Written for the 2015 Narnia Fic Exchange, as a gift to guardyanangel. Thanks to FiKate for her great beta work!
When Peridan was a boy, his father would take him on long walks beyond the borders of their village, until the red roofs faded away in the distance and gave way to trees. On the forest path, Peridan could hear the rustling of living creatures among the leaves all about them. And if he got frightened, or if his legs became too tired from the walk, Father would lift him up on his shoulders and carry him the rest of the way, until they came out on the other side, where there was grass and shining rocks hidden in the rubble of the mountains. Then Peridan would run about and add colorful pebbles to his steadily growing collection.
Sometimes Father would get distracted as Peridan played, and wandered a little way off from his son. When Peridan grew bored and went to look for him, he would find him standing at the foot of a long, winding road that led up the slope of the mountain and vanished somewhere beneath the mist. And Peridan would shiver, because the wind that came from the road was icy cold—a sort of cold that was never felt in Archenland, not even around Christmas—and he would ask Father what lay on that road beyond the mountains.
And Father would not answer, but look terribly sad, and then he would take his hand and they would walk away.
Peridan dug his fingers into the edges of the long table and tried to regain mastery over his emotions. The day already seemed to escape them, somehow, though the hours nowadays dragged themselves and brought only further dread. The sun would soon begin its descent, and still none of the occupants of the long table dared to speak.
Dorick the Red Dwarf sat hunched, as he had always seemed during the last week, bushy grey eyebrows drawn together in unspeakable concern. Beside him Lady Greenhelm, the dryad, ran a leaf through her fingers in therapeutic repetition, as Tumnus' sad eyes remained fixed on some far-off point beyond recall. Fireshank the leopard did not seem to blink, but his tail twitched nervously, and Nekea the minotaur's teeth were clenched together in pained distress.
"We cannot tarry any longer," Nekea suddenly exclaimed, and her booming voice seemed to rouse them all from a dark nightmare. "Narnia awaits beyond these walls."
Peridan glanced up at her words, but tried to keep his eyes well away from the space to his left. Four seats remained unoccupied and untouched. Small booklets and quills sat upon each; they would never be touched by their owners again. Peridan could not help his gaze, which lingered for a moment on the white booklet just beyond the seat at his side — though looking at it brought on another wave of pain and sadness along with the memory of the slender hands that had last touched it, he could not help himself, as if somehow looking at the Kings and Queens' possessions might help fix the harm for which there was no remedy. The absence of the Four permeated everything in Narnia.
"True," Dorick remarked in reply to the General, his voice sounding gravelly and unused, as if he had spent more time thinking than speaking. His gnarled fingers curled into fists over the table as he looked around at his companions. "The Council must come to a decision."
Lady Greenhelm replied in a low, melodious voice. Peridan had never seen her green eyes so sorrowful. "It is clear now that the Four will not return. No ransom has been demanded, no tracks found, and no testimony disclosed, Narnian or otherwise. They are lost to us."
Nekea let out a snort of anger. "This is clearly Calormene treachery. Long have they begrudged Narnia her far-reaching arm, and this would be but the last in a series of shameful attempts from the Tisroc to dislodge Narnian power and claim it for himself."
"He has made no claim," Peridan said in a low voice, though the memory of Prince Rabadash's viciously twisted face at the battle of Anvard, and of his leering stares in Tashbaan directed at one far too fair for him left a bad taste in his mouth.
"He need not! Narnia already stands at the brink of anarchy—with no organized rule, she is bound to topple and fall into the arms of whoever is ready for the taking. The Tisroc has only to stretch out his hand and he will claim Narnia for his own. He has no contender!"
"Which is why," Dorick said firmly. "We must discuss the future of the crown."
There was a deadly silence about the room.
Fireshank spoke up, yellow eyes looking around the table slowly. "Aslan has left no message; we have no orders as to how to proceed—and as it was He who bequeathed the rule to the Four, it is He who must choose the one to inherit it."
Dorick sighed. "Yet He is not here, and as such, we must proceed without Him."
Nekea huffed. "Too easily do the dwarves forget Aslan's mandate; who are we to decide who might rule? Nay, I say the Council must rule for now, until new wisdom is made available to us. Let us ride an army to Calormen; let us avenge them!"
"Do not throw about such vile accusations," Dorick growled. "Let the minotaurs not forget whose side they took during the Long Winter."
Peridan raised a hand, restraining his frustration at such senseless arguing. "Please, let us not waste time reopening the wounds of the past." He sighed and reached up to rub his eyes. He had not slept for more than a few hours at a time in the last week, and the weariness had seeped into his bones with unexpected thoroughness. "We know nothing of the fate of the Four, and jumping to such a conclusion could prove fatal to Narnia. We cannot ride to war. No signs point to Calormene treachery."
Fireshank's ears twitched thoughtfully. "Long have the centaurs come to us with prophecies concerning our time. The coming of the White Stag only fulfills what has long been foretold—the oncoming doom and the beginning of a Dark Age." He looked towards the window at the East, where clouds merged the horizon with the sea.
"When white beast fleds West,
and darkness rears its head,
the Age of Gold shall be laid to rest.
"So spoke Starbrow, Centaur of the Plains."
"And let us not forget that the Four themselves entered this world by the will of Aslan—perhaps by His will they have left it." Lady Greenhelm said gravely. "There is more that Starbrow spoke.
"Crowns Lion-blessed have been pulled through the Edge
to childhood ways; and the land need not mourn.
The kingdom yet lasts and its people are strong."
"Scarce comfort," Peridan said under his breath. "A kingdom might last, yet one may last in agony if need be."
