Elisa and her brothers departed from the capital with a small group of elven mystics in tow. Taliesin was among them, deciding that he himself should come and document the happenings of the world with his own hands. The travelers soon found themselves grateful for his company. His knowledge of the roads and trails made their journey back to the garden quick and easy.
The wiseman and his attendants stayed for many months within the garden, intent on providing lessons that would inform them how to live peacefully in accordance with their own surroundings.
Every morning they would gather in the meadow to listen to the bard while the fairies drifted around them. Taliesin would lecture of peoples and places, intently teaching them who or what to seek out and who else to avoid.
He would repeatedly warn them to avoid the dark places of the world. The black witches were found in greater frequency there. But he warned them they were found in the outside world as well, preying upon the shadows and fears of creatures, using those fears to subvert them to do their own bidding. “Elves think nothing of these dark places because their hearts are, at times, difficult to move. But you are not elves, so you must be careful.”
On his last evening in the garden, he added this additional warning to the brothers. “You brothers must watch out for each other. The strands of your life are so tightly interwoven with one another that the downfall of one of you could be the downfall of all.”
His eyes then came to rest upon Elisa. She sat in the grass, cradling the young unicorn child who sat sleeping on her lap. His forehead creased with even deeper lines as he addressed her. “You, most of all, I worry for.”
His fingers stretched out in the direction of a small fairy that had settled upon the ground. Elisa watched as she picked up petals that had fallen there, working without stopping until she had gathered them all.
“They all toil to grow this garden once again. This fairy takes what she finds and brings it to the pile of mulch behind the house your brothers build for you. She will grow flowers with what she has harvested. She does it for you, because it will make you smile.” He sighed. “What you strive for is noble but beware it doesn’t make you unhappy. Do not let it blind you to the well-being of those around you. They are what keeps this garden thriving and you are what can help them thrive in turn. Pay out what assistance you have received from Maeve by loving her children. “
She nodded gently. She, as burdened as she was, could not help but have compassion for the innocent magical creatures. “Do not worry, I will do what I can for them. But is there not anything else I can do? You have thought about our situation for some time–”
“I am afraid not,” he shook his head. “The elves continue to search out something to assist you. In short order, I will talk to them further about the situation here. If I could stay I would but I would not defy my king. And tomorrow is a good day to leave. I can hear the winds shifting. One comes our way that is strong enough to hasten our return home.”
He had spoken of this wind before but it meant nothing until the next morning when he and his party stood on the shores of the lake, holding out branches to the sky.
Elisa and her brothers had followed them to the beach, unclear whether to offer their farewells.
To their surprise, a young man with strange fiery hair swept by, setting the treetops around the lake stirring. He passed once over the lake before he tumbled over the branches and rolled onto the ground. The man bowed first to Taliesin. When the fairies wailed in protest, he turned to also bow at Elisa. “Forgive me,” he waved the offended fairies away. “ I did not recognize you, Lady of the Lake.”
The lady raised her fingers to her lips to silence her noisy followers and bowed in return. “I am Elisa, not Maeve.”
His eyes narrowed as he looked again at Elisa. “Foolish me. You do not have her ears or hair color. I am forgetful like that sometimes! I am the Wind of the East. My mother served her as did my three brothers. If you be the current lady, we extend our service to you.”
The fairies trilled in approval as he extended his hand in greeting.
Taliesin nodded, encouraging the lady to accept his hand. “His mother is the keeper of the winds. Her sons influence the weather of this world.”
When their fingers met, the wind nearly lifted Elisa off her feet. Promptly, she dropped his hand, startled by the force of power that this being possessed. She tried to recover her composure and offered a bow. “It is an honor to make your acquaintance. I would like to meet your mother and brothers.”
The wind whistled cheerfully. “Then I shall ask her to pay you a visit when I next see her and my brothers.” He eyed the elves still holding their branches up. “If that is all you wanted, bard, then I shall be on my way.”
Taliesin pointed a branch in the wind’s direction. “It is not. We would ask you to take us to the capital. You head that way, don’t you? The king asked for your assistance.”
“Ah yes,” the wind answered. “A new ship is nothing to sneeze at! But we are not used to carrying elves, I’m afraid. My minions are rough at times and indecisive. Make sure to leave anything you can’t hold behind as I would not like to anger your wood elves.”
The mystics grumbled but handed what they could not carry over to the brothers for safekeeping.
