Loyalty and devotion lead to bravery.
Bravery leads to the spirit of self-sacrifice.
The spirit of self-sacrifice creates trust in the power of love.
~ Morihei Ueshiba ~
“Darryn!” Arrie rose from her stool, an expression of incredulous horror on her face. “Are you sure?”
“I should have known,” I said, my voice shaking with rage. “I should have killed him when I had the chance! I should have left the first time he hurt you!”
“Water under the bridge,” Charlie murmured.
“It’s easy to believe, considering how many times he’s tried to kill you,” said Uncle, laying a hand on Charlie’s arm. “Gods, son, I’d never have left you if I’d thought he would do such a thing.”
“But Darryn was the one who stopped Orion’s mad rampage last night!” Arrie said.
“Darryn killed Orion?” I asked, incredulous.
“He expressed great regret that he had to use lethal force on Dianthe’s son,” she said, shaking her head sadly. “It’s almost impossible to believe,” she said. “The sons of the Tetrarch have always stood by one another. Niall, Darryn, and Orion have been friends since they could walk and talk.”
“Aye, that they were,” Uncle Padraig said dryly. “Right up until the moment when they decided to murder one another.”
He and I shared a look that said more than mere language could convey. Darryn Darkmane’s hatred of my chosen had run deeper than even I had believed. Nothing had deterred him from his murderous errand – not even the lives of his childhood friends. Orion had been heard to say that his mother had promised to restore his magic, with the approval of the ArchDruid, if he killed my chosen during the Yule sword tournament.
I wondered if she had promised Darryn the same.
It was most definitely a prize for which he would kill.
“I’d better tell Liam,” Uncle said.
“There’s no need, brother.”
I turned to see my father standing in the doorway.
“I heard him well enough,” Father said. “I suppose it is possible, for Orion could not have developed this plan on his own. Nor would he have been able to turn aside from his lethal path, once he’d begun to walk it.”
“You suppose it’s possible?” I repeated. How blind could one man be? “Dead men tell no tales, Father.”
He turned to me. “You may be correct in finding a connection between Darryn’s involvement and Orion’s death.”
“What are you saying?” Arrie whispered.
“Darryn had to have been the one who put a weapon in Orion’s hands and set him on the healers!” Uncle insisted. “It was a ruse to draw us away so he could do this.” Uncle Padraig gestured at the mass of lash-marks on my chosen’s back, now red and swollen with infection.
“Are you suggesting that Darryn would sacrifice nineteen people just to kill one man?” Father shook his head. “It is far more likely that he merely took advantage of Danica’s absence in order to exact his revenge upon Davis.”
I glanced at my chosen, once again drugged and sleeping heavily. While he had never been under the illusion that my father supported him, Charlie still didn’t need to hear his dispassionate account of a malicious assault that was not only meant to harm, but also to humiliate. I wanted to rail against my father for his coldness, but could not find the words.
“That doesn’t explain how Orion got his hands on a sword,” Uncle challenged. “It doesn’t explain why he would target just the healers.”
“Accidents happen,” Father said. “Orion may have been mad, but he was also clever.”
“You’re not an idiot, Liam, so why do you insist on acting like one?” Uncle snapped.
“Is it idiocy to want more than a few thinly connected events before coming to a conclusion?” Father shot back. “Davis has many enemies in the grove.”
“Many enemies, but only one tried to kill him multiple times,” Uncle Padraig growled. “Darryn Darkmane.”
“It still doesn’t mean that he gave Orion a weapon and led him all over the grove killing people like a wolf on a leash.”
Remembering how Niall had shouted at Darryn to leave Charlie alone and then had attempted to help him rise after his beating, I felt cold inside. No doubt Darryn had viewed Niall’s actions as a betrayal.
“How is Niall?” I asked, interrupting their argument. Doubtless, they’d have argued for hours if I had not.
“He’ll live,” Father replied. “It was a brave thing he did, standing up to a madman like that. If he hadn’t stopped Orion, we might not have any earth druids left.”
“Peculiar thing,” said Uncle, “him being hamstrung during the fight.”
“People make mistakes in the heat of battle,” said Father.
“The rest of his wounds were inflicted from the front,” Uncle continued. “He protected his flank well.”
Father sighed, looking irate. “Out with it, Padraig. Stop beating around the bush.”
“I’m saying Darryn was the one that crippled him.”
“That’s a bit far-fetched.”
“Not if Niall found out he was the one leading the ravening wolf about on a leash.”
Father threw his hands in the air and let them fall again. “What would you have me do, Padraig? Accuse Darryn without proof? People will think me mad as Orion.”
“I guess you’ll just have to ask the one person who might be able to give you an answer,” Uncle said.
“And who might that be?”
