The Promise of Life
Yes, I'm still alive. No, my ADD muse has not moved out of DexLabs back to Cair Paravel, but I'm working on it. My great thanks to Miniver for beta reading this for me, as well as the1hobbit and faithfulpurelight for all their poking and prodding.
Disclaimer: Narnia and its characters are the property of CS Lewis, Walden Media, and Disney. I'm just borrowing them and I promise to give them back when I'm done.
"Aslan, what have I done?"
Peter had fallen to his knees on the dusty patch of earth where we walked the castle grounds. Had Aslan read him a death sentence he would not have reacted so, having faced death and battle since he was thirteen, but to be told in a soft voice and gentle words that we would not be returning to Narnia, that we were too old, was a fate far, far worse than mere death.
Unlike Peter, I could not move. A frost as deep and deadly as Jadis' winter seemed to creep through my very being. Its icy tendrils wound their way toward my heart. Once I had been taken from Narnia. Now it was being taken from me. I was no more willing to surrender her now than I had been the first time. It was true that the age I knew was long past and Caspian was now king, but for all our work and effort, I had not expected our payment to be exile.
Too old? How was I too old? I was the same age Peter had been when Jadis had been overthrown. Or was I? Was I a thirteen-year-old girl or a forty-four-year-old woman in Aslan's reckoning?
I felt Peter tremble as he fought to master himself, and it was a full minute or more until he raised his head. His face was wet with tears, a few of them dropping down to sink into the parched earth. I wondered what a king's tears were worth. Very little it seemed, and so I held mine as I stood beside the High King. It was so very like Peter to see himself to blame in this situation. In my youth – for truly I had lived two lives – I would have let him take the blame if, indeed, I hadn't blamed him myself. I had been quick to do so before I learned temperance. Now I was older and wiser. If we had displeased the Lion, then by that very Lion's Mane, we will have displeased him together. I put a steadying hand upon my brother's shoulder as we waited to be accused.
Majestic and golden, Aslan stood before us. The hot, dry breeze blew his mane about in a dazzling array. For the first time I did not want to rush up and hug him, to bury my face in that soft, scented mass and lose my troubles and worries to his strength. No. I would stand with and behind my brother, the High King, as Aslan's own prophet had told me to do all those centuries ago. Slowly Aslan sank to his haunches until he lay facing us, the easier for us to look him in the eye.
"High King, Gentle Queen, it is nothing you did or did not do. Indeed, you have done all I could ask and more," spoke the Lion, and there was not a hint of censure in his voice. In truth, his tone was warm and gentle and by his eyes I knew he understood the depth of our grief.
"Then why?" Peter tired to ask, but his throat was too tight and he barely managed to speak in a whisper. "Aslan, why?"
"This is not punishment, Peter, Susan," he said, looking from Peter to me. "You ruled Narnia well and wisely and with all the love in your hearts. You gave me of yourselves completely and now . . . now you must live, my children."
The frost deepened. Ice was forming. Despite the heat of late summer, I was chilled to my very core as his words sank in and the truth struck me like a blow.
"This is about me, isn't it? You're sending us back because of me." My tone was so normal, as if I was talking about taking tea, not a thousand years and more spent removed from this land. I don't know how I managed it. Peter quietly gasped, realizing my meaning, and he looked from Aslan to me, covering my hand on his shoulder with his own calloused fingers. Glad of the touch and the warmth he loaned me, I closed my hand around his. So much was suddenly made clear, so much to grasp. It was like being caught in a current too strong to be fought. Softly I said, "You sent us back because of me! Because I was ill!"
Slowly, silently, the Great Lion nodded, acknowledging the truth. For a long while we simply were, and Peter and I struggled to absorb the immensity of all that had been said and unsaid. I could feel the breeze sent to us by the distant sea, the warmth of the sun showering down upon us as he traversed the arc of heaven, my brother's touch anchoring me to him and thence to Narnia and all the world and the worlds beyond into the infinite. When finally Aslan spoke, it was as if an age or more had passed. Perhaps it had, for what is time but distance?
