Get Adobe Flash player

Bride of Tash

Narnia fan fiction, updated in chapters. Set chronologically between the happenings of “The Magician’s Nephew” and “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.” Rated M.

Josie had finished her tale more curtly than she had intended, and afterwards had gone back to her rooms to wait for Tash to come out of his sulk. She was not sure where he had gone, but he had seemed very glum indeed at being rejected by Gerald. For his part, Gerald was tired and doing his best not to be, screaming and running around and striking out at Josie when she tried to get him to settle, and it was a long hour before she got him to calm down and drift off to a teary nap in the corner.

She flung herself down on her bedclothes, feeling the smooth silk against her face. Tears welled in her eyes, but she fought them down. All the things she had left out of her story – the things she would not tell Gerald either, if she were to tell it again – were roiling inside and making her feel horrible. There were so many things that it was so much easier just not to think of.

‘Lady Josie?’ It was the delicate musical voice of the gazelle Mirilitha, speaking from the curtained doorway. She had sat quietly listening at a respectful distance from the men while Josie had told the tale of how she had come to be Mistress of Telmar.

‘Yes?’ said Josie, sitting up. ‘Come in, if you like.’

‘Thank you, Lady Josie,’ said Mirilitha. ‘I would like to speak with you, if it is not too bold of me.’

‘Of course it is not too bold of you,’ said Josie. ‘And please just call me Josie. I don’t want to be a Lady lording it over you, just because you are a talking animal and the Lion supposedly put us men in charge of you once upon a time.’

‘Thank you, Lady- thank you, Josie,’ said Mirilitha again, stepping into the room and pacing over to Josie. ‘I am so very glad that you are alive and safe. You have changed a great deal, Josie, but you are not dead, or – broken, into an evil sorceress – and this makes me happier than I can say.’

‘It must have been horrible for you when I was taken away,’ said Josie. ‘I hope you did not get into too much trouble on my account.’

‘We were very worried,’ said the gazelle. ‘It was awful. Murbitha wanted to turn back at once, but I said we should go on and tell his Lordship what had happened. So in the end I did that. When his Lordship had to return to Balan – when he had the news about his brother – I went back to Caladru’s people. And then I did not get into so much trouble: though Caladru was angry with all of us. Caladru blamed Radamatha the most, for sending you off with us, when it turned out that was the wrong thing to do. But I did not get into so much trouble, since I ran off with Kodoru before I could. Kodoru and I were not the last to leave. In the end more than half of Caladru’s people went away, and now we live in several little herds instead of one big one.’

‘I am sorry that my bad luck went on to cause so much trouble to your people,’ said Josie. ‘I was only with you a little while, but I do think about all of you often. What has happened since then? How are Murbitha and the others?’

‘It is not at all your fault, Lady Josie,’ said Mirilitha. ‘The old women say that the troubles were stored up over many years, and many things would have brought them out.’

Josie could tell the truth in this, but she still did not like to think that she had been the straw that had broken the camel’s back.

Mirilitha went on in her lilting voice. ‘Murbitha stayed with Caladru, and she is the herbkeeper and lorekeeper for that herd now, since Radamatha died the winter before last.’

‘I am sorry to hear that she is dead,’ said Josie. ‘She was kind to me, and I do not think that it is her fault at all that I was taken by the ifrits.’

‘It is kind of you to say so,’ said Mirilitha.

‘What of Alabitha?’ asked Josie, remembering the first kindly voice she had heard when she was spilled into this new world, and thinking of the innocent girl she herself had been when she first walked alongside the Lion’s Pool. She felt sorry for that girl she had been, as if she were a stranger.

‘Alabitha went with her mother Falabitha to join Olodru, when the herd was broken,’ said Mirilitha. ‘His herd wanders mostly away to the south, near the edge of the hills of the Pugrahan. From what I hear, she is turning out beautiful and clever, but not overwise – probably the same as you were told of me, when I was not much older than she is – though perhaps they did not say I was clever.’

‘I am sure they told me you were clever,’ said Josie, with a little laugh, reaching out a hand to pat the gazelle girl’s neck. ‘So you dwell with Kodoru now?’

‘Yes, Josie,’ said Mirilitha. ‘I live in a little herd with Kodoru; we live mostly not far from where you were carried off. I have two foals – Ishmu and Zoratha.

‘Congratulations,’ said Josie. ‘I am sure they are beautiful and as quick-witted as you are.’

‘You are very kind to say so,’ said Mirilitha. ‘And congratulations to you, also: I can see for myself that your son is very clever and finely-formed.’

‘Thank you,’ said Josie. She remembered how when she had felt her body beginning to change she had felt nothing but fear and shame. She had asked Tash to seek out a certain plant with white hairs on its leaves that grew in shady places on stony ground. But Tash had picked the wrong leaves, or they worked differently on human women than on gazelles, or there had been some other mischance. Josie had been very ill for a night and a day, but her womb had not convulsed to push out the half-formed child. Soon after that Tash could smell and feel that she was different and she had to explain to him what was happening. Tash had been pleased to have a child from the beginning; she thought he understood that he could not possibly have made him, but she had never been able to bring herself to explain exactly what had happened.

Then Josie began to feel the stirring in her belly, at first something she thought she imagined, and then more and more, until it was obvious that there was a creature inside her, a demanding thing as willful as herself. She had been sick for months, and ached all over, and her body had been stretched like toffee and torn like cardboard, and she had been through an agony that seemed to last forever when she thought she would die and half hoped she would, and at the end of it she had a slimy mewling creature that did not seem human. She had called him after her sister, in hope that she would not think of him always as the son of the bandit chief; and sometimes days would pass now when she did not remember who he was. Whatever Tash knew or guessed, he had been devoted to the boy from the very beginning, when he was nothing more than a strange way Josie smelled and a story she told him; and now Gerald loved him in return, in as much as he could in his selfish infant way. ‘He is the son of Tash,’ Josie told herself, over and over again. ‘The son of Tash.’

‘It seemed when we were travelling that Kodoru was courting you,’ said Josie. ‘Murbitha said he was not serious.’

‘He was as serious as he could be,’ said Mirilitha. ‘He is like Arabitha also – cunning but not wise – but has been a good husband. And with Ruatha and me to temper him, he is well on his way to building a fine herd.’

‘Ruatha?’ asked Josie.

‘She is my sister-wife. You probably do not remember her.’

‘I cannot understand what it would be like, to be happy being one- one of many wives, like that.’

‘You are not a gazelle, Lady Josie,’ said Mirilitha, shifting uncomfortably. ‘So you cannot really understand.’

‘Of course not, you are right.’

‘When Prince Margis came through our land, I knew that I had to find out the ending of your story,’ said Mirilitha. ‘So I left my family behind for a time; I could not have done so, if Ruatha were not there to look after Kodoru and the foals when I was gone.’

‘That is good.’ Josie felt her eyes welling up with tears again. ‘I wish I knew what it was.’

‘What it was, Lady Josie?’

‘The ending to my story,’ said Josie. She choked back a sob, and gushed out the words. ‘Oh, I do not know what to do, Mirilitha. I don’t know who I am. I don’t know what I have become here. I feel as if I am the most desperately wicked girl who ever lived. I did not do what Aslan wanted me to do, and I thought he had punished me, but would leave me alone. And it got more bitter all the time, being left alone, so I was not sure that I wanted to be left alone; but now you have all come here, and it seems as if Aslan is giving me another chance to do what he wants; but I don’t know if that is really what it is, or how he will punish me if I refuse, and what will happen if I do what he wills.’

‘I am sorry, Lady Josie. You are confusing me.’

Josie could see that she was upsetting the gazelle- as always when her kind were nervous, Mirilitha was acting as if she wished she could bolt for the door and fly far away. So Josietook a deep breath and tried to make herself speak more slowly and calmly.

‘Please, just Josie. I am sorry, Mirilitha, this is not your concern. I should not talk to you like this. So much has happened, and there are so many things I would like to talk about – with my sister, I would like to talk with my sister – but she is dead.’ It felt strange and cruel to say out loud that her sister was dead. ‘But you are as close to a sister as anyone I know in this world. And I do not know what I should do.’

‘It is not my place to tell a Daughter of Helen what she should do,’ said Mirilitha meekly. ‘But if the Lion wills that something should be done, we are taught that we should will it to be done too.’

‘Those are the rules of this world,’ said Josie, both resigning herself to them and resenting them as she kept up her efforts not to go to pieces. ‘I suppose I must do what must be done, and see what happens.’

‘I am sure you will do what is right, Josie,’ said Mirilitha. ‘The Lion would not bring us all safely through so much to this place if it were not so. If you are meant to do something, you will do it now, and not fail.’

‘I don’t know,’ said Josie. ‘I hope you are right.’

Mirilitha put her head down next to Josie, and after a moment Josie began to run her hand over her fur, as if she were a dog. Mirilitha did not seem to mind. ‘I do wish that you could stay here,’ she said.

‘I need to get back to my children – and my husband and sister-wife and sister-children,’ said Mirilitha. ‘It is good to see you, Josie, but this is a grim place for gazelles.’

After a minute she went on.

‘If you will forgive me speaking as if I were a Daughter of Helen, Josie, I do not understand why you would stay here, instead of going to the lands where men dwell. After we have done what Aslan wills – if it is to be – if we can free the dumb beasts of this place who should not be dumb beasts – you could return with us to Calormen. Then you could live among men, at no very great distance from the land where we live, and come speak with us whenever you wished.’

‘I must stay here with my husband,’ said Josie. ‘I cannot take him to the lands of men. The men would not understand. Tash is not a man. Neither is he a talking beast. He does not fit in this world.’

‘If you treat him as a Son of Frank, it might be in time that the other men will treat him the same way? In time?’

‘I can hear what they say when they think I cannot hear, Mirilitha. And when they speak of him even when they know I can hear, I hear the word ‘monster’ in their voices.’ I am the true monster, thought Josie. Tash cannot help but be what he is, but I have pretended the rules of my own world did not hold here, knowing in my heart that they did. I have done wrong to Tash, to make him my husband, and I have done wrong in the sight of God. It is obvious now that the men of Calormen are here; I hear their voices, and smell them, and know that they are my people, and I have done a monstrous thing.

‘They have only been here a very little time, Josie,’ said Mirilitha gently. ’After more time, it may be-‘

‘No,’ said Josie. ’No, he cannot live among men. So neither can I.’

‘Lady Josie-‘ began Mirilitha, but Josie interrupted her, determined to change the subject.

‘Dear Mirilitha, do you think you could sing me one of the songs of the gazelles? You sing so beautifully, and I have often remembered the sound of your people singing.’

‘What sort of a song do you wish me to sing, Josie?’

‘I do not care. Anything.’

‘A happy song, or a sad one?’

‘It does not matter. A sad song will fit my mood, and that will be good; but a happy one might lift it, and that would also be good.’

Mirilitha thought a little time, while Josie sat quietly by her side and waited, and then she began to sing.

***

Tash returned not long after sunset, and curled up around his wife. She was quiet and stiff at first, and through she relaxed after a time her face looked to Tash like she had been weeping.

‘Do not be sad, Josie,’ he told her, running the smooth backs of his claws over the smoother white skin of her forehead. How splendid she was, he thought: he had found nothing in any world to compare to the look and feel of her, his Josie, Mistress of Telmar.

‘And you should not get so angry,’ she told him. ‘Prince Margis does not mean any harm. He is only trying to be friendly.’

‘I am sorry I upset you,’ Tash apologised. ‘But I wish they would do what they came here to do, and then go away.’

‘So do I,’ said Josie, biting her lip in the way Tash knew meant she was not sure of what she was saying.

Tash tried not to be afraid. ‘The men have not said what the owl said, that they have come here to find the secrets of Telmar. I wonder what secrets they hope to find.’

‘We will not tell them about the apples,’ said Josie, patting Tash’s arm in a reassuring way. ‘They caused enough trouble when the sorceror had them.’

Tash went on. ‘If they are not looking for the sorceror’s magic for themselves, it seems strange that they would come all this way just to look upon Telmar, and see for themselves that the sorceror was dead and you are not an enemy.’

‘I expect it is Aslan’s doing,’ said Josie with a sigh. ‘You were there when Prince Margis said that he has always felt a desire to come here, just because nobody has, and he admitted himself that it did make sense. He said he meant to go here long before we came to this world – well, before I came here.’

‘I wonder still what he is not telling us,’ said Tash. ‘Maybe they have come seeking the apples, or something else the magician had.’

‘It could be,’ said Josie.

‘I can tell you are worried,’ said Tash. ‘I am sorry I upset you. I will do my best to be more polite.’

‘Dear Tash, you are forgiven. A thousand times.’ Josie turned her head to kiss Tash’s beak. ‘I cannot tell whether the men have any dark secrets, but I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. They haven’t given us any reason to not trust them.’

‘I will try, my Josie.’

Josie softened further and pressed up against Tash in a way she had not done since the Calormenes had come to Telmar. ‘Do you want to hear the song Mirilitha sang me this afternoon? I cannot sing it anywhere as well as she could, of course, but I can try.’

‘I would like that,’ said Tash. So Josie put her lips close to Tash’s head and softly sang to the tune the gazelle had sung that afternoon.

Bring back to me the songs

The songs we sang long ago;

Bring back to me the sweet, sad music

That warmed the cold hearts of the people.

Too quiet are the streams and pools;

Too silent the cliffs and gorges;

Look my way with your dark eyes

And stir up a thousand echoes.

 

Fill me again with the fire

That first made my dust into flame:

We are young and thirsty with desire,

And we will drink at the pool of desire.

 

The song sets our feet-dancing

The song sets our hearts dancing,

The song make our spirits dance

And makes stone flow like blood.

 

Soft amid the rushes of the March Plain of Sha

The breeze of morning sings:

Bring me the song that is like fire

Brighter and clearer than the song of the breeze of morning.

In the morning they gathered again in the grand hall of the half-ruinous castle of Telmar.

‘Ofrak has told us your reason for coming here, Prince Margis,’ said Josie, standing up straight at one end of the long table. ‘But I think there is another one.’

Margis glanced at Jardil, who kept his attention politely focussed on the bejewelled Mistress of Telmar. Ofrak perched magisterially at the Prince’s left, apparently pleased that his name had been mentioned.

Josie went on. ‘You know that Aslan came here long ago because the men of this place were wicked, and turned them into dumb beasts. There is a place here that was set aside then – by the Lion – for restoring them when the time was right. Restoring their descendants, that is. I think that is why you have come, even if you did not know it, and why Blackbriar is here.’ Josie felt she was not explaining things very well.

Prince Margis nodded respectfully. ‘I have long dreamed of coming to this place to do some great deed, not knowing for certain what it was I might be called upon to do. So what you say is not unwelcome to me.’

‘I do not know exactly what you are supposed to do, but I know that you and I both have a part somehow in restoring the men of Telmar, using the things in the place Aslan set aside,’ Josie continued. ‘Blackbriar is one of them. That is why she went off to seek the lands of men.’

‘I always thought she was an exceptional creature,’ said Margis cheerily. ‘Have I not always said there was no other like her, Jardil? Please, Lady Josie, tell us the tale of this place set aside by Aslan.’

‘I can tell you the tale –but I do not know the beginning. I was given the key to the place by one of the ifrits, when they left. That is the key you returned to me.’ Josie paused then for a long moment.

‘Maybe we should just show them,’ said Tash. Even as he said this, Tash regretted saying it. He did not want the strangers in the secret places of the castle.

‘Indeed, if you wish, Lady Josie,’ said Prince Margis. ‘Showing is twelve score times telling, as we say in our country.’

‘Yes,’ said Josie. ‘Yes, let us go there. I will show you the place and tell you what we know of it, and then I will tell you how we defeated the sorceror.’ She let Tash take her hand, and they left the hall in as grand a manner as they could manage, followed by Prince Margis and his advisors.

***

In the hidden chamber of the castle Prince Margis eagerly went forth onto the dais, marvelling at the mysteries left behind by the immortal Lion who was said to be son of the Emperor Beyond the Sea. ‘Did you ever imagine you would see such wondrous magic?’ he asked Jardil, peering with keen interest at the viands that had been miraculously preserved as fresh as the hour they were made for hundreds of years.

‘Never, my Lord,’ Jardil replied.

While Jardil followed Margis no more than a pace or two distant, Ofrak hung back, reluctant to perch on anything that might have been touched by Aslan. Mirilitha hung yet further back, at the bottom of the stair, and from her manner would have fled back to the surface if she had not found it so difficult to traverse them. The black bitch – Blackbriar, or Onyx as Prince Margis called her- had stayed well away from the hidden chamber.

