The Good Brother
This takes place in the week following Peter's return at the end of Into the West.
Disclaimer: Narnia and its characters are the property of CS Lewis, Walden Media, and Disney. I'm just borrowing them and I promise to give them back when I'm done. Until the next story, of course, which is still putting up a darned good fight.
Cool hands rested alongside my jaw and neck, bracing my head, and I realized I must have been tossing in my sleep, something I did only very rarely. I roused as if from a deep slumber, though I had been sleeping restlessly at best. There was an awful taste in my mouth and I could barely draw a breath through my nose. Edmund called my name again, an anxious pitch entering his voice. I forced my eyes open even as I began to cough. The sounds, the feel, the heaviness in my chest, were all too familiar and I struggled to sit up in order to breathe and cough easier.
It was pneumonia again. I knew the feeling instantly. I don't know why I was surprised. Some curse upon me made me more susceptible to it than my siblings – not that I'd wish it on them – and hardly a year had passed back in Spare Oom where I hadn't been laid low by pneumonia at least once, sometimes twice. It was insidious stuff. My body seemed to turn against me as fluid seeped into my lungs and all I could do was cough and cough until I was exhausted and sore and listless. Fever sapped my energy and I would be miserable and spent until the sickness was gone. I drew a shuddering breath through my mouth and the motion triggered another spasm of coughing. Nothing like this had happened last year and I had quietly hoped that this was an affliction I had left behind. Narnia's air was so pure, so invigorating, that it just didn't seem right that anyone could get sick here.
I realized that Edmund had gone to fetch Silvo only when I heard the click of hooves across the floor. A moment later the Faun's steady, calming voice asked,
"King Peter, have you a fever?"
I nodded and coughed. Edmund snorted, saying, "I think it's got him. His coughing woke me. He's burning up, Silvo."
Handkerchiefs were fetched, coverlets smoothed, pillows were fluffed, and I barely heard Silvo ask Edmund to stay with me as he fetched Martil and sent for the Cair's healers. My valet was in his element with so much to do and so much care to be given. I groaned quietly. Much as I could appreciate the healers' art, I did not want to be at their mercies twice in less than a sennight since I had returned from the Western Wild. I was already reduced from the near-starvation and exposure I'd endured and not even Lucy's cordial could change that. Besides, it was not a fortnight to Christmas and Susan had so many celebrations planned for my return and Edmund's restoration and the season.
Said brother was sitting on the bed beside me and waiting with a patience that had been absent in the past. We had stayed up late talking and we both had fallen asleep in my bed as we had done almost every night since I had gotten home. There was so much we had to tell each other about the past four months, so much comfort to give and receive and so many jokes about eating crow to share. I had been unusually tired, but I had attributed that to fatigue left over from four months of travel through the wild, not to being ill. It seemed my time in the Wild was catching up to me with a vengeance.
We were quiet now, and I was as glad of Edmund's presence as I was of his silence. I did not want to talk. I just wanted to rid myself of this feeling of weakness and the taste of fever in my mouth. I did not want to be helpless before this sickness. Not after recovering from infection and broken bones just days before. I was drifting off again when I heard Martil and the healers arrive. Forced to rouse, I was glad to see that Felern wasn't among them. I had given that poor Dwarf enough misery and grief last week. It was only fair that the others get a turn, too. I was not the best of patients when I was sick, prone to snapping and peevishness and, yes, childish petulance.
After much poking and prodding and coughing, the healers told me what I already knew: I had pneumonia. Teas and poultices and remedies of all sorts were proposed until I grew annoyed at the disturbance and the healers and Edmund threw the lot of them out until the morning. After much coaxing I agreed to take some tea, and the concoction sent to me was pungent enough to clear my sinuses for a few moments so that I could tell the steaming drink had a truly disgusting taste. I drank as much of it as I could stomach and with a gasp I set the cup aside.
"Lie down, Peter," ordered Edmund, drawing the covers up over me again. Suddenly chilled without layers of blankets covering me, I dropped back down into the nest of pillows and tried to regain the warmth that had been lost. Edmund made to climb onto the bed beside me when Silvo stopped him.
"King Edmund, I must ask you to return to your room."
I didn't need to see him to know he frowned. I could feel the sudden tension in the air. "This is my room."
