A wary look flickered across the young woman’s face as she wrestled with the wiseman’s words. “Does this mean that something can or cannot be done? Is there another curse we must navigate?”
The bard sensed her uneasiness and sighed. “I know what you have heard about my gifts, but I do not have the insight in your case. I cannot see beyond your past and present circumstances. The fairy that came to you would be better able to counsel you.”
Elisa tried to quell the rising panic within her. “And if I told you that she is not to be found?”
Taliesen Ben Beirdd did not appear to be taken aback by such news. “Of course, that does happen as these magic types tend to drift from place to place. Perhaps some business takes her away.”
He let go of Elisa’s hand and paced back and forth, puffing out small clouds of air from the effort. Occasionally he would glance at the siblings’ way, muttering to himself.
He suddenly stopped and jabbed his finger at the eldest prince’s chest. “Am I correct in that all this time none of you saw her?”
The brothers shook their heads as the eldest responded. “It was only when we returned to the lake after we freed our sister that we were made aware of the lady who dwelled there. We searched the gardens high and low for this fairy. And while we did find fairies aplenty, none matched the description that Elisa provided.”
The old man sighed, again talking to himself. “Of course, of course. She was not the sort to confide in men and would not always appear to them.”
The brothers were not without some hope. “Are there any others like her? She appeared to be an elf of some sort. Perhaps some other can advise us.”
Taliesen nodded slowly. “None with her kind of magic but there are many who think as she does. Tell me, what have you learned about elven philosophy?”
Most of the siblings responded with a blank look. But Rhys, to whom the question was addressed, spoke. “We did not have much interest in such things while running away from our enemies,” the prince said dryly. “My younger brothers have not had the time or inclination to pursue anything but knowledge of how to fight.”
The wiseman grunted. “What do they teach in these courts these days? All scheming and fighting, I fear. I had hoped for those seeds I left behind to bear fruit among the courts. But it sounds as if they have not learned anything new. Well!” He hit the palm of one hand with a fist. “Not all is lost. You are here. Come.”
He scurried off with a speed that defied his apparent age. The seven siblings were pressed to keep up but followed as the bard led them towards the large tower. When they caught up he was at the far side of the round tower, pointing at a tiny door. “We shall find some answers inside.”
None of the Swans understood what this might be about. They had just spotted the man climbing down from an exterior stone staircase. Elisa’s eyes followed the posterior staircase towards a window near the top of the tower. “Do you mean to take us up an alternate way, oh bard?”
The bard grimaced. “You would not get far before you all fell and broke your necks. That path is not meant for the likes of you. This door will take us down.”
But how that was to be they did not understand. The door was flat and smooth with no space for a keyhole or a handle to open it.
The old man sighed to himself at their puzzled expressions. “Remember that the rest of the world does not necessarily operate the way you think it does.” His hand pressed upon the decidedly unimpressive wooden door and remained there until a knob formed under his spindly fingers. Soon the door was thrust open. “Go inside, all of you.”
That was not an easy command to follow. Her unarmed brothers were long suspicious of any strange dark places and appeared to balk at such instructions. Elisa knew she would have to go first.
She stepped inside and her brothers hurried alongside her, unwilling to leave their sister alone.
Elisa carefully advanced forward in the dim light and planted her feet on the ground, trying to understand her surroundings. The floor was not dirt as she had expected but something smooth and solid. When her eyes adjusted to the lighting she craned her neck, taking in tapestries and paintings. The subjects of these pieces of art were foreign to her — she had never seen such fantastical beasts and cities in her life thus far. Eventually her attention wandered to the smooth walls of the tower. Far above a small light punched through a solitary window in the tower’s side. Underneath it she could see a small area where one man might stand.
A cool dry, breeze swirled at the bottom of her skirts, drawing her attention downwards to the ground. She frowned as she studied the floor and made out steps that led somewhere down below.
