(EDIT, 30-Sep-2008: Wow. Just ... wow. I wrote this and threw it up as a draft and didn't think it was good enough to finish, and now it's the most popular thing I ever wrote. I'm going to take this as indicative of the fandom size rather than the story's really being so amazing. But pull up a virtual chair, enjoy yourselves, and if you want to see everything else I've written, the best way is to look at my tags page, where finished work is sorted by fandom.)
Susan Pevensie is, in no particular order, an orphan, an atheist, remarkably beautiful, firmly practical, and a Queen. Depending on how the accounting is done, she is either eighteen or fourty-three years old. She is virtuous and kind. She is neither a virgin nor a fool.
Her brothers, she knows, believed her to be the first and suspected her of being the second, when in fact she is nothing of the sort; Susan thinks she is of the four of them the only one who ever grew up.
Her handbag is full of the things that were recovered from the bodies. She had not cried when she saw them. Susan had, in time, seen far worse. Railway crashes can be messy things, but by the time she arrived the blood had been cleaned away, the missing body parts found and reunited with their late owners, the worst of the casualties decently hidden beneath sheets and only the faces revealed to their grieving relatives. Susan thought of a giant's eye collapsing, the blood and vitrious humour trailing down his face as he fell with a terrible roar. She had done that to him. It had been a swift and terrible death.
It was a small railway crash, really. Twenty people dead, a few dozen more injured.
An apologetic railway employee had given her the valuables. Edmund's pocket-watch (stopped but astonishingly not broken), two pocket-knives, a ring her brother Peter had worn, and some more rings that had been wrapped in a hankerchief in his pocket. She shifts her handbag and listens to them jingle, and presses her lips tightly together and crosses her legs, with a soft noise as her stockings brush together, and thinks about what she will do next. Susan is far more practical than her brother believed.
Susan had never been the kind of person who went to church often, and in truth, she had never really believed in the kind of God that was worshipped in England. She had avoided churches ever since, when she was a much younger girl, she had gone to a magical land where there had been no churches and very little prayer. There had been no need of it, because the whole land had been a sacred place, and she had been able to walk up to its god and embrace him.
The kind of churches they had in England, full of stuffy priests declaring what people should think about God and smelling of cheap candles and floor wax, seemed to her like very poor places after that.
Susan does not attend the funerals, although she saw to the arrangements with a cool, detatched practicality. They take place in a small chapel with a flagstone floor, and there are not nearly enough seats for all the people who wanted to attend.
Afterwards, when the mourners have trooped off to the graveyard, she finds the deaconess, a bustling woman with worry-lines written across her face, and asks if she can have the chapel to herself for a while, and that no one else be allowed to come in.
The deaconess looks at her with a mixture of pity and distate. "I don't see why not, if you want to pray for your family's souls," she says. "Although you could have done it at the funeral. It would have been more proper. There was the most lovely prayer."
"I'm not going to pray for their souls," Susan tells the deaconess calmly. "I am going to demand the return of what is rightfully mine."
The deaconess's face turns fearful. "Oh no," she said. "It's not right, demanding for things. Not to the Lord Jesus. You have to ask, and ask nicely." Her face falls suddenly. "And he won't give you your family back, you know," she murmurs gently. "It doesn't work that way. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. All things in their due time, and it is a pity, really it is, but the Lord never gives us more that we can bear and - " Her voice is cut off as Susan slaps her, across the cheek, her expression not changing at all. Susan keeps her nails a little long, although not so long as to interfere with picking up a pen or drawing a bow, and paints them red to match her lipstick. Her arms are very strong. The sting is not inconsiderable.
"They are not mine to own," she says, voice implacable. "But there are things that are, that I was given and that were taken from me, and that are no further use to the one who took them. Never mind. I'll find another place."
Revulsion has overtaken the deaconess's face. "Lord have mercy on you, child," she says, and turns aside, back into the church office, locking the door behind her.
"I don't need it," Susan says to her retreating back. She stands in the courtyard for a long time afterwards, the wind whipping her long brown hair in her face and flapping her short black skirt against her legs.
