The Archenlands were much the same as Edmund remembered: dense, cool, and irritatingly difficult to navigate due to the mountainous terrain. He grit his teeth as his horse nearly stumbled again, and breathed a sigh of relief when the ground levelled out.
"I still think this was a mistake," Susan murmured from beside him. "Fitz and Izzy are going to know we're here before we actually arrive inside the castle, and they'll think something is wrong."
"Something is wrong, darling," Caspian reminded her. "Peter said Xaviar would have less chance of killing us all off if we were all under the same roof. The dryad said the plan was to strike Anvard first."
"I know," Susan admitted, "But I wish we knew why. Narnia is still recovering from the battle; the citadel is still mostly ruins. I'm glad he's left us alone for now, but it would make more sense to take the Cair first."
"Xaviar's not known for his strategic prowess, Su," Edmund said lightly. He squinted across the open field, surveying the city that was tucked into the base of the mountains. The castle sat in the upper section of the city, and from here Edmund could just make out the black pennants on all the towers – signs of mourning not just for Gwen, who had been dead for a little over six months, but also for her protector.
He swallowed, trying not to think of the fact that he was about to enter Adeline's childhood home, and that there would probably be reminders of her all over the place.
You're here to help Fitz and Izzy, and to keep your family safe, he reminded himself sternly. Quit wallowing.
A short time later they had ridden into the castle courtyard. Edmund took one look at the obviously newly constructed fountain in the middle, and turned away sharply. It would seem that reminders of how loved Adeline was would not just be inside the castle walls.
Peter led them all up the steps, where Fitz and Izzy were waiting in the entrance hall. Greetings were warm and friendly, but when Izzy came to hug Edmund, she placed one hand on his cheek, her eyes dark and sad. She said nothing, only folded him into her arms much like his own mother used to. Edmund swallowed against the sudden burning in his eyes, and patted her back awkwardly.
Nothing much was said, and he was grateful. Fitz and Izzy seemed to understand that they just wanted to be shown to their rooms, and Edmund found himself across the hall from Caspian and Susan, and between Lucy and Peter. He suspected that they weren't in the guest chambers, but in the residential area of the castle, and for that reason he tried desperately not to wonder which room had been Adeline's.
He was changing out his dusty travelling clothes into something clean when Peter knocked on the door and let himself in.
"Are you alright?"
Edmund shrugged. "I'm not great. I didn't expect to be surrounded by all this, but I'm managing."
Peter nodded. "If you need anything…"
After a moment, Peter seemed to sense his wish to be alone, and left quietly once he'd said dinner would be in a couple of hours. Edmund sighed once his brother had left, and sat dejectedly on the edge of the bed.
Somehow, though he'd seen her with Fitz and Izzy before, it hadn't occurred to him that Adeline had been this…loved. He knew she was respected by her people. He knew they heralded her as a war heroine, but what he hadn't realized was that she had been much more than a bodyguard to everyone in this castle. The statue in the courtyard, the black pennants on the spires, the overall glum feel of the city as they'd ridden through…Edmund didn't think that even he and his siblings were so adored in Narnia.
It was a painful, to be reminded so often of how wonderful Adeline was. It only made him remember how much he had lost.
For a moment he almost wished that Xaviar would turn up here; he would gladly get his hands around that worm's neck, and track him down until he found where Adeline was being hidden.
They'll be married by now, he realized with a jolt that felt like physical pain. He stood up quickly, spared a brief glance in the mirror to make sure his eyes weren't red, and went in search of the library, in the hopes that a good book would distract him for a little while.
The morning of her wedding day, Adeline crawled out of bed well before sunrise. She dressed silently, in the spare tunic and trousers that Stella had smuggled to her. The tunic was a bit tight, but she wasn't complaining; it was the first sensible outfit she'd worn during her entire stay here, and the scratchy wool felt glorious.
After their "breakfast" out in the orchard a couple of days ago, Xaviar had informed her that things weren't quite ready for the wedding, and it would have to be postponed two days. He'd sounded rather distraught about it actually, but it had been music to her ears.
She'd merely nodded her acceptance, even as her mind whirled. They had been given two extra days, and three nights, to come up with a plan, and they had taken full advantage of the fact. Issachar had helped immensely, using his armor to gain access to supplies and resources that would have otherwise been outside the realm of possibilities. Adeline made a mental note to recommend him to Peter for a medal of valor when this was all over with.
