Chapter Four

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Aidan stood in the center of the crowd, their eyes fixed to Riona's retreating form. When she disappeared over the crest of the hill, they knelt and lifted a forgotten apple from the dirt. Tossing the fruit in one hand, Aidan turned toward the inn, ignoring the anxious conversations that murmured around them. Brendan greeted them immediately with a thorny glare.

"You have something t'do with that ruckus?"

Aidan withdrew a shining tin coin from a pocket on the inside of their cloak. Brendan eyed the coin and then grunted, motioning for them to sit down.

Aidan chose a table in the far corner of the room. The innkeep reappeared with a plate of Riona's goat cheese and a roll of hard bread.

"Here," he said gruffly, setting the plate down with a clatter.

"Thank you." Aidan's tone was so silky Brendan eyed them with distrust. Aidan tossed another tin piece onto the table. "There's more where that came from if you tell me everything you know about Riona."

Brendan's eyes widened in surprise and then narrowed again just as quickly."If y'know what's good for ya you'd stay away from her."

Aidan sighed languidly. "I asked for information. Not advice."

Brendan indicated his disapproval with a sniff. "She's a witch."

"Oh?" asked Aidan dryly.

"That's enough for most folks."

Aidan leaned forward, pressing one long finger to the tabletop."I am not most folks," they said, emphasizing each word with a dangerous quiet.

Brendan swallowed. "Her mother showed up in the village oh...about twenty odd years ago if I remember rightly. Belly full of babe without a piece to her name."

Aidan breathed in deeply, calming the flutter of their stomach. "Did she say where she came from?"

"Nobody asked. We keep to ourselves around here."

Aidan smacked their lips. "You don't say."

"That's all I know. You need more, go ask her yourself." Brendan ended the conversation abruptly. A few of the patrons that had poorly hidden their interest in the exchange turned back to their own discussions.

Aidan spread an edge of cheese on the bread and deposited it swiftly into their mouth. A young girl approached. Her small hands deftly set a large mug of foaming ale onto the table.

"Thank you," said Aidan without glancing up at her. When she did not move, they flicked their gaze toward her.

"Can I help you?"

"You were askin' about Riona?" It wasn't a question, but she made it sound like one. The girl had large frightened brown eyes and fine wavy hair that was unremarkable except in that it framed her broad heart-shaped face.

"And you might be?"

The girl hesitated.

"I'm Eve," she said in a whisper, "Me Da owns the inn."

Aidan's gaze flickered toward the bar, where Brendan was deep in discussion with one of the locals. Eve eyed Aidan hungrily.

"Information first. Your father's insight wasn't worth half what I paid him."

Eve glanced over her shoulder and then back. "She isn't a witch."

"You seem to be the only person who thinks so."

Eve shook her head fervently. "She's smart," she said, shifting her weight uneasily, "she-she's got herblore and the like."

Aidan leaned back in their chair. "You're hiding something."

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