The Other Side of the Mirror
The Chronicles of Narnia is a seven-book series by C.S. Lewis. If you've never read this series, I highly recommend it. I enjoy the books as much as an adult as I did when I was a kid. They also work well being read aloud, as some friends of mine did with their son when he was growing up.
My story takes place in the 150 or so years between The Silver Chair and The Last Battle. I have to take something of a liberty here because on "our world", The Silver Chair takes place in 1942, and The Last Battle in 1949. But I figure, hey, Aslan can pull people from the future if he wants to. **grin**
All of the names in this story are my own creation except for Aslan, High King Peter, and Caspian X. The only countries Lewis ever really mentioned were Archenland and Calormen. He never said anything about lands to the west of Narnia and Archenland, so that's where my countries are. The Great Book is my creation as well.
One of the basic truths of Narnia (and an important story tenet for me) is that time passes differently between Narnia and our world. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the Pevensie children were gone for something like ten years, but when they returned, almost no time had passed. When they returned to Narnia a year later in Prince Caspian, over 1200 Narnian years had passed!
*** Chapter 1 ***
Even Michael admitted it had been a boring mission -- he and Nikita were to pick up a package for Birkoff -- in a boring part of a boring English countryside. Even the weather was boring. They had only been assigned this mission because it was a convenient stop on their way back to Section from a more strenuous mission, and Michael just wanted to go home.
"Michael, have you found it yet?" Michael could tell Nikita was trying to keep the whine out of her voice. Their pickup instructions hadn't been very precise, and this old country house was full of odd nooks and crannies.
"Nothing here, Nikita," he told her. After a few more minutes of searching, he found the nondescript-looking case that had been left for them. "I've got it. Let's go."
Just as he was walking out the door, Nikita called out, "Michael, I may have an anomaly."
"What is it?" Michael changed directions, and began heading toward her end of the big house.
"I'm not sure. A closet door just opened; it could just be a draft, or ..."
"Nikita?" He drew his gun and began running. Why couldn't she wait for backup? "Nikita, answer me!" He came to another in an endless series of hallways. "Birkoff!"
"Yeah, Michael. I was just about to contact you -- Nikita's disappeared off my scope!"
"How close am I to her last position?"
"Pretty close," and Birkoff directed him until Michael found himself in a bedroom containing an armoire with an open door.
Hearing her voice, he immediately jumped through the open doorway. He was astonished to realize he couldn't see the back of the armoire. "Nikita?" There were some racks of rather musty old coats, as well as some old linens. As he pushed them aside, he was relieved to see his wife. The lighting was dim, but he didn't need much to make out the perplexed look on her face.
"What is it?" he asked.
"Do you feel that draft?"
He held his hand up. "Yes. Where is it coming from?"
"That's just it! I can't seem to find the back of this thing. I didn't want to go too much further in until you came, but I don't see any way the armoire could be extending this far back!"
Both of them heard the noise and froze. Looking farther in, Michael saw a faint outline of a door. He pointed it out to Nikita, and silently, they crept through the rows of coats and furs until they reached the mysterious door. Motioning for her to cover him, he pulled open the door and dashed through.
And stopped in astonishment. Then he almost fell as Nikita came crashing into his back. He regained his balance and looked about in amazement. She did the same.
Somehow they were outside, even though Michael knew the closet had faced into the interior of the house. It was also a bright spring-like day, although it had been raining all morning. Neither of those was the strangest thing, however.
"Good morning! We've been expecting you!" a deep voice called out to them. A deep voice belonging to a centaur.
*** Chapter 2 ***
Even Michael's customary aplomb was shaken, but he still managed to find his voice before Nikita. "You've been expecting us?"
"Well, we certainly weren't just going to stand around here all day, hoping some stranger would walk by!" piped up a small stocky figure coming out from behind the centaur.
"Now, Ripplestick, don't be rude! I'm sure this must be quite a surprise for them." The centaur turned back to Michael and Nikita and smiled rather gravely at them. "Now I'm being rude. I should have introduced myself. My name is Winterstorm, and my dwarf friend here is Ripplestick. Yes, we centaurs knew you were coming because we study the stars, and they foretold your appearance."
Michael and Nikita just stared at the strange pair.
Winterstorm continued, "Unfortunately, they didn't give us your names. You are ...?"
Startled, Michael introduced himself and Nikita to the centaur and the ... dwarf. Ripplestick held out his hand to Michael for a handshake. Michael moved to put his gun away, and discovered an additional shock -- his gun was gone! He managed to control his start long enough to shake the dwarf's hand politely, but he then turned to Nikita to see that she also had been deprived of her gun. Michael didn't know how it could have happened -- he had been holding it when he walked through the door, but somehow it disappeared!
As Michael and Nikita were trying to come to grasp with their disappearing guns, two saddled horses trotted up to join Winterstorm. He spoke to them briefly, and then turned to Michael and Nikita.
"I know you have many questions, so I want you to ride with us to speak with our king. Hana and Brin have agreed to carry you."
"They've agreed?" Nikita questioned.
A dark gray stallion walked up to Michael and nodded his head in introduction. "My name is Brin. Have you ever ridden before?"
After having established that Michael could ride, but Nikita had never been on a horse, Michael assisted her up on Hana, a light gray dappled mare. As they rode off, Hana and Brin gave Nikita riding instructions from a horse's perspective. Neither horse wore a bridle, which made sense when Michael thought about it. The centaur jogged along beside them, although the dwarf had gone back into the woods. Michael tried to question Winterstorm, but the centaur just smiled solemnly and said all Michael's questions would be answered at the palace.
After riding for about an hour, the small party stopped at a bluff overlooking a coastline. A fairy-tale castle perched on the rocks that led down to the water, the sunlight sparkling off the diamond-paned windows in the turrets.
"So, that's the castle?" Nikita asked rhetorically.
The centaur answered anyway, "Yes, that's Cair Paravel, the home of King Darian of Narnia."
*** Chapter 3 ***
Winterstorm had just led Michael and Nikita through the open gates of the wall surrounding the castle when a young woman came running up the path to greet them. As she drew nearer, they could see she was a lovely girl, about seventeen or eighteen, with long dark hair. Her long skirts flared out behind her as she ran.
"Winterstorm! You found them!" she called out in delight as she halted in front of them.
"Yes, your Highness. May I present Michael and Nikita? This is Princess Darissa, the king's sister."
Michael and Nikita nodded in greeting. Michael dismounted and helped Nikita dismount and steadied her on her feet once more. Winterstorm told them that the Princess would take them in from here, and bid them good-bye. They then turned to the Princess.
"Oh, I'm so glad you're here!" she exclaimed as she led them through the palace grounds and into the palace itself. "I know this must be very confusing for you right now, but I'll try to make you as comfortable as I can. Let me give you some background information first."
She paused to collect her thoughts, "You are in the country of Narnia. I know from reading our histories that things must seem very different to you. I see you've met two talking horses; they are not the only animals in Narnia that can talk. Humans, animals, dwarves, centaurs, all sorts of people live here; the one constant is that only a son of Adam or daughter of Eve can rule."
Michael and Nikita looked perplexed for a minute, but then figured out she meant men and women.
Darissa continued, "Periodically, people are pulled into our world from somewhere else. They usually come when we are in desperate straits, and they help save us. Shortly after the king of Mithrace began his attempts to invade and conquer us, the centaurs told us someone would come to help us." She looked at them expectantly.
"And you think that 'someone' is us," Michael stated in as neutral a tone as he could.
"I know it sounds a little foolish, but Aslan's ways are not our ways. We don't know exactly why you're here, or what he has planned for you, but nevertheless, you showed up at just the time the centaurs said you would, so ..." she shrugged as if the conclusion should be self-evident.
"Who's Aslan?" Nikita asked.
"Oh, that's right. You don't know Aslan, do you? He is the Lion, the highest of all High Kings, and Ruler over all rulers in Narnia. He created it, and it is by him, that we are given leave to rule over his creation."
"So, he's a god or something?"
Darissa looked puzzled for a moment. "Well, Nikita, I guess you could call him that, for lack of a better word. To us, he is just Aslan."
By this time, they had entered the palace and were coming upon a large entrance to an even larger audience chamber. Darissa turned to them, as she motioned for a middle-aged uniformed servant to join them.
"Severin, this is Michael and Nikita. Do you have their rooms ready?"
Severin looked at them, a small trace of astonishment showing up on his well-schooled features. "I'm sorry, your Highness! For some reason, I thought we were expecting two men, so I only had one room set aside. I will have another room prepared immediately."
But before he could turn and leave, Nikita put her hand on his sleeve to detain him. "Actually, I'd rather stay with Michael, if you don't mind."
Both the princess and the little man looked at her in shock. Michael, divining what might be bothering them, stood next to Nikita and put his arm around her. "Yes, I would prefer to share a room with my wife."
Ah! That got their attention. After staring at them with another well-bred look of amazement, Severin went off muttering about beds and dressing rooms.
Darissa grinned, "I'm afraid he's still going to change the room, but I'm sure it will work out just fine. Now let me introduce you to my brother, and we'll see about getting you settled in."
She led them through the massive doorway and down the carpeted runner. Michael and Nikita, perforce, followed her. At the end of the runner was a raised dais, upon which were set four thrones. Three of them were empty. The fourth was occupied by a handsome dark-haired youth wearing a rich-looking tunic and a gold circlet about his forehead. He had been talking with an elderly man when he caught sight of the princess. He straightened as he saw Darissa whisper to the rather gaudily-uniformed servant standing at the foot of the steps leading up to the dais. The majordomo nodded, and Darissa stepped back to stand beside Michael and Nikita.
The majordomo pounded his staff on the floor, and in a beautifully resonant voice announced, "Your Majesty, Her Royal Highness Darissa begs leave to introduce to the court the visitors Nikita and Michael!"
*** Chapter 4 ***
Darian was a nice boy, Michael decided. He was only a year or so older than his sister, but he didn't seem puffed up or arrogant about his position. Fortunately, he also hadn't seemed offended when Nikita didn't join his sister in making a formal curtsy. After glancing over at Michael, she had decided it would be more appropriate to join him in a simple nod of respect -- Darian wasn't her king after all, and mission pants had not been designed with curtsies in mind.
The king had spoken some formal words of welcome, and invited them to join the court for supper that evening. Now, they were being guided by Darissa once more up the stairs into the residential part of the palace.
"I'm sure Severin has your room ready by now. There is one other matter ..." she paused in some embarassment. Michael and Nikita stopped and looked at her. She continued, "I hope you won't be offended, but I've asked the royal tailor to join us in your room." She went on hurriedly, "Please believe me, what you're wearing right now is just fine, but I thought you might like to have a choice of clothing, both for tonight, and in the days to come. I know you weren't given the opportunity to do any packing before you came," she relaxed a little as Michael and Nikita smiled at her small joke, "So I wanted to make sure you had everything you might need during your stay."
