Chapter Eleven

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Riona's eyes were shut. In the murk of waking from a deep sleep, she believed herself to be still at home in her stone hut near the sea. The sound of soft conversation she mistook for the hush of waves. Finally, the smell of frying eggs and fresh bread revived her completely. Riona's mouth opened in a wide yawn as she sat up in bed, the blankets falling about her loosely.

"Good morning!" came Morgause's cheery voice. 

Riona rubbed her cheeks absently and gave a soft, "Morning" in response.

"The boys have gone out to the fields already but I managed to save you some breakfast."

Riona stood. The stone of the floor was cold against her feet. Her hair had shaken loose from its braid in the night, hanging loose and thick with waves about her shoulders. Morgause stood and inspected her. There was a flicker of a thought that moved through the older woman's eyes as she did so. 

Morgause handed her a new simple hempen frock to replace her old gown. "Well, you certainly seem improved. Sit. Eat," she commanded.

Riona sat at the table where Gareth was finishing his breakfast and waited patiently as Morgause pushed steaming eggs, summer berries, and slices of still warm bread on to her plate. Riona ate gratefully.

Morgause stood behind her, fingers fishing carefully through her long locks, twisting them into a neat braid again. She hummed as she worked and Riona felt a part of her heart, which had died with her mother, beat again.

"Now," said Morgause, as Riona finished her meal, "let us go find my sons, eh?"

"I needn't linger," said Riona, "I have taken up enough of your hospitality."

Morgause paused, her eyes searching Riona's expression. "Gareth, go see if your father needs help."

"But—."

"Now."

As the young boy begrudgingly moved outside, Morgause turned her searching gaze back upon Riona who felt promptly pinned to the chair beneath her. "You have somewhere to be, then? That you are so anxious to leave."

Riona felt her mouth dry up. She shook her head.

"I willn't ask what happened to you." Morgause's voice was gentle but firm. "You look like you barely made it out alive."

The older woman tipped Riona's chin up with a single finger, forcing her to meet her stare. Riona's throat clenched at the thought of having to continue on to the unknown of the road, alone. The memory of Aidan commanding her to run returned, and she felt panic twisting her lungs into knots. Her thoughts were so muddled, she did not at first understand Morgause's next words.

"We have a home with plenty, and but a small hamlet to care for. Another mouth is no burden and an extra pair of hands is always welcome. I ammn't forcing you to stay. If you must leave, then go."

Riona's heart was beating so quickly in her chest it left no room for breath. She stood shakily, and as she did so, caught the look of tender care in Morgause's eyes.

"But you need not, child."

"I am..." Riona's voice caught in her throat, "I am unused to kindness."

Morgause's face softened and she wrapped her arms around Riona's quivering form. "You will find nothing but kindness here," she said gently.

Tears began to stream down Riona's cheeks and she sobbed quietly into Morgause's shoulder. The woman held her without complaint until her breathing had eased and she could stand on her own two feet.

Morgause wiped away the tracks of tears that had formed on Riona's face. "Let's go see what my sons are up to."

With that, she took Riona's hand and led her from the home. A robin's trill greeted them. Gareth, who had been lingering near the door, sped toward the fields at top speed, calling out to his brothers. Together Morgause and Riona moved toward the barley fields, still green in the early summer air. 

"We should have a good harvest this year," said Lot as the women approached.

"Thank the gods," said Morgause, with the first hint of sadness Riona had sensed in the woman. "Winter past we lost too many." She shook her head as if to clear away the memory. Gawain leaned on the shaft of the spade in his hands, his gaze shifting slowly from his mother to Riona.

"Well met, Riona." His voice was as warm as the mid-morning sun shining down on them. "You look much improved." His red hair glinted like spun gold and Riona clenched her teeth in a futile effort to keep her cheeks from flushing as he cast a small smile in her direction. "I hope our bed doesn't stink half as much as Agravain does."

"I heard that!" called the middle brother indignantly, brandishing his spade in Gawain's direction. 

Lot gave a raucous laugh and Riona let herself smile.

"It was the best rest I've had in days," she said honestly.

"In that case, we better put you to work," said Lot with a wink.

"Lot—" Morgause began but Riona cut her off.

"I would love to help, I miss—" Riona let the words die off as she swallowed back the thought of her own farm and home. 

Lot nodded. "If you know your way around a field, many hands make light work. We're clearing the weeds."

Riona hitched up the simple gown Morgause had lent her that morning, tying the base into a knot at her knees. Lot and his sons were spaced a row apiece. Riona took her place, cupped her dress, and began to pluck at the ground, throwing the unwanted plants into the basin of fabric. 

Morgause clapped her hands."Guess I best be on to my own chores then." And with a wink at Riona, she turned toward the barn.

The Orkney's began to sing as they worked. Lot led the song with a deep booming bass that rose and fell in a thick gravel tone over the folk tune. The boys chimed in, voices in unison at various points, harmonizing effortlessly with the blend of tone only blood relation can create. Gawain took over the next song with his honey baritone; he glanced aside at Riona as he began. It was a song of young lovers that left her head buzzing. As the last chorus ended, she found herself beginning a song on her own. One that she had heard her mother sing many years ago.

"Come, all ye fair and tender girls

That flourish in your prime

Beware, beware, keep your garden fair

Let no man steal your thyme

Let no man steal your thyme

For when your thyme is past and gone

He'll care no more for you"

The men knew the tune and combined their voices with her on the repeated lines. Though Riona's back was sore from stooping in the dirt, the music kept her spirits lifted, and soon the sun was slipping into evening and the air cooling about them. A shrill whistle from the edge of the field called them all back for supper. Morgause stood in the doorway of the home, a hand fixed to her hip.

"Work did you well," she said, brushing an errant hair from Riona's face, "your eyes are bright and cheeks red with sun."

Riona smiled broadly. "Your men are good bards and better workers."

Lot stepped into the doorway and lifted Morgause into his arms. "I missed you," he whispered into her red hair. 

The older woman flushed and took her husbands face into her hands, kissing his forehead. "Put me down, you oaf."

Lot did as he was told, and Morgause herded her boys to the table.

The meal passed as rowdy as the last, and Riona again spent most of it in silence, studying the personality of each Orkney and how they interwove with the others to create the tapestry of their family. Gareth tossed a chunk of parsnip into the air and caught it in his mouth to uproarious applause from Gaheris and a stern look from Morgause. Riona laughed with the rest and felt an unfamiliar and almost forgotten feeling of peace begin to bloom in her heart.

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