Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.
~ Helen Keller ~
Uncle Padraig, rubbing the back of his head, met us at the end of the path. Sebrina’s air push had knocked him back several feet, causing him to hit the stone walkway.
“That was impressive,” he said. “And unexpected.”
“Aye,” Father replied mildly. “Whoever would have thought I’d have raised a turncoat?”
“The acorn falls not far from the oak,” I said, feeling my eyes burn with tears.
“You could have warned me what you were about,” Padraig said.
“I did not plan what happened here today,” Father said.
“My brother? Acting without thinking? Unheard of!”
“I did not act without thinking,” Father replied. “Some actions do not require lengthy consideration.”
Low muttering, gradually growing louder, reached our ears.
“Our fair ArchDruid seems to be recovering,” Uncle said. “Shall we take steps?”
“Aye,” my father replied.
I looked over my shoulder to see Sebrina struggling to her feet, still naked and bloody. Betrys was trying to help her, but the ArchDruid shook her off. I felt a huge build of elemental magic – spirit, air, and water – and the hair on the back of my neck stood on end.
Without looking back, my father and uncle raised twin protective barriers – a shield of air to protect us from her magic, and a wall of earth to block the doorway and seal her inside. Then they each took one of my hands and we returned to Danica’s house, a family united once more.
The earth healer teared up briefly when she saw us together, then got busy bandaging Father’s hand. As the doors were wonky on their hinges and glass lay everywhere from the windows I’d shattered, she gathered a bag of personal belongings and accompanied us to Padraig’s house.
“I’m so sorry,” I said.
“Don’t worry about it,” Danica replied, her dark eyes warm.
“We’ll fix it back in a few days,” said Padraig. “I’ll rework the glass and straighten out the doors.”
Padraig’s house was soon warm and cozy, with a comforting fire in the hearth. Supper was simple: bread and vegetable stew. We shared a meal together and though I ate but little, having my family seated at a table together was a pleasure I’d experienced rarely as a child and never since returning to the grove with Charlie this past summer. For my entire life, my father and uncle had been at odds over Father’s bond with and support of Sebrina. Having them together under the same roof was a deep comfort.
Even so, Duncan’s absence cast something of a shadow over us; and, now that my anger was spent, my misery at losing Charlie threatened to drown me once more. My father seemed no worse for having broken his bond with Sebrina. Under the table, I rubbed at the oath mark on my left palm.
“You won’t be protected anymore,” said Father, breaking the silence.
Neither will you, I thought. He was a triple threat and the greatest swordsman in the grove, but still vulnerable to fire, poison, bullets, and many other things that could wound the human body.
“What makes you think I need protection?” Uncle said. “I can take care of myself.”
“Do you expect Sebrina to extract revenge?” Danica asked.
“I think it likely,” Father said.
“We should leave.” The words had left my lips before I had even considered what I was about to say. “We should just… go.”
Danica’s eyes widened. “This is our home.”
“Aye,” said Uncle Padraig. “It is our home, but fighting for it the past twenty years hasn’t won it back for us.”
“That is because I wasn’t standing with you,” said Father.
Uncle sighed. “I’m tired of fighting, Liam,” he said. “Too much innocent blood has soiled the earth here. Better to start fresh in a new place than waste more time.”
“A Harris has lived in my house since this grove was first settled,” Danica said. “I’m not leaving.”
“Reclaiming our home will be worth the time spent,” Father said.
“Druids have already neglected their duty for twenty years,” Padraig said. “Will we neglect it for twenty more, simply because we’re emotionally attached to a patch of dirt?”
Neither Father nor Danica could argue his point.
“Winter is upon us,” Father said after a lengthy pause. “Even if we decide to relocate, it would be ill-advised to make such a journey now.”
Danica’s face brightened. “We could oust Sebrina.”
Uncle Padraig sat back in his chair, rubbing his pointed beard and considering the idea. “The winter looks to be a mild one, but there’s always the chance of random blizzards,” he allowed.
It was true. The weather had been wildly unpredictable since the Rebirth. While it might be risky to stay in the grove, it was certainly safer than traversing the wilderness in freezing weather. Assuming that we could carry enough food for such a journey and supplies for starting a new home, keeping warm would be a challenge even with Padraig’s fire magic.
Wolfric and Onóra came to mind, and I wondered if they were still alive. It was a dark thought, but since my own chosen was gone, darkness was all that remained to me. I hoped they were warm and well fed because then Charlie’s sacrifice for them would not have been in vain. At the same time, I regretted having asked – no, demanded – that he help them escape. I was sorry he had listened to me, even though he was likely to have come up with the notion on his own.
