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A River Enchanted: Part 3 – Chapter 28

Sidra knelt in Graeme’s yard as the sun rose. The wind was silent that morning. Only the light strengthened, burning away the last of the mist. Sidra savored the stillness as she watched the world awaken around her. But her heart soon grew heavy as she beheld the garden. The glamour was gone, and she saw the damage she had wrought weeks ago.

She began to gently uproot the weeds and broken stalks. She would have to replant, and she was preparing the soil for new seeds when she heard a distant sound. It was Torin’s voice, calling her name.

“Sidra?”

She rose, searching for him. She was alone in the yard, although the front door to Graeme’s cottage was open, and she could smell the first aromas of breakfast as he cooked.

“Sidra!”

Torin’s voice was louder now, and she walked through the garden, slipping past the gate. She arrived at the crest of the hill and looked down toward her lands.

Torin was walking up the path, Maisie on his hip.

A sound escaped from Sidra. The break of a sob. She covered her mouth with her dirt-streaked hand just as Maisie caught sight of her. The girl flailed and kicked, eager to be free of her father’s hold, and Torin set her down.

Maisie began to run up the winding path in the heather. Sidra rushed to meet her, falling to her knees and opening her arms.

“Oh, my darling,” Sidra whispered as Maisie embraced her neck. She caressed the child’s curls, breathing her in. She wondered if she was dreaming and said, “Let me look at you, my heart.”

She leaned back to study Maisie’s face, rosy from the chilled morning. Her eyes were still wide and brown, full of light and curiosity. She had lost another tooth while she was away, and Sidra didn’t realize she was weeping until Maisie solemnly laid her palm to her cheek.

Sidra smiled, even as her tears fell. She held her daughter close to her chest, hiding her face in Maisie’s wispy hair. She could sense Torin’s presence as he reached them. He slowly lowered himself to the ground, his warmth seeping into her side.

“Don’t cry, Mummy,” Maisie said, patting her shoulder.

Sidra wept even harder.

The girls returned home on a blue sky day.

The southern wind was warm and gentle, and the wildflowers bloomed in the fullness of the rising sun. The heather danced on the breeze with violet abandon. The tide was low on the shores, the lochs glistened, and the rivers flowed. The hills were quiet, and the roads were like threads of gold in a green plaid as Adaira rode with the guard, bringing Catriona home to her parents on the coast, and Annabel home to her parents in the vale.

She sat on her horse and watched with a smile as the families were reunited. There were many tears and kisses and much laughter, and Adaira felt a weight slip from her shoulders. This is how it should be, and she hoped the isle would find balance once more.

The parents thanked the guard for bringing their daughters home safely, but they didn’t even glance at Adaira. It was as though she had already departed from the east, and Adaira tried to swallow the hurt she felt. She reminded herself that, if not for her, the lasses would have never been stolen to begin with. In some deep way, she faulted herself for the pain of the clan, even though she hadn’t known the truth.

She wondered if Alastair and Lorna ever planned to reveal to her who she truly was. Part of her thought not, since they had carried the secret to their graves. Adaira tried to cast away the feelings of betrayal and sadness. Today was a day when she needed to be as composed as one of Jack’s ballads. She needed to follow the notes she had laid down for herself without emotion getting the best of her.

The guards escorted her back to the castle. She had until noontide to restore order, officially pass the lairdship to Torin, and pack. Innes was to meet her by Mirin’s river, and the exchange would then be complete.

Adaira stood in her chamber, inwardly lost. She glanced at the bed, unmade and rumpled from her lovemaking with Jack. The window was still open, the breeze sighing into the room. Though she didn’t know what to take with her, she slowly began to pack a leather bag. A few dresses, a few books. She was halfway done when a knock sounded on her door.

“Come in.”

Torin stepped inside, trailed by Sidra and Maisie.

Adaira dropped her bag as Maisie dashed to her. She had seen Maisie briefly when the girls were returned, but now Adaira had the chance to scoop her up in an embrace, warmed by how fiercely Maisie held to her, as if she didn’t care who Adaira was now. Maisie’s arms wrapped about her neck, healing a fracture in Adaira’s heart.

