"What?" she exploded. "How could you not have told me this sooner?"
Clara's poor parents-foster parents, she reminded herself-were wringing their hands and looking down at their toes. Mother – Margaret - spoke for both of them. "Well, dear, we- that is to say, we-"
Clara cut her off. "You what? You would have told me eventually, I suppose, but how could you have let it wait so long? I have been living in your house and thinking I was your daughter since I was born! Why didn't you tell me when I was ten? Thirteen? Did you think I could not handle it? Well guess what! I am eighteen now! EIGHTEEN!" She was yelling, but honestly! It was ridiculous. "I always thought I was one of yours! I always thought-" Her voice broke as the shock wore off, and all that was left was pain. Lots of pain. She collapsed where she had been standing, sobbing uncontrollably into her hands.
Margaret and Gus seemed to want to comfort her, but at the last second pulled away. Thank you, Clara thought, unable to speak yet. Thank you for not making this whole ordeal worse. She took deep breaths, trying to steady herself. Clara knew she had to calm down. These people did not deserve this. They had taken her in, raised her, fed her, allowed her to stay with them. She may have been upset, but it was horribly unfair to take out her feelings of betrayal on them, even if it was their fault. Clara wasn't really angry at them as people, anyway. She was angry about one bad action that was far outweighed by so many good ones in the past. She could forgive them, even though it stung.
When her tears had finally subsided, she stood back up shakily and said, her voice carefully controlled, "I'm sorry about that. I shouldn't have gotten so angry."
The parents looked at each other quickly, and then back at their girl. Clara was surprised that they had waited so long for her to pull herself back together. Margaret broke the uncomfortable silence. "I thought about what you said, dear, and I think you're right. We should not have let it sit for so long. Your reaction, although unexpected, was rational. We apologize." She glanced at Gus for reassurance, and he nodded. Inside her head, Clara laughed bitterly. Gus always was a man of few words.
Clara walked back inside the house. All of her siblings-well, foster siblings-looked up at her. Her two s-foster sisters took one look at her puffy, red, tearstained cheeks and instantly took her to the washbasin to clean her up.
They had just finished clearing the dishes when Clara heard a cry. She looked up in alarm at her entire family. They were going about their duties, completely ordinarily. Oh! Realization hit her. She carefully focused her mind.
Clara! I think it's coming!
Lady! Clara knew it was her horse asking for help. The sound that Lady made in Clara's thoughts was a warm, calming sort of voice, the way Clara would imagine Lady would sound if she were human. To Lady, Clara probably sounded like a horse. She wasn't exactly sure how the whole thing worked, but all of the horses had very deep, smooth voices. Comforting, like their presence. Most humans can feel that even without being able to understand them.
Do not worry, Lady. I am coming.
"I think Lady's having her baby right now, does anyone mind if I leave?" Clara said it all very quickly. She only got dirty looks from her foster brothers, who would have to wash the dishes two nights in a row.
Her foster sisters squealed in delight.
"Ooh!" Marie exclaimed. "A baby horse!"
"Have fun, Clara! You're so lucky!" Lydia added.
"I wish I got along with the horses as well as you do," said Nathan.
"Maybe they'd actually work for you rather than ignore you like you're some old hen," Jared responded. This resulted in the boys getting into a fight with the cleaning rags, snapping each other with the rags rolled into whips while their sisters screeched as they were splattered with dirty water. Clara ducked every so often and fidgeted as she waited for the verdict.
Margaret and Gus exchanged a glance. That was their usual method of communication. "Of course, honey. We know how much Lady means to you."
Yes! Clara suspected that they were just being kind to her after her outburst, but at the moment, she did not particularly care. "Thank you so much I'll let you know about everything when I get back!" The words tumbled out on top of each other before she could think about them, but it made no difference. She wasn't concerned with what they thought of her right then.She knew she had to focus. Clara ran from the room, pushing all thoughts that were not about Lady to the back of her mind, securely locking them in a drawer to deal with later.
A few hours after leaving the house, Clara sat in a patch of clean straw.
It's ok, it's ok. Easy, Lady. You're doing great!
Clara was in her beautiful horse's stall; watching and helping her have her first foal. Lady was sweating heavily and lying down. She had a final contraction, and the slippery foal slid into the world.
