Chapter Eight

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Riona stumbled out of the forest and into the withering light of evening. She groaned, collapsing to her knees. Thirst caked the inside of her mouth, and her deadened body was so numb she barely felt the grass beneath her. All through the night, she had fled, careening recklessly through the forest in one direction, hoping that she might find its end. Now she had reached it; hunger clawed at her stomach. Riona swallowed thickly and gazed down into the valley that stretched before her.

The trees behind her had given way to lush rolling hills dimpled with farms. The hamlet appeared small but prosperous. Riona struggled to her feet and forced herself down the hill toward the nearest and largest stead. Her empty stomach roiled with anxiety.

She ran a hand over her hair and found it greasy and stringy against her skin, falling out from its braid in every direction. If her hands were any indication, she must look as if she had spent the better part of the day in a hog-waller. She, an unaccompanied, filthy, ravaged looking woman who wandered out of the woods, must plead for help from these strangers. The thought brought tears to her eyes. Her legs gave out from beneath her, and she sank down once again into the embrace of the earth. Perhaps she would simply lay here until Aidan, wolves, or hunger found her first.

"Are you hurt?" a small voice asked.

Riona started and rolled over to get a better look. Two large brown eyes stared back at her beneath a mop of thick red curls. The boy considered her for a moment and twitched his nose.

"Are you a witch?" he asked, crossing his arms, "I saw you come out of the forest."

The boy's Devon brogue was endearing when matched with his overly serious demeanor that masked a visible curiosity at having found her. Riona relaxed ever so slightly.

"Would I tell you if I was?" she retorted.

The boy studied her with narrow eyes and then shrugged. "I s'pose not."

Riona rose back into a sitting position. "Is this your farm?" she said, gesturing to the lodgings down the hill.

"Me Mum and Da's," said the boy evasively.

"I need help," Riona said, stretching her palms out and up before her.

The boy pursed his lips in thought. "Eh," he relented, "follow me."

With a youthful spin, he turned and sprinted down the hill. Riona took a steadying breath and rose to limp after him.

A high clear voice called out to them. "Gareth, who is that with you?"

"A witch, I think!"

A middle-aged woman stepped out to meet them, wiping her hands hastily in the apron tied about her waist. Gareth came to an abrupt halt and turned to wait for Riona.

"I'm sorry to intrude—" Riona's voice trembled.

"By the gods, girl!"

Riona's mouth hung open mid-apology.

Gareth's mother approached her with hands outstretched. "You look as if you had been dragged here from Tintagel."

Riona flinched as the woman's thin calloused hands met her cheeks, hazel eyes searching Riona's features with a look of soft mortification.

"Come inside, quick now." She gripped Riona's hand with authority. "Gareth, fetch your Da and brothers from the field; it's almost time to sup."

Riona let the woman drag her inside the farmhouse as the boy scampered away. She was promptly stripped and plunged into a small wooden tub filled with freshly steaming water, a warm luxury Riona had never before indulged in.

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