Author's Note: Yeah, yeah, I know. It's been way too long since I've updated, and I'm sorry. Real life got in the way. But, I got tired of having this chapter sit half-finished on my hard drive, and so I pounded out the rest of it out of sheer stubbornness. I'm going to try to update more frequently, but no promises.
Chapter Twenty-Five: Shatter
"His dam is on my territory!"
"Because she's been taking fish from mine!"
Susan sighed, resisting the urge to drop her head into her hands as the petitioners in front of her started squabbling, yet again. Her first day alone in Cair Paravel had been quiet, but the morning after, she'd been greeted by a crowd of Creatures gathered in the main courtyard, all of them clamoring to be heard. And to her surprise, most of them had been there with complaints.
Petty grievances that had been put aside in favor of fighting the White Witch had suddenly become important, again, after they'd been freed from the Witch's tyranny. And rather than trying to sort their problems out, themselves, a good deal of Creatures had evidently decided that their problems could only be solved by Narnia's new monarchs.
She and Vaius had found themselves with a challenge on their hands, trying to sort everyone out and make sure everyone was heard, and the stately Faun had finally resorted to threatening to throw everyone out of the castle if they didn't start behaving themselves. After the chaos had calmed down, Vaius gotten the petitioners sorted into groups, and he'd taken charge of presenting each group to Susan over the last two days.
Susan had never thought that all the time that she'd spent mediating between Peter and Edmund would have ever had a practical use. But, being the middle sister had finally come in handy, having honed her patience over the years. Which was good, because it turned out that she needed every ounce of patience that she could muster.
Especially with the pair of Creatures standing in front of her, now. Beaver had come before her with a complaint about his neighbor, an Otter named Broadfoot. Both of the Creatures had come in complaining that the other was intruding on their territory, and they'd spent the last half hour grumbling, and glaring, and snapping not-so-thinly veiled insults at one another.
And Susan could feel her patience starting to wear thin.
"Let me just clarify this," she said, interrupting them before they could dissolve into fighting, yet again. "Each of you claims that the other is on their territory."
"She acts like she owns the whole Western Wood!" Beaver snapped, glaring at Broadfoot.
"I'm not the one polluting the river, Cousin," Broadfoot sneered, and Beaver snarled at the Otter, showing his teeth.
"You're no cousin of mine," Beaver growled, and for a moment, Susan wondered if she was going to have to separate the two of them.
"We're all cousins under Aslan's blessing," she said, instead, and both of the Creatures had the grace to look ashamed at her gentle rebuke. "Now," she went on, when they both finally stayed silent for a few moments, "would you be able to show me where each of your territories is located?"
Beaver grumbled something unintelligible under his breath while he glared at Broadfoot, but he finally nodded, with obvious reluctance. After a moment, Broadfoot followed suit. At Susan's nod, Vaius brought out the map that they'd been using for the last two days to help arbitrate the various territory battles. It was the same map that Peter and Oreius had used to plan their battle against the Witch, and over the last two days, Susan had added her own notes to it, finding the map a useful tool in settling disputes. She only hoped that they could find or make a new one, soon, as this one was getting rather ragged.
Susan sank down to the floor in front of Beaver and Broadfoot and bent over the map, ignoring the slightly disapproving look that Vaius shot her way. The Faun had very definite opinions of how a Queen should act, and kneeling on the floor clearly did not meet his standards of acceptable behavior. But Susan had to give him credit, he was trying very hard to change those opinions and not be quite so rigid. And in return, she tried to make things as stress-free as possible for him.
Which was why, when Vaius interrupted them nearly half an hour later to tell her that the cooks had finished lunch, she sat back on her heels and carefully folded the map up.
"We're about to have lunch," she explained to Beaver and Broadfoot. "Will you join us?"
"I would be honored," Broadfoot said, shooting Beaver a snide look. "So long as I don't have to sit beside him."
'Clearly, we still have some work to do,' Susan thought, with a quiet sigh, as Beaver and Broadfoot started snapping at each other. 'It looks like this is going to be another long day.'
But, she resolutely pushed the territorial disputes to the back of her mind. She'd made a promise to Vaius to take some time to herself every day, even if only a couple of minutes, to avoid becoming stressed out. And, today, lunch seemed to be the ideal time, especially if she was going to once again be working through the night.
She led Beaver and Broadfoot through the castle, bypassing the formal dining hall much to both Creatures' obvious surprise. Instead, she went through the kitchens and out a small door at the back of the room that led to an overgrown, sun-dappled path. And at the end of that path was a beautiful little garden.
