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Shadow Play

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Santa Lucia, ljusklara hägring
--Sigrid Elmblad

 


 

Every year on the 13th of December, Lucy wears candles in her hair. Peter twines her a crown of whortleberry, and Edmund wakes in the gray before dawn to bake buns, because only he can make the dough just so, punching it down as it rises, pressing currants into the saffron-scented dough. It's quiet and contemplative; the air is cool and the world laid out in those subtle shades of gray that the sun obliterates, and birds are singing. The pasty lumps of white dough rise and darken in the oven, filling the house with a cheerful holiday smell, and as the sun rises so does Lucy, flames in her golden hair, always smiling.

Lucy takes the fruits of Edmund's labor, lays them out on a tray and whirls the breakfast away to their parents in bed. Mum and Dad stretch and yawn. "Hello, Lucy; hello, Edmund--" and then they're joined by sleepy-eyed Susan and Peter sweating from an early-morning run. Lucy snuggles up in bed with her parents and they feed her crumbs and sweet currants like a baby bird. Edmund snitches a bun off the tray when no one but Lucy is looking, and eats it, ignoring her giggling objections.

Edmund and Lucy have always been the closest of the four children. If Lucy means light, Edmund is her shadow, soothing and healing from her desperate brilliance. They have games together, a secret language, a fairy castle in the hedgerow, monsters under the bed. (Edmund sits on the hard floor for an hour after bedtime one night, negotiating a truce with the monsters. They never bother Lucy again.)

 


 

This is Edmund's secret: he believes every word Lucy says.

"There's a world in the wardrobe," Lucy says, and Edmund believes her. He tries to persuade her to forget about it, because he knows enough to know that a real fairy world, all hard edges and sharp corners and harsh reality, inevitably pales in comparison with the extravagant castles they build in dreams. But Lucy won't forget about it; Lucy has to know, has to find out the truth of everything, even when it would be better not to. So Edmund follows her.

Surrounded by the bitter cold of the driven snow, shading his eyes from the painful white snow-glare, Edmund knows at once that he was right. This place is no better than London, and with none of the comforts you find in the dark nooks and crannies of life (sweets rationed and carefully hoarded, carols sung in bomb shelters, storybooks wrapped in brown paper and concealed between algebra and Latin). Lucy is here, somewhere, but he can't find light from light, not with snow-blindness coming on him, so he gratefully accepts help when it's offered him. And a warm drink, and candy he doesn't like but eats anyhow to be polite - there are friends to be found in the strangest places, and this Queen might be one of them.

So she's not, but he's pretty sure this Aslan fellow isn't either. Edmund watches them walk and speak together, dickering over his life, and they both glitter and gleam in the noontide sun so that he can hardly tell one from the other. The Emperor’s hangman, Mr. Beaver calls the Queen, and as all the others smile and nod with empty faces, Edmund wonders which is worse - the woman who kills without mercy, or the good kind Emperor who employs her?

"Why do we think, again," he asks his siblings, one by one, "that the Lion is any better than the Witch? I don't see that there's much to choose between them."

"Because he brought spring," says Peter, "and besides, even his name sounds lovely, you can't help knowing it."

(That's their explanation for everything - it "feels lovely." Aslan's name sounds lovely. His breath smells lovely. His mane feels lovely. And they think he's the one who's been drugged?)

"He can hardly be worse," says Susan, "and if he is, we'll get rid of him, too. But the Witch is bad news, I'm sure of that."

(He's not really inclined to disagree.)

"Because he is," says Lucy, "he's goodness and mercy and sweetness and light. The Witch is the stepmother and he's the fairy godmother, it's like a fairy tale."

"This isn't a fairy tale," Edmund replies, "it's real life, Lucy, it's not all clean and neat like that."

"But it should be," she replies fiercely. "We can make it be, once we get rid of all the ugly nasty beastly parts."


This is Lucy's secret: she believes every word Edmund says.

