"Everything that happens once can never happen again. But everything that happens twice will surely happen a third time." - Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist
Tunisia, March 1943
Susan's teeth rattled in counterpoint to every jolt of the jeep. This was no way to travel. With a horse – even with a camel, for Aslan's sake – one could be reasonably certain that it would not steer itself off a cliff. But this misbegotten lump of metal had no brain, no self-preservation instincts.
Much like its driver.
"Comfortable?" he shouted. She couldn't be sure because he was facing away from her, but she thought he was smiling under all the dirt and grime.
Susan did not wish to make a poor impression by giving that question the answer it deserved, so she said nothing. Her helmet knocked repeatedly against an ammo case, her shoulders were wedged next to the lunatic at the machine gun, and her knees kept bumping into a crate of explosives that she devoutly hoped were not shock-sensitive.
When Susan had learned French, jolting her way across North Africa was not what she'd had in mind.
Susan glared at the driver, who sounded entirely unrepentant. "Sorry, ma'am, we normally just say–"
"Tully!" The British gunner at her back barked a laugh. "That's no way to talk to a lady!"
Susan hardly heard him; she was busy mentally reciting every curse she could remember in French. She lingered over her favorites, savoring the syllables that compared an individual's intellectual or physical attributes to various kinds of cheese. This occupied her for some time.
Miss Carré had always commended Susan's extensive vocabulary.
Even so, the ranks of invectives and insults – however creative – were regrettably finite. And no matter how hard Susan tried not to dwell on it, the wind-scoured landscape stirred definite memories of another time and another place.
The desert was the shape and breadth of Susan's fear.
Every canyon echoed her greatest failures. Her helplessness in Tashbaan and then again in Washington, for all it was a desert of her own imagining. Now, like some prodigal bride, she had returned to this wasteland as if some part of her soul were drawn to desolation and barrenness.
For all Susan's determination, she could not muster the hope that this time would be any different. Much of her life, after all, had thus far been governed by the Rule of Threes.
I. The widening gyre
"Every army practices deception. If they don't, they can't win, and they know it."
- General Wesley Clark, U.S. Army
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer
- "The Second Coming" by W.B. Yeats
Bletchley Park, February 1943
Colonel George Walker-Smythe nearly choked on his unlit cigar. "It's not nearly enough time," he protested.
Major al-Masri's face, usually grim, today seemed carved from stone. "The timetable is not ours."
"She is bound for France," the Colonel insisted. "Her training has only just begun!"
When he was not in uniform, private citizen Asim bin Kalil might have agreed with him. But it was Major al-Masri who had heard the briefings on Operation Mincemeat – and who had been tasked with finding other breadcrumbs to feed the Germans in support of that outrageous plan. "Hitler's eye is fixed on Sicily."
George snorted. "Anyone with an atlas is watching Sicily."
"We aim to change that."
George stared at him in astonishment. "By putting Susan in Tunisia? Her talents are wasted there! Besides, North Africa is nearly won." He had lost count of the number of times he'd heard other officers foolishly spout that phrase, and inwardly he was disgusted at himself for using it now.
Al-Masri was gracious enough not to comment on it. "Fully trained native French speakers are desperately needed in France. One more half-trained Englishwoman" – he paused over the word and the two men exchanged a significant look – "is not. At least," he amended, "not yet."
"But she is needed in Africa," said George dubiously.
"A clever, talented agent is needed in Africa. Someone with initiative, imagination and an innate grasp of deception. Who knows how to help people see what they want to see."
There was no doubt that Susan, the woman whose identity papers said she was nothing more than a girl, answered this description to the letter. Still, George felt a twisting in his gut. "But surely–"
"It must be a woman," interrupted al-Masri. "And she must speak French, but she must not speak it perfectly. Just as she must be an excellent actress, but she must not play the part flawlessly."
That was… not what he was expecting to hear. George chewed his cigar thoughtfully. The why he could imagine. The real question was: "Why now?"
"At a certain time, certain papers will be discovered pointing to a certain conclusion. I am telling you none of this," said al-Masri pointedly. George nodded. Al-Masri studied him a moment before continuing. "There is a belief spreading among the German high command that any attack on Sicily would be only a feint. We want to reinforce this belief. The body of a British serviceman will wash ashore on Spain, a locked briefcase chained to his wrist. The Spanish government can be counted upon to pass the briefcase and its contents on to Germany. The papers inside will indicate a plan to bypass Sicily and push into the Balkans, smashing the airfields at Sardinia and moving into the underbelly of Europe through Greece."
