The Horse and Her Girl
Originally posted for femgenficathon for the following prompt:
My wish is to ride the tempest, tame the waves, kill the sharks. I will not resign myself to the usual lot of women who bow their heads and become concubines. - Trieu Thi Trinh (225-248), 3rd-century Vietnamese revolutionary who led a rebellion against Chinese invaders. Known as "the Vietnamese Joan of Arc."
A/N: Thanks to snacky for the beta.
I get more angry mail about this story than any other. Usually, a first time reader is looking for something short of mine to read and thinks this one will be okay. This is part of NOT MY CHILDREN'S NARNIA and it may not be right for you.
1) There are foul-mouthed Narnian Otters. They are naughty and rude and say very crude things because in this world, river otters can be very nasty, aggressive creatures. There is also a greater point explained in my other works about the challenge of trying to love even those you don't like very much. If swearing Otters amuses you, read on.
2) The story assumes that Cor and Aravis (who canon tells us do marry) are in an adult, monogamous, heterosexual, consensual, loving, romantic relationship. They are not yet married under whatever the customs and laws Archenland nobility require but have exchanged vows under Narnian and Calormene custom. This bothers some readers a lot because they do not view it as equivalent to Christian sanctified marriage and regardless don't believe this has any business being in a Narnia story. In terms of actual conduct, Cor kisses Aravis' hand; she touches his face. If none of this bothers you, read on.
If the above does bother you, please stop now.
Something had been going on in the last day in the house of the Lord of Calavar, Kidrash Tarkaan, son of Rishti Tarkaan, son of Kidrash Tarkaan, son of Ilsombreh Tisroc, son of … oh bother that…
Hwin dawdled at the edge of her paddock, noting who came and went into the house. An important messenger had arrived yesterday morning. Unfortunately, his mount, a fleet but dumb horse, could not tell her where he had been, who he carried, and why he (the horse) was so very tired. The livery and tack suggested wealth – new wealth and influence, in Hwin's opinion – and everything smelled of the great city of Tashbaan.
She tried listening into the conversations of the stable hands and slaves, but they were not interested in family affairs and the world outside the Calavar estate. She pretended to graze as close to the house as she could manage, but the business, whatever it was, was being conducted in the inner courtyard. This meant it was significant, and so much so that her Human, Tarkheena Aravis, had not come out yesterday for their afternoon ride. Aravis was, therefore, expected to be in attendance.
On the one hoof, it was nice to see activity. Since the death of the eldest son of the house, Ardeeb, in the western wars, Calavar had been a sad place. Hwin had liked Ardeeb very much and she had sensed Aravis' bitter sadness at her older brother's death. Further, Aravis did not like her father's new wife and Hwin agreed with her. The marriage to Brijalla of Zalindreh had come too quickly on the wings of Ardeeb's death and Hwin thought Tarkaan Kidrash, in his grief over loss of son and wife, had hurried into marriage with a weak and vicious woman. Hwin greatly disliked the few instances in which Brijalla had insisted upon riding her. Hwin would willingly bear Aravis; she wanted a say in who else climbed on her back and that basic freedom was denied her in Calormen.
Hwin thought about just opening the gate and going to investigate herself. She had, however, already done this three times in the last moon, and if it happened too frequently, someone would make it more difficult. Also, a stable hand might be punished, and she did not want these young, very hardworking slaves hurt for what was actually her fault.
So, Hwin waited and was eventually rewarded for her patience when one of the stable boys banged and clanked his way down the barn aisle, dragging Hwin's tack through the dirt.
"Ho! Derya, steady there," he said with a cluck. "The Tarkheena is taking you out."
Hwin let out a sigh, her lips fluttering. Her name was Hwin, not the Calormene name of Derya her captors had given her. She was relieved though that it was Aravis who was coming to ride her. If it had been Brijalla, the boy would have called her "Wife of our Lord and Master," or another, single word that was polite when used to describe female dogs and not so polite when applied to others.
The slave was quick about his work and had a bit of carrot before she accepted the bit in her mouth. It was not necessary to bribe her, but it was kindly done. She was a polite Horse – though the Calormenes would call her well-trained and mannered. These were insults that still bothered her, even after 4 years of slavery as a dumb beast of Calormene. Hwin's jailors equated sensible, gentle behavior with stupidity when really it was that raising a fuss only made things ill for her and for the stable boys.
A surge of tension preceded Aravis into the barn. The Tarkheena stomped down the dusty aisle between the stalls, projecting unhappiness and distress so intense, even the dumb horses nervously snorted and stomped.
What had happened?
With a curt jerk of her hand that almost hit the slave, Aravis dismissed him. "Leave me!"
The slave scuttled away silently.
Hwin did not approve of Aravis acting impolitely to others – she was herself a slave and did not like how her Human treated other slaves. She would sometimes reprimand Aravis, as best as she was able, without saying anything – a nip, a swish of the tail, or laying back her ears at rude behavior. This time, though, she could tell something was terribly, terribly wrong and Hwin kept the correction to herself.
She nosed at Aravis about the shoulder. Her Human stank of sorrow and distress, even worse than after Ardeeb's death. Aravis was coiled up tightly and as hard as stone. What is wrong, my friend? Hwin wanted to say this but could not and so spoke silently. Tell me what has hurt you so much.
Aravis did not answer. She wrapped her arms about Hwin's neck and Hwin felt Aravis' wet tears in her mane. Hwin bent her neck and rubbed her head on Aravis' back.
With a shudder and deep breath, Aravis released her hold. "Come, Derya," she said with a soft cluck. "It is time to leave this place."
