Chapter 9: Crimson Sunset
Chapter rating: Still K+. But serious crushing going on! ;)
A/N: And finally we come to it! FLUFF! Lucian! Hallelujah!
And the same winds that swept through the castle, bearing hope upon their currents, carried the King on his quest, bringing courage for the task as he set forth into the enchantment of the forest.
The Dawn Treader seemed to glide upon the parting waters of the Eastern Sea as if they were sailing on a clear lake, untroubled by rough seas or flagging winds. Lucy thought she could have watched the horizon forever, stretching out before them with glassy stillness, but the waning of the sun across the sky behind them reminded her of the passage of time, and reluctantly she climbed down onto the forecastle just before dinner.
Lucy thought it likely that Lord Rhoop might wake to eat soon, and it was easy enough to assemble a plate from the galley (Cook was well used to her comings and goings by then) and bring a flagon of spiced wine, which was quite warming once you got used to the unexpected bite of its flavors. She crossed the main deck with a dish in each hand. By then the ship was once again bustling with a newly replenished crew, who were completing their final chores before dinner. Glancing up, Lucy could see Sharptongue keeping watch on the yardarm, with Edmund below the Raven on the fighting-top.
She found Caspian standing near the side close to the stern cabin, gazing out to the Eastern Sea. The waves shone gently with the sun's slanting rays from the West, though they were still an hour or so from sunset. Caspian turned as Lucy approached, and her stomach did a funny little somersault at the shy smile that lit up his face. It was not an unwelcome feeling.
"You've got an early start on dinner, I see," said Caspian when she was within a few steps of him. The teasing tone of his voice was warm, inviting…
Lucy gave him an amused look and lifted the rather large flagon as if toasting him. "And celebrating as well," she replied with a grin.
Caspian lifted an eyebrow. "Please tell me that's to share."
Lucy couldn't help laughing at his droll expression. "As a matter of fact, it is. And the food too." She motioned to the cabin with a turn of her head. "For Lord Rhoop. I think he is still resting. Would you like to come with me and see him?"
"I would be glad to," said Caspian, looking rather thoughtful at the mention of the castaway. He fell in beside her and held out his hand to take the heavy cup from her. Lucy gave him a sideways look as his fingers brushed her thumb. She released the flagon, and together they crossed the remaining distance to the stern cabin. He held the door open and she glided inside.
A few more steps, and she was at her former cabin's door with Caspian right behind her. Lucy listened for any signs of stirring within, but all was quiet. She knocked softly and pushed open the door.
Rhoop still slept, his sparse frame barely taking up any room on the bunk. Looking with compassion on the gaunt man that lay before them, Lucy felt hesitant to wake him and disturb the peace that comforted him, the oblivion of his sleep. She thought of the terrible things he had seen, of what might be waiting for him when he awoke. She bit her lip and looked at Caspian. "Should we…"
"I think so," said Caspian. "He needs food as much as he needs rest. And he's been asleep for half the day."
Caspian did not seem to share her concerns for Rhoop's waking state. Lucy knew it was only a matter of time, anyways. She handed the plate in her hand to Caspian and stepped to the side of the bed, kneeling there. "Lord Rhoop," she said, laying a hand on his bony wrist. "Will you awake? We've brought you a bite to eat…"
Lucy found her hand seized in a crushing grip. Rhoop's eyes were wide open, staring wildly from the hollows of his face. He looked terribly shaken, as though he was suddenly thrust into a nightmare. "Who are you?" he cried. "Why do you torment me so?"
"My Lord, you are safe here," said Caspian, standing next to Lucy's shoulder and looking with concern at the shaking figure. "It is I, Caspian, son of your King. And this is Queen Lucy of Narnia. You are among friends and countrymen. The Darkness is gone."
"Don't!" wailed Rhoop. "Don't make me go back there! I will wish for death, and death will not come! This is just another dream that they have sent, to taunt me with hope only to snatch it away forever."
