"Witch it," said Aithne again, below her breath. "The groom is on his way back."
Clara climbed into the carriage. Duncan lay curled in the middle of the floor. Salomao was groaning and rustling about under the forward seat. While Clara had the chest out, Fearghill had tucked himself further under the rear seat. As she climbed in, Clara pushed the chest back under the seat and heard a muffled, "Oof."
"General Salomao," Clara said. "You need to be quiet."
"What..." the man groaned.
"Please be quiet. We'll explain later."
Outside the carriage, Aithne said, "You see, he turned up eventually. Get up on the box, boy. It's past time we were leaving."
The carriage rocked as Jao climbed into the driver's position.
Aithne climbed into the carriage, shielding Duncan from view with her skirts. "My thanks for your help," she said.
"May the Prophets guide your journey," said the groom.
The door pulled shut. Jao clicked and snapped the whip, and the horses started forward.
Aithne slumped into the forward seat and looked at Clara, her face set in grim lines. "If we manage this, it will be by the Guardians' own hand. Help me get Duncan under the seat."
"What is wrong with him?" said Clara.
"I think he overstrained his knack. I've never known him to lay a seeming over more than just himself." She crouched down and tugged Duncan toward her, until he was partially under the seat, in front of Salomao. Now fully conscious, the General reached out to pull Duncan closer, so they were both hidden by Aithne's skirt. There was no way that the panel was fitting back on, though. Clara put it at her feet.
"My thanks," said Aithne.
"Thanks be to you for your kind assistance," said Salomao.
Aithne's lips set into a thin line as she settled onto the seat. She and Clara shared a worried look.
Clara leaned back in the seat and drew in one long breath. As she released it, she counted out the cycles of the year: King's Day, Falloleaves, First Snow, First Storm, Sowing.
"Whoa," said Jao as they pulled up to the first gate. To the guard he said, "I carry Clara of Vallebrion, bound for home."
"Is that so?" said the guard. His face appeared in the carriage window, looked around. "Mistress, is High Rock not to your liking? You've been here scarce two days." In his hand he had a register of departures and arrivals.
"I saw the Prince this morning," said Clara. "My mission being complete, I wish to return to my family."
"Did not you prosper, then?" said the guard.
Aithne tched. "My mistress' affairs are none of your concern, man. Let us through," she said.
The guard frowned at her, then shrugged. "Be that as it may, my orders are to search all carriages leaving the castle. Steward thinks some of you masters and mistresses may be stealing the silverware."
"All right," said Clara crossly. "What must we do?"
"Lift your skirts, mistress," said the guard, "so I may see under them." He waggled his eyebrows. Clara didn't have to feign disgust. She gathered up her skirts around her ankles.
Prophets, or... Guardians, she thought, let Fearghill be hidden by the chest.
"What's in the chest?" said the guard.
"My belongings," said Clara. "An attendant packed it for me, so unless you think she's in on the plot.... Can I put my feet down now?"
The guard shrugged. He'd barely even looked under the seat. "You can, though I shall miss your pretty ankles."
Again, the dislike was unfeigned. The guard turned to Aithne. "Now you," he said.
Clara's heart rattled so loud in her chest she thought the guard must be able to hear it.
"None of your coyness," said the guard. "Lift 'em up."
Slowly, Aithne gathered her skirts and lifted her feet from the floor of the carriage.
As the guard leaned down to peer under the seat, her free hand went to the back of her neck.
Clara stared into the shadows under the seat.
"What's this?" said the Guard.
The knife appeared in Aithne's hand.
"You've got pieces falling off your carriage, Mistress Clara of Vallebrion." The guard looked up.
The knife vanished as swiftly as it had appeared.
The space under the seat was empty.
"Can we be on our way now?" said Aithne, dropping her feet.
"Yes, yes," said the guard, waving them on.
Clara glared at him as they went past. He blew her a kiss. When he could no longer see her, she slumped, putting her head in her hands.
"Not over yet," said Aithne. "Two more gates."
"Thandi's mercy," Clara mumbled. "I cannot take it."
They heard a groan of pain from under Aithne's seat, then Salomao: "There, there, boy. I don't know how you did it, but you did it. Rest easy now."
"Will he be all right?" Clara whispered.
"I don't know," said Aithne. "I've never seen him like this."
The second gate waved them through without stopping. One more to go.
Then, as they were in the space before the curtain wall, they heard shouting behind them.
"Stay calm," said Aithne.
Clara gave a helpless laugh.
"Only one more."
The guard was distracted when they reached the gate. "Check what that ruckus is," he said to his companion.
"Mistress Clara of Vallebrion," said Jao. "Returning home after audience with the Prince."
The guard looked them over. The shouting got louder. He turned to his companion again. "What is going on up there?"
"I'll go and see," said the other guard.
"Can we be on our way, please?" said Aithne.
After a moment, the guard nodded, and signalled for the portcullis to be raised.
"May the Prophets guide your travels," said the guard, standing back.
They listened to the clank as the heavy iron portcullis was winched upwards. Jao clicked, and the carriage began to move. "Steady, steady," Aithne murmured.
The carriage shook. "Attention," said Salomao. "Down here."
Clara dropped to the floor and peered under. Salomao had his arms wrapped around Duncan's waist to keep him as still as possible.
Duncan's eyes were all-white and spasms shook his slender frame, his limbs enacting a macabre dance as he shook.
"We need to get him to the safe house," said Clara.
"We need to get out of the city," said Aithne grimly. "We can't stop."
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...