The flight this time was more exhilarating, yet still terrifying. There was something primordially horrific about being clutched in the claws of a relatively giant bird. Still, if it got him to his brother, he would ride a spider if he had to. Martin let him down gently once they reached their destination some few minutes later. As Peter tried to get his legs to work correctly, the Swallow spoke in a soft, scared voice. "The Imps' lair is thought to be in this general area. I do not wish to leave you here alone…"
"You must get to safety," Peter firmly told him. It was bad enough that he had to use an untrained civilian for this much. "Please, return to your family."
Martin bowed. "I will see if I can find any of the Field Guard to come to your aid. I could do nothing less," he continued at Peter's frown. "I could not look my wife and nestlings in the face did I not do so." Peter nodded and thanked the Swallow, who quickly took off again.
Peter allowed himself a moment to check out his surroundings. Grass still towered overhead, but the ground was more flat. As he tried to visualize the bigger picture, Peter noticed that the space between reeds of grass was larger to one side: a gap large enough to be a path for the Imps. Not really having anything else to go by, Peter headed in that direction. He vaguely hoped he would be able to find his way back, since how else would Martin, or any aid he fetched, find him again?
Oh, that would be just great to tell Edmund: 'Look, we escaped from the Imps! Hope you don't mind that we're going to starve to death because I took a wrong turn at that last pebble'. If Peter could have spared the energy he would have growled and punched a reed of grass in utter frustration. He was moving too slowly, he was lost, he was pretty much dragging his leg behind him, and he was fairly certain he was walking on a layer of old animal excrement, if the odor was any judge. Exhaustion threatened to overwhelm him, but Peter doggedly kept moving down what he hoped was the path to the Imps' lair. He may be slow, lost, injured, smelly, and tired, but confound it if he would let Edmund get away with the whole idiotic self-sacrificing bit. Peter would have words about that.
The sound of gravely voices reached Peter before he saw anything. On guard, Peter slunk through the shadows of the grass, swiftly and silently. Well, he attempted to slink swiftly and silently, but he ended up mostly staggering forward haphazardly, nearly tripping over his own feet. Thankfully, Imps were boisterous creatures and loved arguing with each other at high volumes, so Peter was able to approach the grass-thatched hovel and slip-stagger through the large door without being noticed by the two Imps that were arguing on the right side of a blazing fire. The heat was nearly unbearable, but the flames easily hid Peter from the distracted Imps as he made his way to the terribly familiar, crumpled form to the left of the hearth.
Kneeling slowly and gingerly beside Edmund, Peter breathed a sigh of relief at his brother's harsh, too-shallow breathing – he was alive. He was in bad shape, though: in addition to his pneumonia, his left shoulder was severely dislocated, and his face was puffy and bruised. Peter wished he could be happy that Edmund was unconscious, not feeling the pain as much, but he was not. With his knee as it was, there was little chance Peter could carry Edmund to safety. Even the smallest amount of help Edmund could give would be vital for escape. And so it was with the greatest reluctance that Peter hissed into his little brother's ear: "You are in so much trouble, Ed, and it will be worse if you don't wake up this instant." As expected, but hardly welcomed, Edmund barely groaned in response, just continued with his increasingly vain struggle for breath. "Edmund, so help me, I will tell Susan about what really happened at Amansil'din."
Peter watched, relieved, as Edmund's eyes fluttered open – amazing what a well-placed threat could do, not that Peter ever would have gone through with that particular one. Not when the whole point of this was to keep Edmund alive. For once, the attempt seemed to actually go as planned, since the Imps were still arguing and Edmund was waking. The confusion in the younger king's eyes was evident, compounded by his illness, but there was no time to explain. "Come on, we have to get out of here." Peter moved slowly and deliberately to help Edmund sit up. Somehow, with Edmund's good arm around Peter's shoulder, the brothers managed to stand and hobble slowly, so slowly, towards the entrance of the hovel.
Amazingly, their movement was not noticed and they made it out the door and started down the path. Peter was certain that Edmund was still barely conscious, but there was little either could do as they trudged forward. 'If we can just make it a little further, we may get out of this alive…' Peter thought before being rudely interrupted by the unhappy bellows of Imps who had just noticed that their dinner had run off. 'Running would be good about now.' But of course, Peter and Edmund were barely staggering forward; running was an absurd dream. As the sounds of Imps crashing towards them grew louder, Peter felt a sense of calm fall over him. They were going to die, he realized simply.