The door behind them creaked shut and the siblings found themselves plunged into darkness. Elisa’s heart beat erratically as the painful memory of the dungeon came to mind. She clenched her hands to her side and willed herself to be calm. She felt her brothers’ warm presence beside her. She reminded herself that she was still free.
The lanterns along the wall began to illuminate one by one, casting a warm blue light upon the gathered personages.
The bard gently cleared his throat. “The elves do not like using fire like you do. It is far too dangerous for the mountains of paper buried in this place under the earth. You will find it brighter as we proceed further down. Before we go, however, you must leave behind your cloaks and boots in the chamber half a flight down to your right. The caretakers of this place do not wish for any outside vermin or dirt to penetrate this place.”
They reluctantly complied with Talisen’s request, donning the strange white robes provided for their use over their other clothing. The siblings made for a ghostlike procession as they wound their way down the long circling staircase and caught up with the bard, standing at a curtain that led to an entrance. He seemed almost delighted as he explained where they stood. “Many come to this city and never see what I am about to show you. And were you ordinary dignitaries, this is all you would see.”
He pushed aside the cloth, revealing a small balcony behind it. The group took turns looking over the marbled banisters. They found themselves staring into a deep enclosed courtyard with many floors below them. Below them they could see the movement of people on the closest level as they passed by arches that opened to the courtyard.
The siblings were suitably impressed by the design. One or two of them had once spoken of coliseums and arcades found in the southern regions of their land. But surely none could compare to what the elves had created. Several continued to whisper among themselves after the bard regathered them and moved them further down the stairs. Taliesen did not pause as he waved at the next arched entryway. “This next level we shall pass. It is a place of portraits. There is nothing in there of help for you.”
Even so, Elisa could not help but linger at the entryway to admire the view. Her eldest brother paused for her and then escorted her back to the front of their group with Taliesen.
The wiseman chuckled as she caught up to him. “Princess, those are simply memories of people who are gone. Someday when you have read as much as I have, a walk through those galleries might yield a more enriched experience.”
She nodded, understanding that he did not wish for her to dawdle so much. Taliesen picked up his speed, continuing to descend down the tower.
As they moved down yet another level, the brothers could not contain their curiosity. “And this floor?” one asked.
“Elven lore, of course,” the bard sighed. “The elves are vain. In ordering the floors, they prioritized their books over those of other people.”
“It would make sense,” the brothers agreed. “If the majority of visitors use those floors the most, they should be closest to the entry.”
“But what does it say that they put the pictures even closer than books?” Rhys shook his head.
The bard laughed. “Indeed.”
Elisa and the brothers fell quiet as they continued down the stairs ,occasionally glimpsing the sight of books or artifacts through the cutout windows that lined the inside of the tower. Libraries were not an unfamiliar resource to them; their own father had a modest one, mostly for show. Elisa’s king had one as well but it was full of religious texts. What collections they had glimpsed in the two levels they had passed thus far already exceeded those of the two kingdoms combined.
There was clearly truth to the statement that the elves differed from men. These differences likely developed as a result of the elves’ vast, rich experience with the world. While kingdoms rose and fell where Elisa had fostered, the elves had long enjoyed stability and peace. And perhaps, as a result of that peace, they valued knowledge more than gold.
One of her brothers, Flyn, had found his way to the old storyteller to pose a question. “Bard, is it true that this library is the largest in the world?”
Taliesen nodded at the young man. “There were a handful that rivaled this collection in size. One was burned down years ago. The other still stands but lacks what this has in content. It is why I have taken up residence here.”
None of the Swans so far had been able to determine the exact origins of this bard. Legends pinned him to kingdoms across the ocean. Others indicated he had sprung forth from the sea. Nor did his appearance offer physical cues; his ears were obscured by the long matted white hair falling past his shoulders. However, his words intimated what he was not.
Flyn asked another question, one the others were too polite to voice. “Then it is true that you are not an elf.”
