy, her expression darkening as she realized what Caspian was proposing, and what the High King would do in the name of buying his sister and her blind faith more time. “I made up my mind,” she told the girl. “I pity you.”

Then she carefully straightened her dress and walked out of the room, poised and straight, a warrior queen, refusing to meet anyone’s gaze. The message was clear. She did not agree with what was happening but she knew she could offer no alternative. Not this time.

+

Miraz was king, the Narnians were cornered, the army ready to strike and Sopespian could not tear his gaze from the crown the former Lord Protector now wore. Within three days, everything had taken a turn for the worse at such speeds, that Glozelle was at a loss.

He wasn’t sure what the goal of the raid on the castle had been, but he was sure it had failed. Whatever Caspian had wanted, he had not gotten. And now it had come to this, outright war. Glozelle was head of the armed forces, the lauded General, but even he could not turn around a battle once started.

His hands were tied.

He could not outright help the others except by defecting and that would be a useless act of symbolic worth only. What difference would one man make? Even if some of his men followed, they would be unwilling to turn against their friends, brothers, fathers and sons.

And he could not raise his sword against his own men now anymore than he had a week ago by the river.

During the raid he had only seen Asmira when she had started throwing men off the walkways before throwing herself after them. She had fought like nothing he had ever seen and then, when the gate came down she had started catching crossbow bolts.

For an endless instant he had been as stunned as Miraz beside him, unable to do anything but stare. He had seen her fight his men in the woods, had thought he knew what she was capable of but, by the gods, he had been wrong. So very wrong.

There had been no time for communication then, no way to get close enough for any sort of exchange. All they had been able to do was exchange quick looks that were heavy with meaning and at the same time meant nothing. Her blazing eyes directed at him had clearly been an order to pull together and do something.

He had fired at her meekly, almost distractedly, his mind fixed on that simple command. Do something.

Yes, but what?

Three days later, with the inevitable battle looming just ahead, he still had no idea what that was.

+

Buffy did not go far after leaving the meeting, and so Peter found her quickly, standing in the tunnel leading up to the How proper, inspecting the carvings on the walls by the light of a torch she had taken from somewhere farther up the way.

“Shouldn’t you be writing up a challenge?” she asked by way of greeting, trailing one hand over the carving of a man with a golden crown fighting wolf-like beasts.

He leaned against the wall so he could see her face and shrugged. “Edmund and Susan are the ones with the silver tongues. They will draw something up that is convincing, polite and insulting at the same time and then run it by me so I can pretend I had some influence on it.” He rolled so he was leaning with his shoulder against the wall and tapped the carving. “Our fifth year here. Werwolves tried to take Lucy hostage.”

She nodded. “I heard the story, Burning One.”

He grimaced. “I had a reputation after that.”

“I noticed.”

“You’re building one up, too. For fighting and for…”

“Griping about your lion,” she suggested as he searched for words, still tracing the carvings, apparently absorbed by the sleek lines of the werewolves’ bodies.

“Yes, that. Can you please stop doing it? At this point, Aslan is all that’s keeping this army together and you’re killing morale.”

The slow movement of her fingers stopped and she smacked her hand flat against the wall, the by now familiar anger burning in her eyes again. She met Peter’s gaze. “Well, it shouldn’t be. They should believe in themselves. In what they’re fighting for.”

“Sometimes it’s easier to believe in someone other than yourself.” Quietly. Wisely. Peter knew that now. Knew that if he couldn’t trust himself, he could trust his siblings and their trust in him. They had never led him wrong before.

“Well then, there’s always you, or Caspian, or Susan, or Lucy, or Edmund. Hell, Glenstorm would probably make a good target for believing in.”

The High King sighed heavily, disappointed. “If you could just have a little faith, we could… never mind.”

It was funny. If Buffy hadn’t been there to question and antagonize Aslan, Peter’s faith in him would probably not have been as strong. Without her to play the devil’s advocate, he might have doubted himself. Her lack of faith was strengthening his own belief in the lion.

He pushed off the wall and found a carving of Lucy and Susan dancing with the dryads to keep his eyes busy. He’d said too much and he knew that she would, of course, catch on to his meaning.

“We could not, Pete. There is no us. I’m already moving way outside my comfort zone here, making friends, getting close to your siblings. Don’t ask more than that of me.”

This time it was him who smacked the wall, with two hands, leaning into them and taking a deep breath to keep from getting angry. “You are so afraid of getting hurt,” he said, very deliberately.

“Almost as afraid as you are of being a failure,” she countered, warmth gone from her voice. He whirled around to face her, startled. “What? That is why you’re duelling Miraz. To make up for the failure of the raid.”

Instead of getting angry at the accusation, Peter let out a breathy laugh and fell back against the wall once more. “How do you do that?” he demanded. “Not even Ed has that figured out yet.”

She quirked a smile against her will and shrugged the question off, sounding vaguely fond again. “It’s not that hard.”

He sobered. “No, really, how do you do it?”

They were leaning against opposite walls now, he with his arms crossed, she fiddling with her torch to keep it burning. “I was a bit like you once, always trying so hard, believing that it had to be better one day.” She moved one corner of her mouth in a weak approximation of a mocking smile. “Never was.”

He shook his head at her vague answer, running a hand over his face. “One of these days, you’ll have to tell me about that.”

She straightened, one hand falling from the torch. “That’s the point, Pete, there’s never going to be a ‘one of these days’.”

Peter, knowing nothing else to say, asked, “Are you going with Ed to deliver the challenge? I’d feel better if he had someone with him who knows the Telmarines and Caspian is out of the question.”

“Of course. I planned on it.”

+

Not much later and not very far away, Caspian cornered the fair Susan as she looked through one of their makeshift pantries for something to eat. He deftly blocked the entrance as she tried to slip past him with a loaf of bread and some apples for herself and Lucy and observed, “You are avoiding me.”

She looked up at him, eyebrows raised. “Why would I do that, Prince?”

Annoyed at her formal address, he frowned. “I don’t know. The fact remains, that you do avoid me.”

She moved to his left, trying to slip through under his arm and, when he blocked, quickly ducked to the right and almost made it through. Almost. When she found her path blocked by his chest she almost growled and glared at him. When that had no effect whatsoever she said, “My sister is hungry.”

The prince smirked. “I gave your sister an apple before following you here. She will not starve.”

That took the wind out of Susan completely. Here was a man who actually thought to feed her little sister before he came and cornered her, keeping her from doing it herself. That was… unprecedented. And annoying. She put the loaf and apple down on a nearby table and crossed her arms, resisting the temptation to wipe the little smile off his face with an arrow or two to the chest. But that would be bad. They needed him alive after all. Future king, she told herself, future king. Must not put holes into.

In the end all she did was narrow her eyes at him and demand, “Why do I like you?”

That got rid of the smirk rather nicely, too. He looked at her, flabbergasted and too blindsided to be pleased. “I beg your pardon?”

“Why do I like you? I’ve known men who were a lot more desirable than you. Men who were not young enough to be my sons. So why do I. Like. You.”

Maybe it was Buffy’s influence on her, but Susan actually growled, the good manners she usually valued so much all but forgotten. All that showed her discomfort was a small blush that could be attributed to the heat in the small room. Looking at the prince, she could understand why Buffy was always so frank, though. The reactions she received almost made it worth being rude.

Caspian recovered enough to mutter, “Thank the gods you are not my mother.”

Then, realizing she had heard, he blushed a brilliant scarlet under his tan. And he looked good with it. Susan gritted her teeth. And he asked why she avoided him.

“Queen Susan – “

“Don’t call me that,” she found herself snapping before she knew it. Hastily, she slapped a hand over her mouth. This being frank seemed to not have been such a great idea after all. “I would appreciate it if you would finally let me pass, Prince Caspian,” she quickly said. “I have things to do.”

He didn’t even budge. “Why?” he asked instead.

“Why what, my Lord?”

“Why do you not want me to call you Queen Susan?”

Involuntarily, she flinched at the address. He noticed. “That is none of your business.”

“Ah,” he corrected, “But I am not going to move until you tell me. You are obviously distressed.”

For a minute she stared at him, waiting to see if he really would keep her trapped here and weighing the pros and cons of trying to fight her way past him. Then her frustration and confusion with him won out and she said, “I don’t think I am anymore.”

His expression softened. “Not sure you are what anymore?”

“Queen Susan. I am not the queen I was before. Nor am I the girl I was… when I was not queen.”

She risked a look in his face but instead of amusement or spite, she found only warm laughter there. He stepped inside the pantry, leaving the doorway open for her to run, but she made no move. He took her hands in his and said, “I may not know you very well, my Queen, but I can assure you this: You are a queen. Perhaps not the one you once were, but a queen nonetheless. You could not be anything else if you tried. Consider this, maybe this new Narnia needs a new queen.”

He squeezed her hands tightly in his as he spoke of a new Narnia and its queen and she knew what he was thinking, could hear and echo of it in her own mind.

“I will be gone soon,” she cautioned, looking down at their joint fingers and finding them surprisingly well matched. Similar but for their different colouring.

“That is a pity,” Caspian observed.

He did not let go of her hands.

+

Peter did not just ask Buffy to accompany Edmund into the Telmarine camp, but also Glenstorm and the giant Wimbleweather, for pure intimidation. Edmund moaned and groaned about not needing an entire entourage but Peter wouldn’t hear of it.

Since everyone had vetoed his suggestion to go himself, he was determined to make his little brother as safe as he could instead. The younger King made no real protests, only griped about it and let his brother fuss, breaking into an enormous grin every time the High King wasn’t looking. It seemed his best friend was back and slowly taking over from the angry schoolboy that had been in the driver’s seat for the past year.

Buffy was spared from similar fussing by the fact that the two blondes had apparently had another one of their strange talks that left them very quiet and downtrodden. At least, everyone figured secretly, this time they were still talking to each other. It was progress.

While the a large part of their forces had been on the raid, another, smaller group, had gone to Cair Paravel to take from the ruins whatever was left of the weapons and clothes belonging to the siblings and come back with the four chests from the secret chamber. From one of them, Lucy pulled a smooth dress in a soft, spring green and offered it to Buffy with a wry grin. “I’m too small for it. But it should fit you, if you want it, that is.”

For a moment it looked like the older woman was about to turn the offer down but then she risked a look at herself and grimaced. Her dress, once clean and neat, had survived several tracks through the forest, a battle and various other questionable adventures since she had left the castle. It was torn and badly mended, dirty and most of all, smelly.

So she accepted the offer with as much grace as she could muster in the face of the queens’ twin expressions of glee and let them make her ‘presentable’ for her little outing behind enemy lines.

By the time she was clean, dressed, armed and had escaped Susan’s obsession with hair, the rest of the small entourage was sitting on the Stone Table, doing what men in all worlds and times did when about to go somewhere with a woman. They waited.

The brothers sat side by side, Wimbleweather looming over them, Glenstorm standing not far away, staring fixedly at the weapons he would be forced to leave behind for the negotiations. The centaur seemed to feel almost as naked without his weapons as she did, she mused as she stepped into the room and asked, “Can we go before Susan tries to do my hair again?”

The men all looked up and blinked. Peter’s jaw actually seemed to drop at the sight of her, clean, free of weapons, in a new (thirteen-hundred-year-old) dress and with her hair pulled back from her face but flowing freely around her shoulders, for once out of its customary braid. She scowled, putting her hands on her hips, immediately looking more like herself again. “Yes, I’m a woman under all the swords. Get over it and let’s go.”

“You’d rather face Miraz than Susan?” Edmund demanded, highly amused not only by her appearance but also by his brother’s totally hopeless reaction to it. The usually so smooth High King was gaping like the teenager he appeared to be on the outside. Hopelessly smitten, Edmund decided, with a bemused headshake.

“She tried to straighten my hair,” Buffy growled. “My hair does not do straight. Especially not for a rendezvous with the Telmarines!”

“Let us go then,” Glenstorm interjected, obviously finding the discussion to be a waste of time.

Edmund’s amusement with the whole situation finally bubbled over. Or maybe that was hysteria at the thought of walking into the camp of a man that had proven without a shadow of a doubt to have no conscience or honour whatsoever. Either way, he laughed out loud as he patted the centaur on the shoulder. “Are you, by any chance, related to Oreius?”

“He was my ancestor,” Glenstorm confirmed seriously and Peter caught on, laughing, too.

“That explains a lot,” he allowed and sobered as he ordered, “Be careful, alright. One wrong move from him, and I want you out of there.”

“Yes, Peter,” Edmund said, the laughter fading from his face.

“Promise me.”

“I promise.”

“Don’t worry,” Buffy offered suddenly, gentler than anyone had heard her before. “I’ll bring them all back in one piece.”

Peter nodded, sighed and let them go. They went.

+

They made the ‘beasts’ wait outside, much to Buffy’s and Edmund’s amusement. Did they think that ten feet distance was going to stop a centaur? Did they think Wimbleweather could not reach right into the tent from where he was standing? Did they think that Buffy was there merely as decoration? Okay, so she looked the part, thanks to the queens’ efforts but, holy hell, how arrogant could one people get?

Edmund stood before Miraz and his war council of lords, reading out the challenge that was just the right measure of polite and insulting to light a fire behind the usurper’s eyes. As Ed rolled up the scroll and tucked it away nonchalantly, more composed than most of the adults in the room, Miraz demanded, “Tell me, Prince Edmund – “

“King,” the teenager corrected. “It’s King Edmund, actually. Just king though. Peter’s the High King. It’s confusing, I know.” He finished his explanation with an amused little smile and Buffy finally understood why Peter had such faith in his brother’s ability to twist words. He was amazing.

“Why,” Miraz demanded, “Would we risk such a proposal if our army could wipe you out by nightfall?”

Ed’s smile never wavered. “Haven’t you already underestimated our numbers? Only a week ago, Narnians were extinct.”

“And so you will be again,” the Telmarine king thundered.

The Just King’s smile turned predatory at the edges. He had the other man now. “Then you should have little to fear.”

“This is not a question of bravery.”

“Oh, so you’re bravely refusing to fight a swordsman half your age?” It was a lie, of course. Peter was, at most, ten years younger than the other king – in mind, that is - and he had, over the past week, mostly adjusted to his slighter body.

“I didn’t say I refused,” Miraz snapped, his gaze sweeping over his lords and landing, finally, on Buffy. His expression as he mustered her from head to toe was so very ugly that Edmund felt the urge to step in front of her and block it. The only thing that made him hold still was the knowledge that Buffy could look after herself. “Let us talk about prizes.”

“Total surrender from the defeated and his life,” Edmund repeated curtly, knowing where this was going.

“I was thinking,” Miraz drawled, baiting the younger King “You might add the traitor to the deal. I am sure she could be of use.”

Buffy was faster than Edmund, taking half a step forward to look down at the seated Telmarine. “What makes you think that I am a possession to be handled, usurper?”

“There must be a reason Caspian would not leave you behind as he fled the castle.” A look down her front was a very clear indication of what that ‘reason’ was supposed to be. The blonde didn’t even flinch at the accusation of whoring herself to the prince.

“Look at me, Miraz. Do I look any different than I did the day you employed me?” She leaned forward across the table, staring at him. “Did your men tell you what I did to them, in the woods? Did you see what I did when we attacked your castle? Did you? I am something you can’t begin to imagine and I suggest you stop pissing me off, before I pull you apart with my bare hands.”

