MFB39: Arrows of Love

Edmund hardly knew what he was eating for breakfast since the hornets and bees were plaguing him as never before. The hornets stung as he ground his teeth, angry at Peter for having come so close to giving in and yet catching himself and resisting; however, when he thought of how warm and passionate their kiss had been, the bees sent a trembling buzz throughout his body — right down to his knees, which would have made his steps unsteady if he were not already sitting down.

He was also deeply disappointed that Peter had forbidden kissing “for practise,” closing that avenue of opportunity, it seemed, for good. To think that their second kiss might have been the last gave him a pang of heart so painful that he rubbed his chest, though it did nothing to lessen the ache. But as he pondered on his brother’s remarks, one of them stood out in his mind.

He said that it would be “wonderful,” regardless of whether one’s good at it or not, he recalled. At least, as long as you love the person you’re kissing… It was wonderful to kiss Peter, but of course it would be, since we’re brothers and I love him and he loves me as much as anybody else… well, except for Lucy.

He swallowed hard, trying to get a mouthful of oatmeal past the lump in his throat. Even though it was drowning in fresh cream and honey (his favourite), it seemed as dry and tasteless as sand. He glanced over at Peter’s table and nearly choked to see the young ladies from Archenland swarming around the High King, hanging on his every word before he left for the day’s hunt. Scowling, Edmund wrenched his eyes away from his royal brother, only to find Darian settled in beside Per and talking companionably with the boy.

At least they’re getting along well, he thought bitterly, the hornets stinging him with renewed vigour. I don’t suppose Darian would ever refuse to kiss Per! I wonder if he would think twice, though, if they were brothers?

Remembering how eagerly Per had capitulated to Darian’s advances, Edmund was filled with even more questions which he could not ask without revealing that he had watched them (like a Peeping Tom) the night before. Observing them now, he noticed how tenderly the knight gazed at Per as they spoke in low tones, and he ached with an almost physical yearning.

I wish Peter would look at me like that, and do to me what Darian did to Per, he thought, twisting his spoon in the oatmeal. I want it so badly that it hurts even to see someone else enjoying that kind of… closeness. I suppose I’m jealous of those girls vying for Peter’s attention, too, since he’s set on waiting until he’s married and might very well pick one of them… How silly of me! Of course he’ll marry a girl eventually, and even if I got him to do that with me, it would’ve been only a temporary thing until he got married…

At this the pain became so great that Edmund dropped his spoon, clutching his tunic as he gasped for air. Per was at his side in an instant.

“Are you ill, your Majesty?” he inquired with genuine concern.

“I… I’m fine,” Edmund managed. “I just swallowed too much oatmeal at once.”

Dubiously, Per sat down again, keeping an eye on his knight and king, who gave up eating to mull things over in earnest.

Why am I feeling so jealous over Peter? I knew all along that it wouldn’t’ve lasted very long, even if I could’ve persuaded him. It’s ridiculous! Preposterous! And if he doesn’t want to take advantage of what we could do together, I should just leave him be, even though… even though I’ll miss out on it, too. But I oughtn’t be so selfish! I’m a king, after all, and I have everything else that I could possibly wish for…

However, dismissing his feelings did nothing to lessen their intensity or effects, so it was just as well that Phillip did not need him to direct their course as they rode out for the hunt. The Horse kept them more or less in the thick of things while Edmund mused silently on his own thoughts, his eyes fixed on the High King’s back at the head of the party. Once, when Peter turned around to check on his brother, he found Edmund’s brown eyes boring into his own with an unfathomable expression. Though startled to see him glowering at him so, he managed a quick, reassuring sort of smile that did alleviate some of the hornet stings in the younger boy’s stomach.

A little later, the Hounds began baying up ahead of them and the Horses went into a full gallop. Edmund could only grasp the pommel of his saddle and hang on as they leapt over a rivulet in pursuit of a stag (not a Talking Stag, of course) that had been flushed out of the woods. The rest of the hunters notched their arrows and bows sang like harp-strings all around Edmund, bringing the stag down in a matter of minutes. Glordus the Centaur reached the beast first and slit its throat to end its misery.

“Well done! Well done, Faril!” King Lune cried before dismounting. As the hunters gathered round to assess the size of the stag and praise those whose arrows had hit it, Edmund headed towards a small outcropping of rock a short distance away. His breakfast was not settling well and he was in no mood to join the others in celebrating.

