The Lion, the Snake, and the Safe Room
Chapter 8: Lessons
"When do we start?" What a stupid question. Draco leaned against a wall, trying to catch his breath. What I should have asked is, "When do we stop?"
Only problem is, the answer to that is apparently "Never."
Gilles of Narnia might not be the High King, but that didn't stop him from reigning as tyrant, despot, and absolute autocrat over the training ring where he saw to the martial development of Narnia's two young Princes and a squire of the court. Five weeks had passed since Draco had asked the fatal question in the morning room of Cair Paravel, and he wasn't sure he had ever been more exhausted in his life.
To Draco's lasting embarrassment, Kargin routinely outpointed him in their sparring matches with singlestick and quarterstaff, as well as outshooting him in the archery trials, and he had a sneaking suspicion the Red Dwarf was barely trying. Nor was it pleasant to lose to Harry Potter, though at least their similar levels of experience in such matters (practically none) meant that those matches generally ended much more closely, and now and then Draco even scored a win.
But none of that could even begin to compare with the utter and total humiliation of being beaten by the girls.
Who would have believed that Granger—Granger, the messy-haired Muggleborn bookworm—would turn out to be a demon with a quarterstaff? Or that little brat Freeman a dead shot with a bow? She needs the lightest one they have, of course, since she's so tiny herself, but she'll train up a few sizes before she's done. And let's not even get started on the amount of damage that Dwarf girl Garnet can do with a singlestick! He grimaced, shifting the light breastplate he wore so that its straps no longer squeezed the worst of his collection of bruises. If this is what it's like before we all move on to using the pointy things…
A staff smacked into the stones an inch from his nose. Draco yelped and spun to face its wielder, bringing his own staff up in automatic response. "What?" he demanded, blocking two strikes in the course of the word. "I needed a break!"
"So you think your enemy will give you a break?" King Gilles, to Draco's chagrin, was barely breathing hard through the words as he struck, high, low, left, right, middle, middle, thrust. "You think you can beg for a moment in the midst of a battle and have it granted?"
Draco backed away from the blizzard of strikes, turning to keep himself from being pressed into a corner, absurdly proud that he was, at last, able to stop every blow from reaching him and keep his staff in his hands, even if those hands were starting to vibrate and sting from the repeated shocks of wood against wood. "No, but—"
"But me no buts, young Prince." The pattern was repeated, with more force this time. "If your enemy will not give you respite, neither will I. It is my right—more than that, my duty—to press you harder than your enemy will, to be sure you survive when you finally face him." Again, the pattern, a drumbeat so precise that one might dance to it. "And I never neglect my duty."
I've noticed. Draco went to block the high strike which would begin the pattern once again—
And Gilles threaded his staff between Draco's legs, twisted, and jerked.
"Your enemy," said the King, leaning on his staff as Draco stared up at him from the ground, trying to regain his breath in earnest this time, "will also not be so kind as to give you a predictable rhythm of attack and defense. He will instead be trying to kill you, by any means at his command." A hand reached down towards him, as though to help him up. "Your duty is to remain alive, to defend and serve our fair Narnia. Will you surrender it to the first half-trained soldier who meets you in the field?"
"No," Draco grunted, and grabbed onto the hand, bracing himself for what was surely coming. A twist and throw over Gilles's shoulder, perhaps, or a yank in close for a simulated stab with a dagger—
But instead the older man simply lifted him to his feet, grinning. "That wasn't half bad," he said cheerily. "We may make a fighter of you yet. Go walk yourself cool, then get cleaned up. Abra would never forgive me if I made you miss a meal, and you have your music lesson with my Caelin after lunch."
Draco almost bit back his smile at the thought of that particular part of his studies, but let it come after recalling his instructions once more. I'm supposed to let them think they're changing me, give them that satisfaction. When really, I'm the same as I've ever been, on my own side and allied with the person who'll give me the best rewards. Like being King all by myself, no one else to interfere with me. Idly, he flexed the fingers of his left hand, feeling the slight pull on his forearm where the White Wizard had marked him. That's how Malfoys do things.
