Chapter 6 – Disillusioned
The most common way people give up their power
is by thinking they don’t have any.
~ Alice Walker ~
It was only just nearing nightfall, but it seemed I’d spent an eternity in this room. Danica was still sleeping upstairs, and no one had come to check on us. I felt like the whole world had abandoned me and was wondering if another disaster had befallen the grove. I looked up in hope when the front door opened and Uncle Padraig returned, but the rueful shake of his head was like a stab in the heart.
“I’m sorry. Duncan didn’t come.”
“Not yet,” I said firmly.
“No,” he said softly. “Not yet.” Kneeling beside Charlie, he laid a hand on my chosen’s forehead. “He’s hot.”
“I can’t get the fever down,” I said. “He won’t wake up enough to take the willow bark tea. He choked the last time I tried to give him water, so I was afraid to give him any more.”
“Maybe I can pull some of the heat off to make him more comfortable.” Uncle closed his eyes, and after a few minutes my chosen’s skin was cooler and his cheeks less flushed. He laid his face against Charlie’s. “I’m so sorry, my lad,” he said, almost too softly for me to hear. “I should have protected you better.”
There was such love and grief in Padraig’s eyes that I couldn’t imagine him hurting more for his own son. His face crumpled as he tried to fight back the tears, and the aching of my own heart was eased in knowing that someone else loved Charlie. He roughly scrubbed his face with his hands, then rose once more and strode to the door.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“I just came back to check on you,” he said. “I’m not giving up. “Duncan will see my fire signal better when it’s dark.”
My cousin would also know that it was his father’s signal, for no other fire druid possessed green elemental fire.
“Thank you,” I said, feeling tears of gratitude welling in my eyes.
“It’s the least I can do,” he said. Before stepping out into the night, he looked back. “Tell him to hold on just a little bit longer.”
* * *
Arrie Stoddard came by shortly after with Nioba Starseeker. Arrie carried a woven basket full of food, while Nioba held a covered metal pot in one hand and a roll of linen tucked under her arm. I wondered if perhaps Uncle had sent them to stay with me, as my father had not yet returned.
I had just removed the poultices from Charlie’s ravaged back and was rinsing them with warm salted water when they entered. He hadn’t uttered a sound during the painful procedure, only twitching occasionally as I’d pulled the linen from his tender flesh. His fever had not returned; now his skin felt cold and clammy. I had managed to get a few sips of water into him, but only by using magic and the greatest of care.
I was keeping a few windows open, so there was a fire in the hearth to keep the house warm. I kept air currents moving though the house almost constantly to keep it fresh, but Charlie’s wounds were now constantly oozing bloody pus and exuded the most terrible stench. I rose and took a few steps toward them, in case they had no intention of moving closer to the foul air. The two druids had stopped short, staring in shock. Arrie dropped the basket and clapped both hands over her mouth.
Nioba caught the basket with a gust of air and guided it to the countertop. “Where is Danica?” she asked, concern in her dark eyes.
“Sleeping,” I said. “She had no magic left.”
“No magic?” Nioba repeated.
“She fainted this morning.”
“And you’ve been here all alone?” Arrie cried.
“Uncle Padraig has been out trying to find Duncan.”
“What about your father?”
I shrugged. He had stayed with us the whole night before, but had left at dawn without stating his business. I thought Father was going home to sleep while Uncle watched over us, but he had not returned. I didn’t care. Unless someone possessed healing earth magic, they were of little use to us.
“Oh, my poor darling,” Arrie said. Have you eaten?”
“A little.” Every time I had tried, I’d only managed a few bites. My stomach was knotted with constant fear and worry.
“When did you sleep last?” Nioba asked, taking her pot to the kitchen, along with Arrie’s basket.
I shrugged again. In truth, I had tried napping throughout the day, but was unable to sleep. Every time I closed my eyes, I just listened to Charlie’s breathing, low and a little bit raspy. If there was just the tiniest pause, my eyes snapped open and I was on my feet.
