Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency.
We can’t be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest.
~ Maya Angelou ~
Some days later, Niall Ashcroft showed up at our door, and I watched with no small surprise as Uncle Padraig not only let him inside but also embraced him warmly.
Niall looked positively thunderstruck, which was understandable considering that their last encounter was when Charlie had been cut down from the whipping post. In spite of the fact that he was a privileged son of the Tetrarch, Sebrina’s group of sycophants, Niall had wept to see the beating that had been so ruthlessly administered to my chosen. He’d even risked the ArchDruid’s wrath by trying to help Charlie to his feet afterward. That was when Uncle had shoved him away, barking that he should get away, that he had no place there. Now I wondered if he had done so to protect Niall, rather than to shame him.
“Come on in, son,” he said. “You’ll catch your death of cold in this weather. Have a seat and I’ll fix you some tea.”
“Thank you, sir, but I don’t want to trouble you,” Niall replied, limping heavily as he crossed the threshold. “I only came to speak with Angelina a moment.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Uncle replied, dropping a tea ball into a mug and pouring steaming water over it. “You’re welcome in my home anytime. Have you eaten?”
Finding his voice at last, Niall said, “Yes, sir, but it was around midday.”
Uncle eyed him critically. “You look a mite peaked. I’ll fix us some beans and rice. You could use the iron.”
Indecision and disbelief warred on Niall’s face, but he nodded. “Thank you, sir. I appreciate your generosity.”
“It’s nothing.” Padraig shrugged.
Niall’s heroic actions, holding off Orion to allow Shekhar Patel to escape, followed by defending the gravely wounded Halle Starseeker and nearly losing his own life as a result, had clearly heightened his standing in my uncle’s eyes. After all, Danica could very well have been one of Orion’s victims, had Uncle not been with her that dreadful night. I considered Niall for a few moments, finally remembering how Charlie had decided to trust him, which meant that the son of the Tetrarch had been worthy in his eyes as well. Rising from my nest on the couch, I went to greet him.
Uncle Padraig was right. Nualla’s son stood on his own two feet, but that was the best that could be said of him. His naturally fair skin was almost as white as his platinum hair, telling a story of too much blood lost. Angry red scars dotted his forearms where Orion’s blade had managed to get past his guard, and he was missing two fingers on his left hand. A slash ran from the right side of his neck and across his chest, visible where the laces of his shirt were loose. An ugly, gnarled scar marred his handsome features, cutting through his left eyebrow, disappearing beneath the bandage over his left eye, and reappearing to carve a furrow in his cheek.
Even though I’d heard how badly he’d been hurt, it was shocking to see the damage with my own eyes. Taking his hands on mine and feeling the ridged scars there, it was a relief to feel the strength that remained in them. We’d been friends as children, and for a few years he’d been slated to be my chosen. I cared about him still.
All his life, he’d tried so hard to be the obedient son, the loyal druid, the good friend, the one who followed the rules and tried to do right. He’d endured having his magic taken away, had worked hard to master the sword and everything else asked of him, had gracefully accepted it when I rejected his amorous advances, and had even let go of his anger and resentment of the man who had replaced him as my chosen warrior. It made my heart ache.
“You shouldn’t be out in this cold,” I said. “Danica said you nearly died.” I led him to the chair by the fire, but even though the wound to his right thigh had to be painful, he didn’t sit.
“The cold doesn’t matter,” he said, swallowing hard. “I came to offer my condolences.”
Grief sliced through me like a knife. Though the pain was always present, at times it tired of mauling me and crawled back into its cave – until the next time it chose to attack. “Thank you,” I managed to say.
Niall shook his head. “Do not thank me. I did nothing to help either of you. I did nothing to stop… all this.” He looked down at his feet, clenching his fists.
“None of us did,” I said. “Me least of all.”
“Now, Angie…” Uncle began.
“No, don’t say it again. None of these horrible things would have come about if not for me. It is my fault and mine alone that my chosen died. I made the decision to seek him out. It was I who badgered him into coming here, and it was I who made him stay.”
This was when Uncle usually stated that Charlie was a warrior through-and-through, and that he’d chosen to remain of his own free will, but he respected my wishes and held his tongue.