"I did, Gentle Queen. The sickness your body harbored toward the end of your reign would soon have taken your life if I had not returned you to England."
Aslan's golden eyes looked into me, breaking the cold, and I could see the grief he had felt to send us, his chosen four, away from the world we loved and that loved us. I had seen that same look in my mother's eyes when she set her four children onto a train. Before this moment I had never considered the sheer courage and love it took to do such a thing, the sacrifices involved, and here I had been sent away twice for my own good. Not abandoned, not cast off, but safeguarded.
"But Aslan," I said, "I was prepared to die where I had lived. As I had lived."
"I know, my dearest," said the Lion. "But I was not prepared to lose you."
I stared, open-mouthed and speechless at this remarkable declaration. It was upon my shoulders our burden of exile laid, shoulders that toward the end had grown frail as the cancer destroying me from within had advanced. Everything lived, everything died. Death was the promise of life. So long it had taken me to learn and accept that aspect of revinim, hours and days and weeks spent talking to scholars and healers and magi. When I finally had understood that this should be my end, I had been at peace unlike any I had ever known. I knew calm even though my siblings were not so reconciled. I remembered how I found it gently ironic that my brothers, doughty warriors both who had faced death countless times on the field and off, could not bear to face the stealthy, silent killer that had targeted me in my forty-third year. Edmund had called the cancer despicable and dishonorable for daring to strike a lady. Lucy had despaired that her cordial would not work on diseases. Peter had quietly sought out doctors to consult, even going so far as to call upon the College of Healers in far-off Calormen. We had tried every cure, and all had failed. As we worked through the shock and confusion of returning to England and faced the prospect of reliving our whole lives, Peter had one night confessed to me the fear of that long and lingering sickness returning. He dreaded the prospect of again experiencing the helpless frustration that had marred our last two years in Narnia.
"The White Stag?" prompted Peter, his voice still hoarse.
"Sent by me to lead you back to your world. A world where I knew you would be confused and hurt and lost for a time. A world older than Narnia, where the magic is buried deep and must be sought with great determination. A world where not too far in the future, by the time you grew to womanhood again, the disease that wasted you will have a cure."
From where he knelt on the ground beside me, Peter looked up with fresh tears in his eyes. He wore a look of wild hope.
"A cure?" he croaked. "Aslan, you're quite sure?"
Aslan took no offense at being questioned. Instead he gently smiled at Peter's awed expression and nodded his head, sunlight glancing off his mane. Peter, so cool in battle, so firm in affairs of state, and so ineffective at hiding his feelings from his family, made a sound that was almost a sob as he hugged me around my legs, almost unbalancing us both in his joy. A small laugh escaped me at Peter's response as he crushed my skirts about my knees. I felt tears sting my eyes as I looked to Aslan. Relief filled me, as if a weight I had not realized I carried had been lifted from my arms. For a long while I just stared into his eyes, once again amazed at how much he had gifted to me.
"Will I see you in our world, Aslan?" I asked.
"If you seek, you will find me, Daughter. I am by your side always."
Clasping my hands, I bowed my head, letting his promise make a home within my heart. When I looked up once again, Aslan had stood. For a moment he simply gazed upon me, and then he leaned forward and with a puff of sweet, scented breath he kissed me on the forehead, and then Peter. My heart seemed filled to overflowing, but somehow I managed to say,
"I will live, Aslan."
Slowly he smiled, and then the great Lion answered, "I know."
Aslan left us there soon after, and it took a few minutes to disentangle Peter's grip on my dress. My brother sat on the ground, happily overwhelmed for a bit longer at this new course Aslan had plotted. I sat down beside him and tried to come to terms with all that had been said, pondering what had been revealed and a future that held greater hope than I had known before. There lingered, though, a shadow on my thoughts. It was something akin to self-blame and remorse. But then . . . if I had not fallen sick, how then could we have helped free Narnia and restore Caspian to his throne?
