Chapter 15, Stepping Stones
In which there are many meetings, counsel given and counsel received, and long-anticipated steps are taken on the journey.
As explained in the author's note below, with the exception of changes in the first paragraphs, the beginning of this very, very long chapter repeats Chapter 1 of Rat and Sword Go To War. That story is currently posted in the Narnia Big Bang Fic Exchange on Live Journal. I urge you to check out the wonderful stories posted to that community.
Sometimes a lover of God may faint
in the presence. Then the beloved bends
and whispers in his ear, "Beggar,
spread out your robe. I'll fill it with gold.
The Friend breathes into one who has no breath.
A deep silence revives the listening of those two who meet on the riverbank.
Like the ground turning green in a spring wind,
like birdsong beginning inside the egg,
like this universe coming into existence,
the lover wakes and whirls in a dancing joy,
then kneels down in praise.
Excerpts of Birdsong From Inside The Egg by Rumi, The Book of Love, Poems of Ecstasy and Longing, (Translated by Coleman Barks)
I have lived on the lip
Of insanity, wanting to know reasons,
Knocking on a door. It opens,
I've been knocking from the inside!
Rumi (translated Coleman Barks & John Moyne) (suggested by Syrena)
Act, and God will act.
Joan of Arc
Truly the signs of an apostle were wrought among you in all patience, in signs, and wonders, and mighty deeds.
2 Corinithians 12:12, King James Bible
It had been a long, grueling flight over the North Atlantic for them both. First the British Embassy in Washington to New York, then from New York to Glasgow with stops in Gander and Prestwick. From there, Wing Commander Tebbitt had gone on to London to see his mother and sisters for a late Christmas and New Year's holiday. George found his wife in Edinburgh working at the shipyards and their daughter had left school in Carlisle and joined her there. It had been almost two years and seeing them was probably worse than just exchanging letters. He was a stranger to his wife and adolescent daughter.
Three days later with everything said that could be said and no reason to stay, he reported to London.
His reunion with Caterina was longer by two days than that with his own wife, and infinitely more satisfying. They were fortunate to see each other at all. Their tender talk between the sheets was all about the upcoming campaigns in southern Europe.
He also tried to understand what had happened to the Walker-Smythe family and what he had always felt had been a happy marriage. Caterina understood; she had her own difficulties and perversely sympathised more with his distant wife than with him. The war had changed them all though they would carry on in the stiffest British tradition of pretending that everything was well. Caterina thought that once the war ended, when it ended, this domestic discontent would be repeated all over Britain. Churchill might state that the family was the basis for all that was noble and worth fighting for in England, but in this battle, George wondered if it was the war that would win.
Then Caterina booted him out of her frigid flat, warm bed and warmer arms and she was off to Sicily as part of the intelligence gathering in advance of the action.
He checked into temporary, shabby rooms off Portman Square whose only advantage was their vicinity to the Special Operation Executive's Baker Street offices and that he did not have to share them with three other men. George knew that in the apartment at Orchard Court, where SOE agents for the F section stayed while awaiting their final orders, the quarters were sometimes so cramped, briefings could occur in the art deco lavatory where you could, if you wished, conduct an interview seated upon a black onyx bidet.
At Baker Street, he spent a week getting firsthand briefings, which was a very pleasant change from his long stint at the Embassy. Libya had fallen; Hitler had recalled Rommel from North Africa; it was only a matter of time in Tunisia. With the agreement of the Casablanca conference between Churchill and Roosevelt, it would be Southern Europe come summer and, finally, the second front and retaking of Europe in 1944. It made the SOE's F section work of inserting agents into France all the more important so things were very busy.
Seeing the opportunities open up, he sent Tebbitt off to Thame Park for a refresher in wireless training that would keep him occupied for a week – two if the latest agents there for training were attractive, which they invariably were. He did have to wonder if striking looks and trim figure were on the intake sheets Selwyn Jepson used when interviewing female candidates for insertion into France as SOE spies.
Finally, now, the meeting could take place that George had wanted since realizing that Susan Pevensie, working name Mrs. Susan Caspian, and her brother, Edmund Pevensie, had run a complex cipher for three months that fooled the espionage establishment in two countries. George had taken to personally calling it Operation Narnia.
He summoned to Baker Street the man who had cut off and tied up all the dangling bits of that security breach on this side of the Atlantic. Major al-Masri arrived so promptly from Bletchley Park George concluded the impatience to meet was mutual. George had read al-Masri's file and seen the official, grainy, black and white photograph. al-Masri was shorter than he expected, very neat, and obviously not English. He would assume the man had checked on him as well.
al-Masri offered his hand. "Colonel Walker-Smythe, it is a pleasure to meet you."
"And you, al-Masri. Sit, please. Should I have one of the girls get us some coffee?"
"I am fine for now but we may require fortification later," al-Masri replied. The office was big enough for a desk and chair and a separate table and chairs. The Major sat there rather than on the other side of the desk. The man was certainly confident to assume this was to be a working meeting rather than an interview.
George took the seat across the table from him. They sat in silence, staring at one another. George finally cleared his throat. "I have wanted to meet you for some time now."
"And I was about to say the same thing. So which of us shall speak first into this billowing silence?"
George knew just where to begin. "Someone who worked for me once used to say that given a silence, most people have the desire to fill it."
al-Masri nodded. "I understand that lesson concludes, 'And the trick is knowing the impulse exists and training yourself to patience in its place.'"
"It seems we have had access to the same personnel, Major."
"And that the Pevensies all had the benefit of the same wise teacher."
George hoped the man's desire to exchange information would be stronger than the reticence. Being forthcoming was not a natural trait in a spy, though certainly curiosity was.
"You have the advantage on me, al-Masri. I know Mrs. Caspian well, but have not seen her the better part of six months since she left Washington with her mother. I have not met either of her brothers. You have, and your knowledge is more current. Tell me the situation."
The Major leaned back in his chair and crossed his legs, making himself comfortable and taking it as an invitation rather than near order. "Addressing Mrs. Caspian first, I have only met her once, though we have exchanged several letters. I have reiterated to her that she must not discuss the espionage work of last summer in Washington or she would jeopardize her future with us. Further, I have been monitoring her language instruction with Madame Simon and ensuring that her school does not interfere."
"And?" He knew that Madame Simon had written to Vera Atkins in F Section about Mrs. Caspian and through that channel had assumed all was proceeding without interruption.
"She makes excellent and diligent progress. Her other classwork suffers but I deem that of no consequence."
"There was also the matter of the locksmith, of which you might not have heard."
"Locksmith?" George repeated. "What did she get herself into?"
"At Christmas, she and Edmund wrote me that they required a set of basic lockpicking tools and asked if I might know where a set could be obtained."
Of all the cheek, though credit to them for being discreet in making the inquiry. "She's a first rate cracksman as our resident burglar is fond of saying. He gave her a full set of picks before she left America. What the devil does she need another set for?"
al-Masri shook his head. "I do not know but I assumed she wished to teach the skill to someone else in need of it."
"And she did this all with Edmund? Her brother is still in on it all?"
"I think you should assume so, yes. I did direct them to one of our establishments and set up some modest surveillance to observe what they would do."
He wished he could have observed it himself. "And?"
"Mrs. Caspian presented herself, quite convincingly, as a French woman with Edmund acting as her interpreter and guide. She dressed for the part, having acquired a dated continental wardrobe through a Wren assigned to Bletchley Park and the acquisition of the picks was handled very neatly."
al-Masri looked very smug. "I did speak with Mr. Walker, the locksmith, afterwards. He assumed Mrs. Caspian was in her mid-twenties, at least. I, of course, did not enlighten him as to the truth. He was impressed at the dissembling in both Susan and Edmund, which surprised me not at all."
George was not surprised by any of this, either. Here was the opening he had wanted – someone else, a fellow hand, who could confirm that it had not been invention. Tebbitt had been fooled, but the man was in love and George had wanted a more jaundiced eye.
"So you have seen it?" If he had to explain of what he spoke, there was no purpose to all of this.
al-Masri was silent for so long, he wondered if it was another ploy to get him to speak unwisely. He opened his mouth to challenge the Major on the stalling tactic, but al-Masri held up his hand. "I am not using the ploy the Pevensies do. To answer the easy question first, yes, Colonel, I have seen what you do."
"I've not shared my observations with anyone else," George admitted. "After I confronted her about that damnable Narnia cipher, I theorized that Mrs. Caspian's inexplicable talents were shared with her siblings, though not the parents."
"I cannot speak to the youngest sister, as I have not met her." The Major sounded uncommonly wistful. "But your theory was correct. I have observed the same in Mrs. Caspian's older brother, Peter, and, though I have seen him only a handful of times, Edmund as well. To respond to your unasked and harder question, I know no more than you do as to what can account for their remarkable maturity and skills."
"al-Masri, you say it is a familial trait yet you reported to me after buttoning him up that Edmund Pevensie was a loyal English schoolboy!"
"And so he is," al-Masri replied calmly. "But that is not all he is."
"Well that's a damned clever nuance, Major." He should have known better. al-Masri had done what George had done himself in the report regarding Guy Hill's murder. He'd left out Mrs. Caspian's role in coshing the murderer with a flower pot and attempt to stab him with a letter opener. An accurate report would come across as completely daft unless one experienced a Pevensie firsthand.
"What about Peter? I know he's in basic training now. His father has pushed very hard to bring Peter on and Mrs. Caspian said he might suit. I'd very much like to take him back with me to Washington."
From the sudden, guarded expression, George didn't think al-Masri had anticipated this. Were they going to tussle over talent? Finally, the Major said, "I have come to know Peter Pevensie very well, Colonel. Peter's will is at least equal to that of his sister. He is as determined to enter the Airbourne Division as Mrs. Caspian is determined to enter the SOE."
"But with her recommendation? Their father's request? With your…" George let the sentence dangle. "No?"