He was thrashing frantically, and Lucy tried to still his jerking motions to no avail, so she clasped his clawing hand and spoke through his ravings. "Rhoop. You've lived in despair for so long, and I can only imagine the agony you've been in. But you were delivered from that place by Aslan himself! He has not forgotten you. He brought us to you." Lucy felt as though it was not her speaking; the words seemed to be coming from outside of herself, or somewhere deep within that was rising to the surface. She had not realized till that very moment, but suddenly it all made sense. They had not sailed to the Dark Island for adventure or glory. They had come to rescue Rhoop from that terrible, terrible place. And Aslan knew this even if they had not.
At Aslan's name, Rhoop seemed to calm a little, though he continued to twist and turn nervously. "You are not a Boggle? Or a witch?"
"I can't cast spells or send you dreams," said Lucy with a shake of her head. "I'm a Narnian, like yourself."
"You gave me something, something that made me fall asleep." Rhoop was looking somewhat fearfully at her, trying to pull his hand away.
"That is Aslan's gift," said Lucy, and she drew the tiny bottle on its chain from under her shirt. Rhoop's face relaxed again at the warm syllables of the Great Lion's name. Lucy showed him the cordial. "This is no black magic, only the healing juice of the fireflowers of the North. It's nothing to do with me."
"However, Queen Lucy is a healer," Caspian broke in. "She wishes only to restore your health, my Lord. And you need food to regain your strength. You must be hungry; here, eat and drink your fill."
"A little at a time," cautioned Lucy, as Caspian knelt by her side and offered Rhoop the simple repast, who stared for a moment and then began wolfing down the bread and cheese. "I don't suppose you are accustomed to much food. You will have to adjust to it slowly."
"No, no, there was no food there," said Rhoop with a shiver, clutching at the flagon of wine with hands that still trembled. "There was no anything there, just them." His fingers shook so greatly that drops of wine spilled as he tried to drink. Lucy put her hands around the sides of the flagon to steady it, feeling her heart ache for Rhoop's long ordeal.
Caspian was studying his face intently, and glanced at Lucy when she took the wine from Rhoop's hands. Lucy knew what was on his mind; they had promised not to ask him about his time on the Dark Island, yet how were they to help him if they did not know what he had suffered?
Rhoop seized the dried fruit upon the plate and held it like it was a pure gold nugget. "Apples. Narnian apples. I used to ride with Erimon to the old ruins by the sea and pick the apples that grew in the wild forests there." He tasted the fruit with a far-off look in his ever-shifting eyes.
Their orchard. Lucy was amazed at the thought of the sustenance it had brought to centuries of Narnians.
"You knew Erimon," said Caspian thoughtfully. "You will want to meet Drinian, our captain, for he is the son of Lord Erimon."
"He is long gone," said Rhoop in a very distant tone. "Dead, like all of my companions, dead by Miraz's hand, dead under the waves, dead upon islands and dark lands." He reached for the wine again.
Lucy touched his hand firmly. "Do you want to remember, Rhoop? Or does it bring you more pain than pleasure?"
"There is nothing but pain now," said Rhoop, looking at her with a haunted expression on his face. "There is no pleasure save the fleeting hope of false dreams."
"Then do not dream at all." Lucy wrapped Rhoop's hands around the flagon, then drew out her cordial and unscrewed the diamond stopper from the bottle. She carefully poured a single drop into the remaining wine. "When you wish to sleep without dreams, drink the rest of this, and call upon Aslan, and he will give you the peace you seek."
"I do not know this name." Rhoop stared at the cup, his fingers shaking a little less. "But it warms me strangely."
"And he knows yours," said Lucy simply. "You can trust him to watch over you." She rose to her feet, and Caspian did the same, and they stood for a moment by the side of the dazed-looking man, examining him carefully. Rhoop seemed to be slipping away again into the same state of withdrawal from this morning. Further conversation would only distress him further.
