Work Header

Call and Answer

Work Text:

The day after her second-last exam, Elizabeth Hu walked home slowly under a glaring, off-grey sky. The humidity matched her mood, a kind of heavy unsettledness, the feeling that something was in the middle of changing but stuck half-way.

She didn't want to check her books for the answers to questions she hadn't been sure about. She didn't want to read, usually her favourite way to relax, because she liked to read non-fiction and that was too much like studying right now. She wasn't ready to focus on her last exam. When she got home, she stopped just inside the door, then unlatched the hatch to the roof space. With scraped fingers, coughing from the dust, she got down an old cardboard box filled with old paperback books, and paged through stories of adventure and magic from her childhood years.

Flicking through pages with uneasy irritation, as if shooing off insects that weren't there, she didn't find what she was looking for; it was only after half an hour of skimming that she was able to decide what that was. Excitement. Fantasy. Hope? Purpose. Not that she didn't have any of those things outside of books, but there had been a brief period when she had believed in knighthood and sorcery in a way it was hard to believe in careers and skills and hobbies. The stories were familiar, but the old feelings were a memory, not renewed.

She put the books away, and shouldered the box up the ladder again. Then she left a note for her aunt, who was napping, and went back out into the street.

This time, she walked south, past a group of large apartment blocks, until she reached a smaller house they overshadowed. Just inside the gate, close enough to reach without going inside, her friend Mridula had set up an old filing cabinet with no door, and two shelves' worth of books. Elizabeth stared at them, hoping for something to surprise her out of her funk, or just distract her until the feeling passed.

One book had gold-tooled lines on its dark blue spine, and no words. It looked too valuable to be sitting outside for anyone to take, but here it was. Elizabeth reached over the wall and edged it out with one finger.

The title So You Want to Be a Wizard was certainly a surprise.

Elizabeth opened it, wondering if she would find a story of quests and magic for a reader her age or older. Instead, she found small print, indexes, and footnotes.

Elizabeth closed the book and tucked it under her arm.

It occurred to her that she should have brought a book to swap for the one she was taking. But the cabinet was nearly full. There was no harm for now. Today, Mridula wasn't home - she had an afternoon exam. Elizabeth would come by to see her again soon, and then she could repay the book.

She walked home for the second time that day, under a lighter sky.


It might have been the same afternoon that Mariam Khoury walked down the street and stopped beside the same wall. The calendar would have supported this impression. However, someone who had read a wizard's manual would have had more confidence that it was the exact same book that Mariam picked up - even though that book was also half a mile away on Elizabeth Hu's desk, and even though Mariam read a title in both English and Arabic.

Mariam was not looking for inspiration. She was looking for escape routes.

She didn't mind the new apartment, even though it was so much smaller than the home she and her family had left in Lebanon. They were four floors up, and out the window was a long undulating stretch of suburbs, broken up with trees and hills.

Everyone agreed that of the apartment blocks along that street, the Khoury's was the nicest.

However, that meant that the others weren't so nice.

To go from home to the nearest store, she went down the stairs, and then across the lawn that bordered on the concrete where the washing lines ran from one fence to the other like an empty loom. The lawn was so scrubby and sad that Mariam imagined the concrete was slowly growing over it and would one day take it over, rather than the other way around. The day that they'd moved in, it had just stopped raining; carrying things from Mariam's father's friend's van to the elevator, she had glanced up through the empty lines each time she walked past, and imagined them woven in with the power lines that angled across them, high above, all distances collapsed, making a cloth of clouds.

Her parents believed that if you looked for beauty, you found it. But there was ugliness, too, that could be found quite easily without looking for it.

Two days ago, the middle of a Saturday afternoon, she had taken her little brother to the store. Just beyond the washing lines and the lawn, in the car park that was shared with the next apartment building, a group of men had been sitting in folding chairs with beer bottles beside them. She'd only glanced at them, half cautious and half shy, and held Imad's hand tightly as she walked past. She wasn't always good, yet, at picking out what people were saying in English in these unfamiliar accents, and she didn't try.

