Chapter 14 – Grief

One of the things that happens to people in grief is they secretly think they’re crazy, because they realize they are thinking things that don’t make sense.
~ Joan Didion ~

Danica came to visit sometime after my father began ransacking the grove. I didn’t know exactly when, for that which society called a day had ceased to hold any meaning for me. My sleeping and waking hours had lost all connection to whether the sun was in the sky or if the world lay in darkness. All my days were alike, passing by in an endless stream of heartache, guilt, fear, rage, and despair. The sofa in my uncle’s house had become my island in a sea of storms, my place of protection and comfort among thick blankets.

Truly, it could only have been love that motivated her to do so, for neither Uncle nor I were pleasant company. He was either taciturn or short-tempered, and my emotions cycled through weeping, hoping Charlie was alive, wishing my father would find his body so there would be a resolution to this uncertainty, and begging the gods to intervene on my behalf. There were also times when, no longer able to stand the uncertainty, I threatened to murder Sebrina because she was a soulless tyrant, or kill myself because I was a foul and loathsome creature who did not deserve to draw another breath for allowing harm to befall my beloved.

I considered myself a lunatic and wondered if perhaps I was experiencing the kind of madness that Orion had. It should have been a terrifying thought, but it seemed as though anything would be preferable to this maelstrom of emotional upheaval. Thus, feeling myself to be unstable and irrational, I tried not to speak at all and spent the hours sleeping, crying, or staring into the flames of Padraig’s hearth. Like as not I massaged the oath mark on my left palm; it was rapidly becoming a compulsion.

My uncle cared for me with all the attentiveness of a parent for a sick child, fluffing my pillows and straightening my blankets several times a day. He made me soup and green tea, hovering about until I emptied the bowl or mug of whichever he’d brought. Our lives were dictated by the tides of grief and misery that swept over us at irregular intervals.

Padraig welcomed Danica inside and invited her to sit at the kitchen table, where he’d been whittling. After repairing the damage I had caused to her house, he had brought a fallen oak branch home. The next day he had started carving it, continuing for every day thereafter, shaping it into what future purpose I did not know. He didn’t talk about it and I didn’t ask; it was just something to keep the raw, blinding light of grief away.

Sorrow wasn’t grey and gloomy like the poets said. It was a glaring light that stripped the world of all beauty and joy, that revealed all its ugliness, and from which I could not look away, no matter how much it hurt my eyes.

“I know you don’t want to talk about it, but this situation with your brother needs to be addressed,” Danica said without preamble.

“Not by me,” he said. “Would you like some coffee?”

“I didn’t come here for coffee. I came to talk to you about Liam.”

Mention of my father’s name drew my attention. Uncle glanced over at me and continued pouring the coffee. Taking his time, he added sugar and cream before setting it before her.

“I’ve already hashed this out with Adalwulf Rask.” He returned to his chair and picked up the stick and his whittling knife.

Always considerate and delicate of expression, Danica pressed him:

“Do you not think you should do something?”

“I’m sure our honored ArchDruid has things well in hand.”

“I see.” She cocked her head at him. “Do you often whittle in the house?”

“I do when it’s cold out.”

Danica raised an eyebrow. “You are a fire druid.”

“I still get cold. Besides, it’s my house, I can mess it up if I want to.”

She looked down at her hands, obviously disheartened by his gruff tone, but did not give up. “What are you making?”

“A staff.”

“I thought only wizards used staves,” she said with a light tone and teasing smile. If she hadn’t mentioned the wild uproar Father was causing, he might have been more receptive. As it was, Padraig was having none of her efforts to lighten his mood.

“It’s a traveling staff.”

“Are you planning a trip?”

“You know I am.”

Her expression sobered. “Is that why you won’t try to stop Liam? Because you want to abandon the grove and this will make people hate him?”

Apparently, the earth druid had decided that having her say was worth risking my uncle’s temper, and this I could not understand. Was it possible that she, too, was unaware of his feelings of uncertainty and loss where Duncan was concerned? They had been lovers for well over three years now, so how could she be?

“I couldn’t care less who Liam is terrorizing,” he replied. “In all likelihood, they deserve it.”