"No," the Major repeated firmly. "You will have to forgive me for sounding fanciful, though surely you understand knowing Mrs. Caspian so well. Peter is like a shining sword, sharp, bright, and true, and he is not one who is comfortable in the shadows."
It did sound fanciful. Ridiculous even. But George had seen visions of the Queen of Pentacles in the half light of his office one evening. Mrs. Caspian carried herself with a regal authority and confidence that even the thirty years or so he thought she had lived already could not wholly account for.
"So Peter's not a spy?"
"No," al-Masri replied.
"Then what is he good for?" George pressed. He was not going to let talent go untapped.
"For all his commitment to serve, Peter knows he would be a very, very ill fit in many typical postings. Once he completes basic training, I hope to see him transferred into the Ox & Bucks, Second Battalion. They've been retooled as part of the Glider Corps."
"And no officer training? Won't he be wasted as a common private in the infantry?"
"I do not believe so. Peter observed himself that assurance of competent command and some autonomy under that command are more important than the particular position. I concur with that assessment and believe he will do well under D Company's CO, Major Howard."
"What of Edmund? He's what, 14 now?"
al-Masri frowned and for the first time, looked uncertain. "I do not know, Colonel. Edmund has already sought my advice on how to position himself to enter our service which he is pursuing with the zeal I would expect of him. Unlike Peter and Susan, he is too young to finesse his way into service. And I have misgivings regardless."
"Misgivings?" he retorted shortly. "Mrs. Caspian believed his talents were even greater than her own."
"I do not disagree." Again the silence lengthened between them.
"al-Masri, you got your way with Peter. You can't have Edmund, too. That's not sporting."
"What would you have him do? What could he do?"
"Take him back with me to Washington for a year. Pass him off as a nephew if I need to. If he's anything like his sister, I'll put him in a Private's uniform and he can work as my clerk and secretary."
"Edmund would jump at the opportunity," al-Masri said heavily.
Edmund couldn't do what Tebbitt had done, but he could use someone with the same insights Mrs. Caspian had. George didn't want to cross al-Masri when he wanted the man's support with Mrs. Caspian, but he didn't like to lose, either.
"Would you oppose that?" George asked.
The long silence was concerning but finally al-Masri said, "Even if I thought it a bad idea, I would not oppose you, Colonel."
"But Edmund will ask you and you could warn him off."
"Yes, and Edmund would listen, carefully consider his options and my advice, and probably go anyway, though be far more guarded about it."
"That's not a bad thing," George pointed out.
His phone began ringing. His secretary would pick it up and take the message.
"I think maybe that coffee now." George got up, went to his door, and bellowed out into the corridor, "Coffee for two!"
He returned to his seat. "You know, al-Masri, I was able to keep an eye on what Mrs. Caspian got up to in Washington and I'd keep Edmund from getting in too deep. I'll use him, but I won't corrupt him."
He seemed to relax. "Colonel, you raise excellent points and do reassure me. I think Edmund would benefit from some wise oversight."
"Good. I'll speak to Edmund's mother and see what might be done. It won't be that long; I'm sure I'll be back here by year's end for the second front. As to Mrs. Caspian, I've asked Selwyn Jepson to interview her."
"An excellent idea. I will be curious to hear what your most skilled talent spotter makes of her."
The Wren arrived with the coffee. They both tried to dissolve the Nescafe crystals in the tepid water and George indulged in a little sugar to make it palatable. Major al-Masri took his black.
Once the Wren left, al-Masri asked, "I assume you will not tell Jepson her age?"
"No," George scoffed. "The fewer who know, the better. Her mother has already consented. If she impresses Jepson, I'll have her pulled from school and sent on to Beaulieu."
Major al-Masri paused in stirring his cup. "Straight to Finishing School? What of the preliminary training at Wanborough? Granted she probably does not need most of what they teach, but omit it entirely? She will need Morse Code and wireless training, and she'll need to qualify for parachute jumps at Ringway. And what of the guerilla course in Arisaig?"
"She will be at Beaulieu as staff, not an agent in training. I think she would benefit from time in that environment, learn to be the woman she is, and let them see her for themselves. They won't leave her untapped for long."
The window rattled as a plane flew overhead – a Spitfire from the sound.
al-Masri nodded. "True. And Mrs. Caspian is not French so she does need considerably more grooming by those who are. Also, I cannot yet see what type of position would best suit her talents, which would come into clearer focus with more time there."
"I am glad you approve, Major," George replied, though al-Masri ignored the sarcasm. al-Masri's choice of words was peculiar in how he would see something for Mrs. Caspian. It was very much the sort of thing Agnes would have said. Agnes, the astonishingly gifted amateur psychologist and maid, had predicted last year in Tarot cards that Mrs. Caspian would find a special guide – the Hierophant who had shackled the Chariot's competing forces of darkness and light to do his bidding. Mrs. Caspian had written Agnes that she believed she had met this Hierophant; before he had left America, Agnes had exhorted him to learn the details about this strange guide. It was all completely inexplicable to anyone who did not know Agnes and Mrs. Caspian, but George suspected both women believed al-Masri to be the looked-for guide.
Confirming George's speculation, al-Masri said, "Where the Pevensies are concerned, you and I are of the same mind. In fact, should Mrs. Caspian enter the SOE, I intend to accept an outstanding offer to teach guerilla tactics at the Scotland facilities to better keep an eye on things."
"They finally see the benefit of having someone teach killing who has actually done it?"
"And who has not gone to prison for doing so."
He could finally laugh at that. George knew al-Masri's history and had seen the blanks in the man's file. He had a few blanks in his own file, though not nearly as many as al-Masri. "It does put me more at ease for her to have an ally there who knows the truth of her age. I've decided to send Wing Commander Tebbitt into the SOE training school as well, as instructor, not agent."
"Is he the Lord Peridan in her cipher? The agent she managed in Washington?"
"The same. He needs a change and will be useful to them. The man's a poet and very good with codes."
The SOE had discovered too late that while using well known-poems made for ciphers the agents could memorize and use easily in the field, all the Nazis had needed was an anthology of English verse to break them.
"And if Mrs. Caspian does go active, he'll be in place to serve as her conducting officer. Tebbitt will keep an eye on her."
Tebbitt would probably have both hands on her as well, but George couldn't worry about that.
They exchanged pleasantries and cards and George felt better about having someone here keeping an eye on his protégé while he was back in Washington.
"So, tell me something, al-Masri."
al-Masri looked up from the train schedule he was contemplating. "Colonel?"
"You said Peter is the sword. What then is Mrs. Caspian?"
"What do you think?" al-Masri countered, as a spy would.
Anyone who hadn't seen it would consider him barking mad. "I saw something of a royal mien in her. It does as you say, sound fanciful, but I thought her like a Queen."
"It took me all summer to come to a similar conclusion about Peter."
"A King among mere men?
"Very much so."
They were daft, both of them. They were also spies and trained to detect the falsehood and they both had realized that the paper, cover stories, and youthful appearances were lies. Peter and Susan Pevensie were not schoolchildren. al-Masri put on his cap, tucked his railway table in his valise and picked up his coat.
"In answer to your question, Colonel, if Peter is the true, straight sword of the King, in Mrs. Caspian I see the clever and subtle cunning of the rat."
To: Vera Atkins, F Section; Col. Walker-Smythe
I have, at your request, interviewed Mrs. Susan Caspian for purposes of assessing her suitability for the SOE and possible placement in France. Given her exemplary work in 1942 for Col. Walker-Smythe at the Embassy to the U.S., I recognize that this was little more than a formality. Indeed I am curious as to why you are so insistent that I meet with Mrs. Caspian and why she should not be immediately sent on to Wanborough for preliminary training.
I am usually concerned when a candidate speaks so enthusiastically of espionage and the possibility of death by torture and hanging at the hands of Nazi captors. We do not wish for those who seek us out to in turn seek vainglory and romanticise of fantastic and glorious ends. I came away perplexed as to the source of her certitude that this is where she should be, indeed, must be, and there is about her near the air of an Apostle on the road to Rome, or of the zealot making straight the way.
Mrs. Caspian has great affection for her brothers and sister. One brother recently completed basic training and is awaiting a hoped-for transfer. The younger siblings are still in school.
We spoke of her absent husband. She gave a very clear-eyed and unsentimental view of it. He was, she said, injured during the Malta air operations and recuperated in Surrey and is staying with his mother. They hope he shall be returned to unit by the summer. She emphasized he was fully supportive of her decision and of course we will have to assure that he has given his consent for his wife to be engaged in such hazardous activities.
Other than her husband's injury, and unlike other candidates, she has not, as yet, suffered personal loss which accounts for her passion. She speaks ardently of the plight of Jews and of the oppressed nations of Europe. She was steadfastly insistent that this was work she was qualified, nay, destined to do.
There are, fortunately, no children.
As Mrs. Caspian already knew our many family secrets, I deemed it appropriate to discuss her time in Washington. She felt great sorrow at the murder of their office's driver, killed by the apparent agent Walker-Smythe believes was a Soviet. Walker-Smythe had doctored the reports to keep her out of the business so I wished to hear the full of it in her own voice. She retold the tale calmly but insisted that she bore some responsibility for failing to foresee the calamity of Guy Hill's death. Her guilt is disproportionate to the clues that were available, which is concerning if it makes her too cautious. That she saw the clues at all is remarkable for it demonstrates a subtle and perceptive mind not usually seen in a woman prior to training, and often not even then.
She was justifiably proud of the theft of the documents from the American Vice President's valise. I had not known that the stolen case had required her lockpicking skills, and under extreme pressure, as well. It was not, she admitted, a complex lock, but that she was able to accomplish it at all and without supervision showed verve and initiative as well as suitably flexible morality.
She expressed satisfaction with the business involving the creation and planting of the fake map and believed that these and other efforts were justified to assure the delivery of the Sherman tanks and other materiel to Monty in advance of El Alamein and Operation Torch.
