February 2019 Story

THROWING OFF HIS SHACKLES

Aine cradled a sack of new horseshoes in the crook of her arm. She focused her attention on the narrow, icy path, taking slow, careful steps to avoid slipping in her flat-soled boots. A storm the night before had dropped a tree onto the shop side of the smithy building. If the blacksmith hadn’t needed her father’s coin, she would’ve come back in a few days.

Before she reached the road, she heard Orinda, her chestnut mare, whicker in annoyance. Few things roused that horse’s hackles. Aine discovered the worst of them when she reached the main road through town.

Fionn, the sheriff’s son, leaned against the wall beside Orinda. Sunshine made his blond mop glow, giving him a halo he had no hope of ever deserving. He wore wool and fur like everyone else, except he had a red scarf. Only rich folk wore red in these parts. The dye cost too much for anyone else to bother. Fionn, of course, wore it every day like it meant nothing.

He grinned when he saw her. She stifled a grimace and scanned the packed earth road. As expected, his posse of four boys lurked in front of the small inn across the way. They talked and laughed among themselves, watching Aine with furtive glances as if they thought she wouldn’t notice.

“Good morning, Aine.” Fionn smiled and stood up straight to tower over her.

“It was,” Aine grumbled under her breath. “Morning,” she said out loud.

He stepped in front of her. She circled around. Following, he blocked her access to Orinda.

Aine huffed. “What do you want, Fionn?”

Fionn reached out and brushed a stray wisp of her hair into her hood. “Oh, nothing special.”

She jerked away. The horseshoes clanked together. “Move. I have to get these home.”

“What’s in the bag?” He prodded her sack.

Shifting the bag from one arm to the other, she tried to shoulder past him without answering.

“What’s the matter?” He grabbed a handful of her coat’s collar and tugged her closer. “Is it a present for me?”

Dropping the bag on his boot would make her happy, but she’d never pick them all up fast enough to escape his wrath or his posse. She huffed. “Let go. I’m running late.”

As he’d done a time or two before, he mashed his mouth against hers.

The first time, she’d frozen with surprise, shock, and fear. Though she still hated it, she’d learned to do nothing. Better to suffer for a short time than give him cause to hit her.

Fionn had muscles bulging from his muscles, after all.

“Good morning, Fionn,” the butcher said as he walked past. He tsked. “Aine.”

Everyone in Abenswyth knew everyone else. The town only had five hundred people. Strangers, a rare commodity in town, always stuck out.

Fionn released Aine and nodded to the man. “Morning, sir.”

Aine took advantage of the moment to lunge for her horse. By the time Fionn turned his back on the butcher, she’d climbed onto Orinda’s back. The mount’s soothing presence, a gentle hum in the back of her mind, kept her calm when she wanted to shake.

Orinda never needed her reins tied to a hitching post, so Aine could leave as fast as possible.

“I’ll come by later,” Fionn said. He grabbed Orinda’s bridle and rubbed the horse’s nose.

Her mother liked Fionn and always gave him cookies or bread. She’d done it for six years, since he’d first decided he liked Aine at the tender age of twelve. Once or twice a week, Aine found a reason to be elsewhere while he charmed Mom. “I’ll be busy in the stables.”

He wrinkled his nose. “You’re always busy when I come over.”

“Let go.”

“Come to the winter festival with me tomorrow.”

She had to restrain herself so she didn’t spit in his face. “No, thank you.”

“Why not?” He scowled. “Who are you going with? What’s his name?”

“No one,” she snapped. “Let go before she bites you.”

“If you’re not going with anyone else, you’ll go with me.” He released the bridle.

Aine urged the horse to leave. Orinda obliged. Fionn called out something unintelligible as she rushed for the edge of town.

The man could die in a fire as far as she cared. Fionn acted like his decision to court her made the matter final. She would love him because he said so.

Orinda galloped until they reached the lane branching to the north that led home. The wind in her face chilled her nose and stung her eyes, pushing Fionn out of her mind. The horse slowed to a walk for the turn and carried her through a packed-snow tunnel formed by the barren branches of sleeping maples and apple trees. Beyond the trees, her father’s grazing land stretched for several acres.

Her family raised horses and sold them at a fair every summer. People knew the Havreon name as synonymous with quality animals trained for riding and working. Aine spent her afternoons mucking stables and convincing beasts to do her bidding. Like her father, she had a knack for horses.

