Just as Angelique said, the new pond was better for their long-term needs. It was half the size of Castle Brandis, barely skirting being called a small lake. A piece of shore jutted towards the center of the pond, making it heart shaped. It was habited by a pair of wild geese, a flock of ducks, and dozens of croaking frogs and swimming fish.
The forest lay closer to one of the sandy shores, providing shelter for Elise. There was even a rock formation Elise could huddle against, and one of the rocks had a shelf that extended out, creating a roofed area for days of bad weather.
Elise stored the horse’s tack there, as well as her tattered uniform after she changed into the drab, gray dress Angelique had provided.
“I don’t think I’ve gone stocking foot since Queen Ingrid found me,” Elise said to one of her swan brothers who watched her toss her slippers next to the horse tack. “It is a little liberating,” she said, twirling once. The gray skirted dress, which fell a few inches below her knees, poofed up.
Elise released the horse, and he grazed happily in the meadow that butted up to the pond. She took her gold key off her work uniform and shredded her red sash. Using the sash, she braided a long chain, which she slipped the key onto before she tied it around her neck and slid it under her plain dress.
When she was finished, she found several swans watching her. “I may as well get started,” she said when one of the swans rested its head on her bent knee. “Knitting is what we’re here for, after all,” she said, stroking the swan’s head before she stood and made her way to the forest.
Elise started by scavenging for twigs and thin branches she could use as makeshift knitting needles. It took her a while to find two branches that were the proper thickness she was looking for. They were dry, and the bark peeled cleanly off, but Elise was glad to see they did not break easily when she tried snapping them to make each branch the desired length.
Next Elise, sporting a gaggle of several swans paddling behind her, searched for stinging nettles. She didn’t have to look very long before she found some in the forest. She inspected them, touching the plant stems, which prickled the soft skin of her fingers.
Elise dug up the plants by their roots. She gathered a large pile and carried them back to the pond where she stripped them of their leaves.
Several times, Elise stopped to plunge her hands in the cool pond water, grimacing when the water stung the prickles left in her hands.
The skin on the top of her hands was red and splotchy by the time Elise got started on the first shirt in the late afternoon, tying the first loops—the cast on—of the shirt on one of her makeshift needles.
The swans observed her during this process. Usually three or four were stationed around her at any given time, and the rest of them paddled in the pond, nibbling on grasses and catching minnows.
It seemed to Elise that they weren’t as stupid or beast-like as the day before. She was still clipped by a large white wing several times that day when a swan went dashing past, chasing bugs or a fellow swan, but none of them pecked her, and they seemed more aware of her presence.
One swan seemed intent on exploring the area. He always returned after several minutes, wiggling his tail feathers and calling to the rest of his brothers, although he often popped out of unexpected places. Once, he nearly fell into Elise’s lap after crashing off the top of the rock formation where Elise had set up her knitting station.
The swan righted himself and walked away, making Elise wonder which brother it was. (Elise didn’t think it was Rune, but she couldn’t be sure, as none of the swans seemed to stand out as one particular brother.) When the sun started to sink on the horizon, seven swans were waiting on the pond.
Just like the night before, waves rocked the pond surface, and an odd light grew around each swan. The swans were raised out of the water, their wings outstretched, before they disappeared in a cloud of feathers.
This time, Elise could hear the enormous splash as each brother hit the water once transformed. The feathers reformed around the princes—making their glossy white clothes—and Elise was once again in the presence of the seven princes of Arcainia.
Falk was the first prince out of the water, barking orders as we went. “Gerhart, start gathering wood suitable for a fire. Erick, we need to build at least one wall to the shelter so Elise can get out of the wind and rain. For this week, a makeshift shelter will work, but we will need to make something more permanent for the future,” Falk said, passing Elise without acknowledging her at all. “If you could figure out the structure and mark out the kind of branches to look for, Mikk and Nick will fetch them for you.”
Erick smiled at Elise as he followed in Falk’s wake. “That sounds reasonable. We would do well to secure some sort of rope for her so we could tie the branches together to make a more solid structure,” Erick said.
“Rune,” Falk called.
“She needs a knife,” Rune said, water dripping from him as he ambled to Elise’s side.