The old woman peered at them very closely before responding. “Now indeed, that is unusual. Come in, then, all four of you. Here it is cold and the air very dry.”
The four travelers followed the woman as she hobbled inside the cave, taking care not to disturb any of the odd things the woman had thrown about the floor or leaned against the wall. This Cavern of Winds, as messy as it was, was sacred to the winds of the world that converged in its many chambers.
Long ago, the winds and their mother had come here where they could live without bothering those around them. High above the earth, the young winds could play — their antics shaping the clouds that surrounded the volcano.
Elisa and her guards walked down the sloping path and felt the varied movement and flow of all manner of breeze and gust. The winds brushed past them in order to caress the old woman, still crawling along with the help of a cane. One moment the visitors smelled the arid breeze of the desert and the next, the fresh smell of the forest.
The cave came alive with the fat sounds reminiscent of a calliope as the smaller winds ran through chambers and holes carved out by the old woman’s sons. Occasionally the cheerful sound would be punctuated by the falling of a pebble or stone onto the cavern floor.
But in the midst of the circus of winds was a still place where the winds dared not touch. In the still center of the vast cavern, the old woman had set up fire with a small cauldron hanging over it.
She sat down on a rock near the flames and poked the stew boiling inside it with the handle of her cane. She beckoned her guests to join her at the fire. They each did so, settling on several smooth stones that surrounded the cauldron.
After a moment, the old woman pulled her attention away from her cooking meal. She glanced at the others. “I suppose you would not be hungry, would you? I have a bit of pheasant roasting on the fire.”
The Knight grimaced while Hahn visibly shivered at the offer. Raven simply blinked at the mother of the winds, saying nothing as usual while carefully inching himself away from the strange hag.
Elisa responded calmly, in light of the inappropriate menu being offered to two of her guards. “We thank you, Mother, for your hospitality but we ate before we met up with your son.”
The lady cackled at their manners. “Ah East!” She turned her head every which way to locate her son, swirling about restlessly around them. “There should be a good spawn of salmon in the valley to the south. Our guests do not eat birds.”
Her son gladly complied, taking a running leap out one opening of the cave. He disappeared from their sight, presumably falling down the side of the mountain and towards the more inhabited parts of the surrounding land.
With her son gone, the Mother forgot her food. She dropped the pretense of senility and turned a probing eye upon Elisa. “If the lake does not show you what you want to see, then you are losing your powers or have displeased it. Which is it, child?”
Elisa stiffened at the accusation. But she did not allow herself to grow angry at the slightly mocking tone in which the mistress of winds spoke. Elisa returned the woman’s gaze, studying her in kind.
When they first met… the old woman had simply shown up in her garden unannounced as her son dropped her onto the shores of the lake. She had brought many odd gifts to Elisa and her brothers. She had fussed over them like she might her own children. The woman had even expressed her relief that the garden would have a new, gentler mistress and promised to assist her in the years to come.
But Elisa was no longer a child in the woman’s eyes. Her question was driven by cynicism that came with an understanding of magic.
Magic distorted the frame of reference by which people like her were measured. The elves rejoiced that she should possess it. But old ones like the dragons and this woman would always watch her with suspicion.
Elisa studied this mistress, as she calmly played her hand. “The lake still works for me,” she answered. “And I still work for the lake. But its answers lack details that I believe your sons can help clarify.”
The Mother of the Winds snorted. “You are not the first to approach me with such flattery, young Queen. The elves want my sons to help them sail their ships and keep men from advancing too far. The Snow Queen wants my son to help shoulder her burden as she maintains her tight control over her domain.” The old woman’s eyes gleamed. “What is it you want?”
Elisa’s guards muttered angrily amongst themselves at such rudeness. They did not know this was how she spoke — the woman was not an elf nor human. She cared nothing for manners or society.
And yet, they did not hear the warning the old lady had muttered. The others with magic were active, striving for something. Elisa knew she could not remain idle too long. “Your sons have every small breeze and wind serving them. They are far more able to search this world to find what I cannot.”
The woman’s eyes narrowed. “So you see but do not know where–”
Elisa fingered the vial of water in her hands. “I do not serve myself. I serve the lake which wishes me to find someone for some reason. It insists I find this person.”
The Mother grinned. “Wouldn’t it have been easier to bring me to you?”
Elisa arched an eyebrow. “I do not think I would test the lake against all four of your sons. The last time we had two, they scattered the fairies so far and wide that it took weeks before we accounted for them all.”
The Winds’ mother thought her statement amusing. “My sons would certainly cause a mess in your garden if they stood together.But you should know that they are hard to persuade to do anything with each other. What do you bring to change their minds?”