She'd discovered the small garden almost by accident yesterday when she'd been on her relaxation time. At Vaius' urging, she'd gone for a walk around the grounds to clear her head and get some fresh air, and she'd stumbled upon a path that was covered in weeds and overwhelming vines. She couldn't explain the impulse that had led her to push her way through the vines (perhaps some of Lucy's adventurous curiosity had gotten to her), but at the end of the path, covered in dirt and scratches from many tiny bramble bushes, she discovered this gem of a garden.
Vaius, it seemed, hadn't even been aware of the garden's existence, and he hadn't been able to tell Susan anything about it. No one left at the castle had, really. But, she hadn't been discouraged; if anything, she'd been even more determined to find out about who'd created such a beautiful little piece of paradise.
She was taken out of her musings by their arrival in the garden, where several other of the Cair's occupants were waiting for them. They'd been joined for lunch by the kitchen staff, a pair of Jaguar sisters that had appointed themselves Susan's personal guard, and Khyllian. Seeing the last made Susan smile; the arms-mistress had sequestered herself away with the troops left at the Cair for the last couple of days, and Susan would have thought that she was a ghost for all that she saw of her.
Greetings were exchanged, briefly, and the food, which was on covered dishes, was served. Everyone settled down to eat, happily without any squabbling between Beaver and Broadfoot. The pair seemed to have set their grudge aside for the duration of the meal, and Susan was just starting to relax, the tension of the last few days starting to drain away.
Of course, that was when all Hell broke loose.
The only warning that Susan had that anything was wrong was a faint scream coming from somewhere above them. The next second, something slammed into her chest with enough force to knock her out of her seated position, and she barely caught herself with a hand even as she wrapped her other hand around the bundle on her chest to keep from losing it.
Khyllian had been startled into action by the disturbance, and the Centaur bolted to her hooves with far more grace than Susan would have expected from the huge Creature. She produced a small but incredibly deadly looking blade from somewhere (Susan couldn't see any place where she could have possibly concealed it), and was looking around the small space with a fierce scowl on her face.
For her part, Susan looked down at the bundle in her arms, surprised to see a mass of gray and white feathers pressed against her chest. Then, the feathers shifted and a weary golden eye peered up at her. More movement, and Susan helped the small Osprey struggle to stand up on his talons, both of them mindful of the sharp talons pressing gently into the bare skin of her hands.
"My Queen," the Osprey gasped, sounding absolutely exhausted. "I bear terrible news."
"Water," Susan snapped, as the Bird panted in her hands, and a second later, a small glass of water was pressed into her free hand.
She took the glass from a member of the kitchen staff, absently making a note to find out the Dryad's name to be able to thank him personally, later. Holding the glass out to the Osprey, she watched as the Bird gratefully drank the water slowly, the heaving of his chest easing as he calmed down.
"What news do you have?" she asked, when the Osprey lifted his head, again, staring at her with eyes that were filled with more light than before.
"I was a part of Queen Lucy's guard," the Osprey started to explain, and Susan's heart sank like a stone in her chest. "I regret to inform you, Majesty, that we were attacked a day ago."
Around them, the small garden erupted into a flurry of furious voices, rising in anger so quickly that Susan could barely hear herself think. But, they quieted just as quickly when Khyllian whistled, sharply, throwing everyone into a startled silence.
"What kind of attack?" Susan asked, struggling to keep her voice calm, even as fear made her heart pound wildly in her chest. "What happened to my sister and the rest of her guard?"
"We were set upon by slave traders," the Osprey told her, solemnly. "The guard fought bravely, even Queen Lucy, thought Captain Khyldaer tried to get her to flee to safety, but we were outmatched, and the men were ruthless."
"Men," Susan echoed, catching onto the word the Osprey had used. "You were attacked by men. But, there are no humans in Narnia."
"If they were truly slave traders," Khyllian spoke up, slowly, "then it is a very good chance that they are from the Calormen Empire." There was a stark concern etched on the Centaur's face, and Susan was reminded that the arms-mistress, too, had a younger sibling in danger.
"Do you think that it could have been these Calormene?" Susan asked, turning her attention back to the Osprey.
"The men were dark-skinned, as are the people of the desert," the Osprey answered. "But, I cannot tell you any more than that."
Susan nodded, taking a deep breath to fight back the rising tide of panic that threatened to overwhelm her. She absently thanked the Osprey, passing the exhausted Bird to a nearby Faun with the strict instruction to have him seen by Shanza, their resident Healer. Then, she turned her attention back to Khyllian.
"Do you know these Calormene?" she asked, without preamble, and the Centaur nodded, quickly.
