The thing about arriving in magical land unannounced, Peter mused, was that nobody tended to believe you when you told them who you were. It would seem that claiming to be the Four Kings and Queens of Old was considered a sign of mental instability among these parts. He shook his head slightly as he led his bedraggled siblings out of the village gates, away from the jeers and coarse laughter of the people gathered in the open square.
He could practically feel Edmund's simmering glare from ten feet behind him. Sure enough, he glanced over his shoulder just in time to call, "Ed…" warningly. The younger Pevensie had just opened his mouth to shout something back at the villagers, and while Peter more than sympathised with his frustration, the very last thing they needed was an angry mob chasing them.
Edmund settled for deepening his scowl, glaring at the endless dusty road before them.
"Well, we can't exactly help that we don't know where our armor is. Would it hurt them to give us a chance? They could at least tell us where the blazes we are."
"I don't really think we're going to be getting much help any time soon. Although I do wish they'd at least been civil."
"Well, think of it as a test," Lucy said bracingly.
Peter, grateful that his position meant the others couldn't see his face, rolled his eyes.
Edmund, apparently, didn't care if they could see his facial expressions or not. He gave a derisive snort, and then proceeded to march along in stony silence for the next forty-five minutes. Not that any of them were much better- very little conversation was made as the shadows grew long and the pale blue of the sky began to streak with gold rays.
Peter forced himself to contemplate their sleeping arrangements for the night, and the plan for the following day. He supposed they would follow this road till they found another town. They'd arrived six days ago, without any idea where they were. The tunnel that the door had led them to went for just under a mile before going uphill and opening out into a cave in the side of a long ridge of stone in the midst of a dense wood.
Nothing in the vicinity looked familiar in the slightest, but Susan had found a good-sized stream and where there is water, there will be people. They'd followed the stream for almost a week, eating roots and mushrooms and such just to get by.
Peter had found a stout fallen branch that served as a club and had taken turns with Edmund keeping watch through the night. They were managing, but the thought of having no weapons, no help, and no way of getting either was very sobering.
Peter had resigned himself to yet another night of sleeping on the cold, hard earth, keeping watch with a stick instead of a sword, when a sudden breeze stopped him right in his tracks.
"What is it?" Lucy asked.
"Do you smell that?" answered Peter, sniffing eagerly.
The others followed suit, and a moment later they were tramping off the road and through the woods, letting the unmistakable scent of wood smoke guide them.
They came upon the clearing sooner than anticipated, but once they'd broke through the last line of trees they all stood for a moment, taking in the sight before them. A small, modest cabin was nestled in among some pines, with a well dug not far from the door. There was a garden, and a dirt path leading to the large, rambling barn that sat on the other side of a lush pasture that was being grazed by several sheep. Chickens pecked around in the dirt by the doorstep, cows could be heard through the open doors of the barn, and as they watched Lucy felt tears prick behind her eyes. The whole scene was so homey, and homey was not a feeling she'd experienced in a very long time.
Her emotions were swiftly forgotten, however, when a burly man stepped out of the cabin. He noticed them almost immediately, and started his way over to them. Peter and Edmund both stiffened, although nothing about this man seemed threatening. He came to a stop just before them, looking them over critically, and when he spoke Lucy wanted to cry again at the kindness in his tone.
"You lot be 'ungry?"
Peter's shoulders sagged slightly in relief.
"Yes, sir. We've come a long way."
A small smile split the weathered face of their savior, and with a small gesture of his head he led them all to the house.
Her head jerked up instinctively, finding the Princess on the far side of the courtyard. She excused herself to the servant with whom she'd been talking and made her way over to Gwen's side. The latter's face practically glowed with excitement, and Adeline suppressed a groan. Here we go, she thought, another outing or tour or ancient ruin that we simply have to see during our visit.
"Addie, this Lord Xaviar. He's a distant cousin of mine on Mother's side. He is visiting like we are, but was not aware that we would be here."
Adeline turned her attention to the tall, powerfully-built figure that flanked Gwen's other side. The man was the very definition of handsome; tan skin, lean frame topped with broad shoulders. Sculpted features gave him the look of royalty, while his eyes were kind and interested. She swept into a deep curtsy, appalled at the fact that her collarbone felt hot. The very idea, a perfect stranger having the ability to make her blush! She was grateful that the neckline of her dress came up to her throat, hiding the evidence from a Gwen's view.