I asked if she had any regret, apart from the murder of Mr. Hill. I wondered at her long and careful pause, a needless concern on my part. She apologized in advance for offending my sensibilities but admitted that the most difficult part of the work was that she ordered Wing Commander Tebbitt to the boudoir of a newspaper woman in order to accomplish an exchange of information regarding Vice President Wallace. She had no regrets, again believing the information obtained worth the price exacted, but regretted it nonetheless.
Mrs. Caspian is cautious, carefully spoken, intelligent, and we already know that she can think quickly and decisively in dangerous, stressful, and combat situations. Assuming that she can master the language and challenges of living in France under occupation, I have no reservations in recommending Mrs. Caspian's further assessment at Wanborough.
My one misgiving is her appearance. She is a prodigiously attractive woman, but one must look beyond those arts we use to hide our true selves. Beneath her very careful coif, Mrs. Caspian appears younger than her 24 years. In some settings, this will be of no concern and might also be used advantageously. While she professed comfort with and enthusiasm for "living rough," as our people must, her very youthful mien may disadvantage her credibility in some circumstances.
To: Col. G. Walker-Smythe
From: S. Jepson
Good to see you on this side of the pond. Saw your Mrs. C today. Don't understand your misgivings. She's first rate. Pity about her husband.
Colonel Walker-Smythe's request to take Edmund back with him to Washington was the final straw. Helen wired Professor Kirke and Miss Plummer. She had waited long enough for their convenience and they could now jolly well accommodate her and answer some hard questions about her children.
The response took so long, she was prepared to fire off another request (might as well call it demand), that was even more pointed. Professor Kirke, however, finally, did say that, yes, of course, he and Miss Plummer would be delighted to meet her. His Oxford College office? Saturday? For tea?
Helen knew the two of them wanted to plot strategy before her arrival, but there was nothing for it. They were waiting for her when she arrived, Digory behind his exceedingly untidy desk and Polly in a chair with her cat, and dog at her feet. The pair of them were so very eccentric.
Pot meet kettle, as Susan would say.
They cordially shook hands (Digory was nervous). Helen's attention was arrested for the moment by an extraordinary wardrobe that completely dominated the room.
"What a remarkable thing!" she said. "May I?"
"Of course, Helen," Digory said, stepping to the side.
"I have never seen the like," Helen said, examining the glossy wood. "It's beautiful. The woodworking is extraordinary."
The doors and sides were covered with carvings of animals and mythical creatures. A lion occupied the front panel.
"How odd," she murmured, touching the warm wood.
"What is?" Polly asked.
"I dreamt of a lion last night and here he is again."
"Did the lion talk?" Polly asked.
"No," Helen replied, with a scoff. "It never says anything. It just walks away."
"So you have dreamt of a Lion before?" Digory sounded a little queer and Helen turned to look at him.
"Oh yes, for several years now." She wasn't sure when it started.
"Perhaps you should follow him, next time," Digory said at her shoulder. "Or try to speak with him."
Helen laughed. "So you interpret dreams like the Jungians do?"
"Mention Freud and Digory will start coughing and moving papers about on his desk, Helen."
"Yes, Polly, why don't you make yourself useful and pour the tea?" Digory said with a huff and quelling look softened with a smile. He held out a chair. "Helen, will you sit?"
She took the seat and for the first few minutes it was all fussing with cups and spoons and soggy little sandwiches. As this was at her prodding, Helen had to take the initiative.
"I wanted to talk to you again about my children," she said briskly, putting her cup down and asserting her prerogative as mother. This was her right, by God, and Helen had had quite enough of the evasions from these two. "I warn you, I am quite put out and I expect some franker discussion than what occurred the last time we met."
Digory was appropriately and gratifyingly serious. Polly's mouth was twitching.
"Is my insistence amusing?" Helen challenged.
"Only that I had not realized before how much Peter sounds as you do." Polly said. "I think myself a great fool if I do not obey him."
It was a better beginning than she had hoped for. Helen began her speech, having had far too long to rehearse it. "Peter has entered basic training."
They both nodded and so Helen pushed on. "Susan will be leaving school in April to formally join the unit she worked for before and now Edmund has had an offer to go to America to work at the British Embassy, doing the same work Susan did last summer."
Polly and Digory both stared at her and Helen faltered. This was not the reaction she had expected.
"You are surprised?"
"We knew of Peter's decision, of course, to hurry things along and leave school," Digory said.
"Are you the one who suggested he ignore that enthusiastic Officer Cadet Training invitation and enlist in the regular ranks?"
John was furious –his eldest son was rushing into service, was eschewing offered positions in intelligence and in the officer corps, and was signing up as a common infantry soldier. John's rebuke for her parental failures had been scathing - he had not raised their son to be a scholar only to die alongside the lower class as fodder for German guns. Helen had paid the rant no mind and used the paper it was written on to wash the windows. Her husband had no idea what he was writing of. If he thought he could move Peter from his chosen course, John was damned well free to try. As Edmund would say, you would have better success trying to move Gibraltar than getting Peter off his mark.
Digory shook his head. "On the contrary, I was as surprised as you. I agreed with Peter's assessment that he was at risk of insubordination, which is why he has been, wisely I think, reluctant to move forward unless something appropriate was found. As you would expect, we discussed his options and Peter presented his decision to me."
"That does sound like him." Helen laughed a little, though weakly, for insubordination was no laughing matter at all. "Peter is very set upon transfer into the paratroopers, and the Glider Corps specifically."
At this, there was a significant glance between Digory and Polly and a secret smile as well. Honestly, this was so tedious. What was and was not secret appeared so utterly random!
"So Peter informed us of his plans," Polly said, speaking up once the two of them had concluded their private conversation with Helen sitting right in front of them. "But what is this of Susan and Edmund?" She looked to Digory but this time it was for confirmation, not secretive consultation. "I had assumed they had all returned to school."
"I had as well," Digory said. "You say they are leaving? What is Susan doing?"
"And Edmund is going to America?" Polly echoed.
Their seeming ignorance made her queries so much more difficult. Helen had assumed Polly and Digory were complicit. "So you do not know about this business Susan and Edmund have both been drawn to?"
The two of them stared at her and then at one another. "What business?" Polly asked. "Is there a problem?"
"Is this something recent, Helen?" the Professor asked, looking genuinely concerned. "We've not seen Susan since…"
"A year ago, at least," Polly interrupted. "Over their Christmas holiday, in '41. We missed her completely this summer since she returned from America and went straight back to school."
"And we only saw Edmund, briefly, at the end of the summer, of course," Digory added. "It was chaotic, just a few days, all crammed into my cottage."
"Once it started raining, they couldn't kip in the gardens and went back to Cambridge," Polly put in. "Is everything alright? Are Susan and Edmund well?"
Helen stared at them, feeling uncertain and confused. So they really did not know? She had to be so cautious here; the Official Secrets Act certainly applied. Could her children have truly kept this to themselves? Susan had been much too free about it all over Christmas, but she supposed they might not have been so glib with others outside the family. Come to think of it, even Eustace had not understood why Susan had been so interested in those North African Sherman tanks.
She tried a different tactic. "Over the summer, did you hear anything from Susan, or about her, through Peter? What did you suppose she was doing?"
Digory looked thoroughly flummoxed. "I recall Peter saying Susan was visiting Washington and New York? Sightseeing?" He shook his head. "I'm afraid it was uninteresting to both of us, Helen, and I paid it very little mind."
"Shopping," Polly said crisply and with a hint of disapproval that put Helen's back up. "Peter shared Susan's letters with me when I asked and she wrote me once or twice. Susan was excited about attending a formal dinner at the Embassy when Churchill visited. She told me what she wore and where she bought her shoes."
Oh Susan, you clever, clever girl. Helen knew for fact a great deal more had occurred during even that state dinner. Her daughter and Colonel Walker-Smythe had negotiated the sale of a fabricated document to a Washington muckraker and Susan had shoved Tebbitt into the bedroom of a vile Congresswoman to "soften" the woman's anti-British sentiment. Helen knew all this because she had taken his Lordship the Penguin's dictation the next day and sent Walker-Smythe's cables to Intrepid. The Official Secrets Act be damned, she had to ask at least one question, though the answer already appeared plain. "So you do not know any reason why Susan or Edmund would be drawn into espionage?"
"That's preposterous!" Polly said immediately.
Digory glanced at her, removed his glasses, polished them absently, and shoved them back on.
Happily, Helen did not have to press the query with Polly there to do it for her, which lent further credibility to the fact that they were genuinely surprised at this news.
"What is it, Digory?" Polly demanded. "I know that look."
"Well, it is only that I know that Peter was concerned about his father," he finally said. "We both concluded that there was something odd about John's summons to America and the timing of it."
Polly's mouth formed an Oh. "You never said anything," she said. "Nor did Peter."
Digory arched an eyebrow. "Of course not. Peter mentioned his suspicions and that he thought his letters should be circumspect and I agreed."
"An academic discussion surely given how poor a correspondent Peter is," Helen said.
"Quite," Digory agreed.
"It was astute of Peter to realise something was peculiar with John's posting to America," Helen admitted, and that was all she would or could say of it. She let out a breath and refrained from the nervous urge to wring her gloves in her lap. "To be clear though, you have seen no past leaning by Edmund or Susan toward spying or espionage?"
Polly and Digory both shook their heads. "Absolutely not, Helen," Polly replied firmly. "I find it incredible."
"No," Digory repeated. "We've never heard any such thing."
She felt a flutter of superiority – that in this, she did know her own children best. For all that Polly and Digory had so very much replaced their mother in her children's lives, still there were things she knew and saw that others had not.
This, though, led to the next question. "Can you tell me where Edmund and Susan might have acquired such an interest?" She would not say talent, though talent they undoubtedly had or Colonel Walker-Smythe and the SOE would not be beating the Pevensie doors down to get her to sign dodgy consents. "Or when?"