They did not hear him. Nekea scowled. "You all claim this is the will of Aslan, then?"
Tumnus spoke up suddenly, yet did not look anyone in the eye. "His will is unknown to us. He is not a tame lion. We must do our best and hope good comes of it."
Nekea looked doubtful, but relented. Peridan met Dorick's eyes.
The elderly dwarf drew a breath. "The study of the Four has remained sealed since they left the Cair. No one was told of any existence of a Will, but as there is no guidance with which to proceed, it might be in our best interest to attempt to find one—or anything, really, that might give us a glimpse of what they intended for the future."
"You mean if they left an heir," Fireshank said, looking suddenly doubtful.
"We must hope that they did. In the absence of any royal offspring, even a note between them indicating their desire to name someone as their heir would suffice."
Nothing else was said after that, neither in agreement or in dissension, but they rose to their feet as one, chairs scraping against the stone floor with a sound that seemed to reverberate through the very walls of Cair Paravel. Peridan suddenly felt as if the room was much too large for them; only five were left of the nine who had once joined minds to rule the country.
Dorick took the lead, clutching his walking stick with a tightness that spoke of necessity brought on by sudden ageing, and Peridan brought the rear, trying very hard not to look back at the four empty seats, their tall backs standing like dark shadows, peering out the door like tombstones.
Peridan didn't think to ask what was beyond the mountains until he was already learning to wield a sword. Father was older then, and had trouble mustering the strength to carry any weapon himself, so Peridan would train with Lord Dar on the outskirts of Anvard, returning home by nightfall.
But on some days Lord Dar would send him off early, having some official matter or other to attend to, and Peridan would ride home as fast as he possibly could on his old grey mare, because it was on those days that he and Father could go on walks through the forest again, just like in the old days.
Now Father could not possibly take him on the winding paths they had once traversed, and certainly not carry him on his shoulders, illness having taken its toll much faster than any of them had expected and Peridan having grown much taller and broader; but now Peridan supported his father with his own arms, and together they crossed the forest and reached the grasslands. And then Peridan would persuade Father to walk just a little further, until they stood upon the slope of the mountains and could watch the sunset.
And it was on one of these afternoons that Father turned to Peridan and smiled a smile that was bittersweet. "My father was a knight, you know. Perhaps you, too, might partake of this honor someday."
But Peridan frowned, and looking towards the sunset-washed houses of his village and the distant towers of Anvard just beyond it, said: "But I am the first of our family to be squire to a King; His Majesty himself said so."
Father said nothing in reply, but turned to look at the mist rising over the mountains again with overwhelming sadness in his eyes, and finally Peridan asked: "What's over those mountains, Father?"
And then Father sat him down on some rocks and held his hand firmly in his own, for his words told of frightful journeys and it was easy to get lost in them. He began with the tale of the Queen Swanwhite who was more beautiful than any living creature West of the Sea, and the Hopeless Battle, and the beginning of the Long Winter—and finally, how Peridan's grandfather had escaped to Archenland with as many humans as could be saved from the Witch's wreckage. And now the ways to Narnia were shut, and they would never return there again.
"But your grandparents both were Narnian, and so we both are of Narnian blood, and though the land itself might wither, the worth of such heritage does not."
They sat there long into the night, and Father spoke of the things his father had told to him of, and described them in such detail that Peridan felt he could nearly see the colorful flowers on the banks of Beruna, and taste the red fruits, which were sweeter than any other in the world, and feel the green pastures moving about his legs as he danced in the company of Dryads, Dryads who lived inside trees, to the sound of the pipes of Fauns. He heard, in his heart, music that threatened to break it, and knew now the truth of real Beasts who spoke with the voices of Men. And Peridan looked up at the frost that lay over the chain of mountains and grieved that he would never know the world beyond it.
But as they walked home in the dim light of the forest, Father murmured a poem amidst the chirping of summer crickets.
When Adam's flesh and Adam's bone,
Sit at Cair Paravel in throne...
The study of the Kings and Queens was a vast chamber facing the seashore, with many doors, but all were locked. A young Dwarf awaited with the keys, which he handed solemnly to Dorick as they approached, and Peridan saw that his eyes were red from weeping. Without a word, Dorick unlocked the door and the remnants of the Narnian Council stepped through.
Of all the times Peridan had felt his heart sink since disappearance of the Kings and Queens, this one was certainly the worst. For while the rest of Cair Paravel had changed in the absence of its leaders, this room, shut off from the storm that had swept the exterior world, remained painfully ignorant of all that had come to pass. Strewn casually about the room were the possessions of King Peter, Queen Susan, King Edmund and Queen Lucy, accumulated through the fifteen years of their reign together and arranged just as they had left them—in a hurry.
There were the sofas in a small circle beside the window, where the monarchs often sat together to discuss matters of great and small importance, where they had invited Peridan a few times to join in on late-night discussion over cups of steaming tea—in older years he had heard them say that it reminded them of home, though Peridan never knew what home they spoke of—, and some hoods still hung from a hatstand, as if their masters and mistresses might arrive at any moment and pluck them from their place. Only the empty hooks beside the door stood in recognition of their absence, for they had borne the cloaks the Four had worn when they left for the hunt. It was with a jolt that Peridan realized that this was the last room they had occupied before the news of the White Stag had reached them.
