The Endless in Between
Mr Tumnus brings news of the stag down the river only hours before a messenger arrives from Anvard – lucky to have gotten there at all, he says, as a giant tree fell directly across his path, and would have crushed him had a fox not made his horse shy at just the right moment – with a letter from Aravis.
Newly married, dear Aravis had found herself newly pregnant, and even that indomitable lady was, it seemed, nervous at the prospect of facing the birth on her own, there being no Queen in Anvard to advise and comfort her.
“She always did like you better, Lucy,” Susan says, but Lucy, trying to hide her eagerness for the chase, makes the protest that this was due only to their closer ages, which would be of no use at all in this situation; Susan refrains from commenting that she has no more carried a child than her sister, and so has no advantage in practical experience.
She is quite willing, in the end, to go on her own, the trip to Anvard being an easy and familiar one. But Edmund insists on escorting her, telling Peter with a laugh that they'd never catch the stag anyhow, and to make an extra wish for him if they should.
They set off on a fine morning in different directions, with laughter and promises and words of love.
None of them think to say goodbye.
When the news comes, they race back on talking horses, with all the speed and heart that the horrible burden of comprehension can give them.
It doesn't matter; there is nothing to be done, nothing to see but a post of iron in the Western Woods, and no matter how the hounds try, the trail simply ends in the midst of a thicket. Susan spins around and around in search of any sign, making herself dizzy and sick with the last traces of hope, until she falls, and there is nothing but Edmund to hold her up.
Autumn closes over Cair Paravel at their return, joyless and dull for all its colors.
Winter freezes the world outside, and Susan thinks, as she peers listlessly through frosted windows into the bleakness beyond, that she has never before hated winter, simply endured it as what must come for life to begin again, year after year.
Edmund has always hated winter, its chills wrapping fingers around his bones from the first frost to the last. This year the frost is early, and bitter.
He doesn't sleep, and she knows this because neither does she; they take turns coaxing one another to bed, and if their attendants find anything odd in the morning sight of their sovereigns clinging to one another like driftwood in a stormy sea, they say nothing of it.
The White Stag, too, has vanished from Narnia, and Edmund says he doesn't think its wishes would work that way, anyhow.
As the months pass, she no longer allows herself to weep, or to hope. This is her reality now, and so she will build again on what she has left, and carry on with life, before it carries on without her.
Things are more difficult without Peter and Lucy; Peter who was their strength and Lucy their joy. Susan sees Edmund growing harder, the edge he's always possessed becoming more finely honed, more akin to something dangerous.
She does nothing to halt it, not knowing if it even lies within her to try; Gentle is no longer a sobriquet she wears comfortably. It was Peter's magnificence and Lucy's valiance that allowed her to be so; now, with Edmund walking the line of justice, she has nothing but determination – to hold her brother together, to hold herself together, and above all, to do her duty to her country, and accept what must be done.
There are ugly rumors, of course – Isn't it odd then, the way there were four of them, and then two just up and vanish? A bit suspicious, I think. And he was the one who'd sided with the Witch in the beginning, isn't that so? – spread by their enemies. The sudden disappearance of their siblings has weakened Narnia, leaving them in a delicate position, and countries who have always harbored suspicions and unfriendly intentions have been quick to take advantage.
The rumors do them no harm, at least not at home, the Narnians having so far retained their faith, even if their sovereigns have been halved.
The assassins are a different matter, and Susan finds herself becoming a sort of walking armory, day by day – light chainmail under her bodice, sharpened hairpins holding up her heavy braided hair, daggers hidden up both sleeves and tucked in a boot besides.
The latest one has come upon her as she's readying herself for sleep, and seems amused at the way she faces him and his wicked pair of knives, dagger to hand, in nothing but her nightdress.
“So she goes armed. And here I thought you were the one they called Gentle,” he mocks, and Susan smiles.
“Oh, they do,” she says. “And I am. Which is why I have him for times like these.”
The assassin is fast, but Edmund, behind him, is faster, and when the assassin falls, she takes her brother's hand, stepping over the body, closing her mind on the thought that this has become her life.
She and Edmund no longer sleep alone, not ever.
“Do you think they died?” she asks, her voice breaking a silence so still it seemed solid.
“No,” he says, immediately, and she thinks of the way Lucy would laugh at that question when Peter and Edmund rode to battle, even as her fingers twisted at the neck of her cordial, and say, Of course not, Susan, we'd feel it if they did.
“We'd have found some trace, if they had,” he continues, and something like a smile passes over her face as she weaves her fingers through his; Lucy's response never comforted her in the least (what if I couldn't?), but Edmund's practicality seems real to her, as close to certain as exists, now.
A new year comes, and passes, and blooms again.
She knows now that time does not heal wounds. It simply makes you forget to pull the scars open, to look at the marks and pain beneath as proof of feeling.
The harvest in that second year is poor, and as spring stirs again, the dryads implore them to take part in Narnia's ancient fertility ritual, something that had always fallen to Peter in the past.
