It took a day and night to reach the low-lying island some of them had spied from Eustace’s back when he carried a select few high over the island where, somehow, the Lord Octesian had met his end. As the Dawn Treader cruised in search of a favourable anchorage Caspian, Eustace and the Pevensies assembled on the fo’c’sle scanning through telescopes for any sign of life. “Are we going ashore?” Eustace wanted to know.
“Course we are,” said Edmund, lowering his glass. “It looks uninhabited, but one never knows! We might find a trace of our missing lords further inland.”
“I’ll have the boat lowered for Your Majesties.”
“Won’t you come with us, Drinian?” Lucy cried out. “Oh, do! Surely there’s nothing aboard that can’t wait for a few hours. Come and explore with us!”
The Captain considered for a moment, raven head on one side. “Very well, Queen Lucy: I’ll join you ashore,” he decided as Caspian beamed and she clapped her hands for joy. “And where are you dashing to, Master Eustace?”
“To fetch my sword of course!” the boy replied, as if it should be obvious. “We’re best going armed, aren’t we?”
“Reep is definitely having an effect on your kinsman,” Caspian muttered to Edmund. “Still, I daresay he’s right! Fetch your bow, Lucy. You’ll assemble a party Drinian? Sir Reepicheep! Do you intend to join our adventure?”
“At Your Majesty’s service!” the Mouse trilled, already halfway to the port bow where the boat was being gently lowered. Inside a few minutes the whole group was settled: with Drinian at the tiller; the Master Bowman and three sailors at the oars; and Reepicheep, for all the world like a carved prow figure, perched dangerously at the point of the bow.
Lucy let her hand trail in the silky coldness of the water, softly humming to herself. At her side Eustace fidgeted, still uncomfortable with the long, straight sword (Caspian’s second best) hanging from his hip. “It looks quiet enough, doesn’t it?” he said, to nobody in particular.
“Looks can be pretty deceiving,” Edmund replied, squinting ashore. “I say! Rabbits!”
“We might shoot a dozen, Cap’n?” the Master Bowman suggested hopefully “Shan’t be much sport, mind,” he added. “If the place is deserted they’ll have no fear of folk. Shellin’ peas it’ll be!”
“I see no objection. Your Majesties?”
“Rabbit stew will make a pleasant change from salt beef or mutton,” Caspian admitted. So, as Drinian drove the little boat straight up the beach and leapt lightly over the stern to dig the anchor deep into soft sand, the bowman and his party set arrows on their strings and crept forward.
“So much for shelling peas,” Eustace announced a few moments later as every rabbit in sight vanished into a convenient burrow or bush, and the archers began to sweat and cuss with frustration. “They must have some experience of people – see how they run!”
“P’raps it’s inhabited after all,” said Edmund sharply. “Look right!”
“A cottage!” cried Lucy, darting in the direction he pointed only to pull up hard as her mind registered the building’s pitiful condition. “Goodness! Quite burned out!”
“And not the only thing touched by fire,” Reepicheep added, scraping blackened bark off a twisted stripling nearby, then fastidiously washing his claw. “See, Your Majesties! Half the trees hereabout are burned!”
“So near the coast, might it be pirates’ work?” wondered Caspian.
“Or the dragon’s,” said Edmund. Eustace shuddered.
“That would seem to be the highest point of land,” Drinian remarked, pointing to a low conical hill rising to the south. “Climb that and we should have some perspective on the lie o’ the land: to say naught of what might lie farther to the east.”
“Missing the sway of the ship already, old friend?” Caspian teased. “Very well – it looks an easy distance to make. Master Bowman! We shall leave your party to the hunt. Should you discover aught of note, sound your horns. We shall find you.”
“Very good, Your Majesty,” came the harassed reply. Lucy giggled.
“I shouldn’t start looking forward to your rabbit stew yet, Caspian,” she said, skipping beyond the blackened cottage and along a faint but discernible track. She paused, head tilted as she contemplated the tumbledown structure. “They can’t have been very big, these people,” she noted. “Even I should have to stoop if it still had its roof!”
The stroll to the hill’s foot was pleasant enough despite the desolation of more blackened ruins along the way. “It’s a strange thing, mind,” said Drinian as they finished the inspection of a pair of larger ruins standing beside a brackish pond. “Listen! I doubt I’ve heard a single bird’s song yet. There’s not even a gull circling around the shore!”
“I’d not thought about it, but you’re right,” Edmund agreed, wrinkling his forehead. “And it’s not as if all the trees have been burned!”