“Maisie!” Adaira said with a smile. “The bravest lass in all the east!”

Maisie smiled, loosening her hold a bit. But her excitement faded when she said, “Mummy says you have to go away.”

Adaira’s smile froze on her face. “Yes, I’m afraid so.”

“To the west?”

Adaira glanced at Sidra and Torin, neither of whom offered any guidance on how she should answer. They were all taking this hour by hour, moment by moment. None of them knew what the girls had experienced in the west, even though they appeared to have been treated gently. “Yes, Maisie. So I need you to look after your mum and da for me while I’m gone. Can you do that?”

Maisie nodded. “I have something for you.” Her little hand shot out to Torin, and he set a battered, coverless book on her palm.

“What’s this?” Adaira asked in a hushed tone.

“Stories,” Maisie said. “About the spirits.”

“Did you write them, Maisie?”

“It was Joan Tamerlaine’s book,” Torin said, drawing Adaira’s eyes. “My father gave it to me, and we thought … we want to give it to you. He claims the other half is in the west. Perhaps you will find it there?”

Adaira nodded, suddenly overcome. She hugged Maisie close and kissed her cheeks. “Thank you for the book. I will read it every night.”

“Elspeth will like the stories too,” Maisie said, wiggling.

Adaira released her, wondering who Elspeth was. But she didn’t ask, and Sidra stepped forward next with a handful of vials.

“For wounds,” she began, holding up a glass brimming with dried herbs. “For sleep.” Sidra held up another. “For your headaches. And for cramps.”

Adaira smiled, accepting all four. “Thank you, Sid.”

“If there’s anything else you need while you’re there,” Sidra said, “let me know and I’ll send it to you.”

“I will.”

Sidra embraced her, just as fiercely as Maisie had, and it was all Adaira could do not to cry.

“The clan is gathering in the hall for the announcement,” Torin said, clearing his throat. “I’ll wait for you there.”

Adaira nodded as Sidra released her to gather Maisie in her arms. The girl waved to Adaira just before they slipped out the door, and Adaira was thankful for the silence again. Holding the broken book and the herbs, she cried.

She was wiping her tears, setting the gifts into her bag, when she heard the unmistakable click of a wall panel opening. She stiffened. She had left Jack at Mirin’s, thinking he needed to be with his mother and sister in the wake of the Breccans’ invasion of their home.

“Jack?” she said, afraid to turn and see that it might not be him.

“Should I bring the old, twisted harp or not?” his voice sounded, wryly.

Adaira spun to see him holding a bag. “What are you doing?”

Jack stepped into her room, shutting the secret door behind him. “What does it look like I’m doing? I’m coming with you.”

“You don’t have to do that,” she protested, even as her heart softened in relief.

He walked across the floor to reach her, eventually coming to a stop when only a breath was between them. “But I want to, Adaira.”

“What of your mother? What of Frae?” she whispered.

“They’re both strong and shrewd and have lived a number of years just fine without me,” he said, holding her gaze. “I’ll miss them while we’re away, but I’m not bound to them. I belong to you.”

Adaira sighed. She wanted him to come with her, but she also had a strange, restless feeling about it. Something she couldn’t name, echoing like a warning in her mind.

“You think you’re dragging me away from a life here,” he said, tracing her jaw with his fingertips, “but you forget that the west is also mine by half.”

His father was there, Adaira reminded herself. Jack had roots on the other side of the clan line, just as she did. Of course, he would want to explore them.

“All right,” she breathed. “You can come.”

Jack’s smile crinkled the corners of his eyes, and she thought he had never seemed brighter. She saw a flicker of light in him, like a flame burning in a dark night, just as his lips found hers.

The hall was overflowing, waiting for her.

Adaira didn’t want to draw this out. She wanted to say her piece and leave, and she hoped the Tamerlaines would listen to her now that the girls had been safely returned and Moray Breccan was shackled beneath their feet.

Torin waited for her on the dais. She walked to her cousin, Jack close behind her. She stood at Torin’s side and surveyed the sea of faces who watched her.

“My good people of the east,” Adaira began in a wavering tone. “The story you heard on the wind is true. I was born to the Laird of the West but was brought in secret to the east as a bairn. Alastair and Lorna raised me as their own, and I didn’t know the truth of my heritage until Moray Breccan revealed it to me yesterday.

