The Queen of Swans remained immobile — save for her fingers that touched the water reverently. She did not appear to be a queen but an artist poised at a canvas. Upon the water the world would be painted.
Or perhaps the lake was a sacred pool and she its priestess — a conduit through whom a hidden mysterious force made itself known.
This was what the elf thought as he watched the graceful woman stretch out her arms. To him, she was a queen last and, always, a woman first.
And as poetic as those thoughts might be — he could not forget her mortal nature. His thoughts continued to drift further — taking a morbid turn. The creatures of this world thought they could subdue magic to serve their purpose. But Azul knew better. Magic didn’t simply permit itself to be used. It used up people in kind in order to effect some greater plan.
Mab or Maeve was a dominant force in the previous age. Of the kings and queens of her era, she had been unrivaled as a sorcerer. However, she had also been set apart as a diviner, oracle, and a powerful weaver of dreams. She knew the dangers of this lake and had thought she had mastered it. But she was queen of the fairies no longer. As lovely and powerful as she might have been, she had come to some kind of end. His people did not have an official accounting of the queen’s fate. No record sat in the libraries. But he was certain that the soulless ones had found her. The Unthings.
If the lake had wished it, she could have been queen for another age or two. It was a sanctuary from the world and yet was irrevocably tied to it. It was also amongst the most powerful places in this world. Its offshoots fed the Garden, kept it a place where age and time had little meaning. He knew because he drank from it regularly — always healing and never aging.
And those who gazed upon it knew the world’s secrets.
It was said in elvenlore that this lake was the place from where all waters flowed. It connected to every humble puddle and the sea. The woman who would be queen could see anything reflected in this world even upon the smallest drop of water.
But how quietly this queen gazed upon such terrifying power. She might as well be looking at a simple creek in the woods. As the minutes passed and the lake remained blank, her face did not change. She did not look worried. Her faith in the lake was unshakable.
They admired her for her almost worshipful stance towards the lake. Her guards did not know that while they saw nothing, she had long sensed the water was not inert. A current circled around her legs, growing colder with each pass.
Her legs and waist disappeared as she continued to move deeper in the lake. Her eyes focused on the far shore — the one that touched the outside world. Tonight the view of that grassy beach and the mountains above them was unusually clear — enough that they could see the animals rustling about at its edges seeking the water.
A timid breeze stirred from somewhere, sending a pattern of circles traveling across the water’s surface. The queen shivered in anticipation of what should follow. But no image appeared to answer her question about the mystery child’s origins.
Again she persevered. Her feet took her deeper to where the water ran cold and strong. Her eyes kept watch.
The fairies continued to float around. One came to rest on her shoulder — that same brave pixie that had eaten out of her hands the previous day. The little thing grabbed the cloth on the lady’s shoulder, wanting to watch the water with her queen. The lady Elisa did not wave the small girl-fairy away. She was glad for company and for what little warmth the fairy child provided.
Elisa repeated her words this time — more a request than a command. “Show me from where the child came.”
The fairy on her shoulder stiffened, suddenly alert. Elisa then heard the rush of wind coming down the mountains. She looked across the lake and saw the waves breaking upon the distant shore.
The silver chain around her neck began to warm as the kind fairies began to murmur at a black stain that spread across the water.
She heard the shouts from the shore as her guards responded.
And then she heard a cry in a foreign tongue — before she saw a flash of light and felt the wave of heat that followed.
In that moment, the illusion of Azul as a parlor magician was shattered. He was a mage of terrible power — his light turning night into day, turning his black hair white.
She could not see in this light. She only heard the sound of wings beating overhead. Elisa called out — thinking it one of her halfling guards — but choked as a sudden wave of water overtook her. She coughed violently, remembering to guard the poor fairy on her shoulder with the palm of her hand against the waves that might overtake them.
Shouts, wings, and hands were everywhere as she was lifted from the water. Dimly she realized that the waves had come from the boat’s wake.
She heard the small fairy chirping angrily as it was taken from her but slumped in the boat to cough out more water.
