Someone has to die in order that the rest of us should value life more.
~ Virginia Woolf ~
I kept my vigil, hoping against hope that my cousin had seen his father’s signal and was on his way. Every time the slightest noise from outside reached my ears, my head snapped up and I focused on the door with the intensity of a hawk seeking prey.
Duncan did not come.
Minute by minute, hope turned into despair.
I pushed a cot over until it touched his and lay beside Charlie, holding his hand in mine, afraid to fall asleep. If this was all the time remaining to us, I wanted to experience every moment. If there was no preventing his death, I wanted to be present, to watch over and guard him, to meet whatever needs he would have, and to fully give myself to him the way he had always done for me.
Uncle Padraig’s earth elementalist nature came forth, something I had rarely seen. His was a quiet, comforting presence that kept me sane. He kept the house comfortable, warming the air that I kept flowing through the room as well as maintaining the fire in the hearth. He made soup. He fixed tea. He took care of Danica and me, as well as helping me care for Charlie. Uncle repositioned him on the cot in a way that I’d been unable to, bolstering him with pillows so he could get off his belly. Every few hours he put a drop of laudanum under his tongue to make sure he wasn’t hurting.
“I’m so sorry, Davis,” Uncle Padraig said. “I wish I could do more for you.” He looked at me with a pinched expression. “I’ve wished for the ability to heal only one other time in my life,” he said. He stroked the short, bristly hair on Charlie’s head – hair that was so short because I had wanted to cut it, even though I had no experience cutting a man’s hair. He’d been reluctant, but I had insisted on having my way, pointing out that he was my chosen and I should be the one to do such things for him. And as usual, he had given in to my wishes, trusting that I knew what I was doing.
Once again, I had plowed ahead with confident ignorance, never once second-guessing myself or giving the slightest consideration to how Charlie might feel if I messed up his hair. I’d botched the job so badly that Uncle had had to clip it nearly to the scalp. But he’d never said a negative word to me about it.
I wasn’t even finished knitting his hat.
Big, ugly sobs of regret welled up from deep inside me. Uncle came and sat beside on my cot, putting his arms around me. I buried my face in his chest to muffle my anguish. He rocked me gently even as his own chest hitched and tears ran down his face. I cried for a long time, pouring out the despair and heartache that I’d had to bottle up in order to care for Charlie all by myself.
I should never have brought him here.
I should have known that Sebrina would hate him and that Father would bow to her wishes like he always did.
I should have insisted that we leave after finding out that he had been attacked even once. There never should have been a second time.
Those matching scars on his back and chest where Darryn had run him through with a sword should not even be there, and Orion should have never had the opportunity to break his arm and ribs.
The flesh of my chosen – no, my love – should never have been flayed nearly to the bone, brutalized at the command of a spiteful, vindictive, pitiless woman.
Yet I could not lay the blame entirely at their feet, as much as I wanted to, for it was I who had allowed all of it to happen.
I had manipulated Charlie into accompanying me here, to my home, hundreds of miles away from his own. He’d even chosen me over his own family, in spite of his mother’s entreaties and her warning that druids were not to be trusted and that he would not be safe.
Concerned only with my own desires, I had flirted with and teased him, until he’d become so distracted that a group of thugs had surprised us and he’d ended up with a gunshot wound.
Focused on my crusade to change the grove’s policy on young men with magic, I had completely disregarded the difficulty of changing people’s minds after twenty years of a shadowy, secretive history.
Obsessed with having another dyad stand beside us, I had hounded Onóra to accept Wolfric. Then, when it was my influence that caused her to receive such abuse and humiliation from the ArchDruid, I all but demanded that Charlie help them escape.
Why had it been so hard for me to turn aside from that path? Did I really care about the fate of these people more than my own chosen? More than my own love? Why had I put them all above the one person who was supposed to mean more than anything to me – he who that the very gods had decided I should have, the one and only person they would ever choose for me?
What kind of person would do that?
