The old hag’s words were tinged with accusation and reproach. She implied that Elisa herself should feel a personal anger towards this powerful queen.
But she failed to grasp whatever connections the Mother of the Winds saw between her situation and that of the son. With an air of diplomacy acquired over many years of living with hot-headed brothers and guards, Elisa politely addressed the woman. “Even if he is being ill-used now, someone in love would not be swayed by the entreaties of a stranger such as myself.”
The woman shook her head. Her laughter reverberated around the cave, unsettling the small breezes that had settled and sending them away. “Ah! You are still very human, young Queen. You would pity my son, even though he has no elf or human blood! He cannot feel as mortals do! He does not love her. Their cooperation and partnership is about mutual benefit and protection. But just as she cast off her other companion,she will cast him off once he is no longer useful to her!”
While they were not friendly with the Snow Queen or her retainers, those who had heard of her understood how few she trusted. She once had a girl at her side, one that Elisa had recently sent her guard to find. The news of this abandoned companion disturbed and puzzled her own guards. They looked at their own patroness, as if to reassure themselves she might not do the same.
“Magic corrupts, absolutely!” The old woman missed their silent exchange and loudly continued her rant. She wagged a finger in warning at Elisa. “It makes some overreach and it’s up to those like you to challenge them!”
Elisa did not immediately reject these expectations. Over her lifetime, many believed she was intended for great deeds. The less scrupulous attempted to coax her into carrying out some favor for them, often arguing that their requests were for the good of many.
Her brothers had helped her sift through these petitions for help. They answered those they deemed worthy even when the lake did not bid them to do anything. They did so, because they were restless. Adventures and campaigns would help fill the long years they lived. They did not foresee how this behavior would pull them apart.
After her brothers had disappeared, she thought this belief that the Swans were an avenging force of nature would go away. Perhaps then, her brothers would quietly return to the lake. Instead, the full weight of peoples’ hopes had come back to rest solely upon her.
Elisa knew it would be hard to overcome the wind-mother’s insistence that the Queen of Swans intervene with the affairs of another Queen. But Elisa’s blue eyes gazed into the woman’s crow-like face. “By your account, he freely serves the Snow Queen. He is not being held prisoner by threat or magic. Is that correct?”
The witch could not outright lie to Elisa. Elisa’s words encircled the woman like a vise and gripped her. The woman glared back, struggling against the power of the younger woman that compelled her to admit the truth. “No, Queen. He is not there against his will.”
“And the girl?” Hahn spoke in low tones. “Did she harm her?”
Elisa glanced at the red-haired youth, noting his unusual interest in the fate of the Queen’s companion. But she added to his question. “Or did she leave her without means to care for herself?”
“No,” the woman sighed. “Not to my knowledge. That child is probably making ice castles of her own and terrorizing bears as we speak.”
“Then–” Elisa prodded the woman gently. “Is all you really wish to see your sons? You thought I could compel them to come here?”
Mother grunted slightly, admitting that to be the case.
Her opponent smiled gently, understanding that in spite of all the bluster and handwaving that this inhuman creature did, in fact, possess some characteristics she could understand. “You should tell them you miss them and promise to put those bags of yours away. They do not like that you brag about using them, from what I hear.”
“Oh you’re no good!” the woman snapped and waved her cane in Elisa’s direction. “Why are you on their side? I’m the one who helped you find your brothers!”
Her guards shifted uneasily in their seats, clearly hearing more than they had bargained for.
But Elisa studied the woman. She spoke slowly, sorting through the unexpected confession. “So… that was you.”
She had long wondered about the true identity of the old lady who had given her the location of her brothers when they had first disappeared from their kingdom. But she had few leads and realized the pursuit of the truth would be a futile quest. After all, there was a sort of everywoman look to the lady that had helped her.
But Mirror Lake was too much of a secret to be discovered by such an ordinary old woman. Elisa had long-suspected someone of power had helped her. She looked at Mother, now rubbing her hands together, and wondered what her motive was for doing so.
The old woman laughed nervously, apparently regretting she had revealed so much. “Maybe. Maybe not. My memory is terrible.”
