The pain split his skull. He felt bruised, inside and out. His brain was a wound bleeding under the skin. His stomach churned and roiled.
In the gut. In the throat. In the chest.
* * *
"We can't stay here," said Aithne, pacing the short length of the room. "It's too close to High Rock."
"We can't move him again," said Clara. "Look at him." She gestured to the bed. Duncan lay curled on his side, hands wrapped around his stomach.
The seizures subsided, but he hadn't regained consciousness in the carriage while they escaped High Rock, nor in the bells since.
They had travelled north out of High Rock, off the main way on a road that led to nowhere except a few small towns. A bell after they left the city, Siona had appeared and swung into the carriage.
"Fearghill?" she said.
Fearghill said something in the Shayn language and rattled the chest.
They'd pulled the chest forward so Fearghill could climb out. The carriage became distinctly cramped as Fearghill held his hands out, palms up, and Siona laid her hands over his and clasped his wrists as she looked him over.
Clara sat on the floor of the carriage with Duncan's head in her lap, trying to protect him from the jolts. Finally, they had seen an inn. Aithne had reluctantly agreed that they should bide there. Siona and Fearghill melted into the forest. Salomao and Jao were in the next room.
"And if we stay here and are caught?"
"If you're so worried for your own skin, then go," Clara snapped. "Take the forest paths. I'll stay here with Duncan."
Aithne went white and still. "Don't you dare say that you care more about his wellbeing than I do, girl. You've known us for moments--a blink. You know nothing about what we've been through, where I found him. He is a brother to me."
Clara looked away, ashamed of herself. "You're right," she said. "I'm sorry." She hurried out of the room. In the hallway, she met General Salomao. "Any word from High Rock?" he said.
"No, I'm sorry," said Clara.
"I thought not." The General turned away. "I pray for my countrymen. Even Dimas, who is responsible for this egg on the back of my head." A brief smile, then grief. "I will see them again in Samioch or the place beyond."
"Excuse me," said Clara. She fled down the stairs into the inn yard. The inn was quiet. The forest pressed in on all sides. She walked towards it, into the undergrowth.
"Clara," said Fearghill, materialising beside her.
She turned. "I'm so sorry, Lord Fearghill," she said. "I didn't..."
He shook his head. "I have no desire to rehash the events leading up to this point." He studied her expression. "Is Duncan the Halfblood going to be all right?"
"Don't call him that," said Clara. "He saved your life."
Fearghill tilted his head. "That is how he named himself. How we name ourselves has power. I meant no disrespect."
Looking around, Clara saw a log and sat on it, putting her head in her hands. Fearghill sat beside her.
"Were you harmed?" said Clara.
"A little," said Fearghill dryly. "Dungeons are not famously congenial places."
"You have every right to be angry."
"I'm not," said Fearghill. "I'm too tired to be angry. Perhaps after I've slept." He made a clicking noise. "Then again, Siona's settled on anger. It covers the gamut of emotions better if I aim for gratitude."
"What will you do now? You can't go back to High Rock, or to your uncle..."
"No." Fearghill sighed. When Clara looked up, she caught a lost expression on his face. Then it resolved itself to blankness. "I think Siona and I will go to Samioch with Aithne. There's fighting to be done there, and safety from the Prince's men. Perhaps I'll reinvent myself as one of the halfblood band."
"That sounds nice," said Clara.
Half smiling, Fearghill considered this. "Yes, I suppose I shall enjoy the change."
* * *
Curled on his side, he felt Aithne sit down beside him. "We aren't safe here," she said. "Come back, Duncan."
Squeezing his eyes shut, he made a whimpering noise.
"I know it hurts. Share it with me."
He probed at the edges of his knack and was rewarded with searing white pain that made him gasp. The blood throbbed behind his eyes.
The memories were cold, not warm. The Steward's blood glugging thickly out with the knife. It had been so easy. Duncan hadn't cared. It had been like cutting into meat. You don't deserve my mercy.
"We saved them all, Duncan. Fearghill, and Jao, and Salomao. We escaped High Rock without a fight. I am so proud of you."
His head hurt.
"That's what it will always be, isn't it?" he said, not opening his eyes.
Aithne leaned towards him. "What is?"
"Deception and murder is what I'll be good for. Infiltrate the enemy. Deceive them. Kill them," he finished, hoarse. "That is the legacy Fernando has given me."
He hadn't even cared. He had been happy to do it. He had wanted to.
"Not if you don't wish it, Duncan."
But he knew. He would go to Samioch. They would need someone to get into the Teleahni camp. He would go. Men would die. And the next time, they would ask him again. It would be him, clothed in a seeming, or a hundred men. And if he didn't go, a hundred men's deaths on his conscience. He would become an assassin. Samioch's most effective killer.
"My knack is gone," he said.
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...