While the mystics rearranged their belongings, East wriggled restlessly around the queen. “I will pass this way again — if you remember what you need, please speak your wishes to the breezes and winds. They will carry them to my mother at the Cavern at the end of the world. Now,” East paced about, stretching impatiently. “Is it time?”
The elves held up their branches again, signaling their wishes. The wind chuckled once before he curled around the leaves, wrapping tendrils of air around the elves until his grip upon them was secure. One final blast of wind took the elves to the sky.
“Odd,” her brothers shook their head as the elves disappeared.
* * *
With Taliesin’s departure and the wind’s brief visit, the garden itself opened paths for others to follow.
East proved to not be a quiet sort of wind.
In the days that followed, the Swan brothers were startled by how many creatures approached the mountain pass that hid the garden. Elves were followed by sentient beasts gifted by the ability to speak, some were halflings — taking form and shape of more than one type of creature.
At first, the family received them all — for the visitors were friendly and generous.
But those who dared press for her hand were quickly sent away without hope of ever again finding their way back to the garden. Soon Elisa grew weary of the visitors’ constant demands for attention. A cold drizzle and fog settled in around the mountains that hid the lake and the entryway to the garden.
The garden acted on its own to protect its new mistress. But not all who sought her were turned back. One band of elves came unhindered along the pathway, led by a slim, pale slip of a girl.
When she appeared at the edge of the forest by the lake, the small unicorn that had been under Elisa’s care leapt up to greet her.
“My queen,” the lovely girl spoke in musical tones. “The son of my master comes to see you. Will you receive the elven prince and allow us rest in the garden?”
The young boy turned a pleading look to Elisa as he clutched the skirts of this girl. Elisa realized that this girl was another halfling –likely kin of the small unicorn under her care. “Of course,” she said without hesitation. “Rest here.”
She was glad for this small distraction, allowing her a moment to mask her surprise. Elisa was startled to find the prince standing there with his guard. Several months had passed since he made his promise to the Swans. She had almost come to believe had forgotten it, for Elisa had no message or news from the Prince since the night she last saw him.
She had been informed by a disappointed dowager that he had disappeared, retreating back to his summer palace without any indication when he would return.
The Crown Prince looked well– tanned, confident, and armed with the self-assurance that came from being royalty.
“He looks healthy and content.” Vincens’ eyes had drifted to the two children playing in the meadow. “As do all of you,” he said as he looked at the siblings. “Time has been very kind to you.”
The brothers were amused by their guest’s appearance but had no complaint about his manners. Vincens presented them with swords forged by elven blacksmiths and offered his guards’ time to teach them how to use them.
While they busied themselves, Vincens promised to teach their sister magic.
They began trying simple things to see what she could and could not do. Eventually, the prince resolved that they should all take to the water, for that was where he heard Maeve often liked to spend her evenings. The brothers followed, not at all convinced that their sister possessed any real magic. But they humored him and took the boats the guards had brought with them onto the lake.
Vincens steered the one carrying their sister — taking her to the part she liked the most — a large open area with plenty of light and fresh air.
The fairies followed them, eager to learn what the prince would have their mistress do.
Vincens seated Elisa across from him in the boat, arranging her so they both could sit and reach over its side. The fairies hovered, watching, as he guided the lady’s hands to the water and spoke as not to frighten her. “Look at your reflection while you hold it in your hands,” he bid her. “And then ask to see more.”
She looked down at her reflection, indeed, wanting more. She touched the cool surface of the lake, the resulting ripples of the water distorting her image.
Elisa watched the waves spread to the distant shore and turn back her way. Then she spoke aloud, her voice suddenly cool and commanding. “Show me my father.”
The water immediately settled and familiar towers appeared with flags flying at full mast.
Her brothers’ shouts broke her concentration. Elisa cradled her hands against her chest, pleased by what she had done.
The prince mirrored her pleasure. “Was that all you wished to see?”
She shook her head. “I want to see much more. All at once.”
“Let them help you,” he looked at the fairies. “They should if you ask.”
She felt a small twinge of concern and doubt. “Will it not hurt them?”
“It will not,” he stated. “They are born from this place, it is natural for them to interact with it.”
She hesitated, not yet convinced. However, the creatures that came to rest on her shoulder seemed eager for her to command them. Elisa cupped her fingers and let several of them crowd into her palm. “Will you each help me hold an image? I would like to see many more things — people and places that I once knew well.”
