You may not control all the events that happen to you,
but you can decide not to be reduced by them.
~ Maya Angelou ~
The door slammed open, jerking me from sleep. I was on my feet, dagger in hand even before my eyes were fully open. Steeling myself for a fight, I was ready to defend him with magic if necessary. Bright blue elemental spirit zigzagged across the blade as Uncle Padraig and Arrie Stoddard tromped inside, with Danica Harris supported between them.
My relief at seeing the earth healer was rapidly replaced with dismay when I saw the condition she was in: pale and barely able to stand on her own.
“Put that blade away and help us take her upstairs!” my uncle snapped.
A quick glance at Charlie revealed that he was still sleeping in spite of the commotion. I sheathed the dagger and went to help them. I started giving her an infusion of spirit to give her the energy she obviously needed, but Uncle slapped my hand away.
“She’s had enough of that,” he said. “Probably more than is safe.” I took Arrie’s place, helping him half-carry Danica upstairs. Arrie ran up ahead of us and was turning down the bedcovers when we entered the bedroom.
“Where have you been?” I demanded. “Why did you leave him?”
“There was an emergency,” Uncle replied through gritted teeth.
“And taking care of him wasn’t?!”
“I had to go!” Danica cried softly. “He was fine when we left him, I swear! He was sleeping.”
We maneuvered her to the side of her bed and her legs gave out. Padraig supported her while I took off her coat and boots.
“It’s all right,” he said. “You were needed there more.”
Danica collapsed onto the bed with a moan. Her eyes were shut before he and Arrie drew the blankets up around her shoulders. I opened my mouth to demand an explanation, but Uncle put a stern finger to his lips and then pointed to the door. Irate, I stomped halfway back down before remembering that Charlie was sleeping and softened my steps.
As soon as we were all in the infirmary again, I whirled around and faced him. “Just what was so important that you had to leave an injured and defenseless man alone in the middle of the night?” I hissed, pointing at his ravaged back.
Uncle tossed a fresh log into the fireplace and set it ablaze with his green fire.
“Niall was hurt last night,” Arrie said.
“Niall Ashcroft.” I sat back, staring at her in disbelief.
“You abandoned my chosen to take care of Nualla’s son?” I wanted to shout at him but controlled the impulse.
“It wasn’t like that, Angelina,” he said sternly. The temperature in the room rose a few degrees.
“I don’t care!” I snapped at him. “Anybody could have healed Niall! Danica is the only healer who will even touch my chosen! He needs her!”
“She can’t right now,” Padraig said. “But I’m sure she will just as soon as she is able.”
“And just when will that be?”
Arrie and Padraig exchanged a despairing look.
“I don’t know,” he admitted.
“She is a druid,” I hissed, unwilling to give up even though I’d seen the state Danica was in. “The well of druid magic never runs dry!”
“No, it doesn’t,” Uncle said. “But the human body has its limits. She’s been channeling healing magic constantly since we left the other night. She needs to rest before performing another healing of such great magnitude.”
“There are other healers in this grove!” I snapped. “Go get one! Make them come!”
“Unfortunately, niece,” he said tiredly. “There are none available.”
“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.
They exchanged another distressed look. Uncle sighed and dropped onto a stool. It was only then that I noticed the sunken appearance of his eyes and the bags beneath them. His face was drawn and his shoulders slumped with fatigue. As for Arrie, her face was pinched with worry, her red hair was a tangled mess, her clothing was rumpled and – was that blood on her shirt? What terrible events had transpired in the night while I’d been imprisoned?
“What happened?” I asked.
Padraig took a deep breath, as though steeling himself to tell me the news. “Orion got his hands on a sword and went after several of the grove’s healers. He murdered eleven earth druids while they were sleeping in their beds, and eight more had gone to join their ancestors by sundown yesterday.”
Horrified, I sank down onto a stool beside Charlie’s cot. Who in the grove had been foolish enough to leave a weapon where Dianthe’s deranged son could access it? Orion was dangerous, due entirely to a madness whose roots lay in his desire for magic. Like all of the grove’s sons who had been neutered before they were born, he was never able to channel more than a whisper of elemental magic, if that much. Being denied his rightful gift from the gods had twisted his mind, and for that I had pitied him greatly.
“Several young men from the Warrior’s Third heard the screams and went to investigate. Niall Ashcroft was one of them, and was the only one to survive.”
“Because Danica healed him!”
“Because he is an expert swordsman,” Padraig corrected. “Both he and Orion were found lying in a lake of blood in front of Halle Starseeker’s house. Niall’s injuries were multiple and severe, but Orion’s throat was cut.”
“Was anyone else hurt?” I asked, aghast at the news. “Halle?”
