Chapter 11- Rage

Servility always curdles into rage in the end.
~ Tina Brown ~

I stood alone in the snow-covered street, fighting the fear and anguish that were trying to return and fill the hollow place in my heart. My beloved was lost, my family was at each other’s throats, and my home was in turmoil. Only one person was responsible for all of it, and I was not about to let her escape justice.

Sebrina.

Just as she was at fault for bringing misery to everyone in the grove, she was to blame for my chosen’s disappearance. No one else could have entered a healer’s house to carry a dying man out of it except the ArchDruid or her foul minions, for no one dared question them. A kind of madness came over me and I became convinced that she had stolen Charlie away and that I would indeed find him lying wounded and broken at her feet as she sat upon the wooden ArchDruid’s chair that had become her throne. No, it was not enough that she’d had him whipped in full view of the entire grove – she would have no satisfaction until she’d seen him gasp his last breath.

Water magic gave me secure footing and air gave me speed as I sprinted down the cobblestone street toward the ArchDruid’s office, jumping fences and cutting across gardens and yards. I hit the front door so hard that its stained glass window shattered when it smashed into the wall. The members of her Tetrarch were lolling about like pigs at a trough – all present except Nualla – with queen sow Sebrina sitting on her throne looking self-satisfied with the events she had wrought – as though the torture and abuse of a single man had been a difficult task, a mighty weight lifted from her shoulders.

I would show her the meaning of abuse, if she failed to give Charlie back to me.

“Angelina! What are you—”

My tornadic wind wrapped Sebrina in tight bands of air before she could move, shocking her into silence. Lightning flew from my fingertips, stunning Pollona and Dianthe, sending them sliding to the floor before they could mount an offense. I created a spinning vortex that sucked water and snow into the building and slammed Betrys against the wall, trapped by a frosty bubble. Like me – and like Sebrina – she possessed the elements of spirit, air, and water. I valued water as an element and could manipulate it in any number of ways. They disdained it, and so they were much less skilled at using water magic than I.

Where is he?!?!” I shrieked. “What have you done with him?!

Casting a desperate glance at Sebrina, Betrys’ eyes betrayed her terror. And well she should have been terrified of me, for they had all taught and demonstrated the very best offensive tactics a triple threat could bring to bear, challenging me with praise and derision, drilling it into me until I could channel all three of my elements simultaneously and without effort.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Betrys cried when no help was forthcoming from her evil overlord.

Sebrina glared at me, her sapphire eyes sparking with spirit magic. I could feel her clawing at the magic bonds and intensified the force, causing her to cry out in pain.

She does,” I snarled, loosening the strictures and snugging them tightly again. Sebrina gasped for breath and then wasted it on a scream. This time there was a slight note of fear riding the edge of her cry.

There came the sound of running feet, boots on the path outside.

I’d forgotten one thing.

Her oath-sworn protector, First Warrior to the ArchDruid.

My father.

“Angelina!” he thundered.

With the barest of gestures, I hit him with a straight-line wind that slammed him against the far wall. Shock and anger braced his features as spirit magic lit his eyes a glowing blue.

“Stop this insanity!” he commanded.

“Not until she tells me where she’s taken him!”

I allowed Sebrina another breath. She wasted it again.

“I don’t know where he is! I’ve done nothing to that wasteland dog!”

My father would never hurt me or strike back with his own magic, but since he was foolish enough to take a step toward me, a flick of my finger pinned him to the wall. His jaw dropped in astonishment, but I ignored him and glared at the bitch who had brought so much suffering and despair into my life.

I refused to back down, reveling in the power this rage had given me. I, Angelina Everlight, a mere elementalist, had downed five druids fully trained in the use of elemental combat and was holding them helpless. Pollona moaned and I hit her with another spirit bolt. As an afterthought, I smacked Dianthe as well to keep her down.

“You’ve done nothing to him?” I said, walking slowly toward her and squeezing her ribs more tightly with each step. “Nothing?”

A high-pitched squeal, more outrage than pain, gusted from Sebrina’s lips. “Nothing he didn’t deserve,” she gasped.

“Half the world was dying of thirst last summer, all so you could have strawberries for breakfast!” I shouted. “But you’ll whip a man over some dried fruit? What punishment should be meted out to a woman who steals water? A beating? Or something worse?”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about!” she yelled.

I didn’t know if Sebrina was lying because she hadn’t told Father about hoarding the rain and creating a drought from Lone Oak to Kingston as a result, or if she really thought I was that stupid. Standing beside the well at Chasity’s home in Lone Oak, I had smelled the stink of Sebrina’s magic as soon as I’d taken hold of the clouds.

“Don’t I? Who do you think ripped that artificial weather pattern away from you? It took every bit of magic within me, but I created a storm that gave the rain back to those who needed it!”

We needed it!” Sebrina shouted. “That rain was for the grove!”

A snowball flew through the door and into my hand. From it I commanded three whips to rise, allowing them to wave about in the air like venomous serpents.

“What sort of punishment should you be given for causing a drought that brought so much misery and deprivation, I wonder?” I said, my voice as cold and cutting as the winter air. “If whipping is the price for taking some dried fruit, what should be the punishment for stealing an entire season of live-giving water?”

“You wouldn’t dare!”

I sharpened a slice of air and lashed it through Sebrina’s clothing, rendering her naked in seconds. I started to feel the drain on my magic – as an elementalist, I did not yet have a direct channel of magic from the Shining Ones that a druid did. I was limited by the Well within me, but it was vast and deep. I had plenty left what I intended and brought forth three more ice whips.

“Liam!” she screamed, but I had made certain he would do nothing to stop me. He wasn’t even trying to unravel the air that held him pressed against the wall. In fact, he was paying me no attention at all, his green eyes regarding Sebrina with loathing. For all his loyalty to her, my father was a true druid, one who deeply cared about balance and who would never alter weather patterns for the good of only a few people. Liam Everlight used his magic only for the greater good.

“Isn’t this what you wanted, ArchDruid?” I taunted. “For my whole life, you’ve called me weak. I’m soft, and I don’t have what it takes to survive outside the grove. Let me show you how weak I am. Let me show you how soft.”

The icy tentacles undulated toward Sebrina, caressing her bare flesh as they wrapped around her legs and torso like thin wires. Two more wrapped around her arms, then the last about her neck, caressing it like the lips of a lover. The paper-thin, razor-sharp whips left thin red lines that marred her flawless ivory skin, and Sebrina shrieked.

There was a crunch of boots on glass, but I didn’t turn around. No one would be such a fool as to startling me into dropping the ArchDruid or slicing her to ribbons.

Unless, of course, they didn’t care.

“Well, now,” said Uncle Padraig. “Isn’t this a pretty picture.”

I expected some warning from Father such as Stay out of this, brother, but he remained silent.

“I swear by the gods, Liam, if you don’t get her under control, I will exile her forever!” Sebrina’s voice had finally reached the high pitch that meant she was well and truly afraid.

“What in the name of Ọbàtálá makes you think I would want to stay?”

The calm in my voice pronounced my scorn and disdain more loudly than any shout. It truly was the calm before the storm. There was a tempest brewing, a hurricane enveloping the room, and she was at its very center.

“You ungrateful brat! After all I have done for you!”

Padraig snorted, muttering that the honorable ArchDruid had never done anything for anyone other than herself.

“You were never bonded with that barbarian!” she continued. “The gods would never allow some filthy outsider to bond with a druid!”

“It is a true bond, but you wouldn’t know anything about that,” I said, for everyone knew that she had rejected her own chosen. “Even if it was not, my claim to Davis is just as authentic as yours upon my father.”

I held up my left hand, displaying the faint, silvery scar of the oath mark along my palm.

“No!” Spittle flew from the ArchDruid’s lips.

“It is a sworn bond of blood, earth, and spirit.”

“You foul betrayer, you traitor, you back-stabbing—!”

I tightened my hold on the thin cords of ice, and Sebrina shrieked as swirling red lines corkscrewed down her arms and legs and painted designs on her belly and breasts.

“Don’t,” begged Betrys, tears streaking down her cheeks, worshipful eyes on her ArchDruid. “Please don’t.”

“Please do,” murmured Padraig.

“Give me one reason why I shouldn’t flay her alive.”

No one answered, not even Father. Even Betrys’ bleated begging had ceased, as she stared at me with panicked eyes.

You’re a better person than that, Ang.

It was Charlie’s voice in my mind again.

Kill your enemies if you must, but don’t torture them.

I wanted to yank those ice cords so badly.

I wanted to paint her entire body with blood, dripping down in delicate little beads. I wanted to slice off tiny little strips of skin while Sebrina filled the air with agonized cries.

Everything that was in me wanted her to suffer like Charlie had.

If you choose that path, what then will separate the two of you?

The thought struck me motionless, shoving outside myself and forcing upon me the crystal clarity of the scene:

The slumped bodies of Pollona and Dianthe.

Betrys’ terrified, tearful face.

Padraig’s gloating presence behind me, silently willing me to kill Sebrina and enjoying every moment of her pain and fear.

My father’s face, half-afraid… and half-hopeful.

The ArchDruid, held in midair, tortured, wounded and bloody from my elemental magic – the magic given to me by the Shining Ones – the power given to me to heal the earth of the devastation wrought by humankind before the Rebirth.

Changing the grove was not a task that had been assigned me, but I had allowed it to side-track me from my true mission, the one assigned all druids by the gods. Like so many of my people, I had let politics and fear distract me from my true purpose.

Our magic was not meant for harm.

It was not meant to make people afraid.

It was not meant to take revenge.

It was for cleansing the water, and clearing the air, and for recharging the whole world with life-giving energy.

My magic was not meant for this.