Lady stood up, slowly and carefully. She looked at her baby and was briefly very confused.
Is this mine?
Lady realized that the strange creature in front of them, with spindly little legs and a too-large head was in fact her son.
The foal started to stand up, but only got two legs under him before he crumpled back down to the ground. Clara giggled at how absurd he looked with all of his legs in the air. Lady gently nudged him with her nose.
Get up, son. Rise before any danger strikes!
Lady knew that she was safe in her stall at Clara's stable, but instinct took over. The foal tried a second time, this time managing to stay upright and take a few wobbly steps. Lady began licking him in order to clean him up and to get her scent on him. His coat was a beautiful, deep, dark brown, just like his mother's. His tiny tufts of mane and tail were black, again like his mother's.
Clara heard a new voice cry out in fear when she was noticed.
What is that? It looks scary!
The tiny foal hid behind his mother.
She means us no harm.
Lady walked over to Clara, proving her point and leaving her baby exposed; torn between following his mother and staying where he believed was out of danger, he pranced over until he was once again behind his mother.
I am still scared.
Do not worry, little one. I will never hurt you.
Clara had to be careful. She sent a comforting message to the foal as their first contact, to ascertain that she was no danger to him.
Who was that? Mother, was that you?
Lady nickered, quite amused.
No, my son. That was the girl.
The creature in the corner.
He lowered his head until he was peeking out at Clara from underneath his mother's belly. She wiggled her fingers in a wave but looked away, making sure to reinforce the fact that she was not a predator or a threat. The foal began to scrutinize her, in the process of which he found his mother's milk. He began to suckle, distracted for the time being.
After he drank his fill, his eyelids began to flutter. He curled up on the ground and was soon asleep.
Clara took advantage of the situation. With the skittish foal asleep at their feet, it was much easier to talk to Lady.
What is his name?
Lady did not even look up from her son.
I thought all you humans named us.
I am not all humans, Lady. He is your first baby-it is up to you to name him.
Lady looked up from her foal and at the human, startled.
But I have nothing in mind! If I had known I would be naming him, I would have begun thinking months ago!
Clara's smile stretched wider across her face. She sounded exactly as would be expected. But no name ideas? None at all? It was funny, and it reminded her of when Margaret had briefly considered naming the youngest child in the family Maize, since that was all she saw as she looked out the window. She'd had nothing prepared at all, but eventually decided on Marie.
Look in your heart, Lady.
Lady paused in thought for a brief moment.
What? What is it?
Clara was very excited for Lady. After all, this was her first foal. His name had to be something special.
I am going to name him...
She paused again, just to make Clara wait.
Lady! Just tell me already!
She was getting impatient. She did not really mean it because she knew Lady was just playing with her. They had a very close relationship. In fact, Lady, along with the rest of the horses for that matter, were Clara's best friends.
All right, you silly girl! I will tell you. I am going to name him Dante, after my father.
Lady! That is a beautiful name!
She bowed her head humbly.
Yes, well, I thought so.
You must tell him immediately!
Lady glared at Clara. For an herbivore, she could be quite frightening when she wanted to.
As soon as he wakes. My goodness, Clara, what were you thinking?
Yes, of course. That is what I meant.
Lady stretched her back legs, then her forelegs. Now, if you do not mind, I would like some time alone with him.
Clara stood up from her place on the straw and brushed off the back of her muslin dress.
Would you like me to come again in the morning?
All right. Sleep tight, Lady.
Quiet as a whisper, Clara snuck one thought into Dante's mind.
Sleep tight, Dante.
Colin was very suddenly awake. Now what was I dreaming about? It was such a nice dream...maybe James being kicked in the head by his prize stallion? He snickered. If only... Wait! It was that girl again! She must mean something...I will talk to Didacus if I dream about her again. With that thought, Colin quickly fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
A few hours later, Colin awoke again. That girl again...He rubbed his eyes, trying to puzzle out why he kept having dreams about that girl! They were getting more specific, too. In that particular dream, he had seen a small house with a thatched roof, a barn, and several crop fields, which must have been where she lived. Colin thought he knew who she was... "That's it!" he exclaimed, bursting up from his seated position on his bed. "I know what to do about Melanie!"
