Chapter Fifty-Two

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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 Riona 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. A month now, yet the pain in their heart was as 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 which 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 short, plump 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."

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