When she and Imad were almost at the street, the jangling laughter had turned harsher. There was a banging sound. She glanced back to see that one of the chairs had fallen on its metal frame. The man who had been sitting on it was swinging a punch at another, and the other men's laughter was something uglier now, a roar.

She ran, dragging Imad with her. For a moment she was scared he was going to jerk his hand out of hers and go in a different direction - he was like that lately - but he was scared too. Then she had to tug hard on his hand to get him to stop running, and he stumbled and kicked at her. "Stop it," she said.

"Were you scared?"

"No," she said. "I just didn't like them."

Which was, although she didn't realise it, the last lie she would tell for some time, because wizards could not afford to lie.

After they'd been to the store they had to go home, and Mariam had to figure out a different way in to the apartment to avoid the men near the washing lines. Back inside, she looked out the window. She could see other places that adults with time on their hands might like to gather. She decided to find them all in advance, and then find the other places, the shortcuts and shadows, that would allow her to hide as she went by. To run home.

Though it wasn't home, yet. And she wasn't sure it should be.

Her father talked of having a foot in the door, of making trips back to Lebanon every year. Mariam wasn't sure she believed him, but it hurt too much not to, because - leaving home! Leaving Jido and Teta. Which would be worse, to have left knowing they would never come back, or, for all the talk of temporary changes to shift into something permanent, so that they had gone forever without knowing it yet, and without saying a real goodbye?

But they were here now, she told herself. And whatever her home would be, she wanted to feel safe.

So she was not looking for adventure or purpose when she picked up her wizard's manual. She was looking for belonging and security.

The book offered her a promise, and required one of her.

Her feet planted on open ground, suddenly oblivious to the street that she had set out to map, Mariam Khoury declared aloud, "In Life's name, and for Life's sake, I assert that I will employ the Art which is its gift in Life’s service alone..."


Elizabeth took much longer than Mariam to declare herself a wizard.

She didn't put the book aside. After her last exam, she came home and opened the wizard's manual on her desk, fully intending to study it as carefully as she studied Classics and Accounting. However, she was unable to make headway. On the eleventh page that she began to read, the text distorted - into a black and white glitter that was as illegible to her as a QR code - and resolved itself into the Wizard's Oath.

She gasped in amazement. She couldn't help it. And then she shook her head slightly, and turned the page firmly, and read on - at least as much to make the book do its trick again as to gain new information.

By the third or fourth time, the novelty had worn off. Magic was real: very well. But the book was hiding its contents from her, and that mattered much more. This knowledge had value to her, and it had value that someone else had placed on it; and yet a promise she could make was equal to that value. All this made her curious - and wary.

By the third or fourth day, the book's pages were identical. They offered her only the Oath on recto, and a warning on verso: Wizardry does not live in the unwilling heart.

Or perhaps it was an offer, not a warning. Once she said yes, how strong would her no be? How much of a protection did unwillingness offer?

"How can I know what I'm letting myself in for," Elizabeth asked the book aloud, "if you won't tell me?"

The text did not flicker.

She sighed, and then she lifted her head, and recited the oath carefully, without mistakes, and without looking at the page. Her gaze was unfocused: she was watching for changes in the world.

It did seem that something changed. But later, all she would be able to say (even with the full power of the wizardly Speech's vocabulary) was that there was a difference in the light.

Then, like a thunderclap following lightning, something more obviously dramatic happened. Elizabeth felt a force as if an invisible hand had reached out and yanked on - her wrist? Or was it her shoulder? Or somewhere within her ribcage?

The feeling was sickening, but it passed soon. When Elizabeth blinked away her confusion, she was standing in the middle of a tight group of trees, and she could smell sea air.

The book had tucked itself under her arm again.

The trees were so thick that she could barely clear enough free space in front of her to open the manual - her manual now. Reacting pragmatically, she shouldered her way through the trees in the direction she was already facing. A few steps through, she reached a spot where the trees were not quite so close, and the canopy gloom had slightly lifted. She squinted at her manual again.