He ran out of the room and down the corridor, taking no heed of the fact that he was still in his nightclothes. He did not even bother to put on shoes. "Didacus?" Colin called once he was in Didacus's chambers. "Didacus, can you hear me? I know it's quite late, but I have the answer!"
Didacus snorted in his sleep. Colin shook his head at him. What an old codger! Colin shook Didacus's shoulder. "Didacus!" he hissed in his ear. "I know what to do with Melanie!"
"Uh!" Didacus finally woke up and rubbed his head sleepily. "Colin! What's all this yammering about Melanie?"
"I know what to do!" And Colin told Didacus his plan.
Clara startled awake. Her head was feeling rather fuzzy, but she could still remember bits and pieces of her dream. She had been having terrible nightmares for a while, and sometimes the things she dreamt happened.
For example: Lady's foal. She had had a dream about a lovely foal that looked just like Lady, with the exception that it was a boy. And look! Lady had a baby boy that looked just like her.
Anyway, all Clara could remember from her dream was a familiar stranger. She had no idea if she had seen them before, and she knew who the person was but had never met them. That is why they were a familiar stranger.
As she was puzzling over what it could mean while also attempting to forget that she had no blood family, an idea that she felt might permanently lurk in the corners of her mind, she heard the church bell chime. She counted the deep sounds of the bell. One...two...three. Clara had been asleep for only two hours. She doubted that was enough alone time for Lady and Dante, so she decided to look around and see if anyone else was awake.
She slid out of the bed that she shared with her foster sisters. Clara had decided upon calling them all her "foster" family because she was not adopted. They had every intention of telling her that she was not theirs. They were kind enough not to let her feel different, be different, without at least telling her why. Well, she had already known part of the reason why. Now she knew all of it.
Lydia and Marie were both still fast asleep. Lydia was snoring lightly, her honey-blond hair tousled with sleep. Marie, with her shocking red hair, was drooling. And they wondered why they had no beaus! It was not their fault that they and Clara were not truly related, and Clara still felt closer to them than anyone else in her world.
Clara shoved her thoughts away again and quickly dressed in her work clothes, a practical dress and thick leggings to keep out the chill of morning, and checked on her foster brothers, Jared and Nathan. They were lovely people, a bit rough sometimes, but they were responsible for teaching Clara most of the swear words she knew. They were twins, and were asleep as well. Clara could tell them apart better than anyone except their parents could. Speaking of which, she almost looked in on her foster parents as well, out of habit, but shook her head. She knew exactly why she was suddenly feeling so sentimental towards everyone, but she had been drifting away from her parents for a while. Checking up on them, feeling once more like she was too different from her family, was too much for her then.
She tiptoed silently out of the house, grabbed her mud-encrusted work boots by the front door, and slipped outside. She breathed in the cool night air. It felt so good to be free and clear her head.
Clara quickly pulled on her boots and hurried down the moonlit path to the stables. She took a deep breath once she was inside. The smells of hay, horses, manure, and sweet feed all went straight to her brain. The stable always woke her up and made her feel completely rejuvenated. Her eyes, which were previously sticky with sleep, opened wide, the stickiness gone. Clara walked faster down the aisle between the stalls.
Her foster family had eleven horses. Clara passed the four plough horses first-Buttercup, Missy, Bluebell, and Clover. All of those names sounded sweet and innocent, but those horses were the strongest and toughest. Buttercup was sound asleep, one shaggy hoof cocked. Missy was also asleep, but she was merely dozing, her belly enormous and distended from the foal she was carrying. She was not due for another month or so. Bluebell was eating as usual. Clara did not go into Bluebell's stall just then because if you took her away from her food, she got irritated and grumpy. She loved to eat. Clover was awake too, and she nickered gently to the quiet girl.
Hello! Why are you awake so early? Come be with me, I am awake too!
Clara smiled faintly. Clover was very nice and friendly.
I will be there in a moment. I would like to see if anyone else is awake.
Clover sighed through her nose.
Fine. But you must come back!
Clara smiled wider. The horses, with their silly notions and lack of thinking things out completely, never ceased to amuse her.
Of course, I will, Clover! Here-you can watch me to make sure that I come back to you.
Clara reached out with only her mind to pull out the slender bar that held the stall window shut. Clover pushed the window open with her nose as soon as the bar was out.
Thank you, Clara! Thank you!
