Far away on the other side of the Silver River, beyond the reach of men, an elf and a halfling camped at the edge of a marsh.
Elves were not known to be particularly good with children. Azul was proving no exception to that rule. From the moment, he had discovered Conn snoring by the pond in seemingly human form, the child was always ending up crying or dirty.
The elven wizard was not inept or unkind. He did have a skill with fairies who were acknowledged by elves to be less than sophisticated company. But fairies were not generally born helpless. They did not need help feeding themselves. Nor did they proudly soil themselves on a routine basis and expect to be praised for such an act.
If he was not expert with children it was because he had been raised in the capitol — a place where the birth rate was very low among the nobles. Offspring were prized and carefully handled. As soon as infants had stopped nursing they were placed under the instruction of a litany of tutors and teachers, many who droned on and on about responsible behavior. Children of noble families were not allowed to play. And most certainly, they had not been allowed to run about chasing butterflies or eating mud.
Azul waved his hand and sent a moth out of the child’s reach. “No.”
The boy’s blue eyes rounded at the sudden discharge of light around them and grabbed the elf’s arm for an explanation. He soon forgot what he was doing and swung there for a bit before he let go and dropped to the ground, this time to chase a firefly.
Lord Azul had claimed it might be possible to draw conclusions about the child’s heritage. He had not known, however, it would be so hard to sort out all the clues. He doubted that the child hailed from a city. There was a wildness about the creature who giggled too much and threw the books offered to him at the ground.
And no matter how much the elf coaxed him, the baby would not change forms. Instead, he seemed determined to walk around on two legs as one might expect from a full-blooded child.
Beyond that one specific incident inside the Queen’s garden, there was little he could see about that child that proved extraordinary. There was no magical aura glimmering around Conn. Its absence vexed Azul. The mage doubted himself, wondering if the transformation he had witnessed had been a trick of lighting or an illusion cast by the lake itself.
The idea that the lake was itself alive and taking an active hand in shaping the Queen’s affairs had not left him. Although many believed the Garden had been created for the elves, there were those who believed the opposite — that the elves had been created by the Garden itself.
It was a strange idea — one that led to even stranger conclusions. Azul thought of Elisa and the woman who lived longer than any human of her kind. He was briefly tempted to use a spell to return himself and the boy to the hidden pass that opened into the distant shores of the Mirror Lake. He could then take the child to his queen’s side and present him to her for safekeeping. Then, he would stay and look at the lake once again, to assure himself that he had nothing to fear from it.
But Azul knew that Elisa would not be that easily swayed from her earlier decision that he must leave. Nor did the child care about Azul’s thwarted ambitions and paranoid dreams. When the elf asked him if they should turn around and find the beautiful queen, Conn wailed.
How such loud cries could come from so small vessel, Azul did not know. But the boy’s protests silenced the toads and cicadas chattering in the watery grasses.
Worse, the hills around them went still at the sound of the unfamiliar voice. Then came calls in response — some curious, others alarmingly hungry.
“Hush. You’ll bring all manner of creatures upon us.” Azul quickly retrieved the boy and held him with one hand to keep him from wandering too far from the fire. The wizard elf frowned as he considered the problem before him. Transporting both himself and the child away from this place would go against the rules he had carefully kept for himself. Instead he pointed at a nearby bush and whispered a small complaint. The green thing obliged him in stretching out in spindly formations that would barricade the pond from outsiders.
When he saw the buckthorn bush finish tripling in size, he turned his attention back to the still fussing baby. He whistled twice.
A fairy appeared, carrying a faintly pink flower. The fairy waved it frantically over Conn’s face hoping its fragrance would calm him.
Several more fairies joined this kind soul, perching upon Azul’s shoulders in order to blow soft air upon the child’s face.
His cries lessened but did not cease. In between Conn’s harsh breaths, the baby wept for home.
“So you do have one, after all,” murmured the wizard. “But where might that be?”
“Home,” came the unhelpful response. “Go home.”
The elf held the child aloft, as if studying him against the star-filled sky might reveal some answer. “Of course you’re going home. But without help it won’t be so easy.”
The baby mirrored the elf’s puzzled look while sticking his fist in his mouth.
Azul’s brow furrowed as he felt spittle settle over his hand. He was not impressed by the direction of their conversation.
The fairies trilled from over his shoulder, reminding him that it was probably the child’s feeding time. Several reappeared with more flowers and waved them about until Conn opened his fists to grab them.
While the boy happily suckled upon the flowers’ nectar, Azul sat back down and brooded. The fair-haired child on his lap was acting very much like a unicorn — all clingy and wild. However, his Queen had declared that the child was not that. She, of all people, should know — for she was among the last to have seen one. The capitol had once housed several but they had disappeared before he was born when the great King Arin had died.
