Eve flushed bright pink. "Nothin' you need to know," she said swiftly. Aidan waved a hand to indicate their disinterest. The girl continued, "She never had anythin' like that fit in the market before. Least not where anyone could see it."

"Anything else?"

Eve glanced over her shoulder toward her father before daring to continue. "Da won't like that I told ye this but me Ma helped birth Riona when she washed up here."

Aidan sat up straighter in their chair, suddenly attentive.

Eve noticed this and continued in a fast whisper."She told me once that Riona's Ma she...well she-she said Riona's sire was One of the Wood."

Aidan sneered. "One of the Wood?"

"Y'know," Eve was clearly excited to divulge this secret, "The People of the Hills...Fae...a druid!"

Aidan let out a barking laugh. That caught Brendan's attention, who moved toward them from the bar. Eve looked suddenly more nervous.

"Eve..."

"Just askin' about a room, Da."

Aidan was impressed by the girl's quick ability to lie. With a brisk movement, they swallowed half the mug of ale. A mighty thunderclap echoed around the inn, and the sound of rain patted violently against the thatched roof over their head. Brendan crossed his large hairy arms over his chest.

"It will cost ya two of those tin pieces t'spend the night."

Aidan smirked and withdrew two more coins, tossing them lightly toward the innkeep. "The roof better not leak," replied Aidan.

Brendan grunted and disappeared. Eve cast Aidan a commiserating glance and then turned her attention to the other guests.

Aidan finished the rest of their meal quickly. The wind howled more and more violently outside as they made their way toward the back of the building. The room the inn provided was simple; a small straw bed with a wooden frame and wool blankets, a washbasin, and a small stool that had seen better days. With a sigh, Aidan sank onto the bed. The straw was fresh, which was not often the case in Aidan's experience. It had been too long since they had had a full night's rest much less a bed to have it in. They absently pressed their fingers against the fresh scar from the night before, swallowing hard. Soon darkness overtook the room. The storm raged on into the night, and the druid slipped into a restless sleep thick with dreams.

Aidan stood in the center of a small forest clearing, thick ferns dancing at their feet. A large scrubby Hawthorn bush rose before them, shining in the eerie silver moonlight. Beneath it stood a figure, garbed in a dress of deepest blue. Long waves of chestnut hair fell past her waist, dancing unnaturally in the air. The branches of the tree burst slowly into bloom, raining their petals down around her, obscuring her from Aidan's view. When the storm of flowers abated, the tree's base had warped into a living dais. The figure raised her head slowly from where she sat upon the hawthorn throne and met Aidan's gaze. The moon above flashed against her eyes, grey as the sea before a storm. Aidan took in a sharp breath.

"Riona..."

A scream echoed somewhere in the outside world, and Aidan sat up in bed with a start. Brendan's gruff voice, muffled by walls and sod, was shouting something followed by an ominous silence. Aidan breathed in deeply; a small hint of smoke clouded the air.

Aidan threw their cloak over their shoulders, sweeping up their sword belt as they moved quickly to the darkness beside the doorway.

Gruff voices drew close.

Aidan exhaled deliberately, slowing their racing heart as they drew the long thin blade from its sheath.

The voices stopped.

A tall, dark shadow opened the door and moved into the room; the wooden boards of the floor creaked in complaint.

The man threw the blankets from the bed, tearing needlessly at the mattress. He grumbled, tossing the bed onto its side then turned to leave the room. He paused as he drew up next to the door, his eyes searching the shadow where Aidan stood, cloaked and still.

The druid moved silently, their blade finding the center of the man's throat with deadly precision. Blood bubbled from the wound with a sickening sound as the stranger sank to the floor, his life spreading across the wooden boards in a red pool. Aidan swept from the room and sped toward the main entrance.

The thatched roof of the inn had now begun to blaze, leaving the air thick with smoke. Sobs and the throaty accent of Saxons grew louder. Aidan slowed their pace and peered carefully around the corner.

Eve was in the center of the room, surrounded by upended tables and chairs. An older woman, presumably her mother, lay beside her, unmoving. Eve's dress was torn down one side. She clutched at it with shaking hands, her cheeks pale and glinting with tears. An invader stood over her, one hand on his breeches, the other grasping her chin and mouth gruffly. Eve's eyes darted toward Aidan, who lifted a single finger to their lips. The look of terror in her eyes waned slightly.

As the Saxon undid the front of his trousers, Aidan slunk forward. Eve began to protest more violently, whether as a distraction or truly from fear; it did not matter. Aidan stood to their full height and shoved their sword through the man's back. The Saxon let out a breathy gasp and sank to his knees. As his hand slipped from Eve's face, she reeled back and spit on him. With a quiet groan, the man fell to his side. Aidan stood over him, their nose wrinkling in disgust as the Saxon soiled himself. Eve raised a tankard over the man's face as if to smash it in. Aidan gripped her wrist.

"Not that he doesn't deserve it," they said knowingly, "but his friends will hear that."

Without another word, Aidan punctured the man's chest and heart, abruptly ending his life.

Eve turned to the limp body of the woman beside her. With Aidan's help, she rolled her over. The older woman's throat was covered in bruises, and her dress had been ripped in half. Eve's lips trembled as Aidan pressed his head to the woman's chest. They sat back on their heels and took Eve's hand.

"Let's go."

The girl nodded, tears flowing down her cheeks silently.

"Do you have a horse?"

Eve nodded again. Aidan recognized the signs of shock taking over her functions. They sharply tugged the girl to her feet. Sounds of fear and violence came from the rooms of the other guests. Near the door, Brendan's body lay in an awkward heap, his head twisted too far to one side. The din of slaughter met them as they stepped over the threshold and into the market square. The village was in chaos.

Despite the heavy rain, almost every roof was livid with oily flame. Screams met Aidan from all directions. They watched as the priest was dragged from his own church, half-naked and covered in blood. Men appeared from within, their arms filled with gold candlesticks, tapestries, and any other loot to be found. Eve stood stock still, her face pale with horror.

Aidan dragged the girl around the side of the inn, hoping not to attract attention. They stepped into the stables, which had now also begun to burn. The horse inside was whinnying with terror. Aidan led it from the stall and hoisted Eve onto the beast as she suddenly found her voice.

"I don't know how to ride!" she said shrilly.

"Hold on," Aidan growled the advice, burying the girl's hands in the mare's mane. He pointed the horse toward the eastern road and slapped its haunches. With a fearful scream, the horse took off into the night. Aidan watched to make sure Eve made it to the edge of town without harassment, then turned quickly on their heels and sped toward the hill that led to Riona's farm, following the small worn path she had taken only hours before.

The Hawthorn Throne (Book 1, The Blood Of Emrys Duology)Where stories live. Discover now