I love not man the less but nature more
Chapter 2

ooOOoo

The following chapter includes discussion of and participation in the rituals already discussed in Chapter 1. The rating remains T but the content is more mature.

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.

ooOOoo

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

00ooOO

Fortunately, the Centaurs' Smoke Ritual, the eighth challenge, did not begin until sunset the next day. By then, Peter had slept off the worse of the Lightning, rid himself of the pervasive odours of mud, dung, and straw, and eaten so much that Lucy wondered if he was feeding Loukas under the table.

Cloudstrike and Fidria arrived to escort him to the Centaur Cave as the Sun was setting.

Peter had never been to this very private place before. He was asked to remove his boots and all other leathers and metal. No weapons were permitted. It felt strange to remove his signet ring. He had never worn any jewelry before Narnia and had not thought he would be so accustomed to it by now.

The walls of the Cave were blackened with smoke and char. The feel was much like the Stone Table, ancient and hallowed. Peter stepped very quietly and followed Cloudstrike and Fidria across the sandy floor, deeper into the cave. It was huge, and it would have to be, to accommodate a Human and the seven Centaurs who would participate in the ritual.

In the middle of a great open space was a ring of stones. Peter could feel the heat from them and supposed there was a smoldering fire beneath the rocks. The other five Centaurs had already gathered around the ring. It was very dim, for there was no light, save the dusk that filtered in from the Cave's entrance.

"You will sit there, Sire," Fidria said, pointing to a large, flat slab of rock.

"I could stand if you will," Peter offered.

"It is better for you to sit," Cloudstrike said. "The Smoke affects Humans in unpredictable ways."

Peter thought that sounded ominous. He walked around the ring of stones, greeting the other Centaurs with the same grave courtesy they afforded him. He then climbed up on to the slab. It was high enough that he was at withers-level of the Centaurs.

There was no obvious signal for when to begin. Cloudstrike took an enormous wineskin, surely the size of a whole buck, and held it high.

"With this, we pierce the veils between the Worlds," the Centaurs all said in unison.

This part of the Smoke Ritual, Peter had memorized and he joined them as they chanted,

"Open our eyes that we might see."

"Open our ears that we might hear."

"Open our minds that we might know."

"Open our hearts that we might feel."

Cloudstrike drank deeply from the skin. He then passed it to the Centaur on his right, and began stomping a hoof, slowly and rhythmically. The Centaur drank, passed the skin and then joined Cloudstrike in the hoofbeats. One by one, the others joined them. The last, Fidria, passed the skin to Peter.

He lifted the skin to his lips and took a cautionary taste. It was wine, but strongly flavored with herbs and something else he could not identify. At Fidria's disapproving look, he took several deep draughts and felt his mouth and throat numb. The wineskin slid from his hands to the ground.

Thump Thump Thump. The Centaurs' hooves sounded a steady, monotonous beat. The vibrations traveled through the cave floor, up the rock, and Peter felt each stomp in his legs and back, in his gut, in his ears. Dust began to float through the Cave, stirred up from the hooves beating the floor and drifting down from above, shaken loose from the ceiling by the force of the sound.

The dust danced in whirls and whorls and formed little funnels and devils. The motes of dust cast off strange, iridescent colours of red, gold, blue, and silver. Peter stared at the beautiful things, mesmerized by their dance.

The Centaurs caught the dust in their hands. They cupped the dust, stirred it, and then cast it onto the hot stones in the ring. The dust settled on the rocks and began to smoke. The smoke rolled out from the fire, thin at first, and as the Centaurs added more dust, heavier, and thicker until it became a heavy, white fog. A scent of sweet flowers rose in the room as the smoke spread and gently rippled through the Cave like tall grass.

Thump Thump Thump

Sound faded. Nothing moved except the smoke cresting and rolling through the Cave. It curled into strange, fantastic shapes, spires and spirals, Beasts and Beings, ships and cities. Peter watched the age of a world pass by, then end, and then begin again.

Out of the fog came a white deer, a stag. The deer cut through the smoke like a sharp blade. The smoke swirled around his legs and twined about his pronged antlers.

Come. Follow me.

Peter climbed down from the rock and followed the stag.

He saw great ships and small ones, ports and cities, hunting parties and armies. He saw giants and pirates, deaths and births, fire and rain, celebrations and funerals. He saw Lucy, Edmund, and Susan, older and younger, gay and weeping, beautiful and despairing, dancing and embattled. He saw Lucy with a bow, wearing bright chain mail, Edmund on a ship in Narrowhaven, Susan galloping away on her mare, her hair streaming behind her.

He heard laughter and turned around to see children run by. They were balling up the white smoke and throwing it at one another in a game. They shouted and romped with Wolves, Dogs, Satyrs, and Great Cats. They were Narnian children, he knew, and his own blood. Ours. Our future. Narnia is well; Aslan's charge is fulfilled. Peter felt a burden lift.

Peter saw Narnians and a few men and women. Some Narnians he recognized, most he did not. There was a sad woman with the dark hair and skin of Calormen and the Islands of the Eastern Sea and a tall, broad, blonde man, of Archenland, he thought. Were they King and Queen? He did not see his brother and sisters. Where did they go? Where are we? Why are we not here?

Come. Follow me. Peter turned away and followed the white stag.

They walked among a terrible, faceless army that was marching through the fog. The soldiers bore a silver star rising on blue. Peter dreaded it, hated it, but did not fear it. They beat their blue shields with the silver star and it was a steady pounding, like Centaur hooves on a cave floor.

Thump Thump Thump.

There was a Narnian King in the fog. Peter knew he was Narnian even though his dress and look were like that of the blue and silver army. Rhindon was at the King's side and the sword would serve only Aslan and a rightful Monarch of Narnia. Peter saw his own legacy and he was content.