“Well, we’re here now,” Arrie said, taking my hands. “Neither of us can heal your chosen, but if you let us, we can help you.”
While I appreciated their presence and support, I couldn’t help feel a twinge of resentment that no one had bothered to help us before. However, I was not going to refuse assistance simply because it didn’t come in the time or manner I would have preferred. If nothing else, having Arrie and Nioba here would help me feel less alone.
“Why don’t you lie down?” said Arrie, leading me to my cot. “Try to get some sleep while we fix you something to eat.”
“I can’t,” I said, sitting down anyway. I was worried that I wouldn’t hear if Charlie called for me, and terrified that I’d wake and find him dead.
“Just close your eyes and rest a bit, then. I’ll watch over him for you.”
There was a deep, dark shadow behind the compassion in her eyes, and I remembered when her chosen, Kepheus Walsh, had been found in the forest, gunned down by bandits. He’d been the most skilled water elementalist in the grove, so powerful that he was able to manipulate both water and plants. Rumors had abounded that the ArchDruid had arranged for his death, since he had refused to allow his sons to be born without magic, or blocked from it in any way. Arrie had been left with four children to care for and another one on the way. A few years later, her eldest son Leonidas was banished for the crime of using his own water magic. I’d been twelve or thirteen at the time and had been shocked that a fifteen-year-old would be mercilessly whipped and then thrown out to fend for himself. It was this event that had turned me against the ArchDruid, when before I’d happily been her pet my whole life.
“Promise you’ll wake me if anything happens?”
She nodded. “I promise.”
I nodded and lay down, turning my back to them so I could hold Charlie’s hand in mine. Sleep never came to me, but I kept my eyes closed and tried to rest.
“He doesn’t look good,” Arrie said after a long period of silence.
“I am no healer, but I have seen men with lesser wounds cross the veil to join the ancestors,” Nioba replied softly.
“She’s so young to lose her chosen,” Arrie said, and the tears in her voice matched the ones that dripped down my face.
Please, Duncan, come home.
* * *
The two druids left after making sure that I ate, Arrie home to her children and Nioba back to stay with her sister Halle. It was well after midnight when my father returned, his stern expression thinly veiling the anger that was apparent in his eyes.
“What’s happened?” I asked, rising from my cot.
“I spent half the day investigating the attack on the earth druids, and the other half trying to convince witnesses to come forward and report to Sebrina what they’d seen.”
“People saw Darryn with Orion?”
“And did they come forward?”
“Aye. We even had a formal hearing.”
“And is he to be punished?”
“No, he is not,” he replied, spirit magic flashing in his eyes. “Sebrina said that he had come to her ‘on his knees, begging for forgiveness’ because he was just trying to be nice to Orion by ‘taking him out for a little fun’.” Father snorted. “As though it was any sort of night for frivolity with all that transpired.” He sat down heavily in a nearby chair with his hands on his knees and his head down.
I was not surprised, already believing that Darryn had poisoned Charlie to win favor with Sebrina. Whether he had acted independently or not was irrelevant.
“How is he?” Father asked. I looked at my father, noting the strain in his expression and the weariness in his shoulders.
“Worse,” I said. There was no point in adding details. He could see – and smell – for himself how bad Charlie’s condition, how close to death he was. If he had cared at all for my chosen, he would have supported us from the first. He would have made it clear that an attack on my chosen was an attack on all the Everlights. Instead, he had remained silent, allowing Darryn and others to hurt Charlie repeatedly without reprisal. He had allowed Sebrina to beat him. He had left him alone and vulnerable to attack. And then he had abandoned us both in this fool’s errand, trying to convince Sebrina that Betrys’ son was responsible for the attack on the healers. I felt anger rise in me again.
“Looking for Duncan.”
“That’s a fool’s errand.”
“At least he’s doing something.”