"Sleep soon, Lord Rhoop," said Lucy. "There's nothing to fear now."
Rhoop nodded and drank from the cup. It was soon empty, and Lucy took it from his hands and watched with some relief as he sank back onto the bed and struggled no longer.
Caspian set the plate on the nightstand and followed Lucy out of the room, softly closing the door behind them. They came into the stern cabin to discover dinner set upon the table there, and Edmund and Eustace already sitting down to eat.
"There you are!" said Eustace. "We got tired of waiting and decided to just tuck in. I'm half done already."
"How is Rhoop?" asked Edmund, glancing at Lucy.
She shook her head. "Unwell. He's still back there, in his mind. I'm afraid even the cordial is just a temporary healing for the dreams that trouble him."
"Do you think he will recover?" Caspian asked her frankly. "He is the first living Lord we've found since Bern. It pains me to see him in this state."
Lucy could not answer this for sure. "Time will tell. I think Aslan will be merciful to him, for he loves Narnia too."
The sun was setting behind them through the glass of the three small windows, and Lucy could see the brilliant array of colors that beckoned her to come linger in their play of lights and hues. Impulsively, she picked up her own plate and explained to the others, "I can't miss the sunset tonight. It's too beautiful."
Eustace snorted, and Edmund said, "Only you, Lu."
Caspian, though, nodded. "I know what you mean. I'll keep you company, if our exalted dining party will excuse my presence for one night." He flashed the other two a mocking grin. Lucy did not quite like the knowing look Edmund gave him in return.
"Have at it," said Eustace. "I think we can bear the loss for one dinner."
Caspian leaned to take his plate too and cuffed Eustace's arm with his fist in passing. Boys. Lucy grinned as she took a step back toward the door.
"Here, take this." Edmund produced a small wineskin on a leather loop and held it to her.
Lucy's eyebrows raised. "Where did you get that?"
"The less questions asked, the better," said Edmund. "I'm being very generous."
"Thanks." Lucy accepted the offered flask and slipped it onto her belt. She tried to keep her cheeks from flushing at Edmund's deliberate diplomacy.
"I shall pretend I didn't see all that," said Caspian with a wry smile.
Outside the cabin, the Dawn Treader was surrounded by a gloriously vivid sunset that spanned the entire Western horizon. Lucy scrambled up the aft stairs to the poop deck, holding on to the rungs with her free hand. Caspian was right behind her, and he stepped onto the deck a moment after her.
The beauty of the skies around her took Lucy's breath away. She stood for a moment in silent appreciation of its splendor. Then realizing Caspian was looking curiously at her, Lucy remembered to breathe and keep going. She came to the small wooden bench on the port side of the railing and took a seat, and Caspian sank down next to her a minute later.
Lucy looked out on the horizon where the sun was just above the dark indigo line of the sea. All around it were fiery streaks of crimson and pink, and beyond that a canvas of purple and sapphire brushstrokes that blazed and glowed like no painting ever could. Lucy gazed with longing at the vivid landscape, wishing she could soak in its colors and remember it whenever she wanted. It made her remember the many nights of bidding the sun farewell on the shores of Cair Paravel, or aboard the Aureal Gazelle, prow pointed toward Narnia and the West on their return voyage. Her lips parted in a silent sigh of wonder and pleasure at the memory.
Beside her, Lucy felt Caspian's eyes not on the sunset, but resting on her. All of a sudden, self-consciousness overwhelmed her. She was sitting alone with a boy – or as alone as one could get on a tiny ship full of crew members – eating dinner and watching a sunset for goodness's sake! Susan would have called it a date. Lucy felt heat burn her face at the thought, suddenly aware of the closeness of Caspian's leg to her own, close enough that she could feel his warmth against her.