Aravis was so tense on the ride her legs were gripping Hwin's sides uncomfortably close. They rode some distance from the Tarkaan of Calavar's palace, taking a path Hwin knew but that they had not used since Ardeeb's death. Aravis and Ardeeb had come to this silent, green place often, when the Tarkheena would bother her brother into teaching her to use his sword and bow.
Usually, Hwin was glad there was no one about in this secluded clearing. Today, it worried her for it seemed Aravis was seeking solitude in a very reckless and dangerous temper. Aravis dismounted and tied the reins around Hwin's neck. "Stand," she commanded, and Hwin would do so because she did not wish to leave Aravis alone in this grim mood.
Aravis looked carefully about and Hwin wished she could tell her friend what a Talking Horse, or any sensitive Beast of Narnia, would be able to say. They were alone.
"No one is here. That is it, then," Aravis said. She pushed Hwin away, shoving her neck and elbowing her sides. "Go! Derya! Ha!" She had the gall to swat Hwin's own rump!
Hwin flicked her tail irritably and turned back around to face Aravis. She wasn't a dumb horse who would flee at the first opportunity. She was a Talking Horse of Narnia and there was something very wrong with her Human and she wasn't leaving until she found out what it was.
Aravis fumed. She flapped her arms and stomped. "Go! Go home! Ha!"
Hwin shook her whole body and stomped her own foot. I'm not going anywhere, you silly Human.
Aravis started crying again. She stepped forward and grabbed on to Hwin's own bridle. Hwin lowered her head and Aravis whispered, "Please leave, Derya. You should not be here for this. Go home. Please?"
Oh Aslan, no! Hwin was horrified. Aravis wouldn't, would she? She pushed her nose harder at her Human.
With a heavy sigh, Aravis released her grip on the bridle. "Soolyeh the Fair, mother of mares and grain, please watch over Derya."
Aravis turned her back and Hwin sensed her adjust something in her clothing.
"In the name of all the gods and goddesses, Tash the Inexorable, Achadith, queen of heaven, Sokda, Garshomon, Soolyeh, Nazreen, and Nur, guard my journey through the shadow. Zardeenah, lady of night, goddess of maidens, I commend myself to your service. When I wake, may it be at your feet. Azaroth the Silent, guardian of death and darkness, let me pass from this world to you and so to those who await me. My brother, watch for me! Mother, you daughter comes! So may it be!"
The horror of the ritual words Aravis chanted had rooted Hwins' hooves to the leafy ground and made her feel as slow and mute as any common horse. She had to act.
"Aravis! Stop!" Hwin choked out, the first words she had spoken in four long years. She could barely speak because of the wretched bit in her mouth. "Don't!"
Aravis whirled about, her shirt bared open to her breast and a long dagger in her hand. "Who spoke? What madness is this?"
Hwin stepped forward. "It's me. I am Hwin. You call me Derya. I spoke."
"It is a lie!" Aravis spit out, so angry, Hwin flinched. "Fear of death has disordered my reason and most shamefully made me think beasts speak. I will not be disgraced! This is madness!"
"No, Aravis," Hwin said. "This is not a trick."
"A delusion!" Aravis cried. She held the dagger over her breast. "Tash the Inexorable, give me courage! Nazreen, give your daughter wisdom! So may it…"
This time, Hwin shoved her nose between Aravis and the dagger she held. She pushed the knife away, forcefully. "Do not kill yourself, Aravis. Nothing is worth the price of your precious life."
Aravis took a startled step back. Hwin sensed her fear. "You can speak?"
"Yes." She matched Aravis step and nudged her arm that still held the knife clutched in her fingers. "Would you please put that knife away? It makes me very nervous."
With a shaking hand, Aravis tucked the knife back in her belt and Hwin relaxed a little.
"What are you?" Aravis asked, still staring. "When did you learn to talk?"
"My name is Hwin, as I said before. Where I am from, most Beasts talk. It is as common as Humans talking. I was kidnapped and brought here as a foal. Now, Aravis, please tell me what is so terrible that you want to kill yourself to avoid it."
"And your name is Hwin?" Aravis stumbled over the strange word.
"Yes, it was the name given to me as a foal, by my dam, when I was born. Please, Aravis, why do you believe the world is better without you in it?"
"Brijalla has sold me off to Ahoshta Tarkaan to be his wife," Aravis said bitterly, and the tears began again. "My father has approved the marriage."
"Oh!" Hwin explained. Yes, that would explain Aravis' unhappiness. "He is that old man? The lowborn flatterer who hopes to replace Axartha Tarkaan as Grand Vizier? He looks like an ape?"
Hwin could sense wonderment and a little embarrassment. "How do you know all that?" Aravis asked.
She sighed, her lips moving softly about the bit in her mouth. "I've heard you Aravis, and everyone else about you, for years. I've understood everything ever said around me."
Aravis slumped to the ground and tied up again the clothes that covered her breasts where she was going to stab herself. Hwin watched warily as Aravis again withdrew her knife, but she only stuck it into the ground and began drawing sharp lines with the tip.
"You should not have stopped me," Aravis said, staring at the dirt. "I would rather find honour in death than to be Ahoshta's wife and slave. I am not afraid of death."
"Of course you are not. But don't be afraid of life either, Aravis."
"But I shall be better dead!" Aravis retorted with a shout. She viciously stabbed the earth again. "My father abandons me to Ahoshta! Ardeeb is dead! My mother is dead! If I am dead at least I shall be with people I love."