Peter looked up in time to see him leaving and was torn between the desire to chase after him and his duty as host to oversee the business of skinning and dressing the venison. Having an idea of what might be troubling his brother, he wished with all of his heart that he could make him understand the need for rectitude and modesty in physical relationships, but did not want to get in a row with him right now with so many others present. He was still standing there indecisively when King Lune came up and clapped him on the back.

“A fine specimen and a good first kill of the day, my dear Peter,” the older monarch beamed, leading him towards the stag with an almost imperceptible force — so natural was the gesture — on his shoulder.

“Indeed,” Peter managed, recollecting himself as he tore his gaze away from Edmund. He attended to the formal courtesy of offering the stag’s horns to Faril (whose arrow had been the first to hit) and watched while the Dwarfs made short work of carving the meat, to be taken back to the camp where portions of it would be smoked and sent home with their guests.

When the bulk of the work was done, King Lune said, “Come, my friend — let us roam a few paces and stretch out our limbs.”

“With a good will, Sire,” Peter responded, falling in step beside him. He noted that the older man was unwontedly silent and braced himself for what was to come.

“My dearest Peter… wilt thou heed the counsel of one who looks to thy interests as zealously as his own?” King Lune began, his voice low so as to not be overheard by the other hunters.

“Of course, my Lord,” Peter replied.

“Let not thine eyes linger overmuch on thy brother,” he said gently. “I see now that thy love for him runneth deeper than I had previously suspected. But I fear that some one of thy court or mine may have marked already how ardent a scrutiny thou dost cast upon him. Even if thou canst abjure not thy unnatural affection for him, thou must guard thy words and deeds from betraying thee. A hard task for one so young, to be sure, but as king… the burden must be borne.”

“Yes. I can do no less for the honour of the throne,” Peter agreed with a sigh. “If I might impose upon your goodwill and favour…”

“Ask on, my friend.”

“You mentioned yesterday of speaking with Edmund upon this very matter.”

“So I did, though no opportune moment has presented itself as yet. But I have not forgotten my promise, dear Peter.”

The younger king nodded. “I know you have not; I only wished to implore you to find such an opportunity at the earliest circumstance, for Edmund is so insensible to the… hazards of indecorous behaviour, let alone the censure which it merits, that he has provoked me to carnal misdeeds with greater brashness the more I strive to discourage it.”

“A tenuous footing for thee, indeed,” was King Lune’s grave answer. “I shall seek him out before the day’s close, my friend. And may Aslan grant me the wisdom to exhort him in such a manner that he must be persuaded.”

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Per had not realised for a while that King Edmund had strolled away by himself, but when he finally saw him sitting on a boulder a stone’s throw away, he hurried over with a water-skin in hand.

“Are you feeling quite well, your Majesty?” he asked anxiously.

“I’m fine. Really,” Edmund assured him, taking a sip of the water. Noting that Darian was following his squire with his eyes, he indicated the knight with a slight gesture and remarked, “You seem to be getting on with Darian quite well.”

Per blushed immediately and stammered, “Ah—I have b—been g—getting to know him rather more… intimately, these past few days.”

Edmund shrugged. “It’s all right, Per. I know he’s fond of you, and as long as you’ve no objections to it, you may spend as much time with him as you like. It must be hard for him to be leaving Anvard soon, with hardly any chance of ever seeing you again.”

“It is true,” Per admitted, poking at a clump of grass with the toe of his boot. “I… I thought that it might be rather cruel… that is, after all the kindness which he has shown me while I was in King Lune’s service, I felt that it would be ungrateful to… to turn him away with no token of my… regard, at least, if not affection…”

“Oh?” Edmund said, feigning ignorance. “So, have you decided to give him something as a token of your… regard?”

Unable to meet his eyes, Per struggled on, “Yes, my Lord, that is… inasmuch as I have nothing of worth to give him, in the way of a keepsake, ah… I have g—given him what he has… most urgently desired — that is… I have acquiesced to his wishes.”

“Have you, really?” Edmund responded, amazed and relieved that Per was telling him this of his own accord. “Do you mean… to all of his wishes?”

Still flushed, Per nodded awkwardly and bit his lip.

“Well… how was it?” Edmund prodded him, sincerely interested.

“It was… marvelous,” he answered, a smile spreading across his face despite his embarrassment. “Your Majesty will remember that I had feared it greatly, having been used before only by the most despicable of savage men; but with Darian it was… a wonder and a delight. Had I but known how much different it could be — how much more pleasurable, at the hands of a kind and considerate man — I would have consented to it at once. I now regret the time I wasted while at the castle (of Anvard, of course) because of my own folly and ignorance.”

