We may encounter many defeats but we must not be defeated.
~ Maya Angelou ~
I floated on my back in the stream, my mind occupied with the water nets and trout, the many dangers on the road, the kindness of Grandmother and the blind man Sinclair, but mostly my chosen warrior. With Kingston, Jonesboro, and Searcy behind us – and Kam Stone far away – I finally had Davis all to myself. While my noble protector took a well-earned rest in the shade of nearby oak trees, I pondered my next course of action.
He had chosen me over his own goals, over a pretty Traveler girl, and even his own parents. Surely it would not be too shocking or unexpected for me to join him in his blankets tonight? Compared to most druids, I had waited a good long time for him. True, while I had not restricted myself from all sexual activities, I had held myself to experiences in which I would not be tempted to break my vow.
During my observations through my fetch’s eyes, I was certain that he had never bedded any woman. Granted, I’d not been able to observe him twenty-four hours a day, but my fetch gave me spiritual and sensory information. I wouldn’t have cared if he had taken pleasure with other women; druids are rarely monogamous. In fact, it would have made things easier on me in two ways: for one thing, I could have indulged in carnal pleasure while still in the grove. A release of tension and sexual energy would be far more potent with a lover than that released by my own hand.
For another, it would make achieving my own desires where he was concerned much easier. Had Davis already been introduced to the pleasures of the flesh, I felt certain we would have been lovers by now. There would be none of this hesitancy and delicate flirtation. I also would not have a vague sense of trepidation regarding what he thought of me as a lover – or worse, whether he thought of me in that way at all. Since meeting him and sleeping beside him for several weeks, I began wishing that I had made my full sexual debut. It would have made me feel more confident.
However, I had wanted to meet my chosen warrior more or less on the same terms – not because I thought a first sexual experience was something particularly special, but because I wanted us to be on equal footing. I didn’t want my future lover to be intimidated by any perceived level of experience I possessed, I was now in a place of unease because of that exact lack.
There was, I had to admit, a certain pleasurable element to being tantalized by a man’s appreciative glances. His hesitant and gentle touches never failed to send a shiver down my spine. I swam closer to him and propped my elbows on the bank. Davis lay there with his hands behind his head, face peaceful in sleep, lips slightly parted. I wanted to kiss those lips so badly.
Frustration welled up inside me, but I shoved it back down. Even more than I desired him, I had an even deeper desire for him to come to me. I wanted to feel that same rush of excitement that the heroines in all the books felt when they realized that the man they admired most in the world had decided they were worthy of romantic pursuit.
Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy had ended up together, even though he had some serious expectations about how his future wife should behave that stood between them.
After all, even though Samwise Gamgee was a modest, shy gardener, after his adventures with Frodo, he had so grown in courage and self-realization that he dared ask Rosie Cotton to marry him.
And Peeta had ended up practically begging Katniss to marry him, but I’d never be that difficult about it. Granted, she had been run through the gauntlet, but so had he.
That was when I realized that part of what had made my favorite heroines attractive was that even though they’d been interested in the heroes (admittedly to varying degrees), not one of them had pounced on her love interest like a lioness on the hunt, but had allowed him at least some pursuit.
All I needed to do was give Davis a little encouragement.
That evening, after a swim that I had intended to be teasing but that was actually just good fun, I put on a thin, cotton dress that showed off my figure. Father had told me I was foolish for packing it, but a man’s opinion of what is necessary doesn’t always match that of a woman’s.
When I finished dressing, Davis was lighting a fire, gently blowing on the bright sparks. Even though it became no bigger than a candle flame, I watched in admiration. His speed and skill with bringing forth fire without magic never ceased to amaze me. Dry grass crackled under my bare feet, drawing first his glance, and then a second, longer look.
I detected just a hint of hunger in his eyes, now dark amber in the evening dusk, before he turned his attention back to the flint and tinder before him. The fire there had died, but I could tell by the tension in his shoulders that another, hidden, fire had begun to smolder. He shook his head in obvious disgust and set to starting it again.
