Not Exactly Brief

So my brief hiatus has turned out to be not so brief.  I’ve always been an optimist and usually overestimate what I can get done in a certain time period.  Grad school has been quite a challenge due to the workload, and like a lot of people, I was also thrown into a tailspin after the election.  While the political environment probably won’t change for the better, school will be over in a couple of weeks.  Did I say I was an optimist?  It’s more like a realistic optimist – the glass is always half full, but I always suspect it might be half full of crap.  😉  Thanks for bearing with me.

glass-realists

Brief Hiatus

Just wanted to apologize for not having any new chapters for a month and a half.  I’ve missed my (self-set) deadline for having Druid Chronicles book 3 (DC3) out, so I’m hard at work on that.  My current plan is to have DC3 finished by Aug 19th and off to my beta readers by the end of the month.  Then I can start on Child of Storms again, as well as starting work on DC4.

I’ll have to devote some time to rewriting DC3 and formatting it for publication in November, with a goal release date sometime this December.

So hang in there a few more weeks, and we’ll get back to our regularly scheduled program. 😉

#BlackLivesMatterToo

PSA for my fellow, privileged White people (and yes, you are privileged, whether you want to believe it or not):

I’m writing this in light of what happened the very next day after Anton Sterling was shot, when Philando Castile was pulled over for a broken tail light and shot four times for the crime of reaching for his wallet and honestly informing the officer that he had a gun and a permit to carry one. BTW, Mr. Castile has a public record of multiple traffic stops and driving with a revoked license was his most serious offense. He had no felonies on his record. Read that again: PHILANDO CASTILE HAD NO FELONIES ON HIS RECORD. Therefore, a reasonable person might think, “Gee, maybe he’s just a crappy driver and he’s giving me the license I just asked him for” and not “OMG He’s going to shoot me!”
 
The Dallas shooting is not justice, but when white people insist that #BlackLivesMatter is stupid and that all lives matter, you’re insisting on the status quo, where Black lives are *not* as important as white lives. Trying to raise the status of one race of people to equality doesn’t require other people to give anything up or lose anything. We learned that with giving women the vote. We learned that with “allowing” Black people to vote. We learned that by “letting” Black people sit wherever they want in restaurants and on public transportation. We learned that by “allowing” interracial marriage. We learned that with gay marriage. Do you remember these things?
 
Acknowledging the inherent racism built into our society with a pithy hashtag doesn’t mean that everybody else (including the police) aren’t important. It’s an acknowledgement that things are NOT fair, that they are NOT just, and they are NOT equitable.
 
I admit that I am a privileged white person who doesn’t worry about traffic stops, or about salespeople following me in stores to make sure I’m not stealing, or about being stopped on the street and asked for my ID. Unless these things have happened to you on a regular basis over the course of your life – as they happen to Black people, and Black men in particular – then you have no right to open your mouth.
 
I witnessed a FB conversation between a group of Black friends this week, and they are terrified. They were discussing where on earth might be a safe place for them to go. One person suggested Canada, but another said they’d just moved from Toronto and it wasn’t any better there. One of the last comments was “we are black, there is nowhere to go.”
 
How would you feel if there was nowhere to go?
 
Maybe it should be #BlackLivesMatterToo instead of just #BlackLivesMatter – because that’s what it really means, and I’m sure that whoever thought it up thought it was self-explanatory.
 
Admitting you have white privilege doesn’t hurt. The sun still comes up in the morning and the moon still orbits the earth. The hard part is that once you admit it, you have to do something about it.
 
That’s the part that hurts.
We like our white privilege.
We’d rather see people die than give it up.

Child of Storms – Chapter 13

Chapter 13 – Courage

The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living.
~ Marcus Tullius Cicero ~

Some days later, Niall Ashcroft showed up at our door, and I watched with no small surprise as Uncle Padraig not only let him inside, but also embraced him warmly.

“Come on in, son,” he said. “You’ll catch your death of cold in this weather.  Have a seat and I’ll fix you some tea.”

“Thank you, sir, but I don’t want to trouble you,” Niall replied, limping heavily. “I only came to speak with Angelina a moment.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Uncle replied, dropping a tea ball into a mug and pouring steaming water over it. “You’re welcome in my home anytime.  Have you eaten?”

Niall looked positively thunderstruck, which was understandable considering that their last encounter was when Charlie had been cut down from the whipping post.  In spite of the fact that he was a privileged son of the Tetrarch, Sebrina’s group of sycophants, Niall had wept to see the beating that had been so ruthlessly administered to my chosen.  He’d even risked the ArchDruid’s wrath by trying to help Charlie to his feet afterward.  That was when Uncle had shoved him away, barking that he should get away, that he had no place there.

Finding his voice at last, Niall said, “Yes, sir, I have.”

Uncle eyed him critically.  “You look a mite peaked.  I’ll fix us some beans and rice.  You could use the iron.”

Indecision and disbelief warred on Niall’s face, but he nodded.  “Thank you, sir.  I appreciate your generosity.”

“It’s nothing.”  Padraig shrugged.

Niall’s heroic action, standing between Orion and Shekhar Patel, defending the healer and nearly losing his own life as a result, had heightened his standing in Padraig’s eyes.  After all, Danica could very well have been one of Orion’s victims, had Uncle not been with her that dreadful night.  I considered him for a few moments, finally remembering how my chosen had decided to trust him, which meant he’d been worthy in Charlie’s eyes as well.  Rising from my nest on the couch, I went to greet him.

Uncle Padraig was right.  Nualla’s son stood on his own two feet, but that was the best that could be said of him.  His naturally fair skin was almost as white as his blond hair, telling a story of too much blood lost.  Angry red scars dotted his forearms where Orion’s blade had managed to get past his guard, and a slash ran from the right side of his neck and across his chest, visible where the laces of his shirt were loose.  An ugly, gnarled scar marred his handsome features, cutting through his left eyebrow, disappearing below the bandage over his left eye, and reappearing to carve a furrow in his cheek.

