Edmund, his mouth full, quickly swallowed the offending foodstuff. Lucy grinned and laughed; Susan only smiled. Then her eyes flicked upward, from her place on the little table, to see Peter walking over the little hill toward them.
The other three Pevensies had not seen him since a short time earlier that morning, when Oreius had come to fetch him. When he sat down at the table, Susan, most practical, was the first to speak.
"Where were you?" she asked, as Peter sat down at the table beside her.
"Did you talk to Aslan?' Lucy asked eagerly. Peter nodded, reaching for the plate of toast which Edmund had abandoned. Lucy shot Edmund a triumphant look, as if to say, "I told you so."
"He's going," said Peter, once he'd chewed and swallowed. He looked around the table at his siblings. "Aslan's going."
"Where?" Edmund demanded at once. Peter shrugged a shoulder.
"He didn't say, exactly," he admitted. "I think he's gathering more troops."
To the other three, this was good news. They relaxed, but Peter's expression remained serious. "You don't get it," he said exasperatedly, his voice urgent. "If Aslan's gone, I'm the only one left, aren't I?"
"Are not," Edmund managed, as soon as he had gulped down a mouthful of cool water. "We're kings and queens of Narnia too, you know."
"Yes, but I'm High King."
"Who told you that?" Edmund challenged crossly.
"Aslan," said Peter. In any other instance, there would have been at least some trace of smugness in his voice. Right now, though, he appeared too nervous for that. "What if something happens while Aslan's away? I'm supposed to deal with it?"
"Peter, relax," said Susan, smiling reassuringly at him. "Nothing's going to happen now. Besides, he'll get back soon, right?"
Peter nodded slowly. "I imagine so," he said. "He told me he'd be back for the battle, anyway."
"Well, there you are," said Susan. "There's nothing to worry about." She went back to her breakfast, completely unperturbed. Edmund still looked irritated that Peter was in charge rather than himself, but said nothing. To his credit, he was doing his best to reconcile himself with the idea; after all, Peter could have said some nasty things, all true, to him earlier, and had refrained.
Lucy, already finished with her meal, had taken the dagger from her belt and was now turning its unsheathed blade over in her hands. "Do you suppose you and I will be fighting?" she asked, addressing herself to Susan. "I don't think I could do very much with this. It's not nearly as long as Peter's sword."
"You're not fighting," said Peter firmly. "And I don't think Sue should, either."
"Why not?" demanded Susan.
"Because you're girls," Edmund broke in self-importantly. "Girls always lose their heads when they get scared."
"Because," said Peter, giving Edmund a look, "I don't want you to get hurt. What would I tell Aslan and the rest of Narnia if you got killed? What would I tell Mum?"
The idea of dying did not seem to worry Lucy much. On the contrary, she seemed quite amused by the thought. "Tell her we sacrificed ourselves for our country!" she said, giggling.
"But I'm meant to fight," said Susan, as though that settled the matter. "Father Christmas wouldn't have given me real weapons if he didn't want me to use them."
"In an emergency," Peter countered. "You girls aren't to be near the actual battle at all, if I can help it. If I had things my way, Edmund wouldn't even be going in to fight."
"I can use a sword just as well as you can!" protested Edmund.
"It's much easier to run into battle yourself than to let your family." Peter looked at each of his siblings in turn. "I have to not let anything happen to you—to any of you," he added, noticing Edmund's sullen glare. "The only reason Ed's going is because Aslan has already ordered his armor prepared."
"So are we not supposed to help?" asked Lucy rather irritably.
"You're not supposed to get yourself killed. That would be worse than losing the battle."
"No, it wouldn't," Susan retorted.
"It would as far as I'm concerned."
Susan gave him a patronizing pat on the arm. "Well, then, I'll stand off to one side if it makes you feel better. But you'll let me shoot if I see an enemy."
"—and I'll stay hidden and keep my wits about me, and I'll use the bow that Father Christmas gave to me." Susan's voice contained enough authority to cow her brother, who reached morosely across the small table and snagged a few grapes before straightening up and popping them into his mouth in silence.
"And what about me?" asked Lucy. "What'll I do?"
"You'll be the brave healer that stands on the sidelines and saves everyone's lives just in time," said Edmund with a grin, ending the discussion. Lucy didn't seem inclined to argue anyway.
