I love not man the less but nature more
Written for Anastigmat for the 2011 Narnia Fic Exchange. The story includes characters from the collected works of Anastigmat, and though consistent thematically with her phenomenal Breaking the Borders, is not compliant with it. The rituals described are adapted from numerous myths, pagan rites, and religious traditions. Citations are in my Livejournal.
There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but Nature more.
~George Gordon, Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage
"And we beasts remember, even if Dwarfs forget, that Narnia was never right except when a Son of Adam was King. … It's not Men's country … but it's a country for a man to be King of. … I tell you, we don't change, we beasts … We don't forget."
Prince Caspian, Chapter 5
"The greatest gift is a portion of thyself."
Ralph Waldo Emerson
It had been a trying day. Too cold for spring, too warm for snow, but just right for mud. They were confident that this first true Spring was coming. They could all feel the creeping warmth in the ground and the softness in the air, and see the longer, brighter days. Still, there was a restive fretfulness in the Narnians, particularly among the Talking Beasts and the Beings of the Wood – the Fauns, the Satyrs, and the evergreen Dryads who were awake all Winter.
When Susan had asked of the growing edginess, their archivist, Fidria, had swished her tail irritably and looked over her spectacles, communicating that the Centauress expected more coherent thought from her student.
"Can you not see it? Smell it?"
"No, I cannot," Susan had said. Narnians always forgot that English schoolchildren, even if Kings and Queens, were still Human and did not smell or hear as Beasts did, or see as Birds did.
"It is the first proper end to Winter, Queen Susan. Even apart from the anxiety of the White Witch, which is still very fresh, your subjects are eager to rediscover the ruts, heats, and blooms that will come with the first natural Spring in over 100 years."
It took Susan long moments to realize that Fidria was not speaking of the ruts wheels made in mud, the warmth of summer days, and flower gardens.
For not the first time, Susan wondered when she would be Narnian enough for Narnia. Narnians would say the smooth was easy, but the rough was better. She wasn't quite sure how that helped, but a Narnian would say it whenever Susan had ever tried to articulate the occasional discomfort that arose with her adaptation to Narnia and its incongruities with her old life.
"And with this important first Spring approaching, it is time to look to the Regalia, your Majesty."
Fidria flicked her tail again when Susan could not contain her sigh.
"Must we?" Susan asked.
She loathed that book and its many (many, many) instructions on the proper deportment, ceremonies, and expectations for the Narnian Monarch. Really, in a land where most of its citizens wore no clothing at all and there were hairs, feathers, and the pervasive smell of wet livestock everywhere, the stuffy Regalia did not fit. The tome discussed, in exhaustive detail, everything from the songs to be sung at Midsummer and the Harvest Festival, to the proper invocations to Aslan for investiture of Knights and Guards, to the protocol for who should throw the first snowball in the Great Snow Dance. She conceded some of the information was useful since it described for the ignorant Monarchs what the Narnians all knew for memory in their oral traditions. Other instruction, however, was so very, very ludicrous, she suspected that librarians in centuries past were having one on their current, and humourless, archivist. Really, did anyone care whether the pavenders or the poultry were served first in the New Year banquet – did the priority of fish or fowl matter in Narnia?
"We must," Fidria replied firmly. "Has no one spoken to you yet of the Great Bonding?" She clopped over to the shelf where the book was shelved and returned to Susan's desk.
Regalia landed on the table with a distressing, ominous thud.
"No, I've not heard of it," Susan said, opening the detested book.
"The Great Bonding is the ritual by which a Human Monarch is bonded to Narnia as leader, protector, healer, builder, provider, and mate. "
"Aslan crowned us," Susan said patiently. "Isn't anything else redundant?"
Fidria snorted – fortunately Human-like rather than Horse. She turned the pages to the back of the book, which was a part Susan had never bothered with before as no one had yet insisted that it contained minutiae a Monarch simply must know.
"Aslan presided at your coronation. You rule by his will, by his prescription, and by conquest. But Humans were not part of Aslan's first Great Song. You came from Elsewhere, then and now. Ever since King Frank and Queen Helen, the Great Bonding bridges this distance and binds the worthy Human Monarch to Narnia and to Narnians themselves."
Susan turned the exquisitely drawn pages of the Regalia. She remembered the Coronation of King George well enough to see that what the book depicted here was nothing like that crowning and anointing. The illustrations were very old. They showed different groups of Narnians with a single Human, sometimes male, sometimes female, engaged in different activities which, Susan knew from the study of other Narnian texts, could be literal or symbolic of something else. There were fine pictures of what looked to be a dramatic performance, a deer hunt, a lake, a white horse, a fire, eggs, and thick smoke.
"These pages illustrate the Narnian King or Queen undergoing the challenges of the ritual," Fidria said.
She nodded, unsurprised at the number and variety of the tasks depicted. Given Narnia's often fractious factions, each group would likely have insisted upon its own ritual specific to its culture and practices. Dwarfs would not bond with a Monarch as a Bird would, Naiads would differ from Centaurs, who would differ from the Carnivores, who would differ from the grazing Beasts or small woodland Beasts.
"What of when there is more than one Monarch?"
Fidria twitched her flanks, the equivalent of an unconcerned shrug, and adjusted her spectacles.
"As you are all bonded by blood, it could be one of you for all. Or you and the High King might divide the challenges between you as you co-rule."
"And Edmund and Lucy?"
"The Great Bonding requires the consent of one full grown. The challenges are demanding. The King Edmund and Queen Lucy will be bound by what you and the High King do now. They might also renew that commitment by undertaking them together several Springs from now, after her Majesty has had her first heat."
After nearly a year in Narnia, Susan managed to avoid the wince. This was just the way most of the Narnians were. And why not when readiness was so obvious to them? Humans were the odd exception and the concept that "mating" was embarrassingly private was as foreign to Narnians as an aeroplane.
She let the comment pass and turned from the picture of a woman by a frigid-looking lake to a full, two page spread, richly illustrated in green, gold, red and brown. It was a right tangle to sort out. Slowly, the shapes resolved into the leafy boughs and blossoms of Dryads twining with Fauns and Satyrs – a scene not uncommon in the art of the Beings of the Wood. In the writhing midst, there was a Human, male, his soft, pink flesh a stark, vulnerable contrast to the bark, leaves and hair enveloping him. The expressions on Narnians and Human were wildly ecstatic. The King had one hand on a Satyr's horn, his other hand clutched a Dryad's branch and the three of them were… oh…
Susan felt the blush rise in her cheeks. She hurriedly closed the book. No, Lucy and Edmund would most certainly not be participating in the Great Bonding rituals this year.
Fidria's timing had been, once again, perfect. No sooner did Susan leave the Library with the Regalia, to find Peter then Peter appeared, seeking both her and the Regalia. The High King had received several queries about beginning preparations for the Great Bonding, including a meeting with a very serious delegation of ancient, somber Dryads and Centaurs. Even the old Yew Crone had awoken and come to Cair Paravel to entreat the High King to undertake the first Great Bonding since Queen Swanwhite, which the Crone remembered well and lectured upon at great length. Other Narnians had gushed to Edmund and Lucy of the Great Bonding, and quizzed them on whether the High King, the Queen Susan, or both, would perform the challenges.
With events and gossip rapidly overtaking them, Susan gave Peter the Regalia, provided a brief description, and left him to contemplate the illustrations in the privacy of his office while she distracted Edmund and Lucy over supper – a late winter meal of salted fish, bacon, carrots and potatoes, again.
