Ever After

O0O0O0O

Narnian autumns are never twice the same. It is, Lucy says, the loveliest thing about them— that one never knows what grand and wonderful thing will happen from one year to the next, and so they are always worth anticipating. I do not know that Susan agrees with this assessment —Susan does not do well with the unplanned— but I know she would never intentionally say anything to dampen Lucy's joy, and so that first autumn that the monarchs spent in Narnia found both Queens in a state of great excitement.

They busied themselves with the final inspections of all the properties that would be indwelt that winter, making note of any improvements left to be made. Lucy travelled from home to home, reacquainting herself with all her subjects, being glad to know them and to learn of all they had done in her absence. Susan was brought up to date on all particulars of the Cair and its housekeeping by Mrs Clogg and undertook to determine which posts wanted staffing, how much food would need to be set aside that winter, and just how far they could be expected to strain their resources without people going badly hungry.

This sort of work was just what Lucy and Susan best loved, and so the close of summer found them a glad pair indeed. The same, I am afraid, cannot be said of the Narnian Kings. Oh, they started out happily enough, I believe— King Edmund took great pleasure in touring the newly-rebuilt roads, inspecting and praising the diligent work of the Moles who had dug drainage ditches and built up roadbeds and the Giants who had stomped them down flat. King Peter met with the Castle Guard, and both brothers began their tutelage under Fergal, who had made his way North with the Narnian company on their return from Archenland.

These sort of things were exactly what the brothers liked best, too, and it might have been that they were a very merry little family, had it not been for the sudden return one day in late summer of Susan and Lucy both, who had not been expected back from their inspection of certain Western properties for hours yet.

"Don't tell them, Susan; don't you see, you mustn't," Lucy was heard to instruct her sister as they sidled through a small, little-used utility door around the back of the Cair.

"Lucy, if you are suggesting that I lie to our brothers—"

"I am suggesting nothing of the sort! How could you even think such a thing? I am only saying there is no reason that the subject need ever arise. If you do not speak of it and if I say nothing of the matter—"

"What matter is that?" Edmund stepped from the shadows of an alcove a little further down the corridor. Both Queens stopped in their tracks. Lucy looked pleadingly at Susan, who frowned.

"Lucy, I told you; I will not lie."

"Nor am I asking you to! Edmund," the smaller Queen rounded on their brother, "Edmund won't you please trust me that it isn't anything you need to know about? And that it's certainly not anything Peter should ever have to hear of."

Naturally this did nothing to assuage the King's curiosity, and he demanded to be told at once what had happened. Lucy did her best to persuade Susan that nothing need be said, but Susan, very white around her lips, refused to agree with Lucy on that point, and so the story came out. As soon as Edmund heard it, he marched his sisters straight into the stable yard to tell the story to Peter, who was in the middle of being beat about the head by Fergal.

"A Hag?" Peter dropped his sword. Fergal uttered oaths, grabbed the sword up from the dirt and clouted the King on the back of the head before shoving the weapon back into the boy's hands.

"And a Minotaur," Edmund added, his arms crossed over his chest.

"But they're quite dead now," Lucy added earnestly. "Susan killed them both."

"Susan did?" Peter swung round to stare at his sister, and saw that she looked quite green.

"It— can we please not discuss it?" Susan murmured. "You know now that it happened, and that is all I meant for you to do. I don't particularly wish to carry on a conversation about it."

"You, lass?" Fergal leaned on his own sword and studied the Queen with interest. Susan, at fourteen, was yet very slight and not of the height she would be when she was fully grown, so it was understandable that the idea of her killing a Minotaur would occasion one's curiosity.

Susan looked at her toes as much as she dared without actually appearing ashamed. "It was nothing, really. Can we please not—"

"Nothing!" Lucy cried. Now that the story had begun to be told, she could not countenance that it be told with anything short of unbridled enthusiasm. "I should say it was a good deal of something! She shot them, you know," she added, rounding on their little audience— Fergal intrigued, Edmund amused, and Peter a shade of purple that made coherent speech impossible. "We were just finishing up at Lowland Keep and we meant to ride south to look in on the manor at the Lowland Ford when we saw them. I suppose they'd been watching us for some time, probably to make sure we were alone, and then at last just as we were mounted and underway, they came out of the trees to block the path. Susan was marvellous! She had her bow, of course, and so she just shot them!"

"Lucy!" Susan looked increasingly ill and desperate with every word her sister spoke. "Lucy, please—"

"Must be quite a shot," Fergal said, still studying Susan. "P'rhaps we ought to set her Majesty up with a target and see—"

"I wouldn't have thought it of you, Susan," Edmund said thoughtfully. "Lucy, yes, but . . ."

Susan looked at him, then, and Edmund was immediately silent.

"She had a dagger," said the Queen. There was a tremor in her voice as she spoke. "She had a dagger just like that of the Hag who . . . in the Western Wood . . . she was coming straight for us. She was looking at Lucy. I had to— there wasn't any other—" but she stopped speaking then in order to run over to a distant corner of the yard, where she was violently ill. Everybody kindly looked away from her.

"Still wouldn't mind seeing her shoot," Fergal said, after a minute's silence had passed.

"Oh," said Edmund, "I doubt she'd go in for that— but look here, Peter, are you quite all right? You look a bit . . . er . . ."

Peter didn't just look . . . er . . . he felt it, too. He reclaimed his tongue at last, only to say "if I thought for a minute you'd not find some way out of it I'd lock you both in the tower for the next ninety years."

"Peter!" Lucy cried. "Oh, Peter, how can you be so unfair?"

