Someone Else's Story
"I suppose Aslan would say that was part of someone else's story."
~ The Horse and His Boy
"Do you want these, Cor?"
Cor sat on a low stool with a book that he could not read open on his lap. Although most of the words in the book were beyond him, he was wholeheartedly admiring the beautiful illustrations in the text and so it took a repetition of the question —and a sharp elbow driven into his side by his brother— before he looked up at Queen Susan, who stood nearby. Susan held in one hand a leather-bound volume, and Cor looked at it in some bewilderment until the queen elaborated.
"It's something that belonged to your mother," she said. "There are six more of them, in fact; your father gave them to me after . . . a while ago." She traced one hand over the cover of the book she held. "She kept them as . . . well, as commonplace books, I think, and sort of a record of her thoughts. Your father felt they were too precious to be rid of, yet he found he could not bear the sight of them for some time after her passing. He asked if I might keep them until such a time as Corin was old enough to want them, but," and she smiled with fond exasperation on Corin, who squirmed and made faces at the sight, "Corin assures me that he is not yet old enough. I wondered if you might be."
"But," said Cor, much confused, "we are the same age."
"Yes," Susan said, and her smile was now so gentle and without mockery or amusement of any sort that if you had seen her at that moment you could not have helped but love her, "but sometimes age has very little to do with how old one is. Doesn't it, Lucy?" she added, and Queen Lucy, for her answer, looked up from her own book long enough to throw a cushion at Queen Susan.
"Oh. I see," said Cor, as Queen Susan calmly plucked a feather from her hair and tucked it back into the cushion. He looked at the book his hostess held and found, to his surprise, that he actually did wonder what it contained. He had not actually thought a great deal about his mother since he had first arrived in Archenland; it had been such a strange and wonderful thing to find he had a father and brother and brand new home that he hadn't really had much time to consider the woman who must once have been as much a part of their family as much as he himself now was.
"I . . . I believe I should like it very much," he said, "only . . ." he squirmed, deeply embarrassed, and wondered how to put it. Corin, who was not much bothered when it came to the exact right way to say things, took it upon himself to speak for his brother.
"He can't read yet," Corin announced. "He never learned." And he cast an envious glance at Cor, who had managed for years to elude that terrible thing, Education, which had been forced on Corin from such an early age.
"Why, that's quite all right," Susan said. "You may take them with you until you are able to read them."
"Oh," Cor said, "oh, I don't know if I had better. After all, Father gave them to you—"
"Only to hold," Susan corrected. "Not to keep. It is only my privilege to keep these until somebody with better claim on them than I finds that he has need of them. I have not even read them, for I cannot think that they are mine to read; I did not know your mother for so very long, you see."
"You can't have known her any less than I did." Cor spoke with more than a little vexation and then looked surprised that such words had even been in his head, much less come out of his mouth. Queen Susan looked a little surprised too, but covered it quickly and said of course the choice was Cor's.
"I will certainly keep them safe for you both as long as you wish," she said, "and when either you or Corin are ready for them, you have but to ask."
Cor nodded, knowing this was the best choice, and yet . . . he followed Queen Susan's hand as she carefully restored the book to its former place with its fellows, bound them all once more in a heavy leather cord tied fastened with a brass bauble, and placed the entire parcel in a cedar box which she then replaced on the shelf. He knew it was foolishness to want a book he couldn't even read, and yet that didn't seem to stop him wanting it. The very sight of something that had belonged to somebody who knew him before he had ever been other than what he was born to be had affected him powerfully, and he found himself wishing he had said he would take them after all.
"Well goodness," said Aravis, when he found a moment later in the day to confess this to her, "go back and say as much to Queen Susan."
"Oh," Cor was surprised, "oh but how could I? I already made it very clear that I didn't intend on taking the books until I was able to read them."
"Well," said Aravis, "I can read them to you, if you would really like to begin right away. But I shouldn't think that you changing your mind would signify anyway; Queen Susan doesn't seem the type to bring up your every past resolution and fling it in your face each time you change your mind. Really, I think she's quite nice."
