Over the course of her young life, Adeline had worn armor countless times. It was necessary for training, for battle, and occasionally for ceremony. Most days she wore a tunic and trousers or a dress, but if there was to be any physical activity for her then the armor was strapped on. She'd long ago grown accustomed to the feel of it, to its extra weight and the way the edges would sometimes dig into her skin if she moved her joints a certain way.
When she had been younger, and inexperienced, General Cristoff had patiently shown her how to don the armor, a task made much easier with attendants that weren't always available. Taking it off and putting it on again in a matter of moments had been part of her fundamental training as a bodyguard for Gwen, even if she didn't wear it constantly as the other members of the Royal Guard did. Within a few weeks, the motions and contortions required to strap on the armor without assistance became second nature, a fact that she had never been more grateful for than now.
Her fingers laced up the shin guards and braces without thought, automatically tugging and adjusting until they fit properly. The breastplate was next – first one arm, then the other, then the buckles on the side. All the while she stood before the full-length mirror in her room, trying to keep from succumbing to the nausea that crept up her throat.
She finished her task too soon, and stood there another helpless moment as she wondered what she was supposed to do now; it was much too early to head down to the courtyard, everyone was busy with their own preparations, and she couldn't exactly go to the training fields in the gathering dusk.
A most welcome distraction arrived in the form of a polite knock.
She didn't turn immediately to face her visitor – just because she was horrifically on edge didn't mean she had to appear that way. When she did turn, however, she couldn't help but smile.
His smile was just as easy and affectionate. "My lady. I hope I'm not interrupting."
"Don't be silly, please, come in."
After shutting the door behind him, Cristoff held something out to her. "I hope you won't find me too bold, but I thought to clean and sharpen your sword while you were otherwise occupied with their Majesties in High King Peter's study earlier today."
"I thought one of the servants had taken it down to the smithy. Thank you, my friend." Gladly she slid the weapon into place on her belt, trying not to notice the empty scabbard where her dagger usually hung, not because she wanted it back but because she knew exactly who was currently holding it, and right now she absolutely could not afford to be distracted by thoughts of him.
It took her a moment to realize that Cristoff was looking at her cautiously, and she sighed.
"I'm sorry, General. My head's rather in the clouds today. What was it you needed?"
"Only to ensure your well-being, my lady." he said quietly.
"I…" the words caught a bit in her throat, and she swallowed forcefully to get them out. "I'm fine. Really. But thank you, General."
"Adeline," he cut in, "I'm asking you as a friend."
Without her permission tears gathered in her eyes, and she turned away sharply to hide them, crossing to the window as she attempted to regain some control.
"Do you remember the day we met?" he suddenly asked conversationally, and Adeline let out a choked laugh at the memory. She was dimly aware of him coming to stand beside her.
"You snuck into training sessions to learn how to fight, even though I kept catching you and forcing you to leave. It was no place for a young girl."
"I was so angry at being dismissed that way – you just waved me off as though I were a pesky fly."
"And then you informed me that you wanted to learn how to fight so your father wouldn't be able to hurt you any longer."
A twinge of sorrow among the happy memory, but Adeline pushed on regardless.
"And that was all it took for you to speak to Fitz and Izzy about my training. You always were an enormous pushover." She teased. Cristoff rolled his eyes.
"Aye, but have you forgotten what happened next? The morning of your first lesson you sashayed onto the field as though you owned it..."
"I beg your pardon, I've never sashayed anywhere in my life – "
"Fine; strutted then, and I was quick to put you in your place, wasn't I?"
"By noon you were having me run drills with trainees three years ahead of me. Fitz heard about it and nearly had your head. I had to step in and assure him I liked it that way, it was more of a challenge."
The two of them shared a smile, remembering how simple things were back then. Before Gwen had gotten old enough to participate in diplomatic affairs, before she'd begun preparing herself to rule Archenland one day, before she was dragged into the spotlight, oftentimes taking Adeline with her.
"Celeste asked me to say hello, and give you a bit of news: she's with child."
