Chapter Five: Walk on the Wall
A/N Yes, I'm still alive. No, I haven't abandoned this story. Yes, my muse is still frolicking over in FusionFall, which is why it took me over a year to finish one chapter. I'm trying very hard to focus on Narnia again with indifferent results. This chapter has been made safe for human consumption by the best beta reader ever, Miniver. My thanks to her mad skillz and to all of you for your patience.
". . . I smell the grass, sweet on the breeze
and cool beneath my paws.
Shadows to dusk, the pale Moon calls,
I answer to the night."
Applause of a Narnian sort (a noisier clamor than mere clapping since so few of my subjects had hands to clap) rose up from all sides as Arthur Ravenwolf finished his poem with a deep, rumbling growl, and he bowed his shaggy head in appreciation.
Quite a crowd had gathered by the gates to listen to him recite: guards and servants and other residents of Cair Paravel whose exact occupation escaped me. While escorting Lady Anelata about the palace grounds en route to find Ricanus, we had run into Arthur on duty guarding the inner gates. Though all of Cair Paravel served a function, this northwest corner was the working side of the palace grounds. While clean and neat, there was little of the decoration here that was typical of the Cair's interior and formal gardens, but it was still a pleasant spot. The day was promising to be hot, but now at mid morn the grounds were still deep in the Cair's shadow and the grass still damp with dew. By her wide-eyed expressions, I suspected Anelata was unfamiliar with the everyday chores that allowed so grand a place to run smoothly. I can say I'd tried my hand at several of them and discovered many things beyond my skill set. It seemed I was a better High King than gardener. Or smith. Or cook. In fact, the only domestic skill I seemed to possess was sewing.
After introductions, I had asked Arthur to tip us his poem about sunset, a particular favorite of mine (and the only one I could think of at that moment). In my experience, Narnians, even the most taciturn, have a love of words and will never pass up an opportunity to listen to them strung together in a story or poem or song. More than happy to comply, Arthur had no sooner sat down and cleared his throat in preparation than word got out and we soon found ourselves part of an eager throng.
The various Hens who tended the kitchen garden shushed their new broods of talkative chicks, eager to introduce them to poetry at a young age. The Raccoon laundress gave off hanging sheets for a while to listen. I counted a Dwarf guard, my own guard of Mountain Goats, several dozens of Birds, some cooks, every Dryad within earshot, and the Cair's Satyr wine steward among the audience. I waved aside all hesitation to join us. Poetry, especially stuff as good as Arthur produced, was meant for everyone from emperors to the most cantankerous Marsh Wiggles.
Anelata (whose beaded shoes were a source of great fascination for the chicks) was as astonished by the form of the poem as she was delighted to meet a lyrical Wolf. I had read Archenlandish poetry during the course of my studies, and here at least I will admit it bored me. Like their court, the Archenlanders' poetry tended to be highly structured. Rhyming was a must and the meter and measures had to be exact to be considered acceptable. Even the subject matter was critical. But Narnians would not be so stifled in their creativity. A poem celebrating smells and sounds and the shift of day to night, while common in a land populated by Talking Animals, was a whole new experience for the lady. By her reaction, I do not think she found it distasteful, foreign though it was in concept and execution.
The wine steward, himself a poet and stiff competition for Arthur as favorite in the court, folded his arms in critical disdain. With a superior sniff he said, "You should have said, 'the cold Stars call.' We know they sing."
The Ravenwolf pride was pricked and Arthur's ears shot up. The rivalry he shared with the Satyr was as well known within the palace as it was intense, and he picked up the gauntlet with his reply already formed. "Paws complements calls far better than call. Besides, we don't howl to the Stars. If you were paying attention, you would have noted that the poem is about the falling dusk. The Stars don't rise until their father is abed, whereas their mother rises and sets, day or night as she pleases."
I smiled at Anelata, knowing that the two poets could and would duel all day, and offered her my hand. Clutching my fingers tightly for balance, she carefully stepped over the chicks enamored with her shoes, holding up her long skirts to avoid knocking any of the babies over. They chased her a few steps until their scandalized mothers called them back, and by the time we escaped, she was giggling merrily.
