The knock sounded on the heavy oak door before it creaked open softly.
"Miss Adeline. The Queen would like a word."
The young woman turned from where she stood at the long worktable, wiping the polish off of her hands with a clean rag.
"Is Her Majesty in her sitting room?"
The servant nodded, and after thanking him she reached for her sword that lay on the table behind her. Inspecting it closely, she deemed it clean enough and slid it into the sheath that hung from her belt. She quickly checked her clothes for stains or tears; her simple tunic and trousers were hardly fancy, but they were clean, so she headed out the door and down the corridor.
It was not at all unusual for her to be summoned for an audience with the Queen. She wasn't nervous, but she did wonder. She was hardly ever called in the middle of the day like this. She tried to quiet her thoughts as she hurried to the Queen's private sitting room. Pausing to catch her breath and curtsy quickly, she took her familiar seat and watched as the two women before her fell silent. Gradually, she became uncomfortable with their scrutiny and finally asked, "What is it?"
Queen Isabella of the Archenlands had a face that was made for smiling. Her deep green eyes and chestnut hair had won her the reputation of a beauty in her youth, and though the years had been long, and not without difficulty, she had aged well. There were few lines to be found in her round face, and even then they only appeared when she smiled. She did so at Adeline's question, turning to her daughter at the same time.
"Do tell her, Gwen dear. It's rather exciting news."
Princess Gwen greatly resembled her mother, except for her eyes. She had King Fitzgerald's deep brown eyes that seemed to warm up a soul from the inside out. But her creamy complexion, slender yet shapely figure, and melodious laughter were all her mother's. Suitors had travelled from far and wide for the past three years, but the princess had only just celebrated her nineteenth birthday. Her parents encouraged her to take her time, marrying for her heart rather than for the kingdom.
For some reason, she appeared nervous, which only served to intensify Adeline's curiosity. Gwen glanced at her mother, who gave her another smile and an encouraging nod, and then she finally spoke.
"How would you feel about travelling to Calormen?"
"Calormen? What on earth would you want to go there for?"
The Princess took a deep breath before continuing.
"I've recently received a marriage proposal from the Tisroc, and Father wishes for me to address it in person."
Adeline tried very hard not to let any of the panic she was feeling show through, but she had to make sure, after all, Gwen was as good as her sister, she couldn't just stand back and let her marry the Tisroc of Calormen. He was easily old enough to be her father, not to mention that Calormens were, for lack of a better term, heathens. A soft chuckle snapped her back to the present, and she looked up to identical expressions of amusement on the other women's faces.
"Addie, I would never dream of agreeing to marry the Tisroc," Gwen giggled, "but I'm in agreement with Father. A gentle refusal given directly would have less of a chance of offending the Tisroc, and I must admit I'm looking forward to this trip. It's my first diplomatic affair to handle completely on my own; Father said it's to last a month or two."
Looking to the Queen for a moment, Adeline mulled over the idea. She knew the idea was a good one, and the King would never send his daughter alone if he hadn't first given it great thought. She heard herself asking, "How many guards?"
"Besides you? Not a great many; I don't want to give the impression that I'm afraid for my life while I'm a guest at Tashbaan Hall."
When Adeline remained silent for several more long moments, Isabella broke in gently.
"Addie, dear, you mustn't feel obligated to go. If you feel your father can't do without you for that long then there are other guards. You are, of course, our first choice, and we wanted you to be aware so you can make your decision."
Adeline was silent for a moment as she thought. Her father would be better off learning not to depend on handouts from the castle any longer; she'd been trying to think of a reason to diminish the number of food baskets she took down to the village anyhow. This might be the perfect opportunity. Even as she found herself thinking this, she was aware that she'd likely go with Gwen regardless of her father's situation. The town drunk could only expect so much charity.
She voiced none of her musings, however, and simply stated, "When do we leave?"
Gwen's smile grew double in size, and launched into the time they would depart and what suitable clothes Adeline would need to bring along and did she think they should bring their horses or arrive by carriage or did she suppose there would be any feasts and if so what if there was dancing?
Somewhere in the tirade Adeline looked over to see the Queen laughing quietly at her daughter's ill-disguised enthusiasm. Shaking her head, Adeline reached over and hugged her friend, cutting her off mid-sentence. She pulled back slightly and spoke with her own laughter tinting her words.
