Chapter 18 – Guilt

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?”

“His chosen.”

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?”

Duncan nodded.

“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.

 

 

 

 

 

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Chapter 17 – Bitter Pill

Note:  For those who have already read Chapter 16, the last few paragraphs of it were cut, rewritten, and moved to Chapter 17 for a little better flow and continuity. Work in progress!

~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ *~

History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived,
but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.
~ Maya Angelou ~

“What happened to Dragana?” I asked in a near whisper.

“She went running to Padraig for help. Why, I don’t know, because he can’t heal.”

Because he was her chosen, I thought. Because you seek the one you trust the most when you’re in trouble.

“Dragana died screaming in agony, and he couldn’t even touch her because the flames were too hot.”

“But… but he’s a fire druid,” I said, fighting back tears. “No other druid’s elemental fire can harm him.”

“No other druid’s fire should be able to burn him, but it did,” Father said, “I can only assume that the augmentations somehow potentiated whatever elements were given to the children.”

Poor Padraig. He was brave, righteous, loyal, and honest to a fault, and his chosen had deceived him.

“What happened after that?” I asked, wanting to move past this nightmare event in my family’s history.

“The political fallout was disastrous,” Father said. “The blame for all the augmentation-related deaths was laid at Connor’s feet. He was ousted as ArchDruid and exiled as well. Sebrina was voted in as our new leader, and the decision was made to take magic away from all the boys from that moment forth. We just couldn’t risk any more lives.”

I wanted to be disgusted. I really did. I wanted to argue that if the gods had seen fit to allow the augmentation of babies, then perhaps it should have been left in their hands. Or that maybe Sebrina and the council should have devoted the time and effort to finding out whether any of them truly were augmented.

Except that I understood that a community living in fear of annihilation by an overwhelming enemy would be terrified of losing anyone else who could help protect them, including the next generation. They had acted rashly, motivated by that fear.

“Why alter them still?” I asked. “Surely the danger had passed.”

“Because there are no guarantees, or so Sebrina likes to say. No one in my generation has forgotten that augmenting an unborn child is possible. Some may still know how it was done.”

“Surely no one has forgotten what a catastrophe it was!” I said. “Why not trust people to do what they know is right?”

“Once it was started, it was impossible to stop,” Father replied. “And Sebrina is not a trusting soul.”

Unscrupulous people rarely are, I thought.

“We’ve condemned an entire generation to irreparable damage,” he finished.

“Yes, now we have boys with warped minds instead of warped bodies,” I said.

“Their minds aren’t warped.”

“Orion’s is. Was. So was Darryn’s,” I said. “I don’t know how Niall escaped it, but I can name several others in the Warriors’ Third whose sanity is a bit precarious.”

“What’s done is done,” Father replied. “It’s all damage control from here on out.”

“Maybe so, but is continuing with a questionable course of action justified?”

“Whether it is or not, I no longer have a say in the matter.”

“We all have a say in the matter,” I responded. “Or at least we should.” A thought popped into my head, something so un-radical and so appropriate to our democratic druid society that it had never occurred to me to try.

“What if we did?”

“What do you mean?”

“What if we took a vote?”

“Even if you did, Sebrina would claim fraud and accuse you of manipulating the votes cast.”

“Not if she held the vote.”

“She’s not likely to do such a thing.”

“Right,” I replied. “It wouldn’t surprise me if altering them was a condition of her treaty with the ‘Ville.”

His gaze grew sharp. “What do you know about that?”

“Only what Davis told me after returning from his little trip with Niall and Darryn,” I said. “He said the bandits accused them of breaking the treaty by encroaching on their territory. He thought the treaty was why druid dyads weren’t out healing the earth or defending the neighboring towns anymore.” I paused. “He also said the bandits knew that Niall and Darryn didn’t have magic – that everyone knew our boys didn’t have magic.”

“That was not supposed to become common knowledge,” Father said, anger glinting in his eyes. “All the ‘Ville has to do is wait until my generation is old and they’ll own this grove.”

I nodded. “That’s what Davis said, too. ‘Once Liam’s generation is too old to fight, who will defend the grove?’ ”

“Something tells me I will come to regret the loss of your chosen more than I already do,” Father said, looking grim.

“Maybe we can use that.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Maybe we can use the future vulnerability of the grove to force Sebrina to allow a vote.”

“Allowing a vote to stop the alteration would be tantamount to admitting it was a mistake in the first place,” he replied.

“Not if we expressly point out that the old danger is past and has been replaced by a new one,” I insisted. “Sebrina might give in if enough people demanded it.”

Drumming his fingers on the table, Father pondered my words.

“It would also give us an idea of how many people will leave with us when we go,” I said, knowing he would not agree.

“Let’s not count our chickens before they hatch,” he said. “We’re not packing our bags just yet.”

It sounded like something Charlie would say – or his father, who had passed on a good many such proverbs on to his son.