Happy to have her thoughts derailed, Adeline's grin matched his. "Oh, Cris, that's wonderful!" she exclaimed, reaching to give him an affectionate hug. Cristoff had married a nobleman's daughter about two years ago; she was remarkably sweet and kind, and exactly what Cristoff needed.
She was about to ask after Celeste's health but her friend suddenly held her at arm's length with his hands on her shoulders.
"Addie, Celeste and I care for you, you know that. We, along with Fitz and Izzy, want you to be happy. You've given your entire life to serving other people, and you deserve the best in the world."
She suddenly felt choked. "Cris…"
"It doesn't matter what a tyrannical lunatic wants, it doesn't matter if your father approves. What matters is that you're happy."
Cristoff paused, looking down at her with such warmth and affection that she almost teared up.
"She'd be so proud of you."
The tears did come then, rolling down her cheeks before she could stop them or pretend they weren't there, and instantly Cristoff drew her closer again, holding her in a brotherly hug that was like a balm to her aching heart.
"I miss her, Cristoff." The words sounded strangled but hearing herself admit it for the first time made her feel lighter somehow. Gradually her tears subsided, and she took a step back. A white handkerchief appeared, and she took it gratefully.
"I miss her too," Cristoff said gently. "The castle isn't the same without her. She had a way of livening up the place. Do you remember the time she coerced you into sliding down the banister in the main hall?"
Adeline chuckled even as she wiped her nose. "Yes. Izzy nearly dropped dead from shock when she found us. Gwen ruined her best day gown, and we both had to help the servants polish the whole banister for a week."
Cristoff was openly laughing now. "What about the time she snuck out on Fitz's stallion in the dead of night?"
"Fitz nearly had my head for that one! All the guards thought she was some thief and then she tried to jump a small stream and fell off…I didn't hear the end of that one for months. All the boys in the training yard teased me about letting my charge go for midnight rides unsupervised. It didn't matter that I'd been suffering a cold all week."
Their laughter eventually tapered off, but her heart felt a bit less broken than before. She gave a small smile that Cristoff returned, and sighed.
"I can't let Peter and the girls lose Edmund. I can't let them go through what I did, Cris. It would crush them."
"I've no doubt you're right. But neither have I doubt that it would crush you as well."
Uncomfortably, Adeline moved to face the window again. Distantly she could hear the hammer and anvil hard at work down in the smithies. Amos was probably down there, sweating and pounding away at dull and broken swords, doing his part to make sure all the soldiers were ready. She thought of the story Susan had told her, of how Amos's wife and children had been taken from him by some faceless disease. The man had lost everything, yet he had found a purpose, a reason to keep living, and, she realized, to keep fighting.
"Edmund is…he's a friend." She said lamely.
She could practically hear Cristoff's eyes rolling behind her. "Really. Because you and I have been friends for longer than you've known Edmund, and yet I don't recall us ever having shared a stolen kiss in some tucked-away garden at Anvard."
Adeline whipped her head to face him, utterly speechless.
"Addie, you know servants see and hear more than we realize. And they talk."
Her face flamed. She'd thought all this time that Peter was the only one who knew about that kiss, when in actuality the servants all over the castle knew of it, which meant that many of the soldiers knew, as well as any number of townspeople and possibly the council members. They might as well have hung a banner from the highest tower.
"Addie," Cristoff began soothingly, "do you regret it?"
She started. "I…no. No, I don't."
"Do you regret anything pertaining to Edmund that's happened since then?"
She eyed him suspiciously. "No."
"You don't regret not telling him you love him?"
Adeline's mouth swung open. She wasn't sure when Cristoff had learned to read her so well, but she was sure that she didn't like it.
"How do you know I didn't tell him?" she retorted defensively. The look he gave her was sympathetic.
"Because if you had already admitted it to him, you wouldn't be so reluctant to admit it to me now."
Horrified, Adeline felt tears spring up again, hot and threatening to spill over, but she held them at bay by sheer will power.
"I'm not trying to drag a confession out of you, Addie. I'm just trying to tell you that it's alright if you do love him. It gives you a reason to fight."
Adeline stared at her feet. Hadn't Peter told her the very same thing?