Stacks of papers were arranged in King Edmund's fitfully specific manner upon his desk, untouched by any other than himself, and large illuminated books lay open on the large chair in one corner which Peridan knew belonged to Queen Lucy—she had been studying ancient history relating to King Alden's valiant exploration of Ettinsmoor. King Peter's books, exquisitely crafted by Red Dwarves under the instruction of Archenland masters, were stacked neatly over each other in an order no one but himself would ever be able to understand, and lastly—Peridan saw with his heart rising to his throat—Queen Susan's white slippers lay small and delicate on a rug near him, just as beautiful and gentle as their owner had been, in contrast to the heavy scrolls she had evidently been poring over. He could almost see her, her dark hair falling over the side of her face as her eyes studied the documents silently, her red lips pursed, until her glittering eyes rose from the parchment and met Peridan's, a smile spreading in her expression, illuminating the room; he could almost hear the way she said his name, and the lingering hope in his chest constricted him in painful agony. He could not bring himself to look further. He walked away from her slippers, from the place her blessed eyes had gazed upon hour after hour, and forced himself to focus elsewhere.
Lady Greenhelm was wiping her eyes. Peridan averted his gaze, too stricken himself to be of any comfort. The group advanced tentatively, seized suddenly by the gaping absence which hung heavily around them, as if the very room still held some remnant of the Four which had begun fading swiftly when the door had been opened, as if their presence lingered only a few minutes more and perhaps if they could reach out and grasp it, it would remain…
But there was nothing to be done but search, and as guilty as Peridan felt approaching King Peter's desk and rummaging through his friend and liege-lord's possessions like a common thief, such action was necessary, and to it they all dutifully recurred, slowly examining the documents on the desks and searching through cabinets and drawers. Fireshank went about sniffing the ground in some search understood only to him, but Tumnus stopped in his tracks, and he stood still beside Queen Lucy's couch, as if unable to move.
They found nothing.
It was when Peridan was sixteen, only a few years after he had begun his position as King Lune's squire—a gift to Father on behalf of the Crown, as Father had once led men at the forefront of the attack on Lord Bar's ship, after the Crown Prince's terrible kidnapping—that the news came to Archenland.
At supper Peridan was finally given leave, and he rushed home at a gallop, where Father sat by the door whittling away at a block of wood—carving was his only occupation nowadays.
"Father!" Peridan cried breathlessly from the top of the lane, not bothering to reach the house properly before announcing the news and dismounting before the horse had even stopped. "Father, Narnia has been saved! The Witch is dead! Four Kings and Queens—"
But he knew he didn't have to end the sentence when his father stood upright, a shadow of his former strength returning to him, and as he reached Peridan and clutched his arm, looking up at the line of mountains Northwards where the mist was now gone and green pastures had begun to spread, Peridan saw tears in his eyes.
By the time they left the study emptyhanded, Peridan felt exhausted, as if they had been engaged in battle for days with little rest. As the Council disbanded and went to tend to their own matters at twilight, he found himself in the kitchens. It seemed such a trivial matter, to be hungry, when the entire fate of the kingdom hung so precariously. But he knew, logically, that he needed to be sharp of wit if he was to contribute anything to the Council meeting the following morning. Something about Dorick's eyes as he had passed him on the way out of the study had left an ominous feeling in his chest.
The cooks answered his request swiftly, though the servants' hands seemed to tremble even as they carried out their duties, and their smiles were strained with pain and loss. Many of those who now crowded in the kitchens had been of the Kings' and Queens' chambers. As he saw the same grief in his heart reflected in their expressions, Peridan knew he ought to say something, but what words of comfort could he possibly offer, when he could find none for himself?
He found Tumnus standing a bridge leading out from the palace, which looked over the citadel walls. It had been years since the Faun had lived anywhere near the Cair, but after the disappearance of the Four, none of the Council members had moved from the palace.
They stood together in silence, looking down the side of the citadel towards the fields beyond. It was mostly under darkness, but the full moon threw some light over the shapes of tents, and the glimmering of torches could be seen like flickering red starlight in the dark.
"It is curious, don't you think," Tumnus began slowly, his soft voice nearly disappearing in the breeze. "That I brought about the end, just as surely as I brought about the beginning?"
"I don't understand what you mean."
His goat legs shifted, arms crossing before him on the low stone wall. "When I was a young Faun, I found Queen Lucy—a little girl she seemed to me, and I nearly committed the unspeakable, being the traitor that I was. But her sweetness—it changed me. And so I neglected my despicable duty to the Witch, and for me she returned again, many times, until her brothers and sister joined her. And so the Four came to Narnia." He sighed. "It was not by my will, but it was by my hand that much came to pass, unknowing though I was at the time."
"I have heard this tale, though lately it has been spoken of less."
"I suppose they themselves forgot it. Little remains of Spare Oom in Narnian air, I have found. But I remember what she used to tell me, and the odd sound of the foreign words. Who knows what their world really is? But I was there in the beginning, and so too do I now witness the end."
Peridan turned to him, and in his chest hope stirred, though intermixed with grief. "Do you believe that they returned?"
Tumnus remained silent for a long moment, and it seemed to Peridan that he shared the same weight of despair that fought to overwhelm him. "I pray that it was so," he said quietly after a while. "For it is more comforting to this Faun to feel that what passed was the will of Aslan, creating portals through the worlds, rather than know that it was I who called them to a hunt that would claim their lives and doom our country."
"You cannot blame yourself for this. You did not know what would come of it."
"Yet here we are," Tumnus said softly, looking over the land before them. "And we must answer to Narnia."
Beyond, Peridan could see clusters of tents beside the Cair's walls, torchlight shimmering in the darkness. Before the horror of the loss of the Four, creatures from many surrounding villages had flocked to Cair Paravel seeking news that held the truth, and perhaps comfort. They received neither. Within the walls, the Council debated what must be done, while the citizens of Narnia camped around the outer walls in uncertainty. Doubt hung heavy in the air.