Tash and Josie stood side by side at the edge of the dais where the box of apples was. While the men’s lanterns cast long wavering shadows around the room, Tash held his dimmer lamp higher and stiller, providing most of the useful light in the chamber. Gerald clung to Tash, wide-eyed; he had not been in the chamber before, and was troubled by a thought that he could not put into words, that the whole of the ground underneath his feet might be riddled with rooms full of mysterious things, both wonderful and terrible.

‘It truly is a marvel, my Prince,’ said Jardil. There was something like awe in the voice of the cynical old courtier. ‘To my eye, this armour looks like it would fit you better than any suit of mail made by your father’s smiths. And this other, it is as though it were crafted expressly for the Lady Josie.’

‘It is splendid,’ said Margis. ‘And more than splendid. It is humbling to think that such a destiny has been set before us.’ He lifted one of the goblets from the table and turned it from side to side in the light, then set it down again. ‘But I wonder what precisely it is we are to do. Do you know anything of the will of Aslan in this matter, Lady Josie?’

‘Not exactly,’ said Josie. ‘We tried before, feeding some of the food to Blackbriar to see if it would make her into a talking animal. Instead it turned her into a woman, but only for a little while, and then she turned back.’

Prince Margis could not help making an exclamation of amazement. ‘By the Lion’s wounds!’

Josie held tightly on to Tash. ‘She turned back; so there is more to it than that. Perhaps we are meant to bring the beasts whose ancestors were the men of Telmar here; or bring the whole feast out to them. I don’t know. But I think there must be something more than that – with the armour.’

‘Yes, such mail is hardly necessary to preside over a feast, unless it is unruly indeed,’ said Margis. ‘But you would agree, Lady Josie, that a good place to start would be to seek out these beasts, and speak with them?’

‘They don’t speak,’ Tash pointed out helpfully.

‘Doggie,’ said Gerald.

‘Of course, Lord Tash,’ said the Prince. ‘Speak to them, rather. For I understand from what the Lady Josie has said that they can understand speech? And that she can understand to a degree what they might wish to make known?’

‘Blackbriar sought us out,’ said Josie. ‘And we worked out together a way for her to answer my questions. I think the others will understand us; but I do not know if they will make any effort to answer.’

‘We will have to be most encouraging, then, Lady Josie,’ said the Prince. ‘I expect- Blackbriar – can act as our intermediary.’

‘I think so,’ said Josie.

‘Are they all dogs?’ asked Margis. ‘The tales I have heard tell that the men of Telmar were turned into dumb beasts, but they do not say what kind.’

‘There were dogs, and pigs,’ said Josie. ‘I don’t know much about the pigs, and whether the dogs can understand them or not. But there are many of them in the valley.’

‘You should not look so downcast, my Lady Josie,’ said the Prince. ‘We will do this thing that Aslan has charged us with. It is destiny.’

‘She does not look downcast,’ said Tash, stroking Josie’s face.

‘Piggie,’ said Gerald, and followed his father’s lead with his own sticky hand.

‘A trick of the light, it must have been,’ said Prince Margis, with a little bow. ‘My apologies for such forwardness, Lady Josie.’

‘It doesn’t matter,’ said Josie, her fingers going unbidden to the ruby key that hung on a golden chain around her neck.

‘What is kept there?’ asked the Prince, taking a step towards the Mistress of Telmar and indicating the box of magic apples with a nod of his head.

‘More foodstuffs, preserved by the magic of this place,’ said Josie. ‘But left here by the sorceror, not the Lion – not Aslan. So no part of the things Aslan left behind.’

‘It is marvellous, is it not?’ said Margis. He gazed intently at Josie’s face in a way that Tash did not like. ‘The power of the sorceror was great, but even he did not dare to ruin any of these things that were touched by the power of the Lion. We are fortunate that there is so great a power working for good in the world.’

‘There is strong magic in here,’ said Josie. ‘I think it would have been hard for the sorceror to come close to it.’

‘If Aslan is so powerful, why did he not destroy the sorceror?’ asked Tash.

‘Who can say, Lord Tash?’ said Prince Margis, spreading his arms wide and smiling a rueful smile. ‘It is not as if he were a tame lion. But since the world began, there has been evil unpunished, and virtue unrewarded.’

‘It was we who destroyed the sorceror,’ said Tash. ‘The Lady Josie, and I, and the ifrits.’

‘I would most like to hear your tale, Lord Tash, if you wish to tell it,’ replied Margis courteously. ‘I am sure the accounts of the sorceror’s end that have come as far as Balan are but garbled traveller’s tales.’

‘Mummy?’ said Gerald, tangling his sticky hand in Lady Josie’s hair.

‘I’m alright, Gerry,’ said Josie, in a small sniffly voice. ‘Ow.’

‘By your leave, Lady Josie, do you think we might remove the suits of armour from this room?’ asked Jardil. ‘They seem to be made to fit your Ladyship and Prince Margis as you are at this very moment, and it may be intended that you are to wear them when you go out to meet with the beasts.’

‘As you wish,’ said Josie. ‘I think – I think this must be the time.’

How very young she still is, thought Jardil. And how uncertain she sounds. She does not like this treasure chamber, nor this talk of the Lion. She is not of this world, and doubtless has hidden powers. The Prince is foolish to play at being in love with her. But still, she is only a girl. There was no way they could leave her here, with the monster: it would not be right. And her boy deserved to grow up among men.

‘There seems no reason to delay,’ agreed Margis brightly.

‘Then you must go and speak with Blackbriar,’ said Tash. ‘Right? Right?’ The voice of the creature was harsh, Jardil thought, like the voice of an old hawker in the market.

‘Yes,’ said Josie. ‘We will all go and speak with Blackbriar.’

‘Of course, if the Lady Josie desires it,’ said Prince Margis, with a bow, and started for the stairs. Mirilitha went before him, as quickly as she could manage, and Ofrak followed a little way behind him.

Jardil brought up the rear, staying behind a moment longer to detach some pieces of the suit of mail that seemed to be made to fit Prince Margis. He saw how Josie nudged Tash with her elbow, and inclined her head, and how the creature understood this unspoken command. While two of Tash’s arms continued to hold Josie’s son, the other two picked up the wooden box and carried it from the treasure chamber. Like so many things he had observed over his life, Jardil made a note to himself to be sure to remember this box which Josie had made little of, then taken care to remove from the chamber when the Prince’s attention was elsewhere.

When they emerged from the treasure chamber, they could not find Blackbriar. She was not where they had left her sunning herself in a courtyard. Josie called to her, and Prince Margis called to her, and she did not come. The men searched all the parts of the castle where she had been, and Tash strode out by himself to search the more distant, ruinous parts of the castle. Ofrak flew wide circles high above the stronghold of Telmar and could see nothing.

‘Though it is too bright for my eyes,’ he admitted in a crestfallen way, reporting back to Lady Josie and Prince Margis on the terrace outside the grand hall. ‘I may well have missed her.’

‘The doggie has gone away,’ said Gerald, who was sitting playing with some jewels for marbles.

‘The doggie will come back,’ assured Josie, with a confidence she did not feel.

‘Yes,’ agreed Gerald, with absolute certainty. ‘The doggie will come back.’

‘You sound very sure, my little man,’ said Margis, crouching down on his haunches and ruffling the boy’s hair. ‘I hope you are right.’

‘I am Lord Gerald,’ said Gerald defensively. ‘I am right.’

‘Very well, my Lord Gerald,’ said Prince Margis, with a laugh that would have made Gerald furious if he had been a very little bit older. ‘Perhaps, my Lady Josie, the bitch knows better than we what we are to do at this juncture. It does not seem as if any enemy stole in here and led her away; so if she is walking into peril it is of her own will. I will hope that she is as sensible as we have found her to be until now, and will return safely soon.’

‘You are probably right,’ said Josie. ‘Gerry, come here.’ She gathered her son, who did not insist on being called ‘Lord Gerald’ by his mother, up into her arms.

‘With your leave, Lady Josie, and my Lord Margis’ said Jardil. ‘You had said, Lady Josie, you would relate the tale of how you and Lord Tash vanquished the sorceror, and came into possession of Telmar and its secrets. While we wait for Blackbriar to return, perhaps we might sit by the fire and listen to your tale?’

‘That is probably wise,’ said Josie. ‘Come, Gerry, we will tell the men our story.’

‘Yes,’ said Gerald, very solemnly.

The men, as well as Ofrak the owl and Mirilitha the gazelle, settled down to listen to Josie’s tale of how they had vanquished the sorceror, and she began to tell it. The one big thing she did not mention at all in her story was the apples that gave strength and youth, and let you live forever if you had come from another world. This did leave a curiously-shaped gap in her story, but it seemed enough that an evil sorceror would want to move into a body as young and fair as hers, once her eyes were restored.

‘It is a dreadful thing, that he should have sought to treat you so,’ Prince Margis had said vehemently.

‘Most assuredly,’ Jardil had agreed. ‘But meaning no offence, Lady Josie, it is passing strange that he should seek to take your body for his own, when so many strong men could have easily been taken by his servants.’

‘I do not know,’ Josie had said unconvincingly.

‘If I may venture, sir,’ said Ofrak. ‘It may be that the whiteness of Lady Josie, and the fact that she was brought here from another world, put the sorceror in mind of the White Queen. You see,’ he bobbed his own white head in a polite bow to Josie, ‘She also came here, so the tales say, from another world. She was the most powerful magician that the world had seen. I have seen her likeness carved in many places here, and I have heard tales that she once tarried in Telmar, and was held in honour by the evil men who dwelled here.’

‘It may be,’ said Jardil.

‘What happened to her?’ asked Josie.

‘No one knows,’ replied Ofrak. ‘They say she could not die. At least, that is the story. She is said to have lived for hundreds of years.’

‘If this is true,’ said Prince Margis. ‘Which, Lady Josie, I doubt – I have talked over these matters with Ofrak before, and also with old men who knew stories of Telmar in Balan, before we left – if this is true, it does not mean that she could not be killed by an accident, or an enemy. I think this is why she has not been heard of for a very long time.’

‘Let us hope this has happened,’ said Jardil.

‘Yes,’ said Ofrak. ‘Of course.’

***

Tash, alone among the company, had no desire for Blackbriar to return. He wished the dog and the men and the owl and the gazelle would finish their business in Telmar as quickly as possible and go away, and waiting for this to happen made him impatient and ill-tempered. He could not remember exactly what he had read in the Books of Tash – a kind of darkness had settled on his memories of what he had read of his future life, and he could only remember the things he had read after he had lived them, never before. He did not remember exactly, but he felt that he was coming to a place in the story where he would do heroic things that others would take the credit for, or else do horrible things that he would regret forever. This feeling had come upon him like the itch of dry winter skin when Ofrak had first fluttered into his bedchamber, and had only become worse since then. Dim shapeless masses of memory waited a little way ahead of him, memories of things he had read that would soon become real, and he felt that there was nothing he could do to avoid them.

Tash had gone off alone to look for Blackbriar amid the shadowed corners of the ruins where he had once found the way to the Books of Tash, and came back to the great hall where the fire had been built high just in time to hear Prince Margis call Gerald ‘my little man’ again.

Gerald was sitting on Josie’s lap where she sat, close by the Calormenes in a pool of turbulent golden light by the fire. He had just interjected something into the story Josie was telling, and Margis had leant forward to tousle his hair, putting his head closer to Josie’s than Tash liked.

‘Surely you were not yet there, my little man,’ said the human Prince.

‘He is not your little man,’ growled Tash. ‘He is mine.’

One of the Calormene men-at-arms- the round-faced one, Hurras – laughed shortly at this, and Jardil turned an angry glare on him; but Tash did not notice, for his fury was centred on Prince Margis. Without willing it, he lifted his arms high and clenched and unclenched his taloned hands menacingly, and Margis’ men at arms stepped forward to defend their master.

‘It is only a figure of speech,’ said Josie. ‘Of course he is yours. Tash, don’t be silly.’

‘I meant no offence, Lord Tash,’ said Margis, looking up at Tash with calm dark eyes. ‘I crave your pardon.’

Tash lowered his arms slowly. ‘I suppose I am sorry,’ he said. Jardil made a cutting gesture, and the men-at-arms stepped back.

‘Mummy is telling the story of how you bit off the sorceror’s hand,’ said Gerald helpfully.

Tash bowed his head to the boy.

‘Lady Josie was telling how she would certainly have lived a short and cruel life as slave to the sorceror, if you had not been there,’ added Prince Margis.

‘It is all fine, dear Tash,’ said Josie. ‘Will you sit awhile with us, while I tell the rest of it?’ she asked.

‘Not now,’ said Tash. ‘May I take Gerald?’

‘Of course, dear Tash,’ said Josie, setting her hands so as to lift her son up to Tash.

‘I want to hear the rest of the story,’ said Gerald.

‘When the Lady Josie has finished, dear Tash,’ asked Prince Margis. ‘Would you be so kind as to tell us your own tale, of how you came to be in Telmar?’

‘Later,’ said Tash shortly. ‘Come, Gerald. Mummy can tell you later.’

‘I will put in all the parts I have had to leave out in talking to these men,’ Josie whispered to Gerald.

‘No,’ said Gerald, shaking his head obstinately. ‘I want to stay.’

Josie and Tash had spent a busy few days putting the castle into order to receive visitors. The hall where Blackbriar had once slept was swept out, bedding was arranged there, and wood made ready for the fireplace. Another hall that had seemed like it might once have been a banqueting hall, where the roof only leaked in the strongest rains, was readied with heavy chairs of polished wood and tapestries to be a fit place for holding conference in. Food and drink as suitable for entertaining a prince as could be managed was collected. Many of the nicer things that the ifrits had collected for Yustus were long gone; Turkish delight, for instance, was only a fond memory, and it was a long time since Josie had eaten yogurt or fresh apricots. But they had sugared fruits and pickled vegetables in plenty, a great quantity of roast venison, and enough flour remained for Josie to bake years’ worth of bread. Throughout the preparations for the visit Gerald contrived to be wherever he would be most in the way. He found the flurry of activity most exciting.

‘Daddy, is the owl coming back?’ he asked Tash. ‘Will it bring the gazelle?’

‘That is what he said, little one,’ Tash replied. ‘The owl will be back, and the gazelle too, and some men.’

‘Like you?’ asked Gerald.

‘More like you, but grown up,’ explained Tash. He lifted Gerald onto his shoulder. ‘Try imagining you are about this high, that is what they will be like.’

‘Ooh,’ said Gerald, and laughed.

Josie made sure that she had her finest silks and jewels picked out to wear while the Prince was visiting, and selected things for Tash and Gerald to wear as well.

‘You will have to wear something,’ she told Tash. ‘Even if it is really only a curtain pinned up, we can make it seem splendid. It would be too shameful if you were naked.’

‘As you wish,’ said Tash. ‘I will ornament myself with jewels too. And Gerald: there is that golden ring thing that will look nice on his head.’

‘So long as he does not take it off and lose it somewhere,’ said Josie. But then she laughed, a little nervously. ‘What an old woman I am becoming,’ she said. ‘As if it mattered. There is more jewellery here than we could ever wear.’

Tash said nothing. Of course, being immortal, in principle they would have plenty of time to wear all the jewellery, even if every room of the castle was crammed full of the stuff. But their days together were destined to be short – the Books of Tash had said so, and Aslan had confirmed it. He did not like to think of how short they might be.

During those days Tash played cheerfully with the boy, and was gentle with his wife, and worked hard getting the castle in order without complaint; but inside he felt every moment as if he was teetering on the edge of a black well of fear. All that he had here had been under threat since he had read the Books of Tash, like a village on the edge of a steep mountain that is sure one day to give way in a landslide. And now the earth was trembling, and soon a great wave of stone and earth would sweep the village away.

‘I will not give them up,’ he told himself. ‘I will not.’

***

The Mistress of Telmar and her retinue – that is, Tash and Gerald – met with Prince Margis and his company at the base of the hill, where the hidden path to the castle began. Tash and Gerald had watched eagerly at the window for the visitors’ approach, so they were in position in plenty of time.

‘Are those horses?’ asked Gerald.

‘I think so,’ answered Tash.

Certainly Gerald had never seen so many people and beasts coming purposefully up to him, and found it quite marvellous and exciting until they were a little too close, when his face crumbled into unhappiness and he hid against Tash’s chest.

‘There is a dog with them,’ Tash said to Josie in a low rumbling voice. ‘I think it might be Blackbriar.’

