"Elouise?" her stepmother's voice rang out. "Where are you going?"

The girl moved past the garden outside her home, not once daring to look back, pulling the dark coat hood over her auburn waves of hair. The sky above looked ready to downpour at any moment. The girl's face held a hard, grim look that aged her otherwise young features, and in her hands she gripped tightly a ball of white string. Once she reached a safe distance from the castle, Elouise held one end of the string and let go of the ball. It traveled along the ground on its own while she followed close behind until the other end finally uncurled at the foot of a cottage deep in the woods. She quickly wound the string back and buried it underneath the bridge, as her father had taught her the first time he showed her the secret house. That had been a short time after he had remarried a strange, beguiling woman who delighted everyone who knew her. That is, almost everyone: the king's eight children, try as they might, could not love this second mother.

She always treated them with praise and kindness, but the children felt this side of her was false. As time went on, the king also noticed there was something odd indeed about her-she often went out at dusk without a single attendant for hours, and when she returned, would explain her absence with poor excuses. "I was gathering materials to make the dear children something," and, "It was such a beautiful evening; do forgive me for worrying all of you."

The stepmother had taken an especial interest in the little princess. "How beautifully you are growing, my child!" was her common compliment. Once, Elouise had caught her looking through the dead queen's old belongings. When confronted, the woman had calmly answered that she was curious to know what the former queen looked like. "After all," she said, smiling sweetly, "she must have been an especially lovely woman to have been your mother."

"She is my mother still," Elouise replied. "...death cannot change how I love her." She disliked the fact her voice trembled on those last three words, for she suspected her stepmother saw it as a weakness. Her stepmother, for all her outer beauty and goodness, could not comprehend the loss of any person, much less a mother. The only consolation she could give, then, was a flat "Of course, dear, I see what you mean. I hope one day you may regard me as your mother, too." After that occurence, Elouise felt she must warn her father and brothers about the danger this woman posed.

Before that came to pass, however, the king was poisoned the following day and died soon after. As the stepmother leaned unconsolably weeping over his coffin, Elouise stood by, knowing that this woman would go to any length to have everything she wanted, even by destroying someone she claimed to love.

She will never touch anyone I love ever again.

So she devised a plan to meet her brothers at the cottage in the woods that very day-the existence of which her poor father had fortunately kept secret from his wife. They must go a few at a time, with Elouise herself going last of all, so as not to raise suspicion from anyone in the house. Her brothers already knew the path to the cottage well enough to go by themselves, so Elouise decided she would take the magic string. Her stepmother knew something was brewing in the girl's thoughts as they sat in the antechamber leading outside.

"You are so pensive this evening, my child," her lilting, honey-sweet voice began. "Do tell me what troubles you."

"Nothing, Stepmother."

"Why do you not call me 'Mother'? I would so love it if you did, and it was your father's special wish, too, heaven rest his soul."

Elouise tired of the charade. "May I go to my room, please, Stepmother?"

A peculiar gleam came into the woman's expression. She leaned in closer to the girl, lowering her voice to a whisper. "Shan't I call your dear brothers from their hiding places first? I've not seen them since morning."

"They may be busy with their lessons, Stepmother."

"But, dear one, I think you will appreciate what I've done for them." She turned from the couch she leaned over, stretched, then called affectionately, "Sons! Do come and greet us!"

A series of birds' honking and the flurry of many wings flapping met Elouise's ears, and she saw to her horror that seven swans had landed in the garden outside. She opened her mouth to question the unthinkable, but her stepmother quickly silenced her with the touch of a finger to her lips. "The next word you speak to another soul, dear one, will cause the immediate, unfortunate death of your brothers," she stated evenly. "Won't you listen to your mother just this once?"

The woman now pulled a feathery garment from beside her for the girl to see.

"I understand the eight of you are inseperable, so you'll want to live as they do. Come and try on your new feathers-your brothers looked so agreeable in theirs."

Elouise ran down the steps past the garden, as far away from the woman as she could. There was no point in anything now. She had failed. Her Stepmother's voice echoed from within the house, "Elouise? Where are you going?"

After hiding herself in the cottage for several days, she stole away on a ship headed north. She had been crouched for the third consecutive day in the cargo hold, wondering what to do once they docked, when she heard a man's thudding steps coming down into the hold with her. His dark hair fell above his shoulders, and his unkempt attire was of a most unusual influence-he wore only a hint of armor around his torso. She couldn't see much of his face, as the bottom half of it was covered by a black mask. At his left side she noticed a wrapped holster. This man likely had a proficiency few men in her country could boast of in firearms, which were only produced in the east. She knew even fewer who were proficient with their left hand. Many preferred swords, as close-in fighting was seen as requiring more skill. His grey eyes wearily scanned the inside of one of the barrels-he then hastily removed his mask and scooped water out of the barrel with his right hand, never allowing his left to drop from his side. After he had drunk his fill and reapplied the mask, he turned swiftly, pointing his gun at Elouise's hiding place. "Come out," he commanded. His voice was that of a man accustomed to giving as well as following orders.

