"With the system in my bones," Edmund read aloud, "I must declare that those ancestors still live and that time and space would vanish if they closed their eyes."
"Hello to you too," said Susan, setting down her bags heavily. "What is that rubbish you're reading?"
"Yeats." Edmund licked his finger to to turn the page. "Prose, not poetry. A Vision."
"Well, pry yourself away from it and help me with my luggage," Susan said, and relieved Edmund of the book when he tried to fold over the corner of the page. "Were you raised in a barn?" she demanded, and then, flipping to the title page, "Is this the 1925 edition?"
"Sure it is," Edmund replied, looking put out. "Give it here."
"There were only six hundred copies of this printed and you're dog-earing the pages?"
"It's a book, sister of mine. It was meant to be read." Bending to heft Susan's case, Edmund added, "Shaky job on the stocking lines, by the way. I know you can do them better than that."
"And if I had meant to, I would have," Susan retorted, as the two moved through the bustle of the station. "You of all people should know that it's best to look fashionable but not rich when travelling alone."
"It does make it easier to pass unremarked," admitted Edmund, a twitch of a smile at his lips.
"As you found out, that time in--"
"While I will certainly recall the lesson," Edmund interrupted, "I would prefer to let the specifics of its learning slip from my memory. Need a hand?"
"I have it, thanks," said Susan, shifting her bags into the waiting cab. "How is it at home, then?"
Edmund made an equivocating motion with his free hand. "Their Once-And-Always Majesties have one-track minds, and not in the fun way. And I'd rather have teachers yelling than Mother getting disappointed. But...it's still good to see everyone again."
"Have you actually seen anyone? That does tend to require looking away from your book," Susan said, swinging herself up into the hansom.
"Mother makes me put it away for meals," Edmund said, closing the hansom door. "I have a lot of catching up to do, if I -- don't go back to school this year," he finished, lowering his voice. "I thought what we did in Narnia was something, but by Jove, Su, some of the maths they use here makes my head spin."
"I was sorry to hear about your Professor Jeffreys," Susan replied, her voice equally soft. "But what Welchman wrote is definite, then?"
"As it can be. The censorship is heavy, but yes, the gist of it is there's a place for me if I want it."
"And if you're willing to lie through your teeth about your age, I assume."
"As if I'm fourteen is the truth." Edmund grinned wryly. "And you? Still determined to continue in the painful drudgery that is the British school system?"
Something in Susan's face shuttered at that. "It's hardly my fault that my skill set is less applicable to the body of a sixteen-year-old girl. A few more years..." She trailed off, and let the thought hang unfinished in the silence.
That silence stretched for the rest of the cab ride, brother and sister each looking out their own window at the passing streets. Eventually, without turning from the window, Susan reached out across the battered seat, and -- also without looking -- Edmund caught her hand in his. So it was that they came home, letting go only when the cab screeched to a halt and the cabbie hopped out to get the bags.
Edmund paid the cabbie and tipped him more than was strictly necessary, and then helped Susan carry her luggage into the house. Everyone was waiting inside to see Susan; Mother and Father hugged her, and then there was an awkward moment when all the children were half-expecting Susan to curtsy to Peter like they were back in Narnia and he was High King. They both froze for a moment, and Peter went in for a hug at the same time that Susan offered her hand to shake, so it ended up as a clumsy sort of half-hug with Susan patting Peter on the back. But then Lucy ran over and hugged both of them at once, and that was finally so genuine as to melt away all the tension.
The next day and a half were much the same painful dance, filled with the clash and friction of six adults stuffed into a little house, four of them play-acting as children. Susan could mostly smooth things over with Mother and Father, who didn't have fifteen years of learned immunity to her Diplomat Voice, but she couldn't do a thing to stop Peter ordering Edmund around or Lucy casting little wistful sidelong glances at her and murmuring things about Narnia. Not that that stopped her trying, of course, and with every carefully honed word-blow that blunted on her siblings' armour, Susan seethed a little more inside. By Wednesday night she was picking fights just for the sport of it, which (by no coincidence) was when she heard a familiar rapping at her window.
Susan glanced over at Lucy (fast asleep) and at the door (shut and latched) to confirm what she already knew, then opened the shutters a crack, shielding her candle with one hand. Outside, of course, was Edmund, cap pulled half over his face but doing nothing to conceal his impish grin.
"Half a sec," Susan whispered, closed the shutters again, and dressed quickly, choosing her clothes to match Edmund's: a simple walking dress and a shawl that aged her, bonnet, black gloves, none of it flashy but all well-made. She wouldn't draw attention on the street, but neither would she look out of place wherever Edmund had in his plans for tonight. Assuming he'd dressed appropriately himself; he had a spy's knack for blending in, but having lived so long among Animals who wore only fur or feathers, Edmund had had little occasion to pick up the finer points of fashion.
Attired and ready, Susan tossed the bedclothes over her bolster, blew out her candle, opened the shutters, and swung out the window, shutting it carefully behind her. She was probably too old to get in much trouble for slipping out after dark, but Edmund wasn't, and the last thing they needed was Edmund confined to the house. In thirty years, she'd never known that to end well.
Edmund offered Susan his arm, and they walked in silence till they were well out of earshot of the house. Then Edmund quirked a grin at her and said "hullo," and Susan laughed softly and squeezed his elbow.
"You can't imagine," she told him, "how badly I needed to get out of that house."
"I really can." Edmund kicked at a pebble. "If Lucy said do you remember one more time, I feared for her safety."
"She's the better fighter, but maybe if I surprised her," Susan said thoughtfully. "I do have quite a few inches on her that I didn't used to. Where on earth are we going?" she added, as Edmund turned yet another corner.
"We," Edmund said, "are taking you shopping for weapons." And with that he stopped short. Susan looked up at the storefront, where she could just make out a worn wooden sign reading White & Greene, Ladies' Clothes and Accessories.
Susan stared for a moment, then spun about. "Edmund! Not that I'm not delighted, but -- I cannot possibly afford any of what I really need. And Mother keeps my ration book."
Edmund rolled his eyes at her. "It's a second-hand shop, Susan. And I have money. Stop worrying, go in, and choose an outfit or two."
"Where did you get money?" Susan narrowed her eyes at him, then revised her question. "How much money do you have, anyhow?"
"Rather a lot." Edmund wasn't doing a very good impression of sheepishness. "I have to do something to entertain myself at school, don't I?"
"I don't want to know," Susan announced to the world at large, and went into the shop.
The space behind the doors was odd and angular, and larger than she would have guessed from the outside, smelling faintly of must and strongly of mothballs. That odour took Susan back in time for a moment, and she thrust out a hand to the crumbling plaster of the wall, leaned her forehead against its ringed brown water-stains, and breathed in slow and deep until she had reassured herself that it was camphor only on the air, no sharp scent of pine beneath it.
Edmund's hand was on the small of her back, grounding, and Susan listened gratefully to his level voice as he reassured the shopkeeper that his sister was fine, just a little faint, no need to worry.
"But a glass of water," the shopkeeper persisted, his voice closer as he approached in concern. Susan could see his scuffed leather shoes and the pressed cuffs of his trousers. "No? Then Mademoiselle will at least sit herself down for a moment, here, in this very fine chair. No ladies will be fainting in my store tonight!"
