Child of Storms – Chapter 9

Chapter 9 – Rage

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

I stood there 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.  I was convinced that I would indeed find him with our treacherous leader, lying wounded and broken at her feet as she sat upon the wooden chair she treated as a 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, while spirit energized my body 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 the stained glass shattered when it smashed into the wall.  The Tetrarch were lolling about like sows at a trough – all present except Nualla – with queen pig Sebrina sitting on her ruling seat 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 be 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 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, climbing to his feet.

“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 four druids fully trained in the use of elemental combat and was holding them helpless.  Pollona moaned and I hit her again with a spirit bolt.  As an afterthought, I smacked Dianthe with another as well to prevent her from rising.

“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 yelled. “But you’ll whip a man over some dried fruit? What punishment should be meted out to a woman who steals water?  A whipping?  Or something worse?”

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

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 for one last act, 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.  You always say I’m soft, and that 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!”

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

“You foul betrayer, you traitor, you whore!” Spittle flew from the ArchDruid’s lips, and I tightened my hold on the wire whips.  Sebrina screamed 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 wire whips 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, gently lowering the ArchDruid to the floor.  Sebrina 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 druid I raised you to be.”

“On the contrary,” Padraig said. “Angelina is exactly the druid you taught her to be.”

“Be silent, malcontent!” the ArchDruid snapped.

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.

He never took a step toward me with the dagger, but instead drew the point of it across his left palm, slicing through the oath mark there.  “By Fire, I am no longer bound by blood,” he intoned.

“No!” Sebrina exclaimed, her eyes wide.

“By Well, I am no longer bound by air.” 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 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, then clutched at her stomach.  “You traitor!” she screeched before falling to her hands and knees and vomiting on the floor.

“The apple 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, completely 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 the worst.

Now he was free.

I had my father back.

Child of Storms – Chapter 8

Chapter 8 – Turmoil

I hope it is true that a man can die and yet not only
live in others
but give them life, and not only life,
but that great consciousness of life.

~ Jack Kerouac ~

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 in the hearth, 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 torture 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 Charlie.

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 still should 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, unless I knew 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 earth, 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. “Her family has 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 her cronies!”

Father’s eyes narrowed, sparking with spirit magic.  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, or 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 dying for two 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 carry out my oath to take revenge on you for allowing this to happen to Davis.”

Father sneered.  “If you think you’ve got the balls, little brother, then meet me 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 swordsman – reputedly 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’s body.  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; it wasn’t forbidden – few things were – but it 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, passively watching because I was afraid, jolted me into action.  Fear turned to anger, spurring me into action.  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 wall before I hardened it to the strength of stone.  There was a bright, metallic ring that reverberated in the air as the blades were stuck fast.

Before either of them could release a hilt and 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 swords, I could see that Padraig had nearly lost his head, while Father would soon have spilled his guts 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 cried.

“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,” my father 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 is knowing Davis was hurt.  He’s just… far away.”  His voice lacked conviction.

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

“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 awful place.  Our children will abandon us!  We will die old and alone, and we will deserve our fate!”

He turned his back on everyone and walked away, back to Danica’s house.  The healer threw her arms around Padraig before bringing him inside.  Even though they were not chosen, it was good they had each other.  It came upon me with stunning clarity that 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 such a cruel place, would you ever return?”

Father did not respond.

The crowd dissipated and soon we were alone in the street, my father and I.  Remembering the swords, I let them drift slowly toward the ground.  Reaching out, Father took hold of his longsword and began wiping the blade clean.

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

He did.

Child of Storms – Chapter 7

Chapter 7 – 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.

Uncle Padraig’s earth elementalist nature came forth, a sight 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.  And also, he helped me care for Charlie, repositioning 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 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 never should 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 even 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 never have 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 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 was 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 lover?  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.

Why had I 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 trying not to drown 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 was losing my chosen and all for nothing.

I couldn’t heal the world all by myself.

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 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 shoulders slumped.

Pushing my cot until it was touching his, 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 to me, 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.

Child of Storms – Chapter 6

Chapter 6 – Disillusioned

The most common way people give up their power
is by thinking they don’t have any.

~ Alice Walker ~

It was only just nearing nightfall, but it seemed I’d spent an eternity in this room.  Danica was still sleeping upstairs, and no one had come to check on us.  I felt like the whole world had abandoned me and was wondering if another disaster had befallen the grove.  I looked up in hope when the front door opened and Uncle Padraig returned, but the rueful shake of his head was like 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.”