"Room" hardly did the space justice, Michael thought as they walked through the doorway. Darissa led them into an entire suite of rooms. First, there was a small sitting/reception area; this led into the main bedroom, holding a huge bed set up on a dais of its own, surrounded by heavy velvet curtains. On either side of the bedroom, there was a smaller dressing room and bathroom. Both the sitting room and the bedroom had large fireplaces in them, and all of the rooms were furnished with tasteful elegance.
By the time the tailor was done with them, Michael and Nikita had been transformed from deadly Section operatives into a medieval lord and his lady. Michael was surprised at how comfortable everything was -- his knee breeches were made of a supple dark brown leather, while his white shirt and dark green tunic were woven of some sort of soft fiber or wool. Nikita's "princess" dress seemed to be made of the same sort of material dyed a brilliant royal blue.
"I can't get over how lightweight this dress is," exclaimed Nikita as she twirled a pirouette in front of Michael. The long full skirt belled out around her as she turned. "I would have thought all of this fabric would make the dress too heavy, but it feels just right."
"That's our special wool, m'lady," responded the chief tailor as he put away his pins and thread. "The centaurs raise the sheep; we put the shearings through a special process that makes their unique wool even softer and easier to work. I'm glad you like it."
"I love it! I never would have thought I could wear wool next to my skin and enjoy the feeling."
The tailor blushed a little at the unconscious sensuality in Nikita's voice and movements. Michael decided to take pity on him, and complimented him on the speed with which he had produced clothing for them.
The tailor blushed again, but replied forthrightly, "Thank you, sir. It's my job to make sure the royal family and their guests," he broke off to direct a small bow in their direction, "have everything they need. These informal clothes will do for this afternoon; by this evening, I should have some formal clothing available for you, as well as additional wear for the morrow. Good-bye, sir, lady," and gathering his equipment and his assistants, the tailor bowed and left.
Darissa, who had watched the whole proceedings with some amusement, turned to Michael and Nikita. "I have a meeting I must attend in about an hour, but before I go, would you like me to give you a quick tour of the palace?"
The two visitors agreed, and clad in their new finery, followed the princess.
*** Chapter 5 ***
About twenty minutes into the tour, Michael asked if they could see the library. Slightly startled, but not displeased, Darissa redirected them to a large room filled with bookcases and the slightly musty smell of old books. A small, bespectacled man (or perhaps he was a dwarf) came out from behind his desk to greet them. After the princess had performed the introductions, Michael broached the reason for his request.
"Would you have any history books I could read?"
The librarian, a dwarf named Jaravis, stared up at Michael in pleased surprise. "Oh yes," he replied. "We have several histories from which to choose. I'm assuming you're looking for a general overview, not any specific time period ...?" At Michael's nod of agreement, Jaravis, turned and walked back toward the stacks, motioning for Michael and Nikita to follow him. Seeing they had found sufficient entertainment, Darissa left them in the librarian's care.
As the three walked back among the bookshelves, Jaravis continued his comments. "Of course, almost all of our histories are based on entries from the Great Book of Records." Seeing their puzzlement, he led them farther into the back of the library. "One of the gifts Aslan gave High King Peter when he ruled here at Cair Paravel, was an enormous book. When Cair Paravel was abandoned after Peter's reign, the book was abandoned also, but when Peter came back to put Caspian X on the throne at Cair Paravel, he reintroduced us to the Great Book. Since then, it has been every head librarian's resposibility to care for the Book, just as it is every court historian's duty to fill it."
"What's so special about this book? Besides its size, I mean," Nikita asked in some astonishment as they first saw the huge book. Measuring at least three feet wide by five feet long and over a foot thick, the book lay open on a low table.
The little librarian continued his explanation in almost a hushed voice, "It's enchanted with two great spells. First, it will only allow the truth to be recorded into it; second, once an entry is made, it cannot be erased."
Michael and Nikita exchanged glances. Okay, it was hard enough to be walking around in a place with centaurs, dwarves, and talking horses, but they were trying to adjust. Now they were expected to believe in magic books?!?
Jaravis saw their disbelief, smiled, and handed a quill pen to Michael. "Why don't you test it, Michael? Write about your journey here -- and try to write a falsehood."
Michael tried. He focused all of his will on believing that he and Nikita had entered Narnia through a wardrobe in France, instead of England. He then stared in astonishment as his brain told his hand to write France, but his hand insisted on writing England. He then tried to write that Nikita had entered first; again, he found himself writing the correct version of events. No matter what he tried, once he decided to begin writing, he could not write a false or inexact account.
"That is fascinating!" Nikita exclaimed as she watched Michael struggle with the Book. "But what if I told you to write something down that I knew was false, but you didn't. Would the spell still work?"
"You have a very tricky mind, m'lady," Jaravis observed. "Fortunately, the Book somehow senses falsehood, even when the writer doesn't know it."
Eventually, Michael and Nikita left Jaravis, each with several books of Narnian history copied directly from the Great Book. They decided to forego any further exploration and returned to their room to read.
*** Chapter 6 ***
Nikita and Michael were immersed in their reading when they were interrupted by a knock at their door. Barin, the young page assigned to them by Darissa, poked his head inside to inform them they had less than twenty minutes to get ready for dinner. Nikita gave a short "Eep!" of dismay, and dashed into the bathing room. Michael thanked the young boy, and asked him to come back and escort them down.
After a flurry of preparation, Nikita deemed her appearance passable (Michael thought she looked gorgeous). Her gown was a slightly more formal version of her earlier dress, and Darissa had been kind enough to give her the hairpins needed to put up her hair. Michael's attire was also a more formal version of what he had been wearing before, this time done in a solid dark green velvet sort of fabric.
Barin, true to his word, showed up just in time to escort them down to the dining hall. The dinner itself was ... interesting. Michael and Nikita were seated across from each other, and their dining partners weren't really sure what to make of them. Nikita finally broke the ice by asking a question about some of the history they had been reading earlier, and soon, she had succeeded in charming them in her usual fashion.
After dinner, there was dancing in one of the adjacent rooms. The music intrigued Michael: there were definitely some Celtic folk tunes at the root of the music, but the Narnians had taken them in some entirely different directions. After watching the dancers do a round dance for a while, he felt comfortable asking Nikita to join him, and they took their places on the dance floor. Soon, the musicians struck up a fast-paced jig, and Nikita and Michael were caught up in it.
At a much earlier time than Michael would have expected, the King and his sister began bidding everyone good-night. As they approached Michael and Nikita, Darissa confided with a bit of a twinkle in her eyes, "One reason we always dismiss our parties so early is to keep people from getting too tired of them; the other is so that Dar and I can still make our ride in the morning. Would you care to join us?"
Nikita and Michael exchanged glances. "Sure, we'd love to!" replied Nikita. "What time should we be ready?"
"Around 7:00 or so. I'll have Barin call you. Did the tailor manage to get a riding habit for you, Nikita?"
"I think so. He left some sort of split skirt thing. Was that it?"
"Yes, that's it. Goodnight."
"G'night." Michael and Nikita responded. They then made their own way upstairs and back to their room. After they had undresed and were lying together in the big bed, Nikita turned in Michael's arms to look into his eyes.
"Michael, do you have a clue as to what is going on here?"
Michael began to chuckle, only stopping when he saw the faint hurt appear in Nikita's eyes. "I'm sorry, my heart; I wasn't laughing at you. I just found it funny that we've both been going along all day as if everything were perfectly normal when we both know it's not." His face took on a more serious look as he continued, "If we accept the basic premise that we are not hallucinating, and that all of these things really are happening, I think we also have to accept that maybe we were brought here for some purpose. From what we've read so far in the histories, people seem to come here for a specific task, and then leave. I guess our task will become clear in time."
Nikita snuggled back down against him. "Are you scared, Michael? I am, a bit." She paused as his arms tightened about her in an effort to comfort. "I mean, as bad as things could get back in Section, at least I knew the situation; I knew the ground rules. Here ..." she shrugged, "I don't even know the name of the game."
"At least we are together, my heart."
"Mmmm. Speaking of together ..." Nikita, with one of her quicksilver changes of mood, looked up at him from under her eyelashes, a flirty smile on her face. She twisted her hips against Michael, and was gratified to see his mouth open in response. He retaliated by cupping his hand behind her neck and plundering her mouth in a long sensuous kiss. When they finally came up for air, there was no need for any further discussion.
*** Chapter 7 ***
Michael and Nikita's first morning in Narnia dawned bright, clear, and chilly. They were awakened by Barin's attempted stealthy entrance into their room. Michael tried to reach for his gun, before remembering he didn't have one, and that his knife was in his boot across the room. By that point, he had realized who had come into their room. Next to him, Nikita stirred.
"Good morning, Barin," Michael called out to the young boy. He managed to pull the sheet over Nikita before she completely embarassed the child.
Barin, who had been starting a fire in their fireplace to cut the chill in the room, jumped, and turned around. "Oh! Good morning, sir!" As he looked, he suddenly appeared to realize that neither of his charges were wearing nightclothes. He blushed a deep red, turned around, and left the room hurriedly, calling out "I'm_sorry_I'll_be_back_in_a_minute" as he left.
Nikita giggled. "I guess we'd better get dressed before he comes back."
Soon, Michael and Nikita were enjoying a brisk ride along with Darian and Darissa. The King and his sister were good company, joking and teasing each other. Nikita and Michael found out that Darian had only been king for a little more than a year after the sudden death of their father. Their mother had died several years before after a long illness. Michael was most surprised at the security around the Narnian royalty -- there was none. When Michael asked about the lack of guards, Darian laughed.
"We haven't had any guards since my grandfather dismissed them all before I was born. There hadn't been any need for them in years, and my grandfather, who was a very thrifty man, decided he was tired of paying them to stand around and look important."
As they were talking, they had ridden along a path through a wooded area that opened out onto a lovely meadow. Something about the stillness of the meadow raised Michael's hackles. Looking over at Nikita, he could see that she was uneasy as well. By habit, they moved to position themselves on either side of the brother and sister. It was done so casually that neither of their charges noticed anything strange.
Suddenly, a dark figure on horseback erupted from the brush on the outskirts of the meadow. Before Darian had time to react, the stranger had pulled out a crossbow and fired at him.
*** Chapter 8 ***
Fortunately for Darian, Nikita and Michael went into action as soon as they saw the assassin. Nikita positioned herself in front of Darian while Michael kicked his horse into a gallop toward the assailant.
Nikita had planned to knock down the crossbow bolt before it reached Darian. She miscalculated slightly (not having much experience facing such things), and the bolt struck her in the right shoulder. Meanwhile, Michael had pulled his knife from his boot and threw it at the assassin. His throw was on target, and the mysterious figure fell to the ground with Michael's knife in his chest.
Both Michael and Nikita looked for a follow-up attack, but there was none. While Nikita continued to shield Darian and his sister, Michael rode up to the fallen assassin and retrieved his knife. He then heaved the dead man back on his horse, and led the two horses over to Nikita and the others. His heart leapt into his throat when he saw the blood on Nikita's shirt and realized she had been hurt. As he got closer, she gave him a look that let him know that although her shoulder hurt, she didn't think it was a very serious wound. By this time, Darian and Darissa were beginning to get over their shock and realized what had nearly happened to them.