Edmund scratched his head. "We haven't got a gaol tower, have we?" he asked of nobody in particular. Peter didn't seem to hear either of them.

"Put you both under lock and key . . . guards six men deep . . . a Hag, Lucy! And a Minotaur! What if you had been alone? What if Susan could not reach her bow? You'd both be—" but the thought of even imagining the end of that sentence made Peter feel ill, and so he did not.

"Well," he said instead, "you are both just not going anywhere, ever again. That is all there is to it." And he clanked and clattered away in his battered practice armour to take a few violent swings at various objects, secure in the knowledge that the matter had been settled.

Of course anyone who has siblings could tell you straight away that the matter was nowhere close to settled. Lucy at once put up a terrible fuss and spent the remainder of the day bemoaning the injustice of her brother's high-handed edict. She tried to persuade Susan to join her in this endeavour, but Susan's stomach was still so at war with itself that she was forced to take to her bed with a damp cloth over her eyes. When Lucy attempted to present her case at that point, Susan banished her from the room by threatening to side with Peter, and so Lucy left Susan quite alone after that.

It was Edmund whom the younger Queen next approached, and it was in Edmund that she found her reluctant ally— chiefly because she promised him she would never let him be until he came to see things her way. With Edmund at her side, Lucy next began to beleaguer Peter until at last (when Edmund, looking rather ragged around the edges, seized his brother by his shirt and said "you are looking at a desperate man, Peter; just give her what she wants!") the older King gave in, saying that Lucy might go abroad once more, but only if she took with her at all times a detail of body-guards.

This was quite all right with Lucy, who was glad of the company anyway (Susan having professed, from beneath her damp cloth, a firm intention of not leaving her bed until next spring) but it put both Kings in a sorry state of mood. Peter was by no means easy in his mind about letting Lucy go, body-guard or not, and so he sulked his way around the castle in company with Edmund whenever Lucy went out. Because Peter spent so much time in company with Edmund, the younger King got pretty tetchy too, until both of them could hardly stand to be in the same room as one another.

Lucy, however, was fully restored to good humour and Susan, once she rose from her bed the morning following the attack and resolved not to think of the incident again until at least a year had passed, was quite restored to her former good nature as well (she still refused Fergal his request to see her shoot, but she did so in such a way that the fellow, far from being put out or disappointed, merely got very red, ducked his head and muttered sincere apologies for having ever asked such a thing of her in the first place).

So it was that autumn came on with the Queens in fine spirits, and the Kings in something rather less than that. Of course we can hardly fault them for it; they kept their discomfort very private, never permitting it to inconvenience any of their subjects. Although their body-servants naturally picked up on a bit of the conflict, neither boy was of the type to vent his spleen at the nearest handy individual, and so it was really only the Kings themselves who knew the full extent of their own displeasure— for of course, they could neither of them quite bring themselves to confess their unhappiness to Susan or Lucy,

"Susan could make her see reason," Peter muttered one morning, as the brothers took an uneasy meeting in the empty council-chamber. "We should tell Susan how it's affecting us, knowing that Lucy is abroad when there are dangers about. Susan would understand. She would do something . . . say something . . . she's sensible, Susan is."

"Or," Edmund said, "maybe you could just stop letting it affect you. Ever think of that? Lucy's a Queen, Peter. I know she's all of ten, but she's as much a Queen of Narnia as you are a King. Didn't you tell me what a marvel she was, when you travelled with her? Didn't you say you couldn't believe she was able to do even half the things she did?"

Peter squirmed to hear this truth, and Edmund leaned forward to capture his brother's gaze with his own.

"How," the younger King demanded, "is she ever going to be able to serve these people as she is meant to serve them if you keep on getting in her way? You think you know what she is meant to do, and yet how can you be so sure, when by your own admission she astounds you with her ability to do things you had never imagined she might? You've got to start seeing her as you saw her when you sailed. You've got to stop being so afraid of what might happen— or else," with a grimace, "you've at least got to pretend you've stopped being so afraid, because I really don't want to have to knock you down before we're even back home a month."

Peter sat silent a very long moment as Edmund began to sort through a stack of legal complaints that had been lodged in their absence. At last the older boy snorted, and shook his head.

"Knock me down," he muttered. "As if you could!"

Edmund smiled down at his work. "Only one way to find out . . ."

The maids who spent the evening tidying and sorting the piles of parchment that had been knocked about by the wrestling Kings did not say anything, of course, but they looked extremely disapproving as they worked. The Kings had the grace to apologise, but I am afraid they were grinning a bit too broadly to look as though they really meant it.

O0O0O0O

As the unease of a King gave way to his grudging acceptance of The Way Things Must Be, and as the last glow of late summer gave way to the crisp golds and reds of true autumn, the first of the new Narnians began to arrive.

I do not know if you can begin to imagine the undiluted joy that marked that period of arrival. If you have a very large family —the sort that is perhaps a bit peculiar and out of the ordinary but which dotes upon all its own members with that fierce, devoted sort of love that knits together even the most dissimilar of persons— then perhaps you might be able to grasp the emotions that seized all of those who ran down to the docks each day on sighting a distant sail, or who flocked to the castle-end of the peninsula as newcomers appeared far off down the great Land-Road, travelling through the King's Wood to reach the home of their new Kings and Queens.

