It will have blood, they say; blood will have blood.
~ William Shakespeare ~
My father executed the strike so swiftly that the offending head had rolled to a stop before anyone gasped or cried out. It was so quiet that I heard the thump as Darryn’s body pitched over onto the cobblestones. It was the blood spurting from the severed neck that incited exclamations of horror, a couple of screams, and the sound of someone vomiting. Several someones, in fact.
He wasn’t finished, however.
“Let it be known throughout White Oak Grove that I, Liam Everlight, am no longer First Warrior to ArchDruid Sebrina,” Father said in a loud voice. “And let it also be known that Davis, my daughter’s chosen, was taken from a house of healing this morning – a sacred place of protection!”
Raising his sword to the sky, he bellowed: “I call upon you, great Zeus, most glorious and greatest, and to Apollo, who sees and hears all things! Hear me, Demeter, goddess of the earth! Listen, all you gods and goddesses in the realms above and below, and witness my oath this day: this heinous crime will not go unpunished! By the sky over my head and the nurturing earth beneath my feet do I swear! By the inviolable waters of the Styx and by the blood I have spilled this day, I swear that I shall not rest until I have found out the truth of what has befallen him!”
Shocked silence greeted his pronouncement.
Equally stunned by this development, I couldn’t blame them.
“That… that was… he made a…” I stammered.
“Blood sacrifice,” Padraig said. His tone was grim.
“I can’t believe it!”
“Like your hearth culture doesn’t perform blood sacrifices.” He gave me a knowing look. Heat rose to my cheeks. Those who did not know the Orisha always assumed we performed blood sacrifices, simply because pre-Fracture witch doctors and voodoo priests had also honored them.
“We do not!” I snapped. “Blood sacrifice is forbidden!”
Uncle Padraig shrugged. “He was going to kill Darryn anyway. May as well make use of it.”
My jaw dropped. Of all the things that had gone wrong within White Oak Grove, my father’s use of blood as a sacrifice to the gods and my uncle’s indifference to it demonstrated just how warped our society had become, and how far from our ancestors we had strayed.
“Besides, the ancient Greek peoples frequently engaged in blood sacrifice – using animals and humans.”
“That’s not true!” I protested. What kind of madness was he advocating now?
“Oh no? Have you never heard of a scapegoat ritual?”
“They didn’t kill people!”
“Scholars have differing opinions on that, but there is a general agreement that unrepentant murderers were chosen as scapegoats and then executed.”
I could only stare at him.
“Terrible, isn’t it?” he asked.
Which part? I wanted to ask. “What do you mean?”
“The fact that human sacrifice is made more palatable to our delicate sensibilities because the blood spilled was that of an unrepentant murderer.”
He was right. It was terrible that someone could be dehumanized because they weren’t sorry for killing another human being. Yet, did not the very act of murder cause someone to lose his humanity? Could one kill in cold blood and still remain human?
Who truly dehumanized the scapegoat?
The murderer himself?
The society that condemned him?
I didn’t lose any sleep over it.
I hated Darryn Darkmane.
I was glad he was dead.
* * *
“I want you to stay with Padraig.”
“Yesterday you wanted me to come home with you.” Yesterday I had hated him, but today he was my avatar, my protector, and my hero.
“Aye, but that was before I beheaded Darryn Darkmane in the street,” Father said. “Sebrina won’t like that, and I imagine Betrys will be wanting vengeance as well. I’ll not have her take it out on you.”
“Betrys is lucky that Nualla didn’t seek revenge herself,” Danica said.
“In that case, I’m sorry he’s already dead,” I said, imagining Nualla burning Darryn alive with elemental fire.
“Angie!” protested Danica, clearly mortified.
“He didn’t suffer nearly enough.” My fists clenched in a useless attempt to hang onto my earlier rage. In spite of my harsh words, anger was again fading into the empty despair of mourning. I wanted to be angry. I needed to be angry. Anything to fill the void of despair that threatened to swamp me at every turn.
Father knelt before me and took my hands. “Things may take a turn for the worse.”
