A/N: TO RETURNING READERS: As you may have seen by now, it is likely that there will be no new chapters of "Ability" until (maybe) Christmas, due to lack of inspiration and an unwillingness to spend what free time I have writing five drafts of the same chapter and then realising that I hate all of them. I really am sorry about that--I wanted to write Peter and Edmund's chapters--I tried! So, as consolation to you, faithful readers (and because I felt my writing skills were rather downtrodden after those five awful drafts), I wish to bolster your spirits (and mine) by presenting "Challenge." It's about Lucy, and archery. It's fun and funny, I hope. And it makes my writing skills feel better about themselves. Ha ha. So I hope you enjoy this as much as I do.
Disclaimer: I do not own Narnia or the Pevenises. Most of the archery bits I got out of my (extremely) limited experience and the Ranger's Apprentice series by John Flanagan (awesomness, printed and bound). What is mine, or rather who, are Endrew, Wyll, and Lady Megin, the Seven Islanders who appear in these six page of theraputic consolation. :)
The practice courts were one of Lucy's favorite places in Cair Paravel. She came to the archery fields when she was angry, when she was bored, sometimes even when she was sad. The twang of the bowstring, the hiss of the arrow flying through the air, the satisfying thud as it slammed into the target were routine parts of her daily life, that calmed her, gave her something to do, and sometimes cheered her up. She had graduated from the smaller recurve bow to the full longbow only recently, and she was still working committing the draw, elevation, and sight to instinct. Of course, she would never surpass Susan, with her magical bow that never missed a shot, but Lucy prided herself on being the second-best shot in Narnia.
There was a delegation from the Seven Isles in Cair Paravel, but Lucy saw no reason why this should stop her from spending an hour or so in the practice courts. After all, Peter and Edmund had not stopped their sword practice. So after breakfast with the ambassador's wife and daughter, she slipped away to her rooms to change out of her silk dress into the soft breeches she wore for shooting.
She walked out of the castle, plaiting her hair tightly as she went. She smiled to herself, and turned to see Edmund falling into step beside her.
"What are you smiling about, little sister?" he asked, taking the leather strap she was carrying in her mouth and tying it onto the end of her braid for her.
"I was imagining the look on Susan's face if she ever saw me walking about with my hair half-done when there were guests in the castle."
"Oh, the horror!" Edmund mocked, eyes sparkling. He tugged the end of the braid. "It's not half-done now. Was there any particular reason you were in such a hurry that you left your rooms with your hair half-done in the first place?"
"I was trying to get to the practice courts before all the good targets were taken," she replied.
"Not that whoever was using your favorite target wouldn't clear out the moment you appeared at the gate," Edmund said dryly. Lucy made a face.
"You know I hate it when that happens, Ed," she said, digging her elbow lightly into his side. He mocked a gasp of pain and grasped his side dramatically. She shoved him playfully and they laughed as they entered the courts.
"Ah, there they are," Peter's voice rang out from the centre sword-ring. Edmund and Lucy swung to face their brother, one suspicious, the other curious. "We were just about to send someone to look for you, Edmund, Lucy," Peter continued as they entered the ring.
"Whatever for?" Edmund asked. Lucy's eyes narrowed as she scanned the crowd gathered around the ring and the two people inside it who were not her brother. One was young, very short, thin and wiry, with a shock of bright red hair, clothed in light, loose breeches and shirt. The other was more middle-aged, bald, of average height, but thick-set, heavily muscled, clothed similarly to the first man. The first held a strung longbow, the second a naked sword.
"This is Endrew," Peter said, indicating the bald man, "and Wyll," he finished, pointing to the short one.
"You wouldn't happen to be the Wyll I heard about all through breakfast, would you?" Lucy asked warily. "The ambassador's daughter, Lady Megin, seems quite taking with the archer-guard. I understand you are the only guard in the Seven Isles who bothers with the longbow?" The man, who had blushed as red as his hair at the mention of Lady Megin, nodded.
"That's right, Your Majesty," he said, quiet and polite. "The others all settle at the recurve bow, but I get heavier draw and longer range."
"Indeed," Edmund said, smiling. "But however do you pull that thing? It's nearly taller than you are!" Lucy looked sharply at her brother, who merely smiled serenely back at her.
"That was quite rude, brother," she said in her best imitation of Susan.
"You know that voice only works for Su," Peter said, grinning.