She stayed very still for a moment, looking him dead in the eye, willing him to see that she was not making threats but promises. Then she shoved away from the table, her expression lighting up, her smile turning ditzy and content. Around the tent, everyone visibly released their breath. Edmund smirked. He was going to get a kick out of telling his brother how she had shut Miraz up.

The man in question suddenly drew a deep breath and laughed, shaking the last tendrils of the cold, clammy fingers he could have sworn had wrapped themselves around him as he stared into the blonde’s eyes. He had thought of her as nothing more than Narnian rabble before but now… she intrigued him. What was she?

He met her gaze again and found her smiling knowingly, as if she knew perfectly well what he was thinking.

“You shall have our support, my Lord, whatever your decision,” one of the lords finally piped up, diffusing the silent staring contest.

“Sire,” Sopespian spoke up, “Our military advantage alone allows us the perfect excuse to avoid –

“I am not avoiding anything!”

Sopespian immediately backtracked. “I am merely pointing out that my Lord is well within his rights to refuse combat with such… savages.” The last was clearly directed as Buffy, who watched the scene unfold, completely untouched by the continued insults against her person. She had made her point and from the glint in her eyes, she was only too keen on following through on her promises.

Ed sent her a warning look. Starting a fight in the middle of the enemy camp was not on their agenda. Not yet.

They both watched Miraz flounder under the onslaught and subtle influencing of his lords, keenly noting who was sticking up for the new king and who was driving him into a corner. Traitors, while technically on the Narnians’ side, were always a risk because they had not honour whatsoever and so many agendas, they had trouble keeping track of them all.

In the end, the General was the one to drive in the last nail. “His majesty would never refuse,” he snapped with conviction, meeting Buffy’s gaze for the briefest of moments. “He relishes the chance to show his people the bravery of their new king.”

The trap snapped shut with an almost audible sound. Edmund smiled. Buffy fluttered her lashes at Miraz and mimed ripping something apart with both hands.

+

+

Twelve,
Tangle in Her Hair

+

When the messengers came back with the news that Miraz had accepted the challenge, no-one cheered. There was only a moment of silence when everyone in the vicinity turned to look at Peter, measuring. Then they turned back to their work, and that was the end of it.

Peter himself seemed inclined the follow the example and went back to the maps and battle plans before him, trying to find the ideal weak point for Susan and Lucy to slip through the next morning. He would have preferred to send them now and give them more time, but the duel was not only to buy time, but also a distraction. The soldiers surrounding the How would all be straining to catch a glimpse of the fight, giving the girls the chance to slip through and get away.

Which was why the chosen spot had to be perfect. There could be no weakness, nothing to slow them down, no exposure. They had to be fast, invisible and inaudible or else they would have half the Telmarine army chasing them down and no-one had any illusions about what would happen if Miraz got his hands on the two queens.

Caspian was with him, giving insights to Miraz’s mind, while the fugitive Telmarine soldiers were explaining typical battle strategies and recounting tales of how they had been defeated or circumvented before. The oldest of the three soldiers in particular, had a lot of useful information that might help them cut the battle short and hopefully spare lives. On both sides. That understanding was what made the soldiers cooperate with the Narnians.

Glenstorm and Edmund both joined them as soon as they had collected their waiting weapons. The look of relief on the centaur’s face would have been comic, if it hadn’t been a testament of the broken world they lived in. A world where, even at the heart of your own country, you could never lay down your sword.

By dusk their spies - hares, two foxes, a few songbirds - returned and shared what intel they had gathered in the unsuspecting humans’ camp. It wasn’t much, but it helped refine and tweak their own strategies to work better.

They were going over the finalized plans for the third time when the girls – Susan, Lucy and Buffy, funny, Peter thought, how Buffy had become one of ‘the girls’ so quickly in his mind – broke up their war council. Sleep and food, they ordered, tolerating no protests because commanders that were dead on their feet, distracted and had their heads full of too many facts and not enough fighting instincts, would get them all killed.

The men all gave in after a few ignored protests, but Peter refused to budge until Buffy grabbed him by the arm and whispered, “Believe me, I know how you feel. But this is useless.”

“I – “

“We’ll go over this again tomorrow morning. But not now,” she informed him, pulling him away from the plans. Intellectually he knew that any work he got done now would be sloppy because he was tired and wrung out, but how could he rest? He had never been good at switching off on the eve of battle and their desperate situation didn’t help matters any.

“You’re not going to fail,” Buffy said, out of earshot of anyone else and he felt himself go limp.

“Alright,” he agreed, not taking back his arm. “If you’ll keep my company.”

“Shouldn’t you be with your siblings, doing your big brother act?”

He shook his head and made a wry grimace. “We agreed long ago that there are to be no goodbyes before a battle. They never help.”

“Wise words. My sister said the same thing the last time we -” she clamped her mouth shut, biting her lips hard.

Peter took his arm from her hold and ran his hand down her hair, still loose from Susan’s efforts to make her look more like a woman and less like a warrior. “Can you stop fighting it, just for tonight? I will probably be dead tomorrow.”

“Don’t say crap like that! You’re not going to die!” She rounded on him, hands on hips.

He shrugged. “Maybe not in the duel. But we both know that Miraz will find some way to cheat. There’ll be a battle. People die in battle. One of them might be me.”

To expect anything else would have been to delude himself. This was war and people died in war. Even if he won the duel and killed Miraz, there would be a fight. There would be losses. That’s the way the world was. For something to be gained, something had to be lost. For peace, there had to be sacrifices. For Caspian’s throne, there had to be bodies. For Peter and his siblings to live, others would die. Directly or indirectly, it did not matter. He’d rather die in Narnia with a sword in his gut, than in England of old age. At least here he would know that he’d died for a reason.

“I won’t let you!” Buffy snarled in his face.

“I’m just being realistic,” he defended, arms raised, palms out, unwilling to fight.

“You’re being an idiot!”

He dropped his arms, slumping. He was already nearing the end of his rope and while he usually enjoyed their verbal sparring matches – they were a game, a chase - tonight he had no patience for them. If he died tomorrow, he didn’t want to spend the night beforehand fighting useless fights.

“No fighting. That’s all I asked for. Just to spend some time with you without fighting. But if you’re going to –“

“I told you, Peter, I can’t!”

“- be like this, I’ll find company elsewhere and leave you drown in your self-pity and hatred.” He finished, throwing her own accusation from the day they had crossed the gorge back in her face.

He’d tried. He really had. He liked her, liked her bravery and her wisdom, her sharp sword and sharp tongue, the way she never gave in and never bowed to anyone. He liked her. But despite looking like a teenager, Peter was not one and he knew how quickly life could end. He knew that all it took to end a life was a flick of the wrist, a twist of the blade. Less than a second. He knew that sometimes good things hurt and he knew that love – that of siblings, of friends, of family, of lovers - was always worth any pain.

It was Aslan’s truest lesson. To love, because everything else was meaningless without it.

And Buffy was scared, so very scared. She could face a horde of Telmarines and not flinch, but she was scared of feeling, of being happy, no matter how briefly. She hid behind a wall of fury and anger that crumbled and wavered more every day, but she simply refused to step away from it.

It was the worst kind of cowardice.

“Self-pity,” she repeated, her voice dead and low.

“Yes,” he spat, fed up with letting her yell at him and tell him what he couldn’t do. “Self-pity. You are so scared of pain, you won’t even try! You just run and hide!”

“I lost my family,” she suddenly screamed, the artificial, forced calm finally abandoning her, “I lost my lovers, my friends, my life! Everything I loved, everything I ever had, was taken from me! How dare you – “

“But you’re still here!” he screamed right back, not caring in the least that they could probably be heard in the Telmarine camp, they were screaming so loudly. “You’re still alive! So live, damn it all!”

Whatever else he meant to yell was lost when she suddenly flew at him, not to hit him as he thought, but to grab him by the collar and drag him down to her level and kiss her like he was the last gulp of oxygen in an ending universe. She bit at his lip until he tasted blood and when he gasped from the pain, she was there, pushing him into a wall, attacking him, taking from him all that he had meant to offer with the bitter need of fifty years.

Anything, anything at all to shut him up, to stop him from giving words and shape to the things she knew already, but wanted to forget.

It didn’t matter if he was seventeen or thirty-something, if she was twenty or seventy, if he would die and she would leave, if they would never see each other again, never speak, never be anything more than they were here, on the eve of a battle that could well be the end of everything.

All that mattered was his anger and her fear, his rage and her hate, all burning up, burning too bright and hot to touch, scalding them.

When he finally brought his hands up to tangle in her hair and respond, he felt tears on her cheeks.

+

Caspian was looking for Susan when he came upon Edmund and Lucy sitting outside the short tunnel leading to the room he, the siblings, and Buffy were sleeping in.

“I wouldn’t go in there,” Edmund suggested mildly as he made to pass them with only a nod and a smile for little Lucy.

“Why not?”

The king smirked. “Let’s say, Buffy and Pete worked out their differences.”

“I beg your pardon?” Worked them out? The entire How had heard their fight a few hours earlier. Surely they were not still fighting? Caspian did not put it past Buffy to become violent and they needed the High King in one piece come morning.

It was Lucy who answered, with a giggle and a sly expression that was years too old for her face. “They are with each other, Caspian.” As the prince’s look of confusion didn’t clear, she elaborated, “With each other and without clothes.”

Realization dawned and Caspian blushed a colour commonly only found in tomatoes. He stuttered something along the lines of ‘oh well’ and turned to go when he heard steps from the tunnel, followed closely by Susan carrying and enormous bundle of blankets.

Automatically he moved to lighten her load and found himself with his own and Edmund’s bed roll in his arms. The confusion returned as Susan half whispered, “They are asleep. I got everything we need for tonight and I am not going back in there.”

“Did they wear each other out?” Edmund jeered with the tone of a grown man rather than a teenaged boy and Caspian was once more reminded how far out of the norm those four were. Here stood three children, discussing their older brother’s sex life without any signs of discomfort. Quite the opposite. They seemed amused. Even little Lucy, who should by rights not even have known such things existed, exchanged coy looks with her older sister.

Susan tried to glare at her brother in scolding but failed, the corners of her mouth curling. “They did not even stir when I fetched our things.”

Lucy gave a low whistle and appropriated her bedroll before giving Susan a look of some significance and grabbing her older brother by the hand. “Come on, Ed, I’m tired and we have been robbed of our bedroom.”

Edmund snatched his blankets from the prince and the youngest monarchs wandered off, grumbling, with fond expressions on their faces.

A moment later, Caspian and Susan were alone, each holding one remaining bedroll, staring at each other awkwardly until Caspian gathered his courage. After the conversation he had just been part of, he did not think the offer he was about to make would be turned down.

“Would you care to keep me company tonight, Queen Susan? I am sure I will not be able to sleep and so I have volunteered for sentinel duty at the top of the How.”

She seemed to consider the offer for a bit before nodding, hefting her own blankets higher. “We better take those,” she said, “It gets cold up there. And you can tell me more of those stories the Professor tells about our reign.”

+

Peter woke to the feeling of someone stirring beside him. He felt disoriented for a moment, confused, but unlike usually, he did not immediately go for his sword. No, this time, the confusion was not that of a nightmare but of something… good? He felt warm, cosy, relaxed. Dare he say it, happy.

Then someone grunted behind him and he felt a body shift and stretch, crawling over him. He opened his eyes in time to see Buffy sit up at the edge of the makeshift pile of blankets that was his bed in the room set aside for the humans in the How. He blushed scarlet as he realized that someone must have walked in on him and Buffy because the other bed rolls were gone and the room empty except for the two of them. He hoped it hadn’t been Lucy or Edmund. They would tease him endlessly and looking at his… at Buffy, he wasn’t sure that would go over well.

In the backdrop of a few meagrely spluttering torches the skin of her back turned to him shone golden, smooth and soft. Yet he knew there were scars, more scars than he had ever seen on a single person before, no matter how battle worn. They were thin, almost invisible lines, crisscrossing her entire body. Every one of them a wound, a cut, a tear. Everyone an old hurt.

Buffy moved, rolling smoothly to her feet and grabbing her discarded dress, slipping it over her head. She wriggled until it was where it was supposed to be and slipped into her boots next, carding her hands through her tangled hair.

She undid the small braids that held the front parts back and tried smoothing the whole mess out into something that did not scream to the world what she had spent the past hours doing. She failed and eventually gave up, turning toward the exit and her cloak.

“Where are you going?” Peter asked quietly into the silence of the night when she was almost at the door.

She turned, her expression unreadable. He didn’t know if she regretted what they had done, hated him, loved him, or what she thought. Her lips were still kiss swollen, her eyes red from crying and he knew without seeing them, that he had impressive scratch marks down his shoulder blades and back. Passion. Grief. Anger.

But no, not anger. The walls had crumbled.

He had never met a contradiction quite like her and he wanted, craved her desperately, for as long as he could have her. He might die at dawn, or he might be sent back to England by sunset. But even with the threat of loss hanging over his head like a storm cloud waiting to break, he could not regret.

She tilted her head to one side and answered, “One last errand to run. Want to come?”

He gave no verbal answer, quickly grabbing his pants and pulling them on, followed by his boots. It took him a moment to find his shirt and he could feel her eyes on his back as he shoved it on. She did not apologize for marking him. Last he fastened his belts and weapons to his hips and grabbed his own cloak.

With a few quick steps he reached her side and with more confidence than he felt, he held out his left hand for her to take.

After staring fixedly at the offered limb for a moment, she took it with a resigned expression that seemed to say, I’m doomed anyway.

+

Glozelle had always found sleep elusive before a battle but this time, he did not even try to lay down. This time it was not only worry for his soldiers, his lord and his own well-being that kept him awake, but also that for his enemies, his rightful king, his honour, his conscience and Asmira. Too many factors, too much that could go wrong, would go wrong. He had investments in both sides of this war, his men on one side, his proper lord and conscience on the other side. No matter which way the battle went, he was bound to fail one side.

He sat in his tent, glaring at the spicy wine someone had brought him, not daring to drink. He didn’t want to be inebriated, didn’t want his head clouded. Not tonight. With a frown, he set aside the goblet and leaned back in his chair, staring fixedly at nothing until, suddenly, a shadow passed by his tent.

“Hollow man,” a low voice hissed, calling him, beckoning him. Remembering Asmira on a balcony, eyes fixed on broken children, remembering the expressions of three of his men as he gave them a passphrase that had hopefully saved their lives, he knew he had no choice. Those strange lines of that strange poem of Asmira’s home, wherever that was, had become symbol of his betrayal.

He grabbed his things and stepped out of his tent, scanning the area. There, behind Sopespian’s tent, a shadow hovered between two trees. He stepped in its direction and it flitted away, into the forest.

He followed that insubstantial shade through the darkness, often thinking he had lost sight of it, just to have it double back and collect him. He listened for footsteps, for breathing, for anything to indicate what it was he was following, but he heard nothing. He was being led by a ghost.

That was probably a good thing, as being seen with anyone at this time of night was probably a bad idea and might get him killed by the King’s hand before sunrise. As it was, he simply followed his guide in what he recognized to be a wide curve around the enemy’s fortress, checking on the men on sentinel duty on his way. It was a good excuse and it let him know just where the men were positioned.

Then, when the Narnians’ camp lay between him and the Telmarine camp, the direction changed, leading him deeper into the forest. Once more, he followed.