“I don’t understand.”
Nothing could be worse than losing Charlie. Nothing could be worse than missing his quick smile, his strong arms around me, his determination and courage. Nothing could be worse than knowing I’d failed him, that I was the one truly responsible for his suffering and death. He’d been the mighty oak whose branches had supported and sheltered me, and now he was gone.
“I swore a blood oath in the presence of our people, the nature spirits, the ancestors, and the Shining Ones,” he said. “I intend to fulfill it.”
“Padraig said it was a blood sacrifice.”
Father looked at my uncle with an unreadable expression and then turned back to me. “That all depends on how you look at it.”
“What exactly do you aim to do?” Padraig asked, looking at my father skeptically.
“I’m going to search every square inch of this grove until I find Davis,” Father replied. “Have no fear, daughter. I will find your chosen if he is here.” With this pronouncement, he rose and strode to the door, closing it behind him with finality.
I looked at Uncle. “Don’t you think you should go with him?”
“If he wanted my help, he would have asked.”
“But wouldn’t it be easier to search if you used earth magic?”
He hesitated. “A seeking with earth is not always possible,” he said kindly. “We all have an element of spirit in our bodies, even if we can’t channel it. It is that spirit, that life force, for which an earth druid searches when performing a seeking. Should that life force be weak, or—”
I held up a hand. I understood. Father hadn’t asked Padraig to come along because it was not a sick and injured man for whom he was looking.
He was searching for a corpse.
* * *
Padraig left me alone only once, and that was to make repairs to Danica’s house. During that time, Arrie Stoddard came to sit with me. I halfway wished that Uncle had left me alone. Then Betrys Darkmane could retaliate against my father for executing her only son – by attacking me. True, she was a full druid with elemental fire, while I was an elementalist with spirit, water, and air, but I had bested her once before and would be pleased to do so again. Then I would have an outlet for this agony, this unspeakable pain.
Uncle Padraig was the only person to whom I could turn for comfort, and he himself was grieving deeply, not only over the loss of Davis but also his own son, Duncan. He had to be wondering – as I did – if the ArchDruid and her Tetrarch had discovered his son’s involvement in orchestrating Wolfric and Onóra’s escape. Had Duncan chosen to leave of his own accord? Or had the ArchDruid’s tolerance of him finally come to an end? Had he suffered the same fate as so many others who had not been denied the gift of the gods? Had he, too, been exiled? Or had he been murdered in cold blood for the crime of being a young man with magic?
My uncle was no stranger to grief, for he had lost his chosen Dragana and her unborn son. A year later to the day, he had found two-year-old Duncan alone in the woods. The burned remains of his parents lay nearby, with the child sitting quietly, protected by a fierce she-bear. Father had once commented that the mother bear had only allowed Padraig to take young Duncan home because she had recognized a fellow child of earth. I didn’t know if my cousin ever risked life and limb with the dangerous creatures, but my friend Iriana Disney, also an earth elementalist, was known to befriend bears in the woods and even encroach into their hibernation spaces. Everyone in the Elementalists’ third had thought she was crazy, but no one ever snitched.
I’d heard it said that it was the hard times that proved who your real friends are, and none of mine had come to visit me, not even Iriana. Irri had been involved in most of my little rebellions, the most recent being the Autumn Moon social, when more than half of the grove’s elementalists and young warrior trainees had defied the ArchDruid’s order forbidding us to gather. Of all my friends, her absence hit me hardest.
As much as Uncle Padraig had tried to protect me from what was occurring in the grove, rumors of my father’s activities intruded nevertheless. People kept dropping by the house at all hours of the day, beseeching Padraig to at least talk to Liam. I started to wonder if perhaps my father’s questionable activities stemmed from a sense of guilt. If so, it was too little, too late.
It wasn’t until Adalwulf Rask came by that Uncle paid attention. As usual, Wolfric’s father was in full leather armor with his long knives strapped to his back.
“There’s a problem,” he said without preamble. “You need to see to it, Padraig.”
