Only in the agony of parting do we look into the depths of love.
~ George Eliot ~
What at first seemed to be a horrible nightmare turned out to be an even worse reality. Pushing myself upright while trying to rub the sleep out of my eyes, my brain attempted to comprehend the scene before me.
Everything was the same as when I had closed my eyes: the jar of clay, bolt of linen, and bottles of dried herbs on the counter, the bucket of salted water beside the hearth, the fire crackling brightly, and the neat line of cots, empty but for Charlie and I, now entirely vacant.
He was gone.
I attempted to breathe, sucking in small whoops of air into my hitching breast. The grief of loss and the terror that he might still be alive and suffering further torment loosened my throat and a banshee wail burst from my lips. The loss of my emotional control was matched by an equal loss of elemental control – lightning shot around the room, streaking across the walls, ceiling, and floor. Turbulent air burst outward, shattering all the windows and ripping the doors off their hinges.
The destruction plus my hysterical screaming brought Padraig thundering down the stairs, with a frightened Danica progressing unsteadily behind him.
“What happened?” my uncle demanded.
“He’s gone!” I wailed, only just managing to pull the magic back.
“What? Where is he?” Danica rasped.
I howled through my tears, completely shattered by this new development. Pain and rage ripped through me – who had dared disturb us in our last hours together?!
“Someone has taken him!” Dropping to my knees, I slammed my fists against the stone floor. Pain lanced up both arms, but it was nothing compared to the great, ripping hole in my heart.
“I fell asleep and they took him!” I was the worst person in the history of druids. My precious chosen had lain there dying in the night and I couldn’t even stay awake to watch over him.
“Wait…” Uncle Padraig held up a hand. “Calm down. Maybe there is a rational explanation. Maybe it was Liam, trying to—”
“My father didn’t care about Charlie while he was alive!” I shouted. “Why would he do anything for him now?”
“I don’t know what might have happened, Angie.” Uncle knelt beside me. “But we need to be rational or we might never find out what happened.”
Even in her weakened state, her face pale and her hair tangled, Danica came to comfort me. She enfolded me in her arms and pulled me close, rocking me as if I were a small child. Padraig took my hands in his, the thick callouses from decades of swordplay brushing my skin.
Surrounded by their love and warmth, the rage drained out of me, leaving only devastation in its wake. A wave of anguish rose up from deep inside me, emerging from my lips as a mournful howl that went on and on. I continued to inhale for the sole purpose of venting my pain to all the world, even unto the Shining Ones in their far-away realms until my throat was on fire and the sound of silent screaming was all that remained.
* * *
Charlie was gone, but I couldn’t believe it. My mind knew that he had been so close to death that it was impossible for him to still live, yet my heart and soul refused to believe. Frozen by uncertainty, I couldn’t leave Danica’s house. It was the last place I had seen my chosen, touched his hand, caressed his brow. I had to know what had happened to him.
Everyone assumed he was dead, but what if he was alive?
What if Duncan had arrived at the last possible moment and had gone underground because he was barely able to keep Charlie from crossing the veil between worlds? My logical mind insisted that even if that were the case, my cousin would have wakened me. He would have made his presence known to his father through the earth.
Unless Duncan had decided to keep Charlie for himself, an insidious part of my mind whispered. After all, you don’t deserve to have him.
I found myself fervently wishing this to be true, as it meant that Charlie was still alive. If I knew it for a fact, I could deal with missing him. Absent was temporary. Away from my side meant he could come back. Death was final. From death, there was no return.
Throughout the day I caught myself rubbing the oath mark, that barely visible, silvery scar on my palm.
It was still warm.
If he was dead, the oath should be broken.
It should have gone cold.
Like everything else in my life, it made no sense.
I couldn’t stay in Danica’s house forever, and yet neither could I leave. What was I supposed to do? How could leave this space without knowing what had happened to my chosen? How could I eat another meal, or drink another cup of coffee? How could I still be breathing? How could I go anywhere or do anything at all without knowing his fate?