After breakfast, the children went their separate ways. Lucy and Susan went for some target practice, while the boys found mounts—Peter a unicorn, Edmund a Talking Horse—to prepare themselves for battle on horseback. At least, that was their original plan, but when they actually found themselves on their respective mounts, it was so enjoyable that they spent a good half-hour just chasing each other idly around a field. It was Peter who first picked up a sword, and discovered that maneuvering the thing while on horseback was not as easy as he might have thought. Together, he and Edmund set to practicing.
"First blood!" crowed Edmund as he tapped Peter sharply on the elbow with the flat of his blade. They circled around each other on brown and white steeds, their swords flashing in the bright sunlight and ringing out like twin bells as they struck. These were not heavy, ungainly weapons, such as what might be found in our world—no, these were Narnian swords, perfectly balanced, beautifully made, so that it was not a privilege to wield them, but a joy.
"Your Majesties!" came an urgent voice from behind them. Edmund craned his neck around Peter, who had to turn his mount around before he could see who was speaking.
"Your Majesties!" repeated Mr. Beaver breathlessly, "She's here!"
"Who?" asked Edmund, although he had a sinking feeling that he already knew.
"The Witch herself," Mr. Beaver said in a voice filled with worry. "She's coming through the camp right now!"
Edmund looked quickly at Peter, who glanced back at him. Peter's face, easily read, reflected first only a feeling of consternation. Then slowly, an expression of growing alarm appeared on his features.
"Couldn't—she just leave a message with someone?" Peter asked weakly.
After having been assured that this was not an option, the brothers made their way down the hill in the direction of Aslan's encampment, with Mr. Beaver running a short distance ahead. Sounds of shouting met their ears as they grew closer; Peter swallowed and spurred his mount on. Edmund did the same.
Even before they had technically reached the camp, it was not difficult to see where the Witch was, for around her stood a crowd of immense proportions. Every Talking Beast, every faun and centaur, every dryad and naiad, stood around her, crying out with unabashed anger.
In the midst of this chaos was the Witch herself; unable to use her sleigh—for here there was no snow, but green grass and shining skies—she sat instead on a litter, borne on the shoulders of four gruesome, hulking creatures. The awful dwarf that Edmund remembered all too well walked before her, doing his best to shout above the roar, "Make way for Jadis, Queen of Narnia, Empress of the Lone Islands!", which was not a statement received well. The Witch herself seemed deaf to the unflattering shouts around her, but only continued forward, until the litter stopped directly before Aslan's tent.
As one, the creatures knelt clumsily, and the Witch dismounted. Instantly there was a hush. Those under Aslan's protection knew themselves safe, but the fear the Witch had beaten into them for a hundred years was not to be easily dismissed. As she stepped forward, the Narnians stepped backward; Peter and Edmund, at the very edge of the crowd, slid off their horses and began making their way toward her.
"So," said the Witch, in a voice that was as icy as her reign and carried on the wind. She did not have to shout to be heard. "Where is the great cat?" she asked the multitude in a mocking tone. "Where is your precious Aslan?"
There had not yet been time for the news to get around that Aslan had gone; people were nudging each other, muttering furiously under their breath, looking anxiously at the gold and red tent, its canvas flaps fluttering in the wind. The brothers at last reached the front of the crowd, but were careful to remain inconspicuous, Edmund standing slightly behind Peter.
The Witch smiled at the mass of creatures, a cold, tight-lipped smile. She did not see Edmund, nor Peter, for her back was turned to them. "So your brave protector does not deign to see me," she said. "No matter—it is not Aslan that I need. Give me the human traitor, and there will be no bloodshed."
Cries of shock rang out around the campground; the little one, with the dark hair, did she mean him? Yes, she must, for it was he that Aslan had denounced, and then forgiven. But how dare she ask for such a thing?
"She's mad," Peter muttered; he could feel Edmund's hot, nervous breath on the back of his neck. "Thinking she can march in here and ask for a prisoner back."
But Mr. Beaver, down near Peter's feet, shook his head. "It's in the laws of Narnia," he said in a low voice. "Anyone who betrays Narnia belongs to her."
"But why?" asked Peter plaintively. Mr. Beaver shrugged.
"I couldn't tell you that," he said. "It's Deep Magic. Aslan's law. Traitors are as filthy as she is; she deserves 'em." Then, upon seeing Edmund's stricken face, Mr. Beaver patted the boy's hand. "Of course, I didn't mean you," he said comfortingly.