She cast a quick glance up at him, and the expression in Caspian's eyes as they met hers only added to her confusion. Of course they had talked together before during the voyage…but it hadn't been like this, this almost tangible weight of anticipation or – Lucy was not sure what to call it; she almost did not dare call it anything, for fear that she was making too much of it. Nevertheless, she was aware how this would seem to any onlookers, and glanced away to survey the swathe of deck around them for who exactly might be watching. The upper deck there did not have many occupants, particularly since it was dinner time, and the boatswain Derth was at the tiller a ways behind them. Nobody seemed to care very much that Caspian was sitting with her there – she talked with everybody – and they were friends.
Don't be such a silly girl…
As they nibbled on the meal they had brought, Lucy quelled the strange feeling in her stomach and turned again to him with determined composure. "It almost is too beautiful to bear, isn't it?"
Caspian nodded. "We haven't had a sunset this brilliant since the last storm. I've missed them."
"Oh yes! I was just thinking of how many times I've watched one just like this on the Eastern Sea…but much closer to Narnia. And it was never this – oh, grand. All around me. Like it's filling up the sky." Lucy felt like she was babbling now, but Caspian seemed to understand.
"The horizon looks almost bigger, I think," he replied seriously, "and perhaps it is, as we draw nearer to the edge of the world. If it is like a great round table, wouldn't the edge grow larger as you got closer?"
"A beautiful theory…as long as we're not close to falling off," Lucy said, smiling. She handed him the wineskin from her belt.
Caspian looked thoughtful as he took a sip. "Do you think – well, what do you think is waiting for us, further East? At the end, I mean."
"Reep thinks it's Aslan's Country." Lucy contemplated the panaroma before them; the sun that was just now dipping halfway out of sight in a blaze of scarlet flames. She sighed, thinking of the end of the adventure that arriving to that country would imply. "I couldn't tell you if I hope for that or not. Of course it must be a splendid place, and best of all we would see Aslan."
"Yes," said Caspian, his voice wistful, fingers toying with the apple on the plate in his lap. "I would like that more than anything. I can't believe you saw him today."
"Well, a form of him," said Lucy. "I love it best when he is a Lion, of course, because that's who he is! But it was wonderful, just to hear him again and feel that he was with us."
"You're lucky, you know." Caspian sounded almost envious. "I haven't seen him since the coronation." He looked down at the apple in his hand, and Lucy, about to speak, thought he seemed to be working up the courage to say something, and bit her lip, waiting. He said softly, "It's been a long three years…wondering if he even still is with me."
Lucy put her hand on his arm. "Of course he is. Don't you remember Deathwater Island? We all saw Aslan then! I know it's not the same as talking with him, but even seeing him was so lovely, even when he's angry…"
"What?" asked Caspian. "Aslan? On Deathwater? You may have seen him, but I have no memory of Aslan there. Nor, strangely, of what precisely we did see there, save that we found the body of Lord – oh, what's his name."
Lucy stared at him. They had not talked of that perilous island or the events that had transpired there, by mutual agreement as Lucy had thought. She hadn't wanted to press Edmund or Caspian about it, out of kindness for the things that were spoken in anger there. The memory of their words, and her own foolishness, still made her shiver. The Caspian sitting there beside her, so young-looking and noble in the suffused twilight, earnest-faced and open, was not at all the Caspian she had seen at Deathwater…
She could not believe the things he was saying, these terrible ugly words, claiming possession of the island and its riches forever, binding them to secrecy, threatening them with death if they told. Lucy wanted to scream, to run up to Caspian and shake him and tell him to stop saying these things, these words that could not be unsaid, but the awful look in his eyes and set of his jaw told her that he would not listen. She could not bear the flush of greed that spread across his face – not greed for the money, she knew; greed for the promise of security and power it offered. Anger at his blindness swelled up inside her; didn't he see that Aslan himself had made Caspian King, and there was no need to be anything more than what he had made him? What good would riches without honor do? And he was ready to kill for that?