“As such, I am no longer fit to lead you, and I pass the lairdship to one who is worthy of you. Torin has proven himself as an exceptional leader and will guide you now. I have all faith that he will continue to lead the clan to better days.

“In parting, I reached a settlement with the west, an agreement which I hope will bring peace to the isle. Moray Breccan is to remain shackled in your prison for kidnapping the daughters of the east until you deem him fit to walk free again. Because he is in the east, I must go to the west. I leave you all today, and I want you to know that I will continue to hold each of you dearly in my memories and in the highest regard, even if I am never afforded the chance to walk among you again.

“May you continue to be prosperous, and may the spirits bless the east.”

Murmurs wove through the crowd. Adaira could hardly bear gazing at her old friends. Some of them looked sad, others were nodding in relief. Once, she had been great among them. Beloved and adored. Now she was regarded in various shades of sorrow, disgust, and disbelief.

So much had changed in a day.

She had spoken her last words to them, and the ring of power was on Torin’s hand. Her cousin walked with her across the dais, escorting her through one of the secret doors. Jack was on her heels, but before they could slip away, one of the people shouted, “What about Jack? The bard is ours now. Is he staying?”

Adaira hesitated, glancing at him.

Jack’s eyes widened. His surprise was evident, but he turned to look at the clan. “I go where she goes.”

“Then you’ll be playing for the west?” a woman called in anger. “You’ll be playing for our enemies?”

“Don’t answer that, Jack,” Torin warned under his breath. “Come, let’s go.”

But Jack stood on the threshold and said in a clear voice, “I play for Adaira and Adaira alone.”

Adaira was still reeling from his response by the time they emerged in the courtyard. Two horses stood tacked and ready on the moss-spangled flagstones.

“Can you send word to me when you arrive safely?” Torin asked once she was settled in the saddle.

“Yes, I’ll let you know,” Adaira replied, gathering the reins. She didn’t know how to say goodbye to Torin. She felt like a part of her was being ripped away, and she drew a deep breath when he squeezed her foot.

“I’m sorry, Adi,” he whispered, gazing up at her.

She met his stare. Her head was throbbing from all the tears she had swallowed. “It’s not your fault, Torin.”

“You will always have a home here with me and Sidra,” he said. “You don’t have to stay in the west. When Moray Breccan is released one day … I hope to see you return to us.”

She nodded, but she had never felt more adrift in her life. As much as she longed to catch a glimpse of her future, the path ahead of her was murky. She didn’t know if she would remain with her blood, if the east would one day draw her back, or if she would leave Cadence altogether.

She urged the horse forward, and Torin’s hand fell away. She didn’t say goodbye to him.

Torin had never liked farewells.

With the sun reaching its zenith in the sky, Adaira and Jack took to the eastern hills one last time.

Innes Breccan had yet to arrive by river.

Adaira and Jack dismounted from their horses, then decided to wait for the laird inside with Mirin and Frae.

The rug that Derek had bled to death on had been rolled up and removed, but Adaira could still taste a trace of death in the air. Mirin had opened all of the shutters, welcoming the southern breeze.

“Would you like some tea, Adaira?” Mirin offered. Her face was haggard and ashen, and her voice rasped like a ghost’s. She looked worse than Adaira had ever seen her, and it sent a pang of worry through her.

“No, but thank you, Mirin,” Adaira replied.

Mirin nodded and returned to her loom, but she seemed hung in a web, unable to weave. Frae was clinging to Jack’s legs, and Adaira was trying not to watch them as Jack prepared his sister for a long absence.

“I don’t want you to go,” Frae cried. Her sobs filled the cottage, slipping beyond the windows, a contrast to the bright sunshine and warm summer day.

“Listen to me, Frae,” Jack said gently. “I need to be with—”

Why do you have to go? Why can’t you stay here with me and Mum?” Frae said, her words smudged by her tears. “You promised me you’d be here all summer, Jack. That you wouldn’t leave!”

