shut with finality

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A/N: if you're curious about how Duncan looks in my mind...

* * *

"We're too late," she said. "Your brother went before the Prince a sennight ago."

A sennight ago. By their calculations, Fearghill must have reached High Rock a little before Duncan retrieved Clara from Vallebrion. Twelve days from then until now, and they had been too late.

Siona went still. Clara recognised her position as the one she had taken in the moment when Prince Zarinel asked her brother to execute five men. "What was the result?" she said.

"Come inside," said Aithne. "We can talk about this there."

"What was the result?"Siona bit out.

Aithne rubbed her thumb across her chin. "Guilty," she said, "as we knew he would be." Seeing Siona's hand go to the pommel of her sword, Aithne added, "He lives, as far as the children know. Caged in High Rock."

"I suppose the Prince does not want to rush the decision of how to execute him," said Siona, her mouth taking a bitter twist.

Clara's fingertips felt as if they had gone numb. All that and Fearghill was condemned already. There was nothing she could do. She thought she might weep, but then knew she wouldn't. The tears were gone, and it didn't feel as if she would ever cry again. In their wake was a vast, grim hollowness that seemed larger and older than she was. She curled her fingers up into her palm and dug the nail of her thumb into her index finger.

Siona turned to her. "Say something," she said. "This is your fault. Are you pleased?"

Aithne took Siona by the injured arm and dragged her inside. The flash of pain made Siona obey. Clara and Duncan followed behind them. The rickety door shut with finality and left them in the dank gloom.

"I am so terribly sorry," said Clara dully, "that I have not been able to help Lord Fearghill. And that because of me--" she stopped.

"For all we know the lass would just have got herself imprisoned as well," said Aithne, releasing Siona's arm.

"I doubt it," said Siona, stalking to the far side of the room. "She's People."

"And Prince Zarinel is a tyrant," said Aithne.

"She could have tried."

"And here she is, and she was ready to do so. But time has been against us."

Clara looked at Aithne. The words did not make her feel better.

"Just go," said Siona. "There's nothing more you can do."

But Clara didn't move. And because Clara stayed, Duncan stayed. And because Duncan stayed, so did Aithne.

Aithne went over to Siona. "He lives yet," she said. "There is hope."

* * *

Laira brought them some food. Duncan watched Siona push hers around her plate.

"Is there no chance of freeing him from High Rock?" said Clara. Her voice broke through the silent air.

"That you ask tells me you have never seen the dungeons below the castle," said Siona, setting down her spoon.

Clara shook her head.

But Duncan felt himself snap taut like a bowstring. Ask me, he thought. Neither Clara or Aithne looked up at him.

"They are accessed from the courtyard, which is patrolled by a score of princeguards at all hours. There is one door, bolted and barred. The Steward has the keys, and he is the only man who enters and leaves the dungeon freely. All others enter and leave in groups of two, on shifts that are determined at the beginning of each day. And if you have never fought a princeguard, I don't recommend you try it."

Still crouching next to Clara, Aithne had gone still. She didn't look at Duncan. She didn't ask. It wasn't his fight. There was no reason for him to endanger himself for a Shayn he had never met.

But for Clara...

"Oh, I see," said Clara, and silence reigned again. Siona rolled her injured shoulder. "We are vastly outmatched. My attempt to free Fearghill got me nowhere except wounded." She paused. "But I cannot just... accept that he is going to die."

"For doing me a kindness," said Clara in a stifled voice.

Duncan cleared his throat and Aithne looked up sharply.

"I could do it," he said. Not an offer, but a response to the worry he saw in Aithne's gaze.

Now Clara looked up. "Duncan," she said, her eyes wide and red-rimmed. "You could get into the dungeon, couldn't you?"

Lost for words, he nodded. Ask me.

Clara climbed to her feet and came over to him. He stood up from the table, almost stumbling over the bench. Stepped back from her once, twice. She stopped, searching his face.

"The boy?" said Siona to Aithne: two blurs in his peripheral vision. Aithne's hand was over her mouth.

His focus was on Clara.

"I can't ask you to do that," said Clara. "It's too dangerous."

They were close together now. Almost eye-to-eye. Ask me.

"But I think you might be Lord Fearghill's only hope. And I can't--I can't let him die at High Rock for helping me."

Ask me.

She reached out and hovered her hand near his. He twitched his fingers towards hers and they clasped hands. The world narrowed. He nodded once, twice.

"Duncan, I beg you to go to the castle and free Lord Fearghill."

"I will," he said. His voice sounded rusty. "I will."

Clara closed her eyes and relief and worry eddied back and forth in her expression. She leaned forward and rested her chin on his shoulder for one moment.

"The boy?" said Siona again. "What use is he against a score of princeguards?"

"More than you might think," said Aithne dryly.

Duncan looked over Clara's shoulder at her, and Aithne raised her eyebrows at him. He gave her a half-smile.

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