They rode south and west into a realm hotter and drier than Clara's. Three days before they reached the city, they emerged from sparse woodland into farmland: rolling, cleared fields demarcated by stone walls.
In Vallebrion, Lord Alan's gamekeeper tended to the creatures of the forest until they were due to be hunted and slaughtered. The cleared land around the holding was too precious to be given over to sheep or crops. Instead there were storehouses and holding pens for the supplies that were brought from the outside world once a week.
Here, livestock gazed on patches of grey-green grass, and rows of grapevines cross-hatched the land.
Clara rode veiled in white linen to keep herself from heatstroke, and dreamed of the shaded refuges of the forest. Enrico and his men lolled in their saddles and drank liberally from their wineskins.
That night, three of them woke the inn galloping in hooting in triumph that they'd looted two barrels of Lord's Mark wine from a storehouse. Listening to their revels grow raucous in the common room downstairs, Clara curled on her side and shuffled in, grateful for the man outside her door. They hadn't spoken, and he was one of Enrico's like the others, but somehow she knew she could trust him.
The next morning, Enrico leaned over and put his hand over hers on the saddle. This drew her attention to him as she shuddered and twitched his hand away. With an amused look, he leaned forward and pointed. "Look, my light. See those grey turrets? That's High Rock."
Although she wanted to resist, Clara tilted her head and squinted. The high road ran along the wide, swift-flowing Telear River. The road was crowded with wagons, riders, travellers and processions: the water equally full of barges. The line of the river seemed to slope downwards towards the horizon, and at its extremity she could see several irregular grey shapes. Over the day, they grew taller, and took on the form of spires, towers and turrets.
"That's the Castle at High Rock," said Enrico. "It occupies the highest point of the city. Only the temple's spires equal it."
Around lunchtime the next day, the city revealed itself entirely. Built on a long island formed by the meeting of the Telear and Innest Rivers, the rock jutted upwards, fortifications melded into the granite. The seat of the Princes of Teleahn since the once-and-always King Aelas had claimed it for his people, and an eternal symbol of the power of the Prophets.
They reached the outskirts of the city a short while later. The outer city sprawled out from the water: shanties and squats that were slowly forming themselves into permanent structures. The road was wide, and soldiers in livery patrolled its margins and kept the denizens of the outer city from bothering travellers.
"We are crossing into the city by Zarestbridge," said Enrico, "which spans the Telear. Along with Medranbridge over the Innest, it is the only way into High Rock."
I thought we were already in High Rock, thought Clara, looking around. But then she supposed that no Prince would be concerned with the defence or security of the men and women she saw ambling out of tumbledown tents on the sides of the road.
Zarestbridge was a massive stone structure adorned with carvings of old Princes of Teleahn, their faces eaten away by the elements. They passed through Zarestgate and into the city. In contrast to the outer city, which sprawled, High Rock crowded in on itself, every handspan of space taken up. Looking around her, Clara saw narrow closes spidering off the main street. Buildings rose four and five storeys high, swallowing the alleys into their bowels.
"In some parts of the city there are roads on four different levels, connecting different parts of the same building to each other," said Enrico.
As Clara watched, one of Enrico's men--Tomas?--kicked out at a lanky youth in homespun who had wandered too near his horse. The lad stumbled and fell backwards into the road muck.
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...