When Darissa saw Nikita's wound, she exclaimed, "Oh! You're hurt!" She rode over to Nikita, who was starting to look a little shocky. Examining the wound, she called out to her brother, "Darian! Hold her up while I get my things!"
By now, Michael had reached them, and he took Darian's place beside Nikita. He was surprised at Darissa's self-possession, and asked, "Do you have any medical training, Highness?"
Muttering to herself as she sorted through her saddlebags, Darissa looked up at Michael's question. "Yes. I became interested in medicine when I was a little girl, and my father encouraged me in my studies. I handle all of the medical work in the castle, and assist the village doctor when necessary. Now, hold her steady, please, while I apply this poultice."
She applied a cloth to Nikita's shoulder, which still had the crossbow bolt sticking out of it. Nikita stiffened in shock at first, but then Michael was surprised to see the pain lines in her face lessen as he watched. Darissa studied Nikita's reactions, and after a certain period of time had elapsed, removed the cloth from the wound.
"All right. Now, Michael, I want you to hold her steady. I'm going to have to pull the bolt out, and even with the poultice, it will probably hurt." Darissa grasped the bolt and gently, but firmly drew it out of Nikita's shoulder. Nikita managed to hold still, but could not keep a hoarse scream from escaping her lips as the bolt came out.
As soon as the crossbow bolt was removed, more blood came pouring out of the wound. Darissa let it flow for a few moments, and then reapplied the numbing poultice. Nikita relaxed in some relief as the pain went away. Darissa then changed out the blood-soaked cloth for a fresh one and wrapped more gauze around the whole thing.
Realizing Nikita was going into shock and they would need to get her back to the castle as quickly and easily as possible, Michael dismounted from his horse and got up behind Nikita on hers. Supporting her and trying to keep her warm, he headed back to the castle. Darian and Darissa followed closely behind, Darissa leading Michael's horse, and Darian leading the assassin's horse.
*** Chapter 9 ***
In spite of the uproar their return caused back at the palace, Darissa and Michael quickly got Nikita up to their suite and into bed. Knowing Nikita was in capable hands, Michael went back downstairs and spoke to Darian about the assassin.
"I brought the assassin back with us in case you or anyone else might be able to identify him or know why he was sent. Do you recognize him?"
"No. I've called for the village sheriff and the army commander to meet us here; they'll arrive shortly. I hope one or the other might know something."
Several minutes later, two men came walking hurriedly up to Michael and Darian. After bowing to Darian, he introduced them to Michael. "Michael this is Sheriff Hartley and Colonel Formby. Gentlemen, this ... person ... would have certainly killed me if it were not for the actions of Nikita and Michael. Is there anything you can tell me about him?"
The two men examined the body carefully, looking through the dead man's pockets, checking his arms for any tattoos, looking for anything that might give a clue to his identity. Finally, they turned back to their king. The sheriff spoke first.
"Your majesty, I certainly don't recognize this fellow. If I had to guess, I'd say he wasn't a Narnian -- his clothes look to be foreign-made, and I don't recognize the leather of his boots."
The colonel spoke next, "I would agree with the sheriff, your Majesty. I can't say with any certainty, but it seems best to assume Mithrace is sending assassins after you now."
Darian replied, "You don't think it could be someone else trying to use our war with Mithrace as a cloak?"
Michael spoke up, "A local source would have more than a single assassin in place." He gave the three men a hard glance. "I do know that my wife was injured because of this person. I would suggest that you see to it that this doesn't happen again." Turning on his heel, he left the room and went back up to his and Nikita's room. Darissa was still there, bathing Nikita's face.
"She's running a slight fever, but that's to be expected. It should break in the next few hours, and then it'll just be a matter of trying to keep her quiet and still long enough for this to heal," Darissa commented softly.
Michael nodded, and walked around to the other side of the bed. Moving gently so as not to disturb Nikita, he sat down beside her and took over bathing her face. He needed some sort of tactile contact with his wife to remind him that she was still alive.
"While you do that, I'm going to get a fresh supply of medicine. I'll be right back," Darissa murmured as she left the room.
Michael nodded again, absently registering Darissa's absence. As he continued to focus on Nikita's still form, his vigil was rewarded by the fluttering of her eyelashes as she struggled to regain consciousness. Finally her eyes opened. "Hi there," he called softly.
"Mmmm... Hi yourself," Nikita replied muzzily. After a few seconds, she continued, "It's kinda weird -- I was expecting the pain to be a lot worse." Her voice gained strength as she spoke.
"Are you complaining, my heart?"
"No, of course not. She must have given me some sort of powerful painkiller, but I don't feel spacey or anything." She looked up at Michael.
Michael focused on her eyes for a minute. "Your pupils look a little larger than normal, but it might just be the light in here. You sound fairly coherent." He tested her forehead with the back of his hand, and was pleased to note that the fever seemed to have dropped completely. "It looks as if you're going to be fine. Now I want you to close those eyes and go to sleep. You need all of the rest you can get."
Nikita pouted at him until he kissed her, and then she obediently closed her eyes. Soon her breathing had slowed, and Michael could tell she was asleep.
*** Chapter 10 ***
After much persuasion, bribery, and cajolery, Michael was able to keep Nikita in bed through the afternoon and evening. As soon as Nikita woke up the next morning, Michael knew he was in trouble, and had Barin summon Darissa to see what she could do. The princess arrived in short order, examined Nikita, and decided Nikita could try spending a little time out of bed.
Not content with just being out of bed, Nikita wanted to continue exploring the palace. Michael managed to keep her restricted to the palace gardens, but even he was surprised at the speed with which her strength had returned. After an impromptu picnic in the gardens, he finally was able to persuade her to return to their room for a nap. The bed (and occupant) looked so inviting, he was almost tempted to join her, but reluctantly decided to continue reading the histories they had started the other day.
Darissa stopped by shortly before supper, and was pleased to see how well her patient was doing. Nikita had just awakened, and had begun pestering Michael to let her up.
"Actually, Michael, as long as she keeps that arm still, there's no reason she can't get up." She smiled at Michael's look of disbelief. "The medicine I gave her has taken care of the shock her system received from her injury; now it's just a matter of letting the wound heal."
Nikita immediately threw off the covers and bounced out of bed. Michael looked for any sign of weakness or dizziness, but saw none. Sighing in exasperation, he helped Nikita get dressed.
"I'll have Barin bring up a light supper for the two of you," said Darissa. "We've got some high-ranking diplomats from Calormen joining us tonight, and I wouldn't wish their company on my worst enemy, much less a patient of mine. I'll come by in the morning to look in on you, but don't hesitate to send Barin for me if you need anything before then."
Shortly, the young page showed up with the promised supper. Neither Michael nor Nikita recognized many of the dishes they were served, but everything was delicious. Afterwards, Nikita looked over at Michael.
"It certainly is a lovely evening, isn't it?" The sun had set while they were eating, and the sky was a deep, glowing shade of blue. A full moon had risen, casting a white light over everything.
Suspicious, Michael agreed that it was.
"In fact, it's such a lovely evening, I think we should go out and enjoy it, don't you?" Nikita asked.
She looked so enchanting, sitting there with the moonlight shining off her hair, Michael thought. He sighed in defeat, realising he was almost incapable of denying her when she looked at him like that.
"All right. But let's make it a short walk, all right?" he asked, rather futilely as he gathered their cloaks. Nikita rewarded him with a lingering kiss after he placed her cloak on her shoulders.
Somehow, he wasn't surprised when Nikita avoided the tame prettiness of the palace gardens, and headed straight for the beauty of the surrounding woods. The moonlight cast a magical glow over everything, and he allowed himself to be drawn along with her deeper into the forest. Suddenly, he realized the light around them was growing brighter. He looked at Nikita and saw that she had noticed it as well. As one, their steps slowed, but the light continued to grow in intensity. It also began to change from the silvery white of moonlight into something more golden, almost like sunlight.
Just as Michael was trying to decide if they should turn around and go back, something appeared before them. At first, the light was so bright, he could hardly see what it was, but as his eyes adjusted, he could make out what it was -- the largest lion he had ever seen.
*** Chapter 11 ***
The lion was huge, more the size of a horse than a normal lion. But as fast as Michael's reflexes were, the lion was even faster. He swept around them, blocking their retreat, and in a voice that was both gentle and fierce, said "Do not be afraid. You are not in any danger."
Strangely enough, Michael believed him, and he could tell that Nikita believed as well. Part of his belief stemmed from his certainty that had the lion wished to harm them, they would already be dead. But there was also something about his eyes, ...
"You're Aslan, aren't you," Nikita stated with very little question in her voice.
"Yes, daughter of Eve."
"Are you going to tell us why you brought us here?" she asked. For some reason unknown to Michael, she seemed quite at ease with the enormous beast. Nikita walked over to a nearby tree, sat down, and motioned for Michael to join her. He was too tense to sit beside her, so he compromised by crouching down and leaning against the tree. Aslan followed them and lay down in front of them, which relieved Michael's mind a bit.
"I brought you here to Narnia because you have skills my people need to learn. In fact, you have already begun to address part of the problem."
"You mean the total lack of security in the palace?" Michael guessed.
Aslan nodded. "I gave my people a land of peace, but it has always been essential that they know how to protect it from those who would destroy it." He shook his mane, "In recent years, the rulers have grown ... complacent and soft."
Nikita, whose sense of underlying conspiracies was of necessity finely-tuned, said "Are you saying you let that country, uh, Mithrace, invade Narnia?"
Aslan shook his mane again, and stared off into the distance. "I did not prevent it. If something is worth having, it is worth fighting for, as both of you well know. This war, painful though it may be, is necessary." He looked at them, and both Nikita and Michael were shocked to see the tears in his great eyes. He stood up again, and began prowling around the clearing.
"The two of you are needed to rebuild the palace guard to protect the king and his family. The army is in competent hands, but none of them have the training necessary to be bodyguards."
Nikita broke in, "They aren't paranoid enough, you mean."
Aslan gave a small growl, which Michael interpreted to be the lion's laugh. "Exactly. Both of you are sufficiently ... paranoid ... to train others." He growled again, this time Michael detected a hint of a roar behind it. "Unlike your current masters, however, I do not require any other, more ... intimate ... skills. In my service, you will fight only physical battles."
Aslan padded over to stand in front of Nikita. "I will give you a sign, both of my intentions, and so that others may know your mission is from me." He nodded at Nikita, "Rise, Daughter." Nikita got up. "Now, touch my mane."
Michael straightened in apprehension as he watched his wife lean in toward a creature whose head probably outweighed both of them. He was even more nervous as she jumped as if shocked when she touched the golden flowing mane. Before he could reach in to pull her away, however, Aslan bent down and gave her a featherlight kiss on top of her head. Nikita pulled her injured arm out of the sling and wrapped both of her arms around the massive neck as far as she could reach and hugged Aslan. She then stepped back to join Michael.
Relieved she was still in one piece, Michael held her in a fierce hug of his own. He then looked up to see that Aslan had left, and the clearing had darkened back to its moonlit state.
"My arm's healed!" Nikita told him.