Regardless of his thoughts on the matter, I knew that nothing would change at White Oak Grove. Sebrina liked holding power and enjoyed lording it over people even more. The general populace was too afraid of rocking the boat and suffering the consequences.

“However…” Father stopped, tapping his fingers on the table again.

“What?”

“We could ask for a vote to reinstate the druid council.”

There hadn’t been a council since Sebrina had taken office. She had disbanded the existing council – the one that had exiled Connor Shitozaki – and had installed her own supporters, creating the Tetrarch.

“I don’t see how that will help.”

“It’ll help if we have people sympathetic to our cause on it. A motion to vote on whether or not to continue altering boys would seem more legitimate coming from a council member.”

“And if this new council refuses to allow the vote?”

“Then we’ll know where we stand.”

“I already know where we stand,” I said, annoyed. “So does Padraig.”

More politics. I was sick to death of politics. Why couldn’t we just go back to the way things had been after the Rebirth? According to the history we’d been taught, the grove had been established in a spirit of unity and cooperation, with peoples of many faiths and backgrounds participating. If so many different people had come together to create a grove, why couldn’t we come together to save it?

“I have wronged him greatly,” Father said, breaking the silence. “I should have known it wasn’t Padraig who instilled Dragana’s child with elemental fire.”

“It sounds like you were in the middle of confusing and turbulent times,” I said.

“That doesn’t excuse me from forming such an ill opinion of my own brother.”

“It may have been unkind of you to have assumed such a thing, but at least you never accused him directly. That would have been worse, I think.”

“I’ll never be able to make amends,” Father said. “To him or anyone else, I fear.”

Never in my entire life had my father revealed such vulnerability to me. I always thought he never cared what anyone thought about his actions; that he acted out of conscience and his personal morals

“Gods know I’ve done my best to do what was right, but somehow all those decisions took us further down wrong paths.” He sighed. “I should never have agreed to be First Warrior.”

I placed my hand over his. “Maybe you could have done some things better,” I said. “But the fact of the matter is that Sebrina acted out of fear and the rest of the grove was looking for someone to save them. Things would have been much worse if you hadn’t been First Warrior.”

“How do you figure?”

“It was your idea to create the Warriors’ Third and start formally training the boys to fight. Sebrina may have taken away their magic, but you gave them a new purpose.”

“I couldn’t allow them to be defenseless.”

“It was also your idea for them to learn how to shoot, and for the blacksmiths to make shotguns.”

“It wasn’t enough.”

“You took me north so I could find my chosen.”

“And look how that turned out.”

Around the lump in my throat, I said, “I don’t regret finding him and I never will. In spite of what’s happened, my life is infinitely better for having him in it.”

Father nodded. “It seems we never have enough time with the ones we love.” He rubbed his palm, which was still bandaged but no longer bloody from where he had severed the oath that had bound him to Sebrina.

“Does it still hurt?” I asked.

He shook his head. “No. It’s cold, like I’m holding a sliver of ice.”

I touched my own palm where the oath mark was still warm.

“Does the mark always feel cold like that when the oath is broken?” I asked.

“Such oaths are not often made, but yes. Their warmth is derived from the binding magic.”

“We’ll both get used to it eventually,” he said, compassion in his eyes.

“I suppose we will,” I replied, lowering my eyes so he could not see my true feeling – elation. A rush of joy and optimism filled my heart to overflowing and soon my eyes were, too. These were not tears of sadness, however, but of relief and sheer gratitude.

His severed bond was cold, but mine was not. The person to whom he had been linked was alive, and even so the mark had gone cold when the oath was broken. The silvery mark on my palm was still warm, which could only mean the magic of the oath was alive and well. Therefore, the one to whom I was bound was also alive. Combined with Duncan’s continued absence, it could only mean one thing.

Charlie Davis was alive.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 16 – Secrets Revealed

 

Believe me, every heart has its secret sorrows, which the world knows not,
and oftentimes we call a man
 cold, when he is only sad.
~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow ~

The only thing that gave me any relief at all was crying, but it also left me feeling wrung out and exhausted. It also made me feel like that I was betraying Charlie somehow by grieving for him when he might still be alive. This left me hoping against all odds that he yet lived, which turned into an aching loss because I missed him so much. That resulted in yet more tears and sobbing, starting the cycle anew. It was like a dead limb that still hurt after being amputated, a phantom pain that could never be soothed.

I had only my family to turn to for comfort, and while Uncle Padraig had been my rock, he wasn’t the father I craved. He knew it, too, but he still tried to fill that vacant position for my sake. No doubt Father was still tearing the grove apart in his fruitless search for my chosen’s body. Even the times he was present, he was distant and distracted. Understanding his need to act warred with resentment of his absence. I didn’t care what he needed, and in my more bitter moments, I felt that I’d be done grieving by the time he became available to lend me a shoulder on which to cry.