We headed for the lower wall of Cair Paravel's seaside fortifications. The inevitable wind that kicked up every afternoon off the Eastern Sea had gotten an early start, cooling the air and carrying the sweetly pungent smell of salt water. Edmund, who for some reason had memorized the schedule for the palace guards, had assured me that Ricanus would be stationed on the first line overlooking the Eastern Sea. He had seemed a little less than pleased when I told him why I was going and with whom, but I could tell my brother was not taken with the duchess in any way, and by extension her daughter was suspect. Clearly I was going to have a merry time of it finding a wife that could survive Edmund's steely glare.
Seagulls and other birds called out good morns as I escorted Lady Aneleta along the wide walls, wending our way downwards toward the beach. Anelata was busy waving and calling out greetings to everyone she saw, and more than one of my subjects looked at me from head to toe in an amused fashion, still trying to see if parts of me were shiny. I suppose this is what it's like to be loved in the land.
I left Anelata for a moment to check in with the Muskrat guards to see if the betting pool for the weather predictions was ongoing. While the initial pool was finished, I was satisfied to learn that the Muskrats were organizing another round of wagering. Skeptics to the last, they were hardly able to believe that Sra Sysyks could predict the next storm merely by staring at the clouds, and they attributed his first success to luck. I was happy to contradict them and lay my money on science over fortune.
"And Your Majesty," said the lone Meerkat lieutenant amidst the Muskrats. "Captain Xati guards the water gate."
There was a tense hush and I was faced by a dozen sets of wide eyes. They stared with alarm and sympathy.
"Thank you, lieutenant," I said, grateful for the warning. I briefly entertained the idea of choosing a different route, but I still had duties later in the day and I really couldn't delay. Steeling myself, I returned to the sunlight.
When I emerged from the guard house, I found Anelata chatting happily to a cormorant standing on the wide wall, his wings held open as he dried off in the sun. She was commenting on the weather and moved on to the poetry reading she'd just heard, laughing as she told the bird about the rivalry between Arthur and the steward. The cormorant looked at her curiously and shifted about, but said nothing. That wasn't surprising in any way since it wasn't a talking cormorant. She could not tell the difference between Talking Animals and dumb ones, but I found it touching that she was making such an effort to get along in a land that was so foreign to her.
The scene was charming and the lady was beautiful, and not wanting to embarrass her, I watched for a few moments. Spotting me, Anelata curtsied and bid the cormorant good day, abandoning her one-sided conversation. She waved a final time and the cormorant clicked his beak and turned around to dry his belly. With a smile I offered her my arm again, enjoying the feel of her hand on my sleeve and the pleasure she was deriving from our walk. It was a little thing, taking a walk together, but I was extremely happy to see her smile back.
It was with some trepidation that I approached the water gate, which was little more than a decorative arched bridge connecting two sections of the wall. The view from the bridge was outstanding, and it was here that Xati, the Centaur captain of archers, was stationed. I approached with caution as we all did these days. She was a commanding, intimidating officer at the best of times. Now that she was very pregnant with her first foal, she inspired terror in every almost male within a ten-mile radius and quite a few beyond that, I was sure.
The whole Cair was looking forward to the birth sometime in the next few weeks, none more than Xati's husband, Kanell. There was something amusing and endearing as Kanell tried to hover and indulge a mare who would tolerate none of it. We all knew that despite his ferocity in battle, he would be the most doting sire imaginable, and the whole army was poised to see the famous warrior and Knight of the Order of the Table melt at the sight of his first child. I would have gladly excused Xati from her duties, but she refused, saying she was with child, a natural state, and not incapacitated. As a compromise she was reduced to light duty, mostly standing guard in places that were easily accessed, and she always had at least two other soldiers with her to fetch and carry and keep a wary eye on her. She probably knew that the guards alerted everyone in her path, and it was equally likely that she was entertained that the men of Narnia approached her with such caution.
"Captain Xati is ahead," I whispered to Anelata. "I have to warn you, she's very . . . severe in her address."
"She?" Anelata asked, her blue eyes opening wide at the notion of a female officer.
"She," I confirmed, catching sight of pinto flanks up ahead. I braced myself. "She's one of our finest fighters. I owe her my life."
Anelata was quietly astonished. "A woman to battle?" she murmured, and let out a little sound I could not quite interpret. I decided not to mention that almost a third of Narnia's standing army was female, and during times of strife the number of women that took up arms was higher still.