They cried in agreement as they flew away, circling back and forth over the water’s surface and skimming their feet along the water. Elisa called out names and faces while the fairies danced. Whatever it was that they carried within them did prove to strengthen the pictures upon the water. Soon the Swans could see more of their home — the green grass and the fattened sheep in the pastures surrounding their kingdom and their father — frail but well.
The brothers murmured among themselves. “If this vision is true, at least our kingdom fares well.”
The oldest, however, did not seem as cheerful. “But what of our stepmother? Does she still control our father?”
Elisa took a breath, prepared to ask the lake such a question.
The prince shook his head. “Do not call upon her image. You do not know what that might do.”
“But without knowing where she is, how do we know what the lake shows us is true?” Elisa looked at the water. “How do I know it is not an illusion or projection of my wishes or fears? Or is this something the Queen of Fairy should not question?”
Vincens cleared his throat and turned away from her as if to gather his thoughts. “She was the queen of dreams and visions. Based on what I know of her, at least. What the lake shows you could be a filtering of reality instead of truth.”
“Then perhaps we should test it,” Elisa spoke with surprising resolve. “I would like to see outside the pass and see how many visitors we have there today. If one of my brothers would humor me by going to see if the lake speaks true, I will give him an extra piece of pie at dinner.”
She placed her fingers back in the water, waiting for the ripples to resolve themselves into the answer to her question. This time the water revealed a handful of elves chasing around a deer. Her youngest brother understood her wishes, running off towards some place to see what he might discover outside.
He returned a half-hour later, out of breath and rather excited. “I saw five elves there attired in green.”
And so the lake agreed, showing an encampment of elves cooking.
The brothers were, in varying degrees, pleased to have at least some proof of their sister’s purported gift. But they groaned at the idea that visitors camped out at their proverbial doorstep. “And what of these interlopers? Do we tell them that she will be seeing no one?”
Vincens chuckled. “Wood elves. They hunt wherever there is food. I do not think they will be there long.”
They played this game the next day, choosing different places and varying their demands. In each instance she proved her increasing power, the brothers became more enthusiastic. But Vincens’ face became harder to read.
Elisa would glance his way, seeing his thoughts were far away — as if he communed with something or someone else outside the garden. She would then interrupt him with a question and see him snap back to attention, often with an apologetic smile.
Vincens would attempt to cover his lapses — offering a charming compliment designed to flatter her.
Elisa would aim to keep her heart guarded, reminding herself that elven words often meant little. She was elated, however, by the sense of sufficiency her magic brought her. She rejoiced that her instincts began to sharpen as well — even to the point where she could read the intentions beneath his words. His compliments were many but were not offered out of love but out of his determination to make her the sort of queen he felt the garden warranted.
She did not tell her brothers this. Elisa did not want to dampen their excitement towards the changes that appeared to be happening around her.
But their excitement was tempered by worry. It was obvious to them that the place held its own magic — that the water itself was filled with some hidden power. Soon they began to urge Elisa that discretion was required and asked the prince to spread the news that the Queen had left her perch.
He was only glad to agree.
He left shortly after, leaving them all with a promise that he hoped to return soon. But only messages came and no prince.
If Elisa felt disappointment she did not say anything. Her brothers were far too caught up in other troubles to worry over the promises between a queen and a king.
War was stirring in the world of men.
* * *
Conflict in far away lands distracted her brothers for hundreds of years. They, who were raised as princes, could not rest in the garden while they had swords and knowledge to use. Those who left the garden begged their siblings’ forgiveness. They would strike out into the world together and seek out some way to lessen the misery Elisa showed them in the Mirror Lake.
And they began by chasing down their stepmother. The would root out her influence over the throne which she continued to hold on to long after their father had passed on.
Eventually they returned, flushed with victory and hope.
Elisa, too, changed. Magic shifted the balance of power between them. They desired adventure and justice and she gave them direction. Somehow, she, the last of them became the first to lead.
She became brave — striking out of the garden with them when she could. They laughed at her swordsmanship but they taught her to fend for herself. Elisa treasured those years they journeyed together.
Hundreds more years, however, increased the distance from their past lives. Soon the brothers did not return frequently, soon they sent new guards in their place to their sister.
The Queen of Fairy sat low in her boat floating on the lake. Her fingers trailed along the water as she recalled the day Azul had arrived with a letter penned by her brother. He was a lowly mystic, or so he had claimed.
He was far more — another elf, cut possibly of the same cloth as his grandfather.
Elisa pressed her fingers to the bridge of her nose, recalling the words of the mystic in the tower many years ago.
And she saw the pattern before her — and it repeating itself.