Chapter Eleven

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There was a comfortable habit in the way the Orkneys spent their days. In the week Riona had been with them, she had acclimated quickly. The boys woke early to a breakfast of hot porridge every morning before joining their father in keeping the fields of the hamlet. Morgause rose earlier than them all. First, to milk the two cows on the farm, gather the eggs, and then to prepare breakfast. The smell of hot barley and nettle tea greeted Riona as she rose to greet each day. Soon she began to wake with Morgause, following the woman around home and stead, learning quickly what it meant to be a mother and wife. It was hard work, much harder than her life of solitude had been, though she quickly found herself believing the benefits of companionship far outweighed the burdens.

All that day, Morgause was working a loom to make a new cloak for Lot before winter arrived. She had Riona spinning the spring wool into yarn. It was one of the traditionally womanly tasks Riona had never learned. She stared disdainfully at the wool, her hands fumbling with the rough twine. With an exasperated sigh, she set the spindle down in her lap.

Morgause smiled without looking up from her own work. "Keep going, Riona."

Riona stifled a groan and returned to her task, biting her lip in concentration. She was distracted. All day a feeling of trepidation had followed her. She had a nagging suspicion that she had grown too close to the Orkneys too quickly. Her only experience with others was rooted in the distrust of her own village, and that had taught her only to keep people at arm's length for her own good. This family would abandon her soon enough, and she must remain vigilant.

Aidan.

The thought of the druid made her fumble with the thread, hands shaking.

Morgause glanced up; her face flickered with worry. "What is the matter with you today, child?

"N-nothing. I'm sorry."

Morgause smiled gently. "Spinning does not come easily to you." It was a statement, not a question.

Riona shook her head.

"Did your mother never teach you?"

Riona felt a needle prick her heart. "No. I had no patience for it, so she always-and then it was too late..."

Morgause's eyes passed over Riona's pained expression knowingly. "When did she die?"

Riona's throat tightened. "Six years ago," she replied softly.

Morgause set down the shuttle of the loom and moved to the hearth. After stoking the embers of the fire, she set a kettle over the flames. Riona tried to return to her task, but her trembling fingers would not twist the wool into the neat thin thread that was required. Hot tears of frustration stung the edges of her eyes. She blinked them away and brushed at her face with the back of her hand. Morgause said nothing, setting two clay cups on the table and sprinkling in dandelion and other plants. She handed Riona one of the cups and sat back down as Riona stared into the steaming water, the herbs swam lazily near the rim.

"What did she teach you?

Riona poked at a leaf with the tip of her finger, ignoring the burning sensation. "Herblore...healing...how to make the most of the earth."

"A worthy education," said Morgause, her eyes growing distant for a moment. "It is striking, you remind me so much of..." her voice trailed off. She cleared her throat and then continued, "I too lost someone when I was about your age."

Riona reached out and took Morguase's hand. The older woman let out a soft sigh.

"My younger step-sister, Morgana." Morgause's voice was tender, the wound was old, but the hurt was fresh.

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