Chapter Six

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Aidan and Riona walked in silence. The dank darkness of the forest was oppressive. Riona walked close to Aidan's side as if a shadow. Their breath misted and mingled in the cool air, barely visible in the thin moonlight that leaked through the thick canopy of trees. The young woman began to hum to herself, quietly filling the silence. To Aidan's surprise, they recognized the tune.

"Where did you hear that?" they asked sharply, regretting their tone immediately.

"M-my Mother," Riona responded repentantly. "She's...Dead," she said, not volunteering any more of an explanation.

"Forgive me," Aidan replied awkwardly.

"No-no I just..." she hesitated, "No one ever asks."

"Had you no other parent?" Aidan could barely hide their curiosity.

Riona shook her head.

Aidan thought that was the end of it, but she continued, "there were rumors of a Druid but..." her voice drifted off as she glanced at them beneath her lashes. "Until now I mightn't've...well—"

"Believed it?" Aidan interjected.

Riona nodded again.

The pair walked in silence for a moment.

"Your parentage, is that why you live outside the village?" Aidan questioned, feeling a prick of guilt when she did not answer right away.

"I live outside the village because that's where I want to live," she said, quiet yet firm.

Aidan lost track of how many miles they had put between themselves and the coast. Riona's expression was inscrutable, her mind obviously elsewhere. Aidan gnawed on their lip, searching for conversation.

"Are you feeling alright?" they finally asked weakly. 

Riona blinked slowly and then inclined her head to look up at them. "What?"

Aidan took in a breath. "Well most people-after something like that-well it's not every day that-I..."

Riona's grey eyes flicked across Aidan's features curiously as they fumbled for words.

"I'm fine," Riona's voice was quiet and cold.

Aidan swallowed. "Yes well—"

"I can take care of myself," Riona said, still holding them in her unflinching gaze. 

Aidan stared back. "Clearly." They let the conversation drop. "We should seek shelter," they said, rapidly changing the subject.

"Where?" Riona gestured to the damp forest around them.

Aidan took Riona's hand, and led her from the path and into the trees. They could feel her trepidation, like a bristling cat.

"You are safe with me, Ríoghnach," Aidan promised.

She said nothing. A few yards into the thick of the trees they halted before a large circle of white mushrooms.

"A fairy circle!" she exclaimed in sudden delight.

Aidan smiled at the sudden joy that washed over her features. "Is that what you call them?" Aidan watched a thin blush rise on her cheeks. "Step inside," they urged.

Riona cast Aidan a wary glance. "No."

Aidan cocked one eyebrow in surprise. "Why?"

Riona flexed her thumb in front of her face.

"One," she intoned, Cornish accent flaring dramatically, "that's a fairy circle, which you aren't supposed to get into on your own much less in the company of one of the Fae," she said nodding toward Aidan, "Two," her pointer finger now jutted out, "I amn't stupid."

Aidan licked their lips. "What exactly do you believe is going to happen?"

Riona blinked in surprise, sensing the seriousness of the question.

"Well..." her voice fell off, and she looked down sheepishly, "depends on who you ask, but most folks seem to think you'll be trapped, carted off to wherever it is your people come from or—" Riona stopped when she noticed Aidan's hurt expression.

"Druids made them," they said softly, "that much is true. But," Aidan took a deep breath, "we made them to protect travelers, not entrap them."

Riona's mouth parted in surprise.

"Step inside," Aidan said again.

Riona swallowed thickly, but nodded and did as she was told, letting out a small gasp as she passed the perimeter of white caps. Aidan joined her and felt immediate relief. Inside the circle, the air was warm, but not close. The ground beneath them was a velvet moss and the light of the moon seemed, not brighter, but clearer.

"It's beautiful," Riona said breathlessly. 

A small smile passed over Aidan's lips. "I think so too."

Riona drew her cloak tighter about her shoulders.

"Rest," Aidan ordered.

"What about you?" she countered.

Aidan shook their head. "I am not tired, besides that, we are not out of danger; someone must keep watch."

Riona's brow knitted together in concern but she curled up near the center of the ring. Whether it was from Aidan's stoic presence or the magic of the circle or both, she was asleep in mere moments. The Druid leaned back on their hands and gazed upward at those few stars that slipped through the grasp of the leaves above.

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