Thy bountiful care, what tongue can recite?
It breathes in the air, it shines in the light,
It streams from the hills, it descends to the plain,
And sweetly distills in the dew and the rain.
Frail children of dust, and feeble as frail,
In Thee do we trust, nor find Thee to fail;
Thy mercies how tender, how firm to the end!
Our Maker, Defender, Redeemer and Friend!
"O Worship the King", words by Robert Grant, 1833
Horses ran under the moonlight, a calculated and swift charge, a last charge, the last night before this venture would have to be abandoned, for past this wood the border of that country ended. The horses' riders were bent to their steeds' necks. Their eyes were strained in the darkness, trying to make out a white, incredibly fast shape in the forest ahead, the object of their hunt. Each rider had a quiver and arrows at their back or strapped onto their saddle, but this creature was not to be felled by a weapon. This was a hunt of greater skill.
Peter the High King was one of these four riders, and the other three were his sibling monarchs, and they had been riding for five days in a pursuit that had ranged from the northern borders down to the Cauldron Pool and back north again, here to the Western Wood. Peter's hair was hanging unkempt below his crown—heaven only knew how that had managed to stay on his head all this time—and his breath came rapidly, timed with the rhythmic heaving of his horse beneath him. All of them had lost sleep on this venture and battled inner demons as they strove after their quarry. Such personal conflict was not without good reason. The White Stag was said to give wishes to those who could capture him, in return for his life. It was not a brutal endeavor, for no one would really kill such a magnificent beast. It was a desperate one.
Aslan heal me of my pride, prayed Peter silently in his mind, as their horses pounded through a thicket overhung with chestnut branches. I will do what I can to protect this country. War was gathering like a darkness over the sea, from the islands of the east whose current rulers did not approve of Narnian legal standards; and King Peter, although he had fought many battles and successfully defended many places and people, was tired of war…and this made him afraid.
He feared an army invading his country and killing his people. He feared riding away after a mysterious beast while he could be planning how to solve the crisis at Cair Paravel. More than anything else he feared what might happen if he caught the Stag and wished for help, for a defender, and then had to watch as someone else took care of Narnia and he was left, alone, weak, letting a new champion protect what was rightfully his. His own feelings, however, were not important. All that mattered was the protection and defense of that which he held dear.
The horses rounded a corner of pines and came out into a more open section of the wood, and the riders could see the Stag clearly before them, galloping ahead with his black hoofs kicking up the autumn turf in the faint moonlight.
"We'll have him soon," called out Susan loudly from a few yards away.
It would not have been easy to see in the darkness, but Queen Susan wore a brilliantly tailored riding cloak, and the dress beneath it was as beautiful as she was. Even her clothes for such a strenuous journey were made with the utmost care to detail and perfection; for there was something that she wanted, and she had not gotten it yet.
Susan ducked to avoid a black branch of needles that suddenly loomed in her vision. She wanted to be married. No, she wanted love. Marriage was clearly easy to obtain in this world, yet none of her suitors—and she had been searching for a long time—had offered her true affection. How, she had always wondered, could someone be happy without affection? Her brothers and sister loved her dearly, and she them, but they were only three people, and they could not love her as deeply as a true love might. Years of entertaining princes and ambassadors had worn down her optimism. She kept dressing in finery and doing up her hair as becomingly as it would allow, but each embroidered cloak and southern hairstyle was another admittance to desperation. She had nowhere else to look.
But it could not be right to submit and accept untrue affection, that which did not come from a loving heart, so she kept looking nonetheless.
The White Stag gave a bellowing cry and swerved left. The horses, caught off guard for only the briefest of moments, followed. To the right King Edmund caught sight of a towering grove of pine trees, too thick to allow passage. To the left—he squinted ahead—something dark and solid was nearing. They were close to the part of the wood where the fauns lived in their caves. It might be a cliff side.
Excitement began to rush through the veins of the riders. They all knew it. This could be the end, the goal which they had been pursuing for five days. Rumor said that sometimes the Stag would let himself be captured. Legend said that it always did. Edmund did not care if other hunters would consider such a prize too easy to take. The real prize which awaited him was too valuable to abandon for pride's sake.
He knew it would be foolish to ask for perfection. A Stag, however magical, could not give him that. Yet he could help him, if only a little. Edmund had always known that there was a part of his soul which had taken something from the shadowed war camp of the witch, all those years ago, and had not let go of it, even now. It stayed there, dark and clinging, like a sticky web, latched onto who he was, sitting like a fat black spider and making the deepest parts of his self—the parts which only he could see—appear hideous, poisoned, or simply undesirable.
"Go around and cut him off!" yelled Peter at his side, and Edmund spurred his horse and left the group, speeding up in an arc to where the Stag was bound to arrive. The terrain here gave him the advantage, and he knew in a moment, without question, that they had done it.
A good person could have such a thing lurking within him and yet remain a good person. He knew this, and he knew that he had been rescued and bought from the witch's power a long time ago. It still did not feel complete. He wanted a pure heart.
Something white slammed into him and his steed, and the horse screamed but stood its ground. The Stag backed off, apparently stunned, and stood there, panting, his breath making twin spurts of white steam in the cold autumn air.
Behind it, Peter and Susan and Lucy rode up, guiding their horses to a halt. With the cave wall on one side and four kings and queens standing around him on all the others, the majestic creature was trapped at last. His limbs trembled from exertion but his head and crown of antlers were held high. After all, he was used to being caught.