"I'll be ready days in advance; you know how I over-prepare for everything. And I think it would be nice to take our horses along for riding, even though we'll probably take most of the journey in the carriage. But I also think that if you don't relax a little, you'll never survive to see Calormen and so all your fretting and ranting will have been for naught."
Gwen grinned sheepishly, and promised to try and calm down, and with that the three women were off making arrangements for the upcoming journey.
"You have your light ballgown? It's dreadfully hot, Gwen, dear, you mustn't go about indecent but try to be as comfortable as possible. Adeline, do make sure she sleeps with all the drapes drawn, I've heard the nights there can get quite cold and the last thing we need is for Gwen to be coming home with a case of pneumonia. And be sure-"
"Aslan's mane, Izzy. Addie will take good care of our girl, don't you worry. She always does." The booming voice of King Fitzgerald shook with suppressed laughter. He reached to embrace his daughter, kissing her temple before helping her into the waiting carriage. He then turned to Adeline, who returned his embrace warmly.
"Look after yourself as well, Addie," he whispered. The young woman nodded against his shoulder, pulled back, allowed the Queen to hug her one last time, and lithely stepped into the carriage, one hand grasping her bow and quiver. The servants shut the door, the coachman shouted to the horses, and with a few creaky lurches, the Princess and her companion were en route on their very first diplomatic mission.
Six hours later, they stopped at an inn for a bit of respite. The innkeeper showed them to a private washroom, where there were basins of cool water to wash off the dust and grime of travel. Adeline reached and pulled her golden hair atop her head, allowing the back of her neck access to the soft breeze that blew in the window. It felt so wonderful that she pulled the waist-length tresses in front of her shoulder and set to work braiding it, tying off the end with a leather strap she kept wrapped around her wrist for such purposes. Turning to Gwen, who had been drying off her face with a clean towel, she spoke quietly so as not to be overheard by the servants.
"Are you nervous?"
Gwen slowed her movements and caught her friend's eye in the mirror.
"Yes. But I know I'm ready. How are you faring?"
Adeline shrugged before answering honestly.
"There's really not any more pressure on me than what I'm already used to. This is the first time your safety has depended entirely on me, but I've always taken this position seriously, Gwen. It's not much different this time."
Gwen had to agree with that. For the past thirteen years, Adeline had been her constant companion, both while travelling as well as at home. As the girls grew older, Addie had been trained for combat as thoroughly as the King's own private guard. Gwen had never had an inkling of doubt of her loyalty or capability to protect her, but she also knew that Adeline was at times ridiculously harsh with herself when she felt she had jeopardized Gwen's safety. Nothing had ever happened – or even come close to happening, for that matter – but while Adeline was forgiving and gracious to others, she more than made up for it when it came to herself.
"Father and Mother would not have allowed us to come without them if they weren't certain you could protect me. I have no doubts either – I never have."
Adeline nodded modestly at the subtle compliment, but the slight flushing of her cheeks spoke volumes of her appreciation. Gwen grinned, set down the towel, and linked her arm through the other girl's.
"Now come. I'm positively famished, and that stew they had cooking smelled wonderful."
"Peter! Come quickly!"
Peter Pevensie groaned even as he clambered to his feet and broke into jog, heading for the back door of the stately brick building. Students of various ages sat all around the back lawn; a few turned to watch Peter approach his brother.
Edmund's dark eyes were frustrated as he held out a letter, having to lean slightly from the top of the veranda steps where he stood so Peter could reach the paper. He looked down at Peter for a moment, and then decided he might as well warn him of the letter's contents.
"It's from Aunt Alberta."
Peter's head shot up, his eyes rounded in surprise even as he read the truth, written in the scowl that adorned his brother's face.
"How many times are we going to have tell her? I'm not having you and Lucy move in with them; Eustace is horrid and in any case I think the best thing for all of us is to stay together. That's always how we handle things. What makes her think separating us will do any good?"
"She wants you and Susan to immigrate to America. Once you're financially stable then she'll feel it safe enough to send me and Lu.