Astounded, George set the cigar in his ashtray. "That is the most ludicrous plan I have ever heard." Al-Masri frowned at him. "I mean, the most ludicrous plan I never heard."
"I am telling you this only because our operation must complement, not interfere with or in any way contradict, Mincemeat."
George grimaced. "Lovely name. Do I get a say in 'our' operation?"
Al-Masri ignored the comment as the idle grumbling it was. "Ideally, we'd send her through Cairo. Dudley Clarke is running the Mediterranean branch of the deception unit there."
"Clarke? Wasn't he arrested in Madrid…?" George trailed off uncomfortably.
Al-Masri had no such compunctions. "In women's clothing? Yes. His disguise, if it was such, was quite thorough – down to the brassiere, I believe."
George shifted in his chair. "Doesn't that concern you?"
"Not particularly." The major had the cheek to look amused. "If nothing else, the man pays attention to detail. But sending Susan through Cairo would require her to travel up the lines with an Army unit. And their organization and security, quite frankly, does concern me."
George grunted. Reports had begun filtering down about the plague of orders, counter-orders and utter disorder that had swept through the American, British and French armies in North Africa. The tide seemed to have turned – but that had been said before, too. "I don't want her exposed to that kind of needless risk," he said.
"I agree." Al-Masri pulled out a map. "We have a unit operating behind enemy lines west of Gabés. A small commando group, quite successful. They should be able to insert her."
"Who's the contact?" asked George.
"Major Wilhelm Schmidt. Ostensibly one of ours, but he answers only to the highest bidder – he'll send her information straight up the German chain of command."
George knew his next question should be what. Strategy was needed here, not sentimentality. But it was such a damnably short time… "Can't it bloody well wait until after they have the body?"
"We have to lay the groundwork for Mincemeat," said al-Masri. "If all the publicity comes after the fact, it makes the main event itself seem suspect." His gaze held no reproach, but George knew he was behaving obstinately. Still. Susan was practically his daughter's age, at least on paper.
"How much will you tell her?"
Al-Masri sat back in his chair as if, with that question, the battle had already been won. "Nothing at all about Mincemeat. But she must know the information she is carrying is false, in case she has to improvise."
George pounded the table. "You go too far, al-Masri! Are you suggesting that if the girl is caught, she should withstand torture to knowingly protect false information?"
"Not at all," the Major said seriously. "If caught, she should hold out precisely long enough to make them believe she is trying to protect the fact that the information is false."
George took out another cigar and bit down hard. "What would she be carrying?"
"Tidal charts for the coast of Sicily." Al-Masri steepled his fingers. "Once the Germans have seen the Mincemeat papers, this will take on new significance. The Abwehr will see it as an attempt to make them believe Sicily is the target while our real intentions lie elsewhere."
"Reverse psychology," George muttered. "It just might work. At the worst, they will take Susan's charts at face value and merely prepare for a nonexistent raid. Make them jumpy."
al-Masri nodded. "And at best, they will take it as further evidence of their own preconceptions – if Sicily is a feint, then they will expect a campaign of deception. Knowing the information is false will reinforce their false thinking."
"And get them thinking any invasion of Sicily is nothing more than a distraction."
"Precisely. They will not make their strategy on the weight of this alone, of course, but it will be one more coin on the scales."
George shook his head as if to clear it. "Whose plan is this, anyway?"
"Montagu. They say he has a corkscrew mind," al-Masri offered.
George spat the end of the cigar onto the floor. "I always took you for more of a machete man."
"I do prefer a knife," al-Masri admitted. "Still, a knife can be twisted, can it not?"
In an abrupt release of tension, both men laughed. It was a morbid joke, perhaps, but was there any other kind in wartime?
Only a few days later, the woman in question stood in the office before her mentors. She unconsciously adopted her most regal pose and fixed the Colonel with a stern look. "The preparations for France have just begun, and you want to send me to the middle of the desert."
Walker-Smythe cleared his throat, but it was al-Masri who spoke first. "Have you ever been to the desert, Susan?"
Her gaze sharpened. "There is no possible way I could have been," she responded carefully.
Al-Masri smiled slightly. "A good answer," he said, "but that is not what I asked."
Susan weighed the implications for a long moment. Walker-Smythe nodded at her. "I have," she said in a low voice.
Al-Masri seemed to expect this answer. "And how did you find it?"
"I hated it," she answered bluntly.