She had gleaned many spell-fragments while trying to get around the Oath. Should she try a spell for orientation, or a spell that parted the greenery in front of her? Should she try to borrow the eyes of a bird? She had some idea of what was happening: this was the wizard's Ordeal, a practical test that would confirm her aptitude for Life's Art.

After a moment, though, she snorted, and shook her head, and bent over the pages again. To find out where she was, it was just as practical to find out through reading.


Mariam, walking along the road, found that she was suddenly rushing, and yet trees and power poles were coming no closer. She stumbled. When she put out her hands to catch herself, sand pushed between her fingers. "What," she said in the Speech, a half-formed question that she hadn't meant to begin.

She didn't expect an answer, but the result still puzzled her. In the last week, she had read extensively from her wizard's manual, and whenever possible, she had read aloud, practising the cadences of wizardly Speech. The driest descriptions of theory or of the physical properties of the universe had felt like an exercise in power - not just reciting words, but reminding the universe of its own rules.

One of the first true spells she had learned was a trick to mask her voice, and the movement of her lips, when she read from the book in the Speech. Using this, she avoided attention from people in the vicinity, but only people - she could feel the world listening.

Not here. There was no echo to her query.

She looked around her at a shallow, pleasant beach; a stretch of calm water; a wooded shore. Behind her, trees clustered thickly at the edge of the sand. There was no one else to hear her, so she cancelled the spell that masked her Speech, and tried again.

"Describe yourself," she said to the grains of sand under her fingernails. Again, the words fell flat and discordant. It was as if she were a musician, playing the right notes but to the wrong beat. She tried again, unable to hear what she was doing wrong. Clumsily, she felt her way towards a phrasing that this world was receptive to.

When at last she managed to make herself understood, the sand sang back to her, too quickly and in too much detail for her to understand fully in turn. She caught the name of a mineral, in the middle of other words that were probably more minerals. She recognised the start of a complicated phrase describing the life of a mollusc whose shell had broken down to contribute to this shore. Then began a set of words, repeating over and over again but never quite the same, and Mariam realised she was hearing the story of every wave that had beat upon the grains of sand she held. If she stayed listening to this song, perhaps eventually it would also tell her of each photon of light that had reached the sand from its sun...

She looked up, reminded. The sun's position had changed. She had spent several hours simply listening to the sand's story of itself. She was tired, and thirsty. But she was also oddly relaxed. There was something different in the way this world answered the Speech, as if it were offering power along with information. When she spoke in her own world, the world leaned in; here, she wanted to catch the echoes more than she wanted to hear her own voice.

Then she caught the echo of a yell.


Elizabeth was trying not to feel daunted. Using the Speech was far harder than her manual had led her to believe. She was also still struggling through the thicket. Her only accomplishment so far was to locate a spell to guide her; but she was not sure what she should ask to be guided to.

She had asked the manual where she was, and it had told her Narnia, along with the name of a world that meant little to her, except that it wasn't Earth. Like the island she was on, it had a descriptive name of its own, but not a standardised equivalent given to it by sentient beings.

She had asked the manual if anyone lived on this island. Sentience not continuously present said the manual. Her best guess was that the manual was trying to tell her people came her on visits, but surely there was a less complicated way to say so? She scribbled a note in the book to ask it to save her question; she would come back to it later.

An Ordeal, Elizabeth knew, meant that the beginning wizard was presented with a problem to solve. But there were no people present to help. She asked her manual about recent changes in the island's ecology. She asked it to analyse such matters as soil acidity, bacterial diversity, and water table levels. If she was asking the right questions, the answers she got didn't indicate an environmental problem.

She learned the location of fruit-bearing trees and other edible flora. She learned the location of freshwater streams. She learned that there was a person-made structure on this island. The manual was helpfully clear on the fact that this structure was not inhabited, which made her wonder about the earlier vague answer.