Come. Follow me. Peter turned away and followed the white stag.

A green ship with a purple sail and a dragon prow came out of the fog and sailed by him. But then the ship flattened, turned scaly, and became a poisonous green worm. The white smoke rose up and smothered her. Peter felt the thrashing of the worm's death throes. Thump Thump Thump.

Come. Follow me. Peter turned away and followed the white stag.

He stood at a wooden door and watched stars fall from the sky. They came down as terrible streaks of burning silver and spears of white-hot metal. They plummeted to the ground and burnt the grass. The worm returned, now with her dragon kin, and they began to eat the land of Narnia. The terrible lizards consumed the rocks and trees, and grass, and turned what was beautiful to waste.

Peter reached for a weapon so that he might kill them and saw Edmund and Lucy; Lucy was weeping. Edmund and Lucy were here, beside him, as it should be. But where was Susan?

Susan? he called into the fog. Where are you? Where was his sister? She should be here. The Four should be together.

Come. Follow me.

"No," Peter told the white stag. "I must find Susan."

Then the Sun died.

ooOOoo

Lucy had spent the last two nights sleeping in the overstuffed chair in Peter's room and waking whenever his ravings turned loud or when he threw off his covers in a fit.

A faint bump at the door brought her to her feet.

"Lucy?"

She hurried to open the door and let Susan in.

"Good morning!"

Her sister was carrying a wooden tray with tea and breakfast. Lucy quickly cleared off the table in Peter's room. Her lessons (it was only spelling so she hadn't been planning on doing it at all) got swept on to the floor. Breakfast was far more important.

"How is he?" Susan asked, setting the tray down and immediately going to Peter's bedside.

Lucy poured the tea. It smelt wonderful, all nicely spicy and orange, and was a beautiful colour.

"Much better. He doesn't feel so cold and clammy and he's ranting less about No! No! I won't leave! and I have to find Susan!"

"Cloudstrike said it would be about three days," Susan said, putting a hand on Peter's forehead. "So, we should be seeing an improvement. He does seem better."

Lucy held up a cup for her sister, just as she liked it, a little bit of milk and an even smaller bit of sugar. "Sit down. I've been here with him all night and you look like you haven't slept at all."

Susan tucked the covers a little closer around Peter who mumbled something about fog and dragons. She then crossed back to the table and took the tea. "Thank you, Lucy. This has been quite the trial."

Lucy nodded and sipped her tea. The lake challenge had been horrid for her. She had been terrified, when it finally came to it, that Susan would die. It had been frightening when the Centaurs had brought Peter back, freezing and raving. But everyone had said it was an after-effect of the Centaur herbs, that it would pass, and there was always her cordial if things got really bad, and they hadn't. His improvement had been steady. Peter was sick and getting better, not dying, and after a year in Narnia, she could tell the difference between the two.

"So, what's left?" Lucy asked, sorting through the bread for a piece that was buttered just right without too many seeds.

"There are two final challenges. Peter will go to the Revel with the Narnians of the Wood, with the Dryads, Fauns, and Satyrs."

Lucy could tell that this discussion made Susan feel awkward. She was starting to guess what might be involved if the Revel was anything like what Satyrs did normally. Well, what was normal for a Satyr, at least. Or a Faun, for that matter. And the Dryads didn't care who they pollinated with, or what.

"And yours? When is your final challenge?" They had been uncertain about this one and the Narnians had been vague. It seemed to involve fruit, a silver chalice, water, a knife, and a white horse.

"I'm told I have to wait," Susan said in that voice that said that you weren't supposed to ask any more questions. Which meant Lucy always did.

"What do you have to wait for?"

"Another few days," Susan whispered.

"For what? Why?"

Susan pinked up then whispered even more softly. "For that time to come."

"What time?"

"That time."

"Oooh! That time!" Lucy exclaimed, finally understanding Susan's embarrassment. This was very curious. Why would Susan's monthly matter? "I wonder why?"

"I don't know," Susan said, still whispering. "It has something to do with the ritual."

Lucy had not been looking forward to this particular part of growing up at all but she was not the least surprised that Narnians, with all this mating business going on, would think of something fun or worthwhile to do with it all. "I think this sounds very exciting, Susan! It might make it worth all the unpleasantness!"

Susan shook her head, but at least she was smiling. "Lucy, how can you be so very Narnian, so soon?"

There was a loud groan but it wasn't fevered raving. It was the sound of someone waking up with a very, very bad headache.

Susan set her teacup down carefully; Lucy sloshed hers on her spelling exercises in her haste to get over to Peter.

Peter was sitting up, looking pale and a little ill, but quite whole and certainly on the mend. He was blinking, looking a lot like the Owls did when woken too soon. "Lu?"

"Yes, Peter, it's me. Susan's here, too." Lucy carefully sat at the edge of his bed and took his hand. It wasn't freezing anymore.

"Susan?" There was a strange, plaintive quality in his voice.

"I'm right here," Susan said. "How are you feeling?"

Peter rubbed his eyes, ran a hand through his matted hair, and stared at Susan. "Why am I surprised you are here?"

"We don't know, Peter," Lucy told him.

He leaned back in his bed and closed his eyes. "Why am I here? Last I remember…"

They waited as Peter tried to fill in the gaps. "I was going to the Centaur Smoke Ritual," he finally said.

"You were there the whole night, Peter. They brought you back in the morning, two days ago," Lucy told him.

"Two days?"

"Do you remember anything?" Susan asked.

"I remember we drank from the largest wineskin I had ever seen and there was a lot of pounding." He touched his head and winced. "Which I can still hear. And then there was smoke."

