One of the things that happens to people in grief is they secretly think they’re crazy, because they realize they are thinking things that don’t make sense.
~ Joan Didion ~
Danica came to visit sometime after my father began ransacking the grove. I didn’t know exactly when, for that which society called a day had ceased to hold any meaning for me. My sleeping and waking hours had lost all connection to whether the sun was in the sky or if the world lay in darkness. All my days were alike, passing by in an endless stream of heartache, guilt, fear, rage, and despair. The sofa in my uncle’s house had become my island in a sea of storms, my place of protection and comfort among thick blankets.
Truly, it could only have been love that motivated her to do so, for neither Uncle nor I were pleasant company. He was either taciturn or short-tempered, and my emotions cycled through weeping, hoping Charlie was alive, wishing my father would find his body so there would be a resolution to this uncertainty, and begging the gods to intervene on my behalf. There were also times when, no longer able to stand the uncertainty, I threatened to murder Sebrina because she was a soulless tyrant, or kill myself because I was a foul and loathsome creature who did not deserve to draw another breath for allowing harm to befall my beloved.
I considered myself a lunatic and wondered if perhaps I was experiencing the kind of madness that Orion had. It should have been a terrifying thought, but it seemed as though anything would be preferable to this maelstrom of emotional upheaval. Thus, feeling myself to be unstable and irrational, I tried not to speak at all and spent the hours sleeping, crying, or staring into the flames of Padraig’s hearth. Like as not I massaged the oath mark on my left palm; it was rapidly becoming a compulsion.
My uncle cared for me with all the attentiveness of a parent for a sick child, fluffing my pillows and straightening my blankets several times a day. He made me soup and green tea, hovering about until I emptied the bowl or mug of whichever he’d brought. Our lives were dictated by the tides of grief and misery that swept over us at irregular intervals.
Padraig welcomed Danica inside and invited her to sit at the kitchen table, where he’d been whittling. After repairing the damage I had caused to her house, he had brought a fallen oak branch home. The next day he had started carving it, continuing for every day thereafter, shaping it into what future purpose I did not know. He didn’t talk about it and I didn’t ask; it was just something to keep the raw, blinding light of grief away.
Sorrow wasn’t grey and gloomy like the poets said. It was a glaring light that stripped the world of all beauty and joy, that revealed all its ugliness, and from which I could not look away, no matter how much it hurt my eyes.
“I know you don’t want to talk about it, but this situation with your brother needs to be addressed,” Danica said without preamble.
“Not by me,” he said. “Would you like some coffee?”
“I didn’t come here for coffee. I came to talk to you about Liam.”
Mention of my father’s name drew my attention. Uncle glanced over at me and continued pouring the coffee. Taking his time, he added sugar and cream before setting it before her.
“I’ve already hashed this out with Adalwulf Rask.” He returned to his chair and picked up the stick and his whittling knife.
Always considerate and delicate of expression, Danica pressed him:
“Do you not think you should do something?”
“I’m sure our honored ArchDruid has things well in hand.”
“I see.” She cocked her head at him. “Do you often whittle in the house?”
“I do when it’s cold out.”
Danica raised an eyebrow. “You are a fire druid.”
“I still get cold. Besides, it’s my house, I can mess it up if I want to.”
She looked down at her hands, obviously disheartened by his gruff tone, but did not give up. “What are you making?”
“I thought only wizards used staves,” she said with a light tone and teasing smile. If she hadn’t mentioned the wild uproar Father was causing, he might have been more receptive. As it was, Padraig was having none of her efforts to lighten his mood.
“It’s a traveling staff.”
“Are you planning a trip?”
“You know I am.”
Her expression sobered. “Is that why you won’t try to stop Liam? Because you want to abandon the grove and this will make people hate him?”
Apparently, the earth druid had decided that having her say was worth risking my uncle’s temper, and this I could not understand. Was it possible that she, too, was unaware of his feelings of uncertainty and loss where Duncan was concerned? They had been lovers for well over three years now, so how could she be?
“I couldn’t care less who Liam is terrorizing,” he replied. “In all likelihood, they deserve it.”