She slowly moved her hands into the air and obeyed. He signaled her closer, resting the gun barrel just under her collarbone. Her heart raced frantically. "You tell me why you're here, or I blow a hole in your lung." His composure the entire time he spoke did not give the impression he was playing a game. She opened her mouth slightly, shaking her head, trying to communicate her predicament to him. "You're...mute?" he said slowly, and she could see him deliberating whether or not to believe her. "Killing a woman would leave a bad taste in my mouth, particularly if she's disabled, " he finally decided. "Don't think I won't, though; if you so much as breathe wrong, you're dead."

I'm dead already.

He continued, "Don't move from here. Once we dock, I'll decide what to do with you." She was dumbfounded as to why he didn't alert her presence to the other crew, but she merely nodded in obedience.

Two days after their meeting, the ship sailed into a violent storm. Elouise, waiting below, was unaware of this fact until water came tumbling rhytmically into the hull, causing her to slide across the floor. With each new tumble, she felt more and more nauseous. It didn't help that she had never traveled by sea before and was unfamiliar with the dangers. The men above were shouting at each other, and one cried above the rest, "She's taking on water!"

The ship took thirty-seven souls down with her to the watery depths. Elouise surfaced half a mile or so from where it had disappeared, gasping, trying to tread water amidst her panic. As far as she could see, there was nothing to balance herself against and rest-only ocean. Weariness mercifully took over her body, and she drifted in and out of consciousness. She caught glimpses of someone pulling her to shore, but when she at last woke, no one was there. The tide was high, meaning it must be close to dark. She crawled along the beach toward the treeline. A light glimmered between the greenery-what seemed a great distance off, though it was hard to tell. It didn't come into her mind that whoever produced the light could hold any ill will against her, but she was yet naive about such things. She soon saw that the tiny light was actually a blazing firepit, and sitting beside the fire, his grey eyes always searching, was the man in the mask. They regarded one another cautiously.

"So, you've survived after all," he stated without looking at her. "I wondered whether you would die on the beach."

She glared indignantly at him. Did this mean he had been the one to drag her out of the water? If so, this posed a new problem for her-to be saved by such a man was disgraceful. He seemed to have lost his threatening air with her, but she was far too proud and suspicious of him to accept it as truth, and, therefore, had no wish to be in his presence.

I would rather freeze to death, she thought. This anger, however, had a short span as she began to put her larger goal into perspective. If, through her stubborness, she allowed the two of them to go their separate ways, there was little chance of helping her brothers herself. She required protection in this foreign land while completing the condition for their freedom. The condition for freeing them from the curse was simply this: if she sewed seven new shirts without speaking a word to another soul, and then placed each of the shirts on her brothers before the spring, then they would become boys again.

Elouise walked carefully toward the stranger and sat just outside the greater heat of the fire. She began drawing lines in the dirt, spelling out a short message since the area was not large enough for her entire meaning. Her hands beckoned him to look-she hoped the firelight would be strong enough for him to see. The man glanced at her scrawling and read aloud. "Take me with you." The girl nodded earnestly. He stared at her.

"...Who are you running from?" She erased the words in the dirt, replacing them with "killer of my father."

"That may be, but I have yet to decide if I trust you," was his calm reply. "If I wake you in the morning, you'll know to come. If you come, you'll know to do as I say. If not, then you fend for yourself."

The next morning she was shaken awake, staring up into the eyes of the stranger, who identified his name as "Oren." This, she knew, was to begin her new journey. She hastily pulled her belongings together and ran after his retreating form through the woods.

She never saw Oren's face through their journeying. Not once during the day did he remove the black mask. Once, she had stayed up till the moon had risen high in the sky's tapestry just to get a glimpse of what lay under the mask, but she always fell asleep first. It seemed foolish now, but she had thought it. Only his grey eyes watched the fire now, seemingly unblinking, untiring. His left hand dropped close to his side, never straying far from where his firearm lay nestled. She sighed. It wasn't much different than being alone again.

The moment I speak my first word to another soul, they'll die. She has ways of knowing.

Her body was panicking and she couldn't force any air through her lungs fast enough. She was on the ship again-this time on deck. In and over her the waves of nausea and what felt like a tight lid over her face pushed down, and this time she saw the form of her stepmother through the foaming water's spray as it rocked the sea vessel. Her stepmother held a short, silver dagger already stained with blood, her face contorted in a sick smile. She lunged, and the girl screamed, closing her eyes. Elouise found herself lying on her back in the mossy ground from last night. It may have given her greater relief to sit up rather than stay with gravity pushing down on her, but she didn't feel any strength. A rough hand she knew belonged to Oren grabbed her shoulder and, in one fluid movement, she was lying on her side. Something about the change in position and the knowledge of another's presence-even his-began to ease her out of the hysteria.

She felt her heart resonating, but it no longer frightened her. The waves crashed and finally ceased. "Get up. We're moving," he ordered tersely. She had no energy to signal a moment to breathe, nor would he likely have given it if she had, so she merely nodded in reply and propped herself into a standing position.

