MFB36: In the Dark

King Edmund arrived at breakfast before King Peter did and nearly shocked his sisters with his cheerfulness and energy. None of them enjoyed rising early, but the younger king had always seemed to dislike it the most, so his unwonted good mood was a welcome surprise. When Peter arrived, he was much more quiet and lethargic, which was attributed to the earliness of the hour.

Most of the necessary gear for the hunting trip — such as tents and cooking utensils — had already been taken up by some Dwarfs with the Horses, leaving only the party’s personal effects to be loaded on to the Splendor Hyaline. They managed to set sail with only a half-hour delay, and waved their goodbyes (Corin rather dejectedly) to Mrs. Dumplesugar and the rest of the staff who preferred to stay behind at the castle. Felicity and a few of the cooks had come along, though, to prepare tasty dishes with the game they hoped to have; watching her and some of the other small Beasts scampering about the ship soon had Corin laughing again. King Edmund had the Dwarfs fashion a sling out of spare rope so that he could carry the prince securely on his back and, after persuading Queen Primela, he took him up to the crow’s nest to admire the view.

When Edmund came back down, he noticed that Per was leaning over the side of the forecastle with Darian rubbing his back, up and down his spine. Handing the overjoyed princeling (safe and sound) back to his mother, Edmund approached his squire and the Archenlandian knight.

“Per? Are you feeling all right?” he asked, his brows drawn together in a light scowl.

“Yes, your Majesty,” Per answered as he turned to face him. “It’s easier when I can see the waves coming and know how the boat will move.”

“And this man isn’t bothering you?” Edmund pressed, indicating Darian with a nod.

“Oh, no! No, King Edmund, not at all!” Per replied in haste. “I… It seems to settle my stomach.”

“My Lord,” Darian protested, “I would never do anything to harm or… distress your Majesty’s squire.”

“Well, all right then. And I’m sorry if it was rude to refer to you like you aren’t even here,” the young king said to him, “but my first duty is to my subjects. And I might as well tell you right now that I won’t put up with having my squire… distressed, in any way.”

“Of course, your Majesty,” Darian answered with a respectful bow.

Satisfied, Edmund went to the aft deck to see what Peter was discussing with Captain Meridian. He listened in to their conversation about the cost of new rigging and some other improvements that they wished to make, and had to stifle his yawns. Leaning against the railing of the deck, his mind wandered back to what had passed between him and his brother that morning; a happy, dreamy smile lit up his countenance as he watched Peter’s lips, almost mesmerised by their movement. Just remembering how those lips had traveled across his skin made him shiver with delight, and he was amazed anew at how demanding they had been — though not unpleasantly so — when they had claimed his own. For the first time in his life he understood why lovers kissed on the mouth, and he vaguely hoped that he would have the opportunity to do it again with Peter. It had left him feeling replete and satisfied — in a word, loved. He could hardly express how happy it had made him.

Peter noticed the graceful form of his brother watching him, and tried to keep his eyes averted. He knew that if he returned Edmund’s gaze, he would be tempted to slip his arms around his brother’s slender waist and bestow upon him all manner of unseemly effusions of affection, regardless of the eyes of their friends and subjects. When the captain finally excused himself to tend to the ship, Peter drew in a deep breath to steel himself.

“I see Lucy’s engaged one of the knights in chess,” he remarked, as off-handedly as he could.

“Oh. Right,” the younger boy responded, coming out of his reverie. Since Peter began to stroll in that direction, he naturally followed, happy just to be in his company and not realising how assiduously his brother was avoiding looking at him in a desperate attempt to curb his desires. Through the rest of their short sea-journey, Edmund was his brother’s silent shadow, an amiable smile affixed on his handsome features as the High King struggled to maintain his composure.

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They took several rowboats to land on the reedy shore just south of the Northern Marsh, where the River Shribble spread out into rivulets separated by rocks and mud. Most of the Marsh-Wiggles of Narnia — those curious frog-men-like Creatures — lived in their simple wigwams along these waterways since time immemorial, and welcomed the royal party with dishes of freshly caught fish and eels.

“No doubt they’re dreadfully poisonous to Sons and Daughters of Adam and Eve,” warned Mudpool, one of the Wiggles who had brought a very large platter of honey-basted broiled eel (which were quite delicious, and did not cause even a hint of indigestion in the Humans).

“The pavilion looks like it’s listing already. Your Majesties should be prepared to run in case a stiff breeze brings it crashing down upon our heads,” cautioned Glumhub, much to the Dwarfs’ irritation (for they had set up the pavilion, taking great care to drive the stakes down deep).

“If this whole section of the Marsh doesn’t slide into the sea altogether,” put in Bogfog with a sigh.