Their small, two-story house perched at the end of the tree-lined lane. Aine’s parents and younger sister lived there. Another three small cabins squatted beside it, each home to the men who worked for her father. All six men had left for the month, gone home to visit their families for the winter holiday. Every year, or so it seemed, they had to replace one or two who decided not to come back.

Beyond the house, stables stretched across the land. Pasture surrounded them. Wagons and plows lined one side of the stable. The hay and feed barn loomed over everything. Forest bordered their property on three sides.

As with any other cold, clear day, horses ran and walked through the snow in groups. They knew where to find warmth and food, so they never strayed far. Aine found her father in the stable, doing the work of six men on his own. She dismounted and took care of Orinda before turning her mount into the pasture and lending her help to her father.

They worked from dawn to dusk on the shortest days of the year. Whatever didn’t get finished started the next day. Each day until the hired help returned, they groomed a few horses. On that day, still two weeks away for them, every horse would get a full rubdown and as much pampering as possible.

“Tree hit the smith shop,” Aine told him as they caught their breaths from all the work.

Her father whistled for the herd to come bed for the night. The sound resonated in Aine’s chest, like it would for the animals. She heard a message in it, a call to safety and comfort. He’d taught her to do that too. It took a certain special something not everyone had.

Horses in the twilight raised their heads and began an orderly rush for the stable.

“The family is all fine?” Her father asked.

“Yes. It only hit the shop. He’s selling out of the forge until they can get it fixed. I paid him for the full batch of shoes even though he couldn’t get all them for me. He said they’re all made, but buried under the collapsed roof. Should have the rest unearthed by next week.”

They couldn’t spare the time for shoeing until the men returned anyway.

“That’s what I would’ve done.”

Horses presented themselves to be shut into their individual stalls. Aine and her father directed the traffic with whistles and pats, their minor magical power keeping the beasts out of trouble. Half of the animals walked into the right stalls on their own. They’d learned the value of getting home fast. The longer they waited, the more their food cooled.

Aine and her father shut the stable doors and jogged the short distance to the house.

They left boots, coats, and mittens in the back mudroom. Inside the house, the aroma of fresh bread made Aine’s stomach gurgle. Under it, she smelled chicken, vegetables, and sage. Soon, they discovered a thick, hearty stew with rough bread to fill their bellies.

Laughter and joy filled the kitchen where the small family ate together. Aine’s younger sister, twelve-year-old Miren, chattered about a story she’d read that morning. Mom asked questions to make sure Miren understood it. Father told horse jokes. Aine let their love wash away the last vestiges of her annoyance at Fionn.

Until they worked together to clear the plates and wash the dishes. Mom scraped leavings into the compost bucket, Miren washed the dishes, Aine dried them, and Father put them away.

“Fionn stopped by this afternoon,” Mom said. “He said we should be on our guard tonight. Some riffraff wandered into town, and he’s certain they’re up to no good.”

“What did he mean by ‘riffraff’?” Father asked.

Aine handed Father a plate. “How does it know it’s not just travelers?”

Mom raised her hands. “I don’t know. He wanted to see you, not me.”

They didn’t let anyone out into the midst of the horses without a good reason. Even more important, they didn’t let strange horses mix with the herd. Father had laid down that law a long time ago. Aine had always appreciated it for her own sake.

“But he didn’t want to ride back to town in the dark,” Mom said. “That stallion of his is so touchy. Big and showy with hardly any brains.”

“Sounds like Fionn,” Aine muttered.

Father grinned. “It does,” he murmured as he took the next plate. “Doesn’t he have anything better to do than ride out here to tell us nonsense?”

Mom swatted his behind. “I think he’s sweet. He’d make a good husband.”

Father laughed. “You’ve already got one.” He kissed Mom’s cheek.

Huffing and rolling her eyes, Mom pointed at Aine. “For her.”

Aine grimaced and took two forks.

“Don’t scowl like that. He’s perfectly fine, his father is important, and you won’t ever have to scrabble or scrape for money with him.”

“Cora, don’t pester about it.” Father wrapped his arms around Mom and kissed her forehead. “She’s not ready yet, and we’re not going to pressure her.”

“She’s eighteen,” Mom grumbled. “When I was eighteen, I was already handfasted.”

“Why do you want to get rid of me?” Aine turned her back on her parents in favor of drying the remaining dishes as fast as possible.

Mom sighed and rubbed Aine’s arms from behind. “I don’t want to get rid of you, Sweetie. I want to get another man into this house who won’t leave us in the lurch after the holiday.”

“But we’re going to wait until she’s sure about someone,” Father said. “We’re not going to throw her at someone. We’re not nobility. She can marry whoever she wants.”