Clara continued walking down the aisle. The next five stalls she passed were the riding horses. Their names were Samson, May, Starstruck, Dawn, and Forest. Lady should have been with them since she was Clara's riding horse, but she was in one of the birthing stalls on the opposite side of the tack room.
Samson, Gus's fiery stallion, was calm and quiet in sleep. May, Nathan's sweet-faced mare, who was very kind and gentle, was sleeping lying down. Starstruck, Marie's gelding, was awake, and he snorted quietly in greeting before returning to nibbling hay off the ground. Lydia's horse, Dawn, was pregnant and would need to be moved to a birthing stall soon. While she was thinking about it, Clara sent a tendril of thought into the horse's half-asleep and dazed mind to see when she wanted to be moved.
She snorted in surprise.
What? What is going on?
Shhh, easy girl, it's me. Clara.
Oh. Hello, Clara. Is this about the baby?
Yes, Dawn. How soon do you think it will come?
If horses could purse their lips, Dawn definitely did just then.
Well, maybe a week. Possibly less.
Do you think you need to be moved to a birthing stall? I do.
Oh! Yes, I do think that would be appropriate.
Okay. Would you like me to move you now, while you are awake.
Dawn bobbed her head up and down in a horsey nod. Clara giggled and said very quietly, "Okay, you silly horse! Let's go." All she had to do was walk, and Dawn would follow the girl. All of the horses trusted her completely. When Clara transmitted something to them with a thought, she had no need of a halter, lead rope, or tack. All she needed was her own mind. Clara walked past Jared's gelding, Forest, with Dawn in tow. They reached the tack room and turned right, following the dirt path to the birthing stalls on the other side. Clara opened the gate and let Dawn through. The girl followed. Dawn stopped, waiting for Clara to show her which birthing stall would be hers. Clara opened the stall to the right of Lady and Dante.
Dawn peeked over the barrier between the two stalls and whickered to Lady.
Lady! I see you have already had your baby.
Lady looked up from grooming Dante some more and nickered back to Dawn.
Yes, not too long ago. Clara, back already?
Lady had noticed Clara. Dawn looked her direction too.
Oh, Clara, you helped Lady with her first foal? How sweet of you!
She yawned hugely and leaned against Lady's stall door.
Yes, well, all in a day's work, she thought.
In both of their thoughts, they made disapproving clucking noises at her, the way a mother would. It made her heart ache for her real mother, despite the fact that she had never known her real mother. The horses then went back to their conversation. Dawn asked what the baby's name was. Lady proudly answered and told Dawn about how Clara had let her name her foal. Clara shut out their gentle whinnies and nickers from her mind. Maybe I will just stay here for the rest of the night...
Then she remembered- "Clover!" she exclaimed, bursting up from her position against Lady's stall and startling all three of the horses.
Lady, the first to come back to her senses, asked Clara first.
What is all this about Clover?
I told her that I would check and see who else was awake then go back to her.
Ah. I see.
Clara sent this thought to both of them.
I have to go to Clover-try and get some sleep yourselves.
She walked very quickly back to Clover's stall by the mouth of the stable. The horse was prancing back and forth.
Clover! I am back!
She immediately stopped prancing, stuck her head out of her stall, and sniffed Clara thoroughly.
What happened to you, girl? You left meeeeee!
Clara shook her head with as much vigor as she could, since she was once again half asleep. The stable's charm could only do so much in the face of utter exhaustion.
No, Clover. I had to move Dawn to a birthing stall. You know that she is pregnant. She is due in a week, maybe less.
Oh. I see.
Clara spread her arms.
But I am here now!
Clara opened the stall door and let herself in.
So, Clover, was there something you wanted to do in particular?
The huge white horse lay down in the soft straw with her legs curled under her.
No, not really. I just wanted some company.
Clara rolled her eyes.
Well, here is the company! And the company wants to sleep.
Clover gave her friend a sympathetic look.
Oh, Clara. You can sleep in here with me, if you like.
Thank you, Clover!
Clara lay down so that her head was resting on the horse's substantial shoulder and immediately fell into a deep and thankfully dreamless sleep. When she woke, she was still in Clover's stall. Clover nudged her with her muzzle.
Time for me to be fed, little one. You have an entire stable to feed as well.
Clara rubbed her tired and surely bloodshot eyes.