“My brother’s business is his own,” Uncle replied. “He’ll not thank me for butting in.”
“Perhaps not, but the rest of the grove will.”
Uncle snorted. “I’ll join my ancestors before that ever happens.”
“Be that as it may, Liam is out of control and you are the only one with any hope of stopping him.”
“Honestly, Adalwulf, I couldn’t care less if he spent the rest of his life breaking down doors and rifling through women’s underwear.”
“Eventually someone will object,” Adalwulf said, frowning at my uncle’s obvious lack of honor. “Perhaps violently.”
“Not if they’re smart.”
“He is no longer First Warrior. He has no authority to do such things!”
“His daughter’s chosen is missing,” said Uncle. “Can you blame him?” His tone was deceptively mild. I say deceptively because the temperature was starting to rise. If I could feel it, doubtless a fire druid like Adalwulf could also.
“Davis is dead,” Adalwulf stated with his characteristic bluntness.
It was the first time anyone had said it out loud. A loud sob rose up unbidden and escaped my lips, bringing with it a flood of tears. It brought Padraig to his feet and roused him like nothing else had.
“How dare you march in here making pronouncements like that in front of Angie!” he roared. “How dare you speak so disrespectfully of him! If it weren’t for Davis, it would be your son who is dead!”
Adalwulf stiffened, casting a quick look my way, then turning his eyes back to Padraig. He looked away, visibly ashamed.
“My deepest apologies, Angelina,” he said. “And you are right, Padraig. What you say is true.”
Is it? I rubbed the still-warm scar of the oath mark. It seemed that the entirety of my grief and tears were from the agony of not knowing what had happened to him. Yes, he was likely dead. He’d been so sick it was impossible for him not to be.
And yet Duncan had not returned. It was foolish, but my cousin’s continued absence gave me hope. Duncan was an earth elementalist and a skilled healer. It was well within his capabilities to have healed Charlie and moved him someplace safe.
“Padraig, you must listen to reason. I watched him fail with my own eyes. There was no hope for him without magic—”
It seemed to pain Adalwulf greatly, having to deliver this message. I wondered which would win the war inside him, his duty to his fellow citizens or honoring our wishes to mourn in peace.
“Then where is his body?!” Padraig shouted. “Tell me that!”
“I do not know,” he replied quietly. “What I do know is that there is a man on the verge of madness rampaging through the grove at all hours of the day and night, kicking in doors and terrifying people.”
“Good!” Padraig snarled. “Let them tremble and faint from dread! Let them vomit with trepidation! Let the cowards piss down their legs and shit themselves in terror!”
The other man looked shocked, then glared at Uncle, angry and offended.
“Don’t you look at me like that,” Uncle growled. “Why should we care one whit for their panic? Did my fellow citizens offer Davis support even once? No! When Sebrina announced that she was going to beat him, they slunk away like dogs with their tails between their legs! When Davis lay suffering, did any of them come to offer him comfort?” His chest heaved with wrath, and Adalwulf could no longer meet his eyes.
“And now that he’s gone, has even one come to give my niece their condolences? Has even one priest offered to perform a funeral ritual for him? Has anyone lit a single candle or filled a measly cup of water? Has one prayer been spoken or an offering for him given to the gods?”
Adalwulf’s answering silence spoke volumes, and his challenging gaze dropped.
“That’s right. Nobody gave a damn about my family, but now that they are inconvenienced, I’m supposed to jump right up and fix their problem,” Padraig said, his voice now husky. “You go tell those selfish cowards that I don’t give a shit about them or their troubles. They made their beds. Now they can lie in them.”
Still looking down at his boots, Adalwulf gave a respectful nod and started out the door with his shoulders slumped.
“One more thing.”
He stopped, then turned around and faced Padraig once more. It took a great man to again face the one whose words had just flayed him to the bone. Uncle was right, and the expression on Adalwulf’s face said that he knew it.
“This house is in mourning,” said Padraig. His voice broke and tears slid down his cheeks, “and we would appreciate it if the rest of you would remember that.”