"I mean your own chambers," explained the Faun a little nervously. "Down the hall. Martil is setting them up now. We don't know if your brother might infect you."
The frown deepened and his eyes narrowed stubbornly. "I'd already have it then! And I don't. And I won't. I'm staying."
"Please, Sire. Just for a few nights. You are not the quietest of sleepers and you might disturb your brother's rest."
"I do not snore," he swore under his breath, knowing full well what the valet was implying.
A sound escaped me – a snort of sorts that belied Edmund's claim. Not that I minded, of course, but Edmund did snore when he was deeply asleep. I had my eyes closed, but I was certain he glared my way.
"Tonight," he agreed, stubborn to the last. "We'll see about tomorrow."
Silvo was wise enough to choose his battles and know when he had won even a small victory. I hoped he enjoyed it. I knew my brother well enough to know that it would be Silvo's last win for a long while.
In the early morning word spread very quickly. Susan and Lucy came to see me before breakfast. I woke up to both of them sitting on the edge of my bed and looking at me with wide, anxious eyes. They were still in their dressing gowns and they clucked over me and smoothed my hair. Susan in particular looked edgy, probably because she remembered better than Lucy how often I had been sick in the past. I felt a pang of guilt. I had given them so much to worry about of late and I would have spared them this if I could. They only left when the healers arrived with a goblet of bitter medicine. I think the smell of it might have warned them that they didn't want to be around for their king and brother to get dosed. Edmund braved the process, stalwart soul that he was, and grimaced in sympathy at the face I made as I struggled to swallow the stuff.
Edmund had not yet resumed his normal schedule of classes and he shamelessly used me as an excuse to avoid our regular dance lesson. He vanished for an hour or so and returned with three servants, all of them carrying books from the library. They made some impressive stacks on his desk and the table.
"What have you there?" I asked hoarsely, suppressing a yawn.
"Some of the law books that I wanted to read since writing the Codex Consors. I brought you some history books, too, if you'd like to catch up a bit on your classes."
Very soon thereafter I was propped up with pillows and cushions and a lovely illuminated book of Narnian history was open on my lap. The image of a hideous dragon attacking the Lone Islands was the last thing I remembered for a long while because I must have dropped off asleep before I managed to do more than turn the first page.
Something small, light, and four-footed was walking on my legs when I roused again. I opened my eyes to shadows, but after a moment I realized the curtains had been drawn around the bed to block the late morning sun. Whatever was walking on me was joined by two more like weights. I could feel each step they took through the covers and I could hear curious and excited whispers exchanged. One of them was by my feet, so as an experiment I moved my foot. Immediately the creature jumped to the attack, landing on my toes as if it could do some damage through half a dozen blankets. Another climbed along the length of my arm to my shoulder. I could feel faint, fast breaths in my ear and the tickle of fur or whiskers. I shifted to catch sight of my visitors and found myself nose-to-nose with a kitten.
"Are you awake?" asked the black-and-white kitten, sniffing at me excitedly.
"A little," I said in a hoarse whisper. Talking hurt, and my lips felt horribly chapped. "Are you?"
He nodded seriously, and then called, "Bellas! Abigail! Look! He's awake . . . I think!"
Energetic squeaks rose up and the other two kittens stomped and tumbled across the landscape created by me and the blankets to join their brother. They were very cute. One was white and the other a silver tabby, all of them with big blue or green eyes. With tails held high they lined up along my pillow to stare at me.
"Good morn," I smiled.
"Good morn," they chorused.
"I like your pillow," said the white one, kneading the softness with her little paws. "It smells like the ducklings our mama sometimes watches when the Eiders work late in the gardens."
"Are you very sick?" the tabby wondered. She leaned far forward until her nose touched mine. "A Faun came for Mama this morning and he said King Peter was very sick."
"Are you King Peter?" asked the male.
"He's the only one that's sick, silly!" The white kitten turned to me. "I'm Abigail."
"I'm Bellas," said the tabby.
"My name is Nain," added the male shyly. He raised a paw to lick it a few times before he cast a hesitant glance at his sister. "Are you King Peter?"
"Yes," I replied, smiling and suppressing a cough, "and you're right, Master Nain, I am rather sickly at the moment." I didn't know if Cats could get pneumonia and I certainly didn't want to share it with them. I tried to suppress the urge to cough. "Your mother must be Anthea Tibs."