At least her father understood.

“Fionn said you’re going to the winter festival with him. That’ll be a good time to get to know him better.”

Aine already knew him well enough. “I don’t have time to go to the winter festival.”

“Don’t be silly. Of course you do.” Mom patted her shoulder.

Passing the last two dry spoons to her father, Aine huffed and left the kitchen. She hurried up the stairs to her room and flopped onto her bed by the window. Her parents’ voices, too quiet to hear the words, murmured in the distance. The floor creaked as someone approached.

Miren cracked open the door. “I think Mom is being strange.”

“She’s not. It’s just more grating than usual.”

Slipping inside the room, Miren giggled. She shut the door and draped herself beside Aine. “I don’t like Fionn either. He’s too…I don’t know. Something. Like he’s trying too hard to make us like him. Why does he even want you when you don’t want him? There are other girls in town.”

Aine sighed. “I don’t know why me. Maybe because I don’t fall all over myself to please him like some of those other girls do.”

“Boys are stupid.”

“They are.”

“What’s that?” Miren pointed out the window.

Sitting up, Aine checked and saw a dark shape visible against the snow in the starlight. Her window overlooked the tree-lined lane, and something shambled down it. “I don’t know.”

The shape wove between the trees with slow, erratic steps, then fell.

“I think it’s a person.” Aine stood and pressed her hands against the window. “Probably drunk. We should go check. They’ll freeze to death out there.”

Miren hopped off the bed. Aine chased her downstairs. They didn’t bother interrupting their parents. At the front mudroom, both girls stomped into their regular boots and snatched cloaks from hooks. They plunged into the night.

“Aine?” Father called as the door slapped shut behind them.

She kept pace with Miren as they ran across the crusty, frozen ground. Halfway up the lane, they found a man lying in the snow at the base of a tree, gasping for breath. He wore next to nothing, only pants, a loose shirt, and boots.

“Are you hurt?” Aine flung out a hand to stop Miren from rushing to his side.

The man whimpered. “Help,” he rasped, his voice barely louder than a whisper.

Aine crept closer and gasped when she saw blood in the snow and on his shirt. “Go get Father! There’s a man hurt in the lane.”

Miren squeaked and ran for the house.

“What happened?” Aine crouched beside him and saw the dark stain on his shirt.

“Gang. Stabbed. Ran.” He labored over each word. With Aine’s help, he rolled onto his side.

“Can you walk?” She shook her head. “Of course not. If you could walk, you’d still be walking. What’s your name?”

Boots thundered through the snow behind her.

“Keltran.”

Aine turned to see her father dashing to her side. “He’s been stabbed!”

Father arrived. He took one look at Keltran and slipped his arms under the man’s shoulders. “Pick up his legs.”

Between the two of them, they brought Keltran inside. At their mother’s command, Miren started water heating and Aine brought towels and washrags. Keltran hissed and cringed as they laid him on their only couch.

“He said he was attacked by a gang,” Aine told her parents. “Abenswyth doesn’t have gangs.”

Father frowned at the barely conscious man bleeding on his couch. “I don’t know any Keltran. He can’t be from here.”

With Aine’s help, Mom peeled off his shirt. Puckered flesh edged a slice across his belly and side. Blood seeped from the wound. They packed washrags against the cut.

“Holy Mother,” Father whispered at the sight of the wound. “I’ll fetch the midwife. She’ll be able to keep him from dying.” He hurried through the house and out the back.

With the wound covered, Aine stared at the rest of him. He had lean muscles, a short, neat beard, and dark hair. His pants and boots reminded her of Count Entrevin’s guards. She didn’t think him much older than she.

“He looks like a guardsman,” Aine said. She picked up his right hand and found callouses where she expected for a swordsman. His skin was too cold.

“Maybe,” Mom said. “But that’s the wrong color.” She pointed to the stripe along the side of his pants. “And these clothes look worn. His boots are scuffed. What’s he doing out here? And barely dressed? He’d have to be a fool or a madman to wander without a coat. At night.”

“Maybe whoever attacked him dragged him outside.” Aine dunked a rag into Miren’s bucket of warm water and used it to wipe Keltran’s face. In the flurry of panic over his wound, she hadn’t noticed the darkening bruises and split lip.

Keltran mumbled without saying anything. He didn’t seem aware of his surroundings anymore.

“Maybe. So long as he stays conscious, I think he’ll be fine.” Mom’s knees creaked as she stood. “Get a blanket over him. I’ll make some tea. If he’ll drink it, that’ll help him warm up.”