And in the darkness, it seemed to Peridan terribly like a siege.
King Lune turned to Peridan some weeks after the first company of Archenland ambassadors had ridden out to Narnia, the letter they brought back resting between his hands, the seal of the Lion and four signatures visible even from where Peridan stood. His kindly face smiled.
"Well, Peridan; wouldst thou come in service to the Four?"
Peridan did not know how to reply. He feared he had misheard the King. "But Sire, am I not in your service?"
King Lune chuckled. "Aye, and a well-tended service it is, which I value highly. But thou art of Narnian blood, and thy heritage lies in the North. The High King Peter has confided in me his need for experienced subjects."
Peridan had never thought of himself as experienced—he had only spent a few years in court, fewer than most boys his age, often felt confused by courtly etiquette, and forgot the names of various Lords and Ladies that somehow everyone else seemed to remember—but he could not refuse the offer.
He left Anvard along with six other men of varying ages, many of whom, like Peridan, had once had an ancestor or other who had lived in Narnia before the Winter. As he finally followed the winding dirt road that had once so drawn the eyes of his father, and risen up the slopes of the mountain to the gap between Archenland and Narnia, he suddenly felt a warm breeze, which wafted over him from beyond.
And the land that lay before him as he looked down was more beautiful than he had ever imagined. The green hills and trickling streams that shimmered in the morning light, and the distant flapping of birds' wings as they soared over forests of green trees that seemed to raise their branches in worship of the sun, and the glow in the eyes of the men around him, made him recall the look in his Father's eyes when he had looked up wistfully at the mountain. And something stirred inside Peridan, something foreign which he had never found in himself before that moment—a longing from deep within his heart, a call from his blood to go further, a call that was both a burst of song and a cry of heartbreaking joy.
He laughed aloud as they rode down the slope of the mountain at a gallop, and the chill breeze that filled his lungs made him feel as if he were breathing for the first time. This land was alive, it was thriving all around him; he could feel it as they approached the flowing banners of the golden Lion over the vast citadel near the sea.
And when he knelt before the High King Peter, touching his knees to the ground and speaking out loud his oath to serve Narnia with his life, and looked up to see Queen Susan, fair and regal in the Sun, Peridan had the distinct feeling that he was coming home.
"There is no heir."
"The Council can rule well enough," Nekea replied.
Fireshank bared his teeth and let out a low growl. "There has never been a Council in control of the kingdom; not since King Earfurth, and even then it was merely for a span of four days until Prince Lyre was found." He shook his head vehemently. "Narnia is not meant to be ruled by Talking Beasts, or Dwarves, or Dryads, or Minotaurs—the throne has always been for a Son of Adam or a Daughter of Eve." He turned to the minotaur, ears bent backwards on his head. "Do you dispute this?"
Nekea looked uncomfortable, and her eyes darted from face to face. Peridan's jaw tightened. "Nay, of course not."
"Then it is clear," said Lady Greenhelm, eyes flitting between the leopard and Nekea. "A King or Queen must be crowned. And he or she must claim the throne by right of blood."
"Such is the procedure in this case, yes," Dorick grunted, lifting onto the table a large assortment of scrolls which had been kept beside his seat. "However, it is more difficult to reckon nowadays, seeing as the Four claimed the rule through Aslan and not by blood. Few are left of the line of King Frank and Queen Helen."
"Yet some remain. Mostly in Archenland," Peridan remarked. "It was a subject of boasting among the Lords of Anvard—family ties were often weighed against one another." To be a descendant from Narnian royalty was a sign of a long family line, extending to the very beginnings of Archenland itself; or so said the people, though Peridan doubted most of them knew anything at all of Northern genealogy.
Dorick spread out various papers on the table, and they all drew closer. For it had been through much toil and pain that these documents had been salvaged from the ruin of Cair Paravel by brave Talking Beasts, following the conquer of the Witch. Few of them remained, but they had been completed by scholars that had escaped to Archenland and Galma and preserved some of the knowledge that was lost by the Narnians themselves.
"It has been through great effort that I ascertained what I am about to tell you," Dorick began, his mouth a firm line under his grey beard. "Queen Swanwhite had no siblings. Her child was murdered by the Witch. One of Narnia's greatest tragedies." He shook his head sadly. "Her father was King Ironmantle, whose brother, Prince Ivor, had three children of his own. One died early of a sickness; the other two perished during the Witch's conquest. One, however, did leave a son—a Knight of Queen Swanwhite's army, who escaped to Archenland with the last survivors of Narnian blood."
"An Archenland Lord, then," murmured Fireshank. "Few of those remain with the quality to rule. For all the ability in Archenland, I am loath to have a foreigner rule us."
"The Four themselves were foreigners," put in Lady Greenhelm.
"Designated by Aslan, not by blood," Fireshank answered. "But it matters not—such are the circumstances. What became of the knight? Does he live still?"
"Lord Jariden was his name, and he is dead," said Dorick. "But a son he had, and this son married a woman who is descended from King Allor's sister—and their child bears ties to the Royal bloodline on both accounts."
"Produce the fool, then," Fireshank said, and in a lower voice he grumbled. "Archenland."
"He is produced," Dorick said gravely, and straightening looked directly into Peridan's eyes. "He sits before you. Peridan son of Lorman son of Jariden, son of King Marron himself. On him lies the claim to the throne of Narnia."
The Sea stretched out before them like a glittering, shimmering banner. In the distance, the lights of Tashbaan still winked in the darkness, though most of the crew was now below deck, now comforted in the knowledge that no chance remained of being overtaken.