"I will sit, thank you." Susan allowed herself to be steered into the armchair, smiled up reassuringly at Edmund and at the painfully thin young man who had her elbow. "It was only a spell," she added, once she was sure of her voice. "I will sit for a moment, and make my brother run and fetch me dresses. Thank you again."
"It is nothing," said the young man, with a sweeping wave of his hand that seemed to dismiss not only his actions but the world in general as unimportant. "Only ring if you are needing anything, or call for Jean, and at once I will be with you."
"Jean," Susan confirmed, with another smile but a firm tone that brooked no further conversation. "Thank you." Jean nodded briskly and swept off, turning dramatically on his toe.
Edmund, to his credit, managed to wait until Jean had disappeared behind the furthest rack of clothes before so much as cracking a smile.
"Not a word," Susan threatened.
"Do you think he knows you're sixteen?" Edmund asked innocently. "Maybe I should mention that you're sixteen."
"He was very pleasant," Susan said through her teeth. "Now go find me something to wear."
"Just 'something?'" Edmund asked, a dangerous spark in his eye.
Susan sighed. "A formal dress, something age-appropriate, Edmund, as well as some business-wear that's not. A long coat would be lovely, but I don't imagine they have one. Oh! and some shoes I can modify." She tapped her heel to signify a hidden compartment.
"Wine red, pine green, old purple?"
"You know my methods, Watson." Susan waved Edmund off, then called after him, "When you're done, ask Jean if he has anything from France!"
"Because that won't be expensive," Edmund grumbled to himself, but without any real bite. He ruffled through the racks of clothing, passing fabrics through his fingers and flaring out skirts to see their cut. After a few minutes, he heard Susan get up from her chair and start her own search through another shelf. Browsing through the odd mix of clothes was strangely pleasant, and Edmund found himself absorbed in the concrete realness of smooth silk and harsh woolens, looking through Susan's eyes rather than his own.
By the time Edmund reached the end of the rack, he had half a dozen dresses draped over his arm, mostly in the formal cuts and rich colours Susan preferred. He added an oxford school blouse from the next shelf to his collection, then paused to frown at the wardrobe standing in the far corner, half-concealed by a line of hanging skirts. It was of solid make, and surprisingly fine workmanship; the sort of thing he'd have expected to see in a Narnian castle, not in a cut-price clothing store on a little street in London.
Edmund glanced about to see if anyone was watching, then walked closer to the wardrobe and tilted his head to look at the carvings. Not Narnian, but not what he would call English, either; the figures were like something he thought he'd seen once on an old tapestry, rendered with striking poignancy. One man had his hand in the mouth of a wolf, which rung a bell somewhere -- Norse, maybe? On the panel of the other door, a woman was shown dancing before a man asleep on a throne with a hammer on his lap. That Edmund couldn't place at all, though he supposed the hammer might be Norse again.
On a whim, Edmund turned the door-handle and peered into the wardrobe. It was full, not of the fur coats he'd half-expected, but of rustling full-skirted ballgowns. When he reached past them, Edmund could press his hand against the back of the wardrobe, solid and real and very present.
Edmund felt very silly for a moment, because of course the Professor had told them the story of the wardrobe that they'd fallen through all those years ago, and he was hardly eleven years old anymore to expect Narnia at the back of every closet and cupboard. But after a moment his good sense reinstated itself, and Edmund was again quite certain that there was something out of the ordinary about this wardrobe, though he couldn't have said quite what.
Glancing out of the corner of his eye again, Edmund saw Jean moving about, so rather than investigate further he swung the heavy door halfway shut and moved to where Susan was squeezed in the corner between two shelves, going through a basket marked Torn & Stained, 75% Off.
"I brought some dresses for you to look at," Edmund said loudly for Jean's benefit, then softly out of the corner of his mouth, "I want a closer look at that wardrobe there. There's something funny about it I can't quite put my finger on it."
Susan carefully did not look at the wardrobe. Instead, she leaned in, taking the clothes from him, and murmured "Wardrobes? Really, Edmund?" in his ear. Aloud, she added, "I like the burgundy, and I'm flattered that you think the black will fit me. It's a charmingly continental style, though, so if you see anything like it in my size, do bring it to me." Behind a stack of shirts, she fluttered her fingers in a go on gesture to Edmund, then turned aside to adjust her neckline a fraction before going to distract Jean from offering any overzealous assistance to her brother.
Once Susan had engaged Jean in a conversation that seemed to involve a great deal of expansive gestures on his part and hair-tossing on hers, and deftly manoeuvred him so his back was to the wardrobe, Edmund moved over to the corner where it stood, doing his best to avoid drawing attention with the creaking floorboards. Once there, he dropped to his knees and ran his fingers along the seams at the base of the wardrobe, inside and outside, then tapped with his fingernails along the length and breadth of it. There -- and Edmund wished fervently for a torch as he tried to find a join in the wood with only the dim light of a distant lamp to guide him. Instead, he had to settle for a combination of sound and touch, running the pads of his fingers and then the blade of his pocketknife over the place, trying to make out a small unevenness.
In the end, Edmund found what he was looking for only because it was marked by a slight natural irregularity in the grain of the wood; someone before him had wanted to find this, and had chosen a spot they could remember. Even then, it was several minutes' quick work to get the thing loose with the best efforts of knife and fingernails, and Edmund's hands were cramping before he heard that wonderful, satisfying click of a hidden catch releasing.
It took everything Edmund had to keep from crying out in victory. Instead, he busied himself with using the blade of his knife to pry open the hidden compartment he'd unlatched, with another lovely popping noise -- it must have been well sanded to slide out so easily now, because from the sound it had been airtight before.
Inside was a small collection of items -- a glass inkwell crusted with the dried remains of ink, a small stack of three or four blank papers, and one paper separate from the others and folded, writing half-visible through it. A little yellow flower, pressed and dried, lay on the folded sheet; when Edmund touched it, it crumbled at once to a fine dust, as though it had never been there at all. Edmund imagined that in that moment he could catch the shadow of a fragrance from it, but he knew it was only fancy.
Casting another quick glance from the corner of his eye towards Susan and Jean, Edmund lifted the folded paper carefully with the tips of his fingers. It held together -- parchment, he decided, not paper -- but made an alarming cracking noise when he tried to unfold it, so Edmund left it as it was and slipped it into his jacket pocket. He rifled quickly through the other parchments (all blank), palmed the inkwell, then slid the cover to the compartment back into place. As soon as it was flush with the floor of the wardrobe, the join was completely invisible again; even with his fingers still resting where the edges had been, Edmund could no longer make out that there was anything there.
On the other side of the store, the sounds of conversation were beginning to trail off. Edmund felt more than saw Jean's eyes landing briefly on him, made a show of tying his shoe, then stood and went to rescue Susan.
When Edmund had bought Susan's clothes (at slightly less than what he suspected was market price) and extricated himself from Jean (who finally stopped declaiming about Baudelaire in order to kiss Susan's hand and insist that she return soon), Edmund found himself walking through the dark streets with Susan, telling her all about his findings.
"Look, Ed," Susan said at last, when he had done. "It's keen enough, I'll give you that -- old papers and hidden compartments and mysteries, just up your alley. But you can't just go and invent yourself another adventure in a wardrobe."
