Hawk’s chest shuddered at such a statement, so casually offered. He dared not speak, for he feared he would betray his excitement at such news. He did not dare offer the chieftain an advantage in this discussion. And so he stared—his eyes challenging the elf, as if he were unimpressed.
The tactic worked. The elves shifted uneasily under such sharp scrutiny until one elf cleared his throat. “Chief, perhaps it would be better first to explain the tale of the two queens. I presume he may not know or understand fully the circumstances that brings wanderers here.”
Elden Ull nodded at this elf, giving him tacit permission to speak further. And while Hawk was not exactly pleased by this apparent detour, the tale could not be avoided. So he crossed his arms, once again reminding himself that listening to others was one of his many duties for his queen.
In spite of his obvious impatience, they proceeded. After all, they were ice elves and would do as they wished.
The elf who had interrupted stood by the warmth of the fire. He smiled slyly at Hawk. “I am the Seanchai in this clan. You call us bards in the outside world. And so I will do my duty.” With that, he turned to his greater audience and bowed once in several directions. “Please be patient as we revisit a tale we all know all too well.”
The bard straightened up and extended his hands, casting shadows on the walls of the cave. Even now they danced for him, ready and willing to give form to the words that the bard would weave.
The elf began to speak many things, punctuated only by a sigh or a pause at an appropriate time and place.
And Hawk grew still, for the voice that poured forth from the Seanchai was overpowering and ancient. It was a voice that spoke from somewhere beyond this cave, this time and place. It sang with truth and made the shadows flicker.
“We begin with one queen in a land of caves.
Nothing more than a spirit of ice.
She lived alone, save a golem or two as a pet.
But the ice queen was not lonely
For she had no heart.
Nor was she kind.
For she no mind to guide her.
And so, she brought winter on all that she touched.
She would have eaten the world over, if it were not for the Mother wind.
For a long time, however, she ruled this place.
Nothing living creature could withstand the cold she favored.
None would dare challenge it.
But time wore her power down.
As did the birth of the dragons, who brought fire to this land.
And as her power weakened, the other animals came.
And where the animals came, our people followed.
So it was so.”
“So it was so,” murmured his audience.
With a jab to the air, the Seanchai began again.
“First the dragons.
Then the bears.
Neither did fear her.
They brought us here.
Poor elves seeking hide and treasure.
And we learned to live like them, lurking in the shadows.
Until the darkness took even them.”
“But the castle appeared!” shouted a voice from the back of the cave.
The Seanchai nodded. “And then came the summons. So it was so.”
“So it was so,” his audience echoed.
While the story continued, the chieftain found his way to Hawk. He murmured to him a more concise explanation. “It was many generations ago when my distant forefather was the first to be summoned from our clan. And he took his sister, the then Seanchai to see this queen inside her castle. It left a strong impression upon the Seanchai– and among us, they like her the most.”
It was not hard for Hawk to understand why. For the traditional storytellers of the elves, the Snow Queen had to be a source of endless fascination. And as the bard continued to speak, he was increasingly animated as he spoke of this new facet of the terrible queen.
“This Snow Queen was no primal fairy!
She had no poisonous vapors for our dear fathers.
Instead– an offering of the caves ours for our taking, as long as we followed her wishes.
And so the ice clan agreed and celebrated.
The land that tried to kill them, would do so no longer.
We would watch together.
And defend together.”
“So it was so,” the audience solemnly nodded.
Elden Ull snorted under his breath as they continued. “When I was young, I thought this was a good story of a heartless queen learning her lesson. We did not understand that a new queen had somehow installed herself here and was using us. Instead, we made up new stories to add to the old ones.”
“Your stories brought others here.”
The chief nodded warily. His eyes were still on the storyteller who launched into a long list of visitors who had graced their lands in a sad attempt at a journey to see the beautiful witch. “You cannot be much of a queen without subjects. Your friend was another would-be storyteller, enticed here by the stories. We remember such a human who drank buckets of my uncle’s favorite liquor. The fool was quite close to being tossed into the snow until he accidentally revealed who he was.”
A chill overtook Hawk as the chieftain’s keen eyes turned his way. “Your queen’s brother was not very clever. He never did come back out of that castle. We presumed that she saw through him immediately. We did not find his body, however. So the best among us thought the fool had become her latest lovelorn amusement. The worst thought he became bear food. But that was long ago. By now the human would be dead.”
Hawk hesitated, not knowing quite how to respond. He did not feel it was his secret to confide that there were some notable exceptions to the short lives humans led. The secret of the brothers was not his to share.
But however unwise the Queen’s brother had been in journeying this way, he was still a good man to whom Hawk owed his life. He would defend the prince’s honor, at least a little. “The man was a fool at times but not one who cared for love. His only love was knowledge. It is unimaginable that he would mope about pining after a haughty queen when he had many things on his mind. I ask of him because I saw him frozen in a casket of ice inside the castle. In light of the many things you said of the queen, I cannot understand why.”
Those last words drew the watchful eyes of the elves upon Hawk.
“If her castle is gone,” Hawk pressed forward in the uncomfortable silence that hung over him. “Is she dead and he with it? What do you believe?”
He searched each of their faces for an answer. But many simply crossed their fingers and pressed their lips together. Even the chieftain looked unwilling to speak.
But the Seanchai could not hold his tongue. “Unbeliever! While she may be mortal, she still had the power of a goddess. One does not destroy such a Queen’s magic so easily.”
* * *
Elisa did not feel much like a queen as she sat on a blanket on the sandy shores of the lake. Her eyes were fixed to the sight of sunlight glittering on the iridescent wings of the fairies playing over the water.
Today, they did not chase images but ladybugs who had descended from the sky to visit. They would stop and rest here among the blooming flowers in her meadows. They would play with the fairies before disappearing to some other part of the world over the mountains.
The wise elves had retreated to their tents to mull over the many things they had seen. Knight and Hahn were scouting the footpaths, watching for signs of the approaching storm of courtiers.
She was waiting. Waiting for Raven to return with the gods of winds, with news of the new King. She was waiting for them to also return to confirm if what the mages said about the death of Maeve might ring true.
Elisa touched the back of her neck, aware that Azul watched her from the shaded patio. She was afraid of those sea-colored eyes and their bearer. She could ask him what he believed of the former Queen of this garden and all her manipulations. But he would likely speak of other things– things that the lake had revealed to him that evening it spoke to them all. Things that made her heart stir uneasily.
The child sleeping in her lap squirmed slightly. She laid her fingers on Conn’s forehead and pushed back the curls from his face. She knew he was dreaming again of some other place.
And she knew it was not this place.