Even though I’d heard how badly he’d been hurt, it was shocking to see the damage with my own eyes.  Taking his hands on mine, it was a relief to feel the strength that remained there.  We’d been friends as children, and I’d spent several years believing that he was the one who would be my chosen.  I cared about him still; I would care about him always.  It made my heart ache.  All his life, he’d tried so hard to be the obedient son, the loyal druid, the good friend, the one who followed the rules and tried to do right.  He’d endured having his magic taken away, had worked hard to master the sword and everything else asked of him, had gracefully accepted it when I rejected his amorous advances, and had even let go of his anger and resentment of the man who had replaced him as my chosen warrior.

“You shouldn’t be out in this cold,” I said. “Danica said you nearly died.”  I led him to the chair by the fire, but even though the wound to his right thigh had to be painful, he didn’t sit.

“The cold doesn’t matter,” he said. “I came to offer my condolences.”  He swallowed hard.

Grief sliced through me like a knife.  Though the pain was always present, at times it tired of mauling me and crawled back into its cave – until the next time it chose to attack.  “Thank you,” I managed to say.

Niall shook his head.  “Do not thank me.  I did nothing to help you.  I did nothing to stop… all this.”  He looked down at his feet, clenching his fists.

“None of us did,” I said. “Me least of all.”

“Now, Angie…” Uncle began.

“No, don’t say it again.  None of these horrible things would have come about if not for me.  It is my fault and mine alone that my chosen died.  I chose to seek him out.  It was I who badgered him into coming here, and it was I who made him stay.”

This was when Uncle usually commented that Charlie was a warrior through-and-through, and that he’d chosen to remain of his own free will, but he respected my wishes and held his tongue.

“I am glad you did,” Niall replied. “I should not be, but I am.”

“I don’t understand,” I said.  Had he come here to offer his condolences only to turn around and say how happy he was that Charlie was dead?  Was it so important to Niall that I be bound to him?

“Remember all those books we read when we were kids?  All those stories of dyads that went through trials and danger?  The books always said those people were afraid, but I never really believed it.”  He shook his head.  “I thought that they were brave because they didn’t feel fear – at least, until Davis taught me otherwise.  He showed me what true courage is.  He was a good man, and I am privileged to have known him.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, boy,” Uncle said. “You’ve plenty of courage.  You demonstrated that when you stood up to Darryn and Orion.”

He held up a hand.  “Please, Master Padraig, allow me to finish.  I’ve had a lot of time to think about this since that night, and need to get this off my chest.”

“Very well.  Go on, then.”

“All I’ve done while confined to bed is to go over and over everything that’s happened since Davis came to the grove,” Niall continued. “At first I thought he was a fool for setting one foot within our borders, and then for refusing to back down even though we made things as difficult as we could for him.  I became convinced he was a madman, until Mabon, when Onóra threw that huge fireball at you and he shielded you with his own body.  It was then that I figured out that he was fearless because of his love for you.  That is when I began to consider him in a different light.”

He smiled ruefully.  “It’s hard to hate someone else for loving the same person you do – especially when he is willing to risk his life for love and you are not.”

“Oh, Niall…”

“After that I knew I was not meant to be your chosen warrior,” he continued. “If I was, I wouldn’t have been so afraid all the time.”

“He wasn’t fearless,” I said. “He was terrified that day.”

“Terrified for you, perhaps.  But not for himself.”

“I assure you, he was afraid many times.  You just never felt the way his heart pounded in his chest, or all the times he woke from a nightmare after that happened,” I said. “He was scared during the Autumn Moon gathering.  He was afraid that being made a master would infuriate Sebrina.  He was worried someone would get hurt on the gunnery range.  He was nervous about approaching Wolfric on Samhain, after we all watched him set the fields ablaze with magic he wasn’t even supposed to have.  He feared someone would find out he was helping Wolfric and Onóra escape.  And he was terrified when they tied him to the whipping post.”

“He couldn’t have been that afraid!” Niall snapped. “Davis never backed away from any of those things!”

“Were you afraid when Orion came at you with a sword in his hand?” Padraig asked, wandering in from the kitchen.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t,” Niall said. “But I know how to use a sword, and I practice every day.”

Padraig nodded.  “And how did you feel when you realized you had to face both Darryn and Orion?”

“I thought I might piss myself,” he said.  Then, as if remembering I was present, added:  “I beg your pardon for being crude.”

“There’s no need to apologize,” I said, feeling a rush of warmth for him.

Uncle nodded.  “If you were that scared, why didn’t you run?”

Niall frowned and gave him a look that suggested he was being ridiculous.  “And leave a healer defenseless?”

“Shekhar knows how to fight with a sword.”

“That may be so, but he is old!”

“Pfaugh!  Sixty-two isn’t so old.”

“It’s too old to fight a couple of young men!” Niall protested. “Especially one who is insane!  Have you seen Orion in a rage?”

“I have, and it is a fearsome sight.  Yet still you chose to face him.”

“Of course I did.”

“Even though you were afraid?”

The indignant look on Niall’s face faded away to one of comprehension.

“Being brave doesn’t mean you don’t feel fear.  It means you don’t let that fear stop you from doing what you know is right.  That’s what courage really is, son.  So please believe me when I say you have it in spades.”  Padraig clapped him on the shoulder. “So relax, sit by the fire, and put some food in your belly.  You’ll feel better for it.”

Niall did as he was told, grimacing as he dropped onto the chair cushion without his usual grace, a hiss of pain escaping his lips.

“I’m sorry you were hurt,” I said. “Will your leg heal completely?”

“Danica and Shekhar both say that it will heal and that I won’t limp forever,” he said. “The rest of my scars, however…”  His long slender fingers brushed over the bandage on his left eye. “Some things even magic cannot repair.”

“I wish I could go back and change things.”

“I have chosen to believe that this fate was devised by the gods for some higher purpose that I do not yet comprehend,” he said.

“Is that…”  I hesitated, the desire to respect his privacy warring with the need to know.  “Is that how you have survived all this time?  Is that how you stayed sane when your closest friends became consumed with the desire for magic?”

In that moment, I saw everything – the anguish, the despair, and the betrayal – reflected in his scarred face.

“Orion stopped believing in the Shining Ones when he was a child,” Niall replied.  “He said that if there really were gods, no one could have taken away our magic.  At first he ridiculed my faith, but later succumbed to despair, then grew mad from the craving.”

“And Darryn?”