"I never said she wasn't," said poor Cor, compelling Aravis to look at Cor with much the same sort of fond exasperation that Queen Susan had shown Corin.
"I never said you did," she countered. "Goodness, Cor, must you always behave as though you expect me to attack? Come on," she caught his hand in hers and pulled him firmly in the direction of the door, "we must find Queen Susan and you shall tell her you changed your mind about having the books. It will be the simplest thing in the world."
"But— but won't she think me awfully feeble?" Cor protested, trying to pull loose from Aravis's grip only to find that she was more than a match for him.
"Feeble," said Aravis, "is what I would call the boy who changed his mind but was too scared to admit it, for fear of what people might think. Now do stop being difficult, Cor; it makes things so much trickier, you know."
Cor, much abashed, swallowed the remainder of his protests and allowed himself to be towed through Cair Paravel in search of Queen Susan. She was ultimately located where Cor had left her— examining the shelves of the castle library with much care as Lucy, curled up in a particularly comfortable chair, lost herself in a particularly good book.
"Queen Susan," said Aravis, after everybody had made greetings to one another, "Cor wanted to ask if he might change his mind." And then she looked at Cor, and he realised she meant for him to clarify in what way, exactly, he wanted to change his mind. He blushed and shuffled his feet terribly, then, but at last looked up to find Queen Susan looking kindly down on him, and found he was able —if only just— to make his request.
"Might I— that is, I know I said I didn't want to, only I think that now perhaps I might . . . want to have my mother's books?"
"Why of course," Susan nodded, and promptly fetched the cedar box. "There are seven altogether, you will find. I am not sure what the order is, but I expect you will be able to work it out soon enough. Here," she presented the box to Cor, "you should take this, too, I think; the cedar has kept any number of little things from nibbling into the books over time."
Cor, dumbstruck at how easy it had been to change his mind (Arsheesh would have given him no end of a difficult time over it) accepted the box without so much as a word. Aravis took it upon herself to communicate Cor's gratitude, and Susan, watching the odd little team, nodded ever so solemnly and said of course they were most welcome. Then Aravis excused them both and hustled Cor out of the library, and proved just how much she had improved herself by not saying anything cutting about his performance as only a few weeks ago she might have done.
Cor, still rather dazed, clutched the box to his chest and let Aravis seek out a spot in which they might read them. He followed her downstairs and outside, into a quiet, walled-in garden that looked like it might protect them from intrusion for some little while, at least. Aravis arranged herself neatly on a low bench, and Cor understood, after a minute, that she meant for him to sit beside her and put the box between them so they might sort the books.
("It would be so much easier if you had said so, Aravis!"
"I had thought it so obvious that I needn't bother; honestly, Cor, won't you just sit?")
With the box settled and opened between them, Cor dared to reach in and lift out the bundle of books. They were bound with the leather cord he had seen Susan tie round them; the brass bauble at one end of the cord was stamped with the shape of a flower, and Aravis traced her fingers over this as she untied the cord, and Cor dared to lift the topmost volume. It was as soft to the touch as it had looked when Queen Susan held it, bound in dark green, somewhat spotted, leather. Cor turned the thing over in his hands and marvelled at it. His mother, whom he did not remember in the least, had held this in her hand and —he flipped it open— wrote in it. He studied the words, and was suddenly consumed with a desire to know what she had said. Thrusting the book at Aravis, he begged her to read it.
Aravis accepted the book, studied the page and said "it's only a housekeeping list, Cor, it—"
"I don't care," said Cor, who had never had anything in the least like a mother in his whole life, and realised that this was probably as close as he was going to get to having one (unless one counted Aravis, and Cor didn't; although he would never tell her so for the world, he secretly hoped his mother would not have been quite so severe) and so was suddenly desperate to hear what she had once thought. "I don't care; I mean," apologetically, "if you don't want to read it, then naturally you needn't think I would force—"
"Oh, don't be so foolish," said Aravis, and began to read the list.
