"It seems so long since you've been here."
After an hour of searching the castle and finding no trace of the youngest Queen, High King Peter was at his wit's end and had recruited the help of his siblings, whisking Edmund away from a chess match he was losing anyway and entreating Susan to leave behind an archery lesson with a young Faun.
"Have you asked Tumnus?" Edmund suggested straight off, and Peter nodded miserably.
"He hasn't seen her since early this morning at breakfast, the same time we last saw her." He was beginning to pace and Susan frowned at him mildly.
"Dear, don't," she murmured, and he faltered for a moment but continued to pace anyway. She ignored it gracefully. "I don't believe there's any reason to be worried -- she seemed fine this morning; she's likely off on one of her adventures. She's perfectly safe."
"Susan," Peter said with exasperation, "It isn't like Lu to just wander off and leave the rest of us to worry. She's more thoughtful than that."
"You have a point there," Edmund agreed. "I say we split up and look for her, and meet back here in an hour whether we've found her or not."
"Good idea, Ed," Peter nodded, relieved. "What do you think Su?"
Susan nodded slowly, already beginning to think of where to look for her sister. She thought back to that morning at breakfast, trying to remember anything that might have upset Lucy or at least give some clue as to where the valiant young Queen had gotten off to -- and without any of her closest companions.
She remembered their utter joy as the sun had broken through the clouds and Peter's observation that the weather was warming.
"Yes," Susan had said. "I even saw some new leaves budding on the apple tree by the stream -- you know, the one that lovely Dryad lives in."
Lucy had perked up, asking, "Is she happy about her new leaves? Are they that light green she likes so much?"
They had all smiled at their sweet, dear sister, and Edmund had answered, "I think everyone is just glad to see winter ending. I don't believe she'd mind if her leaves were bright purple."
Lucy had been strangely quiet for the rest of the meal, though Susan had hardly noticed at the time. They had been too busy chatting about their schedules for the day. In fact, now that she thought about it, she couldn't remember seeing Lucy leave the table, though she'd been gone by the time Susan had finished her eggs.
Suddenly, she knew where her sister was and gathered up her skirts, taking off for the stables at a run. Sure enough, Lucy's gray Pony, Polly, was missing, and Susan went to the stall of her own favorite Mare, a rich chestnut beauty with a smooth, quick gait.
"Liana," Susan said breathlessly as she approached the stall, and the Horse put her head over the door, her ears pricked forward. "Dear, I need a favor."
"Good day, Queen Susan," she answered sweetly. "What is the matter?"
"Will you take me to find Lu?" The request was a formality; Susan was already unlatching the stall door. She didn't have a saddle or bridle, as she could ride perfectly well bareback, especially on such a kind mount as Liana.
"Of course, I should be happy to," Liana answered, kneeling so that Susan could easily climb onto her back. As soon as the Queen stopped shifting about, she asked, "Are you ready, your majesty? Where to?"
"The Stone Table, please, Liana."
Susan slid from Liana's back quietly and the mare trotted over to where Polly was pulling up mouthfuls of tender green grass that was beginning to peek up through the snow. Sitting in the archway just beyond the Stone Table, bathed in the blushing golden light of the afternoon, was the person Susan had come looking for.
She sat down beside her little sister without a word, intending to let her be the first to speak, but when she saw the tears on Lucy's face, she couldn't help gasping.
"Why, Lu, whatever is wrong?" she asked, pulling out a handkerchief and gently dabbing the moisture away.
"Winter is melting," Lucy answered in a trembling voice, her eyes welling with tears again. "I thought... I hoped..."
Susan paused to give her a smile of sympathy. "You wanted to see Him again."
Lucy nodded and instantly began sobbing again. Susan gathered her into her arms and stroked her hair, feeling a few tears slip down her own cheeks. Once the girl had quieted, Susan rested her cheek against the top of her head and whispered, "We'll see Him again."
"When?" Lucy wanted to know, her little hands that weren't nearly so little as they had been the year before clenching in the fabric of Susan's skirt.
"I... I don't know, dearest," Susan answered truthfully. "But someday."
"I wanted to see Him /now/," Lucy sighed. "I know it was foolish to think that He was back just because the snows were melting. Seasons change on their own."
"No, I don't think they do," Susan mused. "I think it is just as much a miracle now as it was last year, when the seasons hadn't changed for a hundred years. I think Aslan is still behind this magic."
Lucy sniffled but remained quiet, so Susan continued.
"One day we'll see His face again, and we'll touch Him... but I don't believe you were foolish or silly at all for thinking of Him when the sun came out."
Lucy sat up, wiping her face with her hands, and offered her sister a shaky smile. "Thank you, Su," she said quietly. "He was right, you know."
"About what?" Susan asked, genuinely puzzled.
"When He said you were gentle."
Susan's eyes misted over with unexpected tears and she blinked a few times before she finally whispered, "He wasn't mistaken about you, either, darling. Now come along; I believe Peter has found a bird's nest he wanted to show you."
Lucy's joyful grin broke over her face like the finest springtime sunrise Narnia had ever seen and the girls clasped hands as they rose from the stones and returned to their Horses. The next year, when the apple tree by the stream budded, Susan slipped away from the breakfast table with her sister and they returned to the Stone Table to sit in silence and hope and watch for His beloved face returning from beyond the sea. The year after that, Edmund came with them, and when Peter found them all and discovered the purpose for their waiting, it became something of a family ritual.
But it was the one year when Lucy slipped away before breakfast and her siblings had yet to catch up with her that Aslan returned, and the warmth of His breath on her face was more delicious than the rising sun. When the other Queen and Kings arrived at the Stone Table, hungry and breathless, having abandoned breakfast as soon as they noticed Lucy's vacant chair, she was curled up against His side, her fingers combing through His mane.
They stood awkwardly, unsure of what to do now that He was actually in front of them, and when Susan began to curtsey, the Lion called her name and she thought she might collapse on the ground in front of Him. Instead, she knelt and embraced Him, burying her face in His mane. When He laughed, the warm rumble of his affection and amusement washing over them, and said, "Are the Kings too high to greet their old Friend?" Edmund and Peter also came forward and reclined against Him.
They spent the first morning of Spring that way, the five of them, watching the sun rising over Narnia and melt the snows and talking as old friends do. And when it was time for Him to go, Lucy clung to Him and cried into His fur.
"I'd hoped You were going to stay awhile," she whispered, and He nuzzled her face gently, bathing her tears away.
"You will see Me soon, beloved," He whispered, and she looked at Him with eyes that were afraid.
"How soon?" she asked hesitantly, and He smiled at her, bumping her forehead with His nose.
"Child, to Me, all times are soon. But I will not be late."
As He walked away, Susan grasped Lucy's hand and pulled her into an embrace. They stayed like that until long after His form had faded into the distance and the sun was sinking below the horizon of the Western Wild.