She clenched her fists, opened her mouth to speak, but Edmund spoke first. "Who are you talking to? I'm no subject of yours. If anything it's the other way round. I am one of the four ancient sovereigns of Narnia and you are under allegiance to the High King my brother."
The shock of Edmund's arrogance and claim to power struck Lucy like a slap in the face. He knew as well as she did that Caspian reigned now, no matter what mistakes he made…even the one he was making right now…
"So it has come to that, King Edmund, has it?" said Caspian, laying his hand on his sword-hilt. Horror and rage flooded Lucy at the thought of Caspian and Edmund coming to blows over the kingship of Narnia. Caspian was too young, too innocent for such brutality! And Edmund should know better. He had commanded boys Caspian's age in battle…he had been such a one himself, leading an army when he was no older than they were now…
And yet Edmund was reaching for his sword as well, his face hard and fierce, and he stepped towards Caspian. Words, ugly words poured out of Lucy. She screamed at them to stop, that they were swaggering bullying idiots, they were behaving like brawling schoolboys, anything to get them to put down their weapons and act like the Kings of Narnia that they were. Edmund was shouting at her to stay out of this, and Caspian was drawing his sword with a terrible expression on his face. She flew at them, preparing for the impact of one or both of them to try to block her…and stopped short.
Aslan. The Great Lion filled the hillside with his brilliant majesty, stern and fearsome in his silent rebuke. Lucy gasped, suddenly overcome with unspeakable joy at the sight and with shame at her behavior. And though he did not speak as he passed, his blazing golden eyes seemed to pierce straight through her and lay her true self exposed in all its inadequacy. Lucy wished desperately to run to him and bury her hands in his mane and confess every selfish and weak part of her, but before she could move a step, the Lion had disappeared from the hill and left only the fading memory of his glory and the realization of what that Island had made them do…
"You – don't remember any of it? Aslan, or you and Edmund –" Lucy was struck by the bewildered look on Caspian's face, reminding her suddenly of how he had acted immediately after the perilous adventure, and realized this was not something she should be telling him. If Aslan wished for him to forget the person he had become under the sway of Deathwater's temptation, she should not attempt to remind him of it. Her own temptation had been private, thank Aslan, but had Caspian been there to witness it (perish the thought!), she would have been glad for the same kindness of forgetfulness.
Lucy discovered that her hand closest to Caspian was still touching his upper arm, the firm muscle under his shirtsleeves spreading warmth to her palm in the cool twilight air. Feeling immensely bold, she stroked her fingers there comfortingly. Dear Caspian, he was so young, so anxious to be a good King, and so desirous of Aslan's presence to guide him in that purpose. His gaze was full of questions, and she could only answer so many of them.
"It's all right," said Lucy softly, looking into Caspian's eyes and finding only goodness there now. She smiled. "You will see Aslan soon, I hope. It's part of ruling Narnia. Never knowing when Aslan will appear. But he doesn't have to appear to be with you."
Caspian sighed and looked down. "It would be a relief to know for sure. To see him, hear him with my own senses."
Lucy knew exactly what he meant. Months and sometimes years of waiting to walk with Aslan once more…hoping that they were ruling as they ought, knowing he had entrusted Narnia to them. But somehow the words would not come tonight, as the sudden rush of empathy made her strangely tongue-tied.
Instead, Lucy let her hand slip down to his side and nestled closer, and under the spell of the sense of connection between them, she leaned his head against his shoulder. Her heart began pounding unexpectedly, feeling his warmth next to her. She saw Caspian glance down at her, and she thought she saw a smile in return as he wound his arm around her and held her close. She held her breath and wondered if she was dreaming, but he was solidly real against her cheek, warm and strong and everything she had imagined he would feel like, holding her. Lucy pressed against him, craving the closeness of his touch, trying to savor every precious detail of this unexpected gift.