“I didn’t see anything in the snares,” I said, raising the hem of my dress over my knees as I knelt across from him. “But I did catch some fish.”
“When did you do that?” he asked, then blew a whisper of air upon the newborn embers. I wanted to feel that breath on my neck, just before his lips brushed over my skin. I didn’t really pay attention to the rest of our conversation, communicating mostly with my eyes, lips, and hips. The content wasn’t important, anyway. We talked about supper every single night. What was important was that my chosen warrior got the signals I was sending, both through flirtatious movements of my body and hands, and the fleeting few seconds of eye contact every so often.
The fire went out again, and I smiled fondly at him. He was trying so hard to get us fed; it wasn’t fair of me to keep distracting him. Satisfied that I had indeed garnered his attention in a manner that did not require either shotgun or tomahawks, I decided to give him a little space. Walking away with my hips swaying, I went to fetch the trout and a couple of sticks on which to cook them.
Later that night, after our feast of fish and dried fruit, I had lain down beside Davis and asked him what stars he was observing. While I knew the constellations of each season like the back of my hand, I was interested in the extent of his knowledge. I used the method that my father and uncle had when they had queried me about stars and their patterns in the night sky. Stargazing had also provided me with the perfect excuse to draw him closer, as I used my finger to direct his gaze toward the firmaments. In order to properly follow someone else’s line of sight, it was necessary for one to move quite close together. When his shoulder touched mine and I felt the warmth of his bare skin, it made my heart beat just a little bit faster.
“So that’s Draco?” I asked, knowing full well that it was. Smiling inwardly to myself with this small success, I chose a different constellation. Davis scooted closer to me, peering upward without realizing how very close he now was. My breath quickened and I became quite giddy. None of the boys from the grove had ever made me feel like that.
“Right. And see the faint constellation that’s kind of wrapped up in Draco’s tail? That’s Ursa Minor, the little bear. You can see it fairly well tonight because the sky is so clear. Then to the right of the tail, there’s Ursa Major, the big bear.”
“My friend Irri likes bears,” I said, just talking about anything to keep him close to me. “Sometimes she pets them.”
He frowned. “Bears are dangerous.”
I gave a little shrug. Iriana was an earth elementalist; like many possessing the element of earth, she had a way with bears. She could talk to them like I could speak with other animals, only her connection was stronger with bears.
“I guess she talks to them so they’ll be nice to her,” I said. “Kind of the way I did with Mule One and Mule Two.”
“You used magic on the mules?”
“I had to get them to behave somehow. I don’t have as much of a connection to other animals like I do with cats, but I can usually get my point across.” I smiled at him, willing my eyes to sparkle. Without spirit magic, however, there wasn’t much to sparkle with.
“I think your grove is going to be stranger than anything I’ve ever experienced,” Davis said.
“It’s nothing like Jonesboro, that’s for sure.” I pointed to Herakles. “What’s that one?” The position of that particular constellation just might make him roll onto his side, putting him in the perfect position to look down on me, gaze into my eyes, and realize that my lips were the most kissable ones he had ever seen.
“Mmm… I think you’re pointing to Hercules.”
“It looks like Draco is about to eat him,” I giggled, ecstatic with my success so far. “How did you learn so much about the stars?”
“My mother taught me. My father is familiar enough with astronomy to navigate, but she really loves the night sky. We used to lie on the roof and stare at the stars for hours, and she’d tell me stories of the gods that went with them.”
“Do you miss your parents?”
“Yes,” he said. “Terribly.”
“What?” I asked, forgetting all about my seduction. I thought he was happy to be away from them.
“And now I’ll never see them again because of you.”
That’s not how it happened, I thought, confused.
Charlie turned his head and looked at me, anger and betrayal in his eyes. “I’m going to die, Angie. And it’ll be all your fault.”
“No!” I said, stricken. “You can’t die! You can’t!”
