Catherine the Great
Susan is not a king of Narnia.
While her brothers practice swordplay, she must be content to watch. Her archery is permitted, but she must dress precisely and elegantly. She must walk with grace. There is a vast household to attend to in Cair Paravel; its mistresses must set an example.
Lucy takes to her duties with a rosy smile and all the enthusiasm of a child for a new adventure. She charms the court with her ready laughter, while Susan casts a shadow in her sister's wake. Her sobriety is not welcome here. So she keeps quiet, keeps to herself, and cultivates a aura of calm. They call her gentle and she will not dissuade them from that.
The quietness grows within her. Steady as a serpent.
She wakes to Lucy's gentle snores. Moonlight spills in the open window.
It is a cool summer night, and all the castle is asleep. Even the boys - she can not think of them as men, even now - who have had been awake long nights this past week, planning an expedition to the far north.
Susan is restless.
In the Great Hall she takes a sword, too big and too heavy for even Peter to wield properly, from the wall. It slips from her unsteady grip, clatters against the stone and she darts to the door. No-one has heard. She is alone.
She takes the sword in both her hands, lifts it from the ground. A little. A little more. Her muscles tremble, but she holds.
Moving. Pacing round her imaginary enemy; proud and fearless.
She hears the east wind streaming by the window, bringing its salty sea air. It murmurs, like a voice. Susan listens. Imagines it an encouragement. Lifts the sword a little higher.
The voice drives her on, its whispers warm against her ear.
Colours dance in front of her eyes. She sees them. Their dark looks bent on violence; a faun, a centaur, a dwarf. Her sword moves slowly, but they are slower. Trapped in treacle. The blade slices cleanly and deep, deep into the bodies of her attackers.
The blood is warm, and her sword is unclean.
She watches eyes dying, the shock, the fear, the inevitability. The sword drops from her shaking hands.
And the Great Hall is cold and stone and empty.
She is running to her bed. A child, afraid of being caught.
Susan catches herself in the mirror. Dishevelled hair. Dishevelled nightdress.
In her room, she sits by the dressing table and brushes her hair, counting the strokes.
There is nothing watching her over her left shoulder. There is nothing. And she cannot hear the voice whispering in her ear. Or the cold fingers resting on her shoulders.
Sharp nails tug her into bed. And she sleeps, dreaming of fur and eyes that are chips of ice.
Peter finds her a week later.
She has a sword more suited to her strength now. Confident and swift, she cuts a violent dance across the floor. When her movements draw to a close and she looks at him, there is no shame in her voice. She tilts her head up, unrepentant.
"I can fight, Peter. I can."
She reads no expression in his face. He's watching her and he's fully clothed while only a thin nightdress clings to her frame. She isn't cold.
"If I had been anyone else…" Peter shakes his head. "Susan, this is no game. You're a queen and that blade is meant to kill."
"I know that." Anger, cool and controlled. There's a hiss of rage in her ear, but Peter hears nothing. "And I have killed."
"Not with a sword. You don't understand. It's different when you're that close, when you can see their eyes, smell their breath and know that one of you has to die. It's not right for you, Susan. You're a brilliant archer."
"It's still killing. Or are arrows a cleaner way to end something's life? Oh, there'll be no blood splashed on my garments, but there'll still be blood on my hands."
"Fight me, Peter." She lifts her sword, adjusts her stance. Weight evenly spread, her eyes on his.
"Don't be so stupid." He turns to leave.
"Turn and face me!" She takes a tighter grip of the sword. "Turn and face me, you coward!"
His muscles tense, there is an anger there. He turns again, his face tight, eyes steady. He'll do it, she knows, he'll do it to prove his point.
Peter draws his sword in a single smooth movement, charges her. This is no display of skill and finesse; it is a brutal and vicious assault. But he is attacking her sword, not her. Trying to knock it quickly from her grip. Put an end to this.
It would have been over in seconds, but the voice was there to guide her. Her ethereal mentor guides her, her movements, her timing, her application of strength. She stumbles; she does not fall.
But Peter is too strong and Susan's hands too unskilled. He smashes the sword from her fingers with enough force to knock her back against the wall. Winded, breathing heavily, she will not meet her brother's look, but she feels the metal blade at her throat. She swallows, raises her head defiantly.
"I can fight."
"Yes, you can."
But it is only a private admission.
The next night, she wakes but she does not leave her bed; her sanctuary has been broken. Instead she listens to the soft murmurs of comfort from her guardian, relaxes as hands stroke her hair, her cheek. Lips press against her forehead.
When she closes her eyes she is not alone. She sleeps, embraced by words.
The voice is strong as she walks the beach, and she walks regally and listens intently. She feels like a queen.
"I can teach you more," says the breeze as she scoops up water, splashing it on her face. Refreshing. Reinvigorating. The water droplets freeze on her hands. "I can teach you this too."
Susan starts back; her hands are strangers to her. She starts back and falls to the ground, shaking.
An exclamation of denial, but the voice is unforgiving. "You knew, Daughter of Eve. You knew and you listened."
Susan runs. She cannot outrun the wind.
"I am Jadis, queen of these lands for a hundred years. I am a part of the land, and will exist until the world ends. You cannot deny me, Daughter of Eve. I am with you now. Deny me and you will be nothing. You will be weak and you will be alone. Do not fear me, Daughter of Eve, I bring you only power."
In her room, Susan lights a candle. Burns her fingers as she melts the frost from her skin.
She does not cry.
Susan is steady and she is cold. Her fingers are nimble as they stitch tapestries; delicate as they paint her face and tighten her dress. She dances with grace and eats with elegance. A proper grown-up lady.
She'll watch over Cair Paravel while her brothers and sister go to war.
Because she's Susan the Gentle, Queen of Narnia.
And she is stronger than any of them.