“You old witch,” Hahn hissed. “You’re not senile. You are stalling!”
Elisa shook her head to caution him against speaking further. His patience with the old witch was fraying. While the woman had a higher than normal tolerance for forthright and rough behavior, Elisa did not wish for Hahn’s insolence to cause him to end up part of the evening’s stew. She cleared her throat and drew the group’s attention back to herself. “Mother of the Winds, I do not believe that you helped me all these years ago just to gamble upon gaining my favor. I was powerless and helpless. But today, with what I do have, I am not unwilling to ask your son, North, to come on your behalf. However, you must speak plainly and truthfully to us now.”
The old woman did not answer right away. She furiously stirred the pot three times and glared at the guards. But the presence of Elisa had softened her slightly. She kept stirring while she defended herself. “I had no ulterior motive. Your stepmother was a witch with ambitions of ruling over a human kingdom. She would kill the children of a good woman just for that! Of course I meddled! Of course my sons aided them! They gave them wind to fly away from that evil woman — to the point she forgot them for a time.”
Elisa heard the ring of truth in these words. She was relieved and came over to the witch to sit beside her. She laid a warm hand upon the gnarled fingers of the wind-master. “Mother, I am grateful for all of your help. But I must ask you why you sent me to them without any idea of how to undo their spell?”
The Mother of the Winds frowned. “They were able to fly like my sons! Why would I bother to change them? They had acquired a gift that others could never attain!”
Again, the longer-lived beings of magic never understood her brothers’ unhappiness. Elisa wondered how the old woman could forget so soon. “But they did not choose. They were forced to take those forms. It is not unlike your sons being bound up in those bags of yours. Do they not struggle each time you bind them?”
“Bah! Those bags again. You sound just like Maeve.” The Winds’ mother shook her finger at Elisa, stirring up the air within the cavern. “She did not find it amusing. Some traveler told her what I used to boast about. And she told me what she thought about that practice! She was a sly one — so good with young ones and then adopting those who pleased her. You were the girl who repelled your evil stepmother’s magic. Then you grew brains and defied the fate that many predicted for you. You were the solution to her problems. What to do about the Snow Queen? And then there you were, so sweet and so willing to be guided.”
The old woman’s rambling was puzzling and confusing. Elisa furrowed her brow and tried to ignore the sound of angry buzzing around them from her offended guards. “Mother,” Elisa tried to calm the woman. “I apologize that I have failed to understand you. So you conclude that Maeve conspired somehow to use me to install a new Snow Queen.”
“No, silly. You could serve in her staid at the lake so she could become the Snow Queen!”
They stared at the Mother of Winds, baffled by such a claim.
Elisa shook her head. “She gave no hint of such a plan. And the fairies — they have said nothing like that. They were distraught when she left. Surely if she had been planning as such, they would not have behaved as they did.”
“Hmph. There are no fairies up in that cold northern hell the Queen lives in. Just bears and ice elves. And those bears do not talk to anyone except themselves. And the ice elves are just as bad — refusing to deal with their other kin. She moved up there and started over, grooming that girl to take over so she could move on when she pleased.”
Elisa worried that most of this was simply speculation. “And now that she has tossed her aside, what do you say?”
“Maeve is mad. Or sees something else. I do not know,” the old woman narrowed her eyes. “Perhaps you might be able to shake it out of my son.”
“That’s crazy,” Hahn could not help but blurt out. “The switch in magic doesn’t seem plausible. After all, how could she fake this for so many years?”
“No–” the Knight broke his silence. “The Queen of Faerie in the tales I heard was said to be a master illusionist. But she was also a powerful ruler over nature with many powers at her disposal. If she chose to exercise only a small piece of it — it is possible that she could focus on one small thing with some help.”
The two muttered at each other, verbalizing Elisa’s own warring thoughts. She pushed their conversation aside and stared intently at the old woman’s face.
The woman stared back, her eyes filled with hope that Elisa might reveal something back. How desperate this woman had become!
But Elisa took pity upon the woman — still believe in spite of her handwaving that she was still the kind woman she had met long ago. “You make many bold statements that are troubling if true. Very well. I will offer what you have asked.”