Two swans clicked in protest when the water tossed them around, and all of the swans hissed when light that was golden and strong—more like the rising sun than the silver moon that hung in the dark sky—surrounded them. It pulled the swans into the air, making them hang with their wings stretched.
Elise stared wide eyed, scrambling to her feet when a pillar of white feathers exploded around each swan.
There was a trumpeting noise that resounded off nearby trees, and the light disappeared. The feathers seemed to solidify, encasing the seven humans that stood in the pond where seven swans previously paddled.
“Gross, I think I have a bug in my teeth!” Gerhart said.
“This is certainly what I aspired to do with my life, float in on a pond before getting dosed all the way through my breeches,” Steffen grumbled as he trudged out of the pond, shaking water off as he went.
Elise stared as each of her brothers emerged from the pond, wearing white clothes that seemed to have the same slick properties as swan feathers.
“Elise, you’re safe,” Rune said, the first of his brothers to approach her. He bent over her, picking her off the ground and wrapping his arms around her in a tight hug.
The gesture convinced Elise she was not delusional. He was real. Her face was pressed against his soft shirt, and his hands were warm on her back.
Her brothers were human again.
“Rune,” Elise said, grasping at his shirt as if he were her anchor. It was all she could say, her throat burned with unsaid words, but her mouth wouldn’t move.
“I’m here, Elise. Everything is going to be fine,” Rune said.
“And that’s enough,” Nick said, wrenching the two apart after several prolonged moments.
Elise clenched her jaw to keep her teeth from chattering as she drank in the sight of her foster brothers.
“I am sorry, Elise, that it was my horse you had to ride here,” Falk said, placing a cool hand on the crown of Elise’s head. “I hope he was not too much trouble?”
“I asked a lot of him, but he was a good mount,” Elise said.
“Good. I am glad you are well,” Falk said, awkwardly placing his hands on Elise’s shoulders for a moment.
“Why we are in the middle of the forest?” Mikk stiffly asked.
“You don’t remember getting cursed and turning into a bird? That’s a real shame, Mikk. If we came across some swan ladies, I bet you would be real popular with them,” Nick said, elbowing his twin.
“Clotilde cursed us. I could see her readying it, but I didn’t have the chance to warn anyone,” Erick said, reaching to adjust glasses that weren’t there.
“I’m sorely vexed by this. I was supposed to have tea with Lady Katchen,” Gerhart said.
Erick blinked. “We have been turned into swans, and you are upset because you missed a tea.”
“You don’t understand,” Gerhart grouched, folding his arms across his chest.
Elise tilted her head, intrigued. “Lady Katchen? Her family does a great deal of exporting. If they would agree to use the Carabas harbor to ship exports, it would be a great financial opportunity.”
Gerhart looked marginally pleased for a moment. “Of course; why do you think I arranged to meet with her?” he said before shoving his nose in the air.
Nick smacked Gerhart upside the head. “Our little Gerhie is growing up.”
“Stop that,” Gerhart complained.
“Is the curse broken?” Steffen asked, inspecting his alien clothing.
“I don’t know. An enchantress, Angelique, said she would try attacking Clotilde to break it off. She must have succeeded,” Elise said.
“She what?” Gerhart gaped.
Erick narrowed her eyes. “Angelique, you say? It would be a big gamble to use her magic in Arcainia, even if it is to protect us.”
“We will back her. With the curse broken, we can speak for her,” Nick said.
“I’m afraid you won’t be able to do that.”
Elise and the princes of Arcainia whipped around.
Angelique was at the edge of the pond, mounted on her strange horse. She was a little mussed, but she looked darling and gorgeous instead of resembling a muddied street rat, as Elise suspected she did.
“I didn’t manage to break the curse or off Clotilde,” Angelique said, dismounting from her odd horse. The eerie creature shook its mane, and its black fur seemed to swirl in the moonlight.
“But we’re back to normal,” Steffen said.
“Not quite,” Angelique said, tucking a stray strand of hair behind her ear. “Forgive me for my ill-timed introduction. I am Angelique.”
“It is good to see you again, Lady Enchantress,” Steffen said, taking Angelique’s hand and bowing over it.
“I echo my brother’s sentiments,” Erick said, smiling enigmatically.