Strange trees along the Western March, over the mountains…”
Jill’s ears perked. She glided into the crowded room, weaving between the assortment of humans and Narnian Beings until she reached the source of the news, a sharp-eyed Stag next to Rilian, one hoof pawing at the marbled floor. An ear flicked her direction, and she was sure he was looking at her from the corner of his eye, but he continued his report, apparently unconcerned by the presence of the King’s close advisor. “Not Dryads, no. The Willows were very certain on this point. They seem to be one and the same with the trees they inhabit. ”
Jill glanced at Rilian, who was also flicking a look her way in between his concentration on the Stag and his account. “They don’t sound malevolent,” he said thoughtfully - Dervish must have filled him in on some details while she was doing all that weaving - “but we should look into it all the same. Jill?”
She grinned. “Already on it.”
A fleet horse and one of the Cheetahs accompanied her, following the Great River and listening to the whisperings of the Trees for their direction. Jill was in her element here. Cair Paravel and its seasides and stream-hewn glades were lovely, but the further she got away from ‘civilization’, the more at home she felt, and the more she felt her sisterhood with the Dryad kindred around her guiding her steps. Near fifteen years of woodcraft amongst Narnia’s many forests and she’d well-earned her reputation in the Narnian court as the human to seek when one needed any sort of guide or tracker. Best of all were times like this, when she didn’t have others jabbering away at her and could simply work her magic in the woods. So to speak. Eustace called it so, but Jill just laughed at him and told him he was ridiculous. Anybody could do it that really wanted to.
She’d kissed him goodbye and told him where she was going and if she wasn’t back in two weeks, she was probably holidaying with the Naiads at the Great Waterfall, and Scrubb had informed her the room would be filled with notes and specimens when she returned, but of course Jill knew (from experience) that those could all be easily swept aside with a few well-placed swipes to clear the bed, and his squawks of protest were always very readily silenced, so there was no trouble there. Secretly, she thought, he liked knowing his girl was a master woodswoman. Lion knew they tramped around together enough to prove it. But of course Scrubb had to grumble about it.
Jill urged her mount on, hearing the quiet footfalls of the Cheetah padding beside her, matching the lope of the horse, and mused on what she’d find. Living Trees who were neither Dryads nor Narnian Trees had never been seen within the borders, but she’d heard tales of them in Archenland books and legends. She’d never thought them real until now, but the Dryads’ stories as they traveled confirmed what the Stag had said: word from the East and South of dozens of newcomers, strange beautiful Beings who walked and talked amongst them but did not Dance. They could not tell her more than this, but she thought on it long and hard as she rode, wondering where they might have come from and why they were in Narnia.
Another day and night had passed before she reached the twists of the River Rush, past Aslan’s Howe, and heard the rumble of distant music towards the edge of the Dancing Lawn. Jill silently turned her horse’s reins in the direction of the sound. Her guard followed without so much as a growl. She’d had Fleetfire’s company before on many occasion, enough to know the Great Cat would trust her instincts without question.
The circle was much wider than the Dances she’d seen before. Leaves crunched underfoot as she slid off her mount and padded through the autumn-touched woods. It was too dark even as fire-light drew closer to see the array of orange and red and brown around her, but the ride had given her ample time to see and smell the signs of impending harvest; not as bountiful a one as in years past, indeed small enough to be worrisome for the winter, but Narnia had withstood much harsher winters. Surely they would pull through again. They'd all just have to tighten their belts a bit more. And meanwhile...fall was undeniably in the air. Jill breathed in the delectable aroma of crisp cool weather and sodden leaves and burning aged wood, all swirled together in what had to be the best smell in the world. She drew near the roaring bonfire, as silently as she could, which was quite, given both her skill and the ruckus of the drumbeats pounding the dancers on.
The familiar faces of Fauns, Satyrs, Dryads, and even a few Minotaurs flashed around the whirling circle, but in their midst were strange Tree-Beings, neither Narnia’s Tree-People who danced in slow-swaying looms of trunks and branches, nor tall lissome Dryads who walked leafy and free of their rooted homes. Instead, they were something between and different altogether, bearing the forms of their own species, with flowing hair-like curtains the colour of sun-ripened corn, faces high on their trunks that glowed rosy in the firelight, and eyes deep and wise peering out from amongst them. Their steps were not so practiced as the Dryads, yet most were light on their feet and seemed to be catching on to the Harvest Dance as easily as anybody not Narnian-born that Jill had ever seen.