Peridan shut his eyes and took a deep breath of the salty air. He had not expected their venture to Tashbaan to end so dramatically; it had been a hard test to his wits, knowing as he did that much of the responsibility of anything that might come to pass fell on him as as one of the superiors in the embassy, ranked directly beneath King Edmund and Queen Susan. And the prospect of their journey ending as tragically as they had come to fear, especially in regards to the fair Queen…
Already he had been loath to make the trip, if only because it implied sitting for long hours in the company of Crown Prince Rabadash and witnessing his pathetic attempts at wooing Queen Susan—which he had already witnessed in Cair Paravel, earlier in the year. To watch men scramble to impress her had always been distasteful to him, but Rabadash's efforts irritated him with particular force. He was not blind to his own selfishness in such feelings—the Queen had no need for his opinion on the Prince—but he could not help it, just as he had not been able to help falling irrevocably for the strength of her will and the sweetness of her voice, just as he had not been able to stop himself from going wherever she might wish him to accompany her, no matter the toll it took on his heart.
He was tired; tired of taking interest in the Queen's affairs with such scrutiny, tired of feeling anger towards her suitors, tired of watching her give leeway to men who did not value her for anything beyond her rank and beauty, and mostly tired of feeling guilty for such emotions, which were not appropriate for a Lord to carry for his superior.
It was not that he was uncomfortable with his role, no—indeed, when the High King had appointed him to the Council, and indeed before that, when he had begun to realize that the Four counted him among their closest, most trusted friends, he had felt insurmountable pride and loyalty towards them. They had welcomed him into Narnia with open arms, and indeed he had been surprised to find the Four so close to his own age, young as he was. Growing up in their company had been a noble blessing.
There was a sound of shifting cloth and footsteps upon the deck, and he turned to find Queen Susan herself, joining him on the side of the ship, elbows upon the wood as she smiled at him as she always did. But there was a tinge of sadness to her expression, and a redness in the eyes that spoke of tears unshed.
"Well, we are off at last," she said softly. "And I expect we will all be glad to be home again."
Peridan bowed his head. "We will be glad when we see Her Majesty safe once more, in the comfort of her own lands."
She laughed despite the glistening in her eyes. "Yes, I do believe these journeys put nearly more of a strain on you than they do on me—and I am sorry to cause you all such worries." She sighed. "I suppose I hoped for this to be beneficial to Narnia; but then… I must admit there was likely some selfishness involved in my coming."
"My Queen is the epitome of selflessness," Peridan said, because it was true; even now, her concern was less that of a woman whose heart had been hurt and more that of a Queen concerned for her subjects. Ever her heart turned towards the needy at the expense of herself.
"Ah, but you give me too much credit, my dear Peridan. We all have, I suppose, a desire to be loved—even Rabadash knew this, to some extent, for he was able to wield it skilfully against me."
Peridan hesitated, not knowing how much of his mind would be prudent to speak. But finally, at the sight of a single tear sliding down the Queen's pale cheek, he relented. "My Queen knows that she need not leave the borders of her kingdom to find love—she is dear in the hearts of many, much dearer perhaps than she herself believes. The Calormene fiend may present gifts of gold and wonder, but your own subjects would produce that thousandfold, if they had the means to do so. Yet love has never been measured in riches or rank."
And the Queen smiled, not looking at him—which was probably for the better, for Peridan's heart's barriers had fallen suddenly and he was unable to hide the emotion in his own expression, for better or for worse. And she reached out and lay her hand gently over his, as a token of thanks, perhaps, or of knowledge of things that went unsaid.
The Splendor Hyaline sped forwards on the wind, and the lights of Tashbaan faded into darkness, and Peridan still felt the warm softness of her hand against his own, even after the Queen had left him. And he thought, as the rocking ship brought him to sleep, that Queen Swanwhite was no longer the most beautiful creature ever seen West of the Sea.
The procession that left Cair Paravel was a slow one, devoid of any banners or emblems. The likes of it had never been seen in anyone's lifetime.
Peridan stood at its head, yet no one besides the members of the Council knew the truth of his lineage and the burden of responsibility he bore. And even if they had, he thought, there would be few glances spared for him. There were more grievous things to think about, and the people of Narnia, once merry and thriving, now walked as exiles upon a desert, though the pastures were green and belonged to their own lands.
He was followed closely by Dorick and the other members of the Council, bearing the token grey cloaks over shining mail according to their roles. Behind them flowed a stream of hundreds of Narnians—Talking Beasts, Fauns and Satyrs, Minotaurs and Centaurs, Dryads and Naiads; even some Marshwiggles, Giants and Humans who had come from far away. All now knew what had become of the beloved Four, or at least what little was known by anyone. And in the midst of the uncertainty and fear that possessed them all, they took a moment to pause and mourn for those now lost to them.
His armour felt heavy over his body, for though Peridan was accustomed to marching into battle in full gear, he was not accustomed to this long walk with the weight of so much grief and sorrow on his mind. Already unrest had broken out in villages; fearful whispers went about of what had come to pass despite all their attempts to quieten such worries—murder, some said, echoing Nekea's fears of foreign treachery; others spoke of a desolating sickness that had come to pass; worse, some murmured that the Council had overtaken the rule and claimed power for themselves.
Yet the Centaurs had proved to be strong allies, leaving their homes to mingle with the people more than was their custom; for they had heard the prophecies that had come with the movement of the planets that year, and shared them with the frightened Narnians. And somehow, the crisis had been mostly averted, for when the enemy was Fate rather than a foreign army, national terror became national grief.