It shouldn’t have been a surprise. After my mother’s death, he’d taken similar action, giving me over to Sebrina to raise alongside her own son. It was as though the elements of spirit and air so thoroughly ruled his actions through motivation and logic that water, the element that governed emotion, had no influence at all.

“The stories of Liam breaking into everyone’s house are wildly exaggerated,” said Arrie Stoddard, breaking through my ruminations. She had stopped by to bring coffee and muffins, and Uncle had gone out – to visit Danica, I assumed. It was good that he had her to comfort him.

“After all,” she continued, “he hasn’t been to my house. Nor has he been to Nioba’s, or Heracles, or Adalwulf and Eireanne’s. I could go on, but you know who your allies are.”

My allies hadn’t been very helpful in preventing Charlie’s beating, but then again, I hadn’t started throwing lightning bolts around, either. We’d all been guilty of the same thinking: that he’d be whipped and then healed in twenty-four hours. It was unconscionable that I had allowed such a thing to happen at all. I pulled my mind away from that line of thinking before the tears came again, rubbing the oath mark on my left palm. Touching it shouldn’t have been such a comfort, but it was.

“According to Adalwulf and everyone else who has stopped by, Father has been on a quite a tear.”

“He has kicked in a few doors,” Arrie allowed. “But that was just when people wouldn’t let him in.” Her smile was tight and her green eyes glittered.

There wasn’t much difference in having your door forcibly opened and in opening it because you were afraid. This was not characteristic of our family; the Everlights were protectors, not tyrants. Regardless of my father’s intentions and motivations, it didn’t seem like the right course of action. Even Sebrina had never endorsed such extreme actions. It was like the disappearance of my chosen’s body had sent Father into some kind of insane fury.

Or perhaps something had happened to my father during his fight with Uncle Padraig. Maybe it was the realization that he had tried to kill his brother, or the fact that in failing to protect Charlie he had allowed me to be hurt, or maybe it was simply the old echoes of losing his own chosen. Whatever the catalyst, people seemed to think him quite mad.

Obviously, it was a fruitless search. If he had found sign that anyone within the grove had taken Charlie’s body, or if one person in White Oak Grove had admitted to seeing or knowing about the plot to steal him away, he would have come to tell me. Besides, if Duncan had arrived in time to heal Charlie enough to get him out of the grove, there would be nothing for Father to find. His failure was comforting, in a way.

Summoning the energy to put on my boots and cloak, I trudged through the snow to my childhood home, arriving at sunset. Arrie came with me to the house and then departed to give us privacy. I knew why Padraig had asked her to stay with me, but I wasn’t suicidal. Not anymore. How could I possibly want to kill myself when I still didn’t believe that my chosen was dead? In spite of that, I hadn’t gone to my own home. While Charlie and I had only lived there a few months, I’d never spent any time there alone and was unable to face the emptiness. What I needed was my family, and while Padraig was so good to me, he wasn’t my father.

Father opened the door, surprise on his face.

“Angie?”

“May I come in?”

“You never need ask that,” he said. “This is your home.” I was enfolded by the familiar and loving arms that had held me safe, protected me, and that had comforted my hurts when I was a little girl. This time, however, I had suffered a hurt that might never be healed.

“I have failed you, daughter.” There was a tremor in his deep voice that I had never heard before. “I only hope that someday you will be able to forgive me.”

“You didn’t fail,” I said. “I did.”

“That’s not true,” he said, leading me inside and closing the door. “You were right. I failed you, and I failed your chosen.”

“You told me not to seek him out and I refused to listen. You told me not to bring him here and I did anyway,” I said, feeling dead inside. “The fault is entirely my own.”

“No. I should have stood beside you. A good father would have supported and encouraged you.” He paused, taking a deep breath. “A good father would never have put another in front of his own daughter.”

“You swore an oath,” I said. “We are druids and we hold to our oaths.”

Charlie Davis certainly had, and no one was to blame for that but me.

Father shook his head. “No oath should come before family, and none ever will again.”

*  *  *

Father and I were sitting in Uncle Padraig’s kitchen when he came home. The hurt in his eyes was unmistakable, so I rose put my arms around him. He had been there for me when my father had not, and I didn’t want him to think he was unappreciated, or easily replaced.

“Will you sit with us?” I asked, holding his hands in mine.

He gave Father a hard look.

“That depends,” he said. “Are you finished ransacking the grove?”

“Aye,” Father replied. “It was a fool’s errand.”

“It was without me to help you,” Uncle grumped, relenting. He heated an iron kettle in the palm of his hand and began to make coffee. His willingness to forgive and forget my father’s transgressions never ceased to amaze me. Perhaps it was because he was the younger brother, but considering that fire was his primary element, it could not have been without effort. It must have been the peaceable influence of elemental earth.