I took a deep breath, then slowly released it along with the power, lowering the ArchDruid to the floor. She managed to stay upright in spite of her shaking legs.

“All my mentoring, instruction, and guidance, and this is what I get,” Sebrina rasped. “You are not the person I raised you to be.”

“On the contrary,” I said. “I am exactly the person you taught me to be. I am hard. I am strong. I am fierce, and I am ruthless.” I stood over her with my uncle’s sword in my hand while she tried not to cower.

“But no longer,” I said. “I am a child born of a druid lineage that has been pure since the Rebirth.

“I will honor the Nature Spirits by joining them in their work.

“I will honor my Ancestors by following in their noble footsteps.

“And I will honor the Shining Ones by fulfilling my duty to use my gift for the purpose for which it was intended – healing the world.”

“So be it!” Padraig cried.

Father crossed the room to stand off to the side, at a point equidistant from her and me.

“Angelina has assaulted me!” she shouted at him, glaring at me with murder in her eyes. “I expect you handle this!”

“Aye, ArchDruid. As you say,” Father replied, and drew his dagger.

“Liam!” Padraig shouted. He moved to put his body between us, but Sebrina hit him with a blast of air that sent him flying out the door. She turned to me with an evil grin and spirit magic glowing in her eyes.

Father never took a step toward me. Instead, he drew the point of the dagger across his left palm and sliced through the oath mark there.

“By Fire, I am no longer bound to you by air,” he intoned.

“No!” Sebrina exclaimed, her eyes wide.

“By Well, I am no longer bound by water.” He made a second cut across the oath mark.

“I forbid this!”

“By Sacred Tree, I am no longer bound by spirit.” He made the third cut. “I, Liam Everlight, break all ties that bind me to you, Sebrina Silvermist. Before the eyes of the Nature Spirits, the Ancestors, and the Shining Ones, this bond is severed.”

Sebrina choked, clutching at her stomach. “You traitor!” she screeched before falling to her hands and knees.

“The acorn does not fall far from the tree,” Father said grimly. He put his arm around my shoulders and guided me out of the ArchDruid’s office, unmindful of the blood dripping from his free hand.

Out of everything bad Sebrina had ever done, in my eyes her tyrannical hold on my father – and therefore my family – was one of the worst.

Now he was free.

 

 

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Chapter 10 – Ruin

Only in the agony of parting do we look into the depths of love.
~ George Eliot ~

What at first seemed to be a horrible nightmare turned out to be an even worse reality. Pushing myself upright while trying to rub the sleep out of my eyes, my brain attempted to comprehend the scene before me.

Everything was the same as when I had closed my eyes: the jar of clay, bolt of linen, and bottles of dried herbs on the counter, the bucket of salted water beside the hearth, the fire crackling brightly, and the neat line of cots, empty but for Charlie and I, now entirely vacant.

He was gone.

Disappeared.

Taken.

I attempted to breathe, sucking in small whoops of air into my hitching breast. The grief of loss and the terror that he might still be alive and suffering further torment loosened my throat and a banshee wail burst from my lips. The loss of my emotional control was matched by an equal loss of elemental control – lightning shot around the room, streaking across the walls, ceiling, and floor. Turbulent air burst outward, shattering all the windows and ripping the doors off their hinges.

The destruction plus my hysterical screaming brought Padraig thundering down the stairs, with a frightened Danica progressing unsteadily behind him.

“What happened?” my uncle demanded.

He’s gone!” I wailed, only just managing to pull the magic back.

“What? Where is he?” Danica rasped.

I howled through my tears, completely shattered by this new development. Pain and rage ripped through me – who had dared disturb us in our last hours together?!

Someone has taken him!” Dropping to my knees, I slammed my fists against the stone floor. Pain lanced up both arms, but it was nothing compared to the great, ripping hole in my heart.

“I fell asleep and they took him!” I was the worst person in the history of druids. My precious chosen had lain there dying in the night and I couldn’t even stay awake to watch over him.

“Wait…” Uncle Padraig held up a hand. “Calm down. Maybe there is a rational explanation. Maybe it was Liam, trying to—”

“My father didn’t care about Charlie while he was alive!” I shouted. “Why would he do anything for him now?”

“I don’t know what might have happened, Angie.” Uncle knelt beside me. “But we need to be rational or we might never find out what happened.”

Even in her weakened state, her face pale and her hair tangled, Danica came to comfort me. She enfolded me in her arms and pulled me close, rocking me as if I were a small child. Padraig took my hands in his, the thick callouses from decades of swordplay brushing my skin.

Surrounded by their love and warmth, the rage drained out of me, leaving only devastation in its wake. A wave of anguish rose up from deep inside me, emerging from my lips as a mournful howl that went on and on. I continued to inhale for the sole purpose of venting my pain to all the world, even unto the Shining Ones in their far-away realms until my throat was on fire and the sound of silent screaming was all that remained.

* * *

Charlie was gone, but I couldn’t believe it. My mind knew that he had been so close to death that it was impossible for him to still live, yet my heart and soul refused to believe. Frozen by uncertainty, I couldn’t leave Danica’s house. It was the last place I had seen my chosen, touched his hand, caressed his brow. I had to know what had happened to him.

Everyone assumed he was dead, but what if he was alive?

What if Duncan had arrived at the last possible moment and had gone underground because he was barely able to keep Charlie from crossing the veil between worlds? My logical mind insisted that even if that were the case, my cousin would have wakened me. He would have made his presence known to his father through the earth.

Unless Duncan had decided to keep Charlie for himself, an insidious part of my mind whispered. After all, you don’t deserve to have him.

I found myself fervently wishing this to be true, as it meant that Charlie was still alive. If I knew it for a fact, I could deal with missing him. Absent was temporary. Away from my side meant he could come back. Death was final. From death, there was no return.

Throughout the day I caught myself rubbing the oath mark, that barely visible, silvery scar on my palm.

It was still warm.

If he was dead, the oath should be broken.

It should have gone cold.

Like everything else in my life, it made no sense.

I couldn’t stay in Danica’s house forever, and yet neither could I leave. What was I supposed to do? How could leave this space without knowing what had happened to my chosen? How could I eat another meal, or drink another cup of coffee? How could I still be breathing? How could I go anywhere or do anything at all without knowing his fate?

How could any of us move at all without a proper funeral ritual? How could even a single person in the grove continue to cook meals, or clean house, or work the land, or do magic without knowing for sure what happened within their borders? How could the grass spring up, the rivers run, or the wind still blow? Surely the sun would not continue to rise. Without a body to bury or a pyre to light, I expected the world to come to a standstill.

Instead, it erupted in violence.

I had dozed off again when loud and angry voices startled me awake.

“She should come home with me. She can’t stay here forever!”

It was Father.

“Angie is welcome to stay as long as she needs to,” Danica interjected in a quiet tone. “Just like anyone else.”

I sat up and brushed my hair out of my face, overwhelmed by the surge of anguish that washed over me again upon seeing the empty cot beside mine.

“With all due respect, she should be home – with her family.”

“She is with her family,” Padraig growled. “I have been taking care of her and her chosen since you allowed him to be beaten half to death!”

“She’s coming home with me, and that’s final.”

“Liam, I’m warning you—”

“You overstep your bounds, brother,” I heard Father say. “Angelina is my daughter, not yours.”

Padraig snorted. “Only where blood is concerned.”

A chill permeated the room.

“What did you say?” Father’s voice was as sharp.

“If you were any kind of father at all, you’d have told Sebrina to stuff her opinions regarding Davis up her arse.”

“How dare you—”

Padraig cut him off. “A father who loved his daughter would have made it clear that her chosen would receive the full protection of the Everlight family and that an attack on him would be met with maximum retaliation! Instead, you left him to the tender mercies of that bitch and the vile offspring of her sycophants!”

Father’s eyes narrowed, sparking with spirit magic, and electricity crackled around his fingers. I’d never seen him so angry.

“I’m not leaving,” I said, swallowing past the lump in my throat. My voice was like the rustle of dead leaves, stirred by the cold whisper of winter’s bitter air.

He never took his eyes off Uncle. “You should come home.”

“I can’t go. Not until I know what happened to him!”

“Why should she go anywhere with you?” Padraig snapped. “You’ve not been here the entire time. Davis lay here for four days, and what have you done?” The room temperature soared as his voice filled the room. “You’ve been wasting time running around the grove playing at politics when Angie needed you here!”

“I was trying to find out what happened!”

“And did that do one fucking thing to save him?” Padraig spat.

“The greater good of the grove is more important than one man!” Father shouted.

I started to cry again. My own father, so heartless. Holding my hands over my mouth did nothing to muffle the loud, racking sobs. Danica came to sit beside me, putting her arm around my waist and producing a clean handkerchief.

“By all means, brother, take her home so you can continue to give her such tender comfort in her time of grief,” Padraig said in a biting tone. He made a slicing motion with his hand. “No more of this, Liam. Get out before I fulfill my oath of vengeance on you for allowing this to happen.”

Father sneered. “If you think you’ve got the balls, little brother, then meet me out in the street.” He turned on his heel and stalked out, leaving the door open behind him. Padraig grabbed his sword from where it hung over the mantle and started to follow. Danica jumped to her feet.

“Surely you’re not going!” she cried.

“I meant what I said,” he replied.

“You spoke those words in anger,” the healer said. “He is your brother.”

“He used to be.”

“Liam is not your enemy!”

“Isn’t he?” Padraig said and marched outside.

I stumbled after Danica into the failing afternoon light, fear for my father and uncle rising up through the misery to lodge in my throat. Both were formidable swordsmen – the best in the grove. Father was wearing his leather armor like always; Padraig had taken his off last night. It put my uncle at a disadvantage, but even scaled leather armor would not keep sharpened steel from running my father through.

