trampled leaves

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For two days, Duncan sat with his knees drawn up to his chest, watching the water rishing past the cave entrance. Clara didn't come.

She was People. He didn't owe her anything. He didn't--

He could move his shoulder more every time he tried it, and when he unwrapped the bandage and edged his fingers along the wound, he could feel the circle of scar tissue forming. It was time he moved on.

* * *

When Clara arrived at the cave, it was empty, and she half-remembered another time when she had thought the cave was empty. But no... Duncan had been there. She just hadn't seen him.

She blinked and rubbed her eyes, but the cave was still empty.

He had been threatening to leave, but she didn't think he would just go without saying anything. She sat down outside, next to the waterfall. Putting weight on her hand made the tattoo ache, and she studied the bandage wrapped around it.

The welts on her back and buttocks twinged, but it was the echoing bite of mortification that hurt most. That two of her father's men had held her still, bent over the bench where they sometimes sat to sharpen their swords, while Enrico laid the strap across her bared back with precise force.

When she had struggled upright, he had practically been salivating.

With an unfamiliar, sick feeling, she pushed the memory away. She thought of her mother's fury on learning what had happened, and her father's cool defiance. He was Lord of Vallebrion, and he would not tolerate insolence to guests. The cracks in her parents' marriage widening.

"Good morning," said Duncan.

Clara startled. He had managed to creep up on her. "There you are."

"I was exploring the forest."

"Not going too close to the holding, I hope? En--Master Enrico is still there."

Duncan shook his head, crossing his arms over his chest. His eyes settled on her bandaged hand. "You came of age."

"I did." Why did she feel as if she should apologise for that?


Not meeting his eyes, Clara nodded. "I can't stay," she said. "Mother needs me. I just wanted to make sure you were all right. And I left some bread and cheese in the cave."

"I am very grateful for your kindness," said Duncan.

"I know," said Clara in a stifled voice. "I leave to travel to High Rock tomorrow to give my allegiance to the prince. I'll be gone for several weeks. Perhaps more. Will you be all right?"

* * *

She was holding herself like a wounded animal, testing the limits of an injury. A visceral part of Duncan recognised that posture, but it was at odds with her race, her status, her--he flicked a glance at the bandaged hand and away.

"Are you all right?" he said.

"I'm fine."

But she wasn't, he knew. He knew. He'd been lurking by the palisade when she had been pulled out. He'd seen them push her face-down onto the bench while Enrico thrashed her. His muscles had strained to rush in and help her. Somehow. He could have been an enemy soldier, or a messenger calling Enrico away, or a--Prophets, a mountain lion. Anything.

But he had frozen in place as if those men held him down. As if Enrico paced around him considering where to lay the next mark.

He had crouched, trembling, while Enrico threw the strap down in the dirt and said, "That'll teach you to be sweeter to me, Clarita," and then as Clara gathered herself up and crept into the holding by another entrance.

"I won't be here much longer," said Duncan. "I have to rejoin--my..." He stumbled over what to say. Naming Aithne seemed too dangerous, and he stumbled over the idea of calling her a friend. He didn't have friends.

Clara nodded and was silent. Then she said, "Duncan, you don't have to answer this. I won't be angry if you don't. But you've never told me what you were doing before Enrico captured you. Or how he captured you. Or why."

"I escaped from my... from Delmonte," said Duncan. She had asked him for an explanation. "I found my way to Kain Aelas, where I met some of my own kind. Halfblood Shayn, like me. We were southbound for High Rock, then on to Samioch."

"Isn't Samioch quite dangerous?" said Clara.

"For a halfblood? No more dangerous than anywhere else."

"I see."

He looked away from her expression. "There were five of us. We travelled through the forest mostly--one of our number is Shayn-trained and could read the wood-paths. When we reached towns, I usually went to get us food."

"Why you?"

Duncan scratched his neck. "No reason."

"Hm." The way she drew out the sound told him she didn't believe it.

"I was on my way back to join the rest when--Master Enrico caught up with me. I had dropped my disguise and he saw me before I could resume it."

"He had been hunting you?" Clara leaned forward.

"He said something about a bounty, I think."

"That sounds like Enrico," said Clara. She pulled her feet out of the water and said, "I have to get back. I just wanted to come and check to make sure you were all right."

"You needn't worry about me." Duncan pushed himself upright.

He watched her find a weak smile. "I can't help it," she said, and rolled her shoulders.

* * *

"Does your back pain you, my dear light?" said Enrico, watching Clara wince as she swung into the saddle.

"No, my lord," she said.

"Good girl," said Lord Alan, nodding approvingly. "She's from tough stock, Master Enrico."

"And wilful," said Enrico, gathering his reins.

"Left too much to herself as a child, but the fault appears to have been remedied."

A sharp retort beat against her teeth, and she forced it back down her throat. She had no desire to be thrashed again. She caught Enrico's gaze for a moment. He'd take any opportunity to do it again.

"Let's tarry no longer, dear light," said Enrico. "I promised your father I'd get you safe to High Rock, and that means reaching Middlefields by tonight."

Clara nodded. A handful of Vallebrion men joined Enrico's own band, surrounding her. As they rode out of the yard, Clara looked back towards her mother. Maitea stood in the shadows, her expression pinched. She nodded slowly to Clara, and Clara remembered once again the warmth of her mother's embrace. For a moment, she thought she might cry, but a deep breath eased the sensation. "Are you comfortable, Aunt Amarante?" she said.

Her aunt, a taller, fatter copy of Lady Maitea, nodded. "It's been a while since I sat a horse," she said, "but I wager I've still got the knack for it."

Then they were passing the trampled leaves that marked the path towards Duncan's cave. He'd as much as said he wouldn't be there when she returned.

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