Fearghill nodded. "And yours, Clara."
Clara nodded to Siona, who nodded back, and made her farewells from the big Samiochi general, and from Jao, whose calm thinking had got them through the castle gates. Aithne stood to one side, talking quietly with Duncan. As Clara came over, Aithne said, "You look after our lad."
"We'll look after each other," Clara replied.
* * *
The land changed. Grassland punctuated by copses of trees was replaced by woodland. The world became green, punctuated with the red and brown of the Falloleaves season.
Then, coming to the top of a hill, Clara gasped. Duncan turned to look at her. She pointed.
"That's the forest," said Clara. "Home."
"Then let's not hesitate," said Duncan.
"Would you prefer to stay at the rockpool?" said Clara.
"Because I've no knack to help?" said Duncan. "Or because you don't want to bring the halfblood boy into your father's holding?"
Clara looked over at him, a confused frown on her brow. "No, of course not," she said. "Only because it's Enrico."
Duncan set his chin. "If you can face him, then I can."
There was a hesitant silence. "Is your knack really gone?"
"I can't use it," Duncan replied, because that was the truth.
The physical reality was that the bruising in his mind hurt less daily, that he was starting to be able to reach the place of power again. He had no doubt that a night spent in Briona's Wood would bring the knack back to him. But he wasn't ready.
He looked down at his feet, wondering if he would ever be ready to use the knack again.
Clara reached out and took his hand. "You're not your knack," she said. "I'm glad to have you with me."
Duncan scarcely heard her. Warmth was spreading out from where her fingers wove with his, heating places that had always been cold, that he had never even noticed were cold.
He pulled his hand away.
"Oh, I'm sorry," said Clara. "I forgot that..." The sentence trailed off into silence.
Duncan supplied the end of it: "... that I'm damaged goods."
"It's all right," he said.
He felt Clara's unhappy silence.
* * *
Down on the road below, a cart full of lumber was rattling towards the holding. They tracked it through the trees, waiting for an opportunity.
It came in the form of a rock lodging in the front wheel.
The carter climbed off his seat, swearing to the Prophets, and crouched down to examine it. Clara and Duncan slipped down towards the road, on the far side of the carriage, hidden in the undergrowth. When the stone was removed, the carter levered himself upright and went to the front of the carriage to check on the horses. When he clicked them into motion again, he had two stowaways, tucked in the cart's undercarriage.
Clara clung to the rear axle, her skirts tucked up and tied between her knees, her foot wedged against the front axle. On the other side, Duncan mirrored her position. In the shadows, his amber eyes glowed as he held her gaze. She felt her nerves stilling in the face of his steady calmness.
"Halt there," said the Vallebrion guard.
"It's just lumber for the palisade," said the carter.
"Right you are," said the guard. "Come in."
They waited until the cart had come to a stop, then slipped out from underneath and into the shadows between the palisade and the stable walls.
"You should stay out of sight until we know what the situation is," said Clara.
"And you?" said Duncan.
Clara set her jaw. "I'm going to face them. I'm the daughter of the household. This is my home."
When Duncan didn't respond, Clara cocked her head at him. "You think that's foolish?"
"What if Enrico has taken the holding? If Lady Maitea is..."
"All right," said Clara quickly. "We wait, for now, until we know what is toward. It's almost time for dinner. If we can sneak around to the back of the keep, there are windows onto the great hall."
Accordingly, when the sun was down, they left their hiding place and crept from shadow to shadow until they stood in the pools of darkness between the long windows of the hall.
They saw none of Enrico's men, who had been lounging around in the yard when Clara left. Maybe he really was gone.
Clara leaned her head against the wall, listening carefully to the hum of conversation.
She recognised her father's voice. "Lady Fidelina," he said. "How fare you this evening?"
So her aunt was here: that could only be for the good. Clara felt the weight pressing against her chest lighten.
"Well enough," Fidelina replied, "although I dislike the chill in the air. Falloleaves and First Snow are always a terrible trial for me. I'm so susceptible to the cold."
Such mundane conversation. All must be well. She turned to Duncan and smiled.
Then the smile died on her lips.
She heard Lord Enrico, at his most unctuous, say, "My dear Lady Fidelina, you must let me take you to Castilsur for First Snow. You'll find the weather there much more to your liking, I am sure."
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...