Hanging onto the doorway for balance with my heart hammering in my chest, I watched Padraig draw his sword and toss the scabbard aside. The transition from walking to fighting was so smooth that it took a few seconds for my brain to catch up. One second, my uncle was stepping onto the cobblestones; in the next, his blade was streaking toward my father.

Danica gasped, her dark brown eyes wide.

“Stop!” she cried. “Stop this right now!”

Neither of them acknowledged her demand but went at each other in a fury of flashing steel and clanging blades. People ran from their houses and gaped at the spectacle. Druids rarely fought one another; dueling wasn’t forbidden but was considered vulgar and barbarous. The violence which the brothers unleashed upon each other with a clear intent to do harm was scandalous.

Sword fights rarely lasted longer than a few minutes, and they had been striking at each other for at least three.

Four.

Five.

Soon, one of them would make a mistake and blood would spill. Why wasn’t anybody doing anything to stop them?

Because they’re afraid, said a voice in my mind that sounded like Charlie. Once, during one of my rants about how stupid my people were, he had gently replied that when people had lived in fear for so long, they sometimes didn’t know how to do anything more than passively observe.

The realization that I was acting just like everybody else – standing there watching because I was afraid – jolted me into action. Fear turned to anger. I ran into the street and summoned a wall of air between them. Lightning-quick, twin longswords flashed in the noonday sun, slipping mere inches through the air shield before it hardened it to the solidity of stone. A bright, metallic ring that reverberated in the air as the blades were stuck fast.

Before either of them could reach for a knife, I expanded the wall, keeping it rock hard in the center but thick like cotton around their bodies so they could still breathe. From the placement of their blades, I could see that Padraig was about to lose his head, while Father’s guts would soon have spilled upon the ground. Each of them had been so caught up in the feud that he had completely abandoned defense in favor of attack.

I felt Father manipulating the air, wresting it from my control. As a mere elementalist, I could not hope to match the skills of a fully trained war druid. A war druid himself, Padraig had evidently anticipated this move, because in the next instant Father’s blade was red-hot, causing him to jerk his hand away and release the hilt, cursing. I took control of it again, commanding the air to raise it high overhead, then did the same with Padraig’s blade.

“I still have spirit,” Father growled.

“And I still have fire,” Uncle snarled back.

“And after you kill each other, I will have nothing!” I screeched.

“You’ll have Duncan,” Father said, never once looking at me.

“Duncan’s gone,” Padraig snapped.

Father snorted. There was derision in him, but the overt malice was gone. “He’ll be back.”

Uncle wore a stricken expression; it was a look my Father could not ignore.

“Your son may leave for weeks at a time, but he always returns,” he insisted.

“Not this time.” Uncle hung his head, but not before I saw the glint of tears. “I called him for hours and hours.”

“Maybe Duncan did return,” my father said. “It’s possible that he might have taken the body—”

“How could you even think such a thing, let alone say it!” Uncle snapped. “Duncan would never be so cruel!”

“You’re right,” Father said. “I was just thinking that… If there was anything at all that would have brought him back, it’s knowing that Davis was hurt. He’s just… far away.” His voice lacked conviction.

Since they were talking and no longer armed, I released the bonds of air about them. Even though they had threatened to use their elements, neither my uncle nor my father would disrespect their gods in such a way. Thankfully, the virtues of piety and integrity had remained more powerful than human emotion this day.

“Aye, he’s far away, and he won’t be coming back,” said Padraig, backing away from Father. He raised his voice and yelled at all the people who had come out to gawk. “Soon, they’ll all be gone!” He waved in the general direction of the Warriors’ Third. “And they’ll never return to this wretched place! Our children will abandon us! We will die old and alone, and we will deserve our fate!”

He turned his back on the crowd and walked back to Danica’s house. The healer threw her arms around him before bringing him inside. Even though they were not chosen, it was good they had each other. It was likely to become the norm, choosing one’s own partner. Their generation could very well be the last to join in true dyads.

“He’s wrong, you know,” I heard my father say.

“Is he?” This from Heracles Crawford, who lived across the street.

“Of course,” Father said, giving him an odd look. “Why?”

“If you ever went someplace that took away your most precious treasure and treated you like a second-class citizen because you lacked that treasure, would you stay?” Heracles asked. “If you ever escaped from a place of such cruelty, would you ever return?”

Father did not respond.

The crowd dissipated and soon we were alone in the street. Remembering the swords, I let them drift slowly toward the ground and took hold of Padraig’s. Father took hold of his own and began wiping the blade clean.

“I’m not coming home with you,” I said. “So you may as well leave.”

“Angie…”

I couldn’t remember the last time he called me Angie.

“Leave me alone,” I said. “I hate you.”

Chapter 9 – Despair

Someone has to die in order that the rest of us should value life more.
~ Virginia Woolf ~

I kept my vigil, hoping against hope that my cousin had seen his father’s signal and was on his way. Every time the slightest noise from outside reached my ears, my head snapped up and I focused on the door with the intensity of a hawk seeking prey.

Duncan did not come.

Minute by minute, hope turned into despair.

I pushed a cot over until it touched his and lay beside Charlie, holding his hand in mine, afraid to fall asleep. If this was all the time remaining to us, I wanted to experience every moment. If there was no preventing his death, I wanted to be present, to watch over and guard him, to meet whatever needs he would have, and to fully give myself to him the way he had always done for me.

Uncle Padraig’s earth elementalist nature came forth, something I had rarely seen. His was a quiet, comforting presence that kept me sane. He kept the house comfortable, warming the air that I kept flowing through the room as well as maintaining the fire in the hearth. He made soup. He fixed tea. He took care of Danica and me, as well as helping me care for Charlie. Uncle repositioned him on the cot in a way that I’d been unable to, bolstering him with pillows so he could get off his belly. Every few hours he put a drop of laudanum under his tongue to make sure he wasn’t hurting.

“I’m so sorry, Davis,” Uncle Padraig said. “I wish I could do more for you.” He looked at me with a pinched expression. “I’ve wished for the ability to heal only one other time in my life,” he said. He stroked the short, bristly hair on Charlie’s head – hair that was so short because I had wanted to cut it, even though I had no experience cutting a man’s hair. He’d been reluctant, but I had insisted on having my way, pointing out that he was my chosen and I should be the one to do such things for him. And as usual, he had given in to my wishes, trusting that I knew what I was doing.

Once again, I had plowed ahead with confident ignorance, never once second-guessing myself or giving the slightest consideration to how Charlie might feel if I messed up his hair. I’d botched the job so badly that Uncle had had to clip it nearly to the scalp. But he’d never said a negative word to me about it.

I wasn’t even finished knitting his hat.

Big, ugly sobs of regret welled up from deep inside me. Uncle came and sat beside on my cot, putting his arms around me. I buried my face in his chest to muffle my anguish. He rocked me gently even as his own chest hitched and tears ran down his face. I cried for a long time, pouring out the despair and heartache that I’d had to bottle up in order to care for Charlie all by myself.

I should never have brought him here.

I should have known that Sebrina would hate him and that Father would bow to her wishes like he always did.

I should have insisted that we leave after finding out that he had been attacked even once. There never should have been a second time.

Those matching scars on his back and chest where Darryn had run him through with a sword should not even be there, and Orion should have never had the opportunity to break his arm and ribs.

The flesh of my chosen – no, my love – should never have been flayed nearly to the bone, brutalized at the command of a spiteful, vindictive, pitiless woman.

Yet I could not lay the blame entirely at their feet, as much as I wanted to, for it was I who had allowed all of it to happen.

I had manipulated Charlie into accompanying me here, to my home, hundreds of miles away from his own. He’d even chosen me over his own family, in spite of his mother’s entreaties and her warning that druids were not to be trusted and that he would not be safe.

Concerned only with my own desires, I had flirted with and teased him, until he’d become so distracted that a group of thugs had surprised us and he’d ended up with a gunshot wound.

Focused on my crusade to change the grove’s policy on young men with magic, I had completely disregarded the difficulty of changing people’s minds after twenty years of a shadowy, secretive history.

Obsessed with having another dyad stand beside us, I had hounded Onóra to accept Wolfric. Then, when it was my influence that caused her to receive such abuse and humiliation from the ArchDruid, I all but demanded that Charlie help them escape.

Why had it been so hard for me to turn aside from that path? Did I really care about the fate of these people more than my own chosen? More than my own love? Why had I put them all above the one person who was supposed to mean more than anything to me – he who that the very gods had decided I should have, the one and only person they would ever choose for me?

What kind of person would do that?

Charlie had treated me with respect and kindness, had given me protection and advice, and had supported me and embraced my self-assigned task as his own. He had cherished me and loved me, repeatedly putting my needs before his own.

How could I have valued him so little?

“He’s suffered enough, Angie,” Padraig said, once the storm of my emotion had begun to subside. His voice broke; he swallowed a few times before he could continue. “Davis is a mighty warrior, and he has fought long and hard, but this is a battle he cannot win.”

“How will I live without him?” I wailed, falling to my knees beside Charlie’s cot and grabbing his hands. Pressing my face against them, I would have given anything to feel his fingers caress my cheek, just one last time.

“You don’t have to.” His voice was rough. “You hold him in your heart. You keep him there, so you can remember his courage, and his strength of spirit, his selflessness, and his love.

“If we keep him in our hearts, he can speak to us always, so that someday we will learn how to live like that, too.”