"It's not your fault, Su," Peter abruptly said, seeming to guess my mind. "You mustn't feel guilty."
Was it guilt? Perhaps. I hadn't chosen the disease. It had chosen me. "I don't now, but if ever I do, Peter . . ."
"I'll remind you, sister, as often as you need to hear it and whether you wish to hear it or not," he added softly, teasing me.
I smiled, grateful to him, and took his hand in mine once again. "If Aslan gave us a choice . . . would you stay?"
It was a weighty question, but somehow I wasn't surprised that he answered instantly.
"Not now. It will be a wrench to leave again, like being torn apart, but we can't live in two places. We need to be whole. I see that now. It might be easier to leave Narnia this time since it hasn't been years and years and we know she'll be cared for, but . . . no. Narnia has moved on to a new era and so should we. Caspian will do very well by our land, blessed as he has been. He has learnéd councilors and I have no fear that he'll do any worse than we did as he comes into his own."
I hesitated a moment, then leaned in and kissed him on the cheek. "I pray you are right, dear brother."
"As do I," he agreed fervently. "He is quite young."
I couldn't stop a little sound of impatience from escaping me. "Caspian is my age!"
"As I said!" he exclaimed as if all was made clear.
"And he's the same age you were when you were crowned High King!"
"And now I'm older."
"A whole year, Peter Michael George!"
"See? Even you noticed the difference a year makes in a king."
He grinned, having set out to make me laugh and I let him succeed. It felt good and right to laugh just then, and I silently thanked Aslan that this young man, Peter the Magnificent, Narnia's Sword, High King over all Kings of Narnia, was my brother. I did not resist the temptation to elbow him in the side, and he rocked with the small shove. Through his smile there were tears, though, and quietly he added,
"I would not trade you for Narnia, Susan, but then . . . we are Narnia, just as Narnia is us and as we live, so does she, be it here or in England."
"Where the magic is buried deep," I softly quoted. "And once a king or queen of Narnia . . ."
"Always," he started to answer, and then drifted off. There was no need to finish Aslan's promise of ancient accord. We had no doubt it would be fulfilled.
Peter stood, dusting himself off before helping me to rise. He extended his hand with his palm turned upwards, offering to escort me. I returned his smile as I laid my hand atop his. Together we began walking back to the castle, each of us lost in contemplation. We were almost at the archway in the first gate when a thought struck me.
"Peter," I said, gripping his arm and making him stop. He looked at me, his emotions somewhat settled but his heart open. "Lucy and Edmund – please, don't tell them. Let me, in my own time."
He stared at me, and after a few heartbeats he nodded. "You're sure?"
"More than I've ever been."
Releasing my hand for a moment, he bowed deeply to me. "Your will is mine, my queen, and your word shall be my law."
". . . He says we're getting too old."
"Oh, Peter! What awful bad luck!" cried Lucy, and in her innocence and ignorance her use of the word 'luck' seemed sorely misplaced. Someday I would explain to her that it was not luck, but love that kept me and Peter from Narnia, and there was nothing awful or bad about the promise of life. "Can you bear it?"
Peter smiled at Lucy, that benevolent, indulgent smile he reserved for her excited outbursts. Our siblings were visibly rattled by Aslan's news. Poor Edmund was quite shocked and horrified that his hero and king would not return to this, our land. If we didn't head him off the Chief Judge of Cair Paravel's court would be arguing our case before Aslan in a trice. When finally he spoke Peter was looking at Lucy, but I knew he was addressing me.
"Well, I think I can," he said softly, every inch the High King. He was content, I could tell, and he had the look of a man that had seen or heard something too wonderful for words. He pulled Lucy and Edmund close to his sides, offering comfort even as he looked to me with absolute happiness on his face and said, "It's all rather different from what I thought."