I couldn’t blame Padraig for his indifference, being barely capable of civility myself. In a way, he was embroiled in a process similar to mine. I had lost my chosen, either to fate or to death, the facts unknown to me. My cousin was lost because of politics and antipathy, under equally mysterious circumstances. It was quite possible that Sebrina had done away with Duncan as well, something I could not bear to think on for long.

“Not everyone in the grove bears guilt for what happened to Davis,” Danica said.

“Yes, they do. And so do we.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“We’re all guilty – you, me, Liam, and especially those people who disagree with Sebrina but say nothing against her and allow her evil to continue uncontested.”

“You forgot to mention me,” I said, rising and joining them at the table. “He wouldn’t even have been here if I hadn’t brought him. Sebrina warned me against seeking him out, but I did it anyway.”

Uncle gave me a look of pity and compassion but did not contradict me. Above all things, we Everlights are honest – about our faults as well as our virtues. I hated seeing the pain in his eyes, but just knowing that someone else had loved Charlie Davis and missed him brought me an unexpected comfort.

Until a crystal-clear memory of a copper-skinned, raven-haired woman and her tall, golden-eyed husband arose in my mind.

Someone else had loved Charlie – his parents.

Their son was missing or dead, and Charles and Nita had no idea.

“Oh, gods,” I whispered aloud.

Danica and Padraig exchanged a worried look, but I barely noticed, my mind was such a tempest. I couldn’t escape the memory of his mother’s face – not her anger or indignation, but the fear in her eyes.

”Do you know what you’ve agreed to?!” Charlie’s mother had said to him. “Do you realize this is your life?”

I remembered the scene, almost as though I were reliving it: the warm, cozy kitchen, the smell of baked chicken and polenta cakes, the angry sounds of mother and son shouting at one another.

“Sometimes when people are hurt, they make foolish decisions, and foolish vows. When they heal, they move on,” I said, as though I possessed years of wisdom instead of being a foolish twenty-year-old determined to have her own way.

“Foolish vows like becoming the chosen of a druid,” Nita snapped.

“And what would you know about it?”

“More than you know.”

“Perhaps you’d care to enlighten me.”

His mother just stood there, glaring silently at me for a long moment before turning back to Charlie.

“Son… Don’t do this. Travel if you want, go where you please. Come home whenever you want, I’ll stop giving you grief over how you live your life… But please, do not go with this girl.”

“Why not?” he asked.

She licked her lips, showing the first sign of uncertainty, and I rejoiced. I was winning and he would be mine!

“I can’t tell you,” she said, desperation in her voice. “But you must trust me in this. If you go with her, your life will no longer be your own, and you will be in danger every moment.”

“I’m in danger every time I step out on the road,” he said.

“Not like this,” Nita replied. The pulse pounded in her neck, her hands shook, and there was trepidation in her eyes.

It hadn’t been mere apprehension or worry about the future, as I’d thought at the time. It had been fear in her eyes, because she’d known. Somehow, his mother had known what would happen to him if he came with me. The pieces started to fall into place:

Charlie’s latent earth magic, which we assumed had been blocked.

His mother, terrified that he had not only met a druid girl, but was going to be her chosen.

What if Charles and Nita had been among those druids who had departed the grove twenty years ago when Sebrina came into power? Mightn’t they have fled so that her son would not be denied his gods-given elemental ability?

I must have been her worst nightmare.

Uncle shifted in his chair. “Angie…?”

“His parents. They don’t know,” I somehow choked out. The rest came out in a torrent: “His mother was furious when she found out he was coming with me, and do you know what I said to her? I told her that what she wanted didn’t matter.” There was a sharp ache in my chest and I struggled to catch my breath.

“I told his mother that the fate of her only child was not her concern!” I cried. “What kind of person would do that?”

Danica covered her mouth with both hands. Uncle’s expression turned to one of dismay. In his eyes I could see the dread of having to tell someone’s parents that their precious son – their only child – was dead, and not only that, but that he had first been beaten and then poisoned. That he’d been tortured.

How could I face them to give them the news?

How could I not?

Gods help them.

Gods help me, too – because I was the one responsible.

*  *  *

Danica left shortly afterward. My uncle shut the door firmly and I turned away with an aching chest and weak knees. I made it most of the way to the living room before all strength left my legs. Padraig caught me before I fell and helped me sink down onto the sofa.

