Chapter Forty-Eight

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Riona knew she was dreaming, yet she could not wake. Her body felt leaden and heavy as she moved through the corridors and halls of Camalann. The fort was empty and deserted; she could hear her own footsteps echoing for what felt like leagues around her. Finally, she came upon the courtyard. A stiff wind blew up the dirt around her feet, and from the dust rose three figures. In the center stood Gawain, his unmistakable copper hair gleamed in the distorted light of the vision. He was older, much older, indeed a man. His beard was thick and meticulously groomed, but his curls were pulled back into a messy tail. Beside him stood two others. The man to the right was his spitting image, no more than twenty-five years of age. He had the same red mop of hair, the same wide smile, but he was burly and short where his brother was athletic and tall. His already calloused hands held a throwing ax that he was tossing with dexterity into a straw dummy.

Gareth.

The boy to Gawain's left looked nothing like them and was no more than twenty. Despite the age difference, he was already as tall as the oldest Orkney. He was lithe, with long limbs he had yet to grow in to. When he turned to glance at Gawain, Riona took in a sharp breath.

"Aidan?"

But it was not Aidan. The features were not quite right, not as sharp, but just as wicked. His eyes glinted as he laughed at a joke, eyes the color of a stormy sea.

The dream shifted without warning as Riona reached out for the strange boy. He disappeared in a strong wind, as did the walls around her. What replaced them turned Riona's stomach. She stood upon a field of battle, beneath her lay the desecrated corpses of soldiers whose faces she did not know. Smoke rose in thick tendrils in the distance.

Riona tried to move forward, and the grey dead faces followed her as she did so. Her heart fluttered nervously in her chest as she wished she could wake up from this nightmare. A shattered standard snapped in the breeze before her. It was Llwch du Lac's, the white field with a diagonal red stripe. Riona clutched at her chest and looked away as she passed it.

A hill rose up in the distance. Two figures appeared there. A sense of urgency gripped her, and she ran, but no matter how fast her feet carried her, the hill moved with her, staying just out of reach. Dread built up in her chest, and without quite understanding why, she began to cry, sinking to her knees upon the blood-stained and trampled grass beneath her.

She opened her eyes and looked up. Now, she stood upon the hill, and the two figures were before her. One was a man. A coarse blond beard covered his face, but the sheen of his clear blue eyes was as unmistakable as the bronze serpent torque about his neck. The other was the same boy she had seen before, except older. He had grown into his height, handsome and self-assured. Artorious was in the young man's arms, but both seemed near death. The young man leaned down and kissed the king's cheek as his tears, the color of the blood that smeared his cheek, splashed against Artorious' chest plate. The man looked up and met her gaze. Riona startled as his face lifted slightly in recognition.

"Mother?"

"Riona?" Aidan's voice drew her back to the present. They had been sleeping, their hair was still mused, and their face pink from where it had been resting on their bunched up cloak. Outside the small hut, Riona could hear Ibrahim and the others laughing and conversing. "Is something wrong?"

Riona sat up slowly. "Just a dream."

Aidan leaned up against their knees and fixed her in a knowing gaze.

"I do not wish to speak about it, Aidan," she said pointedly, and they raised their hands in surrender.

"How does a quick swim sound?" they asked, rapidly changing the subject.

Riona had no time to object as they gripped her wrist and hoisted her to her feet. Aidan ran outside with a child-like squeal, and Riona heard the splash as their body hit the lake. Riona stepped into the bright morning sun, shielding her face with her hands.

"A little too much fun last night?" Ava was leaning nonchalantly against the hut.

Riona flushed as she stripped off her dress, avoiding the druid's gaze. Orfeo and Ibrahim had already joined Aidan in the water.

"Better get clean, you don't want to be a dirty corpse when Makda catches us." Ava gave a wink that signaled their dark humor had come to a close and jumped in after their friends.

Riona slowly lowered herself in, squeaking quietly at the cold touch of the marsh reeds beneath her feet. Aidan strode over to her, waving aside weeds and pulling her body to theirs. They kissed her lightly, then without warning, shoved her backward. Riona sank below the surface, feeling embarrassment and anger in full force. Rather than coming up for air, she swam lower and plowed into Aidan's legs, tipping them over. Aidan gripped her arms as they fell, and both came sputtering back to the surface together.

"Well done," said Orfeo with a smirk.

Riona pushed the wet strands of her hair from her face and smiled.

"Now, I know why the villagers called you Mori-gena," said Aidan grimly, their lips hiding a smile.

In all too short a time, the group emerged and dried off, breaking their fast on salted fish.

Saoirse arrived, leading Gringolet and the other horses gently by their reins. "I hope you enjoyed Midsummer," she said, with a cheery smile as she handed off the horses to Aidan.

"More than you can know," Aidan said in a warm voice, their golden gaze flicking toward Riona.

"Safe travels," chirped the girl as she skipped away.

The group led their mounts from the village, hesitating at the edge as they stared at the forest that loomed up just league away.

"Can't we go around?" asked Orfeo, with a pained smile as they mounted their horse.

"This forest covers the north for leagues in every direction, there's no avoiding it if we wish to reach Dùn Ad," Aidan sighed.

"Those Picts seem nice," said Ava swinging up, "We could turn around."

Ibrahim gave a low laugh. "A confrontation with Makda is inevitable, at least this way we know when and where...to a degree," they finished with a shrug.

"I'm tired of running," the words left Riona with authority, and all three druids turned to look at her in surprise. "Let them come."

Aidan wrapped a hand around hers and pulled her ever slightly closer to them in the saddle, and without another word, urged Gringolet forward toward the dark line of trees.

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