"By throwing away the gift of your life that your mother gave you? You would give Brijalla the satisfaction of destroying you?"
Aravis looked up, curious. "Brijalla? You dislike her?"
Hwin laid back her ears and her back foot stomped the leafy ground with a muffled thump. "She is jealous of you, Aravis, and unkind, and she wants you out of your father's house. I do not like it when she has ridden me and if you died, she would certainly take me as her mount."
Aravis rubbed her eyes and nodded. Hwin could feel her despair. "I do not know what else to do. Death is the only dignity left me."
Hwin stepped forward and pushed her nose at her friend. "If there is life there is hope, Aravis. We must think of something else."
Aravis absently stroked her nose. "I would run away, if I could. But where would I go? I would just be caught, and punished, and then sent in disgrace to marry Ahoshta anyway."
"Oh!" Hwin exclaimed. Really, she had been around dumb horses for too long. "But of course!" A wild longing surged in her and hope. Alone, she could never do this. But with Aravis, yes, it was possible.
"We can run away, together, to my home, in the North, to Narnia. It is green and beautiful," she said with a sighing flutter of her lips. "You would be welcomed there, Aravis, and free. No female in Narnia is forced to bond with another unwillingly. We would both escape!"
"Narnia!" Aravis cried, and Hwin felt her horror. "It is filled with demons! Witchery, and…" Aravis trailed off. She scooted backward, suspicious, and the knife was now aimed at Hwin. "You are not possessed, are you? You are not a demon? A trick?"
Hwin pushed her Human with her nose, breathed on her, rubbed her head on Aravis' arm. "I don't know what a Calormene demon is, Aravis. I'm sure I've never met one and I know I'm not. I was born of a mother and nursed on her milk, just as you were. We have been together for four years. I have borne you faithfully all that time. Is that what your demons would do?"
Aravis wrapped her arms about Hwin and kissed her nose. "All these terrible things and the gods blessed me with you, Derya. So may it be."
Hwin did not correct Aravis. The Tarkheena would learn her name, in time.
Hwin was not sure what she was expecting from her long dreamed of return to Narnia. There had not been time to think about it in the secret journey across Calormen with Aravis. Once Bree and Shasta, that is Prince Cor, joined them, Bree and Aravis had done most of the talking. The perils and problems of Tashbaan had followed and then there had been the terrifying race across the desert to warn Archenland and Narnia of Rabadash and his invasion.
Once the army was defeated, there had not been time then, either. It was all merriment, a victory won, a Prince returned, Aravis settled (Hwin hoped), and celebrations. Only then had she really been able fret about her actual homecoming. Her worries had been relieved very much by meeting her Monarchs, the King Edmund and the Queen Lucy, who were very gracious and most grateful for Hwin's own part in the drama. Hwin had been abducted from Narnia as a timid foal; she returned to Narnia as a Mare and a hero.
Whatever it was that she had expected in rejoining her ancestral herd, Hwin was sure that this wasn't it.
"No grass is sweeter," said Copper between mouthfuls.
"You are right about that," replied Melba. "That colt of yours is growing fine, Flora. Make sure he gets variety in his diet for strong bone growth."
Flora laid back her ears. "I've raised three foals already, Melba. You just watch your own filly, thank you very much."
"So, Hwin, the grass isn't as sweet in Calormene, is it?" Copper said, not bothering to look up from her eating.
"Well," Hwin began.
"Of course it isn't," Serge said, striding up to check on his Mares.
Hwin let out a weary sigh and swished her tail, pretending it was a fly that annoyed her, rather than the stuffy Stallion. She had tried to express her views before but the Talking Horses simply refused to believe that anything could be as fine as Narnia. How they could speak with such authority when they had never left this admittedly lovely meadow, she didn't understand. Never again would she complain of Bree's I-know-it-all manner. Bree had become a much more humble Horse after his experience with Aslan and in fact he did have a wide and varied experience.
Unlike her present company.
Serge's head shot up and he let out an irritated snort. "There's another Stallion coming."
The Mares' heads all came up too and they looked about, inhaling deeply.
"It is Bree," Hwin said, recognizing his familiar scent.
"Oh! He's that new Stallion!" Flora said, craning her neck about. "He's very handsome."
"Young Stallion like that should be settling down with Mares in his own Band," Copper said, returning to her eating.
"Are you going to join his Band, Hwin?" Melba asked. "You two would be so well- matched. You're getting up there, too. Imagine, five years old and no foal to call your own!" Her whinny was not kind.
"He's got no manners, that one, growing up in foreign parts," Serge said with an angry whicker. "He shouldn't be poaching on my Mares! I'll take it up with the King Edmund, I will!"
Hwin had finally had enough. She stomped her hoof angrily. "Oh go eat some grass, all of you. Bree is my friend and I am going to speak with him!" Laying back her ears, she snaked her neck toward Serge and nipped him on the shoulder. "Serge, I have met the King Edmund and received a commendation of valour from him, and I assure you, he would not like you claiming I am your Mare when I have told you I am not yours and am not a member of your Band."
Adding an angry snort of her own, Hwin trotted off to see Bree who, contrary to Serge's ridiculous insults, was politely staying well away from the Band. He had learned Herd politics very quickly after four different Stallions had chased him away from their Bands when all he had tried to do was introduce himself.
"Bree!" she nickered. "It is wonderful to see you!"
He was looking warily beyond her to Serge who was acting like an idiot and prancing and blowing. Bree was a Calormene combat-trained warhorse and he could have knocked the ridiculous Stallion over with no effort. Instead, Bree just turned his back on Serge as not worth his notice.