The welcome for each new Narnian was invariably thunderous and overjoyed. The Birds developed a rather alarming habit of swooping exuberantly down at the heads of the newcomers, pulling up at the very last moment to burst into songs of welcome; the Horses charged up the slope from the Sea in one massive herd ("they do look like a stampede, don't they?" Lucy had cried in wonder) and badly frightened a few riders, but that was nothing compared to the reactions of those on board the ships who found themselves suddenly facing a solid wall of upward-rushing, downward-falling water as the naiads put their all into making the newcomers welcome.

"I do hope we don't frighten them all back whence they came," Susan fretted early one morning, as she and Lucy made ready to ride to Archenland and lead back a large collection of single-person families who had not felt it was safe for them to travel through the woods alone. "I mean, do you remember how alarming it was for us, when first we heard the animals speak?"

"Oh, yes!" Lucy laughed. "Why, we thought to attack Mr Beaver, did we not? How frightened we were! But it did not take us very long at all to love him, did it? And now he is one of our most trusted Scouts in that part of the kingdom, and how we should ever have ferreted out that one little colony of Her forces without his help I can't imagine." She bounced a little in her saddle, and the horse beneath her betrayed some surprise and uncertainty on being confronted by such a confusing cue. "I am sure it will not take any of our new Narnians very long to love them either."

Susan, who thought that perhaps the new Narnians might understandably be taken aback by the very confusing welcome they had received, murmured that maybe a period of adjustment was to be expected. Lucy, unconcerned with adjustment periods, said she would race Susan down the Land Road. Susan said that was Quite Out of the Question, and the Queens' body-guard supported her in this, so they rode on at a leisurely pace— but even a leisurely pace could not dampen Lucy's joy to know that their Narnian family was so wonderfully grown.

Their ride was mercifully uneventful, and they reached the castle at Anvard just past midday. No sooner did the Narnian standard top the hill than did a small figure dart out from the stableyard and run madly across the plain to meet them.

"Why, who in the world—" said Lucy, but Susan was laughing and smiling, and urged Norry into a gallop that ended in a spray of dirt and turf just yards from the little Prince of Archenland.

"You came back!" Corin exulted, just before he was caught up in the arms of his friend and twirled about beneath the midday sun.

"I did! What, playmate, didst surely not doubt my word?"

"Well," said Corin, "maybe a little . . ." then he apologised handsomely for his lack of faith in the word of the Queen, and Susan said she supposed she could find it in her heart to forgive him.

"But look here," she added, "I have brought with me the Queen Lucy— do you remember her?"

"No," Corin confessed, looking up at the newly-arrived little girl on her horse. He then looked down from the Queen to her horse, and studied Lucy's mare with interest. "She looks very fast," he observed, putting out a hand to stroke the luxuriant mane. "Lots faster than my pony."

"Well I don't know about your pony," said Lucy, "but oh! she is ever so fast. Here— want to see?" and she put out two little arms, into which Corin leaped before it could occur to Susan to stop him.

"Lucy," she said, "oh, Lucy, do be careful—"

"Of course!" Lucy said, and then they were off, thundering down over the hill toward the gates. She did not enter them right away, however, but rather drew her mare around in a wide circle, urging her back up the hill. Then they swung around again, and as they passed Susan the older Queen could hear the laughter of both riders as it was borne back to her on the wind.

Her chest ached very badly, then, and she felt much as Peter had done not very long ago on first hearing the news of the attack his sisters had faced in the wood. She thought then of much the same thing that Peter had thought on that day— how very perilous and inconvenient a thing it is, to love somebody.

O0O0O0O

"And what's that?" Prince Corin studied his plate with lively apprehension. Queen Lucy, leaning over to examine the morsel in question, scrunched up her nose in consideration.

"Asparagus, maybe?" she said, and gave it an experimental poke. "In some sort of dripping."

"Eugh," said Corin, but then caught the eye of Queen Susan, who was seated on his other side, and at the sight of her warning expression was inspired to quickly catch up one spear of the vegetable and cram it hastily into his mouth lest she threaten to see to it that he ate asparagus at breakfast too, for his ill manners. He waited until she had looked away, satisfied with his compliance, before he quickly swept the rest of the serving off his plate and onto the floor where two of the castle dogs proved themselves not nearly so choosy as he.

Unwelcome vegetation notwithstanding, they made a pleasant and intimate little company that night. Susan and Lucy had already seen to meeting and speaking with all who would accompany them home the next day, and at the end of that exercise had been invited to join King Lune and his son for a more intimate repast than court protocols normally permit. Only the Narnian Queens, the Archen King and Prince and a very few courtiers were gathered round a table whose proportions had been designed to facilitate conversation, rather than impress lookers-on with the grandeur of those who sat at it.

It was, Susan thought, a really lovely sort of table. She eyed its proportions thoughtfully, wondering which room in the Cair would be best suited to featuring a similar item of furniture.

As her sister began mentally redecorating their home, Queen Lucy engaged the nobleman across the table in a discussion on the merits of the lady's horse, which conversation was eagerly joined by Prince Corin, who envied Queen Lucy her horse but was not so petty as to wholly begrudge her the joy of her ownership.

"Her Majesty says I may ride Poli if I promise not to run away on her," he explained, and the courtier, amused, asked if the exercise was scheduled to take place any time soon.

"No, nor shall it, I fear," Lucy said, looking regretful, "for His Highness has made it quite plain that he has every intention of running away with her the moment he is on her back."

"Because," Corin put in, "she seems awfully fast, and just the sort of horse on which I might expect to have adventures, you see."

The courtier, fighting a losing battle with his own mirth, addressed Corin with the observation that the young prince might be likelier to get the opportunity to ride the mare if he were not so frank in his dealings with her mistress. Corin, at this suggestion, was gravely affronted.