When inhabited, the structure had had a name. The manual offered: Cair Paravel, castle, seat of High Kings and Queens.

Elizabeth shivered. It seemed she'd received her wish for knights and sorcery. But she didn't feel like a storied heroine; her manual had warned her that dangers in an Ordeal were entirely real. This would not be a tame fantasy.

The text shifted down the page. Elizabeth flipped back, and discovered that the answer to her question about sentient inhabitants had changed. There were people both on and approaching the island.

It took a few tries for her first first spell to catch and take hold in the world, but at least there was no one nearby to hear her mistakes. Then, when she uttered it correctly, the world listened. The trees in front of her parted smoothly, and Elizabeth went racing down the path she had drawn between herself and the unknown others.

She came to a shore. She saw two men in a boat, wrestling with a third, whose arms and legs were wrapped about with ropes. "Stop," she gasped, not nearly loud enough to carry; she wasn't much of a runner, and she was just catching her breath. It occurred to her that English might not be spoken here. She glanced down at her manual for a translation. One of the sentient lives the manual had informed her of was now listed as threatened.

"Stop," Elizabeth yelled across the water, using the Speech, with such force that the waves froze for a moment. Her own heart paused. The air grew dull - and then the world restarted itself with a judder. Elizabeth felt it like a kick to the chest.

The men in the boat looked over at her. All three figures were moving with exaggerated slowness, the word of Speech still in effect on them. But Elizabeth's command had worn off very quickly on herself; she doubted she had bought much time.

Then she heard steps behind her, thudding across the sand. A girl her own age was running towards her - and a wizard's manual was open in her hand.


Mariam saw a short, black-haired girl with wide eyes and leaves in her hair.

"Hi," the other girl panted. "Can you help? I think they're going to drown him."

This seemed to be an accurate description of the situation.

"I just used a spell that might work," the other wizard continued. "Parting the trees. For parting the water. Do you know it? Are you any good at this? I keep trying to say the words as they are in the book, but they don't take."

Mariam held up her free hand to stem the tide of words.

"The Speech is different here," she said.

The other girl nodded sharply. "Can you show me?"

Mariam had reached her. "Show me the spell," she offered, "and we'll say it together."

The girl flicked rapidly through her pages, and then held her manual out to Mariam, and stared off anxiously over the water, waiting in vibrating silence for Mariam to read. "I see," Mariam said.

"You start," the girl suggested immediately, "and I'll join in."

Mariam began to read. This spell described the waves in front of them - she was glad she had listened on the beach, earlier, and could now repeat what she had learned - and described myriad movements back and forward, up and down. It convinced a billion drops of water to change direction, and to create a new pattern, washing left and right, and further left and right again, drawing back from a finger of land that revealed itself as a line drawn from the wizards to the boat.

The words were heavy and slippery. Every time Mariam thought she had found the rhythm, it changed, because her words changed it. Mariam and her partner worked their way unevenly through the spell as if they were crossing a rope bridge, with the same shifts of balance beneath them as they made progress.

The boat rocked violently as the water swirled around it. The bound figure fell, but to land.

Mariam thought she had found balance within the spell. She gestured, not stopping speaking, and the other girl nodded, closing her mouth with visible effort and wrenching herself out of the working. She ran down the beach and out between the waves, in the unnatural valley they'd created.

The men in the boat, at least, were no trouble. They were fighting for control of their oars, and fighting to keep the boat away from the gap that had opened up in the sea. Dimly, Mariam saw them regain control, move further off, and then row in earnest; meanwhile, her partner helped the person they'd rescue to stand, and they stumbled their way back together to the shore.

"Hello," Mariam's fellow wizard said in English, "I'm Elizabeth." Then she repeated it, with more difficulty, in the Speech.

"Mariam," said Mariam, and Elizabeth grinned at her.

"Trumpkin," their companion contributed, "at your service, and much obliged to you both."


