Chapter 4 – Collapse
We may encounter many defeats but we must not be defeated.
~ Maya Angelou ~
I floated on my back in the stream, my mind occupied with the water nets and trout, the many dangers on the road, the kindness of Grandmother and the blind man Sinclair, but mostly my chosen warrior. With Kingston, Jonesboro, and Searcy behind us – and Kam Stone far away – I had Davis all to myself. While my noble protector took a well-earned rest in the shade of nearby oak trees, I pondered my next course of action.
He had chosen me over his own goals, over a pretty Traveler girl, and even his own parents. Surely it would not be too shocking or unexpected for me to join him in his blankets tonight? Compared to most druids, I had waited a good long time for him. True, while I had not restricted myself from all sexual activities, I had held myself to experiences in which I would not be tempted to break my vow.
During my observations through my fetch’s eyes, I was certain that he had never bedded any woman. Granted, I could not watch him twenty-four hours a day, but my fetch gave me spiritual and sensatory information. I wouldn’t have cared if he had taken pleasure with other women; druids were rarely monogamous. In fact, it would have made things easier on me in two ways: for one thing, I could have indulged in carnal pleasure while still in the grove. A release of tension and sexual energy would be far more potent with a lover than that released by my own hand.
For another, it would make achieving my own desires where he was concerned much easier. Had Davis already been introduced to the pleasures of the flesh, I felt certain we would have been lovers by now. There would be none of this hesitancy and delicate flirtation. I also would not have a vague sense of trepidation regarding what he thought of me as a lover – or worse, whether he thought of me in that way at all. Since meeting him and sleeping beside him for several weeks, I began wishing that I was not a virgin, too (no matter how limited the sense of the word as applied to me).
However, I had wanted to meet my chosen warrior more or less on the same terms – not because I thought virginity was something particularly special, but because I wanted us to be on equal footing. I didn’t want my future lover to be intimidated by any perceived level of experience I possessed, I was now in a place of unease because of that exact lack.
There was, I had to admit, a certain pleasurable element to being tantalized by a man’s appreciative glances. His hesitant and gentle touches never failed to send a shiver down my spine. I swam closer to him and propped my elbows on the bank. Davis lay there with his hands behind his head, face peaceful in sleep, lips slightly parted. I wanted to kiss those lips so badly.
Frustration welled up inside me, but I shoved it back down. Even more than I desired him, I had an even deeper desire for him to come to me. I wanted to feel that same rush of excitement that the heroines in all the books felt, when they realized that the man they admired most in the world had decided they were worthy of romantic pursuit.
Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy had ended up together, even though he had some serious expectations about how his future wife should behave that stood between them.
After all, even though Samwise Gamgee was a modest, shy gardener, after his adventures with Frodo, he had so grown in courage and self-realization that he dared ask Rosie Cotton to marry him.
And Peeta had ended up practically begging Katniss to marry him, but I’d never be that difficult about it. Granted, she had been run through the gauntlet, but so had he.
That was when I realized that part of what had made my favorite heroines attractive was that even though they’d been interested in the heroes (admittedly to varying degrees), not one of them had immediately pounced on her love interest, but had allowed him at least some pursuit.
All I needed to do was give Davis a little encouragement.
That evening, after a swim that I had intended to be teasing but that was actually just good fun, I put on a thin, cotton dress that showed off my figure. Father had told me I was foolish for packing it, but a man’s opinion of what is necessary doesn’t always match that of a woman’s.
When I finished dressing, Davis was lighting a fire, gently blowing on a bright sparks. Even though it became no bigger than a candle flame, I watched in admiration. His speed and skill with bringing forth fire without magic never ceased to amaze me. Some dry grass crackled under my bare feet, drawing first his glance, and then a second, longer look.
I detected just a hint of hunger in his eyes, now dark amber in the evening dusk, before he turned his attention back to the flint and tinder before him. The fire there had died, but I could tell by the tension in his shoulders that another, hidden, fire had begun to smolder. He shook his head in obvious disgust and set to starting it again.
“I didn’t see anything in the snares,” I said, raising the hem of my dress over my knees as I knelt across from him. “But I did catch some fish.”
“When did you do that?” he asked, then blew a whisper of air upon the newborn embers. I wanted to feel that breath on my neck, just before he kissed it. I didn’t really pay attention to the rest of our conversation, communicating mostly with my eyes, lips, and hips. The content wasn’t important, anyway. We talked about supper every single night. What was important was that my chosen warrior got the signals I was sending, both through flirtatious movements of my body and hands, and the fleeting few seconds of eye contact every so often.
The fire went out again, and I smiled fondly at him. He was trying so hard to get us fed; it wasn’t fair of me to keep distracting him. Satisfied that I had indeed garnered his attention in a manner that did not require either shotgun or tomahawks, I decided to give him a little space. Walking away with my hips swaying, I went to fetch the trout and a couple of sticks on which to cook them.
* * *
The horses were quiet shadows in the darkness, Magic’s creamy mane glowing softly in the dying firelight and the grulla stallion a dark shadow beside her. Comforted by the horses’ relaxed grazing, I lay down beside Davis and asked him what stars he was observing. While I knew the constellations of each season like the back of my hand, I was interested in the extent of his knowledge. I used the method that my father and uncle had, when they had queried me about stars and their patterns in the night sky.
Stargazing also provided me with the perfect excuse to draw him closer, when I used my finger to direct his gaze toward the firmaments. In order to properly follow someone else’s line of sight, it was necessary for one to move quite close together. When his shoulder touched mine and I felt the warmth of his bare skin, it made my heart beat just a little more quickly.