She yawned hugely, her jaw almost cracking, before she continued.
You get a sugar cube.
Clover perked up immediately at the thought of a sugar cube.
Why? What did I do?
Clara chuckled. The sounds, smells, and sights of the stables were once again working their usual magic on her.
For last night, silly!
Oh. Oh! That. Yep, that was definitely sugar-cube-deserving behavior.
Clara elbowed the big horse gently.
Admit it! You had no idea what I was talking about at first.
Clover lowered her head, embarrassed at being called out.
Okay! I admit that I had no idea what you were talking about.
Clara stood and dusted herself off.
Good. For that, you get an extra sugar cube.
Clara shook her head at Clover. Oh, Clover. Then she opened the stall door with her mind. Clover pinned her ears back and took a few steps away, as much as the stall would allow. Her eyes were extremely wide, baring the whites.
What was that?!?
Clara quickly calmed her down.
Easy, girl. It was a bit of magic.
It is not very natural.
I have been moving things around like this and talking to animals with only my thoughts since before I could walk. It is natural for me.
I suppose so.
Clara let Clover have the last word. She turned on her heel and left the stall, shutting the door behind her manually. Clara had to use her magic secretly, since it was illegal in her kingdom, and she could not let a soul see. Except animals. They could not exactly speak the language, so they could not tell on her even if they do see. But on occasion, Clara's casual use of magic scared them. Like with Clover.
Clara walked down the aisle to the tack room and opened the door magically. She made sure Clover was not looking, though. She walked inside, the familiar smell of worn leather and saddle oil engulfing her.
When she walked in, she saw the wall to the right covered in bridles, saddles, and harnesses for ploughing, and many other horse supplies such as blankets for winter, halters for catching the horses when they were in the pasture, and supplies for keeping the saddles and bridles in good shape to the left, as always. Straight ahead was the ladder to the loft above the entire stable. On either side of the ladder, there were sacks of feed. The sacks were full of grain, beet pulp, and the like.
Clara did not hesitate as she walked to the ladder to the hayloft. She climbed quickly, sure of her hand and footholds. When she reached the loft, she cast her eyes and mind about in search of their brindle cat, Smokey. She had just had kittens. Not being able to find Smokey, Clara set about her job. She walked to the trapdoor above Forest's stall, his being closest to the ladder. She opened it and dropped down three leaves of hay. She did this at all of the other trapdoors above all of the other regular stalls. The only horse who got four flakes was Missy; she got more since she had another little mouth to feed.
Next were the birthing stalls. Clara walked around the opening to the ladder and continued by very carefully. She had heard horror stories of people not being careful and falling down the ladder to their death. Once she was past the ladder, she walked over to the clean-swept floor above the birthing stalls and opened Lady and Dawn's trapdoors with her mind, just for fun.
Clara looked across to the hay supply on the opposite side of the loft. It barely took any effort to levitate some of it across the loft to her. She only took eight flakes-four for Lady and four for Dawn.
After neatly dropping the hay into their stalls, Clara turned and headed back down the ladder. She heard Margaret ringing the bell, calling her in for breakfast. Clara hit the ground running. Hitching her skirts up to above her ankles so she could run properly, Clara sprinted back to the house for her own breakfast.
The rest of Clara's day went as normally as it ever did. She had her breakfast, and then tackled her chores. When nobody was watching, she would practice her magic on small stones, perhaps, or a broom. Halfway through the day, Clara and her two foster sisters packed a picnic lunch and rode out to a meadow a little ways into the woods, where they had lunch and made flower chains for each other and the horses. Clara had to tell the horses to not eat them or shake them off. Then they rode back the whole way pretending they were princesses, a favorite game of theirs when they were young, and when they got back, all of the children finished their chores before the girls went inside to help Margaret make dinner. Nathan and Jared stayed outside to help Gus with the plowing of the fields. Clara never really envied that they got to stay outside. It seemed to be very sweaty, tedious work, and besides, she loved to cook.
As they made dinner, Margaret gave Clara a strange task. Margaret told her to go out to the well and fetch a bucket of water. She did not tell Lydia or Marie to go with Clara, even though their rule was to never fetch water alone. Then Margaret said, "Don't worry, dear, I'll come with you in a moment. Just let me finish plucking this chicken."