She knows the Lion isn't good, or if he is good then good isn't the sort of thing that she ought to be interested in. But while it's all very well for Edmund to be all sensible about it, she may be every bit as clever as he is but she doesn't have the same gifts. He can flourish in the shadows, but she needs the light, even if they live in a topsy-turvy upside-down inside-out world where light isn't good and dark isn't evil. She's a girl, you see, and she's not allowed to fight, not properly, not the way Edmund can (the way Peter could, if he were half as strong or as pure or as just as Edmund).

So Lucy gives all of her love to the Lion, who burns and sputters like a candle flame, here today gone tomorrow. She loses herself in him, but she keeps back a little bit that is just for Edmund, a bit of her soul and her love and her self where the darkness refuses to budge. But she pushes that part to the back, and wears the shining crown and sits on the silver throne on the white hill in the castle of Cair Paravel by the sea.

They are three now, and of the three of them who rule over the wide free lands of Narnia, she is the closest to Aslan. Peter tries, but he can't give himself over entirely the way she has, he's too straightforward to think in all directions at once like she does, to believe everything and nothing (the sky is blue, because Aslan says it is so; I am the rightful ruler, because Aslan says it is so). It hurts him terribly, and the pain ages him prematurely, his hair turns white and wrinkles web across his face and he doesn't get up from the throne so often.

Susan lies, every moment of every day. She doesn't love Aslan, she doesn't give over even a bit of herself, but she hides herself under so many veils that Lucy isn't sure if there is anything real underneath anymore. Not that Lucy cares; she has no love for Susan, she has none to spare, it's all for Aslan and the tiny morsel for Edmund that no one, not even Aslan, sometimes not even Lucy herself, knows about.


No one but Lucy notices when Edmund leaves, and she doesn't say anything.

He walks among the Narnians, singing in the shade of the trees, and bird and beast come out to marvel at the strange dark King. He doesn't care for it. He can't tell them so, though; it's not only the Witch who has spies everywhere. Instead, he risks his neck dropping hints where a chance seems likely, and sleeps at night in a soft hollow in a drift of leaves. Waking, stiff and sore-muscled, he finds a small pyramid of nuts in the hull and bruised berries, an offering (he guesses) from a Robin who chirrups at him from a nearby tree. Edmund eats gratefully, and leaves in recompense a tangle of threads from the hem of his shirt. It's nesting season.

In the end, he realizes it should have been obvious from the beginning who to go to. The Faun who was willing to do what he had to in order to keep alive, to keep Narnia safe from the invasion of the tyrant children and the terrible Lion, even if it meant eternal winter. The Faun who was, nevertheless, too kind-hearted to kill a human girl once he'd seen one, who shared what food he had with her and set her free. They would need people like that on their side.

Mr. Tumnus opens his door a crack at Edmund's knock. "Aslan be with you, come in," he says, his beard wagging.

"I will," Edmund replies gravely, "but I'd rather he weren't."

They talk for a very long time over tea, which is not proper tea at all but some kind of herb, and this isn't the first pot made with it, Edmund can tell from the taste. He's aware that he's being tested, but he has no reason to resent it; if (as he hopes) there's some small Resistance in this occupied country, they have every right to be cautious about admitting one of the invaders.

"I'll need to blindfold you," says the Faun at last, "and - no, humans don't scent well, no need for everything else."

"Prudent," says Edmund, as Mr. Tumnus ties on the blindfold, "though I hope you're changing your meeting place regularly anyhow."

"We aren't stupid," snaps the Faun, tugging the knot tighter than necessary. "Come on. They won't wait."

This is also a sensible precaution, but Edmund refrains from commenting. These folk have been doing their whole lives what he's only read about.