"Lie to Queen Lucy?" he asked in tones of deep indignation. "I could never!" And he might have leaped to his feet at that moment to call the courtier out for suggesting such a thing, had not the Narnian Queen's little hand on his own even smaller arm forestalled this attempt in its infancy.

"If I have not told you so already, please let me tell you now that you are a dear and wonderful boy," Lucy informed him, "for being so forthright with me, though it has cost you the chance to ride Poli — at least, it has cost you the chance today." She smiled at him, and he beamed back at her. "After all," she observed, "who knows what you will find it in your heart to promise me tomorrow."

And Corin, who greatly desired the chance to ride Poli for himself, said in all truthfulness that he truly hoped tomorrow he might be able to make her the promise she would need to hear, ere she granted him permission to seat Poli without the benefit of the Queen serving as escort.

"But," he added, honesty once more triumphing as his little face fell into a gloomier countenance than it had worn moments before, "I am afraid I can't promise you that I will be ready to promise it just yet."

And Lucy, who had followed that quaint little speech with perfect ease, said that was all right, she quite understood, and Prince Corin knew where he could find her if ever he changed his mind.

O0O0O0O

As I am sure you know, when you are in pleasant company it is not an agreeable thing to take your leave. Even departing the feast-table that evening came very hard for all the feasters, and Prince Corin clung most doggedly to the hands of Queens Susan and Lucy all the way up the stairs to the guarded mouth of the corridor that led to the Royal apartments.

"Why, welcome back, your Majesty," beamed Albert, who naturally remembered Susan from her time there before. Susan, who also remembered Albert, smiled in reply and thanked him for his kindly salutation before addressing herself once more to the task of extracting her hand from the — surprisingly mighty — grip of the young prince.

"Grieved though I am to disappoint thee," she said, "truly, canst not make a habit of following thy guests to their bedchambers! Come, now; unhand me, and we shall see if we cannot make some sport tomorrow ere I return home."

But Corin was still unwilling to surrender his prize of Susan's hand in his right, and Lucy's in his left. Only when Lucy dropped to her knees beside him and began to whisper in his ear did Corin at last loose his grip, bob a very quick bow to each Queen and take off down the corridor that led to his own chamber. Susan, staring after him, was seized by an uneasy foreboding that prompted her to round on her sister and demand to know what, exactly, she had said. Lucy, the very picture of studied innocence, clasped her hands before her and shrugged.

"Oh, nothing very much, Susan. Dear me," with an artful yawn, "I am getting sleepy! Isn't it time we were off to bed?" And then, with a very wide-awake giggle, she too took off down the corridor, sprinting all the way to the door of the room she and Susan shared.

By the time Susan had also achieved the guest apartments and stepped inside the cosy, well-appointed room lit by firelight, she found her sister sprawled atop the counterpane, emitting gusty snores. Not at all put off by this dissembling, but charmed all the same by the vigour with which Lucy entered the deception, the older Queen stood a moment, looking down on the younger girl. With her limbs going every whichway, hair pooling beneath her head in a puddle of molten gold and the soft curves of her face bathed in the dancing glow from the fireplace, Lucy looked all at once more grown up than Susan had ever seen her and more vulnerable than Susan cared to contemplate.

"You might at least have removed your slippers before getting on the bed," she murmured, more in an effort to clear a lump from her throat than anything else. "Goodness, Lucy, is that asparagus dripping on your toe?" She removed the offending object from the foot that bore it as Lucy, tiring of feigned sleep, bobbed up in bed to watch with detached fascination as Susan set about tidying her.

"Look, you've a smut on your nose," a handkerchief was employed in the brisk removal of this, "and my goodness, Lucy, isn't this a new gown?" A dismayed finger explored a hole torn in the sleeve near the cuff.

"All my gowns are new ones," Lucy replied, unperturbed by her destruction of this one. "None of the old ones fit when I got back with Peter; don't you remember? You made them make me all new ones."

Susan did remember. The memory didn't seem to soothe her, though, as she marched over to the mantelpiece and took down the sewing basket. Lucy, placid in the face of her sister's unrest, sat patiently on the bed with her arm extended, as though expecting Susan to set to mending the sleeve with Lucy still inside it. Susan, of course, returned to the bed and told Lucy to remove the dress, which instruction Lucy cheerfully obeyed, tugging her own night rail over her head and scrambling back into the bed and under the sheets before Susan could even lift her hand to ring for somebody to help Lucy change.

"You really must get used to being attended one of these days, dear," she observed, but she did so in a very mild fashion, so that Lucy knew she was not really so put out over it as she might have been.

"I will have you know," said the young Queen with some asperity, "that I have been attended, these months we were gone. Did you know?"

"I did not," Susan said. Her needle flashed in the firelight as she threaded it.

"Mmm-hmm." Lucy squirmed a little, rolling onto her back. She blinked at the canopy above her head, a heavy, rich pane of deep blue velvet. She thought it looked rather like the sky, and was about to say so when the creak of a hinge distracted her. She bobbed up in bed once more to look across the room to the door. Susan turned her head as well, and both Queens watched as a slim, dark girl entered and stood just inside the door, her hands clasped a little too tightly in front of her.

"Why, Elia!" Susan got to her feet, her curiosity melting away in place of her joy. "How lovely to see you again — I have missed you, these past weeks!"

"Your Majesty is too kind," Elia murmured. Susan, still smiling, declaimed this nicety with a few earnest words.