"That was quite rude, brother," Susan said. Both kings whipped around and stared guiltily at their sister who swept into the ring, still in her purple silks from breakfast. "I heard there was a commotion down in the practice courts. I couldn't miss my dear brothers getting bashed about by Seven Islanders, so I came straightaway," she said, and there was the same laughter in her eyes that Lucy had seen in Edmund's only a moment ago.
"No commotion, sister," Edmund said. "Peter was introducing us to these two gentlemen of the guard."
"Endrew and Wyll, I believe, the best swordsman and the best archer in the Seven Isles," Susan said, nodding to the two men.
"Your Majesty," Endrew said, bowing. Wyll followed suit a moment later. As he straightened, Susan looked him up and down, then indicated his bow.
"While I find my brother's wording offensive," she said, throwing a glare at Edmund, "I can't help wondering the same thing. However do you draw this?"
"Size is nothing to do with it," Lucy interrupted before Wyll could speak. "I mean, look at me, I draw a longbow almost this size. It's all to do with back muscles and arm muscles, and stance. Susan, you should know."
"I haven't got a longbow, Lucy, you know that."
"That not the point—"
"Forgive me, Your Majesty," Endrew interrupted. "Did you say you draw a bow near as big as Wyll's?"
"Yes," Lucy quirked an eyebrow at the big man.
"I'm sorry, but there is no way that that is possible." Endrew shook his head and leaned on his sword. "You're just a little girl, no offense, Your Majesty. It took Wyll five years to learn this bow, and you've not been big enough for a recurve bow that long."
"I used a recurve for four years," Lucy explained. "I've recently graduated to my longbow."
"No," he said again. "I'm sorry, Your Majesty. But there's no way. You're just too small." Lucy felt her face grow hot. She clenched her hands into fists, and tried to concentrate on the words her brother was saying over the roaring in her ears. She knew anger was not the proper response in such a situation as this, but—
Peter's voice stopped and his hand came out of nowhere to slap lightly against Endrew's cheek. The big man looked up, surprised, and smiled.
"A challenge, King Peter?" he asked, hefting his sword.
"To defend my sister's honor," Peter said hotly. "You forget you are speaking to a Queen, guardsman, a Queen who has seen more of war than you."
"Peter," Susan groaned as Endrew withdrew to the far side of the ring to stretch. "Now look what you've done."
"I was about to do the same thing," Edmund said, clapping Peter on the shoulder. "You beat me to the punch, Pete. I'll get your sword."
"You can't fight him," Susan said, but as Edmund handed his brother his naked sword, she threw her hands up in exasperation and marched out of the ring. "Men, stupid men!" she muttered as she left the practice courts. "I refuse to even watch this stupidity!"
"She'll be right back," Edmund said, knowingly. "And she'll have the ambassador, his wife, and his daughter with her."
"I can defend my own honor, you know," Lucy hissed at Peter. He did not respond, and something dawned on her. "You were just looking for an excuse to challenge him, weren't you, Peter?" Lucy said, incredulous. He smiled at her and began his own stretches.
"It's something men do, you wouldn't understand."
"Why didn't you just ask him for a bout in practice?" she asked.
"Because then he would have held back—and so would I. If it was just practice, we wouldn't take it seriously, it would be just a game. Because it's a challenge, it's more like a real duel, only not to the death. You know, he was baiting me by insulting you. He wants to fight me just as much as I want to fight him. Only he couldn't initiate the challenge, because I'm a king and he's not even a knight. But he is the best swordsman in the Seven Isles, knight or not. I've been looking to fight him since I heard we were having an ambassador from the Seven Isles."
Lucy, too, sighed in exasperation and left the ring. She leaned on the rail around it and played with the end of her braid. A moment later, Susan came up and leaned next to her. Across the ring, the ambassador, his wife, and his daughter took up the same position the two queens held. Edmund raised an eyebrow knowingly, made a face at Lucy, and took up his position on the other side of Susan. Lucy laughed.
Lucy had seen many duels since she had become queen—Peter and Edmund had been in tournaments in Archenland, Galma, and the Lone Islands, as well as Narnia. They had fought the best knights of the world, the lowliest squires, Centaurs and Fauns, and occasionally, each other. They had won a good deal of these duels, and had lost their fair share. They had been in wars, where each battle was a duel to the death. And Lucy had been there for most of them. She knew what to look for—the shift of the torso as a man began to make his move, the overhead sweeps, the quick thrusts and parries, the endless circling, looking for an opening.