"Twelve bolts raw silk. Blue, green, brown, yellow and red. And—" she squinted, "she's made some sort of little symbol here beside red, I am afraid I don't know what it means." She went on. "Three bales carded wool. Two pots crimson dye. One pot green dye. Three pots blue dye. One box new needles."
It did not get very much more interesting than that for several pages, but Cor didn't care. He settled his back against a tree that was rooted firmly beside the bench and listened to Aravis read, reciting the litany of the everyday life of a woman to whom he owed his very existence and yet whose face he could not picture in his mind. Aravis had a marvellous voice for reading, very level and just low and husky enough not to grate, but loud enough so he did not have to strain to hear what she said. It was, in fact, rather a perfect voice for reading lists.
"Spring cleaning third day. Ministers' apartments and all council chambers. Begin— oh, but here's something." Aravis's eye had skipped ahead a line or two. "Physic most reassuring. Nothing to cause alarm, but still I wonder. Can it truly be normal to have . . . erm," Aravis sat up a little, "I don't think you'll want to hear this part."
"Oh, but—" Cor began. Aravis shook her head, and looked very prim.
"You do not," she said, "want to hear this part." So Cor let Aravis read on ahead a bit in her own mind, and when she came to a part she deemed decent to read aloud, she went on. "Lune is so very happy. He cannot decide if he would rather have the Crown Prince make his appearance first, or if he wants a houseful of daughters to dote upon before we finally get around to the business of giving Archenland its next King."
She looked up, then, at Cor's slight confusion and made her explanation as gently and as in as matter-of-fact a way as possible. "She was preparing to become your mother."
"Oh," said Cor, and decided he did not want Aravis to elaborate further. He resolved to ask Corin to explain it later. Aravis returned to the book.
"There's a recipe here," she observed. "To help some sort of illness, it seems. I can't tell much, though; she's drawn a lot of lines through it and made a note that it didn't work . . ."
Her eyes skimmed the pages and her mouth formed the words with exquisite care as she spoke. Cor tucked his knees up under his chin as he sat on the end of the bench, closed his eyes, and drank in every word. It was so very much what he had hoped for; buried between recipes, housekeeping lists and other sundries were glimpses into the thoughts and character of a woman readying herself to become a mother; his mother.
The day drew closer to something more like night, and yet Aravis kept reading; he suspected she skipped some parts she found particularly tedious, but he wasn't very bothered by that, since he knew he could always come back to them later and read them again once he learned how to read for himself. For now, he was just grateful to Aravis for reading through two books' worth of pending motherhood and notes about which fabrics would go best in the nursery.
Things got a bit muddled when Aravis picked up the third book and it seemed for a page or two that a war had broken out during the planning of the nursery, necessitating the preparation of countless bandages. After a few pages had passed they realised she had picked up an earlier volume and so decided it might do them well to put the things in some sort of proper order. There wasn't much Cor could do as far as checking the words themselves went, but he did hold the books in the order in which Aravis placed them as she picked up each volume, flipping through it in search of clues as to its place in the set. Most of them were sorted easily enough, but one consisting purely of lists, with no personal notes whatsoever, defied categorisation and so Aravis set that aside for later. At last she had only one book left in hand; opening it near the middle she studied the page. Her eyes widened.
"Oh . . ." she breathed, and looked up. "It's the one she was writing in when you were stolen, Cor."
Cor sat forward at once. "When Lord Bar kidnapped me?"
"Yes. I only wonder where . . ." Aravis flipped back a few pages, searching for the time of the abduction itself. It seemed that Queen Lora had found great use in chronicling her mental processes during that time; there were, as far as Cor could see, judging by the arrangement of the words on the page, no lists at all, but rather page upon page of prose, a mother's heart poured out onto parchment bound in vellum.
"It's so queer," said Aravis, almost to herself, as she studied the words. "The way she's speaking of it, I can't quite . . . the way she's worded it is a little odd."
"What d'you mean?"
"Well, here; in the one line she says how if only she could be certain of something she would speak out, but she doesn't want to ruin somebody's . . . I can't make out this word. It's another water-spot. Somebody's something, anyway. She doesn't want to ruin somebody's something. And yet here on the page before it, she's speaking of Lord Bar and his treachery, so I can't think what she must mean, that she doesn't want to speak out about it, for didn't you tell me that everybody knew right off it was he who had stolen you?"
