Chapter Eighteen

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"I am Hester bat Isaac ha-Levi," said the young woman, "it seems you've already met my father."

"I am Aidan Andraste," said Aidan genteelly, "and this is my traveling companion Riona of Cornwall."

Riona nodded politely.

"We are fellow travelers," said Hester, "please join us for the evening."

"You are kind, sister," responded Aidan, "but we could not impose."

Hester eyed Aidan with a flicker of amusement and then responded, her voice sighing.

"As my father has said, the more, the merrier."

"If you insist," said Aidan, "but we offer these things in exchange for your hospitality."

Aidan rummaged in the pack and withdrew a bottle of wine and a small sack of barley. Hester took these into her hands and nodded her thanks.

"Come," she said with a wave of her round arm, beckoning them toward the fire.

The sound of a lively viol started up again. Riona's spirits brightened at the sound. Curious eyes followed them as Hester moved to a blanket that had been spread across a soft area of grass beneath an old oak tree.

"Please rest," she said in gentle authority, "let me get you something to eat."

Aidan sat cross-legged, observing the fire. Riona chose a spot next to them, anxiously twisting her dress into tiny knots with her fists.

Hester returned with two steaming bowls of soup. Riona gladly sucked down the broth. It was made from roots and had large chunks of wild leek. Aidan smirked as Riona lowered the empty bowl.

"Take your time," they said in their typical cool tone.

Riona flushed. In the warm light of the fire, she could feel her eyelids growing heavier. "Why are you traveling?" she asked.

There was a long silence before Hester replied. "My sister, Zipporah, is to be married to a merchant in Londinium."

Riona glanced around at the large camp. A large tent had been set up in the glade across from the fire. Inside were all the men of Hester's family who seemed to be discussing something vigorously as the women outside prepared for the next day of travel and made merry.

"You all left your home for a wedding?"

Aidan glared at Riona when Hester's face twisted slightly.

"We...we were no longer welcome."

Riona studied Hester's full, honest face, her beautiful head of curling dark hair, and wondered what city could possibly expel such a woman. An impulse enveloped her, and she reached out, taking Hester's hand in her own. Hester startled, but after the moment passed, she relaxed and gripped Riona's fingers tightly.

"I know what such distrust feels like."

Hester smiled. "I am sorry for your company," she said with a joking laugh.

The trio sat in silence for a long while, listening to the music of a wooden flute, viol, and drum.

"Come," said Hester affirmatively, pulling on Riona's hand and drawing her toward the fire.

Riona made a sound of surprise and cast a horrified stare in Aidan's direction. Aidan let out a bark of a laugh and dismissed Riona's terror with a loose wave of their hand.

"Dance with me!" demanded Hester, swinging Riona into the circle of dancing women.

"I cannot dance!" Riona yelled over the music.

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