Chapter Twenty-Four

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Hester took in a deep breath of air as she sat down beside Riona at the evening fire. She had gone to speak with her father after a light dinner of fresh fish and stale barley cakes, leaving Riona alone to ruminate on the day's occurrences. Aidan sensed she was not prepared to forgive them yet and had maintained their distance. The smoke of the fire filled her nostrils, her thoughts racing despite the quiet mood of the evening.

"Will you walk with me?" Hester turned to her with a small smile.

Riona nodded, and the two women left the glow of the fire and slowly made their way to the edge of the camp.

"I want to look at the stars," Hester said distractedly.

She took Riona's hand, thumb tracing the tops of her knuckles. With confident steps, she led Riona to the top of a hill that overlooked the rest of the road to Londinium. They could just barely see the city, a small shadowy shape on the horizon. Behind the women, the Levi's camp was also a vague blot on the landscape. The evening sun was setting at their backs, painting the sky in a deep, ruddy pink and sending long golden tendrils across the moors.

"So much has happened," Riona said softly, "I never thought I'd see Londinium in my time."

Hester's hand squeezed her own gently. Riona glanced at her. The young woman's dark features were hard to make out in the shadow caused by the setting sun.

"What will you and Aidan do once we reach the city?"

Riona could not help her surprised tone as she responded. "Do you still intend to go? Despite the sickness?"

Hester's head tilted up toward the darkening sky. "We have nowhere else to rest," she murmured, "my sister's marriage is our chance at a new home."

Riona thought on this. "Aidan has not said what we will do."

"Aidan is not yet used to sharing their counsel, I think," said Hester with a soft smile. The stars were beginning to flicker in the veil, and Hester's expression grew warm, the moonlight sending flecks of light dancing in her dark brown eyes. "I think our paths will diverge soon, Riona. Though it makes my heart ache to think on it."

Riona reached out in the darkness, her fingers searching for the comfort of Hester's touch. The two women drew together like two sides of cloth sewn at the seam.

"I do not wish to lose you." Riona's words were muffled in the crook of Hester's neck.

"Find me again and tell me the rest of your tale, someday," Hester said comfortingly.

Riona felt a warm tear glance across her hair as Hester pet her head. She could feel the woman's soft, plump form beneath layers of cloth. Riona curled her fingers through the tips of Hester's thick curls, trying her best to memorize the sensation. Then Hester's lips brushed Riona's tentatively. Riona pressed back. Her lips were impossibly soft, so different from her first experience with Gawain. Riona's fingertips trembled over Hester's cheeks. Her skin was so warm; Riona's heartbeat quickened. There was no more hesitation in Hester's touch, it was as if their bodies had been intertwined for as long as Riona could remember. She let out a soft sigh, and Hester paused, smiling.

"Now your loss will be all the more bitter," she mused, kissing Riona's forehead delicately.

Hot tears stung the corner of Riona's eyes, but she bit them back. Her heart retreated into her chest, and she felt the walls that had stood around it for so long begin to rebuild.

"I chose this." Riona's voice was distant. "Now I must see it through to its end."

"Riona." Hester's voice was insistent. "Heal this rift between yourself and Aidan, there is a darkness there that must not be allowed to grow, or I fear for both of you."

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