At the mention of their mother the kittens perked up and they all began purring happily, impressed that I knew who their mama was. The sound they produced was very soothing and I felt myself began to drift off again. Nain arched his back and rubbed his face on mine before curling into a warm and soft ball of fur right under my chin. His sisters seemed to find that an excellent idea and likewise chose their spots to join me in a nap. Still enjoying the pillow, Abigail snuggled close to my ear and Bellas ended up on the other side of my head, nestled right by my neck. We all four were asleep almost instantly, the kittens thrumming softly with each breath.
I awoke to soft voices and a tugging at my nightshirt. I opened my eyes to see Edmund carefully working Nain's claws from my clothes as he lifted the sleepy kitten off of my chest.
"Shh," he whispered to the little Cat, smiling as Nain purred loudly in recognition. "Come along, sir. Over here." Nain was set down beside his sisters further down on the bed and Edmund looked at me. "Mrs. Tibs is here, Peter. Can you sit up?"
I nodded, suddenly thirsty and hot. Moving triggered a fit of coughing, so it was some time before I noticed the ginger tabby sitting close by on the bed. Her eyes were bright behind tinted glasses and her ears were pitched forward, intent on every aspect that this case of pneumonia presented. Jumping onto my lap, she listened at my chest before she reached up and placed a paw on my forehead. I could not help but smile because she looked so very focused and cute at the same time. Behind her, Edmund watched, and the depth of his concern was evident only to me. He and I had not been on very good terms the last time I had been so sick, and before then he had been too little to remember very well. I would recover, I always did, but I was in for a miserable few days.
"I fear there's little more I can do than has already been done, my kings," Mrs. Tibs declared. She was very articulate, and it was strange to hear a Cat without their typical lisp. "At this stage, steps can only be taken if your condition worsens, King Peter."
"I've had pneumonia many times, Mrs. Tibs," I rasped. "I understand and thank you."
"Then you know you must sleep and drink a great deal. Avoid wine and beer. Water and unfermented cider would be best." She looked me over again, and then gave Edmund the same look, letting out a little trill of annoyance. "You both must eat more, too. King Edmund you've lost half a stone or more since last I saw you. Gain weight or you may get sick as well."
"General Oreius has already leveled threats to that end, Mrs. Tibs," Edmund reassured her.
"Good," she said approvingly, "then I needn't level my own."
I slept very poorly that night. The room was too silent, too empty for me to be content. After listening to the Great River almost every night for four months on end and Edmund's breathing for almost a year before that, I was still not used to quiet. Time and again I sat up to cough and gasp, and no matter how fluffy the pillows or how warm the blankets, I could not find a comfortable position to sleep. Finally I just gave up. I dropped into the bed and lay awake, staring off into the darkness, feverish and bored silly. As I lay there alternately chilled and sweating, I couldn't help but wonder if Edmund was sleeping any better than I. I could only hope that he was, but somehow I doubted it.
I was still awake when dawn began to tint the horizon in rosy tones. I sighed, relieved at the sight. With day would come my brother, and then, with the blessing, I could get some rest.
The doors to our room burst open and Edmund came in at a run. I paused, caught in the act of blowing my nose in the hopes of being able to breathe properly for the first time in two days. I had no chance of actually tasting anything for some time to come.
"Peter!" he exclaimed again. "Stop that! You want to be congested for this!"
I stared at him, my thoughts hopelessly muddled. "I can't breathe, Ed," I replied.
"Good. That means you can't smell or taste." As he spoke, he came nearer the bed until he was close enough to whisper, "Lucy's on her way. She made you soup."
I understood instantly. Lucy was an enthusiastic - but not very talented - cook.
"Bad?" I asked.
He made a face. "Awful," he admitted, the voice of experience. "I sampled it. Just get a few mouthfuls down and then say you're tired. I'll take care of the rest."
He was as good as his word. A few moments later I was greeting Lucy as she triumphantly entered with a glass soup tureen in her hands. Beaming at me, she explained the soup would help me feel better. I had no idea of what kind of soup it was supposed to be, but the stuff in the bowl she gave me had a brownish tint and a pasty texture with a few specks of herbs floating on the surface. I was grateful beyond telling that my senses were so dulled. Still, it was very thoughtful of her and I appreciated her concern.