Better for Onóra’s chosen to have died than my own.
Why had I not understood that before?
“In any case, I’m not one to abandon our elders,” Uncle Padraig said, drawing my attention back to their conversation, “Han already said he was leaving in the spring with Marjáni. I’m fairly certain that Rhys and Morganna would be willing to leave, but they’d not survive such a journey unless the weather is warm.”
“That would delay our departure until May,” I said. “That’s too long!”
“I suppose half a year is time enough to determine whether or not we can rid ourselves of Sebrina and her supporters,” said Father, with a glance at Danica. She thought about it for a moment, before nodding reluctantly.
“Besides,” said Uncle, “all the political maneuvering will obscure any preparations for making a permanent departure from the grove. Sebrina will never know what hit—” He paused, craning his neck to peer out the window. “What is that commotion?”
Danica cocked her head. “Someone just called out your name, Liam.”
“I heard,” Father said, rising from the table. Still clad in his leather armor, he buckled his sword about his hips and strode to the front door.
“Wait,” Uncle said. “Let me go first.”
Father paused, then took his hand off the doorknob and gestured for Padraig to precede him. Uncle took only a few steps before stopping on the front porch. Father halted in the doorway.
“Oh, it’s you,” he said, sounding simultaneously bored and annoyed. “One would think you’d have the sense not to darken my doorstep, Darryn Darkmane.”
I was out of my chair in a flash, bolting through the door and pushing past both of them.
“You get out of here!” I yelled at him, as anger filled me, chasing away the grief and pain once again. Picking up a rock, I threw it at him. It bounced off his leather armor, and he laughed.
“You are a horrible, miserable, jealous weasel! You betrayed your best friend! You hurt our healers! You have no honor!”
“No one will believe those lies,” Darryn retorted.
“Davis would have been fine, if not for you!” I yelled. “He would still be here!”
“You cost me my chosen,” Darryn said. “I reckon it’s only fair.”
“You—!” I started toward him, summoning every bit of spirit magic inside me.
A restraining hand fell upon my shoulder.
“I’ll handle this,” Father murmured in my ear. “Go back inside.”
“I’m not going anywhere!” I snapped, jerking away.
“You cannot handle this,” he said gently.
Don’t tell me what can’t do, I nearly said, but I met his gaze and read a promise there.
“I will not fail you again,” Father said. “Will you trust me as you once did?”
I glanced at Darryn before meeting Father’s eyes again. After a moment’s hesitation, I nodded.
“Hold, brother!” Father called, turning from me. Padraig had his sword in hand and was walking quickly to meet Darryn in the street.
“I was wrong to stay my hand last time, Liam.”
“As was I,” Father replied.
Uncle stopped in his tracks and spun about with a surprised expression on his face. My father halted beside him, thumbs hooked in his sword belt. Padraig looked over at me, then back to Father. He turned back to Darryn, sheathed his sword, and chuckled.
“How can a man’s luck be so bad that the entire Everlight clan covets the pleasure of ending his life?” he asked, wearing a small, bitter smile. Shaking his head ruefully, Uncle returned to stand beside me and put his arm around my shoulders.
“Watch your mouth or I’ll be coming after you next, old man,” Darryn said.
“By all means, boy,” Padraig replied with a grin. “Please do. If you have any legs upon which to stand, that is, or an arm with which to strike.”
Darryn’s snarl at my uncle was cut short as my father’s approach attracted his attention. The slow hiss of steel was the only sound as Father drew his blade, sliding it smoothly from its scabbard.
“So you’ve come out of hiding finally?” Father asked, sauntering to meet Darryn. “Finally worked up the courage to face me, have you?”
“You are no longer First Warrior,” Darryn spat, drawing his sword and brandishing it. “And after you’re gone, I will take your place at the ArchDruid’s side.”
“First you must defeat me,” Father said. His blade flashed out and back, tapping Darryn’s sword in a flicker of motion that was almost too fast for my eyes to track. The weasel jerked back in surprise.
“If you want to be First Warrior, you’ll have to be faster than that,” said my father. “Much faster.”
Furious, Darryn attacked in a flurry of blows, lunging in and out, feinting and striking. No matter how he attacked – overhead, underhand, from the forehand or backhand – Father blocked them all effortlessly. He moved with such grace and surefootedness that one might think the street was smooth, rather than paved with uneven cobblestones.
“Liam is toying with him,” Padraig grumbled.
“He’s making a point.”
“It’s not like Darryn will learn anything after he’s dead.”
“This lesson is for others,” Uncle said. “Look.”
