Believe me, every heart has its secret sorrows, which the world knows not,
and oftentimes we call a man cold, when he is only sad.
~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow ~
The only thing that gave me any relief at all was crying, but it also left me feeling wrung out and exhausted. It also made me feel like that I was betraying Charlie somehow by grieving for him when he might still be alive. This left me hoping against all odds that he yet lived, which turned into an aching loss because I missed him so much. That resulted in yet more tears and sobbing, starting the cycle anew. It was like a dead limb that still hurt after being amputated, a phantom pain that could never be soothed.
I had only my family to turn to for comfort, and while Uncle Padraig had been my rock, he wasn’t the father I craved. He knew it, too, but he still tried to fill that vacant position for my sake. No doubt Father was still tearing the grove apart in his fruitless search for my chosen’s body. Even the times he was present, he was distant and distracted. Understanding his need to act warred with resentment of his absence. I didn’t care what he needed, and in my more bitter moments, I felt that I’d be done grieving by the time he became available to lend me a shoulder on which to cry.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise. After my mother’s death, he’d taken similar action, giving me over to Sebrina to raise alongside her own son. It was as though the elements of spirit and air so thoroughly ruled his actions through motivation and logic that water, the element that governed emotion, had no influence at all.
“The stories of Liam breaking into everyone’s house are wildly exaggerated,” said Arrie Stoddard, breaking through my ruminations. She had stopped by to bring coffee and muffins, and Uncle had gone out – to visit Danica, I assumed. It was good that he had her to comfort him.
“After all,” she continued, “he hasn’t been to my house. Nor has he been to Nioba’s, or Heracles, or Adalwulf and Eireanne’s. I could go on, but you know who your allies are.”
My allies hadn’t been very helpful in preventing Charlie’s beating, but then again, I hadn’t started throwing lightning bolts around, either. We’d all been guilty of the same thinking: that he’d be whipped and then healed in twenty-four hours. It was unconscionable that I had allowed such a thing to happen at all. I pulled my mind away from that line of thinking before the tears came again, rubbing the oath mark on my left palm. Touching it shouldn’t have been such a comfort, but it was.
“According to Adalwulf and everyone else who has stopped by, Father has been on a quite a tear.”
“He has kicked in a few doors,” Arrie allowed. “But that was just when people wouldn’t let him in.” Her smile was tight and her green eyes glittered.
There wasn’t much difference in having your door forcibly opened and in opening it because you were afraid. This was not characteristic of our family; the Everlights were protectors, not tyrants. Regardless of my father’s intentions and motivations, it didn’t seem like the right course of action. Even Sebrina had never endorsed such extreme actions. It was like the disappearance of my chosen’s body had sent Father into some kind of insane fury.
Or perhaps something had happened to my father during his fight with Uncle Padraig. Maybe it was the realization that he had tried to kill his brother, or the fact that in failing to protect Charlie he had allowed me to be hurt, or maybe it was simply the old echoes of losing his own chosen. Whatever the catalyst, people seemed to think him quite mad.
Obviously, it was a fruitless search. If he had found sign that anyone within the grove had taken Charlie’s body, or if one person in White Oak Grove had admitted to seeing or knowing about the plot to steal him away, he would have come to tell me. Besides, if Duncan had arrived in time to heal Charlie enough to get him out of the grove, there would be nothing for Father to find. His failure was comforting, in a way.
Summoning the energy to put on my boots and cloak, I trudged through the snow to my childhood home, arriving at sunset. Arrie came with me to the house and then departed to give us privacy. I knew why Padraig had asked her to stay with me, but I wasn’t suicidal. Not anymore. How could I possibly want to kill myself when I still didn’t believe that my chosen was dead? In spite of that, I hadn’t gone to my own home. While Charlie and I had only lived there a few months, I’d never spent any time there alone and was unable to face the emptiness. What I needed was my family, and while Padraig was so good to me, he wasn’t my father.
Father opened the door, surprise on his face.
“May I come in?”