"Hello, Hwin. Sorry if I caused a problem for you with your Band."
"Oh, don't be ridiculous, Bree." She rubbed her head along his neck and he returned the greeting with a nicker and gentle nip. "I've not joined a Band, certainly not that one."
"How are you?" Bree asked, sniffing her all over. "You are annoyed."
"Promise me, Bree, that you won't tell anyone, but I never thought I would wish to be around horses who did not talk!"
Bree stretched his neck and whinnied his laugh.
They turned together and began walking toward the River. The Otters at Glasswater were very loud and rude, but they liked Bree because he had taught them a soldier's Calormene curses.
"You seem different," Hwin said. If she was annoyed, he seemed strangely quiet. "Is everything well?" Bree had had difficulties with this transition as she had, though his had been hard in different ways. She had suffered from too much Talking Horse company and as a new Stallion with no Band to call his own, Bree had had very little.
"I've come to say good-bye," Bree said. "I'm leaving the Glasswater Creek."
Bree had spoken this way before, sounding silly and foolish. He didn't sound that way now.
"Where are you going?" Hwin asked.
"To Cair Paravel. The General offered me a position when we were in Archenland. I'm going to join the Narnian Army."
"Oh," Hwin said, feeling very sadly deflated.
"I'm sorry," Bree said. He looked over his shoulder, in the direction of the Band. "I don't belong here, at least not yet."
"I think it's a good decision, Bree," Hwin said sadly. "You do know a lot about cavalry and war. You provided good intelligence to Narnia after the Archenland siege."
Bree ears pricked in surprise. "How did you know about that?"
"I heard the King Edmund say so." And to his credit, Bree had not boasted of it at all. "King Edmund told King Lune you were able to identify the Calormenes, that you helped with the ransoms and repatriations, and had very good information about the Calormene capability. You have knowledge the Narnians do not have."
The Stallion rubbed his head against her shoulder. "Thank you, Hwin." They had reached the river's edge and right away one of the Otters came bounding up.
"Oi! Sodding hell! It's that effing Horse!"
"Effing" in this context, Hwin had learned, was a compliment in the language of Otters.
Bree lowered his head so that he looked the Otter in the eye. "If I give you a phrase, you will leave us alone?"
"Hell yes," the Otter said, prancing with eagerness.
"Ecdadini gitten sikeyim," Bree said.
The Otter looked at her, crafty. "It's a good one?"
"Oh yes," Hwin assured him. "Very foul." While Tarkaans were politely spoken around Human females, they could be very profane around horses. She had heard her share of curses in several Calormene dialects.
"What's it mean?" the Otter asked.
"It is a very rude insult to someone's ancestors," Bree said.
"Bugger that," the Otter said with a cackling laugh. He spun about, splattering mud. "Oi! Clodpoles!" he shouted to his fellow Otters further down the embankment. "Ecdadini gitten sikeyim!"
"He's a good mimic," Hwin observed.
Bree laughed in his bree-hee way.
They walked together, following the river, not bothered by the Otters, though they could still hear them. Finally, they stopped and just stood together, swishing the flies off each other's backs with their chopped off tails. She and Bree were more comfortable with not speaking than the other Talking Horses, probably because they had both had to be silent for so long.
Behind her, Hwin caught movement and instinctively flinched for the danger.
"Squirrels," Bree said calmly. "It's nothing."
"When do you leave?" Hwin asked.
"Now," Bree said. "There's no reason to stay. I just came over to say good-bye."
"Oh," Hwin said, laying her ears back and her head down. But he didn't move to leave and neither did she.
"Hwin, are you happy?" Bree finally said.
"No," she admitted. "Not really. Maybe my hopes were too high. Maybe I'm too Calormene, or too Human, or too much a dumb horse. I don't know what I expected, but I didn't risk everything with you and Aravis and Prince Cor to spend my days listening to silly Horses talk about whether the grass is better at one end of a small meadow, or another."
Bree nickered his agreement. "Come with me to Cair Paravel, then."
"Oh Bree, I'm not a war horse," Hwin said, though she was very touched.
He snorted and sounded more like his old, arrogant self. "No, but I'm sure there's something you could do. King Edmund and Queen Lucy did say that if we ever needed anything, we should just ask."
"But do what, Bree? I was a Tarkheena's mount. I flinch at squirrels behind me!" Hwin sighed heavily. "I'll just go back to the Band." She rubbed her head sadly against him. "Good-bye and Aslan guide you."
"Good-bye, Hwin. I'll send word of things to you, if I can."
She left her friend and the noisy, swearing Otters and trudged back to Serge and the Mares with heavy hooves and a heavier heart. At the meadow's edge, she swiveled her ears and heard Copper chewing and talking to herself and Melba and Flora arguing over whose foal was eating better. Serge was trotting about huffing and puffing like a bellows and when he saw her, let out a piercing, compelling whinny that every Mare knew meant, "Come here, now!"
Hwin turned around and galloped back the way she had come. Bree was just starting to ford the river, up to his knees and the Otters were all swimming around him, exchanging good-natured insults.
"Wait! Bree!" she called and slid down the bank as quick as she was able. "I'm coming with you!"
Bree swished his chopped off tail and flicked water all over the Otters. He let out a triumphant bugle and Hwin added her own neighing chorus. "Bra-ha-ha! Broo Hoo!"
"To Cair Paravel and the North!"