“You need to eat something,” he said, handing me a fresh handkerchief. I’d been through a dozen, it seemed like. How many handkerchiefs did one bachelor druid own? He got me wrapped in a blanket and settled by a gentle fire that was entirely green. He put a mug of apple cider in my hand and encouraged me to drink some, while he started soup in the kitchen. I didn’t give a damn about soup, cider, eating, or even breathing.

“Why do people always make soup when other people are sick or sad?” I asked when he brought me a bowl. It wasn’t even soup, really. Just broth.

He sat in the chair across from me, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees and his fingers linked. “You haven’t eaten much over the past few days,” he said. “It’ll be easier on your stomach.”

My stomach was tied up in knots that no amount of soup would settle. I needed to know what had happened to Charlie. I told myself that I could accept it if he was dead; I just needed to know. And his parents – they needed to know, and I had to be the one to tell them. But how could I tell them what I did not know myself?

“I’ll get sick if I eat at all,” I said. Putting his hands gently around mine, Padraig stopped me from putting the bowl down.

“Please eat something. Please.” He paused. “I know it’s hard, not knowing. Even harder than… burying him. But, if Davis has indeed gone to join the ancestors… he would not want you to follow.”

If? Was Padraig also uncertain of Charlie’s fate?

“What are you saying?”

“No, no… Just… just never mind.” He released my hands and sat back. “I should not have said anything.”

“You don’t believe he’s dead.”

“No. That’s not…” Padraig shook his head. “I think it very likely that he is dead.”

“Very likely is not the same as certain, Uncle.”

“I should not give you false hope just because I have been entertaining the faint belief that he might be alive.”

“Do you think it’s possible that Duncan might have…?”

Padraig bent his head, rubbing his face with his hands and running his fingers through his hair before meeting my gaze again.

“I felt him after my fight with Liam. Just for an instant.”

I stared at him, barely able to comprehend the words.

“He was there?”

“I don’t know for certain, but I think he might have been.” He sighed, looking defeated. “If he was there, he was witness to the shame of seeing his family trying to tear each other apart in the street.”

“Is that why you told Father he wouldn’t return?”

He nodded. “It felt like a farewell.”

“I didn’t know earth druids could communicate like that.”

“Most can’t. Almost all earth elementalists can perform a seeking, and some can even estimate numbers.”

Charlie could count people through the earth, I thought. It made me even more sick at heart, knowing that he would never know or enjoy his gift from the gods. He would have been a fine earth elementalist, a healer like Duncan. His magic would have perfectly complimented my own.

“Sometimes, when earth elementalists are close, as family or even friends, they can ‘see’ a certain person’s identity,” Padraig was saying. “Because Duncan’s magic is so strong and because of the bond we developed as father and son, over the years I’ve learned to ‘read’ what he’s sending.”

“He can send his thoughts to you?”

Padraig shook his head. “More like… feelings.” He rose and went to the kitchen, fixing a bowl of broth for himself. “Anyway, I shouldn’t assume that his brief presence is related to Davis’ absence. Nor should you.”

I rubbed the still-warm oath mark on my left palm and could not help but make the connection.

Seating himself once more, Uncle stirred his own broth but did not take a bite. “Duncan probably only just returned in response to my call. After that, I imagine it didn’t take long for him to get the gist of the situation. It’s no wonder he chose to leave and not come back.”

Maybe my cousin had come back to tell us that my chosen was still alive. Or maybe he’d come back to tell us that he had tried to save Charlie and had failed. What if, after seeing his family screeching and scuffling in the street, Duncan had decided we didn’t deserve to know the truth?

It was not like my cousin to be vindictive. Then again, it was also unlike him to lose his temper, and he’d done that several times in the past few months. His feelings for Charlie had always been at the heart of it, proving that even an earth druid could be rash and emotional at times.

I caressed the oath mark once again, stimulating its warmth.

I didn’t know what to believe, but a tiny, ever-so-fragile seed of hope opened up inside, and in spite of the blistering light of grief and the drought in my spirit, it took root. That tiny, fragile tendril of hope brought me a solace that nothing else could.

Until I knew for certain that Charlie was dead, until I saw his lifeless body, I would choose to believe that he was alive.

I had to.