Father’s head jerked up. “I am responsible for the safety of everyone in this grove, Angelina.”
“Everyone except your daughter’s own chosen.”
“I act for the greater good, Angelina.”
“You’re failing miserably,” I said, the hardness of my heart emerging as bitterness on my tongue.
“I beg your pardon.” His eyes were hard as flint, and I couldn’t have cared less.
“All you’ve managed to do is imprison us all and make us slaves to Sebrina’s will. We don’t even have freedom of speech anymore. I’m surprised the boys are the only ones whose magic has been taken. It wouldn’t surprise me a bit if only her sycophants were allowed to keep their magic in the coming months.”
“They haven’t been denied their magic for no reason.”
“So you’ve said many times, yet no one has ever offered even the simplest explanation,” I said coldly. “I used to think it was for an important reason, but now I think it’s a plot contrived to give the ArchDruid more power.”
He stared at me as though he could not believe his ears. Leaving his seat, Father knelt beside me. His voice was near a whisper when he spoke:
“Over twenty years ago, the former ArchDruid proposed a heinous crime against all we hold dear. He wanted to make the druids stronger by encouraging women to give their male children extra elements.”
“Do you mean… augmenting them?”
He nodded. “His intentions were good. At that time there were more women with multiple elements than men, and he wanted to even that out.”
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 a warmongering heretic who had no honor and no respect for Shining Ones, the Nature Spirits, or the Ancestors. If indeed he had come up with the idea, it was hard to believe that he was righteous man.
“Connor Shitozaki was an honorable man and I was proud to call him my friend.” Father placed a hand on his chest. “We are the protectors of the earth, and of this grove. The bandits on our northern borders were increasing in number and power, and he was concerned that we would not be able to defend ourselves against them. Having more elements at our disposal seemed like a good idea.”
“So you experimented on babies?”
“No, of course not! We experimented on ourselves.”
“But it didn’t work.”
“No.” He shook his head. “And before you ask, Connor did mention the possibility of changing the magic of an unborn child – but he was just thinking aloud.” He paused. “We’re druids, Angie. We like our books and our theories and our philosophical discussions… He never intended for anyone to actually try it!”
“But they did,” I said.
He nodded. “Connor was ousted as ArchDruid and exiled as well. Sebrina was voted in as our new leader, and the decision was made to take magic away from all the boys from that moment forth.”
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.
“And you thought that boys with warped minds would be better than warped bodies.”
“Their minds aren’t warped!”
“Orion’s is. Was. So is Darryn’s,” I said. “I don’t know how Niall escaped it. Maybe he’s better at hiding his insanity than they were.”
“It was wrong! Such things should be left under the dominion of the Shining Ones.”
“If the gods saw fit to allow it, perhaps you should have left it in their hands,” I retorted. “Or, maybe you could have devoted the time and effort to finding out whether any of them truly were augmented. Instead, you let Sebrina condemn them all to irreparable damage!”
“Do you know what happened to my brother’s chosen?” he demanded.
“Dragana died in childbirth, just like…” Just like my mother, I did not say.
“No! Dragana never even made it that far in her pregnancy! She died mere days after augmenting her son! He possessed the element of earth and she talked Padraig into giving him fire as well. The child roasted her from the inside and it killed her. That is why my brother’s elemental fire is green. He defied the natural order of things, and the gods cursed him!”
The front door closed with a click. Neither of us had heard it open, but there stood Uncle with a stricken look on his face.
“That’s not true,” he said.
“Padraig,” Father began. “I’m—”
“It’s not true,” he said again. “I was not cursed. Not by the gods, or anyone else. My fire turned green from the anguish of losing my chosen.”
Uncle Padraig looked at me, and the despair was clear in his eyes.
“I’m sorry, Angie. I failed you and Davis, too.”
He dropped into a chair and buried his face in his hands, shoulders shaking. I went to him and put my hands on his shoulders.
“I think you should leave,” I told Father.