the forest paths

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"Careful," said Aithne, putting her arm out. "There're riders coming. Quite a few of them."

Duncan stilled, listening. He nodded.

They ducked down beside the road and watched through the hedge as a phalanx of riders went past. Duncan felt his blood chill. He recognised some of them. Enrico's men. He hunched down further.

"Who's that they've captured?" breathed Aithne. "Looks like a Shayn."

Duncan pushed aside a leaf. The blond man looked familiar. Then the shock of recognition. "That's Lord Fearghill of the Kinwood."

"Is it, now?" said Aithne. "I thought he kept to High Rock."

"You know him?" 

"I know of him," said Aithne. "The Lord of the Kinwood's envoy to the People. I wonder what's going on." 

By this time, the riders had passed them. Aithne stood. "Oh well. None of our concern if People and Shayn are feuding. Best we stay out of their way."

Duncan nodded, but he watched the receding backs of Enrico's men until Aithne called him out of it. "Come along, lad," she said.

They walked for another half-day along the road. Now, Duncan recognised it as the high way that they had travelled on from Vallebrion to High Rock. They were closer to High Rock, and walking in that direction.

Dusk was falling when they stumbled on a camp in a grove just back from the road. A lone woman sat at a shielded fire. They could see her in silhouette, and the stark white bandage wrapped around her upper arm. 

"Stay here," said Aithne quietly. Then, "I give you good den, friend."

The woman stood and spun around, a knife appearing in her hand. She was Shayn: brown-hair laced with white, and the high-collared tunic with its swirling patterns that marked her as a fullblood. "Who goes there?" said the Shayn.

"One who wishes for nothing but to pass," said Aithne. 

As Duncan watched from the shadows, the two women sized each other up. The Shayn raised her eyebrows. Aithne crossed her arms.

"What is your business on the forest track?" said the Shayn.

"To tread lightly and leave behind only the whisper of my passing."

The Shayn lowered her knife. "Forest-bred, then?" she said.

"In the Sethwood. I'm Aithne."

"Siona. Have you further to travel this night?"

Siona. Duncan frowned. The name was familiar.

"Ah," said Aithne. There was understanding in her tone. "Siona of the Kinwood. We saw your brother passing with his--companions."

Siona's hand went to her bandaged arm. "Foolish of me to try and stop them alone," she muttered. 

Aithne turned and beckoned Duncan forward. "This is my friend Duncan," she said. "We travel together."

Looking him over, Siona said, "Another halfblood."

"Do you disdain our company?" Aithne put her chin up.

Wordlessly, Siona shook her head. "I am glad of it," she said quietly. "As long as you know that my brother's captors may come looking for me. I think I lost them on the forest paths, but..."

"They are brutal men," said Duncan.

Siona looked at him, her amber eyes the colour of the banked fire. "You know them."

"Too well." Duncan looked away.

"Where are you bound?"

"We travel where the wind blows us," said Aithne.

Duncan bounced on the balls of his feet. "Was Lord Fearghill coming from Vallebrion?" he said.

"How did you know that?"

"I, ah. It is my honour to be acquainted with the heiress of Vallebrion. A little."

"With Clara?" Siona blinked. "How on Aea--nevermind. Yes. Clara of Vallebrion persuaded my brother to escort her back to Vallebrion. Meanwhile, his enemies at court went to work convincing Prince Zarinel that Fearghill had wooed Clara and intended to marry her. Which, of course, constitutes two crimes: the first being the sullying of the purity of People blood with Shayn, and the second being--if you look at it from the right angle--a treasonous attempt to gain control of the armies of Vallebrion to aid in the Shayn struggle to overthrow our masters.

"The Prince dispatched that snake, Lord Enrico of Castilsur, to drag my brother back to be tried. As if a People jury would ever fairly judge a Shayn. I thought I might be able to free him, but I can't, so I am bound to Vallebrion to see whether I can bring Clara back with me. Perhaps the word of a People might count for something."

Duncan sat beside Aithne. "I didn't see Lord Enrico with the riders," he said to her. 

Aithne gave Duncan a wry look. "You want to go to Vallebrion, don't you?"

Wordlessly, he nodded.

"This People girl must be quite something if you both pin your hopes on her. What is she like?"

"Clara," said Duncan. Again. "And she is... nice, I suppose."

"What does she look like?"

"She looks like People. Black hair, brown eyes."

"Slender? Delicate? Pretty?"

"Not slender. She is very strong--she all-but carried me for an hour to get me away. Not delicate. She cut out the infection and dressed my wounds and didn't flinch. But pretty, yes." He looked down at his hands on the reins. "Very pretty."

"I begin to be more interested in your Clara," said Aithne.

Duncan remembered her concerned expression as she watched him wiping the filth from his face. He remembered her sitting by the fire with her knees tucked up, leaning against his shoulder. "She's decent for People," he said.

"Oh, my boy," said Aithne, shaking her head. Duncan looked up in time to see her share an amused look with Siona.

Between the three of them they had a rabbit, some forage, a little dried meat and some oatmeal, which made a serviceable dinner. While they ate, Aithne said, "Let me have a look at that wound before we are on our way."

Siona nodded and Aithne crouched beside her and unwrapped the wound. She tched and rewrapped it. "That's quite nasty," she said.

Chewing on a rabbit leg with her other hand, Siona said, "Sword slice. Stitches would have been useful."

Aithne retied the bandages. "Agreed, but you'll survive without them." 

"Thank the Guardians," said Siona dryly.

"And perhaps when we find this mythical Clara, she'll be able to re-dress the wound."

"She is a healer," Duncan put in. "She saved me when I was so near to death I walked with the spirits."

Siona  snorted out a laugh, and Aithne turned and laid her hand on Duncan's shoulder. "Bless your heart, lad."


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