Elizabeth listened to the story that Trumpkin had to tell with little doubt, but with many reservations.

He described a land that had been conquered several generations back, by humans alien to the land. He explained that he was of the conquered peoples, the "Old Narnians," who comprised various races, although "sons of Adam" were to be found among them too.

Trumpkin's leader was Prince Caspian, a descendent of conquerors, who had apparently broken ranks with them. Prince Caspian had begun a rebellion, which his uncle, the ruling King Miraz, seemed poised to crush entirely.

The other wizard, Mariam, listened to Trumpkin's tale with a stoic impression. Elizabeth wanted very much to get her aside and ask her what she thought of all this. If they were on the same Ordeal, she must also be a new wizard. Since they both spoke English, she hoped they were at least from the same world.

And then, as Trumpkin explained about Aslan, who sounded like one of the Powers (or a wizard sufficiently steeped in service to them as to be somewhat indistinguishable), Elizabeth glanced again to see Mariam's reaction, and realised: she'd seen her before.

"And so ends the tale," Trumpkin was concluding. "Our rightful King blew Queen Susan's horn, or what goes by that name, and off I was sent to see if help would come from this direction. And now that we're here, I suppose I must ask you to help me find it."

Elizabeth blinked. Mariam's lips quirked, as though she had nearly laughed. "I think we're supposed to be the help," Elizabeth said uncertainly. "After all, we have magic."

"Yes, well," their new friend said. "That's a cheering thing and no mistake. But it's a war we're going to, and, forgive me for saying so, but you don't look as though you've seen much of its like."

Elizabeth looked down at herself: comfortable shirt, slightly scruffy jeans. It wasn't armour, but there were far less practical things she could be wearing.

She was terrified of the idea of using magic to fight a battle. But she was being offered an easy out, and she wasn't going to take it.

She opened her mouth to protest, and then closed it again. She wasn't speaking only for herself.

"The old castle, Cair Paravel, lies within these woods," she said. "Perhaps we'll find answers there."

But the castle was ruined and overgrown, and offered nothing to contradict Elizabeth's conclusion that she and Mariam were supposed to help Trumpkin - risking their lives, if necessary.


Mariam felt deeply uneasy.

She wasn't sure precisely what she had expected from a wizard's Ordeal, but she hadn't expected a battle, with people on either side.

Did you think it would be easy? she asked herself. Yes - she had. Not effortless, but not so complicated. The oath she had taken required her to guard and preserve life. Yet they had been summoned to a civil war. Was she supposed to weigh lives lost against lives saved?

Her grandparents had seen war; her parents had run ahead of it. They had left Lebanon, and thousands of Syrians had come in their stead. In the last few weeks before they left, the quality of silence between Mariam's father, and his father, had been terrible. Each had made a decision the other would not understand. No one had asked Mariam what she wanted. Mariam had been very glad of that.

She was picking apples; she was stirred out of her reverie by Elizabeth's voice.

"Aren't we supposed to ask?" Elizabeth asked, nodding to the apple tree. "I tried earlier, when we collected firewood, but I couldn't... I couldn't make myself understood, I guess."

"I couldn't either," Mariam admitted. If wizards had affinities, hers weren't with trees - but she had managed to get the sand to describe itself easily enough. There was a puzzle here.

To her surprise, Trumpkin snorted. "The trees haven't spoken since Aslan's time - if they did at all," he said. "There's tales of a time when they held a conversation as readily as a Mouse or a Giant."

"But they stopped?" Mariam asked.

"By the tales," Trumpkin said, "the Telmarines silenced them."

Another item to the discredit of the Telmarines, Mariam supposed; but she was wary of hearing a one-sided story.


When dusk fell, and they had a fire going in what had once been a courtyard, Elizabeth went to explore the hall. Painstakingly, she cast a spell for light. According to her manual, an overgrown wall hid a doorway. Remembering Trumpkin's words, she tried to speak to the ivy as a person, and persuade it to move aside, rather than taking physics as her argument in the Speech. Her words seemed to fall into silence, or static.

