Chapter Thirty-Two

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Aidan could hear the roar of the crowd and the chaos of the mêlée from yards away. An elaborate wooden staff was gripped tightly in their hands. Their thoughts drifted to earlier in the day when they had confronted Myrddin in search of the weapon.

"You gave it to me as penance," Myrddin said softly, their face turned away from Aidan's gaze.

"I wish to give it a new story...rename it," Aidan said, feeling the weight of their words on their very tongue.

"Can you erase violence with more violence?" Myrddin placed one hand upon the stone of the hearth and leaned on it heavily. "You have a blade, compete with that."

"I am best with the quarterstaff," Aidan said firmly, "I do not wish to be bested by these humans."

Finally, Myrddin turned. The two druids faced each other in the thick silence.

"You make arguments my heart does not wish to hear," Myrddin said, their voice painfully soft.

Finally, they turned and moved to the corner of the room. There, behind a pile of kindling, they withdrew a long object wrapped in cloth. Aidan reached out and took it, slowly unwinding the material. Fully revealed the staff was made from dark aged wood; shaped expertly by druid craftsmanship and magic. The head curved slightly, and the base twisted around itself, ending in a bonelike knob. Near the middle was a worn leather grip. A tingle crept up Aidan's spine as they tossed the staff from hand to hand.

"Once you were Breca," they said, firmly planting the quarterstaff on the floor, "Now you are Hreddere...defender."

Now back on the tourney grounds, Aidan felt a sliver of doubt twisting in their stomach where none had been before. Perhaps it was their own past they should erase with a change in name. Myrddin appeared at their side.

"The moment has arrived," the older druid sighed.

"You know, it won't look good for your boy king if I defeat his general," Aidan said with a chuckle.

"Don't underestimate Luc," warned Myrddin.

Before Aidan could respond, a pageboy ran up, out of breath. "It is time for the match, Master Merlin."

Without another word, Myrddin led Aidan toward the field. As they neared, the noise of the crowd grew exponentially. Aidan gripped the wooden staff tighter in their palm; the base made ominous thumps against the trampled earth as they walked. Myrddin stopped at the rope that surrounded the field and motioned for Aidan to cross over. Ser Luc already stood waiting near the center of the ring.

"Piseach, ċild," said Myrddin placing a hand upon Aidan's head in blessing.

"Go raibh maith agat, Faeder."

Myrddin smiled and nodded. Aidan quickly moved over the rope that separated the crowd from the dueling grounds, anxious whispers began to mingle with the sound of cheers.

Ser Luc drew his sword and pressed it to his helm, signaling to Aidan the knight was prepared to begin. Aidan touched the staff to their bare brow and then extended it toward Ser Luc in return. The horns blared once more, and the two warriors took defensive stances. A chant rose up from the crowd.

"Luc-Luc-Luc—"

Aidan swallowed thickly. They dragged one foot through the dirt, leaving behind a trail of crushed grass and dust as they planted it behind them. Luc twirled his claymore in his palm and took a step forward. Aidan's heart beat quickly. The anticipation of the crowd was palpable.

Without warning, it began. Luc's sword met Aidan's staff mid-air, and the loud crack broke through the tumultuous noise of the crowd. Aidan laughed and spun on their toes. The light leather armor they wore may have left them more vulnerable, but it meant the druid's lithe frame could dance circles around the heavily armored knight. Luc let out a frustrated noise and advanced. The attack came more quickly than Aidan anticipated, forcing them to stumble backward. Luc pushed again, and Aidan fell to the ground.

Aidan gave Luc no time to take advantage of their weakness, however. With a loud 'thwack,' their staff met the back of Luc's knees sending him toppling sideways. With a grunt, Aidan leapt back to their feet. Luc struggled upward just in time to meet Aidan's assault. Adrenalin was coursing through their veins now, and they let out a euphoric laugh, skipping away from the knight. Luc would not catch them off guard again.

"This—" Luc grunted, swinging and missing a blow directed at Aidan's waist, "A-amuses you."

"Does it not, you?" cackled Aidan, quickly landing a strike upon Luc's back as they vaulted toward him.

Luc shifted weight suddenly. The smile vanished from Aidan's face as the flat of Luc's sword caught them in the jaw, sending them sprawling through the dirt. Aidan tasted blood. The air left their lungs in a loud gasp as they crashed to the ground. All at once, the sound of the arena became muffled and confused by a loud piercing ring. Aidan felt they might be sick. As they stood, their eyes blurred, leaving the scene before them unfocused and dizzying.

They looked down at the wooden staff in their hands and felt a wave of nausea crush them. A familiar figure approached slowly and cautiously.

"Emrys?"

A sword glinted in their guardian's hand. Aidan's thoughts screamed at the impossibility of it all as the other druid attacked.

"Emrys!" Aidan cried, glancing the sword away with their staff, "what are you-why—"

Emrys attacked again, and hot tears began to blur Aidan's vision.

"Stop!"

The other druid did not relent. Every attack was fiercer than the last. Aidan struggled to remain on the defensive, only deflecting, never advancing. Their lungs gasped for air, the world around them blurring with color and light.

"Please..." Aidan wept, their body as tense as a bowstring.

Emrys landed yet another blow to Aidan's already aching side, and years of suppressed rage and guilt washed over every muscle in their body. A feral sound ripped from Aidan's throat, and they struck back. Emrys staggered and fell.

"I begged you!" Their voice was raw and scraped at their throat as they brought down their staff. "I begged your forgiveness!" Something in the blow felt wrong as if it was not connecting with flesh. "What was she to you in the end? Was it worth this?" Aidan's wroth bubbled over as they landed strike after strike, Emrys limp against the ground.

A woman's scream echoed around them, Aidan hesitated.

A rough pair of hands gripped them suddenly from behind, and Aidan growled, lashing out at the new attacker. They spun to face this new foe finding another familiar face, a druid, but fair where Aidan was dark.

"Cynbel?"

"Aidan!"

The muddled sound of their name sent a hammer through Aidan's thoughts, panic overtook them as they sank to the ground, still held in a vice-like grip.

"Aidan!" the voice came again.

Two new hands gently cupped Aidan's face. The druid's gaze flickered up, and Riona's pale grey eyes met them like two islands in a storm, the rest of their vision cleared, the ringing in their ears abating.

"Aidan," she breathed in relief.

"Riona. W-what..." Aidan's voice came out ragged.

Ser Bors stood above them, staring down at Aidan in horror. Aidan twisted slowly at the waist to glance behind them.

Ser Luc lay in an unmoving heap of twisted armor and exposed flesh. Beside him, the queen was wailing like a banshee, restrained only by a pale Ser Lamorak.

Aidan's blood ran cold. "What have I done?"

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