We shall draw from the heart of suffering itself
the means of inspiration and survival.
~ Winston Churchill ~
I couldn’t sleep at all that night, tossing and turning with thoughts of hope and fear running through my mind. Once the house was quiet, I lay in bed trying to focus on the druidic bond between us, the bond between chosen. I hadn’t paid it much attention since I had returned from my journey north, with Charlie at my side.
As far as I knew, he himself had only used the druidic link a couple of times since then, both times finding me in the Willows. The first time was after some girls loyal to Sebrina had hacked off poor Onóra’s beautiful long black hair and I’d found her running away from the Elementalists’ Third. The second time was after the worst fight we’d ever had, and all because I had wanted to go with him to deliver the supplies that Wolfric and Onóra so desperately needed if they were to succeed in leaving the grove.
My insistence on going with him, on having my way instead of trusting him, had made a tense situation worse. And when my logical arguments failed, I had used emotion, insinuating that he didn’t want me along because his true intent was to run away with Wolfric.
Remembering his expression of disbelief and the naked hurt in his eyes made me ache with guilt. His pain had quickly shifted to anger, and rightly so, for how could I even think such a thing after all we’d been through, much less say it?
“If that is what you truly think of me, then perhaps I should,” Charlie replied, his amber eyes lit with the fire of anger. He stalked out of our house, slinging the pack of supplies over his shoulders.
I ran after him, tripping over the cobblestone walk, and I’d have fallen if he hadn’t grabbed my arm. Even though he was in a fury, he had stopped in his tracks to make sure harm didn’t come to me.
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” I cried. “I didn’t mean it!”
He released my arm as though I was an acid that burned.
“Yeah, you did,” he said. “Don’t bother waiting up.”
He put his foot in the stirrup and absolute terror shot through my body like lightning. “You promised you would never leave!”
He turned to face me again. “Yes, but now I know how you really feel.”
“Don’t say that!” I shrieked.
And then I slapped him. I had slapped him in the face and called him a liar and a coward. Even after all that, he had returned to me, finding me in the Willows once again, crying hysterically like a little girl. Stubborn and childish to the end, I told him to go away.
“I’m not leaving,” Charlie said.
“You said you were, so just go.”
“I only said that to make sure you didn’t follow me.”
She sat up, green eyes glossy with tears, her face swollen and blotchy. Distrust warred with hope in her eyes.
“I’m not leaving,” he said again, and with the most tender of touches, brushed the hair out of my face. I threw my arms around his neck and began sobbing all over again, and he just held me until it was over.
“You seemed so sincere,” I whispered. “Do you want to leave?”
“It’s not that simple anymore.”
“Yes, it is! We can gather our things and be gone by morning. We can take Duncan and they’ll never find us.”
My cousin had been sitting among the Willows when I’d burst through the trailing branches, collapsing dramatically at the foot of the biggest tree. He had stayed, offering comfort that I’d refused to accept.
“You can’t ask him to leave if he’s not ready,” Charlie replied. “That’s not fair.”
“Nothing will ever change,” I said bitterly. “So what’s worth staying here for?”
Selfish to the end, I looked at Duncan and said, “Your chosen can find you anywhere. There’s no reason not to go.”
But my chosen wouldn’t allow that. He was too good, too kind.
“You can’t browbeat him into it. It isn’t fair, and it isn’t right.”
I slumped against him in defeat. “I still want to leave.”
He shifted and there was a new tension in his body. “Right now might not be the best time,” he said.
“If they’ll be out looking for Onóra, it’s the best time,” I insisted.
“They’re not looking for her anymore,” he said.
“What? Why not?”
“Because they’re looking for you now.”
Realization dawned and I turned to my cousin. “Are you concealing my presence here?”
“Does Padraig know?” I asked.
He shook his head.
“See?” she said. “It’s the perfect time to go!”
“I’m not leaving you,” Charlie said again. “Besides, we’re not ready. We have no food, no supplies. Wolfric has my Travel pack. I even gave him my fishing pole.”
“Why did you do that?”
He smiled gently and kissed her forehead. “Because we still have a cause to champion and a point to make.”
“I don’t care about that anymore! All I want to do is get away from here!”