“Maybe I can pull some of the heat off to make him more comfortable.”  Uncle closed his eyes, and after a few minutes my chosen’s skin was cooler and his cheeks less flushed.  He laid his face against Charlie’s.  “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 Charlie.  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.  “Duncan will see my fire signal better when it’s dark.”

My cousin would also know that it was his father’s signal, for no other fire druid possessed green elemental fire.

“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 shortly after 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 Uncle had sent them to stay with me, as my father had not yet returned.

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; now his skin felt 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 kept air currents moving though 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.

“Sleeping,” I said. “She had no magic left.”

“No magic?” Nioba repeated.

“She fainted this morning.”

“And you’ve been here all alone?” Arrie cried.

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

“What about your father?”

I shrugged.  He had stayed with us the whole night before, but had left at dawn without stating his business.  I thought Father was going home to sleep while Uncle watched over us, but he had not returned.  I didn’t care.  Unless someone possessed healing earth magic, they were of little use to us.

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

“A little.”  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, low 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 no one had bothered to help us before.  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,” 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.”

There was a deep, dark shadow behind the compassion in her eyes, and I remembered when her chosen, Kepheus Walsh, had been found in the forest, gunned down by bandits.  He’d been the most skilled water elementalist in the grove, so powerful that he was able to manipulate both water and plants.  Rumors had abounded that the ArchDruid had arranged for his death, since he had refused to allow his sons to be born without magic, or blocked from it in any way.  Arrie had been left with four children to care for and another one on the way.  A few years later, her eldest son Leonidas was banished for the crime of using his own water magic.  I’d been twelve or thirteen at the time and had been shocked that a fifteen-year-old would be mercilessly whipped and then thrown out to fend for himself.  It was this event that had turned me against the ArchDruid, when before I’d happily been her pet my whole life.

“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.  Sleep never came to me, 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 said, 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 well after midnight when my father returned, his stern expression thinly veiling the anger that was apparent in his eyes.

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

“I spent half the day 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.”

“People saw Darryn with Orion?”

Father nodded.

“And did they come forward?”

“Aye.  We even had a formal hearing.”

“And is he to be punished?”

“No, he is not,” he replied, spirit magic flashing in his eyes. “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.

I was not surprised, already believing that Darryn had poisoned Charlie to win favor with Sebrina.  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 would have made it clear that an attack on my chosen was an attack on all the Everlights.  Instead, he had remained silent, allowing Darryn and others to hurt Charlie repeatedly without reprisal.  He had allowed Sebrina to beat him.  He had left him alone and vulnerable to attack.  And then he had abandoned us both in this fool’s errand, trying to convince Sebrina that Betrys’ son was responsible for the attack on the healers.  I felt anger rise in me again.

“Where’s Padraig?”

“Looking for Duncan.”

“That’s a fool’s errand.”

“At least he’s doing something.”

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, and I couldn’t have cared less.

“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.”

“They 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 coldly. “I used to think it was for an important reason, but now I think it’s a plot 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.  His voice was near a whisper when he spoke:

“Over twenty years ago, the former ArchDruid proposed a heinous crime against all we hold dear.  He wanted to make the druids stronger by encouraging women to give their male children extra elements.”

“Do you mean… augmenting them?”

He nodded.  “His intentions were good.  At that time there were more women with multiple elements than men, and he wanted to even that out.”

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 a warmongering heretic who had no honor and no respect for Shining Ones, the Nature Spirits, or the Ancestors.  If indeed he had come up with the idea, it was hard to believe that he was righteous man.

“Connor Shitozaki was an honorable man and I was proud to call him my friend.”  Father placed a hand on his chest.  “We are the protectors of the earth, and of this grove.  The bandits on our northern borders were increasing in number and power, and he was concerned that we would not be able to defend ourselves against them.  Having more elements at our disposal seemed like a good idea.”

“So you experimented on babies?”

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

“But it didn’t work.”

“No.”  He shook his head.  “And before you ask, Connor did mention the possibility of changing the magic of an unborn child – but he was just thinking aloud.”  He paused.  “We’re druids, Angie.  We like our books and our theories and our philosophical discussions… He never intended for anyone to actually try it!”

“But they did,” I said.

He nodded.  “Connor 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.”

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.

“And you thought that boys with warped minds would be better than warped bodies.”

“Their minds aren’t warped!”

“Orion’s is.  Was.  So is Darryn’s,” I said. “I don’t know how Niall escaped it.  Maybe he’s better at hiding his insanity than they were.”

