My most profound thanks to Elecktrum for beta-reading this for me. You should go read all of her stories, because they are very, very good.
No one had been back since the wounded had been collected and the dead buried. Caspian didn't quite grasp the significance of the place, Peter was occupied with imparting everything he knew about ruling Narnia to Caspian, Susan was occupied with helping Peter, and Lucy was occupied with the Lion.
Edmund briefly questioned what he was doing here when Aslan was at Caspian's castle, then dismissed the question unanswered. Instead, he slid down mounds of collapsed earth and rock and poked around until he found a tunnel that wasn't completely filled. There were torches buried in the rubble and flint in the pouch on his belt. The shadows danced eerily in the quiet, but he pressed on anyway, taking his time to find his way safely through the debris. No one would notice he was gone until supper, if even then.
The Stone Table had been on a high hill in his day, where lilies grew in abundance, and the trees would sing when the wind blew. It had been beautiful in its own right, but wild and dangerous to come to. He had come anyway, and often, driving his guards and siblings mad when he would slip away from them. All of Narnia had known what happened there, but not everyone had known why. He had though, even before he had bullied the answer out of Susan.
Now it lay buried, the hidden heart of his beloved Narnia.
There were no bodies in the tunnels, only abandoned weapons and fallen stone. He trailed fingers over the faded images of a life that had once been his. He barely recognized it here. The brave young man who valiantly smashed the witch's wand could hardly be reconciled with the terrified boy whose only courage had come from fearing the loss of his brother more than the loss of himself. It was only at the end, past the fall of the witch and the coronation, the wars with the north and the hunting of fell beasts, that he finally found himself.
There stood the kings and queens of Narnia as they had ruled in peace and love. He finally recognized himself in the man with the edged smile that he had once been. Beside him stood the brother he had barely recognized for over a year now. It ached somewhere deep to see him as the king Edmund knew him to be. Peter was finding his way back to himself, but it remained difficult to come to grips with him conducting himself as anything less than the high king. It remained difficult to come to grips with the distance that still stood between them.
Edmund stepped into the darkness of the sanctuary and tipped his torch without looking. Fire flared around the room, and Aslan came to life in the sharp relief of light and shadow. He set his torch in the sconce by the doorway and entered.
He had not been back since he had shattered the ice wall. There simply hadn't been time. Well, there had been time, but Peter had needed it, so Edmund had occupied himself elsewhere. The witch, the fell beasts, the wall of ice, were all only a passing thought though as he approached the Table. He trailed his fingers lightly over the top, tracing the edge to the place where it broke abruptly.
The stone under Edmund's fingers was sacred, hallowed by the blood of the Lion when it should have been defiled by his own.
Edmund dropped to his knees as he had so many times before, forehead pressed to the ragged break, stone, worn rough with centuries, cool against his skin.
He questioned again why he was here and not with the Lion who walked the halls and gardens of Caspian's castle. Perhaps it was simply easier to whisper the words here to stone and dust, where he did not feel as if he were reaching for what he ought not to have.
Lucy reached for Aslan with both hands. Susan and Peter had once too and maybe would again. Edmund knew he wasn't strong enough to get by with doing any less, but his reach was always tentative and often the result of desperation. He had been given so much more than he deserved already. It didn't seem right to ask for anything else. Sometimes, he wished he could. Sometimes, he wished he could be like his little sister and fling himself at the Lion without a second thought, but he couldn't. Lucy had a lion's heart; Edmund's was only human.
The desire to ask for the solution to every trouble that plagued his mind stirred inside him, but he dismissed it. His troubles were wearisome, and he was tired of dwelling on them. Instead, he closed his eyes and fixed the gold of Aslan's gaze in his mind, the soft warmth of his fur, the terrible beauty of his roar, the deep rumble of his voice as he spoke the words of absolution that had freed Edmund from everything he had been.
He saw the fire flicker and dance through his closed lids, felt the beating of his heart in his chest, heard the sound of his own steady breath, smelt stone and remembered lilies. It was long after his bruised knees began to remind him that he had been in a battle two days past that he finally rose. Every bruise, cut, and scrape made itself known. Everything felt steady.
He trailed his fingers along the stone as he walked around it to the place where Peter had sat for hours. The faintest trace of the circle remained, and he scuffed it out with his boot in annoyance before sitting at the foot of the Table and leaning against its solidness. Only then did he let himself contemplate the witch.
