Chapter Forty-Five : The Moral of the Story

The colour drained from Elizabeth's face as, around her, Narnian monarchs and Lords and Captains and Marshals lowered their heads and sank to their knees. For the briefest of seconds, anger flickered over the celestial face of the Angel.

"See that you do it not!" he snapped, "I am but a servant of your Master, as you yourselves are." Hurriedly, like children caught in naughtiness, they obeyed, standing as ramrod straight as their weariness and wounds would allow. The Angel's burning gaze swept them all.

"At ease, please," he said, and the action was so like the old Warlord they had come to think they knew not a one of them could save himself from brittle laughter. Only Elizabeth's eyes remained locked in rapture on the face of the Angel, seeing the man who had lead her here as he was meant to be seen – if mortals could see him at all.

"Michael," she gasped, realising what that name meant, a look of unalloyed joy spreading over her face. The Angel nodded his head in acknowledgement.

"Men have been asking that question for a very long time, Elizabeth," his ageless voice resonated, echoing like a bell cast in clear crystal and causing spikes of exquisite pleasure down the length of her spine. She could not, for a second, imagine what might be stopping her falling to the floor – not out of subservience, but because of complete and total overwhelming fear and joy and dread and wonder – but, if it were anything, it would be that voice. His wings gently unfurled, slowly but as inexorably as expanding pack-ice, creating a gale that dislodged rocks and sent chunks of masonry flying faster and further than the blows from the Dragon's tail had, and yet which barely ruffled the hair of the faithful. He slid through the air towards her, coming to rest at the end of his glide within an arm's reach – an impossible distance – towering impossibly tall. "And for all those years I have tried to lead people to the answer." He paused. "Mika'el?" he asked in perfect Hebrew.

"Ego sum," she answered without a single instant of hesitation. I am the Image of God in a corrupted universe. I am the Breath of God in a universe starved of oxygen. I am the Name of God in a silent universe. I am the Will of God imposed on a chaotic universe. I am Man, made in His image; I can rise higher and fall further than any other being in the whole of His Creation.

And Michael smiled.

He smiled in a way that made Elizabeth realise just how small and tawdry and inconsequential the reasons for any other smile were. Suddenly, she realised what a true smile was – and at the same time marvelled how she couldn't remember what his face looked like without it. For a second, for a heartbeat, she stared into the face of uncorrupted Creation, into the central movement of the symphony God had sung to make the dawn of time. Pure, raw, unmingled Charity poured from the visage of the Angel, outstripping light, faster than time, scouring and cleaning like bright jewels of smokeless flame.

For an ageless second, she hung suspended, transfixed by an emotion she had never dared dream was even within the realm of her imagination. And then the smile vanished from Michael's face and she was herself again.

"I have to go home, don't I?" she asked, her voice and eyes trembling. Michael nodded his head. She half turned her face away. "I would have liked to have seen . . ." She paused, and looked up into the Angel's fathomless eyes. "I understand – that's why I was brought here, wasn't it? That by knowing Him here I might know Him there."

Michael did something she did not expect – he leaned forward, his massive wings drawing around the two of them like a curtain, casting her into a glowing shadow of golden light. "That is not all, Elizabeth," he said so softly the others could not hear, "although what else there is I do not know." Into her surprised face he reminded her, "The stair of created beings rises far above me, Elizabeth – it is not given to those you call Archangels to know all things, nor indeed all we might desire." His wings unfolded from around her, pulling back the veil of luminous shadow between her and Narnia for the last time.

"And we won't see you again?" Susan asked Elizabeth. The older woman turned to Michael, who did not twitch even a muscle to say either yay or nay.

"Fare thee well, Lady Elizabeth, Governor of the Lone Islands," said Peter formally, drawing Rhindon to salute her with. "Narnia will not soon forget your aid." His face twisted and he coloured. "Nor I you," he muttered. Elizabeth smiled coyly and returned the blush.

Beside Susan, Lucy was sniffling, the memory of saying goodbye to an older woman too close to the vague remembrances of the parting on a crowded railway platform. She tangled her fingers in the hem of her tunic and tried not to suck her thumb. Susan put her arm around her shoulders and pulled her sister toward her. The younger girl buried her face in Susan's doublet as Susan blinked back tears.

"Goodbye, Elizabeth," she said at length, "I'll miss you." And then Susan's arm left Lucy's shoulders and the two women ran for each other, embracing and sobbing into the other's long hair. After a moment, Lucy wailed and flung herself at them, clinging to their legs.

Peter sniffed and tilted his head back, furiously wiping what he hoped people assumed were embers and battle-detritus from the corners of his eyes. Edmund smiled at him and whispered in his ear.

"You can cry, you know." His brother turned to him with red-rimmed eyes.

"Big boys don't cry, Eddie – you know that." Edmund smiled his own watery smile.

"No, but perhaps High Kings do." Before he could embarrass his brother further, the Duke of the Lantern Waste stepped forward. Elizabeth disengaged from Susan and wiped the tears from her eyes.

"The Governor of the Lone Islands begs leave to surrender her office, Sire," she said through the constricting tightness in her chest. She wanted so badly to look around her for one last time, to burn the image of Narnia into her mind, but she found she could not look away from the grey eyes she had followed for so long. Edmund bowed his head.

"The Crown of Narnia accepts your abdication, Lady Elizabeth, and recognises the immeasurable service you have rendered unto us," Edmund managed to say. He closed his eyes against the pressure behind them. "Like my sister, I will miss you – not just for your service and loyalty, but for your friendship and love." He clenched his fist. "Damnit all," he growled. She stepped toward him and took his face in her hands.

