We enter the story not quite at the beginning, but close enough you can begin to understand who Elaina is, and her plight.
Little breezes dusk and shiver
Thro' the wave that runs for ever
By the island in the river
Flowing down to Camelot.
Four gray walls, and four gray towers,
Overlook a space of flowers,
And the silent isle imbowers
The Lady of Shalott.
Elaina lay in bed, eyes shut tight against the light pouring into her room. Her body was rested after a rare night of uninterrupted sleep, and yet she was loath to wake. For a moment all was still, and she was left to her thoughts, to simply breathe and lay quiet. Outside, a bird began to sing. Elaina’s heart wrenched at the lovely sound. It sounded so close; if she only turned her head and opened her eyes, she knew she would see the delightsome creature, a blue jay by the sound of it. She turned her head towards the light, towards the window and the song, but her eyes did not open, and a tear streamed down her face at the cruel reality she faced. If she opened her eyes, the enchantment would be broken. But if she so much as glanced out the wide, circular window that looked out across a rushing river toward Camelot, she would die. It had been years since the face in the mirror told her that. Years since she had been caught up in the powerful enchantment. Mordred had not come for her. No one had. And yet still, she would not risk death to look. There had to be another way.
Turning her face toward the ceiling, Elaina’s eyes finally opened. Gray stone, through a haze of dust-ridden sunlight, met her gaze as from the far corner of her room soft harp music began to play. It was beautiful, and would have sounded like a happy tune to anyone else listening, but she had heard it enough to recognize the subtle, dark undertones of enchantment being woven around her.
No, Elaina thought, half-tempted to close her eyes again. Another moment…please.
Her hands and arms moved of their own accord, pushing her out of bed. Her feet traitorously dragged her across the floor, but she knew better than to fight. The music would win; it always did.
Rubbing the sleep from her eyes, Elaina sat on the hard bench, facing what seemed a rather unremarkable wooden loom. She forced herself to look up into the glassy eye of the mirror. For the briefest moment she saw herself, hair mussed from slumber, eyes circled and weary. She grimaced as the image wavered, as if she were looking into a pond that had been disturbed by a leaping toad, and when it cleared she was staring at a field of young, green barley stalks, waving gently in the same breeze that rustled the trees outside the forbidden window. Her hand found the shuttle, and she passed it through the two rows of warp thread. Her foot on the treadle brought the beater sliding down to compact the new row. Magically, the thread had changed, and was now a bright, new-green color. She never changed the thread herself and yet, each day when the sun faded intricate images had been woven so incredibly that they seemed to come alive in the moon-cast shadows.
Often, when she was allowed a moment to sleep or eat, Elaina caught the shuttle moving out of the corner of her eye, weaving without a hand to wield it. As soon as she looked full on it would stop, but each time she returned to the loom, a new length of tapestry was woven. The loom did not need her, but it held her just the same.
As she worked, she inspected what had been woven while she slept. It was a night scene depicting the same stretch of road she was being shown in the mirror now. Calm and still, nothing of significance happening. Just the river, winding idly by the dirt road, headed towards the great city Camelot. Elaina sighed and looked up at a market scene happening outside the gates. It was some distance away, but the mirror had magnified it, as if to taunt her with what she could not have. Peasant boys ducked and weaved, snatching apples and tarts and stuffing them down their shirts or into hungry mouths. Stall keepers’ mouths were open in shouts as they paraded their wares, trying to convince the haughty, passing noblemen and women to open their purses and buy.
Elaina let herself get caught up in what she saw, pretending she was standing among them, actually smelling the freshly baked goods and hearing the noise of the market. The mirror only showed her these things—all she could actually hear was the bird, still trilling in the tree outside; all she could smell was the earthy wool beneath her fingers. Her only access to the outside world was the mirror, both a blessing and a curse. It showed her everything there was to see as the world passed by on its way to Camelot. It also showed her everything she had lost when she first came to the tower. She closed her eyes for a moment, not needing sight to guide the shuttle through the tunnel of threads as the enchantment wove the tapestry. When she opened them, a group of young girls were being shown in the mirror, their hair straight and shining and held back by jeweled combs. They wore long, beautiful dresses, made of colored, expensive cloth. She paused her weaving for a moment and watched them move, pretty mouths open in silent laughter and cheerful chatter in her mirror. Glancing down, Elaina smoothed her own dress, which now seemed rags compared to the finery the other girls exhibited. She had been one of them, once. Before…
A twig snapped outside her window and a male voice cursed, causing Elaina’s eyes to snap open, interrupting her reverie. She gripped the loom to keep herself from turning around and looking through the window. She listened in the stillness, hoping to hear another sound, another word, anything that might indicate someone had come for her at last. Leaves rustled, but that could easily have been the wind. Had she imagined the voice? Had she finally gone mad?