“I am glad you did,” Niall replied. “I should not be, but I am.”
“I don’t understand,” I said. Had he come here to offer his condolences only to turn around and say how happy he was that Charlie was dead? Was it so important to Niall that I be bound to him?
“Remember all those books we read when we were kids? All those stories of dyads that went through trials and danger? The books always said those people were afraid, but I never really believed it.” He shook his head. “I thought that they were brave because they didn’t feel fear – at least, until Davis taught me otherwise. He showed me what true courage is. He was a good man, and I am privileged to have known him.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, boy,” Uncle said. “You’ve plenty of courage. You demonstrated that when you stood up to Darryn and Orion.”
He held up a hand. “Please, Master Padraig, allow me to finish. I’ve had a lot of time to think about since that night, and need to get this off my chest.”
Uncle gave him a nod of acquiescence. “Go on, then.”
“The whole time I’ve been confined to bed, all I’ve done is go over and over everything that’s happened since Davis came to the grove,” Niall continued. “At first I thought he was a fool for setting one foot within our borders, and then for refusing to back down even though we made things as difficult as we could for him. I became convinced he was a madman, until Mabon, when Onóra threw that huge fireball at you and he shielded you with his own body. It was then that I knew the truth – that he was fearless because of his love for you. That is when I began to consider him in a different light.”
He smiled ruefully. “It’s hard to hate someone else for loving the same person you do – especially when he is willing to risk his life for love and you are not.”
“Oh, Niall…” I placed my hand over his.
“After that I knew I was not meant to be your chosen,” he continued. “If I was, I wouldn’t have been so afraid all the time.”
“He wasn’t fearless,” I said. “He was terrified that day.”
“Terrified for you, perhaps. But not for himself.”
“I assure you, he was afraid many times. You just never felt the way his heart pounded in his chest, or all the times he woke from a nightmare after that happened,” I said. “He was scared during the Autumn Moon gathering. He was afraid that being made a master would infuriate Sebrina. He was worried someone would get hurt on the gunnery range. He was nervous about approaching Wolfric on Samhain, after we all watched him set the fields ablaze with magic he wasn’t even supposed to have. He feared someone would find out he was helping Wolfric and Onóra escape. And he was terrified when they tied him to the whipping post.”
“He couldn’t have been that afraid!” Niall snapped. “Davis never backed away from any of those things!”
“Were you afraid when Orion came at you with a sword in his hand?” Padraig asked, wandering in from the kitchen.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t,” Niall said. “But I’ve worked hard to master the sword. I train every day.”
Padraig nodded. “And how did you feel when you realized you had to face both Darryn and Orion?”
“I thought I might piss myself,” he muttered. Then, as if remembering I was present, added: “I beg your pardon.”
“There’s no need to apologize,” I said, feeling a rush of warmth for him.
Uncle nodded. “If you were that scared, why didn’t you run?”
Niall frowned and gave him a look that suggested he was being ridiculous. “And leave a healer defenseless?”
“Shekhar knows how to fight with a sword.”
“That may be so, but he is old!”
“Bah! Sixty-two isn’t so old.”
“It’s too old to fight two young men!” Niall protested. “Especially one who is insane! Have you seen Orion in a rage?”
“I have, and it is a fearsome sight. And still, you chose to face him.”
“Of course I did!”
“Even though you were afraid?”
The indignant look on Niall’s face faded away to one of comprehension.
“Being brave doesn’t mean you don’t feel fear, son. It means you don’t let that fear stop you from doing what you know is right. That’s what courage really is. So please believe me when I say you have it in spades.” Padraig clapped him on the shoulder. “So relax, sit by the fire, and put some food in your belly. You’ll feel better for it.”
Niall did as he was told, grimacing as he dropped onto the chair cushion without his usual grace, a hiss of pain escaping his lips.
“I’m sorry you were hurt,” I said. “Will your leg heal completely?”
“Danica and Shekhar both say that it will heal and that I won’t limp forever,” he said. “The rest of my scars, however…” His long, slender fingers brushed over the bandage on his left eye. “Some things even magic cannot repair.”
“I wish I could go back and change things.”