 

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Chapter 13 – Retribution

It will have blood, they say; blood will have blood.
~ William Shakespeare ~

My father executed the strike so swiftly that the offending head had rolled to a stop before anyone gasped or cried out. It was so quiet that I heard the thump as Darryn’s body pitched over onto the cobblestones. It was the blood spurting from the severed neck that incited exclamations of horror, a couple of screams, and the sound of someone vomiting. Several someones, in fact.

He wasn’t finished, however.

“Let it be known throughout White Oak Grove that I, Liam Everlight, am no longer First Warrior to ArchDruid Sebrina,” Father said in a loud voice. “And let it also be known that Davis, my daughter’s chosen, was taken from a house of healing this morning – a sacred place of protection!”

Raising his sword to the sky, he bellowed: “I call upon you, great Zeus, most glorious and greatest, and to Apollo, who sees and hears all things! Hear me, Demeter, goddess of the earth! Listen, all you gods and goddesses in the realms above and below, and witness my oath this day: this heinous crime will not go unpunished! By the sky over my head and the nurturing earth beneath my feet do I swear! By the inviolable waters of the Styx and by the blood I have spilled this day, I swear that I shall not rest until I have found out the truth of what has befallen him!”

Shocked silence greeted his pronouncement.

Equally stunned by this development, I couldn’t blame them.

“That… that was… he made a…” I stammered.

“Blood sacrifice,” Padraig said. His tone was grim.

“I can’t believe it!”

“Like your hearth culture doesn’t perform blood sacrifices.” He gave me a knowing look. Heat rose to my cheeks. Those who did not know the Orisha always assumed we performed blood sacrifices, simply because pre-Fracture witch doctors and voodoo priests had also honored them.

“We do not!” I snapped. “Blood sacrifice is forbidden!”

Uncle Padraig shrugged. “He was going to kill Darryn anyway. May as well make use of it.”

My jaw dropped. Of all the things that had gone wrong within White Oak Grove, my father’s use of blood as a sacrifice to the gods and my uncle’s indifference to it demonstrated just how warped our society had become, and how far from our ancestors we had strayed.

“Besides, the ancient Greek peoples frequently engaged in blood sacrifice – using animals and humans.”

“That’s not true!” I protested. What kind of madness was he advocating now?

“Oh no? Have you never heard of a scapegoat ritual?”

“They didn’t kill people!”

“Scholars have differing opinions on that, but there is a general agreement that unrepentant murderers were chosen as scapegoats and then executed.”

I could only stare at him.

“Terrible, isn’t it?” he asked.

Which part? I wanted to ask. “What do you mean?”

“The fact that human sacrifice is made more palatable to our delicate sensibilities because the blood spilled was that of an unrepentant murderer.”

He was right. It was terrible that someone could be dehumanized because they weren’t sorry for killing another human being. Yet, did not the very act of murder cause someone to lose his humanity? Could one kill in cold blood and still remain human?

Who truly dehumanized the scapegoat?

The murderer himself?

The society that condemned him?

I didn’t lose any sleep over it.

I hated Darryn Darkmane.

I was glad he was dead.

* * *

“I want you to stay with Padraig.”

“Yesterday you wanted me to come home with you.” Yesterday I had hated him, but today he was my avatar, my protector, and my hero.

“Aye, but that was before I beheaded Darryn Darkmane in the street,” Father said. “Sebrina won’t like that, and I imagine Betrys will be wanting vengeance as well. I’ll not have her take it out on you.”

“Betrys is lucky that Nualla didn’t seek revenge herself,” Danica said.

“In that case, I’m sorry he’s already dead,” I said, imagining Nualla burning Darryn alive with elemental fire.

“Angie!” protested Danica, clearly mortified.

“He didn’t suffer nearly enough.” My fists clenched in a useless attempt to hang onto my earlier rage. In spite of my harsh words, anger was again fading into the empty despair of mourning. I wanted to be angry. I needed to be angry. Anything to fill the void of despair that threatened to swamp me at every turn.

Father knelt before me and took my hands. “Things may take a turn for the worse.”

“I don’t understand.”

Nothing could be worse than losing Charlie. Nothing could be worse than missing his quick smile, his strong arms around me, his determination and courage. Nothing could be worse than knowing I’d failed him, that I was the one truly responsible for his suffering and death. He’d been the mighty oak whose branches had supported and sheltered me, and now he was gone.

