“Can I do anything to help?” Elise asked.
“No,” Falk stressed as he emerged from the shadows, holding Elise’s ripped sleeve like a sack. “Save these for tomorrow,” he instructed, opening it to show Elise the brightly colored berries kept inside. “They’re safe to eat, although they’re going to be tart,” he said before he moved on, putting the sleeve of berries on Elise’s dress before he disappeared back into the woods.
“What Falk means to say is that we feel you should sit and relax. You labor for us all day. It is only fair that we should help you however we can,” Rune said, holding up the rock he was shaping to get a better look at it in the moonlight. “I might have to delay the knife and work first on getting you a fire. It will be easier to see by firelight.”
Gerhart returned and dumped an armload of dry branches near Elise’s shelter. Mikk and Nick were behind him, dragging branches as thick as Elise’s fist, which Erick leaned against the jutting rock roof to create a basic wall.
“Tinder,” Mikk said to Gerhart, pointing to the meadow where Falk’s horse had spent the afternoon.
Gerhart rolled his eyes, but waded into meadow, looking for dry grass.
“How many more logs and branches do you want?” Nick asked, dusting his hands off.
“About double of what you just retrieved. I would dearly love to construct something more dependable, but without rope or any sort of binding agent, this is the best we can do,” Erick said.
“Alright, I’ll grab Falk’s horse. I can use the girth from his saddle to bundle more wood and balance it on his back—if the fool horse doesn’t run off on me,” Nick said.
“His bit and reins are next to the saddle,” Elise called.
“Righto,” Nick said, grabbing the tack. He whistled as he approached Falk’s horse. “Hey there, horsie. Don’t be a brute like your owner, and let me catch you.”
Mikk stayed behind and started ripping dry, flaky bark off some of the firewood Gerhart had collected.
Elise watched her foster brothers and tried to swallow the knot forming in her throat. “This means a lot to me,” she said.
Rune dropped his chipped rock to ease closer to Elise. He slid an arm around her back and placed his cheek against her head. “I wish I could spare you this ordeal. What we’re doing doesn’t seem like it is nearly enough,” he said before a rock whacked him in the back. Rune abruptly pulled away from Elise, wincing in pain. “Ouch.”
“Sorry,” Falk said, sounding anything but as he dumped a few handfuls of clover onto Elise’s dress with the berries. “These are edible. They don’t taste like much, but they will fill you when you grow hungry, Lamb,” he said before turning on his heels and joining Erick at Elise’s shelter.
“He sounded angry,” Elise said.
“That’s because he is,” Rune said, rubbing the sore spot on his back before he went back to chipping away at his rock.
“I see,” Elise said, watching Falk inspect Erick’s growing wall.
Some things, even in the worst situations, didn’t ever seem to change.
Elise knitted as she watched the sun sink behind the trees. Soon it would be sunset, and her foster brothers would be men again for an hour.
Staring at the sky distracted Elise from the way her fingers burned and stung. Each loop she made with the stinging nettle stem was painful and torturous, but Elise knitted with a stony expression. When she wasn’t eagerly watching for the sun to set, she spent the time making calculations. She mentally remapped Brandis’ operations budget. She calculated the various prices at which the royal house could hope to price their crops. Numbers ran through her mind from the moment she picked up the blistering, burning shirt until she finally set it down again.
When Elise was busy running sums and mathematical problems through her mind, she didn’t have the capacity to acknowledge the stinging pain in her fingers.
Because Elise was so deep in thought—she was calculating how long it would be until Carabas’ harbor would be open—Elise didn’t hear the footsteps until they were just behind her.
Elise whirled around, clutching the shirt to her belly. Her eyes swiveled back and forth as she looked for the source of footsteps. She didn’t see the figure until it stepped out from behind a tree.
Elise went slack with relief. It was Brida, the stone-faced captain.
Brida approached Elise cautiously. She wore plain breeches and a black shirt, and her hair was pulled back in a pretty braid. But even out of uniform, one could not mistake Brida for anything but a warrior. For starters, there was a sword buckled to her side, and Elise would bet her last copper that there were daggers tucked up her sleeves and in her boots. She walked with a grace that was different from females who minced along in pretty dresses. She was thicker and taller than most females, but she was lean, and her eyes were always watchful.