Hwin began to understand why the Calormenes had looked down so much on Narnia. In comparison to Tashbaan, and even the lesser cities of Calormen, Cair Paravel was beautiful, but so small! Even the Calavar estate had been larger. To a Horse's sensitive nose, Cair Paravel did not smell of the spices and perfumes of Calormene homes. It smelled very much like a barn. A nice barn, but a barn. Or... She caught a distinctive odour and shuddered at a smell that was like a butcher's stall in the market. Even Bree was uneasy for he blew out of his nostrils and arched his neck. They both associated the stink of dead animals with predators.
No one thought it strange to see two Horses making their way to the seats of the Four. The Centaur, Red Dwarf, Dogs, and Badger they met were all very friendly. They were not so Narnian that they could be calm about smelling and then seeing a Wolf and a Tiger. She wanted to run; Bree wanted to fight.
Sounding like his former, more insecure self, Bree grumbled, "Maybe I should have waited until my tail grew out." They passed a Labour of Moles heading into the gardens.
"Don't be silly, Bree," she replied. "We had our tails cut so that we could escape Calormen and that was how we were able to warn the North of Rabadash. If the Horses of the Army knew that, short tails would be the fashion."
At a fork in the paths, Bree flicked his ears. "I hear sword play that way." Hwin could just make out the clashing sounds. "That's where the Army will be." The other path was well worn and led upwards, toward the inner court of the castle. "Do you want me to go with you?" Bree asked.
Hwin twitched her flank and nervously flicked her tail. She did not want to go by herself. "No, thank you, Bree," she said instead. "You go see the General. I'll be fine."
Bree set off at a purposeful trot, head and tail up. He was a fine Stallion and Hwin was sure he would find an excellent position in the Army. Apart from his own training, he knew a great deal about the Calormene soldiery.
With a thfbbbtof her lips in a heavy sigh, Hwin turned toward the Palace. The steps were shallow and easy for even short-legged Beasts to climb. There were Beasts and Beings coming and going and everyone seemed to have a purpose. They were all cordial.
A Centauress larger than Hwin herself and a Leopard were guarding the front doors of the Palace and were vigilant enough to make Hwin very nervous.
She found her head lowering automatically.
"Good morning, Mare," the Centauress said. "What's your business here?"
"Good morning, noble and esteemed Guards." She was slipping into the formal, Calormene-style of speech she had heard for years and knew it sounded odd in Narnia. "I humbly seek an audience with one of our Monarchs," Hwin said softly. "At a time agreeable to their Majesties, of course."
"The High King is within," the Centauress said.
Hwin felt her ears go flat. "Oh, I do not wish to disturb him. I hoped to briefly speak with the King Edmund or the Queen Lucy. If convenient for their esteemed persons." They must think her so strange but speaking so was how the Calormenes spoke formally and that was what she knew best.
"I met our Just King and Valiant Queen in Archenland," Hwin replied, feeling a little more confident on this footing. "They had said that at need, I might seek them out."
"Oh!" the Centauress exclaimed, very surprised.
"Grilling a hero of the Archenland siege is bad form, Eirene," the Leopard said, speaking for the first time. "You are Hwin?"
To her shock, both Leopard and Centauress bowed.
"Ha!" a voice croaked from a banister on the steps. "It's true then! Bree's in the training yard with Queen Lucy and the General. I wagered Hwin would be here, too!" The Crow then flew off, cawing the news.
Eirene shook her head. "Not a moment here and you already have met the Crows. Welcome to Cair Paravel, Lady Hwin. The honour is ours. Let me take you to the High King."
The plan was interrupted because Hwin, to her embarrassment, was greeted and congratulated by a throng of Narnians. It was a little intimidating, but also very nice to experience the interest in and respect for her adventures.
They finally pushed their way through the crowd after a stern Red Dwarfess shooed everyone out of the Palace entry with a broom. It was all so very different from any Calormene estate.
Eirene knocked at the great Council Room door. "Fooh will have told the High King we are here, but it's still polite to knock."
Fooh was probably the High King's royal guard. The Monarchs were all guarded by fierce carnivores. In Archenland, she had met Briony, Queen Lucy's she-Wolf guard and the Tiger, Sir Jalur, guard to King Edmund.
"Enter!" a voice called.
The doors swung open and Hwin found herself before the High King Peter of Narnia. King Peter was sitting at the head of a large table. Lord Peridan, who she recognized from Archenland, was on his right, and a Faun on his left. Hwin shuddered nervously, for there was not one, but two Cheetahs in the room as well.
"Lady Hwin!" Lord Peridan cried, rising from his seat. "This is very fortunate! High King, may I introduce you to Lady Hwin, previously of Calavar Province and lately of Glasswater Creek!"
Hwin bowed her head and was thoroughly embarrassed when the High King jumped up from his chair and strode forward to greet her with a kiss.
"Friend, we are well met. Narnia thanks you for your service to her and our great ally, Archenland." He kissed her again. "As a brother, I thank you. You are most welcome here."
Lord Peridan made a rude little noise at the High King's emphasis. A Faun rose from his seat and trotted forward.
"We are, indeed, very grateful to see you, Lady Hwin," the Faun said with an odd, sideways glance at Lord Peridan. "I am Mr. Tumnus."
Hwin twitched an ear and looked between the Faun and Lord Peridan. They did not like each other very much. There was also some conflict here between the two of them and the High King was, she perceived, in the middle of it.
"Thank you, High King. It is very good to meet you, Mr. Tumnus, and to see you again, Lord Peridan. And is all well here?"
"Yes," Tumnus said; "No," Peridan said.