Charlie had treated me with respect and kindness, had given me protection and advice, and had supported me and embraced my self-assigned task as his own. He had cherished me and loved me, repeatedly putting my needs before his own.
How could I have valued him so little?
“He’s suffered enough, Angie,” Padraig said, once the storm of my emotion had begun to subside. His voice broke; he swallowed a few times before he could continue. “Davis is a mighty warrior, and he has fought long and hard, but this is a battle he cannot win.”
“How will I live without him?” I wailed, falling to my knees beside Charlie’s cot and grabbing his hands. Pressing my face against them, I would have given anything to feel his fingers caress my cheek, just one last time.
“You don’t have to.” His voice was rough. “You hold him in your heart. You keep him there, so you can remember his courage, and his strength of spirit, his selflessness, and his love.
“If we keep him in our hearts, he can speak to us always, so that someday we will learn how to live like that, too.”
Uncle Padraig stroked my hair while I clung to Charlie like a woman drowning in a torrential flood. Nothing had changed in the grove. The older folk still buried their heads in the sand. The elementalist girls didn’t value their male peers. The boys without magic were still second-class citizens. Sebrina was still a tyrant and my father her puppet. My family was divided as surely as if an earthquake had split the ground, opening a chasm between us. I had failed in my undertaking.
Even if I’d been successful, it would have been an empty victory without Charlie by my side. I couldn’t heal the world all by myself.
I was losing my chosen.
I had sacrificed him for nothing.
Without him, I felt I had nothing left to live for.
“If I give Davis enough laudanum, it will ease—” Padraig’s voice broke and it was a moment before he could speak again, this time in a voice husky with pain and unshed tears. “He will slip quietly away, across the veil… to join his ancestors.”
He was right; my chosen had suffered greatly, and it was all my doing. My headstrong arrogance had led us to this place. My naïveté had put him in danger. My blind refusal to acknowledge the futility of my battle. My selfishness had subjected him to cruelty and physical torment.
And still I could not let him go.
“Please let’s wait until morning,” I begged Padraig.
He hesitated a moment, then nodded.
“Dawn would be a good time,” he said, but his expression made the words a lie.
There would never be a good time.
“I’d like to be alone with him,” I said.
Padraig nodded. “I’ll be upstairs if you need me.” He rose and crossed the room, then paused.
“If he departs before the dawn…” He swallowed, struggling to continue. “Please call for me. I’d like to be here in his… final moments.”
I nodded. “I will.”
After casting a long, emotion-laden look at my chosen’s inert form, he trudged up the steps with slumped shoulders and bowed head.
I lay down beside Charlie, staring at his face, intent on memorizing every aspect so that I would never forget.
* * *
Exhaustion finally overcame me and I slept, dreaming of that glorious Midsummer’s Night when everything had fallen into place for us. More vivid than waking memory, my mind recalled that moment when I had stepped out of the great hall in Ward to see the entire coven of witches making merry, eating and drinking and singing and dancing.
A man stood alone, strong and silent, silhouetted against the bonfire.
My chosen warrior.
I was standing before him without moving a muscle, magically transported as it so often happens in dreams. With his black hair shining in the setting sun and golden eyes reflecting the flames, his strong arms surrounded me and pulled me close, into that place where I had wanted to be for so long.
We joined the dance without saying a word. There was no need for words, for I could read the love in his eyes as plainly as words on a page. The music slowed as fiddle and cello sang out while our bodies slowly melded together, rocking in time with the slower rhythm. His arms were like steel but they held me with such gentleness, as though I were a delicate and priceless treasure. His breath was warm on my neck, lips brushing my skin so that an electric chill raced through me. He was perfect in every way, mighty when I needed protection, encouraging when I felt overwhelmed, hopeful when I despaired, tender when I needed comfort, inflamed when making love, and above all, as solid and dependable as the earth beneath my feet.
“I am yours for always,” he whispered. “Remember me.”
When I awoke the next morning, he was gone.