"But come," she added, "and meet my sister! For I have brought her with me this time, you see. Lucy, may I present Elia? She attended me when last Edmund and I were here, and she is a dear friend. Elia, this is my sister, Her Majesty the Queen Lucy of Narnia."

"Your Majesty," Elia's curtsey was so hasty as to seem almost perfunctory. Lucy, even more intrigued by the maid than she had been by the idea of an anonymous opener of their bedroom door, sat up a little straighter in bed.

"Elia," she said, and nodded. "It is very nice to meet you; I am sorry, but you see I have already changed my clothes for bed. Susan thinks it is because I do not care to be attended, but that is only a little bit of the reason." The little girl's guileless blue eyes then held those of the maid, as though she knew that they shared this in common; that Elia's task of dressing the ladies for bed was only a little bit of the reason she had come into the room in the first place.

And so it proved.

"Ma'am," Elia whispered, addressing Susan but studying that Queen's toes, "Ma'am, I hope you will forgive me, but I — I have a favour to beg of you, and if you see fit to grant it, you have my word of honour that you will not find me ungrateful, not until the day I die."

"My goodness, Elia," Susan was surprised, "what is it? You are not in any trouble, I trust?"

"Oh, no; no, nothing like . . . I only thought, when I heard that you had returned, that it must be a sign. I had meant to ask it of you before you left last time, only somehow I could not work up the nerve, and it seemed so ill-timed, so very disrespectful of me, so I did not. Then you left, and I realised that I was so sorry not to have asked, after all. And you came back, and I think . . . I think it must have been meant."

This explanation that the girl offered was really anything but. Susan, however, was too kind to say as much; instead she smiled encouragingly at Elia, and said only "do go on, then," so Elia did.

"I had hoped . . . I wondered if maybe . . . I know my people don't come from Narnia, not for years and years back, when they came into Archenland the very first time. It's not the sort of coming from Narnia that you — and the Queen Lucy, of course," with a respectful nod in that person's direction, "and the Kings Peter and Edmund — had meant, of course, when . . . but I wondered, all the same, if perhaps I might . . . that is," desperately, with a boldness that any looking on could not have believed was native to her, "might I possibly come back, too?"

"Why, Elia —" Susan said, surprised, and Elia rushed on.

"I know it must seem very improper, asking so soon after my Lady . . . that is, after she . . . but you see, there isn't anybody else here, now. Not for me. Her Majesty took me on because I hadn't anybody else and she said I might learn a trade and I was very pleased to wait on her, and I loved her, I did. But all her other ladies, they've gone back to their families now, you see, whereas there isn't anyone . . . I have nobody, still — it feels I have nobody even more than I did before, actually — and there isn't anything else that I can really do. This is all I know, and there are no ladies left for me to wait on, and so . . . I had hoped . . ."

"You might . . . well, you know, you might . . . marry," Susan said feebly, rather bowled over by the suddenness of it all. Lucy, previously quite content to remain an onlooker to the scene, immediately broke her silence with a hearty snort.

"Oh, really, Susan! How can you be so silly? What a terrible reason to marry that would be — because it is the only thing left for her to do! I am sure you cannot mean that, really."

To her credit Susan, on thinking it over, found that she did not mean it after all, and she begged Elia's pardon for suggesting it in such an off-hand fashion. Elia said that was quite all right, no harm done, only . . . could she please . . .

"Oh," Susan said. "I — well, I am not sure . . ." and she looked on the young woman with agony. Recovered now from her shock at the request, Susan found that all she wanted was to say yes. So badly did she want to say yes that it almost pained her, but it was not her place as a single ruler to do so; everyone's decision to grant a petition needed to be seconded by one other monarch, and they had no petition from Elia to review. She could give an answer eventually, but not tonight. "I'm sorry; I am so sorry. I just am not sure . . ."

"What isn't there to be sure about?" Lucy wondered. She swung her legs over the side of the bed to study her sister and the desperately hopeful maid. "You speak very highly of her, and I know you never say such things unless you mean them. If you recommend her, Susan, that is good enough for me; I shall second her petition, on the strength of your approval, if you would like to make it official."

Susan turned a look of deep gratitude on her little sister.

"Thank you, Lucy," she said, and Lucy, only too pleased to be of help, said no trouble at all, really.

Then Susan turned back to Elia, and extended her hand to formally offer to girl a place in Narnia and a post in the castle, to which offer Elia responded with floods of tears that might have been embarrassing for her, later, had not Susan and Lucy (the latter leaping down from the bed and crossing the floor to do so) both promptly caught her up in their arms and hugged her and told her not to be such a goose, she was coming home with them, and that was surely no reason to cry.

Only after Elia had composed herself and helped Susan change for bed, leaving both Queens alone together once more, did Susan again address her sister.

"Thank you," she said again, this time much more softly than before. "You know I have the hardest time doing things when there isn't . . . that is, when —"

"Oh, I know you like to be proper." Lucy flopped back against the pillows once more (she was really raising an awful cloud of feathers by that point, and if Susan hadn't been so preoccupied with other things she would certainly have told her to stop). "I know everything needs to be set and ordered or else you are scared it won't work quite right. That's all right. I could see you wanted her to come, but of course we're not supposed to make these decisions just one of us by ourselves, at least not according to those rules you worked out beforehand. I knew you wouldn't break them, not even when you wanted to so badly . . . so I saw a way for it to happen, is all. You don't need to thank me for it or anything like that."

"I don't thank you because I need to, Lucy." Susan smiled. "I thank you because I am truly grateful to have you here with me; grateful to have somebody who meets my every weakness with her strength, and does not scorn me when she sees my failures. I thank you because I am grateful for you, and to not express my gratitude would seem very . . . wrong."

