Clara sat by the bed, clinging to her mother's hand. Lady Maitea lay on her back, still and pale, a bandage wrapped around her skull. She had hit her head on the steps as she fell, and hadn't woken since.
Enrico had pushed her. Clara was sure of it. Finding Clara unwilling and Maitea uncooperative, Enrico had taken steps to ensure that nothing would stand in the way of his taking Vallebrion. With her father's full support, no doubt.
Both men were in the room: her father opposite and Enrico a dark presence on Clara's periphery. At the door were two of her father's men.
"Will she wake up?" said Clara.
"There's no knowing," said Lord Alan. He sounded more annoyed than upset. Well, a comatose wife was even less use to him than an uncooperative one. A dead wife was much more useful. Clara tightened her grip on her mother's hand. Observing this, Lord Alan said, "There's no use clinging to her. Go to your room, Clara."
"No," said Clara. "I'm staying here."
Lord Alan shook his head. "Amarante will sit with your mother. You are over-tired and clearly need rest." He looked over Clara's shoulder at the guards. "Take my daughter to her room and make sure she stays there. She is a little prone to wandering of late."
"I hate you," she said to her father as a guard pulled her upright by the elbow. "If mother dies, I'll know it was you."
As she left, she heard Lord Alan clear his throat and say to Lord Enrico, "The ingratitude of youth."
* * *
Night turned to day. Her guards ignored Clara's pummelling on the door.
When she had no more energy to shout, Clara sat in the chair near her window. Perhaps she dozed for a little while. Her dreams were as troubled as her waking thoughts. Sometime a little while after dawn, she got up and knocked on her door again.
Finally, a guard opened the door and peered in. "Is my mother alive?" said Clara.
"Last I heard," said the guard.
"Fetch Lord Enrico."
Clara was looking out the window when she heard Lord Enrico enter. He stood silent until she turned around to face him. He was wearing a robe as black as his hair, trimmed in gold. "What is it?" he said. Then to the guard, "Go and break your fast. I'll make sure Clara stays here."
"Yes, Lord Enrico," said the guard.
Enrico closed the door and turned. "Clara, I--"
"I'll marry you." Clara closed her eyes as she said it.
On her eyelids she saw her mother, You mustn't do that. But it was the only way to ensure her mother's survival. And when Maitea woke up, they could thwart Enrico together. Or perhaps he'd die before he could do any harm. Or perhaps it didn't matter, because Clara wanted her mother safe more than she wanted Vallebrion, more than she wanted to defeat Enrico, more than anything.
"Clara," said Enrico. His voice was raw, unfamiliar. "No."
She opened her eyes. "What?" Then she blinked. "Duncan?"
In front of her, where there had been a man robed in black, stood Duncan in a road-stained brown tunic, his curly hair knotted around his ears, and his amber eyes picking up the early morning sun.
She started backwards and he gave her a half-apologetic smile. "Your eyes fool you," he said.
"Aelas, Inne and Thandi," she breathed.
"Please, I don't have time to explain," he said. "We need to go."
"This is how you hid yourself in my entourage on the way to High Rock." She put her hand out to touch Duncan's face. He closed his eyes and put his hand up to catch hers and lower it.
"Please, Clara. We need to go."
"Go where?" said Clara, frowning.
"Away from here. You aren't safe."
"I'm perfectly safe." Clara crossed her arms. "It's my mother who is in danger." But that wasn't right. They were both in danger.
Then she remembered what her mother had once said: If I can't protect you, you must go to your aunt Fidelina at once. But that meant... that hadn't meant her mother alive but helpless, unconscious.
Duncan looked down. "I shouldn't have presumed," he said.
"No, you're right," said Clara. "But..." She looked back down the corridor and heard the sound of people approaching. "You could stay with her, couldn't you? If I went to get help?"
She studied his face. "How long can you hold it?"
"It isn't so much a matter of how long," said Duncan. "It's whether my control slips."
"Does that happen often?"
He gave her an unhappy look.
"I can't ask you to do that."
"I owe you my life, Clara."
Tears pricked at Clara's eyes. The voices around the corner drew closer. "Anyway, there's no chance of my getting out of here alone. Enrico's men guard it too closely," she said, straightening her shoulders. She was her mother's daughter. She could do the difficult right thing. "I'll go to Aunt Fidelina, and then I will come back for mother." And she would never tell Maitea about the moment when she almost gave Enrico everything he wanted.
Duncan took the guise of one of Enrico's men. Yes, thought Clara, I recognise him. He had been the silent one, who had rode close behind her on the journey to Vallebrion, and who had taken the watch outside her door most nights.
* * *
While Duncan distracted the guards in his seeming of Enrico, Clara slipped out the gate. They walked in silence through the forest.
Clara, lost in her own grief, let Duncan choose the path. Every time she blinked, the dappled sunlight around her was replaced with an image of her mother lying still as death in that bed. She knew tears were flowing down her cheeks, but she scarcely noticed.
She looked down, watching each step land in the leaf litter.
There would be no sleeping, no resting. They had to get to Segofia before her father caught up with them.
When would father notice that she had disappeared? Would he send the dogs out after her?
She looked up and realised they were approaching the rockpool. "Why are we here?" she said, even as the calm of the place reached into her and stilled her racing heart. "We can't stop. I have to..."
She trailed off as two figures emerged from the cave. Two tall women, both with spider-brown hair and amber eyes. One dressed in Shayn fighting gear, and the other in plain, practical homespun. One a few years older than her; the other a few years older than that.
Her tired, frightened mind sought out the familiarity of the younger one. "Siona," she said. "What are you doing here?"
"Good den, lass," said the elder, coming forward and offering her hand. "I'm Aithne. I owe you a debt of gratitude for looking after Duncan."
"Please," said Clara as Aithne clasped her hand, "do not speak of debts among friends."
"Then I'll speak of debts," said Siona. Clara dragged her attention to her. "My brother is even now in High Rock to be tried for the crime of helping you. Will you come back with me to testify in his defence?"
Clara felt each moment of silence in the clearing as if it stretched her a little tighter on the torture rack. Eventually, she said in an anguished tone, "I cannot."
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...