Disclaimer: Narnia and its characters are the property of CS Lewis, Walden Media, and Disney. I'm just borrowing them and I promise to give them back when I'm done. Until the next story hits me, of course. All quotes at the start of the chapters are from Seamus Heaney's 2000 translation of Beowulf.
My thanks go out to Elexandros for holding my hand and to Almyra and Anastigmat for kicking the tires and lighting the fires. I would also like to thank the1hobbit for her adorable and inspiring artwork. All of you ladies are amazing and I'm in total awe of each of you!
This tells the tale of Peter's awful spring immediately following "Into the West" and "They Also Serve." I won't be updating this story as quickly as I normally do simply because I'm wrestling with a world-class case of writer's block. The story is coming along, but oh, so slowly.
Chapter One: The Stone Crown
'They sang then and played to please the hero,
words and music for their warrior prince,
harp tunes and tales of adventure . . .'
- Beowulf, lines 1062-1064
". . . and King Frank made her a mazer carved from the branch of a hornbeam tree and every morning through spring and summer and autumn and winter Queen Helen put a pebble into the bowl to count the days until a whole year had gone by -"
"How did she know it was a year?"
"Peterkins!" exclaimed my brother. "Don't interrupt the High King! The Centaurs told her."
"But how did they know?"
"They were already wise when Aslan called them into being, unlike some Foxes I know. Now shush!"
"Thank you, Edmund. So. At the end of the first year, on New Year's Day, Queen Helen counted the pebbles in the bowl and found she had three hundred, ninety-six of them, which she divided into twelve piles of three-and-thirty and if you don't hold your questions until the end, Peterkins, I'll never finish the history lesson. So Narnia's calendar is three hundred, ninety-six days long, with each of the twelve months having three-and-thirty days. The new year starts on the first day of spring, which is the very first day of the month of . . . ?"
I looked at the young Fox riding in front of Edmund as he tried hard to remember the names of the months, his little face scrunched up as he wracked his limited memory.
Master Peter Fox was the third kit and only son of Dog Sir Giles Slyashlar Fox and his charming wife from the southern swamps, Vixen Lady Marion Fox. Born out of season on the first day of winter, he and his two sisters had been raised in Cair Paravel since the weather had been too severe for them to return to their home in the Southern Marches. Giles and Marion were very popular in the royal court and a great fuss had been raised over the birth of the kits. Recognizing early that a palace full of doting servants and nobles would go far towards spoiling any child, Marion had ruthlessly cracked down on the three kits in the fashion typical for her kind. The end result was three very mannerly, respectful, sweet-tempered children. The two vixens, Helene and Sarai, were perfect little ladies who adored all things lacy and fluffy and followed Susan everywhere. The only dog of the litter, Peter, who for some reason his parents named after me, had been mortified to be born third and took every opportunity to remind the world at large that he was the eldest son of Sir Giles and his foremost goal in life was to become a knight of Narnia. In appearance he favored his mother, having far more black on him than his sisters, but in every other way he was his father's child. Early on, before he could even talk, it had been decided to saddle him with a nickname to avoid confusion. I had immediately quashed all suggestions of Pete or Petey or Peers. We were at a bit of a loss until Edmund dubbed him Peterkins - a name, I suspected, he would have dearly loved to use on me if he thought for an instant he could have gotten away with it.
"Quickening!" Peterkins declared with as much authority as his high-pitched voice could muster.
"Close!" I shook my head ruefully. I ducked down to avoid some low branches just as the tree's Dryad moved them out of my way. I smiled and waved my thanks. "After Quickening."
Knowing we'd wait in vain otherwise, Edmund leaned over and whispered in his ear, pretending to duck under a branch as he did so. Peterkins perked up and said, "Mayblossom!"
"Correct! Well done, Master Fox," I complimented. Edmund was smiling. "Now stop dancing around like that or Phillip won't carry you anymore. And if you fall off I'll have to explain to your father, my dear friend why I let his only son come to injury."
He quieted down, balancing on the saddle before Edmund. I would have carried him but Jett tended to shy when she felt him move about and she was already nervous about something she smelt on the breeze. Phillip was far more tolerant of having small Animals bounce around on his back.
"So. King Frank took one pebble from each pile and he brought them to the Dwarf smiths. He asked them to make the queen a new crown using the pebbles. The Dwarfs made her a crown all in gold and silver set with the plain little pebbles and it became known as the Stone Crown. She wore that crown every year for the celebration of the new year. That's why so many pictures in books and tapestries and stained glass you'll see Queen Helen with a gray crown. People began to think the whole thing was made of stone. And that's why the constellation Helen's Crown has twelve stars in it."
Here Edmund chimed in. "I know what you're about to ask, Peterkins. You're about to ask, 'But King Peter, isn't Helen's Crown called the Herald of Winter?' To which my brother the High King would make reply, 'It is indeed, my dear and clever little Fox, but on the first of Mayblossom, Helen's Crown dips down behind the horizon and is not seen again until the end of autumn.'"
I laughed as Edmund exaggerated our voices. Peterkins, who clearly had not been about to ask anything of the kind, looked very impressed at his own ingenuity. He was keenly intelligent - almost alarmingly so - very observant, and consumed by curiosity over everything unfamiliar. All in all he was very good company and fun to have along. An idea struck him and his ears perked up as he asked, "Kings' Day is in Mayblossom, isn't it?"
I smiled, reaching over to pat Jett's neck and try to sooth her nerves. "Of course it is. Do you know why?"
Peterkins thought it over and had to admit, "No."
"Because King Edmund's birthday and my birthday are both in that month and Kings' Day falls exactly between them. Edmund's birthday is actually on New Year's Day, what the Centaurs call May Day, and my birthday is sixteen days later. So I'm not quite three years older."
