Chapter Forty-Seven

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Aidan and Riona sat on the southern edge of the marshy lake. Riona's dress was pulled up to her knees, her feet dangling in the freshwater. She was twinning her long chestnut tresses into a braid, and Aidan watched her delicate motions with admiration. The sun was setting, and the sky was a tapestry of fiery color, which seemed only emboldened by the large pyres burning in the village. Riona was singing to herself softly, a sound Aidan could never tire of. They turned their head to face the south, eyes scanning the horizon.

With a gentle cry, they stood. Three riders crested the green hills and were speeding toward the village.

"Finally," Aidan breathed.

Riona stood, still holding her dress above the knee away from her dripping limbs. In little time Ibrahim, Orfeo, and Ava rode into the village. The revelries were in full swing, and none of the Picts seemed to give them much mind. Aidan moved quickly over the creaking dock toward their friends. Ibrahim dismounted and clasped Aidan in a firm embrace.

"Glad to see you safe, my friend," they said earnestly.

"Glad to have your company even for reasons so dire." Aidan smiled back.

"Looks like we've come at an opportune time for some drink," said Ava, eyeing the celebrating villagers with a thirsty gleam in their bright blue eyes.

"Ava..." Ibrahim's voice sounded like a parent scolding their child, "remember the last time you drank too heavily around humans?"

"No," shot back Ava with a guilty grin.

Orfeo laughed and clapped their blonde companion on the back.

Elspet approached the group her daughter in tow, large clay mugs in their tanned hands. "Guests! Drink!" she said brightly, handing them the cups. Aidan smelled the bitter crispness of nettle wine. "Celebrate this most beautiful midsummer."

Ava needed no more invitation, tipping the mug back with unseemly speed. Ibrahim dipped one dark finger into the cool drink and brought it to their lips. Riona took a sip and choked as it burned.

"There is food to be found all through the village, simply ask, and you shall receive," said the matriarch with a warm smile. She looped one arm around her daughter's shoulders and walked back toward the revelries.

"Not that I wish to offend the hospitality of our hosts, but perhaps we should remain on guard?" Ibrahim said, with a glance at the forest beyond.

"Makda has never exposed their forces in such a public place," said Ava after a loud belch.

"Still, I worry." Ibrahim's gentle eyes were creased at the corners with anxiety.

Orfeo reached out and took their hand, pulling the druid close and planting a kiss on their cheek. "Worry you do, and too much," they purred. "Makda would not give up the advantage of surprise in the wood for the risk of fighting off us and an entire human village. Let us enjoy the evening." Orfeo was gazing into Ibrahim's eyes with suggestion, and Aidan laughed.

"Time to find more wine and a dance!" Ava tossed their empty clay mug in the air and then caught it again in the opposite hand.

Before Aidan could protest, Riona looped her arm through theirs and was dragging them toward the center of the village. As they neared the pyres, the heat grew hot and close. The moon above was so bright it obscured the stars with its silver glow. Unfamiliar faces flashed by as Riona pulled them into a circle of dancers. Aidan could feel the thistle wine moving through their blood. Riona was already panting with breath. She took another cup of spirits from an outstretched hand and swallowed it whole.

She straightened and held out her hand. "Dance with me."

It was not a request, and Aidan hesitantly acquiesced their cheeks flushing. The music swelled, and Aidan felt the tension in their limbs lessen with every resonant beat of the drums. The Picts were singing, their native language rolling percussively from their tongues as a lively pattern of clapping began around the edges of the circle. Riona let go of Aidan and began to spin freely, letting her dress swirl about her legs. Aidan laughed, and a bold smile spread across her lips at the sound. Looking dizzy, she stopped, tipping slightly to one side. Aidan caught her and felt a bolt of lighting move up their arm from the touch. They drew her close. Her skin was glistening from the heat of the fire and the dance. Riona glanced up, her eyes filled with joy. Beside them, Ibrahim and Orfeo were dancing together, tangled tightly like a knot. The two druids kissed, and a cheer went up from the crowd. Riona laughed and clapped while Ava raised another full mug of wine in salute.

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