Susan put her hand to his forehead, but Peter brushed it off. "There's nothing wrong with me, other than that I am starving, that the worst headache I ever had with Lightning is nothing to what I have now, and that I am never drinking or smoking with Centaurs again."

ooOOoo

Once Peter had finally woken up from Centaur Smoke ritual, he was on his feet within a day. Edmund kept to himself that the whole thing had sounded a lot like the opium dens described in some of his mystery stories, or that 7% solution of narcotic that some detective had used to "open his mind." He could only remember the odd details from those stories now.

The first time he'd thought about this was when they had seen two Fauns – and like Satyrs, they had only seen males – dancing and kissing. Edmund had tried to remember why this was supposed to be wrong. Peter had just said curtly that their school's hypocrisy notwithstanding, it was a crime in England.

So what would have been crimes in England were common in Narnia, at least for the Centaurs, Fauns and Satyrs.

Edmund had tried to discuss it with Merle, but the Boarhound was better for company than conversation.

"What does illegal mean?" the Hound asked, lifting his slobbery nose up to track a Gull screeching at the interlopers on her beach. They were both covered in sand.

"Forbidden. You can't do it. "

"Who says you can't? Is it like Cook saying she'll cut your tail off if you take food from the kitchen?"

"Of a sort." Edmund tossed a flat rock across the water. He could still only manage two skips. Peter could get four. "It's the police who say you can't. Or a judge. It's written in laws."

When Merle gave him a blanker-even-than-usual expression, Edmund tried again. "The King says you can't."

"Oh." Merle put his nose down again to root around in the seaweed. Edmund would have to get him into the bathing pond before they went to bed or he'd hear about it from the housekeepers who tidied his room.

"Why?" Merle asked.

"What do you mean?"

"Why would the King care what Fauns do?"

Edmund threw another rock and got three skips. "I don't know."

Merle found a rock and dropped it at his feet. It was too big and round for skipping, but he always tried to be helpful. To make him happy, Edmund picked up the slobbered on stone and hurled it into the bay. He saw a shimmer of silver scales and the tips of a flat tail and knew the Mer-people were probably playing with the rocks. Mer-people didn't wear swimming costumes, either.

"And why's the Smoke Ritual illegal?" Merle asked, being Hound-like and not letting the matter go. "The Centaurs have been doing it forever. The High King wanted to do it. We wanted him to do it. So why would you stop it?"

Edmund did not have a good answer to that, either, and decided they were really just bad questions.

ooOOoo

"Susan?"

Lucy knocked quietly on her sister's door. There was a long pause and then the door suddenly opened. Susan looked pale and pretty in her simple gown and very worried.

"I brought some flowers," Lucy said, holding up her basket. "I picked them today so they are only a little wilted. Can I braid them in your hair?"

Susan looked like she wanted to say "Please leave me alone, now," but instead she nodded. "Thank you, Lucy. That would be lovely."

Susan sat at her vanity and Lucy plaited some daisies and cornflowers into Susan's dark hair. Peter had said that the Centaurs did not permit any metal or leather during their ritual; the goddesses had similar requests, so she let the weight of Susan's hair and the flowers' long stems hold them in place. It would be best to not start things by having to undo a complicated hair style with pins and ties. Lucy thought the goddesses would be happy that Susan's younger sister had done this for her. Surely, goddesses understood sisters.

So Lucy kept it simple, though it took longer than it should because she could feel Susan relaxing as she stroked and braided her hair and hummed a little tune the Dryads had taught her.

Lucy tucked a coneflower behind Susan's ear and stuck a few of the extra daisies in her own hair. They would not stay long, but she wanted them there.

"Are you ready?" Lucy asked.

Susan nodded. "I suppose."

Lucy took the silver bowl from Susan's vanity that Tiresias had given them. She could not imagine from where the blind Mole had obtained such a beautiful thing.

"And you have your dagger?" Susan asked.

"Of course." It was strapped to her hip. Lucy had been glad that she and her dagger had played such an important part in the Great Bonding rituals. It made her feel even more that she was part of it all.

They walked together through the Palace. Lucy did not know where Peter and Edmund were – Susan had probably demanded that they lock themselves in the Library. Out of deference to the ritual, the Carnivores were also scarce. The Hunts had been for the predators. The challenge tonight was for the prey, the browsers, the grazers, and the foragers. At every turn Lucy caught glimpses of or heard the scurrying of tiny claws – the Mice, Rats, Moles, Voles, and other small Beasts. They were following the Queen who would walk with their goddesses.

She and Susan went first to the Palace well. The bucket sloshed loudly as Lucy tossed it down. Together, they carefully hauled the bucket back up. Susan filled the silver bowl.

"You had better carry the bowl, Susan," Lucy said. "I'll probably spill it."

They left the Palace grounds altogether, out of the carefully tended gardens and into the orchards. The flowers on the fruit trees had mostly fallen so they were walking on a carpet of blossoms. Where the orchards ended, the fields began, and it was here, at the meeting of the two that they waited.

Susan nudged her. "There," her sister whispered.

A figure in the shape of a woman wove through the orchard, walking slowly, stroking the trunks of the trees. These fruit trees were not Dryads but still the trees swayed and bowed at her touch. Lucy could feel something in the air and knew it had to be the presence of Pomona and her magic. It was a little like what she felt with Aslan, but different. Aslan's magic was exciting and very strong and quite took your breath away. The goddess' magic was tingling and fresh. She was as dark as rich, tilled earth and very graceful, her bare skin glowing in the night. Birds and Talking Beasts followed her, not with the sort of wild joy they showed around Aslan, but something quietly reverent. She was the goddess of the fruits and seeds they ate and the trees in which they sheltered and with her blessings their pups and chicks were created and born.

