Chapter 2 – Determination
You have to accept whatever comes and the only
important thing is that you meet it with courage
and with the best that you have to give.
~ Eleanor Roosevelt ~
It took me the rest of the night to drill a hole through the wall of Small House, sending tubes of water in gradually increasing sizes through it until there was an opening large enough for me to escape. My work went quickly throughout the night, but once the sky lightened I had to take greater care lest anyone discover what I was doing. I sent feelers of water all around Small House to monitor for movement, particularly that of water elementalists who might have become aware of my activities.
Breaching the wall around mid-morning, I crawled out immediately. Once there, I crouched low to the ground and sent hundreds of tiny water streams throughout the prison walls, then commanded them to saturate the walls, turning them to mud. Thanking the water for answering me in my hour of need, I released it back into the aqueducts.
I turned my attention to Tiny House. Through the water-filled glass blocks that made up its walls, I could just make out the identity of the blurry form inside – Iriana Disney. She sat there with her arms crossed over her chest, looking mad as a hornet.
It was simplicity itself to destroy Tiny House and set my friend free. I released the water within the glass blocks, then decreased the viscosity of the glass itself. The walls dripped and melted like hot wax, slumping over into a pile of slag. Irri jumped to her feet, her blue eyes bigger and wider than ever.
“How did you get out of Small House?” the earth elementalist asked, stepping over the melted glass.
“You knew I was in there?”
“Oh, yes!” she said. “I tried to get you out. That’s how I ended up in Tiny House.”
I took both her hands in mine. It was a brave thing for Irri to have attempted, seeing as how her elemental magic was far more suited to healing than moving earth.
“Nobody will be put in those horrible places ever again,” I said. “You’d better hightail it to your parents’ house and hide out for a while, though.”
Irri frowned. “I hate it, but you’re right. The Elementalists’ Third isn’t a good place for either of us right now.”
“Be careful,” I said, giving her hands a squeeze before letting her go. She took off for her folks’ house, heading across the nearest yard and avoiding the main streets.
I ran straight to Danica’s house without a single thought about bathing or changing my dirty clothes. My steps slowed once I reached the footpath through her yard, however. Even from the outside the place seemed eerily quiet. The front door hung open, swaying slightly in the breeze, giving the place a look of abandonment.
My eyes were drawn to the walkway, where fresh snow had filled our footprints from the night before. There were other others, however, that carried a tale. The first set were small, a woman’s print, hurried and smeared, as though she had run out of the house and down the walk in a mad dash to accomplish some important task. The second set of prints headed toward the house, treading carefully in the steps of previous visitors as though on a mission that required stealth.
Feeling a chill that had nothing to do with the frigid winter air, I pushed open the door and stepped into Danica’s house. It was colder inside than out, if that were possible. No fire crackled in the fireplace; it had been extinguished by water thrown so forcefully that frozen ashes were sprayed out across the hearth.
I walked to the back of her home, past the row of cots with their curtains pulled closed around them, past shelves of ointments, salves, and jars of herbs and into the washroom beyond. The back door was standing wide open. I couldn’t for the life of me think of a single reason that the earth druid might have for leaving a single door open, much less both of them.
Had Danica taken Charlie somewhere else to recuperate? Had even her home become too dangerous a place for him?
Moving back into the main room, I pondered the closed curtains, remembering that each one was always tied back unless the cot it accompanied was occupied. Filled with sudden dread, I threw each one aside, revealing empty cot after empty cot until I came to the last. I nearly ripped the cloth from its ceiling support in my angst, and gasped aloud when I saw Charlie lying there face down, his tortured back crusted with blood and filth, his lips blue, his body still and lifeless.
He’s dead, oh he’s dead! They abandoned him and he froze to death in the night!
I sank to my knees, trying to hold in a choked sob of grief and horror with both hands. Overwhelmed by deep emotion, a cry of agony ripped through my throat, echoing off the walls. In the next instant, Charlie came alive, futilely attempting to rise – his hands and feet were tied to the legs of the cot. Relief and horror warred within me as I reached for him.
“Who did this to you?” I cried, touching his face with my hands. “Who bound you like this?” His skin was blazing in spite of the cold, and he began to shiver violently.
I drew my belt knife and sawed through the bonds, only able to release his limbs. The cruel ropes had chafed his wrists raw, but I was unable to remove them entirely because of his wild thrashing. All I could do was try and calm him, speaking softly and soothingly as possible with my voice cracking and tears running down my face.
“Shhh,” I said, stroking his hair and thinking in a moment of insanity that I should have brought the hat I’d knitted for him. “All is well, I am here. You’re safe, my love. You’re safe.”
“Angie?” he croaked, finally relaxing now that he had recognized me.
“Yes, my love, I’m here. I’m here!”
