After Clara left, Duncan had sat for a time by the rock pool, feeling a frown press down between his brows. Then he had got up, donned the leather boots she had found him, and made his way down the path towards the holding. He knew the feel of danger as well as anyone, and he could feel that Clara was in danger.
As he passed the point where he had seen Lord Enrico the last time, he expanded his knack, settling someone else's face over his like a cloak.
Clara had been right: he could protect himself. His senses were recovered, his body was healing, and he had something none of his People tormentors had. He could change his face. He could shed his image and no longer be Duncan the halfbreed Shayn runaway, but a seeming of someone else.
It was a power he had discovered bit by bit as he had cowered in the darkness of the barracks Lord Fernando Delmonte had him in, with a score of other children. Horse, hart and hound. All chained. All alone.
And then one day, the men had been looking for him among those filthy survivors, and when they reached the place where he was chained, he had cowered and thought, Not me. You're not looking for me, and imagined what it would be like if they thought he was someone else. Some other lad, not so interesting to Lord Fernando.
The guard grabbed his face between two thick fingers and twisted him into the light. "This isn't the one Lord Fernando asked for," he said. "P'raps someone has that little spider out at the moment."
They went on, leaving Duncan--although he had not that name--hanging against his chains, listening to his blood rushing in his ears. Later they came back, and this time they saw him, and dragged him away.
But the knack had come upon him more and more often after that, until he could call it at will. Until he could escape.
Until he could do as he was about to, and walk through his enemy's gates unstopped and unharmed. Resisting the urge to slink, he strode through, arms swinging, like the man whose guise he wore. On the other side of the yard, men mustered near the stables. Duncan would need a horse too if he were to go with them.
After a long, deep breath, Duncan went their way, swaggering into the stable. "I need a horse," he said to the stable boy.
The stable boy opened and shut his mouth. "I thought all the men were mounted already," he said. "Are you bound for High Rock?"
"I am," said Duncan. "L-late inclusion."
With an annoyed sigh, the stable boy beckoned. Duncan followed him, not looking at the loose box where Enrico had once chained him up. That was not him. That was Duncan the Halfblood, and he was some other man. It was liberating not to be himself. The stable boy saw one of his own. Someone he recognised and trusted.
Holding the reins of his newly-saddled mount, Duncan sidled up to the gaggle of soldiers and listened to the banalities of their conversation. How strange to be a man whose biggest concern was leaving his woman for a fortnight, or whether the inn they stopped at would be serving cow or pig for dinner.
"All right," said a voice, smooth as silk rope tightening around Duncan's neck. "The ladies are on their way down, so I suggest you mount up."
Duncan pressed his cheek against his horse's neck and listened to the sound of his breath. When the world steadied, he gripped the pommel and swung up into the saddle. As he raised his head, his eyes met Lord Enrico's for a moment. Before he could react, Enrico's gaze had slid on to the next man, leaving Duncan to still his shaking hands by clenching them against the pommel.
Clara arrived in the yard, dressed in riding leathers and a split skirt. He thought she might recognise him, but she was preoccupied. She kept looking back at a woman in the doorway. Lady Maitea, Duncan supposed. The woman who had sent Clara out to care for him. She was an older, frailer imprint of her daughter. There was steel in her.
As they rode out, Duncan positioned himself behind Clara and Enrico. He saw her long look at the path that led back to his cave. He didn't spare it a glance. He was where he needed to be.
* * *
The ride from Vallebrion to High Rock took thirteen days. Each night they stayed at an inn arranged by Enrico's outriders. The first two nights, the inn had given Clara and her aunt separate rooms. Amarante had insisted that they share a room instead, claiming it was selfish to take up two rooms.
Clara hadn't minded at all that her aunt took up most of the bed and thrashed the covers into a pile at least three times a night. She didn't know whether Enrico had instructed the outriders to request separate rooms in order to separate her from her aunt, but she was glad not to have to find out.
Enrico always rode beside Clara, but to her relief, other than insisting he help her mount and dismount, he was content to ignore her in favour of his men.
From listening to their conversations, Clara knew he had gathered a band of men who were all villains like him: they talked about the village girls they'd bedded and whether they screamed, men they'd killed, the denizens of High Rock (those they'd like to bed and those they'd like to kill), the halfblood and what they'd done to him, and what they'd like to do to him if they found him again.
"I'd shave his spider-hair and put out his eyes," said one.
"T'would be a kindness," said another, riding in front of them. "Better a blind beggar than Shayn-get."
The first one chortled. "True enough, Ger."
"I'd sell him," said Enrico, winding his fingers in the reins. "I know a brothel-master in Kain Aelas who would most like pay more than Delmonte's bounty for a properly broken, unnamed halfblood."
Clara felt her blood rise into her face. She couldn't believe they were talking like this. But Amarante was riding with the baggage train, and Enrico never bothered to hide what he was when Amarante wasn't there.
"A brothel?" said Ger. He made a wet sound of disgust.
"For men of particular tastes," said Enrico. He ran one hand over the other, over his naming mark. "He was pretty enough under all that mud, and the boys last longer than the girls. Better investment."
Another turned around. "You should ask Tomas about that. Way I remember it he spent enough time in the spider's web to know."
Tomas, riding beside the speaker, waved a hand good-naturedly. "Right enough," he said.
Clara felt bile rise up in her throat.
The man riding behind her must have pulled sharply on his reins, because his horse startled and reeled backwards, setting the others off. As her horse sidled away from Enrico's, Clara flicked a glance backwards, glad for any interruption, intentional or not. The man was familiar, but she didn't think she knew his name. His face was drained of colour and she could see the whites of his eyes.
She was about to ask if he was all right, when Enrico purred, "Lads, we've a lady present. Let's spare her our tales of the bedroom, or we'll make her blush."
"So far," said Clara through gritted teeth, "I've heard nothing of the bedroom, only of rape and violence. Perhaps your bedroom-tales would be a welcome relief."
"So eager to talk about my bedroom," said Enrico, settling into his saddle like a pleased cat. "In time, my dear Clarita. In time."
* * *
The stillness. Keep the seeming of the man he was supposed to be. Hold onto the knack.
Were the shudders racking him rage or terror? He didn't know. He looked up the column, at the man named Tomas. His hair was dirty brown and curled around his collar. He was broad-shouldered and his posture spoke of violence. Right enough. The same voice, the same rough burr on the consonants: Get him over here so we can see him properly.
They talked about blinding him. He could do worse than blind them. He could get into their minds and plant such images there as would drive them mad within a sennight. There were worse things to see for eternity than darkness.
But--no. Aithne said he must be good. That was the only way to defeat them was to live a better life than they did, and only harm or kill someone when it served a purpose. Never in revenge.
When the moment passed, Duncan was relieved to see he was still on his horse, still in place behind Clara.
YOU ARE READING
The Forest's HeartFantasy
Vallebrion is one of the old places -- a forest where the old and new worlds lie side by side. Clara has grown up walking its shadowed paths and green glens, and one day the man she takes as husband will be Master of Vallebrion and the mysteries tha...