"I do, your Majesty," came the answer.
"If my sister, and our people, were taken by them as slaves," Susan pressed, "do you believe that they would still be alive?"
"It is possible that some may have been killed in the initial attack," Khyllian said, bluntly, and Susan couldn't hide the pained wince that crossed her features. "But, I do believe that they would have made every attempt to keep as many alive as possible. You cannot sell dead bodies on the slave market, after all."
"Do you know how to get to the Calormene Empire?" was Susan's next question, and again the Centaur nodded.
"It would take several days," she cautioned, "although there may be a shorter route if we were to attempt to go through Archenland."
"Another country?" Susan guessed, getting an affirmative reply. "You said attempt to?"
"Archenland was once a great ally of Narnia," Vaius spoke up, surprising her. "But, one hundred years of battling back the White Witch from their own borders has made them wary of strangers, and they have closed in on themselves. They may not welcome your presence with open arms."
'Or at all,' Susan guessed, hearing the unspoken warning in the Faun's voice. "If it is indeed a shorter route," she said, after a moment, "then we will go through Archenland."
"And if we encounter resistance?" Khyllian asked, although she didn't sound intimidated by the idea.
"We will deal with it, then," Susan answered, firmly. 'And hope that any diplomatic mistakes we make during our rescue mission don't irrevocably poison future relations with Archenland.'
"How soon can you get a rescue party ready to leave?" she asked Khyllian, and the Centaur considered her answer for a moment.
"We would be outfitting for speed, not force," she mused out loud. "And small numbers, to keep from being bogged down – two hours, Majesty."
"Make it happen," Susan said, quietly, and the Centaur sprang out of the garden and down the path, thundering toward the armory with Susan's Cat guards right on her hooves.
That left Susan alone with the kitchen staff, Beaver, Broadfoot, and Vaius. A heavy silence had fallen over the garden, broken only by the sound of Creatures shifting in their places without trying to disturb her. Every tiny sound was slamming against her frayed nerves like a million bullets, and she suddenly couldn't take one more second.
"Majesty-" Vaius started, hesitantly, and Susan cut him off with a slightly-shaking upraised hand.
"Please leave," she whispered, not daring to speak any louder for fear of losing her tenuous grip on her emotions.
To her immense relief, Vaius didn't protest her words, instead quickly herding everyone out of the garden to leave her alone. Susan listened as the sounds of their footfalls faded in the distance, still sitting in the middle of the grove, her back ramrod straight and her eyes completely dry, in case anyone came back to check on her.
Only when she was sure that she was completely alone did she allow herself to fall apart.
She curled in on herself as she buried her head in her hands, her shoulders shaking wildly with the force of her silent sobs. She was crying, tears streaking down her face, but there was no sound coming out. She could barely breathe through the force of the sobs wracking her body; she could only lie on the ground and cry, helplessly.
When her sobs finally calmed, she wanted to do nothing more than stay on the ground, among the peaceful trees. But, she forced herself to get to her feet, wiping away the tear tracks on her cheeks and smudging her face with the dirt on her hands. Her dress was wrinkled and stained, something that would have horrified her any other time. But she simply couldn't bring herself to care at that point. There were more important things to worry about.
Nearly two hours after the interrupted luncheon in the garden, Susan found herself in the armory, being outfitted in chainmail by Khyllian. The arms-mistress had instructed her to dress lightly, and Nalene, her attendant, had brought Susan a shirt and pair of pants that she'd scrounged out of Peter's room. She'd bluntly informed Susan that it would be easier if she didn't have to deal with skirts, and Susan was inclined to agree with her. She still remembered how difficult it had been to move around on the battlefield with a dress, and how she'd eventually wound up slashing the skirt of the beautiful dress to be able to move more freely.
Now, she shifted under Khyllian's critical eye as the Centaur adjusted how the chainmail was sitting on her shoulders. She winced as a bit of fabric rubbed irritatingly against her skin, and she reached up to smooth out the fold. She didn't want to have to deal with anything that could prove a distraction on their mission.
"This doesn't look like the same armor I wore during the battle with the Witch," she observed, looking herself over in the mirror.
"I've been modifying it, Majesty," Khyllian told her, as she belted a length of sturdy leather around Susan's waist like a belt. "When I have time, I will make more appropriate pieces of armor for you and your siblings, but for now, you will have to make do with one of Edmund's old sets."
"You can call me Susan, you know," Susan spoke up, quietly. "You call my brother by his first name, after all."
"I have known your brother for five years," Khyllian commented. "I've only known you for a few days; it would not be proper."