Their talk rather alarmed the Archenlandian contingent (especially the ladies, who were somewhat frightened of the Wiggles) until they heard the Fauns and other Narnians laughing good-humouredly at the impossible disasters being predicted.

“You never know,” Dripweather intoned between puffs on his pipe. “One of those fish could have been enchanted to turn its eater into a fish. Or a stone. Or both.”

Mr. Tumnus assured the Wiggle that having been turned into stone once himself, it was not so bad as might be supposed, and that either Queen Lucy with her cordial or Aslan with his breath would soon be able to set one to rights again.

“Ah! You’ve been well bred, that’s for sure,” Dripweather declared, looking as despondent as ever. “Trying to put a brave face on things for the ladies’ sake. I daresay it won’t do much good, once they see you turned into a fish, but it’s a noble thing to attempt, regardless.”

After finishing their delicious lunch — in which nobody was enchanted or transfigured, thankfully — the hunting party bid the Marsh-Wiggles goodbye and headed on foot to the camp that had been set up on the northern edge of Owl Wood.

Here, as the womenfolk got settled in and the menfolk prepared for the hunt (having seen flocks of plump geese flying overhead), King Lune took King Peter aside to a little hillock overlooking the fens where the waterfowl were nesting.

“My dearest friend,” began the older king, “all this day, I doubted whether I should speak to thee on a matter that may well be only in mine eye; but I fear I would be neglecting my duty to thee as thy friend, were I not to pursue the matter to our mutual satisfaction, at least.”

Peter felt his heart sink, suspecting that he knew what this was about.

“My good Lord, speak on,” he replied, resigned.

“It hardly warrants mentioning how I found thee and thy noble brother in an attitude of… intimate repose, yester eve.”

Peter flushed scarlet and nodded, unable to answer for a moment. King Lune waited patiently.

“Yes… you are entirely right in expounding to me the… inappropriateness, of such behaviour,” he slowly admitted. “Edmund is still too innocent to know it, but I… I stand without excuse. My brother’s ignorance is also on my head, for I have failed — despite my many attempts — to convey to him the shamefulness of such a… connection, or relations, between two men; especially those of close kin. But as he has no other male family here, it has fallen to me to teach him of these matters, in which, I fear, I have served him but poorly.”

“He is still very young,” King Lune interposed in a kindly tone, “as art thou, my friend, to bear the burden of being father to him as well as to your varied subjects. If thou wilt, I shall speak to him of the need for decorum in such matters — perhaps he will heed my warnings as from a friend and elder.”

“Perhaps,” Peter responded, though without much conviction. “His arguments have set mine flying in retreat. My wits have been no match for his, despite my greater years.”

“Perhaps it is not thy wits that have failed thee, but thy heart,” King Lune shrewdly pointed out. “If I do not surmise in error, it seems thou wast enjoying his company and… his affections, as equally or better than he, thine.”

The younger king bowed his head, ashamed to be so easily found out.

“It is true,” he whispered, his words as light as dandelion seeds blown about on the wind. “I have long yearned for my brother in a way that is… unnatural. I love him greatly as a brother, of course, but my other passion is so great that it threatens to consume all proper emotions and destroy what good I might have harboured within me. And my fear is that it shall, ultimately, destroy my fair brother as well.”

“Nay, thou art too good to bring him to ruin,” the older king declared. “Thy pure love for thy brother wouldst have stopped thee ere it came to that, I trow! But let me consult with him hereafter, and persuade him to prudence. He has ever been reasonable in his judgment; I trust it shall be a small matter to show him the dangers of such… excessive intimacy.”

“Thank you, my Lord,” Peter said with unfeigned gratitude. “I pray your efforts will be well rewarded.”

“But as for you, my good King Peter,” King Lune continued with a note of sadness in his voice, “thou wilt do well to find for thee a queen. I know right well how strong the desire may be for a man of thy years, and ‘twould be easier for thee to have a fair maiden to dream upon — even if only as thy betrothed.”

Peter hesitated, then slowly nodded to acknowledge the wisdom of the Archenlandian king’s advice.

“You are right, of course,” he managed with a sigh. “And though it seems to my besotted heart that no lady can ever match my brother in beauty, I will try to seek out such a one as may be suitable to help us rule this land.”

“Thou must consider the need for an heir as well,” King Lune gently added. “I did not rest upon my throne half so easily until my sons… until Corin was born.”

“I daresay it is never easy to sit upon a throne,” Peter mused aloud, recalling his friend’s heartache.

“Thou speakest truly,” the older man agreed, clapping him soundly on the shoulder.