“It was wrong!  Such things should be left under the dominion of the Shining Ones.”

“If the gods saw fit to allow it, perhaps you should have left it in their hands,” I retorted. “Or, maybe you could have devoted the time and effort to finding out whether any of them truly were augmented.  Instead, you let Sebrina condemn them all to irreparable damage!”

“Do you know what happened to my brother’s chosen?” he demanded.

“Dragana died in childbirth, just like…”  Just like my mother, I did not say.

“No!  Dragana never even made it that far in her pregnancy!  She died mere days after augmenting her son!  He possessed the element of earth and she talked Padraig into giving him fire as well.  The child roasted her from the inside and it killed her.  That is why my brother’s elemental fire is green.  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, shoulders shaking.  I went to him and put my hands on his shoulders.

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

He did.

Child of Storms – Chapter 5

Chapter 5 – Overwhelmed

In the flush of love’s light, we dare be brave.
And suddenly we see that love costs all we are, and will ever be.
Yet it is only love which sets us free.
~ Maya Angelou ~

After Uncle Padraig saw Danica safely upstairs and in bed, 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 when an earth druid doesn’t want to be found, no one can find him.”

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 into trouble, and as young male druid with magic, he would be in more danger than either of us – or so we had thought at the time.

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 loved Charlie, too, 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!”

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.

“I’ll try,” he said.

* * *

I spent the next few hours alternately paging through books and bathing Charlie in mint water. His fever continued to rage; he became delirious, moving restlessly and mumbling. 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 passage suggested that if a patient had an extreme fever in winter, to pack ice and snow on and around their body. Grabbing a bucket, I ran to the back yard 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.

I repeated the application of snow every hour, allowing it to melt on my chosen’s burning flesh, hoping the fever would be carried away with every drop of water that melted. Between applications of snow, I searched Danica’s collection of dried herbs for the ones she had used to mix poultices. After a minute or two of frantic searching, I realized that she had left them out on the counter beside the mortar and pestle.

With my sleep-deprived mind whirling with fear and anxiety, I began grinding the herbs in the stone pestle. Having something to do, a project on which to focus, helped organize my frazzled thoughts. It took longer to mix everything than it had before; next time I would need to start earlier. The work took my mind back to when Charlie had been shot and I’d been so jealous of all those witches.

Looking back, I’d been so ridiculously foolish. All I could think of at the time was that one of them was going to bed my chosen before I could, and that all my waiting and sacrifice would be for naught. I should have ignored the Weird Sisters as they ogled him and made lewd comments. And when Maeve had taken him off for a massage, I had been envious and angry instead of being appreciative of her healing arts. It’s a wonder the high priestess hadn’t thrown me out for having such a churlish and ungrateful attitude.

In the end, Rhiannon herself had brought me a pretty yellow dress to wear on Midsummer’s Day, along with some valuable advice.

“Stop moping around, Angie,” she had said. “Get up, take a bath, do your hair, and wear this dress. Quit beating around the bush with Davis and seduce the man, for Goddess’ sake.”

She had shocked and surprised me. I had been anticipating a lecture on manners and proper behavior, and so had been caught off-guard, tricked into revealing my true thoughts. The words that tumbled from my mouth had been: “But what if he doesn’t want me?”

The high priestess had laughed. “Young druid, desire is the least of the emotions Davis feels for you. That man’s eyes follow you everywhere you go. When you exhale, he breathes it in. His hand reaches for yours before you even have a chance to stumble. He puts food on your plate before his own. He regards you as precious, to the point of guarding your life with such devotion that he nearly disregards his own. If that’s not love, I don’t know what is.”

“According to you, I don’t know what love is,” I had petulantly muttered, looking down at my feet.

With a gentle touch on my cheek, Rhiannon bade me look at her.  “You don’t,” she’d said with a smile. “But I have a feeling that he will be the man to teach you.”

The high priestess had been right, for my chosen had demonstrated the true meaning of love to me many times over since then. Charlie had denied his own needs and desires again and again, to the point of risking his life. And yet, I had remained so self-centered, focusing my attention on my quest for social justice within this grove. I never seriously considered whether it was right to expect him to champion my cause. He was my chosen warrior and I expected it of him.

I only realized the error of my ways and began to question if changing my fellow druids was worth his any risk, but not until after Charlie had suffered grievous, mortal wounds – wounds that would have been fatal if not for my cousin’s intervention.

Had Duncan not loved Charlie so fiercely, he would never have stayed so close to him. He would not have been around to protect him, heal him, or save his life.