The Resistance, Edmund discovers, is smaller than he'd hoped but stronger than he'd feared. There is Mr. Tumnus, of course, and a number of Dwarves (male and female), what must be nearly a full pack of Wolves, a Hag, a single Bear (looking rather nervous), and a pair of Vultures. Enough to be going on with. There will be more, of course, those who couldn't come for one reason or another, those (there are surely some) who were unwilling to risk exposure by a newcomer, those who silently resent the new monarchs but haven't sought out others of like mind.

Over the weeks and months that follow, Edmund watches and learns and grows. He's quickly disabused of any notion of becoming the leader of the Resistance and leading them to victory; they don't hold his species nor his family against him, but he's a child, and a naiive and inexperienced one at that. He's a tool for them, a rallying point, and he wins them more than a few followers. Many of the Narnians really and truly believe in Aslan and the ancient prophecies, but at the same time they murmur quietly against the heavy taxes that are exacted and the little aid that is given, and how quickly what food there is after a hundred years of winter is eaten up by Cair Paravel. Edmund is their moral compromise.

He's not always allowed into the meetings of the Resistance, and it hurts a little, but he knows it's the safest way, for everything to be on a need-to-know basis. In the meantime, he helps where he can; he's big and clumsy and without many skills, but there is always somewhere an extra pair of hands is needed, and it's important for him to help. Not only so as to show the Narnians that he is different from his brother and sisters, not only so as to make friends and allies, but because this smoked meat, these greens, this fruit, will keep the Animals alive when winter comes again.

“Why do you lay up stores for the winter, Friend Edmund?” asks Nyiha, a long-legged Horse. She’s a True Believer, serving Aslan and the King and Queens without question, but her heart is good. Better than her mind, Edmund thinks, but he keeps it to himself, because it’s true but not kind.

Instead, he answers her as gently as he can manage, although it’s not the first time he’s had this particular argument. “For myself, and for the good Beasts of Narnia who are my brothers and sisters, so that we shall not go hungry.”

“Aslan will provide,” says Nyiha. “You should not think so much of the future. I see greed growing in your heart. Trust in Aslan.”

Where was Aslan the last time winter came over the land? Edmund thinks. Where was he when there were no crops in the fall, nor the fall after that, nor after that? When one in ten died of the hunger and the cold, one in five, one in three? Was it only a test? Or did only the impure of heart die? What lies do you find sweeter than the truth, Nyiha?

When the snow covers the land once more, many of the Animals die, of the cold or the hunger or the fear that once again Aslan has deserted them. Edmund watches Nyiha as her end draws near, every convulsive twitch of her powerful muscles visible beneath skin stretched taut as a drum. And then she is still.

“May you find the haven you deserve, my sister,” he whispers as he closes her eyes, “and not the one you hoped for.”


 

Edmund grows in wisdom and stature, and favor with Beasts and Men. He walks with Wolves and battles songs with Mockingbirds and on long summer evenings he swims in the cool river water and debates philosophy with the Naiads.

He dreams about Aslan, sometimes; he doesn’t want any part of the Lion who died for him (who knew he would rise again on the third day, who could have just told them, but instead let children keep a vigil of tears) but sometimes he wishes to wish for him, longs to long for him, the God-King who could be mother and father and brother and sisters and home and country to him. He can’t stop himself wishing, and so he dreams.

It becomes a ritual for him: after he wakes alone in the night, as tears stream down the planes of his face and he tries to forget how happy the dream was, he whispers into the darkness. It’s not you I want. It’s the father who mourns me, the mother who still searches because she can’t bear to give up, the brother and sisters who are so close and so far.

They love me, he whispers, clenching his fists to feel the pain as the nails bite into his palms. You don’t love me. To love is to give to someone, to want their good more than your own, to weep for their tears, to revel in their joy.

Love is patient, love is kind. Love does not envy, love does not boast, love is not proud. Love does not dishonor others, love is not self-seeking, love is not easily angered, love keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails.

