“It is you,” the woman said. She spoke in a hushed tone, but it was as if a wind carried her guarded words to every person in the village.
The little business being conducted in the market fell silent. The washerwomen stopped washing clothes to stare, and a farmer with a load of wilted hay even pulled his large draft horse to a stop in the middle of the road.
Everyone stared at Elise.
Brida is going to be fuming.
“Can I help you?” Elise asked.
The woman reached out and took Elise’s right hand, lifting it up for inspection.
Although Elise’s bath had remarkably improved her hands, the outdoor travel and time away from Falk’s various concoctions undid all that good work. Her hand was still spotted with oozing welts, and her fingers were painfully curled from the mad rush of knitting to finish the last of the capes. Her hands were ugly.
Tears formed in the peasant woman’s eyes, and she turned around to look at her friends and neighbors.
All at once everyone began moving again.
One man fixed a feedbag filled with sweet grain on Brida and Falk’s horses. A peasant woman wrapped a cloth around a block of cheese and packed it in Elise’s saddlebag while the village farrier picked out the horses’ hooves.
Elise watched all of this happen as the woman held her hand. “Pardon me, we couldn’t possibly—I do not know how much money we have on us… Brida!”
Brida was at Elise’s side in a moment. “While we thank you for your service, I regret to inform you all that we cannot possibly pay for this,” Brida said as a child filled their water skins from the village well and replaced them on the horses.
“We require no payment,” the farrier said, using a handkerchief to dab at the sweat on his red face.
“But,” Elise started.
“It is our pleasure, Princess,” the woman who held Elise’s hand captive said. She bowed over Elise’s hand and released her.
“But,” Elise repeated.
“Our hearts go with you,” the man with the feedbags said after he unclipped the bags from the horses.
Elise mulishly tucked her head, but stopped when Brida placed a hand on Elise’s elbow. “Leave it be, Fürstin. We must be thankful and keep moving.”
Elise reluctantly turned to her subjects. “Thank you. I can’t imagine what this will cost you, but thank you.”
Brida and Elise mounted up and set off, waving farewell. When they just left the village, a youth on a swift horse galloped past them.
“Hm,” Brida said, studying the horse and rider as they disappeared.
“What?” Elise asked, her shoulders stiff with strain as she clung to the saddle.
“We may soon have company.”
“No, I don’t think so.”
Elise and Brida’s travels across Arcainia had a ripple effect. Although they avoided towns and villages, people lined the dirt roads Brida chose to travel on. They were not loud. No one cheered or shouted or waved flags. It wasn’t like the frequent parades Elise and her foster-brothers were put on display for.
Instead everyone was solemn. They were silent as Brida and Elise rode past, but the occasional child would throw the last flowers of fall on the road. They typically bowed, murmuring encouragement under their breath.
“Luck be with you, Princess.”
“Our strength is yours, Fürstin.”
“We stand with you!”
“—Bless the princess.”
Brida seemed unbothered by the attention, but Elise beheld it with fear. Although the people were quiet, the unmistakable shine of hope lit their eyes. They looked to Elise to save them. What terrified Elise was that for the first time in her life she wasn’t sure if she could save them. No amount of hard work or discipline would win this battle. Elise could do nothing to assure her victory. She would either beat Clotilde, or she wouldn’t.
“What if I can’t do this, Brida?” Elise asked, her voice tight as she and the captain rode side-by-side past a family of farmers.
“You must trust you are strong enough. You must accept that you, more so than any of your siblings, are fit to be the savior of Arcainia. Doubting will only ruin your confidence. Believe, Fürstin,” Brida said.
Sooner than she wished, Elise and Brida were at gates of Castle Brandis.
“Steady, Fürstin,” Brida said before they rode into the city.
“Pst, Princess!” a dirty, sharp-faced girl in an alleyway said. “Princess Gabrielle sent me. This way,” she said when she had Elise and Brida’s attention. She scampered up the alley, taking them off the main road.
Elise dismounted Falk’s horse so she could lead it through the trash-heaped alley, barely able to keep an eye on the little girl who jumped from place to place like a flea.