MFB31: Hiding in the Hedges

The next day turned out to be equally busy for the denizens of Cair Paravel and the surrounding area, as final preparations were made to welcome their guests. Edmund and Per helped the Fauns sweep the lesser-used balconies and ramparts, using long-handled brooms to clean out cobwebs from the roofed look-out towers, just in case King Lune should wish to view the Narnian landscape from them. In the process they unintentionally disturbed a few Owls (who were, of course, sleeping, since they were awake during the night), who still courteously assured the young king that they would take care of any bats that might wander near the castle.

“It’s not that we dislike them,” Edmund explained to Per, “but they aren’t Talking Beasts, so they will leave their droppings everywhere and make a mess. Susan is a bit particular about that sort of thing — and it is rather nasty to step in if you’re not paying attention.”

Meanwhile Peter was seeing to the preparations of their guests’ rooms, which was directed by Susan and Mrs. Dumplesugar, as well as the readiness of the kitchens, which was supervised by Felicity with Lucy’s assistance. He conferred with the Centaurs in planning for a royal hunt in the lands west of the Northern Marsh, for they could forecast the weather and advise him as to the abundance or lack of game. In addition, Peter asked some Ravens to get the word out about the hunt so that no Talking Beast would be caught there unawares, and requested that those Creatures who devoured insects to be particularly voracious in that area to ensure their guests’ comfort and enjoyment.

Mealtimes were hastily snatched affairs, but by the time Susan and Lucy finally took their turn in the bath, most of the preparations were done to everyone’s satisfaction. Edmund and Per took the next turn bathing (for Peter insisted that he had a few more things to do), and Peter went last, wondering if his brother would be too tired to visit him that evening. However, it did not even occur to Edmund to abandon their newly-established “tradition,” so Peter entered his room to find him waiting with chilled chamomile tea and some shortbread rounds.

“Felicity apologised for not making anything fancier. I told her not to fuss, especially when it’s so hot out, and the ovens make it even worse in the kitchens,” Edmund said as Peter settled into his chair.

“They look rather fancy to me,” Peter remarked, picking up one of the dimpled biscuits. “Is this strawberry jam?”

“Raspberry. She said she mixed the almond bits left over from yesterday’s turnovers into the dough.”

“Mmm… Delicious!” Peter declared, then took a sip of his tea. “She’s really spoiling us. If we weren’t working so hard lately, I’d be worried that we would start growing out of our clothes!”

“That would be embarrassing to explain to Mrs. Beaver,” Edmund grinned, one cheek stuffed with shortbread. It was light and crumbly, melting in their mouths to disperse the flavour, and for a while they ate in companionable silence. Then came the moment when every last crumb had been devoured, and Peter really thought that Edmund might turn in, but the younger boy had only stood up and stretched in preparation for crawling on top of his older brother, carefully trying to not trample his thighs. Edmund flung his own legs over an armrest and sat sideways so that he could look up at Peter as they talked — mostly about their plans for entertaining their guests — and mentally counted the freckles on his brother’s face and neck, trying to make out constellations.

Both of them being tired, their conversation grew steadily sleepier and more desultory, and after Peter had rambled at some length about where best to set up the pavilion for the hunt, Edmund did not respond. Peter observed that the younger boy’s eyes were closed and his breathing, though quiet, was too slow for consciousness.

“Oh, Edmund,” he moaned, gazing longingly at the pink lips that were slightly parted. He pulled the boy closer with the arm that was already cradling him, and was tempted to drift off to sleep like that, but worried that if his arm relaxed completely, Edmund might fall back over the armrest and get hurt. He also considered laying Edmund to rest in the nearby bed and slipping in next to him, but knew that it would be much too great a temptation to resist. The best course of action, he decided, was to carry him to his own room, tuck him into his own bed, and leave him there.

Peter’s arms and legs were weary from the day’s work, but after pressing a quick kiss to his brother’s forehead, he hoisted him and stood up to make his tedious way out to the balcony, and from there into Edmund’s room. He was thankful that his brother had left the balcony door open, and that Mrs. Dumplesugar or one of the other ladies had turned down the bed, so that he was able to walk in and slide Edmund’s body under the covers with relative ease. He was panting a bit from the exertion, and took a minute to rest and study his brother’s calm face again. The tender lips looked so inviting, as if they were waiting for a kiss to awaken their master (just like the princess in the story in their own world), that Peter actually leaned in to do so, but at the last moment wrested himself to place the kiss on Edmund’s cheek.

My love… My beautiful Edmund! he pined, his heart aching with desire — not simply to kiss him, but to hold him, pet him, and lay his soft skin bare to touch and worship with his hands and lips. He swallowed hard while scolding himself to leave before he did anything he would regret, but could not resist placing another kiss on his brother’s temple, right in his curly hair — how he loved each wayward strand of it!

