Elise tore across the sandy bank and threw herself at Gerhart just as the bow string twanged with the release of an arrow.
Elise and Gerhart rolled into the pond, getting thoroughly drenched. Gerhart struggled so much Elise thought he was hit, but when she let him go, he wacked her in the face with his wings and stumbled back a step. Elise turned around to find an arrow embedded in the sandy shore, a small bit of her gray dress pinned beneath it.
An ocean roared in Elise’s ears for a moment as she realized how close Gerhart had been to dying. Then the hunter spoke.
“What tha’! Girl! Whaddaya think yer doing?”
Elise looked at the hunter with a murderous expression. She grabbed a rock and threw it at the hunter, pelting him on the shoulder.
“Ouch, what—ack! I’m goin’, I’m goin’! Ack, yer mad!” the hunter said as he backed away from the pond.
Elise, driven by anger and absolute fright for her brothers, stalked across the pond shore and grabbed a wooden club Mikk had fashioned out of a sturdy tree branch. She swung it through the air as she ran at the hunter.
“Just lemme grab ma quiver—ouch—ye snarlin’ mountain cat!” the hunter said, not dodging quite fast enough and getting the tail end of a blow to his stomach.
By now, the swans realized Elise was upset, and they beat their wings and ran speedily across the shore, hissing and snapping at the cornered hunter.
“Witch!” the hunter said, abandoning his quiver before he fled into the woods.
Elise’s swan companion launched himself from the trees, angrily beating his wings. The rest of the swans hurried to his side, hissing and grunting to each other.
Elise dropped to her knees and breathed deeply to combat the sudden faintness of her heart.
Where was Brida? Wasn’t she supposed to guard? What use was she if she wandered off like that? It wasn’t like Elise could call her or something…the whistle.
Elise held back a groan and pounded the ground with one hand. She forgot her wooden whistle with her knife and the burlap wrapped nettles. Brida was going to kill her.
In the pond, Gerhart shook out his feathers while several other swans shoved their orange beaks into Elise’s wild hair and pulled on her curls.
Elise unsteadily swallowed. If Brida didn’t kill her, her brothers would.
Steffen drummed his fingers on the leather saddle pack draped across his lap. “You forgot the whistle Brida made you?”
“I apologize,” Elise said, avoiding his eyes as she stood in front of him.
Steffen sighed. “I just want to keep you safe, Elise. It’s an impossible task out here, and we’ve done nothing but put you in jeopardy, but our curse isn’t worth your life.”
Elise mutely took the gentle scolding.
“It was unfortunate that Brida was out gathering wood when the huntsman came, but it was only the best of luck that the huntsman was, apparently, a weak-spined fellow, and you were able to chase him off with nothing but rocks and a wooden club.”
“And a host of hissing swans,” Erick added.
“We hardly count, as we are unable to do anything,” Steffen said.
“Spare Elise the lecture. We should be hailing her a hero. She saved Gerhart,” Nick called from the edge of the pond where he sat in the darkness with a fishing pole.
Steffen looked unconvinced, and Elise saw another lecture in his eyes.
It was to her relief that Rune stepped in.
“Regardless of what happened, everyone is safe. Elise will not make that mistake again. Will you, Elise?” the golden-tongued Rune said.
“No, I won’t,” Elise said.
“See? She will be careful to carry her whistle with her from now on. There’s no need to further lecture her. Why don’t we talk about ways we could prevent this in the future, and Elise can get washed up?”
“I suppose,” Steffen frowned.
Elise hastily stood and trotted off into the darkness before the eldest prince could rethink his decision. “Thank you, Rune,” Elise whispered as she made her way around the pond in the dark.
She knelt next to the pond and scrubbed at her arms and face after splashing herself with water. She gave her face a final rinse and almost jumped out of her dress when Gerhart appeared next to her, carrying a torch.
Elise blinked. “Excuse me?”
“Why did you save me?
Elise wiped her hands off on her grubby dress. “Why wouldn’t I save you?”
“I’ve been nothing but horrid to you for years. I have mocked you and snubbed you and done everything in my power to look down at you. Why didn’t you let the hunter kill me?”
“Before you were horrid, we were great friends. I know you aren’t a bad person, Hart, although I have no idea what made you change. Besides, even if you went on being horrid to me for the rest of our lives, you’re still my brother,” Elise said.
“I was jealous of you,” Gerhart said. “Before Clotilde, Father acted like the sun rose and fell with you. Everyone gushed over you. They talked about how perfect you were.”