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The Stillness Before the Thaw

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The chief trouble with fighting giants, King Peter and Queen Lucy explained to Merlin, was neither their strength nor the difficulty of landing a crippling blow on a body big enough to shrug off wounds that would bisect a human. No, the problem was their mobility. Their massive strides could cover ground so fast that even if scouts tracked their exact location, the bulk of the Narnian army could catch up only through forced marches that left them weak and exhausted whenever they did manage to pin the giants down long enough for a skirmish.

The trick, therefore, was to make sure the giants moved only to places the Narnians wanted them to move -- places already fortified and full of soldiers -- rather than the hundreds of soft targets littering Narnia's northern reaches.

The other trick, of course, was to make sure the giants didn't realize they were being herded.

"And that is where you come in," Peter said, the first evening out of Cair Paravel, as a brisk spring breeze swirled chill fingers through their hair and clothes.

Merlin, his mind and heart still bruised from Arthur's discovery and rejection of his magic, nodded absently. "Yes, of course, whatever you say."

Lucy and Peter exchanged a speaking glance at the edge of Merlin's sight, after which the High King held up his hands with a wry smile and ceded the night to his sister. Lucy promptly leaned across the small camp table and clasped Merlin's cold hands between her own warm palms.

"We will discuss details tomorrow," she said. "For now, I think it has been a long day and we could all do with a hot meal, especially since we may not have much chance for proper cooking once the campaign begins in truth. Will you accompany me to the fire?"

Merlin agreed, and fell asleep to the odd sensation of being warm, full, and cared about while also empty and bleeding from somewhere intangible inside his heart and gut.

The next day, the Pevensies ensured that one or the other of them always rode by his side and kept up a steady stream of undemanding conversation: mostly anecdotes about the various landmarks they passed and occasional comments on the other kingdoms that covered this continent across the Western Ocean from Albion. Their calm, friendly voices soaked into Merlin's mind like spring rain onto frozen earth.

That night, after another filling meal (Narnians had firm ideas about neither war nor court pageantry being an excuse to abandon comfort, a contrast to Camelot that Merlin had taken great pleasure teasing Arthur about until-- until) Peter unrolled a map over the camp table and Lucy pinned its corners down with two stilettos, a spare horseshoe, and a little pyramid of sling stones.

"This summer, rather than wait for the king of Harfang or one of the Ettinsmoor chieftains to muster a war party and move south, we intend to coordinate with our allies in Vinyedvyeri and launch a counter-invasion," Peter said as the various knights and company leaders gathered into the lamplit command tent. "We must strike the northernmost moors, in order to sow dissention among the Ettin clans, but whether we maintain a guerrilla campaign, or whether we swing yet further north to face the Fair Giants of Harfang in open battle, is still undecided. I would hear your thoughts."

If this were Arthur holding council with his knights, Merlin would have paid close attention and thrown his own thoughts into the pot whenever he wished, often with a healthy seasoning of sarcasm. But he knew next to nothing about the terrain of Narnia and its neighbors, nor how best to organize an army where magical animals and beings far outnumbered humans. And he was less confident in his right to speak his mind before kings, since Arthur had named him a traitor for the unforgivable sin of saving his life with magic.

He watched the nearest lamp, burning with a tall, steady flame -- fire leashed and tamed, so different from the wild, instinctive burst he'd summoned to melt the spears of ice Arthur had unleashed by tripping one of the sorceress Jadis's lingering traps -- and spoke only in response to direct questions.

Most of his answers were, "Yes, I can do that," or occasionally, "I've never tried, but it doesn't sound terribly hard."

After a time, he stretched one hand forward and beckoned a tongue of flame out the lamp's chimney to curl around his icy fingers. There was a brief gap in the murmur of logistics and tactics, like a stone of silence tossed into a burbling stream. Then Queen Lucy laughed and tossed her head, golden hair glinting with reflected light. "Is fire as soft to touch as it looks?" she asked.

Merlin glanced up, caught the joyful wonder in her eyes, and realized only after he relaxed that he'd been clenched to receive a blow.

"I think so," he said. "But you should judge for yourself. Go on, I won't let it hurt you."

He held out his hand, flame coalesced into a shimmering pool in his palm.

Lucy stroked her fingers through the fire without a second's hesitation. "Oh! That's marvelous, like kittens and silk and dreams. Thank you, Merlin. I'm honored by your trust." Her smile was like the sun's return after the depth of winter.

Slowly, achingly, a sliver of Merlin's heart began to thaw.