Whatever her brothers and Aunt Polly thought, Susan never stopped believing. Not completely. She only put the memories aside, because they were of no further use to her. She had been told she could not return. And so, faced with a lifetime in England, Susan had faced it firmly, and done her best to forget she had ever been a Queen of Narnia.
But the memories lingered, and she had, after all, spent far longer in Narnia than she ever had in England. There she had been a grown woman. She had been called the Gentle, for she was always smiling, always forgiving. With her soft words she had taken kings on the verge of war and left them throwing aside their swords and falling weeping into each other's arms. Princes had vied for her hand. She has not forgotten any of this. She is in her way fourty-three and it pained her to return and be treated as a child again, told she would understand things when she was older, turned aside from grown-up discussions and forbidden grown-up touches.
But she had smiled and borne it nontheless, because she had two brothers and a sister and they needed her.
Edmund especially. He was so careful, so brave, so guilty. Forever guilty. She wanted to tell him, she might have done the same thing. Who could blame him for believing a stranger who showed him kindness, and for looking aside from ephemeral promises of a Lion who would come someday to save them when there was a Queen whose power he knew for himself? She would have done the same.
She wishes it had been her. She wished Edmund had not been left with so much guilt; she could have borne it better.
Susan no longer has brothers and a sister to care for. They are beyond any help she might give to them, and they are old enough that she is not necessary. She knows this. There is no longer any reason to stay.
The train station nearest to the Professor's house has been rebuilt and expanded significantly. There is a wide awning now, and a notice-board plastered with forgotten bills for events weeks or months past. Susan scarcely gives it a glance. It is a long walk to the ruins of the Professor's house, and she will have to move quickly to make it there before dark.
By the time the burnt-out ruins come in view her feet ache, despite her sensible flat shoes. She thinks, absurdly, that she's not as young as she used to be. It's almost true.
Susan finds the spot by memory, triangulating from the remnants of the burnt foundation. The ash doesn't seem any different in that spot, and years of rains have left it matted and sunken into the muddy ground. Susan lifts it and lets it sift through her fingers, then stares at the black marks on her fingers. She tries to brush them off on a stone, but there is nothing for it but to wipe her hands on her handkerchief. When she is done it is unusable and she drops it on the ash.
She owns this place now. The Professor left her all his assets in his will, including one fine plot of land in the English countryside, complete with former historic building.
"Aslan," she says. "I have come to ask for what is mine by right."
There is no answer.
"I know what became of them," Susan continues. "They were drowned beneath the waves you called forth to destroy your own country, and all the other countries of that world besides. What was yours to make, perhaps, was yours to destroy, but what was given to me cannot be recalled. I charge you by the Deep Magic, return them to me. They are no use to anyone, in the new world you called my family into."
Susan closes her eyes and tries to summon up the face of the great Lion, but all that returns is her dream, of a world swept with water and her brothers walking away from a doorway into a bright land from which they will not be recalled. In her dream Edmund loked back and called her name, but Peter never gave the land he had been High King over a final glance. She does not believe this happened as she saw but the substance of the dream, she thinks, is true.
"Return them to me," Susan repeats, and there is no reply.
Although she had decided that never again would she humble herself before the Lion, she falls to her knees, eyes closed, damp ashes gritting against her stockings. The sun is setting and dark shadows are falling across the ground, painting the landscape red. Susan, by great effort of will, does not cry. "Aslan," she whispers. "Will you not give me this now, or have you forgotten all those things that were left behind? I am only asking for a shadow, a dream. Who else can do this thing? Would you have me call upon Tash, the dark and vengeful, for justice?"
She looks across the woods, red and black with evening light, and thinks to herself that she saw woods look like this once before, the night before the great wedding of Prince Cor of Archenland and Aravis Tarkheena. Aravis for all her newfound love of Aslan had insisted that the rites be observed, and she had asked Susan, who had become her bosom friend, to assist her in their execution. And so, they had walked into the woods together, and Aravis had spoken to her of the service of Zardeenah, Lady of the Night, which she must now abandon. "You are a woman of wisdom and valour," Aravis had said to her, "and I would have you stand beside me."