"I'm not inventing anything," said Edmund, a trifle shortly.
"The real adventures aren't in rickety cabinets in dusty old buildings, Ed," Susan said. "Playing at kings and queens, knight and ladies -- that's for children. You can have an adventure, all right, but it'll be in a little cottage off the maps with those professors of yours, not off in a fairy-story."
"I knew a professor who believed in kings and queens, and loved to read fairy-stories," muttered Edmund, half under his breath, but meant for Susan to hear. Susan, of course, retaliated by pretending not to hear him, and walking just a little too fast all the way back to the house.
When Susan slipped back into her room, Lucy was sitting upright in bed, hair sleep-rumpled. "Where've you been?" she murmured, rubbing her eyes with her fists.
"Going for a walk to find myself," Susan lied blithely.
"All right," Lucy said, earnest, as if she thought that was a perfectly acceptable explanation for being out far into the small hours of the night.
Susan shucked her clothes quickly, folding them together with her new acquisitions and slipping them into the chest of drawers. With any luck, no one would take particular note of the additions to her wardrobe. "Go to sleep, Lucy," she said.
Lucy made one last futile attempt at pushing her hair out of her eyes, and flopped down on her bed, snuggling up to the pillow. Within moments she was drawing the slow, deep breaths of sleep.
"No, it's nothing I know," said Susan, ticking languages off on her fingers. "French, Latin -- anything Latinate, in fact -- will use the use the Latin alphabet. German too -- and the letters aren't Greek. Hebrew? I don't think that looks like Hebrew." She cocked her head, looking sideways at the parchment. Edmund had managed to unfold it eventually, though not without damage, and now it was on his writing-desk in three pieces, carefully laid out with their edges matched up.
"I don't know enough Hebrew to say for sure," said Edmund.
"You barely know half the alphabet," Susan scoffed.
"Which would be," Edmund spun in his chair and grinned triumphantly, "not enough." Then he was serious again, pointing out faded letters, finger a careful quarter-inch from the parchment. "That could be an aleph, and that -- no, there's an extra cross-bar, I think. If it's not a stray mark."
"I thought you didn't write vowels in Hebrew," Susan said skeptically.
Edmund shrugged. "Personally, I don't write anything in Hebrew. Languages are you, dear sister. I'm counting on your expertise here."
Susan took the magnifying glass from him and peered closer. "It doesn't look like Chinese or Japanese, either, from what I can see."
"So we're down to, what, something extinct--"
"Or something ridiculously obscure. I don't think it's closely related to anything I've seen, but that probably still leaves a dozen or so languages."
"Hungarian," Edmund announced, putting his feet up on the desk and nearly upsetting the inkwell.
"You're going to ruin your precious parchment," Susan said automatically. "What about Hungarian?"
"It's not related to anything else. Well, except Finnish, maybe. Estonian. Nothing anyone actually speaks."
"So what does Hungarian writing look like?" Susan asked with exaggerated patience.
"I haven't the faintest clue."
Susan pulled a face and went back to scrutinising the writing. "It's very angular. Probably meant to be carved into something, not written on parchment. Sanskrit? Lots of recurring letters. Probably phonetic, not syllabic, then. I don't know, Edmund, it's not as if I'm a linguist."
"Exactly!" Edmund exclaimed, sitting up abruptly, and narrowly missing the inkwell once again.
"Exactly what?" Susan demanded.
"That's what we need. A linguist! Who was that friend of the Professor's?"
Susan glared at Edmund. He had the closest to a perfect memory she'd ever seen, and his tendency to ask questions for dramatic effect was less than charming. "I'm sure I can't say. Why don't you remind me?"
She couldn't help but feel a little vindicated, when, after a show of thought, Edmund declared, "Ronald. John Ronald Tolkien, wasn't it?"
"Fine," Susan said, taking an envelope from Edmund's desk and slipping the parchment fragments into it. "Let's go visit this Professor Tolkien of yours."
It was, of course, more complicated than that. A telegram had to be sent to Professor Kirke to find out where his friend was teaching now ("OXFORD," said the terse reply), train tickets had to be bought, excuses made. But eventually Mother and Father were convinced that Edmund was visiting Oxford to have a look about and see if he might be interested in school there one day, and Lucy and Peter were separately told that Edmund was taking Susan to see the Professor and try to talk her back around to Friend-Of-Narnia status, and Susan and Edmund had had six separate rows over how to transport the parchment without damaging it. So at last the two found themselves again side by side in a muggy train station, waiting amongst the clamour and breathing in the acrid scent.
After a while, Edmund dug in his pocket and pulled out a little tin cigarette case. Susan stared at him incredulously as he nonchalantly flipped it open, eyes on the timetable; then, without quite erasing the frown from her face, she made an automatic cadging gesture.
Edmund glanced at Susan's hand and up to her face, narrowed his eyes, and said very slowly, "It's a candy cigarette."
"Oh." Susan stared at her own hand for a moment as if she wasn't sure what to do with in, then jammed it in her coat pocket.
"So," said Edmund, after a valiant six seconds of trying not to say anything, "where did you pick up that particular habit?"
"Where did you get candy cigarettes?" Susan retorted. "Last I saw, they weren't in any of the shops. And besides, you always eat your sweet ration in the first week."
"I came back from school a changed man," said Edmund loftily, then ruined the effect by hopping onto his toes and pointing wildly. "There's our train!"
Susan sighed deeply and got the bags.
Once they were on the train and seated, Susan pulled out a book and tried to read, as she always did when travelling. Edmund also spent the trip as he always did, but in his case that meant alternately scribbling illegible formulae on a cocktail napkin and waving cheerfully to every passing cow. As usual, Susan was glad enough to hear their stop announced, though at least this time she was spared Peter's fretting over the route and Lucy's irrepressible chatter.
The college grounds were still and nearly empty for the summer, only a few elderly men walking on the lawns or going in and out of the iced-gingerbread buildings. Edmund had acquired a map somewhere and navigated unerringly; Susan nudged him to stand up straight and walk with confidence. He couldn't pass for a college student, let alone a professor, but no one was likely to stop them if they looked like they belonged.
They found the office at last, tucked away in an odd corner of a half-refinished building and up at least three flights of rickety stairs. The brass nameplate on the door ("Andrew J. Clythe, PhD") was ineffectually struck through with several heavy scratches; below, a fragment of typing paper was tacked up, reading J. R. R. Tolkien in a fine, flowing script.
The man who answered to Susan's rap was small and tweed-clad, not quite old enough to be grandfatherly but with an air that attempted it, his deep-set eyes glinting and crinkling with his smile. "Good afternoon!" he exclaimed, opening the door wider to reveal a little room furnished mainly by teetering piles of books. "I must say I wasn't expecting visitors -- you two can't be new students, can you? What can I do for you, miss?"
"I'm a friend of Digory Kirke's," said Susan, and continued at Tolkien's enthusiastic nod, "My brother here is thinking about whether he wants to go on to university, so I'm taking him on a day trip to Oxford. We thought we'd drop in and see you, if you're not too busy?"
"Of course, come in, come in." Tolkien moved aside to let them through the doorway, gestured Susan towards a chair, then sat himself down in the armchair at his desk. Edmund perched on the Encyclopedia Britannica, swinging his legs against the spines.