"I'm needed in the armory," Cristoff said finally, and he pressed a quick kiss to the top of her head. The gesture made her smile a bit, enough to not mind when he left the room without another word.
She was surprised to notice after a few minutes that it was almost dark; they would be leaving soon. And hopefully, she'd come face to face with Edmund within a couple of hours.
Taking a deep breath, she double checked to make sure she had everything, and headed downstairs.
As to whether she was ready to face him…well, she tried not to think about it. Right now, they had a war to win.
Peter shifted his grip on Rhindon for the umpteenth time and tried not to squirm as he felt a drop of sweat roll down his back. Chain mail was necessary, but extremely uncomfortable with its weight and stifling ability to retain heat.
He'd actually hoped it would be cooler up here, tucked away in the branches of a young maple, but so far he felt as though he were rather wearing an oven than a suit of armor. A slight breeze ruffled his hair and brought a small amount of relief, and through the waving boughs and leaves he caught the barest glimpse of moonlight reflecting off Caspian's sword in the tree next to his.
They had meticulously run through the plan all afternoon, but in the end a great many things were left up to chance tonight. Peter took a moment to pray once more, then licked his lips and whistled softly.
Almost immediately an answering whistle sounded from across the clearing, and he took heart – that meant the Susan was ready.
Cautiously he waited, and he strained his ears for the sounds of footsteps nearby. There was a guard directly beneath him; his pulse pounded in his ears as he held his breath and held stone-still, and at long last the soldier ambled away, towards the other side of the clearing.
Peter whistled again, and immediately a tiny prick of light flared, soaring in a high arch into the center of the clearing. An instant later the world was aglow in orange and red. He grinned to himself – Susan never missed. The largest tent, in the middle of Xaviar's small camp, was now ablaze, the flames licking hungrily at the canvas and wooden frame. Shouts of alarm and surprise quickly raised a din all through the camp, and Peter silently slid down the tree trunk, landing on his feet at the same time Caspian did.
Cautiously, Peter stuck his head out, making sure no one was paying attention, before he followed Caspian around the edge of camp. Susan and Lucy met them at the back of the tent Caspian had indicated, moving as silently as they could. Peter tugged the canvas wall up to waist height, and crawled in after the others.
His heart stopped.
There were two wooden stakes in the ground, a very large patch of unusually dark earth, and the nasty smell of old, dried blood.
And no Edmund.
"Where is he?" Lucy hissed, rounding on Caspian, but he shook his head, looking every bit as fearful as they felt.
"I don't know. I thought Xaviar would leave him here till tomorrow at least, I don't…." Caspian raked a hand through his hair in frustration. Peter fought to remain calm – he couldn't snap now, not when Edmund might very well be on his death march while they were just standing here.
Dimly his ears caught the sound of swords and shouting – Adeline had arrived, and with her the entire army that had been assembled for the sole purpose of defeating Xaviar's rebellion. His gut clenched painfully as he realized they had no way of telling Adeline that their plan was already in shambles, and that if they backed Xaviar's forces into a corner Edmund would be used as leverage.
And that was only if he was still alive. Peter tried to avert his eyes from that dark splotch on the ground. It was looking redder by the moment.
He swallowed against the bile rising in his throat. "Right then….Caspian, you and I will join Adeline's forces, help where we can, and the girls will look for Edmund." He turned to his sisters. "The moment you find him, come to us." Even if he's already dead.
He couldn't push the words out, but they both nodded anyway.
Lucy tugged the canvas up so they could crawl out again, and the moment it had dropped back into place behind them Peter squared his shoulders.
If Edmund was already past their help, that was all the more reason to win this war. He and Caspian exchanged a brief glance that reassured him all the same, and together they exited the tent, swords raised high.
At first he'd tried counting his heartbeats, in order to keep some sense of time.
The potion Lucy had made worked wonderfully – relief had been swift in coming, and had lasted since then. He was still quite sore and stiff, but the worst of the pain was gone, allowing Edmund to move much more easily than before.
Pity movement was impossible at the moment.