“Not all elves live here,” the bard wagged his finger at them. “And what I am, I shall not say for it is not relevant. But I was not born here. I came to this city in order to see this collection and to talk to the king about certain coincidences. The inhabitants of this world are spread far and wide with little to connect them anymore. And yet there are many histories and stories that hold parallels and patterns. The elves saw this long ago and have tried to understand the bigger picture. I too want to understand that.”
He came to a stop in the landing decorated by various paintings of some familiar stories. Elisa was at a disadvantage compared to her brothers. She could not follow their conversations as several pointed at specific pictures, quietly guessing at the stories that inspired them.
She gazed at the pictures, nonetheless, until the bard ushered her after her brothers through the entrance to the floor.
Elisa found they had ended up on another floor filled with shelves lined with books. She glanced up, noting the many levels they passed while suspecting just as many floors lay beneath them.
Taliesen showed his guests to a long wooden table lined with benches. “Please wait here. Today, you will meet several of these mystics and scholars that curate this floor. What they present to you depends on their interests. Be aware that they all do not agree with each other. They may attempt to influence you or judge you depending on what they believe. Elisa,” the old man turned to her. “It will be especially difficult for you, I suspect. Remember to keep your mind open — even if what they state pains you.”
A clock chimed. Upon its sixth and final note, a mystic appeared to them carrying a rather large book.
The female elf had skin dark and smooth like a young sapling. Her hair was bound neatly into a long braid running down her back. Her eyes, however, were light and golden. She fluttered about the guests, inspecting them all somewhat excitedly before the arrival of the bard forced her to stand still. “I am Moirae.”
She fell into silence once again, gazing at them with pleasure. “I did not think you would look like this.” She happily walked another time around the table at which the siblings sat, taking in details of their appearance. She stopped behind the seat at which the youngest sat to hover at his shoulder. “Oh and you! You still have your wing!”
“Lady Moirae,” Elisa interceded on behalf of her youngest brother who looked absolutely mortified to have his secret uncovered so easily. “You appear to have some knowledge of us. Are you a historian?”
“A historian?” The elf threw her head back, laughing. Moirae twirled about the table yet again, moving until she came eye to eye with Elisa. “Oh, it is not merely your story. It is one story of many — you are but living out the tale in one variation. But why are you here?” Moirae turned around to look at each of the siblings. “You are quite out of your way your kingdoms. Perhaps you want to fix your younger brother’s wing?”
“Kingdom,” Elisa corrected her. “And yes, fixing my brothers’ situation is what we have come to address.”
“Ohhhhh?” Moirae stopped her prancing about and leaned in to look at Elisa closely. “Now I have missed something indeed. What do you mean?”
In the stories you read,” Rhys spoke, a hard edge creeping into his voice. “Was the curse was broken? And the brothers restored?”
The elf did not realize how much she taxed the humans’ patience. “Ah so it was. A happy ending. Except for the lady’s mother in law and your stepmother.”
“That did not happen,” Elisa looked at Moirae. “And how many of these stories resulted in the curse not being broken?”
The mystic blinked at the siblings. “Well, it is likely that in those instances no one would write that down. Most cultures do not like sad endings. Of the ones I have read, everyone gets their appropriate outcome. Those mothers or stepmothers die rather violently and of course the princess here,” she glanced brightly at Elisa, “ends up happily bearing more children with her handsome king.”
The stony look on Elisa’s face made the elf pause, realizing her error. “Ah I see. Well, then!” Moirae threw the book down on the table and found a blank page. A graphite pencil appeared in her fingers from somewhere up her voluminous sleeves. “This account will make a fine addition to the library. Do tell me. What did you do wrong?”
Elisa pressed her hands on the top of the table, fighting against a rising sense of horror. Moirae blinked at her expectantly, waiting for her to tell her of all the mistakes that she had apparently made. The queen tried to speak but failed as she wondered which choice she had made that had thwarted her brothers’ full recovery.
“Done wrong?!” Rhys snapped at the mystic. “That monster tried to kill her. What allows you to pass judgment as to whether what she did was wrong or right? What is right about sending her back to the man who would kill her? Is this what that book states must be done? If so, it is wrong!”