“I think that for him, obtaining high status by being partnered with a powerful elementalist was a way to make up for lacking magic.  How he railed against me when Davis arrived, telling me I needed to ‘stand up for myself.’  I regret that I allowed him to talk me into taking actions I might not have otherwise.”  Niall rubbed his face with both hands.  “Onóra was just an object to him, a thing to be used in the pursuit of his own power.  He just could not understand why I was willing to let you go.”

Padraig brought us each a bowl of beans and rice before retiring to his own room.  In those days I was rarely hungry and ate simply because Uncle had taken the time to prepare it.  This time, however, I ate so that Niall would also.  If I did not eat, he might not either, and he needed the sustenance to heal his injuries.  The silence between us gave me time to process the things he had said, and upon reflection I felt grateful that Sebrina had wanted to partner me with Niall and not Darryn, for it easily could have gone the other way – especially since Betrys Darkmane fairly worshipped the ground the ArchDruid walked on.  Part of me wondered if she had been moved to accept Wolfric because of her abhorrence of Darryn, rather than the genuine respect and desire that a dyad bond deserved.

“I’d better return to Shekhar’s house before it gets too dark,” Niall said, gripping the armrests and rising awkwardly from his chair.  “Will you thank Master Padraig for me?”

“Of course,” I said, walking him to the door. “Is it wise for you to walk so far?”

“He told me I needed to be up and about more,” Niall replied. “Besides, Charger is outside.  He’s been remarkably gentle since the attack.”  A shadow of a smile crossed his lips.  “I think Shekhar told him to mind his manners.”

Indeed, the big black horse was munching hay in Padraig’s front yard.  Charger raised his head and ambled over to Niall, who laid his hand on the horse’s forehead.  I’d never seen the stallion so calm and thought it likely that the healer had told the stallion to look after his young master, as I had done with Steel so many months ago when Charlie had been severely injured.

“There is something more I would like to say to you,” Niall said, looking back at me.  “If you wish it, I will honor my agreement to partner with you as we originally intended.”

I should have expected his offer, but it caught me off guard.  My first reaction was to scream at him and throw him off our porch, but pain and grief caused the words to lodge in my throat.  It was fortunate, for we had both suffered enough and should not be the cause of further injury to one another.

“And what of your own chosen, should you bind with me?”

“You know about that?”

“There were no secrets between my chosen and me.”

“I am a man of my word,” he said. “While I have received her fetch, I have not as yet accepted the bond.”  He looked down at his hands, stroking the horse’s soft face.  “Under the circumstances, she will understand, I think.”

I knew for a fact that she would not.  Even if I could bear the thought of someone standing in Charlie’s stead, I could never steal away another elementalist’s chosen warrior, selected for her by the ancestors and the Shining Ones.

“No.”  I shook my head.  “I appreciate your offer, for you are as generous as you are brave.  But you have given up enough, Niall.  Your chosen is a gift, given to you by the Shining Ones, an even greater one than magic,” I said. “Accept that bond, for it is precious.  Cherish it, and don’t ever let your chosen go.”

The disappointment was heavy in his expression and I could tell he didn’t believe my words.  Once again, he accepted rejection with grace and dignity, offering me the gesture of druid respect as he took his leave.  Even though the decision had been mine, I felt a pang of loss as I watched him ride away, for I knew he would not ask again.

It was all for the best, and maybe one day he would understand.  Something like the bond between chosen could not be understood until it was experienced.  Niall would not believe it if I told him, but I would give up every bit of magic I possessed – every spark of spirit, every drop of water, and every whisper of air, just to have Charlie back again.

Child of Storms – Chapter 12

Chapter 12 – Grief

Part of every misery is, so to speak, the misery’s shadow or reflection:
the fact that you don’t merely suffer but have to keep on thinking about the fact that you suffer.
I not only live each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief.
~
 C. S. Lewis ~

Padraig left me alone only once, and that was to make repairs to Danica’s house.  During that time, Arrie Stoddard came to sit with me.  I halfway wished that Uncle had left me alone.  Then Betrys Darkmane could retaliate against my father for executing her only son – by attacking me.  True, she was a full druid with elemental fire, while I was an elementalist with spirit, water, and air, but I had bested her once before and would be pleased to do so again.  Then I would have an outlet for this agony, this unspeakable pain.

My only relief was crying, which left me feeling wrung out and exhausted.  It also left me with the notion 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 dying 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 my father was still tearing the grove apart in his fruitless search for my chosen’s body.  Even when he was present, he was distant and distracted.  Understanding his need to act warred with resentment of his absence.  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 ArchDruid Sebrina to raise.  It was as though the elements of spirit and air so thoroughly ruled his actions through motivation and logic that the element that governed his emotion had no influence.

Uncle Padraig was the only person to whom I could turn for comfort, and he himself was grieving deeply, not only over the loss of Davis, but also his own son Duncan.  He had to be wondering – as I did – if the ArchDruid and her Tetrarch had discovered his involvement in orchestrating Wolfric and Onóra’s escape.  Had Duncan chosen to leave of his own accord?  Or had the ArchDruid’s tolerance of this young man with magic finally come to an end?  Had he suffered the same fate as so many others who had not been denied the gift of the gods?  Had he, too, been exiled?  Or had he been murdered in cold blood for the crime of being a young man with magic?

My uncle was no stranger to grief, for he had lost his chosen Dragana and her unborn son.  A year later to the day, he had found two-year old Duncan alone in the woods.  The shredded remains of his parents lay nearby, with the child rolling around with two bear cubs, the three protected by a fierce mother bear.  Once when he was in his cups, he had confided in me that they were undoubtedly murdered, then cut up to make it seem as though mauled by a bear.  Father had once commented that the mother bear had only allowed Padraig to take young Duncan home because she had recognized a fellow child of earth.   I didn’t know if my cousin ever risked life and limb with the dangerous creatures, but Iriana Disney, also an earth elementalist, was known to befriend bears in the woods and even encroach into their hibernation spaces.  We all thought she was crazy, but no one ever snitched.

I’d heard it said that it was the hard times that proved who your real friends are, and none of them had come to visit me, not even Iriana Disney.  Irri had been involved in many of my little rebellions, the most recent being the Autumn Moon social, when more than half of the grove’s elementalists and young warrior trainees had defied the ArchDruid’s order forbidding us to gather.  Of all my friends, Iriana’s absence hit me hardest.

