The halfling screwed up his face at him. For some reason, he struggled to push himself away from the wind god filling up his room. “Who are you?!”
West was none too pleased by such a question. “Look owl, you know my followers very well. They have been among those who have carried you aloft your whole life. As you throw yourself about spying for your lady queen, they have been with you every moment.”
The creature blinked a few times before he reached for a pair of glasses. He was comically inept in his fumbling, searching around the bed and table before he realized they were already on his head. Once he had perched them back on his nose, he still squinted as he studied West. “Oh!” The halfling then cleared his throat and tried to bow from his half-seated position. “Ah, forgive me! I seem to have been looking at your arm instead of your face.” The owl blinked a few more times. “Although, to be honest, your face is still peculiar,” came an even more daft response.
For a moment, the halfling’s attention was diverted by small chirps coming from the hidden corners of the room. West could hear them scolding the halfling for his moronic gaffe. “The house folks told me that I forgot that you were also the one who leads the green men. Does that mean my queen sent you to find me?”
West’s smaller winds circled about the owl. From the way they were whispering, they were dubious that this could be one of the great lady’s guards. Yet West was even more certain of this creature’s identity; he knew very well that this owl’s scattered moments were often followed by insights that were remarkably profound and brilliant.
As to whether that someone was a prisoner, West rubbed at the twigs in his beard, trying to understand the situation.This creature did not appear to give off any signs of distress. “Well, not exactly. I came to find and spy out this wolf lord who caught your queen’s eye.”
The halfling laughed. “He is a rather interesting contradiction, isn’t he? I must say — those wolves who kept to themselves all these years were indeed not so isolated as we thought. He is elf and wolf at the very least. And moreover, he attracts a strange crowd.”
The chatty bird was sounding even less like a person in distress and one not in a hurry to be rescued. West grumbled. “Now look, owl boy. Perhaps you took a few too many bumps to the head and your arm. The wolves don’t appear to have treated you all that well. You don’t even look like you can walk much.”
“I am Sova, not owl boy,” the creature glared at the wind. “I am not a prisoner here. I was just doing my duty and ran into some trouble down south. Those lions brought me back here to be nursed and cared for.”
“And what, little one, were you doing there?” West flung out his arms, sending leaves and small pieces of twigs flying. “The stench of death is heavy. You should not have looked. And it may spread.”
Sova the owl frowned. “More reason not to leave then!”
The owl was making little sense in his eyes. West thought about simply picking him up and blowing him all the way back to the garden where the fairy queen could charm him back to normal. West drew up close to the owl, trying to see if the fellow had not been ensorceled or drugged somehow.
Sova’s hair flew about everywhere as the winds searched him for evidence of mischief. However, after a moment, the West Wind had to conclude that there was nothing the matter. “Really, this conversation with you mortals is so taxing. Your answer should be ‘Yes of course great wind god, let us be gone to my lady.’” And then he realized what it must be. The wind roared. “Is it another lady?”
“Ah! You think so little of me!” Sova cried. “I tell you, I have had a rough time of it, being tossed out here in such unpleasant weather. It does not mean I wish to slack here and do nothing! No– this place is coming alive and I must sit and watch. Fair folk everywhere! They are excited, too. They have not lived here in so long.”
Yes, there were fair folk underfoot. West could see them peeping at him from the shadows, sticking out their tongues at him. They were the forest kind — the kind that had disappeared from these parts long ago and tried their hand along the rivers and streams until the mermaids had gotten a taste for them. “Well, yes. Fair folk. You have plenty of those at home. Not exactly these kinds but…”
Sova did not care for the West Wind’s lack of enthusiasm. The owl babbled on excitedly. “ But there is more! They whisper that the unicorns walk among us, again. My lady spoke of them but I have never truly believe. But there are several here with this lord. Have you not seen them?”
Wind tilted his head all the way around, as if his looking about now might reveal them to him. He had not seen or felt such a thing. But he, too, wanted to know. “Go,” he said to his followers. “Look again. If something appears closed, do not give up.” And then he turned his attention back to Sova. “What else has caught your fancy, owl?”
