Chapter 3 – Devotion
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 ~
With one book in my hand and several others scattered across the countertop, I pawed through Danica’s extensive collection of dried herbs for the ones required to make a poultice for an infected wound. I’d already prepared enough for multiple doses of “fever tea” and “infection tea,” as I’d begun thinking of them. Waking Charlie to give him more had been difficult. It had frightened me, so I decided not to give him any more laudanum until he woke up on his own.
Fortunately, there was an ample supply of the ones listed in the recipe, each herb carefully stored in a foot-high lidded crock. While the vicious stripes crisscrossing Charlie’s back weren’t showing signs of infection, I felt certain they would. His fever had taken away any illusions I might have entertained about that. If I began treating them immediately, perhaps the infection wouldn’t be as bad.
Panic had briefly returned when I couldn’t find the mortar and pestle in any of the cabinets. After a minute of frantic searching, I realized that they were right where I’d left them – on the counter. With my sleep-deprived mind still whirling with anxiety, I began grinding the herbs in the stone pestle. Having something to do, a project on which to focus, helped organize my frazzled thoughts. The work took my mind back to when Charlie had been shot and I’d been so jealous of the witches of Ward.
Looking back, I’d been ridiculously foolish. At the time, all I’d been able to think of was that one of them was going to bed my chosen before I could and that all my waiting and sacrifice would be for naught. I should have ignored the Weird Sisters as they ogled him and made lewd comments. When Maeve had taken him off for a massage, I had been envious and angry instead of being appreciative of her healing arts. It was a wonder the high priestess hadn’t thrown me out for having such a churlish and ungrateful attitude.
Instead, Rhiannon had brought me a pretty yellow dress to wear on Midsummer’s Day, along with some valuable advice.
“Stop moping around, Angie,” she had said. “Get up, take a bath, do your hair, and wear this dress. Quit beating around the bush with Davis and seduce the man, for Goddess’ sake.”
She had shocked and surprised me. I had been anticipating a lecture on manners and proper behavior, and so had been caught off-guard, tricked into revealing my true thoughts. The words that tumbled from my mouth had been: “But what if he doesn’t want me?”
The high priestess had laughed. “Young druid, desire is the least of the emotions Davis feels for you. That man’s eyes follow you everywhere you go. His hand reaches for yours before you even have a chance to stumble. He puts food on your plate before his own. He guards your life with such devotion that he nearly disregards his own. When you exhale, he breathes it in. If that’s not love, Angie, I don’t know what is.”
“According to you, I don’t know what love is,” I had petulantly muttered, looking down at my feet.
With a gentle touch on my cheek, Rhiannon bade me raise my chin.
“You don’t,” she’d said with a smile. “But I have a feeling that he will be the one to teach you.”
The high priestess had been right, for my chosen had demonstrated the true meaning of love to me many times over since then. Charlie had denied his own needs and desires again and again, to the point of risking his life. And yet, I had remained so self-centered, focusing my attention on my quest for social justice within this grove. I never seriously considered whether it was right to expect him to champion my cause. He was my chosen warrior and I had expected it of him.
I had realized the error of my ways, questioning if changing the minds of my fellow druids was worth the risk, but not until after Charlie had suffered grievous, mortal wounds – wounds that would have been fatal if not for my cousin’s intervention.
Had Duncan not loved Charlie so fiercely, he would never have stayed so close to him. He would not have been around to protect him, heal him, or save his life.
Yet my response was to become even more selfish, not wanting to share my chosen with anyone. I’d become jealous of my own cousin, who continued to demonstrate acts of true heroism purely out of selfless love.
Where was Duncan? I hoped he had done as Charlie told him, leaving the grove for a safe hiding place until the storm surrounding Wolfric and Onóra’s escape had blown over. An earth druid was nigh impossible to find if he didn’t want to be found. As my cousin was leaving our company, he had already been wiping away his tracks. As the only man under forty with magic in a place where it had been taken away from all the other young men, he had walked a precarious path. Thus far, Duncan had avoided persecution for two reasons; the first being that his father refused to allow it to be taken away and probably would have burnt anyone who tried to a crisp. The second reason was that as he had grown older, he had spent more and more time away from the grove. Duncan once told me that it was so he could hear the earth mother better, but Sebrina’s constant, unspoken threat undoubtedly contributed to his frequent absences. Wherever he was, my cousin was more than capable of taking care of himself and staying out of trouble.