“Goodnight, Ed,” he whispered, and turned to leave.

“Goodnight, Pete,” came the answer, followed by a giggle. Peter whipped around to see his brother’s eyes open, glinting mischievously in the moonlight.

Hey! You could’ve spared me the trouble,” Peter began indignantly, although he was more shocked by the realisation of how close he had come to kissing Edmund on the mouth, which would have required an explanation that he was not prepared to give. “I ought to thrash you, you little stinker!”

Edmund only giggled harder as Peter stepped menacingly towards the bed, exuding ire; he was secure in the knowledge that his brother’s threats were empty.

“Well, I really was asleep,” he explained in a placating tone, “until you knocked my foot against the door jamb there, coming in. Then I figured I oughtn’t startle you in case you dropped me on my head.”

“I wouldn’t’ve,” Peter protested, his irritation dissipating as his heartbeat returned to a more normal pace. “You know I wouldn’t have let you fall!”

“I know,” Edmund replied, still snickering, “but I wanted to see how you’d tuck me in. I half expected you to sing me a lullaby!”

Peter hoped that in the darkness of the room, Edmund would not be able to see how flushed he was. In this he was quite safe, since the light was at his back, casting his face in deep shadow.

“Well, now you know,” he grumbled, “and it’s better than you deserve! I’m dog-tired, too, and I’d like to see how well you would manage if you had to carry me back to my room.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t manage at all,” Edmund promptly answered. “But if you’re too tired to walk back on your own, you can stay here. I’ll move over a bit.”

Aslan, help me! Peter thought, gritting his teeth as he heard Edmund rustling under the covers. After a moment he was able to say, sounding calmer than he felt, “I’m not that feeble yet, by gum. Go to sleep now — we have a busy day tomorrow.”

“Goodnight, Peter. And thanks.”

Long after his older brother’s silhouette had disappeared from his room, however, Edmund lay awake with a strange excitement strumming through him. The bees were buzzing so hard in his stomach and chest that at times they were almost painful. And Edmund reached up to touch the spot on his cheek, wondering if it were only his imagination that made it seem like that spot was still warm from his brother’s kiss.

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The royal party from Archenland arrived at Cair Paravel late the next morning, as Glosbeak the Raven had flown in to assure the children. They had camped in the woods near the road the night before, and had been entertained by the good Dwarfs and Creatures who lived in the vicinity, so that they were already feeling festive and relaxed — not at all like some vacations where only the destination is nice. Prince Corin was in his glory, getting spoiled by the Beasts and Dryads who made much of him, but once in the castle grounds, he was ready to run about and expend some of his seemingly never-ending energy.

“It’s been a long way to travel, I’m sure, cooped up in the carriage,” Queen Susan said indulgently. “He’ll be safe exploring the gardens — the only trouble might be finding him to bring him in for lunch.”

“I’ll go with him,” Edmund offered, taking the boy’s hand to keep him from dashing away from his Nurse. “We can play hide-and-seek in the hedges. Eh, Corin?”

“I hide!” he gleefully announced, and nearly dragged Edmund towards the shady hedgerows, which were set up rather like a maze, only much easier to get in and out of. Edmund made the little prince promise upon his word of honour to not go off on his own before he would release the boy’s hand. Corin took off like an arrow the instant he was let go, and Edmund smiled as he turned into a bush to start counting.

The first time Edmund found him quite easily, as he had crawled under a hedge but had left his feet exposed; then Edmund hid behind a tree, making sure that his sword (which he was wearing for this formal visit of state) was sticking out for Corin to spot. They continued on in this manner until one turn, Edmund had trouble finding the boy. He thought he had heard the patter of tiny footsteps go further into the shrubbery, so he stealthily crept deeper into the garden. He heard a noise on the other side of a hedge and burst through with the words “Found you!” ready to be shouted in triumph.

However, what he found was not Prince Corin, but Per, held tightly in the arms of Darian, the knight with whom he had sparred at Anvard. And not only being held, but kissed as well. Not a simple peck on the cheek at that, but an eager, ravenous kiss which (for one confusing moment) looked to Edmund as though Darian were trying to devour the younger boy.

“What the devil?” Edmund cried in surprise, causing the other two to jump in shock. Per hastily disentangled himself from Darian’s embrace, red-faced, and Darian gaped at Edmund with something akin to horror.

“Sorry — I didn’t mean to startle you like that,” Edmund began, feeling a little bad at how shaken they seemed, “but I was looking for Corin. You haven’t happened to see him go by, have you?”

Per mutely shook his head, and Darian answered, “If the Prince has been this way, we have not seen him.”

