Chapter Forty-Five

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Aidan slipped from the saddle and walked Gringolet forward through the fog, following the sound of the man's voice as he continued to talk at them. In no time at all, the group crested a small slope, and the mists cleared, revealing a grouping of stone cells that popped up from the landscape like beehives. The slow eerie singing of the monks lingered in the air as they approached. The brother that had found them returned the lost sheep to a corral made of woven branches set not far from the small stone buildings.

"Wait here," he ordered before disappearing into the largest of these huts.

Aidan helped Riona down from the saddle, and she took in the rest of this small enclave. There were carefully tended gardens sloping down the hill and a well that was obviously rigorously maintained. The sound of the monks' melodic chanting was welcome, if eerie, in the swamp of darkness that surrounded them as they waited. The music ceased after a few minutes, and the brother returned, followed by another younger monk.

"I am Abbot Odhran," said the new brother. "Brother Tyrin says he found you wandering the mists."

Brother Tyrin was nodding slowly as if to accentuate the truth of the matter.

"Indeed," said Aidan.

The abbot studied both Aidan and Riona for a long moment. "You are welcome to spend the night here, in fact, Brother Tyrin has offered up his own cell for your stay."

Brother Tyrin was still nodding. "Guests, hmmm, probably hungry," he murmured to himself.

"He is right, please rest, and we will bring you refreshments."

"We have food, brothers," said Aidan quickly, "I would not want to deplete your hospitality."

"It is our pleasure to provide God's bounty," said the abbot, raising two fingers next to his head.

"Then we thank you," Aidan nodded.

The abbot gestured for them to follow as Brother Tyrin went to fetch them dinner, Alpin the dog trotting at his heels. The stone cell was smaller than Riona's home had been and far more sparse. The abbot was bent over the small fire pit, gently breathing on the embers and coaxing them with words. When the flames met his satisfaction, he sat back on his haunches.

"Brother Tyrin will bring you food, rest well."

Aidan and Riona murmured their thanks as the monk brushed out the door. In what seemed too little time, Brother Tyrin returned, both hands full with trays of fresh vegetables and smoked fish. Alpin gave them a goodnight bark, then the odd pair left them to their own devices. For a long moment, neither said anything. Then almost simultaneously, they both burst into laughter. The sight of Aidan's face lit up with joy, softened Riona's heart, and she felt some of her anger wash away in its warmth. The pair dug into the generous meal, savoring the fresh goods as a rarity to be found in travel.

The heat from the small fire was enough to warm the small stone cell quickly; Riona took off her cloak as it grew too much. Aidan did so as well, and Riona found her eyes following the dramatic lines of their lanky body.

"Aidan...."

"Yes?" They seemed to brighten at her address.

Riona searched for her next words carefully. "Do druids..." Aidan waited patiently for her to find the way through the thought. "Are you-do you—"

"The best course is usually to simply ask whatever it is you intend on asking," Aidan quipped.

Riona sent them a gentle glare and then sighed. "Fine," she said gruffly.

"I await with bated breath," they responded playfully.

"Do druids have men and women?" The question sounded childish as it passed her lips, and she immediately flushed.

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