‘Indeed,’ said Josie, her voice shaking a little.

The riders stopped a good ten paces short of Josie and dismounted. ‘The peace of the Lion be with you, Lady Josie,’ said the first of them, a young man who could only have been Prince Margis. Tash noticed that the Prince and the other men who were with him kept their eyes politely fixed on Josie, but could not help watching him out of the corner of their eyes. They do not know what I am, thought Tash. And they are scared of me. Thinking this made him feel bolder and more cheerful. The men were not dressed all that differently from the brigands he had fought a few years before, though they were better groomed, and all of them except Prince Margis seemed to be concentrating mainly on controlling their horses. Tash knew the horses were frightened of him, too, and the men being frightened of him made the horses more frightened.

‘Greetings to you, Prince Margis,’ said Josie, sounding to Tash very grand and in control of everything. ‘Allow me to introduce my husband, Tash, and my son, Gerald.’

‘It is an honour, Lady Josie,’ said the Prince, inclining his head slightly in a royal bow. Josie responded in the same way. ‘These are my companions: my advisor, Arkalan Jardil; my men-at-arms, Jemin, Hurras, Karifar, and Eyit; Ofrak who is known to you, and Mirilitha.’ As each of the men or beasts were named, they made a sign of obeisance to the Mistress of Telmar.

It was all uncomfortably formal, but the dog chose that moment to come forward and nose about Josie’s feet. She crouched down to pat it. ‘Blackbriar! Is that you?’ The dog licked her hand.

Gerald had begun to peek out again, very cautiously. ‘Doggie,’ he observed.

‘I call her Onyx,’ said Prince Margis.

‘I am quite sure that she is the dog we knew as Blackbriar, though,’ said Josie. ‘Yes, Gerald, it is definitely a doggie. One I did not think I would meet here again.’ She straightened and brushed her hands on her skirts.

Tash watched the men. They did not know what to make of Josie, and they did not know what to make of him. In turn, they reminded him uncomfortably of the brigands. They are not at all the same, he told himself. They look the same, that is all. Gerald must have picked up Tash’s unease, since he began to wriggle and complain.

‘You are welcome in Castle Telmar, Prince Margis,’ said Josie. ‘You and yours, for as long as you wish. Please come in and we will show you to your rooms.’

‘You are a generous hostess, Lady Josie,’ replied Prince Margis. ‘I am most grateful.’

‘We do not have many servants – any servants, really – so all we have is simple, but I hope you will find it sufficient,’ said Josie.

‘We have been sleeping out of doors for months,’ said Prince Margis cheerfully. ‘Four walls and a roof will be luxury enough.’

Josie led the way on into the castle. Tash wanted to walk beside her, but he did not want to get too close to the horses and scare them, so he let the men and their horses go by with plenty of room and brought up the rear with Mirilitha.

‘This lady is a gazelle,’ said Tash to Gerald. ‘If you are quiet and good, maybe she will let you pat her.’

‘Yes, that’s right,’ said Mirilitha. The gazelle did not seem anywhere near as afraid of Tash as the men were. Maybe to her he was not all that different from a human, Tash thought.

‘I am Gerald,’ said Gerald to the gazelle. He held out a hand in her direction, and Tash held him so that he could run his hand over Mirilitha’s fur.

‘Gerald looks very like the Lady Josie,’ said Mirilitha.

‘I look like me,’ said Gerald defensively.

‘Yes, you do, little one,’ admitted the gazelle. ‘No one could mistake you for anyone else.’

‘He is curious about gazelles,’ said Tash. ‘So am I. You are smaller than I thought you would be.’

‘That is fair, Lord Tash,’ said Mirilitha. ‘You are larger than I thought.’

They passed through the narrow doorway that had been closed in the time of the evil magician, and started up the broad winding stairway to the castle proper.

‘No one has called me Lord Tash before,’ said Tash, thinking how very odd it sounded.

‘Since you are the consort of Lady Josie, I thought it would be your proper title,’ said Mirilitha. ‘I am sorry if I have it wrong. I am still quite new at dealing with the Sons of Frank and Daughters of Helen, and here-‘ she looked for a moment like she was going to bolt off in a nervous gazelle manner. ‘Here it is different again.’

‘I do not mind at all being called Lord Tash,’ said Tash.

‘Am I Lord Gerald?’ asked Gerald.

‘I think you are the young Master,’ said Mirilitha. ‘Young Master Gerald.’

‘I like Lord Gerald better,’ said Gerald.

***

The travellers were shown to their rooms, and Prince Margis pronounced himself amazed by the splendours of the castle. ‘To think that it was made hundreds of years ago,’ he said. ‘Balan was scarcely a huddle of mud huts at that time.’

After the horses were seen to and the men tidied up it was time for lunch, so there was a feast of cold roast venison and pickled vegetables in the banqueting hall. As Josie was not fond of wine herself, she had plenty to share with the travellers, and she made sure that their cups were full.

The food may not have been splendid, but they ate off golden plates the Telmarines had left. The Telmarines had used spoons, but no forks, so Josie had gotten in the habit of eating with her fingers and figured she could do it quite tidily. She could not see what her human visitors were doing, but if her manners were terrible, they had the good sense not to complain.

There was an unspoken agreement not to speak of anything of great importance just yet. Prince Margis conversed with the natural politeness of nobility; Josie replied with what felt to her like ungainly awkwardness; and the others- Margis’ advisor Jardil, the men-at-arms, and still more the two talking beasts – kept the polite silence of underlings. Josie found this most unnerving. She was not at all used to being the centre of attention at a formal meal.

Eventually they had emptied their plates and refilled their cups. ‘With your pardon, Lady Josie,’ said Prince Margis. ‘There is one thing I should not delay any longer. I know we have much to discuss, and it would be best to put off discussing it until the morrow, but there is this one thing.’

‘Of course, Prince Margis,’ said Josie. Gerald had fallen asleep during lunch, and was comfortably tucked away on a pile of blankets in the corner.

‘I have something that I believe is yours,’ said Margis, removing something from a pouch.

‘What is it?’ asked Josie.

‘The ruby key,’ Tash replied in his profoundly unmusical voice, before Prince Margis could say anything. ‘They key to the secrets of Telmar.’

‘Yes, Lady Josie. I do not know whether it is in truth the key to the secrets of Telmar, but I was told it belonged to you.’

Josie realised she was gritting her teeth, and forced her face to relax into a smile with an effort. ‘Thank you, Prince Margis.’

He leant across the table to put the key in front of her, and she lifted her hands to take it from him. As their hands touched she felt all the hairs on her arm stand up on end. It was if he had passed her something invisible and dangerous and powerful, along with the key.

‘How did you come by this key?’ she asked, keeping her voice carefully controlled.

‘A thief was captured, stealing from goatherds at the edge of the great desert. He had this key on him. He was brought to Balan for punishment, and when he was questioned, he admitted that he been part of band that had taken it from a woman far to the northwest – near Telmar, near here. It was a pale young woman, he said, one who had no business being in such a wild country. He said then that their band had been set upon by a monster – begging your pardon, er, Lord Tash – that had taken the girl, and slain a dozen of the band, and that he had been one of the few who escaped with his life.’

‘That makes sense,’ said Josie slowly. ‘Thank you for bringing it back.’

‘It was no more than six,’ said Tash modestly. ‘I am quite sure.’

Josie turned the ruby key over and over in her fingers, reacquainting herself with it. ‘I should put it on a chain, instead of just a bit of ribbon,’ she said, more to herself than anyone else. She set the key back down on the table in front of her. ‘Tash?’ she reached out a hand to take one of his, feeling more ill at ease than before.

‘Well, I am happy to put off any discussion of weighty matters until the morrow,’ said Prince Margis cheerily. ‘But I could not rest with that burning in my pouch, knowing it to be yours.’

‘Thank you again,’ said Josie. She squeezed Tash’s hand.

‘May I fill your cup, Lady Josie?’ asked the Prince.

Josie flinched. ‘No, thank you.’ The return of the key had brought the circumstances in which it was taken from her vividly back to mind. She clutched on to Tash as though his hand was all that kept her from falling into an abyss.

‘As you wish, Lady Josie,’ replied the Prince.

‘I think the Lady Josie may be tired, my Prince,’ said Jardil smoothly. ‘I find I am also weary after our long journey. And there are some few tasks we must still accomplish this afternoon.’

‘Er -of course,’ said Prince Margis. ‘Perhaps you will be so kind as to excuse us, Lady Josie?’

‘Yes, certainly,’ said Josie. ‘Please make yourselves at home in the castle. You are quite right. I find I am quite tired after all the excitement.’ She picked up the key and stood. ‘Thank you.’

***

That evening Margis and Jardil walked together in the garden where Tash had once been a statue. Only the statue of the queen remained now, tumbled and broken into pieces on the ground, and the lawn that the ifrits had kept in good repair was a wilderness of weeds with a few well-worn trails running through it. Beyond the edge where the garden fell precipitously away, the sun was setting in a blaze of colour – for there were great fires or dust storms far away, and since midday the horizon had been hidden in haze.

‘Jardil, she is more beguiling than ever I imagined,’ said Prince Margis with earnest enthusiasm. ‘There is something about her. When our hands touched, it was as if I touched fire. Oh, she is strange, Jardil, very strange and perilous, but I feel I am half in love with her already.’

Jardil walked on for a moment before answering. He plucked a dead twig from the honeysuckle vine and rolled it between his fingers. ‘But there is Tash, the creature she calls her husband.’

‘In truth, I never dreamed to see such a thing,’ said Margis, ‘I still cannot believe it. She does not seem ensorcelled. It truly seems as if she commands the beast. And she- she-‘ Margis shook his head in honest bewilderment. ‘Jardil, can it really but that she- that they-‘

‘Would it make any difference to your designs, my Prince?’ asked Jardil. ‘We know she is not a virgin. She has a son.’

Margis regarded the sunset. It looked as if the edge of the world had caught fire. ‘No,’ he said, slowly and carefully. ‘No, I suppose it would not. As I said, I am already half in love with her. No, two-thirds.’

‘Well then, you must go on as you had planned,’ said Jardil.

‘Yes,’ said Margis. There was another long moment before he spoke again to his advisor.

‘Jardil, do you think she cannot be parted from him?’

‘I know the ways of a man with a woman, my Prince, and I know you well, and I judge there will be no great difficulty in parting her from the creature; but parting the creature from her, that will be another matter.’

‘Ah,’ said Margis, gazing at the sunset.

***

At the same time Tash and Josie were talking in the chambers where the evil magician had once lived. The curtains were drawn and no light was lit, but Tash was well used to the gloom.

‘I did not expect it,’ said Josie. ‘I suppose it is a sign. A sign that we have to open up the secret chamber and do something with the things there. And Blackbriar is here. It has to be a sign. Do you think it is a sign, Tash? A second chance, to set things right with the animals here and finish what Aslan wanted?’

‘He wanted you to go away,’ said Tash, smoothing the hair back from Josie’s forehead.

‘Maybe he has changed his mind. Since we made it clear we weren’t going, he made sure that these men came here – with the key, and with the dog.’ She sounded more frightened than she had allowed herself to sound in the presence of the Calormenes.

‘I don’t know,’ said Tash.

‘Maybe once we do what we are supposed to do, they will go again, and-‘ Josie fell silent.

‘And then it could stay like this,’ said Tash. ‘It would be good. I will hope.’ But it was hard to hope, since he had read the Books of Tash, and felt his destiny rumbling down upon him. ‘It could be you are right, and Aslan has changed his mind, and we are not doomed after all.’

‘Can you hear Gerald?’ asked Josie suddenly.

‘I don’t think so,’ said Tash.

‘I think I do,’ said Josie. ‘I will go get him.’ She rose hastily from their bed, threw a wrap around her shoulders, and went into the next room where the boy lay sleeping.

In Josie’s dream the wind had gotten hold of the loose edge of the tarpaulin, and it was flapping terribly. The rain lashed her face, and the wind swept her voice away, so the men whose job it was to fix the tarpaulin could not hear her instructions. It took a few moments after she awoke for her to realise that the sound of the tarpaulin had not stopped. It was coming from the shuttered window, and she prodded her husband.

‘Tash? Dear Tash?’

Tash mumbled something, and made a clumsy pacifying gesture with an arm at his wife as he slowly flickered into consciousness.

‘There’s something at the window, Tash,’ said Josie, and kissed the soft skin of his throat. ‘Dear Tash, can you see what it is?’ The sound that was not a tarpaulin flapping continued insistently.

Tash opened the shutters. A gust of wind and rain blew into the room – for that part of Josie’s dream had been quite accurate – and with it a very large bird. It was big enough to carry off a small child, and Tash turned instinctively to the corner where Gerald lay, curled up into a ball under his blankets.

‘Josie! It is an owl, I think.’ It was certainly the largest flying creature that had been in that chamber since the ifrits had been freed from their master, years before. Josie sat up in bed and listened to the bird as Tash closed the window and went to stand watch over the sleeping boy.

An owl can be very quiet when it choses, so it sounded disconcertingly as if no one was there at all to Josie. ‘A good evening to you, friend owl,’ she said.

‘Good evening,’ said the owl, hopping closer to Josie. ‘The Lion’s peace be with you. I am sorry to disturb you at this hour, but might I ask- are you Miss Josephine Furness?’

The owl’s voice sounded as exhausted as might be expected from a creature that has been flying through a stormy night. It had that aura of authority that comes not from any natural superiority, but from being the bearer of some important office – a borrowed authority.

‘Yes, I was Miss Furness,’ said Josie, speaking as regally as you can manage when you are sitting up in bed with a blanket held up under your chin. ‘You can call me Josie – er, Lady Josie. This is my husband Tash, and my son Gerald.’

‘My name is Ofrak. It pleases me to meet you more than I can say, Lady Josie.’

Josie could not remember – was that the name of the owl the gazelles had said had brought them news, long before, when she had first come to this world? The unease she had felt at the first entry of the talking bird grew.

‘You are welcome here in Telmar as long as you wish,’ said Josie.

‘You are very generous,’ replied the owl.

‘Oh, I suppose I should get out of bed,’ said Josie, more to herself than anyone else. ’Can you hand me my nightdress, dear Tash? Thank you.’

‘To what do we owe the honour of your visit?’ asked Josie, getting out of bed and into her nightdress.

‘I am a herald of Prince Margis,’ said Ofrak.

At the sound of this name Josie twitched as if she had just heard a human footstep in a room she had just left and knew to be empty. This was a name she was quite sure she remembered. ‘Prince Margis?’

‘Yes. He has sent me ahead to scout out the Vale of Telmar. He will be here in a few days. I think five; certainly no more than a week.’

‘This is unexpected,’ said Josie, swallowing hard.

‘As you may know, Prince Margis had planned to journey here several years ago,’ said the owl, its voice growing more pompous in the way Josie had always halfway imagined an owl might talk. ‘But his Lordship had to postpone this venture when word came to him of his brother’s death, when he had barely reached the edge of the marches. Some time later rumour came to Balan that the sorceror had died, and that a new sorceress had taken over Telmar. It was said even that this new sorceress, begging your pardon, was none other than a girl that had been spoken of by certain talking animals some time before – which was yourself, Miss Josephine – Lady Josie. Last spring Prince Margis had things sufficiently in hand in Balan to set out again on his quest, which he has wisely done so with the aid of certain of the talking animals of Calormen, among which number I am proud to be one.’

While Ofrak had spoken Josie had moved over to where Tash stood and taken his hand. ‘What does the Prince want here?’ she asked.

‘To find the secrets of Telmar. To rescue you, if you are in need of rescue. To do you honour, if you are not. Should you,’ the owl paused, and continued in an apologetic tone, ‘be an enemy, to defeat you.’

‘That is very well,’ said Josie, not feeling at all reassured. ‘You can let Prince Margis know that I am no enemy to him.’

‘Of course, Lady Josie,’ said the owl.

‘Are there many of his party?’ asked Josie.

‘Beside myself, his Lordship travels with his advisor Jardil, who was his father’s cup companion, five men-at-arms of Balan, and a talking gazelle, Mirilitha.’

The name Mirilitha swam up out of depths of Josie’s memory. Yes, she remembered a Mirilitha – she had been one of the gazelles who had accompanied her on the journey that was supposed to deliver her to this Prince Margis.

‘Mirilitha? Then the gazelles-‘ Josie paused.

‘Brought news of your arrival to Prince Margis, yes. And of your abduction. His Lordship regrets very much that he did not come earlier to your rescue. It was thought at first that you were surely dead – for no stories before speak of anyone who has returned from the grasp of the sorceror’s ifrits. Then the stories came that the sorceror had been slain, and later, that a sorceress ruled in Telmar.’