As soon as they caught sight of her, the nearest Narnians broke the circle of hands to extend theirs to Jill, and she found herself swept up and into the swirling round. Her laugh was girlish, but her feet remembered the steps from years past and she darted and swung amongst the other dancers like she’d been practicing all season. Far more naturally than any of the court dances, surely; this was hardly more than woodcraft, winding here and there to duck under a branch, over a low-hanging limb, through a bramble. Her hand tangled with twigs that were not a Dryad’s, but as long as the Narnians weren’t worried, Jill wasn’t either.
It was long after they’d all collapsed in front of the crackling bonfire that she had the chance to talk with the newcomers. Entwives, they’d called themselves. Jill listened as they told their tale, of their Ents and gardens in a place they named Middle-earth, and how darkness had stolen all the fruitfulness they loved so much. “We wished to find a place where we might grow such bounty again,” a lithe Birch named Sprightbough sighed. “But the Ents held hope that our old land would become so again, and we did not. Here, though…”
The Entwives rustled appreciatively in unison. Here, it was teeming with life. The air was rich with loam and fallen leaves, the scents of fields ready to be harvested drifting occasionally from the North and South. Every self-respecting Beast had a garden of sorts; the Dwarfs too, though they prided themselves more on their cooking and mining abilities than their green thumbs.
Full from bread and cheese stashed in her pack, Jill curled curiously towards a regal-looking Beech. “Don’t you miss them? The Ents who stayed behind? How will they grow a new world without you, if you all came here?”
The Beech-Entwife’s trunk creaked, rather sadly, Jill thought. “Of course we do, little one. Hoom-hroom. We miss them a very great deal. But we’d miss our growing things even more. The world we left was not meant to grow anything again. Our life must grow here, now.”
The Dryads sussurated in agreement. They liked the Entwives, Jill could tell, and they wished them to stay, as long as they liked. Things must grow, no matter what their mates might hope. There were always places to lay down roots, to pollinate with other Trees, and here they were learning to Dance.
Jill, already cradled in a friendly Holly’s branches and with Fleetfire’s haunches heavy against her legs, nodded sleepily in sympathy. There was nowhere better than Narnia, she was sure, to call home. “They must…miss you too…” she murmured, her head drooping. Such nice Trees they were, and how could the Ents survive without them? She’d miss her Scrubb terribly if he wasn’t here with her, at least a good deal of the year. She’d manage, of course, but it wouldn’t be nearly as nice in Narnia without him.
“They do, hoom,” rumbled Limbshadow’s voice from her right, but Jill was already nodding asleep, and the ruminations slipped their way into her dreams that night.
She spent the next week or so showing the Entwives about Narnia, walking as often as she rode, and seeing the valleys and forests through new eyes again as she unearthed each fertile corner of her country to them. It was abundantly clear to Jill (as it was to every other Narnian) that the Entwives might be trusted implicitly, and welcomed as one of their own. No question of whether they might be allowed to set up shop there; one day in the community gardens and fields of crops, and Jill and the Dryads could see how skillful the Entwives could harvest, which implied equal skills at plowing and planting and caretaking. Narnia would blossom with tenfold fruitfulness with their assistance. They even showed how to glean the most from the wheat and corn that had made it to harvest, ways that the Narnians marveled at and learned eagerly from.
“Next year, strawberries would replenish these fields,” Sprightbough declared with a sage, leaf-shaking nod, and Jill made a note to pass on all these suggestions to Rilian and all the Crop Dryads.