How could any of us move at all without a proper funeral ritual? How could even a single person in the grove continue to cook meals, or clean house, or work the land, or do magic without knowing for sure what happened within their borders? How could the grass spring up, the rivers run, or the wind still blow? Surely the sun would not continue to rise. Without a body to bury or a pyre to light, I expected the world to come to a standstill.
Instead, it erupted in violence.
I had dozed off again when loud and angry voices startled me awake.
“She should come home with me. She can’t stay here forever!”
It was Father.
“Angie is welcome to stay as long as she needs to,” Danica interjected in a quiet tone. “Just like anyone else.”
I sat up and brushed my hair out of my face, overwhelmed by the surge of anguish that washed over me again upon seeing the empty cot beside mine.
“With all due respect, she should be home – with her family.”
“She is with her family,” Padraig growled. “I have been taking care of her and her chosen since you allowed him to be beaten half to death!”
“She’s coming home with me, and that’s final.”
“Liam, I’m warning you—”
“You overstep your bounds, brother,” I heard Father say. “Angelina is my daughter, not yours.”
Padraig snorted. “Only where blood is concerned.”
A chill permeated the room.
“What did you say?” Father’s voice was as sharp.
“If you were any kind of father at all, you’d have told Sebrina to stuff her opinions regarding Davis up her arse.”
“How dare you—”
Padraig cut him off. “A father who loved his daughter would have made it clear that her chosen would receive the full protection of the Everlight family and that an attack on him would be met with maximum retaliation! Instead, you left him to the tender mercies of that bitch and the vile offspring of her sycophants!”
Father’s eyes narrowed, sparking with spirit magic, and electricity crackled around his fingers. I’d never seen him so angry.
“I’m not leaving,” I said, swallowing past the lump in my throat. My voice was like the rustle of dead leaves, stirred by the cold whisper of winter’s bitter air.
He never took his eyes off Uncle. “You should come home.”
“I can’t go. Not until I know what happened to him!”
“Why should she go anywhere with you?” Padraig snapped. “You’ve not been here the entire time. Davis lay here for four days, and what have you done?” The room temperature soared as his voice filled the room. “You’ve been wasting time running around the grove playing at politics when Angie needed you here!”
“I was trying to find out what happened!”
“And did that do one fucking thing to save him?” Padraig spat.
“The greater good of the grove is more important than one man!” Father shouted.
I started to cry again. My own father, so heartless. Holding my hands over my mouth did nothing to muffle the loud, racking sobs. Danica came to sit beside me, putting her arm around my waist and producing a clean handkerchief.
“By all means, brother, take her home so you can continue to give her such tender comfort in her time of grief,” Padraig said in a biting tone. He made a slicing motion with his hand. “No more of this, Liam. Get out before I fulfill my oath of vengeance on you for allowing this to happen.”
Father sneered. “If you think you’ve got the balls, little brother, then meet me out in the street.” He turned on his heel and stalked out, leaving the door open behind him. Padraig grabbed his sword from where it hung over the mantle and started to follow. Danica jumped to her feet.
“Surely you’re not going!” she cried.
“I meant what I said,” he replied.
“You spoke those words in anger,” the healer said. “He is your brother.”
“He used to be.”
“Liam is not your enemy!”
“Isn’t he?” Padraig said and marched outside.
I stumbled after Danica into the failing afternoon light, fear for my father and uncle rising up through the misery to lodge in my throat. Both were formidable swordsmen – the best in the grove. Father was wearing his leather armor like always; Padraig had taken his off last night. It put my uncle at a disadvantage, but even scaled leather armor would not keep sharpened steel from running my father through.
Hanging onto the doorway for balance with my heart hammering in my chest, I watched Padraig draw his sword and toss the scabbard aside. The transition from walking to fighting was so smooth that it took a few seconds for my brain to catch up. One second, my uncle was stepping onto the cobblestones; in the next, his blade was streaking toward my father.
Danica gasped, her dark brown eyes wide.
“Stop!” she cried. “Stop this right now!”
Neither of them acknowledged her demand but went at each other in a fury of flashing steel and clanging blades. People ran from their houses and gaped at the spectacle. Druids rarely fought one another; dueling wasn’t forbidden but was considered vulgar and barbarous. The violence which the brothers unleashed upon each other with a clear intent to do harm was scandalous.
