"I say, isn't that the armour you wore in the great tournament in the Lone Islands?"
- Prince Caspian
"And Your Majesty is not competing?"
Peter tried not to let the question irk him, but it was difficult, considering it was the forty-second time it had been asked.
He'd been keeping count.
He'd also been keeping civil, and he kept civil now as he inclined his crowned head just the fraction demanded by courtesy to the solicitous little courtier who hovered before him. Really, did all these Lone Islanders have to stoop when they saw him coming?
"We are not, Sir Berr," he confirmed. "Our brother has consented to do us the honour of carrying our banner, and we anticipate his success with great confidence."
"Indeed, indeed," Sir Berr seemed remarkably close to scraping the ground, for one standing. "I am sure it will be a marvellous fortnight indeed, with all number of intriguing displays . . . word of your brother's skill, though it may not be as well known as yours, has indeed reached us here in our remote parts. Of course, it is hard for a man to attain the same legendary status as an older brother if he competes more frequently than his better, is it not? One risks so much more by exposing oneself to defeat, after all."
Peter's heart stilled for just one deadly moment.
"We are confident," he spoke with measured caution, "that you cannot be aware of the . . . potential for misinterpretation carried in the remark you have just made. One might almost say you had implied cowardice on the part of your High King. However," with a smile that seemed anything but, "we are sure it was unintentional, and will graciously treat it as such."
Sir Berr's cheek twitched, as if he wasn't sure whether he ought to thank Peter or not, but before he could decide which best to do, Peter ended the audience of his own accord by stepping decidedly away, toward the quarters that had been allotted himself and his siblings during their stay for the Lone Islands Tournament.
"A fortnight of jousting, broadswords, archery and general idiocy," he muttered to himself the moment he was closeted in the private apartments. "I shall go mad ere long."
"I do hope you didn't say as much to our hosts," his sister, the Queen Susan, said dryly from the chaise lounge on which she reclined. "Our poor little Duke is nearly beside himself with the strain arranging all of this to your satisfaction . . . he has taken Edmund down to view the course even as we speak."
"Then Edmund may express his satisfaction, and I shall hide away in here. That wretched little Berr fellow as good as called me coward for not competing- it was all I could do not to call him out then and there."
"It must have been trying to hear such ill-deserved implications, I am sure," Susan murmured, her eyes straying to the delicate scrap of embroidery cradled in the lap of her rich, satin gown. "However, you remember that it was agreed upon amongst we four that it did not become Narnia that our High King should compete against his own subjects for such trifles as a tournament offers. We agreed, Peter," she spoke in the gentle tone of a lecturing mother, "that you should compete only in those tournaments that pitted you against foreign powers, that they might marvel at the strength of our kingdom and carry the reports back to their own rulers."
"I remember well, Lady, what was agreed," Peter sighed, sinking into a chair before the dying morning fire and staring moodily into the flames. "That means not that I am pleased by it, but rather that I know I am bound by my word. And true, a King can ill afford such trifles as vanity and pride, so I will do what I must to hold my tongue."
"I have not a doubt," Susan said demurely, but there was something in her tone that made her brother look up sharply, just in time to catch a twinkle fading back into the depths of his sister's lovely eyes.
"You imagine I cannot do it," he accused, and Susan, rather than taking offence (as surely their sister Queen Lucy or their brother, the aforementioned King Edmund, would have done) merely met his gaze with all tranquility.
"Have I made such a slur upon your character, Brother?" she wondered, and Peter got very red under his collar but said he stood by it, as he thought he knew her well enough.
"Well enough to know my mind?" she wondered, and something in the way she said it made Peter feel suddenly ashamed to have made her ask such a thing of him.
"Of course not, Sister," he sat back, chastened, and looked down just in time to miss the slight quirk of his sister's lovely lips, almost as if she fought a smile.
"In any event," she made a careful stitch, then another, "you will be championed by the greatest Knight beneath you in our kingdom, and there are few Kings who could ask for better. Edmund will do us all proud, Peter; he has such love for you, he cannot help but awe them all by that alone."