"Yes, he didn't make much of a secret of it," Cor nodded. "Although nobody is quite certain how he managed it in the first place; he was allowed to stay on in Archenland after that first business with the scandal, but I don't think he was actually at court anymore. He wasn't Lord Chancellor anymore, you see, and so there was no need for him to be there. I would have to ask Father about it to be quite certain, though— I don't imagine Corin would remember Lord Bar any better than I do."
"No, likely not." Aravis fell silent then, her eyes flying over the page, reading much faster than Cor could imagine he would ever be able to. A single crease appeared between her eyes as she read. Something was clearly not sitting well with her.
"It's the most peculiar thing," she murmured, and still she read, and had Cor been even a little more confident of himself he would probably have grabbed the book from her hand and refused to give it back until she told him exactly what was going on that was so peculiar she felt compelled to read about it but not explain. Instead he contented himself to sit and watch her read, and trust that once she had enough of an explanation gathered in her own mind, she would consent to make it; and so it proved.
At last, having gone over a sizeable chunk of the book in close detail, Aravis looked up. The crease between her eyes had not departed; if anything, it had deepened.
"I don't understand it," she said. "It doesn't make sense, because— well," she laid the book on top of the box between them, "if I'm to believe it, she knew something about somebody. Or at least she suspected it, but didn't like to say because she couldn't be certain in her own mind that it was true. She seems to have been a very fair-minded woman," Aravis added, and the particularly toneless way in which she said this gave Cor to understand that she was speaking out of especially deep admiration.
"Knew something about what person, though?" Cor asked. "Lord Bar?"
"That's just the thing; she never says. I don't think it can be Lord Bar, though, because she has no qualms about naming him and yet there is certainly another person here." Aravis searched the pages, and lit on a line in particular. "Here, for example; she says that she cannot believe they had been so taken in by Lord Bar, and she blames herself for allowing such passing acquaintance and cordiality to be mistaken for fealty. But then, in the next line, she talks about what a crushing blow it would be for your father to discover that he had been mistaken so very close to his heart; that the betrayal of an oath of office, even the betrayal of a king by his subject, is one thing, but the betrayal of a dear and trusted friend is quite another."
Cor scrunched up his face and considered the implications of this juxtaposition.
"So, you think that she speaks of Lord Bar as one person, while this other person, this close and trusted friend of Father's, is another one entirely?"
"It's the only way that it can all make sense," Aravis said, and sat back to study the book with more than a little annoyance. "Well, that's difficult, then, isn't it?" she said, and looked up at Cor, who did not see in exactly what way it was difficult, chiefly because he had not read everything that Aravis had.
"I'm not sure how it's difficult," Cor said meekly. Aravis, still studying the book, shook her head.
"The problem is that this person's betrayal is one that your mother was quite consumed by as she waited for your father to chase down Lord Bar's ship. It's possible that the other person was on the ship when your father took it, but I can't think it would be very likely, as she would hardly have been so worried about betraying him if he was about to be exposed as a traitor as soon as the ship was caught anyway."
She looked up at Cor, who was surprised to see that Aravis looked more than annoyed, or even confused; she actually looked quite worried.
"I don't like to say it to you," she admitted, "because I think that once I say it, it will be in your mind and then you could never get it out again. That mightn't be very good, for it may be only my fancy; I can well imagine what your mother must have felt, Cor, not wanting to say something and risk it being the wrong thing . . . but I can at least say that, if the way I am reading this is right, she knew of another traitor of some kind in the castle, and he was not somebody she expected that King Lune would find on the ship."
"Somebody who stayed behind?" Cor blinked, sitting up a little straighter. "Somebody my father trusted, who stayed—" and then the implication of it, the full implication, hit him full-force. "Somebody he might still trust?"
Aravis bit her lip and nodded.