Susan curtsied, Lucy with her. She would run up and embrace Aslan – Lucy did not feel that she could do that to the goddess Pomona without a proper introduction.

"Good evening my sisters," Pomona said. She took Susan's hands, helped her rise, and kissed her forehead. "Susan, thank you for inviting me to your side."

"You are always welcome here, Lady," Susan said.

Lucy bounced up to her feet. "Thank you so much for coming!"

Pomona laughed and it sounded rich and musical. The cherry tree under which they were standing swayed with the sound, though there was no wind.

"And it is a delight to see you, Lucy. In the long history of the Great Bonding, it is especially joyous when sisters share this night with me and my sister."

Lucy craned her neck, looking about into the fields, hoping for a peek.

"Epona is not come yet. My sister gives us time together, first." Pomona said. "Are you ready, Susan?"

"Yes, Lady." Susan gestured to her laces. "Lucy?"

Lucy again helped Susan undress. It was, Tiresias had explained, disrespectful to wear woven cloth or animal products when walking with the goddesses – literally wearing what was under their protection. Susan did not shiver like she had at the lake, but she could tell Susan was very nervous as she stepped out of her gown. Lucy set Susan's dress by the cherry tree and picked up the silver bowl. She only sloshed the water a little.

There was a long silence that became awkward as the goddess looked steadily at Susan. "My sister, why do you fear?" Pomona asked. The goddess placed her hand at Susan's cheek. "Have you been ill-treated?"

"No, Lady!" Susan said quickly. "I am…" her voice hitched a little then she bravely went on, "I am unsure and ashamed. This is not how things are done where we are from."

Lucy didn't really see why this mattered, but she remembered enough to understand the roots of Susan's reluctance. Swimming was one thing, but this was hard for the girl Susan had been – to walk around outside even in the dark without any clothes on and the monthly besides.

"But this is how it is in Narnia," Pomona said, gently but firmly too. "And it is how it once was even in the world from which you came. Men and women, Kings and Queens, would pay homage to me. They would run through my lands in the Spring, bringing water and sharing love and blood or seed." The goddess stroked Susan's hair. When she touched the daisies Lucy had put there, the flowers blossomed anew. "I will not walk this good land bestowing blessings with one who is unwilling. If you do not wish to do so, you have only to say it."

"I swam with the Naiads, hunted with the Pack, and riddled with the Fire Salamander," Susan countered, sounding proud and a little fierce.

"And beautifully and bravely done, my Queen," Pomona said. "But this requires something else, something you do not control or manage. This is about the life we give to Narnia, and the life Narnia gives to us."

The goddess gently touched the Queen in ways that Lucy knew weren't the sorts of things you were supposed to do in England in the middle of a field with another girl. Lucy knew that Mum and Father would be shocked and she could imagine what their old vicar would have said. Lucy didn't care. She could not believe that anything as lovely as the goddess and Susan together under the boughs of a cherry tree and the light of the Moon was wrong.

"It has been a very long time since I shared this with a sister," Pomona said. "Will you walk with me, Queen Susan?"

For answer, Susan sighed and let herself be drawn into the embrace of the goddess.

"I am ready, Lady," Susan said and Pomona kissed her.

Lucy gave the silver bowl to Pomona and then unsheathed her dagger and handed it carefully to Susan.

"May I watch, Lady?" Lucy asked. "And wait for your sister and for mine?"

"You may, Lucy." Pomona set a hand on the trunk of the cherry tree, who obligingly dipped her branches low. "You shall see the better if in this good tree. I think it is a perch agreeable to you?"

"Oh yes, Lady! Thank you!" To the tree, even if she wasn't a Dryad, Lucy said, "Thank you for letting me enjoy your branches." She climbed up, felt herself being lifted and settled, and knew she would not fall.

Lucy watched as the Queen walked with the goddess. The Queen dipped the knife in the silver bowl the goddess held and sprinkled the water all over the trees and the fields. It was dark but the goddess' light shined so brightly she could see them easily. Beasts followed behind them in a solemn procession and Lucy could see their dark shapes and their green and yellow glowing eyes. The trees bowed and accepted the blessings of fruit, health, and plenty.

They stopped in the meadow and Pomona raised her arms and Lucy felt a tremor of excitement shudder through the earth. The goddess was welcoming another type of magic that was faster and wilder than her own. There was a thrum of hoofbeats, the distant neighing of excited horses, and then the glistening White Mare, Epona, emerged from the wood on the far side of the meadow.

Epona strode across the field to greet her sister and the Queen and it seemed that she walked in a field of glittering Stars. Narnian Horses circled the edges of the meadow, tossing their heads and doing homage to their goddess protector. The other hoofed Beasts who followed the herds, - Deer, Goats, Sheep, and others – also came and joined in the homage of the Horses to Epona.

Pomona wrapped her arms around the White Mare and embraced her goddess-sister. Lucy could not hear them, but saw Susan bow low. The White Mare and the Queen then set off into the meadow. Epona trotted through the field and Susan ran alongside her. The two of them played. They darted about, doing circles around one another in a game of tag. It was simple and wonderful. Lucy heard Susan's delighted laughter and the snorts and stomps of approval from the watching Beasts as the goddess and the Queen blessed the grasslands of Narnia.

Lucy could have watched her sister and the goddesses forever. But she started yawning and while she didn't think the tree would let her fall, she wasn't sure she could stay awake, either.