And so, two steps forward, three steps back. There it was again. The guarded expression, the covert look, Polly avoiding her eye and Digory polishing his clean glasses. They did not know what Edmund and Susan had been doing, but they knew how they had acquired the inclination and skills. Helen sighed for what would surely follow.
"You should raise this with them, Helen," Digory finally said.
"Because it is their story to tell, not yours?" Helen repeated their often-repeated adage bitterly.
"Your children are remarkable individuals. You can trust them," Polly said.
"Yes, they are remarkable," Helen replied. "And singular. I suppose I should be grateful you do not insult my intelligence by pretending that they are not and trying to convince me otherwise."
"Of course not!" Polly said.
Still, that was the tactic they had both tried to take with her two years ago when she had quizzed them about the strange changes she'd seen when her children had returned from the Professor's country home after the Blitz. Everyone, Polly and Digory included, had dismissed her concerns as baseless and fanciful, even hysterical. This was progress, Helen supposed.
They filled the awkward pause with cups and refills, the clinking of faded china and the dabbing of the dripping spout of the chipped tea pot. Helen was certain Digory would have holes in his socks and a pantry of canned beans.
"I did also want to discuss Lucy," Helen said.
This reaction was better. They both looked properly concerned, putting cups down and leaning forward in their seats.
"It will be terribly difficult for her when the others leave. She's having conflict in school. And there is all this letter writing, about the Jews, about the Chinese merchant navy, and I don't know what else. I just don't know what to make of it all. It came on so suddenly."
There was another silent exchange between Digory and Polly, though this did not seem as secretive, and more about who would speak first.
"You understand what I mean, then?" she pressed.
"Oh yes," Digory replied. "Lucy discussed this with us when they visited at the end of the summer and both Polly and I recognize the symptoms. We feared Lucy was headed for difficulty, and that was even before learning Susan and Edmund would not be available to her."
Helen sighed. "Thank you for your candor and for helping her. I don't really know what to do. I do not want to discipline her, especially because she is in for such a lonely time. I should expect problems, I suppose."
"Lucy will not stay silent if she sees injustice, Helen," Polly said, with a gleam Helen didn't like much. "She is like an apostle after Pentecost, off to spread the good news and perform miracles! Lucy brings light and…"
Polly looked far too enthusiastic about the prospect of enlisting another acolyte in her political schemes.
"Do not compare a young, lonely girl to the Apostles, Polly," Helen interrupted. "They were all martyred. Murdered. And I shouldn't have to remind you that suffragists died for their holy cause, too." The last was a direct blow to Polly but really the woman needed to remember that what she romanticised was dangerous and deadly. "I don't want that for Lucy."
"Well, yes, but…"
Digory put up a hand. "Polly, please desist with the attempts at theology. You do it and everything around you too much damage."
Polly snorted and rolled her eyes, and Helen found herself smiling at the pair of them.
He fiddled with his tea cup and the handle on his desk drawer. Helen always had the urge to tidy his office when she visited. "I am not a parent, Helen, so I can but imagine your situation. However, inartfully she puts it, Polly does have the correct concept, if the too enthusiastic expression of it."
"Helen, if he starts quoting Scotus, just cut him off, and we'll go have a sherry," Polly said.
If Polly and Digory had been standing together, there would have been elbows to ribs, in addition to the rolling eyes and amused snorts. They were like very close, constantly squabbling siblings.
"Do you know the story of Saint Francis of Assisi and his calling?" Digory asked.
Helen shook her head. "No, not especially."
"Francis argued bitterly with his father when he began his vocation. It culminated with a terrible confrontation before the Bishop of Assisi. Francis renounced his family, returned to his father the very clothing he wore, and walked out naked."
It was amusing; it was terrifying. "Are you saying Lucy intends to renounce us? Become a hermit? A zealot?" She became more shrill with each question.
Digory shook his head. "No, not at all. It is rather a cautionary tale for you, for all of us really, as we help Lucy through this time."
He took a sip of his tea and continued. "We do not burn these gifted individuals anymore, or crucify them upside down, not literally at least. But in all my readings of the lives of these extraordinary people, I have never thought them comfortable for the rest of us to be with. I feel great sympathy for the parents of children who perceive a calling so clearly and who are fearless in their pursuit of it." He paused, looking so compassionate Helen felt her throat constrict. "I believe Lucy will pose such a challenge for us all."
They were all silent for a moment and Helen wondered what Joan of Arc's parents must have felt.
"Do you see it this way, Polly?" Helen asked. "I wondered whether Lucy's political sensibility was coming from you after you took her to that rally."
The sleeping dog at her side made a wuffling sound. Polly reached down and patted his side, quieting him.
"I learned of it only a few days before you did. She began her letter writing this summer after seeing articles in the papers about the persecution and murder of Polish Jews. The disparate treatment of the Chinese Merchant Navy men upset her after meeting a family while waiting for your ship in Liverpool. I thought taking her to the rally would provide a way to express her enthusiasm. Though…"
Polly stroked the Tabby cat curled next to the dog. "This isn't just about Lucy feeling injustice so intensely and needing a way to express it."
"What else then?"
Polly straightened in her seat and glanced at Digory. He nodded briefly. Whatever it was, they both shared it and had discussed her daughter.
"Think about all that women have had to do, Helen, since the war started. How we've worked in factories and as land girls, been driving cars and wearing uniforms, manning anti-aircraft guns and spotlights. We've only had the full vote for less than twenty years."
"And?" Helen asked, feeling frustrated at the seeming irrelevancy.
"Imagine what would happen if, once the war ended, women suddenly were prohibited from doing all the things we'd been doing."
"But that's preposterous!" Helen sputtered. "The government could not turn the clock back so! The horse is out of the barn!"
"Imagine that they tried. Imagine that they succeeded," Polly said, sounding very, very serious.
"Well, it would be nice if we didn't have to do everything. But…"
"To go to nothing?" Polly pressed. "To lose your vote, the option of driving, the freedom to work if you wished, to be permitted none of the things to which you had become accustomed, simply because you are a girl, or a woman?"
"It would terrible," Helen agreed. "I would be so frustrated. And angry. Furious. But what does this have to do with Lucy?"
Polly looked at her, long and sorrowfully, with the same compassion and sympathy that Digory had shown.
Helen choked on her sob.
What had given Peter confidence and courage to enlist in the infantry, turned Edmund from a sullen, angry child to a thoughtful and compassionate adult, and permitted Susan to credibly move among spies as a competent, desirable woman, had given something equally precious and extraordinary to Lucy. Her youngest, though, was trapped, as her siblings were not.
Oh my brave Lucy. I am so sorry…
She could not stop the tears
Digory got her a glass of brandy, Polly gave her a fresh handkerchief, her dog woke from his nap and was pushing his nose into Helen's legs, and the cat jumped into her lap and wouldn't leave off, purring so loudly, the windows rattled.
Digory and Polly would not explain how or why Lucy had fallen into this terrible predicament that the others were spectacularly circumventing in order to pursue their passionate gifts. This time, Helen did not even bother to ask. It was enough that she understood.
The night before Major al-Masri was to meet Edmund Pevensie for the third time, Asim was unsettled. Dreams had preceded every such meeting with the Pevensies, their cousin, Eustace Scrubb, and his friend, Jill Pole. They were always strange dreams, of green ships and purple sails, white birds, gold and silver swords, dragons who smoked liked Mr. Patel's cigarette, rats, crows, and flying horses. The dreams of the rat sneaking into the Paris sewers and the King's sword in the talons of a great gryphon he had come to associate with Susan Pevensie and Peter Pevensie. He had not seen these dreams in some weeks, which led him to conclude that all was proceeding appropriately, Susan eventually to enter the SOE, Peter to D Company.
Edmund was another matter. From the first, he had seen that the God-light burning in Edmund was very different from that within Peter and Susan. For Edmund, the God-light had been hard-fought and won at a price. The light had come after Edmund had conquered darkness in his not-young-man's past.
And so before bed Asim humbly asked for guidance and God who is great showed him a dream. As before, he saw the mole, its life blood pouring out on to sand. Black crows circled over the corpse.
Then it was dawn and time for morning prayer, fajr.
On the slow drive to Reading by motorbike, he reflected upon the brief, stark dream. The Cat had warned him before that seeing and understanding were not the same and his understanding was too limited to pierce God's meaning. Still, what he saw was not comforting which, he supposed, was no small thing in preparation for the meeting to come.
This time, he was the one who arrived first and selected a corner table in the tea shop. Edmund arrived a few minutes later on a bicycle from school. The outward appearance was so deceptive. Edmund was dressed like every other schoolboy but as he walked into the shop, his bearing drawing looks and causing others to step aside, Asim saw that Colonel Walker-Smythe's plan was not foolish. Put him in a uniform or a suit and Edmund's poise could carry what his seeming physical maturity might not. Two or three years was not so much when, by his judge, Edmund had lived some twenty years more than what his lying birth certificate stated.
"Major, it is good to see you again," Edmund said, offering a hand. The sense of the schoolboy appearance being the lie intensified as Edmund casually tossed his cap on to the next seat, shrugged out of the jacket, and pulled off his tie. "Coffee, please, if you have it," Edmund said to the waitress, polite but also a little peremptory. "Tea, otherwise."
Asim reclaimed his chair and Edmund sat across from him, glancing about.
"You took the better seat this time, Major."
"Surely you expected that."
"If my schedule was my own, I would have gotten here first." With a short scowl, Edmund rolled up his shirtsleeves. "As it is, I have barely an hour and I very much appreciate you coming and I won't waste the time with pleasantries. As you know, Colonel Walker-Smythe has invited me to return with him to the States. He wanted Peter, of course, and is settling for me."
Edmund was not being deprecating and did not sound angry, merely factual.
"This is not the position for Peter and I told Colonel Walker-Smythe so," Asim replied. "Peter is not for that world at the Embassy, at least not in the capacity Walker-Smythe envisions."
"Very perceptive, and I completely agree," Edmund said. "To me, Colonel Walker-Smythe has made the duties sound so unglamourous, I suspect he is hoping I will refuse."