The Narnian Harvest was far more plentiful than she had dared to hope that year, enough to last the winter, wondrously, and even a bit leftover for trade. Jill helped transport the precious bushels to the ports and trading posts in the Archen Pass for necessary goods, and a caravan of Dwarf-hewn metals down to Tashbaan this year for the spices and other sundries they relied upon in the harsh of winter. (Eustace had joined her on that trip, claiming an interest in some Calormene herbs and minerals only available fresh, and they’d stocked up on plenty of exotic ingredients there in between availing themselves of the bathhouses and luxurious accommodations.) They’d made it back to Cair Paravel in plenty of time for the Yuletide festivities, for of course nobody wished to miss Father Christmas’s annual visit to Narnia.
But the midwinter’s night she’d snuck out to Owl Wood for a run under the new moon, Jill couldn’t help feeling the starkness of the bare-limbed trees sink into her flesh with a warning chill she hadn’t felt before. A turning...the year, as they had counted it, back in Spare Oom? She could hardly remember it, that place the Narnians spun legends of, where the Four had come from, but there were new years at the end of the Solstice. Her fingers shook uncharacteristically on her bow, and her shot missed the dumb deer that skittered away into the skeletal trees. It was all right. She was in no mood to skin a living creature tonight anyways.
Scrubb tucked her close with a grunt when she slunk back into bed. “Dreaming again?” he mumbled. “Restless,” Jill said, softly, but contentedness and weariness alike stole over her in Scrubb’s arms, and she slept without stirring the rest of the night.
Her dreams were hard to remember these days, but they left her with a sense of longing for something she couldn’t explain. Jill paced through the halls of the castle, the snow hardly enough to keep her from hoofing it out there into the banks on snow-shoes, but even the Dryads and Naiads slumbered quietly in their nooks of trees and streams, and there was no one to talk to out there but the Robins and the occasional Beaver.
Rilian just smiled and told her she should be hibernating along with all her sister Nymphs, but Scrubb understood, and distracted her more than usual with all of his research and cataloguing, recruiting her services even though Jill made a rather fidgety assistant. They poked and prodded at his specimens, with some quite terrific rows that sent the motherly Raccoons stowed up in Cair Paravel skittering to their raucous apartment several times, only to be dismissed while muttering about the very odd nest the Son of Adam and Daughter of Eve had set up for themselves.
“Clap-trap cnidarian,” Jill shouted.
“Slip-shod suffragette,” Edmund shouted back, which was still a very great insult by his mother’s standards, but somehow they managed to make up by the end of the night, and when Mrs. Heftpaw next scampered past, behind the door there were just the sort of whimpers the silly Humans made when they were doing what nesting pairs should do. She chattered, satisfied, and continued her rounds through the castle.
Somehow, painfully slowly, winter clawed its way into the bare trappings of a chilly springtime, and Jill bundled up and made her way out to the huddles of Trees to talk soil and thaws and plantings. The Entwives knew of ways even the Dryads had never heard of, and the proof of the Harvest gave them all the incentive they needed to try what the newcomers suggested. They made the necessary preparations, and then came the waiting.
The waiting was the worst, Jill decided. She fidgeted more than usual, and Eustace yelled more than usual, and the Raccoons despaired of ever getting any peace, and the current Mrs. Beaver patted her hand and asked if she had a cub on the way, which Jill denied very fervently. The Beasts might think it was maternal restlessness, or cabin fever, but she knew better. This year was worse than usual. Much worse.
She knew the legends, the ancient histories of the Four and their departure from Narnia, and Scrubb had told them their side of the story too. Yet the whispers of the legendary Stag that wound through the faint-budded Trees brought broader ripples of rumours through Cair Paravel. With the Stag came Aslan. The Centaurs predicted his return sometime this decade, something about the alignment of the Stars, which Jill found quite as they should be normally, nothing out of the ordinary. They glinted with the same friendly twinkle she always remembered, brilliant in the cold air. Still, she looked forward to Spring’s coming proper.
Everyone had an opinion on whether to go on the hunt. “Considering what happened the first time, Sire,” Mr. Avilius opined, “it would be foolish to chance it.” “Better a bird in hand than two in the bush,” croaked the Raven, and Jill could swear she’d heard that before, but never from an actual Bird’s beak. Dervish was all for it, as long as they didn’t actually shoot at the Stag, which brought horrified gasps from all the Narnians in the room. As if they would even consider such an atrocity.