The ring of clashing steel – the second swordfight in the streets that day – was attracting a crowd. The neighbors had already been drawn outside by Darryn yelling in the street. It was my father’s appearance that had summoned the others, the news of their confrontation sweeping through the grove like the very wind.
Uncle was right; my father could have killed the weasel with that first blow. He’d intentionally aimed for the sword and not the man. Now, however, his posture had changed. It was vastly different from when he schooled me in bladework, or even when he sparred with my uncle or the other masters. He advanced upon Darryn in a manner I’d never seen, his body sinuous and lithe like that of a tiger, the motion of his limbs tight and controlled like a snake about to strike.
His abrupt focus would be the downfall of Betrys Darkmane’s son. One heavy strike of Father’s blade and the weasel’s sword flew out of his hands, landing on the cobblestones with a loud clatter. For a long moment, the only sound was his heavy breathing as he gasped for air.
“I… I yield.” I had to strain to catch the words.
“I beg your pardon. What did you say?” Father asked, tilting his head to one side.
“I yield!” His shout rang out, loud enough for all to hear, and his eyes blazed with impotent fury.
My chosen’s propensity for fighting and his willingness to engage enemies in battle had alternately annoyed and terrified me. Charlie Davis never yielded. He never gave up, and he never gave in.
I had never understood why until this very moment.
“On your knees,” Father commanded.
The tip of my father’s sword touched Darryn’s throat. Still full of rage and lacking any humility at all, his upper lip twisted as he raised his hands in mock surrender and took a step back before kneeling in the street before my father.
“Now, here in the presence of your fellow citizens, you will relate exactly what happened when you and Niall Ashcroft accompanied Davis on his mission to demonstrate the effectiveness of his firearm in combat.”
Confusion warred with anger in Darryn’s dark eyes. He’d obviously expected Father to ask him to admit his part in providing Orion with a sword and giving him free rein in shedding the blood of our healers – as had I. Judging from the puzzled expressions on the faces of many of our neighbors, they, too, were surprised by this innocuous question. No one cared about something that had occurred two months ago – especially not me! Charlie was dead. What difference did it make now that he’d nearly been murdered then?
Charlie’s concern for the safety of all the men under twenty in the grove made no difference now. Their fate had been sealed by the ArchDruid, who had decreed that they be denied their gods-given magic even before most of them had been conceived. Sebrina had never intended to allow any of us to leave and fulfill our mission to heal the world. My chosen had known better than she, however, for he had realized that our generation would not tolerate being restrained and trapped within the narrow confines of White Oak Grove.
Thus, when my father approached Charlie about using his shotgun as a model to manufacture more firearms and suggested that he should teach our young men without magic to use them, he had readily agreed. Resentful of Charlie’s presence from the moment he stepped into the grove, Sebrina had twisted the idea in order to do away with him under the guise of sending him off with Niall and Darryn to act as “witnesses” to observe just how well his shotgun operated in a combat situation. And even though Charlie had saved both their lives from bandits, Darryn had ruthlessly stabbed him in the back almost immediately afterward. If it hadn’t been for my cousin Duncan following them – sent by my father to watch his back – he would have died.
The night they had returned, Father had admonished Darryn never to harm my chosen again, or he would suffer dire consequences. The weasel had sneered at the threat before slinking away that night. He had disregarded my father, just as he had disregarded Charlie’s status as a grove weapon master. Both were extremely poor choices. My chosen was a man of his word. He never made a threat without carrying it out.
Just like my father.
And Father had asked me to trust him.
“I tried to kill him,” Darryn spat. There was a little murmuring in the crowd, for what difference did that make now that Davis the Outsider was dead?
“I ran him through with my sword!”
Father nodded, walking around him slowly, casually spinning his sword about in one hand. “And the night he was whipped, what did you do to him then?”
“I poisoned him!” the weasel spat. “I got rid of that dirty Outsider, just as the ArchDruid wished me to!” The bravado of his tone was belied by the fear in his eyes.
“Aye, that you did,” Father said, stopping to stand in front of Darryn, facing away from him and looking into my eyes.
“Do you remember, Darryn Darkmane, what I told you would happen if you harmed my daughter’s chosen again?” Father asked softly.
Behind him, Darryn’s face drained of color, and all trace of his youthful arrogance and pride were gone.
“You s-said you’d kill me y-yourself.”
“Aye,” Father said. “That I did.”
His right hand gripped the sword hilt more tightly, his left hand came up to grasp the pommel. Raising the sword over his right shoulder, he stepped back with his left foot. Then, with deadly grace, Liam Everlight pivoted on the balls of his feet, bringing his longsword about in a brilliant arc of cold light and severing Darryn Darkmane’s head from his shoulders in a single blow.