Áine slipped out of Eireen’s shelter before the first rays lightened the sky and the cock crowed. Having slept fitfully through the night, she welcomed the coolness of the mist to clear her muddled head. Her intention, when she had slipped on her mantle and tiptoed past the sleeping women, was to head for the river and watch the current flowing past. But now that she found herself alone in the mist-shrouded forest, she couldn’t bring herself to leave. Silence clung all around her, and her thoughts did not need to fight against the clamouring world.
She sat down on a dwindling stack of firewood, brushed her shoes against the damp grass and thought about the hours she had spent tossing and turning last night. The sweetened green rushes that served as a pallet may as well have been crushed stones for the good they did her rest, but the cause of her restlessness was no mystery.
Áine could still feel the press of Niall’s mouth against her own, the tingle of her skin, rubbed sweetly raw by the scratch of his stubble. The encounter last night had been a dream, a glorious dream spun of starlight and secret longing, a dream that no woman would want to wake from.
She had never been more terrified.
Was that how a man’s regard felt? Glorious. Unsettling. Had her mother ever felt this way for her second husband, the man who had become Áine’s stepfather? She thought of his red-rimmed eyes and sour breath. Had he ever been so attentive and gentle when he courted her mother? At what point had he changed from the man who would cause her mother to abandon her faith to become the mould for his son?
A note of sadness crept into her breast. So much that Niall did not know about her—must never know about her. And yet, did she not deserve just a little happiness?
In the grey light of early morn and through the thinning mist, a man with a wolfhound approached, his mantle billowing behind him. Áine’s breath hitched in her throat, and she blinked to clear her vision. Both hound and man appeared to have stepped out of the verses of a myth—a lord of the sidhe walking between the worlds betwixt morning and night.
The spell was broken the moment Fionn bounded at her with an excited bark. Áine squealed in pleasure as she fended off his exuberance.
Niall whistled and called, “Fionn, down.” The hound obeyed, but he still bounced around her legs. He greeted her with a warm smile, and Áine felt the blush on her cheeks mount.
“You have risen early, Niall O’Coneill.” For the first time, she noticed that he carried a canvas satchel.
“As have you. Are the others still abed?” He glanced past her shoulder to the cottage.
“If they are, they will be rising soon. Eireen will be after them.”
“That’s a shame.” Niall’s low voice sent shivers rippling through her. He reached up to toy with a loose tress that had escaped her plait. He wound her hair between thumb and forefinger, his expression thoughtful. “Has anyone ever told you that your hair is magnificent, Áine Callaghan? Each strand rivals the brilliance of the rising sun.” When she shook her head, he added, “Blind fools.”
He glanced again at the hut before leaning in to brush his lips across hers. Áine forgot her earlier fears and worries—everything except the taste and smell of him.
Then, from within the shelter, someone coughed loudly. Áine pulled back, suddenly aflutter. Niall still fixed his attention on her and didn’t bother to look up.
“Good morning, Eireen,” he called out in a loud voice.
“You’ve come to give us a hand, have you?” she said, her capable hands resting firmly on her hips.
Niall shifted the satchel that rested on his shoulder. “There’s a greater claim on me this day. I finally have leave to ride out on patrol.”
“It’s about time O’Dwyer relented. You’ve been agitating like a caged wolf.” Eireen lifted her brow and sniffed. “Go on, or you’ll be feeding my chickens.”
Niall’s mouth turned up in a wry smile. “On my way.”
Eireen released a large harumph and rattled around the yard until she headed around the cottage towards the chicken coop.
“Will you be travelling far?” Áine asked, finding it hard to hide her disappointment.
“Only to the foothills,” he said with a grimace. “Ensuring our borders are secure.”
Áine frowned, suddenly concerned. “You’ll be careful—not take unnecessary chances?”
Niall took her in his arms. “You needn’t worry. I’ll return soon.” He tilted his head and captured her lips in a slow, stirring kiss.
“Promise?” she breathed against his mouth.
Áine heard the scratching of the tent flap, followed by a hushed giggle and a muffled shriek.
“I believe there’s a nest of starlings in the trees,” he commented with a grin.
“I’m afraid so.”
“I’d better leave.” He sighed. Unmindful of the eyes that were surely spying on them, he touched her errant lock one more time. “I’ll see you in a few days.”
He smiled. “Not a day longer.”
“I’ll hold you to your word,” she replied. When had she become so bold?
Niall winked at Áine, then stepped away and whistled for Fionn, who was sniffing around the yard. The hound came back, but instead of falling in step beside his master, he settled himself on his haunches beside Áine.
“Come.” Niall slapped his thigh, but Fionn remained fixed where he was. Instead of listening, the hound behaved as though he had gone deaf and blind, examining the sky with cool nonchalance. “Fionn.” Niall’s tone hardened, but still, his loyal, ever-present companion was having none of it.
In the distance, shouts sounded. The call to gather. Niall snapped his fingers and whistled again.
“Go on, Fionn, your master is waiting,” Áine said, scratching his neck. The hound fixed her with his warm, liquid eyes and whimpered under his breath. Instead of obeying, he lay down on the ground at her feet.
“Ungrateful wretch,” Niall swore.
“I’ll watch out for him,” Áine said, her voice betraying her laughter. “A reason for you to return.”
“I already had one,” Niall said, his smile deepening for her. With a final wave, he headed down the lane in the direction of the paddock.
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Cryssa Bazos is an award-winning historical fiction author and a seventeenth century enthusiast. Her debut novel, Traitor's Knot is the Medalist winner of the 2017 New Apple Award for Historical Fiction, a finalist for the 2018 EPIC eBook Awards for Historical Romance. Her second novel, Severed Knot, is a B.R.A.G Medallion Honoree and a finalist for the 2019 Chaucer Award. A forthcoming third book in the standalone series, Rebel's Knot, was published November 2021.