But when Rilian turned to Jill for her advice, she found herself stammering. “I...haven’t much wisdom on this, in comparison with the others.” In truth, she felt Avilius and Darkwing had it about right. Why poke their nose into matters that could prove so momentous, just for the sake of a wish granted? “But...I think we are very happy as we are. What more could we want?”
Jill already knew. Plenty. Narnia had done quite well for itself in the fifteen years of Rilian’s reign, but she had rebellious Islands threatening to break off from the empire and sabotaging her trade routes with piracy. Moreover, as Jill knew from her close association with her King, Rilian was lonely, and twice as picky as Caspian in his selection of a partner to share his reign with. She couldn’t blame him. She couldn’t imagine anybody less than Scrubb partnering with her, and she wasn’t anywhere near the royal level. It would be a tough role to fill.
Maybe he did need the Stag after all. She tipped a sympathetic gaze Rilian’s way. “If there’s something you wish for very much,” Jill added, kindly. “We can assemble a party. But...wait till the first thaw?” She bit her lip, thinking that would give them all enough time to put Rilian’s things in order, to make sure the succession was well-established. (Prunaprismia’s son Mephibosheth had borne a daughter, Rizpah, who currently was very happily set up at Anvard and educated with Archenland’s heirs, and Jill had high hopes of the girl as a future stateswoman or, if necessary, Queen, even if Rilian didn’t like her that way in the slightest.)
“The first thaw,” Rilian agreed, and Jill jotted in her notes to start preparations the very second they got out of the meeting
All too soon, the day came. Jill waved the Dryads and Entwives off on their jolly procession towards the planting fields, wishing she could go with them, but her skills were needed on the hunt. For Rilian’s sake, she relented with good grace, but insisted Eustace ride with them for company. If there were any goodbyes to be said to Rilian, she wanted to make sure he was there too.
The thud of other hoofbeats around her, and most especially all the chattering voices, broke any sort of solitary musing she might have settled into were she alone on a ride through the Shuddering Wood. Maybe that was a good thing this time. Scrubb’s grousing was comforting, too. Jill sniped companionably with him until dusk the first day, when they made up quite nicely (and considerably more quietly) in their bedroll that night.
The next morning’s ride brought them to the Western Woods, Jill leading as the trail grew colder and the whispers more abstruse. “This way,” she nodded, after a lengthy rustling conversation with a sleepy Oak, and pointed her horse’s nose in a north-west direction. The others followed without question. Jill had never led them wrong.
The woods were still and unmoving around them. Her eyes scanned from side to side, ever alert. A sudden flash drew her attention, and Jill instantly spurred her horse and signaled to Eustace with his harpoon-net, designed purposely to be harmless when fired at a creature however large. “There!”
They raced in unison, Rilian right on their heels, towards the bounding figure behind the cover of the thick trees. It glinted gold in the sunlight, till Jill marveled at how its coat must be the most beautiful she’d ever seen of a Stag before. Of course, a magical wish-granting Stag must have an appearance that matched. That was not so remarkable.
What was remarkable, however, was the sudden clearing she and Eustace burst into, all of a sudden, with no sign of the others behind them. Jill darted a glance behind her, startled not to hear any signs of hooves in their tracks, but when she glanced back, all thoughts of the others fled her mind. All she could think of, all she could see, was the great golden Lion before her.
She tumbled off her horse and ran towards him. It had been years and years since their last meeting, but she’d grown a great deal bolder since then, till he even called her a Lioness and did not eat her when she buried her hands and face in his mane. She considered that progress.
He did not eat her today, which was good. He did growl in a way she thought equal parts marvelous and terrifying. Aslan never let you forget that he was a Real Lion.
For all she cared, the others could hunt the Stag all they wanted. She had Aslan. Jill huffed triumphantly and rubbed her cheek against soft golden fur. No wonder it was so shiny in the sunlight for a Stag. “We didn’t know if you were coming now or in ten years, you know. The Centaurs weren't clear on that part. We weren’t expecting you today.”