"No, not at all," Asim replied. "He wishes to manage your expectations."
"That is useful to know, thank you." Edmund looked about and caught the eye of the loitering waitress, a reminder that his request was, as yet, unmet. He tapped the table expectantly then turned his attention back to their discussion. "As it happens, 'living the cover' as he presented it would not pose any difficulty for me. I have a lot of experience working in humble positions for prickly personalities."
There was no point in probing where such experience might have been obtained. Perhaps at school, perhaps in that place called Narnia to which they had somehow gone and returned. "My misgivings aside, such experience would stand you in good stead," he told the not-boy.
"Yes, about those misgivings." Edmund straightened in his seat and his words turned subtly sharper. "With your assistance, my brother hopes to be transferred to the Glider Corps, and my sister is to something so secret we cannot speak of it. Yet, you have misgivings of seeing me in America as a clerk? How do you explain this?"
Asim heard the cawing of a crow.
"I do not know, Edmund," he finally replied.
Edmund pushed further, asking the question Asim had wrestled with since Walker-Smythe had posed it. "Do you think I should not go?"
The blood of the dead mole in his dream was very like the colour of the napkin the waitress set down on the table.
"If you go, it should be cautiously, Edmund. While you will certainly chafe at them, I recommend you accept the limitations Colonel Walker-Smythe sets upon you and that you work closely with him."
Edmund fingered a matchbook cover on the table. "I did see this as a valuable opportunity to learn from Colonel Walker-Smythe, who has been so helpful for my sister. Colonel Clark has, in an effort to sway me to American jurisprudence, urged me to spend all available time at the United States Supreme Court. And I had intended to take advantage of the language instruction at the Embassy."
"I think those are all worthy pursuits." He had come to know and respect Colonel Clark during their months at Bletchley Park and, apart from the Wrens who were always trailing in the American's wake, and which Clark did not discourage, Asim had a high opinion of the man.
The waitress arrived with Edmund's coffee; the cup and saucer slid on to the table with a clatter. Edmund stirred the sludge and took a sip without even a grimace.
"I've been curious about something, Major. The first time we met, you told me that I should work to continue my languages, so long as it was not at Cambridge. For all that Peter has been with Professor Kirke, my father is a Cambridge man."
Black wings flitted by the window and crows settled in winter-bare trees outside.
"Why did you warn me off of an entire and esteemed university?"
Asim had not thought on this for some time but the question was relevant and now deserved an answer. "I have no useful knowledge, Edmund. All I have is a sense, an instinct, of unease."
Edmund was not deterred by his vagueness and pressed his query. "Which is?"
Asim stalled, stirring his own cool tea, trying to order his thoughts for an honest response that would inform and persuade, rather than alienate. "My discomfort arises from dealings with elements of the intelligence community, some who come from that university. Most of these men are talented amateurs, at best."
"And at worst?"
The crows huddled on the branches, silent and watchful. Asim made the ugly accusation. "Do not assume that white men of a certain class and education are also loyal and competent."
"Walker-Smythe?" Edmund asked sharply.
"Is one of the honest competents. If he were not, I would strongly urge you to not go at all." Asim leaned forward, finding that the probing questions were helping him put disparate, inchoate concerns into something, if not clear, at least more coherent.
"Admittedly I have my bias. A certain Cambridge mob has been encroaching on my own grounds in North Africa. I do not like them and those gentry Rajas and I do not mingle."
Edmund frowned and took a careful sip of his coffee. "Biases aside, do you think something may be amiss and that I could be wading headlong into it?"
"Perhaps," Asim replied. "There are unsavoury elements. Walker-Smythe can shield you, but not if you seek a confrontation or attempt to circumvent him." He did not want to be alarmist, and it was difficult to explain, but he was concerned about the dreams, the circumstances, and Edmund's interest. "I am sorry that I cannot advise you more plainly, but…"
"Do not apologise, Major. Consider our Christmas present to you. We have been granted a valuable guide and I would be a great fool to do anything but heed these instincts of yours, however unformed they might seem. You are not advising me to not go, but only that I go cautiously and not test the limitations of the position?"
He nodded, wondering if Edmund had at some point in his not-young life faced a similar conundrum – the certainty of unease and the uncertainty of its source.
"Very early in my friendship with your brother, I perceived that, your father's work notwithstanding, spycraft would never be Peter's business. However, I was equally certain that a time would come when I would need to warn those close to him. And so I make good on that promise now. Go carefully in this world, Edmund; there are those who will be drawn to a young man of your obvious talents and even if trustworthy, which I would not assume, they may still be fools."
"And I might be too naïve to see it until too late."
Edmund drained his cup and pushed it away. "I appreciate your candor and counsel, Major, and that you are not concealing paternalism. I assume that when the time comes for Susan, you will advise her as well?"
"Absolutely." He would be keeping a very close eye on Mrs. Caspian as she entered the SOE agent training programme.
"Very well." Edmund tossed a few coins on to the table and began the motions of straightening himself back into the disguise of an English schoolboy. "Thank you for making the trip, Major."
Edmund shrugged into his jacket and began straightening his tie.
There was one other thing it was his duty to address. "And Edmund? About those limitations?"
The man was just putting his ridiculous cap on. He looked up. "Yes?"
"You should expect intense scrutiny of your communications." He would not explain why. Edmund knew and they should not speak of it directly. "Do not try to be clever. You must learn discretion and you will be very much alone. That is our way, and if you cannot accept that, you should not go."
"I understand, Major. Colonel Walker-Smythe discussed the issue with me extensively."
They hurriedly shook hands and Edmund was out the tea shop door. Asim saw through the window that Edmund paused as he mounted his bicycle to study the crows roosting in the tree across the street. As he pedaled away, back to the school, the crows flew off.
Edmund arrived back in London from school on a Friday night. Helen met his train and they negotiated the transfers and lugged his baggage (a relatively small item) and books (much heavier) back home.
"What are these American legal texts that are breaking my back?" Helen griped as they hauled it all up the stairs of the Underground station.
"Loans from Colonel Clark," Edmund said, taking a firmer grip on his suitcase handle and shrugging a strap back over his shoulder.
"And here I thought we had done his family a favor in having them join us at Christmas. What have you done to earn his ill will? Is this Jack's revenge for your departure?"
Edmund laughed and removed the United States Supreme Court Reporter from her bag and put it in his own. "Jack is reconciled or would have surely beaten me to death with an oar. As it is, he and his mates were delighted to have the extra room in our dormitory."
"Are they the good sort of boys?" Edmund could not decline this opportunity to work at the Embassy for the sake of Jack Clark, but her sons were the reason Colonel Clark had sent his son to Blackpool Forest School and Helen knew they felt some responsibility for the American boy.
"They are. It will be well, I'm sure."
She had to stop and set the bookbag down, massage her arm, and then pick it up again.
"My deepest apologies, Mum, especially as we get to do this all over again on Monday when I meet the Colonel at the station."
"No, we do not," Helen retorted. "Colonel Walker-Smythe has the decency to send a car to pick you up, though it is at an ungodly hour."
Sweaty, even in the brisk winter wind, they finally hauled everything up the front walk into the house, deposited it all in a heap in the foyer, and collapsed, side by side, on the divan.
"Your travel documents are over there," Helen said, with a wave of her hand, once circulation had returned to her fingers. "The office dropped them by. Also, the disclosure document, about the Official Secrets Act, is on top. You should sign it immediately."
Edmund pulled himself up and looked at her. "Now? So soon?"
"Of course," Helen replied. "I signed one myself, in Washington, and again when I returned. You'll do the same. We can't really talk much about your trip until you do."
His eyes widened and Helen gave him a mock shove. "Do not look so surprised, Edmund! I was the Ambassador's personal secretary for three months. I daresay I may know more than even your father in some areas. Regardless, I have some information for you, but you won't hear it until you sign."
Helen pulled herself out of the divan. "I will fix us some coffee, you read through the papers, sign the disclosure agreement, and then I need you upstairs for a dreadful, painful ordeal."
"The Colonel wants you to have two suits, though I don't think he has decided how he will present you," Helen said, talking around the pins in her mouth. Edmund was standing on a chair and she was circling about, marking hems and seams with chalk and pins. "You can requisition uniforms at the Embassy if that is how he decides to proceed."
"That is unlawful," Edmund said, dutifully raising an arm so she could measure out the length with the tape strung around her neck.
"You are going to work for the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare," she replied. "It exists by secret order and Colonel Walker-Smythe and the rest of that outfit are not accountable to anyone. He'll do as he sees fit."
Edmund's arm fell and he gently squeezed her shoulder. "It will be fine, Mum."
"The Colonel will find some credible cover story," Helen replied, tamping down her fear. She nudged his arm down to his sides, tugged on the sleeve, and turned the cuff up on the jacket an inch. He had gotten so much taller in the last year Helen would hardly need to alter the lengths at all. Though, Edmund had her family's slimmer build and she didn't think he would ever be as bulky as his father or brother. She'd be taking in seams all weekend.
It made her long for the days when they could just go out and buy things like a new suit and be done with it.
"Did you see where you will be staying?"
"There was a note about Miss Gardner's flat?"
Helen tacked the sleeve and turned him on the chair slightly so she could pin the other side without crawling about on her knees. "Housing is scarce in Washington. Colonel Walker-Smythe is already sharing a room with three other men and I think they rotate who sleeps in the two beds. Gladys Gardner is his secretary. Susan knows her."
"Miss Gardner is charming, a little flighty, but very competent. She wouldn't work for Walker-Smythe otherwise. Her fiancée is a Canadian commando, David Lowrey. He was captured during the Dieppe raid."
Edmund slowly pivoted, keeping his footing easily on the rickety chair. "That is a terrible strain, surely," he said sympathetically. "It might be good for her to have some company."
"She will help you adjust to life there without being smothering," Helen said, smoothing a crease. "You're being very patient about this, Edmund. Thank you." She would be sewing all weekend.