Thinking of earth magic reminded me of Charlie, as that would have been – no, it was his element. Wondering if I would ever see him use it, I massaged the oath mark with my thumb. It was still warm.

“You’re going to rub a hole in your hand if you keep that up,” Uncle said, giving me a knowing look that warned against telling Father our suspicions. He would only admonish Padraig for giving me hope and entreat me into accepting the death of my chosen.

“It’s just so hard to get used to,” I said, tucking my hands beneath the table.

My father placed his hand over mine. “I won’t say it gets easier with time, but it does become…” He trailed off, as if unable to find the words.

“Duller,” supplied Padraig.

“It might be easier if I understood the reason my male peers were neutered.” It wouldn’t, but if there was ever a time I was likely to find out why the decision had been made and why it had been kept secret, this was it.

“Altered,” Father said. It was his automatic response.

“Doesn’t matter if you call it rubbish or trash, it all stinks when it’s left out in the sun too long,” said Padraig.

“Altered then,” I said.

“Well,” Father said, “it all started as a philosophical discussion, like a lot of bad ideas do.”

Uncle Padraig’s eyebrows went up. “You’re going to tell her?”

“She deserves to know,” Father replied. “You don’t approve?”

Uncle shrugged. “I figure we’re leaving anyway, so what does it matter if Angie tells everyone?”

“I won’t tell,” I quickly inserted. “Not while we remain in the grove.”

He let out a dark chuckle. “Girl, you won’t be able to help yourself. It’s a heinous thing that’s been done to our boys. Your honor won’t allow you to keep it a secret.”

Leaning forward, I placed my hands over my father’s. “I need to know.”

He nodded. “I trust you. Give me your word that you’ll not discuss it outside these walls.”

“Before the Nature Spirits, the Ancestors, and the Shining Ones, so do I swear to keep my oath to you,” I said, leaving out the traditional recitation of repercussions I might suffer for breaking it. As serious as my father was serious about keeping the secret, he would never expect that extension.

“Very well.” Father rose and locked first the front door, and then the back before returning to the table. I watched him in bewilderment, for we never locked our doors – ever.

“Before I dive in deep to the reason the boys were altered, you need to understand the political situation in the grove those decades ago,” he began.

Politics? Seriously? I blinked but kept my face carefully neutral.

“While druids have been a respected force in the world for decades, known to work for the good of the earth and the protection of the weak, the bandits became a significant threat.”

“Seriously?” I said, quite unable to help myself. “You were worried about bandits?”

“In addition to having a stockpile of technology and weaponry from before the Rebirth, the people of the ‘Ville have always greatly outnumbered us,” Father said. “Thirty years ago, we started losing dyads. It remained a mystery until one druid managed to make it back in spite of being mortally wounded – my father. His chosen, our mother–” He gestured to include Padraig. “—had been killed, but he was determined to return to the grove, both to bring back her body and also to inform the ArchDruid of the attack.”

I placed my hand over my mouth, feeling tears burn my eyes. What love must my grandfather have had for my grandmother to undertake such a task! What strength he must have possessed to have actually accomplished it!

“They couldn’t heal him?”

“He did not allow it.”

Well did I comprehend the depth of the grief he must have felt at the loss of his chosen and felt it completely understandable. On the other hand, he had left her sons to fend for themselves – which was how Father had ended up becoming Padraig’s caretaker.

“More dyads were lost or suffered crippling injuries. Livestock went missing and then they began raiding and burning our fields. People were upset that nothing was being done to improve our safety—”

“And rightly so,” Padraig said.

Father continued, “This resulted in a vote of no confidence in the old ArchDruid and the election of a new one. That new ArchDruid was Connor Shitozaki.”

I nodded. According to my history lessons, he was supposedly the worst thing to ever have happened to White Oak Grove. Considering that this lesson had been delivered by the current ArchDruid, Sebrina, I’d stopped swallowing that tale years ago.

“Connor called all the druids back from their work abroad and we geared up for war. Rather than going out into the world in dyads to do our work, we went out in bands of ten, patrolling our borders and engaging the bandits in skirmishes that sometimes turned into full-scale battles.

“After bloodying their noses a few times they started respecting our borders again,” Padraig said with an air of satisfaction.

“Temporarily,” Father said. “The advisory council was patting themselves on the back for a job well done and wanted to quit our militant actions, but Connor argued that the bandits had only fallen back to regroup and resupply. He was young—”

“We all were then,” muttered Padraig.

“—and the council thought he was just a hotheaded and belligerent fire druid who wanted a war. His chosen, however, was an air elementalist highly respected for her intellect and logical reasoning.”

“So of course she and Shitozaki fought like cats and dogs,” said Padraig.

“Aye, they were known to disagree quite often. Therefore, when Nioba backed him up, the council was swayed more by her analysis of bandit tactics and capabilities than Connor’s insistence that they’d come back for revenge.”