"It's wonderful," I rasped, talking about her efforts and not the results.
Lucy could not have been happier, and for such a smile as she gave me, I would have choked down a whole bowl of the nasty stuff. I was spared that fate, however, by Edmund.
"That's more than he's eaten all day," he whispered to our youngest queen. "Well done, Lu. I'm sure he'll sleep now."
"You think so?" she asked softly.
"I'm sure of it."
Taking my cue, I settled down, but my stomach did not. I could only hope Susan didn't get it into her head to be so helpful as well.
The soup did more harm than good in the long run, but we never let Lucy find out as much. My stomach was not up to handling anything so dense and it triggered a bout of vomiting. I felt far worse that afternoon than I had since this pneumonia had started. Silvo and the healers countered the effects of the soup with what seemed like gallons of herbal tea. I didn't care what I consumed - I could taste nothing and I suspected that was a blessing of its own.
My family converged on me that same evening. Edmund and Lucy piled onto the bed and Susan sat in a chair close beside me. The girls were full of news and gossip, some of it very amusing. It wasn't until Susan began detailing how she resolved a conflict between some Red and Gray Squirrels over who had the rights to collect the almonds dropped by the Dryads in the palace's nut orchard that it occurred to me that she and Lucy had been responsible for running Narnia for weeks on end. Edmund had been incapacitated, I had been absent, and without fanfare and, more important, without a hitch, the two queens had carried on smoothly and quietly. I felt a rush of pride for both of them, and with a smile I realized that I was not in the least bit surprised.
"Well, looking back through the Cair's records and celebrations at the court, there was always a grand ball on Christmas Eve. Given that neither of you have attended dance lessons in ages, I don't think a ball would be quite the thing," Susan said. She gave Edmund a pointed look. "There's a tradition of knights being named that day, too."
"Ah," Edmund answered, sitting up. He pulled a blanket around his shoulders. "Oreius."
"Oreius?" I rasped.
"I want to make him a knight in my order."
Despite myself I frowned. This struck me as a very good idea and I wished I had thought of it myself. Edmund caught my expression and his eyes narrowed as he guessed my thoughts.
"Oh, no, Peter," he said, pointing a finger at me. "He was acting on my order when he found you."
"But he saved me," I countered, more for the sake of arguing since I didn't have a chance of winning against him even if I wasn't sick.
"Find your own knights, Peter," Susan admonished. "Leave Edmund his."
He agreed instantly. "Aye! Don't be greedy! So it's agreed. Susan, Oreius will be knighted on Christmas Eve. Rather than a ball we could have a feast."
"Wouldn't we have that anyway?" I wondered, earning myself a pillow thrown at me from across the bed. I couldn't even whip it back, so instead I curled up around it.
"Yes, Peter," our Gentle Queen said patiently, her tone letting me know I was being dense. I sighed.
"I'm sorry it won't be a very good Christmas," I said, coughing vigorously. "I haven't even had a chance to get any of you gifts."
My siblings stared at me in disbelief. Edmund shook his head and Lucy gaped and finally it was Susan who said,
"Peter! You came back alive! That's the only thing we've been asking for since you left! Don't be silly." Here she took a pillow from the trove on the bed and hit me on the head, trying to knock some sense into me. "This will be the best Christmas imaginable!"
Coughing, coughing, an eternity spent coughing. Nothing could help; nothing could stop the spasms wracking my body. The night seemed endless and hazy. The room was cold, I was hot, and my fever mounted higher and higher. I could not sleep or rest, but a strange, foggy sort of delirium settled upon me and worked upon my thoughts. I remembered all the fear and failings on my journey into the Western Wild: succumbing to Lasa's enchantment, confronting Pennon, clashing with Phillip, my anger at the Brownie, my fear of the Unseelie King. Horrible memories, haunting wonderings of 'What if . . . ?'
I sat up, gasping, the sound and pressure of blood rushing in my ears. I looked around at the darkness, knowing I was alone and illogically alarmed by the prospect. Casting aside the covers, I felt the chill of the floor through my socks as I crossed the room to the door. The hall was dimly lit by torches and lamps. The sound of my opening door attracted the attention of the guards stationed nearby, and a Satyr hurried to address me.