Startled, Susan opened her mouth to ask why, and then thought better of it. It would not do to open that line of questioning in regards to her own history.
Al-Masri explained anyway. "It will be part of your first cover. You are a Frenchwoman from Casablanca. You had an affair with a German officer, and now that the city is behind Allied lines you find yourself a pariah. You fled Morocco, and are trying to reach him in Tunisia."
"That is absurd." Susan's voice was flat. "Who would believe a woman crossing the front lines to find her lover?"
"German, Italian… all the soldiers will help you," the Colonel offered. "Every man wants to believe a woman would follow him halfway around the world."
Such a specious argument from two men she profoundly admired – they couldn't possibly be serious. Could they? "Sir, I respectfully refuse this assignment." She waited, but neither man spoke. Susan winced. They were. "I cannot live such a cover. I would endanger the mission."
Finally, the Colonel spoke. "Why?"
When Susan was most upset, she always reverted to her first persona – the royal queen. "I would never follow a man into the desert," she said in a firm voice that brooked no argument. "Not for anything or anyone." Never again, she finished to herself.
The Colonel hesitated and looked at al-Masri before assenting. "Very well. Do you know first aid?"
Susan nodded. How many battles had she spent tending the wounded and dying until Lucy could arrive with the precious cordial? "I do."
"We'll make you a nurse, then. That should still give you some measure of safety behind German lines."
"Is that what this is about? Sending me to North Africa to keep me safe?" Susan's voice rose. "I did not join the SOE to stay safe, Colonel. That is hardly the most constructive use of my time and talents."
"On the contrary." Al-Masri held up his hand. "We believe you are uniquely suited to this mission."
Contrite, Susan sat back in her chair.
"Your cover story will have three layers." The Colonel held up a finger. "The, ah, love story," he said with a sour look at al-Masri, "was only the first. Anyone could pull that off. And we expected any reasonably intelligent opponent to see through it. But the nurse will do just as well, I suppose."
"The second layer," al-Masri put in, "is where your unique talents come into play. You were working in a hotel in Casablanca and found some papers a careless American officer left behind."
"Will they believe that?" asked Susan. "That's a horrendous breach of security."
"It's happened before," the Colonel said sourly. "Some idiot left secret papers in his breast pocket and sent the jacket out to be cleaned."
Indignation made her voice sharp. "That is unconscionable!"
"But useful," al-Masri cut her off. "You are an opportunistic woman trying to earn passage out of Africa. When you found the papers, you knew the Germans would pay well, so you set out in search of an officer you knew from Casablanca, with whom you had an… understanding."
"And concocted the star-crossed lover story," Susan finished, her voice dry. "How imaginative of me."
The Colonel coughed around his cigar.
"I trust the nurse's story will serve our purposes here as well," said Susan. Without waiting for answer, she continued. "And the third layer?"
"How did you know there were three?" Al-Masri seemed genuinely curious.
"The Rule of Threes," Walker-Smythe interjected. He glanced at Susan. "One incident is an anomaly, two are a coincidence. Three, a conspiracy."
Susan jerked her head in asset and said nothing.
"Indeed." Al-Masri sipped his tea, which must have gone cold long ago and could not have been much more than bitter water to begin with. "The third layer is both a conspiracy and closest to the truth. You are a spy sent to deliver this false information to the Germans."
Alarmed, Susan stared at him. False information? "Why would you tell me that?" It violated every need-to-know principle that had been drilled into her. "What if I am captured?"
"You're a smart girl," said the Colonel obliquely.
This labyrinthine thinking was not her strong suit; Edmund was the one with a corkscrew mind. So Susan approached the problem as a wolf following a scent. Prey would double back, cross its own trail, climb trees or swim. Edmund might live for these sorts of puzzles, but Susan was the one who had learned to hunt with wolves.
"If I'm captured, the Germans will know they have a second-rate spy with false information, pretending to be a French traitor or mercenary, traveling with various units as a nurse." She tapped her fingers on the desk. "It has enough layers to seem plausible. The false information must be destined to prod them into something," she surmised. "Like poking a grasshopper on the back to make it jump sideways."
Al-Masri nodded in approval. "An interesting metaphor. Very apt."
"So you need me to make mistakes."
"Subtle, believable mistakes. Yes."
"Do you need me to be captured?" Susan kept her voice even.
Walker-Smythe spat out his cigar. "Absolutely not!"
"They'll want you operating in the open, where they can keep an eye on you and pick up the breadcrumbs you drop," said al-Masri.
"And we have a man there," added al-Masri. "Someone who can be trusted if you need help."
