Grimly, he called her name.
She looked up from where the others were watching Ander turning spoons into forks, a puzzled expression crossing her face.
He jerked his head. “Let’s go.”
She stared at him for a moment, then looked from him to Gabriella. “I was about to go hunting with Fiaz.”
Dar shook his head. “Later, maybe.”
Gabriella offered her no recourse, nodding at her once instead.
Emanuella sighed, her eyes flashing, but she said nothing as she buckled on her sword belt.
“You won’t need that,” Dar told her.
“Isn’t once enough?” she asked as they stepped outside into the afternoon sunshine. Her tone was kept on an respectful note, though he caught her masked sentiment just as clearly.
“This isn’t sword practice,” he replied evenly.
She was silent, though he could sense she was brimming with curiosity. Dar started off into the forest behind the cabin at a brusque pace, taking long strides even for him that he knew she would have to nearly jog to keep up with. He retraced his steps to the grove he’d found after his lesson with her this morning. Some three leagues away from the cabin, he’d left two axes there, partially hidden, waiting for this afternoon. If what he recalled of the attitude at the Academy of Weaponry prevailed, then Emanuella would have a challenge facing her, and she would need everything she could use on her side. Fortunately, he thought dryly as he heard her breath coming quickly, noting that she did not ask him to slow down, she was stubborn enough to want not only to meet the challenge but best it.
Finally, after a silent trek through the trees, Dar brought her to the grove he’d found earlier in the day. She stood, her chest rising with exertion, glaring at him, her eyebrows lifted slightly, waiting. Dar’s respect for her rose another notch; he’d expected her to explode about his insensitivity in walking ahead of her, or at least question him thoroughly.
“Do you know why we’re here?”
Mutely, Emanuella shook her head. Dar knew from many a past experience, though, that she had at least a half dozen sarcastic responses on hand, and was amazed yet again at how seriously she took the teacher-student relationship. Even her expression was respectful, and he was quite sure that she was seething inwardly.
Dar walked around the tree he’d leaned the axes against and picked up one. Her eyes registered comprehension. “Our stable needs to be expanded. Without trees, we can’t build on to our stable.” He hefted the axe emphatically. “Which tree do you think would yield the most wood?”
Emanuella traipsed around, scanning the trees carefully and finally walked over to one, placing her hands on its trunk. “This one,” she said, patting it firmly.
Not a bad choice. He walked over to it and eyed the surrounding trees. They would have to make sure it fell to the east. “Have you ever swung an axe before?”
Emanuella shook her head, her eyes suddenly going wide.
“You do it like this.” He didn’t mind giving her an example. It’d give her a starting place. He threw the axe back over his shoulder and –
“No, no, no!” she cried.
The axe stopped a fraction of a measure from the tree. He let out his breath. “What? What’s the matter!”
“You can’t cut this tree down,” she asserted.
Dar stared at her. “And why not?” This should be good. He tried not to glare at her.
“Because.” Emanuella looked up into it and back down at him. “There’s a falcon’s nest up there.”
Dar cocked a disbelieving eyebrow. “What? Where?” He walked around the tree, squinting up into it, trying to catch sight of the nest among the thick foliage of the branches.
Emanuella bit her lip and then said, “You can’t see it. A mother falcon has three eggs and one’s almost open. They’re inside a hollowed out branch.”
Dar looked back down into her face, sudden realization dawning on him. “This is your gift, isn’t it?”
She nodded. As if she needed evidence, she pointed to a branch. “Can you see her head?”
“You don’t need to prove anything to me,” he said, feeling the fingers of guilt snake through him. But a small quai! demanded his attention and he looked up. Far up in the tree, a red falcon had hopped onto a branch and was ruffling her feathers.
“She is grateful to you,” Emanuella said quietly.
“You – you understand what she said?” Dar marveled.
Emanuella nodded again.
“Well, we’ll have to find another tree,” he said after a while. “What about this one?” he said. It was a fine tree, with a good circumference and fairly straight. How many birds could be nesting in one grove? He raised his axe.
“No! Not that one!”
Dar stopped the axe in mid swing again. “What’s wrong with this one?”