Uncle Padraig stroked my hair while I clung to Charlie like a woman drowning in a torrential flood. Nothing had changed in the grove. The older folk still buried their heads in the sand. The elementalist girls didn’t value their male peers. The boys without magic were still second-class citizens. Sebrina was still a tyrant and my father her puppet. My family was divided as surely as if an earthquake had split the ground, opening a chasm between us. I had failed in my undertaking.

Even if I’d been successful, it would have been an empty victory without Charlie by my side. I couldn’t heal the world all by myself.

I was losing my chosen.

I had sacrificed him for nothing.

Without him, I felt I had nothing left to live for.

“If I give Davis enough laudanum, it will ease—” Padraig’s voice broke and it was a moment before he could speak again, this time in a voice husky with pain and unshed tears. “He will slip quietly away, across the veil… to join his ancestors.”

He was right; my chosen had suffered greatly, and it was all my doing. My headstrong arrogance had led us to this place. My naïveté had put him in danger. My blind refusal to acknowledge the futility of my battle. My selfishness had subjected him to cruelty and physical torment.

And still I could not let him go.

“Please let’s wait until morning,” I begged Padraig.

He hesitated a moment, then nodded.

“Dawn would be a good time,” he said, but his expression made the words a lie.

There would never be a good time.

“I’d like to be alone with him,” I said.

Padraig nodded. “I’ll be upstairs if you need me.” He rose and crossed the room, then paused.

“If he departs before the dawn…” He swallowed, struggling to continue. “Please call for me. I’d like to be here in his… final moments.”

I nodded. “I will.”

After casting a long, emotion-laden look at my chosen’s inert form, he trudged up the steps with slumped shoulders and bowed head.

I lay down beside Charlie, staring at his face, intent on memorizing every aspect so that I would never forget.

* * *

Exhaustion finally overcame me and I slept, dreaming of that glorious Midsummer’s Night when everything had fallen into place for us. More vivid than waking memory, my mind recalled that moment when I had stepped out of the great hall in Ward to see the entire coven of witches making merry, eating and drinking and singing and dancing.

A man stood alone, strong and silent, silhouetted against the bonfire.

My chosen warrior.

My protector.

My friend.

My love.

I was standing before him without moving a muscle, magically transported as it so often happens in dreams. With his black hair shining in the setting sun and golden eyes reflecting the flames, his strong arms surrounded me and pulled me close, into that place where I had wanted to be for so long.

We joined the dance without saying a word. There was no need for words, for I could read the love in his eyes as plainly as words on a page. The music slowed as fiddle and cello sang out while our bodies slowly melded together, rocking in time with the slower rhythm. His arms were like steel but they held me with such gentleness, as though I were a delicate and priceless treasure. His breath was warm on my neck, lips brushing my skin so that an electric chill raced through me. He was perfect in every way, mighty when I needed protection, encouraging when I felt overwhelmed, hopeful when I despaired, tender when I needed comfort, inflamed when making love, and above all, as solid and dependable as the earth beneath my feet.

“I am yours for always,” he whispered. “Remember me.”

When I awoke the next morning, he was gone.

Chapter 8 – Disillusioned

We are only as blind as we want to be.
~ Maya Angelou ~

I spent the next few hours alternately paging through books and bathing Charlie in mint water. As night fell, I assured Adalwulf that Padraig would be back soon and that we would be fine until then. His sharp eyes weighed up on me, then shifted to Charlie, who was moving restlessly and mumbling. Adalwulf’s gaze returned to me again and he nodded in understanding.

“Thank you for everything you’ve done for us,” I said.

“I am honored to have been of assistance,” he replied. “Your gods be with you.”

Closing the door, I leaned on it heavily. I didn’t know why I had sent him away, only that I wanted to be alone with Charlie. Kneeling by his cot once more, I placed the back of my hand on his forehead. His fever continued to rage, and delirium was setting in. I knew that fever was the body’s way to fight off infection, but was also aware that too high a temperature could be damaging. One book suggested that if a patient had an extreme fever in winter, to pack ice and snow on and around the body. Grabbing a bucket, I carried it to the backyard and scooped snow into it with my bare hands until it was full. I packed snow into his armpits and between his legs, then scooped a few handfuls onto the back of his neck.

Repeating the application of snow every hour helped me feel like I wasn’t giving up, even though the books had no further wisdom to offer and I didn’t know what to do. I allowed it to melt on his burning flesh, hoping the fever would be carried away with every drop of water that melted. Between applications of snow, I made more poultices. As I peeled back the linen, it stuck to the torn and ragged flesh, causing it to ooze blood. He moaned, jerking his head and moving his arms as though trying to crawl away. I bit my lip hard until I tasted blood; I would not cry.

I took the snow bucket to the kitchen and filled it with warm water, adding just a touch of salt to it. I poured a cupful of the salinated water over his back, just enough to dampen the linen and allow easier removal. I guided the water stream from dressing to dressing until they were all dampened, then returned the water to the bucket. Even after waiting a few moments, the next poultice I tried to remove also stuck.

Charlie cried out sharply, his whole body shuddering with the agony. I stared in horror at the huge, five-inch abscess that had been hidden by the poultice. It burst, draining a handful of yellow pus streaked with purplish purulence. The putrid odor made me retch; quickly turning away, I hung my face over the bucket. It was only dry heaves, as I’d eaten nothing since the night before.

Alternately peeling off linen, rinsing Charlie’s back, and gagging, I removed all the remaining poultices. Every single lash-mark was infected, red and swollen with red streaks across the few places where intact skin remained. Several were filled with foul-smelling pus. Tucking towels along his left side, I somehow muscled him over so that I could pour the salted water over his infected wounds and rinse his entire back. Part of my mind insisted that it was so the infection would not spread; the other half-whispered that all the wounds were now festering so did it really matter?

“Of course it matters,” I said to myself between gritted teeth. I allowed him to roll onto his belly once more, giving enough support so that it wasn’t too uncomfortable. I wasn’t strong enough to move him to a clean cot on my own, so I drew out all the moisture that had oozed into the cot and the towels. Removing the towels, now soaked with water, blood, and pus, I threw them in the garbage bin outside the back door, then came back inside and thoroughly washed my hands.

I knelt by Charlie’s sickbed and saw the situation with a sudden, shocking clarity. On that low cot, I neither saw my chosen warrior, nor the hero who had become my lover. I saw a man, a human being as frail and fragile as any who walked the earth, beaten and bloodied and stinking from the fetid secretions of his wounds, as near to dying as I’d ever seen anyone.

No, not near dying. He was dying.

My legs gave out and I sat down hard on the cold stone floor. Then I wrapped my arms around my knees, hugging them tight, and surrendered to the sobs wracking my body. Charlie began to murmur again, shifting slightly on his cot while I tried not to make noise and disturb him.

I felt a light touch on my head, gentle fingers slipping through my hair, and raised my head to see him looking right at me. He hadn’t been coherent since yesterday morning when I’d found him, but the light of recognition, of awareness, was strong in his amber eyes.

“Don’t cry, Ang,” he said, in the warm, intimate voice he only used when we lay entwined together. “It’ll be all right.”

“I love you so much,” I whispered, unable to keep the tears from flowing down my cheeks.

“I love you, too, Ang,” he said with a little smile. Then he closed his eyes and drifted away again.

I will not give up.

Charlie never gave up, and I wasn’t going to, either. I went back to Danica’s apothecary counter and retrieved the poultices I had prepared.

I will not give up.

It felt like I’d spent an eternity in that room. I felt like the whole world had abandoned me. Sitting beside Charlie’s cot with my arms wrapped around my knees, I rocked constantly in an attempt to quell my anxiety.

When the front door opened and Uncle Padraig returned I looked up in hope, but the rueful shake of his head was a stab in the heart.

“I’m sorry. Duncan didn’t come.”

“Not yet,” I said firmly.

“No,” he said softly. “Not yet.” Kneeling beside Charlie, he laid a hand on my chosen’s forehead. “He’s hot.”

“I can’t get the fever down,” I said. “He won’t wake up enough to take the willow bark tea. He choked the last time I tried to give him water, so I was afraid to give him any more.”

He laid his hand against Charlie’s face. “I’m so sorry, my lad,” he said, almost too softly for me to hear. “I should have protected you better.”

There was such love and grief in Padraig’s eyes that I couldn’t imagine him hurting more for his own son. His face crumpled as he tried to fight back the tears, and the aching of my own heart was eased in knowing that someone else loved him, too. He roughly scrubbed his face with his hands, then rose once more and strode to the door.

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“I just came back to check on you,” he said. “I’m not giving up.”

“Thank you,” I said, feeling tears of gratitude welling in my eyes.

“It’s the least I can do,” he said. Before stepping out into the night, he looked back. “Tell him to hold on just a little bit longer.”

“I will.”

* * *

Arrie Stoddard came by the next morning with Nioba Starseeker. Arrie carried a woven basket full of food, while Nioba held a covered metal pot in one hand and a roll of linen tucked under her arm. I wondered if perhaps Adalwulf Rask had sent them.

I had just removed the poultices from Charlie’s ravaged back and was rinsing them with warm salted water when they entered. He hadn’t uttered a sound during the painful procedure, only twitching occasionally as I’d pulled the linen from his tender flesh. His fever had not returned and his skin now cold and clammy. I had managed to get a few sips of water into him, but only by using magic and the greatest of care.

I was keeping a few windows open, so there was a fire in the hearth to keep the house warm. I moved air currents through the house almost constantly to keep it fresh, but Charlie’s wounds were now constantly oozing bloody pus and exuded the most terrible stench. I rose and took a few steps toward them, in case they had no intention of moving closer to the foul air. The two druids had stopped short, staring in shock. Arrie dropped the basket and clapped both hands over her mouth.

