Elise started crying in earnest when her foster brothers pressed in around her, hugging her, wiping soot off her face, and thanking her.
“Guards, seize them all! Clearly the girl has freed these evil demons with her work,” King Torgen shouted.
King Torgen swiveled, his face growing stormy when a small party of men rode into the city, Prince Toril in the lead. “What’s going on?” he asked.
“That woodland witch you brought back from the forest has unleashed a curse,” King Torgen said.
Prince Toril dismounted his horse. “Elsa isn’t a witch,” he said as he made his way through the crowd, heading for Elise.
When he neared the ring of Arcainian princes, Rune appeared behind him and held a dagger to the prince’s throat. “Take another step closer to her, and you will breathe your last,” he warned.
“Rune,” Elise said.
“Be still, Buttercup,” Falk said, taking Elise’s hand to hold her still.
“See?” King Torgen said. “Witchery!”
“Silence,” Steffen said. Unlike King Torgen, who spoke with anger that welled up from his belly, Steffen’s voice came from his chest. He sounded regal and commanding, and his eyes were sharp as he stared at King Torgen like the evil man was nothing more than a tadpole.
The Ostfold city square was quiet, except for the crackling of the raging fire.
“What—,” Prince Toril started, even though Rune still held a weapon to his throat.
“I am Crown Prince Steffen of Arcainia. You have almost succeeding in killing my beloved baby sister, Fürstin Elise. I am close, very close to the edge of my temper. One wrong word to me or my siblings, and I will bring your country to its knees,” Steffen said. Although his voice was hushed the words carried clearly over the crowd.
When no one moved, soldier, citizen, or otherwise, Steffen nodded at Rune, who removed the dagger from Prince Toril’s throat and pushed the young man away from them.
“How do I know you are who you claim to be?” King Torgen said, the feverish light shining fiercely in his eyes.
Steffen smiled. It wasn’t his charming portrait smile. It was a smile that made Elise afraid. “Would you like us to repeat, line by line, every good Arcainia provides Verglas and every debt you owe us?”
King Torgen said nothing.
Erick cleared his throat and spoke next. “We require a change of clothes for our sister, horses, food, and weapons for transport.”
“Done,” King Torgen said, looking at several soldiers, who departed to gather the goods.
Prince Toril looked back and forth between the Arcainian Princes and his Father. “I don’t understand. Aren’t you going to stop them?”
“Quiet, Toril,” King Torgen said.
“No, why are you so frightened? Yes, it looks like you were doing something bad, but they’re just from Arcainia. Arcainia is a small, feckless country. We have nothing to fear from Arcainia,” Prince Toril said.
“Quiet,” King Torgen said, clenching his meaty hands into tight fists.
“So, you don’t know?” Nick said, folding his arms across his chest.
“Know what?” Prince Toril said.
“Arcainia practically owns Verglas,” Gerhart says. “We bought up all your national debt. If we call it in, you are sunk.”
“It’s no surprise he doesn’t know. We tried to downplay our power. It’s the only way we could keep Loire clueless,” Erick said as he studied Elise. “Feeling better?”
“Yes. Brida,” Elise said, her mouth thick with the taste of smoke.
“Right. The valiant soldier. Nick, Mikk,” Erick said.
The twins stepped forward and yanked Brida from the clutches of Verglas guards, who surrounded her.
The captain joined Elise and her foster brothers.
“Water, Fürstin?” Brida said, offering Elise a flask.
“Thank you,” Elise said, taking it and drinking. The water was stale and lukewarm, but it felt wonderful on Elise’s raw throat.
“I will take Brida and retrieve the horses and whatever supplies we can salvage from the cottage,” Nick said, glancing at the captain.
“Be careful,” Erick warned.
Nick and Brida disappeared into the crowd.
“Elsa, I don’t understand. What’s going on?” Prince Toril asked as he made his way back to Elise and her foster brothers. When he drew too close, Rune again reached out and pressed the point of his dagger to Prince Toril’s throat.
“Rune, it’s fine,” Elise said, her voice scratchy from the smoke. “Prince Toril, I must apologize. My name is not Elsa, it is Elise. Brida, my guard, lied to keep me safe.”
“It was for your brothers, wasn’t it? They were why you knitted,” Prince Toril said. His boyish, bright features were downcast.
“Yes,” Elise said, glancing at Falk when he squeezed her hand.
“Won’t you stay with me?” Prince Toril asked, yanking Elise’s gaze back to him.
Elise’s jaw almost dropped as she stared at the sincere prince. “What?”
“I have grown to love you,” Prince Toril said.