the world went dark

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"One step, and I slit the halfblood's throat."

Clara made a strangled noise.

"Why should I care?" said Lord Alan.

But Enrico wasn't looking at him. He was looking at Clara. "Will you call your father off, my Clarita?"

Inflamed with rage, Clara ran at him. Careless of his sword, she barrelled into them both, knocking Enrico onto his back, Duncan crumpled on top. There was a confusion of limbs and fabric. Clara felt the edge of the sword dig into her forearm and gasped in pain.

She heard Duncan's ragged breathing, felt the outline of his ribs under her hand. Then she was pulled backwards, flailing, dripping blood.

The world went dark as her hair came in front of her eyes. She struggled against the grip of her captor. Then, suddenly, she was free.

As the grip around her ribs loosened and slipped away, Clara froze, then lifted a hand to brush her hair from her eyes.

Duncan stood over Enrico, holding Enrico's sword to its master's throat. "I am Duncan the Halfblood," he said hoarsely. "Unbowed and free from men like you."

Then she saw the way the sword shook in Duncan's hand. She ran forward and put her hand over his, steadying them both.

Two Vallebrion guardsmen arrived at the door.

"Take Lord Enrico to the stables," said Clara. "Chain him up there."

Lord Alan was pressed against his desk. He cleared his throat. "Clara, I'll want an explanation for this," he said.

"Go away, father," said Clara.

He looked as if he might respond, then his mouth sank shut and he left.

As the guardsmen took Enrico away, Clara pushed the tip of the sword towards the floor. She rested her chin on Duncan's shoulder.

"You're bleeding," he said.

Clara followed Duncan's gaze to her arm, dripping red down their combined hands and along the sword's blade.

"My mother will have dressings in her stillroom," said Clara, pressing her hand to the wound to slow the blood. "This way."

Duncan followed her out of the room and into the hallway. "How is Lady Maitea?"

"She is alive and awake, and for that I thank the Guardians and Prophets."

They descended the stillroom stairs. Clara was conscious of Duncan close behind her. His hand next to hers on the bannister.

She went across the stillroom to the cabinet that held the dressings. "I, ah." Duncan cleared his throat. "Let me help you."

Clara hesitated, then nodded. She handed Duncan the roll of bandage and held out her arm. The naming mark was dark against her skin in the half-light.

He took her hand with one of his and began the bandage at her wrist, pinching the wound shut as he rolled, as he had seen her do with his leg. It ached, and Clara grimaced. Duncan went still. "Am I hurting you?"

"Enrico hurt me," said Clara.

Swallowing hard, Duncan nodded and resumed wrapping the bandage, returning to her wrist and tying off the ends.

"Tidy work," said Clara. She hesitated. "Have you thought about what you would like to do now?"

Duncan stepped back as if she had pushed him. "Do you want me to leave?"

"No," said Clara. "Quite the opposite. I thought... well, I suppose you can't always rely on your knack, especially given the toll it took on you at High Rock. And I thought... my mother is a skilled herbalist and healer, but she'll need help now that she's.. while she recovers. You could stay here and learn the healer's trade and guard the Brionwood."

She was about to say more, but Duncan's strange expression stopped her.

* * *

"Do you mean it?" he said.

"If you'd prefer to join Aithne, I would understand. Now that your knack has returned..."

"I am more than my knack," said Duncan. He stepped forward and took her face in his hands. Clara nodded, and Duncan felt himself nod twice in return, before he brought his lips down to brush against hers.

There was that warmth again. Emanating from the air between them that vanished when Clara wrapped her arms around his waist and pulled him close.

"I would like to learn to be a healer," he said, putting his chin on her shoulder. "I would like to stay at Vallebrion."

They kissed again. Exploring. Then Clara went still and stepped back. "Did you hear that?" she said.

Muffled shouting and the clatter of steel. Side by side they raced up the stairs, through the hall and into the yard.

Lord Alan lay on the ground, blood spilling from his throat. Clara ran towards him, but there was nothing to be done. She watched his eyes dim to unknowingness, and felt her breath stick in her lungs. For all he had done, he was her father.

"What happened?" she said.

"I don't rightly know, Mistress Clara," said a guard. "Most of Enrico's men were gone to Segofia, but there were still a couple about, so we were gone to round them up and contain them in the stables as well. It seems like Lord Alan went to speak to Lord Enrico, and somehow in the process Enrico got free, killed Lord Alan, and escaped."

"Have you gone after him?" demanded Clara.

"We were just about to, mistress," said the man. He gestured to his colleagues, and they jogged towards the gate.

Then, beyond the palisade, they heard a tremendous crack, like lightning striking.

Clara and Duncan glanced at each other and ran to catch up with the Vallebrion men.

It was easy to see the way Enrico had taken. He had not stayed to disguise the marks of his passage through the forest. But he hadn't got far.

Scarce past the treeline, they learned what had caused the noise. A great old oak tree, eaten away inside with rot, had given in to its own weight and fallen across Enrico's path. He lay supine in the dirt, legs and arms splayed where he fell. Of his head, there was no sign--only the blood-stained collar of his tunic, vanishing under the thick trunk of the dead tree.

"The forest is an unsafe place for those who aren't its friend," said Duncan quietly. His hand found Clara's.

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