As she returned to her full height, Xaviar took her hand and pressed a gentle kiss on the back, then turned those ridiculously green eyes to her face. As he did so he smiled, revealing a full set of perfect white teeth, and Adeline swore her heart skipped a beat.
"Lady Adeline? The Lady Adeline? I've heard tremendous stories about you, my lady. It is truly an honor to meet you at last."
Gwen looked positively delighted with his words, and the blush crept all the way up to Adeline's face. She knew if the princess spotted any more signs of infatuation Adeline would have the interrogation of her life the moment they were alone. Still, the man's words were kind, and required a proper response.
Carefully ignoring the fact that she could still feel his hand enveloping hers, and that her skin was actually burning where his lips had touched, she gave a small laugh.
"Thank you my lord, but if I were you I would question the authenticity of such tales. I highly doubt anything I've ever done could be rightly described as tremendous."
"Oh, you weren't joking when you said she was modest," Xaviar chuckled, glancing at Gwen. "Well, perhaps you would care to set the record straight as you give me a tour of the palace? Apparently coming with actual royalty means you get the actual tour; when I arrived I was only shown where the dining hall, my room, and the library were located. I've been reluctant to explore on my own."
Gwen let a small laugh of her own escape, even as Adeline desperately tried to think of a way out of going anywhere with this man, because she was one more charming smile away from tripping over the perfectly smooth flagstone floor. Then she heard Gwen speak, and struggled not to choke on her own saliva as the princess informed Xaviar that she couldn't possibly give a tour at the moment, as she was needed elsewhere, but Addie was just a dear, and she was sure that Addie would just love to show him around, and the three of them would meet for luncheon at noon. Gwen swept off, looking absurdly pleased with herself, before Adeline could even formulate a response, and she turned very slowly to face Xaviar.
Right, she told herself firmly, he's cousins with Gwen. Nothing to worry about – he's obviously a nice fellow, and there's nothing about him that warrants a reaction from you.
She glanced up just in time to see the man in question run a hand through his dark hair distractedly, his gaze on nothing in particular. Without even realizing what she was doing, her eyes ran from his head all the way down to his feet and back up again. When she reached his face she jumped - at least five inches off the ground – as she found his eyes boring into hers, watching her blatant scrutiny with a small smile.
Good job, Addie. Really stellar work, that was.
There was precious little hope of hiding her blush now. Her whole face might as well have been on fire.
She opened her mouth, but no words came. He ended up rescuing her by asking where she would like to start. Taking the lifeline, she led him off into the corridors of Tashbaan Hall, making a mental note to give a certain match-making princess a scolding she wouldn't soon forget.
Edmund was tired. No, scratch that, he was beyond tired. Exhausted, weary, dead-on-his-feet were all much better descriptions.
They'd arrived at the farm earlier that afternoon, and once the meal the stranger had prepared for them had been eaten, he had informed them that his name was Amos, and that he had chores outside that needed doing; the loft had two double beds they were welcome to use, and he'd be sure to wake them up in time for supper. It was a simple speech, and Amos's vernacular didn't reveal much education, but the kindness that a perfect stranger was showing was more than enough for Edmund and his siblings.
Perhaps that was what had prompted Peter and Edmund both to push to their feet, following Amos out the door to the barn. He'd looked surprised, but also seemed to understand that arguing would get him nowhere. The threesome had worked in easy silence until sundown, and when they returned to the cabin it was obvious that the girls had been busy as well. The floor had been swept, all the cobwebs and dust were nowhere to be found, and the smells coming from the enormous old stove were heavenly to Edmund's miserably empty stomach.
Amos had surprised them all; he'd had to swallow several times before he could get a thick, yet sincere thank-you out. The food had not been fancy, but it was still one of the best meals they'd ever had.
Now, oddly enough, Edmund couldn't fall asleep. He knew he needed it, what with keeping awake half the night for the past week, and then he'd hauled water and chopped wood and toted grain and weeded the garden and other such farm chores that his body simply wasn't used to. But his mind had other ideas, and he finally gave up and climbed quietly down the crude ladder into the kitchen.
To his surprise Amos already sat at the table, a lantern burning low beside him. He held a mug of tea between his hands, and when he spotted Edmund he rose silently to fetch him one as well.
Edmund sat, sipping the warm brew in silence; Amos appeared to be in deep thought, and when he spoke it was almost absently.
