"So," said the King, "Narnia is no more."
For a long time they could not speak nor even shed a tear. Then the Unicorn stamped the ground with his hoof, and shook his mane, and spoke.
"Sire," he said, "There is now no need of counsel. We see that the Ape's plans were laid deeper than we dreamed. Doubtless he has been long in secret traffic with the Tisroc, and as soon as he had found the lionskin he sent him word to make ready his navy for the taking of Cair Paravel and all Narnia."
"Or maybe not all," said Jill. "If the Tisroc's as rich as they say, why would he waste all these weeks before an invasion just timber-cutting?"
"Steady on, Pole!" Eustace said in a quick, urgent undertone.
The King's face had gone very still. Poggin's fists were clenched, his eyes very dark. Jewel lowered his head and nudged softly at Jill's arm. "You speak of the murder of our Narnians, Lady Jill."
"Oh." She felt a sudden cold wash of realisation. "Forgive me, Sire. I did not mean to diminish the horror of their deaths."
The King shook his head. "There need be no talk of forgiving between thee and me, damsel; we few here are all known, each to the other as those who have given much, and may yet give all, for love of Narnia. And though you move so like a Dryad in these forests, you have never yet known..."
"And also, she's got a point," said Eustace. "It's probably not just the Ape who's been plotting with the Tisroc."
"How mean you, friend?"
"This news from Cair Paravel, Sire. They must have known how weak the defences there were, which is partly," she hesitated, fearing to touch a tender point, "partly that you have had these five years of peace since your father was killed in battle with the Giants."
"What has this to do with the trampling of Lantern Waste?"
"She means: why would the Giants not have followed up that victory? Was it to lull you into a sense of false security?"
"And I too much wanted it to be true." The King's jaw set, grimly. Jewel stamped a hoof, and moved closer to him.
"It's not only that, Sire," Jill continued. "The... the laying bare of the land—Sire, you see the terrible deaths of your people, but we two... we've both grown up with tales and pictures of a war close to our country, from before our time, and this looks to us like," she paused, uncertain of how the phrase would sound in Narnia. "like the creation of a no-man's-land."
The King frowned, and Eustace came to the rescue. "A cleared zone between two armies, or made for greater security where there might be dispute over a border."
"But this is no border. We are well within Narnia here; nor is my army gathered, to my shame."
"It was no border, Sire. The Giants withdrawing, and deceiving you with a false peace—the Calormene attack on Cair Paravel coincident with this murdered-forest no-man's-land—does it not all suggest....?"
"By the Lion!" The King flung himself away from them in fury and self-reproach. "An alliance between the Giants and the Calormenes? And they think to carve up Narnia between them?"
"It looks that way, Sire. And if so, then we can expect an invasion by the Giants any day now, to try to take Narnia in a... a pincer movement."
That phrase, too, was from warfare in a different world, but King Tirian's eyes flashed instant comprehension.
"Oh, Narnia! Caught between the hammer and the anvil." Tirian turned again, and threw his arms around Jewel's neck; the Unicorn turned his head, briefly nuzzled at the king, comfortingly, and then spoke.
"Between hammer and anvil are great swords forged, Sire. If there is little hope for Narnia now, let us go cleanly into battle with these Calormenes nearby. It may be that Aslan will give us the victory, little as seems our hope. And if so, then we may turn and engage with whichever force comes next to us, the Calormene army or the Giantish, and so die with honour."
"If it's all the same to you..." Eustace began, but Jill rushed in.
"No, wait! There's another way. Don't you see...? This cleared zone, I think it's right that it's marking out a borderland, but it's also a sign that the Giants and the Calormenes don't really trust each other. Why should we die fighting them both if we can..."
"Brilliant, Pole! What she means, Sire, is..."
"To turn the hammer on the anvil!" the King exclaimed. "To step aside, and so devise that our enemies engage each other and not us! This is good counsel, damsel; I would I had had your voice at my parliaments ere this. But how do we so devise?"
"First, we've got to get to a safe place," Jill said, "If we're right, and the Giantish forces are coming down from the North, then this Tower won't be safe much longer. Sire, do you know of the caves where we... where King Rilian was found?"
"The flooded caves? Indeed. It is many years since I was taken as a little child to float in darkness, where waters lapped and glow-stars spread across the cavern-roof, deep inside. But I fear the caves have fallen into disuse these ten years or more; when Giantish incursions came too near my father deemed it best to withdraw our people from that place."
"Perfect!" said Jill. "And when we're there, we can work out how to egg them on to attack each other, and not us."
"Then up, all, and pack for the march." The King was decisive. "Farsight, do you fly above us, and warn us if there seems any danger between here and the caves. Be helmed, everyone, and in Calormene fashion again, since we work by subtlety and not open battle. Take also Narnian gear, though, to be prepared for any turn."
"And Puzzle can help too, Sire, by carrying...."
"No, Jill. It is only your valour that has saved his head to this time; I will not hamper our march with one who cannot fight if it comes to the pinch. The Ass must stay and take his chance."
"But we can't just leave him! The Calormenes would certainly kill him, and even the Narnians... you heard how angry they were last night."
