“Beware!” he said to him.
“If you touch the water a hand will appear, take hold of you, and pull you under.”
Hawk awoke in the shape of a bird. A dull ache thrummed through his body but he mercifully found himself whole.
The halfling blinked his one good eye, searching out the darkness to find his bearings.
He heard the sound of something creaking while the ground beneath him moved in a rhythmic motion. With a groan he flipped over, realizing he was lying at the bottom of a gilded cage – one so small that he would have no choice but to remain in this powerless form.
Hawk laid his head back down on the damp straw, willing the walls around him to stop moving. He did not wish to draw the attention of whoever or whatever it was that had subdued him. The pain in his body told him magic had been involved in his capture. Told him to be afraid.
The halfling knew he had seen something forbidden.
Varyn – the queen’s brother – was imprisoned here in this castle. In that vaulted chamber, full of remnants of a fairy magic, the human had been left encased in ice.
Hawk did not know whether the queen’s brother was dead or alive. All he knew was the prince was unaware of his former henchman’s cries for him to wake.
It must have been his shouts that alerted his attacker and also made its approach easy. He had no warning before blackness enveloped him in its cold arms and time stopped.
Why Varyn was here troubled him. Elisa’s flashy brother had last been seen in the elven lands, excavating at some old dig that promised to yield a trove of cultural artifacts. The possible reasons why he would be locked up was incomprehensible to a straightforward creature like Hawk. The thought of the Snow Queen as the architect of the Swans’ misery made him terribly afraid.
Hawk waited for a while to see if his noisy activities might summon company. When no sign of his captor followed, he edged himself towards the side of his cage. He placed his claws upon the metal bars, shifting the cage until it tilted.
The bird tried to obtain a better understanding of where his attacker had left him. His wings twitched as he smelled the air. It was stagnant — difficult to work with.
But he studied the rope that held him up in the air, assessing whether it was the kind that could be broken. It took him another moment to conclude the rope was flawed. It was not the kind crafted by elven hands but an inferior sort that was found on the human ports. But how far the cage and he might fall if released from wherever it was secured, he did not know.
He would have to carefully balance the strength of that rope against the force generated by smashing his cage against the wall. The rope would need to hold long enough for him to batter the cage’s side without breaking. If he failed to open it before the rope itself snapped, he and the entire cage would fall to the ground below.
He did not wish to shatter. Or – if the ice below was thin, drown as the cage passed into the water.
He was still contemplating all of these calculations as to how best to free himself of his prison when he heard a far-off sound of shuffling.
Something was descending towards him. That increasingly slick, wet sound came closer through what he guessed was some sort of passage.
When it paused, Hawk flattened himself against the bottom of the cage, afraid that whatever it was had stopped below him.
Indeed, a terrible waterlogged stink wafted towards him, burning his nostrils. A draft of cold wind followed — that same damp cold that he recalled overtaking him before he lost consciousness.
How long that thing sat there he did not know but when the sound of the creature’s progression resumed, Hawk felt a sense of relief. He did not move from his spot until he heard the splintering of ice, followed by a splash of water.
In the silence that followed, Hawk risked shifting his cage so he could see where the interloper had gone. He caught a dark shape hovering underneath what was a sizable hole in the dirtied ice.
The shape lingered in the water. From his distant viewpoint, Hawk realized it was too large to be one of the birds native to the icy kingdom. He thought of a bear but as he counted the seconds to himself, he noticed the shape did not resurface.
A sense of dread overtook him as he noted the setting of the eyes glowing red underneath the ice.
He understood he was not seeing bear or bird.
It was something unexpected, far worse than he had ever imagined.
* * *
Elisa felt a prick of unease as the winds brought her near the mountains that hid Mirror Lake.
Large clouds hovered and blocked their way– clouds that looked heavy with rain to come.
East and West did not mind the mood of the sky; rather they found it entertaining to take their passengers on a convoluted path into the Garden of Paradise and into the meadow outside Elisa’s home.
West chuckled as her guards collapsed on the ground in sheer relief.
Elisa herself was nauseous as she was placed upon the soft grass. Immediately the fairies forgot her guards, flying towards her. They trilled in concern, their small hands outstretched as they offered her whatever nectar they had on hand.
“It’s alright.” Elisa deliberately smiled and gently waved their gifts away. She was unwilling to take their help when it was not needed. “You forget I used to fly with my brothers. Just some water is needed.”
A small group of them darted away, anxious to bring her that very item.
She took this moment to take in the meadow in which they stood – still blooming wildly with flowers. Her heart began to calm as she saw nothing untoward had happened while she had been briefly gone from this place. But there was a noticeable quiet, one that spoke of the absence of others. She took a deep breath, hoping her senses were wrong. “Have you seen anyone?”
The winged creatures that flirted with her hair leaned over and shook their heads.
She felt a stab of concern for her missing companions. By now, she had expected they would have returned. “No reports, either?”
Again, the small fairies answered in childish voices that no news had come.
Their expressions mirrored hers — full of worry and unease. Elisa rubbed her gloved hands together. She was tired but could think of no other recourse. “Prepare yourselves for the lake.”
They scattered obediently, leaving Elisa with her handful of guards, still resting on the grass.
“Young queen?” The voice of the East wind called down from the top of the small apple tree in the meadow. He perched lightly on one branch while his brother sat on another. The tree swayed gently under their influence. And the leaves on the branches rustled as their minions danced around the tree.
She looked at them, wondering why they did not look ready to leave.
“Before we leave, we must speak with you a bit more. We were not quite honest earlier about our brother North.”