"Here, look!" She pulled the neckline of her gown down and pulled off the bandages so that Michael could see. All that was left of her injury, was a faint pink line that he noticed only because he knew where to look. He stared at her in amazement.
"It happened when I touched his mane! I felt this, I don't know, tingling go through my body, almost like a mild electric shock. Then when I moved my arm, I noticed the pain was completely gone! That's when I hugged him -- or tried to, at any rate," she said with a small giggle.
He put his arm around her waist and started walking back to the palace. "I think we've done enough exploring tonight."
*** Chapter 12 ***
Michael lay on his back, staring up at the ceiling. Sleep had eluded him so far, although he could tell Nikita was sound asleep. He knew that tomorrow, Nikita would expect him to start working on the assignment Aslan had given them. She seemed to have no problem whatsoever accepting and believing Aslan, but it went against all of Michael's instincts just to do as he was told without knowing everything that was going on. His inability to lie to Narnia's Great Book had impressed him, and intellectually, he accepted that the writers believed Aslan's claims of benevolence, but he was too familiar with deception to take their writings as gospel.
As he continued to ponder, he became aware of another presence in the room. Before he could react, the presence jumped on his stomach, and revealed itself to be a large tan-colored cat. The cat, with the arrogance that comes naturally to the kings of creation, walked up his body to stand nose-to-nose with Michael. Green eyes locked with silver-green eyes in a staring contest. After several seconds, the cat, not conceding defeat, but realizing it had more pressing business, batted Michael on the chin with its paw. "Meh!" it stated forcefully, and padded back down Michael's body to stand on his stomach.
When Michael made no move to get up, the cat stalked back and batted Michael on the chin again, this time with a hint of claw. "Mehw!!"
Michael thought it strange that Nikita stayed sound asleep through all of this. He finally decided that the only way to get the cat to leave was to get up and see what it wanted. He sat up in bed, and the cat leapt off the bed and walked over to the door. The cat looked around again to see if Michael was following. Michael grabbed his robe, and with some exasperation, followed the cat.
As he followed it out of the castle and into the courtyard, he noticed that the cat was growing larger. The "cat" stopped. A bright light momentarily blinded him, and when he stopped seeing sparkles in front of his eyes, Aslan was standing in front of him.
"The cat ..."
"You still have doubts, Michael?"
"I understand," the lion replied. He motioned for Michael to open the gates, and led him back into the woods. After they had been walking for a time, Aslan stopped and turned to face Michael. "Do you remember when you were a boy, and you dreamed of being a knight like Roland or Lancelot or a king like Charlemagne?"
How did Aslan know? "Yes," Michael admitted cautiously.
"I want you to be my knight: to protect my appointed king, and defend my people." Aslan caught Michael's astonished gaze and held it. "Will you?"
It was impossible, Michael thought. How could Aslan know of the fantasies he had played out when he was a boy -- rescuing the princess from the dragon, fighting the evil knights, defending the king's honor. Michael could believe that most boys would have dreamt such things, but how did Aslan know to mention Roland, Lancelot, and Charlemagne?
The paranoid, suspicious, Section side of him screamed that he was crazy; the long-buried idealist didn't care. Feeling much the same as when he had decided to take the chance and marry Nikita, Michael looked into Aslan's eyes and said, "I will be your knight, sir."
Lions don't smile as such, but Michael knew Aslan was pleased. This pleasure was evident in his voice when he replied, "Look against that tree over there."
Michael walked over and discovered a sword leaning against the tree. He picked it up, drew it from its scabbard, and immediately knew the sword had been meant for him. The balance was perfect, the length was exactly right, and the grip fitted his hand flawlessly. The sword wasn't as massive as a broadsword, but neither was it a foil or a rapier. It was ... elegant. He walked over to Aslan and saluted him.
"Kneel before me, son of Adam."
Michael did as Aslan commanded; he held the sword in front of him with both hands, tip down into the ground.
With the rumble of a growl in his voice, Aslan spoke, "Michael, will you swear yourself into my service?"
Michael, remembering his long-ago fantasies, replied from his heart, "Yes, lord, I will be your man. I will fight your battles, and will keep your honor as my own."
Looking gravely at Michael, and still with a growl of authority in his voice, Aslan replied, "Michael, I take you as my knight. I will keep you in sickness and in health, and I will treat your honor as my own. This I swear by my Father, the Emperor-Over-Sea. Rise, Sir Michael." Once Michael was on his feet, Aslan leaned over, and much as he had earlier with Nikita, kissed him on either cheek.
Michael was surprised to feel tears running down his cheeks. He looked at Aslan, and realized that the lion had done something he had thought impossible -- Aslan had given him back his dreams.
*** Chapter 13 ***
The next morning, Michael woke and sat up with a start. He was suddenly afraid the previous night had been a dream, but as he looked at the wall near the bed, he saw his new sword leaning there. Lying back down in relief, he felt Nikita stir against him, sleepily muttering complaints about all of his bouncing around. He drew her close against his body. "Shh... love," he whispered. "It's all right, go back to sleep."
She muttered to herself once more and grew still. He thought about joining her when he heard the door open. Looking up, he saw Barin once more attempt to enter the room stealthily. Not wanting to wake Nikita or startle the young boy, he let the page set up the breakfast tray, light the fire, and leave thinking his visit had gone unnoticed. By this time, the noises and the smell of the coffee had combined to wake Nikita completely.
During breakfast, Nikita happened to glance over at the wall and noticed Michael's gift.
"When did you acquire a sword?" she asked in some surprise.
"Last night," Michael said as he bit into a biscuit. He chewed slowly, trying to figure out the best way to explain what had happened without sounding like a lunatic.
"Michael ..." she said warningly. Nikita knew a delaying tactic when she saw one. "Tell me."
"After you went to sleep last night, there was this cat ..." and Michael went on to explain all that had happened the previous evening. He told the events much as he would have handled a Section debriefing -- just the facts, nothing about what he had been thinking. He should have known Nikita would not leave it at that.
"Okay, Michael, Aslan asked you to be a knight and gave you a sword. I can understand that. What I don't understand is why you accepted."
"I ..." he stopped, still unable to explain the impact of what had happened. He saw the slight hurt look appear in her eyes as she saw him shutting her out once again. The idea of his continuing to hurt her, even in an enchanted place like Narnia was so distasteful to him that it overrode all of his hesitation. "I ... wanted to accept," he finally forced out. The hurt receded from her eyes as she saw that he was trying to tell her.
"Yes, Michael?" she asked encouragingly. "What did Aslan say to you?" Seeing his continued discomfort, she drew him up out of his chair and over to the large chaise longue. She sat down first, and motioned for him to sit in front of her. Wrapping her arms around him, she pulled him back to lean against her chest while she held him. Propping her chin on his shoulder, she kissed his cheek, and said, "Okay, now tell me."
Very softly, almost whispering, Michael continued, "When I was a small boy, like most boys, I dreamed of being a knight in shining armor. At one point, I think I even had a toy sword that I would wave about. I fought the dragons, saved the princesses, and always won the jousts. When I got older I read some of the stories about those knights. My favorite knights were Roland and Lancelot (because they were French). I also loved reading about Charlemagne and his great battles. Last night," he paused. "Last night, Aslan reminded me of those old dreams. He knew about Roland and Lancelot and Charlemagne. He asked me to be his knight."
"Why do you think he did that?"
"I don't know!" Michael burst out, suddenly angry. Nikita had put her finger on what was making him so uncomfortable. "If he knows so much about me, why would he even think about making me a knight?" His anger melted away into despair, "I'm no kind of knight in shining armor, Nikita; you, of all people should know that!"
"But I don't know that, Michael!" she said fiercely, holding him tightly in her arms. Before Michael could interrupt her and tell her how wrong she was, she continued, "You have been my knight since the day I was brought into Section." She shook him slightly he tried to explain. "Now, be still a moment, and listen to me! You're right, you're not perfect. Yes, you've done some bad things. But Michael, so did those knights you were idolizing! Charlemagne didn't conquer Europe just by saying, 'Pretty please.' He sent his knights and his soldiers out to kill other knights and soldiers."
Michael just shook his head, "I know what you're saying, but it's just not the same thing."
Nikita kissed his neck, and seemed lost in thought for a minute. When she still didn't say anything, Michael turned slightly to look at her. She smiled at him.
"I'm just tossing an idea around in my head." She paused another moment, and then nodded her head. "Aslan met with you again because he knew you still doubted him, right?" She didn't even wait for his confirmation before continuing, "Now you've told me he asked you to be his knight, and you accepted. Does that mean you no longer doubt him?"
Michael turned to stare at her in astonishment. She was right -- somehow the act of becoming Aslan's knight had removed his doubts. He doubted himself, but not Aslan.
"I thought so. I think that was one of Aslan's purposes." She smiled slightly as she felt him stiffen against her in protest. "I don't mean anything sinister by that, Michael." She paused, gathering her thoughts. "He promised to treat your honor as his own. That was the key phrase; he realized you needed the reassurance that he would use you honorably. But I don't think removing your doubts was his only purpose in making you his knight."
"What else could he want?"
"He saw the hunger in your ... soul, I guess. From what we've read, and what I experienced last night, I can say, without a doubt, that Aslan is good. That goodness wouldn't allow him to use us selfishly. I believe that he chose us not only for what we could do for Narnia, but for what Narnia could do for us." She felt Michael's skepticism. "I mean it. He could have picked any number of bodyguard-types. Why did he choose us? Last night, I figured it was just to give us the chance to be together for a while outside of Section, which was a big gift in itself."
"Now, I think Aslan wants to let you be the man you dreamt of being. Making you his knight is his way of letting you know he thinks you are worthy." She smiled at Michael's continued look of disbelief. "Look, I certainly wouldn't want to argue with him."
*** Chapter 14 ***
Michael and Nikita reasoned that the first step toward rebuilding the palace guard was gathering intel -- so they went to see Darissa. They found her in her office conferring with the palace housekeeper. After the housekeeper left, the princess invited them to be seated.
"Where did you get that sword, Michael? I didn't know you had one."
"It was a ... gift. From Aslan. Last night." The words were almost dragged out of Michael, but he knew it had to be done. He had made a conscious decision to wear Aslan's gift, now he had to pay the price.
"From Aslan? You've seen him?!"
"We both saw him," Nikita answered. She held out her arm. "He healed my arm."
Darissa insisted on immediately examining Nikita's arm, and like Michael, she was almost unable to find the original wound.
"What was it like? What did he say? Did he really look like a lion?"
"Whoa, slow down!" Nikita answered. She went on to relate how they had met Aslan, and what had happened. Looking over at Michael for permission, she also included a brief description of his later meeting with Aslan, and Aslan's gifting him with the sword.
"Goodness gracious! I wish I could have been there. So he wants us to have a palace guard again? That may be difficult."
"Why?" Michael asked.
"I guess I should say, it will be difficult to convince Darian to allow it. One thing that always amuses him is watching the foreign dignitaries parading around with their entourages of guards. He likes to point out how silly it is for all of those people to trail after one person. I used to laugh right along with him, but after that assassin the other day, I'm not so amused."
