A/N: Characters and situations are not mine. They belong to C.S. Lewis's estate. I know that others have others have created their versions of the Narnian calendar. Thornbut's history can be found in meldahlie's "This is No Thaw" which I highly recommend. Susan's conversation with Anicetus is found, in part, in my "Saints of Gold" collection under the chapter title, "Nothing Is So Strong."
Cair Paravel, early Gathering, NT 1000
The sledge sliced through the winter night, and the winter sliced through the sledge's occupants. Ice froze on Edmund's cheeks, and the blowing snow crusted his lashes making it difficult to see so much as the rail before him or hear anything beyond the crack of the whip, the roar and howl of the wind and the Witch's voice calling, 'Faster!'
Was it only the wind howling? The cry for speed turned to a 'Hold!' The sledge slowed and then stopped too quickly for Edmund to brace himself. He was flung forward against the rail, losing what frozen breath he'd managed to draw. "Well done."
He scrambled to regain his breath and senses and squinted through the storm to see what had pleased the Witch. They had overtaken a wolf pack feeding. One of the Beasts raised its muzzle from its victim to speak, and the snow cleared just enough for Edmund to see a face on the ground. "There's no one to take your place this time, traitor." Ulfson's words through Maugrim's lips. The wolf crouched to spring -
Edmund woke gasping in his room. His heart pounded and his mouth was dry. The fire had subsided to a dull glow . He looked at the chair where Peter had been sitting when Edmund fell asleep, but it was empty. It would be babyish to rush to his brother's room and alarm the high king's guards just because of a bad dream, but the chill lingered, making sleep impossible. Edmund wrapped himself in a blanket and made his way down to the Great Hall.
The fire was always laid there. Edmund added a log from the pile and sat on the hearth with his back to the warm stone, facing the great eastern doors. Above the crackling of the fire, he could hear the wind blowing over the waves, more light and alive than in his dreams. It mingled with voices, high and sweet and low and resounding: the merfolk of the Eastern Sea singing praises to Aslan and the Emperor over sea. Edmund exhaled, his eyes following the invisible strains up to the night sky. The twinkling stars almost seemed to join in the song.
"I never grow tired of that sound," said a low, gruff voice.
Edmund started up - he could just hear the arms master scolding him for not being on his guard - but it was only Thornbut. The dwarf had clearly been on watch. He wore his quiver over his shoulder and a dagger at his belt. Thornbut bowed. "Your pardon, sire. My feet are right tired."
Never had Edmund heard the captain of archers complain of discomfort, even on campaign. He had a feeling someone - Paulus or Brighteyes, perhaps, as Peter would have come himself - had alerted him. Thornbut's company was among the least obtrusive one could ask for, at least. Edmund shifted over on the hearth and waved for Thornbut to sit down.
The dwarf settled on the hearth with his bow across his knees and murmured his gratitude. For several minutes, he only listened as the song continued to rise to a crescendo. Only when it paused did he say, conversationally. "For years it was nothing but silence and frozen waves, but hear them now."
"What was it like?" Edmund had heard this story before, despite the question, but Thornbut always indulged him.
"Like an empty plain," said Thornbut. "Rimmed with cliffs of ice. White and still. There was life below the surface, of course - good fishing, and I hear the merfolk moved out about the Lone Isles during the Winter - but little to see."
It sounded lonely. Harsh and bleak on the gentlest of days. Edmund imagined what it must have been like in a storm.
"But times like this, I don't think of that." Thornbut continued.
Edmund turned from view of dark waves to look at the dwarf. "You don't?" he said.
Thornbut shook his head slowly. "No." He pointed out to sea. "I think of Aslan crossing the waves, brighter than the sun had shone in a hundred years and returning spring to Narnia."
The radiant vision conjured by Thornbut's words warmed Edmund in a way that the fire had not. Aslan at the top of the hill of the Stone Table, fierce and sad and knowing. Aslan declaring him a knight of Narnia on the battlefield beside the ford. Aslan breathing warmth and life into the little gathering of stone revelers and roaring laughter as the little squirrel attempted to hug his paw. Aslan naming him king under Peter with the reminder of all the responsibility that entailed. "When he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again," Edmund mumbled under his breath. He glanced self-consciously at Thornbut, but the dwarf still gazed out to sea and seemed not to have heard.