"No. I will not delay for such a one as that; he chose his chance when he chose not to question the ill use others made of him. Loose him to wander; it may be that the woodlanders who believed in his deception will see him and be undeceived."
"No, Sire! I'll catch you up, but I must see Puzzle safe."
The King's head jerked back. "There is a time, fair Jill, when counsel should give way to compliance! I have taken your counsel, and now I would fain have your simple following. We are too small a company to risk losing each other on the journey to the cave."
"I suppose so, Sire—but I won't get lost. I'm not a total idiot; I know the stars enough to find the cave. Besides—what are we freeing Narnia for? Isn't it to make it so Narnians like Puzzle can be safe, whether he's wise or not?"
Jewel stepped delicately between them. "Sire, be easy. I will go with the damsel to see the Ass safe into friendly hands; we will not fail you at the caves."
The King looked hard at Jewel, then nodded brusquely. "So be it. I will look for you both by tomorrow nightfall." He glanced from one to the other. "By the Lion, I know not how I should forgive if..."
And a slightly awkward silence was broken by Eustace's cheery "We'll have supper waiting, Pole."
"I don't know how you dared," said a Rabbit, nose quivering at the very thought.
"I didn't dare," said poor Puzzle, "but I was too frightened and stupid not to do what Shift said."
"Anyway, you're safe now. Keep him in deep thickets, good Beasts, until you hear from me again. All of you, stay hidden. And you, Puzzle, above all, keep quiet. Do not bray, not one word."
"Us'll keep'um quiet," volunteered an old Badger. "Us'll sing'um sweet till 'a sleeps."
There was a smothered chortle from someone in the little gathering of small woodland Beasts, and Jill took it as a good moment to make her farewells.
"That they laugh bodes well for Narnia's future," said Jewel, as they made their way north to the flooded caves. "You have heartened us already, by the love you showed him. This heart to make or laugh at a joke is the beginning of their recovery, I hope. And good heart goes a long way to win battles."
"I hope it won't come to battles with little Beasts like that! And I wasn't sure if it was a joke. I'm still not very sure which Beasts can do what."
The Unicorn blew a long breath of amusement. "A Badger's singing is not like to help sleep, unless to a baby Badger." Then another breath, a sigh. "It may be long before we hear true Narnian music in this land again, and that is a loss greater than you can know."
"I've heard some," said Jill, carefully avoiding a tree-root. "In the court of King Caspian we heard the lay of the Horse and His Boy. And the others sing us Narnian songs sometimes."
"I wonder have they sung in Spare Oom the lullaby of the Royal House? It is the most beautiful song I have ever heard—and I have heard mermaids singing!
"Could you sing me some of it, do you think? I love music."
"Nay, it is not for me, beloved of the king as I am, to sing that song; it is by custom sung only by the Royal House, royal-born or royal-wed. I had thought perhaps that those great kings and queens you know in Spare Oom... But mayhap it came after their time; I have heard that that song came from the Stars."
"I'll ask them,"said Jill. "Some of them heard the Stars sing, once."
"You missed cleaning the birds, Pole," came the first cheerful greeting.
"I'll try not to mind too much!" she grinned, and was suddenly very glad for Scrubb's familiar company here in a strange land, where Stars sang, and where she walked and talked, and sometimes clashed, with a most disconcerting King.
They came at a lumbering trot; a troop of about two dozen, moving rapidly and covering the ground with great strides. The earth shook, and a small spattering of stones and earth fell on the watchers.
"They move fast. They could be at Cair Paravel before midday," said Poggin.
"If they so desired," replied the King. "Farsight will bring us word of where they go."
The Eagle's report seemed to confirm Jill's suggestion of the reason for the forest-clearing. The Giants had gone as far as the cleared land, and then thundered along that corridor, down as far as the sea.
"So they're claiming all the marshes," Jill said aside to Eustace, and they were silent, wondering how the Marshwiggles would fare if the invasion could not be turned back.
Farsight's report continued. "They have taken a cudgel to our last tower-refuge, Sire; it lies in ruins. Another troop of thirty more come south with equal speed. It is as well we are here."
"Yes. It was good counsel," Tirian said. "So... they destroy what would be of use to Calormenes, north of what was Lantern Waste. It must indeed mark what they and Tashbaan would fain call their border. And thus comes the time to try this policy, to turn hammer against anvil. Sweet Jill, we gamble now with all our lives on your sharp wit."
Jill swallowed. "I think I'm right, Sire. I wish it could be a gamble just with me and Eustace, because it's because of us...."
There was short half-laugh from Eustace, but he did not protest.
"Nay—yours was the counsel only, mine the decision. I, too, would that only my own life were at hazard. But now is the time to strike, I think, before they meet and come to an understanding with those Calormenes at the Stable Hill. So let us to this second troop, to try to stir trouble between them and the Calormenes. Between hammer and anvil indeed! Damsel, Eustace—arm as Calormenes. Poggin, you will pass as my prisoner. Jewel, you must stay here; the sight of you would be too sure a sign that we are Narnians."
They put on the Calormene gear in silence, and moved out from the cave into the bright, even dazzling, sunlight. Jill could not decide if it made things better or worse, to be trying to provoketo the edge of madness a troop of thirty threatening, flesh-eating Giants in such gorgeous, holidayish weather.