"Years of practice," he replied, adjusting the lapel and critically examining his reflection.
Their eyes met in the mirror.
These sorts of odd statements had become part of his language with her, a peculiar reference to things that seemingly had happened or would happen. It was, she had thought, her most reserved child's efforts, promised at Christmas, to be more forthcoming.
Edmund looked away first, glancing down to brush away some chalk dust. "If I am in suits, I shall need to buy some shirts in Washington."
"Miss Gardner can help you with that. And I hope you remember how to get ink stains out," she told him. "Shirts don't grow on trees."
"It is remarkable how much more careful I am when responsible for my own laundry," Edmund said. Again, one of those ambiguous statements.
Helen again looked at her son in the mirror. The dark gray suit was John's – one that Peter had not yet inherited. It gave Edmund a very serious mien.
"It fits you well," she told him, keeping her voice brusque. "Use that good posture you all have and scowl a lot and you can pass for seventeen." She stood up from the crouch, trailing the measuring tape and stuck the extra pins in the cushion on her wrist. "I set out some ties on the bed that match the suits, so pick your favourites."
Edmund nimbly hopped down from the chair, quickly righting it before it toppled over. She watched as he carefully shrugged out of the suit coat with all its pins sticking everywhere and then draped it on the clothes rack. Edmund studied the ties and took four, two green, two red.
Edmund's preference for those colours had appeared after returning from Digory's, after the Blitz.
"I need to get supper started and the alterations…"
"Don't worry about supper, Mum. I shall manage it for us. Thank you." He gave her a peck on the cheek.
The scent of cooking, not-burned SPAM roused her from the sewing machine and brought her downstairs. Edmund had made good use of his time, the tins that Ruby Smith kept her supplied with, the can opener, and the potato peeler. He'd also bought a small pitcher of beer off-licence.
Supper was a quiet affair. Peter would fill a room with his presence, Susan would carry on a gracious conversation, and Lucy would chatter and laugh. With Edmund it was subdued. He was reading through the documents Colonel Walker-Smythe had left for him, not a polite thing to do, but Helen understood how much of an adventure it (probably) was.
Did he know how lonely he would be?
"How is the sewing?" he asked politely, getting up to clear their dishes. He had not eaten much – a sure sign of Edmund's excitement and nerves. He was not like Peter who would fuel his engine with a single minded intensity and could lay waste to a table the way locusts scoured a field.
"Fine." Helen flexed her fingers and drew her glass of beer closer. "I shall not drink too much or it will seem as if a drunken tailor did your mending."
"Before you return to it and I wash up, may I ask you something, Mum?" Edmund said, sitting back down and pushing his papers to the side.
"You may ask," she replied, drawing a smile from him for he recognized she was using his own rhetorical ploy.
"Given the speed of the mail, I know that father will probably learn I am coming within a day or two of when I actually arrive. Is there anything I should know in advance of that, other than that he will be disappointed that it is me and not Peter darkening the American doorstep?"
She reached across the table and squeezed his hand, wishing she could hide better her disgust with John's behavior. For the sake of her children, she had to try. "Edmund, I am sorry that…"
He returned the squeeze and shook his head. "Do not worry on my account, Mum. Envy of Peter and anger over Father partly fueled some terrible times and even worse decisions which I have fortunately left well behind and am in no danger of repeating." Edmund paused searching for words more gracious than what Helen would supply if her son had asked. "I would like to see him and to try to bridge the distance, but if he is not prepared for that, well, I shall have plenty else to occupy me."
She managed to nod. It was difficult to not rage about her husband to his nobly compassionate son. "I think that wise, Edmund."
Helen would not mention the women in John's New York life, for she had her own secrets, even more shameful. She had to assume that her husband would have the sense to clear the girls out before his son arrived. Regardless, Edmund would be in Washington, not New York, with people who wanted him there, and that was all for the best.
She took a sip of the bitter beer. "Edmund, I know Peter has this way of drawing the eye and commanding attention."
Edmund snorted. "Especially the feminine. Lucy and I would joke that we should just follow in his wake with a broom and dustbin to sweep up the swooning carcasses."
Helen could laugh, most especially because it was spoken with true humour and no bitterness. "I only want you to hear, Edmund, that you have your own strengths and are outstanding in your own right." She leaned forward and patted his hand. "I'm sure some of those pretty girls will see your integrity and quite sensibly pay your brother no mind at all. Then Peter may do the sweeping up!"
A strange shade darkened her son's face and the good spirit evaporated.
"I'm sorry," Helen said, feeling the floor tilt with the sudden uncertainty. "I meant to be…"
"It's fine, Mum," Edmund said hurriedly. "It's…"
Her children could wait; so would she.
He smiled, a little, crookedly, wistfully. "Sometimes I hear your words and voice, but it is as if someone else is speaking."
He stared at his beer, swirling the amber liquid in the glass.
"It is obviously someone very wise," Helen said, trying to lighten the mood and feeling her way through yet another something. If she did not proceed delicately, Edmund might close up again.
He nodded. "I have been thinking back to that time a great deal. The circumstances are not dissimilar and I certainly gleaned significant experience as clerk, secretary, and bag carrier. It should stand me in good stead with Colonel Walker-Smythe."
Helen caught her breath, a little gasp, and Edmund looked at her.
"Yes?" he said quietly, eyebrow raised.
It was an invitation. Surely he meant this as an invitation. "How?" Her voice dropped further, to a whisper. "When? I don't understand." Helen felt something snap and ease in her chest as she openly acknowledged the years of lonely confusion to one of those who had caused it.
"No?" Edmund asked. "Can you not guess? After all, we did not all get our acumen from Father alone."
It was a line she had used on them herself. Helen chewed on her lip. "It happened at the Professor's," she said, voice quavering a little.
"It did." Edmund nodded, encouraging. "Mum, I want you to think hard about all the odd things since then that you've noticed and," he grinned, "overheard."
She felt colour rise in her cheeks. He knew she'd been listening to their conversations. "If I tried to recount them all, we'd be here all night, Edmund."
"I know. And now, this is where it is complicated."
He slid the glass into her hand.
"I want you to imagine Alice and her adventures in Wonderland. Or, Wendy, John and Michael going to Neverland. Or Dorothy in Oz. How long do you think those children were there, in those places?"
"The stories are all different," she said, thinking it over. "And the time is different in them, between here and the other places. They might have been gone days. Maybe even weeks."
"Imagine it is years. Many, many years. Imagine Wendy or Michael or Alice grew up there, to become an adult, a warrior, a leader, a queen, and did battle with pirates, witches, giants and wicked men with swords and knives."
Helen felt rising skepticism. Was he having one on her? But no, that wasn't right at all. Edmund was very serious. And kind. She quelled her irritation and he took her hand and rubbed her clenching fist.
"And then imagine that the adult John, Michael, Alice, and Dorothy came back, but it was as if no time had passed at all."
"But these are just stories! It's ridiculous! It's…"
"Mad?" Edmund interrupted. "Oddly, Peter and Susan said the same thing about Lucy the first time it happened. And you know what the Professor told them?"
Her mouth twitched. "I can imagine."
"That logic dictated that one of three things must be true. Lucy was mad, which she plainly was not. Lucy was lying, which we know she does not do. Or…"
"Or?" Helen prompted.
"Or she was telling the truth."
There was a long, long silence, broken only by the sounds beyond them – the ticking of the clock, the buzz of the light, the drone of a Lysander.
It was… she couldn't believe it. It was impossible. Helen couldn't think. It was too much. Except…
Helen saw the truth in the light shining from within her son. Edmund looked serious, relieved, happy, serene… This was no lie, it could not be a lie, not when presented so and in such a gentle way. It was impossible, yes, but it had the sincerity of truth.
She took her glass of beer and raised it to her lips and took several deep sips.
"You might have had second thoughts, misgivings, about letting me, and Peter, and Susan go so young, as seeming children walking in an adult world."
He put his hand over hers again and it felt so so rational. Of course this was the explanation. There wasn't anything else that could explain it.
"Never doubt that decision, Mum. Trust what you saw and felt. Because you did see we were different, didn't you? You saw it years ago."
Helen found she was nodding, weakly, and had to pull her hands out of her son's so she could brush her falling tears away. "I thought I was mad. Everyone told me I was imagining it. It was just the war, they said."
"It wasn't. And if you are mad, we all are. You did not imagine it. We already were adults. We have done this all before. And we are called to do it all again."
They left the dishes in the kitchen, undone, finished the beer, opened a bottle of brandy, and talked longer. She restrained her raging curiosity, for Edmund was quiet, tired, and excited for the new adventure ahead of him, not the ones of a past she could not begin to comprehend in a single night. For every measured sentence he provided, of Kings, Queens, Talking Animals (and that damned wardrobe of Digory's she now realized), surely there were twenty more things Edmund did not say. Eventually, he was nodding off over their brandies and she sent him to bed. Helen fell asleep a few hours later, slumped over the sewing machine, in the middle of altering the shoulders on the second suit coat.
She dreamt of the Lion. This time she followed him along a strip of silver beach; she thought it might have been the Devon cliffs where they had once gone for holiday, before the war, but there were no marbled castles in Devon that she recalled.
"Will you watch over them?" she asked the Lion.
"I will, Helen," the Lion said. "They are my children, too."
His Royal Majesty's Army
To: Peter Pevensie
Your request for transfer has been approved. You are ordered to report immediately to Bulford Camp, Wiltshire, for assignment to Major Howard, D Company, Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, 2d Battalion, Air Landing Unit, 6th Airborne Division.
The problem with God who is great showing him dreams was that Asim did rely upon them. Dreams from God were a gift. They were important, he attended to God's words, and they prepared him for the challenge that was to come. In this way, he was never caught unawares.
The fault was within himself, to expect consistency of a gift of God. As with any great gift, there would be a reckoning and the fault was his own for forgetting so fundamental a lesson.
