"I wondered whether—that is to say, I think it's time we destroyed Delmonte."
As Duncan felt the echo of his words fade from the chamber, he realised Aithne hadn't replied. She watched him, head tilted. "I wondered whether you'd ever wish to go back there," said Aithne.
"We should have gone back a long time ago."
"True enough." She turned and began to put off her cloak and gloves. Duncan looked down at his hands. Was she angry that it had taken him this long? Delmonte's was heavily fortified and guarded; Aithne had not the men nor arms to take it without Duncan's knack.
Aithne turned back around. "I razed Delmonte to the ground," she said.
It took a moment for the words to penetrate. "You did?"
"When you disappeared, we assumed Lord Fernando was to blame, and rode north hoping to overtake your captors on the road."
"Enrico took me west."
"That explains why we didn't find you, then. Once we were at Delmonte, there seemed no excuse not to tear it apart. As you say, we waited too long."
"And the—" Pets? Children? Slaves?
"They're all safe. We used Eoin's knack to slip them out of the—" Her lip curled up. "—stables. A powerful friend of mine has given them asylum."
"Were any of ours hurt?"
Aithne pursed her lips. "A few," she said. She didn't say, It would have been easier with your knack.
"I'd like to go and see it," said Duncan in a small voice.
* * *
A knock on her door. Clara sat upright on the bed. "Who is it?" Her formal skirts rustled as she levered herself up to standing.
"It's Siona. Fearghill's sister. He asked me to say hello."
"Oh." Clara waddled over to the door. Thandi's Mercy there were a lot of petticoats under this dress. She opened the door and peered out, and immediately had to adjust her gaze upwards. Thus, her first impression of Fearghill's sister was the hollow of a long neck meeting jaw. Light brown hair cascaded in loose ringlets over her shoulders, pulled back from her face by silver-tipped braids.
"You're very dressed up," said Siona, giving her a once-over.
"I'm to meet the Prince."
Siona cocked her head. "Are you now? His grace has gone hunting today and isn't due back until dinner. Fearghill's gone too."
"Oh." Clara leaned against the doorjamb and sighed. "I thought since I was here that I would..."
"It usually takes Prince Zarinel a few weeks to get around to seeing folk," said Siona. "Even folk as important as the heiress of Vallebrion."
Clara crinkled her nose. "I'm not important," she said.
Siona gave her a dry smile. "Have you eaten?"
Shaking her head, Clara mumbled, "I was too nervous."
"Well, get changed and I'll take you down to lunch."
Clara shucked the gold and green brocade with a mixture of relief and disappointment and pulled on a linen shift and wool dress. As they walked along the balcony she looked around for her aunt, who would not approve of Clara's finding another Shayn to spend time with, but Amarante must still be in her quarters.
"Why are you and your brother here?" she asked.
"Our uncle is Lord of the Kinwood," said Siona. "He wishes for peace with Prince Zarinel, and we are his emissaries."
"Do you live in the women's wing?"
"I do," said Siona.
"Who are most of the women who live here?" said Clara as they were walking down the stairs. "There's so many of them."
"Noble visitors like you," said Siona. "The prince's family." She paused. "And the guarants."
Siona gave her a surprised look. "The Lords of the great houses of Teleahn all send a relative—daughter, sister, niece—to High Rock to stand guarantee for their family's fealty to the crown."
"Oh," said Clara. "I didn't know that. Vallebrion is very cut-off from the world."
"I'm surprised Vallebrion doesn't send a guarant to High Rock."
"We're hardly a great family," said Clara. "And I'm glad we're not, if this is what it means."
Siona smiled. " Would you like a tour of the palace?"
They were passing the big double doors leading out of the women's wing. Clara gave them a doubtful look. "Out there?" Out there was Enrico. He had probably posted one of his men at the end of the corridor waiting for her to emerge. "Mm, I'm content in the women's wing."
"Well, I hope you'll venture out tomorrow afternoon," said Siona. "Prince Zarinel is hosting a spectacle, and Fearghill and I are taking part in it."
"Clara, my dear, where are you going?" Clara turned towards the sound of her aunt's voice. Amarante stood on the balcony looking down at them.
"Lunch," she said.
"Oh." Amarante looked between Clara and Siona, and Clara burned with shame at how obvious her aunt's calculations were.
After a moment that stretched on too long, Siona said lightly, "I should be getting on my way. It was lovely to meet you, Clara of Vallebrion. I will report to my brother that you are hale and well-settled in the women's wing."
"Thank you," Clara mumbled, mortified. "I'm sorry."
Siona dipped her head in acknowledgement, and strode towards the exit of the women's wing.
"I was just thinking of eating lunch myself," said Amarante as she descended the stairs. "My dear, you would cause me less distress if you didn't consort so much with that kind."
For an instant, an evil spirit gripped Clara, and she imagined telling Amarante about how she had rescued and hidden Duncan.
"It's only been two instances," she said instead. "That is Lord Fearghill's sister. He asked her to stop by and check on me."
"Well, next time she does, you can tell her to tell her brother that you are well looked after and need none of their help."
"By Enrico, you mean?" said Clara. "And his band of thugs? Do you really think I'm safe with them?"
"Lord Enrico is a gentleman," said Amarante.
"By some definitions."
"Clara." Amarante's brows drew down in distress. Clara sighed.
* * *
They rode out of High Rock with the sharp slanted light of the setting sun to their left. Aithne rode with her spidered hair covered by a scarf, and Duncan has the seeming of a rough-hewn People workman.
As they cantered down the bridle track that ran alongside the high road north, Duncan looked over his shoulder at the Castle crowning the city behind them. Clara was safe now. She didn't need him. But he would see her again one day--when he was worthy. He flicked Aithne a quick glance and turned his face towards their destination.
It was time he faced his past.
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...