She then bowed her head over her sewing once more, working in silence as she set the final stitches in place in her sister's sleeve before standing to shake the gown out carefully. Lucy, now curled up like a kitten on her side of the great bed, watched in like silence as Susan hung the dress with tender care beside its fellow, the dress that Lucy would wear to ride home the next day.

It was only after Susan had crawled into bed beside Lucy, and the two sisters huddled together against the autumn's night chill that had set to seeping in through every crack in the stone walls of the castle at Anvard, that the little Queen spoke. In tones so soft that Susan almost missed them, Lucy whispered:

"I am grateful for you, too."

O0O0O0O

"You returned to us pleasantly soon, Cousin, only to dishearten us once again with your departure," King Lune did not look reproachful, exactly, but there was certainly a touch of the downcast on his usually cheery face as he stood with Susan in the stableyard the next morning, watching that young woman ready herself and her party to leave.

"It grieves me to grieve our host and our friend," Susan returned, "but how can I possibly hope to return to visit you once more, if I do not first depart?"

"Pah, wordplay," Lune chided, and for a moment sounded very like his young son. "A trick of diplomats!"

"Just so," Susan agreed, pursing her lips for just a moment, and then her smile appeared. "Dear Cousin, if only you could accompany us! King Edmund should be pleased to see you once more, and I know that King Peter would welcome your counsel on any number of matters. When might we hope to once more host our friend in the court of Cair Paravel?"

"Not, I fear, for some time to come." The very smallest of shadows touched the King's face, and Susan saw where laugh-lines at his eyes had been joined by lines of care. "It would not do for me to set a precedent of flight when I am . . ." the word would not quite come to him, though, and instead he looked down for just a minute. Susan, the soul of tact, stood perfectly still and perfectly silent and permitted the King his private struggle. When he looked up again, he inclined his head in silent acknowledgement of her generosity.

Susan, in turn, inclined her head in reply, and might have said something had not Queen Lucy and Prince Corin at that moment come bursting from a side door at top speed. They were a flushed, dishevelled and laughing pair, and appeared to be engaged in some complicated chase game, the quarry of which seemed to be at turns neither and both of them.

"Lucy! Oh, Lucy, have a care!" Susan implored, at seeing her sister nearly collide with a fleet-footed groom, who only just dodged clear of her in time. "We're about to leave, it wouldn't do for you to injure yourself before we . . ." she stopped speaking, then, at the sight of the groom leading Corin's pony, saddled and bridled, from the stables. One look at the flushed, guilty faces of the young Queen of Narnia and her co-conspirator, the little Prince of Archenland, was all it took to tell Susan exactly what promise Lucy had made to the little boy the night before to induce him to remove himself to his bed so readily.

"Lucy!"

"Oh, Susan, please don't be cross with me! I only thought it would be a perfect thing, to take him back with us for a time."

"Yes, and Father said I might go," Corin added. "Didn't you, Father?"

"When I did so," King Lune frowned, "I admit that I was under the impression that the invitation had come from both their Majesties."

"I am sorry if we misled you, Cousin," Lucy was immediately contrite. "I certainly did not believe that Susan would actually object — or at least, that she would continue to object. She always objects a little, at the start."

Susan, pursing her lips, attempted to look greatly displeased at all of this subterfuge. It didn't come off as well as she could have hoped, however, chiefly because she was honestly pleased at the thought of Corin returning with them. Her pleasure didn't abate in the least as their party assembled and readied itself, even when Corin and the small son of a new Narnian family got into a wrestling match perilously close to the hooves of two mercifully patient horses, and had to be dragged apart and shouted at rather a lot before they promised not to do that again — at least, not within trampling distance of the horses.

Susan was smiling by the time she was handed up onto Norry's back, from which height she reached down to accept a firm handclasp from King Lune.

"I will not disappoint your trust in us, Cousin," she assured him, inclining her head in Corin's direction.

"Madam," King Lune said gently, "this, I already know."

Then he stood well back from the party that by now threatened to overflow the stableyard by dint of numbers alone, and lifted his hand in both dismissal and farewell. It was as good a signal as any, and it was the one on which the party departed, more or less falling in step behind the Queens, the Prince and their guard at the very head of the group.

King Lune stood waving in the courtyard until the last rider had topped the ridge at the far end of the field and disappeared from sight, continuing on up the hill to the pass at Anvard and over that, to Narnia.

O0O0O0O

As Lucy and Susan busied themselves with the homecoming from Archenland, Peter and Edmund dealt as best they could with the intricacies of settling all those who had come already to Narnia. What had begun as a trickle of incoming Narnians fast became a torrent, and even faster became a flood. There was no question of hosting them at Cair Paravel for even a night— there were simply too many of them (or so Mrs Clogg had informed the High King, in such a fashion that the High King immediately fell all over himself apologising to her and resolved in his own mind to speak to Susan about possibly giving Mrs Clogg a rise in pay and a very long and lovely holiday as soon as possible, or else risk losing her services entirely).

So Peter and Edmund fell to sorting everyone into groups by location, and appointed guides for each group to lead them into the right area and see them safely settled. They also appointed outriders for each group, given that it was nothing like a certainty that the areas into which they rode would be free of the Witch's scattered forces, and, at Edmund's suggestion, arranged for arms sufficient to equip each property against a rudimentary attack.