As if concurring with Peter's thoughts, Edmund's knees began buckling and Peter struggled to help him sit down before he fell over, leaning him against a boulder – well, a pebble that was the size of a boulder to them. Peter, sitting on his knees – sitting on one, trying to keep his weight off the other – looked his brother in the eyes. Edmund looked back, eyelids lowered to exhausted slits, but his gaze was resigned. Peter gave him a sad smile, and reached out, gently brushing an unruly lock of hair away from Edmund's pale-blue face. Edmund returned the smile and nodded. Then Peter struggled to his feet, drew Rhindon, and prepared to face his death.
He would not be left waiting long. With inhuman growls, the Imps crashed through the grass, clubs in hand. They came up short at seeing Peter, leaning on his walking stick and barely able to hold up his sword. A predatory grin was mirrored on both ugly Imp faces, grotesquely elfin as they were. "More snacks," one growled and the Imps laughed gleefully. Peter held his head high, glaring at them as only a High King could. The Imps sauntered forward, clubs raised. Peter forced his body to hold Rhindon in a defensive stance, ready to try and foolishly parry the inevitably lethal blow…
…only to end up with his vision obscured by a wall of grey fur. "En garde, foul creatures!" boomed a silky voice, and Peter jerked backwards in shock, barely remembering to drop his sword before he accidentally skewered himself as he tumbled to the ground. Sitting in the dust, Peter stared numbly as the Fur pounced at the Imps, the shine of steal glinting silver in front of it. Peter blinked and he realized that the Fur was, in reality, a mouse. A Talking Mouse, if the curses spewing forth were any indication.
The Imps were shouting in anger, then shrieking in horror, and then silent. Peter blinked again and suddenly the Mouse was towering over him, coming closer. The High King nearly panicked until he realized the Mouse was bowing. "What…?"
"Greetings, your majesties. I am Neepicheek of the Field Guard. Thank Aslan, Martin was able to find me and I was able to get here on time."
Peter, still dazed at not being dead, took a moment to compose himself. Then he inclined his neck in return. "Thank you for your timely help, my good Mouse. Now I ask again for your aid: we need medical attention." Peter looked next to him, where Edmund was still leaning against the pebble, his eyes closed and his lungs gasping for air. "And we need it now."
Neepicheek was surprisingly gentle as he lifted the two tiny kings into his arms. Not that Peter had any idea where the Mouse was taking them; Edmund had fallen unconscious again and Peter was spending what little energy he had on watching every agonizing breath that his brother struggled to take. Considering how short a time it was before Neepicheek came to a stop, Peter idly wondered if he had not dozed off himself.
Whether he had failed in his vigil or not, at least Peter could tell that Edmund still lived by the pained groan he let out when jostled as Neepicheek halted his walk. Peter, though hating his brother's pain, could not help but rejoice at the stop for Neepicheep was bellowing out towards newcomers. Towards Lucy. Sure enough, a shadow fell across them and Peter could make out the gigantic, worried face of his sister. "Lucy! Quickly, Edmund is badly off, he needs cordial!"
After a moment's pause when they all realized that Peter's voice was too small for Lucy to hear, the High King had Neepicheek repeat his words for her. Through this frustrating system, Peter managed to get across their situation. Eventually, Neepicheek set the kings down in a sparse patch of grass, Peter holding Edmund upright so the latter could have some relief in his breathing.
Unfortunately, though, when Lucy uncorked the diamond flash, she hesitated. "Peter," she whispered, though her voice was as loud as thunder to the tiny king. "Peter, how will he drink it? A drop is still many times the size of his lips."
Peter blinked, and then he remembered the impossible dewdrops from before. He looked up at Neepicheek, but the Mouse had no answers either. Closing his eyes, Peter tried desperately not to let frustrated tears escape, even as he felt each pained, shuddering breath rasping through Edmund's chest. They were so close! The cordial was there, held in a desperately worried Lucy's hand. It was right there, but it was useless while they were this small. Peter could hear Lucy above them, trying to reassure him that Susan was hunting down the hag, that they would force the creature to remove the curse, that Edmund would be fine. There was no reason to heed useless platitudes.