"How will I find him?"
"If need be, he will find you. Proof of his identity will be provided if necessary."
Susan hesitated. But really, what choice did she have? It would be months before she could be of any use in France. And if not her, then someone else – probably a young woman who truly was little more than a girl – would have to go in her place. She could not allow that.
And Susan could do the job better.
The desert had ever been her adversary, but perhaps for once she could use that to her advantage.
"When do I leave?"
As it turned out, her departure was not quite as imminent as the Colonel had made it sound. Susan had time for several weeks of training – albeit intense, even harried courses that left her with little chance to see Tebbitt, al-Masri or anyone else. She half-suspected this was by design.
Two days before she was to leave, Tebbitt stole her away to his jeep, where they shared a cigarette and a long-overdue embrace… among other things.
As Susan wiped her lipstick off the Wing Commander's cheek, he smiled sadly at her. "What shall we do tomorrow? What shall we ever do?"
Unnerved by his words, which sounded so ominously like her own in Tashbaan, Susan pulled away from him.
He blinked at her. "It's T.S. Eliot. The Wasteland – haven't you read it?"
Susan let out her breath. The parallels, already too close for comfort, had her nerves on edge. Tebbitt should not be made to suffer for it. "April is the cruelest month," she quoted and shrugged apologetically. "That's all I know."
"Just as well. It's depressing."
Susan laughed shortly. "With a title like 'The Wasteland'? I'd never have guessed." She traced the line of his jaw. "Don't we have better things to do with our time?"
"Mrs. Caspian, I thought you'd never ask."
They did indeed find ways to pass the time. And two short days later, the night was black and Susan was on a plane with a parachute strapped to her back.
Near the Calormen-Archenland Border, 1002
The first time Susan saw the desert, it was springtime.
"Do not let appearances deceive you, Majesty," warned Wrasse. "The desert is an inhospitable place, especially for humans."
Lambert sniffed the wind. "It does not bother the Calormenes overly much. They are near."
Susan bent to caress the delicate petals of an unfamiliar flower. They felt like the thinnest parchment, or the fragile layers of a wasp nest. "It is beautiful, though."
Wrasse looked at the flower. "Yes, Your Majesty." The Panther's voice was expressionless, but her ears flicked back in disapproval.
Lambert glanced sideways at Susan in what she had learned was the Wolf's version of a sly grin. "We could bring some of these flowers home for King Edmund. Perhaps they would not make him sneeze."
Wrasse stiffened, but Susan only laughed. "Even if they only flower three days a year, that would still be too much for my Most Royally Allergic brother!"
"Are you talking about me?" Peter cantered up and dismounted smoothly.
As always, Dalia was at his side. Wrasse took the Cheetah's presence as cue to go stalk the perimeter. Cats in general were not fond of sharing space – even in the open desert. Although to be fair, everything seemed smaller whenever Peter was present. He had a way of taking up space even in the vastness of the desert.
"Not everything is about you, High King," murmured Dalia when she judged Wrasse was out of earshot. The Cheetah had a wicked sense of humor. Wrasse did not.
Peter grinned. "Really? I'd never noticed." From anyone else, it would sound arrogant. Only Peter could get in on the joke even when he was the butt of it. Susan would have envied him that, but it was just so – so Peter – that she could not begrudge him for it.
"I was talking about Edmund," she said. "Do you think he'd be allergic to desert flowers?"
"Only one way to find out!" said Peter cheerfully. "Who wants to carry a cactus home?" Susan's mare did not take kindly to the suggestion, but Peter expertly dodged out of biting range.
The search party – Susan adamantly refused to call it a hunting party, no matter it might come to that – was comprised solely of Beasts, humans and horses. The Centaurs, Satyrs and Dwarves were too easily identified as Narnians even from afar, but humans and horses could enter Calormen without it seeming like an incursion. They would take every precaution to remain unnoticed. However, should their party be discovered, the Beasts could leave their monarchs and melt away into the desert – a plan which had raised both hackles and vociferous objections. But to do otherwise would imperil the tentative diplomatic relations with Calormen. Narnia could ill afford another war.
Peter had likened the rebuilding of Narnia to a bridge, beginning with the footings and many more technical terms that Susan and Edmund quickly adopted for their Rat and Crow code. Peter was supremely unamused when he found out that "truss" now meant "impending princess." (It may have also implied a corset; Edmund's codes were always very specific.)