Josie murmured a meaningless polite reply to the owl. It had been nearly three years of peace, living in the Vale of Telmar in the crumbling castle of the magician Yustus; three years that had not always been easy, years that had sometimes felt to Josie more like being in a prison than being mistress of her own domain, but years that had been uncomplicated by any interruptions from outside the valley. There had been no more earthquakes, no more summons to embark on quests. In those three years Josie had felt smothered sometimes by Tash’s devotion, which had not faded a whit since the night they promised themselves to each other. It did not feel right to have a husband who was always so unquestioningly obedient. And the boy – well, she loved him now, but he had been selfish and demanding from the beginning, as children are when they are very young, and she was too young to be properly patient with him, and it was a rare day even now that she did not remember how cruelly he had been foisted on her, a punishment or a twisted consolation prize for refusing to carry out Aslan’s quest.

Those years were over now, for better or for worse.

There was a stirring from Gerald’s bed, and then an excited voice made it evident that two bright little eyes were staring in an intrigued way at the owl.

‘What is it, Daddy?’ asked the boy.

‘It’s an owl,’ said Tash. ‘A talking owl.’ He picked up the boy and held him up where he could see the bird better.

‘Why?’ asked Gerald.

‘It’s a visitor,’ said Tash. ‘We are going to have visitors.’ And he squeezed his wife’s hand reassuringly.

‘I remember Mirilitha,’ said Josie to Ofrak. ‘She is a fine gazelle.’

‘What’s a gazelle?’ asked Gerald.

‘They are like deer,’ said Tash in a small voice to Gerald. ‘I have never seen one either.’

‘As I said, you are welcome here, Ofrak,’ said Josie. ‘There are rats enough in the castle, God knows – I expect you eat rats? But is there anything else you require?’

‘Rats are fine, Lady Josie,’ said the owl. ‘All I need otherwise is a dry place to rest, thank you very much.’

‘It eats rats?’ said Gerald, his voice tinged with awe.

‘It seems so,’ said Tash. ‘We should not, though.’

‘What do they taste like?’ Gerald asked the visitor.

Josie ignored this exchange and spoke with the owl. ‘When you are rested enough, you may let Prince Margis know that he and his company are also very welcome here. Now, I will show you to a place you can rest. I wonder what hour it is?’

‘My apologies,’ said Ofrak. ‘There are still three hours until dawn.’

‘It is not unknown for us to wake at this hour,’ said Josie. For the first time, she showed that she was aware that Gerald was awake, running her fingers through his hair and smiling ever so slightly.

***

The last of the clouds that had brought the night’s rain were dissipating in ragged shreds, and the wind shook the leafless branches of the poplars, as Prince Margis and his band followed the path along the little river that Ofrak had said led to the Vale of Telmar. They rode in the steady way of men who have ridden a very long way already and expect to ride a great deal further still, and have no hope of a change of horses in the foreseeable future.

‘There must be some ensorcellment lying about the evil place yet,’ said Prince Margis, with an earnestness creasing the youthful brow of a man used to blithely confronting his enemies head on. ‘Why else would she call the creature her husband?’

‘From the tale the thief told it is the very beast that rescued her from their clutches,’ said his advisor, whose brow was permanently creased from long habit. ‘The gratitude of women is less swayed by incidentals than the corresponding emotion of men, and a deformity that would seem appalling to us, in a woman, would seem but a trifle to a woman, in a man.’

‘True,’ mused Prince Margis. ‘You only have to look at Captain Jorjis and his wives. But still, her husband?’

‘With respect, my Prince,’ said Jardil. ‘If she truly is from another world, who knows what may be expected or excused in a woman of power?’

‘Surely not, Jardil,’ said the Prince. ‘You must not entertain such thoughts. It must be some misunderstanding of speech.’

‘It may be,’ said Jardil.

‘But the child. How could she come by the child?’ mused Prince Margis, his brow still uncharacteristically troubled.

‘The way such things happen is well established,’ said Jardil drily.

‘But how could- who could- never mind.’ For they had reached a narrow stony place, and it was needful to ride in single file.

Jardil did not approve of speaking of such things in front of the common soldiers. The news the owl had brought had been alarming, true, but one could not expect a woman who had come from another world to be in any way ordinary. You could not demand a woman obey ordinary rules, when she had bested a sorceror who had been feared for hundreds of years. The best that one could hope for was that she was fundamentally honourable, and receptive to the proposal the Prince Margis brought. After all, one could not heave a stone in Balan without striking a demure virgin of good family: but there was only one Lady Josie of Telmar. If only the Prince would think more strategically, and less romantically, thought Jardil. The advisor would have sighed, if he was not so used to divorcing his interior life from his outward actions.

Prince Margis proceeded first up the narrow path, with the boldness proper to Princes of Calormen. His dog, a black bitch he had befriended in the Marches some years before, scampered up alongside him. Jardil followed, with Ofrak perched imperturbably asleep atop his saddlebags, and behind him the slim gazelle Mirilitha. The five men at arms brought up the rear, loyal men of Calormen who had served the household of the King from their earliest youth, hopeful that they were reaching a comfortable stopping place but alert to any mischance.

It had been a long journey with very little comfort in it, and a great deal of miserable weather, but Prince Margis had kept his beard neatly trimmed and his hair oiled, and expected his company to do the same. Prince Margis himself, while a very fit and well-proportioned man, was no more handsome than the ordinary run of his people (the average man of Calormen of that time was much fitter than an average Englishman of our time, for they had not yet acquired slaves or any of the other things that incline a people to lethargy). Most of Prince Margis’s loyal manservants would have been judged more handsome than he, if they were dressed in the same finery. The prince had a helpful harmless sort of face – a face that would have suited a waiter rather than a prince; and you would have never taken him for a headwaiter. When he was called upon to act as a prince he wore quite a different face over this first face, like a mask, but it did not fit him naturally.

Jardil had been handsome in his youth, but was one of those men who do not age into what is called distinguished, but become creased and gaunt through worry. He did not lament it. Life was complicated enough without the distractions of youth.

‘Lord Jardil?’

‘Mirilitha?’ Jardil replied coolly to the gazelle, who had come up to walk beside his horse as the path broadened again.

‘If you will forgive me speaking to you as if I too were a Son of Frank, what do you think of Ofrak’s news?’ The animal cast her head about in her nervous gazelle fashion.

‘I am not sure I follow you, Mirilitha.’ Jardil looked straight ahead. Overhead cypress trees, gnarled and ancient, blocked out the sun. He did not like this place.

‘Lady Josie,’ the gazelle paused. ‘You have lived a long time, Lord Jardil, and had many dealings with many Sons of Frank and Daughters of Helen in that time. Lady Josie was friendly when I met her, long before, but do you think she will still be friendly? Do you think she will agree to return with the Prince?’

Jardil did not wholly approve that Mirilitha and Ofrak had been brought along on this journey. He saw the usefulness of having them, and went along with Prince Margis’ designs without complaint, as he also saw the usefulness in many other things of which he did not wholly approve, and went along with them. He was a practical man. He was also a political man, and he hid his disapproval well, indeed so well that both the talking beasts were more likely to confide in him than in any of the others. It was still necessary for them to maintain a proper deference towards men, of course.

‘Nothing is ever certain,’ said Jardil. ‘But from Ofrak’s report, the Lady Josie has her wits about her, and I think she will see the wisdom in the Prince’s proposal.’

‘I did not mean any disrespect to the Lady Josie,’ said Mirilitha humbly.

‘I am sure you did not, Mirilitha,’ replied Jardil. ‘But there is no profit in asking me these questions. All will be made clear soon enough.’

‘Yes, Lord Jardil,’ said Mirilitha.

The prince’s company walked forward silently through the forest, the shadows growing thicker as the sun descended behind the mountains.

If Josie had been by herself she would have sat down and cried and cried; and if Tash had been well she would have curled up in his arms and cried and cried and cried; but he was terribly hurt, and it was up to her to help him. She could not let herself think about what had happened. The most important thing was to take it easy moving through the forest, and not trip over and break her own leg.

Josie felt in front of her and to the sides with her willow switch, pausing every few steps to listen for the sound of the water. The birds made this difficult. There was one particular sort with a parrot-like screech that kept having noisy family arguments in the treetops. She cursed the birds, and she cursed herself. How could she have let herself be captured? How could she have been so stupid as to drink what the brigands gave her? There must have been something she could have done to escape, before- before. She angrily pushed all such thoughts out of her head and concentrated on finding the stream.

Despite her brave talk to Tash, Josie had almost never gone for a walk out of doors alone in country that she had not explored before in company, especially rough country like the sort they were travelling through. Just for a moment, when she first considered how far she already come from Tash, she was struck by a wave of paralysing fear. ‘Get a hold of yourself, girl,’ she told herself firmly. ‘He is waiting for you.’

Josie found the stream, narrowly avoiding tumbling down a steep bank. In full summer there was probably only a tiny trickle of water here, or nothing at all, but when she came there it was flowing well. She filled the canteen, poured cold water on her aching head, and then quickly washed between her legs. A wave of nausea hit her while she tried to get rid of the smell of Ormuz, and she found herself throwing up again on the bank of the stream. ‘Damn that man to Hell,’ she said.

After throwing up she had to wash her face, and while doing this she found that the ruby key around her neck was missing.

‘Damn that man to Hell,’ she said again. ‘Damn him to Hell.’ She wondered for a moment what Tash had actually done to that man, wiped her face dry with her sleeve, and started off determinedly to find her husband, carefully retracing her path.

Josie began calling out to Tash once she reached the edge of the meadow, more and more nervously as she advanced. At last she heard a faint answering cry. It was behind her, and not so far away.

‘Dear Tash,’ she said, moving toward him as fast as she dared.

‘Josie,’ murmured Tash, scrabbling weakly for her hand. She took one of his and gripped it between her two hands. ‘I am here,’ she told him. ‘I am here.’

‘I think I fell asleep,’ said Tash indistinctly.

He was in a bad way. Josie was sure he felt much warmer than he usually did, and she was also sure he had not moved at all while she was away, just lain there in the meadow. She was aghast at how much blood had spilled out on the grass while he lay there. He was still bleeding in so many places. She cleaned the wounds as best she could with the water she had brought. Tash hissed when she cleaned them, but only a little; he was growing too weak.

When Tash’s wounds were clean Josie attempted to bandage them with her spare clothes. The wound in Tash’s arm was not hard to wrap, but the great gash in his side was almost impossible to cover. She tore a dress almost in two with a great deal of effort and wrapped it around him, but there was not enough padding over the wound, and blood had seeped through it before she was finished. It did not seem to have achieved anything, except to hurt Tash a great deal.

‘I’m sorry, Tash,’ she said. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘I am alright,’ he said, very weakly and indistinctly.

‘No, you are not alright,’ she said. ‘There is no way you will ever get back to Telmar like this. Listen, Tash,’ she said, making a sudden irrevocable decision. ‘I brought an apple with me – one of the magic apples. You must eat it.’

‘I thought you said-‘ began Tash.

‘I would not say so if I didn’t think- if I didn’t-‘ Josie angrily wiped tears from her face. ‘Oh, dear Tash, I am so sorry.’ She had dumped her bag out on the grass to get her clothes to bandage Tash with, and as she had rummaged through them she could smell thescent of the apple on them. It was riper and stronger than when they had begun their journey, but still fresh after who can know how many years.

Josie fetched the apple and brought it to Tash. ‘Tash? Dear Tash?’

Tash croaked a response, but Josie could not tell what he meant to say. ‘Eat this,’ she said to Tash. ‘It will make you feel better. I know I said it was wrong to be immortal, but I would rather do wrong than let you die. Here.’ She held the apple in front of Tash’s beak, but he did not take it.

Tash croaked again, lay still, than raised his head and said three words clearly: ‘Not without you.’

‘Fine,’ said Josie, tears streaming down her face. ‘Fine.’ She took a large bite out of the apple – it was sweet without being cloying and perfectly crisp, with a faint flavour that reminded Josie not of vanilla as such, but of something in the vanilla-bush wind she had smelled as she had tumbled into this new world. She did not swallow the bite, but took it out of her mouth and gave it to Tash.

‘Open,’ she told him, kissing his beak, and he opened his beak a crack and let her put it in his mouth.

Josie took another bite of the apple and swallowed it. At once, she could feel a warmth from it seeping through her whole body, like the warmth of the almost-sherry Ormuz had given her. She pushed the momentary thought of her helplessness away. She was not that person any more. And where that had been an evil warmth, this was a good warmth. She knew it. She felt again that sensation of stepping out into a void, of turning her face toward a storm, that she had when she had agreed to marry Tash.

Josie took a third bite from the apple and fed it to Tash. ‘You will be alright now,’ she told him. ‘We will be alright.’ Tash did not speak, and did not make sounds of pain, and his eyes were closed, but when she put the apple in his mouth he ate it.

Josie kept on in this way alternating bites with Tash until the apple was gone, even the woody core; but she saved the seeds and wrapped them up in the bit of silk the apple had been in.

The warmth spread through Josie and settled in every part of her: to abide there forever, she felt certain. She felt calm and fulfilled, as if she had at last come out of a canyon onto a high plateau where the wind and sun could play freely on her face. It did not seem to matter at that moment at all that she had refused the quest she had been charged with, or that it had foretold by Aslan that her life with Tash would only last a little while, or that she had been raped the night before. She would feel horrible about all those things later, she knew; but at that moment she felt perfectly balanced and in control, satisfied as she had never been satisfied before. She wondered what would happen to her now, and to Tash now, now that they had eaten of the apples that were meant to make them live forever, but she wondered this in a perfectly calm way, like it they were all things that might have happened to characters in a story Gerry was reading to her while she lay safe and warm in bed.

After the last bite of the apple Tash had fallen quite asleep without saying anything, but he already felt less feverish to Josie’s touch, and she could not feel any fresh blood through the bandaged wounds.

‘Tash,’ she said, and kissed his head between his eyes.

She sat beside him, breathing slowly, savouring the feel of the air and the smell of the flowers and the sounds of the meadow around her.

‘I think it is safe to sleep now,’ said Josie to herself. She lay down beside Tash, very carefully so as not to jar any of his wounds, and a moment later was fast in a deep and dreamless sleep.

 

Tash had felt the same sense of relief Josie had when they bid goodbye to Blackbriar and turned their faces back towards Telmar, a sense that he was turning back to a nest of safety in a dangerous and irritating world. The empty blue lands had called to him, and part of him would have liked to stride out across them, seeing new places each day and meeting peculiar new people; but the greater part of him wanted only to return to the place where he had a good idea of where everything was, and people were unlikely to bother him, and he could curl up with Josie whenever they liked.

This camp by the riverside was a good something-in-between, and he had quite enjoyed their brief holiday there. It was a pity that Josie was still so tired, and had stayed behind at their camp, he thought: but she was never patient with fishing anyway, and she would be pleased with what he had found for her when he came back.

Tash had spent longer than he had expected to, cheerfully tracking the big fish to their deep lurking pool and gathering two of them. By the time he returned to Josie the cloudless sky was a pink shading to grey, and the birds of evening were making their first tentative forays across it. He tarried a little to watch them from time to time, fascinated; they were such interesting creatures, like nothing he had known on his old world.

Josie had not yet lit the fire, Tash noticed as he drew nearer. Perhaps she had fallen asleep? He hurried on, feeling uneasy, and became very much more so when he found no sign of Josie at the camp.

‘Josie?’ he called out. ‘Josie!’

Tash cast about for any signs of his wife. In one place the bracken underfoot seemed to have been trampled by some large creature; in a soft patch of earth by the river, there was the booted footprint of a man. Strangers had been here. Josie had gone with them. No, she had been taken. She would not have gone willingly. She would not have left everything so scattered about. And he could smell that she had been afraid.

The light was failing, and it was not clear which way the strangers had gone. Tash crouched down at the edge of the camp, put his arms over his head and tried to think. He had come from upriver and had heard or seen nothing; perhaps they had come from downriver? If any of them were still near, they were sure to find him; he had shouted lfor Josie loud enough. He crouched for a few long minutes, forcing himself to breathe slowly, listening as hard as he could. He heard nothing but the birds and the river. When no one came, he got to his feet and struck off into the shadowy forest.