"Well then, young man," said Tolkien, when they all were seated, "do you have any questions about college life? What do you want to study? You're not going in for sport, are you?"
"No, sir," Edmund replied, "I don't much like cricket or football, anyhow. I don't mind rowing or running to get someplace, but I don't see much point in sweating for the sake of it. And I'm partial to maths myself -- but my sister is a dab hand at languages."
"Is that so?" Tolkien turned to Susan. "Do you prefer ancient or modern?"
Susan preened a little at being taken seriously. "I think modern languages are more practical," she said, "but one can hardly understand them without at least a smattering of their roots."
"Practicality is not everything," said Tolkien gravely, then beamed at her again. "But come! I am sure you cannot be here simply to get the opinion of a musty old professor on college life. No friends of Digory's could be so dull as that. What can I really do for you?"
"We did have one thing to ask you, sir," said Edmund, hopping down from his perch to retrieve the parchment in its envelope from Susan's satchel. "We came across some writing among the documents of a great-aunt; it must have been old already when she found it, but I can't say where or when that was. Neither of us can make out the writing. Perhaps you can do something with it?"
Tolkien politely accepted the envelope and delicately slid the parchment onto his writing-desk. As he looked it over, the professor's perfunctory smile quickly broke into a real grin, and Susan could pinpoint the exact moment when the rest of the room went invisible to the man as he bent over the puzzle. After a minute, Tolkien groped blindly for pen and paper, and began jotting down notes in a quick, neat hand.
Several more minutes passed before Tolkien sat up straight, cracked his knuckles, and gave a deep sigh. "Well," he said, turning back to the other two, "you have my congratulations. This is quite a find. I would recommend you get your parents' permission to turn it into a museum, in fact, since I suspect that is where it belongs."
"If you think that's right, then of course that's what we will do," said Edmund immediately. "Only I would like to know what it says. Is it Anglo-Saxon, then?"
"No," said Tolkien, giving the parchment another long look, "though some of the characters are very like. It must be related -- but it's certainly nothing I know, which means it's almost certainly nothing that is known."
"How exciting!" said Susan. Her tone was girlish, but her posture had an unsettling intensity to it, like a wolfhound pricking up its ears.
"You've really never seen anything like it?" asked Edmund, moving closer to the desk. "Surely there must be something."
"Something, perhaps," said Tolkien hesitantly, and shuffled his papers. "I'm afraid you'll think it rather silly, though."
"Hardly," said Edmund, at the same time as Susan said "Not a bit." Tolkien looked from one to the other as they traded a half-smile as if at a very old joke. Then he shrugged and went to fetch an unassuming stack of loose-leaf manuscript from one corner of his office.
"My father died when I was very young," he began, and waved off Susan's soft noise of sympathy. "He was living in South Africa at the time, while my mother, my brother and I were staying in England. Most of his effects were shipped to us, but of course there was a great deal of confusion, and money trouble as well. One way or another, it seems that one box was held back. It reached me almost twenty-five years later."
"And that box--" Susan prompted, leaning forward in her seat.
"Contained very little of interest. Dishes, a few books -- it's no wonder my mother never missed it. But, yes, it also contained this." Tolkien indicated the pile of yellowing papers. "They must have been my grandfather's; or perhaps his father's, it was never clear to me."
"May I?" asked Edmund, already rummaging through the papers.
"It's very fragmentary," Tolkien told him. "It appears to be the outline for some sort of fairy-tale. The scope is astounding. From what I can understand, my grandfather invented an entire mythos, the history of a whole world. He wrote down very little, though, and of course whatever he did not, died with him. The earlier parts were complete enough that I could piece together most of the plot of a story, and being laid up with trench fever, I took it upon myself to write it out properly."
"Can we see that, then?" asked Susan. "I don't think Edmund is making out any of the writing."
"It's only a children's book, I'm afraid. I wouldn't have published it all if Miss Dagnall hadn't -- anyhow."
"A children's book?" Edmund asked suddenly. "The Hobbit? -- What, Susan, I'm not allowed to read fairy-stories now?"
"I wouldn't think you would want to," said Susan darkly, and sat forward on the edge of her chair. "Professor. What does all this have to do with Edmund's parchment?"
"Ah, yes." Tolkien leafed quickly through the papers. "Your brother is finding these unintelligible, for the most part, because the handwriting is in fact illegible. But here and there--" he handed one sheet to Susan -- "there are words not in English. And those words seem to match what you have here." He passed the parchment to Susan as well.
Susan frowned, eyes passing from one sheet to the other. "You mean they're the same language?"
"In some cases," said Tolkien, with a quiet intensity. "And in other cases I mean that they're the same words. Look here, and here -- you see? And it's transliterated below as holbytla. I've rendered that hobbit."
"And here again," said Edmund, passing his sheet over. "There, on the right, look."
"Oh, quick eye," Tolkien exclaimed. "Yes, and that he translates to Rivendell. And here it is again on your document, letter for letter."
"But what can that mean?" asked Susan, comparing the words. "Is the parchment more recent than we thought? I don't understand how this can be."
"In my judgement, the parchment is certainly ancient," Tolkien said. "Which would seem to mean -- I can hardly believe it, but it would seem to indicate that the papers are drawing on a real language. I had thought it was invented for the sake of the story, but I don't understand how else this could be."
"But the same words," said Edmund, "imaginary places, and, and hobbits. Was your grandfather simply borrowing words and coining meanings?"
"Borrowing from where?" asked Susan.
"That," said Tolkien, "would seem to be the question."
Susan nodded briskly. "I think that is the crucial issue, yes. There must be a source text somewhere, if we can only find it."
"If you'll let me keep your parchment for the moment," Tolkien suggested, "I think I might be able to make some progress on it. If I assume it's a Saxon language, and take my grandfather's translations for comparison...and the vowels must have shifted, if holbytla is correct..." He trailed off, already scribbling down notes.
The children waited for a minute, then Edmund looked at Susan, who shrugged. "We'll just go and see if we can find a book that's apparently been lost for thousands of years, then," he said to the room at large.
There was no reply from Tolkien, who was nose-deep in a huge leather-bound Dictionary of Anglo-Saxon.
"Thank you, Professor," Susan said, loudly. When there was no reply to that either, she sighed and let herself out. Edmund followed, albeit with a longing glance back at his parchment.
When the heavy doors of the building swung shut behind them, Susan handed Edmund her satchel. "You get Professor Kirke," she said. "I'll check with my sources. And ask Peter and Lucy if they've seen anything, I suppose -- our family does seem to have a history of stumbling across the most unlikely things."
"An overnight bag?" Edmund asked, peeking inside the satchel. "Susan, you shouldn't have. Well, evidently you should have, but that's beside the point. Wait, don't forget your return ticket." He fished out the ticket in question and passed it to Susan, then leaned up to peck her on the cheek. "Goodbye, sweet sister."
"Until we meet again," said Susan with a smile.
"Nothing?" asked Susan, without looking up from the jacket she was mending.
Edmund cast a look at the hatstand like he was considering picking a fight with it, but refrained. Instead, he dumped Susan's satchel on the floor of her room, and slumped into a scowling pile in her chair, one leg slung over the padded arm. "Nothing," he admitted. "Yourself?"
