The castle shook and Gabrielle’s cat ran back to the castle. “Gabrielle,” it called in an impatient voice.

“I know,” Gabrielle said. She paused for a moment in front of Elise. “You may feel like an intruder, Fürstin, but realize this: I am trusting you with the one person I treasure most in this world. Stop forcing yourself to prove your worth, and you will find peace.”

“Gabrielle!”

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“Yes,” Gabrielle said, hustling back into the castle. Her cat leaped into her arms and the duo disappeared inside. Literately. When they entered they castle threshold they disappeared like a wisp of smoke.

“Consider it later,” Elise reminded herself as a servant pulled a horse up to the flock of swans. When Elise saw the horse, she swore several times, making her assistant swan keepers/servants stared wide eyed at her.

It was Falk’s horse, a spirited beast that shied easily and ran like hellhounds chased him on his mild days.

Something deep in the castle roared. “No other choice,” Elise grimly said, throwing herself into the saddle.

The horse shied, but Elise clamped herself to its back like a flea. “Go, go, fly, brothers!” Elise urged as the horse ran straight into the swan flock.

The swans beat their wings and clumsily took flight. They fought their way into the air, crashing into each other like drunken sailors.

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Elise heeled Falk’s horse, and the beast took off, careening out of Castle Brandis and entering the city. “Look out!” Elise shouted as they galloped down city streets.

Men, women, and children leaped out of the way, and Elise didn’t try to slow the horse down. Instead, she cast nervous glances to the sky, watching for the flock of swans.

They left the capital, bearing west.

When Elise cleared the gates, she loosened the reins. Falk’s horse threw himself into a frenzied gallop. Elise tangled one hand in his mane and clamped onto the saddle with her other hand.

The land to the west of Brandis was, mercifully, free of trees. It made it easier to watch her brothers, but it also made Elise an open target.

After ten minutes of flying, several of the white swans started to sink. Their flight was labored, and they strained their graceful necks forward when they pumped their wings.

Falk’s horse had worked up a sweat, so Elise pulled him back into a trot. They lagged behind the swans, which flew closer and closer to the ground.

When the first swan crash-landed—rolling when he failed to slow down before touching the ground—Elise slide off the horse’s back and led him up to the flock as the rest of the swans tried landing, having roughly the same amount of success as the first swan.

“We have to keep moving. If you can’t fly, you have to walk,” Elise said, nudging the swans forward.

The swans walked more gracefully than they flew, although the pace left much to be desired. They almost glided when they walked, their backs and shoulders barely moving up and down.

“Faster than this, brothers. Please, if you can understand me, walk faster,” Elise said.

They didn’t walk faster.

Elise clamped down on the knot in her throat and the tears stinging her eyes. “Come on, birds,” Elise said as she used herself and the horse to force the swans to march forward.

Their black webbed feet padded the ground as they picked up their pace, occasionally stopping to hiss at Elise as she rushed them.

After five to ten minutes of waddling, Elise glanced back at Castle Brandis.

A black cloud hung around the tallest tower of the palace. There were flashes of red light that occasionally lit up the innards of the cloud.

“Fly, brothers. FLY,” Elise shouted, throwing herself on Falk’s horse before directing the animal to plow through the flock.

The birds resentfully took to the air, hissing and clicking at Elise as they took off, clumsily pumping their wings to gain altitude.

Elise again clamped onto the horse, her muscles protesting with the stiffness and tension she held the position in. She risked a glance over her shoulder and wished she hadn’t. The cloud left Castle Brandis and was creeping in their direction. Instead of floating like a normal cloud, the black fog bobbed like a cork on rough waters. It rolled downwards before winding up, cresting like an ocean wave.

A forest was within sight. If Elise could reach it, with her brothers, before the cloud found them they might have a chance.

“Don’t!” Elise shouted when one of the birds started to sink.

The swan hastily pumped its wings, knocking into one of the other swans.

Elise’s foster brothers squabbled in the air as Elise and the horse thundered along the ground.

The cloud was maybe two to three stone throws away when Elise and the swans reached the edge of the forest.

The swans dropped like rocks, shaking dust from their white feathers when they stood and beat their wings.

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