Still, acting or not, he was enjoying having the mysteries of music unfolded to him. Queen Caelin teased only lightly if he forgot what a notation meant or flubbed a change of chords, and she always made sure he could do it correctly before she moved on. High Queen Ilana, too, was quicker to praise than to scold, making the history and literature of Narnia and its surrounding lands interesting rather than stultifying, and High King Ardan, despite the rebuke he'd delivered Draco on the day of his arrival at the palace, treated all four of the young royals precisely the same when it was his turn to train them in the fine art of properly reigning over such a varied land as Narnia.
I like his lessons best, because they never get boring. Draco arched his back, stretching and twisting as he walked the prescribed laps around the training yard, feeling his muscles loosen as he moved. And because I'll need to know how best to handle all my subjects, when I finally do take the throne. Red Dwarves and Black Dwarves, for instance—they look a lot alike, but they're so different in what they believe and what they want most. And the need to respect the instincts of the Animals, how a Stag can't always think clearly at a certain season of the year and a Wolf should be judged first by his own Pack before coming to us…and the sovereignty of the nature spirits in their own domains, how only the High King or Queen can even question a naiad about what she did in the land watered by her spring or a dryad in the area shaded by his tree…
King Gilles, in the middle of his own cooling-down exercises, found a moment to smile to himself at the thoughtful look on the face of the young Prince. His sister, as so often proved to be the case, had been right about the potential in this one.
Though I still do not like trusting him with our every secret, as though we were as sure of him as we are of the other three. He may have begun to change, but who is to say it will continue along the same lines?
I will keep watching, and keep listening. And if, in the end, it was unnecessary for me to do so, no one will be more delighted than I.
But if the boy proved, as he darkly suspected, to be already sworn to the side of their enemy…
You fight the man who trained you at your own risk, little Prince. Gilles laid a hand on his side, where the silver dagger he had forged himself in the caverns of the Dwarves always rode, ever ready in case a member of his birth family should come calling. He knows all your weaknesses already, and knows where to strike.
And in defense of his land, his wife and the friends he considered siblings, even his children—for surely if I am King, I may think of the Prince and the pair of Princesses who will someday reign after me as my children—Gilles Norois of Narnia would kill without mercy. Not without regret, for he never enjoyed ending a life, even one dedicated to darkness, but certainly without a moment's hesitation.
I know, from my dreams, what hesitation costs.
For a moment, the darkness loomed up, threatened to overtake him. Darkness, and hopelessness all around him, and the dull knowledge of horrors weighing him down. His friends thought him a heartless monster, worth not even a second thought as they went on with their lives; his every joy and pleasure, all the memories he treasured of laughter and love and hope for a life different from his family's, had been stripped away from him; even by turning his skin to hide within his animal's mind, he could find only a pale semblance of escape from this place, and more and more he found himself tempted to abandon his humanity altogether—
Enough. He closed his hand tightly around his dagger's hilt, using the ridges which kept it in his grasp during battle, the slickness of the pommel stone at its top, to draw himself back to reality. Dreams, Gilles, nothing but dreams. They have only the power you give them.
His dreams had been reality once, but for less than twelve months in total, not for the interminable procession of year upon year they often tried to make him believe as he slept. As for his closest friend and his beloved, they had abandoned him only because there seemed no other conclusion to draw but that he was, in truth, the vicious killer he had been made to seem.
Ilana never did, but then, she has certain advantages.
The same dreams which had showed his sister in royalty the young Princes and Princesses had first told her, all those years ago, that the crimes of which Gilles Norois was accused rose from no savagery on his part but from the careful planning of a werewolf clan determined not to let its white sheep make a successful break from the family fold.
And once she had proved, to our friends' satisfaction if not at first to the law of the land, that one of the helpless innocents I'd supposedly slaughtered had instead fled to Calormen with my family's gold to set him up in style, the gold they paid him to butcher a round dozen Animals and make it look like a werewolf's work, then lure me to the scene in wolf form just as he finished…
His family had shouted louder than any in seeming horror at such a heinous crime by one of their own, and had gone directly to the lesser of the Kings who then reigned in Narnia (known for his rigid adherence to the law and his inflexible stance on wrongdoers) to ask for the right to punish their erring child as they saw fit. The request was granted, no doubt, Gilles thought with a flash of dark humor, in the hope that the werewolves might finally have seen the errors of their ways, and be turning towards the light.