"Peter says that if I want a book in an unintelligible language I can have a go at his Latin homework," Susan reported. "Lucy stared off into the distance and said something about what you seek always being what you already have, which sounded deep, but I double-checked, and no, we don't already own whatever this book is."
"Did you go to the store with the wardrobe?" Edmund asked.
"Do you ever get tired of asking questions like that? Of course I did. I would say that I broke in, except that apparently Jean doesn't bother locking his doors when he leaves. Which seems remarkably careless, given that apparently he used to be a member of Libération-Nord. Not to mention an actor of some prominence." Susan smiled, mostly to herself. "He had some...interesting papers squirrelled away in there. But only two books, and those were in French. Nothing more about the wardrobe. I asked Jean, and he says he bought it at a jumble sale, but he can't remember where or from who."
"I assume that was a lie?"
Susan shrugged with one shoulder. "Presumably. But I couldn't tell if he really had something to hide or was just lying out of habit."
"And so you just gave up?" Edmund asked, giving Susan an incredulous look.
"Do you want to try to pressure a man who's been in the hands of the Milice? Look, surely you got something from the Professor. What did you two talk about for the last day and a half, flower arrangements?"
"He gave me a list of places where a book like that would likely end up, if someone had found it. A few private collectors, two places in America, one particular Swiss bank vault, and the British Museum. But none of those places are particularly accessible at the moment."
"None of the private collectors are in England?" Susan asked, thoughtful.
"No. One lives in a cabin in Russia that's completely inaccessible by car and at least three weeks' walk from anywhere. One is German and so presumably either dead by now or so far underground that I wouldn't have a chance in a million of finding him without a proper network, which I don't have here yet. And then there's a woman in Venice, but she sounds actually terrifying."
"We'll put Venice and Switzerland on the list for if we can't come up with anything else, then," Susan said, gesturing in the air to indicate their position on her list as she spoke. "I can write to some contacts in America this evening -- just give me the Professor's information and I'll pass it on to them. And I'll ask Mother if she knows of any regular jumble sales. It can't hurt to have a look-about and see if anyone's selling anything else like the wardrobe."
"Sounds like you have it all well in hand," Edmund said, slightly more cheerful. "Does that mean I can go read my book? I'm knackered."
"Sure," said Susan with a dismissive wave of her hand, "as if I need your -- wait. Edmund. Your book."
"Yes, my book," said Edmund, a bit cross. "It's not Mysterious Gibberish with Elves in a paper jacket, you know."
"No, Edmund, your book. Your extremely rare first-edition Yeats."
"What about it?"
"Where," Susan asked with exaggerated patience, "did you happen to stumble across said book?"
"Aldwych tube station," said Edmund immediately, then tried to regain the glower that was slipping away from him. "...Not that it's any of your business."
"Aldwych has been closed for going-on four years, Edmund," Susan pointed out. "What were you doing there?" She paused, then looked at him more sharply. "Was there a girl?"
"There was no girl!" Edmund said, a bit shrilly. His voice cracked, and he tried to cover it with a cough. "No girls were involved. What would I want with a girl, anyway?"
"I'm not going to answer that question," Susan replied primly. Then she gave him another glare. "Were there pointy things?"
"...Maybe," Edmund admitted.
Susan buried her face in her hands. "Edmund, how many times do I have to tell you. Strangers with knives are not your friends."
"They are if they're selling me the knives," Edmund said reasonably. "Besides, she wasn't a stranger."
"So there was a girl!" Susan pounced at once, looking gleeful.
"Not a girl girl! Not a girl who does girl things. A girl who does knife things! Completely different."
"That completely incoherent argument aside," Susan said firmly, "where did the book come into it?"
Edmund shrugged, sullen. "There were books. I was bored. I took one."
"A few! I took a few, all right? But they're all in English, and none of them say anything about hobbits or wardrobes or Anglo-Saxon. Like you've never done nothing you weren't supposed to."
"And it didn't occur to you to wonder why there were rare books in a disused railway station?"
"When it comes to books, I don't ask questions," Edmund said, a bit haughtily. "I just read them."
"Right," said Susan, in the tone of one who has long since given up on this particular problem. "Well, we can check the British Museum off our list. Congratulations, little brother, you robbed one of the world's top collections of rare books."
"Nothing but the best for my sister."
"You didn't give me anything from it!"
"Oh. I meant to."
"No, you didn't."
"No, I really didn't," Edmund admitted. "So, want to go rob it again?"
Susan found herself regretting ever agreeing to this (terrible, idiotic, completely fool-headed) plan about twenty-eight hours later, as she hiked up her skirts to pick her way over the slimy cobblestones.
"Are you quite sure this is the right way?" she asked, not for the first time.
"Quite sure. Through the bomb shelter, behind the arch, under the crossbeam, and then left-left-right-left-right, and we should be at the leaky pipe any minute now."
"We went left-right-left-right-left," Susan said, with infinite weariness.
"The first turn doesn't count, because the other way is boarded up!" Edmund called from ahead of her. "Look, we're almost through to the restricted area, and then we can hop onto the tracks and it's easy going."
"Slow down with the torch, I can't see where I'm going," Susan grumbled, then slipped on a loose stone and had to throw out her arms to catch her balance.
"You've gotten slower," commented Edmund, perching on a broken half-wall.
"And you've gotten shorter. We all have our flaws. Do I really have to squeeze through this crack?"
"Ladies first." Edmund bowed from the waist, and gestured with the torch. "This is it, then we're back on the main line and in the open. All the treasures of Arabia await, m'lady."
"Open sesame," Susan muttered, and went sideways through the gap.
Edmund pushed his way through behind her, and for a moment it was completely dark as he blocked the light. Then he was through, and the light shone dazzlingly bright in Susan's eyes for a moment before Edmund steadied himself and moved it to illuminate the gloom.
After their jaunt through the maintenance tunnels, the station itself was almost distressingly normal; it was dusty, of course, dark and silent, but with a few floodlights and a chattering crowd it could have been mistaken for the one where Edmund had met her at the beginning of the holidays. Susan felt it would be somehow disappointing if they found their mysterious book here, of all places, between bulging walls and peeling posters, instead of in the treasure trove of the Professor's labyrinthine house or even in the stark grandeur of the Museum itself.
"Look! D'you see this?" Edmund called, already halfway across the tunnel, shining the torch at something Susan couldn't quite make out.
"Be there in a tick," Susan called back, and clambered off the rails onto the platform. There she could see what Edmund was indicating: an immense pyramid of small, neatly packed boxes, intermingled with a few larger crates, burlap sacks, and what looked like a set of filing cabinets. All taken together, the mass of storage managed to wall off the greater part of the platform, and Susan couldn't easily make out an end to it.
"Oh, Edmund," she sighed. "How am I supposed to find a book in here? It would be like looking for a needle in a--"
"Large and neatly packed collection of needles?" suggested Edmund, rifling carelessly through an open crate. "I imagine so, yes. Ooh! Is this The Sign of the Four?"
"The Sign of Four," Susan corrected.
"No, this says the. Anyhow! So I'm counting on you, my beloved sister, to put that brilliant mind of yours to work and see if you can find a more efficient algorithm than brute-force search. Don't worry, I brought a torch for you too. Catch!"