"Though what the armoury will have to say about that I don't care to contemplate," Peter said, staring moodily at the tally that lay before him. He tried not to look very long at the number of weapons he had agreed to provide from his own stores— he did not begrudge any Narnian what was needed, of course, but they had come to learn very quickly that the stewards of Cair Paravel took a highly proprietary interest in those things they had been appointed to manage, and it did not do to upset them unduly. Peter rather suspected that to deplete the castle's stores of arms would upset the armourers a great deal.

"Cheer up, Pete!" Edmund urged his brother. "Look at it like this — either you dole out pikes and pikestaffs and incur the wrath of the armourers, or else you send these folk home unarmed and risk the displeasure of our sisters. As I see it, either way you don't stand to come out on top, so you might as well have the pleasure of picking your poison, don't you think?"

"Encouraging as always, Edmund," Peter muttered, but he acknowledged the truth in what his brother said, and in the end elected to dole out pikes and pikestaffs. The armourers deprived of weaponry, he thought, could not possibly prove equal to his sisters for ire should he send their subjects home with insufficient means to defend themselves against any horrors they might encounter along the way.

Peter was a King who knew how to pick his battles.

O0O0O0O

Peter was not, however, unfortunately, a King who knew how to handle a domestic crisis, which was why he was the first one out of the castle at the sight of the party from Archenland approaching that afternoon. Susan did not even have time to dismount from Norry before she found her brother clutching at her foot in the closest thing to panic she had ever seen in him.

"Peter, my goodness, what is it? What's the matter?" the Queen wondered, managing to free her foot from the King's grip long enough to dismount.

The story emerged rather too rapidly to follow at first, but bit by bit pieces were detached from each other until even Corin, who had approached toward the end of it to take Susan's hand in his and rest his head against her hip to listen to the exchange, had a pretty good idea of what was going on.

A ship bearing an assortment of claimants from the Lone Islands had docked two days in advance of its expected arrival. Peter had given pikes and pikestaffs to other claimants, there were presently no more weapons to hand out and it was not safe to send them home without arms. However, even though they might have found beds enough for all in the castle there was, according to the Cook via Mrs Clogg, absolutely no hope of the kitchen staff, such as it were at this present time, contriving to prepare a meal for so many — especially with the party from Archenland arriving, too.

"So the problem," Lucy summed up, "is really one of feeding everybody, somehow, is that it?"

That was it exactly, Peter agreed, and looked a little helpless. Lucy, smiling fondly up at him, slipped her hand inside his.

"I think," she said, "that we can probably work around that."

And so it proved. It was certainly not an elegant meal that was set before them that night, but it was a meal in which nearly all of the feasters had taken some hand in preparing. With everybody determined to serve in some capacity or other Lucy had taken it upon herself to divide up the labour, assigning the cooking parts of the meal to those whose noses could reasonably be trusted to know the difference between food that was cooked and food that had been so charred to the bottom of the pot that even a hammer and chisel could not have stirred it. The gathering parts she assigned to those who could be relied upon to fetch what was needed, and the chopping and measuring of everything was relegated to those who remained, all of whom bent to the task at hand without so much as a murmur of complaint.

The soothing of a highly irate Mrs Clogg, Lucy left to Susan. There were some matters of diplomacy to which the young Queen did not yet feel equal, and that was one of them.

The remainder of it, though, was carried off beautifully. There were a few rough patches, of course; Edmund got a little carried away with the peeling of potatoes and peeled rather more of them than were needed, driving the cook to last-minute creativity and the addition of potatoes to many dishes that had not previously required them. A new, rather nervous countess chopped carrots a little slower than was required, the result being that certain dishes went without carrots. Some of the meat was perhaps a little blacker on the outside than it probably should have been, but for a kitchen full of people who were not universally accustomed to being in a kitchen, it was certainly a notable success.

As Peridan shouldered one of the serving trays to take out into the feast hall, Lucy caught at his arm a little (though only a very little, because she did not want to unbalance the laden platter) and told him to please wait just one moment, for there was a small boy sitting between a loaf of bread and a pot of stew on his tray. Having pulled Prince Corin down from this perch, Lucy kept a firm grip on the little boy's hand and followed Peridan and his now much lighter tray out into the crowded, noisy Great Hall, where every available table and seat had been unearthed and set up for the convenience of the many people who had come home that day.

Lucy and Corin parted ways with Peridan not far inside the door, weaving their way between diners, ducking and squirming between persons who were standing a little too close together the way small children tend to do at parties when there is not quite enough room for them to pass any other way. They were breathless and flushed when they finally achieved their goal, a corner of the head table occupied by Peter, Susan and Edmund, as well as several other people whose names Lucy was pleased to realise she already knew.

"I know it's not exactly the sort of feast that you are so good at preparing," Lucy confided to Susan as she squeezed in between her sister and Clom, a very large, very heavy fellow who was sampling his stew with every sign of deep appreciation, "but I think perhaps we have not done too badly at it, have we?"

"Lucy!" Susan looked surprised, "oh, but Lucy, you have done beautifully. Not every feast need be one such as diplomats prefer — indeed, I think this is a lovely one, and I believe you have even helped me to persuade Mrs Clogg that she need not return to her people in the Western Wood — there, you see?"

And indeed, Mrs Clogg had found a vantage point at the edge of the gathering and appeared to have forgotten her state of agitation of earlier in the day, tucking into a bowl of stew with every appearance of great enjoyment. Lucy felt a flush of pleasure warm her cheeks — or perhaps it was merely the heat of dining in such close quarters. Either way, she felt rather a success and was quite pleased with herself.

"Is this potato on my toast?" Peter asked of nobody in particular.