One of the Cheetahs growled. The High King pressed his fingers to his forehead and Hwin sensed his frustration. "Lady Hwin, as you are recently from Calormen, might Narnia call upon you again to mediate a difference of opinion, again, between my two valued advisors?"
"I…" Hwin hesitated. What could she possibly contribute? "I am no warrior, High King. I was only a dumb horse to a Tarkheena."
"War council we have," the High King said, gesturing to the table. Peridan pushed a chair away so that Hwin could join their meeting. "You were secretly an observer of Calormene society for years?"
"Oh, yes, High King, most assuredly." The way the High King spoke made it seem as if they regarded her as like a spy, which did sound more exciting that simply a dumb horse slave.
"Excellent. I seek an opinion on how to respond to a letter from the Tisroc in which he disavows all knowledge of and responsibility for this unprovoked attack." The High King paused. "At least, I think that is what he writes." He scratched his head. "There may be an apology as well."
"And, yet in the same long sentence, he accuses Narnia of sorcery upon his son and threatens trade sanctions." Tumnus said. When Peridan made another rude sound, with a glare Tumnus added, "Though I concede his language is very oblique."
"It's perfectly plain, if you understand the Calormene," Peridan retorted. "Which you do not, Tumnus."
"Blessed is the man who hears the bird song and writes the words of the wind in sand?" Hwin quoted.
Peridan laughed. "The Lady Mare knows her poets and speaks as the Calormene!"
"I heard that before in Tashbaan," Tumnus said. "What does it mean?"
"It is best explained, Mr. Tumnus, that the most esteemed and polite of Calormene communication is intentionally conveyed to be capable of many meanings," Hwin said.
The High King slumped into his seat, and Lord Peridan and Mr. Tumnus returned to their chairs. "So this is intentionally contradictory?"
Hwin saw now the fine, edged parchment of the Tisroc's court on the table. It smelled of travel and the Tisroc's own perfume, reserved for the most serious of letters. "I should think so, yes, your Majesty. And the more important the communication, the more open its meaning."
"Which is what I have been..."
"That is enough, Peridan," the High King said curtly. There was no doubt who held the authority here as the Lord Peridan swallowed his words with a muttered apology.
"Lady Hwin, we owe you much already. If we might prevail upon you, again, would you enlighten us so that we might understand and then respond appropriately?"
"Of course, High King." This was not the battle to which Bree had been trained. This was battle of another sort, and something which a nervous, sensitive Mare might understand. Hwin stepped to the space made for her at the table.
"Most Horses do not read well due to their eyes," Mr. Tumnus said, sparing her what would have been an embarrassing admission. "Shall I read the letter?
"Yes, thank you, Mr. Tumnus."
"Then let us begin, again," the High King said. "Peridan and Tumnus, I expect you both to listen before you speak."
The High Road, named for King Peter who had overseen its construction, made the ride from Anvard to Cair Paravel a smooth one. The High King, however, had not seen its final completion. Aslan had sent the Four back to the land of their birth, Spare Oom, a mysterious place on no map of the Known Lands.
In the five years since, Narnia had prospered and Archenland with her. Still, Aravis missed the Four very much.
Lucy and Susan would have understood, Aravis thought glumly.
Cor turned in his saddle and with his pleading gesture, she urged her horse alongside his. Together, they rode side by side into the gates of Cair Paravel.
Dwarfs and Dryads assisted in the stable yard, taking their mounts and relieving them of their bags.
Aravis didn't need help to dismount, and she wasn't in Archenland where she had to pretend that she did. She thanked the Oak Dryad for holding her horse but easily vaulted off from the saddle to the ground and shook out her trousers. She had changed on the road from the impractical skirts, which were an Archenland convention as ridiculous as the one mandating that the woman walk or ride behind the man.
A loud, angry neigh commanded their attention.
"Captain Bree!" Cor cried, leaping down from his horse to greet the Stallion. He tried to bow, but Bree butted Cor in the chest so hard the Crown Prince of Archenland almost went sprawling into the dirt of the stable yard.
"Sloppy rein work there coming in," Bree griped. "And what have you done to your leg and heel position! You'll be an embarrassment in the Army! I'll not have you shame my teaching like that!"
"It is good to see you, too, Bree," Cor said, rubbing the Stallion's head. "Congratulations on your third foal. I shall come and see Captain Gwen and your new colt after I pay my respects to the Queen and the Regents."
Bree lowered his head and whickered with affection. For all his tempers, the Stallion was very proud of his foals and always glad to see Cor.
Aravis awarded Bree a proper Archenland curtsey. "The honour is mine, Captain."
"Welcome to Narnia, Aravis," Bree said. "It's good to see you looking more normal." It was another veiled aside – Bree knew very well what Archenland customs were for proper ladies' dress and that Aravis was not wearing it. To emphasize the point, Bree gave her a hard rub on the front that smeared gray hairs all over Cor's borrowed shirt – which Bree surely recognized from the smell.
"I'll escort you to the Queen and the Regents myself, Shasta." Bree was the only one who called the Crown Prince by his old name in public.
"As you say, Captain," Cor said with a wink at her. "Aravis?"
There were years of feeling and meaning in how he said her name. Not in Archenland but here, in a stable yard in Narnia, she could put her hand to the rough beard of his chin and pull him close.
"I will find Hwin and speak to her," Aravis said. "I will see you in our rooms later." Their rooming arrangements were yet another difference between the court of Cair Paravel and the court of Archenland.
Shasta nodded and kissed her hand.
"Enough of that, youngsters!" Bree said gruffly.