The words are old and from another land, and Edmund isn’t even sure if he believes in them anymore, but he still wants to fling them in the Lion’s face. You can’t even be what you claim to be, do what you ask of us. Healer, heal yourself - or at least your people.

I can do better than you. When I love, I love with my heart and my hands and my voice, with my thoughts and my deeds. I am to myself mother and father and brother and sister, priest, prophet and King.

Edmund sleeps.


 

"Who will I be," Edmund asks on one of the days he's received the thrice-relayed code message to meet at a secret place, "when all of this is done? Will you still need me?"

Several of the circle speak at once, and Maugrim growls for order. It's Grultz the Vulture who finally replies.

"You're coming into your manhood, Edmund," she says, "even if all goes as well as we can hope, you'll be nearly grown by the time we can speak openly of who we are."

It's true. Edmund, at twelve, is beginning to get his height, leaving him ugly and disproportionate and walking into branches. In England, it would have been six years more till he was a man, but by Narnian standards he's nearly grown. He's asked occasionally if he's found a mate, and has to explain that there are no females of his kind in this world who wouldn't kill him on sight.

"I'm not much for kings, myself," says Ginarrbrik, "but there are those who are. Quite a lot of them. It might be worth giving them one."

"You'd make me king?" Edmund isn't sure what to make of that.

"Not as your kinsfolk are," says Maugrim, who knows about politics. "We'd give you power, just enough for little gestures, something to make simple folk happy. But the real power would lie with a Council."

"Or a Parliament, as the owls have," says Grultz.

"Oh!" exclaims Edmund, understanding, "a constitutional monarchy! We had one back in England, with a Queen."

The Animals don't know the term, so Edmund has to explain it, but they're familiar with the concept, and agree that it's close enough.


Edmund kills for the first time when he's thirteen. It's a Badger, and it was on the wrong side, and that's all he was told. He looks at it lying in its blood and vomit and something that might be brains, and wonders if it's male or female, and if it's maybe one of the Badgers that gave food to him and the others when they first came to Narnia. It's hard to care, though, about an Animal which had food to spare for strangers, which even now has a comfortable layer of fat. The land has been in drought since the Winter ended.

Once he goes two weeks without eating. There's not even bark left to chew; the trees are stripped bare. (Some of the Trees are, too.) The next morning, at the mouth of the cave where he sleeps, he finds a box of Turkish Delight. There's a note on it, pale bleached parchment, and written in blood-red ink. Lucy, with love.

He really means to share it with the others, so he eats just one piece. And then just one more. In the end, he has to bury the box and hope they don't find it. (He keeps the note.)

Edmund stops growing after that, even though the rains return and he remembers what it's like not to be hungry. So the Resistance stops hiding.

Maugrim is found dead. It says Lucy, with love on him, too, but this time it's not ink.

When Edmund is fourteen, the Naiad he dallies with occasionally tells him he's wanted at a meeting of the Resistance, so he leaves the pit trap he's building and goes. The meetings are larger these days, and not so secret; some of the larger animals stand guard, and they stop half a dozen intruders every night. He gives the pass-phrase to one of the Bulgy Bears, and finds Yolanda by the campfire. (Edmund has always been terrified of Yolanda. The Dwarf is half his height, stockily beautiful, her dark hair always elaborately braided and beaded. She's also the Resistance's deadliest killer, and carries a blowgun and poison darts between her breasts.)

Yolanda points Edmund to a knot of Animals, who are holding an animated discussion. Among them is a kneeling woman, her hands tied behind her back, long hair shadowing her face from the light of the campfire behind her. It's not till he's three paces from her that Edmund recognizes his sister.

Susan is allowed to speak to him, bound, with a knife to her throat. Edmund turns his back, not out of pity but because his sister has always lied best with her eyes.

"I want to help," she pleads. "Let me be one of you. Make me a slave, I don't care."

"She could be a spy," a Wolf murmurs to Edmund.

"Do we know anything but what she tells us?" Edmund asks, speaking too softly for his own ears.