Peter and Endrew were evenly matched. Both were strong, both had stamina. When Endrew locked swords with Peter and bore down, body to body, Peter gritted his teeth and held him off. Neither had the advantage of height, standing within inches of each other. When Peter feinted quickly to the left before reversing his direction with incomprehensible speed, Endrew was just as swift to parry and dodge the blows. It became a duel of attrition, each trying to wear the other out. And the endless circling continued.
Lucy saw it before it happened, like in a chess match, when she saw what move Edmund would make before he made it, locking her king up solidly and calling checkmate. Peter lunged, spun away, and lunged again, lightning fast. Endrew blocked, but as Peter spun away the second time, the Islander swung his sword around in a complicated move that made Edmund groan with the desire to learn it. The glittering blade stopped centimeters away from Peter's throat, and everything stilled.
"Yield," Peter said quietly, dropping his sword point to the ground. Endrew remained for a moment, then lowered his own sword. He grinned, and Peter returned the smile. "Well played," he said, holding out his hand to his opponent. "I'd hate to meet you in battle."
"As I would hate to meet you," Endrew replied, clasping Peter's hand.
"Then I suppose it is a good thing we are allies, not enemies," Lady Megin said lightly from the sidelines, setting everyone off laughing. The duelists were given sacks of water, and towels, and were promised fresh fruit and wine when they were cooled down. The talk and laughter dissipated, though, when Susan's cry of "Wait!" echoed through the air.
"Peter lost," she said, noting the obvious. "Lucy's honor has not been defended. She deserves another champion to defend her."
"Since when do you get two tries?" Endrew asked good-naturedly.
"Since she's my sister," Susan replied pertly, startling a laugh from Endrew.
"I can defend my own honor!" Lucy said hotly. "And besides, Endrew didn't really insult me. You know he and Peter only did that so they'd get a chance to fight each other."
"I say you are a puny, lying girl, who plays with toys too big for her," a voice called from behind Lady Megin. Wyll stepped forward into the ring. "Is that insulting enough for you to defend yourself, Queen Lucy?" He raised an eyebrow at her as she flushed red.
"I challenge thee to a contest of archery," she said formally, drawing deep, calming breaths. "Thou darest impugn my honor, and we most heartily provoke, challenge, and defy thee to a contest of three arrows, at one-hundred-and-fifty paces each."
"I accept," Wyll's eyes were sparkling, and for a moment Lucy saw why Lady Megin was so taken with him. Then she remembered she was supposed to be angry with him, turned on her heel, and stalked off to the archery field, the crowd who had watched Peter and Endrew's duel trailing in her wake.
"You know he knows you can draw your bow, right?" Edmund said falling in next to her for the second time that morning.
"Oh, blast, this is just another one of those stupid things like Peter did, isn't it?" she asked, realising belatedly that he had gotten her angry for the purpose of forcing her into a challenge he could not initiate. "He just wants to shoot against me, but was too much of a man to simply ask."
"You're catching on," Edmund said, tugging the end of her braid again.
"But why not Susan? She's the best shot in Narnia, probably in the world. If he's so desperate to prove himself a great archer, why not go up against her?"
"She said it herself, earlier," Edmund said, shaking his head. "She doesn't draw a longbow. You do. She's got her recurve, and the Father Christmas bow that's not nearly as big as your longbow—it's more of a hunting bow-longbow hybrid. It's one of a kind."
"Besides," Peter said, putting an arm around her shoulders, "You and he are more evenly matched than Susan and he. I think the poor man wants at least some chance at winning." Lucy shrugged his arm off her shoulders and began to roll them, loosening her back muscles and stretching her arm muscles. Susan handed Lucy her bow, and she paused to string it, and check the fastenings of her arm guard. She stopped at the end of the field and told her siblings to leave her. She saw them lean on the rail and watched as the ambassador and his family took up the same position on the other side of the field.
She closed her eyes, and began to envision her three shots, flying perfectly, one after the other, into the centre of the target. Belief was almost as important as draw, elevation, and aim, she knew. Believing a good outcome would usually result in that outcome actually happening. She smiled as, in her mind's eye, her third shot slammed beautifully into the bull's-eye.
Without opening her eyes, she ran her fingertips over every arrow in the quiver at her back. By feel, she selected her three best arrows and planted them, point down, in the soft turf at her feet. She looked down at the feathered ends clustered at her knees, looking for all the world as if they were funny trees that had been growing here for months, and laughed. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Wyll doing what she had just done.