"A little warning," Susan snapped, but she caught the flung torch anyhow. "Are you -- you can't just sit there and read mysteries while I do all the work!"
"Can and will," said Edmund, licking his index finger and leafing through the first few pages. "Don't worry! I'll read the best bits out loud for you. Oh, I like this. Listen: 'You have attempted to tinge it with romanticism, which produces much the same effect as if you worked a love-story or an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid.'"
"Gripping," Susan sighed, prying open lids. "All right, it can't be in one of the little boxes, those all seem to be rare books that got first-class treatment. I'll bet if it were recognised as that valuable, Tolkien would have heard of it long ago. So big crates it is. Edmund, lend me a hand with this nail at least."
Edmund stuck a pebble in his book to keep his place and went to pry at the nails with his pocket-knife. Once he had them all out he lifted the lid of the crate and let it fall to the ground with a great clatter, then moved on to the next one, shifting boxes out of his way as he went. Susan set to sorting through the books with rigorous efficiency, and a comfortable silence fell, broken only by an "Oh, thank--!" from Susan (when she found a card catalogue) and a "Crikey!" from Edmund (when he nearly stubbed his toe on the Elgin Marbles).
Some hours later, Susan stood up very suddenly from where she was bent over a crate, and then was entirely still for a moment, not even breathing. Then she said only, "Edmund," and he was on his feet in a moment, looking over her shoulder and shining his torch on her find.
It was not one book but four, immense unwieldy volumes bound in battered red leather, straps hanging loose where the buckles had long since rusted away. The pages were rough-cut and dark with discolouration, and on the various covers were embossed letters in a language long lost to time.
Edmund reached out, not so much with care as with reverence, and trailed his fingers slowly along one spine.
The return trip through the crumbling side passages was more cheerful, if trickier to accomplish while juggling four large and delicate books. Edmund whistled the whole way, snatches of cheery tunes from two worlds.
When Susan knocked on Tolkien's office door once again, the professor welcomed her and Edmund warmly, practically snatching the books from them, and thrusting pages upon pages of notes into their hands in return.
"I take it the translations are going well?" Edmund said wryly, trying to straighten the papers into some sort of alignment. "You've certainly been keeping busy."
"Well, yes, yes, a little," Tolkien said absently, shifting stacks of books to make room to lay out the ancient volumes. "It's certainly enough to keep one busy, reconstructing proto-Anglo-Saxon -- or perhaps a dialect of Anglo-Saxon, it can be hard to tell the difference. Did you know that a dialect in the Appalachians is closer to Shakespeare's English than our own is?"
"No, I didn't," Susan said politely. "Have you any idea what the writing says, then?"
"Perhaps, perhaps, it's very fragmentary, you understand, and a bit ad hoc -- but with all this material to work with, imagine what I can do! And my grandfather's translation as well, to compare with. Really, maybe it would be better if you came back in a few months. Maybe a year. Then I could have something really accurate--"
"Surely we could glance at what you have now," Susan suggested diplomatically. "Of course we understand it's only preliminary! But I am so curious what sort of a thing it is."
"It seems to be a letter," Tolkien said, retrieving the notes which Edmund held out to him, and turning the parchment on his desk so Susan could see it. "See this word, here at the bottom?"
"The circled one?" asked Edmund, standing on his toes to see over Susan's shoulder.
"Yes; I think the circle is something like a cartouche or serekh. I tried to translate the word for a long time -- I thought perhaps it was related to king, or royal -- but now I think it's a proper name, a signature to the letter. I would read it Arajorn , or perhaps Aragorn ." Tolkien gave a strange sound to the word, the a's voiced like o's, the r not quite rolled, almost trilled. Edmund echoed it quietly, trying it in his mouth.
"Does that name appear in your grandfather's notes?" Susan asked.
"No, I looked quite thoroughly. Nor does the other name: here at the beginning, Gilraen , and again here and here. Here it's juxtaposed with a word I think must be mother . Now there's a universal constant for you! Give me fifty languages, and ma will mean mother in forty-nine of them."
"So some guy was writing a letter to his mother?" Edmund asked, disappointment tinging his tone.
"Some king, I think, or at least someone of importance," Tolkien clarified. "He's discussing a war. From what I can understand -- and please keep in mind that I am doing some very creative interpretation here -- this man is preparing to mount a massive attack intended as a distraction from some more vital aspect of the war. Mmm, yes, this part is very cryptic, I can't quite make out what he's distracting the enemy from...see there, that means black noble, that's who he's fighting...in any case, while he has sufficient forces to represent a threat -- those are numbers, there, easiest thing in the world to translate, one part of the English language that makes a lick of sense -- he doesn't think it will be enough to engage the attention of this 'black noble.'"
"He'd want something imaginative," Edmund said, leaning in further. "A straight-on attack would be managed by straight-on defence. If he wants the personal attention of this noble, he needs something inventive enough that none of the usual defencive strategies will work, so that the military leaders have to consult the noble and get his approval for their tactics in response."
"If you say so," said Tolkien, looking a little surprised at Edmund's sudden enthusiasm. "The letter closes with a request to his mother to send help. It's very verbose, and there's minimal vocabulary overlap with the rest of the letter; I'd guess the words are ritualised, like a prayer. It's very interesting that he's asking his mother for military help: there's some fascinating implications there about the role of women in--"
"She's dead," Susan cut in sharply. Then, when both the others looked at her, "What? I know people. If his mother were alive and commanded that kind of power, she'd know the situation already, he wouldn't be laying it out in a letter to her. Unlikely for him to be asking his mother for help at all, if you ask me, but we'll let that pass. So she's dead, he's about to lead a suicidal charge, he writes her a letter that ends with a prayer and sticks somewhere no one will find it. Makes sense to me."
Tolkien looked even more taken aback, but said nothing. Edmund put a hand inconspicuously at the small of Susan's back. "Thank you for all the help," he said to Tolkien. "Please keep the books. I'm sure you can get more use from them than I can." At a nudge from Susan, he added, "You, er, might want to return them to the British Museum at some point. I'm sure you can come up with a plausible explanation for how you ended up with them."
"And why would I need to do that?" Tolkien asked. Before Edmund could answer, he added wearily, "Never mind, I don't want to know, I'm sure. Whatever you did, please don't do it again."
"I'll do my best," said Edmund, with a great deal of earnestness and absolutely no sincerity.
Cheered up nevertheless, Tolkien said, "Now I must set to translating all this! Ten years' work, at the very least, I should think. What a stroke of luck the two of you have brought me! I shall have the grandest stories to tell. I imagine I could write them up as a sort of successor to the Hobbit, with notes at the beginning and end explaining their origins. Oh, Jack will be terribly jealous!"
"Well, wire me his address, and I'll put him in touch with my other sister," offered Edmund. "She's got some stories of her own she'd love to share."
Then there were polite goodbyes, and Susan and Edmund left the professor to his work. Outside, Susan said how glad she was to have brought the business to a satisfactory end.
"I don't think it's at an end just yet," Edmund said slowly. "After all, Su, doesn't it seem like a funny thing that this fellow should write to his mother for help, and then we should just happen to stumble across it?"
"Someone was bound to," Susan said reasonably.
