The boy walked behind her, holding the big chest out in front of him. The attendant walked in front, leading the way. Clara walked quickly, trying to seem as if she weren't fleeing. She felt like she was.
"Come on," she said.
Through the women's wing vestibule and into the palace. Down one long corridor after another. Bright mosaics and marble, then dark stone corridors in the old part of the castle. Into the garden, the bailey, the courtyard. Through the courtyard. Don't look at the door to the dungeon.
The courtyard was still, with only a few princeguards around. Either a good or a bad sign.
Beyond the courtyard, the carriageyard. There was the carriage. Aithne was beside it, face hidden by her veil. A groom stood at the horses' heads, checking the harness.
Aithne looked up, saw Clara coming. "Mistress," she said, hurrying forward.
"Is all prepared?" said Clara.
"Yes, Mistress. Boy, stow the chest in the carriage, at our feet."
The boy nodded. The attendant curtseyed and vanished.
"Have you seen him?" Clara whispered to Aithne.
"Not yet," said Aithne, "but no uproar either."
"The Steward was called away from the throne room a halfbell ago."
Aithne nodded. "And your audience?"
"Went as we planned," said Clara. She sucked her lower lip between her teeth as the burn of humiliation returned. Go home to your mother. Let them think she was a silly girl if it kept those she cared about safe.
The boy came over. "I've secured your luggage. Is that all?"
Clara nodded, and he left. They were alone in the carriageyard save for the groom. Clara positioned herself so that she could see the way from the courtyard.
"All's ready," said the groom, patting the horse's shoulder. "Where's your driver?"
"Probably having a last drink with the men in the barracks," said Aithne under her breath: volume calculated to be heard by the groom.
The groom said, "Shall you wait or shall I send someone for him?"
"We'll wait a moment longer," Clara said. "I would like to do the necessary thing."
"You'll find a latrine reserved for ladies' use over by the carriagehouse," said the groom.
Clara nodded and went the way he pointed. From beside the latrine shed, she had a vantage point of the yard. Aithne stood near the gateway, still and watchful.
They couldn't stay much longer. Where was Duncan?
Then Aithne said, "Actually, I'd be grateful if you could go and find the driver. He was quartered with the princeguards."
"All right," said the groom. "What about the horses?"
"I'll stay by them. I grew up on a holding," said Aithne.
"Did you now?" said the groom. Clara saw him duck his head to try and get a glance at her face, but Aithne turned aside, as if shyly.
The groom handed her the reins, and jogged away. They were alone in the yard. Aithne looked towards the latrine, which Clara took as a cue to emerge -- until Aithne put her hand up and shook her head, no.
Tucking herself back into the shadows, Clara watched as Aithne turned to look towards the courtyard.
Aithne settled her weight and her casual posture became one of stillness. Her hand went to the back of her head as if adjusting her veil. She'd tucked a knife down the spine of her dress.
When she saw what had drawn Aithne's attention, her heart sank like a rock into her stomach.
Four men came through the archway. The Steward, his expression fixed in a scowl, and behind him three princeguards: two supporting an injured comrade between them.
They seemed as if they were going towards the carriagehouse, paying scant attention to Aithne. Her posture relaxed infinitesimally.
Clara blinked. Her eyes had started to hurt. She closed then and rubbed her forehead, wincing. When she opened them again, the Steward seemed out-of-focus, somehow.
The group reached the carriage. Aithne said, "Good day to you all."
The Steward ignored her. Then he crumpled to the ground and the seeming broke.
The crumpled form on the ground was Duncan.
The others, released from his spell, were Fearghill, and two swarthy men Clara didn't recognise. All clad in bloodstained princeguard uniforms. The man being supported by the others was lolling between them, groaning. He was half-walking, but clearly couldn't support his own weight.
"General Salomao," Aithne gasped. "By all the Guardians, get him in the carriage now."
Clara ran across the carriageyard.
"Shield Duncan from sight," said Aithne shortly. Clara put herself between the curled form and the carriagehouse windows. She crouched, spreading her skirts wide, and put her hand on Duncan's cheek. His lashes fluttered, and his brow was creased with pain.
They heard the thud as Salomao's body hit the floor of the carriage. "Get him under the seat," said Aithne. "The panel lifts away. Get in, Lord Fearghill. Under the other seat, if you please."
"It's cramped in there," said Fearghill. "There's a chest."
"Complaints on the method of rescue will be addressed in due time," said Aithne dryly. "If you stick out a bit, Clara's skirts will cover you."
"Duncan can't drive," said Clara, still watching his brow crease and smooth.
"Witch it," said Aithne. "Help me get him up and into the carriage. He'll have to fit in with Salomao."
The boy whom Clara didn't recognise crouched down to help. "Who are you to the Guardians?" said Aithne.
"My name is Jao," said the boy. "I can drive the carriage."
"Not like that," said Aithne, pointing to his bloodstained, ill-fitting uniform.
"There's a driver's cloak in the chest," said Clara. She watched as Aithne and Jao picked Duncan up and rolled him into the carriage. His hand went out weakly to stop his fall. He was conscious—barely.
Clara rummaged in the chest and pulled out the cloak. She handed it to Jao, who pulled it on over his uniform, and pulled up the hood.
"Witch it," said Aithne again, below her breath. "The groom is on his way back."
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...