Susan did not like the metaphor of the bridge. It sounded too much like she and her siblings were trying to construct a country from scratch rather than restore what the Narnians had once had, before the Witch. Susan thought of the process as pushing a rock uphill – an endless, tiring task that absorbed so much of your effort that it became difficult to remember the purpose, until suddenly the stone was rolling downhill all by itself and it was time for a new task.
The stone had just started to gather momentum, Susan thought, when the latest crisis reared its head.
So many Minotaurs had sided with the Witch that many Narnians now feared the whole race. It was an unjust prejudice that the Four had fought to change. They had even hired a Minotaur as Cook at Cair Paravel, and had rejoiced to see that she was treated with all due deference for her station, skills and sheer size.
But now reports had arrived of a Minotaur running wild and savage near Archenland's southern border. King Lune had given Peter his blessing to try to retrieve the creature peacefully if they could – or kill him mercifully if he was beyond all reason or help.
They had tracked him to the Winding Arrow, across the river and into Calormen. Their task had become exponentially more dangerous with this new threat of discovery. And it was all the more vital that they remove the Minotaur as quickly and quietly as possible: the repercussions if he attacked Calormenes were horrific to contemplate.
Suddenly, Lambert's head came up and his tail stiffened. "Men," he said.
"Plural?" Susan's brow furrowed. She reached for her bow.
"And horses. Several."
Peter nodded to Dalia. The Cheetah sped off, a golden blur. Wrasse immediately took her place, almost shoving Peter into the shelter of a large rock. It was an oddly sculpted formation, like an ice cube tipped on edge and melting away at the corners. A hollow at the base let Peter scramble underneath it and almost out of sight.
"Lambert, the horses," hissed Susan. Her Guard whirled on the poor beasts, who were already quivering with the sudden tension. He snapped at the heels of Peter's mount. The horse bolted, and Susan's mare followed. She glanced at the Wolf. "I hope you know you'll be the one rounding them up," she whispered.
Lambert crouched next to her, bodily pressing Susan further underneath the rock. The hilt of Peter's sword dug into her side. Lambert's ears lay almost flat. Susan obeyed the signal and fell silent.
Wrasse crept so her black body was between daylight and the two humans. With luck, the Calormene patrol would see only shadow. Otherwise, they would have time to see very little else before the Panther leaped upon them.
Tunisia, March 1943
A particularly violent lurch jolted Susan from her musings. The British sergeant cupped his hands to his mouth. "Almost there!" he called over the roar of motors and the wind.
"Almost" turned out to be another interminable twenty minutes of jarring, bumping, scraping and several heart-stopping jumps across small gullies. Then, finally, the noise died and the two jeeps crawled to a halt.
"We're stopping," said the driver unnecessarily. He took off his helmet, revealing a shock of blonde hair that was surely too long to be regulation. Without the driving goggles, he looked even younger than Susan had first thought.
She struggled upright, uncurling stiffened limbs, and accepted his hand in clambering out of the jeep. She hadn't needed assistance in dismounting anything since she was just a girl, but her feet felt like rubber.
"Welcome to paradise," called the American sergeant, striding over from the other jeep to shake her hand. Despite the Australian slouch hat, Susan would have known he was an American from the handshake alone, even without the accent. Or the incredibly straight teeth. "They pay big bucks for this in Miami, you know."
Behind him, the two drivers rolled their eyes in unison.
"Régine Dubois," Susan introduced herself. The Colonel had done her the honor of allowing her to choose her first name. He had given her an odd look when she settled on Régine, but had approved her choice. It was just one more secret for Susan to carry, but this one warmed her from within.
"Right. I'm Troy, this is Moffitt –" he introduced the handsome, dark-haired British sergeant, "Tully," he pointed to her blonde driver, "and Hitch." The last man blew a magnificent bubblegum bubble and nodded amiably. He, too, was young. "Hitch, help her get settled. We'll talk over coffee."
Hitch took his red cap off and ruffled his hair. Sand cascaded onto his shoulders. "Welcome to the Rat Patrol, ma'am." Susan smiled at him reflexively, and filed the name away to reflect upon later.
"You'll like the Sarge. He's a good guy," Hitch said. "Just a warning – the coffee's kinda, well…"
No matter how horrible it was, coffee was likely a luxury for these men. "As long as it's liquid."
"More or less," he said with a grin. "You can't really tell the sand from the grounds." He deposited her single bag inside a small but sturdy tent and saluted before closing the tent flap behind him.