"Edmund," she quavered, "we both knew it would come to this in our heart of hearts – I can't stay here, it's not my world. I've got a world and a life of my own to live." He nodded bitterly.

"And I'm not part of it, I understand." She shook her head.

"No, you are very much a part of it. I will never forget you – any of you." She smiled weakly. "All I have to do is open a book." Even as she said that, it sounded tawdry and cheap. How can this be fictional? she asked herself, When it feels as good and as real as this, if this isn't the truth then I don't want the truth. She turned to face Michael, fingers caressing Edmund's face like she wished she could caress her son's. "And you're just a prayer away, aren't you?"

But there was odd about her turn in place. She had the distinct impression she was remaining stationary while the rest of the world – or several worlds – rotated around her. The landscape of Narnia – and Edmund and Susan and Michael and the rest – blurred like watercolours in the rain and a soundless noise filled her ears.

Elizabeth found herself, impossibly and somehow unpleasantly, pushing a glass-fronted door open, stepping into a warm, stuffy room – the air heavy with the scent of coffee and thick, sticky pastry. Her eyes adjusted to the light as her shoulders flexed under the unaccustomed lightness of her suit. Her stocking-clad legs goose-pimpled in the chill that curled in from the snow-covered square outside.

She wasn't in Narnia. She was in a coffee shop, off Der Michaelerplatz, in Vienna. The most magical and wonderful city in Europe; the birthplace of a whole cuisine, dynasties of Kings and Princes, entire orchestras of musicians, parliaments of statesmen and whole armies of generals.

It felt cheap and tacky and horribly, horribly unfair.

"Kann ich ihnen helfen?" asked the pretty Austrian girl behind the counter. To call her a barista would have been to imply that Starbucks hadn't been named after someone who was neither more nor less than a pirate.

"Oh, ah," said Elizabeth, thrust harshly back into cruel reality by the irony of having been able to survive in a totally alien world for months with just English, and now groping for her German. "Einen grossen Kaffee, bitte," She paused, as she heard the bells of the Church being to chime. Oh, Lord! It was Christmas Eve! "Zum mitnehmen," she added briefly.

The girl dimpled her harsh Bavarian beauty as she reached for the large waxed paper cup and sent high-pressure steam screaming through coffee grounds into it. Elizabeth leaned against the counter and didn't seem to hear the questions from the American couple standing next to her, asking her if she knew the Queen. She felt drained, tired, utterly shattered. What was the point of it all? she wondered, Where did I even go? What happened to me? She looked at her hands – the manicure she had got in Paris was as perfect as it had been when she left Charles de Gaule on the turbo-prop to Hamburg. Did it even happen?

The girl put the coffee in front of her. She handed a ten Euro note to the girl and took her change, holding it in one hand and the coffee in the other. She pushed out of the coffee house into the cold, lonely chill of the snow-smirched square, looking around her.

Ahead of her, the tall white tower of Die Michaelerkirche reached high into the sky in tiered splendour, white against the midnight blue of the sky. Below it, the argent Renaissance façade of the building – classic without being truly Classical – loomed on one side of the square. She looked at it for a second, heard the chimes roll over her, saw the clock in the square standing at quarter to eleven, and shook her head and made to walk back to her hotel.

It's all very well in Narnia, she said to herself. She very deliberately turned her back on the Church.

"Fräulein?" asked a ragged man, huddled against the snow in a doorway, holding gloved and grimed fingers up at her. She started, having walked past him, and then – as her conscience pricked her – turned back to him and handed him the coffee and her change. "Danke schön, Fräulein."

It was too late – her eyes had been drawn back to the Church and the statue above the pitched roof of the porch, the miniature basilica topped with the great alabaster figures of Saint Michael the Archangel and Satan; the devil writhing beneath him, his eagle's wings twisted, a gleaming golden shield in Michael's fist and a sword raised to strike.

He found me when no-one else was looking – when no-one even knew I was lost. How did he know just where I would be?

Everyone else in that square, perhaps – most in that Church – would have called that battle nothing more than a legend, a myth. Something to illustrate a deeper truth. But she knew better – she knew that battle had been real. She knew the being that had – at the dawn of time – sacrificed his brother to protect humanity.

And she knew the Person who had done far, far more – far more than she could imagine or dream.

It's all very well in Narnia, she said to herself, as she span on her heel and moved with resolve towards the great black door of the Church, but it's better here. She pushed the door open, stepping into the warm darkness of the interior, gilt and marble lit by scattered congregations of candles, the stained glass inky smudges against the walls, and a phalanx of corrupted cherubs tumbling in a marble cascade behind the high altar. The scent of incense washed over her like a memory and, for a second, she simply stood – the cold at her back and her face to the warmth. Her eyes snapped open as an elderly man dressed in clerical black with a Roman collar smiled and spoke to her.

"Guten Abend, Fräulein. Frohe Weihnachten!" He made to move off. She snapped out of her reverie.

"Vater, Warte!" The Priest stopped, turned and smiled back at her. She opened her mouth, trying to articulate everything she had to say. Her German had deserted her.

"I've been away a long time."

oOo

This story is dedicated with thanks to the following people

The Gwethil - who have put up with me rabbiting on about this for months!

Wiltshireman - for his constant excellent reviews and advice and friendship

Alymra - for her support, inspiration and advice - and the name of a Faun

Amberle - for the use of a song and lots of support

Lizaanne - who has put up with me not being there because I was writing this!

Everyone who had reviewed even just once - you are all beloved of me and I wouldn't have finished this without you

The story continues with "The Redemption of Sulva" - a Cosmic Trilogy adventure