The Wolf, with her keener hearing, replies, "The Tyrant your brother has sent out a death warrant for her, but he'd do that in any case."

"Do you smell anything on her?"

"Fear."

Which doesn't tell him anything either, so Edmund is left to question Susan.

"Why, Susan?"

"I saw what He turned Lucy into."

"What?"

"Mad. A prophetess. She isn't human anymore, Edmund."

"And you're so much better?"

"I don't kill people when I'm bored."

There's a growl at that, and Edmund can guess the reason. Susan always did go starry-eyed over fox-hunting. No doubt she tells herself she only hunts dumb foxes. No doubt she's never actually stopped to check.

Susan is a good reader of people, so she knows he knows. "So I'm no better than they are. I didn't want to lose myself. Does it matter to you, the reason? You know I can help you. I'm very good at what I do."

"Too good," says Edmund, without turning. "Kill her."

"She's lying?" someone asks.

"I don't know. I'm not sure she does. Too much risk. Kill her."

They do.


 

They never stop loving each other.

They can't help it, as much as they try. When Lucy curls up in the lovely warmth of Aslan's fur and slips away into the dark oblivion which is her only refuge from the ceaseless light, it's Edmund who is her psychopomp. When Edmund loses himself in the power of the kill, feels pure pleasure in it for a single moment before the horror and the ugliness return, it's Lucy who passes before his eyes in a flash of light.

Lucy never takes a lover. They say it's her perfect devotion to Aslan.

Edmund takes a string of lovers, one after another, Dryads and Naiads and on one incredible night Yolanda. He never stays with one for long, or lets them think it's anything more than physical. There are plenty who don't mind that, in the dark nights between battles. They say it's just how humans are.

Sometimes, Edmund tries to justify it to himself, loving his enemy. Some days he thinks, maybe she's not so bad. Maybe there can be no cool shadow without the glaring light, no peace without pain, no courage without something to oppose. But then he remembers.

She visits him, sometimes. She comes in the heat of summer when the heat beats down on his shoulders like a cruel whip, and afterwards he wonders if it was a mirage. She comes in winter when the silver filigreed frost lies over the land, dressed in a thin white slip and barefoot.

"Hello, brother."

Her skin is so white, he thinks it would crackle like paper if he touched it.

"Lucy. Again?"

"I'm always thinking of you, you know."

She still smiles. She's always smiled, faintly manic, and now more than ever.

"I know."

"When are you going to come back?"

"I'm not coming back to you, Lucy."

"You will someday. And then I'll make it so you can't leave again."

"It won't matter."

"I love you."

"I love you too."


 

The Tisroc sends them five-and-twenty soldiers, marching and glistening in polished armor. It's a gesture of goodwill, a promise, saying if you rule Narnia, I will parley with you. It is enough that they begin to speak of fighting, conquering, of winning, instead of surviving and raiding and resisting.

For Edmund, it's the first time since childhood he's lived with other humans, even if these are strange folk with strange gods and strange names. Ahinoam and Liat and Galim, Ishka who serves Tash and does not speak to Asaroth, Yaron and Odiel and Zehavi. Harduf the tall who serves Zardeenah by night and Azaroth by day, the brothers Choresh and Yohad and Yehudi, Sarit the woman who girds herself as a man and pays blood-price to Zardeenah for denying the goddess what is hers. On and Zika and Taya whose god is the sungod whose name must not be spoken lest he look upon you and consume you with his terrible radiance, Pe'er and Lihu and Ilan and Saraf and Avidar, and Erez who cut off his own ear as an offering to a god whom he cannot name. Shachari who serves one god today and another tomorrow, Shmaria who worships all the gods and Iyar who worships none, and Sheizaf who blesses and curses in the name of Aslan.