"I don't know, mind you," she cautioned. "Your mother was right there in the middle of it and if we're to believe what she wrote, she couldn't even be sure of it herself. But she certainly spent a great deal of time writing about it; I think she was growing surer in her mind, but I don't think she ever grew quite sure enough to speak out. See, here," she flipped to a point near the middle of the book, "your father is home, by this point, and you are lost to them, and then she just stops writing. It's all lists from then on. It was only as she was expecting you and Corin, and for about a year after you were born, that she stopped writing lists, and then afterward it seems she couldn't bear to write anything but."
"So this," Cor held up the book for which they'd had no place, the book that was lists alone, "is probably the last one, then, isn't it?"
"Probably." Aravis looked down at the little pile of volumes in front of her, and so did Cor. They sat silent for some time before Cor ventured to speak.
"It . . . it mightn't be anything like that, of course," he said.
"No, of course," Aravis nodded quickly. "I'm almost certainly foolish to have even thought such a thing."
"Oh, no," Cor protested, "you aren't foolish at all."
Aravis grew a little flushed, and murmured that Cor was kind to say so. Then both children were quiet again a minute, and studied the book.
"It mightn't be that at all," Cor said at last, "and yet . . . it also might." He raised his gaze from the books to look at his friend, who in turn looked up at him. "It might be that somebody Father trusted went on living at court after I was stolen, and Mother never said anything because she couldn't be certain of her suspicions, and so he was never actually caught, and now he's gone on living here and nobody knows."
"Or," Aravis said, "she might have spoken out and he might have been caught as a result, or she may have spoken out and he might even have been cleared entirely, which would mean that we're being very idiotic over a bit of nothing."
"Or that, yes," Cor nodded, and they both looked at the book again. "If," Cor reflected, "Mother spoke out and simply didn't write it down, it would be the easiest thing in the world to check."
"Yes, that's so," Aravis agreed. "We need only ask any of the court who have come here with us for the hunt if anybody was exposed as a traitor after Lord Bar left, or even if anybody was suspected of being a traitor, only to be cleared afterward, and then we'll have our answer."
"And if it proves that she did speak out, we've nothing to worry about." The thought pleased Cor so much that he even smiled a little. Aravis, not nearly so optimistic, did not.
"And if it should prove that she didn't speak out?" she wondered.
Cor frowned, disliking that possibility, but he answered her anyway. "If it proves she never did speak out, then . . . if she was right about this fellow being a traitor to the Crown —that's quite a leap itself, of course, since if Mother didn't dare speak out for not being certain then perhaps there wasn't actually anything to be certain about— and if we're right in thinking she wrote what she did for the reasons we think she did—" for Cor was too fine a fellow to lay all blame for the conclusion on Aravis, who had, after all, only been reading at his request to begin with— "then that means that whoever she suspected might still be at court in Archenland."
"Not only that," said Aravis, "he might even be with us here."
I am sure she did not mean to say it in so ominous a tone, but say it she did, and the manner in which she said it was such that Cor promptly wrapped his arms around himself to shiver.
The idea of travelling in such intimate company with an unsuspected traitor will have that effect on people.
A.N.: This is decidedly not what I had thought I would be doing tonight, but events seemed to conspire against me to make this what I ended up doing! I had fully intended that I would keep working on the next chapter of Kingdoms Come this evening, but then everything went much differently than I had imagined it would, and so, with Heather Dale's marvellous new CD The Green Knight playing in the background, I wound up with this piece. This story has been in a semi-permanent state of partially-plannedness for several months now, and it seems that it caught me up much sooner than I had meant it to; I hope that does not bode ill for finishing it, because it absolutely refused not to be begun tonight. I am not sure how many parts are left in it yet, probably at least two; I do, however, know where it needs to end up and I suppose I will just have to wait and see how long it takes to get there.
It is, in fact, a sort of tie-in for two of my fics; not only does it take place directly after "Becoming Brothers", it also deals with certain events referenced in the Kingdoms Come chapter that I just posted. However it should stand quite well on its own, and even more importantly than that, it is set in a land that I did not create, featuring characters who mostly are not my creations, and so for that I must offer both apologies and homage to CS Lewis, who created them all.