"Why not?" said Siona. "It's your fault he's been arrested. You may be his only hope."
"W-what about your uncle?" said Clara. "The Lord of the Kinwood. Surely the Prince wouldn't wish to anger him..."
Siona gave a bitter laugh. "Do you think the Lord of the Kinwood would really give up anyone valuable to High Rock knowing how cheaply People count Shayn life? Fearghill and I are his brother's children."
Clara nodded, confused.
"If you People ever troubled for one moment to learn about our culture..." Siona shook her head. "Clanship runs in the female line. Fearghill and I are not of the Lord's clan, nor does he consider us his kin. If Prince Zarinel understood that, he would never accept me as guarant or my brother as envoy, as our welfare is neither concern nor hindrance for the Lord of the Kinwood." She shook her head.
"Oh," said Clara. "Then it really is just me."
"It is." Siona crossed her arms.
"I'm so sorry, but--" Clara put her head in her hands. She felt someone crouch beside her and put an arm over her shoulder and started with surprise, thinking it was Duncan. But it was the older halfblood--Aithne--who said with rich sympathy close to her ear, "What is it, lass?"
Clara shook her head and hunched her shoulders. She didn't have time for this. She had to get to Segofia. She couldn't--Fearghill in the Hall at High Rock, chin high while Zarinel mocked him--she couldn't think of Fearghill.
Siona tched, clenching and unclenching her fists. "We don't have time for these tears."
Duncan said, "Lord Enrico has seized control of Vallebrion. Lady Maitea has been badly injured and may die--especially if Enrico decides to help her along. Clara needs to get to her aunt."
"Trust a People to put her own kind above ours," said Siona.
"Do you wish for Briona's Wood to fall into the hands of a man like that?" said Aithne.
"It should be in Shayn hands." Through her hair, Clara saw Siona roll her injured shoulder.
"We are in a world of cans not shoulds," said Aithne. "Where is Segofia, lass?"
After a moment, Clara forced herself to speak around the lump in her throat, "Two days' ride, west and then north."
"Almost on the way to High Rock, then."
Clara looked up at her. "It is," she said.
"How if we went by to High Rock by way of Segofia, then? And told your aunt of what has happened?"
"Once she saw me, she'd never let me leave," said Clara.
"Then we we will send a note instead, in the hands of a Vallebrion guardsman." Aithne sent a sideways smile toward Duncan.
* * *
As they rode towards Segofia, Clara scrawled a note, which she gave to Duncan. He galloped off towards Segofia, while the others settled down to wait.
"Are there a lot of halfblood guards at Vallebrion?" said Siona.
Clara shooked her head. "No, none."
"Then why on Aea will they accept young Duncan is one of yours? The hair can be disguised--although we didn't--but those eyes..."
"Don't worry about Duncan," said Aithne. "He can look after himself."
Siona crossed her arms and shook her head.
Duncan was back with the setting sun. "It's done," he said. "Lady Fidelina questioned me herself. I told her what I had seen. I'd be surprised if she didn't set out toward Vallebrion this evening."
Thank the Prophets, thought Clara. Let it be enough. Let her not be abandoning her mother to her death.
Aithne nodded. "Have you eaten?" she said.
"I have -- Lady Fidelina pressed on me some dinner in her kitchen."
Clara's stomach gave an envious rumble.
Loud enough to be heard. "I've some cured meat and oat biscuit for you, lass," said Aithne.
"She can eat it in the saddle," said Siona. "We're losing time."
Aithne frowned and seemed as if she would say something.
"It's all right," said Clara quickly. "I want to get to High Rock as much as Siona does. Let's be on our way."
* * *
"I never thought I'd be back here," said Clara to Duncan as they rode through the gates. Ahead of them rode the other two, veiled, with their eyes downcast to hide the colour. Duncan was himself, but People, which Clara found disconcerting every time she caught a glimpse of him.
They left the horses at a hostelry at the foot of Zarestbridge and continued on foot. Aithne signalled, and they turned from the main way into an alley so narrow Clara hadn't even noticed it from the road. It became necessary to pick one's way carefully down the dirt street to avoid the pooling filth, and to avoid walking in the lee of the leaning buildings, which seemed to ooze more of the same.
Clara saw the folk huddled in doorways, children playing barefoot on the street. Saw inside the dark houses to uneven mud floors and walls collapsing in on themselves. She shrugged her shoulders up around her ears and stayed close to the others. "Is it safe here?" she said.
"For your kind, no," said Aithne without looking back. "For ours, it's the safest place we've found in the city."
They reached the hiding house. It was like those around it: dark, dirty and with a pervasive sense that it might decide to collapse at any moment. A gang of children hung around outside. Difficult to tell their race: they were all so covered with mud they might have been Veribians for all Clara could tell.
"Ainya," one of them called out, shading Aithne's name with a High Rock accent. "Got anything for us?"
Aithne smiled and came over. "I might do," she said, producing a beaten copper coin, "if you can tell me something first."
The little girl crossed her arms and planted her feet, looking up at the tall warrior. "All right," she said. "If we don't know we can find out, sure enough."
Nodding, Aithne flicked her the coin, which was caught and vanished into the folds of her dress.
"Can you tell me whether Fearghill of the Kinwood has come before the Prince?"
Siona started forward and the girl skittered back, quickly surrounded by her ragged gang. Aithne put her hand up to halt Siona's progress. She took two steps and crouched down before the girl. "Don't worry about her, Solly. Tell me."
The girl gave Siona a narrow look and leaned forward to say something near Aithne's ear. Aithne nodded and stood. She shook the girl's hand and the children scattered, shouting and arguing over the copper coin.
Turning, Aithne looked straight at Siona. "We're too late," she said. "Your brother went before the Prince a sennight ago."
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...