Peter joined them after a while, looking more at ease than Susan had expected, and certainly more so than she had felt. They shared with Lucy and Edmund what they had learned of the Great Bonding, to a point.
Edmund was marginally disappointed that he would not participate this year, and very interested in the explanation that Human Monarchs, though they ruled by will of Aslan, were not of Narnia and so might prove their bonded commitment to her separately.
"Fidria said that Narnia is not a land of Humans, nor is she for Humans?" Edmund asked, picking over his fish.
"Yes," Susan replied, stirring her own food and taking a grudging bite She tried to set an example but they were all weary of dried fish.
"It's curious," Edmund said, shoving his plate away and grabbing the last bread from the basket instead. "The Narnians strongly desire Human rule even though so many of our Human rules don't apply in Narnia."
"What do you mean?" Susan asked, thinking of the two page picture of the lusty Revel in the Regalia.
Edmund shrugged. "That Trees own themselves and we ask permission of the Naiads for their water or the leave of the local Wolf pack before hunting deer in their territory. Killing a Talking Beast would be murder; killing a dumb one is not. There's no school for children, or…"
"And that is splendid, isn't it?" Lucy exclaimed, clapping her hands. "Whatever rules there are should be ones that are right for Narnia, don't you think?" Lucy did not enjoy her lessons at all. "The Great Bonding sounds lovely and really it means so very much to the Narnians! I do think building a nest without hands or ambushing dumb prey from above would be terrific fun!"
"Because they both require tree climbing?" Peter asked.
Lucy laughed. "And no silly spelling lessons needed for either!"
As she was wont to do (especially after a vigorous day, though she had none but vigorous days), Lucy nodded off before the table was cleared. One of the Dryads and the Dwarfess housekeeper carried the tired Queen to bed. Susan wanted to speak to Peter alone, but she had to be exceedingly cautious because if Edmund caught wind of it, he would either refuse to leave until he fell asleep in mid-sentence, or pretend to amble off to bed and then sneak a listen.
So Susan made a point of expounding, at length, on the Spring planting plans. Peter understood her ploy, for he launched, equally earnestly, into discussion with Edmund about the dock construction necessary to accommodate the galleon they had ordered built in Galma, with delivery before Summer. It was technical, important, and too detailed for end-of-day, after dinner conversation. The result was predictable. Edmund, enthusiastically bursting with work plans, schematics and budgets, trundled off to the Library so that he could report on the project in the morning. A Faun of the night staff followed to keep him company and would see him to bed, eventually.
The sounds of their animated discussion faded as the two climbed the Great Hall stairs toward the Library.
"He shall hopefully be asleep before moonrise," Peter said, rising and offering his arm to her. "Shall we talk more of the planting schedules in my office?"
Susan nodded, set her hand on Peter's arm and, in the other hand, held her cup of wine. Wine would help get them both through the discussion of the Great Bonding and the expectation that one of them would participate in the debauchery of the Revel. No, she corrected herself firmly. I must not characterize it so. This is Narnia, not England. We rule a land that is not ours.
Peter's office was his private retreat, to the extent anything could be private in Narnia. He did not conduct business here - there was only one chair and a lounger, which Peter immediately claimed by falling into and sprawling all over it. Susan took the uncomfortable chair across from him and the Regalia sat between them on the table.
"Since you are still nursing that wine, I should fortify as well." Peter reached for the skin he kept within arm's length on the bookshelf, uncorked it, and splashed Dwarf Lightning into an earthenware cup.
In barely a year's time, Peter had learned to rule and to kill, to use a sword and a shield, to drink as the Satyrs, swear as the Dwarfs, and dance as the Fauns. Susan had learned most of these same things, though she wielded a bow rather than sword, drank wine, and could not stomach Lightning. And now was it time to learn to love as the Dryads did?
"So, this Great Bonding," Peter began. He leaned forward and opened the Regalia to the first illustration of what looked to be a storytelling. "These are the final steps that make the foreign Human Monarch Narnian?"
"Yes. It is like a series of marriage ceremonies, of a sort." Yet another way in which Narnia was so very much not like England. Susan pushed the thought aside. "The rituals, there are ten of them, are specific to particular groups of Narnians."
"The eagerness and enthusiasm are understandable," Peter said. "As was explained to me, in exhaustive detail," he said, grimacing and taking a sip of his drink, "every newly crowned, adult Monarch from Frank and Helen to Swanwhite has undergone some version of this in the first Spring of his or her rule. The Centaur elders told me that Jadis tried to complete the rituals to demonstrate her humanity. The Narnians refused to acknowledge it and she eventually gave up."
Peter turned the page and pointed to the illustration of a Human male running with a Wolf pack after a deer. "Some of these seem simple enough in concept, though not execution. On the other wing, I have no idea what this one is." He gestured to a picture of a lizard crawling about a bonfire.
Deliberately, he turned to the final pages, the illustration of the woodland Revel. Susan felt her colour rise again and looked away, taking a shaky sip of her wine.
"When I saw this, I spoke to Aslan," Peter said.
"That was well thought of, Peter." Susan was ashamed she had not thought of it. "What did he say?"
"As you would expect." Peter's smile was brittle. They could not be angry at Aslan; frustration was another matter. "I tried to explain that some things would be easier if we knew how long we were to be here."
"And then he growled at you for saying that?"
"What must be done, must be done right and well," Peter said in a somber tone that mimicked Aslan's own musically solemn voice and words. He raised his cup, took a deep drink, and Susan saw a slight tremor in his hand.
"But must this be done?" Surely, Aslan would never order such a thing.
Peter shook his head. "No, on the contrary, Aslan was clear that it was my decision to participate; or yours, of course, if you wish to undertake it." He fingered the pages, and gently turned them back to the strange ones with the smoke and the eggs. "Which is all fine, until you perceive the strength of the Narnian sentiment."
"This is very important to them."
Peter nodded. "It's part of their history long denied. One of the Wolves practically wagged her tail off when she discussed it with me. The Dryad and Centaur delegation was most earnest in the entreaties."
"With Aslan, we delivered them," Susan said. "But in the Great Bonding, we become one of them."
"Yes," Peter said. "It binds us to them and to the Monarchs that came before us."
And if the Monarchs before them had done so then, by Aslan, she and Peter could as well.
"It never goes smooth," Peter said, echoing the apt Narnian adage and her own thoughts on it of earlier. "I suppose if these did not test us, they would not be challenges."
Susan thought maybe they could do with fewer challenges. "We will divide them up," she said. "I wanted to keep Edmund and Lucy from this, but I know that is foolish. They will be bound as we are, and so should participate to the extent the ritual permits."
"We could not stop them," Peter said with a quiet huff of laughter. "And we should not. I think actually they have less need of this Great Bonding than you and I."
"You have noticed that, too?"
"That Lucy is completely unconcerned with the coupling Fauns while you still blush?" Peter said, making her flush a little again with embarrassment. "Or that Edmund no longer takes any notice of the naked Dryads and Mer-women?"
"Perhaps he is too young to care?"
Peter snorted. "Most assuredly not," and Susan was very glad she had not been privy to whatever had led to that revelation. "Regardless, someone – I'm sure you can guess who – in the interest of furthering my education, has been threatening to send Dryads to my rooms," Peter said.
"That was uncalled for," Susan snapped angrily. She'd give that Satyr a piece of her mind and an arrow point as well.