The Witch's eyes had found Susan and Lucy on the opposite side of the crowd, clutching each others' hands as they watched her with horrified and angered faces. She smiled that slow, awful smile again. "The Deep Magic cannot be ignored," she said to them. "Your brother's blood is my property."
"Try and take him, then!" Peter burst out, pulling his sword from its sheath with a sound that sliced the air to point it at the Witch. Alarmed by the sudden action, Edmund grabbed the back of his shirt before he saw that Peter intended only to take a single step forward. The Witch turned, saw them for the first time. The look she gave Peter, cold and withering, was terribly unnerving, but he did not waver.
"Do you really think mere force will deny me my right?" she asked patronizingly, her eyes hard, "little king?"
Peter's face flushed; the Witch turned from him as though he were no more threat to her than a fly, and he sheathed his sword again, biting his lip.
"Aslan knows that unless I am appeased as the law demands," the Witch was saying, "all of Narnia will be overturned and perish in fire and water! That boy—" she whirled, leveling a finger at Edmund's face "—will die, on the Stone Table!"
The blood drained from Peter's face. Behind him, he felt Edmund shrink backwards fearfully, but he grabbed his brother's arm.
"…as is tradition," the Witch finished smugly into the shocked silence. "Aslan dares not refuse me."
His heart pounding furiously, Peter released Edmund's arm. He desperately wished Aslan could have foreseen this when he had decided to make Peter second in command. Stepping forward a short distance into the circle, he spoke up. "Aslan is not here. Anything you have to say can be said to me."
He saw the corners of the Witch's mouth twitch. "Very well, my little prince," she said. "Lead me."
Peter's eyes flicked anxiously around the camp. He dared not take her into Aslan's tent; that would be sacrilege. The only place he could think of was the tent where he had slept the night before. Self-consciously, aware of everyone's eyes upon him and especially the Witch's, he moved through the crowd. It parted warily for him as he walked toward the tent; Peter felt Oreius's heavy hand upon his shoulder as he passed him, and his nerves abated slightly.
He did not look back to see if the Witch was following him, but when he paused at the entrance of the tent, there she was. Without thinking, Peter held the canvas flap open for her; she stepped inside, brushing against him as she did so, and Peter flinched instinctively. She had to duck her head, she was so tall. Then Peter stepped inside himself.
As soon as the cloth fell, leaving them in dimness so that it was a moment before Peter's eyes adjusted, a coil of fear twisted itself in his stomach. He had his sword still at his side; the Witch had nothing but her hands. But they were strong hands, made all of sinew and muscle. They hung, deceptively idle, at her sides now, but they were powerful all the same. Peter thought of those hands as he remembered the ugly, unexplained bruise that still remained on Edmund's cheek, and he grew a little braver.
"Your wish to save your brother is a noble one, no doubt," said the Witch, still standing as she faced him calmly. "But it is a futile one."
"Edmund's not a traitor," said Peter suddenly, surprised to hear the strength in his own voice. "He made a mistake."
"And yet he would have seen you killed," the Witch pointed out sharply. "You and your sisters and all of Narnia."
Peter opened his mouth to protest—no, not Edmund. Edmund would have never harmed his siblings, he had only been selfish, forgotten the inevitable consequences of his actions—but the Witch stepped closer toward him, her eyes slits of malice. She bent slightly at the waist, leaning down and forward as though to speak to a child.
"You have no way of denying me what is mine," she said, in a voice that was very low. "You are not a force in Narnia; you are a boy, a lost little boy, wandering in a world that is not your own. You are not a king, and not even a king, not even Aslan, could take the traitor from me."
Her eyes were black, so black, less like pupils and irises than simply two dark holes set against her white skin. But Peter never took his eyes from hers. He did not dare to.
"Give me your brother," she said. Her long fingers reached up to bite into his shoulder. "Give me the traitor, and Narnia lives. Take him for yourself, keep him selfishly for a few miserable days, and Narnia will die, crushed under the weight of the Deep Magic."
Peter could almost feel his shoulders sagging with the burden she was placing upon them. It seemed to take every ounce of strength he had to just keep standing straight, to force his chin up, to keep staring into those bottomless eyes that bored into him.
"But mark my words," said the Witch, emphasizing each word as she spoke, "I—must—have—blood."