The mystic paused in her scribbling, pondering that statement. “That is one of the things that I found troubling about those versions,” the mystic answered, completely ignorant of the emotions brewing around the table. “I agree. It is dissatisfying how that is often glossed over. At the very least, he should have to prove himself by putting a few advisers to death, I think. But even then that is absurd for that declares him stupid in trusting them over his own queen. And the stepmother? How did she die? Did someone kill her? I do wonder.”
Elisa gasped at such words. “No one has killed her.”
The elf continued to play with her pencil. “Hm. Now that is also a surprise.” She narrated her words aloud to herself. “Evil stepmother did not die like she was supposed to. Needs follow-up in one hundred years to see why.”
The sound of steps signaled the rapid approach of someone else. “Moirae!” A young elf appeared from behind a column, doubled over with the effort of running. From his height and energy, Elisa guessed this would be a child. The elf bowed awkwardly a few times at the humans before he ran up to the bard, who was sitting quietly in the corner. “Taliesen, I am sorry I am late. Moirae told me I could wait behind while she told everyone that we’re all puppet people!”
The mystic pouted at the short young elf now scrambling up onto a chair to look at the book she had rapidly shut. Moirae was not too pleased by this interruption. “Did you have to call it that? The term is not puppet people, silly. It is the fatebound. And I told you not all of us are that way. They are. Not us. Now, I did not get to that and so need five more minutes, so sit there like a good elf!”
“It’s been five minutes!” The short elf would not be placated. “Rene is coming down the hallway and to take that book from you and hit you over the head with it!”
“Isra,” came the voice of another elf from the doorway, the mirror image of Moirae. “You should not say such things. I did not say that.” Indeed, in contrast to her twin, the woman seemed far too calm for such an action.
The young-looking elf sat back down in the seat with a rather dissatisfied look. “But that would be good for Moirae,” he whispered to Rhys.
The brothers snickered. Elisa lowered her eyes, unwilling to smile. As she did so, she could not help but note that the child’s legs dangled far above the floor.
Isra squirmed in his chair. ”Rene. Moirae is scaring them.”
The female elf Rene bowed graciously at the guests. “If she has scared you, then we apologize. Moirae has a rather popular viewpoint but it is not by far a universal one. Taliesen told us that you have come with a problem. If I might present you another point of view to consider, perhaps it might inform your actions.”
Isra sighed, already looking terribly bored by the lecture yet to be given.
Rene fondly rumpled the hair of the young lad and offered him a cookie to buy his continued patience. He began to gnaw upon the bribe, mollified into being quiet.
The quiet elf placed a hand on the book in front of Moirae, forcing the other mystic to stop scribbling inside it. “Moirae’s point of view means you have nothing you can really do except attempt to find the path you were supposed to take and return to it. Even then there is no guarantee that the outcome you wanted can be retrieved. But what path and what outcome? Your dilemma is not unique. In fact it has been described in multiple times and ways. Moirae and her teachers would tell you to try all. But there are those of us who embrace that multiple stories suggest another possibility.”
The siblings leaned forward in their chairs, anticipating this mystic’s words.
Rene began to flip through the pages of this book, offering small glimpses of the text inside. “There is more than one story in this book we have put together. The fact is these multiple stories can be also perceived as a more gradual path to a desired outcome. Each story contributes thematically to the greater whole and provides multiple looks at the effort to achieve the desired end. Whether the desired end will be this life or the next, the mystics who adhere to this belief do not know.”
The Swans had nothing but blank looks to offer in response.
Moirae smirked at her sister who frowned slightly at the humans’ inability to understand.
“What would you have me do?” Elisa glanced around the table at her brothers. “What should they do?”