"Whenever you're ready," she said.
"As the challenged party, you get first shot," he said, glancing sidelong at her
"Unless I choose to shoot after the challenger, which I'm doing right now." He looked up sharply and she smiled sweetly.
"You're good," he said, whistling through his teeth.
"Every archer wants the last shot," she quipped.
"And you just stole it from me. Very good." His bow came up, an arrow nocked, and he drew the string back. For half a breath, he stood stock still, gauging distance, elevation, wind—then the shot was gone. The twang of the string was nearly swallowed up by the solid thud of the arrow hitting the target. He looked calmly down the lane, and cursed quietly: the arrow was embedded in one of the inner rings, but not the centre.
Lucy's bow was already up. Her eyes narrowed, focused on the target. She didn't over-think, didn't wait too long or release too early. Her arrow thudded into the same inner circle Wyll's first shot had hit, only on the opposite side of the target. She said nothing, but the corners of her mouth turned down and her eyebrows drew together a fraction. They grew a fraction closer together as Wyll's second arrow landed just shy of centre, and her second shot slammed into the outer ring.
Wyll's third shot hit so close to his second that the fletching on the arrows hissed and trembled. It had hit closer to centre than the previous one, leaving Lucy no choice but to hit the dead centre, or else she would lose. She closed her eyes and put up her bow, pulling the nocked arrow back until her thumb touched the corner of her mouth. She imagined this arrow flying perfectly once more before opening her eyes and sighting down its length. The target loomed in her sight, Wyll's two, almost-centred arrows glaring up at her, challenging her, daring her to miss. The smooth curve of her bow was powerful in her grasp, reassuring. She rose to the challenge, and let fly.
The arrow flew perfectly into the precise centre of the target.
Cheers erupted around her, and Peter and Edmund and Susan were hugging her, and grinning, and smiling, and laughing, and so was she. Wyll was cheering just as loud as anyone else.
"I can't say I ever expected to win," he whispered in her ear as she grasped his hand in thanks for such a challenge. "I knew you were better than me. You needed to know that too. Now you do." He smiled and turned to Lady Megin who congratulated him on an outstanding effort, and blushed prettily when he kissed her hand.
"Perhaps we should say something to the ambassador on behalf of those two," Susan mused, watching as Wyll reluctantly released Megin's hand to bow to her father.
"Oh, that'll go over well," Peter said, rolling his eyes. "The lowly guard and the ambassador's daughter."
"The ambassador used to be an accountant," Edmund explained as the siblings accepted wine from the servants who realised that lunch was going to be served to a celebratory, standing crowd in the practice courts rather than a subdued, sit-down affair in the dining hall. "He got promoted, and when the governor heard one of his public speeches, he promoted him again to be ambassador, on account of his skills at convincing people to do what he said."
"But as far as I know, accountants and guards are allowed to marry," Lucy said mischievously.
"Well then," Peter said, returning the smile, "I'll have a word with him tonight."
"Oh, let me," Lucy said, watching the ambassador watch his daughter and his archer-guard. "I want to see his face."
"It'll be a challenge, convincing him," Susan said.
"So?" Lucy said. "It will be my second challenge."
"If you do half so well in your second challenge as in your first," Edmund laughed, "those two will be married by morning."
"To challenges!" Peter said, raising his glass. "And to Lucy winning them!" As they joined the toast, Lucy looked around at the crowd of people and smiled. There was the Centaur boy who wanted desperately to follow his uncle as an astronomer rather than follow his father as a warrior. She could do something about that. There was the rowan-man who was having trouble catching the eye of his unrequited love. She could do something about that. There was Peter and Susan, bickering again, this time about something terribly silly that didn't need arguing, but rather needed laughter. She could do something about that, too. But all would be challenges.
She smiled again, and Edmund caught her eye, raising an eyebrow. He nodded, and murmured that he believed in her. Lucy stood up a bit straighter, squared her shoulders, and made her way through the crowd to the ambassador, ready to meet her challenges head on, and win them all.
A/N: I hope that is some sort of reward for your patience with "Ability." So, do you think Lucy wins her next challenge? Does the ambassador allow his daughter to marry the guard? Would anyone like to read a story in which Lucy convinces the ambassador to allow his daughter to marry the guard? I'm not going to make any promises, but I like Wyll and Megin, and I wouldn't mind writing more about them. :) Oh, and Russet: if you can't tell who Megin and Wyll are, I'll Gibbs-slap you next time I see you. :D