"Step out boldly, you two," said the King. "Seem to show all honour to me, but none to any else. You, Poggin, I must ask to seem cowed, which I think will be as great a challenge as any you have faced yet!"
The Dwarf flashed a grin at this sally, and then crouched in a convincing semblance of abject, baffled defeat—convincing to a Giant, they hoped, though no Dwarf yet was ever truly abject in defeat.
"Good," said the King. "And pardon me all, this day, if I seem to do you dishonour!"
And on the word, he stepped out to face the oncoming troop.
"Greetings, Giantish ally! You are welcome to our land."
The leader of the Giant troop was plainly taken aback by the brash confidence in the King's voice. He bellowed something over his shoulder, and the whole crowd of Giants came to an uneven stop, the ones at the rear bumping into the ones at the front, and shoving backwards and forwards, ignored by their commander, who stared belligerently at the apparently imperturbable Tarkaan who still stood in his way.
"Snot your land. Whaddaya doin' here?"
"I came to reclaim this prisoner, who has strayed where he should not."
The Giant peered down, and broke out in a scornful guffaw.
"That shrimp! Not worth peeling."
"Perhaps not, to one as tall as thou. But our Tisroc will not lose one minim of what is his, though it be a scrap like this."
"Oh, won't he? But he's on our land now, isn't he? Hand 'im over." And a huge hand swooped down to snatch at the Dwarf.
The King jerked Poggin back by his shoulders, and shouted up at the Giant. "Nay, great ally; why do you do thus, when we should work together to take this land? Such clumsy thievery may yet mar all, if you destroy the alliance. Is it the Giantish way to quarrel over trifles?"
"Isn't it just?" murmured Eustace to Jill. She did not reply.
"If it's nothing much, why're you hanging onto 'im?" demanded the Giant, surlily. "Anyways, you shouldn' be here. Your lot said that everything north of the big river was ours."
"Bingo!" muttered Eustace.
"As to that, our commander will talk with you. He is to be found three days' journey to the south-east, clearing the forests north of the river, if you will settle this matter between you."
"Gimme that, and I'll settle it now," leered the Giant, making another attempt to gather up Poggin.
Once again, Tirian pulled Poggin back out of reach. The Giantish commander evidently was not quite sure of how far the alliance had covered such matters; he stepped back, grudgingly. Tirian was quick to follow up with more words delicately balanced on the absolute edge of outright provocation.
"This is no time to bring bad blood between us. Come. We will go with you, if you will stoop to let us climb aboard your packs. You will save us a good three days' travel if you do so, which might begin to repair the damage your blundering attempt at banditry has done to our alliance, Giant."
It was almost funny to see the Giant puzzling between the desire to be sure of his prey—the Dwarf—and his desire not to offer any accommodation to his supposed ally; in the end the chance to refuse a kindness proved more alluring than the chance of the tiny profit which Poggin represented to them.
"Garn. We're not stopping for you to climb up. That thing's too tough for eating anyway."
"Then give my greetings to our noble Tarkaan," said the King, adding with just the right hint of insult, "He will make plain to you the limits of your freedom here."
Not just the commander but all the Giants snarled at this, and Jill held her breath. It was important to rile them, but also to keep them just calm enough that their fury would take them to the Calormenes, and not be exploded here. But Tirian's unfailingly bland smile, Poggin's supposed hopeless crouch, and the unmoved stance of Jill herself and of Eustace carried the day.
"We'll see about that, lizard-breath!" the Giant flung at them, and the whole troop moved off to the south-east.
As long as they were in sight, Tirian continued to stride ahead, in the manner of a Calormene lord, and Jill and Eustace took their cue from him and followed, as best they could, as might two armed pages in a Tarkaan's service.
"And now, back to our lair, all!" the King said at last. "By nightfall we should hear from Farsight what comes of this day's work."
When Farsight glided down it was plain to see in the carriage of his head and the brightness of his eye that he carried good news. He mantled proudly to the King in salute, and croaked, triumphantly.
"The stratagem has worked, Sire! By the time the Giantish troop reached the Calormene camp, they were hot in both temper and body, and began by flinging out a challenge concerning the felling of the forest, which was repaid with scornful words by the Rishda Tarkaan.
"What followed was open conflict"—they all looked at each other exultantly—"not great, but five Calormenes lie dead, crushed by Giantish boots, and one Giant has been carried back to his own country for their death-rites, and another for healing. Rishda Tarkaan tries even now to mend the rift, but I doubt he has the skill to get any message through those thick skulls."
"So. Our first attempt to lure the hammer to strike the anvil has succeeded. May this be the beginning of cracking apart the brittle metal!"
"It will be so, Sire, if you call Narnia to arms—or rather, to this subterfuge of arms."
"We will do so with your help, Farsight, and the more urgently since this day has brought certainty to the surmise of a plotting between the northern enemy and the southern, to split Narnia like a nut between them."
"A nut to crack their teeth, Sire," said Poggin, grinding his own.
"With Aslan's aid, and if we go to work wisely, Master Poggin. Come, friends! let us find wisdom together."
