And So the End Begins
A/N: This is set towards end of the Narniad, though not necessarily at the end of my stories (which, at the rate the plot bunnies are multiplying lately, will never end). I hereby dedicate this story to Mists, who requested it, Almyra, whose amazing writings had such great influence upon it, and Miniver, Queen of Commas.
The call, when it came, was not exactly a surprise. I was sitting at the kitchen table pretending to work on a paper for my upcoming history class (the Renaissance, which, to be truthful, was not nearly as interesting to me as medieval history). I was trying to gather up enough enthusiasm to get the report done so that I could enjoy the rest of the summer holiday at home, but the clean sheet of paper on the table before me seemed positively defiant.
The phone rang and I gladly left the Renaissance behind for a moment, snatching up the receiver before the second ring. Before I could so much as take a breath to speak, a familiar voice called,
"Hallo! Hallo! Peter, are you there?"
"This is he. Roger?"
Roger O'Day was a schoolmate of Edmund's, one of the better sorts that had attached themselves to my brother. He was young and enthusiastic and an avid sportsman, his present passion being rugby. Somehow he had convinced Edmund to play today, rain and mud not withstanding. He had invited me along as well but the Renaissance assignment had called and I had declined the offer. I regretted that the moment I heard Roger's anxious voice.
"Pete, your Ed's taken a spill during the third quarter."
"His knee?" I asked automatically, ignoring the use of the nickname I tolerated only from my brother.
"The same," Roger replied, and nothing more needed to be said.
"I'll be right over."
"Good. He's . . . not been himself today. Oh, and Pete?"
"I won't tell him it was you that called."
I gathered up my jacket and the keys to the car, knowing Dad wouldn't mind that I borrowed it, especially since he was as concerned about Edmund as I.
It started lightly raining again as I maneuvered the car through the quiet streets and I ruefully remembered the stand full of umbrellas in the front entrance. There was nothing for it. Ed could sit on my jacket if need be. I fully expected him to be muddy from head to toe. He had been throwing himself full bore into everything he did lately, to the point that I knew he was trying to escape something. Dad suspected as much, I think, but he was willing to let me try to approach Edmund first since I stood a better chance of finding out what was bothering him.
The field where they played wasn't very far from home, but it was too far to walk with an injured knee. I parked the car and scanned the field for Edmund. A knot of athletes was churning up the lawn in their battle over the ball, yelling and fighting and having a gloriously messy and chaotic time of it. A handful of players - Roger among them - stood off to the side. Only one was seated.
Braving the rain, I made my way across the muddy field until I stood beside Edmund. He knew I was there but he did not look up. Instead he glanced at the group of young men watching the game and demanded,
"Who called you?"
"Someone who cares about you," I replied, extending my hand. He took it in his dirty one and let me haul him to his feet. He waved goodbye to his friends and slowly limped alongside me, shoulders hunched as he watched his footing on the slick grass.
"So what happened?"
He sighed. It was a weary sound and his willingness to leave the match before it was over told me he was hurting badly.
"I played. I slipped. I went down."
Repeatedly, I determined if the amount of mud on him was any indicator. He plainly didn't want to discuss it and so I let it go for now. The ride home was short and quiet and it wasn't until I hurried to unlock the door for him that he finally looked up at me.
"Thanks," he said softly, grateful that I was not pressing him.
I smiled. He would talk in his own time. "Go wash up. I'll bring you some dry clothes."
Half an hour later a far more presentable version of my brother was seated on the sofa in the parlor. I indulged myself by fussing over him and he indulged me (and himself) by allowing it. I insisted on looking at his knee – a red, swollen, and painful-looking affair – and without a word I wrapped it snugly and slid a pillow beneath his leg. He let me tend half a dozen other little cuts scattered across his body, silently submitting to my ministrations. Undoubtedly he was remembering - as I was - the many times in the past we had looked after each other in this manner, both on the battlefield and off. Training for combat, though enjoyable, had not been without its injuries. One of the worst wounds I had ever received had been on the training grounds under General Oreius' watchful gaze. Rugby was not so far removed from a melee, after all.
Still, there seemed something desperate, almost fanatical about my brother lately. Something was pushing him, eating at him. He was suffering, but exactly how I could not say. We knew so many different types of pain. Edmund knew more types than I did, and it was so hard to pinpoint just one.
I made us some tea and brought him something to eat. It was not yet noon but we had the house to ourselves. Our parents were on holiday in Bristol until next week, Susan was visiting friends in London and would not be home until tomorrow, and Lucy was spending the day with our Uncle Robert and his family. It might take Edmund all day to speak, but at least we had the luxury of knowing we would not be interrupted.
It seemed strange that Edmund, the most eloquent of speakers, who could easily move people to tears with his words and his passion, had such a difficult time when it came to talking about himself. That harkened back to the pain he had borne for so long, the memory of what he had done and what had been done to him a lifetime ago. To be sure he allowed me to share in some of it, trusting me as he trusted no one else in this world, not even Lucy, but this was something new, something unfamiliar to me.
I sat down on the sofa beside him. "Ed?"
He grimaced. "It hurts."
"That, too," he admitted softly, deliberately giving me the opening I had been looking for.
"Something's been bothering you for a few days."
Nodding, he leaned back, not looking at me. "I think . . . I think the Tree of Protection is dying."
