Chapter Forty-Nine

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Stepping into the shadow of the forest made Riona's knees tremble against the saddle. The group spread out in a wide line, still visible to each other through the trees but distant enough that they could not easily be surrounded. Aidan's fingers rhythmically wrapped and unwrapped about the reins in a nervous tick. Riona wanted to speak, to hear their voice, and experience the calm that always followed the sound, but she could not break the grim silence that weighed down upon her throat.

It was warm but not oppressively so, and the bright songs of the birds around them brightened the thin sunlight that filtered through the thick canopy. Ferns swished lazily at Gringolet's forelegs as he meandered along. Riona allowed the anxiety building in the back of her mind to become a dull throb, her eyes flicking toward every shadow and every brush of movement. She was not the only one afraid to break the quiet it seemed as none of her other companions uttered a single word.

"If I know Makda as well as I think I do, they will wait until nightfall to ambush us," Aidan leaned in and whispered. The feeling of their lips brushing against her ear sent a shiver of desire down Riona's spine. "I will protect you, Riognach."

Instead of replying, she simply squeezed their hand, as if her silence were the only thing keeping Makda at bay. The hours passed slowly in the agonizing stillness. Even the wind seemed incapable of breaking the barrier of the trees around them. There was nothing Riona wanted more than to hear Ava make some grim remark or Ibrahim laugh. She had never known quiet to be so unbearable.

As the sun began to sink and the forest grew darker, Riona could not help the nerves that crept over every inch of her skin. Somewhere a rabbit gave a dying scream, and Riona practically leapt out of the saddle in surprise.

"Group up!" Aidan called out to their friends, "we are more vulnerable apart in the dark."

Orfeo pulled their horse in front of Aidan and Riona while Ava and Ibrahim took point on either side. Riona gave Ibrahim a thankful glance, and the druid flashed her a dazzling smile. Night settled over them all, and the little moonlight that escaped the grasp of the trees was barely enough to see by. An hour passed this way, every creak of an aging tree sent Riona's heart beating rapidly in her chest. She was sure Aidan could feel her panic. They kissed the back of her neck softly, and Riona closed her eyes. She even slept for a time, the rhythmic jostle of Gringolet's movement lulling her thoughts.

There was a thin sound of rushing air, and Riona's eyes snapped back open. Orfeo slumped forward in the saddle, and she let out a shrill scream. Without a thought, Aidan urged Gringolet forward and took the reins of Orfeo's horse. Not a second too soon, as an arrow quickly found its mark where they had been only moments before. Aidan dismounted and pulled Orfeo from the saddle as Riona slipped off Gringolet. An arrow whizzed by, and the horse let out a terrified whinny as she struggled to keep him from bolting into the trees. Ibrahim and Ava had dismounted and pulled their steeds to the opposite side of the game trail. Aidan leaned Orfeo up against the base of a tree, a long feathered shaft protruded from their right shoulder. More arrows punctured the trees and earth around them.

"Can you still fight?" Aidan asked.

Orfeo nodded. "I was always better with my left hand anyway," they said with a pained grin.

Aidan took the feathered end of the arrow in their hand. "Ready?"

Orfeo gritted their teeth, and Aidan's face was grim with a pale expression. They snapped a significant portion of the arrow off while leaving enough to push it through later. Orfeo punched the ground with their good hand and let out a growl. There were shouts and other voices now, calling back and forth among the trees.

"How many do you think?" Ibrahim called to them.

"Five maybe?" said Aidan, peeking around the width of the tree. Another arrow shot by, and they ducked back. Aidan turned to Riona. "We need to keep moving. Dash from tree to tree. Stay as low as you can."

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