The snow crunches under my feet as I struggle with a mouthful of pine needles.
“Well, at least the trees haven’t changed,” I mutter, “and it’s still freezing.”
I push back branches until I can see my way ahead. Snowflakes drift down, but not enough to blind me. Catching some stray ones on my tongue, I blink away the rest. In front of me, closer than I remember, the old glow casts shadows in the surrounding wood.
“I guess that’s as good a place as any to start,” I whisper. Pulling my borrowed fur coat closer around my shoulders, I head for the light. Wind rattles the trees, sneaking down my collar to send the chill inside me.
“Should’ve come back in the summer,” I grumble. “Clear oceans, warm breezes, sailing.”
The wind reaches an uncanny howl, almost throwing me against the lamp-post. I blink up at the light, still shining behind frosted glass, and press my fingers against the metal.
“It’s still here.” The wind calms, and the trees seem to lean closer. Somewhere nearby, a bird sings out. I don’t have to look to know it’s a redbird.
“Of course it’s still here. Where else would it be?”
I turn. He’s standing behind me, at an angle to the lamp-post, so that the light catches the outline of his shorts and jumper. I can’t help smiling.
“Should I go back for another coat?” I ask. “If you haven’t noticed, it’s cold.”
He nods. “Of course it’s cold. You picked the wrong time to come back, you know.”
The wind turns my sigh to a shiver. “I know. Any chance of some tea?”
He nods again, and I catch just the hint of a smile. “I’ve come to take you to tea. The others insisted we leave some for you.”
He walks away. I run after him, almost catching my feet on the edge of my coat, and we leave the wood behind. Snow doesn’t fall as steadily, even though rocks are slick underfoot. By the time we turn into the familiar cave, I’m no longer iced through. He enters first, to arrange the logs in the already-burning fireplace. I adjust the cups and saucers, removing the lid of the teapot and sniffing the leaves inside.
“Not as large a spread as usual,” I remark. “But still, it’s here.”
He lifts the kettle to fill the teapot. Steam curls around my fingers as I replace the lid, and soon I’m too warm for my coat. Shrugging away the fur, I pull my chair closer to the table. He does the same, and we wait for the tea to steep.
“So the others insisted on the tea, did they?” I try to meet his gaze when I ask the question, but he’s staring into the fire. “And they sent you?”
When he finally looks up at me, I can’t read his expression. “They thought I should come.” As I pour his tea, he adds, “You haven’t come back for a long time.”
I try to smile. “You didn’t used to be this—” I search for the word, but the right one doesn’t come. “You’ve never been like this before. I thought you wouldn’t change.”
He sips his tea without adding any sugar. “Even here, things change.”
I drop two lumps in my cup and slowly stir the tea. “So it matters that I didn’t come back?”
He breaks a biscuit over his cup, but he doesn’t eat it. “In a way, it does matter. You’re not the only one who comes back, but—”
“But you’re lonely,” I prompt. He doesn’t answer right away, and I take a long drink of tea.
“Well, not exactly.” He slides his saucer across the tablecloth, and I fill his cup. “We still meet the others who come back, but we missed you.”
I refill my own teacup. “Don’t you say that to everyone?” He doesn’t answer, and I laugh softly. “Don’t worry, I think I understand. They all matter.”
He adds a lump of sugar to his cup and sips his tea. “More and more are coming back. Some of us wonder why, but I know there must be a reason.”
I take half his uneaten biscuit and crumble the edges. “People come back when they’re tired or afraid, when they need hope. So many need hope now.”
He crumbles the other half of the biscuit. “And they don’t just come back here, either. I’m sure there are other places.”
I smile at him over the edge of my teacup. “No wonder you’re the wise one.”
He almost blushes, but I can’t tell in the firelight. “I still don’t know why you came back to this time. Unless the summer holidays are unbearably hot—”
I laugh. “Sometimes they are. But I really wanted to see the lamp-post again. There’s something reassuring about it, still standing there in a snowy clearing.”
He drinks the rest of his tea, pushing away his cup and saucer. “If you really wanted a holiday, you could have come to the in-between times. We could explore islands, track down a dragon or two, finally catch that stag—but only for his wishes.”
I finish my tea and toss the biscuit crumbs into the fire. “We had plenty of adventures, didn’t we? I won’t deny that in-between times were—wonderful.”
He empties the dregs of the teapot into the flames. “But you can’t fill the in-between times anymore, can you?”
I shake my head. “I don’t have much time for making my own stories. Why do you think it’s been so long?”
He gives me a long look. “You’re getting to be grown up, aren’t you?”
I chuckle. “Well, not entirely. I still found my way back here, didn’t I?” He looks away, but I keep talking. “I don’t think I’ll ever forget this place.”
He breathes deeply. “We all hope you’ll remember.”
For a long moment, we sit in silence. Then I reach for my coat.
“Well, I really should be getting back.” I slide my arms into the fur sleeves and settle my collar. “Thanks awfully for the tea.”
“Thanks awfully?” He opens the door, letting in the wind. “Do you still talk like that?”
Now I’m the one blushing, or maybe it’s just the cold. “I think you said something very like it, one of these times.”
We step out into the snow. The wind quiets, but the trees still sway gently. I hear the redbird again as it flits across our path. When we reach the lamp-post, he stops.
“Thanks awfully for opening our book again,” he whispers.
“You’re welcome, of course.” I glance over my shoulder. The path home is open, but I look back to the lamp-post. “Edmund?”
The lamplight catches his smile. “Yes, reader?”
I smile back. “Thanks for the tea.”