“Nioba?” I said. “Nioba Starseeker?”

Padraig nodded.

At first, it was difficult to imagine the noble and statuesque air druid riding into battle against bandits, but once my mind had conjured an image of her mounted astride a big black horse. I could see the sun shining on her ebony skin and flashing off the sword in her hand, the former ArchDruid by her side throwing fireballs as they galloped forward to face the enemy.

“But she didn’t go with him when he was exiled,” I said.

Padraig shook his head regretfully. “Nioba isn’t the kind to be led by emotion,” he said.

“No, but her choice to stay may have been led more by the heart than the intellect,” Father said.

“To make a long story short,” Padraig said, “the bandits did return, in larger numbers and with more advanced weapons, and we found ourselves facing the possibility that we might not win the war.”

“We were out on patrol, sitting around a campfire talking,” Father said. “Your mother was there, Dragana and Padraig, Connor and Nioba…” He paused, thinking. “Leonidas Wallace and Arrie Stoddard, and a couple of others.”

Arrie fought against bandits?” I exclaimed.

“Why do you think she’s not afraid of Sebrina?” Padraig laughed. “That woman knows her element inside and out and isn’t afraid to use it.”

“Anyway, we were discussing various ideas for stopping the bandits and saving the grove when Connor said something about how it would be great if we could share our elements with each other.”

“Do you mean… augmenting them?” My mouth was hanging open and I had to consciously shut it.

Padraig said, “What he meant was that if every druid had an offensive and a defensive element, it would ensure their survival. He himself was a fire druid with no defense. He had to rely on Nioba to shield him; likewise, she lacked the ability to attack.”

Father nodded. “His intentions were good.”

I gave him a skeptical look. All my life, the only thing I’d ever heard about the exiled Connor Shitozaki was that he was an honorless, warmongering heretic who had a complete and utter disrespect for the Shining Ones, the Nature Spirits, and the Ancestors. If indeed he had come up with the idea, it was hard to believe that he was a righteous man.

“Connor Shitozaki was an honorable man and I was proud to call him my friend.” He placed a hand on his chest. “We are the protectors of the earth. The bandits on our northern borders were increasing in number and power, and his thoughts were only of our ability to defend ourselves against them and to protect those communities that could not protect themselves. Having more elements at our disposal seemed like a good idea.”

“So you experimented on babies?”

“No, of course not!” said Padraig. “We experimented on ourselves.”

Even that was an unspeakable act. My jaw dropped again and I looked back and forth between the two of them, unable to countenance the idea.

“Did it…” I sat back. “Did it work?”

“No.” Father shook his head. “And before you ask, Connor did mention the possibility of changing the magic of an unborn child – but only after all our failed attempts.” He paused. “He was merely thinking aloud. We’re druids, Angie, and we like our books and our theories and our philosophical discussions. I swear on my honor that he never intended for anyone to actually try it!”

“But they did,” I said. Of course they had. There was always someone who couldn’t resist the temptation to test out a theory.

“I never imagined anyone would be so foolish,” said Father. “Even when Connor voiced the idea, it was immediately struck down. People were appalled that anyone could even consider such a thing, and demanded his resignation.”

“Did he resign?”

“Of course not,” Father said. “Connor Shitozaki was a fire druid with all the pride, fury, and prickly personality that tends to go with it.” He took a deep breath, letting it out slowly as if laying down a great weight. “But when the first child was born, possessing legitimate water magic and augmented spirit magic—”

“You mean it worked?”

“The transfer of spirit magic was successful, but it came at a terrible price. The boy was born with all the spirit magic a full druid could possess, and when his mother put him to her breast to nurse, she was electrocuted, and died.”

“What happened to the baby?” I whispered.

“He was found crying beside his mother’s smoking corpse.” Father’s eyes were haunted, and there was no doubt in my mind that he had witnessed it personally. “His magic was suppressed so that the healers could examine him. They found out that not only was he was deaf, but that he had no kidneys, bowels, or bladder. He died the next day.”

Horrified, I covered my mouth with both hands. Growing up, the house-mothers taught us a lot about the dangers of meddling with a child’s development in the womb – mostly that it should not be done, and the detailed descriptions of those poor children born without eyes or limbs or skin – the tales were nightmarish. I had never stopped to consider why they had thought that instruction necessary.

“There are penalties, Angelina,” he said gently, “for interfering with the natural way of things.”

“Unfortunately, she wasn’t the only one who tried it. We lost three more women who tried to augment their babies,” Padraig said. “Dragana was the last.” He rose suddenly, a ripple of pain and sadness washing over his face. “I’m going to bed. Excuse me.”

He walked unsteadily to the door to his room, stopped, and turned back to face us.

“It wasn’t me, Liam,” he said. “I refused when she asked me to augment our son.”

“Why didn’t you say something?” Father asked.