+

Susan was almost asleep with her head on Caspian’s shoulder when something moved below them, at the entrance of the How. Asterius came marching out, followed by two of his clans men. All three of them marched toward the circle of broken pillars in the middle of the field and started inspecting it ostensibly. Caspian was about to yell for them to get back inside before they got killed, damn them, when Susan clamped a hand of steel on his arm, sitting up straight and pointing toward to shadows that had slipped out of the How behind the minotaurs and now made for the forest in a straight line, keeping low and out of sight.

“They are a distraction,” Caspian realized, his gaze slipping back to Asterius and his companions, who were moving well within shooting range of the enemy and making enough ruckus to be noticed.

Beside him, Susan kept her eyes on the two shadows before hissing sharply, “That’s Peter’s cloak. And the other one is Buffy’s.”

For a minute or so, both of them followed their chosen subjects until Susan suddenly breathed a sigh of relief, mingled with anger, “I am going to kill them when they come back.”

Then she brought her fingers to her lips and gave a single, sharp whistle. Immediately the minotaurs fell back, sprinting back to the safety of the How. Caspian watched until he was sure they were safe and then turned, trying to make out the shapes of the High King and his protector in the dark. He found nothing.

“I will help you,” he growled.

They watched for another fifteen minutes, looking for any trace of what their two friends were up to, when something moved inside the Telmarine camp. “If Peter went in there, I really will kill him,” his sister muttered, not daring to blink.

But it was not Peter moving among the tents and sentinels but, “Glozelle,” Caspian breathed, recognizing the man who was taller than almost any other Telmarine.

“The General?”

He nodded and they watched again, this time as Glozelle took off into the forest, walking in strange patterns, checking on his men. Unlike the Telmarine guards though, the two on top of the How could, occasionally, catch a glimpse of whatever the man was following.

Eventually, after rounding half the How, he veered off into the depths of the forest and was gone, headed in the same direction as Buffy and Peter.

“Will they be safe?” Caspian asked, worried.

Susan shrugged, then nodded. “Buffy trusts this Glozelle and the men he sent have been very helpful. What do you think?”

Strangely touched that she valued his opinion, he mirrored her shrug and said, after some evaluation, “Glozelle has a very strict sense of honour and fairness. I do not think that he can tolerate what my uncle has been doing these past weeks. Not if he knows the truth.”

“Good,” the Gentle Queen said, “Good.”

+

Glozelle almost jumped out of his skin when he followed the shade down a steep slope into a natural ring of rocks that would keep any sound inside the depression in their middle, and found himself face to face with someone in Narnian clothing.

He looked around frantically for his guide and found it atop one of the heavy boulders. It shifted forward, slipped down into the depression and turned into a human n a cloak.

“Took you long enough,” the other figure, a man, said.

The shade turned person shoved down their hood and became, “Asmira!”

Glozelle almost jumped backward as she turned and shot him a quick smile. She had been his guide, his shadow. A human after all but no, no, a human could not have moved like that, could not have done as she had done. He remembered her words to Miraz that very morning, remembered that she had indeed not aged in ten years and he felt that his friend was suddenly a stranger.

But before he could ask the obvious question, she said, “Buffy.”

“What?”

“Call me Buffy. It’s my real name.”

She smiled to soften her words and Glozelle found his voice to ask, “What are you?”

Her smile faltered a bit as she made her way over to her companion and sat on a low rock next to him. “Where I come from, we had a word for what I am, but I hate that title. Does it really matter?”

He would have answered if he’d known how, but the third of their party, apparently knew the right answer. He put a hand on her shoulder and said, “No.”

Then he pushed his hood back, too, and Glozelle found himself face to face with a boy. A boy with fire and rage and wisdom and years beyond his years in his eyes. A king if he had ever seen one, a noble knight, a warrior. Someone worthy down to the last scrap of him.

High King Peter.

Finally, he understood the allure of the old stories telling of the four monarchs. If this was what they had been like, were like, then how could anyone not revere them?

“My Lord,” he offered, bowing.

The boy chuckled. “None of that, now. Tell us what you can about tomorrow.”

And with that, the High King slid down the rock he had been leaning against, sitting cross-legged on the ground next to As-Buffy. “I’m too tired for much ceremony tonight,” he offered by way of explanation, casting an unreadable but somehow satisfied look at the woman next to him.

She grunted and dug her elbow into his ribs none too gently. He winced away from her with a slight laugh that didn’t carry in the oppressive night air.

“Ouch,” he lamented, earning himself a raised eyebrow.

Instead of verbally apologizing, Buffy did something that was entirely out of character with the person Glozelle had known for a decade. She simply reached over and grabbed the king’s hand, holding on to it. He looked startled and hid it badly. She looked solemn as she said, “The damage is already done now, isn’t it?”

The king looked away from her into the darkness but didn’t let go of her hand.

It hurt. Looking at Asmira and this boy, seeing that they had what Glozelle had wanted from her for so long, partnership, comfort, care, it hurt. But it was an abstract, bittersweet hurt. He and Asmira, Buffy, whoever she was, would never have worked, would never have held hands like this on the eve of battle, wordlessly and comfortably. He hurt for what they had, what was denied him.

But he was glad to see that his reluctant friend did indeed have a heart somewhere below the bitter sheen of anger she had always carried like a shield. A heart that still beat.

So he mirrored them by sitting down a few feet away and giving them what they wanted, burying the ache in his chest and telling himself that he was finally doing something right. He could be proud of that at least. Even if it was going to get him killed.

“There is not much I can do,” he explained. “There are a handful of men loyal to me, who would lay down their weapons if I asked them to, but they will not turn on their comrades. And even as head of the military, I cannot override a direct order from Miraz when he is standing next to me.”

King Peter shook his head. “We didn’t expect much different. But there are a few things you might be able to do.”

“With permission, I will help you because you help Caspian, but I do not want to see my men dead. If what you plan will cost more lives than necessary, I cannon help you.”

He thought he saw something akin to respect enter the younger man’s eyes. “Of course. But if you could manage to place more men with the cavalry, they could be taken out of the fight early on. Also…”

+

+

Thirteen,
In Fire and Ice

+

Lucy was lugging a bag full of food toward the bedroom they had been banished from the night before, cursing her brother for being quicker than her. He had volunteered for fetching Su and Caspian before she’d had a chance to and now she was the one who had to manhandle food for six people through the How. It was times like this when she hated her childish body beyond measure.

She found Peter and Buffy awake and dressed – thank Aslan! – sitting next to each other, just holding hands and doing nothing. Lucy breathed a sigh of relief.

She, like everyone else in the How, had heard the two of them fight the night before and she had been close enough to hear when their words of anger had turned into choked sighs of a different kind. At first she’d been elated that they had gotten over their differences because Buffy and Peter were just amazing together and so all had been well. But then reality had reasserted itself and she had, inevitably, started worrying.

Buffy had made her position very clear, refusing to get close to anyone at all at first and then, to get closer than simple friends. She didn’t want to get hurt and while the Valiant Queen found that a bit cowardly, she understood the motivation. Not everyone was as in love with life as Lucy and thus jumped in with both feet, consequences be damned. Peter had nagged and prodded Buffy, trying to get her to give in to him and it seemed that last night she finally had.

But that wasn’t how it had happened, the youngest Queen was sure. Her brother and Buffy had not gotten over their differences as much as they had simply jumped over them and gotten right to the aftermath. And Lucy, always a world class worrier when it came to her family, had spent hours worrying that their impulsiveness had destroyed whatever the two of them had.

But seeing them now, her worry eased. They did not look at each other, did not speak, but their held hands tightly and without hesitation. She put down the bag with food and upended it on the floor, revealing water skins, apples, bread and cheese enough to feed six people, three of them growing boys.

“Breakfast,” she chirped and got two soft smiles in return before Peter grabbed her around the waist and pulled her into his lap like he hadn’t done in a long time. His anger, Lucy realized, had finally burned out as he and Narnia got used to each other again, recognized the differences and made them work. Peter was Peter again and all that energy that had gone into his anger in England had been redirected into what Edmund called the ‘annoyingly overprotective big brother mode’. She got the full brunt of it now as her oldest brother started inspecting her as if they hadn’t seen each other in weeks, all the while asking questions like, was she eating enough and had she slept. While he fussed, Lucy looked at Buffy who had released Peter’s hand but not moved away.

She, too, seemed to have lost some of her anger. In time, it might entirely disappear as old wounds healed and pains were forgotten. This was where Lucy’s smile turned bittersweet and sad. In time. That was the crux, the centre of all of Buffy’s hesitation. Since she had drawn her first breath in Narnia, the Valiant Queen had known, on some level, that this was not permanent. They would be sent back to England when Caspian was king. All four siblings felt it, knew it, and quietly consented to it because Aslan knew best. He always had.

But it hurt. Susan and Caspian were so tentatively falling in love with each other and Su was finally giving up on trying to be an adult so hard. She was getting used to who she was, a grown woman in a young girl’s body and Caspian somehow managed to make her happy while she was at it.

Buffy and Peter were brighter, louder, harsher, but no less true. During their reign, no woman had ever held Peter’s interest for long. They had either been gold diggers after his crown and wealth, or meek women, who let him and his siblings walk all over them. None of them had had what it took to stand next to a High King of Narnia and his siblings, the burning, the gentle, the lively and the harsh, the Just, the Gentle, the Magnificent and Valiant.

Buffy could. She did. She was. An equal for Peter and his mood swings, his insane plans and bloodthirsty urges. She had listened to Lucy’s tale of how Peter had wiped out the werewolves and she had not grimaced, had not flinched. She understood. She knew. She would have done the same. Peter finally had his equal and he would not let the blonde woman fall into the flat, dead mood she had been in when they had first met, pretending to care for nothing and no-one.

That all four of the siblings were still and always would be, madly in love with Narnia itself need not be mentioned.

And it would all be taken away from them. Caspian would stay, the siblings would leave and Buffy be sent to another world and another war. There would not be an in time.

They had only today and whatever came after and nothing more. It made Lucy happy and sad at the same time.

But, she decided as Edmund entered the room, trailed by a prince and a queen, she would soldier on. Aslan knew best and she would do what he wanted from her and keep her siblings safe, keep them together. Narnia or England, child or adult, she was and always would be Queen Lucy, the Valiant, and that meant never giving in and never giving up and helping your brothers and sisters, loving them until the pain of loss became bearable and they could walk straight again. Aslan knew best. When Aslan asked them to go back they would, and Lucy would remember for them all and keep in her heart the images of Susan’s tentative happiness and Peter’s fierce and burning love.

In the end though, she was only one silly little girl who never quite knew when to stop trying and she was scared, so very scared that it wouldn’t be enough.

+

Lucy barely ate, Buffy barely spoke, Susan spoke too much and Caspian and Edmund both ate with the grim determination of men waiting to die.

All Peter wanted to do was scream. They were outnumbered, outflanked, tired, exhausted and desperate for a sign that just didn’t want to come. Buffy’s hand kept finding his and clutching it tightly enough to hurt, but her gaze, when he managed to meet it, was vacant.

The damage was done, she’d said. Now she was getting ready for the pain that would inevitably follow. And while he might have still had the energy to yell at her the night before, now he could feel himself teetering on the brink of her abyss, waiting to follow her down. Before last night, what he felt for her had been wild infatuation born from circumstance and desire.

Now it was a thing with teeth and claws, digging into his middle, pulling, pulling downwards. And he wasn’t sure he wanted to fight it.

Eventually the sun rose beyond the false comfort of the dark How and it was time to get ready. For Susan and Lucy to ride out seeking Aslan and for Peter and the rest of them to face the enemy before them, in all his merciless glory.

By some silent signal, all six of them stood and started gearing up. Lucy tugged Buffy to the side once more as she had the day before, and pulled from her ancient chest the leather and chainmail armour she had once worn to battle. It was far too big for her now, describing the contours of a woman that did not exist except in the heads of four siblings and a lion.

Buffy hesitated because they all knew she did not need the armour. It would slow her down, hinder her movements. But she accepted the gift for what it was, a symbol from Lucy, smallest of the Pevensies. A symbol saying hello and in the same breath, goodbye.

One way or another, their time together was coming to an end and they could all feel it. Buffy let Lucy and Susan help her put on the chainmail dress, followed by the leather corset moulded to fit grown-up Lucy’s chest and stomach. It fit her too, mostly. Next came the reddish belt, empty without any sheaths tied to it. Buffy’s swords had been left behind at the castle during the raid and she had since borrowed weapons every time she left the How.

“I’m my own weapon,” she told everyone who asked about it, but Peter remembered her longing looks when Lucy practiced with her dagger and now was his time. He dug around his pack for a moment before pulling out a clanking bundle and walking over to her.

“You need proper weapons,” he said, holding the bundle out to her, “Trumpkin helped gather and sharpen them, but I’m afraid they don’t quite match.”

With a confused look, she accepted the present, looking around and finding only knowing faces. Everyone else in the room had, at one point or another, added to Peter’s collection. She knelt to unwind the bundle, revealing what lay inside.

A dozen gleaming daggers of varying sizes, all sharp as razor blades, only two of them belonging together. The rest had been cobbled together from their weapon stores and raids, gathered ever since Peter had found out that Buffy’s weapons of choice were daggers rather than swords. In the beginning it had only been a vague notion of wanting to see what she could do with weapons she actually liked, but it had turned into a mission quickly enough. Something to give her. A symbol, like Lucy’s armour.

Buffy stroked every single one of the blades carefully, weighing them in her hands, testing their balance. A few of the smaller ones she threw, deftly catching them again. Then she stood abruptly, shoving the bundle at Lucy, who held it and watched a bit dumbfounded, like the rest of them, as the blonde grabbed the daggers and one by one, made them disappear on her body.

They went into her boots, her belt, her sleeves, down her dress, into her skirts and one particularly thin and long one, into her hair. Within a minute, a dozen daggers were gone without the slightest trace, leaving her looking as unarmed as before.

Then Buffy grabbed Peter by the collar of his armour, stood on tiptoes and kissed him until they were both short on air. “Thank you,” she whispered into his mouth before releasing him.

Susan and Lucy giggled. Edmund whistled, tentatively copied by Caspian. Peter pulled Buffy close by the wait and kissed her again, laughing.

Aslan knew, they needed it.

+

There was a semi-awkward moment when Caspian and Buffy suddenly found themselves outside a huddle of bodies as the siblings hugged each other tightly. For a minute it seemed they would stay like that forever, four sets of arms wound around the others, never to be parted.

Then they all let go and Susan started fussing over armour that didn’t sit properly and hair that obscured Lucy’s sight. Edmund and Peter exchanged some last minute warnings and directions and then Peter suddenly grabbed his younger brother by the neck and reeled him in to press a kiss to his forehead. The blessing of the High King, as precious and powerful as it had been thirteen hundred years ago. A silent declaration of love.

When the High King released his little brother, Ed pulled Lucy close and they hugged again, squeezing the other too tightly for comfort while Peter cupped Susan’s face and kissed her, too, on the forehead. He let her go into Edmund’s arms and bestowed one last kiss on Lucy while Ed brushed Susan’s hair behind her ears and grinned at her as only little brothers could.

“No goodbyes,” he said, echoed first by his older sister and then his other two siblings.

No goodbyes.

It was a ritual that had become a goodbye in itself and it was obvious that they had repeated it many, many times before parting to go headfirst into danger. Before the Golden Age, Caspian heard the Professor’s voice whisper in his ear, there had been an age of war. And those four had survived it. More than that, they had ended it.