She remembers the shadows, and that she had never seen the face of Zardeenah, but that the presence had been as strong as that of the great Lion. She rememebers thinking that Zardeenah had been as proud and generous as Aravis herself.
When she looks again it is almost full dark. She reaches into her handbag and pulls out the handkerchief. "Very well, then, if you will not help me, I will ask another," she says, and imagines that she feels warm breath ruffling her hair, and hears the soft tread of great paws walking away.
"Zardeenah! Lady of Night! I gave honor to you for but one night, but it seems to me that you do not lightly abandon those who have served you even once. I beg a favor. I offer up these rings, all but two, that I shall need for the journey. In recompense I ask for those things that were my gifts, the bow and the horn, to be given into my hands."
She takes out Peter's pocketknife with steady hands, and cuts her palm, letting blood spill onto the ash. "I have no altar and no sacrifice," she tells the night, "but you will hear me nontheless, oh great lady."
There is a sudden breeze. Zardeenah, like Tash, is a goddess without a country now, for in Aslan's country of perpetual day there is no place for her, Susan thinks. But she is faithful far beyond death. Her hand stings, and she feels, or thinks she feels, gentle hands on her shoulders, lips that taste of berries and salt brushed against her own. Her hands close suddenly, and she drops the pocketknife in surpise; it lifts a puff of ash where it lands.
Her hands close on the grip of a bow and the curve of a horn, and she feels the familiar weight of a quiver at her back. The slippery blood must be marking the handle but she does not let go. "Thank you, Zardeenah," Susan says, and for the first time in years she knows the prayer is genuine.
The deaconess knocks on the door of Susan's house some time later. Susan thinks she would have had to sell the house. Professor Kirke had gotten by in lean times by renting his old house out, but the middle of Finchley did not make an appropriate location for a bed-and-breakfast. But such considerations are minor things, and she will leave them behind easily enough
"Hello," she says quite calmly to the deaconess, who is looking aside.
"I - came to apologize, like," the woman says. "I shouldn't have said those things to you. You were out of your mind with grief, and - the Lord wouldn't think it very charitable - I brought some fruit," she says, and holds up a basket as proof.
Susan almost laughs, but stops herself; she is a Queen, she must be gracious to every petitioner. "Thank you, ma'am," she says. "Do come in, I've put the kettle on."
The deaconess casts an approving eye on the cleanliness of the house. The bow and horn are sitting on the table beside the teakettle. To Susan's eyes they shine like the moon against the washed-out magicless world, but the deaconess's eyes pass over them idly, and she sits on the sofa without a word. When Susan returns with tea the deaconess thanks her, and adds softly, "I know this must be a difficult time for you."
"Yes," Susan allows, "but not beyond reason."
The deaconess looks at her softly. "You must have good memories to sustain you," she offers.
Susan sips her tea and looks at the opposite wall. "When we were evauated, during the war," she says, "we stayed in this big house in the country, that belonged to an old professor. And we decided there was a magical land that you could get into from the upstairs wardrobe. So we went in, more or less by accident, and defeated a tyranical Witch and ended a hundred years of winter, and then we stayed, and were made the rulers of the land. And we reigned for years and years. It was a golden age."
"Oh, yes, childhood games can be so wonderful, can't they?" The deaconess smiles. "I used to pretend I was really a long-lost fairy princess."
"It really was a children's story," Susan says quietly. "I worked that out, later. There were plotholes, you see, all over the place. For example." The tea burns her tounge but she will not stop speaking, for she does not want to leave with these things unspoken, even to someone who will never belive it. "Narnia, where we ruled, was a small country and there were hardly any humans in it - talking animals and nymphs and fauns and the like - and then to the south was a great empire, Calormen. It was a human place. And it was bigger than Narnia and Archenland and Telmar and the Seven Isles all put together, and yet it was still on the edge of things. Always the enemy."
"I don't really see," the deaconess murmurs.
