The hawk continued to fly north along the Great Highway, the road that connected Winchester to the frontier towns of the north. While the woods behind him were thawing with the approach of spring, the ground underneath him remained white with snow.
The hawk went beyond the huts of the humans and continued his journey towards the mountains. The forest below him slowly began to thin until the point that only small clusters of trees dotted a harsh landscape.
Under the weight of the snow that accumulated upon them, the trees were bent and malformed. To him, their appearance was sinister — reminding him of worms of snow emerging from the frozen ground.
Soon the terrain gave way to tundra and there was nothing to see. His wings adjusted against the wind pouring off the mountains ahead of him. There dragons and elves had once lived in caves and cities that kissed the sky. Neither had been seen for years. The rumors were that both extinguished the other but many wondered where that idea had first taken root.
Hawk was careful as he began to climb higher. He kept a sharp eye out for anything in the sky that might swoop upon him for a meal and for arrows flying upwards from the earth below.
He should have been relieved to fly straight through the contested regions undisturbed. But he almost wished he had seen something, for then he might have someone to blame for the strange things in the woods.
His queen would chastise him for such an uncharitable statement but he had no foundation to trust in either ice elf or dragon. He had seen neither before and had nothing but her stories to rely on to inform his thoughts.
The queen spoke fondly of past days where both would visit her in her garden. She claimed the dragons were full of amusing stories and knowledge. The ice elves were haughty and proud but fine crafters of weapons and jewels. They forged some of the most treasured blades that the current elven king possessed. No blade currently made in the Golden City could match theirs for strength, incorruptibility, and magic.
When she spoke of such things, it was as if she referred to another lifetime. He was not the youngest of her guards but he was not the oldest either. She had lived almost a thousand years and had seen the comings and goings of many. She might be the only one who could claim to know them all — the halflings that once roamed the earth, the peoples that had tried to conquer this land, and the true face of each of the queens and kings of this world.
He sought one ruler now. Her kingdom began on the other side of these mountains he tried to climb. But as the night began to fall, Hawk still struggled with the winds and found he would have to stop flying and rest.
He wished for a campfire as he took roost for the night on a rock on the mountain’s southern slope. His bird form took advantage of the small shelter he had discovered and he tried to sleep. Tomorrow he would be on its other side, facing the icy channel that divided the Northernlands from the Icelands — the domain of the Snow Queen.
He did not know if he would be able to pass that channel. His wings might not be able to master the cold blasts of air that blew in from the north. Hawk might have to walk as a man. As difficult as that might be, he did not know if he’d be allowed to move forward. The Snow Queen’s minions who roamed the area were not cruel or evil but, save the queen’s apprentice, they were foolish.
This time of year the creatures would be hungry and prowling about the frozen ice. They were large and slow and so could be evaded if needed. He would have to think about how to handle them.
They could be of use — for they might reveal the Snow Queen’s whereabouts and intentions. Or if they were in a bad mood, they might eat him.
* * *
The idyllic garden that the hawk had left behind was mired in chaos.
When the child had been discovered missing, the fairies and Queen’s guards searched the garden high and low for a sign of the small halfling. Their efforts were fruitless.
It was the heedless roosterhead that first accused the elven lord’s magic of being the cause of the child’s disappearance. Hahn rambled on about the light that had incinerated the child. The elf did not take this accusation too kindly and silenced the younger man by turning him back into a rooster.
The fairies giddily chased the bird-form of the hot-tempered youth around the meadows and forests of the Mirror Lake.
While this action brought the elf temporary relief, the Knight appeared at the elf’s home with a summons from the queen.
From the knight’s sober expression, Lord Azul would guess that he was in considerable trouble.
“You should come right away.” It was rare that the Swan Knight offered the elf unsolicited advice. But it seemed that this afternoon, he would make an exception. “She is in a dark mood. I would change him back before you speak to her.”
The elf wizard sighed. He knew he would be a fool to ignore the man. Reluctantly, the elf wizard called upon the fairies. A pair appeared out of the air and chirped at him. From his robe he withdrew a small vial and pulled out a pale strand of hair. The creatures’ eyes grew very wide as he offered it to them. They knew what it was and were surprised. He ordered them to take it immediately to the rooster and force him to swallow it.