The last part of the ritual came when Peter and Edmund clasped hands, warrior style and hugged again, tighter, harder, closer than any hugs before. It was the not-goodbye of men who knew the confusion of a battlefield and how easy it was to lose sight of a loved one there.

Then they all straightened and by some silent signs, split, Susan and Lucy heading toward the horse Caspian had prepared, the boys heading toward the front of the How.

To war.

To victory or death.

To Aslan.

Caspian and Buffy, having watched it all, exchanged brief nods before, with a sigh and a roll of her eyes, Buffy flung her arms around the Prince and hugged him briefly but tightly. “I didn’t look after you for ten years so you could get killed now, got it, buster?” she demanded.

And while Caspian had no idea what a buster was, he felt something warm and annoying tickle the insides of his chest and nodded quickly. Then he jogged after the girls.

He was almost out of earshot when he heard his protector call, “And Caspian? Remember the first rule.”

“What is that rule?” he called back, stopping.

“Don’t die.”

+

Half an hour later, Caspian sat, well hidden, on one of the upper levels of the How, watching the forest where the two Queens had disappeared, still clutching Susan’s horn in both hands.

Because he might need her again, she’d said as she pushed it into his hands. He might not have been very well versed in the ways of the world, but he knew her promise for what it was. She intended to come back, for that horn at the very least. And until then, she trusted him to keep it safe.

And he knew he would, no matter how much it made him seem like a love sick teenager instead the monarch he was supposed to be. Lucy’s daisy crown had taught him that if nothing else: There was no shame in being yourself. A crown, made of gold or made of flowers, was still a crown, no matter what others thought.

He startled a bit as Buffy joined him suddenly, dropping down next to him soundlessly. One day he would ask how she did that. One day, he would ask her many, many things and then he would ask her again, if perhaps, she would consent to being his sister. He wanted her to be.

Not in the way he had wished for before, this stupid, childish fixation he had dreamed up when he had thought her dead, but something real. Something not based on half imagined childhood memories but reality. As equals. As people.

As much as he loved the Professor, the man’s stories had instilled in Caspian the notion that people adhered to stereotypes and roles. That everyone he met was a character from some grand tale. But Peter was not a benevolent king of golden glory and Edmund was not always wise and collected. Susan could be anything but gentle if she wanted and Lucy was much more than valiant. Buffy, too, was not like he had wanted her to be. She was not some glorious saviour. She was a person. A good person. Someone he wanted to call friend, even family. And the first step toward that was, “I am sorry for that day in the woods.”

The day he had called her a foot soldier and told her off for trying to give him advice, thinking himself above and beyond her. Stupid, stupid child. Pride, humility, crowns made of flowers.

She patted him on the shoulder and offered, “You’re forgiven.”

Then she tensed suddenly, eyes fixing on something he could not quite make out. “Damn,” she snarled. “You better get us some horses right now.”

He didn’t ask. He didn’t hesitate. He just ran, knowing that somehow, someone had spotted the girls and was going after them.

+

“Ed?” Peter asked hesitantly, his helmet in his hand, standing just inside the How.

“Peter?” Ed returned in exactly the same tone, waiting, patient. Always there.

“I…,” how did he say sorry for pushing away the one person he knew he could rely on always? How did he say ‘thank you for having my back when I didn’t want you there’? How did he say ‘I love you more than anything’ when he had been so cruel? How did he make up for all the stupid fights, the yelling, the cursing, the ignoring Edmund, his brother, his fellow king, confidante, friend, pillar and support?

He didn’t.

Because Edmund knew and always had.

He pulled his brother around by his shoulder guard and bowed, formally, speaking words that were long forgotten in this age. “By heart, by sword, by crown.”

Brother. Soldier. King. Everything he was, belonged to Edmund. Everything Edmund was, belonged to him. He couldn’t remember which one of them had come up with the words, had poured enough meaning into them to mean everything that they would never quite say. But he knew what they meant, those words.

Edmund smiled a trembling, tremendous smile and returned the bow. “By heart, by sword, by crown.”

Brother. Soldier. King. And a bond that had been forged in fire and ice, quite literally, never to be broken.

Both kings straightened and unconsciously, so did all those around them. Until Edmund drawled, “Now put on that helmet or I’ll do it for you, Pete.”

+

Miraz eyed the gathered Narnians with something akin to apprehension. Minotaurs. Centaurs. Satyrs. Griffins. Dwarves. Talking animals. And amongst them all, like a beacon, that blasted boy in red and gold, shining brightly in the sunlight.

Glozelle stood next to him, composed and silent as always, scanning the enemy forces, unmoved by anything happening around him. The King felt the urge to throttle his General for seeming so utterly unfazed by these things they would be fighting soon.

That, however, wouldn’t do, so instead he pushed a crossbow at the other man and growled, “If it should appear to be going poorly…”

Glozelle’s glacial gaze fixed on his lord’s face and he nodded. “Understood, my Lord.”

Drawing his sword, the king stepped forward.

+

The weight of his sword, the copper smell of his helmet, the sluggish movement of chainmail along his limbs, Peter remembered it all. Remembered it and took strength from it. He had fought the White Witch. He had destroyed the werewolves, chased the pirates out of Narnia. He was the Magnificent, the burning, the deadly, golden terror. High King of Narnia. His head might have been confused, these past months, but his body had never quite forgotten. And now, after he’d finally stopped trying to figure things out and remembered what it was to have faith, to believe and let things go their way, it all came rushing back.

He sent his little brother a brilliant smile that went mostly unseen under the visor and hefted his sword before stepping into the chosen arena and facing Miraz.

+

Buffy was ahead of Caspian, her slighter weight and better horse giving her the advantage as they raced to catch up with the Telmarines before they caught up with the girls and brought them down.

He almost froze in fear as the soldiers suddenly split into two groups, the smaller one galloping on, the bigger one veering slightly to the right. Susan and Lucy had split for some reason and that meant that one of them was on the ground, horseless.

His call of, “Go on!” was entirely unneeded as his blonde companion made no move to slow down, chasing the smaller group for all she was worth. Caspian followed the larger group into a small clearing, ducking wildly as an arrow came shooting past him, gold tipped and red feathered. Susan’s arrow. That meant she was alive still.

He pushed his horse faster, drew his sword and hit the clearing in a full gallop, using the flat of his blade to slam a Telmarine off his horse a split second before the man beheaded Susan.

For a moment prince and queen stared at each other, speechless from surprise and adrenaline, not quite sure what just happened. Then Caspian asked cheekily, “Are you sure you won’t be needing that horn after all?”

Susan, in the process of putting away an unused arrow, stuck her tongue out at him and then accepted his hand, pulling her onto his horse.

+

Deeper in the forest, Lucy was crouched low on her horse, riding faster than she ever had in her life and still not managing to get rid of her pursuers. Three men, one on either side of her, one behind, all with crossbows and showing no signs of tiring of the chase.

At this rate, she would be dead before she got even close to Aslan. And of course, because she was too small to properly use one, no-one had thought to give her a bow to defend herself. Her only weapon was her dagger and if she used that, there would still be two more coming at her while she was unarmed.

Aslan, she hated being small!

Suddenly a choked scream sounded behind her, followed by the unmistakable sound of a horse going down. Lucy steered her horse around a fallen tree and risked a look behind her, almost sobbing in relief when she saw Buffy, a dagger in each hand, aiming for the two remaining soldiers, an expression of fury on her face.

She threw the first blade and the one on Lucy’s left went down without a sound, dagger buried to the hilt in his neck. The last one ducked and put some distance between himself and the girls, making him harder to hit through the trees.

He was so intent on escaping the crazy blonde with the knives, that he never heard the rustle of footfalls on leaves, never noticed the shadow above him until the lion was on him, teeth in his throat, paws on his chest, ending his life in a flood of blood.

Lucy, rearing back in surprise at the sudden attack, tumbled off her panicking horse and landed hard on her butt, wheezing as Buffy came to a halt beside her, dismounting and immediately standing between the queen and lion.

The cat let go of the dead soldier, standing proud and tall, his gaze fixed on the two humans a few feet away. Buffy fell into a fighting stance as Lucy yelled, “Aslan!” and threw herself at the lion without reserve, hugging him for all she was worth.

The lion laughed and let himself be bowled over by the twelve-year-old, carefully steadying her with his paws, claws retracted.

Beyond Lucy, Buffy froze, her expression of worry melting into a mask of icy disdain.

“So you’re the great Aslan,” she observed, voice like broken glass.

+

Duck, swing, parry, block, it was a familiar dance, a known thing. Jarred muscles, aching joints, limbs like lead and sweat dripping in his eyes, those were familiar, too.

A flurry of motion then, blades bright in the sunlight, screams from both sides, a tumble. Peter fell and rolled, scrambling for Rhindon. A foot came down on his shield, twisting his arm, dislocating his shoulder with an inaudible pop and audible pain. He bit back a scream, screwed his eyes shut, waited for the lightning stroke of agony to pass.

When it did, he rolled again, away from the sword coming for his neck like an axe. He gathered his arm close, trying to ignore the throbbing ache and stood, reaching for his sword and this time, finding it.

Another flurry of strikes and counter strikes and Miraz tripped, finally faltering when he had seemed as indomitable as the Witch before.

Panting hard he looked up at Peter and asked, mockingly and out of breath, “Does his highness need a respite?”

Pretending to consider, Peter almost melted with relief. It looked like Buffy wouldn’t get to yell at him for being an idiot after all. He was going to die today.

+

+

Fourteen,
There Was No Going Back

+

Aslan sat up slowly, bringing the girl clinging to it – him – with him until the two of them were cuddled together like they had never been anywhere else. Buffy looked at the small girl next to the enormous lion and she shuddered, steeling herself for what was to come and drawing together all the rage she could muster.

“Grand entrance,” she hissed, “Check. At the last minute, check. After a lot of people died uselessly, check. You gotta be a god because no-one else would dare pull shit like that.”

Instead of responding in any way, the lion kept mustering her with his big, dark eyes, finally saying, “Sister Sineya. Welcome to Narnia.”

Buffy snorted, completely disregarding Lucy’s glare. “Ten years too late but hey, I guess you couldn’t be bothered any earlier.”

The lion, if possible – and it seemed very possible – frowned. “You are angry.”

Keeping her daggers in hand very ostensibly, the blonde snorted. “Angry? I’m not angry. I passed angry several thousand miles and about fifty years ago. I’m… I don’t even know what I am.”

“Buffy!” Lucy finally interrupted, scandalized. “Don’t be so mean. It’s not Aslan’s fault what happened to you.”

“Isn’t it?” she asked, turning dead eyes on the girl. All she got in return were Lucy’s own big, blue eyes, swimming with tears. Buffy shook her head. She wanted to rage, yell, and preferably break something. But not with those sad eyes watching her every move. She would have, once upon a time, not too long ago, but now she simply lacked the fire to do more than snipe at the lion.

“I’m getting back to the battle. You know,” she added, looking at the great cat, “The one where people are dying. The one you could stop.”

With that she jogged back to her horse, mounted, and took off without a single glance backwards. Lucy snuggled her head into Aslan’s mane and asked, tears in her voice, “Aslan, why is she so angry?”

The lion turned his head, gently bumping her in the chest. “Your friend has been hurt very badly, dear one. But remember, everything changes.”

+

Edmund almost died when Caspian came riding out of the forest with Susan behind him and no trace of Lucy. Peter, looking like he’d just gone three rounds against a brick wall, jerked upright, fear naked in his eyes.

“Lucy?”

Susan smiled at him and shook her head. “She got through. With a little help.”

She nudged Caspian, making clear just where that help had come from. Peter turned to the prince, relief painted on every line of his face. “Thank you.”

“Well, you were busy.”

That got a weak smile out of everyone.

“Where’s Buffy?”

“She went with Lucy.”

“To find Aslan?” Peter asked with some alarm. The others all stiffened. Buffy’s opinion of Aslan was very, very clear and no-one believed that letting her close to the lion would in any way end well. For anyone.

Edmund cursed quietly. Then he shook his head and pushed the thought aside. There was nothing they could do about it now but hope that Lucy would find a way to keep Buffy peaceable.

Peter jerked his head toward the How and requested from his sister, “Better get up there now. We know they won’t keep their word.”

They did. General Glozelle had confirmed what Buffy and Caspian had already feared. Miraz would try to win fairly and when that didn’t work, he would turn to any dirty trick he could come up with. And then he would let loose his army on them.

Susan nodded and hugged the king, wincing alongside him as she touched his left shoulder. She jogged away while Peter hefted his sword and smiled for the masses before basically collapsing onto the nearest fallen pillar, letting his brother doctor his shoulder.

“I think it’s dislocated,” Peter said, stating the obvious as Ed pulled on the elbow, getting the arm in position to pop the joint back into place. “What do you think happens back home if you die here?”

Ed grunted but otherwise left his brother to his philosophy. There were things best not touched upon in a situation like this.

“You know, you’ve always been there. I’ve never really…”

As much as Edmund had longed to hear those words, he already knew what Peter felt and Peter knew that he knew. This wasn’t his brother apologizing, this was his brother giving up. So he jerked on Peter’s arm, fixing his shoulder, earning himself a choked scream and stepping away.

“Save it for later.”

The order was clear: Make sure there is a later.

The duel went on.

+

Buffy angrily dashed away her tears as she rode almost blindly, trusting her horse to find the way back to the How without her directions. She hated crying, hadn’t cried since forever.

Crying was for the weak and it was useless. Nothing ever came from crying, except headaches and the feeling that the entire world was about to crash down around your ears. Buffy’s didn’t cry.

Buffy got angry.

She was angry with Aslan. Angry with all the gods in all the worlds for the games they played, regardless of human lives and hopes and dreams. For the better part of half a century, she’d held on to that anger, had distilled it and refined it until it was hard and cold as glass, barbed and wicked, undefeatable. A monster in her chest.

A month ago it had still roared inside of her, screaming for justice, for blood, for freedom.

And then she’d crossed the river and set foot into Narnia and she’d known, known exactly what this place, this country was. What Aslan was. Who he was.

And her anger had drained away, day by day, drop by drop. There was no place for hate in Narnia, no air for rage to breathe. No space for anger. In Narnia there was love and forgiveness and friendship and hope, no matter how dark it got, or how gruesome. In Narnia the good always won and the bad always lost.

In Narnia, a bitter old woman could not cling to her desperate anger, could not use it to hold herself together. In Narnia, the good and the soft and the wonderful and the wild came crawling in through the cracks like light into a dark room. They came in the shape of little girls with big eyes and silly, burning teenage boys, with too much knowledge in the way they looked at her, too much understanding.

They made her feel. They made her see. And they washed away the anger, leaving her empty, so very empty.

She’d lost everything and filled the spaces with rage and now that was gone, too, and she was about to cave in.

To break again, this time for good and damn them all, damn Aslan and Narnia and Lucy and Susan and Edmund and Peter and Caspian, she wanted her old numbness back, wanted to sink to the bottom of her ocean of fire again and never come back up.

But she couldn’t.

For that, she hated them almost as much as she loved them.

+

Chasing after Lucy and meeting Aslan meant she arrived back at the How just in time for the grand finale with Caspian standing over his uncle, sword raised, shaking with the need to kill.

She jumped of her horse, landing next to a pretty beat up Peter and kissed him, simply because she could. Because she wanted to. Because the sky was crashing down around her and nothing mattered anymore, did it?

