"Gone!" ran the tumult through the trees, a rising wave that rattled the forests and broke the concentration of Oreius drilling his soldiers on the training grounds. "They were among us, and then they were not, and they are gone! Oh, our kings and queens! Gone!"
"Gone?" in breathless whispers from the warriors around him as the dryads raced the news to Cair Paravel. The eyes that were not following the messengers turned toward him; hands grasped weapons with uncertain intent.
"We must wait," he said, as the ice that had been slowly creeping through his veins all at once threatened to shatter his heart, "but make ready." The soldiers, well-trained as they were, grasped the orders as sailors grasp rope in a storm. Oreius watched them go with a stillness as though the Witch herself had arisen and turned him once more to stone.
"General?" ventured a voice from beside him. The young squire who had come to watch the arms practice spoke, but Oreius could not bear to turn toward him. "What are we to do? If they are truly gone," he added hastily, likely remembering the advice of his betters to take nothing on hearsay.
"General?" he asked again, softer, when Oreius did not respond. Then he, too, fell silent and still.
"The stars do not lie," the centaur murmured at last. "Men lie. Trees and waters and beasts lie. The stars do not lie."
"What do the stars say?" whispered the squire uncertainly, afraid of the answer. Oreius's hand clenched into a fist that nearly drew blood from his palm.
It was dark, except for the bright pinpricks of light scattered across the sky. Oreius stood, stargazing. Both Tarva and Alambil had grown faded and faint. Aeolus, the herald of change, was streaking across the sky at an unprecedented rate; by tomorrow night, if his path remained unaltered, he would be beyond the western horizon. The Leopard, usually so constant, had contracted, as though crouched low and ready to spring—or cowering before Aoelus's passage. The Queen's Crown in the north was scattered, unidentifiable.
The Kings and Queens and their large hunting party had ridden west in pursuit of the White Stag. Oreius's blood began to freeze.
He suddenly turned, startling the squire into motion after so long in stillness. "Return to the castle," he said, "This is not a time to be alone."
But the young man remained. "I am not alone," he said, then asked with more conviction, "What do the stars say, sir?"
But as they stood staring at each other, the cry of an eagle sounded far up away to the west. Both Oreius and the squire looked to the sky, and Oreius held out his arm. With another piercing cry Fairwind dove, landing on the centaur's forearm with sure talons.
"General," she said in her sharp, bright voice, then hesitated.
"Report!" he barked.
She dipped her head. "I was tracking the hunters from above. As they traversed Lantern Waste, all except the Four eventually dropped back. They stopped at a clearing and conferred, then left the horses and continued into a thicket on foot. I could not see them in the trees, and though I watched until the courtiers came none of them exited the thicket, and nor did anyone or anything else." She drew her wings closer to her body; her grip tightened on Oreius's vambrace. "They disappeared, General. They are gone."
"No!" cried the squire. "We need them here. Aslan sent them! They cannot be gone!"
"Peace!" commanded Oreius. "It is what the stars have predicted, though I did not understand at the time. And if it is written in the stars, it is Aslan's will." Though his face remained stern, his arm shook where Fairwind gripped it and his chest heaved. "Now go to the Cair, both of you, and make your report." With another nod, the eagle took off once more, and, more hesitantly, the human followed on foot.
Alone, Oreius bowed his head, clenched his teeth, and shuddered in wordless agony.
By the next day, Oreius and his swiftest soldiers were in Lantern Waste. There they met the remainder of the hunting party and were shown the clearing with the tree of iron where the Four had left their horses. All the thickets around the clearing were ordinary thickets; all the trees could only say, "they were here one moment and not the next!"
"Sorcery!" said Peridan, his eyes hard and his face white. "Some devilry has taken them from us."
The hunters and soldiers began murmuring their agreement. "We must find them!" hissed an Elk. "They may be in terrible danger." He shook his antlered head. The crowd began baring teeth and fingering weapons.
"Peace!" growled Oreius. He opened his mouth to continue when a creak behind him revealed an old Hamadryad stepping from his tree, blinking slowly and sadly. They all turned.
"Such things have been seen before…" the Hamadryad said, voice a whisper of wind through the branches, "though not exactly…no…" He trailed off. The Elk stamped impatiently.
The Hamadryad shivered back to awareness. "It is just as they appeared…yes…" he continued, slowly, "one moment not-there, the next…there…It is how humans have always appeared…" He blinked at the group in a sort of solemn sadness and returned to his tree. Silence fell on the wood.
A flash of white in the forest caught Oreius's attention and he suddenly pivoted on his hind hooves and galloped toward it. The rest, startled, followed as quickly as they could a moment later.
Though the trees Oreius raced, heart pounding hard and fast. If…he could…maybe…unfinished thoughts swirled through his head, hope warring with doubt. He stumbled into another clearing, sped through it with a final rush of speed, and touched the hindquarters of the Beast he was pursuing even as it reached the forest on the other side.
The White Stag stopped, turned, and bowed low his magnificent head.
Oreius's breath heaved. His blood roared in his ears.
Some of the crowd behind rushed into the clearing, then stopped, stunned. The Stag paid them no mind, but said, "Hail Oreius, son of Arrius, General and protector of Narnia. Thou hast pursued and caught me, and by the laws of Aslan I am thine to command. What wouldst thou wish, O Loyal One?"
"Thank Aslan," breathed Peridan behind him, and snorts and stomps of approval followed the courtier's words.
"I wish," said Oreius, then paused. The stars did not lie. The stars showed Aslan's will. Aslan's will… "If I were to wish them back…" He stopped again, staring into the Stag's eyes.
"All wishes are mine to fulfill," the Beast replied, "but not all can be granted without a price."
"What would be the price?"
The White Stag raised his head high and shook his antlers. "Does your grief," he said, "not spare another's? You think only of present loss. Is the time of their return in your hands, O Son of the Stars? Would you take from the future its hope?"
The centaur bowed his head, ignoring the soft denials from behind him. "Aslan's will, not mine," he whispered, and the Stag stamped his foot in approbation. "Aslan's will, not ours!" Oreius repeated, conviction threading his voice with strength even as tears gathered in his eyes.
"I wish them joy," he said, "and protection in Aslan's paws, until He call them back."
"This I have heard, and this I will grant," said the Stag. "Wouldst thou wish aught else?"
"That Narnia," said the centaur, "and I myself, would trust in the Lion, remembering that his times are not our times, and that all of His own are safe in His keeping."
"You have chosen wisely, O Faithful One," cried the Stag, "And all these things will be added unto you. Weeping may endure for the night, but behold! joy cometh in the morning!" And with a great leap he was gone. The wood was silent once again.
Oreius turned slowly back to the group of Narnians. Peridan met his gaze with sorrowful but steadfast eyes, and he urged his horse forward until he could grasp the centaur's shoulder with a trembling hand. "They were never ours to keep," he whispered.
"Aslan gives and Aslan takes away," said Oreius, and bowed his head. "Blessed be his name."
A/N: Inspired by Chapter 15 of BrokenKestral's story "Crown of Life." Thanks for the encouragement to write this, my friend!