After a few moments, the mermaids resumed their song. Edmund relaxed and listened.
"You oughtn't have gone alone." Peter's voice was stern and serious when Edmund approached the little antechamber outside the audience room.
He was the last to arrive. As he closed the door behind him, Lucy looked back at him and shook her head in exasperation. "Oh, Peter, really!" she said, turning back to their older siblings. "Susan was marvelous."
Susan did not seem overly moved either by Peter's disapproval or Lucy's praise. "Felix was just outside the door," she said calmly. "You ought to have heard him. He's miserable, Peter."
"Felix is?" asked Edmund, feeling out of step.
Now Peter and Susan looked at him, Peter only briefly and Susan apparently seeking an ally. "Anicetus," she said. "I spoke with him about Henrik last night."
Edmund scowled at the use of Ulfson's given name. "Alone?" he said. "That's dangerous, Su! We still don't really know what side he's on." The recent nightmare teased at the back of his mind, plucking at the strings of his nerves. Edmund was no fonder of the notion of his older sister meeting with the faun alone than he had been of Peter leaving himself vulnerable to attack back in Delver's Hollow.
"I don't believe he could hurt anyone now," said Susan with an alarming degree of sympathy in her voice.
"Now?" Peter repeated. "He admitted to helping Ulfson?"
Susan hesitated. "Not in so many words," she said, at last. "But he clearly feels responsible. He spoke of his friend, of what brought him to-" her eyes flickered to Edmund and back. "To her. To take on the curse. He only wanted to help his family, and Anicetus, I think, only wanted to help his friend."
"Ulfson killed innocents," said Peter. "Over years. He was given the opportunity to reform, and he threw it away. He almost killed Edmund. He may well have been-" He cut himself off abruptly, rubbed his forehead just below the gold crown, and then sighed. "I didn't think I'd have to remind you to be careful."
"Nothing is going to happen here in the castle, Peter," Lucy said. "And Susan says he sounds sorry for what he's done."
"He sounds sorry," Edmund repeated. "That isn't the same as being."
"Edmund," said Susan reproachfully.
His face heated, but he knew better than any of them how to feign regret or ignore it until ignorance became impossible. He'd come perilously close to losing his family.
Anicetus had lost his friend.
Red-faced, more quietly, Edmund said, "It's not the same as doing something about it." He looked at Peter. "We still don't know. We won't without questioning. Su wasn't hurt." He glanced at his older sister, suspiciously. "You would have said. Felix would have said." Edmund had no doubt the lynx would have jumped to the defense of his queen. "Although, we ought to have a word with him about leaving you alone."
Susan frowned. "Don't you dare, Edmund. I ordered him to wait outside. Don't hold that against him."
Considering the night guards had been sufficiently interfering to send Thornbut down to the Great Hall over a bit of nighttime wakefulness, Edmund still couldn't help feeling a bit resentful at this neglect. "He ought to have alerted someone, at least," he muttered. "If something had happened to you, he would have been responsible."
"Felix obeyed orders," agreed Peter reluctantly. "But it wasn't kind to put him in that position. His duty was to protect you."
Susan looked wounded at that accusation as she had at no other.
"That isn't fair!" said Lucy. "What if it was you who'd told him to wait? Or Edmund?"
Peter looked serious. "If I were heading into a situation that I knew was dangerous, I wouldn't go alone, and I'd say the same if it was any of you."
This might be true. Edmund had overheard (before remembering that he should not be listening and moving away) part of a stern conversation between Peter and the arms master in which Captain Dallin apologized profusely for letting Edmund out of his sight at the Marshwiggle's village. As for not going in alone - Peter probably believed he wouldn't, but Edmund had seen evidence to the contrary. He shook his head. "Let's just go in and see what he has to say."
A low, whisker-y cough followed his words. Edmund, along with his siblings, turned to look at the door to the audience chamber. "Your Majesties," said Beaver.
