In the end, we only regret the chances we didn’t take,
relationships we were afraid to have,
and the decisions we waited too long to make.
~ Lewis Carroll ~
“I should never have left him,” Uncle Padraig said for the tenth time. In spite of having been awake for two days, he had risen with the dawn. He made breakfast and took some up to Danica, after which Adalwulf Rask took his leave.
“Send for me if you need me,” he said.
“I’ll do that,” Uncle replied. “Thank you for watching over my family.”
Adalwulf responded with a respectful nod and stepped out into the cold morning air.
“How is Danica?” I asked.
“She could barely keep her eyes open long enough to eat.” He paused. “Her hand shook so bad that I had to feed her.”
I laid my hand on his, giving it a squeeze before rising and returning to the pharmacy. “I’m sure some of that was the spirit over-power.”
He nodded. “I haven’t seen a druid as weak as this in a very long time. Probably since before you were born.”
I’m not surprised, I thought, beginning the process of making poultices. No one here has stuck their neck out for decades.
Prior to Orion’s mad rampage, a person would have to leave the safety of the grove if he was to encounter the kinds of danger that required the hefty use of elemental magic. Ruminating once again on the battle I’d chosen to fight, a revolution to bring about a return to the old ways. No one should ever have given in to ArchDruid Sebrina’s bullying. No one should ever have neutered their baby boys, denying them the gift of the Shining Ones. It had begun a cascade of events which had begun with the ArchDruid calling all the roaming druids back to the grove from their missions. Twenty years later, the druids of White Oak Grove had almost entirely abdicated their responsibility to aid their fellow man and their duty to heal the earth. The world and all its living creatures had suffered without our restorative intervention. Its people had been abandoned to the ravages of sickness, drought, famine, plague, and more recently, the predations of bandits.
This was the thing I’d worked so hard to change, for if only half of my generation possessed magic, it would seriously hamper our ability to journey unmolested, and our work would take hundreds of years instead of decades. Yes, I wanted our young men to have their magic restored to them simply because it was the right thing to do. But I had also kept in mind the larger picture.
I’d been so focused on that big picture, however, and so obsessed with the forest that I’d forgotten the trees. I’d neglected to protect one tree in particular, forgetting that even the mightiest of oaks can be felled by a single lightning strike.
Uncle Padraig had some difficulty rousing Charlie, but he woke to my voice. I used elemental water to moisten the poultices and compresses that had dried overnight and then let them sit a few minutes so removing them would be easier and less painful.
My chosen had repeatedly refused to drink both teas in one sitting, so I had solved the problem by brewing both comfrey and willow bark into the green tea, adding generous amounts of cinnamon and honey to hide the bitter taste. He needed help to sit up, swaying even with Uncle supporting him. Still, he drank the tea, sipping slowly.
“It’s time to change your bandages,” I said. He nodded understanding and let his head hang. He flinched as each compress and poultice was removed, and his knuckles were white from gripping the side of the cot. A few of the purulent boils had drained into the poultices, which was good, but more had risen during the night. I thought that might be a bad sign, but maybe it was good that the infection was rising to the surface to drain.
“I’m thirsty,” he said and gulped down two full glasses of cool water.
“Drink this, Davis,” said Uncle, bringing a tiny cup to Charlie’s lips. “It’s laudanum. It will help with the pain.”
“Thank you,” Charlie mumbled, and eased back down on the cot, lying on his stomach. I applied the poultices as delicately as I could, but the muscle in his jaw jumped and his fingers twitched.
“Hurts,” my chosen mumbled as the narcotic took hold.
“I know, love.” I stroked his hair and face until he fell asleep.
I feared to leave his side, and when I did sleep it was light, as had we both while Traveling together on the road. This time, however, I had spirit magic on my fingertips, awaiting the moment my chosen’s life was threatened again. I did not care whether the threat came from Darryn, a member of the Tetrarch, or the ArchDruid Sebrina herself. If they came calling with intent to cause harm, then I was prepared to meet them with deadly force. Charlie would have done no less to defend me, the consequences be damned. Too long had I allowed him to risk his neck for my ideals. Too many times, he had suffered injury in standing up for my principles. True, he also believed that denying the grove’s young men their magic was misguided and damaging. He had insisted that we were partners in the old way, and my battles were his battles.
The fact of the matter, however, was that he would not have set foot into White Oak Grove had I not asked it of him. There had been many signs warning me of the danger to my love, yet I had heeded none of them. I had been so sure of myself and my path of righteousness that I had been convinced the Shining Ones would stand as a shield between us and harm.
Events had conspired to prove me wrong. While I had plenty to occupy my hands, there was little to occupy my mind except recrimination and memories. Too many times I had expected the gods to protect us in our endeavors, like the time we had stayed in Searcy. It was my own fault that I’d been taken captive and nearly burned at the stake. When I had visited the vendors under the bridge there, I’d made no secret of their magical purpose. While the sheriff had warned against such things, I reasoned that it was merely ignorance and fear of the unfamiliar that would make the citizens of Searcy react badly. One might try to defend my actions by pointing out that I had no idea that one of the tenets of their faith was a deadly intolerance of those who believed differently. However, I had been warned by one with greater wisdom and experience and had ignored it, just like I had ignored the advice of others so many times because I thought I knew better.
In the beginning, I had tried to reason with them, calmly explaining that even though we had different gods, mine were no more evil than theirs was. I had intended to reassure them; instead, they were incensed that anyone would view any other gods as an equal to their own.