"If you don't like it," said Edmund, "you may give it to somebody who will appreciate the effort that went into preparing it." And he looked so fearsome that Peter at once devoured his potato-on-toast with as many noises of appreciation as could politely be made, with one's mouth so full of potato and bread.

Lucy giggled into her cup, and decided that, all things told, it was rather the loveliest homecoming she could ever have imagined might happen in Narnia.

O0O0O0O

It is the unhappy duty of every chronicler of any tale to bring, eventually, the final chapter of that tale to its proper conclusion. It is no good the chronicler's being very upset at this, because of course she knew that when she got into the thing in the first place, and she can't say nobody told her it was coming. The difficulty here, of course, is knowing exactly where the tale ought to end — for it did not end, you see, for many, many years yet to come.

You may have heard, of course, of how rich and wonderful the rule of those four children was. You may well know that Lucy's prediction, made so many months before the feast on that stormy evening in Terebinthia, that theirs would be the most glorious history ever, was not so very far off the mark. Kings and Queens for centuries to come would speak the names of the Four with all the reverence that was once accorded to many great historical figures in our own world — though of course now it is more the fashion to realise that such people are, after all, merely people, and perhaps we overdid it a bit with all the veneration.

But for all that their history went on for so long, and was such a well-regarded one, I really do not have the space nor indeed even the time to tell you of every marvellous thing they did, of every fine and private moment they shared nor even of the many thrilling adventures they had together, however much I might wish to. I will therefore instead choose a moment not long after that lovely feast in the Great Hall, when most of the new Narnians had at last been seen off on their way to their new homes and all of those who would make their homes in the village or in the Cair were well on their way to getting themselves settled in.

The morning was a cold one, for winter was making its approach known and everybody had long since taken to bundling up well in wrappers and furs and lovely thick slippers that made the frosty leaves crunch quite pleasantly under their feet as they walked about. In fact, the younger King and Queen were wearing just those sort of slippers that morning. Lucy and Edmund were standing together in the little courtyard at the heart of the Cair, looking for leaves to crunch, when Peter and Susan found them.

"Goodness!" said Susan, who had gotten up rather earlier than she had intended, "aren't you two cold?"

"Only a little," was Lucy's reply. "Won't you join us? Listen, don't they make just the loveliest sound?"

It was, indeed, a rather wonderful sound. Very rustly and crackly; I think you would have quite enjoyed it.

I know that Peter and Susan enjoyed it; they joined their brother and sister in crunching, slipping a little on the wetter of the leaves, laughing and getting their cheeks and noses cold-burnt to a very brilliant shade of red. For just a minute, looking at them then, you might not have known they were the greatest Kings and Queens that Narnia had yet known. For just a moment they looked like children, playing together in the wintry gleam of a cold, grey morning. For just a moment, that is what they were.

"We ought to go in," Susan murmured, even as she located a frost-sparkling leaf and pounced upon it, crackling it most satisfyingly under her feet. "We're to treat with those ambassadors from Calormen this morning, are we not? And there is that banquet this afternoon . . ."

"Yes, I suppose we ought to," Peter said, but looked in no more of a hurry to go in than did Susan. Instead he turned suddenly around, catching Lucy about the waist and swinging her up into the air just before she could leap on his back and try to wrestle him to the ground. "Oho, treason!" he crowed, and Lucy, laughing, denied the charge — it could not be treason, she said, if the attacker were the Queen.

"A tricky problem," Peter admitted, still holding his sister aloft and mostly upside-down. "Hmm. Edmund? Your ruling?"

"I think we'd need to look for some sort of precedent," Edmund said, the solemnity of his expression somewhat offset by twinkling eyes.

"There is no precedent for this," Susan laughed. "There is no precedent for us; we, I think, are quite unprecedented in all this world, and I say Lucy is right; it cannot be treason to choke a King, if one is already Queen!" and here she caught her sister's wrist, tugging and twisting as hard she could until Lucy was able to kick her way free of Peter's grip.

The four then faced off in the courtyard, all of them laughing, arming themselves with bundles of frosty leaves to throw at one another until all were in such confusion that nobody knew or even cared who was winning. And this is where we will leave them, the four Pevensies, because this is how I like them best.

They would, of course, go inside eventually. They would tidy their clothing (Susan would see to it that Lucy was tidied properly, given that Lucy was still rather uninterested in any but the most perfunctory sort of tidying) and comb their hair and they would meet and treat with ambassadors and diplomats in a grand and weighty manner that would make them famous all down through the ages.

But before they did that, and long after they had done that for the very last time ever, they would be Just They Four; sometimes very royal, sometimes not quite as much, but four together, then and for ever after.

O0O0O0O

O0O0O0O

A.N.: I don't even know what to say, really; "thank you" seems the very least of it, and yet it's also all of it. Thank you for sticking with a story that took more than two years(!) to write and thank you for taking the time to tell me what you thought of it.

There will eventually be another one in the same vein as this, all multi-chaptered and no doubt rather more confusing than I initially intended it should be; that next piece is already begun, but with demands on my time being what they are I do not feel I can begin to post it just yet, or else I can't imagine it would manage to wrap itself up in less than two years' time!

I may find the time to put up a one-shot here and there, things that are already mostly completed and only want a touch of polish, but for the next month or two, at least, I know I will be too busy to devote the time that is required of me by a plotty, multi-chapter piece.

Meantime, thank you all again so very, very much for your continued expressions of interest in this piece. Your feedback has cheered me in some very gloomy months, and I am so very grateful to those of you who have taken the time to share your thoughts. They are each and every one of them deeply appreciated.