The only other person who offered us comfort was Danica Harris, who had moved back into her own home, but continued to visit daily.  Truly, it could only have been love that motivated her to do so, for neither Uncle nor I were pleasant company.  He was either taciturn or short-tempered, and my emotions cycled through weeping, hoping Charlie was alive, wishing for a resolution to this uncertainty, and begging the gods to intervene on my behalf.  There were also times when, no longer able to stand the uncertainty, I threatened to murder Sebrina because she was a soulless tyrant, or kill myself because I was a foul and loathsome creature who did not deserve to draw another breath for allowing harm to befall my beloved.

I considered myself a lunatic and wondered if perhaps I was experiencing the kind of madness that Orion had.  It should have been a terrifying thought, but it seemed as though anything would be preferable to this maelstrom of emotional upheaval.  Thus, feeling myself to be unstable and irrational, I barely spoke to anyone and spent the hours either sleeping, crying, or staring into the flames.  Like as not I massaged the oath mark on my left palm; it was rapidly becoming a compulsion.

When Danica entered that day, I was sitting on the sofa, again wrapped in blankets and sipping green tea.  It had become my island in a sea of storms, my place of protection and comfort.

Padraig invited her to sit at the table.

“I know you don’t want to talk about it, but this situation with your brother needs to be addressed,” she asked without preamble.

“Not by me,” he said. “Would you like some coffee?”

“I didn’t come here for coffee.  I came to talk to you about Liam.”

Mention of my father’s name drew my attention.  Uncle glanced over at me and continued pouring the coffee.  Taking his time, he added sugar and cream before setting it before her.

“I’ve already hashed this out with Adalwulf Rask.”  He returned to his chair and picked up the stick he had been carving.  It looked like a walking staff.  He had brought the fallen oak branch home after repairing the damage I had caused to her house, when I’d woken to find Charlie gone.

I veered away from that train of thought.  My heart was broken, my mind did not know what to believe, and after days of endless weeping my eyes burned.  I was weary of crying and physically drained from the passions that constantly whiplashed through me, but the tears and the rage still came often and at random, quite beyond my control.

Always considerate and delicate of expression, Danica pressed him:

“Do you not think you should do something?”

“I’m sure our honored ArchDruid has things well in hand.”

“I see.”  She cocked her head at him.  “Do you often whittle in the house?”

“I do when it’s cold out.”

Danica raised an eyebrow.  “You are a fire druid.”

“I still get cold.  Besides, it’s my house, I can mess it up if I want to.”  His tone was gruff.

She looked down at her hands, obviously disheartened.

“What are you making?” Danica asked.

“A staff.”

“I thought only wizards used staves,” she said with a light tone and teasing smile.  If she hadn’t mentioned the wild uproar Father was causing, he might have been more receptive.  As it was, Padraig was having none of her efforts to lighten his mood, and I felt badly for her.

“It’s a traveling staff.”  His tone was gruff.

“Are you planning a trip?”

“You know I am.”

“Is that why you won’t try to stop Liam?  Because you want to abandon the grove and this will make people hate him?”

Apparently the earth druid had decided that having her say was worth risking my uncle’s temper, and this I could not understand.  Was it possible that she, too, was unaware of his feelings?

“I couldn’t care less who Liam is terrorizing, for in all likelihood they deserve it,” he replied.

I couldn’t blame Padraig for his indifference, being barely capable of civility myself.  In a way, I thought that he was embroiled in a process similar to mine.  I had lost my chosen, either to fate or to death, the facts unknown to me.  My cousin was lost because of politics and antipathy, under equally mysterious circumstances.

“Not everyone in the grove bears guilt for what happened to Davis,” she said.

“Yes, they do.  And so do we.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“We’re all guilty – you, me, Liam, and especially those people who disagree with Sebrina but say nothing against her and allow her evil to continue uncontested.”

“You forgot to mention me,” I said rising and coming to the table. “He wouldn’t even have been here if I hadn’t brought him.  Sebrina warned me against seeking him out, and I did it anyway.”

Uncle gave me a look of pity and compassion, but did not contradict me.  Above all things, we Everlights are honest, about our faults as well as our virtues.  I hated seeing the pain in his eyes, but just knowing that someone else had loved Charlie Davis and missed him brought me an unexpected comfort – until a sudden, crystal-clear memory of a copper-skinned, raven-haired woman and her tall, golden-eyed husband arose in my mind.

Someone else had loved Charlie – his parents.

Their son was missing or dead, and Charles and Nita had no idea.

“Oh, gods, they don’t even know,” I whispered aloud.

Danica and Padraig exchanged a worried look, but I barely noticed, my mind was such a tempest.  I couldn’t escape the memory of his mother’s face – not her anger or indignation, but the fear in her eyes.

”Do you know what you’ve agreed to?!” she had said to him.  “Do you realize this is your life?” 

I remembered the scene, almost as though I were reliving it:  the warm, cozy kitchen, the smell of baked chicken and polenta cakes, the angry sounds of mother and son shouting at one another.

“Sometimes when people are hurt, they make foolish decisions, and foolish vows.  When they heal, they move on,” I said, as though I possessed years of wisdom instead of being a foolish twenty-year-old determined to get her own way.

“Foolish vows like becoming the chosen of a druid,” Nita snapped.

“And what would you know about it?”

“More than you know.”

“Perhaps you’d care to enlighten me.”

His mother just stood there, glaring silently at me for a long moment before turning back to Charlie.

“Son… Don’t do this.  Travel if you want, go where you please.  Come home whenever you want, I’ll stop giving you grief over how you live your life… But please, do not go with this girl.”

“Why not?” he asked.

She licked her lips, showing the first sign of uncertainty, and I rejoiced.  I was winning.  He was mine.

“I can’t tell you,” she said, desperation in her voice. “You must trust me in this.  If you go with her, your life will no longer be your own, and you will be in danger every moment.”

“I’m in danger every time I step out on the road,” he said.

“Not like this,” Nita replied.  The pulse pounded in her neck, her hands shook, and there was trepidation in her eyes.

It hadn’t been mere apprehension or worry about the future.  It had been fear in her eyes, because she’d known.  Somehow, his mother had known what would happen to him if he came with me.  The pieces started to fall into place:

Charlie’s latent earth magic, which we assumed had been blocked.