Just a few minutes ago, Xaviar had come to his tent, along with a small group of soldiers. He'd been yanked roughly to his feet and led through camp, blindfolded and hands bound in front of him. It had required all of Edmund's concentration to carry himself as though he were in pain, so that Xaviar would not suspect anything was amiss, and so he had failed to ask any questions or even determine where they were in relation to the camp.
They'd not walked far before Edmund had been shoved back up against what felt like a very large tree, and bound tightly against it with ropes tied all the way around, covering from just above his elbows to a few inches above his wrists, and only then was his blindfold removed. His eyes had adjusted in time to see Xaviar walking away from him, towards the soldiers on the opposite side of the tiny clearing.
His heart sank, but he refused to show any fear. "Xaviar, if you're wanting me to sing or dance I'll need more room to move."
There was no response, only a regal nod of his head to the one of the soldiers. Edmund suddenly spotted the crossbow, and as the man took his aim he swallowed thickly. He'd hoped it wouldn't end like this. He could only pray his brothers and sisters would still defeat Xaviar, and in the dim torchlight he saw a finger move over the trigger, and as he closed his eyes he thought of clear blue eyes, of hair the color of burnished gold, of soft, sweet lips against his own.
He heard the crossbow fire, and for a split second there was the tell-tale sing through the air of the lone arrow.
Abruptly he heard, just to his right, the snap of a twig, followed by the twang of a bow string. He opened his eyes in time to see the red-fletched arrow catch the shaft of the one aimed at his heart, landing with a loud whack in a tree on his left.
There was a deafening heartbeat of silence, and then something silver flashed out of the trees, and Edmund looked down in astonishment at Lucy's dagger, firmly embedded in the tree trunk inches from his ribs. The ropes were shredded, and he looked up to see more crossbows taking their aim. He yanked his arms above the ropes, tugged the dagger free, and whirled behind the tree just in time to hear more arrows hit the wood he'd been in front of moments ago.
Breathing hard, he strained his eyes to try and catch a glimpse of one of his sisters, but instead a familiar glistening flask appeared, tossed to him in a soaring arc. He caught it, pulled the stopper, and let one, two, three drops fall onto his tongue.
He closed his eyes. The relief was instantaneous; all remnants of pain or discomfort vanished.
"Ed!" he snapped to attention, now able to see Lucy just beyond the trees. He barely had time to wonder why Xaviar's men hadn't caught her or Susan yet, but then Lucy tossed something else to him, and he grinned. He took a moment to pull Adeline's dagger out of his boot, finding comfort in the familiarity of the small weapon.
As he stood to his full height, he slid Lucy's cordial in his pocket, and in a move that reminded him painfully of Adeline, he caught his sword by the handle, twisting it in midair so the sheath came flying off, and he stepped back in front of his would be execution post.
He met the gazes of the few remaining soldiers; Susan's arrows littered the fallen, and Xaviar was nowhere to be seen. Lucy suddenly was at his side, wielding a small sword and looking as valiant as he'd ever seen her. He exchanged a small grin, and together they charged.
In moments the three Pevensies stood alone among the dead.
Susan took one look at his blood-soaked clothes and haggard face and went pale, but she hugged him fiercely nonetheless. Lucy wasn't far behind, and he could see the questions threatening to burst from them.
"I'm alright," he said quickly, smiling again for good measure. "Really, I'm fine. Where are the others? What about Xaviar?"
"Everyone else is back at the camp," Susan replied, "and Xaviar has likely fled for his own life, but we can chase him down later. Peter will want to know you're alive, and they could use our help besides."
Part of him was sorely tempted to hunt down Xaviar like a wild animal, but he knew Susan was right. He followed his sisters through the threes, towards the sounds of battle, and it wasn't until they could see the fight through the trees that he turned to Lucy with a question, but she beat him to it.
"Addie's fine," she said with a knowing smirk, "She's worried sick about you, of course, but she's been a real brick about the whole thing."
Edmund grinned. "I'd expect nothing less."
Lucy's smirk turned into a fond smile. "Neither did we."