Nioba caught the basket with a gust of air and guided it to the countertop. “Where is Danica?” she asked, concern in her dark eyes.

“Still sleeping,” I said.

“She’s not yet recovered?” Nioba repeated.

“No.”

“Why are you here all alone?” Arrie cried.

“Uncle Padraig has been out trying to find Duncan.”

“What about your father?”

Father had been mostly absent and has proven useless even when he was present. I shrugged and began laying the fresh poultices across Charlie’s ravaged back. Unless someone possessed healing earth magic, they were of little use to us.

“Adalwulf Rask has been watching over us,” I said.

“Oh, my poor darling,” Arrie said. “Have you eaten today?”

“No.” Every time I had tried, I’d only managed a few bites. My stomach was knotted with constant fear and worry.

“When did you sleep last?” Nioba asked, taking her pot to the kitchen, along with Arrie’s basket.

I shrugged again. In truth, I had tried napping throughout the day but was unable to sleep. Every time I closed my eyes, I just listened to Charlie’s breathing, slow and a little bit raspy. If there was just the tiniest pause, my eyes snapped open and I was on my feet.

“Well, we’re here now,” Arrie said, taking my hands. “Neither of us can heal your chosen, but if you let us, we can help you.”

While I appreciated their presence and support, I couldn’t help feel a twinge of resentment that what I truly needed – an earth healer – was the one thing that was being denied me. However, I was not going to refuse assistance simply because it didn’t come in the time or manner I would have preferred. If nothing else, having Arrie and Nioba here would help me feel less alone.

“Why don’t you lie down?” said Arrie, leading me to my cot. “Try to get some sleep while we fix you something to eat.”

“I can’t sleep,” I said, sitting down anyway. I was worried that I wouldn’t hear if Charlie called for me, and terrified that I’d wake and find him dead.

“Just close your eyes and rest a bit, then. I’ll watch over him for you,” she said, a deep, dark shadow behind the compassion in her eyes.

“Promise you’ll wake me if anything happens?”

She nodded. “I promise.”

I nodded and lay down, turning my back to them so I could hold Charlie’s hand in mine. My exhausted body felt like it weighed a thousand pounds. Sleep never came, but I kept my eyes closed and tried to rest.

“He doesn’t look good,” Arrie said after a long period of silence.

“I am no healer, but I have seen men with lesser wounds cross the veil to join the ancestors,” Nioba replied softly.

“She’s so young to lose her chosen,” Arrie whispered, and the tears in her voice matched the ones that dripped down my face.

Please, Duncan, come home.

Please, Duncan.

Please.

The two druids left after making sure that I ate, Arrie home to her children and Nioba back to stay with her sister Halle. It was mid-morning when my father returned, his stern expression thinly veiling the anger that was apparent in his eyes.

While Padraig’s temper was hot and frequently lost, my father rarely displayed much emotion at all, and never anger. Seeing him in a fury was something of a shock.

“What’s happened?” I asked, rising from my cot.

“I spent half the day yesterday investigating the attack on the earth druids, and the other half trying to convince witnesses to come forward and report to Sebrina what they’d seen.”

This is what you are upset about? Grove politics?

“And?” My tone was flat.

“We even had a formal hearing, during which several witnesses came forward to testify that they’d seen Darryn and Orion together that night. And before you ask, no, there is no punishment to be meted out.”

I hadn’t any intention of asking because I couldn’t have cared less.

Father continued as though I’d displayed an avid interest.

“Sebrina said that he had come to her ‘on his knees, begging for forgiveness’ because he was just trying to be nice to Orion by ‘taking him out for a little fun’.” Father snorted. “As though it was any sort of night for frivolity with all that transpired.” He sat down heavily in a nearby chair with his hands on his knees and his head down.

Why this had been a surprising disappointment to him was a mystery to me, for it was clear that Darryn had poisoned Charlie to win favor with the ArchDruid. Whether he had acted independently or not was irrelevant.

“How is he?” Father asked. I looked at my father, noting the strain in his expression and the weariness in his shoulders.

“Worse,” I said. There was no point in adding details. He could see – and smell – for himself how bad Charlie’s condition, how close to death he was. If he had cared at all for my chosen, he would have supported us from the first. He could have made it clear that an attack on my chosen was an attack on all the Everlights. Instead, Father had remained silent, allowing Darryn and others to hurt him repeatedly without reprisal. He had allowed Sebrina to beat Charlie and then had left him alone and vulnerable to attack. He had abandoned us both in a foolish attempt to convince the rest of the grove that Betrys’ son was responsible for the attack on the healers. Anger rose within me once again.

“Where’s Padraig?” Father asked.

“Looking for Duncan.”

“That’s a fool’s errand.”

“You’d know.”

Father’s head jerked up. “I am responsible for the safety of everyone in this grove, Angelina.”

“Everyone except your daughter’s own chosen.”

“I act for the greater good, Angelina.”

“You’re failing miserably,” I said, the hardness of my heart emerging as bitterness on my tongue.

“I beg your pardon.” His eyes were hard as flint, anger etched in the planes of his face.

“All you’ve managed to do is imprison us all and make us slaves to Sebrina’s will. We don’t even have freedom of speech anymore. I’m surprised the boys are the only ones whose magic has been taken. It wouldn’t surprise me a bit if only her sycophants were allowed to keep their magic in the coming months.”

“The boys haven’t been denied their magic for no reason.”

“So you’ve said many times, yet no one has ever offered even the simplest explanation,” I said. “I used to think it was for an important reason, but now I am convinced it was just a scheme contrived to give the ArchDruid more power.”

He stared at me as though he could not believe his ears. Leaving his seat, Father knelt beside me.

“Angelina, you have to understand—”

I held up a hand. “The only thing I understand, Father, is that I no longer belong here.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, of course you—”

Look at my chosen!” I shouted. “Do you see what has been done to him?”

“But you don’t understand why.”

“Oh, I know why,” I replied in a mocking tone. “It’s for the ‘greater good of all.’”

“Yes, and no matter what you think, it is!” Father snapped. “If you don’t believe me, just ask Padraig why his elemental fire is green!”

I don’t care!

“It’s because he defied the natural order of things, and the gods cursed him!”

The front door closed with a click. Neither of us had heard it open, but there stood Uncle with a stricken look on his face.

“That’s not true,” he said.

“Padraig,” Father began. “I’m—”

“It’s not true,” he said again. “I was not cursed. Not by the gods, or anyone else. My fire turned green from the anguish of losing my chosen.”

Uncle Padraig looked at me, and the despair was clear in his eyes.

“I’m sorry, Angie. I failed you and Davis, too.”

He dropped into a chair and buried his face in his hands. I went to him and put my hands on his shoulders.

“I think you should leave,” I told Father.

He did.

Chapter 7 – Overwhelmed

We may encounter many defeats but we must not be defeated.
~ Maya Angelou ~

I floated on my back in the stream, my mind occupied with the water nets and trout, the many dangers on the road, the kindness of Grandmother and the blind man Sinclair, but mostly my chosen warrior. With Kingston, Jonesboro, and Searcy behind us – and Kam Stone far away – I finally had Davis all to myself. While my noble protector took a well-earned rest in the shade of nearby oak trees, I pondered my next course of action.

He had chosen me over his own goals, over a pretty Traveler girl, and even his own parents. Surely it would not be too shocking or unexpected for me to join him in his blankets tonight? Compared to most druids, I had waited a good long time for him. True, while I had not restricted myself from all sexual activities, I had held myself to experiences in which I would not be tempted to break my vow.

During my observations through my fetch’s eyes, I was certain that he had never bedded any woman. Granted, I’d not been able to observe him twenty-four hours a day, but my fetch gave me spiritual and sensory information. I wouldn’t have cared if he had taken pleasure with other women; druids are rarely monogamous. In fact, it would have made things easier on me in two ways: for one thing, I could have indulged in carnal pleasure while still in the grove. A release of tension and sexual energy would be far more potent with a lover than that released by my own hand.

For another, it would make achieving my own desires where he was concerned much easier. Had Davis already been introduced to the pleasures of the flesh, I felt certain we would have been lovers by now. There would be none of this hesitancy and delicate flirtation. I also would not have a vague sense of trepidation regarding what he thought of me as a lover – or worse, whether he thought of me in that way at all. Since meeting him and sleeping beside him for several weeks, I began wishing that I had made my full sexual debut. It would have made me feel more confident.

However, I had wanted to meet my chosen warrior more or less on the same terms – not because I thought a first sexual experience was something particularly special, but because I wanted us to be on equal footing. I didn’t want my future lover to be intimidated by any perceived level of experience I possessed, I was now in a place of unease because of that exact lack.

There was, I had to admit, a certain pleasurable element to being tantalized by a man’s appreciative glances. His hesitant and gentle touches never failed to send a shiver down my spine. I swam closer to him and propped my elbows on the bank. Davis lay there with his hands behind his head, face peaceful in sleep, lips slightly parted. I wanted to kiss those lips so badly.

Frustration welled up inside me, but I shoved it back down. Even more than I desired him, I had an even deeper desire for him to come to me. I wanted to feel that same rush of excitement that the heroines in all the books felt when they realized that the man they admired most in the world had decided they were worthy of romantic pursuit.

Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy had ended up together, even though he had some serious expectations about how his future wife should behave that stood between them.

After all, even though Samwise Gamgee was a modest, shy gardener, after his adventures with Frodo, he had so grown in courage and self-realization that he dared ask Rosie Cotton to marry him.

And Peeta had ended up practically begging Katniss to marry him, but I’d never be that difficult about it. Granted, she had been run through the gauntlet, but so had he.