"You don't think the assassin's attack would convince him?"
"Michael, my brother is a 19-year-old boy." She stopped as she saw Nikita's nod of comprehension. "Exactly. Telling him he needs to be protected would be like talking to a brick wall. Worse, even if he agreed, he'd probably spend most of his time trying to avoid the guards."
"Maybe I can persuade him," Nikita said.
"Nikita ..." Michael said warningly.
"No, not like that, Michael!" Nikita smiled. "I was just going to remind him that the assassin could have had more than one target. I assume that once the king was dead, the assassin would've either killed or kidnapped Darissa. Maybe if Darian won't agree for his own sake, he might to safeguard his sister."
Darissa nodded agreement, "At least, it gives him a reason to agree without making it sound like he wants to be protected. I like it."
"So you wouldn't have a problem with my making you sound a little more frightened than you were?"
"Nikita, maybe you're used to being shot at, but I'm not. No exaggeration needed, I was terrified!"
"Okay then, that's our angle. Where is the king now?"
"I think he's in a meeting with one of the Archenland generals. I'll take you to him."
As the princess led them through the hallways, she explained that the invaders had made the mistake of trying to conquer Narnia from the southwest, through the fringes of Archenland's territory. While Narnia had been totally unprepared for the invasion, Archenland was not. Their patrols had intercepted the invaders early enough to prevent an easy conquest. Mithrace had not expected the level of resistance Archenland had mounted, nor had they expected Archenland to come so quickly to Narnia's defense.
"I don't think they realized just how closely our two countries are allied," the princess continued. "Archenland has always been our first line of defense against our human neighbors, and we have always protected them from the Frost Giants and other monsters in the north."
Archenland had held their ground against Mithrace, and bought time for Narnia to form an army. King Darian, sensibly acknowledging his inexperience in these matters, had asked Archenland's King Lor to continue to lead the combined armies, with a Narnian general available to help as needed.
"It's a rather weird situation, and I know some of our nobles aren't really happy with Lor's being in charge of the resistance, but I was so proud of Dar for admitting he didn't know what to do." She lowered her voice as they entered the doors to the study, "Anyway, as I keep reminding his critics, Lor's probably got as much Narnian 'royal blood' in his veins as any of us -- we keep trading princes and princesses back and forth so much."
She stopped before the inner door where a uniformed servant waited. "Dom, would you ask His Majesty if he can spare a few moments for our visitors?"
The servant nodded, opened the door, and walked inside. Soon, he reappeared, and motioned for Darissa to follow him inside. Michael and Nikita fell in behind her.
*** Chapter 15 ***
Gaining the king's consent to reform the palace guard turned out to be easier than any of them had anticipated. As Darissa had warned, Darian initially resisted the idea, but Nikita soon changed his mind after she pointed out that his sister was in danger as well. From that point, it became a matter of paperwork. Darian gave Michael an authorization for him to draw upon the Privy Purse, which was the king's personal funds, to cover any expenses incurred setting up the guards. He explained that once the guard was in place, he would set it up as a regular budget item, but for now, using the Privy Purse would expedite matters.
Darissa promised she would handle introducing Michael and Nikita to the palace accountant who was in charge of the Purse, so they left the king to finish his meeting. After settling things with Master Kusterbeck, the palace accountant, Darissa had one last person she wanted them to meet.
"Sir Cameron used to head the palace guards before my grandfather disbanded them. Fortunately, he still lives near the palace, so I want to take you to meet him. He should be able to help you from here out." She looked embarassed for a minute, "That didn't come out quite right. I don't mean to sound as if I'm brushing you off; I've just come to the end of what I can do to help you."
Nikita reassured her, "We understand your Highness. We both appreciate everthing you've done; without your help, I don't think we would've gotten anywhere. But we also realize you have other responsibilities too." Michael nodded in agreement.
Darissa sighed in relief. "Thank you. You'd think as a princess, I'd have a little better skill in diplomacy, but my brother is forever having to rescue me from scrapes my tongue has gotten me into." She turned as Michael seemed to say something, just in time to see Nikita whack him on the shoulder.
With a slight smile, Michael repeated his comment for her benefit, "I said that I understood his problem." When Nikita raised her hand to whack him again, he grabbed it, and used her momentum to pull her against him. He then snaked his other hand behind her hair and gave her a long, passionate kiss. They finally broke after Darissa had cleared her throat several times.
Darissa called for one of the palace carriages to take them to Sir Cameron's house. Once there, she introduced them to the former guard commander. Cameron was a tall, fit-looking man in his late fifties. What hair he had left was iron gray, and his eyes were a brown so dark, they were almost black. He welcomed them into his house, especially after learning who the princess's guests were.
"I can't tell you how grateful I am to you for saving the king's life. Even though it's been almost twenty years since I was a guardsman, I still felt guilty that I wasn't there to protect him. Thank you!"
"Actually, Sir Cameron," Michael replied, "that's exactly why we're here."
"We've persuaded the king to let us reform the palace guards, and we were wondering if you would be willing to give us some information," Nikita continued.
"I'll do anything I can, of course. How can I help?"
*** Chapter 1 ***
"Have we really been here only four months?" Michael wondered to himself. As he sat back in his chair, he reflected what a strange turn his life had taken since the king had been attacked. There was that mad scramble at the beginning -- his head started to hurt just thinking about that mess. If it hadn't been for Cameron and Darissa, he and Nikita might have just considered giving up.
Sir Cameron had been invaluable with his knowledge of how the guard used to function. He had been able to persuade the king's Seneschal to restore the guards' former quarters and training facilities, he knew just which dwarves to talk to about arms and equipment, and he still knew where the bodies were buried (as it were), to get people moving quickly.
When Michael explained where their first batch of recruits was coming from, however, both Darissa and Cameron thought he and Nikita were crazy.
"You want to try turning chamber maids and kitchen boys into guardsmen!?!" Cameron shouted.
Michael winced, just remembering the volume that Cameron had used. Finally, he and Nikita were able to calm the older man down enough to explain their reasons: being a bodyguard wasn't just about physical strength, it was also about recognizing anomalies. Who better to notice a deviation from standard palace procedure than one who had been a part of that routine? It had taken some time, but Cameron had finally seen the sense of the idea. Convincing the Seneschal had also taken time, but soon he, too, had allowed Michael and Nikita to recruit from his staff. Michael grinned a bit -- they never did tell the king he was being guarded by "chamber maids and kitchen boys."
Then had come the training. Michael groaned, sat forward in his chair, and leaned his head on his hands. They had ended up washing out about a third of the recruits, but the ones who were left caught on quickly enough. Nikita had been extremely impressive as a trainer. That hadn't surprised him too much; what had surprised him was the difficulties he had had connecting with his trainees. He really hadn't thought there would be that much of a difference between training recruits for Section and training bodyguards for Narnia, but there was. It was a difference Nikita seemed to grasp instinctively, but it had taken him longer to adjust.
He looked up as the door to his office opened, and Nikita walked in with their lunch. He smiled at her as she put the tray down on the desk between them. "Hi."
"Hi, yourself. I stopped by the infirmary to see how Gage was doing, so I picked up some lunch from the kitchen on the way back."
Gage was one of their most promising young guards, except for one problem -- he seemed to be a trouble magnet. If there was a way for something to go wrong, he would be involved somewhere. He had already logged more infirmary time than anyone else, but somehow it was never his fault.
"How is he?"
"Oh, he'll be back and ready to chase girls and get into trouble again tomorrow," she sighed.
"Were you able to get that glitch on your crossbow straightened out?"
"Yeah. I took it to Walter -- I mean, Warlick," she corrected, grinning, "He said the trigger mechanism was faulty, but that he could replace it. I should have it back later this afternoon."
Michael shared her smile, remembering when they had first met Warlick, the dwarf who had become their chief weapons master. He reminded them so much of Walter, that his name had become something of a running joke between them.
"I've noticed, you seem to be doing a lot more of that lately," Nikita remarked as she gathered up their plates.
Michael felt his face go blank. "I guess I have been."
"It's not a crime or anything, Michael," Nikita teased. "I just wondered if you'd even realized you were doing it. I know I've been happier than I can ever remember being."
He blinked as he put her comments out of his head to be considered later. "Listen, Jared has the watch this evening, so why don't you check with the kitchen, and ask them to pack us a picnic dinner."
She slipped her arms around him as he drew her closer. "Mmmm, that sounds like fun. In the woods?"
"Yes. I'll meet you at the stables at 7, all right?"
Nikita nodded, and gave him a deep, hard kiss. "I'll see you then. Bye." She picked up the tray and left the room.
Michael sighed, and sat back down at his desk. The room always seemed darker to him after Nikita left. He stared down at the reports on his desk. Even Narnia hadn't been able to escape bureaucracy completely, and where there was bureaucracy, there was paperwork.
*** Chapter 2 ***
Michael felt Nikita sigh as she snuggled a little closer to him. They had finished their supper, and were lying on their backs looking up at the stars. It was a clear, crisp night, and the stars seemed to fill the sky.
"Oh, Michael! Look!" Nikita exclaimed, pointing at a flash of light. "A shooting star!" Suddenly, she tensed, and sat up.
"What is it?" Michael sat up as well, trying to see what could have disturbed her.
"I don't know. It just feels like we're being watched."
He looked around them, but the light from their fire made it impossible to see anything in the surrounding forest. Abruptly, he also began to feel they were not alone, and set his hand on his sword, ready to draw it if necessary.
As they were looking around, a bright light flashed, momentarily blinding them, and when they could see again, Aslan stood before them.
"Walk with me," he commanded.
Aslan led them through the forest to a small, hidden lake. He lay down on a spur of rock that jutted out over the lake and motioned for them to sit down as well.
"My children, it is now time for you to finish the work for which I have called you." He blew upon the surface of the lake, and the reflections of the stars were replaced with the picture of a map of Narnia, Archenland, and Mithrace. "In two days, you will leave for Mithrace."
"Mithrace!" Nikita exclaimed. "But why?"
The map changed, zooming in on a Mithracian town labeled Sarceny. It was in the middle of Mithrace, not near any major towns or cities, and about 50 miles (Michael estimated) from Amperth, the capital. Aslan continued his briefing, "You will go to this town. Nikita, you will stay there and maintain surveillance; Michael, you will go on to the capital. There, you will meet with the king."
"Surveillance on what?" Nikita asked before Michael could.
The map blurred again, this time turning into the picture of a rather shabbily-dressed young boy. He looked to be about ten years old, with dark hair, a solemn expression, and bright blue eyes.
"This is Gareth. He is the son of Quentin, the king of Mithrace, although Quentin is the only one who knows this."
"What's the son of a king doing in a small town like Sarceny?" Michael asked in some shock.
"Quentin will tell you that. All you will do is tell Quentin that you know where his son is, and you would like Quentin to sue for peace."
"I see," Michael replied. He started to ask something, paused, and then was quiet.
Nikita asked the question he had started to, "What happens if he refuses?"
"You will bring the boy here to Narnia."