Susan flushed slightly. "We're very sorry, Mr. Beaver. We're ready now." She looked at Peter expectantly.
Beaver nodded, poked his nose through the door and signaled to someone on the other side. Peter sighed but crossed to stand beside Susan and extended his elbow. She laid her hand on it. Edmund held out his own arm to Lucy, and they waited for the announcement.
"Their royal majesties, High King Peter, Queen Susan, King Edmund, and Queen Lucy."
They entered the Great Hall. They had to stand and wait for the bows and cheers before taking a seat - the girls first, at Peter's insistence, followed by Peter and Edmund. This morning's court was more subdued than dinner the previous evening. Everyone knew that there were serious matters at hand.
The first to be judged was not Anicetus, but one of Ulfson's werewolf lieutenants. The werewolf was not quite as unapologetic as his captain. He even offered to reveal the rebel's hideout in exchange for leniency.
"I was new to their company, your majesties, joined just last spring, and only under duress." In the form of a man, he looked weary and haunted. He wore no shoes, and a pale scar on his leg revealed where teeth had sunk deep into his calf once upon a time. He spoke with a guttural accent. "I was hunting in the wilds east of Telmar when a storm blew out of the north and scattered my party. After wandering for days, I discovered what was left of one of my companions - and the pack found me. I wounded one before they cornered me, and that impressed them. They told me that I could join them or become one of their victims. I was faint and injured, and I saw what they had done to him…"
"And you would rather be hunter than hunted," muttered Beaver disgustedly.
"No true Beast would prey on its own," growled Mahon. "Black magic."
The werewolf looked desperately from one to the other of the advisors, and then back to the dias. His eyes flickered over Peter and Edmund to settle pleadingly on the two queens. "It was wrong. I have no excuse, but all I could think was that I wanted to live. They took me to a cave to meet their leader and perform the ritual…" He shuddered violently from head to bare feet. "I was to help them restore their Mistress."
A troubled whisper went through the hall. Edmund did not look at his siblings, but he heard Susan's quick intake of breath, and the tension in Peter's voice. "Their Mistress?" the high king repeated quietly.
"She who they call the White Lady." The prisoner elaborated, although no one had doubted who he meant. "The true queen, so they claimed, though I don't mean so myself. Some said she was dead, but that she might be brought back. The hag that cast the ritual to transform me set some to gathering supplies for the rite to revive her. We were to clear her way to retake the throne."
"A kind way of describing murder and assassination!" said Mr. Beaver, slapping his tail against the floor. "Don't trust him, your majesties. He may claim to have been drafted after, but he was one of the Witch's, all right. He has her look in his eyes."
Everyone but Edmund seemed to know what this meant. Peter glanced his way before replying. "You're a true Beast, Beaver." He turned back to the prisoner. "If this is the rebel plan, and you want to make it right, we need to know the truth."
"Your majesty," begged the prisoner. "I swear!"
Edmund cleared his throat. "Peter," he said under his breath, then corrected himself considering the setting. "My king?" His brother nodded, and Edmund leaned forward in his throne. "Then tell us what you know," he said loudly enough for the prisoner to hear. His heart pounding at the gall, he asked, "Do you want to make a bargain or make amends?"
The werewolf looked taken aback. "Surely - your majesties value mercy. I am not so far gone that I cannot hope for it."
"Mercy is precious," said Peter. "But there is no mercy without justice and no justice without truth."
Edmund heaved a mental sigh of relief that his brother did not call his words out of line. He was uncomfortably grateful that he had told Peter about Maugrim the night before. Even Sir Wolfsbane had things he didn't want to know, but it made Edmund feel slightly less like an impostor in questioning the prisoner.
"All I said of how I joined them is true," protested the werewolf. "You know by your own eyes that I helped to raid the mud people's village." Edmund saw Peter frown at this term for the Marshwiggles. "I have committed crimes against your people, it is true, but I'm not truly a part of these rebels. All I want is to return home."