“Lucy?” Peter asked as he pulled her into his side without taking his eyes off the scene before them.

“She’s fine.” Something in her voice, too flat, too hollow, the anger obviously strained and fake, must have alarmed him because he looked away from Caspian and his uncle to her, taking in her bloodshot eyes and tired look for the first time.

He would have asked what was wrong, if Miraz had not chosen that very moment to speak. “Perhaps,” he stuttered between laboured, wet gasps, “I was wrong. It seems you have the makings of a good Telmarine king after all.”

He smirked at his nephew and bowed his head, waiting. Winning, even in death. But Caspian only quivered with rage. A Telmarine king? His path to the throne covered in bodies, the blood of his family? A king who killed for power and greed, who had no morals and no conscience?

He screamed and drove the sword into the ground.

No.

Not like Miraz.

“Not one like you,” he gasped, catching his breath, body steadying. “Keep our life,” he told his wide-eyed, uncomprehending uncle. “But I am giving the Narnians back their kingdom.”

He walked away.

He turned his back on his wounded, kneeling uncle and walked away. Peter and Edmund grinned at him, The Narnians cheered and Susan gave him a far away nod and a brilliant smile from her post atop the How.

A king, yes but not a Telmarine one.

A Narnian one.

Then the screaming started.

+

Within moments the few soldiers in the vicinity had either fled or been killed, the body of Miraz left behind, Susan’s stolen arrow buried deeply in his side. Buffy and Edmund exchanged significant looks. They both knew who had stabbed Miraz: Sopespian, the lord who had cornered the king when they had presented the challenge. They’d known he would cause trouble but neither of them had expected said trouble to be quite so big.

The man was starting a war in order to cover up his regicide!

Then Glozelle ordered the Telmarines to arms, sending the cavalry to charge, followed immediately by two regiments of foot soldiers, as they had agreed. Every soldier that went into their first trap would be one less soldier to fight later.

Caspian had already jumped on a horse and was charging into the How like a man possessed.

“One,” Peter said, hefting his sword.

“Two,” Edmund added, picking up a discarded Telmarine sword in his free hand and testing its balance.

“Three,” Buffy counted, keeping her hands free. For now.

“Four,” Susan said on top of the How, arrow loose in her hand.

“Five,” Caspian yelled underneath the battle field, leading the invisible charge.

“Six,” Glenstorm whispered, a sword in each hand.

“Seven,” Trumpkin yelled, heard only by the archers around him.

“Eight,” Reepicheep squeaked.

“Nine,” Edmund called, drawing out the number as adrenaline began to rise.

“Get ready!” Peter yelled as Susan echoed the order above-head and the last of ten inaudible drumbeats rolled through their heads.

“Now!”

The ground gave way, the Telmarine cavalry charged head first into a pit, arrows flew and the Narnians from above and below ground attacked from three sides, storming into battle with their Kings at the very tip of the charge.

For a moment, the world held its breath.

Then the first swords clashed and there was no going back.

Peter spun under an oncoming sword, cutting a man across the middle, bringing him down and kicking the next right into Buffy’s waiting daggers. He dropped and the two of them spun, back to back, slashing and ducking. Edmund joined them moments later, his two swords held high, centaur style, surveying the field.

The cave-in caused by Caspian’s party had bought them a few minutes, but already the rest of the Telmarines were advancing. Slower than they could have been, thanks for Glozelle drawing every order out for as long as he could, but they were still coming and facts were overwhelming them. They were too few, their chosen fighting ground had a big hole in it that made it impossible to regroup properly after the first charge and the aid they were waiting for still had not arrived.

There was no sign of Aslan.

Buffy blocked a sword aimed at her head, kicked her attacker into another soldier and threw one of her daggers, saving a centaur’s life. Edmund crossed his blades, slitting the throat of another Telmarine before kicking the body out of range and ducking, trusting Peter to parry the blow meant for his head. His brother did, fighting for a brief moment above Ed’s head before slamming his fist into the face of an oncoming soldier and spinning back into position, stabbing a second man in the stomach.

“We’re losing,” Buffy called, only slightly out of breath as she grunted and kicked a man in the stomach hard enough to send him crashing into one of his companions, twenty feet away. Since she was running low on daggers already, she shrugged and adopted the method, using Telmarine soldiers as missiles to knock out their own comrades.

“Your Glozelle isn’t much use,” Edmund observed, hacking at two men coming from either side, felling both of them.

“He’s doing his best,” Peter argued, kicking a man in the face before slitting his neck.

“We’re still losing,” his brother sing-songed between two sword strokes.

“His only alternative is grabbing a sword and killing his own people,” Buffy defended but added with a sigh, “But you’re right. We’re fucked.”

Before anyone had the chance to comment on her crude observation, she broke away and sprinted some twenty feet to save Caspian’s neck as three Telmarines converged on him at the same time.

Peter, catching sight of the tail end of her somersault into a gaggle to enemy soldiers, grunted as he took a hit on his injured arm and shook his head. “She’s right,” he told his brother before drawing a deep breath and yelling, “Back to the How! Back!”

Where in the lion’s name was Lucy?

+

As the ground caved in, Glozelle stopped and stared, along with most of the rest of the army. Whatever he had expected the Narnians to do, bringing down the entire battle field hadn’t been it. And for a few minutes, it looked like they were winning.

But the hole helped them as much as it hindered them and there were three Telmarines for every Narnian, no matter how much he drew out giving orders and sent people toward the Narnians’ strongest instead of weakest points, it wasn’t enough.

The lords had taken up counteracting his orders and were looking at him sideways. It was only a matter of minutes before they found a way to conveniently displace an arrow or a dagger in him and be done with it. When the call to fall back came from the other side and Sopespian yelled for their route of escape to be cut off, Glozelle cursed.

He cursed violently and loudly and then he jumped back on his horse, turned it around and galloped toward the catapults just as the first rocks went flying. Without slowing down he hacked into the complicated array of ropes that made the big machines function and cut them clean through.

The soldiers stationed there stared at him, aghast and silent. But not for long. Within seconds the first cries of foul play went up and Glozelle knew that his days as a general were over.

Hell, all his days were probably over.

But he could do one last thing. He could make this count.

Of the five catapults they had, one was broken, two were behind him and two in front. There was no way he could reach all four of them. But he could take out the two in front and hope it was enough. So he kept riding, sweeping any resistance out of the way and hitting the second war machine at a full gallop. Ropes vibrated and broke under his sword, rendering this one useless, too.

One to go.

Behind him, he heard the order to shoot, shoot, just shoot him down.

+

Deep inside the woods, a lion smiled at a little girl, threw back his head, and roared.

+

When the cry of outrage came from behind, Buffy couldn’t help but turn around and see what was going on. Immediately she picked out the one man racing against the stream, sideways instead of toward them. Glozelle.

As they made their retreat, he brought down the catapults, one by one. Three were still firing but as she watched, he brought down another one and kept going. Running backwards, she blindly groped for and caught Caspian’s sleeve and jerked him sideways, pointing.

He followed her line of sight and his eyes widened as he caught on. Without a word both of them took off running, chopping their way to the right where Glozelle would come in if he managed to get out of the thick of the army and round the flank. There were no archers that could cover them since they were all busy not getting hit by flying rocks, but they had to try.

Buffy knew that Glozelle didn’t expect them to, wouldn’t mind dying for this. For something he believed in, finally. But friend or not, you didn’t leave your own behind. Especially not if they were incoming from a suicide mission behind enemy lines.

The three were within fifty yards of each other when Buffy yelled, “Get off that horse!”

Glozelle heard and obeyed, more or less flinging himself off his mount and immediately disappearing into the chaos of battle, making himself a harder target to shoot. He kept running toward them, not having to do much fighting since news of his betrayal had not yet reached the very front of the troops. Which, Buffy discovered, was a good thing because there was an arrow sticking out of his left shoulder, dangerously close to his heart.

Then her sight of him was blocked by a gaggle of Telmarines hell bent on taking down the ‘little girl’ and she was otherwise engaged. By the time she was rid of them, Caspian had already reached his countryman and was pulling him to his feet after an unfortunate last minute tumble to safety.

She watched as Glozelle stared at the offered hand for a long, long second before taking it with his good one and letting himself be put on his feet. The symbolism was so heavy in the air, you could have cut it.

“My Lord,” he said, as soon as he was upright, bowing as far as he could with an arrow in his shoulder, pinning his heavy armour in place.

Caspian grinned wide enough to split his face in two and brought up his sword, slitting a Telmarine’s throat almost negligently.

“Hold that,” Buffy commanded, thrusting her daggers at the prince who took them, looking confused until she reached up and hugged Glozelle tightly. “Sorry,” she muttered into his shoulder.

“What for?”

“This,” she said and broke off the arrow as close to the wound as possible, causing him to scream and stumble. “You don’t get to die,” she informed him as she steadied his swaying form and took back her weapons from a wide-eyed Caspian.

As great as he was with a sword, the prince still had a lot to learn about battles and the gruesome reality of them. As a unit the three turned back toward the How, intent on reaching safety and froze.

The entrance was down.

They were trapped.

+

When the battle began, Caspian thought they would win. The Telmarines fell so fast, their plan worked so perfectly, everything seemed alright.

And then the first Narnian within his sights fell to a sword through the belly and nothing was alright anymore.

After the skirmishes in the forest over the past few weeks, after the raid on the castle, Caspian thought he understood battle. He’d been studying tactics all his life, he knew all the plans and all the tricks they had up their sleeves for this fight and that was supposed to be enough.

The raid had been a failure. Things had gone wrong. People had died and he had been devastated.

But this, this was on a whole different scale. This was not two hundred chosen men fighting against a regiment of sleepy guards. This was everyone who could carry a weapon fighting not only for their lives but for their very right to exist.

And all the plans, all the tactics, were washed away with blood and sweat and terror until all that was left was killing as many of the enemy as possible and trying to stay alive.

And it just wouldn’t end. The raid had, all in all, taken less than an hour. By the time Peter’s order to fall back came, they had already been fighting for longer than that.

Battles, Caspian understood now, were not quick and clean. They were messy and they were horrible and long. Like a nightmare that just wouldn’t end.

He tried to stay close to the others, found them again and again in the chaos, fighting back to back with them until he was ripped away again. Edmund hacked tirelessly with his two swords, Buffy never seemed to slow or stop or even breathe and Peter, despite his injured shoulder, was a glowing terror at the centre of the battlefield. Susan, far above, never seemed to run out of arrows and never lost track of them, saving their lives more than once with a well-aimed shot.

These people, even Edmund, who was much younger than Caspian, had seen battle before. They knew it. Understood it. And they still faced it, managing to crack the occasional joke whenever they ran across each other in the chaos.

And Caspian understood why the others had followed Peter to the castle. It had been foolish and it had been risky and it had turned out badly. But Peter knew battle, knew this, the icy terror that clawed up the prince’s spine, higher with every comrade he watched die, with every man he killed.

Peter knew all that and he was not afraid, did not shy back, did not give up. He had seen something worth the risk in raiding the castle and the others had followed because that was what you did. You planned and you did your best and when it went to hell, you kept fighting.

Every battle, Caspian knew now, was a risk. Every battle was a failure. In war, there were no winners. Only survivors.

And with that understanding, with that cold certainty, Caspian hefted a dagger and saved Trumpkin’s life.

There was nothing else to do.

+

There was a minute or so during which Peter lost track of Buffy and Caspian. Then the entrance came down and Susan almost fell to her death and it seemed that everything was over.

Trumpkin managed to grab her in the last second and help her land safely. She climbed through the rubble and hit his – Peter’s - side at a run, just as Edmund arrived from the other side.

Where were Caspian and Buffy? Better yet, where were Aslan and Lucy?

The answer to the first question came as the two suddenly appeared close to the How, obviously coming from somewhere behind the left Telmarine flank. They had a third with them that Peter recognized as the Telmarine General.

The man was wounded but walking under his own steam and the three soon hit the spot where the duel had taken place. Miraz’s glassy eyes still stared at them, accusing and confused, forever open.

Looking away from the fallen king, Peter turned to the newcomers and glared at Buffy, “Warn a chap when you’re going to run off, would you?”

She shrugged, falling in next to him, scanning the oncoming soldiers. Behind them, Ed asked, “You’re the one that brought down that catapults?”

“Yes,” Glozelle answered, breathing hard, sounding tense.

“Good job,” the Just King offered. “Although it wasn’t much use.”

Peter didn’t need to look to know his brother was grimacing fiercely. Fact was, they were as good as dead. Outnumbered, surrounded and with nowhere to fall back to.

Trapped, and they knew it.

They had lost. Nothing short of a miracle was going to save them now and as Narnians died all around them, Peter found it hard to believe in one.

There was a lull in the battle as the Telmarines hurried to fill the void left behind by the retreating Narnians and Peter used it.

“One more time?” he asked, turning to Ed, his ever faithful brother, his second in command, his best friend.

Ed, knowing exactly what Peter was asking of him, grinned madly. “One more time, Pete.”

Always one more time.

Peter grinned back and turned to Susan, who only nodded grimly, collecting whatever arrows she could find in the vicinity. Behind her, Glenstorm regally inclined his head as well.

Buffy, when he met her gaze, just snorted. “I’m not stopping.”

Caspian nodded and pulled a dagger from a dead soldier’s chest, gripping it tightly.

Then the trees came.

+

+

Fifteen,
The Trees Came

+

The trees came and the battle turned so fast they almost didn’t notice at first. The remaining catapults went down, leaving the archers free to fire again. The last Telmarines inside the caved-in area fell to roots, sucked into the darkness of the earth. And those outside the hole looked up and up and up and found themselves face to face with trees.

Trees. Those beasts, those animals and fairy tale creatures had the trees on their side. The land itself was fighting for them. And like a flooded anthill, the Telmarines scattered, scared, dying, running for their lives.

Panicking in the face of something too big to comprehend.

“To the river,” someone yelled and although no-one knew who, they all picked up the call. To the river, to the river.

Trees didn’t cross rivers, didn’t walk on bridges. It was logic in a world without and so they ran for their lives, ran without stopping or thinking or breathing.

To the river.

To Beruna.

+

What they didn’t know was that Sopespian, the one who had given the first order to fall back, had no intention of fleeing. No, he wanted to move the battle, not end it. There was no way he would stop, no way he would let those things take his crown from him.

Miraz was dead, Glozelle as good as. He was the only lord with enough of a standing to take over Telmar and he would, oh he would.

The crown, the country, the people, it was his. All his. It belonged to him and no-one else. He would take it and keep it and his sons and their sons would sit on that throne until the end of the world. Kings. Not vassals, not lords, not loyal servants to crown and country. Kings.

And if he had to sacrifice the entire army to reach that goal, then he would. Every dead soldier was another man that could not oppose his takeover.

To the river.

To Beruna.

To victory and death.

Well, not his death.

+

Riding on Aslan’s back as they hurried to Beruna, Lucy felt like she hadn’t in a long time. Free. Happy. Light. Light as a feather and if she let go of the lion’s mane, she would rise up and fly away on the soft Narnian winds.

She knew that somewhere her siblings and friends were fighting, were possibly dying, but the trees stirred, the dryads danced all around them, singing their old songs of war and victory and Aslan moved under her, strong and timeless and endless.

And Lucy knew what no-one else in Narnia knew yet.

That it would be alright.

They would be just fine.

Aslan was coming and he was bringing with him an army that could not be stopped, could not be defeated. Trees could not be shot, could not be stabbed to death. And the dryads within them had no physical form at all.

