Clara’s Return: Chapter One

Four Months Later…

Clara stepped out onto the balcony. The cold morning wind cut through the velvet and fur of her clothes and lifted the brown mass of her hair. Far below, chunks of ice floated down the swollen Braddock River. Trees bedecked in the first lacey green traces of spring edged the river’s banks.

The river embraced the island on which sat Candor City before it broke into two. If Clara walked around the tower, she would see them, the Lyn Tone and the Lance, as they angled away into the forests and rolling hills.

Behind Candor’s tall walls, chimneys belched the smoke of hearth and forge fires. She could see tiny moving specks of people, horses, and carts in the crooked maze of streets. The bright bells of the cathedral called the devout to prayer and sent a small flock of doves flapping into the early morning light.

To the north, directly before her, the Larkspur Mountains girdled the horizon, half-hidden in clouds. In her mind, Clara could see the last traces of winter snow on their rounded peaks.

At one time, she couldn’t imagine a life beyond them. They were home and always would be. Even as a slave, when she used her ability to see the future to save her master’s life, it never once occurred to Clara that she would leave the mountains.

Then Gavin, a spy guised as a minstrel, came to the castle and changed it all.

The hard tramp of boot on stone alerted her to someone coming up the tower behind her. She didn’t turn.

“I thought you would be here, since you weren’t in the library.” Jarrett came to stand beside her and braced his gloved hands on the cold stone.

Silence lapsed between them and Clara watched a hawk. Gavin used a hawk to pass on messages. She’d always been too afraid of the creature to approach it. During the civil war, when he came to Candor City to spy for Emmerich, the Rebel General, the hawk had been killed as it left the city to deliver a message to Emmerich. Clara didn’t know that until after the war, when they buried Gavin’s tortured corpse.

After a few moments, Jarrett said, “Lord Candor waits in the keep and the pack mules are nearly loaded. We should be underway in less than a candlemark.”

The wind whispered over the stone and the ruff of fur on her cloak. The hawk drifted away.

Jarrett straightened. From his pouch, he drew out a folded paper, closed with red wax seal. “His Majesty sent a missive that I received late last night. In it was this for you.” He held it out.

Clara took it and stared at the crest pressed into the wax.

Jarrett cleared his throat. “I’ll leave you to read that, then. Like I said, we should be ready to go soon.” He touched her arm, as if to convey reassurance, and she stiffened.

Years of being a slave meant she wasn’t touched except in a rough manner and now, as a proclaimed noblewoman in a high station, no one touched her out of deference. Jarrett meant well but it only left her uncomfortable and confused.

Clara waited until the sound of his steps faded before she broke the seal and unfolded the paper.

Clara,

This morning, the larkspur in the Academy’s garden bloomed and one of the Oldtimers told me that meant the mountain passes are clear enough for travel. I hope, then, that this letter finds you in Candor.

She smiled at the old wives’ tale.

The Council will drive me mad. If it isn’t about those damn aerials, it’s about the increased sightings of Marduk’s creatures in the eastern forests. Or, it’s about marriage and an heir—and the question of your return.

On the last night we spoke, you said everyone relies on me. That is not entirely true. There are those who value your advice and I am one of them. You did not often dispense advice but I feel the loss of it keenly. More importantly, I miss you.

Find what you seek and return to me. I have kept the Council at bay over the issues of my marriage and your return. I do not think I can keep that up beyond midsummer.

Keep a watch out. The creatures seem confined to our east; it doesn’t mean they won’t swing north.

May the Mother and Child be with you and Captain Jarrett.

Yours, always,

Emmerich

Clara’s heart ached and she closed her eyes.

When she first met Emmerich, he was a boy, the son of the headsman of a caravan that wandered their country, Lorst. She met him on the same day her mother sold her into slavery.

It wasn’t until many years later that Clara learned he’d searched for her. He didn’t discover she’d been sold to the lord of Castle Dwervin until the day he took it in battle as part of the civil war that rocked the kingdom of Lorst like a gale.

The civil war. She opened her eyes to stare off at the shrouded mountains.

King Tristan and his daughter, Monica, were killed and Emmerich blamed for both deaths. The rumors were only half right. Emmerich had been forced to slay Monica, his lover, in an act of self-defense.

A sorcerer called Marduk had, years before, slain Emmerich’s family. When Marduk arrived at the Royal Palace, where Emmerich was the Captain of the Palace Guard, he pleaded with the King and Monica to dismiss Marduk. Instead, Monica became Marduk’s apprentice and tried to kill Emmerich.

After the murder, Emmerich fled the capital city, Bertrand. Driven by anger and a need for revenge, Emmerich built an army from his military and Royal Guard connections. When Clara met him a second time, both of them grown into adulthood, she recognized him for his peculiar, gray eyes. Unfortunately, the familiarity ended there.

He’d become a different creature that wasn’t above asking for her to join him, not for the sake of friendship or for the chance of a new life outside of slavery; no, he asked her because of her ability. She was his Seer and he depended on her.

So, she left her mountains and, for a time, the questions about her family and lineage. She passed from the familiar to monsters and an evil she could never imagine. Somewhere in all of that, in all of the lies and betrayal, love and friendship grew.

After the war ended and Emmerich sat upon the throne as the new king, old questions returned that she could no longer ignore.

Clara shook herself. She carefully folded the letter and tucked it into her belt pouch. She gazed out over the city and the mountains one last time before descending the tower steps.