And they were useless. Peter had been around dying men before; he had held Edmund before as he was dying. So Peter knew what a dying man looked like, felt like, and he saw and felt it in Edmund now. For all their struggles, for all that Edmund was still fighting the shadowed veil, they were out of time. Peter had run out of time and he had failed. Failed to protect Edmund from the hag's curse. Failed to protect him from the Imps. Failed to even get Edmund a pinch of the healing cordial he needed to save his life, even now on the brink of…
Peter's eyelids shot open, his eyes burning with unshed tears and determination. His brother was not going to die in his arms with salvation only inches away. Gently moving Edmund to the side, Peter laid him on the ground, wincing at the strangled hitch in the younger king's breathing. Using his trusty walking stick, Peter gathered all his severely depleted strength to stand. Mind racing, Peter studied the rocky earth in front of him. "Lucy?" he asked and Neepicheek repeated. "Do you have anything waterproof that could hold a drop of fireflower juice?"
Lucy thought for a moment, then hurriedly began doing, well, something. Peter was presently so light-headed and nauseated that he was having a hard time focusing his eyes. Maybe standing was not such a great idea. Soon enough, however, a tiny square of treated leather was handed to Neepicheek, who placed it gently on the ground next to Peter. The smell was a bit overwhelming, but Peter was really past the point of caring. Instead, he slowly bent over, almost kneeling, and pushed against the leather until it dipped inwardly, creating a bowl-effect. That done, Peter instructed Neepicheek to ask Lucy to pour a drop of cordial on the leather.
Peter could not but smile when Lucy did as asked without any hesitation, strange as the request might seem. Older though she was, Lucy still maintained her childhood belief in her eldest brother, belief that he could fix everything. Peter could only pray that her faith was not misplaced, at least not with this; the cost of failure was too high.
Due to Lucy's gentle, steady hand, the cordial drop landed neatly on the leather, sliding smoothly into the dip. The drop as at least as tall as Peter, and as wide as it was tall. It glinted red as blood in the sparse sunlight, and the ethereal, light fragrance overpowered the stench of leather. Peter stared at the drop, the rasps of Edmund's breathing like a terrible clock, counting down the time he had left. Hesitantly, Peter raised his hand and gently poked the drop with a finger, which broke through the surface like a knife through butter. The drop did not fall apart, instead sticking to his skin.
Peter removed his finger and reached for his short knife. Using it, Peter started slowly slicing, scooping through the liquid. He was not sure if it would work, but when the palm-sized droplet he was carving separated and coalesced neatly in his hand, Peter silently and fervently thanked Aslan that his actions had not ended with the larger drop falling apart and falling on him.
Staring at the droplet in his hand, Peter hesitated. Edmund's breathing was – somehow – getting worse, but he dared not test this on his unconscious brother. Deciding that considering all potential dangers was a waste of time, and besides he was himself probably going to collapse completely in the next few minutes anyway, Peter brought his hand up to his lips. He treated the small bit of cordial like a drink that was barely brimming over the rim of a mug, and supped a tiny bit of it. Peter nearly coughed as the liquid flowed into his mouth – unused to having more than a drop of cordial at a time – and he swallowed quickly.
Almost instantly he felt the too-familiar magic of the fireflower begin working on his injuries. His knee stopped throbbing in agony, and the headache – which had been so persistent that he had become numb to its presence – flared and then subsided. The nausea and dizziness from his concussion disappeared as well. His exhaustion remained – not being an injury to cure – and so Peter pushed himself to stumble to Edmund's side, carefully cradling the rest of the now smaller droplet in his hand.
Usually Peter would have taken the time to set Edmund's arm first, which would hasten the healing process and be less painful. At the moment, however, the dislocated shoulder was the least of Peter's worries. Exponentially, frighteningly more worrying was the fact that Edmund was no longer breathing, save for too-occasional, shallow, useless gasps. Cursing at himself for being so slow, Peter held the fireflower juice droplet steady in his left hand as he used his right arm to lift Edmund up, shaking him roughly.
"Ed! Ed, wake up!" Nothing. Peter felt tears begin to return. Forcing Edmund to drink while unconscious, injured, and gasping as he was now was just asking for Edmund to choke on it, for him to mortally inhale the liquid that should have saved him. He would go through with it if he had to, but Peter had no desire to be the one to give the final blow that ended the life which Edmund was so determinedly struggling to keep. "Please. Please, Edmund, wake up. Just a little bit. Please."
Anyone else would have ignored the annoying voice begging for the very last of their energy for such an absurd thing as 'waking up'. But darned if Edmund did not listen to his brother and fight, impossibly, against utter unconsciousness. Well, he did his best at least, and if Edmund never really managed complete consciousness, considering he had to give up the fight to breathe in order to flutter his eyelashes slightly, Peter took what he could get and squeezed the fireflower juice into Edmund's gasping mouth.
