The Pevensies found themselves alone again, in front of a strange forest in a strange land.
The four of them shared a long and thoughtful look.
“I have to say,” Peter admitted after a moment, “I feel underdressed.”
“We are, however, less under-armed than we were a few moments ago,” Susan pointed out. She was glad it had not been her who’d admitted to feeling improperly clothed, but she certainly was feeling much the same. A Queen wore raiment. A school-girl on a lark wore her brother’s hand-me-down pants and a blouse to grubby for wearing out.
“It doesn’t matter.” Lucy’s smile was back, her proper smile, bright and gleaming. “We’re Kings and Queens the same whether we’re in wellies and mackintoshes or in gowns and crowns.”
Edmund chuckled. “Always the same, Lu, cheerful and bright.” He patted her on the back companionably. “And you’re right. You’ve got your proper gifts, and I’ve got —” He looked down at the mace thoughtfully. “Well, I’ve got a proper gift, too.”
The sound of hoof-beats approaching stilled their chatter. Without discussion, without even a sign from Peter, the four of them fell into a combat formation. Susan found herself drawing an arrow as if they had never left Narnia, the movements smooth and comfortable.
The whitest, largest horse Susan had ever seen trotted into sight. Its rider was showing off, she realized; the mount was doing dance steps, curvetting and side-stepping as they approached.
And on the horse’s back — or, she realized, perhaps the Horse’s back — the rider was dressed all in white as well. The horse’s tack was all white with very pale blue barding, and bells jangled on the barding.
The rider was dark-skinned, darker even than the Calormen, but with a beak-like nose that seemed almost familiar to Susan. His long hair was braided up into a crown, wrapped around the rider’s head, almost like a turban.
His eyes were the sort of black that you could get lost in. Susan stifled a reaction. She steadied her aim and watched the rider’s movements.
He lifted both hands carefully, showing they were empty. “Greetings.” Even his accent sounded like the Calormen. “I believe you were expecting me. I am Soleck; this is Leffen.” He moved one hand to pat the horse’s neck as he introduced him — him; Susan realized; the great white horse was a stallion. The horse, in turn, exhibited a lovely bow. “And I am told that you are here to help us in our current, ah, quest. These things are true? You are the kings and queens from a far distant place? Susan and Peter, Lucy and Edmund?”
They all stayed frozen for a moment. Peter was the first to relax, the first to smile. He stepped forward, his hand off his sword hilt and a wide smile on his face.
Of course, Susan knew, he was still playing the protector, as always. If this was a ruse, Peter would be the first to be hit, and the others would have a chance to flee or retaliate. She lowered her bow, but did not put it up just yet. They were in a strange land, with no easy route home, and they did not know the rules yet.
While she assessed, Peter was holding out his hand to the stranger. “That’s us,” he agreed. “I am Peter. These are my brother and my sisters.”
Susan noted that he did not say King Peter. Their kingdom, after all, was so far far away.
The man leaned down from his saddle and shook the proffered hand. “A pleasure to meet you. I assure you all, I mean you no harm, and neither does Leffen. Here.” He slid out of his saddle and held his hands away from his belt, showing himself to be unarmed. “What the Sunlord has sent, I will not turn away.”
The Sunlord again. Susan itched for a text on comparative religion. In Narnia, where Aslan had walked among them, there had been very little religion, and it had been quite easy to sort out. In other nations — and back on Earth — it had been a different matter entirely.
Peter was bowing to the ambassador. “We have been sent, it seems,” he allowed, “and we’ve learned better than to question Aslan’s will in these matters. I suppose that makes us allies.”
“This Aslan, he is the one who sent you?”
“So we were told, and so, in this case, we believe. Tesnel — that is the Firecat — told us that a ‘companion’ would arrive to explain things. Is that you, then?”
“Ah. Well, Leffen is the Companion, and I am his Herald.”
At that, Leffen demonstrated such a gracious head-nod bow that Susan had to believe he was a Horse and not merely a horse. If there was anything about Narnia that Susan missed most of all — and it was hard to say, because she missed all of Narnia so much that it hurt even to think of it — it was Horses, and specifically her favorite Horse Carter, who had carried her right to the edge of the Lantern Waste after so many more glorious adventures.
She moved forward, putting up her bow and arrow now, but even as she was stepping towards the Horse — for he must be greeted too, of course, and he was the one that Tesnel had send to them — she could see that Soleck had tensed. He had introduced Leffen, but had he intended them to speak to the Horse?
Susan changed her direction mid-stride. She was hampered only slightly by her lack of skirts as she curtseyed deeply, for a Queen of course must be polite in any and every situation. She aimed her genuflection directly between Soleck and Leffen. “Herald Soleck, Companion Leffen, I am pleased to meet you. I am Susan.”
::I like her.:: Leffen took a step forward and very neatly nosed Susan’s hair. ::These are the ones, all right.::
“Lu, come on.” Susan gestured her sister over with a hand-wave far less queenly than her dignity might have like. “He smells just like Carter. Exactly! I mean.” She stepped back before she could throw her arms around the Horse’s neck. “I apologize, sir. You remind me of someone I once knew.” She paused, her eyes travelling over to Soleck, who was watching her with mouth open and eyebrows raised so far as to be sitting in his braids. “You both remind me of people I once knew.”
::Sir?:: Leffen stepped forward to nuzzle at Susan’s shoulder again. ::I like her very much.::
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