That was when I realized that part of what had made my favorite heroines attractive was that even though they’d been interested in the heroes (admittedly to varying degrees), not one of them had pounced on her love interest like a lioness on the hunt, but had allowed him at least some pursuit.

All I needed to do was give Davis a little encouragement.

That evening, after a swim that I had intended to be teasing but that was actually just good fun, I put on a thin, cotton dress that showed off my figure. Father had told me I was foolish for packing it, but a man’s opinion of what is necessary doesn’t always match that of a woman’s.

When I finished dressing, Davis was lighting a fire, gently blowing on the bright sparks. Even though it became no bigger than a candle flame, I watched in admiration. His speed and skill with bringing forth fire without magic never ceased to amaze me. Dry grass crackled under my bare feet, drawing first his glance, and then a second, longer look.

I detected just a hint of hunger in his eyes, now dark amber in the evening dusk, before he turned his attention back to the flint and tinder before him. The fire there had died, but I could tell by the tension in his shoulders that another, hidden, fire had begun to smolder. He shook his head in obvious disgust and set to starting it again.

“I didn’t see anything in the snares,” I said, raising the hem of my dress over my knees as I knelt across from him. “But I did catch some fish.”

“When did you do that?” he asked, then blew a whisper of air upon the newborn embers. I wanted to feel that breath on my neck, just before his lips brushed over my skin. I didn’t really pay attention to the rest of our conversation, communicating mostly with my eyes, lips, and hips. The content wasn’t important, anyway. We talked about supper every single night. What was important was that my chosen warrior got the signals I was sending, both through flirtatious movements of my body and hands, and the fleeting few seconds of eye contact every so often.

The fire went out again, and I smiled fondly at him. He was trying so hard to get us fed; it wasn’t fair of me to keep distracting him. Satisfied that I had indeed garnered his attention in a manner that did not require either shotgun or tomahawks, I decided to give him a little space. Walking away with my hips swaying, I went to fetch the trout and a couple of sticks on which to cook them.

Later that night, after our feast of fish and dried fruit, I had lain down beside Davis and asked him what stars he was observing. While I knew the constellations of each season like the back of my hand, I was interested in the extent of his knowledge. I used the method that my father and uncle had when they had queried me about stars and their patterns in the night sky. Stargazing had also provided me with the perfect excuse to draw him closer, as I used my finger to direct his gaze toward the firmaments. In order to properly follow someone else’s line of sight, it was necessary for one to move quite close together. When his shoulder touched mine and I felt the warmth of his bare skin, it made my heart beat just a little bit faster.

“So that’s Draco?” I asked, knowing full well that it was. Smiling inwardly to myself with this small success, I chose a different constellation. Davis scooted closer to me, peering upward without realizing how very close he now was. My breath quickened and I became quite giddy. None of the boys from the grove had ever made me feel like that.

“Right. And see the faint constellation that’s kind of wrapped up in Draco’s tail? That’s Ursa Minor, the little bear. You can see it fairly well tonight because the sky is so clear. Then to the right of the tail, there’s Ursa Major, the big bear.”

“My friend Irri likes bears,” I said, just talking about anything to keep him close to me. “Sometimes she pets them.”

He frowned. “Bears are dangerous.”

I gave a little shrug. Iriana was an earth elementalist; like many possessing the element of earth, she had a way with bears. She could talk to them like I could speak with other animals, only her connection was stronger with bears.

“I guess she talks to them so they’ll be nice to her,” I said. “Kind of the way I did with Mule One and Mule Two.”

“You used magic on the mules?”

“I had to get them to behave somehow. I don’t have as much of a connection to other animals like I do with cats, but I can usually get my point across.” I smiled at him, willing my eyes to sparkle. Without spirit magic, however, there wasn’t much to sparkle with.

“I think your grove is going to be stranger than anything I’ve ever experienced,” Davis said.

“It’s nothing like Jonesboro, that’s for sure.” I pointed to Herakles. “What’s that one?” The position of that particular constellation just might make him roll onto his side, putting him in the perfect position to look down on me, gaze into my eyes, and realize that my lips were the most kissable ones he had ever seen.

“Mmm… I think you’re pointing to Hercules.”

“It looks like Draco is about to eat him,” I giggled, ecstatic with my success so far. “How did you learn so much about the stars?”

“My mother taught me. My father is familiar enough with astronomy to navigate, but she really loves the night sky. We used to lie on the roof and stare at the stars for hours, and she’d tell me stories of the gods that went with them.”

“Do you miss your parents?”

“Yes,” he said. “Terribly.”

“What?” I asked, forgetting all about my seduction. I thought he was happy to be away from them.

“And now I’ll never see them again because of you.”

That’s not how it happened, I thought, confused.

Charlie turned his head and looked at me, anger and betrayal in his eyes. “I’m going to die, Angie. And it’ll be all your fault.”

“No!” I said, stricken. “You can’t die! You can’t!”

His eyes turned to blazing coals.

“Don’t tell me what I can’t do.”

* * *

I snapped awake with a gasp, feeling tears slipping free of my eyelashes. Roughly scrubbing my face with my hands, I jerked upright. I had fallen asleep sitting on the floor beside Charlie’s cot with my head resting on my arms. I glanced around me, blinking stupidly. Uncle Padraig had gone upstairs to bring Danica her supper.

Adalwulf Rask kept me company and was currently occupying a chair that faced the door, his booted feet propped on a stool and his arms folded over his chest. He was fully armored, with both his wicked-looking long knives strapped to his back.

“I shouldn’t have fallen asleep,” I said aloud, trying to scramble to my feet in spite of my left leg, which was tingling with pins and needles.

“You need to rest, too,” said Adalwulf.

“I don’t want to sleep anymore,” I said, hearing my voice tremble with tears left over from the horrible dream. It was approaching midnight of the third day since I’d found my lover cold and alone in the healer’s house. Gooseflesh rose on my arms and I rubbed them briskly to chase them away.

“I’ll go make us some more coffee,” Adalwulf said.

I nodded, appreciating the gesture. I was sleeping little and while having a steady supply of coffee had helped me initially, it’s effects upon me seemed to be waning. No quick burst of artificial energy could replace the life-giving replenishment of sleep.

Bending over Charlie, I touched his hands, then his forehead. Both were dry and hot. I gently dabbed a touch of balm on his chapped lips. In spite of the green tea made with comfrey and willow bark, there was little or no improvement in his condition. Yesterday it had strengthened the beat of his heart and slowed it from its wild gallop; today it raced along unabated, his pulse weakening gradually beneath my fingertips. Yesterday his skin would cool slightly, allowing him an hour or two of peaceful rest; today his flesh remained hot to the touch and no sweat appeared upon his brow. Pain was the only thing that caused his restless tossing and turning to abate, and even then he shivered because of it.

“That’s the last of the cream,” Adalwulf said, handing me a mug.

Those were not the words I had expected to hear at the end of the world. The bottom disappeared from my well of hope; I wrapped my arms about myself and squeezed tightly, trying to hold myself together. I tried to get Charlie to drink a little green tea, then bathed him again in the minted water. He murmured my name and I kissed his heated brow.

What we really needed was for Duncan to return. Not only was my cousin skilled with manipulating his element, earth, but he had studied the medicinal arts extensively with several of the grove’s healers. His knowledge, together with his magic and the Earth Mother’s favor, made him the most powerful earth druid in the grove.

If Duncan came back, he could heal Charlie.

When Uncle Padraig brought the supper dishes back to the kitchen, I begged him to find Duncan.

“Angelina, you’re asking me to look for a needle in a haystack,” he protested.

“Please. Just try.”

“You know as well as I do that no one can find an earth druid who doesn’t want to be found.”

My heart sank a little more; Charlie had told Duncan to “make himself scarce” and my cousin had done so. He had wanted to stay, but my chosen had reminded him that the two of us were headed for trouble, and as young male druid with magic, my cousin would be in more danger than either of us.

Duncan had always kept his own counsel, however. He could very well be lurking on the edges of the grove, awaiting an invitation to return, or perhaps a signal that all was not well.

He did love Charlie, after all.

“Maybe if you’re out there looking, he’ll notice!”

“How?” he asked, looking concerned for my sanity.

“Set fire to the sky!” I cried. “Make the earth shake! You’re a druid, Uncle! Do something – anything – so he’ll know something is wrong and come home!”

“I am willing to try to seek him out,” said Adalwulf.

“He won’t come back for anyone but me, I fear,” Uncle Padraig replied with a shake of his head. Uncle looked at me with pity and I turned away, unable to bear it. Everyone else might be giving up on Charlie, but I would not.

Gentle arms embraced me as I fought back tears.

“I will go,” Uncle said. “For you, Angie, I will try.”

Chapter 6 – Recriminations

In the end, we only regret the chances we didn’t take,
relationships we were afraid to have,
and the decisions we waited too long to make.

~ Lewis Carroll ~

“I should never have left him,” Uncle Padraig said for the tenth time. In spite of having been awake for two days, he had risen with the dawn. He made breakfast and took some up to Danica, after which Adalwulf Rask took his leave.

“Send for me if you need me,” he said.

“I’ll do that,” Uncle replied. “Thank you for watching over my family.”

Adalwulf responded with a respectful nod and stepped out into the cold morning air.

“How is Danica?” I asked.

“She could barely keep her eyes open long enough to eat.” He paused. “Her hand shook so bad that I had to feed her.”

I laid my hand on his, giving it a squeeze before rising and returning to the pharmacy. “I’m sure some of that was the spirit over-power.”

He nodded. “I haven’t seen a druid as weak as this in a very long time. Probably since before you were born.”

I’m not surprised, I thought, beginning the process of making poultices. No one here has stuck their neck out for decades.