I blinked at him, not certain of what I wanted. "What is the hour?" I finally rasped.
"Two hours past midnight, Sire."
"Oh." I could not keep the disappointment out of my voice.
"Do you require anything or anyone?"
I sighed, and finally shook my head. "No. No, I . . . " I shook my head helplessly and coughed some more. "No, thank you."
King or no, the room was too big for one person. Weakened by the brief walk across the room, I dropped back into my bed. More restlessness and discomfort followed. Nothing felt right, I could not stop coughing, my whole body ached, and the one thing I needed most - sleep - escaped me entirely. Finally I fell into a feverish stupor, staring at the rich canopy over the bed while my exhausted mind made the patterns swim before my eyes. An hour or so passed before I heard the guards in the hall change shifts, their voices soft as they greeted one another and gave them word on my progress or lack of it. The silence that followed was maddening.
At first I thought it was my imagination, but a faint click and a waft of cool air roused me and I knew that the door had opened. A moment later the bed shifted as Edmund climbed onto it. He was dragging his own blankets and his teeth were chattering. Without a word I shifted to the side to make room for him and lifted my own covers. Small, thin, shivering, Edmund let out a sigh of relief as the fever-hot blankets enveloped him. I covered him warmly, the effort draining me, before dropping back on the pillow that was big enough for us both to share.
"Go to sleep, Peter," was all he whispered.
I obeyed almost instantly. When I woke up again, early morning sunlight was creeping through the windows. Edmund lay on his back, his mouth open as he faintly snored. I smiled and closed my eyes, content, as always, just to listen to him breathe. I woke again an hour or two before noon. Edmund was up but not dressed, sitting at his desk and writing industriously. I watched him work and let myself be amazed and delighted at the changes in him this past year. Kingship agreed with him, I concluded. Our crowns were heavy indeed, but helping to rule Narnia had forced Edmund to find untapped strengths within and he had risen to his title admirably. I knew, even if he did not, that history would remember him not for his failings, but for all the good he would achieve.
I lay very still, my arms wrapped around the pillow and my cheek resting on the softness of down. A long sigh escaped me, punctuated by a few coughs. I was finally getting better. I could feel it. My tired body had finally rallied and in a few days I would be itching to resume training and studies and royal duties. I knew how Edmund felt when he said he'd actually missed going to dance class. Anything was better than this forced inactivity.
The bed shifted slightly as Edmund settled down close beside me, and a moment later I heard a faint rustling as he opened a book and flipped through the pages. When he finally found what he was seeking he snuggled a little closer, resting the book on his lap as he began to read aloud.
" . . . and Lady Feline, wife of the dragon-slain Lord Ronno of Felimath, dispatched the swiftest vessels in the fleet to bring word to Narnia of the terrible plight now afflicting the Lone Islands. Many ships sailed west into the moonless night but the dragon was not to be undone. The night-stalker flew far and wide around the islands, foul wings sullying the air as he pursued and attacked the fleet with flame and talon and tooth."
A page rustled. Edmund leaned against me, a comforting weight. I relaxed, letting the sound of his voice and the history of the Lone Islands take me away to a time long past.
"The burning ships could be seen from the watch towers of Velar, glowing bright and orange against the horizon. Many brave men lost their lives, but their sacrifice was not in vain for one ship, the Hyaline under the command of Lord Ronno's eldest son Ronine, sailed first east and then south and slipped past the dragon. Their desperate journey, undertaken in the stormiest season of the year, brought them at last to Narnia and Cair Paravel where the court of King Gale was in assembly."
I turned my head to see him. He was still so thin, so pale, but I thought he was so very, very endearing in his efforts to take care of me and keep me entertained. He glanced down, catching my expression, and he smiled back faintly.
"What?" he asked.
I coughed a bit, then rasped, "Sorry I've been so beastly, Ed. You've helped me to feel so much better these few days. Thank you."
A little self-consciously, Edmund blushed. Finally he said, "Well . . . You'd know about beastly. That is a little brother's role, you know."
"Not my little brother. Not anymore."
"I try not, but then I have your sterling example before me, Peter. You, my king, are a very good brother."
Nestling deeper into the pillows, I smiled back and said, "Almost as good as you."