Nikita started to object, but then stopped. Michael could almost see the wheels turning in her head as she wrestled with Aslan's plan. She looked over at him, and he nodded, agreeing to talk with her about it later.
Aslan continued, "It is vital, both for your own safety, and Gareth's, that you tell no one of the true purpose of your mission." He stood, so they did as well. "I will be with you." He kissed first Nikita, and then Michael on their foreheads. "Trust each other, and trust me, knowing that I believe in you." He turned, and with a bounding leap, disappeared into the dark forest.
Michael and Nikita slowly walked back to their picnic site and sat down next to the fire. For several minutes, they just sat staring into the flames.
Finally, Nikita spoke, "Well, that was certainly one of the weirdest briefings I've ever been to."
Michael was startled into a soft snort of amusement. He looked over at Nikita to see her looking at him, a smile on her face. He raised his eyebrows in unspoken question.
"I admit, I was a little hesitant when Aslan said we'd bring the boy here. It brought back a whole bunch of memories, and I almost reacted out of habit. But then I remembered who I was talking to." Her smile grew more reflective.
His eyebrows went back up in another question.
"I decided I trusted Aslan."
*** Chapter 3 ***
Thirty-six hours later, Michael and Nikita shared a look of tired relief as they cantered out of Cair Paravel. They had had to turn command of the guard over to Jared (Sir Cameron had refused), construct a plausible cover story for their trip, gather their supplies, and convince the king that Aslan had ordered them on a mission to Mithrace, but they couldn't tell him what it was.
Their cover story was fairly simple: at the suggestion of Cameron, they were a couple traveling from Archenland to Moravi, a country to the west of Mithrace.
"Moravi and Mithrace are rather evenly matched militarily," Cameron explained, "They don't really like each other, but they both realize that neither could win a war decisively, so they've evolved a policy of leaving each other alone. If you present yourselves as expatriate Moravians fleeing Archenland because of the Narnian war, you should be able to travel freely."
In order to avoid the fighting, and to protect their cover story, Michael had decided they would take a mostly southern route into Archenland itself, and then swing westward through the mountains and into Mithrace. It would take longer, and he agreed with (although he did not echo) Nikita's grimace at the additional travel time.
Their gear had been carefully scrutinized, both by Cameron and the Archenland general, to make sure nothing was too overtly Narnian. It was reasonable to expect some Narnian items simply because of the close ties between the two countries, but the special wool that Nikita enjoyed would have to go.
Gradually, as they rode farther and farther from the castle, Michael felt the quiet beauty of the day seep into his bones, and he began to relax a bit and enjoy the ride. Looking over at Nikita, he saw she was looking at the magnificent trees surrounding them and smiling. She caught him looking at her and grinned back.
"Just because it's a mission doesn't mean we can't enjoy ourselves!" she exclaimed.
He nodded in agreement. Since they were restricted to the best pace the horses could maintain, Michael knew it would be more than a week before they were able to cross into Mithrace. Maintaining the hyperawareness he usually strove for during a mission would be pointless in this situation. They were in for a long trip.
Ten days later, Michael and Nikita rode slowly into the small village of Sarceny. They pulled up in front of the rather deserted tavern that also advertised itself as the local inn. A large, coarse-looking man whom Michael assumed to be the innkeeper came bustling out to welcome them and take their horses. Michael allowed him to hold his horse while he dismounted, but repelled him with a glare when the man tried to help Nikita dismount. Michael reached up for his wife and gathered her in his arms.
"You don't have to carry me, Michael; I'm certain I can manage walking into the inn," Nikita protested mildly.
Michael just shook his head at her and carried her inside. Taking the hint, the innkeeper trotted ahead of him, guiding Michael upstairs to their "best room".
"Is there a physician or healer in this village?" Michael inquired once he had Nikita settled on the surprisingly freshly-made bed. The innkeeper, whose name was Marston, nodded and said he would send one of his sons to fetch the local healer right over, and left.
Once Marston had left, Michael leaned over and kissed Nikita lightly on the forehead, and then not-so-lightly on the mouth. He whispered, "I'm so sorry, my heart..."
Before he could finish apologizing, Nikita stopped his mouth with her own. She then broke away long enough to whisper back, "It was my idea, remember? We had to have some sort of scenario for you to leave me behind here, and this seemed like the best bet."
Michael sat down on the bed next to her and rested his forehead against hers. Unfortunately, she was right -- Michael couldn't just go off and leave Nikita in Sarceny without some reason. They had discussed several options, but finally, it came down to either an argument or an injury. Michael had favored the argument (he didn't want her hurt); Nikita preferred the injury. After a couple of days' worth of discussion, Michael finally agreed to the injury scheme, mainly because she told him that staging an argument would hurt worse than any physical injury they staged. Thus, a few hours before they rode into Sarceny, Nikita dove from her horse (who was rather confused by his rider's strange behavior) into a gully that they found near the road. Forcing herself to land badly, Nikita managed to sprain her ankle, gash her forehead, tear her second-best gown, and collect a lovely assortment of painful-looking bruises and welts.
When the local healer, a cheery-looking little old lady, came in their room a short while later, Michael and Nikita were rather startled to see the object of their trip accompanying her, carrying a satchel almost as big as he was. The healer gently ruffled the small boy's hair as she thanked him and sent him on his way.
"Now, my dear, what seems to be the problem?"
*** Chapter 4 ***
After the healer had dressed Nikita's wounds and wrapped her ankle, Michael left her to rest while he surveyed their surroundings. The village was small, but seemed fairly prosperous; the men and women he saw outside the inn nodded to him politely as he walked by. As he made his way back to the inn, Michael stopped by the stables to check on their horses. The door to one of the stalls was open, and as he looked inside, there was Gareth again, mucking out the stall.
When Gareth saw Michael, he flinched slightly, and ducked his head in greeting. "I'm sorry, sir, I didn't see you there. May I help you?" The boy spoke so softly that Michael had a little trouble hearing him.
"Can you tell me which stalls my horses are in, boy?"
"They're right here, sir," said Gareth, leading Michael to two stalls farther down the aisle.
Michael looked the horses over, and found no fault with either their care or their accomodations. He turned back around to tell the boy so, and again noticed the almost reflexive flinch Gareth made. It's as if he expects me to hit him, Michael realized. Squatting down to position himself at the boy's eyelevel, he placed a gentle hand on Gareth's shoulder.
"Thank you for showing me. Do you work here in the stables, too?"
"My name is Michael. What is yours?"
"Gareth, sir. But everyone calls me Peep." A faint scowl came over the boy's face at having to admit the hated nickname.
"Well, I shall call you Gareth. Thank you for caring for my and my lady's horses. Shall I introduce you to them?"
At the boy's shy nod, Michael took him to each horse, told him the horse's name, and "introduced" him. Nikita's horse then surprised them both by offering Gareth his foreleg to "shake". Gareth jumped, but recovered quickly enough to accept the horse's offer and make a bow of his own. Michael wanted to spend more time talking with their target, but realized he would only draw attention to Gareth, and could even get the boy in trouble. Bidding him goodbye, he returned to the tavern portion of the inn, and requested supper for Nikita and himself.
The next morning, Michael made a point of publicly explaining to the inkeeper that pressing business required him to continue his journey, leaving his lady to await his return. He paid Marston a good sum of money, and promised a bonus if his lady was pleased with her treatment when he returned. The innkeeper was all obsequious bows and scrapes, but Michael sensed that the lure of additional coin would keep Marston from harming Nikita while he was gone. When Gareth brought his horse for him, he made a point of kneeling down next to the boy to have a word with him.
"Gareth, I want to thank you again for your care of my horse, and I want to ask you to do me a small favor."
"A favor, sir?" Gareth was less shy this morning. Michael hoped it was because he had figured out he had nothing to fear from him.
"Yes. As you know, my lady is upstairs with a badly-sprained ankle. She is not supposed to walk or ride for several days at least. If I know my Nikita, though, she will ignore those instructions, and try to do too much, too soon. All I want you to do is to keep an eye on her. I've told her to ask for you if she needs anything, so I'm hoping with you to run errands for her, and maybe keep her amused, she'll behave." Michael saw the slightly worried look that crossed Gareth's face. "I've also spoken with Marston about your being her errand boy, so that shouldn't be a problem with him, either." The worried look went away.
Michael smiled at Gareth, clapped him lightly on the shoulder, and stood up. Waving to Nikita, who had poked her head out of the window, he mounted his horse and rode away.
*** Chapter 5 ***
As Michael rode closer and closer to the capital, he couldn't help smiling a bit at Nikita's solution to keeping surveillance on their target. She was far too visible to maintain any kind of covert watch on Gareth, but by forcing him to keep watch on her, that problem was solved. His smile faded as he realized he was now reaching the endgame of Aslan's plan for them. By his calculations, he should easily reach the capital by sunset.
His forged travel papers gained him admittance through the gates of Amperth. As he turned the corner on one of the many twisted streets, he felt a stealthy touch on his shoulder, and reached up to offer a hand down to the Narnian agent he had arranged to have meet him there, a small brown talking owl who went by the name Luther (his proper owl name being deemed too difficult to pronounce by non-owls). Luther nodded to Michael in greeting, and Michael gently hid him inside his cloak. Once he had obtained a room and a meal at a small, out-of-the-way inn, he sat on the bed and brought the small owl out of his hiding place.
"Hello to you also, Sir Michael," the owl replied. "I believe I have obtained all the information you had requested," and the owl proceeded to map out for Michael a complete diagram of the palace, the guards, and the probable location of the king.
"It looks like the best time to strike would be midway through the late shift," Michael mused. That was always the hardest shift to work, and mid-shift was probably when the men were at their least alert. He noted that the guard commander had tried to compensate for that by posting three men instead of two on that shift. It was a good idea; he'd have to remember to mention that to Jared when he got back.
While Luther ate one of the chicken legs from his meal, Michael changed his clothes. From a cleverly-concealed bottom in his pack he withdrew his Section mission gear that he had brought from Narnia. As skilled as the Narnian tailors were, he still preferred the familiar feel of his old uniform. It also had the advantage of being much more durable than any of his other clothing, and the kevlar vest would protect him against the guards' swords.
By the time Michael was dressed, and Luther was finished with his meal, night had fallen. He stealthily crept out of his window and up onto the roof. Using Luther as a guide, he was able to manuever over several other rooftops and then down to the street, more than a block away from his inn. Again using the owl as a lookout, he took a circuitous route that eventually brought him near one of the walls of the palace. Luther had told him there were some rings on the other side of the wall he could use to tie a rope to. Since the owl couldn't carry the heavy rope, Michael gave the bird a length of twine to thread through the ring and bring back to him. Using this, Michael was able to secure the rope and climb over the wall.
Unseen and unheard, Michael crept through the sleeping castle. When he came within sight of the king's chambers, he found the guards, as expected, struggling to stay awake and alert. Their struggle was complicated by the need to remain quiet so as not to disturb the king's rest. Taking a deep breath to prepare himself, Michael attacked. Two of the guards were taken down with blows to the diaphragm to prevent them from sounding the alarm. The third was knocked out before he had time to notice what had happened. Michael then was able to finish subduing the first two guards. Smiling a bit at what he perceived as a new squemishness, he didn't kill the unconscious guards, but merely bound and gagged them.