They agree, in the end, that they will each go if the other does; they have some idea of what it entails, and the idea of one going alone seems somehow worse than the prospect of being there together.
She feels utterly ridiculous, standing in the moonlight naked before a bonfire, and not a bit chilled as well, winter not quite having loosened its grasp on the nighttime hours just yet. But the dryads are so very pleased to have them there, and the fauns and satyrs caper around the fire until she can't help smiling, and when they begin to press goblets of heavily spiced wine on her, she hasn't the heart to refuse.
The wine softens the world and blurs its edges, heating her blood and blunting her pain, letting her feel again for the first time in years the joy and magic of her country, the pure beating heart of it, and when the newly awakened trees stretch their bare limbs and join in the dance, she throws her head back and laughs.
She dances the whole night long, the drumbeats matching the throbbing of her pulse, her mouth and hands running over skin rough and smooth, reddened and pale, over lips much like her own, over leaves and bark, horns and shoulders, hands and hooves.
She thinks of Peter only once, as she lays herself open to Narnia, to the season of blossoming, and even then, it is only in a flash of understanding, the knowledge of why he had held this ceremony so close to his heart.
The crops grow high and in abundance that summer, and she spends autumn heavy and sated in the orchards, with her choice of ripening fruit.
In the dark heart of winter, she bears Narnia a child; a child with pale skin and dark hair and what will become a sunny expression, and if Edmund watches them with veiled eyes, she is only glad her daughter lacks horns and hooves.
They name her daughter Elen, and as she watches her grow, learning to laugh and run and speak, Susan tells her tales of her aunt and uncle, and thinks how Peter and Lucy would have adored children in Cair Paravel.
Edmund is ever watchful of her, insisting Elen stay in their sight at all times. They both know that she is the future of Narnia, and they work harder than ever, building her legacy at a feverish pace, the specter of sudden disappearance never banished from their memories, not truly.
“What would you have wished for?” she asks him once, when the summer night goes crisp with the first hints of autumn.
“I don't know,” he says. “That we would leave Narnia secure and prosperous, and that our work would ensure its survival and safety for generations, I suppose.”
She gives a quiet laugh, for this is so like Edmund, to want to have everything neatly arranged and in place, as his careful supervision had made it.
“I would have wished we would all be happy, and together always,” she says.
The years pass, but they never quite forget to remember, two thrones sitting empty to remind them.
“I've never been sorry, you know,” he says on Elen's third birthday, as they watch her take her first ride on a talking horse, dear gentle Luna, who would never let her precious burden fall. “That I went with you to Anvard, or that either of us went at all, really. I don't think I've ever told you that.”
She smiles, and tips her face back to feel the first snowflakes falling, clarity brushing her skin with each tiny bit of ice. “Neither have I.”
She is shocked, somehow, to realize it is true. She has always wanted, more than anything, to remain in peace and security.
In the spring of Elen's twelfth year, she and Edmund leave her daughter for the first time, sailing to the Lone Islands; the seas pitch and heave on the voyage back, and when she feels herself being pulled and dragged, she grabs for Edmund's hand, thinking they've been thrown from the deck into the waves, only to open her eyes to bright sunlight, ruins, and a brother less than half the age he should have been.
She rages and screams uselessly, sick with fury at being taken from her child; Edmund tries to hold her still, but he's not any stronger than she is, not anymore, and she clings, weeping, to a tree at the cliff's edge, until larger hands pull her back and she turns to see the brother she'd thought lost forever, realizing a trade has taken place, one family for the other.
Peter and Lucy don't talk about what life has been, back in England, but surveying them with a knowing eye (a mother's eye), she thinks they both look too thin, too hollow, too aged beyond their bodies, and wonders if she and Edmund seem the same.
They have all been haunted, she thinks, by the ghosts of the others.
She's not surprised when she and Edmund fail to see Aslan, and she regards her horn, hanging at Caspian's side, with hatred.
“She'll be all right, Susan,” Edmund says, crouched next to her in front of the remains of the Stone Table. “After all, here we are leading a war when we're hardly any older than she is.”
“Aren't we?” she asks. “I feel ancient.”
She and Edmund stand side by side, watching the advancing Telmarine army, the anticipation pulsing in her veins, making use of her rage and sorrow.
“We're going to die, I think,” he says calmly, as though he's announcing a shift in the winds. “We only exist here, so long as this lasts.”
She nods, because she's felt it too. “We're dead in both worlds, with no place in either of them.”
When he meets her eyes, she sees their whole lifetime laid out between them, and then he grins, and for a moment he's just Edmund Pevensie, her brother, and she is simply Susan. “We did get what we wished for in a way though, didn't we Su? Even without the stag.”
She draws her bow as he draws his sword, pleased to note that muscles she hasn't technically used in many years still have their memory. “Better to die for what we've lived for, then,” she says.
They move forward, together, following Peter, for Aslan, for Narnia, for each other.