* * *
Charlie moved restlessly, mumbling in his sleep. I went to calm him, speaking soothing nonsense words of comfort. He tried to speak again, refusing to be shushed. Since he was already awake with the fever undiminished, I tried to give him more tea. He turned his head away, but finally accepted a few sips of water. His eyes were dull, dimmed to hazel instead of their usual brilliant gold.
“I think I’m sick, Ang,” he said.
“You have a fever,” I said, kneeling on the floor beside him. “But have no fear. Danica is the best healer in the grove, and you’ll be right as rain in no time.”
We had no idea when the earth druid would be physically up to another difficult healing, but I still held out hope. Uncle Padraig had gone upstairs to sleep with Danica, but Charlie was safe under the watchful eye Adalwulf Rask. As he was a man of honor above all else, I was certain that his action was motivated by a sense of reciprocity. Charlie had helped his son Wolfric escape the grove, along with his chosen Onóra, and had ended up in this miserable state as a result. He had appeared around noon and had spoken little since. Eireanne, his chosen, brought supper for us both later that evening.
“His wounds are festering,” said Eireanne, studying Charlie’s back with a critical eye. She pointed to a few spots that looked like blisters filled with pus. “You need a poultice with clay or charcoal to draw out the infection.”
“I’ll look and see if I can find out how to make one,” I asked, rising from the table and heading for the bookshelf.
“You eat,” she said. “I don’t need a book.”
Adalwulf’s chosen was generally thought to be a bit on the odd side, mostly due to her claims to clairvoyance, but I’d never agreed with them. Even so, I was hesitant to trust her with Charlie’s life.
“You don’t have to be an earth elementalist to know about medicine, Angie,” she said, as though reading my mind.
I opened my mouth and closed it again. My own herbal preparations proved her correct, even if they had not been very effective.
True to her word, she knew what she was doing. Without waiting for me, she gathered the necessary supplies and got to work. By the time I finished eating, she had selected several jars of herbs and was spooning specific amounts into a bowl.
“Heat some water for me, will you, love?” Eireanne asked.
Adalwulf, an earth-fire druid like my uncle, fetched the cauldron from the fireplace and filled it with fresh water. Steam was rising from the water’s surface within moments, and he stood there holding it in his hands to keep it at the proper temperature while she added the herbal mixture a little at a time.
When she was finished with the herbs, I put them away. Ruining whatever system of organization Danica had instituted, I pushed all the other bottles aside to clear a space for the ones Charlie needed and tucked them in a corner on the bottom shelf.
While the herbs cooled, Eireanne scooped damp clay from a large blue crock onto a couple of marble slabs, where we thinned it with water into a spreadable paste. Once the herbs were cool enough to touch, we worked them into the clay and then let it sit while we laid out several squares of clean linen. Dropping the herbed clay mixture onto the center of each square, we pressed it out almost flat before wrapping them up into useable poultices.
I could have applied the poultices myself – and nearly insisted on doing so – but Eireanne’s presence was so calm and uplifting that I found myself wanting to be near her. It made me wonder if this was what being with a mother was like – a real mother, with a comforting, supportive presence.
“When did you learn to make a poultice like this?” I asked.
“I’ve spent a fair bit of time patching him up,” she replied, nodding at Adalwulf, who was at the sink washing up after supper. “Always getting into trouble, that one. Always fighting.”
“That’s… difficult to picture.”
The Adalwulf Rask I had grown up knowing was unusually reserved for one possessing elemental fire. He was always quiet, respectful in his manner, carefully considering, and always tightly controlled. I could say the same for my own father, yet I had seen the scars that marked his flesh with a silent testimony of his own battles.
“You find it difficult to imagine him picking a fight, I imagine,” Eireanne said, laying another poultice on Charlie’s heated skin. “But It’s the quiet ones that bear the most watching, you know.”
Suds up to his elbows, Adalwulf chuckled softly.
She leaned closer, saying in a conspiratorial tone, “It is not the love of violence that drives him, but a sense of duty. A sense of honor. To a man like that, some battles must be fought, no matter the odds.” She paused, giving me a glance. “But I suppose you know that already.”
By the gods, did I ever. I nodded, feeling glum.
“Don’t worry, honey,” she said with a gentle smile. “Remember the prophecy I gave you? All will be well.”
Even though I didn’t remember much more than a twisted path, lightning, thunder, fire, and a deep abyss, I nodded. Neither Charlie nor I had been able to make heads or tails of the foretelling she’d given at Lughnasadh, so hadn’t thought on it since.
“Thank you for teaching me to make the proper poultice,” I said, forcing myself to give her a little smile. “And for letting me borrow your chosen.”
Eireanne smiled as she gathered her things and prepared to leave.
“It was Adalwulf’s idea,” she said. “Yours is the cause he has decided to champion. Yours is the battle he has chosen to fight.”
“Then I am blessed to have such an ally.”
“As we are blessed to have a champion such as you,” she replied with a twinkle in her eye. “Fear not, Angelina. All will be well.”