“I’ve already looked at it. There’s a pair of wickas in it, and they’ve lived in it nearly their entire lives. They’ve had four generations of wickas in it. How would you like it if someone knocked down your home when you were too old to find a new one?”
Dar didn’t know whether to laugh or glare. “Emanuella, at some point we are actually going to have to chop a tree down.”
She colored, but said, “That’s the only tree I’ve found that has any life in it beside the falcon. Just – be careful when you chop the trees down so they don’t fall on the other two.”
Dar reserved a smile. It would be Emanuella who would be doing the chopping, after all, but he would make sure they fell opposite the trees with occupants in them.
She picked out her tree and stood back, he supposed, to watch him do all the work. What did she think he had brought her along for, her company? Maybe in a perfect world. He cut a few notches in the tree for her to start and then stood up. “Ready?”
Emanuella stared at the axe he proffered her uncomprehendingly for a moment. Then they narrowed, traveling up to his face, as she realized his full purpose for bringing her out here. She glared at him for a moment, then her expression smoothed and she stepped forward for the axe. Dar knew she wanted nothing more than to rail at him just now. He had no idea she was capable of such restraint.
She would not meet his eyes as she placed her slim hand on the axe. He would not let her take it. Finally she looked up at him, annoyance creeping across her face despite her self-control. Quietly, he told her, “Your excuse this morning, about being a girl. It’s not going to work at the Academy. You’re not going to be able to use it. You’re going to have to be as good as a boy, maybe even better, and you’re going to have to start now.”
Those blue eyes of hers looked back at him for a moment – did her expression soften for a moment thoughtfully – and then she tugged the axe free from his grip. He let it go and watched her stand in front of the tree. She held the axe inexpertly, like a baseball bat, he thought with amusement, and he saw that she had difficulty handling it. Finally, she swung at the tree, hacking at the trunk above the cut he’d made for her.
Emanuella glared at him, annoyed to see that he had witnessed her clumsy ineptitude. He crossed his arms on his chest to make it clear that he wasn’t going anywhere. She sighed and swung the axe again, barely biting into the tree.
Dar made a split decision. He took the axe from her and showed her how to throw her back into it rather than just her arms. He watched her only long enough to be sure she had the idea of it, and then took up the other axe, glad to be engaged in some activity that did not involve observing her.
After each of them had felled a few trees, Dar called a halt. He made sure she downed a fair portion of the waterskin before he set her to work cutting off the branches. He knew she was already exhausted, but she would get used to the work… she would have to.
He finished hacking of the last of the small branches at the top of his last tree and mopped his face with his balled up shirt again. Eyeing the sun, he saw they had just enough time to get the trees to the cabin clearing before dusk. Actually, he mused as he drank from his waterskin, it would be dusk or later, considering Emanuella’s strength in comparison to his own. He climbed over the branches and trees, looking for Emanuella, wondering how much farther she had to go.
Dar found her leaning up against a fallen tree, her face dirty with dried sap, bits of moss and bark in her hair, scratches on her arms and hands. Much the same as himself, he expected. “How much more do you have to complete?” he asked.
“I’m done,” she said, fatigue evident in her voice.
Surprised, Dar looked around. Branches lay everywhere and indeed, her trees looked bare of branches. Rick and Ander could come back with the wagon for the branches tomorrow. He sat down heavily on the tree. After a while, Emanuella asked, “What now?”
Wearily, he replied, “Now we haul them back to the cabin.”
She sighed. “I was afraid of that.”
He mustered his strength and donned his shirt and tunic. Dar extended a hand to Emanuella and pulled her up easily. With some alarm, he found that she had discarded her tunic and had tied her shirt tightly around her waist. He grimaced and let her arm go, wishing he had not noticed how her shirt clung to her body where she was wet with perspiration. Trying not to growl, he told her to find a hold on the tree and heft it on his mark.
When they dragged the last of the trees into the clearing in front of the cabin, Rick, Ander, and Gabriella, and Fiorra were assembled outside waiting for them. Rick held out a waterskin to Dar, since Emanuella was already drinking deeply from Gabriella’s. He gulped thirstily from it and handed it back in time to see Emanuella pour half of hers over her head. Dar turned away as the rest of her shirt immediately fused it over. What was wrong with him?