As Peter feared, Edmund began coughing, weak empty gags more than actual coughs. But the coughs did not lead to choking. Instead, they grew, if not stronger, more full. Elation ran through Peter as he realized that the cordial was working, elation tempered only by the fact that Edmund did not have the strength left to cough as he should. Quickly, the older king lifted Edmund so that he was lying in Peter's lap, upright against his chest and leaning forward. The angle helped and Peter was relieved as each cough cleared more from his brother's lungs – however disgusting the results of the coughs could be (he had already given these trousers up for loss, so it did not really matter).
No, what mattered more than anything in the world was that air was getting into Edmund's lungs, his skin was moving from grey-blue to pale-pink, and his shoulder was nearly back in its rightful place. When Edmund finally slumped back against Peter it was because he could finally take in air without his chest heaving and rattling. And as Neepicheek related the good news to Lucy, Peter just held his brother in his arms, rejoicing in feeling the steady movement of his chest.
"Peter?" Edmund's voice was quiet, ringing with exhaustion, but marvelously clear.
Edmund paused, then spoke wryly and wearily. "I think I really like breathing." It was said with such amazed conviction that Peter could not help but burst out laughing. If Edmund felt salty tears fall on the top of his head, he did not say anything about it. He only brought his hands up to grip Peter's arms, which still encircled Edmund's blessedly-clear chest.
Their grips did not even slacken when, a few moments later, the two kings finally, finally gave into exhaustion and fell asleep where they sat.
"You must admit, they are rather adorable like that."
"Perhaps if they were slightly bigger. They remind me too much of insects at that size." A pause. "Has there been any luck at changing that?"
"Pentanthera thinks she may have figured out what the hag did. And if anyone can reverse it, she can."
"Well, after that incident with the honeysuckle and the squirrel…" A rustle of skirts. "Peter? Su, I think he's waking."
A gentle voice whispered over him, "Go back to sleep, Peter. Edmund is well and you're both safe."
Back into restful darkness.
Peter woke up flailing, the world swirling around him. Unfortunately, the flailing led to tangling with another set of limbs, and then he was rolling, falling, and landing with an undignified squawk on a rather fluffy rug. Wait.
Blinking, Peter opened his eyes, at the very moment a flurry of silk swarmed him, more limbs added to the tangle. "It worked! Oh, we were so worried! You disappeared and then the guard was reporting what happened and the need for cordial and you were so small!"
Somewhere near Peter's left arm and – Susan's? – right foot, Edmund groaned. "Lucy, I love you, but I was getting used to breathing again, so could you loosen your grip a little?"
At the reminder of all that had happened to them, to Edmund, Peter turned and lunged at his little brother, who was looking a bit disheveled and grumpy at having been woken. Susan squeaked as she was slightly crushed in the movement, but Peter was intent on getting at Edmund. The High King managed to wiggle his arm past Lucy and curl it around Edmund's stomach, and he laid his head on his brother's arm, relaxing only at the feel of his steady pulse. Peter began to speak, to pour out the guilt that tormented him even now: "I'm so sorry, Ed, so sor…oof, Susan!"
Gentle as she was considered by their people, Susan had sharp elbows. "Sorry, just getting comfortable."
"Also," added Lucy as she somehow managed to snuggle closer to her elder siblings, "she wanted to stop you before you began pontificating about your guilt for whatever happened out there. It's not healthy, and certainly not conducive to sleep, which is what you are going to do now." The last was said in her stern healer's voice, which brooked no argument.
Not that this ever stopped Peter. "So you're saying that asking forgiveness for nearly getting Edmund killed is less restful than sleeping on the floor?" The complaint was followed by a more reactionary than pained "Ouch!" as Edmund managed to maneuver to slap Peter upside the head.
The High King shifted so he could partially see Edmund's face; the younger king's eyes glinted with fond mirth. "Yes, Ed?"
"Do you really want to argue against Susan and Lucy?"
Peter pondered this. On the one hand, he was the High King of Narnia and entitled to feel insanely guilty about everything that had happened to Edmund because of him. On the other hand, sisters. "So, sleep?"
Edmund smirked. "Sleep," he agreed and the four siblings snuggled closer together and quickly fell into a dreamless, untroubled sleep – all content to be back at their right sizes and all happily, blessedly alive.
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