“Because it never once entered my mind that you’d think I was that stupid and selfish,” Padraig replied, his voice husky. “I’d never have risked my chosen like that.
“I ever find out who did, I’ll kill them.”

He shut the door behind him.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Note: For those who have already read Chapter 16, the last few paragraphs of this chapter were cut, rewritten, and moved to Chapter 17 for a little better flow and continuity. Work in progress!

 

Chapter 15 – Courage

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.”

“And Darryn?”

“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.

 

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~

This is the last one for today. See you again in about two weeks 🙂

 

 

 

Chapter 14 – Grief

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?”

“A staff.”

“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.

 

Chapter 13 – Retribution

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.”

 

 

Chapter 12 – Everlights United

Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.
~ Helen Keller ~

Uncle Padraig, rubbing the back of his head, met us at the end of the path. Sebrina’s air push had knocked him back several feet, causing him to hit the stone walkway.

“That was impressive,” he said. “And unexpected.”

“Aye,” Father replied mildly. “Whoever would have thought I’d have raised a turncoat?”

“The acorn falls not far from the oak,” I said, feeling my eyes burn with tears.

“You could have warned me what you were about,” Padraig said.

“I did not plan what happened here today,” Father said.

My brother? Acting without thinking? Unheard of!”

“I did not act without thinking,” Father replied. “Some actions do not require lengthy consideration.”

Low muttering, gradually growing louder, reached our ears.

“Our fair ArchDruid seems to be recovering,” Uncle said. “Shall we take steps?”

“Aye,” my father replied.

I looked over my shoulder to see Sebrina struggling to her feet, still naked and bloody. Betrys was trying to help her, but the ArchDruid shook her off. I felt a huge build of elemental magic – spirit, air, and water – and the hair on the back of my neck stood on end.

Without looking back, my father and uncle raised twin protective barriers – a shield of air to protect us from her magic, and a wall of earth to block the doorway and seal her inside. Then they each took one of my hands and we returned to Danica’s house, a family united once more.

The earth healer teared up briefly when she saw us together, then got busy bandaging Father’s hand. As the doors were wonky on their hinges and glass lay everywhere from the windows I’d shattered, she gathered a bag of personal belongings and accompanied us to Padraig’s house.

“I’m so sorry,” I said.

“Don’t worry about it,” Danica replied, her dark eyes warm.

“We’ll fix it back in a few days,” said Padraig. “I’ll rework the glass and straighten out the doors.”

Padraig’s house was soon warm and cozy, with a comforting fire in the hearth. Supper was simple: bread and vegetable stew. We shared a meal together and though I ate but little, having my family seated at a table together was a pleasure I’d experienced rarely as a child and never since returning to the grove with Charlie this past summer. For my entire life, my father and uncle had been at odds over Father’s bond with and support of Sebrina. Having them together under the same roof was a deep comfort.

Even so, Duncan’s absence cast something of a shadow over us; and, now that my anger was spent, my misery at losing Charlie threatened to drown me once more. My father seemed no worse for having broken his bond with Sebrina. Under the table, I rubbed at the oath mark on my left palm.

“You won’t be protected anymore,” said Father, breaking the silence.

Neither will you, I thought. He was a triple threat and the greatest swordsman in the grove, but still vulnerable to fire, poison, bullets, and many other things that could wound the human body.

“What makes you think I need protection?” Uncle said. “I can take care of myself.”

“Do you expect Sebrina to extract revenge?” Danica asked.

“I think it likely,” Father said.

“We should leave.” The words had left my lips before I had even considered what I was about to say. “We should just… go.”

Danica’s eyes widened. “This is our home.”

“Aye,” said Uncle Padraig. “It is our home, but fighting for it the past twenty years hasn’t won it back for us.”

“That is because I wasn’t standing with you,” said Father.

Uncle sighed. “I’m tired of fighting, Liam,” he said. “Too much innocent blood has soiled the earth here. Better to start fresh in a new place than waste more time.”

“A Harris has lived in my house since this grove was first settled,” Danica said. “I’m not leaving.”

“Reclaiming our home will be worth the time spent,” Father said.

“Druids have already neglected their duty for twenty years,” Padraig said. “Will we neglect it for twenty more, simply because we’re emotionally attached to a patch of dirt?”

Neither Father nor Danica could argue his point.

“Winter is upon us,” Father said after a lengthy pause. “Even if we decide to relocate, it would be ill-advised to make such a journey now.”

Danica’s face brightened. “We could oust Sebrina.”

Uncle Padraig sat back in his chair, rubbing his pointed beard and considering the idea. “The winter looks to be a mild one, but there’s always the chance of random blizzards,” he allowed.

It was true. The weather had been wildly unpredictable since the Rebirth. While it might be risky to stay in the grove, it was certainly safer than traversing the wilderness in freezing weather. Assuming that we could carry enough food for such a journey and supplies for starting a new home, keeping warm would be a challenge even with Padraig’s fire magic.