Mariam moved into the area her spell had lit. Elizabeth blushed.

"The Speech is so frustrating," she said.

Mariam shook her head. "It isn't meant to be," she said, and before Elizabeth could feel more than a mild spike of annoyance, she explained: "Back home, I practised. This place makes it hard to speak. It's as if..." she hesitated. "As if someone is already speaking."

"Yes," Elizabeth said vehemently. "It's like, uh, trying to step onto a road, but it's actually a conveyer belt, and it's moving too fast."

"It's a good feeling," Mariam said. "Some of the time."

Elizabeth looked at her. "By the way - back home. I know you, don't I? I think I've seen you. On Carlton Street."

Mariam looked at her sharply. "We just moved in."

"That's right," Elizabeth said. "My aunt's the English teacher. Miss Hu. She told me a new girl's joining the class when we come back from exams - that's you, right? It must be. You're from Jordan?"

"Lebanon," Mariam corrected her.

"Right, sorry," Elizabeth said, embarrassed.

She changed the subject. "The already speaking thing," she said. "When you listen, what do you hear? Because..."

"Yes?" Mariam said.

"It's ... dense, here," Elizabeth said. "In the castle. The manual records the same things Trumpkin told us, about the High Kings and Queens and Aslan, but you don't need to read the manual - it's in the castle. Telling you what it is. And what we're supposed to be doing here."

"Perhaps," Mariam said.

"Do you hear it differently?" Elizabeth asked, hoping she'd say yes.

She'd made a promise to the Powers to gain her manual, and she'd expected it would have to be redeemed in some way. And here was a castle; here was a war; here was a story about children, younger than she was, who had arrived in Narnia and fought against dark powers and come to be king and queen. It wasn't only a story written in the manual, reported by Trumpkin, and implied by these walls. It was a story that vibrated in the air around them, a past that mingled with the present. When Elizabeth listened, it seemed to be telling her what she should do.

"No," Mariam said. "But I don't think it's right."

Elizabeth swallowed. In some ways, it was worse because this was what she wanted to hear.

"Why?" she asked.

"In Life's name, remember?" Mariam said.

"I don't think," Elizabeth said, "it's always going to be that easy. There's so much power here -" and Mariam nodded, conceding that part. But Elizabeth wasn't sure how to finish.

"Are you saying we shouldn't listen to what this place wants?" Elizabeth said. "It's the Speech."

Mariam shrugged. Elizabeth couldn't blame her for having no answer. She only wished she knew which to trust - her belief that the wizardly Power must be earned, and she was being shown the way to do it, or her fears of risk and danger.


Both of them were quiet for the rest of the evening. They made camp in the courtyard, and slept on either side of an apple tree, and Mariam dreamed. She dreamed that the seeds of the apple that she'd eaten sprouted out through her body. It didn't hurt, but the tree grew around her, hiding her from sight, enclosing her in its heart. She dreamed that she could no longer move or speak, only listen.

She woke with the answer that she had been unable to give to Elizabeth. She got up, and walked out of the courtyard to the forest, and planted her feet on the grass where the apples fell.

She listened. There was the song of this place, a song of heroes and might and power, of courage and sacrifice. And once she had listened to it, and learned it, there was a quieter song beneath it, long drowned out. It was not a human song.

There was a time for Speech, and there was a time for listening. Having listened to her doubts, Mariam listened further. Far, far down in the world, there were other voices. Sleeping, but not gone.

It was not for two foreign wizards to decide which human, alien to this land, should rule over every other inhabitant. That was a decision for far older inhabitants to make. Mariam and Elizabeth were not here to be avengers, but to be an audience.

She opened her eyes, and reminded herself how to walk and speak, and returned to Elizabeth and Trumpkin.

"You didn't summon ancient kings and queens," she told him. "Nevertheless, we will raise you up a host to be reckoned with."

She held a leaf out to Elizabeth, and Elizabeth smiled.