“You never need ask that,” he said. “This is your home.” I was enfolded by the familiar and loving arms that had held me safe, protected me, and that had comforted my hurts when I was a little girl. This time, however, I had suffered a hurt that might never be healed.
“I have failed you, daughter.” There was a tremor in his deep voice that I had never heard before. “I only hope that someday you will be able to forgive me.”
“You didn’t fail,” I said. “I did.”
“That’s not true,” he said, leading me inside and closing the door. “You were right. I failed you, and I failed your chosen.”
“You told me not to seek him out and I refused to listen. You told me not to bring him here and I did anyway,” I said, feeling dead inside. “The fault is entirely my own.”
“No. I should have stood beside you. A good father would have supported and encouraged you.” He paused, taking a deep breath. “A good father would never have put another in front of his own daughter.”
“You swore an oath,” I said. “We are druids and we hold to our oaths.”
Charlie Davis certainly had, and no one was to blame for that but me.
Father shook his head. “No oath should come before family, and none ever will again.”
* * *
Father and I were sitting in Uncle Padraig’s kitchen when he came home. The hurt in his eyes was unmistakable, so I rose put my arms around him. He had been there for me when my father had not, and I didn’t want him to think he was unappreciated, or easily replaced.
“Will you sit with us?” I asked, holding his hands in mine.
He gave Father a hard look.
“That depends,” he said. “Are you finished ransacking the grove?”
“Aye,” Father replied. “It was a fool’s errand.”
“It was without me to help you,” Uncle grumped, relenting. He heated an iron kettle in the palm of his hand and began to make coffee. His willingness to forgive and forget my father’s transgressions never ceased to amaze me. Perhaps it was because he was the younger brother, but considering that fire was his primary element, it could not have been without effort. It must have been the peaceable influence of elemental earth.
Thinking of earth magic reminded me of Charlie, as that would have been – no, it was his element. Wondering if I would ever see him use it, I massaged the oath mark with my thumb. It was still warm.
“You’re going to rub a hole in your hand if you keep that up,” Uncle said, giving me a knowing look that warned against telling Father our suspicions. He would only admonish Padraig for giving me hope and entreat me into accepting the death of my chosen.
“It’s just so hard to get used to,” I said, tucking my hands beneath the table.
My father placed his hand over mine. “I won’t say it gets easier with time, but it does become…” He trailed off, as if unable to find the words.
“Duller,” supplied Padraig.
“It might be easier if I understood the reason my male peers were neutered.” It wouldn’t, but if there was ever a time I was likely to find out why the decision had been made and why it had been kept secret, this was it.
“Altered,” Father said. It was his automatic response.
“Doesn’t matter if you call it rubbish or trash, it all stinks when it’s left out in the sun too long,” said Padraig.
“Altered then,” I said.
“Well,” Father said, “it all started as a philosophical discussion, like a lot of bad ideas do.”
Uncle Padraig’s eyebrows went up. “You’re going to tell her?”
“She deserves to know,” Father replied. “You don’t approve?”
Uncle shrugged. “I figure we’re leaving anyway, so what does it matter if Angie tells everyone?”
“I won’t tell,” I quickly inserted. “Not while we remain in the grove.”
He let out a dark chuckle. “Girl, you won’t be able to help yourself. It’s a heinous thing that’s been done to our boys. Your honor won’t allow you to keep it a secret.”
Leaning forward, I placed my hands over my father’s. “I need to know.”
He nodded. “I trust you. Give me your word that you’ll not discuss it outside these walls.”
“Before the Nature Spirits, the Ancestors, and the Shining Ones, so do I swear to keep my oath to you,” I said, leaving out the traditional recitation of repercussions I might suffer for breaking it. As serious as my father was serious about keeping the secret, he would never expect that extension.
“Very well.” Father rose and locked first the front door, and then the back before returning to the table. I watched him in bewilderment, for we never locked our doors – ever.
“Before I dive in deep to the reason the boys were altered, you need to understand the political situation in the grove those decades ago,” he began.
