Author's note at the end of the chapter...
Morning dawned and the cracks in the pavilion let in slivers of light that roused Peter. For a second, he luxuriated in comfort. He was lying out on a bed, wrapped in a blanket and he felt like it was going to be another wonderful day in Narnia. He stretched and a yawn escaped him.
Then he was hit with the memory of yesterday's events.
The bed that had held his brother last night was beside Peter's own. It took some moments for his brain to process its plumped pillow and neatly turned down blankets. It was empty. Edmund was gone. Both thoughts rang in his head.
He could think of only one reason why the bed would be empty. He felt sick. Oreius and the naiad had decided not to wake him and Edmund was dead.
He couldn't even cry, couldn't move.
The sound of laughter reached his ears. The world continued outside in the sunlight. Peter knew that he must carry on and be the High King, but he did not know how he could. The bed was empty and he was alone.
He might have stood there for minutes or hours, before one of the rabbits came in carrying a bowl of soup. It stopped, squeaked, then was gone. Peter hardly heard it.
Moments later, the tent flap was pulled back again. This time the person said, "Peter."
It was a girl. A sister.
How was he going to explain to her that he had failed to keep their brother safe again?
He didn't answer.
"Peter, you're scaring me. What is it?"
A younger voice spoke; another sister. "I see. Oh, Peter, you poor thing." A small hand touched his.
"What is it? What is wrong?" The first sister demanded again.
"Peter, sit down," said the younger voice gently, ignoring the other. "You are shaking so. Take a breath."
How was he ever going to be able to explain to them that he had let his brother die?
"Susan! Get him. Now."
The world seemed to swim in front of him, but he could see Lucy as she crouched at his knees. "Lu..." he started to say, but she shushed him.
"Don't speak. It is all right. I promise it is all right."
Then Lucy was pushed away and another worried face took her place. It was as familiar as his own; the big eyes and freckles and unruly hair.
"Edmund?" Peter whispered.
The concern fled from Edmund's face and he smiled. "Peter! Are you all right? You look a bit peaky."
Peter snorted in answer and gathered his little brother in his arms. He held so tight that Edmund squirmed.
"Peter!" he protested.
Peter did not let go despite the wriggling and finally Edmund held still long enough for Peter to assure himself it really was his brother in his arms. The smell convinced him. It was the familiar warm mix of fresh grass and cinnamon. The others tucked their arms around their brothers.
Lucy broke the silence. "Oh, Peter, you're crying."
Edmund pulled away to look his brother over properly. "You ninny," he said. "Whatever is the matter?"
"He thought you were dead," Lucy explained.
"Hmph. I've never felt better. You are an idiot Peter. Come on, they've just served breakfast and I'm famished."
He dodged past his siblings and back out of the tent. Lucy wiped her own tears away and ran after her brother shouting on him to wait.
Susan gave Peter a quick hug. "He really is all right, you know. He doesn't seem to know how close it was. I'm not sure if Lucy does either."
Peter remembered the conversations from last night, and did not contradict her.
"You should have seen the cordial working. He was so still and I thought maybe he was already... that we were too late. We had flown all night and we were both so tired that I thought I might have imagine the colour coming back into his cheeks. Then the cordial really started to work and he hasn't stopped moving or complaining since. Just typical Edmund. He said that you would be tired, and that we should let you sleep."
Peter rubbed his hands over his eyes and swallowed.
Edmund was tucking into toast and drinking tea for breakfast just outside the tent. Oreius and Philip were with him, listening to the report from the leader of the centaurs who had tracked down the remains of the Toadstool People. They listened intently. Edmund budged over a little and Peter sat beside him.
Without taking his eyes away from the centaurs Peter edged closer to his brother so that he could he could feel the warmth of his arm against his.
"You needn't sit on my lap, Peter," Edmund said loudly. "I am really all right."
Peter blushed, but no one else seemed to notice. Once the report was over, Lucy slid closer to Edmund on his right so that he complained of being crushed. Philip nudged him and Susan ruffled his hair. Finally, exasperated, he said he was going to get a little bit of peace and extricated himself from the press of bodies.
The girls watched him go, then Lucy nudged Peter. "Go get him."
"He wants to be alone."
"He said he wanted peace," Lucy said. "Boys never do listen. Peace isn't the same as being alone. Trust me, he needs you to go and talk to him."
Then she smiled sagely and would not be drawn out any more.
Edmund hadn't gone far. The reassuring sounds of their friends' voices were still clear, although he could not understand the words.
The younger boy did not look up, so Peter sat beside him. Neither spoke, and that was enough for Peter. He needed to feel that Edmund was there, to watch him and hear him breath.
Finally, Edmund said, "So you saw them? The wild horses?"