Miren brought a blanket and draped it over him. “He’s handsome.”

“I suppose.” Aine continued to wipe his face and neck with the warm water. “Hold his hand. Try to warm it up.”

Sitting beside her, Miren clasped Keltran’s hand between hers. “Attacking a guardsman seems dumb.”

“Yes, it does. That’s probably why they stabbed him.”

“That’s even dumber.”

Aine nodded. “I expect they hoped he’d wander into the woods and get eaten by something or fall into a ravine.”

“Anyone who’d do that is a really bad person.”

“Yes.” Aine patted Keltran’s cheek. “Stay awake,” she murmured.

Keltran’s eyes fluttered and he turned toward her, mumbling.

Mom returned with a mug. She shooed Aine and tried to get Keltran to drink. Most of the liquid dripped onto the blanket, but he swallowed some.

“Mama, is he going to die?” Miren whispered. She hugged Aine’s arm.

“Go up to bed, girls. You’ve done what you can do. The midwife will see him right.” Mom waved for them to leave. “Make sure you wash up first.”

“Yes, Mom.” Aine tugged Miren upstairs, wishing she could do more than pray for Keltran to survive the night. She helped Miren wash her face and hands, and took Miren’s help to scrub blood from her fingernails.

“Can I stay with you tonight?” Miren asked as they reached her bedroom door.

Though she preferred to sleep by herself, Aine understood. She thought she might appreciate the company too. They climbed into Aine’s bed together as Father returned with the midwife. She’d help Keltran. In the morning, he’d be fine.

Miren snuggled close. The front door opened and shut. Muffled voices drifted up the stairs. Aine stayed awake until she saw Father leaving with the midwife. They didn’t seem hurried. She relaxed, knowing they expected Keltran to survive the night. Father would’ve raced to the Count’s keep for more help otherwise.

She imagined how much effort it must’ve taken Keltran to reach their lane with the wound in his side. Fionn had mentioned riffraff in town, maybe he’d meant this gang. If the sheriff had given them a talking-to, they might’ve found Keltran on the road nearby and taken out their frustrations on him.

Anything he might’ve carried or worn, the gang would’ve taken, which explained his lack of a coat or gloves. Of course, she couldn’t imagine why Keltran would’ve walked along the road after dark. Perhaps he’d misjudged the distance to the next town.

The Mother Goddess could have brought this man down their lane for a reason. Maybe She meant for him to replace one of their workers. His shabby guardsman’s clothing spoke to the possibility he’d lost or left his job. Neither automatically made him a bad person or a criminal. When the latest count had risen to power, he’d fired some of his father’s employees for no apparent reason. Family hardship or a death might’ve forced him out of his lord’s service.

As she drifted to sleep, she imagined him covered in fur and leather, plodding through the snow as the sun set. He hoped he hadn’t made a grave mistake. In the last town, they’d told him he could reach Abenswyth by dark or shortly after, and he hadn’t seen any sign of it yet.

Then he noticed the lights in a window set back from the road. When he reached the lane and considered begging for a room, or at least asking how much further to the town, a band of ruffians beset him.

The idea bled into her dreams. She woke to the muffled sounds of her parents making breakfast with a clear picture of Keltran’s past, present and future.

He needed work, obviously, to send money home to his ailing mother. His lord had released him because of a financial hardship, which meant he couldn’t pay as many men as before. Aine would teach him how to handle horses, because he had no idea. They’d fall in love. Keltran would find a way to get rid of Fionn without provoking his father. Her parents would welcome him and his mother with open arms, and they’d all live together in perfect happiness.

She shooed out Miren to dress for the day. Downstairs, Keltran slept on the couch, covered by two blankets. He seemed pale yet peaceful.

The aroma of cooking eggs, cheese, and buttery biscuits sent Aine to the kitchen. She joined the effort to finish the meal. By the time Miren joined them, the food was ready.

At first, they sat at the table and ate with only the clinking of plates, utensils, and cups. Every morning, the first bites of food took precedence over talking.

Father finished an egg and biscuit before breaking the relative silence. “The midwife said Keltran should be fine so long as we keep the wound clean and don’t let him do more than get up to use the privy for the next week.”

“We’ll have to get more eggs,” Mom said. “And some extra meat. Healing takes a lot of food.”

“I think Aine and I can chop up enough deadfall for firewood to trade for it. We should have time over the next few days. Miren can come with us to gather wood today. We’ll collect as much as we can while the weather is good.”

