Elisa turned away from their disappointed faces. Their feelings did not anger or bother her. While outwardly the Weird Ones had become older, the mystics were still younger than she. Elven traditions tied them down and shaped their words. In their eyes, she was simply another lone soul in need of guidance.
But they were now in the Garden — in the place that existed outside the rules of time and fate. The lake, she knew, would reveal to them the infinite number of facets to the world they lived in and the burden such insight carried with it. She hoped this glance would show the mystics why she had no time for politics or love affairs.
Conn grunted as he reached for a flower close to the edge of the porch. Elisa immediately abandoned her loom to rescue him before he pitched into a rose bush. Before he could cry at being thwarted, she tickled his stomach as if she was playing a game.
He forgot the flower and giggled. She held him aloft, admiring how his hair shone brightly in the sun. “Are you really a unicorn?” she asked as she resettled him in her arms and he wrapped his small arms around her neck.
“Conn, conn!” he shook up and down in excitement.
She stroked his forehead, looking for that tell-tale horn that she had come to expect to find. In response, the young child wrinkled his nose and tugged at the front of her shirtwaist.
The fairies chirped at her, scolding her for her question.
“I know,” she told them. Based on what she had been told and seen, she knew she could not deny it even if the horn was not present. She caressed the child’s upturned face while she worried for him.
The path that he had chosen would be a hard one. It was just as cruel as the fate she had found thrust upon herself. Worse– the world believed they owned these creatures of magic.
He tugged again at her shirt.
“I think he’s hungry,” Isra offered.
Moirae scolded her brother. “As if she couldn’t tell. She would know better than you when a baby is hungry.”
Elisa ignored the squabble that followed. She whispered to the fairies that perched on the porch. “Go, bring him something suitable.”
Conn squirmed towards the direction of the mystics and the array of prepared food on their table. She offered him a green leaf instead, one which he promptly stuffed in his mouth.
The mystics watched with pity. They had hinted they knew of the child she had lost but thankfully they did not pursue the topic further. Instead, Rene silenced her siblings’ fighting. She approached Elisa and offered the unicorn a piece of fruit, which he immediately stuffed into his mouth. The old elf laughed, delighted at the child’s healthy appetite. “The young prince told us the unicorn came unseen and alone. Can you think of a reason why?”
“They have come here before,” Elisa reflected. “They would come and go as they please to eat from the tree in the meadow.” Her gaze drifted towards that tree. It had finished flowering and was now beginning to bud with fruit. “The last one I saw was many years ago. He departed shortly after Alberich brought one of his kin here.”
Isra was cross. “Well, that must have been before King Arin died then.”
She hesitated, wondering at how he had known. “Yes, it was. And the boy left. They do not like to be alone– and even though we did our best to keep him content, it was not the same as being with his kind. The same will become true for Conn. Even if he bonds to the prince– it will never be enough.”
“We never have read such a thing–”
She found their position ironic. They had collected and studied written works the world over. But that vast trove of knowledge was still limited. “Of course. They do not write their own accounts. You tell the prince that a unicorn is a herald of a king. But what does this child say? I think he is an affectionate creature who would do anything we ask even if he is too young to know what it means.”
The fairies interrupted, appearing out of nowhere with a small tin cup of goat milk. She thanked them and handed it over to the eager child. As he greedily drank from it, Conn dribbled a good bit over his own borrowed clothing. She wiped it off and was rewarded with another laugh from the boy. “Forgive me for not heeding your counsel, Wise Ones. But I will not allow old elves’ tales to serve as the foundation of his future.”
“The old tales do have truth to them,” interrupted Azul. He stood at the wooden gate that blocked the path to her cottage. “Sorry, I could not help but overhear your conversation. They told of the fairy roads– long believed to exist but never proven until this boy showed us.”
“Good day, prince,” the elf siblings greeted Azul.
He leapt over the gate and landed in the dirt. “Conn– will you come to me?”
The child wriggled at the sound of Azul’s voice. Elisa relented and put him down. She watched with worried eyes as the boy ran to Azul and waved his hands at him. “Papa? Papa?”
Azul knelt down and showed his hands. “I have none for you. But I do have carrots.”
The child made a face and began to cling to the elf’s knees. The elf sighed and permitted the child to climb up and inspect the pockets in his vest while the neglected carrots disappeared up some sleeve.
Azul’s gaze would not leave Elisa. He smiled at her, having caught her attention at last. “Many fairy roads lead here. I did not realize that until he opened one of them for us. He has much to teach us of the old tales.”
She did not quite know what he was trying to argue. But she sensed the elves were trying to use their teachings to influence her. “That may be true. But does the lake follow elven rules or do elven rules follow the lake? That is where I believe the lake must also answer.”
She knew he disagreed but would not argue.
“Papa?” Conn tugged at Azul’s vest pocket again.
“Why does he call you that?” Elisa could not help but ask.
“He calls all sweets Papa,” the elf explained to the baffled queen. “I taught him to do so in order to make it easier to pretend we were a traveling father and son.”
Elisa crossed her arms at such flagrant manipulation. “You always have to make things more complicated, don’t you?”
“I’m far more interesting that way.”
Elisa tried to ignore the glint in the prince’s eyes. He was baiting her, trying to flirt with her or anger her. He had succeeded in swaying her the other evening while under the influence of the moonlit sky. Today, however, she was not as defenseless against his elvish charms. “How does the boat fare?”
“Your guards chased me away. They thought I might sabotage its construction since it’s meant to convey my competition about the lake. And so I am now at your disposal, my queen.” He looked at her over the top of the child’s head. “This would be a good time to continue our earlier conversation in private.”