Now, all about the country, lines of Narnians flocked to Cair Paravel bearing offerings of flowers and other tokens in sign of mourning and devotion. For King Peter, King Edmund, Queen Susan and Queen Lucy had travelled far throughout their reign, and there was not one corner in Narnia where they were not loved for their sacrifice and long toils in the name of its people.
Peridan led the crowd around the walls of Cair Paravel until they reached the sandy banks of the sea. And then the clusters of Fauns and Dryads that had been carrying gilded rafts upon their shoulders let them down and placed them upon the edge of the water where the waves moved the slowest, and upon them were flower petals and twigs of all Dryad families, and precious gems of Red and Black Dwarves, and offerings of pebbles and carvings from the hands of the Talking Beasts; and the Fauns lifted into the air a mournful melody through their flutes, faces turned to the Eastern horizon, while all about them wept. It was a funeral with no bodies, and there was nothing to bury, but upon each raft was the crown of a King or Queen. Their prized gifts would be kept deep in the treasure chamber of the Cair, but their memory would be buried at sea, like the Kings and Queens of old.
Then the merpeople rose from the water somberly, taking hold of the rafts and bearing them over the water in a slow procession, beyond the hands of the onlookers. They would bear it as far as they could, until the sea itself took the rafts and they disappeared forever from the eyes of Narnia on the long journey to Aslan's Country.
And Peridan looked over the heads of the assembly of Narnians, tears dripping down his cheeks, for it seemed to him that there was no hope left for the country after the Four had left it. He had endured all too many funerals for such a short span of time. And as he saw the sandy beach stretching out for miles until the rocky heights, he prayed that he might catch a glimpse of Aslan walking upon the sand, as he had heard Queen Lucy describe often. Never before had he felt such a need to see His golden mane glimmer in the sunset. But Aslan did not come.
Peridan could feel his horse's breath running short; it was one of the older beasts from the stables, his own resting after the exhausting journey of the day before. He himself was not feeling quite in high spirits—his time in Archenland for the past few weeks, called by the sudden passing of his father, had left him weary—so he allowed the horse to slacken its pace slightly, sweating as it was, and took a moment to survey their surroundings. Around him, the rest of the court rushed forwards, much merriment in the air. Few of them noticed his hanging back. Even Borik on his pony trotted forwards energetically, barely sparing him a second glance.
They were now in the territory Peridan had always heard referred to as the Waste. They had just passed Tumnus' home, and Queen Lucy had made them promise that they would stop there for tea sometime after the hunt—the building was the last Narnian home for many miles. Here the foliage grew thickest, untamed and mostly uninhabited; it was attractive to the White Stag, no doubt, as it granted it cover.
"The poor thing must think we mean to kill it!" said a laughing voice, and he looked up to see the Queen Susan steering her horse back in his direction. She was windswept, cheeks rosy from all the riding, her red lips pulled in a perpetual smile. She joined Peridan's slow pace, and together they advanced through the thickening clusters of trees."I am happy you joined us, Peridan, despite the somber occasion."
He smiled at her and hoped some of his sadness did not seep through; she looked joyful, a rare occasion for one so weighed upon with responsibility, and his concerns were hardly of the greatest importance. "It does me good, I believe," he said. "Father would not have liked me to wallow. And indeed I did enough of that in Archenland. Narnia is a land for happiness, not sorrow."
"And he lived a long and plentiful life," Queen Susan replied. "I trust all matters were tended to? You do not require our assistance?"
"Two weeks was quite enough time to handle his affairs," Peridan said, and he let her pass before him as the road suddenly narrowed, trees thickening on either side. She looked over her shoulder at him, and he nearly forgot what he meant to say at the way her slender neck looked in the dim light. "I—I was able to sell the house, and the funeral was quite heartfelt. He had many friends."
"I am glad," she replied, and then the path widened and they were once again side by side. "Cair Paravel seemed strange to me without you about."
He grinned. "Quiet, and less bothersome, perhaps."
"Nay!" she laughed, and at the look in her eyes his heart seemed to stutter. She glanced at the path ahead. In the distance, they could still hear the voices of the others and the sound of hooves. "One would think they would have caught the Stag already! What keeps them?"
"It is swift. Precious things are not quick for the taking."
"True," she murmured thoughtfully. "What will you ask, should you catch it?"
He paused, tightening his hands around the reins. "A fool's hopes are of little worth in the memory of a Queen," he said with a grin. "It shall be a surprise to you, if we do overtake it."
Susan let out a little incredulous laugh. "Please, Peridan. Have we not been friends since we were but children? Your hopes—which are not foolish—are of the utmost concern to me. And even if we were not friends, then as a Queen I would still wonder; for a Queen must ask herself what a magical Stag might provide her people that the Crown cannot."
"Only foolish hopes," he repeated.
She seemed to grow serious then, and eyeing him rather apologetically spoke softly. "But I suppose I am being less than tactful—for the passing of your father should be enough indication of what you hope for, as his son."
Peridan shook his head. "Nay, I have no further wishes for my father. He has lived long, and chased all his own dreams himself."
She nodded and the somber mood lifted, and then she raised an eyebrow, smile turning playful. "Perhaps Lord Peridan dreams in secret of lands of his own, a place where he might rule. Perhaps he is too shy to ask what I and my kin could easily gift him—what we have always hoped to gift him, despite his constant refusal."
"Nay, my Queen!" he laughed. "Too long has King Peter pursued me on this matter. I have no desire to carry the weight of any land upon my shoulders."