Her wails were painful to listen to. Adaira suddenly couldn’t breathe. The walls were closing in on her, and she slipped out the back door, panting. She closed her eyes, steadying herself, but she could still hear Frae ask, “When will you be back?” and Jack reply with a hesitant, “I’m not sure, Frae.” Which inspired another round of weeping from the girl, as if her heart had broken.

Adaira couldn’t bear it. She walked through the gate and sat in the grass, her legs trembling. She had been so certain just an hour ago that Jack should come with her. But now that she had seen Mirin’s deterioration and Frae’s distress … Adaira thought she should convince him to stay. The clan wanted him and his music. His family needed him.

She would be fine on her own.

She was absently staring at the distant forest when Innes and a trio of guards appeared. Their horses splashed through the river and onto the bank, approaching at a walk.

This is it, Adaira thought, rising. This is the end and the beginning.

Her heart was beating vibrantly in her chest as her mother’s horse came to a halt on the hill. Innes’s eyes swept over her, as if she could see the tears and the heartache that Adaira hid beneath her skin.

“Are you ready to come with me?” the laird asked.

“Yes,” Adaira replied. “My husband Jack would like to accompany me, if you approve.”

Innes arched a fair brow, but if she was annoyed at the thought, she hid it well. “Of course. So long as he knows life in the west is far different than it is in the east.”

“I do know, and I go willingly,” Jack said.

Adaira turned to find him standing in the garden, his bag slung across his shoulders and his ruined harp tucked beneath his arm. Mirin and Frae remained on the threshold to see him off, the lass weeping into her mother’s skirts.

Jack moved forward to stand beside her, and that’s when Adaira noticed that a change had come over Innes. The laird was regarding Jack with cold, narrow eyes.

Adaira’s breath caught. Did Innes know that Jack was the son of the keeper? The son of the man who had given her daughter away? Suddenly, those earlier feelings of foreboding returned, like a strong tide rushing around her ankles. Adaira didn’t know if Jack would be safe if the Breccans came to know of his true heritage. She was a moment away from drawing Jack into a private space, to tell him to keep his paternal link a secret, when Innes dismounted.

“I would like a word with you, Adaira,” the laird said. Her tone was reserved but heavy. Adaira felt herself bend to its command, and she saw the storehouse, a few paces away.

“We can speak there,” she said, and Jack shot her an uneasy look as she led Innes into the small, round building.

The air was warm, dusty. Once, not long ago, Adaira had stood in this very place with Jack.

“Your husband’s a bard?” Innes said tersely.

Adaira blinked in surprise. “Yes, he is.”

Innes’s brow furrowed.

Jack knew something was wrong.

He had felt it the moment Innes Breccan had looked at him, scrutinizing the harp in his hands.

He knew something was wrong, and yet he tried to keep his mood calm and expectant as he paced the yard, waiting for the laird and Adaira to emerge from the storehouse. Eventually, Innes stepped out and strode to her horse without granting him a second look. Adaira motioned for Jack to join her. Setting down his harp and dropping his bag, he walked to meet her inside the storehouse.

She shut the door behind him, enclosing them in the quiet space.

“What is it?” he demanded. “What’s wrong?”

Adaira hesitated, but her eyes still held a trace of shock when they met his. “Innes just told me that music is forbidden in the west.”

The words rolled off Jack. It took him two full breaths to comprehend them. “Forbidden?”

“Yes. No instruments, no singing,” Adaira whispered, glancing away. “Bards haven’t been welcomed among the Breccans in over two hundred years. I … I don’t think you should—”

“Why?” he countered roughly. He knew what she was about to say to him, and he didn’t want to hear it.

“She said that it upsets the folk,” Adaira replied. “It causes storms. Fires. Floods.”

Jack was silent, but his thoughts churned. He knew magic flowed brighter in the hands of mortals in the west, to the spirits’ demise. The opposite of life in the east. He thought about how playing for the folk here had cost him threads of his health. He had never considered what it would be like to play for the spirits on the other side of the isle. Not until this moment, when he realized he could strum his music and sing for the west without cost. What power would spill from his hands.

“Then I’ll leave my harp,” he said, but his voice sounded strange. “I can’t rightly play it warped anyways.”

“Jack,” Adaira whispered, sorrowful.