Her reappearance was… troublesome, but his nightmares had all been about Peter so far. He couldn't bring himself to fear her again, but he feared for Narnia if she could be brought back. It had only been at great price that her winter had been ended and her power destroyed. Edmund did not know if that price could be paid a second time. This remained his beloved Narnia, but she had fallen far, spiraled into deep shadow, and while Edmund truly believed Caspian capable of bringing her back into the sunlight, she would never be what she had once been.
Edmund ached for what was lost, for beauty that was gone, for joy that had fallen silent, for the king who had been his brother. The world as he knew it had passed away, and he was left with familiar shadows and echoes of beloved voices. He didn't doubt that there was some reason behind all of it, but it hurt all the same.
It wasn't until he felt the warm, rough tongue against his cheek that he realized he was crying. He jumped and found himself nose to nose with the Lion.
"Peace, dear one," Aslan said and nuzzled against his cheek.
Edmund gawked a bit as the Lion settled comfortably beside him and yawned, showing all his teeth. Every proper greeting that came to mind involved giving the Lion's blessing, which was hardly a proper greeting for the Lion. Instead, Edmund found his name on his lips and the intense desire to bury his face in the soft mane. He stopped himself just short of doing the latter.
"What troubles you, little king?" the Lion asked, leaning his tawny head into Edmund's side so hard he had no choice but to lean or be bowled over.
Edmund gave up and pressed his face into warmth, fingers threading through soft fur. He smelt like home, like the morning breeze on the balconies of Cair Paravel, like the warm spicy scent of the gaily lit dining hall in winter, like his brother after a battle, who would smell of blood and sweat and steel when he crushed Edmund close to reassure them both that they were alright.
The voice rumbled through his own chest before Aslan moved his head away so swiftly Edmund found himself sprawled across the Lion's paws. He had been asked a question, hadn't he.
"Could the White Witch really return?" Edmund asked.
"Only with great difficultly," Aslan pulled his paw out from under the small of Edmund's back and draped it over top of him, heavy and warm as a winter blanket.
"If she were…?" Edmund frowned slightly, absently twisting stands of golden mane between his fingers.
"You need not fret over this, dear one," Aslan assured him. "Her power was broken on this stone. If she did come back, it would be as only a shadow. When the time comes, she will be locked away far from the reach of all."
Edmund briefly entertained asking why she couldn't be locked there now, but put the question and the witch both from his mind. Neither were worth troubling over anymore. He found a burr tangled in the Lion's mane and began to pick at it carefully, trying to untangle it without pulling.
"Aslan?" Edmund started, then hesitated.
"Yes?" Aslan sounded amused, and the paw under Edmund's head shifted.
He wanted to ask him why things had to be so hard, why the price was always so high, why they had had to leave at all, and why they couldn't stay now. He wanted to know if Susan would ever be happy again, and if he would ever get back the Peter he had known.
None of them felt like the right question though. They were fretting questions, the questions of an over anxious child and not a king.
"Never mind," he shook his head and continued to work on the burr.
Aslan made a rumbling sound, more like a laugh than a growl, and Edmund felt it vibrate though his fingers. He frowned at the stubborn burr, but refused to pull it the way Susan had occasionally pulled burrs from his hair. He had never liked it when she did that, even if the way Lucy and Peter laughed at the face he would make had been worth it.
It was quiet and warm, and Edmund was starting to feel drowsy. He could hear the steady breath of the Lion and the beating of his heart. He shifted from time to time, but seemed occupied with his own thoughts, and Edmund didn't feel any need to interrupt. The burr finally came free, and Edmund flicked it away.
"Do you trust me, Son of Adam?"
The voice rang through the stillness, and startled, Edmund looked up and found himself with a particularly good view of the Lion's teeth, although he could see the golden eyes beyond them.
"Yes." he said firmly.
"Ed, Edmund, wake up."
Someone was shaking him, and Edmund opened his eyes blurrily, keenly aware that he had been sleeping on hard stone. The oil in the troughs had begun to run dry, and the fires were starting to gutter out, deepening the shadows and causing them to flicker. Peter was crouched over him, looking vaguely perturbed.