Once she'd dressed she got on her stomach and crawled beneath her bed, where she tugged the leather-wrapped bundle free of its hiding place in the bed frame and scooted out again. She had just undone the ties and was unrolling the parcel on her bed when the customary, oddly-patterned knock sounded at the door. Quickly she crossed and opened it, allowing the four children into her room.
"Sorry we're late," Issachar said a little breathlessly. "Dani bumped a suit of armor and we were almost caught."
Dani's lip trembled. "I di'nt mean to," she said anxiously. Issachar placed one hand on her tousled curls.
"I know, Dani. It's alright." He turned back to Adeline and handed another leather bundle to her. "It's probably not what you're used to, but there aren't many extras lying around in the armory."
"It can't be worse than nothing," Adeline assured him as she unwrapped the long, gleaming sword. A whisper of metal, and the sheath was off, and she stood balancing the weapon in her palm. It wasn't terrific, she decided, but it wasn't awful either, and the razor-sharp edge would certainly do the job.
"Are those for us?" Stella asked quietly, her eyes wide and staring at the few daggers and knives Adeline had hidden under her bed.
"Indeed they are," Adeline answered, as she plucked up the smallest knife and crouched before Dani.
"This is for you, to help you stay safe," she said gently. Dani's pudgy little fingers closed around the handle, and she looked so innocent and afraid that Adeline couldn't resist brushing some hair back from the little girl's face.
"You must be very careful with it, Dani. One of us will be right there with you the whole time, I promise."
Dani nodded, and though Adeline dearly wished she could have sheltered the child in her arms and hidden her away from what had to happen today, she knew better. Either this all ended today, or it never would end at all. And while there were so many reasons why handing a five-year-old a weapon was horrific, Adeline couldn't take the risk of Dani getting separated from them and having no way to protect herself. She had no idea how they were going to escape, and it would have been hard enough to figure out without all of the unknown variables. She gave another reassuring smile to Dani, and stood to her normal height.
She crossed to the bed and selected another dagger, this one substantially larger but still small enough for its user. She knelt before Andres, who looked at her broodingly. Wordlessly he took the dagger, clenching it tightly in his fist and staring into her eyes without a drop of any emotion in his own. Adeline's breath caught painfully at the thought of someone so young already having endured such heartache.
"Will you help Dani?" she asked, careful not to show her feelings. "I need someone brave to look after her today."
The faintest flicker of something crossed his face, and he nodded silently. She gave him a small smile before standing and collecting the remaining three daggers, all of varying size, and approached Stella.
"Hide two, but keep them handy. Carry the other in your hand at all times."
"Why do I need three?" Stella wondered, her voice trembling slightly. Adeline hesitated, but knew she had to be honest.
"Dani and Andres are yet but children, Stella. You are a young woman, a beautiful one at that, and this castle is full of men who are not honorable or morally decent."
Stella's young face paled considerably, though Adeline could tell by the way she cut her eyes towards Issachar, standing beside her, that she was embarrassed as well. She placed a gentle hand on the girl's shoulder.
"I am sorry to frighten you. I wish it wasn't so, but it's always best to be prepared. Issachar or I will be close at every turn. Don't worry."
Stella swallowed thickly, but she took the daggers and nodded, this time with a bit of steel in her eyes as she turned and headed behind the dressing screen in the corner.
Adeline turned to Issachar. He was young, young enough to be excused if he wanted to hide and let her do all the work tonight while he escaped to safety with the others. Yet in the shell of a boy there was a man, one who held himself to an impeccable code of honor, and she knew that even suggesting he stay behind would be pointless.
"Stay close to them," she said quietly. "Even if you think I need your help, even if I do need your help, once you make it back here, you don't leave their side. Alright?"
He met her gaze evenly. "Yes, m'lady. May the Lion guide and protect you."
"You as well, my young friend."
She grasped his shoulder briefly; Stella emerged with the one dagger in her pale fist, her face frightened but hard, and Adeline dared to think that maybe, just maybe, they would all make it out of this alive.