"And the Lion knows a week cannot go by without having something to celebrate in Narnia," Edmund added sarcastically.
I couldn't help but chuckle, for the holiday really had no point. "No, it can't. So that, Peterkins, is the story of Narnia's calendar. Of course, Archenland and Calormen have different notions to mark the passing of days. Archenland starts its new year a sennight after Christmas and Calormen's new year starts on the first full moon of winter. But we start on the day Aslan called the world into being."
"Why are they different?" he wondered, snapping at a fly buzzing around his head. Unlike his father but like his sisters, he had trouble keeping still. We lived in the hope that he'd outgrow that trait.
"Because they're different countries and different people," Edmund replied, catching and pinning him before he tumbled off the Horse's back. "They don't have the same history as Narnia, so why should they have the same calendar?"
Suddenly Jett tossed her head and whinnied, fighting the reins. Phillip immediately drew away as I struggled to calm her. "Whoa! Whoa, Jett! Easy girl," I soothed. She finally stilled, her stiff legs planted firmly on the earth.
"Phillip, do you smell anything?" Edmund asked. Peterkins immediately sniffed the air, but at his age I was fairly certain the only things he could recognize would be his parents and food.
"No," said the Horse. He tested the breeze again. The breeze was gentle and from the north, and to me it smelt faintly of spring and the pine forest on the edge of the Northern Marches. "Perhaps she senses something that I cannot."
I sighed, still trying to reassure the mare, fairly certain I could guess what was bothering her so. We were just south of the Lantern Waste, riding forth on patrol with a troop of soldiers as escort. There had been rumors of strange events in the area around what remained of the White Witch's castle - strange shapes, odd noises, and the like. The tales were only rumors because nothing - no Animals, no Magical Creatures, no Walking Trees or Divine Waters would go within a few miles of the place, especially at night. Soldiers checked the area on a regular basis, but even they were hesitant about approaching the ruined castle. One story persisted, though: the body of water surrounding the castle, Lake Asher, was receding. Something about the area had Jett agitated and I knew well enough not to dismiss her reactions.
I glanced at the sun as it dipped towards the horizon and then at the armed escort drawing in closer. The area was sheltered and as comfortable as any, and we were hardly in a rush.
"Let's make camp," I decided, dismounting. "Vimal, we'll stop here," I called to the Satyr lieutenant.
Peterkins helped by getting underfoot as we set up camp for the night. Small tents were pitched, food prepared, and the remainder of the troop caught up with us. Talking Animals from the surrounding wood joined us, some bringing food to share, others coming to mooch. A group of Fauns brought wine and lyres and pipes and we had music and song. Everyone that came was asked about the rumors surrounding the castle, but no one had anything to add. Anything useful, I should say, until a Bear, thoughtfully scratching his belly all the while, commented that fishing had fallen off in the River Ashera, which fed into the lake before making its way to join the Great River. Neither Ed nor I knew what to make of that so we just added it to the list of strange things surrounding the castle.
As we waited on our evening meal, I played a round of chess against Peterkins with Edmund moving the pieces for him. We made it a point to include him in many activities, knowing the experience would do him good in the future if he chose to follow in his father's paw prints. He lost spectacularly despite my best efforts to tone down my game. It seemed he was only interested in moving his knights, not actually following anything like a plan of attack. He lost well enough, looking very surprised when I cornered him in checkmate when I could avoid it no longer.
Luckily he didn't get a chance to brood because just then the two Boars in our little troop, Boris and Shikov, were joined by a local Boar named Uri and they performed a traditional dance for us called a boreen. Most breeds of Talking Animals have their own styles of dance and song, but boreens were common to just about everything with four feet on the ground, with allowances made for size, speed, and tails. The three Boars stepped and swayed in unison, turning in time with the music, grunting and snuffling aloud and stamping their hooves. I laughed and clapped while beside me Edmund muffled a snicker, covering his mouth as he turned away with a snort. Peterkins, still in my brother's lap, moved his paws and rocked to the music until Edmund nudged him and he slunk over to get a better view.
I glanced over at Edmund. He kept his head ducked down and his shoulders were shaking. He was trying very hard and unsuccessfully not to giggle at the sight of dancing pigs. For some reason seeing Animals dance struck him as supremely funny every time he saw it, and I tended to find him and his amusement more entertaining than the Animals. I gave him a shove and he deliberately toppled over, catching himself on his elbow as he gave in and laughed until he was spent. Finally he mastered himself and managed to watch the rest of the dance with only a few lapses.
"Are you with me tomorrow?" I asked a little while later as we sat down to a meal of game and bread and stewed nettles (which I wouldn't touch unless I was starving again and even then I'd have to think twice about it).
Edmund poured us some wine, saying quietly, "If it's all the same I'd rather not. I don't ever want to see that place again." He glanced at me a little nervously and I smiled to reassure him, not about to pressure him.
"All right. Then why don't you go check on the Tree of Protection while I check the castle and we'll meet at Beaversdam in the morning? That way we can visit with the Beavers and report back to Susan and Lucy that all's well."
"And escape before dinner?" he asked hopefully. Mrs. Beaver, we had discovered long ago, had cooking skills that extended only as far as fish and toast despite her enthusiasm as a hostess.
"Before lunch," I promised, much to his relief. I looked past him and sighed. "Peterkins! Use your napkin to wipe your face, not your paws . . . or your tail, Master Fox!"
Edmund pursed his lips, lifting his wine to hide his laugh. "You wonder why Lady Marion was so happy to see the back of him?"
I shook my head, turning back at my brother as I held the bridge of my nose in the hopes of avoiding a headache. "Not for an instant, good my brother."