“Certainly not,” Eustace corroborated, scarcely a step behind her. He was not so free with Aslan - perhaps it had something to do with that skin-tearing-off episode he’d told her about, that time he was a Dragon - but his gaze was eager and his hand reaching out for a touch in spite of himself, like he was merely looking for tangible proof that Aslan was Real. “There were no reports of you in these woods. In any of Narnia. A very grand surprise, Aslan.”
“Do you want to collect samples, Son of Adam?” If Jill had been more familiar with Aslan’s voice, she would have felt sure of the humour there. She peered into his face, but there was nothing there but the same unreadable, lionish expression he always bore. Aslan had the most terrific poker face.
It was only when she glanced further up that Jill noticed the ring of Trees drawing closer. No, not trees. Entwives. She widened her eyes, wondering what on earth they were doing there, scarcely able to imagine they would be able to sneak up on Aslan to do him any harm, or even be there for any reason beside his own doing. They’d been so eager to begin preparing the fields, to start their gardens and crops at long last.
“Daughters of Trees,” Aslan said. “You have wandered too long from your own lands. Middle-earth needs the life you may bring to it.”
Limbshadow drew up, as tall and proud as a Queen. “If there was any life left to sow in our lands, the Elves would see to it.” Jill and Eustace had heard some of their tales, of the Elves that inhabited the lands far to the west of the mountains along Narnia’s borders, past Rhun and the wastelands that separated them, and Jill had longed to one day explore so far, find out what those parts were really like. She and Scrubb had even decided their next great adventure would be a long quest East, by Dragon or horseback or Oliphaunt or whatever they could procure to take them there.
“The Elves are gone,” Aslan replied. “They have sailed to Valinor, never to return to Middle-earth. The Age of Man has begun. They will not survive without your knowledge. The Elves have taken what you have taught them and departed, and the Ents remember too little.” There was no reproach, only plain fact in his voice.
Jill stared, first at Aslan and then at the ring of Entwives around them. “We need them here too,” she burst in. “They can be happy here. They learned to Dance. They can be Narnian. Why do you have to send them away?” It didn’t make any sense. They were good for Narnia. They belonged here. They’d found an end to their journey at last.
“Children,” Aslan rumbled. There was something about his voice that made them feel like children, for all their twenty-five years. The horses wavered hopefully around them, equally drawn and spooked by the Great Lion. “Your time has come to go home too.”
“Well, we’ve just started on this quest, but I suppose we can go back to Cair Paravel,” Eustace said doubtfully, eyeing his dropped harpoon, clearly not trusting anyone else to fire it correctly.
“Home?” Jill asked, her voice hesitating, a dreadful thought taking hold. What if Aslan didn’t mean Cair Paravel? Not the little home they’d made for themselves there, but…
“The place where you are needed,” Aslan said. “As the Entwives are needed in Middle-earth. As your cousins were needed in their world.”
Instantly, they knew where Aslan was sending them to: that shadowy realm they still remembered from Narnian legend as Spare Oom, like something out of a dream from a very long time ago. Jill felt a terrible heaviness creep into her chest, like she could already feel the loss of the world she’d lived in longer than she hadn’t. She loved Narnia; she belonged here. She couldn’t leave. But she had to.
“Aslan,” she said, and this time there was a telltale crack in her voice. “We’ve done an awful lot of good things for Narnia too. Couldn’t we still be - needed here?”
Scrubb looked just as awful as she did at the prospect of leaving, which made Jill feel the slightest bit better. Maybe if both of them put up a fuss…
“Not as your world needs you, Child.” In Aslan’s paws, Jill still felt like a child. Tears welled up, in spite of herself. “They may learn from the things you have learned here. Is Narnia the only land that you will help to save?”
His words reproached her, just as he had when she’d been an actual little girl, with just as rebellious a heart as now. “No,” she had to admit, “but it won’t be the same.”
“Nothing ever is,” said Aslan, and she wanted to yell at him, Stop being inscrutable and tell us why! but that would not give her the answers she wanted.
Scrubb took a deep breath and let it out in a huff. “All right then. Guess we don’t have a choice. Puddleglum would say we just have to make the best of it. Cheer up, Pole. We’ll still have plenty back home to do.”