Footsteps pounded into the house, and I shot the intruders a look over my shoulder, ready to protect my chosen with my little knife. Steeling myself for a fight, I would defend him with magic if necessary.
Uncle Padraig had charged through the door, sword in hand, the earth healer behind him. In shock, she dropped the supplies in her arms, filling the air with the sounds of shattering glass and clanging metal.
“Oh, my gods, what happened in here?!” cried Danica.
“What is that foul smell?” Uncle demanded to know, tossing fresh logs into the fireplace and setting them ablaze with his green fire. The room was toasty warm in seconds due to his sudden flare of temper. Next he filled a large bowl with water, warmed it, and set it on the floor by Charlie’s cot.
“I don’t know!” I yelled. “Why did you leave him?”
“There was an emergency,” Danica said.
“And taking care of him wasn’t?!”
“I had to go!” she cried, soaking cloths in the warm water before laying them over the crusted filth and blood on Charlie’s back. “He was fine when I left him, I swear,” she said. “He was sleeping.”
“Just what was so important that you had to leave an injured and defenseless man alone in the middle of the night?” I demanded, helping her begin to try and wipe his back clean.
“Niall was hurt last night.”
“Niall Ashcroft.” I sat back, staring at her in disbelief.
“You abandoned my chosen to take care of Nualla’s son?” I shouted.
Uncle looked up from removing the ropes from Charlie’s wrists.
“It wasn’t like that, Angelina,” he said sternly.
“I don’t care!” I snapped at him. “She’s the only healer who will even touch him! Anybody could have healed Niall.”
Charlie raised his head to look at me. His eyes were dull, dimmed to hazel instead of their usual brilliant gold.
“I think I’m sick, Ang,” he said.
“You have a fever,” I said, kneeling on the floor beside him. “But have no fear. Danica is the best healer in the grove, and you’ll be right as rain in no time.”
“Drink this, Davis,” said Uncle, bringing a tiny cup to Charlie’s lips. “It’s laudanum. It will help with the pain.”
My chosen tried to swallow, but most of the tincture dribbled out the corner of his mouth.
“I’m sorry, Davis, but we don’t have time to let that start working before we clean your wounds again,” Danica said as she went to work on his back. Charlie moaned, the muscles working in his jaw as he tried to keep from crying out. I rinsed his back with warm water whenever she directed me to do so, and held his hands or stroked his face the rest of the time. Once the healer had finished her gruesome work, Uncle helped Charlie move to a clean cot. I watched his eyes slowly drift closed, dark lashes resting against his cheek.
I rose and faced Danica.
“Aren’t you going to heal him?” I said.
The healer and my uncle exchanged a look. It was then that I noticed the sunken appearance of her eyes, and the bags beneath them. Her hands trembled, and she wavered unsteadily on her feet as though afflicted with some terrible weakness.
“She can’t right now,” he said.
“I will, Angelina, I promise,” Danica said. “But I cannot heal him now. Caring for Niall took too much out of me.”
“You are a druid,” I hissed. “The well of druid magic never runs dry!”
“No, it doesn’t,” said Padraig. “But the human body has its limits. She needs to rest before performing another healing of great magnitude.”
“There are other healers in this grove!” I snapped. “Go get one!”
They exchanged another distressed look. Uncle sighed and dropped onto a stool. It was only then that I noticed how drawn his face was, and how his shoulders slumped with fatigue. What terrible events had transpired in the night while I was imprisoned?
“Unfortunately, niece, they are all in the same state as Danica.”
“Or Niall,” she added quietly.
“How is that possible? Did bandits attack? Did a plague spring up? Was there a rain of fire-stones from the sky?” My voice rose with every question, until it was loud enough to cause Charlie to stir. I drew in a deep breath to calm myself.
“No,” said my uncle. “Orion got his hands on a sword and went after several of the grove’s healers. Niall tried to stop him, and even though he is a skilled swordsman, he was bested. Orion cut him down and left him to die in the street. No one knows why.”
Who in the grove was foolish enough to put a weapon in the hands of Dianthe’s deranged son?
“How many healers were hurt?” I asked, aghast at the news.
“Half of them.”
“So Niall did manage to stop him, before he could harm the rest?”
Uncle Padraig shook his head, frowning. “No, only two healers were attacked before Niall intervened. Orion’s rampage was only halted by his own demise.”
“He was killed?” Even though Orion was dangerous, I had come to believe that the root of his madness lay in his desire for magic. Like all of the grove’s sons who were neutered before they were born, he was never able to channel even a whisper of elemental magic. Being denied his rightful gift from the gods had twisted his mind, and for that I had pitied him greatly.
“Yes,” replied Uncle. “His throat was cut.”
“How very convenient,” I said, incensed. I had spent just enough time with my Traveler-turned-chosen to see the connections that others had missed. There could be no coincidence in the timing of last night’s unspeakable events.