"The Professor whose house we stayed at told us how when he was very young, he had seen the creation of Narnia. His uncle was a magician, you see, and had given him magic rings that let him walk between worlds. And the first place he went was a great city. Charn. A dead city, where every living creature had been wiped out by war." Susan shrugs. "Yet Narnia - it was the place where the great Lion sung the world into existance, and the only humans there, at the beginning, were this cabbie and his wife who had travelled there by accident, and the Lion made them king and queen. But the Calormenes weren't their descendants, and never were, and worshipped a god who was not the Lion. So how did they get there?"
The deaconess despite herself looks interested. "Maybe they came later," she says, hesitantly.
"Exactly." Susan sets her cup down with a dull thud. "TThey came in through another door, and they made the world their own. Like the Telmarines, later, except the Telmarines were allowed to become heros. And the Calormenes spoke as if they had never lived anwhere else. As if they had been brought there for some purpose of the Lion's own." Her smile, Susan thinks, would be unearthy if it were not for her make-up. She is grateful for her makeup. "Narnia - it was too big for itself. The rest of the world was only meant as window-dressing, and it grew despite itself. But really, that world was so tiny. And it hardly had any time at all, because its God was childish, and pulled down the Apocalypse early when his pet country was taken over by the Calormenes. A few thousand years, that's all it had. But don't you see - there aren't just a few worlds. There are hundreds. And all sorts of ways to walk between them."
"It's a very interesting story, just the same," the deaconess assures her. "Have you ever thought of writing it down and publishing? If the memories are not too painful - "
"Oh, but it was real," Susan tells her sweetly, and picks up the bow and the horn. "I was given these there. I wanted them back, so I asked a Calormene goddess, since the Lion is in heaven now and has no time for the faithless."
The deaconess stands up. "Miss, you're obviously very upset. Maybe you should come with me, have some nice dinner - "
"I have the magic rings, too," Susan continues calmly. "I will take them, and I will see some of these other worlds. Perhaps ones with better-told stories, and gods more open-minded. I have nothing here to hold me any longer."
"Set those down and come with me," the deaconess says, her voice gone firm and unyielding.
Susan, hardly thinking, brings up her bow.
The woman's breast is not ten feet from her. She could not miss. She will not fire, because this is neither the battle nor the hunt, but this woman, she thinks, will have no conception of that. "Leave me now," she says. "I have told you the truth, but if you will not hear it, that is no concern of mine."
Once a queen of Narnia, always a queen of Narnia. Susan thinks that there are places being a Queen of a dead country will count for little. Still, she is proud of her title.
When the house is hers again and the strange noises have left her head Susan takes down her hair and braids it, then washes the makeup off her face. The girl in the mirror is almost a stranger. Not without beauty, Susan thinks, but looking far more wise than beautiful. She looks very tired.
She puts on Edmund's clothes, since Peter's are far too big for her and she does not know where she is going, or what she will have to do when she gets there. She slings her gifts over her shoulders, and in her pockets she puts her brothers' watch and pocketknife and finally, two rings, one yellow and one green, each folded in a handkerchief.
The light is the dirty gray of a rainy England afternoon. Susan feels as if she is already floating away from it. Narnia always seemed brighter than England, and it is her only point of comparison, so far. It will have to do.
It's a curious sensation, no longer being the neat, nice, young woman; Susan thinks she likes it. She is very tired. She knows this exhaustion is spiritual, not physical, and so she is determined to go onward before she collapses; perhaps she will rest in the wood between worlds, where there can be nothing to disturb her.
She will not mark the pools, she decides. She has no intention of coming home again. Her home is gone, vanished in fire and flood, gone further up and further in.
There is a knock at the door, then a rattling knob. Susan adjusts the hang of her quiver, then smiles and calls out, "Goodbye." A little mystery is not a bad thing to leave behind amoungst all the other.
"Miss!" the voice from outside the door calls. "Miss, open up, we can help you - "
Susan doesn't bother to answer.
The sunlight in the wood is the most perfect thing she's ever seen.