Of all those that roamed this side of the river, there were only the silvan elves who looked like this child. The next morning, Azul resolved to find them.
But they did not leave the protected area until after the fairies had scouted the paths ahead. Azul had heard the animals wandering outside the thorny hedge throughout the night. He knew he could manage one or two wild beasts but he did not wish to test himself against any large groups roaming these parts. When the fairies had safely returned, he bundled up the boy and placed him on his back.
They were not alone in moving north along the trails. A few elves skipped along the paths so quickly that an untrained observer only saw the wind moving in strange fashion along the tall grasses. But Azul was light on his feet. He caught up to a friendly looking band to inquire after places where he and his little brother could rest.
He saw their eyes fill with questions as they studied the features of the boy sleeping in the carrier on his back. Several could not help but ask if they were full brothers.
Azul smiled, speaking truthfully as he admitted that their mothers were different. He said little more, not willing to bend the truth even further.
Satisfied, their female leader spoke. “Nothing much is here to find, for the river elves hide from even us. Out here, you will only find us wandering ones who play our tunes for our keep in the winter and plant in the spring. This year we do not plant to give our lands rest. We go south to sing for our keep. Go along the way we came and perhaps others will guide you.
Azul listened and turned north towards the places the wood elves had last settled.
The fairies followed, tending to the child each evening while Azul would cook on an open fire and smoke his pipe. They continued in this fashion, making good progress through grassy plains and the highlands until the path ended at the edge of a forest.
Now it was them who cried in displeasure, balking at where the elf would take them. Azul had no choice but to camp while he tried to persuade them to continue with them on their journey.
At one time the woods had been full of small glens and vales. But the elves who tended had grown thin in numbers. And disease had come to the forest — taking many of the trees in the best parts of the woods and leaving them rotting. And in other parts, the trees had become overgrown. To pass through would mean little sun and few green plants for the fairies to rest among.
There was good reason for the fairies to dislike the forest so. And he should as well, for he knew magic would be unstable in a place devoid of life or resources.
But he also knew proceeding through the forest was the most direct way to the open spaces and the mountains beyond. Unobstructed and unopposed, he could cross through the worst of the forest in a few days time.
The elven wizard tried hard to convince the fairies to stay with them, speaking in honeyed tones as he offered to carry them the entire journey inside his coat pockets.
Normally they would happily crawl inside them, fighting each other for that honor. His pockets were known to magically fill with all sorts of interesting sweets and trinkets, some of which they were allowed to keep if they helped him.
But the fairies would not be persuaded. Instead they sat on flowers and grass and scrunched up their faces as they stared back at the elf. Finally, a small fairy with dandelions in her hair told him he was being stupidly tall before she and several others blinked out of sight.
They did not return, even when he offered them a soothing tune on his fife.
After one full day of this useless standoff, Azul decided to try another idea. “Conn,” he told the young boy. “I cannot fly over these woods that our good friends think is dangerous. However, to go around means passing through the drylands. There will be many hot days and many unfriendly elves.”
A small outcry told him that the fairies had not left them. He saw several glimmers of light as the fairies peered around rocks and plants.
The fairies did not like those sand-filled lands or the warlike Fire elves. Those elves held the fairies in contempt for their weakness.
Azul like many other elves, knew he could not fight them in hand to hand combat. He would have to cast a few good illusions or singe them with fire if needed. However, the heat in those lands proved tricky — often causing light to distort and ruin his spells.
The elven wizard folded his hands neatly in front of him as he perched on a mossy rock. He continued to speak aloud as if the fairies weren’t there. “But the fairies will not go in the forest nor can I carry you and protect you while walking along the desert. Conn, your best hope is to transform and leave us behind.”
“No!” The small boy’s bottom lip quivered as he clung to Azul’s vest. “Azul stay with Conn. Fairies come too.”
A handkerchief appeared in the elf’s hand, ready to wipe the tears that threatened to fall from the little one’s face. Azul truly pitied this halfling and his situation. “Then would you be willing to turn around and come back with me to my home? I could hire a ship to sail us around these cursed woods and those cranky elves.”
“Go, go,” Conn agreed.
The fairies were unable to contain themselves any longer. They tumbled over the ground and tugged at the elf’s pant legs. Azul looked down and tried not to grin as he saw their reddened expressions. “Ah, so you came back? Does that mean you all will come with me as well if we go to the seas?”
The fairies squinted at him for a moment as if he were stupid. “Yes!” they squeaked.
“Alright,” Azul smiled to himself while he calculated their next steps. He gave the small halfling in his lap an appraising look. “But first, we’ll need to make a few changes to how this one looks.”