One woman began it by slapping my face; two others joined and shoved me until I fell to the ground. I was still speaking words of peace when two burly men grabbed my arms and dragged me away from the marketplace. I cried for Davis, knowing there was no way he could save me. He had no idea where I was, and I was not at all certain if we had been together long enough for a magic bond to develop. I was thrown into a cellar under someone’s shop and there I sat, trembling for hours from the shock, praying he would feel my distress and be drawn by that mystical thread between chosen, and terrified that he would not.
Fear had changed to dread when the cellar door opened and they dragged me out. I kicked, and fought, reaching desperately for the spirit magic that had been blocked from me. I could feel it, just beyond my reach, heard the thunder as it tried to respond.
As they drove me up a hill, I had no idea what they intended for me until I saw the wooden pillar surrounded by a pile of wood. Our books had mentioned ancient witch burnings, as well as the persecutions and executions during the Rebirth, but it had never crossed my mind that some people might still engage in such evil activities.
Terror gripped me as I was shoved into a circle of screaming women; they pulled my hair and slapped my face. My shirt buttons popped as they tore my clothes from my body. Never before had I considered nakedness to be shameful; I tried to cover myself but again the men gripped my arms, dragging me to the stake while I begged for mercy. Rough ropes bound my feet to a pillar of wood, my arms tied behind me and my body laid bare for the hate in their eyes. My flesh was revealed for all to see, vulnerable to whatever despicable acts they intended, and I knew I was lost.
Until he came and saved me.
A fiery explosion burst forth in the darkness, blurred by my tearful gaze, followed by a BOOM. The myriad angry faces changed to fearful ones and they reached for their guns. More and more explosions came, gradually coming closer until my ears rang with the sound of it. The people that still could were running and screaming; the rest were lying dead, scattered in pieces upon the slopes of the hill.
And then only two remained, the man in black who told the man with the gun to kill me and be done with it. The rifleman cocked his gun – or at least I thought he had when I heard a loud crack – but instead of shooting me, he died instead. Davis had snapped his neck. He quickly dispatched the man in black and scanned for further threats. Sobbing in relief, I would have collapsed, had I not been held upright by scratchy ropes binding my body to the stake. His sudden presence and the rage in his golden eyes convinced me that the magic connecting us truly existed. I wept in gratitude as he gently released me from my bonds and held me close, surrounding me with his strength and covering my nakedness.
He had stood between me and danger so many times, and I had taken it all for granted.
* * *
My father returned later that afternoon. His face was impassive, but there was a storm of emotion in his eyes.
“You were right about Darryn Darkmane,” he said.
“You found a witness.”
“Niall woke up briefly today,” Father said, speaking in clipped tones. He was angry and trying to hold it in. “Nualla was vehement that her son needed his rest, but I insisted on speaking with him.”
“What did he say?”
“He reported having no difficulty holding Orion at bay,” Father said. “However, when Darryn showed up during their standoff, he told Niall he was there to help. Then as soon as Niall’s back was turned, Darryn slashed at his leg, leaving him hamstrung.”
“Niall never should have turned his back on him,” Uncle Padraig said.
“With Niall out of the way, Orion was free to continue his rampage until so many earth druids were so badly hurt that it would take all the rest of their number to save their lives.” Father’s eyes blazed with fury and spirit magic.
“But I thought that Orion’s body was found lying near Niall,” I said. “What did Darryn do, kill him and drag the body back?”
“No. Even though he was wounded, Niall chased them down.”
“Dagda’s club!” said Padraig. “I never would have guessed he had it in him.”
“Niall caught up to them in front of Halle Starseeker’s house. Evidently, the screams had drawn her outside, and even though she had a sword, they bested her quickly,” Father continued. “Shekhar Patel had come out of his house with his own sword, but was hard put even to defend himself.”
“And no wonder,” said Uncle. “The man’s nearly seventy!”
My father nodded. “Niall said he yelled to divert their attention, and when they came after him, it allowed Shekhar to flee. Since Darryn had crippled him, Orion bled him nearly dry. The fight was over in seconds.”
While the three sons of the Tetrarch may have been friends all their lives, that bond had not been enough to keep Betrys Darkmane’s son from turning on them like a rabid animal.
“And then Darryn cut his throat to silence him forever,” I said.
All so that there would be no magic left for healing my chosen.
“It’s a wonder he didn’t kill Niall, too.” Uncle Padraig put his hand on his sword hilt. “I’ll kill that little monster!”
Father put his hand on Uncle’s shoulder. “No, you won’t.”
“Liam! You can’t possibly let this go unpunished!”
“Padraig, I have no intention of allowing Darryn Darkmane to go unpunished. I just said that you won’t be the one to kill him.”
“Father?” I asked, recalling the night when Charlie and Duncan had returned a bloody mess, carrying the tale that Darryn had stabbed my chosen in the back. He would have died in that forest on our northern border, had my cousin Duncan not healed him.
My father had threatened Darryn, saying he would kill him if he harmed my chosen again, but after years and years of watching him bow to the whims of the ArchDruid and the dictates of her Tetrarch, I had thought those words empty of meaning. No son of the Tetrarch would ever receive punishment or discipline of any kind, no matter how egregious their wrongdoing. Everyone knew that.
Father’s eyes were hard, and he looked grim.
“I made a vow, Angelina,” he said, “and I intend to keep it.”