Adeline knew something was wrong the moment she saw Peter. There had been brief lull in the battle, and she'd tried to ask him about Edmund but he wouldn't meet her eyes. Alarm bells had sounded in her head, but the next wave of Rebellion soldiers had come and there hadn't been a chance to pester him since. She was forced to shove away the worry and concentrate on her sword, taking down one soldier after another, relentless pushing her way through.
She buried her blade in one man's stomach, ducked under a wide swing and punched the other in the nose. His knees buckled and she yanked her sword free, and found herself momentarily left alone. The fight was definitely going their way; Caspian was handling three soldiers easily, and she looked back over her shoulder, and promptly felt her heart plummet to her toes.
Peter stood as he always did, proud and strong, legs braced and feet solidly planted, exchanging blows with two soldiers.
Xaviar also stood as he always did: in hiding, behind Peter's back with his sword at the ready.
The scream froze in her throat; she was too far away to reach Peter in time, and Xaviar was mere seconds away from plunging his sword through the High King's back. He pulled his arm back, and Adeline wished she could look away, but she couldn't, she was rooted to the spot, watching in horrified transfixion.
There was an angry roar – later she would realize that it sounded more like a lion than a man – and Edmund's sword clanged against Xaviar's. Peter stumbled out of the way, profound relief on his face at his brother's appearance giving way to shock and realization.
Edmund didn't spare his brother a moment's glance; his sword was already a blur of steel as he rained blow after blow upon Xaviar, who was holding his ground surprisingly well. Adeline dimly registered the fact that all other activity on the battlefield had ceased. All eyes were on the king and the usurper, the redeemed and the traitor.
She'd never seen Edmund like this. His rage was careful, controlled, and lethally precise. Every strike was intended to kill, not maim. Slowly he backed Xaviar towards a cluster of maple trees, and equally slowly Adeline drew closer, afraid that if she drew too close she would break Edmund's concentration, but at the same time she couldn't stay away.
A sudden movement to her left had her bringing her sword up defensively, just in time to meet the downwards strike of the young foot soldier. Something moved behind her, and she wasn't fast enough to block the jab to her shoulder. Pain seared down her arm, and a strangled yelp left her lips.
Instantly she saw her mistake. Hearing her cry of pain, Edmund whirled to face her. Meeting his eyes for the first time in so long was nearly her undoing. She shook her head, not wanting to distract him anymore, but the damage was done.
Xaviar seized Edmund's momentary lapse in concentration, and delivered a series of blows that forced the latter back several steps. Adeline watched one strike land on Edmund's ribs, another on his shoulder, and finally a third on his hip. He stumbled, and in that one split second Xaviar grabbed him from behind in a headlock, sword pointed at Edmund's exposed neck.
"Come and see, Adeline!" Xaviar called. "Come and see the man you have chosen, the man you deemed more worthy than I!"
His voice dripped with mockery and conceit, but Adeline only had eyes for Edmund. He looked tired, worn and hurt. Stubble lined his jaw, bags hung heavy under his eyes, and despite the healing cordial he looked ready to drop dead where he stood, with or without Xaviar's sword pressed to his throat.
The sight made her chest ache. What had she done?
"Let him go, Xaviar." She stated as calmly and clearly as she could. "This fight is between you and me."
"It involves him regardless," Xaviar insisted, tugging harshly on Edmund's hair. The latter winced, and Adeline very nearly reached a hand out to him. She stayed her hand, however, and kept her voice steady.
"It doesn't have to. You want the Archenland throne, and I stand in your way. Leave the other nations alone, and take up your sword against me."
Xaviar said nothing, merely backing slowly away from her. Panic began to set it; if he kept Edmund as leverage, no one on their side would dare approach him. And once he got far enough to get away safely, Edmund was as good as dead.
"Xaviar, please, let him go" Adeline was outright begging now, her dignity long since cast aside.
Xaviar didn't respond, only pressed his sword tighter against Edmund's front and the latter winced. Adeline was past desperate.
"I'll do anything," she pleaded, but she was rewarded with a scoff.
"What will you do, Adeline? If I release him I will be executed for treason. You are a member of Archenland's Royal Guard – you will not come to my defense at my trial, if I am lucky enough to get one."