Ha. I hope Aslan had something special awaiting that King when he arrived in the country beyond the Eastern Sea—perhaps even a test at the door, through which he'd have to pass before he could enter there—
Such a wish was, he knew, unworthy of one who now sat upon that King's very throne, but he dared anyone who had lived through experiences like his own not to harbor some such thoughts. He could still remember the gloating glee on the bestial faces of his cousins as they manhandled him down the dank tunnel deep within the clan's complex of caves, his mother's triumphant laugh as she followed with a single torch clutched in her gnarled fingers, the choking terror closing off his throat as it came to him belatedly what fate they planned for him—
I was theirs, by the King's own decree, and they could do with me as they liked. And what they liked was to seal me away from the world, imprison me in darkness forever, cut me off from light and love and everything they knew I treasured most. They chose their prison carefully, too—one of the caves that touches on the underground lakes, so I'd have fresh water and fish if I could catch them, even a few plots of dirt seeded with mushrooms so I wouldn't starve, but without any exit I could reach unless I cared to drown. It was, it should have been, the perfect place to break my spirit, to drive me out of my mind or force me to conform to their ways again, as the only escape from that madness.
But his family had reckoned without one slender lady of mixed dryad and human blood, whose peaceful face, like that of the fabled Susan, the Gentle Queen, hid a warrior's determined strength of heart. Fewer than six days after his mother had set the final stone which sealed him into his prison-cave in place with her own two hands, Gilles had looked up in shock as a bit of rock from the ceiling cracked and fell away. Sliding into the cavern like a serpent came the slender filament of a tree's root, reaching towards him like the hand of a friend.
I didn't know what to think at first. I couldn't believe anyone would have looked for me after what had been said, what everyone thought of me now…but I suppose I should have known. Ilana was never one to accept what everyone said without seeing for herself. He cracked a smile, watching young Draco rack his staff and set his armor carefully on the shelf, then jog off towards the palace to have a bath before luncheon. Or should that be, Seeing for herself?
In either case, Ilana had found him, channeling the magic which was hers by blood to locate him through the shielding earth. When he had touched the root she'd sent down to him, she had even been able to speak with him, and her first words had relieved his breathless fear that his friend had sought him out only to condemn him further.
She said, "Tell me what really happened."
And when I did, she told me that she believed me.
Though her time within the werewolves' purview was necessarily limited, lest they spy her and realize what she was doing, Ilana had been able over the course of the next weeks and months to send other filaments of root through rock and soil, widening the few chinks which provided Gilles's cave with air and light. Too, she brought him news each time she returned, news not only of the life of Narnia aboveground but of her own efforts to convince Ardan and Caelin to explore his seeming murders more deeply.
Most of all, she was simply there. She knew I hadn't killed anyone, and reminded me that the truth would eventually be known. More than that, she spoke to me, she made me laugh, she gave me glimpses of a life wider than my walls. I wasn't alone, caged up in the darkness with nothing but my worst thoughts and memories for company. If I had been…
He began to strip off his own armor, letting that run through his thoughts. If I had been, I think I still would have survived. But I would have been… damaged. I'd have had to find a particular idea to hold onto, to keep the madness at bay. Perhaps my innocence of the crimes I'd been accused of, though that would likely have made me so single-minded on revenge as to be little better than madness itself. Not a pleasant state of mind to contemplate.
And if I'd had a chance at that revenge? He regarded his reflection in his breastplate. His eyes, usually gleaming with mischief, were as hard and cold as the polished steel he saw them in. I find it hard to imagine anything or anyone short of the Lion himself which could have turned me from it.
With a shudder, he broke free of the darkness, shaking his head as he did when coming out of the water in his wolf-form. "It never happened," he reminded himself. "I may see that fate in my dreams, but my waking life was better blessed than that."
And the reasons awaited him in the palace, along with a cool tub of water and his midday meal. After lacing his fingers behind his head and stretching out the last of his stiffness, Gilles followed Draco towards Cair Paravel, letting his mind rove over those most pleasant of memories.
For nine months later, almost to the day…
"What is this painting about?" Meghan rested her fingers against the corner of the simple silver frame. The murky watercolor it enclosed portrayed a man seated on the shore of a dark lake, his shoulders slumped in weariness or despair but his eyes wide in disbelief as they rested on the woman who stood waist-deep in the water, reaching out her hand to him, her lips parted to speak his name. "It's beautiful. Sad, but beautiful."