"I think, that given the circumstances," Susan replied, "we can change that. It's going to be a long ride into Calormen if everyone insists on calling me Majesty the whole way."
"Very well, then, Susan," Khyllian said, trying the name out to see how it sounded. "Your brother had similar feelings on being called by his title when he first arrived, as well." She made a couple more minute adjustments to Susan's armor, and then she stepped back. "There. You're ready."
Susan eyed herself in the full length mirror, barely recognizing the woman staring back at her. She was sharply reminded of just a few days ago when she was helping Lucy with her own armor, and tears sprang to her eyes that she hastily dashed away. Tears wouldn't help anyone right now.
"We are going to get them back," Khyllian spoke up, as if she'd heard Susan's thoughts.
"No matter what it takes," Susan vowed, looking over at the Centaur and seeing her own fierce determination reflected in those golden eyes.
"The rest of the guard is ready to go," Khyllian told her, and Susan nodded.
"I just have a stop to make in the infirmary," she said, as she headed for the door. "I need to get a message to Peter and Edmund."
In the infirmary, she found Shanza tending to the Osprey. The Bird struggled against the Dryad's hold when he spotted Susan, and Susan nodded in response to the Healer's silent question. The Dryad put the Osprey down on the lone table in the room, and the Bird hopped toward the edge of the table, his eyes fixed on Susan.
"My Queen," he said, bobbing his head.
"I don't believe I got your name, earlier," Susan remarked, as she greeted the Osprey.
"Swiftwing, Majesty," came the immediate response.
"It is good to see you looking so well, Swiftwing," Susan told him, and the Bird puffed his feathers in pleasure. "I was wondering if I might ask you a favor?"
"Anything, Majesty," Swiftwing said, promptly, and Susan silently wondered how long it would take for the Narnians to become as comfortable with her as they seemed with Edmund.
"I need someone that I can trust to bear a message to my brothers, Peter and Edmund," she told the Osprey. "They need to know what has happened to Lucy."
"I will fly until there is no more breath in my body!" the Osprey vowed, and Susan winced.
"No," she said, quietly, shaking her head. "I don't-" She broke off, closing her eyes as she tried to think of a better way to phrase what she wanted to say. "We have lost enough to the White Witch," she said, softly. "I don't want to lose anyone else, no matter what the reason. Fly swiftly and safely, but, please, if you cannot make it, pass your message onto someone else. You have already done my sister a great service by bearing news of her abduction here; I expect nothing more than that."
She hoped that Swiftwing was listening to her. She didn't want to hear that the brave Bird had died trying to reach her brothers. After a moment, Swiftwing bobbed his head in agreement, hopping to the edge of the table.
"I will bear the message as fast as I can," he told her.
"Peter and Edmund are headed into the Black Mountains," Susan told the Bird. "Please, fly carefully."
"Yes, Majesty," came the quiet response.
Then, Susan left the infirmary to go out to the main courtyard. Khyllian was waiting for her, along with Streak and Pounce, the Jaguar sisters, Baern, one of the Gryphon scouts, and a Faun called Kolvi. All of them were wearing light armor, like Susan, and Khyllian and Kolvi were both wearing swords, Kolvi's almost as big as the Centaur's.
Khyllian wordlessly handed Susan her bow and quiver, and Susan slung the quiver over her back, adjusting until it felt comfortable. Nearby, Vaius held the reins of a dun-colored horse, and Susan swung up onto the mare's back with a bit of help from the Faun, fastening her bow to a special attachment on her saddle.
"Her name is Jayz, Majesty," Vaius told her, quietly, as he patted the mare on the neck before stepping back. "She is trained to battle."
Susan nodded her thanks to the Faun, turning her attention to the other five watching her.
"We do not come back without our people," she said, her voice quiet and steady. "If any of you want out-" She let her voice trail off, but no one responded to her.
"Our main mission is to rescue them?" Streak asked, curiously.
"Rescue is our first priority," Susan said. "But, we will make sure that no one else ever enslaves our people, again."
The Cats exchanged darkly satisfied looks, and Susan knew that she'd just appealed to their rather bloodthirsty natures. Not that she really wanted to try to hold them back; her sister and several others were missing, and possibly dead, and a part of Susan wanted to cut through everything and everyone that stood in her way.
But, she pushed the impulse to the back of her mind. She wanted to get Lucy back; it was the only thing that was important, the only thing that mattered.
Susan took one last look back at Cair Paravel, not knowing how long it would be before she saw her home again. She knew that she wasn't setting foot back in Narnia unless it was with Lucy at her side.
"Let's move," she said, softly.