His mother, terrified that he had not only met a druid girl, but was going to be her chosen.

Surely she was one of those druids that had fled the grove twenty years ago when Sebrina came into power.

Doubtless she had fled so that her son would not be denied his gods-given elemental ability.

I must have been her worst nightmare.

Uncle shifted in his chair.  “Angie…?”

“His parents.  I have to tell them,” I somehow choked out.  The rest came out in a torrent:    “His mother was furious when she found out he was coming with me, and do you know what I said to her?  I told her that what she wanted didn’t matter.”  There was a deep ache in my chest and I struggled to catch my breath.

“I told his mother that the fate of her only child was not her concern!” I cried. What kind of person would do that?

Danica covered her mouth with both hands, horrified.  Uncle’s expression turned to one of dismay.  In his eyes I could see the dread of having to tell someone’s parents that their precious son – their only child – was dead, and not only that, but that he had first been beaten and then poisoned.  Tortured.

How could I face them to give them the news?

How could I not?

Gods help them.

Gods help me, too – because I was the one responsible.

Child of Storms – Chapter 11

Chapter 11 – Anarchy

All great changes are preceded by chaos.
~ Deepak Chopra ~

My father had executed the strike so swiftly that the offending head had rolled to a stop before anyone gasped or cried out.  It was so quiet that I heard the thump as Darryn’s body pitched over onto the cobblestones.  It was the blood spurting from the severed neck that incited exclamations of horror, a couple of screams, and the sound of someone vomiting.  Several someones, in fact.

Father wasn’t finished, however.

“Let it be known throughout White Oak Grove that I, Liam Everlight, am no longer First Warrior to ArchDruid Sebrina,” Father said in a loud voice.  “And let it also be known that Davis, my daughter’s chosen, was taken from a house of healing this morning – a sacred place of protection!”

Raising his sword to the sky, he bellowed:  “I call upon you, great Zeus, most glorious and greatest, and to Helios, who sees and hears all things!  Hear me, Gaea, earth mother!  Listen, all you gods and goddesses in the realms above and below, and witness my oath this day:  this heinous crime will not go unpunished!  By the earth, sea, and sky, and by the blood I have spilled today, I swear that I shall not rest until I have found out the truth of what has befallen him!”

Shocked silence greeted his pronouncement.

Equally stunned by this development, I couldn’t blame them.

“That… that was… he made a…” I stammered.

“Blood sacrifice,” Padraig said, his tone grim.

“I can’t believe it!”

“Like your hearth culture doesn’t perform blood sacrifices.”  He gave me a knowing look.  Heat rose to my cheeks.  People outside the Yoruba hearth culture always assumed we performed blood sacrifices, simply because pre-Fracture witch doctors and voodoo priests had also worshipped the Orisha.

“We do not!” I snapped. “Blood sacrifice is forbidden!”

Uncle Padraig shrugged.  “He was going to kill Darryn anyway.  May as well make use of it.”

My jaw dropped.  Of all the things that had gone wrong within White Oak Grove, my father’s use of blood as a sacrifice to the gods and my uncle’s indifference to it demonstrated just how warped our society had become, and how far from our ancestors we had strayed.

“Besides, the ancient Greek peoples frequently engaged in blood sacrifice – animals and humans.”

“That’s not true!” I protested.  What kind of madness was he advocating now?

“Oh no?  Have you never heard of a scapegoat ritual?”

“They didn’t kill people!”

“Scholars have differing opinions on that, but there is a general agreement that unrepentant murderers were chosen as scapegoats and then executed.”

I could only stare at him.

“Terrible, isn’t it?” he asked.

“What do you mean?”

“The fact that human sacrifice is made more palatable to our delicate sensibilities because the blood spilled was that of an unrepentant murderer.”

He was right.  It was terrible that someone could be dehumanized because they weren’t sorry for killing another human being.  Yet, did not the very action of murder cause someone to lose his humanity?  Could one kill in cold blood and still remain human?

Who truly dehumanized the scapegoat?

The murderer himself?

The society that condemned him?

I didn’t lose any sleep over it that night.

I hated Darryn Darkmane.

I was glad he was dead.

*  *  *

“I want you to stay with Padraig.”

“Yesterday you wanted me to come home with you.”  Yesterday I had hated him, but today he was my avatar, my protector, and my hero.

“Aye, but that was before I beheaded Darryn Darkmane in the street,” Father said. “Sebrina won’t like that, and I imagine Betrys Darkmane will be wanting vengeance as well.  I’ll not have her take it out on you.”

“Betrys is lucky that Nualla didn’t seek revenge herself,” Danica said.

“In that case, I’m sorry he’s already dead,” I said, imagining Nualla burning Darryn alive with elemental fire.

“Angie!” protested Danica, clearly mortified.

“He didn’t suffer nearly enough.”  My fists clenched in a useless attempt to hang onto my earlier rage.  In spite of my harsh words, anger was again fading into the empty despair of mourning.  I wanted to be angry.  I needed to be angry.  Anything to fill the void of despair that threatened to swamp me at every turn.

Father knelt before me and took my hands.  “Things may take a turn for the worse before they get better.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.  Nothing could be worse than losing Charlie.  Nothing could be worse than missing his quick smile, his strong arms around me, his determination and courage.  Nothing could be worse than knowing I’d failed him, that I was the one truly responsible for his suffering and death.  He’d been my rock and now he was gone.

“I swore a blood oath in the presence of our people, the nature spirits, the ancestors, and the Shining Ones,” he said. “I intend to fulfill it.”

“What do you aim to do?” Padraig asked, looking at my father skeptically.

“I’m going to search every square inch of this grove until I find Davis,” Father replied. “Have no fear, daughter.  I will find your chosen.”  With this pronouncement, he rose and strode to the door, closing it behind him with finality.

I looked at Uncle.  “Don’t you think you should go with him?”

“If he wanted my help, he would have asked.”

“But wouldn’t it be easier to search if you used earth magic?”

He hesitated.  “A seeking with earth is not always possible,” he said kindly. “We all have an element of spirit in our bodies, even if we can’t channel it.  It is that spirit, that life force, for which an earth druid searches when performing a seeking.  Should that life force be weak, or—”

I held up a hand.  I understood.  Father hadn’t asked Padraig to come along because he was not looking for a sick and injured man, but for a corpse.