He posted Luther as a lookout, and opening the door to the king's chamber, Michael crept inside. The door opened into what was obviously a reception area/sitting room. At the back of the room, Michael could see the king's bedchamber. He stood in the doorway, and was relieved to see that the curtains were not drawn. The figure in the bed appeared to be sleeping, but Michael took no chances, and crept toward the bed as noiselessly as he done through the entire trek. He held his knife against the king's throat, and was preparing to wake him up when he realized the king's eyes were open and were staring bleakly up at him.
"I don't know who you are," the king whispered, "but you'd be doing me a favor if you'd move that blade a little closer and just slice my throat."
*** Chapter 6 ***
Michael took a firm hold of the king's arm and drew the knife away from his throat. "Sit up, please." Michael bound the king's arms behind his back, and then put away his knife and stood facing the king.
"My guards?" King Quentin asked.
"They are ... resting ... in the other room," Michael replied. "They cannot help you."
"You're not an assassin," Quentin stated. "So why are you here?"
"Before I tell you, perhaps you could tell me why you wish I were?"
Quentin drew a deep breath. "I have failed my country and myself, and I'm just so tired of living this lie," he said dejectedly. "It seemed so simple at first."
The king told Michael his story. Twelve years ago, Mithrace had been under the rule of a tyrant, a king who cared neither for his people, nor his land. Quentin, along with several other men began a resistance movement that grew into a full-fledged rebellion. Gradually, Quentin became the acknowledged leader of the revolution, so it was not unexpected that when the king was overthrown, Quentin was persuaded to become king in his stead.
"I really was uncomfortable with the whole notion of me as a monarch. I mean, I wasn't even part of the old nobility! But the country needed some stability if we were to survive, and changing our system of government as well as our leadership might have been too much at once."
Quentin had introduced reforms during his rule. One of his first acts was to form a legislative body half of whose members were elected, and half who were appointed by the king. Over the years, he had been giving them more and more say in how the country was operated.
His current problem had started a few years after he had become king. The captain of his palace guard, an old friend from the rebellion, told him that quite a few of his former soldiers had come to the palace looking for work. When the captain asked them why they wanted to join the guard, the answers were almost uniformly the same: they didn't fit in at home anymore. Feeling the weight of the debt he still owed these men, Quentin told the captain to take them on. Of course, word went around, and soon the king found himself with a standing army.
Once he had a standing army, though, he had to find something to do with them. Quentin could not remember who had first suggested it, but the idea began to go around that what they needed was a nice, little war. Moravia was immediately eliminated as a target -- a war with them would be neither nice nor little. Calormen was considered, but no one liked the idea of a desert war, and Calormen had little Mithrace wanted anyway. Archenland was judged to be too difficult of a target -- their army was well-trained, and their cities were well-defended. Someone then brought up Narnia. No one really knew much about the mysterious country, so Quentin sent spies in to gather information. The spies' reports seemed to indicate that Narnia would be a perfect target: sparsely populated, abundant resources, rumors of considerable wealth in gold and precious stones. The spies also reported stories of talking creatures and magic, but that was discounted as mere superstition.
Quentin stopped talking as he saw Michael nod his head. "You're right. We had no idea what we were getting into. Archenland's wholehearted defense surprised everyone, and when we actually began fighting Narnians, ..." his voice trailed off in bemused amazement.
The Mithracians had been so shocked at facing giants and bears, centaurs, horses, and other creatures as well as men, that in the first few battles, the Narnians had routed them fairly easily, and the battle lines had been pushed back out of Archenland. The guerilla-trained fighters had stiffened, however, and soon the line began shifting back.
"That's when I started having the nightmares," Quentin murmured. "I began seeing all of these people, both Mithracian and Narnian, who were losing their lives over my 'nice little war'. These men, my men, the ones who had fought beside me through horror, starvation, and torture -- I was throwing them away as recklessly as old king Faron ever had. I don't know what to do."
"Sue for peace," Michael stated calmly. Quentin just stared at him. "You gain nothing by continuing this war. Just what were you going to do with Narnia once you had conquered it?" Michael could see that this question had not occurred to the king. "Wouldn't it be even worse, to go through all of this, to 'throw away' your men, and still be in the position you were before the war?"
Quentin hung his head. "But how? Would Narnia accept such a thing? What do I tell my men?"
"Narnia wants peace. You know your men better than I, but in my opinion, you should tell them the truth -- fighting a war isn't a solution, it just exacerbates the problem." Michael saw from Quentin's expression that the king didn't understand. "Your problem, and your soldiers' problem, is that after fighting a bloody and terrible war, they found they couldn't just resume their old lives when they returned home. They were no longer the same men who had gone off to fight, and as they said, they didn't fit in any longer. So instead of staying and facing the problem, they ran back to the life they knew, where they felt comfortable."
Michael paused for a moment and then continued, "Some of your men may never be able to fit back in. Perhaps you could find some challenging work for them like exploring new territory?"
"Exploring? Hmmm," the king considered. "We really don't know much about the lands to the south and west of us. That could be quite a project."
"In any event, your Majesty, do I have your agreement that you will sue for peace?" Michael knew his time was starting to grow short.
"I suppose so," the king answered absently, still thinking about exploration parties.
"I need a firmer commitment than that, sir."
"Otherwise, we will take your son to Narnia, and you will never see him again."
*** Chapter 7 ***
The king was unable to conceal his start of surprise. At first, he denied having a son, but he was unable to maintain his air of unconcern in the face of Michael's patent disbelief.
"How did you find out?" he finally asked in resignation. "His mother swore she would never tell anyone else, and I know I never have."
After several more minutes of discussion, Michael finally brought the conversation back to his original question, "As I asked earlier, your Majesty, will you sue for peace?"
"That boy means everything to me," Quentin replied. "Of course, I will."
"Good. Remember, Aslan will know if you attempt to go back on your word, or try to double-cross us." Michael reached around the king to release his arms. As he did so, he thought about what the king had said.
"Is your son really that important to you?"
Quentin rubbed his hands together to get the circulation going again. "Of course he is. What kind of question is that?"
"I just thought it odd that you would leave your son at the mercy of a rather brutal stepfather."
"What are you talking about? Gareth's mother married a fine, prosperous man."
"Are we both speaking of Marston the Sarceny innkeeper?"
"Yes, of course."
"Have you ever met Marston?"
"Well, no, but Serena told me he was a generous man."
"When was the last time you saw your son?"
"About four years ago. He seemed very happy."
"I see." Michael decided to share with the king the information he and Nikita had found out about Marston that morning. "Serena died about three years ago. Marston remarried a local widow with three sons, all older than Gareth. The new mistress does not care for reminders of her predecessor, so she beats the boy on the smallest excuse. Her sons take their cue from their mother and bully him. Marston treats him as hired help and is fairly indifferent to his treatment."
The king was shocked, "You must be mistaken!"
"I'm sorry, your Majesty, I wish I were. Gareth was subdued and withdrawn, and flinched away from any casual contact. My ... partner talked to the town healer and found out the whole story."
"I had no idea! I was so afraid of attracting attention to him that I never attempted to initiate any contact; I always waited for Serena to contact me. When I didn't hear from her, I just assumed she was too busy, or contacting me had become too difficult." He stood up and began pacing. "I have got to get him out of there!"
"Well, your Majesty, that's your problem. Remember, whatever you decide to do, you can't hide Gareth from Aslan."
"No, no. I realize that. I guess I'm even ... grateful ... to Aslan for bringing my son's plight to my attention."
Michael gave the king a slight smile. "It wouldn't surprise me if that wasn't one of his intentions all along." He left the room, checked to see that the bound guards were still unconscious, and retraced his path out of the castle and back to his room at the inn.
Once inside his room, he instructed Luther to fly back to Narnia to report to Darian that Quentin should be contacting him shortly to discuss peace arrangement. Michael considered, and then reluctantly discarded the idea of sneaking out of the city that night. He no longer had the owl to scout out the territory, and it would look very suspicious if he were caught trying to leave. He didn't think Quentin would be able to trace him back to this inn by morning, and so the only difficulty would come if he were stopped as he was leaving the city. That seemed to be the better bet. Having made his decision, Michael placed a wedge under the door, lay down on the narrow bed, and went to sleep.
*** Chapter 8 ***
When Michael and Nikita finally got back to Cair Paravel, they were drafted into a celebratory parade that wound its way all through the city until it reached the parade ground in front of the palace. Darian and Darissa were there to meet them as a cheering crowd of people of all kinds ranged behind them.
Darian raised his hands and motioned for the crowd to quiet down. Pitching his voice so that everyone could hear him, he addressed the pair before him, "Dear friends! Because of your dedication and faithful service, we now have peace where there once was war; we have friends where there once were enemies. You have our highest respect and gratitude, and it is our privilege thus to honor you today." He broke off as the crowd began cheering again. When they had quieted down, he continued, "It is our pleasure and our privilege, therefore, to bestow a grant of nobility upon you both." As the cheers broke out again, he motioned for Michael and Nikita to come forward, and he presented them with a large parchment scroll.
Darian directed them to turn around and face the people. "We present to you Lord Michael and Lady Nikita!"
Shortly after that, Michael and Nikita were finally able to reach the haven of their rooms. Darian had apologized for all the ruckus, but added that they should have expected something for having single-handedly stopped a war. Once the king had left, they undressed, slipped into bed, and fell into an exhausted sleep.
After they had awakened the next morning, and eaten their fill from the sumptuous breakfast Barin had brought them, Michael and Nikita tried to guess what Aslan had in mind for their future.
"I guess he'll be sending us back now," Michael decided rather glumly. "He usually doesn't let 'visitors' hang around very long once their work is done."
"I don't know -- didn't he let the Pevensie children stay for several years?" Nikita was not one to give up hope easily.
"I think so, but ..." Michael's voice trailed off as he looked out the balcony doors. Something golden had flashed in the sun and caught his eye. He looked closer and motioned for Nikita to join him at the doorway -- it was Aslan!
"It looks like we're going to find out even sooner than I thought," Michael said. "He's summoning us."
They managed to leave their rooms and meet Aslan near the woods without being noticed, which made Michael rather suspicious. Aslan nodded to them in greeting. Michael was overwhelmed once again by the calm majesty of his presence; Aslan had a way of making him feel both worthy and unworthy at the same time.
"Well done, my children! You have accomplished all I have asked of you, and now my need for your presence here is at an end."
Nikita must have heard the same thing Michael did because she immediately spoke up, "You say you don't need us here any more; could we still stay anyway?"
Aslan looked at Nikita, and his brightness was dimmed slightly by sadness as he replied, "Daughter, this is not your world. Your own people need you now."
Michael and Nikita had been standing together, arms around each other. At Aslan's words, Nikita turned into Michael's embrace and laid her head on his shoulder. He felt her tears on his neck, and had some difficulty holding his own emotions in check.