Epona stopped and let Susan catch her. The two of them walked together toward the orchard. Susan had her arm now around the White Mare's neck. Where orchard and grass met, Susan embraced and kissed Pomona and stroked Epona's offered head. Lucy slid out of the tree and dropped to the ground. She quickly gathered up Susan's gown and ran to join them, stepping a little on her dress and Susan's, and hoping she didn't tear them.

"Thank you, ladies, for coming and for your blessings on Narnia!" Lucy cried. Pomona laughed and Epona inclined her head and pawed the grass.

She stood with Susan and they waved good-bye as the radiant sisters who cast their own light crossed the meadow together and disappeared into the woods. Next to her, Susan shivered a little.

"Here, Susan, you'll catch your death otherwise," Lucy said, and helped her back into the gown – she was pretty sure there was a tear in it.

"You sound as I do, Lucy," Susan said with a laugh. "And thank you so much for being here!" Susan gave her a quick, strong hug. "Let's not bother with the laces!"

They collected the bowl and Lucy returned the dagger to her hip. Arm in arm, they walked back to the Palace. It took a long time because so many of the Beasts crept out from under bushes and out of trees and Trees to greet and thank them. Susan was disheveled, hot, and breathing hard. All the flowers were gone from her hair and she was limping a little. She had, after all, been romping barefoot and naked in an orchard and a meadow. It was impossible to imagine a Queen ever more beautiful, or happier, or more Narnian.

ooOOoo

Edmund knew he wasn't especially sensitive to things, not the way Lucy just knew things, or Susan. Even Peter was better, though he could be awfully thick sometimes. It was partly why Edmund had let himself be tricked by the Witch. He'd been a right ass about it all, but he should have been more suspicious and paid closer attention to what really had made no sense. So it was embarrassing but not surprising when Merle said, while chasing dumb rabbits, that the reason why tea that afternoon had been so odd was because Peter was nervous about the Revel and Susan was making it worse.

Once Merle said it, Edmund understood what was going on and decided he'd better go find Peter. It took a little while because Merle always got distracted by things. Once they finally entered the Palace, it was easy enough because all he had to do was follow the sounds of Peter bellowing at Susan to leave him alone.

They found Susan first. She was standing outside Peter's office with her hands fisted into tight balls.

"Edmund! What are you doing here?"

He decided to ignore the patronizing tone. She was trying to help Peter and it wasn't what either of them really wanted. "I was going to talk to Peter about the challenge tonight."

"He doesn't want to talk to anyone about it!" she snapped.

"No, he doesn't want to talk to you about it. I would feel the same way." Edmund countered. "Just like when you went out to meet the goddesses, and you wanted Lucy, not me or Peter."

She stared at him, seeing that her arguments that he did not understand, could not understand, was not old enough to understand, were pointless. Susan sagged and conceded miserable defeat. "I didn't want…"

Susan didn't finish and let out a deep sigh. "I am sorry, Edmund. You are right, and I should not try to keep things from you."

"No, you shouldn't, but I understand why you try."

She hugged him. "Thank you." She gave one more look at Peter's shut door. "I will find Lucy and we will make ourselves scarce, as you and Peter did for me."

"That's a good idea, Susan."

He waited until Susan was well away before knocking.

"Leave me alone, Susan!"

Edmund shoved open the door. "Does that mean I can come in?"

Peter looked up from his desk. He tried to quickly close the Regalia in front of him.

"No need for that," Edmund said, strolling in and taking the rare opportunity to claim the lounger since Peter wasn't in it. Peter's desk chair was the most uncomfortable in Cair Paravel. "I've read the whole of the Regalia, seen all the pictures, and read accounts of the Revel some of the Kings and Queens have written." He'd found those last week in the Library and they had been fascinating.

Several different expressions and colours moved through Peter's face. He finally just shook his head. "Make yourself comfortable, Ed."

"I shall." Edmund put his feet up on the lounger, leaned back and laced his fingers behind his head.

"So others have written about what happens at the Revel?"

"Yes," Edmund said. "And a word of advice. Don't write anything personal down unless you really don't mind someone rifling through it in a couple hundred years."

"I will try to restrain myself." Peter was in fact a terrible correspondent. He probably did want to talk and Edmund would wait until he did and say nothing if he didn't.

"About the Revel, you are not…" Peter hesitated, obviously grouping for the words and reassurance. "Concerned?"

"No," Edmund told him firmly. "I was concerned about you in the egg and Susan's swim. I worried about what would happen if you couldn't manage to build a nest or a wall, or if Susan missed a riddle. At some point, I'll be wildly envious of you going to the Revel, but I'll spare you my whinging about the unfairness of age for now."

Peter laughed, which was a step in the right direction toward getting him out of the Palace and on his way to the Wood.

But instead of heading for the door, it turned quiet. Peter was fingering the pages of the book. Edmund stared at the stone ceiling.

"You said before, when we first talked about the Great Bonding, that the rules are different here, that our Human rules don't always apply."

"Yes," Edmund replied. "After experiencing these challenges, even as only an observer, I feel that even more strongly."

"But which rules? Which ones do we keep? Which do we discard?" Peter opened the book again and Edmund did not need to peek to know which illustration his brother was studying, again. "I keep thinking of the stories of the missionaries in Africa trying to convert heathens."

Edmund snorted and Peter frowned. "Don't mock me, Ed. The comparisons are making me very uncomfortable."

"Because you never considered how wrong-headed such things might be?" Edmund challenged. He had to credit Peter. He had been thinking about opium dens; Peter was worrying about colonials in an Empire. "What would you convert the Narnians to, Peter? Victorian English ladies and country squires?" Edmund picked up a discarded pillow and threw it at his brother. Peter ducked and the pillow went sailing across the room and knocked over a pile of maps. "You're High King. Why don't you pass a decency law to keep the Fauns from kissing and tell the Dryads to cover up?"