Sallowpad turned his head to fix the werewolf with one bright eye. "Will they have you?" he asked. "Those few who have wandered through the wild lands westward have little love for magic."
"If you can reverse the ritual," said the prisoner. "I do want to make amends, but I need to know you'll help me. I need to know I won't die a monster."
"Yes, of course," said Lucy. Edmund looked at her sharply, but she continued. "There is still a way to make it right by helping us, and we'll find out what we can about your ritual."
Edmund heard a faint, worried sigh from his elder sister. Susan leaned forward and touched Peter's sleeve. "Good my brother." Susan was always the best at sounding royal, but there was the faintest strain in her voice. "Perhaps we should adjourn for the time being to allow all parties to consider the next course."
Peter looked serious. "I agree, dear sister." He stood. "We will declare a recess until this afternoon." He offered Susan his arm, which she rose to take.
Edmund held his own arm out to Lucy. His youngest sister kept a mostly mild expression until they had all exited the audience chamber. Then she took her hand from Edmund's arm, placed it on her hip, and glared at Susan. "And I stood up for you!" She turned to include Peter and (unfairly, he thought) Edmund in her indignant gaze, and then stalked out of the antechamber in all her eight year old dignity.
That's the problem with little girls. The thought crossed Edmund's mind before he stifled it quickly.
Susan sighed. "Peter," she said quietly, tilting her head. Nodding, Peter followed her down another corridor. Edmund was left alone with a muttering Beaver.
"Sir Mahon is seeing the prisoner back to the dungeon, your majesty," said Beaver when he noticed Edmund looking at him. "A lot of nerve trying to bargain after what he did."
Edmund nodded, but he was thinking of the werewolf's words - All I could think was that I wanted to live - and comparing them with Susan's description of Anicetus and Ulfson. How different were the cases? And how similar? "Beaver?" he asked.
"Yes, your majesty?" the Beast replied.
Edmund bit his lower lip. "What did you mean earlier? When you said he had her look in his eyes?"
Beaver's whiskers twitched, followed by his tail. "My father and grandfather told stories, and those of us that kept the word alive, we learned to tell. We had to learn to stay safe, to keep ahead of the secret police. Not all of them were so obvious as Maugrim, you know."
"Yes, I know," said Edmund quietly.
"Yes, well," said Beaver. "Not all who were in her pay had supped with her, even so, but the rumors were that everything she served was enchanted. Those who did eat at her table, well, they weren't themselves anymore. They were hers, and they would do anything she ordered. It was the hunger in their eyes that gave them away."
Edmund remembered not the werewolf's pleading, or even the desperation on Anicetus's face as the faun knelt before Peter, but the silky taste of Turkish Delight. "Beaver," he asked, swallowing. "When you met me - did I have that look?"
There was a moment of awkward hesitation, but Beaver was a true Beast and too honest to evade. "You did, your Majesty."
Edmund only nodded. It was the answer he'd expected, after all. The next question was the truly important one. He searched the black eyes intently. "Is it still there?"
Beaver met Edmund's gaze, unhesitatingly blunt this time. "You've seen Aslan, your Majesty."
It was good to hear that it made a difference. Edmund felt there was a difference, but he couldn't always be sure it was noticeable. However, if someone like Mr. Beaver, who had known him before and who did not have the stubborn bias of his siblings, thought that Edmund had improved, then perhaps Aslan might think the same one day.
Then again, the girls and Peter had all left him to conduct their own separate business while they were meant to be deliberating together, so perhaps his brother and sisters weren't so convinced of Edmund's reformation, after all. Peter had said it was 'all right.' Aslan had said only that it was the past. Edmund frowned so deeply at the carpeted stone floor of the corridor that he didn't become aware of the hushed argument until he heard his name.
"It worries me when he gets so bitter." That was Susan, using her fretting tone. Up ahead a thin stream of light crossed the corridor from the solar. The door was slightly ajar, but Edmund did not open it. Susan had claimed the sun-lit room quite early as the queens' domain, and even the high king only entered by invitation.
Apparently, Peter had received said invitation because his was the second voice, his working-out-a-problem voice. "I wonder if it might not be time, Su."