Keltran groaned from the other room. Aine jumped to her feet and sprinted to help him.

She discovered him sitting on the couch, panting to catch his breath. His head leaned against the wall.

“What are you doing? You need to lie back and relax.” She took his arm and tugged to make him lie down.

“Just catch my breath,” he gasped. “Then I’ll go.”

“You’re not going anywhere,” Father said. “You’ve been stabbed, young man. You don’t get up and walk that off.” He lent his strength to Aine’s efforts.

“Don’t want to be a problem.” He had no hope of resisting both of them.

“You’re not a problem.” Mother ducked in and fixed the blanket around Keltran as he stopped struggling. “There’s no hospital in Abenswyth, so we’d have to take you too far to hand you off to someone else. You’re stuck here until you’re back on your feet.”

Keltran closed his eyes and nodded. “I’m sorry.”

Father snorted. “Nothing to be sorry for unless you stabbed yourself.”

“I don’t want to ask you for anything, but can you check on my horse? He’s at the Abenswyth Inn.”

Aine blinked at him. With one question and one statement, Keltran had shattered her illusions about him. Maybe everything else still held true, though.

“How long did you pay for stabling?” Father asked.

“Just the one night. I was only passing through.”

Father patted Aine’s shoulder. “Go fetch him. Miren and I will start on the wood. While you’re there, ask Murray if he needs spare firewood, or knows anybody who does. That’ll save us a trip.”

“He’s gray,” Keltran said. “A stallion. Snowball. I rented room three.”

Aine stood, eager to meet a new horse. He’d tell her a lot about Keltran. “I’ll be back soon.” She ran for the stable, saddled Orinda, and charged into town.

Abenswyth Inn stood in the center of the main road through town. Aine circled to the back before seeing it, hoping to avoid Fionn and his boys. Behind the inn, a wide roof connected the stable to the main building, offering shelter for patrons with horses, employees, and deliveries.

She left Orinda near the stable, under the roof, and checked the stalls. Four horses rested in the clean straw. One had a gray coat.

“Hi, Snowball. Do you miss your master?” She asked him with the full force of her gift. Her voice reached for him, carrying her intent.

The horse whickered and stood.

“Hi, Aine. That horse is for sale if you want him. The owner ran off in the middle of the night.”

She turned and gave Murray, the owner of the inn, a stern, unimpressed glare. “This is Snowball. He belongs to a traveler named Keltran, who was staying in room three. The man was attacked last night and is staying with us until he heals. Keltran asked me to fetch his horse and any belongings he left. Before you sell it all.”

Murray had the grace to sough and look away. “Well. You can’t blame me for assuming the worst. But all he left behind was his horse. Everything else is gone. Found his door standing open on my morning walk-through and had Minnie clean it up already.”

“Oh really?” Aine raised an eyebrow, daring him to keep up a lie.

He raised both hands in surrender. “I swear, Aine. He didn’t leave anything behind except the horse and its tack. Don’t think he even slept in the bed.”

She furrowed her brow as she realized Keltran hadn’t been attacked on the road. “Did someone break into his room? Because we found him bleeding to death, not wearing anywhere near enough clothes for the cold. They must’ve dragged him a fair way, hoping he’d die in the middle of nowhere.”

“My inn is safe.” Murray planted both fists on his hips.

“It doesn’t sound like it is. Maybe I ought to go see the sheriff about this.”

His shoulders deflated. “Don’t do that.” Murray sighed. “Wait here.” He jogged inside.

Aine opened Snowball’s stall and set to the task of saddling him. She inspected him from nose to tail. Keltran took decent care of him, though the poor thing needed a good rubdown and a better blanket. His shoes needed replacing too. If Keltran needed a job, he probably couldn’t afford better things.

“Here. This is his.” Murray held out a sword with a plain hilt in a scabbard. “You know how things can be for a stranger around here. I told him not to wear it in town, and offered to keep it safe overnight. Just in case, you know? I guess if he’d had it, maybe they wouldn’t have nearly killed him.”

Taking the sword, Aine frowned. “They?” The way he said it gave Aine the impression he knew more than he said. “Do you know who did this, Murray?”

He hung his head. “I think we both know who did it and why the sheriff won’t do anything about it. You’d better take the side roads so no one sees you with a sword. Let me help you get going.”

Surprised by his response, Aine let him help her mount Orinda, stow the sword, and take Snowballs’ reins. She wove the horses through the town and forgot about firewood. Clicking his words over in her mind, she wondered who he meant.