Wolfric and Onóra came to mind, and I wondered if they were still alive. It was a dark thought, but since my own chosen was gone, darkness was all that remained to me. I hoped they were warm and well fed because then Charlie’s sacrifice for them would not have been in vain. At the same time, I regretted having asked – no, demanded – that he help them escape. I was sorry he had listened to me, even though he was likely to have come up with the notion on his own.

Better for Onóra’s chosen to have died than my own.

Why had I not understood that before?

“In any case, I’m not one to abandon our elders,” Uncle Padraig said, drawing my attention back to their conversation, “Han already said he was leaving in the spring with Marjáni. I’m fairly certain that Rhys and Morganna would be willing to leave, but they’d not survive such a journey unless the weather is warm.”

“That would delay our departure until May,” I said. “That’s too long!”

“I suppose half a year is time enough to determine whether or not we can rid ourselves of Sebrina and her supporters,” said Father, with a glance at Danica. She thought about it for a moment, before nodding reluctantly.

“Besides,” said Uncle, “all the political maneuvering will obscure any preparations for making a permanent departure from the grove. Sebrina will never know what hit—” He paused, craning his neck to peer out the window. “What is that commotion?”

Danica cocked her head. “Someone just called out your name, Liam.”

“I heard,” Father said, rising from the table. Still clad in his leather armor, he buckled his sword about his hips and strode to the front door.

“Wait,” Uncle said. “Let me go first.”

Father paused, then took his hand off the doorknob and gestured for Padraig to precede him. Uncle took only a few steps before stopping on the front porch. Father halted in the doorway.

“Oh, it’s you,” he said, sounding simultaneously bored and annoyed. “One would think you’d have the sense not to darken my doorstep, Darryn Darkmane.”

I was out of my chair in a flash, bolting through the door and pushing past both of them.

“You get out of here!” I yelled at him, as anger filled me, chasing away the grief and pain once again. Picking up a rock, I threw it at him. It bounced off his leather armor, and he laughed.

“You are a horrible, miserable, jealous weasel! You betrayed your best friend! You hurt our healers! You have no honor!”

“No one will believe those lies,” Darryn retorted.

“Davis would have been fine, if not for you!” I yelled. “He would still be here!”

“You cost me my chosen,” Darryn said. “I reckon it’s only fair.”

You—!” I started toward him, summoning every bit of spirit magic inside me.

A restraining hand fell upon my shoulder.

“I’ll handle this,” Father murmured in my ear. “Go back inside.”

“I’m not going anywhere!” I snapped, jerking away.

“You cannot handle this,” he said gently.

Don’t tell me what can’t do, I nearly said, but I met his gaze and read a promise there.

“I will not fail you again,” Father said. “Will you trust me as you once did?”

I glanced at Darryn before meeting Father’s eyes again. After a moment’s hesitation, I nodded.

“Hold, brother!” Father called, turning from me. Padraig had his sword in hand and was walking quickly to meet Darryn in the street.

“I was wrong to stay my hand last time, Liam.”

“As was I,” Father replied.

Uncle stopped in his tracks and spun about with a surprised expression on his face. My father halted beside him, thumbs hooked in his sword belt. Padraig looked over at me, then back to Father. He turned back to Darryn, sheathed his sword, and chuckled.

“How can a man’s luck be so bad that the entire Everlight clan covets the pleasure of ending his life?” he asked, wearing a small, bitter smile. Shaking his head ruefully, Uncle returned to stand beside me and put his arm around my shoulders.

“Watch your mouth or I’ll be coming after you next, old man,” Darryn said.

“By all means, boy,” Padraig replied with a grin. “Please do. If you have any legs upon which to stand, that is, or an arm with which to strike.”

Darryn’s snarl at my uncle was cut short as my father’s approach attracted his attention. The slow hiss of steel was the only sound as Father drew his blade, sliding it smoothly from its scabbard.

“So you’ve come out of hiding finally?” Father asked, sauntering to meet Darryn. “Finally worked up the courage to face me, have you?”

“You are no longer First Warrior,” Darryn spat, drawing his sword and brandishing it. “And after you’re gone, I will take your place at the ArchDruid’s side.”

“First you must defeat me,” Father said. His blade flashed out and back, tapping Darryn’s sword in a flicker of motion that was almost too fast for my eyes to track. The weasel jerked back in surprise.

“If you want to be First Warrior, you’ll have to be faster than that,” said my father. “Much faster.”

Furious, Darryn attacked in a flurry of blows, lunging in and out, feinting and striking. No matter how he attacked – overhead, underhand, from the forehand or backhand – Father blocked them all effortlessly. He moved with such grace and surefootedness that one might think the street was smooth, rather than paved with uneven cobblestones.

“Liam is toying with him,” Padraig grumbled.

“Why?”

“He’s making a point.”