“Angie, think about it. They hunted for Onóra for three days. How much harder would they search for you?” He shook his head. “Before we make a move, we have to be prepared to run and travel fast. There won’t be any time to hunt or fish. We’ll barely get to sleep.”
He was right. On our journey from his home in Jonesboro to the grove, we had been relentlessly hounded by bandits and thieves and gods knew what else. I’d had little sleep and Charlie had gotten even less. If we hadn’t had travel rations, we’d have dropped in our tracks long before arriving in Searcy.
“Let’s just bide our time and finish training,” he continued. “You are a role model for the other girls. Do you really want to abandon them now?”
“If it means the slightest chance of losing you, I would abandon the gods themselves,” I said.
“Angie! You don’t mean that.”
“Oh, I mean it. Here we are struggling as hard as we can and they aren’t helping at all! If they’re not going to help me, why do I need them?”
Duncan spoke, his voice soft. “They are always helping.”
“He’s right. Just because you don’t see big magic and lightning bolts from the sky doesn’t mean they’re not helping. Look at all the things that have gone right. Duncan’s birth parents let him keep his magic. Wolfric’s parents did the same. Onóra had the courage to claim him in public. Her mother openly resists Sebrina’s policies; so does Padraig. If those things are not the work of the gods, what are they?”
I wasn’t having any of it. “Those are only small things.”
“You know what my father would have said about that? He’d say ‘Small strokes fell great oaks’. People are noticing, Angie. Wolfric leaving has made people wonder if all the young ones will go. I could see it in the faces of the caretakers in the winter cellar.”
“I still want to leave.”
“Wherever you go, I will be there with you,” I said. “But I’m not running away only to watch you die of starvation or exposure. We have to prepare. We have to be ready.”
Less than two hours later, I watched my chosen allow himself to be tied to a whipping post and the skin on his back ripped to shreds while we both screamed.
I should never have let him talk me out of leaving.
Not only that, but I should have encouraged him to run. I’d been so afraid of losing him that it never even occurred to me to send him away. On horseback, he could have easily made it to Lone Oak in just a few days. The folk there would have taken him in, especially Chasity. All I would have had to do is wait until the grove quieted down a bit and then slip away in the dark one night.
It would have been so easy. Why had I not thought of it?
It’s water under the bridge, Charlie would have said. Don’t beat yourself up about it.
I pushed the recriminating thoughts away and focused on the bond for what felt like hours but felt nothing. It was discouraging even though I knew it only worked over short distances. I told myself that if my chosen was too far away to feel him through our bond, then he was well beyond Sebrina’s reach and therefore safe.
The warmth of the oath mark was all I had. I traced the silvery line across my palm. It was such a small thing to pin my hopes on, but as long as the scar was warm, my chosen was alive.
“Small strokes fell great oaks,” I whispered to myself, running my fingertip over the scar again and again.
Maybe we didn’t need to create a tempest in a teacup to wake up the druids of White Oak Grove and make them pay attention. Maybe we just needed a few innocent-looking events that were certain to yank the ArchDruid’s chain. After all, she’d crashed the Autumn Moon party, bringing half the masters and her entire Tetrarch to scatter a bunch of magically neutered boys and some rebellious elementalist girls.
Small strokes fell great oaks.
The violent strokes of a whip had been enough to bring my great oak to his knees, I thought bitterly. He may not be dead, but he was gone. Everybody else thought he was dead so he might as well have been.
And then it hit me.
Charlie hadn’t been given proper funeral rites.
Father hadn’t found a body and had only halted his search a day or so ago. The grove had been in such an uproar that I wasn’t even sure if any of the earth druids murdered by Darryn and Orion had been buried. Even if they’d already been interred and rituals performed for them, there was still one more to do – that of my chosen.
There was no body to bury, but holding a memorial service for him would not be amiss at this point. In addition, it was one “small stroke” that could lead to the eventual fall of the ArchDruid. A celebration honoring my chosen, the hated Outsider, would aggravate Sebrina if not enrage her.
It might seem a bit disrespectful to use a loved one’s funeral as a political maneuver, but as Charlie wasn’t really dead I didn’t see the harm in it. In fact, I knew he would appreciate the cunning use of it to needle the ArchDruid and foment rebellion.
I spent the rest of the night planning until sleep claimed me.