Chapter Forty-Six

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Together, they left the monks at dawn. Brother Tyrin and Alpin, the hound, watched them descend over the hill to the North with a wave and a bark. Aidan pushed Grintolet into a faster speed, hoping to make their destination before nightfall. In the saddle before them, Riona held on tightly to the horse's mane, her fingers bunched in the dark coarse hair. The mountains were growing closer with every hour, and Aidan's blood quickened at the sight. Rocky peaks and cracked stone rose from the thick forest before them like the faces of ancient gods. Huge looming clouds billowed above them in the clear blue sky.

"Aidan?" Riona's voice was timid, which almost always meant she had something on her mind.

"Yes?"

"Tell me more about the druids."

Aidan cocked their head to one side in thought. "What would you like to know?"

She was silent in the saddle for a moment. "Where did they come from?"

"An interesting question," replied Aidan, "shrouded in time as are all such things, but I can tell you the tale I was told as a child."

Riona placed a hand upon theirs tentatively, as if signaling her desire for them to continue. Aidan's voice took on the tone it always did when they were reciting poetry or tales, a lyric sound that shaped each word enticingly. They had missed storytelling the most out of anything in their self-afflicted exile.

"Before the Romans, before the Picts or the Celts, there were Giants. The whole world was shrouded in the ice and snow of a long winter, and Albion, as it was known then, was not the island we traverse today. These Giants roamed the hills and mountains, herding great aurochs the way we do sheep. Then the ice melted, and the snows stopped. The waters rose, and Albion was cut off from the rest of the world. A small island is no place for large people, and soon, there was bickering amongst them. Two of the mightiest of their kind, brothers named Gog and Magog, declared themselves kings, and a great war ensued. Many lives were lost, including the two brothers, and the future of the giants looked dim. It was then that one of their wisest, Albina, foresaw the fate of her people and created a new kind to inhabit the land and tend it in the absence of the Giants."

"druids?" Riona piped in excitedly.

"Yes." Aidan smiled. "Albina passed on knowledge to her children, the druids, and then lay the bodies of her fallen kind on the land of the North, covering them in tombs of stone that became the highlands. Her keen as she mourned the death of her brothers birthed the breath of the banshee. When her grim task was completed, she threw herself into the ocean that had grown salty with her many tears. Her body became Hy-Brasil, the hidden isle that my kind now calls our final home."

Aidan ended the story and took a deep breath. Riona was silent, her face staring forward at the mountains that split the horizon. The sun had begun to sink into the west, its light shining now across their bodies, casting long shadows on the green hills around them. In the distance, a thin white line glowed like a winding serpent. As they grew closer, Riona let out a small sound of awe.

"Vallum Aelium," said Aidan, "Hadrian's Wall."

The wall stretched immeasurably across the hills on either side, so far into the distance, they could not see its conclusion. As they drew close, Aidan slowed their pace and dismounted, leading Gringolet and Riona toward and down the large ditch that still remained at its base. Up close, the wall was in obvious disrepair; enough of the white plaster brushed across its façade still remained, but large swaths of stone had begun to crumble away.

"For four hundred years, this wall has divided these lands," said Aidan quietly, "if only to remind us that the might of the empire did not loosen its grip without leaving scars."

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