"Then what is it?" she asked, and her joking mood seemed to pass, her blue eyes serious as she gazed at him, and their horses slackened their pace until they were merely walking. "What is it, Peridan? You are a close friend to me, and I value you beyond words. It would be an honor to find what might satisfy these hopes of yours, should you confide them in me."
And at the sight of the earnest expression on her upturned face, Peridan could not remain silent, and he could not lie—she was his Queen, after all, but beyond that, she was his friend, and even more than that… he loved her. And he could not lie. And so, hands clenched against the reins, he met her gaze and held it as he spoke. "I have not, for they are beyond the reach of even one as lofty as yourself. For I would ask for my own kingdom to rule as I may, and yet I would not wish to rule it—merely to have a name and rank worthy of coming before the Queen Susan and offering her that which I already have: a heart overflowing with love that surpasses the constraints of rank or title."
Their horses stopped. And it seemed to Peridan that something in Susan burst open, and he could see it in her eyes as she suddenly came to understand the full weight of the emotions that had rushed through his words, and she reached forwards between them and seized his hand tightly where it clutched the reins, warm against his skin, her lips parting to answer—
"Susan, come! You have fallen behind—Peter thinks we might corner it yet!"
King Edmund came riding through the trees before them, halting his horse suddenly at the sight of his sister and Peridan's hands. Queen Susan tore her eyes away from Peridan's and withdrew her hand so quickly that Peridan wondered if it had been a dream.
And though her brother seemed on the verge of apologizing for the interruption, the moment was lost, and Peridan's pounding heart could not find the strength to protest as Queen Susan rode forwards to follow her brother. But he met her gaze one more time, warm and changed, somehow—a promise of a conversation to be had later, perhaps, or even an assurance of some sort, an acceptance that Peridan did not dare imagine, for it was impossible, he had no rank to contend with before a Queen, but it made his heart light, and she smiled warmly as she turned to look before her, her dark hair flying in the wind.
When the funeral ceremony ended, the Narnians sat in small groups around small fires. Some wept quietly among the patches of grass and rocks, and some Centaurs and Talking beasts, mostly Beavers, gathered others to them and told stories of the great Battle of Ettinsmoor, and the retaking of Pebble, and the Feast of the Orchard, while the Fauns continued to play mournful music because that was what Fauns did when they were irreversibly sad.
Peridan listened to their tales, but half-heartedly. For the High King the Centaurs described, charging mightily into battle with a sword like lightning, was not the King Peter he had known for fifteen years; only a small fraction of him. The tales did not tell of his loud laughter, which would often startle the Cats and prompt his hasty apology; or of the sharpness of his eye when it came to the wellbeing of his subjects, of the way he noticed any unhappiness and strove to remedy it. No tales told of the Queen Lucy's regular visits to the Owls, who often kept to themselves and were easily forgotten, or of the way King Edmund often lost his sleep, staying awake until dawn to ensure that all missions, great or small, returned home safely.
No one left the beach the entire night. It was a clear night, the moon shining above with deceptively clear cheer, and Peridan pulled his cloak closer, sitting between Dorick and Tumnus. Food was passed around by a small group of Moles, but Peridan was not hungry.
"What happens if I don't want to be King?" he had asked the Council, his heart beating in short, quick spasms in his chest. "It needn't be me."
"Who else, then?" Fireshank had argued. "Someone who has never lived in Narnia? Someone who doesn't know its people, who hasn't fought under the Four?"
And Peridan had wanted to say that doesn't make a King, but could not, because he didn't know what did make a King. Father had never said anything about their blood descending from the royal line, but he supposed he must have guessed it, because what other humans would have lived in Narnia at the time of Queen Swanwhite? But he had aspired to be a knight and nothing more; yet now they wanted him to be King?
For the whole night, Peridan did not sleep, and though some Talking Beasts curled up on the sand and slept fitfully, and eventually the Fauns ceased playing their flutes and disappeared silently into the trees with the Dryads as dawn approached, to continue some ceremony of their own in the depths of the forest, still Peridan was awake. Tumnus was gone, and Dorick rested against a rock, his eyes closed. And so no one saw Peridan leave the beach, footsteps growing frantic as if he was being pushed forward by some irresistible force, breath choking his lungs as he rushed past the guards at the gates and entered the stables, mounting his horse and leaving Cair Paravel at a gallop without a word to anyone.
The sky was already blue-grey and the chill air only served to make his heart beat faster, but it was painfully cold against his eyes and the pain and grief mingled enough to make his tears come unabated, hidden in the darkness, silent in his gallop over the plains. And if the heir to the throne of Narnia wept into his horse's mane as the sun began its slow climb over the horizon, no one was awake to witness it.
He rode long uphill, until both he and his horse were tired and they stood at the very edge of the cliff where the Rush fell in sparkling tears to the land below, just as the first golden beams of sunlight hit the trees. And Peridan slipped from the saddle and onto his knees before the cliff that gazed down into Narnia beyond, and saw no banners flying over Cair Paravel—a sign of mourning and irreparable loss.
And he thought of Susan, tall and beautiful and worth so much more to him for her soul than for her beauty or title, of her gentle eyes and her love for all things that lived. And he grieved at the irony that he should gain the rank he dreamt of for her sake, at her expense; as if the Stag had heard him somehow, and fulfilled his hopes with evil intent. For he had never aspired to much in his life—he had come into King Lune's service out of a wish to make his father happy, as few things made him happy since Peridan's mother had died during his childhood; he had gone to Narnia to please his father and out of curiosity to see the beautiful land only legends had spoken of; and he had hoped to serve the Four faithfully, because he loved them. And as he had grown, he had served her because he loved her, knowing well that his dreams would never become reality.
