“I must beg you to reconsider for it is not safe—wait, you will come?” Prince Toril said.
“Yes,” Brida said.
Prince Toril clapped his hands together. “That is wonderful news indeed. I am glad you see the sense in my plan. When will you be ready to leave?”
“Now?” Prince Toril repeated.
“Yes. The horses are saddled, and the birds are ready.”
“Do you have a problem understanding the words I am saying? Why must you repeat them? Yes, the birds. We could not possibly travel without her swans,” Brida said, nodding at Elise.
“Oh. Of course,” Prince Toril weakly said as he looked past Elise where her brothers were flocked together on shore, waiting to take off until Elise climbed in the saddle and started the journey.
“So… may we depart?” Brida asked after a minute of silence.
Prince Toril’s smile was back. “Yes, of course. My horse is just past these trees,” he said, heading back into the trees.
Brida mounted up her horse, and Elise took up the lead rope of Falk’s horse—who was laden with nettles, Elise’s finished shirts, and various plants Falk had plucked the night before for medicinal purposes.
“We will travel with a few other men—soldiers and hunters who accompanied me. There are only five of them, so there is no need to be afraid. Aren’t you going to ride?” Prince Toril said when he came back—riding a splendid-looking horse.
Elise shook her head.
“You could ride behind me if your mount is otherwise burdened,” Prince Toril said, glancing at Falk’s horse. “You are a slight thing; my horse will hardly notice your extra weight.”
Elise shook her head again, but Prince Toril wasn’t about to take no for an answer.
“You cannot walk to Ostfold. It’s too far. My horse has very soothing gaits, I promise you,” Prince Toril said, grabbing Elise by her forearm.
Elise looked to Brida who shrugged. “He has a point.”
Elise frowned, but scrambled up behind Prince Toril.
“There, this isn’t so bad, is it—oof,” he said when Elise lodged her arms around his stomach so tightly she squeezed air from him. “Nothing to fear,” Prince Toril wheezed.
The prince led the way, leaving Brida to pony up Falk’s horse before bringing up the rear. The Arcainian Princes hissed and bumped one another before they took off, circling overhead as Prince Toril led them through the forest.
Within several minutes, they met up with the rest of Prince Toril’s party and set off for Ostfold, the capital of Verglas.
“So, where do you come from?” Prince Toril asked. He spoke at a volume that made Elise think he was talking to her, but Brida answered for her.
“Loire,” she lied.
Prince Toril nodded. “And what are your names?”
“I am Brenda. She’s Elsa,” Brida said.
“What brought you to Verglas?”
“We live in a border town. Elsa’s remaining kin died, and the villagers never liked that she couldn’t talk, so they ran her off.”
“I’m her friend; I couldn’t let her go alone.”
As Brida and Prince Toril chatted, Elise studied the men traveling with them.
They had the look and air of Verglas to them—meaning they were sturdy and tough like their Verglas-bred horses, but they smiled kindly, and Elise’s unnatural silence did not seem to bother them.
When they reached a road, Elise looked up and, through the breaks in the trees, could spy a flock of white swans flying.
Going to Ostfold was a frightening prospect, but with Brida behind her and her foster family above her, Elise thought everything would be alright.
Ostfold was not what Elise expected.
Unlike Brandis, which was all stone, most of Ostfold was built out of wood. Each building had a slanted roof and pointed turrets, and every window had painted shutters. The buildings were beautiful and in perfect condition—each house seemed to have a fresh coat of paint on it, and beautiful wood carvings could be found in every nook and cranny of even the lowliest building.
“Don’t you worry about fires?” Brida asked as they rode through Ostfold—which was about the size of one of Arcainia’s medium-sized cities.
“No. Why would we?” Prince Toril blinked.
Brida and Elise exchanged glances as they rode on, heading for the royal palace.
The royal palace was smaller than Elise pictured. The Sole Ambassador mocked Castle Brandis for its size, but the Ostfold palace was only half the size of Brandis. The Verglas Royal Palace also had a significantly different style of architecture than the traditional castle. Instead of solid lines and a smooth roof, every part of the castle jutted up into triangular cut outs, like fat stalagmites of ice. There was only one tower in the castle, and it was tall and skinny and shaped like a well-sharpened pencil.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” Prince Toril asked.