"Someone, yes, just anyone, not us . Not someone who had led armies. Not someone who had ways to get to another world."
"I've led armies before. That doesn't mean I want to lead them again," Susan said. "Peter--"
"Peter is my High King, and a man of great worth, and would gladly lead an army," said Edmund. " Creative, however, is not exactly his strong suit. Nor is working to help a man who, as far as we know, likely considers himself the rightful king."
Susan nodded. "Just you and me, then."
"Just us," said Edmund.
"Topographical maps, obviously," Edmund said, scribbling down notes on his arm.
Susan rolled her eyes and thrust a piece of paper at him. "And blueprints," she suggested. "Catapults, trebuchets, crossbows, what have you."
"Crossbows? Surely we can think a little bigger than crossbows. Don't these people already have crossbows?"
"Crossbows were a game-changer in their day! Think Crécy, Edmund. Common people standing against knights for the first time!"
"Crécy was longbows," Edmund muttered, then crumpled up the paper in an abrupt gesture. "This is impossible. You speak maybe three words of the language to my none, we have no idea what time we're travelling to, and only half a chance of making it there at all. How are we supposed to make any kind of a difference?"
"Pessimism isn't charming," Susan remarked absently. "Oh, halazone tablets. Write down halazone."
Edmund looked petulant but wrote halazone on the inside of his wrist, then added telescope on his thumb.
"I wonder if Peter still has any of those fireworks he was saving," Susan said.
"He'll take your head off if you steal those," said Edmund, sounding inordinately cheerful at the prospect. "It's not like he can go out and buy more. How about mustard gas?"
"Setting aside where you could possibly obtain that, because I don't want to know, how are you planning to deliver enough gas masks to stock an army? Do you have any ideas that aren't absurd logistical nightmares?"
"Smoke screens were a good idea," Edmund defended himself. "Let's see you come up with something better, then."
Susan leaned forward in her seat and grinned a little too wide. "Germ warfare."
"...Okay," said Edmund, after trying to meet her eyes for a second. "I take it back. No more thinking big. Think small. Think cuddly bunny rabbits. Better yet, don't think at all. Just sit there and look pretty."
"You're too sweet," said Susan, still smiling.
"Are you two still at it?" called the gruff voice of Professor Kirke from the next room. "No bloodshed under my roof, mind!"
"That's Peter and Lucy, not us!" Edmund called back, and mouthed what do they teach them in schools these days? at Susan.
Susan just sighed. "All right, why don't you go pass on your little list to the Professor. I'm sure he can help you get some of the more dubious items -- I do miss looking like an adult, it came in so handy. And he might have a few suggestions of his own to add."
"Yes, but they'll be completely daft," Edmund said over his shoulder as he went.
The Professor, unsurprisingly, had his sources, and the next morning Susan and Edmund each woke up to a stuffed knapsack at the foot of their bed. A telegram lay on top of Susan's bag; Edmund unfolded it, rubbed sleepy eyes, and read aloud Mother's hopes that they were having a fine time at the zoo, and how glad she was that they were getting in some good times together before they headed off to their separate schools.
"Jolly decent of the Professor," observed Edmund, when he was done, "putting in a good word with Mother. She must have started to think we were quite mad, dashing off all the time like that."
Susan gave one last pat to her hair, then turned away from the mirror. "Let's see if he's managed to do anything else with his time."
They found the Professor in his study, together with Aunt Polly, neither of them looking like they'd slept a bit. Before them on the table were piled yellow and green rings, dirt still clinging to some, together with a stack of handkerchiefs for handling them. The ink bottle Edmund had stolen from the wardrobe lay on its side, scraped quite clean, and next to it some little squares of white paper held small mounds of dust. A small box, intricately carved, sat open and empty at one end of the table, and various small tools lay strewn about the rest of it.
"You have been busy," Edmund observed, looking about. "Any luck?"
"Oh, good morning, Edmund, Susan," Polly said, turning around in her chair. "Come sit down, we'll show you what we have."
"Rings, I hope," Susan said, coming to sit.
"Of a sort, of a sort," said the Professor, using a fresh handkerchief to push them across the table to Susan. They were cruder than the original rings, thick and irregular, like a child's clay sculpture. The rougher one was reddish, the smoother a dark grey, but both were clay-coloured, not at all like the bright yellows and greens of the other rings.
Edmund moved closer, looking sceptical. "Are you sure these will work?" he asked.
"Oh, not a bit," Polly said cheerfully. "You see, Uncle Andrew's rings went through the Wood, and that wouldn't do at all for you. There's no pool for 'ancient England,' after all! So we're making it up as we go along."
"Earth ordinarily wants to return to where it came from," the Professor put in. "The ancients used that to explain gravity -- and perhaps it does, in a way. After all, no one really understands where gravity comes from in the first place."
"Don't mind him," interrupted Polly. "He keeps going on about Aristotle and Anaxagoras and other people whose names start with A. The long and short of the matter is, we used a pinch of this and a pinch of that, magic dust left over from the rings, dust from here and now, dust from your little bottle, and on balance we're hoping that it takes you where you want to go."
"That," said the Professor, looking seriously out from under bushy eyebrows, "depends on where they want to go."
Edmund rolled his eyes, not quite discreetly enough. Polly coughed to cover a snicker.
"How do they work?" Susan asked, ignoring her brother.
"Touch the black ring to go, the red ring to come back, and make sure you're holding hands so you go together," Polly said.
"You can't stay too long," warned the Professor. "An hour at most. Shorter if you can. These rings were never meant to travel through time. You risk becoming...entangled."
Susan narrowed her eyes, then looked at Polly. "Does he mean metaphysically entangled, or emotionally entangled?" she demanded.
Polly shrugged. "Beats me. I'd do as he says, though. Time paradoxes don't sound like a happy ending."
"No leading wars for us, then," Edmund sighed. "Just drop and run."
"Probably for the best," said Susan. "It would certainly be complicated to explain to Mother if we got killed."
"Complicated, but not our problem," Edmund pointed out.
"Only you could say that as if it were a good thing. Come on, let's get the bags."
"Way ahead of you," said Edmund, hefting his. As Susan ducked out to fetch hers, Edmund looked at the Professor. "Will they be able to figure out how to use all this?"
"I hope so," the Professor said. "Susan was up late with Polly drawing up diagrams and pictures. There's an immense cultural disconnect, of course, but some things aren't too hard to convey."
"Like 'put this in your water before you drink it,'" said Susan, returning with her knapsack. "Or 'throw this in a fire and it will explode.'"
"Those do sound like fairly universal concepts," Edmund agreed. "Are we all set, then?"
"As you'll ever be," said Polly. "Bon voyage, I suppose, break a leg, and all that."
Susan cast a look at Edmund, but there didn't seem to be anything more to be done, so she drew a deep breath and shouldered her pack.
Edmund reached out for the rings, but before he could touch either, Susan laid her hand firmly on his, laced their fingers together, and with her other hand used a handkerchief to scoop up both rings. She slipped the red one into her skirt pocket, cast one last glance around the room, and then grasped the black ring firmly with her bare fingers.
At once Edmund and Susan felt a terrible jolt, followed by a loud rushing noise in their ears and a feeling like the plummet on a roller coaster. It was like flying or falling, only there was no feeling of wind on their skin, and when Edmund gasped there was no air for him to draw in. Then all at once everything was still.