"Were they beautiful, like Philip said?"
"And wise and very, very beautiful. They saved our lives."
"I wish I could have seen them properly. Philip couldn't tell me anything about them. He was practically speechless." Edmund gave a small smile. "I think he wanted one for a mate after all."
"They were a bit small."
Silence again. One of the fauns saw them and bowed. Both boys waved back. It was one of the Berberini sisters. "I am glad to see you both well," she said. "I look forward to resuming our training."
Edmund said, "We'll have to wait until Peter's ankle is better."
"Very good, sires." She bowed and took her leave.
"All that sword practice didn't make much of a difference, did it," Edmund said finally.
"I'm sure it will do, eventually. You showed the hag you meant business."
"That was just luck. I'm surprised she couldn't see my hands shaking. I'm just glad it's finished and the horses are safe."
The chatter and activity of the camp-site washed over them. Edmund lay back on the grass with his hands behind his head and he let his eyes close against the sun. His breathing slowed, and Peter wondered if he was asleep. Then he opened one eye.
"For heaven's sake, out with it, Peter."
"What are you talking about?"
"You. You're wanting to ask something. I can see it in your eyes. I'm tired and I think I deserve a nap, but I can't if you're as tense as a cat on hot tiles."
Peter knew he couldn't settle until they had talked properly. "What do you remember?"
"It's a bit muddled, sort of like being in a dream. I remember the hag clearly, and cutting the horse free, but I'm hazy after that. Did I said some things that didn't make any sense?"
"You were delirious with a fever and you rambled the same way you did when you had scarlet fever. It might have been funny if we hadn't been running for our lives."
"We had to hide, and there was a werewolf. Only I think I have that wrong, because it ran past me out of the clearing with the Toadstool People."
"You aren't muddled. The werewolf came back and you killed it."
"I don't remember that."
"You saved my life again, Edmund."
"We're hardly keeping tallies, are we? Because if it hadn't been for you I would still be in that clearing waiting for Oreius to find me."
Peter slammed his hand into the grass. "If it hadn't been for me rushing in, neither of us would have been in the situation in the first place."
"Rushing in isn't the worst character flaw." Edmund said. He did not speak for a moment as though gathering his courage, then said in a whisper, "I was nearly too late."
"What do you mean?"
"I was right behind you as you chased the werewolf through the forest. I saw them catch you, and I should have attacked as soon as they did. I still had my sword, and I could have rescued you before she poisoned the dagger. But I hesitated. If she had really wanted to kill you, I would have been too late to stop her."
His tone was flat, as though describing something that happened long ago. Peter felt tears sting his eyes.
"I hesitated, and you nearly died." Edmund said quietly and gazed into the blue sky. "I think we're quits."
"Quits," Peter agreed.
Then he said, "I think I am going to promise never to rush in again."
Edmund propped his head up on a hand and stared hard at his brother. He was very serious. "You shall do no such thing. You make decisions in an instant and they are nearly always right. I used to think it was dumb luck most of the time, but there is more. It's like instincts, Peter. Like you know what is right in your soul. You're going to get things wrong occasionally, because you're just a person and mistakes are part of being a Son of Adam or a Daughter of Eve. Learn from it, but don't let it change who you are."
Peter thought he understood. He said so.
"And I shall continue to think too much, and so long as we are together it will be all right."
"It's a deal."
"Good," Edmund said.
"There was one other thing. Last night... did you see Aslan?"
Edmund hesitated before answering. "No, well, sort of, I think. Not so much saw him, but he was there. There was light around him, and he was watching me from the corner of the tent. And there was something wonderful behind him; I thought maybe it was heaven."
"I thought he had come to take you away."
Edmund laughed, and it filled Peter's heart with joy. The fear and guilt washed away like the magic of Lucy's cordial.
"Oh, Peter! He spoke to me, and I was so tired, cold and sore I would have gone anywhere he asked. I nearly begged him to let me into that glittering light. But he said that that I should leave the rushing in to you and that he needed me to hesitate just a little longer. He asked me to hold on for you."
Peter could not think of anything else to say. He rubbed the tears from his eyes, and lay out on the grass too. "I'm glad you're here, Ed."
"So am I." He looked around. "How much longer until the girls follow us?"
It wasn't long. Susan and Lucy appeared carrying a second breakfast and they ate it together, and everything was good.
I wanted to take this opportunity to thank you all again for sticking with this. I suffered from a case of story-fatigue half way through and your kind words and compliments have been appreciated more than you can ever know. Even knowing that people were reading has kept me going. I would still love to know what you thought of this (I'm hoping that as you've got to the last chapter it can't be that bad!)
As before, thank you especially for elecktrum's beta expertise.