"There is that," Peter agreed, and some of the tension left his noble face as he reflected on this.
Edmund, he knew, would indeed do them proud. After all, if a man could not count on his brother, then on whom could he depend? And Peter would trust Edmund, who loved his brother and sisters as only they could understand, with his life. The paltry honours won and lost at a tournament paled in comparison.
He was still reflecting on this when the door opened again, and Queen Lucy popped through, quickly shutting the door behind her and leaning up against it, blue eyes wide and tendrils of golden hair straggling free from beneath her beaten-silver crown to fall into her lovely face.
"Oh!" she gasped, still leaning against the door and breathing hard, "oh, Peter, do please chase them away!"
"Chase who away?" Peter was on his feet in a heartbeat, one hand flying to where his sword Rhindon ought to have been buckled. Too late he remembered Rhindon was under the careful care of the dwarf who always travelled with the courts of Cair Paravel and tended to their armour and weaponry when it was not in use.
Susan glanced up from her embroidery, but did not react with the same violence Peter had displayed. Instead, she merely smiled to herself and examined her handiwork more closely as Lucy whined plaintively,
"Grigg and Herrild!"
"What in the Lion's Name are a grigg and herrild?" Peter stammered, and Susan laughed out loud, drawing the startled glance of her brother and baleful glare of her sister.
"Grigg and Herrild," Susan twinkled, "are two noble young men who have taken it into their heads to compete for the favour of our fair sister. They have been pursuing her about the palace all day, each begging a boon from his one true lady love. Lucy has been eluding them with a determination that equals, if it do not fully surpass, their own. I believe she has come to plead our succour."
"You may laugh if you wish, Susan," poor Lucy looked near tears. "You at least are used to receiving court from men who are old enough to grow beards! It isn't fair- I get the lovesick puppies who think they ought to sing me ballads and fight duels for me, as if I were still all of ten, and might be impressed by such things. But they really are such little fools that I feel it cruel to kick them away, only they will insist on coming! Peter, please chase them off! I wanted to walk the course with Edmund but then they found me and I've been trying to hide ever since!"
Peter, his panic quite left him now, began to laugh and collapsed into his chair. Susan, though she did not laugh, permitted herself a deeper smile as she bent her head over her embroidery, and Lucy gave a wail of indignant dismay.
"Oh, you're both impossible! You have no idea what they're like- I had no idea such young men as these even existed! If one offers me the moon, the other swears he will climb up and fetch it back himself! If one offers me the sun, the other prepares to go there directly and harvest me a bouquet of fireflowers. Each declaration is more ridiculous than the last, each promised feat more impossible than the one that came before it. How am I to be rid of them? Oh, please, Susan," she here she flew across the room to kneel at her sister's side, "please tell me how to do it."
Susan, I am afraid to report, did not work very hard to fight a smile as she focused thoughtfully on the little embroidery frame that rested in her lap. Lucy, I am equally ashamed to admit, quite lost her temper at the sight of the smile and snatched Susan's embroidery right off her lap. Susan cried out at the loss, and Lucy, dancing back quickly, held the handiwork aloft as she challenged,
"Now you will tell me, will you not?"
"What," Susan was on her feet in a trice, frowning reprovingly at her sister, "a Queen of Narnia concede to the foul will of a blackmailer? E'en her own sister? I think not."
"Oho!" Lucy cast a triumphant look at Peter, "there, did you hear that? Our fair sister cast aspersions on my character. You must make her do penance by telling me how I am to be rid of these wretched little suitors!"
Peter, for his part, was laughing in earnest now, Sir Berr's slight of some minutes past completely forgotten in the face of his two sisters going toe to toe for the sake of information sought and a bit of embroidery.
"It would not befit a King of Narnia," he managed to sputter at last, "to . . . chastise one sister for belittling the other. It . . . it would suggest favouritism . . ." and then he was off again, laughing helplessly even as Susan made an unsuccessful grab for the embroidery and Lucy whipped it behind her back, then cried out abruptly, let it fall and examined a drop of blood that glistened on her finger.
"I stuck myself," she said petulantly.