Looking around, they found themselves standing in a small stone chamber. The air was fresh and cool, and light came streaming in from a broad, open balcony, glaring on the white walls and illuminating the tapestries which hung there. The furnishings were sparse but excellent of their kind, all made of the same dark wood: bed, wardrobe, and writing desk, at the last of which a man sat, tall and straight, touches of grey in his dark hair.
Edmund cast a hesitant look at Susan, who touched his elbow to hold him back, then stepped forward herself. "Aragorn?" she said.
The man started, dropping his quill, and turned to look at them. When he saw them, he actually jumped, upsetting the inkwell. Edmund winced.
"Who are you?" the man demanded, hand at his sword. "And why are you..." He scanned them again, eyes travelling swiftly up and down, searching for something.
"We're here to help," said Susan. Speaking over her, Edmund exclaimed, "You speak English?"
Susan put her hand on Edmund's arm and threw a glance in his direction. When Edmund ducked his head and shut his mouth, she said levelly, "Are you Aragorn?"
"I am," the man said, continuing to stare but beginning to look more confused than wary. "And you...have come a great distance. Who are you?"
Edmund and Susan shared a look that stood in for a lengthy debate. "I am Queen Susan," said Susan at last, "and this is my brother King Edmund of Narnia."
"We're here to help," Edmund repeated, because in his experience it never hurt to make that very clear.
Aragorn paused before speaking, and met first Susan's, then Edmund's eyes. Each held his gaze for a long moment. He seemed to find whatever answer he was looking for, because when he spoke, it was to ask them to sit down.
Susan sat on the bed, and Edmund leaned against the head of it. Aragorn seemed to find this satisfactory, and seated himself in his chair once again, turning it to face them. "Tell me," he said, "what brings you here? Are you come to bring aid?"
"You're not going to ask where we're from?" Susan said, then glanced over at Edmund.
"Sorry," said Edmund, "I'm still trying to get over the whole 'speaking English' thing. You go on with the big revelation, I'll catch up."
"Whatever magic brought you here," Aragorn put in, "I think must be translating your language. I take it you do not speak the common tongue?"
"Sorry, did you say magic?" Susan asked. "I mean, not that it wasn't magic. But people don't normally take that quite so much in stride."
"I have a talent for taking things in stride," Aragorn said. "Moreover, I have seen a great deal of magic, and what I see on you is not dark. Strange, perhaps, but not essentially evil. What matters is: are you indeed here to help? Because these are dark times, and we are in need of aid from whatever quarter it may come."
"Yes," Susan said, "we have some things that may help. I'm afraid we can't stay as long as we might like, but I think you can work out how to use them on your own." She nodded to Edmund, who handed his pack to Aragorn; Susan set hers on the floor and gave it a push in his direction.
Aragorn opened the flap, looked inside, and lifted out a roll of blueprints and a flare gun. "What are these?" he asked, wonder in his voice. "And how did you come by such strange workings? I have not seen their like."
"There's instructions on how to use them," Susan said, "but the short version is -- we're actually from the future."
"We find that note of yours," Edmund put in, nodding at the desk. "Long after you're dead, so I suggest you hide that away somewhere nice and airtight. I suggest that wardrobe over there."
Aragorn glanced at the note, then suddenly looked stricken. Susan sighed. "I'm sorry about reading your letter," she said. "I'll ask Tolkien -- my friend who has it, in the future -- not to let anyone see it."
"I would prefer that," Aragorn said. "But it is no harm done that you read it. It was a prayer, and now it is answered."
"You're welcome," Edmund said. Susan kicked him. "Look, we should go," she said to Aragorn. "Good luck with your war. I hope that what we brought you helps you with the distraction you're setting up."
Aragorn nodded. "Before you go," he said, "may I see the magic that brought you here?"
"Don't touch," Susan said, but slid the rings out of her pocket with the handkerchief.
Aragorn came over and put his hands under her cupped ones, examining the rings closely. Then he looked up at Susan, searching her eyes once more. "Yes," he said at last, "the power is not a dark one. But it is not altogether innocent either. I would not advise that you travel with these again, not once you have returned to your home."
Susan looked back at him for a moment, then dropped her eyes. "I shouldn't, or we shouldn't?" she asked, indicating Edmund.
"I would say no one," said Aragorn, "but you least of all, my lady. You, if I take my guess, have travelled enough for a lifetime." Then he dropped his hands, and took a step back. "Fare you well," he said, "and many thanks. Those who brought aid in time of need shall not be forgotten in time of plenty."
"Actually," Edmund said, moving forward to stand with Susan, "it would probably be best to go with the being forgotten thing. Poor Tolkien's got it bad enough with the dragons, no one's going to take him seriously if he translates an ancient history with time travellers. Besides, it would be awkward to explain to Mother."
"I understand," said Aragorn, in a tone that suggested he didn't quite. "Go in peace, my friends. The gratitude of Gondor goes with you."
Susan smiled at him, and Edmund nodded, then slipped his hand into Susan's. She in turn put her free hand on the red ring, and the world fell away with a rush.
"And you'll write me any time you hear from Tolkien?" Edmund asked for the eleventh time (Susan was counting.)
"Yes, and if you write me about what you've been doing I'll help you edit for Mother, now stop worrying, get on the train, and go break some codes." Susan thrust the cases at Edmund, then kissed him quickly on the forehead while his hands were occupied trying to catch them.
Edmund made an indignant noise and pulled away from the affection, but nevertheless leaned in for a hug. "I had a splendid summer with you, Su," he said softly, glancing around to make sure no one was listening.
Susan laughed at him. "I know you did, little brother. Don't worry, I'll tell everyone you said touching goodbyes and sent them your love. Now go save the world."
"Only if you don't save it first," Edmund said. The train whistled, and he turned to go. "Write me if you meet anyone interesting at school!" he shouted back over his shoulder.
"As if!" Susan called, then stood and watched, waving, as Edmund boarded and the train drove away.
Edmund and Susan are my favorites - they're two of my favorite characters from any canon, actually. I love fic about the two of them and their relationship, whether it's as siblings, monarchs, partners, or romantic (yes, I ship it). I love Golden Age fic with Spymaster!Edmund and Diplomat!Susan, or England fic where everyone is all bitter and sad and trying their best to readjust, or fun times adventuring in Narnia with the two of them saving each other or their other siblings. I love that they're the black sheep of the Pevensie family, each in their own way, and the bond that must have given them.
I also love Aravis and Cor and their endless bickering and bantering! Tell me a story about the two of them adjusting to life in Archenland, or a trip they took to Narnia to visit Bree and Hwin, or about all the wonderful (and awful) stories Aravis must have told over the years. I've always had a soft spot for couples who can never stop arguing, and these two are definitely the Beatrice and Benedick of Narnia. They delight me.
If you're familiar with Tolkien canon, I love a good Narnia/LOTR (and/or Silm) crossover! I'm especially fond of Eowyn, Aragorn, and any elves, but especially Feanorian ones.
I'm not too picky with Do Not Wants - any rating is okay, happy or sad fic, Narnia or England. No Susan bashing allowed, but I think that goes without saying. I'm also not big on Aslan.