Tash saw the fire of the brigands’ camp about three hours into the night after he had walked a wide circle through the woods, frightening woodland creatures as he passed them by. While he walked he had forced himself to stay calm, to conserve his energy, making himself into an instrument for finding Josie, but when he saw the light he began to seethe with rage. Who were these men, to take his Josie? Tash quickened his stride and moved towards the flickering flames, dimly aware of the voices of men and the noises of beasts already alarmed at his approach.

‘Halt!’ called a voice. ‘Name yourself, if you are man or talking beast.’ It was the voice of a human man, but Tash could tell nothing more about it.

‘Where is Josie?’ Tash called in response.

‘Put down your weapons, and advance slowly,’ said the voice. Then it said, ‘By the Lion!’, for Tash had not slowed at all on being told to halt, but had continued to stride angrily on, and his bulk had just become visible on the edge of the firelight. Horses whinnied in alarm, and men scurried for their weapons. They were dark men like Yustus, Tash saw, but most were taller and more heavyset than he had been, and they wore unkempt beards.

‘Halt!’ called one of the men, pointing a complicated sort of bow at Tash.

‘Where is Josie?’ called Tash again, his voice rising to an inhuman roar.

‘What is that beast?’ called one of the men. ‘He is a monster from Telmar,’ said another, and raised his hands to his face in a sign to ward off evil. But the men who had more of their wits about them had swords in their hands, or arrows notched to bowstrings, so there were a good half-dozen weapons pointed at Tash by the time he was near enough to feel the heat of the fire.

‘I don’t know of any Josie,’ said a smooth voice that seemed to hold less fear than the others. The man who belonged to this voice had come striding up swiftly at the first sounds of alarm, and now stood closer to Tash than any of the men who had their weapons trained on him. This man had a beard that was more neatly trimmed than the others, and wore a polished leather breastplate with the image of some insect embossed on it. He spoke as if he met apparitions such as Tash as a matter of course, and held his curved sword in a way that somehow contrived to be neither defensive nor aggressive. A leader must never show fear before his followers, Tash remembered learning on the world of the Thalarka. This one is afraid of me, like the others, but he cannot show it.

‘Is Josie a creature like yourself? Or is it a man you seek?,’ asked the smooth-voiced man. ‘For it might be that we seek the same man. Tell me more, and it may be we can help one another.’

The man stepped took another step closer, keeping his eyes fixed on Tash and his voice calm and steady. ‘We are looking-‘ he began, but he did not finish.

Tash could smell Josie on the smooth-voiced man. With a cry of inarticulate rage, he lashed out. The man was quick with his sword, and brought his blade in position to block Tash’s blow, but the strength that would have stopped a strong human warrior’s swordarm was not enough to stop Tash. The sword cut deep into Tash’s arms, and in one of them stopped at bone; but the other arm carried through and struck the man’s throat, with force enough that things inside it splintered. The man staggered backward, dropping his weapon, gurgling and clutching at the air.

‘Kill it!’ called a man. Tash felt arrows tearing into his flesh, and heard the sickening sound they made as they stuck there. The bowmen had encircled him, so they could not fire high for fear of hitting one another, and most of their shots struck him in the legs.

One man was bolder than the others and came at Tash with his sword. The blade stabbed deep into Tash’s side a little above his waist. Without thinking, Tash brought his beak down into the man’s neck, cutting through artery and windpipe in a single swift bite. The intrepid swordsman’s momentum carried him forward and he fell behind Tash, fountaining blood.

Tash had never been in so much pain, but he did not care. He kicked at the fire, sending up a storm of dancing sparks. Another arrow sank deeply into his back. The taste of the brigand’s blood was sweet in his mouth.

‘Where is Josie?’ he shouted.

‘Keep your distance,’ said one of the men, waving the others back. ‘Keep shooting it. It is too strong.’

The horses were maddened by Tash’s violence and now one broke free of its bonds, kicking wildly and careening wildly off into the darkness. Curses, screams, and inarticulate conflicting orders filled the air. The tear in Tash’s side burned and bled.

Tash pounced to the nearest of the brigands, a bowman who was fumbling to notch another arrow to his bowstring, and broke both his arms in one motion, twisting them like saplings.

‘Where is Josie?’ he cried again. ‘Where is she?’ More arrows struck Tash, but no other swordsman dared to come near. He grabbed a tentpole and drove it through the chest of one of the bowmen who was not standing quite far enough away.

‘The monster will kill us all,’ called one of the men.

Inexorably, irresistibly, heedless of his wounds, Tash hacked his way through the camp, searching for his wife. The brigands fell away before him. The man whose arms Tash had broken wailed in agony. Red foam bubbled from the mouth of the one Tash had impaled with the tentpole.

‘In the commander’s tent,’ called a man with an angular face, one of those who had held back from the fight. ‘The wine-red tent. The girl is in there.’

Tash tore into the big wine-red tent, which was still too small for him to stand upright in. On a bed of blankets at the rear of it Josie lay insensible, her legs showing white in the darkness. She smelled of the smooth-voicced man.

‘Josie?’ Tash gathered her up. She lay limply in his arms, but she groaned at the sound of his voice, and he could not see any wound on her. She was alive.

A wild exultant happiness welled up in Tash. ‘Sweeter than narbul venom is it to serve the Mistress of Telmar,’ he intoned in a soft voice, wrapping his arms around Josie to protect her. He did not leave the tent the way he entered – he could hear the men coming cautiously closer to the front – but instead tore his way through the cloth at the back, bringing the tent down behind him as he fled. A few steps further they were in darkness, and Tash loped off towards the river.

At first Tash did not think of the pain at all in his joy at having Josie back. After a very little while, though, he found he could only carry her with three arms. The fourth, the one the leader of the brigands had struck with his sword, hung stiff and useless. The cries of the men carried a long way in the still night, but it did not seem that they were following, and they grew fainter and fainter as Tash crashed through the darkness. At the river side he paused. He needed to set Josie down to do two things: to gather up their things, and to remove the arrows sticking into him. The one in his back was the worst, for he wrenched it sideways as he pulled it out, and afterwards it hurt him even more than the wound in his side. It was hard to gather up Josie and start again, harder than he had thought it would be; his arms and legs felt too heavy, and he felt dizzy. And he hurt, worse and worse.

After he forded the river Tash could no longer run, only walk. With Josie clutched unconscious to his chest he walked on until dawn, then for two hours after, while the birds sang and the sun shone down on meadows carpeted with blue and white flowers. The world occasionally spun giddily around him or bucked unexpectedly, but he ignored this and walked on.

Tash had never been in so much pain for so long, and he had rarely been so tired, but he was not miserable. It was true that he had failed in allowing Josie to be captured, but he had not been at all useless in rescuing her. He had not failed Josie as he had failed Nera. He had cut through the brigands who had captured Josie: inexorably, irresistibly, and he had saved his wife. Now he would go home with her and be safe. He clung to this thought as he walked on, and it kept him happy despite all his pain.

Tash did not feel sorry for the brigands, and think that any of them might have been poor farmers’ sons impressed against their will, with doting sisters at home who would cry when they heard they were dead. Chances are that none of them were, at any rate; and if humans are not often brought up to think of their enemies in such a way, thalarka were brought up even less so when Tash was growing up.

The pain from the wound in Tash’s side had somehow spread to that whole side of his body, and from time to time he had to stop entirely as a spasm of pain went through him.

‘Tash?’ said Josie muzzily.

‘Josie?’ Tash clutched her a bit more tightly to him, and turned to look at her. Her face was paler than usual and she looked thoroughly miserable.

‘I am so glad you are here, dear Tash,’ she said, in a small weak voice. ‘I love you. Can you put me down? I feel sick.’

‘I love you,’ said Tash tenderly, carefully setting Josie down on the grass. She did not stand, or even sit properly at first, but slumped forward, holding her face just off the ground with her hands. She threw up, and then very slowly and carefully stood up, with Tash helping as much as he could manage.

‘Bleh,’ said Josie. ‘Oh, I am so glad you are here.’ She sounded a little better, Tash thought. It was so very very good to hear her voice again, even if it seemed further away then usual.

‘How are you?’ Tash asked her. ‘Did they hurt you?’

‘My head hurts, I feel ill, and – your arm is all over blood, Tash. Poor Tash. Oh, I am so sorry.’ Josie sounded very alarmed.

‘I am alright,’ said Tash. This was not true. The wound in his side had hurt him more and more as he walked, and the flow of blood from it had not stopped, trickling all the way to his feet.

‘No, you are hurt,’ said Josie. She felt him over gently, finding many of his wounds. ‘You are all over blood. Poor Tash. This one is very deep.’ He twitched and hissed at her gentlest touch, the pain making it hard for him to keep standing. ‘Oh, poor Tash, you have been hurt terribly. You must sit down.’

‘I can keep going,’ said Tash. ‘I want to get home.’

‘You are shaking,’ said Josie. ‘And over warm. Sit. Put the packs down.’

Tash obeyed. It was very easy to sit down when he began. The soft grass seemed to drag him to it. The ground rocked gently beneath him, and above him clouds made lazy circles in the painfully blue sky. In the end he found himself more lying down than sitting.

‘What happened to you?’ Tash asked Josie. He lay with his eyes closed, happy that Josie was there, waiting to hear her voice again.

Josie did not answer Tash’s question. ‘There is no water in the canteen,’ she said after a moment. ‘Is there any water near?’

‘There was a stream not long ago,’ said Tash. ‘I will take you there.’

‘No,’ said Josie firmly. ‘I think I can hear it. I will be very careful; you don’t have to worry about me. I feel much better now.’

‘I wish you could stay,’ he said mournfully.

‘I am not going far,’ she said. ‘I will be right back. Just rest for a while, dear Tash, I will be back before you know it.’ She kissed the soft downy bit of his neck and left, and he was very sorry that she was leaving, but he did not complain.

Tash listened to Josie moving slowly off across the meadow, breaking a switch from a willow, and then moving more slowly into the forest. He felt very heavy. The world, which had not rocked or spun for a while after he lay down, started to move again. He found if he stayed very still and tried to breathe very shallowly it seemed to hurt a little bit less. He tried hard to concentrate on doing this, at the same time listening hard for the sounds of Josie in the distance.

On the afternoon of the fifth day they were camped by the river, Tash went off looking for a better place to fish. ‘There are more good fish in this river,’ he told Josie. ‘I can tell. But they have learned that I am here, and there is so much water for them to hide in.’

‘Good luck, Tash,’ she called after him, and settled down to listen dozily to the sounds of the river.

The kinds of sounds a river makes, as I am sure you know, are the kinds of sounds that make you more conscious of the fact that your bladder is full, and after she had lain resting awhile this outweighed Josie’s desire to keep laying there doing nothing. ‘Bother,’ she said, and got up and walked a little ways away from the stream. Once Josie was further from the stream she could other sounds. There was the crunching of undergrowth underfoot, branches being pulled back and let go: the sounds of someone approaching. Could Tash be back already? No, he had gone upriver, and the sounds were very clearly coming from downriver.

Josie hastily returned to the camp. There was no way to hide their things before whoever it was came this way- before they came this way, for there were two separate pairs of feet. They sounded to Josie much more like men than beasts. And they were very close, the sounds they had made as they approached muted by the swollen river.

‘Hail!’ called a voice. ‘Is someone there?’ It was the first voice of a man Josie had heard since the death of Yustus. It had the gruff, confident tone of the kind of man who lives his life out of doors doing things that do not need a lot of artful thinking or book-learning, but a great willingness to take risks and an easy sort of halfway-decent competence in all manner of practical things. It was the kind of voice she had heard often when she was growing up, and it instantly made her feel smaller again, more like the girl Josephine Furness and less like Josie, Mistress of Telmar.

‘Hail!’ called Josie back, trying to sound strong and confident.

‘Why, it’s a maiden!’ the voice said with some surprise, drawing nearer. There was some broad male laughter. ‘And a northern lass, if my eyes do not deceive me. What possessed you to journey in these wilds, northern lass?’

The two men had walked up swiftly since Josie had admitted her presence, and now stood with her at the edge of the patch of sandy ground where she had made camp. She could smell the stale breath of men who eat a great deal of meat and are not particular about cleaning their teeth, and their sweat, and an oil rather like the oil they had used back home for oiling saddles.

‘I am travelling through,’ said Josie. ‘My companions- companion and I.’

She felt it would not be a good idea to volunteer too much about who she was and where she was going.

‘Why, that is the very thing we and our company are doing,’ said the man who had spoken. He laughed again. ‘Where are you bound? It might be we could travel together.’

‘I would rather not say,’ said Josie.

‘Is something wrong with your eyes?’ asked the second man. He had a more cunning, thoughtful sort of voice that reminded Josie uncomfortably of the magician Yustus.

‘I am blind,’ said Josie.

‘That is a great pity, lass,’ said the first man. ‘That means you cannot see the handsome face of Arishan here. He is accounted a great beauty back at home.’

‘Tell us of your companion,’ said Arishan. ’Is she a northern maiden, like yourself?’

‘No,’ said Josie. ‘He is a man. A big, strong man.’

‘There is just one bed made here,’ pointed out the man named Arishan in his unpleasant oily voice.

‘My companion is my husband,’ said Josie.

‘A fortunate man he must be, to have such a courteous and well-formed wife,’ said the first man.

‘I cannot see any man’s clothing among your things here,’ said Arishan. ‘I hope your husband has not deserted you.’

‘No, he will be back very soon,’ said Josie, starting to feel rattled.

‘Well, we can wait for him, then,’ said Arishan. ‘It will be good to make his acquaintance. No doubt he will see we mean no harm, and feel free to tell us where you are bound.’ He sat down heavily on the bed of blankets that Josie had arranged.

‘Sit down a while, lass, and be hospitable,’ said the first man. ‘There is no need for us to stand here as if we were two watchmen questioning a thief.’

With great reluctance Josie sat down on the opposite side of the ashy firepit from Arishan. The first man plunked himself down next to her.

‘Well,’ said Arishan. ‘We can think of something to do to pass the time until your husband returns.’ Josie could hear him getting something that clattered out of his pockets; a cup and dice, from the sound of it. ‘Do you like games?’

‘No,’ said Josie, shaking her head.

‘I have never seen a girl as white as you, lass,’ said the first man. ‘Are you a Narnian?’

‘No,’ said Josie.

‘Just as well,’ said the man. ‘I have heard it said that Narnian girls look fair enough in most of their parts, but are as dark and hairy as an ape in their nethers.’ He laughed again, and Josie furrowed her brows in anger. ‘I expect your husband could tell us the truth of that, eh, lass?’ He slapped a hand like a slab of salt pork down on Josie’s thigh in an insolent and inappropriate way.

‘You should go,’ said Josie, angrily trying to get to her feet, but the man grabbed her roughly and would not let her.

‘Or we could check for ourselves,’ he said, clutching Josie around the middle and chuckling as she kicked futilely. The smell of stale sweat on him was vile.

‘Let me go!’ said Josie, trying to command like the Mistress of Telmar, but sounding shrill and panicked even to herself.

‘Rozek, stop scaring the girl with your rough talk,’ called Arishan. ‘Put her down.’

‘She’s wriggling too much,’ said Rozek.

‘Stop it,’ said the second man in a voice edged with steel. Grumbling, Rozek tossed her to the ground. Josie gathered herself together and sat with her arms and legs curled up protectively, waiting for a chance to make her escape.

‘We have to do this properly,’ said Arishan, in a voice that made Josie’s skin crawl. ‘We cast lots to see who gets first go at the girl. Odd or evens?’

‘Evens,’ growled Rozek. ‘Best out of three.’

Josie heard the cup rattling, and the dice turned out. ‘Six and three,’ said Arishan.

Was that the sound of someone approaching? It was hard to hear noises in the wood over the sounds of the river. Josie strained her ears.

The cup rattled again. ‘Six and one- look upon them and despair,’ said Arishan, with a horrible glee.

‘Bugger,’ said Rozek.

Yes, someone was definitely coming. Josie leapt to hear feet while the brigands were distracted by their dice and charged off towards the noise. ‘Tash!’ she called out. ‘Tash!’

She slipped on an uneven patch of ground and tumbled, scrambled to her feet and ran forward, and then she was suddenly almost trampled by a pony ridden by someone who was not Tash. The pony was as alarmed at nearly trampling her as she was at nearly being trampled. The rider did something vicious to it and it stood still, breathing heavily.

‘Rozek? What’s this?’ called the angry voice of the rider. It was a higher pitch than the voices of Rozek or Arishan, but sounded no less masculine and rough.

‘Found this lass,’ said Rozek, who had given chase and was now catching up. He grabbed hold of Josie’s arm. ‘Says she’s out here with her husband, but won’t say where they’re going.’

