CHAPTER NINE: THE GREAT MEETING ON STABLE HILL
Fop, a long time they could not speak nor even shed a tear. Then the Unicorn stamped the ground with his hoof, and shook his mane, and spoke.
“Sire,” he said, “there is now no need of counsel. We see that the Ape’s plans were laid deeper than we dreamed of. Doubtless he has been long in secret traffic with The Tisroc, and as soon as he had found the lion-skin he sent him word to make ready his navy for the taking of Cair Paravel and all Narnia. Nothing now remains for us seven but to go back to Stable Hill, proclaim the truth, and take the adventure that Aslan sends us. And if, by a great marvel, we defeat those thirty Calormenes who are with the Ape, then to turn again and die in battle with the far greater host of them that will soon march from Cair Paravel.”
Tirian nodded. But he turned to the children and said: “Now, friends, it is time for you to go hence into your own world. Doubtless you have done all that you were sent to do.”
“B – but we’ve done nothing,” said Jill who was shivering, not with fear exactly but because everything was so horrible.
“Nay,” said the King, “you loosed me from the tree: you glided before me like a snake last night in the wood and took Puzzle: and you, Eustace, killed your man. But you are too young to share in such a bloody end as we others must meet tonight or, it may be, three days hence. I entreat you – nay, I command you – to return to your own place. I should be put to shame if I let such young warriors fall in battle on my side.”
“No, no, no,” said Jill (very white when she began speaking and then suddenly very red and then white again.) “We won’t, I don’t care what you say. We’re going to stick to you whatever happens, aren’t we, Eustace?”
“Yes, but there’s no need to get so worked up about it,” said Eustace who had stuck his hands in his pockets (forgetting how very odd that looks when you are wearing a mail shirt). “Because, you see, we haven’t any choice. What’s the good of talking about our going back! How? We’ve got no magic for doing it!”
This was very good sense but, at the moment, Jill hated Eustace for saying it. He was fond of being dreadfully matter-of-fact when other people got excited.
When Tirian realized that the two strangers could not get home (unless Aslan suddenly whisked them away), he next wanted them to go across the Southern mountains into Archenland where they might possibly be safe. But they didn’t know their way and there was no one to send with them. Also, as Poggin said, once the Calormenes had Narnia they would certainly take Archenland in the next week or so: The Tisroc had always wanted to have these Northern countries for his own. In the end Eustace and Jill begged so hard that Tirian said they could come with him and take their chance – or, as he much more sensibly called it, “the adventure that Aslan would send them”.
The King’s first idea was that they should not go back to Stable Hill – they were sick of the very name of it by now till after dark. But the Dwarf told them that if they arrived there by daylight they would probably find the place deserted, except perhaps for a Calormene sentry. The Beasts were far too frightened by what the Ape (and Ginger) had told them about this new angry Aslan – or Tashlan – to go near it except when they were called together for these horrible midnight meetings. And Calormenes are never good woodsmen. Poggin thought that even by daylight they could easily get round to somewhere behind the stable without being seen. This would be much harder to do when the night had come and the Ape might be calling the Beasts together and all the Calormenes were on duty. And when the meeting did begin they could leave Puzzle at the back of the stable, completely out of sight, till the moment at which they wanted to produce him. This was obviously a good thing: for their only chance was to give the Narnians a sudden surprise.
Everyone agreed and the whole party set off on a new line – North-West – towards the hated Hill. The Eagle sometimes flew to and fro above them, sometimes he sat perched on Puzzle’s back. No one – not even the King himself except in some great need – would dream of riding on a Unicorn.
This time Jill and Eustace walked together. They had been feeling very brave when they were begging to be allowed to come with the others, but now they didn’t feel brave at all.
“Pole,” said Eustace in a whisper. “I may as well tell you I’ve got the wind up.”
“Oh you’re all right, Scrubb,” said Jill. “You can fight. But I – I’m just shaking, if you want to know the truth.”
“Oh shaking’s nothing,” said Eustace. “I’m feeling I’m going to be sick.”
“Don’t talk about that, for goodness’ sake,” said Jill.