The skies around them were darkening now with purples and blues, and the Spear-Head was appearing directly overhead, the first of the bright Stars to appear in the heavens. Lucy felt the beauty and stillness of the evening wrap around her, mirroring the sweetness of Caspian's encircling presence. She breathed deeply to counter her racing pulse, but the feeling of plunging headlong into the depths of an endless sea only grew the longer she lingered by Caspian's side, his arm cradling her with aching tenderness.
Lucy did not mind the silence between them at all; far from it. Wordless understanding seemed to connect them as they watched more and more Stars emerge above them, and their meal was a slow and contemplative affair under the blanket of the growing night. The evening breezes off the sea began sweeping in, and Lucy was doubly thankful to take shelter in Caspian's arms, setting aside her mostly empty plate and relaxing further on the bench.
She glanced up at him as he finished the last bite of apple, her wandering thoughts drifting to the last time she had had apples in Narnia, in the days before she had first met Caspian. "It's nothing like the real thing, is it?" she said dreamily. "Straight from the orchard, crisp on a summer day…and even better when you are truly hungry and thirsty."
"Nothing at all," said Caspian. "It's the best taste in the world after a hard morning of training. I'm very glad you planted the orchard so close to the castle." Lucy could hear the smile in his voice, and the clink of the plate as he leaned to set it down on the deck and settled back next to her.
"And I'm very glad you kept it up," she replied. "We planted it the year we left…but there were others in Narnia, near Glasswater and Lantern Waste and, oh, too many to count! In the early years, you know. When there were no crops, and we had to start everything from scratch."
"I don't know if I could have done it," said Caspian in a low voice. "There were so many things to do in these three years…and that was with established trade and government and industry. I truly can't imagine how you all did it."
"I don't know how exactly either," said Lucy, and she smiled at the thought. "It all seems like a dream sometimes." She fell silent for a moment, remembering those hard first few years, but also the many beautiful and thrilling things they had brought as well. The rushing waters of spring, the dancing Dryads and Naiads, the joy of the Talking Beasts at the approach of their beloved monarchs, the rustle of the Tree People who would wake at her touch and whisper, the leaves and soft grass under her bare feet as she ran to join the circle on the Dancing Lawn…
Lucy swallowed hard. She buried her head against Caspian's shoulder, knowing he would understand. "I miss Narnia," she said thickly. "I want so very much to go back there, just one more time. I love the Dawn Treader…but Narnia was home."
He put both arms around her this time, pulling her close against his chest. She blinked back tears at his gentle comforting embrace, better than words could be. Lucy closed her eyes and breathed in the scent of his shirt, so familiar to her after all these weeks, the scent she had come to associate with the peace of sleep and comforting safety. That same feeling of security rushed over her as she relaxed into Caspian's sheltering arms, and the ache of separation from her home was a little less.
Caspian stroked her shoulder with reassuring fingers. Lucy twisted to sit up a little, and turned her head and gave the smallest of smiles up at him. "Tell me about Cair Paravel. I hope it looks better than it did last time we were there."
In the darkness she could see his eyes brighten with amusement and interest. "Oh yes, you wouldn't recognize the place! Well, perhaps that's not such a good thing…but I tried to consult every possible source for the rebuilding, and though I'm sure it's not what it was in your time, it seems very Narnian to me…"
Lucy soaked in the details of his descriptions of the newly restored Cair Paravel, transported by his words back to the land she loved so well, and glad that he was the one who could tell her of it, if she could not go there herself. Night fell in earnest, and the Dawn Treader glided ever on and on, further East, toward the morning sun and all the adventures it promised.
The King set forth boldly through the shadows of the trees, and he did not fear the magics that were rumoured there, for his heart was stout and his will was strong for whatever adventure perchance lay ahead of him.
A/N: ::Happy sigh:: And so it begins. I would LOVE to know what you thought, if you like the direction this is going ;-). Be sure to let me know and leave a little review here! Lucian LIVES! :D