They would win and the Telmarines would be driven back beyond the borders of Old Narnia and the country would belong to the Kings and Queens and people of Narnia once more.

It would be home again.

Already Lucy was brimming with anticipation. She would ride again, would sail the Eastern Seas, would play with Susan and watch her brothers mock fight in the fields. Maybe they could rebuild the Cair, could move back there. They would take Buffy and Caspian with them and maybe she and Edmund would find someone to love, too, one day. In a few decades or so.

She was in no hurry.

Not anymore.

Because it would be alright. Everything would be alright again. Just like it had been.

“Oh Lucy,” Aslan rumbled underneath her, his voice sad and quickly torn away by the rushing winds.

Nothing happens the same way twice.

But Lucy simply shook her head. No. They deserved this, didn’t they? They were allowed to be happy now. They had to be.

The lion sped up his steps, not answering her unspoken questions and then they reached Beruna, crossing most of the river in one giant leap and coming to a still stand at the end of the bridge that lay in Telmar – the land stolen from Narnia so long ago - beyond the border of the river.

She dismounted swiftly, with motions so practiced and well known they would go to the grave and beyond with her, and stood next to her friend, her Aslan, watching the opposite shoreline for movement.

Beyond the trees she could hear the battle, could hear steel on steel, the cry of wounded men, the sound of great crashes. Then the sounds changed, the clanging of swords subsided almost completely as a new noise started up.

It was a noise of terror. An entire army was screaming. Lucy recognized them as the Telmarines, knew how Narnian screams sounded and knew that these were different.

The trees had reached the battle.

The Telmarines knew fear.

And then the screams started growing louder.

She looked at the lion and found him staring fixedly at the tree line. Waiting. Bracing herself, she mirrored him, unmoving. Waiting.

+

Narnia behind, a single girl and a big cat in front. It was a harder choice than it should have been. Bloodthirsty army of beasts or little girl with pet?

Sopespian, sitting on his horse in the middle of the bridge that connected Narnia and Telmar, looked first to one end of the bridge and then the other, wondering. Below and around him, the soldiers, his soldiers had already made their choice, wading into the water.

Anything to get away from the monsters that commanded even the trees. Away from the furious girl with the constantly singing bow, away from the boy brothers with the never stopping swords, away from the traitor whore who fought like five men and never flinched as blood sprayed her face, away from Caspian who had lost the soft, helpless look he had always worn and become a man. Away from the Narnians in all their fairy tale and nightmare glory, hunting them, chasing them, killing them.

Burning them with something that was too bright, too volatile for them to comprehend.

They didn’t notice the girl on the other side of the bridge, blind in their panic.

Sopespian did.

He noticed. And he watched her smile as she drew a single, small dagger and held it expertly in her tiny, fragile hands, daring him mutely to come closer.

Forward or back. Girl or army? Lion or Narnia?

Sopespian knew that there was more to the two in front of him than the naked eye showed. He understood that they stood in front of him backed by something invisible and powerful. He knew that the choice that seemed no choice at all to the foot soldiers was indeed difficult to make.

But in the end he made it quickly and efficiently, like a good leader. Made the only choice he could make, if he didn’t want his people to rebel against him.

No matter what those two had hidden up their sleeves, it could not be more dangerous than the army at his back.

“Charge!” he yelled, sword raised, aimed at the smiling little girl.

That was his choice.

It was the wrong one.

+

The river god came, bringing with him the weight of the ages and a thousand tons of water, crushing anything that resisted in his merciless, cold embrace before caving in on himself and flowing on, unstrained, unconcerned with the dead sinking to the bottom of his bed.

Buffy watched from between Caspian and Peter, witnessing destruction on a scale she had not seen since her home town had fallen into a hole that was not a hole but a gate into hell.

The others froze, motionless in shock at the utter destruction, the ease with which it happened and she stood among them, the only one who understood, truly knew the terror that was the gods.

A lion roared and a people was swept away.

That was all it took for a god to shape a world. A word, a roar, a cry. Aslan could have saved Narnia a thousand years ago when the Telmarines had first come and yet he had not. She had known that all the while, had tried to tell the childrennotchildren scattered around her, but they had failed to understand.

Aslan had his reasons. Aslan knew best. Aslan would come. All that was needed was faith.

It was funny though, how, as they converted to – no, not converted, they believed too strongly for that, but as they finally accepted it as fact - her point of view, as they saw what she saw, understood what she knew, how at the very same time, she faltered.

Her anger was still fading, falling away and no matter how desperately she clutched it close, it slipped through her fingers. And in the hollowness, in the echo left behind she saw in the lion’s eyes across the river what she saw in every mirror.

And she knew something else.

Something new.

She knew that gods made mistakes.

She knew then, that gods grew tired.

And she looked away.

The others crossed the river, falling upon Lucy with hugs and kisses and love and care and worry and then they knelt, unquestioningly, at their lion’s feet. Peter looked back at her over his shoulder, searching for her as he waited to be asked to rise before his lord and found her still one the other shore, far away, unmoving.

She stood, torn between going forward and raging at the lion god with a fury that was artificial and make-believe and going back and simply fading into the trees. The battle, the war, was over. Caspian would be king. She would be sent on to her next task.

Forward or back, anger or acceptance, screaming or silence. She didn’t know, couldn’t decide and tried to hate this country for sucking the rage out of her and failed, because it had taken the hatred, too.

In the end, she simply stood there.

Even gods grew tired.

+

Kneeling for the lion was never even a question. There was no hesitation, no doubt, no wavering. Caspian lay eyes on the proud golden animal beside Queen Lucy and he knew that this was not an animal at all.

Buffy’s word was god, Peter’s was lord, Susan’s and Edmund’s was Aslan and Lucy’s was simply friend.

He was all of that.

And he was more.

He shone, even in the bright sunlight and he felt warm and soothing and gentle even from ten feet away, soft and caring. Wild and fierce. Aslan, Lucy had told him, was not a tame lion. But he came when he was needed.

He had doubted, had looked away from the small queen’s enormous faith. How could he believe in something he’d never even seen? He knew now.

Aslan had been needed and he had come.

Buffy said that he had come too late, had left them to suffer when he could have acted. He had agreed with her, silently, wordlessly. Where was this god, when he could help them easily?

Now, it mattered little when Aslan had chosen to appear. What did matter was that he had come.

Narnia was saved and Caspian was under no illusion whatsoever who had done the saving. He had done his part but that part was small, smaller than that of those that surrounded him now, unimportant. It would not have been enough.

Aslan had come.

Like Lucy had promised.

Late, like Buffy had predicted.

And Caspian fell to his knees without thought or decision, as Peter and Edmund and Susan and he knew, like they did, that what had been did not matter.

Aslan was here.

And Caspian knew, that from this day on, even if he never saw him again, even if he woke tomorrow, thinking all this a dream, he would believe. He would have faith in the lion.

That was all there was to it. All he had to do. Just believe. Nothing more. Aslan would take care of the rest.

+

Peter looked at her over his shoulder, finding her far away in body and farther away in spirit, looking utterly lost on the bright, white shore of the River Rush.

Her weapons were all gone, her dress stained and torn, chainmail dark with blood that looked like rust. Her hair was tousled and her cheek bruised. She looked like a broken doll, abandoned for a newer toy.

Peter ached.

He ached because this was the end. Their time, short as it had been, was over. Caspian knelt beside him, head bowed and back straight, a King of Narnia, no longer the stupid little boy Peter had seen in him only a few short days ago.

Caspian of Narnia. His successor. His heir.

The end of Narnia as he knew it, the beginning of something new and different, making him obsolete. A single glance at Aslan had confirmed only what he had known in the marrow of his bones since coming back.

Time’s up, Pete, time to go.

Back to England and its bombs and gas masks, its foul air and poisoned food, its wars and deaths, dark grey that hung over everything. Away from green Narnia and its people, away from its rivers and mountains and memories. Away from Buffy, who, despite her best efforts, glowed like a beacon in the dark whenever she forgot to be angry for a while.

She’d warned him. Told him, hurt. Pain. Separation. She’d tried to keep him at arm’s length to avoid heartache. He had yelled at her, drawing her out, making her lose control. Because whether or not they admitted it, the connection was already there. If his heart had to break, he’d rather it would break for something real.

Peter had never been a fan of maybes and things left unsaid, undone. Better to have loved and lost, he had read, somewhere, an age and a world away. He had agreed then and he agreed now. Better to have had two days with her than nothing at all because even if she was not the love of his life, even if they might never have made it in the long run, it had been good.

Good to have her, to fight with her, to kiss her and care for her and hold her in the dark and curse her and yell at her. Good to know her. Good.

If he’d stepped back when she asked him to, had backed away and left her alone, he would forever wonder.

So he ached, sweet and bitter and sad and he wished, with all his heart, for her to cross that river and stand beside him as he faced the lion. To be with him for a little longer.

She didn’t. She just stood there, miles away, arms wrapped around herself, leaving bloody fingerprints on her own upper arms, clutching herself tightly, as if she might lose her own body. As if it might walk away with her in it and not give her a chance to say goodbye.

But then she moved, turned, walked away, not in the opposite direction but sideways, downstream, along the river that still carried the dead. Just walking.

Aslan spoke and Peter lost sight of her behind a gaggle of Telmarines. He did not find her again.

+

I am sorry, Susan thought, kneeling, humbled, relieved and tired and glad, so glad. Because as long as Aslan lived, so did the country she remembered. As long as Aslan was here, Narnia was more than a dream from a summer spent in the country.

Sorry I doubted you.

He bade them to stand and they did, met their gazes and tilted his head just so, as he always had when there was an obvious lesson to be learned and he was just waiting for them to catch up.

This time, Susan understood without a single word. She was forgiven. There had never been fault.

Her feet, faltering at the crossing of the gorge, had found their rhythm again and their stride. Susan the Gentle walked Narnia again, as she had a thousand years ago, unbowed and unbroken.

A relic maybe, but not obsolete. Not yet.

Please Aslan, not yet. Let us stay, please let us stay.

Reepicheep came before her prayers were answered or denied, tailless and comical in his despair, his knights braver than he was, pride stung and voice high. They offered their own tails to the altar of his ego and Aslan stopped them as she knew he would.

Not for the proud, silly mouse but for his brave, loyal knights. Susan smiled and leaned lightly into Peter’s side, remembering, as she knew her brothers did, Lucy’s daisy chain lessons of humility, of pride beaten down to size and acceptance worn high upon a brow that was decorated with silly, silly flowers.

Lucy and Aslan, those two had always kept them all from flying away on their little fancies and small problems. Had kept them grounded.

In England, Susan had thought that grounding lost and flown high on make-up and fashion, on boys and books and anything that took her thoughts off the country that had exiled her. But oh, she’d been so wrong. Lucy had still been there, Aslan in her heart.

Susan had simply forgotten where to look.

Finding her sister’s gaze now, she smiled, softly, quietly and found her look and smile returned not by her little sister but by her best friend who lived inside that small frame.

Lucy, oh Lucy, Susan thought, and promised herself to do better from now on.

Her gaze travelled on, from sister to lion and fondly, tiredly, she cursed that beloved, dratted cat inside her head. His mere presence made everything seem so very, very easy.

+

Edmund looked from a glowing Caspian to a sad and resigned Peter to a beaming Lucy to a lighter Susan and he rolled his eyes. Great Lion, it had taken them long enough.

It amused him that he, the traitor, the odd one out, the doubter, was the one, the only one, beside little Lucy - who didn’t count because, come on, it was Lucy - who had never faltered.

His older siblings had stumbled and struggled so hard and no needlessly. If they’d just listened to him…

Well, story of his life. No-one ever did listen to him, until it was too late. Not even Pete who really should have known better. Oh well. No matter. He was there afterwards to set them right either way and this time, maybe, they would be okay.

Had to be. He wasn’t bloody doing anything like this again anytime soon, thanks a lot.

+

Truth, Glozelle mused, already feverish with blood loss and the strain of fighting injured, was a scary thing.

These last few weeks all he had been concerned with was honour and truth and loyalty. His honour restored, truth about Miraz brought to light and loyalty to a lord who, for a change, actually deserved it.

Letting Buffy go in the forest, sending his doomed men to flee for their lives, meeting with King Peter to plan the downfall of his own soldiers, all those things had happened in the name of those three abstracts, these ideas.

And when he’d jumped on his horse and started bringing down his catapults, he’d thought he’d die for those same concepts and he was satisfied with that. Cleansed in death, his battered honour restored, his peace made with the world and the knowledge that he’d given everything he had to do what he believed was right.

Glozelle and the things he believed to be right had become somewhat estranged in the past decade.

Death in battle, all in all, had seemed like a good way to go. Maybe he would be branded a traitor, maybe a hero. But if anyone ever called upon his ghost, he could say he had done what was right.

Only it didn’t work like that. He survived. Lived and breathed and hurt and followed the two armies to the shores of Beruna and stood there as the river rose and swept away his people.

Stood there, still, when the kings and queens knelt before the lion. He looked the great cat in the eye and he saw, honest, hard and brutal, real truth.

The truth about himself. Honour should not be something that came and went but a constant, an automatic reaction and code. Truth should not be something that was denied for a decade and returned only when it seemed convenient. Loyalty was not something to be thrown around, wavering, weak.

Neither of the three was meant to lie dormant inside a man until a blonde woman stood in a dark forest, a sword in each hand, looking at him with death and pain in her eyes, asking, are you friend or enemy?

And dying for something you believed in was not half as brave as living for it.

He saw, in the lion’s eyes, understanding of his motives. Aslan knew that he was human and fallible and that he had done what he thought best. But he saw also that it was not yet enough.

There were things left to do for Glozelle of Telmar. More, perhaps, than he had ever dreamed of.

He would live. He would heal. He would not die a martyr on a battlefield, unmourned and unknown. Not while the lion still had a mission for him.

+

With most of the Telmarine army swept away, quite literally, the clean up was fast and easy. Those that were left were disarmed and put together in easily controlled groups of ten and taken away to be locked up. For now. They would be let go, Caspian was adamant about that, as soon as the aftermath of the battle had been dealt with. For now though, they needed to be out of sight and unable to cause trouble; they all agreed on that.

Edmund, Judge of Old, took over dealing with the prisoners while Peter and Caspian let themselves be spirited away by their generals to discuss how to take over their newly acquired country as peaceably as possible. Lucy went to heal all that were beyond hope without her Cordial and Aslan accompanied her, a shadow of light and strength trailing in a little girl’s wake.

Buffy had disappeared almost as soon as the fighting was done with and reappeared inside the How, helping tend to those wounded that would heal without Lucy’s aid. She cleaned, stitched and bandaged tirelessly until the hares ganged up on her and kicked her out, saying she needed sleep.

Susan took her place, gentle and caring, a mother to all who were in pain. Buffy went without protest, knowing that Susan was better suited for the job than she ever could be. The girl queen was truly at home among her people, touching them, soothing them. She was all heart, in the end.

Buffy on the other side, was not heart but hand. And she could not rest, could not sleep. Her time here was ending and she wanted, she needed, to be awake for every moment she had left.

After getting booted out of the infirmary she could be found on the battlefield, taking on the gruesome task of sorting out the dead. Telmarines to one side, Narnians to another, all treated with respect and honour, all mourned for, counted and, if possible, named.