Yet my response was to become even more selfish, not wanting to share my chosen with anyone. I’d become jealous of my own cousin, who continued to demonstrate acts of true heroism purely out of selfless love.

If Duncan returned in time, never again would I begrudge him Charlie’s time and attention. Whether my chosen wanted to have two lovers or twenty – or even if he picked my cousin over me – I would accept it without question, grateful that he still lived.

* * *

That evening, I used up the remaining linen squares making more poultices. If Danica didn’t have another bolt of linen cloth, I’d need somebody to bring some. Putting that concern out of my head for later, I removed the now dried and nearly crusted dressings from Charlie’s back. 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 and 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 all the moisture that had oozed into the cot into the towels to keep the damp from his skin. 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 about 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 pushed my cot over until it touched his and lay beside him, 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.

Going Medieval

thenerdsofcolor

I’m always amazed at how many people are so quick to argue that people of color did not exist in Europe during medieval times or that black people, for instance, weren’t around during the Greek and Roman eras. And to include said PoCs during such time periods would be unrealistic and another example of shoving a PC agenda down our throats OH-EM-GEE.

This usually comes up in medieval fantasy stories. Like say for instance, Guinevere in BBC’s Merlin. Actress Angel Coulby caught heat for daring to be a beautiful powerful black queen.

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Child of Storms – Chapter 4

Chapter 4 – Collapse

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 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 could not watch him twenty-four hours a day, but my fetch gave me spiritual and sensatory information.  I wouldn’t have cared if he had taken pleasure with other women; druids were 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 was not a virgin, too (no matter how limited the sense of the word as applied to me).

However, I had wanted to meet my chosen warrior more or less on the same terms – not because I thought virginity 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 immediately pounced on her love interest, 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 a 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.  Some 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 he kissed it.  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.

*  *  *

The horses were quiet shadows in the darkness, Magic’s creamy mane glowing softly in the dying firelight and the grulla stallion a dark shadow beside her.  Comforted by the horses’ relaxed grazing, I lay 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 also provided me with the perfect excuse to draw him closer, when 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 more quickly.

“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.  The boys from the grove had never 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 living at the 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 this is supposed to go, 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 golden 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 was napping in a chair with his booted feet propped on a stool and his arms folded over his chest.  He was still wearing his sword; both he and my father had continued to arm themselves during their alternating vigils.

“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 Danica. “That half-hour nap wasn’t nearly enough.”

“I don’t want to sleep anymore,” I said, hearing my voice tremble with tears left over from the horrible dream.  It was mid-morning, almost exactly twenty-four hours after I’d found my lover cold and alone in the healer’s house.  Gooseflesh rose over my arms and I rubbed them briskly to chase them away.

“I’ll go make us some more coffee,” Danica said, rising from her stool on the other side of Charlie’s cot.  I nodded, appreciating the gesture.  I was sleeping little and the earth healer slept even less, if at all.  Having a steady supply of coffee helped.  It didn’t seem to be helping her, however.  No quick burst of artificial energy could replace the life-giving replenishment of sleep.

I bent to touch Charlie’s hands, then his forehead.  Both were dry and hot.  I gently dabbed a touch of balm on his chapped lips.  In spite of the earth healer’s constant presence in the sickroom, her magic no longer seemed to be beneficial.  The last few times she had laid hands upon Charlie, there was little or no improvement in his condition.  Yesterday her touch could strengthen the beat of his heart and slow 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.

“I’ll make the coffee,” I said, rising suddenly.  Danica needed to conserve her strength, if indeed she had any left.  I followed her into the kitchen just in time to see her stagger, then fall like a marionette with its strings cut.

“Danica!” I cried, just managing to catch her head and shoulders before they hit the stone floor.  The empty kettle hit the floor with a clanging racket.  Uncle Padraig came instantly awake, running into the kitchen with his blade drawn.  Seeing Danica unconscious on the floor, he sheathed his sword and knelt beside her.

“I’m taking her upstairs,” he said softly.

Those were not the words I had expected to hear at the end of my world.  The bottom disappeared from my well of hope; I wrapped my arms about my own body and squeezed tightly, trying to hold myself together.  I had to be strong; now was not the time for me to give in to fear and weakness.  There were herbs and tinctures, there still was medicine, and poultices to be made, a shelf full of books on how to use it all.

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.  Grabbing a book titled Fever and Infection, I started to read, flipping through it to find something – anything – that would help.

What we really needed was for Duncan to return.  Not only was my cousin skilled with manipulating his element, 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.