I couldn’t blame Padraig for his indifference, being barely capable of civility myself. In a way, he was embroiled in a process similar to mine. I had lost my chosen, either to fate or to death, the facts unknown to me. My cousin was lost because of politics and antipathy, under equally mysterious circumstances. It was quite possible that Sebrina had done away with Duncan as well, something I could not bear to think on for long.
“Not everyone in the grove bears guilt for what happened to Davis,” Danica said.
“Yes, they do. And so do we.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“We’re all guilty – you, me, Liam, and especially those people who disagree with Sebrina but say nothing against her and allow her evil to continue uncontested.”
“You forgot to mention me,” I said, rising and joining them at the table. “He wouldn’t even have been here if I hadn’t brought him. Sebrina warned me against seeking him out, but I did it anyway.”
Uncle gave me a look of pity and compassion but did not contradict me. Above all things, we Everlights are honest – about our faults as well as our virtues. I hated seeing the pain in his eyes, but just knowing that someone else had loved Charlie Davis and missed him brought me an unexpected comfort.
Until a crystal-clear memory of a copper-skinned, raven-haired woman and her tall, golden-eyed husband arose in my mind.
Someone else had loved Charlie – his parents.
Their son was missing or dead, and Charles and Nita had no idea.
“Oh, gods,” I whispered aloud.
Danica and Padraig exchanged a worried look, but I barely noticed, my mind was such a tempest. I couldn’t escape the memory of his mother’s face – not her anger or indignation, but the fear in her eyes.
”Do you know what you’ve agreed to?!” Charlie’s mother had said to him. “Do you realize this is your life?”
I remembered the scene, almost as though I were reliving it: the warm, cozy kitchen, the smell of baked chicken and polenta cakes, the angry sounds of mother and son shouting at one another.
“Sometimes when people are hurt, they make foolish decisions, and foolish vows. When they heal, they move on,” I said, as though I possessed years of wisdom instead of being a foolish twenty-year-old determined to have her own way.
“Foolish vows like becoming the chosen of a druid,” Nita snapped.
“And what would you know about it?”
“More than you know.”
“Perhaps you’d care to enlighten me.”
His mother just stood there, glaring silently at me for a long moment before turning back to Charlie.
“Son… Don’t do this. Travel if you want, go where you please. Come home whenever you want, I’ll stop giving you grief over how you live your life… But please, do not go with this girl.”
“Why not?” he asked.
She licked her lips, showing the first sign of uncertainty, and I rejoiced. I was winning and he would be mine!
“I can’t tell you,” she said, desperation in her voice. “But you must trust me in this. If you go with her, your life will no longer be your own, and you will be in danger every moment.”
“I’m in danger every time I step out on the road,” he said.
“Not like this,” Nita replied. The pulse pounded in her neck, her hands shook, and there was trepidation in her eyes.
It hadn’t been mere apprehension or worry about the future, as I’d thought at the time. It had been fear in her eyes, because she’d known. Somehow, his mother had known what would happen to him if he came with me. The pieces started to fall into place:
Charlie’s latent earth magic, which we assumed had been blocked.
His mother, terrified that he had not only met a druid girl, but was going to be her chosen.
What if Charles and Nita had been among those druids who had departed the grove twenty years ago when Sebrina came into power? Mightn’t they have fled so that her son would not be denied his gods-given elemental ability?
I must have been her worst nightmare.
Uncle shifted in his chair. “Angie…?”
“His parents. They don’t know,” I somehow choked out. The rest came out in a torrent: “His mother was furious when she found out he was coming with me, and do you know what I said to her? I told her that what she wanted didn’t matter.” There was a sharp ache in my chest and I struggled to catch my breath.
“I told his mother that the fate of her only child was not her concern!” I cried. “What kind of person would do that?”
Danica covered her mouth with both hands. Uncle’s expression turned to one of dismay. In his eyes I could see the dread of having to tell someone’s parents that their precious son – their only child – was dead, and not only that, but that he had first been beaten and then poisoned. That he’d been tortured.
How could I face them to give them the news?
How could I not?
Gods help them.
Gods help me, too – because I was the one responsible.
* * *
Danica left shortly afterward. My uncle shut the door firmly and I turned away with an aching chest and weak knees. I made it most of the way to the living room before all strength left my legs. Padraig caught me before I fell and helped me sink down onto the sofa.
