Elise closed her eyes and leaned back into the embrace of the tree. Her stomach growled like a starving bear. Elise tried to muffle the noises by wrapping her arms around her waist.
She nearly jumped out of the tree when rope hit the branch next to her. It slid off the surface and fell back to the ground. Another swing and the rope sailed over the branch. The end was weighted down with a stone, so it made a rudimentary pulley of a sort. After some scuffling on the ground, Brida used the rope to heft up a small parcel of food containing berries, some edible plants, and a little bit of cheese.
“Eat, Princess,” Brida advised, sitting down on the ground again, placing her back to the tree as she kept whittling.
Elise took the food, setting it on her knees. Her stomach growled again, so Elise reluctantly started with the berries. She occasionally leaned out of her tree to glance at Brida far below. The captain kept whittling, not looking at all inclined to move.
Night fell. Elise remained in her tree.
“I’m going back to the campsite. It’s not safe to leave you out here, but…,” Brida trailed off and scuffed a boot in the ground. “Here, take this,” she said, using her pulley system to send a canvas bag up to Elise.
In the bag was a wooden whistle.
“Blow it if you are in trouble—whether now or when you can’t speak. And gather up the rope if you don’t want to be sniffed out by your brothers,” Brida said before trudging off through the woods. “I will be back once I get more supplies and tell your brothers you are safe,” she called before she disappeared into the undergrowth.
Elise stretched out in her tree and stared up at the green canopy of leaves above her. She didn’t think much time had passed, so she almost fell out of her tree when torchlight lit up the forest.
“Brida came from this direction, so Elise must be somewhere in this part of the forest.”
It was Rune.
“That may be, but you do realize when she sees us there’s a good chance she might attempt to impale you with something?”
“Elise would never hurt us,” Rune said, brandishing the torch high above his head.
“Oh no, she would not hurt me. I didn’t mislead her and lie to her about my feelings and the feelings of my greatest rival for the past three or four years or bully her sweetheart. No, if she is going to hurt someone it’s going to be you. I’m along so I can properly apologize and drag you back to the pond after you pass out from blood loss.”
“How thoughtful of you.”
“I can be a decent older brother.”
Elise peered out of her tree, watching her foster brothers weave through the trees.
“This just proves that honesty is the best policy,” Steffen said.
“Are you referring to Falk and me?”
“To a certain extent, yes. Did you already know Elise is afraid of horses?”
“Yes. She told me when I found her weeping in the stables several years ago.”
“What about the flute?”
“I did not know she hated it, but I knew she didn’t like it. She told me as much when she first started learning it.”
“Why. Why did she tell you?”
The pair was just a stone’s throw from Elise’s tree.
“Because I asked,” Rune said.
Steffen sighed. “No wonder she’s furious with you. She told you all the things she told no one else, and you never thought to open your great big yap to let her know you were in love with her.”
“I didn’t say anything because you and Father forbid it.”
“That was before Clotilde waltzed into the picture.
“Would you care to discuss your feelings for Gabrielle at this moment?”
“No, thank you,” Steffen said, stopping two trees away from Elise’s lookout.
“Exactly. What is it?”
“Nothing. I changed my mind, I’m going back to the camp. Elise could be anywhere in this forest. We’re better off trying to persuade Brida to tell us where she is.”
“She’s not going to budge.”
“Even if she doesn’t, my time will be spent just as well as yours,” Steffen said.
“Can you find your way back in the dark? I need the torch.”
“Very well, I’ll see you before we transform back into swans.”
“I suppose. Walk carefully,” Steffen said as Rune started to walk away.
“Of course,” Rune called over his shoulder.
After the light from his torch faded, Steffen stayed still in the utter darkness. “Elise?”
Elise jumped in her tree cradle. How does he know I’m here?
“Elise, I don’t think I can apologize for our conduct. There were things we didn’t know, things I didn’t know, but that doesn’t excuse us. You are right. We lean too heavily upon you, and we take it for granted that you will save the day—whether it be by charming Father when he’s angry at the rest of us, or safely escorting us around when we’re nothing but swans.”
Elise stubbornly remained silent.