To be fair, Edmund knew he ought to walk on by. He shouldn't be eavesdropping, especially right after his conversation with Mr. Beaver, but they hadn't closed the door, and they were clearly discussing him…
"Peter!" This was Susan's how-could-you voice. "We agreed he oughtn't be told."
Peter demurred. "We agreed he wasn't ready to hear, not that he oughtn't ever."
Something - a chair, perhaps, scraped against the stone floor. "And you think he is now?" Susan demanded. "He's barely eating, hardly sleeping. How can you think it?"
Paulus and Brighteyes had been telling tales, Edmund thought with a hint of resentment.
"I think it might be out of our hands if we don't." That was Peter trying hard to be patient.
Susan did not answer immediately. There was a heavy, clothlike sound. "Has he brought it up?"
"No," said Peter. "Not that."
Edmund held his breath. It wasn't that he doubted Susan knew or had guessed, but his confession the previous night had been between brothers.
Susan, however, did not request details. "Then not now," she insisted, working herself into an almost Lucy-like passion. "He was nearly killed! He should be recovering not subjected to the whispers of traitors. I wish-" A pause, and then a sigh. "No, I don't wish you'd just executed them, but if Beaver is right, I hope you don't intend to offer a third chance after the second was squandered."
Edmund blinked at the door. This from the girl who had argued so for Anicetus that morning!
He was not the only one taken aback. "You're quite fierce today, Su."
There was an unhappy sigh. "I know I ought to forgive," said Susan. "And I do feel for his story, but if not for him and the rest, this would never even be a consideration, and I'd rather blame someone for it just now."
Seriously, Peter said, "Not only for him."
"Perhaps not," conceded Susan. "But I'll be reasonable later, just not now."
Edmund squirmed. If not for the subject of the conversation, he would have been amused to hear the queen who had so neatly handled quarrelling dwarf clans last month speaking so petulantly. He really ought to have walked on by earlier.
"I don't know how long it can be kept quiet, Su," said Peter.
"Couldn't you oversee the remaining trials yourself?" asked Susan. "It isn't as if we haven't enough other work to do."
Peter objected. "And have it appear that I don't trust him? That would only make the rumors worse."
What rumors were those?
"No," said Susan heavily. "No, of course we can't. I see that. But he mustn't know, Peter-"
Edmund almost jumped. His cheeks burned as he turned to see Rostam behind him. It really was unfair for the bull man to move so quietly about the stone castle. "General?"
The lamassu bobbed his head. Rostam did not comment on Edmund's presence in the corridor. "My aide Wilmot brought word from his mother of an envoy traveling north. Lady Pomona offered them hospitality, but they intended to press on for Cair Paravel. Some grave chance has befallen Archenland, I fear."
"They haven't said their trouble?" Edmund asked, starting to walk down the hall. Rostam walked beside him, hooves still making no sound on the carpeted stone. Having visited Archenland with Susan the previous spring, Edmund quite liked King Lune and Queen Avril. He hoped they were well.
"No, your majesty," said the general. "Which suggests a delicate matter."
Delicate, Edmund knew, usually meant secret, either because it was embarrassing or because it was dangerous. He frowned thoughtfully. "They'll probably want an audience as soon as they arrive, in that case, but Su - Queen Susan-" Edmund corrected himself. "Won't forgive us if we don't have rooms made up and supper hot when they arrive."
"Indeed," said the general. "Shall I consult with her majesty?" He turned his horned head to indicate the door of the solar now behind them.
"Yes," said Edmund. That sort of thing was certainly Susan's area of expertise. "No, wait." Rostam turned back with a questioning look.
The general was one of Peter's closest advisors, Edmund knew. He'd fought beside the high king when Ulfson and his crew were initially captured. If anyone knew what secret the others were keeping… "Speaking of delicate matters," Edmund said. "Before he died, Ulfson said something to me… about others taking my place… I understand there are rumors…" Rostam had also been in Aslan's camp when the Witch came to parlay. He'd been the first to defend Edmund from her demands.