When the spasms passed, Elisa tried to sit up. The light was beginning to recede and she wished to look at the lake and the mountains. Instead several faces blocked her line of sight — faces full of worry and of reproach.
Her knight offered her a hand and pulled her to her feet. He offered no lecture, no warning, but simply waited for her instruction.
She counted the faces as the boat began to move to the shore at the behest of the knight who steered it. But the queen spoke. “Be still,” she said to the ship and to her men.
Her knight looked displeased as the boat ceased its movement. “It is dangerous here.”
“No,” she answered while she listening to the fairies chattering amongst themselves. “The lake did not do anything except what I asked. It wasn’t an attack.”
The younger men stared back at her, soggy and wet from pulling her out of the water. They did not believe her — for they had seen something dark approaching. The power of the lake was great — enough to convince them all that what it showed was real.
Even Azul had been concerned. He had summoned that light that had broken the vision.
She looked past him at the stony face of her elf mage still holding the lightstone in his hand. The fairies were giddily wandering all over the lake’s surface in pursuit of the dissipating particles of light that the elf had scattered. They had seen nothing wrong – they had understood. And as they continued to chatter, he also now understood that she was right.
The queen could not bring herself to scold them for their interference. Her guards had acted in her interest. They had acted according to the commission her brothers had placed upon them.
But when they came ashore she could not hold her tongue any longer.
In their foolish rush to her side, they had forgotten something …someone quite important.
And now that someone… that child was no longer there.
* * *
In the outside world, an owl pretended to sleep.
Sova was indeed alive. He had been living for some time among a parliament of owls that had taken up residence near a village of men.
At the very moment his fellow guards had gathered at Mirror Lake with their queen, he sat perched in a tree at the edge of the woods watching the ongoings at a very peculiar castle.
They were too trusting, this group of owls. He had spotted them while they were in migration some time ago. Struck by their sense of purpose, he followed them and eventually crept into their flock to observe them more closely.
He had smelled some taint of magic upon them, but he knew they did not change like he did. They were not halflings nor were they changelings who fluidly moved between man and beast. Rather they were owls gifted with insight and knowledge who knew the old language that had once unified all races and creatures.
Sova the owl listened to their conversations, learning they came and went from this place at the Snow Queen’s bidding. In time he learned she was not there. They lingered instead to watch a settlement of people.
The two-legged ones came and went carefully. He noticed one or two would sometimes fly close to the buildings, avoiding the four-legged statues that crawled about the grounds. They were afraid of these newly awakened guards for their senses for magic were keener than the halfling men who prowled about the castle grounds.
But if the owl molted feathers it was not because of the presence of these wolves. After all, the magic in their bloodlines was thin and weak. Rather it was the energy underneath the earth that affected him so. It was strong — feeding those oversized cats and making them mighty and swift. That alone was cause to worry but they, too, seemed to possess a great deal of purpose.
His lady would be surprised. Perhaps concerned. The Snow Queen’s minion was here, likely causing mischief. He saw her darting about sometimes in the woods, sometimes as a wolf and sometimes as other things.
His queen ought to know.
The poor miserable owl took off into the air, paying no heed to the dangers to doing so in his condition. Had he been more patient or his feathers been more reliably affixed to his body, he might have rested a bit longer and eventually succeeded in what he intended to do.
* * *
A day or two north, the rise of the wind took Sova’s fellow guard away from the homes of men. Hawk had lingered too long to look.
Long ago he had lived in a place like this. That was before he learned from his brothers how to use the gift they all shared.
These creatures had no such gift. They had pitched themselves from rooftops, desperately fleeing something that terrified them. And they had fallen to the ground and had broken. No king’s men or magic spells would be able to put them whole again.
Their bones were picked clean. He knew from the remains that it was not the shadow monsters that had done so. The Unthings did not eat the soulless. Nor did they leave strange tracks on the ground.
He wondered if the witch could escape such things. Perhaps she had already been eaten by whatever roamed these corrupted woods. But then the winds would have told him if she was gone from the earth. And since they did not, he followed them north.
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