"Well, when he thought my reticence was for females, I then had to decline male Dryads as well."
Susan Pevensie would have been appalled. Queen Susan giggled.
With a knowing smirk, Peter turned back to the illustration of the woodland Narnians and their King cavorting in intimate lovers' embraces.
"So you wish to undertake the Revel ritual?" Susan finally asked when it seemed Peter was going to let the silence drag on.
He sighed and leaned back in the lounger. "Back in England, Peter Pevensie would have said, can't a chap even see a girl without his sister nosing about his private business?"
"I see no girl in that illustration, Peter Pevensie. And we are Monarchs in Narnia. There is no private business for us here."
"The illusion of having private business, then."
Susan took a deep breath, for there was their answer and she let the Queen she had become speak. "I will not ask you to do what I would not, my King and brother." She managed to keep her voice steady and formal. "Though I admit that I do not wish to do this thing yet," she amended firmly. "I do not think ill of you and do not want you to feel ashamed of your desire to do this, for yourself and for Narnia."
"Thank you, my sister." Peter leaned forward and clasped her hands. "If we are judged, so too are our subjects, and I do not believe that to be the right course at all. I can find no fault in it when I would do this for love of Narnia and the Narnians do this for love of me."
Susan looked down at their clasped hands and saw the jagged scrape across his knuckles taken during a rough training exercise. Though Edmund's had been the most profound, Narnia had changed them all, in ways that were subtle and deep. "It is as Edmund and Lucy said at supper."
Humans ruled Narnia, but Narnia was not a land for Humans. Step lightly here. Love well. She put a hand to her brother's cheek. "I am proud of you, Peter, and respect you, but…"
Susan lowered her hand and turned to the page with the illustration of the cold lake.
"Yes, my sister?" Peter asked suspiciously.
"I shall do the swimming challenge," Susan said, making a point of sounding very arch.
Her brother scowled, rightly imputing her mockery. "I am not that bad."
"Peter, we must, at all costs, keep you far from water. You mix with water as oil does, which is to say, not at all."
The birdsong in the predawn was the sign waited for. The Songbirds had returned from their wintering as the weather warmed. One morning that still seemed very dark to poor Human sight, the Birds began to sing and welcomed the early, creeping light on the horizon that only their keen eyes could see.
Peter stayed in his study that day and in a fit of desperation for solitude, Susan joined him after luncheon and stayed there. They did not speak a word to one another all afternoon though Peter could feel the building excitement in the castle. Just when he would have lit a lamp, Lucy pounded on the door and told them all was ready.
Edmund joined them at the Palace entry, as excited as Lucy, though he was not bouncing as she was. The four of them descended the steps on to the great lawn. They were greeted by a throng of Narnians– Dryads, Dwarfs, Talking Beasts, Centaurs and all the others. Birds roosted in the Trees.
"I've not seen this many Narnians since Beruna," Susan murmured. If there had been any doubt of their commitment to the ritual, it evaporated here as Peter saw just how many of their humble subjects had traveled to Cair Paravel to witness the beginning of the first Great Bonding in over 100 years.
As the first Star glimmered in the sky, they gathered to begin the first challenge of the Great Bonding.
The stage had been prepared. The Dryads had given dead wood for a brisk fire to warm against the Spring night chill. Lit torches formed a ring where the play would be performed.
They took their seats on the lawn and Peter felt the crowd press around them. The earthy scents of Beasts and green smell of the Dryads and other Beings of the Wood rose with smoke from the fires.
An old Mole shuffled forward into the light. His tiny eyes blinked unseeing. "Your Majesties, I am Tiresias. Tonight begins the Great Bonding by which you shall become one with the Talking Beasts and Beings of Narnia. Your first challenge is to listen and attend that you might understand."
Tiresias' voice rose and fell into the sing song tone of the great Narnian epics.
"Come now Gentle Beasts, Good Beings of Wood, Water, and Stone, come now Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve, that might you hear The Great Lay of Narnia. To my pups I told this tale, as I learned it from my Dam, as she from hers, back generation upon generation. The Great Lay of Narnia has been told since the day Aslan sang Narnia into being. The Gentle Beasts tell the tale in cave, nest, and den, in wood, mountain, meadow, and pond, so that we might remember it. For though Dwarfs build, and Birds fly, and Fauns dance, Naiads flow, and Dryads green, the Good Beasts of Narnia remember. So, Friends, heed my words. Stop and listen with your sensitive heart so that all may know The Great Lay of Narnia. Harken to me now."
"It begins thus.
"At first, there was the Great Nothing, a black emptiness. And then into the Great Nothing, Aslan began to sing. Cold, tingling, silvery voices joined Aslan's Great Song and then at once a thousand points of light leaped out. And so there were single stars, the Moon, constellations, and planets, bigger and brighter than any seen before.
"And then Aslan changed his tune, louder and more triumphant. And so, the Sun rose for the first time on an earth of many colours and hues. Again, the Great Song changed. It became gentle, rippling music and where Aslan walked, grass grew and spread like a pool. The Lion sang deep and strong and the trees grew. The Lion sang light and bright and flowers grew. "
As Tiresias spoke and sang, the small Talking Beasts shuffled forward to act out in pantomime the words. Peter glanced at Susan and she looked serene; Lucy was enchanted; Edmund's mouth was twitching, and not without reason. It took effort to not smile as a little Hedgehog lumbered back and forth, swinging his head and pretending to be the Great Lion singing Narnia into being. While there were Dryads who could act the part of Trees, this was for and by their smaller, less imposing subjects – the Moles, Rabbits, Voles, Squirrels, and others. The old Badger had no resemblance to a stately Tree at all. No one dared laugh.
Around them, Peter felt the assembly tense for what came next.
"The grass began to bubble, like water in a pot," Tiresias sang. The Beasts in the audience picked up the words so familiar to them, and echoed them, in a soft chorus, "Like water in a pot."
"The land swelled into humps and then from each hump there came out a beast of Narnia."
"We came from each hump," the Beasts repeated.
The acting Beasts, waving and flapped their paws and tails, pretended to be deer, dogs, great cats, songbirds, bees, and the other animals born that day. A Mouse was the elephant.
"For the first time, Aslan was silent. He went to and fro among the beasts, choosing some, but not others. And those he chose, he changed.
"There was a flash of fire and Aslan spoke."
The Beasts all joined Tiresias to say the words.
"Narnia, Narnia, Narnia, awake. Love. Think. Speak. Be walking Trees. Be Talking Beasts. Be divine Waters. Out of dumb beasts we were taken and into them we can return."
There was a great, reverent silence.
Then, Tiresias gathered them with his sing song voice and began again and told of the Jackdaw's first joke. The laughing mood of the assembly turned somber when Tiresias told of the evil that had entered Narnia. Aslan instructed Lord Digory and Lady Polly that as the Humans had brought Jadis into Narnia, now they would labour to repair that evil.
In hearing the blind Mole sing, Peter felt an overwhelming humility. This was not a wrong he or his siblings had wrought. The Narnians loved them and felt no bitterness that it was this outsider race of Humans from beyond the confines of their brand new world who had brought Jadis into Narnia. Peter did not feel guilt, but he felt responsibility. He glanced again at Susan and saw her nod her understanding. The Great Bonding that brought the Human Monarch closer to Narnia healed that first wrong perpetrated the day Narnia was born.
