A wind stirred the branches of the apple tree that stood in the garden. It sent petals drifting in the air, floating downwards. The queen’s hands followed their trajectory towards the figure of a sleeping child. But another hand barred her way.
Elisa’s blue eyes bore straight into the Knight who dared to interfere. “What are you doing?”
If her glance did not cut to the quick, her voice did. Still, he did not remove his hand. “My liege, this might be a trick.”
He was correct to think so. Obstacles and illusions obscured the mountain passes that led to this worldly paradise. And no normal boat could float across the lake. Strangers did not simply appear in the garden.
Perhaps he understood this truth better than she. After all, the garden never blocked her way. It had allowed her in for reasons she never quite understood. She had tumbled in, merely following her brothers’ trail. That she could enter mystified them. They never arrived at an explanation as to why she, of all people, was able to pierce the boundaries of this hidden paradise. Perhaps the garden had missed its last queen. Or perhaps it desired a champion.
The winds carried news of a new queen and the elves came, delighted to find the young princess and her brothers residing in the departed woman’s place. What became of the last queen of fairies, the elves never were able to explain. Instead they enthusiastically threw themselves into worshipping the young Elisa.
She had been so young and merry then, full of innocent appeal to the world-weary elves. They were indiscreet in their praises. Soon adventurers began to appear in droves, some to court her. Others demanded entry in order to prove their master of wizardry by curing her brothers’ strange curse. They were mostly elves and men who desired power or beauty. They saw the empty place at her side and sought any means to fill it.
The crowds dwindled over time. Her brothers feared these suitors’ tricks. But the queen had an even greater one. In spite of how hard others would try, her heart could not be won. Betrayal by a Prince who claimed to love her and then left her to burn at the stake made her wary of elves and men who threw themselves at her feet. She had long ago come to understand that of all the love she had been offered in her life, only her brothers’ love for her had been real.
She was much wiser now when it came to men, but she had an obvious soft spot for helpless creatures. The queen knew her knight was right to stop her from doing what she wished. He was her oldest guard — the first to enter the garden after her brothers began to disappear. He had arrived, mysteriously floating across the lake on a wooden boat shaped like a swan. And she discovered, over time, that his instincts were always right.
Somehow he would know when the levees would overflow or the crops would bear fruit. He would know when it would rain or become cool. And no matter where she tried to hide, he always seemed to know where to find her. His concern, at this moment, was warranted.
So she waited for him as he whistled three times. The fairies responded, moving to the branches and on the flowers around them, watching them both.
The knight turned to her, his words gently reminding her of the power she held. “They wait for you to order them.”
The queen took a deep breath and held out her hand. Once again, she offered the crumbs in her palm to the winged creatures that surrounded them. “Tell me who or what the child is and there will be more cake in the morning.”
The word ‘cake’ in itself acted as if it was magic. The fairies appeared instantly, cheerfully swarming around her with more than a dozen perching on her hand to take the crumbs. Some stood there to eat them right away while others would save them in the tiny pockets she had sewn onto their clothes.
The queen stood knee-deep in flowers, fingering the silver chain around her neck while the sprites departed to perch on the exposed roots of the baldcypress tree to study the child.
They launched themselves at the boy, several at a time. The careless ones could not avoid the childish snores and were sent flying into the air. It took a few more minutes before the fairies caught the rhythm of the child’s breathing. They tried again, some landing lightly upon his face. Others took to smelling the dust on the child’s sandals or inspecting the weave of the fabric on the boy’s clothing.
They were animated, excited, perhaps even disagreeing as they conferred among themselves. “Halfling,” they finally chirped. “Ungrown halfling!”
She saw her knight’s shoulders relax a bit. His hand moved away from the sword a his side.
Elisa knew he would not interfere as she knelt down to look at this halfling bereft of parents. She briefly wondered if the fairies had concluded the child was human if he would have acted differently.
Her Knight shifted uncomfortably as she coaxed the fairies away and laid her hand upon the boy. Her fingers ran across his forehead, feeling for sickness or injury. The child wriggled under her touch, stirring as if he might wake. But he did not, choosing to flop over on his stomach and continue to sleep.
His appearance did not hint at why he had come or what he might someday become.
