Chapter Seventeen

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Aidan paced as they waited anxiously among the apple trees. The sun was full and bright in the summer sky, casting a golden light across the green fields of barley that danced below. The sound of soft footsteps arrived over the breeze. Aidan's head turned slowly toward the source as a petite figure crested the hill. They let out a sigh as Riona neared. Her face was impassive, but Aidan noted her red-rimmed eyes and damp cheeks. Guilt wrenched their stomach.

"You came," they said hesitantly as if speaking the words aloud would cause her to dissipate into the air.

Riona did not reply. She simply stared up at them, her grey eyes masking an internal struggle. Aidan stood rooted in place, unsure of any words that might break the tension. Before any came to mind, Riona snapped.

"Where were you?!"

Aidan's eyebrows shot up their forehead in surprise. Riona drew closer, and Aidan shifted uneasily. Her head barely made it to the center of their chest, but she stood up on tiptoe and placed her hands against their cheeks, turning their face side to side. Aidan flinched.

"Where did those bruises come from? What happened? Why did you take so long? Who did this? Did you kill them?" Riona flooded the air with these questions and more. Aidan signaled for her to stop, but Riona ignored them until finally, Aidan was forced to place one hand over her lips. Silenced, Riona stared up at them indignantly.

"I did not think you would join me, Riognach."

She softened slightly at the sound of her name on their tongue. "Answer my question."

Aidan smirked. "Which one?"

Riona smacked them in the chest with the flat of her palm. The sound, more than the violence, made Aidan jump in surprise.

"I had to get someone off our trail," Aidan said sharply.

The storm cloud over Riona's head diffused slightly, but her gaze was unflinching. "Makda?"

Aidan's expression shifted quickly into stunned anger. "How do you-Ava was supposed to guard you!" their voice shook.

Riona jerked her head toward the road. "We should leave."

Together they took to the path that led down the hill and joined up with a larger road. A heavy silence weighed upon both of them. Aidan glanced over their shoulder at the hamlet as it drifted further and further behind. They tried to imagine what Riona's future would have been like had she stayed. Small red-haired children tugging on the hem of her dress, fields bountiful with crops under her tender care, Riona, old and surrounded by family. It was a future Aidan knew nothing about. They could offer her no such fairytale. Riona began to sing quietly beside them, her warm alto voice hovering in the warm early summer air. Aidan felt glad she had chosen them despite all that.

The pair walked all through the afternoon. The sun was already low in a clear blue sky by the time they stopped to rest. Riona sat down on a broken tree stump on the edge of the road, slinging her pack next to her feet. Aidan watched as she rummaged inside, withdrawing the contents piece by piece. Hard rolls of bread, a woolen blanket, dried herbs, and a few tinctures. Riona let out a gasp, and Aidan took a step closer. She pulled out a beautiful blue gown, simple in design but of high-quality material.

"Oh, Morgause," Riona said softly.

She held the dress in her hands as if it were made of the finest jewels. She stood, letting the fabric unfurl against her form, Aidan's breath quickened.

A large scrubby Hawthorn bush rose before them, shining in the eerie silver moonlight. A figure stood beneath the tree garbed in a dress of deepest blue. Long waves of chestnut hair fell past her waist, dancing unnaturally in the air. The branches of the tree burst slowly into bloom, raining their petals down around her.

The memory of the dream hit them full force as they reached out to touch the dress. The fabric was cool beneath their fingertips.

"Aidan?" Riona's voice brought them back to the present.

They drew back their hand sharply. "It is beautiful," they said through dry lips.

Riona's expression grew puzzled, but she did not pry.

Aidan took a long swig of wine while Riona nibbled absently at a handful of dried berries and continued her exploration of the pack. There was a small carving that looked something like a boy. Riona said it was probably a gift from Gareth, the youngest son. Among other things, there was an abundance of food. The Orkney's had wanted Riona well-fed whatever else may befall her. Aidan felt another stab of guilt at having pulled her away from such love.

"We should continue on," they said softly.

Riona nodded and tucked her belongings away once again. Before she could shoulder the pack, Aidan lifted it into their hands and swung it across their own back. "I'll carry it."

Riona observed them for a moment and then shrugged. Together they continued on. The sun made its descent, and a chill breeze from the north turned the air cool.

"That boy, Gawain, was in love with you," said Aidan after clearing their throat.

"Perhaps," Riona said quietly.

Aidan breathed in.

"It looked like more than a perhaps from the way he fought for you to stay."

Riona shot Aidan a glance from the corner of her eye. "Gawain and I were on the same path," said Riona finally, after an unsettling moment of silence, "but perhaps we were not meant to travel together."

Aidan kicked at a stone and did not reply.

Evening fell over the countryside swiftly, and Riona's pace began to drag.

"We can rest, Riona," insisted Aidan.

Riona looked about to reply when the sound of music and laughter drifted toward them from further down the road. Aidan's body drew up, tense like a bowstring. They motioned for Riona to hide in the cover of the trees and then stalked forward with silent steps. It seemed like ages before Aidan turned the corner and found the source of the sound. A small camp had been set up in the bend of the road. In the center was a blazing fire, surrounded by an assortment of individuals. One of these turned. A thin man with salt and pepper hair drew up in front of Aidan and paused to inspect them.

"Eh! Look what wandered in off the road!" he said almost triumphantly.

Aidan stood to their full height as the music stopped, and numerous pairs of eyes turned upon them. A familiar presence appeared at their right side. Riona glanced up at them, her eyes dazzling in the light of the moon.

The older gentleman leaned back on his heels as he turned to look over Riona. "Two!" he said, "Well, the more, the merrier!"

Aidan could not help but chuckle at the man's enthusiasm. A girl younger than Riona, by a few years, approached. Her raven hair hung loose down her wide, shapely back. She scrutinized them both beneath dark, thick lashes. She must have approved of what she saw as a smile split her comely features. When she spoke, her voice was as sweet as honey.

"Shalom Aleichem, strangers."

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