“How extraordinary,” Edmund mused aloud, “that what was only pain and horror with some men, might be pleasure and delight with another! But I’m glad that you’ve been able to experience the one as well as the other.”

“Yes — I am grateful that he continued to pursue me, even here,” Per agreed.

“But now, tell me honestly: Would you rather go with him back to Archenland? Now that you know you have nothing to fear from him…”

“Oh! No, your Majesty — I did not mean… that is to say, I never intended…” Wringing his hands, Per chose his words. “I could not go with him, even if I desired to, for his father would disown him if he knew. His sire is very stern about such things,” he explained, “and would no more tolerate it in his house than your Majesty would a traitor in your court. But I would not leave your service, King Edmund, for anything! He is a kind man and a worthy master, ’tis true, but… for all I esteem him, I do not… love him.”

Edmund stared at him for a long moment, digesting this statement.

“So… even if he were only going back to Anvard, and not his father’s house… you wouldn’t want to go with him?”

Per shook his head, the redness of his cheeks returning to a normal hue.

“No, my Lord. I know very little when it comes to these matters, but from what little I do know, I can say with surety that I do not love him as he loves me; and such an imbalance of affection could not help but place a strain on the one bearing the heavier weight of the burden. Even if we could live in brazen exposure, what happiness could we hope for, if in time he grew to hate me for my indifference?”

“I suppose… But couldn’t you grow to love him, over time?”

“If, in all these years, with all his gentle solicitude, I could not grow to love him already, what assurance have I that it would happen now? No, my Lord — it is best that we part ways while we are still on the tenderest of terms, that our fondness may be unblemished in our memories.”

Per plucked a long blade of grass to twist in his hands while Edmund took another sip of water and checked that the rest of the hunting party were not leaving yet. Darian was watching them, though he made no move to approach them.

“I guess you’re right. I know even less about such things (romance and all that rot) than you do, so I won’t pretend otherwise,” the young king conceded. “It just seems like rotten luck that Darian is so fond of you, and you’re fond of him, too, in your own way, but not enough that it would work out well for both of you.”

“Such is the mystery and the madness of love,” Per said sadly. “All too often, it is shot like an arrow at its mark, only to miss and fall to the ground. Most ballads that I’ve heard (in Archenland, at least) have to do with one whose love is not returned; they are filled with sorrow, but it seems that true love cannot be dissuaded even in the face of indifference. I think it must be an involuntary thing, which entraps one’s heart despite one’s best endeavours to escape it. I see Darian struggle against it, and wish… not to suffer so, but to know what it must feel like to love another so deeply as to be helpless to do otherwise.”

“Yes… I wonder what it must be like, too,” Edmund said, reflecting on how Peter had fallen in love with a girl whom he could not marry.

“If you wish, you could ask Darian — as your Majesty knows of his affliction, he would not keep any secrets from you.”

Edmund considered this, then stood up, saying, “I think I shall, after all. There is a certain… er… person that I know, who is suffering from the same ‘affliction,’ and I should like to know how best to help.”

When they drew near to the knight, Per informed him of his master’s curiosity, and Darian was happy to satisfy him.

“What does it feel like?” was Edmund’s first and very straightforward question.

“It feels as though one is soaring higher than the clouds, like a great bird — a single smile is enough to give the heart wings,” Darian answered with a smile of his own. “But even the gentlest rebuff, no matter how kindly meant, can plunge one into the darkest abyss where ne’er sun was seen. And though you be the bravest man in the land, to see your love approaching may set your heart to fluttering like a trapped dove and your knees to knocking for fear of giving the least offense. You would rather die a thousand deaths than be parted from your love for an instant…”

The longing look which he cast upon Per was lost on Edmund, for he was stunned by the latter description that Darian had given.

Fluttering heart… knocking knees… Does that mean…?

Abruptly he demanded, “Do you ever feel like there are bees buzzing inside of you?”

“Bees, my Lord?” Darian echoed, startled, then nodded slowly. “Yes, I believe one’s nerves could seem very much like the humming of bees.”

“And hornets? Stinging you all over from the inside?

“Ah! Yes. There is sharp pain in the bowels when one’s love does not return one’s affections, and may feel much like hornets, as you have said. Even the richest food and drink may turn to dust and ashes in one’s mouth. Jealousy over one’s love — regardless of whether he returns those affections (or she, so please your Majesty) — is a common symptom of this illness. But King Edmund,” Darian said, observing the young monarch’s face more closely, for he had suddenly paled, “how would you know of such pains, unless…”

“I must be in love,” Edmund blurted out, helplessly and miserably.

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