Tiresias's song continued and he told of Polly and Digory's great journey on the Winged Horse, Fledge, their encounter with Jadis, and finally the planting of the Tree of Protection. Tiresias sang of Aslan's calling of Helen from beyond the limits of the world. Two Rats played the parts King Frank and Queen Helen and the mood again became very serious as Aslan delivered his instruction.
"Can you raise food from the earth?" Tiresias asked the Rats. "Can you rule these creatures kindly and fairly, remembering that they are not slaves but Talking Beasts and free subjects?"
Tiresias's words were directed to the players, but Peter found he was nodding his assent to this charge to Aslan's first rulers. A glance showed that Susan, Edmund and Lucy were all also nodding their agreement.
"And would you raise your children and grandchildren to do the same?"
To concentrate on the ceremony, Peter pushed aside, for now, the implications of that daunting charge from Aslan to Frank and Helen. Children and grandchildren, heirs, securing a line of Kings and Queens to follow. This too would be their duty to the Narnians. If they did not, all this would come to nothing.
"And if enemies came against the land and there was war, would you be the first in the charge and the last in the retreat?"
The Rats, bold creatures, raised their fists and whisked their tails about.
Tiresias then sang of the great Narnian Kings and Queens who followed, each undertaking the Great Bonding. The blind Mole told of King Gale who slew the Dragon, King Frank III and his Queen Matilde, who raised Cair Paravel, Prince Col founder of Archenland, Queen Eleanore, the first to repel the Northern Giants, and doomed Swanwhite, who was the last Queen before the Winter came.
The moon waxed and waned. Lucy rested her head on Edmund's shoulder. Green eyes glowed in the dark beyond the light cast by the dimming torches and the fire.
Tiresias' song ended when the Four appeared in the snowy Lantern Waste. A Vole had had the honour of portraying the Queen Lucy and at the conclusion she bowed so deeply she teetered. Lucy put out a hand to keep the Vole from falling over. She kissed Lucy's hand and then the Vole and the other Beast players shuffled back to join the audience.
The blind Mole stood alone in the patch of firelight.
"And so, Gentle Beasts, the Four Humans before you delivered us from our ancient enemy. Aslan called them and they came. They come from the land of King Frank and Queen Helen, from the land beyond sea and sky and the Great Waterfall. They are in Narnia, they serve Narnia, they rule Narnia, but they were not born of Narnia."
With that cue, Peter rose, Susan beside him. Edmund helped Lucy to her feet. They stood before their subjects and the blind Mole.
"Who seeks the Great Bonding with Narnia?" Tiresias asked.
"I do," Peter responded, pitching his voice as low and as solemn as he could.
"I do," Susan repeated, sounding so adult, Peter almost did not recognize her.
"And you, Queen Lucy and King Edmund, do you allow High King Peter and Queen Susan to act in your stead and to bind you to Narnia as they will be?"
"I do!" Lucy said so happily there were titters of laughter.
Edmund's voice cracked a little as he spoke his assent. "I do."
An Oak Dryad, newly awakened from her Winter sleep, stepped forward, carrying a large leaf. She stopped in front of Lucy, who drew her dagger. Lucy bit her lip and pricked her finger on the knife. Peter smiled at her bravery for she barely flinched as drops of her blood fell on to the leaf the Dryad held. Lucy handed her knife to Edmund and he did the same, cutting his finger and adding his blood to Lucy's on the leaf.
Edmund gave the knife to Susan who had thought carefully about where to administer a cut that would not trouble her in the challenges to come. It was awkward, and more painful, but she deftly pricked the top of her hand and added her blood to the leaf.
The knife, Lucy's gift from Father Christmas, was cool in his hand when Peter took it from Susan. The blood of his brother and sisters stained the blade. The knife was so sharp he did not even feel the cut until the blood was already welling from his palm. He let his own blood drop to the leaf to mix with the blood of the others. Lucy solemnly took her knife back and bent down to wipe the bloodied blade on the grass. There was a sigh among those silently watching as the mingled blood of the Four Monarchs was given to the Narnian earth.
The Dryad offered the leaf to Susan. His sister dipped her finger into the blood caught and pooled on the leaf and rubbed it on her own forehead. The dark blood was sticky and warm as Peter did the same.
"By this sharing, the act of one binds you all," Tiresias said. "The second challenge is tomorrow. Tomorrow, the Monarch shall die."
Susan had barely fallen asleep and then Birds started singing, their Dwarfess housekeeper bustled in to the bedroom and it was time to begin. At breakfast, Peter's blood-smeared look was so savage, Susan was very glad she had not looked in a mirror herself. The blood, dried and itchy on her forehead, would come off soon enough. Lucy was yawning at table, but she would not miss this for anything and Susan was very glad for her sister's support. Susan tried to shut out the rising din from the Courtyard as the Masters organized the party that would be her and Lucy's escort to the site of the next challenge.
"You'll need your strength," Edmund said quietly, and pushed a hard cooked egg on to her plate. She nibbled at it, reluctantly.
Loukas the Hound trotted into the Morning Room with an exuberance that was infectious and lifted her fretful spirit. Seeing how very, very much this meant to the Narnians would see Susan through the challenges.
"All is ready, your Majesties. We are ready to depart."
Lucy was already on her feet and bounding out the door.
"You are brilliant," Edmund said, giving her a fierce hug.
Peter touched the blood smear on her forehead and kissed her cheek. "Aslan is with you, Sister. And so am I."
The ride took most of the day but the Narnians were so eager to see their Queen die that the pace was swift and the stops few. Spirits were very high and merry. They arrived at the lake just as the Sun was beginning to fall behind the trees.
As happened the night before during the storytelling, the lakeshore was crowded with Narnians who had come to see their Monarch meet the next challenge of the Great Bonding. On the far side of the lake, dark mountains rose up that were still snow covered in patches. The lake was fed by that snowmelt and would be very cold.
Susan dismounted and shrugged out of her traveling cloak.
"Susan?" Lucy asked sounding anxious for the first time. The lake was large, black, frigid -looking.
She pushed the doubts away and smiled at her sister. "I am ready, Lucy."
Lucy took her hand and a sea of silent Narnians parted before them as they walked to the lake's edge. One of the Red Dwarfs, Droggin, was building a fire on the shore, accepting bits of bark that a Maple Dryad broke off for him. A pile of blankets was next to the fire. These simple acts of faith buoyed her. The Narnians, her subjects, believed she could do this. Kings and Queens before her had done this. And so she would and could do this, too.
Susan stood straighter and slipped her hand out from Lucy's tight grasp. She wriggled out of her boots and, using Lucy's shoulder as support, removed her stockings. "Lucy, will you unfasten the ties on my gown?" She had dressed simply in anticipation of this disrobing.
Lucy's fingers were quick and cold against her skin. Susan flinched a little and recalled a time when one wore a bathing costume when swimming. She was stripping to naked skin in front of dozens of Narnians. She had never thought of clothing as being a division between her and the Narnians, yet they obviously did given the number of challenges undertaken bare. Her gown slid off her shoulders and fell to the ground. Susan stepped out of it and let Lucy gather it up.
Lucy's arms were full, so there was no hug, but a quick kiss. "I love you Susan," Lucy said, so seriously earnest that Susan smiled. "Edmund and Peter do too. And Aslan, of course."
"I love you too, Lucy. Thank you."
Susan shivered in the chill. The water would be that much colder. The beach was rocky and she picked her way, not at all gracefully, to the water's edge.
The black lake began rippling and frothing. A mound of water rose up high to become the head and torso of the Lake goddess. She was crowned with water lilies and her hair was a tangle of rushes. Her water skin was green and her eyes were deep, black pools.
