Chapter Fifty-Nine

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The days since Aidan had been banished from Riona's presence had passed in an unremarkable fashion. Food held no taste, but it mattered little as they had no appetite. A voice was calling them back, back over the roads that had led them to this place, to this story without her by their side.

They slept beneath the Hawthorn Tree where they had known her body at midsummer, but awoke cold and alone, all magic gone from the grove without her. They stood before the walls of Camalann but found no courage to step inside, knowing that her ghost would haunt every room. Instead, they left Gringolet there, in the care of a red-headed knight who would need a good steed. They moved on, following the road they had taken with Hester and the Levi's, moving over lonely hills of deep summer green. It had been a month now and still the pain in their heart for her was keen and sharp as the moment their bond had been shattered. Finally, they arrived where their heart had been leading them.

The first step out of the edge of the forest halted them. Riona's little hut by the sea still stood. Aidan had half expected to find it burned to the ground. They took another tentative step, afraid it might vanish before their eyes. Instead, the bleating of goats and the gentle tinkle of bells greeted them over the warm, salty breeze.

Aidan loped toward the house, rounding its stone corner, and ran headlong into a small form who let out an "oomph!" before both of them fell to the ground. Aidan shook their head and sat up. A pile of hemp clothing tumbled a bit before revealing who was inside.

"Eve?"

The Inkeep's daughter looked at Aidan with an expression resembling something of embarrassment mixed with terror.

"What are you doing here?" she squeaked, as she hastily stood and brushed off her skirts.

Aidan helped her collect the basket of vegetables she had dropped in their collision. "I..." Aidan looked around, the farmstead was well-tended where they had expected rot and abandonment. "I don't know."

"Where's Riona?"

Aidan's chest constricted. Their expression must have been grave because Eve gasped and nearly dropped the basket of vegetables again.

"Gone?"

Aidan shook their head. "No, not quite like that."

There was an awkward pause.

"What are you doing here?" they asked.

Eve shrugged her shoulders.

"Most of us came back after those Sea Wolves moved on, those of us still livin' anyhow. I came to check on Riona and found those two-two—" her voice trembled, "Men dead and well...Riona had always been so keen on this place and I didn't have anything left since the inn burned to the ground and my parents dead so," she shrugged, "figured if she came back she might let me stay and be her assistant what for keepin' the place up."

Aidan felt the first emotion they had felt for quite some time. "She willn't be coming back, Eve."

The girl actually seemed disappointed. "Well, I like it here, anyway."

Aidan admired the young woman. Her plain comely face had grown tan from tending the small farm and she seemed more self-assured in her plump small body.

"Why aren't you with her?" Again she seemed to reason something out of Aidan's expression, "you two have a falling out?"

Aidan sighed. "Something like that."

Eve stepped over the threshold to Riona's home and set the basket down. She put one hand on her hip and the other on the doorframe. "Well you better come in and tell me the tale then, since you've got nothing better to do than stand there, it seems."

Aidan stood still in hesitation. Eve rolled her eyes and took their hand gently, leading them inside and shutting the door behind them. Aidan sat down numbly next to the fire pit in the center of the room, remembering Riona's quick and talented wits that had saved them from death. A bowl of turnip and cabbage stew appeared before them in Eve's hand and she sat down beside them with an expectant look. Aidan took a sip of the soup and found it had a taste, the first in months.

"From the beginning?" Aidan asked. Eve nodded gently. Aidan set the bowl down and sighed, "very well."

The warm summer day dipped into a humid evening as Aidan told Eve their story. She was an attentive audience, interjecting with questions and comments as they went. She paused to attend to her evening chores and then returned just as excited for the rest as she had been from the start. Aidan finished the soup slowly. It had grown cold, but it still seemed the best thing they had had in months. When Aidan reached the end, the revelation of their secrets and Riona's anger, they could not continue. Their voice died off into the quiet snapping of the fire. Eve was gazing at them with a gentle expression.

"You can stay," she said simply, "long as you need."

Aidan looked up at her, feeling the emotions that they had kept at bay so long well up into tears. "T-thank y-you," they stammered.

Eve nodded and picked up the empty bowl, wiping it out with a rag and setting it back in its place. Aidan lay down next to the fire, letting the flames dance in their eyes, as their body grew heavy with exhaustion. Eve was humming as she cleaned up the remnants of the meal and Aidan's thoughts drifted away on the sound as sleep found them.

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