Slinking about in the shadows was one thing. Doing so as the sun was rising was a whole other kettle of fish, one that Adeline wasn't anxious to repeat in the foreseeable future. She and Issachar moved much more slowly, and as the sky grew lighter outside it grew more difficult to stay hidden. Yet Aslan must have been with them, for they passed no one, and gained the door of Xaviar's study without incident.
Silently, they slipped through, and once the door had closed behind them, they both hurried to dig through the drawers behind the huge desk.
It seemed to take both more and less time, somehow, to find the shipping records than the night she'd first found them. Issachar had reached up to the underside of the desk, pulling loose a false bottom and revealing a sheaf of parchments. Quickly, they put everything back to rights, Issachar stuffing the documents down the front of his shirt.
At last they were ready, but Adeline's stomach had never felt more in knots than it did right now. She paused to send one last, desperate prayer up to Aslan, and led her new friend out the door and towards the Great Hall, where the wedding decorations were in place, and where she was supposed to meet Xaviar one last time before the wedding, at sunrise.
They had gotten within twenty feet of the door when shouting was heard from within; Adeline paused, Issachar freezing behind her. She strained her ears, trying to make out what was being said.
"My lord, we looked – "
" – don't care what she's doing – "
"Your Majesty, please, her room is empty – "
" – bunch of incompetent fools!"
There was a loud crack, and a muffled cry. Adeline's veins pounded white-hot with anger, and she turned to Issachar urgently.
"Go back to the others. Hurry." He was gone almost before she saw him move, and before she could talk herself out of it she marched up to the door, shoved it open, and strode through.
Xaviar froze, one hand poised to strike the cowering maid on her knees before him. Adeline met his eyes, and suppressed a shiver when he smiled eerily at her.
"Well, Adeline my dear, it looks as though you're a little anxious for our nuptials to commence. Though I must say, you're hardly dressed for it."
"Call me unorthodox, but I thought we could do with a bit of alterations to the ceremony." Adeline was astounded to hear her own voice, strong and clear and so utterly crammed with sarcasm that Edmund would have burst with pride.
"Oh?" Xaviar's grin didn't falter, at least not until she spoke again.
"I know what you're planning, Xaviar."
A look of savage anger replaced the smile, and it wasn't much of an improvement. "Planning?" he laughed manically. "My dear, I don't know what you're talking about."
"Allow me to refresh your memory. You have kidnapped almost two hundred children from the Narnian citadel, and countless others from all over the world. You plan to use these children to reestablish the slave trade. You also have been plotting to overthrow the monarchs of Archenland, Narnia, and Calormen, and have promised my blood as payment in exchange for the help of the warlords of Ettinsmoore."
With every word Xaviar's anger and disbelief grew. "Tomas," he spat, turning away abruptly so he could pace angrily.
Adeline's blood turned to ice.
"You mean the spy who managed to waltz both in and out of your camp right under your upturned nose? What of him?" Desperately she tried to keep her voice steady. If they had lost Tomas…
"Did he or did he not act as courier between you and King Edmund?"
There was a small bit of relief; if Xaviar believed that Tomas had only been carrying love letters, he may not have had him killed. Praying that her friend had made it to Cair Paravel unscathed, she answered nonchalantly.
"Once. The rest of the time was between myself and High King Peter. Apparently almost two hundred children went missing from the Narnian citadel after your failed invasion – which I doubt was ever meant to succeed, you just needed a distraction from all the kidnappings – and Tomas came to me for help."
Xaviar froze mid-step, his face a disturbingly shade of puce; the maid on the floor scrambled backwards on her knees, stumbling as she got to her feet and ran out of the room.
"You have no proof," Xaviar hissed. Adeline gave her own chilling smile.
"We have entire files of proof, Xaviar. Enough to condemn you in any court, before any judge, in any country. You're as good as dead."
"You'll have to catch me first," he shot back, and now her smile was one of genuine amusement.
"Careful, dear," she taunted as she unsheathed her sword. "I've always loved a challenge."
Xaviar's hand twitched towards the sword on his hip; she could see the debate going on in his mind. He didn't want to fight her, because he needed her as an excuse to have Fitz and Izzy under the same roof so he could frame her for their deaths. But she was giving him no choice as she twirled her blade idly in one hand, taking slow, methodical steps across the room until she stood just outside arm's reach.
