Chapter Nineteen

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It was evening by the time Aidan caught up with the wagon. Their legs felt stiff from the journey. The Levi's had again settled into camp as they had been the night before. Aidan approached, their eyes searching for Riona among the unfamiliar faces. She was seated with Hester next to a small fire, a bowl of food in her lap. Aidan felt a slight sense of relief at seeing her without even realizing the worry that had taken hold of them. As they drew nearer, Riona glanced up. Her eyes fixed to Aidan like a cat hunting a mouse. They swallowed hard.

"So you've found us once more," said Hester as Aidan arrived. She stood and scooped a generous portion of stew into a clay bowl and handed it to them. Aidan took it with a polite nod and sat down beside the women.

"And?" Riona asked, handing them a chunk of hard bread.

Aidan dipped the bread into the stew and sucked greedily on it before replying. "I found nothing."

"And what went you looking for?" asked Hester, her face fiercely inquisitive. Riona shot her an appreciative glance.

Aidan took another large gulp of food. "It is difficult to explain."

The women fixed them in matching dissatisfied stares.

"If my family is in danger, I would know it."

Aidan nodded and responded in tone. "I promised to protect you, and I will."

Hester nodded but looked unconvinced. Aidan glanced at Riona. She seemed visibly upset; her lips pressed shut in a thin line. She noticed Aidan's attention and feigned interest in her meal. Aidan did the same and swallowed down the rest of the stew.

"Well..." Hester said, "I should speak with my father."

As Hester stood, so did Aidan and then Riona, her empty bowl clattering to the ground. She stooped to pick it up in an awkward motion, catching Aidan's gaze as she straightened again. Aidan kept their face emotionless. Hester sensed the tension and left without another word. When they were alone, the weight of silence was practically unbearable.

Aidan let out a long sigh. "Will you speak, Riona, or must I linger in your muted judgment?"

Riona drew up with breath, her delicate features harder than ever. She held them in a sharp stare for longer than was comfortable before finally speaking. "Explain to me exactly what is going on."

Aidan leaned back on their heels. "Would, had I something to tell," they said dismissively.

"I think that after leaving my family on nothing but your word, I might have earned some truth from you, druid." Her refusal to speak Aidan's name struck them slightly.

"Again, your family?" Aidan asked softly.

"Morgause, the woman, was...is my aunt."

Aidan's head jerked up at that, and they met Riona's grey gaze.

"Your aunt?" the words sounded unreal even as they spoke them. The guilt they carried like a cloak seemed stones heavier now.

Riona advanced on them. Aidan drew in a breath at her nearness. She smelled of sage and the dust of the road.

"Ever since you wormed your way into my life, I have come face to face with my own death, not once, but twice. I left the home of my childhood, and now, the home of my heart."

There were tears sparkling in her eyes, a few slid slowly down her pale cheeks. Aidan wanted to reach out and wipe them away but withheld. Riona bit her lip and took in a sharp breath before continuing. "And yet, you disappear, again, without explanation. As if I am to blindly trust you." Her words were coming rushed now, "Why am I in danger? Who is Makda? Why did you show up on my doorstep half alive?"

Aidan reached out and took her shoulders. She wilted slightly at the touch and glanced aside.

"Peace, Ríoghnach."

At that, she seemed to ease, no longer trembling under their hands.

"I am sorry," Aidan said softly.

Riona glanced at them from the corner of her eye, her gaze searching. "That is not an answer."

Aidan let go of her shoulders. "No, it is not.

"Willn't you answer then?"

Aidan studied her for a long moment. "You say you never met your mother's lover." Aidan's voice was slow and quiet.

Riona looked them full in the face. "No."

Aidan sat back down, their elbows on their knees, eyes to the ground. "Well...I did."

Aidan did not see her expression, but they heard the sharp gasp of breath as she too knelt. For a long time, neither of them spoke. The soft hush of other voices carried over the night breeze.

"So they were..."

"A druid, yes," said Aidan, sitting up and looking at her. Her face had gone white as snow.

"Their name was Emrys." Aidan smiled softly and rubbed one hand over their eyes, "and they were my Guardian."

Riona's expression turned quizzical. Before she could ask, Aidan answered.

"Druids do not keep blood relations the way your kind do. We are given to a guardian at a very young age who raises us in the ways of their clan."

"So, Emrys was...your parent?"

Aidan licked their lips. "In a way. They were my Thaen. I was one of many children under their care. It is not so...intimate."

Riona nodded slowly. "I see."

She reached up to touch her ears as if they might suddenly have gained pointed tips. Aidan smiled gently at the gesture as she flushed in embarrassment.

"Are there others like me?"

Aidan felt their stomach tighten. "Not many."

"If I am part druid...why does Makda-" the name sounded harsh on her tongue. She clenched her teeth before continuing, "why does Makda want me dead?"

Aidan closed their eyes for a moment. "Makda has been hunting you for some time. Emrys was an important person to our people, and they wanted to use your existence to manipulate the politics of our council."

Riona absorbed this information. "Emrys was an important person?"

Her emphasis picked an old aching scab in Aidan's mind. Their voice was tender with hurt as they replied, "Emrys is dead."

Riona paled as she absorbed the knowledge that she indeed was an orphan.

"If Emrys is d-dead," she took a quick breath and then continued, "If Emrys is dead, why does Makda still pursue me?"

Aidan looked up and held Riona's gaze. "That is a more complicated question than you know."

Frustration flashed in Riona's eyes, and Aidan gave a long sigh.

"I believe it now has more to do with me than with you." Riona arched a single eyebrow as Aidan continued, "In protecting you, I have betrayed them."

The impact of everything revealed seemed to hit Riona at once as she sank down to the ground with a dazed expression. "You were—"

"Makda and I were close once."

Riona turned her head and looked off into the darkness outside the edge of the fire's light, a blank expression fixed to her features.

Is that enough answers for tonight?" Aidan asked gently.

Riona managed a half-hearted smile. "I have more questions than when we started."

Aidan nodded. "I know, but we are both tired," they deflected, "Those mules may not move quickly, but it was a long day for my two feet."

Riona yawned at that.

"Go to bed, Ríoghnach, you can pester me in our dreams."

She shot them a playfully angry glance and then stood. "Thank you for telling me," she said quietly.

Aidan nodded and watched as she disappeared into the tent.

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