Lucy, gazing at the beast's snowy-white coat and the way that acceptance and pride gleamed in his eyes, found herself moved. The scene was beautiful and rather sad at the same time. It reminded her of seeing the breathtaking view from the top of Cair Paravel of Narnia, laid out before her in all its splendor: beautiful, and yet rather sad…and yet so beautiful that she wished she could have seen it when it was only beautiful, and not sad at all.
Her brothers and sister, she was sure, had already decided what favors they would ask of the Stag. She did not know yet. She knew what she wanted, but she could not take it and put it into words. It was there, still and quiet within her, but the only times she could feel it were when she stood looking at something like this. It was elusive and yet at the same time always present.
"Well done, kings and queens of Narnia," spoke the Stag, his breath coming in great heaves. "You have pursued your prizes valiantly. I am honor-bound now to offer each of you a wish, a request which I shall do all in my power to grant, though mayhap it be not after the manner of your imaginings."
"We thank you for leading us on such a noble chase." Peter, being the High King, spoke for all of them, also clearly out of breath. "And we are pleased to accept your offer in exchange for your freedom." He put a hand to his side and said nothing for a moment.
"I think," he panted at length, "we will give our sister Queen Lucy the honor of first naming her desire."
Lucy, although she was not sure why, dismounted and dropped her horse's reins, taking a few timid steps closer to the Stag. She wanted to touch his fur, run her fingers along his antlers, or gaze into his deep soulful animal eyes. She knew that she could not. She also knew that she did not know how to name the desire in her heart.
"Lu?" asked Susan quietly when she had not said anything for some time.
Lucy turned back to her siblings. "I don't know," she admitted in a small voice. "I know, but I don't know. I can't put it into words…"
"Some have great difficulty in choosing," said the Stag sympathetically.
"It isn't that at all," said Lucy, looking back to him.
There was another silence, and then Peter said gently, "Lucy, you must say something."
She opened her mouth to speak and then closed it. Then suddenly she blurted out without even deciding anything, "Please may I see Aslan again?"
There was an abrupt whinny from the Stag, and her siblings looked at each other in surprise. Lucy felt immensely foolish as soon as the question had left her mouth. What a question to ask! How impertinent to say such a thing to a humble creature like this! Likely he was a servant of the Lion himself and was horrified by her mentioning the idea. Lucy bowed her head in shame…but she could not help looking up only a moment later to judge the Stag's reaction.
The White Stag was pawing the ground and tossing his head up and down, as Stags and other hoofed creatures do when they are deep in thought. No one said anything. The horses snorted uneasily and twitched their tails.
Then Edmund dismounted from where he was on the Stag's far side and walked over to Lucy. "This is also my wish," he said.
"And mine," said Susan, dismounting and coming over.
There was a moment when they all paused and looked at Peter, each knowing full well what troubles lay on his heart and what kind of a decision he had been ready to make. Lucy wondered if he would still make it.
But Peter looked up at them, and they saw something change in his face. They saw a mask of bravery give way to honest fear, and strength give way to weakness…and Lucy thought it was beautiful, even if it was sad.
"And mine also," whispered Peter, getting down from his horse.
Now the Stag's gaze was on each of them, and there was resolution in his eyes. "You ask for something which I do not know how to give," he said, "for Aslan is at the beck and call of no one. And yet I think there is a way for you to find that which you seek. Are you certain that you have requested what pulls most strongly at your hearts? There will be no going back."
"We are certain," said Peter softly.
"Then follow me."
Turning his head, the Stag began to walk. The monarchs followed him, taking their horses by the reins and leading them after. Looking up beyond the tips of the pines against the starry sky, Lucy could see the moon, white and shining, and it sent a cold little shiver of joy down her spine.
The Stag stopped before a thicket of branches. "Enter," he said. "And may your meeting with the Great Lion be full of peace."
Was there a river of sorrow flowing under the creature's voice? Lucy wondered why there might be…but there was no time to dwell on it now. She dropped her horse's reins and followed her siblings into the thicket.
The branches pulled at their clothes awfully, and more than once she heard Peter or Edmund cry out as a bough of needles hit him in the face or pricked his hands. Susan was struggling against the trees as well. "It's a horrid way to have to get to him," she complained as a sharp twig neatly tore off part of her delicate cloak.
Lucy, with leaves in her hair and sap on her fingers, couldn't agree more.
As they went further on, the branches became softer and less clingy, and everyone sighed in relief when they could take a few steps without hindrance. The Stag and the horses were no longer visible behind them, if one looked over one's shoulder. And suddenly Lucy noticed a very strange thing: the branches and needles had turned brown, as though they were dying, or decaying, or not really…branches…at all…
Then their boots were clunking on something hard, and there was pushing, and shoving, and coats stuffed in one's face, and when they tumbled out of the woods onto a hard floor in a dimly-lit room wearing their old English clothes and all looking like schoolchildren again, they stared at each other in speechless shock.
Far away, beyond their masters' reach now, horses ran under the moonlight, dumb horses who could not explain to the talking ones how they arrived at the stables without riders, where the kings and queens had gone, what was to happen to Cair Paravel now without Peter, or Susan, or Edmund, or Lucy. And the Stag in his good judgment had left the Narnian woods and gone away again, somewhere only he knew, trusting in nothing but the wisdom of Aslan to lead four children in a world they thought they had forgotten.