"Hail, Queen Susan. Are you prepared to give yourself to me and my sons and daughters?"
"I am, Lady," Susan called out.
"Then come, Queen Susan, you poor creature of the land. Come to my water and die."
The first step into the lake was so bitingly cold, Susan gasped. Behind her, she heard Lucy step forward, but Susan waved her back. The rocks were hard and sharp on her bare feet. Susan waded in deeper, the water turning more frigid with every step. She took a deep breath, and dove. The freezing water shocked her body.
She surfaced to the thunderous cheers of the Narnians. The faster and harder she swam, the warmer she would be, and really there was no pride in a weak, small death.
So Susan swam strongly and fiercely and put her trust in the Lake goddess. Around her she sensed the ripples and currents of the playful Naiads. They were impossible to see, but she could feel their wake as Naiads darted by her, chattering in a strange, musical language.
The warmth of exertion and strength of purpose slowly ebbed as she swam further and further into the Lake. She could no longer hear the Narnian shouts on shore. Susan swam on, going the length of her endurance and then beyond. There would be no way to return – she knew she was too far to go back and not far enough to make it to the other side. Her body needed energy both for the swimming and to keep her warm and the cold sapped it all. She felt ice seep into her limbs and chest, slowing her, making her more sluggish. Each breath became more painfully difficult until, finally, she could barely breathe at all. She would drown here.
Susan stopped and bobbed on the surface, seeing nothing but water. There was no point to doubt. She did not have the energy for it. "Lady!" she gasped. "I come!"
She took a deep breath, her last, and with a final, powerful kick, Susan dove. She could not see, could not breath, and it was cold, so very, very cold. How cold the Narnians must have been, for so long.
It hurt and burned. He body was desperate for air and there was none here for her in this dark, cold, utterly foreign world.
Aslan? She would have sobbed if she could, but to sob was to breathe water and go to her death.
Susan, I am always with you, even in the darkest places.
There was nothing left to exhale. Her lungs burned and her body was a leaden weight. Susan succumbed. She opened her arms and heart and sank into the embrace of the Lady of the Lake.
Susan woke to roaring in her ears – a Lion, blood pounding, and the Narnians on the lakeshore who had seen her sacrifice to the waters of their country and her triumphant return by the Naiads who delivered her back to land.
Strong arms were pulling her out of the water. She collapsed onto the rocky shore, retched, and began to shake violently. She felt a blanket, warmed by the fire, land over her, and tender hands tucked it around her shivering body. Someone was helping her sit up, pressing warm wine to her frozen lips.
Something small, very warm, and very strong, hugged her tightly. Lucy.
She blinked, at first seeing only a narrow cone of sight and black spots. Only after several deep breaths to her air-starved body was she able to see. The Lady, now joined by her shining sons and daughters, rose again from the lake.
Susan opened her mouth to speak, but only a hoarse croak came. Lucy pushed the warm wine to her lips again and after another burning swallow that she felt all the way to her frozen toes, Susan tried again.
"Your servant thanks you for her deliverance, Lady!"
"Bravely done, my Queen. Your trust is rewarded. You are ours. We are yours."
Susan pulled her arm out from the blanket swaddled about her to wave good-bye. The Narnians around her roared their approval. The Lady waved a glimmering, green arm in farewell. Then, the waters of the Naiads receded and the lake was still once more.
Peter had been anxious the whole day. His nerves finally got the better of him when he bellowed at Edmund to stop breathing so loudly. Fortunately, before fratricide was done, a Bird arrived trumpeting the news of Queen Susan's heroic "death" in the waters of Lake Tethis.
With Susan's completion of the Naiads' challenge, Peter's preparation for his "birth" in the Third Challenge began. Peter truly regretted the anxiety that had made eating impossible earlier, for now he had to fast. Edmund, forgiving him for the mood, had the good grace to not eat or drink in front of him.
Peter slept fitfully, hearing every little noise of the preparations outside. Breakfast was a sorry affair. He was starving, but there was nothing for him. The Faun who normally served the meals looked very apologetic, but steadfast. Peter knew that every Narnian would snatch away any food or drink before it touched his lips.
Susan and Lucy returned mid-day with a large and merry procession. His sisters were together astride a Talking Horse who had consented to carry the Queens home. Lucy had ridden the whole way with her arms around Susan who was blue-gray with cold and exhaustion. Lucy jumped off and thanked the Horse. The Horse courteously dipped his shoulder and Susan slid off. She would have fallen if Peter had not been there to catch her.
"Congratulations," he said, hugging her tightly.
"Thank you." She smiled and touched the dried blood on his face. "Aslan is with you, my brother, and so am I."
Susan waved to the cheering Narnians and then was hustled into the Palace for a hot bath, hot food, and a warm bed.
Lucy gave him a quick hug. "Good luck, Peter. I'm going to stay with Susan." She turned to Edmund and Peter saw tears suddenly springing into her eyes. "These are challenges for Peter and Susan, but it's very hard to stand by and watch it, Edmund. Find me when Peter finishes."
"I will, Lu." Edmund pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and Lucy took it to wipe her tears away.
"I think I'll keep this," Lucy said and blew her nose into the handkerchief. She turned on her heel and ran into the Palace.
Tiresias shuffled out from the Narnians gathered on the Palace steps.
"It is time for the Third Challenge," the Mole said.
Peter thought it really did look like an egg. Birds were flying over the thing and dropping grass and sticks that Dwarfs were weaving into a frame. The Dryads were adding leaves and bark and the Talking Beasts had plastered it all together with mud and honey and were patting it into place with their paws. It had taken them several days and now the thing was nearly complete, with only a small opening in the side.
And he was going to crawl inside it and the Narnians would seal him in.
"That's very small," Edmund muttered. "I wish I was doing this in your place, Peter."
Peter clapped his brother on the shoulder. "Thank you, but it will be well."
Edmund was correct though – this was going to be very uncomfortable.
Tiresias stood on his haunches and inspected the egg, sniffing and touching it with his sensitive nose.
Satisfied, the Mole dropped again to all fours and scuffled forward.
"Are you ready, High King?"
"When Aslan first sang us into being, our firstborn came from the earth of Narnia herself. Since that day of the Great Song, we have been birthed. From the dark of an egg, a sac, or a seed, we all came, hungry and naked. And so must you be."
He was certainly hungry. Peter began pulling off his clothes. Susan had been able to stand bare in front of the Narnians; he could do no less. Edmund gathered his things and set them to the side.
Tiresias spoke. "The Monarch has died for Narnia. And now, the Monarch must be born in Narnia."
The opening in the egg was only just large enough for him to squeeze through. He had thought, and hoped, the egg would be thin and flimsy. It was not. The walls were thick and well made.
Peter settled inside the cocoon, wrapping his arms around his legs, and felt the prickly mud and grasses stabbing him in the back. He glanced at Edmund, whose face was knit with worry and realized that he would rather be inside this prison than waiting on the outside as Edmund was, helpless to do anything.
The work began to close the opening. The solemn Beasts and Dryads set large pieces of flexible bark over the hole and fixed them in place with more sticky mud and honey. The opening became smaller, the light in the egg dimmed, the air became closer, and sound faded.
There was only a tiny crack and then it too closed. Peter was alone in the dark.
