A hollow, creaking sound woke Hawk. It was the cry of the wind, battering the castle from the outside.
His eyes surveyed the bars of his cage and gauged their distance to the ground below. They had lowered his cage to better see him from the water.
He did not see those strange fisheyes lurking in the hole in the ice. Hawk guessed it would be a few hours before the mermaids returned.
They were not the charming mermaids of human tales. They were the powerful beasts of the old myths. What beauty they possessed was ephemeral — the result of blood magic. The mermaids trapped creatures to feed their power to assume a different form.
Why they would do that was often left to the imagination of those who told their stories. Some believed the mermaids longed to see the land that they could otherwise not travel as fish. Others thought they revenged themselves upon the humans and elves who ate creatures of the sea. Whatever the reasons, the magic granting them their borrowed form would only last for a small period of time before the mermaids would have to feed again.
Hawk knew he had become their latest accidental victim. He felt bruises where they had taken his blood. His only solace was that they had not realized he had been altered to have halfling traits. As someone not wholly human, any mermaid who attacked him could not perfectly transform. The one who came to see him most often was loathsome. Her fish eyes were set in an expressionless human face. Combined with a scaly snakelike tail, she had made for the perfect image of a monster.
The others who accompanied her were varied chimeras of other kinds — hinting they had fed from other creatures. But how these things had come to live in the bowels of the Snow Queen’s castle, he did not know.
He knew they would come soon, rising through the hole in the ice and writhing on the ice-cave’s floor while they waited for their bodies to change. He would have to watch their mouths open and close as they gasped throughout the shift. They could not breathe all that well until they were more or less in the shape of a land dweller. Their change was not perfect. So they would cover themselves with a mix of stolen garments that covered some of their less than human parts.
And then they would stand on their legs and lower the cage to hungrily stare.
Every morning they would bring him fish to fatten him up. He would not eat it while they watched, waiting for them to leave before he picked out its bones and threw the rest to the ground below.
While they were away he would pick through the dry bones he had hidden in the straw and try each on the latch on the cage door. One evening, after the last of them had splashed into their hole to sleep, the door latch gave way.
Carefully he pushed the door open and half-hopped, half-flew towards the entrance to his cave prison. He found a perch out of reach of the path the mermaids crawled across and gathered his thoughts.
He would have liked to return to that vaulted chamber where he had seen his queen’s brother. But as he flew higher, he found himself blinking at the night sky. He stared at the space that had once been a tall stately spire and despaired. The castle had altered — something or someone had reshaped it while he slept. And he knew that the Swan Queen’s brother was gone.
Around him, echoed the sound of water dripping. The sound of the ice castle dying.
In the distance, he saw smoke rise and the dark shadows of distant rocks.
Elves, he thought with relief. He threw himself into the wind and drifted weakly towards the light. He would shelter there among much kinder company.
* * *
He woke again. But this time it was to the smell of fire. He was warm, buried under a blanket of fur. Silver chains bound his wrists and ankles.
Little had changed. While Hawk was human, he was still a prisoner.
“Halfling,” an elf towered over him. “Do not try to break your bonds and run unless you wish for ice to pierce your flesh.”
Hawk said nothing. For once, he wished he was closer to home — where the creatures were far more merry. This was the cold greeting of the ice elves–the fiercest warriors of the Three Tribes.
Behind that guard appeared another elf — this one with pale, snowy hair that was adorned with a metal band offset with glittering stones. This band signaled this would be their leader. He came forward and pressed the tip of a stick into Hawk’s blanket. “Whose spy are you?”
Hawk ignored the spears pointed his way. He had nothing to hide, nothing to fear. “I am a messenger, not a spy. I sought out the Snow Queen but instead fell into a trap set by mermaids.”
The elven chief sniffed. “Did you not see that there is no guard?”
This ice elf thought him stupid. Hawk did not lose his temper. “I did. But I admit I was both curious and desperate to find her. The lands to the south are in limbo with the seasons having run amuck. My lady bid me to find answers as to why winter did not fully withdraw from the lands to the east of the Silver River.”
The chief raised his hand. “Your lady? And who is she to hold you to such a desolate task?”
“The Queen of Swans, ” he replied proudly.
Those words shifted the mood among the crowd.
The chieftain motioned to his elves to lower their weapons and loosen the restraints on their captive. “We have no quarrel with the noble one or her famed guard. We know you must be Hawk for there can be no other description.”
“That is my given name. Before that I was a chief like you. You are kin to Alberich the Fair?”
“Elden Ull. Our mothers are cousins,” he said proudly.
The chieftain was a vain man turned by status and power, Hawk could see. Even so, Hawk was grateful to find himself freed of his bonds.
He accepted the clothing they tossed his way and began to dress while the elven leader took a seat on a chair of stone, carved carefully to resemble ice.
Once Hawk was properly attired, the elven chief continued to speak. “Our clan keeps true with the Capital and its promises to your Queen. We apologize for our rough treatment of her liege but it has become necessary with evil halflings roaming our land.”
Hawk rubbed his wrists where the silver had touched his skin. They had bound him to reveal his true form. “They roam her castle.”
Chieftain Ull shrugged. “They must have known the Snow Queen was gone. And with the guards gone wild, nothing keeps them back. And now that the castle has been invaded, none save the magic that drew it together can defend it. It will be gone come morning, hopefully sealing some of those accursed witches under its remains.”
“I will not mourn their demise,” Hawk answered bluntly. “They have caused me harm enough already. You state she is gone. Have you any hint of her whereabouts?”
“A fairy such as she moves without being seen. We do not have the means to track or follow her. If we had said we knew, would you go after her? Even if the mermaids would follow? They do not forget those they taste and let live.”