‘So you thought you’d chase her all over the wilderness? Orders are to bring any strangers straight to the commander. You know that. ’

‘We were waiting for the fellow to turn up,’ said Arishan, walking up more slowly and somehow sounding reasonable even to Josie’s ears.

‘Yes, and what do you think he’ll do if he comes back to find two louts like you pawing his woman? Whip out his sword first and ask questions later, and he ends up dead and we don’t learn a damned thing from him. Or, more likely, he kills you two and gets clean away, when we’d have him at twelve to one if he had to track you back to the camp. Are you completely stupid? Settle down, you.’ He said this last to Josie, who was struggling to wrench her arm free from Rozek’s grip.

‘I’m fortunate you showed up to deal with things properly, then,’ said Arishan drily. ‘This man may not exist at all. There are only woman’s clothes here.’

‘Shut up,’ said the rider. ‘Get up behind me, lass. Rozek, put her up behind.’

‘She’s blind, Karasp,’ said Rozek, lifting up the struggling Josie like a sack of oats and putting her on the back of the pony.

The rider made a contemptuous noise at the other brigands. ‘Hold on tight,’ he told Josie.

‘Please, can’t you just leave me here?’ she asked, reluctantly putting her arms around the man’s chest. ‘My husband-‘

‘Sorry, lass,’ said Karasp. ‘Orders are to bring any strangers to talk to the commander. Orders these fools seem to have forgotten. Hold on. If you fall off you’ll bash your head in, like as not.’

‘I have ridden before,’ said Josie. Through her fear of what might happen with these coarse men, she felt a pang of melancholy. She had used to ride double with Gerry almost every day.

The pony took off through the woods at a brisk trot for a good twenty minutes, with enough twistings and turnings that Josie was not at all sure which direction they were from the river. Josie could hear the crackling of a fire, and the sound of a good many horses and men – the dozen the rider had mentioned seemed to be about the right number of each. Her arrival had caused quite a stir, from the voices she could hear as she climbed down from the back of the pony. It was obviously completely unexpected to find a girl in the wilderness, with her pale skin adding an additional thrill of exotic detail. Without ado, Karasp hustled her into what seemed to be a large tent. The hubbub outside suddenly dimmed, and she could smell perfume and roast poultry, rather than just wood-smoke and unwashed man and beast.

‘An interesting find, Karasp,’ said a voice. It was probably the least unpleasant voice Josie had heard yet from a man in this new world, a strong resonant voice she could imagine reading from the Bible on Sunday mornings. It sounded friendly enough on the surface, but Josie could tell there was something unyielding and implacable beneath. It was, in a way, an even more frightening voice than Arishan’s. ‘Who is this young lady?’

‘Arishan found her by the river,’ said Karasp. ‘About half a league upstream. Apparently she’s blind. She says she’s travelling with her husband, but hasn’t said where they’re bound. Arishan said there were only woman’s clothes where she was camped.’

‘I see,’ said the commander. Josie could hear him stepping closer to her, and knew she was being scrutinised.

‘Young lady, my name is Ormuz, and my companions and I are bound on a voyage of discovery,’ he said in a friendly tone. ‘To make a long story short, word has come to us in a distant land that the mage of Telmar is dead and his slaves flown, so the treasures of Telmar lie open to be taken by anyone. Such a chance comes only once in a lifetime, if that.’ Ormuz paused, and added in the same friendly voice, as if he was an old friend of the family being introduced to Josie in her mother’s parlour. ‘You see, I am quite open about who I am, and what my business is. If you could do me the honour of replying in kind, in as much as you are able, it would be a fair and courteous act.’

‘I,’ said Josie. ‘I am not able to tell you my business.’

‘That’s too bad,’ said Commander Ormuz. ‘Karasp, fetch a seat for our guest, and something for her to eat. I will get her something to drink myself.’

Karasp found something like a camp-stool for Josie and she reluctantly sat down on it.

‘If you are not free to tell me your business, perhaps you would be good enough to tell me your name?’ Josie could hear the commander getting bottles and cups from a chest, pouring out two drinks.

‘My name is Miss Furness,’ said Josie.

‘Like furnace?’ said the commander. ‘It is a curious name, but not an ill-favoured one. I know of no place in the world where it would be customary to name such a fair lady after such an instrument of smoke and fire, but the world is large. Here.’ He pressed into Josie’s hand a largish tumbler of something that smelled rather like sherry. ‘You must have had a hard time of it. Drink.’

Josie warily took a sip and found that it almost immediately warmed her right through.

‘It must be very difficult travelling in these lands without being able to see,’ said the commander. ‘Your husband must be very brave and resourceful, to bring you on such a journey. Set it down there Karasp, yes.’ The brigand Karasp set a plate with some kind of roast bird on it down next to Josie.

‘He is,’ said Josie.

‘You are a fortunate woman,’ said Ormuz. ‘Though to look at you, you are hardly more than a child. Have you been married long?’

‘A few months,’ said Josie.

‘Arranged, or a love match?’

‘Love,’ said Josie.

‘And your husband takes you away into the very deepest wilderness? I am beginning to sense an elopement.’ The brigand Ormuz chuckled softly and lowered his voice, as if he was letting Josie into a secret. ‘Did your father take unkindly to your attachment to this man? You so young, and he such a reckless adventurer?’

‘No,’ said Josie. ‘It was not like that.’ The sherry – or whatever it was- made her feel less like a poor captive, and more like the bold Josie, Mistress of Telmar, who she wanted to be. Imprudently, she took another sip.

‘Still, yours must be a fine story,’ said Ormuz. ‘I am looking forward to your husband’s return, so I can see for myself who has won your heart and led you into such dangerous wilds so far from your family and home.’

Josie let this pass. She did not want to be asked any more difficult questions about Tash, and was feeling bold, so she changed the subject. ‘Your men were horrible- that Arishan, and Rozek. They were going to – to rape me. They were rolling dice for me.’

‘I am sorry, Miss Furness,’ said Ormuz, sounding stern and concerned. ‘Rest assured, they will be punished. Not to excuse them in any way, but I am afraid I had to cast my net rather wide in order to put this expedition together, and a few of my men are unsuited for civilised company. When your husband arrives, I will have them flogged in his presence.’

‘Good,’ said Josie. She took another drink of the almost-sherry, and found to her surprise that the tumbler was empty.

‘You should let me go,’ she said. ‘Back to my camp. Tash- my husband- will be unhappy if he does not find me there.’

‘I am sorry, Miss Furness,’ said Ormuz. ‘In light of what you have told me about the scoundrels in my employ, I am inclined to keep you here where they cannot cause you any more trouble. I hope you do not mind. May I refill your cup?’

Josie did not actually say she did not want her cup refilled, so in a moment she found that it had been, and she could not help taking another mouthful. She was feeling quite warm through now, and very brave and queenly.

‘He will not be pleased to find me here,’ she said. ‘It would be better for you if you brought me back.’

‘I am sure he will be displeased,’ said the commander apologetically. ‘But I will explain everything to him, and I am sure he will understand.’

‘Oh,’ said Josie, taking another drink. She supposed what the commander was saying made a kind of sense.

‘I am glad you like the wine,’ said Ormuz. ‘I had it from a caravan near Teebeth. I have carried it a very long way, hoping for an appropriate guest to serve it to.’

‘Thank you,’ said Josie. ‘It is rather sweet.’ She tasted the inside of her mouth. There was some subtle flavour in the wine that she recognised, but could not place exactly, a bitter but not entirely unpleasant undertone.

‘Tell me,’ said commander Ormuz suddenly, in a sharper voice. ‘What do you know of Telmar?’

‘Nothing,’ said Josie. ‘Well, nothing besides that there was an evil magician there who commanded ifrits, who was the last of the men of Telmar who had been turned into beasts by Aslan long ago.’

‘That is the story that the wise tell in my country, as well, Miss Furness,’ said Ormuz. ‘Where did you hear this tale?’

‘A gazelle told me,’ said Josie.

‘A gazelle!’ Ormuz laughed. ‘Tell me, Miss Furness- would you be surprised to hear that the place Telmar lies no great distance from here?’

‘No,’ said Josie. ‘I mean, yes.’ She was starting to feel a little lightheaded.

‘No, indeed,’ said Ormuz. ‘Perhaps a week’s journey north of here. Perhaps even less. According to the tales I have heard, we are almost there. We go to seek its treasures. Does your husband, or whoever you are travelling with, perhaps go to seek the same thing?’

‘No,’ said Josie. She set her face in a way that was meant to look proud and defiant. She felt suddenly as if the tent was spinning around her.

‘I feel dizzy,’ said Josie. She set down her tumbler, which was empty again.

‘Perhaps you drank the wine too quickly,’ suggested Ormuz. ‘If you are not used to it, it is easy to do. Just answer my question, and then you can lie down and rest until your head clears. Are you going to Telmar?’

‘No,’ said Josie.

‘Are you certain?’ said the commander. His voice was close now, smooth and unyielding and implacable and not friendly at all.

‘I won’t let you have it,’ snapped Josie unreasonably. Her voice sounded blurry and odd to herself, so she repeated her words. ‘I won’t let you have it.’

‘I am in the habit of having whatever I want,’ said Ormuz, with a chilling calmness. ‘I should not be so confident if I were you.’

‘It is mine,’ said Josie angrily. ‘I am Mistress of Telmar. We defeated the magician, and we can defeat you.’ She went to stand, and found it more of a struggle to get up than she expected.

‘You are mysterious, that is certain,’ said Ormuz. He took her arm and dragged her to her feet. ‘I do not suppose there is one part of truth in twenty of what you have told me. And there is some power to you, I can see that. But enough to hold Telmar against my company? I think not.’

Ormuz was leading her deeper into the tent. She felt something soft beneath her feet, and struggled to keep her balance. ‘Let me go,’ she said angrily, jerking her arm away from him. He let her go, but she found she could not stand alone, and slumped to her knees on what seemed to be a pile of blankets.

‘So you have already reached Telmar?’ said Ormuz. ‘How many are there of your company? Tell me more of this husband of yours.’

‘He is strong and brave,’ said Josie. ‘We will stop you.’ At least, that is what she meant to say, but her voice did not obey her, and she was not sure what she ended up saying.

‘I am still in doubt as to whether you have a husband at all,’ said the brigand leader. He grabbed Josie’s ankle and pulled her leg out so that she fell backwards on the blankets. Feebly, she tried to get up, but she could do no more than raise herself on her elbows. She could feel the warmth of whatever had been in the drink filling her veins, filling her bones, making her slow and soft as before it had made her rash and heedless. ‘Your insolence has made me angry, Miss Furnace,’ said Ormuz.

‘We will stop you,’ Josie tried to say again, but her mouth would not obey her.

She could smell Ormuz close to her face now, rank animal sweat beneath his perfume. ‘I may have given you too much, too fast,’ he was saying. He made a little noise to chide himself. ‘There is probably no point asking you any more questions tonight, but there is time enough to teach you not to be so insolent, before your wits flee you entirely.’

Josie felt the loathesome touch of the brigand’s hands on her legs, shoving her skirts upward. She wanted to curse the brigand and claw at his eyes, to drive her knee up between his legs and kick him viciously, but could only mumble at him and flail feebly.

‘What lovely white skin you have, Miss Furnace,’ said Ormuz. ‘It is a shame you cannot see yourself, but I suppose that saves you from vanity.’

Tash, Josie tried to call out. Tash, help me! Tash, Tash, Tash! ‘Tash,’ she managed to say, in a strangled whisper.

‘You little Narnian whore,’ Ormuz growled, in quite a different voice than he had used before, with no smoothness in it at all.

Tash and Josie made their camp again on the banks of the big river, where the air was filled with the scent of fresh water and flowers. Josie was exhausted. She was not used to travelling for so many days in a row, even though she had been carried a great deal of the way, and it had been more of a strain than she realised to travel with Blackbriar. The dog had been a constant reminder of how she was shirking the duty laid upon her by the Lion god, and just how anxious this had made her, and how weary being anxious had made her, she had not realised until they had parted ways.

Josie felt good to be on the way back to her home in the Valley of Telmar, grim and dreary though it might be. But at the same time it was nice to be here, in the more open lowland country with its sunshine and strawberry-smelling flowers and raucous songbirds. And it felt very good to be able to talk freely with Tash, and touch Tash whenever she wanted, without worrying about what Blackbriar might think.

Josie and Tash had both decided, without having to say anything, that it would be good to stay by the side of the river for a few days to rest. ‘A holiday,’ Josie said. ‘It will be like a holiday for a few days.’ She felt pleased and comfortable to have seen Blackbriar safely on her way to the human countries. She felt like things were turning out the way she wanted them to, and that she was finding a way around Aslan and the prophecies he had troubled Tash with. It was a good life in this world, since they had gotten rid of the Sorceror: far better than the prospect of being an unwanted burden – practically an orphan – in a strange cruel country and far, far better than the horrible world Tash had come from. So they had made their camp by the side of the big river, and Tash caught fish – the fish were very nice here, Josie thought, even better than the ones Tash caught from the pool in the Vale of Telmar -and they picked shoots of sweet grasses and the sorts of flowers that you can eat to stretch out the supplies they had brought with them. They took a bit of getting used to, but were more like salad things than anything that grew in the Vale of Telmar, and Josie realised how much she had missed fresh greens living in the castle.

The first night they were there Tash gathered rather a lot of fallen wood, and they built a cheerful fire to cook fish on and sit around afterwards.

‘You have not told me any stories of your world for a long time,’ said Tash.

‘I suppose I haven’t,’ said Josie. She felt like you doubtless do when someone asks you of a sudden to tell them a story, and you instantly seem to forget all the stories you have ever known.

‘The ones you told me before seemed to have many useful things in them,’ said Tash. ‘Maybe there are things in the stories that can help us now, since we seem to be tangled up in so many different stories.’

‘Well, I can try,’ said Josie. ‘Well, there were once a group of people by a river, like we are, and one of them was a girl who was younger than me, who was there with her big sister. They had been out on little boats on the river, rowing – do you know what that is, Tash?’

***

‘Yes,’ said Tash, remembering the rafts rowed by slaves that he had seen once, gliding across the broad grey lakes of his own world, and thinking how useless he had been then.

‘And it was a hot afternoon, and rather dull, so this girl was rather bored. Her name was Alice. And she wandered away from her big sister and the other older people who were talking about uninteresting things, and then she saw a rabbit run by. And it would not be very interesting to see a rabbit run by, except for two things: it had a pocket watch – that is a sort of instrument like some of the ones in the castle, which has a little hand that moves around and around and shows what time of day it is – and it was talking. It said: ‘Goodness me, I’m late.’ So Alice got up and ran after it, because this was mysterious, and followed it into the hole it had gone into. It was larger than ordinary rabbits, so Alice could fit in its hole without any trouble. And as she went along, it got steeper and steeper, and then she was falling through the air. She kept falling and falling, and though she was frightened at first, it went on so long that she stopped being frightened, and even fell asleep, and thought that maybe she would keep falling all the way through to the other side of the world.’

Josie went on with the story of Alice as well as she could remember it, and the images that formed in Tash’s mind were as much of Ua as of the world he was in now, since he had never been to Josie’s world and did not know what it was like. He did not like to think of Josie or Nera going off alone and having dangerous adventures, and those were the only two images of human girls he had in his mind, so he imagined Alice as one of his thalarka sisters. A nicer one than any he had in real life, of course. Thalarka did not cry, but the struggling to remain undrowned in the tears cried by the giant Alice was a scene Tash could well imagine from his own world. He was very taken with the idea of ‘unbirthday presents’ – even birthday presents were a strange and wonderful idea, imagining them as if they were a thing that was on Tash’s world. When Josie got up to the bit with the Queen of Hearts it was very easy to imagine the tyrant as one of the High Commanders of the javelin-women of the Overlord, with long spikes on her armour and a voice that commanded obedience.

‘You do her voice very well,’ said Tash, admiringly.

‘Pfah,’ said Josie. ‘I don’t want to command anyone’s head to be chopped off.’ But she still sounded rather pleased.

The water of the river was too cold to stay in long, but was fresh and bracing, and each morning the first thing they did was throw themselves into it to wake themselves up. Then they would splash each other, and Josie would shriek, and afterwards they would lie side by side on a broad rock in the sunlight until they had quite dried off. The third morning they did this, Josie rolled over onto Tash, who was almost dry, and warmed quite through by the sun.

‘This is a better world, Tash,’ she said, using him as a pillow.

‘It is much better than my world,’ Tash agreed. ‘Even if there are sorcerors and people to tell us what to do, they do not just make us do it, like they did on my world. And the food is much nicer.’