Clara waited patiently, helping with other small tasks. When the chicken was fully denuded, they went outside through the front door. Clara wanted to ask why Margaret was coming with her instead of Lydia or Marie, but she did not. She was understandably still upset that Margaret and Gus hadn't told her that she was their foster child until she was this old. And the day Lady had her foal, too!
Margaret broke the uncomfortable silence between them. "I guess you're wondering why I took you out here with me."
Clara said nothing. That was exactly what she was wondering, but she did not say anything to confirm those suspicions. Clara was determined to stay a little bitter about the whole ordeal.
Margaret continued, completely unaware of the angry thoughts swirling about in Clara's head. "It has to do with you not being our real child."
Clara gasped. How could she bring that up again? Clara had only learned she was not their flesh-and-blood child a day before. That wound was still fresh.
Margaret reached out a plump hand, as if to rub Clara's arm, but pulled back at the last second. Clara was about to tap into her mind, see what she was thinking, but also pulled back at the last second. She could wait.
Margaret took a deep breath, surely steeling herself to say something she did not want to. "You have a sister. A real sister."
No. No! This cannot be true. How...why...Half-formed questions cascaded past one another, pushing all of Clara's breath out in a great whoosh. It took several moments to collect them before vocalizing the most important one, in her opinion at least. "Who?"
Margaret sighed. Perhaps she thought they would get to this touchy subject later? "Well...I can't tell you," she said, nervously wringing her hands.
"How can you spring this information on me so soon? How can you tell me I have a sister and then not tell me who she is?" Clara was overreacting, surely, but imagine being in her place! She was livid from the incredulity of having a real sibling, and then having them snatched away.
"It's not like we don't know, Clara! We would tell you, but-"Margaret desperately tried to prevent an argument, but it did no good. In fact, saying that just made it worse.
"But you don't know anything for sure! Or maybe it is all just top-secret! You could tell me, but then you'd' have to run me through, is that right?" Clara's voice climbed a few decibels higher. She was so angry that she was, for the first time in her life, seeing red. Tears started streaming down her face as her voice got louder. "No!" Clara screamed, seeing Margaret preparing to speak again. "You can't say anything that could possibly help now! Just leave me alone!"
Clara grabbed the well bucket from Alice's limp hand and sprinted for all she was worth towards the well. When she got there, she attempted to draw water (Clara was nothing if not diligent), but could not, for the tears were so heavy she could not see. Clara slumped against the stone well, sobbing. How could she have been so awful to Alice, someone who had raised her like a daughter of her own? How could Clara have reacted, no, overreacted, so suddenly and viciously?
After a few moments, she stood, tears gone. Clara would handle this maturely. Or, rather, she would try to fix what she had done maturely.
Clara quickly and efficiently drew water in the fading dusk. Then she carefully (but quickly) walked back with the full bucket to apologize.
Colin got the necessary approval for his request and instantly got to work. Colin dashed around Didacus's stores, searching for the specific potion he needed. Where was it? He only had an hour to ready everything. He had to find that potion!
Once that darn potion was found, Colin hurried to ready his horse. Then he checked his saddlebags one last time-did he have the blindfold? The rope? The "we-have-a-very-long-ride-back-and-you-can't-be-awake-for-any-of-it" potion? Colin had it all.
He quickly secured his black mask. It matched his black coat, pants, tunic, and boots, along with the rags he had tied around his horse's hooves for silence.
He spurred his horse on. Colin had a princess to kidnap.
The apology went over surprisingly well, but dinner was a rather awkward affair. Margaret and Clara avoided contact, while the rest of the household was oblivious to their conflict.
Clara excused herself early, after eating no more than maybe two bites. She hid in the room that she shared with her two sisters. Foster sisters, she still had to remind herself. Once she was in her nightclothes, Clara wiggled under the blankets and tried to fall asleep.
It was several hours before she was successful in falling asleep. And a very deep sleep it was. She had very vivid, but still mostly pleasant, dreams. Some were merely copies, pale imitations of things she had already seen. But some were brand new. Many of the new dreams were terrifying, and others happy. Overall, it was a very strange night.
When Clara woke up, she was no longer in a bed too small for two, let alone three. Marie and Lydia were no longer beside her, with their homey snoring and drooling. Instead, Clara was lying in an unfamiliar bed in an unfamiliar room fit for a princess.