Chapter Fifty-Three

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Riona awoke tucked into Aidan's side like a baby bird beneath their mother's wing. The Druid had one arm draped over her side protectively, their cloak for a blanket. She sat up slowly, surprised to find Aidan was asleep. Their head lolled to the side, dark hair falling over their bronze features like a brush of paint. Riona affectionately tucked it behind their pointed ear. For once Aidan did not wake screaming, instead, their golden eyes fluttering open softly. There was an open look of tenderness there Riona had not seen before and it stilled her breath for a moment.

"Good morning," she said quietly.

Aidan sat up quickly, realizing they had not kept a watch.

"Peace, Aidan." She laughed at their expression "We are still living and you have gotten some rest it seems."

Aidan rubbed their eyes and stood, dusting off their clothing. "Could have ended differently," they said somberly.

"At least it would have been in our sleep, eh?" Riona elbowed them in the side. "Worse ways to die."

Aidan fixed her in a curious glance. It was the most relaxed exchange the two had had in some time. Something about the intimacy of their shared memories of Emrys had shredded the resentment that had been building in her heart.

"So where have you been leading us, or am I to wait patiently until we arrive to know?"

Aidan tried to hide the smile that spread across their face with a smirk as they sifted through the saddlebags for breakfast.

"Dùn Ad," they replied, tugging at a hard loaf of bread with their teeth, "capital of Dál Riata."

"And what do we expect to do there?" Riona questioned further.

"Find a boat," Aidan said cryptically.

"And then?" she asked in frustration. "Are we writing a poem of our plans line by line or are you only allowed to speak in riddles, Andraste?"

Aidan let out a full laugh at that, scooping Riona into their arms and planting a kiss on her forehead.

"Oh, I've missed that mouth," they said. Then realizing their choice of words, they cleared their throat and set her down as Riona tried not to touch the place on her forehead where they had kissed her.

Before either of them could try to repair the conversation, a new voice interrupted. "Aidan!"

Aidan spun on their toes, facing south where the hail had originated. A rider was approaching at frantic speed, their cloak whipping in the air behind them.

"Orfeo?"

Riona scrutinized the Druid as they pulled up in front of their camp. They were lean like Aidan but had the dark thick features and hair of Ser Palamedes. Unlike the kindly knight, however, Orfeo's pale grey eyes seemed to always know some secret. They gazed down at her now with that same expression, a benign disdain. They had obviously been riding hard for quite some time; their horse was practically frothing at the mouth.

"You look as if you've been in a race with the wind," said Aidan, examining their friend.

Orfeo leaned against the saddle and brushed a handful of greying hair from their face. "So it has felt. You have been followed since Camalann. We suspect they are waiting to ambush you in there." Orfeo gestured to the thick line of trees just to the north of their camp.

Aidan's fist curled into a ball and Riona glanced at the forest behind them with a nervous eye. "Where are the others?" Aidan asked.

"Willn't arrive until nightfall." Orfeo took a long swig from a leather pouch and wiped their mouth with a gloved hand. "Ibrahim thought it would be best to escort you through the wood."

"If we wait, what is to stop Makda from attacking us?" Riona asked.

Orfeo shook their head. "There is a village not far from here. I suggest you seek shelter. I will ride back to Ibrahim and bring them there."

Aidan sighed. "Very well."

Orfeo helped the pair pack up and dismantle the camp, and then bid the two of them farewell, riding back the way they had come at much the same speed. Aidan and Riona saddled up Gringolet and followed the edge of the forest at a safe distance, moving west. As they traveled, smoke rose in gentle tendrils from the base of a hill in the distance.

Gradually a small village began to take shape. At its edge lay a small lake, strewn with even smaller boats peopled with fishers casting nets into the areas clear of reeds. Conical thatched roofs appeared over wattle and daub huts that rose out of the marshy water like odd mushrooms.

Aidan slowed Gringolet's approach as they arrived, helping Riona out of the saddle. As her feet hit the ground, her knees almost buckled beneath her. She still was not used to the wear of the saddle on her thighs. Aidan gently supported her with one arm as a woman approached.

She was thickly built, with tawny skin, and limbs covered in fields of freckles. Her dirty blonde hair fell down past her waist in full unruly curls. She was wearing very little save for a thin robe of linen that barely met her knees and a wide leather belt with a boning knife tucked into a sheath. A bronze bracelet wrapped tightly about her upper right bicep, glinting in the morning sun.

"Strangers on Midsummer?" she asked in a strange dialect that hinted at similarities with Queen Gwenivar's accent, "and you might be?"

"Is it midsummer already?" asked Riona with a surprised smile.

"The birds are singing it everywhere, my friend, have you not heard them?" she replied.

"I am Aidan and this is Riona. Are you the matriarch of this village?"

"My name is Elspet," said the woman, "You are welcome to join our celebrations, travelers. Though we are a simple Picts, we abide by the laws of hospitality."

"There will be more of our party arriving in the evening, will they be a burden?"

"The question is can the Cornish," she glanced pointedly at Riona, "handle the festivities of we, your northern cousins?"

"She does not hold her wine," said Aidan with a smirk. Riona smacked their hand with the flat of her palm.

The woman smiled and turned. "Saoirse!"

A young girl stood up from the edge of the lake. Her hair, pulled back into two braids, was littered with flowers and other plants. As she neared them, Riona saw her hands, which clung to a wide woven basket filled with watercress. "Yes, Ma?"

"This is Riona and Aidan, they and a few others, will be joining us for Midsummer. Can you find them a place to stay?"

The young girl nodded, and without a word, turned and led them away. Elspet, apparently with other responsibilities to attend to, quickly disappeared. Aidan and Riona wandered more deeply into the village at the heels of young Saoirse. The Picts were deep in preparation for the celebration that would take place that evening. The smell of frying fish overwhelmed her senses as they moved; Riona felt her stomach grumble in response. Children ran past, their faces plastered in woad and mud, swinging blooming branches of wild brush. As they walked out onto the docks that connected the huts over the water, Riona looked down into the bright glistening surface, not quite recognizing the young woman in the reflection that gazed back. They were led to a small hutch with the same conical roof as its larger counterparts. The door swung open into a dark room lined with drying goods along the walls and smoked meats hanging from the ceiling.

"It isn't much," piped up the girl apologetically.

"It will more than do," Riona said, offering her a gentle smile.

The girl nodded. "I'll find a place for your horse to be stabled for the night," she said, and with a dip of her knees, she was gone.

Riona glanced around at the humble room. "What now?" she asked.

"We wait," said Aidan.

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