They all gathered, and together thrashed out the strategy. There was to be no open opposition from Narnians to either of the occupying forces, but every attempt to covertly foment discord between them. The Rivers were called to rise and drown wherever possible, but not to show themselves as living Narnians, that the deaths might appear as accident. Fallen enemies were to be stripped of weapons and gear for use in further subterfuge, when this could be done safely, by night, but not otherwise. Actual combat was to be undertaken only if there was no slightest possibility of failure, as, for example, an ambush so rigorously planned, that no enemy would live to tell the tale. Garnered weapons—Calormene or Giantish—were to be so disposed on the sites of such ambushes that those forces might be blamed for the overthrow. Farsight was sent to arrange that his fellows, and all Birds whose discretion and shrewdness might be relied on, should spread this plan across Narnia.
"And now, to sleep!" said the king, "We have begun well, but I have no doubt this will be a long business, and sleep is as good as an extra spear, they say."
But sleep did not come easily, save to the Dwarf, who laid himself down on hard rock as easily as on the softest feather bed, and to Eustace, who pummelled at a rolled-up cloak until it took on some semblance to a pillow, said, "Well, I'm bushed!" and promptly proved it, by his snores.
Jill lay awake. She could hear from the King's breathing that he was awake, though she saw only his silhouette, dark against the silvery glimmer of the Unicorn. She watched him as the others slept, saw how his head slumped dejectedly, and how he hardly lifted it when he turned to speak, softly, to Jewel.
"This is not how my fathers fought, Jewel—not plain battle between warriors, with mercy for prisoners and openness in engagement," he was musing. "Will I be known, do you think, as Tirian the Dishonoured? Or will the history of Narnia be written by Calormenes, and I be called in their archives... again, Tirian the Dishonoured?"
Jill wondered how to make it clear that she could hear him. He was after all, talking to his dearest and oldest friend; their talk was probably not meant for her ears. She shifted onto her other side and then back again; perhaps if she murmured, as if she were just waking up?
But before she could do so, Tirian spoke. "I should not be any sort of campaigner, sweet Jill, if I could not hear how a waking breath differs from a sleeping. Do not fear to hear me, or to speak."
She felt her face warm in the cool night.
"I didn't want to hear what maybe you would rather I didn't, Sire."
"You are the mirror of honour, maid, as well as a wise counsellor. But what think you? Or how would they say, the great kings and queens of old, whom you say you have met with, and spoken face to face? Would they spurn me for this sly, sneaking, merciless way of warring?"
She scooted over to be able to speak low and not wake the others.
"I know what you mean," she said. "The Pevensies—Peter especially—are pretty daunting. It goes back to what I said about Puzzle, doesn't it? What good is fighting for Narnia, if the fight makes us not-Narnian?"
She could hear a sad smile in his voice when he replied.
"Trust your quick wit, to put in few words the heart of the matter. Yes. If we so fight that we lose ourselves, our selves, fighting, then the enemy has won."
"And yet," came Jewel's soft voice from the darkness, "It is not only your own honour you hold in trust, but the life and freedom and peace of Narnia. To stand by and see slavery and death come to those in your trust were a great wrong, though your own hands were kept clean. Bethink you, Sire, our self-surrender was an act coming from this same sense of honour, but I think now it was a wrong, an indulgence of our own pride at the cost of maybe one day's warning to Cair Paravel."
The King groaned, and Jill, wordless for sorrow at his sorrow, reached out one hand and laid it on his. There was silence between the three of them, and then Jewel spoke again.
"With the greatest honour comes the greatest burden of decision, and we two can only help you to bear it, Sire. But great or little, it is our work to keep our hearts set on the trust which falls to us, to commend ourselves to Aslan, and do as we think right. This you have ever done. Rest easy, beloved friend."
Jill saw the King's shoulders move, as if he squared them to take up a burden he found heavy.
"How could I rest other, with two such friends at my side? Or rather," —and again she heard the smile in his voice, but this time less sad than resolute—"one at my back, good Jewel, and one wise maid before me." His hand twisted under hers, and gripped tight. "I thank you both. And now, to sleep!"
"Also, the news has spread of those from Spare Oom, whose visits are ever taken as a sign of Aslan's favour; that such would come, and that one cared for even an Ass has worked mightily to win the cowering. And more, your word of the strategy—even to know that there is a strategy—has given courage, though under heavy oppression, Sire.
"Not all agree; there are those who would fling themselves to quick death in open, outnumbered, conflict and there are those who do not believe that their life under Tashbaan or Harfang could be any different than under Cair Paravel. But all are heartened to know there is a vision to work against these oppressions, and that you lead them."
Jill saw the King's mouth quirk, and guessed that he was well aware of which of his subjects were in which camp, the reckless and the wilfully ignorant.
"I must ask you and your fellows to go once more across the land," he said. "Restrain the reckless, at all costs. Tell them there will be a time for such, but bid them on their obedience that for now we must work wilily. Those who cannot see how their lives may change—I must ask you to persuade them at least to keep safe and keep silent about our strategy. It is the smallest who see least?"
"The smaller of my own kind are among them," said Farsight, his voice harsh with bitterness. "But not they alone. It is chiefly those who think that the Tisroc will have no use or regard for such as they."