Several years ago, Richard and Digory had, over too much whiskey one evening, decided that the God of their imperfect understanding liked good jokes. Asim had listened with interest and a secret, smug smile for it seemed that these Christians understood God poorly. Though this did presume both men were Christian, which was probably not a reasonable conclusion. Richard was Christian if a Christian could think God was a she. This was obviously absurd. God was God, limitless and great and not so confined by a mortal's poor comprehension, Richard's insistence regardless. Digory's views were apparently beyond neat classification for the Professor described himself as a very good theologian and a very bad Christian. It was not a distinction Asim understood.
"Truly," Richard had said, raising his glass. "Think about it, Kirke. Assume for the sake of argument it was God's son in that tomb. The empty tomb is God's great joke on death."
Digory had shaken his head and poured them both another glass as if whiskey would make the argument coherent. "But very much not humourous at all for those who believed God was scourged and died on a tree as a Roman criminal and then had an agonizing three day wait for the revelation that it was all just a joke."
Listening to the discussion, Kun had become very irritated and banged the pots about in the kitchen. With all the noise, Digory and Richard went upstairs for more whiskey. Digory had been explaining how, at best, the tomb "joke" was another example of God as Trickster.
Once Digory and Richard left, Kun brought out his own well-worn Bible and insisted that Asim read part of an account of the prophet Issa attending a wedding celebration with his mother. When the wedding ran out of wine, the prophet changed the water into wine.
Kun thought it was a very funny story; Asim found it further proof that while Issa was certainly among the greatest of the prophets, God would not behave so. Certainly Asim did not conclude from any of the argument presented that God had a sense of humour.
Years had passed since that conversation and Asim wondered if he would have to re-evaluate his earlier conclusion about God not appreciating a good joke.
The evening ended that night as every other did that had gone before it. Once the sun had fallen below the horizon and the red thread disappeared from the sky, he went to his room and recited the isha'a, the ṣalāt he had performed each nightfall since he had become a man. Tonight he performed his ritual ablution in a "stately 'ome of England" in Hampshire – where he was staying for the moment at the invitation of the SOE.
His thoughts as he fell asleep were hopeful. He was going to Mrs. Caspian's school to pick her up and deliver her, secretly, to the SOE's Beaulieu establishment. Surely he would meet her tomorrow. Surely God who is great would show him the way. He had dreamed of this so many times and imagined their first meeting so many times. Tomorrow, it would have to be.
But that night, God was silent. He did not dream of rats and crows, swords and dragons, or ships with purple sails. He was not shown the girl with golden hair who walked with a lion. Asim dreamed of planes patrolling, the boiled carrots at dinner, and the smells of SOE agents smoking in the halls of the great house they all shared on the Beaulieu grounds. These were not dreams of Prophethood. These were not dreams from Shaytaan or from Allah. They came from the boring details of a busy day that intruded. These were not the dreams that had preceded every other encounter with the Pevensies and their place called Narnia and the talking cat.
Then it was dawn and time for morning prayer, fajr.
It was some 50 miles to Mrs. Caspian's school from Beaulieu. Walker-Smythe had asked that he undertake the job personally. They did not want to explain to anyone that in fact they were removing a girl from her boarding school and inserting her into the SOE training facility as staff. The less said, the better, and once she was among the Beaulieu personnel, things would take their logical course.
He requisitioned a car and petrol and would be able to black out the rear windows so that Mrs. Caspian would arrive, as all new agents did, blind. He was expected at Marlhurst-Brockstone at some point that week and there would be some business involving sorting through Mrs. Caspian's belongings and bringing the proper wardrobe with her and sending the inappropriate things back to her mother. Insofar as women's fashion was concerned, Asim took no interest in the matter at all. He was, however, deeply interested in assuring that Mrs. Caspian presented a credible cover and he could identify European from English tailoring as well as the next spy.
The drive to Newbury was slow and uneventful, with frequent stoppages for checkpoints and allowances for passing convoys. It was near noon when he finally pulled into the car park of Marlhurst-Brockstone. The grounds were pretty; the school was not. The buildings were modern-looking, terribly clean, and smelt of vinegar. Girls in dumpy uniforms of maroon and grey were all lined up in neat, quiet, obedient rows. Under the watchful, critical eyes of monitoring teachers, the girls were marching about, as regimented as any platoon in the British Army. The looks he received from the adult staff were shifty and suspicious and the girls pretended to not see him at all.
He was challenged by three separate women, each more forbidding than the last, as he made his way to the office of the Headmistress. In this sterile, cold room his papers and credentials were inspected for a fourth and fifth time before he was finally shown to the alarmingly neat and ordered office of Headmistress Bell. Even a Major's uniform and signed orders weren't enough to satisfy her deep mistrust of his dark skin.
"This is all highly irregular," the Headmistress sniffed, looking down her nose and over her rimmed glasses at the stamped and inked documents. Her hair in its bun was a tight as her disapproving lips.
"The papers are in order, the authorizations are signed," he repeated patiently.
"Yes, yes, I can see that. It is still irregular." He extended his hands for the papers and she reluctantly returned them, either not wanting to relinquish control of something she mistrusted or not wanting to touch him at all. "And Miss Pevensie of all people. Not that she's much of a student. Pretty girl, but not committed at all to her studies. Her sister is highly disruptive. A most impious and disobedient girl. At least Susan was able to control her. On her present course, Lucy Pevensie is headed for a sticky end. It is unfortunate you are not removing the pair of them."
With another disapproving sniff, the Headmistress barked out, "Mrs. Park!" in a tone as commanding as that of any drill sergeant.
"Yes, Ma'am?" The older, kinder, better-humoured secretary in the anteroom stuck her head into the office.
"Please go to Miss Martin's class and have Miss Pevensie dismissed. Escort her to her room, and have her collect her baggage. The summons she has been expecting has arrived. Tell her not to dawdle."
"What of Miss Lucy?" Mrs. Park asked. "If her sister is leaving, they will wish to…"
"The odds of Miss Lucy Pevensie being where she is supposed to be are remote. Their farewells are not our concern and if Lucy cannot be bothered to be found, so be it."
"Of course, Headmistress." Mrs. Park scurried off to do her master's bidding.
"You may wait here, Major." The Headmistress spoke as if conferring an honour.
He no more wished to wait in this depressing place than Headmistress Bell wished for him to be there.
"Thank you, Headmistress, but I will wait outside, in the garden." He had seen fruit trees beginning to blossom on the grounds and the out of doors would be far more comfortable than this room of hard edges and harder discipline.
On his way out, Asim was only stopped twice, for Marlhurst-Brockstone was more concerned with getting him out the door than permitting him admittance in its hallowed, sterile halls.
The garden was a relief. The spring planting was underway and the very ample garden smelled of good earth, not antiseptic. The dew and fog had burned off and it was all bright and pleasant, a very different feel than the cold school. He turned a corner, came around a large tree, and nearly trod upon a girl sitting on the other side.
"Pardon," Asim said, lightly stepping aside. "I apologize. I did not see you."
"Oh, that's quite all right," the girl said, closing her book and pushing glasses up her nose. "People overlook me all the time. I take no offense at it." She looked him over, shrewdly rather than coldly. "Lucy has been saying for weeks this is coming. You're here to collect Susan?"
"I am a friend of the family's," he replied, lying easily. "Miss Susan Pevensie is being transferred to another school."
"So you say," the girl said. "Your rank, cap badge, decorations, and staff car you drove say otherwise, but we shall be patriotic about it and just ignore the inconsistencies." She climbed to her feet, tucked a tome under her arm, dusted off her skirt, and thrust her hand out.
"I'm Alice Jones, by the way."
"Major al-Masri." He reluctantly shook her hand, English custom warring with cultural propriety.
Her book looked to be the sort of thing Digory carried about—that is, theological.
"Collected works of Hildegard of Bingen," Alice said noticing his interest and stuffing her book in a bag. "You're Muslim, aren't you? Lucy mentioned that. Our library is thin on the subject of Islam. If you could jot down a few reference texts and send them on, I'd be grateful."
It was always unusual to find someone interested. "Of course," Asim replied.
"Thanks." She tilted her head. "This way."
Curious, he followed the confident girl down a lane of trees. "I should not go too far, for I am waiting for Miss Pevensie," Asim said, glancing over his shoulder as the school building disappeared behind a screen of hedges.
"No worries about that. Susan will look for us here regardless," Alice replied.
He would never be clear of the precise chain of events that would change the rest of his already eventful life forever. He saw a pair of small shoes lying at the base of a tree and Alice said, "Major al-Masri is here to collect Susan, so you'd best come down."
God gave him no warning. There had been no prophetic dream, no vision. A lifetime of waiting and he was caught totally unawares.
A horn blew, a lion roared, and a thunderbolt dropped from the tree above and exploded at his feet.
Angels were not corporeal; they had no will apart from God. But what else could this being of pure light be? He was blinded and struck dumb. Fire danced before him. He stood in the presence of the sun, if the sun could walk the earth and not burn mere mortals.
"Major al-Masri!" Lucy Pevensie cried. "Finally, we meet!"
A small hand stuck out, reaching for his own. It was too much, too close, too hot, too brilliant, and bright.
A curtain of darkness fell.
Asim woke to the pain of a dull headache and the feel of cool sheets. Someone was holding his hand. He squeezed the small hand and then withdrew his own.
He heard a little sigh. "Oh good, you are awake."
Still keeping his eyes closed, Asim took stock of his surroundings. The feel of the bed and the smell denoted a too small cot in a nursing station.
"Is that you, Lucy?" he asked, eyes still closed. Surely it was. With consciousness returning, he felt warmth on that side, as if standing close to a banked fire.
"It is, Asim. I may call you Asim? Though since you are in uniform now, I understand you might prefer Major?"
He whispered a prayer, of thanks and for courage. "You may call me whatever you like," he managed. "How long was I unconscious?"