“I swore a blood oath in the presence of our people, the nature spirits, the ancestors, and the Shining Ones,” he said. “I intend to fulfill it.”

“Padraig said it was a blood sacrifice.”

Father looked at my uncle with an unreadable expression and then turned back to me. “That all depends on how you look at it.”

“What exactly do you aim to do?” Padraig asked, looking at my father skeptically.

“I’m going to search every square inch of this grove until I find Davis,” Father replied. “Have no fear, daughter. I will find your chosen if he is here.” With this pronouncement, he rose and strode to the door, closing it behind him with finality.

I looked at Uncle. “Don’t you think you should go with him?”

“If he wanted my help, he would have asked.”

“But wouldn’t it be easier to search if you used earth magic?”

He hesitated. “A seeking with earth is not always possible,” he said kindly. “We all have an element of spirit in our bodies, even if we can’t channel it. It is that spirit, that life force, for which an earth druid searches when performing a seeking. Should that life force be weak, or—”

I held up a hand. I understood. Father hadn’t asked Padraig to come along because it was not a sick and injured man for whom he was looking.

He was searching for a corpse.

*  *  *

Padraig left me alone only once, and that was to make repairs to Danica’s house. During that time, Arrie Stoddard came to sit with me. I halfway wished that Uncle had left me alone. Then Betrys Darkmane could retaliate against my father for executing her only son – by attacking me. True, she was a full druid with elemental fire, while I was an elementalist with spirit, water, and air, but I had bested her once before and would be pleased to do so again. Then I would have an outlet for this agony, this unspeakable pain.

Uncle Padraig was the only person to whom I could turn for comfort, and he himself was grieving deeply, not only over the loss of Davis but also his own son, Duncan. He had to be wondering – as I did – if the ArchDruid and her Tetrarch had discovered his son’s involvement in orchestrating Wolfric and Onóra’s escape. Had Duncan chosen to leave of his own accord? Or had the ArchDruid’s tolerance of him finally come to an end? Had he suffered the same fate as so many others who had not been denied the gift of the gods? Had he, too, been exiled? Or had he been murdered in cold blood for the crime of being a young man with magic?

My uncle was no stranger to grief, for he had lost his chosen Dragana and her unborn son. A year later to the day, he had found two-year-old Duncan alone in the woods. The burned remains of his parents lay nearby, with the child sitting quietly, protected by a fierce she-bear. Father had once commented that the mother bear had only allowed Padraig to take young Duncan home because she had recognized a fellow child of earth. I didn’t know if my cousin ever risked life and limb with the dangerous creatures, but my friend Iriana Disney, also an earth elementalist, was known to befriend bears in the woods and even encroach into their hibernation spaces. Everyone in the Elementalists’ third had thought she was crazy, but no one ever snitched.

I’d heard it said that it was the hard times that proved who your real friends are, and none of mine had come to visit me, not even Iriana. Irri had been involved in most of my little rebellions, the most recent being the Autumn Moon social, when more than half of the grove’s elementalists and young warrior trainees had defied the ArchDruid’s order forbidding us to gather. Of all my friends, her absence hit me hardest.

As much as Uncle Padraig had tried to protect me from what was occurring in the grove, rumors of my father’s activities intruded nevertheless. People kept dropping by the house at all hours of the day, beseeching Padraig to at least talk to Liam. I started to wonder if perhaps my father’s questionable activities stemmed from a sense of guilt. If so, it was too little, too late.

It wasn’t until Adalwulf Rask came by that Uncle paid attention. As usual, Wolfric’s father was in full leather armor with his long knives strapped to his back.

“There’s a problem,” he said without preamble. “You need to see to it, Padraig.”

“My brother’s business is his own,” Uncle replied. “He’ll not thank me for butting in.”

“Perhaps not, but the rest of the grove will.”

Uncle snorted. “I’ll join my ancestors before that ever happens.”

“Be that as it may, Liam is out of control and you are the only one with any hope of stopping him.”

“Honestly, Adalwulf, I couldn’t care less if he spent the rest of his life breaking down doors and rifling through women’s underwear.”

“Eventually someone will object,” Adalwulf said, frowning at my uncle’s obvious lack of honor. “Perhaps violently.”