His heart turned cold at the sound. “Don’t ask me to remain behind, Adaira.”

“If you come with me,” she said, “you’ll have to deny who you are. You’ll never play another instrument or sing another ballad. Not only would you have to surrender your first love, you would also be separated from your mother, who looks so frail I worry about how long she has left to live, and your sister, who is devastated to lose you and who might end up in the orphanage. The clan also longs for you to remain, and I’m sure that Torin would be—”

“The Tamerlaines don’t know I’m Breccan by half,” he said sharply. “I’m sure their opinion of me and my music will change rather quickly when that truth comes to light.”

“And yet you might encounter far worse danger in the west, if the Breccans discover whose son you are.”

Jack was silent.

Adaira sighed. She looked so weary and sad; she leaned on the wall, as if she couldn’t stand upright on her own. Her breaths flowed fast and shallow, and Jack softened his voice, gently drawing her to him.

“I made a vow to you,” he said, caressing her hair. “If you ask me to remain in the east while you are in the west … it will feel as if half of me has been torn away.”

A sound escaped her; Jack could feel how she trembled.

“I worry that if you come with me,” she said after a tense moment, “you will soon resent me. You will long for your family, and you will ache for your music. I’m unable to give you everything you need, Jack.”

Her words struck him like a sword. Slowly, his hands fell away from her. Old feelings flared in him, the feelings he had carried as a boy, when he had felt unclaimed and unwanted.

“You want me to stay here then?” he said in a flat tone. “You don’t want me to come with you?”

“I want you with me,” Adaira said. “But not if it’s going to destroy you.”

Jack stepped back. The pain in his chest was crushing his lungs, and he struggled to breathe. He was angry at her, for her words held a faint ring of truth. He wanted to be with her, and yet he didn’t want to be away from Mirin and Frae. He didn’t want to surrender his music, all those years of discipline on the mainland going to rot, and yet he couldn’t imagine surrendering Adaira.

Agonized, he met her gaze, and he saw that she was composed, just as she had been the first day he had seen her, weeks ago. Her guard was in place; her emotions were tamed. She had accepted this separation, and the distance suddenly yawned between them.

“As you wish then,” he rasped.

She stared at him a long moment, and he thought she might change her mind. Perhaps she wasn’t as firm in her beliefs as she sounded. Perhaps she could also taste the sour tang of regret and remorse that would haunt them from this decision, for years to come.

He watched as Adaira opened her mouth, but with a gasp, she caught her words, turned, and fled the storehouse, as if she couldn’t bear to look upon him.

The sunlight poured in.

Jack stood frozen within its warmth until the pain boiled in his chest. He strode from the storehouse, looking for her.

Adaira was on her horse, following Innes and the western guards down the hill. Soon, she would melt into the woods and shadows. Jack fought the urge to chase after her.

He paused in the grass, waiting for Adaira to glance behind. To look at him one more time. If she did, he would follow her into the west. His heart was beating in his throat as his eyes remained fixed on her. The long waves of her hair, the proud posture of her shoulders.

Her horse stepped into the river. She was almost at the woods.

She never looked back.

Jack watched her disappear into the forest. His breaths were ragged as he walked down the hill. He came to a gradual stop in the valley. The river lapped at his ankles when he stepped into its currents. He stared toward the west, where the sun illumined the Aithwood, catching the rapids of the river.

He knelt in the cold water.

It wasn’t long before he heard footsteps splash behind him. Small thin arms came around him in an embrace. Frae held him as he grieved.

The lush green of the hills turned into withered grass. The bracken was tinged in brown, the moss like patches of amber, and trees beyond the Aithwood grew crooked, bent to the south. The wildflowers and heather flourished only in sheltered places, where the wind couldn’t break them. The mountains rose, cut from unforgiving rock, and the lochs were low and stagnant. Only the river ran pure, coming from a hidden place in the hills.

Adaira rode at her mother’s side, into the heart of the west. The clouds hung low, and it smelled like rain.

She gave herself up to a hungry land where music was forbidden. The place where she had taken her first breath.

A gust rose, drawing its cold fingers through her hair.

Welcome home,” the north wind whispered.

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