Aslan spoke again, "I will offer you a choice." Michael and Nikita's heads snapped up. "I can send you back now, or at some point in the future." He stopped them before they could answer. "I will not give you a definite time frame, but you would then be leaving home, children, and friends. You must weigh your current pain against that future separation."
Nikita spoke to Michael almost absently, "At least we don't have to worry about leaving children."
"On the contrary," Aslan interjected, "if you stay, you will have children."
"But how? I can't! It's impossible!"
Aslan growled at her in some amusement. "When I healed you, I healed you completely."
Nikita and Michael stared at each other in shock. He saw the same hunger and fear on her face that he knew must be on his own. To be able to have children, but know they would have to leave them behind ... Looking at Nikita, he knew it would have to be his decision; she would not ask him to leave a child behind. Switching his gaze to Aslan, he made up his mind.
"We'd like to stay, sir."
*** Chapter 9 ***
29 years later
As Michael sat down to dinner, he caught Nikita's gaze at the other end of the table and smiled at her. Even after so many years together, it still warmed his heart to see her return smile. He also saw the bittersweet look in her eyes, and knew that it was reflected in his own as well. Now they knew -- Aslan had spoken and told them their time there was almost at an end.
Suddenly, laughter broke out at Nikita's end of the table, and she turned to the instigator, the melancholy look banished from her face. Michael let his gaze wander around the table, trying once more to store up memories for the coming exile. To his right sat his youngest daughter Alix, almost the image of her mother with her blond hair and blue eyes. It was because of her that they were all gathered together -- tomorrow was her wedding day, to a young man that was almost worthy of her (in her father's opinion, anyway).
It still amazed him that he and Nikita had four such wonderful children. Garth was the eldest; Michael still teased her about naming their son after Garth Brooks, although she insisted that had nothing to do with it. Michael had been turning more and more of the estate work over to him, and Garth seemed to thrive on it. Michael felt comforted, knowing that everthing would be in good hands.
Jessie was their "celebrity" daughter. When she had turned seventeen, they had sent her to Cair Paravel to participate in the more extensive social life. Michael became alarmed, however, when her letters home began mentioning a boy named Gary over and over. He and Nikita made a fast trip to the palace, and were astonished to learn that Jessie's Gary was none other than Prince Gareth on a visit from Mithrace. The two were obviously in love with each other, and were married when she turned eighteen. Jessie wasn't all that fond of the "whole Princess business" as she called it, but she loved Gareth, and Michael and Nikita were now the proud grandparents of a beautiful baby girl named Nikita.
Michael looked at their son Chris, who was the jokester in the family. He was still not sure sometimes how Chris has survived childhood, or he had survived Chris. After several years of wandering about from job to job, he had finally come home with a wife and a desire to raise horses. Michael, with some relief, had given him some nearby land to build a house and stables. Chris's wife, Arlis, was both an appreciative audience and a calming influence, so maybe Narnia would continue to survive Chris after they were gone.
After dinner, and some desultory conversation, Michael and Nikita left their children to tease and torment the bride and groom, while they went up to bed. When King Darian had found out that they would be staying indefinitely, he gifted them with a parcel of land in the north. It was a wild, beautiful area, with some good farmland, fair grazing, and plenty of water. He had also provided the materials and workmen needed to build their house. It had become a comfortable home, filled with his woodworking and her decorative touches. Their bedroom was special to them both; Michael had carved the bedframe as a Christmas present to Nikita their first year in the house. Each of their children had been born in that bed, including the little girl who had been born prematurely and had only lived a few days. Michael grinned a bit as he remembered that not all of their children had been conceived in the bed.
After he had undressed for the night, he came out of his dressing room, and was unsurprised to see Nikita standing out in the balcony looking up at the stars. He picked up her robe and, walking out to join her, put it around her shoulders. She smiled back at him as he put his arms around her waist.
"While I don't think Aslan would send you back with a cold, I'd rather not take that chance," he teased her lightly.
She leaned back against him. "I was just trying to remember our old life. It's been so long since I've even thought about Section. Do you suppose we'll have much trouble adjusting?"
"I wish I knew, my heart. I was trying to remember what my gun looked like, and could barely remember its shape. I guess in this, as in everything else, we'll just have to trust Aslan."
"I know, but I worry that in adjusting back to our old life, I'll forget our life here."
He heard the tears in her voice, but didn't know how to answer her -- that was one of his fears as well -- so he just held her as they watched the Narnian stars in their dance across the sky.
*** Chapter 10 ***
The next day brought the hustle and bustle of the wedding, but as the day wound down, Michael and Nikita brought their children and spouses together in the cozy room that Narnians called a study but Nikita and Michael thought of as their family room. He had asked Alix and her new husband not to leave on their wedding trip until after this meeting, and he knew all of the children were bursting with curiosity. Once everyone was settled, Michael put his arm around Nikita as they sat together on "their" loveseat; he could feel the slight trembling in her shoulders as he began the long-dreaded speech.
"We've brought you here so that we can say good-bye," he stated simply. As he saw the looks of concern and surprise on his sons' and daughters' faces, he had to work to fight back sudden tears. Somehow, he hadn't thought it would be so hard to say the words. Swallowing hard, he continued, "As we told you when you were little, your mother and I came to Narnia from High King Peter's world, and Aslan allowed us to stay here after the war between Narnia and Mithrace was over. What we didn't tell you was that Aslan told us that one day we would have to return. That day is today."
Michael saw his children's surprise turn to sorrow, and braced himself for their reaction. Oddly, it was the wise-cracking Chris who silenced the others' protests, "Quiet! Can't you see how much this is hurting them already?! If Aslan say they have to go, they have to go."
"You're right, Chris," Nikita spoke for the first time. "We want you all to realize, though, what a marvelous gift Aslan has given us. Even though it will hurt to leave you here, this is a life Michael and I never thought it would be possible to have." She looked over at Michael, and he could see her smiling through the tears rolling down her cheeks.
He nodded, and pulled her more closely against him. He kissed her forehead, and then pushed her away slightly. Turning back to their children, he cleared his throat and continued, "We thought about telling you earlier, but we didn't want to spoil Alix's wedding. When you go back to your rooms, you'll find a note to each of you from us; Jessie, Gareth -- there's also a note for your little Nikita, please give it to her when you feel she's old enough to understand. Garth, we leave the estate in your hands; I know you will do a fine job."
Michael stood up and drew Nikita to her feet. Holding her hand as he reached into his jacket pocket, he spoke directly to her, "My heart, I have no words to describe the joy these years with you have given me. When I realized that this would be our thirtieth Christmas here in Narnia, I wanted to do something special for you. I know it's early, but I want you to have this now." He pulled out a slim velvet box, and offered it to Nikita.
She took it with trembling hands, opened it and took out a beautifully-fashioned gold locket on a slim gold chain. On the face of the locket was a fire opal and diamond combination that matched the one in the wedding ring Michael had given her so many years before. She opened the locket and gasped in surprise. Inside, in intricately-woven chains that must have been done by dwarves, were four small locks of hair -- she looked at Michael for confirmation, and he nodded.
"Yes, love, I asked each of your children to help me give you a special Christmas present, but it will be a farewell present instead." He put it around her neck and gave her a tender, comforting kiss. Soon they were surrounded by their children and their children's wives and husbands.
After a long period of tears, kisses, and hugs, Michael and Nikita walked out of the home they had known for 29 years, and into the woods where Aslan had told them to go. Soon they came to a slight clearing where an old tree had fallen; it had been a favorite picnic spot when the children were younger, and was still a good trysting spot for many of the young people on the estate. Aslan was there waiting for them.
"I am sorry, but it is time." His voice was gravelly rough, and his eyes reflected the sorrow they were feeling.
Nikita walked up to the huge lion, and, just as she had in the beginning, put her arms as far around his neck as she could, and hugged him. "Thank you for this time together, Aslan. You have given us a gift we can never repay."
Aslan nuzzled Nikita in comfort as she released him and stepped back. Michael stood in front of Aslan, and drawing his sword, went to one knee in front of the lion.
"Aslan, I have been honored to be counted among your knights. Please take back your sword, and know that I have cherished being in your service."
"Lord Michael, I will take your sword, as it is best kept here, but I do not release you from my service," Aslan rumbled.
"You are my knight, Michael, whether you are serving me here in Narnia or in Section One. I will not forget you; do not forget me. You will see me again; on that day, there will be no parting." He lay down in front of them. "Climb on my back, children; we have a journey to take."
With some difficulty (neither of them was as spry as they used to be), Nikita and Michael mounted Aslan's wide back. It was unlike any horse ride they had ever taken, smooth as glass, without the clomping and jingling they were accustomed to. Aslan didn't say anything, and neither of them felt like talking. As the sun slowly sank in the sky, Aslan brought them to a stand of fir trees, and stopped.
He lay down, "Climb down, now. We are here."
As Michael slid down, and turned to help his wife, he suddenly noticed that Nikita was young again. Why, she's just a child! he thought to himself. From the startled expression on her face, he must have also received a similar transformation. Turning around, he saw a door opening between two trees. He turned back to Aslan, who nodded.
"Your path lies through there my children. Go, and know that my love will always be with you."
Holding hands, they cautiously stepped through the odd doorway. When they were all the way inside, the door closed behind them, gently, but firmly. Looking down, Michael realized he was carrying his gun in his right hand, and was once more wearing his mission blacks. Looking over at Nikita, he could see she was dressed the same way. A wave of vertigo swept over him as his mind tried to reintegrate everything that had happened with their current circumstances. From the look on Nikita's face, he could tell she was having the same problem.
Finally, they stepped out of the wardrobe.
"Michael! What happened?! Where are you?!" Birkoff's voice jarred into his ear.
"We're fine, Birkoff. It was some sort of ... anomaly. We have the package, and are on our way." It was amazing how his voice knew what to say even if he wasn't quite sure. Looking at his watch, he realized that only one minute had passed since he had followed Nikita into the wardrobe. Even now, it was starting to seem more and more unbelievable what had happened to them. Had it really happened?
As he walked out of the room, he felt Nikita tugging at his arm. Turning toward her, he could not prevent a smile from breaking out on his face. She was holding the locket.
He was still Aslan's knight.
*** The End ***
I really hope I have remained true to both LFN and Narnia. I have so much respect for C.S. Lewis's creation that I hesitated before beginning this story because I was scared of screwing it up. I don't think I did a very good job of describing Aslan, but I tried. Lewis (obviously) does it best; for example, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: "People who have not been in Narnia sometimes think that a thing cannot be good and terrible at the same time. If the children had ever thought so, they were cured of it now. For when they tried to look at Aslan's face they just caught a glimpse of the golden mane and the great, royal, solemn, overwhelming eyes; and then they found they couldn't look at him and went all trembly."
A couple of notes on the title:
In The Last Battle, the children who remain true to Aslan find out that Aslan's Country is similar to the England and Narnia that they left, but better -- more real. "Lewis suggests that ... the lands the children had seen in Aslan's Country are the reality of which Narnia and England were incomplete reflections." [A Guide Through Narnia, Martha C. Simmons]
"For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I shall know fully just as I also have been fully known." I Corinthians 13:12 (NASB)