Chapter Nine

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Every fiber of Aidan's being was dipped in flame. They tried to open their eyes, but the swollen lids would not part. It did not matter, a scratching blindfold bit into their forehead and cheeks preventing any sight. The sound of hushed conversation came from somewhere nearby. Aidan was so disoriented by the pain they could not sense from which direction. They focused on the pair of voices, willing their ears to obey.

"How much more can they endure?"

There was a disturbing chuckle. "Much."

Aidan began to flex and unflex their hands, the motion strained against the ropes that bound their wrists.

"You really think they would protect her at such a cost?"

The other voice growled. "After what they did I would believe anything."

Silence.

There was a quiet shuffle, and suddenly, Aidan felt moist breath against their cheek. They could smell the wolf, hot fur wet with sweat. The ropes around their wrist had slackened ever so slightly. Aidan began to twist their hands. The wolf growled and they froze. Footsteps approached, and the blindfold was ripped violently from their face. Aidan let out a low moan as the fabric tore across the open cuts on their skin.

"You look disgusting," said their captor.

"If I could open my eyes, I would return the compliment," said Aidan dryly. Their voice was sore and hoarse. 

The remark earned them a sharp slap. Aidan had not enough energy to react with anything more than a moan. The skin of their cheek flamed in response.

"Where did you hide her?"

Aidan forced one eye open. They could feel dried blood and other fluids crack as they did so. A short Druid stood before them. Where Aidan was svelte, this Druid was thick, broad in the shoulder and blunt in form. Their black hair was pulled back into a long braid, and their woad-blue tattoo was a single line that ran down the length of the middle of their face, over the bridge of their nose and lips to the tip of their chin.

Aidan sighed. "Who?"

Another slap. "Do not jest with me."

"I wouldn't dream of it, Blaine."

The Druid froze when Aidan spoke their name. "You know me?"

"All good things, I promise," said Aidan, managing a smirk, "I see Makda has found a new pet."

Slap. This one opened up a clot of blood; the warm liquid trickled down into their shirt. There was a light beautiful laugh.

"Stop."

Aidan leaned against the tree at their back as the voice came into view. This Druid was stunningly beautiful. Their eyes were enormous and as dark as a moonless night, heavily hooded. Instead of a woad tattoo like Aidan or Blaine, their cheeks were lined with a series of straight symmetrical scars. Aidan took in a deep breath, their ribs sending sharp bolts of pain through their chest as they did so. The Druid smiled, a dazzling sinister thing that stood out against their deep black skin. They knelt down before Aidan and examined them in a distant gaze, running one hand over their own bare scalp. They tenderly pressed their fingers to Aidan's cheek. Aidan let out a soft sigh as their pain ebbed.

"Aidan," Makda's contralto voice was silky.

Aidan fixed Makda in the gaze of their one open eye. "Why are you healing me?"

Makda sighed languidly. "It pains me to see you like this."

Aidan scoffed.

"You do not believe me?" Makda said sharply.

"Have I ever believed you?"

That seemed to surprise them, a flicker of wounded emotion flashed in their eyes. "What have you done, Aidan?" Makda's voice had lost some of its original warmth but the smoothness of their Aksumite accent remained measured.

Aidan took another painful breath, holding Makda's sharp gaze.

"This is ridiculous," Blaine finally interrupted, "I'll get it out of them. Just let me work."

"Aidan." They wished Makda would stop saying their name, the sound was a knife to the chest. "She is not worth this."

Aidan's eyes flickered across Makda's flawless features. When they did not respond, Makda laughed mournfully. It sounded like the chiming of small bells.

"Fine." Makda said as they stood and Blaine reappeared. Makda stopped them with an outstretched hand. "My turn."

Aidan braced as Makda pulled a tiny blade from the belt at their hip and shared a painfully loaded stare. They knelt and pressed the knife between Aidan's nail and fingertip.

Aidan could not help the scream that tore raggedly from their throat.

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