It was odd the way he always made her go ahead of him on their treks. He apparently assumed she knew some direction of where he needed to go. She didn't know how he knew that she was indeed familiar with these thick woods; they had only met five days ago.

"Wait here." She turned her head slightly, confused and unsure if her eyes were allowed to follow the divergent path he was taking. They had gone no further than two hundred yards, and now she was to wait without further explanation. Elouise sat down in the crook of an old oak tree and pulled her knees in close. She never understood why he barely spoke while they traveled. Did he still not trust her?

Her brothers ran across the open expanse of field in front of her. She acknowledged them for what they were: images of those she so longed to see. She leaned deeper into the tree and watched them placidly, almost unfamiliarly. Then she saw herself-wearing the same white dress and dark coat, peeking around a tree some distance from them. She saw the other Elouise laughing mischievously at her seven older brothers, daring them with her look to come and chase her. As the other Elouise began running, the forms of the seven changed from boys to seven swans and flew swiftly after her. She laughed all the harder, calling out their names in her glee. The seven swans dropped, one by one, to the ground-forever lifeless.

Then the entire image of the other Elouise reaching her hands across the seven dead swans faded. She shivered with cold, for the air around had become icy and the sun was not yet high enough to bring any warmth. It ocurred to her that Oren might be gone for some time-perhaps till near dark. The wave pushed, pulsing, gaining strength with each passing second. She began to weep silently. This, however, could only last so long before resolving itself. She felt sorry that her brothers had to depend on her saving them from death while she, herself, had almost given up living-she had no doubt that one day, instead of freeing them, she would do just as the other Elouise had: she would make a mistake. She pulled out her sewing and worked on the second shirt until the cold became unbearable. Elouise rose, pacing back and forth as some way of keeping warm. She realized she was hungry. High up in the trees above her there lay a round yellow fruit. Her right foot fit into the first notch of the tree before she was aware of what was happening.

She had often climbed trees with her brothers, so the task was not especially difficult as this tree had many strong branches; the bundle of fruit was soon being carried down in her coat hood. He was waiting for her at the bottom-turned away, looking at something near the horizon. He motioned for silence by holding his right hand above his head. She stopped mid-descent, and then her ears detected a horn sounding several hundred yards away. A hunting party, likely on its final run for the season before the weather changed. The horn grew louder, and Elouise desperately wanted to be on the ground with Oren rather than cling vulnerably to a tree. If undetection was his goal, why not move while they were still out of sight?

Suddenly, a red fox burst through the thicket nearest them, and, just as quickly, escaped to the other side. Her companion wove himself into the brush until she could barely make out his form. Seeing that he didn't want her to come down yet, Elouise scrambled to the nearest limb where she could sit hidden from below and still be able to watch his movements. Only a few moments later, a brown dappled horse-with ornaments showing it belonged to royalty-passed the brush where Oren lay. She could not see who dismounted the horse until he walked toward her tree. She caught a glimpse of dark hair and blue garments before ducking her head away.

"Who's there?" he called, drawing his sword, watching her tree. Elouise was unsure what to do: if she shifted to another branch or began her descent down again, he would see her clearly-she wished again that she had stayed on the ground when Oren had returned. Her head turned to the brush for help; to her relief, she saw he had already come up silently behind the man-who now lay senseless on the ground. Oren finally motioned her to descend, which she gladly did. Near dusk, they reached the outskirts of a town. When she ventured toward the village gate, mistakenly believing they were at last going to have proper lodging, he took her stiffly by the hand and directed her to a dilapidated farmhouse away from the bustle of the town.

Another campsite near the farmhouse meant another night sleeping on hard earth. But it also meant another chance she might have to see his face. It was hard for Elouise to explain, even to herself, what drew her to find out what he looked like. Perhaps it was because in all other ways he was so aloof, and there was so much about him she had yet to know. But that was also the night she felt something else: she wanted to talk with him, wanted him to hear her voice. She might as well be on her own if she couldn't speak to anyone.

His voice interrupted her thoughts. "You should rest. We'll be up early again tomorrow." When he noticed her face still deep with trouble, he moved away from the fire, pulling out his cloak and laying it over the ground. "Sometimes, we learn to fight our fears alone," he began, "but that doesn't mean we have to." While speaking, he had cut a white plant that grew like weeds and made it into a paste. This he then smoothed onto her palms-which she saw to her vexation were starting to callous. Elouise shifted her gaze. The campfire flickered in his eyes, and she realized he was now looking directly at her. Her entire body warmed uncomfortably under his apparent scrutiny.

Why does he look at me that way?

Then she understood; he had moved the garment for his makeshift cot next to hers to keep watch while she slept. Elouise laid down with her back to him; he, meanwhile, sat vigilant as usual, staring into the dark depths of night. She dozed, and in her dreams she saw seven swans circling overhead, just out of her reach. "Sister," they called, "are they finished?" She held up the two shirts, one completed and the other nearly done, shaking her head sadly. "Ah, sister," they called again, and this time their voices were farther off in the distance. "Then we must go. Perhaps tomorrow you will have good news."

So I hope this is worth the read. ^.^ I do accept any constructive criticism. Thank you! John 1:16