Chapter One

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Riona stood outside in the last decaying light of sunset. With an absent motion, she brushed her hands together, relieved that the day's chores had been finished before nightfall. Below in the valley, the Beltane fires had already been lit. Smoke rose slowly from the village, silhouetted against a backdrop of blood-red clouds. By dark, the revelries would overflow and spill up the hill that led to her farm. The reason Britons lit fires and their young men wore crowns of stag antlers on this day, the 30th of Aprillis, had been lost in the wake of the Romans and their Christ. Riona wondered what else had changed in the nearly two centuries since the Eagles had flown back to their nests, leaving the isle to its pagans and warlords. With a soft sigh, she turned and stepped over the threshold of her small home.

The interior was sparse, but not uninviting. The single room was dug into the side of the hill like a burrow, with one wall of carefully arranged stones facing the sea. Dried herbs and ropes of garlic hung fragrantly from the wooden rafters that stretched across the low sod roof.

Riona knelt next to the fire pit in the center of the room. With a swift motion, she added a small dry log to the dying embers. The slate she used to cook was warm, but it needed a moment on the flames. Her stomach growled impatiently; she had put off eating in her haste to finish the evening's chores.

A tentative knock interrupted her hungry thoughts. Riona rose from her place at the fire and moved toward the door. Another knock. She pressed her ear to the wood of the door and listened. Soft, feminine voices whispered on the other side. Riona breathed out a heavy sigh and swung open the door.

"What?" her voice was cool and uninterested.

The girls on her doorstep took an immediate step back in surprise. Their expressions reminded Riona of how three rabbits might stare down a single fox. When none of them dared to answer, she asked again.

"What d'you want?"

The oldest of the three girls, the Miller's daughter, stepped forward.

"W-we've come to..." here she glanced aside at her compatriots, both of whom had paled noticeably, "We've c-come to buy a potion."

Riona rolled her eyes.

"I don't sell potions," she emphasized the last word, "I amn't a witch."

The girls were visibly unconvinced.

"Let me guess," Riona sized them up quickly, "You're here because t' night is the Beltane," she gestured dismissively toward the smoke that rose in the distance, "and you three plan on swallowing as much wine as your mothers will allow, so you can disappear into the night to put some farm boy betwixt your legs, and you've come to me," she paused here and pierced them all in the grey glare of her wide eyes, "to brew you up somethin' that'll keep your wombs dry for the night."

The three girls wilted. The youngest was the Innkeep's daughter, barely fourteen. A small plump girl with rosy-apple cheeks and mousy-brown hair who would not meet her gaze. Riona's demeanor softened as she imagined this child swelling up with an unwanted pregnancy. She sighed in resignation and swung the door open.

"Come in, then."

The girls seemed to silently debate the wisdom of following the "village witch" into her lair-but pressed by curiosity-all three were soon standing within the small cottage, watching Riona warily as if she might shift into a demon before their very eyes.

"What've you brought as payment?" Riona asked, placing both hands on her hips.

The Miller's daughter held out a small basket covered in cloth. Riona lifted the edge of the rag and looked inside. A few eggs, fresh bread, and a single smoked fish, most likely whatever they could pilfer from their family larders without garnering too much attention or punishment.

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