"May they have no reason to change their minds!" said the King. "That they may be untouched by the evil which swirls around them would be the second wish of my heart. Well, leave them be."
"But I have one word of the smaller folk which may cheer you, Narnia's King, and you also, damsel."
"Those whom you bade lie hidden and safe have lain hidden indeed, but it was their small claws and teeth which killed one Calormene, who fell amongst them in escaping from the Giants' fray."
"Ha! Cheers for the woodlanders!" said Jill, beaming. "See, Sire?"
"I see one more good outcome of your good action, yes. And may this teach other small things not to think themselves beneath notice!"
"So that part's gone well," said Eustace. "What's our next step? It'll be a lot harder to pretend to be Giants, if we're going to work this trick backwards."
Tirian laughed, a genuine amused laugh. "Eustace, you are a comrade beyond compare! One day you must show us how you would feign Giantish ways! But no, for this, I think we must not turn to open jibing, but to thievery. Canst stoop so low, friend?"
"Ask Pole! She'll tell you!" Eustace grinned back, then added, more seriously, "We're going to raid the Calormene camps, and pretend it's Giants that've done it?"
"Hast hit it in one. Farsight, return to those woodlanders who were close by the battle, and bid them find what scattered accoutrements they might to show as signs of a Giantish presence, as a boot, a buckle, or whatnot. These they must conceal until we send further word. When we..."
Jill moved to a ledge above the dark waters, and sat quiet, listening to their planning. Right now, she need do nothing else; what she was needed to do would be told her when the time came.
The water was dark; she shivered a little looking at it. Further in, Tirian had told her, the roof of the cave was—or had been when he was small—covered in a kind of worm, which glowed in the darkness like stars.
"It was the loveliest darkness I had ever seen," he had told her. "Would that this was a time when I might show it thee. But when peace comes to Narnia"—she had been glad to hear that the hope of peace had returned to his voice—"thou wilt return to thine own world, doubtless."
"I suppose so," she had said, "though we came with... oh, it's too hard to explain! They wanted to try the gate at the school, but since Scrubb and I have both left—well, I'm nearly eighteen, after all! So they had to do all sorts of things to get the rings, and that's what we used, so I suppose we can stay as long as we like. Or even—you could come to our world! And we could find out there if there are caves with stars as you say there are here."
He had laughed. "You speak much that I simply do not understand, and that which I do seems flat impossibility. First, let us finish the task before us, my Jill, and then we may talk of what could come after."
She smiled and drew her feet up, safer from the water. My Jill. That was just the way kings here talked to their counsellors, she supposed. Well, she was glad, and so much more than simply glad, that her counsel had helped him, and she must try not to think of what that might have meant if someone had said it in England. My Jill. Try not to think. Try not to think.
She straightened her legs, forgetting the narrowness of the ledge, and one foot did splash into the water.
She looked automatically to the group framed in the light of the cave mouth and saw they had all turned to look at the slight sound.
"Sorry," she called quietly—and then screamed with all her breath.
A hand—or something like a hand—had reached and was gripping her ankle. Something was down in the water, and she could not see it and it was holding... She struggled, kicking now with the other leg, but it gripped tighter, and began to tug at her, pulling her down...
The others had come running, Poggin foremost, and Eustace and Tirian after, with drawn swords.
"It's got hold of me," she gasped, pressing with all her might against the ledge. There was nothing to grip, only her own strength against... whatever was in the water.
Then Tirian and Eustace were beside her, hauling at her arms, pulling her back to the ledge, and... Before her appalled eyes a creature... a dark green, black-green, weedy, dripping head emerged, with large eyes, and a... a snout, rather than a nose; one webbed hand still...
"Don't let it get me!" she gasped. "Get it off me!"
Poggin dropped one arm to the ledge floor and lightly vaulted into the water.
"She's not here for harm," he said. "We Dwarfs know her sort. What do you here, Nix? These are shallow waters—too close to the sun for you. Go back below."
"Too close, too close," came a low, gurgling voice. "We fear."
"Let the Overgrounder go," Poggin demanded, "and we will hear your fear."
"No. Not let her go. He moans. He stirs. We fear."
Jill had turned her face and had pressed it close into Eustace's knee. He bent over her, clumsily, and held her tight, but spoke out to the creature.
"Who stirs? Why do you fear?"
"He... the King!"
"I am the King," said Tirian, in a voice hard as steel. "You lie to use my name. Let the damsel go."
"King of the Uplands, yes. A greater King lies beyond the water. We see. He begins to stir. If he wakes..." The words ended in inarticulate gurgling.
"What does she mean?" the King asked Poggin. "Why are they afraid?"
The Dwarf shrugged. "We see these rarely. They live too deep for our digging. But whatever has scared her to come so close to the sun..."
"I know," said Eustace. "Pole, are you all right? I know dark places are bad for you..."
"I'm... all right. Make her let go."
"I don't think she will, for a bit. Hold on. We've got to settle this..."
"What is it you know, Eustace?" said the King, sharply. "The sooner we know, the sooner this will let the damsel free."
"The greater King. Remember, Pole?" Then, to the water-creature, "It's Father Time, isn't it? He's waking? And if he wakes..."