Feeling about, Peter looked for a stick. There were many twigs stabbing at him from all sides. He found one that felt sturdy enough to be a tool. Gently twisting it back and forth, he was able to free it from the walls of the shell. Unlike other animals who had a tooth for chipping themselves out of their eggs, Peter had only his fingers and his meager tool.
He had anticipated the darkness when learning of the challenge. The silent isolation was worse than he had expected. The close, suffocating heat was far worse. Peter beat down panic. Like any child who came from egg, sack or seed, Peter would have to wait until the time came to be born.
Lucy was right. Sitting here helpless was its own wretched sort of challenge. Edmund sat on the grass, waiting in vigil. The Sun had set, the Moon was rising, and still, Peter had not come out.
Talking Beasts, Birds, and the other Narnians came and went, doing silent homage to the egg and their High King, before departing into the Wood, field, or air, to sleep or to hunt.
The pile of grass and bark Edmund restlessly shredded grew ever larger. How long was long enough in that egg? Nothing in the Regalia (and he had sneaked a look at the whole thing and not just the pages Susan had shown them) had said how long Peter should stay in there. There was no way to judge time. He had heard the Beasts discuss how they thought King Frank V especially heroic for enduring this trial for a full day. It was not considered heroic to be sealed in and then immediately break through the part of the shell just constructed and still damp. Could air even reach Peter in this place? If Peter fell asleep, would he suffocate?
Edmund rubbed his own tired eyes and sipped the cold tea Lucy had brought out. She'd said that Susan was fine, finally warm, and sleeping. She had wanted to stay, but she wanted to be with Susan too. He would have liked Lucy's company but Edmund told her it was alright and he would send word as soon as Peter emerged.
Peter would come out. He would.
Aslan? You are watching out for him, aren't you?
The Lion did not answer with words but Edmund felt warm breath stir his hair.
He and Lucy had not swum in the lake or been sealed into an egg, but this was hard for them, too. Edmund had not fully understood what it meant when he attested to participation in the Great Bonding.
Merle, the Boarhound pup, was next to him, flat on his side, snoring loudly. Edmund looked around and decided he could always use the excuse of needing the warmth on a chilly night. The Boarhound snorted and moved a leg, mumbling something about rabbits. When he quieted, Edmund settled next to Merle, a comfort in the dark, to wait.
He woke with a start, covered in wet morning dew. There was just enough morning light to see Loukas carefully sniffing at the egg. A Crow was perched on top of the egg, head cocked to the side.
"The High King comes," Loukas said, wagging his tail and sounding very cheerful.
The Crow bobbed his head. "Soon! Soon!" He flew off, cawing the news.
Edmund clambered stiffly to his feet. He could just hear a faint scratching sound from inside the egg. With the Crow spreading the word, Beasts and Birds, Trees and Beings all were hurrying as fast as leg or wing could take them to see their Monarch born in Narnia.
Tiresias lumbered up to the egg, snuffling it with his star-shaped nose. He took a startled step back as muffled thumps could be heard from inside the egg.
Edmund stepped forward but one of the Centaurs, Cloudstrike, held him back.
"The High King must do this himself, your Majesty."
Well bugger that. Edmund scowled
The banging grew louder and faster and, Edmund thought, more desperate. Did Peter know how close he was? Did the babe born of the egg know?
There was a loud snap and the shell cracked, a huge seam from top to bottom that spread. Chunks of dried mud and wood began sliding down and breaking off.
The hum of excitement grew louder.
"Harder!" a Dwarf, Ruchabrik, shouted. "Hit it harder!"
The Narnians began the call, raising a terrific din of shouts, barks, and caws. A chorus erupted, a powerful, rhythmic chant, a pounding of hooves, clapping of hands and paws, and thrumming on bark. "Hit it harder! Hit it harder!"
The egg began rocking, back and forth, slowly, then faster, nearly in time with the chant. With a violent convulsion, it flipped over completely and shattered.
The Narnians cheered.
Peter lay in the midst of the broken pieces of the shell. He was heaving, filthy, and covered in sweat and debris. Edmund grabbed a blanket and threw it over his brother, knelt next to him, and helped him sit up.
"Water!" Peter gasped. Someone thrust a skin at him and Edmund held it to his brother's parched lips and squeezed the skin. Peter snatched the skin and drank greedily.
Tiresias came forward and bowed to them. "Yesterday, Narnia's Monarch died for Narnia. Today the Monarch was born to Narnia."
Having been born Narnian, logically, a child now had to eat and grow as a Narnian. This explained why, in the dead of night, Peter was sitting, cold and stiff, in a maple tree with a Cheetah waiting for prey to come to the pond below for a drink.
"I had thought my challenge would be to run with the Wolves and other pack hunters and bring the prey down," Peter said, trying to not make it sound like a whinge, even though it really was.
The Cheetah raised her head, and blinked. With the Moon and Stars hidden by the tree canopy and clouds, her yellow eyes were their only light. "Why is that?" she asked.
"I am better suited to a challenge requiring speed and endurance, than to one demanding the stealth and patience of your kind," Peter said. "Instead Susan is running with the Pack and I am here."
There was a long pause. "But that is the nature of a challenge, is it not?" the Cheetah finally said. "To do what is hard, rather than easy?" She paused again. Peter had the sense that she did not speak much, so it took her time to find the words. "Though I understand your discomfort, High King. Hunting from trees is not natural for me and I do not run the long distances the Pack does."
"I worry I will miss," he admitted. "Give a poor account. Or land in the pond or a patch of thorns."
"Most hunts do not succeed, including my own," the Cheetah said softly. "But you will not fail, High King."
He supposed he could see the reasoning of assigning him that which he needed to improve upon, but it did not change the fact that balancing all night on the branch of a tree was hard, tedious work that he was not suited to. That it was difficult for the graceful Cheetah next to him helped and he took comfort in her steady confidence in him.
"I have been remiss and rude. I don't know your name."
She blinked again. "Dalia."
"Thank you, Dalia, for your kind wisdom."
"You are welcome, King Peter." Her tail twitched and he felt it lightly brush his back. "We must be silent now, lest we warn the prey."
Peter nodded. At least he was permitted a knife, as the Great Cats and other stealth hunters agreed that Humans did not have the teeth or claws to administer a fatal blow.
As when he was in the suffocating egg, he had no idea how long they sat there. This, though, was very different. It was calming and soothing. He sat with the Cat in the dark, listening to the sounds of the Narnian night. He heard the Owls and bats, the howling of Wolves and yips of Foxes, frogs croaking in the water, and crickets chirping. It was not silent as the egg was, but full and busy. It was a part of Narnia he had not paused to hear and see before. The Cheetah would brush him with her tail now and again, warm and comforting.
Peter shifted on the branch and he felt her tense next to him.
"Quiet!" the Cheetah hissed. "A deer comes."
There was a faint crunch of hooves on leaves. Peter took a deep breath and hefted the knife in his hand. He crouched on the branch, listened, waited, and watched. When the buck came out of the forest to drink, Peter fell upon him.
"That one," the he-Wolf muttered. "Do you see?"
No, she did not see. Susan could not see as the Beasts of Narnia did. Wolves were not as far-seeing as Humans, but still they saw a great deal, were very sensitive to movement, and smelled far more. Whatever it was that made the Wolves select that particular deer was not clear to Susan, but she trusted it.
She could not hear or see them but Susan knew that the other Wolves of the Pack were downwind of the deer herd. Somehow, they all knew which deer was to be their victim.
