Once upon a time, there was a land forged from hope and the tyranny of consequence. In this land, there was love and death, loss but also redemption. In many ways it was not so different from our world except, of course, in the details.
The devil is in the details; this is true across all worlds.
The White Witch is dead, but she isn't gone.
You can kill the magician but you can't kill magic. It is restless in the manner of souls separated from bodies, and patient in the manner of those who have all the time in the world. It dances on chill winds, leeches the gold from sunlight, and its laughter mingles with the howls of wolves. Even Cair Paravel, under the aegis of the Lion, is not completely invulnerable against it.
As warm and gentle, as bright and gay as Cair Paravel would seem to you and me, it is as abhorrent to the Witch and her magic. To us, the lights of Cair Paravel warm and illuminate. To her, they burn and blind. But we must keep in mind that, for a witch, there are worse things to face than ashes and darkness.
Narnians often speak of a strange thing that rages around the castle’s spires. Some say it is the wind, some say it is a ghost, some say it is the remnants of a long and bitter scream. There are those who ask is it a dark magic? for there are those who claim that on those nights, they fall prey to nightmares, fevers, and circuitous anger. It is a bad omen, they mutter to each other. There are those who still ask is it the Witch, back from the dead? But such questions are thrown to the heap during times like these, that is to say times during which every heart is open and every wine flows. Everyone is filled with the awe of recent liberation, and it tints the days with a golden sheen and a cheerful confidence that, thousands of years from now, their descendants would remember these glorious times and long for them. The Narnians count themselves lucky to be living in this day and age, and hesitate to mar it with dark thoughts – they have had enough of those already.
Besides, they assure each other, only Aslan may rise again from the dead without the help of Queen Lucy’s cordial, and the Stone Table is cracked in two.
King Edmund alone suspects. The chill is familiar, the voice in his dreams even more so. During such times, he is seized by strange humors, which he deflects into his sparring. Always his opponents end up bested, the king’s sword at their necks and the king himself, chest heaving and his eyes wild, ready for another go. He appears relieved when Tumnus informs him the Giants have begun to pillage again, and rides north as fast as Philip can carry him, his army at his heels and the shape of Cair Paravel receding behind him, smaller and smaller and gone. (Yet even on the battleground, bloodstained and surrounded by death, it calls to him: the memory of a promise as the wind whips around him, as the sun sinks in the sky and lengthens shadows. He cannot distinguish the screams from the buzzing of the flies.)
Years pass, and when the youths ask their elders what is that thing which screams in the skies above Cair Paravel? the elders smile their wise and wrinkled smiles and reply it is but the wind.
And at this, the wind (if it is, in fact, the wind) would laugh.
Magic is not a thing. You can kill things but it’s not so easy to kill how things work. You cannot kill magic in the same way you cannot kill hope, or beauty, or fear. They will be there long after the things they describe have turned to dust.
There is a shadow and a scream that crawls over the mountains and rakes its claws upon the ground. There is a song of revenge that is beginning to be sung by the creatures that haunt the dark places of the world.
The White Stag appears when the veil between the worlds is thin.
For all this talk of reading the right sort of books and knowing the right sort of stories, the Kings and Queens are strangely ignorant of this. The Stag has, after all, walked the woods beyond Camelot, guided Pwyll to the sacred hunting grounds, and brought Eustachius to his knees and to his god. But perhaps we must excuse the Kings and Queens this oversight; the present has a habit of destroying the past, and they have long forgotten the other world from where they came in order that they may rule over this one.
Although it is not given to us to know any other story but our own, one can’t help but wonder what would have happened had the Kings and Queens known that Tumnus was not entirely correct. The White Stag does not grant wishes – it is the wish. It is both messenger and message, and, like magic, is neither good nor evil. It simply is, wherever it is called and whenever a wheel needs to be turned, a door to be closed, a knot unraveled. The Stag will be here long after the stories about it have settled into the dust of time.
When one chases after it, as King Arthur and his knights did a thousand years ago in another world, the point is not to catch the beast, howsoever much you want to, howsoever much you feel you must. No one has ever caught the Stag and no one ever will. When one hunts the White Stag, one tastes the tang of magic in the air and one quickly understands: some things cannot be caught, some things cannot be killed. The difference between ‘cannot’ and ‘are not meant to’ is small in this case, is merely a detail when you consider the grander story into which it is enmeshed. But remember that the devil is in the details. This is true across all worlds.
Remember that sometimes the past takes revenge.
At the iron tree, Queen Susan suggests they turn back.
We have never turned back before, says the High King.
We should not turn back now, adds Queen Lucy.
Not for the richest jewel in all of Narnia, agrees King Edmund.
And as the Queen Susan furrows her pretty brow and weighs their statements, King Edmund thinks he hears the echo of ragged laughter whispering in the treetops, and frowns. It doesn’t sound like any Talking Beast he knows. His brother and sisters do not seem to have heard anything at all. King Edmund looks around him but he only sees the grayness of the forest and the long darkening shadows. That’s curious, he thinks to himself. Is it nearly evening? How long have they been hunting this Stag?
“Let us go on,” declares Queen Susan, “and take the adventure that shall fall to us.”
And even if the White Stag did grant wishes, the Kings and Queens ought to know better by now than to accept gifts of magic.
What you take, you must also give.
What is begun must have an end.
“Would that I had a thicker cloak,” Queen Lucy murmurs as they disappear into the thicket: the High King first, then Queen Susan, followed by herself and King Edmund beside her. “It is unseasonably cold.”
“It is but the wind, sister,” replies King Edmund.
He doesn’t look back. Behind him, the refrains of joyous songs rise from deep caves and roll down the frozen mountains. He doesn’t think further on how it is growing chilly for a summer afternoon, so much so that ice frosts the White Stag’s footprints and glitters in the sunlight, twinkling once, twice, before the shadows slither close and extinguish it in their embrace.