Politics? Seriously? I blinked but kept my face carefully neutral.
“While druids have been a respected force in the world for decades, known to work for the good of the earth and the protection of the weak, the bandits became a significant threat.”
“Seriously?” I said, quite unable to help myself. “You were worried about bandits?”
“In addition to having a stockpile of technology and weaponry from before the Rebirth, the people of the ‘Ville have always greatly outnumbered us,” Father said. “Thirty years ago, we started losing dyads. It remained a mystery until one druid managed to make it back in spite of being mortally wounded – my father. His chosen, our mother–” He gestured to include Padraig. “—had been killed, but he was determined to return to the grove, both to bring back her body and also to inform the ArchDruid of the attack.”
I placed my hand over my mouth, feeling tears burn my eyes. What love must my grandfather have had for my grandmother to undertake such a task! What strength he must have possessed to have actually accomplished it!
“They couldn’t heal him?”
“He did not allow it.”
Well did I comprehend the depth of the grief he must have felt at the loss of his chosen and felt it completely understandable. On the other hand, he had left her sons to fend for themselves – which was how Father had ended up becoming Padraig’s caretaker.
“More dyads were lost or suffered crippling injuries. Livestock went missing and then they began raiding and burning our fields. People were upset that nothing was being done to improve our safety—”
“And rightly so,” Padraig said.
Father continued, “This resulted in a vote of no confidence in the old ArchDruid and the election of a new one. That new ArchDruid was Connor Shitozaki.”
I nodded. According to my history lessons, he was supposedly the worst thing to ever have happened to White Oak Grove. Considering that this lesson had been delivered by the current ArchDruid, Sebrina, I’d stopped swallowing that tale years ago.
“Connor called all the druids back from their work abroad and we geared up for war. Rather than going out into the world in dyads to do our work, we went out in bands of ten, patrolling our borders and engaging the bandits in skirmishes that sometimes turned into full-scale battles.
“After bloodying their noses a few times they started respecting our borders again,” Padraig said with an air of satisfaction.
“Temporarily,” Father said. “The advisory council was patting themselves on the back for a job well done and wanted to quit our militant actions, but Connor argued that the bandits had only fallen back to regroup and resupply. He was young—”
“We all were then,” muttered Padraig.
“—and the council thought he was just a hotheaded and belligerent fire druid who wanted a war. His chosen, however, was an air elementalist highly respected for her intellect and logical reasoning.”
“So of course she and Shitozaki fought like cats and dogs,” said Padraig.
“Aye, they were known to disagree quite often. Therefore, when Nioba backed him up, the council was swayed more by her analysis of bandit tactics and capabilities than Connor’s insistence that they’d come back for revenge.”
“Nioba?” I said. “Nioba Starseeker?”
At first, it was difficult to imagine the noble and statuesque air druid riding into battle against bandits, but once my mind had conjured an image of her mounted astride a big black horse. I could see the sun shining on her ebony skin and flashing off the sword in her hand, the former ArchDruid by her side throwing fireballs as they galloped forward to face the enemy.
“But she didn’t go with him when he was exiled,” I said.
Padraig shook his head regretfully. “Nioba isn’t the kind to be led by emotion,” he said.
“No, but her choice to stay may have been led more by the heart than the intellect,” Father said.
“To make a long story short,” Padraig said, “the bandits did return, in larger numbers and with more advanced weapons, and we found ourselves facing the possibility that we might not win the war.”
“We were out on patrol, sitting around a campfire talking,” Father said. “Your mother was there, Dragana and Padraig, Connor and Nioba…” He paused, thinking. “Leonidas Wallace and Arrie Stoddard, and a couple of others.”
“Arrie fought against bandits?” I exclaimed.
“Why do you think she’s not afraid of Sebrina?” Padraig laughed. “That woman knows her element inside and out and isn’t afraid to use it.”