“It’s not like Darryn will learn anything after he’s dead.”

“This lesson is for others,” Uncle said. “Look.”

The ring of clashing steel – the second swordfight in the streets that day – was attracting a crowd. The neighbors had already been drawn outside by Darryn yelling in the street. It was my father’s appearance that had summoned the others, the news of their confrontation sweeping through the grove like the very wind.

Uncle was right; my father could have killed the weasel with that first blow. He’d intentionally aimed for the sword and not the man. Now, however, his posture had changed. It was vastly different from when he schooled me in bladework, or even when he sparred with my uncle or the other masters. He advanced upon Darryn in a manner I’d never seen, his body sinuous and lithe like that of a tiger, the motion of his limbs tight and controlled like a snake about to strike.

His abrupt focus would be the downfall of Betrys Darkmane’s son. One heavy strike of Father’s blade and the weasel’s sword flew out of his hands, landing on the cobblestones with a loud clatter. For a long moment, the only sound was his heavy breathing as he gasped for air.

“I… I yield.” I had to strain to catch the words.

“I beg your pardon. What did you say?” Father asked, tilting his head to one side.

“I yield!” His shout rang out, loud enough for all to hear, and his eyes blazed with impotent fury.

My chosen’s propensity for fighting and his willingness to engage enemies in battle had alternately annoyed and terrified me. Charlie Davis never yielded. He never gave up, and he never gave in.

I had never understood why until this very moment.

“On your knees,” Father commanded.

“What?!”

The tip of my father’s sword touched Darryn’s throat. Still full of rage and lacking any humility at all, his upper lip twisted as he raised his hands in mock surrender and took a step back before kneeling in the street before my father.

“Now, here in the presence of your fellow citizens, you will relate exactly what happened when you and Niall Ashcroft accompanied Davis on his mission to demonstrate the effectiveness of his firearm in combat.”

Confusion warred with anger in Darryn’s dark eyes. He’d obviously expected Father to ask him to admit his part in providing Orion with a sword and giving him free rein in shedding the blood of our healers – as had I. Judging from the puzzled expressions on the faces of many of our neighbors, they, too, were surprised by this innocuous question. No one cared about something that had occurred two months ago – especially not me! Charlie was dead. What difference did it make now that he’d nearly been murdered then?

Charlie’s concern for the safety of all the men under twenty in the grove made no difference now. Their fate had been sealed by the ArchDruid, who had decreed that they be denied their gods-given magic even before most of them had been conceived. Sebrina had never intended to allow any of us to leave and fulfill our mission to heal the world. My chosen had known better than she, however, for he had realized that our generation would not tolerate being restrained and trapped within the narrow confines of White Oak Grove.

Thus, when my father approached Charlie about using his shotgun as a model to manufacture more firearms and suggested that he should teach our young men without magic to use them, he had readily agreed. Resentful of Charlie’s presence from the moment he stepped into the grove, Sebrina had twisted the idea in order to do away with him under the guise of sending him off with Niall and Darryn to act as “witnesses” to observe just how well his shotgun operated in a combat situation. And even though Charlie had saved both their lives from bandits, Darryn had ruthlessly stabbed him in the back almost immediately afterward. If it hadn’t been for my cousin Duncan following them – sent by my father to watch his back – he would have died.

The night they had returned, Father had admonished Darryn never to harm my chosen again, or he would suffer dire consequences. The weasel had sneered at the threat before slinking away that night. He had disregarded my father, just as he had disregarded Charlie’s status as a grove weapon master. Both were extremely poor choices. My chosen was a man of his word. He never made a threat without carrying it out.

Just like my father.

And Father had asked me to trust him.

“I tried to kill him,” Darryn spat. There was a little murmuring in the crowd, for what difference did that make now that Davis the Outsider was dead?

“How?”

“I ran him through with my sword!”

Father nodded, walking around him slowly, casually spinning his sword about in one hand. “And the night he was whipped, what did you do to him then?”

“I poisoned him!” the weasel spat. “I got rid of that dirty Outsider, just as the ArchDruid wished me to!” The bravado of his tone was belied by the fear in his eyes.

“Aye, that you did,” Father said, stopping to stand in front of Darryn, facing away from him and looking into my eyes.

“Do you remember, Darryn Darkmane, what I told you would happen if you harmed my daughter’s chosen again?” Father asked softly.

Behind him, Darryn’s face drained of color, and all trace of his youthful arrogance and pride were gone.

“You s-said you’d kill me y-yourself.”

“Aye,” Father said. “That I did.”

His right hand gripped the sword hilt more tightly, his left hand came up to grasp the pommel. Raising the sword over his right shoulder, he stepped back with his left foot. Then, with deadly grace, Liam Everlight pivoted on the balls of his feet, bringing his longsword about in a brilliant arc of cold light and severing Darryn Darkmane’s head from his shoulders in a single blow.