Peter smiled, but grimly. "I could order the Cats to stop yowling and eat only grass. And prevent the Songbirds from singing of how wonderful they all are in the pre-dawn so we can have a lie in."

"Please do so," Edmund implored. "And the Dwarfs constantly fiddling with every broken kettle is downright annoying. Also, I find the Otters' language most offensive."

They both laughed. The salty language of the some of the Narnians had been shocking. Who would have thought Gulls, Hummingbirds and Otters to be so abusively profane?

"I know, put that way it all sounds absurd." Peter stared again at the page and there was a long pause. "Narnians are not savage beasts to be tamed or civilised. But how far do we go, Edmund?"

"I don't know. I do know that this is very important to them and that it is bringing us all closer to the Narnians we rule. You spoke to Aslan, didn't you?"

"Yes. He told me that it was my choice."

Edmund rolled up to sit. He reached across and put a hand on his brother's shoulder. "And that's really it, Peter. It is your decision and no one else's. Do you want to take your place alongside every Monarch since Frank and Helen who has done this or something very like it for hundreds and hundreds of years? Do you want to show your commitment, show your love, and let the Narnians show their love for you? Or…"

"Or what?"

"Or try to deny what we are now and are becoming and try to hold on to what we were. I, for one, have no intention of doing that, ever."

Peter slowly turned to face him and Edmund felt the doubts clear. "I want to do this," Peter finally said.

"Then what are you waiting for? The Wood and your subjects await you, High King. Go."

ooOOoo

Peter left the Palace, alone and committed. It was time. Tiresias had not said how he would find the Revel, only that he would. Yesterday, Peter doubted it. Tonight, as soon as he stepped on to the lawns, Peter heard a distant fluting, strange and wild. He heard his name in the call, felt the pull in his blood, and followed it.

It seemed as though he walked a very long way on grass that was cool and soft on his bare feet. The Trees opened a beckoning path that he took deeper into the Wood. The path rose up a hill; Peter climbed it and found what had summoned him. In the dell below there was a brilliant bonfire and around it, dancing to the music of pounding drum and wailing reeds, his people gathered, the Beings of the wild Wood, the Dryads, Satyrs and Fauns.

He had wondered what his reception would be – a King among Revelers? That was not what he sought, for that he already had. He wanted what the Regalia had promised – to be one with them. The boisterous cheer as he jogged down the slope to the Revel eased that worry.

Peter waded into a throng of dancers that broke and flowed over him. A flirty Birch Dryad tossed her silver hair, a red-faced Faun smiled, and they and others embraced him, touched him, stroked his skin, kissed him, on the cheeks, and then lips. He tasted hearty Oak, sweet Maple, and fragrant Laurel; a Faun's kiss was woodsy and delicate; the Satyr was warm and rough. As the Revelers came, welcomed him, and then slipped away, his shirt slid off with them. The trousers were more difficult but with good humor and laughter, they joined the shirt in a pile. He hoped he would be able to find them at the end.

Peter ducked his head to receive a tangled crown of leaves and a long kiss from a graceful Beech girl. She eagerly twined her limbs about him and her brown skin was smooth under his fingers. Her trunk rose to meet his eager hands, and she felt as he hoped a woman would and even better. With a teasing laugh and a promise of soon and later, she rustled away from his grasp, like leaves in the breeze to join the dance.

A Faun, his own face a mask of red and black paint, stepped into the Dryad's place. With his fingers, the Faun gently painted a landscape on Peter's own skin. He smoothed whorls of red and black on Peter's arms, back, and down his legs and in the firelight, the swirls seem to move in time with the dancers. A parting kiss and the Faun, too, slipped away, and a smiling Satyr handed Peter a wooden cup.

Peter sipped the cup carefully and found the wine sticky and a little sweet, but not cloying. Peter worried that it would be wit-fogging, as the Centaur wine was, or dulling, as Lightning. It was not. It lit a fire in his blood as hot as the one around which they danced. It made him feel alive and sharply aware of every glinting horn and hoof, of the silvery sheen on the dancing Birch, and of the bright berries adorning the laughing Hollies.

Peter drained the cup and handed it back to the Satyr. The Satyr's hands lingered on his, shy and tentative. Peter realized his skin must feel different for his was soft and not covered in thick, coarse hair or bark. He was a stranger in their midst, a Human guest and foreigner, though painted and clad as those of the Wood. They were curious. Peter smiled, took the Satyr's hand and placed it on his cheek.

The Satyr's shy smile became a full grin and his touch, bolder. This, too, the Regalia had promised and Peter embraced the Satyr as he had the Beech, enjoying now the strength of arms and a muscled back. The Satyr's nails tickled as he stroked Peter's neck, face and chest. Peter mimicked the touch, tracing the red and black whorls on the Satyr's body that matched his own new tattoos. When he reached up to stroke the curving horns, the Satyr sighed deeply, grabbed Peter firmly and kissed him soundly. Peter tasted the wine in their mingled breath.

There was more laughter and Peter was whirled into the arms of a willowy Ash. The Ash led him to the bonfire's edge and, with the Satyrs and Fauns, they all joined in the great Dryad dance. Their feet and hooves pounded the forgiving ground of Narnia. They twirled, came together, and parted, again and again. Arms and limbs were raised to the Stars, unless they found another body to caress. Together, they danced, for beautiful Narnia, for the Spring that had come, and the life that would be honoured and made that night.

The dance spiraled wilder and faster. Peter again tasted wine and wood, he stroked the coarse hair and sinewy boughs around him, relished the touch of others, and the drums beat as fast as his heart. When he thought he could stand no more, that surely he would burst with joy and desire, the music, slowed to a steady, martial beat.