"If he wakes, what?" asked Tirian.
"If he wakes, it is the end of all things," said Eustace.
"We fear," she said. "The quietness is gone; he stirs. Time must not wake. Time must not wake."
"You remember, Jill?"
When he was most serious, he called her Jill; like Tirian's thees and thous, she thought irrelevantly, and nodded.
"Yes. There wasn't any sound, just the mossy underground and... gentleness. But still, it was like a quiet sort of music there, where Father Time was sleeping."
The Nix turned her eyes to Jill; neither noticed now that she had released her ankle, and reached, beseechingly, to touch her knee.
"He dreams of Narnia and all the world. If he wakes, the dream is broken; there is no more. Save us, Uplander!"
"Why is the silence no longer enough?" asked the King. "Why does he wake?"
"The world feels the evil above; the quiet cannot sing. Save us. Sing him until the evil time is past."
"Then...if we defeat the evil above, he will rest?" Eustace probed.
"He stirs...he stirs! We fear!" Her voice was again becoming a formless gurgling.
"But you mean... if we can lull him to sleep, just until the evil is defeated, then... it won't be the end of all things? If he keeps sleeping, the world will... keep going?"
Eustace's voice, despite himself, ended on a more questioning note than he had intended. It seemed so impossible, when he was used to think in terms of entropy and the laws of thermodynamics and relativity... but this was Narnia, where stars were not flaming balls of gas, and the world began on a bottomless cliff, and ended in a standing wall of water. It might be that Time would end, and the world with it, if a sleeping King woke.
"Yes, yes!" The Nix thrashed in the water, panting in eagerness. "One must come! Come here, through water, and sing! The silent song is drowned now by evil echoes, so we must... another song, stronger than evil, deeper than the mossy places! Yes! One of you must come!"
There was another silence, and then Eustace turned to Jill.
"It's you. You know it's you. It has to be; you can sing. I can't sing, but I won't let you go alone, Pole, not with the way you feel about caves."
"I can't." She felt the familiar suffocating terror rising in her throat. "No. I can't. Not even for Narnia, not into the water. And I'd drown. You know that, Scrubb. It was miles from here. We were days in the boats."
"Yes," said Eustace. "Keep your shirt on. We can go overland. I'll go with you."
There was a quiet hoof-stamp. Jewel had approached almost to the edge of the water.
"Sire? The song..."
"Yes." The King's voice was strangely quiet. His hand lightly, absently, caressed Jill's shoulder. "I had not thought to leave my people at such a time, but so it must be, it seems. Lord Eustace, this venture is not for you; you will stay behind, since there must be those who will continue and co-ordinate the campaign. That work I leave to you, and to Jewel, and to Poggin, until we come again. May your thievery succeed—and may Aslan be with us all."
"Tirian?" whispered Jill, looking up at him, wondering.
"Sweet Jill! Jewel has said—nay, do not wonder! Old friends may speak without words—he has said, and I agree, that hallowed custom must give way to need, and having the song, I must give it to be sung. If Lord Eustace cannot sing..."—Eustace gave him a broad grin—"If he cannot sing, and if thou canst, then must it be thou and I. If thou canst accept my fellow-travelling with thee, and not thy trusted friend of many years..."
"I think she won't mind," said Eustace, eyeing them both keenly.
There were three of them, in the end, that they might use Poggin's Dwarfish knowledge of underground ways. It was Poggin, too, who suggested that the only way to go with speed to the northernmost opening of the caves was by stealing a ride with a returning Giantish troop, who could cover in a day what would take the Humans more than a month. Farsight was detailed to tell when the next ambulance-litter was on its way back to Harfang.
"Then shall I be the decoy, Sire, to give you three the chance of boarding!" Jewel said, and over-rode the King's protests—indeed, they all shuddered, knowing Jewel's probable fate if he were caught.
But at the sight of that rare and much-prized delicacy the bearers did drop the litter to give chase—such was the Giantish notion of care—and the venturers stowed themselves almost invisibly amongst the oddments of pack and baggage which would dangle underneath when it was once more borne aloft.
Burrowing down among the luggage was not difficult; they were well hidden, with Jill as lookout, to spy that place she had last seen two hundred years since, a vast stonework spelling the words UNDER ME. The ride itself, lasting till past sunset, was exhausting and painful; the Dwarf simply braced himself across a frying-pan and endured the jolting and the bumping, but the King gathered Jill up into his arms, to spare her the worst of the knocks, shielding her body with his own.
He could not spare her, though, the leap in the half-dark when the time came to drop onto the stony ground. The Dwarf landed on his feet, and was under cover in a flash, but Jill and the King were less successful; the sound of the breath being knocked from their bodies caught the attention of one of the bearers.
"Dwe drop summin?" one said.
But the others were by then all for pressing on to Harfang, whose lights were beginning to gleam in the summer night, and the question was shouted down.
Sore, tensed, already bone-weary, the three watched as the litter-party jogged away, and then turned to the business of finding the way down. When the hole was uncovered again, Poggin disappeared inside it. Tirian looked at Jill.
"Eustace has told me that you hold such places in aversion. I would that I could spare you..."