He kept taking tiny steps backward, dragging Edmund with him, and Adeline knew this was her last chance.
"I'll marry you!"
The words burst out of her before she had time to stop them.
Xaviar had ceased all movement, his eyes wide and mouth slightly open as he stared at her, almost incapable of processing what she'd said.
Edmund was equally shocked, but not for long.
"Addie, no!" he shouted, writhing to break free. "You can't, I won't let you –"
"Shut up," Xaviar snarled, moving his sword up to press against Edmund's throat, but the protests kept coming.
"Addie, don't, please don't do it, please don't marry him – "
"I will." She kept her gaze evenly trained on Xaviar's and spoke loudly to be heard over Edmund's frantic cries, even as she bit back her own. "I'll marry you. I swear it, if you let him go unharmed."
Xaviar was breathing hard, and licked his lips nervously. His mouth opened and closed several times before he finally managed to choke out one word.
Once again, her voice seemed disconnected from her brain. "Because I love him."
Edmund froze, no longer struggling and shouting, but instead gaping at her in complete and utterly stunned silence.
Xaviar's sword dropped slightly as his brow furrowed in confusion.
"You…you would marry one man….because you love another?" He asked uncertainly.
She took a deep breath. "Yes, I would. And I will, if that's the deal you're willing to make."
"Addie…" Peter said quietly from behind her. She ignored him.
"Do you accept?" she persisted, and Xaviar's frown deepened. Her heart thudded in fresh panic – what would she do if he refused?
"I-I don't understand. You rejected my proposal. Why have you changed your mind?"
"I told you. I love him," she stated, pointing at Edmund, who still remained motionless, gawking at her like she'd grown another head. "I love him, with everything in me, and I would gladly shed every drop of my blood, would gladly sacrifice the last shred of my dignity, would gladly give you the last ounce of my happiness and freedom, if it meant saving him."
She hadn't meant to babble on so; she sounded rather like a poet or some artistic sort, and in any case Edmund was arguing again, albeit in calmer tones.
"Addie, this is preposterous, you can't do this…Peter, tell her she can't, order her to stay over there with you…"
"His Majesty High King Peter has dominion over the citizens and soldiers of Narnia," Adeline cut in sharply. "I am neither, and as the official representative of the Archenland throne I am making this my final offer. Do you accept?"
Edmund was stunned into silence yet again. Xaviar stared at her, cold and calculating, before he nodded and lowered his sword. Edmund wrenched himself free and stumbled towards her.
"Addie…" his hands were on her arms, his eyes were searching hers, pleading as desperately as she had been moments ago. "Don't do this…don't go with him."
Gently she removed his hands from her. "I must."
"You can't" he tugged her closer, kissing her deeply, and she could have sworn she could hear her heart breaking within her. She pulled away, backing up towards Xaviar, only to have his voice stop her.
"Leave your weapons."
She turned to face him incredulously. "Are you serious?"
He met her gaze with cold eyes. She wondered how she could have ever found him handsome. "Deathly."
She retraced her steps, removing her bow and quiver as she walked. She reached Lucy and Susan first, standing beside Caspian and Peter just behind Edmund. She handed them the weapons before pulling her small knife out and giving it to Caspian. Her sword went to Peter, and she paused briefly to look at her dagger in Edmund's hand. She gave him a wide berth on her way back to Xaviar just in case, but he still reached for her.
She pulled her wrist out of his reach just in time, only to have her other one seized in a manacle grasp by Xaviar. Still unable to take her eyes off of Edmund, she saw the ugly anger cloud his eyes and heard the growling snarl in his chest, and was relieved to find that none of it was directed at her.
"Get your hands off her, you –"
"Now, now, Edmund. Watch how you address me in the presence of my betrothed."
Adeline fought back the nausea that crept up her throat. Suddenly unable to meet Edmund's eyes, she allowed herself to be led away, to where horses were waiting to take her to her new life with her soon to be husband.
Her last glimpse of Edmund was of him struggling against Peter and Caspian as he tried to run after her.