"I will not be able to chase a deer, Friend," Susan said. She could just shoot the deer, now, with her bow, while there was still light. That, however, was not the purpose here. The challenge was to hunt as the Flesh-eaters of Narnia did, by stealth, to feel the fear and thrill of the chase or ambush, to deliver the blows that kill, to let the warm blood of the prey stain your paws. Kill so that you will live.
"You will not need to run the prey down," the Wolf said. "The Pack will chase her to us and then you and I shall come out from cover and take her."
Susan's heart lifted. "So we do this together?"
"Yes. Joined together, the Pack is stronger." The Wolf slowly backed out from the prickly brush in which they had hidden. "Come. We must get to our position."
Susan withdrew, scraping backward along the ground, trying to be as silent as possible. The young he-Wolf waited patiently as his Queen scrabbled about in the dirt and rocks and finally stood.
"What is your name, Friend?" Susan asked. The he-Wolf was familiar and she knew he was in the Army.
"I am Lambert, Queen Susan." He turned and pointed with his muzzle. "We go this way," and Lambert began trotting South, weaving through the trees that rimmed the meadow where the deer herds grazed.
Susan jogged after him. Once another he-Wolf, Maugrim, had nearly killed her. Now, Susan was the huntress.
"You know, Su, the old me would have been whinging."
"Are we there yet?" Susan pitched her voice into a metal-bending screech.
"Precisely," Edmund said with an easy laugh. "But truly, are we there yet?"
"We will know we have arrived when we arrive," Cloudstrike said.
Susan managed to not roll her eyes. Centaurs could be so very oblique and Cloudstrike really did have his head in the clouds. She did not envy Peter's challenge to come with the Centaurs. This challenge was so much better. She was riding North with Edmund, in the warmth of the spring, looking for an old, dead, rotten log and the lizard who might dwell in it.
She caught a glance from Lambert and thought he might have curled his lip in a smile, perceiving her amusement at the Centaur's ways. Since Susan had joined the Pack hunt, the Wolves had very much taken her as one of their own. Another Wolf, a female, wagged her tail and sidled up to the male. She suspected a romance brewing for the pair and thought that some further encouragement would not be amiss. Perhaps she could…
Susan caught herself and laughed, for the sheer joy of it.
"What is it?" Edmund asked, reining his horse closer.
"I am feeling very Narnian today!" Susan said.
Her mare, not liking Edmund's horse, laid back her ears and bared her teeth.
"Oh stop that you!" she said, giving her horse an affectionate swat on the rump.
"Ho! Your Majesties! Pull up!" Cloudstrike called. "Here's a likely place."
Susan reined in her horse and looked about. The trees had grown sparser, but were bigger and darker as they had ridden North. They were at the outermost part of the Owlwood. Beyond was the northern border of Narnia, the River Shribble, and further still, the land of the Giants.
In the clearing before them, an immense pine tree had fallen. Its needles were long since gone and now it was a pile of old rotted logs and sticks.
Susan dismounted and stretched. She handed Love's reins to one of the Dwarfs and went to stand by the tree as Cloudstrike walked carefully around the log.
Edmund joined her and with him, Dresthin, one of the Dwarfs with whom he frequently sparred, both verbally and at arms.
"Should I light it, Cloudstrike?" Dresthin asked, tinderbox in hand.
The Centaur gravely studied the fallen log then looked up, shading his eyes at the Sun and sky above.
"Yes," he finally said. "There's magic here. Can you not feel it?"
"That tingling?" Edmund asked, surprising her.
"Just so, your Majesty," Cloudstrike said.
Susan did feel an odd thrumming through the ground, up her legs and into her gut. She had thought it was only fatigue from the riding.
Dresthin bent down at the log and got to work. He built a little pile of dry tinder and deftly struck his flint on the firesteel. The sparks flew out and in short order a small, smoky fire started.
"Everyone else draw back!" Cloudstrike ordered. "Your Majesty?"
He gestured and so Susan knelt on the ground in front of the smoking tinder. The dirt and rocks were rough on her knees. She hoped it would not be long, but who knew? The smoke rose and, like all Dwarf-made fires, it was true and began to spread, slow and steady. There were flickers and pops and bright little flames began tickling the log. The smoke was strange for it looked like gray and black snakes, lizards, and winged things, tinged with orange and yellow.
Susan suddenly rocked back, startled, as a hissing came from inside the flames.
"Oh what a bother!" a voice said.
The speaker crawled out from the fire. He was a squat, black, lizard-like creature, mottled with brilliant yellow and orange spots. His flat tongue darted out of his mouth and he turned a beady, very knowing eye upon Susan.
"Oh, it's you is it? I've been expecting you. I think."
"I am Queen Susan of Narnia," Susan said, finding the title easier each time she used it. "And who are you, good Sir?"
"I don't know about the good. Or the Sir, for that matter. And you are awfully free about giving out your name, Susan Pevensie. Don't make that a habit. Names are powerful. You know a thing's name, you know it."
She was very surprised at the Lizard's address and quickly adjusted her thinking. This creature was not merely a quick-witted Talking Beast; he was a Fire Salamander, profoundly magical, and so to be treated with great care. "I shall remember," Susan said gravely.
"As for names. Names. Names. I have many names. More than Aslan, last time we counted them. Don't remind him of it. If that mangy Cat gets annoyed, he might eat me."
The Fire Salamander marched further up the log. "You'll know me by some of those names 'ere the end. Call me what they call me in your world, Black-eyed Susan."
Susan vowed to never complain of elliptical and vague Centaurs again. "And what name is that, for surely I've never seen your like before."
"Xucoatl," the Fire Salamander said. "I thought you'd be bigger. Older. Male. You are female aren't you? All you Humans look the same to me, two arms, two legs, hair on top."
"Perhaps you mistake me for my brother, High King Peter."
"Oh yes, that must be it. So Jadis is gone for now and the Four Thrones filled and the prophecy fulfilled, la de dah, and fol de rol."
"The Witch is dead," Susan said, intrigued by Xucoatl's choice of words and the confidence with which he spoke them. "She was slain at the great Battle of Beruna."
"Dead? Jadis?" Xucoatl scoffed. "She ate of the Apple of Life, Gentle Susan. She'll be back. Eventually, a thousand years and more when the Sun of the Golden Age sets on Narnia and a cruel star of silver rises in its place, she'll be back, giving my kind a bad name."
Susan doubted it for all that the Fire Salamander spoke with such authority.
"So why are you here, Gentle Susan? Strange. Why gentle? Not harsh or severe, a gentle scolding, a gentle tap. Good breeding, high station, chivalrous as a knight that you shall never be. To tame or break, that will never be you. Easily managed? I suppose that's true enough, though you are the one doing the managing not being managed, if you take my meaning."
"No, Xucoatl, I fear I do not." Truly, he was very glib and witty, but also the most confounding of personalities.
"Fear? You'll have it, that's for certain. Fear's a bad business, genteel, managing, not gentled Susan." He walked closer to her, so close she could see how fire burned under his very skin, yet did not consume him. In a whisper, he confided, "The trick is, gentle isn't weak. Everyone thinks it is, and isn't. Gentle is getting your way without anyone noticing it. A tide is gentle until you drown in it. A tree grows gently until its roots strangle you."
In that moment, Susan saw something ancient and knowing in his small, rimmed, round eye. Except in Aslan, she had never seen anything so old. What was this strange, magical creature?