"I'm game," she said, briefly. "Let's get it over with."
"Art valiant," he replied. "Poggin, your hand to this most noble comrade."
Inside, Poggin had fixed a rope to a rock at the entrance.
"Got Lord Eustace to tell me all he knew about this place," he said. "Rope'll come handy on the way back."
Not just the rope. Poggin had thought to bring with him a small lantern; both things, and Poggin's sturdy good sense underground, made the descent immeasurably more comfortable, Jill decided, than her last venture here; even the low tunnels, where all three had to crawl on hands and knees, were more bearable. Still, the way was long, and again and again she had to force herself to set her whole mind on the soles of Poggin's boots, just in front of her, to try to not know that above her was an incalculable weight of rock. Incalculable, she thought, and suddenly choked.
"Damsel?" came the quick, urgent voice of the King.
"I'm all right," she said. "I just thought—I'm actually rather glad Scrubb's not here. I can almost hear how he'd be trying to calculate just how deep we are, and I really don't want to know!"
There was a chuckle behind her in the dark; she thought of the woodland creatures and Jewel. It was true: to laugh at a joke was heartening; it gave courage to go on.
After a time, the tunnel widened again, and they were able to go upright; after that again, the Dwarf doused his lamp, saying, "We'll save it. Oil kept is later light, as they say. And wait..."
They waited, their eyes slowly accustoming to the dark, and gradually they began to see what the Dwarf had known—from the feel of the air, perhaps?—would be present: a faint phosphorescent grey-green shining on the walls and floor of the cavern, a dim, quiet light which reminded Jill of the nightlight she had had as a very small child. They all stilled; it was the kind of light which brings quietness, not wakefulness.
Jill could not tell how long they stood there in silence—long enough, at least, that she felt the calm wash over and through her, and all her underground panic wash away. She looked to her two companions, and found them both regarding her intently.
"Should we... should I be learning the song now?" she said.
"It is not a song to learn," said the King, "It is a song to hear and to sing, as I have heard it and sung. But yes, it is time to find our way and to begin."
"The way's easy enough," said Poggin. "A big cavern, Lord Eustace said. Feel the air?" They looked at him, waiting. "Well, there you are then. Easy."
"Easy for you, friend Poggin, and right glad I am that you are with us. Is't far now?"
"Nah... What say you wait here, Sire, and talk music with the Lady, and I'll scout out a bit? I reckon I can feel... And that would mean..." He nodded, as if it should be clear what it was he felt, and what it might mean.
"Go, friend. We will await your return," Tirian said.
Good old Poggin, Jill thought; there was a quiet pleasure in thinking that he knew what he knew and would share when it was right to do so. All things right in their time, she thought, and all of us, Poggin, and Tirian and Jill... and Jill and Tirian, in the right place and the right time.
"I feel it, too," said Tirian, very low. "Think you these are the thoughts of Time?"
Of Time. Of Time who began to stir in his sleep and must not wake. Jill slipped down to the floor of the cavern, and sat, cross-legged.
"All right. Not a song to be learned. But to be heard, you said. Can I hear it?"
"Yes," he said. "It is the song of my own House." And smiled, and sat beside her, and began, very softly, to sing.
It was not a tune. There were no words. It was... her hand half-rose, in amazement, then fell again, unregarded. No words but the song, only the song... She seemed to be looking down into unfathomable depths, or heights, or deep and high were one.
Was she soaring or submerging in this music? She could not tell, only she knew that it was in her and around her and that she was swimming or floating in a blue radiance, through it, through the light of an ethereal, cool blending of two voices, one rich and low, and one higher and more lovely than she could bear—and both so strong, irresistibly strong and a music of infinite time, unfathomable time...
Jill swam back up, out of the song, out of the deeps of the heavens.
Strange. She should feel dazed, or lost, but her mind felt clearer than it had ever been.
"That was me, wasn't it?" she said, still half-afloat in the light of the music. "That was us?"
"Not we alone. The music sings through us," he said. "But yes. We two, singing. Jill..."
And then Poggin came bustling back.
"It's what I thought," he was saying. "Father Time sleeps but around him, the tunnels... it'll make what we used to do as kits. Many a time I've been clouted for setting up loops..."
"What are those, friend?"
She could still hear in Tirian's voice the rich strength of the song.
"We send the sound down the tunnels, see? And it loops back, and if you get the tunnels right..."
"An echo!" Jill broke through the last meniscus of the music which had held her. "He means there's an echo! And a re-echo, Poggin?"
"Aye, that's it. Used to drive the olders wild... we all did it as kits. But if you two sing where I put you—if you'll pardon the liberty, Sire—then I reckon we should be able to make it so..."
"So the music just keeps going! Or at any rate long enough to last out the bad times, until Father Time can sleep again. Oh, Tirian!"
"Jill," was all he said to her; then, to Poggin, "Right grateful I will be for your mastership here, friend Dwarf. Lead on!"
Poggin did not take them to the cavern where Father Time lay.
"Yes, I've seen 'im. He's restless all right. But the echo'll come better down here—I mean if you sing into this one..." He took Jill by the elbow and manoeuvred her into position. "And if you, Sire, sing into this one..."