Rostam shifted. Cair Paravel's corridors were wide and high-ceilinged to accommodate the many Narnian races, but the bull-man still took up quite a bit of space. "Forgive me, but I am not authorized to speak on that matter, your majesty."
Even after eavesdropping on his older siblings, the refusal was a bit startling. "I'm pretty sure I'm your king," Edmund pointed out. He squirmed inwardly just saying it. It sounded too much like something the old Edmund would have said - not to mention how ignoble it was to be caught listening at keyholes.
Rostam did not comment on either. "You are, my king," said the general patiently. He glanced back at the solar once more. 'Not authorized,' the lamassu had said.
Very well, Edmund would have to ask a higher authority.
There were really only three options, and his older siblings had made their positions clear in the conversation Edmund had overheard. Peter would not lie, but he would likely refuse to answer. Susan would evade with that horrible sympathetic look she used to give him sometimes after Dad left, but Lucy…
After trying the gardens, stables, and infirmary, Edmund found Lucy in the royal library. The archivist peered through his glasses when Edmund entered, as if suspecting him of trying to abscond with a priceless volume. Archimedes treated visitors to the library as grave threats to his precious books. When Edmund only made his way to his favorite study alcove, the archivist gave him one last suspicious-eyed glance, and then returned to cataloguing.
"You're finally here!" said Lucy before he could open his mouth. "I'm trying to find if there is a way to reverse the werewolf's curse, but I don't know half of these words."
Curious, despite his purpose, Edmund asked, "Did you find anything?"
"Not a hint. There's bits about the ritual, but it's awful, just from the pictures." Lucy turned a page to show an illustration of writhing man in the middle of a circle of wolves, then closed the book quickly. "See?"
Edmund grimaced. "Better not let Su see that. She's already prickly about this whole business. Anyway, that isn't why I wanted to talk to you."
"Think if we could find a way, though!" Lucy said. "All the people we could help!"
"If they want to be helped," said Edmund doubtfully. "That isn't a curse someone gets by accident. A lot of them might want to stay as they are."
Lucy, who tended to think better of people than Edmund did, frowned at this. "Perhaps if they thought they had a chance," she said. "It doesn't seem very enjoyable to be evil."
She had a point. "It isn't," admitted Edmund. "It's horrid, really."
Lucy opened her mouth in dismay. "I meant, well, the werewolves and Anicetus. They all seem so unhappy. And wouldn't they be much better if they knew they could change?" Lucy's hands twisted nervously in her lap. Edmund frowned at them. He'd seen that sort of fidgeting in Lucy before, when he talked her into sharing a couple of stolen tarts that Mum had been saving for a charity sale. Consciousness flamed in her cheeks, and her toes tapped at the rungs of her chair (her legs being still too short to reach the floor). "Are you all right?" she asked after a moment.
Immediately, Edmund suspected she knew very well what he was about. Susan had probably been talking to her, as well. "I know you said you were all right, but you said you were all right after Beruna, too."
The good (and currently convenient) thing about his little sister was that she could never hold out long when she felt guilty. Lucy, Edmund rather thought, found it as difficult to be bad as he found it to be good. He hoped her life never depended on a lie because she'd never be able to tell it. Fortunately, all Edmund wanted was for her to tell the truth. He gave her a little smile, not much of one, but more than he felt. That wasn't a lie, not really. It was just like Lucy would do: acting cheerful until it became reality. "I'm all right. And I was all right after Beruna. You gave me your cordial, remember?"
Lucy shook her head. "Yes, but you and Peter never tell me everything that happens when you're fighting. And you should. I was there at Beruna, remember? I healed people. I've seen what battles do. I've seen-" she stopped, red-faced and passionate.
Edmund's plans to pry the secret out of her vanished into contrition. He'd admitted his dreams about the battle to Peter who had fought and would understand the ugliness of it, if not the guilt (Peter carried the memory of every soul who fought under him, but he had not been the one to bring the Witch's army to them), but he hadn't thought about how much the girls had seen of the aftermath. Lucy had seen people dying, had seen him dying, and brought them back from the brink. She had seen those who were past bringing back. "I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't think about that."