Jill was not going without a fight, even if her vision was getting blurry with tears. “But will it still be home?” she demanded of him, fingers clenched on Aslan’s shoulder. “Why did we even come to Narnia at all, if we’re just going to be sent back? And the Entwives...why let them find Narnia in the first place, just to send them away after only a season? At least we got all this time here...they haven’t even seen a Narnian summer.” She wept bitterly, for the summers the Entwives would never see, for the summers she would never see again here, and Aslan’s fur grew damp.
“No,” spoke a voice from the ring of trees. Limbshadow’s. “But we will see a summer in our lands this year, little one. And we will teach our lands to Dance.”
Aslan rumbled beneath Jill’s cheek, in what she thought through quieting breath sounded like approval. They weren’t just - saying that? They wanted to go home? Jill looked up in surprise at Limbshadow and Sprightbough and all the others, but there was not just resignation on those beautiful knotty faces. There was peace, and even more, something she hadn’t seen on them before. Hope.
Something answered inside of Jill, something like hope that she too could still have adventures even when she wasn’t in Narnia anymore. It didn’t take away the sting of losing everything she loved so dearly here, not completely, and she wasn’t sure anything really could. But she could also feel the fog lifting from her memories of what that place was like, Spare Oom...no, England, where there were not just hard times and bullies and unpleasant things that they could help put to rights, but good things too. Gardens to plant and woods to trek and friends to greet and family who would miss her terribly if she were never to see them again.
She glanced back, and at the edge of the woods stood Rilian and all the others she'd grown so close to, all these years, gazing sadly but with understanding at the two of them and the Entwives grouped around the Great Lion. She breathed a word of goodbye, hoping they'd understand, that she didn't want to leave them, but her time here was over, and her time in another place, really living for the first time, was just beginning.
“I’m sorry, Aslan,” she said quietly. “I still don’t understand, but I think I can go now.”
There was a rumble for her too. With a last hug round Aslan’s neck, Jill got up, brushed her sleeve over her eyes to dry them, and joined the Entwives. Eustace did likewise, and she glanced at him with profound relief that they didn’t have to lose each other too. Her hand slipped out to take his.
“Go, my daughters, as children of Narnia.” Lifting up his great shaggy head, Aslan opened his mouth and Breathed a great breath towards the circle of Entwives, and instantly the most delicious perfumed air swirled around them all, warm and heavy and fragrant. And as he continued to Breathe, the air shimmered and seemed to grow thicker, like a golden cloud collecting around their roots. They began to lift away from the earth and drift to the West.
“And go, Son of Adam and Daughter of Eve. Once a Friend of Narnia…” The warm breath washed over Jill and Eustace and filled them with more courage and strength than they’d ever felt before. “Always a Friend of Narnia.”
There was a swirling at their feet, a lightness there like they weighed nothing at all. A moment later, their feet left the ground. Jill clasped Eustace’s hand tighter. They’d taken such a flight before, once; this time, they’d do it hand-in-hand. As softly as a sigh, they were lifted on the current, and Aslan and the Narnians and the Entwives floating away grew gradually fainter and fainter. But it was a clear day, and Jill could see the whole of Narnia as they journeyed, all of her forests and mountains and rivers and seas to the East, and she knew she would hold all of this world in her heart for the rest of her days.
(When she told Scrubb so, he just snorted and said he’d give anything for a camera and all his notes right now. Much more reliable than hearts and such. Jill would have pinched him, but he still looked a little pale and wary about being a thousand feet from the ground, so she settled for a look and a squeeze of his hand that hinted how reliable her heart was. And everything was quite as it should be.)
They touched down in the clearing on the school side of the wall, where distant figures (whom Jill recognized as her former tormenters, but who looked now no more dangerous than ants) raced toward them. Eustace and Jill looked down at themselves only to find they had a golden aura about them, still in their Narnia clothes though they could not decide whether they looked old or young again. The next moment, a fragrant breeze blew Jill’s bow and Eustace’s harpoon past and into their hands. They stared in amazement for a second, then he whooped. “Aslan’s a brick! Come on, Pole, let’s at them!”
Jill let out a whoop of her own and together they charged.
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted...A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away. He hath made every thing beautiful in his time: also he hath set the world in their heart.