Susan, to her credit, did not bear her sister any grudge but immediately forgot the once-captive embroidery and took Lucy's hand in hers to examine, fuss over and carefully daub with the dainty edge of her own handkerchief.
"There," Susan said at last, "I think you are well enough to sit down and put yourself to rights," and here she tucked one or two strands of Lucy's hair back from her face, "and listen to some advice."
Lucy, relieved that her plight was at last being taken seriously, obediently sat beside her sister and listened as Susan explained some simple, kind tactics for turning away suitors who seemed a little too eager to win a lady's heart. Peter might have listened in on their conversation had he not realised it was almost time for him to meet with Edmund, and discuss his brother's first day as Narnia's champion tomorrow at the tournament. So it was with great reluctance that the High King got to his feet and slipped out, closing the door gently on Susan's careful explanation.
Then he set a brisk pace down the hall to the room his brother had been given for their stay, knocking on the door and being admitted by Edmund himself, who seemed to have aged a decade in a day. Alarmed, Peter put his hand on his brother's arm as the door swung shut behind him.
"Ed, you look exhausted! Is something wrong?"
"No, no," Edmund shook his head fretfully, and Peter grew even more concerned.
"Is it the course? Your opponents? Do you think it will be too much of a challenge for Ram? Or will it be too difficult for-" and he stopped, for he had been about to say 'you' but he could not bring himself to malign Edmund that way. Edmund knew what he had meant, though, for he looked up at his brother in fierce defiance.
"No! I can handle their course, Peter; it will be my greatest honour to champion you. But . . . I worry," he admitted, leading the way to a pair of comfortable arm chairs set before a cold fireplace, "that it may be too great an honour for one man."
"Oh?" Peter settled into one chair as Edmund took the other. "And whence springs this fear, Brother?"
Edmund could not meet Peter's eye at first, and when at last he did Peter was unnerved by how troubled he looked as he made his reply.
"I am only one man. And you, Peter, are the greatest man I know. How can I do you the honour you deserve? If I fail, then all is lost. Narnia has no other champion to offer, and Cair Paravel has been defeated at her High King's own tournament. I could not bear it if I were the cause of your defeat, however inconsequential we may have deemed the tournament to be. Please, Peter," Edmund sat forward, his expression deadly earnest, "do not give me this burden to bear alone. Give me some other man to fight beside, that if I fail you, you may still have one on whom you may rely."
When his brother had finished speaking, Peter sat very still for a long time. At last he looked up, and Edmund thought he had never seen his brother look so solemn nor so noble as he did at that moment, when he made his decree.
"You are our brother," he informed Edmund, and when he spoke he was as perfectly formal as any King should be, "and you have been appointed Champion because we would choose no other man to defend our title. You will go onto that field one man, with the conviction of your King and your kingdom behind you. You will do as any Champion ought; you will bow to the crown that you serve, honour the throne from which you reign, and you will remember you hold the favour of the Lion. You will not fight alone, Edmund; you will fight under the banner of Aslan, and to win or lose under that banner is a small thing compared to having fought beneath it at all."
Edmund swallowed hard; it might not have been the answer he sought, but strangely enough, it was the one he had needed to hear. Even before Peter had finished speaking he had begun to sit up a little straighter, and some of the desperation had left his eyes. By the time Peter sat back in his chair and suggested they speak of other things, Edmund knew that tomorrow, whether he won or lost, he would have gone out onto the field under his brother's name. He would walk to meet his challengers with his brother's favour riding on him, and he knew that win or lose, there was no other way he would rather fight.
A.N.: Thus ends part one of two! The second and final part will be along very shortly indeed, and in the meantime I cannot suggest to you strongly enough that you all check out the amazing work of an independent Celtic folk artist named Heather Dale. Her song Bow to the Crown was the inspiration for this little two-part fic, and once you hear it I think you'll know why. It can be purchased as a single song through the Puretracks site, or if you like you can order the entire CD through Heather's own site, heatherdale dot com.
Otherwise, let me know what you thought, and watch for the second and last part, to be posted very soon!