He raised his fingers to his neck where their teeth had left marks. “Once I have regained my strength, I shall fly where they cannot reach me. If they try, I shall kill them with my claws if I have to.”
The elves snorted their approval.
“They cannot come where there is no water,” the chief chuckled. “We can take you home through our own trails, hidden under the mountains and far away from the ice under which the mermaids may hunt.”
Hawk did not smile in return. It was a generous offer but one he suspected did not come without some expectations of their own. “And your reward?”
“I should like to see the woman who humbled King Alberich. When I come to Mirror Valley to pay homage to your Queen of Fairy, you must vouch for me and help me pass. ”
* * *
Rain had come without warning, the droplets puckering the surface of the lake. For days, the warm water sprinkled the garden and delayed Elisa from what she intended to do.
She could not call upon the lake with its endless rippling and waves. At best she could look at single images, one at a time, in a mirror or bowl full of the lake’s water. Even then it was not enough. Magic of some sort interfered with the images of her men.
Elisa informed the others that they must instead wait for the rain to pass. Then she could summon the entirety of the lake to do her bidding.
She would sit day and night on her porch while the fairies took cover under the eaves of her porch. She listened to them while weaving on her loom. The boy Conn stayed close by her side, entertained by the fairies and the gifts left by Azul each morning. When it came time for him to rest, she would tell him a story or two of the brothers she loved before she and the fairies would sing him to sleep.
The mystics chose not to approach her until the rain had stopped. They had satisfied themselves with the company of a guard while they spent their days exploring the garden. There was much to see and visit beyond the current place where she dwelled.
Once the sun appeared, they returned to her cottage. The three mystics traveled lightly over the damp meadow in their white frocks. Hahn trailed after them with a frown on his face.
Isra offered a “Hi Elisa,” before he hopped up the porch and found a jar of sweets to indulge in. He may have become an old man but he was still a child at heart. His casual greeting infuriated Hahn but the young hothead wisely kept his mouth shut until he had stomped safely out of hearing.
Isra and his sisters eyed her loom as they took their seats and settled in for tea.
They kept their talk to safe things until Isra could no longer keep his own counsel. He was blunt as he pointed at the other side of the meadow where Azul was working with the guards to build a new wooden boat. “You keep the King at arm’s length. Why do you not invite him here for tea? We could talk of how to formalize your alliance and save your life.”
Elisa carefully poured out hot water into Isra’s teacup. “He is not the King,” she corrected him.
“Yet!” Isra wagged his finger impatiently. “But he has brought a unicorn as proof. There is no sign clearer than this when his own grandfather has none. He is the best choice there is. The rest of his cousins and brothers are pompous bores. Plus he genuinely likes you.”
She avoided the temptation to glance the prince’s way. She knew they watched her very carefully as to gauge her own interest. “It is true that of that line, he is the most logical choice. He has known this place and will care for it. But it is presumptive, is it not to think this is for the best? There is another the lake seeks out. Perhaps, even desires. The winds search now for someone else who I believe also has claim.”
Isra’s sisters gently exclaimed in surprise.
Their youngest brother shook his head. “That Wind witch permitted this?” He toyed with the handle of his cup. “How unusual. What does she see?”
“It is not her. I believe she promised aid only to trick her sons into coming home. It is two of them who have agreed in exchange for my help with another matter.”
Moirae could no longer contain her disapproval. “You would gamble away such a happy ending? The prince is offering you an end much better than what the fates had intended.” She scolded Elisa over a cup of tea. “An elven prince does not stray like a human one. And he possesses true magic power that can revive the ghostly parts of this garden and the lake. Moreover, many an elf who misses the old days would solidify behind you both.”
She wondered if their mentor Taliesen would approve of such bold interference with the fates of others. Elisa bestowed upon them a gracious smile but spoke firmly. “An elven prince is more than a fallen Swan deserves. Politics have been our undoing. My brothers’ taste for active justice was not wrong but it did not help care for the creatures in this garden. I am content with the subjects I already have and need to find the best means to protect them.”
Isra shrugged. “Eh. Well if you want to ban the other elves from the garden, I’m sure it won’t matter to Azul. He doesn’t like them much either.”
“But it would not be a happy end for him, would it?” Elisa sighed. “He wants a different Queen than what I am now. I cannot undo time and how it has shaped me. I am not the princess you met long ago. ”
Moirae looked suspiciously at the loom. “Yet you cleave to old habits, princess. What is it you weave this time?”
“I will weave cloth to finish shirts for my brothers’ return,” Elisa answered casually. “Not of the magic sort. I am being pragmatic as to their needs when and if they arrive. Azul’s news made it apparent I need to hurry.”
“How morbid,” Moirae shook her head.
“How fitting,” her mild-mannered sister disagreed. “I understand this need to bring things full-circle. I would offer to help but I suspect you may desire to do this yourself.”
Elisa glanced the quiet sister’s way. Of course, she of the three would understand the hidden comfort she found in rituals. “For now, I must decline. Your help would be best employed with the lake itself. Once the water has calmed, I will need you to watch while I call upon its power. And once the winds return — I may need your help to tame it again.”
Isra munched on another cookie. “No officiating. No weaving. No meddling until asked. Okay. So what can we do until then, Elisa?”
“If you are bored,” she filled his plate with more cookies. “Perhaps you can pass the time by telling stories to Conn. He does not know of my tale. Or perhaps, together, you can capture the tales of my guards. I do not believe you know Raven or Hahn all that well.” She bowed her head. “I would like to see this done before we part.”
They exchanged troubled looks, aware of the finality of her words. “As you wish, your Highness.”