Edmund is wary of gods, but he likes the gods of Calormen better than those of Narnia. Better to serve a god only so long as he helps you, to turn from him if he will not and find another if he cannot, than to do as the Narnians do and forever make excuses for the cruelty of your god. He doesn't pour out wine to Tash or Asaroth or Zardeenah or the sun-god or the god of Erez, but he doesn't turn his face away from those who do.

The soldiers teach Edmund to fight man-style, with sword and buckler, alongside those of the Animals who can benefit from what they teach. All of the Calormenes call him King Edmund and defer to him before the Council, which is strange though not entirely unpleasant. Edmund reminds himself that they do not understand that the Animals in Narnia are not like the animals in Calormen, and carries on with his life.


Edmund doesn't count birthdays anymore, but by the fall harvests and winter hungers that have passed, he must be fifteen or sixteen when the Council declares war on Narnia.

That night, he dreams of honor and liberty and death and screaming terror and a golden Lion on a field of blood. He wakes up to Lucy.


 

Lucy’s hair glints golden and red in the sunrise. "Good morning, brother of mine," she says, drawing her small thin nails across his neck. She licks the blood off her fingers, then bends down in a sudden move and laps it from his neck. Edmund is bound, and doesn’t try to move away.

When Lucy is finished and sits back on her heels, Edmund can see Peter looming over him. "Are you done, Lucy?" the older man asks. It's a plain question, no impatience in his voice, only deference. Lucy is the Beloved of Aslan; even the High King cedes to her.

"For now." Lucy's voice is like the chiming of glass bells, high and thin and fragile.

"What do you want of me?" demands Edmund. He's surprised by how much he's not touched by the sight of his older brother. He'd been afraid that some last bond of kinship would linger between them, tugging at his heartstrings, like a shadow of what lies between him and Lucy. But he pities Peter, nothing more.

"I think what I want of you is plain enough, Edmund. You've hurt our family badly, tearing it apart like this. And we can forgive you for that - Aslan can forgive you for that. But to tear apart Narnia, to cause deaths of Narnians - they're our family too, you know. We can't let you go on doing that."

There's so much Edmund could say to that, but none of it would do any good, so he contents himself by wondering who "we" is. Something about the way Peter stands tells him that it's not "Peter and Lucy;" they're too cautious, too distant for that. In Peter’s fevered mind, does his trustworthy councilor Susan still stand at his right hand? Is it only the royal "we?" Or (more insidious) does it mean "Peter and Aslan?"

"So I'm offering you a choice, Edmund. Not a choice between two evils; that's not Aslan's way, that's what those servants of Tash you consort with would do. I'm offering you a choice between two goods."

Edmund waits until it's plain that Peter won't carry on with his little drama until Edmund provides the scripted answer. "What are my choices?"

"Aslan died for you, you know, Edmund, years ago. He made that sacrifice for you. Accept it, let yourself be washed clean in His Blood, and you can be one of us again. Come out of the darkness, sit on your silver throne at Cair Paravel in the clear light of day. It's been empty too long."

"And if I decline?"

"We give you what you gave Susan. That's a gift too, Edmund, you know, a good quick clean death."

Edmund has seen death. It isn't good, and it's rarely quick, and it's never clean. "I live, as I die, in the service of Narnia."

Relief springs to Peter's face like the shadow of joy. "You mean you'll come back to us? It'll be a hard road, Ed, but we're all waiting for you at the end of - "

"I serve the people of Narnia, not the usurper."

Peter flinches, and Edmund is almost sorry. Peter is a usurper too, but it wasn't him Edmund had meant. "That's your choice, then?"

Edmund nods.

He'd imagined grand last words, an inspiration to all those who come after, but instead Edmund is gagged and dragged to his feet and sentenced and thrown back to his knees. Lucy bends over him and runs a single soft finger under his chin to lift it, smiles at him while she slits his throat. The dark blood wells out and drips on the ground, and as Edmund's vision blurs Lucy is whispering sweet nothings in his ear.

He dies in her arms.

The Resistance goes on without him.