The men's words echoed through Duncan's mind."Does it speak the common tongue?"
"He understands you well enough, don't you little spider?"
"Violence is the only language such creatures understand."
Too hungry; too tired; too much pain. He couldn't reach for his knack.
"They're like dogs--they can be led with a kind or cruel hand. But I acknowledge the cruel hand is more effective."
"Look at his hair. All that white woven through it."
"Get him over here so we can see him properly."
Being dragged upright by his hair and turned this way and that. Hands on his body, probing at his wounds, poking and stretching his flesh.
"Are you sure it isn't a pig after all?"
"Certainly it squeals like one."
Picking up handful of horse manure and rubbing it into his hair. "Now you almost look human, Shayn-get. Aren't you grateful?"
"Yeah, aren't you grateful? Say thank you, Shayn-get."
When they were gone, he curled up in the darkness, racked with shudders. His shoulder hurt. His ribs hurt. His ankle hurt. He hurt.
* * *
The next morning, Clara went into the kitchen and while her mother distracted the cook, Clara added her mother's herbs to the seasoning mix for the beef pie that would be served to the household that night.
"Why do we have to free him?" She asked as she helped her mother back to the stillroom afterwards.
Maitea looked out the high window of the stillroom and shook her head. "The Shayn are the forest-folk, just like your father's people are the folk of the fields and mine the folk of the plains. We forced the Shayn out of the southern forests centuries ago, but the forest is old. It remembers. It won't tolerate one of its children being tortured."
Clara considered this in silence. She had always felt safe in its embrace, but there were so many ways to get lost, or injured, or killed in the forest.
"I wish I could have taught you more of the lore," said mother.
"I know my Teaching," Clara protested, for she had sat dutifully by the household priest's side most mornings since she was small learning about the Prophets and the way.
Lady Maitea shook her head. "This is older than that. But please trust me--for the sake of Vallebrion, we must rescue that Shayn."
* * *
He was hungry, and cold, and terribly hot. He ached, and burned, and shivered.
* * *
Clara waited in the shadows cast by the stable while the guards sat around and ate their dinner. She listened as their talk slowed, and went silent. She heard the clatter of metal plates falling onto stone. Then, she slipped around the corner, lit her candle from a torch, unlatched the stable door and slipped inside.
She heard the whickering, shifting and stamping of the horses as she walked down the row of stalls. About half of them were occupied. She peered into each unoccupied one, holding her candle over the door. Still, she almost missed the Shayn--he had burrowed himself under the hay in the corner, and it was only when he thrashed that she caught the movement.
She slipped into the stall. "Good den," she said. "I am here to let you out."
She crouched by his side and brushed away some of the hay. By Aelas, he was filthy. He was smeared with dirt and manure; his hair was matted with it.
"Can you hear me?"
Clara sat back on her heels and studied him. She had intended just to untie him and show him the palisade gate, but it was clear he was in no state to be escaping by himself. She took his shoulder and shook him, and his eyes flashed open. His pupils were so wide they almost met the whites.
His face crumpled and he whimpered with pain, rolling onto his side. It was then that she saw the arrow shaft embedded in his shoulder blade.
"Prophets," she murmured, feeling tears prick at her eyes."What have they done to you?"
She tugged loose the knots binding his hands and feet. "I'm going to have to cause you some more pain," she said.
He mumbled and rolled his head on his neck. His eyes opened, unfocused.
"Can you help me get you upright?"
He half rose from a sitting position, and his knees wobbled as he tried to get his feet under him. Clara stood, her thighs screaming with taking his weight. But he was slight and malnourished, and she was a strong young woman used to helping her mother. She hooked her arm under his shoulder and he jolted into something resembling consciousness.
"Who are you?" he slurred.
"I'm here to help," she said, adjusting the pack of supplies her mother had pushed towards her.
Together, they staggered out of the stable. The guards still slept, leaning against the wall, propped up against each other, or spread out on the ground.
Clara's heart thudded against her chest. This was the part where she would be most easily caught. "I'm sorry, but we have to go quickly."
She could feel his ribcage expanding with each laboured breath. He nodded.
As they shuffled onwards, she could tell that he was trying to move his feet more quickly. She hoisted him up as they reached the gate. The man on guard had also fallen victim Lady Maitea's sleeping herbs, so they were able to edge the gate open enough that they could slip through. The pack was starting to slide down her shoulder, hitting the back of her leg with each step. There was nothing she could do about it.
The Shayn lolled against her other shoulder. In her planning, Clara had assumed she would get the Shayn out the gate and into the forest, hand him the pack, and let him be on his way.
There was no question of that. If she left him, he would be found slumped on the road come morning, burning with fever.
The arrow wound at least was infected, and probably others of his numerous injuries. Aware she might be putting him through this suffering just to have him die anyway, she addressed the forest with her mind, as if she were sitting in the stillness at the forest's heart. I have got him out, but if you love him as mother says you do, then you must help me save him.
If she could get him to the water, any hounds would lose his scent--if they could even pick it up through the reek of excrement that clouded him--and she could take him upstream to the rock-pool, where the fast-flowing waterfall hid a warm little cave where he could hide.
She bit her lip. That was an hour's walk unburdened, and she had to be back before she was missed. Still, she had no better ideas.
"I'm sorry," she said. "We have to go a bit further."
Without opening his eyes, the man nodded.
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...