Prior to Orion’s mad rampage, a person would have to leave the safety of the grove if he was to encounter the kinds of danger that required the hefty use of elemental magic. Ruminating once again on the battle I’d chosen to fight, a revolution to bring about a return to the old ways. No one should ever have given in to ArchDruid Sebrina’s bullying. No one should ever have neutered their baby boys, denying them the gift of the Shining Ones. It had begun a cascade of events which had begun with the ArchDruid calling all the roaming druids back to the grove from their missions. Twenty years later, the druids of White Oak Grove had almost entirely abdicated their responsibility to aid their fellow man and their duty to heal the earth. The world and all its living creatures had suffered without our restorative intervention. Its people had been abandoned to the ravages of sickness, drought, famine, plague, and more recently, the predations of bandits.

This was the thing I’d worked so hard to change, for if only half of my generation possessed magic, it would seriously hamper our ability to journey unmolested, and our work would take hundreds of years instead of decades. Yes, I wanted our young men to have their magic restored to them simply because it was the right thing to do. But I had also kept in mind the larger picture.

I’d been so focused on that big picture, however, and so obsessed with the forest that I’d forgotten the trees. I’d neglected to protect one tree in particular, forgetting that even the mightiest of oaks can be felled by a single lightning strike.

Uncle Padraig had some difficulty rousing Charlie, but he woke to my voice. I used elemental water to moisten the poultices and compresses that had dried overnight and then let them sit a few minutes so removing them would be easier and less painful.

My chosen had repeatedly refused to drink both teas in one sitting, so I had solved the problem by brewing both comfrey and willow bark into the green tea, adding generous amounts of cinnamon and honey to hide the bitter taste. He needed help to sit up, swaying even with Uncle supporting him. Still, he drank the tea, sipping slowly.

“It’s time to change your bandages,” I said. He nodded understanding and let his head hang. He flinched as each compress and poultice was removed, and his knuckles were white from gripping the side of the cot. A few of the purulent boils had drained into the poultices, which was good, but more had risen during the night. I thought that might be a bad sign, but maybe it was good that the infection was rising to the surface to drain.

“I’m thirsty,” he said and gulped down two full glasses of cool water.

“Drink this, Davis,” said Uncle, bringing a tiny cup to Charlie’s lips. “It’s laudanum. It will help with the pain.”

“Thank you,” Charlie mumbled, and eased back down on the cot, lying on his stomach. I applied the poultices as delicately as I could, but the muscle in his jaw jumped and his fingers twitched.

“Hurts,” my chosen mumbled as the narcotic took hold.

“I know, love.” I stroked his hair and face until he fell asleep.

I feared to leave his side, and when I did sleep it was light, as had we both while Traveling together on the road. This time, however, I had spirit magic on my fingertips, awaiting the moment my chosen’s life was threatened again. I did not care whether the threat came from Darryn, a member of the Tetrarch, or the ArchDruid Sebrina herself. If they came calling with intent to cause harm, then I was prepared to meet them with deadly force. Charlie would have done no less to defend me, the consequences be damned. Too long had I allowed him to risk his neck for my ideals. Too many times, he had suffered injury in standing up for my principles. True, he also believed that denying the grove’s young men their magic was misguided and damaging. He had insisted that we were partners in the old way, and my battles were his battles.

The fact of the matter, however, was that he would not have set foot into White Oak Grove had I not asked it of him. There had been many signs warning me of the danger to my love, yet I had heeded none of them. I had been so sure of myself and my path of righteousness that I had been convinced the Shining Ones would stand as a shield between us and harm.

Events had conspired to prove me wrong. While I had plenty to occupy my hands, there was little to occupy my mind except recrimination and memories. Too many times I had expected the gods to protect us in our endeavors, like the time we had stayed in Searcy. It was my own fault that I’d been taken captive and nearly burned at the stake. When I had visited the vendors under the bridge there, I’d made no secret of their magical purpose. While the sheriff had warned against such things, I reasoned that it was merely ignorance and fear of the unfamiliar that would make the citizens of Searcy react badly. One might try to defend my actions by pointing out that I had no idea that one of the tenets of their faith was a deadly intolerance of those who believed differently. However, I had been warned by one with greater wisdom and experience and had ignored it, just like I had ignored the advice of others so many times because I thought I knew better.

In the beginning, I had tried to reason with them, calmly explaining that even though we had different gods, mine were no more evil than theirs was. I had intended to reassure them; instead, they were incensed that anyone would view any other gods as an equal to their own.

One woman began it by slapping my face; two others joined and shoved me until I fell to the ground. I was still speaking words of peace when two burly men grabbed my arms and dragged me away from the marketplace. I cried for Davis, knowing there was no way he could save me. He had no idea where I was, and I was not at all certain if we had been together long enough for a magic bond to develop. I was thrown into a cellar under someone’s shop and there I sat, trembling for hours from the shock, praying he would feel my distress and be drawn by that mystical thread between chosen, and terrified that he would not.

Fear had changed to dread when the cellar door opened and they dragged me out. I kicked, and fought, reaching desperately for the spirit magic that had been blocked from me. I could feel it, just beyond my reach, heard the thunder as it tried to respond.

As they drove me up a hill, I had no idea what they intended for me until I saw the wooden pillar surrounded by a pile of wood. Our books had mentioned ancient witch burnings, as well as the persecutions and executions during the Rebirth, but it had never crossed my mind that some people might still engage in such evil activities.

Terror gripped me as I was shoved into a circle of screaming women; they pulled my hair and slapped my face. My shirt buttons popped as they tore my clothes from my body. Never before had I considered nakedness to be shameful; I tried to cover myself but again the men gripped my arms, dragging me to the stake while I begged for mercy. Rough ropes bound my feet to a pillar of wood, my arms tied behind me and my body laid bare for the hate in their eyes. My flesh was revealed for all to see, vulnerable to whatever despicable acts they intended, and I knew I was lost.

Until he came and saved me.

A fiery explosion burst forth in the darkness, blurred by my tearful gaze, followed by a BOOM. The myriad angry faces changed to fearful ones and they reached for their guns. More and more explosions came, gradually coming closer until my ears rang with the sound of it. The people that still could were running and screaming; the rest were lying dead, scattered in pieces upon the slopes of the hill.

And then only two remained, the man in black who told the man with the gun to kill me and be done with it. The rifleman cocked his gun – or at least I thought he had when I heard a loud crack – but instead of shooting me, he died instead. Davis had snapped his neck. He quickly dispatched the man in black and scanned for further threats. Sobbing in relief, I would have collapsed, had I not been held upright by scratchy ropes binding my body to the stake. His sudden presence and the rage in his golden eyes convinced me that the magic connecting us truly existed. I wept in gratitude as he gently released me from my bonds and held me close, surrounding me with his strength and covering my nakedness.

He had stood between me and danger so many times, and I had taken it all for granted.

*  *  *

My father returned later that afternoon. His face was impassive, but there was a storm of emotion in his eyes.

“You were right about Darryn Darkmane,” he said.

“You found a witness.”

“Niall woke up briefly today,” Father said, speaking in clipped tones. He was angry and trying to hold it in. “Nualla was vehement that her son needed his rest, but I insisted on speaking with him.”

“What did he say?”

“He reported having no difficulty holding Orion at bay,” Father said. “However, when Darryn showed up during their standoff, he told Niall he was there to help. Then as soon as Niall’s back was turned, Darryn slashed at his leg, leaving him hamstrung.”

“Niall never should have turned his back on him,” Uncle Padraig said.

“With Niall out of the way, Orion was free to continue his rampage until so many earth druids were so badly hurt that it would take all the rest of their number to save their lives.” Father’s eyes blazed with fury and spirit magic.

“But I thought that Orion’s body was found lying near Niall,” I said. “What did Darryn do, kill him and drag the body back?”

“No. Even though he was wounded, Niall chased them down.”

“Dagda’s club!” said Padraig. “I never would have guessed he had it in him.”

“Niall caught up to them in front of Halle Starseeker’s house. Evidently, the screams had drawn her outside, and even though she had a sword, they bested her quickly,” Father continued. “Shekhar Patel had come out of his house with his own sword, but was hard put even to defend himself.”

“And no wonder,” said Uncle. “The man’s nearly seventy!”

My father nodded. “Niall said he yelled to divert their attention, and when they came after him, it allowed Shekhar to flee. Since Darryn had crippled him, Orion bled him nearly dry. The fight was over in seconds.”

While the three sons of the Tetrarch may have been friends all their lives, that bond had not been enough to keep Betrys Darkmane’s son from turning on them like a rabid animal.

“And then Darryn cut his throat to silence him forever,” I said.

All so that there would be no magic left for healing my chosen.

“It’s a wonder he didn’t kill Niall, too.” Uncle Padraig put his hand on his sword hilt. “I’ll kill that little monster!”

Father put his hand on Uncle’s shoulder. “No, you won’t.”

“Liam! You can’t possibly let this go unpunished!”

“Padraig, I have no intention of allowing Darryn Darkmane to go unpunished. I just said that you won’t be the one to kill him.”

“Father?” I asked, recalling the night when Charlie and Duncan had returned a bloody mess, carrying the tale that Darryn had stabbed my chosen in the back. He would have died in that forest on our northern border, had my cousin Duncan not healed him.

My father had threatened Darryn, saying he would kill him if he harmed my chosen again, but after years and years of watching him bow to the whims of the ArchDruid and the dictates of her Tetrarch, I had thought those words empty of meaning. No son of the Tetrarch would ever receive punishment or discipline of any kind, no matter how egregious their wrongdoing. Everyone knew that.

Father’s eyes were hard, and he looked grim.

“I made a vow, Angelina,” he said, “and I intend to keep it.”