* * *
By evening the already swollen skin surrounding Charlie’s torn flesh had turned an angry color as the inevitable infection set in. Red streaks spread across his shoulders like the last rays of dying sunlight across a winter landscape, and his temperature continued to rise in spite of the willow bark tea.
I had switched from tea to coffee to fend off the encroaching fatigue and was still busy grinding herbs. I wasn’t much of a cook, but I could follow a recipe. Luckily, most of Danica’s books on herbal remedies were basically cookbooks for medicine. One provided a helpful formula for mint-infused water that could be applied to the skin to reduce body temperature. After boiling a few gallons of water and adding fresh mint leaves from a potted plant in Danica’s kitchen, I had set three full pitchers outside to cool.
The newest recipe contained a mixture of green tea and comfrey, for treating inflammation and infection of an open wound. The instructions warned against allowing tiny particles to get into a wound, so I steamed the dried leaves in a large cauldron until their healing essences had steeped into the water. I cut a roll of cotton bandages into long strips, then soaked them in the tea and comfrey, wringing the excess moisture out and allowing each to cool before applying them to each of the stripes on my chosen’s back.
There were twenty in all. Twenty lashes for stealing from the grove’s winter stores, to make sure that Wolfric and Onóra had something to eat on their journey. That had been Charlie’s idea. Somehow, he had known that ArchDruid Sebrina would demand that they be hunted down and brought back. He’d known that they’d have no time to hunt or forage for food.
“You did nothing to deserve this,” I whispered, once again sponging his face with a cool, damp cloth. “And so long as I live, I will never put you in such a situation again. Your life is too precious to me.”
Stealing food was not the real reason he’d been tied to the posts and flogged. Darryn Darkmane had witnessed my chosen helping our friends escape and instead of killing the rotten weasel like he should have, Charlie had knocked him unconscious instead. To repay this mercy, Darryn had carried the tale to the ArchDruid as soon as he woke up.
I tossed the washcloth back into the minted water and headed back to the kitchen. If I’d been there, I’d have put a blade in Darryn’s gut and left him for dead. Grinding more herbs with unnecessary force, I contemplated doing it still.
I was done with this place. We would no longer continue this useless crusade to change White Oak Grove. As soon as Charlie was well enough to travel, we were leaving this place forever. I would, of course, invite my family to come with us, as well as any like-minded members of the grove. Together we would create a new nemeton surrounded by oak trees, build new homes, and establish another grove, one that was truly dedicated to serving the gods. Our first mission would be to restore magic back to those who had been denied it. We would leave Sebrina and her sycophants to wither and die alone, enduring their elder years without children or a future.
First, however, I would see my love through this dreadful illness. I had every confidence that he would recover fully. Charlie Davis was young and strong, and above all else, a warrior. He would not go quietly into the dark shadows to join his ancestors. He would fight this battle as he had fought all the others, with pride and vigor and a lust for life.
It was concerning that his temperature continued to climb in spite of the willow bark tea. He woke more easily this last time, and I was reassured when he continued to drink both medicinal teas and then asked for water.
How could I have allowed this to happen?
“Stop it,” he whispered.
I pulled the damp washcloth away from his face. “What?”
He shook his head. “Stop blaming yourself.”
“I’m not,” I said, dabbing his neck and face.
“Yes, you are. That’s why you haven’t slept yet.”
“For your information, I haven’t slept because I’m taking care of you,” I replied, keeping my tone light.
“I’ll be fine,” he said.
“Lie down with me,” he whispered. “Let me fall asleep beside you.”
I estimated that it was only a few hours until dawn and that the morning light would wake me before long. Nodding, I curled up on the cot beside his, and he took hold of my hand, bringing it first to his lips and then to his chest. His mighty heart thundered under my touch, its powerful beats thrumming throughout his body.
“I love you, Charlie.”
“I love you, too, Ang. More than anything.”
I know, I thought. You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t.
I almost wished he didn’t, and that he wasn’t.