“Not if they’re smart.”

“He is no longer First Warrior. He has no authority to do such things!”

“His daughter’s chosen is missing,” said Uncle. “Can you blame him?” His tone was deceptively mild. I say deceptively because the temperature was starting to rise. If I could feel it, doubtless a fire druid like Adalwulf could also.

“Davis is dead,” Adalwulf stated with his characteristic bluntness.

It was the first time anyone had said it out loud. A loud sob rose up unbidden and escaped my lips, bringing with it a flood of tears. It brought Padraig to his feet and roused him like nothing else had.

“How dare you march in here making pronouncements like that in front of Angie!” he roared. “How dare you speak so disrespectfully of him! If it weren’t for Davis, it would be your son who is dead!”

Adalwulf stiffened, casting a quick look my way, then turning his eyes back to Padraig. He looked away, visibly ashamed.

“My deepest apologies, Angelina,” he said. “And you are right, Padraig. What you say is true.”

Is it? I rubbed the still-warm scar of the oath mark. It seemed that the entirety of my grief and tears were from the agony of not knowing what had happened to him. Yes, he was likely dead. He’d been so sick it was impossible for him not to be.

And yet Duncan had not returned. It was foolish, but my cousin’s continued absence gave me hope. Duncan was an earth elementalist and a skilled healer. It was well within his capabilities to have healed Charlie and moved him someplace safe.

“Padraig, you must listen to reason. I watched him fail with my own eyes. There was no hope for him without magic—”

It seemed to pain Adalwulf greatly, having to deliver this message. I wondered which would win the war inside him, his duty to his fellow citizens or honoring our wishes to mourn in peace.

Then where is his body?!” Padraig shouted. “Tell me that!”

“I do not know,” he replied quietly. “What I do know is that there is a man on the verge of madness rampaging through the grove at all hours of the day and night, kicking in doors and terrifying people.”

“Good!” Padraig snarled. “Let them tremble and faint from dread! Let them vomit with trepidation! Let the cowards piss down their legs and shit themselves in terror!”

The other man looked shocked, then glared at Uncle, angry and offended.

“Don’t you look at me like that,” Uncle growled. “Why should we care one whit for their panic? Did my fellow citizens offer Davis support even once? No! When Sebrina announced that she was going to beat him, they slunk away like dogs with their tails between their legs! When Davis lay suffering, did any of them come to offer him comfort?” His chest heaved with wrath, and Adalwulf could no longer meet his eyes.

“And now that he’s gone, has even one come to give my niece their condolences? Has even one priest offered to perform a funeral ritual for him? Has anyone lit a single candle or filled a measly cup of water? Has one prayer been spoken or an offering for him given to the gods?”

Adalwulf’s answering silence spoke volumes, and his challenging gaze dropped.

“That’s right. Nobody gave a damn about my family, but now that they are inconvenienced, I’m supposed to jump right up and fix their problem,” Padraig said, his voice now husky. “You go tell those selfish cowards that I don’t give a shit about them or their troubles. They made their beds. Now they can lie in them.”

Still looking down at his boots, Adalwulf gave a respectful nod and started out the door with his shoulders slumped.

“One more thing.”

He stopped, then turned around and faced Padraig once more. It took a great man to again face the one whose words had just flayed him to the bone. Uncle was right, and the expression on Adalwulf’s face said that he knew it.

“This house is in mourning,” said Padraig. His voice broke and tears slid down his cheeks, “and we would appreciate it if the rest of you would remember that.”

 

 

Chapter 12 – Everlights United

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My brother? Acting without thinking? Unheard of!”

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

Low muttering, gradually growing louder, reached our ears.

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

“Aye,” my father replied.

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

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

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

“I’m so sorry,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I think it likely,” Father said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neither Father nor Danica could argue his point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why had I not understood that before?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A restraining hand fell upon my shoulder.

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

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

“You cannot handle this,” he said gently.

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

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

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

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

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

“As was I,” Father replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Liam is toying with him,” Padraig grumbled.

“Why?”

“He’s making a point.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I had never understood why until this very moment.

“On your knees,” Father commanded.

“What?!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just like my father.

And Father had asked me to trust him.

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

“How?”

“I ran him through with my sword!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aye,” Father said. “That I did.”

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

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.

 

 

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.