“Now, Angie,” Danica said, “just because you’ve been embroiled in politics for a long time doesn’t mean you have to see plots and intrigue behind every door.”
I respected her by politely ignoring her words. At that moment, it was truly the most courteous course of action that I could take. Turning to Uncle, I asked, “You said exactly half of the healers were hurt?”
“Aye,” said Padraig. “And a lucky thing it was, too, because there were just enough earth druids left over to save the lives of their colleagues. Danica had performed a great healing on Halle Starseeker just moments before being called upon to do the same for Niall Ashcroft.”
“Aye,” I said bitterly. “It was also quite fortuitous that the timing of such a thing allowed someone to come in here and slop excrement all over my chosen’s open wounds.” I paused. “Lucky, you might say.”
Charlie moved restlessly, mumbling in his sleep. I went to calm him, speaking soothing nonsense words of comfort. He tried to speak again, refusing to be shushed.
“What is it, my love?” I asked. “What are you trying to say?”
“Darryn,” he said, more distinctly. “Last night. It was Darryn.”
Uncle Padraig rose from his stool, an expression of incredulous horror on his face. “What did he say?”
“He said it was Darryn who carried out this heinous assault upon his person,” I said, my voice shaking with rage.
Uncle frowned, looking slightly unsure. “Darryn was the one who stopped Orion’s mad rampage last night,” he said. “He expressed great regret that he had to use lethal force on Dianthe’s son.”
“Darryn killed Orion?” I asked, incredulous.
Danica shook her head sadly. “It’s almost impossible to believe,” the earth healer said. “The sons of the Tetrarch have always stood by one another. Niall, Darryn, and Orion have been friends since they were toddlers.”
“Aye, that they were,” Uncle Padraig said dryly. “Right up until the moment when they decided to slay one another.”
He and I shared a look that said more than mere language could convey. Darryn Darkmane’s hatred of my chosen had run deeper than even I had believed. Nothing had deterred him from his murderous errand – not even the lives of his childhood friends. Orion had been heard to say that the ArchDruid had promised to restore his magic, if he killed my chosen during the Yule sword tournament. I wondered if she had promised Darryn the same.
Magic was most definitely a prize for which he would kill.
“I’d better tell Liam,” he said.
“There’s no need, brother.”
I turned to see Father standing in the doorway.
“I heard him well enough,” Father said, righteous anger in his tone. “It merely verified my suspicions, for Orion could not have developed this plan on his own. Nor would he have been able to turn aside from his lethal path, once he’d begun to walk it.”
He turned to me. “You are quiet correct, Daughter, in finding a connection between Darryn’s involvement and Orion’s death.”
“Dead men tell no tales,” I said, feeling hollow inside.
“What are you saying?” Danica whispered.
“Darryn put a weapon in Orion’s hands and set him on the healers, drawing us away so he could do this.” Uncle Padraig gestured at the mass of lash-marks on my chosen’s back, now red and swollen with the beginnings of infection.
“It is as you say,” my father said. “I spoke to Niall before they put him to sleep. He reported having no difficulty holding Orion at bay – at least not until he was hamstrung by Darryn.”
Remembering how Niall had shouted at Darryn to leave Charlie alone and then had attempted to help him rise after his beating, I felt cold inside. While the three sons of the Tetrarch may have been friends all their lives, that bond had not been enough to keep Betrys Darkmane’s son from turning on them like a rabid animal.
“How is he?” I asked.
“Orion bled him nearly dry, once Darryn had crippled him.” My father’s eyes blazed with fury and spirit magic. “With Niall out of the way, Orion was free to continue his rampage until half the healers were so badly hurt that it would take all the rest of their number to save their lives.”
“And then Darryn cut his throat to silence him forever.” I said. “All so that there would be no earth druids capable of healing my chosen.”
Uncle Padraig put his hand on his sword hilt. “I’ll kill that little bastard!” he growled.
Father put his hand on Uncle’s shoulder. “No, you won’t.”
“Liam! You can’t possibly let this go unpunished!”
“Padraig, I have no intention of allowing Darryn Darkmane to go unpunished. I just said that you won’t be the one to kill him.”
“Father?” I asked, recalling the night when Charlie and Duncan had returned a bloody mess, carrying the tale that Darryn had stabbed my chosen in the back. He would have died in that forest on our northern border, if my cousin Duncan had not healed him.
My father had threatened Darryn, saying he would kill him if he harmed my chosen again, but after years and years of watching him bow to the whims of the ArchDruid and the dictates of her Tetrarch, I had thought those words empty of meaning. No son of the Tetrarch would ever receive punishment or discipline of any kind, no matter how egregious their wrongdoing. Everyone knew that.
Father’s eyes were hard, and he looked grim.
“I made a vow, Angelina,” he said, “and I intend to keep it.”
He meant every word.