Rene began to push the book towards Elisa. “Even though you are bound to some sort of fate, you should be at peace, knowing that you already have not failed, dear princes and princess. There is nothing to do except to pursue good choices in this life. This effort of yours will further a path to the end which we know will ultimately be happy. If you wish, you may read what we have gathered from our journeys and books into this volume. You may also append your story as you see fit, now or later. Your account we hope to leave as a record in case another set of siblings comes this way, seeking their own truth.”
Moirae looked as if she would snatch the book back but was thwarted by the young boy who had climbed the table to steal the bag at Rene’s right hand. Thwarted from whatever action she had been contemplating, Moirae had to sit back and address her sister with words. “The idea of multiple lives offers little incentive to do anything. And inaction, if I’m correct means consequences for those not following the story. Those enforcers are out there waiting to swallow up mortals who have not served their purpose.”
“That consequence is theoretical.” Rene shook her head, unwilling to raise her voice as Moirae did. “These Unthings of yours have been given a motive that may not exist at all. And that creates fear on the part of those who we call fatebound. It is needlessly cruel.”
Isra sat contentedly, eating from a cookie in each hand while the two sisters continued their debate.
Elisa felt all of her earlier enthusiasm for the elves begin to fade. Her brothers were similarly grim, each starting to feel hopeless about their situation.
The young queen rose from her seat. “We thank you for your time. We should not waste it further.”
The two sisters stopped their debate and glanced at one another.
The bard spoke up finally and approached the table. “Princess,” the bard placed a hand upon her shoulder. “You forget. There are three mystics here who came to offer their opinion.”
It would take a few seconds before Elisa realized that the third mystic the bard referred to was the child. The young elf Isra was finishing eating the crumbs off the table when he realized everyone’s attention had come to rest upon him. He suddenly became very shy and hid his face. “I don’t want to talk anymore.”
The bard pat the child on the head. “Isra, you said you wanted to be here.”
“I wanted to see the princess,” the child elf said honestly as he peered through his fingers at Elisa. “And I wanted cookies.”
Moirae groaned loudly while her sister made an embarrassed sound. Elisa smiled for the first time since descending into this peculiar sanctuary. If the child had broken some protocol, she could pretend not to notice. “Come closer then. I do not have cookies but you may sit with me and tell me about them.”
Isra laughed, pushing aside the book as he found his way to the side of the table. He scrambled down a chair and found his way to Elisa’s lap. Once there, he sat quite still for a moment before deciding he would stay there. Satisfied he had the best seat in the room, he began to chatter.
The child’s antics brought some levity to the conversation. Elisa was not alone in smiling as the child began to pepper them all with far more mundane questions and observations about the travelers. He delighted in hearing of the fairies that had been discovered in the garden and wanted to know more about where they lived. He insisted that Moirae take very good notes so he might read about them again later.
His questions soon grew less frequent as he began to tire. It did not take too long before the child was asleep on Elisa’s lap, snoring.
Taliesen and the sisters exchanged glances. Rene and Moirae smiled at each other before they came to relieve the queen of the weight upon her lap. They looked kindly at the young queen. “We are glad you indulged our younger brother. He is not often allowed to behave as he wishes. He may wish to see you again before you depart.”
Elisa nodded. “Send word, and I will receive him.”
The sisters smiled graciously and hurried off with their brother.
The wiseman stood up, ostensibly to rub his backside hurting from the bench as they watched the mystics depart. When they were safely beyond hearing, he pushed the forgotten book towards the young queen. “What they said to you unsettled you. For that I apologize yet again.”
“It was interesting,” the queen said faintly.
Taliesen shook his head. “You should understand this. It is not mere conversation to them. The two sisters’ words represent the mindset of generations of elves and mages before them. They would have you look at the contents of this book from their point of view. Keep in mind, however, that this mindset is colored by the long lives the elves live. Often these people forget the pleasures and dangers in the small, ordinary things. As a child, Isra is able to ignore much of what they say. In some sense, he represents the view of those who do not care what all our mystics and scholars state. He may not be the wisest mystic but he is, by far, the happiest among them.”
Click for Quest! Edmund (guest art) and authorial notes on this section