Chapter 5 – Loyalty and Devotion

Loyalty and devotion lead to bravery.
Bravery leads to the spirit of self-sacrifice.
The spirit of self-sacrifice creates trust in the power of love.
~ Morihei Ueshiba ~

 “Darryn!” Arrie rose from her stool, an expression of incredulous horror on her face. “Are you sure?”

“I should have known,” I said, my voice shaking with rage. “I should have killed him when I had the chance! I should have left the first time he hurt you!”

“Water under the bridge,” Charlie murmured.

“It’s easy to believe, considering how many times he’s tried to kill you,” said Uncle, laying a hand on Charlie’s arm. “Gods, son, I’d never have left you if I’d thought he would do such a thing.”

“But Darryn was the one who stopped Orion’s mad rampage last night!” Arrie said.

Darryn killed Orion?” I asked, incredulous.

“He expressed great regret that he had to use lethal force on Dianthe’s son,” she said, shaking her head sadly. “It’s almost impossible to believe,” she said. “The sons of the Tetrarch have always stood by one another. Niall, Darryn, and Orion have been friends since they could walk and talk.”

“Aye, that they were,” Uncle Padraig said dryly. “Right up until the moment when they decided to murder one another.”

He and I shared a look that said more than mere language could convey. Darryn Darkmane’s hatred of my chosen had run deeper than even I had believed. Nothing had deterred him from his murderous errand – not even the lives of his childhood friends. Orion had been heard to say that his mother had promised to restore his magic, with the approval of the ArchDruid, if he killed my chosen during the Yule sword tournament.

I wondered if she had promised Darryn the same.
It was most definitely a prize for which he would kill.

“I’d better tell Liam,” Uncle said.

“There’s no need, brother.”

I turned to see my father standing in the doorway.

“I heard him well enough,” Father said. “I suppose it is possible, for Orion could not have developed this plan on his own. Nor would he have been able to turn aside from his lethal path, once he’d begun to walk it.”

“You suppose it’s possible?” I repeated. How blind could one man be? “Dead men tell no tales, Father.”

He turned to me. “You may be correct in finding a connection between Darryn’s involvement and Orion’s death.”

“What are you saying?” Arrie whispered.

“Darryn had to have been the one who put a weapon in Orion’s hands and set him on the healers!” Uncle insisted. “It was a ruse to draw us away so he could do this.” Uncle Padraig gestured at the mass of lash-marks on my chosen’s back, now red and swollen with infection.

“Are you suggesting that Darryn would sacrifice nineteen people just to kill one man?” Father shook his head. “It is far more likely that he merely took advantage of Danica’s absence in order to exact his revenge upon Davis.”

I glanced at my chosen, once again drugged and sleeping heavily. While he had never been under the illusion that my father supported him, Charlie still didn’t need to hear his dispassionate account of a malicious assault that was not only meant to harm, but also to humiliate. I wanted to rail against my father for his coldness, but could not find the words.

“That doesn’t explain how Orion got his hands on a sword,” Uncle challenged. “It doesn’t explain why he would target just the healers.”

“Accidents happen,” Father said. “Orion may have been mad, but he was also clever.”

“You’re not an idiot, Liam, so why do you insist on acting like one?” Uncle snapped.

“Is it idiocy to want more than a few thinly connected events before coming to a conclusion?” Father shot back. “Davis has many enemies in the grove.”

“Many enemies, but only one tried to kill him multiple times,” Uncle Padraig growled. “Darryn Darkmane.”

“It still doesn’t mean that he gave Orion a weapon and led him all over the grove killing people like a wolf on a leash.”

Remembering how Niall had shouted at Darryn to leave Charlie alone and then had attempted to help him rise after his beating, I felt cold inside. No doubt Darryn had viewed Niall’s actions as a betrayal.

“How is Niall?” I asked, interrupting their argument. Doubtless, they’d have argued for hours if I had not.

“He’ll live,” Father replied. “It was a brave thing he did, standing up to a madman like that. If he hadn’t stopped Orion, we might not have any earth druids left.”

“Peculiar thing,” said Uncle, “him being hamstrung during the fight.”

“People make mistakes in the heat of battle,” said Father.

“The rest of his wounds were inflicted from the front,” Uncle continued. “He protected his flank well.”

Father sighed, looking irate. “Out with it, Padraig. Stop beating around the bush.”

“I’m saying Darryn was the one that crippled him.”

“That’s a bit far-fetched.”

“Not if Niall found out he was the one leading the ravening wolf about on a leash.”

Father threw his hands in the air and let them fall again. “What would you have me do, Padraig? Accuse Darryn without proof? People will think me mad as Orion.”

“I guess you’ll just have to ask the one person who might be able to give you an answer,” Uncle said.

“And who might that be?”

“Niall Ashcroft.”

*  *  *

Charlie moved restlessly, mumbling in his sleep. I went to calm him, speaking soothing nonsense words of comfort. He tried to speak again, refusing to be shushed. Since he was already awake with the fever undiminished, I tried to give him more tea. He turned his head away, but finally accepted a few sips of water. His eyes were dull, dimmed to hazel instead of their usual brilliant gold.

“I think I’m sick, Ang,” he said.

“You have a fever,” I said, kneeling on the floor beside him. “But have no fear. Danica is the best healer in the grove, and you’ll be right as rain in no time.”

We had no idea when the earth druid would be physically up to another difficult healing, but I still held out hope. Uncle Padraig had gone upstairs to sleep with Danica, but Charlie was safe under the watchful eye Adalwulf Rask. As he was a man of honor above all else, I was certain that his action was motivated by a sense of reciprocity. Charlie had helped his son Wolfric escape the grove, along with his chosen Onóra, and had ended up in this miserable state as a result. He had appeared around noon and had spoken little since. Eireanne, his chosen, brought supper for us both later that evening.

“His wounds are festering,” said Eireanne, studying Charlie’s back with a critical eye. She pointed to a few spots that looked like blisters filled with pus. “You need a poultice with clay or charcoal to draw out the infection.”

“I’ll look and see if I can find out how to make one,” I asked, rising from the table and heading for the bookshelf.

“You eat,” she said. “I don’t need a book.”

“But—”

Adalwulf’s chosen was generally thought to be a bit on the odd side, mostly due to her claims to clairvoyance, but I’d never agreed with them. Even so, I was hesitant to trust her with Charlie’s life.

“You don’t have to be an earth elementalist to know about medicine, Angie,” she said, as though reading my mind.

I opened my mouth and closed it again. My own herbal preparations proved her correct, even if they had not been very effective.

True to her word, she knew what she was doing. Without waiting for me, she gathered the necessary supplies and got to work. By the time I finished eating, she had selected several jars of herbs and was spooning specific amounts into a bowl.

“Heat some water for me, will you, love?” Eireanne asked.

Adalwulf, an earth-fire druid like my uncle, fetched the cauldron from the fireplace and filled it with fresh water. Steam was rising from the water’s surface within moments, and he stood there holding it in his hands to keep it at the proper temperature while she added the herbal mixture a little at a time.

When she was finished with the herbs, I put them away. Ruining whatever system of organization Danica had instituted, I pushed all the other bottles aside to clear a space for the ones Charlie needed and tucked them in a corner on the bottom shelf.

While the herbs cooled, Eireanne scooped damp clay from a large blue crock onto a couple of marble slabs, where we thinned it with water into a spreadable paste. Once the herbs were cool enough to touch, we worked them into the clay and then let it sit while we laid out several squares of clean linen. Dropping the herbed clay mixture onto the center of each square, we pressed it out almost flat before wrapping them up into useable poultices.

I could have applied the poultices myself – and nearly insisted on doing so – but Eireanne’s presence was so calm and uplifting that I found myself wanting to be near her. It made me wonder if this was what being with a mother was like – a real mother, with a comforting, supportive presence.

“When did you learn to make a poultice like this?” I asked.

“I’ve spent a fair bit of time patching him up,” she replied, nodding at Adalwulf, who was at the sink washing up after supper. “Always getting into trouble, that one. Always fighting.”

“That’s… difficult to picture.”

The Adalwulf Rask I had grown up knowing was unusually reserved for one possessing elemental fire. He was always quiet, respectful in his manner, carefully considering, and always tightly controlled. I could say the same for my own father, yet I had seen the scars that marked his flesh with a silent testimony of his own battles.

“You find it difficult to imagine him picking a fight, I imagine,” Eireanne said, laying another poultice on Charlie’s heated skin. “But It’s the quiet ones that bear the most watching, you know.”

Suds up to his elbows, Adalwulf chuckled softly.

She leaned closer, saying in a conspiratorial tone, “It is not the love of violence that drives him, but a sense of duty. A sense of honor. To a man like that, some battles must be fought, no matter the odds.” She paused, giving me a glance. “But I suppose you know that already.”

By the gods, did I ever. I nodded, feeling glum.

“Don’t worry, honey,” she said with a gentle smile. “Remember the prophecy I gave you? All will be well.”

Even though I didn’t remember much more than a twisted path, lightning, thunder, fire, and a deep abyss, I nodded. Neither Charlie nor I had been able to make heads or tails of the foretelling she’d given at Lughnasadh, so hadn’t thought on it since.

“Thank you for teaching me to make the proper poultice,” I said, forcing myself to give her a little smile. “And for letting me borrow your chosen.”

Eireanne smiled as she gathered her things and prepared to leave.

“It was Adalwulf’s idea,” she said. “Yours is the cause he has decided to champion. Yours is the battle he has chosen to fight.”

“Then I am blessed to have such an ally.”

“As we are blessed to have a champion such as you,” she replied with a twinkle in her eye. “Fear not, Angelina. All will be well.”