Brida kicked a guard in the kneecap while blocking a blow from another. She elbowed one man in the throat and swept a leg back to smash a soldier in the face. It was little more than a brawl, but Brida was winning.
The crowd murmured, watching Brida fight tooth and nail. In all likelihood, no one had attempted to rescue one of King Torgen’s victims before.
“I said restrain her,” King Torgen repeated, growing testy.
More soldiers left their post to help their comrades in the scuffle.
Elise gaped at Brida as the determined female fought her way to her. The captain used every piece of her body to fight back. She head-butted one soldier, bit the fingers of another, and kneed a man in the stomach.
Eventually the soldiers gave up subduing her and used sheer numbers to drag her down. Before Brida hit the ground, she drew a dagger from her belt and threw it to Elise. A soldier tackled her when she made the throw, so her aim faltered, and the dagger hit a log near Elise.
Elise reached for it, but it was too far away. She tried reaching out with a bare foot, straining to grasp it with her toes. It was still too far away.
“You, get a torch and set fire to the witch,” King Torgen said, grabbing a soldier who was helping one of the men Brida lashed out at.
“You question me?”
“No, Sire,” the soldier said, grabbing another torch.
Unlike the other torch-bearer, this soldier hurried. He thrust the torch into the kindling and tinder, which caught fire immediately. The lower logs were smeared with animal fat and lamp oil, so the kindling flared into a fire faster than usual.
Elise started to sweat as she strained against the ropes, still reaching for the dagger. The straw used as the tinder produced a lot of smoke, and it burned Elise’s eyes and throat. Her eyes teared up as she struggled through the haze to grab the dagger. The heat of the fire started to warm her feet when the first swan burst through the smoke.
Elise stared, but when the swan flew past her Elise gave up on the dagger and threw a shirt at the bird. It hit him, but Elise didn’t see what happened after as he disappeared through the smoke.
Elise could hear the crowd gasp and shout, but she was watching for the next swan, huddling as close to her stake as she could while the fire crept up the logs.
Two swans appeared next, flapping their wings and bringing a breath of clean air with them.
Elise threw the shirts, and the swans disappeared.
Elise covered her mouth with an arm, tears streaming down her face from the smoke. Her eyesight was so blurred she almost missed the next two swans. They swooped in from opposite directions, and one passed close enough to brush her extended hand with the tips of his wings.
It was a stretch to hit both swans, Elise almost missed one but the swan dove into the shirt before disappearing in the smoke.
Seconds after they passed through, the smallest swan flapped past. Elise tried throwing the shirt, but her strength was leaving her as the heat licked at her skin and the smoke robbed her lungs.
The swan veered after the shirt. Elise couldn’t be sure what happened after that.
Elise couldn’t stop coughing, and the smoke blinded her. She reached out, her arm extended and shaking, the shirt dangling from her finger tips.
Falk, where was Falk?
Elise tried to keep the panic down as her arm trembled. The heat was unbearably painful.
Something tugged the shirt out of her fingers, and Elise let go before she sagged against the stake, the ropes wrapped around her waist holding her upright. The air was hot. It hurt to breathe in, and the smoke rattled in her chest and burned her throat.
She hoped it worked. She hoped she broke the curse, but she couldn’t see, and she couldn’t hear anything over the roar of the hungry fire.
The flames hadn’t yet reached her, but the heat was agonizing. It was a thousand times worse than knitting. Elise thought she would be boiled alive, but suddenly she wasn’t alone.
Rune, dressed in white, cut through the ropes holding her to the stake. His hair was tousled and his face was streaked with dirt, but in Elise’s eyes he was the most glorious thing she had seen in a long time.
Rune was human in daylight.
“I’ve got you,” Rune said, tossing the bindings aside before he scooped Elise up and leapt from the pyre.
Elise coughed as she breathed in clear air. She clung to Rune as someone poured buckets of water on them, soothing Elise’s pink, burned skin.
Rune held her upright as she sagged, unable to regain her breath as she hacked and coughed.
“Elise, breathe shallowly,” Erick instructed, placing his cool hands on her forehead.
When Elise was able to draw air without shaking, someone hugged her.
“Elise, you did it,” Nick grinned.
Surrounding Elise in a ring of white were the Princes of Arcainia. Steffen, Nick, Mikk, Erick, Rune, Gerhart… and Falk.
Tears streamed from Elise’s eyes. “You’re free.”
“Thanks to you,” Steffen said.