Peter normally tried to set a better example for his younger siblings, but he couldn't suppress the eye-roll upon hearing his aunt's latest scheme. Mr. and Mrs. Pevensie had been killed in a freak Underground accident just six months ago, and ever since their aunt had been unmerciful in her fretting. At first the four of them appreciated it, since it was nothing more than a quick letter, letting them know they could pop in if they ever needed to. Recently, however, the open invitations had morphed into insisting that they come and visit. Peter's stomach rolled at the mere thought of walking off and leaving his brother and sister in that house.
He crushed the letter in his fist, determining to toss it into the rubbish bin at the first opportunity.
"She's mental if she thinks I'd ever off and leave you two. Right now we don't need a bothersome aunt. We need each other. Why can't she see that?"
His voice had started out angry, but by the time he finished he sounded tired, and – to Edmund's surprise – he sounded old. The younger man took a closer look at his brother; he wasn't but twenty-five, and certainly looked young to most people. But Edmund had seen his brother lead armies, battle tyrants, rule a country, settle peace treaties, and that was all before he returned to England to attend university so – as their teachers had phrased it - he could "make something" of his life. He shook his head at the irony of it all. He saw the age, the experience in Peter's eyes. He remembered how light they used to be, after they returned to Professor Kirk's house through the wardrobe. Even then they all returned to their childhoods fairly easily.
But now, after returning again from helping Caspian to claim the throne, it was as if they'd been completely uprooted. Edmund often felt like his world had been turned wrong side out, but made to look like it was supposed to be that way. Every so often Edmund would catch a glimpse of the Magnificent King, usually whenever Peter had to make a decision for the whole family. He could see snatches of Susan the Gentle when she had to settle arguments between the four of them. And Lucy- well, Edmund thought, smiling to himself, Lucy had never really stopped being valiant. She just got more credit for it in Narnia than she did here in England.
"Look, Aunt Alberta is just trying to help, Pete. Let's forget about the letter and go meet the girls for lunch, yeah?"
Peter nodded, knowing his brother was right. He couldn't let the well-intended offer make him a grump for their afternoon outing with their sisters. It was their first one since their parents' deaths; he supposed it was considered improper not to grieve longer than they did, but honestly, their parents were near strangers to him. Lucy had been understandably affected the most. But even she had felt distant ever since their last return to England. Now, however, he knew that all four of them were ready to move on, so the rest of society could think what they liked. He was long past caring.
Lost in thought, Peter rounded a corner just ahead of his brother and walked straight into a young woman, nearly sending her toppling to the floor. He was quick to steady her, and was rewarded with a bright smile that he returned. Continuing down the hall towards the front door, he heard a derisive snort from behind him. Good naturedly, he stuck his foot out and pretended to trip Edmund.
"I don't want any jokes made about that. I was just being a gentleman."
"Oh, I wasn't on about that."
"No? Then what are you snorting about?"
"That sappy smile she gave you. All the girls love to catch your attention, and you eat it up as though it's your daily bread. It's nauseating."
In spite of himself, Peter felt his neck and ears turn a bright red. His brother could always push his buttons.
"I do not eat it up; I'm just friendly. And anyway, can you really fault me for noticing a pretty girl?"
"I just think it's funny that every time a girl walks by you have to open every door and laugh at every joke. You don't treat your sisters that way."
Peter opened his mouth to protest, but they were already on the sidewalk heading to pick up the girls for luncheon. He settled for a condescending eye-roll which lost half of its effectiveness since he was trying and failing not to laugh, and made another turn, catching sight of his two sisters waiting for them on a bench near the park. The boys picked up their pace, anxious to see them after a long week of classes and studying. Susan and Lucy were engrossed in a conversation of their own, but when the latter caught sight of her brothers her face brightened and she got up quickly, meeting them halfway with a hug for each of them. Susan followed suit, and the four of them walked to a nearby café with tables outside surrounded by flowers.
The next two hours passed in a flurry of laughter and story telling, with frequent teasing from Edmund, the gentle and caring inquiry of Susan regarding their studies, the solid, comforting presence of Peter as he assured them all that he wasn't leaving once he found a job, and Lucy's bubbly, contagious excitement at starting university in the fall. The one subject the four of them longed to speak of the most was constantly in the backs of their minds, yet none of them ventured forth, all for different reasons. Peter saw no purpose in dampening everyone's spirits with a reminder that he and Susan would not return. Susan felt the same, and she also felt that they were all finally adjusting to life here in England after six difficult years. Edmund found it hard to speak of their other world without imagining his older siblings there, and Lucy simply wanted to weep whenever she thought of Trumpkin not being there next time she went, if she ever went at all.