For a while she considered dragging Caspian out from his council meeting to show him what she was doing, to impress upon him, once and for all, that this was how all wars ended. Whether you won or lost, in the end, there were always corpses to sort through and pyres to build.

She didn’t, though, because she didn’t have the heart for it. She was, like the Pevensies, here on borrowed time now, and all five of them knew it. Hell, half the Narnians knew it.

This was the end: Half of them dead, their country freed, the war over, their broken bodies splayed across a field and their leaders about to be taken away again.

She would have liked to find Peter and make him tell her one of his mad stories but she couldn’t.

In the aftermath of battle, there was always only death.

+

+

Sixteen,
Even Gods Grew Tired

+

Less than forty-eight hours after the Battle of Beruna, the last survivor of the royal bloodline returned to Telmar in the company of four kings and queens and a lion that walked ahead of all of them, a king of kings.

Buffy, who had not been really seen or noticed since the battle, walked with the foot soldiers toward the end of the column, quiet and solemn. Waiting.

Peter looked for her, later, after the feast, as soon as he could get away, but he didn’t find her. Nor did Caspian when he went looking for the woman that had kept him alive long enough to return to this castle as a king of his people. Lucy looked briefly for her but gave up when Aslan told her to leave the blonde alone.

Buffy would be found when she wanted to be found. Until then, she haunted the castle like a ghost, walking the halls she’d once known but now scarcely recognized. Less than two days after Miraz’s death, the servants had already packed away most of the traces he had left. The heavy drapes that had covered most windows were gone, the torches had multiplied.

The dreary castle was turning into a light and airy place before her eyes. Another sign of her impending departure. Buffy never walked peaceful worlds. They had no use for her.

In the end, it was the lion himself who found her walking Prunaprismia’s rose garden well past midnight, after everyone else had long since gone to sleep. She was strolling along with no certain direction, trailing her hands over flowers and leaves, already missing this place. Missing Narnia, just beyond the castle walls and the river.

She would have liked to pretend she did not know why she missed this wild land so, when she had not missed anything very much in fifty years, but she did. She missed it because she had let herself fall in love with it, and its people, and because of its very nature.

Narnia was different from all other worlds she had walked. All but one.

“Sister Sineya,” Aslan rumbled in the dark behind her.

She turned slowly, not surprised to find him here, or to be found. He inclined his head lightly and brushed past her, finding a balcony overlooking the city in the moonlight. She followed, as he knew she would.

“I want to hate you,” she said, after they had spent a few minutes staring into the distance.

“I know, dear sister,” he answered, his voice a rumble, deep as the earth.

“But I can’t,” she added, refusing to look in his direction. “I know what Narnia is.”

A land where anger and hate and rage and grief had no place. A world where the good always won and the bad always lost, where love and friendship and loyalty always prevailed, in the end. A land that was warm and soft and wild and wonderful.

“It’s some kind of heaven,” she spoke out loud what she’d known since setting foot on Narnian soil, since she’d felt the first trickle of her anger draining away. She’d hated for fifty years, but Narnia allowed no hate. Not for long.

“You can feel it.” Not a question.

“I recognize heaven when I find it.”

The lion nodded and sat, waiting for her to ask what she needed to ask, her voice only bitter now, the rest of her drained dry. She couldn’t hate anymore. Couldn’t even hate that she couldn’t hate. She was just empty. Hollow, after so long.

“If this is heaven, what’s that make you?”

“I am Aslan, Sister Sineya,” he said, with some amusement in his voice, “Son of the Emperor over the Sea. I am not a tame lion.”

It sounded so much like a line learned by heart that she smiled blandly, wondering who bought crap like this, made up titles and phrases to describe something that entirely surpassed definition. What’s in a name, she wondered, but said nothing. They all had their little names and titles, their ideas of self.

“Why do you call me that?” she asked instead, knowing that in this, at least, she stood a chance of getting an answer.

His turned his big head to look at her even as she stubbornly kept her eyes on the sleeping city below. She could not hate here, in this world, but she remembered that she wanted to and she would not give in.

Not yet.

“Is that not what you are, dear one?”

She broke her own promise and looked at him, glowering. He smiled. She had not known lions could smile. But then he wasn’t a lion, was he?

“I’m not a god.”

He shrugged and she turned away again. “Yet you are my equal. I walk the worlds when they are born and you…”

“Ruin them?” Yes, she could still be bitter.

“You are there when they fall and change. Through no fault of your own. We witness, Sister. In that, we are equals.”

“If we’re so equal, then why don’t I get a say in where I go? In what I do? If we’re so damn equal, then why do you get to order me around like a dog?” She wanted to scream, but her voice failed her and all that was left was a whisper.

“Everything changes, dear one.” He used that damn name again and ignored her glare, “You changed when you used magic to make others in your image. You became what you are. Sister. That is why you had to leave.”

“Because of what I did? Did I break some rules or something?”

“You do not age.”

She looked at him, surprised at his non-sequitur and then quickly looked away. She had changed. She did not age. She’d had to leave her world. She was… different?

“Are you telling me because of what I became, I had to leave my world?”

“Yes, I am,” he confirmed, smiling like a proud parent. It grated. “Your powers rose above what they were meant to be and they needed to run their course. In due time, sister, your powers will fade away, as they were meant to and you will age again, someday soon.”

“But why all the different worlds? Why all the-“

The pain and the heartache and the silence and the grief and the anger and the hate and the longing and the loneliness, too much to bear.

“I walk the worlds as they are born. You walk the worlds as they fall and change,” the lion repeated, infuriatingly calm and patient. Then, as if sensing her scowl, he added, “That is the nature of your power. It cannot be contained in one world. Your power-“

“Needed to run its course. Okay, I get it. I let Willow cast that spell and the end result was this. I get it. I have to keep moving until I fizzle out and then I’ll keel over and finally have my peace. Thanks, I feel heaps better now.”

“Do you really?” He sounded curious.

She gave him a look. “No.”

There was silence as they stood next to each other, brother and sister, lion and woman, one serene, the other just tired. She’d always thought knowing why this was all happening to her would make it easier, would give her closure. All it gave her was the knowledge that it wouldn’t end anytime soon and that, worst of all, she had no-one to blame but herself. She was the one that had insisted on that spell. She was the one who…

Bitterness. So much bitterness.

They should have left her in the ground.

And now here she was, in another heaven, in another world where she could find peace, and it meant nothing. She wouldn’t be allowed to stay, had already stayed far too many years, waiting for this war to come, sitting at the edge of heaven, never knowing it was there. Technically, she mused, she was not in Narnia anymore. So why couldn’t she just open her mouth and scream, scream until her voice snapped and broke?

The answer, she figured, was sitting next to her. Narnia and Aslan. Aslan and Narnia. It might as well have been the same damn thing.

She couldn’t stay. But –

“You’re going to send the Pevensies back, aren’t you?”

“They must go home.”

She snorted. “They are home. This place is their home.”

“They cannot stay.”

“Why not? Because they haven’t been tortured enough? Because they haven’t sacrificed enough? They spent a year in their old world, with nothing to prove they weren’t insane and nothing but their faith to cling to and they pulled through. They made it back here, didn’t they? Whatever test this was, they did it. Leave them alone at least, if you won’t leave me in peace. It’s bad enough you waited to come so long as you did.”

“You misunderstand, dear one. This is not – “

“Yes it is. It’s about you and what you put them through. You could have finished this war before it ever began, but you chose to let them fight. You gave them a life and then you took it away, turning them back into children and then you called them up again and they came. They came. You didn’t.

“We both know you could let them stay here. But instead you choose to throw them out of heaven. Someone did that to me once, you know? Pulled me out of heaven. I tried to kill myself. Just to get back. Even you can’t be that cruel.”

Finally Aslan moved, stepping closer until they were shoulder to shoulder, his voice low and urgent. “I am not cruel. But they must play their roles, for the sake of both worlds. They must do as they were meant to do and things must be as they have to be.”

Letting children fight his wars was a way to keep the world safe. An easy way. They fought, their home was saved and a god need not make and break a new world.

Even gods grew tired.

With one strong, quick step, Buffy stepped away from the lion, her face darkening and finding, despite the impossibility, a spark of rage in heaven. “That’s why you and me are not alike. I am human. You’re a god. And you know what the problem with you gods is? You don’t know us.”

“I do know-“

“No! You know what we think and what we feel, maybe, but you don’t understand what it means to be human because you’ve never felt it. You think too big. All of you, no matter what world or name, you always think in terms of good and evil, of life and death and saving worlds. You use me for all those things and you think you do it for the good of mankind.

“You’re not. Humans don’t give a shit about good or evil or the world.” She flung up her arms, voice rising, stepping farther away from him with every sentence. “We care about each other. About our lives and our future and sometimes we hurt for what’s right and we sacrifice but we do it for us. For the people we love. For our friends. For our family. We think small. These kids did what they had to do. They did what you wanted them to do. Now fuck the greater good and let them be happy. No more tests. No more pain. Just leave them alone. They deserve better than to have a god run their lives for them.”

She spun on her heel, intent on walking away to find another quiet place and work through all she had learned and figure out if it changed anything. She didn’t think it would. Knowing meant nothing and once she left this world, the anger would come back and she would drown again, forgetting the things she had learned here, had felt here. Just like she had forgotten all she had felt in her home world.

Her friends, her lovers, they had faded as Peter and his siblings and their friends would. Purged by helpless rage.

Behind her, between roses that weighed down the night air with a sickeningly sweet smell, Aslan rumbled, “You say humans are selfish. Yet you argue for the sake of others and not your own.”

She considered saying something, anything at all, just so he wouldn’t have the last word, but she kept her mouth shut. She was human, no matter what he claimed, and he was a god. He knew nothing of her and she knew nothing of him. He thought he loved her and she knew she hated him, would hate him, once she had her distance.

He cared for her in that nonsensical, all encompassing way of gods that liked to pretend to be benevolent and she hated him because he had pulled her into this world and let her remember heaven, let her feel something other than darkness and now he would take it away.

How it goes. How it went. Gods pushing her around the board like a pawn, forward and never back, sideways to kill and always in the first line of defence.

Even without her shroud of anger, she and him were absolutely, fundamentally different. They could never agree. Never. She was human. He was not.

So why even try? Why argue with him? He thought himself omnipotent and he would do as he felt was right, no matter what she did.

“Why?” He called after her, demanding and confused, honestly lost. A lost god. She almost laughed.

He really didn’t understand. Even after all she’d yelled in his face, he didn’t understand why she argued for the sake of those four kids.

“If they go back,” she threw over her shoulder, “What will happen to them?”

And then she sped up until she was running, not wanting know his answer. She knew it already, in the most basic terms. Loss. Pain. Denial. Searching for meaning and finding none, throwing oneself into stupid, dangerous, suicidal things, just to feel, to remember, to try and give it all meaning. Dying and hoping for peace.

She knew it all.

The Pevensies, if sent back, would end like her.

So much bitterness.

+

Edmund was fleeing from Trumpkin’s drunk rendition of an old Narnian hunting song, when he suddenly heard steps behind him in the all but abandoned hallway. Steps that were as familiar to him as the tattoo of his own heartbeat.

Peter had finally come to him.

His older brother called out for him to stop and for a moment Edmund seriously considered giving his brother a hard time and just walking on. Then he stopped, grinning wryly to himself. As if he ever could go against Peter. He was absolutely hopeless when it came to being strict with his brother.

“What is it, Pete?” he asked as the other boy caught up with him, not entirely surprised when his answer came in the form of a hand that grabbed his arm and pulled him sideways into an empty office.

Once inside, Peter let go immediately and stepped back, suddenly shuffling his feet shyly. “Ed,” he started, “I have… I mean… I….”

Ed snorted. His brother was rubbish at apologies. Always had been. “I know, Peter,” he acknowledged the attempt. “It’s okay.”

“No it’s not,” the High King protested, surprisingly vehement. “You said save it for later. Well, now’s later.”

Actually, Ed had never meant what he’d said, never expected Peter to actually come out and say anything. They had made their peace with the past year, both of them. By heart, by sword, by crown. That was all that was needed. But apparently not this time.

The younger king leaned back against a heavy oak desk and offered with a sigh, “Alright then.”

Peter quirked an amused eyebrow at him but then sobered immediately. “I was an arse. All last year, in England, I was wretched to you. And I’m sorry. I was just trying to make things right, but instead…”

“Idiot,” Edmund said fondly.

Peter looked up from the floor, hurt.

“We fought together for fifteen years and you still think you have to do everything on your own. The girls and I can help. We want to help, but you never let us.”

“I just-“

“Think you have to protect us all the time. Here’s news for you, Pete, we’re all grown-ups inside. We can take care of ourselves. And,” he stressed when his brother made to interrupt, “That means asking for help if we need it. Can’t you trust us, Peter? Just a bit?”

In typical High King fashion, Peter turned his face away and readily shouldered the blame for everything, guilt weighing him down visibly. “I’m sorry,” he muttered, barely audible.

“Like I said,” Ed grumbled, “Idiot.”

Then he crossed the distance between them and hugged his bloody stubborn brother until he relaxed and hugged back just as tightly. Susan and Lucy, who had been lurking in the doorway for a while, joined in a moment later and they had their first real, good hug since before they had stumbled back into England.

All four of them, wrapped around each other, close and warm, alive and breathing. Family. Happy.

They all rather tactfully ignored the wet stains on Peter’s cheeks.

+

“What will happen to them?” she called and ran, leaving him with the answer ringing in his ears.

Life. Hardship. Confusion, separation, denial and desperately clinging to a past and a life of which they had no proof. One turning away, hiding herself so deep, she forgot who she was. Three staying true, staying together, tumbling, falling, dying among the screech of metal and the crying of broken bodies.

And then, back to Narnia. Back home.

Humans thought small.

Fuck the greater good.

A test.

If he let them stay, allowed them to live and die in heaven, Susan would never fall and her siblings would not die so senselessly.

Their faith would remain untested, their strengths untapped.

Their hearts whole and their souls light.

Did he need to test their faith once more?

Did he doubt them?

There was the one question every god asked, and he knew he was no different: Did they doubt him? Have faith in him? It was faith that kept him alive, doubt that killed him. Gods died when no-one believed in them anymore.

He was a god, she said, and never human.

Skewed perspectives.

Wrong answers.

He was tired of walking the worlds for so long, of always seeing the same tragedies.

But what if he turned it all around?

What if he asked not if they doubted him, but if he doubted them?

The answer was easy.

He did not.

Even Susan, the potentially fallen queen, lost in her own world for so long, he could not doubt.

Eastwards he thought, what does that change? The answer came across the Sea, echoing with a chuckle of mirth. A lesson taught, of all people, by a humanchildgod.

The answer came across the Sea, whispering, It changes everything.

And everything changes.

+

“Where’ve you been hiding?” Peter asked from behind her, coming up to the alcove she’d hidden herself in, staring out the window. At Narnia, again.

“Had a fight with Aslan,” she told him, as flippantly as she could manage, which wasn’t much. “Didn’t you hear me scream?”

He chuckled and it fell flat, too, with worry. “No. Trumpkin was singing. What did you fight about?”

He didn’t expect her to answer him and so didn’t mind when she avoided the question. “I know now why I keep getting kicked around the multiverse.”

“You do?” he sounded surprised and genuinely curious. She nodded and made no move to protest when he squeezed in next to her, a single digit tracing the skyline of the forest on the window.

“It’s my own damn fault.” She smiled as she said it, melancholy and exhausted.