"No one does," Lucy said. She thrust her fidgeting hands under her legs as if to keep them still. "I thought you might, the way the older ones-"
"Hide things from me," he muttered darkly, and then winced at how sulky it sounded.
"-Try to protect you," she corrected. "Except Peter will still take you to fight, and he won't even bring me along with the healers."
He opened his mouth to argue, closed it to think, and then opened it again. Peter still tried to protect him, both from the werewolf and from - whatever it was Ulfson had planned to say. Susan had implied as much when he overheard them. He felt a chill, as if someone in the library had cracked one of the windows open. "Lu, what are they protecting me from? You know."
Her face screwed up with the effort of biting her tongue. "Peter and Susan-" she began.
"They think I can't handle it," said Edmund. "What do you think? I'm supposed to be a king, as much as the rest of you. How can I do that if no one will tell me anything?"
"You won't like it," said Lucy, but he could see the desire on her face to tell him. "Really, you won't."
Edmund rolled his eyes at this. "Do I have to guess until you tell me?" When his little sister remained silent, he frowned. "It's not that hard, you know. I'm not stupid. I'm not a weakling, either. I'm not going to curl up and weep because of what people say about me."
"It's not that, Ed," said Lucy.
"What then?" His face reddened, and his eyes sought the fringe on the carpet as he voiced his other suspicions. "Do they think I'd be like her?" he asked thickly. "Hurting people because they said something I didn't like?" It was too close to what he had been, to what he might still be if not for Aslan and his family.
Lucy jumped from her chair. Edmund looked up to see her mouth open in horror. "Of course not! Ed, no one thinks that. We all know you've changed. That's why Aslan made the bargain in the first place!" Immediately, her hands flew to her mouth, and her eyes widened further.
He seized the opening. "What bargain? With the Witch, you mean?"
Lucy's eyes turned pleading. She uncovered her mouth. "I promised, Edmund."
Edmund kicked the leg of his chair. "Just say I forced you to tell me. It's true enough." She'd weakened that much, he wasn't going to let the subject go now. "What did Aslan promise? To stay away from the battle?" Bitterness thickened his tongue again. "She didn't know about the cordial, did she? She thought I'd be killed anyway, if he wasn't there. I should have been, and then the Deep Magic would be satisfied. It was only when I was dying that you all came back." And everyone who might have lived if the Lion had been there sooner...
"No!" whispered Lucy. "Well, yes, but not - not like that. Aslan agreed to - to go to the Stone Table in your place."
Somewhere, some visitor to the library had thrust the window wide open. The draft cut through Edmund's clothes all the way down to his skin. Lucy looked at him fearfully, tears in her eyes. No one will take your place this time, traitor. The Stone Table where Jadis had demanded Edmund be executed because that was where such things had always been done. From which Aslan had moved the entire camp right after his parley with the Witch because it would be needed for other business. Where Peter had so understandingly excused Edmund from riding out last spring… because he had known Aslan's blood would still stain the stone? But Aslan was alive...
"He knighted me," he said around the lump that had formed in his throat. "He crowned us. He brought back all the statues."
"He came back," Lucy whispered. She grabbed his hands. "That's the important thing, Ed. He came back."
There is always a price, but it is not always the expected one.
He had come back. Aslan had been solidly, radiantly alive when he laid his paw on Edmund's shoulder and declared him Sir Edmund. Alive in all his golden glory when he had enjoined the four to bear their commission well. "How?"
Lucy's hands tightened around his own. She hesitated before answering. "He said - he was innocent. The Deeper Magic saved him, he said."
As if nothing could make his shame worse. "It wouldn't have saved me," Edmund said quietly.
"But it did, Edmund," said Lucy, urgently. "He did. The Table is broken, you know. Aslan said it won't be used again."
"Did he even know?" Edmund asked, although the question was not for Lucy. "That he'd come back?"
She answered anyway. "He said it hadn't been tested."
Silently, he absorbed that. He couldn't ask any more questions. Lucy stayed at his side, fluttering as nervously as when he'd first broached the subject. The fidgeting was almost unbearable now, but Edmund didn't tell her to go. The solitude would have been worse.