Arrie nodded. “She was badly injured, but Niall must have intervened before Orion could kill her. As for the rest of the earth druids, they all have either sustained life-threatening injuries, like Halle was, or are completely drained from the efforts of caring for the wounded, like Danica is.”
“Nobody with other elemental magics were hurt? Only earth druids?” I asked, glancing at my chosen, lying injured and sick and in desperate need of healing magic. “Only healers?”
“And the only person who can tell us why is dead,” I said. “How very convenient.”
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.
“Angie!” Arrie chided. “What a terrible thing to say!”
“I’m sorry,” I replied, even though I wasn’t. “I didn’t mean it the way it sounded.”
Arrie Stoddard’s chosen, Leonidas 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. Later, I’d heard rumors 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 Jason given the choice of flogging or banishment, just as Charlie had been. And just like my chosen, he had refused to leave.
Only thirteen or fourteen at the time, I had been shocked that a fifteen-year-old boy would be mercilessly whipped for the transgression of publically displaying his magical ability. When he broke, crying and begging for mercy, Jason was exiled and left 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.
Arrie was my mentor and had generously taken me under her wing to teach me everything she knew about working with elemental water. She had helped me when no one else would, and for that I owed her honor and respect. Turning to Uncle, I saw him scrutinizing my chosen’s tortured flesh with a critical eye.
“Aye,” said Padraig. “I haven’t had time to consider the possibilities, but you may be right.”
“Not you, too,” Arrie said. “Just because you have been embroiled in politics for a long time doesn’t mean you have to see plots and intrigue behind every tree.”
“That I have, and it’s difficult not to be suspicious,” Uncle replied. “It just seems odd that someone as irrational and unpredictable as Orion would be so methodical and specific when it came to choosing his victims.”
The water druid was silent for a few moments, then sighed. “Their homes were scattered all throughout the grove, too,” she said.
“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.”
Uncle Padraig’s head snapped up. “What? When?” He jumped to his feet and strode to Charlie’s cot, crouching down to examine his wounds.
“I wasn’t here,” I said, looking down in shame. “Dianthe trapped me in Small House, and it took me all night to get out.”
“Did you put these bandages on him?”
“Yes. The book said not to let any herbs get into the open wounds, so I boiled them in a pot and soaked the bandages in them before putting them on his back.”
“That was smart.” Lifting a few inches of one dressing, Uncle Padraig cursed under his breath. “They’re getting infected,” he said. “We need to get some medicine into him before it gets worse.”
“I’ve been giving him echinacea and goldenseal tea for the infection and willow bark tea for the fever,” I said.
He regarded me intently. “When did you learn how to do all that?”
“Yesterday,” I said, gesturing at the books scattered about the infirmary.
“Impressive,” he said, nodding.
““I’ve been making him drink each tea every three or four hours,” I said, going to the counter to refill the tea strainers. “In fact, it’s time to give him some more and change his bandages, if you’ll boil me some water.”
I handed him the full tea kettle and his elemental fire had it boiling in seconds. Next he moved to the cauldron and warmed the herbal water there.
“Isn’t Small House made entirely of earth?” Arrie asked as I poured hot water into the mugs. “You shouldn’t have been able to get out at all.”
“I tapped into the reservoir pipelines beneath the Elementalists’ Third,” I said. “Just like you taught me.”
Her smile was proud but also said. “I’m sorry you had to use it for such a purpose.”
“I’m not. As soon as I was out, I turned the walls to mud and wrecked the place.”
Once the tea had steeped and the fresh bandages had soaked long enough, I went to wake Charlie. He was moving restlessly and mumbling in his sleep, and roused easily. Uncle knelt by the cot.
“How are you feeling, son?” he asked.
“If I say I’m better, will you tell Angie to stop making me drink that horse piss?”
Uncle chuckled. “I could, but that doesn’t mean she’ll listen.”
Charlie sighed. “In that case, I honestly feel terrible.” After a pause, he added: “My back is bad enough, without this headache on top of it. My head is pounding.”
A look of understanding passed between Uncle Padraig and me over Charlie’s head.
“The willow bark tea should help with that,” I said, feeling his forehead. It was blazing hot.
“Not as much as another dose of laudanum,” he said.
“I’ll get it,” Uncle told him. “Drink your tea. Angie says it’s time to change your bandages again.”
Charlie groaned, but he downed both mugs of tea and suffered through having the dressings removed and fresh ones applied.
“What happened the other night?” said Uncle, handing him a tiny dosing cup of the pain-relieving medicine.
“I don’t know,” he replied, avoiding Uncle Padraig’s sharp gaze.
Uncle nodded understanding. “Let me rephrase the question, because Angie already told me how she found you yesterday morning – Who came in here in the middle of the night and tied you to the cot?”
My chosen was silent for several seconds.
“Darryn,” he finally replied. “Darryn Darkmane.”