“Anyway, we were discussing various ideas for stopping the bandits and saving the grove when Connor said something about how it would be great if we could share our elements with each other.”
“Do you mean… augmenting them?” My mouth was hanging open and I had to consciously shut it.
Padraig said, “What he meant was that if every druid had an offensive and a defensive element, it would ensure their survival. He himself was a fire druid with no defense. He had to rely on Nioba to shield him; likewise, she lacked the ability to attack.”
Father nodded. “His intentions were good.”
I gave him a skeptical look. All my life, the only thing I’d ever heard about the exiled Connor Shitozaki was that he was an honorless, warmongering heretic who had a complete and utter disrespect for the Shining Ones, the Nature Spirits, and the Ancestors. If indeed he had come up with the idea, it was hard to believe that he was a righteous man.
“Connor Shitozaki was an honorable man and I was proud to call him my friend.” He placed a hand on his chest. “We are the protectors of the earth. The bandits on our northern borders were increasing in number and power, and his thoughts were only of our ability to defend ourselves against them and to protect those communities that could not protect themselves. Having more elements at our disposal seemed like a good idea.”
“So you experimented on babies?”
“No, of course not!” said Padraig. “We experimented on ourselves.”
Even that was an unspeakable act. My jaw dropped again and I looked back and forth between the two of them, unable to countenance the idea.
“Did it…” I sat back. “Did it work?”
“No.” Father shook his head. “And before you ask, Connor did mention the possibility of changing the magic of an unborn child – but only after all our failed attempts.” He paused. “He was merely thinking aloud. We’re druids, Angie, and we like our books and our theories and our philosophical discussions. I swear on my honor that he never intended for anyone to actually try it!”
“But they did,” I said. Of course they had. There was always someone who couldn’t resist the temptation to test out a theory.
“I never imagined anyone would be so foolish,” said Father. “Even when Connor voiced the idea, it was immediately struck down. People were appalled that anyone could even consider such a thing, and demanded his resignation.”
“Did he resign?”
“Of course not,” Father said. “Connor Shitozaki was a fire druid with all the pride, fury, and prickly personality that tends to go with it.” He took a deep breath, letting it out slowly as if laying down a great weight. “But when the first child was born, possessing legitimate water magic and augmented spirit magic—”
“You mean it worked?”
“The transfer of spirit magic was successful, but it came at a terrible price. The boy was born with all the spirit magic a full druid could possess, and when his mother put him to her breast to nurse, she was electrocuted, and died.”
“What happened to the baby?” I whispered.
“He was found crying beside his mother’s smoking corpse.” Father’s eyes were haunted, and there was no doubt in my mind that he had witnessed it personally. “His magic was suppressed so that the healers could examine him. They found out that not only was he was deaf, but that he had no kidneys, bowels, or bladder. He died the next day.”
Horrified, I covered my mouth with both hands. Growing up, the house-mothers taught us a lot about the dangers of meddling with a child’s development in the womb – mostly that it should not be done, and the detailed descriptions of those poor children born without eyes or limbs or skin – the tales were nightmarish. I had never stopped to consider why they had thought that instruction necessary.
“There are penalties, Angelina,” he said gently, “for interfering with the natural way of things.”
“Unfortunately, she wasn’t the only one who tried it. We lost three more women who tried to augment their babies,” Padraig said. “Dragana was the last.” He rose suddenly, a ripple of pain and sadness washing over his face. “I’m going to bed. Excuse me.”
He walked unsteadily to the door to his room, stopped, and turned back to face us.
“It wasn’t me, Liam,” he said. “I refused when she asked me to augment our son.”
“Why didn’t you say something?” Father asked.
“Because it never once entered my mind that you’d think I was that stupid and selfish,” Padraig replied, his voice husky. “I’d never have risked my chosen like that.
“I ever find out who did, I’ll kill them.”
He shut the door behind him.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Note: For those who have already read Chapter 16, the last few paragraphs of this chapter were cut, rewritten, and moved to Chapter 17 for a little better flow and continuity. Work in progress!