‘And we are together,’ said Josie, rubbing her hand over his chest. ‘I miss people from my world – but the ones I miss most were gone before I left. I am glad I found you.’

‘I am glad I found you,’ said Tash. ‘I do not miss anyone.’ The smell of Josie and the closeness of her to him were beginning to work on Tash, like they always did. His hands began to play along Josie’s back, from her feet all the way up to her hair, lingering longest at her neck and the backs of her knees.

Josie kissed his throat. ‘I don’t know if we can stay together forever,’ she said. ‘But nobody knows that, do they? Maybe something will happen to drag us apart, like we were pulled into this world, or maybe it won’t. But I intend to stay here with you as long as I possibly, possibly can.’ She stretched up and kissed Tash’s beak then, boldly running her tongue where Tash could easily have bitten the tip of it off. Tash ran his hands over his wife’s cool skin and inhaled the smell of her, but his thoughts were still disturbed: he could not help thinking of what he had read, or dreamed he had read, in the Books of Tash, and of what he had heard from the Lion Aslan.

Josie seemed to be able to tell that he was distracted. ‘Don’t worry,’ she told him. ‘Nothing is foretold, dear Tash. Not really. We can make our own lives on this world.’

‘It-‘ said Tash. ‘It is possible.’ But he was not convinced. This Aslan was like the Overlord of this world, after all, and sooner or later, he felt in his bones, the story of Tash would end up with him being sacrificed to the greater glory of someone.

‘I know what the Lion said, Tash. I know what Blackbriar said. But we have not done what he wanted, and nothing horrible has happened, has it?’

‘No,’ said Tash, playing with Josie’s hair. It looked so splendid in the sunlight, so much like the very shiniest of the metals that the men of Telmar made ornaments with. Josie was right. Nothing horrible had happened yet. Maybe it wouldn’t; or maybe it would, but not for a long time.

‘You smell so very nice, Tash,’ she murmured. ‘Oh.’

‘You smell nice too,’ said Tash. It was a strange yet now familiar smell, the smell of Josie, and it made things stir and tumble inside him. She seemed so much like the Mistress of Telmar today, Tash felt: she was a wild and triumphant thing, and she wanted to be touched with a demanding insistence.

‘Tash?’ said Josie, and her voice was more breathless than usual, and very bold, and like she sounded when she was going to tease him, all at once. ‘Husband Tash?’

‘Yes, my Josie?’ said Tash.

‘I am yours forever and ever,’ said Josie.

And there was no doubt that she was really and truly the Bride of Tash.

***

Nothing important happened to Josie and Tash while they were camped by the side of the river, except for the thing that happened at the end of their time there. If that thing had not happened, they would have always remembered that place happily, for they were happy together there. I like to remember Josie and Tash being happy together, and wish I could tell you that they lived happily ever after; or that they lived happily together for a long long time without anything bad happening to them, until the time came for Tash to make a choice between the two Books of Tash, many many years later. But I am afraid I can’t. This last little bit has all been just stalling – which has probably been obvious. I could have just written ‘They went back to Telmar the way they came,’ and then gone on with the next chapter.

It had rained steadily for the rest of the week, and when it was done the stream below the castle was high and the land was terribly muddy, so it had not seemed the wisest time to travel; and it was some weeks after that Josie finally made up her mind that she had to see the dog Blackbriar safely to the other side of the great river.

Then Josie had to figure out what to take on the journey, which is the sort of business that can be done in great hurry if necessary, but can expand to take up a great deal of time otherwise, especially if the journey is one that does not have a date set for departure, and is one that one is nervous about going on at all. The part of this figuring out that took the greatest amount of time was something that Josie did not speak with Tash about at all: deciding whether or not to take one of the magic apples. She did not want them in case they suddenly decided on the journey to seek to become immortal, but in case of some grievous accident. She knew from what Yustus had said that the apples could heal any hurt or sickness short of death, and there were any number of horrible things that could possibly happen to them on a journey through the unknown wilds. She thought of at least a dozen of them, imagining them all too clearly. At the end Josie decided that she would bring one of the apples, and fetched it up from the secret chamber while Tash was out hunting. She wrapped it up very carefully in a bit of silk and put it in the bag with her clothes.

So one day when spring was well advanced Josie, Tash, and Blackbriar left the castle of Telmar, leaving the parts of it they lived in shut up against the weather as well as they could. Josie had ended up bringing rather a lot of things for the journey, but Tash could easily carry enough for half a dozen travellers.

‘We don’t really now how long we will be,’ said Josie, picking up the bag with the apples. She gave Tash’s legs a hug. ‘It will be alright,’ she said – to Tash, or to herself, she was not sure. Then she patted Blackbriar’s head, as if she were an ordinary dog, and took Tash’s hand for the walk down the hidden path to the stream.

The three travellers followed the stream out of the valley as best they could, skirting the edge of the gorge and picking their way downhill through the rumpled country to the south where Josie and Tash had not been before. Below the gorge Josie realised how grim and dreary the vale of Telmar had been, and how much she had gotten used to living there since the Ifrits had brought her there. It was immediately a more fragrant sort of country beyond the valley, more alive with birds and beasts, and had a less closed-in feel. Besides the cypresses there were other sorts of trees – a good many willows along the streambanks, for example, and poplars in the hollows – and instead of an endless roof of forest and an endless floor of dry needles underfoot there were a good many meadows, where sweet-smelling flowers were growing thickly. There were bulbous things that Josie thought to be a sort of crocus, and drooping bell-shaped flowers that smelled a very little like strawberries, and wild roses whose few flowers had a desperate and intoxicating perfume.

It was difficult at first, but day by day Josie grew stronger. Tash still carried her a good deal of the time, though she walked beside him on the flatter ground, hand in hand. Blackbriar mostly ran off ahead to scout the way, running back to rejoin them every five or ten minutes.

‘I do wish you had stayed a woman a while longer,’ Josie said to Blackbriar as they walked along, in one of the moments while the two of them were walking alongside. ‘It would be so much easier to talk. But I suppose it must have been very horrid for you.’

Blackbriar agreed with a lick: that it would have been easier, or that it had been very horrid, Josie was not sure, and she scampered away again into the undergrowth before Josie could ask.

In the damp spring weather Josie found it a good deal more unpleasant sleeping out of doors than it had been in the desert with the gazelles; at least, she would have found it more unpleasant if it had not been for Tash. He was large enough and feathery enough to fold himself around her in a way that kept her comfortable enough in all but the nastiest weather. It is fair to say that all through this journey Tash and Josie thought mostly about each other. They were travelling through a pleasant country, filled with the sounds and smells of life, and each day brought something new, and their future was an uncertain and frightening thing; but they had both already been through so many uncertain and frightening things, and come through to find each other – so they clung to one another, and did not want to stop touching one another, and drank in the presence of the other like a thirsty man drinks water. If I were to write down what they said to each other it would be very dull. They were in love, and so they were impatient of everything else, and selfish in the selfless way of people in love, and they would have been very irritating to travel with. Perhaps Blackbriar was irritated, but if she was, she never showed it. Dogs are very forgiving.

Each day the travellers heard many dumb beasts, and every morning they woke to a cacophony of birdsong, but they did not meet any men or talking beasts in five days of travelling. They could rarely go in a straight line, for although there were no terribly steep mountains or gorges in the country below the Vale of Telmar the whole of it was rumpled like a blanket, with thick woods on the high parts and streams with boggy edges on the low parts. The river that had stopped Blackbriar on her last journey was still swollen, and the broken boles of trees cast up on its banks showed where it had been higher still, but Tash was large enough and strong enough that they crossed it without difficulty.

Tash and Josie did not discuss what they would do when they were camped on the other side, although this was far as they had agreed to go before they left Telmar. Instead they sat around the fire – they had stopped early and gathered deadwood along the banks – and talked about trivial things while they ate fish that Tash had caught in the river, and did their best to be as cheerful as possible as if their life together would never end.

‘We’ve been very lucky so far,’ said Josie, tempting fate, as she threw the last bony bit of her fish into the bushes. ‘It hasn’t rained, and we haven’t seen any sign of fierce beasts. And certainly not giants,’ These were creatures that Yustus had described to her with great relish, in telling her what might happen to her if she ran away, and Zardeenah had confirmed most of the evil magician’s stories. ‘They are probably only a long way away from here.’

‘I will keep you safe,’ said Tash. They reached out to take each other’s hands.

‘I wish Blackbriar could talk,’ said Josie. ‘I am sure she could tell us all sorts of stories.’

Tash curled up around Josie to keep her warm, and Blackbriar slept at their feet, and the cheerful little fire they had made slowly burned down until it was a tiny ruby of light in the middle of the forest.

The next morning they kept on southward, leaving their camp behind before the sun had cleared the horizon. Beyond the big river was flatter country, and a more open woodland, with a great many deer who took off at their approach. They made good progress through this country for a morning and an afternoon, and were about to make camp in a meadow that smelled of rosemary when Blackbriar became very excited and led them off to a low hill nearby.

‘There is a hole in it, and a little field of torn earth,’ said Tash.

‘Someone’s garden,’ said Josie. She knelt down and crumbled a bit of soil between her fingers, feeling very nervous. Could they have already come to a land of men? She had not thought they could be so close.

‘There’s a bit of curtain hanging down inside the hole. It is too small for me to get through, though you probably could, Josie. Someone is coming out.’

‘Someone certainly is coming out,’ said a surly, prickly kind of voice, and Josie could tell at once that it was the voice of some kind of talking animal. ‘Who are you, and what do you want?’ the newcomer asked suspiciously.

‘I am Tash,’ said Tash, stepping back a few steps as the stranger emerged from his home.

‘I am Josie,’ said Josie. ‘And this is Blackbriar. We were just travelling through, and we thought we would stop and ask if you had any news.’

‘Well, I’ll be,’ said the hedgehog – for that is what he was, a talking hedgehog who stood a bit higher than Josie’s waist walking on his hind legs – ‘Twenty years, whelp and boar, I’ve lived in this place, and you’re the first folk I’ve ever met who said they were ‘just travelling through’.’ After a rather long pause, as of someone who was not at all used to making introductions, he told them who he was. ‘My name is Shoab, son of Amidanab.’

Josie thought the hedgehog smelled rather like pipe tobacco. ‘Pleased to meet you,’ she said.

‘I also am pleased to meet you,’ said Tash.

‘Likewise,’ said Shoab shortly. He sniffed the air dubiously. ‘I know a dog when I see one, and a Daughter of Helen, but what sort of creature are you?’ he asked Tash.

‘I am a thalarka,’ said Tash. This answer seemed to satisfy the hedgehog hermit, for he just said ‘hrm,’ and made no further comment.

‘Has anyone at all been through here?’ asked Josie. ‘A month or so ago?’

‘Funny you should ask that,’ said Shoab, in a slow suspicious kind of voice. ‘Or maybe not so funny. That’s the news you’re asking after, I suppose. Yes, a month or so ago there were some peculiar travellers through here. I was out digging of an evening, and I heard a crashing and a running through the country, of a big creature, no two, no three big creatures who were heedless of who might hear them. I kept quiet and I kept downwind until they were long gone, but when I looked in the morning there were footprints near the water hole where I planted the apricot tree: big pawprints of great cats, and big hoofprints of a deer a good deal larger than the ones who live around here. I’ve never seen cats like those in these parts – at least not for years, since that pair of leopards came up this way during the drought. And travelling together with a deer like that, stands to reason they would be talking animals, and not dumb ones. Would you be on the trail of them?’

‘After a fashion,’ said Josie. ‘I mean, yes.’

‘Then you are on the right path,’ said Shoab son of Amidanab. He stood there regarding them, chewing something that had been packed in his cheek before. ‘Three strange travellers then, and then three more this morning,’ he said, talking more to himself than to them, and then belatedly remembering his manners. ‘You look to have enough common sense that you won’t complain at me calling you strange, Miss. We don’t get many – any – of your kind in these parts.’

‘I don’t mind,’ said Josie. ‘Why do you live out here all alone? Isn’t it dangerous?’

‘Not so dangerous if you keep quiet and keep downwind and don’t meddle in other folk’s business,’ said the hedgehog, answering the first question. ‘They’re simple rules, but a lot of folk can’t seem to get the hang of them.’

‘I’ll try to remember them,’ said Josie. ‘Is it far to the lands where men live?’

‘I don’t rightly know,’ said Shoab son of Amidanab. ‘It’s like I said already. I’ve heard the rumour of Sons of Frank around here a few times, but you’re the first Daughter of Helen I’ve seen or heard of in these parts. So if you’ve come far from where you live, you’re probably a long way from any of those lands.’

‘Thank you,’ said Josie. ‘I guess there is still a long way to go.’ She gave Blackbriar a pat. ‘Can you tell us how to get to this water hole?’

The hedgehog nodded. ‘That I can, Miss. Just over that rise there, and then over the next one, and you’ll find the water hole where I planted the apricot tree. You can stay there, if you like.’ He chewed whatever he was keeping in his mouth thoughtfully. Strangest thing is, I thought that apricot tree had upped and died on me over the winter; but that morning when I went down and saw the footprints, there were new buds on it.’

‘Thank you very much,’ said Josie. ‘You’ve been a lot of help.’

‘Good day,’ said Shoab son of Amidanab, with an air of finality.

***

The hedgehog hermit had given them a last suspicious look and vanished back behind his front door curtain. When they had gone a little distance Tash looked back, and saw him peering after them from around the edge of the curtain. It was like how he probably would have looked, thought Tash, at some strange procession passing through his village, when he was a child on Ua.

‘I expect he has quite an interesting story, to have come out here all by himself and lived alone for so long,’ Josie said, when they were well underway again.

‘He did not seem like he would tell it,’ said Tash.

‘That’s true,’ said Josie. She shook her head. ‘Imagine living all alone like that for twenty years.’

‘I would not like it,’ said Tash.

This was true; but Tash had also been favourably impressed by Shoab son of Amidanab the hedgehog. He could not have said exactly what it was, but there was something in the hedgehog’s manner, in his audacity in living all alone, that appealed to Tash. He would hate to be without Josie, of course – it was only when he was with her that he could forget what he was, and the fate that had been foretold for him – but the thought of not being told what to do by anyone, of being able to stop and look at whatever he liked for as long as he liked, to never be sent off by people stronger than him to pick grith in the fields, or be sacrificed to the Overlord, or to do some quest no one would ever thank him for, was an awfully appealing one. To be unimportant and unnoticed and able to do what he liked: that would be splendid. To do it with Josie there as well, that would be the greatest joy he could imagine.

***

They found the waterhole that the hedgehog had spoken of, and touched for themselves the flowers on the little apricot tree. It was probably a coincidence how it had sprung back into life, Josie told herself, just as Aslan had gone by. But she did not believe herself. The waterhole was only a muddy little pool, but it had an air of peace and goodness about it. Probably, the way this world worked, the apricot tree really was a miracle, and Josie could not but help thinking of Bible stories, of Aaron’s staff sprouting almond flowers and Jesus cursing the fig tree.

Blackbriar hung well back at first, as if nervous of this place where Aslan had been, but after a little while she came up to wander around Josie like a tame dog.

Tash waded out into the pool and splashed water over his head, churning up the bottom.

‘We should get some water, first,’ chided Josie. ‘You will make it all muddy.’

‘I am sorry,’ said Tash, and stopped his splashing. ‘It is good here. It is warmer than the river was. You should come in.’

‘I don’t think so,’ said Josie, and busied herself pulling out the bedclothes and setting them up next to the apricot tree, where the smell of the flowers was strongest. They smelled sweeter than almost any flowers Josie had smelled before, and had a faint feeling of the same frightening good magic that she always felt in the hidden room of the castle. Or maybe that was her imagination. It was strange to think of the statues that had stood for so long in the hidden garden, like Tash, coming to life and running to this very pool. She wondered what would have happened if she had tried to bring them to life herself, as Tash had once suggested. Maybe she would have been swept out on this journey long ago.

Blackbriar nosed down to the pool’s edge, and Josie heard quieter splashing than Tash had made.

‘It is very nice, Josie,’ said Tash, a little plaintively.

‘All right,’ said Josie at last. She did feel dreadfully sticky with dried sweat after the day’s walking. ‘I guess there is no hope for it not being muddy now.’ She stripped off her clothes and joined her husband and the dog in the pool. Her feet squelched deeply into the mud

‘It is warmer than the river,’ admitted Josie. ‘I don’t think I am likely to be any cleaner when I come out than before I went in, though.’ She washed the sweat from her face, and did her best to do something with her hair, which had grown very disorderly on the journey.