"Trouble sleepin', son?"
"Yes, sir. I can't think why, but I suppose my mind just isn't ready to go to sleep yet."
Nodding in understanding, the farmer replied, "Aye, that's the way it be sometimes. The body is bone-weary, but the mind is just gettin' started. Nights like that I just come in 'ere, have some tea, and if that don't work then I do the best I can in the mornin'. Daylight comes early round 'ere."
Not sure what to say, Edmund nodded and took another sip.
"The four of you- you're family, right?"
"Yes. Peter is the eldest, then Susan, then me, then Lucy."
"Where's your folks, son?"
Edmund opened his mouth, but no sound came out. He swallowed, hard, and tried again.
"They died about six months ago. Freak tr-carriage accident."
The look in Amos's eyes startled Edmund; there was sympathy, but not the pitying kind he'd become so used to in England. It suddenly hit him that this man, who opened his home to strangers and obviously worked hard, had experience pain very similar to his own. The realization made him blurt the first thing that came to his mind:
"Do you have a family?"
Wincing, Edmund heard the nosiness in his own question. He'd just started to apologize for prying but Amos, after contemplating his tea for a moment, answered quietly.
"Yeah. Or, rather, I had one. Valley fever came through couple'a years back. Took my wife, and the twins – one boy and one girl. Three years old, they were. Left me alone, with this farm."
It took a moment for Edmund's voice to start working again.
"I'm-I'm terribly sorry for your loss, sir. I wish there was something we could do."
A wry smile twisted the older man's face, although his eyes remained sad.
"Me too, son, but there's not a bit o'sense in that thinking. All we can do – any of us – is do the best we can with the lot we're given. Wishing things was different might be natural, but it just make you feel worse in the long run. I'm willin' to wager your folks wouldn't want any of ya to mope around, bemoaning what your lives are now."
It was the longest string of words Edmund had heard from him in the short time they'd been here. He took another sip of tea, and decided that this chap could be trusted.
"I need to ask you something; it's going to sound odd at first but I promise I'll explain."
At Amos's encouraging nod, he continued, "Where exactly are we?"
"The Western Archenlands, 'bout three days from the Calormen border."
"Right, then," shaking his head to clear the cobwebs, "did you happen to hear about the return of the Narnian Kings and Queens to help Prince Caspain?"
"Aye, that caused quite a stir, that did," Amos chuckled. "That were 'bout three years past."
Edmund leaned forward intently, his half-empty mug of tea quite forgotten.
"You mean to tell me it's only been three years?"
Nodding bemusedly, Amos watched as Edmund stood up so fast his chair knocked over, taking the ladder two rungs at a time, all the while bellowing at the top of his lungs, "Peter!"
Within the next ten minutes, all four of them stood chattering around the kitchen table, almost unable to believe it. Three years, not thirteen hundred. All their friends were still here, not long gone as it was last time.
Amos sat in midst of the chaos, utterly baffled at the sudden change in his guests, until finally Lucy noticed him and said, "Oh! We've forgotten to explain to Mr. Amos; Peter, you'd best tell him."
It took a little convincing for Amos to believe they were the Kings and Queens of Narnia, but it took the four of them the better part of half an hour to stop him from standing and bowing to each of them.
"But your Majesties, I don't wish to be dishonorin' any of ya -"
"Mr. Amos, we promise you haven't offended us. You've shown us such great kindness we can't ever repay you." Lucy broke in softly, but her voice was pleading.
Edmund had to suppress a smile; any man that could look at Lu's big blue-gray eyes and not want to give her the moon was made of stone. Amos appeared to be struggling with the idea, but he finally agreed to allow them to help him with the last of the harvest.
"Once that's over, then, I'll escort you to King Caspian meself. I'm sure there's some important Narnian business Aslan's brought you back to tend to. But for now," he added, standing and placing his and Edmund's mugs in the dishpan, "we all had better try and get some rest afore that sun comes up."
Edmund followed the others up the ladder and climbed into the bed beside Peter, all the while trying to grasp the discovery of the past hour and a half. It seemed unreal; only a week ago he was revising for exams at the university and bickering with Susan about whose turn it was to clean the kitchen. Now, he was helping with the summer harvest on a small Archenland farm, and in just over a fortnight he would be walking the halls of Caspian's palace.
Even as he stretched beneath the covers, he knew that sleep, for him, was miles away.