There were footsteps and the sounds of a curtain being pushed aside, a scrape of metal rings on rusty rod.
"About 30 minutes," a woman's brisk voice said.
Cool fingers picked up his wrist; he restrained the urge to pull back from the nurse's touch.
"Your pulse is fine," the nurse said. "How do you feel? Are you prone to fainting spells? Should we contact your unit and have someone come and collect you?"
Asim opened his eyes, hoping that Lucy would not be in his line of sight. Fortunately, it was the face of a gray-haired matron peering down at him. The nurse carefully probed his brow.
"I know who I am, I know that I am at Marlhurst-Brockstone, that Winston Churchill is the Prime Minister, that it is the twentieth day of April in 1943, that we have been at war with Nazi Germany since September 10, 1939, and I know that I am here to collect Miss Susan Pevensie pursuant to orders and consents that are in the inner pocket of my jacket on the left hand side."
He had been treated for potential concussions before.
"It was the sun," Lucy said. "The sun came out from behind a cloud and I landed on top of the Major when I fell out of the tree. It startled him and he stumbled against a tree branch."
"You? Fall out of a tree?" the nurse replied, with a rough kindness.
"It is as Miss Pevensie states," he said firmly and sat up, keeping his eyes fixed on the nurse. "I shall be fine but I do thank you for your concern." He did not want difficulty; he certainly did not want an unexplained fainting episode reported. An aspirin and a glass of water would be ideal, but he did not want to betray even that weakness.
"Shall I just assume this is another of those peculiar things that occur in your presence, Miss Pevensie, now extending even to men in uniform?"
Lucy laughed and it was music, spring wind, bird song, and pipes across crystal sands at midnight. "If that will let you leave off Major al-Masri, then yes, absolutely."
The nurse gave him another once over. "And you, Major? Have you a better explanation?"
"I do not, and thank you."
She shrugged and smiled. "Very well. I'll just leave the two of you here and go get word to Susan that now she really must finish her final packing!"
He quickly turned to the side when the nurse withdrew. As she left, she pulled the curtain back around them for privacy.
Slowly, he turned his head back to Lucy. If he could not even look at her, this was going to be impossible. Asim went carefully, putting his hands over his eyes, slowly opening his fingers, and letting the light of Lucy Pevensie come upon him gradually.
Lucy said nothing, but just sat quietly in the chair by his bed, making no remark upon his odd behavior.
At last, he lowered his hand and let his inner and outer eye adjust to the sight.
"Better?" she asked.
"Yes. My deepest apologies, Lucy."
"Oh, do not worry yourself at all, Asim. I am sorry to have dropped upon you so. My enthusiasm does get the better of me and I have felt keenly and for some time the lack of meeting you."
"At least on our first meeting you did not attempt to draw on me, as Peter did."
She laughed and then leaned forward and whispered, "Do you know that you glow, like a torch?"
Never, not in all his years, had anyone ever seen in him what he saw in others. The end of this long wait was very sweet, unlooked for, and again he thanked God, for all that he wished it had been more dignified than falling at the feet of the one who had walked through his dreams for so long.
"You, Lucy, are brighter than the sun or stars, and I do not speak metaphorically."
"How odd," she replied, smiling. "I met a Star once. Two of them, actually. Neither glowed at all."
"Why not?" he asked, curious.
"I am not sure. Ramandu was very old and becoming a young star, again, so perhaps he would shine more as he aged." She paused, "Well, younged, I suppose would be more accurate, as he was growing younger, not older. And the other, Coriakin, had done something very wicked and so was, more correctly, a former star."
"A wicked star?" How was such a thing possible? "What was his crime?"
"Oh, I am sure I do not know. Aslan said that was his story, not mine, which he sometimes means in a very profound way because he wants you to figure it out for yourself and sometimes I think Aslan says it because he just won't be bothered at the moment to tell you."
Aslan. A thrill of excitement moved through him as he heard her speak the word he had only so far read in stolen letters.
"Is Aslan the cat of my dreams?"
"That probably depends upon the dream, don't you think?" Lucy said, smiling widely.
"It was last summer. The night Peter caught the train to Cambridge to see you, Edmund, and Eustace. A cat sat in my window and spoke to me. He asked me to be a guide to your family."
Lucy looked down at her grubby hands folded tightly in her lap and twisted a crumpled handkerchief .
"And so you are. Aslan told me so and I have seen your hand in all that has happened. Thank you, I suppose. Edmund is in Washington, and Peter is in the Glider Corps, and now, finally, Susan is off with you." She looked around and her eyes darkened with anger and frustration. "But it is very unpleasant to be left behind. And here. That's not how it used to be." She sniffed a little.
"I know, Lucy, and I am sorry for your loneliness. I do believe that your siblings, doing what they are, are all part of important things that will help end the war sooner. And we may not keep a bird caged for our own pleasure. That is hard consolation, but also truth."
"Thank you, that does, help, a little, to know what they do is important. It is selfish of me." She leaned forward again. "Once, when I was lonely and frightened, Aslan sent me a great friend. I know you are terribly busy, but might you be such a friend to me?"
"Lucy, you know as well as I that this was to be and it was only God's…" he had to pause. He refused to call it whimsy and amended. "It was to happen but in God's time, and now it has. As surely as I am to be the friend to you in your need, you are the promised companion on my own journey."
"So there shall be adventures!" Lucy cried enthusiastically. "I do so love adventures! Yes, Asim, I will certainly be a companion on your journey!"
Asim glanced at his watch and with the day moving to afternoon, it was time to collect Mrs. Caspian and go. They were both expected at Beaulieu. He pulled himself off the little cot and stood.
Lucy bounced to her feet. "It is just as well you fainted, Asim. Susan and her packing would have kept you waiting regardless. I know why my sister does this, and truly, I do approve of it. But if she asks me one more time if she should pack the blue suit or the gray dress, and the pumps, the Oxfords, or both, I shall chuck the whole of her wardrobe into the pond and she can go wherever you are taking her in naught but her slip."
They met Susan as she was coming down the school's front steps. Alice was helping her lug an uncommonly large suitcase. Susan had acquired a pre-war, French haute couture wardrobe from Wren officer Elizabeth Pole at Christmas. Asim knew that the F Section of the SOE had a fleet of tailors developing appropriate Continental clothing for the agents. The packing might seem vain or obsessive, but it would not go to waste at all.
"Thank you, Major," Susan said as he took the case from her.
"I will just put this in the boot."
"Are you feeling better, Major?" Alice asked, flexing her fingers and looking sourly at Susan's large suitcase.
"Very much so. Thank you for your assistance."
"Just write me with some suggestions on Islam and where I might them?"
A gaggle of girls thumped down the front steps of the school. Asim hefted the suitcase and went to the car, leaving the girls to make their farewells. He would put up the blackout shades that would line the car's back windows for Mrs. Caspian's secret journey once they left the school grounds.
Susan and Lucy came down the steps together, arm in arm, and while it was not comfortable, he was able to look upon them both. Lucy's star was burning bright and hot; Susan's light was gentler, like the title she had borne in the letter ciphers. Asim wondered what Lucy's title had been. Mary had said Lucy called herself Valiant and that Edmund had been "just Edmund."
He assumed there was more to the names.
The sisters hugged and Lucy was trying very hard to not cry.
"Will you bless me, Lucy?"
Asim watched, fascinated, as Susan bowed her dark head to her sister's blonde one.
"Of course." He was glad Lucy's voice was steadier.
Lucy placed her hands on Susan's shoulders and began to speak.
"Aslan, thank you for the gift of our sister, Susan. She leaves us to enter the wider world to do your will and work. Watch over her as she embarks on this journey. Let her always hear your voice. She goes with our love."
Susan leaned down a little and Lucy kissed her on both cheeks and the forehead. They hugged again and then separated.
A year ago, he would have thought it all peculiar. Now, he simply waited, as observer and guide. He held open the car's rear door. She arched an eyebrow. "Not the front? Isn't it strange for you to be driving me like a chauffeur?"
"It is military business and orders, Mrs. Caspian."
She straightened, taller and more regal. "Of course. Will I be able to change clothes en route?"
Mrs. Caspian's accent was a little flatter. There was a hint of American in it. She was still wearing her school girl uniform disguise but must arrive at Beaulieu as Mrs. Caspian.
"I will insist upon it."
Mrs. Caspian hugged and kissed her sister again and climbed into the back of the car.
Lucy sniffed and waved her handkerchief.
To the valiant woman left behind, he said, "Lucy, I will visit as often as I can. I am difficult to find."
"I understand." She held out her hand and after staring at it a moment, he, gravely and very briefly, shook it.
"But if you have need of me, ask your Aslan. Surely, I will hear the summons and will come."
She laughed. "I used to ask Aslan to bring me a pony at Christmas. He never did."
"Were this a test, I would agree," Asim replied, taking the keys from his pocket. "In your case, however, it is an act of faith."
To follow, the separate story of Susan in the Special Operations Executive and Peter in D Company of 2d Battalion, Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, told in Rat and Sword Go To War.
Thereafter, Rat and Sword go to war, but Crow and Heart do not.
With the exception of a few changes at the very beginning, the first 4,000 words of this very long chapter repeat the first chapter of Rat and Sword Go To War, currently up on Live Journal in the Narnia Fic Exchange Community for the Narnia Big Bang challenge. Heverus did beautiful cover art for Rat and Sword Go To War, also up on the Live Journal site. Rat and Sword Go To War will be posted here and on AO3, a chapter at a time, once that challenge concludes, later in the week. This chapter and Rat and Sword begin at the same point, shortly after the conclusion of the previous chapter of Apostolic Way, Christmas at the Pevensies in 1942. Hereafter, the stories diverge and Rat and Sword go to war, and Heart and Crow do not.
Do check out the wonderful stories and art posted in the Big Bang challenge of the Narnia Exchange. There are links in my Live Journal and they are easy to find via an easy search. They are terrific and deserving of your attention.
Thank you. I hope this all was worth the wait.