The older the user of magic, the stranger they became. Many detached from the values of their own kind. Some became demented. Some became desperate when faced with their waning powers or influence. She knew that the Mother was testing her, wanting something in exchange. Elisa tilted her head, wondering why this woman had stopped to such petty bargaining. And then it came to her. “You are growing weaker, Mother,” Elisa realized aloud. “What do you hide?”
Mother’s expression changed. “So you see through me.” She looked back at Elisa–her eyes full of respect and fear.
“What has changed?” Elisa pressed. “Are you ill?”
The woman nervously rubbed her hands together. “No. I cannot die. But they do not stop changing. They no longer come when I call. I think they know I cannot bind them so easily now in my bags that hang upon the wall.” The woman gazed fondly at the rucksacks that had each once held her sons. “Nor do they care about order and discipline of the Old Ones. My North ambitiously clings to the Snow Queen because of her power — her true power is among the strongest magic there still is. West has abandoned the elves and embraced the woods. South is too lazy to leave his fattened farmlands and wine. He loves the humans and their drunken songs. Then there is East.”
“What is it then, that you believe worthy of their attention?” Elisa asked.
The woman did not answer at first. Instead she abruptly changed the subject . “I have heard a rumor, dear girl, that you have taken up the use of a spindle and a loom. What sort of spell do you weave, my dear? ”
Elisa straightened up in her seat. “I do no such thing. I am simply making practical things.”
Mother gave her a suspicious look. “Shirts, perhaps?”
Elisa sighed and took a kerchief out of her pocket. “Not yet. I have only been making these.”
The old woman took it in her old, gnarled hands and smiled briefly. “Good– it is a waste to make shirts. But these are not bad for a young thing like you. I should like one woven by your hand. It has a cheerful color and a smell of good things that are otherwise lacking in this current world.”
“I shall give you that one if you summon your sons,” Elisa pressed stubbornly.
“Hm,” the old woman pocketed the kerchief absentmindedly. “Good. Good. Perhaps East will be enough. He is already half-in with your schemes I think. He has always been an amiable one ferrying about people here and there. My other sons are not so kind.”
Mother’s veil of senility did not fool Elisa. Sharply, she restated her case. “It is important enough that I would like all of them. I must locate someone and I do not know in which direction to look for him.”
“Oh, a gentleman, is it?” The lady perked up, pleased that Elisa would reveal this much. “That you would ask for all of them– hm, you must not know where he is. But you know my South never likes to leave his warm home. He has grown spoilt I say with the wine-driven debauchery of those odd people. He enjoys his entertainments so! But yes… yes, a good bardic song, however, might summon him.”
Elisa understood that the woman was determined to extract more from her in kind before she would assist her. She sighed for she had no such song to deliver. Her Knight, however, cleared his throat. He stood up and then bowed slightly as he addressed the old woman. “I would offer one, then Mistress of the Winds — a song that has never been sung here before.”
The Mother of the Winds looked at him carefully. “Oh, a song from your land might entice him. Indeed, good knight. I think he should like to hear it. But understand if you offer it to him, it will be secret no more. My son is terrible at two things — holding his wine and hiding secrets.”
The woman glanced back at the Queen. “Do you permit him to offer on your behalf, Queen?”
Elisa and the Knight exchanged looks. Finally, the raven-haired woman answered. “What he gives of his own accord I cannot deny,”
The Mother nodded. “Very well, Knight, you are honor-bound to do so should he accept your tribute. But my son West is also a problem.” She sighed dramatically. “He is not lazy, but he does not care for song and wine. He prefers the stories of the elves and the creatures of the woods.”
Hahn scowled.“Well, I am the only elf present, although barely one. But I do have many travels to tell of. If he comes, I shall tell him of one where due to the vanity of my opponent, my life was saved.”
The woman’s eyes next fell to Raven, sitting glumly by the fire. She looked away and vigorously stirred the pot of stew. “Young Queen, your brothers have picked very good companions for you. What they lack in gifts of magic, they have made up in their loyalty. New tales will do very nicely.”
Elisa did not dare appear rattled by the mention of her brothers. She would not be distracted from her goal. “And what of your last son?”
The old woman stopped stirring the pot. “His temperament is not like his brothers. He does not care for tales or for fate itself. But he is swayed by beauty and power, just like his father was.”
The words were ironic given the wrinkled, bent shape of the woman who delivered them. The old hag laughed — her eyes strangely youthful as she noted the disbelief of the guards. “A kiss from your queen I think would interest him. He would enjoy your reactions immensely, I am certain.”
Elisa colored indignantly at the woman’s devilish laughter. “Do you mean for me to strike war between his current paramour and my self?”
“She does not love him,” the old lady said with scorn. “She will not care. She will eventually cast him off or drive him to leave her. That is how she always has been. You, of all people, should understand and pity him.”
Elisa blinked, uncertain of what she meant.
Next (will go live on 5.5)