They went on in silence for a minute or two.
“Pole,” said Eustace presently.
“What?” said she.
“What’ll happen if we get killed here?”
“Well we’ll be dead, I suppose.”
“But I mean, what will happen in our own world? Shall we wake up and find ourselves back in that train? Or shall we just vanish and never be heard of any more? Or shall we be dead in England?”
“Gosh. I never thought of that.”
“It’ll be rum for Peter and the others if they saw me waving out of the window and then when the train comes in we’re nowhere to be found! Or if they found two – I mean, if we’re dead over there in England.”
“Ugh!” said Jill. “What a horrid idea.”
“It wouldn’t be horrid for us,” said Eustace. “We shouldn’t be there.”
“I almost wish – no I don’t, though,” said Jill.
“What were you going to say?”
“I was going to say I wished we’d never come. But I don’t, I don’t, I don’t. Even if we are killed. I’d rather be killed fighting for Narnia than grow old and stupid at home and perhaps go about in a bath-chair and then die in the end just the same.”
“Or be smashed up by British Railways!”
“Why d’you say that?”
“Well when that awful jerk came – the one that seemed to throw us into Narnia – I thought it was the beginning of a railway accident. So I was jolly glad to find ourselves here instead.”
While Jill and Eustace were talking about this, the others were discussing their plans and becoming less miserable. That was because they were now thinking of what was to be done this very night and the thought of what had happened to Narnia – the thought that all her glories and joys were over – was pushed away into the back part of their minds. The moment they stopped talking it would come out and make them wretched again: but they kept on talking. Poggin was really quite cheerful about the night’s work they had to do. He was sure that the Boar and the Bear, and probably all the Dogs would come over to their side at once. And he couldn’t believe that all the other Dwarfs would stick to Griffle. And fighting by firelight and in and out among trees would be an advantage to the weaker side. And then, if they could win tonight, need they really throw their lives away by meeting the main Calormene army a few days later?
Why not hide in the woods, or even up in the Western Waste beyond the great waterfall and live like outlaws? And then they might gradually get stronger and stronger, for Talking Beasts and Archenlanders would be joining them every day. And at last they’d come out of hiding and sweep the Calormenes (who would have got careless by then) out of the country and Narnia would be revived. After all, something very like that had happened in the time of King Miraz!
And Tirian heard all this and thought “But what about Tash?” and felt in his bones that none of it was going to happen. But he didn’t say so.
When they got nearer to Stable Hill of course everyone became quiet. Then the real wood-work began. From the moment at which they first saw the Hill to the moment at which they all arrived at the back of the stable, it took them over two hours. It’s the sort of thing one couldn’t describe properly unless one wrote pages and pages about it. The journey from each bit of cover to the next was a separate adventure, and there were very long waits in between, and several false alarms. If you are a good Scout or a good Guide you will know already what it must have been like. By about sunset they were all safe in a clump of holly trees about fifteen yards behind the stable. They all munched some biscuit and lay down.
Then came the worst part, the waiting. Luckily for the children they slept for a couple of hours, but of course they woke up when the night grew cold, and what was worse, woke up very thirsty and with no chance of getting a drink. Puzzle just stood, shivering a little with nervousness, and said nothing. But Tirian, with his head against Jewel’s flank, slept as soundly as if he were in his royal bed at Cair Paravel, till the sound of a gong beating awoke him and he sat up and saw that there was firelight on the far side of the stable and knew that the hour had come.
“Kiss me, Jewel,” he said. “For certainly this is our last night on earth. And if ever I offended against you in any matter great or small, forgive me now.”
“Dear King,” said the Unicorn, “I could almost wish you had, so that I might forgive it. Farewell. We have known great joys together. If Aslan gave me my choice I would choose no other life than the life I have had and no other death than the one we go to.”
Then they woke up Farsight, who was asleep with his head under his wing (it made him look as if he had no head at all), and crept forward to the stable. They left Puzzle (not without a kind word, for no one was angry with him now) just behind it, telling him not to move till someone came to fetch him, and took up their position at one end of the stable.
