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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.