“Not even most of them, Sire, though there are few clusters bigger than copses to be seen,” said Reepicheep, whiskers all a-quiver. “There are plentiful rabbits – as our unhappy Master Bowman will doubtless affirm - and from a position more advantageous than yours, I have discerned the movement of countless insects in the grass. Yet it would appear that every creature with the ability to do so has fled the island entirely.”
“To go where?” asked Eustace.
“And for what reason?” wondered Drinian. “We’re well inland here. No self-respecting pirate would venture so far from his ship!”
“Civil war?” Edmund suggested.
“That wiped out the whole population?” Caspian sounded doubtful. “Nay. Having taken the trouble to fight, would the victors abandon the scene of their success? The land seems fertile enough.”
“There’s another house halfway up the slope there, all burned out again,” said Lucy, who was feeling ridiculously cold despite the brightness of the sky. “Let’s have a look out to the horizon and go! There’s something so empty and desolate about this place! I don’t like it.”
“There seems to me small chance of learning the fate of our lost lords here,” said the King as the main group set off in pursuit of Drinian and Reepicheep, the Mouse running to keep pace with his tall friend’s lengthy strides. “You’re right, Lucy: with all these lonely ruins standing about it really is quite eerie! Perhaps that is why the people who once lived here all left!”
“If they travelled further east, we’ll be able to ask them,” said Eustace, beginning to puff and turn pink as the gradient of the slope proved steeper than it had appeared. He caught the point of his sword (not having fastened the belt tight enough, it had slithered to the front as he walked) between his legs and stumbled. “Drat this thing! Anything to be seen, Drinian?”
“Nothing.” Shielding his eyes against the noon sun Drinian scanned the distant horizon: looking, Caspian thought, quite aggravatingly cool with his companions all breathless from the exertion of the climb. “We shall simply have to go on in hope, as we have before.”
“We’ve found two islands beyond those we used to know: no reason why there shouldn’t be a dozen more,” Edmund decided cheerfully. “All right: the slope looks gentler this side. Why don’t we stroll down and around the hill, back to the boat? It might give the archers time to catch a couple of those rabbits!”
Nobody raised an objection so, leisurely, they began an easy descent over the softly rolling ground. “There’s no reason to camp overnight here is there?” Lucy asked, almost fearfully. Caspian shook his head.
“None that I know of! Captain?”
“We might top up the water cask we carried ashore I suppose, but there’s naught to delay the ship: saving perhaps the royal whims of Your Majesties.”
“Whims, indeed!” Outraged into laughter Caspian led his band of adventurers down onto level terrain and northward, around the hill and back to the shore. “Look! That stream must run down to the beach. Shall we follow it?”
“Let’s,” said Eustace, licking his lips. “And stop for a drink from it, too! Don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m parched!”
The water was icy cold, but not quite as refreshing as they might have hoped. “Even the water tastes of cinders,” Edmund grumbled. “Any of this we take aboard had better be boiled and used for washing! We should have to be desperate to drink it!”
They reached the beach soon after, turning sharply to the northwest and the high masthead of the Dawn Treader, clearly visible close by. “What’s that?” cried Caspian, pointing to another low building set back from the pebbled beach. “See! Still has a roof, and barely marked by fire at all!”
“A boathouse, by the look of it,” Drinian replied, his curiosity piqued. Reepicheep scampered inside, returning a moment later with an oar clutched between his paws.
“With a boat still inside it, my Lord!” he squeaked excitedly. “Made for a child, perhaps: or, if our guesses about the owners of those farmsteads were accurate, a dwarf.”
“In fair condition, too,” Drinian announced, bending double to enter and assess the vessel for himself. “A coracle: ash-framed, with a good waxed skin... a sturdy piece o’ workmanship!”
“And the ideal size for – perhaps – a Talking Mouse,” said Reepicheep. “Perhaps I might... with Your Majesty’s approval - and yours of course, my Lord Drinian…”
“Permission granted, Reep,” said Caspian immediately.
“Then I shall carry it back to the Dawn Treader.”
“Or more likely,” added Drinian with a teasing smile, “I shall carry it on your behalf! Very well Reep, but remember: guard you tongue from now on, else I’ll see you cast adrift in your prize!”
The Mouse twittered indignantly, brandishing his oar like a second rapier until the laughter of his friends made his own amusement impossible to repress. “I shall watch my words with care, Captain!” he cheeped, skipping along ahead of the humans as they made their merry way back to the boat.
By nightfall the land they had christened Burnt Island was a mere splodge on the western horizon. Carefully applying an extra coat of wax to his new vessel Reepicheep sat on the fo’c’sle softly singing the dryad’s song to himself. The abandoned boat of Burnt Island, he considered with glee, might yet prove valuable to one determined to sail beyond where a galleon could go: even to the End of the World itself.