Almost before she registered that his hand was headed for his hilt, the blade came crashing down on hers. Her heart pounded; she'd barely managed to block the strike in time, and now she stood bent backwards slightly and looking up into Xaviar's face that was contorted and twisted with fury.
His anger ignited her own, and she shoved him away with a grunt. She managed to land a blow with her fist on his cheek, and something ugly and dark deep inside of her cheered when she saw the bruise already forming. But Xaviar recovered quickly, and soon Adeline found herself dueling the first person she'd ever come across who could possibly be considered her equal on the battlefield.
Dimly she wasn't surprised; most nobles in any country were well practiced in skills such as swordplay, though Adeline had met and fought a fair number of Archenland's lords and hadn't been all that impressed. Most of them had learned fencing, which was mostly about sportsmanship and elegance and was in fact almost nothing like the bread-and-butter style that Adeline preferred. Unless it was just a sparring match, Adeline fought to maim or kill. Men like Xaviar and his peers fought to score points and work up an appetite before tea time.
However, Xaviar clearly had practiced the more…uncouth side of swordsmanship. He was fast, and as was always the case he outweighed Adeline by a considerable amount in the muscle department. Still, Adeline wasn't that hard pressed to keep up, but no matter how she tried she couldn't gain the upper hand.
"You fight better than Edmund did," Xaviar goaded, pressing her back several feet until her heels hit the edge of the raised platform where she was supposed to stand and become this idiot's wife.
"I fight better than Omri, too." She responded, aiming a slash at his neck. He ducked and tried to move behind her; she spun and blocked his strike, shifting her weight to use his momentum against him, and sent him stumbling to the side.
"Ah yes, the late general," Xaviar mused. "I suppose I ought to be angry that you did him in, but really you just did me a favor. I was having a terrible time getting the Ettinsmoore warlords to cooperate until you beheaded one of their princes. Now I'm having some difficulty holding them back until I have no further need of you."
Something akin to a growl sounded from her throat; she made to stab his abdomen. He side-stepped easily and shoved her, sending her sprawling on the floor.
"Just imagine," he continued. "The beloved Lady Adeline, guardian of the Princess, found guilty of treason and murder. I might have to actually protect you from your own people until the giants arrive."
"They'll never believe you," she told him. Somehow in the middle of it all he'd managed to split her lip. She wiped the blood impatiently on her sleeve and stood up, continuing, "The people of Anvard already know you murdered Gwen. They won't believe a word you say."
"What if I had evidence to show that Gwen's death was by your hand? That this whole time, you've been deceiving them?"
Adeline nearly tripped again, feeling the cold knot of dread in her gut tighten painfully. "You can't – "
"And just think," Xaviar whispered, catching her sword on his and bearing down, hard, until her legs were braced to keep from falling. "Once the king and queen turn up dead, imagine how thirsty Archenland will be for your blood. They will gladly hand you over to Ettinsmoore, and turn to me for guidance. And once Narnia and Calormen fall, they will understand that I've only had their best interests at heart all along. Imagine how prosperous our economy will be. How the trading will flourish."
Adeline mustered all her strength, and slid her sword further down to Xaviar's hilt. She spun beneath the crossed blades, felt him attempt to grab her by her hair, but she came out the other side and jerked. Xaviar's sword was wrenched from his grip, and clattered to the floor across the room. She stood, panting, and placed the tip of her sword inches from his nose.
"That sounds like a wonderful plan, Xaviar," she said smoothly, "But there's one problem. The kings and queens know you're coming."
Xaviar laughed. "Not even High King Peter is omnipotent. He can't possibly know; he can't be in two places at once."
"Oh, he didn't find out on his own," she responded. "I told him."
"You?" A tiny sliver of doubt crept its way into his features. "How – "
"Well, actually, I told the dryads, and they told him. And Caspian, and Susan, and Edmund and Lucy. I believe Alvaro, Fitz and Izzy were also warned. So you see, they know what your plan is. It doesn't have a prayer of succeeding."
Xaviar's expression made her very bones turn cold in fear. Before she could say anything else, he lurched forward, his hands scrabbling for the handle of her sword. She tried to back step, but his arms were longer than hers and he pulled the hilt right out of her fingers, reaching and grabbing her around the throat with his other hand. Bodily he threw her to the floor, but she leaped up again, splaying her feet and raising her arms, ready to fight.