I was stunned, but I did not question his conclusion. Edmund knew all too well what it felt like to be dying. My voice came out a faint whisper. "How do you know? Why?"
Swallowing, he pressed both hands to his chest. "I can feel it. I've felt it build up for a while. Right here."
He finally looked at me, his eyes bright with tears, and now that he had started talking he seemed incapable of stopping himself. "It's part of me. In me. Like her blood. I can feel it, Peter. It's still in me." He drew a shuddering breath. "There are guardians there with it but they don't understand how important it really is. The Tree is alone in itself and it's so old and it's trying and it's frightened of what will happen to Narnia when it dies and - and it needs me and I can't go -"
He stopped, unable to continue. He did not cry. He did not need to. His grief, his agony, the loneliness he felt from the dying Tree came pouring out in a long, hard rush of uncontrollable emotion that was more expressive than tears. I snatched him against me in a fierce hug. His arms wrapped around my middle, holding me crushing tight.
"What will happen to our home?" he gasped.
My heart broke for him, for Narnia, for the apple tree I had traveled so far to find and that I had planted with my own hands. The Tree that had been watered by Aslan's tears. The Tree that had saved Edmund from Jadis' curse. What would happen, indeed, when Narnia lost its silent guardian? Jadis had waited for the first Tree to die before she plunged our kingdom into a century of tyranny and winter. Was there something similar waiting just beyond the Tree's reach, biding its time to sweep down upon our kingdom?
How long had the Tree been dying? Time passed differently in Narnia than here - sometimes it progressed at the same rate, sometimes it sped up so that centuries passed in mere days. There was no way to tell how long the Tree had been calling out to my brother. I had only brought an apple back from the Garden in the West. It had no real connection to me. Edmund was the only person I knew that had ever consumed one of its apples. The first apple the Tree produced . . . and if I had listened to him that desperate night in the second year of our reign, if I had eaten the apple as he had begged me to do, it would be I, not him, going through this agony. Part of me almost wished that was the case. Anything to spare him this anguish.
I leaned over and kissed his dark hair as I had done countless times in the distant past and not nearly often enough in the recent past. We were in an uncomfortable tangle and neither cared as time slowly passed. I was not about to let him go in the midst of this crisis. How often had we held each other, leaned on each other, needed each other when we had been kings in Narnia? But then, we were still kings and nothing had changed but the setting. There were so few people who could truly understand us. If anything, our need for each other only increased here in this world.
Edmund's arms tightened as a twinge of pain seized him and a small, keening sound, muffled against my shoulder, escaped his throat. Despite his injured knee he curled up into my embrace, unable to get close enough. How many times had I held him thus? How many times had he held me? I leaned my head next to his and began slowly whispering one of the litanies we had written thousands of years ago during Narnia's Golden Age.
"Aslan, great Lion, giver of life and speech and song, be with us in our grief as the gifts which you bestowed upon this our cousin pass from our realm, to yours. Bring us comfort and help us to understand this promise life made: that death, placid consort of life, should come someday to us all. Though you await to greet each of your children, for those of us left behind there is pain without measure. And so we pray that you may ease this sorrow and ease this passing so that some day we may look back with joy and look forward with hope."
He was trembling. Or perhaps I was. It didn't matter. The hands clutching desperately at the fabric of my shirt told me more than words. The Tree's final moment came as I finished the prayer. The physical pain may have faded, but the mental anguish was so much worse. A harsh sob shook his lean frame.
"It's over," he whispered, gradually slackening his grip. "The Tree is gone. It died alone."
"No alone, Ed," I answered, hugging him with all my strength. "It had you. And you have me."
He sniffed, laying his head on my chest. "Say the litany again, Peter."
I obeyed, and I could see his lips move as he silently recited along with me.
"What will become of Narnia?"
"Perhaps another quest to the Garden in the West is in order."
He shook his head. Wearily, he pulled from my hold and settled himself very close beside me, grimacing as he shifted his knee. "I don't think so. I don't think there's enough time."
"You said it was frightened of what would happen to Narnia."
"I think . . . I think something was threatening the borders now. Something evil, like Jadis. The Tree couldn't protect against invasions or plagues. That was our job. It was there to combat the Deep Magic."
I looked into his anxious, miserable face, desperately wishing there was more I could do. Narnia, however, was beyond the reach of either of us. I hooked my arm around his neck and pulled him close against my chest again, pressing another kiss to his hair.
"Listen," I said, trying to reassure us both, "tomorrow is Friday. We'll be picking up Eustace and Jill at three and heading over to Aunt Polly's house for supper. We can tell them what's happened and see what they all think. We'll even bring Su along is she's willing."
He snorted, knowing as well as I did that the odds were slim that Susan would want to come along.
"Tell you what, Ed," I said, eager to cheer him up a bit. "Why don't I call Polly and our dear and noble cousin and see if we can't go over earlier than that? An evening's not enough. I want to talk about everything that happened in Narnia. Everything. You with me?"
I was thrilled to see a slow smile touch his lips. "La, King Peter. I am with you in this, my liege, and in all things."
With one last kiss I let him go. "Trust in Aslan, Ed. Everything will work out. He knows about the Tree of Protection. He knows what you felt. I bet he even knows what we're having for dinner tomorrow."
"We all know that, Peter!" he exclaimed. "Aunt Polly only ever makes roast beef when we come over."
But he was smiling. I knew I had helped to ease his pain, and in his comfort I had found my own.