"To War!" a hale Oak cried.

Peter felt a surge of confusion and concern– a battle, here? But, everyone was laughing, and he was handled and pulled this way and that. He saw that two lines were forming up and the purpose became clear.

The Evergreens ranged on one side – Holly, Laurel, Hemlock, Spruce, and Cedar. On the other side, the leafy Trees who were bare in Winter – Oak, Maple, Beech, Birch, and Ash. The Satyrs and Fauns took whatever side was closest to their partner. The Dryads were shaping their limbs into cudgels. Peter caught a heavy staff a Satyr tossed him and hefted it in his hands.

The calls of "To War!" on the Evergreen side were muted by giggling Hollies. They really were terrible about their wine. Peter thought to join the Evergreen ranks as they were thinner, but eager hands held him back. "In the Autumn, you may join them," the Beech Dryad whispered. "You are ours tonight."

"I am yours," Peter said, suddenly worried she would laugh at his earnest sentiment, but she smiled and he tasted sweet Beech again. The timing was ill, unfortunately, because then they both had to raise staffs to ward off the blow of a strapping Laurel.

The battle of the Trees began in earnest. The hard cracks of wood against wood rang through the dell, and drowned out even the drums and the laughter. Peter battled with Laurel and Holly. The Leafy Trees advanced and the Evergreens, in a choreographed dance, ceded the ground to their brothers and sisters.

There was a shout as the staff of a Laurel shattered under the blow of a Maple. And as quickly as it began, the battle ended. The Evergreens all laid up their staffs and threw them into the bonfire. The Leafy Trees bowed and did the same. The fire rose, higher and hotter. Peter was seized upon. The Satyr took his hand, the Beech wrapped a limb around his waist, and the dance resumed.

They all gathered together again, closer than before, to rejoice in the victory of the greening Spring. The wine and the wild music heated his blood and skin. The night turned wild, as bark, flesh, and fur all pressed together and moved in glorious revel, no beginning, no end.

Finally exhausted, but not sated, Peter tumbled on to the cool grass, finding the Beech in his arms, the Satyr at his back, and others all around. Eager hands and lips explored leaves, coarse hair, and soft skin. Faces, chests, breasts, hips and horns were caressed, first gently, then insistently to meet ardent needs.

The Monarch had died and been born Narnian, had hunted and built as Narnians, and had shown the wit, skill, and cunning demanded of Narnians. Now, the Monarch discovered what it was to love and be loved as a Narnian, learning how to give pleasure and what was pleasurable. The Monarch heard Narnia's music, not just in her rivers and Birdsong, but also in the whispered sigh and impassioned cry. The rhythms of Narnia were not felt only in her seasons and tides, but also in the embrace of another. The Monarch was the sower and the reaper both, giving utterly, and taking gratefully.

ooOOoo

"Ed! Wake up!"

The Hound-smelling pillow moved and Edmund's head smacked on to hard stone – a sudden and cold return to the world.

"What?" Edmund asked, trying to not be annoyed at Merle for doing what he had asked him to do.

"Peter's coming back!"

Now that he saw his brother coming across the lawns in the early morning, Edmund wondered why he had thought that spending the night outside on the Palace steps had seemed necessary. It was obvious that all was well. Peter looked tired and wet – he'd probably stopped at the bathing pond before returning.

Edmund wondered if he was expecting his brother to be different somehow – which was really just so idiotic. What had been wrought in Peter had happened to Susan as well over the course of the Great Bonding and was not the product of a single night or event, not matter how … anticipated.

"Waiting up to make sure I came home safe and sound?" Peter asked, sounding annoyed but still giving him a hand up.

"No," Edmund replied, stretching his stiff neck and gathering up the blanket. "I was here to make sure you stayed out and didn't try sneaking back in before the Revel ended." He made a point of standing two treads up, so that he could look his brother in the eye. "It has ended, then?"

In answer, Peter clapped an arm around him, which Edmund truly did not appreciate at all.

"Peter! You are sopping! Leave off, would you?" If he had wanted to get wet this early in the morning, he would rely on Merle to do it. Edmund shrugged away, not wanting to be resentful and envious, even though he was.

"You are in a mood, Edmund. "

His mouth was open to say something biting and bitter about the relative merits of their respective nights – Peter at the Revel, Edmund sleeping on the steps with a snoring Hound. He swallowed the words, and was rewarded for his forbearance when Peter said so earnestly, "All the same, thank you for your advice of earlier. It really helped me get this sorted."

He kept Peter company for an early morning raid upon the kitchens and then they both stumbled to their beds.

Over the next few days, his brother showed more absence of mind than was typical. Sometimes, at odd moments and for no reason, Peter would smile or flush. He, Lucy, and Susan were all Narnian about it and ignored Peter's occasional lapses.

ooOOoo

It was a wonderful party. Lucy sighed happily and did a little twirl in her gown. They were out on the lawns and there was a brilliant fire and the Fauns and Dwarfs were playing lively music. The flowers in hair were already mussed and she'd lost her slippers somewhere between dinner and the first dancing. She lifted up her hem and wriggled her toes in the grass. When outside, she'd rather dance in bare feet anyway.

She looked over near the fire. The Ritual Embrace was still going on. Anyone who wanted was able to queue up and embrace Peter and Susan. Tiresias had said it was the final joining of Narnian with Human. The Narnian would say something like "I give you all life, strength, feeling, and wisdom" and then embrace Peter, or Susan, or both of them. It meant there was a relationship between Monarch and Narnia forever.

Since Peter and Susan had done all this both for themselves and for her and Edmund, Lucy supposed she was bound to Narnia forever too. That made her happy.