Typical to his character, Xaviar went for non-subtle: a massive downward slash that would have sliced her in two. She took a step sideways, and closed her fingers around his wrist, and spun beneath it again. She held fast to his now twisted arm, and snapped her elbow hard upon his. There was a sickening crunch, and Xaviar bellowed in pain, staring in disbelief at his elbow that bent the wrong way.
Adeline stood still, admiring her handiwork, for a moment too long. Using his good arm, Xaviar rushed at her and shoved her to the floor again. This time, her head cracked against the stone floor, and she lay still, winded and seeing black spots.
"This is how your dear sister died," Xaviar snarled, coming close and holding his sword in his left hand. "She was defenseless, alone…and weak."
Adeline's body responded automatically; she swept her legs beneath his, sending him crashing to the floor. He lost his grip on the sword, and she quickly snatched it up, stumbling to her feet and whirling just in time to press the blade's edge threateningly to his neck. He went utterly still, on his knees and faced with the realization that he'd lost.
"You might have killed Gwen," Adeline said quietly, "but only a strong ruler is loved and missed by her people like she is. And as for me," she laughed viciously, "I am anything but weak. I am unbreakable."
His eyes, though defeated, still burned with anger. It was tempting, so tempting, to run him through here and now, to be done with this stupid war caused by greed and pride. She remembered Gwen's lifeless form, the fire and smoke from Amos's farm, the blood that had soaked Edmund's clothes, the defeated slump to Peter's shoulders when his brother had been missing, the cold grief in Andres' eyes, a grief that only came from losing everything you had.
Adeline felt the cold tears on her face. She felt the awkward handle of the unfamiliar sword in her hand, and she felt the raging fire within her surge and roar and threaten to break loose until it consumed everything. With immense difficulty, she pulled herself back in, back to this moment here before the pitiful man who knelt at her feet and begged for mercy.
Justice, not vengeance, she remembered, and took a deep breath.
"I, Lady Adeline, Guardian of Anvard and Knight of King Fitzgerald, find you, Xaviar, guilty of the murder of Princess Guinevere, of high treason against the crown, and of conspiracy of crimes against your fellow man."
Her eyes met his, and for that moment when there was no malice or hunger for power on his face, Xaviar looked every bit the handsome man she'd first met in Tashbaan.
She pitied him all the more because of it.
"In the name of King Fitzgerald and Queen Isabella of Anvard, I sentence you to death."
There was a deafeningly silent moment, and then the sword fell.
Hours later, Adeline led her little band away from the burning manor, and towards Anvard. Studying the maps Tomas had brought her had allowed her to make sense of where they were; Anvard was only two days away, and the children would be safe until arrangements could be made for their passage home.
She'd found the four children, in the wardrobe in her room. Thankfully she had knocked on the door before opening it, because all four of them had been holding their respective weapons at the ready, and if they'd thought it was someone else she would probably have been gutted then and there.
They had all be unhurt, though understandably frightened. The maid who had fled the hall just before Adeline and Xaviar's duel began had told everyone in the mansion that Xaviar was dead and they were all next if they didn't leave immediately. There had been widespread panic, and the place had been looted thoroughly. Somehow Adeline's rooms hadn't been disturbed, however. Still, enough people had run shouting past the door to prompt Issachar to hide them all inside the wardrobe.
Once Adeline had found them, they'd set about preparing for their own departure. The kitchens hadn't been pillaged much either, so gathering provisions was a fairly easy task. Adeline found a bow and quiver in case she had to hunt before they arrived, and Stella was thoughtful enough to pack a few basic healing supplies. They'd even gone to Xaviar's study and found some other documents that were now hidden beneath Stella's dress.
She had also slipped into the Great Hall, and when she'd emerged with a burlap sack that had a suspicious red stain on the side, Stella had gone pale and Issachar had quietly turned Dani and Andres away. Adeline wished they could have found some horses; carrying the sack was beginning to make her feel queasy.
Now, they were walking through the woods, Issachar and Adeline at the ready. They had been travelling for hours now and had encountered no one, but Adeline knew she'd be on edge until they were safely within Anvard's entrance hall.
The loud sound of a stomach growling broke into her thoughts, and she turned around to see Issachar blushing and trying not to laugh.
"Sorry," he mumbled, pressing one hand to his stomach. Adeline chuckled.
