Chapter Five

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Riona was crouched near the fire pit in the center of her home. The storm outside howled through the small fissures between the mud and stone of the walls. Rain poured down in heavy torrents upon her thatched roof. She pressed her eyes shut, clasping her arms about her knees. A snap of thunder shook the earth, and her goats made an alarmed chorus of sound, the bells around their necks jingling in harmony. Riona had brought the animals inside the hut to shelter them from the storm, but keeping them calm was impossible.

A small plate of cold food sat untouched by her side. The vision in the marketplace had sent her stomach churning. If the past was any indication, she would not be able to keep anything down for at least a week. Riona pushed away the thought and instead found herself thinking of the night before.

"Aidan," Riona had not meant to say the Druid's name out loud, it slipped from her lips as if to summon them. Riona tugged at the edge of her cloak, tightening it about her shoulders, drifting so far into ruminations that she mistook the knock on her door for the sound of thunder.

"Riona!"

The call of her own name brought her swiftly back to the present. Riona's lips parted in surprise as she stood. "Who's there?"

The pounding came again.

"By the gods woman, open this door!"

Riona neared the doorframe, her eyes narrowing. "Who are you?" she demanded.

Riona could almost make out an exasperated sigh.

"Aidan!"

Riona inhaled sharply. She opened the door just a crack.

"Why've you returned?" she asked over the howl of the wind.

Aidan took the opportunity to thrust open the door. "We need to leave. Now."

"It's storm—"

"I know!" Aidan interrupted through gritted teeth. They passed a hand over their face and then continued more calmly, "Riona, your vision has come true. The village is being plundered by Saxons as we speak."

Riona's chest constricted painfully.

"Gather some essentials," Aidan ordered, "We must leave, and quickly."

"But my farm-my home—"

"Will be burned to the ground and you with it."

"My stead is a long walk from the village," she insisted.

Aidan fixed her in a firm gaze. "You're going to risk your life on that?"

Riona met their gaze and steadied her breath. "No. I suppose not."

Then without further discussion, she found her leather pack and began to fill it with supplies. She carefully wrapped her dried herbs, vials of poultices, and powders. For food, she added what she had kept for herself of the cheese, a loaf of hard bread, and finally the apples, pork, and two bottles of wine she had traded for earlier that day. Last of all, she secured her cooking slate to the top with thick straps. She clasped her own cloak about her shoulders and shouldered the pack.

"Ready yet?" Aidan growled.

"What about my goats?" Riona asked shyly. The poor animals were looking at her so mournfully.

Aidan's voice was thin when they replied. "We cannot bring the goats."

Riona flushed. "I know but—"

Raised voices interrupted her. Aidan hissed and stomped out the fire. Riona stepped back in surprise, but before she could make a sound, Aidan flattened a hand over her mouth and drew her alongside the door. Their lean body was wet and cold as it pressed against her.

The door to Riona's home let out an ominous creak as it swung open, and an imposing shadow stepped through. The Saxon turned and shouted back to his companion, his vernacular so thick she could only parse portions of it. He began to move around the room, stumbling into her goats with a triumphant noise and leading them outside. Her heart was beating so quickly she imagined Aidan must be able to feel it. There was conversation out of doors and rough laughter, then the room was bathed in the flickering light of a torch. Riona felt Aidan flinch. A man of tall build with fair golden hair stood in the center of her home. The flame cast strange dancing shadows across the walls as he moved. Another man entered, and the two spoke again. Their conversation ended suddenly when one of them met Riona's stare.

Before she could even cry out, rough hands wrapped about her, dragging her into the storm. She heard Aidan shout, and then a scuffle, as she too struggled in the grasp of the Saxon.

"Cnéowe!" the Saxon barked at her.

When she did not obey by kneeling, he gripped her long braid and pulled back her head. Riona let out a cry, her mouth parting as she gazed up at the crooked grin of her captor. He laughed at her, the sound sent a chill down Riona's spine. The laughter stopped as Aidan stepped over the threshold of the hut, their hand gripping a long thin blade dripping with fresh blood. The look of ferocity in The druid's eyes chilled her to her bones. The Saxon released her, and she fell gracelessly to one side. As she scrambled to her feet, he drew his weapon and advanced on Aidan.

The next few moments moved quickly. Aidan sprang forward, blade flashing in a crack of lightning. The Saxon roared, and metal met metal. The druid's sword caught, and the man wrenched Aidan to one side, sending them sprawling through the mud.

Riona charged back into her home and found the other Saxon. One of his eyes had been pierced through, leaving blood and other bodily humors to stain the dirt floor around his head. Riona lifted his discarded axe in both hands.

Outside, the remaining Saxon had disarmed Aidan, and she watched as he pinned the druid to the muddy earth. The man laughed and raised his weapon.

Without remembering how she came to be there, Riona was standing over him, the axe of his dead compatriot buried in the Saxon's skull. Riona released the handle, and the man fell slowly forward, rain mixing with the blood that now slid through his golden hair. Aidan scrambled out from under the corpse and stared at up at Riona with an expression she could not read. They rose to their feet, gripping her shoulders tightly between their hands.

"Are you alright?" they asked; the storm was passing, the rain fell softly now.

Riona nodded mutely.

Aidan disappeared into her home and returned with her leather pack of supplies over one shoulder. "Let us leave, Ríoghnach." Their amber eyes met hers kindly.

Riona peered down the hill. The village still burned in the distance, sending tendrils of oily smoke into the moonlit night. These were no Beltane fires.

Riona nodded. Aidan watched her silently for a moment and then turned.

"We must take the wood path. The east road is too dangerous now."

Riona glanced down at the broken body of the Saxon and swallowed hard. Then without another glance behind her, she followed Aidan toward the dark tree line.

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