She drew back her hand when she had finished her inspection. The knight joined her at her side, kneeling down in order to pick up the child.
Elisa felt a moment of uneasiness as she watched him balance the child against himself with his good arm. She had to scramble to her feet to follow him as he began to walk away. “Where are you taking him?”
He paused, his expression as stoic as ever. “The others will complain if you put him in your house.”
She opened her mouth to order him to do so but then stopped herself. The knight was simply doing his duty once again. Long ago, her brothers had forbidden any man inside her home. Calmly she tried to reason with him. “He’s only a boy. And outside in some boat is no place for him to sleep.”
“And I am the only one here left to guard you,” he said. “Young or old, we follow the rules. I will find him a place elsewhere but not alone with you.”
The knight did not bend his principles. She might have relented had the child not suddenly roused and begin to wail. Elisa was forced to intervene, pulling the child away from the man. The boy immediately calmed down, offering her a dimpled smile.
The Knight’s face grew stern at the rapid change in the child’s behavior but Elisa stubbornly turned away. She stroked the boy’s golden hair and looked into his light colored eyes. She was reminded of a time when the garden had made other exceptions. She began to hum absently as she carried the boy to her porch and offered him her name as she sat with him on a bench.
Her Knight followed her and waited at the wooden steps. He did not move from that place, not even as a moon began its ascent from behind the mountains. As he had vowed, he would not leave her alone with the boy.
She continued to cradle the child, rocking him to sleep. Once she was assured the child was resting she glanced up at her knight. The silence between them hung uncomfortably. Elisa broke it first, offering him a few words. “His eyes are the wrong color.”
His expression grew less grim as she continued to speak.
“He’s not a unicorn,” she said a little sadly as her fingers roamed the child’s face. He had no horn to restore.
Her knight cleared his throat, carefully taking the invitation she had offered to converse. “Then you know what he is?”
She shook her head. “I am not certain.”
“The elves might be able to tell you,” he offered.
“I doubt it,” she laughed –a rich beautiful sound that made the knight avert his gaze. “He is but a halfling in its infancy. Only time or his parents could shed light on this mystery.”
A light voice interrupted. “Do you doubt us?”
The Knight turned quickly, putting her and the child behind him as his eyes sought out the source of that echoing sound. He was forced to cover his eyes against the flare of an intense blue light.
A man with pointed ears emerged from it, holding a lantern filled with a peculiar flame. “Now really, tin man! It is terribly rude of you to draw your sword on me. You know I always come by for a cup of tea at this hour.”
Elisa recognized that mocking tone of voice. Of all her guards, Lord Azul was the only one with any sense of humor. She offered him a smile as he approached. He was impeccably dressed in a coat richly colored to suit his name and that set off his blue-green eyes. “We did not expect you back so soon. The mission went well, I presume.”
“Of course.” The slim man ignored the knight as he stepped onto the stairs. For his queen, however, he flashed a charming smile. “I see we have another guest too, a tiny one. I hope it’s not a bear.”
“And why is that?” Elisa raised an eyebrow.
“You know what they say about their mothers. And the last time we had one here it made such a mess. The fairies still complain about that hairy little creature.”
A sound of small cries rose up from the grass as several fairies agreed with that sentiment.
She tried not to laugh, instead offering the lord her hand per the elvish customs. Azul took it gladly as he knelt deeply. He pressed his lips to her fingers, lingering until the knight cleared his throat.
Lord Azul’s eyes danced as he raised them to hers. “The news is good from the west, my queen. We shall receive several contingents from the elves this year. They are anxious to see the lake. And you, of course.”
She did not acknowledge his flattery. He was an elf of the oldest sort and, as such, lavish compliments were simply the sort of thing to be expected. “And what else? Have they seen anything?”
“No sightings, my lady.” He continued. “The seers now think the bloodlines have become far too polluted by elven and human blood. They hope you would have news suggesting otherwise.”
“I have not seen anything new since our discussion.”
“Ah,” Azul seemed genuinely disappointed. “And I’m afraid that the elves have no new news of your brothers either.”
The woman did not even blink. This was the same news she had had for hundreds of years. “I see. Well then,” she lifted her chin. “Shall we have our tea?”
this week: some references on gardens and elves!