“So that’s Draco?” I asked, knowing full well that it was. Smiling inwardly to myself with this small success, I chose a different constellation. Davis scooted closer to me, peering upward without realizing how very close he now was. My breath quickened and I became quite giddy. The boys from the grove had never made me feel like that.
“Right. And see the faint constellation that’s kind of wrapped up in Draco’s tail? That’s Ursa Minor, the little bear. You can see it fairly well tonight, because the sky is so clear. Then to the right of the tail, there’s Ursa Major, the big bear.”
“My friend Irri likes bears,” I said, just talking about anything to keep him close to me. “Sometimes she pets them.”
He frowned. “Bears are dangerous.”
I gave a little shrug. Iriana was an earth elementalist; like many possessing the element of earth, she had a way with bears. She could talk to them, like I could speak with other animals, only her connection was stronger with bears.
“I guess she talks to them so they’ll be nice to her,” I said. “Kind of the way I did with Mule One and Mule Two.”
“You used magic on the mules?”
“I had to get them to behave somehow. I don’t have as much of a connection to other animals like I do with cats, but I can usually get my point across.” I smiled at him, willing my eyes to sparkle. Without spirit magic, however, there wasn’t much to sparkle with.
“I think living at the grove is going to be stranger than anything I’ve ever experienced,” Davis said.
“It’s nothing like Jonesboro, that’s for sure.” I pointed to Herakles. “What’s that one?” The position of that particular constellation just might make him roll onto his side, putting him in the perfect position to look down on me, gaze into my eyes, and realize that my lips were the most kissable ones he had ever seen.
“Mmm… I think you’re pointing to Hercules.”
“It looks like Draco is about to eat him,” I giggled, ecstatic with my success so far. “How did you learn so much about the stars?”
“My mother taught me. My father is familiar enough with astronomy to navigate, but she really loves the night sky. We used to lie on the roof and stare at the stars for hours, and she’d tell me stories of the gods that went with them.”
“Do you miss your parents?”
“Yes,” he said. “Terribly.”
“What?” I asked, forgetting all about my seduction. I thought he was happy to be away from them.
“And now I’ll never see them again because of you.”
That’s not how this is supposed to go, I thought, confused.
Charlie turned his head and looked at me, anger and betrayal in his eyes. “I’m going to die, Angie. And it’ll be all your fault.”
“No!” I said, stricken. “You can’t die! You can’t!”
His golden eyes turned to blazing coals.
“Don’t tell me what I can’t do.”
* * *
I snapped awake with a gasp, feeling tears slipping free of my eyelashes. Roughly scrubbing my face with my hands, I jerked upright. I had fallen asleep sitting on the floor beside Charlie’s cot with my head resting on my arms. I glanced around me, blinking stupidly. Uncle Padraig was napping in a chair with his booted feet propped on a stool and his arms folded over his chest. He was still wearing his sword; both he and my father had continued to arm themselves during their alternating vigils.
“I shouldn’t have fallen asleep,” I said aloud, trying to scramble to my feet in spite of my left leg, which was tingling with pins and needles.
“You need to rest, too,” said Danica. “That half-hour nap wasn’t nearly enough.”
“I don’t want to sleep anymore,” I said, hearing my voice tremble with tears left over from the horrible dream. It was mid-morning, almost exactly twenty-four hours after I’d found my lover cold and alone in the healer’s house. Gooseflesh rose over my arms and I rubbed them briskly to chase them away.
“I’ll go make us some more coffee,” Danica said, rising from her stool on the other side of Charlie’s cot. I nodded, appreciating the gesture. I was sleeping little and the earth healer slept even less, if at all. Having a steady supply of coffee helped. It didn’t seem to be helping her, however. No quick burst of artificial energy could replace the life-giving replenishment of sleep.
I bent to touch Charlie’s hands, then his forehead. Both were dry and hot. I gently dabbed a touch of balm on his chapped lips. In spite of the earth healer’s constant presence in the sickroom, her magic no longer seemed to be beneficial. The last few times she had laid hands upon Charlie, there was little or no improvement in his condition. Yesterday her touch could strengthen the beat of his heart and slow it from its wild gallop; today it raced along unabated, his pulse weakening gradually beneath my fingertips. Yesterday his skin would cool slightly, allowing him an hour or two of peaceful rest; today his flesh remained hot to the touch and no sweat appeared upon his brow. Pain was the only thing that caused his restless tossing and turning to abate.
“I’ll make the coffee,” I said, rising suddenly. Danica needed to conserve her strength, if indeed she had any left. I followed her into the kitchen just in time to see her stagger, then fall like a marionette with its strings cut.
“Danica!” I cried, just managing to catch her head and shoulders before they hit the stone floor. The empty kettle hit the floor with a clanging racket. Uncle Padraig came instantly awake, running into the kitchen with his blade drawn. Seeing Danica unconscious on the floor, he sheathed his sword and knelt beside her.
“I’m taking her upstairs,” he said softly.
Those were not the words I had expected to hear at the end of my world. The bottom disappeared from my well of hope; I wrapped my arms about my own body and squeezed tightly, trying to hold myself together. I had to be strong; now was not the time for me to give in to fear and weakness. There were herbs and tinctures, there still was medicine, and poultices to be made, a shelf full of books on how to use it all.
I tried to get Charlie to drink a little green tea, then bathed him again in the minted water. He murmured my name and I kissed his heated brow. Grabbing a book titled Fever and Infection, I started to read, flipping through it to find something – anything – that would help.
What we really needed was for Duncan to return. Not only was my cousin skilled with manipulating his element, but he had studied the medicinal arts extensively with several of the grove’s healers. His knowledge, together with his magic and the Earth Mother’s favor, made him the most powerful earth druid in the grove.
If Duncan came back, he could heal Charlie.