The door creaked open and banged shut to announce Kent returning again. “Everybody says the fruit stuff is good. I think it’s motivating them to work faster.”
Ada pulled the last clean pan out of the washbasin. Rose picked it up and dried it with a towel so they could use it again. “Good. Are those survivors still helping out?”
“She really only wants to know about Scott,” Ada said with a wide grin.
Rose rolled her eyes and glared. “I do not. I couldn’t care less about him.”
“He’s good at lifting things and carrying them.” Kent got himself a wedge of cheese and an apple from a cupboard. “Sheriff thinks it’ll be done in just a few days. Damage wasn’t too bad, so he says, even if it looks like total destruction to me. I guess they want real bread, though, so it’ll be done as fast as everyone can manage it.”
A knock on the door drew everyone’s attention. Rose nodded for Kent to answer it, because her hands were full pouring batter into pans again. When he did, he spoke briefly to someone outside, then stepped aside and let her in, the door slamming shut behind her. A red, fur lined cloak covered most of her up, and when she pulled her hood down, Rose didn’t recognize her. She could be anyone with her light brown hair and green eyes. At a guess, the woman was about Rose’s own age of twenty-six, maybe a little older, and she worked outside a lot.
“Are you Rose Becker, the town’s baker?”
“She says the Sheriff sent her,” Kent supplied.
Rose nodded, curiosity piqued. “That’s me. Who might you be?”
“Aine, the Countess of Howling.”
Genuine nobility right in her house. Rose blinked several times, then set down her bowl. “Excuse me, milady. I didn’t recognize you. Can we offer you anything? Tea or…um…tea?”
“No, thank you.” She smiled politely. “I’m here as an advance rider on my husband’s behalf, checking on the nearby villages. The Count doesn’t strictly rule these lands, but the storm was pretty bad, and it’ll be days before the Baron can get his own estate dug out. The Sheriff said that Brennan will be fine, except that the baker’s stores were nearly destroyed, and the town relies on you?”
Rose stared at her, wondering what kind of Count sent his wife out to scout for him. For that matter, what kind of Countess actually went and did it? She cleared her throat after a few seconds of empty silence. “Right. Yes, that’s true, though those hard-headed men won’t admit they’d be best off with a little more help than that. Oh, no, Rose is the only one who needs help. Go see the woman who won’t get married and show off how great it is and how much she- Er…um.” She scowled, annoyed at herself for running off her mouth in front of a Countess.
To her surprise, Aine laughed. “Aren’t men such a pain in the ass?” She flipped her cloak off, revealing a slim frame wrapped in thick pants, a long riding coat, and boots. “If they want to suffer a little, that’s fine. I’m here to find out what you need right now, to cover until the Baron is able to get here and do his job. We can get a wagon through tomorrow. He’ll still be digging out his stables three day from now.”
“We can’t really afford-”
Aine raised a hand to cut her off. “Don’t worry about it. Keltran keeps an account for emergencies, and the Baron will pay us back. So, what do you need to see you through the next week?”
Rose could have kissed the Countess. “Ada, can you take care of this? I’ll make up a list. Is that the Count? Keltran?”
“Yes. Count of Howling and Captain of the Howling Coyotes. Also a little too big for his britches sometimes.” She smirked, then waved a hand to dismiss the subject. “I offered to have the Company come down and help with the rebuilding, but your Sheriff declined. I think I’ll have them ‘escort’ your goods anyway, and suggest they volunteer to pass the time. Nothing like honest work to keep a mercenary out of trouble in the middle of winter.”
Rose chuckled. “Our Sheriff could use a good kick in the pants.” She looked around for paper, but didn’t have high hopes. Most of her paper already had recipes written on it.
“Here.” Aine produced a sturdy leather scrollcase. “Use what’s in there.”
The case held rolled up paper and sticks of charcoal wrapped in a small towel. She set to work, scribbling down what she felt confident would tide them over for a week. Flour, milk, eggs, sugar, yeast, salt, and butter ought to cover everything they needed to survive until she’d be able to really get what she wanted. While thinking about the quantities, she went back and crossed out eggs, since she always got them from Brenna in the afternoon anyway. If all the chickens froze to death, there’d be a much bigger panic, and they’d be asking for chickens. She also crossed out milk, for the same reason.
“Are you a mercenary, milady?” Kent offered Aine a wedge of cheese, but she turned it down.
“No. I was, before my son was born, but now I take care of the keep while the Company is out.”
They all stared at her. Ada was the one who asked, “Really?”
“Yes,” Aine smirked. “Really. Cavalry, as in mounted combatant. I can still hold my own with a spear and a sword, but I’m a little out of practice with archery these days.”
Kent’s mouth hung open. Ada stood there blinking stupidly. Rose frowned at her. “I didn’t think anyone let women do those sorts of jobs. I mean, aside from the weir- Uh, ones that go into adventuring.”
“‘Let’?” Aine huffed out a laugh. “If I waited around to be allowed to train for mounted combat, I’d still be back home, chafing my hide. No one ‘let’ me do anything. I kicked Keltran’s ass around until he submitted. That’s why I married him,” she said with a gleam in her eye. “He figured out that I don’t take orders.”
Rose genuinely liked this woman. “You sure you don’t want to annex Brennan?” She tucked her list and the sticks back into the case and handed it over with a smile.
“We’ll think about it.” Aine winked and tucked the case away. “The Company will be in town sometime tomorrow. I’ll see about getting a message to the Baron to let him know you need real help here, too. He might get his men to work a little harder. Don’t hold your breath. Good luck, Rose, and the rest of you.” With a swish of her cloak, Aine left the house, shutting the door behind herself so it didn’t slam.
“Wow,” Ada said.
Kent nodded. “She’s kind of crazy.”
Rose grinned and thought of Scott. “I like the idea of getting a man to submit.”