Cor released her hand and threw an arm over the Stallion's neck. "It is never enough, Captain!"
Bree nipped Cor's shoulder, but not so hard that it would tear. "After your meeting, we will come back here and I'm putting you through some remedial horsemanship."
Aravis saw the bickering pair off toward the castle. A Hound, after testing the air, directed her to a pasture where Ambassador Hwin was watching her filly. In the lovely green field, Aravis searched for and saw Hwin just as the Mare's head came up from her grazing. Hwin whinnied her greeting. Aravis thanked the Hound and pelted across the grass toward her friend. Unfortunately, she had to stop and apologize to an elderly Hedgehog and some picnicking Mice whom she almost ran over in her rush.
She threw her arms about the Mare's neck. "Congratulations, Hwin!"
Hwin nickered and Aravis felt Hwin's lips nuzzle her back. "It is wonderful to see you, Aravis. Welcome. "
Aravis looked about. "Where is she? Can I meet her?"
On the other side of the meadow, a group of foals was playing under the watchful eyes of their mothers.
"Emine, come here, please," Hwin called.
"She has a Calormene name!" Aravis exclaimed.
A bay filly peeled off from her playmates and bounded to them. She was all skinny legs and fluffy coat with the short tail of foals. A dark gray colt trotted along next to Emine and with such a bearing there was no mistaking his parentage.
"Yes, mummy?" the filly asked politely.
"This is Aravis, my very greatest friend."
The colt jumped, four hooves off the ground at once. "If you're Aravis, Shasta must be here too!"
Apparently the sire's habit of calling the Crown Prince of Archenland Shasta extended to his colt.
Emine had her mother's looks and manners. "It is an honour to meet you, Aravis," the filly said, nervously twitching her little tail.
"The pleasure is mine as well, Emine. When you are older, I hope you come with your mother and visit Anvard." Even if I am not there, Aravis amended silently and sourly.
"Thank you, Aravis," Emine replied. She shifted awkwardly on her spindly legs.
"You two may go play," Hwin said.
With that permission, the foals shot away like arrows from bows. Aravis laughed as the filly and colt gamboled off across the field, kicking their heels and scattering butterflies.
"Congratulations again, Hwin," Aravis said softly. "I know you waited a long time for a foal of your own and she is lovely and so well-spoken."
"Thank you, Aravis. I am so happy you can finally meet her and she is everything I would have hoped for." Hwin let out a horsey sigh and shifted her weight. "And your journey, was it of the best kind? That is, uneventful?"
"Yes!" Aravis said, watching the foals begin a game of tag. "It is very good to get out of Anvard and always wonderful to come here." Even after over five years, many Archenlanders still flinched over her darker, Calormene skin, if they acknowledged her at all. That revulsion did not happen in Narnia. To the Talking Birds and Beasts, Human colouring was as unremarkable as differences in stripes on Tigers, spots on Dogs, and Horses' coats, assuming the Narnians noticed it at all.
"I had hoped you traveled here to see Emine and to tell me of an announced betrothal to Cor, with vows to be exchanged next year," Hwin said. "Unfortunately, I thought your news would be otherwise."
For answer, Aravis rested her head and hand on Hwin's neck. Hwin would know the truth. In the years since their flight from Calormen, Ambassador Hwin had represented Narnia in the Anvard court in addition to her missions in Galma and the Lone Islands and most recently in Calormen as the senior diplomat in residence. Hwin knew Archenland and its Humans very well. The Rats and Crows of the Narnian intelligence service also undoubtedly kept her well-apprised of the thorny politics of succession, women, race, and marriage in Archenland. Hwin would understand and had surely seen this crisis coming.
"When I suggested we run away, I promised that no female in Narnia would be forced to bond with another unwillingly. I am sorry, Aravis," Hwin said and rubbed her velvety nose along Aravis arm.
"You didn't know, Hwin," Aravis said. "How could you have known what Archenland was like?" She scratched Hwin's eye socket. Her friend had always liked that. "And there is no force – you were right in that regard. I would never be forced into a marriage I did not wish. It has only been recently that I understood that there are no options for me other than marriage and that the only marriage I do wish is denied me."
Hwin stomped a foot; she was either annoyed or there was a fly. "And Cor? What does he say? You are still mating with him?"
"More than that," Aravis replied. She smiled, both because Hwin's fond mention of Cor would induce it and because the Mare, for all her sophistication in the wider world, expressed some things in very Narnian terms. "We are pledged to one another in this world and beyond and made our troth before the Calormene gods, and in Aslan's name. That is enough for both of us."
"But not for the Humans Cor will rule someday," Hwin said, stating it as a fact.
"No," Aravis said. "We have tried, both of us, to meet their expectations. But I will never be what they want and Cor does not want what his subjects' desire for him."
"Not all his subjects," Hwin countered mildly. "But some of those provincial Lords are very troublesome and would look for any excuse to shame and eliminate a Calormene in the Archenland court and put in your place one of their own more tractable daughters."
Aravis wondered if this was what Hwin's own intelligence agents had learned. She was not surprised, but her gloom deepened. It had taken months to be able to endure this topic without anger. Now, Aravis just felt resigned and she hated that – hated the way Archenland had beaten hope and passion from her and Shasta.
"And Lune is too weak to take up our cause," Aravis said, though again Hwin probably already knew this. King Lune was a lovely man but he was old, his mind wandered, and, to the pain of them all, he frequently mistook his own son for the departed King Peter.
"Is Cor still going to ride with the Narnian Army for the season?"