The bonfire had not been lit for long and was just beginning to blaze up. It was only a few feet away from them, and the great crowd of Narnian creatures were on the other side of it, so that Tirian could not at first see them very well, though of course he saw dozens of eyes shining with the reflection of the fire, as you’ve seen a rabbit’s or cat’s eyes in the headlights of a car. And just as Tirian took his place, the gong stopped beating and from somewhere on his left three figures appeared. One was Rishda Tarkaan the Calormene Captain. The second was the Ape. He was holding on to the Tarkaan’s hand with one paw and kept whimpering and muttering, “Not so fast, don’t go so fast, I’m not at all well. Oh my poor head! These midnight meetings are getting too much for me. Apes aren’t meant to be up at night: It’s not as if I was a rat or a bat – oh my poor head.” On the other side of the Ape, walking very soft and stately, with his tail straight up in the air, came Ginger the Cat. They were heading for the bonfire and were so close to Tirian that they would have seen him at once if they had looked in the right direction. Fortunately they did not. But Tirian heard Rishda say to Ginger in a low voice:
“Now, Cat, to thy post. See thou play thy part well.”
“Miaow, miaow. Count on me!” said Ginger. Then he stepped away beyond the bonfire and sat down in the front row of the assembled Beasts: in the audience, as you might say.
For really, as it happened, the whole thing was rather like a theatre. The crowd of Narnians were like the people in the seats; the little grassy place just in front of the stable, where the bonfire burned and the Ape and the Captain stood to talk to the crowd, was like the stage; the stable itself was like the scenery at the back of the stage; and Tirian and his friends were like people peering round from behind the scenery. It was a splendid position. If any of them stepped forward into the full firelight, all eyes would be fixed on him at once: on the other hand, so long as they stood still in the shadow of the end-wall of the stable, it was a hundred to one against their being noticed.
Rishda Tarkaan dragged the Ape up close to the fire. The pair of them turned to face the crowd, and this of course meant that their backs were towards Tirian and his friends.
“Now, Monkey,” said Rishda Tarkaan in a low voice. “Say the words that wiser heads have put into thy mouth. And hold up thy head.” As he spoke he gave the Ape a little prod or kick from behind with the point of his toe.
“Do leave me alone,” muttered Shift. But he sat up straighter and began, in a louder voice – “Now listen, all of you. A terrible thing has happened. A wicked thing. The wickedest thing that ever was done in Narnia. And Aslan -“
“Tashlan, fool,” whispered Rishda Tarkaan.
“Tashlan I mean, of course,” said the Ape, “is very angry about it.”
There was a terrible silence while the Beasts waited to hear what new trouble was in store for them. The little party by the end-wall of the stable also held their breath. What on earth was coming now?
“Yes,” said the Ape. “At this very moment, when the Terrible One himself is among us – there in the stable just behind me – one wicked Beast has chosen to do what you’d think no one would dare to do even if He were a thousand miles away. It has dressed itself up in a lion-skin and is wandering about in these very woods pretending to be Aslan.”
Jill wondered for a moment if the Ape had gone mad. Was he going to tell the whole truth? A roar of horror and rage went up from the Beasts. “Grrr!” came the growls. “Who is he? Where is he? Just let me get my teeth into him!”
“It was seen last night,” screamed the Ape, “but it got away. It’s a Donkey! A common, miserable Ass! If any of you see that Ass -“
“Grrr!” growled the Beasts. “We will, we will. He’d better keep out of our way.”
Jill looked at the King: his mouth was open and his face was full of horror. And then she understood the devilish cunning of the enemies’ plan. By mixing a little truth with it they had made their lie far stronger. What was the good, now, of telling the Beasts that an ass had been dressed up as a lion to deceive them? The Ape would only say, “That’s just what I’ve said.” What was the good of showing them Puzzle in his lion-skin? They would only tear him in pieces. “That’s taken the wind out of our sails,” whispered Eustace. “The ground is taken from under our feet,” said Tirian. “Cursed, cursed cleverness!” said Poggin. “I’ll be sworn that this new lie is of Ginger’s making.”