Chapter Fifty-Four

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Aidan slumped to their knees. A red stain slowly spread over the front of their tunic. They could hear Riona's screams, but the sound was muffled by the rush of blood in their ears. With a labored movement, they raised their head, meeting Cynbel's gaze of horror. Without a word, their sibling turned and fled, disappearing into the wood beyond. Warm hands were upon Aidan now, and they fell into them without resistance. Riona cradled them like a babe as a shudder passed through her body, and she bit her lip with a groan.

"The baby," she said between gritted teeth. "It's coming."

Aidan's head swam with dizziness, their fingers reaching up to brush away the rain from Riona's cheek.

"You're so beautiful," they murmured, their lips tugging into a small smile.

Riona ignored them. "I must-unngh-close your wound." She lay a trembling hand upon their torn gut.

Aidan grasped her hand tightly, thoughts suddenly clear, voice firm. "No."

"I willn't let you die!" Riona slumped as another contraction wracked her body.

"You cannot heal me, Riona, it would kill you in this state."

"Then I must go, I must find T-Tamas." She tried to stand, but her body convulsed again. Riona sank down, weeping.

Aidan should have been afraid. Instead, they only felt a soft acceptance warming their limbs. They could not tell if it was rain or Riona's tears pattering against their brow.

"Do not leave me here to die alone, Ríoghnach," they said softly, trying to squeeze her hand but unsure if their fingers obeyed.

"Aidan, please—" Riona's voice cut off in a whimper.

Aidan lifted themself onto their knees. Ignoring the slick blood that now mixed with the rain coating their entire body.

"What are you do—" Riona lay back on the ground and whimpered, her hair clinging damply to her brow.

The storm was passing, the rain falling gently now as the winds abated. Aidan lay down beside her, gripping her hand tightly.

"Breathe," they commanded.

"Aidan-unngh-do not-do not make me face this world without you," Riona sobbed, "Do not leave me here alone."

"I am right here," they said gently, "I am here with you."

Riona gritted her teeth, one hand tearing at the fabric of her dress. "I am sorry," she said, her teeth chattering against each other, "A-Aidan, I am so sorry for letting you go."

Aidan gave a weak smile. The edges of their vision were beginning to grow dark. "You have nothing to be sorry for, Ríoghnach, it was my own doing."

Everything felt warm now. Except for the rain, the rain felt cool and sweet against their skin. They heard Riona scream again. She squeezed their hand so tightly, yet Aidan could barely feel it. Instead, panic rose in their chest, and Aidan coughed, spitting up blood and tasting iron.

"Riona." They pressed their head to hers. "Riona, I love you. I've wanted to tell you for so long."

Riona gripped the front of their shirt. She spoke, but Aidan could not hear her. Everything was so far away; the world tethered to them by a thread.

"I love you, Ríoghnach."

Riona gave a great cry followed by a new sound, the thin warbling cry a babe makes when it first discovers life. Then Aidan's world went dark.

***

The night was dark and gray, a familiar thing for spring in Camalann. Soon the soggy damp would give way to rolling green hills and the blue skies of summer, but for now, branches bore buds, and the ground was more mud than grass.

Gawain was in the barracks with his brothers, settling down for the evening. A joke from Gaheris sent them all rolling with laughter, and Gawain ran an affectionate hand through his young brother's hair.

Palamedes appeared in the doorway, his bronze face worried. "Gawain," his voice was insistent, "Come quickly."

Gawain stood, the laugh dying away on his lips, and followed his fellow knight out into the courtyard.

"What is it? What's wrong?"

Palamedes shook his head. "I have no answers. Please. Just come quickly."

A light rain had begun to mist the air around them, and Gawain pulled his fingers through his dewy red hair. The blades of Palamedes back were tense and pulled taught as Gawain followed behind the knight together toward the main gate, swallowing his curiosity with a bob of his Adam's apple.

A shout went out, and the portcullis drew up with a clatter. Gawain's brow puzzled, drawing his forehead into a crease as he trailed Palamedes through the entrance to the keep.

A solitary figure stood there, holding a flickering torch against the darkness. As the two knights approached, the stranger lowered their hood. Gawain took a step back in wonder. The visitor bore a strange blue tattoo circling the base of their chin, and their ears were pointed where they should be round.

"This is Gawain?" the stranger asked of Palamedes.

The Sassanian knight nodded solemnly.

"I was tasked with bringing this to you." They proffered out a wriggling bundle in their other hand.

Gawain wanted to shirk away but instead grasped it. The cloth let out a small sound, and Gawain nearly dropped the thing in surprise. "A baby?" His eyes darted back to the stranger. "Who are you? Why have you brought this to me?"

The stranger shook their head. "His mother told me only to bring him to you, and only you."

"His mother?"

Palamedes was looking fixedly at the baby.

"Riona of Cornwall," said the stranger.

Gawain's face paled, and he examined the child for the first time. Wide pale grey eyes stared up at him. Her eyes.

Gawain glanced up as the visitor began to walk away.

"Wait!" he shouted.

The stranger turned and fixed him in an annoyed glare, shadows dancing across their odd features.

"What is his name?"

The visitor blinked slowly as if the question had taken them by surprise. Finally, they answered, their voice lilting over the cold spring air. Gawain stood there until the figure's torch was a distant star in the night, darkness obscuring them from view.

Gawain drew the child close to his chest and felt the warmth of their tiny hand circling around his finger as he murmured the name.

"Mordred."

The Hawthorn Throne (Book 1, The Blood Of Emrys Duology)Where stories live. Discover now