Sword fights rarely lasted longer than a few minutes, and they had been striking at each other for at least three.
Soon, one of them would make a mistake and blood would spill. Why wasn’t anybody doing anything to stop them?
Because they’re afraid, said a voice in my mind that sounded like Charlie. Once, during one of my rants about how stupid my people were, he had gently replied that when people had lived in fear for so long, they sometimes didn’t know how to do anything more than passively observe.
The realization that I was acting just like everybody else – standing there watching because I was afraid – jolted me into action. Fear turned to anger. I ran into the street and summoned a wall of air between them. Lightning-quick, twin longswords flashed in the noonday sun, slipping mere inches through the air shield before it hardened it to the solidity of stone. A bright, metallic ring that reverberated in the air as the blades were stuck fast.
Before either of them could reach for a knife, I expanded the wall, keeping it rock hard in the center but thick like cotton around their bodies so they could still breathe. From the placement of their blades, I could see that Padraig was about to lose his head, while Father’s guts would soon have spilled upon the ground. Each of them had been so caught up in the feud that he had completely abandoned defense in favor of attack.
I felt Father manipulating the air, wresting it from my control. As a mere elementalist, I could not hope to match the skills of a fully trained war druid. A war druid himself, Padraig had evidently anticipated this move, because in the next instant Father’s blade was red-hot, causing him to jerk his hand away and release the hilt, cursing. I took control of it again, commanding the air to raise it high overhead, then did the same with Padraig’s blade.
“I still have spirit,” Father growled.
“And I still have fire,” Uncle snarled back.
“And after you kill each other, I will have nothing!” I screeched.
“You’ll have Duncan,” Father said, never once looking at me.
“Duncan’s gone,” Padraig snapped.
Father snorted. There was derision in him, but the overt malice was gone. “He’ll be back.”
Uncle wore a stricken expression; it was a look my Father could not ignore.
“Your son may leave for weeks at a time, but he always returns,” he insisted.
“Not this time.” Uncle hung his head, but not before I saw the glint of tears. “I called him for hours and hours.”
“Maybe Duncan did return,” my father said. “It’s possible that he might have taken the body—”
“How could you even think such a thing, let alone say it!” Uncle snapped. “Duncan would never be so cruel!”
“You’re right,” Father said. “I was just thinking that… If there was anything at all that would have brought him back, it’s knowing that Davis was hurt. He’s just… far away.” His voice lacked conviction.
Since they were talking and no longer armed, I released the bonds of air about them. Even though they had threatened to use their elements, neither my uncle nor my father would disrespect their gods in such a way. Thankfully, the virtues of piety and integrity had remained more powerful than human emotion this day.
“Aye, he’s far away, and he won’t be coming back,” said Padraig, backing away from Father. He raised his voice and yelled at all the people who had come out to gawk. “Soon, they’ll all be gone!” He waved in the general direction of the Warriors’ Third. “And they’ll never return to this wretched place! Our children will abandon us! We will die old and alone, and we will deserve our fate!”
He turned his back on the crowd and walked back to Danica’s house. The healer threw her arms around him before bringing him inside. Even though they were not chosen, it was good they had each other. It was likely to become the norm, choosing one’s own partner. Their generation could very well be the last to join in true dyads.
“He’s wrong, you know,” I heard my father say.
“Is he?” This from Heracles Crawford, who lived across the street.
“Of course,” Father said, giving him an odd look. “Why?”
“If you ever went someplace that took away your most precious treasure and treated you like a second-class citizen because you lacked that treasure, would you stay?” Heracles asked. “If you ever escaped from a place of such cruelty, would you ever return?”
Father did not respond.
The crowd dissipated and soon we were alone in the street. Remembering the swords, I let them drift slowly toward the ground and took hold of Padraig’s. Father took hold of his own and began wiping the blade clean.
“I’m not coming home with you,” I said. “So you may as well leave.”
I couldn’t remember the last time he called me Angie.
“Leave me alone,” I said. “I hate you.”