Did Abenswyth have thieves operating beyond the sheriff’s ability to deal with them? That idea didn’t match what Murray had said. He’d meant someone specific.

She puzzled over it all the way home and through stabling both horses. Only as she returned to the house with the sword and saw Fionn riding up the lane did she realize who Murray had meant.

With their land outside the main cluster of the town, Aine’s family didn’t always hear about everything that happened in Abenswyth. They missed gossip and news all the time. One person brought them news. He told her mom about strangers, calling them things like “riffraff.”

The sheriff’s son could probably get away with anything he wanted. Four young men hung around him, like a gang.

Not that anyone could prove it. Even if Keltran could identify Fionn and his boys, the sheriff wouldn’t believe some stranger over his own son. Anyone who’d seen anything, including Murray, would never come forward.

Fionn waved and dismounted at the hitching post where Father required all foreign horses to stop. “Aine! Why aren’t you dressed?”

She couldn’t move. Fionn and his boys had robbed Keltran, stabbed him, and left him for dead outside town. At best, they’d conned Keltran into inviting them up for drinks, but they could’ve forced their way into his room, or picked the lock.

The man approaching her had stabbed someone and almost killed him. He’d laid claim to Aine without caring about her opinions or feelings on the subject. She wondered what else he’d done. If she asked around town, would anyone tell her, or would they act like Murray?

“Aine?” Fionn’s gaze slipped to the sword in her hands. “Where did you get that?”

Her thoughts refused to form coherence. Blinking at him, she had no idea what to say or do.

Fionn reached for the sword. Like he always reached for anything he wanted. As if he had the right to take it. To take her.

She twisted to yank the sword out of his reach. “Nothing.” Her cheeks burned and she didn’t know why.

Straightening, Fionn regarded her with a queer smile, like he didn’t know what to make of her, but found her cute. “Why do you have a sword?”

“None–” Her throat closed and she had to swallow. She couldn’t manage more than a raspy whisper. “None of your business.”

His expression shifted, darkening with the first hint of anger. “You don’t need a sword, Aine. Give it to me before you hurt yourself with it.”

Aine stepped back, sure of one thing–whatever Fionn wanted, she wouldn’t let him have it. He didn’t deserve it. He didn’t deserve her. “This isn’t yours.”

“It’s not yours either.” He swaggered to her, looming and swift. Gripping her arms before she could duck out of reach, he shook her. “Give it to me.”

For once, she acted. Her knee slammed upward, between his legs.

Fionn’s eyes bugged out and he screeched in shocked pain. He crumpled and collapsed.

Gasping for breath for no reason she knew, Aine staggered toward the house. “Don’t ever touch me again!” She threw open the back door and ran inside. “Papa!” Her shriek sounded shrill and panicked.

Father stopped her with both hands on her shoulders. “What happened? What’s wrong?”

“Fionn.” She pointed.

He let go and stormed outside. Through the door, she heard him roaring loud enough to rattle the windows.

Aine clutched the sword to her chest and ran for the front room. She panted and watched out the window.

Her mother held her shoulders from behind. “What happened?”

“Fionn. He tried to–he scared me, Mama. I saw something in his eyes, and he grabbed me. I don’t know what he would’ve done if I hadn’t hit him.”

“Oh my. I don’t understand why he’d do that, but I believe you.” Mom kissed her cheek. “At least you’re safe.”

Fionn rode his horse away from the house. Until she saw it, Aine hadn’t realized she’d watched out the window specifically to see it.

“He won’t come back for social calls,” Father growled from the back door.

“I’m sorry for the trouble,” Keltran said.

Reminded of his presence by the sound of his voice, Aine whirled and rushed to Keltran’s side. She held the sword where he could see it. “You’re going to pay us back by teaching me how to fight.” Never again did she want to face a man and not know what to do.

“Aine,” Mom chided, sounding scandalized.

“She’s right,” Father said. “We don’t have a son. She needs to learn to defend the place so she can help her husband, whoever that turns out to be. I’ll only be able to for so much longer.”

Aine didn’t take her gaze off Keltran’s face. “I don’t care if it’s swinging a sword or something else, but you’re going to teach me to fight.”

Keltran met her gaze and nodded. “If that’s what you want, then yes. I don’t like leaving debts unpaid.”

She set his sword on the floor. “Thank you.” Aine offered a silent prayer of thanks to the Mother Goddess for bringing this man to her.

One day, she’d have to deal with Fionn. Thanks to Keltran, she’d be ready.

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