"So again I ask, and this time, you answer, why are you here, Susan who is a flower and was a City, once, long, long ago? Susan who was falsely accused and saved by the lions who didn't roar? Why did you set the Dwarf and the big Horse on me to burn me out of my house?"
"I am sorry for that, Xucoatl. We can move you somewhere to your liking, if you wish. "
"There is a nice volcano on an island, far from here. I have a cousin out there. You have a cousin, too, and they have a lot in common. They would get along famously!"
There really was no answer to that. The Fire Salamander spoke with perfect clarity and no sense. But, chastened and not wishing to irritate him, though Xucoatl was the one who could not stay on topic, she brought the conversation back to her purpose. "In answer to why I came, good, excuse me, fine Fire Salamander, I am here for the Great Bonding. You are to give me my challenge."
"A challenge is it!" Xucoatl lashed his little tail from side to side. "I do love challenges! But don't you think you have enough of challenges, Susan who is a flower and was saved because the lions didn't roar?"
She did think there had been enough challenges. But that was not the point.
"The sixth challenge for the Great Bonding," she said firmly. "I must riddle with the Fire Salamander."
"Good at riddles are you? Teasers, tests and games? It is remarkable how many Humans can't think their way out of a tunnel with the light at the end of it. Always missing forest and trees." Xucoatl paused. "I'm mixing my metaphors, aren't I?"
"A little," Susan had to concede.
The Fire Salamander began pacing back and forth on his log. "Riddles. Riddles. Oh! Here's one!"
"In and out, like the tides, I go.
Past the jaws, I move to and fro.
If you lose me, find me fast,
Or else my loss will be your last.
What am I?"
Past the jaws? My loss will be your last? For one who had so recently almost drowned, this was no trial.
"You are Breath," Susan said.
"Very good Susan who swims! King Andrus never did get that one, but then he was thicker than his shield."
There was a murmur of cheer from the Narnians behind her and Edmund exclaimed, "Well done, Su!"
Xucoatl paced again along his burning log. The fire had not spread, nor did it seem to consume. The fire was as magical as the Salamander who lived within it.
"At night they come without being fetched,
And by day they are lost without being stolen."
"What are they?" Xucoatl asked.
Susan rocked back on her heels and thought about it. Something that appeared, disappeared, and reappeared, without actually disappearing? Which meant it might be something that was not perceived all the time? Something that comes only at night?
There was loud pop within the log and cinders flew up. Susan watched the sparks float and then turn to ash and fall.
Thank you, Aslan.
"They are Stars," Susan said. The cheers from behind her were louder this time. She heard the Wolves yip their approval.
"Getting restless, are they?" Xucoatl said, craning his neck for a look, though Susan thought he probably saw all without seeing. "Hmmm. One of those over there will know Stars, ere the end. You have wit, Bowed but not Gentled Susan. As bright as a Star, or well, not really, but certainly brighter than Queen Ariel. She was an idiot. You Humans are quite a mixed lot."
Xucoatl stalked – very odd to see in a Salamander but it was definitely a stalk – back into the fire and Susan wondered if maybe they were done. She shifted on her knees.
"Mmhw! No du!" Xucoatl said, coming back out from the fire with his mouth full of grub. "My apologies." He gulped and licked his face, tongue going nearly up to his eye. "Riddling is hungry work. Last one then?"
"In Spring I look gay,
Decked in comely array,
In Summer more clothing I wear;
When colder it grows,
I fling off my clothes,
And in winter quite naked appear."
Susan would quibble with calling it clothing, but the answer was plain enough to a Narnian. "A Tree!"
The cheer was loud and rang through the clearing.
"Thank you, Xucoatl," Susan said, bowing to the Fire Salamander.
"You there!" Xucoatl called suddenly and loudly. "There's another Human here. Show yourself!"
Edmund hurried forward and bowed to the Fire Salamander. "Hello, Good Sir. I am Edmund…"
"Why do you all call me Good and Sir?" Xucoatl hissed angrily. "When you see me again, Just Edmund, I will eat the whole world and don't you forget it!"
"I shall not," Edmund said very earnestly.
"You won't see it, Black-eyed Susan. Pity. My finest hour, and all that."
Susan glanced at Edmund, wondering if he heard the curious turn of phrase and inflection as well. Xucoatl, for a moment, sounded exactly as Prime Minister Churchill.
"But, Susan Hornblower, never fear. You will come eventually, though it will be by the longer road." With a harrumph, Xucoatl turned his back on them and began marching into the flames of his log. "It never does go smooth, Susan Pevensie who is Gentle and not Gentled. But that's not always a bad thing. Remember that."
"Xucoatl!" Susan called. "Shouldn't we put out the fire? Shall we move you?"
But the fires had already begun to sputter and die. There was the sound of something rooting into the embers of the burning log, and then it all went black and silent.
When he saw Susan and Edmund return home, triumphant from her riddling, Peter wished that he had remembered to bathe. And to have assured that Lucy had bathed before Mrs. Beaver had put her to bed, deliriously happy and covered in mortar. And he probably should not have had those celebratory drinks with the Dwarfs. And he really should also have done something about the wagers the Dwarfs and Crows were laying down on how the challenges would be completed. But due to his own exceptional competence at bricklaying and nestbuilding, Ruchabrik, the Dwarf who had won the wager, had been a frightfully good sport and broken out a skin of Lightning.
So they were all out on the grass, in their cups, so to speak, and Peter was (still) absolutely filthy when Susan appeared. Everyone scrambled to their feet and there were lots of awkward, teetering bows. One of the Satyrs fell over in a heap at the roots of a giggling Holly Dryad– Holliesdid not manage their liquor well.
"Well, Brother?" Susan asked, eyes flashing and foot tapping. "I was brilliant and you are drunk?" Edmund was edging around her, trying to blend in with the Dwarfs. Peter saw one of the Dwarfs slip his brother a cup.
Peter would have liked to throw a congratulatory arm around Susan. He was feeling very celebratory, but thought Susan would not appreciate the mortar, straw, dung, and mud that he was still covered in. So, best to salvage what dignity he could. "I'll have you know, my Sister, that I only had to rebuild the wall three times before Master Alfisk and Mr. and Mrs. Beaver approved it! No Monarch has done so well in the building challenge since King Amon the Second."
"Third," Mr. Beaver said with a belch. He had been putting away some sort of wood alcohol that Beavers were very fond of. "King Amon the Second couldn't have found a cornerstone if it fell on his head."
King Amon the Second and the Third had both died over 400 years ago. When the Beasts said they remembered, they really remembered.
"Fine job on the nest!" Sallowpad the Raven croaked from the branches of the tipsy Holly.
"I used dung to hold it together!" Peter exulted. Though Susan could probably smell that. And he'd leave out of the description of how he'd managed it with no hands.
"May we pour you a drink to wash away the dust of your journey, your Majesty?" Ruchabrik asked.
"No thank you," Susan said stiffly, mouth twitching.
Peter raised his glass. "To the Queen Susan who matched wits with the Fire Salamander!"
The cheer was so loud, it hurt his ears. And his head. He was going to regret this in the morning.
Susan threw up her hands and turned around to avoid breaking into peals of laughter which would have completely undermined her attempts at severity.
"Master Cloudstrike!" he heard Susan say. "I think the eighth challenge should begin for the High King first thing tomorrow."
The story concludes in Chapter 2 to be posted shortly. Note that Chapter 2 contains the rituals described here, specifically a smoke ritual that involves hallucinogenic visions, a walk with the goddesses, and the Revel. The rating remains T but the content is more mature.