‘I wonder about the leopard and the deer,’ said Josie. ‘What they are like. What their story was. They must have been more or less nice, or the lion wouldn’t have bothered to turn them back from stone. I wonder how they came to Telmar, and what they did to get turned to stone, and what they are doing going off with the lion – Aslan – now.’

‘That is a lot of wondering,’ said Tash. ‘I know what it is like. There are so many things to wonder about.’

‘I guess there are things we just have to accept we will never know,’ said Josie. ‘God knows there seem to have been a tremendous number of them since I came here.’ She sighed, and ducked her head under the water again.

Josie’s thoughts shied away from the quest that had been described to her. The quest still hung in midair, neither abandoned nor accepted. They had travelled further than they had meant to travel with Blackbriar; maybe they would just keep travelling, without ever making a decision, and would end up doing what the Lion wanted, travelling with Blackbriar all the way to the lands of men. Or maybe they would decide to turn back: now, or tomorrow, or the day after, or at the border of the land of men, however many weeks from now that might be. Josie really did not know what she would do. She thought of the apricot tree, and she thought of the fig tree that had been cursed in her own world, and she thought about what might happen to Tash in the lands of men – the men whose ways were not so unlike those of the gazelles, the men who bought ifrit girls as wives.

Josie felt one of Tash’s hands on her leg, underneath the water, and a current of exaltation that was by now familiar ran through her body.

‘Blackbriar, why don’t you scout about?’ she said. ‘There may be interesting things around here.’

Obediently, Blackbriar paddled out of the pool and shook herself dry, then darted away into the undergrowth.

 

A morning’s walk beyond the pool brought the three travellers by way of a long gentle slope to the top of a hill where Tash set Josie down. The wind blew strong in their faces as they stood side by side, bringing the scent of distant places, fine dust and leaves that reminded Josie of the gum trees of home.

‘It is all empty and blue beyond,’ said Tash.

‘Empty and blue?’ asked Josie. She could not smell anything like the sea, and the air was dry.

‘There are no more trees, and it is very flat, and goes on and on until it is all blurry and fades into the clouds. There are beasts moving out there, very small and far away.’ Tash sounded impressed.

Josie thought of Moses looking out from Mount Nebo at the Promised Land. This was different, though; this was not the place they had longed to go all their lives and were now forbidden to enter, but somewhere quite different.

‘It sounds like it will be an easy enough country to travel on in,’ said Josie.

The dog was already eagerly pressing to move on, running forward and then back to make hopeful sounds back at Josie.

‘There is something that could be a tower, a long way off in the direction the sun rises,’ said Tash.

‘This is as far as we go,’ said Josie, not knowing until she had said the words that she would say them.

‘I’m not sure,’ admitted Tash. ‘It might not be a tower.’

‘Dear Blackbriar,’ Josie called to the dog, who came up and nuzzled at her ankles. ‘We will leave you to seek Aslan from here. It looks like a nice flat country to travel in, without any rivers.’

Blackbriar wagged her tail as if she were a tame dog, but only for a moment, and then stood there panting uncertainly at Josie.

‘We must part here,’ said Josie sadly. ‘I am not ready to go to the lands of men.’

Blackbriar bowed her head, and but did not leave. She nosed about Josie’s legs hopefully.

‘No, this is far enough,’ said Josie, squatting down to pet the dog. ‘Good luck on your journey, dear Blackbriar. I hope you will find what you seek, and restore your people. I hope we will meet again. I expect everything will work out, and we will meet again as well.’

Blackbriar licked Josie’s hand, then padded over to Tash with a pretended carelessness. He put down a hand, and she licked it as well.

‘I hope everything will be good,’ said Tash awkwardly. ‘Goodbye.’

‘Maybe one day we will meet again,’ said Josie.’Goodbye, Blackbriar.’

‘Arf,’ said Blackbriar. She did not leave at once, but after a few more moments of hopeful waiting trotted off down the stony hillside to the south. Josie listened to the clicks of her claws on the stones until she could hear her no more. She felt an enormous sense of relief.

‘Goodbye’ said Josie softly. She took one of Tash’s handa.

‘What are you thinking of, Tash?’

‘Those places. All the other places,’ said Tash. ‘The worlds are so very large and interesting.’

‘The smell of the new country makes me want to go there, too,’ said Josie.

‘There must be a way,’ said Tash.

‘We will visit many places,’ said Josie, kissing Tash’s hand. ‘Together.’ She kissed it again. ‘One day.’ They stood there for a long moment feeling the dusty gum tree wind on their faces.

‘Home?’ suggested Josie.

‘Yes,’ said Tash warmly. ‘Let us go home.’

***

As Tash turned his back on the blue vastness, he saw in a small patch of sandy ground nearby great footprints, like the ones he had seen in the walled garden after the earthquake. The footprints of a lion, leading south. And a fear and a sadness and a horror hid all his happiness from him, like a cloud passing over the sun.

Blackbriar sniffed. ‘I can’t smell anything,’ she said mournfully.

‘I’m pleased to meet you, Blackbriar’ said Josie. ‘Well, I have met you, but I’m pleased to meet you in this shape and learn your name. You will catch your death of cold sitting on the floor like that – can you come with us to the rooms we were in before?’

Blackbriar sniffed again. ‘I don’t like this,’ she said.

Tash stepped towards Blackbriar to help her off the floor, and she shuffled away from him in alarm. ‘Don’t worry,’ said Josie. ‘Tash can help you.’

‘I can,’ said Tash, helpfully.

‘Do you think you can you get up and walk?’ asked Josie.

‘I will try,’ said Blackbriar, and before Josie could get close enough to be of any help Blackbriar had thrust herself up to her feet and was teetering precariously.

‘Hard,’ she said, in what was almost a bark, keeping her balance with a great deal of effort.

‘Here, let me help,’ said Josie, taking the woman’s arm. Tash in turn hovered at her side, anxious to catch Josie if Blackbriar fell and pulled her down.

‘Tricky,’ said Blackbriar, taking her first tentative steps. By the time they had covered the short distance to the magician’s old rooms she was walking about as well as a newly-weaned thalarka. They sat her down on some cushions in a more or less human manner, where she sat with her mouth open staring at everything curiously with her new human eyes. Josie fetched her a dress, which she managed to put on with considerable difficulty.

‘This is very strange,’ said Blackbriar.

‘We are starting to get used to things that are very strange,’ said Josie. ‘Tash is trying to hand you a cup of water; you should take it.’

Blackbriar took the cup warily and awkwardly, not used to having hands, and Tash backed away to crouch by where Josie was sitting.

‘We have done this magic so I can tell you my story,’ said Blackbriar. ‘So I should do that.’ She shook her head like she was trying to get something out of her ear. ‘I sound so very strange.’

‘Please,’ said Josie.

‘Well,’ said Blackbriar, rearranging herself on the cushion so she was curled-up on top of it in a more doglike fashion. ‘My ancestors were wicked, so they were cursed by the Lion and turned into dogs and pigs. This was in my mother’s mother’s mother’s time. They deserved their punishment, because they were wicked, but now we are not wicked, I don’t think. We dogs don’t have much to do with the pigs. We have always lived in this valley where we were first made, both us dogs and the pigs. The wicked magician and his ifrits have always been cruel to us, for as long as we can remember. Maybe he hated our ancestors who were like him. Most of us are stupid because our ancestors bred with dumb animals, but enough of us are clever enough that we still remember where we came from. I always knew I was cleverer than the others – I could think more clearly and connect things that the others could not connect. But I did not know how different I was until you came here. You human girl and you creature were things that were different from anything I had smelled before. Even as we ate the flesh of the wicked magician who had been our enemy for so many years, I was thinking of you. For I remembered a story that everyone else has forgotten, a story told by one of the oldest who is dead now, an oldest who was clever like me. This one told me that we stay in this valley, even though there is little food and the wicked magician is cruel to us- was cruel to us- because one day the Lion will have pity on us and make us talking beasts, if we stay in this place where he can find us. And this one told me that even as when we were turned into beasts, there were two humans from far away who came with the Lion, there will be two humans from far away who will come here when the Lion comes, or maybe before, and their coming will be the sign that we will be delivered. So I went to the leader of the pack, and said to him, even though one of these ones who has come is a creature, it seems like he might be a kind of human, so might it be that these two are the ones who are foretold? But he said no, we are not meant to be talking beasts, that is just a tale for pups. And I would not have quarrelled with my pack, but accepted all that the leader of the pack said, except that I met a wild cat in the forest. It was in a tree when I came by it in the easternmost part of the valley, and it spoke to me, not like a talking beast, but in the way of speaking without words that we dogs have with each other, as if it were a dog rather than a cat. It said, you are right, Blackbriar, the Lion is coming to deliver your people and make new what he made before, and these two are the ones who were foretold, and they can help you to speak and walk among the talking animals of the world and not slink in the shadows. And I said, how do you know these things? But it would not tell me. And I said, how do you know my name, and what is your name? And it said, I know everyone’s name, and you already know my name, and then I was sure that it was the Lion in the guise of a cat. But it went away before I could ask any more questions. Then I did quarrel with the others of my pack, because then it was not just my thinking that you two were the ones foretold, but the words of the cat who was actually the Lion saying you were the ones foretold. So I drew nearer to you when I could, Josie, and tried to tell you of my trouble.’

Blackbriar’s story did not come across in quite the same way as it is written here as it was told by Blackbriar, for she had an itchy spot, and having been a dog very recently she tried from time to time to chew at it, but she could not reach, so instead would twist about so as to rub it against the cushion.

Blackbriar went on. ‘Now I have listened to all that you have said near me, and I do not understand. Is the Lion coming back to make us into talking animals? What am I meant to do, and what are you human girl – Josie – and you creature – Tash – meant to do?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Josie. Truthfully, but not entirely so. ‘His plans are hidden from us.’

‘I know he has been here again,’ said Blackbriar, in her mournful doggy way. ‘But he did not stay. After the earth shook I followed him and the beasts who were with him across the land for four days, but he did not stop. I gave up when I came to a river that I could not cross. With your help, I could cross it.’

‘We thought this food would help you,’ said Tash. ‘We could feed the magic food to the rest of your people, and then they would be changed into men, too.’

‘I do not mean to sound ungrateful,’ said Blackbriar. ‘But I would much rather be a talking dog. This is a very awkward shape. I am sure my people would not like to be men. The story I was told was that we were to be talking animals.’

‘I’m sorry,’ said Josie. ‘I do not think it such a bad shape; but then I guess I wouldn’t. You will quite like it when you have figured out how to use your hands properly, and walk properly.’

‘If you say so,’ said Blackbriar, lowering her head as a dog would do to show Josie was the boss.

‘Which way is this river?’ asked Josie.

‘It is to the south,’ said Blackbriar. ‘The stream that flows through this valley joins a greater water, then a greater, then reaches it. I went back and forth it for a day but it was big with snowmelt and I could find no place to cross. But the Lion and the great creatures who were with him crossed it easily. Why did he not stop to talk with me again? Why did he not make my people new, like he said he would? Do you think we should be punished longer?’

‘I don’t think you should be punished at all for what your ancestors did,’ said Josie. ‘I know- I know Aslan wants us to go to the lands of the men that lie to the south, and take you with us. I expect there is something that we are supposed to do there, before your people can be changed into talking animals.’

‘That is what I thought,’ said Blackbriar. ‘But that is what I do not understand from listening to your talk. Why did you not take me and go after the Lion?’

This is the question that is the problem at the heart of Josie’s story, and is one form of a question that is as old as God and created beings. I will explain as well as I can here what Josie could have said, even though she did not say it. Why did she set out so readily at the say so of the gazelles on a quest to meet Prince Margis, and not return to this same quest once she was free of the magician Yustus? The first reason was just that it was much more difficult to do so. She would be travelling no longer with four companions through a friendly country that they knew well, following their directions, but would have to find her own way through a wild and unknown land with companions little less ignorant than herself. The second was that she had become more fearful of what the men of this world might be like, both on her own account and on that of Tash, since she had spoken with Yustus and Zardeenah, and lived so long at the whims of the evil magician. The third, and a very great reason, was that she had fallen into a strange love with Tash, and that she knew very well without having to have it prophesied that if she left this place and went to the human lands this love would be impossible and they would be separated. And the fourth was what Miss Miles had muttered as she closed the door at the very beginning of this story, which was that she was a wilful girl, and having found her feet in this new world was overproud and no longer content to be ordered about. But Josie could not very well say any of these things to Blackbriar.

‘We need to keep the secrets of this place out of the hands of wicked men,’ said Josie. To her own ears she did not sound as if she really believed it.

‘If you say so,’ said Blackbriar, bowing her head.

‘We will still do what we can to help you,’ Josie promised.

They showed Blackbriar how to pick up food with her hands and eat it, and she admitted that hands would be very useful once she got the hang of them. ‘These are a very poor sort of teeth, though,’ she said. Josie helped Blackbriar to bathe, and to comb her hair after a fashion. ‘It is a mess, I am afraid,’ said Josie. ‘You may have to cut it short and start again.’

‘If you say so,’ said Blackbriar.

Blackbriar did not want to sleep in the magician’s rooms, so they made her a bed in the empty chamber where she had slept the night before as a dog.

***

‘I don’t see how we can keep eating the pigs here anymore, if they used to be people,’ said Josie to Tash, when they were curled up together that night. ‘Ugh’.

‘If you say so,’ said Tash mournfully.

‘You sound like Blackbriar,’ said Josie. ‘Of course we can’t eat them, if they are descended from people. We will just have to find something else to eat.’

‘There are not so many deer, and they are harder to catch,’ said Tash.

‘We will just have to get by,’ said Josie firmly. ‘It makes me feel sick, thinking I have been eating pigs whose great-great-grandmothers were people.’

Tash said something like ‘if you say so’ in a small muttering voice.

Josie decided to change the subject. ‘I never imagined that the magic food would turn Blackbriar into a woman like that. I have never known such magic – well, not since you were turned back from stone.’

‘I am so glad that you turned me back from stone, and I did not stay stone another thousand years, and miss you,’ said Tash.

Josie snuggled up against him and kissed the soft skin at his throat. ‘Me too, dear Tash, me too.’

‘What are we to do with Blackbriar?’ she mused, after a moment. She shifted, rearranging herself against Tash’s chest. ‘I don’t see how we can’t help her. But we don’t have to go all the way to the human lands; we can see that she is kitted out properly, and help her across the river, and stop before we get to the places where men are.’

‘She can go herself now that she is a woman,’ said Tash. He sounded nervous to Josie. She was nervous herself. It was not just a matter of deciding one way or another, once and for all: there would be one decision, and then another, and then another, and maybe they would all be like they seemed to be in recent days, complicated decisions with no easy or comfortable answers.

‘But she doesn’t know anything about being a human,’ said Josie. ‘She will need help. At least at the beginning. And maybe, maybe that will be enough.’

‘Maybe,’ said Tash. But Josie did not think he believed it. She thought he did not believe there was anything he could do to escape the words of Aslan, telling him that they were destined to be separated.

‘We don’t know that there is really destiny,’ said Josie. ‘It seems to me it is just the Lion deciding one way or another, and if you do something different, he can always decide a different way again.’

‘That’s not what he said,’ Tash said gruffly.

Josie decided to change the subject again. She ran her hand over Tash’s chest. ‘You feel dry,’ she said. ‘Does it itch?’

‘Not as much as it used to,’ he said. ‘It is better now that the weather is warmer and I do not spend so much time by the fire. But I did not have a bath today.’

‘We could go and have a bath now,’ said Josie, turning so that her body was pressed against Tash’s side and throwing one leg over him.

‘That would be good,’ said Tash.

‘Or, in a few minutes,’ said Josie, kissing his neck again. She slid her foot back and forth, and Tash began to hiss softly and hold her tightly to his chest, and she gave herself up to being a female creature.

***

When they awoke Blackbriar had turned back into a dog, and when Josie put another piece of pickled turnip in front of her she only turned her head aside.

‘I suppose she said all she wanted to say,’ said Josie. ‘And she really did not like being a woman.’ She petted Blackbriar. ‘And I suppose too, this means it is more complicated to turn them back than we thought.’ She found that she was crying.

‘Don’t cry, Josie,’ said Tash, picking up the unresisting girl. ‘You will figure out what to do.’ He held his hand against her tears, and once again felt that strange tingle through the whole of his body.

‘We will figure out what to do,’ said Josie, and kissed him. ‘Together.’

‘Yes,’ said Tash. ‘Together.’