"How much do you know about the Forest of Vallebrion?"
"I know every path," said Clara. "Every rock, brook and tree." She put up her chin.
"Do you know who it is that whispers to you as you walk those paths?" said Fearghill.
"Sometimes I feel close to the Prophets," Clara replied, "but I do not honour myself that they speak to me."
"It isn't your Prophets." Fearghill shook his head. "It's one of the old gods of the Shayn."
The forest remembers its people, her mother had said. Clara itched with curiosity. But scarcely four hours earlier she had seen this man murder on the Prince's command.
"You are brave to spout your heresy in High Rock," she said, crossing her arms.
"Perhaps I am a fool," said Fearghill. He looked away. Silence yawned between them. Then he said, "Vallebrion is known as Brionwood to my people. Briona's Wood."
"It has been some time since your people had any claim on it," said Clara.
After a moment, Fearghill bowed. "I thank you for your favour, Mistress Clara. I won't take any more of your time."
He turned and strode away down the corridor. Then stopped. Without turning, he said, "If you find yourself in... in need of assistance, you can call on me."
Although Fearghill wasn't facing her, Clara nodded.
She uncrossed her arms and went back into the banqueting hall. She had almost reached the bench before she realised Amarante wasn't there. But Enrico was. He had both hands around his tankard and his chin resting on the rim, his dark eyes fixed on her.
He really was very handsome; somehow his disheveled hair and lidded gaze made him more so. But then he flicked a finger towards her and she realised two of his thugs were flanking her. One put his hand on her shoulder and she tried to shake it off.
Enrico was on his feet, pacing towards her. "Don't make a fuss, Clarita," he said when he reached her. The ale was heavy on his breath.
"Where's my aunt?" she said.
Enrico shrugged lazily.
"Have you done something to her?"
A bark of laughter. "Don't be ridiculous. Now, be a good girl and come with me."
"I don't have much choice."
Perhaps that was what being a good girl meant, Clara thought. Not willing obedience so much as a recognition of when she was defeated.
"Where are we going?"
"To talk. Somewhere quiet." Enrico walked with purpose. Hustled along between his two men, Clara watched the set of his shoulders. Her heart thudded in her chest.
"We shouldn't be alone together," she said.
"We aren't alone. Tomas and Manuel are here."
She looked at their grim, blank faces and wondered what had happened to the kind, silent man who had stayed near her on the ride to High Rock. He hadn't been like the others.
"My aunt should be with me. It isn't right for—for me to be with my betrothed without her."
"Hah." Enrico's laugh barked down the corridor. He turned, strode back, placed his hand on her sternum and pushed her backwards. She stumbled into an alcove and he pressed her against the stone. "You think I am a fool, girl. You think I believe your sweet words. Your betrothed, you say, as if you will trick me into thinking our differences are at an end."
Clara fought the urge to struggle. Enrico's lower body was pressed against hers, and his hand was close to her throat. A restraining grip that could become a strangle hold.
"There is a way to end our differences, though. To make you beg me to marry you."
His hand, the one that wasn't at her throat, sought down her leg, hiking up her heavy skirts. The ale made him clumsy. She kicked out and tried to dodge away, but he caught her and pulled her back.
"I am so tired of you," he said, his lips against her ear. "You, and your mother, and that aunt who hovers around, and the whole damned business."
"Then let us be," Clara gasped.
She felt him shake his head. "No, my light," he crooned. "Oh no."
Bile rose in her throat as she caught the rank scent of his breath. But he was distracted, his hand resting on her thigh climbing no higher. Scarce able to hear herself over the thudding of her heart, Clara said, "What do you want from Vallebrion?"
"An army," said Enrico. "You stupid girl, I want an army to take back Castilsur from my bitch sister and her weak husband. It is mine by right. I will have it."
"Oh," Enrico mimicked. He leaned back and pinched her chin in his hand. "And I will have you, my light."
"Clara, is that you?"
Enrico leapt backwards at the new voice. Female. While he was distracted, Clara ducked under him, out of the alcove, and straight into Aunt Amarante's arms.
"There you are dear," said Amarante. "I've been looking everywhere for you." Her voice was calm, but Clara could hear her heart thudding in time with Clara's own.
"I'm sorry," said Clara. "It was my fault. Lord Enrico wanted to speak to me, but I should have waited until you came back."
"Yes you should, naughty child," said Amarante. "It is my duty to guard your reputation." Clara's face was buried against Amarante's bosom, but she felt Amarante look up. "With your leave, Lord Enrico, I'll take Clara back to the Women's Wing now."
Clara squeezed her eyes shut.
"Go on then," Enrico drawled. "I shall count the moments until we meet again."
"Thank you, Lord Enrico," said Amarante. "Clara, bid your swain farewell."
Clara forced herself to stand and step away from her aunt. With a jerky curtsy, she said, "Farewell, Lord Enrico."
"Sleep well, my light," said Enrico, leaning against the wall.
She felt his gaze on her the whole length of the corridor. When they turned a corner, she released a long-held breath.
"Are you all right?" said Amarante.
"I am... not harmed," said Clara. She could still feel the imprints of Enrico's fingers on her chin.
"Thank the Prophets for that."
"You know what he is, don't you?" Clara looked at her aunt's sombre countenance.
"I know that there is no purpose in setting ourselves against him. And we need to get home to Vallebrion as swiftly as can be."
"From your lips to the Prophets' ears," said Clara.
* * *
It seemed like mere moments from the time that Clara finally fell into a troubled sleep, and the time that she was startled awake by an attendant knocking on her door.
"What is it?" she mumbled as she struggled out of sleep.
"Mistress Clara, the Steward has sent word that Prince Zarinel will take your pledge today."
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...