Azul did not bid the knight goodbye. Instead, he silently moved on from his floating home and walked towards the meadow in which the Queen kept court.
The fairies playfully darted around him . On many days he would reach into his sleeves and find them a fistful of candies to share. But he did not today.
He made his way through the fields of flowers where bees lazily droned about. Elisa was not there with them. Instead, she was waiting on the porch, her hands clenched as they rested on the table at which she sat. The queen looked up as he approached.
He felt a prick of guilt at the look on her face. It was evident she had not slept well since the child had disappeared. Worse, her eyes were sad and troubled.
Azul felt a premonition of trouble. As such, he did not merely bow. His knees touched the grass as he bowed. “My lady, I have undone my prank.”
She did not ask him to rise from his spot. Her voice was soft but stern as she continued to address him. “Why did you make him take that form? Have you forgotten how much he hates it?”
He dared raise his eyes in order to look his queen in the face. “I was angry. I did not harm the child. And I felt I had to prove to him that my gifts were very much under my control.”
“Azul.” Her voice was still full of reproach. “He is still an angry young man who doesn’t know how to express his frustration. Punishing him only proves him correct to mistrust you even further. You might have full control of your powers but not of your temper.”
He heard the gentle movement of fabric and the sound of her steps as she left the porch and came towards him. He studied the soft blue skirts of his queen as she placed her hands upon his shoulders. The fairies around them disappeared, perhaps sensing her mood.
Indeed, her voice was heavy with worry. “Now you have even made the others uneasy. They question the magic you used the other evening. And so I must ask you what did you call upon to calm the waters? ”
Azul looked up at his queen to see that her normally clear blue eyes were clouded.
Her questions had moved into dangerous territory. His spell of protection at the lake had revealed the breadth of his skills. His punishing the irritating roosterhead with an unwanted change of form had also betrayed a different facet of his power — an ability to unravel the magic that bound the young man into a human form. But all of these things might be forgiven had he not clearly lost his temper. Now his queen looked at him like he might be going mad.
The elf mage realized the precarious position he was in. He was careful to speak the truth to the extent which he could. “It is a light spell. I called upon the air to assist me when I saw the blackness that the lake reflected. The child had a link to the darkness, one that you allowed inside when you asked to be shown from where the child came. I had no choice but to sever that link for everyone’s safety.”
His words changed the direction of their conversation.
“I saw the darkness upon the lake,” she said calmly. “It was not real. It was a reflection. It would not have harmed me or the child,” she said with unfailing certainty. “The lake does not manifest its visions into reality. Did you see what happened after you cast your spell? Did your eyes perceive something in the light?”
He nodded, fully aware why the others could not find the child. “I saw a swan, my queen. I saw it fly and leave this garden.”
She dropped her hands and clasped them behind her back as she paced about him anxiously. Elisa was clearly disturbed by his words. “I saw it too. I thought it a trick or an illusion.”Her voice trailed off, hinting there was something else on her mind.
The elf continued to speak. “That was not an illusion. I am certain that the swan was the child. I severed that dark link and I believe in doing so, he could complete his transformation. Why he became a swan I’m still not sure. Perhaps the child thought to please you or perhaps the fairies gave him that idea.”
She continued to fret. “I wish he was still here so we could be sure of what is meant by this. It is a dangerous choice. You have no idea where he might have gone?”
“I did not send him away,” Azul repeated. “I believe he chose to go freely, having found his path forward. But if he is like your brothers, he can return when he wishes or feels most threatened.”
She looked beyond him, her eyes envisioning the lake upon which they were supposed to swim.“At times I am not sure of that. It has been a long time since I have last seen them all. The lake says nothing but your people continue to claim to see them.” Elisa turned abruptly around. “Unless they have been hiding something all this time. Just like you.”
Azul stood up, suddenly alerted to the presence of the other guards in the line of trees. He had not heard them approach or had warning. The fairies that normally would have alerted him had disappeared from the meadow.
The queen looked at him with a grave expression. “You have changed since I last commissioned you to travel back to your home. By the hour I can tell you are growing stronger and less restrained with the magic you harbor within you. Tell me — who are you really?”