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The hunt went very well, with the Talking Dogs of Narnia keeping their southern cousins in check until the right moment to flush out the fowl; they even contrived to startle only those birds that did not have young, so that they might not leave any goslings to die for want of their parents. Neither King Peter nor King Edmund’s arrows hit their mark, but they were satisfied with the good cheer of their guests as they returned to the camp laden with plump birds, plucked and ready for cooking. The cooks from Cair Paravel did them justice — roasting some, baking some, and frying the rest — and combined with the vegetables which the inhabitants of Owl Wood had brought for the royal party, they dined as well as they ever did at the castle.

True to his word, Peter was very attentive to the young ladies from Archenland, much to Edmund’s consternation. The youngest king watched (trying not to be obvious in his observations) as his brother painstakingly explained the governance of these northern territories of Narnia, going into the details of their battles with the giants, to Lady Verinia — who was so flattered by his attentions that she missed half of what he was saying — and Lady Avenel — who giggled and gasped and praised King Peter for his feats at every opportunity, until Edmund feared that he might lose his dinner.

When a troupe of Fauns brought out their instruments and began playing, Peter stood up to dance with both of the ladies as well as the Dryads and Naiads who had come to join in the revelry. Susan and Lucy were soon dancing with the younger Archenlandian knights, too, leaving Edmund inching cautiously away from the ring of light around the great bonfire, for he did not wish to be forced (out of common courtesy) into dancing with any of the ladies other than his sisters. When he felt sufficiently masked by the shadows of the forest, he walked into its quiet depths, his eyes still seeing Peter’s laughing face as he had been chatting with a pretty girl whose name Edmund did not yet know. He scowled, but there was no-one to see him in the dark, for all of the woodland Creatures had gathered at the camp — including the Owls, who had roused themselves long before dusk to greet the royal children.

“Stupid girls! Why do they have to fawn on him so?” Edmund muttered to himself. “You’d think they were trying to turn his head and make him into a silly fop! And why on earth is Peter going along with it? Doesn’t he realise that they’re making him look like a complete fool?”

By the time Peter noticed that his brother was nowhere to be seen, and approached King Lune to ascertain whether that gentleman knew of Edmund’s whereabouts (which he did not, having been preoccupied with Corin), the youngest king had wandered deep into the woods, still grumbling to himself.

“And he practically promised that he wasn’t going to marry anytime soon, but now you’d think he was in a race to find a wife! Well, if he wants to go crazy over any of those girls, he’s welcome to them! See if I care…”

Just then, Edmund’s foot was caught on a gnarled root protruding above the ground, sending him crashing into some bushes. Unfortunately, they were thorn bushes, which scratched his skin and tore his hose as he struggled to extricate himself. When he was standing again, smarting from the red lines drawn across his arms and legs and face, he realised that the cuts were stinging worst on his cheeks, where his tears were now streaming in an unstoppable flow.

“Stupid, stupid!” he cried in frustration, though he hardly knew whether he meant it of himself, for coming into the dense forest without a light, or of Peter, who seemed to be falling prey to the wiles of pretty women. But as he slumped down to sit beside the offending root, Edmund knew without a doubt that, despite his previous words, he did indeed care (very much) about Peter falling in love with one of those girls. The stinging hornets in his stomach reminded him cruelly again that he was jealous of his brother — and not because he envied him the ladies’ attentions.

“I’m being ridiculous,” he scolded himself, rubbing his cheeks and eyes as best he could with the short sleeves of his tunic. “I’m like a little kid who doesn’t want to share his favourite toy! I don’t want to share Peter with anyone…”

And why should I? an insistent voice bubbled up inside of him. I’m his brother — his only brother! If he was going to change his mind about girls all of a sudden like that, he could’ve at least warned me first… It’s enough to give any chap a turn, to have his brother do such an about-face!

However, Edmund was honest enough with himself to admit that even with a warning, it would have bothered him almost as much as without.

No, I just don’t like the thought of Peter getting married, he acknowledged, sniffling heavily. Then I wouldn’t be able to spend the night with him, or have him help me that way, or even have bedtime tea alone with him! I… I’d miss him…

Two more fat tears slipped out from his eyes as he ached with a loneliness that he had never experienced before, not even when he had been a prisoner of the White Witch.

I don’t want him to fall in love with a girl! he thought, then remembered something. All right, so he said he has already, but at least she’s a girl he can’t hope to marry, so it’s not as bad, he amended. I just wish he would put off getting married for a long time — at least until I’m older and grown-up and won’t need him as much.

When he tried to draw in a deep breath, it hitched like a cart rumbling over a bumpy road, and he wearily set his head down on his knees to let the tears run free for a while. However, as his breathing began to calm somewhat, he heard faint noises further off in the forest. Sniffling one last time, he arose quietly and crept forward to investigate.


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