"You heard us?" Jill asked, curiously. "Did you...?"
Poggin grinned at her, then took a moment to scrutinise the two tunnels, calculating exactly how the sound would run. Then: "I'm not as much Overgrounder as that, see? I hear it all right, but... it's not the same for me like it is for you. Stone-music, now. That's good. That's hard." He nodded, eyes bright, and said no more.
He was an exacting master, and very definite about where each of them should stand, listening as each sang a note and adjusting their positions by minutest shiftings, even bringing a low rock for Jill, that her voice and Tirian's might float into the tunnels at precisely the same level. Finally—
"Right you are, then. I'll go and watch him."
"How long do we sing for?" Jill asked, feeling a slight rising again of panic.
"The song itself tells its ending," Tirian replied. "Can you doubt?"
And remembering—no, she could not doubt.
"So. Let us sing," said the King, and began. ***
"Come and see," whispered Poggin, and they followed him without words into the huge, cathedral-like space where lay Father Time.
He lay—a king, a giant, but more huge, and much other, than the Giantish kind which went above ground. He lay quietly, a figure of vast nobility, his long white beard rising and falling gently on his chest. He seemed of his own self to radiate a soft silver light, a light which seemed to make visible the faintly echoing, re-echoing music, where two voices intertwined, endlessly, soft as quiet starlight, or as gentle drifting rain.
They gazed in reverence and awe, and it was not really with any doubt that Jill asked: "We have done it?"
For answer, Poggin nodded behind her, into the shadows. The Nix. The same face, and long, oddly-jointed arms, but below—the Nix stood on two legs more like a calf's legs than anything else Jill could think of.
"It can walk on land!" she murmured.
"She can," said the Dwarf in an undertone. "Don't look at her legs." Then, to the Nix: "Is all well? He sleeps?"
"He sleeps." The Nix took a step back. "He sleeps. You have saved..." She backed into darkness and was gone.
"And that's that!" Jill said, feeling oddly snubbed. "No thank you or anything."
"You looked at her too much," said the Dwarf. "And we should have thanked her as much as her, us."
"I do thank her," said Tirian, "and always will. Come. Let us go now. Lead again, Master Dwarf. We have accomplished here, and it is time now to see how our thieves have done."
Excellently, it seemed. Not only had there been the judicious leaving of Giantish remnants about the scene of the depredations—a Calormene supply-hut—but ardent, well-judged digging from below ground, by Moles and Badgers, had accomplished a collapse of the hut identical to that which might have been expected had Giants torn the roof from it, looting.
"It was brilliant, Pole! Oh, this is great work! I know it's not battle and swords and all that, but I actually think I like it better!" Eustace was bubbling with delight at the success of the plan. "This is real brain-work!"
"You are a comrade in a thousand, Eustace!" Tirian exclaimed. "not only bold in thieving, but furnishing mirth, more than at many a feasting! One day I will tell you what brain-work there is in battle."
"One day we'll find out, I'm guessing," Eustace replied. "Make no mistake, it'll be a long war until those two wear each other out, and we mop up the remainder. I guess we'll get to your sort of battle sooner or later. But I meant it about liking this stage of things. And it's going well! They're hammer and tongs against each other."
"The good news is also bad news, though, Sire," said Farsight. "The Giants and the Calormenes are now in battle indeed across Narnia, and laying much waste about them. The walls of Cair Paravel are breached in many places; her towers are crumbled. Our people have taken to the hills, to the mines and caves, to the forests, while all towns and roads and reaping and trading is in devastation."
"In devastation." The King's face was hard as stone, and his voice was dark with pain. "Was it for devastation that I went with this Dwarf and this damsel to bid Time sleep, and turned back the ending of all things? To see Narnia a land of subject peoples? For that?"
He stood still, staring out from the cave mouth, across the broken land, then swung around, with the suddenness and energy of a Panther, pouncing.
"No, by Aslan! We fight! And I swear to you all now, by Aslan himself, that one day, when the war is won, we shall rebuild. A long war, say you, Eustace? But a war, not a noble dying flourish?"
"A war, Sire, yes... and a winnable war." Eustace was now very serious. "A war of underground resistance, and agents-provocateurs at first, and then a guerilla war, like... Jill? You got into LSE on the strength of your stuff about the Spanish guerillas in the Peninsular Wars, didn't you?"
Jill did not answer. Her eyes were fixed on the King.
"She and you will explain all this to me as time allows. But first, I must know: will the time allow? How much of your life can you give to this? For Jill has said that you and she have command over your movement between our worlds."
"The rings. Yes. And I..." Eustace hesitated. " I'll stay years, decades, if that's what it takes—and it probably will. Jill?"
"Nay, Eustace. This is for me to ask, not thou. Jill... counsellor and comrade, most malapert and most wise, who stood by me in Narnia's darkest night, and dared the cave, and sang to Time the song of my own House..."
Jill stepped forward, and took his hand.
"And heard the very thoughts of Time," she said. "The thoughts of friendship—and then of something more than friendship, something forever. Jill and Tirian, in the right place, at the right time. Did you not hear it?"
"I did, my Jill. And wilt thou, then?"
"Can you doubt?" she said.