She knew they had to be wondering about her. A woman alone, dropped by parachute behind enemy lines in the remote desert – but so far they had proven too professional or too busy to ask. Susan took advantage of the few minutes of solitude to smooth her hair, take a deep breath and gather her wits. The past few hours had been a chaotic sequence of takeoffs, landings and harried scurrying away from patrols.
The easy part, she knew, was over. Now she had to gain the trust of these competent soldiers and ask them to help her to the nearest German-held town.
"You want to do what?" Troy and Moffitt exchanged incredulous looks.
Susan held her temper. It was a mad plan, truly – she did not fault them for their reactions. "I need to get to the nearest village with a strong German military presence." She sipped her gritty coffee and kept her face impassive.
"Why?" Moffitt lounged on the floor of the tent. He seemed to belong here, Susan reflected, even more than the others. He moved in the desert with an ease that reminded her of young Prince Cor.
Susan shrugged apologetically. "The details are classified. I have information to pass to a double-agent. He's a major with one of the local outfits. He'll find me, I just need a place to start and make my presence known."
"Listen, Dubois –"
"Régine," she interrupted. "Please."
"Régine." Troy looked uncomfortable. "The nearest town that meets your… criteria… is Azahara. The man in charge is Captain Dietrich. We know him, we've dealt with him before. He's nobody's fool. The second you step foot in that town he'll have you under surveillance."
"Good," she said in approval.
Tully, who had been watching the conversation like a tennis spectator, nudged Hitch's elbow. "Hey, you think I left her out in the sun too long?"
Susan leaned forward, inviting Troy's confidence. "I cannot give you details, Sergeant. But it is imperative that the Germans be aware of my movements. If your Captain Dietrich is as competent as you say he is, that will make my job easier. You'll have to trust me on that."
Troy's eyes narrowed. "Easier," he echoed. "Moffitt, she's one of yours – can't you talk some sense into her?"
Moffitt studied Susan. "Is there any point in my trying?" he asked.
Susan gave the man a point for perspicacity. She tried to let him down gently. "You have your mission, gentlemen. I have mine."
Troy hesitated. "If you get into trouble – and I mean real trouble," he said slowly, "you may be able to trust him, at least up to a point."
"Who, Dietrich?" She raised an eyebrow, skeptical.
Moffitt stepped in. "The S.S. stormed into a village recently. They not only violated a treaty, but they also abducted two neutrals and stole the entire supply of typhus serum. Dietrich captured me to exchange for the serum, but the S.S. commander was mad. Kept raving about how all was fair in war," he drawled. "All very melodramatic, I assure you."
Susan eyed Moffitt, who was surprisingly cavalier about the whole experience. "And this is supposed to make me trust him?"
"Dietrich left a trail for us." Troy shook his head. A wry smile tugged at his lips. "Led us straight to them. And… this is going to sound crazy, but we think he killed the S.S. commander."
Susan's eyebrows shot up. "Tell me everything."
Troy leaned forward. "There were three things. One: Dietrich left a Frenchman behind to tell us the whole story. Two: a water bottle, conveniently left at a crossroads, pointing the way. Three: someone shot that S.S. officer just in time."
Susan looked at Moffitt. "He was going to kill me and the nurse," he affirmed. "And then he was shot. Not long after Dietrich pulled out – just long enough."
"So you tell me," said Troy. "Coincidence?"
So it was to be the Rule of Threes again. "I quite see your point."
Moffitt nodded complacently. "So while you're there, see if you can find out what kind of champagne Dietrich likes, won't you? I owe him a bottle."
The men chuckled, their easy camaraderie evident in every glance and movement.
Trust, thought Susan, was such a fragile thing. How very unexpected to find it growing between enemies, here in the desert … a place where even friends might turn on each other.
Near the Calormen-Archenland Border, 1002
They spent all night huddled beneath the overhang of the massive rock. Susan was grateful for the warm fur pressed all around her. Intellectually, she had known that the desert was cold at night, but in no way had she anticipated the bone-chilling wind that penetrated even their little hollow.
The Calormene patrol had camped just on the opposite side. The Narnians could smell the fire, and whatever the Calormenes were cooking was making Lambert drool. Susan absently wiped her sleeve.
"If they don't move out by morning," murmured Peter, "we may have to give them a push."
Lambert lifted his head and Susan pursed her lips in mute answer. She tapped Peter's arm in the rhythm that meant we-understand-and-it-will-be-done. They had used this maneuver before: Lambert would steal away, hide himself and begin howling. By moving around the perimeter of the camp, he would imitate multiple wolves – and when Susan joined him in harmony, the illusion of a hunting pack would be complete.