His eyes turned to blazing coals.
“Don’t tell me what I can’t do.”
* * *
I snapped awake with a gasp, feeling tears slipping free of my eyelashes. Roughly scrubbing my face with my hands, I jerked upright. I had fallen asleep sitting on the floor beside Charlie’s cot with my head resting on my arms. I glanced around me, blinking stupidly. Uncle Padraig had gone upstairs to bring Danica her supper.
Adalwulf Rask kept me company and was currently occupying a chair that faced the door, his booted feet propped on a stool and his arms folded over his chest. He was fully armored, with both his wicked-looking long knives strapped to his back.
“I shouldn’t have fallen asleep,” I said aloud, trying to scramble to my feet in spite of my left leg, which was tingling with pins and needles.
“You need to rest, too,” said Adalwulf.
“I don’t want to sleep anymore,” I said, hearing my voice tremble with tears left over from the horrible dream. It was approaching midnight of the third day since I’d found my lover cold and alone in the healer’s house. Gooseflesh rose on my arms and I rubbed them briskly to chase them away.
“I’ll go make us some more coffee,” Adalwulf said.
I nodded, appreciating the gesture. I was sleeping little and while having a steady supply of coffee had helped me initially, it’s effects upon me seemed to be waning. No quick burst of artificial energy could replace the life-giving replenishment of sleep.
Bending over Charlie, I touched his hands, then his forehead. Both were dry and hot. I gently dabbed a touch of balm on his chapped lips. In spite of the green tea made with comfrey and willow bark, there was little or no improvement in his condition. Yesterday it had strengthened the beat of his heart and slowed it from its wild gallop; today it raced along unabated, his pulse weakening gradually beneath my fingertips. Yesterday his skin would cool slightly, allowing him an hour or two of peaceful rest; today his flesh remained hot to the touch and no sweat appeared upon his brow. Pain was the only thing that caused his restless tossing and turning to abate, and even then he shivered because of it.
“That’s the last of the cream,” Adalwulf said, handing me a mug.
Those were not the words I had expected to hear at the end of the world. The bottom disappeared from my well of hope; I wrapped my arms about myself and squeezed tightly, trying to hold myself together. I tried to get Charlie to drink a little green tea, then bathed him again in the minted water. He murmured my name and I kissed his heated brow.
What we really needed was for Duncan to return. Not only was my cousin skilled with manipulating his element, earth, but he had studied the medicinal arts extensively with several of the grove’s healers. His knowledge, together with his magic and the Earth Mother’s favor, made him the most powerful earth druid in the grove.
If Duncan came back, he could heal Charlie.
When Uncle Padraig brought the supper dishes back to the kitchen, I begged him to find Duncan.
“Angelina, you’re asking me to look for a needle in a haystack,” he protested.
“Please. Just try.”
“You know as well as I do that no one can find an earth druid who doesn’t want to be found.”
My heart sank a little more; Charlie had told Duncan to “make himself scarce” and my cousin had done so. He had wanted to stay, but my chosen had reminded him that the two of us were headed for trouble, and as young male druid with magic, my cousin would be in more danger than either of us.
Duncan had always kept his own counsel, however. He could very well be lurking on the edges of the grove, awaiting an invitation to return, or perhaps a signal that all was not well.
He did love Charlie, after all.
“Maybe if you’re out there looking, he’ll notice!”
“How?” he asked, looking concerned for my sanity.
“Set fire to the sky!” I cried. “Make the earth shake! You’re a druid, Uncle! Do something – anything – so he’ll know something is wrong and come home!”
“I am willing to try to seek him out,” said Adalwulf.
“He won’t come back for anyone but me, I fear,” Uncle Padraig replied with a shake of his head. Uncle looked at me with pity and I turned away, unable to bear it. Everyone else might be giving up on Charlie, but I would not.
Gentle arms embraced me as I fought back tears.
“I will go,” Uncle said. “For you, Angie, I will try.”