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.”
“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.”
“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.