* * *
Duncan sat with his knees drawn to his chest on the ledge beside the waterfall, letting the rain wash down him and watching it splash into the rock pool. The fingers of his left hand worried at the end of the bandage binding his leg.
He didn't hear Clara before she burst into the clearing, soaked and dishevelled.
She stopped and looked around her, dragging gulps of air into her lungs. "How did I get here?" she said.
"You ran," said Duncan, climbing to his feet. "Come into the cave."
Clara nodded and followed him along the ledge and into the dappled darkness. As she entered, he leaned against the wall farthest from her. "You're soaked."
She pulled a face. "So are you."
He looked down at the shirt clinging to his chest. The outline of the bandage wrapping around his torso was visible underneath.
"Where's that flint I left you?" said Clara, pulling the pile of twigs in one corner of the cave into the centre.
"Over there." He pointed, and she ducked over to get it. As he watched, she managed to get the twigs alight and coaxed them into a tidy little fire.
What had she been doing running around in the rain? It would be presumptuous to ask. He shouldn't think that just because she had hidden and fed him, they were friends.
Others had hidden and fed him, and their kindness had become cruelty soon enough. He wrapped his arms around himself.
"Are you cold?" Her tone was bright. She sat down next to the fire. "Don't huddle in the corner. I'm sorry to be invading your cave. I don't know how I ended up here."
As she talked, Duncan edged forward until he was opposite her, then sank to the ground, feeling the fire heat his face and chest.
"I was on the other side of the forest. I thought I was, anyway. And then Master Enrico..." She looked quickly up at Duncan. "You don't want to hear about that man."
Duncan slid his gaze away from hers, focusing instead on the dancing shadows thrown by the fire and the waterfall, mixing on the wall of the cave.
When he looked back, Clara had tucked her knees up to her chest in a posture that was very familiar to him. "I feel safe here," she said, tucking her head against her knees.
"You're not invading my cave," said Duncan. He hesitated. "I am glad when you visit."
"Because I bring you food," said Clara. She looked up, and he saw her eyes were red.
"Thank you," Duncan replied reflexively.
Clara's brows drew down. "No, I wasn't... Duncan, you don't have to always be thanking me."
Now she was upset, and it was his fault. "You shouldn't be helping me." He looked down at the unmarked backs of his hands. A child with loving parents would be taken to the priests when they were born and entered into the Prophets' Book, then their naming mark would be begun.
He had seen the hands of many men with naming marks as they swung towards him, and they pushed him downwards.
He could see Clara's naming mark on the hand nearest him. The Prophets would no more reward her for saving him than they would punish those who harmed him in the first place.
She must have followed his gaze. "Why weren't you named?" she asked, so softly that Duncan knew he had the choice to feign deafness.
"Who would name a halfblood?" he said instead.
Clara looked at him blankly.
"You look in the Prophets' Book and see how many there are in there like me."
"But your parents..."
"I know nothing of my life before I was several turns of the seasons old," he said. "Lord Fernando told me once that I had been left at a temple, but they hadn't wanted me, so Lord Fernando had bought my bond. He told me that was why he owned me. Nobody would look after me but him. He was Aelas, Inne and Thandi. He was my Prophet. So he said."
"That is terrible."
"That is the way of things," he said. "All the halfbloods I know have similar stories. Loathed by Shayn and People alike. Nameless, pathless spiders."
He looked over to see that her eyes had filled with tears. "I'm sorry," he said reflexively.
She shook her head at him. Duncan shuffled around the campfire until he could reach out and rest his fingertips against her shoulder. He didn't dare get closer.
* * *
Clara waited until the storm lifted, then made her way back towards the holding. She found the yard buzzing like a prodded ant's nest.
Her father saw her and stomped over. "Clara, where have you been? Master Enrico was back three bells ago."
"I took shelter from the storm," she said.
"After you took fright at some lightning and ran away, like the stupid girl you are," said her father, curling his lip.
"Master Enrico told you that?" said Clara.
"He did, in the scarce moments that he waited before he took a horse and rode out to try and find you."
Lord Alan grabbed her arm. She looked down at his hand. That was the same place Enrico had grabbed her. He said, "Is that all you have to say? That poor man has been riding around the forest frantically searching for you."
"More fool him. I would never get lost in the forest. I took shelter, that's all." She tried to shake her arm out of her father's grip and pulled her face close to his.
"I don't know what ideas Maitea has been putting in your head, girl, but don't forget that I rule Vallebrion, and you will bend to my will."
Gritting out each syllable, Clara said, "Yes, father. Can I go now?"
He held her for a moment longer, then released his grip. "Go to your mother then," he said. "Tell her she has raised a vain, ungrateful daughter."
* * *
Duncan crept out of the cave behind Clara and followed her path towards the hold, leaving a trail of twigs snapped in a particular way that he could use to find his way back. He had to know the way to the hold, because from the hold there was the road, and from the road he could find his way to High Rock, to meet Aithne and the others.
He followed Clara until the trees gave way to cleared ground, and a wooden palisade rose up from the earth, half-remembered from the nightmare of his arrival. Then he turned his steps back in the direction he had come, his wounded leg aching to remind him he wasn't fully healed.
He heard the report of horses' hooves and dove into the cover of a shrub, pressing his face against the damp earth. Curtained by hair and leaves, he saw the man--Master Enrico, he of the hounds and ropes, and the cruel laughter--ride by. Don't see me. I'm not here.
Once his heart rate returned to normal, he crept from his hiding place and back up the path to the rock pool, gathering the twigs he had laid down on the way.
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...