The clearing was quiet. Clara was awake. She gazed through the curtain of her hair at the shapes the banked fire cast on the trees. Sinister figures danced and vanished. Castles rose and fell.
Around the clearing, the others slept. Sometimes their breaths synchronised. Sometimes there was a rustle as somebody drew their blanket closer around their shoulders, or shifted to try and avoid a rock sticking into their back.
Clara's bones hurt, still settling from two long days' walking since Duncan woke up and they left the inn for the forest paths. South and west, giving High Rock a wide berth. Across into Samioch, then east to join the rebels.
Duncan slept nearby. He slept curled up like a bug, cradling his head on his elbow. He breathed so shallowly she could barely hear it.
He had given them such a fright. In all the scenarios they had rehearsed, there hadn't been one where he strained his knack to failure trying to rescue not only Fearghill but the Samiochis as well. When had he decided that he would do that? Had he known what would happen?
She remembered cradling his head in her lap and stroking his hair. She had never been so frightened for another person. Not even her mother.
Tomorrow they would cross the high way from east to west, and there Clara would turn her feet towards Vallebrion. For the last two days, her mind had supplied her with every possible scenario she might find there. Fidelina ousting Enrico, mother safe, father contrite. Enrico triumphant; mother and Fidelina dead.
Clara rolled over, trying to turn away from that line of thought.
She saw Duncan, curled up, his hair silhouetted by the firelight, tumbling around his face and shoulders. Saw by the white of his eyes that he was awake and watching her.
"I don't want to go to Samioch," Duncan whispered.
"Then don't," she replied, "come to Vallebrion with me instead."
* * *
Aithne smiled at him. "I'll miss you, lad," she said.
"It's for the best," said Duncan, hiding behind his hair, "I'm no use to you without my knack."
"I'll agree with the first half of that sentence if you say so," said Aithne. "If you ever wish to join us, you know how we can be found. All Samioch will know who took General Salomao unscathed from the dungeons of his enemy. I wish you would be there to hear their gratitude for yourself."
Duncan nodded. "Guardians go with you."
Aithne put her knuckle under his chin and kissed his forehead. "May Briona hold you in the hollow of her hands, Duncan the Halfblood."
* * *
Sometime while the past months flew by, the leaves had turned grey and it had gotten cold. Clara thought of her woollen cloak, packed between layers of herbs in a chest at Vallebrion, and rubbed her arms to get some warmth in them. The early morning sun slanted behind them, picking up the mist rising off the grass.
"Thank you for everything," said Clara.
"Thank you," said Fearghill. When Clara went to protest, he put his hand up. "Meeting you has set my feet on a different road. I am curious to see where it may lead."
He held out his hands, one palm up, one palm down. Clara reached out and they clasped wrists.
"What does that mean?" she said.
He smiled. "It is my hope that our paths will bring us back together one day."
"Until then, may the Guardians walk with you in your dreams," said Clara.
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...