"Hello Peter," Edmund yawned and rubbed at his eyes as he sat up, feeling every bruise and scrape he had collected over the last few days. "Where's Aslan?"
"He probably went home to supper like a sensible person," Peter said irritably. "It's well past nightfall."
Edmund felt a familiar ache settle in his chest at his brother's ire, and his gaze strayed over Peter's shoulder to the relief of Aslan.
"Sorry Peter," Edmund pushed himself off the ground. "I didn't mean to fall asleep."
"If you were tired, you should have stayed at the castle," Peter stood as well. "It's not safe here."
"How many guards did you bring?" Edmund asked absently as he headed towards the door.
Edmund frowned and looked back at his brother, who still lingered near the Table. Peter was staring at the relief of Aslan with the same lost expression he had worn after the ice wall had been shattered. Edmund turned away again.
"I'll wait for you then," Edmund reached for one of the torches. "Take your time."
Edmund froze, hand on the sconce.
"Stay?" Peter asked softly.
Edmund let his hand drop and walked back to where Peter had sat down in the dust. He stopped uncertainly beside him. It had been a long time since Peter had actually seemed to want his company, never mind asking for it.
"I won't bite Ed," Peter reached up and caught his wrist, tugging on it gently.
"I wasn't worried about that," Edmund sat down. "You have had all your shots."
Peter laughed a little despite himself and nudged his brother with his shoulder, "Very funny, Ed."
Edmund shrugged, quietly pleased that he had actually made Peter laugh. They sat side by side for a while, watching the image of the Lion flicker in the guttering firelight.
"Edmund, I wanted…"
Peter dropped his eyes, and Edmund tensed beside him, but waited patiently.
"What I meant to say, before you so kindly interrupted by popping my arm back in joint," there was a fond amusement in Peter's voice that Edmund had not felt at the time and did not feel now. "Was that you've always been there for me, you've always had my back, and I'm sorry I took that… took you for granted."
Peter was staring at the dust at his feet, but Edmund's eyes were fixed on the Lion. He hadn't always been there for Peter, he hadn't always had Peter's back, but they were well past that, and it wasn't the answer Peter was looking for anyway.
"I knew that was what you were going to say," Edmund leaned his head back against the Table. "You didn't have to say it."
"You deserve to hear it though," Peter shook his head, just barely looking at him through the fringe of his hair.
Edmund considered this carefully, turning it over in his mind. He had grown to be a great diplomat in their day. He had learned to weigh every word spoken and unspoken, and when to speak and when to stay silent, and how to choose his words with care. There was always a little bit of diplomacy involved in family, but in a family you were not a foreign dignitary come to make alliance. You were already theirs; they were already yours. That was where you started, not where you ended.
Edmund shrugged and turned to look at Peter. "You're my brother and my king. Where you go, I follow. It's that simple."
Edmund abruptly found himself crushed to Peter's chest and was bruised enough to be glad his brother wasn't wearing mail. He didn't particularly want to go around holding Peter's hand, but he didn't mind this. It had been much, much too long since this. Edmund wrapped his arms around him tight and pressed his face into his shoulder.
"I'm sorry," Peter said somewhere near Edmund's ear. "I'm sorry I didn't listen to Lucy. I'm sorry I put you in danger. I'm…"
"I know," Edmund stopped him. "I know. It's done with now. Leave it at that."
But don't forget, Edmund didn't add, because to forget was to risk making the same mistakes again. There was a fine balance between being held helpless by the past and using it to free your future. Peter knew that though, and Edmund didn't need to say it.
"What would I ever do without you, Ed?" Peter pressed a kiss to his brother's temple before sitting back.
"Be squished by something, I'm sure," Edmund replied mildly.
"I don't doubt it," Peter stood with a soft laugh, then offered Edmund his hand. "We should get going. The girls must be worried."
Edmund let himself be pulled up and didn't fuss when Peter wrapped an arm around his shoulders. He didn't like being treated like a baby; he didn't mind being treated like a brother. He had learned the difference between the two the hard way. He was still in the process of teaching it to his brother.
"Yes?" Peter picked up his torch.
Edmund wanted to say that he had missed him, that he was glad that he was back to himself, that he was a little worried about what would happen when they went back to London, but on closer consideration, he decided Peter knew all of that already.
"Never mind," he let his head fall to rest on Peter's shoulder. "Let's go home."