The halfling waved about one good arm. “The world is reviving… restarting… whatever the pious ones believe and wrote about. It must be happening. A time of change. They are here. If only Taliesen were here to see them.”
West leaned in, his attention truly captured by the mention of that man. “Them? Who is it you see?”
The little guy stared off into empty air while his body shook with fervor and anticipation. “No. No, I musn’t get ahead of myself. First, my Queen must absolutely confirm it.”
* * *
Had he a choice, Hawk would have gladly left the ice elves behind. But with those accursed beings possibly on his trail, the man did not believe he had a choice.
The elf Elden Ull was likely his best chance at safely navigating the deep ice caves and mountain tunnels back home. As such, Hawk put up with his escorts as they trudged southwards under cover.
However polite they were towards him, Hawk took care not to volunteer information that could reveal too much. He had been warned many times over about the capital elves. Under the reign of the current Alberich, also born from the proud Ice clans, they had become known for their sly intrigues. They were otherwise known to be careful about words that could be used to portray their disloyalty or offer advantage to others.
And they were keen to hear about his queen.
Hawk was no fool. Elden Ull did not look like the sort of elf whose head was turned by the fanciful romance that the bardic elves spouted about his queen. Rather, the elves’ chatter pointed to the weakening of Alberich’s position these past few years.
His once beautiful visage had started to fade with age. That, they believed, was the first sign of impending death. And the way these elves whispered, it sounded as if the succession council would be put in place soon.
Briefly Hawk wondered about the elf mage in their own court and what instructions Alberich fed him now. As he listened to the ice elves, he realized that Lady Elisa was the one wrinkle to whatever plans the capital elves held for the selection of their next king.
Were she any other woman, he might have worried. But the Garden itself protected her against the outsiders as did her Knight. Of his fellow guards, it was the Knight that the Hawk trusted most. It was to him, he must speak of this news as well as the odd encounter he had within the ruined ice castle. He did not understand the meaning of the prince frozen in ice. And if he would care to admit it, he was troubled by his discovery.
In spite of his unsociable demeanor, the elves persisted in engaging him. “What advice do you have, Hawk, for our chief?” came the question from one of those who tended his wounds.
The guardsman felt the eyes of many upon him but Hawk willed his face to show little of his true thoughts. “Many who are admitted to the garden come for foolish reasons. Those who come to just look at her beauty also are often left wandering the passes indefinitely. It is,” Hawk offered a fierce grin, “a vexing outcome for many.”
“Yet Alberich was admitted.”
Hawk nodded. “So goes the tale among your people. But she does not speak of it.”
The ice elves exchanged glances with one another at such dismissive words. .
The chieftain smirked, understanding. “And yet he claimed her favor. It is said he keeps a guard with her as well.”
Hawk did not blink. What Azul was, he would not reveal. “My lady’s guards are only those who the Garden deems as loyal to her. If it were otherwise, the Garden would cast them out. She also can see right through most liars and thieves. If you wish successful entry, you must bring something of worth.”
“Then Guard, what do you suggest we speak of with her?”
Inwardly, Hawk sighed. He did not like being solicited for help but he knew he owed these elves something. “She will be amenable to an audience with you if you bring news of the Snow Queen’s demise. She will want to hear what you know of her and the sea creatures. For your sake, I hope it is more than what you told me.”
The elves grinned. “Well, we aren’t foolish enough to tell you more, for then you would leave us behind at the first opportunity, wouldn’t you? Or are you more honorable than you appear, mercenary?”
They stared at him, knowing full well who he really was. Hawk was not troubled; in fact, he was bemused that at some time, some storyteller had told them his tale. It was not one clean of blood or intrigue. “I do not claim to be anything save a good servant to my master. There are no tricks waiting for you there — I speak only of the will of the garden. One wrong word, and many a guest has turned a path and found themselves staring at a mountain of rock. Or in the worst case, running off a cliff with a pool of rocks and water to break their fall.”