Of course, they had never tried this trick against experienced Calormene soldiers.
Fortunately, there was no need to test it now. The moment the first blush of pink tinged the dunes in the east, Lambert slunk out from the recess. The snores of the Calormenes were thunderous, and Wrasse had been muttering dire predictions about trickery and knavery since midnight. But Lambert came trotting back, his tongue lolling from his mouth in a wolfish grin.
"They were really sleeping. I could have stolen the chicken bones from their fire," he chuckled. His voice was not pitched to carry, but Susan flicked his ear all the same. The Wolf trotted so close by her side that his fur brushed the back of her hand.
Susan could not imagine ever traveling anywhere without him.
By the time the sun crested the horizon, the Narnians were already out of sight and earshot of the patrol. Dalia had returned with the horses; she had spent the night watching and prowling just out of sight, but seemed every bit as fresh as their mounts. And she brought news: she had found splintered bones and hoofprints marking the Minotaur's trail.
"So tell me, dear brother," said Susan, striving for jocularity. "How does one capture a Minotaur?"
"Is this a joke?" Lambert's tail wagged. "Or a riddle?" Her Guard had an uncommon love of riddles. It was probably one of the reasons he got on so well with the Crows.
"Build a bull pen," suggested Peter.
"Take it by the horns," put in Lambert.
Dalia chuckled. "Or put a ring in its nose –"
"And lead it out to pasture," finished Peter.
It was all highly impolitic, and Susan regretted having started the conversation in the first place. She supposed it was like gallows humor, in a way, and tried to pay it no mind. Lambert picked up on her mood and fell silent.
"I know!" Peter grinned. "Build a labyrinth. Am I right, Su?"
But the joke fell flat. "I don't think they know that story, Peter." To be honest, Susan could not quite recall the details either. The myths of her homeland – or what she could remember of them – were a confusing tangle of memories seen as if through a fog. "Why don't you tell us," she suggested, "to pass the time."
Peter cleared his throat. His voice had deepened since they came to Narnia, and was developing a resonance that well befit a king. "Come now Gentle Beasts and Daughter of Eve that you might hear the Tale of the Minotaur's Labyrinth. To you I tell it, as I learned it from, ah, my elders, back generation upon generation. The Tale of the Minotaur's Labyrinth was told…" here Peter stumbled, and Susan realized she was not alone in feeling ever more distanced from her former life. Should it worry her, she wondered, that she did not miss the memories that were veiled from her?
"It was told in civilizations of old, in cave, castle and home and – and classroom, that we might remember and heed it. Good Beasts and Creatures of Narnia," Peter continued, his voice regaining its strength now that he was on firmer ground, "you shall stop and listen with your sensitive hearts so that all may know the Tale of the Minotaur's Labyrinth and its lesson. So harken to me now. It begins thus…"
And as they walked through the desert, Peter told of the birth of a monster with the head of a bull and the body of a man, the son of a queen and the punishment of a king who had offended the gods. The king Minos imprisoned this solitary Minotaur in a labyrinth, which was constructed with malicious care so that the Minotaur could never escape – and neither could any prisoners or sacrifices condemned as the Minotaur's prey. Theseus, a young hero determined to slay the monster, met and fell in love with the king's daughter, Ariadne. This clever lady gifted the hero with a thread for him to unravel as he navigated the labyrinth, so he could retrace his path and exit the dread maze upon slaying his foe.
"Thus was the Minotaur slain, the labyrinth traversed, and the hero saved by the foresight of the Princess Ariadne." Peter finished with a flourish and a bow to his sister.
"A pity I haven't any thread," Susan said lightly.
"You have your bow string, my lady!" jested Peter. "And your arrows to point the way. Surely that is enough to conquer any labyrinth."
"You sound like Leszi!" laughed Susan. "When in doubt, shoot it or stab it."
Peter muttered something terribly rude about "Sir Hairy the Horrid" which Susan pretended not to hear.
"I do wonder why Lucy persists in asking him to teach her swordplay. I worry about his influence," she confessed. "And his language," she added with a sharp look at Peter.
He pretended to quail under her censure. "Faith, good lady, I repent!" he laughed. "But I wouldn't worry too much, Su. Leszi generally behaves himself around Lucy – or maybe around Briony, it's hard to tell. And I'm sure he'd be happy to spar with you –"
"No, thank you," she demurred. "I do not enjoy swordplay like the rest of you. I much prefer bow and knife."
