When Clara was gone, Duncan uncurled himself from the wall, wincing with pain. He ate some of the food she had left him, and tucked the rest of it into a folded blanket.
Sucking air through his teeth, he probed the bandage around his shoulder. His fingers were stained with blood.
If he could believe Clara, Fernando's games, for which he kept a stable of children like Duncan -- forgotten, forgettable and pathless -- were a cruel joke, a twist on a card game every Teleahni child learned.
Mount the horse, hunt the hart, beat the hound.
If he could believe Clara.
There was no reason he shouldn't believe her. She had looked after him and kept him secret.
There was no reason he should believe her. She was People.
Aelas, Inne and Thandi, he was so tired. Tired, and cold, and sore. Would he ever stop being tired and cold and sore? He huddled down into the blankets, cradling his wounded arm to his chest.
* * *
"The creature has slipped our net," said Lord Alan as Clara was passing.
"You're right," said Enrico. "Such a disappointment--I was looking forward to delivering it back to Lord Fernando." He stroked his hand along his beard. "I never believed in it before, but I think there's something in the story of Shayn and witch-powers, Lord Alan. How such an object could have evaded us without help from the Mo'oki I don't know."
Oh, don't you? Clara wanted to say, but she knew that the fact her father considered her insignificant was the very thing that had enabled her to hide Duncan and keep bringing him food. Well, that and...
She remembered the gut-deep feeling she had had as she approached the rock pool that she was going the wrong way. She couldn't believe it was witch-power. The forest would never have protected a witch-worker the way it had protected Duncan. But he had done something to keep his pursuers away. He had tried to keep her away. You're just like them.
Now that Duncan no longer diverted Enrico's attention, it was focused on her. When mother had said that Enrico was at Vallebrion to woo her, she hadn't really believed it. He was much older than her, so nicely dressed, and had scarcely spared her a look.
But now, she started to see the truth of her mother's words.
The fact that her father and all his men were back at the holding made it more difficult for her to leave unnoticed.
The day after the hunt for Duncan was called off, she packed some food into a bundle and was about to walk out of the gate when Enrico found her.
"Where are you bound?" he asked.
"Just into the forest. I like to walk there."
"You were planning on lunching?"
She bit her lip and nodded.
"And would you object to company?" he asked. "I admit I would like to get to know you better."
"There's little to know," said Clara. "There's little to me beyond Vallebrion."
"Vallebrion has a lot to recommend it," said Lord Enrico.
"Yes, it does," said Clara.
"You, I think, like the forest best."
She shot him a quick look, but it seemed there was nothing more to the comment than what he said. "It's a sacred forest," she said.
"A sacred forest?" He raised his eyebrows.
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...