No longer able to disturb the lady of the home, the small gust of wind stopped lingering at the window and took a sharp turn alongside the house, skimming the trees and unsettling an owl who sat there. The gust left that place behind, turning west.
It did not get too far before it was caught up in some of the branches deeper in the woods. It would have languished there if not for a burly giant of a figure lumbering about in that darkness. The oversized creature looked very much like a man although he did not move like one, flipping easily from ground to tree at will.
“Ah ha!” The figure roared as he came to perch on a sturdy branch to peer closely at the small wind. “Here I see we have an intruder from the north.”
The figure that spoke was one of the Keepers of the wind. He went by the name West, shortened from one that was far longer and too complicated to remember. He was often mistaken for a green man by even the winds that knew him. In the summers, he would wear a curtain of leaves, thistles, and grass in his shaggy red hair and beard. But in winter his beard would twist like corded wood.
Gently,he picked the wind out of the branches and held it in his gnarled hands. “What are you doing hereabouts? Aren’t you supposed to be with my brother or with his mistress? Or that foundling of hers? Mmmm?”
West peered at the wisp he cradled in his fingers. It was an angry thing, squeaking insistently that it had to hurry back.
“Now hear this,” West sounded grouchy. “My brother is being summoned home. This infatuation of his needs to wait. Our Queen of Fairies is determined to hold court, you understand? Not even your master can disobey.”
The wind whistled a bit as it swirled about in the Keeper’s warm grasp.
With a sigh, the wildman let the gust go. He kept his eye trained upon it for a long time, making sure it went back north from where it came.
He then returned to skimming the treetops of the woods. Next to him ran a large group of light breezes, warmed by the ocean air from the west. It was difficult work, rounding up and ordering all these naughty chilly winds without his brother. Winter was stubborn, deeply holding to the land. It would be some time and considerable work before the winter here would truly thaw. He was gloomy for he knew he would be late to return to his mother. She would likely box him up as punishment for some time.
Even then, he ran with the warm breezes and called for more to come find him in the woods. Those with him darted from the treetops to flirt with the cold earth. He joined them on the ground as they began to tease the snow into melting.
Lost in the spectacle of their dance, he missed the sight of a hawk far above him, circling in the high air.
* * *
In that strange pocket between the mountains where the garden of paradise hid, an elf and an unknown halfling played in the tall grasses of the Queen’s meadow.
Azul watched the yellow-haired baby as it lurched about inspecting every flower in sight. He was, in fact, allowing this to happen. He wished to observe how the boy reacted to what he saw.
The fairies cheered every time the golden child ate another flower. They were had come out in greater numbers this morning, flitting about the child, often trying to land upon his curly hair before a clumsy fist would attempt to wave them off.
Eventually Azul withdrew a small jar of honey from his voluminous sleeves and placed it on the ground to lure the creatures away. He wanted to see what the child would do undisturbed.
This sort of caretaking would have mortified Elisa, but she was not here to watch. Azul wasn’t necessarily a neglectful individual but he was not human in any respect. Unless something was poisonous, he did not feel all that obliged to keep it out of the child’s mouth.
The child bent down to look at a stalk of tall grass. Azul grew vaguely intrigued until the halfling decided to swallow a large ladybug whole.
The rustling of grass behind him signaled the approach of others through the meadow. “Okay you monster,” he picked up the wriggling child who promptly spat out the poor bug. “Let us see who has come to pay you a call.”
He turned around, already knowing from the sound of the steps that it would not be the lady. The Queen was at her mirror again with some of her fairies. Nor would it be the knight who would be somewhere close by her, keeping watch.
A tall lanky youth with flaming red hair scowled at the elf. “I didn’t know we were recruiting again.”
Azul did not blink at the abrasive greeting. The young man — Hahn — did not mean to be so rude, but was direct as would be expected from someone from his tribe. The young man craned his neck to catch a glimpse of the child the elf carried. “So who died while I was gone? Saw the Knight. Was it Hawk or Sova?”
He wondered at the youth’s presumption that the child in his arm was there to replace one of the six guards. “Hawk was here yesterday from what I heard from the fairies. And Sova is not foolish enough to get caught like you do.”
Predictably the red-haired youth glared.
The number of times Hahn required rescuing from another hen-house or jail was far too numerous to be considered accidental. He might be a smart person overall but he had no ability to keep his wits about him around women. Usually he ended up fighting someone over some damsel in distress.
“Now where is your keeper?” The elf looked about for the somber Raven who usually kept the hothead out of trouble.
Hahn responded with a withering look. “Where do you think?”
Of course they both understood that there was really only one place the loyal blackbird would be — and that was with the queen.
Azul had heard the whispering among the fairies but this statement confirmed that their buzzing chatter about the field this morning had been correct.
“He had news,” the younger man bent down a bit to look at the golden-haired child in Azul’s arms. “Probably as interesting as this kid turning up here I bet.”
They both paused, both wanting to know what that might be that was far more interesting than this strange child in the garden.
The elf tapped his foot impatiently as he looked at the rooster-head. “Are you sure you don’t have news?”
Hahn grinned for some reason. “The south is its usually sunny and happy place. There is really little to report other than it is excessively hot.”
“There was not all that much to report from the cities to the west.”
“I suppose that’s a good thing. Now–” Hahn lost his patience, leaning down to look at the kid. “He’s making that face you know. The soiling his pants look. You ought to hand him to me to take care of.”
The elf saw the child had drooled prodigiously all over the front of his clothing. He tried not to wince as he held the child out at the younger man. “He’s all yours.”
The child giggled happily as the other man began to swing him about in air.
* * *
The Queen and her courtier stood at the edge of the lake while the fairies drifted everywhere around them.
Raven was not the man’s real name but he no longer knew what it used to be. Long ago, he had been an assistant to some self-proclaimed wizard. The wizard had no real magic but was adept enough at changing forms enough to imply he had great power. Raven was an young apprentice whose own talents surpassed that man and unwittingly supported his cruel actions. The Queen’s brothers eventually liberated him from the man’s control.
The man somberly spoke with his queen from behind a curtain of lanky black hair. “Many of the birds who assembled in the woods during the eclipse disappeared,” spoke the raven. “Those I found said that the gathered were swallowed up in great numbers by dark things that came from the earth.”
The queen closed her eyes. This was a part of the world’s own act of balancing out the land. It had happened regularly for some time. Even so, it pained her. “And?”
“The great feeding ended but the balance was not correct. Some monsters remained and moved on to hunt more food. Others have plunged deeper into the woods.”
Some aspect of that place was off, broken. She suspected this now. But what to do was not yet clear. She desired more information before she took a course of action. She needed to consult others.
Two of her other guards came in short order to join the raven at the lake’s edge. They did not stand near each other on the dock. The knight and elf were not particularly in good spirits, she noted, as they waited for her orders.
A sound of laughter pierced the gloom as a noisy pair approached. Her youngest courtier, Hahn, was swinging a child wildly back and forth along the path. When the child saw the queen he struggled to be put down and, once freed, began to clumsily run to her.
The child wrapped its arms around her legs much to the consternation of those assembled. “Liza play! Liza!”
She smiled as she reached down and softly placed her hand on the boy’s upturned face.
“Yes, let us ride the boat.”
(Vote for more icon goodness!)