The castle’s keep swarmed with people. Vendors hawked wares to servants and nobility alike while a blacksmith plied his trade in a small smithy. The loud clang of his hammer banged a sharp punctuation to the duller roar of voices. Soldiers, dressed in Emmerich’s green and brown uniform, laughed and gossiped. They admired passing women and bowed to the ones of rank. A juggler amazed a small knot of children and a bard sang while strumming a lute.

Candor City enjoyed a special position in Lorst. Its location at the feet of the Larkspur Mountains and at the spot where one major river split into two meant that every bit of wealth that streamed north to south, or south to north, went through Candor.

It was the unofficial capital of the mountainous northern half of the country and Lord Candor ranked just under the King in terms of power, wealth, and prestige.

It didn’t surprise, then, that a great many soldiers stood shoulder to shoulder with merchants and nobility. Emmerich had appointed the new Lord Candor himself. That didn’t mean he entirely trusted him.

Clara still remembered when Emmerich asked her, as his Royal Seer, if she could divine whether the new lord would ever betray him. And she had to reply vaguely because, ever since the war, she hadn’t had a single vision.

Near the castle gates, Jarrett shouted and waved at Clara.

When Clara met Jarrett for the first time, she had been a willing prisoner of Marduk. Jarrett was the Captain of the Royal Guard and the two became friends while plotting Marduk’s demise. When Emmerich took the throne, Jarrett remained Captain but was sent with Clara as protector.

Emmerich would have also liked to send a platoon of soldiers to guard her but she persuaded him that it would be best to move across the country quietly. No one could threaten a person they didn’t recognize, after all.

Weaving her way through people, Clara tried to ignore them as they bowed or curtsied. The muttered words “Lady Seer” peppered the air. As she rounded a knot of ladies, she saw Lord Candor in his heavy velvet cloak beside Jarrett. Her stomach dropped even as she hiked onto her face her best false smile.

When she reached them, Lord Candor cleared his throat and bowed. Jarrett bowed with a cocky grin. Clara wished they would stop that.

Lord Candor said, “I am very grieved to see you go, Lady Seer.”

“The winter snows have melted for the most part, my lord,” she replied. “It’s time we left.”

“Could you not hold off until after the carnival?” He smiled. “I would be honored to have you upon my arm at the ball, your ladyship.”

Jarrett coughed and rubbed his face. Clara shot him a glare. “I’m afraid I cannot wait that long. We really must be on our way, Lord Candor.”

He sighed heavily. “As you wish, my lady. Does her ladyship have a good word before she goes? Forgive me if my question is impertinent, but her ladyship did promise she would have one before she left.”

Jarrett suddenly became busy with the tack of one of the horses while Clara’s mind raced for what to say. Despite her best efforts, Lord Candor cornered her every chance he could over the winter, either to pepper her with questions about her gift or smother her in flattery. She wasn’t sure if Lord Candor wanted to marry her or keep her in a cage for study.

After a long moment, she said, “I believe your future will be full of peace and joy and profit.”

“That is good to hear.” He reached for her hand and Clara allowed him to take it. “You have been a wonderful companion through this dull winter, my lady. On your return to Bertrand, I hope to be blessed by your presence once more.”

“Ah.”

“My lady,” Jarrett interrupted, “all is ready if you are.”

The lord scowled as he released Clara’s hand. “May the Mother and Child keep you.” He bowed.

Clara smiled and allowed Jarrett to assist her onto her horse.

A few moments later and they crossed the bridge into the city itself. Clara, however, didn’t relax until they left the city altogether and rode up the northern road.

Emmerich’s letter still burned in the back of her mind. Was she doing the right thing? Should she turn back? Was it really so important for her to go on this journey in search of her origins? Her gut flipped as she remembered.

“Why are we even here?” Jarrett asked. “Not that I’m against getting out of Bertrand once in a while. It’s only that King Emmerich needs you.”

Snow flurries swirled outside the window. Clara hugged a heavy shawl to her shoulders.

“He needs a Seer,” she replied, “which I’m not. Not anymore.”

He made a rude noise through his nose. “Even without visions, you are clever, and the King listens to you.”

“I’m just a former slave.”

“You know damn well that you’re more than that.”

Jarrett’s voice brought her from her thoughts. “Clara?”

She lifted her head. “Hm?”

“I said I’m sorry Candor caught you off guard when he asked for ‘a word’.”

“It’s all right.”

“I tried to conjure up some excuse for him to go away. However, he felt it was his duty to see us off. And it was, actually, so my hands were tied.”

“Don’t worry, Jarrett. I understand.”

“So, no visions at all?”

“No. Only strange dreams. I’m not sure they can be called visions.”

“Well, we’ll be passing shrines and monasteries. Perhaps we can find someone who can help you.”

“Perhaps.”

He glanced over at her, as if he heard the doubt in her voice.

#

Remus watched them. Carefully laid spells kept the attention of others away from him. Their eyes slid away as if there wasn’t anything there at all.

He followed Clara and her guardian as they wove through the crowds and out of the city. He listened to them speak, cocking his head at the sound of her uncertainty, the doubt she carried in herself. Remus understood that doubt. He had carried that inside himself, once.

He stopped a few dozen yards away from the gate, allowing the pair with their pack mules to carry on without him. He would catch up with them, but there were other things to do first, if the kingdom of Lorst and her king were to fall.