"There you are!" Peter's voice preceded him into the alcove. Out of the corner of his eye, Edmund saw Lucy look up, but he couldn't bring himself to face his brother. "I thought I might find Ed here, but not both of you. Su's going to have a conniption if we're late for the ambassador from Archenland…" His voice trailed off. Peter could be a little thick on occasion, but he wasn't stupid. "What's going on?"
Lucy looked between them, and then burst into tears. "I'm sorry, Peter!" she said between sobs. "I know I promised, but-"
Bother that! "It's not your fault!" Edmund said, more sharply than he meant. He glared at Peter, seizing on the old familiarity of argument. He'd never be able to look up otherwise. "Were you ever going to tell me?" he demanded.
Peter gaped between them. "Lu?" he finally asked.
"Let Lucy be," Edmund interrupted. "I badgered her into it. Someone was going to tell me, and you can't very well stab everyone before they do."
Peter stilled. "This is about what Ulfson said," he said quietly.
Edmund crossed his arms, expectantly. "How long have you known?" he demanded. "Who else knows?"
Peter removed the golden crown from his head and ran a hand through his hair. He looked more lost than angry. The expression frightened Edmund. He'd never again believe Lucy would lie, but his little sister's assertions still could not hold the weight of his older brother's confirmation. "Lucy," Peter began. He trailed off and then started again. "It's all right. It'll be all right. Go find Su. She's in the small dining hall."
She hovered near them for a moment, but Lucy was always one to do as she was told. She headed away, then turned back to startle Edmund with a hug. "Love you." She hugged Peter as well, and then left the library.
There was silence. Finally, Peter said, "It was my decision." Edmund didn't reply. The lump in his throat choked him. After a moment, his brother continued. "He didn't tell any of us what he meant to do. The girls only learned by following him. They couldn't agree on whether to tell you, so they asked me. I said we shouldn't."
That was Peter, always taking responsibility for everyone, even when he hadn't done a thing. He'd even tried to apologize for driving Edmund to the Witch, the night before Beruna, as if Peter had somehow forced Edmund to betray them all. Edmund had called him an idiot for it, but his brother's concern had warmed him, as Aslan's breath had warmed him.
"He almost told me," said Edmund in a small voice. Not so clearly perhaps, but… "I thought he meant something else."
Peter sat down in the chair Lucy had vacated. His feet had no trouble touching the floor. Edmund looked at them and remembered his little sister's impassioned case for not being kept in the dark about the horrors of war. Because she'd seen.
"They followed him?" he repeated. He hadn't put it together immediately, but the girls had disappeared with Aslan before the battle and returned with Him and the restored Narnians at its height. "They saw."
Peter hesitated, but while his brother might withhold information, he wouldn't tell a falsehood. "Yes."
"And Ulfson," said Edmund choppily. "He was there. He saw." How many had seen and knew? Edmund thought she would have wanted an audience. He felt suddenly nauseous as if he'd woken from a particularly bad dream and found it wasn't a dream. "I-"
Peter must have seen the change in his face. "You don't have to attend the audience. I'll give your regrets to the ambassador."
Edmund shook his head. "No. I should-" He'd promised Aslan he'd do his best, and after all Aslan had done for him...
After all Aslan had done for him…
The lump in his throat drew perilously close to emerging.
"Go and rest." This time the words had the firm ring of command. Peter replaced his crown and stood. He laid a hand on Edmund's shoulder. "It'll be all right. I'll see to the ambassador."
Rest. He couldn't possibly. "I'm not tired." He hated to resort to the words, but, "Please, Peter," he choked out. Facing the court - how many knew? - was a fearsome prospect, but it was preferable to being alone with his thoughts.
An odd expression crossed his brother's face. Peter was usually almost as easy to read as Lucy, but Edmund could only guess at what he was thinking now. "If it's too much," he began.
"I'll signal you," Edmund said, grasping at the hesitation. "Please. I can do this."
After a moment, Peter nodded. "All right."