"It's alright, Issachar. We probably should stop here for the night anyway; it's getting dark. Best not light a fire, though."
He looked relieved as he dropped the pack off his shoulders; Stella sunk to the ground, and Dani climbed into her lap while Andres perched on a small boulder. Issachar dug out the smoked meat and unwrapped it, handing pieces to the younger children and Stella before offering it to Adeline.
She shook her head. "I'm not especially hungry, Issachar. Maybe later."
The youth nodded. Adeline leaned against a fallen log, trying to make sense of her muddled brain.
It was over. Xaviar was dead, he wouldn't be trying to kill anyone else she loved, she didn't have to marry him, the kings and queens were safe from his plot. It seemed almost unreal.
She knew, deep down, that they would have to deal with Ettinsmoore eventually. Their prince was still dead, and they would likely be furious to learn that their wealth from the slave trade was now nonexistent. But for now, at least, there would be peace.
She sighed, and let herself slide down to a seated position, her back nestled comfortably against the mossy log. The children were chatting light-heartedly amongst themselves; the sight was a balm for her soul. She'd never seen any of them smile except for Dani. Even Andres was jokingly teasing Stella about something, though his face didn't have much expression on it. Issachar tipped his head back and laughed, causing Stella to blush and swat them both lightly with a napkin, and it struck Adeline how full of hope they all were, now they were free of their captor.
She closed her eyes. Whatever the future held, she had rescued four children. And there would soon be more, if the documents they carried with them proved valuable.
She drifted in a haze until a quiet voice interrupted her.
"Lady Adeline?" Issachar queried softly. She peeled her eyes open to discover it was well past dark, and Stella had already laid out everyone's sleeping pallets. She lay at the base of a small boulder, Andres and Dani curled against her. Adeline sat up, her neck aching and her eyes itching.
How did I fall asleep? she wondered. Aloud she said, "I'm sorry, Issachar. I must have dozed off without realizing it. Is everything alright?"
"Yes, m'lady. I was just telling you that I'll take first watch. I think Stella laid out your blanket over there." He pointed, and Adeline half wanted to argue, but also knew that she was useless until she got some sleep. She nodded her thanks, and collapsed into her blanket, and she was asleep before she could even register the feel of the hard ground.
The next day passed in much a similar fashion, except they arrived in Anvard just after midday. The sight of the city brought tears to Adeline's eyes, though she tried to hide them from the children lest they think something was wrong. She hadn't been here since before Gwen died, and the memory of the morning they'd left was still painful, though somehow also sweet.
Adeline led them through the cobblestone streets. Issachar carried Dani on his back, her little hands clutching his shirt atop his shoulders. Adeline shifted the pack, motioning for them to follow as they gained the upper quarter of the city, passing the finer houses and finally passing through the castle gates.
The castle was exactly as she remembered, save for one significant difference: where the courtyard had once been open and plain, there now stood a small pool, with two carved statues rising up in the center. Adeline approached slowly, feeling eyes upon her as she looked at the ten-foot version of herself.
The statue depicted her in her armor with her sword drawn, but her face was peaceful as she stood beside Gwen. The princess carried a lantern aloft, a light that hung well over the people's heads and was lit within. It served as a most impressive street lamp, and water poured from the tip of statue-Adeline's sword, the quiver that hung on her back, and from Gwen's empty hand, which was outstretched in a welcoming gesture.
"I hope you like it," a voice suddenly interrupted. "The sculptors had a terrible time of it, trying to make you look tall."
Adeline laughed, and strode forward quickly to embrace Cristoff. After a moment he released her.
"It's good to see you, Addie."
"It's good to be back," she answered, and felt that words wouldn't suffice to express how good it was to be home again.
"Xaviar?" he asked quietly, and Adeline held up the burlap sack, suppressing the urge to throw the wretched thing off the highest tower just so she wouldn't have to carry it anymore.
"Dead," she answered simply. He nodded, but understood that further questions would have to wait when he saw the children behind her.
"Come," he said, taking the sack from her and gesturing the children forward. "They'll want to see you."
The library at Anvard held a number of interesting books, but Edmund couldn't focus. He paced idly, wondering if maybe anyone would want to play chess.