*  *  *

As much as Uncle Padraig tried to protect me from what was occurring in the grove, rumors of my father’s activities intruded nevertheless.  Over the next few days, people kept dropping by the house at all hours, beseeching Padraig to at least talk to Liam.

It wasn’t until Adalwulf Rask came by that Uncle paid attention.  As usual, Wolfric’s father was in full leather armor with his long knives strapped to his back.

“There’s a problem,” he said without preamble. “You need to see to it, Padraig.”

“My brother’s business is his own,” Uncle replied. “He’ll not thank me for butting in.”

“Perhaps not, but the rest of the grove will.”

Uncle snorted.  “I’ll join the ancestors before that ever happens.”

“Be that as it may, Liam is out of control and you are the only one with a chance of stopping him.”

“I really couldn’t care less if he spent the rest of his life breaking down doors and rifling through women’s underwear.”

“Eventually someone will object,” Adalwulf said, frowning at my uncle’s obvious lack of honor. “Perhaps violently.”

“Not if they’re smart.”

“He is no longer First Warrior.  He has no authority to do such things!”

“His daughter’s chosen is missing,” said Uncle. “Can you blame him?”  His tone was deceptively mild.  I say deceptively because the temperature was starting to rise.  I started to wonder if perhaps my father’s questionable activities stemmed from a sense of guilt.  If so, it was too little, too late.

“Davis is dead,” Adalwulf stated with his characteristic bluntness.  A loud sob rose up unbidden and escaped my lips, bringing with it a flood of tears.  It brought Padraig to his feet and roused him like nothing else had.

“How dare you march in here making pronouncements like that in front of Angie!” he roared. “How dare you speak so disrespectfully of him!  If it weren’t for Davis, it would be your son who is dead!”

Adalwulf stiffened, casting a quick look my way, then turning his eyes back to Padraig.  “My apologies, Angelina.  You are right, Padraig.  What you say is true.”

Is it?  I wondered, rubbing the still-warm scar of the oath mark.  It seemed that the entirety of my grief and tears were from the agony of not knowing what had happened to him.  Yes, he was likely dead.  He’d been so sick it was nearly impossible for him not to be.

And yet Duncan had not returned.  It was foolish, but my cousin’s continued absence gave me hope.  Duncan was an earth elementalist and a skilled healer.  It was well within his capabilities to have healed Charlie and moved him someplace safe.

“Padraig, you must listen to reason.  Even Danica says there was no hope for him without magic—”

“Then where is the body?!” Padraig shouted. “Tell me that!”

Adalwulf looked away, as though ashamed.  It seemed to pain him greatly, having to deliver this message.  I wondered which would win the war inside him, his duty to his fellow citizens or honoring our wishes to mourn in peace?

“I do not know,” he replied quietly. “What I do know is that there is a man on the verge of madness rampaging through the grove at all hours of the day and night, kicking in doors and terrifying people.”

“Good!  Let them tremble and faint from dread!  Let them vomit with trepidation!  Let the cowards piss down their legs and shit themselves in terror!”

Adalwulf’s frowned mightily at Padraig’s dishonorable attitude and display of temper.

“Don’t you look at me like that,” Uncle growled. “Why should we care one whit for their panic?  Did my fellow citizens offer Davis support even once?  No!  When Sebrina announced that she was going to beat him, they slunk away like dogs with their tails between their legs!  When Davis lay suffering, did any of them come to offer him comfort?”  His chest heaved with wrath, and Adalwulf could no longer meet his eyes.

“And now that he’s gone, has even one person offered to perform a ritual for him?  Has anyone lit a single candle or filled even a cup of water?  Has one prayer been spoken or an offering for him given to the gods?”

The other man’s answering silence spoke volumes.

“That’s right.  Nobody gave a damn about my family, but now that they are inconvenienced, I’m supposed jump right up and fix their problem,” Padraig said, his voice now husky. “You go tell those selfish, cowardly arseholes that I don’t give a shit about them or their problems.”

Still looking down at his boots, Adalwulf gave a respectful nod and started out the door with his shoulders slumped.

“One more thing.”

He stopped, then turned around and faced Padraig once more.  It took a great man to again face the one whose words had just flayed him to the bone.  Uncle was right, and the expression on Adalwulf’s face said that he knew it.

“This house is in mourning,” said Padraig.  His voice broke and tears slid down his cheeks, “and we would appreciate it if the rest of you would remember that.”

Child of Storms – Chapter 10

Chapter 10 – Retribution

It will have blood, they say; blood will have blood.
~ William Shakespeare ~

Uncle Padraig, rubbing the back of his head, met us at the end of the path.  Sebrina’s air push had knocked him back several feet, causing him to hit the stone walkway.

“That was impressive,” he said. “And unexpected.”

“Aye,” said my father. “Whoever would have thought I’d have raised a turncoat?”

“The acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree,” I said, feeling my eyes burn with tears.

“You could have warned me what you were about,” Padraig said.

“I did not plan what happened here today,” Father said.

My brother?  Acting without thinking?  Unheard of!”

“I did not act without thinking,” Father replied. “Some actions do not require lengthy consideration.”

Low muttering, gradually growing louder, reached our ears.

“The ArchDruid seems to be recovering,” Uncle said. “Shall we take steps?”

“Aye,” my father replied.

I looked over my shoulder to see Sebrina struggling to her feet, still naked and bloody.  Betrys was trying to help her, but the ArchDruid shook her off.  I felt the huge build of elemental magic – spirit, air, and water – and the hair on the back of my neck stood on end.

Without looking back, my father and uncle raised twin protective barriers – a shield of air to protect us from her magic, and a wall of earth to block the doorway and seal her inside.  Then they each took one of my hands and we returned to Danica’s house, a family united once more.

The earth healer teared up briefly when she saw us together, then got busy bandaging Father’s hand.  As the doors were wonky on their hinges and glass lay everywhere from the windows I’d shattered, she gathered a bag of personal belongings and accompanied us to Padraig’s house.

“I’m so sorry,” I said.

“Don’t worry about it,” Danica replied, her dark eyes warm.