“You need to eat something,” he said, handing me a fresh handkerchief. I’d been through a dozen, it seemed like. How many handkerchiefs did one bachelor druid own? He got me wrapped in a blanket and settled by a gentle fire that was entirely green. He put a mug of apple cider in my hand and encouraged me to drink some, while he started soup in the kitchen. I didn’t give a damn about soup, cider, eating, or even breathing.
“Why do people always make soup when other people are sick or sad?” I asked when he brought me a bowl. It wasn’t even soup, really. Just broth.
He sat in the chair across from me, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees and his fingers linked. “You haven’t eaten much over the past few days,” he said. “It’ll be easier on your stomach.”
My stomach was tied up in knots that no amount of soup would settle. I needed to know what had happened to Charlie. I told myself that I could accept it if he was dead; I just needed to know. And his parents – they needed to know, and I had to be the one to tell them. But how could I tell them what I did not know myself?
“I’ll get sick if I eat at all,” I said. Putting his hands gently around mine, Padraig stopped me from putting the bowl down.
“Please eat something. Please.” He paused. “I know it’s hard, not knowing. Even harder than… burying him. But, if Davis has indeed gone to join the ancestors… he would not want you to follow.”
If? Was Padraig also uncertain of Charlie’s fate?
“What are you saying?”
“No, no… Just… just never mind.” He released my hands and sat back. “I should not have said anything.”
“You don’t believe he’s dead.”
“No. That’s not…” Padraig shook his head. “I think it very likely that he is dead.”
“Very likely is not the same as certain, Uncle.”
“I should not give you false hope just because I have been entertaining the faint belief that he might be alive.”
“Do you think it’s possible that Duncan might have…?”
Padraig bent his head, rubbing his face with his hands and running his fingers through his hair before meeting my gaze again.
“I felt him after my fight with Liam. Just for an instant.”
I stared at him, barely able to comprehend the words.
“He was there?”
“I don’t know for certain, but I think he might have been.” He sighed, looking defeated. “If he was there, he was witness to the shame of seeing his family trying to tear each other apart in the street.”
“Is that why you told Father he wouldn’t return?”
He nodded. “It felt like a farewell.”
“I didn’t know earth druids could communicate like that.”
“Most can’t. Almost all earth elementalists can perform a seeking, and some can even estimate numbers.”
Charlie could count people through the earth, I thought. It made me even more sick at heart, knowing that he would never know or enjoy his gift from the gods. He would have been a fine earth elementalist, a healer like Duncan. His magic would have perfectly complimented my own.
“Sometimes, when earth elementalists are close, as family or even friends, they can ‘see’ a certain person’s identity,” Padraig was saying. “Because Duncan’s magic is so strong and because of the bond we developed as father and son, over the years I’ve learned to ‘read’ what he’s sending.”
“He can send his thoughts to you?”
Padraig shook his head. “More like… feelings.” He rose and went to the kitchen, fixing a bowl of broth for himself. “Anyway, I shouldn’t assume that his brief presence is related to Davis’ absence. Nor should you.”
I rubbed the still-warm oath mark on my left palm and could not help but make the connection.
Seating himself once more, Uncle stirred his own broth but did not take a bite. “Duncan probably only just returned in response to my call. After that, I imagine it didn’t take long for him to get the gist of the situation. It’s no wonder he chose to leave and not come back.”
Maybe my cousin had come back to tell us that my chosen was still alive. Or maybe he’d come back to tell us that he had tried to save Charlie and had failed. What if, after seeing his family screeching and scuffling in the street, Duncan had decided we didn’t deserve to know the truth?
It was not like my cousin to be vindictive. Then again, it was also unlike him to lose his temper, and he’d done that several times in the past few months. His feelings for Charlie had always been at the heart of it, proving that even an earth druid could be rash and emotional at times.
I caressed the oath mark once again, stimulating its warmth.
I didn’t know what to believe, but a tiny, ever-so-fragile seed of hope opened up inside, and in spite of the blistering light of grief and the drought in my spirit, it took root. That tiny, fragile tendril of hope brought me a solace that nothing else could.
Until I knew for certain that Charlie was dead, until I saw his lifeless body, I would choose to believe that he was alive.
I had to.