“How so?” Afraid to push too far and have her lock down the gates, but needing to understand, too. It was a physical need, this desire to know what was inside her head, to know her.

“I did something, back home, it made me… more than I was supposed to be, I guess.”

“And that ‘more’ is the reason you are here?”

She shrugged, tugging at a strand of her golden hair in something akin to confusion. “I think… I think that ‘more’ is what made it necessary for me to jump between worlds. I don’t…,” she looked up at him, taller even when sitting down and frowned, “I understand it, inside, but I can’t put it into words.”

Peter opened his mouth to demand hows and whys and then stopped himself, remaining silent, just waiting for Buffy to speak or not speak. She let go of her hair, hands dropping into her lap, helplessly. “I blamed Aslan and his buddies for so long. I was so angry with them, so pissed off, ready to tear them to shreds for the screaming injustice of it all and now… it’s me, Pete,” she confessed, using his siblings’ nickname for him for the first time. “I’m the one who did this to me. I’m the one to blame. I’m the one…”

Silence.

Somewhere far away, a door opened and the sounds of the banquet spilled into the night, loud and bright.

“You’re angry with yourself now,” Peter summarized, surprised to see her shaking her head, sending her curls flying.

“No. I’m not. We conquered this place. Aslan is here.”

“What does that have to do with it?”

“Everything. This place, it’s Narnia now. Or as close as it will get for a while. And all my anger,” she shrugged again, lifting her head to meet his gaze head on, her eyes shining impossibly green in the dim moonlight. “It’s gone. I was trying to hold on to it until tonight but now that my reason’s gone, too... I’m empty. Just. Empty. Narnia takes away all the hate and the anger and the rage, all the negative things. Narnia is…love, I guess. But I don’t remember anything but anger.”

There were a thousand questions swirling in Peter’s mind about Narnia and what it had to do with her anger, about how she felt and what was going on. Her words made no sense at all. But he knew, without asking, that Buffy was, in this, like Aslan. There were things she would not talk about, would not explain. Things that had to remain unspoken until he understood them on his own. And then it would be unnecessary to speak of them.

So the next question that left passed his lips was not one of those but another that came completely out of the left field, making even him stumble when it presented itself.

“Do you love me?” he heard himself ask and immediately blushed a scarlet that was usually reserved for Caspian dealing with the Pevensie sisters.

But Buffy, this new, fightless Buffy, did not scream, did not fight. Empty. She was empty.

She let her head fall back against the wall, staring at the shred of sky visible through the window and answered, “I don’t know.”

Peter, mirroring her pose, watched the moon stand still for minutes on end before confessing, “I wish we had the time to find out.”

Buffy chuckled drily. “So do I.”

When he lowered his head to look at her, she was crying.

+

+

Seventeen,
Have Faith Now

+

The next morning the sun shone brightly, too brightly for four siblings and a blonde warrior. Caspian was made king before noon, the crown set upon his head by Peter, passing on the torch.

It was a wonderful moment for the former prince of Telmar, but it was an ending for his five friends. Peter’s crown on his head, their country in his hand, it was the last sign that their time here was indeed over. They all put on brave faces for their new king, but none who knew them missed the sadness in their eyes.

Susan spent every second by Caspian’s side, simply soaking in the presence of the boy king that had so turned her head over the span of only a few short weeks. A new queen for a new Narnia, he’d told her and she knew he’d meant it. It would never happen, but she liked the sentiment, the idea. A new Susan. It sounded wonderful.

Lucy and Edmund seemed to be trying to stuff as much Narnia into the day as they could, speaking with everyone, wandering the castle, looking out of every window and balcony, forcing themselves to make memories of this bright and wonderful place that was home.

Peter’s way of saying goodbye was, for once, quiet and it seemed to lack the intensity he usually displayed in everything he did. He kept Buffy close to his side at all times, not saying much, waiting. All that needed saying had been said the night before and their goodbyes had come and gone before Buffy had cried herself to sleep in the early hours of morning.

She’d wept for all those years of anger, for the things that were lost and for the things she would never even have. Neither of the two knew if they would have worked. Maybe they would have grown to hate each other within months. Maybe not. They would never find out. Buffy would move on, empty, all her anger sucked out, and Peter wouldn’t be there to help her fill the spaces because he’d be back in England, a school boy who had never felt the weight of a sword in his hand.

They stayed side by side, touching almost constantly, but never meeting each other’s gaze. Buffy was sure that if she did, she would start screaming.

It wasn’t fair. And while she knew that sentiment meant nothing, she couldn’t help but feel that way. It wasn’t fair. Narnia had given her back pieces of what she’d lost, had let her have a taste of something good and now it was being taken away again and the fault, she knew now, lay with none but herself. She had made Willow cast that spell. She was the one who had volunteered as a conduit for all the slayer’s primal powers, the very same powers that had turned her into something more than human.

Part god, part girl. She had gone to all those worlds because none could contain her for long, fought all those wars because that was what she was. Now and until the power ran out, five minutes or five thousand years from now.

She shook her head, banishing the thought. Not now. Not yet. She could break down later, when she got wherever she was going next. Now was the time for Caspian to give his little speech on unity.

“Narnia,” he told the crowd, “belongs to the Narnians just as it does to man. Any Telmarines who want to stay and live in peace in this new Narnia, are welcome to.”

Buffy smiled. Even without being able to feel the true nature of Narnia, Caspian understood what their victory meant. This castle and the surrounding lands were now Narnia in name and that meant the power and the beauty that was Narnia was already bleeding into it. This war-ravaged land would, before long, be a part of heaven.

“And for any of you who wish, Aslan will return you to the home of our forefathers.”

There were protests in the crowd, people calling out that they had left Telmar behind long ago because it was bad land. Poor land. Aslan smiled and Buffy tried to see the condescension in it, but couldn’t. As unlikely as it seemed, maybe the lion really was all that Lucy claimed him to be. Although she would never admit it out loud or believe in him as defencelessly and totally as the Pevensies did. Her argument remained valid. Aslan was not human and never had been.

“We are not referring to Telmar,” the cat explained, “Your ancestors were sea-faring brigands, pirates run aground on an island. There they found a cave, a rare chasm that brought them here from their world, the same world as our kings and queens.”

+

“It is to that island I can return you. It is a good place for any who wish to make a new start.”

Glozelle stood among his people, listening to the lion speak and he looked around into the hopeful and scared faces of the humans everywhere. They were scared of this new world, a world full of fairy tale creatures and a speaking lion.

Glozelle was afraid too, but not of the Narnians. It was life itself that scared him. He had made his peace weeks ago, when this whole mess had started, had decided to throw in with Caspian to try and restore some of his lost honour. He had not expected to survive.

And yet, he had.

He had turned traitor, had sold his people for his king and he had lived. It left him with a strange and uneasy feeling of restlessness. He was alive. But for what?

Everyone else of his rank was dead, killed during the battle. He was the highest ranking Telmarine left besides the king. But he had no desire to lead, to fight the battles that were sure to come, still. He would have considered staying for Asmira, had she not told him her whole story in the aftermath of the battle.

She was leaving this world. And with that, his last tie to Narnia and Telmar was cut.

“I will go,” he said, loud and clear. “I’ll accept the offer.”

A new world. A new life. Somewhere where he was not a general, not a soldier, a traitor, a man without honour, or hope, or faith. Across the river, he had met the lion’s gaze only days ago and there had been another life in it, another mission. He wasn’t finished yet.

He could have faith now. Faith in the lion and in the future.

He would go.

+

Prunaprismia clutched her son tight and looked up at her nephew, this splendid new king. He had spared her husband, she had been told. Spared the man that had sought to kill him.

She knew Miraz had not deserved such mercy and yet he had received it. Caspian would be a good king and she was not needed here anymore. Telmar didn’t need the reminder of her husband and his son, Caspian didn’t need the aunt that had left him to fend for himself when she should have protected him with her life.

This world had no use for the dethroned queen, wife a usurper.

“So will we,” she called, a second slower than Glozelle, her eyes fixed on her nephew, who would be a great man.

Without her.

She would be elsewhere, raising her son to be a better man than his father. A man, not a king.

She stepped forward, Glozelle by her side and Aslan smiled on them. “Because you have spoken first, your future in that world will be good.”

He unwound the trunk of the great tree behind him and silently motioned them through. Taking a deep breath and praying fiercely, Prunaprismia walked.

+

Others had less faith than the former queen and general and demanded proof that the gateway was what it seemed to be. Reepicheep offered to lead his knights through but was turned down when Peter squeezed Buffy’s hand one last time and stepped forward.

“We’ll go,” he said.

Edmund startled, but there was a slump to his shoulders that said he already knew the answer before he asked, “We will?”

The High King – former High King – nodded. “Come on. Our time’s up.”

Better to go under their own steam than be cast out. Neither of the four was quite sure they could take that. Could stand to have Aslan say the words that would condemn them back to England. Better to go now and pretend they had a choice.

The four siblings gathered before the door in the tree, Peter drawing his sword, intending to pass it on to the new king. He was beat to Caspian by his sister, who sighed, growled and then stepped forward, grabbing him by the back of his shirt and pulling him down, kissing him.

Kissing him because she was young and old and new and someone else than she had been a month ago. Kissing him because she was Queen Susan of Narnia and Caspian saw that, understood that.

Cheers rose from the crowd as the queen finally backed off, flushed and smiling, a word on her lips that would not be spoken. The kings and queens of Narnia did not say goodbye. Not to those they loved.

When she returned to her brothers and sister, Edmund as grinning and Lucy grimacing, the levity of the moment putting small smiles on all their faces. Peter turned once to look at Buffy, but she had pulled back to the edge of the balcony they stood on, her face once more the blank mask he had first seen when Edmund had led her out of the forest at sword point.

Then he turned himself around to face Aslan and found the lion smiling at them. “Before you go, dear ones, there is one last thing to do.”

“What’s that?” Lucy asked, her expression sad as the word ‘go’ was spoken.

“A boon.”

Edmund straightened a bit, confused but willing, as always. “What do you want us to do, Aslan?”

The lion looked at the boy king, then behind them at Buffy and then across the forest, toward the east. He nodded once, decisively, sending his mane flying. “Not a boon from you, Edmund, dear, but a boon for you. You have been brave and you have been loyal to me and to Narnia. And for that, I grant each of you one wish.”

Behind the kings and queens, Buffy’s eyes went wide as she held her breath. Was that lion doing what she thought he was doing? Was he… had he… had he actually listened to what she’d said the night before?

I have faith in them, a voice spoke inside her head as the lion met her gaze, as they have faith in me. I told Lucy that everything changes. Maybe it is time for this to change, too.

He inclined his head slightly, a sign of respect, of acceptance, that no-one but the blonde noticed. Slowly, tightly, she released her breath and squeezed her eyes shut. They’d get a chance. Peter and Susan and Lucy and Edmund. They’d get a chance.

“Aslan?” Susan spoke, confused, hope tinging her words. She thought she understood what their friend was telling them, but she dared not believe it.

“Yes,” Aslan responded, and it was the answer to her question.

She laughed breathily, a bit disbelieving still and looked at Peter, whose eyes mirrored hers, bright and sparkling with possibilities. Edmund on her other side smirked and nodded. Lucy was already bouncing on the balls of her feet, a grin as broad as the horizon stretching over her face.

“Oh please, Aslan,” she asked when none of her siblings seemed willing to speak up, “Can we stay?”

She bounced, almost jumping in place with excitement because she, unlike the others, already knew the answer. Aslan said they got a wish, this was their wish. Aslan didn’t lie.

He nodded and Lucy flung herself at him like a missile, burying her face in his mane as Susan was caught around the waist by a laughing Caspian and Peter and Edmund hugged tightly, laughter ringing out loudly.

They could stay. They could stay. They could stay.

“Of course,” Aslan warned after a minute of celebration, “There are circumstances out of my control. Things I cannot stop, if they are started.”

The siblings looked at each other and nodded, understanding the warning.

“Like wardrobes,” Susan said, showing her understanding. One day, they might have to go back, simply because that’s how things had to be.

“And witches,” Ed added, snorting.

“And lions,” Lucy finished, grinning widely. Around them, everyone laughed at her cheeky expression.

Then Ed grabbed his little sister and spun her around while Susan kissed Caspian again – because she could - and Peter turned around, searching.

He found Buffy where he had last seen her, at the edge of their group, watching. She was smiling, but her eyes were still sad.

Aslan’s boon had been for the siblings only, not for her. Peter felt his grin fall. Lucy hugged him around the waist suddenly, still vibrating with joy, but she stopped when she noticed he wasn’t responding. Edmund was the next to fall silent, followed by Susan and Caspian. All five of them were looking at Buffy, expressions of guilt on their faces.

She took a deep breath and rolled her eyes at them, finally stepping closer. “Oh, stop looking like your puppy died. You’ll be fine.”

No-one said out loud that she wouldn’t.

She stopped in front of Aslan and gave him her best challenging look. “Get it over with,” she ordered him and after a moment added, “brother.”

It was as close to acceptance as she could ever get. Then she waited.

She waited for this world to fade and the other, the world between worlds, to manifest around her. Waited for the tug that would direct her to a new world, a new war, a new fight.

She waited.

She wasn’t angry, wasn’t sad, wasn’t crying.

She was simply empty.

Waiting and empty. It had to be this way because fifty years ago she had been arrogant enough to think she could change the rules without paying the price. The price was this: she was Buffy, the one who walked the worlds as they fell and changed, a witness to endings as Aslan was a witness to beginnings, moving endlessly because no one place could contain her forever.

So she waited.

“Everything changes,” Aslan said when the silence stretched, meeting her gaze steadily.

Then he added, “I can send you home.”

It took a moment for the words to register and when they did, Buffy almost stumbled. “But… what…how? You said my powers… that…”

She couldn’t think of anything to say, couldn’t find the words to ask, to demand, to… to do anything but stand there and stare.

“I told you, sister, you will age again, someday soon. Your power has almost run its course. I called you here ten years ago, for one last mission. There was never meant to be another one.”

She opened her mouth, groping for something to say, but nothing came out. This had always been her last mission? Her final job? She was… done? She could age again? Die again? Live again? And all this time she’d raged at Aslan for being as bad as all the others, of using her, when he’d only ever tried to help and…. Crap.

“I feel kinda bad for yelling at you, now.”

The lion laughed and shook his head. “It is understandable. None of my brethren ever told you all you needed to know. Now, do you want me to send you home?”

Home? It actually took a moment to figure out what he meant by that. Home? Sunnydale? The twenty-first century? With Dawn and Willow and Xander and Giles? With bills to be paid and an army to be led, Angel turned to the dark side, Spike dead, her life in shambles? Could she even go back? How many years had passed there since she’d gone? How much had happened there?

How much had happened to her?

Was it even home anymore?

She found her gaze drawn to Lucy and Edmund holding hands, Susan and Caspian watching with compassion in their eyes and finally, to Peter. Did she love him? She didn’t know.

But she would have liked to find out.

“Can I stay?”

Another smile. This time, she didn’t even try to find the imperfections in it. Aslan wasn’t human. But he was Aslan. “All you had to do was ask.”

Buffy smiled.

It wasn’t perfect and it wasn’t forever, wasn’t glorious or amazing. It was a quiet thing that rose in her as Peter ran up and hugged her tightly, lifting her off the ground, the others cheering them on, that filled her slowly, gently.

It was small and light and simple.

It was hope.

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Fin

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