Chapter Thirty-One

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The dim light of morning cast a grey glow about the small drab room. Aidan was seated still and quiet beside Riona on the rotted excuse for a mattress. After chastising Riona for her sneaking off, nightmares had plagued them until they gave up on the thought of sleep. They ran a distracted finger along the edge of their hunting knife. Riona was still asleep, her gentle breathing the only sound. Aidan could not bring themself to wake her. Her face looked serene and unworried in the early light, dark auburn hair glowing around her like a halo on a monastery fresco. Aidan reached down and absently brushed a few stray strands from her face. Riona stirred, her eyes opening slowly, gaze distant as it affixed on Aidan.

"We need a horse." Aidan stood, stretching their arms across their chest.

Riona did not answer. Aidan turned back toward the bed. She was gazing down at her hands absently.

"Riona?"

"Horse," she said, her voice still thick with sleep, "I heard you."

Finally, after an uncomfortable silence, she tried to stand, but instead let out a soft sound and fell back onto the bed. Aidan was instantly at her side.

"It's nothing, just a bit d-dizzy," she said, standing again. Aidan's hand hovered near her shoulder.

"I'm fine, Aidan," she said more sharply.

Aidan nodded quickly and turned to leave, lifting Riona's pack onto their shoulders.

Outside the inn, Londinium was beginning to wake. A gruff looking man pulled a cart laden with cabbages past them. A few patrons wandered toward the markets in search of breakfast. Riona hovered near Aidan, her expression full of wonder once again. It was the first sign of emotion they had seen from her. As the pair passed a Baker's stall, Riona distractedly licked her lips. Aidan smirked and stopped, handing the vendor a few tin pieces. The woman proffered Riona a fresh honey cake, still warm and smelling sweet.

Riona's eyes widened and she tore off a chunk, savoring the taste with closed eyes. Aidan took a small piece and tossed it into their mouth without ceremony. They waved Riona on and she followed, still enjoying her breakfast. They passed a beggar, hobbled at the feet and covered in what seemed years of grime. Riona's eyes lingered and before Aidan could tell her to do otherwise, she spun around and handed the rest of the cake to the poor soul. 

Aidan blinked slowly as Riona trotted back up to them. "You cannot save the whole city, Ríoghnach."

Riona flushed just slightly. "I know," she responded, her voice low.

The two of them neared a stable, and Aidan strode up to the horsemaster who looked Aidan up and down with a quizzical expression.

"Have any stock for sale?" Aidan asked.

"For more than you've got I'd wager."

Aidan propped their hands on their hips, lazily inspecting the few mares they could see from the road. "Eh this is leftovers, anyway."

They turned to leave.

"I've got the best breeds in town," said the horsemaster, spitting to one side. 

Aidan spun back around and laughed. "This lot? I wouldn't feed 'em to stray dogs."

The horsemaster flushed a grizzly purple. "Wart!" he commanded to a frightened-looking stable boy, "bring out that gelding from Northumbria." Wart disappeared around a stall and returned trailing the horse in question. It was sixteen hands high, tawny red in color with a long dark mane. "Feed to the dogs," spat the horsemaster again.

Aidan circled around the horse, keeping a hand on its quarters at all times. They examined its teeth and recently shod hooves. The gelding was of a thick build, giving away its northern mountain lineage. In face, however, it resembled the leaner breeds across the channel.

"I'll give you ten pieces for him," said Aidan, aiming laughably low.

The horsemaster slapped his leg with a guffaw. "No less than forty," he sobered instantly.

"With saddle?" countered Aidan.

The horsemaster narrowed his eyes. "Fine."

Aidan counted out the coin, and then tossed it to the horsemaster. Wart led the gelding up to Aidan fully dressed. The Druid extended one hand slowly. The horse huffed and pressed its velvety muzzle into Aidan's palm. Aidan felt themself smile and stroked the gelding's mane.

"Well, Riona," said Aidan, as they maneuvered back into the road, "what should we call him?"

The horse turned to observe her with one eye, and Riona rested her hand on its neck. "He's beautiful."

Aidan handed her the reins. "He's yours."

Riona's mouth parted in surprise. "What?" she asked quietly.

Aidan nodded. "You should name him."

The horse nudged Riona in the shoulder with its wide forehead. Riona gave a small laugh and gently scratched its withers. "Gringolet."

Aidan smirked. "A bit grand don't you think?"

"So is he," she said affirmatively.

Aidan shook their head and chuckled, but said no more. The new trio moved down the cobblestoned street, Riona holding the reins tightly in her fist as if the slightest brush of wind would tear them from her grasp. Gringolet followed her with confident trust. The horse seemed to have an easy temperament which was a blessing.

"We need supplies, Dún Ad is far to the North." 

When Riona did not respond Aidan turned to look at her. "Riona?"

She looked dazed. "Hmmm?"

Aidan's brow furrowed. "Are you well?"

"It's just the heat."

It was barely mid-morning. The sun had not yet reached its peak in the sky and it was fair weather for a summer day. Aidan swallowed their thoughts unspoken. Gradually, the afternoon wore on as they moved among other vendors, buying necessities for the road. Dried fruits, a few skins of wine, hard rolls of bread, strips of salted pork and other essentials they packed into Gringolet's saddlebags. Riona was uncharacteristically passive for most of it, looking pale and drawn. Aidan finally pulled her aside from the main traffic of the road, their hands gripping her shoulders firmly.

"Riona, you must tell me if something is amiss, you look worse for wear."

Riona shook her head firmly, but her body swayed slightly beneath Aidan's grasp. She pressed her lips together into a thin line; beads of sweat were beginning to break out on her forehead. 

Aidan touched their hand to her brow and cursed. "You have a fever."

"I'm fine," was Riona's weak response.

"You are a poor liar is what you are," Aidan retorted, releasing her and turning back the way they had come. 

Riona let out a gnarled cough. "Aidan..." the sound of Riona's voice barely broke over the hubbub of the street. 

Aidan turned slowly. Riona's eyes were wide, one hand held out before her, fingertips slick with thick dark blood, matching that which was slowly oozing from the corner of her lips. Riona trembled as she tipped forward into Aidan. Without hesitation, they scooped her up into their arms; setting her into Gringolet's saddle and swinging up behind her in one swift motion.

"Out of the way!" Aidan yelled as they turned the horse into the street. A path divided before them as Gringolet sped up, the sound of his hooves clicking against the cobblestone. Aidan's jaw clenched as Riona's hand tugged weakly at their shirt. They growled in frustration, weaving the horse through throngs of people toward the northern gate of the city. Riona's body was hot against them, her hand fell away limply as she slumped in the saddle.

"Dammit, Riona," Aidan said trying to hide the tremor of worry in their voice, "Why can you not listen...why can you not listen."

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