Serious now, Peter nodded. "I still think you would benefit from sparring with others – perhaps with the Dryads. You could use a staff instead of sword."
Susan swallowed her immediate objections and considered the advantages. A glance at Lambert was telling: his ears were pricked and his tail lifted high. Unlike the archery range, in the ring the Wolf could fight by her side. "I will consider it," Susan promised.
Peter smiled and was about to answer when a bellow cut through the thin desert air. Susan had an arrow nocked to the bowstring before the last echo died. The Narnians whirled around as one, the Cats and Wolf in front and Monarchs behind. And then they saw him: a hulking, horned shadow crouched just a few yards ahead.
Dalia and Wrasse began moving in opposite directions to encircle the Minotaur. Lambert stayed near, for Susan was vulnerable to close-quarters attack when both hands were occupied with bow and arrow.
Peter readied his sword and raised his voice. "Minotaur! I am your King. If you are in distress, We will help you. But We cannot allow you to harm innocent travelers."
The Minotaur raised its shaggy head. His fur was matted; cuts covered his torso. Susan could have wept when she looked in his eyes. They burned like a fever – all heat and no life. He growled wordlessly.
Sweet Aslan, Susan cried in her heart, can you not help him? She desperately sought words of hope and healing, but they fled like sparrows before the hawk. "Please!" Her voice broke. Susan nudged her mount forward. Lambert, ears flat, kept his position just in front of her. After only a few feet, her horse balked. "Please," implored Susan, "let us help you."
For a moment, the Minotaur met her gaze. His pupils were dilated, the whites of his eyes shot with red. The pain and despair in those eyes took her breath away. In that moment, Susan saw a flash of reason. And then the Minotaur roared in fury, and charged.
It all happened so quickly.
The Minotaur shrugged off Dalia's leap and bashed the Panther Wrasse aside. Peter charged and was nearly unseated when the Minotaur lunged at his horse, goring its flank with one horn.
And he kept running unerringly straight for Susan. Still she could not move. For how could she inflict more pain upon this tormented soul?
He had almost reached her when Lambert leapt for the Minotaur's throat. The Wolf hung there, fastened for a long moment, as Susan remained mesmerized by those haunted eyes. And then Lambert lost his grip, fell to the desert floor where he was terrifyingly vulnerable –
– and Susan finally loosed the arrow.
Its flight was true, and the Minotaur fell to its knees. The killing blow was Peter's, and Susan felt a moment of sickening relief that she did not have to let fly a second arrow.
She almost fell dismounting as she rushed to her Guard. "I am well," he reassured her despite the blood on his coat. They both knew he could easily have been killed. And it would have been my fault, Susan thought.
As it was, she had traded one life for another. The Minotaur who longed so fiercely for death that he might have killed them all in pursuit of it, in exchange for her beloved Guard. The gash in Lambert's side was shallow, and the blood clotted quickly.
The rent in Susan's soul, she feared, would not be so easily mended.
Tunisia, March 1943
She dreamed of a Rat creeping across the pitted stonework of a parapet. She came to the end of the wall and gazed out over nothingness: a long drop, and the desert waste. She gathered herself, ran to the edge and leaped–
Susan awoke, heart pounding. Sergeant Troy knelt by her bedroll, his hand covering her mouth. "It's time. Let's shake it."
Susan shook off the dream and packed her things. Medical supplies, small rations of dried food and a filled bottle of water – all marked as belonging to the German army. Moffitt, dressed as a Wermacht soldier, would drive a captured truck on the pretense of bringing medical supplies to the front, and Susan would be his passenger. Posing as a Red Cross agent would have imperiled that organization's efforts throughout the war, so Susan remained merely a French nurse, fleeing the Allied armies and trying to render what aid she could to the Axis defenders.
As they planned it, the truck would overturn in a gulley not far from Azahara. The Rat Patrol would pick up Moffitt and leave Susan to make her way alone, having burned the truck and supposedly buried the driver.
The tale of her courage and miraculous survival would be carried from unit to unit, and so reach the ears of her contact. This flimsy cover would be enough to satisfy people with small imaginations. Equally important, it would also be sufficient to intrigue the suspicious mind.
"Ready?" asked Moffitt. He hoisted her bag into the truck.
For a moment, Susan was filled with doubt. But this was the Rat Patrol. What clearer sign could she ask for? Regardless of her misgivings, she was meant for this mission.
And so Queen Susan – codename Rat, alias Régine Dubois – would go once more into the desert.