Elisa frowned as the sages looked on with interest. “Another time, prince. While I prepare for the lake — watch your charge well.” She curtsied before escaping into the cottage.
* * *
The sun disappeared behind the mountains and Elisa emerged from her home, dressed in a gown of midnight-blue.
She slipped through the meadow, devoid of fireflies and singing birds. The fairies that normally waited upon her fell in behind her as she made her way to the shores of the lake.
She found them all waiting upon her. Her guards were uneasy — rattled by the large number of guests present. Most evenings she would sit on a boat and watch the water with one guard and the fairies. Tonight, however, they had to contend with four guests unfamiliar with the protocols.
Elisa did not proceed far into the water. She ventured out slowly, pausing when the water just came past her knees.
The three mystics followed behind her and fanned out along the shore.
Raven perched as a bird on top of the dock. He would fly over the water once images began to form.
Hahn and the Knight stood back, ready and waiting to assist while Azul stood by them, with the child firmly in his grasp. There would be no repeat of the last incident.
The fairies circled about her. They dared not make too much noise for the expression on her face was stern. “Tonight we have others to help. Even so, remember what you see and we shall talk of it later over tea and cake.”
The promise of food cheered them. They chirped as they flew off and began skimming the surface of the lake.
Meanwhile, Elisa touched the water with her fingers, greeting the lake as if it were an old friend. The water did not ripple much. It had calmed considerably since the rains passed.
She took a deep breath and stepped forward. Her voice struck the balance between song and rhyme as she felt the water rise to meet her.
“Mirror of the land, good evening.
Tonight, there are four who wish to read your hand.
Three are students of Taliesen, the bard king and wiseman.
And the fourth is I, your vessel.
Recognize us and show us what you most desire.”
Behind her the mystics gasped. The lake immediately lit up from within and images began to pour out all around them.
The fairies’ dancing grew frenzied as the elven capital shimmered across the water. They saw it twinkling proudly before it was abruptly snuffed out.
The mystics sighed their disappointment and concern. But Elisa knew something else would come. And it did — another castle but one gloomy and plain.
There were many creatures around and within it to study. But Elisa searched for one face in particular — the face of the haughty wolf who the lake could not forget.
Finally, he appeared, glaring at a window.
“Our dear halfling friend is not pleased,” she murmured to herself. The image was not clear due to the poor reflection glass offered. But she could see he was not alone. He was talking to a small crowd of people with even hazier faces. “Mirror — show this to the others so they might understand your will.”
And so the lake did, repeating the visual over and over so all could see.
Elisa’s voice reached across to the others. “Behold, the one the lake seeks.”
It took some time before the vision of the halfling would become clear. But when it did, the onlookers studied the halfling.
“He has a strange aura,” Rene said. “A young face but an old heart. I cannot decide what he is. Ah– but his companions are even more peculiar.”
They studied the humans, surprised to find them near the wolf. Somehow natural enemies had allied themselves to one another. The elves did not understand this development.
As their figures began to fade away, Conn started to fuss. When they did not return he cried. His shrieks and wails shook the dock and rattled the fairies. The water on the lake began to ripple and the pictures distorted.
“Prince Azurite,” Elisa looked their way. “He is your charge.”
He looked startled by the outburst but quickly muttered a few words that soothed the child into sleep.
Elisa took a deep breath and watched the lake, waiting for the waters to calm. Once she felt the water quiet, she touched it again. “Now that we have seen your wish, hear ours. Show us what we long to see. Show it all.”
She spoke this with more the usual fervor. Silently she offered the lake everything she had– every memory and ounce of her physical strength.
And then the lake complied, scattering thousands of images across its surface, glowing as it savagely responded. Each elf and human saw what they asked for and more. Elisa alone could only read the present. But among her company were those who saw other things — the present, the past, and the future.
They all watched, seeing more than had been expected.
Elisa herself knew it was more than she could comprehend. But she felt that somewhere in those images was an answer to her plight — the truth of her brothers, at last.
She stood for hours, willing the fairies and the others to search the waters for their answers. Her answers. She stood until she saw what she needed to see.
“Oh Maeve,” she muttered under her breath as she understood what the Snow Queen had done to herself. To Elisa and her brothers. And to many others. “Why? Why did you go this far?”
She lowered her arms against her side and closed her eyes. She found herself too tired to pull herself and her waterlogged skirts from the lake. It was Hahn who eventually scrambled into the water to carry her out.
She lay on the sand while her Knight draped a blanket about her. She did not have the strength to speak to them all, save Raven, who hopped next to her. Of her guards, only he would understand.“You saw them?”
“Yes,” the bird replied.
“Then go find the followers of the West and East winds. We must ask their masters to hurry back. Only they can help decipher what we saw.” To the one fairy who nestled against her nose, she apologized. “I have done too much today. When I wake, let us share what you have seen.”
Hahn lifted her from the sand and scolded her. “Stop talking already. You’ve got to rest.”
Azul stepped close. “Let me tend to her. She’ll catch sickness like that.”
She offered them both a smile–one surprisingly soft and mysterious. “I cannot afford that now, can I?”
* * *
Such a smile would have slayed the hearts of lesser men. Azul would have followed had it not been for the elven mystics standing in his way.
“Prince Azurite,” Moirae protested. “Before you tend her, please wait.”
He frowned as the Queen’s guards disappeared with Elisa in their care. “What do you wish to speak of?”
Isra bowed his head and rubbed his hands together nervously. “Maeve is no more. That much we’re certain of. The darkness took her for meddling too much with this family and with others. Now, even more than ever, please be careful in what you do.”