Riona awoke the next morning more tired than she had been before lying down. Her sleep had been restless without the comforting magic of the fairy circle. She had spent the night rolling over thick roots and battling with her cloak for any warmth. Aidan was none the worse for wear, but that was not saying much. Riona had yet to witness them sleeping. As far as she was concerned, she felt dragged down the woodland path, her body stiff and uncooperative.
"How much longer do we have in this forest?"
"I thought you liked it here?" said Aidan, smirking.
"Another day at least," said Aidan with a chuckle.
Riona kicked at a stone.
Despite her current mood, there had been a few moments of joy in the journey so far. She had never been this deep in the wood and there were more herbs here than in her usual hunting grounds near the forest's edge. She found mushrooms aplenty and planned on making a much more fulfilling meal that night. Aidan had fussed about how often she stopped to examine the forest floor, but had not lifted a hand to stop her from foraging. Despite their show of annoyance, Riona had the feeling they were enjoying her company.
The day was cooler than the one that had preceded it. Riona glanced up toward the tops of the trees and watched as golden sunlight danced through the gaps.
"You're likely to trip, gawking like that," Aidan whispered.
Riona's head snapped back down. "I don't need a keeper either," she intoned.
"Mmmhm," was Aidan's hummed reply.
Riona pressed her lips together tightly. "Did it hurt?"
She watched as their eyebrow arched precipitating a question. "Did what hurt?"
"That," said Riona gesturing around her own eye where the woad-blue tattoo encircled Aidan's left eye.
Aidan's head tilted to one side. "Yes," they said, smacking their lips, "quite a bit in fact."
"Do all Druids have them?" Riona pressed.
"No, but all in my clan do."
Riona swallowed this information. "There's more than one clan then?"
Aidan rolled their eyes. "Is Cornwall the only place where there are people?" asked Aidan snidely.
Riona sniffed. "No."
"Then why would there be only one clan of Druids?"
"You don't exactly make yourselves known," said Riona defiantly.
The two of them moved in silence for a moment before Riona piped up again.
"What's it mean?"
Aidan sighed. "It does not mean anything."
"Then why do it?"
She could practically hear Aidan grinding their teeth.
"It is a rite of passage into adulthood. Our Guardian tattoos—it is too complicated to explain!" they finally snapped.
"Or you just don't want to," Riona chimed.
"Either way," said Aidan icily.
The afternoon was fading into evening. Riona could see the sky in its orange glow above them slipping into deep violets and blues. Still, Aidan pressed them on without rest. Finally, when dark shadows fell around them and Riona's eyelids were heavy and her movements dull, she forced a halt. Aidan reluctantly agreed and helped her to gather tinder for a small fire. Riona lay her cooking slate over the flames and occasionally tested it warily with a fingertip to check its temperature.
When she was satisfied, she sat back on her heels. "Do you have a hunting knife?"
Aidan nodded and drew out a well-kept blade, handing it to her bone handle first. She took it and began to prepare the mushrooms by slicing them in half lengthwise. They sizzled and released their earthen smell into the night air as she pressed them flat to the slate. As these cooked, she ordered Aidan to whittle down a fallen branch into a fine point. They did as they were told and it was not long before the mushrooms were steaming and browning a lovely dark color. Riona carefully punctured them with the stick, pushing one on after another. She took one in her mouth and let out a soft sigh before handing the twig over to Aidan who nodded gratefully. In no short time, the meal was shared between them and gone.
Aidan leaned back and patted their belly. "Thank you."
Riona felt herself blush. "You're welcome," she replied softly.
Tired and full, Riona sat silently beside them with no will to chase away the sleep that was overtaking her. Soon she was dreaming.
Riona stood at the edge of a rocky cliff that broke away into the cold grey ocean below. At first, she thought she was home again in her hut by the sea, but as she turned the landscape was astonishingly unfamiliar. Green snow-capped peaks rose up in front of her, dotted at their base with glistening pools and cleaved with foaming waterfalls. Riona gasped in wonder. Pillars of stone jutted out in other places like forgotten misshapen statues. Before her stood a stranger, but some part of her ached with familiarity. They were near as tall as Aidan with features fine like her own. Their hair was pulled into a long low braid of gleaming auburn. As she approached, they appeared not to see her but instead looked past her toward the horizon with piercing hazel eyes. An unknown voice called out.
The stranger turned to meet the voice and Riona reached out to touch them.
Aidan hissed her name as they shook her awake.
"What?" she asked but was muffled as Aidan smacked their hand across her lips.
Somewhere in the forest, an eerie howl echoed. Riona shivered as she sat up, hands clinging to her elbows. Aidan paused, listening. The howl came again.
"You woke me for wolves?" Riona asked quietly.
The Druid raised a single finger to their lips to silence her. They bid her stand, and she did so. Aidan drew her away from the path and into the black shadow of the trees. Torchlight appeared further down the road. Riona could vaguely make out a pair of figures. Aidan tensed beside her. The strangers were arguing in a language Riona did not understand. Suddenly one of them stopped, a hand raised. The forest seemed to grow unnaturally silent in response. Riona swore she could hear her own heart beating. Without warning, the torches went out, thrusting the world back into darkness. She dared not move or speak. Aidan pressed her firmly into a tree, drawing their cloak about both of them. A laugh flared in the darkness and Riona's blood ran cold.
"What should we do?" Riona asked in a barely audible whisper.
Aidan gazed into Riona's eyes and she saw their expression harden. "Run."
Aidan gripped Riona's hand and pulled her through the shadows; their long legs moving at an unearthly speed. Her breath became more and more labored. A wolf howled some distance away, and she felt her heart skip a beat.
"Keep going," Aidan commanded, releasing Riona's hand as they halted.
She spun around. "What are you doing?" she demanded.
Aidan drew their blade and pointed it over Riona's shoulder.
"Go!" they commanded with an expression so fierce Riona took a sudden step backward. She was about to protest when she was interrupted by another howl. Riona bit her lip in indecision.
Aidan advanced on her, their face flush with anger. "GO!"
Riona spun around and ran, venturing a glance over her shoulder. She saw Aidan turn, their blade glinting in the moonlight. Waiting.
YOU ARE READING
The Hawthorn ThroneFantasy
[Editors' Choice] A century and a half have passed following the Roman withdrawal from the British Isles, abandoning the accursed place to its plethora of chiefs and warlords. In the Kingdom of Elmet, a boy named Artorious, heir of Uther Pendragon...