Elise sneezed twice and flicked water off her skin as she walked past the shelter, pausing to grab her whistle, knife, and burlap cloth.
Properly armed, Elise hiked a short way into the woods. She could still hear the noises her brothers made as swans—the sound their flapping wings produced was quite loud—when she found a boulder situated in a spot of sunshine.
Elise dropped the burlap cloth and set the knife and whistle on the boulder before she climbed it, sunning herself on the warm surface as she attempted to comb her wild hair with her fingers.
As her hair dried, her bouncy curls sprang into their usual tangled ringlets. Elise abandoned the ribbon she used to keep her hair tied in a low ponytail at the nape of her neck and fluffed her hair, hoping to get it to dry quicker. The early summer air was cooler than she estimated, and between her sopping dress and wet head, she was getting a chill.
Once she felt she had sufficiently untangled her wild curls, Elise tried wringing more water from her dress. Both the morning sun and the rock warmed Elise, making her damp situation bearable, and in less than an hour, Elise was more or less dry.
Elise tossed her curly mop of hair over her shoulders as she reached for her ribbon, intending to pull her hair back so she could nettle hunt without it flapping in her face.
She froze when she heard a male voice say, “So it is true. There is maiden as lovely as a summer day who has taken up residence at Farsund Pond.”
Elise slowly lifted her eyes up to stare at a handsome young man who had soundlessly crept up on her. The fine velvet of his tunic was too expensive to make him anything less than a noble. He had baby fine blonde hair and grey eyes that were the same intense color as frothy rapids.
Elise flattened her lips and reached for her whistle as she kept eye contact with the strange man.
“I won’t hurt you,” he said, lifting both of his hands. “I’m worried for you. How can you survive out here, alone?”
Elise, obviously, was silent.
“Won’t you speak? You can trust me,” he said, taking a step closer to her. “Where are you from? I’ve never seen anyone like you. Your hair is beautiful.”
Elise slid off her rock, clutching her whistle. She was careful not to place her back to the man as she retreated to the pond.
“Easy, easy,” the man said, as if Elise were a wild horse he needed to soothe. “Do you want to leave this place? I could take you somewhere warm. You could sleep in a real bed and eat only the best foods. Don’t you want to come?”
Elise shook her head, making the young man smile.
“So you can understand, then? You aren’t dumb. Nor are you a witch, like that foolish hunter said you were,” the man said. “Come with me. I will protect you.”
Elise shook her head and kept backing up.
“You will be safe, I promise. Just trust me,” the man said before lunging forward and grabbing Elise’s wrist.
Elise shoved her whistle between her teeth and tried punching the man with her free hand. He caught her jab and within seconds had her flung over his shoulders like a sack of potatoes.
“I’m doing this for your own good,” the man said as Elise struggled.
Elise took in a deep breath of air, positioned her mouth by the man’s ear, and blew her whistle so hard she made her ears pop.
“Ow, what was that for?” the man said, dropping Elise to clamp his hands to his ears.
Elise hit the ground with a thud. She rolled away, getting grass stains all over her dress, and scrambled to her feet, blasting another note on her whistle.
She needn’t have bothered. Brida came tearing through the woods, a spear held above her head and roaring like an angry bear. Behind her was a train of four snow white swans. The swans flapped their wings and strained their necks while they hissed.
“Get away from her!” Brida shouted, sounding scarier than ever as she leveled her spear at the intruder.
“What? What’s going on?” the man said.
“What did you do to her?” Brida asked, suspiciously eyeing the grass stains on Elise’s dress as Elise passed her, aiming to stand with the swans.
“Nothing! I thought she was alone in the woods so I was going to take her back to the palace so she could find shelter,” the man said.
“It’s true. Who are you that you don’t recognize me?”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
The man thumped the stag symbol embroidered on the front of his tunic. “I am Prince Toril, the only child of King Torgen and heir to the throne of Verglas,” he said. “In case you didn’t know it is a capital offense to brandish a weapon at me.”
“Royal or not, it’s an offense to humanity to manhandle a girl,” Brida spat.
“I wasn’t manhandling her! Please, there must be some way we can come to an agreement.”
“Leave right now and that will be a proper agreement,” Brida said.
“This forest is mine; you can hardly force me out of it.”