He jumped when the door behind him suddenly burst open; Lucy tumbled in, and without so much as a by-your-leave she seized his arm and tugged him along behind her at a breakneck pace down the hall.
"Lu, what – "
"Hush," she responded, and walked faster. They gained the top of the stairs in the entrance hall, where Lucy skidded to a stop and turned to look up at him with an enormous grin.
Edmund opened his mouth to say something – what's happened and are you alright both seemed plausible – but Lucy impatiently grabbed his jaw with one hand and turned him to face the hall below, and the power of speech promptly left him.
It was Adeline.
It was her. Really and truly her, living and breathing and alive and so beautiful she made his throat ache.
His siblings had descended upon her like locusts, all talking at once and all attempting to hug her at the same time, until they were all one loud, tearful, joyous tangle of arms and smiles. Adeline tried to answer all questions, tried to hug them all in return, tried to not cry but failed, and the whole time Fitz and Izzy stood nearby, their own bittersweet joy evident. Somehow without noticing, his feet had reached the bottom of the stairs, where he stood apart from the happy circle.
Dimly he registered that his eyes were stinging and his mouth was gaping open like a fish, but then he realized that Adeline wasn't alone.
"This is Stella, Issachar, Dani, and Andres," Adeline introduced the four children behind her. They all looked exhausted, but unharmed, and he could tell Izzy would soon be fussing over them.
"Welcome to Anvard," Fitz said warmly.
"Thank you, Your Majesty." The oldest girl – Stella, he remembered now – answered with a small curtsy.
Adeline placed on hand one Andres' shoulder. "They were taken from Felimath. The children from the citadel are being hidden somewhere on the Islands. It's not definite, but it helps narrow the search."
The relief that came across Peter's features was remarkable. "Thank you, Addie."
She smiled, and suddenly her eyes moved past Lucy and found Edmund's.
Forget speaking, he could scarcely breathe.
"Hello, Eddie," she said quietly.
"Addie," he managed. She looked almost as if she might cry.
As though through a fog, he was aware of everyone watching him and Adeline, but he couldn't care less. She was here, she was with him and not Xaviar. Nothing else mattered.
An abrupt shove at his shoulder blade caused him to stumble forward. He sent a dirty look back at Caspian, but quickly refocused his attention on the woman before him.
Edmund took another step closer. His heart pounded in his chest.
"I got your letter." He hadn't been planning on bringing that up, not just yet, anyway, but it was too late now.
"Oh…erm, that's…that's good. I'm glad."
"Do you mean it?" he suddenly blurted, before he could stop himself.
Adeline looked surprised, but she took a deep breath and kept her eyes on his. "Every word."
He clenched his hands to keep them from trembling.
"Are you hurt?" he asked quietly. Adeline's brow furrowed. "Please, Addie, I need to know if you're injured."
She still looked confused, but she shook her head. "No, I'm fine."
In three steps he'd closed the distance between them, kissing her with everything he had. He bent his knees and wrapped his arms around her, lifting her off her feet as he stood to his full height again. Adeline inhaled sharply in surprise, but a second later her arms latched around his shoulders and she was crushing her mouth to his so fiercely that it took him several heartbeats before his ears registered the cheers and catcalls echoing throughout the entrance hall. Still he couldn't let her go or stop kissing her, deciding that he didn't care if he got teased for the next fifty years. And judging by the way Adeline tangled her fingers in his hair and pressed herself against him, she didn't care either.
Eventually they came up for air, but his arms didn't loosen a fraction; one was wrapped snugly around her middle, the other hand was holding the back of her head, fingers threaded through her hair. His eyes locked on hers, brown staring into deep blue. Her cheeks were flushed and she was breathless.
He'd never seen a more gorgeous thing in his life.
"Marry me," he breathed. It was more a statement than a question, but in his heart he threw himself at her feet, prepared to beg like the lost man he was without her.
He'd caught her off guard; her eyes widened a bit and she gasped slightly, but a moment later she leaned forward and pressed her lips against his, slowly, deeply, almost making him forget that he was waiting for an answer.
"Yes," she choked, her hands on his face and her love in her eyes. Edmund didn't even try to stop his grin, and he thought vaguely that he was making an awfully big scene, but he took one look at the matching smile on his beloved's face, and threw propriety to the winds as he kissed her again.
Let the servants gossip all they liked.
She said yes.
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