“We’ll fix it back in a few days,” said Padraig. “I can rework the glass and straighten out the doors.”

Padraig’s house was soon warm and cozy, with a comforting fire in the hearth.  Supper was simple, bread and vegetable stew.  We shared a meal together and though I ate but little, having my family sit at a table together was a pleasure I’d experienced rarely as a child and never since returning to the grove with Charlie this past summer.  For my entire life, my father and uncle had been at odds over Father’s bond with and support of Sebrina.  Having them together – and politically united – under the same roof was a deep comfort.

Even so, Duncan’s absence cast something of a shadow over us; and, now that my anger was spent, my misery at losing Charlie threatened to drown me once more.  My father seemed no worse for having broken his bond with Sebrina.  Under the table, I rubbed at the oath mark on my left palm.

“You won’t be protected anymore,” said Father, breaking the silence.

Neither will you, I thought.  He was a triple threat and the greatest swordsman in the grove, but still vulnerable to fire, poison, bullets, and many other things that could wound the human body.

“What makes you think I need protection?” Uncle said. “I can take care of myself.”

“Do you expect Sebrina to extract revenge?” Danica asked.

“It seems likely,” Father said.

“We should leave.”  The words had left my lips before I was even aware of the thought.

Danica’s eyes widened.  “This is our home.”

“Aye,” said Uncle Padraig. “It is our home, but fighting for it the past twenty years hasn’t won it back for us.”

“That is because I wasn’t standing with you,” said Father.

Uncle sighed. “I’m tired of fighting, and too much innocent blood has soiled the earth here,” he said. “Better to start fresh in a new place than waste more time.”

“A Harris has lived in my house since this grove was first settled,” Danica said. “I’m not leaving.”

“Reclaiming our home will be worth the time spent,” Father said.

“Druids have already neglected their duty for twenty years,” I said. “Will we neglect it for twenty more, simply because we’re emotionally attached to a certain patch of dirt?”

Uncle nodded agreement, and I could see that neither Father nor Danica could argue the point.

“Winter is upon us,” Father said after a lengthy pause. “Even if we decide to relocate, it would be ill-advised to make such a journey now.”

Danica’s face brightened.  “We could spend the cold months trying to oust Sebrina,” she said.

Uncle Padraig sat back in his chair, rubbing his pointed beard and considering the idea.  “The winter looks to be a mild one, but there’s always the chance of random blizzards,” he allowed.

It was true.  The weather had been wildly unpredictable since the Rebirth.  While it might be risky to stay in the grove, it was certainly safer than traversing the wilderness in freezing weather.  Assuming that we could carry enough food for such a journey, keeping warm would still be a challenge – even with Padraig’s fire magic.

Wolfric and Onóra came to mind, and I wondered if they were still alive.  It was a dark thought, but since my own chosen was gone, very few lighthearted thoughts remained to me.  I hoped they were warm and well fed, because Charlie’s sacrifice for them would not have been in vain.  At the same time, I regretted having asked – no, demanded – that he help them escape.  I was sorry he had listened to me, even though he was likely to have come up with the notion on his own.

Better for Onóra’s chosen to have died than my own.

Why had I not understood that before?

“In any case, I’m not one to abandon our elders,” Uncle Padraig said, drawing my attention back to their conversation, “I’m fairly certain that Rhys and Morganna would be willing to leave, but they’d not survive such a journey unless the weather is warm.”

“That would delay our departure until May,” I said. “That’s too long!”

“I suppose half a year is time enough to determine whether or not we can rid ourselves of Sebrina and her supporters,” Danica said, with a glance at Father.  He thought about it for a moment, before nodding.

“Aye,” he said.

“Besides,” said Uncle, “All the political maneuvering should obscure our plans to make a permanent departure from the grove.  Sebrina will never know what hit—”  He paused, craning his neck to peer out the window.  “What is that commotion?”

Danica cocked her head.  “Someone just called out your name, Liam.”

“I heard,” Father said, rising from the table.  Still clad in his leather armor, he buckled his sword about his hips and strode to the front door.

“Wait,” Uncle said. “Let me go first.”

Father paused, then took his hand off the doorknob and gestured for Padraig to precede him.  Uncle took only a few steps before stopping and crossing his arms over his chest.  Father halted in the doorway.

“Oh, it’s you,” he said, sounding simultaneously bored and annoyed. “One would think you’d have the sense not to darken my doorstep, Darryn Darkmane.”

I was out of my chair in a flash, bolting through the door and pushing past both of them.

“You get out of here!” I yelled at him, as anger filled me, chasing away the grief and pain once again.  Picking up a rock, I threw it at him.  It bounced off his leather scaled armor, and Darryn just laughed.

“You are a horrible, miserable, jealous weasel!  You betrayed your best friend!  You hurt our healers!  You have no honor!”

“No one will believe those lies,” Darryn retorted.

“Davis would have been fine, if not for you!” I yelled. “He would still be here!”

“You cost me my chosen,” Darryn said. “I reckon it’s only fair.”

You—!” I started toward him, summoning every bit of spirit magic inside me.

A restraining hand fell upon my shoulder.

“I’ll handle this,” Father murmured in my ear. “Go back inside.”

“I’m not going anywhere!” I snapped, jerking away.

“You can’t handle this,” he said gently.

Don’t tell me what can’t do, I nearly said, but I met his gaze and read a promise there.

“I will not fail you again, Angie,” said Father. “Give me your trust?”

I glanced at Darryn before meeting Father’s eyes again.  After a moment’s hesitation, I nodded.

“Hold, brother!” Father called, turning from me.  Padraig had his sword in hand and was walking quickly to meet Darryn in the street.

“I was wrong to stay my hand last time, Liam.”

“As was I,” Father replied.

Uncle stopped in his tracks and spun about with a surprised expression on his face.  My father stopped beside him, thumbs hooked in his sword belt.  Padraig looked over at me, then back to Father.  He turned back to Darryn, sheathed his sword, and chuckled.

“How can a man’s luck be so bad that the entire Everlight clan wants the pleasure of killing him?” he asked.  Shaking his head ruefully, but still wearing a small, bitter smile, Uncle returned to stand beside me, putting his arm around my shoulders.

“Watch your mouth or I’ll be coming after you next,” Darryn said.

