The Year 1214 began with the slow rise of two bright moons, trailing one after another in a lazy race across the western skies.
As the days passed, they both grew to fullness, setting the night landscapes awash in light. The merrier folk danced both day and night, celebrating this phenomenon as if it were a year-long harvest festival. And indeed, that expectation wasn’t misplaced. The ones who remembered the last cycle knew well enough that the extra light would manifest itself with more crops, game, and fish than had ever been seen in the previous ten year period.
Maximilian and his family joined the others in welcoming the new year, but for reasons far more personal. On the first day of the year, Maximilian had passed safely into adulthood.
Now twenty-one, his face had lost its last traces of innocence and he stood more than a head taller than both of his parents. And yet, even though much had changed outwardly, other things remained much the same. Every day, the wood elves still came to the gates outside the Wolfram home, just as they had nearly every day the past seven years. From there, he would follow them down the hidden forest trails to track the creatures of the woods and to the settlement where he would spar. They were close companions. Quite often, a number of them returned home with him to dine with his family well into the late hours of the evening.
This routine created a bit of an odd tableau under one roof, but kept the Wolfram from growing repressively lonely in spite of the absence of six of the Count’s sons. These elves from the “Two Forks” settlement were graver than his uncles, but Maximilian still found them to be entertaining, particularly in this season of light. Their celebrations, however, took different forms than the lighthearted music and storytelling that the minstrel elves from long ago employed. In fact, the wood elves that Maximilian kept company with often complained about the silly songs being played by the bands of troubadours that wandered through the area singing of unicorns and fairies.
If it were up to Delmari (a wood elf who was, at 80 years considered quite young), their first order of business would be hunt down and tie up these irresponsible troubadour elves for stretching the truth about the creatures to be found and discovered. The suggestion drew laughter from the young wood elves, none of whom had ever seen a unicorn and were, rightfully, doubtful of their existence. As for fairy creatures, they were in disagreement as to whether they were worth finding.
“They are soft and high-pitched things,” one of the elder men complained to the young lads. “Loyal to a fault, constantly following you once they’ve made up their minds that they like you, chasing you with offerings of honey and flowers.”
The young elves grinned. While that might work very nicely for their western cousins who tilled the earth, it would not make do for those who wanted to remain hidden while stalking some animal.
Maximilian found these sorts of observations to be quite typical for the wood elves. They were not so interested in pretty things or pretty words. They were pragmatic folk who enjoyed living off the land and training for their next hunt. Oddly enough, though, the rumored sighting of the Swan Queen was enough to turn most elves,including Ridnar, the burliest and hairiest of the young elves this side of the Silver Rivers, into a fawning mess.
Unseen in the Northern regions for more than a hundred years, the Swan Queen and her apparent powers and beauty were to be on full display once again. She was not an elven queen, but something far greater. To them she was “the Immortal One” — for they believed she had existed before the elves, and would exist long after they were gone.
Whether that was true or not, all elves agreed that the lady had an unusual ability to draw many creatures to her, chief among them the fairies bearing gifts of garlands and music. They would wait for the chance to see her as she took up court at Mirror Lake, forcing winter to disappear early and be replaced by a flowery, mysterious spring. Along the shoreline of Mirror Lake, the trees would bloom with rare flowers that enticed the hidden creatures of the woods to come out of hiding. And all manner of gentle creatures would rest there, only to leave once the grand lady departed from the Lake.
To be quite honest, Maximilian could not reconcile the depth of feelings the wood elves had for a figure of legend with their otherwise practical tendencies. His mother had offered him only this explanation: the combination of the woman’s power and beauty was alluring to those who worshipped strength. This combination proved to be a strong draw to both old and young — after weeks of debates between the younger and elder elves regarding the Swan Queen’s apparent powers, the elders finally relented to taking a troupe of the younger ones on a pilgrimage to see the grand lady for themselves.
Maximilian’s closest friends, Delmari and his twin brother Delmarin, initially scoffed at the thought of joining a troupe traveling west for a potential glimpse of the legendary creature. However, they could not resist promised opportunities to catch game rarely seen on the eastern side of the peninsula. They were, of course, secretly hoping to spot some fabled creature along the way, and soon were just as enthusiastic as the other young elves to depart.
The twins presumed automatically that he would join them. Maximilian had particularly keen hearing and was decent enough reading the trails. Although he desired to travel with his friends, the young man hesitated making a request to do so, knowing his parents would likely forbid such a journey. After all this time, they were concerned for his safety.
It was his grandfather who eventually intervened. The senior Count was well aware of the expedition being formed by their neighbors. And according to his usual blunt nature, he indiscreetly brought up the matter during dinner.
“My lovely Eirwen,” the gentleman sat back in his chair and looked at his daughter-in-law, sitting across the table from him. “You have done an excellent job as usual with our dinner.”
She smiled, drawing a fond look from her husband seated next to her. “We’ve been fortunate to be able to trade for some unusual foods from the elves.”
“Hah, giving credit to the elves, are you?” Grandfather turned an amused eye to his son. “Philip, your wife is much too good a woman for the likes of you and I. If I were she, I’d have puffed out my chest proudly and said ‘I’ve worked so hard on this dinner,’ and keep all the credit to myself!.”
“Indeed, if you had managed to cook something this excellent, that would have been something to be proud of,” Philip Wolfram responded dryly.
At that, Maximilian could not help but laugh. His grandfather’s cooking was terrible. So terrible, that when his grandmother had passed on and the man had attempted to feed his houseful of growing sons, his uncles had begged to do the cooking themselves. Even that had not been much of an improvement, according to his father. His mother’s arrival many years ago and her subsequent improvement of the food served at home had apparently kept the brothers from slow starvation or fratricide.
