They crept up the stairs: Duncan first. At the door to the central chamber he paused and turned back. "I am going to take the seeming of a guard," he said.
In the flickering light, he saw Fearghill's confused look, then a blink, then he heard Fearghill's muffled oath. "Stay back out of sight," said Duncan. "There are three men in the room who will need to be dealt with. "
Fearghill nodded, wide-eyed.
Duncan unlocked the door and peered through.
"There you are, Ayal," said Maran immediately, standing up from the table. "We were starting to think something had gone astray, and the door locked so we couldn't get to you."
"Actually, there is something I thought you should see," said Duncan, beckoning.
"What is it?" Maran left the table and strode towards the door.
"Something odd," said Duncan. "It's easier to show you."
Unsuspecting, Maran stepped through the door into the darkness beyond.
The others had come towards the door. "Ayal, you look as if you'd seen a ghost."
Duncan smiled grimly, and reached for the knife tucked into his belt. The knife he'd used to slay the real Ayal. The nearest of the two he disabled with a gut wound, while the other he killed directly by digging the knife into the join of neck and shoulder. As the man died, Duncan dropped the seeming of his comrade and crouched over him, watching the blood spurt.
"Prophets," whispered the other one - the one with the gut wound.
"Your Prophets can't see me," said Duncan, not turning around, "and they can't help you."
He knocked on the door. "All dealt with?" he said.
Fearghill pushed the door open.
Duncan saw Maran's crumpled form in the dim light. He turned towards the door to the Samiochi cells, sorting through the keys until he found the one he wanted.
"Is that the way out?" said Fearghill.
Duncan shook his head. "There's something else we need to do."
"Oh?" Fearghill kept his distance.
"I promised the Samiochis they'd have their chance at freedom."
Instead of a reply, Duncan heard the crack as Fearghill broke the last guard's neck.
Duncan unlocked the cells and stood back as the ragged, starving Samiochis plodded into the chamber, blinking against the torchlight. He sought out Salomao.
"Thank you, friend," said the General. He had a young man under his wing. "This is the one we wish you to take with you."
"All right," said Duncan. "Only the Steward has the key."
Duncan donned the seeming and went up to the locked and barred dungeon door. He pounded on it, hard, with his fist.
"Open the door," he shouted. "We've had an emergency."
The response from the other side was muffled. "Who is it?"
"It's Ayal. Maran's injured and bleeding badly. He fell down the stairs."
"I'll run for the Steward," said the guard on the other side.
Duncan nodded to himself, and went back down the stairs. In the chamber, he found that all the Samiochis had vanished, as had Fearghill. In place were three men in princeguard uniforms, lounging around the table. Carefully positioned to hide the bloodstains on their uniforms.
Salomao had his back to the door. He turned so he could see Duncan and raised an eyebrow.
"The Steward is on his way," said Duncan.
* * *
"So you see," said Clara. "I actually had no idea about what Lord Fearghill was doing. There are no Shayn in Vallebrion, so I was curious about him. I didn't realise he had designs on my holding. I was just being foolish and impulsive, I suppose, because he looked so lovely in his uniform with my yellow ribbon tied to it. But then Enrico explained to me what Fearghill planned, and I was so mortified and so glad when Enrico's men took him away. I gave Enrico my promise then and there to marry him before First Snow."
She opened her eyes wide and wound her fingers together, looking through her lashes at Prince Zarinel. "I would never have even so much as spoken to him if it didn't seem as though he had your highness's favour."
"My favour and yours are two very different things, girl," said Zarinel, leaning his chin on his hand. "Perhaps it was a mistake to let your mother withdraw Vallebrion from the court. It has made you sheltered and naïve. Let us hope your future husband shows better sense."
Clara hung her head. Prophets, her father would die of shock if he saw her thus. Inside, she seethed. Better naïve than cruel.
But she'd succeeded in boring Prince Zarinel, and looking around she saw shades of boredom and contempt on the faces of the courtiers.
The Steward stood next to the Prince, listening avidly to proceedings. He nodded when Zarinel spoke, and shook his head with disappointment at all the right moments. Clara hoped he had no daughters.
There was a man standing next to the Steward, talking swiftly into his ear. A frown creased his brow. With a crisp bow that was ignored by the Prince, he left the throne room by one of the side doors.
"You're right, your highness," said Clara, ducking her head again. "I feel very foolish. Am I forgiven?"
A whisper around the room.
Zarinel was silent. When Clara risked a look, she was caught in a steady glare. Then he sighed and waved her aside. "Go home to your mother, Mistress Clara," he said.
Clara curtseyed. "Yes, your highness," she said. She backed away from the throne. The press of courtiers parted around her as if she carried a disease. Once she was out of the throne room, she forced herself to keep a steady pace. Back to the Women's Wing. Then out to the courtyard, where the carriage would be waiting.
Prophets, she thought, looking skywards, let the Steward's departure mean what I think it must.
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...