At long last, they paid the bill and set off down the street to their small flat. They hadn't managed to keep much of their parents' things, but they each got one keepsake when they had relocated out of the cottage they'd lived in all their lives. Peter unlocked the door, standing aside to let the others through. Lucy immediately collapsed on the sofa.
"I think I ate too much," she giggled, even as she moaned slightly and held her stomach.
"Well, we know that's just like you," Edmund teased, "You always eat enough for three people."
His sister smacked him with a pillow.
"That's rich coming from you, Mr. I-Must-Inhale-All-The-Toast-Before-Narnia-Runs-Out -Of-It."
A deafening silence settled upon them; she'd finally mentioned what they all most wanted to talk about, but none of them knew exactly how to go about it.
At long last Edmund spoke quietly.
"I'm happy here, truly I am, but I must admit to missing it sometimes."
The others said nothing, but he could see his words echoed in their faces. He slowly stood, and loosened his tie as he walked to his room. The others remained in the living room, lost in remembrances of the clang of swords and battle cry of centaurs and the way the Lion's mane rippled in the wind and the way His roar had boomed from across the river-
Edmund's sudden call startled Peter out of his reverie. He slowly made his way to the doorframe, the girls crowding around him to see what their brother wanted.
Their brother, it turned out, was much too shocked to tell them anything. He stood, white-faced, pointing to his bedroom wall.
Or, rather, what had been his bedroom wall.
A door had appeared, one of a rich, dark wood, highly polished and ornately carved and engraved with trees and flowers. Peter had a strong feeling he'd seen it somewhere, but he was also certain there hadn't been a door in that spot before, and he was just opening his mouth to ask Edmund a question when he heard Lucy gasp.
Never noticing the three sets of eyes trained on her, Lucy took a couple of steps towards the door, her eyes huge in her young face. If Peter hadn't been looking at her so intently, he would not have heard the whisper that came a moment later.
"It's the wardrobe."
All four of them were frozen in absolute shock, partly from the sheer surprise of it all, and partly because they knew she was right. It was exactly like the wardrobe door from the Professor's house; one large tree in the center, with other such carvings all around. Even the handle was the same.
"What does this mean?" came Susan's quiet voice.
"I think if you and Peter can both see it, that means you're to come back with me and Ed," stated Lucy in her most logical voice. "I don't really see a purpose in allowing you two to watch us return without coming along. Even if you've been told that you're not coming back, it's rather obvious that something's happened there, and they need all four of us. I mean, we've never been brought back without being needed in some way."
No one ever considered ignoring the obvious beckoning; Lucy was right in saying that every time they had been called, they had been needed. To flatly refuse to acknowledge this would be to turn their backs on their people.
Once a king or queen in Narnia, always a king or queen.
Suddenly Peter sprang forward and reached for the knob. He half expected Susan, or at least Edmund to cry for him to wait, to think it through logically, but to his surprise they all followed him through the door. They all shuffled inside, and instantly the door shut behind them. It was pitch dark, but Peter felt his way along the walls until they found some sort of bracket. Fingering along in the blackness, he realized it was torch. Quickly he rummaged through his bag, finding the matches and lighting one. The soft glow of the torch illuminated his three siblings standing near him, blinking at the sudden light. They all took a moment to observe their surroundings; the walls, ceiling, and floor were all smooth, worn stone caked with mud and age. There was a sudden breeze, and Peter caught whiff of something that sent his mind reeling. It smelled of apples, of the forest, and of the sea. Could it be possible?
"I think we should go back now," came Susan's shaky voice from beside him. He glanced at her and realized she was thinking the same thing he was. Nodding reluctantly, he turned to open the door again and gasped.
The door was gone. In its place was only stone identical to the rest of the chamber or tunnel or whatever it was they were standing in; Peter didn't have a clue as to where they were or what they were to do next. He also had no idea of what to think. Here he'd been told he was not to return to Narnia, yet where else would they be?
He looked at the others and saw identical expressions of shock on their faces. He cleared his throat awkwardly, and then spoke in the eerie quiet.
"Well, I suppose we're back."