"Oh yes," Aravis said, with a laugh in spite of the hopelessness of the situation. "Captain Bree would run Cor down in Archenland and drag him back if he did not."
"Bree has talked of little else." Hwin swished her tail and Aravis flicked a fly away from her flanks. "And what will you do in the meantime?"
The gloom returned. "What I have been doing, while Cor has been away with his training," Aravis said. "I shall hold Prince Corin's leash and keep him from starting fights, or wars, and bedding the wrong girls."
"And you will continue pretending to be a mild and silent Archenland lady when you know that your detractors' will never accept you, no matter how perfectly you perform the role and will meekly continue to keep the house that small minded men would toss you from at first opportunity."
Aravis bristled. "Well, when you describe it in such degrading terms, Hwin…"
"I only am repeating your own words," Hwin countered. "Mount up, Aravis. Let us ride together."
The outrageous request jolted her out of the ill humour. "Hwin! I cannot do that! Humans should never ride a Narnian Horse except at great need!"
Hwin turned her head and Aravis felt as if she were a girl again, a daughter being rebuked by her mother. "I am my own Mare. It is my decision, Aravis. It is my back and if I want you to ride me, you should be free to do so."
"As you order, Ambassador!" Aravis said with a mock salute. "Do you mind if I use your mane as a handhold?"
"Of course not."
Hwin dipped her shoulder and Aravis took a handful of mane and with a grunt and push that was not as graceful as it once had been, she swung up. "I am not the agile girl anymore, Hwin!" Aravis settled on the familiar back.
"And I am both wider than I was and not as agile," Hwin said.
Aravis let Hwin set the pace and they walked through the meadow. Crickets and butterflies flitted about them, raised by Hwin's footfalls. She heard a string of profanity and saw a Narnian Hummingbird race by toward a flowering bush.
It felt awkward and presumptuous to ride Hwin here and as they passed other Narnians, Aravis saw them stare, point, and mutter. Hwin certainly heard the angry whispers.
"I am sorry that this is uncomfortable for you, Aravis," Hwin said, perceiving her disquiet. "Sometimes I am a not a proper Narnian Mare at all. But I did not flee slavery with you only to exchange it for bondage of a different sort. It is has been more difficult to forge a different path, but also rewarding for it is of my own choosing."
Hwin stopped and turned her head. Aravis stared at her. Her lesson was couched in the subtle language of Calormene diplomacy but still had a Northern directness that was uniquely Hwin's own.
"You believe so, Hwin?"
"I do," Hwin said simply. She turned her head forward and began walking again. "This nonsense has gone on long enough. You said it yourself. You have tried to be what they want and still they reject you. Perhaps you should try being what you are."
Aravis stroked the brown neck of her friend. "I did not think I could, Hwin. I did not want to cause difficulty for King Lune, or for Cor, or my adopted country."
"If you and Cor lead, they will have to follow," Hwin said decisively. "What is the alternative for Archenland, if Cor does not take the throne with you beside him? Does anyone want Prince Corin to become King at Lune's passing?"
"Precisely. In fact, I encourage you to bring Corin into your counsels. He would be a valuable ally as he will do anything to assure he is not made King."
Hwin's strategy was very sound. The more outrageous Corin's behavior, the more likely the stiff-necked, decrepit Archenland lords would embrace Cor, and so Aravis herself. They might wish Cor had chosen as his wife some pale, sweet, docile, fertile daughter from a lower provincial capital, but the prospect of what a King Corin would present before the Lords of Archenland was terrifying.
"Narnia supports you and Cor," Hwin said, speaking with the confidence of the diplomat authorized to bind her country. "I am certain the wise of Calormen would welcome one of their daughters on the Archenland throne."
Again, Aravis had to wonder at Hwin's information. She did not doubt it, but it annoyed her that the Mare was better informed than she was about her own native country. That should be remedied.
"Do you return to Calormen when Ermine is weaned?" Aravis asked, seeing a new, hopeful course of action taking shape.
"Yes," Hwin said. A Talking Horse could not smile but Aravis thought Hwin sounded very smug
"Might I accompany the Narnian delegation when you return to Tashbaan, Ambassador Hwin?"
"I think that very wise, Lady Aravis. Let those stubborn lords see how well they like Prince Corin for a season. And with Cor training to be King, you should make good use of the time as well and learn more of Narnia and Calormen as an adult and diplomat. Calormen and Narnia border the country you will someday be Queen of, whether some pesky, minor lords want it or not."
Aravis leaned forward and wrapped her arms around Hwin's neck, just as she had so many years ago. "So may it be," she intoned.
"So may it be," Hwin repeated.
"Hwin, might I ask a favor of you?"
"Of course, Aravis."
"Might you indulge me in a gallop? A very fast gallop befitting neither Narnian Mare nor Archenland Lady?"
"Bra-ha-ha!" Hwin cried, coiling herself for a spring.
Aravis grabbed Hwin's mane in her hands and tightened her legs. "Broo Hoo!"
Hwin sprang forward and tore across the meadow. The Mare and her Woman would make their own path.
This story relies upon the Calormene pantheon and invocations of the wonderful Elizabeth Culmer, who graciously allowed me to borrow her creations. You can read more of her Calormene worldbuilding in her brilliant Out of Season. The take on Cor and Aravis' relationship and Archenland resistance to a Calormene Queen is very much influenced by her phenomenal The Courting Dance.
Also, I know Bree and Hwin don't get married. They are not married in the story, Hwin is not mother to Bree's foal, and Bree has not sired Hwin's filly.