“By all means, boy,” Padraig replied with a grin. “Please do.”

Darryn’s snarl at my uncle was cut short as my father’s approach attracted his attention.  The slow hiss of steel was the only sound as Father drew his blade, sliding it smoothly from its scabbard.

“So you’ve come out of hiding, then?” Father asked, sauntering to meet Darryn. “Finally worked up the courage to face me, have you?”

“You are no longer First Warrior, old man,” Darryn spat, drawing his sword and brandishing it.  “And after you’re gone, I will take your place at the ArchDruid’s side.”

“First you must defeat me,” Father said.  His blade flashed out and back, tapping Darryn’s sword in a flicker of motion that was almost too fast for my eyes to track.  The weasel jerked back in surprise.

“If you want to be First Warrior, you’ll have to be faster than that,” said my father. “Much faster.”

Furious, Darryn attacked in a flurry of blows, lunging in and out, feinting and striking.  No matter how he attacked – overhead, underhand, from the forehand or backhand – Father blocked them all effortlessly.  He moved with such grace and surefootedness that one might think the street was smooth, rather than paved with uneven cobblestones.

“Liam is toying with him,” Padraig grumbled.

“Why?”

“He’s making a point.”

“It’s not like Darryn will learn anything after he’s dead.”

“This lesson is for others,” Uncle said. “Look.”

The ring of steel – the second swordfight in the streets today – was drawing a crowd.  The neighbors had already been drawn outside by Darryn, yelling in the street.  It was my father’s appearance that had summoned the others, the news of their confrontation sweeping through the grove like the very wind.

Uncle was right; my father could have killed the weasel with that first blow.  He’d intentionally aimed for the sword and not the man.  Now, however, his posture had changed.  I’d seen my father sparring with others – usually my uncle, but sometimes the other masters – enough times to recognize the change.  He advanced upon Darryn in a manner I’d never seen, his body sinuous and lithe like that of a tiger, the motion of his limbs tight and controlled like a snake about to strike.

His abrupt focus would be the downfall of Betrys Darkmane’s son.  One heavy strike of Father’s blade, and the weasel’s sword flew out of his hands, landing on the cobblestones with a loud clatter.  For a long moment, the only sound was his heavy breathing as he gasped for air.

“I…I yield.”  I had to strain to catch the words.

“I beg your pardon.  What did you say?” Father asked, tilting his head to one side.

“I yield!”  His shout rang out, loud enough for all to hear, and his eyes blazed with impotent fury.

My chosen’s propensity for fighting and his willingness to engage enemies in battle had alternately annoyed and terrified me, but Charlie Davis never yielded.  He never gave up, and he never gave in.

I’d never understood exactly why until this very moment.

“On your knees, Darryn Darkmane.”

“What?!”

The tip of my father’s sword touched Darryn’s throat.  Still full of rage and zero repentance, the weasel’s upper lip twisted as he raised his hands in mock surrender and took a step back before kneeling in the street before my father.

“Now, here in the presence of your fellow citizens, you will relate exactly what happened when you and Niall Ashcroft accompanied Davis on his mission to demonstrate the effectiveness of the Ithaca 37 shotgun.”

Confusion warred with anger in Darryn’s dark eyes.  He’d obviously expected Father to ask him to admit his part in providing Orion with a sword and giving him free rein in shedding the blood of our healers – as had I.  Judging from the puzzled expressions on the faces of many of our neighbors, they, too, were surprised by this innocuous question.  No one cared about something that had occurred two months ago – especially not me!  Charlie was dead.  What difference did it make now that he’d nearly been murdered then?

His concern for the safety of all the men under twenty in the grove made no difference now.  Their fate had been sealed by the ArchDruid, who had decreed that they be denied their gods-given magic even before most of them had been conceived.  She never intended to allow any of us to leave and fulfill the druid mission to heal the world.  My chosen had known better than she, however, for he had realized that our generation would not tolerate being restrained and trapped within the narrow confines of White Oak Grove.

Thus, when my father approached Charlie about using his shotgun – the Ithaca 37 – as a model to manufacture more firearms and suggested that he should teach our young men without magic to use them, he had readily agreed.  Resentful of Charlie’s presence from the moment he stepped into the grove, Sebrina had twisted the idea in order to do away with him under the guise of sending him off with Niall and Darryn to act as “witnesses” to observe just how well his shotgun operated in a combat situation.  And even though Charlie had saved both their lives from bandits, Darryn had ruthlessly stabbed him in the back.  If it hadn’t been for my cousin Duncan following them – sent by my father to watch his back – he would have died.

The night they had returned, Father had admonished Betrys Darkmane’s son never to harm my chosen again, or he would suffer dire consequences.  The weasel had sneered at the threat before slinking away that night.  He had disregarded father, just as he had disregarded Charlie’s status as a grove weapon master.  Both were extremely poor choices.  My chosen was a man of his word.  He never made a threat without carrying it out.

Just like my father.

And Father had asked me to trust him.

“I tried to kill him,” Darryn spat.  There was a little murmuring in the crowd, for what difference did that make now that Davis the Outsider was dead?  “I ran him through with my sword!”

“Aye, you did.”  Father nodded, walking around him slowly, casually spinning his sword about in one hand.  “And the night he was whipped, what did you do to him then?”

“I poisoned him!” the weasel spat. “I got rid of that dirty Outsider, just as the ArchDruid wished me to!”  The bravado of his tone was belied by the fear in his eyes.

“Aye, that you did,” Father said, stopping to stand in front of Darryn, facing away from him and looking into my eyes.

“Do you remember, Darryn Darkmane, what I told you would happen if you harmed my daughter’s chosen again?” Father asked softly.

Behind him, Darryn’s face drained of color, and all trace of his youthful arrogance and pride were gone.

“You s-said you’d kill me y-yourself.”

“Aye,” Father said. “That I did.”

His right hand gripped the sword hilt more tightly, his left hand came up to grasp the pommel.  Raising the sword over his right shoulder, he stepped back with his left foot.  Then, with deadly grace, Liam Everlight pivoted on the balls of his feet, the motion giving him greater force in bringing his longsword about in a brilliant arc of cold light – severing Darryn Darkmane’s head from his shoulders in a single mighty blow.