Hawk blinked as the elves snickered, his eyes observing all while he analyzed their unexpected response. They did not appear to show any horror at such proscribed punishment. “You find their fate… entertaining?”
The chieftain cleared his throat and grinned. “Well, any fool who doesn’t watch his step deserves his fate. Moreover, any princess who is easy to obtain makes for a rather uninteresting prize. The more difficult, the more worthwhile.”
Hawk narrowed his eyes at such insolent words. He knew better, however, than to argue that his queen was more than a mere tool or object. He was certain the chieftain was baiting him.
Instead, he spoke the message of warning that his duties to his master required. The Queen of Swans did not like life or time being uselessly wasted. Hawk met the chieftain’s eyes. “The Queen,” he responded, emphasizing her title. “She is not necessarily looking for a king.”
She had never stated this outright. But Hawk’s eyes had seen enough and observed much over the years. While the other guards were half in love with their queen, he was too old and embittered to feel such pitiable emotions. He had known war and mistrust, bloodshed and misery. He knew life could hurt and maim. It was likely why her brother confided her past to him.
Such history would seem almost incomprehensible to the younger guards who he served alongside. For them, it would be hard to imagine the measured, proud Queen as a princess whose heart could be trifled with. But Hawk was a cynic. And he believed in the fallibility of men. He knew very well how her miserable tale could make her heart almost unassailable.
The elves were taken in by her kind exterior and her title. They failed to observe and understand. She did not need a king. She needed a steward — someone who could shoulder the work she had acquired over the many centuries.
These stupid elves, he realized, would never understand such a concept. Even these ice elves– hardened by the world–fussed over intrigues and had forgotten real war.
The Chieftain had no idea the cold practicality in which he was being judged. The elf chuckled, still promoting that this exchange was no more than a friendly conversation. “We shall mind our manners, no worries.” To his followers he winked. “These women of magic are a difficult lot. That Snow Queen was not easy to placate.”
“But our chief did well,” one of his young retainers defended his master. His eyes held a certain amount of worship for Elden Ull as he made excuse for the chief. “She asked a lot of us– and we minded all of her rules. But she still treated us like servants!”
The elves mumbled angrily among themselves, having been provoked by mention of the Queen.
Hawk realized they were not sad to see she was gone. Life was already difficult here in this icy world and the presence of a near goddess could make it better or worse. In the case of the elves, Hawk guessed that she had not been a benevolent neighbor.
Eventually their conversation lulled and their eyes returned to him, ever so curious as to why he would not speak his mind. Hawk could not offer any words or commentary on the long-gone ruler. Instead, he could only speak of the one he served. “It is true I serve a queen. But my queen has few rules save commanding kindness towards the creatures who live in her garden.”
He could tell that they did not believe him.
Elden Ull grimaced as he gestured something that signified a falling object. “But how kind is she if you fail to comply? More accidents?”
Hawk frowned.They misunderstood. “The garden metes out its own justice. What happens is not her doing.”
They thought her either cruel or weak. In comparison to what they had known– perhaps she was. “Then, the Snow Queen is a harsher mistress!” they declared.
“I would not know,” Hawk responded diplomatically. “But you will not be mistreated by the Queen of Swans.”
“Well,” the man sitting next to the chief interrupted. He wore a strange band around his wrist –one that he guessed signified some position of importance within the clan. “She did not exactly mistreat us. Rather, she ignored us. She would not intervene for any of our hunters when they fell into trouble.”
They related several of these incidents until the chieftain interrupted. “Well. It wasn’t as if she was completely without feelings. She has a few playthings she did trouble herself for– among them a girl of great beauty who has since disappeared.
They spoke of this fair creature whose lithe, graceful form had dotted the snowy landscape from time to time. The Queen would often stay close, keeping an watchful eye upon her. But when she was alone, she would vex them by running away when the elves attempted to engage her. He could tell she intrigued them greatly but for no very good reason other than being beautiful and mysterious.
Hawk internally sighed as the conversation derailed into frivolous talk of women. He would change its course or lose the opportunity to address the matter of the missing prince. “In your comings and goings, did you ever see gentlemen in her company or employ? Did she have any that struck you as suspicious? That wind god. What do you know of him?”
The elves exchanged looks. Several held up their fingers and crossed them.
Hawk caught the gesture. It was he, not the others among his Queen’s guards, who paid attention to minutiae related to the elves’ customs. Perhaps it was because her brother had been so suspicious of them that he made a point to teach Hawk about them. Hawk knew the elves were warding off something undesired.
And their eyes watched him. Perhaps they were finally waking up and were realizing he was neither friend nor foe. The chieftain answered the question very carefully. “We do not speak of him unless we wish to risk his wrath. His friends are many and they hear all. But we will speak of the others,” he said in a friendly manner. “There have been many adventurers who journey here to try their hand against or for that Queen. Her reputation precedes her, as do the stories of her beauty, her treasure, and her power.”
“They are not true,” his followers exclaimed.
The chieftain raised his hand to silence them. “No, it is true in what hint they provide of her powers. However, she must be far stronger than the witch she replaced. These folktales have never been amended properly and so for years, the minstrels and bards wandered about giving outlanders the wrong idea. The lucky ones turned back once they encountered the cold or the bears. Others who did pay her audience we have often buried when they failed to meet the Queen’s expectations.” The elf leaned in. He was too polite to state it upfront but it was clear the Snow Queen was partly responsible for those deaths. “So many visitors,” the chieftain repeated. “Most of them long-forgotten or dead. We wouldn’t know where to begin.”
Hawk was astute enough to know they were once again playing games of information. He inwardly cursed. He had little patience for these elven ways. His eyes fell upon the chieftain. “I would ask what you know of a human southlander. Dark hair. Blue eyes. An odd one who collects stories and trinkets. He is a friend of my queen’s.” He paused. “Information on him would be highly valued.”
The elf raised his eyebrow, indicating that his interest was piqued.”Ah! Indeed. I am glad then we can be of some help. I seem to recall someone we helped direct her way some years ago.”