The lone woman at the table gently cleared her throat. “I think some other arrangements may be necessary to make, though.”
Grandfather looked thoughtfully into the air. “Ah yes, it seems like many of the Wood Elves will be leaving this area shortly.”
Maximilian was fascinated to see a crease develop on his father’s forehead as he contemplated the news. “Is there trouble to the east?”
“No, not this time,” Grandfather shook his head. “Not yet, at least. The seaports have far too many issues with the pirates coming on shore to worry about trade agreements with the East.” The songs from the traveling balladeers said that, as of late, the pirates were deserting the Southern seas for dryer lands, drinking their way through the ports and wreaking havoc wherever they trod. “Those men won’t be coming this way for a little while longer. Until then—the elves have not said anything about removing themselves from this region. It’s far less troubling, in that regard. It’s unicorns and all that business.”
“Oh?” Maximilian’s mother tilted her head slightly. Her eyes lit up with interest. “Do they go to find one? I thought they were creatures only found in the fairy tales – or perhaps extinct.”
“The fairies do tell such silly stories, that is true,” Grandfather wiped his mouth with a napkin. “Even the elves dismiss a lot of what they say, but humans have their own myths and legends that mirror what the fairies have said. As a boy I heard my own story of a fallen unicorn who lost her horn. I’ve never known what to think about that. Makes me wish I was young enough to make this journey with the elves.”
Maximilian sighed. The story his Grandfather was speaking of was one that had been told to him quite a lot when he first arrived at the estates. He had loved these stories as a boy, but came later to view these as suspicious. He had yet to find this story validated in any of the many books he had since read in his Grandfather’s library.
“Max, your grandfather was speaking,” his father frowned at him.
“Indeed,” Grandfather reached over to gently rap the young man’s hand with his staff. “The Swan Queen supposedly has one of these fabled creatures in her entourage. The elves, of course, don’t really believe in them and want to see this for themselves.”
“Sounds like an interesting adventure, although a lengthy one.” Max’s father said thoughtfully. “It would be at least a good ten day’s walk to the River.”
“Yes,” his wife murmured. “It took us that long, didn’t it?”
“It can be done in a week,” Max interrupted, oblivious he had stepped into a conversation about something that had not concerned him. He only realized that fact when three pairs of eyes turned sharply towards him.
“You’ve been talking to the younglings, have you, Max?” Grandfather’s eyes betrayed amusement.
“Yes, sir.” That look in his grandfather’s eye set him immediately on guard. “It is all they talk about as all the ‘of age’ elves are going. Most of them want to see the Swan Queen and her court now while the opportunity presents itself. She may not be back here for another hundred years or more.“
“That’s true, Max,” Grandfather put down his napkin. “She is not regular with her visits, not while there are so many things changing outside this area. It is impossible to know when she will return. If I were a younger man, well I’d drop everything to go. As should you–”
His father suddenly pushed back his chair from the table. “You can not possibly expect us to allow him to wander off into the wild.”
“Just as you had wandered yourself at his age?” the Count responded, with a slightly acerbic smile.
The two men fell silent, two pairs of grey eyes staring, unblinking at one another. Maximilian’s own eyes rounded. He had never seen the two men fight, nor fully understood what this argument was really about.
“After all we’ve been through—“ Max’s father shook his head.
“Phillip,” Max’s mother put a gentle hand upon her husband’s arm. She gave her father-in-law an apologetic look. “The warning we received from the shaman—how could we possibly not worry—“
Grandfather drummed his fingers on the table and sighed. Max had a feeling that this was not the first time they had discussed this matter. He realized, however, that it was the first time the issue had been discussed in front of him.
“There has been no attack or sign of an enemy since you all have taken shelter here. Besides which, Max has a limited understanding of the world. He can not take my place here and endure if he himself does not know the land. Moreover,” the old man barked, “-he’s trained the same way you were by your brothers and he’s had the elves to push him farther. He goes prepared, and would not go alone.”
“I’d like to go,” Max suddenly interrupted, emboldened perhaps by his Grandfather’s carefully laid out arguments. He rushed ahead, before any of his elders could interrupt him. “I am not discounting the risk – but I also want to go and see what Grandfather himself can not.” But beyond that, deep down, he wanted to see what of the stories his Grandfather had told him as a child were true. “And he’s right, there’s a world out there that I need to understand if I’m to better protect myself against it.”
“Max,” his mother cast a sad gaze upon him. “If you go, you should know that we can not assist you. And if something should happen to you—“
“I know,” he reached across the table to offer a hand to her.
Maximilian’s father had stayed silent at the interruption, but the man’s internal conflict was still evident on his face. Maximilian knew he had not swayed his father and so directly addressed his next words to him. “I don’t want to grow old, hiding. My uncles have gone away, striking out on their own and facing whatever has been thrown their way without any hesitation or concern for their future. I can not ever ask anything of them or their children if I don’t prove myself worthy of being the Wolfram heir. ”
Somewhat wearily, his father finally spoke. “Ironically, you have reminded me that I said the same thing to your grandfather many years ago. It was for your mother that I endeavoured to leave my own father without his oldest son at his side.” He turned his head away, unsuccessfully failing to hide his pain at the memory. “I shall not stand in your way, son.”
The Count rapped his staff on the floor, sealing the agreement. His grandfather then stood. “And so, our council of Wolframs has agreed on the matter regarding Maximilian Wolfram.” He took the tip of the staff and touched it to Wolfram’s forehead to issue a charge. “Find out the truth about this Queen and her court. See if the stories are true.”