"Ah, but when you know the story which goes with it, it will not seem so sad, little Pearl." Queen Caelin set down the pitcher of water with which she had been filling glasses for the informal family luncheon. "Do either of those within it seem familiar to you?"
Meghan felt a quiver of happiness run through her as the Queen used her favorite nickname, one which had always meant that her mother had broken briefly through the darkness which seemed to cover their lives, then looked back at the picture. "This looks like you," she said doubtfully, pointing to the woman. "But she has scales, scales and gills, like—"
"Like my mother's people," Caelin finished, coming to stand beside her. "And yes, I may take on such a form, when I must." She smiled ruefully, rubbing her neck. "It is not pleasant, but it can be done. And in such a cause as this, I was glad to bear the pain."
"Because that's Gilles, there on the shore." It had taken Meghan some time to get used to addressing the Kings and Queens by their first names, but they came almost naturally to her now. "Was he waiting for you? Did he think you weren't coming?"
"He was not sure if I would be able to come." Caelin shivered, and put an arm around Meghan, holding her close. "Neither was I. The caverns of the great underground lake by which he was imprisoned are vast, and no labyrinth designed by any mind could be more twisted. It took me three months to find my way to him—this painting is meant to show the first moment I surfaced by his side, when neither of us had known if it were possible until we saw one another—and even once I had discovered where he was, we had no idea of how he might come back with me." She smiled down at Meghan. "Neither wolves nor humans being noted for their ability to breathe water, you see."
"But you did save him." Meghan restrained her urge to bounce, merely rolling from toes to heels and back again. "You have to have done, because he's here now. How did you do it?"
"We took a chance, and one which still terrifies me to think of how badly it might have gone." Caelin's eyes were half-shut, her voice distant, as though she were reliving the memories in the moment of explaining them. "Gilles allowed me to place him into a trance, the sort I can sometimes invoke when I am healing, in which I have command over the functions of another's body. And I commanded him not to breathe, then took him in tow and swam as quickly as I could for the place where Ardan and Ilana were waiting for us, two minutes distant at my best pace."
Meghan swallowed, connecting this with some of the stories Harry had told her about the school year just past, bits and pieces about being expected to compete in a Tournament designed for students three or four years older than he was. One of the tasks had involved swimming through the huge lake on their school's grounds, trying to retrieve something, or someone, which had been taken from him…
"You made it out," she said rather than think about this any more, leaning back against Caelin. "You made it out, and brought him with you."
"But I thought at first that I had failed." Caelin smiled thinly. "He looked so pale, so limp, in the light of the moon as we lifted him ashore that I thought surely I had lost control of the trance along the way, that he had drowned and I never noticed it. Even when I consciously lifted the trance from him, willing him to breathe, it seemed that he did not, and I was ready to give up hope. But Ardan favored me with a certain look he has—you may know the one—"
"Oh, yes," Meghan said fervently. The High King, she had discovered quickly, had little tolerance for self-pity or whinging of any sort.
"And Ilana took my hand and told me to try one more time. So I laid my own hand upon Gilles's chest and asked the Lion's aid, and then I called to him, to Gilles. I reminded him that I loved him, and that I would take it very ill if he had died in the act of my saving him." Caelin's expression grew tender. "And my heart had time to beat only twice before I felt his chest rise beneath my hand, and he opened his eyes and smiled at me."
A happy sigh slipped from Meghan at the thought of such a romantic moment, though her practical side felt compelled to point out it would likely have been quite chilly, wet, and otherwise uncomfortable on that lake shore. "And you went away together, and were married, and lived happily ever after," she chanted under her breath, rocking on her toes again.
"We went away together, yes." Caelin pressed a gently quelling hand on top of Meghan's braided head. "And we were married. But happily ever after is not a place, little Princess—it is a journey. We must walk that road side by side every day, my Gilles and I." Her brown eyes shone with amusement. "And some days we go farther than others."
Meghan tilted her head innocently. "You mean like days when you throw things and shout?"
Draco stopped in the doorway at the burst of feminine laughter. "What did I miss?" he asked uneasily.
I don't know that there's much I can say here, except surprise, I hope you enjoyed it, and I've told you before that nothing's ever quite abandoned with me. Though this is probably my longest-left story.
I do know how it ends, by the way. And I do intend to finish it. So give me lots of encouragement and let's see what happens! Happy eleventh day of Christmas!
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