Edmund strolled up, holding a cup that smelled to be all wine; Merle was trotting along with him. The two of them had taken to spending a lot of time together.

"Do you want some?" Edmund asked, offering the cup.

Lucy took a sip and made a face. It was all wine and she still preferred it watered.

"Merle, is Ruchabrik about?" Edmund asked, looking carefully, but they really couldn't see that well in the dark.

"Nope."

Edmund dumped the wine out on to the grass. "I don't like to waste good wine, but I'm not going to let that instigator get me drunk. Yet," Edmund added. He set the cup at the base of a tree and glanced over his shoulder in the direction of the long queue of Narnians.

"They will be at it a while longer. I think every four-legged Beast in Narnia has come to kiss Susan," Edmund said.

"The Dryads and Satyrs keep going back into line to kiss Peter," Lucy replied. She started giggling and Edmund joined in.

Their giggles turned to full laughter. Lucy grabbed his hand. "Let's go down to the stream!"

The two of them pelted across the lawns, away from the fire and the guests. It was dark, but their feet knew these paths. Edmund was fast and Lucy was almost as fast. They pulled up to catch their breath just as the path turned pebbly and sloped down to the stream. Merle went off to root for something in the bushes that, judging from the hissing, was angry at being disturbed.

"So what do you think now?" Edmund asked. He leaned up against a birch tree and started pulling thin strips of bark off the trunk. If it had been a Tree, he would have been smacked with a branch. But it wasn't a Tree. Somehow, they both had learned to tell the difference and had learned to do so sooner than Peter and Susan had.

Lucy tilted her head up, seeing the Stars filtered through the green leaves and heard the drums start up again. "Two things, I suppose," she finally said. "As I told you before, I did not understand how hard it would be for us to watch Susan and Peter do these things. I'm glad they did this. I'm very glad it is over."

"I told Tiresias and Cloudstrike about how we felt," Edmund said. "I don't think they quite understood. Ruchabrik did, though. I think it would be even worse for Peter and Susan than it was for us."

"Yes," Lucy said. "They would feel very protective."

"What was the second thing?"

"By the time we are old enough, I wonder if we will need the Great Bonding, as I think Peter and Susan both did."

Edmund shredded more bark. Finally, he said, "You may be right about that, Lu."

They heard Merle blunder about some more and there was a splash and an "Oi! Watch where you step, you big oaf!" Edmund pushed off from the tree and they set off down to the stream.

The ground was damp and Lucy could feel the cool mud between her toes. "I am still not sure, though," she said, knowing that she would not have to explain to Edmund that she was continuing her thought, as if without interruption. "I would very much like to do the Revel, I think, and walk with the goddesses of the fields and orchards."

"I wanted to do the Revel," Edmund said, and she heard the teasing in his voice that, a year ago, would have sounded mean-spirited.

"We both can," Lucy said. "At different times, of course."

"Yes!" Edmund agreed. "I would also like to riddle with the Fire Salamander."

He stepped across the stream in two big strides, balancing easily on the rocks then turned to help her. The rocks hurt her bare feet, but it wasn't too bad. She pulled up her skirt, grabbed his hand and hopped across.

"And what of you? You'd said you had been reading about the Revel and the Smoke Ritual. Have you sorted it out yet?" Lucy asked, straightening out her skirts. They were probably only a little muddy and most of that would be hidden by the grass stains that would come after the dancing. If it weren't for the fun of a twirling gown, she'd wear Edmund's trousers for dancing too.

"Maybe," Edmund said with a shrug. "With all this effort to become Narnian, I've been thinking a lot about what it means to be a Narnian."

"Is being Narnian something you can think about and solve, like a puzzle?" Lucy asked. "That's not to say thinking is not important, of course, but isn't being Narnian really something you feel?"

Edmund laughed. "You are probably right about that, too, Lu."

They were walking back now toward the fire, arm in arm, and the music grew louder. From the shouts and clapping, the dancing had started again and maybe the Ritual Embrace was finally over.

Edmund was humming along and Lucy found her feet already tap tapping to the music. Their pace quickened.

"We will be dancing until dawn!" Lucy exclaimed.

"I think dawn is well beyond your bedtime, young lady." Edmund sounded so ridiculously pompous, she knew he was jesting.

"And yours, too!"

"Hmmm, this is true." Edmund pretended to be very serious and stroked his chin. "Queen Lucy, I believe fixed bedtimes are one of those very non-Narnian rules best eliminated. What say you?"

"Oh yes!" Lucy said, so very happy. "Edmund, we must have a law that outlaws bedtimes! Will you do that?"

"Certainly, but must I do it now?"

"No! Let us break this rule one final time and eliminate it tomorrow!" Hand in hand, they pelted back to the bonfire to join the Narnian dance.

ooOOoo

"And they made good laws and kept the peace and saved good trees from being unnecessarily cut down, and liberated young dwarfs and young satyrs from being sent to school, and generally stopped busybodies and interferers and encouraged ordinary people who wanted to live and let live."
Chapter 17, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

-End-

00ooOO

Notes:

The Revel relies upon and incorporates the universe of Anastigmat in her Breaking the Borders and Sun Tides, including the drink, the dance, the body paint, and the ritual combat between Evergreen and Deciduous Trees. As mentioned above, further notes and citations are available on my Livejournal.

The Great Lay of Narnia that Tiresias sings quotes heavily from the text of The Magician's Nephew. Xucoatl's and Peter's visions borrow from The Last Battle.

A huge thanks to Snacky for the beta, to Anastigmat for being such a great fellow traveler, to Clio, Heartwould and Harmony_lover for the support, and to Miniver who many, many months ago suggested a riddling challenge for the Kingmaking of Narnia.