Duncan woke from a dream of a dark-haired girl carrying him from his captivity to the sound of water. Forcing his eyes open, his hazy vision deciphered the origin of the sound: he was in a cave, the mouth of which was concealed by a waterfall. How had he gotten here?
The dark-haired girl. Had she helped him? He drew the blanket tight around himself, shivering. Then he saw the bread someone had left on a rock near where he lay. A cruel trick? Was Master Enrico involved? Was the girl his confederate? The thought of eating, drugged or not, made his empty stomach heave.
He thought about trying to get up and clean some of the filth from his body, but he could barely raise his head from the hard earth.
* * *
Clara woke to the clatter of horses in the yard, and the baying of hounds. She learned of the disappearance of the Shayn-get from the furious low-voiced discussions between her father and his armsmen as they prepared to ride out.
She went to her mother's chamber and found Lady Maitea getting dressed with the assistance of Clara's aunt Amarante. "What is happening?" she said.
Lady Maitea struggled upright. "It seems Lord Enrico brought with him a halfblood that he had undertaken to transport to Lord Fernando Delmonte. The creature escaped last night."
"Think of it--a Shayn-get running loose in the forest," said Amarante, shaking her head.
Remembering the lifeless way he had tumbled to the ground when they reached the cave, Clara thought that running loose was not an accurate classification. She rolled her shoulders, wincing.
"Aches and pains, Clarita?" said her mother.
"I must have slept strangely," said Clara. "All is well."
Her mother held her gaze, and then nodded. "Perhaps you should take a walk today," she said. "The forest air always does you good."
"With a halfblood Shayn at large?" Amarante threw up her hands. "We should all be staying close to the homestead."
"If the halfblood is wise, he will be far from here by now," said Lady Maitea.
"No matter--if Lord Enrico is as good a hunter as all say he is, he'll capture the creature quick-smart, and we can all rest easy."
"From your lips to the Prophets' ears," said Lady Maitea. "Clarita, would you help me downstairs?"
"Of course." As they walked, Clara said, "What happens when they realise someone drugged the pie?"
"I have it well in hand, I promise," said her mother. "Did the Shayn get away?"
Clara bit her lip. "He was badly injured, mother," she said. "I managed to get him to a safe place."
"In the forest?" At Clara's nod, Lady Maitea nodded too. "If he's wounded, 'tis the best place for him. You'll need to care for him."
"I thought so," said Clara in a stifled tone. Maitea looked at her closely.
"Can you do it?" she asked.
"I can," said Clara, seeing her own matter-of-fact nature reflected back in her mother's eyes. "You must tell me what to do."
* * *
He was in danger. He was wounded and vulnerable and in danger. Stay away from me.
* * *
When the accusation came, Lady Maitea was in the kitchen. Clara heard the noise and came in from the garden, which she had been scouring for herbs that might help the escaped Shayn survive.
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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...