Xati was leaning heavily on her spear, her shod hooves splayed wide as she carried out her duty. For a Centaur she was on the small side, and though presently shorter on temper than usual, she was looking forward to motherhood enough that now she was rather game about being as close to round as a Centaur could be.
"Captain Xati," I greeted cheerfully. "Good morn to you."
She nodded, saying, "And to you, King Peter. Before you ask, I am well and the foal is active and healthy. Mrs. Tibs estimates I will deliver in less than a month's time. I am not hungry or thirsty, nor do I need to take a break."
"Of course," I said, in no way offended that she would head off any inquiries. I knew what it was like to be asked the same details time and again, and I rather envied her ability to be so blunt, a privilege denied kings for the most part. "Lady Anelata, allow me to present Captain Xati. Captain, this is Anelata, daughter of Duke Dean of Chlanda-on-Wye in Archenland."
Xati smiled, amused at Anelata's open-mouthed confusion, and nodded in curt greeting. "Lady. Welcome to Narnia. How do you find it thus far?"
The lady struggled to find her voice, blushing to the roots of her hair. Stiffly she said, "It is . . . most surprising, Captain, and very different from Archenland."
"Of that I have no doubt," was Xati's dry reply.
"Arthur gave us a poem before and we're on our way to meet Ricanus," I provided, wondering at Anelata's reaction and anxious to keep the conversation flowing. I had the sense of having missed something transpiring between the two women. Truly, I could make good use of an interpreter of feminine language.
Tactfully ignoring Anelata's awkwardness, Xati nodded. "Arthur is a poet of uncommon skill. He is composing a lay about my grandmother, General Arna, and the Battle of Filsonda Pass. He plans to present it at this year's anniversary celebration."
"I hope he does history justice," I replied, eager to get away. "I look forward to it already."
"Oh, he shall, Your Majesty. He dare not do otherwise. Ricanus is at the steps," said Xati, shifting carefully to point. "Some Merfolk were visiting earlier."
I smiled at my companion, eager to get away. "I hope they're still about. A good day to you, Captain."
"And to you, King Peter, Lady." She nodded rather than bowed, and I returned the salute. I presented my hand palm up to Anelata again to continue our walk, and when she covered my hand with hers, I was surprised to feel how chilled her fingers had become despite the heat of the day.
". . . and then we went to meet Ricanus. She seemed a bit more composed but . . . something about Xati had her agitated."
Edmund had stopped reading the law book that lay open on the table before him to listen to my confusion. His compassion extended no further than me, however, and even then it was limited. I could tell because of the way he toyed with the gryphon quill pen in his hand and how he exercised the same patience with me that he reserved for the Dogs.
"Don't be so shocked, Peter. Remember what Silvo told you: women are accessories in Archenland."
"But she must have seen some of the female guards about the palace."
"If she can tell male from female, given that most of our subjects are Animals. She mistook the cormorant, after all."
I paced our room, trying to sort out my reactions to the day. It had been a lovely morning up to the point of meeting Xati. Something about the Centaur had thrown Anelata, though she valiantly tried to hide her response. Edmund had made the mistake of being present when I wanted to talk, and I had poured the whole story out to him in the hopes he could make sense of any of it. Given that I was trying to understand women in general, it was a fairly tall order. At least he wasn't the sort to gloat.
Edmund leaned back in his chair as I poured us each a draught of water. "Could it be that Xati being with child disturbs her?" he asked as I handed him the goblet. "Perhaps your lady is of the draconian opinion that the good captain should be confined for daring to reproduce."
I almost choked on my water at the suggestion. Xati confined? The very idea! I swallowed hastily. "Feeling suicidal, are we?"
Edmund grinned, pointing the feather quill at me. "Merely conjecture, good my brother."
"For your sake and safety that idea goes no further than this room." I frowned, realizing what he'd said. "And she's not my lady."
"Slip of the tongue," was his virtuous defense.
"Of course," was my sarcastic reply. I was quick to quote our court recorder, Minovin, who once had said to me, "Children have to come from somewhere."
"I should hope. But Narnians look at the process of getting a child - and getting with child - as something to be celebrated, not shameful."
I sighed, leaning on the table beside him. "Maybe I should speak to Susan."
"I was going to suggest Peridan."
"Mmm," I mused as I finished my water. "Good idea."
"All my ideas are good, Peter."
"Except confining Xati."
"It wasn't my idea," corrected the Just King, raising his goblet in salute.