Chapter Thirty-Six

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There was a thick haze over Aidan's vision. Sounds were blurred, and their body felt both heavy and light simultaneously. I am dreaming, they decided.

The world slowly solidified. Around them rose rocks of dark stone, blanketed in moss and other growing lichens. The sound of the ocean came at them, muted but instantly recognizable.

"Step, back, forward, turn, no not that way-quicker-good..."

Emrys.

Aidan felt their pulse quicken. They turned slowly; before them on the stony shoreline stood three figures. The tallest stood in the middle, rapidly and erratically turning like a vane in the wind. The two smaller figures remained on either side, in their hands long wooden staves, which they brandished with varying degrees of accuracy. Aidan felt their feet moving toward the scene despite not commanding them to do so. As they neared, the memory of this moment came rushing back, and the dream felt more solid and tangible. They could almost taste the salt on the breeze.

"Alright," said Emrys, breathing heavily, "That's enough of that." They lowered their own stave, and the two small figures did the same. "Cynbel, it is your turn to initiate."

Aidan turned their gaze on the child form of their sibling. They saw themself, young and just as gangly, standing across from Cybel in the gravel. The other young druid was like a pale reflection of Aidan. Where Aidan was dark, Cynbel was light. Aidan's wild mahogany curls were in Cynbel fine blond strands, easily braided into a neat plate. Cynbel had always been everything Aidan, simply, was not.

Cynbel pushed one heel back into the sand and stretched the other out before them in a graceful stance, brandishing the wooden stave effortlessly. Aidan mimicked the move, but with such force, it sent small stones flying in every direction. Then the two clashed. There was a quick flurry of limbs, and the sound of cracking wood pervaded the air. Emrys looked on in pride upon his two apprentices. Aidan watched with a growing feeling of nausea.

It happened quickly. Cynbel caught Aidan in the face with their stave. Aidan's lip split, blood soon soaking their chin and neck. With a growl, Aidan lashed out. Emrys grew rigid, holding themself back from interfering right away. The pain pushed Aidan over the edge, and they attacked their sibling with wild energy. Cynbel's eyes grew wide and they seemed no longer so sure of their form or weapon. Aidan took advantage of the hesitation, and soon had Cynbel pinned to the earth, their stave across their sibling's throat, cutting off breath. Cynbel made a few sickening chokes before Emrys had Aidan in a vice, pulling them away in a tight embrace. Aidan snarled and struggled in the grasp of their guardian.

"Aidan!" Emrys' voice was stony and cold.

Aidan immediately went limp, a look of recognition at what they had done upon their small face. When Emrys was satisfied that Aidan had calmed, they set them down upon the wet sand. Aidan sank to their knees and refused to look up, even when Cynbel sat up, rubbing the rapidly forming bruise on their neck.

"That's enough for today," said Emrys. The disappointment in their voice was thick. They turned on their heels and quickly strode away.

Aidan awoke to the clatter of a wooden bowl against the floor of their cell, small chunks of gruel splattering their face. With a deep sigh, they sat up and cupped the bowl in one hand, scooping out the contents with the other. The guard watched Aidan for a moment. They met his gaze and tilted their head to one side with an expression of challenge. The guard scoffed and turned back to their post.

When Aidan had finished the meager meal, they discarded the bowl toward the front of their cage. There it would remain until it was refilled in the evening. Aidan grimaced as they wiped their hands, sticky with porridge, on their trousers. It had been a day and night since the events at the tourney, and still, Aidan had not heard a single word on the king's decision.

The guards at the end of the corridor stiffened and went into attention. Aidan's brow drew together in curiosity as a new torch appeared.

"I am here to see the prisoner."

"Of course, m'lord," said one of the guards with a taut bow. He turned to the side, allowing the diminutive form of King Artorious to move past.

The boy placed his own torch in a sconce near the cell. The serpent torc about his neck flashed in the orange glow. For a long moment, the two simply studied each other.

"I wish to understand what happened," said Artor simply. Aidan was surprised by the calm focus in the boy's eyes. Aidan sat up and crossed their legs beneath them. "From your perspective."

"I had no wish to harm Ser Luc," Aidan said flatly.

Artor blinked and clasped his hands behind his back. "I thought not, but you did, and I want to know why."

Aidan hesitated. This was not the interrogation they had expected. "I was trained from an age younger than you to fight and kill."

Artor seemed intrigued at this. "You think it was instinct?"

Aidan narrowed their eyes and sighed. "Not exactly."

Artor, rather than pressing for information, simply waited patiently for elucidation.

"You have seen battle, m'lord," Aidan said, less than sure this child could understand, "but have you ever seen a soldier return from war..." Aidan struggled to describe their affliction. "It is as if I carry the burden of violence in my mind, not just as scars upon my body."

"I understand," said Artor quietly.

Aidan raised their head to meet the king's gaze. Artor's soft blue eyes held empathy.

"I have seen this in many a knight, but most specifically, my own father." The king's voice was steady as he ruminated, "Often we would find him in a state where he would not recognize anyone or anything. It was as if the hand of some malevolent God lifted him away from his body."

Artor paused and seemed to consider some distant thought. Finally, he turned his attention back to Aidan. "You have endured much, have you not, Aidan Andraste?"

Aidan nodded.

"Too much, I think," the boy king's voice was gentle, "This has put my mind at ease, but I am afraid you must remain here until Luc's condition has improved. Foremost, you are safe here. I could not guarantee that, If I released you, one of the Alt Clut might try to enact justice for their commander. Luc is well-loved."

Aidan nodded grimly. "I understand, m'lord."

"Good," said Artor, flashing a sad smile, "In the meantime, I will ask that you be brought new clothes," the king paused as he glanced around the empty cell, "and some bedding."

"Thank you," Aidan murmured.

Artorious nodded, and without another word, took the torch from the wall and turned to leave. Aidan watched the king as his shape grew distant in the murk of the dungeon. Perhaps Myrddin has been right about the boy after all.

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