“Oh,” Edmund responded, still looking from one to the other of them with a perplexed scowl. “What were you two doing, anyhow? I thought for a second that you were trying to eat Per’s tongue!”

Although he had delivered this last line with a half-hearted attempt at a chuckle, the somber expressions on the other two’s faces caused his feeble humour to fade away immediately.

“My Lord Edmund,” Darian began, then cleared his throat, obviously uncomfortable but with no way out of the situation. “I mean no discourtesy, of course, but… before your Majesties last visited Anvard, I had hoped… that is to say, I had asked Per if… if he might wish to be my squire.”

“Oh!” Edmund said, his brows rising in surprise. “I didn’t know! I just assumed — Peter and I both assumed — that since King Lune suggested having Per come with us, he hadn’t been spoken for.”

Darian shook his head and explained, “I would not say that I had any claim on him, your Majesty; only that I had asked. For his part, I daresay, Per was… hesitant. And now that I see him here, enjoying his service to you, I cannot begrudge him for an instant. Besides, my father has just sent for me to come home, so that my eldest brother, Dar, may serve our king.”

“I see,” Edmund replied, although he was still wondering what that had to do with them standing there, kissing. “I’m not sure whether I ought to congratulate you or not. Are you glad to be going home?”

Shrugging, Darian answered, “It is my father’s will, and I will obey. I am only a third son, my Lord, and I… I do not have the means to keep many servants. And my father would not approve of… my affection for Per.”

“Why not?” Edmund asked. “It’s only natural that you would grow fond of your friends in Anvard, I should think!”

There was an uncomfortable pause as Darian stared at the young king, at a complete loss for words. It was Per who, although he had kept silent and looked wretched during the rest of their conversation, finally came to the knight’s rescue.

“They do not have the same customs here as we do in Archenland,” he said, addressing Darian, then turned to Edmund. “Your Majesty… there are certain… duties, of a squire, that you have not imposed upon me, and perhaps would not care to. I think in the world from whence you came, such things are not done. Perhaps it is something only practiced in Archenland… I do not know.”

“What things? What duties?” Edmund demanded, feeling more confused.

Per faltered and glanced at Darian for help. Drawing a deep breath, the young man continued where Per had left off.

“In our land, it is customary for a young knight — before he has earned the means to take a wife — to have a squire to… serve in her stead.”

Edmund’s scowl deepened as he asked, “What do you mean, ‘serve in her stead’? You mean cooking and keeping house and stuff?”

Again, Darian was dumbfounded, but this time Per could offer no assistance. The knight swallowed before choosing his words.

“King Edmund, perhaps you are too young to know, and… perhaps it is not a common practice in your world, but… a man may take pleasure in a boy, or another man, almost as easily as with a maid.”

“‘Take pleasure’?” Edmund echoed without thinking. “What do you mean by…” His voice trailed off as he saw that the other two were blushing furiously. Then it occurred to him how Peter had “helped” him with his manhood, and suddenly he was blushing just as deeply. “Oh! Oh… Ah, ahem. I see. Yes, of course. And this is… quite common, in Archenland?”

Both Darian and Per nodded in reply, and Darian added, “Yes. At least, among all the knights that we know. King Lune has tried to discourage the practice, but alas, some things are too deeply rooted for even our good king to prevent… though he is the best-loved king of our land for time out of mind.”

“Yes, well… I see,” Edmund murmured, already growing excited about telling Peter this new revelation. “And it’s very helpful to the squires, I should think. At least, for those of us who don’t have fathers.”

“Fathers, my Lord?” Darian queried, askance.

“Well, thankfully I had my brother, who was more knowledgeable about such things,” Edmund explained, relieved to discover that he was not alone (or so he thought) in his experience. “But coming here so young, and without my father, I wouldn’t have known what to do if Peter hadn’t shown me — especially the first time!”

Darian and Per exchanged an uncomfortable glance, which was not lost on Edmund.

“There is somewhat more to it than… what your Majesty seems to be thinking,” Darian said slowly, almost unwillingly. “But perhaps this is neither the place nor the time…”

At that moment, Prince Corin popped out of the bushes and grabbed the hem of Edmund’s tunic with his face wrinkled up, ready to cry in frustration.

“You don’t find me!” he bawled, having waited to the end of his patience.

“Oh! I’m so sorry!” Edmund told him, truly remorseful. “I just got so caught up talking…” He turned to Per with a thoughtful look. “I think… we need to talk about this again, sometime. But for now, we ought to be heading back — it should be about time for lunch.”

With palpable relief, Per and Darian followed Edmund as he placed Corin on his shoulders and headed into the castle, consoling the little prince with promises of delicious sweets.

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