Men-at-arms and vassals looked up from their weapons and ale tankards as Clara passed between the long tables. In her apron, she cradled the herbs and berries she had gathered for her mother's stillroom.
She went through the door to the kitchens, and through them down the narrow stone steps to the cellar. Down here in the cold and semi-dark was her mother's realm.
Her mother, Lady Maitea, looked up from her pestle, her crutch leaning against the side of the table. "You're filthy, Clarita," she said.
"The blackberries are out." Clara deposited her findings on her mother's long wooden work-table.
So I see. Lady Maitea captured her hands and held out her arms to examine the scratches. "The forest took its due."
"A price I paid gladly."
Lady Maitea nodded and went to examine the bunches of herbs tied with ribbons that Clara had brought back. "Well done," she said. "Thank you. Now, you'd better go upstairs and wash. Your father has important visitors tonight."
He stumbled and fell, and didn't get up. They were upon him, the hounds circling, one lunging in, teeth bared, snapping at his face. Another fixing its teeth on his leg. Cripple the prey, these dogs were taught. Do not kill. That is for the master to do.
Their master arrived and watched from his horse as the dogs taunted the man. The master was finely dressed in flowing linens with a light cloak pulled over his long hair.
The man cried out in pain as the dog tearing at his leg reached bone.
The master whistled sharply and the dogs stepped back. The master was joined by the huntsman, who swung off his horse and called the dogs to him, feeding them morsels of meat as a reward.
"Well, spider," said the master, leaning forward and patting his horse's neck as he spoke, "You led us a merry chase, but you have been brought to heel."
The man looked up, his senses spinning. They had drugged him with something that made his wits dull and his knack elusive.
Pain blossomed from every part of him, meeting in a roil of terror in his gut. The huntsman came forward with a rope, binding the man's hands tightly together.
"Give the end to me," said the master. "I'll keep him close."
Using the end of the rope, the master dragged the man upright and pulled forward until his bound hands were hooked over the saddle pommel. "You're lucky, boy, that I am in a hurry and cannot do to you what I would like to. There will be time hereafter."
Then the master pushed him away from the horse, forcing his weight suddenly onto the leg the hound had ripped apart. The man gasped and fell to his knees, feeling the master's contemptuous gaze on his bared neck.
"Move out," said the master.
The man saw the horse's hooves go past at the top of his eye line, then the rope went taut, pulling him upright.
He gritted his teeth against a howl of pain.
* * *
The late summer heat made its way into the hall and mixed with the radiant warmth of the kitchen fires. Clara was sweltering in a long red dress, heavily embroidered with gold figs and silver pomegranates. She sat at the high table, next to the two empty seats that would be taken by her father and mother.
The high wooden beams supporting the roof echoed with the noise of a hundred people--the entire household was there, crammed onto two long tables.
In came her father, walking alongside a tall man dressed in the southern style: long, flowing garb and brocade hood pushed back from his long black hair. Behind them came Lady Maitea, supported by her youngest sister Amarante--she didn't like to use the crutch in front of the whole household, but a childhood illness made her too unsteady on her feet to move about without support.
Her mother smiled at Clara as she sank into her chair.
Her father took his place, and gestured that the tall visitor should sit next to Clara. She studied his handsome face out of the corner of her eye as Lord Alan said, "It is my great pleasure to welcome Master Enrico of Castilsur to Vallebrion. He will stay with us until after King's Day and, I hope, enrich our table with his hunting prowess."
Clara felt a shudder of unease.
"It is my honour to be here, Lord Alan, enjoying your wonderful hospitality. It is also my pleasure to meet your beautiful daughter." Enrico turned and his eyes settled on her. "Mistress Clara, I hope that you find me as pleasing as I find you. Perhaps we can get to know each other better while I am here."
He was certainly handsome, with even skin, a straight nose, and good teeth. He took her hand, and his fingers were tapered and elegant.
Clara looked at her father, who nodded, a wide, complacent smile digging trenches into his cheeks.
Duncan's mind began to clear of the effects of whatever they had drugged him with and he found himself trussed hand and foot like a pig ready for the spit. He was lying in filthy hay. He must be back where...
Little spider, come here and show me your--
Two deep breaths pushed back the tide of panic enough that reason returned. No, he couldn't be back there. This place was different. The smells were different: they were the smells of horses and tack, not of blood and human terror.
He was in a stable, lying in an empty stall. That man had dragged him here behind his horse. Duncan half-remembered it: emerging from the forest, through a wooden palisade and into the yard of a holding.
That man dismounting and saying over his shoulder, "Make sure he doesn't do anything foolish."
A man who must be lord of the house striding out to greet them."Master Enrico, so wonderful to see you again. Welcome to Vallebrion."
A return of pleasantries, then, "Is that a Shayn you have on a lead there?"
"Halfblood," said Master Enrico, his captor. "Broke his bond with Lord Fernando Delmonte. I've his instruction to bring the boy back--if it survives the trip. It's already tried to run away from me once. Savages, the Shayn."
The lord of the house gave Duncan an unpleasant smile. The sort folk reserved for Shayn-get. Duncan had seen it many times, and cringed away, earning a clip over the ear from the huntsman. "Will it survive the trip?"
"I haven't decided yet," said Enrico. "I've had good sport from it so far, though. The creature is quite determined to escape."
Duncan wriggled. His hands and feet were tied tightly enough that he could scarcely feel his extremities. They were taking him back to Delmonte. But, Master Enrico had things he wished to do to Duncan first. Tucking his knees to his chest, Duncan buried his face in his arms, trying to make himself as small as possible.
Horse, hart and hound. Mount the horse, hunt the hart, beat the hound.
He sucked a long breath through his teeth.
After dinner, Lord Alan sent the women from the hall. "Take my arm, Clarita," said her mother.
Clara took Lady Maitea's elbow and helped her out of the hall. "I'll go to the stillroom, I think."
Nodding, Clara helped her mother down the narrow stairs. As soon as they got down, Maitea reached for her crutch. "Clara, I need you to listen to me," she said, going over to the cupboard that held all her herbs and medicaments. "This lord who came here has brought with him a captured Shayn."
"Shayn this far south?" said Clara, agog. "Can I see it?"
"You'll do more than that," said her mother. "You must set him free."
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...