Yet now he was to be given the title of King, to rule over those who had been his friends and colleagues, to carry a weight he had never desired, and lead Narnia from a Golden Age into a darker, much more uncertain one—because no one would ever be able to make Narnia as it had been during the reign of the Four.
Especially not one who was not decreed by Aslan Himself.
The Centaurs had predicted the beginning of a Dark Age, and their prophecies seldom went astray. Why had he been chosen to bear the weight of such a role in Narnian history, an unexpected King for a time of unexpected peril? But he could not possibly refuse, for the alternative might prove even worse for the country, and much evil might come to pass.
And even as he wept, exhaustion and grief taking over his body, he truly saw the land that stretched out before him. Beyond, the Sea rippled and glittered like gems in the morning light, and he suddenly felt his face awash with warmth, tears drying on his cheeks.
He had sworn to serve the Four, to protect Narnia at all costs, and give his life if necessary. Such were the oaths of a Knight of Narnia, which he had repeated before the High King himself. He had sworn his oath to the country of his forefathers, and that oath could never be broken. And if it meant that he must become King, if that was truly what Aslan was asking of him, he would have to find the strength in himself to do it gladly.
He rose slowly and mounted his horse, even as trumpets sounded in the distance and the banners of Cair Paravel were once again lifted. A new age had begun.
When Peridan first met the King Lune, he did not know his story. He had been too young to understand the tragedy of Prince Cor's kidnapping and the subsequent death of the Queen, so all his impressions of King Lune as a child were those he had in passing, when his father took him to court functions and he kneeled before the throne as he was introduced.
But after he became the King's squire and began to overhear the conversations that took place in Anvard, and saw the expression on the King's face sometimes when speaking of Prince Corin's childhood, and when he would accompany the King to the halls below the palace, where he would stay for hours in what Peridan learned to recognize as a tomb, he began to understand that something tragic had taken place many years ago, yet still held weight over King Lune's heart.
And when Lord Dar finally explained to him the truth—that King Lune had lost his parents and brother to famine early in life, his son to a kidnapper and his wife to overwhelming grief, Peridan was frozen with surprise. Because King Lune was possibly the merriest, kindest man he had ever come across, and Peridan could not imagine going through such a terrible assortment of tragedies in one's life and still find the will to do as King Lune did: entertaining guests, responding to his people's needs, designing the future of Archenland; and all in the face of such terrible sadness.
"How does he go on?" Peridan asked Lord Dar, wide-eyed before this new knowledge. "After having lost everyone?"
And Lord Dar put a hand on his shoulder. "He does," he said with a grimly. "Because he must."
Peridan could feel his hands tremble, and tried to still them by sheer force of will. Beside him, Fireshank flicked his tail cooly, though the tension in his muscles showed that he was also ill at ease. This was not an event of celebration; it was an event of necessity.
The walls of Cair Paravel were cold and silent, and the large crowd that awaited beyond was quiet. Peridan leaned against a pillar at the door, hidden by the shadows; he knew the people that would shortly bow before him—he had lived for a long while among the Red Dwarves, and often gone on hunts with the Dogs. His colleagues had been Ravens and Dryads and Fauns, and there had never been any distinction between them. 'Son of Adam' was a title not used often, except by Aslan, and occasionally in reference to King Peter or King Edmund. But now he would stand elevated beyond the friends he had known for all his adult life, branded with the mark of a King. The word still sounded strange uttered before his name. He felt like a stranger to himself.
There was no music this time, and when the trumpets sounded at Peridan's emergence into the hall, it sounded more to him like a battle cry than the melody of a celebration. No cheers were heard, no dancing could be seen—only the silent upright figures of line after line of Narnians and soldiers with banners held aloft, as Peridan walked slowly up to the dais in the Great Hall where his throne awaited.
There was only one throne now, and it was the throne that had belonged to the High King Peter. Peridan never thought he would think of it as his own. It stood like a silent monument to the dead in the very center of the dais, and Dorick and Lady Greenhelm awaited on either side, a box of black velvet near Dorick's feet. There would be no Lion to crown the new King.
Peridan could not bring himself to turn—not when the mantle he was now wearing stretched out longer and more intricately embroidered than anything he had worn in his life, and when Tumnus walked slowly behind him, accompanied by Fireshank, heads bowed in reverence. He did not know what to do with the eyes of all Narnia following him. As he passed Nekea, he saw her give a small nod—a concession, perhaps. A promise of allegiance in times of pain.
As he climbed the steps of the dais, and Dorick began the ceremonial words of coronation, Peridan seemed to hear the voice of his Father in his mind, as clearly as he had heard it on the eve before his journey into Narnia.
"This is welcome news—a blessing of the Lion! Your blood calls you back to Narnia, the land of our forefathers."
"Aye," Peridan had replied quietly, his head bowed. "But I do not know what the High King is like. What if I don't like it in Narnia? My home has always been here, with you."
"Son," his father had said. "Let go of such fears; what do they matter? You are grown now, and this duty has been appointed to you. You have done well in accepting it; it is not something one must run from."
"Do you think I can manage it?"
Lady Greenhelm stepped forwards, and Peridan knelt. When she placed the heavy crown on his head, he feared he might not have the strength to rise again.
"By the Lion's will, you will succeed in your service—if he has given you this gift, he will not refuse you the ability to carry it through. Go on, my boy. Go off and serve our Narnia."
Peridan straightened and stood tall, the crown of the rule of Narnia heavy upon his head. And the crowd assembled before him, hundreds of Narnians who had nearly despaired in the absence of the Four, saw hope in his eyes and were comforted.
As one body, all Narnia bowed before the King.
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