“I have chosen to believe that this fate was devised by the gods for some higher purpose that I do not yet comprehend,” he said.
“Is that…” I hesitated, the desire to respect his privacy warring with the need to know. “Is that how you have survived all this time? Is that how you stayed sane when your closest friends became consumed with the desire for magic?”
In that moment, I saw everything – the anguish, the despair, and the betrayal – reflected on his scarred face.
“Orion stopped believing in the Shining Ones when he was a child,” Niall replied. “He said that if there really were gods, no one could have taken away our magic. He mocked me for my faithful practice and later succumbed to despair, then grew mad from craving that which he could not have.”
“I think that for him, obtaining high status by being partnered with a powerful elementalist was the way to make up for lacking magic. How he railed against me when Davis arrived! He kept telling me I needed to ‘stand up for myself.’ I regret that I allowed him to talk me into taking actions I might not have otherwise.” Niall rubbed his face with both hands. “Onóra was just an object to him, a pawn to be used in the pursuit of his own power. He just could not understand why I was willing to let you go.”
Padraig brought us each a bowl of beans and rice before retiring to his own room. My appetite hadn’t improved, but I ate so that Niall would, too. If I did not eat, he might not either, and he needed the sustenance to heal his injuries. The silence between us gave me time to process the things he had said. Upon reflection, I felt grateful that Sebrina had wanted to partner me with Niall and not Darryn, for it easily could have gone the other way – especially since Betrys Darkmane worshipped the ground the ArchDruid walked on. Part of me wondered if Onóra had been moved to accept Wolfric because of her abhorrence of Darryn, rather than out of the genuine respect and desire that a dyad partnership deserved.
When he finished eating, I took both our bowls to the kitchen.
“I’d better return to Shekhar’s house before it gets too dark,” Niall said, gripping the armrests and rising awkwardly from his chair. “Will you thank Master Padraig for me?”
“Of course,” I said, walking him to the door. “Is it wise for you to walk so far?”
“He told me I needed to be up and about more,” Niall replied. “Besides, Charger is outside. He’s been remarkably gentle since the attack.” A shadow of a smile crossed his lips. “I think Shekhar told him to mind his manners.”
Indeed, the big black horse was munching hay in Padraig’s front yard. Charger raised his head and ambled over to Niall, who laid his hand on the horse’s forehead. I’d never seen the stallion so calm and thought it likely that the healer had told the stallion to look after his young master – just as I had done with Steel so many months ago when Charlie had been shot while saving our skins yet again.
“There is something more I would like to say to you,” Niall said, looking back at me. “If you wish it, I will honor my agreement to partner with you as we originally intended.”
I should have expected his offer, but it caught me off guard. My first reaction was to scream at him and throw him off our porch, but pain and grief caused the words to lodge in my throat. It was fortunate, for we had both suffered enough and should not be the cause of further injury to one another.
“And what of your own chosen, should you bind with me?”
“You… you know?”
“There were no secrets between my chosen and me.”
“I am a man of my word,” he said. “While I have received her fetch, I have not as yet accepted the bond.” He looked down at his hands, stroking the horse’s soft face. “Under the circumstances, she will understand, I think.”
Even if I could bear the thought of someone standing in Charlie’s stead, I could never steal away another elementalist’s chosen warrior, selected for her by the ancestors and the Shining Ones.
“No.” I shook my head. “You are as generous as you are brave, and I deeply appreciate your offer. But you have given up enough, Niall. Your chosen is an even greater gift than magic,” I said. “Accept that bond, for it is precious. Cherish it, and don’t ever let her go.”
The disappointment was heavy in his expression and I could tell he didn’t believe my words. Once again, he accepted rejection with grace and dignity, offering me the gesture of druid respect as he took his leave. Even though the decision had been mine, I felt a pang of loss as I watched him ride away, for I knew he would not ask again.
Maybe one day he would understand. Something like the bond between chosen could not be understood until it was experienced. Niall would not believe it if I told him, but I would give up every bit of magic I possessed – every spark of spirit, every drop of water, and every whisper of air, just to have Charlie Davis back again.
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This is the last one for today. See you again in about two weeks 🙂